Advent: Life as protest

Yesterday was the beginning of the season of Advent!  For Christians, this is a liturgical season, consisting of 4 weeks leading up to Christmas and Christmas Sunday (the Sunday closest to Dec. 25 even though we know that isn’t the actual date of Jesus’ birth).   The focus of Advent is on the coming, or Advent, of Jesus through his birth.  Advent is also focused on the return of Jesus at a future date, when Christians, generally, believe he will make God’s shalom vision real and complete forever.   Jesus’ second Advent involves judgement, which is not cool or hip or comfortable, but it is in the scriptures none the less.  That means that the Advent season is a liminal season.

Liminality

Liminality is the experience of living in-between.  It is often used to describe periods of transition where you are not what you were, but you are not yet what you are becoming.  Some examples include transitioning from high school to college; from college to career; from single to married; from non-parent to parent; from career person to retired; from child to adult; and so on.

In the context of the Advent season, the liminal space is occupied with a promise of peace that accompanies the birth of Jesus.  It is also a space occupied with the reality that peace is not present, but is coming.  So we are living in a period of transition where things are not what they once were, because Jesus has come.  BUT, they aren’t what they will become.

Often, people describe periods of liminality as times when there is confusion, doubt, questions, a lack of clear identity, and the feeling that you are being ground up!  I know…it sounds awful.    In the context of Advent, what often gets ground up is your faith.

Faith

Peter Rollins wrote an excellent post on the difference between faith, certainty, doubt and belief.  Go read it and come back.  Faith, according to Peter, has more in common with “living in a particular way” than believing, being certain about or having doubts concerning particular things.  This is key when considering the Advent season.  Much of our focus, as Christians, is on understanding or making sense of this liminal space.  The question we often ask is: How can we make sense of the promise that the birth of Jesus will bring radical socio/economic shifts towards God’s justice AND the absence of said socio/economic shifts towards God’s justice?  Our answer is to push that radical shift towards God’s justice into the future.  But is that a move towards faith?  It depends on how you define faith.

If faith is being certain about what you don’t see, then pushing the “radical socio/economic shift towards God’s justice” into the future, is an act of faith.  The faith task for the Christian, in this view, is to keep believing that the promise of peace at the birth of Jesus has come to pass while also coming up with answers that explain away the reality that it hasn’t’ happened.   In the words of 80’s pop-rock idols, Journey, the task for the faithful is Don’t Stop Believing!

However, if faith has more in common with living in a particular way, perhaps our task is not to rationalize the discrepancy between promise and reality, but to live away the discrepancy!

Missing the point?

Christians believe that the world is not what it was because Jesus was born!  AND, they believe that the world is not what it will be when God’s shalom is fully realized.  But we have trouble with the space between.  Perhaps it’s because we don’t spend enough time with the question of how God’s shalom will be fully realized?  I don’t believe that it is a coincidence that what Jesus taught, and lived out in his life and death, and called his followers to live out, leads to God’s shalom.  Have we taken the easy way out by defining faith as belief instead of living out the particular way of Jesus?

Have we missed the point?  Our focus on Jesus can be good and life-giving.  Unless, we are looking at Jesus as the only actor involved in making God’s shalom tangible in the world.  If we act as if Jesus is the only one on the hook for the fixing the way the world is, we will stand idly by, waiting for Jesus to make things right.

I’m not suggesting that we aren’t in a liminal space.  I believe that because of the birth of Jesus the world is not as it once was.  I also believe that the world as it is is not as it will be.  That is the space that we live in, as followers of Jesus.  What I am suggesting is that the faith response is not to push fulfillment off into the future.  The faith response is not to place responsibility for concrete/tangible justice and transformation on Jesus’ shoulders alone.  The faith response is to pick up Jesus’ mantle, under the power of the Spirit, and continue the work.

Ground up

The experience of being “ground up” in the liminal experience of Advent is not about reconciling beliefs, chasing away doubts or grabbing hold of certainty.  The liminal experience of Advent is about reconciling the way we live with the way of Jesus.  Jesus’ birth changed things and is changing things.  The way he is changing things is through his followers who are called to a different way of life.   Our focus is on Jesus, but not as the sole actor, responsible for making God’s peace with justice a reality.  Our focus on Jesus has to also include the call of Jesus to join him as co-actors responsible for making God’s peace with justice a reality.  It’s not our theology or our beliefs that get ground up, it’s our way of life.

