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Showing posts with label #Church. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #Church. Show all posts

26 January 2017

Who runs the church?

How’s the leadership of your church structured? ’Cause it matters.

Short answer: Jesus.

Way longer answer: When Christians are asked who runs our individual churches, sometimes we describe the leadership structure of their church or denomination. But everybody can potentially give the answer “Jesus.” It is his church after all. He is the king over God’s kingdom.

But since his kingdom isn’t yet of this world, Jn 18.36 the day-to-day duties of running Jesus’s churches on earth fall to vicars. Vicar is the Christianese word for “deputy,” and means the very same thing: Lieutenants who answer to the guy who’s really in charge, and that’d be Jesus. Hopefully we truly are working on his behalf, and not for ourselves… though I leave it to you as to how well we’re doing.

Now, if you were to ask your average pagan who’s in charge, most of ’em assume the pastor is. (Or the minister, priest, father, sister, bishop, apostle, prophet—whatever you call the top dog.) Pastor says “Jump” and everyone responds, “How high?” Depending on how cynical this pagan is about organized religion, pastors range from benevolent dictators, to selfish cult leaders. To their minds, every church is some form of top-down tyranny.

And to be fair, a lot of churches do practice a top-down model. It’s the most common church leadership structure there is. Arguably it’s the first structure: Jesus in charge, and his students not. And once Jesus ascended to his Father, it was followed by the apostles in charge, and everyone else below them.

Of course I say “arguably” because some Christians argue this top-down structure isn’t Jesus’s intent. They’ll advocate for their own favorite structure—namely the structure we find in their churches. Yes, they have proof texts. If you think church oughta be a democracy, you’ve likely got verses which prove God thinks so too. Top-down, bottom-up, middle-out, nobody-in-charge-but-the-Holy-Spirit, or even benevolent anarchy, people will point to verses which they’re pretty sure back their view. Regardless of those views, I’m gonna point out the top-down model is all over Christendom because it’s consistently found all over the scriptures, all over antiquity, and all over church history. Valid or not, it’s everywhere because top-down is humanity’s default setting: Left to their own devices, humans create kingdoms, not democracies. Even in democracies we fight to be on top.

Regardless, everybody pays lip service to the idea Jesus runs our churches. Hopefully he does.

18 January 2017

Apostles: Those whom Jesus sends out to do his work.

You might get the idea I believe Jesus still commissions apostles. ’Cause he does.

APOSTLE ə'pɑs.əl noun. Person commissioned by Christ Jesus to perform a leadership role.
[Apostolic æ.pə'stɑl.ɪk adjective, apostleship ə'pɑs.əl.ʃɪp noun]

Jesus didn’t just have the 12 students. The actual number fluctuated, as some joined the group, Mk 10.52 and others quit in frustration. Jn 6.66 Jesus had loads of student-followers, but designated the Twelve in particular as ἀπόστολοι/apóstolë, “sent ones.” Lk 6.13 Eleven of ’em, plus another student named Matthias whom they promoted apostle, Ac 1.26 became the core leaders of his newly-created church. Apostle still refers to anyone whom Jesus—or the Holy Spirit on Jesus’s behalf—sends forth to do his work.

Well, in some traditions.

Y’see, various Christians insist the only apostles in human history are Jesus’s original 12 guys, minus Judas Iscariot ’cause he turned traitor, Ac 1.16-20 and plus the apostle Paul of Tarsus. (They’re not always so sure about Matthias.)

And maybe a few more guys in the first century, ’cause scripture does identify Barnabas as an apostle, Ac 14.14 and Jesus’s brother James, Ga 1.19 and Paul’s relatives Andronicus and Junia. Ro 16.7 And probably Jesus’s brother Jude, ’cause he did write a book of the bible. But otherwise that’s all.

Two reasons these Christians insist Jesus stopped commissioning apostles after the first century:

  1. CESSATIONISM: Not only don’t they believe Jesus stopped making apostles, they believe the Spirit stopped making prophets. (Although evangelists, pastors, and teachers are still around.) The only reason Jesus designated apostles in the first place was to get his church started and the bible written. That done, the apostles died out, and are no more.
  2. APOSTOLIC SUCCESSION: They believe the apostles were given specific jobs—the supervision of specific churches and ministries. These jobs, they figure, are to be passed down from person to person. It’s not so much that the person’s an apostle; it’s that the mission continues till Jesus finally brings it to an end. So the only apostles are the people with these particular duties. Jesus doesn’t need, and therefore doesn’t create, any more apostles than that.

Either way, these folks teach the apostolic age is over.

28 December 2016

Three typical forms of church services.

Is church a struggle? Maybe you’re not at the church best suited to your personality.

Not all churches are alike. Obviously. But when you ask Christians what they like best about their church, they’ll emphasize a few things which they particularly like. The preaching. The music. The solemnity—or the informality. The friendliness. The kids’ program. The decor. The way they do our rituals. The amiability of the preacher. The ministries and programs. The coffee—for once it’s not Folger’s! (’Cause Folger’s is rubbish. But it’s cheap, so it’s what people serve whenever the person in charge of the coffee, doesn’t personally drink coffee.)

