The One Thing the Church Must Change

After twenty-four years of pastoral ministry, I have found the one thing the church in our day loves most is change and innovation. This is because modern culture has had more of an effect on the contemporary church than the modern church has had on our present culture. 

If you have been around church culture long enough, you will have heard pastors talking about Good to Great as if Collins was the replacement for Judas rather than Mattias. You would have heard people say (as I have said myself) the message doesn’t change, but the methods do. This sounds good, but as Marshall McLuhan famously said, “The medium is the message.” What we say is of great importance; how we say what we say is of equal importance. There are few things modern Christian leaders fear more than receiving the moniker “irrelevant.” 

I have come to realize that there is something inside of us that fears the steady truth and ministry that is mundane. We want to be known as innovative. For years my drive was to be known as an innovative leader. I spent more time looking forward than learning from the past. I knew what apps were out, read every leadership book I could get my hands on by all the current whos who in the secular world and church world. It wasn’t until my forties that I read a book by some who lived before. I was guilty of what C.S. Lewis calls chronological snobbery. The arrogant idea that what we know today is all we need to know. That modern problem can not find solutions in ancient answers. 

Since graduating from seminary, I can now read books on my list to read that I haven’t read for the past five years. One of those books was from G.K. Chesterton. I don’t see eye to eye with Chesterton on everything but in reading Orthodoxy, my modern mind was challenged by old ideas. Ideas that have stood the test of time, this is why I like reading books by dead people the books that have survived have something to say not only to their generation but to ours as well. Chesterton’s words hit me like a ton of bricks. He was telling me from nearly a hundred years ago how to survive our modern age with our faith intact. He is saying we need a greater capacity for wonder and the ability to exult in the mundane. 

Greater capacity for wonder. 

Chesterton, in his typically Cherstertonian way, says this:

“Everything is in an attitude of mind; and at this moment I am in a comfortable attitude. I will sit still and let the marvels and the adventures settle on me like flies. There are plenty of them, I assure you. The world will never starve you for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.”

What Chesterton is saying is profound. To put it in economic terms, we do not have a lack of wonder because of a lack of supply but because of a lack of demand. I have found in my life that the relentless desire for innovative thinking and wondering at what is next leaves me, over time, unable to wonder at what is. I find myself working to make ministry exciting and new rather than taking time to observe and pay attention to what God is doing in others around me and in the world he has made. Excessive innovative thinking leads me to have a soul that is unsatisfied with what God says is “Good” to chase what Collins says is great. 

Often my drive to do and be the next best thing left my soul impoverished and my imagination limited by what is possible. Wonder doesn’t do that. Instead, wonder sees the world God has made the miracles of healing and salvation in the community I serve as what they are products of God’s miraculous handiwork and my faithful service.  

We have to stop with our drive for innovation at all costs. If this pandemic has only taught us to innovate in delivering our religious goods, we have missed the purpose of this trial. We need not think the next frontier in the church is us having church on Zoom. Instead, we need to slow down and wonder. The only way we can expand our capacity to wonder is to begin to wonder and allow God to do his work in our church families and in us. When we “do anything short of sin to reach people,” it is easy to forget the wonder-working power of God, who is the author and finisher of our faith. 

We need to exult in monotony. 

Growing up Charismatic, one of the things we were implicitly taught was monotony was sinful. For example, written or repeated prayers were insincere, and they can be. But it wired me to believe that monotony was to be avoided at all costs, especially in all things having to do with our creative all-powerful spontaneous God. I have come to learn that monotony is not something that should be shunned but something we should aspire to. I learned this from teaching kids for over twenty years and from reading Orthodoxy by Chesterton. In Orthodoxy, Chesterton makes a powerful observation about children and the nature of God that I have been meditating on for days. He says this: 

“The thing I mean (speaking of monotony) can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again,”; and the grow-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.

But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.”

