On Schism: Is it the Holy Spirit tempting us?

It is 3am and I am awake.  I am awake because dozens of messages flooded by phone from Untied Methodist friends far and wide.  Some pleading with me to tell them that the recent rumors of a renewed effort to divide our denomination were not true.  I write this in a time of uncertainty, not knowing what is true yet.  My mind is swimming with the potential implications of what dividing the church could mean.  What harm it would cause.  Whose lives would be affected.  None of this leads to a restful posture but instead is a recipe for sleeplessness.

As I laid in bed one thought continued through my head that I finally decided to rise and put down in words.  What is behind this?  Not who to be honest.  I know there have been persons pushing for this for several General Conferences now.  I am in no way surprised that some group of people decided to push this agenda again.  Not who, but instead what force.

Is this the Holy Spirit?

At the current moment we are both continuing our decline as denomination in terms of membership and attendance but we are also waking up with the fact that the vitality of our local churches needs to be a priority.  In my area we have recently made new and large investments in helping bring about more vital congregations through the creation of my position and others.  We are starting new churches at an unprecedented rate and working with more and more local churches to get reengaged in their communities and reclaiming their mission to make disciples for the transformation of the world.  Surely, if the Holy Spirit is somewhere it is there?  Surely if God is moving it is with those brave disciples on the ground working to bless their neighbors.  Surely that is where the prince of peace and the God of grace is!

So what then emboldens and empowers those that would derail that work, bring unquestionable harm to local churches, and waste precious time and likely millions of dollars on an effort to rip our denomination in two?  I cannot help but think of the one who tempted Jesus in the desert.  

Three times Jesus is tempted with the easy path.  He is tempted to test God’s goodness.  He is tempted to forgo the hard work that laid ahead of him.  He is tempted to seize power and bend the world with it.  Each time Jesus resisted.

The power that tempts us today I do not believe is the Holy Spirit.  I do not believe it is the God that in his nature models for us what it means to be both diverse and unified.  The one that tempts us this day, the one that drives me from my sleep to write these words, is the same that tempted Jesus so long ago.  And like him we must too resist the temptation to grab power, avoid the hard work of bridge building, and abandoning God and God’s promise.

Yesterday, on the floor of General Conference, I held hands across the tables to sing Blessed be the Tie That Binds.  Let us all pray that that tie is strong enough for us in the hours and days that lead ahead.

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Four things that aren’t really holding us back [and the one that is]

An article is making the rounds titled “Five things are holding Christianity back.”  It is a good, succinct, listing of things I’ve heard for a while.  As I read through I started to ask, are these things really holding us back?  Are we even being held back?  Or is the truth that we are actually not even trying to move forward.

In order for something to hold you back you first must be trying to go somewhere.  Are we?  I’m not sure.

I do want to address the articles list though, to offer a slightly differing opinion.

dentalYes, the great golden calf that is our beloved building.  Loved by those who gather there, despised by church reformers everywhere.  “If only we didn’t have to put all this money into the buildings!” the argument goes, “We’d be free as birds to do God’s work.

Excepting of course that most birds have nests.  Never mind that part.

Actually, the author of the article gives up his own argument with this line: “In some cases, these financial burdens are being turned back into the soil as they are sold off, repurposed, or given away to those who can do something relevant and exciting with them.”  Okay, how about us?  Can’t we be the ones who do something interesting and relevant with them?

Even the examples he offers fall within this line of thinking.  For some reason though the author seems to think that the congregation the built the building can’t be made to think differently about it.

I’ll call foul on that one.

When I was first shown around my current church where I serve as pastor I was shown an entire floor of empty Sunday school rooms.  The person giving the tour waxed about how it would be nice to have them full again.  She was thinking Sunday school, I was thinking something else.   Along the line a few members, here from the beginning of my tenure (i.e. not new people), caught the vision too.  Today those rooms house our Free Store, which has given away over $100,000 in clothing and household goods in its first 18 months.

Also when I arrived we were doing school supply donations.  Over the years we’ve increased our relationship with the elementary school next door.  So much so, that the principle (of a public school) came and addressed our church on Sunday morning.  He talked about how blessed they are to have us as neighbors, and that for them it’s like having an additional 20,000 square feet right next door.

Buildings aren’t the issue (most of the time), it’s how we view them.  So long as they are in reasonable condition they are the greatest assets one can have for experimental ministry.  We started our Free Store for $75, mostly spent on paint, because we had rent free space to use.  If we had to rent it, even for just a little, the project never would have got moving.

