...are the ones that make the biggest difference


The consequences...

I think I (and others) frequently have an undeveloped understanding of sin. I tend to look at sin as individual acts only, as an aberration from who & what I really am. My sins appear to me as stand-alone enterprises, solitary acts that need to be repented of surely, but which are otherwise unconnected to me as a whole. I am beginning to see how wrong this view of sin actually is.

There is a strong tendency to assume that our sinful acts will ultimately be used for good. On the face of it, I agree, but the underlying assumption that is hardly ever voiced is that our sins do no damage to ourselves. We lust, get angry, lie or cheat, etc, and think that these actions are merely bobbing on the surface of our self. Once repented of (or perhaps before depending on our view of grace), these are plucked from the water and we are as we were before. But this is wrong - that underlying assumption is false. Certainly God can and does use our sins for our benefit - He works all things to good for those who love Him. We can learn from them, be strengthened by them, and through our own failings, we can help others to avoid those pitfalls, minister to them in their pain, build them up after they have fallen. However, our sins do not leave us undamaged. Each sin, especially the intentional ones, diminishes us. By our sins we are made the lesser. We are diminished in our impact, our faith, our ability to see & hear God, our ministry to others, our service to our King. I am not saying that God cannot heal us or that God cannot continue to use us - I am simply saying that each sin does not just empty the glass, it makes the glass smaller, just an injury can disable us. We subtract from our capacity to be used by God.


Doing Church - part II

Community - its something my church focuses on developing and its something you hear or see in a lot of discussions on church and church programs. There is no doubt that we as a society have become less communal in many ways and so there is definitely a need to focus on developing a sense of community in any group, particularly one that is supposed to be as interconnected as the church.

Our main avenue for developing community is various types of small groups. Some are solely for getting together and having fun, some are Bible studies that meet for a short period and focus on a specific topic (right now we have a Passion of the Christ study among others), and others are groups that have been meeting for quite a while and do Bible studies, fellowship times & other activities. Some have been successful in their explicit purpose, ie, a Bible study and some have been successful in their implicit purpose of developing community. A few have been truly successful in both regards. Which leaves me with a few questions:

1) Is "community" something that can be planned? - It seems that many feel there is a formula for developing strong connections in a group, but I'm not so sure. When it has happened in my experience, it was never being done intentionally; no one got together and said "lets develop community!" It just happened because the people involved just clicked or were focused on some other goal. Can this be planned for most/all groups, or is it a movement of the Spirit that cannot be controlled?

2) Is there a better way of developing community? - Those small groups that have successfully connected their members are discrete sets with a fixed number. They do not typically involve others outside the group on a regular basis and as such, are not spreading community. They are cultivating their own, and for their members, I'm sure it is a very good experience, but what about the outsider, the newcomer? Is there a better way to create community aside from starting small groups that form separate pockets of connections? Is there a way to develop community throughout the entire congregation?

3) (Since I'm a youth pastor) Where do the youth fit in? - I am very big on not wanting to wall off the youth into their own little enclave within the church. Can youth be fit into adult small groups? I don't really envision a mentoring program because that puts a lot of responsibilty on the mentor and a lot of responsibility on me to make sure the mentor is up to the task, trained and resourced - no small feat. A group might function better in this regard if the adults are willing - less pressure on an individual and more diversity of experience/opinions to help mold and shape the kids.


Doing church

I am approaching the end of my 3rd month as a youth pastor - my first professional ministry experience. I had done some volunteering before, in various capacities, but was never in on the larger planning & vision for a ministry, so this is a first.

A little background: My church is seeker-sensitive, with a pretty forward leaning Sunday service (for this area, at least), somewhat in line with the Willowcreek model. We do not have a mid-week service since it has not worked well in the past. We're in an area that is experiencing significant population growth which is leading towards more professionalization, which is leading towards families getting busier & busier, so there is little time for extra activities during the week. We have a small groups ministry, but it is loosely organized. The main emphasis on personal growth seems to focus on "getting involved" and serving in some ministry, ie, being a greeter, helping with childcare, visitation, etc.