Practices vary from church to church. Even within the same denomination; you can have one church which focuses a whole lot on one area, and a sister church—even in the same town!—which focuses on another.

But the main focus of your church’s Sunday morning service (or Sunday or Saturday evening service; what have you) sets the tone for the sort of church you are. How do you know it’s your main focus? Simple: If you skip it, the people of your church act as though you didn’t really “have church” that week. The service wasn’t a proper service; it’s almost as if it doesn’t count. You could skip one of the other forms of worship, and it might be missed, but the main focus must be done. Must. Always.

Typically one of these three. ’Cause yes, others exist. Snake-handling churches, fr’instance.

So in a sacrament-focused church, holy communion (or Eucharist) must happen. You could skip the music, the homily, and maybe even scriptures and prayer—but probably not, ’cause scriptures and prayer are sacraments too, if not officially. But don’t you dare skip Eucharist. Otherwise it’s “not church,” ’cause the service was improperly done.

Same in a teaching-focused church. Whether it’s from a pastor in a pulpit, or from a teacher sitting in a circle with the people of the church, there had better have been a lesson, or it’s “not church.” You can skip communion; some of ’em only celebrate it once a month, or only on Easter and Christmas. Music’s optional too… which is why I find it tends to not be very good in such churches. When I was growing up, Mom had no trouble with being as much as 45 minutes late for the service, ’cause “we’ll only miss the music.” But we’d better not miss the sermon.

And the music-focused church: The people would be outraged if they didn’t get to sing. Ever been in a church service during a power failure? In teaching- or sacrament-focused churches, if the instruments require electricity, they figure, “Fine; we’ll sing a song or two a capella, then ‘get on with it’”—meaning the real part of the service, the message or the sacrament. But in a music-focused church, people won’t settle for an abbreviated songset. They’ll try their darnedest to make the musical experience as significant as the electrified experience. And blame the devil for the power failure—“Satan tried to stop us from having church!”—and pointedly make even more joyful a noise as their voices and acoustic instruments can produce. And y’know, they’ll succeed.

29 November 2016

Sacraments: Our Christian rituals. Gotta do ’em.

Though there’s more than a little debate as to what they mean.

Sacrament /'søk.rə.mənt/ n. Religious ritual which represents a spiritual reality, or represents an act of God’s grace.
2. [“the sacrament”] Holy communion.
[Sacramental /søk.rə'mɛn(t).əl/ adj., sacramentalist /søk.rə'mɛn(t).ə n.]

God does many things in our lives. Some we see. Some we don’t.

When God cures me of an illness, it’s nice and obvious: Everybody, even skeptics, can see I’m well. They’ll totally disagree about how I got well. If they don’t believe in God (or don’t believe he still does miracles) they’ll doubt God was involved in the cure. Might even doubt I was truly ill to begin with. But they otherwise agree I’m well. That part’s visible enough.

Now, when God forgives me of sin… what’s visible?

I mean I know I’m forgiven; Jesus told us we’re given most everything. Mk 3.28 I put my faith in Jesus, so I trust when he says I’m forgiven, I am. But was there anything visible? Anything we could’ve experienced? Did I hear God’s audible voice: “Behold thou art made whole: Sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee”? Jn 5.14 KJV Did I experience happy feelings which I’ve come to associate with forgiveness? Was God cursing me in some way, and now he’s not? Do (as the prosperity gospel folks insist is true) I suddenly find myself flush with cash?

In fact no: Most of the time we don’t see anything. Don’t see most of the things God does “behind the scenes,” as we put it—which is inaccurate, ’cause God’s not hiding a thing. He told us what he’s up to, He 1.1 and still tells us when we bother to ask. Am 3.7 It’s just we don’t bother to ask. Or we assume it’s part of some secret evil plan he’s up to.

But God understands how we humans tick: We want experiences. We wanna have something we’ve lived through, which we can point back to and say, “That’s when God did [something profound]. There’s the date and time.” Something to jog our memory, to remind us how and when God did something for us. Like a holiday which reminds us Jesus died for our sins at around 2:30 PM, 3 April 33. Or a handy, easy-to-repeat ritual.

And that’s why God ordained such rituals for us Christians to perform. Things we can do which represent what he did, what he’s doing, what he’ll do later. We call ’em sacraments, which literally means “sacred acts.” Or (if we think “sacrament” is too Catholic a word) ordinances—’cause God did ordain ’em.

The reason God ordained sacraments is to make his grace visible. ’Cause it’s not always. Miracles are visible, obvious forms of grace. Forgiveness… well, what’s obvious is the way we respond to God forgiving us. (If we respond to him; some of us are ingrates.) Some of us think we oughta feel something when that happens, so we psyche ourselves into imagining God’s presence, into feeling stuff, even into seeing stuff. You know, contorting our brains in all sorts of unhealthy ways. Things that’ll just get in the way once real visions happen.

