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Fixing Our Churches – The Lost Love

Westboro Baptist Church picket in Beverly Hills

Westboro Baptist Church picket in Beverly Hills (Photo credit: k763)

Fixing Our Churches – The Lost Love

Acts 2:44-47 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) 44 All the believers kept meeting together, and they shared everything with each other. 45 From time to time, they sold their property and other possessions and distributed the money to anyone who needed it. 46 The believers had a single purpose and went to the temple every day. They were joyful and humble as they ate at each other’s homes and shared their food. 47 At the same time, they praised God and had the good will of all the people. Every day the Lord saved people, and they were added to the group.

I was reading some articles about the problems that churches in the United States have. Things like lack of commitment, not teaching the Word (implies teaching a western university method with references and focused on the western academic mind), keeping the finances up with the perceived needs of the congregation, and on and on.

There actually were several articles with really good and deeply profound ideas, but I noticed that many of these articles missed what it seems to me was the core of the early church.

The early church (no matter how large or small) had at it’s core one key focus – one another. I am intrigued by the American church’s focus on either getting bigger by counting registered members or on staying small at all costs because “it is more personal”.

Both have their merits as a church that is not growing is clearly not focused on living out the great commission. A Christian church that is not reaching the unsaved and not only leading them to Christ but also discipling these new believers is hard-pressed to say it is a Christian church when it is not following the core mission it was given by Christ.

Matthew 28:18-20 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) 18 When Jesus came near, he spoke to them. He said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 So wherever you go, make disciples of all nations: Baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. 20 Teach them to do everything I have commanded you. “And remember that I am always with you until the end of time.”

On the other hand a church that is so big that the people don’t know or care about one another is not showing the love that was to be the mark of the church. It simply becomes a ritualistic exercise that assumes that there is some magic power to just being in the building and performing some amount of the ritual that is done there.

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.”

Both (very commonly expressed) points are valid, but I am not sure that the size of the worship or celebration service is the problem, as a matter of fact, I am convinced that these are symptoms of a bigger problem. The problem is the focus on anything but the “community of believers”.

I am not saying that there is the absence of this concept, what I am saying is that there seems to always be something else that is more important than this key focus.

In my travels, most churches have an element of discussion on building some kind of deeply interpersonal community of believers, but it is almost always overshadowed by some other focus.

In research, discussion, debate, study and so on, I can usually find reasons for various focuses that each church model or denomination had for their focuses. These were not bad things even in the models of church that seemed to be miserably failing. To be honest, many of the models that seemed to be miserably failing seemed to have a focus that was for a particular season. The season merely seemed to change and the church simply didn’t change with it. God moved and the church decided to stay.

I know I have written a lot in the past about church models and those that know me have probably had a few conversations about church models, but I do not think that even that is the real issue and I am not convinced that simply changes models will fix the struggles of the western church in the long term.

THE PROBLEM IS NOT STRICTLY ONE OF MODEL, STRUCTURE OR CONTENT, THE PROBLEM IS PUTTING FIRST THINGS FIRST!!! Look at this verse:

Revelation 2:2-4 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) 2 I know what you have done—how hard you have worked and how you have endured. I also know that you cannot tolerate wicked people. You have tested those who call themselves apostles but are not apostles. You have discovered that they are liars. 3 You have endured, suffered trouble because of my name, and have not grown weary. 4 However, I have this against you: The love you had at first is gone.

This message to the church in Ephesus has some interesting points:

  1. They work and endure
  2. They do not tolerate wicked people
  3. They test those who claim to be called of God and weed them out
  4. They stand up for their faith even in the face of great adversity
  5. THE LOVE THEY HAD AT FIRST IS GONE!!!

I have been taught in the past that the first love they had forgotten was the Word of God. Of course this was taught as a logical progression from the idea that the first love was Jesus, by extension that means that the first love was what Jesus told them to do and so that means the fist love is the Word of God where what Jesus wants believers to do is explained. I do believe that idea to be a part of the truth, but there is a more obvious idea expressed in the context of the time.

That period of history where the New Testament was not assembled yet, Old Testament texts were rooms full of scrolls in temples and there was little chance in Ephesus of doing things the way we do them in our modern contexts so although many of these sort of interpretations fit into our context and quality exegesis of the scripture they may not fit into their context.

So although our modern interpretations are okay, what did the text mean at the time. I wasn’t there and have limited insight into the deeper details of their context, but there is something I have been pondering: The key is what the Church in Ephesus’ first love was and how that plays out in our modern lives.

