Thursday, September 17, 2009

Joel Osteen, Really?

I just saw the recent USA Today article about the largest churches in America and saw that Joel Osteen's church is top of the list with 43,000+ attenders ( I want to use "Joel", as his website refers to him, as an example of a large church myth and a potential problem with Christianity in America.

First the Myth: The myth is that larger is better in America and certainly in Texas! Everything is big in Texas including the churches. The assumption goes that the larger the church the better. The larger the church the larger God's favor or blessing.

I want to suggest that this is a flawed assumption. Israel was a small nation and often outnumbered in battle yet God seems to have favored them not because of their size but because of their obedience. David was small in comparison to Goliath and was favored for his devotion to God. Zacchaeus was small but favored by Christ's presence in his home. Certainly size or large numbers does not always equal God's blessing or favor.

I do want to add that I am not opposed to church growth and think that growth in numbers is a sign of something good happening in a church. What I want to see is not growth in church attendance but in followers living for Christ. Let's count those numbers!

Now the Problem: Americans are by nature individualistic and self centered beings. Anything that appeals to these characteristics will draw Americans to it. Here are my assumptions about Joel that I have gleaned from his book, Your Best Life Now, and his website.

  • It is all about Joel and a little about Jesus
  • It is all about you and a little about God.
  • It is all about blessing and favor and little about sacrifice and obedience.

Here is what I am basing my assumptions on...

Notice the title of the book is about "Your" life and "Now." When I read the book it was about how to discover a vision for "my life" and God wanting to "bless me." For example, if I see God's vision for my life to own a million dollar home on the Island of Maui that is what I should pursue with passion. In this scenario I am still in control of my life and my own self centered desires are free to work as long as I acknowledge God in it. There was very little in the book about God's vision for my life that might include sacrifice or surrender. What about me selling all my possessions and maybe investing in a non-profit organization to help the poor? (See the story of the Rich Young Ruler in Mark 10)

I went to the Joel Osteen website again today and did notice this time that God is mentioned. Nothing about Jesus yet. Joel's name is mentioned quite often and in fact I counted his name at least 12 times on the site's first page. I saw God mentioned 4 times. You can see where Joel will be, get an email from Joel, and get Joel's blog. Other than God being mentioned there were no graphics on the site that would lead me to believe this was about God (just my perception).

So my conclusion is that even though Joel's church is the largest it doesn't mean it is the best at producing fruitful followers of Jesus Christ. I wouldn't want a large church like this if it wasn't producing fruit. Jesus mentioned that a tree should be judged by its fruit and not its size. If you want to grow a large church like Joel's than I suggest you marry a good looking spouse, write a book on God endorsed self centeredness , and move to Texas.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The UM Conference Door (AKA Wittenberg)

I know this may sound crazy but I had a dream in December 2007. One of those vivid wake you up dreams that made me lay in bed for another hour pondering. My reading of the Bible leads me to think that God speaks through dreams on occasion. I wonder what God was saying through this particular dream?

...I entered a large UM church with beautiful stone work and wood carved beams. It was a large traditional sanctuary that was packed with people from all over the country and world. They were excited to be there and anticipating worshipping together. There was excitement in the air.

I made my way to the room behind the altar and pulpit area. There were other people putting on robes and preparing for the service. The people were focused on who was preaching and what the bulletins looked like. They wanted to know what was going on in the order of worship. Some asked me if I knew and I didn't. I noticed a button on my robe was out of place and tried to fix it. I volunteered to preach and tried to think of what to say. I was ready to take over the service and begin to order what was happening. Then there was concern that the bulletins wouldn't be correct, etc. This went on for some time until I sensed a real panic about all these things within me. (Typical preachers dream I know!)

Finally, I remember walking out to the pulpit of the sanctuary and everyone was gone. The pews were gone and there was dust and cobwebs throughout the room. The church was dead and abandoned. Then I woke up.

My interpretation of the dream is this; we are sometimes so busy with seemingly important things like robes and bulletins and who gets to do what that we neglect the people who are hungry for Christ. If we do not serve them they leave. The church dies.

I want to suggest that the UM church is dying and at a more dramatic rate than ever before. I also want to share that this is not only through natural death but through people who are also withdrawing their memberships. This is also reflected in the numbers of all new members joining has significantly dropped over the past several years only adding to the rapid decline.

