Category Archives: Blog Posts

Starting the “We-Want-to-Become-a-Multicultural-Church” Conversation, by Kwasi Kena

The question, “How can we get more people to come to our church?” The self-description, “We’re a friendly church”. The next step, call in a church consultant.

As a former director of evangelism, I participated in the above series of events on countless occasions. In many cases, the church, a mono-cultural one, sought to reach a more ethnically diverse population.  To get things started, I asked one question, “What do you mean when you say church?”

Many people do not realize the vastly different expectations people have for the church. In many ethnic populations, church has historically been the place that advocates with or for them. For example, the Black Church has been the institution from which other benevolent societies were launched: credit unions, insurance companies, burial societies, etc.

Prophetic preaching commonly connected the need for social reform and protest against civil injustices with biblical examples of redemption. Woven throughout the thrust of each ministry effort was Israel’s deliverance by God from bondage through the Exodus story and Jesus’ solidarity with the poor through his Incarnation. The definition of “church” and people’s expectation of what a church stands for and accomplishes is an important first step for congregations to take when trying to reach other ethnic peoples.

The process of discovery and appreciation of another’s perspective can be summed up in the word “solidarity”.

Two Parables One Message

Jesus often underscored the solidarity theme in his teachings. Here are two examples. First, consider this contemporary rewrite of The Good Samaritan parable from Luke 10:25-37 that I wrote as a meditation:

Jesus tells us a story about someone who traveled through that neighborhood. We know the neighborhood. We drive around it, especially after dark. The inevitable happened, and those people attacked the traveler. Should have known better. Nobody with sense travels through there. Wounded and unconscious, the traveler lay on the street. A preacher late for an appointment drove around the traveler and thought, “Someone’s probably called 911 already.” You never know if it’s safe to stop these days. A leader in the church drove by, but didn’t stop. Probably thought it was a wino or a drug addict. One of those people saw the wounded traveler and stopped to help. Outsiders seem to know that tomorrow they may need someone to help them. That was a risky thing to do. Which one of these people do you think was a neighbor to the wounded traveler? The answer is obvious.

Congregations that want to become multicultural must be willing to weave the Good Samaritan mentality throughout its ethos.

Near the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, Matthew’s gospel records a series of parables emphasizing the need to be vigilante as we await his second coming: the parable of The Ten Bridesmaids, the parable of The Talents, and the parable of The Sheep and Goats (Matthew 25). In the parable of The Sheep and Goats, we again see the solidarity theme emerge; if we look closely.

You remember the parable, the Lord returns to judge the nations, separates the sheep (the righteous) from the goats (the unrighteous). The Lord commends the sheep for caring for the poor and needy; acts that the Lord states were actually done to him. Jesus evidently identifies with people, the poor, the marginalized, the “other”. He feels what they feel; he is in solidarity with them.

Jesus often answered questions by asking additional questions. Perhaps churches trying to become multicultural would benefit from Jesus’ approach to learning. If your church is asking the “How can we get more people to come to our church?” question, the answer to this may found by answering the following two questions: “How do we define ‘church’?” and “How willing are we to be in solidarity with others?”

The Value of a Good Story by Colleen Derr

There is nothing quite like a 16-hour car ride to bring people closer together. My husband and I served as house parents for our daughter’s and her six best friends’ senior spring break this past week. The week concluded with a 16-hour car ride home. After a week of constant togetherness you would think these girls would have run out of things to talk about but apparently not. In order to pass the time, they shared stories – personal stories of their own family vacations over the years. The stories were humorous, and we all enjoyed some good laughs together. The stories were also a wonderful distraction during the hours of stopped or nearly stopped traffic.

The stories did something more though than offer laughter and a distraction:
• The stories provided a context, offering a glimpse into how their families function, what they value, and where they came from. The stories provided the context that explained a great deal about why these girls said the things they said, did the things they did, and reacted the ways they reacted. So many things we experienced in the previous week now made sense – because we heard their story.
• The stories also created a connection that a week of sharing close living space, beach towels, and a common table didn’t. In each of the girls’ stories, we saw glimpses of our own and discovered that the commonalities that connect us were much richer than the often louder external differences that separate us. Sitting in the front seat of the car listening in on stories of family vacations of the past forged a bond with these girls that overcame generational, religious, political, and racial divides.
• Their stories compelled us to respond, rethink, and re-write. Before our spring-break beach adventure I had developed opinions about the girls – who they were, what behaviors and attitudes they possessed, how I enjoyed them as my daughter’s friends, and how I didn’t. Through the week they all lived up to my expectations – I saw in their attitudes, behaviors, and words exactly what I expected to see. When I heard their stories though, I was compelled to re-examine my own presuppositions, filters, and expectations and frankly their stories helped me see in many places how wrong I was. Their stories changed my attitudes and my thinking.
The power of a story – to bring laughter and offer a distraction, it can also provide a context and bring clarity, it can create a connection that overcomes apparent differences, and it can compel us to do something and change our thinking.

