Archives For November 2012

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THE CHRISTMAS TITHE

November 29, 2012 — Leave a comment

Jim Wallis agrees that religion is often too judgmental. However, he feels that the actual problem is that religious people are too often judgmental about the wrong things. He admits being judgmental about a study conducted by Harris Interactive and funded by World Vision. The study was reported by The Wall Street Online edition on November 15) . It indicated that Americans were planning to spend more money on Christmas gifts this year, “but at the same time, many are less likely to give a charitable gift as a holiday present.”

The Wall Street article quotes Sarah Renusch from World Vision: “We have gone through these tough times and it’s surprising that instead of being more sympathetic, Americans are spending more on holiday gifts and giving less to charity.” Renusch went on to say, “If there is a silver lining, it’s that more than 8 out of ten (83 percent) say they’d prefer to receive a meaningful gift that would help someone else instead of a traditional gift like clothing or electronics.”

Now here is the question that I often ponder at Christmas. If so many people would rather “receive a meaningful gift that would help someone else” (this is also my anecdotal experience), then why in the flip don’t we do this more often?

Of course, some families do make charitable donations rather than buying each other “traditional gifts.” The idea seems to be catching on with some. Jim Wallis says members of his family give one another gifts but also make charitable giving an important part of Christmas giving. He explains:

We do this every Christmas Day at our home after we have opened our presents to each other; and our two boys often feel it is the best part of the day. Each kid gets to choose a gift for a family in one of the world’s poorest countries.(Goats are top choices!) And then we decide together what else we will give to other families.” 

Having promoted this idea for so many years, including with my own family, I think I know at least one important reason more families don’t practice some kind of “charity tithe” on Christmas giving. Most people think it would be a great idea but are afraid that other family members would be disappointed with this kind of untraditional gift. Gift-giving is such an important family tradition everyone is afraid to even bring it up.

Perhaps this year YOU could be the one to discuss this with your family. No one should feel forced to give an alternative gift. Perhaps your family could do it like Jim Wallis’ family. Do both; most of us can afford to give a traditional gift and an alternative gift. Many of you already do this.

Part of the issue is this. Are we consumers or are we being consumed by our materialistic culture? Families need to talk about this issue and Christmas gives us a great opportunity to do so. After all, whose birthday is it, anyway?

THE CHURCH MUST DIE?

November 20, 2012 — 2 Comments

Does the church as we know it in America have to die? Mike Regele thinks so. Mike is the founder and CEO at Missioninsite, a company that provides demographic research for churches and other nonprofits. He published a book in 1995 entitled Death of the Church that I found quite interesting at the time, and still do. The cover reads, “The church has a choice: to die as a result of its resistance to change or to die in order to live.”

The apostle Paul wrote in. I Corinthians 15:36, “How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.” (NIV)  Regele believes this is especially true for the church. In his book he insists that dying to one’s self is at the very heart of the gospel. He writes, “At the core of Jesus’ message is the insistence that unless there is first a death, there can be no life. Unless we say no to our self-will, we cannot know the depth of God’s will; unless we turn away from following our own way, we cannot know God’s way; unless we confess our sin, we cannot know God’s forgiveness and his gift of righteousness; unless we are willing to die to self, we cannot know our true selves; unless we die, we cannot discover the life of God” (Death of the Church, p. 18).

Who can argue? Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25 NRSV).

Several years ago I was appointed as pastor to a church that had been declining in attendance for many years. There were only a handful of people left in the church under 65 years of age. Several talked to me soon after I arrived and asked, “Do you think you can keep the church alive until I die? These were wonderful individuals, but like many who sit in church pews on Sunday were more interested in the building and their little group than in the mission of the church. And rest assured, they didn’t want to change anything in order to keep the church alive, much less to carry out its God-given mission.

