Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Welcome To the Freak Show

"Now we're going to have a time of confession. Who would like to go first?"

I had been a part of a college Bible study for six meetings when the leader hit us with that question. There was dead silence. I heard deep breaths, crickets, and I'm pretty sure I heard the guy next to me cuss under his breath. No one was going first. I sure wasn't.

It wasn't that we were perfect; every one of those guys was flawed and fallible. It wasn't that we were prideful; every one of us was aware of his sinfulness and genuinely seeking God through it. It wasn't that we disagreed with the premise; it was right there in front of us, printed in black and white in the Bibles on our laps: "Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed." (James 5:16) Hard to argue with that. It wasn't that we didn't trust the scriptures or want to obey them; it was just that … well … it was weird. These were brand new relationships. It felt strange to confess in that context. I barely knew these guys. I knew I had things to confess, but were these the guys? Could I trust them? Would they be around next semester? It felt too soon to tell, and too soon to confess. Though we didn't have words for it then, I think we all felt the same hesitation. Too soon. Too deep. Too weird.

That wasn't the last time I experienced weirdness at church. Christians are good at being weird. Think about all the weird stuff we do every week.

  • We ask people to sing in public. Where else do you do that? Concerts? Karaoke bars? Rotary club? All equally weird. 
  • We ask people to tell one another things they're ashamed of. Who does that? Not even your lawyer asks for that kind of honesty.
  • We ask people to give away money, and they fall for it.
  • We ask people to read ancient literature. Name one book you've read this year besides the Bible that was written before 2000. Unless you made another one of those New Year's resolutions to read the classics, I'm betting your list is pretty short. 
  • We ask people to close their eyes in public and talk to an unseen being. Try this at your next board meeting and see what kind of reaction you get. 

And that's not even considering the weird things we expect people to do with their dress, their speech, their diet and their calendar. Are some of those things good or helpful or necessary? Sure.

But also weird.

And if you want to get really weird, try a small group. After years of careful and scientific research, I've concluded that the sociological and cultural dynamics present in Christian small groups multiply weirdness by a factor of 87.3.

Off-the-charts weird.

At least on Sunday morning if you're not really into the responsive reading or the Holy Ghost Hop, you can just sit tight and let it pass. In a small group, there's no place to hide.

So why is a small groups pastor talking about weirdness in small groups? Because, like fear, the weirdness seems to lose its power if we just acknowledge it. So let's acknowledge the weirdness right up front. Small groups are weird. But your church is trying to do some pretty spectacular things in small groups — trying to go some place not many people go — so it may take more extreme measures than we're used to. If our relationships are only about having a good time, then traditional measures will do: grab a few beers, watch the big game, play fantasy football. But if we hope to follow the command to "love one another deeply from the heart" given to us by our ancient sage; if we're serious about taking up arms against a common enemy; if we aspire to bring the shalom of heaven to Earth; if we're willing to sacrifice our own interests and die to our old way of life to make much of our King together, then traditional measures won't do.

If you find yourself part of a small group meeting like the one I attended recently where the conversation turned serious and one of the men (only half joking, I think) said, "Is this gonna get weird?" the answer is "Yes!" Or even better: "Oh yes, dear Lord, I hope so!" That's small group life. Welcome to small group community. Welcome to the freak show.

Monday, March 31, 2014

PG-13 Small Groups

My pastor talked about rape and murder in his sermon yesterday. So there's that. I got an email last night from my good friend Rob who brings his five-year-old and six-year-old to service. He was concerned about having to explain rape to his little girl. I don't blame him. There's a tricky balance in the Sunday services between family and authenticity, between the raw and beautiful nature of gospel and the innocence of children. The worship team at my church does a terrific job of walking that line and I'm not about to jump into that quagmire. But Rob's email made me ask the same question about small groups. Is your small group Rated G? I hope not.

Don't get me wrong. I love to hear about small groups who include kids. What could be more formative for a child than watching her parents struggle with the word of God and their community of friends? Small groups can be a powerful tool in building stronger families.

