Thursday, July 29, 2010

Does the Quality of a Church effect the Commitment of its Members or Vice Versa?

Summer is winding down and our youth program is gearing up for kick-off of some fall ministries that have taken the summer off. It's been on my heart to see that our students start the year off with a deep sense of commitment to the program so that we can build some momentum to get the program rolling. So as I have thought about this the last few days, I have thought not just about our church's youth ministry, but how the principle of commitment applies to the church universal.
We live in a consumer society. If a company makes a good product, people will be loyal to that product. They may even buy that product even when they know it is not in their best interest to use or consume that product. For example, I love Dr. Pepper. I know that too much DP will make me fat, sluggish, and not sleep very well at night. But it tastes so good that I will have one on a fairly regular basis and try not to consume too much of it.

I think that is the mentality with which many of us approach church. If we like the pastor's sermons, or we like the music, or we like the people who attend their, we will move our membership to that church and will be loyal to that church so long as the pastor is preaching good sermons and the music remains enjoyable. Then when one of those factors changes, we are not as committed to the church because we are not "getting as much out of it" any more.

But what happens when our commitment to a church is not based on "what we get out of it"? What if the church is made up of people who are committed regardless and are there to serve the congregation any way they can? The only way to have a committed congregation is to have a congregation of committed individuals. When the people are collectively committed, the church has excitement, enthusiasm, direction, resources, and synergy.

I buy Dr. Pepper because it tastes good, and if they changed the way it tastes (anyone remember New Coke?), I would probably not buy it any more. But I've been in many churches that have lost a pastor or a key musician and have seen people leave the church because they felt it just wasn't the same any more. But when a congregation is made up of committed individuals, the church becomes less about the quality of the music and the rating of each sermon on a scale of 1 to 10, and it does become about what individuals can do to serve one another. The one hour of preaching and music each week is simply icing on the cake because people are taking opportunities throughout the week to be the body of Christ.

Don't misunderstand me. If your church has no vision and you are absolutely getting nothing out of it, it may be time to move on. But don't question how much you get out of your church until you've considered how much you put into it. What do you see as the major differences between committed and uncommitted congregations and members?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Commitment and the BIG MO in Youth Ministry

Summer is winding down and our youth group is getting ready to kick off our Sunday small group program in the fall. This program is not a new one, but we have taken the summer off since the majority of our students scattered like cockroaches when school let out--band camp, football camp, family vacation, going to stay with grandma for a week, etc. And so now we want to start strong and build consistency and momentum going into the school year.

I've been a player and fan of sports my entire life. The concept of momentum (the Big "Mo") is one that is debated among people in the sports world. Some will say that key plays during the course of a game have no effect on that team's ability to make more critical plays. Others, like me, though, believe that one key play can be a turning point. One key play can be what causes a team to realize they can actually score on the next possession, close the lead, and/or pull off the upset. Momentum is what makes it easier to push a rolling car than it is to push a car that is setting still (and is hopefully in neutral with nobody's foot on the brake!). So how do we get a new program rolling from a dead standstill? The answer is simple. Commitment.

I thought about how important it is that parents and students who participate in our program be committed from the beginning. For the first 4-6 weeks, we need to have everyone there. This is not the time for one last trip to the lake or that family vacation. (These things aren't bad, but they are detrimental to the re-establishment of any ministry program). I also examined the climate of the program, with and without the commitment of the students.

No Commitment:
Worship feels small, worshipers are timid
Adult volunteers are frustrated (waste of their time)
"Where is everybody?"
Discussion groups have little to no discussion
"Who else is coming?"

With Commitment:
More friends=more fun
Group discounts
Inviting visitors
Fun with friends
Discussion groups have more discussion
More relationships built
Worship is exciting
Students don't have to wait for the next big event to enjoy youth group
"I can't wait for Sunday/Wednesday night"
Synergy--The whole is greater than the sum of the parts

We live in a culture that doesn't honor commitment. With celebrities being known for being flakes and professional athletes whining over getting $4.5 million instead of $5 million, it's no wonder that commitment is not a mainstay of our students' lives. Some kids sign up for a sport or activity and decide halfway through the season they don't want to do it, parents often let them drop out. Or the kids join an activity only to have their coach or volunteer bail out because he or she doesn't have time. But I think commitment is important to God and should be to us.

In Exodus 16 the Israelites have been in the desert for several weeks and are running out of food. They miss the "pots of meat" and abundant food they had in the oppressive land of Egypt. So God provides manna (bread) from heaven that he requires them to gather daily. The crafty Israelites soon try to outsmart God and decide they will gather a surplus so they don't have to gather it daily. The Bible says that it became rotten and full of maggots. God wanted their daily dependence on him, and their daily commitment to trusting him.

Commitment in any ministry program can be a catch 22. You need active kids to get them committed and you need commitment to have active kids. So let's start this school year off as youth workers, parents, and students with expectations of being committed to our youth ministry this school year.

