Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Counseling and Me

October marks my return to the role of professional pastoral counselor. It has been eight years since I last fulfilled this part of my calling. Back then, I worked as a part of the Christian therapy group headed by Steve and Linda Bagley (Marriage and Family Matters). I am returning to the same group (www.mfmcounseling.com)effective immediately.

There are a couple reasons I look forward to this with anticipation. One is environmental -- that is, I love the environment that is created between counselor and counselee in the professional counseling setting. It is, at its root, a grace-filled environment where honesty, empowerment, healing, truth and wholeheartedness are given preeminence. One writer calls it a "holding environment" and I have always loved that description. It is as if the environment itself "holds" both counselor and counselee in its warmth and light. Good things can happen in an environment like that.

Another reason I look forward to this goes to a word that has come to mean a great to me lately: Focus. I love the simplicity and focus of the counseling relationship. It is among the most simple and focused relationships human beings create. This focus on the counselee and his or her need introduces tremendous opportunities for things to happen that could not happen otherwise. Sometimes I feel like I am being given the tremendous privilege of watching life happen in someone else and it is almost a holy thing to behold.

I know that there is much more to counseling than this. "Magic" is mixed with hard work, ups and downs, griefs and losses and so on. That's a given. However, there is a part of me that embraces all of those things as normal to the human growth process so that (usually) I can find a way to include them in the tapestry of change and becoming that counseling facilitates.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Greek To Me

Went to the big annual Greek Festival at the St. Paul's Greek Orthodox Church campus in Irvine yesterday. The weather was pleasant, the food delicious, the live Greek music infectious and the company (The Farrs, Fosters and Taits joined Robin, JeanneAnn and me) delightful.

I am making friends with a man who goes to the festival every year. He suggested we take the time to take one of the tours of the church offered throughout the festival. So, at 7:30 p.m., we joined Father Steve, the Pastor of St. Paul's, for his "tour" which really turned out to be more of a sit down lecture with Q & A following.

As a building, St. Paul's is impressive. The huge mosaic at the front is an icon of the Virgin Mary with the child Jesus. These central figures are flanked by two archangels. Father Steve said it consisted of 1.2 million pieces of gold glass bits (yes, real gold) for a background along with the other multi-colored pieces that make up the figures. Father Steve explained the real gold and painstaking assembly were evidences of the church's value to "invest" in something that brings glory to God. That comment gave me pause.

Above us, the huge rounded dome area of the church featured a scene of the last judgement, also done in mosaic. The Christ figure was seated on a throne and biblical verses regarding love were featured around the base a la "Love One another", "Love Your Enemies", etc. Looking back toward the front were other icons poised along the "icon screen" at the front altar area of the church that included depictions of Jesus, John the Baptist, and the church's namesake, St. Paul. I can't even get into all the other mosaics and icons that were featured elsewhere around the building. Suffice it to say that the Greek Orthodox commitment to iconography and church edifice was (as Father Steve affirmed) very important to their tradition of worship.

After the initial "wow" factor quickly subsided, I confess I remained unmoved by all this "investment" in the glory of God. Whether it is the million dollar retablo recently installed in the Serra Chapel at the San Juan Capo mission or the things we saw at St. Paul's, I find the whole notion of edifice adornment as a statement of worship to be confusing. Father Steve (a nice, very knowledgeable and -- apparently -- spiritually alive man) went to great lengths to explain that the three divisions of St Paul's church building were patterned after the three sections of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem (Holy of Holies, Holy Place, Court of the Gentiles).

This, at first sounds very "biblical" until one remembers that Jesus predicted that "not one stone" of the temple would be "left upon another" and at no time in Acts or the N.T. Epistles do we see the Spirit inspiring or instructing believers to build a temple, a church or any other building -- even as a prophetic statement that such would be the case.

Of course, one could argue that under pre-Constantinian Roman persecution, such buildings were not possible and that when the opportunity arose, Christians finally did start building away. Fine. But the truly biblical notion is that God's collective people are His living temple within whom He now chooses to dwell. This is when I most clearly experience "the glory of God" -- when His people are truly in WORSHIP and in ACTION (no matter where they are at the time). While Jesus prophesied a time when God would allow the earthly temple in Jerusalem to be decimated, at no time will the Lord allow His living temple to be disassembled and defiled.

