Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Heterodox Aftershocks 11: Church structure or ecclesiastical polity

Is there a right way for Christians to commune with each other? Are there wrong ways?

As my new beliefs have placed me outside the comfy walls of any organized branch of Christianity that I know of, I find those nagging questions about church that I've had for years are easier to examine dispassionately. One thing I'm quite sure about is that our traditional and current forms of Christian expression (i.e. church organization) are never going to change. So any conclusions I may come to can only be seen as observations, not prescriptive actions to be taken by myself or others.

What church is, and how we ended up this way is a fascinating study, and one I've only began to research. So I don't have a lot of historical data to feed this fire; it's primarily powered by simple curiosity, philosophical, and theological fuel.

The first question I'm starting with is, "What is a Christian church?" Well, actually, let me take a step back and throw my opinion out there as to what THE Christian Church is, then I'll come back to this one.

THE Christian Church, as it is metaphorically described in scripture seems to indicate that it is a collection of individuals that span all of history. It is most strikingly called "The bride of Christ". This is clearly relational language, and leads me away from defining THE Christian Church with a political or organizational label. Certainly, it could be far more limited than I am assuming. Maybe only the Quakers are THE Christian Church, or the Mormons or the Catholics. But here is my problem with that sort of partisan definition… If there were one form of Christianity that God desired… the ultimate, perfect revelation of Himself and scriptures, surely He would have given us less ambiguous resources with which to build such a super organization. But all we have to go on is our interpretation of His communication with us via the Holy Spirit and a really old collection of letters, poetry, history, and prophecy. It's like giving a group of kids a box of Legos and telling them to build a perfect car. And that's assuming God even wanted an organization. Maybe we are all fighting over which Legos go where on our car when God didn't even want us to build a car, but wanted us to melt the Legos and shape the plastic into little animals.

This segues nicely back to my first question, "What is a Christian church?" All us evangelical kids learned in Sunday School or youth group that a church isn't a building, but a group of believers. Well, ok, now I'm wondering: Why do we need to insist on the building then? Let me do a little back and forth here…

Devil's Advocate: Why do we need a church building?

Church's Advocate: Where else would we all meet?

Devil's Advocate: Why do we need to have such large groups?

Church's Advocate: Because when we are doing things right churches grow.

Devil's Advocate: How do you know church growth is a measure of God's blessing?

Church's Advocate: What else would it be?

Devil's Advocate: Good marketing, fun music, great location, community connections, status, etc.

Church's Advocate: But God too.

Devil's Advocate: So God is making the Mormon and Muslim churches grow so fast?

OK, I'm tired of this game and it's distracting me from my point. My main point is this question: Is our conception of church the best form for Christianity to take?

Does bigger equal better? Are bigger governments better at governing? Are bigger schools better at educating? Are bigger businesses better at business? Maybe that last one breaks my rhythm, but what I'm trying to get at is that NO, bigger does not necessarily make an organization better at what it does. So I think it's wrong to assume that bigger groups of Christians make living a Christian life better or easier. A fact of organization is that the larger one gets, the more layers of facilitating bureaucracy are necessary to hold it all together. A home school needs one parent to be a teacher, principal, budgeting director, etc. A typical high school needs dozens and dozens of staff to handle these things. The obvious upside to this is having lots of different specialists available to the kids. The downside is that every dollar that goes into that school gets cut up into smaller and smaller pieces as more bureaucracy is necessary. That means less and less of that dollar goes to actually educating the kids. Could the same be true of church?

Let me posit some other theoretical forms of Christianity so my comparison is clear. It seems to me that there is a continuum of sizes, starting at the lone Christian and going up to the super-mega church and the Roman Catholic Church. So, I'll start with a single, loan-wolf Christian, and examine some of the potential plusses and minuses that come along with that form of Christianity. Well, one good thing about this form is that any giving that is done goes 100% to a needy recipient. Let's say Mr. Lonewolf has a poor elderly widow living next door who can't afford her medicine, and Mr. Lonewolf buys it for her every month. He is being Christ's hands and feet plain and simple. A big downside I could see, (probably because Paul warned about this) is that without like minds around it's hard to stay focused and responsible. If a chess lover stopped hanging out with other chess lovers they would probably play chess less and less. If a football fan stopped talking to other football fans and reading football related things they would probably stop loving football as much. A Christian is supposed to have the internal driving force of the Holy Spirit keeping them in the game. But alas, our flesh has proven louder and stronger than most can handle by themselves. The lack of accountability will generally lead to laziness. … I'm guessing. Though I don't think it would for me. … But who knows?

