Celebrity Jeopardy, Pastor’s Edition

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It is a game we find endlessly entertaining. It pays lavish cash gifts to the contestants – celebrity pastors long on speaking gifts and ego. Part of the appeal is that the game appears unscripted. In reality it is anything but: First come video-venue multi-sites…necessary because “our man” is “da man.” Then book deals complete with manipulated sales. 16,000′ homes? Of course. “An ox is worthy of its hire.” – That’s biblical. Financial transparency? Not in this game, Alex. And, as celebrity stature grows, church boards are re-filled, not with parishioners, but with the pastors of other megachurches. The final page of the script is to re-brand oneself from pastor to CEO. After all, a pastor can’t take three quarters of a million in “winnings” each year. For the IRS, however, “What is a CEO?” is the answer in the form of a question for the ambitious pastor.

Last summer, in a post entitled “When did evangelicals get popes?” I pointed out the ironic similarities between celebrity video-venue preachers and the papacy that Protestantism rose in protest against. Extending the irony has been Pope Francis’ humility this year in contrast to the growing list of celebrity pastor abuses…

This new generation of celebrity preachers do not disclose salaries. They play shady games with parishioner money. They plagiarize while exhorting others not to. They shamelessly teach even children to idolize them. They bully those who would question their bad behavior. This game turns people from parishioners to Svengali following fans and renders the faith foolishness to an increasingly unchurched culture.

Yes, any public figure draws criticism, and envy is an ever present human problem. However, when you have harmed so many through your teaching and lack of financial accountability that former staff and parishioners set up websites to warn others of you, perhaps it is time for us to change channels?

I am told that I should lay off – that celebrity turnstile church pastors are “making Jesus famous”? I say they are making themselves famous, Alex. Not to mention fabulously wealthy. And when someone viewing at home grumbles we are told by the studio audience that their success validates their ministry and that we should not dare to “raise a hand against God’s anointed” (1 Sam. 26:11).

I have also been told that this is a Philippians 1 issue of “whether their motives are false or genuine, the message about Christ is being preached…so I rejoice.” That, however, is Paul saying, “It doesn’t matter what happens to me.” This is much different. This is not a leader sacrificing his wellbeing for the extension of God’s Kingdom, it the systematic fleecing of the flock by celebrity CEOs. A more appropriate scripture would be the condemnation awaiting careless teachers (James 3:1).

I have my own answer in the form of a question: Did Jesus ask to be made famous or followed?

Like celebrity obsessed groupies, the flock willingly participates in their fleecing. They arrive at video-venues by the minivan full. Then stare like pre-teen girls waiting for a pay-per-view performance of “the Biebs” as they wait for the screen to tune in from across the continent…victims of sophisticated manipulations, emotionally steered to avoid the obvious questions.

Contestant: “I will take “idol worship” for $200, Alex?”

Host: “A big lie, a big secret, and a big bully.”

Contestant: “What are Mark Driscoll’s, Steven Furtick’s, and Perry Noble’s books, salary, and treatment of their critics?”

There are tens of thousands of humble servants of God ascending pulpits and standing behind the table of the Lord every Sunday in churches small, large, mega and super-mega. Do your soul a favor, instead of being a consumer of the “show,” join one those humble folk in their humble work. Be a part of something that exercises financially transparency. Give your time, talent and treasure to a community that is about serving and reaching the world rather than the pastor. Your faith life should contribute to more than the Nielson ratings and “winnings” of the latest celebrity “CEO.”

Cut to theme music while contestants appear to be thoughtfully crafting their latest scripted answers.

How long will we remain glued to this show? Because the kingdom of God is not a game.

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To Donald Miller and anyone else considering dumping church: The church works best when you like it least

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I do not know Donald Miller. He writes great books though…books I read, recommend, and give away. Miller made a big splash in the blogosphere this week when he posted, “I don’t worship by singing.” In it he confesses that singing is “not his worship language” (I’m with him, it isn’t mine either).  He goes on to admit, “So, do I attend church? Not often, to be honest.” His reasons boil down to: 1) It is not how he learns. 2) It is not how he finds “intimacy with God.”

A Christian thought leader saying that he has “dropped church,” naturally creates a stir. Those ripples became waves yesterday with the followup he posted to clear things up. In that one he goes on to tell everyone why he was right. He said, and I am paraphrasing here, “The church is a mess,” “your reasons for wanting me to attend are rooted in fear,” “there are other ways to connect with God,” and, my personal favorite, “I’m just not feelin’ it.” As someone who disliked church intensely for my first twenty-five years in Christ, I am willing to stipulate that Miller is correct on all of his critiques. I am just not willing to embrace his conclusion.

The interesting part is that, even though Don calls himself a “post-evangelical,” he still thinks of church through the individualistic lens of the modern American turnstile church (not that other views of the church don’t have flaws, they do, just different ones). Basically Miller defines down the purpose of the public gathering for worship as “how I feel” and “what I get out of this?” Every Christian has had those two thoughts, whether spoken aloud or not.

