Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Spit Out of the Whirlwind that is Corporate Church

I recently saw this quote:

“I would like to apologize to anyone I have not offended. Please be patient. I will get to you shortly.”

And perhaps the time I will offend people is now. Because whenever one dares to talk questioningly about corporate church, sure to follow are defensive reactions, including having the Bible verse about needing to keep meeting together lobbed back (Hebrews 10:25). End of story.

The Moody Commentary states, regarding Hebrews 10:25:

“A follower of Christ is not to live in isolation, but is part of a new community. So 10:24 speaks to the social obligation of being concerned about one another. The intent is to and good deeds in this community. Mutual consideration cannot be expressed by forsaking their assembling together, but it can happen only by encouraging each other (10:25).”

I do not understand the context of this verse as being that caring for one another can or must happen only within a corporate church, and in fact, I see many Christians gathering with and caring for others outside of church, thus fulfilling Hebrews 10:25.

Hebrews 10:25 doesn’t always happen within a corporate church or simply because a corporate church exists. I know many church-goers who isolate themselves either from Christians or other people in general. Church attendance or membership ought not to be the measurement of our service, since so much of service takes place outside of church, unbeknownst to the pastor or congregation (all one has to do is read the parable of the Good Samaritan to understand this).

All of this to say, that advocating people leave corporate church is not what I am about.  

What I hope to convey is that, if you are happy in your corporate church, and you never badmouth it or the pastor or the committee of this or that, great. If you stay clear of soap operas and drama queens, more power to you! If you commit to Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior and make decisions based on what He is teaching you (and yes, God can use pastors to teach us God’s Word), wonderful. You are remaining healthy in your church, even if your church is not. And you are probably in a pretty healthy church that is encouraging you to be accountable to God, not the pastor, consistory or other leadership. Please, stay in your church, keep it healthy and do not read what I have written here, as it is not intended for you.

I am writing about my own journey and study of Biblical gathering, in the hope of offering some sobering commentary to those who are struggling with and have struggled with church and have let it keep them from a vital, joyful faith in Jesus.

There seems to be a fear in stating the obvious: not everyone attends nor will some ever attend a corporate church, but would still love to be a Christian (and Christians continue to think that the solution to this dilemma is inviting folks to church)! Also, although not every Christian attends a corporate church, that fact alone does not automatically make them any less of a Christian.

In my fifteen years of writing about faith and attending many churches, along with seminary, and getting to know Christians of all denominations in general, what I have learned about the experience of corporate church comes straight from the horse’s mouth of people simply being honest.

And the status quo's continuing to be convinced that corporate church--reconfigured, made relevant and seeker-sensitive--is the answer, when, for many people—right or wrong—the entire concept of church itself is the problem, is to selfishly promote corporate church over faith in Christ.

Whether folks attend corporate church or not, or are willing to attend or not, has been the false litmus test for faith for far too long. And I am not afraid to tell people that they can, indeed, be a Christian without corporate church membership, and that it’s not, in spite of what they might have heard or believed, about corporate church. It’s about membership into God’s family, irregardless of an institution.

Even many people of faith are being held hostage by their corporate church, not free to question, or pulled into all sorts of dysfunctional debates and forced into taking sides over one issue or another. Meanwhile their family relationships or work situations unravel.

Sometimes corporate church forgets that it’s not about the corporate church. And we all know how hard it is to see the forest for the trees, or to not make mountains out of molehills, when we are sitting in the trees or smack dab on the top of the molehill.

So, I reiterate: I am not telling people to leave their churches. I am opening the door for people to take stock of where their faith is in relation to the dominance corporate church and the people in those churches have in their life.

I’m interested in giving people permission to evaluate the power we automatically give corporate entities and the people in them, to control us, instead of trusting in and following God as our priority. To give people permission to acknowledge when something isn’t right, not so that they can leave the church in a huff, but so that they can be the true church in and of themselves, in spite of what their corporate church is all about.

And much of what drives me is a passion to free people from the unjust clutches of false teachers, or well-meaning teachers who have usurped their “authority” by saying they are the authority.

Be it domineering parents who insist their kids believe—unquestioningly—the ideology of their church or worldview; or pastors or priests who do not encourage Bible reading among the sheep--whose Shepherd is Jesus (not the pope or any other church teacher or denominational hierarchy); or church leaders who want to be so culturally relevant that they tweak God’s Word, not into all truth, but into all acceptability, my passion is for people to go to the Bible and think for themselves, reliant on the Holy Spirit (who can certainly nudge us to employ commentaries and teachers. But the final authority is God).

