How to Serve Your City When You Aren’t a Megachurch

*This article was originally published in Christianity Today.

Our church is located in the second-most affluent county in the state of Tennessee. As a new pastor in the area, I struggled to discern the most helpful ways our church could serve our city. We aren’t a megachurch, so our resources are limited. Random acts of kindness are wonderful, but I envisioned our church becoming an indispensable partner in the community through compassion and gospel proclamation.

Although we are located in a Bible-belt town, almost 80 percent of our community is not connected to any church. Most people do not care that we exist and are not interested in what we do.

These dynamics tempted us to assume what people needed, meet those perceived needs, and call it a win. But we knew God was calling us to more.

A Fateful Meeting

I invited the city manager, whom I had recently met, to lunch one day. As we sat together in a popular diner located in the heart of our city, surrounded by neighbors from every walk of life enjoying their club sandwiches and sweet tea, and with a room full of televisions tuned into every sports channel available, I asked him how a church like ours could serve our city.

Our city manager oversees city services and recruits new businesses to the community. The flourishing of the city is always on his mind, but when I asked him how our church could serve him and his interests, he wasn’t sure what I meant. He works with politicians every day. What was my angle? Was I just another guy trying to make a deal? What did I want from him?

I assured him our agenda was simply to help. We had raised a little money, and we wanted to use it to serve the city without any fanfare. Without knowing how much money or genuine interest we had, he offered a few possibilities. We discussed everything from city beautification projects to sports leagues to fire and police services. The last one grabbed my attention. Specifically, he mentioned a tourniquet the police department had requested, but funding was not available. Police officers are usually the first to arrive on the scene of an accident. Officers wear this tourniquet device on their equipment belt to stop bleeding and potentially save lives. This was the perfect way in which we could serve our community.

We introduced the sergeant in charge during a Sunday morning worship service to explain the value of the tourniquet to our congregation. Then we presented him with a check to purchase this tool for every police officer and reserve officer on the force. It was a significant amount of money for our church, but we were excited to partner with these men and women who serve and protect our city every day.

New Opportunities

That first conversation at the Corner Pub led to a growing relationship with the city manager that turned into a friendship. We now serve at city events together, text each other, and enjoy each other’s company. He knows I am for him and that our church is for our city.

We developed similar relationships with the police chief and fire chief. Our church hosts a community luncheon every year during the week prior to Easter. This luncheon includes discussion panels with city leaders and allows us to honor city employees and to present financial gifts to the police and fire departments.

As our congregation prioritized honoring and helping our city’s civil servants, other segments of our city began to trust us as well. W. A. Wright Elementary School sits just around the corner from our church. With education challenges growing and education dollars shrinking, our church had an opportunity and responsibility to help. So, I approached the school principal with the same question I asked the city manager: “How can our church serve you?” I didn’t press too hard. Schools, in particular, can be slow to trust churches. No principal, regardless of his or her faith background, wants to be a “separation of church and state” news story.

Trust takes proven action over time, so our church began serving in simple ways: painting old playground equipment, delivering meals to the staff, donating dozens of reams of paper for the copy room, and giving gift cards and “thank you” notes to the faculty. We prayed for the school and waited on God.

The police chief introduced me to his pastor, who is the Fellowship of Christian Athletes director for our county. In God’s providence, the FCA director wanted to begin a chapter at W. A. Wright Elementary School. The relationships we had cultivated with the principal and faculty allowed us to partner with FCA to begin a new chapter in this school, where we now share Jesus with over 60 students every Thursday morning.

Our partnership with W. A. Wright continues to grow. In addition to FCA, we now help fund and serve a summer reading program for at-risk kids. They’ve opened their doors wide for us to assist in classrooms and provide extra resources that help teachers and students excel.

To effectively serve the school, we recruited a church member to be our “missionary” to W. A. Wright. She volunteers as a liaison between the school and our congregation, serving on the school campus for several hours each week. The administrators and faculty know her and trust her, and they bring relevant needs to her. She then builds ministry teams from within our congregation and mobilizes them to meet those needs.

