Church metrics in crisis

For a long time, churches have used two metrics to measure their “success” – butts in the pews and money in the coffers.  Those metrics were fine when the church was the center of the culture – when the culture assisted in creating guilt for people to go to church on Sunday regardless of their actual beliefs.  As with any metric, there are limits.  Butts in the pews doesn’t translate into disciples, or really anything beyond who was in attendance in worship.  Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with measuring how many people are in attendance in worship.  That can actually be a useful metric.  But it’s a lagging indicator, not a leading one.  And, like most indicators, if it’s not read in context, it can actually provide misleading information.

For instance, if there is an increase in worship attendance, it doesn’t really tell you why.  Is it because there is a new pastor?  Or maybe the old pastor left?  Or maybe there is an uptick in discipleship?  Or maybe there’s a great deal of social ministry happening and those being helped are showing up?  Or maybe a new housing development opened up near the church?  Or maybe someone else started counting and they count a different way?

We don’t know.  Just as if attendance goes down.  Whether attendance is going up or down isn’t the real mark of success.  You could have 10,000 people in a church worship service, but if what is being taught is far from the Gospel, is that success?  At the apex of Jesus’ ministry – the night before he died – there were 12 men gathered with him and one left him.  That night others would run away and his closest disciple would deny knowing him.  Jesus’ attendance was in a significant downward trend.  Without context, we might say that he was a failure based on the numbers in attendance.

I raise this because in the midst of pandemic, I have to ask this question – what are you measuring?  Numbers of views on your livestream or recorded worship?  Views equal how many people exactly?

How about money?  How are you measuring your finances in the midst of crisis?

Having attendance and finances as the sole metrics in the midst of crisis are not great indicators to tell you how the church is doing right now.

Right now the metrics I’m looking at are who’s stepping up?  Just people who are already engaged, or are there others who are stepping up who weren’t as engaged as before?  I’m looking at ministry that is happening with the poor and outcast – how are they being served in the midst of crisis and who is doing it?  What are the creative ways in which ministry is happening?  How are those who have been engaged changing in their engagement right now?  How willing are people to adapt to new technology in order to continue the work of ministry and worship in the life of the congregation?  What stories are we sharing – stories about encounters with Jesus that are happening in the midst of crisis?  And yes, how are the finances right now?  Are people continuing to give?   Are they giving to other non-profits in the midst of crisis?  Are they giving because they see that what church is doing is actually impacting people’s lives in real ways right now?

What are you measuring?  And why?

Crisis reveals…mortality

Last week I wrote a post on what crisis reveals.

I left off one really important thing that crisis, such as a pandemic, reveals – our mortality.

We are not superman/woman.  We are not indestructible.  We aren’t immune to viruses.  No matter how strong we may think we are, or perceive others to be, we know inherently that strength has nothing to do with our survival in regards to an infectious disease.  Intelligence might help us a bit in altering our behaviors.  But even that has limits.

Viruses don’t care about our strength – a virus isn’t intimidated by our strength.  It doesn’t care what our intelligence is.  It doesn’t care what our political ideology is.  It doesn’t care what our nationality is.  It doesn’t care what our religious faith is.  It doesn’t care if we are stubborn.  It doesn’t care what our mindset is.

We are not in control.

We never have been.

We just don’t like to admit that.  We like to lie to ourselves and pretend that we are in control of our lives.  We like to think that we are independent and don’t really need anyone to survive.  But if that were true, then we should hand in everything that was made by someone else – everything.  We’d be left with nothing except what we made ourselves.  Oh, and all the tools we use to make that item would have to be of our own making.  Same for the food.  Can’t go to the store to get seeds either – someone else did the work of harvesting the seeds and packaging them.

Even if we could actually be independent of everyone else, would we really want to be?  Seems awfully lonely to not need anyone else for anything?  Forget about having children and believing we are truly independent – they’d have to learn the hard way to care for themselves right after birth.

We’re not really independent.  Being dependent isn’t great either.  What we are is interdependent – we need each other to survive.  And even then, we aren’t in control of our mortality.

