An Argument for Keeping Churches Small*

12SmallChurchAdvantage_400_478515996*A quick qualifier before we begin: “small” has yet to be defined with precision.

Because I think small doesn’t have everything to do with numbers (although, I think that at a certain point it does).

So, I’ve been getting some push back for my last article on why I dislike mega-churches.  A lot of it is warranted.  I think that if you put something out there, people should be able to push back.  And please note, I also dislike a lot of small churches (also in the article).

But that piece was written in response to a piece by a colleague who says he doesn’t like “mega,” but then never actually digs into “mega” at all in a substantial way.  Perhaps that wasn’t his point.  But there is something to be said there…and I wish he would. I think there is a real argument to be had for keeping faith communities on the small side.  I really do.

Here’s a part of that argument:

Look, we have a depression problem in the communities of faith, by and large.  This is well diagnosed.

Little churches are depressed that they  aren’t mega, and I think mega-churches have depression as well, though not of the psychological nature.  Mega-churches are depressed, and depressive, in that the consolidation of resources, while seemingly allowing for unlimited amplification of good, actually depresses the good they can be and do.

I’ll get to that in a moment.

But first, let’s define “small.”

Small to me is manageable.  For every community the particulars of that will be different, I think.  Some of it will depend on the leaders (clergy and others), some of it will depend on other factors such as location and mission (locus and focus).

But small does not mean deficient.  And it certainly doesn’t mean “bad” or “not living into it’s potential.”

I think many churches are small in size because of unconscious choices they make: who the power brokers are, what the internal fights are, their ability to welcome and adapt to change, etc.  Very few of these choices have to do with Jesus, btw.

But I think that communities of faith can be small by choice for reasons that absolutely have to do with Jesus.  That is, they can take their own temperature and decide when their connections are becoming so strained that they need to send some folks to start new communities of faith.

Because Christ was about making connections and reaching the margins…not about consolidation.  The need to consolidate is the need to control.

Control is a nice little illusion.

Let’s go back to mega a bit.  Because I think mega is about control.  That’s how mega is depressive.

Here’s the thing:  mega churches are hierarchical…like most churches (there are some notable exceptions, like the Quakers).  And the broader the base, the smaller the top.  And although there may be many leaders in a mega church (there should be many leaders in any size church!), when message lies in the lonely top, when perspective lies in the lonely top, when generation and impetus lies at the lonely top, it depresses the ability for the people to grow out on their own.

It truly does.

And it creates rock stars rather than ministers which, to me, is a real problem.

And these rock stars then become the interpretive lens for the parishioner rather than Jesus, because, well, how can you challenge someone who obviously has so much influence and control? They must know what they’re talking about…

This is, I think, why mega-churches have a large rotation of regular attendees…people who come for a few years, and then move on.  Consolidation at the top doesn’t allow things to “trickle down” in the way people want it to. The inability to actually have agency, to grow together while challenging each other, is depressive.

My parishioners and I don’t all agree on every point, theological or otherwise.  But we have a relationship that allows us to continue to do mission together, even while acknowledging where we diverge.  That just doesn’t happen in the same way in the mega world, to the detriment of the church and individual spirituality.

And, by and large, I find that mega churches perpetuate that mega-mentality that “more is better,” but practice a “more is not better” when it comes to leadership and messaging, as the lead pastor’s sermon is video streamed into each campus regularly despite the availability of other pastors to craft other sermons.

This, I think, doesn’t connect people in the way it’s intended.  There’s dissonance there.

I think it actually depresses mission; it doesn’t expand it.

And finally, let’s talk about the big elephant in the room: ego.

We must always be on guard when it comes to the ego.

The ego of small-in-numbers churches is offended that they’re not bigger…and so sometimes they fall into patterns of behavior to keep themselves numerically small as a way to fulfill their doom-prophecy.

They call themselves “friendly.”

When I hear or see “friendly” on a church sign or on a church website, I automatically think “dysfunctional.”  Because they’re trying to make up for the fact that others aren’t in the room by proclaiming that they’re super-nice.

If they were truly welcoming, though, and open to change, others would be in the room, right?  Maybe.  Most likely.

In contrast, the ego of the mega church leader is never kept in check as the church begins to grow but is never sent.  As the base gets bigger, the ego gets bigger.  Things seem to be “working,” and there’s nothing more delicious for a hungry ego than to see things “work.”  And so how do we keep things working?  By keeping control.