A seminary student in describing the impact of Scripture on faith formation in the home offered this insight: God could have filled the Bible with facts and figures to answer all of the scientific questions and give us wonderful statements of faith to memorize that would fill our minds but instead He chose to tell a story.

1. A story provides the context
2. A story connects
3. A story compels and
4. The Story through the power of the Holy Spirit brings hope, healing, and transformation.

St. Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises encourages the exercitant – a “person who sincerely desires to discover how he or she can please and serve God best” – to contemplate the biblical story:
- By the “sight of imagination” in order to see the details of the circumstances
- By hearing to listen to what is being said
- By smelling the fragrances present and tasting the “sweetness and charm”
- By touching what they touched, where they sat and where they walked

St. Ignatius understood that through engaging the biblical story with our imaginations and invoking our five senses we would in part grasp the context of the biblical story, understanding more fully the background and circumstances; we would connect with the biblical story in a personal, relational, experiential way; and the biblical story would compel us to do something – change our attitudes, change our hearts, change our thinking…we would be transformed, and we would discover how to please and serve God best.

You have a story of grace and forgiveness – you need to share it. Those you serve and meet have a story – you need to take the time to hear it. And we are compelled to share the greatest story of redemption, restoration, and love.

“When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things” (Mark 6:34, NIV).

Dr. Colleen Derr serves as Associate Professor of Congregational Spiritual Formation and Christian Ministries, Wesley Seminary at IWU

————

From: Ganss, G. E. (1992). The spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius: A translation and commentary. Chicago, IL: Loyola Press, (p. 4).
The Spiritual Exercises by Ignatius, the second week, “The Fifth Contemplation will be an application of the five senses”

Christians at the Movies

This seems to be an unusually thick season of movies of interest for Christians–both positive and negative–at the box office. Son of God has been out for some time now, and there is God s not deadNoah came out this past week and Heaven is for real is coming. Of these movies, I’ve only seen Noah, although I read the book Heaven is for real.

Popular Christian reactions to these sorts of movies seem fairly predictable. We’ve known for some time that Heaven is for real and God is not dead would be popular with a certain Christian demographic. And we knew that many would not like Noah because it deviates in some ways from the biblical narrative.

Today I thought I would brainstorm some warnings in this season.

1. Avoid “three wise men” syndrome
There is a tendency to assume that we just see the Bible as it is. The more isolated we are in a specific faith tradition, the easier it is to assume that the meaning and implication of the Bible is self-evident. This is especially a danger for American evangelicalism.

Over the last 50 years, American evangelicalism has developed into a distinct Christian tradition about how to interpret the Bible. We do not remember how the details of that tradition worked itself out because it has become firmly established as a paradigm. Your typical non-denominational or mega-church usually is simply part of this tradition. It reads the Bible a certain way without realizing the glasses it is wearing and increasingly unchristianizes those who disagree as being unbiblical (see, for example, the recent rhetoric of the president of Cedarville College where he considers anyone but complementarians to be unbiblical).

But if we truly love the Bible and want to listen to it, then we must force ourselves to listen to it. We must be open to revision in our understanding. I did not personally enjoy the movie Noah, but I will say this. It has caused Christians to read the story more carefully than they ever had. For example, how many Christians recently have thought about Canaan’s cursing at the end of the story or thought about the descendants of Cain? How many Christians have noticed that, if you take the ages of Genesis straightforwardly, Methuselah dies the same year as the Flood? How many Christians have even heard of Methuselah?

Three wise men syndrome is when we mistake traditions about how to read the Bible with what the Bible actually says. Who are the “Nephilim” of Genesis 6:4?  Who are the “sons of God” in 6:2? Many early Christians thought that the sons of God here were fallen angels who had sex with human women, who then gave birth to giants. Is it possible that we have sanitized this story without realizing it, so that it fits with a modern scientific worldview?

2. Value Truth more than tradition
To keep from mistaking our traditions about the Bible with the real Bible, it is important to value Truth with a capital T above our traditions about the truth. This is difficult. Fallen humanity is driven to make idols of God that we can see and that give us certainty. Could it be that some Christians almost make an idol of the Bible, trying to capture God and pin him down? They want the Bible to give them certainty and specificity about a God whose ways are higher than our ways. But since they mistake traditions about the Bible for what God actually wants to say through Scripture, they make their understanding of the Bible into an idol, a poor representation of a reality beyond our literal comprehension.