I will be honest that bickering and infighting in any organization is a turn off, but especially within a Christian institution. The dissension and factions cloud the good work of the people who happen to attend corporate churches, and the good work of those who do not attend any corporate church at all.

Thankfully, the good work of the Body of Christ continues in the world, in spite of this dysfunction.

Those who have successfully skirted all the Christian institutional skirmishes are, to their credit, the tortoises outwitting, in the end, the fast and furious hares of church denominationalism, politics and partisanship.

Meanwhile, the tortoise, ever the realist, knows that, though we are born again, we are still fallen, and as much as it is up to us, be at peace. That very peace can be wrought by joining others who are not interested in the whirlwind that is corporate church, with its egos, rights, butts, shoulds, alliances and posturing in order to be heard, listened to and followed. 

In those situations, the tortoises pray, and recuse themselves due to a conflict of interest: all the politicking, backbiting, closed door sessions and drama conflicts with the Gospel’s call to abide in Christ, and Him alone. It ignores Christ’s teaching as to how to conduct ourselves in community.

Yes, I’m sure I sound simplistic. But isn’t it time we took simplicity seriously instead of writing it off as immature, anti-intellectual or uncaring? I continue to be more and more convinced that the people who push back the most against the simplicity of the Gospel are the ones most entrenched in complicating it.

Because, I ask, how is the current state of bigger, more mainstream, more modern, more money, more programming, more legalistic, more emergent, gotten us? What, in the end, is the point?

Perhaps stepping back into simplicity could remind us of what the point is, and save us much angst and wasted energy in the process. Because really, living our faith according to all of God’s Word means living our faith according to all of God’s Word (an impossible task, but not to be written off for that reason. We will do it imperfectly, especially at first, but it is truly expected that we will be weaned of infant milk and make some progress in the daily living of our faith (1 Corinthians 3:1-4)! 

And if we’re struggling to do that very simple thing, perhaps we would be less distracted and more productive without all the flotsam and jetsam of “organization.” Sometimes we need to be spit out of the logjam.

What if we took it upon ourselves, quietly and without fanfare, to answer the call in James 1:22, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”

To support widows and orphans (James 1:27). To walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).

To answer the call of God in 1 Thessalonians 4:11 to make it our ambition to lead a quiet life by minding our own business and working with our hands.

To answer God’s call in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 to pray continually.

These calls of God are perfectly clear and understandable and can happen every day, without programming, Sunday school, small group or large conference. We already know what to do. Faith grows when we do it. Joy flows in.

Certainly answering these calls of God can happen within a corporate church, and it does.  But sadly, Biblical application often becomes displaced, downgraded or carried out by only a handful of people, or with a lot of unnecessary stress: jostling and arguing for positions, stances, roles and responsibilities. So much burn out takes place when we confine the answering of God’s call to the corporate church or parachurch setting (not to mention much family responsibility is ignored because family life and how we act towards family is deemed to be “outside” of our faith life, i.e. corporate church).

Instead, irregardless of corporate church, each one of us can meet God’s call one on one with everyone in our circle of living.

Each one of us can work with God to cleanse our hearts, bodies, minds and souls so He can put a right Spirit within us (Psalm 51:10).

When we remove the middleman of earthly leadership, denomination, small group leader, pastor’s wife, congregation or whatever it is, we are left with only ourselves accountable to God for what we believe, think, say and do.

We alone are accountable to God alone in taking every thought captive to the Gospel of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). 

As we rely less and less on corporate church (again, whether or not we attend) and more and more on Him alone to encourage and purify our hearts, build our discernment and make right choices, we will be more and more in line with God and have a clear conscience before Him.

The circumstances of life may not ease, but we will suffer them in the ease of trust in God and learning to respond to life and our emotions in His will, not our own or our church-ordained or tolerated manner (and much unChristian behavior and attitude is proliferated and tolerated in corporate church. That doesn’t mean it’s okay to join in. We are to be above the fray; yes, even we, the lowly congregant, can and must take the high road over a pastor who does not).

I think it is becoming clear that the oft-heard argument that we will become more self-centered and less people oriented if we do not attend church is a straw man. When we take it upon ourselves to answer to God every second of every day, we indeed become more like the Christ of the Bible, who was never about Himself. It puts the joy of the Lord squarely on us, along with the call to be salt and light, not only in our corporate settings, but in all settings, all the time, toward everyone.

Removing corporate church from the equation has made me more accountable to the truth that I am the church. I don’t need the corporate church in order to be the church. In fact, I have been much more intentional about being the church by not actually attending one.