I started with the obvious question of what role love is supposed to play in the Church and in the lives of Christians. The most obvious place to start:

Matthew 22:37-40 New International Version (NIV) 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

I would have to say that the first love we were all told to have is in fact God with all of our hearts. In this passage, Jesus himself describes what the “by extensions” are. Loving others a part of loving God. Anything we do that is supposed to be about loving God has to be completely tied to loving others.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) –  I may speak in the languages of humans and of angels. But if I don’t have love, I am a loud gong or a clashing cymbal. 2 I may have the gift to speak what God has revealed, and I may understand all mysteries and have all knowledge. I may even have enough faith to move mountains. But if I don’t have love, I am nothing. 3 I may even give away all that I have and give up my body to be burned. But if I don’t have love, none of these things will help me.

Anything that is done without love (particularly expressions of God to other people as noted in this passage) is nothing and is definitely not truly expressing God. Now think about the church in Ephesus:

  1. They work and endure
  2. They do not tolerate wicked people
  3. They test those who claim to be called of God and weed them out
  4. They stand up for their faith even in the face of great adversity

But, some kind of “love” was not involved that was supposed to be. I think it is obvious that love of God is supposed to be everyone’s first love and is what is being directly expressed here. It is the details of what they were or were not doing that is still a bit unclear. According to Jesus Love for God and expressing love for others are tied together. It is possible to work, endure, not tolerate wicked people, test what people teach and stand up for faith while not expressing love for others.

I have been around people who seem to be like this. They do lots of Christian stuff, they can tell you whats wrong with how others live out a relationship with or talk about God. They can boldly defend their theology yat they do all of this with no real expressing of love in a way that the people they encounter can experience the love of God through them.

There is that idea that showing love is trying to force people to believe as their theology dictates and to argue with them if they do not is a great showing of love. The mere idea of loving someone by force is a strange concept in and of itself, but this idea of what the passage is describing is something we commonly see even now. Was the church at Ephesus a church of doers but not lovers?

This possible translation in mind, it would seem that the most important things that a church should be about are:

  1. Loving God
  2. Loving others (starting with each other which is the way others would know that we are God’s people)

If this does not permeate everything that a church does, the things that the church is doing is just a loud gong or clashing cymbal to God and to the world around them.

Most mainline churches have plans and programs to involve elements of loving the community or people in “missions fields” somewhere remote and poor, but are these really the love we are to show one another. That love for one another is a key outward expression of the the church that is supposed to be evident to all. Every church is supposed to exude this kind of love in a way that love for God, love for all people and definitely love for one another is what any outsider should be able to see and experience at any church.

This kind of love is something I have serious doubts about creating via a program or a six week sermon series. First off, this is a key ingredient and not some afterthought that we add later. This is even more than mindsets and theological thoughts; this is a lifestyle that should permeate the congregation create a sustained atmosphere within the church.

The question is how do we get this lifestyle throughout our churches? One thought is asking ourselves if the model we are using is the most likely model to produce this kind of love for God, one another, and the people around us or not. I may be generalizing a bit, but just finding some building and sitting through a sermon most Sundays and maybe going to a midweek service.

Many people do more like join ministry teams or groups within the church, but instead of being a portion of the church that has deeper relationships with each other and spends time together, shouldn’t it be the norm and those that don’t the exception? Shouldn’t everyone be deeply interconnected with the other people in the church? Shouldn’t everyone there quite naturally care for and about one another.

I am amazed at how many times one or two isolate incidents of members of the church caring for one another are paraded around by church members. Doesn’t the fact these are such big news imply that these sorts of things are incredibly rare.

I know I am partial to churches either having a small group component or consisting entirely of small groups, but that is because that seems to be the only way that these things can happen on a deeper level.

We have to use models that best facilitate the growth of this kind of love for God, for each other and for the people of earth on the deepest levels.

Many of the models we western churchgoers and western churches are comfortable in wouldn’t even have room to discuss but the deepest issues of an incredibly small segment of the congregation. As a matter of fact, if we tried to discuss the problems and needs of every person in the church each week, there would not only be too little time in the service to get through them all, I doubt if there would be enough time in the week. Our services are not structured for this information, so how could it be possible for the people in the church to respond to these problems and needs if they have no way of knowing them?

So yes, my suggestions on this key issue does include small groups. I simply do not see how you can get this personal and involved in every person’s life without breaking it into smaller more personal settings. Having small groups and studies/discussions designed to lead to community is still artificial, but it also much more likely to develop in these environments and the tools are just to aid something that could probably happen on it’s own.