Still worse is when we let experience or emotion drive our theology. How easy it would be to sanctify the experience of one family in Heaven is for real and soon excommunicate anyone who disagreed with its assumed theology. It would be so easy. Here is a moving story that is more vivid to us than any picture of heaven in the Bible! What often happens is that experience then overlays the way we read the Bible. We come to ignore what the Bible might say on a topic for much more vivid and immediate experiences. We should celebrate what God did for this family while remembering that their experiences do not have the authority of Scripture.

The same phenomenon also goes the other way. No respectable secular philosophy professor would ever behave the way the professor behaves in God is not dead. The philosophy professor in this movie is what we call a “straw man,” an easy target that feeds our desire for an enemy we can easily vanquish. The very movie itself seems to be built off an urban legend I have heard over and over. It gets our emotions stirred up in a negative way. If we value Truth over emotion, we will always be suspicious when our “enemy” turns out to be amazingly stupid.

3. Remember the mission 
In the end, the atheist professor needs saved. If we are oriented around who is the bad guy and who is the good guy, who is already predestined to be saved and who is chosen to be damned, we are not thinking like Jesus. For Jesus, everyone is someone who needs to be saved. The villain is not the producer of Noah but hell. The atheist professor is not the predestined villain but someone who needs the Lord and can be saved.

Christianity is not primarily about sorting out who agrees with me (and thus believes the “right” things) and who disagrees with me. Christianity is more about motion toward those who need to be saved. And being saved is not primarily about believing the right things but about Jesus being Lord of your life (Rom. 10:9-13). Faith for Paul is not a checklist of the right beliefs but a trust in the Christ who died for us and is our Lord. Belonging to Christ is about a transformed mind which for Paul is a mind that presents one’s life to God as a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1-2).

So enjoy Heaven is for real and don’t mistake Noah for Scripture. Rejoice that God is not dead and that we have a living hope. But don’t confuse traditions about God and the Bible for the real thing either. And remember most of all that God wants everyone to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4), even the infidel and atheist.

To Be or Not To Be…A Pastor (Dr. Luchetti)

The call from God to pastoral ministry came on the cusp of my conversion. Wild horses couldn’t keep me from partnering with Christ in doing for others what he had done for me. I said “yes” to the call and (almost) never regretted that decision. Admittedly, some of my ministry motives and expectations were warped and led to disillusionment. The most valuable lessons I’ve learned in ministry have come the hard way. Those lessons come in handy when I’m coaching aspiring pastors who are wrestling with the call. Before exploring reasons to become a pastor, we discuss reasons not to become a pastor. Don’t become a pastor if…

-You want your ego stroked. Ministry is perfectly designed for the crucifixion of the ego and if your ego doesn’t get crucified, your ministry will. No matter how eloquently you preach, there will always be sermon snoozers (people who nap during your sermon). No matter how much of a people person you are, there will always be some who flat out don’t like you. No matter how effectively you lead, there will always be some who don’t follow. If human affirmation is the fuel that keeps you going in ministry, you will eventually run out of gas. If you want your ego stroked, run from pastoral ministry.

-You desire comfort and convenience. There is no job more demanding than leading a community of broken people into alignment with the purposes of a holy God. Every church is full of people who have been inoculated to the Gospel by the gospels of consumerism, narcissism, racism, sexism, egotism, and a host of other “isms.” God calls pastors to partner with Him in prying people free from those lesser gospels and gods. Does this sound comfortable or convenient? You can’t punch out at 5:00 and forget that the Smiths marriage is hanging by a thin thread, that a kid in the youth group just committed suicide, that your demoralized church can’t seem to overcome the demons of her past, etc. If you want comfort and convenience, pastoral ministry is not for you.

-You hope to get wealthy. Wealth, of course, is relative. According to the American standard, pastors are not a wealthy bunch. A pastor with a Master of Divinity degree is educated at the level of a lawyer, but paid at the level of a blue collar worker. If you don’t have the stomach for financial sacrifice or the skills for stretching a dollar, you may want to consider another career path.

-You crave prestige and power. Representing and serving someone who was crucified like a criminal is more likely to lead toward obscurity and weakness than prestige and power. There was a time when pastors were held in high esteem. They were innocent until proven guilty. Today, due primarily to media portrayals of pastors, clergy are guilty until proven innocent. Do a Google search on “pastor” and see the scandalous headlines surface. Tell a stranger or old friend that you are a pastor and watch the conversation go downhill quicker than an Olympic skier. Cultural hostility toward clergy is a reality in a 21st century America context, unless you live in Mayberry. According to Philippians 2, Jesus relinquished what most humans are tempted to seek. Anyone who serves in His name will do the same. If you crave prestige and power, don’t become a pastor.