Living in protest

This is the difference between a Christmas season vs. an Advent season.  A Christmas season in America is a consumer holiday which thrives on the injustices that Jesus came to change.    Advent is a call to live out God’s shalom, under the power of the Spirit, after the way of Jesus.  Those things are not compatible.  We will either live in protest and have an Advent season, or we will live in compromise and have an American Christmas season.

Christians on Black Friday?

Is it ethical for Christians to participate in Black Friday?

That was a question that was put to many of us on twitter today!   My thoughts: Black Friday is just a hyper-expression of what we participate in every day as Americans who live in a consumer culture.  If you don’t have a problem living your life this way the rest of the year, don’t let the over-the-top consumer experience of Black Friday keep you from being a consumer today!  If you plan to make Christmas about stuff, whether or not you participate in Black Friday is irrelevant.   WHEN you engage in unbridled consumerism and materialism in the name of Jesus is less important than THAT you participate.

One of the things I really like about the over-the-top, a woman pepper sprayed a crowd in LA trying to get an Xbox, experience of Black Friday is that it actually shows clearly what our culture is really about all the time.    We make a big deal out of the early opening stores, the loss-leader deals on consumer products, the carnival atmosphere, and so on…    Just don’t forget that Wal-Mart, the largest consumer retail store chain in the world, NEVER closes!  They are open 24 hours a day every day of the year.  You can shop there whenever you want to.  They have almost anything you need, from flat screens to car tires to produce!  They invented loss-leader marketing.  What we see and pay attention to on Black Friday is actually what we engage in the other days of the year.

Sometimes it takes a hyper-expression of a particular value system for us to see it for what it really is.  The ideology that undergirds Black Friday is pervasive and nearly universal in America.  Whether or not you participate in Black Friday, you participate in Black Everyday!  That’s why not participating in Black Friday really doesn’t change anything.  Go ahead, stay home!  As long as you spend $500 on gifts between now and Christmas, the system doesn’t care when  you buy those gifts.

I won’t be shopping on Black Friday!  But it’s not because I don’t participate in the consumer aspects of an American Christmas.  It’s because I don’t like crowds and the stuff I like is usually not in malls anyway.

The subtle prejudice of romantic visions

“Isn’t it amazing what God is doing through the church in__________________, under such difficult circumstances?”

It is a common practice for churches in America to send teams and delegations to visit churches and ministries in other parts of the world. I recently returned from such a trip. I was a part of the second group our church sent to Colombia.  The purpose of our trip was to visit the churches we support and strengthen relationships. I found it to be rewarding and taxing at the same time.

The most rewarding part was meeting brothers and sisters that share the same faith as me, are passionate about the same things, and are trying to minister faithfully In their context.  In a real way, the work of ministry is universal.  We ask the same questions, tend to the same needs, struggle with similar obstacles, and rely on the same God to will and work in and through us.

One of the most taxing parts was the challenge of evaluating their ministries.  While the Colombian context is different than ours in Illinois, a part of our task was assessing the churches.  It’s part of being good stewards of the resources of our home church.  It’s also necessary as we determine the best way to walk as partners and friends to the churches in Colombia.  Yet, it often felt like comparing apples to oranges.

If the challenge of evaluation was not enough, over time and through conversation, I realized we had a larger problem.  That problem was, and is,  the prejudice involved in creating romantic visions of their work.

What do I mean by that? A romantic vision is one that sees the good, ignores the bad, and is blind to the ugly.  It seems to be a function of white-guilt, or Western guilt, or liberal-guilt, if you will.  We are aware that, from a material standpoint – which, lets be honest, until you have food, shelter, safe water, basic healthcare, basic education and job opportunities, not much else matters – we have it better than those we are visiting.  We feel bad about the conditions of their lives, their communities, their churches, etc.  We don’t want to consider the possibility that our way of life in America contributes to their way of life in Colombia, so we compensate.  We go over the top in seeing their churches as vibrant, powerful, with gifted leaders and grand, God-given visions.  The question is, is that reality or are we seeing what we need to see to get out of there with our way of life in tact?  [The issue is complicated by the reality that if you are indeed doing that, you probably won’t be able to see that you are doing that because if you do see that you are doing that the whole thing begins to unravel which is what you are trying to protect yourself from to begin with.]

