Added Value

The leaders of a church I know were discussing the membership roll. It is the sort of thing that congregations have to do every once in a while. People move away or they decide to attend somewhere else. If the constitution calls for a certain number to be in attendance in order to hold a business meeting, a bloated and inaccurate roll makes it difficult to achieve a quorum. I get it. I really do. From time to time a church needs to purge its list of members.

But more than once during the meeting, as various candidates for removal were discussed, the same observation was made: “Well, they don’t contribute anything anyway.” The comment didn’t have anything to do with money. They weren’t even talking about attendance. Not really. They were talking about involvement.

I have found this to be a common way of thinking in churches these days. It is a perspective which believes that the value of those who claim to be a part of the church is shaped by what they produce for the church. It is not enough to simply show up on Sunday or even to worship. You must somehow add value to be of value. Serve coffee or sit in the nursery. Teach Sunday school or go on the church’s latest ministry trip. Serve on a church committee. Do whatever you like but don’t just sit there. I thought the same way when I was a pastor.

I was wrong. Our value is derived not produced. We are of value to the church simply because we belong to Christ. Even those members who seem to contribute nothing are essential. As 1 Corinthians 12:21 says, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’” “But that’s just the point!” some of us will want to reply. “Everybody knows that eyes and hands are important. They make a contribution to the overall well-being of the body. The problem with these deadbeat members is that they are atrophied limbs. They just sit there. They don’t do anything. They are just dead weight!” Yet Paul warns that we cannot even say this. Those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. The parts that seem to be deserving of less honor are to be treated with “special honor” (1 Cor. 12:22).

We, of course, tend to do just the opposite. We value the strong and award special treatment to those that we think contribute the most. But God’s assessment is radically different. He has “…put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Cor. 12:24). His standard of measure is not what people contribute but their need for someone to be concerned about them. We are not the best judges when it comes to determining whose presence adds the most value to the church, especially when we are in leadership. Our motives are too mixed. Our assessment is shaped too much by our own goals. Those who are worthy of the most attention are likely to be the ones we notice the least. Those who add the most value are liable to be those in whom we see little or no value at all.

The Last Whole Earth Catalog

Sometime in the early 1970’s, I stumbled across the Whole Earth Catalog. It was expensive. It cost five dollars, a lot of money for someone in my income bracket in those days. The edition I purchased said that it was the Last Whole Earth Catalog, which made me wonder what had happened to the others and why I had never seen it before. But I had to have it. It was the cover that first caught my eye, a huge color photograph of the earth as seen from space. I was even more captivated by the content that covered its pages. In a way, this giant volume functioned as a kind of Sears catalog for the counter-culture of the late 60’s and early 70’s. But it was really much more than that. The Whole Earth Catalog was a kind of manifesto. To someone like me, in my late-teens and creeping reluctantly toward adulthood, it seemed like a revelation. To use the vernacular of the day, it blew my mind.

I was intrigued by the design and the scope of the project, which somehow managed to seem both carefully crafted and haphazard at the same time. But it was the utopian ethos of the catalog that really gripped me. This was an Edenic vision of a future marked by community, sustainability, and peaceful coexistence. I read about Buckminster Fuller, the inventor of the geodesic dome and saw pictures of resources that were meant to enable people to live off the land. I lived in a working-class community in the heart of the rust belt. My father and most of my relatives worked for the automobile industry. I did not want to work in a factory. Indeed, I did not really want to work at all. I wanted to live on a commune, where we grew our own food and with people who spent their time having deep conversations. I did not know anybody who lived this way. It did not occur to me that living this way, if such a thing was even possible, would probably involve more work than any factory job I might get.

I also did not realize that I had come of age during the closing days of 60’s counterculture, which was starting to look more like a failed social experiment than a cultural revolution. I doubt that I could have articulated this at the time but I could sense it. From a distance, the freedom which the counter-culture reveled in was starting to look more like squalor. Love was hard to differentiate from debauchery. Too many of the kids who left their families looking for utopia found homelessness, addiction, and a lifestyle of grifting instead. By the time I was fantasizing about joining them, the smell of decay was already in the air.

Was it the protection of Providence or simply a lack of courage that kept me from following? Perhaps it was a little of both. I fantasized about moving to the West Coast but couldn’t bring myself to take the risk. Besides, by the mid-1970’s I had decided to become a Jesus freak. They seemed to possess a similar utopian vision, although it was one tinged with apocalyptic flames. There was no commune but there was a kind of community. They addressed each other as “brother” and “sister.” They talked about the peace of Christ. It all seemed so familiar. So much like the Whole Earth Catalog but without the Eastern mysticism, drugs, and sex. Maybe it felt safer to me.