And the ego of the mega church attender is, likewise, fed by size.  “I must be doing something right because I go to a successful church! Look how big it is and how many programs it has!”  Red Riding Hood did a similar comparison before being eaten by the wolf…

People at this point will say things like, “God never intended you to live a mediocre life,” or “God has big dreams, you should too” or start quoting Proverbs or other parts of scripture to lay a foundation for bigger and successful is better.  And this is, I think, a secret in the world of mega: self-help tidbits that we pass off as spiritual.  Make me feel good, and I’ll serve you forever.  Feed the mega-ego until it’s stuffed.

But Jesus rarely made people just “feel good.”

If we look at Jesus (and really, all scripture should be seen through the lens of Jesus), we don’t see that.  Abundant life didn’t have to do with numbers or feeling good.  It had to do with reliance on God.  Reliance on God keeps the ego in check.  Humility.  Passionate giving.  Love that is sacrificial.

Look, I don’t know if your church is too mega or too small.  And I, by no means, think I have it all figured out.  My ego is trouble…just ask my wife.

But I think a good beginning question a faith community could delve into would be, “Do we think more is necessary?  Is more better?  Or are we confident that God has equipped us with all that we need?”

And really ask it!  Wrestle with yourself, with your church.

Keeping a church small intentionally involves asking those question.

And, I should be clear, I think there are small churches with 30 on a Sunday morning, and small churches with 3000 on a Sunday morning.

Both will have difficulty staying small, though.  There seems to be an in-between that aids in this kind of work.

Because mega is so tempting.

So constant questions, checks and balances, and the ability to really ask if you’re depressed or depressive is necessary.

I guess I would say, let’s keep it small.  Seriously.

“Success Will Kill You” or “I Want You to Go Home. Seriously.”

Isaiah 55 asks a good quesimagestion.

Well…a number of good questions.  Verse two asks, “Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?”

God, if we could only ask that question more.  To ourselves.  To our kids. To our spouses.

But mostly to ourselves.

See, I have a lot of people sit on my couch in a week.  They talk.  I talk.  I listen.  They listen.

There’s a lot of it.

And one thing that I notice more and more from  pretty much everyone under the age of sixty these days is that we have this fixation on 80 hour work weeks and being busy.

There is a nasty myth going around that we need to be the first ones at work and the last ones home.  In fact, there’s a Forbes article from yesterday where entrepreneur extraordinaire John Nazar gives that very same advice.

We don’t.  And it’s killing us.  Jason Nazar may be successful, but at what price?

It’s at this point where I’ll say, “Physician, heal thyself” because Lord knows that I fall into the 80 hour work week trap a lot.

And it costs me.

So much, in fact, that I have a couple of blogs waiting in the wings where I admit to some of my bad work habits and what it’s doing to my spiritual life.

But more than anything I want to tell the majority of these couples, and singles, and people under sixty, to just go home.

Seriously.  Go home.

Part of the bane of the middle class is the idea that success means more money and prestige and more toys and more expensive vacations and more, more, more.  It’s like we get addicted to stuff and once we have a snort of “stuff” we can’t get it out of our noses and we have to consume it until our houses and calendars are cluttered and our hearts are empty.

This is a spiritual problem.  And it’s hard for someone like me because I can pretty much do “work” anywhere.  Because I deal in people, and people have this amazing way of sticking with you and crowding out your vision so that you don’t see your wife or husband or child or partner even when you’re at home because you’re stuck on someone else’s issues that you’ve decided is your own issue.

And by God you’re going to work that problem from sun up to sun down.

Because that’s success.  That’s what it takes.

If that’s it, then I’m going to excuse myself from the race.

And I want you to, too.

Our mothers and fathers fought hard in the labor movements to ensure a 40 hour work week.  And God damn our prosperity because we have kindly forgotten that and have opted in favor of 80 hours and email inboxes that must always be open lest we miss something.

80 hours, which means we burn the midnight oil long after our kids and spouses are in bed.  Because that’s what it takes. It takes us not spending quiet time next to our loved ones to be successful.  It takes being tired and grumpy in the morning to our kid because we have to put food on our middle class tables.

