Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Evangelism as "hunting"

One of the challenges of most pastors I know is endeavoring to get their congregations to focus on evangelism, i.e. to reach out to those outside the church, to seek to share their faith with others. One of the common dynamics in most congregations is a tendency to focus inwardly, rather than outwardly, to direct more energy toward those inside the church rather than those outside the church. Sometimes there is even a strong resistance to evangelism evidenced by an intentional, almost exclusive focus on the inward life of the congregation. But more often, I suspect, it's more a matter of a sort of benign neglect of evangelism or outreach. It's always more comfortable to stay inside our circle than it is to venture outside it.

But then sometimes this neglect of evangelism is overcome when members of a congregation become concerned about the growth or even survival of their church. They then become motivated to seek out ways to reach new people. I remember one congregation I served years ago had reached a point where they really were worried that their church founded by their ancestors was going to die. Their natural resistance or fear of change was overcome by their fear of dying. That's certainly a positive step in the right direction! And there are many congregations who apparently don't even have any motivation for evangelism, even one like that.

But even that sort of focus or motivation for evangelism is really still self-focused. We want to reach new people so that "our church can grow" or even so that "our church won't die." I've even heard of church leaders having discussions of reaching new people and having the church grow so "we can have more people who give to support the church budget." We want somebody to help pay the bills! (It occurs to me that that's not a very effective funding strategy since growth almost always increases costs before it results in more revenue coming in from giving.)

All of these sorts of statements are self-focused in that they view the new people to be reached as "prey" - even as a hunter views his prey as a trophy to display proudly or food to put on his table. It's a motivation to reach new folks because of how they meet "our" needs. It's a focus on maintaining "us." It's matter of us using "them," to meet our needs.

But a healthier, more spiritually mature, and more biblical attitude is to focus not on ourselves or our needs, but rather on the persons God has called us to reach with his love and how God has called us to meet their needs. It's about mission, not maintenance. We're not in the business of building up our church, but building the kingdom of God. One of my colleagues in a sermon I heard him preach several years ago said something like this: "The church is one of the few institutions that exists for the benefit of those that are not part of it." The church is to have an external rather than an internal focus. Rather than being concerned about getting more "behinds" in the pews, we're called to get the "behinds" that are already in the pews out into the world to serve others in the name of Christ. By focusing on mission and outreach and serving others in the name of Christ, it is likely that they will be drawn to become part of this mysterious and strange community that pours itself out in service to others. But concern for the church to grow becomes secondary, not primary. What is primary is mission.

An example of this healthy movement is something we're experiencing right now in the congregation I serve. A person in the church came to me several months ago with a vision. She had the idea of our congregation beginning a preschool or child care ministry. Her thought initially was that our church needed to get more families with young children into the church and this might be a way of accomplishing that. But as the planning group began to do their preparation work and research about building such a program, something interesting happened (and something healthy, I would say). As the group began to get in touch with the shortage of child care options in our community, first it became clear that a full child care program, particularly for the youngest children, was the greatest need. Second, the primary focus of the group of "getting more young families into the church" became secondary. What became primary was the real need in our community and our opportunity, our calling, to meet that need. We shifted from an "inward" focus to an "outward" focus. We shifted from viewing these younger families as "prey" to viewing them as those whose needs we might meet in the name of Christ.

I'm reminded of Jesus' words, "If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it." Matthew 10:39 NLT

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

I wonder why it's been a long time

It's been a long time since I last posted. I intended to post more regularly beginning in 2011. Didn't happen. Then I resolved to post regularly during the season of Lent. Still hasn't happened...until now.

I've thought about the reasons for this. Of course, it could just be plain old procrastination. Another reason could be I'm called on to "produce" on a regular basis through sermons, articles, teachings, etc. That sort of distracts me from just jotting down thoughts on this blog.

But I'm not sure either one of those reasons is the main one (although the first one could be at play a good bit of the time!). One of the things I'm struck by on a lot of the Facebook posts is the pedestrian nature of so many of them. Probably one of the main reasons I don't post as often is because I want what I put down here to be substantial and profound. A related reason might be that one of the personal characteristics I sometimes struggle with in conversation is my tendency to freely share what I'm thinking, at times without sufficient reflection and thought.

