The Prayer Of The Ugh-Churched

Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned against You in my heart and thoughts. I have grown discontent in my journey towards You. I love you still and seek You fervently. In fact, this love for You and desire to grow more like You has fanned the flames of frustration. I want more than church programs. I want the church to live like family. I want to be challenged to grow more dependent on You, not on gifted teachers. I want to be equipped rather than rely on someone else for my spiritual development and I want to be engaged rather than entertained.

Many Christians say they want “real” and “authentic” community but the very structures we adopt for the local church tend emphasize intellectual growth over relationships. We have classes to teach people how  to live in community but we don’t actually expect anyone to be in such a community. In fact, we’re a bit taken aback when we do see it.

When we say “doing life together”, it usually means superimposing some sort of academic study on to people who may or may not actually grow the most from academic study. We approach the Christian life as if we were simply disciplined enough, everything would be better. We academetize everything to the point that we discourage people who have no business being discouraged about following Jesus. It’s great if you can tell me the declentions of a Greek verb but I’d rather know you were trying to love those in your path as best you can. We make people who don’t like to read books read books other than the Bible so that they will understand the Bible better. And if they won’t even pretend to like to read to appease their leaders, they are deemed as somehow less spiritual and not “leader material”. We ask people to take time away from their families so we can tell them to love their families better. We ask people to meet with other Christians to learn how to talk to people who aren’t Christians. Really? Is this what it’s come to?

I’m sorry but if we can’t talk to our neighbor about everyday life, we’re not going to talk to them about Jesus. And if that’s the only think we ever talk to them about we’re just going to seem weird and they’re going to think that we view them as a project rather than a friend.

We use verses out of context to promote our own agendas like the (hopefully) well-intentioned pastor using Hebrews 10:25‘s admonition to not neglect gathering together with other believers to say that you have to be at every worship service (I’d be happy to elaborate on this at some point, but for now, I’ll say that I’m pretty sure that the writer to the Hebrews did not mean that we should attend a production once a week where we passively listen to a speaker tell us for 45 minutes how to live while a band urges us to sing along to their performance.). We draw lines in the sand that don’t need to be drawn and we call it “inerrancy” (the Bible was not given to tell us the age of the earth and to believe in an old earth does not mean not believing the rest of the Bible). We major on the minors and wrongly divide (I have not applied to several churches because they require someone who believes a Pre-Trib/Pre-Mil eschatology. Yes, I think eschatology is important. No, I don’t think this is something to divide over).

Father, protect me that my frustration does not sprout into bitterness. Surround me with people who want more.

Help us, Father to own our weaknesses rather than pretending they don’t exist. Help us to to find a better way forward instead of retreading the same well-intentioned but dead-end paths. Surround me with people who believe that the church is neither a building and who believe that worship is not an event and certainly not a performance. Lead me to people who believe that growth occurs primarily in community and understand that you can’t program real community. Lead me to people who believe that growing in discipleship is not necessarily the same thing as growing in knowledge about the Bible, though the two are often deeply intertwined.

Father, help us to move beyond cliché understandings of words like “authentic” and “organic”. Fill my heart with love and patience. Teach me as a leader to equip others rather than make them rely on me. Please deepen my own love, not only for You but for your your people. May I come to understand my faith, not as an add-on but as a marinade for life.

May my frustration be an instrument of healing for others. May I never lead out of opposition but from joyful obedience. May my love for you increase and may I become more dependent on You. Grant me wisdom, fill me with joy, lead me to serve and surround me with others who want the same.

Amen.

 

An Introduction to the “Ugh-Churched”

ugh-shirtI am Ted Wiggins and I speak for the trees!

No, that’s not right. I am Brent Thomas and I speak for . . . well, I might not speak for anyone other than myself. However, I have the hunch that I speak for a growing number of Christians who are increasingly frustrated by American Christianity.

Discipleship is the primary task Jesus left His people (Matthew 28:18-20). This simply means helping ourselves and others become more like Jesus. This is the fundamental task of Christians and encompasses all of life including all of our relationships. We are publicly trying to live out the ways of Jesus and striving to help others (no matter where upon the faith journey they might currently find themselves) to see the beauty in doing so (This is different from evangelism. Evangelism is not a thing in and of itself but is a subset of discipleship. Maybe more on this later.).Many churches grasp this, using pithy, easy-to-remember phrases like: Make, Mature and Multiply (Disciples), or Gather, Grow, Go.