The next step up the continuum would be the family unit. I think this has pretty much the same issues as the lone wolf form, so I'll go on to the next.

The house church is where the book of Acts begins. I don't know how big their houses were then and there, but I'm guessing they weren't huge. I don't think they met in temples or churches at that point, so a group really couldn't get that large unless they went outside. I'm not saying that they had the Christian form down perfectly. Obviously, Paul's letters to them show that they didn't. But here are the advantages to house churches in my mind:

  1. Zero overhead. All funds can go towards helping others.
  2. High accountability. Everyone knows everyone quite well. This can be a double-edged sword if the group tends towards gossip or judgmentalism. But it can be a huge blessing if the group tends towards love.
  3. Close proximity. Most house churches will have members from a much smaller radius than a large church. This puts them in community and keeps them easily involved throughout the week.
  4. Targeted preaching. In small groups a sermon can customized to what the group all needs to hear.
  5. Mixing ages. Our current church systems follows the rest of society in fragmenting groups by age. This cuts off the younger people from the desperately needed wisdom that older people can provide.

And here are the disadvantages I can think of:

  1. Funds will be too small for large projects like building someone a house, sending a missionary to India, etc.
  2. Can't have a full worship band. (That might be a negative for some?)
  3. Can't have big kid's programs like Royal Rangers, Bible Quiz, etc.
  4. A house church is not very noticeable to the community at large.

Once you get over a certain threshold… say… 30 or 40, the group dynamic changes pretty dramatically. I know from working at companies under the 30 mark that have grown to over the 40 mark, what a difference it makes. Once this happens in a church I see the advantages as follows:

  1. More capitol to help people with.
  2. Bigger, more elaborate programs.
  3. Nicer instruments for the worship team.
  4. Bigger 'presence' in the community.
  5. Many ways for members to serve.

And my perception of some of the negative aspects:

  1. Most of the money collected has to go to paying salaries, rent, utilities, permits, lawyers, etc.
  2. Sense of anonymity for those who are less social or lack the desire to be so.

Now this is obviously not a number game. The single biggest factor I'm considering is number one on the big church negative list. My question is if spending money on salaries, rent, utilities, permits, lawyers, etc is being the best steward of the resources that God gave us. It seems that there are two factors driving us Christians to spend our resources this way. First, because we want to do as much good as we can, and having more money to do that with is great. (But I wonder if this model actually gives us more money or less.) We can fund cool programs and help missionaries. And second, is because we want to be recognized in the culture, and an organization is the best way to do that. A third reason I'll throw in is that it is just human nature to join together with like-minded people.

I think the first reason is deceptive. Because I wonder how much money actually gets used feeding and clothing the poor, caring for the sick, widows, orphans, etc. Once all the overhead is accounted for, is there really more money than a couple of house churches would generate?

There are many parachurch organizations in existence right now. They help direct the funds from churches towards specific causes. They have the normal organizational overhead. So many churches take your money, take their cut, pass it on to a parachurch group who takes their cut, and finally some resources go to the needy. Why? Why not skip the church building part? Why not go to the co-op method employed by so many home school families now? Every program that big churches can offer could be done by a parachurch organization or a co-op. Specialized teaching, food pantries, homeless shelters, house building, missionary funding, abortion counseling, etc.

Imagine how much money could be put towards fighting poverty, hunger, etc. if just the rent from every church in America was collected and used instead to help the world that is suffering! Imagine if every Christian in this country was encouraged and expected by a close group of friends to spend real time and money helping their community or going to a poorer community elsewhere in the world and helping. Imagine how much that would change the world. Imagine how that would change the perception of Christianity. Rather than the 'church' being just like the synagogue and the mosque, (a concentration of religious people doing their rituals.) the 'church' would be a dynamic force. Salt needs to be mixed, not concentrated. Light needs to reach out into the darkness. I feel like our church buildings may be hiding quite a bit of it by making it too easy to stay inside.

