Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Willow Creek Made a Mistake?

Questioning the techniques and philosophy of "Church Growth" is tantamount to be "politically incorrect" in today's church. Especially if one were to call into question the success of the Church Growth flag ship, Willow Creek Community Church. At least until now.

In a rather revealing article by Bob Burney entitled "A Shocking 'Confession' from Willow Creek Community Church," we discover that the gurus of the modern church may have taken a wrong road after all. After decades of telling us to throw out everything we ever knew about how to run a church, they are now telling us to possibly throw out their own original advice.

Burney writes:
"Willow Creek has released the results of a multi-year study on the effectiveness of their programs and philosophy of ministry. The study’s findings are in a new book titled Reveal: Where Are You?, co-authored by Cally Parkinson and Greg Hawkins, executive pastor of Willow Creek Community Church. Hybels himself called the findings 'earth shaking,' 'ground breaking' and 'mind blowing.'

The report reveals that most of what they have been doing for these many years and what they have taught millions of others to do is not producing solid disciples of Jesus Christ. Numbers yes, but not disciples. It gets worse. Hybels laments:

Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars into thinking it would really help our people grow and develop spiritually, when the data actually came back it wasn’t helping people that much. Other things that we didn’t put that much money into and didn’t put much staff against is stuff our people are crying out for."

Wow. Can it really be that they missed the mark by that much?

Of course the CG methodology still has crowd appeal. But that's it. Burney then notes:

"If you simply want a crowd, the 'seeker sensitive' model produces results. If you want solid, sincere, mature followers of Christ, it’s a bust. In a shocking confession, Hybels states: We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between services, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own."

Catechesis. Yes, I think that's what he's trying to say. Catechesis. But when you jettison the whole of Christian history, tradition and practice, these little details often become lost. Too bad they had to waste all those millions only to find this out so late.....

So what will this mean for denominations like the LCMS? Will all those churches who staked their future on Hybel now reexamine how they have been running their churches? Will the CG methodology be called into questions and the church return to its more honored roots?

I could hope that might happen, but I doubt it. The LCMS is often years behind the trend curve, and not very willing to admit they hooked their wagon to the wrong horse. However, for those of us who decided to simply be faithful even if we weren't busing at the seams, it is nice to hear a church and pastor with so much influence admit their mistakes. I commend their honesty.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Golden Compass

In a previous post I indicated that atheism is "in." So as the Evangelicals discovered the power of popular paperbacks and the appeal of the 'big screen' to further their views, we should not be surprised if agnostics and atheists utilize the same resources. In December of this year a new movie is scheduled to hit the theaters which is based on the first volume in a children's book trilogy by British author Philip Pullman, who has won prizes in the UK for his children's literature. By his own admission, Pullman is a non-believer and an atheist, although he seems to leave the door open for a slim possibillity. He states:

"I don't know whether there's a God or not. Nobody does, no matter what they say. I think it's perfectly possible to explain how the universe came about without bringing God into it, but I don't know everything, and there may well be a God somewhere, hiding away.
Actually, if he is keeping out of sight, it's because he's ashamed of his followers and all the cruelty and ignorance they're responsible for promoting in his name. If I were him, I'd want nothing to do with them." The article from which this interview came can be found here.

A write up can be found on which summarizes the concerns Christians have been voicing about the movie, the author, and the seeming intent to sell the more explicit books to unsuspecting parents and children at Christmastime. Nicole Kidman will be a featured star in the movie, so there is no doubt that it will have sufficient draw.

While many Christians appear to be quite alarmed by the movie and books, Dr. Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, actually supports and endorses the movie. He believes that it is not anti-Christian, as such, but rather anti-dogmatic or anti-control, issues that need to be addressed in the church. You can read the transcript of an interview the archbishop had with Pullman on the The archbishop engages in a very friendly discussion with Pullman, and although Pullman is a humanist and atheist, the two actually have much common ground. As is the case with many Christian leaders today, the archbishop obviously espouses very liberal views of scripture and creation, with which Pullman easily resonated. I suspect the dialog would have been much different if the clergyman was more evangelical.