Few seem to argue the fact that the core of Christian Living is discipleship. Over the years, I’ve asked over a hundred people: How well do you think the American Church as a whole, has done at the fundamental task of Discipleship?

I have yet to have a single person tell me that “as a whole,” we’re rocking it. Several people have been able to point to specific times when they have been spiritually cared for and encouraged and seen significant growth but these cases seem to be the exception rather than the norm. No one has argued that, “as a whole,” we’re doing well. There was one guy who was adamant until I realized that he was arguing that Young Life did a great job of discipling, not the church.

93434191-einstein-tongue_custom-36fb0ce35776dc2d92eda90880022bf48a67e192-s6-c30And yet it seems like just about every church is doing the fundamentally the same things. You remember how Einstein defined insanity, don’t you? Doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. That seems to be the current predicament for American Christianity. Sure, the flavor might change but nearly every church seems to have the basic, Sunday-driven, education-based, program-driven structures. Two or three songs, a sermon and some more songs. Some churches are showy-er about it than others. Some churches have different emphases within those parameters but nobody seems to question the basic. passive, education-based approach.

But there is a growing number of people who believe that the Christian life is more, not less than the modern church experience. Many people sincerely want to follow Jesus and find a divide between how we see that suggested in the New Testament and how it is largely practiced here in the United States of 2016. Drawing from researchers like Thom Rainer and others who discuss the “pre-churched,” the “de-churched,” the “un-churched,” etc., I have come to think of this group as the “ugh-churched”.

The “ugh-churched” as I understand them, are not abandoning their faith nor do they want to abandon church participation. Much ink has been spilled rebuking people who say that they love God but feel no need for church. These are not the ugh-churched. The ugh-churched, if I may speak for a category I’ve just made up, believe that the current model is lacking at best and broken at worst. The ugh-churched believe that so many modern churches rely on programs because real relationships simply don’t exist.

But it’s a catch-22, isn’t it? Many churches see the New Testament’s expectations that we will “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:1-2), that we will rejoice and weep together (Romans 12:15), that we will speak the truth to one another in love (Ephesians 4:25), that we will live as family and so we create programs in which these things are supposed to occur but these things do not occur in programs because programs are not relationships. People oftentimes don’t know how to have these types of relationships because they’ve been caught in programs. A growing number of people have become disillusioned with the current approach and long for Christianity to be lived out in the context of meaningful, challenging relationships. Though there’s lots to do in the American Church, it just doesn’t always seem worth the time and energy and many are left wanting more.

As my friend April recently said:

I’m at a point in my Christian faith where I don’t want to go to a church with a “tag line” or catchy mission statement. I’m so over it, like way way over it. I want to go to a church that really wants to be the Church and not some cool kids club, that strives to be relevant, or hip, or urban, or progressive, or liberal, or seeker sensitive, or “down to earth”. I’ve found that there’s a lot of flavor out there without a lot of substance (kinda like Doritos). Hoping God will bring us into a community of believers who want to do honest, raw, life together for the long haul. Keep our family in your prayers, and keep me in your prayers that God will show Himself to me in his people and that I would be encouraged.

The problem is that we’re left with cliché’s like “authentic”, “genuine” and “organic”. They sound great but have largely lost their meaning in the current church context because every church uses these terms but seems to mean something different by them and the result is has simply become a standardized approach to how we “do church”. This is why many of the ugh-churched feel increasingly disenfranchised from the American church; they want more, not less. They want substance over performance and they believe that following Jesus is about more than superficial slogans like “Win at Life”.

This means that we must stop doing church the way we’ve always done it. Far from being threatened by the ugh-churched, we should revel in the desire for deep and meaningful community faith. This is an exciting time for the American Church. We are faced with an identity crisis and we have reached a tipping point. How will we emerge? Will we embrace the growing desire for simplified schedules and deeper relationships or will we create another church program?

