Archive for April, 2012

Beware of Simon the Sorcerer (re-posting)

Beware of Simon the Sorcerer

The book of Acts relates a story about a sorcerer of some renown in Samaria who became enthralled with healing miracles performed by the apostles in his part of the country.  The sorcerer’s name was Simon.  We don’t know the nature of his sorcery, whether it was hocus-pocus sleight-of-hand trickery or whether it was more akin to witchcraft.  The story goes into no detail on the matter.  The Bible doesn’t say that witchcraft isn’t real. The story of Saul and the Witch of Endor relates apparently real sorcery. It instead tells us that we are not to mess with it.  We were not created to fool around with it.  We simply don’t know what it was that this Simon was engaged in. But whatever it was, the people that he practiced it among were impressed enough by it to give him the name, “The Great Power”.  The internalization of that kind of fame has a sorcery of its own that plays with the mind of the recipient – it makes that person appear to himself to be more important than he or she really is.  It creates its own dark illusions and distortions, and if we are not careful, we can find ourselves donning the wizard’s hat and memorizing incantations.

Upon gazing with amazement at the miracles that God was doing through the apostles that God sent out, Simon is said to have “believed” to such an extent that he was baptized.  The question that doesn’t get asked in the story is, “Believed in what?”  Clearly he believed that what he was seeing had real power.  But it is just as clear, though only implied, that he saw baptism as some kind of power-giving incantational ritual. The Book of Acts relates that this Simon even went so far as to offer money for the “How-to Manual of Signs and Wonders”.  His mind was filled with wonder, but the wonder that his mind was filled with led him to desire the power to perform miracles and wonders and thus become even more renowned and great in his land and among his people.  Baptism not being a magical act did not rid him of his motive of ambition.  The wonder that filled his mind did not lead him to surrender.  It didn’t lead him to humility.  It didn’t lead him to a posture of servanthood.  Instead, he apparently saw that mastering this “skill” of miracle-making would be another rung on the ladder to worldly fame and fortune.  He’d be an even bigger “rock star” and  “hit with the ladies”.  He saw people pouring out of their homes and villages, seeking what was happening in the mission that the apostles were participating in.  He wanted to be like the apostles…more correctly, he wanted the “mojo” that he mistakenly thought the apostles possessed.

In the mission fields where we serve, we see miracles happen all the time.  We see hearts transformed.  We see lives literally changed before our eyes.  We see addicts break free from their addictions, loosed from the bondage of overwhelming impulse.  We see hope long lost found again among the rubble of really broken things. And we see people who have witnessed these amazing signs and wonders bring their whole households out to participate in the Kingdom of God in our midst.  And on occasion, we find Simon the Sorcerer in our midst.  Seeing a miracle happen is intoxicating.  And if we aren’t extremely careful, it can also be distorting.  I have seen many miracles, and I have never performed a single one.  Every miracle that happens in the midst of our mission is performed singly and solely by the power of the Holy Spirit in relationship with the one being healed.  We wield no supernatural power.  We claim no ability.  We cry out to the Holy Spirit to heal the sick and broken-hearted because we have nowehere else to turn, and because we know for a fact that without the Spirit of God we are powerless.  Indeed, we ARE powerless.  WE are powerless.  And we are dispensable.  We are nothing but ashes and dust.  The King of the Kingdom is the sole power.

It is important to remember that the mission is not what we do.  It is what we PARTICIPATE in.  It isn’t our mission.  It is God’s mission.  If people witness the crazy signs and wonders and imprint on us – seek to become like us, then we have utterly failed in the mission.  Maybe more correctly, we have failed the mission.  We do not exist. We are dead people walking, dead and raised in Christ.  What does a dead person care about being a “rock star” or a “hit with the ladies”? Of what possible good is fame to a dead person? People in need need Christ and the Kingdom, not us.  It is Christ, the Teacher of The Way, that must be imprinted on.  We aren’t placing peoples’ hands in our hands.  We are placing peoples’ hands into the hands of Christ who is reaching out to them.  Anything short of doing that is sorcery, and we will be opening doors to things that we were not created to let loose.  We must be careful to stay small, indeed to not exist, so that Christ may be all that is seen or heard.  I don’t know whether sorcery has any real power.  The Bible seems to indicate that it does.  But the Bible is also clear that though it may have power, it doesn’t have the power to give life.  And life is what people need.  Only Christ can make the lame walk and the dead rise.  Christ alone.  Beware of Simon the Sorcerer in the crowd.  Beware of Simon in your mission teams.  And beware of Simon in our own hearts.  We are all susceptible.