There are people who are working two or three jobs because they have to; that’s what it takes to survive.  That’s a terrible truth that could take some midnight oil to solve.

But many of us are working one job twice over in a week because that’s what it takes to have a three car garage.

Physician, heal thyself.

But I can’t.  And I don’t think the church has sufficiently taken on this issue, which is spiritual in nature, with our congregants.  We bemoan the demise of the family but blame it on mixed up gender roles instead of our addiction to success.  We bemoan that nobody comes on Sunday mornings and blame it on faithlessness and institutional decline instead of the fact that an 80 hour work week doesn’t want another hour of obligation…especially if that time could be spent catching up on work or getting a jump on work. Or spending time with our spouse and kids that we forfeited on Thursday to stay late.

We spend money on things that don’t feed us.  We labor for things that won’t satisfy.

We all know the story of pastors and nurses who sit at the bedsides of the dying and hear them say they wish they had worked less and loved more.  But somehow we all think we’re the exception to that.  And that we won’t regret 80 hours because we’ll retire early. And that’s what it takes.  And it’ll pay off one day.

I ran into a fellow pastor who is hired part-time at a church.  We were chatting and I said, “So what does part-time look like for you?” to which he responded, “Well, if I actually worked part time, I think I’d be a pretty crappy pastor.”

And I disagreed and said so.  I pushed back.  I don’t want to cultivate a society that expects full time work for part time pay, and I don’t want to cultivate an individual who accepts that they aren’t valuable enough to not be defined by their job.

It’s a spiritual issue.  In my work I can “work for God” so much that I lose sight of God altogether because I’m so busy.  In our work we can lose sight of ourselves, of our God-given identities, because we take on the identity of “success.”

Don’t be successful if it’s going to kill you.  In fact, I’d say that success will probably kill you…at least the parts of you that people love most and want most.

Time in community.  Time in family.  These are things I value.  These are things I want my parishioners to value.  Jesus wasn’t successful by any measurable standard.  And yet Jesus followers flock to mega-churches in mega-numbers because they want to be a part of something that succeeds…hoping it will bleed over into their personal lives.

How can we have spiritually healthy people if we have spiritual leaders and spiritual homes who are in the same rhythm as the mega-firm and the mega-business?

By and large, I just want you to go home.  And I want me to go home more. As a Christian, as a pastor, as someone who cares about the health and souls of my people, just go home.

And I want the church to tackle this issue more.

Seriously.

God’s Will is Not an Algorithm (Looking At You Christian Mingle)

I’m prepping to preach on Psalm 25:1-10.  I think it’s timely.images

See, I have serious issues with people breaking the Second Commandment.

I think it’s a woefully misunderstood commandment, by and large.

Most of my Confirmation kids think it’s about cursing when we first come to it in our study of the Decalogue.  By the time they leave, though, I hope they have a broader view…they tell me they do.

I want to impart this much on them: as a preacher I am very (i.e., terribly) nervous about ever saying something from the voice of God.  Because I don’t want to use God’s name, or likeness, or voice, uselessly.  This is really what the Second Commandment is about, I think.

So that lovely billboard that says, “You know that ‘Love one another’ thing?  I mean that.-God”.  I think it’s in bad taste.  And poor form.

And I think it breaks the Second Commandment just as much as those signs that say, “God hates fags.”

I don’t think their impact is the same, of course.  The former is aimed toward a reminder of love, the latter is best used as firewood.  But I think they’re both wrongheaded.

In Psalm 25 we have a student (the Psalmist) entreating the teacher (God) to teach them and lead them on godly “pathways.”  “Show me how to live,” the Psalmist asks.

And if you go to the book store, you’ll see tons of books dedicated to just that.  There are so many in this world who are simply convinced of God’s will, pathway, for not only their life but also yours.

And I am suspicious of it all.  And it gives me the shakes to think that I am culpable at times of falling into that same trap.

It’s like Christian Mingle’s tagline, that online dating service marketed specifically for Christians: “Find God’s Match for You.”

Do we really think that God’s will is algorithmic in origin?  Do we really think that God wants you to choose from a pull-down menu “washboard abs” (an actual choice on that site), and that God’s match for you will appear based on that, your height, and your education level?

God, I hope not.

Why, then, do we think that other things pertaining to God’s will align like this?

