Halloween is awesome


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I am an unrepentant fan of Halloween. Oh, I know it is the devil’s day. I know about its pagan roots. I too learned as a new Christian that I am supposed to bring kids to the church for Harvest Festival: the Christian imitation of Halloween.

But every one of my non-Christian neighbors will be in our cul de sac thirty minutes from now, enjoying one another’s company, hanging out, their children laughing and showing off their costumes and drinking hot chocolate together. People drive from miles around to come to my neighborhood because it is a safe place to bring inner-city kids. How unevangelical would it be to pack ourselves into a minivan and drive away on the one night of the year that my unchurched neighbors want to connect? I remember being a twenty-three year old at my first Harvest Festival and saying to my then fiancé Kari, “Here are nearly three hundred terrific people who could be light and salt in their neighborhoods and we are all here instead.”

Frankly, it is a blast to be in my neighborhood, handing out candy to the families who will come to my door, sitting around the fire-pit, bringing young adults from church to my front yard with guitars and djimbes to sing and generally make our yard the center of all the festivities. We will hand out fliers to our church’s Fall Round Up tomorrow afternoon after church – a “Harvest Festival” of sorts, but one specifically not on Halloween. After all, why should the devil have all the fun!

Excuse me, I have to go grab my cassock and sunglasses. I’m going as Neo from the Matrix. Oh, and if you are reading this on your way to the Harvest Festival, turn around. Your neighbors need you!

P.S. Feel free to critique participation in Halloween if you are also not participating in that other pagan holiday, Christmas, with its germanic tribal fertility symbol, the tree.

The Justice-ification of the Church: Where we went wrong and how we can do better


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Years ago a Catholic priest from India told me, “Ghandi said, ‘I look at Jesus and I want to be a Christian. But then I look at the lives of Christians…and I don’t want to be a Christian.‘”  The great scandal of the church, for Ghandi and for us, is the troubling lack of love shown by those of us who call ourselves “Christian.”

Having made pilgrimage to the Holy Land this spring, I was astonished at how small it is: The events in the Gospels can mostly be seen from each other: Bethphage, the village from which Jesus had the disciples borrow a donkey and her colt, is on the Mount of Olives. From this hill you can look across the narrow valley and over the Brook Kidron at the walls of Jerusalem and the gate Jesus rode through on the day we call Palm Sunday. The temple, from whose courts all four Gospel writers record Jesus casting the money-changers, was just inside the city wall. When Jesus entered the temple and focused on the failings of the religious establishment rather than shake his fist at the Roman occupiers whose Antonia fortress stared down into the Temple grounds, Jesus set the stage for the crowd’s turning on him when he stood before Pontius Pilate five days later. You can walk the Via Dolorosa, along which Jesus carried his cross to the place of crucifixion in minutes. The spot where Jesus was crucified and where he was buried are also remarkably close – so close that both the location of the crucifixion, Calvary, and Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb are under the same roof today. It is stunning how little geography God used in the great saving acts of his Son.

Scandalous also is how small the distance between, “Hosanna. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” and “Crucify Him!”

In the Gospels this took five days. In the Episcopal Church our liturgy places both the Palm Sunday and Good Friday scripture readings on the same day. My guess is that this is, in part, an acknowledgment that many will not prioritize attendance at the commemorations of our Lord’s redeeming acts in the Paschal Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil. But it is also an acknowledgement of basic human nature: The distance between celebrating someone and demonizing them is also remarkably short – because, as humans, we have a remarkable capacity for…small.

With just a little dollop of disappointment we can move from kindness to vitriol in a single motion. We look for scapegoats, rush to judgments, and hold others in bondage with binary thinking. We litmus test and sort people into categories of our own devising. And we wish those short of wholehearted endorsement of the platforms we embrace cast into outer darkness. A few exhibits:[1]

  • Several months ago at lunch I overhear the animated conversation between a socially active pastor of another mainline denomination and an atheist college professor sharing our table. The pastor labeled group after group, “Evil!” until the atheist professor finally asked him, “Where’s the love, man?”[2]
  • A student asked me to breakfast the next morning and confessed (tearfully) that he was considering leaving the seminary. He was trying to grow in prayerfulness and was told that his pleas for his fellow students to act in love toward others was evidence of insufficient commitment to the social causes espoused by his peers. He was certain he would never gain their acceptance.