The Prediction of the Demise of the Missional Movement? Whatever.

The Prediction of the Demise of the Missional Movement? Whatever.

More than once in the past two weeks I have heard supposed experts – Biblical hired-hands – from both mainline and evangelical organizations proclaim that the missional movement is another “fad”, and predict that it will prove to just be another flash in the pan.  While these “experts” were busy making up their three-word acronyms for incredibly obvious things (that’s what “experts” do, after all), they have once again spoken from ignorance about something they know nothing about, simply because they know nothing about it and they get paid to know everything about everything. So if everyday people are out there talking excitedly about the “missional” movement, and that conversation is not in line with the cool organizational diagrams that they have expertly drawn of their expensive smart boards, they see it as their duty as faith experts to free us from our illusions.  I think it might be worth noting how incorrectly many of these faith experts use the term “missional”, and why calling it a fad is both ignorant and something of an injustice to what is actually going on.

First, let me make very clear that I am not invested in “missional church”.  I am invested in Jesus Christ and his Kingdom.  One might say that I am “all in” for Christ’s present Kingdom.  What I am trying to do is cut through all the copies of Jesus that are masquerading as his body that have become so blurred by being a copy of a copy of a copy, ad infinitum, that they are more or less unrecognizable as anything that Christ talked about in Scripture. And I know that cutting through those means painfully looking in the mirror.  I am trying to get my whole life into a position of surrender to Jesus. And I am inviting others to hold me accountable to that.  And I am inviting others to do that with me.  I am doing as Scripture commands me to do.  Or, at least, I am trying to.  And failing to.  And trying to again.

I am seeking first the Kingdom of God…and it’s right relationship with God.  And I am trusting that everything else that matters…my marriage, my parenting, my community, discipleship, fellowship, worship, practices…everything else…will come out of that.  What I am trying to do is to be obedient.  And if doing that meets the academic criteria for some artificial category of “missional”, then fine. That term has been hijacked by so many different self-serving church growth interests that even these “experts” don’t know what it means anymore…if they ever did…and I highly doubt they did.  If it’s easier to say “missional” than to spell out the whole thing…fine.  But to characterize “missional” as some whole other separate thing from faith and practice is to completely misunderstand where the term came from and how it came to be stuck on certain kinds of activities and communities.  Like so many terms that get bandied about, “missional” makes a better adjective than it does a proper noun.

Some time ago, I found myself more and more spiritually drained by participating in ritualized practices that simply did not speak to my soul.  I kept at it out of a sense of obligation and a belief that commitment matters. And on some level, I kept at it out of habit.  I had imprinted on Christians, and Christians “went to church”.  I thought I was being obedient and I thought I was pleasing God. What I found in church were people who self-identified as Christian, but who spent most of their time bad-mouthing each other, talking about how much better they could do things if they were in charge, and arguing about things that had more to do with furniture than fortitude. I found more people worried about what following Christ was going to do for them than what it meant to be a slave to Christ.  It was like their religion made them more fearful than fearless. And most strikingly, I found that the prevailing culture was dominated by people and voices that did not reflect a life of recognized blessings, humble gratitude, and peace.

Over time, my sense of obligation and commitment gave way to a sense of despair. Perhaps, some of you can relate to what I am talking about when I say, “despair”.  Every time the body would get into a fight (which was often), it was always over some doctrinal issue or something petty.  And the congregation would wring their hands and blame the pastor for a lack of leadership.  They’d call up the denominational office, and they would send an “expert” from the denomination headquarters who would give us some three-word acronym to explain the dysfunction out of their wealth of knowledge about organizational theory, and all parties would walk away feeling self-justified…and just as fit for hell as they were when they started fighting over what kind of music pleased God the most, or what color the carpet would be.  What was called for wasn’t a consultant.  What was called for was a prophet.