In comparison God keeps it simple. Get dunked in water. Eat bread and drink wine. Set up a rock pile. Wash feet. Celebrate a holiday. Make promises. Say certain words. These rituals represent the reality. Do them and remember the reality. 1Co 11.24-25 Remember God’s grace.

18 November 2016

Why I went to an all-white church.

Wasn’t intentional. On the contrary: Lack of thought did it. And perpetuates it.

When I was 11 years old, my family moved to a city in California which was about 60 percent white, 40 percent Latino, 10 percent everything else. Same as much of California south of Sacramento.

I’m the oldest of four, and Mom went looking for churches which’d be a good fit for young children. We tried a few, and ended at a Evangelical Free Church, which I have elsewhere called Maypole Church. The church had an excellent Christian education program. I don’t agree with good deal of their brand of Fundamentalism any longer, but they did make sure we kids got to know our bibles, which is the important thing.

This particular church happened to be 100 percent white.

Every so often they’d be 99 percent white. A black, Latino, or Asian family would visit. There’s an Air Force base nearby, and airmen would get invited to Maypole by their white friends. But within a few months they’d stop attending; they’d go elsewhere. I never knew why. Never thought to ask why. Never assumed it was about race… ’cause I wasn’t bigoted.

Didn’t give the racial issue any thought till I started to invite my high school friends to Maypole’s youth group. My high school was right next to the Air Force base, and was as integrated as the U.S. military is. I was raised in multiethnic neighborhoods, so I didn’t solely make friends with white kids. But most were fellow Christians, and if they didn’t have a youth group, I invited them to mine. They came. For a few weeks. Then stopped. Found excuses not to come along.

I’d ask ’em why they didn’t wanna come to my church anymore.

“That group ain’t right,” they’d tell me.

I wanted to know what was wrong with them.

They didn’t wanna get specific. “It just ain’t right.”

I assumed it had to do with doctrines: My church was more Fundamentalist than they were. My church wouldn’t compromise; theirs would. You know, Fundie thinking.

Then I finally invited a white high school friend to church. He wasn’t Christian; he was a pagan who was open to the idea. He didn’t stop after two weeks: He stuck around. Largely ’cause he wanted to hook up with one of the youth group girls. And though I never saw him make a decision for Jesus, he turned round and invited some of his friends to the group. First a white friend, who stuck around a month (till he realized Christian girls weren’t as loose as he’d like). Then a Latino friend, who only stayed three weeks, but left ’cause “That group ain’t right.”

Every Spring Break the youth group took a “mission trip” to Baja California and help out at a Mexican church’s Vacation Bible School. There, I saw for myself how many of the kids were super racist towards Mexicans. Our youth pastor cracked down on it as much as he could (given how certain parents would have his job if he kicked their kids out of the group). Still, this was finally when I realized what my nonwhite friends meant by “That group ain’t right.” No they weren’t.

And as we know, kids don’t become racist in a vacuum. They get it from their parents.

Nope, not accusing Maypole Church of racism. Not the pastors; probably not the deacons. But obviously there were just enough racists in my youth group to block any outreach I did—or anyone did—to nonwhites in my high school, in our city, anywhere. I assumed my church was a safe place, as all churches should be. They weren’t.

I stopped going to Maypole in 1991. Last I checked, they’re still 100 percent white.

14 September 2016

Priests, under Jesus our head priest.

Every Christian is part of God’s nation of priests. Elders especially.

Priest /prist/ n. Person able to perform a religion’s rituals, and therefore intercede between God and his followers.
[Priestlike /'pris(t).laɪk/ adj., priestly /'pris(t).li/ adj.]

Protestants tend to translate presbýteros as “elder,” by which we mean the senior Christians in a church.

Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, and some Lutherans, translate it “priest.” Properly “priest” would be the Greek word yeréfs—but for the most part, I don’t disagree with this translation. Y’see, the elders of the church are our priests.

Technically every Christian is a priest, for it was after all God’s intention to create a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. Ex 19.6, 1Pe 2.9 Jesus made his followers, us Christians, a kingdom of priests to our God and his. Rv 1.6, 5.10 Elders in particular happen to be able and mature enough to perform priestly functions. They can preach, prophesy, lead us in worship, perform baptisms, anoint sick people, distribute communion, lay hands on people for dedication or commission or anointing, intercede for others in prayer, and perform weddings.

Although the state tends to get picky about who can do that last one—separation of church and state regardless. It’s primarily for that reason certain churches only permit priestly duties to ordained elders, certain leaders who’ve been carefully selected and prepped. In those churches (and they aren’t just the Catholics, Orthodox, and so forth) not just any Christian can serve as a priest.

