Is Going to Church Out of Style?

Church membership and attendance is on the decline.

It has been for several decades. Is attending church out of fashion for the online generations? Have we overbooked and overworked everyone, with no clear 9-5 boundary anymore? Weekends (including Sundays) have turned into safety zones for family and retreat?

Our world will never cease to change as technology evolves, social life fractures and capitalism dominates more of our choices. So, is the future of the church in jeopardy?

The church, the Body of Christ, is not going to become a fashion victim. The ways that we carry out its functions probably will. As people and the way we live change, so too will our methods of ministry. But church isn’t going out of business because it has an eternal purpose.

Here’s what Anglican Bishop and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright believes about the church:

“The church exists primarily for two closely correlated purposes: to worship God and to work for his kingdom in the world … The church also exists for a third purpose, which serves the other two: to encourage one another, to build one another up in faith, to pray with and for one another, to learn from one another and teach one another, and to set one another examples to follow, challenges to take up, and urgent tasks to perform. This is all part of what is known loosely as fellowship.” ― N.T. Wright

There aren’t any other social organizations fulfilling these essential tasks. Here’s my list I’d like to add to answer the question, Why Do We Need The Church?

  1. It is a place to become yourself
    We become more and more real as we experience transformation. The church is the one place where we can see who we really are and be changed. It’s a gathering of those who are living out a brand new life because of following Christ – as disciples. Our true self is emerging when we are a part of God’s church. Your local church is a place that challenges you and allows you to experience transformation in all areas of your new life.
  2. It is a place to suffer
    When we do suffer, and all of us surely will, we need others with us as we navigate those treacherous waters. Christians find eternal meaning in the suffering they experience. A large part of this meaning is experienced together as the Church when others help to share our burdens of fear, worry and pain. God cares for our every need through the actions of the church.  We are confident that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in the comfort God gives us.” – 2 Corinthians 1:7
  3. It is a place to make sacrifices
    Once you’re a part of a church you quickly learn that it’s not really about you anymore. A church is a place where people come together and make sacrifices of their resources, time, efforts and even their will. It’s not what I want or what I think is best, but what others need. The sacrifice of your will is going to be the most difficult you will make. It takes much practice.“Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life.” ― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
  4. It is a place to grow up
    Literally and figuratively we mature in this body of faith. The church has a schedule filled with activities for every age group. It is an essential “agent of socialization” into the Christian faith. When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.” (1 Corinthians 13:11-12)
  5. It is a place to become more and more like Christ
    This is the direction we head as we die to ourselves, take up our cross and follow him. When John the Baptist pointed out Jesus to his own followers he said, “He must become greater, I must become less” (John 3:30). The church is the gathering of people who will love us in our successes and failures as we journey toward Christlikeness. This is where we come to learn, to grow and to see firsthand the great mission we are called to follow.
  6. It is a place to worship, pray, serve and give, together
    When we come to church we do something different. We are challenged to act, think and to imagine a different way of living. The world outside we’ve made for ourselves is increasingly oriented toward the individual, helping to make us successful and less obligated to others. Our life within the church contradicts this alien culture with practices and beliefs that bind us together and challenges our selfish inclinations.
  7. It is a place that’s not really a place
    Usually the word “church” makes us think about a building, a location or even the distant memory of place. On my way home each day I drive past churches in traditional looking buildings with steeples, with big signs in strip shopping centers and even one located in an industrial workshop. In America, churches are located in all sorts of places.But we all know that the church isn’t really a location, it’s really a group of Christ followers. The church is bigger than a building, it’s all those people who love you no matter what. The church takes care of family, friends and strangers. It embodies love as it shares an eternal message of hope. It’s a group of people who try as hard as they can to pull away from this world and live as if there’s something bigger and better that’s eternal and means more than this life can give.

“The world can no longer be left to mere diplomats, politicians, and business leaders. They have done the best they could, no doubt. But this is an age for spiritual heroes- a time for men and women to be heroic in their faith and in spiritual character and power. The greatest danger to the Christian church today is that of pitching its message too low.” ― Dallas Willard

 

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How Connected Are You, Really?

“The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it.” ― Edward R. Murrow

Not another rant from a Boomer about too much cell phoning!? (sorry)

Who would have ever predicted the speed of our technological invention in the area of communication? We are all carrying a Star Trek communicator in our pocket. Platforms like email, Facebook, and Twitter to name a few, allow almost unlimited connections with friends, families, strangers (and foes).

