Sunday, April 24, 2011

Cartoon Christianity

Now that I spend some of my Sunday mornings reading the comic strips, I've come to discover that what I am seeing on the color-filled pages is similar to what has become of the institutional church's weekly show: It has been reduced to over-simplification and designed to sell.

The artful nature of a quality comic strip has had by necessity and demand to disappear. Artists like Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes") have left the industry because of the contraints that the newspaper industry placed on his artistic expression. He had to fit his drawings into well-defined boxes so that the newspaper could package its product for a highly competitive market. No longer was a comic strip appreciated for its artistic drawings combined with witty dialogue; it was reduced to unimaginative drawings that lack both variety and creativity in hopes that no one would notice. And they don't.

The consumer (de)volved along with the newspapers to the point that the readers no longer realize what they are missing. Cartoonists were quick to give the newspaper what the consumer wanted because they needed a job. If Bill Watterson wanted to take his convictions (and incredible talent) and leave, there would be someone else who was more than eager to take his place (without questioning his reasons, apparently) and offer what the market called for: A set number of well-defined boxes with essentially the same "picture" in each with bubble-filled dialogue that may or may not be funny.

Does anyone else notice the pictures anymore? And wasn't it the pictures that create the comic strip appeal in the first place? The dialogue used to be secondary to the attractive and colorful quality of the cartoon.

The institutional church "show" is no longer driven by "art" (read: sound ecclesiology and theology) but by the cultural market. The job of institutional church leadership has (de)volved from well-intended and God-directed ministry of God's transcendent culture (read: "Kingdom") to a weekly demand to put butts in the seats. Slick presentations, creative media-driven messages, and rock-concert-like music define the consumer-oriented ingredients to complete today's church-service recipe. And yet, with all of this in place, there is no assurance that the consumer will be either satisfied or willing to read the same "comic strip" next week.

I identify with Bill Watterson. My calling from God should not be forced into a square box of an industry's making. Like Jesus, I hope to represent the culture of God and to do so, I no longer depend on the income of the profession for which I was trained and in which I served for 25 years. I will no prostitute God's gifts for filthy lucre.

I thank God (and Bill Watterson) for allowing me the grace to evaluate who I am and what I do for God's glory. Sadly, I don't see enough of my professional peers doing the same thing. Even more grieving is the apparent fact that the weekly pew-sitting consumer doesn't recognize the difference.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Poor Jerusalem and Corinth: If they had only had our resources

For a follower of Jesus like myself who has served in the institutional church "Show" for over 25 years, this time of year produces both joy and grief. Joy because thanks to Jesus' current status, my daily existence is radically altered- and in a good way! Grief because of how the culture has reduced Jesus' resurrection to another golden calf in the post-Christian wilderness. We think we are doing the right thing but an honest look at how we do it might reveal that we, like the religious culture of Jesus' time, are failing to accurately represent Jesus' life to ourselves and to the world.

Few strategies represent this misguidance more than the mass marketing of Holy Week. The competition between local churches to attract the great unwashed in our society to attend (and presumably join) our congregation (read: club) is intense- and expensive! The stress that a senior pastor and his staff experience each Lenten season to design, produce and distribute a glossier and more creative mailer is as I remember it, exhausting. The church spends time, money and energy in the hopes that by generating an attractive advertising campaign, God will be able to pull "unchurched" (and really, how many in our culture qualify as "unchurched"?) in to their Show on Palm Sunday and Easter. Well-intended as this effort may be, I'm afraid it produces enormous piles of recyclable goods and fails to yield the human numbers a church hopes for to their flock.

Poor Jerusalem. If only they had the business savvy, creative brilliance, technological hardware, and financial resources they might have been able to do so much more than they did. Relying on the direct human to other human contact between people who were filled with the Holy Spirit (read: Love of God and others), they apparently only managed to attract thousands to their early models of ministry. If only they had the kind of postal service we have today through which a church can invest a large amount of money to send a professional produced flyer indiscreminately to every house within a reasonable radius of the meeting place, they might have produced a better return. Perhaps hundreds- or even a dozen!

During my tenure in professional ministry, I knew of know congregation to whom the Lord added thousands as a result of either the advanced publicity or the production of the Easter Show.

Poor Corinth. Had they known that competition between congregations was something that the Lord considered "healthy" (no matter what Paul would say about it), and if they had been operating with the resources and mindset the contemporaray church enjoys, they might've been able to let the ungodly heathen select which Show to attend on Easter based on the success of a slickly produced mailer that may have stood out among the crowd of church mailers they received that week.  The Church of Apollos would no doubt highlight the creative and compelling sermon that Apollos might deliver. The Church of Peter might be more servant-centered and choose to attract the church consumer by focusing on the strength of their outreach programs. Paul's church would be teaching-centered, perhaps calling attention to their affinity-based small groups ministry.

