The Church, Anger and Cupcakes

A friend of mine and fellow pastor, Marvin Penner, posted a link on face book to an article by Scott Boren titled “Are You Angry at the Church.” If you have ever been disappointed by church, I highly recommend it.

In sum, Scott Boren tells the story of his own journey from a youth in the church who learned to play the church game. He did all the right stuff and looked the part, or at least close enough to it, to fly under the radar. Then in college, he had what he called a “radical encounter with God.” Basically he made the jump from empty religion to a vital relationship with God.

Then came the anger. In his words…

I wanted to know why the people in my life—those who had listened to my stories about depression, those who had seen me struggle to prove myself to others, those who had observed my judgmentalism and critical spirit—never said anything.

While my advanced ability to cover up my inner life was one of the reasons for this reality, I also quickly saw that there was another problem. I had learned to perform according to the rules of the church. I knew how to do the church game. And I was good at it. And the church system rewarded me for it.

Scott’s experience is all too common. We have a generation – or is it generations? – that are angry with the church. Their hurts are real, although I’m not always sure that we get past the symptoms to the root cause. To some extent, the gospel they have been taught seems at odds with the church they have experienced. As Scott points out, many books have been written of late that dump all over the “traditional institutional” church as if they are the sole cause of the world’s problems.

Some of the complaints have merit even if not always graciously presented. Other complaints…some days I just want to say,’ get over it cup cake, it isn’t about you and your pettiness.’ Of course, that would be equally ungracious even though Jesus was no less pointed to the religious “we’ve got the answer” folks. Yes, I am suggesting that some of the church bashers out there are as judgmental and self assured as the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day.

In fairness, many who are struggling with the church as they have experienced it, are not caught up in hating and bashing the typical meet on Sunday, songs, sermons, offering, go home and carry on with life church experience. They just know that something is missing. Just attending the Sunday church event has left them unimpressed…rightly so.

This is where I feel a particular kindred heart with Scott Boren. Although our journeys have been very different, I think we have both been at this same place where we knew something was missing, and we became hurt and angry. I remember as a new Christian in my twenties that it took only a year or so to realize something wasn’t right. Over the next several years, moving to an new city and new church experiences, it slowly began to get resolved, although it is still a work in progress.

Fortunately – oops, I mean by God’s grace, I also experienced the best side of the church, where Sunday services were wonderful celebrations, times of intense prayer for those in need and faithful teaching. During the week we had close fellowship with other believers and a sense of participating in God’s mission.

It was there at Willingdon Church in Burnaby British Columbia that I responded to the call (I jokingly call it my mid life crisis) to pastoral ministry and ended up the pastor of the considerably smaller Clareview Community Church in Edmonton Alberta.

My response to the disappointments with the church that I felt in my early adult hood was ultimately to engage in the Church and make a difference. Please note that I made that a capital ‘C’ Church.  By that I mean Christ’s Church, not just the local organization although that is important too. I will come back to that, but let me tell you of a couple of turning points in my life.

Without going into unnecessary details, several years ago, long before perusing pastoral ministry, I helped to coordinate a large inter-church event at the church we were part of. The speaker was good, but…there were issues. I recall sitting down with the senior pastor afterwards to debrief. In the course of our excellent conversation about the event I came to realize two important things. First, church work can be messy and second, those who lead the church are human. I know that may not sound like a profound revelation, but face it, our expectations of churches and leaders are often inhumane and quasi divine. For the record, I totally agreed with the senior pastor’s assessment of the event. It was also very encouraging to know that pastoral life was complicated (it made it human). Sometimes things in ministry are messy and that’s OK.

The other event was more like a season of life when I went through some personal challenges that shook me to the core. There is nothing quite as enjoyable as discovering that you are falling apart – yes that was sarcasm. Skipping the details, it left me with little patience for glib pat answers. Life is messy. Our best sucks. Whatever the outer veneer looks like, it is what is underneath that is the substance of our lives. Sometimes that substance is flimsy. The church is like that too.