Ah yes, the curse of institution.  I’ll be the first to say my tradition has too much institution, hands down, no argument.  However, I’m not sure the process of connecting local congregations with other local congregations is a bad thing.  In fact, I think it’s a very good thing!

Like buildings, denominations aren’t really the issue, it’s what you do with them.   Too often though we make them an end unto itself.   The thinking is “We must do this to keep United Methodism going.”  As if United Methodism was the point.  Well, sorry to break it to you, it’s not the point, the Kingdom of God is.

Denominations then function as any basic human organization.  We human have been organizing ourselves along different lines for most of history, so there must be something to it.

Like all organizations though it’s affectivity will be determined on how well it lives out its stated purpose.   For my tradition that would be “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  If you want to know if we are doing a good job you need only ask how well we are doing at that.

Not very good unfortunately.

That, however, doesn’t mean that denominations are wrong, we are just misaligned.  Humans will always organize themselves, and they will always be stronger, smarter, and more capable because they do.  The challenge is to make sure that the energy and effort you capture through organizing is pointed in the right direction.  Yes, we’re off the mark right now, but that doesn’t mean the denominational project is wrong.

I’m not sure how you can argue that the thing we do to put ourselves in intentional relationship with the loving God that directs the universe is somehow holding us back.  Thankfully the author doesn’t go there.

tradI’m going to agree with most of his points here actually.  Yes, keeping dead traditions alive because we find it easier isn’t true worship.  However, we need to be cautious about how we decide what’s dead.   I see too many young families walking out of the little Orthodox Church up the street to make any real sweeping claims on the subject.

Second, yes, worship is not the front door it used to be.  Many first encounter the church during it’s mission and work in the world.  However, and this is a big however, it was drilled into my head the fact that you can’t grow a church with bad worship.  You can be as missional and outgoing as the day is long, if worship is a snore you won’t grow.  Period.

Bad worship might be holding us back.  Good worship will set us free.

Church Boards
This will follow my argument about denominations.  Structure isn’t bad, outdated structure is.  Boards are there to coordinate the life of the church, that’s good, that needs doing.  They are not there to be authoritarian and micromanagers, that’s bad.

Again, a place where I more or less agree with the author.

This is where he actually gets it head on.  Fear is the greatest enemy of Christianity today for one simple reason, fear is the opposite of faith.

Faith isn’t about having all the answers.  It’s not about knowing exactly what’s going to happen and when.  If you had those things you actually won’t need faith.

No, faith is, despite incomplete or conflicting data, choosing to trust in an outcome you cannot fully predict.  Fear is a lack of trust in that same outcome.

Faith and fear are opposites, and if the whole of Christianity is based on a claim of faith, faith about God, faith about Jesus, and faith about the Holy Spirit, fear is the one and only true cancer on Christianity today.

Our future will not look like the past.  We know this.  However, we don’t know what it will actually look like, our data is incomplete.  Faith moves forward while fear stands in place and cowers.

So back to where we started, are we even trying to go somewhere, or are we standing motionless?  Choosing to see only what is wrong, what we perceive is holding us back is a reaction of fear.  It’s excuse making.  Faith looks around and asks, “I wonder what God wants made of this?”  How does God want us to use our old Sunday school rooms, our denominations, our structure, and our worship?  Those are questions of faith and trust.

Our inability to ask these questions is the only thing truly holding us back.

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MeTalk: The church with no windows

Recently, I newer person to our church commented that we had windows.  At first I thought this was a rather unusual thing to get excited about, but after we talked a bit I saw where she was coming from.

church window 1Lots of modern worship spaces have no windows, no outside light, and nothing “natural” in them.  They are designed more like movie theaters than the stained glass bejeweled cathedrals of old.

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MeTalk: You can’t win, but you can lose.

WorshipRight at the beginning of my first appoint as a pastor to a local church my co-pastor and I met with the person who would be our mentor during our time there.  He was probably the most mission focused pastor I’ve ever met before or since.  So, I expected he would lead off with some words of wisdom about how to get our churches out and doing good things in the world.

He didn’t.

Instead, during our earliest conversations, he stressed the needs to have good worship.  “You can’t grow a church without good worship.” He’d say.  To which I would now add Good worship won’t necessarily grow your church.

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MeTalk: What the church can learn from Disneyland, Part II

So now the other side of the story. If you missed the first side, it’s here.

Disneyland_MapOne of the most striking things you notice, or actually don’t notice, is how immersive the Disneyland experience is. They’ve done some amazingly creative things so that when you first walk on the property you do not see or hear anything that isn’t Disneyland. What I mean is, everything you see from the gates on is part of the experience and nothing from the outside world intrudes.

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