Of course, this scenario would wreak havoc among all our denominational organizations. (How do we keep control over 12,000 little cells?) But if you've read the rest of this series, you know I don't see that as a problem. In my house-church dream-land I'm sure there would be all sorts of nuts out there. Without dogmatic restraints lots of people would go off the deep end in one direction or the other. (Either total legalism or total relativism.) But would it be worse than it is now? I doubt it. Another huge change would be the number of church goers. (Notice I didn't say Christians) Yes, all the pew warmers would be too uncomfortable in a small community that actually expects them to live out what they claim to believe. I wonder if that wouldn't be counterbalanced by the example that Christians would show the world. I would expect people who see that being a Christian is not simply a check-box on survey, but a way of life and joy… many would be moved to God through that.

Of course the only way for this to happen would be if it were forced. Like Christianity being outlawed. Human nature is human nature. I can't fight it except in myself, and even then it's a losing battle without divine intervention. I think our current church system is the way it is because people are the way they are. People want to organize, compartmentalize, build power, control and respect. For good or ill, our denominational organizations want to control your beliefs. Right doctrine is very important to them. This seems silly to me since they all sincerely believe that they are the right ones, and all the other denominations are the wrong ones. So when you look at the composition of the big picture of Christendom I doubt it's really more unified and "correct" than if denominations exerted less control.

So in summation, my current thinking is that the way most Christians do church is squandering a lot of resources making them less effective at helping the world. If everyone switched to house churches that contribute time and recourses to parachurch organizations, we could have all the advantages of big churches and none of the disadvantages, freeing up millions… maybe billions of dollars a year to help the world.

I also think this sad reality we are stuck with will never change and there is nothing I can do about it. I suppose I could abstain from church and start my own house church, but I don't feel like God is calling me to do that. I have no desire to lead anyone anywhere. (Except my family.) I'm praying about what to do with the tithe I give to my church. The way we work it now is we give our "tithe" to the church, and any extra "tithe" we get from bonuses, tax returns, etc. we use for non-church giving. We helped a young couple move so he could go to some crazy Calvinist/Baptist church planting school, and gave some money to my parents to give away on their missionary trip to Africa with that other discretionary money.

But now when I'm paying my regular tithe I feel like I'm throwing a lot of it away on comforts and niceties that we really don't need. On the other hand I feel like if we are attending our church we ought to be contributing to its financial welfare. Damned if I do and damned if I don't. Well, my dad has served on the boards of many churches so I'll talk to him about this. I'm sure he has some insight into the issue that I haven't thought about.

I'm sure there have been many books written on this topic. I need to find some and do some more research. See… this is why I'm never bored!

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Maturation

There is a character trait that I lack so severely, it may be my single biggest shame. I am so dishonorable in this area that even writing about it embarrasses me. But hey, that’s what the internet is for, right? That character trait? My work ethic. There was a period in my career when I could rightly have been called a workaholic. But it wasn’t because I had a good work ethic. It was because I was doing something that engaged me creatively on a multitude of levels. Had you examined my work habits during those years you would have concluded that I was a studious and self-driven individual. And you would have concluded correctly. But take away the fuel of creative control and heady, industry-shaping design challenges and you have a lazy leech.

Jesus’ admonition about much being expected from the one to whom much is given has always provoked shame in me. If I ever get self-righteous about how much better I seem than a drug dealer or prostitute I can always return to these words that cause contemplation of the relative resources we are all given. Some are given 10 talents, some just one. I think I was given a lot. Besides the wealth and health and convenience and luxury that comes with living in this particular place and time (which alone probably puts me in the top ten percent of humanity in history as far as blessings go.) I was raised in a healthy, happy, secure, Christian home. I was given obvious gifts that I could recognize relatively early in life. I got into one of the most fun and easy industries to work in ever. (Maybe calendar models have it easier, but I’m not sure.) I have a petite, pretty wife who loves and respects me. Seriously, the only way I could have been given more would be if I was born into royalty.

Which makes me feel extra-super-deluxe pathetic when I consider my work habits. I’ve done some time at McDonald’s and Jack In The Box, so it’s not like I don’t know what it is to put in an honest day’s work. But at my current job I’ve just been so distracted and board with what I do that I end up spending way too much time on the internet, checking email, reading and writing. I’ve felt convicted about it many times, and every time decide I’m going to change. Because I’m paid a very impressive salary to do a fairly easy job, my time spent doing less than phenomenal work is nothing short of theft. Beyond laziness, my actions are simply thievery. For a man who claims to be following Christ that is simply inexcusable.