In the end, I don't begrudge believers their buildings whether they feature massive mosaics or massive video projection screens. Buildings have a way of enshrining our values -- whatever they may be. I've been in the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. and in St Paul's in London (along with other churches and cathedrals in England). These are architectural and historical wonders to be sure. But nothing about them inspires a deeper spirituality in me. Ironically, I saw a lot of smaller quaint and beautiful church bulidings (no doubt erected and dedicated to the glory of God) now being used as racquetball clubs, restaurants and other secular puproses now that European Christendom is on the wane. In the end I guess it comes down to the notion that, once erected, our religious buildings need us as much or more than we need them and, in the end, none will pass into eternity -- none except the living stones built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets with Christ Jesus Himself as the Chief Cornerstone.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Boomer Begs You to Stop Us

I'm a baby boomer, born in '55 (a great year for Chevys and Thurnderbirds). I can still remember the first time I watched a color TV (The Wonderful World of Disney), bought a personal computer (20 meg hard drive - I kid you not) and yes, I remember exactly where I was when I heard about the JFK assasination (at school).

Now that you have my boomer credentials, I have something important to say to you younger readers. To borrow a phrase from Shakespeare, I have not come today to praise boomer influence, but to bury it. Please, I am begging you, rise up and break out beyond what we boomers have taught you about church, church life and ministry in general and do it quickly! The future of Christianity may well depend upon it!

When it comes to church, we boomers had our work cut out for us and, yes, we accomplished some pretty important things. We are the generation who boldly wrested "church" out of the hands of our elders and freed it from denominationalism, cold traditionalism, theological liberalism and cultural irrelevance. We (boomers) fueled the charismatic movement, the Jesus People movement and the modern missionary movement. We coined the phrases "non-denominational church", "megachurch" and "prosperity gospel". We brought folk and rock music into the sanctuary, mass evangelism to the nations, and TBN to your television screens. And, oh yeah, we also married the church to the Republican party. And this is only where the list begins!

Now that our leading edge breaks into their sixties, we need you to do what we did to our elders and wrest the contemporary church out of our hands and set it free once again.

We boomer church leaders, addicted as we are to the need to be recognized, to "succeed", and to control everything, are killing the church in America and we need you young folk to stop us before it's too late. Too many of us have become enslaved to church trendiness. Too many of our church leaders have succumbed to the lust for ever larger markets for "our ministies" so that we have harnessed the gospel to anything from rank sensationalism to vapid inspirationalism in order to increase our "outreach". Thanks to us, the gospel is now a consumable product that we continually reimagine as an undemanding and sugar sweet "companion for our journey". We have stripped it of its sting and fire and sought to restate it as a validation of our own well-documented narcissism.

So, next generation emerging believers, leaders and pioneers, do your job. Take the life of the church and the message of the gospel back to the people through your gift for social networking and your appreciation for flatter authority structures and teamwork, and your ever-growing awareness of the nations. Start house churches, campus ministries, workplace ministries and internet fellowships that don't require boomer dollars or leadership in order to succeed. Embrace God's call to justice and glocal compassion. Recover the gift of apostolic leadership by establishing fluid networks of empowered believers and call your generation to biblical morality and holiness. Most of all please, please, please ignore whatever we have taught you about how to "successfully grow churches" and listen to what the Holy Spirit is telling you directly instead.

Soon your hands will be on the levers of power and influence throughout the Body of Christ. Soon it will soon be your turn to make your contributions to the ongoing story of God. If you can find any of us boomers who haven't sold out to be your elders, then we will all gain from the relationship. But, if you can't, please start the revolution without us.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Take Your Time, Go Slowly (part two)

Now that the work is done, the people (and animals) celebrate. Something about this has always felt like "church how it ought to be" to me. Watch the earlier video blog to see the "before". What this clip doesn't show you is mass at the "offical" church in Assisi which is cold, dead and stilted.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Take Your Time, Go Slowly (part one)

In this highly stylized dramatization of the rebuilding of the chapel of San Damiano from Zeferelli's "Brother Sun, Sister Moon", something is gotten right despite the fact that, throughout the film, Francis of Assisi and his band are portrayed a bit like spaced out hippies on their way back from Woodstock.