Recently, we heard the school’s parent group was raising money for a new playground. So we invited city and school leaders to attend a special Sunday service, and presented the principal with a financial gift to help build the new playground. We need a new playground on our campus as well, but by putting the school ahead of ourselves, we demonstrated the love of Christ in a tangible way.

For Our City

As a next step in our commitment to our city, we introduced an effort to our congregation based on Jeremiah 29:7 called “For Our City.” We identified four specific areas of need:

  1. We will keep supporting first responders and their families so they and our citizens can live in safety.
  2. Although we are an affluent community, one in four kids face food insecurity. Not only do we want to provide food for hungry families, but we also want to encourage and equip business owners to hire disadvantaged, yet willing workers.
  3. Addiction recovery and rehabilitation.Alcohol and drug abuse are as much an epidemic in our community as anywhere else in the nation. So we are working to build a network of resources, including early education, counseling, and recovery ministries for our community.
  4. Generational success.In light of family dysfunction and educational challenges, we will partner with other organizations in our community to serve child abuse and human trafficking survivors, encourage and resource foster and orphan care, keep up our efforts with reading programs in schools, and provide after-school and summer programs for kids.

Through open-handed generosity, genuine friendships, and responsiveness to community- specific needs, we are helping organizations that already serve our city succeed in their efforts.

Advancing the Kingdom

The kingdom of God is advanced when people in our communities place their faith in Jesus as Lord. That is God’s ultimate desire, and it is our ultimate motivation as well. But Jesus proved his ability to care for souls by caring about the success of others.

When Jesus entered big cities and small towns, he walked slowly, made friends, discovered needs, gave real help, and spoke hope. Not everyone he helped followed him, but many did, and they moved from death to life forever. As we serve our city and speak hope, we know not everyone will follow Jesus, but we trust many will.

In the same way, our opportunity to impact people begins with our willingness to invest in them. So, start by introducing yourself to someone you don’t know. Learn to love them, give them a reason to trust you, celebrate their wins, and see God open new doors for the gospel.

*Daryl Crouch is senior pastor of Green Hill Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee.

COVID Lockdowns and Culture Shock

By: Jessica Wolst

*This article was originally published at americandutchess.blogspot.com.

In the Netherlands, we are just starting to come out of an 8-week-long “intelligent lockdown.”
For us, this included the following:
~schools closed
~restaurants only open for carry-out
~a lot of businesses/stores closed
~no close-contact work (like massage, barber, nail salons, etc.) or museums/theaters
~working from home when possible

Three weeks ago elementary schools reopened for students to come 2 1/2 days a week. Slowly, slowly, we are moving forward, one step at a time.

For the most part, I’m satisfied with the local response.  Yesterday we went to a petting zoo / kids’ farm place and there were some older kids running around without adult supervision. (Okay, that’s actually normal at a regular playground here.) But they were also disregarding the signs for one-way foot traffic in some parts. Those kids, along with a woman in the department store who was all up in my 1.5-meter space and who didn’t give a rip about the health guidelines (she pretty much said so herself), are thankfully the few exceptions.

I see many people on Facebook or hear others complaining about “the new normal,” whether that means wearing masks, keeping 1.5m distance from each other, the lines at the store, etc.  I too am frustrated that I can’t just whizz through the stores, because I have to be aware of how close I get to other people.  I’m frustrated that we can’t have friends/family inside to visit (and I’m waiting until most of the restrictions are lifted before I do so). It’s sad for one of our kids, whose class has been split into two groups – and most of this kid’s best buds go to school on the other days. We forfeited a family trip to Eastern Europe and our first weekend getaway with just the 2 of us since before having kids, and are planning to forego our plans to visit America in the summer as well.

As a former missionary and current immigrant, I would like to share a cultural insight that hopefully can help us adjust to this new life.

We are all going through culture shock/stress.

Have you ever gone abroad for at least a week? Have you been in a context where you’ve been the odd one out, whether you’ve gone to the inner city or the countryside or some other social dynamic?

There are four stages that everyone goes through to adjust to a new culture, and they can be summarized as: fun, flight, fight, fit.

FUN:

This is the honeymoon period.  Everything’s GREAT! In the case of travel, the food is the most delicious you’ve ever had in your life, and the weather is always perfect.