After years of soul searching, I found that at the very root of all that nastiness and hellishness was a very primary dispute.  The dispute was over who was in charge….which little cluster of interests or family dynamics was going to have the final say.  All those arguments about how much better a person could do things if they were in charge came down to a deep dispute about who was going to be in charge. If any place where God’s presence is not contested is heaven, then any place where God’s presence is fully contested must be hell.   That explained a lot. Every poor pastor who they stood up who had left everything to be faithful to their sense of calling was sacrificed on the altar of “I can do it better than you can”.  And those poor, kind souls just didn’t have the tools to fight back.  They just got eaten alive.  They were never the problem.  The problem was the problem of who was going to be in charge…whose vision and affections were going to drive the community.  In short, there were little kingdoms vying for power and the church looked and acted like a season of “Game of Thrones” rather than a place where Heaven meets earth.  Who is going to be in charge?  Well…Jesus is.  The first, and the last, and the living one.  The one who came out of the tomb and left it empty.  The one whose Spirit walks among us doing what Jesus always did.  Jesus is in charge.  Not our version of Jesus.  Jesus. In charge. Actually.

And in the midst of that soul-searching I realized something else, too.  I realized that in all of my years of attending church and participating in boards and committees, I had never seen a miracle.  I had never seen a life radically changed before my eyes.  In fact, I realized that most folks were doing everything in their power to make sure that nothing changed.  I never saw hope restored.  I never saw a lost soul truly found.  And I never saw an addict set free.  I saw a lot of addicts hiding their addictions for fear of being found out.  And I could never justify within myself going out into the world with the message that miracles and joy and liberation and authenticity were a part of this faith…because I had never personally witnessed any of that in any church that I had ever been a part of.  How could I talk about the presence of a God who loosed supernatural power on the world through the resurrection of his son and the setting free of the Holy Spirit when I had never once witnessed any of those things?

So, I left the church.  And I started looking for the Kingdom of God where Jesus is actually in charge and I found it all over the place…just not in the church. I went where I heard miracles were taking place.  I went to places where joy could found.  I went where addictions were defeated and people were set free.  I went out to the most unexpected places where the lost, and suffering, and misfits were.   And I learned that I was lost and suffering and a misfit. And in the process, I found my own miracle and I found myself set free…right before my eyes.

I got out of Bible studies where everyone came with preconceived notions of its content and meaning and just showed up to figure out who was on their side of things.  I started getting into Scripture with people who were open and curious about it, but knew nothing about it other than that Jesus could be found in it.  I started getting into it with people who approached it with wonder and awe. And more important than anything else, I started seeking things in Scripture that I could obey.  I’m not going to lie to you.  I found things in Scripture that were very hard to understand…and very hard to obey.  So I started with things that spoke truth to my heart…that echoed with goodness and authenticity…and I started to obey them.  And I asked others to hold me accountable to that obedience.  And my life changed.  And I watched it happen right before my eyes.  From that point on, I no longer had to speak to people about a theoretical faith.  I was a witness to the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit to transform lives and set people’s hearts on fire.

Out of that experience came many things that I now view very differently.  I now look at “salvation” as something very different than simply a status to be gained and protected.  I look at evangelism very differently.  I no longer look at it as standing on my nice clean dock and casting out “sinner’s prayers” and “you’re going to hell” tracts to fish for souls who hold a lesser status than my own.  No one has a lesser status than I do.  I no longer look at heaven as the place you might go when you die if you get the mojo of verbalizing substitutional salvation correctly and in the right order.  I no longer look at the church as the sole sanctuary, but rather as a launching pad for missionaries to go out into the darkness and seek our sanctuaries everywhere.  I no longer hear the word “church” and get a mental picture of a building with a steeple.  I now see people engaged with Jesus in his Father’s mission to reach the lost and disenfranchised and the suffering.  I am not trying to stay out of hell anymore.  I am trying to storm the gates of hell with Jesus and his Kingdom so that we might pull souls out of hell.  As such, I no longer invite people to a building when I invite them to church.  Instead, I invite them to participate in the Kingdom of God. Some of those people eventually come and worship with us on Sunday mornings, but even that is not the same.  I no longer look at worship the same way.  That has freed me from getting caught up in a lot of arguments about worship styles and liturgy.  My style of worship is now trying to participate in humility and mercy and justice.  I try.  I fail.  And I try again. And in that practice is my worship.  It isn’t about anything I do anymore.  It’s all about what Jesus did, and what Jesus is still doing.  The list of what I now look at differently is too long to fully list here.

