The Point of Church

Everybody comes to a church service on Sunday, looking for something. For some, that something is inspiring worship and engaging preaching. For others, it’s a sacramental experience and a sense of authenticity. For still others, it’s to feel something – and still others, it’s cultural relevance. In some ways, I guess, the list for what people expect on Sunday is as long as the list of people who come on Sunday.

We’re told that millennials are leaving the church in droves. And this rise of the “Nones” – who claim no connection to Church or organized religion – is a cause for concern that has churches responding different ways. Some seek to be on the cutting edge of church – with cool music, the right ambiance, and a hip preacher. Others seek to be authentic, and focus on a spiritual experience. Both, it seems to me, can work – and are working.

But it causes me to wonder: in both cases, is the focus on the wrong place? In both cases, are we trying to figure out what millennials want – instead of what they need? For that matter, do we try to do that with every generation and group within the Church?

It’s so easy to do what I mentioned in last week’s blog – divide people up by voting bloc. And while it’s no surprise that political candidates do this, should we do this in the Church? Should we be asking: What do millennials want? Or seniors? Or single people?

Instead, should we be asking: What do they NEED?

In strikes me that Church will always be one step behind culture when it comes to trying to figure out how to appeal to people’s wishes, wants, and desires. How would we ever think we could beat Madison Avenue and Hollywood at their own game? For that matter, why would we want to?

Our job isn’t to meet wants or felt-needs, but to point people to Jesus. To lead them into His presence, where they are changed. This doesn’t mean we ignore methods, or opportunities. It doesn’t mean church should look like it did in the Golden Age (whenever that was). In fact, churches often think they are standing on principle when they choose to resist change – when, in fact, often they are standing on traditionalism. This is when we confuse method with message. Tradition is the truth handed down through the Church through the ages. Traditionalism is the way WE feel most comfortable handing down that truth. And frankly, in too many churches, traditionalism trumps the tradition.

All of this is to say: There are plenty of ways to get church wrong, and only one way to be sure we get it right. Focus on Jesus. Trust the Spirit to guide. Lead people into the presence of God. And all of this is done with the goal of changed lives – lives changed by encountering the very real presence of a Living God.

If this is our goal, and our direction, how we do worship quickly fades behind the more important issue: Who we worship.

So, give me a cool band, or no instruments at all. Give me a preacher who is 28 and hip, or 78 and needing a hip replacement. Turn off the lights and light the candles, or turn up the lights and pull out the hymnal. Sit in a pew in a grand cathedral, on a folding chair in a “big-box” church, or grab a patch of dry ground under an olive tree. Share communion in little cups filled with Welch’s, or in a chalice filled with wine. Pray the Lord’s Prayer, or a prayer from the heart.

None of these are the point. The point is simply: what helps bring us into the presence of God, where we can be changed? What matters most is not what we see and feel, but what is and what becomes. And what is, is God. Among us. With us. Leading us to become more like Jesus. And that’s worship where every one can find their place.

And that’s it. Unless you, dear reader, are a part of the church I serve – Fern Creek Christian. If so, read on. Sunday, the sanctuary will look a little different. With renovations nearing completion, we are beginning to use the new lights we have installed. This means that, beginning this Sunday, the sanctuary might feel different to you. Some will like it. Some, I’m sure, will not.

I only ask that you remember what matters most: now how we feel, but what we become. So, while I am very grateful for all that we have accomplished in our building renovations, I am most excited about what God is accomplishing in our lives.

What Voting Bloc Are You?

I don’t need to tell you this, but we’re in an election year. Sorry; you just can’t get away from it, even on this blog. And every election there is one constant – discussion of “voting blocs.” Politicians and pundits divide people up into categories, and then proceed to say how many of each a candidate has to get to win.

So, for example, they’ll say: Hillary’s got the Latino vote; Trump is counting on white male voters. Hillary has the unions; Trump needs the evangelicals. And those are just some of the bigger voting blocs. But they are not the only ones. Oh, no. There are plenty of ways to slice, dice, and categorize the American voter.

For example, there’s the “vaping” voter bloc. What, you don’t know what vaping is? How 2006 of you. Or how about Uber drivers? They motor for money. And they vote.

There’s also those who advocate for a higher minimum wage, or the voting group that wants to see all GMO food slapped with a label?

I guess I kind of feel left out for not having my own voting bloc. So I’m starting my own. It’s a group of tall, thin middle-aged men who like to read, hike, drink decaf tea, listen to The Lost Dogs, and make jokes that no one else thinks are funny. That may only be a voting bloc of one; but, hey, it’s mine. You’re welcome to join me (if, of course, you meet the very strict criteria).

Right now, number crunchers for Clinton and Trump are sitting behind computers, figuring out just how many of what blocs each has, and how many they need. In other words, political operatives are figuring out how to label Americans to get just enough of them to vote for their candidate.

But it’s interesting how that’s the opposite of what Jesus does. When we come to him, he doesn’t label us (oh, you’re a white guy, or a black woman; or, you’re gay or Republican or rich or a redneck). Instead, Jesus sees us as human. As a person. As one in need of the love and grace of God. Which means that when we say Yes to Jesus, we are choosing not to identify first as one labeled by: the world, or our feelings, or our past, our struggles or our successes. Instead, we are simply called: His. Child of God. Co-heir with Christ. Friend.

So, you can have your voting bloc. If it works for you, great. As for me, I prefer to find myself in the One who invites everyone, regardless of label, to become One with Him; and, despite our differences, to become one with all those who wear the only label that can truly transform: Christian.

