Browsed by
Category: Church

New Global Stats Report

New Global Stats Report

Gordon Conwell Center for the Study of Global Christian has released their report on the status of religion in the world.

There are some interesting findings here. For example:

  • 400,000 international missionaries were at work in the world in 2010
  • Most missionaries are STILL going to already Christian nations
  • The US sends the most in absolute numbers: Palestine in per capita terms

Those numbers are from CT’s summary (which you can read here).

The entire report can be found here (PDF).

I Live in the Suburbs

I Live in the Suburbs

Screen Shot 2013-06-03 at 6.57.49 AM

I live in the suburbs.

It’s a pretty good place to live. I am two miles from the office. I have  house and a yard. I mow the grass on Saturdays (actually, my kid usually mows it) and I water it on Wednesdays and Sundays. The mail is delivered right to the little box at the end of my driveway, by the sidewalk. I haven’t been downtown in over a month and I don’t miss it.

The suburbs get a bad rap. Some say they are “sprawling” and need to be contained. Others say they are too private, narcissistic and consumer driven. Maybe that is all true.

It doesn’t matter. We had better figure out to do ministry in the suburbs: half of all Americans live in them.

World magazine’s Anthony Bradley calls Platt, Piper, and Chan to task for championing a more “missional” way of life. Why? They are supposedly the anti-suburbanites (I am not sure I agree with Bradley’s take, but it reveals some of the ideas behind suburban slander). Eric Erickson (who I really appreciate as an outspoken evangelical) wrote about suburban angst over at Red State.  Stanley Kurtz has written extensively about the Obama administration’s war on the suburbs. Why all this suburban hate? Where is the suburban love?

Certainly, megachurches have done well in the suburbs. One of my hopes is that our little house church network will begin to crack the hard shell of the suburbanite. In the fall, our network will be hosting a one day event focused on suburban outreach. It should be good!

Me? I enjoy living in the suburbs. I can’t be all wrong on this: so do most Americans. The suburbs are the current front runner in the “best places to live – vote with your feet” competition. And we need to figure out how to minister effectively to people who live in suburbs. I find it rather amusing that almost all seminaries have an “urban ministry” track but I have never heard of one offering a “suburban ministry” track. I guess it’s not sexy enough.

But the suburbs are where the people live. And where people live is where mission lives.

Another Reason for House Church

Another Reason for House Church

….you can meet when you want to, not when tradition dictates:

According to a new study published in the Review of Religious Research, an examination of declining attendance at 16 congregations revealed that many pastors place the most blame on children’s sports activities, since both practices and competitions are increasingly “scheduled on Sunday mornings at the very time when many churches traditionally have provided religious education.”

With kids who are in sports, I think this is actually slightly “off.” I suspect it’s really not so much the Sunday AM time slot. When our kids are in sports, we are busier. Busier means less time for programs at church. House church helps with this, too! Fellowship infused into daily life makes more sense than programs that require one to “go” to church to participate. Just invite a few of your house church friends to attend your kid’s game. Meet other parents… You get the idea.

HT: CT Gleanings Blog.

Churches: Too Big to Fail

Churches: Too Big to Fail

Orlando has been abuzz this week with a church leadership scandal. There are charges and denials of whiskey, women, and weapons. This is the kind of stuff that the media loves to feast on. My prayers go out to the pastor, the church, and particularly the pastor’s father. I know a number of people who have been touched by this sadness and they are hurting.

I trust you can take this blog post not as a salacious, opportunistic attempt to get traction over the pain of others. I think this is a “teachable moment” for the church and I hope you can see my intention is to be positive. I apologize in advance if I miss that mark.

We see these sort of church scandals all the time. My question is simple: Does it have to be this this way?