I realized very quickly that the church I served was going to change, just as Regele suggests in his book. It would die as a result of its resistance to change or it would die in order to live. Unfortunately, it chose to die as a result of its resistance to change. It was not the only church to make that choice. In fact, I’m afraid Mike Regele may be right. The American church has that same choice and we seem to be making the wrong one.

Regele summarizes his conclusions: “We have loved death more than life. We have loved our traditions more than God. And we have loved our institutions more than people.” (pages 212-213).

In a recent post I asked the question, “Do we love our traditions more than we love our children?” Of course, there is nothing new about this question. I’ve discussed it many times with church members when they have expressed disappointment over the fact that their young-adult children had stopped attending church. I’ve always thought that the best chance of getting church members to change would be their concern for reaching their children.

But change is so difficult. There is the old saw that insists no one likes change except a baby with a wet diaper.  Well, you might go for  a while without changing the diaper, but when the baby’s bottom starts to smell, it’s definitely time to make a change. I learned years ago while counseling people with addictions that the pain of their present condition had to become greater than the pain of change before they would make any real progress. It true for most of us. Our circumstances have to smell badly before we are willing to change. This is also true for the church.

Unfortunately, the church’s methods for reaching people, especially our younger people, have been smelling badly for some time now. The Pew Research Center reports that Millennials (born 1981 or later)  are significantly less involved in church activities than members of Generation X (born 1965-1980), and are  “twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) were as young adults.”

Churches are by nature conservative, traditional organizations. Church members are church members because we like the way things are; are needs are being met, at least to some degree, by the status quo.

In their seminal work SWITCH: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard, Chip Heath and Dan Heath  point out that change often requires both an alteration of the heart and the mind. Unfortunately, these don’t always agree. But, I would argue that the problem is even greater than that. Our heart is often conflicted with itself. We have mixed emotions about change. We would like to reach our children and their friends, but we have a lot invested in keeping things the way they are.  We want to reach our neighbors, but we want to do it on our terms, not theirs.

Years ago I was appointed pastor of an inner city church that was rapidly dying. Several of the members asked me if I thought it was possible to keep the church going like it had been until they died. Apparently, it didn’t matter so much to them what happened after that. Even worse, it soon became apparent that many of the members thought it was more important to keep the status quo, rather than change things immediately in order for the church to have a future. I learned that even the threat of dying in the near term is not enough to motivate members to change. It wasn’t too many years before that church was, in fact, closed and has now been torn down.

It really is a spiritual issue. The question is one of spiritual priorities. Bishop Mike Rinehart expressed it well in a blog post several months ago. Bishop Rinehart serves in the Gulf Coast Synod of theEvangelicalLutheranChurchinAmerica. In his blog he wrote:

“Here’s my hunch. Everything for me rises or falls on this bet. I’m putting all my eggs in this basket: The turnaround of the mainline churches will happen when we in those churches care as much about those outside the church, as we do those inside. To embrace relevance, we will have to let go of survival. That’s it. That’s all I’ve got. If I’m wrong, fire me now. I’ll die on this hill.”

He goes on to explain, “My theory is that the mainline churches have ceased to be relevant to the culture, because insiders trump outsiders every time. Decisions are made for the benefit of those inside rather than those outside the church.”

I’ve been a part of the church now for almost 64 years and I wish with all of my heart that I could argue that Bishop Rinehart is wrong; I can’t. In Matthew 10:37b Jesus said, “Those who love son or daughter more than me aren’t worthy of me.” I know that we don’t intentionally do it, but sometimes you have to wonder if we don’t prove by our actions that we love our traditions more than our children. And certainly more than God.

Jesus went on to say, “Those who don’t pick up their crosses and follow me aren’t worthy of me. Those who find their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives because of me will find them” (Matthew 10:38-39).  Our God-given mission isn’t to rescue the church from extinction. Our mission is to pick up our cross and follow Jesus; our mission is to make disciples; our mission is to give ourselves away.

