Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The ease of taking offense

The photo on the right depicts the display which was placed at the Washington state capitol building beside the manger scene and other symbols of the holiday season. It made news because it was so offensive to Christian groups, and at one point the original display was stolen from the capitol building. The words on the display were found to be offensive by so many because that was the intent of the group that placed them there. And their offensive language is evidence of the offense they took at the other displays in the rotunda area. The other displays were more or less innocuous and innocent because that was the purpose of the groups that posted the displays. Not so with this group. They had been offended, and they intended to offend purposefully in return. That brings to mind the purpose of this blog today which is to examine the ease which which we take offense these days. We have become a society of easily offended people. It seems that everything bugs us these days.

Consider the other news item we hear about these days. Some stores have instructed their employees not to utter the phrase "Merry Christmas" to customers in order to avoid offense. In fact, some stores are playing down the whole Christmas theme supposedly to avoid offending customers. Naturally, this has produced a backlash among offended Christians who are resorting to saying "Merry Christmas!" with almost an edge to their voices everywhere they go. If someone dares to say something that sounds the least bit negative in response to their holiday outburst, they will go apoplectic in return. And heaven help the poor store employee, who under orders from the boss, says "Happy Holidays" or some other neutral phrase in an attempt to be somewhat "holiday-esque" in their verbiage.

Could we not all just chill out a bit when it comes to being offended by any little thing we see or hear? The Apostle Paul recommended that we forbear with one another. (Eph. 4:1-3) This may have been intended for folks within the church fellowship, but could it not also have a wider application that might go beyond church walls? In our holiday exuberance could we not forbear with those who might celebrate other holidays like Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, Muharram, "Festivus for the Restivus"? If I were to wish someone a "Merry Christmas" would it be a huge crime for them to reply "Happy Hanukkah" to me?

The other day at Star Bucks, I was walking across the parking lot to get from my car to the store. I walked in front of a car in a long line wrapped around the store to order something from the to-go window. There was half a car length between their front bumper and the car in front of them, but when I stepped between them and the next car they honked at me. Never mind that they were at least 15 or 20 minutes away from even placing their order. My two seconds in front of their bumper was an affront to them resulting in an irritated toot of their horn at me. I offended them by walking in front of their car. And what was my response? I was offended that they were offended. My mind began conjuring up possible overt responses: everything from verbal epithets to sign language to possibly sitting down on their hood materialized in my imagination. Fortunately, I wound up doing nothing from the list of my imaginations. I walked on in the store saying and doing nothing. I didn't even scowl at them. My perverse side did wish, however, that I had at least said "Merry Christmas!" to them. Just a merry little thought.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Modern day Idolatry

Teaching a lesson today, I was reminded about something from my former youth ministry days many years ago. There were a couple of boys in the church I served who generally came to church with their parents, but who never participated in any youth group activities or other church events. I invited them to participate but they never showed any interest. I asked their mother about the situation and she finally confessed that both boys preferred to stay home and watch TV and play video games over going anywhere and doing anything outside the home. It wasn't just a disinterest in church functions or youth events. These boys never went out doors to do anything. I don't know what ever happened to them, but I lamented being upstaged by a cathode ray tube attached to a TV tuner or a game controller.

Since that time computers have been added to the arsenal along with mp3 players, game boys, cell phones, Wii, X-box, etc. Everything seems to have a video screen attached to it. The lure of the screen equipped device seems almost irresistible. I have a young grandson who loves to play Super Mario. Since we aren't equipped with that game at our house, I'm not sure how he will be able to subsist visiting our place without it being available.

I've said all that to present this point. The video screens on all these devices provide a visual medium for today's society that could be reminiscent of the idolatry of Old Testament times. Read anywhere in Old Testament history and you will notice the proliferation of household idols. A good example of this would Be Jacob, Leah, and Rachael's departure from Laban in Genesis 31. Among all the other things we read in the text, we discover that Rachael stole her father's household gods, and the implication is that she took them because she felt entitled to them because her father had mistreated her husband. The idols represented some of the household wealth, and Laban made a point of inquiring as to the whereabouts of the household gods. Folks back then didn't have access to videos, but I would assert that hand held idols were the closest thing to a game boy available back then. Idols were a visual representation, an action figure of sorts, to the metaphysical realm. Not only were they considered valuable, but they were evidently in continual use. Never mind that when the 10 commandments were handed down from Mt. Sinai, that prohibitions on Idolatry were among the first pronouncements.

