Monday, June 12, 2017

Do You Expect Miracles?

Are your prayers like mine? When I pray to ask the Lord for something I find myself expecting a miracle. But let’s real. Miracles are rare. Even in Bible times they were rare. If they weren’t rare then they wouldn’t be a miracle. So, if millions of people are praying and looking for a miracle, that probably means that millions of people are looking for something they will never receive. I know that sounds terrible, but that’s the way it is. Let me reword that so it is clear. Because miracles are so rare, you will probably live your whole life and never see one. And if your prayers are like mine and you pray hoping that the Lord will answer through a miracle that means you are going to experience a lot of “unanswered” prayer.

That may be why so many of us don’t fully appreciate the value of prayer. We set ourselves up for failure by praying for God to do things he isn’t going to do. He’s not going to miraculously make the traffic in front of us disappear. He’s not going to miraculously deposit our friends and neighbors in a pew at church. He not going to miraculously give us a new car, no matter how much we need one. He probably isn’t going to miraculously heal those people on the church prayer list. Some of them might even die. So why pray if it isn’t going to result in God stepping in and miraculously changing stuff for the better?

Some people try to explain away this problem by saying that prayer is about changing our attitude rather than it resulting in God taking action. I find that view very disappointing. Besides that, it doesn’t explain why Moses could pray and prevent God from destroying Israel or why Jesus prayed. Do we really thing Jesus needed an attitude adjustment? And why should we pray for each other if it is just about adjusting our attitude? Isn’t it the person we are praying for who needs the attitude adjustment more than we do?

Natural Answers

The keyword here is “miraculous.” We tend to assume that for God to hear and answer our prayer that he has to cause a miracle in our lives. We also tend to think that if something occurs naturally then it would’ve happened anyway. But why think that? If God knows what we will pray (and he does) then there’s nothing to prevent him from putting natural events in play even centuries in advance of our prayer so that we will receive what we ask.

This may explain why prayer studies fail. You’ve probably heard of prayer studies in which the patients in one hospital will be prayed for but those in another aren’t. The goal is to see if prayer changes things. Usually you see no significant difference between the group that was prayed for and the group that wasn’t. But that is what we might expect if God is answering prayer through natural events. It rains on the just and the unjust. If someone is praying for the healing of someone in the hospital, God may have trained up a doctor to help that person, but in the meantime that doctor is going to help a bunch of people who haven’t been prayed for. If a farmer prays for rain, the rain may come, but the story that the Lord prepared may drop a lot of water in other areas before it reaches the farmer.

Delayed Answers

We see an interesting account given in Daniel chapter ten. Daniel sees a vision and he is so moved by it that he is sick. He is in mourning for three weeks. Then an angel appears. The angel tells him that he had been sent three weeks earlier by he had been delayed and would have been delayed even longer if Michael hadn’t come to help him. I’ve often wondered about that. God could have cleared the way for the angel, but he didn’t. Instead we see the angel facing a very natural situation. This seems to indicate that when we pray or have a need that God does something quickly but it may take some time for the natural events to unfold.

Praying So God Will Answer

If God isn’t going to answer through a miracle then we need to pray for things that the Lord is willing to do. If our car stops working we shouldn’t expect God to just fix it but we should look for the Lord to provide us with a mechanic. If a friend has cancer, we should pray for that person but we should expect the Lord to answer by providing good doctors.

Many people pray for church growth. We know it is in the will of God, so it seems like there is no reason why the Lord shouldn’t answer it, but people don’t show up. If they do show up, they may not come back. Instead of a miracle, our expectation should be that the Lord will use us to answer that prayer. The answer may come in a person having courage to invite people to church. Maybe they have wisdom to see what is needed to get people interested.

Seeing Answered Prayer

On more than one occasion I have prayed some silly prayer on my way home from work and by the time I got home I had received what I had asked for. Sometimes I have almost forgotten what I prayed for and I still received it. It used to bother me that it seemed like the Lord was quicker to answer my silly prayers than he was my serious prayers. Now I’ve about decided that it has to do more with the things that I’m looking for in answered prayer than an actual difference. I’m more likely to notice the silly prayer being answered than the serious prayer because a natural solution stands out more with silly prayers. The answers may come more quickly because there are fewer things that have to happen before the prayer can be answered.