Bishop Rinehart wrote: “(The world) needs a church that is willing to sacrifice everything for those outside; buildings, budgets, sacred cows, traditions, structures. It needs a church that so loves the world, that she’d be willing to die for it.”

What would this mean for the way the church does business? Bishop Rinehart explains: “So here’s the plan. New policy. Every decision, every single decision made by staff, council and every committee, is made on behalf of those not yet here. Every sermon choice, every hymn, song and musical choice, every building and grounds choice, every spending choice is made with outsiders in mind.”

He is simply suggesting here that the mission of the church as given to us by Christ, should be our focus. Our methods can change; our mission does not. Our policies may change; our principles should not. The church will thrive when we quit trying to survive and focus on the mission of making disciples. When we stop asking what the church can do for us and start asking what can we do to give ourselves away.

 

 

(What Is the Church’s Message After the Election? was first published on 11/12/2012)

Most of us have probably heard the story. An airplane was flying through some turbulent air. It was so bad, even the crew was frightened. While the passengers all buckled their seat belts and gritted their teeth, there was one little girl that sat relaxed, playing with her doll.

The lady sitting next to her asked the child, “Aren’t you afraid?” “Oh, no,” the calm little girl answered. “My daddy’s the pilot and he knows I’m on board.”

Pretty much everyone agrees these are turbulent times. Economists claim we are headed for a “fiscal cliff.” If the social media and talking heads of television is any indication, half the country thinks the election sealed our fate; our country is doomed.

I’ve faced my share of turbulence in life; I suspect you have as well. But, through it all, I have believed that God is in control and He knows I am on board. Whether it was the death of my parents or the death of my daughter; heart surgery or cancer; success or failure; through the good, bad, and ugly; God has always been there for me.

In these days of economic and political uncertainty I find comfort in the words of Jesus found in the Sermon On the Mount: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:25-26)

These words bring comfort. But Jesus certainly didn’t mean to suggest God will give you everything you want. Nor did he mean that we should simply rely upon God and not do our part. A significant way God takes care of us is by commanding us to take care of one another. This same Jesus is the one who insists we will be judged finally by how well we care for others, especially the least, the last, and the lost. “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me”(Matthew 25:32-36).

Join me in praying for our nation and its leaders. We need to pray that God will give them wisdom in these perilous times. We need to pray for our neighbors, here and around the world, especially those who are the most vulnerable.

We need also to examine our own lifestyles and commitments. We need to examine our own hearts; ask ourselves some hard questions. Surely we can see more clearly today that we can’t trust wall street or main street or Pennsylvania Avenue to bring us lasting happiness. Surely we must see where greed and looking out for number one really get us.

I read a quote once that has really stuck with me: “Money ain’t what it used to be—and never was!” Where are you placing your trust these days? We’ve tried trusting in mammon. We’ve tried trusting in politicians. Maybe its time we trusted Jesus and really tried it God’s way.

 

A friend of mine came by this morning and offered to buy my breakfast; he had something he wanted to discuss with me. It turned out he wanted to talk about his daughter who is currently attending college. She was always active in church, often inviting her unchurched friends to attend her youth group. Now that she is in college and no longer living at home, she has stopped attending church. He wanted to know what he could do.

I was fascinated that he should come to me at this particular time. Just yesterday I attended a conference presented by the Barna Group called “YouLostMe.” This conference addressed the fact that the church is losing the Mosaic Generation (also called the Millennial Generation or Generation Y). This generation is usually defined as those born after 1982.

Some argue that we have always lost this young age group, but as they get older they will come back to church. Others believe this generation is different. The Barna Group insists that their extensive research suggests that those in this group are definitely not coming back as has previous generations.

One of the speakers at yesterday’s conference asked a profound question: “Do we love our traditions more than we love our children?” Unfortunately, I think the evidence is overwhelming that we do. I’ve had this conversation repeatedly over the years with church leaders. We want youth and young adults in our church but we are not willing to make the changes necessary to keep them involved.