My original intent on establishing this blog was to comment on current events and issues that come up that cause me to think or elicit some sort of response, in the hope that it might stimulate someone else's thinking.

So, in view of that goal, I'll try to post more often, as well as have something to say...other than drivel.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Jesus, yes. Church, no?

"Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being 'Christian' or to being part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to 'belong' to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else."
- from Ann Rice's Facebook page -

I read recently of this recent announcement of well known author, Ann Rice. Only ten years ago, she announced her embrace of Christ and the church. Now she has decided that although she still loves Jesus and considers herself his follower, she's just had it with the church.

I know how she feels. In fact, I would venture to say that I can relate to her sentiment in my own experience better than she can. Here's what I mean. She claims that her decision to leave the church and subsequent announcement has nothing to do with her personal experience with a particular congregation. It's about the "public face" of Christianity and the shortcomings she sees there, the way Christians in general behave. I, on the other hand, as one who has served as a local church pastor for three decades, have had personal experience up close with how disillusioning the church can be. I've seen a good deal of ugliness among church folks, and have on occasion been on the receiving end of it myself. In contrast to Ms. Rice, I find myself loving the idea of church in general, but sometimes find some of my personal experience with real church people more difficult. As one pastor said, "I love the church - it's just the people I have trouble with!" There have been quite a number of times over the years I have found myself very disillusioned and frustrated with the church and wanting to get out myself. Rice goes on to say that she's going to follow Jesus individually. She says, "Christ reaches out to us individually. He's saying 'Come follow me; I am the way, the truth, and the life.' These are beautiful things. I read Scripture every day, I study it every day, I'm mindful of it every day. I don't claim to have the right interpretation of every passage, but I wrestle with it, and that's what I think he wants us to do."

Sounds great. The only problem is, the Scripture doesn't know anything about Christianity without church. As John Wesley said, "Christianity is a social religion. To make it a solitary thing is to destroy it." (I believe I'm quoting that accurately). Following Jesus can't be done except in community. The problem with the church is it's made up of humans. But I'm human, too. The reason why I surrendered to Jesus as Savior and Lord in the first place is because of my broken humanity, and my need for transformation. And an essential way in which Jesus transforms us all is through relating to other followers of Jesus. If I'm going to be a follower of Jesus, I'm stuck with the church. Like I heard another pastor say, "You choose your friends, but you're stuck with your relatives." And when we begin to call God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we're claiming our brothers and sisters, too, warts and all. But they're also stuck with me. Years ago, a man in a church where I had just become pastor was sharing with me about his coming to be part of that congregation and how he had trouble with this church and that one, etc. before coming to the current one. I jokingly said, "Once you find that perfect church, you're going to ruin it when you get there...because you're not perfect." He didn't seem to think that was funny. Later on, he found fault with our congregation, and me in particular (big surprise).

Let me also say, that although I've witnessed some pretty bad stuff in the church, I've also seen some great things, things that would never be possible with all of us doing our own thing. The church belongs to Jesus. He hasn't rejected it. Neither should we.

Sorry it's taken me so long to post. I'll try to do so more often. I've been too busy dealing with the church!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Wrong Paths in Prayer

"Forgive me in those areas where I have failed you, and strengthen me further wherein I have served you well. Save me from complacency and smugness over my spiritual successes as much as despair and guilt over my spiritual failures..."
~ This Day; A Wesleyan Way of Prayer

This prayer that appeared in the devotional guide I'm using these days, articulates the struggle I find myself in quite frequently in my spiritual life. Richard Foster, in his wonderful book, Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home, talks about the different types of prayer. One is what he calls the "prayer of examen." Examen comes from the Latin word that refers to the tongue or weight indicator, on a balance scale, hence conveying the idea of an accurate assessment of the true situation. So this type of prayer is an honest, transparent self-examination. We pray, along with the Psalmist, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends me, and lead me along the path of everlasting life." Psalms 139:23-24 NLT

