Saturday, May 21, 2005

Metaphors for Church

...the sheer vulgarity, reducing the raison d’etre of church to a glib commercial slogan...

A small group I’m part of has been working to redefine what it means to be Church. The process has been challenging, particularly our recent conversation on the metaphors that American believers are living out in worship (often unconsciously). Here are a few examples:

  • School — a place to learn, where attendance is generally compulsory;

  • Restaurant — where you go when you’re hungry or want to impress someone like a business associate or a date;

  • Gas station — an opportunity to get fuel, purchase a quick snack and hit the restrooms before getting back on the road;

  • Family — related people, who gather for special occasions and sometimes live together;

  • Competition — show off your holiness (and don’t forget the registration fee);

  • Hospital — complete with comfortable rooms, a competent staff of medical professionals and lots of needy patients;

  • Judicial system — interpreting the law of the land and recommending consequences for rule-breakers.

  • But a large part of our conversation centered on the metaphor of business or corporation. And today, I stumbled across this quotation from James Cochrane in Between You and I — A Little Book of Bad English (thanks to Chris Erdman for the reference):

    “No public body these days, it seems, feels it has done its duty until it has produced what it will probably call a ‘mission statement’ in the form of a participial phrase: ‘Providing jobs and services’ (typical town council), ‘Working to make London safer’ (the Metropolitan Police), and so forth. Two noticed recently are: ‘Making knowledge work’ (the University of Bradford) and ‘Connecting people with God’ (St. Mary’s Church of England, Islington, London.)

    “What is it about these phrases that is so irritating? In the case of St. Mary’s, Islington, perhaps it is the sheer vulgarity of reducing the raison d’etre of the church to a glib commercial slogan, no doubt in the name of ‘accessibility,’ ‘relevance,’ or ‘youth appeal.’ More generally it may be a sense of the essential dishonesty of ‘statements’ which, like the verbless sentences of Prime Minister Tony Blair, are not really statements at all but merely vague aspirations for which no one can properly be held to account.”

    I hope some of you, who are reading, will join in the discussion as well. I’m interested to see where it will lead.

    Wednesday, May 18, 2005

    Humble giants seem to
    on the outskirts of town,
    form a soft-humped backdrop for the night-starred sky.

    In winter, they disappear
    beneath snowy-white blankets.

    Summer finds them
    in and out of sight,
    in a dirty, particulate sea —
    the accumulated exhalations
    of factories and forest fires.

    Only the rain,
    down the sky,
    can wash away falsehood
    and bring the giants

    back to life.

    There was a

    bearing the sun’s
    harsh glare,

    tempted in the desert.
    And then there was

    Casting words,
    I hooked a nerve,
    and now I see

    the storm clouds —
    blood red —
    behind her eyebrows.

    Rain drops cling
    to the corners

    of her eyes.

    Pond’s corrugated surface

    windswept waves of grass,
    sideways leaves,
    ripples in the cool gray sky —
    storm’s portent.

    Seedy tufts jump ship
    from slender dandelion stems,
    drift away
    in the wind.

    They won’t get far.
    The rain is near.

    Friday, May 13, 2005

    The Perfect Match

    I’m not sure we can
    completely trust anyone who is making money off his own advice.

    The Internet is full of advertising. I just saw a banner for, which claims to have more marriages per match than any other dating service. But I’m skeptical. The entire site, which describes itself as a Christian ministry to singles, was started by Neil Clark Warren, who also wrote the book Date . . . or Soul Mate: How to Know if Someone is Worth Pursuing in Two Dates or Less. And he’s made it clear in his many books and public appearances that he believes dating is a waste of everybody’s time.

    On the average, Warren says, a single person will go on 100 dates before he or she marries. Statistics show that only one in four marriages are happy. Therefore, he concludes that 400 dates will produce four marriages, and only one of those marriages will be happy.

    “This society has such a hard time getting marriage right,” he says. “Seventy percent of us have experienced a broken home, either from our parents’ or our own failed marriages. If only we could get society to understand that it doesn’t have to be that way. If you find somebody matched with you, you can have a perfect marriage.”

    Here’s my issue with Warren: He promises something that might not be good for us — efficient and compatible matches. But successful relationships aren’t about compatibility. (Anyone can be compatible. It’s a skill, not a trait.) Relationships are about commitment, respect, sacrifice, patience, self-control, mercy.

    Besides all that, I’m not sure we can completely trust anyone who is making money off his own advice. That’s called conflict of interest. And all too often, that kind of guru turns out to be a huckster.

    Monday, May 02, 2005

    I try to jump off the page

    to fly

    but I
    no wings.

