Freedom (yeah, right)

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Some friends and I were talking about worship this week. Some of them are in a season where they don’t want to go to church. They experience God more closely in nature than by going through the motions every Sunday. Most of us know that going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than sitting in a refrigerator makes you a stick of butter. My friends were supportive of one another and cheered them on for taking a hike instead of going to church. But the conversation, which started as leaning away from legalism, soon begins to lean towards “anything goes.”

The anything goes mindset goes like this: Whatever you feel like you should do, that’s what you should do, because God made you that way. Like you, I can quickly come up with a list that starts with “yeah, but…” Yeah, but, what if I want to kill someone? Yeah, but, what I don’t feel like being generous? Yeah, but, what it feels good to gossip?

The intention is to offer freedom. But does it actually work? Eventually, we will find out that “anything goes” is actually all about me. Shouldn’t worship be all about God?

Maybe we need to step away from the legalism we’ve inherited from generations of Christians who handed off religion rather than Jesus (religion, after all, is easier). The great irony is that we might walk away from one form of legalism into another.

Legalism isn’t just creating and following old rules, it’s defining religion so that you can control it. You can be legalistic (in control) by claiming that you experience God in the woods because, just like in religion, it is something you can control.

Maybe real freedom comes through doing something where we’re not in control: obeying. I suspect that worshipping God means putting him first. It’s about submission. Now I’m all for re-examining what Jesus actually wanted us to do. I’m just wondering, maybe we can find freedom, not by looking inward, but by doing what God says.

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Cathedral

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In the spring of 2005 I lived in England. I went to Oxford University because I’m wicked smart and then moved back to California because I was wicked cold. When you’re from the Colonies and you visit Brit’an you want to visit old castles and cathedrals because the oldest thing you have in your town is that burger place with a “D” rating from the health inspector.

So, a bunch of us went on a tour of this cathedral in such-and-such old city. The ceilings were high, the room was damp, the benches were uncomfortable. All-in-all, very different from the auditorium I sit in every Sunday. Our tour guide told us about how they built these things without power tools, and it’s incredible. They would start at one end, let’s say the east end. They would build the whole east side, and then over the next several hundred years (seriously, like 400 years) they would build west. I promise I’m going somewhere with this story.

In this particular cathedral they had a real-real-old organ on the east side, and then a pretty-darn-old organ on the west side. The art on the east side was renaissance-ish, then the art in the middle was classic, then the art on the west was romantic. You could literally see the progression of art, music, and architectural history from within the building. 400 years after breaking ground they put up a wall on the west.

But what if they didn’t? What if they just kept building? After the second organ you might find a piano, then a choir, then a couple guitars, then a drum set. You’d move from wood floors to shag carpet to linoleum, to stadium seating. You’d always be reminded that whatever is in today will be further east in a few years. Nobody would ever look at the guitars and skinny jeans and think, “now we’ve arrived,” because they see that overhead projector next to the Keith Green album and know once upon a time that was cooler than shaved ice.

Church is certainly more than the building it meets in, but I wonder if you spent a dozen generations building something if you’d think twice before your church broke up. There might be some folks who miss the linoleum, but from a young age they knew church isn’t about linoleum – it’s about organs, shag carpet, stained glass, and the plasma TV all being in the same room. Maybe if you were so invested in a building you wouldn’t be so tied to it.

Spiritually Ignoring Good Ideas

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I’m reading a fabulous book called “The Power of Habit.” It’s interesting, powerful, insightful, helpful and I suspect it will be largely ignored by the people who could do the most with it: Christ followers.

This book has insights about community, disciplines, free will, and even forgiveness.

You should read “The Power of Habit.” It helps us understand ourselves and others. As I often do when I read great books I think about how powerful it could be if the local church would leverage these insights.

Of course, there are plenty of Christians who will read this (among other great) books. But we will subconsciously assume it is separate from our faith and from the Great Commission. We will read The Screwtape Letters for our ‘devotion’ and The Tipping Point for pleasure, when the latter might actually contain more practical and helpful insight into our calling than the former.

Maybe we’ve never connected the dots. Maybe Sunday comes too quickly and our pastors can’t handle new information. Maybe we disregard Stephen Covey and Jim Collins because they don’t quote Jesus. Maybe we think our current models are working or if we could just get people to read Mere Christianity things would change.

I think God is at work. I think there are tools to help people be free. An author doesn’t have to cite the Bible for their thoughts to be Biblical. Solomon says: get wisdom, and whatever else you can get, get insight. If the next great secret to healing, growth, and redemption isn’t in the Christian book section – are you willing to go find it?

Infiltrate

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This weekend I had the privilege of sitting with several leaders from a national organization that seeks to engage college students with the gospel. These leaders have decided to abandon the old-school style of knocking on doors and talking to strangers. Instead, they seek to gain relational and institutional influence in their universities that will open doors for their message of hope. I love these guys.

And.

As I’m sitting there hearing the struggles of men and women whose full time desire is to gain influence I realize how spoiled most of us are. After working at my institution for 7 weeks I had as much influence as these guys have gained in 7 years. It’s not surprising – I’m a total insider. They are an outsider trying to break in. My feet are more likely to coordinate with my arms than someone else’s.