Career changes, relationships, neighborhood locations, vacation destination…”where does God want me to go?  What is God’s will for my life?”

So often this is just a way for us to find ways of getting divine support for our own decisions and situations.  I would be the first to admit that I don’t think God wants you to harm yourself or others; I can say that this is not “the good” that God desires for humanity.  But between two career choices?  Or a neighborhood move? Or a relationship?

Can we not be honest about it all and say that to quickly know God’s will…perhaps to know it at all…is really just a way we try to placate ourselves into thinking we’re making good choices?

Leslie D. Weatherhead, that process theologian best known for his work The Will of God (a good, if dated, work), tells the story of the parson who is offered a high-paying job at a new parish in the next city over, twice the salary of his current position.  When a young parishioner asked the parson’s son what his father will do, the son replies, “Well, Dad is praying over it, but Mom is packing.”

I think Dad has made his choice.  Or maybe Mom has.  A humorous (and true) example of this in action.

The worst example of course, and I’ve mentioned this before, is assigning tragedy to being part of “God’s will.”

This is another placation of sorts.  It’s easy for us to deal with life situations if we believe they’re divinely ordained.

But I want to talk about honesty here; I don’t want to be careless just because it’s useful. And I don’t think God wanted your child to die, your mother to have cancer, you to be born with one arm, or that Asiana Airlines flight to crash.

Gravity happens.  Cells divide and mutate…sometimes in ways that are tragic for life.

But to call such things “God’s will” is sick and demented and wrong.  And it’s not any better to say, “Well, I’d never say it at the time because it’s not helpful, but it’s true that it is God’s will…”

In fact, that’s worse because it’s patronizing.

And I think it’s wrong to say that it must be God’s will that these things occur because in such situations people gain great insight, or muster great courage, and that those goods outweigh the tragic bad.

In this vein Weatherhead can again be enlightening.  He notes that tragic situations do not cause great courage or insight, they just uncover it.  And to suggest that such courage or knowledge couldn’t be gained in other, non-tragic ways, is shortsighted.

We either give lip service to seeking “God’s will” while just reinforcing our own, or we proclaim “God’s will” carelessly while not really knowing what we’re talking about.

Both are sad realities for the Christian world.  This is how I see it most often done, though.

To steal Kierkegaard’s famous title, the topic of God’s will should approached with “fear and trembling.”  And with a healthy dose of mystery.

This is why spiritual disciplines are very important.  They’re less than formulaic; anyone immersed in deep discernment can tell you that it often feels like three steps forward and two back when trying to suss out a path in the deep woods of doubt and indecision.

They invite us into mystery.

Finding the will of God is less like being the captain of a ship out at sea whose rudder turns it sharply as the stars realign and the course changes in the captain’s sight.  We want such swift movement…we desire it and love it when people tell us they have such clarity.

But I, by and large, don’t trust it…and don’t encourage you to, either.

I liken it more to being a laborer on an archeological dig where slowly we uncover the thing we are seeking. And even then we sometimes end up uncovering a broken pot when we were hoping for a dinosaur.

The fact that God’s will is difficult…impossible in the specifics?…to determine is clear by those who commit themselves to the monastic life.

It is, in essence, declaring that one might arrive at God’s will by the time the tomb calls us.  Maybe. Hence why it’s a life choice.  And a good bit of discernment goes into deciding to enter an order; it takes years and years.

And sometimes people discern wrongly.  God’s will is not algorithmic in nature.

Instead of always hastily proclaiming knowledge of God’s will, I’d much rather we all agree to stumble blindly (and be honest about it) while fervently praying, discerning, and sifting for goodness in this world as we go.  Seek God’s will; sure.  But let’s not pretend to be so certain or have such clarity.  Let’s not pretend to have quick answers and divine revelations when really all we want is wish reinforcement.

I don’t think Christian Mingle can find God’s match for you.  I think it can find you some good dates, and maybe even a partner (apparently only if you’re straight, though…you can’t seek for the same sex).

But I wouldn’t say that the person you find there is “God’s match” for you anymore than the person you pick up at the bar.  And I think they should be ashamed for using that tagline.  It breaks the Second Commandment.  And it’s a dumb tagline anyway.

