Friday, February 26, 2016

‘Great again’ for Whom?

In Wednesday’s post, I questioned Donald Trumps idea of ‘winning’. This led me to think more deeply about his tagline, ‘Make America great again’. I addressed his misuse of the word ‘America’, unless he does mean to improve conditions for the 30+ countries that comprise North and South America. However, today I am thinking about his phrase: ‘great again’.

Before going further, let me reiterate: as a pastor, I am apolitical because I serve God, and God loves every person. In order to effectively serve God, I do not wish to intentionally alienate people through a political affiliation. Now, back to ‘great again’.

‘Great again’ is a wonderful thought prompt for Christians. I will return to this idea in just a moment. First, let us consider Mr. Trump.

Donald Trump says that he wishes to make the United States of America ‘great again’ but he neither defines ‘great’ nor the time period to which ‘again’ refers. On the one hand, what does ‘great’ mean? Profitable? Equality for all people? Higher life expectancy? Fewer deaths due to gun violence? No more mass shootings? What? What does ‘great’ look like? And, great for whom? Does he mean better treatment of immigrants (Exodus 23:9)? Great for women (Mark 7:25-30)? Great for other oppressed groups?

On the other hand, ‘again’ refers to a past time period. Does he mean the 1990s? The period ended with a U.S. Federal government surplus and hallmarks of improved quality of life. Does he mean the 1980s? The decade ended with the conclusion of the Cold War. What about the 1970s? 1960s? What about the early 1800s? The Louisiana Purchase greatly expanded the land mass of the United States.

Yet (this is a big YET), each period was also marked with bad news—the kind of bad news that no one would want to repeat. The 1990s ended with the dot-com bubble, increasing greed and income disparity, and some U.S. policies contributed to the difficulties of the 2000s. The 1980s were marked by moving backward in environmental protection, social safety nets, and racial equality. In the 1800s, women could not vote and the U.S. had slavery. I doubt there would be much public support for moving back to the ‘good ole days’ of the early 1800s.

As a thought prompt for Christians, ‘great again’ could mean following in Jesus’ footsteps. It could mean seeking to live out his command in Matthew 5:43-48 (‘love your enemies’). ‘Great again’ could mean following the apostle Paul and living by the fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Galatians 5:22-23, “There is no law against such things.”

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

What does Trump mean by ‘winning’?

As a pastor, I am decidedly apolitical. This is not due to a lack of interest. I am apolitical because I serve God, and God loves every person (even people who don’t like me, e.g. Matthew 5:43). In order to effectively serve God, I cannot intentionally alienate Democrats, Republicans, members of Daesh, or anyone else.

This morning, February 24, 2016, I listened to the radio. It reported the results of the Republican primary in Nevada yesterday. Donald Trump won. I do not have a problem with Trump, personally. As I listened to his victory speech, I wondered about his ideology. He keeps talking about ‘winning’. In a primary, there is a first place finisher, second place, and so on. Because only one person can eventually be a political party’s nominee, there is a winner and there are losers. Trump won the Nevada primary.

In Trump’s acceptance speech, he talked about ‘winning’, not in terms of beating his political opponents, but in terms of ‘making America great again’. First, lest I be pedantic, America is a land mass that includes over thirty countries and a number of protectorates. From consistent blurbs about Trump since he declared his candidacy for President in 2015, he does not seem to be talking about improving the quality of life for everyone in North and South America.

Second, what does he mean? Winning against whom? Trump’s definition of winning sounds like a zero-sum game. The United States wins. Others lose. In a zero-sum game, there are winners and losers. The world is not a zero-sum game. In essence, we are all in this together. When there are advances in medicine, pedagogy, mass transportation, energy production, or anything else, humanity wins or loses together.

The internal combustion engine, for example, revolutionized the world. It spurred massive advancement in manufacturing, transportation, and other areas of life. These improvements in quality of living are difficult to refute. The internal combustion engine also brought a thirst for fossil fuels. Burning fossil fuels released untold tons of pollution into the atmosphere and led to anthropogenic climate change. There was good and bad. Both the good and the bad have impacted all of humanity.

Trumps idea of winning misses the potential for a positive sum game. In this scenario, the total sum of the good and the bad is still good. Everyone benefits. Perhaps the internal combustion engine is an example of a positive sum game. For the last century, it has helped humanity advance. Now, with greater awareness of climate change, humanity can shift to sustainable technology. 