This is happening, I believe, because we are focused on the wrong things. We are focused on the things that do not matter to the people in the world.
  • I meet very few people that are concerned with how my robe looks and if I am wearing the right stole for the season. They want to know how I am following Christ and can following Christ make a difference in their lives.
  • I meet very few people that really get excited about receiving a bulletin with a mimeographed picture of the church on it. They want to know if they fit relationally into the group of people in the church.
  • I meet very few people who are really concerned with whether or not the church they just visited paid their apportionments. They want to know if the hour or so they spend there will touch their lives.
  • I meet very few people who care about the credentials and status of the preacher. They want to know does that person speaking on behalf of God really care about them and the world.
  • I meet very few people who come to church just so they can help increase the worship attendance. They come because something happens in that worship service that inspires them to be who God created them to be.
  • I meet very few people who profess their faith so they can be on a statistic report. They profess a faith in Jesus Christ because someone invested in a relationship with them and loved them no matter what.
  • I meet very few people who want a copy of our conference journal or UM Discipline. I have met many people who have asked me for a copy of the Bible.
  • I meet very few people who are impressed with church architecture. They will meet in a gymnasium if God's presence is there.
  • I meet very few people who are concerned with who can preside over a charge conference or even know what one is. They desire to be challenged to have Jesus preside over their lives for His Kingdom.
  • I meet very few people who recognize the cross and the flame. They do recognize when someone does something that makes a difference in their lives.
What we place importance on and value is where we will invest our time and energy. If we continue to invest time and energy on things that will not make a difference in people's lives for the cause of Christ then we as a organization, as a denomination, and as a church will die.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Our Primary Task

I recently read a quote from Dr. Paul Borden in his book Direct Hit that struck a cord with me and I think is vital to the future health of the church. He states, "Congregations have two types of customers. Primary customers are the ones who are not yet a part of the congregation because they do not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Secondary customers are the disciples who are already involved in the congregation."

First, let me just say I disagree with the word "customer" and do not think we should view people as customers. So if we can just set that aside for a moment and look at the rest of the quote.

I do think that Dr. Borden's thought here is in alignment with Jesus' mission while on this planet. We see Jesus choosing to invest time with children over adults, Samaritans over Jews, demon possessed over religious types, and lost sheep over found sheep.

I also would make the assumption that much of our time as leaders in the local church is spent investing in the secondary group of those already disciples. We spend an unrealistic and unhealthy amount of time trying to "feed people" who should already know how to feed themselves. People I have been calling pew potatoes for many years now. If one were to try and make the shift to investing more time with those outside the religious community these people would be the first to cry, "We are just not being fed here." This should not be surprising since if you take food away from a glutton they will get upset.

The people within that should be invested in are the true disciples. The ones who share the same primary mission and see following Christ in this mission as a path to maturity. Our task as leaders is to equip and encourage them in the mission to be in relationship with those who are "outside the church."

So a major leadership shift needs to take place in how we invest our time. For the church to thrive again we need to get clear about who are primary people are and start investing the majority of our time with them. Good leaders will do this and not flinch at the cries of the glutton pew potatoes.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Healthy Churches

What is a healthy church?

I have this picture in my head of going to the doctor. The first thing I do is get on a scale and they input a number in their little computer. Then they take my blood pressure and input another number. Then they take my pulse and input another number. Then they take my temperature and input another number. Then depending on my symptoms they do more tests and come up with more numbers. They look at all these numbers and tell me what is wrong with me or use these numbers to determine the current condition of my health.

Interstingly enough I could be walking around with a major artery blocked by 80-90% and die tommorow! The numbers would have never predicted that event nor indicated my lack of true health.

Working in a place where we look at numbers to determine a church's health is a daunting task. One of the things I keep asking myself... "Are we looking at the right numbers?" Are the numbers (avg. worship attendance, professions of faith, apportionment giving, & mission involvement) we look at really giving us a picture of church health?

Jesus gave us a whole other persepective on this in Matthew. Throughout the Gospel he and John the baptist use the metaphor of a tree and it's fruit. "Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit." (Matthew 12:33 red letter edition :) In another Gospel episode Jesus curses a tree for having no fruit. Jesus was simply looking for something that should be so obvious to determine the health of the tree; FRUIT.

