Wednesday, September 20, 2017

How we develop our theology and ethics

With Australia currently going through the tribulations of a same sex marriage plebiscite, the topic is everywhere. 

E-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e.

I cast my vote today, but, as yet, I won't tell you which box I ticked (I'll do that when the voting closes and even share which way I think the survey will go).

As I've been considering my vote, watching and listening to people on both sides of the subject and thinking about how people engage in healthy debate, it's become clear that we must keep in mind the most important thing in dealing with topics of theology or ethics.

How and why do people come up with the things they believe.

Fortunately, I'm not the first to wrestle with this issue.

John Wesley, when pondering how people developed their theology, developed the paradigm of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.

In short, when trying to establish what we believe, we put a topic through the filters of scripture, tradition, experience and reason.

When faced with an ethical or theological quandary we weigh it up against our source of truth - be it the bible, Koran, Dawkins or science textbook - cultural and personal history - including family, social circles and structures - and our intellect/logic.

When we consider how these four things influence what we believe and how they might affect the worldviews of others, then we can be in a place to have a respectful and empathetic depiscussion, even if we're in disagreement.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

In the common shadows of the Reformation divide

Last Sunday morning I went to the first communion of my niece. Accompanied by my five year old, I knew going in that things would be different to what we were used to.

The whole service reminded me of the difference between the rugby codes.

For, while I follow both rugby league and rugby union, I know others who only follow one.

And, if they only follow rugby league, then, frankly, they are lost at times.

At times, on Sunday, I was a little lost.

I didn't know the responses.
I was unsure when to stand.
As was noticed by my five year old, the building was quite different (she liked the pictures of the stations of the cross and the colourful statue of Jesus).

But, also, plenty of things were familiar.

They spoke about Jesus. 
They spoke about forgiveness.
They spoke about reconciliation.

Similar to both rugby codes sharing the dimensions of the field, ball, tries and aim to score the most points, both sides of the Reformation share core things.

Sure, Catholics and Protestants may differ and appear different due to interpretation, history and structure, the central things are held in unison.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The missing element in a liturgy-free church service

I've shared in the past that I'm not the biggest fan of written liturgy during church services. From my experience, it's easily open to ecclesiastical-monotonal-fakery.

Sure, with disclaimers about the importance of liturgy or intentionally inviting a connection with the words before reciting them can make liturgy more engaging. In general, I don't see it as the most effective way to draw people into an experience of God.

But, liturgy does have one significant advantage - structure.

One criticism I faced when consistently leading an evening church service was that, without the structure of liturgy, an intentional time of confession would be omitted.

And, from what I see in many contemporary church services, intentional communal confession is the first victim once you stray from a set liturgy.

I'm sure it's not intentional.
I'm sure confession gets "touched on" in other areas of the service.
Maybe it's because the leader doesn't want to drag the mood down...

But, whatever the reason, regular, intentional, communal confession is dying out, seemingly sacrificed upon the alter of modern service structure.

Perhaps, as a church, it's something we need to confess...

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Arranging where the butts go

At my previous church I moved rows of plastic chairs. 

A. Lot. Of. Chairs.

Each week I'd set up the hall/church for the Friday youth activities and the Sunday night evening service.

As the architect of the seating arrangements I had a lot of choices...

How many chairs do I put out?
Do I match the amount of last week?
Do I leave room for more?
Do I have the same arrangement as usual?
Where do I want the focus to be?
How do I get the majority of people sitting where I prefer? 

Most importantly...
How do I make it look full?

This is the question which dictates the most time in the mind of a person setting up for church.

Can you make the space feel full? 
Can people look around and see others?
Are there spots where people can feel isolated?

I'd love to say that I had noble, God's-Kingdom-building, intentions when I set out the chairs.

But, truthfully, some weeks were about creating the illusion of a fattened attendance, even if there weren't more people in the room. 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

A bible study of soft throws or curve balls?

Bible studies come in a lot of forms. 

They vary depending on the make up of the participants, their chronological and spiritual maturity, the amount of time the group has been together, the length of time they have to meet, the openness to new members, the history of those involved, the nature of what book/theme/topic they are looking at and the preference of the leader.

At times, it will be appropriate for the study to be more surface level and exploratory.

On other occasions it will be fine for the group to be lead through a series of in-depth, technical or searching questions

Is one better?

Both have times when they are needed and useful.

And your group needs both.

