Saturday, March 28, 2015

5 Reasons Your Church Should Be Smaller

  • Tim
  • 201513 Mar
For years it has bothered me that, although the majority of churches in America have fewer than 300 people, most church leadership advice comes from pastors of huge churches. The assumption that bigger is better pervades the church leadership culture. What if that’s the wrong tack? Here are five reasons your church might be better off focusing on faithfulness instead of success… even if it that means it will Shrink.

1. Faithfulness, not success, is the goal of the church
The church’s job is not to grow, multiply, or expand. The church’s job is not to take back the culture for Jesus. The church’s job is not even to survive. The church’s job is to be the church—to be the faithful people of God who organize their common life together in such a way that they image God to all creation. Sadly, most American churches do not image God so much as they image American story of bigger, better, stronger, higher, and faster. The story of God is quite different. This story says the last will be first and the first will be last. Authentically Christian leadership does not embrace success as a worthy objective. Instead the Christian leader must embrace the way of descent, and the cruciform life of dying to self and others. The American way is up. The Jesus way is down.

2. A fixation on success creates anxiety and burnout
When a church chases ministry greatness, and makes growing attendance their primary metric for success, the most consistent outcome is not growth. The most consistent outcome is anxiety. CEO style church leadership may or may not produce growth, but it always produces a consuming anxiety in the lives of the members and leaders who constantly feel bad for not being bigger. All of that anxiety adds up over time. It usually falls to the pastor to try and keep the system healthy. The megachurch pastor is like the liver of an alcoholic body. The anxiety, pressure, and stress generated by the megachurch are not shared equally but are focused primarily on the pastor. Just one person cannot cleanse those types of systemic toxins, and eventually the pastors will burnout.
3. We are not in control of ministry outcomes
Who holds the future of the church? Is it God, or is it the visionary leader with a 5-year plan? Much of what passes for church leadership is akin to the professional athlete who takes performance-enhancing drugs. The megachurch is like a body on steroids, pumped full of leadership models, strategies, and techniques gleaned
not from the gospel but from the world of business and the narrative
of consumer capitalism.

4. Growth is not always a good sign
Perhaps the most powerful reason the North American church is in decline today is that the church’s way of being in the world does not embody a genuine alternative to the way of the dominant culture. When the church becomes an agent of the culture, indistinguishable in most ways from society at large, one of two things will tend to happen. On one hand, some people will cease to see the value in belonging and they will opt out. Why not sip some coffee and watch Oprah on a Sunday morning, if we’re going to get the same thing at church? On the other hand, the church could simply stop chasing success. However, this typically involves a reorientation away from creating the ultimate worship experience, and toward investing our lives in those Jesus seemed to care about most—those he called “the least of these.” When that happens, those who are only there for the big show will opt out.

5. The pursuit of greatness drowns out goodness and virtue
When Jim Collins wrote his renowned leadership manual Good to Great, church leaders ate it
 up. His central thesis, “Good is the enemy of
 Great,” contends that leaders who become satisfied with a good organization will cease to press
toward greatness. My thesis is a complete reversal of Collins’s. I say that Great is the enemy of Good in Christian leadership. The drive to be great is crowding out goodness and virtue as the central focus. Christian leadership has become too pragmatic, while faithfulness has taken a backseat. Pastors have morphed into CEOs, and the worth of the leader has become intrinsically tied to the size of their congregation.

ISIS Is a Disgrace to True Fundamentalism


It has become a commonplace in recent months to observe that the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, is the latest chapter in the long story of the anticolonial awakening — the arbitrary borders drawn after World War I by the great powers being redrawn — and simultaneously a chapter in the struggle against the way global capital undermines the power of nation states. But what causes such fear and consternation is another feature of the ISIS regime: The public statements of the ISIS authorities make it clear that the principal task of state power is not the regulation of the welfare of the state’s population (health, the fight against hunger) — what really matters is religious life and the concern that all public life obey religious laws. This is why ISIS remains more or less indifferent toward humanitarian catastrophes within its domain — its motto is roughly “take care of religion and welfare will take care of itself.” Therein resides the gap that separates the notion of power practiced by ISIS from the modern Western notion of what Michel Foucault called “biopower,” which regulates life in order to guarantee general welfare: the ISIS caliphate totally rejects the notion of biopower.
While the official ISIS ideology rails against Western permissiveness, the daily practice of the ISIS gangs includes full-scale grotesque orgies.
Does this make ISIS premodern? Instead of seeing in ISIS a case of extreme resistance to modernization, one should rather conceive of it as a case of perverted modernization and locate it into the series of conservative modernizations which began with the Meiji restoration in 19th-century Japan (rapid industrial modernization assumed the ideological form of “restoration,” or the return to the full authority of the emperor).