Monday, July 26, 2010

You Don't Have to Guess What I'm Against if You Know What I'm For

Last Friday night, my wife and I went to see Pat Green in Crockett, TX. While I have several of his CD's and have been a big fan of his music for a long time, I spent that afternoon raking hay on the tractor with his songs stuck in my head. While I like just about every song he's done, his most recent radio single really stuck with me. It is one of the few songs that he has recorded that he didn't write. The name of the song is "What I'm For" and here is what he has to say about recording it:

"One of two songs on the album that I didn’t write. It’s by Marc Beeson and Allen Shamlin. When my record company sends me songs -- and they literally send thousands -- my usual reaction is to throw up a little in my mouth. But both this song and “Let Me,” my producer brought to me. What stuck me about “What I’m For” was that it was all wheat, no chaff. I thought maybe the song was too perfect – I remember thinking anyone could have a hit of this song, but I really hope it’s me. "

Here is how the part of the song goes:

I'm for dusty pawn shop guitars
And boxers passed their prime
I'm for soakin' up the wisdom
When an old man speaks his mind.

I'm for laid off factory workers
When the wolf is at the door
You don't have to guess what I'm against
If you know what I'm for

Growing up in church, for some reason, I kind of took on a legalistic approach to Christianity. I kind of grew up with the mentality that following Christ was more about a list of "don'ts" than a list of "dos". You know, good Christians shouldn't swear, drink, smoke, gamble, (insert your favorite vices here). And somewhere along the way it clicked for me that following Christ is more about the things that we should be doing in the world, not the things we should be abstaining from. Likewise, the Christian community, unfortunately, has become a sounding board for all things negative. One thing liberal media has a heyday with is the way Christians are known for protesting, boycotting, and some who claim to be followers of Christ acting violently to express their opinions.

If you don't carefully read this post, it sounds like I'm saying that Christians should not be opinionated when it comes to immorality in the world or that Christians should be silent. Absolutely not! However, we need to be sure that we don't take a "fight fire with fire" approach to expressing our concerns. In Ephesians 4:1-16 Paul tells the church at Ephesus to be humble, gentle, patient, and to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit. He then says that God appointed some to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and become mature attaining the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. "14Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. 15Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. 16From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work."

Unfortunately, I think we as Christians have taken on the world's philosophies in dealing with things we don't agree with. Where is the love in a boycott or a protest? More often than not, I've found that these expressions are more attempts to reduce revenues for businesses and make certain people groups know where they stand in the eyes of "the church" and do very little to further the cause of Christ.

So what do we do? How do we combat the forces of evil in our world if it's not through picket signs or picking which stores we should give our business. Well, here's an idea. My wife works at a pregnancy center. She has never stood in protest at an abortion clinic. She's never sent hate mail to a doctor who provides abortion services. But she works for a center where they give counseling, education, maternity clothes, diapers, baby formula, and lots of other great stuff to young mothers and mothers-to-be. Maybe those of us who are concerned by the rise of the Gay/Lesbian movement and it's fast progression into what our culture views as normal, should be more like the people in this article.

I think the song says it all. If Christians support the things that Christ said we should be about, people will not have to worry about the things we are against, because we are spending all of our time and resources doing something about the issues at hand rather than making sure a negative voice is heard. "You won't have to guess what I'm against, if you know what I'm for."

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What is Our Motivation for Making a Difference in the World?

We are coming to the end of our summer blitz at the FUMC youth ministry. We have had two major mission camps and one church camp. Sunday morning during Sunday School, we talked about two types of mission projects. Hypothetically we said that we were going to do the exact same good deed for two different people. The first person would be grateful and excited about the work we were doing and the second could care less and would show very little interest in what we were there to do. So we made a chart with each job on one side and asked the students to tell how they would feel. So here is what we decided.
A grateful person would make them feel...
  • Like they had done something good for someone
  • Like their time had been well-spent
  • Happy

An ungrateful person would make them feel...
  • Like they had wasted their time
  • Like the good they had done in the world didn't matter
  • Angry
  • Frustrated

Three years ago, I got to go to New Orleans with a group of people from our church. We spent 4 1/2 days working on houses that had been ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. Many of us went down there with the expectation that we would meet grateful people who were glad we had traveled over 400 miles over the course of 8 hours and brought all kinds of tools with us so that we could help them out. Well, in hour week of work at two different houses, we never met either home owner. We worked strictly with UMCOR, and our contacts there who had purchased materials and coordinated the work done at each site.

While there are a myriad of circumstances that may have prevented the homeowners from dropping by to say "thank you", we left feeling like the last set of bullet points. So in our Sunday School lesson, we looked at the story of the Good Samaritan from Luke 10:25-37. In that story, there is no mention of the victim's gratitude towards the Good Samaritan. The assistance that the Samaritan provides is not conditional on the gratitude of the person in need. So if this is our model, what is our motivation for doing good things in the world? Do we help others because we truly want to serve God regardless of the end result? Or are we motivated by a feel-good emotion when someone cries in desperate gratitude because we were able to come in on a white horse and save the day? What are your thoughts on the things that we do in the world to make a positive difference?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Should Christians Be Patriotic?

