Thursday, September 29, 2016
I wanted to take a few moments to speak to an issue that I see bedevil pastors and church planters. I think it is a very old issue, but one that feels new every time it happens. The old issue is one to which the Apostle Paul spoke when he said to the Philippians,
“It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The later do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.” (Philippians 1:15-18)
How does it feel when you are doing your best to find a decent place to start holding worship services and everything seems too expensive? How does it feel when you are striving to recruit a music team to play decently and lead the people in worship, but you find it beyond your budget and talent doesn’t seem attracted to your new church? How does it feel when you have made great strides in meeting the people of the community, have relationships with neighborhood leaders, have a good rapport with those pastors who have been serving in this same place for years, yet the rate of visitors and growth is agonizingly slow?
And then, just a few blocks away, a mega-church from out in the suburbs buys an old warehouse and plants a new site with an instant congregation. It seems that within a few weeks or barely a month they have remodeled the place, have a great band and light show, smoke machines, a café, ATMs in the foyer, and a staff to handle the information desk, greeters, ushers, parking lot attendants, nursery, child care, and youth workers from the very first week they hold services.
This new church is great at social networking, they have ads on radio and TV, and people are giving testimonies in all kinds of media about the great preaching, small groups, and body life just after the first couple of months. Yet, they have never once come by to say “hi ,” they have purposely not networked with community leaders and area pastors, and they consistently and indefatigably create new ministries to compete and outclass what anyone else might be doing. They don’t consult, they don’t ask, and they don’t fellowship. What is more galling is that some of the people you have gathered to be part of your nucleus, or long standing members of your congregation, mysteriously disappear only to be reported now attending this new church.
People who once took vows with you, people who seemed to hold to a confessional faith and seemed serious about their theology now seem to have no real theological or missional commitments at all. People who once confessed that accountability mattered now seem to thrive in a place where there seems to be none.
So, is this the way the Gospel works? Is it for young men who are trying to “make their bones,” attempting to establish themselves as preachers and pastors of renown; is it righteous for them to parachute into communities with an invading colonizing force, with no cultural or neighborhood commitments (let alone sensitivity) and seem to act as if all else before them were failures? Is this the drive and passion of the Gospel, or is it American marketing technique, corporate franchising, and basic hucksterism? Isn’t it hard to argue with success, packed parking lots, and a packed out auditorium? The next thing you know their pastor writes a book, gets on the speaking circuit, and puts the speed of their growth on their respective bios and speaker notes.
Or, is this really the migration of disgruntled and tired souls, or those disconnected young adults looking for a spouse, or for those seeking church as entertainment that requires no commitments except one’s own pursuit of fulfillment? Or, maybe, God might be in it, even just a little bit? In America, and actually many places in the developing world as well, religion is a means to power, status, notoriety, and wealth. There is no shortage of selfish ambition in the clergy, whether they be seminary trained with doctorates or laymen who feel suddenly “called.” There have always been some who mixed their ambition with immorality and corruption, but by no means have all of the ambitious been anything but ambitious, as annoying as they tend to be.
Certainly these developments are discouraging to those who have come before, who struggle without deep pockets of outside cash, who don’t arrive in comfort to grow even more comfortable. And the Devil can just take this kind of situation and use it to convince church planters, and pastors, and faithful church members that they are now vestiges of the past, inept, untalented, and unappealing. So, we examine as far as we are able the theology of this new work, the integrity of these new leaders and the ethics of how they do business in the possible hope that if we can discredit them, at least in our own minds, it won’t make us feel so bad.
We might be angry, angry at God, angry at folks we once thought loyal who have now left our church, angry at the insensitivity of this new group, angry at the innocent sheep who seem so easily taken in. Okay, let us admit it is a kick in the gut, and even if everyone “over there” is celebrating about how great it is, it makes us feel like failures. So, this feels like a bad thing, at least to our own self-esteem and emotions. Can God use bad things for good? You know the answer to that. Can God use something that feels bad to us but might be good to and for others to accomplish his purpose? You know the answer to that as well. If Romans 8:28 works for a cancer diagnosis it ought to work with a competitive church plant.
