Tag Archives: Reggie McNeal

Are we willing to ask the difficult questions?


As the world continues to change at a dynamic pace and the church continues to attempt to minister faithfully in that changing world it will force us to ask difficult questions, questions that reach right to the heart of our identity. One of the earliest questions we learn as toddlers is “why?” and I think that as the church continues to evaluate what we are called to do going forward we need to be willing to go back and ask that question of why are we doing the things we are doing. Do we even understand why we do many of the actions and say many of the things we do? I am convinced that there is a lot of wisdom in the actions that have been passed down from generation to generation-but if we are unable to ask the why questions what was passed down as a tradition, which to use Jaroslav Pelikan’s famous way of talking about it is the living faith of the dead, can calcify into traditionalism, which Pelikan referred to as the dead faith of the living. Our actions do have meanings but if we find ourselves going through the motions do we have a dead faith? What is the end that we are seeking?
Even Protestant Christians rested for a long time on Cyprian of Carthage’s( a 3rd Century Catholic Bishop) famous dictum “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus” (No salvation outside the church) if not in theology in practice. People came to church because it was a way of earning their salvation (and what people mean by salvation may differ widely, but that is a topic for another time). Attendance in worship was something that people were expected to do, now certainly not everyone attended all the time but there was a societal expectation to attend worship. I remember one of my instructors in Marriage and Family Dynamics at the University of Central Oklahoma whose father had been a minister and who had members of the mob in his community who were at worship every Sunday. That expectation is no longer there in society, and officially in most protestant churches it has not been theologically there since the time of Luther, and so in a time of change maybe we need to be willing to ask the difficult questions of what are people getting out of the time they spend in worship. Reggie McNeal, who I have referred to in other posts, tells of a time when he had to confront the question:

I remember it as if it were yesterday, even though it was over twenty years ago. We had just comleted a midweek leader luncheon at the two-year-old church where I served as founding pastor. Everyone else had left the building. I sat alone in the fellowship hall And the Lord spoke to me. It was in the form of a question: “Are people better off for being a part of this church, or are they just tireder and poorer?” …The question bothered me. A lot. Not only did I not know the answer, I feared knowing! (McNeal 2009, 89)
I am convinced that worship has meaning, that the church as an organization has a purpose and meaning, that we have a mission and things that God calls us to be a part of in the world. Yet, I am also aware that sometimes it is so easy to become distracted by things that are not important. Working my way through Jeremiah, like I am currently, you can’t help but see the disconnect between the cultic practice of the people of Jerusalem in Jeremiah’s time and the ways in which they were not living out of God’s vision of shalom (peace, harmony). If we are merely coming to worship out of a sense of duty, doing the same things we have always done then perhaps we are just tireder and poorer, perhaps it is a traditionalism, a dead faith of the living and God is doing what God does in the midst of death. God is creating new life!
There is meaning in the things that we do, the words that we say, but ultimately our work should be an expression of love. The two great commandments, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” should be at least one of the ends of our worship-to help us to learn to love. In a world where spirituality and our religious lives have become one segment of our increasingly busy lives perhaps we as church leaders and members need to be asking questions on how our worship and our investment of time and resources are helping us integrate who we are as people of faith into the rest of our lives. It will not be an easy transition, but the bible itself is concerned with life much more than it is with afterlife. We may be the people who to use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s language from his Letters and Papers from Prison are keeping the archane disciplines-these ancient practices that help us make sense of our faith and our lives-in a world that has come of age. As faithful people and congregations we will continue to wrestle with the difficult questions of how to be faithful in our time and place, and hopefully in the midst of that wrestling we will be shaped by the love of the one we come together to worship so that we may be a blessing to the world we are called to serve.

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Have We Made The Church Into A Gated Community?