Instead of waiting around for God’s will, do something (very Lutheran) and step out into the world.  Sift away at the sands of life as you go; look for the good.  But don’t imagine that you can be on the “wrong path” anymore than you are on the “right path.”

You are on the pathway.  At each step you sift a little more and slowly eek out the beautiful existence.

The Psalmist doesn’t wait for God to teach them the right path before beginning the journey, but instead prays for constant companionship and enlightenment and courage as they go.  I hope I can do that, too.  Hence why I practice spiritual disciplines (as best I can).

So throw away those books that proclaim God’s will for your life is only 200 pages away; you can be “purpose driven” without it, I think.

And if you write such books, do so with fear and trembling and not because you know it will sell in a world where people want quick answers, and literalism, and divine algorithms.  What we need is honesty.  And I’m often a reluctant Christian because honesty seems to be kind of rare in this particular arena.

Christianity Doesn’t Work

It doesn't work

It doesn’t work

No, it doesn’t.

And no matter how much those smiley mega-church pastors, or those trendy pastors, or those evangelists with their little bottles of snake oil  want you to believe it does, it doesn’t.

Christianity does not work the way your hammer works.  And you may want to hammer in the morning, or in the evening all over this land, but it still won’t work.

It doesn’t do that.

I read a recent article online about a church that was welcoming in their new pastor.  They lauded the pastor as being “energetic and enthusiastic,” claiming that he “grew his previous congregation into one of the fastest growing churches in the denomination.”

No doubt that is an article that tries to get you to think that it works.  It creates energy and enthusiasm, growing and multiplying and expanding.

Expanding influence.  Expanding pocketbooks.

We’re talking about success here.

But Christianity doesn’t do that.  It is not a magic pill that you swallow to become successful.  It does not, as I recently read on the cover of a free evangelical e-book, help you “conquer life.”

In fact, it helps you lose your life.  Christopher Hitchens hated that part about Christianity.  He said it was cruel to expect people to give up their lives in deference to others, especially enemies and those they never met.  This point is about the only point about Christianity that Hitchens ever understood: self-sacrifice and self-giving love is at the heart of the Christian.

And it encourages you to adopt tactics that don’t work.  Forgiveness, for instance, doesn’t work.  It doesn’t automatically repair relationships.  It doesn’t automatically make you feel better or heal your insides.  It doesn’t do any of those things, as a recent New York Times article points out.  Sometimes revenge satisfies more than forgiveness.

And yet, the Christian is called to forgive.  It is but one example of how Christianity doesn’t work in the way the world wants things to work.

Christianity doesn’t work. And that’s going to upset some people to hear it, but it’s true. And I’m a reluctant Christian because so much of our church culture today is about success and numbers and winning and…and about it all working.

The Christianity I practice doesn’t work.  It hasn’t made me successful.  It hasn’t made me wealthy.  It hasn’t made my marriage perfect or my parenting perfect or my manners perfect or my morals perfect.  It certainly hasn’t given me all the answers.  I have more questions then ever.

It has given me a lens, though, to view my work and any successes I might claim.  It’s given me a lens to view my pocketbook and my marriage and my parenting and my manners and my morals.  It has given me a lens to view questions and has encouraged me to ask more questions.

But it doesn’t work.

And quick growth in faith communities, or enthusiastic pastors, or wealthy congregations, or any of these business markers for success are smoke and mirrors covering this truth: Christianity doesn’t work.

Thank God.  So much of what supposedly works in this life is killing us.

And so much of Christianity is about self-sacrifice.  And somehow, it gives life.

“The Bible Is Not a Self-Help Book” or “Please Stop…”

Rob Goodman recently wrote an excellent article critiquing Rick Warren, “Smiley” Osteen, and the like for their “self-help” theology.  The main instigation for the article was Rick Warren’s new “Daniel diet” based off of the Daniel story from the Older Testament.

Yeah, that guy who fell into the lion’s den.

Warren supposedly mined the depths of scripture to come up with this plan loosely taken from the section of Daniel where the book’s title character refuses to eat the king’s food in their place of captivity (thereby avoiding the appearance of consenting to the godless ways of his captors).

It’s a good story.  And it may actually hold some diet advice…for lions.

But, as Goodman points out, it’s a story about identity and resistance and trust.  Not about dieting.

So why is Warren using it as a diet guide?

