relevance and “holy originality”

Sticking with the church theme, I already mentioned Ryan’s helpful discussion of the term “relevance”, but I wanted to highlight a few quotes from the article he cites from Timothy Larson:

The value of “relevance” can easily degenerate into the shedding of the real, solid, indispensable features of the Christian life in a demeaning chase after the latest fads. Such an undesirable outcome is perhaps merely a manifestation of a larger tendency, which has gone on for several decades now, to remake church life in the image of the tastes of 12- to 16-year-olds.

Ouch!

Larson continues his mostly scathing critique wondering if today’s youth culture were to respond to Christianity’s attempts at relevancy, what would they say? Stop trying so hard to be relevant, for God’s sake!”

Hmm..."stop trying so hard"... another chance to post this comical and scary satire of the 21st century church:



In the meantime, I continue to make my through Phil Wagler’s book, Kingdom Culture. A comment I read this week relates well to this discussion of relevance. Speaking on the implementation of church vision, I resonate with what Wagler describes as “holy originality” -

There ought to be a holy originality to a genuine spiritual vision birthed within the context of the age and locale in which we serve. The unending presence of big box and big name franchising we see in our cities and towns causes us to believe that we have only really arrived when a McDonald’s or a Wal-Mart blesses us with their consumerist presence. This false sense of identity also reveals itself in our churches when we carbon copy an original vision of contextualizing the dreams of God in some other place into our body life because “everyone is doing it.

Interestingly, however, when I think of originality my mind often leaps to what's already “cool” or more appropriate to this discussion, “relevant.” Yet "holy originality" doesn't gaurentee relevance. Wagler warns against adopting someone else’s originality, suggesting instead that Christians seek the “creativity of the Spirit” in our attempts to love God and love others “in new ways for a new day in new places.” How this looks will vary.

This originality means there is a particularity of every situation. There will never be a perfect church to emulate. There is no such thing as "generic" faithfulness that can be transported to any and every situation. Even Jesus’ recipe for successful ministry failed at certain times and certain places (e.g. Mark 6:1-5).

In the comments of his post, Ryan raises a point I think relates well to this idea of "holy originality." He comments, "it seems possible to me that we could be deemed 'irrelevant' and that this wouldn’t, in fact, be a bad thing."

Here's a thought to leave you with: it's quite possible that the church is only truly relevant when it's irrelevant.

church shopping II - why?

Ok, so I ended my last post asking why you are part of your current church (or not part of one at all). If you haven’t paused to reflect on that, please do.

I’ve kind of cornered myself into offering more insight into the question. Yet I’m actually not overly concerned with the many valid reasons people pick (or don’t pick) to participate in a church (e.g. friends, church’s mission, teaching, creativity, calling, etc... Google “emergent church” or “missional church” or “church growth” and you’ll find endless links to articles, books, and blogs suggesting what composes a good church in the 21st century (with many bad reasons there I’m sure). It’s pretty hard to narrow it down to a few good reasons (so I won’t). And if you’re interested, Ryan’s got a good discussion brewing around the term “relevance."

I’m more concerned here with the actual process of choosing. Which brings me back to the “why “ question. Or really, the absence of the “why” question. I’m worried that in our culture of personal taste and shallow commitments, we choose first and ask “why” later (if at all). Choice before thinking. We join Facebook. We watch TV. We spend money. We get a job. We go to church. All these choices day after day.

And yet we’re bored. So finally, out of our frustrated boredom, we begin to question our choices. Yet so often, conditioned to choose, we simply replace one dissatisfying experience with another. We assess our bad choices, but then just rush to new choices. We don’t like our BlackBerry, so we get an iPhone. We don’t like “1st Church” so we try “2nd Church.” Choice may lead to some thinking, but our thinking still relates to the act of choosing. As I quoted in my last post, choice becomes a state of mind.

But what if we exercised some patience (Gal. 5 anybody?!?) in how we lived our lives? What if we stopped to ask “why” more often? And what if we applied this patience to our church shopping?

And in our patient querying, what if we began to see the church for what God intended it to be?