Are his books decidedly anti-God and anti-Christian? Pullman does not feel so. However, he sees "fundamentalism" as the great danger of our time. Of course he points to fundamentalism in all faiths, but it is Christianity that appears to be featured most. As Pullman himself says:

"It's a story, not a treatise, not a sermon or a work of philosophy. I'm telling a story, I'm showing various characters whom I've invented saying things and doing things and acting out beliefs which they have, and not necessarily which I have. The tendency of the whole thing might be this or it might be that, but what I'm doing is telling a story, not preaching a sermon.
But when you look at organised religion of whatever sort – whether it's Christianity in all its variants, or whether it's Islam or some forms of extreme Hinduism – wherever you see organised religion and priesthoods and power, you see cruelty and tyranny and repression. It's almost a universal law.

It's not just Christianity I'm getting at. The reason that the forms of religion in the books seem to be Christian is because that's the world I'm familiar with. That's the world I grew up in and I knew. If I had been brought up as an orthodox Jew, I would no doubt find things to criticise in that religion. But I don't know that world as well as I know Christianity."

I suspect that Pullman would see the church and faith I espouse as "fundamentalistic" and thus dangerous.

Yet, does Pullman have an agenda? Is he out to completely counter everything the church teaches and to indoctrinate children with an anti-religious or anti-God view? It's hard to tell, despite the concerns raised. Supposedly he made comments that his characters "kill God" in his books. I couldn't find the quote, but maybe someone out there has a source.

Personally my concerns are still greater for movies and books like The Da Vinci Code which very clearly cause people to call into question facts they have known and believed their whole lives. I saw this first hand in some with whom I counseled and talked. Will "The Golden Compass" or the Pullman books cause great damage to children's faith? I'm certainly not with the archbishop in being ready to recommend them. I'd like to read the books first and see the movie for myself. However, fantasy is a genre that does not always translate into completely concrete ideas. Did children form firmer ideas of God and faith from The Chronicles of Narnia? I suspect that more people have formed faith convictions from Star Wars alone than from any fantasy movie ever produced.

Without the movie there to review, it's hard to say much more. Have any of you out there read Pullman's books, especially his children's books? I'd be curious to know your insights.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Corum Deo Symposium

Last night I attended a brief symposium in a neighboring town sponsored by a new Lutheran devotional society called Coram Deo (L: "face to face with God"). Their featured speaker was a classmate of mine, the Rev. Peter Bender, pastor of Peace Lutheran Church and Academy in Sussex, WI, and founder of the Concordia Catechetical Academy. Pastor Bender spoke on the theme of home and personal devotions. The evening's session was preceded by a candle light vespers service, a wonderful closure to the day's Reformation celebration. Personally I benefited greatly from Pastor Bender's insightful Bible study on the Syrophonecian women with the demon-possessed daughter (as a lesson on faith and prayer), as well as a review of Lutheran resources for personal prayer.

Bender reviewed the devotional resources he uses in his parish and school, and they are impressive. They also sound a bit overwhelming. Many of our churches are light years away from the discipline he has established, and sometimes can barely even maintain a Lutheran piety at all. However, the work he does in promoting a revival of genuine Lutheran catechesis is commendable. We can hope that such a renewal in the devotional life of the Lutheran church continues to increase.

BTW, Bender will be presenting the second volume of Dr. David Scaer's writings at the annual Symposia in Ft. Wayne this January. The first volume contained sermons, while this second one features more of his popular writings and and articles.

Can Lutherans "Cross" Themselves?

Ironically, I learned to "cross" myself as a Lutheran from a converted Jew. Prior to my time at seminary this practice was foreign to me, as it is undoubtedly still to many Lutherans. Now I "cross" myself regularly, and my people see it weekly as I begin my sermon invoking the name of the Trinity.

However, to "cross" oneself is to many Lutherans a decidedly "Catholic" custom. And it is true that at weddings and funerals one can usually identify the visiting Catholics by observing the ones crossing themselves - and those who stop praying the Lord's Prayer before the final doxology :)

But "crossing" oneself is a practice that was encouraged by Luther in his Small Catechism as part of the regular devotional life of the Christian. For Lutherans familiar with the Rite of Baptism, this action should have a ring of familiarity, as the first thing a pastor does is to trace the sign of the holy cross upon the head and heart of the child even before he is baptized. Thus, to "cross" ourselves as Lutherans is to immediately recall our baptisms and the reality of our status as redeemed and regenerated children of God in Christ.

It is also the confession of the Creed by the actions of our body. We confess with our lips and our hands the truth of God as three-in-one, a truth that is central to our Faith as Christians, and distinguishes us from the many popular non-Christian cults in our country, such as the familiar Jehovah's Witnesses with their Arian beliefs. Crossing ourselves is one of many physical disciplines that brings our whole being into an act of worship, such as bowing, kneeling, and other gestures of faith.

