Please, Don’t Invite Someone to Church This Month

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We’ve got some big problems in the Church these days. That’s no great revelation. Just ask anybody on the street what they think of Christianity, especially during election season, and you’ll get an earful.  We hear it so often, in fact, that we in the Church turn a deaf ear to it. We tune it out. We’re callous to criticism. And we just go on our merry way, carrying on as good soldiers of the Cross. Well, at least on Sundays.

So when I drove by this sign stuck lazily in the ground by the side of the road, insisting I “invite someone to church this month,” all I could do was shake my head in wonder and dismay.

That lawn sign for me, with its tone of religious obligation, was an all-too-accurate metaphor of American churchianity. Stuck in the ground so half-heartedly that the person couldn’t even bother to push it in all the way.

And it leaves me with this one begging question: “Why?”

Why should I invite someone to church?

At the core of my cynical reaction to the sign is the doubt that it would make a single bit of difference in a person’s life.  Of course there are churches out there that are legitimately changing the world, making a difference, with their people walking out the church doors and impacting lives around them in love and compassion and even power. But realistically, they are few and far, far in between.

Let’s get real for a minute. The current mass exodus from mainstream Christianity isn’t because people aren’t showing up to church on Sunday; it’s not because church-goers aren’t inviting others. It’s because we are showing up, but we’re more often than not walking away just as empty as when we walked in.

… It’s because we expect that pastor and the staff to do God’s work. We’re just there to be fed.

… It’s because our own encounter with God is too often limited to those 20 minutes of praise and worship once a week.

… It’s because we hear sermons week after week laden with guilt-inducing messages about how wretched we are, how we need to read our bibles more, pray more, and yes, invite people to church more, and how if it weren’t for the unmerited mercy of God, we’d all be doomed to hell.

… It’s because we good and faithful church-goers, singing hymns about amazing grace and love, pour out of the building at noon every Sunday and head to our favorite buffet — and then gripe at the servers. And leave lousy tips.

… It’s because on that eventful Sunday when the guest we invite does show up, she hears about a Jesus who probably wouldn’t even be welcome in our building. The guy who talked about giving up our wealth, who talked about loving our enemy — and not just in some warm-fuzzy way, but in wallet-emptying ways: feeding and clothing the poor, caring for the homeless, visiting (helping!) the sick who can’t afford medical care. That guy, Jesus, would never be offered the pulpit. His gospel would be too demanding, and he would likely be quietly ushered out the back. Not a good candidate for our country-club Christian comfort zones.

People aren’t coming to church … because we good and faithful church-goers, singing hymns about amazing grace and love, pour out of the building at noon every Sunday and head to our favorite buffet — and then gripe at the servers. And leave lousy tips..

… It’s because all those good words read out of the Good Book bear little resemblance to the anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-immigrant political propaganda coming out of so many preachers doing their best to defend “traditional American values” instead of “Jesus values.”

And honestly, if a new person did walk through our doors, would they meet God in our eyes and arms, or are they just supposed to absorb God from the singing and prayers offered? “You won’t leave here like you came, in Jesus’ name.” Lord, I wish that were true.

So, stick that sign out by the side of the road; let’s invite someone to church this month. Not even this week – don’t knock yourself out. Just any ole time this month will be just fine. Let’s fill these pews. Pack this place. Cuz that’s what this world really needs.

Instead, why don’t we invite the church out to the world this month?

How about instead of focusing on church Sunday morning, we come out Saturday night to offer warm soup on the street corner to the hookers? Or to hand out McDonald’s gift cards to those guys living under the overpass so they can have a hot meal for once this month, instead of having to beg for change or dig through trash?  Or how about we go down to the gay strip, and instead of passing out tracts trying to get people saved, offer them free bottled water or BBQ sandwiches to cut the alcohol in their system so they can drive home safely? Or maybe even pull an extra $20 bill out of our Gucci wallets and Michael Kors bags to help finance that shelter for homeless youth?

Let’s set aside for the moment the suggestion that we actually volunteer at the county jail or state pen in some program to benefit the prisoners, or to go up to the hospital and just hold the hand of our fellow church member who’s alone and afraid. That’s too hard. (Hey, I don’t do that either — so I’m not just throwing stones at others here.) I won’t ask that we actually participate in that Soup Kitchen on a regular basis, as part of habitually walking out our Christian beliefs.

It’s hard enough getting people just to step out of their — our — self-absorbed lives long enough to smile at the cashier at Walmart. Oh sure, we’ll say “Have a blessed day,” but exercising just a bit of patience when that cashier is having a hard time with her register and making us wait in line too long — that’s just a bit too much effort.

Invite someone to church this month? No thanks. At least not until the church we’re inviting them to is actually doing something outside the building on days other than Sunday. Not until we who go week after week are actually being changed, transformed, by those good words. Not until we show that we actually care about the people around us, until a little light actually shines from us in this dark place we call urban America.

When churchianity becomes authentic Christianity, when we’re doing some legitimate Jesus-following, we won’t have to invite someone to a service this month. And we won’t need signs to remind us. People will be knocking on our doors wanting what we have.

But until we have it, please. Please. Don’t invite someone. We’ve got enough church-goers in this country already.

photo credit: Stephen Schmidt, cc

 

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Now is the Time of Your Breakthrough. Or Maybe Not.

 

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“God has a plan. God is working his plan. God’s plan includes you.”  Those were words printed in bold letters on a sign hung above the pulpit in a church I used to go to in Tulsa. The pastor wanted her people to know that their lives were not just stuck in the mud, that God was doing something in them and through them. God was working.

We all need that hope. We all need that reassurance that we’re part of something bigger, that our lives have significance and purpose. Or at least, many of us do. I do. And every once in a while we need someone to remind us that we’re on track.  That’s where encouragers come into play – I mean legitimate encouragers, those sensitive to the Spirit’s promptings who can offer words directly from God to those of us going through moments of self-doubt. I do not mean those false “prophets” who post memes on social media about “Now is the time of your breakthrough …” or “This is your year. This year God will bring all your dreams and plans to success.”

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general words of encouragement are great …

God does have a plan, and God does want your dreams to come true. He planted them in you, in your DNA, even before you were born. They are woven into the fabric of who you are. They’re not selfish, they’re part of the bigger picture, a piece in the cosmic puzzle, and without you fulfilling those dreams, that larger picture will never be complete.

But that does not at all mean that “now” is the time.

And while we all need general words of encouragement to “press on” from time to time, other well-meaning but misguided words claiming divine authority can do more damage than if they were never spoken at all. False prophets are dangerous. They can lead you down the wrong path or prompt you to do something way before the right time. And a good thing or even a well-meaning act at the wrong time can become a very, very wrong thing.