We are now sharing photos of our new grandson within our family everyday. I can teach college classes to students who reside in different cities and states. My students can send me an email with questions late at night while they are working on homework or studying for exams. Cell phone calls make keeping in touch with family all over the state at any time of day.

There is an illusion that can easily take place. Our technology now allows us to communicate all of the time and with almost anyone. But all this easy “talking” doesn’t necessarily mean that much is really being said.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” ― George Bernard Shaw

How many times have you created a misunderstanding with an email? Do you fully understand every text and tweet, even from people you know so well?

THREE REASONS WHY DIGITAL COMMUNICATION OFTEN FAILS

ONE: Volumes of meaning are typically communicated through our body language. Your facial expressions and gestures are important, even essential tools that you use when you communicate. You spend years of your younger years learning how to “read” the body language of others. Skyping during meetings is so popular because it allows people to feel like they can “read” the room better.

  • Where are your eyes wandering while you are listening?
  • How about the way your legs are positioned when you sit?
  • What about how you are standing or sitting when speaking?

Scientists today predict that our young people are launching into adulthood with poor social skills because they haven’t had the practice with enough real time mastering how to interpret body language. They’ve spent so much time on their phones and not enough time with real people.

TWO: When you are in the physical company of others there is a power of presence that can’t be replaced by digital means. Aren’t you guilty of saying things in a text that you might not ever say face-to-face?  Maybe it’s too quick, impersonal or mean. Remember the rule about counting ten before pushing the send button? When someone is right in front of you, the tendency is to take greater care about how, what and why you speak the way you do. There is some physical force that shapes the style of communicating.

“When you have once seen the glow of happiness on the face of a beloved person, you know that a man can have no vocation but to awaken that light on the faces surrounding him. In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” ― Albert Camus

THREE: When you communicate in person you can’t just refuse to click “open” and leave the dialogue in limbo. There is a strong inability to ignore that occurs when you are in the physical presence of others. When you’re with someone you just have to talk it through or make it up or fight it out or reach a conclusion. Being with someone adds something irreplaceable to the interaction, you just can’t turn off the phone.

Volume doesn’t make up for depth. You already knew this to be true. But the truth isn’t always at the heart of what any of us does. Being connected is still essential. Being connected in the right ways matters most. At the end of your day, think about how many real people you’ve actually interacted with, in person.

“Constantly talking isn’t necessarily communicating.” ― Charlie Kaufman

Learning to Walk Again

“I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!” – Mark 9:24

I’ve got some sort of problem with my back these days. Very difficult to get about. Sitting around is okay. Getting into a vehicle, stooping to pick something up, even jumping out of bed all really hurt. I’ve also had “frozen shoulders” for months. So many daily activities are no longer possible or only so with pain:

  • Putting on a shirt
  • Tying shoes
  • Getting a pair of socks on
  • Bending to pull something out of the cabinet
  • How about a back scratch?

I need one of those valets from Downton Abbey!

The good news here is that my shoulders are thawing and I’ve gotten some very effective medicine for my back.  I’m going to live.

This all brings up the memories of the time my wife had to spend months in rehabilitation learning how to do so many simple things all over again. She was recovering from a successful brain surgery and the necessary medication left her physically powerless to move much. It was a hard struggle that she met valiantly.

In much of our lives, it can be painful to go back and learn again how to do what is essential (and often taken-for-granted). Our spiritual self needs to be in command of the ship. When it’s crippled, the rest of our being is off balance. We’ve got to learn how to walk in the Spirit again so that all the rest of our life can line up, stand straight and move freely.

Sometimes God removes our crutches so that we can learn to depend upon him with all our strength, all of our attention, all of our devotion.

Not everything is a crutch, preventing us from walking in faith. But often, people write about these aspects of their life as being a blessing and then, because of over dependence, they become crutches and impede our transformation;

  • Our careers
  • Wealth and income
  • Possessions
  • Friendships
  • Even family

Learning to walk again in the Spirit often means that we have to turn loose of things we’ve hung on to for support – in place of God.

Sometimes it means we have to just loosen our grip – be ready to take His hand when offered or to pass on to someone else that treasure we once held so dear.

“So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.”
Matthew 6:31-33

Doesn’t that sound crazy? Don’t worry about the basic necessities of life? I’ve discovered (usually the hard way) that God knows what I need better than I do. He is also ahead, in my future, arranging the journey so that my basics are always covered. When I learn how to walk in the Spirit, I can stop paying attention to my own growling stomach and pay more attention to everyone else I meet along the way.