I had my yearly review, and naturally, the distracted nature of my work was an issue. My boss says I turn in my work on time, and parts of it are really great, but he knows that with my talent ALL of it should be really great. And I know that too. As I am with all people, I was frank and honest, telling him that I know it’s a weakness of mine and I don’t have an excuse. I just have to get disciplined enough to stop being lazy. But as with all issues of self-will, I’ve never been able to Just Do It®. I was unable to break my addiction to pornography, constantly spinning between self-loathing, apathy, self-deceit, crying out to God, and round and round it went with no end in sight. I made NO progress on my own. My only explanation for deliverance is that God simply took it away from me. It would be nice if there was a series of steps that I could recount to the countless other men I know who are struggling with the problem, but God apparently doesn’t follow orders.

For some reason, after my review, something finally clicked for me. I decided to simply not have the internet open except at lunch. Yes, that is a painfully obvious step, and it’s not that I hadn’t considered it before. I simply lacked the… something… to do it. Now I don’t. I’ve been listening to books on tape and sermons while I work, and that keeps my brain interested so I can just work. I’m not board anymore. I’ll see if this improves the quality of my work. But at least I don’t feel like I’m stealing from the company anymore. This is such an answer to prayer for me. If I don’t have evidence of God working in my life than my faith diminishes and doubts creep in, and I certainly don’t have the right to try to convince other’s of the veracity of my spiritual claims.

Another, less dramatic area of improvement happened recently. I got a speeding ticket. This is the second one in less than a year. Before that I think it had been well over three years since my last one. I’ve always considered myself a safe driver. I always use my turn signals, I always check my mirrors, then double check behind me before I change lanes. But I do almost always speed. Not crazy fast. Just enough that I shave off valuable time without endangering anyone. Well, that’s apparently not good enough for my wife… or the police. Heather had a talk with me about my speeding. I’ve always felt that as long as I’m safe and aware of people around me, numbers don’t really matter. Heather pointed out that the numbers are the law. And regardless of how safe I am, I’m still breaking the law. She asked me to consider what that teaches our kids.

Being honest is important to me. I got a business license and paid taxes on the miniscule amount of income I got from my sculpture sales this year even though it was a hassle and could have been easily done under the table. No one would have been hurt. But I would know that I’m technically breaking the law. And why would I start a business - that I hope to some day bring revelation to the masses - in an unlawful manner? So why do I feel justified in breaking the law when it comes to the speed limit? Why should I say to my kids “It’s ok to break some laws that just aren’t important.” I think that unless a law is actively forcing me to reject my faith or hurt others, I don’t have an excuse for breaking it.

Oh, another driving issue I have is with yellow lights. I said I consider myself a safe driver, but here is where I’m going to contradict myself. I have this particular weakness that manifests itself whenever I have to make a snap decision. It happens in conversations, debates, and driving. It’s a panic reflex I think. When I come to a yellow light I almost always speed up to get through it. If I were to pause time, and think for even 5 seconds about the situation I would say to myself, “I would rather be 45 seconds later and safer, than 45 seconds earlier and endanger myself and others.” That’s a no-brainer for me. It’s putting other’s needs before my own and that reflects the servants heart that I have been given. But compress the time I have to consider the problem to less than 5 seconds and suddenly the weight of the world is upon me and the prime directive becomes getting from A to B as quickly as possible.

I blame video games. They have trained me to act in the most brash and action-oriented way possible in sudden-decision situations by rewarding such behavior. I’m only half joking.

Anyway, my lovely wife took in upon herself to play the megaphone for my conscience, and now I am retraining myself. It turns out it’s really not that hard. Besides, paying tickets and higher insurance is not being the best steward of the financial resources God has given me. And for those of you who are not convicted of speeding, I give you this vow… I will never drive in the left lane at the same speed as a car in the right. I will stay in the right lane unless I am actively passing another vehicle. (That was one of my biggest pet peeves.)

Next I hope to receive moderation in eating and sleeping.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Christmas without Santa

I was raised without Santa as far as I can remember. But then, my memory of childhood is vague at best. My ex-wife comes from a family that found it very important to make Santa an important part of Christmas. He always gave the biggest and best gifts to the kids. He would eat some of the cookies that the kids would leave out for him and take the carrot they left out for Rudolf. So my ex continued the tradition, and even though I was never excited about it myself, I went along.