I won’t say that this Christian vision of community was borrowed from the counter-culture of the 60’s and 70’s. But it certainly was influenced by it. It was no accident that many of the Jesus freaks I knew had initially been part of the counter-culture and had grown disillusioned with it. I met more than one who told me that their first encounter with Jesus had come during an acid trip. Also, like the utopian vision of ordinary freaks, the idealized community of the Jesus freaks never really realized its full potential. This was not because of drugs, debauchery, and grifting but as a result of something far more mundane. We got older. We got married and went to work. We had children. We ran for the school board. We left the coffee house and joined the church.

Looking at it from the distance of age, it seems to me that there was something infantile in the utopian vision that first attracted me to both these movements. Was I looking for some version of Neverland, a place where I would never have to grow up? Perhaps I was searching for an alternate family, one that felt less broken than my own. In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns that utopian idealism is the enemy of community. “Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream” he notes. “Only the fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy, and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.”

I confess to feeling a certain nostalgia for the golden vision of those early days. But if the gates of Eden are closed to us this side of eternity, the reality of community is not. The Christian community is an earthly community in every sense of the word, one that is as earthy in its limitations and its failures as it is in its location. It falls short of the vision I had for it more often than it fulfills. There are times when I consider walking away from it. On those occasions I remind myself of Bonhoeffer’s warning: “A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of the Christian community.”

They lose it, not as a punishment, but as a natural consequence. What they call community cannot survive because it is a vision that is not grounded in reality. “Sooner or later it will collapse” Bonhoeffer warns. Either the vision will collapse under its own weight, as a result of the imperfections of those who espouse it, or it will dissolve into the mist like the mirage that it is. The church, however, will survive. When the old earth is remade the church will be remade with it. I realize that this is still a kind of utopian vision. What has changed is the point of origin. It is no longer a community that we create for ourselves but one that comes down from above. It is still earthy in terms of its location. But its foundations lie elsewhere. It is the city whose builder and maker is God.

Standing By Truth

I ate dinner in a church basement the other night with a group of friends and colleagues. When it was over our host dismissed us with a blessing and his assessment of our experience. It was, he assured us, the essence of Christian fellowship. This is the sort of thing one often hears at church.  At potlucks, missions conferences and the church’s services in general, we are told that we are enjoying a foretaste of heaven.

I hope not. Surely there is more to heaven than boiled beef and small conversation about last night’s game. The problem here is not really the menu or even the company-though both could stand improvement on occasion. The problem is the language we use to describe our experience. I am not condemning the art of small talk, which has a legitimate  place in the life of the church. I am criticizing the church’s slovenly approach to language and its penchant for meaningless hyperbole.

In an essay entitled “Standing by Words,” Wendell Berry speaks of the importance of fidelity to language. According to Berry “there is a necessary and indispensable connection between language and truth.” Berry states, “My impression is that we have seen, for perhaps a hundred and fifty years, a gradual increase in language that is either meaningless or destructive of meaning.” As a Church which is constituted by the Word and which worships and serves the one who is called the Word, we ought to be concerned about this decline. Language matters deeply to God. Instead, we ape the culture. We resort to cheap hyperbole to describe our Christian experience. We overstate, understate, and euphemize. We are civil tongued but inveterate liars.

The good news is that there is a remedy for this. According to Ephesians 4:15 we are to “speak the truth in love.” Unfortunately, most of us are proficient in only one of these languages. Either we speak the truth but without love. Or we speak out of love but cannot bring ourselves to tell the truth. We opt for the tired path of truism and cliché. But if  we are to speak as if language matters, such half-measures will never do.

Church Going by Philip Larkin

Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new-
Cleaned or restored? Someone would know: I don’t.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
‘Here endeth’ much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort or other will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognizable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these – for whom was built
This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

You can listen to Philip Larkin read this poem here. You can read my article “I’ve Been Hurt by the Church, So Why Should I Go?” on the Christianity Today website.

Worship’s Dull Surprise

In a new book about creating sermons based on hymns, music and poetry, Thomas Troeger observes that today’s church suffers from an imagination deficit. Troeger notes that “the starved imagination of the church and the resultant drought in the soul have driven many people from the community of faith.” He cites Fred Craddock’s observation that many parishioners “are not so much evil as they are bored, and their entire Christian experience has never provided them a chair in which to sit for an hour in the heavenly places with Christ.”

Troeger’s assessment agrees with my experience. In my thirty-seven years of serious attendance at worship, I have come to the sad conclusion that church is the location least suited to the contemplation of the heavenly places. The predominant temper of my experience in church has been one of boredom. Worship is for the most part dull. There have been exceptions, of course, rare moments when some hymn or song transports me into the heavenly realms. Or when the word of God causes the scales to fall from my eyes and I see God’s truth or myself in a way I have never seen before. But those moments seem  few and far between.

