Tag Archives: revival

Church Numbers: the Golden Calf in the Middle of the Room

My spirit cringes in disgust every time I hear someone boast of their congregation, “Yeah, we worship 235 on a Sunday morning.” That statement absolutely wreaks of idolatry. For one thing, as Christians, we don’t worship 235 of anything. We worship one– count em’ 1, uno, the one and only– God whom we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We may be blessed… correction… God may be blessed to have 235 worshippers gathered in a particular place on a Sunday morning to worship. But when I hear statements like that thrown around, I can’t stand it. And while I can’t speak for God, I’m sure this whole “yeah, we worship 235 or 75 or 666 on a Sunday morning” must stir the divine stomach, too.

church numbersIt’s time to call it out for what it is. It’s symptomatic of the thinking which plagues the mainline church, my United Methodist tribe in particular. It’s the numbers game. And the way the numbers game is being played these days, it’s nothing more than idolatry, and therefore is a breach of the First and even Second Commandments.

So why all the fuss over numbers? Well actually, the church has always counted numbers. There were 12 disciples, down from 72 at one point. There were 12 apostles. After Peter preached on the day of Pentecost, 3,000 were added to their number that day. The book of Revelation records 144,000 from the 12 tribes of Israel sealed for the day of redemption. (And no, I’m not a literalist on this last one. Nevertheless, it’s a numbered count, even figuratively.) Of course, the Old Testament records all kinds of numbers pertaining to God’s people.

But as for our modern obsession with numbers, I once heard United Methodist Bishop James E. Swanson say quite prophetically, “No one ever fussed about evangelism and discipleship until the money started running out.” Amen and amen, Bishop. I wish that statement could be trumpeted to every board, committee, and task force of our denomination. As the church began to decline in both financial and people resources, then we started scrutinizing our statistics and desperately cranked out catchy slogans and programs designed to promote things like evangelism, discipleship, and stewardship.

It’s the same old spiel so many of us have heard every year at our annual denominational gatherings:

Our membership is declining at precipitous rates. Our membership is getting older. We’re running out of money. We need to address this before we die out. How will we do this?

Well, we need to reverse these these trends. We need to increase our membership with newer, preferably younger people. And, of course, we need to get money out of them to keep our ship from sinking.

Idolatry. Sheer, ugly, shameful idolatry.

Instead of fussing over numbers, we need to fuss over Jesus. And therein lies the problem. As congregations became established and static, the fervor and passion of being disciples of Jesus began to ebb away. When we lost our vital connection to a life lived in Jesus, we lost our heart. When we lost our heart, we lost our passion and settled for programs, comfortable routines, maintenance-minded structures, and a club-like, members-only mentality towards congregational life.

Numbers and statistics are important, but only as a one kind of thermometer. For example, let’s say I take my temperature, and it reads higher than it should be. If I were to use today’s church mentality, I’d be saying to myself, “My goodness! This number is too high… I need to find a way to lower this number” and then proceed to shake the thermometer to a better, lower number. (Never mind it was a digital thermometer…) You can see the problem. I’m fussing over the number without diagnosing and treating the causality, the real sickness.

The real sickness within today’s mainline church is our lost fervor for being Jesus’ disciples who strive after him while expecting great, awesome things from his kingdom here on earth and in heaven to come.

Numbers tell a story, but they do not cause or fix problems. Numbers are a gauge of spiritual activity, but they are not our chief, primary focus. Jesus is. The moment we learn that lesson is the moment we can be freed from the bondage of worrying over numbers. Numbers are not to be reveled in when they’re good. We revel in and give glory to God; giving glory to numbers is self-serving idolatry. And, conversely, numbers are not to be consternated over when they’re bad. We wouldn’t worry over a thermometer. We would address the sickness and seek a remedy for it.

In our case, we have a merciful, bountiful, fiercely loving God who is ready to pour salve on our wounds, wash away our sins, cure our spiritual blindness, soften our stony-hearted apathy, smash up our self-seeking idols of worldly success, and fill us to overflowing with the Holy Spirit of Jesus. We have an Abba Father who runs breakneck towards us prodigals the moment we decide to return home. That’s true for us as individuals, and certainly true for our faith communities, too.