 

 

Why Do We Make It So Difficult (02)? Missional Living And The Plague Of Passive Christians

cemetery-church-416587-mOver the past ew months, I’ve thought a lot about various aspects of the way we “do church” in America. Though there are certainly variations on a theme, many if not most American Evangelicalism churches look pretty much the same. Though one may have “young adult contemporary with a hint of edginess to attract the Millennials” style worship while the church down the road maintains “traditional values”, chances are, the basic structure of what they do, (order of worship, ministry structure, classes offered, etc.) is probably pretty similar. You can repaint the barn all you want but it’s still a barn.

The other day I considered whether the American approach to “church” tends to exclude otherwise qualified men or whether I’m just a curmudgeon. By the way, I did get one vote for curmudgeon from a friend on FB, so that is still a real possibility. Just like I have come to wonder whether or current models of ministry tend to favor certain personality types over others, I wonder whether the current model of church has actually hindered rather than fostered discipleship. The primary thing Christians have been called to do may actually be stunted by our approach to try and fulfill the commands of Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20).

While I love that there are exceptions, the general rule seems to be that the American church produces passive Christians. I have been part of the missional conversation since I was encouraged by my Acts 29 Assessment team to attend Soma School in 2008. Since then, I have been challenged to actively live out my faith and I have given my life to equip others to do the same. We tried to plant a church that would require people to participate. We have participation in our sermons. We are structured around Missional Communities, we limit our church programs, etc. After all, Paul is very clear that it is the people of the church who are to be responsible for the majority of its ministry (Ephesians 4:11-13).

And we have seen God change people’s lives! We have seen people not only learn their neighbors’ names but build relationships with them. We have seen families open up their homes for foster care and adoption. We have seen people learn to identify and de-throne the idols they worship. We have seen people increase in love for God and others.

But it has been a slow and sometimes discouraging process. It has meant that we have to be sensitive to the fact that many people are simply not accustomed to their local church expecting a lot (other than maybe money and volunteer time) from them. Jesus certainly gave people pause before following Him, reminding them to count the cost. Following Jesus will often cost us in life because Jesus expects our entire lives to be devoted to Him. The local church is the avenue in which and through which we live out this life-encompassing call. If you are never challenged or made uncomfortable by your church, you might have reason for concern.

God’s people have been blessed to be a blessing (Genesis 12:2). God calls us to bless the cities in which we live, even if we feel captive (Jeremiah 29:4-7). Jesus  calls His people “salt and light” (Matthew 5:13-16). But I often meet Christians and pastors who feel like they just don’t know how to tangibly live out their faith.

Why have we made it so difficult for Christians to actively live out their faith in natural, unforced ways in everyday life? Why have we made it so difficult for so many Christians to talk openly and welcomingly about their faith? Why have we made it so difficult that throwing parties and serving others seems so unnatural? Why have we made it so difficult for people own their own spiritual growth?

I have come to believe that many of the challenges American Christianity faces are a direct result of the methods we have adopted in living out our faith. These methods have actually created a culture of passive Christians who need to be awoken, energized and equipped to put feet to their faith.

Though there are certainly other factors, I think that at least a few reasons we seem to pump out passivity, such as:

Theology (or lack thereof) of Place: American Evangelicalism generally seems to have a poor theology of place. Instead of challenging commuter culture, we have adopted it wholesale. We have removed most churches from their local context. Sure their property sits in a particular geographical area but it is increasingly rare for those surrounding communities to feel that the church is a blessing.

We need to regain and live out the notion that faith is put in to practice in everyday life. Local churches should be involved in their local communities. If we have been blessed to be a blessing, our communities should have tangible blessings to point out. Instead, they complain that our mega-services cram up the traffic and we take tax breaks from our communities rather than pouring in to the city.

The issue here is probably bigger than just a theology of place.

A n0n-holistic Gospel Leads to Christian Isolationism: Though the Evangelists and Revivalists of recent ages past certainly meant well, American Evangelicalism seems to have learned from them that the salvation of souls is the most important thing. But if all of creation has been affected by sin, surely the Gospel impacts and will someday redeem all of creation. The Gospel is not about getting in to heaven when we die, it is about living out the Kingdom here and now.

One practical result of this disconnect is directly tied to our poor theology of place. Not only have we disconnected the local church from its neighborhood, the separation of salvation from everyday life has only led to the fact that Christians like to clump together, removing ourselves from the “secular” world. We create our own sports leagues, reading clubs, etc. It is entirely possible for a Christian to have no contact whatsoever with those who believe and live differently. We can eat Christian toast, listen to Christian radio on our way to our Christian job, having lunch at the Christian coffeeshop, and then go to Bible study before going to bed.