The church described in Acts met together everywhere and did all kinds of things together as well of taking care of one another. It wasn’t some program the Apostles came up with, it was simply the lifestyle ans those that joined were really likely to do the same.

It is very common in years past to hear great speakers saying the church is the people and not the building. There is more to that. The churches job is to love God and to love the people and there is nothing stated in the New Testament about loving the building or the address.

I guess what I am proposing is a question more than an answer. Have we as the American church lost the love? I am not asking about one church or the group of deeply spiritual people at every church that do more than the general membership of the church. I am asking if the general state of the church in America is one that exudes an atmosphere of love for God, each other and people in general that it is most likely what each person experiences most with any contact with us?

It is funny that most people I know that do not believe see us as angry at the world, complaining about politics (especially complaining about democrats), we hate homosexuals, we don’t accept those who don’t believe, we hate anyone who thinks abortions are okay and on and on.

I know these things are not true and is totally the opposite of many American Christians and so on, But what all of that does not reflect is that people know us for our love. The American church is most known in my area as the people who hate this and hate that and hate these people etc. I am not saying not to have political views or to take stands on morality etc., but no matter what we are doing love has to be broadcast as the message or we are misrepresenting Christ.

As I said before, it’s not about a program or just adding small groups, this is about a complete change of focus for the American church and many churchgoers.

If you want to fix your church experience, your church, or the American church as a whole this must be the starting point. Have we lost the love we are supposed to have? Do we love God and one another in such a way that love the core of who we are and everybody can see it? Do we love others so much that everyone knows us for our love? If we cannot answer yes to all of that we cannot answer yes to any of it and definitely cannot say we are loving God without a deep level of loving others.

One Another/Each Other Bible Study for Small Groups Available

The Bible says "Love One Another"

The Bible says “Love One Another” (Photo credit: Luv2croon)

I just made the “One Another/Each Other Bible Study for Small Groups” available.

With Christ’s statements about what the greatest commandments are it seems immensely important to look at the details of what the Bible tells us about interacting with “one another” as that is the clear defining of what it is to love your neighbor and also the definition of what it means to not be loving your neighbor.

The studies are created to use the same discovery concepts the S.E.A. of Galilee Fellowship uses for all studies:

S = SCRIPTURE; read and discuss a passage

E = EXPLANATION; look at questions that help explore and discover what the passage is really saying (what God is saying through this particular passage to mankind, to your household and specifically to you)

A = APPLICATION; participants make a commitment to take action on what was revealed as what God wants from us through the study (the teaching them to obey from The Great Commission.

The studies are designed for leadership to be done by a person who is facilitating the study and not by a teacher etc. the facilitators main job is to get everyone involved in the discussion for each question.

The other task the facilitator has is to teach the group to lovingly ask “Where do you see that in this passage” if someone brings up something that is not related to the passage being discussed or some perceived heresy.

The actual page for this study is: https://seaofgalilee.wordpress.com/s-e-a-of-galilee-fellowship-bible-study-outlines/one-anothereach-other-bible-study-for-small-groups/

The study can be accessed directly as a PDF file by clicking https://seaofgalilee.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/one-another-verses-bible-study-study.pdf

You can print the PDF file from there or you can go back and forth to the page for reference as needed.

Be blessed an be a blessing to “one another”,

W. Lawrence Hess

“Church Bible Study for Small Groups” is now available

Church Sign

Church Sign (Photo credit: simplerich)

“Church Bible Study for Small Groups” is now available

In a time where statistics, magazines and the people who are experts at church information are all saying that the church as we have known it is in trouble it seems like it is important to see if the “church as we have known it” is truly the only way that God said church is to be done.

The implication is that we need to also look if God gave us instructions that might lead us to experience church some other way.  The key question is not what I am comfortable with, or my denomination says church is supposed to be or even what my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents said it was to be like.  What does God say and what does God want right now in this day and age?

This study is designed to help small groups explore that question by studying passages talking about the New Testament concept of church or related topics.  With whatever the Holy Spirit reveals through the scriptures we have to ask ourselves if I am more focussed on my way or God’s best for the here and now.  Is God my co-pilot or pilot.  If God is your co-pilot, you desperately need to change seats.

These studies are designed to be done in a small group context with a facilitator and led by the Holy Spirit.  That means leadership only involves facilitation by one of the participants as the group discusses the passage using the S.E.A. of Galilee Fellowship discovery methods.  The facilitators main job is to get everyone involved in the discussion for each question.