Warren plays into what I think is one of the most dangerous trends in Christianity that has still, inexplicably, continued since the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment did wonderful things for humanity in many ways.  It also has some negative consequences, one of the chief ones being that we now only see something as “truth” if it correlates to “fact.”

I’ll go out on a rhetorical limb here and say that the statement, ” ‘Truth’ and ‘fact’ are always synonymous,” is simply…not true.

But, in Warren’s view the two must be the same, which means that the Bible must be “fact” and the home of all fact, or else the authority of the Bible is laid to waste.  Basically, it’s a story of the Christian who rails against the Enlightenment because of what it has done to the authority of the religious community thereby perpetuating Enlightenment thinking by buying the primary premise.

Yeah, it’s that age-old story, that old chestnut, where, as Paul rightly says, someone (in this case Warren) “does not do what (they) want, and only does what (they) do not want to do.”

And so for Warren, the Bible is not only the authority on how the world was created (Genesis 1-2), why there are different languages (Genesis 11), what you should think about social issues (scan Leviticus and the Epistles and pick one), and how you should vote (wait…that’s not in there), it also must be the authority on everything else including dieting.*

Because if the Bible is reliable, it must be infallible and inerrant and the home and locus of all that is necessary for knowledge as a primary document.

And you spent your money on those Encyclopedia Britannica books…

I’ll cut right to the chase: the Bible wasn’t written to give you a diet plan, to save your marriage, or to help you make money.  In fact, if you go to certain places of scripture you might find that you’re given permission to eat anything (Acts 10), or that you can hate your family (Luke 14), or that God intends for you to be penniless and poor (Matthew 19).

Like that advice?  It’s probably not good for the purposes that I intended to use it for.  But it has about as much merit as the basis for Warren’s diet plan.

That little move, where you take a section of Scripture and use it to proof-text a point or position is actually just taking it out of context.  It’s a popular move, to be sure.  I mean, what adds weight to a cause more than the very voice of God?!

But it’s not honest.  And, dare I say, it might be breaking the second Commandment (from the Protestant Decalogue).  “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” has little to do with cursing (although, from a previous post you’d think that that’s all it means).

It actually means that you shouldn’t take God’s name “uselessly.”  You shouldn’t associate God with things that God has no association with.  And so, if you believe that the Bible was more dictation than experiential writing, or if you think the infallibility and inerrancy of the text come from the very will of the Divine, I’d tremble in my boots before I use the Bible as back-up to most anything, let alone a diet plan.

I tremble doing it myself, and I don’t think the Bible is inerrant and infallible!

I tremble because, well, scripture is important to me.  It is sacred.  And as something sacred I hate seeing it belittled to the point of Jenny Craig and Seattle Sutton.

I do think that what we eat and how we care for our bodies is important, and Godly work, and I believe it can say something about our core convictions (hence why Chick-fil-a won’t be getting a dime from this pastor’s pocket anymore).

There are times when I can get insight into an issue from the Bible.  Many a sermon is based on this.  But that’s taking the Bible into my context.  Warren, and those who routinely do this, mistakenly assumes the Biblical context is this context.

Suffice to say, I don’t think the Bible has a diet plan for me.  And I don’t think it has a plan to get me rich.  And I don’t think it has a plan to get me buff (Sampson comes to mind here…and I can’t grow much hair on my head).  And I certainly don’t think that Solomon is a good example of a successful marriage.

The Bible doesn’t do that.

I do think it contains stories of people who have had experiences with God powerful enough to talk about them.  I think it contains glimpses of my faith heritage.  And I think it contains the best, most beautifully engaging story I’ve ever read in the person of Jesus.  I think it’s instructive for devotion and faith.

Really, the only thing close to a diet plan I hear from the scriptures is from the book of  John in chapter 6 where the Gospel writer has Jesus talking about him being the “true bread from heaven” that the world lives on.

But, as a Christian who takes Scripture seriously, I’m entreating the Christian world to stop with this nonsense of looking to the Bible like one might look to an encyclopedia.

The Bible wasn’t written to be your self-help book.

But, it does have beautiful stories, letters, poetry, and history that just may change your life.  So please, do help yourself to it.

*If, perhaps, Warren does not believe that the Bible holds dieting advice, but is just using it as a basis to help sell the product, that would be the definition of the word “despicable.”