Is Christ preached? Are people being saved? Then rejoice, though through gritted teeth. You cannot stop free enterprise in religion, and you will only ruin your own reputation if you are a cynical despiser and a gossip. Pay attention to your own vineyard, let God sort things out as to motives, he can do that much better than us. You don’t have to compromise truth, you don’t have to align with what is truly evil, but stop wishing for fire to fall down from heaven on brethren, though they be those who don’t recognize your achievements and status. Keep your hand to the plow, and stop asking Jesus, as Peter did, “what about him?” “What is that to you?” Jesus said, “you must follow me!” (John 21:21-22)
Friday, September 23, 2016
What are we to do about injustice? How should the Christian respond? There are so many questions and issues involved. Complicating these questions are the political perspectives many have, which are not always Christian but may pose as such. From these political perspectives sometimes charity is lost in evaluating the involvement of other believers in matters that have become emotional to many of us. Can I be emotionally engaged in matters that I think are crucial while maintaining love for those who seem apathetic or even opposed to my way of thinking? I would hope so, but I see many fail at it and it both disappoints and worries me. Mostly my worry is that I am tempted to go off on folks in the same manner.
It is important to me to try and be “Christian” in the way I think, the way I feel, and in what I do. Part of my “doing” is how I speak or write about things, and how I respond to criticism. I have found Facebook especially to be a rather poor place to engage in debate. Blogging and articles aren’t immune from spite and put-downs, as well as one sided arguments that set up straw men and paint with a broad brush. We seem to make statements and not listen, we assume, we smear by association even if there is no actual association with personas or ideologies we despise. Name calling, ad hominem arguments, assuming motive, and acute sensitivity to slight are common hazards.
Deciding matters of criminal justice by watching incomplete videos on the internet is bound to get our hearts and mouths in trouble, even if what appears to be the case makes our blood boil. We have real trouble in this country, we have real life and death stuff happening every day, and it will not be solved no matter how insulting, adamant, vociferous, mocking, sarcastic, or caustic our supposedly right on target comments might be.
I am in favor of protests to call attention to injustice. I am thankful for those with the bravery to lead such non-violent protests. I don’t believe such protests are an attack against good policing or good police officers. I am never in favor of violence. I am in favor of protests that protest violence. I am opposed to brutality by public officials. If your argument is in fact that you are for police brutality I am wondering what your definition of it is, how you can say you are a real American who believes in the ideals of our Constitution, and how you would feel if it happened to you? The idea that injustice only happens to bad people is, well, both simply historically and factually wrong but also carries with it the idea that bad people don’t really deserve justice. Brutality is not justice, it is extrajudicial punishment, and once it is allowed society declines all the way to a time when folks just end up “missing.”
I am opposed to police training that cares more about making sure supposed perpetrators are dead than in seeking to diffuse potentially violent escalation. I am in favor of legislation that doesn’t allow police officers to use their fears as a defense after they have killed unarmed individuals. Self-defense has to mean there is or was a legitimate threat, and to use deadly force means that deadly force was in fact threatened not supposed; not imagined, not implied due to someone being uncooperative. I am opposed to police training that doesn’t create leadership to handle confusing situations so as to prevent every officer from pulling a gun and shooting in unison, especially when some are using Tasers and another is using bullets.
As a citizen, as a father, as a man who understands a little bit about authority both in the church and the military I have a visceral response to disobedience; which means I think you should have your ass kicked. But I don’t do that, and I don’t think the police should do it either. I think those that execute the laws have to be the first to obey them. I say this, if for nothing else, then for their own protection.
At the same time I know that our cities are in trouble because they are full of people who aren’t used to obeying anyone in authority. They don’t obey their parents, they don’t obey teachers, and they don’t think they have to obey the police. They assume if they cuss, yell, and tell authorities not to touch them they can prevail. They think if they argue hard and long enough authority will have to let them go. Our urban schools have way too many children who act in such manner, or without manners. Many of these same folks will not mouth off to a gang banger, and that is because they know there is no restraint from that quarter.
I believe in protests against gang violence too. I believe in protests against bad parenting that teaches children not to respect their elders, teachers, or those in authority. The jails are full of such folk who thought they could live with no compliance, now restrained by cuffs, chains, bars, and wire.
I am opposed to cities having more in their budgets to settle cases out of court for police brutality than spending that money for more and better police training, and the hiring of better police officers. How can you tell us that we can’t afford better when we are spending millions to pay off families for our “mistakes?”
I am opposed to the idea that every criticism of police officers or policing is an attack against the police. I am absolutely committed to loving police officers, to supporting them, to encourage them, to even physically protect them if I have to do so. I will always try my best to respect and obey their commands, even if I am not sure why they are giving them. I also understand that they work for me, that my taxes pay their salary, and that I will hold them politically and judicially accountable for whether or not they are doing the job, and doing it right, for which I and my fellow citizens have hired them.