How can you tell if you creating romantic visions?  When evaluating any ministry, ask this question: If this were my church, would I see it the same way?  Another variation of the question is: If this exact church were in your town, is that where you would go?  When you ask that question, you will find yourself beginning to make excuses. It’s subtle, but it’s there. You start using different criteria for evaluation.

In Colombia, I saw ministries that were just like a church in my town. This church in my town met in a house, had a small number of faithful members, did ministry with children and ran a food pantry (a feeding ministry). They did this faithfully for decades. When they closed their doors I don’t remember anyone saying “That’s too bad. They did such great work.”  Nobody lauded them for their faith and perseverance.  No one patted them on the back for their holistic approach to ministry.  Most people said,”That was probably a wise decision.  They were really struggling.”

We saw churches just like that in Colombia.  They were doing the same things.  But seeing that same church in Colombia brought a different response. Why? Because, whether we realize it or not, we have lower expectations for them. This isn’t conscious, but it’s present and it’s prejudice.

We rave about Colombian churches with 30 members and 20 kids that do ministry on a shoestring budget, in a too-small building, in a terrible part of town. The only problem is that we neglect those same kinds of ministries and churches in our terrible parts of town.  We chastise our versions of those churches for not being self-sustaining yet.  We wonder how long we will have to ‘keep them afloat’ with our money.   I’ve been in far too many discussions where these were the concerns and criticisms of churches here that are like the ones I saw in Colombia.  Here, we expect more. There, we expect less. That’s prejudice.

The bigger issue in all of this is that romantic visions, rooted in prejudice and guilt, are simply not that helpful.  They are not helpful to the churches being visited.  They are not helpful to the visiting churches.   And they are not helpful to the people involved.  What’s helpful are real relationships.  Meeting people, engaging people and remaining friends with those who you have an affinity with.  Giving and receiving the gifts of hospitality.  Worshipping together, praying together, and laughing together.  Being present without the need to do anything other than being present.  Being present without the need to compare.  Eating good food and telling good stories.  Being honest about what you are thinking, feeling, and experiencing.  It’s in the midst of all of these things that we can learn from one another and grow in our faith.

The decency to walk away sad

To me, one of the most powerful encounters that Jesus had was his encounter with the rich young man (Matthew 19:16 – 30, Mark 10:17 – 31 and Luke 18:18 – 30).  It’s an encounter I can imagine Jesus having with me, and a great many people in our culture – even though we don’t consider ourselves rich (or young).

The encounter:  A young man walks up to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus responds by telling him that he knows the commandments.  The young man claims that he has kept all the commandments since his youth.  Jesus doesn’t dispute that, but says that the young man lacks one thing.  Then Jesus tells him to sell all that he has, give the proceeds to the poor, and then come and follow him.  Then it says that the young man drops his head and walks away sad because he has great wealth.

That’s a barebones retelling of the encounter.  There are many books and sermons that seek to highlight the nuances in the story.  For me, I think the message is pretty simple.  To live life as God intended, which is embodied in the way of Jesus, requires sacrificial, self-giving love that benefits the least of these.  The  most powerful example of such love is the concrete act of giving one’s riches – that which goes above and beyond what is needed to meet one’s basic needs – to those whose basic needs are not being met (generally called the poor).  In the encounter, Jesus presents this as a choice.  The young man can keep his wealth while letting eternal life slip from his hands as his neighbors suffer.  Or, the young man can spend his wealth on the poor, follow Jesus and experience life.

The man walks away sad, choosing – at least in that moment – to keep his wealth.

It’s easy to be sorrowful over the young man’s choice.  But I have to give him credit.  The young man respected Jesus enough to do the decent thing.  He walked away from an invitation he didn’t want to, or couldn’t, live up to.  The young man also took Jesus seriously enough to actually choose.  He choose wealth, but at least he choose something. That the young man was sad indicates that he knew the full weight of the choice.  To me, what the young man did is far better than what many do today.  Today many turn the way of Jesus into a mockery by trying to find a way to keep their money and their eternal life, too.

If you want to keep your money that’s your choice.  But at least have the respect and decency to walk away sad!  That has more integrity than perverting the way of Jesus by seeking to make God and mammon friends.