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
(Col. 3:12-17 NIV)

church shopping

Let’s face it, church shopping is a reality. You know, when people decide to check out a bunch of churches and choose their favorite one. Similar to our culture's approach to choosing religion - “religion al le carte” - choosing a church is akin to scanning a smorgasbord. We survey the options and then load up on our favorite dish, err, I mean church. In our world, choice is all we know:

…choice is not just a state of affairs, it is a state of mind. Choice has become a value in itself, even a priority. To be modern is to be addicted to choice and change. Change becomes the very essence of life...the increase in choice and change leads to a decrease in commitment and continuity (Os Guinness, The Gravedigger File).

As a result, we hear catch-phrases like “seeker-sensitive,” “church growth,” “attractional” and the like. Churches even compete with one another in a sort-of battle royale of church popularity (no one would ever all it that). If choice is what the world wants, churches are more than ready to provide it.

Enough ranting though. I realize this discussion can quickly turn into sour grapes (I am a pastor after all). That’s not my intent. I’m interested in another discussion. Is there a positive side to church shopping? Are there things we should be looking for in a church?

I think a question we should all be able to answer is this: Why are you in your current church? (or no church at all). Really, ask yourself, why?

I think that question is crucial. So I’m going to stop and let you ponder it.

More later...

demons?

What’s your take on demons? Perhaps you’ve read C.S. Lewis’s famed novel, Screwtape Letters. Or the popular theo-thriller, This Present Darkness, by Frank Peretti. Wildly different (you could say Peretti’s book is literally “wild” in a negative sense), both books illustrate an exploration into the presence of evil in reality. And you wonder, are demons still around? What influence do they have? Is there really a spiritual battle waging that I’m supposed to participate in?

I started thinking about these books recently after preaching on the story of the demon-possessed man in Mark 5. Yes, that’s the story where Jesus sends a group of impure spirits into a herd of 2000 pigs, only to see the pigs stampede into a nearby lake. It’s quite the story!

Interestingly, in reading this story along with other biblical accounts of demons, we actually know very little about how they operate. Yet somehow people have a perception that influence by demons is like catching a cold – unpredictable and out of our control. From this story, however, one thing is very clear: demons have no power against Jesus. All they do is beg, groveling at the feet of Jesus. Far from spiritual warfare if you ask me. In his book Demons, Lies & Shadows, biblical scholar Pierre Gilbert states this dynamic quite plainly:

The Gospel Mark portrays Satan as a nuisance, not as the all-powerful being he was often believed to be. Demons, for their part, are shown to be powerless in the presence of Jesus Christ. They are more like flies to be shooed away than overwhelming ork-like creatures that fiercely feed on the souls of helpless men. This characterization of satan and demons is extremely important to note. Most often, people then and now, have had the propensity to attribute enormous powers to these beings. In terms of the way Mark depicts demons in his gospel, it is more correct to think of demons as empty shadows than to cultivate the images of powerful angels of darkness we too often see on Hollywood screens (100).

From the story in Mark 5, I think it’s safe to say we shouldn’t overemphasize spiritual warfare! There is a real danger with a witch-hunt like approach to spiritual beings. We can assume too much influence in people’s lives, even breaking relationships or creating unnecessary psychological damage in people's lives. I’ve seen individuals go through a prayer deliverance session, where in 10 minutes personal baggage is uprooted in connection to a supposed demonic influence. Sadly, this left them in an emotional wreck, unsure how this experience of “deliverance” made sense of their newly discovered personal wounds. It’s sad, really.

Gilbert suggests we’re far better off following the “James Protocol” - prayer for healing (James 5:14). If we look at the Mark 5 story, the result is the same: restoration. The rest of the passage describes two other individuals also experiencing restoration after an encounter with Jesus. In our desire to understand confusing (and biblically vague) topics such as demons, we can miss the point of the story: restoration is found in Jesus.

Demons? I'd rather look for restoration.

Michael Jordan of morality?

Here's my final installment of MCC's "peace is a choice" reflections:

Live peace...as Jesus did.

