Friday

Dependence or Rebellion: a Third Way

My friend Zelda had a scary experience a few years ago. She was driving home late from work in her Kia in the middle of winter. The temperature had dropped below freezing, and the roads were slippery, and a bit of snow was in the air. Her Kia lost traction and she didn’t know how to handle the slippery road and she panicked; she ended up in the ditch.
It wasn’t a big ditch and she didn’t damage the car. If she hadn’t panicked, she might have been able to drive out of it, but it was slippery and she was afraid, so she called a tow truck and while they were towing her car to her mechanic’s for a checkup, she talked the driver’s ear off about how dangerous the roads were and how frightening her experience was.
Today, Zelda is still terrified of ditches. She drives a small SUV nowadays, and she stays away from ditches. Most of the time she drives the SUV on suburban streets with curbs and sidewalks, but when she’s on a road that has a ditch, she crowds the centerline; she pretty much straddles the yellow line on any road with a ditch. If she’s not paying attention, or if she’s particularly scared, she probably has her wheels over the yellow line, but she’s not watching the line, she’s still got her eyes on that ditch.
I’m concerned for Zelda. It seems that she’s in more danger now than when she slid into the ditch. If there’s someone like her coming the other way on that road, crowding the centerline, eyes on the ditch, then they’re going to crash head on, and they’ll both be badly hurt; or she’ll swerve dramatically to miss the oncoming car, and she’ll land in the ditch again anyways.
We do that, don’t we: when we have a bad experience, we can get – if we’re honest with ourselves – a little extreme about the opposite viewpoint.
Let me tell you about three imaginary people: Arlene, Bernard and Charles.
Arlene is a consumer Christian. She goes to church Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights usually, unless something is seriously wrong. She goes out to lunch afterwards with friends and they critique the service. For Arlene, a service is always measured by how good it made her feel, and if it made her feel like she could make it through the next few days until the next service. If she felt good enough to go.
She’s plugged into a couple of support groups, though she doesn’t really have to deal with the issues that one of them addresses and she’s not sure what the other is about; she just wants to be connected, and the leaders make her feel better. She reads a fair bit, always books about the good things she has the right to expect from life and how to deal with the bad things that have happened to her. She invites her friends to church, but they usually aren’t really interested, or they come once but usually not again.
Arlene has become dependent. She’s dependent on her church services, her church and group leaders, on her Christian resources and her Christian culture. Her life is defined by “I need to depend on you!
Interestingly, Arlene’s twin sister Arielle has similar issues. She’s been living on welfare or disability for several years, and now she has a case worker that’s pretty helpful. She’s cared for by a number of helpful but impersonal government programs.
Now, I don’t want to judge Arlene or Arielle for their lifestyle choices. I don’t know the stories of their lives (partly because they’re fictional, but you get the point), or whether God expects a different standard for their lives or not. I am not their judge, and I like it that way. The point I want to focus on is their dependence on others.
Dependency is not evil. Children (whether young people or young Christians) must be dependent, but the need for dependency is something that any adolescent – biological or spiritual – must grow out of.
Bernard goes to a real organized church. After attending for a number of years, he’s been appointed to be an usher and so Sunday is the only day he ever wears a jacket and tie because that’s expected of ushers. He tithes to the church now too; that was part of the expectation for becoming an usher. His family attends the appropriate classes that the church offers, and they’ve been assigned to one of the home groups that one of the elders leads in his home where they review the pastor’s sermon every week.
Bernie’s church is big on obedience, on discipline, on accountability. Tithing is a big subject there. So is regular church attendance. And daily devotions. And the need to be involved in the programs of the church.
Bernie loves his pastor’s sermons. They teach him about the reality of the weaknesses in his life, how the problems in your life are because you aren’t devoted enough, submitted enough, obedient enough, and they show him places where he can submit more, be devoted more.
Questions are really not encouraged. It’s hard to do something new, something different, because there always seems to be some unwritten or unspoken standard that he needs to live up to before starting something new, and besides, shouldn’t you be involved in this new program that the pastor started rather than starting your own? “No, you can’t be a home group leader: all home groups do is breed rebellion and distension; besides, we still need you to teach Sunday school; later, after you’re more submitted we can talk about it again.” But that time never comes; though he continues to grow, Bernie’s never mature enough.
Success in Bernard’s church is measured by conformity.
Bernard has a twin named Bertrand who was dating Arielle for a while, until one of the elders pulled him aside and explained how she was rebellious because she used to attend this church but had left here for another church without the pastor’s permission.
Bernard’s church life is characterized by the phrase “You need to depend on me!
It’s easy to be judgmental of Bernie’s church, or Bertrand’s, and that’s probably not appropriate: their leaders will have to report to a different master than you or I, who has given them different marching orders than ours.
I want to point out that Bernie’s basic issue is the same as Arlene’s: it’s dependency. Arlene has made herself dependent; Bernie was made dependent by his church leaders, but ultimately it’s the same issue for both of them.
Charles has a different story. Years ago, he got frustrated by the church. He rejected his neediness and his dependent life, and he hasn’t gone to church for years, and he’ll tell you all about it if you bring up the subject: the wounds are still fresh, even though they’re years old. He’s still rejecting the church’s attempts to control him.