  • S = SCRIPTURE; read and discuss a passage
  • E = EXPLANATION; look at questions that help explore and discover what the passage is really saying (what God is saying through this particular passage to mankind, to your household and specifically to you)
  • A = APPLICATION; participants make a commitment to take action on what was revealed as what God wants from us through the study (the teaching them to obey from The Great Commission.

The other task the facilitator has is to teach the group to lovingly ask “Where do you see that in this passage” if someone brings up something that is not related to the passage being discussed or some perceived heresy.

The study can be accessed by clicking https://seaofgalilee.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/church-bible-study.pdf

Or by clicking the button above marked “CHURCH BIBLE STUDY FOR SMALL GROUPS”

 

Be blessed…

W. Lawrence Hess

Can The Simple Can Solve The Deep and Complex

White Rubik's Cube

White Rubik’s Cube (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

Can The Simple Can Solve The Deep and Complex

Hebrews 10:24-25 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  24 We must also consider how to encourage each other to show love and to do good things. 25 We should not stop gathering together with other believers, as some of you are doing. Instead, we must continue to encourage each other even more as we see the day of the Lord coming.

This verse is a verse I have heard used again and again in the United States to tell people that they are in sin if they are no in a building every Sunday that has a highly educated and extremely trained expositor/teacher up front who breaks down the Bible within some set of incredibly strict guidelines as decided by the mandates of a particular denomination. 

In some conversations I have heard (and viewed online) it is as if the main duty of every Christian is to make it to that building every Sunday (unless a Seventh Day Adventist then it’s a Saturday) and with the exception of accepting Christ, all other Christian obligation is peripheral or at best a distant second.  As if, the only goal is to somehow get to that building at all costs on Sunday and all will be safe.  Sort of the Christian version of touching base in some global and multidimensional game of tag.

Then the all purpose fix all for everything that ails you is to get to that building.  “Thanks for finally saying that prayer, now just get to one of those buildings and the fairy dust will start to fall.”   “Or your kid is selling drugs and just shot someone, well you just gotta get him/her to the building every Sunday and the magic waving of the magic words of the pastor will transform him/her into Mother Theresa in no time.” 

All of that is fine and dandy and as a matter of fact, I honestly do believe that there is some level of power in just being around someone who is reading the Word of God, or around a person who is anointed by God to teach and so on. 

I am not as sold on the magic of a particular building, but whatever.  I don’t think it is unbiblical for the New Testament church to go to one place like the Old Testament Hebrew people’s were required to do.

The problem I have with using this passage to substantiate the idea that all of this is mandated by God or the Bible.  This passage says nothing about any of the above.

The “gathering together” or “the assembling” involves the people and says nothing about a specific building, a pulpit, pews, education, where it can or cannot be, if it should or shouldn’t be in the same place, or that the building is magic or anything of that nature.

It simply says that we should not stop gathering with no specifics whatsoever except encouraging one another.

I think Albert Einstein had something when he said something that is definitely relevant to this conversation:

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Albert Einstein

As somebody who came up with or helped come up with solutions to some of the most complex problems in the history of science, I think his opinion might hold some weight.

Have we complicated church beyond what is necessary and beyond what is mandated by God?  If we have we run the risk of sounding like the Pharisees who took the day of rest, Sabbath concept and mandated people not even pick up things like a mat or pray for healings on that day because it was work and not resting. 

Doing a little bit extra beyond what God mandates is a good thing.  Requiring that others do more than God mandates and claiming that God has mandated it however is actually lying.  This is something to be careful not to do!

I was recently reading an article in a magazine named Mission Frontiers that is named Simple, Common-Sense Solutions to World Evangelization by a gentleman named Rick Wood. 

In this article he is discussing some of the major problems the church is suffering from and looking at how simple solutions might be the answer instead of all of the complicated stuff people have been coming up with.

The thoughts and ideas about solutions that were discussed in this article (and throughout much of that issue of that magazine) were based on the methods, discoveries and success described in the book Miraculous Movements authored by a man named Jerry Trousdale (an excellent book about successful church planting amongst Muslim groups in Africa which I loved).