If you have not articulated those thoughts it was because your next thought was, “Gee, that sounds a bit narcissistic.” Creeping narcissism is pretty difficult to avoid in the big-box church. It is, after all, the fruit of the preference based, target audience specific, focus group tested, “Just you and Jesus” message that modern mega-evangelicalism produces (See “What’s so uncool about cool churches“). If church is about “feelings of intimacy” and “getting something out of it,” then Christians would have given up on church 2000 years ago.

I understand the frustration: Constantly reinventing “relevance” leaves us captive to our own experience. It  becomes like a dog chasing its tail. The reason the church has been clung to for 2000 years is that, unlike the much imitated “seeker model” of the last thirty years, Word and Sacrament are not about “getting” or “feeling” but about being conformed to a Jesus-centered pattern set long ago. As Episcopal priest and former baseball coach, Gil Stafford, once said to me, “The liturgy is like a rock falling into a stream. It rubs the rough edges off of us week after week, year after year. It is an infinitely slow and quiet transformation that is about being with other rocks in the stream as the Spirit works through the years, the prayers, the Sacraments and the community of faith.” It is a long obedience in the same direction. It is about consuming Jesus and being consumed by him. And, I am convinced, the church works specifically best when we do not like it! When we choose to engage and to cooperate with the prayers, and surrender to the Lord of the prayers, and come, kneel, reach out our hands and receive, and “taste and see that the Lord is good,” then we truly worship.

Don Miller is a fantastic writer. He has and will continue to produce works that are well worth the investment of our time and money. And everyone with a keyboard writes things we later regret. The most regrettable line in his post was this one, “I literally feel an intimacy with God when I build my company.” Which was literally when I decided to comment. Of course, all men feel a sense of purpose when they are engaged in meaningful labor. It is an inherent part of maleness given in creation (Genesis 2). That an author with as much wisdom as Don Miller has shown in his books doesn’t see the idolatrous leanings in that statement, is a big yellow warning sign that he has been out of church just a little too long.

Our relationship with the Church should not be about feelings (even if we are feeling creatures), or learning (although learning is nice), or other people, or avoiding spiritual shipwreck. It should be because the Redeeming Lord of all Creation has used the pattern of Word and Sacrament to call out and shape a remnant into his image to participate with him in the redemption of the world.

It is an odd thing we Christians of the Great Tradition (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, many Lutherans) do on Sundays. Oddly dressed people stand before us in garments that seem to say, “I have so lashed my life to the mast of word and sacrament that I am willing to dress like an idiot and drape myself with even more foolishness.” One of these awkwardly attired souls stands up and joyfully announces a message out of place and thoroughly irrelevant to a culture obsessed with its own relevance: “Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” This opening acclamation declares that we have entered another realm, one in which our culture and our preferences are not the measure of our meaning. The congregation responds hopefully, “And blessed be God’s kingdom, now and for ever.” It is a bit of wisdom that we might never come to on our own…that we get through the collective wisdom of the Church, the body of Christ, across space and back through time.

Like Don Miller, I too would like the church to be something I might find meaningful.  The liturgy, developed over two thousand years, and assembled by worshippers who did not fit within their own cultures, makes no such attempt. It is simply about God. And not about the God-who-fulfills-all-my-desires, but about the one who is God-as-he-is-not-as-I-would-like-him-to-be. Every word of the liturgy is about God’s blessedness, not ours. In the words of Mark Galli, “The liturgy immediately signals that our needs are not as relevant as we imagine. There is something infinitely more worthy of our attention-something, someone who lies outside the self.”

The ancient prayers go deep into our pre-rational selves, into our subconscious and mythic selves and transforms our all. As we learn to cooperate with God, the prayers honor and respect and take us. They lift us beyond ourselves to, as friend and priest Jim Clark says, “The Ultimate Mystery who is more than my experience, but who is also in my experience.” As we cooperate, God lifts and transforms our beings, imparting the Gracegiver until every aspect of our being is transformed. In the end, church isn’t about feeling differently or learning stuff. It is about being changed through Sacramental rhythm. And that only happens through time and repetition. Which is why you can’t get it at your company, while hiking, or in Starbucks.

All of which is to say, “Donald, Please come back.”

How do millennials experience your church?

I asked Christopher to guest post after his comments on my “Kinnaman” post were so eerily similar to statements made by millennials in a recent Q & A hosted by one of the nations most effective ministries to millennials led by millennials, PhoenixOne.

Why Millennials are Leaving the Church: A suggestion.

By Christopher Jones

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I graduated college two and a half years ago. Unlike many in my generation, I haven’t stopped attending church. I have, however, stopped being part of the church.

According to most metrics, I haven’t “left.” I still show up on Sundays. But wherever I go, I find myself almost completely ignored.