I think this pandemic is teaching us what many generations have known so very well – life is fragile.  Mortality is real.  Death is real.  And Faith is real.  It’s not just some nice words that comfort us when we are uncomfortable.  Faith isn’t just some intellectual exercise in which we think we know something about God.  Rather, faith is a lived reality that shows us how God encounters us, walks with us in the midst of the shadow of the valley of death, that doesn’t abandon us in the midst of crisis.  Faith in a pandemic teaches us what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Faith allows us to grasp what resurrected life is about too.  It’s not about turning back the clocks to sometime in the past.  It’s about being transformed and going forward.

The Old Testament reading for Sunday is from Jeremiah.  It’s about the joyous return of those that were exiled.  It’s a resurrection story.  The people of Israel were resurrected and returned to their land.  They didn’t turn back the clocks though and pretend nothing happened and go on their way as it was before.  Rather, they were resurrected.  They were changed by the exile. And they lived differently.

My hope is that the same is true for us.

Facing death is a life changing experience.  It changes your perspective.  It changes you.  When you truly know your own mortality, you see life differently.  You know that life is a gift.  You know that each day is a gift.  You know that your time here is limited and not to be wasted.  Knowing your own mortality brings you closer to God.  It allows you to take seriously what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

When we finally return from our own exile, let us embrace our changed reality.  Let us learn from mortality.  Let us be embraced by faith.  Let us live our Kingdom values.

“We’re all in this together”

I hear this phrase often during tragedy and crisis – “We’re all in this together.”

It’s a great sentiment.  I wish it were true though.

Yes, we voice the ideal of unified survival.  E Pluribus Unum – out of many, one.  We think of ourselves as united to one another.

Except when we don’t.  Except when it goes beyond the rhetoric to how it is lived out.  I don’t want to downplay the heroic acts that are going on.  I think they are great.  I just wish the sentiment carried on beyond response to a crisis.  Why is it that we are only all in this together when there is a crisis?  Why aren’t we all in this together at other times – especially times that aren’t dominated by crisis?  Wouldn’t being all in this together in better times actually prepare us better for when there is a crisis?

“We’re all in this together.”  Really?  So what changed that makes this statement true beyond feeling like we are all facing the same challenge and threat to our lives?  The crisis did.  But what else?  What policies can we point to that prove to us that we are in fact all in this together?  Like I said, there are certainly actions by individuals, organizations, and even governments that show that we are all in this together.  But those are short term changes designed to stop the crisis.  They aren’t meant for long term change.  After the crisis is over, what’s to stop from going back to “normal.”  Were we all in this together pre-COVID-19?

How are we all in this together with those experiencing homelessness?

How about those who have difficulty receiving or paying for health care?

How are we all in this together with those who are in low wage jobs?

How about those who struggle with mental health challenges?

How are we all in this together when it comes to stewardship of the earth?

How are we all in this together when it comes to educating children and even adults?

How are we all in this together when I hear political rhetoric and politicians use language that divides, dehumanizes, and degrades people?

How are we all in this together when I hear political rhetoric that demonizes other parties and calls them the enemy?

How are we all in this together when I hear people scapegoating and looking for others blame?

How are we all in this together when I see stories about hate crimes against Asian-Americans over COVID-19?  Or when racism and white privilege continue to go on?  Or when I hear pastors demonize the LGBTQIA+ community?

How exactly is any of that equivalent to being all in this together?

I want us to be all in this together.  I want us to continue to be all in this together beyond the crisis.  I want us to change policies and attitudes and culture and habits to show that we are serious about all of us being in this together.  Otherwise, those words are just empty ultimately – nice sentiment that is really about saving our own skin.  Not being all in this together when it really matters.  And crisis isn’t the only time that being all in this together really matters.  It really matters when there isn’t a deadly crisis.  It matters because being all in this together is really just another way of living out our faith.  It’s how we live out Shalom – wholeness, completeness, tranquility.  It’s how we live into the Imago Dei – the image of God.  It’s how we love God and our neighbor.  It’s how we live into Matthew 25 and how God will judge the nations in relation to the least of these among us.