At the core, the gospel message is simple and you should keep coming back to it. There's no problem when the answers bring you back to trusting in Jesus and being saved by God's grace.

On the other hand, we shouldn't be scared of delving into some of the more complex/confusing passages of the bible or topics. If we're going to develop an intellectually defendable faith, then the tough things of faith should be seriously wrestled with.

So, you need both.

Some weeks will reassure you of the beauty, truthfulness and simplicity of the gospel.

Other weeks can leave your brain whirling from the way you've been challenged of the new revelations which have unfolded.

The danger is when we don't get the balance right and only do one. 

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Do we consider the believer's drain caused by religious schools?

I didn't go to a Christian school, but there was an active scripture presence in the school, and nearby there were a number of Catholic, Anglican and independent Christian schools.

Furthermore, I've be attached to numerous public and private high schools while I was a youth minister. In some cases, these were schools connected to my denomination. 

A few weeks ago I heard a scripture teacher from the local high school, the one I attended, speak in a church service.

Amongst other things, prompted by a question, he mentioned the role of Christians within public schools.

In his response he said, while the local public school is a rich ministry field, a part of the reason is the Christian drain which occurs due to religious schools.

Without doubt, religious schools serve an important communal, educational and spiritual purpose, but it can come at a cost to the public system.

With the vast majority of Christians withdrawn from the public system, where does this leave the Christian presence in, primarily secular, state schools, especially peer-to-peer?

One inadvertent effect of this funnelling, with the Christians in their own special conclave, is it gives the appearance that their are far fewer believers than is actually the case.

Additionally, it isolates any new believers or genuine enquirers who might emerge through the scripture programs.


So... Does the heartfelt desire to cater, or even worse, shelter your child from public education hurt the wider Christian witness?

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The church without old people is weak

Now that I'm not in vocational ministry, I've changed denomination away from the one with the oldest demographic in the nation. Thus, when I look around during a church service I now see a lot less wrinkled faces.

Usually, frankly, pensioners were the majority of people filling the pews. Now they are in the minority.

Seemingly, they only number a handful.

And I'm not sure this is a good thing.

Being someone with a history in youth ministry, this might sound backward since I should be exclaiming the value of youth, but... If I'm honest... I feel a little uneasy in a church devoid of oldies.

Why?

Because, when you're looking for wisdom, this is where it can be found.
When you're looking for peace, this is where it can be located.
When you're in need of a prayer warrior, the older generation are the place to turn.

Sure, not every oldie will be overflowing with positivity and spiritual heroics (the grumpy old person is very much alive and well within the church), but, with a lifetime of positive, negative, uplifting and crushing experience within the church and amongst society, they can be much needed fountains of faithfulness and support.

This is why the church needs old people.

People who can speak up in times of trouble or crisis and say that they've seen it before.
People who can tell you when they went through the same thing you are.
People who can guide you through the steps of life they've already walked down.
People who have the perspective to know what's actually important in life and the church.
People who know what it's like to give consistently and sacrificially.
People who have seen God work and heard prayers answered.

These are the faces and stories which strengthen the church and uplift those who work within it.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Young and opinionated is ok

When it comes to the development of faith, one of the final stages is, as I describe, mega-confidence.

Fuelled by an expanding exposure to church culture and leadership, a plethora of books, numerous questions and "profound conversations" and infinite articles/blog posts on the Internet, nowadays a young Christian can both devour and develop theology at a previously unforeseen rate and depth.

The result is a knowledge, and confidence, which is common in Christian young adults.

As young adults mature chronologically, cognitively, experientially and spiritually, they establish what they do and do not believe. They decide what they will and will not stand for. They, especially if immersed in the university mindset of intellectual exploration, will mine the depths of things which both confuse and stimulate them. 

As a result, Christian young adults can be quite opinionated.

And, frankly, annoying.

And that's ok.

I want young adults to be confident in what they believe because they've examined the challenging things of faith.

In many settings, like university, they'll need to be confidently armed with answers in order to thrive in an, occasionally, confrontational theatre.

In general, young adults don't deal greatly in shades of gray.

Again, that can be annoying.

And, again, that's ok.

Especially if you're aware of this going into a conversation/discussion with a headstrong young adult.

For, they'll think they're correct and have a handful of evidence, both biblical and theological to back them up.

What they might lack is the experience and wisdom to apply and explain their confident knowledge.

But, in order to confidently stand on their own two legs - knowing what they stand upon, for and against - this is the exact stage they need to be in.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Should we retreat?