Of course, any action can become a victim of meaningless rote, and crossing oneself is not exempt. Still, if the faith on our lips and in our heart is centered in Christ alone, crossing ourselves is always appropriate and helpful. For what better reminder of our salvation and life than to have the cross itself traced upon our heart each day?

The Lutheran "Yes"

In the October issue of the devotional newsletter for Corum Deo (see previous post), editor Steven Gjerde includes a nice article on the positive nature of the Reformation. Here is a snippet from that article:

"If someone asked you why Martin Luther raised his voice in protest, sparking a church-wide reformation, what would you answer? Would you say, 'He was saying 'no' to indulgences, in which people paid money for salvation? Or, 'he did not think that we had to do certain things to be saved'? Or, 'He thought we should pray to God, and not to Mary or the saints?' All of those answer are common, and they certainly touch on issues relating to the Lutheran Reformation. Yet if you look back at them, you'll notice a decidedly negative character in all of the statements, leading some people to wonder: Is a protest against things all that Lutheranism has to offer? Is it just a big 'no'?

This issue of Corum Deo rings with the conviction that the Lutheran Church was born from a 'yes': yes to Christ, yes to grace, and yes to a lively and renewed devotion in the Church. Indeed, one way to understand the Reformation is to see it as a reform of devotion in the Church's homes and congregations. Luther's radical focus on Christ Jesus, grace, and faith was inspired by his pastoral desire to enliven the spirit of the Church and direct its mind to the source of true and lasting joy."

Pastor Gjerde makes an important point as we remember the Reformation in the Lutheran Church this month. So often it is used only as an opportunity to point out past abuses and current differences, both of which have their place. However, the Lutheran Church does not exist simply as an institutionalized protest. It exists to provide a Word and Sacrament presence for the life and wellbeing of God's people as they gather together in Christ. Luther himself devoted much energy and time to giving the church resources for a rich devotional life that would keep the grace of the Gospel central in its life.

So, is the Reformation just one big NO? Not at all. It is a YES to Christ!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Luther's Legacy

This morning thousands of Lutheran churches will celebrate the Reformation. To some it may seem a very sectarian occasion in a more ecumenically enlightened world. Wasn't the Reformation responsible for splintering Christendom into countless scattered pieces and disrupting the unity of the church? Didn't the Reformation break with the history of the past and abandon the rich traditions carefully collected over millenia?

Certainly there were excesses and abuses in the period of the Reformation. This, like all periods of history, was not a perfect time. However, as a Lutheran, I look back positively to this era and note that much good came of Martin Luther's efforts. Yet first of all we need to note that the church was already divided at his time, technically speaking. It had been so since 1054 when Rome and Constantinople parted ways. And as to a break with the past - Yes, some of the more radical reformers did abandon all that came before and began with a blank slate, failing to see the value in many of the church's traditions. Luther, though, did not. When he returned to Wittenberg after his brief hiatus in the Wartburg castle, he was very critical of men such as Carstadt for stirring up the people and causing untold damage. Luther was not a revolutionary. He was a son of the Church calling for a return to what he understood was the true and pure faith of the Fathers before him.

Yet, aside from these issues, what might we recognize as the Reformer's lasting legacy these past five centuries?

Although far from an expert on Luther and the Reformation, let me offer a few pastoral observations of my own:
-A return to biblical study using the original languages.
-A Bible in the vernacular of the people.
-A liturgy in the vernacular of the people.
-An openness to marriage for those in the priesthood (ministry).
-A renewed understanding of the Two Kingdoms and their proper roles.
-An appreciation for the Biblical teachings of Law and Gospel and their proper division and application in all theology.
-A restoration of the importance of preaching along with the Sacrament as key aspects of worship.
-A revival of singing among the laity of the church and a beginning of new hymnody.
-A renewed emphasis on catechesis with his two catechisms.
-A restoration of the use of both elements in the Supper as a regular practice.

Of course, being Lutheran, one must mention what is considered fundamental to the Reformation itself, as well as the whole of scripture: the central doctrine of justification by grace through faith for the sake of Christ. In the end we believe that what Luther desired most of all was to return to the Church to Christ. That is the Reformation in a nutshell. To the degree that we continue to place Christ at the center of worship and teaching and practice, Luther's greatest legacy lives on. For the greatest and most basic of the 'solas' will always be Christ alone! Soli Deo Gloria - To Him Alone be All Glory!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Are Ghosts Real?

