Don’t Sit Alone in Church (and other thoughts on corporate worship).

Here’s a lesson worth learning (for the story inspiring this thought, read here): God cares how we approach him in worship.

Meanwhile, a lot of what we American Christians spend our time thinking and worrying about  is first-world stuff. My friend in Nigeria tells me that Christians in his country wake up every day prepared to die while many in my country wake up frustrated by how slow the line at Starbucks is. We tend to judge churches by the quality of their donuts rather than the depth of their spirituality. Maybe this isn’t you … but you get my point.

Americans are truly graced by the options we have for worshiping together freely and without fear. It is a privilege we ought not take lightly. In that spirit, I want to challenge you to consider how you show up for worship and how you lean into it once you get there. Here are ten ways to lean in on Sunday mornings, so you’re all in as a full partner in building community among your people:

  1. Community is essential. Be in worship because we are not created to do this alone. And be a full participant when you get there because community is essential for discipleship and for rich and vibrant corporate worship. I believe the oncoming revival of the American Church will be its emphasis on partnership over presentation, each of us acting more like owners than renters of the space we take up in church.
  2. Leaning into community is a kindness toward your pastor. Everyone in the room participates more actively when every person participates. That means not sitting on the back row (which means leaving your rebellious spirit at the door). It means finding a few others to sit with so there is a sense of love and energy in the room. It means bringing your Bible and something to write on, and leaving your phone alone during worship (you know whether you’r actually looking at a Bible app or your facebook page …). All this is a kindness toward the one who has labored over a message, and who will stand up and look out on a crowd of people who speak volumes by their posture about the state of their hearts.
  3. Leaning in is a kindness toward your worship leaders. The mostly volunteer team that leads fully half of a worship service has worked hard to develop a set of songs to lead us into the presence of God. These folks give of themselves week after week, and through the discipline of leading worship they grow in their own spiritual lives. They want that for you, too. Get close enough to that fire to be warmed by it.
  4. Be a visual aid to newcomers. Show them what you want them to believe about your church, namely that you love each other. Don’t be under any illusion that where you sit doesn’t matter to a newcomer. I remember visiting a church some years ago, and thinking to myself as I walked in, “These people are angry with each other.” It was a large sanctuary, only half-full of people. As the congregation had dwindled, those who remained kept their usual seats. The effect was about five small pockets of people with huge gaps between them. I found out they were not at war with each other, but my first impression was that they were.
  5. Create energy. It is a fact that people sitting in close proximity to one another will create more energy than people sitting apart. For some reason, this is an uncomfortable barrier to cross when folks walk into a room, but if you can get people to sit together it creates great energy. And this is a way every single person in a church can participate in changing the spiritual atmosphere in worship. Just make it a point to sit with others. What could be simpler?
  6. Mess with the enemy’s plans. He’d rather you sit as far from each other as possible. If you can judge each other, even better. Separate the coals so the fire cools more quickly. May I also say very lovingly that if you are stubborn about it, that resistance may well be a gift to the enemy who loves a rebellious spirit.
  7. Don’t leave a single person lonely. Our church serves quite a few single adults, so I’m aware of their lifestyle challenges. Some have shared just how old it gets having to go places alone. Many confess chronic loneliness. It is hard going places alone, and even harder when you get there to sit awkwardly by yourself while others enjoy talking and catching up. A great gift you can give to another single person (whether you are single or married) is to sit next to someone sitting by themselves. Then get to know them.
  8. Be the Christian in the room. Christians love beyond good sense. Christians believe in the power of community. Christians show care and concern for those around them and for those on stage. Christians get outside themselves and think more of others than of themselves. Christians take time to know others and find out their needs. If you walk into a room, sit by yourself, and passively receive through the entire worship service, how will anyone know you’re a Christian?
  9. Be there for someone else, believing that one day they’ll be there for you. Sometimes we go to church for ourselves, and sometimes we show up for others. There are days I’d rather not go … and I’m the pastor! But I know that if I don’t show up, others will miss me.
  10. They call it corporate worship for a reason. Worship together, and let your praise be your witness.

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Due Diligence in the UMC: Not just to be understood, but to understand

Not long ago, I sat in on a discussion between two seminary professors who presented opposing views on the biblical interpretation of marriage. The discussion was hosted by an Atlanta church (you can watch it here) and was attended by hundreds. Earlier in this season, I attended another event held in the Atlanta area hosted by a progressive coalition. We heard stories of those who have found their home in the LGBT community when it wasn’t available to them inside the church. A third experience has been more personal. A queer, married pastor in the UMC has reached out for conversation with the mutual understanding that neither of us will change the mind of the other. We trade texts, compare news stories with what we know to be more true, and try to listen.

I’ve appreciated these opportunities. Beyond these, I’ve also been reading the research, because I know I need more understanding. We need to learn how to hear each other not in order to “win” or persuade or even find common ground but so we can genuinely understand the depth of our differences on key issues like human sexuality, Christology, ecclesiology and biblical interpretation.