I picked up the book Natural Church Development again and read in it that 7 out of 10 healthy growing churches have no numerical goals yet keep growing by 10% over several years. My assumption is that they may be focused on producing something else. My guess is they are focused on their fruit.

Now if we look at the church as a tree what is it's fruit? I would propose the fruit are followers of Jesus Christ. Are there fully devoted followers of Jesus hanging on that church? Maybe the only thing we should be counting are those disciples. What do you think?

Monday, July 30, 2007

Finding God

I have recently been listening to Philip Yancy's book Finding God in Unexpected Places and it reminded me to write another blog. I am finding God in unexpected places and people.

I was running one evening on a sidewalk in my suburbanite multicultural neighborhood and I noticed the sunset. It was one of those Sunsets that was just gorgeous and I had an overwhelming sense of the grandeur of the Creator. I then watched people drive by me talking on cell phones, people walking dogs with Ipods (the people had the Ipods!), and overweight people self consciously jogging in new sportswear. It occurred to me they were missing God or at least the evidence of God because they were preoccupied.

The other day I met a young man whose parents had moved here from Guatemala. He had taken up the trade of an electrician and was making a living to raise his yet to be born child in this American dreamworld. He told me he was seeking God but he was waiting for proof. I shared with him the possibility he might be waiting a long time for 100% proof of the existence of the Divine. In our conversation together I found God in our midst and I hope he did too!

Last week we had dinner with a friend who shared with us about a Bishop from Africa who was building an orphanage. After dinner was over my 11 year old daughter handed the woman an envelope and asked her to give it to the Bishop. She said it was all the money she had. I must admit this was a proud parent moment. Yet again I found God, in the midst of a dinner conversation.

Where are you finding God these days?

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Hot Metal Bridge

I was at our Annual Conference of United Methodists this past week and we heard from a church planting pastor from Hot Metal Bridge Community Church. This church in Pittsburg is engaing the culture through drama, community, and "Bible fight clubs." (Concept is from the movie "Fight Club") Bible Fight clubs are more confrontational than your typical Bible study. There were a few things I resonated with.

"Ecclesiastical Frankenstein"

Pastor Jim talked about making disciples. How we typically approach making disciples like Dr. Frankenstein. We slap on body parts by sending people through programs rather than being in relationship with people. He said that making disciples is more like having sex; you have to get more intimate than programs allow. This certainly got people's attention! This reminded me that discipleship has always been about relationships.

I think the huge challenge for me is my busy and individual based lifestyle which often hinders me from being in significant relationship with others outside my immediate family. How do we get back to building community in a culture that thwarts it?


I thought pastor Jim did a nice job of making the connection between how we see hell and our ecclesiology. As a recovering evangelical myself I have had problems with turn or burn articulations of faith. I even get a little worried when guys like Rick Warren start using the "ticket" analogy for getting into heaven. It minimizes relationships ultimately because all we have to do is make sure a person has their ticket to heaven. This also keeps us from being in relationship with people. This works great in an individualistic society but I am not sure it is what God had in mind for the community of believers. I am not trying to be critical of Warren and I understand what he is trying to say. I just think that analogy limits being in relationship with people and actually "discipling."


Pastor Jim also talked about being "missional" rather than "attractional." This one hit me hard since in white suburban America we are more attractional and consumer oriented in our approach. This is where I thought that maybe Jim's approach is correct for his context but maybe not for mine. What looks like missional in one context may not look misisonal in another. Would hot metal bridge's approach work in middle class suburbia? If so what would it look like? I do agree that we should be missional and we do that in our church through what we call "bridge events." These are events that help us to build bridges with people in the community. It all boils down to building relationships.


This was the central message of Jim's talk. I loved his comment, "This is not about having a potluck in the church basement." Fellowship is so much more than church suppers. It really is about going to deeper authentic levels with each other. It is also essential to go to deeper levels of authenticy with those outside the church. I have found great relationships with people outside my church when I was willing to listen and get authentic. I can think of several people who I have had these kinds of relationships with; the older working woman who serves me coffee at the local shop on my way to church every Sunday, the gay guy who cuts my hair, the wiccan witch who was sexually assaulted by her pentacostal preacher, the former drug dealer I go mountain biking with, the insurance salesman looking for significance, etc. People hungering for relationship with God are all around us!

So how do we stay in relationship with those "outside the church"? I am praying about a place to hold a bible study in my community like a coffee shop, tattoo place, or bar. How about you?