In order to smash up the golden calf of the numbers game, we need a revival of biblical discipleship in which we re-learn our identity as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. As disciples, we worship with passionate abandon (no matter the form of worship, form of worship being yet another manifestation of self-serving idolatry). As disciples we build authentic, caring relationships of support, learning, and accountability with other disciples. As disciples, we learn and live the Word of God contained in the pages of Scripture, crafting a thoroughly biblical lens to view God, the world, and ourselves. As disciples, we are passionate about bringing our lost neighbors to a healing relationship with Jesus, fighting for justice, binding up the broken and injured, all the while living in hopeful expectation for the kingdom of God to come. As disciples of Jesus, we seek to be like Jesus Christ, to be the living flesh, bone and sinews of  his way, truth, and life.

When we get at that, the numbers game will care for itself. After all we worship only One.



Filed under Rants

The Cycle of Death and Resurrection in the Church

We disciples of Jesus Christ hinge the epicenter of our lives on Christ’s death and resurrection. It’s more than just a doctrine to be preached (what we call kerygma) or something for individuals to believe and trust for their salvation. The more I live as a disciple and serve as a shepherd of Christ’s Church, the more I see that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a massive force that shapes the movement of all things. In the turn of the seasons or in the life cycle of butterflies and flowers, we see universal images of Christ’s death and resurrection. Indeed, all of creation sings in celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So how might it change the way we understand Church if we look at its life through the lens of Christ’s resurrection? To get to the point, might the decline of most mainline Protestant churches be a sign of death with a doorway into resurrection? Instead of consternating over the state of things, can we re-imagine the church we’ve inherited by allowing things to die in order to release new, unfettered life?jr_sunrise

To understand what I mean, let’s take a look at Jesus’ own life and ministry. Born in a manger stall, his life began in small, lowly, lonely circumstances. By the height of his public ministry, Jesus was surrounded by thousands of people. Then from there, the crowds got smaller and his miracles became fewer and fewer. On the last night of his life, Jesus went from twelve companions, to eleven, to three, and then to no one as he was arrested and taken away to be judged by the Jewish Sanhedrin. Jesus, the one who captivated throngs of people, died an embarrasingly ugly death on a cross, scorned and rejected by the whole world. The Son of God, Son of David, the one whom people called Lord and Messiah, died.

But before Jesus died, he said a few things about the nature of his death. He said, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it does, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24).  Later in John, Jesus taught his disciples about the meaning of his imminent death. In one instance he said, “Very truly I tell you, all who have faith in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12, TNIV). How is that possible? God would send the Holy Spirit. Jesus then said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever– the Spirit of truth” (John 14:15-17a).

Right after the close of John, we read in the book of Acts that after the resurrected Jesus ascended, the disciples were filled by the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. From there, the mission and work of Jesus Christ spread like wildfire throughout the entire known world. Just as Jesus had promised, the disciples, living and working in his resurrection power of God’s Holy Spirit, accomplished far more than Jesus ever did in his earthly ministry. His death opened the way to his resurrection, which in turn infused his ever-present life into the lives of his followers. One single seed died and erupted into bountiful fruit.

Could it be that the current mainline church finds itself in the waning hours of its life, much like Jesus’ last week? If we choose to see our decline that way, it would free us to imagine what resurrection might look like. We could allow the seeds of our tradition to bloom into new, unimaginably powerful life.

But instead, the mainline church has been looking for resuscitation.  We’ve been looking to pump new life into a dying body. Or as Jesus put it, we’ve been trying to pour new wine into old wineskins. The old wineskins are bursting and the new wine gets wasted. This simply doesn’t work.

John Wesley learned this lesson. The 18th Century Anglican church was a dead, corrputed shell of an institution. Instead of trying to challenge and change the internal structures of the church– for which he often got the boot!– he preached outdoors to masses of people, created small-groups of believers which he called classes, arranged them into regionally based societies, and called and equipped preachers and leaders. By doing all of this, Wesley ushered in sweeping revival, not only to the Anglican Church, but also in England the American colonies through this movement better known as Methodism.

I’m an inheritor of Methodism. But I’m seeing that the formalized version of Methodism which began in 1784 has run its course in America and is quickly heading to its death. Other forms of mainline church could share that assessment. Does that mean Methodism has failed? Not at all, no more than we could assert that Jesus failed when he died! But we must stop our attempts at resuscitation and instead make way for resurrection.

Resurrected church in America will in many ways resemble the pre-resurrection mainline church, but much like the resurrected Jesus, it will look, feel, and act very, very differently. Let me imagine what this might look like in decades ahead. As Sophia from the Golden Girls says, “Picture this…” In the resurrected church, disciples of Jesus will gather for worship, learn and study together, and engage in the missional work of serving and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. But long gone will be the old systems of mainline church structures and traditionalism. Congregational styles of church life may cease to exist or be radically reshaped into networks of disciples worshipping, learning, and ministering in small groups. Denominational structures will become less centralized to be simultaneously globalized and localized to support these networks of disciples. Pastors like myself may have to radically alter the way we live, work and support so that we’re acting more like apostles, building, equipping and shaping these small group networks.