And a lot of us Christians are really picky about who can serve as priest. A new believer can anoint and heal a sick person, same as any elder. God can use anybody, y’know. But whenever we’re sick, and we want a fellow Christian to pray for us, whom do we usually go to? Right you are: An elder. A mature Christian. Not some newbie, who doesn’t yet have the hang of hearing the Holy Spirit; not some longtimer who lacks spiritual maturity. We want someone whom we know can minister to us properly. Some Christians won’t permit anybody to minister to ’em but an elder; and in a lot of cases they only want the senior pastor of their church, ’cause they’re sure that guy knows God. (Hopefully so.)

That’s why, when a newbie came running to the front of the church, hoping to preach a little something, they’re not automatically gonna get the microphone. We tend to keep priestly functions in the elders’ hands. We permit newbies to do it only under an elder’s supervision and training.

Or when there’s absolutely no one else available. Or when they’re the pastors’ kids. Or when nobody else knows how to play the piano so well. Or when they’re interns who’ve been really good at hiding their hypocrisy whenever the grown-ups are around. Let’s be honest; we’ve got cracks in the system. But generally we’ve screened people before the minister as priests.

I should add many of the same Christians who claim presbýteros means “priest,” never bother to translate the feminine presbytéra/“elder (woman)” 1Ti 5.2 as “priestess.” Relax. I’ll get to that.

05 August 2016

Picking your label.

Everybody wants to reserve the right to define themselves. Or redefine.

Years ago I joined an internet forum. As you do, when you wanna interact with like-minded or similar-minded people, and you can’t find a whole lot of ’em in your hometown, so you try out the internet. They’re a lot of fun for the first couple years, but I find they invariably deteriorate. They’re so interested in getting more members, or new members, they start letting in the cranks, and cranks ruin everything. Those of you who are cranks know what I mean.

Anyway, after the numbers got up there, the moderator asked that we all re-introduce ourselves for the sake of the many newcomers. “Please tell us your religious background.” How would you label yourself?

A lot of us took the opportunity to be really vague about it:

  • “Student of Christ.”
  • “Disciple.”
  • “Catechumen.” (Seriously.)
  • “Worshiper of the King.”
  • “Christ-carrier.”
  • “Jesus person.”
  • “Grateful believer.”
  • “God-chaser.”

Honest to goodness, I didn’t think I’d joined a group of hippies.

Lefties, you know what I’m talking about. I ran into it all the time in college. Join a group, ask the members of the group what they call themselves, and just about every single person has chosen a different label for themselves. They customized the definition to whatever they wished it would be. ’Cause it’s all about them, isn’t it? Even in community.

I used to see this all the time on Facebook, or any of the other social media platforms where there was an “About” page which invited you to state your religion. Some folks went with the usual “Christian” or “Jewish” or one of the denominations. But lots of ’em, sometimes for fun and sometimes because “Christian” wasn’t enough, would put “Lover of JESUS!!!” or some such. Caps and three exclamation points means you really mean it.

Back to the internet forum. I got specific, because I wanted there to be no question where I was coming from—and if there were, it would only be because people didn’t understand the terms. I went with “Christian / Arminian / Pentecostal / Assemblies of God.” From the general to the specific: Religion, theology, movement, denomination.

Some of the others were specific as well. If you identify with your denomination, or you’re in leadership, you tend to. If you don’t care for it, you tend not to join its hierarchy. (Although there are exceptions: At my last church, we took an informal survey of the people’s attitudes about membership, and asked how they identified themselves. One of our elders identified herself as an attendee. No, there was no box to tick; she wrote the word out. Not an elder; not even as a member. There’s commitment for ya.)

The rest of the forum members picked the usual vague terms we find among bloggers, Twitter users, authors, survey respondents, and average church attendees throughout Christendom. It signified they wanted to be unique. It also signified just how much the other terms don’t work for them.

19 July 2016

The Didache: How’d the earliest Christians behave?

Yep, we have a written record of it.

Didache /'dɪ.də.kei, di.da'hi/ n. A first-century Christian manual for new believers. [From the Greek didahí/“teaching.”]

In the first century, some anonymous Christian leaders wrote a “teaching” for the new members of Christian synagogues: The stuff they felt these Christians oughta know and believe. Over time it’s become known as the Didache, from its first line, Didahí Kyríu diá ton dódeka apostólon toís éthesin/“The Master’s teaching to the gentiles, from the 12 apostles.” Western Christians assumed it had been lost sometime in the 800s, but Ethiopian Christians still had a version of it, and an 11th-century copy in the Codex Hierosolymitanus was rediscovered by Philotheos Bryennios in 1873.

Historians notice a lot of similarities between the Didache and what the Qumran community taught in the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s considered a Jewish-Christian catechism, a lesson to be memorized (usually in question-answer format, though not here) to help adapt the Jewish way of life for gentile Christians. Whether it’s precisely as the Twelve taught, we’ve no idea; but it’s safe to say it’s what a lot of early Christians taught. In fact, a lot of early Christians wanted to include the Didache in the New Testament.