The well-known photo of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader, with an exquisite Swiss watch on his arm, is here emblematic: ISIS is well organized in web propaganda as well as financial dealings, although these ultra-modern practices are used to propagate and enforce an ideologico-political vision that is not so much conservative as a desperate move to fix clear hierarchic delimitations. However, we should not forget that even this image of a strictly disciplined and regulated fundamentalist organization is not without its ambiguities: is religious oppression not (more than) supplemented by the way local ISIS military units seem to function? While the official ISIS ideology rails against Western permissiveness, the daily practice of the ISIS gangs includes full-scale grotesque orgies, including robberies, gang rapes, torture and murder of infidels.

Upon a closer look, the apparent heroic readiness of ISIS to risk everything also appears more ambiguous. Long ago Friedrich Nietzsche perceived how Western civilization was moving in the direction of the Last Man, an apathetic creature with no great passion or commitment. Unable to dream, tired of life, he takes no risks, seeking only comfort and security: “A little poison now and then: that makes for pleasant dreams. And much poison at the end, for a pleasant death. They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health. ‘We have discovered happiness,’ say the Last Men, and they blink.”


Friday, March 27, 2015

The Atlantic: Welfare Makes America More Entrepreneurial

A common perspective among political conservatives, especially of the libertarian and Tea Party varieties, is that welfare is a drag on economic growth and it is a disincentive to initiative. Paul Ryan wants a safety net and not safety hammock. Some libertarians don’t even want the net. It would be better to let people assume their own risks. Money taxed away by the government is money that people could have used to buy goods and services and boost the economy.

I do not dispute that government programs could be a drag on the economy but this conservative narrative is grossly incomplete! Entrepreneurship and economic innovation are, at the heart, calculations about risk. By taking a bold step, what are the chances I will be better off (however I measure that) and what are the chances I could lose everything? Do the chances of “better off” outweigh the status quo, especially if I could lose even what I have now? So here is the key point: By reducing the risk of losing everything we tip the risk calculation toward taking making more risk, and therefore economic growth.
... Take food stamps. Conservatives have long argued that they breed dependence on government. In a 2014 paper, Olds examined the link between entrepreneurship and food stamps, and found that the expansion of the program in some states in the early 2000s increased the chance that newly eligible households would own an incorporated business by 16 percent. (Incorporated firms are a better proxy for job-creating startups than unincorporated ones.)
Interestingly, most of these new entrepreneurs didn’t actually enroll in the food stamp program. It seems that expanding the availability of food stamps increased business formation by making it less risky for entrepreneurs to strike out on their own. Simply knowing that they could fall back on food stamps if their venture failed was enough to make them more likely to take risks. ...
... The rate of incorporated business ownership for those [CHIP] eligible households just below the cutoff was 31 percent greater than for similarly situated families that could not rely on CHIP to care for their children if they needed it.
The same is true of recent immigrants to the United States. Contrary to claims by the right that welfare keeps immigrants from living up to their historic role as entrepreneurs, CHIP eligibility increased those households’ chances of owning an incorporated business by 28 percent.
The mechanism in each case is the same: publicly funded insurance lowers the risk of starting a business, since entrepreneurs needn’t fear financial ruin. (This same logic explains why more forgiving bankruptcy laws are associated with more entrepreneurship.) ...
... American men were more likely to start a business just after turning 65 and qualifying for Medicare than just before. Here again, government can make entrepreneurship more appealing by making it less risky. ...
... Sometimes, though, a robust safety net may serve to discourage entrepreneurship. The best path in such cases, however, may not be to cut the program, but rather, to reform it. When France lowered the barriers to receiving unemployment insurance, it actually increased the rate of entrepreneurship.. Until 2001, citizens on unemployment insurance had little incentive to start businesses, since doing so would terminate their benefits. Instead of gutting the program, the state simply decided to let anyone who founded a business keep drawing benefits for a limited period, and guaranteed that they would be eligible again if that business failed. The result: a 25 percent increase in the rate of new-firm creation. ...