Those are just a few ideas, but in each congregation, including my own, we’ve got to get on with readying our churches for a season of resurrection. We must allow failing, ineffective means, methods, and priorities to die. Then, we must allow the best remnants to grow up into a newly resurrected church.

I’d love to read your ideas and insights about resurrection, too. Let’s get the conversation going!!


Filed under church leadership, Reflections

The Power and Passion of Simplicity

The more complex and scatterbrained our world gets, the more frequently I hear people voicing the need for simplicity. Simple offers a solace that resonates throughout the most iconic symbols of our day. For example, Macintosh found new life as a formidable challenge to the once-thought impervious Microsoft by offering a whole line of “simple” computers and MP3 players like the one button iPOD. The haircuts and fashions of our decade are more plain and simple (as opposed to the flashy, poofy styles of the 80’s.) Wal-Mart, capitalizing on our American love for bargains, has dominated the retail world with a rebirth of the general store, their simple one-stop shop appeal and their “Save money. Live better.” slogan. Even in a surging health craze, McDonalds thrives by their simple value meals and $1 menu. (By the way, each of these three companies has done more than survive in the current recession!)

simplicity + focused excellence = a new birth of passion and power

I’ve been reminded of this principle twice now in the last two weeks.

This past Christmas, my in-laws gave me a little known instrument called the Xaphoon. (My spell-checker doesn’t even like this word.) At first glance, the Xaphoon rarely makes a strong first impression. It’s a simple one-piece bamboo stick with burned in finger holes. But the difference lies in the mouthpiece. It is meticulously carved and sanded to hold a tenor sax reed and ligature. And the combination of that tenor sax reed with the warm resonance of bamboo offers an instrument with a complete 2-octave chromatic range capable of jazz, middle-eastern, Celtic, Gospel, or any other style of music one can imagine. The Xaphoon’s lilty, esoteric tone sounds oddly similar to a clarinet, soprano sax, or even an alto sax, depending on how it’s played.

The simplicity and soul-grabbing sway of this little instrument has created an indelible mark on me as a musician. How can this unpretentious instrument wield such an enormous diversity of musical voicing? The answer lies in two places: its careful craftsmanship and the humble demands it makes upon its player to focus upon drawing out its most expressive potential.

Then this morning, I heard U2‘s new song “Magnificent.” I was drawn into it almost right away and began to wonder, “How and why does this song live up to its title??” On a surface appraisal, “Magnificent” is four or five chords continuously repeated with a handful of phrases for lyrics. But as always Bono‘s words are carefully chosen, balanced, and deeply personal thoughts that resonate universal themes of love, worship, relationships, healing, and life. Musically, The Edge accomplishes his usual masterful blends of stirring guitar arpeggios and tastefully layered keyboards. When Adam Clayon and Larry Mullen add their reliably standard drive of bass and rhythm, the total result is that unmistakable, virtually unchanged U2 sound that fills stadiums with fans no matter where they go.

How has U2 pulled off their enormous popularity and riveting sound for well over two decades? The answer, much like the story of the Xaphoon, is in combining painstaking excellence, sincerity, and authenticity into an uncomplicated form. This unleashes an unlimited freedom of expression, passion, and power. If there was ever any hope of Rock n’ Roll changing and uniting the world, U2 would be the only act to ever accomplish it.

simplicity + focused excellence = a continual surge of passion and power

As for me, I’m looking to redefine my life, ministry, and church with this same principle. You and I make life and faith far more complex and busy-bodied than it has to be. It’s simple to understand. When we take the energy and opportunity God has given us and disperse it among lots of things, the result is a lot of things done cheaply. But when we channel that same wellspring of energy and passion into no more than a few things with lots of excellence, the world benefits from an undeniably divine power and passion.

Take another look at Jesus- a poor, Jewish rabbi from Palestine. How did his short span of life on our planet forever alter the shape and direction of humankind? It’s simple. He surrendered himself to do one thing only:

“I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself: he can do only what he sees the Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” John 5:19

In other words, he gave his all to mirror God the Father, and so though Jesus, God poured out the totality of his love, power, and authority. From himself, Jesus gave away this same kind of obedience to his disciples, who in turn have discipled others.

simple obedience + focused excellence = the outpouring of God through one human being creating a global movement

So, I only have one hope for each of us: that we will not allow our compulsion to be overly complex and multi-tasked get in the way of God unleashing his full potential through each of us. A divided world dying from its own separation from the purity of God’s love depends on it!