I never thought it made much sense as Christian parents, to fool our kids into believing in an all-seeing, all-knowing magical being who rewards the good and punishes the bad. For one thing, the image comes way to close to God, and for another thing, it reinforces a skewed view of good and evil that trains the spirit in legalism. As to the first point, why do we find it acceptable to say to our kids when they are older, “Yes, we lied to you about Santa, but God is real.” What does that teach our kids? Besides teaching them that it’s ok to lie for the sake of imaginative fun it also speaks to the human need for belief. It teaches that this need can be taken advantage of, making a person easily duped. This can only lead one to guard against the natural need for faith and belief. And how do you think that will affect their future spiritual walk? I wonder how many Christians have trust issues with God because they are guarding the wound of cheated spirit. They put trust and belief in what their parents told them, and that trust was broken when they found that Santa wasn’t real.

Then there is the behavior reward system of the Santa Clause myth. You have this immortal god-like being handing out gifts to those who earn them. Sure, it’s a game of make-believe, but it teaches legalism in its purest form. And how easy it is to transpose that teaching onto your religious system, especially when it is prone to the problem already. Humans want to pound God into the legalism mold so badly. Every religion does it. It would make life so great if you knew you could get goodies by acting certain ways or making certain sacrifices. Placate the gods by throwing a virgin in the volcano and you get a good harvest. Show the gods how much you respect them by killing your children on an alter and your wives will be more fertile. Appease the power of karma by dispassionately ignoring the suffering around you and you will be reincarnated as a king next time. Blow yourself up in a crowded mall full of infidels and you will get a harem full of virgins. Be a good boy and don’t annoy mommy or daddy and you will get an X-Box at X-mas. Pay your tithe and vote for the right people and you will get a big crown in heaven.

It’s ironic that a holiday that is ostensibly rooted in the only religion that specifically rejects legalism, should be warped so as to actually enforce legalism. But that’s just human nature. Christianity as a religion has succumbed to this nature so much that it’s most distinguishing characteristic, (The free and unmerited grace of salvation) is almost unrecognizable except in its earliest writings. So it’s no surprise that a holiday premised on the free and unmerited incarnation of God has become a celebration of legalism and consumerism. The question to me is whether I’m going to go with the flow and continue to inculcate my children with those values and ideas. I think not.

So how does one reveal the truth of this matter to a seven and ten year old without being a monster or kill-joy? Well Justin, my ten-year-old, has been skeptical about it for a couple of years. But Shane wholeheartedly buys the media-driven idea that it is a moral good to believe in Santa. Whenever they ask me about it, I’ve always “plead the fifth.” (Which was at least an educational experience for them.) I do the same for the tooth fairy. But whenever we discussed Santa, Heather and I always brought the conversation around to what Santa represents. We explain the origin of the character, and the quality of generosity that St. Nicholas was known for. And how God showed the highest generosity possible by becoming a human so we could be with Him. Justin picked up on this well, and I would often hear him remind Shane that “Christmas is not about the presents.”

The big gift I was getting for the family this year was going to be what may be the most poorly named consumer product since the Pinto: The Nintendo Wii. (pronounced “wee”) Well, despite it’s unfortunate multi-cultural, committee, focus-tested double entendre of a name, it was almost impossible to find one. I ended up in several lines where they ran out before I could get one. Well, we heard that Toys R Us was getting a big shipment a particular weekend and so we showed up early (for me) in the morning to find a line of well over a hundred people winding out of the building. Well, the kids, wife and I stood in the cold for over an hour, and eventually Heather took the kids home, but I stayed and it turned out that they had 134 units, and I was 134th place in line. I got the last one.

So it was no surprise what the big Christmas gift was going to be this year. In Christmas pasts Santa always got the glory for the big stuff. The big present was the “Santa present”. Well, this provided a perfect opportunity for letting the boys know what’s going on. But I didn’t want them to be lost when it happened. So I did a little prep work. I wanted to explain the concept of a metaphorical character to the kids so they would have a reference point to work with. The closest metaphorical character I could think of was Uncle Sam. So the next time we saw something military related I told them about Uncle Sam. They didn’t grasp the concept to well. “He’s not a real person, but people talk about the government like it is a person. A person named Uncle Sam. He stands for something, but he is not real.” “Uh, dad… I don’t get it.”

Well, when Christmas morning came and they excitedly opened the big present that said “From Santa” on it -and found the item we all stood in line for - they got it. And they were just fine with it. Justin said he knew it all along.

So now, we can focus on the nature of gift-giving, generosity, and love as an exercise mimicking the gift of Christ, not the gift of a metaphor.