If only today's church would wake up to the fact that the people who attend their congregation on Palm and Easter Sundays are probably the people who already attend throughout the year. They just all show up on Easter so we think we have "new" people.

The last place I would be on Easter is a church. If I were interested in what they were "selling" by their mass marketing "evangelism", I would choose to go the Sunday AFTER Easter and see who really attends and how "exciting" their hyped-up services actually are.

I would probably go to the golf course on Easter since all the "Christians" would be in church and the course would be wide open.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

When do I Preach Now that I'm not a "Preacher"?

After 25 years as an ordained minister, serving 6 churches during that time in a variety of staff postions, I was given my walking papers by God. He let me leave. I was both relieved and scared. Immersion into Jesus' discipleship ring led me to a calling to be immersed into the ring of institutional Christianity. I learned that much like a circus, the institutional church attempts to "wow" and "amaze" with it's own three rings: Worship, Fellowship, and Preaching.

Ah, preaching. The driving force behind all that is "evangelical". I have discovered that my calling, my devotions, my profession had been totally affected by my next sermon series if not my next sermon. I read the Bible watching for clever and dare I say "relevant" texts to deliver in hopes that it would not only change the lives of the listeners but would at the very least motivate their return to my service next week.

Don't let a preacher fool you. Performance pressure is real. A preacher must peform for God (we all believe this was the highest standard), for the congregation (for it is ultimately the preaching that will determine their committment to the church), and for ourselves (how do we feel about it?). When I was released from that treadmill, I discovered not only a personal faith but also a new expression of "preaching".

After my first year outside of the institution, I visited my dad who has been a professional preacher my entire life. He apparently struggles with my decision and probably wonders if I am outside of God's will which if so, allows my dad to throw even me under his bus of judgementalism. He asked me if I thought I would preach again. My guarded answer at that moment was to declare that my life was going pretty well and I wasn't in any hurry to go back to that professional lifestyle.

Dad stated that he had taken a year to do something else but realized that he really needed to be a preacher. Apart from how arrogant that statement can appear, I believe my dad is sincere and probably just can't get his head around God's multi-faceted activity, let alone a more accurate definition of God's Kingdom. He is a preacher and his life is centered on that activity. He may actually love preaching more that the people to whom he preaches. I hope he doesn't love it more than the God he preaches about....

I digress.

I have lived with a very real sense of God's "calling" me to full-time (read: being hired by a church) ministry since I was 18 years old. I was never really intersted in the preaching event and pursued educational avenues that prepared more for supportive staff positions than that of one that demanded the weekly sermon. As time passed, however, I realized I could talk publicly and found the discovery of insights, the manufacturing of sermon and its ultimate delivery to be something that I could and should do. So I did.

Until I was released by God to this new journey. So the question that rattles around in my brain is "Where Do I Preach now that I'm not a professional preacher?" This has always been at the heart of my conventional understanding and interpretation of God's "real" calling. And this was regularly reinforced by my upbringing both in the church and in the home. If I am not employed at some local institution pumping out the three-point alliterated sermon each Sunday (and maybe on Wednesdays, depending on the particular denominational flavor one is employed by), am I still being faithful to a real calling? Do callings change? Does God retire a called person after having served enough time (ex., Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, Jesus, etc.)?

My answer to this at this point in my life goes something like this: I "preach" (read: proclaim) Jesus now when I am:
  • in the home of a poor family encouraging them in their relationship with a troubled teen
  • helping a broken teenager see their life from a different point of view that hopefully motivates them to make better choices and gives them hope in spite of the hand that has been dealt them
  • laughing with a community a friends at my workout class
  • telling my story to a work associate who wonders what I did for most of my life
  • am advising others to do what's right and good even if the warm fuzzies they are looking for may be absent
I may actually be "preaching" when I blog.

God is graciously leading me in deeper and more satisfactory understandings of how to live as a citizen of His culture (read: Kingdom). Perhaps Jesus' intention for those who would be like him to be proclaimers of God's culture more in the streets than in the pulpits. Perhaps the results that matter are not based on the number of people in the pews. Perhaps the best "altar call" response is the smile or hope that has been lodged in the life of someone who may never darken the door of a church building.

And perhaps for the sake of their spiritual health they shouldn't.