Thursday, March 31, 2005

Be Relevant

Everyone seeems to be obsessed with ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. There's something magical about seeing a cluttered, outdated, unattractive and unsafe home get a completely new image. The homeowner, along with the viewing audience, waits eagerly for the grand finale, and the unveiling always exceed everyone's expectations.

The designers have incredible vision; and, of course, they seem to have keen intuition when it comes to style. But if you listen closely to the dialogue of the show, especially the questions the experts ask, you'll make a discovery. Every designer has a sacred commitment to one principle. Anyone who is serious about interior design knows that the number-one question you ask is this: "What is the function of this room?" Until that question is answered, no one cares about style. If, in the end, the makeover of the room doesn't serve the purpose of the room, then all the labor was in vain. Every room has to be relevant to the needs of the user, regardless of how it looks. If it's not functional, it has no value to the owner.

It's easy for churches to forget that the environments we design need to be more than engaging, more than creative, more than entertaining and -- yes -- more than stylish. It is possible to be all of these things and still be irrelevant. Occasionally, it would be healthy for churches to apply the principle of relevance to their environments, maybe before they ever attempt to apply the first coat of pain. They need to ask the same question about function that the designers who do those home makeovers ask.

You don't typically put a couch in the kitchen or a breakfast table in the living room. And just like every room in a house has a specific function, every ministry environment has a specific purpose as well. If people show up, and they don't have an experience that is relevant -- guess what: they probably won't come back. Then all of your labor was definitely in vain.

The basic function of any ministry environment is simple: Churches exist to help people grow in their relationship with Christ. Your ministry should actually function to help people get started and continue in the process of their spiritual journey. The New Testament describes it as "making disciples." So, every environment should be designed as a catalyst to assist individuals in developing a personal and practical faith.

A wise leader will investigate how people actually grow in their faith and then begin the process of reconstructing every environment to facilitate that process, even if it means tearing out some walls and throwing away some clutter. And before you start moving the furniture in, ask yourself this question: "What can we build that will help people keep moving int he right direction toward a stronger faith?"

Maybe -- at least for a while -- you should be willing to hang a sign over your church that says, "Extreme Makeover: Church Edition."

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Create Community

I'm a writer. I haven't gotten around to calling myself an author -- maybe when the book comes out in the fall. Until then, I'm just a writer. Sometimes that's glamorous; sometimes it's like making sausage -- you don't want to watch the process.

Last night was one of those nights. Locked in a room with two other guys, we were given five icons and five short phrases. Then we were told to write five articles of less than 500 words.

Phrase #1: Create Community
Icon: Bowling Pins

Phrase #2: Be Relevant
Icon: Furniture

Phrase #3: Enlist the Family
Icon: Station Wagon

Phrase #4: Clarify the Message
Icon: Microphone

Phrase #5: Incite Worship
Icon: Boombox

And away we went. Here's the end result of the first article. Let me know what you think.

Create Community
Bowling is a social sport. It’s definitely not your typical competition where you are constantly battling your opponent. It has a relational emphasis. Just watch kids at a bowling party. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of stress if someone rolls a gutterball. And there’s plenty of pause for eating, laughing and talking. And everyone who gets a strike gets a “high five” or a “thumbs up”. It’s probably because the point of bowling for most people is togetherness. Whenever our small groups have an activity at the bowling alley, something unique happens. There is a connection. There is a gregarious urge that is satisfied. Friendships deepen. Conversations occur that otherwise might not have. Maybe bowling is a microcosm of community and how it works.

Robert Putnam seems to think so. He wrote a book a few years ago called Bowling Alone. In it, he uses bowling as a metaphor to illustrate a central crisis at the heart of our society. His book shows how bowling has evolved through time, and how it symbolizes what is happening in our social culture. Years ago, thousands of people belonged to bowling leagues. Today, however, they're more likely to bowl alone. In Putnam’s opinion, this is symptomatic of what is happening to our concept of community and points to our desperate need for social revival. He warns of a growing deficit of social capital. According to his research and statistics, educational performance, safe neighborhoods, equitable tax collection, democratic responsiveness, everyday honesty and even our health and happiness is somehow linked to community. His arguments are convincing, and his books have gotten the attention of mainstream magazines, politicians and social experts.