Our problem: Most American churches are structured around families. If you don’t have a family, you are put into a box. Youth ministry. College ministry. And after that? No one knows what to do with you.

In the modern American church, if you’re not married, you’re not an adult. And we millennials are part of a generation that’s getting married later and later for economic reasons.

It takes a lot longer to build a stable career today than it took our parents’ generation. My parents had me when they were 25. I’ll be 25 in four months. By that time, I will have been enrolled in higher education for nearly twice as long as my parents. I’m unmarried, have never been in a serious relationship, have hardly any money, and have moved regularly to pursue my education. Its next to impossible to work towards marriage in such a situation. My situation is hardly unique.

Inter-generational economic differences are another huge rift in the church that no one is talking about. At one church I mentioned to a middle-aged woman that I was likely spending the next year unemployed. She burst out laughing. For some reason the pressure and debt our generation faces to develop future competitiveness in the emerging job market was humorous.

From the minute we step inside the doors on Sunday, post-college millennials face a wall of negative judgments and assumptions. Those with successful careers wonder why we can’t just “work at a factory or a newspaper like I did when I was your age.” The assumption is that we are lazy and think that we are entitled. A better explanation is that those jobs simply don’t exist anymore. Married people, in both overt and covert ways send us the message that the purpose of Christian singleness is marriage (never mind that Paul said the exact opposite in 1 Corinthians 7, but I digress).

Our generation graduated into a world of part-time jobs, unpaid internships, and student loan debt. A world in which shrinking paychecks meet inflated living costs. Yet from the pulpit we still hear sermons attuned to yesterday’s economic concerns. Sermons about not working too hard and not making your career into an idol ring hollow when you’re working late hours struggling to make next month’s rent.

Whatever the cause is, it is certainly not that the church is too conservative. If liberal politics were why we left the church, then we’d be flocking to churches with liberal politics. Yet mainline Protestant churches have declined much more sharply over the past ten years than conservative ones.

No, we millennials often embrace liberal politics as a substitute to fill some of the void that the absence of religion leaves in a person’s soul. Liberal politics provides a supportive community working towards a common goal and offers a promise of an ultimate end state of justice and equality. It’s a substitute for religion, not a cause for rejecting it.

A person can personally believe in salvation through Jesus Christ without going to church. A person can feed the poor and care for the sick without belonging to a congregation. What they cannot do alone is become part of a fellowship of believers. And if our generation doesn’t find that fellowship at church, we’ll stop going.

In short, we millennials just want to be treated like adults. We don’t want to be catered to. We don’t want to be entertained. We certainly don’t want to be eyed suspiciously as some sort of dangerous element by people more interested in passing judgment than trying to understand what life is really like in your twenties in modern America. We want to be included. It’s not that hard. We’re human beings like the rest of you, and we’d like to be treated as such.

*Christopher Jones is an aspiring historian of the ancient Near East currently working towards completing his Master’s Degree in Biblical Archaeology at Wheaton College. He blogs about the ancient Near East at http://riversfromeden.wordpress.com/.

The church isn’t a restaurant. It’s culinary school.

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Last week’s “The church doesn’t exist to feed you” post pushed lots of people’s buttons…mainly because I put myself in the awkward position appearing to argue against the Bible. Let me morph the analogy a bit…

For most of my Christian life I disliked church. REALLY disliked it.

Not bored, as in “I would rather watch my team play.”  Not, “Oops I forgot to set my alarm.” But a tension in the neck that ruins Saturday date night when I realize that in the morning my wife expects me to get up and go to church sort of a dislike.

It wasn’t a God problem. At 18 I fell in love with Jesus. Soon after I developed a crush on the Bible. I love serving others. Most weeks I would rather do ministry than go on vacation. But church? Not so much.

I found church relentlessly reductionistic: four songs, sermon, pass the hat, then off to lunch. The best part of that liturgy was the lunch. I had an undergrad degree in the Bible and a pile of master’s credit in theology. Give me the text and I could give you the conclusion to nine out of ten sermons. I was more than bored. I was convinced Sunday worship was utterly irrelevant.

Can you relate just a little? Have you ever sat in church and wondered, “What is this getting me, besides 10% poorer?”

Part of the problem was my mental image of the church: I saw it as a restaurant designed to feed me.

Think about what happens at a restaurant:

            -You choose one you like

            -You drive to it

            -Someone seats you

            -You order what you are in the mood for

            -Then you eat the meal and sit in judgment on it: “I like this”,  “I don’t like that.”

A restaurant is a narcissistic, preference-driven experience. Which is fine for a restaurant, but it is a certain kind of soul death when I view the church that way.

Lobster.036My wife and I once went to Pappadeux’s on “all you can eat lobster night.” We watched people with butter dripping down their forearms and chins, eating three and four enormous lobsters in a single sitting. It was as revolting as it sounds. You can imagine the girth of people who consume 5000 calories before dessert. When we use the church as a restaurant, and sit back waiting for someone to serve us we will either go home hungry or huge.