Perhaps during the lockdown, you might have thought, “Oh good, now I don’t have to go to that event I didn’t really want to go to after all.” Or maybe you thought, “Yes! More time with the kids!” Maybe even you were glad for the lockdown, so glad that your local authorities were finally taking the covid-19 threat seriously.

Or maybe this was not at ALL your experience.  Maybe there was no honeymoon period here at all. So, I won’t spend too much time on this one, and skip right to the next phase.

FLIGHT:

This is the phase of disorientation where you want to avoid anyone and anything that’s different. Maybe you went on a service trip abroad and you just don’t want to get involved any more. The language is too hard, the food is too weird, etc. You start counting down the days til your return flight or begin scheming how you could hide for the rest of the time and just speak your own language.

In the long lockdown days, I didn’t even venture out to the grocery store but sent out my husband instead.  (I’ve gotten the cold and flu already this year and didn’t want to be knocked down by yet another coronavirus.) And the couple times I HAVE ventured out, and had experiences of people getting too close, or being annoyed at having to pick up a shopping basket/cart when I only want one item in the store, I’ve told myself, “Never again. I’m not doing this ever again. Not no way, not no how.”

I think the current equivalent here is where we busy ourselves with things to keep us distracted from covid-19.  Which is of course fine in this situation – it’s a terrible idea to go down the rabbit trail of Facebook and non-stop news coverage. I’m trying to think of some examples here, but they are actually just things that we should have been doing anyway…. We shop online so we don’t have to deal with going out in person and finding out that the store is closed anyway. Or we postpone events so that we don’t have to limit a wedding to 10 people or have to fight the urge to hug loved ones.

FIGHT:

“This food is awful! All the people here are so ridiculous with their ____! Nobody here understands me! This weather has been horrible since the day we got here! Why do all the men (or women) have to wear this piece of clothing?” This cranky-pants phase comes next. You’re still trying to adjust, but it’s hard.  You’re mad. You make fun of the culture.

You’re confronted with a reality that is NOT what you grew up with.  You’re romanticizing what it used to be like – whether that’s your home culture or life in January or February 2020 (or better yet, fall 2019).

I think a lot of people are in this phase right now. They’ve had it with the masks, the stay-at-home orders, the 1.5 meters. But this is the reality.  We are here in this new culture, and there’s not really an airplane ticket back home. It’s frustrating to have to do all these new rituals more often than we did before – washing hands what feels like all the time, wearing masks, being aware of our physical/social surroundings. And people are pushing back – they don’t want things to be like this.

FIT:

Ahhhh, finally.  This new place feels like home. I’m okay with eating like the locals. The sounds of the city don’t bother me so much anymore.

I don’t know of many people who are at this phase yet. However, I think it’s a good sign when we can have a sense of humor about the new guidelines but still follow them.  (Check out the story of the German cafe who had its customers wear pool noodles on their heads to show how far apart they needed to be!) Or maybe we get creative about how to celebrate birthdays – keeping distance but also having the chance to see friends.

This is the reality, and we need to live in it. When you travel abroad, especially to stay there for longer, you HAVE to adjust in order to survive.  You HAVE to connect with people in that new culture. You HAVE to follow the rules of that new culture, because your home culture’s rules might not apply.  Their normal is not your normal.

Keep 1.5m from other people.

Find emotional support in other people, and find a way to help others where you can.

Wear the mask.

Follow whatever other local guidelines have been established.

And just remember, you’re going through culture shock, same as the rest of us.

Every time one of the lockdown restrictions gets lifted, we will have to adjust yet again to the new dynamic. Unlike with a trip abroad, it’s unclear when we will get back to “normal land.”

So the questions remain:
(1) Where do you find yourself in this process? It’s okay to slide back and forth sometimes, especially since things keep changing.
(2) What are some positive things you’ve learned from this strange new culture we find ourselves in? What do you notice about your priorities, your values, etc.?

A Community of Trust

By: Rev. Craig Shepperd

In the 2000 comedy hit, Meet the Parents, Greg Focker (Ben Stiller’s character) meets his future in-laws for the first time. Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro) wants to make sure Greg is worthy of his daughter. Jack lays out several tests for Greg to pass to insure he is capable of being inside the family circle of trust. For many, church life seems to be a struggle of finding one’s place in the circle of trust. Often what is experienced is the most “overpromised and underdelivered” aspect of church: community.