Leftovers, Latecomers, and Lovely Things

This past Sunday, I finished a sermon series on prayer. I enjoyed sharing it, and enjoyed hearing how folks have responded to it. But, there is more to share. There is always more to share – stuff that came too late, stuff that didn’t fit, and stuff that I couldn’t work into the messages or the worship times. So, this week’s blog entry will be the catch-all for all the good stuff that got away – the leftovers, the latecomers, and the stuff I love but didn’t get to share.

I’ll start with a story I heard just today. A woman told me about a time several years ago she prayed with someone she didn’t know (taking the theme, pray now, seriously). She was at the eye doctor, and just had her eyes dilated. As she waited, a man started talking with her. At first, she wasn’t interested in talking, so she just gave him one-word answers. But he began to tell his life story, and discuss his hard-luck reality. She felt led to ask him if she could pray for him. He said okay. She prayed. Then he asked, Are you married? Sometimes we pray, and we get to watch for welcome answers. And sometimes we pray, and we get unwelcome questions.

And today – again, just today – I came across this video. It’s a pretty good introduction to the Book of Psalms. It’s 9 minutes long, but well worth it:

Then there’s this video. I really wanted to use it on the Sunday we looked at the 23rd Psalm, but it just didn’t fit. Well, it fits here.

And then there’s this powerful article about lament, prayer, praise, and hope. You need to read this. And then there’s this from Philip Yancey on unanswered prayer and Bono. Speaking of Bono, it turns out that he’s also a fan of my favorite writer on ministry – Eugene Peterson. And Fuller Seminary got the two of them together to talk about the Psalms. The result is an interesting conversation between a pop star and a pastor – plus a whole bunch of other cool resources.

If you’ve made it this far, you are, either: 1) my mom, if she had the internet (which she doesn’t); 2) bored with the Olympics (and thus surfing the internet for anything that’s not performance-enhanced); or, 3) a part of Fern Creek Christian. If you are #3, I hope you are planning to be a part of our 24 Hours of Prayer. If you’ve not yet signed up, you can do so here.

Let me end with one more latecomer: I was perusing the clearance shelf at Half Price Books, and came across a book of lament Psalms, ones where the writer takes a crack at writing her own personal Psalms of grief and anguish. Of course, I came across the book after I preached on laments; but, oh well. It does challenge me, though – and maybe you, too – to try my hand at writing my own psalms.

So, maybe, at the end of the day, the challenge isn’t simply to read the biblical Psalms, or even just pray them – but to so saturate myself in their language that I learn to pray them, in my words and in my way. Maybe I’ll try writing a psalm. Maybe you should, too. Now, nobody’s saying it will be Bible. But it might be Bible through me. And isn’t that, after all, the point?

The End that’s a Beginning

I love how the Gospel of Mark ends. At least, how I think it ends. If you look at your Bible, you’ll notice that there is some uncertainty with that. There is a “shorter ending” for Mark, and a “longer ending.” They are called this for deep, theological reasons – it’s because one is shorter, and one is longer.

But there’s also a third option; that Mark ends with verse 8 in chapter 16.

What’s going on here? Well, do you want the “shorter answer” or the “longer answer”? Let’s go with shorter. With all of the evidence we can gather, it appears that Mark 16.9-20 comes from one of Mark’s early interpreters, maybe in the 2nd century, and then eventually is included in the gospel as it was circulated. So, if you’re asking me (and I know, you’re not), I believe that Mark, when he concluded his gospel, did so at verse 8.

Now, you can disagree with me, and that’s fine. This is clearly not an essential issue. In fact, it’s not something that makes a person “liberal” or “conservative.” It simply asks: What do we think was the most likely conclusion Mark was intending?

And that ending, I believe, is the one that has the angel telling the women at the tomb: Go tell his disciples that he is going ahead of you into Galilee; there you will see him. At this, Mark tells us, the women flee in terror and amazement.

Is that any way to finish a gospel? Is that how you leave your readers hanging – by telling them that Jesus is alive, but without a direct appearance? Does Mark really end his gospel this way? Yes, I think he does, for a very specific – and, I think, wonderful – reason.

The women hear the message that Jesus is alive – and they have to decide: Now what? Do we go back to our lives? Do we go back into hiding? Or do we step out into new life, believing and living the truth that Jesus is alive!?

I believe that’s exactly the response Mark is going for. In a sense, all of us stand at the empty tomb; every one of us needs to face the truth that Jesus isn’t there. If not, what does that mean? And what does that mean for my life? If Jesus is alive, everything changes. Life is no longer the same. His message of God’s new kingdom takes on new meaning, and his work that we thought died with him, is very much alive. And we have to decide: Are we going to live as if Jesus is still alive?

The writer Eugene Peterson says that the invitation of the angel to the women, found in verse 7, is a mandate for us as we go into the world: Look, Jesus has gone ahead of you; as you go, you’ll see him there, just as he promised. In other words, Peterson says that the promise is that the risen Jesus, by virtue of his resurrection, is already everywhere we are going. Before we get there. So that, if our faith is in him, we can expect to see him in our workplaces, and in our schools. He is already present in the hospital, the prison, and the senior center. He is in the West End and the East End; he is already downtown and uptown. And wherever we go, and whenever we go, we can expect to see the grace of Jesus already present. And by faith, as we go, we can help others see him, too.

So, you can pick which of the 3 endings of Mark you prefer; I’ll go with the shortest. Not because it’s the easiest, but because it’s the most invitational – reminding me that, in this broken and messy world, Jesus is already present. And there’s no mess too messy for him, no brokenness too broken for him, and no fear or worry that I have that he hasn’t already addressed. Jesus, our Resurrected Lord, is out there, inviting me and you to see him out there, to join him out there – just as he told us.