Zizek: First as tragedy, Then as farce!

If you are curious about where my last post came from, take in this excellent animation from RSA Animate featuring Slavoj Zizek.    Peter Rollins, author of the parable in my previous post, is a student of Zizek.  He takes some of these ideas and applies them to faith.   My particular interest is in the mechanism that is at work in those who claim to follow Jesus on one hand while living lifestyles that are contrary to his life and teaching, without ever fully experiencing the trauma of the disconnect.  It’s what helps keep the world as it is.   Anyway, check out Zizek!  His mind combined with excellent animation makes his ideas accessible.

Would ending charity transform the world?

Would ending charity transform the world?  This is a question I have been kicking around ever since reading a parable written by Peter Rollins in The Orthodox Heretic and Other Tales.  Here it is:

There was once a fiery preacher who possessed a powerful but unusual gift.  He found that, from an early age, when he prayed for individuals, they would supernaturally lose all of their religious convictions.  They would invariably lose all their beliefs about the prophets, sacred Scriptures, and even God.  So he learned not to pray for people but instead limited himself to preaching inspiring sermons and doing good works.

However, one day while traveling across the country, the preacher found himself in conversation with a businessman who happened to be going in the same direction.  The businessman was a very powerful and ruthless merchant banker, one who as honored by his colleagues and respected by his adversaries.

Their conversation began because the businessman, possessing a deep, abiding faith, had noticed the preacher reading from the Bible.  He introduced himself to the preacher and they began to talk.  As they chatted together this powerful man told the preacher all about his faith in God and his love of Christ.  He spoke of how his work did not really define who he was but was simply what he had to do.

“The world of business is a cold one,” he confided to the preacher, “and in my line of work I find myself in situations that challenge my Christian convictions.  But I try, as much as is possible, to stay true to my faith.  Indeed, I attend a local church every Sunday, participate in a prayer circle, engage in some youth work, and contribute to weekly Bible study.  These activities help to remind me of who I really am.”

After listening carefully to the businessman’s story, the preacher began to realize the purpose of his unseemly gift.  So he turned to the businessman and said, “Would you like me to pray a blessing into your life?”

The businessman readily agreed, unaware of what would happen.  Sure enough, after the preacher had muttered a simple prayer, the man opened his eyes in astonishment.

“What a fool I have been for all these years!” he proclaimed.   “It is clear to me now that there is no God above, who is looking out for me, and that there are no sacred texts to guide me, and there is no Spirit to inspire and protect me.”

As they parted company the businessman, still confused by what had taken place, returned home.  But now that he no longer had any religious beliefs, he began to find it increasingly difficult to continue in his line of work.  Faced with the fact that he was now just a hard-nosed businessman working in a corrupt system, rather than a man of God, he began to despise his own activity.  Within months he had a breakdown, and soon afterward gave up his line of work completely.  Feeling better about himself, he then went on to give to the poor all the riches he had accumulated and began to use his considerable managerial expertise to challenge the very system he once participated in, and to help those who had been oppressed by it.

One day, many years later, he happened upon the preacher again while walking through town.  He ran over, fell at the preacher’s feet, and began to weep with joy.  Eventually he looked up at the preacher and smiled, “Thank you, my dear friend, for helping me discover my faith.”

Question: What if the very things we do to demonstrate that we are good Christian people, who care about others, are the very things that keep us fully participating in the injustice and oppression of the world?

While in a conversation with church leaders in Colombia, I shared that I felt like the challenge before me was to be as faithful to Jesus in my context as the Colombian Mennonite Church is in theirs.   Another member of our group shared that they felt we were doing that and listed a number of good things (feeding programs, Mennonite Central Committee, etc., etc.).  Their answer was the answer I have always been taught.  Then I began to wonder – the painful curse of a curious mind.  How many years have we been engaging in all of those good things?  We measure them in decades.  If those good things truly are what it means to be faithful to Jesus, as co-laborers in his Kingdom, ushering in a tidal wave of justice then why is it that nothing changes?