What a powerful picture of what Jesus meant when he said unless we become like a little child, we will never see the kingdom of heaven. Because unlike a little child we will not be satisfied with this life’s mundane plainness, we seek to build our own kingdom, one that has better bells and whistles. To exhult in monotony is something that takes strength of mind, not the simplicity of mind as we often think. 

We think that the goal of life and ministry is to come up with a better version of a daisy a daisy 2.0 if you will. God delights in the perfection of his creation so much that he never gets tired of making them. We think that the way forward for the church is for God to do a new thing. What we really need is for him to do an old thing again. We need him to send his spirit again, we need him to transform our hearts again, we need him to change our desires and our affections to match his…again. 

Our emergence from this pandemic and our new place as a minority status in culture will not be overcome through innovation but rather through a people of God captivated by the wonder of God able to rejoice in the beauty of monotony just like God. 

As the church emerges from the cocoon of this present trial, my prayer is that we do not try to remove our cocoon through artificial means. But allow God to do his work in us, and when he is done, to look with wonder at what he has done and say, “Do it again.” 

The War on Joy.

I love C.S. Lewis. He isn’t perfect. He had a few ideas that were a bit much for protestant me. Overall he was a genius. What made him so brilliant is his ability to take the complex and translate it into words and ideas that others could understand and repeat. When you really understand something, you move beyond the jargon, take the idea apart, and remove the unnecessary, so the truly important can shine through with greater clarity.

I love the Narnian Novels by Lewis. They are brilliant. They have so many themes within his other books and are completely relevant for our world today, almost 70 years later. Lewis fought in World War I and wrote this book only a few years after the end of World War II. He was painfully aware of fighting in the middle of winter without the ability to celebrate Christmas. When Lewis penned one of his most famous lines, he summed up how the world’s enduring suffering faced during the second world war with one line. “It’s always winter, never Christmas.”

This past year has felt like it is always winter, never Christmas. It feels as though there has been a spell put on the world that has frozen hearts, frozen dreams, and is desiring to freeze our joy. There is a war we are facing in our world today, and it is a war on Joy. True Joy everlasting Joy.

 The Weather

One of the central themes of the life of C.S. Lewis was that of joy. His autobiography is entitled “Surprised by Joy” He had much to say about Joy. It was the hope of what was to come for him and the real enjoyment that comes from understanding we have been forgiven. The Pevensie kids understood this in the gifts they were given. “All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still “about to be.” -C.S. Lewis (Interestingly, his wife’s name was also Joy).

The contrast between the Witch and Aslan at this point is one of the central themes of the first Narnian book. A key scene occurs in Chapter 11 when the Witch and Edmund are traveling through the woods in pursuit of the beavers and the other children. They happen upon “a merry party” made up of a squirrel family, two satyrs, a fox, and a Dwarf, seated at a table and enjoying a delicious holiday meal. The Witch is incensed and demands to know, “What is the meaning of all this gluttony, this waste, this self-indulgence?” When she discovers that the meal was a gift from Father Christmas, she turns the entire party into stone. The benefit of the scene is that it demonstrates that the Witch’s evil is not fundamentally about winter and cold weather, but about a deep-seated hostility to life, joy, and celebration.

Joe Rigney

The witch wanted nothing more than to see winter forever. Like Rigney says, her desire wasn’t about cold and winter. It was a deep hatred of joy of celebration of the newness of life. This wasn’t just about cold weather. It represented her hatred of joy the forward-looking hope even in winter. Which is why she made it always winter and never Christmas. 

The Fear of Death and Why You Should Stop Saying Stay Safe.

Fourteen years ago today, I was much younger and much more naive about life and God’s ways. I thought if I did the right thing, good things would happen every time. That if I said the right things, people would feel comfort and joy every time. I found out that God doesn’t work the way I think he should work. God is not tame, but he is good. I found out that the God we serve is not safe. All my life to that point, I thought he was safe, and the day I realized he was not safe was also the day I began to question if he was even good. 