Over the past 13 years or so, we have brought the invitation to look at faith and practice in some of these new ways into existing communities of faith. Some have accepted the invitation, and some have not.   In my journey to a deeper obedience, I haven’t forgotten that the church is the bride of Christ, and to serve the bride is to serve the groom. Not to  mention, I really don’t want to get on the wrong side of the groom.   And I haven’t forgotten that Scriptures bids us to not neglect the assembly.  I now serve in a community of faith that has been renewed and restored and transformed.  It is an incredible place to witness miracles and transformation and liberation.  And we have seen numerous existing faith communities be radically transformed in their journey of renewal and participation in God’s present Kingdom.  Communities that once dysfunctioned in ways like I described above that drove me to leave on a journey of rediscovery, have now found new life through surrender to Jesus, and through seeking his Kingdom.

More important than any term for what it is that I am describing, is that what I once never saw, I now see all the time. I now see Jesus all the time. I now see church leaders who are totally surrendered to Jesus.  That is the new normal.  And there is no doubt that Jesus is in charge.   It has become normal to see miracles.  It has also become normal to see hardship as a part of faith, and to see the real Jesus alive and leading in the midst of it.  All the time now, I see people fall down in complete surrender and rise up restored and whole and new.  I see courageous people giving their all to serve those who Christ came to reach…without complaint or blame.  I see the lame walk and the addicted set free.  Seeing those things has become normal.  Where those things happen is where Jesus is.  Those things are signs of his presence and power and purpose. And where Jesus is, his body also is.  If that is “missional”, then okay, cool.  And if that is not what “missional” is and you want to say that “missional” is a fad that will fail, then okay, I am cool with that, too.  But no matter how many degrees and certifications and areas of expertise one claims to have, one should be very careful when saying that what I just described is a fad that will fail. One should be very careful about that, indeed, because what we are witnessing may not be something as small as “missional church”. It might be that what we are witnessing is another Great Awakening.  Can these bones live? O Lord, you know.

“We Just Want to Stay the Same.” Not Possible.

“We Just Want to Stay the Same.”  Not Possible.

I have heard something a couple of times now and it grieves my heart to hear it.  I have heard it said right before a church begins its nosedive to closing…and usually closing with money in the bank.  I have heard churches simply say that they have decided to stay as they are…to do nothing new…rather than attempt hard changes that might make them healthy again.  I say “healthy again” intentionally.  It is unhealthy to say that a congregation is choosing to “stay the same”.  It is unhealthy because staying the same is an illusion…or more precisely, it is a delusion. I support every congregation’s right to make their own decisions. That being said, I don’t think that supporting that right precludes others from attempting to say things to that congregation that might renew their minds.  Truth matters.  The truth sets us free.  Jesus is the way and the TRUTH and the life.  Every congregation is spiritually competent to seek divine revelation out of which they can steer their congregation.  But we are not entitled to embrace a lie and call it the truth without that lie being challenged. We cannot claim to love people and not be willing to tell the truth. Paul wrote, “Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up into him who is the head, the Christ.” (Eph 4:15)

Nothing stays the same.  That is the truth.  It is completely counter to the Gospel…and to physics, by the way…to believe that any person, relationship, or community has the ability to stay the same.  Change is constantly happening.  Simply gazing upon something changes both the object and the subject of that gaze.  We do not stay the same.  Refusing to grow personally or as a community…refusing to grow up…does not mean that you, individually or collectively, will stay the same.  Not at all. Choosing to take for yourself with no eye toward others means that you will grow, but you will grow into the attitude and thought that led you to choose to focus on yourself.

If your choice is to stay focused on yourself, you will be etched deeper into and become more entrenched in self-serving and self-centeredness. Attitude and speech lead to patterns of behavior. Selfish attitudes become selfish behavior. Behavior gains momentum as it becomes habit, and habit gains momentum as it becomes character.  You will not stay the same.  You will become more adept at answering the question of “What do I want?”  And you will become less and less able to even hear the question, “What does God want from me?”   Your own needs become more and more central, and the world around you begins to look more and more like a resource to better serve yourself.  You might even find yourself developing a more and more detailed story of the world that supports your claim to centrality. That delusion is called Narcissism, and that phenomenon can be collective, as well as, individual.

