So Many Churches?

Maybe what we need isn’t another church, but simply a better church.

Here’s the trouble though: However well-intentioned, most of young leaders think that the way to get a better church is to start one. At least that’s what I thought – and am continually tempted to think.

Rather than do the hard work of internal reconciliation, many young leaders seem quick to abandon ship. A little disappointment here or there, and we’re racing off the next thing – sexier, hipper, more in line with our preconceptions about what church ought to be.

Let’s imagine a different scenario: rather than re-inventing the wheel, what if those young leaders buckled down and committed to using their gifts and ideas to be a catalyst for change and rebirth? Think of the resources that would save. Think of the relationships that could be mended. Think of the testimony to a hurting community. That seems to be a better story – more in line with the way of Jesus.

Yes, there are absolutely occasions to call it quits. Abuse. Manipulative or hardened leadership. And there are also plenty of reasons for church planting. But I get the sense that we’re often more discontent than we’d like to admit.

Here’s a brief sketch:

A better church isn’t necessarily a sexier church.
A better church isn’t necessarily one that you like.
A better church isn’t trying to impress you.
A better church doesn’t play “the right kind” of music.
A better church doesn’t look a certain way.

A better church shows you how to be like Jesus.
A better church has the courage to call you out.
A better church knows who you are – and loves you.
A better church may let you fall, but helps to pick you up.
A better church builds relationships through forgiveness.

What you think: Are there too many churches? Why is that?

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A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

A good friend loaned it me. It has a cool cover. It’s subtitled “what I learned while editing my life.” All reasons to read a book. In the end, here’s why I needed to read Don Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years (and why I was unable to put it down):

Because I needed to realize that boredom is just fear when it gets lazy.

Because I needed to see God as a watchful and sovereign storyteller.

Because I needed to learn that the only way to keep my dreams from being exhausting is to recognize that they’re God’s.

Because I needed to learn that it’s hopeless to seek resolution this side of heaven. Especially in the Hallmark card section at Walgreens.

Because I needed to learn that trying to be interesting borders on blasphemy.

Because I needed to learn that pain shapes purpose. And that they are both unique to each of us.

Because I needed to hear that story is something recovered.

Because I needed to learn that the word “couch” was probably invented because “where apathy, lethargy, and atrophy live” took too long to say.

Because (as a husband and father) I needed to understand the power of creating memorable scenes for my family to remember.

Things Boring Christians Say

I’ve been plowing through David Platt‘s book Radical this week.  Holy Cow.  Somewhere in chapter 6, entitled “American Wealth and a World of Poverty,” it struck me that I’m a pretty boring Christian.  And I’m beginning to think that what keeps me boring just might be sinful.

Those attitudes usually surface when I’m alone.  They’re the quiet under-the-breath asides that are meant for only one audience.  In reading through Platt’s thoughts, another possibility has surfaced: What if these asides aren’t merely inner monologue, but divine dialogueWhat if God is bringing things to light in my life that I want to keep hidden?  And what if those things (“blindspots” as Platt calls them) are the tools that God will use to sanctify me?  Sad thing is – for most of us, a God that wants us to be uncomfortable is probably a major paradigm shift.

Sad.  Boring.  And bored.

If you think about where to drawn the line between conservative, boring, and sinful, here’s some things that boring Christians (like me) often find themselves saying:

I can’t do everything, so I won’t do anything.

I’m just waiting for God to call me to ______ .

If I do ______, then I’ll lose ______ .

It’s just easier to stay where I am.

I’m not ready to ______ – but someday I hope that I will be. 

But I can’t relate to those people.

I’m not sure what will happen. (or its cousin) What if it doesn’t work out?

What’ll happen to my (insert stability idol here) if I ______ .

I think it was Anne Lamott (always a good source for slightly controversial quotes) who said, “Grace will take you as you are, but will refuse to leave you that way.”  And then there’s that nagging Brennan Manning reminder: “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians – who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, and then walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle.  That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbeliveable.”

It’s likely you’re too boring.  What keeps you that way?  Does it really all just boil down to fear?  How has God made you aware of (and then hopefully worked with you to remove) your blindspots?  P.S.  If you haven’t bought this book yet, I think you should.  It would be good.

Finally. “The Millennials”

Finally.