-You hope for a more predictable schedule. Saying “yes” to pastoral ministry means waiving “goodbye” to weekends. Even if you don’t have a Saturday service (and the church I most recently served did!!!), you are likely to experience the Saturday jitters that occupy the mind before the Sunday service. Midnight emergency calls will invade your beauty sleep. Conflict that can’t wait will interrupt your day off. Weekday funerals and weekend weddings will exhaust you. Preaching and teaching 3-4 times or more per week will necessitate burning the candle on both ends of the day. If you must have a predictable schedule, pastoring will seem like a plague to you.

What reasons not to become a pastor would you add to this list?

(Note: In my next post, we will explore some reasons to become a pastor.)

Worship Intersections (Safiyah Fosua)

I invite you to think about worship as a place of intersections.  At the center of the intersection is God, whose majesty and splendor bend us Godward in awe and adoration. Personal worship for some is an attempt to find that intersection, that place where God might be met.  Congregational worship might be likened to a three-way intersection between God, you, and other people.  Just as it is possible to drive the wrong way on a one-way street, it is also possible for us to miss God (and each other) in worship if our worship is not directed Godward.

Some scholars remind us that the word worship is a derivative, in some languages, of the word worth.  God is worth-y for reasons too numerous to list in this short article.  Suffice it to say that worship is grounded in the worthiness of God as revealed to us through the personhood of Jesus Christ.  It is not grounded in our personal testimonies of “how we have overcome,” or “how, by the grace of God, we have prospered.”  Worship is for and about God and God alone.

We do not gather to adore this majestic God in secret, our gatherings are public.  Our gatherings are purposeful.  We gather primarily to meet with the God who created us for worship.  Though we could have worshipped alone, the ancient patterns bid us to worship in community (Hebrews 10:24-25).  We come together from various stations in life, from assorted households and habitats, we are drawn to worship together because of the common conclusions we share about the worth of God and the personal experiences we have with this great God.  We share those common conclusions in word and in song – that God is good, that God is good to us, that God cares about everyone and loves us regardless of the walls we build to separate ourselves from one another.   And, while we are there, we remember.  Individually and collectively, we remember our experiences with God and how we came to be a people of God. We strain to listen for any instruction or instructions God might choose to share with us through those who dare to speak for God.  What does the Lord require of us?   Worship is an intersection with God, and in this intersection are myriad mini-intersections.

Among those mini- intersections are intersections with what we believe about God.  How many doctrines of the Church intersect in worship?  The doctrine of the Atonement, definitely finds voice in worship.  Whenever we make mention of the salvific death of Jesus Christ in worship – in our songs, in our prayers, in our preaching – we are making a doctrinal statement.  What we, as spiritual leaders of our local congregations, believe about the family of God comes through in the words we speak before during and after baptism and what we believe about eschatology, Christian community and a host of additional doctrines are evident in Holy Communion.  In our preaching, our praying, our singing and how we treat one another our worship, we dramatize what we believe about humanity, community, forgiveness, restitution, and the power of God to restore lives.

Not only is worship a place where doctrines intersect, it is a place where Christian practices are modeled and learned.  We have already talked about the fact that new Christians often learn how to pray in private by listening to the prayers prayed in public worship.  How to study the Word of God and how to appropriate it for ourselves is often learned by being exposed to the exegetical and application skills of the preacher at the weekly gathering.  Similarly, we learn more about the faith as we learn to make melody in our hearts through the songs that we teach one another when we gather. It is often through the music that is, at times, mistakenly equated to worship that we learn how to communicate this great faith to the next generation.

Weekly worship is so much more than music, and so much more than the words that we speak to one another.  It can be an intersection with God and each other, a place where our doctrines and beliefs are rehearsed among ourselves and made known to others, and a place where we learn how to engage in personal spiritual practices.

May we find God and each other at these intersections throughout this Lenten season!

How long is Lent? A Meditation

What’s the difference between a New Year’s Resolution and a Lenten Fast? As Lent began last week I have been thinking about this question. It seems to me like “What are you giving up for Lent” is often just another round of self-improvement resolutions, starting two months later and failing just as quickly. Is there any difference beyond the religious overtones? What’s the difference between a resolution and a fast?

I think a clue lies in the length of Lent: How long is Lent?

Go ahead. Answer out loud.

If you answered 40, that’s a good start. But it’s the wrong answer.

How long is Lent?

Go ahead. Answer out loud. It’s not a trick question. Just say a number.

Lent is 46 days long.

Some of you either already knew the answer, or you thought about it and figured it out. But the number of days between Ash Wednesday and Easter is 46. So why do we think Lent is 40 days? Because the church fasts for 40 days. But a 40 day fast takes 46 days, because the church breaks its fast on Sundays. 40 days of fasting plus 6 Sundays equals 46 days.

Now why does this matter? It is a clue to the meaning of a fast: Breaking our fast every Sunday reminds us that we do not fast from evil, but from good.