This simplicity takes the Gospel to the individual level of every Christian. We alone are accountable to God for our personal walk, communal behavior and alliance with Jesus Christ—not to the “establishment” or “the earthly man,” however Christian they may be or appear to be.

The Bible is clear, and simply clear, that it is each one of us who will stand alone before our Savior and account for ourselves (blaming our pastor or corporate church will not hold water with God). We stand or fall, not based on who we followed or who we were hoodwinked by on earth, but based on how we followed Christ in thought, word and deed.

We need to understand that our faith is not about corporate church. It’s about every one of us—we who are the church whether we gather in a building or not—leading a Christlike life and focusing on fulfilling all of Christ’s commissions (not just the great one). 

copyright Barb Harwood

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” Ephesians 6:12-13

“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.
If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” James 1:22-27

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

We Influence Content

Quote of the Day:

Franklin Leonard, quoted in the February 2016 Leadership issue of Fast Company magazine:

"As audience members, vote with your pocketbooks and time. Watch things that are good, and don't watch things that are not good. The more you consume great content, the more likely it will get made." 

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Spiritual Stewardship

Quote of the Day (quoted in part, from an editorial in USA Today, September 24, 2015):
By Steve Skojec

     "Stewardship over creation is one of the first responsibilities God gave to Adam and Eve. Care for the poor and the destitute was an important tenet of Jesus' public ministry. But Christ was not a divine ecologist or social worker. Jesus Christ fed the poor, but his principal concern was their spiritual nourishment.
     Appropriate Christian concern for temporal matters is virtuous, but when isolated from the salvific message of the Gospels, the church risks becoming the very NGO (Pope) Francis has condemned.
     When true sanctity is replaced with ersatz religious materialism, we easily forget our reason for existence: to know, love and serve God in this life, and to be happy with him in the next."

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Journey of Being Christian

I became a Christian at age 38, which is now fifteen years ago. In that time, much dross has been squeezed out and I’ve been through many phases in living out my faith.

There was the “must go to church and be in a Bible study phase.” 

Then there was the “giving back” stage, where I took it upon myself to become involved in the Christian recovery movement. 

That led to being enthusiastically involved in evangelicalism: attending the local Lifest rally with all of its cool Christian bands and speakers. Co-mingled with that was a deep dive into conservative causes and politics.

And then, three years ago, I attended seminary. No, I didn’t lose my faith, as many do in the “higher study” of the Bible and God. In fact, I lost my phases

Attending seminary was my capstone, and I not only graduated with a certificate in Biblical Studies, but more importantly, the freedom to simply be a Christian.

I no longer consider myself an evangelical. 

I no longer involve myself with politics other than to listen to the presidential debates in order to make an informed decision at the polling booth. 

I no longer am motivated by the corporate church-imposed mantra to evangelize. 

I no longer attend Christian conferences and seminars. 

And I no longer attend a corporate church (I can’t stop attending church, because the Bible makes it clear that all Christians are the church, wherever we are and at all times.)

This trajectory away from corporate church and programming has grown my compassion, not lessened it.

It has tuned my attention to the insights of Scripture, now purified of a denominational or a pastor’s bent.

It has forced me to take seriously the command to be like Christ and not use excuses such as, “I may have sinned, but at least I’m in church every Sunday.”

I am becoming more other-centered, not less, and am moving from an individual spirituality to one that encompasses the often difficult people and situations I avoided by hanging out with like-minded Christians from my corporate church.

Seminary gave me a great gift: that of learning how to read my Bible. The only thing left now is to read it and live it.

Oh, I was loyal to my daily Bible reading during my past phases. But it didn’t always stick. In fact, in the daily things, like relationships, more often than not they continued to be tainted by obvious sin: impatience, ingratitude, frustration and animosity. The list goes on.

And sure, I may have been serving homeless people in soup kitchens; flying to Mexico and Arizona for mission trips; and participating in a Bible study. But I wasn’t living it in the nitty gritty of life. 

I wasn’t living it when my kids wanted to play Monopoly and I didn’t. 

I wasn’t living it when my reaction to conflict was the silent treatment. 

I wasn’t living it when I maligned people who were a threat (real or perceived) to me or my family. 

But I rang the bells for Salvation Army. I bought the kids of prisoners Christmas gifts. I wrote devotions for church ministries.

God, in his mercy, has admonished me that I must be Christian daily, that that is the only thing on which to hang my hat. 

That means forcing myself to learn to love others through actions, not feelings (hoping the feelings will follow). 

It is practicing grace in every situation and with every person, even those that have a negative history or present current challenges. It is remembering, always, that God forgave me first.