You see, Jesus has been teaching his followers about being all in this together since the very beginning.  Not just when it’s convenient for survival in a crisis.  If you don’t practice being all in this together when there is no crisis, then I wonder how well we actually live it out when there is a crisis.

We’re all in this together.  Don’t tell me about it.  Show me.  Show me after this crisis passes.  Then I’ll know if its true.  Or if it’s a bunch of bull.

What crisis reveals

Pandemics are terrible.  All crisis is unpleasant.  I don’t know of a single person who wants to see a crisis come to them.

And at the same time crisis reveals several things.

Crisis gives us a window into realities that could otherwise be covered up.  You don’t have to look to hard to see a multitude of articles ranking how different government officials – both national and state level – are doing in the midst of crisis.  These officials’ leadership is what is being focused on.

Crisis also reveals brokenness and broken systems.  Crisis doesn’t allow us to ignore problems that already exist, but become bigger when the crisis hits.  A short list of broken systems that have become exasperated in this time of crisis include – homelessness, health care, working poor, wages, resistant beliefs, etc.  We have to take the rose colored glasses off and deal with these challenges.  Not everything was great.

Crisis reveals many things about ourselves too.  We have to deal with and cope with crisis.  Some people shut down, while others step up.  We may learn how introverted or extroverted we really are.  We may learn some realities about our work or the organization we work for and with in a time of crisis too.  What do they value?  What is essential?  what kind of adjustments are they willing to make?

Crisis also reveals things about cultures and societies as well – often unpleasant realties.  This pandemic is essentially getting in our face and yelling at us so we can’t ignore an unpleasant reality.  It’s showing us that in spite of the American creed that thinks we are special or exceptional, we just aren’t.  We’re no different than any other nation.  We are just as contagious as anyone else.  We have more cases of COVID-19 than any other country by a factor of two over the next highest country – Italy.  Granted, our mortality is lower than many other countries, but we still have the third highest number of deaths.  That’s not something I relish writing.  But it is a stark reality.

Crisis reveals things about faith and religion too.  Faith is made for such a time as this.   It is times like this that we learn how out of control we really are, that our salvation has nothing to do with how good we are, or how good of facade we put up in public.  It’s not about that.  Faith is putting it all in God’s hands, regardless of what happens to us because faith is knowing that we are not the center of all existence – rather, we must conform to reality.  This crisis is also revealing the true health of congregations around the world.  It is revealing how stuck in the past so many are and how many refuse to adapt.  It is also revealing how many are facing reality and making necessary changes.  Crisis will kill many congregations – that is a fact.  But it will also make many more stranger than they were before.  Stronger in a few ways – the ways of faith, the use of technology, the closeness of community, letting go of unhealthy systems, etc.

Crisis reveals many things. Often, unpleasant things.  But it also reveals some great things.  It reveals character.  It reveals grit.  It reveals stamina.  It reveals determination.  And more.

Let’s talk about idols

I think too many of us think that idols are some kind of ancient pagan belief system that died out long ago.  And in one sense, that’s true.

But frankly, worshipping idols never went out of fashion.  Idols are just as prevalent now as ever.  We just don’t call them idols anymore.  We like to fool ourselves into thinking that we’re beyond all that silly nonsense.

But I’m not sure what else to call the idols of our current age and culture.  Two idols that have a strong grip on America are money and partisan loyalty.  There are of course other idols too.  And America isn’t the only culture or nation bound in the grip of idols.  Every culture and nation is guilty of this.

An idol is a false god or something that is the object of worship.  Idols appear to be God-like, but they are antithesis of God.  They are the opposite of Christ.  The characteristics of idols are the exact opposite characteristics of God.

If we believe that God is love, then a simple definition of God’s characteristics can be summed up in 1 Corinthians 13:4-13 –

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly,but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

(Source: NRSV)

Idols are the opposite of this description.