Would you quit smoking except on Sundays? Or quit lying except on Sundays? Or quit cursing except on Sundays? No. These are the sorts of practices that we ought by God’s grace to repent of. We do not fast from sin. We fast from good.

Breaking our fast every Sunday reminds us that we do not fast from evil, but from good.

We fast from good. We set aside good practices for a season to make room for different, perhaps better practices. We set aside good practices for a season to become aware of our dependence on God. We set aside good practices for a season to open ourselves up to the presence of God. We do not fast from evil. We fast from good.

When the 46 day length of Lent first dawned on me, it completely transformed the way I fast. First, I began choosing good things from which to fast. I began seeing that from which I fast not as evil but as good, gifts from God to be celebrated and received from him, rather than grasped at.

Second, I was more faithful in my fasting. To break my fast every Sunday gave me joy and pleasure to anticipate every week. It was a little bit of Resurrection in the midst of the journey to the Cross.

Third, I encountered God more deeply in my fasting. Fasting became less about me and my own self-improvement and more about God and his presence in my life. Fasting became a way of making room for God. And not only in my fasting, but also in my feasting: for to break my fast every Sunday was to receive back from God that which I had handed over to him.

So, what is the difference between a New Year’s Resolution and a Lenten Fast?
A resolution is about self-control, self-discipline, and self-improvement. All good things. But not the same as a fast. A Lenten fast is about self-renunciation, self-denial, and self-awareness. A Lenten fast is not giving up bad things, but letting go of good things — letting go of the good gifts of God so that we let the Giver himself be the one good we seek.

This Lent, I invite you to fast. Not from evil. But from good.
This Lent, I invite you to fast. For only 40 days, breaking your fast every Sunday.
This Lent, I invite you to fast. Not to improve yourself. But to open yourself.
This Lent, I invite you to fast.

-John L Drury
Monday March 10, 2014

The Power of Peers (Wayne Schmidt)

Many of us may quote Proverbs 15:22 – “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisors they succeed.”  We know it is a mark of wisdom to seek counsel, yet we may still find to be intimidating to do so!

Last week some of our peers came to town to provide “outside eyes” on how effectively Wesley Seminary at IWU is implementing its stated purpose.  While the structure of the visit is somewhat unique to educational entities, I couldn’t help but think how amazing (though challenging) this experience would be in the local church.

Those peers formed an “Accreditation Site Visit Team” for the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), another step in the process of adding an additional layer of accreditation to our Seminary.  Their positive recommendation to the Board of Commissioners (who makes the final decision in June) may be part of the reason I feel so positive about the concept of a “peer review” visit!

What if local churches were to have the benefit of peers helping them to explore whether they were really executing their vision?  Not to tell the church what they are to believe or how they are to minister, but based on their stated beliefs and purpose help them to see whether their behaviors align with what they express.

These are the transferable dimensions of that visit:

  1. Know the indicators of mission fulfillment.  The ATS team spent time identified outcomes that reveal whether we were achieving our stated vision and serving those we said we would serve  For local churches, there has been extensive research into “church health indicators.”   Dr. Charles (Chip) Arn, in our course he teaches on “Diagnosis & Prescription for Church Health” identifies about a dozen different approaches to measuring health.  A local church could select the indicators they believe are most relevant to their mission and ask a team of peers to help them explore their effectiveness.
  2. A self-study takes place prior to the visit.  In our case, our Academic Dean, Ken Schenck, took the lead in assessing the various indicators in advance, expressing our perception of how we are doing in mission fulfillment.  The team received this self-study in advance, and it prepared them to know what to look for in their visit with us.
  3. There is power in questions.  The ATS team met with administrative leaders, faculty, students, alumni, board members…and asked lots of questions.  They were not there to prescribe the right answers, but to explore whether the answers of the various groups matched (was their clarity and communication among the various constituencies) and then if those answers aligned with our overall mission.
  4. It is beneficial to have “outside eyes.”  They were peers – members of the team included academic administrators and ministry practitioners – not full-time reviewers.  But they were from outside our immediate context – those of us who work daily within a setting may be unable “to see the forest for the trees.”  They had inside information, but outside eyes.
  5. The learning was mutual.  Several times the ATS team members referenced what they were learning during the process, and even hoped to implement in their own contexts when they returned home.  There was not a spirit of condescension or an arrogance of expertise – but one of together learning how to more fully live out the mission with which we had each been entrusted.

We’re working right now on a pilot project related to church revitalization.  We will soon offer a “certificate” (available to anyone) or a “specialization” (available to our students within their M.A. or M.Div. degrees) in church revitalization.  I’m struck by the similarities between the components of an effective revitalization process and the peer review visit we just experienced:

  • A church does a “self-assessment” based on key areas of health and mission fulfillment.
  • A “consultation team” interacts with pastoral and lay leaders of the Church, probing areas of strength and identifying areas of needed development.
  • Interaction takes place with a broader representation of people within the congregation.
  • The leadership and congregation receive recommendations from the consultation team, which they then decide whether to adopt as a “prescription” for church health and vibrancy.
  • If adopted, the Church works with a coach to help it act upon the prescription they have decided to implement.