A couple examples …

Let me throw a couple of bible examples at you.

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… specific “prophetic” words broadcast to the public, not so much …

Anybody hanging out in a Word-based church in past few decades has probably heard sermons on Abraham “Ishmael-ing it”.  God tells old Abe that he will have a son, and makes some stunning promises about how his descendants would affect the course of history. Abe is thrilled, of course, but he is also 75 years old. He waits for it to happen, but after a number of years of waiting for his wife to become pregnant, he thinks “now is the time” and gets the bright idea to have a child with his wife’s slave instead. Ishmael is born. There are some family complications, and Abe finally has to send Ishmael and his mother away. He missed it. And the son he was promised finally came when he was 99 years old – almost 25 years after the promise.

Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph has a divine dream, two of them in fact, that he would be a great leader of his people. He’s a hot-headed, spoiled little punk, and rubs his brothers’ noses in it. They end up selling him into slavery, and he ends up in an Egyptian prison for several years. Ultimately, all that works out to make him a well-equipped leader when he finally is appointed Prime Minister of Egypt … about 15 years after the inspired dreams.

And we all know the story of “The Ten Commandments.” Who hasn’t seen the movie? Moses is the chosen deliverer of the Israelites suffering in slavery in Egypt. At the age of 40 he decides “now is the time,” and ends up murdering an Egyptian man who was abusing a fellow Israelite. And then has to flee Egypt to escape justice. He ends up tending goats and sheep for the next 40 years before God finally calls him through a burning bush.

The New Testament opens with stories about this exotic character, John the Baptist. He has a miraculous birth, born to elderly, barren parents, complete with angelic visitations and prophesy. He was called and destined to be the forerunner of the great Deliverer of Israel, yet he ends up living in the wilderness, wearing shabby clothes eating bugs. Then one day, “the word of God came to him while he was in the wilderness.” “Now is the time,” and he began his famous preaching.  But he had to wait, to live his life, until that time came. He had to wait until the authentic “word from God” said “go.”

Even Jesus – now there was some miraculous birth scenes. Immaculate conception, Holy Spirit impregnation, angelic proclamations – that whole scene from “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” where Linus quotes from the gospel of Luke: “… and there in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid …”  Yet even Jesus did not begin his ministry until he was baptized by John and the Spirit descended upon him, empowering and affirming him: “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased…” Only then does Jesus’ miraculous ministry begin.

The bottom line

The button line is that just because God has a plan, just because he’s given you dreams, does not mean that those dreams start now. You may not be ready yet. In each of the biblical examples just mentioned, there was a time of preparation.  The gospel writers say of both John and Jesus that they “grew in wisdom and in stature, in favor with God and with men.”  That is, they had some growing up to do. They weren’t ready to launch out into God’s promised plan or into their dream vocation right way. It took years before they were ready. And they had to wait for the divine green light: “now is the time.”  But that green light was legitimately divine, not just some positive word spoken by a feel-good, encouraging “prophet.”

God made some astounding promises to Abraham about his descendants, the nations of Israel and Ishmael. But they didn’t happen overnight. In fact, at one point, the nation was conquered by the Babylonians, and many of the people were yanked out of their homeland and taken into captivity to Babylon. They had their prophets claiming that God was about to rescue them and restore everything to its proper place.  But they lied. They were well-meaning, but they were wrong. And Jeremiah, a legit prophet of God, had this to say to them: “Settle in. Increase, grow. It’s gonna be a while, but I have plans for you …”

This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the LORD.

This is what the LORD says: “When 70 years are completed in Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise … For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future…”  (Jeremiah 29:4-12)

We all love to quote that last verse: “I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD…” But we almost always quote it out of context. The verse right before it says “When 70 years in Babylon are completed …”  There is a necessary period of development, of preparation and growth. There is a timetable for your dream, for God’s plan.  But “Now” may not be that time.

now3So when you hear the so-called prophets and diviners making these warm and happy claims that “this is the year of God’s favor for you, now is the time for you to step into your call and to fulfill your dream…,” take note. Listen inside yourself for the genuine voice of God. Is now really the time, or are you still in the prep stages – like Abraham, Joseph, Moses, John the Baptist and Jesus?

Don’t get frustrated. Don’t become impatient. Don’t lose hope.

There will be a time when you get the green light from God, when the “word from God” will come to you in your wilderness. That will be the time to launch.  God does have a plan. God is working his plan. And God’s plan does include you. Your job in the meantime is to prepare, to learn, to grow in wisdom and in stature, in favor with God and men – to get ready for the right time. To wait for the appointed time.

“Now” may – or may not – be the time.  Discern for yourself. Wait for your own specific word. Don’t jump the gun – or you might just end up wandering around a mountain tending goats for 40 years.

photo credit: “High Fly,” Abhinay Omkar via Flickr, cc.

This post originally appeared in IMPACT Magazine.

Your Tithe Doesn’t Belong to Your Church

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Wow, do we have it wrong!

I bet when you hear the word “tithe” or even “offerings,” your thoughts go immediately to pictures of a plate being passed in church. I’ve heard it from pulpits myself, “the tithe belongs to the church … your offerings can go to other places (like the traveling evangelist passing through), but your tithe stays here.” The common understanding among many Christians is that a 10th of their income belongs to God — and that means to the church. (Whether that’s 10% on your gross income or your net is a matter of conscience — and obviously, if you choose the cheaper way out, well, what does that say about you?)*

But here’s the thing: that was not where “giving” in the New Testament went. It didn’t go to build new churches; it didn’t go solely to pay the bills of some institution. It went to people. Poor people, in fact.

But let’s back-track a bit. Where did this idea of your obligation to the church come from? If you’ve been in any independent Charismatic church in the last half-century, you know very well the over-quoted verse in Malachi 3:10.

“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,” says the LORD of hosts, “if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing that there shall not be room enough to receive it.”

It’s a favorite of preachers trying to motivate their congregations to reach into their wallets and purses, and give … give … give! until it hurts. Because God will reward you beyond your capactity to contain it all.

In other words, “give so you can get back.”

It’s a teaching made popular by Oral Roberts back in the 1940s when he realized that most people gave their tithes out of guilt and obligation. Preachers taught their flocks that they had to support God’s work, but Oral saw it in a different light. He saw it as an opportunity for blessing. “Seed-faith,” he called it. You sow like a farmer, and you expect a harvest, a return on your investment. “Give as a seed you sow, not as a debt you owe.”  It turned obligation into optimism; people began giving because they wanted to. They wanted their harvest.

And that’s great. If you have the faith that God wants to reward your generosity, then who can fault that? But on any other topic, most Christians are united in the belief that God cares about what motivates us as much as he does what we do. Why we do something is as important as the thing itself. Because God judges the heart. Outward actions can be deceiving, can be put on for show, can be the action of hypocrites eager for public approval but whose hearts are made of stone. God knows the difference.