Still BSSM remains a favorite film that inspires me. This particular clip and the one showing the celebration at the completed chapel still move me. Enjoy.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

What I Wrote to Curtis

Curtis lives in Canada and is seeking to launch a new ministry endeavor where he lives. Like me, Curtis is searching for some specific answers to burning questions about how to engage the mission of God in the next generations and in ways that are not "traditional church" planting.

I've never met Curtis, but we have a mutual friend in Eric Sandras. He (Curtis) seems earnest, sincere and a bit frustrated. He likes the fact that I refer to my present departure from my former way of life and ministry as The Quest and says that he is on a quest of his own.

What follows is a reply to some emails he has sent to me and to Eric Sandras. I thought you might enjoy peeking in on it:

Hey Curtis:

I appreciate the challenge and the promise of the place you are in. I can't believe how many others I'm already discovering who are on their own sort of "quest". A movement of some kind is being born but is still rather undefined. It's beyond the labels such as "house church" or "emergent" or what have you. It is not just about modalities of church life or the changes in our culture. It's about a hunger that God has put in people like you and me that we can't ignore.

A book you might enjoy is Dan Kimball's "They Like Jesus Not the Church". Not only does Dan share the problems, questions and challenges, he also provides some of what he believes to be helpful in addressing the issues raised.

Beyond that, I have gotten a lot out of The Forgotten Ways (Hirsch), Organic Church (Cole), and the very helpful little "Missional House Churches" by J.D. Payne.

I'm not sure exactly how the Wimber quote goes, but you seem to have stated it the way I remember it. Here are two more:
"Faith is spelled r-i-s-k"
"How many more like YOU do you want?"

One thing I have had to give myself permission to do is to slow down. I feel a compelling urgency to discover and to implement my discoveries. Part of this, I have come to see, is about the desire to find validation for the major decisions I have made to engage The Quest. I am learning to let that go and just be.with what God is showing me. I, too, still have TONS of questions, but The Quest has made me a richer man already (meaning I have grown spiritually a great deal through what I have already been learning).

Wax on, wax off! Paint the fence! Sand the Floor! Paint the house! God will show you why your arms ache so much when He's ready...(right?!)

Shalom, Shalom,
Bill Faris

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Tweaker Sensitive

As a life-long pastor (making me what used to be called a "churchman"), I have long been aware of the various movements and developments in American church life. Naturally, then, I have some familiarity with the whole "seeker sensitive" notion of church.

Put briefly, the classic seeker sensitive movement produced a reconstruction of church practice away from doing church for evangelical / fundamentalist "insiders". Instead, so-called seeker churches sometimes radically reshape their worship services, classes, outreaches and activities in ways that focus on inviting and including the uninitiated. To say much more than this in the scope of a blog will distract me from my real point which is that -- while we may not have all become "seeker" churches -- many (most?) churches have become "tweaker" churches. That is, their leaders have become aware that they are shapers of church culture and feel increasing liberty to "tweak" things in ways that are informed by the seeker movement, whether they realize it or not.

Take for example the pre and post service greeting efforts and coffee fellowships, the willingness of preachers to dress casually in street clothes, tell jokes and be more self-effacing in the pulpit as they preach "felt need" messages. And, of course, there has been no small adjustment of the music heard in most worship services as well as the incorporation of fairly sophisticated video features.

Churches that would never consider themselves to be "seeker sensitive" are suddenly rushing to alliterate their values in short, punchy words or phrases, offer newcomer dinners, desserts or classes or otherwise up the accesibility of church staff, programs and practices to better engage newcomers. They become, in effect, "tweakers". It's not that they necessarily buy into the seeker sensitive modality wholesale. Instead, they instictively find their own takeaways which they then plug into their already distintive traditions.