Corporate church, and all that goes with it, is neither here nor there to me. If one loves attending church and can remain free of the many ways corporate church tempts people to sin, great. And if one does not measure faith by worship attendance, wonderful. Many people have found warm, supportive, inspiring community in corporate church, along with Biblically-grounded teaching.

But many have not. Or they become easily distracted by church politics. And their faith, perhaps still being weak, does not grow strong in certain church atmospheres. Many are deceived that church attendance is the only prerogative in being a Christian. Many never get beyond church to personal sanctification. While Scripture does teach us to continue meeting together, it doesn’t define that meeting as the corporate church of today.

Being a Christian is up to me: not the pastor, the life group or the corporate church. 

I must hold myself accountable to God in living out what I read in Scripture and what the Holy Spirit is guiding me to. I have no one else to blame if I fail. The problem with “accountability partners” is that they aren’t with us in the heat of the moment. So what they become is confessionals. We, alone, must learn to hold ourselves accountable to God at all times, knowing that He sees and hears everything, even our thoughts.

This can be the model even if one continues attending church. 

It might be worthwhile to take a sabbatical from corporate church and para-church organizations just to see what it’s like when the rubber meets the road between just us, and God; to see what it’s like to not have a sermon, pastor, consistory, building committee or small group leader to complain about. It might be surprisingly revealing, for a change, to see just how much we place the blame for our own sinful thoughts, attitudes and actions on others, when in reality, the finger is pointing at us.

This is what I’ve discovered in making faith not about what I'm doing religiously “out there,” but instead making it about how I’m thinking, speaking and acting “in here.” And what I’ve discovered is, I have much work to do. But what I’ve also discovered is, that it’s finally begun.

copyright Barb Harwood

“One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.” Romans 14:5

“If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.” Romans 14:8-9

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Present-Day Dysfunction of Downton Abbey

If Downton Abbey has taught me anything, it is that families today are no different than families back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. The financial and material prosperity of the Crawleys is irrelevant when it comes to family dynamics.

Violet Crawley—“Grandmama”—the matriarch, is an often biting gatekeeper. And when push comes to shove, she will do everything in her power to protect the family, even if it means attempting to force a granddaughter, Edith, to essentially give up her child by sending the child away to boarding school in order to preserve social standing and appearances.

The Crawleys have meddling and the sarcastic quip down to an art. When an indiscretion happens (or a perceived indiscretion), the family swarms. They get busy. Although their hands continue to have nothing to do, their minds and lips are working over time.

The same is true in families today. 

I marvel at the distant relatives who can suddenly insert themselves into a niece or nephew’s, cousin or sister or brother’s affairs, with the alacrity of a picnic in the park. They relish the "tsk-tsking," the shaking of the head and the “Can you believe it?” over their family member’s choices. Some even go so far as to take it upon themselves, uninvited and certainly not in the position of closeness or standing as say, a parent or best friend, to confront the perceived threat. It is their version of saving the world.

Crawleyesque dramas are created by family members who believe they must take ownership of family developments in order to create excitement in their own lives, and to satisfy their desire to deem their own existence as somehow superior. 

It is also a way to control. If one feels that their own life’s direction was compromised in the past, they believe it is up to them to control the path that other people take. And to be clear, control is not the same as guidance. Offering direction and guidance, when in a position to do so, is other-centered and completely confidential. Control is self-centered and indiscreet.

I’ve heard this sort of micro-management of others described as the nanny state, paternalism and helicopter parenting (only the pilot is not always the parents). 

I marvel at this boldness to insert one’s opinions and commentary on the lives of others (sometimes, but not always, under the auspices of “being concerned,” which is just another way of excusing gossip and landing a role in the drama).

I sense that such forwardness is often a result of being threatened by the choices of others; anything done outside of the culturally conditioned norm is anathema and “must be dealt with.” This is even more surprising when the supposed apostasy will in no way affect the chicken-little doomsayer who is running roughshod with their mouth.

By observing the Crawleys, I have come to realize that, sadly, family—God’s wonderful construct for support and grace, and yes, the occasional private admonishment or “speaking the truth in love” between appropriate parties (not to be pandered among other family members)—has been under attack since Adam and Eve. 

What better way to plant and feed animosity among family than to create busybodies who never learn to mind their own business and offer support where they can.

copyright Barb Harwood

“But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” Matthew 12:36-37

“They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips,” Romans1:29 (note how gossip is rated as wickedness right along with murder). 

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” Ephesians 4:2

“...make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands...” 1 Thessalonians 4:11 (in part)

“We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies.” 2 Thessalonians 3:11