A progressive friend posted on Facebook several weeks ago, “I am uncomfortable that my church’s stance on every issue seems to completely mirror the culture.” I think he is right…

…but I am not nearly so nervous about aping the culture as I am about the next exit on this highway: the justice-ification of the church.

The conflation of church and culture is surely foolish, and I think, also small. But there is a great Protestant tradition of church by focus group. What I cringe at is the way Christians (progressive Christians in particular, but we are not alone in this), have managed to systematically turn social causes into “justice issues.” We do this with seemingly little self-awareness of the ramifications of these crusades. When we label an issue “justice” we stop working for sensible public solutions and begin brandishing swords. This is never so clear as on social media…

We call the press, issue positions, and forward polemics on our Facebook feeds.

But in the public sphere in a pluralistic society there will always be those who do not endorse our worldview. Can we make room for them? Can we “seek to understand before being understood”? Can we begin with the presumption that people are generally of good will and work from there toward solutions? What if, instead of “justice,” we argued our great disagreements starting with, “How do we find a ‘win’ for everyone?” And, “What will lead to human thriving?” Or better yet, remember that the church is first and foremost a place to worship Jesus Christ. How did the church become ground zero for the activism industry?

“But Matt,” you say, “justice is biblical. The Old Testament prophets spoke truth to power.” Yes, but you are not a biblical prophet, and this is not 2600 years ago. In our day “justice” is not helpful because it can never make room for another. Enraged justice usually results in the shaking of fists and mobs with torches in the night. When we drop the “justice” card then someone is guilty…and they must be punished. “Justice” is not served until the evil is purged.

When we label a disagreement “justice” it generally ends one place: “Burn the witch!”

But I do see examples of hope in the emerging generation of leaders: Two weeks ago a friend who is active in LGBT politics asked me if I would organize a meet and greet between an LGBT political action group and evangelical pastors. Yesterday seventeen young evangelical pastors and thought leaders met with Matthew Vines and others engaged in promoting same-sex marriage. While there was clear theological disagreement, it was a time of relationship building, healing, and mutual respect. Here is another: Next week I will be at a luncheon in the Roman Catholic bishop’s office to discuss spiritual unity between evangelicals and Catholics as brothers and sisters in Christ.

It is a short way down the hill to Jerusalem. It is a short way from the cross to the tomb. It is a short way from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify!”

But it is also a short way the other direction.

Going from “Crucify!” to “Hosanna!” is the exact same distance. It does take more work, but the Prince of Peace went up to Jerusalem and was crucified so that no one else need be.

Next week we will celebrate the forgiveness of both human and institutional sin on the cross. We could join Jesus in the way of that cross, extending our arms in love to all who are near. Perhaps if we did that, those who are far will see and notice. And the scandal of the church will be swallowed in the scandal of the cross.

As that old Indian priest said that day, “I implore you. Make Ghandi wrong. Be Easter people. May the love of our Lord Jesus Christ so shape and form you that all the world would see his mercy.


[1] Out of politeness I will only use examples from my own tribe. Evangelicals and Catholics will be able to think of many of their own examples.

[2] These evils included fracking, pipeline building, driving petroleum based cars, failure to recycle, and the fact that Darren Wilson had not been lynched. (The pastor was white.)


It’s All About Me: How a distortion of “sola scriptura” turned American evangelicals into junkies of the self

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(Apostolic Succession for Newbies, Episode One)

Have you noticed the creeping narcissism in the evangelical church?[1]

Perhaps you have noticed it in the architecture as churches have been remade into the image of the places the world gathers: Foyers into coffeehouses, sanctuaries into concert halls, altars into comedy club stages. Candles and incense replaced with light shows and fog machines borrowed from the nightclub scene.



…and that actually is a nightclub.

Perhaps you have noticed it in the songs we sing. The self-referential lyrics (count how often “me” and “I” appear)…the way the act of our worshipping becomes the subject rather than God…how few of our songs are about the nature and glory of God.)