Other examples are reported. You get the picture. Here is the conclusion.
... The evidence simply does not support the idea of a consistent tradeoff between bigger government and a more entrepreneurial economy. At least in some cases, the reverse is actually true. When governments provide citizens with economic security, they embolden them to take more risks. Properly deployed, a robust social safety net encourages more Americans to attempt the high-wire act of entrepreneurship.

The challenge is not the particular size of government. The issue is the precise programmatic design of any given program. Markets generate a real-time feedback loop that allows independent individuals to prioritize their choices. Government has less effective ways of being adaptive and responsive. I lean toward market solutions where practical. Yet, there are some deliverables that markets alone are not capable of generating. How this mix should all come together is a topic on which reasonable people can disagree. But the idea that government cuts necessarily lead to more economic vitality is no more valid than the idea that wildly throwing money at welfare programs helps people. The real world is far messier than ideologues are willing to grant.

There is such a thing as "a Christian way to vote" - by John Dickson


Introduction: Mixing Religion and Politics
 "He who says politics and religion do not mix understands neither one." (Mahatma Gandhi)

I am the true ‘swinging voter’. In the numerous elections of my life (beginning with the Federal election of July 1987), my personal votes have been fairly evenly split between Labor and The Liberal, or Coalition, parties.

In what follows, then, I have no agenda. The last thing on my mind is to influence which party you vote for.

I do, however, want to insist that people who identify themselves as Christian should vote in a way that is informed by their faith, whatever decision they finally make. While Christianity is not party political, it is political in the broader sense. At a fundamental level, faith concerns life in society—the word ‘politics’ comes from the Greek politeuō, meaning to live as a citizen. Everyone who is concerned with the life of our wider community  (as every Christian must be) is ‘political’ in the larger sense of the word.

In essence, what I want to do in this short article is outline how some basic Christian beliefs should – and should not – influence a Christian’s vote. I write with a dual audience in mind. I want to encourage Christians to be more thoughtful about their political opinions and I hope to demonstrate for the religious ‘spectator’ that, despite some rather potent counter-examples in North America, the ‘Christian vote’ is a vote for the good of the nation not an attempt to impose religious law on a secular society.

I begin with how a Christian ought not to vote.

A) How Not to Vote
1. Precedent: ‘how we always vote’

Voting patterns are sometimes based on little more than family heritage (‘We have always voted for x’) or geographical location (‘Most people vote for y where I live’). I want to suggest that voting by personal or demographic precedent is not a thoughtful vote, and whatever else a Christian vote must be it must be thoughtful. Something as important as the way, and by whom, we are governed must be approached with seriousness and due reflection. Otherwise, believers are hardly loving God “with all the mind.” Christians must also resist the temptation, born of cynicism, to disengage from their responsibilities as voters and citizens.
That would be to retreat from “loving one’s neighbour.”

2. Christian favouritism

Secondly, and perhaps a little controversially, voting for a candidate simply because s/he is a Christian, or our brand of Christian, is morally suspect; it is a religious form of favouritism. Having Christians in parliament is no guarantee—or even indicator—that our nation will be marked by peace, justice, compassion, truth and so on. Sadly, history is littered with counter-examples.

voting for a candidate simply because s/he is a Christian is morally suspect

By all means, a Christian may vote for Christian candidates who also have a track record for diligence, leadership and justice, but it would be irresponsible to favour men and women simply because they are known as ‘Christians’, attend churches or frequent prayer breakfasts and the like. Theologically speaking, good government is not the special preserve of believers. Chapter 13 of Paul’s epistle to the Romans makes clear that even the pagan governments of Rome were to be thought of as ‘established by God.’ Indeed, secular, non-Christian rulers are described by the apostle as ‘God’s servants.’ The point deserves deep reflection.

3. Economic prosperity

Thirdly, the main parties and most of the major media tend to make ‘economic prosperity’ a central election issue. This is a window into the soul of a country. However, Christians must seriously question a fixation with the ‘bottom line’. In a society such as ours, one without deep faith, economic prosperity may be the only measurable form of success, but the follower of Christ ought to think otherwise.

Naturally, if one sincerely believes that national prosperity happens also to be the best way to achieve other, more important, goals for society, then the Christian will appropriately vote with this in mind. However, the believer should always remember the way the pursuit of wealth is given very short shrift in the Bible:

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (1 Timothy 6:10).
If precedent, favouritism and prosperity are faulty grounds upon which to base the Christian vote, what factors should inform such political choices?