God knows what we will pray before we pray it, so natural answers to prayer make sense. Though it may seem like we are praying for something that would’ve happened anyway, there’s no reason to think that. By looking for the Lord to answer our prayers but to do so without miracles we have all the more reason to see answered prayer. Had we not prayed his actions would’ve been different. He would’ve prepared something different to happen. Our prayers really do change things.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Why People Don't Want a Friendly Church

On Facebook I posted a quote without context. It was interesting that people took it in so many different ways. I didn’t tell them who I was quoting or what the person was talking about when he said it. It may be beneficial for me to add some context. The quote? “People aren’t looking for a friendly church; they are looking for friends.” [1]

Without context people will read their own assumptions into this statement. For example, there are plenty of churches that want to be known as a “friendly church.” Many churches think they are friendly whether they are or not. So, a person at one of these “friendly churches” might take this statement as saying that the reason people don’t want to be at church is because they would rather hang with their friends. Or they might read something into the “friend” part of the statement and assume that the “friend” is Jesus. Neither of those had anything to do with why I posted the statement.

I was looking at some articles about growing a Sunday school class and that included an article on church growth by Josh Hunt who quoted Rick Warren. The statement resonated with me because I am terrible at being “friendly.” It’s not from lack of desire or from a lack of trying, I’m just bad at it. I have friends who say things like, “I have to force myself to be friendly.” Yeah, I tried that and I can’t seem to get it to work. But there’s more to it than just me trying to give up trying to be friendly.

When we think of someone who is friendly, we think of someone who is kind and pleasant. We think of someone who has a quick smile and who always asks things like, “How are you this morning?” If you’re looking for a greeter, that’s the kind of person you want standing at the front door. But it gets more interesting when you ask yourself, “Are my friends friendly?” All of them? If you think about it, I’m sure you can think of at least one friend who isn’t “friendly.” Oh, they may be friendly to you, but you know them well enough to know that they are rude at times, especially with people they don’t know. So, keeping that person in mind, ask yourself, “Would I rather go to church with a bunch of friendly strangers or with my unfriendly friend?”

A friend isn’t necessarily friendly because what we look for in friends are those people who will spend time with us, who will come to our aid at a moment’s notice, who have things in common with us. Sure, it’s nice to have a friendly face greet you at the door. It’s nice to have a person seated in the row in front of you turn around and strike up a conversation with you, be we all know those are fleeting things. They’ll turn their attention to their friends and forget about you. What people really want to find is people who are willing to bring them into their lives.

That is much easier said than done. For some people, being friendly comes easily and they are friendly to everyone they meet, but no one is able to develop deep lasting friendships with everyone they meet. Even Jesus had people he was closer to than others. That is just part of life.

When it comes to church growth, being friendly isn’t a bad thing, but people don’t stay at a church just because there are friendly people there. People are more likely to stay at a church if they have close friends there. People are more likely to join a church if they have friends and family there. And if they don’t’ have friends there when they first attend, they are more likely to join if there are people who include them in their circle of friends.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Are You a Half-man?

In stories we often see a character known as the “half-man.” This character may or may not be person, but I always think of a man sitting on the ground with his legs cut off. The purpose of this character is to give strength to the villain. The half-man does this by telling the protagonist about how he faced the villain and was defeated. The stronger the half-man appears to be the more powerful the villain and the greater the challenge the protagonist faces when he must test his own strength against the villain. One of my favorite half-men is Rock Biter in The Neverending Story. This character is a mountain of a character who causes the earth to quake when he walks, but the protagonist finds him sitting on the ground looking at his powerful hands because they weren’t strong enough to keep The Nothing from snatching his friends away.

But a half-man can be as simple as an image or a symbol. Suppose our protagonist is walking through a forest and he finds a human skull on a stake. We know nothing of the half-man this skull belongs to other than he was human. What purpose does this image serve? Without saying the words, the message to all who reach this spot is “Turn back, now!” That is the message of all half-men. “You cannot defeat the villain, so don’t even try.”