So, how do we formulate a community of trust? This will not be an exhaustive offering by any stretch of the imagination. However, let me offer steps to guide our journey in community.

Warmth: “Warm is the new cool.”[1] People want to know they are more than invited, and they are more than just a number. They want a safe place to belong to. Warm relationship trumps programming. One pastor in the Growing Young research admitted, “We can hire and buy cool, but we can’t hire or fake warmth.”[2] I would urge churches to consider warmth as not only a part of their welcoming team, coffee in the lobby, or the free gift they offer to first time guests. Moreover, it is the ongoing hospitality and openness provided to allow others time and space to be included and discover how they belong. For warmth to truly occur, adoption into the body has to occur.

Time: Most of us have committed to one day a week for less than two hours and called that “church”. If we would actually look at the habits of churchgoers, we would find even the best parishioners only attend on average of two to three times a month. That is not a lot of time to build trust. Trust requires presence. Community, communion, and comraderie along with spiritual transformation take place incrementally over time with others. We cannot sidestep the process of getting to know others and allowing others to get to know us.

Vulnerability: Ruth Haley Barton states, “In community, others become agents of God’s troubling grace for our further growth and transformation, and we become the same for them; as each part functions properly, it promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love[3] (Ephesians 4:15-16). For this to occur there has to be vulnerability present. Vulnerability is the giving of you to the other, and at the same time receiving the other for who they are. Psychologist Brenee Brown states, “Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.[4] Vulnerability is hard work, and it does not happen over night. Yet, I am convinced most of us want a place where we feel safe to expose who we truly are, and the weight we carry. The Church as a Community of trust ought to be THE place for this difficult work to occur. “If you have no honesty, you have no intimacy. If you have no intimacy, you have no community.[5] Community starts with our willingness to be honest with who we truly are in the light of Jesus Christ. When we risk this adventure, intimacy and community follow in time.

Treasure: We must learn to value the journey of those who we are in community with. We find our treasure first in Christ, and second through the community he has placed us in. Every person has something to offer us if we will pay attention to how God is using them. “It seems that one of the main reasons we are confused about community is that we make it primarily about us—our experiences and feelings, our natural affinities, our life situation, what we think we want or need…”[6]

Story: We offer our own story told with grace and truth, humility and authenticity. We discover then in community that God is intersecting our story with His story. We learn over time God is taking our story and He is grafting it into His story, which also happens to be the story of the Church. “The more stories—shaped and framed by the biblical story—the church provides, the more opportunities people have to ‘story’—frame and reframe—their experiences of God in more nuanced ways.”[7] Proclaiming the biblical story equips folks with the language to interpret and share their experiences of God. We must share story.

Experience: We are relational creatures. The pandemic has reminded us even the biggest introvert among us needs some social interaction occasionally. Thus, we formulate trust not only through the stories we share, but the experiences that shape those stories. The more shared experiences we create the more intimacy is developed.

Questions: Transforming community continues to unfold and deepen among us as we ask good questions and learn how to stand still and wait with one another in the midst of shattered hopes and dreams and the great unfixables of life.”[8] We often feel it is our Christian duty to fix things or offer advice. This may or may not be helpful. We too quickly forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Over time we learn we are not just listening for the other’s sake, but we are also listening to the voice of God. The art of questioning and listening must come full circle. One of the primary functions of transforming community is to be a community of discernment “in which we assist one another in noticing and eliminating the obstacles to such seeing.”[9]

Servanthood: In an unbelievable act of humility, hospitality, and service we see Jesus in John 13 wash the feet of his disciples. It was the role of a servant, and the master is willing to take it on in order that we as his students may know this is the posture we are to embody. Trust becomes easier when we serve one another.

Again, you may want to add your own characteristics that lead to a trusting community. I think we are probably just getting started. If we truly want to be a Church where we are a community we have to build trust. It is hard work. We are a messy people, but we serve a trustworthy God who is shaping us in His image. May we become the people God has called us to be.

 

[1] Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, Brad Griffin. Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker), 2016. 163.

[2] Powell, Mulder, Griffin. 168.

