On Bricks and Sermons

I’ve always been into Legos. Ever since I can remember, I loved getting Lego sets for my birthday and Christmas. I had so much fun following the directions and constructing a new toy to play with. My imagination ran wild with all the adventures I could have with it. But, inevitably, I would deconstruct whatever I built and throw the pieces into a large bin with all the other pieces I’d accumulated.

The vast majority of my time spent with Legos consisted of creating new projects. Whether it was a space ship (I’d say this was 90% of what I built), a house, or a landscape, I was building something new. And this was the process I always went through – and still go through – when building something new:

  1. Dig through my entire Lego collection, setting aside every single piece I might want to use
  2. Build whatever I wanted from the pieces I had set aside
  3. Put the unused pieces in with the rest of my collection.

On any given project, no matter how large or small, I would only end up using – at most – 30% of all the pieces I originally set aside. When collecting those pieces, my imagination would go crazy with all the ideas I had… “I could use this piece if I wanted to make a kitchen-type room,” “What about this piece? Yeah, it could be a wing or something…,” “Every spaceship needs a grate over the mechanical segments,” and so-on.  In the end, however, the majority of my ideas would be scrapped.

I remember one time I was building a single-seater space ship (of course). I spent about an hour or so collecting all the parts I thought I could use. I probably had around 500 pieces in all by the end of it. My original idea kept changing, and the next hour was used for building exactly what I wanted. In fact, every time I think back to that project, I wish I wouldn’t have torn it apart because the set turned out perfectly.

All-in-all, it was only comprised of 100 pieces.  But man…. I loved that ship. It was just right!

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Being trained in ministry is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in that my focus for being a pastor is more narrow, allowing me to better determine how to best used my time and energy in serving others. It also helped me in structuring sermons (probably my most consistent form of ministering to people).

But ministry training is also a curse. Probably the worst thing for a preacher to go through is listening to another preacher, because we have been trained in message preparation; Biblical hermeneutics, public speaking, presentation structure, ancient culture and language, and Christian theology. To be perfectly frank, one of my greatest struggles is attending other churches. It’s almost inevitable that something the preacher/speaker says is going to put me off; an anachronism, proof-texting, misappropriation of a text, exegetical fallacies, or something as silly as “the gain on his mic is set way too high.”  All of that is stuff I can look past, to a point, but I’ve noticed a larger issue that is happening in a lot of churches….

I typically develop a message the same way that I build with Legos: I start with a general idea, and then gather up all the pieces that I feel fit the best. I’ll jot down a story idea, point to other parts of the Bible, maybe a piece of philosophy or language, add in some backstory, a rabbit trail or two if it doesn’t distract from the message, and anything else that pops in my head.  Once that’s done, I strip everything down to what’s necessary to convey the truth of that Sunday’s Scripture reading.  Overall, I’d say that my weekly sermon is about 30% of what I’ve played with during preparation.

I can only imagine what my sermons would be like if I tried to add every “great idea” I had in preparation. I would have so many anecdotes, fluff information, and side-notes that the message would be way too long and convoluted, and ultimately people would leave thinking, “wait… what was the message?”  That’s what I see happening in a lot of churches, and even in people’s personal lives.

I’m not sure where it comes from, but there’s a growing atmosphere that consists of “Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are nice; but what else?” Perhaps we’ve stumbled into it, or maybe it’s a response to people who don’t think the Gospel is dense enough, or it could be that we keep trying to outdo ourselves in our presentation. Whatever it is, I rarely meet people (outside of my local community, because our pastors are pretty awesome) who confront the Word on a regular basis. They confront exciting, emotional music; they watch a well-produced movie or a sketch at church; but the Word must have been left in the Pastor’s study.

It’s sad to admit that when I read a ‘Christian’ book, watch a Christian movie, or see a televangelist, I resign myself to the fact that I’m not going to encounter the Word; I’m going to encounter an abstract painting – just enough color and texture to be interesting, but contorted to the point of being indistinguishable.

There seems to be a general dissatisfaction with the Gospel, because it’s been buried beneath a lot of “great ideas.” We dress it up, do some color correction, add cool effects, inject a bunch of memes to make it ‘relevant,’ and before too long Christ is left on the periphery of the real focus: a variety show.

Now, I’m not shouting “Heresy!” toward preachers, teachers, or speakers. If people are coming to know the Lord, I’m not going to heavily discount the work of a lot of churches out there. My point is this: Is the forgiveness of sins enough for us?  Is sanctification satisfying? Is resurrection, and life eternal, worthy of reflection?