The illustration in this article was awesome and proved Mr. Wood’s point clearly:

Here is one notable illustration of this point from history. Today, we all know that washing your hands is an effective way to prevent disease transmission and infection. This is a common sense, simple solution to what had before often been a deadly problem. But in 1867 when British surgeon Joseph Lister first developed antiseptic surgical procedures and proved that washing your hands and surgical instruments in carbolic acid prevented infection, few believed him. The doctors of his day thought that it was too much trouble to wash their hands and instruments between patients. They were convinced that it was “bad air” (miasma) that caused infections not “invisible germs.” These doctors actually took pride in their dirty, blood-caked surgical coats and referred to the terrible smells as “good old surgical stink.”1

For decades, Lister worked tirelessly to get his proven “common sense” solution accepted by the medical profession of his day—meeting with greater success in Europe than in the U.S. Fourteen years later in 1881 when U.S. President James Garfield was shot in an assassination attempt, the “best doctors” in the U.S. still saw no problem with repeatedly probing the bullet wound with unwashed hands and instruments. Garfield died a painful death 79 days later from massive infection.  (Simple, Common-Sense Solutions to World EvangelizationMission Frontiers Magazine)

With all of their operating and expertise the doctors that worked on President Garfield looked at all of the most thought out, debated and educated solutions to the problem of the bullet wound and missed the most important solution that probably would have actually saved the mans life.

What is the solution to diminishing numbers, growing disinterest etc. in the Body of Christ that we are seeing outlined in statistics (particularly in the United States).  Is in complicated new models and plans?  Is it deeper and more complex theologies?  Is it finding ways to “guilt trip” people into getting back to going to that building every Sunday (even if they do not like it there or do not experience God there, grow there etc.)?

Here is the part of the article I was leading up to:

How can we best reach the lost?

Simple Solution: Instead of inviting unbelievers to your church or even to your home, offer to go to their home to explore what the Bible has to say. If these people come to faith, you have already established the basis for a church in their home that can reach into their family and spheres of influence. The church is often the biggest obstacle for the unsaved, not Jesus or the Bible.  (Simple, Common-Sense Solutions to World EvangelizationMission Frontiers Magazine)

The real question for me was; “Does this meet the mandate to ‘not stop gathering together with other believers’”?  Not only did it meet that mandate, according to this paragraph, it took out an obstacle for seekers:  The building itself. 

The concept of the building itself being not only an obstacle for the unsaved, but the biggest obstacle is one I found intriguing. 

As I was pondering this I started to ponder some of the objectives that people have to coming to a church building:

  • They are just about money = the church in your house doesn’t need all of that money and usually isn’t asking for it.
  • Too big and impersonal = a church in your house simply cannot get too big unless you live in a mansion, the people are more likely to start more meetings at more houses to keep it more comfortable and intimate.
  • I like what Jesus has to say, but I don’t like the church people = well if you are at least okay with me as a church person a study that starts with just us and your family and includes only those you invite to your home.
  • Aren’t all of those pastors liars, I don’t trust them = “If you have some level of trust in me lets work on being led by what God says through the Bible instead of so much focus on what some expert thinks God is saying.”

There is more, but you get my point.  I am sold on many of these basic premises as mentioned in previous posts (ex., The Church of Only What is Needed?, The Church of Only What is Needed? PART 2, Thoughts on the “Emerging Church” Debate), but this is another good reason to at least look at the new ideas emerging throughout Christianity.

I am not a proponent of telling people that they should abandon their churches and leave to decay away as remnants of the past few centuries as we march towards our new home church meetings.  I am saying that we all need to creatively look at the new ideas and successes as well as the statistics and other facts with minds open to hearing new things and ideas from God.  As a matter of fact, as stated in previous posts, I still attend not only a traditional, mainline denominational church, but a mega-church (big screens and all).

This I feel and my discussions on this website are to share my processing of this information and provoke conversation for all of us.

There are clearly changes afoot.  God is moving in some direction, the question is are we as a group (the church) and as individuals going the same way that He is going?  I have my two favorite ideas at this time and will probably alter or change them over time (see New Thoughts on my Favorite Church Models). 

Are your ideas for solutions to the problems that face the church as simple as they can be and no simpler?  Also, do not stop gathering together in the church that is as simple as possible, but no simpler.

With some more food for deep prayerful thought;

W. Lawrence Hess

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

The Way My Child Receives the Kingdom

English: Jesus Christ with children

English: Jesus Christ with children (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 The Way My Child Receives the Kingdom

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.”

I had a couple of conversations over the last few days where people were explaining why one church is better than this church or that church.  So rather than get caught in trying to compare which mega-church was better than the other or which local church was better than any mega church, I started asking the tough questions about church in general that many of us have found ourselves asking.  Later in these conversations (once the person was curious about some of these same points) I would ask the person what his or her perfect church would look like.