God is love.  And God is more too.  God is about Shalom – a Hebrew word meaning wholeness or completeness or tranquility.  God is also about the Imago Dei – the image of God.  Shalom and Imago Dei are intimately tied together.  There can be no Shalom without Imago Dei.  How could there be?  It is in seeing the image of God in all people that we know what Shalom (wholeness) is.

But idols don’t work this way.  Idols are the opposite of love.  Idols are also more.  They are about anti-Shalom and anti-Imago Dei.  Idols don’t seek out wholeness.  They seek to divide.  They seek to separate.  They seek the ego.  Idols are narcissistic.  They are blind to the image of God.  Instead they want us to see things that are not the idol, that don’t think like the idol, that don’t believe like the idol, that don’t have blind loyalty to the idol, as bad and unworthy of life itself.  Idols seek to consume all of life and destroy anything that gets in the idols way.

Idols are like a religion in their ideas and structure.  But their core beliefs are opposed to God.  They have their own gospel narrative of how they save.  Except their gospels aren’t about saving people from Sin and Death.  Rather, their gospel narratives have a twisted idea of salvation – it’s only about saving themselves – and everyone and everything is expendable in order to accomplish that goal.  That’s how narcissism works.  And idols are narcissistic at their core.  Narcissism is the belief that the narcissist is the only living thing that matters.

Idols demand blind loyalty that cost people their lives, their relationships, their health, and more.

Idols have high priests who proclaim the idols’ false gospels, declare what sacrifice people will make and impose rules on people.

Idols have sacraments that aren’t the means of grace, but instead are the means of karma – getting what you deserve.  And given that people are sinful, idols do all they can to be cruel task masters that demand perfection and inflict punishment when there is failure.

Idols have hymns of praise to their false gods.  These hymns are full of lies.

Idols have followers that carry out their faith.  Questioning the idol or the beliefs associated with the idol is unacceptable.

False gods such as money and partisan loyalty can be clearly characterized by two things that define what faith in these idols is really about – scapegoating and sacrifice.  You see, blame and guilt are essential for an idol because the idol knows that it is empty and needs someone else to blame for its failings.  Excuses are common with idols.  If only this person had done this, the plan would have worked.  The false god would have been successful.  There is always someone else to blame.  All scapegoating really does is showcase how impotent these false gods really are.  They aren’t powerful.  They can’t save.  They really can’t do anything.  They are about as powerful as the Wizard of Oz – a fraud.  Idols lead to death and destruction.

The other characteristic that accompanies idols is sacrifice. Idols demand that everyone must sacrifice – that something must be lost, or worse – something must die.  Idols demand sacrifice.  Sacrifice to appease.  Sacrifice to eliminate a threat.  Idols feed off of the pain of others, the loss that others experience.  All so a false narrative can be proclaimed.

How long will we hold onto the idols of our culture?  They demand a great deal, and offer far less in return.  Money and partisan loyalty aren’t about serving God.  They aren’t trying to serve humanity or creation.  They demand to be the center of attention.  They demand sacrifice – work yourself to death for them, destroy relationships over them, sacrifice health over them, don’t question them.  And each time they fail to provide salvation, they have someone to blame.

Two things we aren’t supposed to talk about in polite company are money and politics.  Idols don’t like to be talked about.  We are supposed to lie to ourselves – to pretend they don’t have a grip over us.  To ignore their unpleasant reality.  Instead, we are just supposed to comply with their wishes.  If people talk about money and partisan loyalty, then they realize and see that they are not alone in knowing that the idol is a false god, that it is weak, that it lies, that is it empty, that is demands and never actually gives what it promises.  If people talk about these false gods, then these gods no longer have control over people and their lives.

“But, we talk about politics so often, Matthew!”  “But we talk about the economy and the stock market all the time, Matthew!”

Yes, but we don’t talk about money – our relationship to it, how it impacts our relationships, how it demands to be the arbiter of how decisions are made – even faith related decisions.