This examination is something we can't do by ourselves. We fall off the path in one of two ways. One is to justify our attitudes, evade responsibility and rationalize our behavior. We are able to put up a strong defense against the truth about ourselves. But we are just as prone to wander astray in the other direction by engaging in self-flagellation. As Foster puts it, "If left to our own devices, it is so easy to take one look at who we truly are and declare ourselves unredeemable. Our damaged self-image votes against us, and we begin beating ourselves mercilessly." Foster, p. 29

There are times in my life of prayer when I veer off in one of those directions, and others when I stumble off in the other. But under God's searching, under the "scrutiny of love," we are able to both face the darkest truth about ourselves and at that very point experience sheer grace.

But we can't offer God who we hope or aspire to be, but who we actually are, including all our warts, flaws, and even deep stains. But that allows God to take who we are and transform us into who we wants us to be. May God join with me in this journey to keep me on that path.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Unimaginable Suffering

Ever since I received the first word of the earthquake in Haiti, I've been trying to assimilate the news. But I just can't wrap my mind around it. And my heart just keeps breaking. We still don't know the death toll. Images of front-end loaders loading up corpses to bury them in mass graves - a grotesque thought, but one made necessary in the fight to save the lives of those who remain. People injured and lacking medical supplies and care. People starving and without shelter. Children orphaned. It's just too much to take in.

Today I attended the funeral of a colleague of mine - a clergy member of the Southwest Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church, named Clint Rabb. He was about 10 years older than me. I first met him when he was a young UM minister and I was about a junior or senior in high school, way back in 1976. My memory is he was chaplain at Bexar County Jail in San Antonio at the time. Later in the 90's we served together in San Angelo. Since the late 90's he's served with the Board of Global Ministries, our United Methodist mission agency. He was in Port-au-Prince, Haiti for a meeting with other mission executives to strategize in how to be in mission with the people of Haiti. They had just entered the Montana Hotel there when the quake hit. They were very near the front desk when the whole building collapsed. Three of the men, all UM clergy, were trapped together, two of them with their legs hopelessly pinned. They were there for 55 hours until rescuers reached them. They sang the doxology as they heard the firefighters call to them to say they were going to get them out. One of them died before they could extricate him from the rubble. One escaped without serious injury. Clint was rescued, but died two days later in a Florida hospital from his injuries. I myself experienced the roller coaster of emotions when I learned he'd been there, that he was missing and feared dead, that he was discovered alive and rescued, but critically injured - that he would have one leg amputated below the knee and the other foot removed. I had just finished worship last Sunday where we had prayed for him and thanked God for his rescue and survival, when my wife called me while I was still at the church to tell me that she read that he'd died. I was stunned. This wasn't some stranger, this was a person I knew.

Certain aspects of the funeral were excruciating - hearing that story from his companion who survived, the tributes of his children, the lamentation of his widow. But it was also a marvelous blessing - gathering together with my brothers and sisters from across the church to grieve Clint's loss amidst such an ocean of loss, as well as to celebrate his life and ministry, the lives he touched, and even his acts of service to others right in the midst of their ordeal.

This tragedy, both the microcosm of Clint's death as well as the macrocosm of the tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of others who died (not to mention all the other suffering still going on there) raises all kinds of spiritual and theological questions. Why do some die and others live? Why do things like this happen? There is not enough space here for me to even begin to deal with many of those questions. And even if I did, any attempt of mine to do so, would fall far short.

But I do know this. Even in the midst of unspeakable human tragedy, God is present. I saw that today, both in what I heard of the event, and in the event of the funeral service itself. One of the bishops who spoke today read this text from Lamentations 3:19-21 (Message):

I'll never forget the trouble, the utter lostness, the taste of ashes, the poison I've swallowed. I remember it all - oh, how well I remember - the feeling of hitting the bottom.

But there's one other thing.....I remember,

and remembering, I keep a grip on hope:

God's loyal love couldn't have run out, his merciful love couldn't have dried up. They're created new every morning. How great is your faithfulness!