Filed under Christian thought, Music

Beginning with New Questions for a Church in Decline, Part 1

Jabbing and slinging mud at the mainline church has become a new intellectual sport among church leaders, and at first glance, this blog may be yet another fruitless contribution to the worn out question, “Why is the mainline church dying?” It is not. I’m moving on from mudslinging to asking questions that might lead us into resurrection. How can the mainline church enter into Christ’s resurrection, and what does that resurrection look like?

What few church leaders seem to understand is how the negative bantering back and forth has contributed virtually nothing towards the church’s health. My attempts to sound more dire and apocalyptic than you don’t revive a thing. Besides, we’ve all seen the statistics: steep declines in membership and money, aging buildings and church members, ineffective programs and initiatives, an irrelevant vestige of religion from a bygone era, yada, yada, yada, etc, etc, etc… While we must confront the truth head on, break the denial, and accept that Church in the 21st Century takes on a shape markedly different than before, we’re still left asking, “Now what?”. Suddenly the room grows eerily silent. We then realize that those who complain but offer nothing substantive to mediate the problem are the problem.

So, beginning from my little island in the blogosphere, I’d like to offer a new set of questions for the mainline church which I will address over time. (I’m doing so as loudly as I can to anyone who will listen!) My bishop once wisely said that we don’t arrive at the truth by offering answers but by asking good questions. In other words, the mainline church finds itself retreading the same debates over its decline because it begins the conversation with inadequate questions. Let’s take a look at some of those questions and then reword them to be more authentic, biblical, and Christ-like.

Question #1: How can we get our churches growing again?

There are two major faults with this question. First, the question preoccupies the mainline church with institutional survival. Let’s face it, the mainline church, especially my own United Methodist tribe, loves to crunch numbers. We count numbers like worship attendance, the number of new members, numbers of people in classes and activities, how much money is brought in and spent, and on and on.We love it when the numbers project upward because that means the institution is thriving. We worry when the numbers spiral downward because that means the institution is in jeopardy.  But there’s a major problem with this kind of focus: individual souls are just another number which props up the legitimacy of the institution. At the end of the day, what the institution values most is its own viability, not the viability of each person the blood of God was spilled to save.

The second fault is in the word “again.” That presupposes that the same construction and configuration of church we’ve inherited will be an effective means for today and the future. It is not. Pioneering books like George Barna’s Revolution warn us that congregational styles of church may have a limited shelf life, and that we need to rethink what Church is, how it gathers, how it disciples people into the likeness of Jesus, and how it spreads the good news of Jesus to the world. So can we see growth, absolutely! But… not by pouring new wine into old wineskins.

Question #1 Rephrased: How can we build the kingdom of God with new disciples of Jesus?

Notice that the emphasis is no longer on us or on our survival, but on the survival of a lost world. It heals us from our addiction to numbers and moves the growth from institutional growth to kingdom growth, the latter encompassing every local church, every denomination, and indeed our whole world. It mobilizes us outward, looking towards the reign of God and the healing of our world by the blood of Jesus, one person, one family, one community at a time.

Please note that I’m not trying to dismantle or disregard the mainline church. I love my heritage as a United Methodist, and in fact, the kind of thinking that I’m suggesting is more in keeping with John Wesley’s vision than the dead form of religion he feared we would fall into and have indeed become. If there is any hope for United Methodism, we must once again rekindle our love for Jesus Christ, his gospel, and people who have yet to be born again into a new life with Christ and his Church.

Along these lines, I believe the answers to this question make themselves clearly apparent when we simply shift our focus from ourselves to Jesus and the world he died to save. When we do that, we find ourselves simplifying how we carry on as a Church– our worship, study, and engagements with the world around us. We find ourselves gathering together in the outside world where people normally live, work, and play. We realize that we captivate people not with pizazz but with authenticity. We move from being clever, cute, and flashy to being transparent, honest and profound. We see that the world has already heard about God so many times before. They’re not standing around waiting for us to say it again, this time with PowerPoint and a band. If they gives us a chance at all, it will happen when they see us doing what we say we believe and then speaking a message that points straight to Jesus.

To be continued…


Filed under Christian thought