Perhaps you have noticed it in the felt-needs orientation of our preaching  – With topics chosen by focus group and slickly marketed: “Come for our series, ‘Awesome Christian Sex!’” Or the way the preaching of the word of God has been reduced to a mere interruption in the song service (joining announcements and the offering.)

Surely you couldn’t help but notice it in Victoria Osteen’s recent exhortation, “You don’t worship for God. You worship for yourself.Oh, she was criticized her for it, but is this not a message we too are subtly sending? Perhaps Ms. Osteen is just more honest about it?

 Where did this start?

 The great strength of evangelicalism is a desire to reach people where they are with the Good News of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, without a great deal of both self-awareness and self-discipline, our charisms tend to become our curses. As with most problems, our creeping narcissism is an unanticipated consequence – the end result in our culture of 5 centuries of the B-side of Reformers reclamation of the Bible from “ex cathedra” (infallible interpretation by the papacy).  “Sola scriptura” (the scriptures alone), was the rallying cry. Unfortunately, as “sola scriptura” is popularly articulated today, we no longer need a church at all, we are each capable, called even, to be our own sole interpreters of scripture – the Bible is “self-authenticating, clear to the rational reader, its own interpreter of itself, and sufficient of itself to be the final authority of doctrine.” [2] In other words, each individual’s head is the ultimate standard…and, just like that, the idea of the “priesthood of the believer” has been elevated to a de facto “papacy of the believer.” No wonder we have 40,000 denominations…and no wonder an increasing number people are choosing to stay home from them. After all, if I am my own pope, then I am my own church…which, come to think of it, comes pretty close to making me my own “god.”


Regrettably, this is a wholesale corruption of what the Reformers actually taught. Calvin, Luther, and Cranmer each have notebooks filled with quotations from the early church fathers. Chris Armstrong, editor of Christian History Magazine, writes, “The Reformation is an argument not just about the Bible but about the early Christian fathers, whom the Protestants wanted to claim…you look and you see it everywhere. The Reformers use the Fathers all over the place…Calvin read Augustine…Luther read Jerome. The index of Calvin’s Institutes is filled with an enormous number of quotations from the Fathers. And in the first preface to that work Calvin did his best to show his teachings were in complete harmony with the Fathers. The Protestants…were keen to have ancestors. They knew that innovation was another word for heresy. ‘Ours is the ancient tradition,’ they said. ‘The innovations were introduced in the Middle Ages!’ They issued anthologies of the Fathers to show the Fathers had taught what the Reformers were teaching.”[3] You see, the magisterium, the gathered wisdom of bishops interpreting the scriptures under the lineage of the tradition was not their problem. In fact, they went to great lengths to prove specifically that their teaching was the Fathers!

But alas, we have jettisoned the Reformers’ actual belief in the wisdom of the church’s teachers, whose interpretation was expected to stand in the tradition of the early Fathers. The mess of pottage we have traded it for is a disembodied sound bit. Disengaged from the Reformers reliance on the Fathers, we have what can be cynically referred to as “solo scriptura” – my private interpretation. And when “solo scriptura” is combined with American individualism and allowed to simmer with post-modern “truthiness,” we get a toxic soup of the dystopic self. We then feed this soup to a generation reared as the centers of the universe, then wonder that they are consumed with self. How could they not be?

 …when “solo scriptura” is combined with American individualism and allowed to simmer with post-modern “truthiness,” we get a toxic soup of the dystopic self. We then feed this soup to a generation reared as the centers of the universe, then wonder that they are consumed with self. How could they not be?

The church has consumed “me” like a diet of high-fructose corn syrup. It tasted so good going down, that we did not notice that we grew both addicted to the taste and unable to roll over in our spiritual flabbiness. Worse, the poison has so clogged our synapses that we are unable even to remember what rigorous, healthy spiritual activity was once like.

Pastors have given up expecting meaningful commitment, service, or faithfulness from congregations. I remember suggesting to a pastor of a church of 3500 how transformative it would be to their community if they assembled 350 groups of 10 to meet and read and pray the Bible together in a year. I was stunned when the pastor said, “We have 3500 who attend, but we only have about 50 who are with us.

I am no longer stunned. I have watched how anything that smacks of commitment is sold on its potential to “bless.” This has now extended to our giving. Perry Noble’s church is offering a 90-day money back guarantee on tithing.  Seriously! Giving in order to get. It seems that every week contemporary mega-evangelicalism offers a new narcissistic low-water mark. And just like that, the commodification and monetization of the church is complete.