“The greatest lesson a soul has to learn is that God, and God alone, is enough for all its needs. This is the lesson that all God’s dealings with us are meant to teach, and this is the crowning discovery of our entire Christian life. GOD IS ENOUGH!”  – Hannah Whitall Smith

Always Remember

“The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming.” – Frederick Buechner

 

Another Memorial Day is behind us. Not just a long weekend and the start of summer fun. No, this is a time to remember our fallen heroes and those that wear uniforms and serve us still. It’s a weekend for the flag, visits to the grave stones and hearing stories that will soon be gone into the mist of memory.

Remembering isn’t confined to just special weekends like this one. It can become a very healthy and liberating practice.

Too often we remember with regret. We think about the past and filter out all but the fun stuff. There are depths to our lived experiences that only bear fruit in years and generations to come. As we remember the details, the filed away emotions and the unresolved situations, we continue to build our self of today. Those days of long ago still work even now, they still have power to change us, to nourish our souls and to bear something meaningful for others.

Remember when you failed, crashing down in flames.

These seem to be the easiest memories that our fragile egos clutch in so much desperation. Failure is a part of everyone’s story. Failure is only half of the story. Too often, we leave our failures to rot in the grave of our memory and they end up doing nothing but bringing us harm. Failure, taken to it’s end, can liberate us. We learn from failure. We grow resilient from failure. We grow up and mature when we fail. All of these are like forks in the road of failure, chances to go right or wrong. Too often we take the wrong fork, or worse yet, become paralyzed and stop moving forward altogether.

“If we will be quiet and ready enough, we shall find compensation in every disappointment.”  ― Henry David Thoreau

Remember when you offered that helping hand, when no one else even noticed.

There are secret memories that are really no one else’s business. Private words of encouragement and comfort that are said quickly or spoken with great care. Only you were able to help and so you did. Maybe it was something you could do in secret and not even the one being helped would ever know. These are the memories about yourself that are too often crowded out by all the mistakes from your past. It leaves you with a memory that forever limps with an imbalance.

Remember when you didn’t think you were going to make it another step, your heart was too broken to go on.

These are hard memories to dig back up. They’ve typically been buried away, deep in the ground of forgetfulness where they can no longer cause pain. But so often it is out of this same brokenness that our next layer of wholeness emerges.

“Nobody had forgotten anything here. In Berlin, you had to wrestle with the past, you had to build on the ruins, inside them. It wasn’t like America where we scraped the earth clean, thinking we could start again every time. ” ― Janet Fitch

Remember, as you pack away that box, what all that stuff symbolizes to you. A box full of meaning from so long ago.

Are you an organizer? Do you collect all the debris from the journey of your life? Are there boxes of photographs, old journals, mementos from long ago – all piled up in top of your closet of pushed under your bed? Our memories are filled with symbolic meaning – a smell, a location, an article of clothing, etc. But those meanings are not just trapped in our past. It’s possible to look back and discover memories and assign new and powerful meaning to them.

I ran into a friend from twenty years ago. We talked about our shared past and remembered together a number of common experiences we had forgotten. Getting together, renewing our friendship and then sealing it with these memories bound up with meaning was a brand new and liberating experience that we built from our shared memory.

Remember those dreams you once had, stolen away by time and replaced by duty and necessity.

Keep them alive and beating away in your heart. Don’t put a timer on them. If they have to wait, let them wait until their time has come. Don’t live a life without the memory of all your hopes.

“Hold fast to dreams,
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird,
That cannot fly.”
― Langston Hughes

Let your dreams themselves, not the long wait for their arrival, keep your life filled with that longing for the next sunrise.

Remember all those people along the path of your life as you dig through the Christmas card photos from years gone by.

I tend to keep Christmas postcards with family photos way too long. I’ve got them all over the house. They remind me of childhood gone so quickly. I am nudged to pray for people all around me and far away. Those smiling faces that peer out at you, day after day, are a reminder of friendships and families that keep us grounded, connected and safe from loneliness.

“There’s a loneliness that only exists in one’s mind. The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is blink.” ― F. Scott Fitzgerald

Remember yourself, someone who has been different at each stage of life, there’s someone who could really use what you know now.