The model of church that has become ever-so-popular in the last few years asks too much of the leader/pastor. In these churches there is one central figure who does the preaching, teaching, and simulcasting. It sets him up for failure by creating unrealistic expectations. Can anybody be inspirational 7 times on the weekend, every week, all year, year-in-and-year-out? Who can resist the temptation of adulation that awaits him after he delivers the jaw dropping message that only he can bring? As his influence grows, nobody has the guts to say, “You are being an idiot,” when he is being an idiot (let’s face it – we all need to have somebody give us a check on pride at times).

Gone are the days when a pastor was happy to shepherd, along with others, a small flock in ever deepening relationships of love and accountability. In its place are pastors who lead. This is a substantially different concept than shepherding. The role of the mega-church pastor is to manage a multi-departmental staff. They oversee a multi-million dollar budget. They must produce (and I use that word in the Hollywood-sense) inspirational, teaching-focused mini-concerts on the weekend. All of this is done while pursuing a never ending quest to expand the congregation’s footprint.

Is it any wonder why these leaders fail? Of course not! Yet, when it happens, nobody seems to take a step back and ask, “What are we doing here?” No, they will instead replace the out-of-sorts leader with a new one and soldier on. These churches have become too big to fail.

We have a leadership crisis in the North American church and it is one that sets the stage for failure. I am not blaming “the man.” It’s us who follow that I wonder about the most.

Perhaps, Christian, you should consider starting or joining a small house church. There will be no staff to manage. There will likely be no budget. The teaching won’t be polished. When you sit across the living room from somebody, though, you (or they) might catch a whiff of whiskey and ask about it. You might find that your wife is praying in the kitchen with other women about a marriage in trouble. Accountability and community will take precedence over teaching. Worship won’t be polished but participatory. Shepherds will shepherd.

Should the church fail it probably won’t make the local news.

And that’s a good thing.

Shame and the Welfare Ethic

Shame and the Welfare Ethic

From our many friends at Wikipedia:

The Protestant work ethic (or the Puritan work ethic) is a concept in theology, sociology, economics and history which emphasizes hard work, frugality and prosperity as a display of a person’s salvation in the Christian faith. The phrase was initially coined in 1904 by Max Weber in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

It is argued that Protestants, beginning with Martin Luther, had reconceptualised worldly work as a duty which benefits both the individual and society as a whole.

Religious worldviews have consequences. I agree with Max Weber’s definition of the Protestant Work Ethic: I personally believe that one of the reasons the United States has enjoyed financial growth is an embrace of the Protestant worldview, influenced by Calvin, and reinforced by a morality that suggests that work is redemptive.

The Protestant Work Ethic and the Welfare Ethic are two opposing views (with religious underpinnings) that are along the fault line of American society’s current national debate. For those who hold to a worldview ensconced in the Protestant Work Ethic, welfare is only to be seen as necessary evil, a stopgap measure to help those who have been overwhelmed by circumstance. Protestantism, of course, was a protest against a state-run church. The individualism of Protestant theology has been a bulwark against statism and the state is seen as a force for evil which must be contained. Nobody summed this distinction up better than Reagan when he said, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

The Welfare Ethic is a completely different view in which welfare, provided by a benevolent state, is for the common good. In this view, helping the poor is not the responsibility of the individual but of the state. Paying taxes is a moral act of charity and creates fairness in society (I believe that some have called paying taxes, “patriotic”). European Evangelicals have long ago held to the Welfare Ethic in understanding and interpreting Christianity. Catholicism, which itself was the government for many years, has a positive view of the state and teaches that government is a force for good. President Obama has been consistently growing the size and scope of the welfare state and, in contrast to Reagan, sees government as the solution.

Between November 5th and November 7th last week, our country did not change. The election does provide, however, a snapshot of what has been long changing in our society. A significant part of the change is religious. Protestantism as a backdrop for the moral choices of our nation is receding and it is being replaced with a statist worldview that embraces the Welfare Ethic.

At one time most Americans would have seen a young, able-bodied man on food stamps (or other welfare assistance) as shameful. I personally know three of them, in their mid-twenties, with the ability to at least work a part-time job. “No,” one of them told me, “for $10 an hour it’s not worth it and it might mess with my eligibility.”