I've been on plenty of "retreats."

Some have been personal, most professional.

Every time I've returned I've felt a little squeamish about the term retreat. Why? Because words and titles matter.

They matter in terms of what they communicate about the events, particpants and those on the outside looking in.

So, with that said, do we always want to "retreat?"

I ask because, in some instances, retreating is negative.
Retreating is surrendering.
Retreating is defeat.

Is that the message we want to send?

In some cases, you need to retreat. 

In most "retreat" situations, you're going to rejuvenate. Or relax. Or escape.
But, if our intentions are to do some of the latter terms, why don't we honestly use them?

Furthermore, how does our "retreating" sound to the outsider?
What, exactly, are we retreating from?

Monday, August 7, 2017

Does the church have an intimidating BMI?

Some churches are... Well... Full of beautiful people.
Or, with a glancing overview, appear that way.

Or, at least apparently, be filled with relatively talented, nice, mono-cultural, 6+/10 looking people.

I wonder, can this be intimidating to outsiders?

Is it intimidating to minorities?
Is it intimidating to the obese?

Does it run through someone's mind when they're going to invite someone to church?

Of course, it shouldn't.

Our churches are more welcoming than that...
We care more about their salvation than comfort...
People, in general, aren't that insecure...

But, are we really welcoming to those who are different?
Do we care more, or at least equally, about our friends or family fitting in?
If someone's already unnerved about a characteristic or setting, does our church congregation provide a barrier that they'd struggle to overcome?

I don't know what the answer is... There might not be one. 
I don't think we should instigate services especially for the chubby or less athletically gifted.

But, when I look around some churches, I think I'd be a little intimidated if I weren't as beautiful as the rest of the congregation.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Could we now describe a fearful hell?

Fire.
Brimstone.
Sulphur.

Traditionally, these are the images associated with hell.

For a time, these were the images which communicated aspects of hell.

Fear.
Torment.
A place to be desperately avoided.

To be honest, I'm not convinced they communicate the same ideas now.
Today, they are images from cartoons.

They're, certainly, no longer scary.

Is this a bad thing?
Have we, now, stripped hell of being scary?
Do we even have the images available to us today in order to communicate fear of hell?

Frankly, I'm not sure.

Nowadays, and it's something I often did, we use abstract ideas for the afterlife.

Darkness.
Absence.
Isolation.
A lack of all that is Godly or good.

I'm not sure these images are scary in the same manner that the picture of fire and brimstone were.

On the scale of fear-inducing, we've gone backwards.

And I'm not sure we can wrestle it back.

You could argue that fear isn't a motivator which should be used in or by Christianity, but this option has now been neutered.

But, if we did want to resurrect a scary image of hell, what would we use?

The twin towers on 911?
The London unit fire?
The Boxing Day tsunami?

I don't know what image you could use, but truthfully, I suspect that many strands of Christianity and induviduals would shy away from using them anyway...

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The message of "Dear Graeme..."

A few days ago I got forwarded an email from my immediate superiors' boss.

While the email was nothing more than passing on his gratitude for a task I had done, it included one detail which largely undid all the goodwill he intended.

He misspelt my name.

Now, this isn't the first time it's ever happened to me, nor till it be the last. It's just a part of life if your name happens to be spelt in multiple ways.

And, while I'm sure this was an innocent mistake,  it did communicate one thing clearly.

I don't really know you.

I might be aware of you, but I don't really know you.

And, in ministry, I sent this message far too often.

Because I was crap in remembering names.
It was a constant struggle.

Sure, I could blame my history of concussions.
Or the number of people I'd come in contact with over my church life.
Or the hundred-odd children I'd teach scripture to each year.

But, every time I'd struggle to recall or misspell a name, I sent a message - even unintentionally.

I don't know you.
You're not important enough for me to learn your name.

As an adult, boss' misspelling was inconsequential.

As a child, looking for approval and a place to belong, the message could be quite damaging.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Wondering about the past

In 2005 I started sponsoring a child, then aged 8, from the Phillipines.

Today I found all the letters he sent me up until he moved in 2015.

Since then I've heard nothing.

After a decade...
Well over $5000 in sponsorship...
Dozens of letters...

Nothing.

Assuming that Compassion isn't a giant scam and the letters were genuine, thus making my kid alive and mobile at 18, all I can now do is wonder.