And that’s exactly what Jesus taught. Right before his teaching on the Lord’s Prayer, he advises his disciples to watch how they give, how they pray, and how they fast (Matthew 6). Do it in secret, he says, so that no one can pat you on the back, and your Father in Heaven who sees what is done in secret will reward you. It’s not that you nullify those actions if you do them publically (didn’t Daniel in the Bible pray 3 times a day with his windows open?), but Jesus declares that doing things “to be seen by others” reflects a corrupt attitude. And by doing so, you’ve forfeited God’s blessing. You have your reward — other people’s attention — paid in full.

Alms-giving was a religious fundamental in Judaism. Along with prayer and fasting, it was one of the main hallmarks of godliness. (Hence, Jesus addressing these three specific issues in Mt 6.) So much so, that “acts of righteousness” (or just plain ole “righteousness” for short) became synonymous with alms-giving. And it still is today. And, in fact, it’s a hallmark of the faithful in Islam too — it’s #3 in the “Five Pillars of Islam” (Profession of Faith, Prayer, Giving, Fasting, and Pilgramage to Mecca). But “giving” was well understood to mean “giving to the poor and needy” — charity, alms-gving — not dropping cash into the synagogue or mosque coffers.

tithes_2876749931_25fd3ac42d_zHow did we Christians get it confused? How did what was so clearly understood by the Middle Eastern faithful as taking care of the needs of people around us get turned into mostly supporting a church organziation?

Well, there’s that nice phrase in that Malachi passage, “bring the whole tithe into the storehouse.” And what’s the storehouse? The Temple — err, the church, I mean. Right? But wait: “so that there may be meat in my house.” That’s talking about food. Okay, yes. Part of the Israelite’s tithe (in grain, meats, produce, oil and wine) went to support the priests and Levites — the religious workers. So the analogy would be that your tithe goes to support people in ministry. But the storehouse was also the local food-pantry for widows, orphans, illegal aliens, and other assorted needy people. They, along with the Levites who had no other trade except priestly work, could come to their local storehouse to get food.

“Bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.” (Dt 14:28,29)

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul did a little guilt-tripping on some of the congregations he founded. He was trekking across great distances, preaching, teaching, raising small congregations in the places he visited, and sometimes he had to foot the bill by himself. So he would use popular images to defend his right to financial support: A soldier does not serve at his own expense; you don’t muzzle an ox when it’s working at the mill; a teacher should share in the profit of his students, etc. He felt a bit abandoned. Except for his friends in Philippi, the other churches weren’t consistently supporting him (Phil 4:15). So yeah, there is that. People who surrender their lives to the work of God should be supported by the people of God.

But Paul wasn’t out to line his own pockets with gold — he had little good to say about those who preached the Gospel for personal gain. Look at Paul’s other teachings on giving, especially our favorite ones promising God’s blessing when we give. “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7) is ALL about Paul encouraging the Corinthians to support the poor believers in other jurisdictions. He devotes two full chapters on this, using God as an example who scattered his gifts abroad and gave to the poor. Christ who was rich became poor for our sakes, so that we might become rich. Just as God cares about and gives to the poor, so should we. It’s all about sharing our wealth with those in need. This wasn’t so that some could live a life of ease at the expense of hard-working folk, but so that there would be enough for all.

“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: ‘The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little'” (2 Cor 8:13-15).

And then he adds a little sugar to his appeal: “He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. … God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. … You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion.”

Taking care of the poor and widows was so important, that the early church under the first apostles created the office of “Deacon” in order to oversee the daily distribution of their food-pantry (Acts 6), and the people shared their possessions with anyone who had need (Acts 4:35). That was the mark of truly godly people — their generosity and support of the needy.

The church was never meant to be just a place where you sing a few songs and hear a good sermon. It was also meant to be a local storehouse. Literally.

But over time the church lost its concern for the physical and material welfare of the people, and focused almost exclusively on their spiritual condition. And giving to God, as a result, followed suit. Alms-giving which was once so closely associated with righteousness, became “giving to the church,” and shifted from caring for people to providing for the needs of the organization and its ministers.

The nature of tithes and offerings changed because the church’s priorities changed. (When was the last time you heard a sermon about God blessing you with prosperity for feeding the hungry or the homeless?)

I’m not suggesting that should you stop supporting your local place of worship. The work of God won’t get done if you’re not putting your money where your mouth is. And as Paul argues, ministers are in fact worthy of our support. But God’s promise of blessing is to those who care for the vulnerable among us. And unless your church offering envelope has a checkbox for programs specifically geared toward these social concerns, you might want to consider holding back a bit of your offering and giving elsewhere. Or maybe meeting those needs yourself. Neglecting the financial support of people who need help, and reserving your tithes and offerings exclusively for “giving to the church” would mark you as un-righteous not only in the eyes of other religions, but in the eyes of early Christians too.


* Side note: Whether “tithing” is even a Christian obligation is a matter of hot debate. Some claim it is a remnant of Old Testament law that the Christian has been set free from, and our only obligation is to “give” as our heart leads. Others will say that because Jesus mentioned tithing (once) in a discussion with some Pharisees, he obviously condones its continued use in the church today. But this is a topic for another time …

photo credit: “Who needs hope?” Keoni Cabral on Flickr, cc,
“Tithes & Offerings,” RayBanBro66 on Flickr, cc.

 

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STEVE SCHMIDT is the Teaching Pastor at Expressions Today in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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That Church ain’t Dead

empty_pew_68916012_800512b224_oThis morning over my third cup of coffee, I was thinking about some churches I know that are experiencing diminishing congregations, a mass exodus of Gen X and Gen Y attendees, and a lost focus outside their own church box.  The phrase that popped in my mind was “Ichabod,” the Glory of the Lord has departed.

But then immediately in my gut, I felt that was wrong.  Completely wrong.  As long as people are there, the Spirit of God will be there.  That’s a given.  God loves human beings, it’s just not in his nature to abandon us, so wherever we are, especially if our hearts are inclined toward him in anyway, the Spirit of God will be there.

I remembered a few years ago when I was driving home from work, the car radio tuned to a Christian talk show where listeners called in and asked questions about the bible.  At one point, they were debating “the End Times” and when and how the Holy Spirit will be removed from the planet, and then Evil would be given free rein.  And as I listened, I knew instinctively that they were wrong.  They assumed some event would occur in history that would cause God to depart from this planet and turn his back on humanity.  Of course before that occurred, all the saints would have been gathered up in a great rapture and pulled into his heavenly bosom.  The poor wretches left on earth would suffer through some arbitrary number of years of incredible and unimaginable misery before God would return and reimpose his reign physically on the cosmos.