Taking the argument a step further, we know that these visual mediums can also be used for easy access to pornography and other improper entertainments which again raises the usage of idols back in the Old Testament. The "detestable gods of the Canaanites" were considered detestable because of their connection to sexual activity, infanticide, and other improper and depraved activities. I find it difficult to see how Israelites could be so easily tempted to participate in the religious activities of their Pagan neighbors. The idols provided a medium for depravity and wickedness. Likewise, I fear that the visual idols of our day have a potential for evil beyond imagination. I hope that parents today will see the potential for misuse and keep an eye on the quantity of time they or their darlings spend before the video screens. I admit that I am as drawn to the visual medium as anyone else, but I also believe that such entertainment can become a "weight" (Heb 12:1-2) that impedes spiritual progress. I hope we can find the off buttons before we are enslaved by our visual idols. Just a thought

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Ministry of interrupted moments

Take a look at what Jesus had to say when his men were arguing about who among them was greatest. Notice what Jesus did and what he said:

Luke 9:46 An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. 47 Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. 48 Then he said to them, "Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all—he is the greatest." Jesus used a child as His example, but the general principle is – be kind and helpful to the least important people you may meet. Fill each and every day with thousands of small, minuscule, mundane … seemingly random … acts of kindness. Make it a way of life.

That way of living means we have to be willing to be interrupted. Most random acts of kindness won’t show up on your “to-do” list. These opportunities have a way of surprising us … sometimes in our busiest moments.

I had one such unscheduled event a while back when a man came to my office asking if he could do some work so he could earn some gas money to drive back to Austin where he lived. For some reason this man touched me, and I invited him to tell me his story. It was too involved to share it all here , but it involved the fact that he and his wife had argued and he left home planning to have nothing more to do with his family. While here in San Antonio he had a chance to rethink his decision and now he wanted to go home and try to make things work with his wife and be there with his kids. I spoke with him for two hours, took him to lunch, had him do some work for me so I could pay for his gas myself, and finally prayed with him as I sent him on his way back to his family.

Nothing I said that day changed his mind, he had already decided what he needed to do. The most I can say is that I was able to be a Christian brother to him that day and to encourage him to do what he already knew in his heart to do. And his desire to do the right thing also encouraged me. It took up half a day I hadn’t intended to spend that way, but I felt like I had really done ministry in a way that made a difference in someone’s life, and believe it or not, his words also inspired and encouraged me.

It could have been so different If I had decided that I didn't have time to waste with this stranger, and had blown him off so I could stick to my pre-arranged schedule. I could have avoided ministry for the sake of productivity that day. I'm glad I went the ministry route instead. Naturally, such occasions don't always turn out that positive, but I wonder how often I miss out on ministry moments by being too tied to my busy schedule to give ministry a chance to happen. At the end of my life I doubt if I will be gladdest for all the days I checked off all the items on my to do list, but I may remember fondly some of those times when ministry blew in and interrupted my otherwise placid day. Just a thought. Ed

Monday, December 1, 2008

Rejoice! "No matter what"

This is Gracie. She is a philly who is having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. She wandered over to a tree in her pasture, got curious and inserted her head into the v-shaped opening in the tree to see what was there. Now she is stuck and after struggling to get out she is so exhausted she just sat down, very unlady like and is whinnying out her woes. The good news is that a nice man came along the day Gracie got stuck and, after taking a picture or two, he got his chain saw and cut her face out of the tree. There is a happy ending to this story.

I used this photo in the introduction of a sermon entitled, "How to have joy no matter what." in order to give a visual representation of what "no matter what" might just look like. Have you ever had a day like Gracie seems to be having? Sure you have! Did you manage to get through that day or did you stay forever stuck face first in the tree? Chances are that somehow, one way or another, you extricated yourself or else were extricated by a nice man with a chainsaw. Either way, you got out of your "no matter what" situation.