So why isn’t it scripture? ’Cause for the longest time, Christians thought it was written in the second century. And since the New Testament was ultimately limited to first-century writings, that left the Didache out. I’m not saying we should add it now… but it’s interesting to look at the way early Christians expected newbies to behave. It’s why I include the whole of it below.

The translation and chapter titles are mine. I took the text from the Codex Hierosolymitanus. Read it yourself, and notice how many of these ideas are still taught in your own church.

02 June 2016

The fivefold ministry. Or is it fourfold? Sevenfold?

The ministries God puts in our churches… versus the people who covet leadership roles.

FIVEFOLD MINISTRY /'faɪv.foʊld 'mɪn.ɪs.tri/ n. The belief the five gifts Christ granted to build up his body Ep 4.11 are best held by individual church leaders.

There are several different ways we Christians have chosen to run our churches. Some of ’em are run by archbishops, some by pastors, some by elders, some by democratic vote, and some are anarchist: Supposedly no one leads but the Holy Spirit. (I used to attend such a church, and discovered in practice, certain folks just happen to “hear the Spirit” far more often than others, and wind up leading by default. Sometimes they legitimately do hear the Spirit; sometimes not so much.)

Some of these leadership models are based on the bible. Some not. Is there a particular way God wants Christians to run his churches? I would definitely say so—but I’m not hard-and-fast on it. ’Cause regardless of your church leadership structure, the most important factor is whether your leaders and people follow Jesus. If they do, regardless of the leadership structure, the church is gonna work. If they don’t, again regardless of the leadership structure, the church is gonna go wrong.

At some other point I’ll list all the different models, but today I’m obviously gonna rant write about the fivefold ministry model.

It’s a relatively new leadership structure. Invented in the 1970s, a lot of churches in the charismatic “apostolic movement” have adopted it. It’s where the church is run either by five elders, or five teams of elders. (Since each of these teams tends to have a supervisor… functionally, five elders.) Each of these elders holds a different office, or job title, which corresponds to one of Christ Jesus’s five ministry gifts, listed by Paul in Ephesians.

Ephesians 4.11-12 KWL
11 Christ gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers.
12 They’re for the purpose of setting up holy people for good works;
for building up Christ’s body till we’ve all arrived at a unified faith and knowledge of God’s Son;
for producing a mature, measured-up, complete Christian.

Now. Historically Christians haven’t taught these are five jobs, but five gifts: Different abilities to minister. Different aptitudes. One Christian has a knack for prophecy, another for evangelism. But in practice the Holy Spirit grants all these gifts—not one and only one—to various church leaders on an ad hoc basis.

Jesus is an obvious example of someone who simultaneously had all five gifts.

  • APOSTLE: Jesus was sent by God. He 3.1
  • PROPHET: Jesus shares God’s word. Mt 21.11
  • EVANGELIST: Jesus shares the good news of the kingdom. Mk 1.14
  • PASTOR: Jesus is our good shepherd, Jn 10.11 our leader.
  • TEACHER: Jesus is a rabbi, Jn 13.13 and our only rabbi. Mt 23.10

“Well of course Jesus could do ’em all,” various Christians reply, ”because he’s Jesus.” You know everybody’s favorite excuse for not doing as Jesus did: He exceptional. And he is, in a whole lot of ways. But not this one, ’cause loads of his apostles also simultaneously had all five gifts. Peter, John, Philip, Paul, James; and you’ll notice most churches expect their head pastor to have these abilities where necessary. Apostles in that God called ’em into ministry, prophets in that they can recognize God’s voice and share his will, evangelists ’cause they lead people to Jesus, pastors ’cause they shepherd the people of their churches, and teachers ’cause they gotta teach us everything Jesus taught.

Fivefold ministry advocates point out this is a whole lot of work to put upon just one person. They’re quite right; it’s why the mature Christians of a church need to step up and aid their pastor. But the fivefold folks claim the list in Ephesians is a jobs list: The Holy Spirit divvied up these gifts, just like he scattered his supernatural gifts among different Christians. 1Co 12.7 Therefore each church shouldn’t only have a pastor leading it, but have five leaders in charge. A pastor of course. And also an apostle, prophet, evangelist, and teacher.

18 May 2016

Elders: Because we Christians need to grow up.

When we become spiritually mature, we can benefit our whole church.

ELDER /'ɛld.ər/ n. A leader or senior figure in a tribe or other group.
2. Presbyter: A spiritually mature Christian of any age, usually consulted as part of a church’s leadership, usually entrusted with ministerial or priestly responsibility.
[Eldership /'ɛl.dər.ʃɪp/ n.]

The term presbýteros/“elder” is used to describe the senior Christians in a church: The longtime, spiritually mature, fruitful, devout Christians. The folks we can legitimately trust to give us solid advice and sound instructions about following Jesus. The folks the leaders of our churches trust; assuming our leaders aren’t nincompoops, so can we.

Elders don’t have to be senior citizens, if that’s what you’re imagining. Any 30-year-old who grew up Christian is (usually) gonna be further along in their walk with Christ than any 90-year-old new convert.