Putnam’s observations about how community impacts someone’s moral and emotional health are also true of spiritual health, probably even more so. People need community to grow in their faith. When kids, teenagers or adults serve together, discuss faith together and do life together, it has a lasting impact. And there is no organization that has the potential to create community like a church. If God created within everyone the need to experience community, then we should make it our business to help people find community. We have discovered that when the principle of community drives the primary environments you create, it radically affects the culture of your church. Every program should be a step to small groups. They are the optimal place to model character, talk about faith, monitor personal growth, develop spiritual disciplines, establish significant friendships, interpret life and learn to apply truth. And when kids grow up understanding the power of community, chances are they will make a conscious decision to always make it a priority. Maybe our motto should be “No one grows up and goes bowling alone!”

Friday, March 25, 2005

I Can't Save Myself By Living

It is such a beautiful day to be alive. I could be out taking a drive, or jogging, or getting a latte. I could be playing golf, or tennis, or having lunch with friends.

So many things I could be doing besides sitting here right now contemplating an instrument of torture. The cross wasn’t just designed to kill someone but to keep them alive as long as possible, so that they could experience as much pain as possible without passing out, and finally die an excruciating death from suffocation as their lungs collapse from the weight of their body suspended from iron spikes.

God, that’s brutal.

What brings me to this contemplation today? What draws me? I sit here thinking, concentrating on a cross. It’s worse than contemplating an electric chair or a hangman’s noose. At least those are quick forms of death. But if you were at a rocking party and told the host you had to go because once a year you always went and meditated in front of a guillotine or a syringe holding a lethal injection, the host probably wouldn’t invite you over again.

I could be doing something else right now that was upbeat and had more to do with living. Everything out there tells us that we can save ourselves by getting on with the business of living, right? There’s not a commercial or an ad in the world that entices you to buy something that will hasten your death.

The whole point of advertising is that products will enhance your life. Take that vacation, get that new car, find the best food and stay looking young with all the wrinkle cream and hair dye available. That’s what we want: a beautiful life – as long as possible, as rich as possible, as pleasant as possible.

So why am I here – thinking about an instrument of torture – a crossbeam of suffering? Am I crazy? Are Christians all nuts? Why not get out there and enrich my life? It can’t be healthy to think about death. It’s certainly not popular.

The truth is there comes a time in everyone’s life, a time when we become painfully aware that we cannot save ourselves by living. We’re dying to live, but the allure of our own life – to possess it – if that’s our dream – can never be realized in the fullness that we would desire it. It slips away – life has a way of ebbing out of even the healthiest among us – and it becomes something so much less than what we had tried to grab hold of.

A relationship fails.
A loved one dies.
The opportunity of a lifetime falls through.
Illness strikes.
People betray us.

And all of a sudden, the life we tried so hard to create, the life we thought we had, is suddenly so much less than what we hoped for. The truth is that what draws me to the cross of Jesus is something deep inside of me that saya: Jesus’ dying was the real currency that purchased my freedom from all this “try-to-save-yourself-by-living” frenzy.

Trying to save yourself by living is like trying to buy groceries at Kroger with Monopoly money. You’ve got the wrong currency. It may be good when you’re playing the game, but it won’t work when you want some real food. All the little properties and accumulated achievements that enable us to own the board and win the game having nothing to do with God’s currency.

Somewhere along the line, you’d think someone would realize that if we could save ourselves by living we would have been able to pull our sorry little planet up by its bootstraps a long time ago. If we are going to wait until we all save ourselves by human effort and wisdom – by using Monopoly money – we’re going to be waiting a long time. As one theologian put it, from Socrates to Dr. Phil the world has taken a 5,000 year bath in human wisdom and come out just as dirty as ever.

So, that’s why I’m here. I can’t save myself by living. I haven’t, and I won’t. So God has come to save the whole world by dying.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Defining "Spiritual Life"

I've recently been invited to join a discussion group where we will explore various ideas of spiritual formation. I'm all for that. In fact, I love talking about spiritual formation.