Yes, we talk about politics plenty.  But not really.  We talk about the horse race of politics. We scapegoat those who we disagree with, regardless of the issue.  We only look to see how our side is scoring political points and the other side can be seen as evil, less human, stupid.  We seek out how our beliefs about politics are right and the other side is wrong, never considering that we might be wrong, or that there might be more than one way to think about an issue.  We talk about politics in terms of winners and losers.

We don’t really talk about money or partisan loyalty.  Because if we did, we’d realize that we have been worshipping these idols, that they have been fooling us and making us to be fools for a very long time.  And in the end, we’d have to be mad at ourselves.  The false gods aren’t really anything after all – they aren’t even alive.  They are a lie.  How mad would you get if you suddenly realize that you’ve been following the dictates of a lie?  And doing it willingly?

False idols work that way.  In the midst of this pandemic, we have an opportunity.  When this is all over, we have a choice – do we go back to “normal?”  Do we go back to the way it was before COVID-19 came?  Do we go back to our blind worship of money and partisan loyalty?

Or do we seek first the Kingdom of God and it’s righteousness?  Do we seek Shalom?  Do we seek to see the Imago Dei?  Do we set aside false gods and idols in order to truly live into what we claim to believe?

I don’t want to go back to the way it was.  I want to go forward to live into the faith given to us by God.  I hope you do too.  I don’t know what others will do.  I don’t have control over anyone else.  But I will live into the Kingdom of God.

Where is God?

Where is God in the midst of a pandemic? Where is God in the midst of sheltering in place? Where is God in the midst of everything falling apart? Where is God in the midst of shortages of food and medical supplies? Where is God in the midst of uncertainty that potentially leads to more deaths? Where is God in the midst of the idols demanding sacrifice? Where is God in the midst of death, despair, hopelessness, etc.?

God is here. In the midst of it. God always has been.

God isn’t a god of convenience or being comfortable. God isn’t a god of only good times. God isn’t a god of everything going well. God isn’t a god of having your life all in order. God isn’t a god of fair weather.

God is certainly God in the midst of those things. But God is much more. It is in the midst of the terrible when we see the true nature of God, if we just open our eyes, ears, and hearts.

The theology of the cross should remind us that it is in the cross that we see a fuller picture of God’s character. God is willing to go to death. God doesn’t avoid the unpleasantness, the pain, the suffering, the death. No, God willingly goes. Because God, in Jesus, became fully human along with being fully divine. And in Jesus, God experienced the fullness of what it means to be human – to suffer, to be in pain, to be dehumanized, to be sacrificed, to be worthless compared to an idol and power.

This Sunday we’ll read how Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus. A better translation is that he was moved to his very core – as if his bowels were ripped out of him. That kind of visceral response is fully human. God knows what it is like to suffer, to experience pain, to die. This is what the incarnation is all about. That’s not to diminish the good emotions and things. He experienced those too.

But it is in the cross that God’s true character is revealed to us. It is how we know that God is here. Now. Active.

Where is God? God is with God’s people. Serving them. Being with them. Feeding them. Comforting the afflicted. Sheltering the homeless, giving food to the hungry, caring for the sick, releasing those who are bound. God is here. And we are invited to follow. To do likewise.

The economics of health

I pray that our leaders may be given wisdom – all of them. They are walking in unchartered waters. And they are making decisions that might be right, or might be wrong – we’ll only know after the fact. The decisions could save lives. Or it could cost lives. I don’t envy any of them. But I lift them all up in prayer – President Trump, Senate Leader McConnell, Speaker Pelosi, both Democrat and Republican Members of Congress, Governors, state legislative leaders, public health officials, and more.

Decisions are going to be made soon – continue to hunker down in order to flatten the curve, as the phrase goes, but at great economic cost – maybe even a depression. Or to loosen restrictions so people can get back to work, potentially strengthening the economy, but at great potential health cost – possibly many deaths.