This of course is a feeling of power, arising from my “white privilege.” I assume I have alternatives in the law, in political organization and leverage. This is where protests in the street have to arrive, at a place of enfranchisement, at a place of political leverage where not only dialogue can take place but real accountability. It cannot be a gun against the guns of the police, but it can be the firing of Chiefs, the changing of policies, the disciplining and firing of rogue or racist officers, or the ousting of those politicians who allow misbehavior to continue.
I am also in favor of trying to learn to be patient with those who continue to hold onto the idea that there are no problems, no real injustice, just unruly people who get what they deserve. I am trying to learn that patience but I confess it is difficult.
I am also trying to learn patience with those who think that somehow we can arrive at a day when no one will make any mistakes, when there will be complete justice, when no one will be abused. I don’t think “we” can arrive at such a day but I do think such a day can be delivered to us, when Jesus comes down to give us a new heaven and a new earth.
I believe injustice is a constant human condition, though not one to be tolerated. So, I expect there to always be some sorry or bad news, I expect there to always be victims, and always some people that are righteously angry about it. I put my hope in a God who will ultimately change us and everything for the better. I put my realism into the idea that we live in a sinful and mean world. I put my energy in trying to make it, the world and my smaller place in it, a little more just every day.
Tuesday, September 13, 2016
A few thoughts on ideas raised about finding a spouse at New City.
By Randy Nabors
(These are just my very earthly opinions, with some Scriptural thoughts thrown in, so feel free to disagree and criticize with my very man centered observations.)
As a pastor it has always been a concern of mine about the ability of our young people to find a godly spouse and to marry. Marriage is under attack in our society and New City is affected by the reality of that attack.
· In poor communities the rate of marriage and the model of marriage seems to be negative. Although the statistics show that most people in the world will find a spouse, our American inner city context is a marriage wilderness.
· The availability of “good” men is low, due to poor education, dysfunctional behavior, drugs, prison, and early death. Homicide is still one of the leading causes of death for African American males under the age of 30. The rising rate of homosexuality is also a factor.
· A good man might be one who treats himself and others with respect, who has the ability to work, works, and is faithful when he makes a commitment.
· Finding a straight good man who is also a Christian, and thus qualified to marry a Christian woman, is even harder to find. Finding such a man who is also a leader is an even greater challenge. One word of hope, they are out there, and even some who are not ready are going to get saved and made ready.
In addition to the endangered species of marriageable men is the complication of being in a place where they can be met, and where a relationship might begin, and where such relationships lead to marriage. This of course is not the primary function of the church, and no matter how the discussion goes that principle must be kept in mind. Our culture in general finds it hard to create safe places for relationships to begin and be nurtured. School, work, social activities, relatives of friends, the military, church, and even the internet are all places where people meet but they don’t have the coherence traditional societies used to have for courtship and marriage. As a pastor this has caused me to pray for good match-ups. As a father this has given me great concern and pushed my prayers for my children, especially my daughter.
Believe me, many older people notice those who are single and pray for them to find a good spouse. Some of us have actually tried our hand at match making, with decidedly mixed results. Nothing could horrify my own children more than that. Some of us have felt pretty frustrated especially when we see a not only good, but a great young woman, who wants to get married and eligible men seem to do everything but pursue them. Men walk around treasure and don’t see what they are missing and too often choose cosmetic jewelry instead of diamonds. We can and do pray, we might even try set ups, and we sometimes have been more direct and made suggestions. As I said, the results have been mixed. My point is that this is not something only the singles have noticed. I grant also that some don’t seek marriage, nor do we suppose that they should, if they have the gift to remain single.
Churches are problematic in being the place of meeting a spouse. Many traditional churches especially in the black community have more women than men, and this of course reflects the realities mentioned above. This gives the advantage to men of course in being selective for a mate. Churches are also very much like small towns or small colleges, where once a relationship is begun everyone becomes aware of it. This creates pressure against anonymous or deliberate pursuit of a relationship since the penalties become high for failure and once it has failed a lot of people will know. This certainly affects men who are afraid of commitment and who would rather have the deal settled in their own minds, and within the relationship, before they feel pressured to be public about it. This is one reason young men in our church often look outside of the church for a prospective mate. Not always, but often.