Yeah, sometimes Christians assume they’re elders, or certainly oughta be considered elders, because they are old. In one of my previous churches, we had a woman who insisted everyone call her “Grandma” (even people her age), and expected them to come to her for sage advice. Which we didn’t, ’cause she had a few screws loose. Y’see, was emotionally immature—meaning she lacked the Spirit’s fruit of gentleness. Her instability meant she wasn’t a safe person to speak with; plus anybody who listened to her advice quickly realized she knew very little about God. But she’d been in church all her life, so she assumed it granted her elder status. Does not. It’s about maturity, not age.

Every Christian should aspire to become spiritually mature. And therefore elders. So we need to follow Jesus. Do as he did. Come under the guidance of some of his wiser followers. Produce good fruit. Practice good works. Live wisely. Be responsible. Obey. Okay, we’re not perfect, but we’re trying, which is all God cares about; and after a certain point our fellow Christians will see the Spirit’s work in us, and naturally defer to our spiritual maturity. Or expect us to take positions of leadership. Or, if they’re already leaders, ask us to take positions of leadership. Thus we become elders.

(Okay, some of these fellow Christians don’t know what constitutes an elder, and ask us to lead because they like our style. Happens in many a dysfunctional church. If you’ve got a spiritually immature pastor, that’s what happened. Usually the rest of the leadership is just as bad. All too common.)

13 April 2016

Do you have friends in your church?

If the people in your church are nice enough people, but not really friends, I can understand not wanting to go.

Christians tend to go to church for four reasons.

  • Worship. They love music, or love ministering to the needy.
  • Teaching. They wanna learn about God and Christianity, or otherwise love a good sermon.
  • Sacrament. They wanna pray together, or practice any of the other rituals we can only do as a group.
  • Fellowship. They wanna see their friends.

At some other point I’ll write about the churches whose primary focus is on one of those four. Today I’m gonna bring up the fellowship thing—because it’s a way bigger deal than a lot of Christians realize.

Well, some of us already realize it’s a big deal. It’s why certain churches structure things so people will interact with one another a lot. They push their small groups. They extend their “meet ’n greet” time. They have potlucks and pizza parties and movie nights and other social functions. They don’t charge for the coffee.

It’s not for any ulterior motive: That’s the motive. They want the people of their church to make friends with one another. Jesus ordered us to love one another; Jn 15.12 they’re trying to make it happen. You’re not gonna love one another when you don’t know one another. You’re not gonna make friends with your fellow Christians when they’re nothing more than the other people who go to your church.

Yeah, there are fringe benefits to the people in your church making friends with one another: They’re gonna come to church to see their friends. Or, to put it shorter, they’re gonna come to church.

That’s what got me coming to church, back in my young-hypocrite years: My friends were there. The church services, I could do without: The music was lame, the sermons shallow. (Coincidentally, I and my faith were also lame and shallow, so more likely it was just me.) I would’ve had no problem with sleeping in Sunday mornings, like every other pagan. But I looked forward to sitting in the back of the church auditorium, quietly goofing off with my buds, whether it was Sunday morning or Thursday night youth group.

I grew out of the hypocrisy, but it’s still true: Lotta times I don’t feel like going to church. But my friends are there, so I do. When I don’t have any obligations that day, and I find out my friends are gonna be absent—they gotta work, or they’re on vacation, or otherwise won’t attend—sometimes I’ll attend anyway, and sometimes I won’t. And I’m far from the only one.

25 February 2016

Why leave your church?

Sometimes for good reasons. Sometimes bad. Up to you to decide.

As I’ve said previously, at some point Christians have to switch churches. Sometimes for good reasons; sometimes not.

  • God instructs you to go elsewhere.
  • They kicked you out.
  • Church leaders are untrustworthy. Sinning, abusive, fruitless, jerk-like, and unrepentant; or just not doing their jobs.
  • Ditto church members—and the leaders do nothing about it.
  • They’re a cult, or have a cultic reputation. Too legalistic, demanding, judgmental. If you don’t obey/conform, they have penalties.
  • They’re dark Christians: Too much fear and worry, not enough love.
  • You, or they, are moving to a new city. Or you work for another church.
  • Your spouse goes elsewhere, and isn’t coming back. Period.
  • You consider church to be optional anyway. Sleep, sports, or recreation—even doing nothing—seem better options.
  • They’re not cool enough. Or anymore.
  • You don’t like anyone there. You have no friends there. You burned a lot of bridges, so you need a “fresh start.”
  • They won’t let you lead, or otherwise get your way.
  • They’re not political enough.
  • They want you to contribute time/resources/money.
  • They denounce sin, particularly sins you commit.
  • There’s a drastic change in mission, emphasis, focus, or denomination—and you can’t get behind it.
  • You visited another church, and they felt far more right for you.
  • You don’t like their liturgical style, preaching style, or music.
  • You’re “not getting fed” or “not feeling the Spirit” or are otherwise bored.
  • Your kids don’t wanna go.
  • You want a bigger/smaller church.
  • You want more/fewer programs or resources.