But if your small group never addresses mature themes, I have to question how mature it is. I'm not sure you can truly embrace the gospel of the Incarnate God without at least talking about the messed up world he came to save. Adults sometimes need to talk about adult issues and, out of respect for the innocence of childhood, leave kids out. The mission of the small groups ministry at my church is "growing deep relationships that advance the kingdom of God in dark places." There are dark places in the lives of the people in your group — places of lust, greed, pride, and fear. If you're not talking about them, that doesn't mean they don't exist. And if your group has managed to escape the dark places for a while, that's still no excuse for fleeing from them. To be ambassadors of light in a dark world means we enter into the darkness. It means we need to expose their our to the horrors of sex trafficking and abortion and mental illness and terminal illness. It means we have to leave our Sunday best behind the way Jesus left behind his heavenly robe, and wade out into the filth that covers the land of our sojourn.

That's a hard idea to embrace. It means small group won't always equate to comfort. Small group should always be a safe place, but not always a comfortable one. And here's an even harder word: the choice is yours. You're a grown-up. You have all the authority and ability you need to decide when and how to include kids. Is someone in your group struggling with a particularly R-rated issue? Is your group seeking to bless someone who is not a good example for your kids? If so, then it's absolutely appropriate to separate from the kids for a while.

For the most part, our church has decided that weekend worship services are rated PG-13. We are deeply committed to addressing real issues in a broken world. We are forging new pathways in care for victims of human trafficking, in poverty and homelessness. So we're going to talk nitty-gritty on Sunday. We won't be offensive or profane, but we also won't whitewash the darkness. I hope your small group will too.

The light of the gospel shines brightest and most beautifully against the backdrop of a dark world. As the children's song says, let's "let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!"

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Declining Church

This morning, my friend Jason sent me a link to this article about declining American church attendance. He might as well have sent me an article that says the sun came up today. The report begins with the same kind of stats we've heard before:

  • Church attendance in America has dropped to 36 percent of the population
  • Only two in 10 millennials believe church is important
  • Almost 60 percent of millennials who grew up in church have dropped out
  • Even among elders (those older than 68) only 40 percent believe church is very important. 

Yawn. Church attendance is declining. We get it.

But the second half of the article woke me from my bad-stat-induced coma, because the researchers asked "Why?" Remarkably, here's what they found: the number one reason people come to church is…

To be closer to God.

Far above any other reason, consistent across all demographics, people come to church to meet God. And yet the research says they're not finding him there. "Fewer than two out of 10 churchgoers feel close to God on even a monthly basis."

If our churches aren't facilitating an encounter with God, then what are we doing? Entertaining? Educating? Indoctrinating? Those may be valid pursuits, depending on your faith tradition, but they miss the mark because they miss the market. Believe it or not, the church market is demanding God! People want to encounter the transcendent, eternal, supernatural, spiritual God. I can understand how churches would not give the people what they wanted if the people wanted heresy or compromise or amusement. But they don't! The market demands God and we supply something else.

Think about this another way. Imagine a world where millions of people desperately want vegetables; where everyone likes the taste of vegetables more than meat or bread or even sweets. Imagine people shopping from store to store looking for vegetables. There are websites about where to find the best vegetables. There are podcasts that describe the right way to eat vegetables. There are clubs devoted to growing your own vegetables. There are classes about finding vegetables, using vegetable substitutes, denying the existence of vegetables, and presenting vegetables to others. Now imagine that you're a vegetable farmer. Every week you gather large crowds of these vegetable-craving consumers. And what do you tell them?

"Here's a Twinkie."

I worry that we're doing the same thing: offering people sugary processed filler rather than the real thing.

Now, all of this ignores an important complication: churches can't manufacture experiences with God the way farmers grow vegetables. Church leaders are in the awkward position of facing a consumer demand that they can't meet. God is sovereign and he'll draw people closer to him when and if he pleases. But I wonder if we could at least get out of his way. I wonder if we could stop stepping in to meet the demand with preachers or programs or presentations. I wonder if we should invite the Holy Spirit to show up now and then just wait to see if he does. What would our small groups and church services look like then?