It does not help that all the church has to offer worshipers these days is a boilerplate experience. Overly familiar songs and chatty sermons are served up with the monotonous homogeny of a fast-food franchise. The music of worship is Christian “top-forty.” The observations from scripture are trite and garnished with cute stories from the margins of Reader’s Digest. It is a corporate experience that at best promises to be mildly interesting but it hardly ever offers a taste of the transcendent.

Looking back on my experience, I suppose this boredom was one of the primary factors that propelled me into ministry. I am rarely bored when I am the one doing the preaching. Unfortunately, the same cannot be so said of my listeners. Time and again as I have been held fast by the grip of my own words, I have looked out over the congregation with an unsettling awareness that I do not have their undivided attention. They look bored. As bored as I must look when I am seated among them.

As long I am the one doing the preaching, I am tempted to blame the congregation for their boredom and for good reason. Listening, like reading, requires focused attention, and not everyone is willing to pay the price. But on those Sundays when I return to the other side of the pulpit as a listener and participant, the old ennui comves over me and I do not know who to blame. Indeed, blame is the farthest thing from my mind. On those Sundays when I am not the one doing the preaching, I take my place in the pew beside my fellow worshippers. I turn my gaze toward the front and wait. I am waiting for the music of worship to give me a glimpse of the heavenly realms. I am waiting for the word of God to arouse me from my slumber like a lover’s kiss. I am waiting for God to show up.

Thomas Troeger’s book is entitled Wonder Reborn: Creating Sermons on Hymns, Music and Poetry (Oxford). http://books.google.com/books?id=ZXHp2AL_qIAC&printsec=frontcover&dq=wonder+reborn+troeger&source=bl&ots=qCAa2TIL8C&sig=QKUfKEYo-D7xvm86J4yrYRlQdPM&hl=en&ei=5HXyTNHyAYKhnAf5kJijCg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CBoQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q&f=false

Ten Challenges Pastors Face-Challenge #7: Social and Intellectual Isolation

Gordon Jump as the Maytag repairman
Image via Wikipedia

 

An old commercial portrayed the Maytag repair man as the loneliest person in town. But the loneliest person in the church may be the pastor. Pastoral ministry is inherently relational. How, then, do we explain the feeling of isolation that sometimes afflicts pastors? To what can we attribute it? 

Pastoral isolation often manifests itself in two areas: intellectual and social. Fifty years ago the pastor’s intellectual isolation was a result of education. The pastor was one of the most educated persons in the community. This is rarely the case today. 

While it is true that the pastor’s theological and professional interests will not be shared by everyone in the congregation, there are many who would be interested in what he is reading and thinking. They simply need a context for entering the discussion. It is a good practice to share with others on your leadership team the articles, books and links which have stimulated your thinking. The Internet not only provides many new opportunities beyond the local ministerial meeting for pastors to interact with others who share similar intellectual interests, but creates a kind of “virtual watering hole” for community wide dissemination of ideas and discussion within the church. 

Social isolation occurs when the pastor has difficulty relating to others outside his professional role. At times this may be because the congregation cannot see beyond the title of “pastor.” But the congregation is not the only one at fault here. It is tempting to hide behind the title. An earlier generation of pastors was even taught to cultivate a kind of professional aloofness with church members out of fear that congregational friendships would make members jealous of each another. Though well meant, this was bad advice. Loneliness is not the only consequence of pastoral isolation. A socially isolated pastor is a vulnerable pastor. The pastoral pedestal can remove us from the healthy and loving scrutiny of those who ought to be hold us accountable. Strange as it may seem, social isolation can actually weaken the boundaries that protect both the pastor and the congregation in counseling relationships. 

Others may call us “pastor” or “preacher” but we are more (and sometimes less) than our title. Life behind a mask, even a noble mask, is suffocating. 

Worship With a Difficult Child

My colleague Heather Moffitt, managing editor of the Moody Bible Institute publication Today in the Word, has written a moving article about what it is like to attend church with a difficult child. The daughter of a pastor, Heather says that although she didn’t expect her children to be angelic, she did expect them to learn how to comport themselves. “Reality doesn’t always conform to expectation,” Heather observes. When her son was 14 months old he began to exhibit “debilitating behavioral challenges,” just weeks after she joined a new church.