Jesus was frequently in dangerous situations - he was honest in confronting injustice where he encountered it - yet Jesus chose peace, he chose to accept risk to himself rather than responding with violence. He healed people of disabilities, diseases, he healed them emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually. He was a friend to criminals, outsiders, and outcasts. He taught people how to respond to violence in non-violent ways. He offered love to his enemies. Jesus didn't just choose peace...he lived peace. You can live it too.

"Blessed are the peaceamakers, for they will be called children of G0d." -Jesus


A few words of response:

I don't think we can ignore the example of Jesus loving those around him nonviolently - "living peace." Yes, I'm one of those nonviolent - "love and nonresistance" - Christians. Yet I come to the end of this reflection and wonder how can I "live it too"? I mean, seriously, Jesus was Jesus, the Son of God, God incarnate. I'm not.

"You can live it too" is in danger of sounding more like a NIKE commercial, somehow believing peace will become reality on allure itself - "Just DO IT". In way, Jesus becomes more like the Michael Jordan of morality. But as we know, appreciating Michael Jordan's amazing example of athleticism doesn't make a good basketball player. Even wearing his shoes doesn't make a good basketball player. Likewise, just talking about Jesus' example and trying to emulate it, doesn't make a peacemaker. We need more.

Thankfully, Jesus does offer more than a snazzy commercial or a cool shoe (or sandal in his case). As followers of Jesus, we don't just copy him; we're empowered by him. Specifically, our discussion of living out peace needs to acknowledge the role of the Holy Spirit. To live peace is to "live by the Spirit." So I'll close with this:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.


The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.


But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
(Gal. 5:13-26 NIV)

epiphany - the story goes on...

Like many “contemporary” evangelical churches, mine doesn’t hold rigidly to the Christian liturgical calendar. For us, while Christmas and Easter are primary events we recognize annually, much of the rest of our corporate time together is planned on our own. This approach gives us freedom to address important topics of faith in the life of our church and study whole books of the Bible together. For the most part, this flexibility allows us to focus together on what God calls us to specifically as a congregation.

One problem (there are others too): we tend to miss out on many other important parts of the Christian calendar.

Case in point: epiphany.

Epiphany is the two-month period between Christmas and Lent, focusing on the life and teaching of Jesus. As the Christian Seasons Calendar explains, “epiphany (to make manifest) reveals Jesus’ divine mission to the nations in his adoration by the magi, his baptism, his ministry and his call to follow as disciples.” In this time, we are led to consider the significance of how Jesus - “Emmanuel” (God with us) - immerses himself into the world, into human experience. So often our celebration of Christmas ends abruptly with the dawn of the new year. In what is often the doldrums of January, hope, love, joy and peace get replaced with depression, anxiety, or just plain boredom. Epiphany reminds us this shift shouldn’t be. The significance of Christmas only matters because of its lasting effects - God’s manifestation in the life of Jesus - epiphany! The story goes on...

Neon Nights

Splashing through darkness
dazzling eyes with threat

of epileptic seizure.

Neon lights of every color

seducing crowds with promises

of soul-satisfying abundance.


Stumbling in darkness
a lone man gathering cardboard

hoping for just enough to survive another day.

Contrasts of dark and light

haves and have-nots
all searching, groping, longing
.

Artificial light
so bright, so colorful, so incapable
of scraping deception from our eyes

Driven by habit

the cycle continues

distraction our closest companion
.

Dimly burning wick
Mysterious breeze

combine to spark a flame

Glowing, warming, touching

hurts, hopes, hearts

True light bursts forth

Epiphany!


by Andy Wade


I feel like I was late to the party, but I recently discovered the Christian Seasons Calendar, created by University Hill Congregation in Vancouver. Each month I’ll post the current image on the side bar. For a visual reminder of the Christian seasons, I highly recommend this calendar!

stop being nice

“Nice” is an entirely unbiblical notion. “He was nice” is what neighbours say to a reporter about the guy who just committed a heinous crime. “Nice” is a sign that we do not actually see people, but have instead dismissed them. Perhaps our deep conversation has only been, “Hey, how’s it going?” We may be nice, but we have yet to see the person. Nice is a dismissive term; the jargon of non-relationship.