Or do we even know what those mean anymore?

Maybe we threw them back into the bin, in favor of something else we want the Gospel to be.

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On Bait and Switch

Can I confess something with you? This might be a small thing, but it is something that has started to irritate me a little bit, and I feel the need to get it off of my chest. I am starting to get annoyed with certain Facebook posts. Now, I know we all have our own preferences on what types of Facebook posts we like or don’t like, and I’ve made mention of Facebook posts before, but this particular type of post is quite aggravating. I’m talking, of course, about what I call the ‘bait and switch’ posts.

bait-and-switch

You all know what I’m talking about. The posts that have the eye-catching titles that seem to be communicating a summary of an article but it turns out the article says something completely different. For example, the post titled, “This Man Is Dating Someone Even Though He’s Married. Sounds Disgusting, But I’m On His Side.” [SPOILER ALERT] After reading the article, I found out that the man in question is actually ‘dating’ his wife and the article is about how married people need to be constantly pursuing their spouse. But, the title of the article draws you to conclude something entirely different than what the content of the article is. [end of spoiler alert]

There are other articles similar to this, but you know what I’m talking about. I’ve stopped clicking on them simply because I hate being tricked. I don’t trust those provocative links anymore; the one’s that shout out, “This is a different view on something and should spark controversial conversation, click on me!” I’m beginning to wonder, however, if we tend to do the same thing in our Christian lives.

I’ve been to several different churches, and I’ve read about several more. It is always amusing to me to listen to a pastor talk about how ‘hip,’ ‘different,’ or ‘loving’ his/her church is, and then when I step in the door I’m confronted with an entirely different story. The ‘hip’ church just plays a different genre of music while the people are stoic and wear jeans, the ‘different’ church is unorganized and doesn’t really communicate a coherent message, and the ‘loving’ church has a lot of hand-shakers but no one will sit next to you in the sanctuary. I will admit that this is a gross generalization, but it has happened enough that I have given up trusting what pastors have to say about their churches. Let the actions of the people in the church speak for themselves.

On a more personal note, I have come to realize that we tend to do this in our own lives. The way we act, the way we talk, and the way we treat others all communicate a message of who we are. But, do we really communicate the reality of who we are? Or are we performing our own bait and switch on people?

“I love people! (except those who think differently than I do.)”
“I’m not judgmental (unless I see you drinking alcohol)”
“Anyone is welcome into my home (but you have to nice to me first)”
“Of course I don’t look down on you (until you start talking about abortion)”

We carry around this notion of a God who loves all people and has his arms open wide to even the most vile of persons. We shout this message as loud as we can, but when someone starts to respond to this we turn the tables and assimilate them into a mindset that looks down on everyone that looks different, thinks different, and acts different than ‘we’ do. We talk about how Jesus offers forgiveness, and yet we don’t forgive. We talk about a God who hates gossip and yet we spread rumors all the time. And we talk about a church that welcomes any and all, but will shun someone if we see them in a bar.

I’ve said this before to people, and I believe it is true. If I were not born into the Christian faith, I would most likely outright reject Christianity. I look at how we talk about ‘the world’ and I see the ‘Christian’ movies we tout as being life-changing, and I honestly don’t see much that is very warm or welcoming in those.

If we’re critical of ourselves, then I think we would see that we often pull a bait-and-switch on people. The way I see it, we need to either look at ourselves objectively and realize that we are messed up people who don’t have it all together and stop trying to make ourselves seem perfect, or we need to start taking our faith more seriously and start living out what we believe (which is not intolerance, hate, and judgment as many would claim). To be fair, I think we need a little bot of both; We ought to be real with who we are and recognize that God is still working in our lives, and we should also see that we are called to live a life that we cannot live on our own.

If the Gospel is manifesting itself in our lives, then there is no need to perform some elaborate marketing campaign. Our lives becomes testimonies in themselves of who God is, and our God is a God who accepts us where we are in spite of our flaws. But, do we accept others in spite of their flaws or do we only say that?

On Revelation and Assimilation

I remember the first interaction I had with my ex-fiance.  We didn’t really know each other personally, but we would engage in conversation and do some activities together. A few months and several interactions later, we began to date one another.  Still more months and interactions later we got engaged.

