Tuesday, February 22, 2011

When Is a Community a Community?

My cage has been rattled over the past two weeks.  I thought, at this point in life, I knew what the word “community” meant, what it looked like and of what it is comprised.  Here is a example of my pre-cage-rattled understanding of community.  Last week the house of one of our church families caught fire.  They were safe, but belongings were lost or damaged and the house is uninhabitable for a few months.  Within hours, folks in their neighborhood responded with boxes of food and clothing, gift cards to local stores and cash.  They were overwhelmed.  That’s community in my book.

But, in this postmodern era of deconstruction, even the basic notion of 'community' is not spared.  Through my coursework in the Drew D.Min. program,  I was introduced to lifechurch.tv which, some consider, the largest church in the United States.  Before reading any further, I invite you to go to www.lifechurch.tv and check it out – even attend one of their services; there are over 50 broadcasts to choose from.

OK, I’m back.  Did you really check it out or are you just reading on??  Seriously, check it out…I'll wait...

What do you think?  Can a church which largely exists online be considered a community?  If you’re like me, you probably automatically dismissed the possibility of this kind of church ever creating “real” community.  At which point, I needed to ask myself, “What is ‘real’ community?”  I’ll come back to that in a minute…

But first, there was one other stereotype that needed to get blasted out of my heart and mind.  I assumed such a ministry had to be associated with some kind of independent, fundamentalist preacher/gathering.  But it isn’t…not even close.  Lifechurch.tv is associated with the Evangelical Covenant Church.  Founded by Swedish Lutheran immigrants, this denomination is ‘evangelical’ in the 19th century sense of the word and is considered ‘mainline’ (another term that is in need of a postmodern face-lift).

So...what is ‘real’ community?  Lifechurch.tv has a complex array of virtual small groups and face-to-face small groups that span the globe.  Thousands experience worship through online re-broadcasts accompanied by live chat rooms with hosts who guide real time discussion centered on the message as it’s being preached.  Thousands more experience worship in satellite locations where everything is live up to the message which is down-linked and projected at each site. 

I’m prone to believe the testimonies of those who find deep meaning in this when they share about the strength they derive from the community that is lifechurch.tv.   It’s hard to argue when folks give witness to how a small group was “there for them,” even though they were spread around the globe and have never met face to face.

Perhaps in this new postmodern era when technology has flattened and transformed the world, the very notion of community has also transformed.  Perhaps, community is no longer defined in terms physical proximity, but now may be experienced as the proximity of compassion, identity, spirituality and commitment.  When is a community a community?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Thank You, Captain Obvious

In some circles, stating the obvious can bring down more than a little derision, some of it in the form of the refrain: “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”  For instance:
  • Found on the packaging for a Rowenta iron is this warning: “Do not iron clothes on body.”  Thank you, Captain Obvious.
  • On a package of Nytol Sleep Aid: “Warning: May cause drowsiness.”  Thank you, Captain Obvious.
  • On a package of Sainsbury’s peanuts: “Warning: contains nuts.”  Say it with me… Thank you, Captain Obvious.
  • Or, this Yogi Berra classic: “You wouldn’t have won if we had beaten you.”  And the church said… Thank you, Captain Obvious.
  • Or Donald Rumsfeld’s astute observation that Osama bin Laden “is either alive and well, or alive and not well, or not alive.”  Let the neighbors hear it!... Thank you, Captain Obvious.
  • Oh, just one more.  From Australian politician Keppel Enderbery: “Traditionally, most of Australia’s imports come from overseas.”  Yes, indeed… Thank you, Captain Obvious.
At the risk of being Captain Obvious, I believe the world is in need of people of faith who can clearly state the obvious.  As I write this, we are just one day past Valentine’s Day; a day in which even people like myself who have been married for 33+ years must state the obvious to their spouse: I love you more today than ever.  The response to which is definitely NOT, “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”

Yet, there are many around us each day needing to hear what people of faith might consider so obvious that, outside our worship services, we never actually say them.  Here’s one: God is love (1 John 4:8).  In a world where some people of faith picket funerals of soldiers and others justify violence, this may not be stating the obvious.  Here’s another: Nothing – not hardship, distress or even death – separates us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39).  In a world where some leave the church because they’ve somehow been lead to believe that only good things should happen to believers in this world and that God’s love for us is directly proportional to what happens to us, this teaching is far from obvious. 