There's another factor being ignored here; namely, what counts as "church". Based on the article, my guess is that when respondents talked about "going to church" they had in mind attendance at a large group worship service. This is also reflected in the reasons they go. Only 10 percent of respondents said they go to church to find community. In our culture, "church" means a performance — an event with a stage and amplification and seating in rows. No wonder people don't find what they're looking for there. In my experience, it is difficult to move closer to God or others in a large group. Almost all of my spiritual growth has happened in circles and chairs — in private prayer or in community with a few brothers and sisters. That's church.

Maybe we shouldn't care much if more and more Americans skip big-stage-performance-church. Would we be happy instead if more and more Americans moved closer to God and his people? Would we be happy if we got the "why" right but the "how" changed? Those are tough questions, but at least they're not boring ones.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Small Groups Chaplains

I was reading in one of my pastor books* about hospital chaplains. The author was telling the story of her service as a hospital chaplain that was part of her seminary training. Nervous, overwhelmed and unsure of herself, this is what happened the first time she was summoned to the emergency room:

“I was paged?” I said to the security guard at the ER desk. She offered me a sarcastic “congratulations” look and went back to her crossword. 

“Uh, I’m from the chaplain’s office?” I said. She pointed to a door that said NO ADMITTANCE and then looked at me like I was an idiot. Apparently my name badge allowed me to go through doors like that. 

I finally found a nurse who would make eye contact with me. I said I was paged, but that I wasn’t sure what for. 

“Trauma one,” she said. 

Inside the trauma room, a nurse was cutting the clothes off a motionless man in his fifties on a table; tubes were coming out of his mouth and arms. Doctors started doing things to him not meant for my eyes and sorely misrepresented on TV shows. Another nurse was hooking things up to him while a doctor put on gloves and motioned for paddles, which he then placed into the motionless man’s freshly cracked– open chest. 

A nurse stepped back to where I was standing, and I leaned over to her. “Everyone seems to have a job, but what am I doing here?”

She looked at my badge and said, “Your job is to be aware of God’s presence in the room while we do our jobs.” **

I've heard my pastor say that he always looks for Jesus when he goes on hospital visits. He looks for the topic, pain, relationship, fear or opportunity where Jesus seems to be camped out, and he just prays about that. So I was taking mental note about how to better minister on hospital visits and then it hit me like a runaway gurney: this is not about hospital visits. This is not just the job of a pastor or chaplain, it's the job of every small group leader.

God is present every time your group meets. Jesus said, "For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”*** The job of the leader is just to look for him. And know that you'll probably find him where people are hurting. As gently as possible, probe the places where people seem to be open to God's presence.

"I know you're hurting. I want you to know you're not alone."

"What do you think God is saying through this?"

"What worries you about taking the next step?"

I have a suspicion that if Jesus were incarnate in DFW in the year 2014, he would spend a lot of time at the Parkland ER and Lew Sterrett Justice Center. He would go to the places where people are hurting, to the places where people need hope. Those places exist in every small group at IBC because we all have personal wounds and prisons.

Where are the dark corners of your small group? Where can you see Jesus moving? This week, as your group members crack open their chests to share about their hearts, their lives, and their relationship to God's word, try to be aware of God's presence in the room.

And be grateful you didn't have to scrub in.

* This is a designation freely given to any book read by a pastor. I learned this from the pastor in the church where I grew up. If it's on the shelf in a pastor's study, Fifty Shades of Gray is a pastor book.

** Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint

*** Matt. 18:20

Monday, March 17, 2014

Cows & Community

Last week I came across an article that revealed recent research about cows. It turns out, cows learn better together. A researcher at the University of British Columbia named Charlotte Gaillard has actually been studying cow learning. She discovered that cows penned individually have more obstacles to assimilating new information than cows penned with a friend. 

Gaillard thinks that the social calves may have learned to be more behaviorally flexible. “Inflexibility in the individually-reared animals can be explained as the result of living in a more predictable environment; social contact introduces variability into the environment, and animals that are reared without this complexity may be less able to cope with it,” she says. By contextualizing her findings within other research, she hypothesizes that the isolated calves may actually have underdeveloped brain tissue in the prefrontal cortex compared with the social calves, or reduced interconnectedness between the prefrontal cortex and other areas of the brain. 