The church has sometimes been compared to a country club when it becomes primarily a social activity, but as I have become aware of some of the broader trends in the church over the past generation I began to realize that this derogatory reference missed the point. You see a country club is a social and entertainment function, and while it may connect with work and family it often remains one isolated segment, but one of the major movements in Christianity has tried to become something much more. When I first started thinking about this my first thought was to use the term ghetto, which Wikipedia defines as “a part of the city where a minority group lives, especially due to social, legal or economic pressures.” But the more I thought about it, the more I realized the inadequacy of this provocative term because the church is not a minority group, and unlike minority groups in a ghetto which may not have a choice to reside within the area they are confined to, the church has over the past 30 years increasingly walled itself off from the outside world. Many processes of developing a culture of the programmatic church have become more and more church-centric, where we train people to participate in church activities which are separated from the rest of their life in the world, where people can listen to exclusively Christian music, watch authorized Christian television and videos, read Christian approved books, shop in Christian bookstores, date on exclusively Christian matching sites and become more and more isolated from the rest of the culture that has little or no interest in the predominantly conservative Christian sub-culture. It is a mindset where the rest of the world is filled with evil influences and it is a church against culture mindset that has been manipulated and played by both media and political forces for their own gain. As Reggie McNeal insightfully states:

The idea of what it meant to be Christian became synonymous with what it meant to be a committed church person. Further, the measure of personal devotion to God was the degree of one’s separation from the world outside the church. This meant centering one’s life on the church and its activities, usually pulling away from people who weren’t willing to do the same. The primary focus of evangelism was converting people to the church culture. (McNeal 2009, 42f)

We have created our own gated community, a place where we can stay and not have to venture out into the world very much. More and more portions of the Christian church have pulled away from the rest of the world in a reaction of fear. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way, nor was it ever meant to be this way but this is not new, it has been a process that has taken place over the long history of the Christian church. Until recently mission work entailed converting the people you were doing mission work among to not only Christianity but also the broader culture that the missionaries were coming from and the work became linked with colonialism to the point where the “three C’s of colonialism” were Christianity, commerce and civilization. (Bosch 1991, 305)

Perhaps there have been moments in time where a predominantly Christian in title civilization existed, although I have yet to see a civilization truly based on love of God and neighbor, and perhaps many long deeply to a return to some mythic Christian age, but the reality is that we live in a thoroughly secular age in a pluralistic and post-modern world. There is an increasing sense that at least some churches have moved to a footing of church against culture, rather than openly going out and engaging the culture the is out there in the world. Success in this view of church meant creating ‘full-service’ churches with exercise gyms, day cares, schools and coffee bars. Now there is nothing wrong with any of these things and in a purely attractional model of church where people see what is going on and they naturally want to be a part of this it sounds great. But what happens when people don’t want to live in gated communities with homeowners associations? What happens when the people within the gated communities view the outside world as a danger? What happens is isolation.

The other problem is that the gated community model of church looks very unchristian, at least as far as it relates to Christ.  When Christ was constantly moving beyond the boundaries of what the religious people of his own day considered acceptable, and the early church found itself being pushed farther and farther out into the world, much of contemporary Christianity has been content to shelter behind its own wall creating bigger and better programs. Unfortunately Reggie McNeal hits on the head some of the things I have heard from people outside the church:

The program driven church has produced a culture that is despised, not just ignored, by people outside the church. Their antipathy for what we call Christianity exists for all the wrong reasons. Basically it comes down to our failure to demonstrate the love of Jesus, passing by people not like us on the other side of the road on our way to building great churches. (McNeal 2009, 93)

Many of the things that we do as church are very good things, and I am fortunate to serve a congregation that is increasingly active in the midst of the world—but as a programmatic church we do struggle with this. How do we begin to shift the measurement from how much time people spend doing church activities within the walls of our church to the manner in which their time within the walls of our congregation equips them to be a blessing to the world around them. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his followers:

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. (Matthew 5: 13)

Salt is not just for seasoning, in Jesus’ time salt was for the preservation of foods-but it only preserves if it is rubbed or somehow absorbed into the item that is being preserved. We may forget that it was predominantly the Pharisees as they were portrayed in the gospels who were worried about being contaminated by the outside world, that the contamination of the outside world would dilute their own righteousness. In Jesus we see just the opposite, a movement outward where holiness and righteousness become a blessing and transform those primarily kept on the outside of the walled cities of his time or excluded from the synagogues. Think on how many times a person who is unclean (like lepers or the woman with the flow of blood) or sinners and tax collectors are mentioned within the gospels. Perhaps we too need to learn how to take down the barriers we have set up to isolate ourselves and be willing to see where Christ is already at work in the midst of the rest of the world.

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