Sunday, April 26, 2009

Taking Our Church To The Moon

During the offering today, we played a short, parodic song by Sara Groves called "To The Moon":

It was there in the bulletin
We're leaving soon
After the bake sale to raise funds for fuel
The rocket is ready and we're going to
Take our church to the moon

There'll be no one there to tell us we're odd
No one to change our opinions of God
Just lots of rocks and this dusty sod
Here in our church on the moon

We know our liberties, we know our rights
We know how to fight a very good fight
Just grab that last bag there and turn out the light
We're taking our church to the moon
We're taking our church to the moon
We'll be leaving soon

I think this is such brilliant satire about the way we as Christians have sought to use the church as a vehicle to insulate ourselves from the world around us. That impulse, while perhaps understandable, is always wrong.

  • Christ calls his followers to be agents of his kingdom in this world, actively bringing salt to the decaying and light to the darkness. The church is an outpost for his kingdom, not a retreat center for us.
  • Christ himself, as our model and example, gave primacy to the needs and nurture of the people he encountered each day--from his disciples to his benefactors to the crowds of people to the random person he might come across. He never struck a posture of retreating from the world and its needs, but rather charging headlong into them. In fact, if his object had been shelter from the world, he need not have come here at all, but simply stayed in heaven.
  • To the degree that one views the church this way, it mitigates even the possibility of mission. The more removed the church is from the world, the more impossible it is to call anyone out of the world into the love of God found in Jesus Christ.
We would never be so ridiculous as to take our church "to the moon." Instead, we just take it to the suburbs, where we don't have to deal with homeless people, racial tensions, or poverty. Or we might not physically relocate, but we could take our church out of the life of the community that God has called us to reach--present in architecture, absent in impact, absorbed in our own internal machinery. It might as well be the moon, which I believe is the point of Sara's song.

Our church... our opinions... our liberties... our rights...

Our language is revealing. Where is God in this song? Is he leading, directing, moving, working? Is his power evident? Hardly. This is a song about a group of people who have come to see their church as their own private possession--an asset to be handled and manipulated by mutual consent for each one's own personal benefit. And now, these ingenious innovators have discovered the most effective way possible to achieve their aims of isolation and irrelevance... simply ditch the planet!

This is all (ostensibly) part of fighting the good fight--quite a twist on Paul's original idea in 2 Tim. 4:7. Whereas he had lived his entire Christian life for the purpose of bringing as many as possible to a saving knowledge of the Son of God, these "Christians" of the Church On The Moon have lived their entire lives for the purpose of avoiding anyone who might challenge them, change them, or bring any kind of discomfort to them.

It's easy to laugh at these simpletons in Sara's song, but are we really laughing at ourselves? Why do we call our meeting room a "sanctuary"? What does it provide sanctuary from? What do we mean when we say "our church" or "my church"? How often do we moan about the perceived loss of our rights? Why are there 193 million hits on Yahoo! for the phrase "church politics"?

The Immediate Vision of Pathway Community Church is to trigger a dramatic reaction between our neighbors and Christ in a fusion of real needs and real love. It is a vision designed to shield us from many of the errors that are commonplace in Christ's church in America these days--isolation, alienation, introspection, apathy, selfishness, arrogance, irrelevance, and more.

It's an antidote to The Church On The Moon.

My only hope is that it sinks down deep into the fiber of who we are so that we truly are immune against the sicknesses that have infected Christ's church, so that we can become the church he is calling us to be.

There will be no blog posting next week. Tanya and I will be headed to a pastors' retreat center in Wisconsin for a much-anticipated week of just-us-time.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Town Hall For Hope

This Thursday, along with over 6,000 other venues nationwide, we'll be hosting a live feed of financial advisor and media personality Dave Ramsey's Town Hall For Hope. This event is entirely free! And it is sure to be one of the most inspiring experiences of your life related to money.

If you're not familiar with Dave Ramsey, you're simply missing out. He is doing the kind of work that I wish more Christians were--occupying "secular" space in the public square and bringing to it an informed, competent, practical, uncompromising, compelling Christian voice. Both his radio program (6:00pm, 970 WKHM) and his TV show (8:00pm & midnight, Fox Business Network) focus on the financial questions, problems, and needs of all kinds of people. Dave listens to the questions with patience and compassion and answers them with a clear, no-nonsense message that is rooted in biblical principles.

While Dave is unabashedly Christian (his signature sign-off for each hour includes the injunction: "And remember, the only way to financial peace is to walk daily with the Prince of Peace, Christ Jesus"), he is not a Bible-thumper or a blowhard. He understands that he has an audience with a diverse spectrum of beliefs, and his goal is to help each one of them, but he does so always using sound, biblical financial principles. While his answers and comments are always consistent with scripture, he only occasionally makes the conection explicit for his audience because his show is not intended to be a biblical studies class. And yet his audience knows clearly where Dave is coming from.