With the approach of the familiar holiday of Halloween, the subject of "ghosts and goblins" again fill the air. Of course a lot of it is in jest, but a few take the subject quite seriously. In my local paper this morning a group known as the a "ghost hunt team" was featured. They are a small version of what many have seen on such cable shows as the "Ghost Hunters." Armed with techno gadgets for measuring sights and sounds beyond the awareness of normal human senses, they head out to old cemeteries and abandoned buildings in search of restless spirits.

The theory behind such efforts is that once dead the spirit of the deceased lingers around in this world, unable or unwilling to leave. These spirits, they claim, are either friendly and benign, or mischievous and even spiteful - much like they probably were during their living years.

As a Christian, however, such theories not only irritate me, the naivete also concerns me. There are disembodied spirits in our world, both good and bad, but this is where the similarities in our views part ways. For the spirits known by the Christian from the Bible are either angels or demons. Considering that the role of angels is to assist the work of the Kingdom and to ultimately point to Christ, it is unlikely that they would assume form to distract the believer, although many believe in "angel sightings" with as much vigor as they do for ghosts.

Demons, on the other hand, we know to be not only malevolent, but also deceptive. They appear as "angels of light," Paul informs us, if that will further their work. Peter describes the devil as a "roaring lion" set on destruction. Paul again warns the believer to be protected with the entire "armor of God" when engaging these powers and principalities.

So called "ghost hunters" are unfortunately misguided and misinformed. And unknowingly they are playing with a very dangerous entity for which they are woefully unprepared. Normally such spirits should be left untouched. They are only engaged when the need arises, and then only with the power and protection of God's living Word.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Tolerance Memo

As Stan Guthrie points out, atheism is in, and as we have seen with some recent volumes from their ranks, they are clearly in a bad mood. In his article "Answering the Atheists" from the November issue of Christianity Today, Mr. Guthrie quotes from Christopher Hitchens's book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything showing their new edgy approach: "Many of the teachings of Christianity are, as well as being incredible and mythical, immoral." Richard Dawkins, Guthrie notes, "suggests that believers 'just shut up.'" To which he the adds: "Apparently, they didn't get the tolerance memo."

Guthrie makes a profound point in those last few words tinged with tongue-in-cheek humor. Atheists make much of the supposed intolerance of the church that chooses to believe in absolute truth as apposed to the relativism of popular culture. The mere fact that we might insist (at the direction of God's own word) that only those who believe in Christ will gain eternal life, labels us hopelessly rigid and even hateful. Yet when these vitriolic unbelievers take their shots, their unwillingness of allow equal showing in the marketplace of ideas is incredibly transparent. Yes, Guthrie may have a point: Apparently they didn't get that tolerance memo....

A New Title for Ministers

In a recent ad placed by College Avenue Baptist Church of San Diego, this 2,000-plus member mega church is looking for a PASTOR OF WORSHIP AND CREATIVE EXPRESSION. They state that they "desire varied and creative worship expressions that are passionate, engaging, full of Scripture, prayer, and an awareness of God's presence." Have they considered the liturgy and the Lord's Supper? Nah. That's just not sufficiently creative, passionate or engaging.....

Sheep or Constituents?

Many who endorse the Church Growth Movement see it merely as a theologically neutral tool for ministry. In a desire simply to increase the number of people hearing the Good News, what can be wrong with borrowing from the very practical realm of sociology, psychology, and business? We need to be practical and pragmatic in understanding trends and technology if the church hopes to remain effective in a modern world, so the gurus of success tell us.

Aside from the incompatibility of the concepts of "effective" or even "successful" as applied to the ministry and mission of a church under the cross, other matters in this philosophy are equally troubling. In an article entitled "Who Asks the Trough Questions?" from the October 2007 issue of Religious Product, Lyle Schaller reveals the fundamental issue at stake with three simple words. As he discusses five current trends in American Protestantism, he makes this statement: "High on that list is a consequence of that higher level of competition among Christian congregations to identify, reach, attract, welcome, serve, assimilate, and nurture potential future constituents."

What an amazing contrast this is with Jesus who told a parable of the shepherd who left the 99 to look for the one lost sheep. Our Lord often compared Himself with a shepherd who guarded and protected his flock of sheep, intimately aware of each animal's name, ready to sacrifice his own life for theirs. He was not the "hired hand" who abandoned the sheep at the first sign of danger, or who entered the sheepfold illegally to take advantage of the sheep.

