Monday, December 31, 2007

Homecoming--Sort Of. . . .

I had an unusual experience last Sunday, and here's the background: As I said before, my family has left the church we'd attended for lo, these many years, and where I was a deacon, elder, teacher and associate pastor. Friends had asked us to start a house church. That's been a bit of a fizzle, so we decided to visit some churches in our town.

Last Sunday, we went to my boyhood church. I was a bit anxious; I'm not looking for a "church home." Though it had been over 20 years since I was last a member there, I have great respect for the pastor (who has served there about 25 or 30 years). And showing up for a hit-and-run visit--well, that can hurt a pastor. I know; I've been on the other side of that one.

What I saw was a church of mostly elderly people--a congregation of 24, not including their five visitors that morning. They were sweet, kind people who were clearly glad to see us; but I thought of the days when an attendance of fifty or less meant it was the evening service. The pews had been re-arranged; about a third of them had been removed. I saw a few people I recognized and more whom I did not. I wondered where the folks I'd known had gone.

This church had never been packed; at its best it had run just under 80, but the members I'd known had been faithful. They'd come to this church for years and over half were 3-time-a-weekers, meaning that they came Sunday a.m., p.m., and midweek. But those folks are mostly gone; and their kids aren't here either, except for one whom I saw, one of four sisters. None of her sisters are out of the area; and none of them were there. Nor were her parents, who still live in this town.

After church, this woman talked with me--just chit-chat--while my wife talked with the pastor's wife. I really wanted to ask: "What's happened to this church? Where did all the people go?" I missed the way the place had been when I was a boy. I missed the faces. I missed the fire.

As I said, I have great respect for the pastor. His wife is also a thoughtful, caring woman. The people who are there now seem to be sincere, caring. . . but their church is declining. I felt a pang of regret over a body that gave me a foundation and my first training in Christ.

When I talked of this to my wife, she reminded me of something I'd read this last year, that a pastor's most influential and effective years in a church were usually between his fifth and tenth years; ministry effectiveness wanes noticeably after fifteen years. The average pastor, at that point, has become stale not so much in his relationship with God as in his style of ministry. And pastors become concerned more with maintaining than with leading.

How many churches in the nation are in decline because their leaders can't, or won't, see the need for a fresh approach to ministry--for fresh goals, fresh stories and fresh ways of talking? This isn't a question I can ask without turning it on myself. I hope to be one of those leaders some day. Will I recognize a stale style in myself?

Pastors are taught that a fresh relationship with God will solve all the problems; a pastor with a fresh walk with God will be refreshed and refined in vision by the Spirit. But is there a role for the local assembly to play in this? Does a pastor have an obligation to let himself be evaluated by the body he serves, or at least by trustworthy and known leaders in the body? If a pastor relies on the Spirit of God, but not on the body God provides, for refinement and refreshing, is he really leaning on the Spirit of God? If we close ourselves off from God's people, how open are we really to God?

We tell the folks in the pews that they need each other. Jesus left a community of faith. Yet many pastors ignore the same need in themselves. Is this right? Does the command to "submit to one another" extend in some way to leaders, or only to the led?

Saturday, December 29, 2007

You Gotta Read This Book!

The best books, like the best movies, are the ones that get you thinking for yourself. They tell you something about yourself, and the insights become keys that unlock doors to places you've never gone before. They take you beyond where you are.

Here's a book I've just finished reading, one that I highly recommend to one and all: Understanding Who You Are: What Your Relationships Tell You About Yourself. It's a short book by Dr. Larry Crabb, and you can find it at Christian Book Distributors here. A friend gave me his copy, and it was more than I bargained for. In less than 80 pages, Dr. Crabb gives his basic framework for understanding who we are. It's a framework that's in line with Scripture and with real life. Read it, and you'll come to some unsettling truths about yourself.

What is it that really drives us? At heart, what are we really wanting from God? "Depravity" is a word theologians use to describe the effect of Adam's sin on us, and it means a fallenness that has touched every nook and corner of our souls. Dr. Crabb defines "depravity" as selfishness that rules our relationships with people and with God. We want God to make our lives comfortable, not Christlike. In America we can see it clearly when we look at Christian culture. I can see it clearly when I look at myself, too.

Much of what we teach as Scripture, Dr. Crabb contends, bears little resemblance to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We take the Bible and work it into this framework of selfishness. We want to control what happens to us in life and we use the Bible as a tool to give us security. One example: "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old. . . ." You know the rest of it. God's promise guarantees the outcome, and your kids will be safe because you've done the right thing. (Has anyone besides me noticed this irony: Solomon, the man who wrote that, was trained as a child in the way he should go and, when he was old, he departed from it?)

Here's Dr. Crabb's take: "The principles [God] reveals are given to guide us in our commitment to reflect His character, not to comfortably organize our lives. We are intended to trust the goodness of God, not the reliability of principles" (italics his). And the aim of God is to bring forth Jesus Christ in me. His goodness is about making me like Jesus, and what does not make me like Jesus is not good.

This got me thinking, at some length, about "the goodness of God" and what that really means. I'll blog about that in my next post, sometime in the coming week. But here's a question: What do you make of this? Is Dr. Crabb right to think that depravity is, or at least shows itself most clearly through, selfishness? How much has that selfishness invaded your life? And what do you do to try to avoid the issue?

Once again, I strongly recommend you read this book. It just might change the way you see who you are, and what you were made for. If you are serious about discipling others, you may want to pass this book on to them as well.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

In The Bleak Midwinter

Very, very soon, Christmas will be here. Tonight, as I left work, I wished most folks I saw a merry Christmas because many will be taking a four-day weekend this year, and I'll not see them until Dec. 26. We'll be celebrating like everyone else. Family all together, kids opening gifts, and outside the Midwestern midwinter gloom hemming us in. But we'll have a fire going, lights twinkling, and the gloom won't get into the house. Or into our hearts.

Long ago I read one of those "what the first Christmas was really like" articles. The writer pointed out that no one knows for sure the month of Jesus' birth, and that many scholars were (as I think he put it) sure that it was any month but December. For a long time, I was convinced it was August (my own birth month). In fact, I felt quite superior to all those folks who believed December 25 was the birthday of Jesus. I even thought about celebrating Christmas another day, in another season, just to show that I was more "informed" and "authentic" than they (translate: "snobbish").

I feel differently now. Maybe the date of Christmas was first chosen to Christianize a pagan holiday; maybe Jesus was born some other time of the year; and, yes, the most important thing is not when He was born but that He has indeed been born. But I'm glad we celebrate Christmas when we do, "in the bleak midwinter," as one song puts it, when "earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone." Now, at the darkest time of the year, and the most bitter so far as nature is concerned, we celebrate the invasion of the world by Light.

It's all too easy, in midwinter, to fall into the gloom that falls upon the earth. Outside my window, I see grey everywhere, not just in the skies but on the streets of my town and in the windows of the houses I drive past. It is cold, upper Midwestern cold--not southern cold that bites at you but the kind that can devour you if you let it. The world is a place to retreat from--not the earth only, but the whole of life. The bleakness of the earth sometimes serves only to turn our thoughts to what has been bleak and bitter in our own lives.

Yet God has overturned all that. Through the coming of His Son into the world He has drawn us to the Light that commands our worship. God the Son has come; and God the Son overturns darkness and bleakness and bitterness. Darkness has not overcome the Light. Not the death of the earth in winter nor the death inherent in all created things can stop the Life that is in the Son and in the Spirit of God Who dwells in all who believe in Jesus Christ.