Young men in the church tend to look on young women, if they look on them without objectifying and lust, as sisters. Men are visual creatures, they can’t help but look for whatever their estimation of beauty might be, and being a friend or having a good personality will not automatically make them think romantically. Guilt about women not finding mates will not make them look on young women as potential mates for marriage. Some of these things are more biological than intellectual.
Another cultural reality is the delay many young adults experience in marriage. This was not always so, but today many people are pursuing education and careers, and marriage is put off. Unfortunately the statistics are not good for women who wait on those relationships. In the meantime young men are suffering in this culture with a heavy dose of ego weakness in an American world of female competition. Men have an emotional challenge is relating to any woman with whom they might feel is competitive with them. They tend to walk away rather than engaging in any head on competition. Men naturally take competition as a precursor to violence and it takes maturity not to give way to it.
Our culture, and African American culture in particular, has a great many very strong women. They are encouraged to be so in this culture. In contrast we have an overabundance of very insecure men. What is ironic is that many of these seemingly competent and assertive women don’t necessarily feel as strong as they appear. Wouldn’t it be great if women could be as strong, and ambitious, and successful as they dared and hoped while good men never felt intimidated by them and could love them while cheering them on?
We are in the context we are in and getting mad at the church is not going to change that. In a church that celebrates marriage and family it can tend to make singles feel even worse. One of the dynamics of the modern church, and Chattanooga in particular, is the whole tendency for young adults to rush to new churches where they think they are going to meet other singles like themselves. They leave the churches of their parents and create new “generational” congregations, where they will all grow old together unless they learn to be multi-generational. New church plants are to some degree “meat markets” for singles, like a new bar or club might be. This is crude but I think it has an element of truth to it.
Another tendency is the temptation to just let go, find somebody, have sex and have a baby, then repent and get back in church to raise that child. The biological urge is incredibly powerful, and it keeps pastors working overtime due to sin, relationships, guilt, etc.
One dynamic in an inter-racial church like New City is the reality of seeing inter-racial couples. Most people will marry within their race, though the rate of inter-marriage between various races has skyrocketed since I was married in 1971. It was about 1% of the population then and it is a bit more than 10% of the population today. However, the chagrin and anger from black women when one of our black young men becomes attached to a white young woman is real, no matter how wonderful that woman might be. Even black women married to white men don’t like it as black men (in this particular instance) are seen as community assets, not simply as individual agents.
Getting past the flirting game, getting past a sense of competition for dominance in a possible relationship, sometimes deceives men into thinking the demure polite young woman is not actually as opinionated and willful as every other woman might be. My observation and opinion is that loud, verbal, and unintimidated women can be just as needy, lonely, and even as ready to be led as the quiet ones if they are convinced a man loves them and respects them. However, the outer shell of looks and personality are what men tend to deal with more than anything else.
I have seen men and women in our church who were (or are) desperate for a relationship. The more desperate they get the greater rejection from those they might feel acceptable seems to be the case. Obviously one of the spiritual struggles here is idolatry as the wrong response to the Biblical mandate to multiply and replenish the earth. We have a God given desire and it can’t be met, so a very good and wonderful thing becomes an idol. Now, at the same time I have met women who wanted to be married and succeeded, yet couldn’t get pregnant. That desire has sometimes been even more overpowering than the desire to get married. Probably no anguish is so clearly exampled in Scripture and mirrored in life.
What happens when you achieve your idol, your desire is satisfied, and the reality is corrupted, evil, and disastrous? God forbid, but it is a caution about any idolatry. It is like the rape of Tamar, whose rapist had to have her but after he did he despised her. Let it not be for those who earnestly, sincerely, and from a God-given desire want a godly spouse.
So let me ask, if you are tired of waiting, what options do you have? Wait on the Lord! If you are mad at our culture, what options do you have? Seek to change the way our people think, seek to change the statistics, point out the truth. And, wait on the Lord! If you are not content, you haven’t learned to be content, and are mad at the church that it can’t deliver up what you need then it might be an option to go find a church that gives you better options. Okay, but I surmise you might still need to learn contentment even if you don’t really want to, as you would rather apprehend what you think you need. There is no escape from what God wants you to do and learn. You must learn to trust him, you must learn to pray, you must learn to stop complaining, you must pursue godliness and not sexual immorality, you must give up your grip on your idols, you must learn to wait on the Lord. And, as you seek his kingdom, may God give you the desires of your heart.