[3] Ruth Haley Barton. Life Together in Christ: Experience Transformation in Community. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP), 2014. 13.

[4] Brenee Brown. “The Best Brenee Brown Quotes on Vulnerability, love, and Belonging.”

https://bookriot.com/2018/04/16/brene-brown-quotes/  April 16, 2018. (Last accessed on April 21, 2020.)

[5] Scott Cormode. Lecture at Growing Young Cohort Summit. Feb. 14, 2020.

[6] Barton. 21.

[7] Brandon K. McKoy. Youth Ministry from the Outside In: How Relationships and Stories Shape Identity. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP), 2013. 28.

[8] Barton. 55.

[9] Barton 141.

Road to Reawakening

By: Rev. Craig Shepperd

In my previous post I presented the church-going habits of multiple generations. I also proposed the possibility that, for some, perhaps their lack of attendance is less a statement of their faith, and more of a statement about an overall discontentment of “doing church.” As suggested before, these days of the pandemic have provided a great opportunity to think creatively, to be present beyond the walls of the building, and push beyond maintaining the church machine. God will not waste this moment in time, and the Church holds the potential to be the beneficiary of the Spirit’s infusing, dynamic creativity. That is if the Church is willing to think beyond what it has always been.

What might this road to reawakening look like? William McLoughlin gives us some insight into this journey as he maps the movements of spiritual renewal in American history. For us to take this seriously we must think about our current cultural context where we are less and less religious, church has a diminished voice and role in society, there is a prevalence of nominal Christians or “state Christians,” matched with a growing lack of absolute truth, an increase in individualism, etc. Let’s take a peek at the map:

  • During a crisis of legitimacy individuals cannot honestly sustain the common set of religious understandings by which they believe they should act. People wonder if they are the only ones who see the problems and experience the frustrations of the old ways. Thus, they begin to question conventional doctrines, practices, and their sense of identity.
  • People then experience cultural distortion, during which they conclude that their problems are not the result of personal failing, but rather “instructional malfunction” as they seek ways to change these structures or reject them.
  • Significant individuals or communities then begin to articulate a new vision, new understandings of human nature, God, spiritual practices, ethical commitments, and hope for the new future. New possibilities begin to coalesce that make more sense in the light of new experiences than did the old ones.
  • As a new vision unfolds, small groups of people who understand the necessity for change begin to follow a new path; they experiment, create, and innovate with religious, political, economic, and family structures in a search for a new way of life. They develop new practices to give life meaning and make the world different. They embody the new vision and invite others to do so as well.
  • Instructional transformation occurs when the innovators manage to “win over that large group of undecided folks” who finally “see the relevance” of the new path and embrace new practices. When the undecideds flip, institutional change can finally take place.[1]

The movement of God is no exact science. That is obviously below God’s nature. However, McLoughlin does give us some contextual clues that help us navigate ministry in this day and age. For the Church to move past its slumber it must see the world as it is, and not as it once was. “Conventional, comforting, Christianity has failed. It does not work.”[2] This is not about reclaiming yesteryear. This is about the Church having the courage to live into her identity as God’s instrument for the world. These could be some of the greatest days the Church has ever known as we are armed with strength for today and a bright hope for tomorrow. “What will make a difference in the future is awakening to a faith that fully communicates God’s love—a love that transforms how we believe, what we do, and who we are in the world.”[3]

[1] William McLoughlin. Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press)), 1978. 12.

[2] Diana Butler Bass. Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. (New York, NY: Harper One), 2012. 36.

[3] Bass 37.

Non Present

By: Rev. Craig Shepperd

The current younger generations take a lot of flack concerning their lack of church attendance. I would agree to some degree it is concerning, but I think it is also a bit unfair. Here are two reasons why:

  1. Church attendance or even a lack thereof, does not ensure spiritual health. Diana Butler Bass has spent significant time studying decades of American Christian practices and outcomes. In her book, Christianity After Religion, she states, “American behavior continues its inconsistent failure to match self-reported (church attendance) [1]
  2. As a pastor of primarily an older congregation, I have come to discover these age groups are gone about as much as they are present.

They are mobile. They have grandchildren. They have business ventures. They have timeshares. They are also quick to ask, “Where are the younger generations?”