Consider Paul's advice in Phil. 3:4-7 "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." Here's hoping that you will develop the ability to rejoice even in "no matter what" situations. Just a thought. Ed S.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Special turkey recipe

The following is an introduction I used last Sunday in my pre-Thanksgiving sermon: I thought it might be useful to share the recipe for Turkey with you:

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you. Some of you probably have favorite recipes you’re going to be making this week --- for dressing or sweet potatoes or pies that you make every Thanksgiving. How many of you are planning to cook a Turkey?

Well, I’m going to help you out. Sometimes it’s hard to know when a big bird like a Turkey is cooked to perfection. I came across a recipe that might help. You’ll need ---

10-15 lb. turkey
2 cup melted butter
2 cup stuffing (Pepperidge Farm is Good.)
2 cup uncooked popcorn (ORVILLE REDENBACHER’S LOW FAT…..of course)
Salt/pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush turkey well with melted butter salt, and pepper. Fill cavity with stuffing and popcorn. Place in baking pan, with the neck end toward the back of the oven.

Listen for the popping sounds and wait …

When the turkey’s rear end blows the oven door open … and the turkey flies across the room … you’ll know it’s done. There’s no way you can miss the magic moment. Just a thought. Ed S.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Caught in a time warp

I admit it. I'm caught in a time warp of my own making. I can't help it if I'm a lover of the '70's. I have a fond remembrance for 8 track players in my cars, for leisure suits and silk shirts with huge collars, shoes with thick soles and high heels, long side burns, cheap gasoline (at least in the early '70's before it doubled in price over night). And why wouldn't I love the 70's. After all, I was young, fresh out of college, newly married, healthy, slim (at least at first). I understood those times. Things made sense to me. It was all new and fresh.
I even understood church related stuff (better than I do these days). I had memorized the Evangelism Explosion outline and could lead someone to Christ without using notes. "Have you come to the place where you know for sure that if you died tonight you would go to Heaven?" Those were the days of "Key '73", bus ministry, Basic youth Conflicts, Body life, Dare to Discipline, The Total Woman (Marabelle Morgan wearing Saran Wrap), The Moral Majority. I loved those days and must admit that sometimes, in a moment of weakness, I long to return to them.
Obviously, others do too. I remember an elder at a former church telling me that he and the other elders there talked about taking their church back to the way it was in the early 70's. The actual verbiage he used was, "...back to the way it was when you first arrived there." I remember what the church was back then, a happy-go-lucky, go-along-to-get-along, social club steeped in traditions with eyes fixated on their glorious past. It was a fun time; very little pressure; virtually no challenge. But we couldn't stay there in that time warp forever. Things changed, even in that rural, back water place. We actually made progress. We grew. Imagine that! We tried new things. We read books and went to seminars. The '70's gave way to the '80's. Culture began to shift, and methodologies had to adjust accordingly. What worked for a while had to be rethought. Sometimes, what worked for one year had to be scrapped the next.
Ultimately, I am forced to admit that change is the only constant in this world. We may reminisce fondly about a former era, but we aren't allowed to go back to it. God calls us forward to new things, and obedience to Him requires us to move onward and forget the past (Phil. 3:12-14). I'm reading a book by Erwin Raphiel McManus called, An Unstoppable Force. He is dealing with this issue in a provocative way and he ends chapter 3 with a succinct quote from Bruce Barton,
"When you're through changing, you're through."

Saturday, November 15, 2008

What keeps churches from growing?