Apart from Jesus Christ, we are doomed. That goes for the church too. The problem as I see it is that many Christians, myself included, spend a lot of time on the veneer and not enough time on the substance. Face it, that is our human nature. From our childhood on we are taught to “suck it up and be a man,” or whatever girls are told. We are taught to put on a mask, polish the veneer and hope the substance will catch up or at least not be found out. It’s sort of like the salesman wearing the fake expensive watch to impress clients hoping that one day he can afford the real thing. Personally I find that kind of spiritual veneer putrid…now if only I wasn’t part of the problem.

That leads me back to the topic of the day. We have probably all heard the cliché, “if you aren’t part of the solution you are part of the problem.” There is a lot of truth in that.

As I see it, the biggest problem with the church, thinking of the traditional North American church, is that for many, “church” has become a weekly event instead of the body that gathers weekly. It is an ontological problem. The church has it’s being in an event to celebrate Jesus Christ, rather than in Jesus Christ 24/7. Celebrating Jesus and learning about Him is good, but it is not the substance. Too often we replace being part of the body, the community of believers in relationship with Jesus Christ and one another, with showing up at an event. Hear me, the event is good, but it is not the sum total.

I don’t know of one pastor who is at peace with this. Every pastor I talk to desires for the church to be the relational ministering body that is the Church with Jesus as the head. Most pastors I know, including my self, see the Sunday gathering as an important event in the weekly life of the church. Face it, it is the only time many can gather. It is worth something.

However, watching a hockey game does not make you a hockey player. You might enjoy it, maybe even enjoy it with friends, and even learn something, but that’s the end of it. Being a Christian means lacing up the skates, getting on the ice and taking your bumps and bruises. Most of all, it takes commitment. No one plays in the big leagues with out a lot of hours invested and sacrifices made.

The great temptation of the church is for people to confuse the event in the life of the church, for the life of the church. Every hockey player watches hockey, if only from the bench and game tapes. However, the game is played on the ice. As Christians, we ought to enjoy the celebrating and worshipping with others, but that is the reward for working hard the rest of the week as servants of Jesus Christ. That is the substance of living the Christian life.

In some sense, by perpetuating the traditional Sunday gathering we perpetuate the problem. I know of many people who have and are fighting back against this by ditching the traditional Sunday “worship service.” I don’t blame them. Even as a pastor of a traditional-ish church, I feel like that some days. I hear their call to build a solid foundation of relationship and ministry. I hear their call for spiritual intimacy and authentic Christian lives. I hear their call to know that someone cares and is willing to be the hands and feet of Jesus in their lives.

I have no doubt that our typical Sunday gatherings do precious little to make that happen. The questions is, why do we expect them to? Why do we expect meeting together for and hour or so on Sunday morning to fulfill our deep spiritual needs? Could it be that the reason why so many seem to be unsatisfied with “church” is that they treat Sunday mornings as a spiritual fix like a drug that can be taken once a week to get a spiritual high? After while the drug no longer satisfies and they go looking for a new, more exciting spiritual drug?

Let’s be honest, not many of us would eat one meal a week if we had a choice. We understand that eating and drinking is part of our daily lives. Jesus said in John 6:35  … “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” There is rich meaning to this, but we ought not miss the obvious, eating and drinking are daily necessities.

The problem with the “traditional institutional” church is not so much what it isn’t, but our bizarre expectations of it. A Sunday service and all the excellent programs will never make up for a lack of daily spiritual vitality. Sunday services and mid week programs can facilitate and even augment relationships and spiritual intimacy, but they are not the substance. The substance is in our own hearts, minds and souls.

I appreciate what Scott had to day near the end of his article…

It’s time to move beyond our anger and hurt. It’s time to move beyond what we are against. I believe we can still create space to allow the Spirit to reshape the church in new ways without having to hold on to that anger. And we don’t have to be afraid of the fact that traditional forms of church life will remain intact.

Whether you choose to be part of a traditional church, a house church or a network of small groups is of little concern to me as long as you realize two things.

First, as a believer you are part of The Church, the body. To distance yourself from other believers is to divorce yourself from Jesus Christ because He is the head of the body. A chopped off finger will rot and decay. The finger needs the body even if it is imperfect.