But here we have the sheep for whom the Shepherd laid down his life described in sterile business lingo: potential future constituents. Customers, if you prefer. We exist to provide a more appealing product than the next guy down the street. After all, this is a matter of competition, where we must find our 'market niche.'

Sorry, but the folks who will gather on Sunday at my church, member or not, will remain sheep in need of a shepherd, not constituents in search of a more successful CEO.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Gone But Still Taking a Final Shot

Dr. Mary Todd, author of the controversial book Authority Vested: A Story of Identity and Change in the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, wrapped up DayStar's journal on women's ordination with a brief article. Although departed from the LCMS scene and now teaching in a school outside of the synodical system, she still seems determined to take a few parting shots at her former home. Her final words take a last stab at the church she deems hopelessly lost in denial and forced silence: "And in declaring once again it knows the will of God, the church will continue to deny itself the gifts of women who, created in the image of God, seek only to carry the good news as women did that first Easter morning. Thank God those women broke the rule."

Aside from the familiar rhetoric of denying the gifts of women, etc., Dr. Todd reveals one point I have long suspected is at the core of the argument for women's ordination. Reflecting on this past summer's convention she states:

"More troubling, then, is the late resolution from this summer’s convention that overwhelmingly affirmed the inerrancy of scripture. It is this principle that underlies the synod’s resistance to break its silence on the question of ordaining women, for to hold discussion would be an invitation to open the scriptures and take seriously all passages, not only a few. The same principle requires the silence, for the church needs to mean what it says. How better to do so than to limit the service of women as it understands scripture directs?"

Although Dr. Todd fails to appreciate the high view of scripture that the Lutheran church has long held, she does sense the center of the controversy. The point does boil down to how one handles scripture. In Dr. Todd's approach, it appears, we should be always willing to call into question the beliefs of the past, even the historicity and viability of the scriptures, not to mention the well established practice of the church catholic over nearly 2,000 years of its history. A reading of other articles on the DayStar site will reveal a similar line of thinking of those still within the LCMS fold.

Her attack on the Synod's approach to scripture, however, takes a turn by accusing the church body of selective treatment of the contents of the Bible. How have we not taken "seriously" all passages that speak to the role of women in the church? Or does this mean that if we conclude that the roles of men and women are different in the church we have failed to take it all seriously? It all depends on if you agree with the conclusions.

This argument cannot be resolved within the LCMS to the satisfaction of all involved. That much I grant to Dr. Todd. The battle will continue until one side tires and leaves, or we literally split the denomination. Either way hard feelings and bitterness will remain. Such is the church militant.

[Note: Dr. Todd was previously a professor and assistant vice president of academic affairs at Concordia University in River Forest. She is now VP for Academic Affairs at Ohio Domincan University, which is described as a "private Catholic liberal arts university." "It is a place where diversity is embraced and individualism is celebrated," according to the history of the university. The Dominican Order of Preachers were the founders of this university, and still play a role in its ongoing operation. I wonder: in a church body that has been as staunch and solid in prohibiting women in the office of pastoral ministry, does this "Catholic" university embrace her views on this subject, or is she flying under the radar on this one?]

GOP Hopefuls Try to Win Over Religious Right

Several of the GOP contenders addressed the Values Voters Summit in D.C. this past Saturday, hoping to win over a large and powerful voting block. Former N.Y. major Rudy Guiliani, a professed Catholic, had the biggest liability as an avowed abortion rights supporter. Mit Romney is conservative and prolife, but his liability for Evangelicals is his Mormon faith. Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher and Arkansas governor seemed to muster the greatest positive reaction, as he repeatedly appealed to the crowd with biblical images and passages and a passionate support of conservative values. John McCain, who has conflicted with the right over immigration among other issues, tried to tout his honesty and consistent pro-life voting record.

Still, unlike previous elections, the Religious Right has yet to galvanize around a single candidate, and there are rumors of support for a Third Party candidate, if one should arise. Yet, despite the liberal tendencies of the U.S. and Democratic control of both houses, people of faith remain a viable voting force, and of great interest to conservative Christian voters.

As a Lutheran I shy away from promoting individual candidate or parties. More so, as a pastor, I often remain mute on this area during election time, respecting the rights of my people to make informed choices according to conscience. Still, my role as citizen permits me to participate in the process and use my vote as a means to influencing the direction of my government. I am, if you could guess, socially conservative as well as theologically conservative. I believe strongly in the rights of the unborn (as does the LCMS and the Roman Catholic Church, to name a few denominations with views on this), and believe that Roe vs. Wade was and remains a great tragedy.