The context for our meeting was a gathering of 600 students, many of whom will join this particular organization in its quest to change lives on college campuses. They are passionate and excited to make a difference for the Kingdom. They will raise support, join a team, and prayerfully consider how to ‘break in.’

But!

What if instead of working from the outside, these 600 decided to work from the inside? This well-meaning organization trains Christians to lead groups of Christians to make more Christians. What if instead of training these students to work with Christians for the sake of others, we taught them how to work with others for the sake of Christ? This ministry could do a lot if they had 600 staff members on one-campus. But imagine the impact if 600 mission-minded Christ followers worked at one campus.

Most of our ministry environments teach kids how to be church-Christians. Think about it. We meet with Christians, study Christian books, and our conversations largely center around Christian-y things. We pull Christians away from the places they naturally engage (work, school, neighborhood) so they can be part of our Christian club. After all, we need worship leaders and small group leaders and teachers and event planners. Then, we sit in a circle and try to come up with ways to get the people we just walked away from to join our circle! Churches do business lunches. College ministries put on frisbee tournaments. All the while, people in the business world are already having lunch and college campuses already have frisbee tournaments. Good luck getting people to your event – but every college student can easily sign up the college-wide frisbee tournament.

Christian clubs are fine. They’re just not very strategic. Of course, this is the mode we all know and grew up in. It’s comfortable and safe, and easier to write about in a fundraising newsletter. But what if God has already positioned us in strategic places? What if those 600 could be trained to go be hopeful and generous insiders in their secular environments? What if the quickest way to become an insider is to actually be inside?

Test page (part 2)

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In my last post I asked the question: what should be the litmus test of the church? Obviously, there are a number of well-intentioned interpretations who greatly vary about what it means to be the church Jesus intended.

Rather than identify systems, policies, or even beliefs – I think we should look at something different – what we produce. I don’t mean numbers or revenue. I mean – fruit. Jesus said that when we’re close to God, our lives will be evidence.

Simply put, I think the calibration of a church is – does it produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? And, how do you know? Do people outside say that your church has those things? Do your policies and beliefs reflect those things? Do the people who make up your church demonstrate that kind of life? What do you talk about the most – and how would the people around you sum up what it means to be the church? Would they talk about how they are right, or would they talk about what their community is doing?

It doesn’t matter if you show up on Sundays or Wednesdays. It does matter if you’re selfish. I don’t think it matters how many people show up. It does matter that you are joyful.

Too often I read a book about what it means to be the church and it talks about a system they created, or a program they do, or a method of preaching, how to be trendy, or how to get back to the old-school model. You can have the slickest program and have a model that is fundamentally based on Acts 2 or the Nicene Creed – and still have a church full of selfish and bitter people. Maybe we should quit trying to be right, and try instead to be kind. Maybe we should have less board meetings that clarify theology, and more people who ask, “what does love require?”

Test Page

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I was sitting in a doctors office looking through some stuff they had on the tables (flyers, magazines, etc). I noticed that many of these handouts had a similar pattern on the bottom of their page (one I was unable to find online).

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It reminded me of what my new printer had me print and then scan to make sure it was properly calibrated. No matter the magazine, it had the same little calibration section, to make sure each magazine had the right coloring. My guess is that it works this way – each box has a different color, which some part of the printer then scans and says, “yup, that’s true yellow.”

The printer needs to be calibrated the same way no matter what you print.

Many have said, and I wholeheartedly agree, that it takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people. But the calibration of those churches doesn’t change. Yes – there are all different ways to express God’s love, community, and compassion. If you’re going to represent God to the world you don’t get to say whatever you want, you don’t get to believe whatever you want to believe, you don’t get to act however you want to act.

Like you, I’ve walked into churches (or talked to Christians) and thought that it wasn’t quite right. They had a verse. They had an interpretation. They had their own litmus test, and it wasn’t mine. So – who is right?

(stay tuned for part two)

Good news

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I was sitting at an interfaith gathering this week and during the course of a conversation, a woman in her 50s asked me, “why don’t churches talk about sexual assault?”

Most statistics show that around 1/4th of all women and 1/10th of all men are victims of sexual violence . Whether or not we are aware of it, we all know a victim of sexual assault. It’s uncomfortable, it’s personal, and it’s incredibly discouraging – and we don’t spend much time talking about it. The same goes for alcoholism and drug use (about 1/3 of Americans have abused alcohol, 41% have tried marijuana) – we just don’t talk about it much outside of a passing comment about the brokenness of our world.

The above wordle (collection of words where the more common the word is, the bigger it is) is a representation of the impacts of and responses to sexual assault – do you see faith, religion, spirituality, or church mentioned anywhere? Yet, shouldn’t communities of faith be the safest and most healing places for people?

The irony is that this deep hurt, addiction, and shame is exactly what the good news of a healing, freeing, and forgiving relationship with a living God can respond to. Shallow ‘real faith will make your pain go away’ responses aren’t the answer. We should learn how to communicate grace, love, and hope with people’s real pain in mind.

I’m not sure a sermon series on the topic is the answer, but as people who follow Jesus, we should be equipped to talk about and respond to real pain. Our churches, communities, and individual relationships should be the type where people find hope, even when their pain doesn’t go away.