For example, I have repeatedly pointed out that we have encouraged our youth pastors and leaders to bring drums and guitars into the youth room. But when our young people graduate from the high school youth group, we expect them to leave their participatory, contemporary worship behind and suddenly start worshiping “like adults.” This problem has led to “worship wars” in almost every church I have pastored in the past 40 years.

But there is a deeper problem. The Mosaic Generation is really into relationships. They question authority and don’t support institutions to the same extent as previous generations. They don’t respond as well to advertising, mass mailing, or door to door style evangelism. They view their peers as their moral and spiritual compass. Of course, this has been the case with every generation. But, it is apparently true of this group to a greater extent than ever before.

Dr. Win Arn was the founder and president of the Institute for American Church Growth. He was also publisher for many years of Church Growth: America magazine. Over 30 years ago he told me about a study his organization had done with 720 people. Of this group 240 were new Christians who continued to be actively involved in their churches. Another group was made up of 240 new converts who had already “dropped out.” The third group of 240 had had the gospel presented to them but had chosen not to respond positively.

Each person was asked to classify the individual who had introduced them to Jesus Christ and the church into one of these categories: TEACHER (one who had used an information transmission approach), SALESMAN (one who had used “manipulative monologue” to convince them), or FRIEND (one who had used non-manipulative dialogue).

The results of the study were very revealing. The vast majority of people who perceived the presenter of the gospel as a TEACHER did not respond positively to the invitation. Those who saw the presenter as a SALESMAN tended to respond but those most often became the “dropouts.” (only 29% had, in fact, remained active). Those who perceived the presenter of the gospel as a FRIEND had responded positively to the gospel message and had remained committed to their new found faith and active in their church.

If this was true 30 plus years ago, imagine how much more this applies to those aged 19-30 today. Business as usual is not reaching and retaining this younger generation. We must get them engaged by building relationships. They will not be argued or debated into the kingdom. Significant numbers will not respond to our condemnation. They will respond and stay only if they feel our genuine love and experience authentic friendship.

Do we love them enough to sacrifice our preferences? Are we willing to invest our lives in theirs? It seems that few Christians are willing to say with the apostle Paul, “Although I’m free from all people, I make myself a slave to all people, to recruit more of them.  . .I have become all things to all people, so I could save some by all possible means. All the things I do are for the sake of the gospel so I can be a partner with it” (1 Corinthians 9:19, 22b-23).
This all suggests to me that if the church is to continue to be effective in the 21st century we will have to adjust our methods without compromising the message. We should revert to the relational methods we see in the New Testament. This is also why I think the church that survives the 21st century will be much less institutional and much more organic.

In an article at Christianity Today.com, Kevin A. Miller tells about playing basketball with some younger guys from his church where he serves as an associate rector. He claimed that the young men he played with probably weren’t even alive the last time he had played basketball. Afterward, on his way home he thought about how he had embarrassed himself. He must have looked “painfully old and uncool” to all those young guys who played so much better than he. But the next week one of the young men asked him if he was going to come out and play with them again.

“I, uh, no, I’m kind of busy,” he responded.

“Well, okay, but we’d love to have you.”

Later Kevin ran into another one of the players. “It was great having you play this week. Hope you come again.”

Over the following days several other guys invited him back. Kevin wrote, “I got more positive comments from that lame basketball performance than from most sermons I preach.” He went on in the article to suggests “Baby Boomers tend to ask me about results; ‘How many showed up last night?’ Millennials ask about relationship: ‘Next Tuesday, can you hang out?’. . . While Boomers want church leaders relevant, competent, and efficient, a new generation is looking for a different kind of minister. . . (Millennials) want me to be a spiritual father. For some, I’m the Christian dad they never had. For others, I’m the father figure who’s here now.”

I think Kevin is right when he suggests the Millennial generation is really into relationships. But to a large degree, hasn’t that been true of every generation? Jesus’ success lay in his ability and willingness to build relationships. When the masses heard about his miracles they came to check him out. But they didn’t hang around for long.