Did he go to university?
What does he do for work?
Is he married?
Does he have a family?
Is he still in poverty?
Is he even still alive?
What, if at all, does he think of me?
Does he still have, or even remember, my letters?
What would he say/write to me now?
Would I, if so inclined, be able to track him down?

Potentially, he now has a far better life because I was an, albeit small, part of it.

These questions remind me of the young people I've come in contact with at various churches as their youth minister.

What are they doing now?
What memories, if any, do they have of me?
How would they have described the youth ministry I were the leader of?
Are they connected with a church?

For many, even those I'm friends with on Facebook, I have no contact with.

All I'm left to do is wonder...

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Why wanky questions don't work

I've been to and hosted a lot of bible studies over the years. Some where richly engaging. Many were slightly informative. Some have been dull. A few have been awkward.

In general, one trait tends to make things less conducive to productive sharing.

Prepackaged questions.

While I'm generally ok with using material written by those outside of your church they, usually, hold a danger.

Wanky wording.

At times, especially if penned by an author/theologian, the questions posed can be far to wordy or complex to generate genuine discussion.

For, if you're struggling to work out what a question is asking, or are intimidated by the wordiness of the question, then you'll be less likely to chip in with your response.

When a question is, seemingly, more interested in being poetic or theologically sound than clarity, this breeds needless intimidation in the midst of studying the bible.

The worst thing, even if the questions are useful, a lot of people will miss the point because they get swamped in the flood of words and jargon.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Should you point out the mistakes?

There has never been a perfect church service. Ever.

In every public meeting of Christians, something goes awry. Even slightly.

You scramble the words of your point.
Your introduction isn't smooth.
Your ending doesn't quite connect the way you hoped.
Things go out of order.
The musicians play a wrong note.
The microphone stops working.
There's a blackout.
The PowerPoint has a typo.
The computer freezes.

I'm sure, if you've been around church services long enough, you'd be able to list a thousand more...

Some of these are, frankly, barely problems.
Many are glanced over and quickly forgotten.
A few wouldn't even be noticed.

But, when there's a noticeable glitch, do you acknowledge it?
Should you?
Do you have to?

A few factors point to the answer...
Is it noticeable?
Can you overcome it easily?
Who was the cause?
Is an apology warranted?

I think, if you're the cause, then it's your call.
If it's your typo, then you can point it out.
If you didn't turn on the hearing loop, then you're the one who should acknowledge the problem.

But, if it isn't personally your fault, with something monumental like a blackout or medical emergency aside, it's best to usually just let it slide.

If need be, you can deal with the issue later.

But, the worst thing you can do is appear to slam the person who goofed.

The musician doesn't need to be reminded that they hit the wrong note.
Or that the bible reader lost their place.
Or that the techie had the slides in the wrong order.

Why?

Because a) we should encourage those being involved in the service b) it might actively discourage others in getting involved and, importantly, c) unless you can do the task, especially music, then you don't really have the right to criticise since you wouldn't be able to do it yourself.

But, there's one exception.

I think you absolutely should mention a glitch if the problem was your fault, but someone else might cop the blame.

If you put the slides in the wrong order, own it. Don't let the techie take the hit.
If you invited the person doing the notices up early, and thus they weren't quite ready yet, own it. It's not their fault.

Church services, or anything we do, won't be completely flawless.

We need to manage the tension of showing people it's ok to let the imperfection drift by and also acknowledging when you've personally stuffed up, quickly apologise, and continue.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Anything but a Christian...

One of God's children
A member of God's family.
A believer.
A follower of Jesus.
A friend of Jesus.
One of the people of God.

This week I was surprisingly jarred by something I heard during a short talk I listened to.

He said the word Christian.

As the list above shows, there's plenty of others terms he could have used.

But, instead he said when someone becomes a Christian.

Frankly, when speaking, this was something I tended to avoid.

Maybe it was to avoid the baggage of the term...
Perhaps it was because I wanted softer, less threatening, labels...
Heck, maybe I thought these terms were more accurate in depicting what conversion/responding was about...

But, I'd invite you, especially if you were a child, to become God's friend.
As a teen or adult I may have challenged you to be a follower of Jesus.

But, not a Christian.

I don't know why.

I'd like to think it was for some kind of noble reason, but really, it may have been because I was simply a PC wimp...

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Celebrating the non-conversion milestones

When you invite some to church, secretly... Or not so secretly..., you want them to be converted. Or included. Or at least have some vague idea what's going on.