In Star Trek, there is something called the Kobayashi Maru. “The Kobayashi Maru is a training exercise in the fictional Star Trek universe designed to test the character of Starfleet academy cadets in a no-win situation.” (Source)

This certainly feels like a no-win situation doesn’t it? Our leaders’ character have been tested and will continue to be tested. We are and will continue to see the core of who they are.

But this isn’t only about our leaders. This is about us too. Crisis shows our character as well. It reveals a great deal about who each of us are. The facade of who we want to portray ourselves as is stripped away in a crisis. All that is left is the real us. The real us in terms of what we truly believe, what we really value, what is really important to us. There’s no faking your way through a crisis. We don’t have that luxury. And neither do our leaders.

I have seen several news stories over the last week that have caught my attention from various new sources. In many cases these stories show the author’s partisan slant. Many of these stories are written to score political points. Our political leaders often speak in these ways too. And I wonder, how many of our people, and us specifically, listen for partisan talking points and to be able to point fingers and to scapegoat and blame. This tells me that the crisis is still fresh. Not enough time has passed yet for people to let go of the habit of partisan identity. It’s a strong idol that doesn’t let go easily. And that identity comes with a cost – most likely the cost being that the crisis lasts longer than it has to. Being right might feel good, but it is destructive and costly.

We’ve gone from the shock of the restrictions placed upon us to coping now. Uncertainty remains as decisions are yet to be made. Finding a new routine and a new normal are starting to settle in. And the questions resounds – what is the cost? What is the financial cost? What is the health cost? What is mental health cost?

But there is another set of questions that we should be asking – where do we see God in the midst of this? What is God calling us to right now? What is the cost of our discipleship right now? How does the theology of the cross speak to us now?

These may not seem like relevant questions – but really, they are more relevant now than ever. Theology and faith are at their best in times of crisis. Jesus did the work he had to do – the work he set out to do – in times of crisis. He healed the sick and outcast at great cost to himself. He raised the dead. He confronted the leaders of the Temple. He cleared out the money changers out of the Temple. He willingly went to death. It was costly. And it was in that cost that we more fully understand Christ – the cruciform God who saves. The incarnate God who suffers with us.

There is a cost to the decisions being made – both by our leaders and by us. Often the cost can not be calculated. And often the cost goes way beyond dollars and cents. And it should.

I pray that our leaders may use the wisdom they are given for the benefit of all people.

Is the church alive or dead?

To say we are in an unprecedented time is an understatement. This is a unique time in history in which the entire world faces the same threat. Not everyone is taking that threat seriously yet though. Which will only make this last longer. Often that happens when we think we are the center of the universe and that reality will bend to our will. But it won’t. Reality doesn’t care what you or I think.

This is a time when we do some self-examination – both for ourselves and our lives as well as the life of the church. This is the time when we grasp the idea that the church is not the building. It is the Body of Christ – a living breathing thing.

I’m reminded of John 2:19 in which Jesus is recorded as saying, “Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’” He wasn’t referring to the Temple in Jerusalem, but rather his body – the temple of the Holy Spirit.

Is the church alive or dead? The buildings are dead right now – no life in them. Were the buildings ever alive though? Hasn’t it always been the people in them that made the building come alive. And we are seeing how alive the church can be right now in the midst of crisis.

We would do well to remember that this is not the first crisis the church has ever faced. Nor will it be the last. The church, the Body of Christ, has survived worse – other pandemics, wars lasting many years and causing great destruction, persecutions, and more.

Is the church alive or dead? Life comes with some basic characteristics. Mike Breen, in his book “Building a Discipling Culture,” talks about seven life characteristics that are attached to any living being or organization. And the church certainly fits into this.