Woman Receiving Engagement RingThis is a fairly typical story.  Two people meet, get to know each other, and then after a time they continue making deeper and deeper levels of commitment to one another.  Engagement, as well as marriage, are two moments which solidify a certain depth of commitment between two people.   It is odd for us to think that two people would meet for the first time, chat for a few minutes, and then immediately commit the rest of their lives to one another.  Even in arranged marriages there are people who  understand the individuals well enough to know if that kind of relationship will work, and there is still a ‘leading up-to’ time where the two people are at least aware of what is going on.

Why is it, then, that we tend to see evangelism as a ‘blind marriage’ occasion?  We think it’s crazy for two people to get married if they have only know each other for a few hours (or even days), and yet we impose that kind of perspective on our un-saved neighbors.  I would like to propose that we rethink our understanding of evangelism.

To be perfectly honest, I never felt comfortable inviting my friends to church with me.  While I was in youth group, we would be asked several times to bring our friends to church for special occasions or for Wednesday night Bible study or whatever.  I would always feel awkward about this.  It’s not because I didn’t think God was important or that salvation didn’t matter, but it’s because whenever I did invite my friends I would hear the messages they were hearing and it would unsettle me.

“You’re an outsider.”
“You don’t know what’s going on here.”
“You don’t know who God is.”
“You need to dedicate your life to Jesus tonight!”

My friends were seen as outsiders, as strangers, and in order to feel truly welcomed they needed to get with the program and convert.  Then, and only then, could they be a part of the community.

Now, I know that this was not the intended message of the youth leaders or laypeople.  However, these were the messages that were communicated through what was said, how people acted, and what people said about our friends when they weren’t there.  And I am as guilty as everyone else for sending these messages.

Now I have another story to tell:

when I was about five, I remember coming home from church and climbing into the top of my bunk-bed and asking Jesus into my heart.  This is my conversion story, and it is entirely made up.

The truth is, I don’t know when I was saved.  I can’t point to a calendar and say, “here, on this day, I became a born again believer!”  I do know that at some point I did, but I don’t remember how.  I remember something about a Sunday school teacher talking with me about it, so maybe it happened then?  I don’t know.  I do know that I invented a story because people kept asking me about my conversion experience and when I came into a relationship with the Lord, so that’s where the bunk-bed conversion story came into play.

Honestly, I don’t know when Christ became my savior because I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know who Jesus was.  I grew up hearing about him all the time.  I would pray to him before meals with my family, and I would hear about him at church.  I never had an opportunity as an infant to not know who he was.  And this is why I believe there is a big weakness in how we do evangelism.

One of the biggest assumptions we seem to build off of when talking about evangelism is that people who are not Christian do not have a relationship with Jesus.  I think this is one of the most harmful and, frankly, ignorant assumptions we have.  There is rarely anyone in the United States who does not know who Jesus is.  You can ask anyone, “Who is Jesus?” and I believe most people will give you an answer.  Everyone knows who Jesus is.  Everyone has feelings about who Jesus is.  Everyone has some sort of a relationship with Jesus, even if that relationship is simply an acquaintance.

So why do we approach evangelism as if they don’t?  Why do we talk to non-believers as if Jesus is some total stranger to them?  Why do we treat them as if they couldn’t tell the difference between Jesus and George Bush?  And why do we assume that he is not already working in their lives?

The problem with not recognizing a relationship that is already there is that we then set up all kinds of persuasive arguments aimed at getting people to like Jesus. We talk about his character, what he did, what he does, and what he is doing as if Jesus were on a blind date with this person.

But what if evangelism became more declarative than persuasive?  More acknowledging that coercing?  More about revealing a God who is already there than introducing a completely foreign concept?

If we are to take this perspective seriously, then evangelism isn’t about trying to get someone to marry a complete stranger they just met.  Instead, it is about helping someone develop a relationship that is already there.  I didn’t get engaged the first moment I met my ex-fiance’.  That didn’t happen until months into our relationship.  Similarly, expecting someone to surrender their entire lives to a being whom they hardly know is expecting too much (and I would contend is ultimately damaging in the long run).

What does this say about that moment of ‘conversion,’ then?  Maybe when someone becomes a born-again believer it is not a moment when they first enter into a relationship with Christ.  Instead, it is simply the moment when Christ went from being ‘some guy I know’ to ‘Lord’ and ‘Savior.’  I am not trying to say that the salvation experience is not important, but we ought to consider the implications of suggesting that Christ is completely unknown to people who aren’t saved.