I think I know why!  It’s because most of the good things we do don’t challenge, resist or offer an alternative to the status quo.  Quite the opposite, they ensure that the status quo continues untouched.  Those good things, in reality, are the status quo.  So we can keep on sending checks, and canning meat, and having relief sales and the powers-that-be aren’t the slightest bit anxious.  As long as we keep on funding our 401K plan, buying new cars every 3 – 5 years, investing in homes, remodeling those homes, getting the latest fashions, drinking Starbucks coffee, and ordering our lives around our material wants and desires, everything will be OK.  If we need to give money to charity, spend time on a work trip, go to a Bible study to convince ourselves that we aren’t on the upper end of a socio/economic food chain; that we don’t benefit from the suffering of others; that we aren’t participants in an unjust, corrupt, violent and oppressive global economic system, then so be it.  As long as we keep participating, the system will give us some room for these impotent gestures of solidarity with the poor, the marginalized and the outcast.

Questions:  What would happen if we stopped all forms of charity?  Is it possible that we would see the world, and our place in it, more clearly.  Would we have an epiphany like the man in Peter’s story? Would we be horrified by our own actions if we didn’t have the good stuff convincing us that we are OK?  Would we then give ourselves fully to making the world a truly better place, where living out God’s shalom is our work?

Thoughts?

 

Colombia Update (Part 3)

When I last posted the team I was with had been in Colombia for 10 days.  Now, we’re home!  We arrived safely in Chicago, Illinois on Saturday, November 5.  Here’s what we covered on the last 6 days.

Day 11 was a travel and tourist day.  We flew from Barranquilla to Bogota in the morning.  Due to internal conflicts and difficult travel routes, we flew instead of drove.  I didn’t quite know what to expect out of Colombia’s airline, Avianca, but I must say that they are an excellent airline.  Both flights we had in Colombia on Avianca were wonderful flights.  Planes were modern and well maintained.  Flights were smooth.  When we arrived in Bogota, we dropped off our stuff at our host home and headed to a town called Zipa.  In Zipa we did the tourist thing by visiting Colombia’s #1 tourist site, the Salt Cathedral.  It’s literally a Cathedral carved into a salt mine.  We learned much about mining, visited the stations of the cross (also carved into the mine walls), and had a good time.  It was a lot of walking and we were pretty beat.  When we were finished at the salt mine, we headed to La Mesa, met our host families and tucked in for the night.  I must say that the drive to La Mesa cured my fear of flying.  Curvy, mountainous roads in the dark aren’t much fun.

Day 12 we were in La Mesa.  We started the day by taking a trip to an amazing lagoon.  It was high up in the mountains where three peaks come together.  The flowers, trees and water were beautiful.  We were introduced to some of the legends concerning the lagoon which were pretty colorful!  We also learned about different plants and their medicinal uses.  After our time at the lagoon, we headed to the church and school in La Mesa.  We had a wonderful lunch with the pastor and leaders from the church and school.  In the afternoon we explored the town and hung out (rested).  In the evening we joined the church in a time of worship.  I had the pleasure of joining their praise team for two tunes (I play the drums).  While I don’t speak Spanish well, playing music doesn’t require much talking, so it was a lot of fun and I fit in pretty well.  After worship, we headed back to our host homes for the night.  My daughter, Julia, and I stayed with a pre-school teacher from the Mennonite school at La Mesa.  Julia actually helped her with some school work while I tucked in early.

Day 13 we are also in La Mesa.  The school was having a cultural festival.  In essence, each classroom did a major project and presented it to the guests at the school.  We learned much about the Colombian culture, agriculture, art, music and dancing.  The teachers and students put on a number of skits and musical pieces that showed off Colombian culture.  After the cultural festival, we had lunch with some of the church workers there before heading to a town called Facatativa.  In Faca we visited the Mennonite church, listened to the pastor share their history and vision, and ate with the pastor and his family.  As always, we were well fed.  After our time in Faca, we headed to Bogata for the last leg of our trip.

Day 14 was spent in Bogota visiting many different offices and churches.  In the morning we headed to South Bogota to visit a fairly rough neighborhood in an invasion community.  The churches are at work helping youth in the community, being church together and feeding children in the neighborhood.  They definitely take a holistic view of ministry, targeting mind, body and soul in what they do.  Education is a key emphasis.  Then we visited the office of the Mennonite Church of Colombia, Mercoldes (Mennonite development group), Justa Paz, the Mennonite Seminary in Bogota and two churches in Bogota.  The info was interesting and informative.  There is much going on in terms of justice work, education and church development. I was impressed by what I saw.