I believe that God ordained government as an instrument of his will (Romans 13), and that our support of it is consistent with our faith. Government, however, is not the same as the Church, and we must understand that it is not a "sanctified institution," bearing still the marks of a fallen world, and prone to good as well as evil.

As a citizen I therefore believe that we participate and vote as people of faith, and it is consistent with that faith to do so with the standards God has set forth in his Word as our guide. Should one support a candidate that also supports these biblical values? Of course. Still, could a president who was not a Christian also be a good leader? That depends. I certainly would prefer an honest unbeliever to a deceptive or incompetent believer. Luther recognized that the ruler leads by God's gift of reason, and not strictly according to the Bible. This is the Kingdom of the Left, and its purpose, as Paul informs us, is to protect the nation and enforce the laws that provide for a stable and safe land. If a candidate is supportive therefore of the rights of all life (including the unborn), and prepared to efficiently and effectively use the resources we have for the defense of the nation, they should be given a fair consideration. If that person is a Christian, great. But even godless Caesar was recognized by Paul as a legitimate ruler for whom we should pray, and who had within his power to provide a place where the Church would exist in peace.

Well, enough said. Do I know who I am going to vote for yet? No. I'm still listening.....

Friday, October 19, 2007

Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) H.R. 2015

Below please read the note I received from Wisconsin Family Action regarding the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which is scheduled for consideration in the House very soon:

As Wisconsin Family Action reported earlier this month the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) H.R. 2015 will likely be receiving a vote in the House of Representatives very soon--as early as next week, according to our national sources.

ENDA, if passed into law, will prevent employers in Christian schools, Christian businesses, the Boy Scouts, and other organizations from discriminating against an individual who behaves homosexually. Although the bill contains "religious exemption" clauses, these clauses only exclude churches and religious positions in schools; the exemptions do not exclude other positions that can have equal or greater influence within the organizations or business.

The author of the bill, Rep. Barney Frank (CD 4-Mass.), is one of two openly homosexual members of the House. The other openly homosexual member, Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin (CD 2), is a cosponsor of the bill. Rep. Gwen Moore of Wisconsin (CD 4) is also a cosponsor of this bill.

Not only can the intention of the bill be seen by who supports it, but sponsors also clearly state the goal of the legislation. Rep. Frank has the following statement on his website:

"Before I came to Congress in 1981, former Members, the gentlewoman from New York (Ms. Abzug), gentleman from Massachusetts (Mr. Tsongas) and others, in the House filed legislation to make it illegal to discriminate against people in employment based on their sexual orientation; that is, they would have made it illegal in the same way that the 1964 Civil Rights Act made it illegal based on race, but in a different statute for a variety of reasons, for people to be fired, for people to refuse to hire people, for people to be denied promotions or in other ways discriminated against in the job based on their being gay or lesbian or bisexual. That was, and has been, the number one legislative goal of gay and lesbian, bisexual people for more than 30 years." (Emphasis added)

Our national sister organization, Family Research Council, provides the following additional points that may help clarify the bill and its likely effects:

ENDA affords special protection to a group that is not disadvantaged. The issue is not job discrimination: It is whether private businesses will be forced by law to accommodate homosexual activists' attempts to legitimize homosexual behavior. The first 'religious exemption' clause is very narrow and offers no clear protection to church-related businesses: Religious schools or charitable organizations, religious bookstores, or any business affiliated with a church or denomination fall outside this narrow definition, and could presumably be required to hire homosexual applicants.

The second 'religious exemption' clause fails to offer protection for all hiring by church-related organizations or businesses. The position of a teacher or religion at a church-related school would be exempt, but, e.g., that of a biology teacher would not. Thus, most of the teachers and staff at a religious school would be covered by ENDA, which means that the church would be forced to hire homosexual applicants for such positions-despite the fact that their lifestyle would be in direct opposition to the religious beliefs of the organization or company.

It is unlikely that the 'religious exemption' included in the bill would survive court challenge: Institutions that could be targeted included religious summer camps, the Boy Scouts, Christian bookstores, religious publishing houses, religious television and radio stations, and any business with fifteen or more employees.

