religious shopkeeper

I couldn't help but think of yesterday's post when I stumbled across this quote from Eugene Peterson:

The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns–how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.

Some of them are very good shopkeepers. They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sums of money, develop splendid reputations. Yet it is still shopkeeping; religious shopkeeping, to be sure, but shopkeeping all the same. The marketing strategies of the fast-food franchise occupy the waking minds of these entrepreneurs; while asleep they dream of the kind of success that will get the attention of journalists...

The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God. It is this responsibility that is being abandoned in spades”
(Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity)

enter to win...what!?!

If you’ve spent any time on this blog, you’ll know my disdain for the uncritical embrace of consumeristic and individualistic values by Christians in North America. We spend so much time trying to be cool for Christ, we forget to be faithful to Christ.

Well, when this ad popped up on a website recently, I just about choked on my sandwich:

Puts a new spin on these words of Jesus, that's for sure:

"Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it unless you're one of our lucky winners and get to avoid all the hard stuff" (Mt. 7:13-14, addition mine)

Ok, I know this is an extreme example of what I like to call the "ugh" of modern Christianity, but I'm also challenged by it. A few questions to ponder:

-How should churches seek relevance, popularity, or growth?
-How should churches and Christian ministries market themselves? Or should they?
-Is Christianity supposed to be attractive to your average North American person?

These questions remind me of one of my earliest posts on this blog: "Faithful or effective?" I'll close with a quote from that post:

When considering how we comprehend God’s reign in the world, the key is not to conceive of a detailed approach to exactly how, where, what, when, or even if the kingdom of God can be understood in the grand scheme of history and the world, but to be faithful in what we know God is doing. Faithfulness, not effectiveness, then becomes our measuring stick to participating in God’s kingdom. After all, it is God’s kingdom, not ours - "your kingdom come, your will be done" (Mt. 6:9-13) This is especially refreshing in our present age where effectiveness in all areas of society, particularly the church often trumps faithfulness. This results in church practices and individual Christian expressions that simply emulate the surrounding culture. Many confuse effectiveness, church attendance perhaps, with faithfulness.


guess who's coming to dinner?

Our church has a social event called, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” (perhaps deriving it's name from the movie of the same name - I'm not sure) How it works is you sign up either as a host or guest and you are matched anonymously with others for dinner. Both the hosts and guests don’t know who they will be sharing dinner together with. The event creates space for people to connect who might not otherwise do so, exploring creatively how we can foster community in our church. It’s great.

This past Sunday I preached on the story of David and Mephibosheth (2 Sam. 9) and titled my sermon, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” If you’re not familiar with the story, it’s one of those hidden gems in the Old Testament. King David, reigning in a time of peace and prosperity, acts on a promise he made to his beloved friend Jonathan to “never cut off his kindness for Jonathan’s family” (1 Sam. 20). In a radical display of counter-cultural compassion, David brings Jonathan’s son - a cripple and an outcast - to live in the palace court. It’s story of contrasts: Mighty King David at the height of his power and success; lowly Mephibosheth in a position of extreme weakness both as a cripple and a political outcast. The story raises some pointed questions for the reader:

-Who are the weak among us?
-Who are the powerful among us?
-Where do I fit?
-What do I do in these positions?

Reflecting on these questions, I can't help but think of the social event we’ve done as a church. Picture the palace court and David asking, “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” I imagine people responding inquisitively, excited with this entertaining new game in the king’s court: “A prince? A queen? A priest? A warrior?”

Nope.

The people of the palace court would be waiting in anticipation. But then they hear a noisy shuffling around the corner of the great hall. Who could it be? I imagine their reaction upon seeing Mephibosheth:

"A cripple!?! A political outcast!?! What!?!"

It’s a profound picture of compassion, loyalty, and love. But looking at this story alone as a model for how we treat others is incomplete. Unfortunately, David’s kindness to Mephibosheth is more of a blip on the radar as opposed to a trend-setting model for Israelite kingship. In fact, later on, David gives up for execution seven descendants of Saul in a deal with the Gibeonites, holding back only Mephibosheth (2 Sam. 21). His counter-cultural compassion, it seems, had limits.