You can probably think of more reasons than these. I sure can.

You might take issue with the placement of some of these things on the chart. I’ve known more than one politically-minded Christian who’s insistent the church must swing their way politically, and if it doesn’t, it’s supporting “the kingdom of this world” over and against “the kingdom of God.” Supposedly Jesus will make their party an exception when he overthrows the governments of this world. But political Christians regularly, naïvely think so, and would place politics in the “good reasons” column. I don’t.

Likewise I’ve known Christians who insist stylistic choices don’t matter in the slightest. Doesn’t matter if you hate the music, or think the sermons are useless and boring, or the kids can’t stand the youth group and would rather be pagans: That’s your church, and you stay there no matter what. For some Christians there are no debatable reasons. You don’t like your church? You don’t have to like it, you whiny muffin; you have to obey and conform. Suck it up and go to church.

Likewise I’ve known Christians who don’t want us making any such lists. Who are we to critique churches? We’re supposed to be humble, obedient, and stick with the churches God’s assigned us, rather than nitpicking their flaws, and seeking a church which suits our preferences instead of God’s. That’s just rebellion disguised as diversity.

09 February 2016

Really don’t wanna go to church.

Sick and tired of church? It happens for good reasons. And pathetic ones.

Though we Christians need to go to church, many of us don’t. And won’t.

And I get it. There’ve been times in my life when I didn’t wanna go to church either. So I found excuses not to, adopted them, and didn’t go.

  • “I have a home church, and I’m too far from home to go.” I used this for a semester while I was in college: I didn’t care for any of the churches in the area, and figured I did have a church back home; I did go there when I was home. But I wasn’t home. So it was okay if I missed 10 weeks of church services.
  • “I go to chapel every day, so that kinda counts.” This was my other excuse that semester. Me and a lot of other students.
  • “I can do all this stuff on my own.” My excuse for a few weeks when I was really annoyed with the people of my church. ’Cause I totally could do this stuff on my own. Pray?—no problem. Sing worship songs?—easily done. Learn from fellow Christians?—I had their books. Study the bible?—sure. Take holy communion?—well, I could eat saltines and grape juice on my own, and call it communion, but the missing element is other Christians, so that made it tricky. As are all our other practices which require other Christians.
  • “The people suck.” Yeah, sometimes they do.
  • “I don’t have to attend every week. I have freedom in Christ, y’know.” Which is true, but it’s really easy for inconsistent attendance to turn into monthly attendance, twice-a-year attendance, or no attendance.

Thing is, if you really don’t wanna go to church, any excuse will do. And lots of Christians really don’t wanna go. Their excuses are tissue-thin, misguided, selfish, or ridiculous, but because they really don’t wanna go, the excuses work. You don’t need a rope to lead a horse when they’ll willingly follow you anyway.

06 January 2016

When churches go very, very wrong.

Sometimes churches are wrong. And sometimes they wander into cult territory.

Cult. /kəlt/ n. A religion directed towards one particular individual or figurehead.
2. A group (usually small) whose religious beliefs and practices are outside the norm: Too controlling, too strange, too devilish.
3. A misplaced devotion to a particular person or thing.
4. A heretic Christian church.

I’ve been throwing this word “cult” around a bit, so I thought I’d better define it. I don’t necessarily mean what your average Christian does by it. Usually they mean definition #4. I mean definition #2.

And sociologists, anthropologists, and other folks whose job descriptions end in -ists, tend to use definition #1. Technically a cult is any religion which has a guru in charge of it. Even Christianity falls under that definition, ’cause Christ Jesus. But in popular culture, “cult” has come to mean a creepy religion. If it weirds ’em out, they call it a cult.

Christians sorta do that too. Didn’t help when Christian academics started using the term to describe heretic churches. Charles S. Braden used it in his 1949 book These Also Believe: A Study of Modern American Cults and Minority Religious Movements to mean

any religious group which differs significantly in one or more respects as to belief or practice from those religious groups which are regarded as the normative expressions of religion in our total culture. Braden xii

To Braden, “cult” meant heretic. And that’s the definition Walter R. Martin went with in his popular book The Kingdom of the Cults. (It’s a book I oughta plug, since it explains just why certain denominations are heretic.) But that’s also the definition you’ll commonly find Evangelical Christians use: Any group which isn’t orthodox is a cult. Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in the trinity; cult. Latter-Day Saints say Jesus is a created being; cult. Christian Scientists teach death is an illusion, thus Jesus didn’t literally die; cult. Doesn’t matter to most Evangelicals whether these groups even consider themselves Christian: The Muslims believe Jesus isn’t God; cult. The Buddhist do too; cult. And so on.