Narcissism is not inert.  It is not benign, either.  All of us know someone who has been spoiled and enabled through their whole adolescence.  They do not stay the same.  They get worse. Adolescence is the process of coming to understand that you are no longer a child whose needs are central to your world.  As a baby, your world does revolve around you.  You can’t feed yourself or change your own diapers or control your own impulses.  But as an adult, we come to realize that in the scope of the universe, we really don’t matter very much.  We are like the grass that fades.  Some families never let their kids grow out of adolescence.  They are afraid that if they tell their kids the truth, their kids won’t love them anymore…and their own need to be loved becomes more important than the truth. But it isn’t that their kids stay the same.  They become more adept at manipulating people into giving in to them.  They become more hostile, more morose, and more of a pain in the neck to everyone.  They become utterly poisonous to every community that they wheedle their way into. They grow in their ability to feed their own need. They grow, in that they become less and less able to hear any “will” other than their own.  Over time, and left unconfronted, they start to hear their own will and think that it’s God’s will.  God’s voice grows farther and farther away, and their own voice grows more and more central.  When that happens, their actions cease to be benign.  They begin to do damage to anyone that they have power over, and because their will is central, that seek to have power over everyone in their lives. It is simply not true that people (or communities) that are fundamentally selfish or self-preservation-centered (whatever you want to call it) stay the same. They do not. They get worse.

As those communities that are getting worse get worse, the healthy people in them leave or are driven off.  The sick only attract the sick, and there are only so many sick people that a community can tap into for growth.  The congregation ages.  As it ages, giving drops off.  They get to the point where they can’t afford full-time professional leadership.  They drive off part-timers because dynamic people willing to work part-time have an eye towards growth – and these congregations thwart every effort put forth to do that. So they get pulpit supply just for Sundays.  Through the years, they’ve made no effort to develop solid lay-leaders who can help them grow, and no tent-maker pastor in their right mind would take on a tiny and dying congregation that has decided to “stay the same”.   The spiral downward gains momentum.  Members die and are not replaced.  Between chasing off healthy people and members simply dying, the congregation dies…it becomes unsustainable.  Selfishness in community is unsustainable.  So those congregations do not stay the same.  They die.  THAT is the truth.  They get sick.  The sickness goes unconfronted.  The sickness becomes entrenched.  They get sicker.  And then they die. THAT is the truth.  It is a flat-out lie to claim that your choice is to stay the same.  You’re going to grow sicker or you’re going to grow healthier.  But no community stays the same ever.

Healthy things grow.  It’s not a question of growth. It’s a question of health. Healthy congregations grow out of adolescence and come to realize that they are not the center of the universe…nor are they the center of the Gospel.  The Good News IS for them, but never for them alone.  The blessings of  God ARE for them, but never for them alone. Those whom God calls, and Jesus claims as his, are not his for their own sake.  They are called as vessels through which Jesus can continue to do what he said he came to do – “To seek and to save the lost.”  They are vessels through which the Kingdom of God can spread outward…and inward…but certainly outward.

Does that mean that every congregation has to drop what they’re doing and go out into the streets to reach gangsters and drug addicts today? No, I don’t think that would be a truthful expectation either.  But just as an attitude of selfishness grows, so also an attitude of selflessness grows.  Small steps matter.  Small changes matter.  Small decisions matter.  They matter because they grow.  They do not stay the same.  Small acts of kindness to those outside our walls fed by an attitude and realization that while Jesus might be our personal savior, that doesn’t make him our personal servant…those small acts of kindness change us, and they change the world. The world starts to look a little bit more like the Kingdom of God, and we start to enjoy participating in God’s present reign as his servants. The enjoyment grows.  As that joy grows, we become more warm and open.  That attitude grows.  As it grows, we become healthier and more mature and more responsible adults.  Healthy attracts healthy, and healthy grows.  It just does. Churches that decide not to stay the same are living in the truth.  And those churches that decide that they want to grow in selfless service will grow in courage and boldness and audacity.  And they will grow in their trust in Jesus.  They will not stay the same.  What started as a tiny mustard seed sown within them will grow up and become the greatest of all bushes, and the birds of the air…the lost, the disenfranchised, the addicted, the exploited, the humiliated, the suffering…will come and find shelter in its branches (Mat 4:32).

Every congregation is spiritually equipped to make their own decisions.  But no congregation is entitled to their own truth.  It is a lie to say that you are choosing to stay the same.  You are choosing to become more selfless and Kingdom-oriented, or you are choosing to become more and more selfish and self-serving.  You are choosing to grow up and grow healthy, or you are choosing to die.  THAT is the truth.


