Archive - August, 2010

My Two Biggest Ministry Mistakes

I have spent quite a bit of time in the past year that I have been out of full-time ministry work reflecting on the various successes, failures, and learning experiences that came from my first three and a half years in ministry.

Suffice to say there is a lot that comes to mind to fit each of those categories.

When I think about failures–or perhaps “mistakes” is a better term–two related things come to mind, and both have to do with my preaching. Plenty of other errors come to mind, to be sure, but these are the ones I have thought the most about.

The first mistake that I made was assuming my audience knew more than they did theologically. I made the mistake of assuming that most of my audience understood the gospel, and thus did not need to be reminded of it. Sure, we presented the gospel regularly, but the notion that professed Christians needed to hear the gospel week in and week out could not have been further from my mind. I failed to realize, as Michael Horton has said, that the gospel–the notion that we are made right before God entirely because of what Jesus Christ has done for us and not because of anything we could ever do ourselves–is so odd even to us as Christians that we need to be reminded of it again and again. I similarly failed to realize that my audience lived in a world where they were constantly being pressured, measured, and evaluated, and thus they needed to hear of God’s unconditional love for them and of the free grace that is available to them through the cross. In short, I needed to preach the gospel to Christians.

My second error can best be illustrated with a pyramid. I spent entirely too much time talking about secondary issues–issues that would perhaps occupy the middle level of a pyramid–and not enough time talking about foundational issues. In other words, I spent too much time talking about how we were to live as Christians, and not enough time talking about the gospel, and helping the people at my church find their identity in the gospel and in what God had done for them. The result was often we had people that were willing to serve and interested in being involved in the church, but they didn’t really understand the gospel, or at the very least they didn’t find their identity in the gospel.

As I have reflected on those two errors I have been reminded of how important it is for all of us to find our identity in the gospel. I had the chance to hang out with a bunch of people from my old church last week, and we talked a lot about how every aspect of the Christian life is rooted in the gospel, and if we deviate from that and instead simply teach principles for moral or “successful” living, that is problematic.

The task of the church is not to teach people to accept criticism with grace and not get defensive. The task of the church is to help people find their identity in Christ so that when they are criticized they can respond with humility and grace, knowing that their identity is not ultimately found in whatever they are being criticized for. The task of the church is not to tell people not to be insecure, but rather it is to teach them to find their security in Christ. And the list goes on.

The task of the church is not to teach good behavior. The task of the church is to teach about Jesus, and to help people find their identity, their meaning, and their value in him and who we have become because of his cross.

If we skip that foundational level of the pyramid then the pyramid ultimately crumbles. It may produce people that will serve, participate, and reach out,  but it will also produce people that have little to offer those to whom they reach out, and people who will burn out from religious moralism.

That is why wherever I go next, whether I’m working with high schoolers, college students, adults, or some other population, my number one teaching objective with Christians will be helping them find their identity in Christ.

I just don’t see anything more important than that.

The Downside of 3G

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I have had a Motorola Droid since November, and I don’t think I’m a better person for it.

The phone allows me to check my email, scroll through Facebook status updates, check in on Twitter, surf the web, read the Wall Street Journal or see what the weather is like on the other side of the country at virtually any moment.

As long as I have my phone with me, there is no such thing as idle time. There is always a wealth of information and distractions at my fingertips.

On the one hand, I love having a 3G capable phone. I could gush forever about the inconveniences of life that it subverts. I never have to worry about getting lost, I have constant access to traffic conditions, I always have access to my email, and if I hear a song and simply must know what is called and who sings it, well, there’s an app for that. It even helps with things like exercise by keeping track of how far I’ve run or ridden by bike. It allows me to share my life with others more easily, because I can take a picture and upload it to Facebook in a matter of seconds.

However, on the other hand, I have noticed that my phone allows me to get away with being less “fully present” to what is in front of me. As long as my phone is in my pocket I always have the option of disengaging from my surroundings and fiddling with it. Additionally, if I have my phone with me I never have to wait. Is someone late for a meeting? I’ll just get out my phone. Did I go down to change the laundry two minutes two soon? I’ll just read what’s new on Twitter. The notion of simply idling waiting for someone or something is a foreign concept to me now.

And I’m just not convinced that is a good thing.

As a result, I have started intentionally leaving my phone behind when I go certain places. Last week at my family reunion I often left my phone in my room when the whole family would gather at a different house for the evening. I also left it behind during some of our activities, like our trip to the top of Squaw Valley on the cable car. I wanted to be fully present to the people and things around me, and I knew not having my phone with me would help with that. At times the lack of phone proved to be an inconvenience, but it was well worth it. At home I also practice leaving my phone behind sometimes. If I go outside to read I usually don’t take my phone with me, or if I’m reading or writing at home sometimes I’ll put my phone in the other room so it’s not a distraction.

While I enjoy the convenience of 3G, I don’t want it to consume me. I don’t want to lose the skill of waiting patiently for something, or lose what little affinity I have for quiet reflection. I want the world at my finger tips, but I don’t want “the world” to consist only of that which I can read in 90 seconds on a small screen before I get distracted by something else. Some things is life can’t be made into “apps” and can’t be provided by smart phones. Prayer, listening to God, quiet reflective Bible study, or carefully reading a long book are simply not things we can do on a handheld device (or at least do very well), and just as the list of things smart phones can do is quite long, so is the list of things that they simply can’t. And while I want to enjoy the conveniences that come with living in a 3G world, I don’t want to forget some of the more archaic skills that smart phones falsely make us believe we no longer need.