The seven characteristics are:

  • Movement: living things move under their own will. It is a sign of life. Things that are dead move because some force acts upon them. This is true for the church too. Scripture describes the early followers of Jesus as those who followed “the Way.” It implies movement. Jesus led and leads a movement. To be a follower of Jesus is to move, not sit and watch. But to live out one’s faith. And that requires movement.
  • Respiration: we literally have the breath of God within us. It is what gives us life. The church takes in this breath and breathes out the spirit to all. It’s a part of who we are.
  • Sensitivity: We are sensitive to our environment – what is around us. For Christians, we observe and then act. We come to the aid of those hurting. We act to right wrongs. We work to change unjust systems. We don’t just shrug our shoulders and give up. Regardless of the cost, we see reality, and respond.
  • Growth – Living things grow. And growth happens in a variety of ways. It can be numbers or money. Those are traditional measurements. But they aren’t always the best measurements, or the only ones. Growth happens in our faith too. We shouldn’t have the same understanding of faith that we did as a teenager. It should grow to much deeper levels. Prayer should grow. Our reading of Scripture should grow. Our worship should grow. Our relationship with God and others should grow. Our desire to be in alignment with God’s will should grow. Our desire for Shalom (wholeness) should grow.
  • Reproduction – Living things have the ability to reproduce. What does this mean for the church? How are we making new disciples? How are we training up new disciples?
  • Excretion – Living things get rid of waste and what doesn’t help them with the other life characteristics. Living churches should be doing this also. Too often though, churches have spiritual constipation – the refusal to excrete anything. It’s not healthy in a living being, or in a church.
  • Nutrition – without nutrition, a living being will die. And so will a church. The church is fed through the sacraments, through Scripture, prayer, and being in community.

Living things adapt. Their bodies change over time.

This is the time when we recognize that these facts are vitally important. We have to stop fooling ourselves with the false belief that the life characteristics don’t apply to the church. We have to stop lying to ourselves that the church will be fine if we just remain the same and never change. We have to stop kidding ourselves into believing that the culture will go back to telling the story for the church (not that the culture did a good job anyway). We have to open our eyes to the reality that the culture no longer gives the church a position of privilege. We have to be open to the reality that the model of the church that we have used since church held a position of privilege isn’t working anymore.

None of the beliefs that I describe above are helpful anymore. None of the old assumptions are true anymore. The sooner we embrace this change, the better we will be able to adapt, adjust, be transformed. The sooner we embrace this reality, the better we will be able to create new systems, structures, and methods to carry out the ministry and mission of Jesus.

Part of this is also recognizing that the next generation will have to let go of whatever new methods and models we adopt because that is what living things do – they adapt to new circumstances so that life can go on and thrive.

If we choose to reject these realities, then we are set on a path towards death as a church. I’m not willing to be a part of those systems that are intent on death.

Let me be clear – this path is not easy nor comfortable. There will be resistance. So be it. We will go forward anyway. Jesus is the standard that we follow.

And that’s the whole point, isn’t it? The church exists to carry out the mission of Jesus. Jesus encounters us. Jesus transforms us. And Jesus sends us out.

For such a time as this…

Our faith exists for such a time as this.

Faith doesn’t exist and isn’t given to us for the good and easy times. Not for the comfortable times in which there are few real challenges.

Faith wasn’t given to us for the times that we have been so used to for so long for so many of us.

No. Faith exists for such a time as this. This is a time of disaster. Of chaos. Of suffering. Of poverty. Of financial meltdown. And more.

This is when we really “get it”. These are the times that faith becomes clearer to us – what it is really about. Faith is a gift from God that reminds us that we can’t do this on our own. Is there really any more doubt about that? When I see stories about people ignoring the risks in a variety of ways, what I see is selfishness – the idea that I am an island and no one has an impact on me and I have no impact on anyone else. That kind of attitude will make this pandemic last longer than it has to.

See, this is the time when we either “get” it or don’t. I’m not talking about getting the virus either.

This is the time when we ask if we really embrace all that we preach – do we really buy it? Or is it just a bunch of words? Are we all in? Or does that seem a bit much? Is this the time when we shed what we claim to believe because we never really bought into it anyway?

This is the time when we either really understand and embrace Jesus’ words to pick up our cross and follow him, or we just walk away in order to turn inward on ourselves and only look out for our own interests.