But these guys are from...well, I'm not sure where they're all from. Varying backgrounds, I suppose. At least one of them is even from Mississippi! I ask you: Can anything good come from Mississippi? (That's for you, JD! Hopefully, that'll teach you to scoff at my man-crush on Bono!)

Several of them are from the non-instrumental wing of the American Restoration Movement known as the Churches of Christ. That's the fellowship in which I grew up, came to faith and still associate with.

So, I was afraid that this could quickly become some kind of theological minefield. But thus far, everyone has been nice.

Anyway, I figured it might be important for us to define our terms before going too far. So, I've posed a couple of questions that I'd like to pose here. Perhaps we can collectively come up with something significant.

  1. What is a good working definition of "spiritual life"?
  2. What is a good working definition of "spiritual formation"?

I have a few thoughts of my own, but first I'd like to get your feedback.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

He Still Hasn't Found What He's Looking For

I'm sitting in a hotel room in Lafayette, Louisiana. I spent the better part of today helping a church figure out a better way of reaching kids and their parents with the best news ever delivered to people -- the peace on earth, goodwill to mankind news that people of real faith know about.

Right now, the television shows U2 being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I'm going to be in Cleveland in a few weeks. You better believe that's going to be my first stop.

After all is said and done, I vote for U2 as the greatest band in history. Hal will continue to argue for the superiority of the Beatles, and I'll admit -- all that productivity and creativity coming out of those four lads from Liverpool in seven years is amazing. But when I hear Paul sing, "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" now, I'm not sure he really wants to hold my hand.

When I hear Bono sing, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," I have no doubt that he means every single word -- probably now more than when he wrote it.

Here's a guy -- this Bono -- he's got a big head. He's got a big mouth. He's got a big house and a big wallet and a big agenda that sometimes makes sense and sometimes seems ridiculously naive. But when he closes his eyes and sings, "You broke the bonds and you loosed the chains, carried the cross of my shame...of my shame. You know I believed it. But I still haven't found what I'm looking for." When he closes his eyes and sings those words you can't help but know he's telling the truth.

He has spoke with the tongue of angels. He has held the hand of a devil. And when it was warm in the night, he was cold like a stone, because he still hasn't found what he's looking for.

Maybe Bono is like that grand patriarch -- the one who was looking for a city whose builder is not flesh and bone -- that city not built with hands. And maybe he won't be satisfied until he's in that place where the streets have no name. I sure hope his journey takes at least a little while longer.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

I Know That You Think You Do

Did anybody see that Albert Brooks movie Mother? It wasn't very good, but it had this one great line that I remember howling at. He is having a conversation with his mother (played by Debbie Reynolds) on the phone. Just before they hang up, she says, "I love you."

And his response is, "I know that you think you do."

We say we love people -- our spouses, our children, our parents, our friends -- all the time. We say we do, and we're probably telling the truth. At least as far as we know we are.

But love is more than just a warm, gushy feeling. Love often means sacrifice. Love is hoping the best and believing the best. Love is going the extra mile and turning the other cheek. Sometimes love means drawing a line in the sand and saying, "If you cross this line again, I'm leaving." Most often, love means accepting people where they are without trying to change them -- especially when it's against their will.

One of the things I get to do is travel around and help churches become healthier and more strategic. Frequently, I hear churches say things like, "We love the lost people of this community and want to reach out to them."

And my response is: "I know that you think you do."

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Watching Savannah Worship

I spent this past weekend with several hundred teens at an event called 12:11. One of those teens I have known for years and years -- her family has been part of our small group and among our best friends since 1994.

I watched her some this weekend. She's turned into quite a remarkable young lady. She's nice and friendly. She's got a positive attitude. She's got leadership skills. She's athletic.

But the best thing was watching her during the times of singing. Sunday morning she was on the front row -- head tilted back, eyes closed, hands up in the air. She was caught up in worship, and it was amazing to see. If you asked her, she probably couldn't explain it real well, but she's having an experience with God.

The only thing better than watching Savannah worship was watching her parents watching her worship. Danny and Tammy are among the people I admire the most. They are simple, honest people. And they are doing a marvelous job parenting.