Can I say that again? We need less lecturing and more listening so we can actually understand the depth of conviction most of us hold around the crucial theological issues that divide us. In the gentle work of hearing and understanding, I believe we’ll discover not how alike we are but how much we ought to respect the differences. And how wise it will be for us to create space for those differences to prove themselves.

A huge part of understanding for me has been intentional exposure both to events and research especially around human sexuality and gender identity. This is a kairos moment for pastors, an opportunity to teach people in our care what we believe so we can guide them into deeper theological waters. Folks in our care deserve not only a fair account of the gospel but a clear and educated understanding of where the leadership of their church stands. How else can they make an informed choice about their spiritual care?

In the list that follows, I offer a few resources that have helped me begin to get acclimated toward greater understanding where issues of human sexuality are concerned. I’ve learned from these teachers how to more sensitively articulate both my position and how it contrasts with other worldviews. I’ve also learned how to better pastor my people, particularly youth and young adults who desperately need an orthodox, Wesleyan vocabulary. I encourage you to explore this list (and share it) and get started on your own journey toward greater understanding:

Mark Yarhouse — Understanding Sexual Identity. This book is written especially for youth leaders, offering an exceptional teaching on how identity forms in young people. I lead off with this book because I believe today’s youth pastors have an incredibly challenging call and need a whole new vocabulary for meeting students where they are. Every youth leader ought to read this book. Yarhouse has authored a second book to equip parents for the conversation: Homosexuality and the Christian: A guide for parents, pastors and friends.

David Bennett — A War of Loves. Bennett tells his own compelling story of navigating the church world as a gay teen. He eventually makes his way into the classroom of N. T. Wright, where he finds a context for his circumstances that is life-giving. He spends the second half of this book making recommendations of reform to the Christian church in light of national conversations about human sexuality. Bennett has helped me understand just how we idolize sex, even inside the church. Exceptional read.

Mark Ongley — Into the Light: Healing Sexuality in Today’s Church. What I love about Ongley’s contribution to the conversation is that he widens the net to include a wide range of sexual wounds — “infidelity, sexual abuse, incest, emotional adultery, and sexual addiction, to name a few.” Ongley reminds us (as do critics of the conservative position, and rightly so) that sexual brokenness is not the property of one group of people. The church desperately needs an openness to addressing the whole range of unholy behaviors we bend toward to feed our cravings.

Preston Sprinkle — A People to Be Loved. Sprinkle is a theologian and solid Bible scholar who deals in depth with every Bible verse (and every word of every verse) up for debate in the human sexuality discussion. He is very upfront about his desire to engage the scriptures objectively with fresh eyes and vulnerability. His work answers too many decades of insensitive exegesis. From my perspective, he treats the scriptures, the issues, and people affected by the conversation with great sensitivity. If you have not done your own complete and objective exegesis of the passages under debate, this should be required reading. Sprinkle’s website contains all kinds of articles and resources on the topic. Start here.

Wesley Hill — Spiritual Friendship. Hill has written and spoken extensively on issues related to human sexuality and has produced a lot of solid resources. Personally, I’d have you start with Spiritual Friendship simply because I believe Hill champions an important topic for the Church. Until we reclaim the value of spiritual friendship and begin to emphasize the importance of biblical communities, we will miss our opportunity to minister in compassionate ways to those who choose celibacy as a holy response to same-sex attraction. Hill’s book on spiritual friendship should be required reading for every person joining a church. He also gives a brief overview of his thesis in a talk at Biola University. Well worth the half-hour it takes to listen. Hill’s Washed and Waiting is a classic defense of celibacy in singleness (you can hear an overview of it here).

Grant Hartley — Redeeming Queer Culture: An Adventure. Hartley gave this (somewhat controversial) talk at a ReVoice conference to both educate his audience on some of the more recent history of the LGBT movement in America and also pose some evangelistic possibilities. I believe the themes of this talk if taken seriously could help us shape a whole new way of treasuring community life, and for that reason I think the talk is worth your time. In general, we all need a more robust theology surrounding what it means to be the Body of Christ on earth. For Christians, community is essential.

Jackie Perry — Gay Girl, Good God. Perry is a rap artist turned preacher and spoken word artist who tells her own story of transformation. She writes with remarkable authority on issues of human sexuality from a biblically orthodox perspective. You’ll find a lot of other good material from Jackie on YouTube. Start here.

Ryan Anderson – When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment. Anderson was widely criticized for undertaking this study of gender dysphoria and gender identity in the U.S., but his work is well researched and presented with great compassion. This book will give you a starkly different view of gender-identity issues than what you’ll find in media stories.

Pope John Paul II — The Redemption of the Body and Sacramentality of Marriage (Theology of the Body). Pope John Paul’s seminal work building a comprehensive theology of the body ought to be required reading for every seminary student, and the good news is that you can read it here for free. Dr. Tim Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, has taken the themes of Pope John Paul’s work, and turned them into both chapel talks and blog posts. His series of articles reflecting on those themes can be found here. I found Dr. Tennent’s work to be accessible and helpful as I developed my own sermon series around these same themes.