And in my gut I knew that was dead wrong.  We can be so glib sometimes when we say that “God is love” and then go on to attribute horrific and spiteful acts to him.  What I sensed at that moment was that as long as human beings existed on this planet, the Spirit of God would be there living among them.  Tribulation or no tribulation, nothing can separate us from the love of God.  Even in the darkest moments of our history, God was — and will continue to be — close to those who reach out for him.  To deny that is to deny the very character of God.

So when I was thinking about these poor churches, having lost their vision, lost their way, floundering in a sea of mediocrity and irrelevance, making no impact whatsoever in the world around them, acting only as a weekend social club for the same familiar faces week after week, it was very tempting for me to fall into that same trap and think that God would abandon them.  But the truth is, as long as there is a living, breathing soul in that congregation who is seeking God with even an ounce of their strength, I do not believe the Spirit will abandon them.  That church ain’t dead.  It may be on critical life support, just waiting for someone to pull the plug, but it’s never too late.

My job, then, as a member of the faithful community is not to wish them ill, or to pray for their speedy and merciful demise, or even to sit back with my bowl of popcorn and watch the slow, painful, inevitable conclusion unfold. As cliché as it sounds, my job is — should be — to pray for them.  I may not feel inclined to dedicate my life’s energy into trying to revive them — most dying churches are dying for a reason.  They are usually resistant to change.  They are often locked within the trap of their own limited vision, usually anchored in some romanticized moment in the past, and usually focused inward, too preoccupied with self-survival, and too out of touch with the world around them.  They often have become “of no earthly good.” But I can still pray that God will at least stir one or two of them with the hunger for more.  I can pray that their leaders’ eyes will be opened to see clearly what is happening, and that they will reach out to God in a real way, beyond a perfunctory routine of simply walking through a Sunday liturgy.  I can pray like the Apostle Paul that the eyes of their heart will be enlightened and that they will know the great hope to which they are called.  I can pray that even if there is just a corner of their hearts that has not yet turned to stone, that they will look outward and see the people around them, and be moved with genuine love and compassion to do something other than turning on the lights Sunday morning for an hour and then going home. I can pray that the Spirit, who is still there — even if constrained by their lost interest and their restricted time table — will be unleashed to work among them. The church is dead only when everyone in the church is dead.

I learned this morning not to so quickly write off churches that seem to be failing — at least from my viewpoint.  As that old prophet Ezekiel discovered, even a valley full of dry bones is no match for the breath of God.  As long as people are still there, the Spirit is still there, lurking, waiting to breathe new life.

Even where the pulse is weak, those churches aren’t dead. There’s still hope — just like there is for the old guy needing that third cup of coffee in the morning.

photo credit: Ally on Flickr, cc

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT is a Bible teacher at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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Jesus in Drag

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Funny thing happened in church today. (Yeah, I know. Sounds like the start of a joke.) The church I frequently attend put on a nice Christmas program, with the choir singing some of the holiday favorites, interspersed with readings about Jesus, and a good mix of worship songs that never let our minds drift too far from the theme that Jesus is at the heart of our holiday.

God’s got an interesting sense of humor. Because, there I was, sitting way over in the left section of the sanctuary, empty seats around me, and about a half hour into the program, two women whom I thought might well be hookers, came in and sat next to me. I smiled and nodded politely — being the welcoming Christian gentleman that I pretend to be. And a few minutes later, in the middle of a choir member’s monologue, one of the lady’s phone goes off. And it’s ringing. Literally, ringing, like the old style phones. And it keeps ringing. And she’s fumbling with it, trying to shut it off. And still it rings. You’d think it would stop after a few rings — even if she can’t manage to find the mute — and go to voicemail. But no. It rings continuously for close to a minute. I thought, surely she’d just get up and leave the quiet intimacy of the sanctuary and try to deal with the noise out in the lobby. But no. Eventually, after what seemed an embarrassingly drawn out period of time, her friend grabs the phone from her and puts it under her thigh, effectively muffling it. After my initial sense of mortification and a brief moment of internal wrestling with judgmental indignation, I manage to find the humor in it, and just start chuckling. The one sitting on the phone looks over at me and starts to laugh too. Quietly, of course. And she smiles at me. Okay, “welcoming mission” accomplished.

The guy sitting right in front of me, also on an otherwise empty row, … I don’t know quite what to make of. At first glance, I thought he was one of the homeless youth we’re currently providing winter clothes for, but during the “meet and greet” — that moment all introverts dread — when I shook his hand and we exchanged names, I realized he was no teenager. He must have been in his 30s at least. And he couldn’t have been homeless because he was dressed in clean loungewear. A cut off tanktop that showed his belly (not rock-hard abs, in case you were wondering) and … I don’t even know what to call them: fuzzy pink and lime leppard print tights? Sweats? Yeah, not what they’re wearing on the streets these days.

That’s God’s sense of humor for you. In a room full of familiar faces, the handful of first-timers flocked to the seats immediately by me. The professional ladies and the … party boy? … and the uptight middle-class white guy in a constant battle to keep his Christianity real. We were like a reunion of the cast from the Island of Misfit Toys. Must be something about that side of the sanctuary that intuitively drew us — check who’s over on the left side next time you’re in church — or maybe God was just punking me. But hey, I did the smiley face pretty convincingly apparently, since the ladies chatted me up a bit afterwards, asking if I was a member, and telling me how they’d often walked past the place, but this was their first time to get the courage to come in, and how maybe they’ll see me next week. I only got to nod goodbye to the guy in the pink and lime jammies, as he kinda hurried out the door and I got caught up in after-church conversation that always seems to go on in places like that.

But here’s the kicker. During one of the choir monologues about Jesus being the Way, the Truth, the Life, the Gift of Love from the Father, the woman with the neverending-ringing cell phone had her eyes closed and her hands in the air. I think I even saw tears in the corner of her eyes. And her friend was just quietly smiling. And during one of the songs, I heard her whisper “Jesus.” And the fashionable guy in front of me was clapping in beat with some of the songs and standing at appropriate moments of worship.

I don’t know what was going on in their minds any more than I know what was going on in the hearts of the guys wearing suits a few rows up and to the right of me. But God was there. The Spirit connected with hearts that reached out for him. “Emmanuel. God with us.” And I got to witness a little bit of that taking place.

Jesus said whoever welcomes the least among us welcomes him. I’m still wrestling to shed my white, middle-class, evangelical uptightness, but at this particular holiday event, I was reminded powerfully — yet again — that Jesus comes in all shapes, sizes, and packaging.

Merry Christmas!