This is not peer pressure but peer perspective…helping us to prepare for the “well done” we all seek to hear as we stand before our Heavenly Father one day.

What sources should I trust?

We live in the information age. The glut of potential sources of information is overwhelming, even if amazingly beautiful. Gone are the days when you have to find a library to read a book. Also gone are the days when you can successfully insulate your children or congregation from ideas you consider to be dangerous.

With the internet close at hand, we are forced to become more discerning in how we filter information. Who do we trust? To whom are we going to listen? From person in the congregation to minister, which source is right? So many of them seem so convincing, so confident that everyone else is wrong. Many even demonize those with differing positions on the issues.

We are all working out how to deal with this situation, but here are some beginning thoughts on the issue:

1. Faith seeking understanding
There is no reason to start from scratch. You may as well start on the assumption that the form of Christianity with which you are beginning, whatever it might be, is innocent until proven guilty. If you are Baptist, who are the voices to whom Baptists tend to listen? Are you Wesleyan, what are the voices to which Wesleyans like to listen?

No need to start over. If you know the kinds of people to whom your tribe listens, why not start by trusting those sources the most.

And perhaps we should mention that there’s a lot of interpretation that goes on in reading the Bible. Our first instinct is to say, “Well what does the Bible say on this issue?”  But what we may not realize is that there are different ways to read the Bible and that these “ways of reading” are part of our traditions too. There is a certain circularity to the “just go to the Bible” idea. We inevitably go to the Bible with a certain way of going to the Bible. Inevitably, we find similar things to what everyone else reading the Bible that way finds.

The overwhelming majority of the churches in your city are reading the Bible, but they still disagree on what it means. Until we recognize that we all are wearing glasses when we read the Bible, we will never advance toward real understanding.

2. Phone a friend
Of course, you may not know what sources your tradition likes the most. Indeed, you may not really know what your tradition is. To be sure, there’s no such thing as a “blank slate” church. Every church represents a mixture of influences, even if it calls itself non-denominational. It probably baptizes a certain way and leans certain ways on certain issues. It probably has a position on tongues or women in ministry. It may say it is just reading the Bible, but its answers to these questions will quickly reveal what its underlying traditional influences are.

Who is someone you trust who has studied stuff? If you can think of someone like that, seek out their advice on good sources for whatever question you are pursuing.

3. God is bigger than one tradition.
If God’s first order of business was getting everyone’s head straight, there would probably be a single church that all the most godly people were in. And it would be obvious to anyone with the eyes of the Spirit that it was the one true Church. The fact that there is no such church suggests that God is primarily interested in our hearts rather than our heads.

But it also seems likely that each Christian tradition has a piece to add to the puzzle. It is human nature for us to go to extremes but is it possible that different Christian traditions preserve different emphases within the overall truth? Some may make God’s authority clearer than others. Some may make God’s love clearer than others.

The point is that you can recognize the strength of your own tradition–as well as perhaps its weaknesses–if you make it a discipline to read things also by traditions other than your own.

4. The more the merrier.
Every interpretation and argument you know makes you freer in what you think. If you have heard all the arguments to the contrary of your starting point, yet you remain convinced of where you started, then you hold that position more freely than you did to begin with. Chances are, the more angles you hear, the more sides you hear to the story, the more of a Christian hybrid you will become.

Don’t just look at one source of information. Listen to several. Figure out what the spectrum of positions are on a question before you reach a final answer.

5. Become an expert yourself.
The current American context is arguably one in which experts are almost distrusted simply for being experts. It’s as if popular opinion feels threatened by the very existence of individuals who know the most about a particular issue. But there are such things as experts, and you can become one on a particular topic. An expert is someone who thoroughly knows the issue, thoroughly knows the various positions that have been taken on the issue and why, and has come to an informed and reasoned conclusion on that issue.

Anyone is welcome to have an opinion on an issue, but not every opinion counts as much as every other.

So these are some first thoughts on how to deal with the glut of information that now lies at our feet. Like someone who cannot distinguish a cacophony of sounds from each other, there can be so many voices that we can’t tell which one we should listen to. It is a skill that we will all need to develop in this age of information.

Do You Treat Your Church Newcomers Like Cancer Patients? … I Hope So! (Charles Arn)

Date: October 18, 2013  (Friday)
Time: 02:35 p.m.
Place: California Urology Medical Clinic, Pomona California 

“Dr. Arn…your biopsy came back positive.  I’m afraid you have prostate cancer.”