This is the Welfare Ethic in the new America. There is no shame in welfare.

Should there be?

Happy Reformation Day

Happy Reformation Day

1522 copy of the 95 Theses
The 95 Theses

On this day in 1517 a relatively unknown German monk pounded a proclamation of sorts onto a church door in Wittenburg, Germany. In the empty spiritual bucket created by a corrupt Catholic Church hierarchy and alongside a godless Renaissance, Luther’s 95 Theses represented renewal. They were a call back to personal and corporate holiness that resounded well past the door frames of the church.

There are six attributes common to all movements and we can easily see them in Luther’s Reformation. For those of us bent on seeing movements of transformation the lessons are worth reviewing.

Affinity group recruitment: Luther’s translation of the Bible into the vernacular language of the common man made it possible for the message to be passed from person to person. The printing press fueled the writings of Luther and the message quickly spread from town to village to city. Originally, Luther has posted his 95 Theses in Latin. Others translated and printed them into pamphlets and they were passed hand to hand across the European continent.

Common acts of commitment: The Catholic Church, in the early 1550s, demanded not only spiritual obedience but was a mark of citizenship. The act of separating oneself from the Church was an act of disloyalty to the European order. It was a radical act but one that cemented the newly forming “Protesting Church” into what sociologist call a “densely packed social network.” Benjamin Franklin captured what these types of “no return” acts do for a movement at the signing of the American Declaration of Independence: “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Opposition (real or perceived): Luther did not intend to abolish the Catholic Church but to reform it. his wine, however, was too new for the old wineskins and the Church turned on its monk, seeking to imprison him and stop his criticisms. This gave way to the sort of persecution that feeds the flames of rapidly growing movements.

Retro-revolutionary ideology: Luther’s message was a reformer’s message. Rarely do movements take hold and flourish when their ideology completely replaces a group’s foundational understandings. Jesus was thoroughly Jewish (retro) yet his message demolished the status quo (revolutionary). Luther similarly embraced the truths of the Bible while challenging the Church’s grip on power.

Network structures: The Reformation would eventually coalesce into a number of strategic and important “centers” of activity. Calvin’s Zurich is perhaps the most important one. However, the message of opposition to the centralized Catholic Church produced a host of leaders who each battled for their perspective of the church. This inevitably gave way to a healthy fragmentation and the sharing of leadership among a wide array of movement leaders.

Set of favorable circumstances: There are few eras that have been as ripe for change as the 1500s. Luther walked into a century that would give us Da Vinci, Galileo, the first globe, incredible intercontinental adventures, flush toilets, and bottled beer. The list goes on and on! The religious culture of Western Europe had become a fusion of folk mysticism blended with Catholicism. People were searching for more substantial answers to the problems of life and Luther’s Bible translation was ready to fill that void.

One could argue that the Reformation has affected global Christianity more than any other historical event since the New Testament era. I find it telling that today we celebrate Halloween, a part of that mystical folk religion of Europe, on this day rather than Luther’s unknowing act of bravery. Instead of teaching our children to say “trick or treat” perhaps they should learn to say, “Happy Reformation Day.”

Perhaps the time is ripe for a new movement.

Why your Home Group is not a House Church

Why your Home Group is not a House Church

If you have been a part of a house church for any length of time I pretty much guarantee that somebody from a “brick church” (my term for a traditional, pastor-led church) has said the following to you upon hearing about your house church:

“We have home groups for that.”

They might say community groups, small groups, etc., but they are all talking about essentially the same thing. This betrays an essential misunderstanding about house churches. These people don’t understand one of the most foundational concepts in the house church movement; namely, the priesthood of the believer.

For most Christians, particularly Protestant Christians whose churches have a Reformation history, the doctrine of the “Priesthood of the Believer” is limited to soteriology (the theology of salvation). It does not extend into their ecclesiology (church theology).