How I have come to know God over the past decade and a half has changed the way I see him, the way I trust Him, and the way I see everything because of him. It is not an overstatement to say I was blind, but now I see. That day fourteen years ago, led to a chain of events that made me question the goodness of God; it led me to struggle with anxiety as a result of an overwhelming fear of dying. 

It was nearly two years of working through the implications of me thinking that if I pray enough, give enough and serve enough, good things will come from that as my payment from God because of my goodness. I had grown up in church my whole life, and I thought the gospel was for sinners, not for me. I thought God was in my debt because I hadn’t done anything wrong. I was angry fourteen years ago because I didn’t think God heard the prayers of a sweet family suffering far more than I ever had. I was angry because I prayed for a boy filled with more faith than I had ever had. He didn’t rise. I was angry with God because he owed me and wasn’t coming through when I was calling in my favors, eared through years and years of good behavior. 

I was a Pharisee. People look at Pharisees in the Bible and say they are religious zealots who don’t love God they love themselves. That isn’t so. They were some of the most outwardly perfect people you could ever imagine. A pattern of good behavior marked their understanding of life. They encountered Jesus, and he was not the Messiah they imagined. They killed Jesus because he was not and could not have been the God they had long-awaited. I was one of those. I had an idea of God that he always answered my prayers in the way I prayed them, He always did what I thought was right, that he is more pleased with me because of my goodness. I knew God but not his ways. 

It changed one day reading The Jesus Storybook Bible to one of my babies. I read how a woman who was a sinner came to Jesus and took the most important and expensive thing; she had a jar of perfume she broke it, and poured it on the feet of Jesus. The religious people thought this was a waste. It smelled like the lilies in the summer field. It wasn’t a waste. They were mad at God’s kindness to this sinner. They thought Jesus should not be kind to her. “That woman is a sinner!” they grumbled. “We’re the good ones,” God spoke to me as I was reading that to my child and said, that’s you. I knew God but not the ways of God. 

Jesus Calms the Storm

My favorite artist is Rembrandt because of his story, his use of biblical imagery, and the fact he places himself in the paintings he paints. This is what good art does it envelopes you; it swallows you and emerges you into its story. My favorite painting of his is the Return of the Prodigal Son. It’s been the background on my iPhone for four or five years now. I put it on my phone because I wanted to be daily reminded that I am prone to wander like the son, that I growing up in the church and never leaving home left home on my heart, and lastly, I’m called to be the father who loves both those who have wandered far from home and those who have wandered while never leaving home. The gospel points out my sin points me to Christ, and redirects me to run toward sinners.

The Return Of The Prodigal Son

I recently replaced it for the time being with Christ calms the storm. A painting that depicts arguably the best depiction of God’s trust in His Father and our trust in ourselves in all of scripture.

The biblical scene pitches nature against human frailty – both physical and spiritual. The panic-stricken disciples struggle against a sudden storm, and fight to regain control of their fishing boat as a huge wave crashes over its bow, ripping the sail and drawing the craft perilously close to the rocks in the left foreground. One of the disciples succumbs to the sea’s violence by vomiting over the side. Amidst this chaos, only Christ, at the right, remains calm, like the eye of the storm. Awakened by the disciples’ desperate pleas for help, he rebukes them: “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?” and then rises to calm the fury of wind and waves. Nature’s upheaval is both cause and metaphor for the terror that grips the disciples, magnifying the emotional turbulence and thus the image’s dramatic impact.

Michael Zell
Jesus Calms The Sea of Galilee

There are many ironic elements of this masterpiece. The first is the fact it was stolen in 1990 from the Isabella Gardener Museum in Boston. Most experts believe it to be the work of organized crime to be used as ransom to free jailed crime bosses. The irony is that since it was taken, there has been wave after wave of stolen peace in our lives and in our countries collective experience. I do not believe that the theft precipitated our lack of collective peace. It is only a cultural artifact that points to our loss of peace by righting our ship on our terms.

How Do I Start Over After COVID?

