Thursday, July 29, 2010

Review - When Christians Get it Wrong

I just finished an advanced copy of Adam Hamilton’s When Christians Get it Wrong. I really like Adam Hamilton’s books for one main reason: while Hamilton is not one to break much new ground, he has the gift of writing with exceptional clarity. I rarely read his work and think “I had never thought of that.” Instead, I read it and think, “I never thought to put it like that.” I have to think that this is what has made him such a successful pastor; he has the ability to take complex and controversial ideas and clearly and lovingly explain them.

So here again, we have another book on how negatively Christianity is perceived and how Christians need to accept some of the blame for that and more importantly do something about it. David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyon’s book UnChristian seems to be the leader of the genre but a little snooping on Amazon will show you that there are a number of Christians talking about what is wrong with Christianity. (See also Dan Kimball’s They Like Jesus But Not the Church, Jason Berggren’s 10 Thing I Hate About Christianity or the movie Lord Save us From Your Followers.) I have read a number of these and they all have some fascinating insights. What I like about Hamilton’s treatment is what I already mentioned: he makes it clear, he makes it understandable and he delivers it in a way I think people will be able to hear.

The book stems out of a conversation Hamilton had with a young man who had some strong negative perceptions of the Christian faith. He covers five main areas of perception: Christian behavior, science and politics, other religions, the problem of evil, and homosexuality. In each of these he clearly lays down some challenges – that we might have more than a perception problem, we may have a behavior problem and even an understanding problem. He offers some thoughts on widening our understanding and changing our attitudes. He also shows some examples of what it looks like when we “get it right.”

I will be honest, like some of his other work, this one will rub some folks, including readers of this blog, the wrong way. When you hit politics and homosexuality and call for some repentance and correction, someone will not agree. In the clarity of his writing does not leave a lot of room for interpretation – which is a good thing – unless you don’t agree with him. While it may not leave room for interpretation, it is good teaching and so it leaves room for learning and growing.

I hope people read this book. It is written at a level clearly appropriate for lay people. My review copy came in at around 85 pages so is the perfect length for Sunday school classes, small groups and reading groups. I look forward to it coming out so that I can read your comments.



*disclosure note, Abingdon Press provided an advanced copy of the book to me, at no charge, for review.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Church Facebook, Twitter and Community

Wondering why one the members of you church wasn’t in her regular pew on Sunday? No need to wonder, she was at the lake, soaking up rays and drinking beer. Did you know that a member of your church staff, such a nice gal, really likes especially violent Quentin Tarantino movies? How about that wonderful woman in your Sunday school class… every time you ask her how she is doing, she says “I am blessed!” Except today it’s Monday and you didn’t ask her but you read her expletive-filled rant on facebook about exactly how angry she is at the customer service of her phone company. Ever curious about the political views of your “friend” from church? Maybe not so much after you heard them expressed in 140 characters of partisan hatred on twitter.

Only recently have I begun to consider the profound impact social media will have on Christ’s Church. I want to tell you that, on the surface, it looks like a bad thing, but I believe it may be one of the best things that ever happened. Social media may be, in a strange way, taking us back in time to a place where community looked a little different.

I didn’t grow up in church but I did grow up in community. The town I grew up in claimed fewer residents than my current church claims members. The thing about a town of around 5000 is that if you knew somebody, you knew them. In a small town you tend to know an awful lot about people whether you try to be nosy or not. For my friends and my family’s friends, whether I thought about or not, I of course knew: where they lived, where they worked and what kind of car they drove. I likely knew: where and if they went to church, whether or not they approved of drinking alcohol, whether or not anyone in the family smoked and their political affiliation. Really that is a limited list. I likely knew if they were a rude driver (by whether or not they had ever cut me off), whether they were racist or sexist (by their comments and jokes), and what they liked to do to have fun.

Honestly, I knew stuff about my friends and neighbors that I would have rather not known, but what about the person in the pew or chair next to you? What about the person in your Sunday school class? Or the man you usher with every Sunday? Or that woman who team teaches children’s Sunday school with you. Now I am not saying that it is good or even appropriate to know the most intimate details of these people’s lives. I believe in good boundaries and they need to allow the level of intimate sharing to move with the level of intimate relationship. However there is a danger lurking here. There is a danger of putting on our Christian cloak as we enter the church and taking it off when we leave. All of us can maintain a “Christian persona” for a couple of hours a week, right? But what do we look like when we take it off?

The apostle Paul exhorts in his letter to the Romans (12:9)

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.

The word he uses for “genuine” means “without hypocrisy” or literally “without a mask.”