Yesterday, while coming home from a funeral in Eagle Pass, I was asked a question concerning small Spanish-speaking congregations as to what was keeping them from being able to grow past a certain size. I mentioned that I recently taught a class on transformational leadership for Vision International University which I later shared with the staff of Colegio Biblico this summer. During that class I mentioned several things that tend to limit the size of churches, keeping them from growing beyond the range of 50 to 100 in size. The size limiters include the following:
  1. Single cell unit: These are church congregations that insist on doing everything together as a single unit. Therefore, they will have only one adult Sunday school class (usually taught by the pastor), only one worship service, even if it is past 80% full, only one Bible study mid week, usually at the church building, again led by the pastor, only one fellowship meal involving the whole church body, etc. There is an aversion to allowing anything to happen that might only involve a portion of the church population or to allow any second group to start up that would sub-divide the church family in any way. The underlying assumption is that starting anything that sub-divides the congregation is dangerous or at least risky to the safety and health of the congregation. The assumption is that things might get out of hand if anything is allowed that involves only a part of the church family. The problem with this assumption is that it prohibits the very thing that would allow the church to grow larger than the current size. Growing churches must permit the congregation to become a multi cell unit with more than one leader involved in the life of the congregation.
  2. Fellowship and leadership barriers that are difficult to cross: The second dynamic that keeps churches small is the barrier to fellowship and leadership imposed by the current leadership circle within the congregation. Picture three concentric circles in every church congregation. The outermost circle includes everyone who makes any connection of any kind to the congregation by visiting a church service or or attending a related affinity group such as a Bible study, Sunday school class, choir, praise band rehearsal, coffee fellowship, mother's group, etc. Anyone may visit such a group, but the ease or difficulty with which a person crosses through the fellowship barrier to become a part of the regular fellowship of the group determines whether or not they keep coming to the group or not. Ease of assimilation may keep them coming, but difficulty of assimilation, that is, being kept on the outer fringe of fellowship where you never feel that you have become a real part of the group or that you ever can become a part of the group, makes assimilation hard or perhaps even impossible. People know instinctively whether they can or can't cross the barrier to become a vital part of the fellowship of the church. Likewise, they also know whether or not they can ever become part of the leadership team of the church. Those kept out of the leadership circle of the congregation know instinctively that they will always be outsiders. Churches that make the fellowship and leadership boundaries rigid and difficult to cross will find growing hard or impossible to achieve. The longer that people stay on the outer fringes of the fellowship or leadership circles, the harder it is for the church to go beyond their current size.
  3. Leadership dynamics: The kind of leader the pastor chooses to be will determine the size the congregation will grow or stay. I first heard about this on a secular radio show about the size of a business which is determined by the kind of leader a business owner chooses to be. A comparison was made between technicians, managers, and entrepreneurs and their comparative leadership styles. (A.) The smallest business is the mom and pop business run by a technician who knows all the technical aspects of the business, does all the work himself, and basically manages his own time. He knows it all, does it all himself, and has no one but himself to blame if anything goes wrong, and no one but himself to praise if it all goes right. He is the be all and end all of his own little world. As long as he continues to operate as a technician his business will never grow any bigger than it is now. (B.) The technician can only grow his company larger if he learns how to become a manager who then hires other technicians and learns how to manage them and send them out to do the work while he stays at the shop and manages what the other technicians do. He still knows everything about the business, but instead of doing everything himself, he now focuses his time on managing the other technicians and getting them to do all the work while he spends his time overseeing what the others do. He may still be the expert, but he no longer has time to do it all himself because he has to manage what the other technicians do and keep them busy. He has multiplied his work load by involving other skilled technicians and stepping back from technical endeavors into the managerial role. The limit of his management depends on how many technicians he himself can manage at a time. If he can effectively manage 6 technicians he has now multiplied his work by 6 times. If he can manage 10 technicians, he has multiplied his work by ten times. His company can grow by the number of technicians he can successfully manage at once. (C.) To grow any larger, he must shift from a manager to an entrepreneur who then creates systems of managers who manage technicians successfully. He can now grow a much larger company into a corporation of systems of managers and technicians and can diversify his work by the number of systems he can put into place to get work done. Large corporations are built by entrepreneurs who put systems into place in this way. So what does all this have to do with churches? Let's apply the principles of technicians, managers, and entrepreneurs into the church world to see how it would work there:
  • Technicians: In the church related application Technicians would be those preachers (pastors) who think they know how to lead a church congregation and who, like the technicians running a business, insist on doing everything themselves. These are the church leaders who preach all the sermons, teach all the classes, do all the marrying, burying, baptizing, evangelizing, youth ministering, secretarial work, lawn mowing, janitorial work, ... I think you get the idea. When others volunteer to help out, they are turned down because, after all, the preacher knows what he is doing and if any one else tried to help they would probably end up doing it wrong anyway, so why let someone else foul things up. The technician/preacher is the be all and end all of everything. Certainly he is the only one who knows all that is going on in his congregation, and after all, he likes it that way. He wants to keep everything under his thumb, pull all the rabbits out of his own hat, dance all the dances, put all the duckies in a row, etc. Sadly, his church will never grow bigger than what he himself can manage by himself. The largest a church with a technician/ preacher will ever grow is 50 possibly touching up to 100 occasionally. Since that is the largest size he can handle by himself -the largest group of people he himself can come to know well and can pastor effectively, that is the size his church will stay. In order for his church to grow beyond this size, he must be willing to shift from a technician to a manager.
  • Managers: To grow from a small one-man operation to a mid-sized church requires a shift in leadership style of the preacher (pastor) from technician (one man show) to manager (one who is able to share ministry with others). Naturally, the first consideration here is whether or not the preacher is able to move over enough to share ministry with others. Sadly, not all leaders are able to make such a leap. In fact, I am convinced, that many technician/preachers are in that position because they cannot share ministry with others. Either, they are insecure and therefore view others as threats to themselves, or they are glory hogs wanting all the kudos for themselves. I wish I could say that the average minister is too spiritually mature to be so selfish or self absorbed, but I've met many in my years of ministry who just weren't wired in such a way as to move over and share ministry with others. The minister who desires his church to grow past where it is now must add to his other skills, the managerial skill along with teaching his own ego to hold its breath. In shifting from technician to manager, he will open up his congregation to several paradigm shifts. Shared ministry allows for multiplication of effort and work load, the possibility of transcending to a multi-cell congregation, the thawing of formerly frozen fellowship and leadership boundaries, improvement of discipleship, and greater joy in sharing ministry. The minister must be willing to work himself out of jobs, allow others to be up front besides himself, and become an encourager and coach. He must be willing to teach his skills to others and be genuinely glad when they succeed. This kind of shift of leadership style will allow a church congregation to grow from the 50-100 range up to the 250-350 member range. But what does it take to go beyond the size of a mid-sized church?
  • Entrepreneurs: Just as a business size is limited by the number of technicians a manager can effectively manage, a church is also limited by the number of volunteers and paid staff one minister can manage. To go beyond mid-size the preacher (pastor) must shift from manager to entrepreneur. This means transitioning from management of technicians, to developing systems that allow multiple managers and technicians to get work done effectively. The entrepreneur becomes the vision shaper and vision caster of the increasingly complex organization the congregation must grow into. Sadly, the leader must allow himself to step back from not only technical work, but also from the day to day managerial work he had been doing formerly. He will find himself not knowing everyone in the congregation any longer, which is a real trial for people oriented leaders. The shift from mid-size congregation to mega-church is the hardest shift for a congregation to accomplish because it requires major alterations in daily operations, long held values, organizational structure, complexity, and expectations of both members and leaders. Some churches decide the shift is not worth the effort and stay where they are now. Sadly, they run the risk of bypassing what may be the Lord's will for their future and the Lord's provision for the task if they will just trust Him more and reach out with greater faith.

