Lent – Part 2

I'm not going to practice Lent. However, I often try my best to find the proverbial baby that exists in the bathwater. There is a reason why individuals began the practice of fasting in anticipation of their baptism. There is a reason why these individual practices were adopted by the formal church and instituted as a formal practice. There is even a reason why the church, both Catholic and Protestant, has changed the meaning and method of Lent over the years. They call Lent a preparation for Easter. Most of us Evangelical Protestant types don't prepare.  In fact, Easter sneaks up on us.  One day we wake up and realize, "Hey, it's Easter Sunday."  Those who do prepare, are focusing more on marketing, renting venues, and the hopes of a greater head-count. In light of this discussion, I've put together six points to help non-Lenters learn from the principles of Lent, and maybe even practice the act of intentional anticipation for the celebration of Christ's resurrection.
  1. Don't just acknowledge the resurrection as truth. We are used to the resurrection.  We have gotten comfortable with this truth and it has become, over time, a pretty casual thought.   Because this is our nature, we need to be intentional concerning our thoughts on the resurrection.  We need to re-affirm the greatness of this event.  We need to realign our focus, correct our thought, and exalt again the truth of God's great victory over sin.
  2. Get a reading plan!  Many mainline churches have reading plans.  Over the past couple weeks, I have been doing the daily scripture readings from the Book of Common Prayer.  I am stumbled when it seems like certain passages are being taken out of context and strung together... but that's the way I'm wired.  As I'm able to get beyond my own 'rules', I am actually beginning to see the purpose in these readings.  They are looking forward to the cross, starting first, with my brokeness...  leading on to His perfect victory.  I'm also reading through the gospel of Mark frequently.  In my personal times of reading (not study), I'm trying to think beyond the doctrines and the hidden implications of the parables, and simply see the unfolding story of Jesus from birth to resurrection.  If you practiced Lent by breaking up a gospel into 40 parts, and read it with an unfolding anticipation, coupled with the challenge of the first point... your thinking on the resurrection would definitely realigned.
  3. Let your fast be a reminder.  Don't just fast because it's Lent.  Don't just fast to teach your flesh submission.  If you are going to fast during Lent, let it be a reminder of Jesus.  If you are fasting coffee, then let every craving and desire for coffee, be an opportunity to look forward and think upon the greatness of Jesus' resurrection, and the price which has been paid for humanity.
  4. Anticipate a worship service that isn't about church growth.  The modern evangelical church considers Easter their biggest outreach of the year.  This is good.  But, sometimes there is so much thought being put into the marketing, the special music, the decoration, the stadium rental, the plans for follow up and the numbers... that the event we are actually celebrating becomes a fading afterthought.  Yes, we should take the opportunity to share the message of salvation.  Yes, the celebration of the resurrection is a huge part of the gospel story.  However, don't make the billboards and the lilies a bigger deal than the event we are actually celebrating.  Don't create an environment of thought that has your congregations thinking more about inviting friends and neighbors, than they are thinking about Jesus's victory over the grave.
  5. Get your kids involved.  Kids know how to anticipate.  Kids love countdowns.  Use your imagination and get your sons and daughters looking forward to the celebration.
  6. Give.  Lent was traditionally a time of alms-giving.  In our culture, we like to say that the Christmas season is a time of giving.  It might be for the wealthy folks who need to perform some tactful 'end of year giving', but for the less than prosperous folks, it's not.  This does depend slightly on the demographic of any given church, but most fellowships experience a drastic drop in giving from November-January.  The reports from local charitable organizations have been similar.  The organizations that distribute the alms are going in the hole over the Christmas season.  Lent can be a time to recuperate.  It can be a time of giving to the charitable organizations which have poured themselves out completely over the Christmas season.  Giving is a healthy practice, helping us to bring our priorities back in line and making us part of something that is bigger than our own little worlds.  Our giving can be a reminder and a help of the greatest giver of all.  If we give, may it help us look forward in anticipation to the one who gave everything for us.
Upcoming on NRBDC
  • What if the Libertarians were in charge?  How would the church respond if the social and moral issues, which have been hijacked by the government, were handed  back?  Would they build walls and internalize?  Would they quit?  Would they band together?
  • People are hungry!  We used to send out a small gift card to Starbucks or Chick Filet to first time visitors.  I used to think it was a nice thought.  However, as the phone at ccCville rings 5-10 times a day with requests for food, I don't feel so inclined to feed visitors anymore.  Instead, maybe we will make a commitment to fill one grocery bag for the hungry, every time we have a 1st time visitor... and then some.  Ideas on a better benevolence plan-  coming soon.
  • One of my daughters wrote a satire on the modern church.  If she lets me, I will post it here.