 

photo credit:  Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, by Wally Gobetz on Flickr, cc

 

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT is a Bible teacher at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore

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I just read yet another article on why millennials are abandoning church. And honestly, if you’ve been around in the church-world for a few decades, it’s really just the same ole spin, same ole reasons used with every generation: “The young people are fleeing the church — what can we do to stop it?”  Nothing new under the sun.

But at the same time, the points in the article were entirely valid — not because they specifically reflected “millennial values,” but simply because they cut to the core of the whole point and purpose of the church.  What it boils down to is this: People see no reason to join a stale organization that doesn’t seem to serve an important purpose.

The author of the piece puts it in more churchy language: “Millennials perceive established churches to have values that are entrenched in non-missional traditions.” He writes that this generation of 20- and 30-somethings values community, service to others, and a world-awareness, but they see established churches acting contrary to those values.  Churches today seem more concerned about maintaining the status quo — too much “doing the same thing because that’s how it’s always been done” — rather than making an actual difference in the world. And in the process, losing the whole point of the Church in the first place.

But this is not just the perception of millennials. Any person with an appetite for authenticity and spiritual reality will tend to view churches the same way. In years past, “relevance” was the buzz word. Churches were dying because they were frozen in decades past, preaching about issues and sins no one cared about, using out-moded language, not addressing the modern viewpoint. So churches started trying to act “hip”.  Worship music was updated. New lighting systems were installed. Smoke machines were purchased to add effect. Youth ministers dressed in youth-trendy fashions. The suit jacket and tie disappeared from the pulpit in favor of jeans and open-neck, button-down shirts. Even the old bulky wooden pulpits themselves were replaced with transparent acrylic or newer industrial metal lecterns.

And there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with any of that. But it’s all simply cosmetic if the heart of the church isn’t renewed, if the church doesn’t get back to its core purpose of reaching out to a hurting world.

The church stuck within its own walls is not a church at all.  It’s a farce.  It is people consumed by religious routine deluding themselves that they are the Kingdom of God.

I heard a sermon online recently where the pastor spoke at length about the Christian obligation to “go into all the world” and “witness,” and it largely revolved around inviting people to church. “Let’s fill this house, let’s pack these pews.”  Really? Is that what Jesus commanded us to do?

Just to be clear, Jesus never instructed us to “go out and witness.” He commanded us to BE witnesses, to make disciples. That’s a day-to-day thing, being a living presence where you are, being a light for those around you to see. It’s about building relationships with people, where you get your hands dirty in their messy lives. Where you walk beside them, being a friend, a help, offering insight where you have it. “Discipleship” is day-to-day influence through one-on-one relationship. If you have to make a special effort, if you have to put on airs or act differently in order to “witness,” you’re really missing the point. It’s about being personally transformed by your own relationship with God, and having that work its way out in the way you interact with people, the way you do your job, the way you view the world. It’s about living a life of love that is so attractive to others that they hunger for what you have. That they want God in their lives the way he is in yours. They are drawn to the light.  But if you don’t have it, you can’t offer it.  And you sure can’t fake it. Nobody falls for that crap.

The church loses each successive generation because it is too tied with the past, too tied to maintaining the building, paying for the heat and light — too distracted with upkeep of the existing building — that it’s lost track of reaching out beyond its walls. It’s become a cycle of self-survival. And when the church turns inward, when it loses its outward focus, it become stagnant. It becomes about “us” and keeping us entertained. As the writer of that other article said, “the established church feels more like a religious country club rather than an outwardly-focused organization.”

So what is the Church?  It is the people of God doing the work of God. Doing. Acting. Interacting. Moving. Motivated by love.

So, you want more millennials in your church? You want more people genuinely interested in the “real thing” that you have? Then get back to the basics. Get back to a heart that cares. Hands that serve. Money that goes to feed the poor, clothe the naked, help the homeless, care for the sick — that DOES SOMETHING. Be a group of people that actively engages the world, that goes to the bars, that enjoys life, that loves on people as they are and where they are — not a group that seals itself off from the “great unclean” world out there, shunning “sinners,” cloistering itself in its own little holy community.

The church stuck within its own walls is not a church at all.  It’s a farce.  It is people consumed by religious routine deluding themselves that they are the Kingdom of God.

So what is the Church?  It is the people of God doing the work of God.

Doing. Acting. Interacting. Moving. Motivated by love.

A friend posted a personal observation on Facebook today about his health.  He hadn’t been to the gym since he’d gotten back from a vacation in Europe, and noticed that he was feeling lethargic with lower energy levels.  Even his sleeping was effected, where he wasn’t sleeping straight through the night. So he returned to the gym, to physical activity — to “movement” — getting back to his cardio workout and yoga practice. Suddenly, he’s sleeping soundly again and his energy levels are back.  He sums it up: “All I did was move! The body is meant for movement.”

And it’s the same for the church. Too many churches have become lethargic, with low energy levels. The self-absorption and lack of involvement with the world around them has caused them to become dull and lifeless — and people are losing interest. People are drifting away.  Like my friend’s body, the Body of Christ is meant for movement. For activity. And like the human body, without it, we become unhealthy.

And the solution is just as simple. “Nothing elaborate — just move. The results are immediate.”

Maybe if we focused less on our shrinking church family and more on the people around us — becoming active in our communities, serving each other, taking care of our world — we wouldn’t be having these perpetual conversations about how the current generation doesn’t seem to be interested in us anymore.


photo credit: Seth Sawyers via Flickr, cc

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT is a Bible teacher at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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Who Cares What the Bible Says?

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Okay, that title is a bit cheeky and misleading, but it cuts to the heart of the issue.

I’ve got Facebook open most of the day. When I’m at work, yes, I’m working, but I still glance over from time to time to see what’s happening with friends and random acquaintances. And today, a friend posted an ad for a discussion group at a local college on what the Bible says about homosexuality. And the thought came to me: “If you’re going to the Bible for special instructions on how to treat certain people, you’re already asking the wrong question.”

And that part really hit me: “You’re already asking the wrong question.” Because, honestly, we can make the Bible say whatever we want it to say. We’ve done it for thousands of years. In our own recent history, we’ve justified slavery and the oppression of women by it. We’ve endorsed racial segregation. We’ve shunned divorced people. We’ve even justified wars by it. And we’ve had these “Homosexuality and the Bible” talks ad nauseum — and surprisingly, few minds have been changed.

Today I also noticed another FB friend had posted an informal poll on his wall, asking what top 3 things people look for when searching for a church home. Hey, that might be interesting info to know, so I was curious. Not surprisingly, although “fellowship” and “spirit-filled worship” were high on the list, the #1 response was “Word-based” / “Bible-based” as what these guys look for when thinking about joining a church. In fact, one responder put for his three choices: “The Word, The Word, The Word.” And another guy was even more emphatic, “The absolute unadulterated word of God being preached.”