But what if we changed our perspective? What if we saw the church less like a restaurant and more like culinary school.

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While a restaurant is a place of preference that exists to meet MY desires. Culinary school is a place of perseverance where one comes to be equipped to feed OTHERS. Culinary school is something you invest your time, talent and treasure in because you have a sense of calling.

In Ephesians four, Paul describes us as “baptized into one body,” “living lives worthy of our calling,” “in the unity of the Spirit” and THEN Paul portrays God as giving gifts “to equip the saints” to change the world …in the case of culinary school, through tasty, nourishing, healthy, well-prepared, well-presented food.

The Church does not exist to feed us. It exists to equip us.

The “church,” “ecclesia” in Greek, literally “the called out ones” have been “called out” specifically to be equipped through Word, Sacrament and discipline to return to the world and call others to the banquet table of God’s great love feast.

Think about the joy that happens over a table in a great little neighborhood bistro: Joy is made possible in culinary school. Culinary school is the place where:

-You sell your stuff, pay big tuition dollars, and move into a bad apartment, all because you are committed to a goal

-You get a set of tools – really good ones!

-You learn a new set of skills

-You are in a community of people with a vision

-It is also a place where there is tremendous conflict as you learn your craft…but a place with support and encouragement and accountability also

-They set you in front of a dangerous stove and let you play with the nobs, and try mixing stuff up and seeing how it tastes and hope you don’t blow the place up while you learn

All so your class can go out into the world with a vision for places where people will be fed and cared for and real community built.

That, friends, I would suggest to you, is what the church is supposed to be:

-Those “called out”

-Equipped with tools and knowledge

-Allowed to practice

-Giving grace to one-another, with support and encouragement provided

-A community where conflict is expected and forgiveness extended

-A community where we are playing with dangerous tools: the Keys to the Kingdom of God

-A community with a mission to change the world.

That is why the church asks people to spend valuable time seeking God, give 10% of their money, and serve others…because Jesus and his kingdom is just so important. We are all busy. But we find time to do what we want to do. What if we fell so in love with Jesus and his call on our lives that we make HIM our priority, and the culinary school that is the Church the place where we are equipped?

In the Christian life one is only truly blessed when they are in the community of faith, giving themselves to that community and giving themselves and the Gospel message away to create a different world.

What about you?

-Have you met the Master Chef, Jesus the Messiah? Have you given your life to him by faith? Have you been baptized as the public entrance into that faith?

What is your view of the Church? Have you been showing up, as at a restaurant, to be fed? Or are you coming to be equipped and move out to change God’s world?

The world awaits. It awaits the flavor and seasoning and the freshness that can only come when we step into God’s mission. It awaits the beauty and warm relationships that happen when we do our parts and dish up a big steaming bowl of the goodness of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

There is the aroma of Christ on those who serve (2 Cor. 2:15). There is the taste of the goodness of our God.  There is a beauty for the eye to behold when the presentation is with grace.

Like a restaurant that hasn’t opened, the neighborhood might not know the wonderful things in store for them until they begin to smell the aroma of Christ in your kitchen and you begin to serve God’s recipes at the banquet table of the Kingdom. Are you waiting to be fed or being equipped to taking your gifts into the world? A hungry world awaits its Savior.

David Kinnaman is wrong: How the church really lost the millennials & what we can do to keep the next generation.

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(A letter to youth pastors, senior pastors, parents, and church boards)

David Kinnaman is really smart. He writes good books too. However, I question the title and premise of his book, You Lost Me. Did the church “lose” our young adults, as Dr. Kinnaman asserts, by being fearful, anti-science, controlling and hostile? I would like to suggest an alternate theory:  The church didn’t “lose” the millennials at all. They were simply never actually in church to begin with.

At this point it is axiomatic that millennials are in an unprecedented exodus from the church.* Books are being published, “You Lost Me” conferences held, and churches are going to great lengths to address the issue of young adults distancing themselves from evangelicalism.[1] These efforts usually result in passionate appeals for market-driven changes to the practice and theology of the church. There is a danger here: If we start where Dr. Kinnaman does, with what young adults say without first examining the context that led them there, we will only perpetuate our problem.

How Did We Get Here?

Young adults in Barna’s qualitative studies have compelling stories to tell about the church being fearful, controlling, anti-science, and mean to the LGBT community. Surely those stories need to be listened to. But when we stop and ask ourselves, “What was the last ministry those millennials were a part of?” For most, the answer is the youth ministry. And when we consider that the 15-year-old youth group member of a decade ago is the 25 year-old non-attender of today, a question starts to form:  Did something happen in the youth room that might have caused this?  Follow my line of thought through the dots of what we did in our youth rooms and see if the millennial abandonment doesn’t seem a natural, if unintended consequence…

It Seemed Like Such A Good Idea At The Time

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In the 80′s and 90′s, while mainline churches disinvested in young people, evangelicals began imitating successful parachurch ministries to “attract” students with games and activities. But what the parachurch did in neighborhood living rooms with careful evangelistic purpose was a bit less purposeful (even if “Purpose Driven”) in most church youth rooms. Regardless, evangelism was in. Rigorous discipleship was out.