Lent: That Old Made Up Religious Thing – Part One

I believe that the Bible is the ultimate standard.  This is the first authority amongst those of us who might be classified under the fundamental (NOT a bad word) side of Protestantism.  The Catholic world places a primary authority upon the teachings of the church and the liberal Protestants place a primary authority upon the ever-shifting opinions of popular society. In one world, the Bible submits to the church. In another world, the Bible submits to culture. In my world, the church and the culture submit to the Bible.  The Catholic Church has changed its doctrine as the Popes and Bishops have decreed it.  The culture is perpetually changing its opinion.  But, for the most part, the Bible has maintained its message.  There have been many translations, but the ancient manuscripts by which they are translated, are preserved and reliable.  I like knowing, that my standard is not dependent upon something that is continually shifting.  If our faith is eternal, it's nice to know that we can place our confidence in something that is more stable than the fickle opinions of man. When the Reformation began, most of the church appointed, extra-Biblical traditions were done away with.  If the common folks did not easily understand it, or, if the explanation seemed more superstitious than Biblical, they did away with it.  For nearly 300 years, the Protestant Church was free and clear of religious practices such as Lent. Since the 1800's it has made a comeback.  Today, you will find Lent being practiced one way or the other amongst many of the mainline Protestant denominations.  Even some of the new, independent Evangelical Churches are jumping onto the Lent-wagon Maybe you're wondering, “What is Lent?” The word simply means, “the lengthening of days”.  (which makes sense, since the days are actually lengthening.  I wonder why we don't celebrate a ‘shorting of days' 40 days before Christmas?) Lent is a conglomeration of traditions that the church practiced early on.  Irenaeus took note in 190 A.D. that some believers were fasting for 1-3 days before Easter, but had no mention of a 40 day fast.  For those who did fast, it wasn't a church-wide decree,  but rather a time of personal preparation starting on Good Friday.    There were also many pre-baptism traditions of fasting.  Many who planned on being baptized on Easter would fast for three weeks before hand.  By the 4th Century, Easter became the most popular time for baptisms.  At some point, three weeks turned into the more Biblical number 40 and by 325 AD, the first mention of the word Lent appeared in Canon 5 from the counsel of Nicea.  A few years later, Althanesius, (the Bishop of Alexandria), urged the people to observe the 40 day fast with “all the world”. There have been different versions of Lent.  Those who first practiced it in Jerusalem fasted for 5 days a week over a span of 8 weeks.  In other places, they fasted 6 days a week for 6 weeks.  Some of these folks believed that a 36 day fast constituted a tithe of days, since it was almost 10% of a year, (sure, God gets short-changed 0.14% of a day… but hey, who's counting?).  Today, Lent lasts 6 ½ weeks and people fast 6 days a week, (not Sunday). What do they fast?  Well, in our modern world, people are giving up Facebook and Lattes, but the original Catholic decree included a fast of all food except one vegan meal a day.  The only exception to this vegan rule was fish.  They could eat fish, but that's it.  No dairy, no other meat.  This is probably where the idea of ‘Fat Tuesday' came from.  They would fry up all the meat they had left in the house with all the fat that they normally kept on hand for cooking.  It was a bonifide chicken-fried steak feast.  Of course, the Catholic Church used their freedom to change things, so the fast changed.  Now, only those who are18-59 have to participate.  They are to fast completely on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, but, for the rest of the time, they only had to abstain from meat (fish excluded) on Fridays.  This is why the Filet o' Fish is on sale this time of year at Mac Donald's. Nowadays, some churches choose to do good deeds instead of fasting.  There are a lot of different views and practices, and justly so.  Why can't the church make up now, what the church made up then? I asked the folks at my church this question concerning Lent.  “Is there a baby in this bathwater?” Most agreed, that there was. With this, I undertook a challenge to learn what that baby was, and how one could draw from the principles of Lent in a way that is both valuable traditionally, but also, supported Biblically. These thoughts will be in my next post.