Second, understand that no form of gathering will satisfy your spiritual longings. Sooner or later it just becomes the new tradition complete with the realization that something is missing. Might as well figure out what is missing and fix it instead of building a new veneer. The substance is living in Christ and in His Church, serving Him in the world daily.

Oh  yeah…that leads to a third thing. If you get this figured out, the church needs you. Live your life so we can see it and learn from it.

The past is what it is, but the future is full of possibility

Watching a documentary on building the Gothic Cathedrals, I was struck by something other than the awe inspiring finished product. Instead I wondered how the stone masons dealt with mistakes made in the past, in the lower layers of stone.

I suppose if a mistake is caught soon enough it can be fixed, but what happens when correcting that ill fitting or imperfectly laid stone would mean tearing down vast sections of arches, buttresses and walls? That got me thinking that perhaps the true craft of the master stone mason is not perfection, but adaptation. No doubt it is the goal of any stone mason to cut and lay each stone perfectly. Yet, no matter how excellent the mason, sooner or later the accumulative effect of even slight imperfections adds up. The completed structure is not a series of perfect stones, but a series of minute corrections.

Life is like that. There is nothing we can do to change what we did yesterday, last year, let alone ten or twenty years ago. Unfortunately, when we discover that things are not quite as we would like in our lives there is a tendency to focus on the “wrongs” of the past. We will spend countless hours fretting and fuming over things that no one can do anything to change. Good or bad, the past is the past. it is what it is.

That doesn’t mean that we turn a blind eye to the past, Like a master mason, we have to be aware of how the past has shaped the present. The focus, however, is not of repairing the past or even less helpful, throwing a temper tantrum over the past. The focus is on what corrective measures need to be taken in the stones laid today and tomorrow. The goal is always to build a strong structure, or in life, a mature healthy person.

When the past consumes us we are a victim of our own making to the events of the past. When we adapt and move forward we make something beautiful of our lives. Tomorrow is full of possibilities for those who accept the past, adapt and move on.

The Blessing of Fellowship in Jesus Christ – Part 2

If you haven’t read the previous posting, I would encourage you to do so. If nothing else, this one may not make sense unless you do…and yes I hear the question “do any of them make sense?”

First, keep in mind with the questions I pose here, that I am asking these on a deep level. It isn’t that I don’t know the common or popular answers to these questions. I do, however, believe that sometimes we need to slip beneath the surface to reacquaint ourselves with the foundations of the Christian faith, and in particular, the foundations of ministry.

To carry on from the last post…what is it that I bring to the local church? What do I bring as a pastor? What does it mean to be a pastor?

In the later part of the first century, the Apostle John appointed Polycarp the Bishop of Smyrna. Like his teacher, Polycarp took on the battle against Gnosticism in the church.

Polycarp was also a notable leader in the early church who offers pastors today a cautionary word of advice. In a letter to the Church in Philippi (likely written a century after the Apostle Paul’s letter) he wrote, “I am greatly grieved for Valens, who was once a presbyter among you, because he so little understands the place that was given him in the Church” (Polycarp’s letter to the Phillipians 11:1).

What is the place that was given to Valens? What is the place that has been given to me? Valen’s downfall was covetousness. What do I covet? What struggles do I face? What “rights,” expectations and desires must I joyfully set aside for the sake of the Church? Do I understand what it means to be “the pastor”?

These are not trite questions. The place of the pastor is within the church community. It is the place where who the pastor is will speak far louder than what he says. It is the place of being who God intends us to be.

It would seem to me that who I am, being who God intends me to be, is vastly more important than my ability to preach or do the “tasks” of ministry. Not that preaching and other tasks of ministry are not important, they are, but they must grow out of being who God intends me to be.

In other words, my place in the church is one of being who God intends me to be in the community that is the local church. My “place” is that of a shepherd and teacher built on a foundation of being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.

It seems simple enough, yet God is persistently working on conforming me to the image of Jesus Christ. I’m not a finished work. Sometimes the “working” is not as pleasant as I would like, but I am thankful for it. I find Paul’s words to Phillippians comforting and encouraging.  “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).

The Blessing of Fellowship in Jesus Christ

Yes I will get to my post on lament, but for now another timely comment on life.