On Day 15 we started the morning by meeting with the National Committee of IMCOL (Mennonite Church of Colombia).  We had time sharing about our experience in Colombia, our reflections of the church and work, and listening to the National Committee explain their work.  The rest of the day was spent in Bogota.  We visited a museum, shopped for coffee and items folks wanted to take home and packed in preparation for our departure.

On Day 16 we were up early and heading to the airport by 6 am.  From Bogota to my front door took 2 flights and some driving, but I arrived safely home at 11:20 pm.  It’s good to be back home.  Still processing much of the trip. I’ll post more as I prepare reflections and reports for Mennonite Mission Network and the Mennonite Church of Colombia.

Thanks for your prayers and support during our trip.

Colombia Update (part 2)

Day 6: …on Wednesday we spent the day in Barrio San Vicente, an invasion community south of the city of Barranquilla. An invasion community is a community that springs up when displaced people move to an area, claim land and start building. Over time, if they are able to organize, they can sometimes get utility service, sewer service, etc. Our primary task was helping put a roof on a new church. The construction was crude by American standards, but it will be a blessing to the people there which are currently worshipping in a house. It was a long, hot day, but the volunteers from the church worked hard. The group also helped clear out trash that had been deposited in front of the church.

Day 7 and 8: On Thursday we went to Riohacha to visit the House for Grandparents and the church their. It was a 22 year celebration which was very special. The House for Grandparents is what we might consider an old persons home. There are some residents that live their and there is also a large day program. They do many activities, have a social worker and health support. Along side this is the church. We returned from Riohacha on Friday after starting the morning with 6 baptisms. We participated in two at the Home for Grandparents and 4 at the beach. Then we headed home (5 hour trip). The car I was in was stopped twice at government police checkpoints, but we got through without incident.

[A personal adventure: Evidently, the kidney stone I thought I passed before I left for Colombia (and was told I passed by two doctors) was still around. The work on Wednesday, combined with the two days of car travel knocked it loose. I ended up in a private clinic run by the Baptists where I was well cared for. They helped resolve the issue in a low-tech but very effective way. I’m much better. I’m grateful for Gamalial Falla and Linda Shelly who navigated the system and translated for me. We now know each other far better than I thought we ever would.]

Day 9: On Saturday Jon and Deb participated in 2 baptisms on the beach in Barranquilla. The rest of the group rested in their host homes. We gathered for lunch and then attended a special 3 hour worship service of all the churches in Barranquilla. There were special music groups, dancing groups, times of prayer, singing and preaching by brother Javiar Garcia, a church leader who is also a biology professor.

Day 10: Today we were planning to go to church at Gethsemane and visit another congregation named Pan de Vida. However it rained a great deal and we were unable to travel to the churches. Rain makes the roads impassable in these neighborhoods. Instead, we spent the morning with Amanda and Gamalial Falla, learning more in depth about their work and some of the issues they are facing as they go forward. In the afternoon, we were able to go visit the two churches we were supposed to worship with in the morning. We had a rich time in both locations. Much prayer and saying goodbye. Tomorrow we are leaving for Bogota to learn more about the Mennonite Church of Colombia’s work in general.

That’s all for now.

Colombia Update

As many of you know, I’ve been in Colombia on a learning, relationship-building, and work trip to Colombia with a team from my church.  We left our homes on October 21 and will return on November 5.  Right now, it’s day 10.  I’ve wanted to update before now but wifi access has been sketchy and when I’ve had it my computer wasn’t with me.  Today, I’m able to update.  For folks at Metamora Mennonite Church, thank you for sending us, we are having a rich time here.  Here is a summary of our trip so far.

Day 1:  We left Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, flew to Houston and then to Bogota, Colombia.  All the flights went well, but it makes for a long day.  At the air port we met our host William Valencia, who has been a constant companion on our journey.  From the first moment, the welcome, hospitality and care have been amazing.

Day 2:  We left Bogota and flew to Barranquilla, Colombia which is on the Caribbean Coast.  We are partners in church planting here through Mennonite Mission Network and a direct relationship with church planters Gamaliel and Amanda Falla.  Gamaliel and Amanda are from Colombia.  They started the work here 9 years ago.  Now there are 5 churches in Barranquilla and 3 additional churches in the Caribbean Coastal region.    They met us at the airport and have been wonderful hosts throughout.    We all went to various host families where we have been well cared for.