B) How a Christian ought to vote


Thursday, March 26, 2015

Why the church should be welcoming but not affirming of straight Christians

Branson Parler   

1. Their straight orientation will most often be a source of life-long temptation and struggle. 

Although straight Christians should grow in holiness over the course of their life, they will most likely never reach a point where their orientation ceases to be a source of temptation in one way or another. So we must demand life-long vigilance against the temptation to simply do what feels natural based on their orientation. 

2. Straight people have been told that their sinful lust is just a normal part of human sexuality. 

It's not. Humans have been created by God as sexual beings. But proper sexual desire is not the same as sinful lust that uses another person as a means to the end of pleasing oneself. Lust is a problem across the board. Straight lust does not somehow have a privileged standing with God because it's straight.
If the statistics are correct, around 2% of the American population identifies as gay or lesbian. Quantitatively, then, we should expect far more problems with straight people lusting than gay people lusting. It would be good if Christians kept that 98%/2% balance when they're highlighting sexual sin. I realize that questions about same-sex relationships are going to dominate the landscape right now, but we dare not give the perception that people sinning with the same sex is qualitatively different than people sinning with the opposite sex.


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

An Open Letter to Ted Cruz from God

Ted, Ted, Ted, my beloved but confused son! I heard your speech the other night. Actually stayed awake through it. I don't usually make it through political speeches these days. But, as I say, I listened to yours.

I listened because you never seem to have gotten the distinction between being an American Christian and a Christian American. And because of that you get most everything else wrong or out of balance. I love you, boy, but you need to get clear on this!

It matters whether the “Christian” is the adjective or the noun. Nouns are the primary thing which adjectives modify in one way or another. An American Christians is what I intend you to be, but you keep insisting on being a Christian American. And as I already said, that makes you get everything else out of whack.

To wit, Ted, if you were an American Christian rather than the Christian American I heard you proclaim yourself to be the other night.

-you would not confuse America with the church the way you so evidently did in your speech.

The church and not America is the only “exceptional” people I know. And they aren't a nation since Jesus came (weren't really even before he came – but I digress). Instead, they live in every country, every nook and cranny of this globe and serve me and my purposes there. Transnational, multi-ethnic (you ought to know about that, Ted!), spread across my creation, my people these days know no national boundaries, have no national boundaries to defend, no national interests to secure, you get my drift, don't you?

-you would not identify the destiny of America with the destiny of the church or the world.

America is a geopolitical empire. Nothing more, nothing less. The day will come when America no longer rules the worlds, or perhaps, even exists. And no, I'm not telling you which. Another of my beloved boys said it best, “America is the best Babylon the world has yet seen, but it is still a Babylon” (my apologies, Tony Campolo). America has boundaries, interests, and agendas to protect, secure, and enforce. And it has done so, often with brutality, injustice, and oppression, as is the wont of empires. That doesn't mean I never use America as a part of my governance of the world. No indeed! I used Egypt and Babylon and Persia and Rome, and I have used America. Not perhaps in ways you would expect or easily identify, but take my word for it. But I have not and do not underwrite American arrogance and pretensions. It is NOT the savior, model or “city set on a hill” by God that all other nations must follow and obey. America will go to judgment just as all those other empires and be a memory for the history books. Nothing exceptional about that!

The church, my people, on the other hand, are truly exceptional. You'd know that, Ted, if you read your Bible more carefully. Don't you remember how I told Abraham and Sarah, promised them actually that I would raise up a great people from them, bless and protect them, and through them bless everyone else (Gen.12:1-3)? That's where my people, Israel and the church, began. And since I always keep my word, my people bear the blessing and destiny of the world. And that's what makes them exceptional; and their mission critical to the well-being of the world. That's why your confusion here, Ted, is so unfortunate! Mark well, no nation can carry out the mission of the church, but the mission of the church can be carried out in any nation!

-you would not seek to be President of America, at least not as Christian.

You just can't do it, my son. Don't you see? How can you pledge to support and protect America's interests and boundaries over and often against other nations where your sisters and brothers in Christ live and seek to do his work? How can you go to war against them? Really? You must be so willing if you take that pledge, you know! You will even have to jail and prosecute some of those brothers and sisters here who protest the imperial injustices America does, in truth, impose on others. You can't have Christ and Caesar at the same time – sorry about that.