I sense that our views of others, and creation as a whole, could benefit greatly is we seriously begin to open our eyes to the work that God is already doing in our world and in the lives of those around us.   Maybe we would begin shedding ourselves of an ‘us/them’ mentality and simply see ourselves as being on a different stage in this journey. No one is a stranger to God, and who are we to take people on blind dates with a ring in our pocket?

On Facebook and Obama

About a year ago I was approached by a middle-aged woman after one of my sermons.  A very unexpected conversation took place:

Woman: “So, did I hear you right in your sermon when you said you were gay?”

Me: [confused look on my face] “Uhh.. I don’t believe I said that, ma’am.”

Woman: “You mentioned in your sermon that you live with your boyfriend.”

Me: “Oh!  No, I was referencing a paper one of my students had written.”

Woman: “I see.  Are you married, then?”

Me: “No ma’am, I’m single.”

Woman: “Okay.  I looked over during the service and saw that a nicely-dressed young man was visiting and I thought, ‘well, he’s either married or he’s gay.”

Me: “Well, I can honestly say that I’m not gay even though I’m not married.”

I’ve found a profound truth through my time at Olivet:  problems don’t occur because of what you say; problems occur because of what people hear.  In this instance, even though I was trying to be clear in my message, the woman heard something completely different than what I was saying.

During the last few weeks I’ve begun to pay more attention to what we, as Christians, say, and I’ve noticed that there is often a large gap between what we are saying and what others are actually hearing.  In our attempts to promote Christian ideas, including the Gospel, we inadvertently push people away and draw lines in the sand.  Where social media like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Youtube could serve as effective vessels to communicate God’s love to others, we have used them as battle trenches from which to launch our missiles toward our opponents – as if doing so will force them to surrender, and walk – defeated and humiliated – to our side.

It should not take long to notice what I am talking about.  Posts about popular topics such as Duck Dynasty, Obama’s policies, same-sex marriage, and gun laws are rarely inviting.  Typically, you can fill in the blanks with such posts:  “____ is/are being fools!  Why are they doing _____?  _____ is going to ruin our country! We need to stop _____ because _____  is going directly against scripture!”  While some of these statements may be true in some cases, I can’t help but think of what people are hearing when they read such posts:  “They think I’m being a fool?  They don’t know why I support ___?  They think I’m going to ruin the country?  They want to stop people like me, and say I am going directly against scripture?”  – We should not be surprised when people stop attending our churches when they hear such messages.

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I understand that the reason we tend to be so strong and direct in our words is because of our passion.  I do get that.  But we gather on Sundays to talk about how much God loves people. and yet we regularly go out of our way to find creative ways of telling people how much we despise them.  We try to beat down others for thinking differently than we do as we drag them kicking and screaming to the altar, hoping to secure yet another prisoner for Christ.  At least, I’m assuming that’s what our purpose is by treating others the way we do; it’s either some perverted form of evangelism or we’re trying to hold people underwater as we drown them in Hell, instead of extending a loving hand.

I am perplexed by all this, to say the least.  Do we really think we have it all together, that we are so pure, that we can claim to have the power to not just judge others, but to abuse them for not being on the same side of some arbitrary man-made line in the sand as we are?  Or maybe we like to stick to our version of the Great Commission: “Go, and make disciples of all nations… bashing their heads in with traditional American values instead of scriptural truths, and show them how wrong they are so that they feel that I don’t like them.  After all, I only died for the good Christian republican/democrat people.  I didn’t die for all humanity.”  –  That’s what Jesus was getting at, right?

Not only am I perplexed, but I am disappointed.  It makes me feel disappointed to see Christians I once looked up to lobbing grenades at ‘those liberals,’ ‘those homosexuals,’ ‘those God-haters,’ ‘those religious fanatics,’ ‘those baby-killers,’ ‘those bigots,’ ‘those sexists.’ Don’t get me wrong, I fully believe that we should engage in conversations about current topics.  But, can we not approach such topics with even a little grace?  Does not the world already draw enough lines as it is – why should we be trying to draw even more?  Do we even listen to those who disagree with us, or do we stay barricaded within our trenches looking at the opposition through rifle scopes and satellites?

Sometimes the greatest method of evangelism is offering our ears.  It’s a dangerous thing to get out of the trenches to walk to the other side and get to know ‘those people.’  Once you enter that ‘no man’s land’ you’re likely to get shot by your own side, if not the ‘opposition’.  But how else are we going to know what our listeners hear?

We ought to take seriously the words we say, and the impact they have on others, because what we are trying to say may not be what they are hearing.