Many of the responses were the same old: expert up front and only big enough for me to be noticed kind of answers.

So I was about to type away at a post when my thirteen year old interrupted me with questions about the algebra he is working on to get ready for back to school.  Suddenly it dawned on me:  As many of these conversations as I have been having lately, I have never really talked about any of this with him.

So I threw out the question without any warning (which, I am sure was a welcome break from algebra review anyway):  “What would your perfect church look like?

He started off pretty basic with:

A small church where everybody knows everybody and everything would be more personal. 

I immediately asked him what he would do if the church grew too big for him?  He responded without much thought that;  “I would have to find another church.”  I really wanted to get into a deep conversation about the Great Commission and how a good church would be drawing in new converts constantly etc. but I knew that this would ruin the complete honesty he was sharing with.

He continued; “Not overly christiany…  you know…” 

So I completed the sentence by saying, “Not too religious and christianeese”

He then said, “Yeah, more modern and normal.”

I was intrigued that a youthful view of what we do in the traditional church (particularly since the traditional church we attend is an ultramodern, high-tech church in the Silicon Valley).  The words that naturally came out of his mouth implied that the model most of us are used to is not modern and definitely not whatever normal is.  In other words primitive and very strange. Which also equates to:  Not very inviting to the generation that is moving their way into adulthood next or in other words:  OUT OF TOUCH. 

God however is not out of touch with that generation as evidenced by the fact that (at least in this case) there is an idea of what it would look like to better reach this generation.  Keep in mind he had no time to ponder the deeper issues or contemplate the right answer etc.  He didn’t even know that I was going to post this online until it dawned on him that I was typing his answers as he spoke and asked why.   He had some very definite ideas about the gatherings that I thought were very interesting and worthy of careful consideration.

A Celebration Service:

He was very clear that there would be worship and that it would have to be contemporary worship.   I was intrigued by this as I was expecting him to say something like a mixture of worship styles that would include contemporary but also R&B, Gospel, Rock and some rap worship etc. but he simply wanted the worship to be “like the music they play on KLOVE

He was clear that there should be no offering just a box at the back.  I asked him why and he responded:  …that way people don’t have to feel uncomfortable.  It’s uncomfortable when people are passing a bucket and you don’t have anything to put in it.  Everyone is just looking at you pass the bucket.”  My mind immediately referred back to being on staff at a church and seeing the numbers.  Facing the painful truth that only when pressured do most people give.  Even those who are on and on about tithing and giving more in the offering tend to be slack unless pressured (with the ever-powerful trip to Malachi 3:8), or unless guilt is present or unless overwhelmed with some amazing project that God has the church undertaking (because of tax law in the Unites States churches have records of who gave what and when).

I really never tripped too much on what others think if I just pass the bucket on, but in thinking about it, that is another tool to apply pressure.  I fear if you take out all of the pressures etc., in our context many of the buildings that house these churches would have to be sold and many of the churches (and some of the pastors) would find themselves homeless.  

He was very specific that he would prefer there be no announcements, but after a moment of thought decided upon only most necessary announcements.  That means the announcements at our church service drive him crazy (as they do me).  I thought it was just me.

I asked him what he thought about communion in the service and he said that it would be done once a month,

He was very clear that, basically there would be worship and preaching by the head pastor and the service would be an hour long (up to an hour and a half at the longest).

He did want there to be video of the service but only taping of the pastor.  No crowd shots or shots of individuals in the crowd so nobody feels obligated to do anything or act in any special way because of the cameras.

He was also clear that there would have to have a kids room or building to separate kids from the service with a youth pastor that would preach, but preach at their level.   

He was also specific that there would be prayer by small groups after service.  So I asked, “How would you break the crowd into groups?”  He responded:  “It would be the small groups that meet during the week” as if that were just a standard assumption and was a stupid question.  Wow, now you’re peaking my interest I thought.  So I asked, where would these groups meet?  He said very matter-of-factly:  “In somebody’s home.” 

So I asked him to explain what would happen in these groups.

The first thing that came out of his mouth was that “…the small groups meeting at houses would be a better place for people to deal with more personal issues that they definitely wouldn’t deal with at the worship service.” 

Then I asked what else they would do at these meetings and he said,  “At the small groups they would review whatever the pastor discussed.” 

So I asked, “what do you mean?” 

He said,  “They would give opinions on what each thinks the pastor said and what it means to them.” 