Okay. I get it. People want a church that preaches and teaches “the Word of God.” But I bet if we asked them what that means, we’d get a variety of answers. What is “absolute, unadulterated”? Doesn’t a Southern Baptist church preach the Word, often straight out of the King James Bible? Doesn’t a liturgical Episcopal church that reads from the Bible every Sunday satisfy that criteria? Yet neither of those churches would likely satisfy those responders. Why?

Oh, by the way, these weren’t just fundamentalist or charismatic Christians who were responding. My friend is not a pastor. He’s a fitness coach, and his posts mostly focus on health, workouts and nutrition. And his friends/followers are mostly gay, fitness-oriented, and yes, Christian — of all stripes.

But these multiple respondents all reflect a similar mentality. We place a premium on hearing the authoritative voice of God — and for the most part, that looks like someone telling us what God wants of us based on what’s written in the Bible — a Bible we’ve all probably read countless times already.

Ruled by the Head instead of the Heart

We want an “authority” to base our faith around — to tell us how to live our lives. The problem is, the Bible doesn’t work that way. It isn’t that simple. Just ask any Southern Baptist and Episcopalian the same question, and see what they claim the Bible says. Faith doesn’t work that way either. A spiritual walk cannot be directed or legislated from an outside source. It must be directed from within, from a personal interaction with direction and promptings that come from the Spiritual Voice of God. And you won’t get that from a pulpit — or from just reading “the Word.” It is a spiritual activity.

So, ultimately, it’s not what the Bible says about a topic that is important. It’s how you read it. How you interpret what the Bible says, how you respond to it, what seeds of power are birthed through it by the Spirit. Because a Southern Baptist, an Episcopalian, and a charismatic Word of Faith believer are all going to read the same Bible and walk away with completely different understandings of what is expected of them.

So what then should be the standard we use to evaluate an issue or idea? How about Love? If we call ourselves Christians, followers of Jesus, and the New Testament is the filter through which we view all of Scripture, then we have to believe that the heart and will of God is as Jesus described it. It is demonstrated in the way Jesus lived it out.

So, let’s go to our chief example, Jesus. Look how he handled Scripture. Whenever religious people came to him wanting some technical answer or legal ruling — “What does God command us to do in this situation?” — he responded with “the heart” of the message, not the letter of the Law. He continually turned their cold and callous interpretation of Scripture on its head, and gave them something totally unexpected.

And the answers Jesus gave were always uplifting, forgiving, affirming, full of grace. In a word, full of Love. People walked away feeling they were special, important to God. Jesus didn’t use Scripture to trap people, to restrict them, to justify throwing stones at them. Ever. And the only people he seemed to have a harsh word for were those same religious folks bent on controlling others through “the Word.”

That’s why Jesus could say over and over, “You have heard it said…, but I say to you …” He took the Scripture that religious people were wielding heartlessly, dangerously, hatefully, and showed them the warm, affirming, loving side of it. He brought out the true meaning of those Biblical texts. He read Scripture through the eyes of the Spirit of God. He heard Scripture read through the ears of the Compassionate God. And the lessons he taught were so full of affirmation and love that when some of his followers wanted to leave him, and he asked Peter if he would leave him too, Peter responded immediately: “Where shall we go? You have the words of life!”

“Words of Life.” When’s the last time someone described our Bible-sword-fights like that? When’s the last time someone walked out of your Word-based church and felt they had just been fed the “words of life”?

So maybe it’s time we stop having these conferences about “What Scripture Says About …” and start reading Scripture ourselves — with the heart of the God whose will we claim to value so highly. Maybe it’s time we start looking at our lives, at the controversial issues that provoke us during the day, at the outrageous behavior of neighbors who challenge our religious cultural values, with the eyes of Love — the Love of God. Love defined not by mushy feelings or impersonal religious objectivity, but a Love that says “I wouldn’t want to be treated that way, so I won’t treat YOU that way.”

Maybe it’s time we stop asking “What does the Bible say about …”, and start asking, “What is the Loving way to handle this situation?” Or, “How can I show these people what True Love looks like?”

Christians of all denominations love to measure others by “what the Word says.” But the center of that Word is Jesus; we believe that all Scripture points to him. So maybe it’s time to stop being so “Word-focused” and more Jesus-focused. Maybe it’s time to stop asking for technical, black-and-white answers to everything, and start acting out of the Love that Word speaks of so much. Seems like things might be so much simpler then. And we wouldn’t need to call for so many convocations and conventions to determine how to treat our neighbors.


photo credit: “Open Bible with Pen,” Ryk Neethling via Flickr, cc

 

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT is a Bible teacher at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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What Makes a Great City … or a Great Church

Houston

I just saw an article on why Houston is the best city in America. As a non-Houstonian I thought, “Okay, whatever.” But then my thoughts started churning, the synapses started firing, and I started making connections with the church-world.

Okay, obviously you’ve got to do a bit of mental translation here, but what supposedly makes Houston such a great city are some of the same qualities that would make a great church too.

 Jobs. Houston’s got this great job market. In my mind, that translates in the church-world as involvement. Give church members a chance to DO something, to make a difference. It’s what we’re supposed to be about, afterall, isn’t it? Equipping the saints to do the work of the Kingdom. So let’s equip and then point them in the right direction to “do”.

 More healthcare businesses. This, to me, translates as: church should be involved in meeting people’s physical needs, not just spiritual.  It’s been said over and over. You can’t proclaim the Gospel to people when they’re dead. If we don’t feed them, clothe them, help with their medical bills (“Good Samaritan” ring any bells?), then no one’s gonna be much inclined to listen to what we have to say. Besides, it’s what Jesus told us to do.

 Massive international trade. Translates as “a global perspective.” The church is more than just a local body of believers. It should have a heart and resources that stretch beyond borders. And I’m not just talking about “missionary work.” I mean we should actually care about the people on the other side of the world.

 Houston is Space City, NASA. Okay, this is a stretch, but how about “Prayer“? Our prayers should be reaching out into the heavens. The church needs a solid grounding in prayer, not just as an occasional activity people do in their morning devos.

 A paycheck goes farther / cost of living. A good church should stretch its dollars to go the farthest and to have maximum impact. If we’re spending $$ on “stuff”, we’re probably missing it. The church has a responsibility to spend money wisely — especially considering that for most people putting money in the plate, every dollar counts.

 Ethnically and racially diverse. ‘Nuff said. The church is bigger than just a bunch of old, straight, white people. Everybody should be included. The local church should be a reflection of the local community. We need color, we need diversity to be healthy. Plus, it’s just a lot more fun that way.