Thus begins my one-word summation of the father-son collaborative effort The Millennials. But before we dive into the book itself, it might be helpful to hear where I’m coming from:

Born in 1981, I’m on the older end of the Millennial generation (born between 1980-2000).  I work at a Christian multi-generational, non-profit in sub-urban Chicago with largely Baby-Boomer leadership.  I love talking about “missional” movements, diversified ownership in the church context, new ways of communication, and I’m eager to “make a difference in the world.”  Philosophically and methodologically, I proudly and neatly find myself the “Millennial” category.

Upon first cracking the spine of The Millennials, I was skeptical (perhaps that ironically betrays my generational perspective).  Do we really need another book about this?  It’s not like the subject of generational relationships hasn’t already been discussed ad nauseum.  Much has been done in the way of statistics (“87% of married, sub-urban, white males believe ____ about the institutional church…“).  Much has been done in the way of whining (“if those old folks would get out of the way” / “if only those arrogant ___’s would shut up listen“).  I was a little nervous that I’d end up adding yet another unproductive book to my ever-growing library of analysis and whining.

I was wonderfully surprised.

Through 11 chapters, the Rainers present their findings on a survey of 1200 Millennialsperspectives on the workplace, the media, the church, money, the environment, family, and conflict, faith.  They also spend a fair amount of time unpacking some of the key motivations for the Millennials.  The Rainers’ tone is largely educational – and graceful at that.  This may be one of the most understated values of the book.  More on that in a bit.  The father-son duo tag-team the writing throughout the book, actively seeking to craft a duel-voiced expression of the issues at play.

Who will read this book:

Baby-Boomer leaders.  Probably the strongest audience for The Millennials are Baby Boomers (currently 46-64 years old) who are looking for ways to lead, mentor, and connect with those who will soon inherit their ministries.  Being a Baby-Boomer who leads one of the most influential para-church ministries in the country, Thom provides a perspective that is balanced, insightful, helpful, and (most importantly) pastoral.  He gently lays out principles that will guide his Boomer counterparts in passing the baton to the Millennials.  In their closing chapter, the Rainers make their well-founded appeal: “Our question is more one for those who are not Millennials.  How will we receive them?  how will be channel their ambitions and impatience? …are we ready for the Millennials?” (page 288).

Millennial followers who are frustrated in our positions.  The Millennials clarifies and articulates things that we instinctively feel.  We want to change the world – and we believe that we can.  We grow tired of largely unresponsive leadership.  The Millennials doesn’t seek correct that ambition – only to temper it by placing the emphasis on building healthy relationships.  Without endorsing or condemning, the question essentially becomes: “what is needed at this point to create a bridge to our Baby Boomer leaders?” You will walk away more eager to listen – not because you’ve been shamed into it, but because you recognize that our ambitions are best served by studying the lives of those who have preceded us.

What this book will do for you:

1.  Paint a general-but-accurate picture.  The Rainers paint with an admittedly broad brush – this is part of the simplistic beauty.  Because their aim is primarily educational, they give the reader a few essential, helpful, and largely indisputable characteristics of emerging adults.  Their stated hope is to “speak to the churches and church leaders who need to connect with this generation before it’s too late” (page 277).  If you’re looking for a more detailed analysis of the emerging adults, you might find other reads like Souls in Transition from the National Study of Youth and Religion more beneficial. If you’re looking for specifics, look elsewhere.  If you’re looking for a general work that will go a long way in helping to bridge the generation gap, The Millennials is it. 

2.  Give hope.  This cannot be overstated.  In my experience, one of largest difficulties in bridging the gap between Baby Boomers and emerging Millennials seems to be simple breakdown of understanding.  To Millennials, Boomers appear slow and out of touch.  Their way of “doing business” appears entrenched, comfortable, (quite honestly) a little boring.  To Boomers, Millennials appear disrespectful and arrogant.  Their ambitions – while noble – frequently overstep common courtesy.  What we have in The Millennials represents a truly collaborative effort from two authors – a Boomer and a Millennial respectively – who see the importance of creating a shared understanding of generational dynamics.  The Millennials is an artful, necessary, and even pastoral work.