Sometimes, Charlie stills inclined to pursue God but “without the constraints of organized religion.” The reality is that he’s more talk there than action; maybe he doesn’t know how to follow God on his own, or maybe there really is something of value in worshipping in community that he lacks, but it’s hard for him to follow God on his own.
Charlie’s brother Chad has also been burned by experiences in church, but he’s still part of church. Chad kind of keeps his distance. He has a few friends in church, and they talk about the weather, the sports, the government. They’ll sometimes argue passionately about favorite doctrines, but Chad never finds himself in a circle that expects to hear about the issues of his heart, the passions of his life or anyone else’s. It’s not that he’s afraid of being known, but he’s determined not to be needy; sympathy makes him uncomfortable. “I’ve been needy long enough,” he said years ago. “Never again.”
Charles has been in the ditch before, and now he straddles the yellow line, racing towards a wreck of one kind or an other, though he has no idea. Chad doesn’t straddle the yellow line: he limits his driving to roads with sidewalks, so he never has to deal with his fear of ditches, but he can never leave the suburban community in which he lives: the highways don’t have sidewalks. They’re so determined to avoid one danger that they’ve placed themselves in another danger, a dangers than the one they’re avoiding.
The generation we live in is changing the face of the church. This generation questions everything that previous generations have held as truisms. Worse, they expect to be in charge of their own destiny rather than placidly following the course that someone else has laid out for their life. As a result, I’m meeting many believers who have a tough time fitting into the church. They look at the options A, B & C, and they are confused and increasingly frustrated. They have decided for themselves that they’ve grown out of the need to be dependent (A), and they’ve developed a habit of when people try to tell them to be dependent, they interpret that as control (B), and they resist it. They look at the alternatives: the rebellion of Charles’ life, the spiritual lobotomy of Chad’s, and they understand that these are at the very least unhelpful, and in reality, they’re probably sinful, so they don’t choose them.
Many young believers are finding themselves in a “no man’s land”: there is no place for them in the church, and being out of the church denies a fundamental value they have for fellowship with God and with other believers.
The irony is that many pastors and church leaders are missing this fundamental fact: Church-as-we’ve-always-done-it has some weaknesses. “Church is successful” they say, some because their attendance and their offering baskets are growing, some because they know that “The Church” is God’s only plan for believers on this planet. Some church leaders – more than I expected – teach their people that leaving fellowship (or leaving this fellowship) is rebellion, is dangerous, or is sin.
Here’s my question to the church leaders among us: is it possible to make room for grown-up believers, to receive them as peers, not as “sheep” or as “underlings” but as “co-heirs with Christ, if indeed [they] share in his sufferings in order that [they] may also share in His glory.”
I’m having difficulty imagining what that would look like.
It does not look like a fellowship of believers with no leadership, no authority. It does mean no man-made authority: nobody gathering people around themselves in order to be a leader; nobody every says, “Because I said so.”
It does not look like anarchy, where everyone does “as is right in his own eyes.” But it also doesn’t look like one primary person in a position of leadership dictating the only vision, the only one who knows the plan, the vision, the direction of the group.
It does not look like people rebelling against control, nor like some people controlling or manipulating others. Have you ever noticed that the only “control” in the New Testament is “self-control”? Controlling others has been replaced by their own self-control.
I imagine a group of believers who are committed to the personal growth of each other. Each member is determined to see the others grow more than themselves, to see their dreams and hopes fulfilled more than their own.
The people are committed to the people in the group, not to the positions those people hold. I have a living covenant relationship with others in the group (with all of them in a small group, with key individuals in a large one), and they are committed to those individuals, knowing that those others are equally committed to me. I will never be considered “expendable”, and neither will any one else in the group. People are more valuable than programs, than schedules, than services, than positions.
There are leaders among them: leadership by committee so often is a euphemism for a situation where the strongest rule by force or by manipulation. There is a senior leader; there are other leaders, though it’s not a position of seniority or of additional privileges: these men and women are called to equip the rest of the body, to develop and deploy the rest of the congregation. But the leaders are first brothers and sisters in the group Before they are “leaders”, they are family. They are like the head of the family: dad knows how to be firm, but in a healthy family, everybody knows that his love for them comes before his firm direction or corrections.
This is a group where there are very few people that are not involved in “the ministry,” though few (if any) of them are paid by “the ministry”. They work in the community, among the community, and they all see themselves as “ministers” of God, ambassadors of Heaven in their workplaces, their stores, their neighborhoods. Their leaders both affirm this and model it.
There are very few people in this community who are not involved in mentoring someone else, and in being mentored themselves in one way or another. The relationships among them are sufficient to allow for sincere (and perhaps blunt) questions from others that are in their circle of friendship, without raising self-righteous or self-defensive challenges.
I know several churches where these values are held and lived. Some are denominational churches, others non-denominational, and some are house-churches. None of them walk in perfection in this, and they may point out (and I would agree) that as long as we’re dealing with human beings, perfection may be a little tough to come by. The point is, this is do-able.