My wife and I knew when we came out here that we had some problems with the way we've seen church done in the past. She's a pastor's kid, so she has a lot more experience in that regard. I think it is safe to say that so far, we have not been entirely happy with the way things are going here. First, and this is something that affects me more directly, the staff is not very close. I'm not sure what exactly I expected before coming, but I definitely anticipated a higher level of comraderie & cohesion. Don't get me wrong - we all get along perfectly well and there is no inter-staff tension, power struggles, etc - but I feel that our relationships tend to be merely professional. Our staff meetings remind me almost of a military briefing; a brief overview of what we're doing for the week and that's it. I could basically go the entire week without talking to another pastor or otherwise being involved in anything outside my sphere of responsibility - and we only have 4 pastors on staff! I don't know if this is something that is common among a lot of churches, though from what I've seen & read, I expect that it is. Like I said, I don't have a lot of experience so maybe I'm way off base, but it just feels wrong. Part of it is caused by the fact that we have so many different things going on - different ministries, different projects, a church plant - and that we put so much focus & energy into the Sunday service since its all we've got. That's probably one advantage of a liturgically based service - you don't use up (I won't say waste - I don't have enough perspective yet for that) so much time on planning just for those few hours and have more time open to do a lot of other things.

More later...


History repeats itself...

Every once in a while I'll wander over to salon.com just to see what's happening on the other side of things. Yesterday I found an interesting article on Curves - the gym for women - and its owners alleged donation of millions of dollars to "militant anti-abortion" groups. The article was prompted by the confusion over inaccuracies in two original reports in the San Francisco Chronicle by Jon Carroll and Ruth Rosen that stated Curves owner Gary Heavin had given $5 million to these "militant" groups (on a side note, I enjoy the subtle use of militant - the same word used to describe the people who murdered Nick Berg - to paint a very specific picture of any group that protests the murder of an unborn child). Read the article (you'll have to watch a quick commercial to gain access) to see exactly how convoluted & shoddy the reporting really was.

I was not too surprised by the article, but what really caught my eye was something I read today. Let me counterpose a few quotes from the article and what I read today:

"It looked as though the charges against Heavin were not as distressing as they had appeared: He had given his own private money to anti-abortion groups, but not the kind that picket and hold bloody fetus posters or encourage violence. Some would argue that for pro-choice activists, these kinds of institutions are even more invidious, since they are more rational and try to take the place of groups like Planned Parenthood...

(So holding a picture of the actual results of an abortion, ie, a bloody fetus is "militant"? I mean, what kind of "militant" whack-jobs would want to see the true results of an abortion?)

"Then there was the fear that pro-life activists, who had surely heard the call of a fellow traveler running a business they could support, would join the gym."

(This one actually made me laugh - as if pro-lifers would somehow contaminate the gym? And, like there aren't some pro-life women who are already members of Curves?)

"As for the Care Net Pregnancy Crisis Center, Smallwood [a representative of Planned Parenthood] said, 'Although we don't agree certainly on abortion, they do not participate in demonstrations against our organization, as some other groups do.'"

Now compare that attitude with this:

"The climax of [Celsus'] work was that the duty of a good citizen was loyalty to the common beliefs, deviation from which would impair the safety of the civilized world." - WHC Frend The Early Church

For those more involved in the abortion debate, I'm sure the controversy comes as no surprise. But what startled me was the parallel between Celsus' (an early anti-Christian author) argument and that of the attitude of those who were outraged that someone would actually give money to a pro-life group. It is a very short hop from stating "your beliefs are bad, don't let them affect your actions" to "your beliefs are bad, change them/act contrary to them." Celsus argued, as did many of his pagan contemporaries, that Christianity was bad because, in summary, it ticked off the gods who got very upset when minority groups didn't follow the rules. Christians wouldn't sacrifice or swear by the genius of the emperor and risked bringing down the wrath of the gods. Hence, they were a danger. I know this has been demonstrated repeatedly by other writers, but note the same attitude the pro-abortion position holds in this particular controversy. Though the initial reporting was inaccurate, any description of a group as militant, particularly in the current geopolitical environment, raises the specter of fundamentalist violence. Anti-abortion groups that have the audacity to demonstrate against abortion are militant, ie, a threat to peace & stability. But, even after the correction to the original article was made, it became clear that Heavin's donation to an organization that did not perform abortions and instead counseled womeon on adoption was also outside the pale. Though this group could not be described as "militant", it is actually worse because it is "rational." In fact, it is invidious (I admit, I had to look it up); it is discriminatory and rouses ill-will. In short, any pro-life group, whether militant or rational "impairs the safety of the civilized world" and supporting these groups is a crime because it violates the basic assumptions of our society, specifically, that religion is a mere preference and acting on those beliefs to try to influence my decision is wrong.

The earliest Christians faced their persecution and refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods. Thank God there are still Christians of that mettle today.


My last post was not as thought out as it could have been, so I will offer some clarification. One, I do not believe that Buddhists are Satan worshippers or are Satanic. Two, I do not necessarily believe Christianity has someone been miraculously spared the influence of the Evil One (I think here particularly of schism - between East & West, traditional & protestant, etc). However, I still do have some significant issues with much of what the pomergent church may be doing and the direction it may be heading.