As we moved into the 2000’s, bands, fog machines and light shows became the youth room rage. Tim Elmore dubbed today’s young adults, “the overindulged generation.”[2] The church gladly played along, “wowing” them students with noise, technology and millions of pizzas. Students were segregated away from the grownups on Sunday morning in a new idea: the “youth service.” The model of removing youth from the sanctuary, was dubbed early on “The One-eared Mickey Mouse.[3] The youth service essentially turned the “student ministry” into a parachurch ministry on the church property – perhaps Christ-centered in its message and developmentally appropriate, but segregating youth from the larger faith community in order to do programs “attractive” to students.

Segregation: The Drug Of Choice

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The entire church embraced this paradigm shift. It was the drug everyone wanted: Parents wanted their kids to like church. Pastors wanted undistracted parents listening to their sermons. Worship leaders wanted to avoid the complexity of pleasing multiple generations. Youth Pastors liked the numbers and accolades. Kids liked the band and shorter message. On top of that, donors were excited to write large checks to build expensive facilities with the promise of reaching lost and hurting kids. And if our metrics are seats filled and satisfaction surveys, it looked like it was working. But what are the long-term effects of segregated, program-driven student ministry?

Many students graduate from high school…without having ever seen the inside of the sanctuary or meeting the senior pastor. In effect, without having ever connected with the larger Church.

In the new model, students develop the crucial affiliation bond not with the church or its leadership, but to the youth pastor and youth program. Because youth pastors have high turnover, new youth pastors have to continually “win” over the last youth pastor’s group. Students get used to being “won” and begin to expect adults to cater to their desires and preferences. The One-Eared Mickey Mouse, led by entrepreneurs with little theological training, becomes what the market demands: the great show kids desire and the teaching parents require: just enough “God” to motivate kids to avoid risky behaviors like drugs and sex.[4] Because youth pastors are generally people of spiritual passion and commitment, many students graduate from high school having had a real experience of spiritual transformation but without having ever seen the inside of the sanctuary or meeting the senior pastor. In effect, without having ever connected with the larger Church. In this model, older adults no longer have a role in the formation of the young, parents, who have outsourced their children’s spiritual formation, often oppose a rigorous transformational faith, and the young have no interest in taking their place in the concerns and councils of the church…so students graduate from the youth group into the next thing that will cater to their preferenceslike the local Starbucks.

An Assembly Line That Builds Self-focussed Christians

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In fairness, this didn’t start in the youth room. The church shuttles our young down an assembly line from the nursery to the children’s rooms, then to the junior high room, then the high school “youth service.” Then we graduate them to college groups. No one seems to notice that nowhere in that system did we bother to connect our young people to the church at all. 

We have treated students as a market to be pandered to in order to fill youth rooms. And, now that it is time for young adults to take their place in extending the Kingdom of God through the life of the Church, they are, as one would expect, wondering what we are going to do next to woo them. Should we be surprised that they are failing to become mature Christians, participating and leading in the body of Christ? Rather than “equip the saints for the work of ministry,” we have infantilized them. [5]

How did we not see this coming? How did we fail to connect the dots? Instead of connecting them to God and his church, we, with Pavlovian discipline, conditioned our young to jump from church to church as consumers of glitzy religio-entertainment. We systematically taught those with the most to give how to take and take and take.

Are there other factors? Of course there are. For one, parents have largely stopped passing on the faith in the home. For another, the evangelical church has lowered its ecclesiology to something akin to “we exist to be entertain you.” However, right between those two polarities stands a ministry that could bridge the gap: the youth ministry. How? To start with we can drop the misshapen narrative – the narrative that we “lost them” by giving the young too rigorous a theology and by being hostile and negative. Although problematic, fear, negativity, and rigor simply do not tell the whole story at thousands of churches. And trying to un-lose a generation by again pandering to whatever the latest market research says millennials want to hear is not only to fail to be faithful stewards of both the Gospel and them, it is to repeat yesterday’s mistakes.

What now?

The exodus of young adults from the church is a reality caused, not primarily by cultural change or negative message, but by ill-advised leadership decisions by youth pastors, senior pastors, parents and church boards. We did this to ourselves by investing in segregationist youth ministries that proved ultimately unhelpful. What we can do in response? We can repent of where we failed them in their youth rather than by again pandering to where we have left them as young adults.