This is the beauty of social media. It can take the mask off. When our private and social world interacts with our church world, people get a chance to glimpse us as we are. And here is the good news: it leads to a better picture of reality and gives us a little hope of accountability.

The reality is that we are not always the people we try to act like on Sunday morning. First of all, as Christians, we believe that we are all broken people in need of the redemption available through Jesus Christ. So, we will not always live up to the picture of perfection that we may wish to use to judge ourselves or others. Second, as Christians, we don’t agree on what that picture looks like. I think some reality and integrity here is a good thing. How we spend our free time, what we believe about politics, how we deal with our emotions, these are things that Christians, even those who share a denomination, might disagree on. But, if we consider ourselves living in community, shouldn’t we want to see each other without our masks?

And what about accountability? In the new world of “leave church, drive home, open the garage - insert car – close the garage,” it is easy to feel like no one is watching. When, through social media, we start sharing more of the details of our lives, we not only have to think about what we are sharing, but what we are doing and occasionally, someone in our community might ask about what exactly we are doing.

Hebrews 10:24-25 reminds us,

And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

The more we know about one another, the more we are able to do this.

Let’s be clear, social media is not a substitute for true community. It may be a move in the right direction towards reality, transparency and accountability. But it may also remind us that we probably all need to spend a little more time with one another, enough time to begin to be more open and honest about who we are. But in the meantime, here are a couple of suggestions about how we deal with knowing a little bit more about one another.

First, don’t freak out. If you see something online that shows a different side of someone you thought you knew, don’t overreact. If you see your prim and proper Sunday school classmate in a bikini holding a brown bottle floating down the Guadalupe, takes some time to ponder what that means. If it totally contradicts what you knew about her, consider where you developed that conflicting image. Also leave some room for misinterpretation. That bottle could be root beer. (Someone recently noticed, through a social media site called foursquare, that I spend a lot of time at local Catholic church. Was I converting? Nope, just watching my son play t-ball.)

Second, don’t be afraid to talk about it. If someone you consider a friend writes or shows something online that raises some questions for you, talk to them. If your friend, who professes faith in Christ and lives accordingly, suddenly posts a hatred filled rant online, you might be called to ask why and talk about what has happened to provoke such a post and how it reflects their beliefs.

I think this could get interesting. See you online.



Thursday, July 1, 2010

More with the Not Panicking

I have been thinking a lot lately about leadership and how it relates to systematic discipleship. I wrote a couple weeks back about the importance of holding fast and not panicking. In my post “Don’t Panic" in reflecting on Exodus 32 I wrote:

This scripture is powerful in the area of ministry that I work in. I try to help churches develop systematic plans to make disciples of Jesus Christ. The hard part of this is that it almost always involves change and that change takes some time. Here is why most churches will fail to make the change: at some point along the line, it will seem too hard or feel like it is not going to work and the people may panic. The leader has a choice: push on or turn back.

This idea of the leader's need to remain calm and focused in the midst of the necessary change often brought about by clear vision keeps coming back to me as I journey again through the Old Testament. God teaches us so much by pointing out the failures of leaders. We see it again in 1 Samuel 13 with Saul, who is supposed to be waiting for Samuel to come and offer to the Lord. He sees the people slipping away and decides to take it upon himself to offer the burnt offering. As soon as he is done, Samuel shows up and says, "What have you done?" Saul replies,

“When I saw that the people were slipping away from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines were mustering at Michmash, I said, ‘Now the Philistines will come down upon me at Gilgal, and I have not entreated the favor of the Lord’; so I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering.” (1 Sam 13 11b-12)

Translation: "I panicked!" And it cost him. A lot.

If, as leaders, we are going to lead people through change, there will be points when it feels like they are slipping away and we have face two temptations: One, we saw in the story of Exodus 32, that is to just do what the people ask instead of what God asks. The other, as we see today, is to lose our own nerve and then our trust in God and try to take the whole thing into our hands. That doesn't work out so well either.

I am really blessed to be in a situation where most of my work focuses on implementation of systematic discipleship. I have many sub-roles within that role. One of my job titles is "junior assistant vice president of anxiety management." I knew coming in that moving a church from a program focus, where the goal was to keep everyone busy - to a discipleship focus, where the goal was to walk with people in a journey of discipleship, was going to be difficult, slow and occasionally frustrating. I knew that staff and lay people would (and they do) come to me panicking that it is not working and we better come up with a new plan (or just offer the burnt offering ourselves.) On my good days, I respond, "It is working, just not on your timetable. Be patient. Be faithful."

Be patient. Be faithful. Don't panic.