Does size matter? Only if we believe that the Great Commission is indeed our mission. If we believe that we are to teach the nations and make disciples everywhere and that the Lord will be with us always we might see things differently than we would if we only saw our task as that of letting a respectable little congregation survive for a few more years. Perhaps if we could see the church as the Lord's church rather than "my church" we might see our tasks in a different light and do things in a different way for a different reason.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Emergent? Missional? What next?

Because I subscribe to various church related magazines and read books recommended by my associates, I often read about new trends in the church world.
  • I hear about the "emergent" church and wonder if they will know when the time comes that they have finally emerged fully, and then what will they have become as an "emerged" church. I admit that some days I feel more "regressant" than "emergent."
  • I hear about "missional" churches and I'm foolish enough to have assumed that we were all "missional" churches. I thought the great commission passed the task of mission on to all of us. So what do truly "missional" churches do or have that others do not, and at what point can a church truly see itself as having crossed from non-missional to missonal?
  • There's the "seeker sensitive" churches who seem to be more interested, as I see it, in the preferences of outsiders to their flock than in the desires of those within the flock. These days, I think I would be content with being "seeker aware" as opposed to being seeker insensitive or seeker oblivious.
  • Since we are living in a post-modern society these days, we are supposed to be able to understand the post-modern mind and learn how to appeal to those who aren't interested in a meta-narrative. I'm still trying to identify what a meta-narrative might look like if I were to see one up close.

Oh, how complicated it has all become. It makes me tired just thinking about it all. I have an idea. We recently read a book called "Simple Church" by Thom Rainer which made a lot of sense to me. I like to keep things simple. But why not take a good idea up a notch. What if we were to become the "simpleton church". Our motto could be "Taking simple to the max!" No worrying about meta-whatsits or post-missional-seeker-emergent-sensitive-thingamajigs. I think I could wrap my mind around something like that. Oh, by the way, today is my day off so I have given myself permission to be as simpleton as I want. Long live us simpletons! Just a thought- and a simple one at that. Ed S.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

"Not my president!"

Listening to talk radio, I'm hearing frustrated call-ins saying such things as "Obama is not and will not be my president!" Now, I know how to interpret what they are saying. "I didn't vote for him, don't respect him, and don't trust him." Well, I understand where they are coming from, but I have a memory of people on the other side of the political spectrum saying pretty much the same thing four years ago and eight years ago. I remember talk about stolen elections and not counting votes.
For those who groaned and sighed their way through the last eight years, I understand your pain, I groaned my way through the Clinton and Carter years; the last eight years was your turn, and now It may be my turn again perhaps. But I remember that I managed to survive those years just as you did the past eight years. The country managed to survive all of those presidents on both sides of the political divide. The sun rose every day just as before; coffee still tasted good in the morning; my family did just fine through it all. And though I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet, I suspect that history will instruct us all that we can survive the next 4 (or even 8) years of president Obama. And unlike some angry voices on the radio, Barak Obama will indeed be my president. When he does something I approve of I will applaud him; when he does something I dislike I will probably groan or sigh.
But because I am a person of faith I know my duty regarding my president. The Apostle Paul instructs me to pray for him regularly. 1 Timothy 2:1-2 (NIV) 1 I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone-- 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. Obama is the closest thing to a king we have in our country these days so we are to pray for him daily. Here is my advice: If you admire Obama pray for him daily and If you don't then pray for him twice daily. The exercise may shape you into a more mature and thoughtful person. I believe you will survive and who knows, you may even thrive either because of or in spite of it all. People of faith know who is really in charge of it all. The Lord will be gracious and loving to us no matter who our president may be. Just a thought... Ed S.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Whining or Shining

Because this is my very first blog I will try to keep it short, and because I am a preacher I will tag my thoughts into a Bible text I have been studying lately. I am preaching from Philippians right now, and just finished the second chapter where Paul wrote, "Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life, in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing." (Phil 2:14-16 NIV)
I am amazed to discover from the text that doing things without complaining and arguing enables a person to shine like a star in a dark universe. The converse of that principle is that whiners and complainers actually create darkness in their surroundings by their words. I mentioned last Sunday that "stinkin' thinkin' leads to smelly talking." So it really does matter what we say, especially in the context of the church environment which is what the Apostle Paul was writing about. If we complain or argue then "the light within us," as Jesus said, "is darkness." (Matt. 6:23), and we create an environment of darkness around us. But people who stop whining start shining like a star in a dark universe. We know that the light from a star travels astronomical distances and can last for billions of years. The effect of its light far transcends its own circumference. The same can be said for the blameless and pure child of God who does everything without complaining or arguing. And Oh, what a blessing they are to everyone! Just a thought. Ed S.