I thought he must have been talking to someone else in the room.  But we were alone…and the doctor was looking straight at me.

“Are you sure?” was all I could think of to say.

“Well, you are certainly welcome to get another opinion. But these biopsies are seldom wrong.”

“So, now what?” I asked, which led to a 20-minute conversation about what this newly discovered disease was…how far advanced it might be…and what were the options.

To make a long story short, three months after the biopsy report I had an IV in my arm and was being wheeled down the hallway at the City of Hope Medical Center to what would be a 3-hour surgery. (Robotic-assisted laparoscopic radical prostatectomy to be exact.) For those of you (men) who have been there and done that, I won’t remind you. For those who haven’t, I won’t bore you. But as I think back on the events of the past three months, I’d like to share with you what I learned from hospital staff, doctors, nurses, and even patients at the City of Hope about being a newcomer. I realize that a cancer hospital may not be the first place you would look for insights on welcoming church visitors and new members. But then, again, maybe there are more similarities than we might think…

They Anticipated My Uncertainty. Turning into the hospital driveway, I came upon a kiosk with a large sign: INFORMATION. I stopped, rolled down the window, and received a warm welcome from the man inside. I was given a brochure of the hospital, a map, a letter from the CEO, and told of the complimentary valet parking for first-time guests.
APPLICATION QUESTION: What and where is the first contact you have with your newcomers?
Do you control that contact and make a good first impression, or just hope that it happens?

“First time?” I was asked by a smiling lady as I entered the lobby. It must have been my body language. I’ve been told that a good host can spot a newcomer a mile away.

“Yes,” I responded.

She escorted me to the “Welcome Desk” where three people stood ready to help. After explaining that my wife and I were there to see a certain doctor, the host called a man over and told him where we needed to go. Bill introduced himself as a volunteer and said, “Just stick with me and I’ll show you the quickest way.” I learned, in our hallway conversation, that Bill was an 11-year veteran who had fought and won the same battle in which I was now engaged. I felt an instant bond and wanted to ask him a dozen questions.
APPLICATION QUESTION: Do you have volunteers available to help guests find their way?
Do you match newcomers with members who share things in common?

“We Are Family Here”. More than once I heard this phrase spoken by staff, volunteers, and patients. The words appear in the hospital’s literature and billboards around town. After my surgery I reflected on the value of family. My wife had taken time off work, my mom and sister had visited me after surgery. Other family members around the country had kept in regular contact. The faith, hope, and love one finds in a healthy family is a particular blessing in times of need. I thought about those patients who had no spouse to push their wheelchair, no parents or children to visit and pray for them. The City of Hope motto—“We are family here”— makes sense, especially for those who don’t have any other.
APPLICATION QUESTION: Do you intentionally nurture a sense of “family” (i.e., caring, support, love) in your congregation? Do newcomers experience it, or is it just for the old-timers?

Someone to Hold Your Hand. On the second visit I was introduced to my “patient navigator” and given his e-mail and direct phone number. If I had questions, he either knew the answer or would find the right person to call me back. In addition, I received a directory of names and contact information for key people in the hospital.
APPLICATION QUESTION: Do your new members have someone to help them get involved and connected in the early stages of their relationship with your church? More members drop out in their first year than any other time.

A Connection Center. In a 20’ x 40’ open area, plus several private conference rooms, information was available on various support groups that were sponsored by the hospital. A variety of free mini-books were provided on anything related to cancer. I was given a flyer and explanation of when and where the next prostate cancer workshop would be held. There were free DVDs of staff physicians giving lectures on various topics. Times for the new patient/ family orientation were posted. I could pick out a Christmas ornament, hat, or scarf from a collection that had been handmade by volunteers for patients/families. Here I discovered that a social worker had been assigned to me, and a volunteer walked me down the hall for a pleasant introduction.
APPLICATION QUESTION: How do you introduce your church’s ministries, groups, and activities to newcomers? Do you have descriptive literature and knowledgeable volunteers to help newcomers connect to places, people, and events?

Places to Contribute. Sitting in the lobby waiting for my blood work, I was surprised to hear the melodic notes of a harp. (My first thought, as you might suspect, was to check and be sure I wasn’t in heaven.) It turned out the harpist was a volunteer who had been sharing her talent with patients for the past seven years.
APPLICATION QUESTION: Do you have positions where church members can contribute their gifts and skills toward the mission of your church? Create roles that complement the strengths that your members already have.

Well, there is more to say than I have space…or you have time. So, here are just a few final observations:
Great signage all over campus. Do newcomers know how to get where they want to go in your church?
My wife loved the creative and tasteful decorations. How is the interior décor in your facility?
Literature available in multiple locations. Why limit visitor information to one place in your church?
Floors, windows, and walls were spotless. How would the cleanliness of your buildings compare to a hospital?
A website full of helpful information. What do prospective visitors think about your church based on your website?
A billboard near our house says, “At City of Hope, we live to cure prostate cancer.” How does your church communicate who you are and what you’re all about to the community?
Volunteers and staff seemed like they actually enjoyed what they were doing. What’s the attitude your people bring to church?