Our Lord invested most of his time developing a small group of twelve men. While he spent some time preaching and teaching to larger groups, his most effective, life-changing work was the result of the coaching and mentoring he did with the Twelve. The number of people who were showing up for His revival meetings dwindled until there was practically no one left at the end. I guess Jesus was lucky that he didn’t have to report to a Personnel or Pastor-Parish Relations Committee. No doubt he would have been deemed a failure by most bishops.

But Jesus didn’t judge his ministry by the number of people he signed up. He had a longer term vision. He understood that mentoring and coaching a “few good men” would pay greater dividends in the long run. He understood that people aren’t generally debated into the Kingdom; they are loved into the Kingdom.

In our culture we demand results NOW. I had a friend call me up earlier today who wanted my advice on whether or not to take a part-time position as pastor of a local church. He works in the community and some time back started a ministry in a poor section of the city. He told the church leaders that he would be interested only if they really wanted to become a servant church. I suggested he be very specific about what that meant to him. I also suggested he ask them if they were willing to lose membership before they gained membership. If the church really makes radical changes some people will leave, especially those who have traditionally held the power. In addition, doing ministry the way Jesus did ministry is a messy business. It takes a lot of time and effort and the visible results will not come overnight.

In his Christianity Today article Kevin Miller wrote, “In the 1070’s, when Boomers began to graduate from seminary, pastors began shifting their role from shepherd to leader. Now, of course, the leader-CEO model is rejected by many. But what will take its place?” I was among that group, getting my first seminary degree in 1974. I went on to three other seminaries to do additional study, eventually getting a Doctor of Ministry degree in Leadership Development fromPrinceton.

Now, I’m still convinced that the church needs leaders. But what it needs even more is disciple makers. People who will, like Jesus, invest their lives in the lives of others. We need mentors and coaches who will come along beside others and nurture them in the faith. A faith that is caught more than it is taught. God is looking for a few good men and women who will enter into accountable relationships with others in order to grow into Christian maturity.

This is, indeed, a messy, slow process. But it is the way to change lives and develop disciples of Jesus Christ. It works with all generations; its the only way we will reach the Millennials.

 

HOW REAL DISCIPLES ARE MADE

November 20, 2012 — 5 Comments

Vince Antonucci has written a book with a fascinating title: I Became a Christian and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt: Replacing Souvenir Religion With Authentic Spiritual Passion. Doesn’t the title alone make you want to read the book? I haven’t yet read it but I did read an article adapted from the book in an issue of Outreach magazine.

Vince begins the article by suggesting you imagine getting a phone call interrupting your third hour of TV for the evening. The person on the phone explains that the government has chosen you for a special task. “After several rounds of, “Very funny. Is that you Phil? Wait, is this Chris?” you finally come to believe this is truly a rep from a government agency and he needs an answer. Now.”

You quickly think about all the things you will have to give up for your country: “your specialty coffee on the way into work, forwarding e-mail stories to your friends during the morning work hours, the lunch debate between McDonald’s or Wendy’s. . . it’s a lot to give up.”

The conversation goes on: “You’re talking. . . like. . . special agent stuff?” “Yes,” the government rep on the other end of the line replies. Finally, you decide. “OK, I’ll do it. Sign me up. But, let me ask, the hotels I’ll be staying in when I’m on the road. . . they will have cable, right?”

Now Vince brings his little imaginary scene around to the point. How do you and I feel about the commitment we have just made? “Nervous and intimidated? Perhaps. Anxious and excited? Definitely. Bored? No way.”

Jesus chose us as his special agents. “Go into all the world and make disciples,” he charged. It’s not always an easy task. He never promised it would be. What it should never be is boring. Not if we take the challenge seriously.