Here's to good parents. Here's to young people who take God seriously and aren't too cool to show it. Here's to the way God continues to work, extending his love and grace to each new generation.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

First Things First

The fundamental assertion of faith among the people of God in the Old Testament is found in Deuteronomy 6: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” (vv. 4-5).

This statement was the central affirmation of Old Testament faith. Every time a person recited these words, they renewed their covenant with God. It was a gentle reminder of their true identity and the relationship they had with the One who gave them that identity.

They recited it at least twice every day – when they woke up and when they went to sleep. It was also the first sentence taught to a Hebrew child. When a child developed the ability to speak, this was the sentence they were taught to say.

When an Israelite died, they often used their final breath to speak this sentence. That was a sign of someone who took their commitment to God seriously. The shema (a Hebrew word meaning “hear” or “listen”) as it came to be called, was to be their first sentence and their last sentence – not only of each day but of their lives as well.

Needless to say, this portion of Scripture was known by every Jewish person to be the very core of what it meant to be a child of God’s covenant love. Everything else was subordinate to this one overarching principle: Love God with everything you’ve got!

But read what Moses says next: “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:6-9).

Now think back to the question at hand: Who is responsible for making sure our children develop spiritually? The Old Testament is pretty clear on this. Parents have the primary responsibility for making sure their children know and respect God. Their worldview will flow from this foundational text, so parents should make every effort to teach this principle to their children.

But don’t think this is merely an Old Testament concept. In the New Testament we find the Apostle Paul saying the same thing: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Clearly, children are meant to be raised by their parents.

As obvious as this appears, however, we seem to have gotten off track somehow. Children spend less and less time with their parents these days. Between school, tutors, little league and band practice, a parent is just one of many voices in a child’s life. And the less time we spend with our children, the less confidence we have in our ability to parent.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Parenting In An Age of Specialization

The days of “broad” casting are over; the days of “narrow” casting are upon us. Given the amount of information available on every subject imaginable, it’s no wonder we find ourselves living in an age of specialists. In nearly every field, people’s area of expertise is shrinking to miniscule proportions, and the impact is felt acutely by parents.

We want our kids to be healthy so we make sure they have a doctor. But we don’t want them to have a regular doctor. In fact, it’s hard to find a good, old-fashioned general practitioner these days – someone who cares for people “from the cradle to the grave.” Nowadays, we want our children to have an age-appropriate, gender-specialized pediatrician, someone who only treats left-handed girls between the ages of 18-24 months.

We want our kids to be intellectually advanced, so we choose the location of our home by school district. And we grill their teachers to ensure that our little Einstein will have the best environment possible to develop his mind. Gone are the days of the one-room schoolhouse with a dowdy schoolmarm who taught everything from reading and writing to arithmetic. Now we want young, attractive, energetic, multi-lingual math teachers who come in for one hour a day to teach only math (in a young, attractive, energetic, multi-lingual sort of way). If we want Alexandria to learn Spanish, we’ll find her a good private tutor out in the suburbs somewhere who specializes in teaching suburban Spanish to suburban children.

We want our kids to be athletic, so we enroll them in sports programs. God forbid one kid in America might miss out on youth soccer! It’s become like the 11th Commandment: Thou shalt pay hundreds of dollars so your child can play bee-hive soccer. Here too, however, we find that coaches tend to concentrate on one sport. After all, what hath basketball to do with soccer?

We want our children to be cultured, to appreciate the arts. So we enroll them in piano and art and ballet lessons. Can we be honest about something? Ballet lessons for a four year old are really just an excuse to dress your daughter up in a pretty outfit. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking it’s more than it is.

On and on it goes. We send our overscheduled, under-rested, stressed-out kids from person to person, trying to make sure they are having a well-rounded childhood. Is there an appropriate balance of physical, cultural and academic activities? Are they growing up with all the advantages we never had? Is there a specialist out there whose help we have not sought out? A time-management expert or a nutritionist? Is there someone who can teach my child the most beneficial way of playing in the backyard?

There’s nothing wrong with specializing in a particular skill. And there’s nothing wrong with seeking out the help and expertise of someone uniquely qualified in a given field. If you can afford to give your child a leg up, go for it. After all, you’re not responsible for teaching them history and science courses. No one said you have to coach little league or learn a foreign language in order to parent your kids.