 Wide range of ethnic cuisines. Pretty close to the last one, but … “food“. Need I say more? The church thrives on breaking bread.  What we eat says something about who we are, and sharing food, pot lucks, well, it’s just an essential part of that thing we call “fellowship.”

 One of the most exciting places to eat. Kinda the same deal. But maybe we could squeeze in “spiritual feeding” here. If you’re being fed the same ole tired spiritual food, maybe you need some fresh inspiration. We should be people of the Living Word of God, not the same old commercials. “If it ain’t fresh, don’t eat it.”

 More parks than most cities. For me, this is recreation and relaxation. The church that plays together stays together. Being a “church family” should be more than getting together on Sundays to do “the church thing.” And it should be a place where we can let our hair down after a hectic week of work and modern life, not a place where we have to put on a mask. It’s where we come to be re-energized, refreshed, and restored, not where we get more drained by having to pretend to be who we’re not.

 Great universities. I probably shouldn’t have to say that the church should also be a place where minds are being engaged as well as spirits, but we all know the unfortunate truth. In many houses of worship, an inquiring mind is considered the devil’s playground.  Just ask any of the “recovering fundamentalists.” In church, questions should be asked, and your spiritual exploration encouraged. You should be growing, stretching, seeing things in a new way, “growing in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” Cuz if we’re not growing, we’re stagnating.

 Houston is filled with museums and cultural landmarks. You know what? The church should be filled with art, music, and beauty too. Didn’t God say everything was “good” when he created it? We should celebrate beauty. It can inspire us in higher ways to connect with God.  Maybe we need to swap out one or two of our Bible studies for free art classes, or hang the work of local artists in our church coffee shops. That would be great.

 Largest rodeos. Authenticity. This one I gotta give credit to my friend Rita Bosico who pointed it out when I first made these comments on Facebook. She said, having been to — and felt like she belonged in — a cowboy church, what she liked best about their attitude was that they were real people with real problems who need a real God. They had no time for phony “playing church.” They had a sense of raw unmasked spirituality that was refreshing. Most didn’t dress up but came right from he fields … with dirt and non-dirt on their shoes. And wouldn’t that be a nice change if we could just come to church showing our “dirt” and all?  When I thought of rodeos, well, umm, all I could think of was rodeo clowns, and everybody knows the church has plenty of clowns.

 Great sports teams. Church softball and bowling teams, anyone? More of that “play together, stay together” stuff. Besides, you should be able to work out your aggressions in ways other than yelling at the pastor.

 Finally, Houston is a great place for Southern Hip-Hop. Lord knows I’m not a big fan of funky music in church, but … it can have a place. Music is part of our soul, so it’s natural that it should be an integral part of our worship experience. Maybe we can let our hair down and really let go once in a while … umm, without having to pretend we suddenly “got the Holy Ghost.”  Just saying.

See? Almost anything can be turned into a sermon! Thanks, seminary!

Oh well. Until my next moment of random inspiration …

– Steve

 

photo credit: “Houston Skyline” by John Colosimo

 

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT is a Bible teacher at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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“Submission”: Why Church Words Matter

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My Facebook feed is full of them. Kinda inevitable, I guess, since I have so many Facebook friends who are pastors and religious practioners. Posts, statuses, comments, full of churchy words, theological jargon, traditional King-Jamesy sounding terms. Stuff that passes for Christianese.

And I’m sick of it.

Up till now my reasons have been personal. Those words always sounded fake, cheesy, insincere. And they were over-used and under-understood. They were often meaningless, even to those who quoted them. And, they rang a lot of bells from memories of hostile churches, sermons directed against people instead of words spoken to build up, embrace, and encourage.

Words like … Saved and Salvation. Redeemed. Blood-bought. Sanctified. Righteous. Born again. Blessed. Glory!

And I would frequently mutter under my breath, “if you can’t find another word for it, then you probably don’t even know what it means.” How else is anybody else gonna know what the heck you’re talking about?!

Those words — intending to convey a sense of power and holiness, of awe and gravitas — only sounded empty, cliche, and archane, the secret language of the religiously initiated. “Are you saved? Are you one of the chosen?”

And recently, during table talk over dinner, a friend threw in another one. “Submission.” This is a loaded one, especially for anyone who’s grown up in conservative circles where it was taught that wives should submit to their husbands. In this case it was about submitting to spiritual authority.

“Spiritual authority”? That almost intuitively sounds like a contradiction in terms. Isn’t true spirituality marked by humility? But you want to exercise authority over other people in the name of religion, in the name of a divine calling or holy office? If that doesn’t conjure up images of the Church in the Middle Ages, of Inquisitions, of Tribunals, of imprisonment and excommunication and harsh discipline… Just walk away, baby, walk away.

Those familiar with recent church history will also remember the “Shepherding/Discipleship movement.” People with sincere hearts, seeking God and holy living, surrendered themselves and their wills to pastoral leaders who spoke for God. They allowed pastors to make basic life decisions for them, from what job to take, what house to buy, even whom to marry. And the abuse of power was rampant. Lives were crushed, and the flocks scattered, confused and more lost than ever. Sounds like a cult, right? And that is exactly what it was. But it started out as a sincere evangelical movement based on a supposed biblical concept — no nefarious motives involved.

Yet to this day you’ll still hear “submit to spiritual authority” mentioned in certain churches. It goes hand in hand with that manipulative command, “touch not mine anointed” — that misquoted biblical injunction not to take matters into your own hands against divinely appointed leadership. That somehow, leadership is infallible.

So, it boils down to this: Are we, as bible-believing, sincere Christians, to submit to spiritual authority?

The short answer is NO. At least not in the sense normally understood — and that is exactly why the words we use are so important.

Here’s a famous biblical case in point: In the “Acts of the Apostles” in the bible, the early Christians in Jerusalem lived together in order to live out their faith with a true sense of brotherhood and community. They pooled their resources and lived essentially in communes, with the apostles as their community leaders. Those who had resources shared with those who did not. And people would sell their lands and property, and lay the money “at the feet of the apostles” — basically surrendering their wealth for community use. The needs of the poor, the sick, the widows and defenseless were all taken care of. And in this way, no one was needy.

The idea of abject obedience to some person in religious office is contrary to the teaching of Jesus.

It was a beautiful thing. But human nature can’t stand that kind of sharing for too long. Selfishness is deeply rooted in our DNA. During these idyllic days, a rich property-owning married couple named Ananias and Sapphira sold some land but decided to keep a chunk of the profits for themselves. They brought a fraction of the money, and laid it at Peter’s feet. And because of their deceit, they were struck dead — they had lied to the apostles and to the Holy Spirit.