He added that some Sunday nights, he would like them to have movie nights at the church, where those who wish would watch a movie at the church and receive handouts listing a few key points to discuss that week at the small groups.

I couldn’t hold off my theological question from the very beginning of the conversation any longer, so I sprung it on him:  “You said if the church grows too much, you would just leave and find another one.  If a church is supposed to be seeking new believers constantly and getting them involved in the church would the church by design be growing?  Isn’t growing what they are supposed to do?”  He pondered that for a second and then I added something about if a church is not growing isn’t it not doing what it is supposed to do.

He simply said that once it reached a certain size I would just separate and start another church.

This all opened the door to a deeper discussion on the topic of what church is etc. and we had a great time discussing the concept and reading my previous blog posts, which he had not yet seen. 

I share all of this because I think I gives a glimpse of what even the teenage mind that is not really all into church growth and what church should and shouldn’t be desires in all of it’s simplicity.  I also share this because it shows a lot of what is putting off a generation including those that love the Lord, like my son.  I hope it is food for thought and blessed conversation.

As far as the verse that I opened with,  I think it is important that we all look at how our children receive Christ and what they are drawn to in their walks and consider if there is a divine impartation of wisdom involved.

 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.”

Just as an added tidbit.  After that discussion, my wife called and wanted us to meet her for Chinese food, so we happily left behind our pontificating and chugged on down to our favorite place to stuff ourselves to this gills with MSG.  At the end of our meal, I opened my fortune cookie and found a sentence that I think should be the battle cry of every church and how every church determines what it does and does not do.  That fortune cookie wisdom was:

ENGAGE IN GROUP ACTIVITIES THAT FURTHER TRANSFORMATION!

 

Be blessed in group activities that further your transformation,

W. Lawrence Hess

New Thoughts on my Favorite Church Models

Coffee shop in Kalpeni Island Lakshadweep

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

New Thoughts on my Favorite Church Models

Hebrews 10:22-25 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  22 We have been sprinkled with his blood to free us from a guilty conscience, and our bodies have been washed with clean water. So we must continue to come to him with a sincere heart and strong faith. 23 We must continue to hold firmly to our declaration of faith. The one who made the promise is faithful.  24 We must also consider how to encourage each other to show love and to do good things. 25 We should not stop gathering together with other believers, as some of you are doing. Instead, we must continue to encourage each other even more as we see the day of the Lord coming.

Matthew 28:19-20 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW)  –  19 So wherever you go, make disciples of all nations: Baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. 20 Teach them to do everything I have commanded you.  “And remember that I am always with you until the end of time.”

I have had couple of conversations this week about what I would consider to be the perfect church setting for me and my family.  I came up with two that I find to be equally enjoyable ideas.

The obvious question being, what would others call the perfect church.  I have discussed this previously here and I have been discussing this (often accidently) with others a lot as of late. 

Hebrews 10:25 (in the above passage) is often quoted as a reason for remaining in the “traditional western church” and not going to other models.  The truth is that I do not see this in this passage or any other passage in the New Testament.  Since that model does not appear elsewhere in the New Testament why apply it to this passage.  I also think that concepts such as:  Encouraging one another, showing love to one another, doing good things with and for one another as well as making disciples more likely to obey all that Jesus taught would be better accomplished through other models.

Over the last couple of weeks the ideas I have been using to formulate answers to questions about my idea of the perfect church included such important ideas such as:

  • Where would each participant  experience the most spiritual growth (most likely to make obedient disciples vs. hearers)
  • Where would obedience (teaching them to obey – The Great Commission) would most be fostered
  • Where each participant would be most likely to go out and share the Gospel
  • Where personal relationship with God would most be fostered
  • Where relationship with a Spiritual Community would most be fostered
  • Where I would just enjoy myself
  • Where we could share in the growth and struggles of others
    • Encouraging one another, showing love to one another, and doing good things with and for one another

I came up with two that I find to be equally enjoyable ideas.  They are different, but the first model I feel is better for reproduction, the second model I think has similar, but lesser reproduction, but I would just find considerably more fun and cool as well as has better ability to build a strong larger fellowship.

The first is an obvious with the movements that are on the rise worldwide.  The small group, family based model which I will just call the house church model.