What do you think about all of this? How has having a 3G phone impacted your life? What are you doing to maintain boundaries so that it doesn’t consume you?

The Odd Gospel

“Across the entire spectrum from conservative to liberal, we are being told that we need to focus on deeds, not creeds. Of course Christ’s person and work are important, but we already believe that, right? That’s doctrine, we are told, not helping people where they live. Now we have to save America and the world through our holy actions. We all get the doctrine; we’re just not living it. These are the assumptions I hear across the theological and denominational spectrum. But do we really get it? Not according to the statistics we have already encountered. The gospel is so odd, even to us Christians, that we have to get it again and again. That is why God has graciously created different avenues for getting it to us: he proclaims it by the mouth of another in Christ name, bathes me in it with water, and puts it in my hand through bread and wine.” -Michael Horton, Christless Christianity (emphasis in original)

Michael Horton’s Christless Christianity has been quite an eye-opening read for me in a number of regards. Over and over again he has made the point that we have turned the gospel into good advice, and made the mistakes of focusing on our deeds without a proper understanding of fundamental Christian beliefs. Worse yet, we have turned Christianity into a way of living that can lead us to a happier life (with better marriages, better financial statuses, and more well-behaved children), rather than the good news that Jesus Christ has rescued sinners from the penalty of sin through his death on the cross. If we focus on deeds without creeds we are in real trouble, and Horton makes the interesting observation that that is the error of both fundamentalists and the Emerging Church.

I fear that the very error Horton notes in the paragraph above is an error I have made in preaching in the past. I have subtly assumed that my audience knew the gospel, so I focused on teaching people how to “live it out” rather than teaching them what the gospel actually is and how they can better understand it. That’s not to say that deeds are unimportant, far from it, but I do think that Michael Horton is right to suggest that often professed Christians don’t understand the gospel, and even those of us who do understand it need to be reminded of it again and again because it is so incredibly odd to us. It goes against the American notion of “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps” and invites us instead to be recipients of a free gift we could not possibly merit.

That’s a message I know I am prone to forget and need to remind myself of daily.

Anne Rice and the Cult of the Self

Apparently Anne Rice, best-selling author who experienced a profound religious conversion a few years ago that she documented in her 2008 book Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Memoir, is no longer a Christian.

She announced via her Facebook page that, “For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian … It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”

However, Rice says she has not abandoned her faith in Christ. She wrote on Thursday: “My faith in Christ is central to my life. My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn’t understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me, but following Christ does not mean following His followers. Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been or might become.”

She also said that she refuses to be “anti-gay”, “anti-science”, “anti-Democrat”, and “anti-feminist” and for that reason she must leave Christianity.

I should say here what those of you that know me already know: I don’t know Anne Rice personally, thus I freely admit that I don’t have a tremendous amount of context within which to evaluate this decision.

That being said, as I reflected on Ms. Rice’s announcement I had a few thoughts:

1) Her critiques suggest a critique of a small percentage of Christians. She says she does not want to be anti-gay, anti-Democrat, anti-science, or anti-feminist. While it is certainly true that some flavors of Christianity are all of those things, it is a mistake to suggest that all Christians are those things. I’m not any of those things (I am certainly critical of some elements of Democratic political ideology, but I am equally, if not more, critical of Republican ideology), and most Christians that I know aren’t either.

2) “Leaving” is not a good solution. A few months ago I had a beer with a friend who, years ago, was instrumental to me becoming a Christian, but who now claims to be an atheist. In the course of our conversation he talked a lot about his parents’ ultra-conservative brand of Christianity and how he wants nothing to do with it. At the end of our time together I wanted him to think about something. I told him that I think ultra-conservative Christianity is goofy, that his parents believe some pretty goofy things, that I am deeply troubled by the strong influence that the unbiblical elements of conservative political ideology holds over many Christians, and that I agree with a number of his critiques of “organized Christianity.” I told him that if we exchanged stories of church goofiness that we had experienced in our lives I would win. But then I told him that I’m still in. Despite my awareness of all of the Church’s flaws I am still very much a Christian and he’s not, so there must be something else going on within him that has led him to abandon his faith. That is what I suspect is the case with Anne Rice, because I see all of the same goofy stuff that she does, I too often feel like an “outsider” like she does, but I’m not walking away. The fact that she is leads me to believe that there is something else influencing her decision. It is quite easy to be a Christian and not be anti-gay, anti-science, anti-Democrat, or anti-feminist, but if you are looking for a reason to leave it is also quite easy to blame the sects of Christianity that are those things for your departure, even if they are not the real reason. They are very convenient scapegoats, and I’ve seen many people use them before.

3) The notion that we can “follow Jesus” without being a “Christian” is a product of the prevalence of the Cult of Self that pervades postmodern culture. Right now it is very fashionable to follow Jesus but not be a Christian, just as it is fashionable to be spiritual and not religious. There appears to be a widespread belief that we can be Christians without the Church, and that is simply a false belief. The desire among many to claim allegiance to Christ without allegiance to the Church is a desire to be a member of the Cult of the Self rather than the Christian Church. It is a desire to be one’s own highest spiritual authority and be accountable to no one, and it is a terribly destructive idea. Following Jesus is a team sport, and if we think we can do it by ourselves then we are simply wrong. Yes, the Church is ugly at times, but that doesn’t mean that we can follow Jesus on our own. That’s just not the way following Jesus works.

In the end, I’m disheartened by Ms. Rice’s “decision”, in part because I think it is  a terribly uncreative solution to a very real problem, and because she is a person with great influence who will likely be of great comfort to others who have sinned against God by abandoning Christianity altogether.