There is, thank God, a better example of generous inclusivity in the Bible. Surprise, surprise, it’s in Jesus that we have this complete picture of love for outsiders – love for all. We see this in Luke 14, illustrated by this moving video:




All this to say, next time you find yourself playing God, assuming you know the answer to the question, “Guess who’s coming to dinner?,” remember David’s compassion to Mephibosheth; remember Jesus’ story of inclusion.

As the following song professes, the need for God’s compassion runs deep in the world:

conscience and community III

Ok, here’s part III in a series of posts titled “conscience and community.”

Post I

Post II

So, how do we "do" shalom, especially in the church?

I’m not a program-oriented person, especially when it comes to the church. I’m not convinced you can easily program individuals and community. Sure, programs are inevitable for any organized group, many times serving to achieve good things in people’s lives. But too often church becomes about programs, hence the concept we “go” to church, not unlike going to the mall or going to a sporting event. In a program oriented faith, community is something we do.

This “doing” church, however, is too impersonal. Programs easily replace community, at best creating the illusion that individuals are united. Yet sadly many people in churches still feel alone or uninspired to faithfully follow Jesus in the often-dizzying context of modern life. Being part of a church community just makes life busier.

When I ask how we “do” shalom, I’ve been considering how the term “practices” can perhaps be more helpful than “programs.” Just as athletes practice their sport to master it, the church’s practices help us to become a community. What we do is related to who we are.

So, what are some practices I see for “doing” shalom in the community of faith? Here’s a few ideas (an incomplete list, to which you can feel free to add to):

Service – I know it’s a bit simplistic, but I’ve heard it said that people who complain “I don’t get anything out of church” should flip their critique to ask, “what is the church getting from me.” And no, I don’t mean simply signing up to volunteer. I mean getting into the practice of sharing your particular talents with others as a way to both express yourself and serve others. Churches need to give space for the variety of ways in which people can serve (e.g. not everyone can or should sing).

Discernment – closely related to service is the need to practice discernment. I think every church should spend time helping discern each individuals place in the community and in the world. For example, when I graduated from Bible College, I went through a discernment process where I completed a self-reflection paper (beliefs, goals, skills, etc…) and met with a group of family, friends, teachers, and peers. They told me where I was right, where I was wrong, and what was missing. That meeting was integral to where I am today. I’d love to see something like that happen in churches before we simply call for volunteers for whatever empty slot needs filling.

Teaching/learning – Why do churches have sermons, Sunday School, membership classes, and Bible studies? Sadly, I’m not always sure. But I do know, as I mentioned above, that who we are relates to what we do. The practice of teaching/learning, then, provides the basis for what we do in community. Worship gatherings, for example, should remind us who we are as individuals and a community, giving space to affirm what we know, and hopefully learn a little on the way. My biggest concern with 21st century corporate worship isn’t with the how of a corporate gathering (i.e. style or format), but with with what of our worship.

Fellowship (i.e. eating) – I actually think the best practice of fellowship is to eat together. Besides the obvious theological connections for community in both the OT and NT, there is something unexplainable about sharing a meal that brings individuals together.

Prayer – I wonder if churches can explore what it means to be a praying people beyond the programs for prayer (e.g. prayer meetings, prayer teams, etc...)? A friend’s church has the kids say the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday before they go to learning center. Another friend’s church has share and prayer every Sunday together in person. I think both these churches are on to something in that all people are invited to participate, not just the prayer “experts.”

Remembering – so much of church practices look forward. Vision and strategic planning, board meetings, and church health studies all serve to lead churches forward, and rightly so. But what about the past, the notion that where we’ve been will affect where we go? I think we need to incorporate storytelling into our gatherings and into our lives. And I’m not talking sermon illustrations for you preachers. Finding ways to tell our individual stories and the stories of our community in relation to the Biblical story, reminds us that all we do has a context – most importantly, a context of God’s love for us, and our call to respond in love of God and neighbour.

conscience and community II

I ended my last post with this question:

Is there a way we can say both the individual and community are needed and actually mean it in word and practice?