Then, Youth pastors, pastors, parents and board members, lets put students into the sanctuary on Sunday morning. Reclaim rigorous discipleship, multi-generational relationships, and youth serving as full members of the church. Challenge and equip parents to spiritually lead in their homes. Re-invision youth ministry as youth who DO ministry, pursuing and extending the faith connected to the entirety of the community of faith, the church.

Together lets make sure the next generation of young people does not leave the church when they leave our youth rooms.

*A followup post by a Millennial: How do millennials experience your church?

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Hey hateful hater, big churches can be beautiful too.

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Or: Some churches I like and why megachurch pastors should be reading the cultural tea-leaves.

Even friends are beginning to ask, “Why are you so anti-mega church?” I would like to say once and for all that I am NOT against churches being large. I hope every church preaching Jesus grows. I want the Kingdom of God to be extended. I believe the local church in mission to the world is the biblical, historical, and reasonable way for that to happen.

I am also not against large church pastors. Some of my best friends are large church pastors (sorry, I couldn’t resist that one). But, honestly, I don’t know a single large church pastor who does not love God and want others to know Christ. I am certain there are pastors who are shysters-there are shysters in every profession. I just don’t know of any of those, and I know a pile of pastors.

So what am I doing critiquing the dominant model of church on the American landscape? Merely raising questions about uncritically held assumptions. Why? Because EVERY good thing has a downside. Unanticipated consequences exist for every “win.” God can and does bring good out of bad…but correspondingly, every good thing has bad that can come from it. I am simply looking at our current popular ministry practices and asking, “Does anyone see the backside of this coin?” Is anyone asking, “Where will we end up if we keep driving down this road?” I have been quite surprised at the defensiveness this has caused. A defensiveness, not of core issues of the faith, but of a vision of the church less than 40 years old.

Be that as it may, I do believe big can be beautiful. I would like to list a few large churches that I really like. This is not an exhaustive list of “good” churches but a brief sample of some doing things well…

Redemption Church, Phoenix: (6000ish) They are multi-site, but each site has its own teaching pastor. They develop lots of mission-thinking preachers and leaders. Each pastor teaches the Bible in 45 minute sermons, and are packed with youth and young adults seeking “meat.”

Scottsdale Bible Church, Scottsdale: (7000ish) They planted churches and then began to do multi-site video-venues. I don’t like that part. However, they have trained and developed leaders for their own and many other churches, and they have actively given their people and money away to scads of other churches.

Mission Community Church, Gilbert: A large, fast-growing suburban church that reinvented itself as the Micah 6:8 “Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God” church. They have an army of suburbanites thinking about giving time, talent and treasure to create good in the world.

New City Church, Phoenix: (600) Discovering liturgy, developing young adults, trying to take people deeper. This fast growing church is riding the wave of young adults moving to downtown Phoenix.

Church of the Resurrection, Chicago: (1300ish) They have tripled in the last five years, almost all with college and young adults. Liturgy, charismatic gifts, an army of rotating musical genres, robust Christian education from Wheaton College professors, and a youngish senior pastor who might be the oldest guy in the building.

Church of the Incarnation, Dallas: (1500ish) A fast growing traditional church in the central city. Lots of different musical genres, solid liturgy, strong teaching. Decided they needed to raise double-digit millions to expand. Raised almost twice that much.

Church of the Holy Cross, Sullivan’s Island: (1000ish) Great youth ministry led to great men’s ministry. A church specializing in venues of 300 or smaller for services to become the church where “everybody knows your name.” An interesting vision in a small beach town.

St. Barnabas on the Desert, Scottsdale: (700) Not a large church, but my money is on them becoming one. They have several hundred folks involved in contemplative practice, preach from a humbling level of prayerfulness (the senior pastor prays like 25 hrs a week), a group of retirees will serve anyone, anytime, anywhere, and they have a creative young staff.

There are a lot of churches that love people, have committed volunteers and want to share the Good News of Jesus. What do the churches on this list have in common?

1) They teach the Bible 2) They value young people 3) They foster relationships 4) They have a desire to take people deeper in Christ and do that by helping them engage in Christian practices and serve rather than just learning dogma 5) and more and more, they are exploring the totality of Christian history as part of those practices.

So, there are big churches that I really like. And, yeah, in light of a growing mountain of data[1], I do have serious questions about the way popular Christianity is doing Church and whether it has staying power. Again, I am not criticizing motives but rather methods. I am leery of the way the Church has hitched its wagon to the culture of preference. When the culture changes, and it is changing rapidly, what will a church built on being “relevant” and “just like” the culture do? Will it give up beliefs and sit with empty buildings? Or will it change its theology to remain “relevant”? For centuries large swaths of the church embraced slavery to keep the seats filled. What will this generation’s slavery be? What will pastors be willing to preach or willing to stop preaching to keep the lights on? 

Pastors can defensively criticize the messengers or look at the data and try to be in front of the trends when they arrive. The failure to anticipate change in a big-box facility has catastrophic potential. If current directions continue, the donut hole of young adults will become entire missing generations.