The thing about protagonists is that they don’t listen. You will never find a story in which the protagonist doesn’t face the villain because he was warned away by the half-man. Perhaps it is because he doesn’t trust the half-man. Perhaps it is because the cost of turning back is too great. If we remove the fourth wall, we know that the real reason is because that would be the end of the story. We have ninety more pages to write, we can’t let the protagonist give up just because he encountered a half-man.

So, why are half-men such important story elements and why do they strengthen the villain so much? Because in real life we encounter half-men all the time and unlike the protagonists in our stories we take their advice and we give up. For example, you might encounter someone who says, “I’ve tried to lose weight, but nothing works. It probably doesn’t matter anyway. I’ve heard that 90% of the people who lose weight gain it all back anyway.” Their words discourage you and you may find yourself giving up your own attempt to lose weight. Giving up is a realistic option for the protagonist even though we know he won’t.

Though the half-man is important in stories, we don’t want to be a half-man in real life. Unfortunately, that tends to be our default. We face the villain. We fail. We give up and then begin to tell other people why they will be defeated as well. By doing this, we give strength to the enemy that defeated us. But not all defeated characters are half-men. When we see a character gathering forces for a second attempt at defeating the villain, he is not a half-man (unless it is obvious his attempts will fail). In life, we will be defeated more times than we care to admit, but what are we going to do? Are we going to sit on the ground telling everyone we can that we failed and they will too? Or are we going to assess the situation and gather resources to break through the armor of the villain?

Friday, March 24, 2017

Dying Malls and Dying Churches

She left a comment in response to mine in agreement with what I said and yet it changed my point of view. The original post was about a mall that like so many is dying. Once the crown jewel of the community, only a few retailers remain to keep the lights on. The article was talking about the owners of the mall looking for ways to innovate. My comment was that all malls are dying and that it is because of online shopping, but I don’t think brick and mortar is dead because mixed use properties that combine living, retail, entertainment, etc. have advantages that even thirty-minute delivery from Amazon.com can’t compete with. Online retail will never be able to compete with the spontaneous purchases made by someone walking past a store window. But her comment added something to the list that I hadn’t really considered, churches.

We all know that churches are struggling right now and those of us involved in church leadership spend a great deal of time thinking about how we can get more people involved at our church. Even though it is a similar problem to what retail stores are experiencing, we don’t link the two because we know that Amazon.com is the problem for retail stores and Amazon.com doesn’t have a church (yet). So even if we accept that retail stores shouldn’t be asking this question, we keep right on asking the question, “How can we get more people to drive to where we are?” We think retail stores shouldn’t ask that question because people don’t have to drive at all if they order online. Maybe we shouldn’t be asking that concerning churches either.

Imagine you’re a lost person. You believe there is a God. There must be, right? Church seems like the place to figure this out, but you couldn’t care less about whether the church is Baptist, or Catholic, or Presbyterian, or non-denominational. You don’t know about these things. Who cares what they put on their church sign? And who really cares what kind of songs they sing? You don’t know the songs anyway. It’s all strange to you. So here are some things you probably aren’t going to do. You probably aren’t going to follow sign on the highway that points off down a gravel road toward a church. You probably aren’t going to show up at this big huge building that looks kind of like a shopping mall that is only open on Sunday. And those smaller buildings? Why would you just show up? Do people do that kind of thing? Is that considered okay or would people look at you funny?

Churches are actually dealing with the same thing that retail stores are. The problem isn’t Amazon.com. The root of the problem is that people don’t want to deal with the hassle. Amazon.com has just found a way to provide a solution. People don’t want to sit in traffic getting to the store, then have to fight their way through the aisles looking for a product, only to discover the store no longer has it in stock, then wait in the checkout line to purchase the things they did find, and then fight the traffic going home. Just order online and the problem is solved. But we are asking people to do some of these same things when they attend church. Sit in traffic getting there, deal with a crowd of people they don’t know, sit through songs they don’t know, then sit through a sermon that has no content, and then fight the traffic going home.