All of these seeker / tweaker changes are based on the notion that weekend services are the ground zero of ministry. I can't count how many times I played on that theme as a pastor. My confidence that we had something really good together led to my conviction that if we could just "get them through the front door" (believers or not) they would experience something that would compel them to want more. By this means we would have the opportunity to minister to them more deeply in Jesus' name.

There were Sundays that I spoke about the "empty seat people" (or ESPs) who belonged in those vacant chairs in our worship center. I personally became obsessed with tweaking whatever needed to be tweaked in order to these ESPs to us while being simultaneously haunted by the fact that they weren't really coming much at all. Those who DID show up were nearly always self-identified "church shoppers" (and usually wonderful people) who were either looking specifically for a Vineyard in their area or a church like ours that had a warmth and friendly intimacy they could appreciate. In other words, 90% were already Christians, and, in many cases, already Vineyard-prepped.

Eight years of this brought together a truly beautiful faith community that changed my life and the lives of many of its members forever. However, no more than a handful of relatively unitiated folk fired up a first time saving faith in Christ at our church -- tweaks or not.

Honestly, I would have to admit that a good many of the tweaks eventually became tied to the felt needs of experienced Christians who knew what they wanted in a church as much as anything else. I suspect that large numbers of churches who never felt the call to go fully "seeker" know this turf or are on it even now; and so the tweaking will continue. Meanwhile, I can't help but wonder what would happen if we put as much effort into our going INTO the harvest as we have on getting the harvest to come to us?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

When is a Church a "Real" Church?

* When there is a pastor (or leader, or leaders)?
* When there is worship (leader? band? song list?)
* When there is a steady place to meet?
* When regular weekly worship services are open to the public?
* When community outreaches are happening?
* When children's ministry, youth groups, womens / mens ministry and the like come together at last?

I observe that new churches and their leaders, team members and congregations often hasten to add these kinds of benchmarks of church life to their church structures. As these things come on line, it really helps the people involved in the church to feel that they are part of a "real" church that compares well with other more established works. Once their church is a "real" church, they can feel much better about inviting newcomers to try out their church and its programs. By the same token, pastors of "real" churches are not embarrased to talk to other pastors about their work. As in the story of Pinochio, it's good to finally know that the line has been crossed and the "real" has arrived.

Unlike some, I don't roundly reject traditional churches and their various associated ministries. But if those things are what makes a church "real", what about the churches in the New Testament? They didn't have a senior pastor, a worship band, youth groups, sunday schools or other accoutrements of today's churches. Nor do the underground churches in China or the spontaneously erupting congregations being formed in South America and Africa. But they seem pretty "real" to me.

It reminds me of the debate over when a human becomes a "real" human. Is it at conception, birth, high school graduation or when filing taxes for the first time? The people I hang around are adamant that a person is fully human at conception -- they are a real person, a real human at the point they are a simple fertilized egg. Why? Because, all other things being equal, nothing else needs to be added for that newly-conceived life to become a high school grad (so to speak). The DNA is all there. It is embryonic, to be sure, but it is also fully human (it won't grow into a tadpole or a cumquat but a man or woman).

"Where two or more are gathered in My name," Jesus said, "there am I in the midst". That's the embryo of the church. The church's total DNA is present in two or more gathering in The Name, with His promised presence in the midst. In a sense, it never gets better than that -- never more "real".

But what if there's no sermon, no handbells, no altar call? What if there is no VBS or ladie's retreats or recovery groups? Those things are not mentioned by Jesus. They may or may not come later-- who knows? But they won't make that "church" any more "real" if they do.

I believe that it's time we reset the bar and acknowledge that "real" churches are not defined in the ways our traditions and expectations may have led us to believe. Imagine what would happen if we empowered the notion that real churches can spring up in parking lots and bonus rooms, in break rooms and coffeehouses, on campuses and in prisons. Imagine that...

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Welcome to the (Churchland) Jungle

That slashing sound you hear comes from my machete as I hack my way through the tropical undergrowth of the church world during this new period of exploration I find myself in.

AS I venture out in any direction from the relative safety of my familiar base camp, I find the path before me choked with new (and not so new) flora and fauna of every description. From high in the trees above me, the sound of screeches, squawks, buzzes and chirps rain down so thickly that I can hardly hear myself think. Let me tell you, folks: it's a jungle out there.