This is the time when we truly embrace God’s message that is spoken throughout Scripture – “Do not be afraid.” Or we just yell out at God and tell God “You’re full of it!”

This is the time when we find out what we truly believe. We’ll know what we believe, and what others actually believe, based on what we do. Faith isn’t just a set of beliefs. It’s the core of who we are that drives what our behavior is. You can’t do actions that contradict your true beliefs. I’m not talking about your stated beliefs – the ones you would tell someone when asked. I’m talking about what you actually believe when it comes down to it. The set of beliefs that are at your core. You may never actually state what those beliefs are. You don’t have to. You will know what you actually believe in based on your actions. Your actions never lie.

This is a time of clarity.  

Faith was given to us for such a time as this. Let us use it wisely. Let us embrace its message. Let us let it abide in us and transform us so that faith is evident to all who encounter us.

This is the time.

New Normals

What is your new normal? You probably can’t answer that question adequately yet. I can’t. I think we are still figuring out what this looks like. The real question is how long it will take for people to get a handle on what their new normal is.

We’re not used to such sudden and all encompassing change. It doesn’t happen very often in the US for most people. And it has been a long time since day to day life was impacted by anything of this magnitude.

Here’s our new reality – we are being forced to reconsider things. The questions about this is how are you approaching it? Is this a disaster for you personally? For organizations and institutions you are a part of? For the nation? For the church?

Or is it an opportunity to examine what church is really about at its core? To be creative? To fine alternative ways to be community? To recognize what worked in the past and to recognize that these are different times that require different solutions?

The answer to all of those questions is yes. It is both a disaster and an opportunity.

In my past, I managed and did strategy for political campaign. In many respects, this situation reminds me of those days. Lots of work. Lots of communication. Lots of managing expectations. Lots of making things up on the fly. Lots of embracing a solution one day only to discard it the next. Lots of jettisoning long standing things because they just didn’t work any longer. Lots of innovation. Lots of trial and error.

Campaigns teach people many lessons, if they are open to them. Even in a loss, there is much to learn. One of the biggest predictors of how successful a campaign would be is its willingness to adapt to a changing situation. And how well could you control the message and the discussion. That requires people – lots of people to help. It requires an entrepreneurial mindset and risk taking. It requires calm decision making in the midst of chaos – decision making that can look past the immediate situation and see down the road. It requires being able to see the potholes that you could potentially come across and figuring out how to avoid them, or at least how to get through them. And it requires the recognition that this too shall pass. But no worries, a new crisis will take its place. That means panic has no place at the table – only level heads who consider the information and situation and determine how to go forward, ready to adjust as needed.

These are times in which we all figure out new normals. We are forced to. I choose to see this as an opportunity unlike any before. Maybe a once in a lifetime opportunity. I’m not diminishing the disaster of the situation. It really is a disaster. But the disaster shall pass.

This is important for the church especially. Too many of our churches have maintained systems, structures, attitudes, and methods that worked in the past – worked very well in fact. But their success is their weakness. In their success, they got lazy. They got comfortable. They stopped adapting, assuming that life would always be good. And now we have a crisis. What worked before doesn’t work now. The church is forced to change and adapt. Or it will die because of a refusal to adapt. I refuse to curl up and die. I refuse to try to keep putting a round peg in a square hole.

If this crisis is anything, it is something that is forcing the church to re-examine itself. Those churches that adapt new techniques, attitudes, technologies, structures, methods will the churches that will come through this battered and hurt, but in a much stronger position to thrive after the fact. Churches may lose people and finances as a result. But the faithful remnant that persist will make the church even stronger than it was before. They will form the core of the community. They will pursue discipleship. They will be stewards. They will grow in faith. They will have stories of encounters with Jesus to share. They will be living the faith in new ways unthought of even a month ago.

I choose to see this time as an opportunity. It is a disaster and a gift. It is forcing the church to decide what it is – a social club or a church. And when it decides it is a church, then it will embrace what has been preached for centuries – life, death, and resurrection.

After the disaster passes, we will experience resurrection. And resurrected life is glorious.