Here’s the key. Peter states the case clearly: they were under no compulsion to “submit” their worldly goods. “Didn’t the property belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money yours to do with as you pleased?” But because they tried to fool the apostles and community into thinking they were giving their all, they received the harshest punishment. And young men came in and carried their bodies out to be buried. (Acts 5:1-10)

A quick search through the New Testament for the word “submit” or “submission” shows a wide range of contexts and situations where we are to defer to others for the common good and for our own benefit. And the ultimate expression of that is always with reference to God. There are a few mentions of slaves submitting to masters, wives submitting to their husbands as the husbands submit to Christ, and even evil spirits submitting to the authority of the name of Jesus. Paul says we should submit to civil authority so that we can live in peace, and that we should not submit to our evil desires — or even to religious rules (Col 2:20).

The killer text

Where we trip up is the reference in Hebrews 13 about placing trust in our spiritual leaders and “submitting to their authority” because they “keep watch over you as those who must give an account.” In other words, we should cooperate with those given the responsibility for caring for us, so that we may fully benefit from their guidance. Similar to the 5th Commandment, “honor your father and mother, so that you may have a long life…”, it is simply a good idea to heed the advice of those with more maturity and experience than us.

And the Apostle Peter describes what thatshould  look like from the perspective of the leaders of religious congregations. “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them — not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Pet 5:1-3)

Spiritual leaders are to be examples to the flock, and we should follow their example. “In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. (1 Pet 5:5).

For our own personal and spiritual growth, we should pay attention (“submit”) to the spiritual advice of those with greater maturity: our spiritual elders. But no where do these apostles suggest that that influence and respect apply outside the realm of spiritual development. Like Peter’s words to Ananias and Sapphira, we are under no physical, material, financial or any other obligation to obey religious leaders, other than what is due out of respect and love. Complete personal obedience was never in the picture.

In that regard, our only obligation for total submission is to God. We are his people, his children. We live in his Kingdom. He is our King.

The idea of abject obedience to some person in religious office is contrary to the teaching of Jesus. He taught that the least will be first, the first would be last, and we should serve one another out of mutual love. In a brief moment of power-play when two of his disciples asked to be seated at his left and right hand when the Kingdom came in full, he rebuked them gently. The pagans rule and lord it over each other. But that is not how it was to be in his kingdom. Why then do we choose this loaded word as a characteristic of the godly life?

The bottom line here on submission is that we are to treat each other with respect, and give honor where it is due. We are to serve one another, to put others before ourselves. It is a reflection of the grace God has shown us, and we in turn show others.

The bottom line here on submission is that we are to treat each other with respect, and give honor where it is due. We are to serve one another, to put others before ourselves. It is a reflection of the grace God has shown us, and we in turn show others. This is proper behavior for those who recognize the God who created us all in his image, as his children. But it is not about slave-like obedience or surrender of our wills. We are to “submit to one another” out of mutual love — it is not just a one-way street where the flock owes allegiance to the shepherds. We are to serve one another, following the example of Jesus who served his own disciples.

Submission is about recognizing the Godly gifts in each other, honoring each other as brothers and sisters in the family of God, knowing that others are created in the image of God just as we are. If you’ll excuse borrowing imagery from another religion, it is similar to the attitude in the Hindu greeting “Namaste” — a recongition of the divine in each of us. “You have value. I will respect you for who you are.” And that is a far cry from surrendering our wills to the wishes and caprices of those with holy titles.

Peter summarizes the entire range of “submission” responsibility in one quick statement: “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.” With that basic principle in mind, can we please drop that word from our everyday religious vocabulary? To contemporary believers, it is too suggestive of drone-like obedience, too out of step with the humble nature of our faith, and not at all reflective of the reverential respect we owe each other. Treat each other as you would like to be treated, as fellow children of God, and the “submission” part will take care of itself.

photo credit: “Spanish Inquisition”, Claudia Gold via Flickr, cc.

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STEVE SCHMIDT is a teacher at Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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Angry Pulpits, Empty Churches

BillySundayI seem to alienate a lot of my preacher friends.  They’re good people, for the most part, just like all of us. But sometimes we just don’t see eye to eye on the “reason” behind the things we do in church.

Today, for example, another minister posted a blistering message on Facebook, chewing out people for not attending church. “The Bible commands us not to forsake the assembling together … blah blah.” “These so-called Christians” who can’t make time to show up for services “on the Lord’s Day, and you can find time to do all sorts of things except be in the House of God?” Calling these people deceived or deluded, “so-called Christians” who think they don’t need church to have God.  Words full of guilt. Shaming. Religious cliché.

Honestly, it turned my stomach.  I probably should have kept my opinions to myself, but I couldn’t help responding (hopefully with at least a little tact), “I know many who stop going to “God’s house” on “the Lord’s Day” for the simple reason that they don’t find God there. We have too many churches filled with religion.”

What I didn’t say was ” … and this means you.”

Really. Why on earth would anybody want to go to “God’s House” and hear that kind of drivel?  If his post was any indicator of his sermons, it’s no wonder people don’t want to show up.

Did we EVER see Jesus in the Gospels yelling at the street vendors, prostitutes, the needy, for not going to the Temple or synagogue? “Oh, you whine and cry about how hard your life is, but you won’t make an effort to go to God’s House!”  Never.  It’s ridiculous to even imagine Jesus saying such a thing. God is not limited to the walls of some building, and while “assembling together” can certainly be a healthy thing, the “assembling together” is not what makes it healthy or holy. It’s the people you’re assembling with. And if those people are sanctimonious and condemning, I’d rather assemble together in the chummy embrace of my drunken buddies at a bar than listen to the nattering sermon of someone spouting religious words with no sense of the deep spirituality that should be behind them.

“Let God be true and every man a liar,” the preacher said in his defense of the commandment to attend church.  Indeed.  God is true, and God will make himself known to anyone who hungers for him — and thankfully without the need of a guilt-wielding preacher trying to compel people to behave according to his religious preferences.

We are often warned, in these religious circles, that we will all one day stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ. It’s meant as a threat, a warning to live holy lives, lest we face the wrath of God. But actually, I take great comfort in that scene, because I know Who it is that sits on that Judge’s Seat. And the only people he ever had a harsh word for were the religious.

If we wonder why our churches are becoming empty on “the Lord’s Day”, we might start by asking ourselves if we’re talking and acting like our Lord.

To all my brothers and sisters who choose NOT to sit under that kind of shepherding on Sunday, grace and peace and great blessings to you. Go where you’re loved. Go where you are nurtured and cherished. Go where you find the presence of God.  Anything else is not worthy of you, and certainly not a reflection of God — despite what some preachers say.

 

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STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He blogs here on IMPACT Magazine’s Cafe Inspirado column, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.

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