What do we mean by this question? May I propose that perhaps what we are asking is, “Who is going to run all the programs and pay the bills when we are gone?”

I am not sure this completely means when they pass away, but when they take a vacation, or they leave for the summer.  I have observed this occurring in the life of my own church and others. What is missed is not whether or not we will have a substitute Sunday school teacher, but the depth of community life. The absence that comes through relationships of accountability, and the engagement in one another’s lives has a deep impact on church life, as well as the development of community. Without a presence how are we to reenact the incarnation of Jesus as His body?

I speculate younger generations are asking a different question: “How can genuine, Christian community occur that makes a difference in my life, the life of my family, and for the sake of the world?” People vote in a variety of ways. Sometimes they vote with voice, but more often folks vote with their time and money. Perhaps their lack of presence reveals an overall discontent with the status quo. This is often interpreted as disrespect, rejection, apathy, or even laziness. However, I propose the discontent may be occurring because the status quo is not working anymore. At least it is not working as well as it did for those who grew up in it.

Discontent is the beginning of change. As we are currently navigating “doing” church differently through the COVID-19 Pandemic, as a pastor I wonder if some of the ways we are discovering will become the new norm.  Will creativity and desire for true Sabbath foster a move away from maintaining a church calendar full of programs and entertainment? While I would argue the church has a great opportunity to re-imagine its place and purpose, there is a potential for further detachment. However, in these moments we must reevaluate the discontentment we experience. Bass claims,

Only by noticing what is wrong, seeing the system and structures that do not foster health and happiness, can we ever make things different. If people were satisfied, there would be no reason to reach for more, no motivation for creativity and innovation. Discontent is one short step from the longing for a better life, a better society, and a better world; and longing is another short step from doing something about what is wrong. People are longing for new structures that resonate with and respond to their day-to-day experience, giving them a sense of participation and voice and a real stake in the future.[2]

Now, this sounds scary. Some of us immediately fear what we will lose. However, as has been well-documented, there is an actual desire to return to something quite old.[3]This something new,” Wilfred Cantwell Smith suggests, “is faith, the profoundly personal response to the terror and splendor and living concern for God.”[4] Instead of departure, it is a Great Returning to ancient understanding of the human quest for the divine and true community. “Reclaiming a faith where belief is not quite the same thing as an answer, where behavior is not following a list of dos and don’ts, and where belonging to Christian community is less like joining an exclusive club and more of a relationship with God and others.”[5] Every generation is invited to experience God—to return to the basic questions of believing, behaving, and belonging—and explore each anew with an open heart. So, what might this look like?

Let’s begin by re-imagining the practices of our faith: prayer, scripture reading, service, contemplation, worship, etc. “Practices shape us to be better, wiser, more gracious people now, even as these very practices anticipate in our lives and communities the reality of God’s kingdom that has entered into the world and will one day be experienced in its fullness.”[6] These practices are not merely spiritual practices we do, but a way of being that enlivens and awakens us to the work of God in the world. Bass states, “Practices are the connective tissue between what is, what can be, and will be.”

Furthermore, we learn spiritual practices in community. This is where practices take root in order for this way of being to shape our day-to-day living. For Christians, spiritual community – a living, renewed church – begins with being in Christ. It is out of this relationship that we can be and are with one another bound by love. “This sort of belonging insists that the community must be a dynamic, ongoing love, a passionate romance between the divine and the mundane that seduces us into an intimate relationship with God, our neighbors, and our own deepest self.”[7]

I suggest we, the Church, may be guilty of social distancing way before the Center of Disease Control (CDC) mandated it. In a multitude of ways, we have been a non-present band marching to the beat of our own drum for some time. For us to re-imagine what the future looks like, perhaps the ultimate answer to believing, behaving (I prefer becoming), and belonging is found in the incarnated God who chooses to take on flesh, move into the neighborhood, and take up residence among us.[8] How might we do that? This is the question, and the hard work we must give ourselves to. Otherwise, we will continue to settle for the non-present, disengaged, and disconnected way of being, all the while calling it “church.”

[1] Diana Butler Bass. Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. (New York, NY: Harper One), 2012. 53.