These words come from Phil Wagler’s book, Kingdom Culture. Part of the problem, he continues, is our uncritical embrace of tolerance as a virtue. In our attempts to be nice, we accept a “blanket celebration of difference” without any real engagement with the uniqueness of people. As Wagler laments, “we have no time and little care for each other’s stories. We are nice strangers, indifferent and tolerant from a safe distance.”

And with this distancing it's no wonder so many people feel alone.

As one who constantly promotes authentic community, I resonant with Wagler’s critique. For some reason it’s easier to simply say “fine” when asked how I’m doing. And it’s true, I can get annoyed if someone doesn’t follow suit with their own shallow response. Hearing someone's life story or latest struggle can be uncomfortable. When people share part of their life with me, it means I have to care (pretending only goes to so far). I have to engage. More than be nice, I have to be kind.

Wagler reminds us that kindness is one of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22) - “a radical and under-resourced commodity in this world.” Like Jesus, in our kindness we take the time to see people where they are, quite often “ignored and dismissed.” If niceness is shallow and glosses over the messiness of life, you could say kindness digs deeper into someone's life, recognizing the messiness of life. With kindness, Wagler asserts, people are led to a deeper life in Christ, becoming aware of how God sees them through the kindness of others.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law (Gal. 5:22-23).

blah blah blah

Christians do a lot of talking. And I should talk - I’m a pastor! Believing we represent God to the world, it’s our task to communicate God’s vision for the world. Sadly, we also think communicating alone is enough. The quantity of our words (or the volume!) take precedence over the quality. Somehow it’s assumed that if only there would be more Christians in the public sphere of influence the world would be a better place. Yet religious rants on culture, politics, and morality only serve to distance much of Western culture from a perceived irrelevant Christianity. Our words fall on deaf ears. Or if heard, they are simply a resounding “blah, blah, blah” in the ears of those listening. Relevance as Christians is hard to come by (some may even say impossible).

Unfortunately, the “blah blah blah” of modern Christian communication and engagement with culture can sometimes only serve to further the problem. We try harder. We want to be “cool” or “hip”. Hence the desire to be relevant and contemporary - “Contemporvant” (I can’t pass up another opportunity to show this video clip!):



But is cultural relevance enough to change the perception of Christianity? And is relevance really an admirable goal in and of itself?

I actually got thinking about all this when I recently read this Old Testament verse discussing the ill-received message of the prophets:

For it is: Do this, do that, a rule for this, a rule for that; a little here, a little there (Is. 28:10 NIV)

It’s the NIV footnote that really got me thinking: “Hebrew / sav lasav sav lasav / kav lakav kav lakav (probably meaningless sounds mimicking the prophet’s words).”

Hmm... Sounds a lot like “blah blah blah” to me. I’ll admit, that’s the last thing I want to hear for a summary of one of my sermons, let me tell you! Yet the prophets didn’t seek relevance first. Their message wasn’t accepted by many. Most of the time, in fact, they were culturally irrelevant.

But their irrelevance wasn’t because they blathered on with their own version of truth or cultural commentary. Their words were the “word of the Lord” even in the face of criticism and rejection from the “scoffers” (Is. 28:14).

In some ways, the Christian message will always be “blah blah blah” to some - “foolishness” as Paul reminds (1 Cor. 1:23). Yet too often “the word of the Lord” becomes our word, with any connection to “of the Lord” barely recognizable biblically. Yet we assume our word is God’s word. Incorrect stereotypes are the sad result. Much of Christian talk today is far from the integrity the prophets exhibit. It's "blah blah blah" for all the wrong reasons.

All this said, if we’re realistic, Christians likely won’t be able to avoid cultural irrelevance to some degree. No matter how our message is packaged, there will always be scoffers. “Blah blah blah” is inevitable. But like the prophets, I think we can try a little harder to make sure our “blah blah blah” is actually the right one - “the word of the Lord.”