Day 3:  Let the visiting begin!  On Sunday we worshipped in the North Church, was the first church planted in Barranquilla.  It has been a key church in the planting of the other churches in the region.  Worship was energetic.  Our group “brought greetings”, pastor Jon gave a children’s story and I preached with the help of a translator.  In the evening we went to Ebenezer church in the south of Barranquilla.  We worshipped outdoors as the church wasn’t big enough for the size of the group.  We experienced a Christian greeting unlike what we do in our church.  We usually shake hands with those near us.  Here everyone shook hands and hugged every other person at the gathering.  It was awesome.   Some children from a nearby church had a percussion ensemble with singing. William and Gamaliel preached.

Day 4 and 5: On day 4 we travelled south west to Sincilejo and Sahagun.  In Sincilejo we met with Ricardo Esquivia who is doing peace and justice work in the region. Ricardo and those who work along side him are working with resistance communities [communities that refused to leave under pressure of violence].  He works with leaders of industry and with local farmers, trying to work at solutions whereby the resources of the region can benefit all in the community.  He has a holistic approach that brings together justice, reconciliation, development, sustainability and ecological responsibility.  Ricardo has a beautiful vision that is working on the ground.  He says “If it exists, it’s possible”.  From there we went to Sahagun where we participated in the baptism of 4 people.  There was an evening service at the church for us.  This wasn’t the usual night they met.  We stayed overnight in the Hotel Emperor.  The next day we had breakfast with a local family and visited a building that had formerly been a brothel which had been given to the church.  There is much to work out in terms of possession and legal ownership, but pastor Manuel has a grand vision for how the building can be used.  After breakfast, we headed back to Barranquilla and rested for the night.

I’ll have more to add in an additional post. I must go to a meeting now and I’m concerned if I don’t post what I’ve already written I won’t get back to it!

Talking about church growth

I don’t much like talking about church growth.  It leaves me feeling like an ad man pitching a campaign for a new product. However, I’m a pastor.  As a pastor I am concerned about the vitality of churches.   Moreover, as a follower of Jesus I’m concerned about the gospel of the Kingdom of God expanding and spreading in the world.  That means I have a few opinions about the topic.  In the spirit of extroverting what often goes on inside my head, here are a few things to ponder.

First,  strategically speaking, most anecdotal evidence isn’t that helpful.   A person may very well walk into your church as say, “Wow, I was expecting it to be more contemporary (or more traditional, what have you).”  That’s interesting, but all it reveals is that person’s expectations.   You need more data in order to determine if acting on that feedback would be helpful.  If there are 1,000 people in your community just like that 1 visitor, it’s helpful.  If there are 10, not so much.

Second, your children and grandchildren aren’t average.  This is similar to the first point.  If you have children they engage or disengage with congregations for various reasons.   It’s not helpful to project their perspectives and habits onto all people their age or other people, period. Research gleaned  by respected research groups is more beneficial because it takes a snap shot of an age group more generally.  For example, my daughter runs in activists circles and connects more deeply with the Jewish faith tradition.   Trying to reach out to 20-somethings based upon what I know of her wouldn’t be that helpful.  It would be better to know what 20-somethings in our culture thought more generally.

Third, you aren’t average either.  This is similar to the first and second points.  There are things that you like and don’t like for various reasons.  Don’t assume that other people – even other people your age – feel the same way.  “There is no accounting for taste”; “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, etc., etc. If it were up to me, church music would be led with a Gibson Les Paul through a distortion pedal and a Marshall stack.  What can I say, I’m a child of the 80’s.  Here again, research gleaned by respected research groups is more beneficial.  General trends will show where a majority of people are likely to be in your community.