That would be a few families meeting in a home or rotating homes to worship and seek God.  Some of the important elements would have to be:

  • Some kind of musical worship experience (I would prefer having the participants write their own even if it is on top of the instrumentals of secular pop music)
  • Some kind of prayer and caring segment where we focus on discussing our struggles and blessings as well as focus on caring for and about each other. Ex. Questions:
    • What blessing have you experienced recently
    • What are you struggling with (prayer for these things)
    • Discussion about help for the struggles of each individual
  • A discussion based study of the Bible with nobody allowed to be an expert so we can all focus more on hearing from God and His word and less on some individual
    • That would also a mean a focus on what the passage actually says and not allowing members to read into the passage to prevent everyone’s big concern: “heresy”.
  • A discussion on how each member will change something or things about his/her life because of what God revealed in this study.
  • A discussion of who we are going to share what we have learned from this passage with that is outside of the group as well as a discussion about who we have shared the previous studies with.
  • A discussion about how have you (each participant) been doing with the changes you stated you needed to do in previous studies?
  • A time of fellowship and coffee/snacks etc.

 

That is the first and the second ideas are similar, but the second has a bit more hip of a setting that reflects my west coast cultural norms better:

  • A really large coffee shop setting with circular booths (like you see in some restaurants but a bit larger in circumference) that are really comfortable but also stylishly relaxing.   There would be a stage and all the booths would be facing it as much as possible.
    • There would be coffee and snacks available at a bar like a coffee shop
    • A hope is that whole families or segments of families would sit at booths with other families (this would be encouraged).
    • Those that find other groups of families or people that they are comfortable with would be encouraged to continue to sit with those groups weekly.
  • There would be live bands etc. playing as people come in and people can sit in their booths and sing along, listen or ignore it all together and talk as they feel led.
  • There would be a scripture that is read to the entire group or a testimony of God working that would be tied to a particular scripture (this would normally be no more than 5 or 10 minutes).
  • The groups then, at their respective tables would discuss the passage.
    • That includes a discussion on how each member will change something or things about his/her life because of what God revealed in this study.
    • Live music would continue in the background (at a level conducive to continuing conversation) There also could be a section that could be closed off to limit background noise for those groups that require more focus to be comfortable.
  • Then the stage would be open for individuals to stand up and discuss what he/she feels God has revealed to him/her, what he/she feels needs to be changed in his/her life as a result of what God revealed in this study or a short testimony that is related to the passage.
  • After this segment the tables would discuss:
    • What the sharing time revealed to them
    • What they will have to change in their lives because of what they feel God has revealed to them and
    • Who (that was not in that room) each person will share what was discussed and what transpired with before the next meeting as well as who he/she has been sharing the previous studies with (and how that has been going)
  • There would be prayer and free fellowship time after that where people were encouraged to socialize outside of their table and to pray for one another freely.
    • One of the focuses of this time would be some kind of prayer and caring segment where we focus on discussing our struggles and blessings as well as focus on caring for and about each other.  Ex. Questions:
      • What blessing have you experienced recently
      • What are you struggling with (prayer for these things)
      • Discussion about help for the struggles of each individual
      • How have you (each participant) been doing with the changes you stated you needed to do in previous studies?
    • Baptisms would take place somewhere at the location during this time.

These ideas have been met with mixed responses in the contexts I run in.  I do feel that both of these better reflect what I see in the New Testament as church than many of the experiences I have had.

Look at the concepts I mentioned earlier:

  • Encouraging one another – there is a time in each of the models to pray for and encourage one another on any struggles each member is having
  • Showing love to one another – there is a time in each of the models to pray for and encourage one another on any struggles each member is having as well as the fact that the time talking about struggles and blessings itself being a chance to simply care about what is going on in each other’s lives.
  • Doing good things with and for one another – The discussion about how we can all help with each other’s struggles covers this.
  • Making disciples more likely to obey all that Jesus taught – There is a segment in both to discuss what you need to change because of what he/she learned and an accountability segment for previous things each person has stated he/she should change.
  • Experiencing the most spiritual growth – The idea not only hearing the Bible, but everybody discussing it, every individual discussing what he/she will change because of it, and being (politely and matter-of-factly)held accountable later to have changed it is a strong method of growing obedience based disciples.
  • Most likely to go out and share the Gospel – having each individual discuss ahead of time who he/she will share each study with and holding each accountable afterward is a key method of doing this in both models.

 

I will not belabor the point, but these models would be ones that fulfill all the mandates of the Great Commission and the New Testament descriptions of the church while also having better potential for the results mentioned in the New Testament.  

I am curious about what others think about these models and why.  Let me know.  You can email me if you like, but I would also like to see some post those responses here.

Be blessed,

W. Lawrence Hess