When you talk with people, especially people who are at the stages of life that you have already passed through, remember you own life back then. Remember the encouraging words that helped you all along the way – or the words you wished you had heard. Be that person who lights the way for others. Use your own life, with all the mistakes and victories, to turn back and give others a hand up. Remember that you are not alone, that all kinds of people were there in your life – determine to be there for all those people passing by you. Use your past to enrich someone’s future. Be intentional with your speech, your actions and your prayers.

But don’t forget to help others and to share your possessions with them. This too is like offering a sacrifice that pleases God. – Hebrews 13:16

(Your memories are a possession too)

 

Automatic Faith

Do you drive to work everyday? This “every single day procedure” typically becomes so routine that our brains turn it into automatic thinking. We’ve all experienced it. You arrive at your destination and can’t really remember the trip. That’s what automatic thinking is – our brains can’t process all the information and decisions that we face all day long, so what it does is it takes routine activities out of the “deliberate” and conscious part of the brain and sinks them into the semi-conscious and “automatic” part. In this way, we can accomplish so much more in our busy lives each day.

What I worry about is when my faith drifts into automatic thinking and I’m not really as spiritually conscious as I should be.

Automatic thinking works when it comes to driving to work and other routine activities, I get there every day AND I’m able to think about all sorts of other important items. But I miss everything all along the way. Not that there’s much to see on this same route day after day. But when it comes to my walk of faith – I don’t want to miss ANYTHING.

How to start having a more deliberate walk of faith…

Bring Your Faith Into Present Consciousness

  1. Get up each day and think about all your taken-for-granted blessings FIRST. Let these thoughts fill your mind before everything else crowds in. Letting a blessed life guide your thinking can make you more conscious of everything else.
  2. Watch your speech. How are you framing, defining, declaring the world around you? We develop patterns early on and they become unconscious routes we travel in our interactions. This is usually an automatic activity. It prevents conscious faith. Instead – stop, drop and roll. Wake up and STOP talking like that, DROP all those tired talking points from your speech and then ROLL out a new and conscious perspective each time you open your mouth (maybe you should keep it shut more often?).
  3. Each time a problem, situation, or person crosses your mind – needing to be dealt with somehow – don’t revert back to past patterns (automatically). Instead really think about these situations and apply your faith; how would you want to be treated, what could you give instead of take, what needs some grace for a change?

Instead of Automatic Faith – Deliberate Faith

As we pray to our God and Father about you, we think of your faithful work, your loving deeds, and the enduring hope you have because of our Lord Jesus Christ.  (1 Thessalonians 1:3)

How do the people around you think about your life?

When we are unconscious of the guidance of the Holy Spirit and our own transformation, we run the risk of living with automatic faith – not really using our faith to live a new life, but keeping it shelved away for a rainy day. It’s there, ready for when the fire alarm sounds or when someone close to us falls into a disaster. But isn’t faith supposed to be a WALK and not a RUN?

Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.  (Philippians 4:8)

Fixing your thoughts sounds like a deliberate practice doesn’t it. When was the last time you (and your faith) fixed your thinking rather than having your situation determine how you thought about things?

“Miracles… seem to me to rest not so much upon… healing power coming suddenly near us from afar but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that, for a moment, our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there around us always.” ― Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop

Transformation takes time. Learning to put our faith into practice takes one step at a time. One certain step in the right direction is to be more deliberate about this part of our life and less automatic (and unaware). 

 

It Doesn’t Matter Where You Are

“How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.” ― William Shakespeare

I’m living in a world where I have so much more control over things. All the technology at my fingertips allows me to find the quickest route, the best deal, and the latest news. Information and knowledge is everywhere. From all over the world and in just a few minutes, I am able to find answers to almost any kind of question. How much easier it has become to stay in touch with people. We can locate long lost friends and relatives with just a few taps on our keyboard. Searching was never so easy. When you stop and think about it for just a minute or two, we have made a wonderful life for ourselves haven’t we?

Then why am I feeling so awful about how things are going? Why is it that too often my day to day seems like an out of control roller coaster ride? When I reflect, how did I end up where I am, not where I was so certain to be heading?

If you are a follower of Christ, there’s always going to be a disconnect in your experience of life. There will be an external situation that you wake up and find all around you every single day. “The weatherman said it was going to be clear and sunny today! Why all the claps of thunder?” Then there will be the internal/eternal reality that you carry around within and use like a gyroscope to keep a sense of balance and orientation.

“The wizard [of Oz] says look inside yourself and find self. God says look inside yourself and find [the Holy Spirit]. The first will get you to Kansas. The latter will get you to heaven. Take your pick.”― Max Lucado

I am so disappointed at days and months, even years, spent praying and stewing about my life’s direction. Then one day I’m spiritually awoken to realize I’ve been hunting around in a bookstore trying to purchase a box of Cheerios. How could I have been so confused for so long?