I know this post is late since America's 234th birthday was 4 days ago. But I've been seeing blog posts here and there (like this one and this one ) questioning patriotism. People also question whether or not it is right for us to sing patriotic hymns in church services and to celebrate our freedom. And maybe the overall climate of our country and our Christianity is changing. Maybe it's because many of us would rather riot in the streets over a soccer game than peacefully cheer for our team at a baseball game? Maybe it's because we would rather get our theology from U2 and Bruce Springsteen rather than those who have been more up front about their faith, rather than putting it under the guise of pop culture. Maybe we've become so politically correct that we are not being good global citizens if we think we live in the greatest country on earth?
I also understand that there are those who want to make their faith in God and their loyalty to America one and the same-and they are not. As Christians we should have loyalty to God above any other loyalties that we have-country, family, job, cultural heritage, even to our Christian denomination. So does that make it a sin to be patriotic? I think as long as our loyalty to our country is a part of our loyalty to God-and not the other way around-we should be patriotic.

Our church supports some missionaries in a very large European country. They send us a monthly newsletter about what is going on in their ministry. They came to our church a few months ago and were sharing some upcoming things they were doing in the scope of their mission. They informed us that they would be passing out 10,000 flyers simply advertising for their weekly Bible study they have in their home. If anyone chose to object to these flyers and press charges, they could face fines up to $10,000 (American) and 6 months in jail.

When I read these stories, it makes me wonder why are some American Christians in such a hurry to act like loving our country is such a bad thing? The Declaration of Independence says this...
" We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The founders of our country believed that God had given us a right to live, a right to be free, and a right to pursue happiness in life. The first amendment of the Constitution says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the exercise thereof;" The amendment that contains our freedom of speech-what some would say is our most important amendment in the Bill of Rights-begins with freedom of religion. I would say that the first amendment freedom of religion says a lot about what the founders believed about the ability of a people to freely practice their religious beliefs.

So why all the anti-American rhetoric? Why are people determined to make us as American Christians have a guilty conscience because we live in a place where we can practice our religious freedoms while other people in the world can't? I think it's ironic that people will use their freedom of speech (granted by God when he gave humanity a free will, but made legal in our country by the US Constitution) to bash our country and/or patriotism in general from a religious standpoint.

It is clear by reading our founding documents that the founders of our country wanted a place where people could worship God the way they wanted to. When I sing God Bless America in a Sunday service, or go eat hot dogs and watch fireworks on July 4th, I'm not declaring that my loyalty to our country is greater than my loyalty to God. I am thanking God for allowing me to live in a place where I don't have to worry about criminal charges for inviting people to my church. As Christians we are not called to build the nation of the United States. We are called to build the kingdom of God. But to the extent that living in America is the best place on earth to build that kingdom (because of our religious freedom), then we should be patriotic.

So the next time it is Veteran's Day, Memorial Day, July 4th, Flag Day, have a hot dog and celebrate the fact that thousands of men have fought and died so that you can go to church each Sunday. You can post things on the internet about your religious faith. You can invite your friends to church. Celebrate freedom whenever you can. Ultimate freedom comes from God, but thank him that you live in a place where the government still agrees with that!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Faith or Fake-What Does Our Faith Look Like to the World?

The other day I put my foot in my mouth in a pretty big way. It was the first day of church camp and I was sitting at the dinner table with a group of counselors and I noticed one lady had a very pretty ring on her finger. I made the comment, "That's a pretty ring" to which she replied, "Oh, it's fake. My real one is at home, but I didn't want anything to happen to it, so I got this one at Walmart before I left. See how it's turning my finger green?" Anyway, it was a funny moment as everyone at the table quickly found out what a horrible eye I had for jewelry. But what I thought after it happened was that the ring did exactly what it was made to do. That cheap immitation ring passed off as the real thing to the untrained eye.
I grew up in the age of Christian propoganda. I remember growing up and seeing shirts that read "Don't get caught dead without Jesus!" or spoofs of popular commercials like Reeborn instead of Reebok, or "Life is short, pray hard." And we had (still do have) Christian bumper stickers, music, movies, jewelry, stationery, books, and even breath mints. And for a long time I thought that these were the marks of a true Christian. I mean, what Christ-professing individual wouldn't want to advertise his or her faith in the most poignant, and fashionable way possible? But the older I have gotten I've not been as eager to literally wear my faith on my sleeve, despite the fact that it's a multi-million dollar industry. Because I know how I act sometimes and that I do things that wouldn't make my God proud--I mean, we all do. (Now, as a side note, I do have a closet full of free t-shirts that I've received from going to youth ministry events over the last 15 years). But would I wear a shirt that professed that I was a "bible-totin', scripture-quotin', devil-bashin'....(you get the idea)...believer, and proud of it?" Probably not. You see, it's not that I am not that way in the victory Christ has given me, but I am still very much aware of my humanity. I am a sinner saved by grace. And so while I may walk through life as a child of the King, I must remember that to the rest of the world, I am still that same sinner saved by grace. Honestly, I think it is narcissistic to think that people want to know how spiritual we are.

Galatians 5 says that the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. That's a pretty steep list. I hope that I can try to be more like God in my heart rather than just promoting him on the outside with all of my Christian paraphernalia. It's my hope and prayer that we all reflect God with our attitudes and actions even more than we reflect him with our t-shirts and bumper stickers.