[2] Bass. 84 and 85.

[3] Books like Growing Young, Almost Christian, and countless articles reveal upcoming generations’ desire to connect with social justice, the creeds, liturgy, and other mediums of worship of the historical church.

[4] Wilfred Cantwell Smith. The Meaning and End of Religion. (New York, NY: Macmillan),1962. 191.

[5] Bass. 99.

[6] Ibid. 159.

[7] Ibid. 196.

[8] John 1:14, The Message.

The Believers’ Buffet

By: Rev. Craig Shepperd

In my previous article, I reflected on the church being minimized to our own individualistic pursuits. This “Church of Claus” approach interferes with the hope that worship becomes an audience of one (God), thus ultimately stunting our spiritual growth. Today, I want to continue down this same path. There is quite a bit of our culture that has slithered its way into the church that actually poses a threat not just to the church but the very gospel as well.

These days of Pandemic have not only presented unique challenges, they have also brought forth great opportunities. As a Pastor, I have enjoyed the adventure of trying new things. I have enjoyed not being tied to a building or maintaining the status quo. It is as if the Spirit has been loosened, and the stranglehold of tradition is relinquishing its death grip. Furthermore, it has been exciting for believers to recall the joy of being together, and for us to be reminded of our own hunger and thirsting for the Lord.

What I do not look forward to when we gather again is a reverting back to a worship that is driven by consumerism. It is steeped in our culture. We are gatherers of information. We are constantly in search for the next big adventure. We are hoarders of stuff and experiences. This includes the “worship experience”. I cannot tell you the amount of anonymous cards, letters, emails, and on occasion an actual visit designed to critique the music, to complain about too much lighting, or to complain about not enough lighting. The sound is too loud, the sound is not loud enough. We spend too much money on others. We do not spend enough on others. We are not big enough. The church is too big. I don’t like the youth pastor.  And the list just keeps going.

It is exhausting. As a pastor, I must confess…there is no way to win with consumers. It begins to suck the air (the spirit) right out of the church. What was intended to assist believers in belonging, believing, and becoming like Christ has been diminished to a privatized faith rather than a lifelong apprenticeship undertaken in the context of Christian community.

“Consumption is a system of meaning.”[1] We define our identity and construct meaning for our lives through the brands we consume. Unfortunately, church has been diminished to a label. “Shopping occupies a role in society that once belonged to religion—the power to give meaning and construct identity.”[2] Furthermore, we approach church as if we are scrolling through Amazon or lingering at a buffet. How can this place feed me? How might I obtain the most consistent Jesus high? “A core characteristic of consumerism is freedom of choice.”[3] In the US we not only enjoy choice, we flaunt it. There is always a tension between choice and commitment, between comfort and community.

In the process, Sally Morgenthaler notes,

We are not producing real worshippers in this country. Rather we are producing a generation of spectators, religious onlookers lacking, in many cases, any memory of a true encounter with God, deprived of both the tangible sense of God’s presence and the supernatural relationship their inmost spirit craves.[4]

We must learn again what it means to be still and know that He is God.[5] We must settle into the presence of His Spirit in order that God might shape us into the people He desires us to be. We do not have to go chasing after the wind. “The dilemma posed by consumerism is not the endless manufacturing of desires, but the temptation to settle for desires below what we are created for.”[6] What we were created for is relationship, connection, community. God is still speaking. He is still on the move. If we are open to Him, He can use anything to draw us close to Him. May we choose to pursue Him, and may we do it together.

It is together, in community, that we discover how to live into the looming unknown of the future. We remind one another that God’s faithfulness is found in His love for us, not in what we can consume. We begin to realize God’s call takes us beyond our own desires in order that we might meet the needs of the world. We are the body of believers—men, women, and children filled with God’s Spirit, living in communion with Him, one another, and the world. “It is a spiritual and relational entity. And this church is critical to the advancement of God’s mission in the world and an essential component of our spiritual formation.”[7]

We are more than our desires, and our lives are not sustained by fulfilling them. The Christian’s greatest desire, like Jesus’, ought to be to know Him and live in His love. “Not my will, but yours, be done.”[8]

Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and you labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live.[9]

 

[1] Naomi Klein. No Logo. (New York: Macmillan), 2000. 21.