Unconventional Church Models

As I sit here on this plane, crossing 11 time zones and pondering the experiences I just had in India...  I can't help but think about the church as a whole.  The pastors in India are following a conventional model, but they are unconventional in their outreach and zeal for church planting.  The conventional model still works, even in America.   However, my mind often dwells upon the other options.  There's more than one way to do this church thing! If society deems something as being normal, it is called, 'conventional'. Orders of worship and means of assembly have been established over the past 1700 years in such a way, that we deem the traditional Sunday-centered church as being 'conventional'.  In today's culture, the modern gatherings where pastors wear jeans, the music is loud and the lights are colored have even gained the status of 'conventional'.  On the surface, they look and sound different than the Lutheran gathering we grew up with, but the basic elements of worship, assembly, and day are still in play. Most of the time, we can take our methods back to the Bible for support, but, the reverse is not always true.  If we knew nothing of church history, tradition or the rampant multiplication of denominationalism, our ideas of worship and assembly might look different, (more on this topic here... no need to regurgitate myself... which would be gross).  But, with that said, I've often wondered what other church models might look like. I've been pastoring in a conventional church now for 13 years.  I'm sure there are still many years ahead of me.  This is where I belong right now, but I'm not so intrenched to think that this is the 'only' way to do this church thing.  In fact, I believe there are better ways for the church to be the church.  I passionately want to see the church living as, and acting as the church in this world.  For this reason, I'm often looking outside of the walls of this conventional model.  Some models provide greater opportunities in method, but are still restricted by the ideas which drive the individual groups.  One house church might be incredible effective, while the other is nothing more than an occasional 'hang out'.  One commune might reach out fervently into it's world.  Another might shut the gate and remain isolated.  One business model might be effective in holding a community together, but the other might get distracted by the business, and forget everything else.  A model is not an easy fix.  It still depends mostly on the hearts and visions of the community.  This is why there is still hope for the conventional churches. Without further adue... House Church  -Of course, the most obvious alternative is the 'house church' movement.  Compared to some other models, this one isn't too big of a step away from the conventional.  This model is extremely hard to define since every house church looks, behaves, and believes differently, (kind of like... non house churches).  House churches are usually led by people who are disenchanted, disenfranchised and just plain DONE with the institutional church.  Many are generated from reactionary motivations, rather than an initial call to start a house church, (which isn't a bad thing, unless of course, it is a bad thing).   Some house churches abound with intentional discipleship, leadership, service and Bible teaching while others just look like a bunch of people sitting in a living room, (kind of like... non house churches).  They excel and are embraced by the general Christian community where persecution is a cultural norm, (like China), but, in other cultures, have proven to be a quiet haven for the rebellious and idealistic, (I use these labels in a positive way for most, but not all).  Some house church proponents have a "my way or the highway" view, while others are simply inclined to believe that this is what works best for them. Comune Church - Yes, I know what you're thinking... MONKS!  There is a recent upturn in community based fellowships.  These became popular in the 70's, (the most notable, Jesus People USA,  -they are still going strong, though now connected to a denomination).  Culture has a way of being unoriginal.  Generally, things run in a 30 - 40 year cycle.  If you watch the rotations which exist in the fashion world, you can easily conclude that similar rotations are happening in the church.  What was cool in the 70's, is cool now, (think:  Occupy Wall Street).  Community based churches are no different.  Those involved pool their resources, live in a common place, work for the common good and practice regular times of worship and study.  These run the gamete from ultra orthodox to charismatic nudists, (well, maybe not nudists, but something like that). Business Centered Model -    Believe it or not, these faith communities are springing up all over the world.  Those who are involved have structure, fellowship, discipleship and outreach.  The cohesion agent, (which also provides income), is a business of sorts.  The community of believers work together in the business, generating income for the sake of ministry and outreach.  You will occasionally find articles like this, on Tall Skinny Kiwi, who is a proponent of this particular model. Personally, I like the business centered model.  It's very similar to my idea for the Overflow Community Center... which, instead of a business, the cohesion would be provided by a community center.  Over the past year, I've put more thought towards this model and really like the idea of combining the business / community center model into one.  One of the main ideas behind Overflow, is to facilitate the opportunity for the church at large to use their gifts and minister in ways that their conventional church can't facilitate.  It would have its own community for the sake of discipleship, worship and ministry, but it would provide a means for the overall church community to interact and cooperate for the sake loving and reaching the needy in our city.  So far, this is only an idea.  For now, I'm still part of the conventional church. Whatever your model looks like, I do believe there needs to be a basic list of common elements.
  • Regular opportunities for baptism and communion
  • The gospel is preached and people are discipled
  • The community is flowing with concern, care, benevolence, involvement and spiritual gifts for its own personal edification
  • The community is being discipled, cared for and built up in order to provoke love and good works in an outward way -here, there and everywhere, (locally, regionally and worldwide)
  • The community worships
  • There are elders (leadership, structure and accountability)
  • There is a genuine concern for the lost, and an obedient intent to bring people before the message of salvation
There are more things that could go on this list, but in a snapshot, these are the aspects which should exist (imho) in a church model.  Notice, my list says nothing about Sundays, suits, worship teams, corporate assemblies or facilities.  These things aren't bad...  they're just not, as we traditionally see it, necessary elements of us being the church.    