For What? To do What?

For What? To do What?

So, I was talking to a guy that used to be very involved with our missions.  In fact, he still is from a donation standpoint.  He had been badly let down…though at least in part because of his own distorted expectations…by a mainline congregation that he had been a “member” of.  They weren’t moving fast enough.  They kept asking the wrong questions.  They kept shooting down every initiative that he offered.  In fairness (and having experienced this myself), all of the initiatives he ever offered to our mission involved other people doing something that he would run, rather than him just doing it and leading others into it with him. That was probably the case at this church, too.  Either way, this isn’t about the congregation that he left angrily.  It’s about where he went when he left.

The rule in my community is that we don’t want people here who left a church all ticked off at the congregation or the pastor if they haven’t exhausted every avenue that scripture gives them to resolve their differences.  In fact, we don’t want anyone who can’t name and own their own role in the conflict.  We don’t do letters of transfer.  We really aren’t looking to grow in numbers for the sake of numbers in worship. And we sure aren’t looking to take good people away from churches that need them.  We are not a “cannibal church”.  We aren’t trying to reach the already reached. So, as many times as this guy came to me inquiring about my church, I just kept telling him to go back to his pastor and work it out.  Every single person who has left a church ticked off at the pastor or the congregation and has then come here has done nothing but damage here, and it wasn’t but about a month before they were all ticked off at me and at this congregation. EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM! None of us here have sacrificed food off of our childrens’ tables to make angry Christians happy.  All of our healthy growth has come from the mission field – we seek to save the lost with Jesus.  We aren’t trying to find the found.

So the guy called me to tell me about his “new church” and how they were in the middle of a $4 million capital campaign so that they could expand into the rest of the strip mall that they currently occupied a part of.  So, I asked him, “For what?”  He said, “So we have more worship space and better sound and video system.” And I asked, “For what? To do what?” He said, “So we can get more people in here! We’re growing!” So, I asked him, “You can get more people in there to do what? For what?” He said, “What do you mean, ‘For what?’ We are going to be huge. We need more building space.” So, I asked more pointedly, “You need $4 million to add more building space to attract people to your $4 million worship space to do what?” There was silence for a minute, and then he said, “To worship.”

I asked him another question, “Where will your congregation come up with that kind of money.  How is that money being raised?”  And he said that the pastor had begun an eight week sermon series on “Giving to the Church”.  In that series, he had invited people to perhaps take out a second mortgage on their house to give to the campaign as an act of faith.  I asked this man, “What is the average person in your congregation like? What do they do for a living?”  And he told me that most were middle class and upper middle class Caucasian folks with a couple of kids.  So I said, “So, most of them are just getting by? Even the ones in big houses have hefty mortgages, right?”  And he acknowledged that.  And then I said, “So, these folks are being sold on the idea that this new worship space is worth going into deeper debt than they are already in.”  He acknowledged that.  So again, I asked, “For what?  To do what? What will these dollars that aren’t actually theirs but are the bank’s produce for the Kingdom?” And he said, “Oh, our worship will attract a lot of people.” And I asked, “Attract a lot of what kind of people? How many people who attend your church came there from other churches?” He said, “Most.  But we invite our neighbors.” I asked, “And who are your neighbors?” He replied, “People who live in my neighborhood.” I replied, “Oh.”

So let me get this straight.  This “growing” congregation is being told by their leaders that following Christ means borrowing money that they don’t have to build a bigger, cooler worship space to attract more people to their worship space who will give more money that they don’t have to build and even bigger worship space when that one gets filled up.  They are filling up this worship space with people who all look alike and come from roughly the same middle class and upper middle class neighborhood and all already self-identify as Christian but just haven’t found a “church” that “meets their spiritual needs”.  When I asked about doing mission, this guy acknowledged that these people wouldn’t have money to invest in that, because they had taken out second mortgages to buy a building.  These folks would spend the next ten or twenty or thirty years financially strapped to the point where they don’t have any money to provide food or clothing or shelter to anyone because all of their giving is wrapped up in a beautiful worship space designed to attract other people to become financially strapped and be a part of their giant worship events.  All of their time, talent, and treasure are going into getting a bigger building to do bigger worship and they don’t have any time left to serve in a food pantry or feeding ministry or homeless shelter or addiction recovery center or anything else.  So they are going to take the widow’s mites to put technological jewels in an already awesome sound system and worship space.