The original mega-church, the Crystal Cathedral, was sold in bankruptcy to a new Roman Catholic diocese in 2012. The Crystal Cathedral will not be an isolated instance. That is not “hating.” It is sounding a warning before our suburban churches, built as surrogate main streets for housing tracts without town-centers, become ghost towns. Big can be beautiful. It can also be sold at auction to the highest bidder when the culture takes a left-turn evangelicalism missed.Beautiful-Bodie


[1] Including: Luis Lugo’s, “The Decline of Institutional Religion”(goo.gl/DiR6A), which describes 2008’s Pew Forum report that those in their 20s and 30s attend church at one half the rate of their parents and one quarter the rate of their grandparents. Brett Kunkle listed seven other such research reports in 2009 (goo.gl/s1vnv). Depending on the researcher, between 60 percent and 88 percent of churched youth will not attend church in their 20s (Time, 2009, Lifeway, 2010). Last year the Pew Forum confirmed the data in a follow-up carried in USA Today (http://wp.me/p2Gq9e-4u). As did this year’s “Hemorrhaging the Faith” study from Canada.

I’ve been found out! Retraction issued on “evangelical popes” post

apple_lSnark MeterHIGH.001My blog post of three days ago “When did evangelicals get popes” (http://wp.me/p2Gq9e-kb) has generated more hits in less time than any post I have put up before now. Apparently, however, I don’t exactly have my facts straight…

Someone in North Point’s media team is demanding a retraction for three things: 1) They do not have a holographic Andy. 2) They do not have security for holographic Andy and 3) They actually do develop lots of preachers, as Andy isn’t the only one preaching. I do want to be fair, so let me retract each of these inaccuracies with the care I was accused of not giving:

1)    No hologram: I was told by a seminary professor who sat in the front row at the North Point main campus one Sunday that the video at North Point has Andy in “a holograph so lifelike that they have security to keep people from going on stage to play with it…it took a million dollar investment from a former CNN employee.” This was also described as “holographic” on multiple media outlets (Slate, CNN, MSN). Apparently Andy is actually broadcast on a very high definition giant screen in 2D. According to North Point’s media corporation website, “It …portrays the communicator in life like proportionliterally walking back and forth about 6′ tall.” This was mistaken by my acquaintance, CNN, Slate and MSN as “holographic 3D,” …but is in no way like what they did with Tupac at Coachella, which has been described as “lifelike” and “literally walking back and forth.” Henceforth I shall refer to this technology as “lifelike, super-high def Andy.” It is interesting that this person made no mention of my million-dollar figure.

2)   No security. The person demanding the retraction did confirm the North Point does have “ushers” that protect the front of the stage and prevent people from going on stage with the non-holographic but utterly lifelike, super-high def Andy. But NO security.

3)   North Point actually does develop preaching leaders. Since real Andy is not the only one on the preaching rota, they are not failing in my actual argument – that video-venue is idolatrously man-centric, GMO crop-like dangerous in its lack of diversity, and fails to develop other preaching voices, making it a long-range train wreck for the Church.  According to North Point’s Wikipedia article there are 41 churches and “strategic partners” in the US and abroad. From a survey of 9 of those “partners” websites, part of being a partner is video-Andy. So we have 41 facilities with “site pastors” all watching Andy (or the other select few on the rota) preach. However, I am assured, this IS developing preaching voices just as if each of those 41 churches had 41 preachers preaching their own messages each week.  Yeah, that math makes sense to me.

North Point’s strength has been its ability to poke fun at itself (“Sunday Morning” parody & the ipod band). I was thinking that NP would be the video-venue church that with the ability to be self-reflective. Perhaps my critique hit a bit too close to home. At least North Point is reading stuff other than their own. I have suspicions the others I named don’t read anything not written by themselves. But perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps we aren’t just watching Big Brother? Perhaps Big Brother is watching us too?

Whether or not andy is in 3D or 2, I still maintain that the video-venue church is like the really pretty girl with tons of issues. You know you shouldn’t date her, you know it won’t end well, but you can’t help yourself, she is just so darn attractive you can’t say no.

When did evangelicals get popes?

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The big trend in American evangelicalism: the multi-site video-venue church. It promises to leverage the teaching acumen (not to mention star power) of big name preachers to extend the Kingdom of God.

Has anyone stopped and asked, “What in God’s name are we doing?”

Think about it – we started the Reformation over one man having too much authority in the Church, yet today hundreds of thousands meet in “multi-site” video venues watching preachers like Mark Driscoll or Craig Groeschel or Perry Noble in a box. The new gold standard of this movement is 3D holographic Andy Stanley, complete with security to keep people from going up on stage to play with it…or him.

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Think about it while detaching yourself from your favorite multi-site, mega big-box preacher: Isn’t hitching ourselves so fully to one man’s teaching just a little odd? Doesn’t it smack, just a tad, of man-following? Even idolatry?