Ravi Zacharias — Years ago when I was just returning to the faith, I happened across Dr. Zacharias’ radio show and distinctly remember being amazed to hear a Christian talking intelligently on such a wide range of issues. He is both bold and loving in his apologetic. Listen to his well-reasoned defense of an orthodox view of human sexuality here.

N.T. Wright — As a theologian, Wright stands in the company of such contemporary greats as C. S. Lewis. Listen to his position on same-sex attraction here.

Let me offer these brief articles as one more resource for those attempting to shape a pastoral approach to these delicate issues. Centered-set thinking was a concept first formed on the mission field, and I’ve found it useful in framing discussions about controversial theological issues. I discuss it in two blog posts, here and here. Centered-set thinking has been most helpful in shaping a theologically rooted ecclesiology in a pluralistic world.

Finally, let me acknowledge the obvious. This list is both incomplete and unapologetically biased. I realize it omits a progressive perspective, but that returns us to my initial point. I have deeply held convictions from which I teach and preach and those are the positions I champion. As a pastor, it is not my charge to remain neutral (Jesus had strong warnings against settling with “lukewarm”). If your view contrasts with mine, please compile and share your resources. You’ll be better informed than I at creating such a list. I hope you’re helped by my list; I’m sure I’ll be helped by yours.

Let’s encourage understanding. I believe our path through may just be not in minimizing theological and ecclesiological differences but in understanding and respecting just how real they are.

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The rise of Methodism and fruit that lasts

I’ve been thinking a good deal lately about how the Holy Spirit actually shows up. As I said in this post, I suspect much of what we attribute to the Holy Spirit is simply not within his character. Or we allow ourselves to be content with reports of the Spirit’s movement in other places, without doing the spiritual work to participate in what he is doing right here … right now. I cannot believe that all God’s mighty works are for other places and people. Can you?

In the midst of thinking and praying about this — asking the Lord to teach me more about how he actually moves — I discovered something about John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, that strikes me as profound. In an article on the rise of Methodism Andrew Thompson writes,

“Ask your average Methodist what the turning point was in the history of the Methodist movement, and you’ll likely get the response that it was John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience in 1738. It was there that Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed and received the assurance of his salvation. Methodism couldn’t have grown and expanded in the years following had it not been for Wesley’s own encounter with Christ that fateful evening, right?”

Right … but

When Wesley himself reflected on what made his work so remarkably fruitful, Aldersgate is not what he referenced. Wesley remembered instead what he called “three rises” of Methodism. In writing about this, Thompson quotes Wesley’s own journal:

“On Monday, May 1, [1738,] our little society began in London. But it may be observed, the first rise of Methodism (so-called) was in November 1729, when four of us met together at Oxford: the second was at Savannah, in April 1736, when twenty or thirty persons met at my house: the last, was at London, on this day, when forty or fifty of us agreed to meet together every Wednesday evening, in order to a free conversation, begun and ended with singing and prayer. In all our steps we were greatly assisted by the advice and exhortations of Peter Boehler, an excellent young man, belonging to the society commonly called Moravians.”

The great revival that swept England then America was not rooted in a moment like Aldersgate, nor in the thousands who gathered in fields to hear him preach. No, Wesley credits the rise of Methodism with three meetings that gathered in homes over the course fifty years to press into the spiritual disciplines and pursue the heart of God.

Let that sink in.

A movement that shaped the face of contemporary Christianity began when a few men quietly began to meet together to hold one another accountable for the living out of their faith. The heart of those meetings was a series of questions that required participants to be honest about the state of their souls.

This was transparency before transparency was cool. 

The experiment in spiritual accountability was repeated over time in Wesley’s own life; then was replicated in living rooms, church houses and assembly halls across two continents. The upshot? By 1850 one in three American Christians was Methodist, and hundreds of thousands of people had come to Christ. Today, 900 million Pentecostals can trace their theological roots to Wesley’s Holy Club, along with another 70 million in various strains of Methodism.

THAT’S the fruit I’m looking for. I am looking for the kind of fruit that can’t be explained any other way than the power of God. In our churches and in The Church, I’m looking for fruit that will last. I am ready for those of us who follow Jesus faithfully to begin refusing anything less. If we are going to become hungry for genuine moves of the Spirit, we must stop feeding on snack food. We must stop calling warm moments and well-attended services what they are not, until we become so hungry that nothing short of the authentic will suffice.

And I suspect the greatest moves of the Holy Spirit are just as Jesus said they were — like mustard seeds or a little yeast. They begin in unassuming places, are fertilized by faith and discipline, and grow (perhaps quietly, perhaps not) into mighty movements that change people, change cultures, change the world. They are known by fruit that lasts and by fruit that far outstrips the effort. Maybe they are only known by the fruit they bear over time, even over generations. But they ARE known by their fruit.

That’s the point. Spirit-filled movements bear fruit that lasts. The Church of Jesus Christ must refuse anything less.

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