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

 

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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 Loves You. Have a Condom.

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #e10069;”]A[/dropcap] group of us were sitting around talking, waiting for the weekly men’s group to begin. I was new to the church, still getting a feel for the place, but the pastor’s approach to living out the faith intrigued me. It was an odd place, a challenging place, but there was something powerfully different here: all that old “churchiness” I’d become accustomed to was strangely missing – and when talking about the church to friends, I was already beginning to think in terms of “we.”

As a few of us chatted there in the lobby, I noticed sitting on the table in front of me was this plastic bucket filled with condoms. All kinds of condoms. Colored, textured, lubricated, plain. Definitely not your father’s typical church supplies. As part of the church’s outreach (to use a little Christianese), we had opened our building as a site for free HIV testing twice a week. Despite the adamant message of the abstinence-only crowd, everyone knows a condom is the best defense against HIV. But in MY church?!

Yeah, I get bent out of shape easily sometimes. And I threw one of my “you can’t be serious” looks at the pastor as he walked in. But he was dead serious. And since I knew I was on a journey of “radical acceptance” and opening myself up to allow God to use his Church in ways he wants (even if it raises some eyebrows), I was eager for the theological justification. Too bad I didn’t get it. The pastor’s position was simple. While as believers, we maintain a Biblical standard for purity in intimate relations — marriage and fidelity — we still need to love people enough to help them stay safe even if they don’t live up to our standards. Nutshell theology. Good for the soul, but not really satisfying to my analytical mind. So as I picked through the bucket, marveling at the assortment of glow-in-the-dark colors, I started wrestling with the arguments and implications. Another mind-stretching experience.

Would Jesus be handing out condoms at the Oklahoma Gay Rodeo Association? According to my pastor, of course he would. But I could already hear the protests of my conservative evangelical friends and colleagues, rolling in disgust in their pews. Isn’t this tantamount to condoning sin? I don’t know. But what does Jesus think?

Did Jesus ever overlook a moral shortcoming in order to save a life? Images of scenes from ancient Middle East started flooding my mind. Isn’t this the same argument about working on the Sabbath? Isn’t it better to allow people to rub grains of wheat in their hands in order to satisfy their hunger, even though Sabbath laws forbid it? Or, could pulling your ox out of a pit in sheer mercy and compassion justify overriding the Sabbath restriction against it? And David, before he became king, entering the tabernacle and stealing the holy bread there to feed his hungry men — doing what was unlawful. Jesus justified him, applauded him. Here was a man who understood the heart (and priorities) of God (Lk 6:1-5; Lk 14:5).

Didn’t a tablecloth containing all kinds of forbidden meat lower from heaven to Peter in a vision, with a command to eat and call nothing unclean that God has made clean? Grace overriding definitions of sin. Because it’s about people, not rules. (Acts 10:10-15)

That scene of the Samaritan woman at the well also presses itself into my mind. She’d been married five times, and was currently living with a man not her husband. Yet because Jesus spends time talking with her (a scandalous action back then), God’s salvation was brought to her entire village (John 4). And he never once rebuffed her for her disreputable lifestyle. That other woman caught in adultery and about to be stoned by the righteous people of the day … Jesus steps in and saves her life. In this case, he does correct her: “go and sin no more.” But he doesn’t look at her offense. He focuses on saving her life. The correction comes later, when she was in a more receptive position (John 8:3-12).

And that famous parable of the Good Samaritan who takes care of the man, beaten, robbed and left on the side of the road to die by the holy people of his day. Are we, the Church, not the Priest and the Levite who walked by, not wanting to dirty ourselves even to save a life? We’d rather preach to him, tell him God loves him, all the while pointing out his faults in an effort to change him. But we won’t kneel down in the dirt with him to offer him the help he actually needs at that moment. Who ultimately was the good neighbor? Jesus’ words: the one who showed mercy. “Go and do likewise” (Lk 10:30-37).

Condoms, oddly enough, are never mentioned in the Bible. I can’t find any single passage in Scripture that specifically states that doing something which might appear to condone sin is acceptable if done out of love. But there are plenty of examples where Jesus himself does this. Love overrides Law. It is the “Ox on the Sabbath” principle.