But what about when it comes to your child’s connection to God? What about your child’s worldview? Who’s responsible for that?

Saturday, March 05, 2005

The Best Cure for the Common Complaint

I just got a book for my birthday. Someone actually read my wishlist and sent me something! Thank you Mr. Dobbs. Now, everyone go read his blog and tell him thank you.

We're headed over to see Steven and Angelique Allen. They are some of our oldest and best friends, and we love spending time with them. Our girls love their daughter Gracie, too. We always have a good time at their house.

So, I guess what I'm saying is this: after examining how often I slip right into complaining about things, it's good to receive unexpected gifts and visit good friends. Those may combine to be the best cure I can think of for my common complaining.

Go, thou, and do likewise!

Friday, March 04, 2005

So, How'd It Go?

I did pretty well -- better than I thought. I made it all the way to about 10:30pm -- when my sister called and we started complaining about people who send you crazy email hoaxes or Christian prayers followed by: "If you send this to 10 of your Christian friends in the next 10 minutes, you'll win the lottery."

Ugh! I couldn't hold out when she brought that topic up.

Still, I was able to avoid complaining for the most part. This was probably due to my winning strategy: I made an honest attempt to talk less. I think I even managed to trick some people into thinking I am wiser than I really am.

I may keep this tactic.

Overall, I'd have to agree with Dribble -- the exercise made me more aware of just how pervasive complaining is. It seem like it's become the American Way.

Today was an incredibly busy day -- one of those days. Not that I'm complaining. In fact, just the opposite is true. In spite of the fact that my day was slammed, I managed to have a good time, and I think I managed to help the people around me have a good time as well.

Hey, maybe I'm growing up!

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

It Depends on Your Definition of "Everything"

Okay, I'll admit it. I do a lot of complaining on this blog. In fact, a lot of people use their blogs to grumble and criticize, and some of that is actually healthy. There is such a thing as "Divine Discontent." And yet....

I abuse that phrase. Sometimes I complain because I want people to think I'm perceptive. Sometimes I complain because there is a longstanding tradition of smart people who criticize, and I want to align myself with smart people. Sometimes I complain because I secretly hope someone out there will remedy the cause of my complaining (which is all too often financial in nature). And yet....

Saint Paul says in the New Testament, "Do everything without complaining or arguing" (Philippians 2:14).

Now, I understand most of the arguments for and against Pauline literature and theology. I've read the cases for and against various theories of inspiration. I know the difference between the Word of God and the Words of God. I think I have a handle on grace -- at least in theory. And yet....

Saint Paul says in the New Testament, "Do everything without complaining or arguing" (Philippians 2:14).

Just to be sure, I checked on the definition of the Greek word translated "everything." Turns out the word translated "everything" means...everything.

Well, who's ready to volunteer for that? Frankly, I'm not sure I can do it. But here's what I'm willing to try. I'm going to try to make tomorrow a complaint-free zone. Anyone with me?

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The Strangeness of God

Today is a strange day. It's snowing here in Atlanta. I'm sorry...I thought it was March. Snowing and -- strangely -- sunny. It got me to thinking about snow and snowflakes and stuff like that. What possesses God to make each snowflake individually? If I was God, I'd just have me a snowflake machine that pumps them out in some kind of uniform fashion. Each snowflake would be perfectly the same, and I'd only have to create one prototype. They'd look the same, weigh the same and fall in the same pattern.

Not God, though. He makes everything individually -- everything is strange in its own way -- including you and me. This strikes me as strangely inefficient. But just as every artist has his or her own unique signature, perhaps strangeness is God's fingerprint.

Here's a quote from G.K. Chesterton that may explain why God does what he does:

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, Do it again; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough.... It is possible that God says every morning, Do it again, to the sun; and every evening, Do it again, to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike: it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

There's no use trying to make God cool. God isn't cool -- at least not in the way we usually define coolness. God is strange. And I'm fully prepared to be thought of as strange as I stand amazed at what he manages to do and how he manages to do it.