Well, here is where I offer my answer. Oh, and yes, I am wondering what I’ve gotten myself into ;-).

As I mentioned, this topic is important to me, particularly when it comes to my Christian faith and role in a church community. I don’t know how much time I’ve spent reading and reflecting, trying to reconcile individual - community, community - individual. Back and forth...

I read the Bible and I see countless examples of faithful individuals confronting the community (Prophets and Jesus to name a few) and the Epistles offer numerous injunctions for Christians to be individually transformed. Yet these examples run parallel to life in community - Israel, disciples, early church. No one as was alone or a “lone ranger.” So which is right?

Well, in all this reflecting I’ve done, I’m wondering if too often we limit ourselves in the discussion of individual and community. For example, we hear of the liberated individual against the oppressive community. Or the individualistic runaway against the covenant community. But in framing it this way, we accept what I’m beginning to think is a false dichotomy. Stories such as Anne Rice’s de-conversion or the 16th Re(split)formation create an either/or distinction for how we understand faith individually and in community. There are winners and there are losers. Christian history is clear on that. But however this division has been and will continue to be experienced, it’s not right!

I say this because the individual/community dichotomy needs a broader perspective. Much of the discussion is framed in a world of broken relationships - you could say the fall of Genesis 3 is all we know. So we stay there. But as I recently explored in a series of posts, this doesn’t account for God’s original intention in creating this world. Or for God's plan for restoration of what is clearly a less-than-ideal situation. God’s plan of creation and restoration is rooted in shalom - the relational wholeness present in God's creation - harmony between the Creator God, humanity, and all of creation. In the shalom of Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22 we get a definition of reality that includes complete individuality and complete community. In a shalom environment, you replace the “or” with an “and” - individual and community.

Take this for what it’s worth - an idealist picture of wholeness for individuals and community. Much more can and should be said I agree. And I’m not so naive to realize this isn’t the world we live in. Too often, however, we quickly accept the reality of shalom’s absence, forgetting the base from which we were intended to relate to one another and to God. All this to say, if we are to begin imagining a balance between individual and community, I think we need to remember where we come from (and where we are going).

While these are some words I offer for framing the individual-community discussion more constructively, I realize I also asked if such a theory can apply in practice. How do we "do" shalom?

Well, that will be part III.

conscience and community

In matters of faith, belief, and religious affiliation, how to we reconcile our individual conscience with the beliefs and values of the specific community to which we belong?

In this question lies what has driven most of my interest, passion, and query as a Christian - the relationship between the individual and community. One only has to note this blog’s subtitle or scan my masters thesis to see my interest on the topic.

Well, today I came across two reflections on the topic that I feel are worth noting:

1. On her blog, Dora Dueck reflects on the recent news of popular author Ann Rice’s de-conversion from Christianity (not from Christ). Dora does well to report on Rice’s own reasons for disassociating herself with institutionalized Christianity. I also appreciated how Dora takes Rice’s stand as a challenge for us all to actually hold to our faith with conviction - “nail our convictions to the wall” as Dora implores us. And it’s out of Rice’s example, that Dora raises such an important question: “what’s the relationship between community and conscience?”

Referring to the tedious process by the Mennonite Brethren community (my clan as well!) in addressing the role of woman in church and society, Dora rightly wonders if there are times when following one’s own conscience is in fact the “right thing to do.” It’s one thing to celebrate community, but Dora’s post, I think, reveals an unfortunate lip-service to community evident in many organized religious groups, including our own. To our own detriment, we don’t wrestle with the implications of individual/community dynamics in a culture as diverse as ours.