 Heather writes:

During the Easter Sunday service one year, he was part of the children’s program. He had one line: “J is for Jesus!” When it was his turn, he did not say his line. Instead, he screamed, “NO!” and hit me in the face. I was bleeding in front of the entire church. As soon as we left the platform, I dragged him to the car to go home. I screamed, “This is the worst thing you have ever done to me!” In truth, it wasn’t. We had weathered far more intense outbursts and tantrums. But this happened at church. My expectation of compliments for my well-behaved children was a fantasy; my illusion of parental control over his behavior was as broken as my upper lip.

 In the article she goes on to describe the mixed advice she received on how to deal with these challenges. But more importantly, she tells how her imperfect church proved to be a manifestation of God’s grace in this challenging situation. The church is not perfect. Not yet. But even in its current rumpled state, it has the potential to be a powerful agent of God’s grace.

 Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Pet. 4:10-11).

 I encourage you to read the entire post on Duke Divinity school’s Faith & Leadership blog: http://faithandleadership.com/content/broken-behavior-going-church-challenging-child

Ministry Monday: The Future of Ministry

In a recent blog post, William Willimon proposed ten theses about the future of ministry (http://willimon.blogspot.com/2010/04/ten-theses-about-future-of-ministry.html). A Methodist bishop, Willimon looks at this issue through the lens of the mainline church. He expects mainline Protestantism to continue to experience numerical decline and to continue being pushed to the margins of culture.

The solution he proposes is theological. “The pastoral ministry in mainline Protestantism will need to find a theological way through the intellectual death of theological liberalism (“Progressive Christianity”) and the cultural compromises of traditional evangelicalism (the IRD and evangelical Protestantism’s alliance with the political right)” Willimon observes.  The best way forward is mission related not methodological. Willimon explains, “The mission of the church will take precedence over internal maintenance, real estate, fellowship, therapy, pastoral care and other factors that have driven the church in recent decades and have contributed to our decline.”

Willimon’s ten theses make me wonder how conservative evangelicals would answer the question, “What is the future of ministry?” How would you reply this question? What does this mean for training institutions like mine that seek to prepare students for future ministry?

My Tribe

This past Sunday my wife Jane and I visited a new church. Actually, we visited a church that we used to attend that moved to a new location a couple of years ago. It’s complicated. So is our history of church attendance over the last 17 years. A history that I won’t bother to describe in detail. I will say that it has involved a series of sojourns with congregations that have lasted several years and then usually seemed to end badly. Let me put it this way, if my marital life was like my church life…

I think you get the picture.  

Neither of us is proud of this. Nor do we entirely understand it. When I left the pastorate for the classroom, I was convinced that my previous vocation had prepared me to be the perfect church member. My experience as a pastor was still fresh and I was re-learning what it was like to be on the other side of the pulpit. I envisioned myself enjoying the best of both worlds over the next few years, exercising an extended ministry to the church at large and being ministered to by a faithful pastor and finding new friends among a supportive congregation.

 Instead, Jane and I spent the next several years feeling like strangers. Out of place, I realized that while I was no longer a pastor, I wasn’t a typical church member either. The church’s leaders, for the most part, kept a respectful distance. Perhaps my vocation put them off. Nobody wants a Bible college professor in their Sunday school class. Not even me. Maybe I seemed stand-offish and unfriendly. I do have one of those faces. I think the pastors felt that since I had once been a pastor, I didn’t need a pastor myself (they were wrong). But here I go, telling you more than you really need or want to know.

For years we have largely blamed ourselves for this struggle. We have been convinced that the problem is us. It must be our fault. We have expressed our grief to God, repented weekly and tried to soldier on, doing our best not to “forsake the assembling” of ourselves together. All the while living a kind of gypsy life, moving from congregation to congregation (I warned you that my story was a sordid one).

Which brings me back to last Sunday. As I said, we visited a church that we used to attend. Actually, it was the first church that we attended when we moved to the Chicago area. What impressed us the most was the sea of familiar faces that greeted us after the service. But not the familiar faces we had expected. Those we recognized were not the people we met when we first began attending the church seventeen years ago (they were nowhere to be seen), but people we had met in the host of churches we have attended over the years. This was my tribe–a band of restless wanderers looking for a spiritual home and finding it hard to settle.

I know what I would have said about this back in the days when I was a pastor. I would have preached a sermon about lack of commitment and used the illustration about the pastor’s “silent sermon.” You know the story–the one where the pastor visits an absent church member and sits in silence before the fireplace. He separates a burning ember from the rest and the two watch as it burns low and flickers out.

I have my doubts whether this old story is actually true. But if it is, I think that pastor, though well intentioned, might have done better to say a word or two to his “backsliding” church member. Perhaps ask him what he had seen in his travels the previous week. Sometimes all it takes to make an ember burn brighter is a little breath.