Where did we think “nothing but you and a Bible” was going to end? Where did we think that reshaping the church after our cultural preferences would lead?

Have you noticed the creeping narcissism? Do you have examples of your own? Do you see a way out?


Next Week: Part 2- Conciliarity: The Early Church’s balance between “rule by the man” (A secular idea adopted by Rome) and “rule by the book” (an Islamic idea adopted by Protestants).


[1] To be fair, mainliners have had this for years, but it plays out in different ways.

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sola_scriptura

[3] http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2004/januaryweb-only/1-12-52.0.html

A faith that will last: A call to ancient-future youth ministry

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It is values driven and data supported. It is life-changing and both church-sustained and church-sustaining.

Click the link then tell me what you think…

Building Faith That Will Last: January 5 Edition of The Living Church Magazine

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.


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 someone 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.

Young Adults and the Church: Will the Mainline benefit from Evangelical Dissatisfaction?


Are you following the hubbub in the blogosphere of the growing disaffection among young adults with all things Evangelical? First Andrea Dilley, who left Neo-Calvinism for an Anglican church, posted Change wisely, dude. She posited that young adults are looking for liturgy. Three days ago Rachel Held Evans posted “Why millennials are leaving the church.” She pegged the issue as young adults outgrowing narrow, simplistic Evangelical answers and desiring greater social engagement. Yesterday Pastor Keith Anderson posted “Millennials, Consumerism and the Idolatry of God in which he suggested that millennials have been over-marketed to and are cynical of a “God about you.”

Will the Mainline see a resurgence from this growing discontentment with Evangelicalism? After all the Mainline is everything all three authors are advocating: We have always done liturgy. We have always been engaged in combating social ills. And, lets face it, we have never been very good at packaging and marketing. Even more, our churches are often strategically located in inner-cities, the very place that upwardly mobile, educated young adults are flocking. Our churches even have the sense of space and permanence they crave. We should be what Millennials flock to!

Will we be?

Don’t bet on it.

Here are three reasons:

1) We don’t have money. Most of our churches are theologically progressive. Progressives tend not to tithe. According to Barna 24% of Evangelicals tithe. Less than 1% of Progressives do. (Here) As a result, we tend to have far less money than evangelicals, for whom eternity is at stake. Related to this (as it takes money to fund leaders) is a second issue:
2) We don’t develop leaders. Evangelicals push toward ordination people who a) Have a lifetime of leadership (student body president, captain of the volleyball team, etc), and b) Have succeeded in a smaller church roles first. Then they c) Train them by mentoring them on the job in their own system of leadership development. We usually find someone who is young and nice and has the desired theology, and, whether or not they have ever led anything before, send them to three years of expensive seminary. They graduate and we put them in a college ministry or small church alone and then wonder why they flounder.
3) We don’t have momentum. In Phoenix alone I can think of 7 Evangelical young adult groups with an attendance of greater than 100 (including 2 more than 500). I cannot think of a Progressive young adult group with more than 30. I have actually heard our people say, “They have 500? What are they doing wrong?” Young adults are not nearly as numero-phobic as Progressives. In fact, since they tend to be dating and looking for social connections, larger events attract them. Unfortunately, we tend to fear large.
Until we solve these three hurdles, most of the crowd will run past us…probably back to Evangelical churches, who are pretty resilient and entrepreneurial. Not surprisingly, Evangelicals have begun to regularly ring my phone to talk about liturgy.
One thing we do have going for us: Some of those disaffected Evangelicals are leaders and some of them join us. When they do, they bring the leadership skills they developed elsewhere to bear in our world. In the Episcopal Church, two incredibly gifted Evangelical crossovers come to mind: Gil Stafford, former national champion baseball coach and college President and Julia McCray-Goldsmith, a former missionary. In our diocesan office, of the five clergy mission-staff, NONE of them was raised in the Episcopal Church. Each came to the church in adulthood from other traditions.
Let me say what non-Episcopalians regularly point out: We have a leadership identification and development issue. And until we address that issue many of those running from Evangelicalism will run right past our door.