Paying for School

My ongoing adventures in life and the pursuit of more...

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


I’ve recently read a couple articles that have me thinking about perspective.  One involved a seemingly straightforward case of spiritual abuse.  It couldn’t have been clearer from the original article that a pastor was not only being a jerk but he was leading others to behave in a way that was completely opposite to the gospel.  And then, as Paul Harvey used to say on radio, the rest of the story.  Turns out the black and white original was really full of shades of grey and the lines were much blurrier than at first glance.  And I was reminded that our interpretation of information is often filtered through our preconceptions and prejudices.  In fact, usually we only see or hear the things that reinforce what we already believe.

The second article I came across made me wonder about my own ability, or lack thereof, to lay aside my prejudices and evaluate an idea.  The article was in Christianity Today and asked the loaded question, “When are we going to grow up?”  The “we” refers specifically to white, evangelical Christianity in North America.  The author, Thomas Bergler, argues that youth ministry over the last 40+ years has led to a present day juvenilization of American Christianity.  Bergler defines juvenilization for us in the article, “Juvenilization is the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for adults.”  From there he launches into a critique of the contemporary evangelical church and insists that all the worse characteristics, the most immature of adolescence is true of the present day evangelical church.

Here’s where I issue some disclaimers, or at least tell on myself.  First, I’m no stranger to critiquing the contemporary church.  Second, I’ve invested the biggest part of my professional life, to date, in ministry with and to youth.  Third, I am rather partial to the emerging church – not emergent, which is a whole other animal, and I think reformation is an ongoing process not reserved exclusively for monks like Luther or intellectuals like Calvin.  Fourth and finally, given what I consider the earthiness of the Hebrew faith of which we are a part, I lean towards a more expressive, poetic and emotionally rich faith experience than the more “serious” one that Bergler seems keen for.

You can read the article here.  It’s long.  Take some time and come back and finish reading this later if you’re up for it.

Are there problems with the church today?  Absolutely.  Were there in the first century?  Absolutely.  Was Youth for Christ to blame?  Absolutely not.  Immaturity seems to be part of the process we pass through on our way to growing up.  At any given time I think a local church will be marked by the healthy mixture in its midst of believers across that spectrum of growing up into mature disciples. 

Bergler, tracing the juvenilization of the church back to youth ministry of the 30s and 40s writes, “One mid-1940s teenage girl said, 'We just want to live our own lives. We're not in a hurry to grow up and get all serious and morbid like older people.' Of course, girls who just want to have fun make poor saviors of the world.”  Pulling a quote from a teenage girl in the 40s is hardly representative of all the teenagers following Jesus in the 40s or in any other decade.  But it is this attitude that Bergler suggests is prevalent in today’s evangelical church.  And he suggests it’s demonstrated in rock music worship and lyrics that sound like Jesus is our boyfriend.

I so thought the worship wars were over.

First, to equate rock music with immaturity staggers the mind.  I’ve always enjoyed a good Gregorian chant but is that more mature or grown up than rock music?  Bergler even goes after the volume at which the music is played as another sure sign of immaturity.  Arbitrary to say the least.  Perhaps he does better in the book but if this is an example of his reasoning and support of his thesis I’m completely confused why a book like this would get published today other than to appease the ultra-conservative market that would definitely line up to purchase this book.

Second, while I may not care for some of the lyrics of contemporary worship I can also make a list for you of some horrible hymn lyrics that fail massively both theologically as well as musically.  But let’s be fair, the Hebrew prophets definitely used the “God as our husband” motif and the New Testament writers didn’t shy away from “Jesus is our bridegroom” language.  Were either being immature?  Maybe.  But I think probably not.  I cringe by times at the empty lyrics that a popular new song contains or the lousy theology but isn’t this part of growing up?  Aren’t some of us always passing through our immaturity on our way to maturity?  Paul doesn’t suggest new Christians stop drinking milk, he just wants the mature Christians to move on from it.

As long as we have churches that give cars away to spike attendance we will have to own and accept that we have a great deal of immaturity in the church.  And in some churches the proportions are probably dangerously out of balance with the immature leading the way instead of the mature.  But the presence of the problem doesn’t support Bergler’s thesis.

This is just the article and not his book but I found it to be full of problems in content as well as bad reasoning.  I think it’s a shame to try to lay blame for positive reformations in the evangelical church rather than give recognition.  Youth for Christ and youth ministry in general has made and continues to make a positive contribution to helping young people grow up and mature into fully devoted followers of Christ.  I’ve seen more young people bring friends to Christ than I have adults, more go on missions trips and outreach and service projects than I have adults and more participate on spiritual retreats, camps and conferences in order to grow than I’ve ever seen evangelical adults.  Our problems may be real but I think they have more to do with embracing our culture than embracing our youth.

For more, check out Scot McKnight’s review of Bergler’s book which I wish I’d come across first!

I’ve got a lot to learn but I’m pretty sure blaming youth ministry for an immature church isn’t one of them.

And to prove I'm mature I didn't include a single reference to Thomas' older brother Ham in this entire post.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Learning to Leave

The elusive Donna and I are just in the first days of leaving the church we planted 10 years ago.  Our goal is to “finish well” but the circumstances of life have the “finish line” still a couple months away.  Right now it feels more like a marathon than a sprint.  Today I’ll just try to describe our first steps in trying to “leave well”.