Depending on how Fundamentalist these Evangelicals get—by which I mean how narrow their view of orthodoxy is—everything can become a cult. I grew up in those churches: If they strongly believe women shouldn’t wear makeup, yet your church let ’em do so, they’ll call you a cult. Because to them, makeup is orthodoxy, and you’re not orthodox. Today it’s makeup; tomorrow you’re denouncing God and kissing Satan with tongue.

Of course, with churches that strict and controlling, the cult is sorta on the other foot. (To mix metaphors.)

29 December 2015

Go to church!

I get it. I do. Churches can be a pain. But when done right, they’re far better for us than not.

Church. /tʃərtʃ/ n. A Christian group which gathers for the purpose of following and worshiping God.
2. God’s kingdom: Every Christian, everywhere on earth, throughout all of history.
3. A denomination: One such distinct Christian organization, namely one with its own groups, clergy, teachings, and buildings.
4. A Christian group’s building or campus.

Ekklisía, the Greek word we translate “church,” really means “group.”

Yeah, you might’ve heard some preacher claim it means “a specially-called-out people.” It’s ’cause ekklisía’s word-root kaléo means “call,” so those who like to dabble in Greek assume that’s gotta be part of its meaning. But words evolve, y’know. Our word congress used to mean “group” too. Nowadays it nearly always means “our do-nothing legislature.” Sometimes ancient Greeks also used ekklisía to refer to their legislatures. But it’s just a generic term for any group. So Jesus used it for his group.

Matthew 18.17 KWL
“When they dismiss them, tell the church.
When they dismiss the church, to you they’re like a foreigner or taxman.”

Nowadays people use it to mean a church building: “I’ll meet you at the church” seldom means “I’ll meet you in the group.” But that’s what “church” means in the bible: The group of believers in Jesus, who got together to worship him, learn from him, and encourage one another to follow him. Sometimes a church was only the local group; sometimes the universal group—meaning every Christian, everywhere, whether they regularly met together in the group, or not.

Regardless of what the word means, a lot of people don’t wanna have anything to do with it.

I know a lot of people, and have met a lot of people, who tell me they have no intention of going to church. They don’t believe in “organized religion,” by which they mean church:

  • They don’t wanna get up early on Sunday morning, their one day off, to go hang out with a bunch of strangers and hypocrites.
  • They don’t wanna sing a bunch of cheesy Christian worship songs, no matter how good the musicians are (and sometimes they’re not at all good; we’re thinking some serious nepotism went into their selection). Why do the music pastors insist on repeating the chorus so many times?
  • They don’t wanna then listen to the pastor’s wife sing karaoke one of the songs, mediocrely, for all to applaud her, ’cause wasn’t she earnest? (Though not good. And probably not earnest either.)
  • They don’t wanna tithe to an organization whose pastors clearly have enough money to afford fancy suits, silk Hawaiian shirts, or whatever Urban Outfitters currently puts in their shop windows. (Depending on how old or young your pastors—and congregation—are.)
  • They don’t wanna sit through an hour-long lecture. They had quite enough of lectures in childhood. Now they’ve gotta again be told what to do, what to think, and that if they don’t, they’re going to hell. (Which, if they even believe in hell, they’re entirely sure God isn’t that wrathful, ’cause grace.)
  • They don’t wanna sit through, alternatively, a homily which does none of those things… which, instead, tells them nothing. It’s just some feel-good stuff devoid of substance, and as boring as all get-out (-of-the-building-now).
  • They don’t wanna force the kids to go to church. It’s hard enough getting ’em to go to school.

Look, I get it. I’ve been going to church all my life. I have all the same complaints about it as you. Probably more, ’cause I have a theology degree, so I can write a dissertation about every single one of my problems. You think I’m kidding? In seminary I was given an assignment to write about my problems with church. My only and biggest problem: I could only write about one of my peeves. Not all thousand. So… much… bile…

19 September 2015

How I got mixed up with the Assemblies of God.

Gonna talk about my church background a little. (Assuming you care.)

The quick ’n dirty way to size up a Christian is to ask them their church. “What church do you go to?” Then you compare them with all the nutjobs in their church. Never the sane people who go to their church; never the sober-minded, thoughtful, kind, friendly types. (Assuming you know of any.) Just the crazies.

So when people ask my church, I know that’s what they’re up to. I’ll tell ’em anyway: I’m a member of an Assemblies of God church. And off they dig through their memories. If I’m lucky they know a nice person who happened to go to such a church; if I’m not they know some cranks. (Worse, some of our cranks.) Or of various televangelist scandals. Or they know some different kind of crank: The sort who’s anti-Assemblies, who tell anyone who’ll listen, “Do you know what those people teach?” and make us sound like raging heretics.

More often, people don’t know anything about Christian denominations. They know the one they’re in… sorta. They’ve heard of the bigger ones, like the Catholics and Baptists; or the older ones like the Lutherans and Episcopalians. The Assemblies is only a century old. So they don’t always know which prejudices they oughta have against me.

Not that all their prejudices fit. I didn’t grow up in this church. I started attending it only five years ago, less than a year after I moved to town.