It gets worse.  I ask the guy what is preached about when the pastor isn’t preaching about “Giving to the Church”.  He responds, “Oh this guy is a VERY dynamic preacher.”  I say, “Well, that’s good.  But what’s he preach about?  What’s the message?  What is he telling you that it means to be a follower of Christ? How are you told to live that out?”  It took a long time for him to answer.  A long time.  And then he started telling me about how the country had gone to hell in a handbasket and that if we didn’t elect some real Christians who would put Jesus back in school and do something about all the freeloaders and bring an end to abortion…” And he just went on and on about the state of the government in the U.S..  I asked him again, “What is the message that is being preached? I mean, you’re about to pay $4 million to get a VERY dynamic sermon every week.  I hope you get something for the investment that can help you get closer to the Kingdom.”  He said that the last number of sermons had been prophetic messages about our government.  So, I said, “What it means to follow Christ for you then is to vote? Anything else?”  Nothing.

So NOW let me see if I have this straight.  $4 million in money that is borrowed from someone else to acquire an awesome worship space to attract more and more people who look the same from the same part of town and economic demographic who already self-identify as Christian so that they can receive the message that the central concern of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that what it means to live the Kingdom of God is to vote.  And more and more people will be spending more and more money and time inviting more and more people to spend more and more money and time to come on Sunday and live out their faith by having their spiritual needs met by cool tunes and messages on how to vote.  And apparently, according to this guy, the church planting organization that lit this remarkable rocket “knows how to do this”.  I was going to ask, “What exactly is ‘this’ that they know how to do?” But I figured that by this time I had completely worn this guy out. I know he had worn me out.

Look, please don’t misunderstand me here.  I know some amazing ministries that are changing the world through hands-on engagement and missional living that are big ministries and that are growing like wildfire.  Dan Southerland’s ministries and church plants come to mind immediately.  But this isn’t that.  My issue has nothing to do with size or rapid growth.  It has to do with a problem that also existed in Jesus’ day.  Jesus told of a widow – among the most vulnerable members of society in that time – who gave her last two coins to the Temple (the giant church of its day).  The temple told her that giving up coins like that put her in right relationship with the Temple, and thus with God.  It also impoverished her…it probably devoured her home and her meager means.  And for what? To do what? To pay for a cooler worship space and a bigger salary for the staff.  What if one of these people who took out a second mortgage lost their job? They could lose their house in order to have this cool temple.  I bet a dime to a dollar there isn’t one single bunk bed in that place to house them when they land on the street…and I bet they aren’t zoned for being a shelter, either.  Isn’t the church supposed to be protecting the vulnerable? Aren’t we supposed to be participating in the Kingdom by participating in giving that makes a difference to suffering people?  Jesus railed against using the money of the poor to put gems in the walls of the Temple.  What’s the difference between a ruby inlay and a sixteen speaker sound system?  I’m cool with a sound system if it is used to inspire people to give real alms to serve God’s purpose of redeeming the lost, the left out, and the marginalized. If it’s used to break down barriers in our society, I am totally cool with it.  If it is used to soften people hearts to people who are different from them, then I am all for it. If it’s used to provide food, shelter, healing…any of those, then I’m onboard.  I really am.  I love to rock out just as much as any other Jesus-crazy Christ-follower.

It costs real dollars to supply food and clothing and shelter…lots of real dollars. We have to ask for people to give of their money and time and talent, and we have to ask often.  We can feed about 15-18,000 per year for about $18,000-$20,000 dollars staffing everything with volunteers who give until it hurts. Those are real dollars, and if people don’t give, we don’t feed anyone. People take food off their own tables and dollars out of their children’s pockets to provide that food.  But if we spend all of our real dollars on a cool worship space – not only for today but also for years to come; and we spend all of our time servicing that building and staffing those cool worship services, what and who is left to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison, and take the Kingdom into the dark places of the mission field?   I think the question always has to stand before us when we are asking people to give of their time, talent, and treasure, “For what? To do what?”.  Wow.  We HAVE TO change the way we think or we’re in real danger of having Jesus show up pissed off and overturning OUR tables.  I know that there are many communities out there that balance growth and mission well.  Many. So how do we recognize that sometimes we really do need a bigger building and a technology update, and at the same time have some integrity of message and allegiance to the Gospel?  What are your rules of thumb?