In a typical brick church the home group is an extension of the pastor’s ministry. A friend who is a leader in a house church network in New York City has recounted a conversation that he had with somebody attending a brick church.

“Oh, I see what you do in house church,” he said to my friend, “we have home groups for that.”

“That’s great!” replied my friend, “and what does your group do when you gather?”

“Well, we watch a video of the pastor together and then we talk about it,” he replied.

That’s it in a nutshell! The typical brick church is organized around the teaching ministry of the pastor (the priest) whereas a house church is based on the service of all the “priests” – all members of the group – to one another and those outside the group.

In a brick church, professional clergy becomes the de facto “ministers” and the congregants are “ministered to” by this group of leaders. The house church paradigm sets this dynamic on its head, with each follower of Jesus taking on the responsibility of being a priest. Rather than sitting back and letting the pro’s do it, in a house church setting, you are the pro.

This is why most home groups cannot provide the same sort of environment that a house church can. It’s not about what the participants “do” but what they “are.” Can this happen when a home group is the extension of a larger church? Perhaps, but I have rarely, if ever, seen it or experienced it myself. I have, on the other hand, experienced the long arm of the pastor in making sure that home groups reinforce his ministry.

So, I don’t think your home group is the same as my house church.

Feel free to disagree with me!

Missions and the Missional Church

Missions and the Missional Church

Winter and Newbigin

                    Ralph Winter & Lesslie Newbigin

Kind of a weird title, I know.

If I were tracing the genesis of the “missional church” I would point to Lesslie Newbigen. Newbigin was a Presbyterian missionary affiliated with the Church of Scotland (you can check out his biography here). Newbigin returned to Europe after ministering in India with the view that Europe had become a “mission field” in the years that he was away. Instead of being the source of sending missionaries, Newbigin encouraged Christians in the West to see themselves as missionaries. The Western church, he urged, needed to think and act like missionaries do.

European Christianity had fallen into a “Christendom” model in which the state, the culture, and the church conspired together. However, during the 1960’s and 1970’s, Europe began to rapidly secularize. The result was the state and culture began to conspire against the church. The antidote, according to Newbigin, is the missional church. A church which did not assume that the culture was in agreement with Christian ideas. A church which sought to minister from a position of weakness rather than strength. A church whose task was to be “missional.”

During the same time that Newbigin was encouraging the adoption of missional church ideas, missiologists in the USA were  pointing out the need for the sending of missionaries. This is what we typically refer to as “missions” in churches. Ralph Winter popularized the idea of the unreached. These were not simply people who were not Christians; they were people who lived in cultures where there was little to no Christian witness at all. Unless somebody went to live among them, they would not have a meaningful and culturally appropriate explanation of Christianity. Whereas Newbigin’s England had declining numbers of Christians, Winter’s “unreached people groups” had none at all.

Further, Winter emphasized a distinction between “sodalities and modalities.”A sodality is a “go structure” with a highly defined mission to achieve a goal. A modality is a “nurture structure.” It is predominately designed to care for, educate, develop, and spiritually grow its own members. Winter observed that throughout history, churches (and their denominations) often stagnated the growth and development of the church. When this happened, sodalities would spring up and unleash innovation on the church forcing both change and growth. Winter pointed to the rise of Catholic Orders, volunteer missionary societies, and parachurch organizations as evidence of sodalities.

Newbigin’s argument is that the church should itself be a sodality. The church should be a “go structure.” Winter suggested that this was not likely to happen. It hadn’t happened historically and the remaining task was proof in itself that churches tend to be insular.

“Missional” has entered the mainstream in American churches. When this terminology first began to be used in the US it often referred to “emerging churches.” These were churches that were using (and seeking to reach) a postmodern worldview. Many of these emerging churches were frowned upon by the more conservative evangelical churches because of their willingness to discuss (and some would say compromise) on long held orthodox interpretations of the scriptures. Particularly in Europe, emerging churches were setting the pace for church growth and outreach. As often happens in a movement, the more radical concepts behind the emerging church appear to have been tamed. What pracitical differences now lie between “missional” ideas and those from the “Church Growth school.”