ENDA violates employers' and employees' Constitutional freedom of religion, speech, and association. The proposed legislation would prohibit employers from taking their most deeply held beliefs into account when making hiring, management, and promotion decisions. This would pose an unprecedented intrusion by the federal government into people's lives.
ENDA would approvingly bring private behavior considered immoral by many into the public square. By declaring that all sexual preferences are equally valid, ENDA would change national policy supporting marriage and family."

If the above information if accurate, it would be of interest to Christians everywhere to exercise their vocation as citizens in expressing their concerns directly to those who will vote on this bill (your Representatives in the House.) The possibilities of this bill worry me, especially with two children in a Christian day school and as a volunteer with the Boy Scouts of America.

You can read the actual wording of Bill 2015 here in this pdf file.

Too Many Little Struggling Churches?

In a recent article for JesusFirst, entitled "Where are You Going, Missouri?", Pastor Charles S. Mueller, Sr. states the following:

"Hand-in-hand with a pastor shortage is the fact that we have too many parishes that are on a subsistence level, barely able to maintain facilities, to minimally support a pastor and to share a little with others. In many areas our churches are spaced as if we were still in the 19th century serving a flock that buggies to worship or is culturally concentrated enough to walk to church.

The LCMS has too many churches that of necessity spend the majority of their time dealing with roof replacement, furnace repair and patching parking lots. Untrue? Review the minutes of a dozen or so randomly selected church councils and voter’s assemblies. What are their pressing issues? More ministry? Increasing their out reach effectiveness? Missions and other human needs? Hardly. The agenda issues are largely survival concerns using how effective the parish used to be as an excuse for maintaining the status quo. I think that will be a hard sell in heaven. But rejoice: there is forgiveness.
So what’s the solution? There is none until we acknowledge the pressing character of the moment. It’s like the 13th century recipe for rabbit stew that begins, “First, catch the rabbit.” Or, to put it another way, acknowledge the current reality."

So what is Pastor Mueller implying here? We can't know for sure since he stops just short of making the obvious conclusion. However, it appears to me that he sees a solution in closing these little struggling parishes so that more resources can be more effectively allocated to bigger and better mega churches and larger ministries. Doesn't that seem to be where he's heading with this? Or am I paranoid? (Don't answer that....)

As a pastor of a small, rural parish, I'd like to respond briefly to his observations. It is true that many of our parishes located in small towns and rural farm areas, that were planted a century or more ago, were located in these places based on the demographic needs of the times. A good percentage of my congregation is still clustered within a 5-mile radius of the church where many of the farms once flourished. The second largest segment of my people now also live in the nearby city about 7 miles to the west.

And yes, we do spend some time talking about roofs and furnaces. But to be fair I know that larger parishes must do the same. Yet does this mean that we are not "in mission" because of our attention to these realities of maintaining a building? I don't think so. Too often mission is
gauged by the number of formal programs to which resources must be allocated. Yet smaller churches are not program-oriented this way. They reach out to others, but they do it far more casually. No dollars are attached to their efforts. They simply do it on their own time. Evangelism is happening all the time in my church, but you might not know it if you were simply looking at the budget for some line item for program expenditures.

No, Pastor Mueller, I beg to differ with your observations. I know where you're going with this, and I think that you are selling many of these little parishes short. In some cases these little struggling churches are actually serving as refuges from the larger mega churches which have transformed into large corporations catering to the whims of their communities, but lacking in the intimacy and family cohesiveness of the small rural parish, not to mention a commitment to real Lutheran belief and practice. The smaller parishes are also some of the last bastions of genuine liturgical worship where you can still find a hymnal in the pew. There are people who want this, and with modern transportation being what it is (We have moved far beyond those 'buggies'!), they do not always mind driving up to 30 minutes to find such a church. I know, because a lot of my people do just that.

So let's hear a cheer for those little churches with their harvest dinners and potlucks and organs and pews and cash-strapped budgets. God still has a use for them.

O.k. I didn't respond "briefly." What do you expect of a preacher?

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Source of Spiritual Growth

There is a real confusion out there about the source of spiritual growth. This week I attended a conference where one of the speakers talked at length about the mission of the church, the changing of the human life, vision, goals and such, and never seemed to grasp the central place of Word and Sacrament. He did mention these 'means.' He gave them lip service. Yet they seemed too often merely incidental to his overall view. One statement on a handout demonstrates this confusion: "We need to begin to change the culture from 'come to church so we can grow you up spiritually' to 'here's how to grow up spiritually, now go do it and be church in the world.'" The next statement seems to clarify and correct this a bit: "How can our congregation help? As the church gathers weekly we provide the balm of God's grace for healing, ignition, teaching, aiming and releasing for another week of following Jesus into the world." So what is it? What is central? Where does the believer find the life he needs?