In a small group I lead that meets at Starbucks, this question was asked: “What is it about God that keeps you coming back for more?”  That question is much like a quad-espresso…it will keep you up at night.  There are obvious answers.  God loves us…is usually the first one.  But you are one follow-up question from some deep reflection.  How do you know God loves us?  What does God’s love feel like?  What difference does it make to acknowledge God’s love?  All of a sudden you’re in a place where there are no obvious answers.  Maybe the fact that some of these “obvious” statements and questions lead so quickly to the far-from-obvious is why so many of us believers rarely ask or state them.

How ‘bout it?  Let’s risk someone telling us, “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”  Share with someone this week that God is love and take the chance they might have a follow-up question that will lead you in deeper relationship with them and with God.

Oh, and by the way, What IS it about God that keeps you coming back for more?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (JDD Part 2)

So...last week I shared about Len Sweet's idea that today's church suffers from "Jesus Deficit Disorder."  You might remember I felt convicted by its description.  Well, God wasn't done with me yet.

You might also remember that I learned of this concept while taking an online course with nearly 20 other pastors from around the country.  Turns out, whatever sense of conviction I felt from the JDD material was nothing compared to what a couple of my fellow students shared with me during our online thread discussion on JDD.  They introduced me to an even deeper and more researched concept of the Christian faith in USAmerican society.  In 2005, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton published Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.  In this important work - about which, I confess, I was blissfully ignorant - they describe the state of the Christian faith as perceived by teenagers: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

In the research done by these two professors from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, they found that USAmerican teenagers, regardless of church affiliation, described the Christian faith in this way:

  1. There is a God who watches over us.
  2. This God wants people to be good, nice and fair.  [Moralistic]
  3. The central goal of life is happiness, success, and to feel good about oneself.  [Therapeutic]
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one's personal life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.  [Deism]
Notice what's missing?  And, WHO is missing?  Again, to be clear, this is the Christian faith as perceived and experienced by teens at the beginning of the 21st Century.  This may not be the faith as taught in confirmation or Sunday School.  This may not even be the faith as preached from the pulpit.  Indeed, other research done since Soul Searching was published shows that teens outside the church had similar perceptions.  Regardless of sermons and curricula, this Moralistic Therapeutic Deism seems so prevalent that our younger folks seem to get it from the previous generations as if by osmosis.  

After reading and researching this concept introduced to me by these two classmates, I kind of felt like the old guy in a church I served who, when I would talk about the actual living out of our faith, would say with a smile: "Watch it!  You just went from preachin' to meddlin'."  Not only was my desire to please others exposed (last week's blog), but now I felt my preaching was also being convicted.  I pastored a fairly successful, growing suburban church in the late 90's and early 00's.  Like many pastors of such churches during those years, I fell into what I call the "5 Ways..." style of preaching.  "5 Ways God Can Help You."  "5 Ways to a Better Prayer Life."  [Now, a quick survey of my sermon titles will reveal, thankfully, that I never have actually titled a sermon "5 Ways...," but I have preached down that path a time or two.]

You can do a whole lot of "5 Ways..." preaching and fail to mention the same person who is missing from the definition of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism: Jesus.  Oh yeah, Him!

I don't mean the name Jesus is missing from the faith as perceived by this generation who, by 2011, is now defined as all persons under 30.  I mean nearly everything Jesus taught seems to be missing: the first shall be last; to retain life, you must give life; love all; serve all; the reality that suffering, self-denial, persecution are a part of the Christian life...  

How have we - especially mainline Christianity - failed so miserably in living out or passing on Jesus' teaching that we are to be servants?  Perhaps it's because we have been under the delusion that such a concept can be passed on by teaching alone.  But, it turns out in this postmodern world, that Jesus' servant heart must be experienced before it becomes real to us.

So, at the risk of lapsing into the "5 Ways..." mode, let me share just one way in which the faith communities I serve have experienced a faith counter to the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  It happened last August when a handful of United Methodist Churches in Anchorage decided to live out the phrase: "Church Is a Verb."  We did so by taking our worship to the streets in the form of service in Christ's name.  We had about a dozen different projects in which our children, youth and adults all served.  If you want an idea of what this was about, watch this video prepared by my colleague Jenny Smith capturing scenes of our street service and our evening worship celebration: http://vimeo.com/14438701

Well, it turns out confession is good for the soul!  Thanks for bearing with me these two weeks...but, I must get back to the sermon series I'm preaching in February: "5 Ways the Sermon on the Mount Can Bring YOU Happiness and Success!!"