As Francis Chan says in Crazy Love  (a book itself devoted to shaking Christians from passivity):

“Christians are like manure: spread them out and they help everything grow better, but keep them in one big pile and they stink horribly.”

Christians were never meant to separate themselves from the rest of the world (John 17). Not only does isolationism separate us from those who don’t yet believe, it increases passivity. Though I may be challenged on the certain nuances of particular ideas, when I’m surrounded by those I generally agree with, stagnation is usually close by.

The Professionalization of the Pastorate Has Led to Poor Equipping: Though Paul clearly say the five-fold ministry as given to the church to equip Believers for the work of the ministry, we have relegated this “work of the ministry” to those paid to do it. Instead of viewing themselves primarily as equippers, many pastors are forced to live as doers. Part of this is related to the fact that seminary is probably not the best way to train equippers and we primarily seem to have seminaries in general because we wanted legitimacy from the academic world, but I am digressing and hope to address some of those issues later.

The very fact that John Piper (regardless of your thoughts on him and his ministry) felt the need to write a book called Brothers, We Are Not Professionals reminds us that this is indeed a real issue amidst American Evangelicalism. Many Christians have adopted passivity because they have come to believe that that’s what they pay others to do. And, instead of encouraging people to take responsibility for their own spiritual growth, we have turned spiritual growth over to the professionals.

Consumerism and An Entertainment Culture: Very few would argue that American culture has not willingly gift-wrapped itself in consumerism and the desire to be entertained. But, as Neil Postman has pointed  out, the medium is the message. Our news shows are more scripted drama than simple reporting of events. And our worship gatherings are often more about entertainment than they are equipping Believers.

As Hirsch and Frost and others have pointed out, the very fact that our congregations are lined up in rows facing a stage means that the gathering will typically mean a passive audience. Top this off with the unhelpful aspects of “seeker sensitive churches” and we have many churches that will adopt the “USA Today” model of preaching, never challenging above a seventh-grade level. The music is led by slick emotionalists and the message is delivered by a professional public speaker.

Another side of this is the self-righteously Reformed folk who have adopted the notion that the sermon is the time for lessons in doctrine and the transfer of information. I was heard a famous preacher say, more than once, that if a pastor wasn’t spending 40 hours a week in their study, they had no business stepping behind a pulpit. While not necessarily entertainment driven, this approach certainly promotes passivity rather than engagement.

As I said the other day, I am not bitter towards the church. But I am in a personal place where I feel the need for public dialogue. Over the years, I have asked hundreds of people if they thought the American church was rocking it at actually making, maturing and multiplying disciples. I have not had a single person say that they think we’re doing a great job. That should prompt some deep self-reflection and some really big discussions.

As Einstein reminded us, insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. Even though we have painted the barn lots of different colors over the years, it is still a barn. If our current system does not excel at the one main task to which we have been called and, in fact may have not only discouraged some men from serving but encouraged passivity, (and I am open to the fact that you may have had a different experience and that I may actually be wrong) we need the humility to talk openly about our shortcomings.

Make A Difference By Building Community

Screen Shot 2014-12-03 at 6.34.12 AMI know you want to make an impact with your life. I know you want to make a difference by creating community. You’re just wondering where such an opportunity like this might fit in your crazy life, right? Right.

If you’re in the Phoenix area, please join me tonight to find out how you can make a difference and get discounted rent by simply being there for people. This is an amazing opportunity to make a difference in apartment communities throughout the Valley.

We place teams of two (called CARES Teams) in apartment communities. CARES Teams live onsite, with significantly reduced rent, and help the apartment owner create community by welcoming new residents, hosting monthly events, and CARE-ing for neighbors in need. This helps apartment owners with retention, marketability, and overall satisfaction, making it a wise business move.

Here’s a quick video with more information about Apartment Life. If you want to apply to become a CARES Team, please take a minute to fill out our Information Form online.

Find out more and RSVP for tonights event on Facebook.

I am also available to do informational meetings at your church for others who are ready to make a difference.