3.  Cause you to thinkHopefully. Chapter 11, entitled “The Church Responds to the Millennials” will likely be the most beneficial chapter for most readers.  But the real value here is that they wisely stop short of spoon-feeding the reader.  For example, when they write that one of the keys to reaching millennial christians “is to direct revenue outwardly” (page 266),” they stop there – leaving the burden of responsibility on current church and organizational leaders.  They refuse to give easy answers.  In so doing, the Rainers take on a near prophetic role – simply furthering the discussion and forcing current Boomer leaders to discover their own answers through conversations with their Millennials counterparts.  Probably one of the best applications for The Millennials is in a multi-generational staff or group-study setting.

Finally.  Someone has written a book that neither buttresses any of my latent bitterness (I’ve already read plenty of those), nor bores me with cold stats (I could just pick up the paper).  The Millennials stands to be one of the most conversation-generating, bridge-building, and helpful works to date.

Holy Transparency & Your Church

(This post is largely in response to a post from Jeff Goins’ blog, Pilgrimage of the Heart.  If you don’t follow him, you should)

What’s the deal with the overlap between faith and music?  Why are we drawn to “the gray area?” – that place where seemingly “un-christian” artists talk about things related to faith?  Artists like Dave Matthews, Damien Rice, Over the Rhine, and others like them – who probably won’t find themselves as worship leaders in a local church anytime soon – possess an undeniable ability to pull us in.  Why?

“The Blower’s Daughter” has effectively changed the way I look at my wife. Here’s the live video.

The scary thing is that there is certainly biblical precedent for this kind of holy transparency. Psalm 51 (context: David after the Bathsheba narrative) is probably the clearest example that comes to mind. Here’s the most poignant piece to me: While only one verse is spent recording David’s confession (2 Samuel 12:13), a whole Psalm is spent in meditative, artful, contrite worship.

Why does God want us to read both accounts – the historical and the poetic – of David’s thoughts after his sin with Bathsheba?  What can be said through a psalm that can’t be recorded in the historical record?

Interestingly, Psalm 51 is one of the 55 Psalms prefaced with “for the choir director” as a sub-heading – noting that it was typically meant to be experienced alongside of music. Here’s how I imagine this going: David writes down or recites his meditation (the words of Psalm 51). He hands it to the choir director (likely a Levitical priest or someone who had experience with music in a corporate worship setting). The choir director then supplements David’s words with music that was meant to bring his words to their fullest and deepest resonance. Over the last 3,000 years, we’ve lost the music. And, because we can’t handle the powerful transparency of words alone, Psalm 51 (like many others) has become peripheral in corporate worship. We needed the music.

The thing about Damien Rice: He is both the writer and the priest of his meditation. There is no gap. That testifies to his authenticity.

Here’s a possible direction to take this thought: Does the church know how to corporately steward the feelings of her people through music? What would happen if the adulterer in your church took his words (a la Psalm 51) to your worship leader? What would he / she do with them? We need artists who can craft music that moves alongside the whispers of the Spirit.

Thank God for Clarity

Thank God for clarity.

Thus begins my opening thoughts and four-word summation of Hipster Christianity – a book I was intrigued by from the moment I heard the title.  In 247 pages, Brett McCracken takes on the adventurous task of examining what happens when “church” and “cool” collide.  When I first heard about this book a few months ago, I shared the idea with my younger brother.  (We both attended Christian colleges in the Midwest, are Over the Rhine / Sufjan Stevens / junkies, and hate to admit that we really can’t afford really nice cigars).  With a half-smile I could detect through the phone line, he said: “Oh, man!  I’ve finally been outed.  And I guess that’s the point.”  Exactly.

I have to admit I was worried when I opened up the Amazon.com box and quickly scanned the chapter headings: “Emerging Church (not again),” “Social Justice (yippee),” and “The History of Hip (oh boy, History Channel meets Freakonomics).”  I thought – Oh man, please don’t let this be another polemical rant for the sake of book sales.  True to its subtitle, however, Hipster Christianity is essentially just a glimpse through the window.  For some of us, it’s a glimpse through the window of a house we’ve lived in for a while.  For others, it will probably be a glimpse through a window you’d prefer be completely draped over.  More on that later.  But like a socio-ecclesiastical photograph of a growing segment of Christian culture, Hipster Christianity offers a thorough study of an often un-study-able subject.