And, if “it isn’t about me,” as one multi-site preacher is fond of saying, then why not take your nine sites and train up eight new young preachers? Wouldn’t that be a healthier model? What happens to the church if the guy it “isn’t about” gets hit by a bus?

I am not saying that these preachers are not really, really great communicators. I am not saying that they wouldn’t be great guys to get a beer with and talk football or soteriology. But what does it say about us that we spend a million dollars to make Andy Stanley into the Sunday morning version of Tupac at Coachella?

How is this not worse than what we condemn our Roman Catholic brothers for? I don’t know a single Catholic that would be ok with the Pope being piped in for the sermon every Sunday. They laugh at the idea. I know. I asked.

How is the evangelical world embracing 7-10 brand-name preachers across the country not the ecclesiological version of GMO crops? Let’s just call it like it is: these men are de facto evangelical popes.

Some will say, “Yeah but Mark Driscoll and Perry Noble don’t speak ex cathedra.” Really? Their devotees quote them as if they do. In a nod to mega-pastor Steve Furtick’s statement, that they are “making Jesus famous,” doesn’t it seem as if Jesus isn’t the only one they are “making famous”? Not to mention rich.

To be clear, I am not attacking large churches, or video screens. I am not even attacking the bloated clergy salaries paid by churches whose boards are made up of other mega-church pastors – although somebody should. I AM attacking a model of leadership: The multi-site, big personality church that trades the Ephesians 4 model of equipping others and giving leadership away for a model that makes “the man” a black hole of money and Kingdom energy.

Evangelicalism’s strength has always been its willingness to engage the culture to make an impact on lives. The backside of that coin can be an amazing short-sightedness. Does no one wonder what the unintended consequences of our new evangelical popes might be?

So before we cast stones at our Catholic friends for man-following, perhaps we should remove the video screen from our own eye.

You Don’t Seriously Think… What we do in church matters?

This is the first in a series I am calling “You Don’t Seriously Think…” about ecclesiology – how we should do church. Feel free to join the conversation. You can agree, disagree or file ideas away for future cud-chewing, which is actually a great thing to do. You do not need to agree with me, indeed, that is how “iron sharpens iron.”


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Someone wrote today with a comment expressing an idea that at least a hundred people have made on thegospelside blog. Here it is…

“It doesn’t matter how the message of Christ is brought, as long as it is being spread, all glory goes to Him. God works in more ways the one, think about it, each person is different and responds differently to situations. Therefore if church is done in just one way, not everyone will respond the same way. I say do church the way God wants you to, weather (sic) that means with hymns or what looks similar to a night club. That’s the beauty of church, finding what moves on your heart and where God wants you to be.”

Hi Leslie,

Thank you for commenting. You articulated the sincere, well-meaning belief of most of evangelicals I know.  A belief that I once held. It is based in a positive movement toward unity in Christ. So it is sincere, but there is a back side to that coin that makes it one that I don’t think we want to carry. So let me push back a bit…

I am actually saying that how we bring a message does matter. How leaders lead matters. That if this is really about souls, it really matters. This isn’t about style at all, actually. Style is merely what you point to, like symptoms of a disease.

The message matters too.

So a mainline church that has buried the Gospel and preaches pablum matters.

A megachurch that hides the Gospel under moralism matters.

People going home without actually participating in the worship of the living God matters, regardless if that happened in a “relevant” church or an irrelevant one.

Faith as being an hour we attend and a small group rather than a complete conversion of our beings really, really matters.

I don’t just know this from Scripture and the 20 centuries of the faith, I know it from the hundreds of comments on this site about how wounded, abandoned, and left flat people have been from well-meaning Christians and the church. For a year, hundreds of people have gone to a non-media distributed blog someone linked them to on Facebook, logged on and poured out their pain. Gee whiz, it isn’t even what the post was about! These are people who should be surrounded by a community of joy and hope and love in Jesus…umbilically tied to a group that comes together to surrender their lives to the Living God, finding power as they are changed. There are communities that ARE like that, to be sure. But too many of us are buying the book and copying what church X did in Little Rock or LA or wherever instead of loving people and going to them.

The attractional model is about “coming” as a passive response. The missional model is about “going” as an active, Matthew 28 Great Commission response. That is a core difference. One that matters.

So the Church, as the body of Christ matters. And that means how we do it matters too. Because God matters and so do his peeps, both those in and outside of the church.

And, it should be said, this is not about 4 songs and a sermon vs the liturgy. “Come here our organ and choir and see our stained glass” is not any different from “Come hear our cool band and see our cool light show.”

So lets talk about how to love God and be the Church in a way that harms less people. This is not about the “packaging” a message. It could be about repurposing the Sunday gathering in order to honor God, be more biblical, uses the gifts of all Christians and reach a lost and hurting world, many of whom’s pain was caused by us!