Saturday

There’s a Goal to the Process.

There’s a lot said, and it’s generally right, about our life in Christ being a process as much as it is a goal: that we need to walk in relationship along the way, that we need to “stop and smell the flowers.”

Like so many things in the Kingdom of God, we have a paradox here. Yes, our walk of faith is a process; there is tremendous value in the steps along the way: the relationships with each other and with the Lord, the lessons learned in trials and victories, they joy of worship and of being part of the move of God in a region or in an individual: these are priceless treasures, and clear indications of the value of the journey, apart from the goal at the end. In no way do I intend to devalue that truth in what I am about to say.

But ultimately, we really are working towards a goal. There will come an end to the process – regardless of how valuable that process has been – and our effectiveness at accomplishing the goal will be measured. The goal can be quoted a number of different ways:

Make disciples. (Matthew 28:19)

Produce fruit of the Kingdom (Matthew 13:23)

Preach the gospel (Mark 16:15)

Be witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8)

Bring forgiveness to the world (John 20:21-23)

Ultimately, they can all be summarized by a passage in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer. It is our job to make this happen:

Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.

Some whom I trust would argue that this is not our task to do, but this is our prayer to pray; to them I would answer: do you not expect your prayers to be answered? If you are praying for the expansion of the Kingdom of God on earth, then we should see that the Kingdom expanded on your watch, in your area of influence.

Others would argue that this responsibility is ours not just to pray about, but to work towards as well, but the same standards apply if they’re right: we should see that the Kingdom expanded on your watch, in your area of influence.

My point is this: There will come a day when we will stand before our Heavenly King, and He will judge us. This is not about heaven or hell: we who believe in Christ will miss that judgment, but the fruit of our labor will still be evaluated: there will be rewards based on how well have we done at the assignment He has given us? I think there’s great liberty as far as how we accomplish the goal or how we measure the goal, but the reality is that there must be something accomplished as a result of the investment of grace in our lives.

I have the privilege (and I consider it a privilege, an honor) of talking with thousands of people from thousands of churches. One of the things that I hear as I talk with them is the value for the weekly events of the church. I hear the value of “business as usual.”

It seems that there are an awful lot of local congregations that have the “church as a process” value down well: they gather Sunday mornings, talk over coffee afterwards. Midweek, they have the same event that they did last year. Their Easter and Christmas are a little different this year than last, but functionally, they do the same thing week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade.

Please don’t get me wrong. This is not the waste of time and energy that some of the more radical voices among us might imply. These congregations are doing a good job of “shepherding the flock of God” which is not, as the evangelists among us might imply, ignoring the command of God. They are very effective at the “process” part of the paradox.

But many churches, perhaps tens of thousands of them, are succeeding at the process but are not succeeding at the goal. They’re enjoying the fellowship at this week’s coffee hour and this month’s potluck supper, but the kingdom of God is not expanding in their area of responsibility.

Sure, a few more people are attending the church this year, but their community is not more representative of the Kingdom of God this year than it was last year; there are not increasing numbers of people pressing back darkness or similar numbers pressing darkness back more effectively; the dead are not raised, the sick are not healed, and nobody is grieving about it because the fellowship is good, the mortgage on the building is paid, and we’re enjoying the journey.

I’m thankful that we the church have finally begun to learn about the process of the Christian life. Now I’m praying that we’d reach the prize effectively as well.

Let’s go change the world; let's really change it!

Telling the Truth in Our Relationships

Have you ever sincerely asked someone, “How are you doing?” and had them answer “fine” when you knew they weren’t fine? Have you ever had someone ask you how you were, but you knew they weren’t sincere? Irritating isn’t it?