Over in that direction, the thick new vines of classic pentacostalism keep springing up with their claims that God has "touched down" in Redding, or Lakeland or some other locale. Miss this new move, and you will miss all the Lord has for you (and who could live with that?) As I draw close, I can feel the heat but I just can't see the light.

Over in this direction is the stately grove of the Newly Reformed whose systematic theologies and premodern certitudes rise up from the ground like the roots of the sturdy banyan tree. To be sure, this shady shelter provides welcome refuge from the summer heat but it also seems to make it hard for things of variety and wonder to grow beneath their thick canopy.

As I move to the left, I run into the tangled undergrowth of postmodernism where the emergent types have sought to hack their way through to the future. These explorers claim to be clearing a path for the rest of us only to become bogged down in the quicksand of their reactionism and trendiness.

Eventually, I stumble into the old growth forest. There, I find heartbreaking evidence of clear cutting and desolation -- the unmistakable marks of ongoing rampant theological liberalism. How sad it is to see how shamelessly centuries of irreplaceable richness and depth have been exploited by opportunists. Instead of making the land more meadow-like and habitable as promised, they have left it arid and lifeless.

Finally, I arrive at the neatly plowed fields of mainline evangelicalism. As I apporach, I am greeted by rows and rows of highly-cultivated plants standing tall in the afternoon sun. Their tenders stand by and wait for them to fruit but the crops often fail to come in as hoped for. Still, it is impressive to see how neatly the rows have been cut and how much detail has gone into each and every scarecrow that has been raised to keep out the unwanted. As I watch, I see that the hungry only stop by briefly before moving on to search for food that truly satisfies.

These are just the first impressions from my journey so far. No doubt your corespondent will file further reports down the road.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Christian TV, ABC, and the Sobbing Devil

The following thoughts were inspired, so to speak, by something I saw the other day on a Christian TV broadcast featuring an influential midwestern U.S. megachurch.

As I watched, the Pastor was making a big point on the topic of money in a sermon he was giving to the large crowd gathered in the "worshp center" or "sanctuary" or whatever other name the auditorium went by. For the sake of emphasis, he paused (on cue) as a bubbling bass line was piped over the speakers. It was instantly recognizable as a well known pop song featuring the word "money". And then, as if by magic, a shower of paper money (presumably fake) came floating from the ceiling into the crowd like ticker tape, having been shot from some pneumatic dispensers in the rafters. I'm not making this up.

All I could think of was: "I wonder how much money this sermon illustration about money cost". No, actually, that's not true. I also thought: "What on earth must people think of the Church and churches when they see this *&%#@ (sort of thing)". Or when they watch Reverend Wright damn American in the Name of the Lord. Or when they gaze upon a sprawling illustrated panorama of the end of the age standing authoritatively behind the old-fashioned preacher who seems to have the whole thing neatly figured out.

Flip on the tube (or the Godtube) and you too can witness what is being fed to the flock of God from Lakeland to Los Angeles and back and forth again across our nation in these times. Like it or not, these church broadcasts function as a sort of mirror that American evangelicalism holds up to itself. If it was merely a funhouse mirror that distorted the real image for a laugh, we too might chuckle. But no. What we see in this mirror is the actual reflection of what far too much of American Churchianity has actually become. This is what we hold up as the gospel. This is what we give our time, talent and treasure to in order to "reach the world for Christ". Not only are we guilty of guilding the lilly, but we have been doing it with fool's gold.

But then, like a lightning bolt of grace, I have seen a few other reflections glance off the illuminated mirror in my living room -- two truly edifying profiles of American churches in action neither of which were produced by Christian TV people but, in fact, by those crazy folks at ABC. I'm talking about last season's Home Makeover: Extreme Edition program.