Fourth, church growth books/methods come  from a particular perspective and out of a particular context.  It’s not one-size fits all.  For example, The Purpose Driven Church by Rick Warren is a good book.  It has helped many churches.  Yet, it comes from the perspective of a staff driven church plant.  Try implementing it in an existing church with congregational polity.  Diana Butler Bass wrote and excellent book entitled Church for the Rest of Us.  It was largely a response to the mega-church movement and methodology.  It comes from the perspective of mainline congregations. It’s not as helpful if you are not a mainline congregation.   Neil Cole has written excellent books on organic church and house church movements.  However, they don’t translate well into mainline or older congregations who have property, existing polities, and a “way of doing things.”   A book has actually been written entitled Who Stole My Church.  It’s about what happens when leadership implements one methodology that comes from a context dissimilar from the churches existing methodology and practice.   Two good sources of information are churches like yours, in communities like yours, that are thriving and churches in your community that are reaching who you are trying to reach.

Fifth, there are many factors at play in a persons decision to connect with a particular faith community.  There are socio/economic, theological and cultural issues in play.  Some people care more about a churches theology than their style of worship.  Other people care more about the style of worship than the theology.  Some folks want to go to church with people like them.  Others are seeking out more culturally diverse congregations.   You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to sort all of that out.  (see the first three points)

Sixth, people don’t care much about denomination anymore, but they do care about what you believe. It’s difficult to tell if this is anti-institutionalism or what, but denominational loyalty is waning.  People grow up in one tradition and then switch to another later in life.  Others will go from tradition to tradition looking for something they like.  Denominations are so diverse these days that it’s really hard to tell what kind of church you will discover inside based on the name on the sign on the outside.   Trust me, those who are looking for your particular denomination in your particular town have already found you or a church of the same denomination they connect with better.  In Metamora, IL, where I Pastor, there are not a whole bunch of lost Mennonites that just can’t find our church.  However, most people are looking for a church that fits them – their beliefs, socio/economic position, age, tastes, etc..

Seventh, church growth is ultimately about connecting on three levels.  It is about connecting with the needs present in your community; its about bringing the teaching of Jesus to the community in a way they can hear and receive; and it’s about creating a space that people can call home.  If we ever forget that we will fail.  That puts some things into tension.  What if you prefer traditional worship styles but find out a majority of seekers in your community tend towards contemporary styles?  Do you change what you like for the potential of reaching those that aren’t present yet?  What if people resonate with your theology but not the churches cultural expressions?  Do you give some of them up?  What if they love the style of worship but don’t resonate with your theology?  Do you change what you believe?  This leads me to my next observation;

Eighth, if you don’t know who you are, don’t try to grow your church.  Church growth can seem like a cold and calculating, if not manipulative, endeavor.  If all you want is more people in the pews, bigger budgets and newer buildings you will lose your soul.  You have to define the non-negotiables.  Then you have to make sure you don’t compromise those non-negotiables.  You also have to define what is negotiable.  That allows you the flexibility to move towards some changes in methodology that aligns you better with the needs in your community.  For us, we realize that as Mennonites who practice nonviolent resistance, our church is a bit of a hard sell theologically, especially in America when we are engaged in armed conflicts around the globe.  We know our theology doesn’t play well.  Some have even suggested we soften our stance for the sake of growth and outreach.  The problem is, it is who we are.  We believe our position is faithful to the life and teaching of Jesus.  So, we’re content with the limitation. Paul says he became all things to all people so that he might win some.  What he doesn’t say is that he compromised what he believed in order to do it.  His flexibility came in areas that were nonessential to his beliefs.  He always preached Christ and Christ crucified.

Finally, make sure everything you do you do for the glory of God.  Someone once said to me, “It’s easy to grow a church.  Just give me $500,000 and three years and I’ll have a 300 – 500 member faith community.”  I think they are right. We know quite a bit about making churches big.  We also know you can make churches big without making them faithful or really believing anything, really.  Billy Graham once said (I’m paraphrasing) that he learned early on that if you say the right words and tell the right stories and play the right music at the right time that you can manipulate people into coming forward.  But that’s not conversion, it’s something else.  If you don’t revel in the reality of transformed lives, transformed families, transformed communities and a transformed world you may be able to get people in a building, but you aren’t growing a church.  God’s shalom justice is at the center of everything good in the world.  As followers of Jesus we are a part of that or we aren’t following Jesus.  The same goes for our faith communities.

Francis Chan once said he’d rather be in a church with 12 people who are following Jesus than 12,000 who weren’t.  I’m with Francis on that one.

That’s my two cents!  What lessons have you gleaned about church growth?