People Leave Churches

Most churches keep their back door locked.  If someone wants to pass through it, they have to endure interviews, interventions, potential acts of discipline and a relentless barrage of phone calls and emails. No, I'm not talking about a real door.  Fire codes insist that the physical door be unlocked from the inside. But memberships and covenants don't. I'm not opposed to membership.  There are several merits which I could, if I wanted to, go on and on about. However, the back door of membership isn't, in my opinion, a merit.  I give it a demerit. Some people cannot easily leave a church.  In the name of discipleship and concern, potential escapees are tracked, tagged and thoroughly examined.   They are reminded of a paper they signed.  A love-drenched package of guilt is laid upon them in the name of Christian concern and accountability.  In some cases, they are grudgingly drug back in.  In other cases, what could have been an easy transition from one fellowship to another, is turned into a traumatic event. Here's the cold hard truth.  PEOPLE LEAVE CHURCHES.   In the fictional book, Why I'm Leaving Your Church For Dummies, there is (should be) a long list excuses to merit a departure.
  • The pastor is unapproachable, (this was addressed in a previous post)
  • So and so looked at me and I felt judged.
  • Someone asked my name more than once and it made me feel uncomfortable.
  • I'm just not getting fed.
  • This church doesn't provide the programs and support that I need.
  • The music is too da#@ loud.
These are easy reasons to give as one approaches the back door. After passing quietly through the back door, a week or two might pass.  When the pastor has not followed up, they can add this classic addendum to the previous list
  • Nobody called me.
The reality is, thee classic excuses are rarely true.  They're just convenient, spiritual sounding covers for reasons that most folks are unwilling to be honest about. I'd rather not hear the classic reasons.  I'd rather have silence and mystery, than dishonest fluff.  For this reason, and many others, I believe in the back door should remain unlocked.  When opened, it shouldn't squeak, beep or set off an alarm.  People should be free, if they so choose, to slip out the back door unnoticed. They won't be unnoticed though.  People will recognize their absence.  Some will ask.  Some will even make contact with them.  Some will most likely hear one of the predictable excuses listed above.  If I, the pastor, have not followed up on them, they will hear a predictable excuse along with the classic addendum. Most people disagree with me on this.  They ask me, "Have you contacted so and so?"  Most of the time I answer, "No."  To which they reply, "Why?"  To which I reply, "Because they left." I have followed, hounded and harangued people.  Sometimes I just know that I'm supposed to, especially if there is a real relationship, or the reason of departure is one of personal spiritual demise.  It's a case by case judgement. Most of the time, I just let people go.  Here are a few reasons.
  • They are adults.  They should be free to make adult decisions.
  • They are free.  They should be free to be... well...  free!
  • They've already made their decision.
  • There are a bunch of people who haven't left.  That's where my attention should be.
  • The story of leaving the 100 sheep for the 1 has nothing to do with people leaving church.
  • Lots of people have problems.  Some people want to be part of the solution.  Some don't.  If you leave, you forfeit your right to complain.  It's just not profitable at that point.  It's like that bag of dog poop that you lit on fire an put on someone's doorstep.  Sometimes, you follow up on a leaver, and you just end up stomping your foot into a burning pile of poop.
  • People who aren't willing to seek resolution for their offense, are still, unwilling to seek resolution for their offense 3 weeks later.
  • Some people leave, and are testing the pastor's response.  I'll be tested by those who are part of the fellowship.  I don't think I need to be tested by those who leave the fellowship.
  • Being part of a fellowship is a commitment.  If you leave, you're not committed.
  • Being part of a fellowship is a family matter.  If it's an easy thing to leave the family, you probably weren't really family, (in the local sense, not the universal/salvation sense.)
  • The easily offended will be offended again.
When people are truly struggling, and separate themselves from fellowship because of it, they should be sought out.  If they are hurting, depressed, feeling shame or off the wagon... they should be chased down quickly and compassionately. If they are mature believers, non comital, easily offended, short timers, or folks with disappointed personal agendas...  LET THEM GO!!!  Let them continue on, looking for the place where they belong.  Let them move on without guilt.  Let them be someone you can greet at the grocery store without the awkward need to explain why they no longer go to your church.  Stop them if they try.  Truth in silence is always better than a spoken lie... and usually, what comes out as an explanation isn't going to be real.  Just let them know that it's ok... that you hope they are in a place where they are being encouraged and maturing in their faith. When I was in High School, my friend Brian's family raised sheep.  They were fenced in, without a shepherd.  I've seen shepherds in Israel and in India.  I never saw a fence in those cases.  Shepherds lead sheep from pasture to pasture.  Often times, there was no fence. There's no fence at ccCville.  I'm okay with that.