I am concerned that “missional” thinking, while a step in the right direction, does not step for enough. Newbigin argued that the church should look past its own walls and into its context (for example, its neighborhood) in order to redeem the culture in which it finds itself. That is great. The Great Commission, however, is a global commission to teach, disciple, and baptize. It is not merely a charge to reach your own culture. Could it be that the “taming process” is producing a form of “missional” which is parochial and provincial? This plays into Winter’s charge that the church is really a nurturing modality, concerned with its own welfare.

Is your church struggling to be both missional and missions-minded?

You aren’t alone.

Nuclear Church Polity

Nuclear Church Polity

I have been watching from a distance the discussion among churches affiliated with Sovereign Grace Ministries. This past month, they announced a process to re-examine their structure. You can google it if you want more information. There are strong views (both pro and con) about the process, the reasons for the process, the fairness of the process, and so forth.

Church polity, a distant relative of “church politics,” (a much more violent sport) has to do with the ways and means that churches make decisions and enforce them. Like any organized human activity, from families to corporations, churches have rules that govern the interactions between members. Implicit rules (that may never be formally acknowledged) are often as important as written rules.

Evangelical churches desire to be “biblical” in their approach to polity. This is a tricky business because the scriptures provide for a wide road on how a church should make decisions. When somebody asks me why there are so many denominations and divisions within Christianity, I like to remind them of the relatively open position that the New Testament takes on polity.

At this point, some readers are thinking, “But what about elders? The Bible is clear about that…” Yes, that’s true, but be careful when applying the “doctrine of beards” (in Hebrew, not Greek, the word “elder” usually translates the word zaqen from a root that means “beard” or “chin”). I think we have traveled some distance from its early-era application.

For example, one of Paul’s commands to Timothy was to appoint elders in every town (Titus 1:5). Today, we have created a huge amount of concern for the “local church” (a phrase not found in the scriptures). There is a tendency today to over emphasize the “local” nature of the church (leftover angst from the Reformation perhaps?). When combined with how we view pastors in contemporary Christianity  (the word “pastor” in the New Testament refers to a gift, not a role) our models of church are more “localized” than they might have been in the New Testament era. This is a contrast to the idea of a “town church.”

It’s more reasonable to conclude that churches in the first century were city or town-based networks of house churches, loosely connected; yet unified. Their polity was different than what most of us know today. This is not to suggest that our modern structures are “un-biblical.” But let’s not assume that when the Apostles Creed states, “one holy and catholic church” it does not mean 1st Baptist or Cross(road/way/point/etc.).

On the other end of the spectrum from “local” is the organization of congregations into denominations. Denominationalism has fallen more or less out of favor in the decentralized world of evangelicalism except perhaps among the Presbyterians. We have a fear of institutionalization (born of some pretty difficult history) and this leads us to concerns about associations with other churches.

Once again, I would advocate for caution in how we label denominationalism. “Local autonomy” for the church is not something that Paul preached on extensively – if at all. While I tend toward being a bit more decentralized in my view of church, I can’t agree that denominations are explicitly or implicitly forbidden. There is, in fact, much to be said about unity among believers. Cooperation seems to be a part of unity.

Why is this all so important? Because of the potential for “spiritual abuse;” the whitewashing of leadership decisions with the brush of God’s approval. This is dangerous business and the source for much disunity in the church.

Polity can be a little like nuclear power. It has the potential for great harm or great good. The shear potential for danger has ended in many government avoiding nuclear energy altogether. The consequences from a bad accident are so long-lasting that they are discussed in terms of their “half-life.” Similarly, a bad church experience, when coupled with issues of polity, has long-lasting consequences.

Many in our culture  have walked away from the church because of issues surrounding polity. Rather than wresting the good from church, it has become too dangerous to handle. Leaders, with all humility, should take note and avoid making their polity the Gospel truth.