The first episode was a two hour special on a Vineyard church in Albuqueque, New Mexico. It introduced us to a humble and godly pastor and his wife and their family who had moved into a run-down neighborhood with a vision to renew it. They opened their home and their lives incarnationally to the people there. They fed them, clothed them and housed them in the Name of the Lord. They taught them the Word of God in both word and deed. They lived among the people in self-sacrifical ways. Their commitment, over time, had begun to reveal the kingdom in a very dark place and was beginning to change things. And so, when Ty Pennington and the gang showed up to add to the story (at their expense, mind you)-- the image of the American church BEING THE CHURCH IN ACTION told a far different story.

Later, the same program featured a largely African-American church that had been ruined in the Gulf flooding. The damage had compromised not only the worship center but the food pantry from which the neighborhood was daily served. Once again, their lives told God's story without hoopla and without padding and the Makeover people stepped up to rebuild the church and re-open the kitchen that feeds the poor. By this means, another ray of divine light bounced through the nation and into the homes and hearts of viewers. Anyone open to the gospel of Jesus, the kingdom of God and the unvarnished church would not find it difficult to smell the difference between the two churches featured in the Makeover programs and so many others that promote themselves on their screens.

The whole business reminds me of another sermon illustration I once heard. In it, a man came across the devil sitting on the steps of a church building, sobbing.

"What's the matter, Mister Devil?" asked the man.
"It's those (darn) Christians," came the reply. "They really get me upset".
"But why?" asked the man.
"Because they're always blaming me for stuff I haven't had the chance to do to them yet."

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A Taste of Wimber

John Wimber reminded us of what is was like to come to Christ as an "outsider" unfamiliar with the Christian faith. As a believer who came to be a church growth consultant, pastor and, eventually, international leader, Wimber displayed a deep affection for the church as well as a healthy and knowing insight into the games we Christians play with God and each other. At the time I was first exposed to John's ministry, he often pointed out that "God wants His church back". What was true then is even more true today.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Love is Not Enough

One of the hazards of young love is the notion that love, in and of itself, is enough to hold two people together for a lifetime (if that annoying song by The Captain and Tennille is ringing through your skull at this point, I apologize). The fact is that love, in and of itself, does not have the power to do that. As Larry Norman poigniantly observed: "The Beatles said all you need is love and then they broke up..."

What is true of romantic love (and The Beatles) is also true concerning the powerful feelings of Christian love shared between people in the life of the church. The recipe for the goop that cements lives together long term must include love, of course. But along with "sincere love" (Romans 12: 9; I Peter 1:22) the recipe must also include healthy portions of deeply shared values, commonly held beliefs and a mutual sense of mission. Without these things, love alone will lose its luster and the bonds between people will weaken and even break down altogether.

These things are on my mind a lot as I lead in the launch of a demanding and radical new ministry endeavor called the Vineyard Community Mission Network. Our core group mostly consists of people who have come to deeply love each other (and me) as a result of our lives together at the Crown Valley Vineyard. As much as I appreciate the power of these bonds and respect the trust these folks have shown in me as a leader, I am also aware that love will not be enough to harness us to our mission. Love alone is not capable of energizing us to mutually accept its demands or fulfill its potential. For this to happen, our people have to buy into a different philosophy of ministry, a new set of beliefs and values and a distinct new routine (way of life) if they are going to make it through the crucible of change together.

For this reason, I have strived to not only communicate a new vision, but to also educate people about the values, facts, philosophy and scriptural keys that inform this vision. Now that a month has passed between the loss of our former point of church identity and the implementation of our new mission, I can feel the transitional strain testing some of our people. As I note this, I am convinced that those who take the time and trouble to thoroughly investigate the new paradigm I have been promoting and buy into it will likely be with us months or years from now. Those who don't won't. It's that simple.

The good news is that these are decisions that will be made in spite of our enduring love for each other and not only because of it. That's because love is not, in and of itself, a commitment. It can only lead us to the point of making commitments (or choosing not to). Togetherness, mutuality and long term commeraderie are based on things that go beyond "mere" love.

Those who have already opted out of our new endeavor, or who will do so in the future, will most likely still love me a great deal. And, of course, I will still love them, too. Love, after all, always perseveres (I Corinthians 13:7). But if we are going to embrace the changes, the sacrifices and the exciting possibilities of our new endeavor, we will need a lot more than love.