I do not want to argue about whether the Christian goes "into the world" as part of being a Christ-like witness. Obviously we give testimony to Christ as we live out our vocation in a godly way, and share with others the reason for the hope that is within us. The point here is that the church - the place where the community gathers around the Word and the Table - is not incidental or merely one component among several in the area of spiritual growth. This is where we find Christ. This is where our sins are forgiven. This is where we experience genuine fellowship. This is where we sing with angels and look to heaven and remember that we are only "strangers and pilgrims" on this earth.

Peter Berger, a Lutheran sociologist, once made a helpful comparison of the Christian with the cultural anthropologist involved in field work. There is a danger that when the anthropologist leaves his own culture he might truly forget who he is and "go native." To prevent this the field worker makes sure that he stays "in the company of or at least in communication with fellow outsiders to the culture...and best of all by going home from the field after a relatively brief period of time." We remember who we are in Christ and remain in the company of the community of saints by returning to the Table of the Supper and to the Word of the Living Christ. This is our culture. This is the culture we must return to weekly to survive.

The confusion of the source of spiritual growth was probably demonstrated best in an article from what is known as The Parish Paper, edited by Herb Miller and Lyle E. Schaller. Again, the author seems to get it right when he says: "Christ is the foundation of 'Christian spirituality.'" But then he misses the point when he begins to talk specifics. Like many in the Church Growth Movement (CGM) he turns to the views of the people to define his terms: "....the majority of Christians identify the following seven experiences as their primary source of spiritual growth: 1. Worship...2. Music....3. Prayer....4. Fellowship....5. Preaching....6. Service....7. Stewardship...."

This is a confusion of the means with the fruits of faith. #1 and #5 are on target, if one understands that spiritual growth comes through Word and Sacrament. But prayer is not a means of grace, and neither is fellowship or service or stewardship. These are fruits of the Christian life. Still, I am not surprised that many believe this to be the case.

In a section entitled "Spiritual Growth via Small Groups" the author continues to compound the confusion once more. He seems, however, to be heading the right direction when he mentions Bible study groups, Sunday School classes, etc. But then down in #4 we read about "Serving Groups" which include "Helping Hands Groups and Weekly Property Groups." Weekly Property Groups? So as not to leave out AA from the list he also includes "Twelve-Step Groups" as well. It has been a popular belief in the CGM that real ministry and growth occur best in "small groups." The fellowship itself then becomes the "means" to growth, not the Word or Sacrament.

Churches time and again are directed the wrong way when they search for life and hope and strength in an increasingly hostile and difficult world. They are counseled to change their worship style to attract outsiders, offer 'upbeat music' and increase the number of programs and services. They are funneled into small homogeneous groups so that they can "share" their feelings and commiserate together. They are directed to their own faith and efforts, reminded that everything in life must demonstrate obvious results and be appropriately measured. But the last place they seem to be directed is the Table of the Lord and His Word where they are fed the Bread of Life for eternal life.

This Sunday I will return to the Table and be fed again. Maybe it will also clear my mind of this confusion I have been having to sort through......

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Halle Berry on Marriage

We live in a culture that greatly devalues marriage. No surprise there. Still, I am depressed as a pastor seeing the inroads this low view has made into the church and among Christians in general. Many a young lady makes it clear that the 'normal' order of events in life is sex, baby, and if it is convenient, marriage. But the last part is certainly optional.

As it appears to be for the very popular Halle Berry. After 30+ negative tests she is now celebrating her new pregnancy with French-Canadian model Gabriel Aubry. Yet is marriage just as important? No. She has been married twice prior, with her unions lasting no more 5 years in either case. Thus, she sees no desire to marry again. "I feel more married, in a way, than I ever have in two marriages before," she said to Oprah. "He really understands the spiritual connection is so much more important than the paper and the pomp and circumstance and the ceremony."

While I agree that marriage is not defined by the paper or the ceremony, per se, I sense that Miss Berry totally misses the essence of marriage. But then again, she is not at all bound by God's will in this. And she obviously does not understand the importance of commitment and servanthood. It's her decision to have a mate and a baby. It's really all about her. That's about it. And sadly Miss Berry is all too typical of many a young woman in the church today. I would like to think I am wrong, but so often this is all I encounter.....