Maybe that’s the problem for most Christians. We’ve in a rut! Church is boring. Our Christian walk is boring. We are like the church at Ephesus; we’ve lost and love we had for God at first (see Revelation 2:1-5). We are elevator music—or worse, funeral music. Plain vanilla. Respectable people. Middle class. We need some excitement in our lives—and serving on God’s team of special agents is the perfect way to get it.

We have come to expect so little from Christian disciples. Just pray the sinner’s prayer, get the church to dunk you or sprinkle you, and drop into church occasionally when you don’t have something more exciting to do.

When circumstances demanded it, Jesus prayed for people, taught them what he could in the allotted time, and sent them on their way. But this was not his preference. He invested most of his time with a small group of twelve men. These were the ones who went on to change the world.

Instead of trying to sell the masses on the benefits of Christianity, perhaps we should be following the example of our Lord who spent some time teaching and preaching, but much more time coaching and mentoring. This is how real disciples are made. This is how lives are regenerated and the world is transformed.

In the last few years many  have pointed out how the continuing  breakdown in social relationships and old forms of community associations  have contributed to increasing social problems. Even to the point of threatening democracy itself. Robert Royal and his colleagues have argued convincingly that we can no longer take community life for granted, for “the fate of American democracy may hinge on the renewal of such associations or something like them.”[i] He insists that when we wonder what happened to the old neighborhood, we are “not merely suffering from neurosis or nostalgia.” We lose a quality of living when we lose the old neighborhood.[ii]

As our society becomes increasingly urbanized and secularized, we see the direct results in increasing crime and subsequent social problems. To rebuild the type of communities needed for a strong democracy will require “significant and far-ranging changes.”  Relationships between neighborhoods, schools, churches, and workplaces must be strengthened. Royal’s research confirmed that our practices have changed in more recent years. Now, Americans are much more likely to join private associations that don’t deliver the same support of the common good. People are engaged with one another, but not in the same way as in the past. Royal is also convinced that these newer community connections do not promote “conversations across class, racial, and ethnic lines” to the same degree.[iii]

Philip Selznick, is another researcher who concurs that at the heart of our social problems in America is the breakup of traditional community life. Modern modes of living tend to lead to isolated lives, cut off from extended families and long-lasting friendships. Selznick points out that “People participate segmentally, that is, on the basis of special interests and occasions rather than as whole persons, and they do so in groups that are themselves only weakly bound into the rest of society.”[iv]

We don’t build relationships with close neighbors to the extent we did in the past. With comfortable cars and good roads and money to purchase plenty of gasoline, we are willing to drive significant distance to join with others who more closely share our concerns, values, and interests. In the church we see this operative when an individual or family moves into a new community and looks for a church home. In the past if one was a Methodist she simply began attending the Methodist church in the neighborhood. However, today, with increased mobility, people shop for a new church much like shopping for a new dress. Location, doctrines, and denominations are less important than in the past. People are looking for a place to belong, but one that limits one’s obligations to the group. This means a place where the congregation looks like them and therefore provides a zone of comfort. When asked why they joined a particular church the answer most often given is that “it just seemed warm and friendly.”

One of the hallmark principles of the church growth movement is that for a church to experience significant growth the congregation should be homogeneous. That is, everyone should look alike, think alike, act alike, believe alike. The church is not immune to this tendency toward segmental relationships in which we are relatively free to choose with whom we will relate and  the amount of time and effort we put into the relationship.

I have previously described how different my childhood was from that of my own children. I attended a very small rural school where teachers and administrators not only knew all the students, but knew their families as well. A teacher might not only have taught you at school, but might also have been your Sunday School teacher. When I was in the fourth grade, Mr. Copeland, the principal, spanked me and three other boys for smoking. The other three were from unchurched families  and their fathers smoked. Mr. Copeland knew my family well and was aware that my father was a deacon in the church. He did not smoke. After spanking us, Mr. Copeland dismissed the other three boys, but instructed me to wait. Then he said, “if I ever even hear that you are smoking, I will put a cigarette butt in an envelope with a note and send it to your parents.”