But, a lot of what happens during a church service is foreign to outsiders.

Even if someone commits their life to Jesus by the conclusion of their first service, they might not fully embrace the elements of what a "usual" service entails.

Why?

Because, in general, public singing is unusual. Especially sober or outside the safe confines of the shower or car.
Prayer can be a tough concept to grasp.
Giving is a discipline which needs to be developed.
Meeting others can be awkward.

But, it's these liturgical elements which get overlooked when it comes to those we've invited "making it" in the church world.

Even if someone is still wrestling with the "God and Jesus thing" I think we should still celebrate if they begin to actively participate in the elements of the service.

For me, one springs to mind... Singing.

If you catch someone you've invited participating in the singing at church, then it's surely something to smile over.

Why?

First, it shows that they're engaging, at least somewhat, with the words. For a lot of people this is where they learn much of their theology, even more so than the sermon.

Second, if they've been around for a decent length of time, it can show that they are becoming familiar with the tunes sung. Let's face it, many contenpoary services don't have a massive playlist. And, when a song is unfamiliar then you're less likely to sing along. 

Third, singing can show that someone is more comfortable with the activities done during church and those around them. At the start, the very act of people singing can be off putting. Over time, this shock subsides.

Much of this list applies equally to those who mature/transfer to a different service, not just those who are unchurched, be it if they grow into the demographic of an alternate service or move across town and need to join a new church.

But, nonetheless, their participation shows that they are advancing in their belonging, behaving and believing which marks a church.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Your bible study shouldn't be a bunch of clones

One of the worst things you can do in order to grow in your faith is to remain completely homogenous.

Same culture.
Same education.
Same socioeconomic status.
Same life stages.
Same histories.

Ideally, those you go to church beside, and importantly, study the bible with should a different.

The group of people you intentionally study the bible beside should be diverse.

The ministers kid and the prodigal.
Those of different ages.
Those of alternate theologies and denominational backgrounds.
Those who feel like they've always been Christians and those who converted as young adults.

It's with this diverse mix that the bible can be best explored, theologies stretched and beliefs deepened.

It's with this diversity that you can see the bible through a viewpoint different than your own, hear how God speaks through others and better understand how He works through those unlike yourself.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Bravely standing beside your invitee

For the first time in a almost two decades I'm now in a position to invite someone to a church where I have absolutely no leadership impact.

I'm not on staff...
I don't preach...
I don't lead the service...
I don't even give the bible reading.

Thus, if I invited someone to church I'd now get to stand beside them.

I think this is far more intimidating.

For, now, they could hear me sing.
Now I could get a better read on their body language.
Now I could have questions directly asked to me in real time.
Now I can hear them sigh or see them glance at their watch.
Now they could see and hear me cringe.

People who invite others, especially those unfamiliar with church, are a lot braver than those in church leadership often realise.

Why?

Because their self-consciousness is rawly on display.
Because what their faith's about is put in the hands of those up the front.
Because the central thing in their life is thrown open and all they can do is pray for the best.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The freedom of only having one service

It seems to me, before the fad of mid-to-late-afternoon-family-services arose, everyone wanted to have two church services on a Sunday morning (with one catering to the older/classic/traditional crowd and the other more family-friendly/contemporary/progressive demographic).

But, having worked in multiple churches with services back-to-back, there's a freedom which is lost with dual services.

First of all, you isolate your congregation by demographic or preference. With the lack of exposure to the "others" form of worship then our preferences only gets further entrenched. This makes combined services a delicate tension to navigate. 

Second, the earlier service is hampered by the start time of the following service. To a vast extent, things cannot go over time. No matter what God might be doing, the initial congregation needs to be vacated by a certain timeframe. No matter how powerful the sermon, how important the announcement or how inspirational the pray is, time will always triumph.

Third, this time restraint also apples to anyone participating in the later service. In the early service, musical and tech prep can be far more relaxed. This, often, isn't an option before the subsequent services. If nothing else, this adds more stress and makes the attractiveness of helping in these areas less.

Fourth, this is incredablly taxing on the minister/preacher. Even if they aren't your typical introvert-minister, then "being on" for 4 hours straight can be quite taxing. Add to this their lack of preparation between services and time-squeeze to "run through" the people they need to speak with or who only "want a moment" of their time.

Although most churches who have dual services won't change, I wonder how often they consider the cost of putting one service immediately after another.