While I don’t plan of recapping a bulk of material, I felt it might be helpful to paint a picture of where McCraken is coming from.  First, I need to say that I’m probably a little biased.  As a 20-something Chicago resident, indie-rock fan, and employee of a missions-related Christian not-for-profit, I’m a likely candidate for falling into the “Christian hipster” bucket (see the quiz at http://www.hipsterchristianity.com/quiz.php.  Incidentally, I passed – mostly owing to those $1 Sacred Heart of Jesus candles I get every once and a while).  Consequently, I felt an affinity with him throughout the read.

(from the back cover)  McCracken is graduate of Wheaton College and UCLA (there’s probably only four or five people  who can say that).  His day job is managing editor for Biola University’s Biola magazine.  He regularly writes move reviews and features for Christianity Today, as well as contributing to Relevant magazine.

McCracken’s writing style (which can be found more frequently at his blog: stillsearching.wordpress.com), will remind you of those late night discussions with your college roommates but also of that guy in your freshmen theology class – the one who quoted Chesterton from the back corner while you were still trying to write down the main tenets of Alexandrian Christology.  It’s unclear whether you’re supposed to be sipping from the coffee cup or the pint glass, but maybe that’s the point.  But by far the most outstanding feat that McCracken performs throughout Hipster Christianity isn’t just in the presentation of the bulk of material – although that is tremendous.  His real accomplishment is remaining objective throughout.  Be to sure, his self-confessed hipster identity is shows through at times, but never in a self-betraying way.  He neither advocates nor denies his observations.  In so doing, he lends credibility to his work, and gives the reader the straight shot.

Probably the most understated feature is the text-boxed asides.  In most works, these exist only to highlight what the author has already said in the preceding paragraph.  Maybe I’m being to rabbinical here, but I always feel ripped off – like I’ve been effectively brainwashed because I was lured into reading the same sentence twice.  Not so here.  Example: When McCracken briefly highlights the reformed tendencies of hipster Christians (p. 104) he gives a well thought-out summary entitled “Why Calvinism is Hipster Friendly.”  When he takes a look into music as art (pp. 173-5), he includes the “Essential Christian Hipster Albums.”  The “Bookshelf” asides are also helpful:  When McCracken takes a 30,000 foot fly over missional theology, he is careful to include a list of books called “The Missional Bookshelf.”  Similarly, he includes a list of “The Emergent Bookshelf.”  Outside of just being helpful resources, these serve the larger purpose of assuring the casual reader that McCracken isn’t operating in a vacuum.

Half sociological observation – half practical theology (there are glimpses of pastoral theology in there as well, for you leadership types), McCraken’s work represents the most helpful, unbiased – even critical at times, and scholarly work on the subject to date.  A work that beautifully walks balance between insight and cynicism.

What this book will do to you:

You will feel ironically happy.  Maybe you’re like me and feel like you’ve been outed.  In which case, you’ll take McCracken at his word and hightail it to the nearest fair-trade, organic, local coffee shop to drowning your sorrows in a triple grandissimo red-eye.  Realizing that you’re not as “cool” as you might have previously thought, you’ll feel a little out of touch and probably a little convicted.  This can only serve a greater purpose however, because you’ll be a part of creating the next big thing that makes you feel alive.  I hear Over the Rhine is playing Kansas City this weekend.

You will be frustrated.  You realize that you simply can’t keep up.  Also not a bad thing because you’ll finally find purpose outside the faux-hawk you sported last Sunday.  Your youth group – and your 8-year old daughter – will thank you.   This will lead to a series of mini-crises including giving your wife back her jeans, and eventually admitting that you use an online texting translation guide when no one’s looking.

Or maybe the best option: you’ll find a strange mixture of both – hopefully leading you to eventually put down the book (after yet another read through that Thomas Kinkade rant in chapter 9), recommend it to some friends, and then nestle it on your book shelf in between your copies of Traveling Mercies and A Brief Guide to Western Philosophy.  Then you’ll move on.  And that’s probably the best part.  This book won’t change your life or give you the next great ministry idea.  It’ll hopefully just give you better footing in the faith you love.

In the end, this work is a passion play concerning relevance – the eternal kind – with the church displayed as the beautiful, unavoidable backdrop.  McCracken hits the nail on the head when he writes: “Here – in the service of Christ and with God as the center and core of our being – our identities more fully realized than we’ve ever known.”

Thank God for clarity.