For years I lived with the fear that Mr. Copeland was going to tell my parents that I had been smoking. In that small rural community personal relationships were not segmental but rather were comprehensive, and overlapped many aspects of our lives. We knew the same people at work, at school, at play, on the streets and roads, and at church.

It is this point about the prevailing way that we develop a sense of community that is of greatest concern. We Americans are social animals that will, in the normal course of life, find some type of community to which we will belong. But the type of communities we are developing at this point in our history are inadequately connected to the wider civic society. Being social beings, the problem is not that we are  altogether too individualistic. The problem is actually more one of retreating into enclaves, denying reality, and disconnecting our group from the common good of the broader society. This is one reason we are increasingly dividing ourselves by color, black or white, red or blue.

The institutional church can easily become an enclave of like-minded individuals, cut off from the very people God has called us to reach. My old friend Elton Trueblood warned about this many years ago when he called the church to be an expeditionary force, not a fortress. Many Christians hardly know anyone from “the other side of the tracks.” All of our friends look like us, think like us, and share our values.

How can our churches be transformative in this kind of environment? The great commission calls us to share the gospel “as we go into all the world,” not as we huddle in our houses of worship. Evangelical churches talk a great deal about  but few Christians ever lead another person to a life-transforming relationship with Jesus Christ. Trueblood pointed out that many of the metaphors Jesus used for Christians are permeating images–salt, light, branches. As you go make disciples, not “build it and they will come.”

It is no accident that the effectiveness and influence of the church in society is diminishing at the same time we are experiencing a breakdown in bridging social capital. A clear understanding of what is happening with the bridging social capital  in our country should lead us in the church to reorder our priorities. We should be training a compassionate expeditionary force of Christ followers to penetrate our society, building relationships with a broken world, and offering the transforming power of God’s grace


 

[i]Robert Royal et al, Reinventing the American People: Unity and Diversity Today (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995). P.   [ii]Ibid. p. 4                                                                                                                                           [iii]Ibid. p. 2-                                                                                                                                        [iv]Philip Selznick, The Moral Commonwealth (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1992). p.5.

I got a letter this week from my great-Uncle Alvin. I decided to share it with you. Now I warn you, Uncle Alvin is known for being a teller of tall tales. I suppose it started when he came home from fighting in WWI, and told all his exciting war stories. I never could decide when he was telling the truth and when he was pulling my leg.

Dear Dewayne, (My middle name, used by my family)
I had to write you to tell what happened at the Goodwill Methodist Church, over yonder by the Indian Reservation. You know that church used to be a big strong church, but through the years all the young folks moved away to get better jobs. The church had just about dried up, except on homecoming Sunday.
It’s kind of funny how things work out. Lots of people have moved to this neck of the woods in recent years. The reservation has built two casinos and a whole passel of new factories. They’ve brong in people from all over, to help run them. Even some of them Japanese fellers.
But ole brother Zeke Townsend, the church lay leader, said these new folks ain’t “our kine.” “Folks from the North still got it in for us,” he said. “And those Japs killed my boy. If they set foot on this here church property it will be over my dead body.”
Well, don’t you know, they buried ole Zeke last month out back of the church. And last week the little group of folks left over there decided they just couldn’t make ends meet without him, so they voted to close the church. I hear tell that they may sell the property to the reservation so they can build another casino. I guess folks may come over ole Zeke’s dead body after all!
Come to see us when you can.
Your Uncle Alvin
 

I’m pulling your leg, but hoping to make you think about the homogeneity of most churches. Look around your church this Sunday. How much diversity do you see? Is your church effectively reaching all ages? All economic and ethic groups? Are there folks in your community who don’t feel comfortable in your church? What’s wrong with this picture? Or, are we willing to even admit that there is something wrong? What do we need to change in order for others to feel comfortable in our church and want to be a part of our fellowship? Does Jesus really expect the “local church” to be inclusive?