[2] Skye Jethani. The Divine Commodity: 53.

[3] Jethani. 126.

[4] Sally Morgenthaler. Exploring the Worship Spectrum. ed Paul A. Basden. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 2004. 104.

[5] Psalm 46:10.

[6] Jethani. 114.

[7] Jethani. 102.

[8] Matthew 26:39

[9] Isaiah 55:1-3

The Church of Claus

By: Rev. Craig Shepperd

Often the Christian life is approached as if it is an individual pursuit. There is very little thought given as to how the body of believers might enhance one’s spiritual well-being. Furthermore, the Church (like God) has been demoted in the life of the Christian, functioning as some institutional Santa Claus. It’s as if the average Christian believer has concluded: The church should not be too close, but never out of reach just in case we need to make a request. For many, church is merely Santa’s little elves making dreams come true. We, as pastors have failed to instruct our people regarding how church shapes us into the people God desires us to be. The Church has spiritual value in allowing us to live like Christ every day.

“Spiritual maturity is not complicated or mysterious; it simply is neglected.”[1] The interesting thing about the Pandemic is; it has provided us time that we supposedly did not have. There were meetings to attend, band concerts, ball games, practices, and the list goes on. Our faith has been something we try to fit in as opportunity presents itself, or a means to simply present our wish list to the Lord on Sundays.

Sociologist Christian Smith has invested years studying the religious habits in the U.S. He has coined a term that comes across very academic but has an unbelievable amount of practical implications pertaining to spiritual maturity. This term is “Moral Therapeutic Deism.” He concludes that American Christianity has diluted scriptural teaching to that reality. I will not completely cover what Smith means, but let me highlight the implications:

  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  • Just be good.[2]

Smith and others maintain that this is not spiritual maturity. More importantly, neither does scripture. God desires us to move on from milk and the life of a Christian infant. God desires for us to bite into solid food and bear the Fruit of the Spirit.[3] In order to move away from an individualistic approach to God and church, Thomas Bergler suggests three things we must do together so we can grow in Christ:

  1. We need to embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ as good news of spiritual transformation.
  2. We need to be captured by a vision of spiritual maturity that is desirable, attainable, and has clear content.
  3. We need to understand the process of growth to maturity so we can actively participate in it.[4]

To accept the gospel requires more than simply being good and creating a list for God and the church when we need intervention. The gospel calls us to die to self in order that we might truly live. This is something that often gets in the way of our agenda, so we simply do not choose it. We settle for less.

This work must occur in community. Ephesians 4 instructs us to “become mature together so that together you can more and more accurately reflect the perfect image of Christ.” We devote our self to more than a one-time gift. We give ourselves to a process of sanctification by which God is making us morally and spiritually pure. The spirit’s work of sanctification is the maturation process we need in order to grow in love for God and neighbor. “The ultimate goal of this process is perfect conformity to the image of Christ who is the perfect image of God. Thus, for Christians, holiness is a current status, an ongoing process, and an ultimate goal.”[5]

Perhaps people lack robust Christian identities because the Church of Claus that we have bought into offers only a stripped-down version of Christianity that no longer poses a viable alternative to imposter spiritualities like Moral Therapeutic Deism. We have toyed around with American individualism and national identity to the point that we have confused Christianity with self-preservation, which is the very opposite of Jesus’ own witness, and the antithesis of his call to his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him.

“By contrast, the God portrayed in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures asks not just for commitment, but for our very lives.”[6] This will never be the case if we settle to use God and the church as something purely to fulfill our personal requests. God desires more of us personally, and He desires more for the Church. God desires His best for us. This best can only occur when we give ourselves to growing in Christ.

 

[1] Thomas Bergler. From Here to Maturity: Overcoming the Juvenilization of American Christianity. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 2014. XIII.

[2] Christian Smith. And Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. (New York, NY: Oxford), 2005. 162-164.

[3] 1 Corinthians 3:1-2; Hebrews 5:11-13; and Galatians 5:22-23.

[4] Bergler. 27.

[5] Bergler. 47.

[6] Kenda Creasy Dean. Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church. (New York, NY: Oxford), 2010. 37.