2. On his blog, Phil Rushton connects the division of the 16th century Reformation with his own personal journey, sharing how the constant division in church history makes it difficult for some - himself in particular - to find a faith home. The emphasis on community by denominations, perhaps a bit ironically, is exclusive in nature (Phil shares this experience of exclusion with both the Mennonite Brethren and the Reformed Church). Phil’s post highlights well the ease at which groups split from the larger community of Christians often over nonessential theological issues. The same could be said for individuals leaving a local church.

And so like Dora, Phil points us to some critical questions: “When should truth trump unity? or When should unity trump truth? On a more personal level: What issues cause me to create divisiveness at church? Are they worth compromising unity over?”

Through both their stories and questions, Dora and Phil highlight an age-old tension I just can’t escape in my consideration around what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus: is Christian faith and practice primarily individual or communal? And while we may be quick to say it’s both (which I believe it is), in practice we rarely, if ever, acknowledge this. One always seems more important than the other.

So I ask one more question: Is there a way we can say both the individual and community are needed and actually mean it in word and practice?

I’ll let that sit for a bit, and then explore an answer later this week.

a different perspective

This week I took a trip down memory lane, watching childhood favorites, The Gods Must Be Crazy I & II. And while I remembered the comical stories of adventure, the choppy sped-up action scenes, the really cute kids, and the touching moments of love and commitment among the Bushmen tribe, I had forgotten (or never noticed) the cultural critique these films present. Often through the narration the films challenge many of the assumptions held by us in the “modern” world. These assumptions, then, are placed alongside the life of a Bushmen tribe in Botswana, and in particular their leader, Xi. Seeing his reaction to encountering “civilized” folks and their technology was both entertaining and thought provoking.

A highlight in both films is seeing the Bushmen's different perspective on life. For example, while observing two white people (or “gods” as he thought) talking, the narrator states Xi’s thoughts:

The funny thing about these gods was that they couldn't speak. They made sounds like monkeys.

Or this when Xi sees a white woman for the first time:

Xi saw the ugliest person he'd ever come across. She was as pale as something that had crawled out of a rotting log. Her hair was quite gruesome long and stringy and white, as if she was very old. She was very big. You'd have to dig the whole day to find enough food to feed her. Although it was a hot day, she was wearing skins that looked as if they were made from cobwebs.

Makes you realize different or strange is often a matter of perspective. Perhaps value categories we often create for outsiders aren’t really that helpful or accurate. I’m all for recognizing our differences and understanding them, but too often we equate different with worse. We mustn’t forget that we are all “them” to someone.

The role of technology is also a theme that runs throughout the films. Whether it’s Xi’s observation of an “amazing animal” (truck) or one of the narrator’s quips about modern technology, one can’t help but realize just how strong us “civilized” folks are caught in the grip of technology. The following quote from the opening of the first movie illustrates this commentary:

Only 600 miles to the south, there's a vast city. And here you find civilized man. Civilized man refused to adapt himself to his environment; instead, he adapted his environment to suit him. So he built cities, roads, vehicles, machinery, and he put up power lines to run his labour-saving devices. But somehow he didn't know where to stop. The more he improved his surroundings to make life easier, the more complicated he made it. So now his children are sentenced to 10-15 years of school, just to learn how to survive in this complex and hazardous habitat they were born into. And civilized man, who refused to adapt to his surroundings, now finds he has to adapt and re-adapt every hour of the day to his self-created environment. For instance, if it's Monday and 7:30 comes up, you have to dis-adapt from your domestic surroundings and re-adapt yourself to an entirely different environment. 8:00 means everybody has to look busy. 10:30 means you can stop looking busy for 15 minutes. And then you have to look busy again. And so your day is chopped into pieces, and in each segment of time you adapt to a new set circumstances. No wonder some people go off the rails a bit...

As a Christian, I hear this commentary and am forced to ask some questions: Which story defines who I am and how I live? Is it the routine of modern life in suburbia that defines me? Or is my modern life in suburbia defined by God’s story? I wish I could say the latter, but hopefully it’s at least a mix of the two...

All this to say, I highly the recommend the films, be it simply for nostalgic value (as it was for me at first) or to be challenged in considering how we in the “modern” world really are quite enamored with ourselves.