I suppose we should pause for a moment and define those as lies: Answering “Fine” when I am not fine is clearly an untruth. Acting, by my inquiry, as though I care how you are when in fact, I do not, is equally a lie.

I understand that some of this truthless communication is part of a larger body of socially acceptable lies, part of a formal communications ritual that our culture has evolved – rather like the mating rituals of wild geese – though perhaps for less noble purposes than the continuation of the species. There are some times when they – the salesman, the political lobbyist, the person you’re talking with that you don’t have any real relationship with – there are times when they are asking “howyadoin” and they don’t want an answer: they are making a formal noise, a greeting to which the formal answer is “fineanyou” or the like. A genuine answer in that environment would throw them off, derail the traditions.

I’m not talking about these communications: they’re meaningless apart from that formal, meaningless function, and they need to be treated that way.

I’m talking about the times where the same words are used in genuine communication, a genuine inquiry after one’s wellbeing, and they are misinterpreted as the content-free ritual described above. They do use the same vocabulary, or nearly the same, and it’s easy to misunderstand. I am of the opinion, however, that much of the misunderstanding is more strategic than genuine: we make the assumption that the question is formal, empty, because that is the more convenient interpretation.

The most disturbing aspect is that the church, the people with “The Truth,” seems to be an equal participant in this untruth-telling. “Brethren, this ought not be this way.”

I’ve seen grown men, men who grew up with the English language, miss this one in the church fellowship hall: a friend who knows something of the challenges he’s been facing asks how he’s doing in the face of those trials, and the answer is embarrassingly often, “I’m fine, thanks. How are you?” Or worse: “Bless God, Brother! Isn’t God good?” Well, yes, He is good, but that’s not actually the question. The question is “How are you doing with those trials?” not “Is God still good?”

I’m more concerned about the reasons behind such truthlessness. Somehow, we’ve convinced ourselves that there are real reasons not to be genuine with each other. I can think of a few reasons:

1) Lousy theology: We’re convinced that if we appear more “together”, that this will somehow make God look better. Or the reverse: if a Christian is known to have problems, then somehow it will make God look less God-like. This often incorporates the brilliant assumption that when we trust in Jesus to forgive our sins, that somehow this erases all of our character flaws while simultaneously eradicating tribulation from our lives. Its like we believe the advertising. Bad idea.

2) PUFF: Pure Unadulterated Fear Factor: We don’t know how people will react to us, or we think we do know based on how someone has reacted to us in the past. Perhaps we remember someone who hurt us, and whether truthfully or not, we associate that hurt with our own vulnerability, and we swear that we’ll never put ourselves through that particular ordeal again. There are a thousand variations on this one.

3) Ignorance: We don’t open ourselves to others simply because we’ve been taught known that we should or even that we could. Our leaders don’t model vulnerability in any way that we can see (that’s a subject for another session!), and nobody has taught us how to be vulnerable in an appropriate way, with the right people, in the right settings. We’ve never seen someone else do it well, so we have no role model.

4) Lack of opportunity: There are in my observation, millions of believers that are actually willing to develop genuine, caring relationships, but they don’t have people around them that are similarly open to genuine relationships. There may be others in the next pew, but there is no mechanism in their culture to broach the subject of “Can I tell you my secrets? Will I be safe when I do?” We need an environment where honest relationships are appropriate.

The Bible models intimate in-home gatherings of the Church (Acts 2:42), and it was such a gathering (a large one) in a house that first received the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:2). One of those groups was characterized by prayer and the other by supper, eating with gladness: these don’t sound like formal, content-based gatherings. They sure sound to me like they’re based on genuine relationships instead.

The Bible doesn’t just model ministry built on relationships, it also teaches it. “So, affectionately longing for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us.” (1 Thessalonians 2:8, NKJV) The teaching is clear: when I am “ministering”, I’m doing two things: I’m imparting the gospel, and I’m also giving you my own life. There is a correlation: my imparting of the good news will be more complete if I am also imparting my life. Content is incomplete without relationship.

We could also point out that Jesus’ ministry followed the model of relational ministry: sure, he taught the masses and did miracles among them, but it was they guys he lived with that he touched the most. There were times that He saw the needs of the multitudes, and turned to the twelve to teach them, to send them, or to involve them in the solution.

If we are wanting to see a change in the way we do church, we’re going to need to do church differently. I propose that we change ourselves first: let’s find settings where we can be genuine; let’s create them ourselves if we need to. If we can find or build these relational gatherings within the structure of our churches, let’s do that, but if we need to, let’s be willing to put people ahead of religion: let’s gather informally “from house to house” as they did in the early church.

And, when it’s appropriate, let’s learn how to answer the “how are you doing?” question honestly.