Understand this, Ted: if you seek and secure this office it will not be me who put you there! Ponder that. I have a much more significant and truly important job for you to do. Your desire to be President is not only inappropriate, it is to aim too low! You're one of my kids, Ted. That makes you royal. And you're also a priest in the temple that I'm making out of the whole creation. That makes you a royal priest. With the rest of my people you are to stand for me and my interests before the world and to stand for the world before me bearing its needs and concerns.

Did you hear that, my boy? The whole world and its well-being is your concern! And when you remember that the baseline for health and well-being in my world is the compassionate, inclusive, and just (in my sense of justice) treatment of the last, the least, and the lost, well, then you have a mandate worthy of royal priests, brothers and sisters of my own beloved son, Jesus!

-you would learn to see the world very differently than any political party does.

One of your brothers who learned this, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, put this remarkably well:

“There remains an experience of incomparable value. We have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled – in short, from the perspective of those who suffer. The important thing is neither that bitterness nor envy should have gnawed at the heart during this time, that we should have come to look with new eyes at matters great and small, sorrow and joy, strength and weakness, that our perception of generosity, humanity, justice and mercy should have become clearer, freer, less corruptible. We have to learn that personal suffering is a more effective key, a more rewarding principle for exploring the world in thought and action than personal good fortune. This perspective from below must not become the partisan possession of those who are eternally dissatisfied; rather, we must do justice to life in all its dimensions from a higher satisfaction, whose foundation is beyond any talk of ‘from below’ or ‘from above’. This is the way in which we may affirm it.” 

Oh, how I wish you'd said something like that in your speech. That's the way I want my people to see the world. Dietrich was an upper crust guy like you, Ted. I know you weren't always of that status, Ted. But you are now. Yet Dietrich learned to see things my way. I have every expectation that you can too. I know it's hard, son. It goes against everything the world is about in its rebellion against me. But being like me in a world like yours is to see things from the bottom up, through the practice of suffering servanthood. Sooner or later you need to learn that.

-you would discover that the kind of action that genuinely changes people and situations doesn't come from the top down.

My daughter Dorothy Day learned this. She says,

“What we would like to do is change the world--make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, of the destitute--the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in other words--we can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever widening circle will reach around the world. We repeat, there is nothing we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as our friend.”

Yeah, this, this is what I want, Ted. And I want you to be a part of it. That's what being an American Christian looks like. And that's what I want you to look like. Like Jesus. So be done with this “Christian American” thing, Ted. For my sake. For you sake. For the world's sake.

I love you, man!


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Violence in the Old Testament: Theological and Pastoral Concerns

Allan R. Bevere
I keep coming back to this issue of violence in the Old Testament on this blog because I have two concerns--one as a theologian, and the other as a pastor (I'll get to that a little later). Of late there has been a resurgence of a kind of quasi, neo-Marcionite reading of some of the Old Testament texts that simply dismiss difficult themes, in this case, God's participation in violence, particularly in the conquest narratives in the Old Testament book of Joshua. These texts are viewed as incompatible with the revelation of God in Jesus Christ in the New Testament, so they are simply to be dismissed as primitive projections of a primitive tribal people. I have suggested in a previous post that a Christological understanding that leads to such a view of these Old Testament texts is itself based on a deficient Christology.

In the video posted below, Walter Brueggemann says that such a dismissive approach to the violence of the Old Testament is too easy, and I agree. What we have in such passages cannot be viewed simplistically as primitive projections from a primitive people, but such texts are, says Brueggemann, indeed revelations of God. Brueggemann's claim, thus forces us to take these text seriously as Scripture precisely because they are Scripture and are indeed difficult to understand in light of the decisive revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Brueggemann's approach is to be preferred over the dismissive approach that has once again reared its quasi, neo-Marcionite head. And that leads to my two concerns.

My concern as a pastor is that once we start dismissing certain biblical passages because they offend our twenty-first century, modern, Enlightenment, individualistic, self-determined, and rationalistic sensibilities, we give Christians permission to dismiss any texts they don't like. I can tell you that in my thirty plus years as a pastor, I have heard it all in reference to Christians dismissing all sorts of Old Testament passages of Scripture because persons found them to be offensive. As a pastor, I want believers to take all the Scripture seriously, even the most difficult passages and, like Brueggemann, wrestle with how to understand them, instead of just cutting them out of the Bible like Thomas Jefferson and casting them aside.