Those who know me reasonably well have probably heard me express my suspicion of the way the term “community” is often used in Christian circles–or at least my perception of how the term is used.

My concern is that community is often seen as being about relationship. (For those of you who think I have lost my mind here, please hear me out). The problem as I see it is that “relationship” is an abstract concept. Community, which is also an abstract concept, defined by another abstract concept such as “relationship” is  abstract to the point of meaninglessness.

If you have read my blog you will have picked up that I am very interested in the notion of “being.” In this context, I speak of concrete individuals in the church you are “being” who and what God has intended them to be.

Collectively, they form a local church, a microcosm of the Church. This concrete group of people who are “being” what God intended them to be forms a concrete community of particular people in particular relationships with one another, being what God intended them to be as a community.

“Being” what God intended us to be is founded upon Jesus Christ, the Son of God. There is nothing abstract about “being.” The nature of these relationships is not abstract, for it too is founded upon “being,” thus Jesus Christ. The nature of the specific community is not abstract, since it too is founded upon “being.”

It is this kind of “community” that you can enter into and experience the grace, love, mercy, kindness, wisdom, caring and wholeness of Jesus Christ. I have entered this kind of community.

I have come in as a “pastor” only to find that I am the one who is being ministered to. I have entered a community of “being.” It is both humbling and invigorating. It isn’t about me. It is about Christ in us. It isn’t about what I bring to the church. It is about me “being” who I am in Jesus Christ in communion with others who are “being” who they are in Jesus Christ.

Do I bring something? Yes, I bring what one man in Christ can bring.  Do I receive something? Yes, I receive what many men and women in Christ offer. That is the blessing of fellowship in Jesus Christ.

Becoming The Music

I continue to reflect on what it means to be a Christian, a disciple of Jesus Christ. Is it enough to believe? Are we not called to something far deeper than intellectual assent and righteous behavior? These are in themselves challenging, but I suggest that they are far short of what we are called to be.


Allow me to use a musical metaphor. There are many technically good musicians. They understand the theory, can quickly read music, they have a keen sense of pitch and relative harmonic relationships. They are technically competent with their instrument. In short, they can competently execute the task of playing music.


Then there are those who truly master their instrument. They have the ability to eek out every last nuance the instrument is capable of. They draw out of the instrument the subtly of the music on the page and the conductors direction.


Then there are those who master the music, artists. These are the ones who enter into the music. They become artistic participants with the composer, the orchestra and conductor. They do not play the music; they are the music. The music flows from their being—an extension of who they are.


It is not a linear progression from technician to artist. There are those who defy the “rules” and achieve levels of artistry with little or no “technical” training. For most, however, the road is one of symbiotic development of both the technical and the artistic.


The problem is that while we can learn the technical knowledge and through diligent practice master an instrument, artistry cannot be taught. Artistry emerges from within. It is a transformation, not an education. At best we can facilitate and encourage artistry. 


What does this have to do with being a disciple of Jesus Christ? Everything. To be created in the image of God is to be created for artistry. It is to enter into creation in participation with the Creator, loving what He loves, valuing what He values and embodying this with out reservation or contrary thought. It is truly being made in the image of God. Unfortunately, because of sin we find our selves striving to regain that which was lost, the artistry of being made in the image of God.


As the Church, we are reasonably adept at the technical side of discipleship. We learn how to read the music, play the notes and present some semblance of the composers work. What we are not as adept at is becoming artists, participating with Jesus Christ, loving what He loves, valuing what He values and embodying this such that it flows out of our being with out reservation or contrary thought.


I am concerned that we see the technical side of the faith as an end. When we are good at ______ (you fill in the blank) then we have arrived. I am increasingly convinced that this is a dangerous deception.


No matter how solid we are in our theology, our teaching, yes even our caring ministry, it is merely the foundation that enables true discipleship. The tasks of ministry should never be understood as what it means to be a Christian. Yes, a Christian does these things even as a violinist must expertly handle the bow, but bowing alone does not make music. In the hands of an artist the bow is merely a creative tool used to participate with the composer in creating music.


This is not to denigrate in any way the necessity of a quality bow any more than the technical competency needed to handle it well. It is to transcend above the tasks of music to enter into being that which the music flows from.