We planted this church with massive dreams, audacious goals and enough confidence to take on whatever came our way.  Like any beginning, myths have grown up around our origin.  The myths include the number of people we started with, why we started the church and even around what kind of church we were.  10 years later the myths carry more weight for some than the truth but for me it stopped mattering a couple years ago anyway.  In our leaving it’s left me wondering just how many myths will grow up about why we’re leaving, where we’re going and what, if anything, God had to do with this.

So let the blog record show that our leaving started with a question from God.  I was prepping a series of talks back in January about pilgrimage.  I was talking to our church about building roads into the wilderness and that the call to follow was a call to pilgrimage, wherever that might lead.  Then, in my reflection, I felt like God asked, “Is this message just for the church or is it for you too?”  There’s a lot I don’t know but one thing I’ve learned over these years is that when God asks a question like that it’s always loaded.  So with some fear and not a little trembling I replied, “Well, um, it’s for me too.”  And then God began to talk to me about my ‘settledness’ and the limitations I’d put on just what I would and would not allow the Spirit to lead me to do. 

Filling some boxes the other day I came across my notes for that talk.  The title I gave it back then was, “Why Leave Here?”.

Looking back now I can say that this was the moment that leaving changed from occasional, random thoughts about our future into a fixed point in time we just hadn’t come to yet. 

A few weeks ago that “fixed point” finally arrived.  We announced to our church family here that we were resigning and moving to North Carolina where I’ll become the senior pastor of Raleigh Vineyard.  It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to say out loud. 

About 3 weeks before that we talked to our friends, our elders team, that it was a possibility.  That was the hardest.  I know a couple guys who were terminated by their church board when it was discovered that they were considered and being considered by another church.  I wasn’t worried about that happening here.  Our elders team are my friends and relationship is one of our greatest priorities here.  Keeping secrets from friends who you’d like to have praying with you is hard and the gap between knowing where God was leading us and being able to talk to our close friends about it was painful.

Some men and women seemed to live in this adversarial relationship with their leadership team.  I couldn’t, wouldn’t and won’t.  It seems unhealthy and dysfunctional to me.  Somewhere along the line we adopted this “checks and balances” idea of church leadership which is rubbish.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all teddy bear hugs and sugar dreams with us, we often disagree or have contradictory ideas about things but when we’re done meeting we’re all still friends and Jesus is still in charge.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned so far in this process…

1) You can’t possibly predict or be prepared for the multitude of ways that people will react to the news.  Some friends have been happy for us, some friends have been mad at us, some have felt betrayed by us and a few wished we’d left years ago.  It’s been hard to reconcile all the different versions of myself that people have reflected back in this process, ie. “what will we do without you?” vs. “You’ve ruined my life and I’m sorry we ever met.”  And everything in between and on either side!

2) Beautiful things can happen in the midst of leaving.  There have been expressions of kindness, support, encouragement, generosity, hope and a sense of our church here coming together, grabbing hold of who they are and pilgriming on with Jesus.  I’ve seen our church maturing before my eyes and it’s been awesome.

3) Horrible things can happen in the midst of leaving.  These I will not elaborate on.

4) Change is great as long as it doesn’t actually disrupt anything.  Some of us despise change as a rule of life.  Many of us embrace change, desire it, and make it happen when it’s not.  But change that actually disrupts the status quo (the colour or cut of your hair rarely does) is generally unwelcome even by changers.  That doesn’t mean it’s bad it just means that an overall sense of discomfort will be created even when change is for the best.  You can’t determine the rightness of the course by the reaction of the crowd.

5) Most people personalize your decision and their reaction is not about how this will affect you but rather how this will affect them.  This is true of the one who makes the decision as much as it is true of those who react to the decision.  I remember having coffee with a friend a couple years back.  They told me that they were looking at a job change and would likely be moving out west.  All I could think about was the contribution they made to our community and how could we possibly fill that gap while they kept talking and asking for my advice about their possible move.  Of course I suggested God would come up with something better for them here.  Staying here had to be the right thing, right?  But eventually that wave of fear passed and I was able to focus on what God wanted for my friend.  A little while later he moved.  Things are good for him out west and somehow life has still managed to go on in our community and new friends have come and good things are happening.

6) I’d much rather people were sad or mad that we’re leaving than happy or glad.  Had someone jumped up and shouted, “Hooray!” when I announced we were leaving, part of me would have been relieved in the moment but later been hurt.  Instead, the moment was painful but the after effect is a sense of being loved well and having done our best in our time here to love well.  Sadness is a positive and healthy emotion in the right time and situation.

7) Family appears in the most unexpected places and friendships can grow suddenly with people you’ve never met before the moment you come face to face.  God has surprised the Elusive and I with an amazing sense of family and connectedness that He’s already provided and growing at the other end of this journey in Raleigh.  We’d prefer to move our whole CCC family down with us but of course hijacking their story wouldn’t be right either.  We feel a growing sense of excitement about this next season of our lives and the people that we’ll be sharing it with in Raleigh.

I’ll finish with a quote from J.R.R. Tolkien from the Rings,
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.