At the risk of comparing everyone reading this to livestock, may I draw a parallel with small groups? 

Christians learn better in herds. 

We need to "stick" small groupies between the scriptures on one hand and their friends on the other. The scriptures themselves encourage this approach. 

Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.
— Prov. 15:22 

Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
—Eccl. 4:12

As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.
—Prov. 27:17

So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God.
—Romans 7:4

As long as our small group members are "stuck" between those two sources of life — the scriptures and their Christian community — growth is more likely to happen. 

There's another example of growth in community from nature: bananas. My staff roll their eyes every time I share this example, but it's true. Christian are like bananas; they grow in bunches. There's a jingle I learned from watching Sesame Street with my kids.

One banana, two banana, one for me and one for you banana.
Count three or four or even more bananas
But bananas can't grow alone. 

This week when you open the Bible with your small group, think about the cows of British Columbia. Maybe raise a milk toast in honor of the spiritual lesson they're teaching us. What's true of cows and bananas is true of Christians. We don't grow alone. We grow in herds…bunches…small groups. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

My Olympic Commute

This may be a sign that I'm watching too much olympics coverage. This morning, like every other morning, I drove to work. But in my head I couldn't stop imagining how it would sound if the commentators from various olympic sports were broadcasting my commute.

"Sweet! What a drive! That was a combo double-lane-change-McTwist / right-on-red. Super-hard to do and he nailed it! Flaming pistols of awesome-sauce!"

"Dan, as we watch Ryan curl away from the house, I think we should remind our viewers how difficult this is. I know driving to work looks easy but it's harder than it looks. It really is a sport. Really."

"Peggy, notice how the song on the radio crescendos perfectly in time with that acceleration to the on-ramp. So hard to do and Ryan pulls it off with elegance and longing. You can really feel the emotion coming through here. He's forlorn and disconsolate. It's almost palpable. I think it's a reflection of his father-wound."

"Well that run was three-one-hundredths of a second slower than his last commute, and I don't know why. Let's watch it again on replay, after which we will still have no idea."

"Ryan is driving uphill now! Uphill! Look-it! Uphill in the snow!"

"I've been to a lot of sporting events. I asked Ryan if he was nervous about this commute. He looked cool and calm and said he has done this thousands of times. He's ready. Also, I've been to a lot of sporting events."

"Was that a turn signal? I can't tell. I can't see anything."

Monday, February 03, 2014

A Wife Who Wants Beauty - Conclusion

Lisa signed a check and touched the pen to her crooked lips. From the window in her office, she could see the picnicking lunch crowd in the park across the street — couples on blankets, nannies with children, puppies, frisbees, smiles. In half an hour, Harold would arrive with chicken salad sandwiches in a to-go sack, and they would take their place amid the flirting summer breezes. Lisa smiled and her smile ran downhill, toward a deeper sense of things. She glanced away from the window to the Matilda Thacker Award.

The award had arrived in the mail and she kept it on a shelf above her desk. It reminded her why she started the agency. Since that December night when the hotel valet thought she had lost her mind, Lisa's charity had grown to a national powerhouse. Macy's Mirror had provided counseling, career assistance, play therapy and plastic surgery for nine hundred women and girls, free of charge.

Macy was the girl with the newspaper bows. She had become Lisa's first client. Two weeks after Lisa had run into the street to retrieve Macy's bow — to pull a tattered, dirty symbol of beauty from the gutter — Macy was enrolled in school and shopping for uniforms at the department store with her name.

There had been no acceptance speech for the Matilda Thacker Award. In fact, Lisa had never again appeared before any crowd, nor in any plastic surgeon's office, nor, for that matter, at her own office at the newspaper. She had quit her job over the phone on the way to Macy's.

The war was over. Her cheek showed the broken lines of defeat. But her eyes told a different story. She kept the award on a shelf where every visitor to her office could see, propped up next to a photo of a homeless girl, a ribbon of newsprint, and an eyelash curler.