    It seems my life is full of lists: groceries, meetings, projects, goals. I plot the points on a plane, hoping someday to transcend this two-dimensional existence. I dream and plan and strategize the use of time and money. I try to jump off the page — to fly — but I have no wings. What is it like to lead an unstuck life? Will I ever know? And yet I push, let go of possessions, chase away old friends, throw overboard the ballast of grounded living.

    I have many admirers.

    If they only knew.

    My so-called courage is little more than desperation to escape the stifling expectations of a 9-to-5 world.

    From whence comes freedom? I do not know. This journey I’ve set upon seems little more than random rambling, shuffling steps in the dark, feeling along the walls, stubbing toe on bookcases and nightstands. I’m searching for an exit. I have faith it can be found, refuse to consider

    that it might not exist.

    Sunday, May 01, 2005

    5 +ways

    Here are some articles on American church that have inspired me this week:

    1 First up is Bob Hyatt on why he got out of a staff role in a mega-church:

    It was working in a mega church that opened my eyes to the fact that in many ways, the church in America had pursued a model that created consumers of church primarily and community only incidentally.

    The church was big — there were programs happening around the clock, all day, every day. And do not get me wrong — good things happened there. But one day I had a conversation with one of the pastors that helped me understand the problem . . . . He was asking me what I wanted to do in the future and I told him I wanted to be a teaching pastor who studied and taught but also spent a good amount of time sitting with people, listening, counseling . . .

    I’ll never forget this. He looked at me and said, “Wow! I used to do a lot of counseling, but I had to stop. In fact, I tell my staff now, ‘If you sit with someone more than three times, it’s too much. We’re paying you to run a ministry, not be with people.’”

    And at that moment, I knew I had to get out; out of that system, out of that mentality.

    2 Thinking about how many people came to church this morning? Adam Ellis offers a new perspective:

    I’ve been thinking about church growth and numeric (attendance) goals recently. To be totally honest (que hostile responses) I think such goals may be sinful. I base that on the account of David’s sin of taking a census of Israel and things Jesus said about the man who built bigger barns. On top of that, I have a real problem when we commodify people and reduce them to numbers. It seems like we are only interested in getting more butts in our pews for the glory/continuing existence of each individual congregation. It seems to me that if we instead focused on making/being disciples (apprentices) of the Way of Jesus and focused on transforming our churches into communities of faith that motivate by inclusion (rather than exclusion), we would see true growth stemming not from programs, but as a natural product of who we are.

    3 Inagrace T. Dietterich considers new shapes of being church:

    The church is an intentionally formed social entity engaged in particular practices to accomplish certain goals. As such, the shape of the church will always be influenced by the assumptions, commitments, and demands of the culture within which it engages in ministry. Yet as a people empowered by the Holy Spirit to witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, the church must always seek the organizational form that is “worthy of its calling” (Eph. 4:1). As the missional church organizes its common life and shared ministry within a context of radical plurality and ambiguity, it must say “goodbye” to old and outdated structures and say “hello” to the social energy and imagination that will enable it to take the risk to experiment with alternative ways to shape the church.

    4 Then Spencer Burke talks about leaving the pastorate so that he could become a pastor:

    For years, I’ve tried to put my finger on it — the reasons why I left the professional pastorate. And you know, more than anything, I think it’s this: I lost my first love.

    The reality is that much of what we call ministry today is really administration. It’s about adding things — programs and strategies and rules. In my 22 years as a pastor, I often administered more than I ministered, if that makes sense. I’ve come to see that I was an add-minister more than a minister.

    Even worse, I now recognize much of what I did in those years was actually about me — what I needed to do to feel safe and secure. It was about my needs more than the needs of the community.

    Nevertheless, it seems I’m a pastor again. My friend Matt, and his wife, Krista are pastors as well. And so is my wife and my five-year-old son, Alden. Yup, we’re all pastors at Church.

    No, really. That’s what it’s called: Church. Not First Presbyterian. Not Solomon’s Porch or Scum of the Earth or some other cool postmodern name. It’s just called Church—and it meets well, whenever and wherever we decide to meet. Last week it was the park; next week, it might be the beach.

    It’s pretty wild, isn’t it? I mean, who would have thought I’d be starting a church with just one other couple and no budget? Who does that? Who says, “Hey, wanna start a church on Thursday?” and believes God could be in it?

    5 Finally, Brian Turner comments on one of the ways in which we misuse church:

    In his book, “An Unstoppable Force,” Erwin Raphael McManus presents the following question for local Churches, “Is our Church a refuge for the world or from the world?” It has been my experience that many local congregations have become safe havens for their members. While they proclaim to be a light to the world, they are in practice places of refuge for people who want to hide from the realities of their culture. Many Christians view their places of worship as a medieval castle they can flee to and once safely inside they can raise the drawbridge to keep out their perceived enemy known as “The World.”