In my last blog post, I mentioned that because of the devastating effects of the quarantine, the ongoing fears, and challenges of COVID, we have to start over. So many of us assumed that this was a temporary pause, but it seems that it is more than that. It seems to be a long term pause. It seems that we are not going to be able to go back to normal, I think we are going to have to start over.

I shared a few things I think we are going to have to do in Youth and Kids ministry to start over well. I don’t like to say new normal because I think it’s more a recalibration in every area of life. During the past six months, I have seen many people do this well. They have reassessed their lives and moved closer to family and spent more time with family. I have also seen others who have struggled and have turned to toxic relationships and substances to find peace in the middle of the madness we presently find ourselves.

So the question I want to tackle to today is How do I start over? How do we make the changes necessary in our lives and in our local communities of faith.

How Do I Start Over?

1. Read your Bible and Pray – This isn’t just a token response. Nothing will change you or your ministry like the Word of God. In times that are uncertain when we don’t know what to do, we say this “We don’t know what to do but God our eyes are on you.” Often times we look for clever ideas we turn to innovation rather than humbling ourselves in prayer to God for wisdom and grace to lead. J.C. Ryle on his brief book on prayer says this:

There is everything on God’s part to make prayer easy, if men will only attempt it. All things are ready on His side. Every objection is anticipated. Every difficulty is provided for. The crooked places are made straight, and the rough places are made smooth. There is no excuse left for the prayerless man. There is a way by which any man, however sinful and unworthy, may draw near to God the Father. Jesus Christ has opened that way by the sacrifice He made for us upon the cross. The holiness and justice of God need not frighten sinners and keep them back. Only let them cry to God in the name of Jesus, – only let them plead the atoning blood of Jesus, – and they shall find God upon a throne of grace, willing and ready to hear. The name of Jesus is a never-failing passport to our prayers. In that name, a man may draw near to “God with boldness, and ask with confidence. God has engaged to hear him. Reader, think of this. Is this not encouragement?

J.C. Ryle

2. Read old authors – There is no such thing as a new problem. There can be a new problem to us. But there is nothing new under the sun. Why old authors are helpful is they faced everything we are facing but did so without the blinders we presently have. Modern people turn to modern people to find their way out and its the blind leading the blind. We need old voices to help us with our “new” problems. one great example of this is Martin Luther addressing his critics during the Great Plague. He explains his actions and the actions of those around him with pastoral wisdom that is helpful then and is helpful now.

Others sin on the right hand. They are much too rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague. They disdain the use of medicines; they do not avoid places and persons infected by the plague, but lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are. They say that it is God’s punishment; if he wants to protect them he can do so without medicines or our carefulness. That is not trusting God but tempting him. . . .

No, my dear friends, that is no good. Use medicine; take potions which can help you; fumigate house, yard, and street; shun persons and places where your neighbor does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like a man who wants to help put out the burning city. What else is the epidemic but a fire which instead of consuming wood and straw devours life and body? You ought to think this way: “Very well, by God’s decree the enemy has sent us poison and deadly offal. Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid persons and places where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me, and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above. See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.” 

Martin Luther

This is the response we need in COVID one that avoids the pitfalls in the media and mankind. We must not be brash or foolish we must love our neighbor at risk of our very life and we must not tempt God. You can read his complete response entitled Whether One May Flee a Deadly Plague.

3. We need voices outside our normal circle who love the church enough to tell us the truth. – You need a coach. Everyone needs a coach. If Aaron Judge needs a hitting coach if Michael Phelps needed a swimming coach, you need a ministry coach. There are lots of good ones out there full disclosure. I am starting a Youth Pastor Family Pastor ministry cohort this fall through Gospel at Center. My friend Jenny Smith is starting one for kids’ ministry people. Another friend of mine, Jared Kennedy, is starting one as well. Find a coach to get an outside perspective because you need one to change the right things in the right way for the right reason.

Starting over doesn’t mean we go back to the same old same old. It means that we must turn to God for wisdom, learn from our past, and lean on each other.