Archives For November 2012

(Houses Made by Human Hands was first published on 8/11/2011) 

In my last blog I mentioned a church I once served as pastor where the people just wanted me to keep the church open until they died. Of course, these good folks meant the church as they had known it. This included a marvelous edifice with beautiful stained glass windows. We spent over a third of our budget each year just on building maintenance.

I once pastored another church with a budget in the hundreds of thousands of dollars but not one penny of budgeted money went for any missions or ministry beyond that local church. And there was very little money even for ministry with its own people. A half of the budget went for salaries (another subject for another time) and approximately 40% went for building maintenance and mortgage payments. No wonder the church had no money for mission and ministry beyond the walls of the building.

Over and over the Bible tells us that God does not dwell in buildings made by human hands. Even Solomon, the builder of the first temple in Jerusalemrecognized this truth. When he was speaking at the dedication of this beautiful structure he prayed to God: But how could God possibly live on earth? If heaven, even the highest heaven, can’t contain you, how can this temple that I’ve built contain you? (1 Kings 8:27 CEB) And yet, we often act as though God dwells in the church building in a way that he does not anywhere else.

Perhaps the fact that we often refer to the building as “the church” is part of the problem. Most of us who have been around congregations for a while have observed those who didn’t want the children to “destroy the building.” I once had a group of ladies who got upset with me because I started a new young adult Sunday School class that was meeting in the church parlor. This church was dying for lack of young families. But apparently to them a nice parlor that was almost never used was more important than the new Sunday School class.

Jesus visited the temple and he sometimes attended synagogue in a building. But He performed most of his ministry outside religious structures. In fact, if his experience inNazareth, as reported by Luke in chapter 4 was indicative, he was least effective in changing lives within religious structures.

It has always been interesting to me that the early church didn’t begin to erect buildings until the fourth century, afterConstantineconverted to Christianity. More than one historian has suggested that this is when the wheels began to come off the church. After three hundred years of unprecedented growth things began to deteriorate. My old seminary professor Findley Edge used to tell us this was when the church began to be populated with the “unregenerate,” those whose lives had not been transformed but who had joined because it was politically and socially advantageous.

It is not that building are necessarily wrong. I don’t know anyone who insists that we worship under a brush arbor. But the tail should not wag the dog. At the church I served with the beautiful historic building, almost every discussion of ministry focused on how we might use our building. The first time I met with the leaders of the church I asked them to name the church’s greatest asset. Everyone present agreed it was their building. Before long I decided it was the church’s greatest liability.

Buildings can be a great asset but should not eat up all our resources. There are ministries that truly require a building. I’m just not sure that a covenant community of Christians require one to worship. There must be a better way.

The Church Must Die?

November 19, 2012 — 2 Comments

(The Church Must Die? was first published on 7/31/2011)

 Does the church as we know it in Americahave 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).

I Quit

November 18, 2012 — 5 Comments

(This was first published on 7/29/2011)

I quit. It’s hard for me to admit, but I’m so disappointed with the Christian church in America that I quit serving as a full-time United Methodist pastor. Well, I guess I didn’t really quit; I retired in June. But in a real sense I did quit. I decided that it was time to allow God to use me in a different way. I’ll continue to write for the United Methodist Publishing House. After all, I still have an “audience” there that measures in the hundreds of thousands. And I have agreed to serve as pastor of a very small country church I helped build 28 years ago. But I’m looking for a more biblical way to make disciples–followers of Jesus Christ.

That is the issue for me–making disciples. And I think it can be argued that the Christian church in American is not doing it very well. Not according to George Barna and many other social researchers. In his book Revolution Barna makes a compelling case that the lifestyles of Christians are not significantly different from the rest of society. After years of research he makes an astonishing statement: “The local church is one mechanism that can be instrumental in bringing us closer to Him and helping us to be more like Him. But as the research data clearly show, churches are not doing the job. If the local church is the hope of the world, then the world has no hope” (p. 36).

The cover of Barna’s book reads “Worn-out on church? Finding vibrant faith beyond the walls of the sanctuary.” Barna insists that there is a revolution going on among Christians inAmerica. Committed, evangelical Christians are leaving the established, traditional church in huge numbers. Why? Where are they going?

I recently ran into a former church member who has volunteered more hours at church than anyone else I know. She began to tell me about her new Christian journey. She is exploring “how to be a Christian without ‘going to church.'”  

Is there a better way to make disciples? I’m beginning to think that perhaps there is. The Organic Church movement is growing exponentially. Some say that over a million Christians are now worshipping in what essentially amounts to house churches. There is a Simple Church movement that is growing around the world. All of these claim to be doing a more effective job of making Christian disciples. It certainly looks more like the pre-christendom church that the apostle Paul knew.

So, I’m off on my journey. I’ll be reporting my experiences and findings on this blog. So, if you are interested, STAY TUNED.