Am I completely comfortable with this? Not entirely. It may be a little while longer before you see me at the Rodeo passing out condoms, telling people Jesus loves them. It’s still a little too far from my traditional, conservative upbringing to adjust so quickly. But I am completely convinced that this is the kind of attitude and thinking we need to embrace if we’re going to be a light in the 21st century. It’s what Jesus would do. And if we’re too afraid of being stretched into new patterns of radical love and action, if our traditional ways of practicing the faith never grow beyond our comfort zone, what kind of demonstration of God’s love and power is that?

The world seems to be falling apart, people are dying. They need God, and we the Church have failed to deliver. This is the kind of out-of-the-box action that demonstrates who we really are. This is the message people need to hear. God loves you. We love you. Our greatest desire is for you to have an intimate relationship with God. In the meantime, be safe. Here’s a condom.

 

[box type=”bio”]
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. You can find him always skulking on Facebook.
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Holy Kiss — Holy Cow !

This little adventure into “Radical Acceptance” and checking out this new church is making me think about a lot of things, and rethink a lot of others. And that’s a good thing.

I’m not generally a touchy-feely kind of guy. At least not with people I barely know, and certainly not with people I’ve just met. So if I meet you in person for the first time, you can safely expect a hardy handshake. Pastor Neill is not like me. He’s a hugger. Worse, he’s a kisser. Me? I tend to think that kissing is reserved for loved ones. It’s an act of intimacy shared with only a few — despite my years in the Middle East where public displays of affection were the norm. So that first Sunday at church as the congregants filed out the door, and the pastor normally (in my experience) shakes everybody’s hand, offering a kind word on the way out, I was caught a little off guard when Neill gave me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. I quickly regained a grip on my composure, smiled, made some off the cuff pleasant remark, and went on my merry way. Okay, so that’s just him; no big deal. A little odd, maybe, but no big deal.

I’ve had a few lunches with him since then, trying to get to know the guy better, to figure out what’s his deal, where he’s coming from, where he’s going, and most importantly, if I want to hitch my wagon to this train. So I’ve got questions. And with years of theological training under my belt, I’ve got a lot of them. Sure, I was knocked off balance by the audacity of his vision and approach to church, but was it really kosher enough for me to make this my new home? And the hugging/kissing issue came up during one of those lunchtime conversations. I don’t remember his precise explanation so I may be mischaracterizing him, but I was left with the impression that it all ties back to making people feel welcomed, loved, and accepted. But the truth might just be a lot simpler: that’s just the kind of guy he is and how he expresses himself.

I didn’t waste a whole lot of time analyzing it. Like I said, it might not be my style, but it’s really no big deal. But today I did start thinking about it again. Isn’t this really inappropriate? Isn’t it crossing that line of intimacy that should be reserved for loved ones?

And then it came to me. That is exactly the case. The whole mission of the Church should be to bring God’s love into this world, to show people that they are accepted and loved, and to mirror that love in real life. As a pastor, Neill is the visible representation of Jesus on the earth. We all are, of course, but as “leader” of a church, he is in a more conspicuous role. For better or for worse, people do look at spiritual leaders differently; they expect more of them and hold them to a higher standard. And in that capacity, as the representative of Jesus, shouldn’t he act like Jesus would? And doesn’t God actually (not just conceptually) love everyone? Wouldn’t he want them welcomed and embraced as intimately as he knows them? Suddenly I saw the kissing in a whole new light. Jesus knows every person who walks in those church doors, and he loves them dearly. Wouldn’t he kiss them? (I mean, I know he’d kiss me, right?) If the pastor’s goal — our goal — is to tend the flock in Jesus’ place, then what better way to show the people that they are loved than to treat them like close family? What better way in this world of hurting people to say “you are loved” — even though we’ve just met?

Okay, I’m not too likely to pick up this habit, but it does make me want to reconsider hugging. On any given day, a significant percentage of the people sitting in the pews will be hurting, will be going through some hard times. And in congregations comprised of people regularly rejected by family, society, and especially the church, that percentage will be even higher. The need to model God’s love is all the more urgent. And an innocent hug or kiss on the cheek becomes all the more significant. It might be just what they need at that moment.

So the next time the pastor gives me the holy greeting, I’ll try to restrain my initial reaction, accept it for what it is, and offer up a quiet prayer. “Thank you, Jesus, for your love.”

Just one more factor to consider in rethinking how we do church.

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“Greet one another with a holy kiss.”  (Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 1 Thes 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14)