What’s the big lesson that I’m learning again and again? So much wasted energy being unhappy with circumstances or the actions of others. So much all around me that I will never be able to change. All I can change is myself. Let God manage the rest. After all, the unhappy and unplanned situations I step into are wonderful opportunities to let faith spill out and be seen for what it really is and how it really works.

“Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.”                                                                                                               ― Wayne W. Dyer

It doesn’t matter where you are. God knows where you are. The work of God, the deep purpose of your life can be accomplished where you are. Use that “gyroscope” and get some balance back into your life. You just have today, make it count:

  • Be present in each moment, chaos or calm, and find that truth that you need to live out in front of others. You don’t need to jump into that argument, you need to turn the other cheek.
  • Replace frustration, anger and fear with a happy demonstration of hope. Do this all the time until it becomes your nature and reputation.
  • Turn so that the eternal situation within you can be seen more clearly. Sometimes this means to turn away from what you desire. Sometimes it means to turn toward the need of another. It can mean to not look so closely at the faults of others. At other times it might mean to turn back upon yourself and reflect on your own weak habits before becoming critical of others. Turning can be a very healthy practice.
  • Stop searching for your own benefits like happiness, fulfillment, success, or acceptance. Instead work hard to find ways that provide these same gifts to people who cross your path each day; friends, acquaintances and strangers alike.

The works of God are waiting for you and I every single day, waiting for YES. 

“Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you?

Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change.

If there is anything unhealthy in your reactions, just bear in mind that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien; so one must simply help it to be sick, to have its whole sickness and to break out with it, since that is the way it gets better.”  ― Rainer Maria Rilke

 

Now may the God of peace make you holy in every way, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ comes again. God will make this happen, for he who calls you is faithful.  – 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24

Kicking and Screaming All the Way Home

This is a strange title for a post about choosing to follow Jesus as one of his disciples. But when I think about it, so often I’m not all lined up, packed and ready to start the journey (each day). Instead, I am often pulled into the next stage of my own spiritual development kicking and screaming. In the end, I’m glad I got there but always wish I had not fought so much. I’d rather have been more awake spiritually and realized each step of the path before me was leading in the right direction, taking me right where I needed to go. Less kicking and screaming and more surrender and sacrifice is what I want to characterize my life as a follower of the Son of Man.

“However high be your endeavors, unless you renounce and subjugate your own will — unless you forget yourself and all that pertains to yourself — not one step will you advance on the road to perfection.” — John of the Cross

Back in the 1500’s when Saint John of the Cross was living, “perfection” was his way of expressing the desire to be transformed into the image of Christ. What he was writing about was what we now call discipleship. It’s almost impossible to be a disciple of Christ and still want to do things my own way. My prayer here is to ask for forgetfulness about so much that plagues my daily stride, so much that doesn’t really matter.

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 3:18

What is it about myself that I have to forget? How do I become invisible? It’s easy to put all my bad habits and nasty qualities on that list. But I’ve also got to put down each one of my hopes and dreams on that list. This is where it gets really difficult. It becomes easier when I turn my gaze away from my own itching fear and list of grievances and toward “the Lord’s glory.” My prayer here is to turn my eyes toward the maker of heaven and earth and to see with the eyes of my spirit.

 “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.  – Matthew 16:24-25

This doesn’t mean “make sacrifices”, this means to put yourself to death, a humiliating execution, not a quiet suicide in the dark. Withdrawing from the world and all it’s attachments is painful and can be agonizing. We never go quietly.

  • Step out of the boat, then you can walk on water in the right direction.
  • Give what little you have, watch thousands of needs be met.
  • Come back home, see who’s waiting at the gate.
  • Listen to the song of that bird, know that you are loved beyond measure.

I can’t seem to get past all the disappointment, all the lost days. But I’m looking in the wrong direction. Following in my Master’s steps is the only directions to take. It’s grievous because it costs everything. John the Baptist had his own followers before Jesus began His ministry. They asked John who this Jesus was, why he seemed to be taking over (John 3:26-36). Among other things, John said, “He must increase and I must decrease.” That’s the whole thing in a sentence. My prayer is John’s declaration. He would soon be imprisoned and beheaded. Literally put to death. All I have to do is surrender each day and listen to His command, “Come, follow me…”