What if we put a church in one of these retail/residential developments? Now we’re not asking people to drive anywhere. Their car is already parked on the property, or maybe they show up while on their Sunday morning jog or bicycle ride. They walk past our front door on the way to breakfast or on their way to dinner. We’re going to put a greeter outside the front door ready to hand out flyers, invite people inside, and answer any questions they may have. We’re going to have big plate glass windows so that people can see what we are doing. It may look strange at first, but after a few Sundays of walking past, it’s going to seem normal. We’re going to put up big signs telling about the various activities and those activities are going to be age appropriate for the community we are in. We might even offer them free donuts and coffee. And what about the rest of the week? If we’re smart, we’ll keep the doors open during the times the retail shops are open. Maybe we have some classes or small groups that meet onsite during the week. Maybe it’s just a couple of staff members part of the time. But people living there or visiting the shops should be able to expect that when they need answers that only God can provide they need only show up, open the door, and they will find someone who can point them in the right direction.

What are your thoughts? Do you think this would work? Why or why not?

Monday, January 9, 2017

Churches Separated by Age

I skipped church the other day, but this isn’t about that. Instead it is about age group separation. I read an article that suggested that maybe the reason young people leave the church is because they were never a part of the church in the first place. We start them out in the nursery because who wants to hear crying babies in a worship service. Then we move them into Children’s Church because they would just be bored in worship. Then they go into the Youth Group. So when they reach adulthood “church” is very different from what they are familiar with. I can buy into that as being a problem, but what do we do about it and what does that have to do with me skipping church?

On Wednesday night our church is broken into several different groups. I am one of the Awana leaders, but because of Christmas break, Awana and Fear One (youth) weren’t meeting. That left one available activity, the Wednesday evening prayer meeting. Because the young people meet in other groups the Wednesday night prayer meeting is primarily a meeting of the Senior Citizens. (Shh! Don’t tell anyone I said that.) It isn’t like we want to label it that because we want to tell people that we have a place for everyone, but it is what it is. They seem to enjoy it, but I struggle with it because after nine hours of sitting at a desk my sitting ability is shot. The very thought of sitting in a meeting listening to an hour long lecture is about like fingernails on a chalkboard. I literally dread the summer months when Awana doesn’t meet.

When we consider a solution to the problem of separating age groups our natural tendency is to think that we just need to bring the young people into the worship service. We have this idea that we have “church” and then we have these groups of young people that are meeting separately. But that’s not the case. Instead of church and two ministries what we actually have are three age separated ministries. Just because one of those ministries is meeting in the auditorium, singing songs and hearing a sermon doesn’t mean they are “church” and the other are not. It isn’t reasonable to expect that we can combine the children’s ministry and the youth ministry with the senior adult ministry and just keep doing what the senior adult ministry does each week.

Visually I saw a representation of the situation when our church did Lifeword Sunday. We met outside one Sunday evening and had a 5k walk/run. The young people were running and participating in various activities, but most of the senior citizens had arranged their chairs in rows like they were ready to have church. I didn’t spend much time over there. I’m sure they did a lot of talking and had a good time, but there was no mutual interaction. If there young people had been forced to sit in those chairs they would’ve been miserable. If the older people had been forced to participate in the activities they would’ve been miserable.

One of the things that happens when we separate by age group is that the younger groups tend to play games and the older groups tend to be spectators. There is something to be said for young people having time in which they sit and learn, but also something to be said for older people becoming more physically active. I could see both of these occurring if we could find ways to merge the age groups, even if occasionally.

What that might look like is this: For a game at a church picnic people are split into teams. Each team is made up of one child, one teenager, one senior citizen, and someone who is in between. The teams are given a challenge to complete that involves runners retrieving balls with Bible questions on them. These questions would be things that most children would not know the answer to and might require looking them up in the Bible to get the correct answer. The team that answers the most questions in the shortest amount of time would win. The key thing here is that each team member would have strengths that would benefit the team, but weaknesses that would require them to rely on team members in a different age group.