He had us repeat the phrase "I keep a grip on hope." That is our prayer - for God to help us "keep a grip on hope" - our prayer for ourselves and for the people of Haiti.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


One of the common themes of Advent is the contrast between light and dark, between being aware and being "in the dark," regarding the things of God and God's coming future. One passage I was reading lately in my devotional time really caught my attention, particularly as its rendered in The Message version: "You're sons of Light and daughters of Day...so let's not sleepwalk through life like those others...." (1 Thessalonians 5:5-6).

I thought about this as I was going about my business during the day, particularly in places in my own community or a nearby larger city, observing those around me. I see people of all ages, races, stations in life. I see families with their children or spouses. And they are very much attentive to their endeavors, whether it's shopping, eating, or some other activity. But I wonder if they're oblivious to God, to God's desire to be in relationship with them, and to what God is doing in the world. Even though they seem very alert, I wonder if they're "sleepwalking," oblivious to the life God wants for them. What such thoughts or musings arouse in me regarding them is not judgment or disapproval, but rather sadness - sadness at what they're missing out on. My prayer is for God to help me to try to look at them through His eyes. And when I succeed at that, even just a little, my heart breaks. The same passage of Scripture admonishes us who live as disciples of Jesus Christ to be alert, to keep our eyes open. The main thrust is to keep our eyes open to what God is doing in the world. But it occurs to me that often we Christians are so caught up in our own agendas and ideas of what we think God is doing that we become oblivious to those around us, particularly those who don't know God. It's as if we ourselves are sleepwalking through life, not noticing the hurting people around us (even when their hurting isn't obvious - even to them).

I believe one of the things God wants me to be alert about and "wake up" to is to those people He has placed around me to love and reach out to with His love. In verse 11, we are called upon to encourage those around us and endeavor that "no one is left out, no one left behind." I believe that is God's heart. Let it be our heart, too, especially this Advent.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Offering Thanksgiving to ??

It seems hard to believe that it's already the week of Thanksgiving. This is a unique holiday, in that it's unique to our country. It's a time when we celebrate by eating (of course!), gathering with family, and pausing to give thanks for all the blessings we enjoy. There's usually some football in there somewhere, too.

I was thinking about Thanksgiving this past week (actually a little more than usual since I was on tap to preach at our community Thanksgiving worship service!), when I read an interesting article about atheists becoming more of a presence on college and university campuses.

Even though most of us would probably view college campuses as places where a lack of belief in God has not been hard to find - or maybe it's the actual practice of faith that's so hard to find. I've known a number of people over the years who have found college campuses a rather hostile place for Christian faith, particularly the secular institutions. For a long time there have been campus religious organizations like Campus Crusade for Christ, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship as well as denominational organizations like Baptist Student Unions, Catholic organizations, Wesley Foundations, etc. And, of course, as the religious landscape has become more diverse, you have groups for people of other religions like Jewish and Muslim groups, for example.

But now there are arising organized atheist groups like Secular Student Alliance, Atheist & Agnostic Society, etc. These groups have the same discussion groups, cookouts, fellowships, movie nights, etc., but for those who share in common a lack of belief in God. Why should believers have all the fun? And some of these groups even celebrate rituals. A group on one campus celebrates "HumanLight, a secular alternative to Christmas and Hanukkah."

That got me to thinking, how does an atheist celebrate Thanksgiving? Thanksgiving has as an inherent part of it (at least for me as a follower of Christ) giving thanks to someone - to God. But when you don't believe there is a God, to whom do you offer your thanks? Doesn't there have to be somebody to thank? Now I'm not so naive so as not to realize that there plenty of folks around who may have some nominal belief in God but don't really have any kind of relationship with God, and for whom Thanksgiving is just a nice holiday to not have to go to work and to spend with family enjoying a nice meal. Come to think of it, there are plenty of people who attend church who really aren't much into worshipping God, but are there to see other people (or in some cases to be seen), to enjoy the music or an interesting sermon (at least on occasion). Some even appear to come for the purpose of analyzing closely what takes place so they might find something to complain about.

I plan to enjoy the food, the fellowship (the time off!), but I also plan to reflect on my blessings and offer thanks to the God from whom I believe I receive all of them.

Have a happy Thanksgiving!