In my post-operative consultation a week after surgery, the doctor looked carefully at the test results, then turned to me and said: “You’re cancer free.” I must admit that as those words sunk in, I could not hold back tears. It was probably a variety of emotions. But as I look back on that moment, I recall the joy of realizing that I was free from the ravaging effects of cancer. I can’t help but compare the experience to the joy of realizing that, through Christ, we are free from the ravaging effects of sin. And while a good hospital facilitates the healing of our physical body, a good church should facilitate the healing of our spiritual body. More than one person has shed tears of joy upon realizing that they have been healed by Christ…for eternity!

When Jesus heard this, he told them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do.  I have come not to call those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.”  Mark 2:17 (NLT)

hospital(CA)

As you might guess, this was taken BEFORE surgery! :)

Charles Arn is Visiting Professor of Outreach at Wesley Seminary, and co-author of the new book, What Every Pastor Should Know: 101 Rules of Thumb for Effective Ministry (recently awarded OUTREACH Magazine’s 2014 Book of the Year in the field of Leadership).

Less Equals More: Doing God’s Math during Lent (Dr. Kwasi Kena)

As we near the beginning of the Lent, it may be good to get reacquainted with God’s math. For example, two people can become one in marriage and five loaves of bread and two fish can feed 5,000 people. It should come as no surprise that, in God’s economy, less can provide more than anyone can imagine. Lent is a wonderful opportunity to invite God to use what we believe to be meagre and ask the Lord to use it to bless many.

Lent traditionally is the forty-day period before Resurrection Day (Easter). After participating in Lenten activities, you may be in a quandary regarding how to make Lent special this year. Thankfully, revisiting the ancient church practices during Lent can renew our faith and rekindle the special relationship that we have with Jesus Christ. Historically, Lent has been a time of penitent prayer, fasting, and almsgiving; of the three, prayer often gets more attention.

Make Lent Special This Year
This year, make Lent special. Why not choose to make a difference in at least one family’s life through financial and other assistance? It is easy to do with an emphasis on fasting and almsgiving.

So many worthwhile causes compete for our attention: the brutal winter has pressed the poor, into forced-choice decisions—pay for heat or pay to eat. We want to help, but we often complain that we lack the necessary resources to offer meaningful help.

But what if you could produce a surplus of time and money that could be used to help others? Where, you may ask, would this extra time and money come from? The surplus can come from what we amass through fasting and abstinence.

A Sober Lesson from Clean Sweep
A few years ago, a popular show called Clean Sweep aired on The Learning Channel. In each episode, the show host—accompanied by a professional organizer, interior designer, carpenter, and a cast of helpers—helped reclaim two rooms from the human disaster of excess clutter. The most intriguing parts of the show were the heart wrenching scenes in which the homeowner(s) had to decide what to keep, sell, or trash.

As an incentive for making these choices, the show matched all the money earned from selling the items. This money was then used to redecorate and organize the two former disaster areas.

Not so subtly, the show pointed out that we Americans generally do not lack the resources to help others. What we lack is the spiritual incentive to do so. That is where fasting helps.

Imagine the Impact of a Simple Fast
Imagine the joy of helping a family pay the rent or a utility bill. Imagine helping an elderly person pay for much needed prescription medication. Imagine your congregation making a difference in people’s lives in your community. If one disciple in your church fasted a meal a day that normally costs $3, that individual could offer over $20 a week toward a designated ministry effort. If fifty people did likewise, the church would have more than $1,000 of benevolence funding available.

Invite your congregation to consider fasting and redirecting the money to help someone this Lenten season. This type of self-sacrifice for others enriches the fasting experience and deepens the missional character of the congregation.

Encourage your congregation to pray specifically about what your church could do to reach out to others through almsgiving during the Lenten season. The alms could come in the form of finances or time (people may fast some TV).

Learn about Fasting from the Ancient Church
According to Byzantine tradition, the Lenten discipline of fasting is threefold:

  1. Corporal or External Fast – This includes abstinence from certain foods, drink, and amusements. (Today we might consider abstinence from certain forms of entertainment.)
  2. Spiritual or Internal Fast – This consists of abstinence from “all evil” – i.e. sin.
  3. Spiritual Renewal –This is achieved by the practice of the virtues and good works.

Churches in the Wesleyan family may find it helpful to review part of the core principles of their founder John Wesley, who urged people to “Do no harm, do good, and attend to all the ordinances of God”.

Why not participate in God’s math this Lenten season and rediscover that less is more in God’s hands.