One of Dave's great strengths is to bring a calm head to any financial situation--whether a caller is struggling under mountains of credit card debt or simply wanting to know the best way to diversify their portfolio. He has a clear, easy-to-understand, practical way of explaining finances that ordinary people can understand. He's funny and engaging. And, perhaps more importantly, he gives people a roadmap to travel by, empowering them to make good financial decisions and imparting hope that they can actually get to their desired destination.

In Jackson, there is a great deal of economic struggle, and this has been our condition for some time. The recent national/global recession has only intensified our local one. Unemployment in our county is now at 12.7%; statewide unemployment is 10%, highest in the nation. The daily news about the auto industry leaves little optimism that anything is likely to change here for the better soon. And yet each one of us has the power to make our own decisions and chart our own direction. Even in today's economic climate, there are things that each of us can do to take charge of our financial present and future--regardless of what our past experience has been.

All of this is why I'm so glad to be able to bring The Town Hall For Hope to our community. We are an area in need of hope. Each of us are surrounded by neighbors and friends and family in need of hope. All of us need to be reminded of our ultimate hope, which rests in Christ. This is yet another opportunity for us to trigger a dramatic reaction between our neighbors and Christ in a fusion of real needs and real love.

I want to urge each of you to carve out a little bit of time on Thursday evening to attend this nationwide event. I'd encourage you to also bring someone with you that you think may benefit from a message of hope and encouragement. Let's bring hope to Jackson!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Keeping Score (Part 2)

...Continued from last week

4. Conversions & Baptisms vs. Amoeba Movement
We've always kept score of people who make first-time decisions for Christ (as best we can tell) and people who make the decision to be baptized. While these continue to be important decisions that people make, we recognize that there are other important decisions as well. Spiritual growth isn't just about being "in" or "out" of a relationship with Christ. Both those in and out are engaged in a process, a spiritual journey. In our church, we relate that to an amoeba, where Jesus is the nucleus, and we want to encourage people to keep moving in toward the center. Someone who is hostile toward God or Christianity, for instance, may become open to engaging in spiritual dialogue as we demonstrate love toward that person. Someone who has been attending church for a while may decide to join a small group or get involved in serving in a ministry. These kinds of decisions--and others as well--are all important. Anytime anyone takes a step in their spiritual growth, we want to make note of that, and consider that a "score"--not count just certain steps.

5. Under Budget vs. Community Presence
Formerly, we would consider an event a success if it came in under budget. If the money that was spent was less than the money allocated, then it was considered to be used wisely--regardless of the outcome of those expenditures. But what we are realizing is that even if you spend only $400 of $500 that you could have spent, it still may not have been used wisely. In fact, it might be even better to spend the extra $100 if it will increase the credibility of our church in the community. For the extra $100, if we can increase our community impact and community presence, then we should do it. On the other hand, if we can increase our community presence for free, that's even better. There are many things that don't cost any money at all--time, love, service, kindness, humility, relational contact--and those are the things that we need to focus on, not the bottom line (even as important as the bottom line is). Those are the things that will help us win, regardless of the balance in the checking account.

6. Did we have fun? vs. Did we trigger a dramatic reaction?
In the past, we would judge the success of our events largely based on whether we had a good time doing them. If we enjoyed it, we would plan to do it again. While ministry should be fun, I think a much better gauge of success is whether we actually trigger a reaction in the people that we're serving. If nobody is changed or impacted, it really doesn't matter how much fun we have because the mission of the church is not to be an amusement center for the members, it's to bring people into an ever-deepening relationship with Jesus Christ.

So these are the ways that we're trying to change how we keep score. Only if we have a proper scoreboard can we know if we are actually winning (i.e., advancing the mission of our church). Each year, we want to do better than we did the previous year. And while there's nothing bad or wrong about things running smoothly, being under budget, having fun, and so forth, we've decided those aren't the right criteria for evaluation. They're not bad... they're just off-target. If we really want to win, we have to have the right tools for judging ourselves.

This week, we have the free movie for the community at the Michigan Theatre on Friday at 7:00pm. (Check out our website for more information on that!) Then we have the Easter Egg Hunt on Saturday (registration at 10:30am, hunt at 11:00am). Then we have the Easter services on Sunday at 9:30 & 11:00 with breakfast available before each service. We're keeping score! Let's see how well we do in engaging in relational contact, helping people move through the amoeba, bringing unchurched people, increasing our community presence and reputation, triggering a dramatic reaction, and claiming ownership of the various activities of our church.