But it’s not just about playing games. Why can’t we do something similar with our worship services and ministries? Why don’t we give children and teen church members responsibilities that are suitable to their development level? I don’t mean having them shadow adults as they do ministry (though that’s not a bad thing). I mean give them real responsibility. Maybe put a child in charge of making sure that the offering plates are where they need to be every Sunday morning and evening. Maybe find one who shows up early and make them responsible for making sure the hymnals are straight and there are offering envelopes in every rack before the service. As for teenagers, a lot of the stuff adults do could be done by teenagers if we would just let them. There are other things that they can’t do yet, but we can teach them now so that they are ready to take on those tasks when they are old enough.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Real World Facebook

We laugh when people talk about treating people in the real world like we do on Facebook. One such post begins, “every day I walk down the street and tell passers-by what I have eaten, how I feel at the moment, what I have done the night before, what I will do later and with whom.” The post continues with other things and ends by saying, “I already have four people following: two police officers, a private investigator and a psychiatrist.” Yes, we laugh, but what if we really did apply the same principles that we use on Facebook to the world outside?
Suppose your car won’t start one morning and you decide to take the city bus to work. While you’re waiting at the bus stop you see a stranger approach the bus stop. You make eye contact and you say, “Good morning. How are you?”
The stranger replies, “I’m fine. How are you?”
“Good, but my car wouldn’t start this morning. Now I’m going to be late for work.”
“My wife went to see her mother, so I’ve been without a car all week.”
“Have you been cooking for yourself this week?”
“No, I’ve been eating out.”
“Nothing wrong with that.”
This conversation isn’t farfetched, but here are two strangers who have within moments of meeting each other talked about what they have eaten, how they feel, what they have done, and what they will do later. It ends with an affirmation (a like, if you will) for what one of the people has said.
It isn’t that doing the things we do on Facebook would be so strange if we did them in the real world but we’ve isolated ourselves so much in the real world that we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to do these things. I find it interesting that people talk about what they would do if they “walked down the street.” It isn’t that people don’t do the things they do on Facebook, but people don’t “walk down the street.” Instead, they get in their cars and drive from one parking space to another. They see many cars, but few people. There is no communication between cars. Once people reach their destination they might talk to other people, but mostly they assume that other people don’t want to communicate with them. Then they get in their cars and drive home where they lock themselves inside and contemplate how unrealistic Facebook is.
Imagine how different it would be if we would remove the shell. Imagine if we gave ourselves opportunities to talk to people, even if we just talked about eating at a favorite restaurant or at one that we hated. Imagine if we removed the glass bubble. Imagine knowing your neighbors by face if not by name. Imagine having a conversation with someone just because they happened to be standing or sitting near you. Imagine expecting this to happen every day. This is what we would really have if we applied the principles of Facebook to the real world.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Why I Ride to Church


I’ve been riding my bicycle to church. If you’re wondering why I would do that, so am I. The thing is, I can think of all kinds of reasons as to why other people should ride their bicycle to church. Probably the most important reason is that it creates opportunities for interaction between the church and the members of the community around it. When you’re in a car, people might see that you are headed to church but they will never speak to you and you will never speak to them. At no point will you ever say, “Come and go to church with me.” Of course there are other reasons like it being good for your health or it freeing up parking for guests or getting your brain in gear before you participate in corporate worship. But none of these reasons are the reason I’ve been riding my bicycle to church.

Those are great reasons and I tell myself that I should be more concerned about those things than what I am, but the real reason I’ve been riding my bicycle to church is because I can. What’s the use of being able to do something if you don’t do it? I have lots of people tell me that they aren’t able to ride a bicycle more than a short distance. I don’t know if they believe they can’t ride a bicycle, but they may be right. Years of sitting around too much and eating too much has resulted in people who can hardly move their own weight around. But there’s more to being able to ride to church than being able to balance on two wheels while pedaling.

The ability to ride a bicycle for transportation is as much about the knowledge of how to get from one place to another as it is about the physical ability. Riding a bicycle requires less effort than walking. If you can walk one mile, you can ride a bicycle four. But there’s a significant difference between riding a bicycle around the block and back to your house and riding to a destination. First, there may be things that you need to carry with you. Once you get to your location, you probably want to lock your bicycle, so a bike lock is required. For longer distances you might need to carry water.

Also, there is the question of what roads to ride. Many people assume that they will ride a bicycle along the same roads that they follow when in a car. Many of the roads that are ideal for cars are the least suitable for bicycles. Finding alternate routes may require some research. Sometimes an alternate route is just a street that runs parallel to a road, but often you will find that roads cut through areas where streets are not connected.

I suppose there’s something about being able to do something that many other people can’t. Of course it is easier to get into a motor vehicle to get to the destination, but where’s the fun in that?