I am not too involved in the pomergent culture and my primary knowledge on it comes from a few books and the blogosphere, but it feels as if the movement is like a kid with a new toy. Actually, it feels like a kid who is playing rough with a fragile new toy. There is a lot of excitement and still a lot of exploration to do. The future seems ripe with possibilities and the world is wide open. There are no real boundaries, no clearly defined limits or rules, which in and of itself is problematic. The culture we find ourselves in now is very similar to the culture that the earliest Christians experienced, and yet they were ultimately concerned with establishing the proper confines of the faith. They were not overly concerned with finding points of connection with paganism - they recognized it for the lie that it was, and while the earliest theologians appropriated classical thought, they did not accept it out of hand. I understand that today calling another faith a lie seems horribly arrogant and condescending, and it honestly troubles me. But so does the willingness to embrace other faiths in such a way that our Christian faith becomes a mere preference and is not affirmed as the truth.


Dialogue: What do we give up?

This link to Adam Cleaveland's blog, written while he is attending the Emerging Church Convention in Nashville, prompted this, but I have thought about this before. There is a big emphasis, virtually in every area of our lives, on dialogue. "We need to dialogue with [insert group]" or "we need to dialogue about [insert topic/subject]", which I think in general, is all well and good. Talking about the political ramifications of the war on terrorism with someone who holds different opinions could lead to some significant new insights for you, just as talking to a group of Muslims on the same topic could lead to new understandings about the thoughts & feelings of a minority group here in the US. Both of these developments would be good things and could lead to better decisions, relationships & results.

But what about "dialoguing" about our faith in the sense that Adam describes?

"Our story is the story that embraces all other stories – the Christian story is the one that welcomes, embraces, redeems all other stories. So, in the name of Jesus, we can say that we need to embrace the story of Buddhism – to look for what is Good, True, Beautiful and Right about Buddhism. In doing so, we are truly showing respect (not disregard, rudeness, or a false imperialistic confidence) for the other stories that God may in fact have the power to work through."

The main problem I have with this set of ideas is not only that it presupposes that Buddhism holds some measure of Truth, but it completely negates the possibility that Buddhism (and other religious faiths) might actually contain evil. I have no problem assenting to the fact that someone who faithfully practices Buddhism will be a more moral person, one who is guided by some moral precepts that will help them in making better decisions about their actions & behaviors. However, historic Christianity fully believes in the existence and activity of personal Evil, ie, Satan, and it is precisely the existence of such a malignant, destructive force that "dialoguing" fails to account for. Dialogue necessarily results in the change of both parties - how are we to be sure that in dialoguing with other faiths in such a way as to look to "welcome" and "embrace" parts of them, that we do not accept Evil? Especially when there seems to be little understanding of the possible presence of that Evil in other faiths? Now, does God have the power to work through Buddhism? Of course He has that power, but that is not the question we should be asking. The real question is does He work through Buddhism (or other faiths) in the same way He works through Christianity? If the answer is yes, then there is no need for dialogue in any missional sense. Jesus=Buddha=Allah=Gaia=Zoroaster, etc, etc and there is no salvific reason to talk about anything since clearly everyone is getting into heaven. If the answer is no, then one has to wonder why anyone would seek to alter the Gospel with some lesser material.

"7. The “old, old story” may not have been the “true, true story,” and so we must continually rediscover the gospel."

This, too, is very troubling. As a person with certain affinities for traditional Chrsitianity, specifically Orthodoxy, I am becoming more and more aware of the struggles that past Christians have had to endure in order to secure the proper boundaries of the faith. This kind of emphasis on rediscovery completely undermines those who, in the past, died for the very thing which is being discarded. And no, this is not "rediscovery", since there is no turning back to what the Gospel previously was. It is, instead, a consistent reinvention of the Gospel, shaped by the present moment and its needs. But at what point does that stop being the Gospel? If the present moment, with its emphasis on pluralism, requires we abandon the exclusivity of the claims of Christ, do we do so? From the contents of Adam's posts, it would seem so. How much can we dilute/shift/reinvent the Gospel before it becomes meaningless? Personally, I think very little. This is not to say that we may not need to find ways to present the Gospel in culturally significant ways to successive generations. But in my mind, this is in no way entails abandoning any part of the Gospel message. To do so would be a move away from God and away from the Church which He founded.


First post...

This is (obviously), my first post on my new blog. I keep a journal fairly regularly, but I never seem to fill more than a page or two but normally have much more that I want to say. Hopefully this will give me a forum for doing that, and for wrestling with the spiritual & ministerial issues that surround me right now. We'll see how things go...