I don’t know the full answer to all of these questions. But after many years of trying to get people to attend my programs, I’m convinced that we have to go to them, not expect everyone to come to us. We have to be the bridge-builders. If we are going to overcome our differences, we have to meet them on their ground and develop relationships that demonstrate God’s love. We need to be an expeditionary force, not a fortress. We need to get out of our safe enclave where we act like a social club and get involved in the lives of the hurting.

The sad truth is that most of us don’t even know how to begin. We have been gathering all our lives inside the fortress where it’s safe. Most of us actually want to make a difference for the Kingdom but we are stuck in a rut and don’t know out to get out. The even sadder truth is that most of us don’t recognize our condition.

Good things happen in our churches. And we should celebrate them. But God wants us to see how much more we could accomplish if we only caught His vision of a church reaching out and touching the lives of those outside our walls.

It was a day that will live in infamy. I was traveling with a group of religious leaders in the Middle East, visiting Israel, Jordan, and Egypt. We were very much concerned with peace in the region. We had already met with a number of people including Ophir Pines-Paz, an Israeli member of the Knesset, whom we felt had been sincerely working for peace. We had broken bread with Hana Nasser, the Mayor of Bethlehem and a Christian Palestinian. Mr. Nasser was also deeply committed to the cause of peace. In  had shared in an extended dialogue with His Royal Highness, Prince Faisal Bin Al Hussein, whose family has long been a stabilizing force in the Middle East.

We had just flown from Cairo and landed in Luxor, Egypt when we noticed our guides off to themselves in a huddle. Speaking in Arabic, a couple of them were conversing on their cell phones. More animated than usual, and more solemn, they took us immediately to the riverboat on which we were to spend the next four days sailing up the Nile. Upon reaching the boat we were ushered into the lounge and asked to be seated. Our group leader informed us that within the past hour the World Trade Center had been attacked and the buildings had collapsed. The Pentagon had also been hit. I began to feel sick. A knot formed in my stomach. As far as was known at that time World War III might have just begun!

Most of us will never forget where we were and what we were doing on September 11, 2001. We understand that something changed on that date. We may have been in a state of denial before that day, but for most of us, life was good. The economy may have been slowing a bit, but we were optimistic that things would soon be better than ever before. However, we now know that we can’t build a military machine large enough to totally protect us from terrorism. Nor can we hide from the dangers of modern technology in the hands of madmen. Years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan have only confirmed this reality for most of us.

In a matter of days after September 11, congress allocated billions of dollars to a war on terrorism. Of course, something had to be done, and almost everyone agreed with the early actions of our government. Such an unprecedented, monumental, iniquitous act could not go unchallenged.

America is a great nation and seems committed to triumph over terrorism, to subdue our enemies, and to become a stronger people. We talk of accomplishing this heroic task by working together to stamp out this evil. But one must wonder why we can’t find the same resolve to remedy other immense problems our nation faces. Why is partisanship still stronger in Washington than the desire to work together to solve our problems? It seems that an external enemy is the only thing that can unite us. The problem is that history teaches us that great empires have more often collapsed from decay within than from threats without. We do it even in the church. Much too often I hear or read comments made by Christians toward other Christians. And much to often the comments are so critical and vicious that they make me sick.

Solutions can be found. It won’t always be easy. There is a third way; there is God’s way. We had a big election recently and we Christians need to be the first to offer our hand to those elected and commit ourselves to work together in a civil manner. Let’s all pray for our leaders. All our leaders. Pray for our Christian brothers and sisters. All our brothers and sisters. Let’s stop the name calling and labeling. Remember, those who throw dirt lose ground! Let’s stop painting our states red or blue and pull together to make life better for our nation and for the world.

When the chips are down, Americans have always worked together to meet the challenge.  Today the world faces many challenges. It’s time to stop demonizing one another and work through our differences. Working together, the Christian Community can faithfully carry out whatever mission God gives us.