I pray that Mr. Trump is able to shift his language and thinking from a zero-sum ideology to something more positive. I pray that he becomes open to the possibility of everyone gaining and growing together. Perhaps he would benefit from reading E.F. Schumacher’s classic Small is Beautiful. It might help him shift his paradigm. It’s possible.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Why bother invite someone to church?

As I reread my recent blog entry, I was troubled by the implicit premise: “attract people to church.” This has a marketing tone. From my background in business, I understand marketing--product definition, defining a market, building brand recognition, etc. Some churches have effectively applied these principles to the family of God.

Making the transition from businessperson to clergy is jarring. Businesses exist to build shareholder value. Shareholders are also stakeholders. Churches have stakeholders. These people have built the churches and sustain church ministry. They give legacy gifts in order to sustain God’s work in the future. Church stakeholders and business shareholders are easy to confuse. When these roles get murky, theology begins to take a secondary role to institutional growth (or survival).
When considering church growth, theology must remain prominent. God will not be confined. God is not secondary to institutional growth. People from an evangelical mindset, invite people to church in order to bring them into a relationship with God. The basis could be something like the Great Commission, Matthew 28:19-20. It could also be based in the salvation ideas of the New Testament. In other words, people need to be saved. This mindset reflects a belief that the church has a role in salvation.

An alternative is to invite people to church because communion with other believers is mutually enriching. The invitee is enriched by joining a community of Christ-seekers. The community provides discipleship opportunities, support in times of need, opportunities to serve, and more. The community is enriched by the the invitee’s giftedness. New people bring in new ideas. God can speak through new people, new ideas... new wineskins.

For me, I will continue inviting people to church, not because I believe that they are lost and in need of saving, but because the gospel is worth sharing. I try not to be selfish. God has enough love for everyone. God’s tent is big enough for differing ideas. I want to hear some of those ideas. Let us grow together.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

10 Ways Older People Can Attract Younger People to Church

This is one of the greatest challenges for small/medium sized churches. The majority of the congregation is comprised of older people. They grew up in the church. It has been part of their lives for many years. Many of them are spiritually mature. When someone asks them to pray, they bow their heads, and the words flow beautifully toward heaven. When someone asks them to read scripture, they begin flipping to the book, chapter, and verse without a second thought.
These older members of a congregation are stalwart participants in God’s work. They support missionaries. They give to building and legacy programs. They faithfully attend and engage in worship. I cannot say enough about the good things they do on God’s behalf on this earth.
When they look at the church, they often wonder why young people do not attend. They lament the declining or nonexistent children’s program. They ask questions, like, “Why don’t more young people come to church?” They honestly wonder. They think that they would truly like to know. However, they do not want to know, and they certainly do not want to change anything.
Below is a list of ten ways older people can help a church attract younger people. If you have additional suggestions, please share them with me.
1) Stop pretending that it’s 1950.
2) Smile when a young person happens to wander into worship.
3) Show genuine interest in the person (not the demographic they represent).
4) Do not assume that any subject is safe, just because the person you are asking is young. For instance, it just as impolite to ask a young lady why she is not married as it would be for her to ask how much remains in your 401K.
a) It is also impolite to say to a young parent, “You can’t be old enough to have these children; you look like a teenager, yourself.” Imagine a young mother retorting, “How did you get here? Do they have a bus from the nursing home?”
b) Saying, “You look so young!” sounds pejorative. Remember: the goal is to attract and keep young people attending, not put them in their place.
5) Compliment the music director when she/he selects a contemporary piece of music, bearing in mind that Bill Gaither is not contemporary.
6) Encourage the use of guitar and percussion.
7) Never utter the words, “In my day…”, “We’ve never done it that way”, or “The problem today is…”.
8) Volunteer to help staff the nursery, so that it is ready when a family visits.
a) If it is your Sunday in the nursery, show up on time.
b) Compliment a someone’s parenting or child.
c) Do not criticize someone’s child or parenting, even if your children would never behave that way (although, if you are being honest, they probably did).
d) Pray for patience.
9) If a parent has a baby/toddler who is getting upset, offer to hold the baby, so the parent can stay in worship. (Make the offer genuine)
10) Unless there are lots of candles and it is advertised as a contemplative worship, avoid long periods of silence (recalling how difficult it was to keep your own children quiet in church).
There are certainly many more things that I could add to this list. If our goal is to bring people closer to God, then we need to be willing to change our behavior to reach this goal.