The Beauty of Small Deeds

There are certain statements or arguments that you hear over and over again that just grate on your last nerve. They sting because you know that they are not based in truth, and it pains you to know that these lies are being perpetuated. In the world of social media, they often appear in a meme that people share because they think that it is clever, when in fact, it is shallow. There are a number of these kinds of things that really hurt when I encounter them.

Recently a liberal friend shared a meme on social media that depicted a person asking a room full of people a question: “How many of you are against abortion?” The cartoon showed all of the people raising their hands. In the next scene, the person asked, “How many of you are willing to adopt?” The cartoon showed all of the people sitting with their hands down. Around the same time, another liberal friend sent me a text saying that he knows a lot of pro-life people and none of them are willing to do anything to support the women who are in these circumstances.

I admit that this is a huge trigger for me. It is a trigger for me because it is absolutely not my experience. I know a large number of active, vocal, pro-life people and they all do something to support women and children. Some volunteer with and/or give money to crisis pregnancy centers. Some serve as foster parents. Some have adopted a child. Many sponsor children in need all over the world. Most spend time with children in their own communities who do not have parents or whose parents are unfit. While I have no doubt that there are people who claim to be pro-life and do not behave in a way that aligns with these beliefs (as there are people on all sides of the political spectrum who do not behave according to their views), the majority of my friends who are vocal about their views do not fit into this category. Most have sacrificed something in order to support women and children, and knowing of their sacrifice, I am saddened that people are so quick to dismiss it.

Part of the problem is that in today’s world of social media, we only know certain things, and many people who give generously of their time, talents, and funds do not share that information on social media. They do it quietly with little fanfare. So no one knows that they recently gave up a Saturday to counsel women at the local crisis pregnancy center; but they do know that they recently shared a pro-life story on Facebook. So they criticize.

Another part of the problem, and perhaps a bigger part, is that small deeds are not valued anymore. (Heck, even asking a date to prom is a big to-do these days. How exhausting it must be to be a young person today!) Only big deeds make headlines. I once had a friend say that a person couldn’t be pro-life unless he/she agreed to adopt EVERY unwanted child. Well, this is nonsense on the face of it, not to mention impossible. No one can adopt HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of children. In fact, not everyone can even adopt one child. Some are not in a stage of life where they can do that, some do not have the financial or relational stability to raise children, etc. For those who can, we pray that God would make the way for that to happen. I consider adopting even one child to be a BIG deed, and I am thankful for those who do that. I pray that I will be among you someday. But, I want to challenge the notion that only big deeds make a difference. In fact, small deeds matter deeply.

Let me tell you about some people who participate in some beautiful, but small, deeds that change the world. These are all people known to me, but they rarely, if ever, post about their deeds on social media. Nancy volunteers at the medical clinic for those who cannot afford healthcare. Molly works with people who need jobs, some of whom are recovering addicts. Ralph spends time with men at the rescue mission, leading them in Bible study and counseling them. An elderly couple at my church became foster parents simply so a young boy with a very troubled home life could stay with them occasionally. Chris lends his gifts as a photographer to create ads for crisis pregnancy centers in urban areas. Chuck teaches a young girl whose father died how to make balloon animals. Tara sponsors more children through Children International and World Vision than anyone I know, and she doesn’t just write checks; she actually knows the children’s hopes and dreams. Bonny spends time encouraging troubled youth on their Facebook accounts. I could go on and on and on; I’m just scratching the surface. Some of these deeds are bigger and require time and money. Some are incredibly small, requiring an encouraging word or maybe a small note. Put together, they are a beautiful cadre of life-changing deeds.

We live in a time when these kinds of deeds are not valued – when someone taking an at-risk youth to dinner is brushed off as nothing. This is dangerous, because when we start to think that these things don’t matter, it lets us off the hook from doing them. So many of my friends have fallen into this trap. They don’t think that anything that they can do really matters, so they resort to petitioning the government to help – because the government can get BIG things done. That’s nonsense. I am not saying that there isn’t a time and place for petitioning the government, but if you only have time to do one thing, I’d say that doing a small deed for someone in need would have much more of an impact than writing a letter to a government bureaucrat. For example, the Women’s March occurred a week ago and millions marched all over the world. I’m not going to say that it was pointless, because I don’t think that it was. But, if that same number of people took a Saturday to mentor a young girl, I think that it would have an even bigger impact for the cause of women than the seemingly big impact of the March. No, it won’t get the media’s attention. No, the government won’t take notice. But it will mean the world to that one girl who got your time and attention for the afternoon.

My best friend recently spent a month aboard a rescue vessel that was pulling refugees from small boats and dinghies in the Mediterranean. She shared her stories on social media, and I saw lots of people praising her for her good work (rightly, I might add!) and lamenting that they could never do anything so big and so brave. She always fired back and said something to the effect of, “You may not be able to do THIS, but you can love and care for refugees in your own backyard!” Exactly. It’s tempting to think that small deeds don’t matter when we see others participating in big deeds, but we must resist the temptation to believe this lie.

One of my favorite lines from Nicholas Sparks’s The Wedding is, “Love is sustained by action, a pattern of devotion in the things we do for each other every day.” Anyone who has ever been in a long-term relationship knows that while BIG demonstrations of love are nice – and called for occasionally – it’s the small deeds over a long course of time that demonstrate true love. Don’t let social media convince you that small deeds don’t matter. Small deeds matter profoundly, and knitted together with other small deeds, they create a beautiful tapestry of love and devotion that has the power to change the world.

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National Happenings, Social Media, and the Problem of Sin

The past week or so has been rough. The inauguration of a controversial President, the Women’s March, and the anniversary of Roe v. Wade and the March for Life. It made traversing the land of social media very treacherous and very painful. I have struggled a great deal. The posts that I saw included posts that were angry, hurtful, offensive, vulgar, proud, condescending, and ignorant. In response to them, I thought nasty thoughts. In my head, I called people names. I cursed them. I got very mad. I got very discouraged and even depressed. I was very proud. Somehow – I suppose only by the grace of God – I refrained from posting anything and even limited my commenting. I “liked” a few posts that expressed some of the things that I was feeling, so I’m sure that some of those may have showed up in my friends’ newsfeeds, but I tried very hard to reign myself in. I didn’t unfriend anyone, and I only blocked posts that were vulgar. It wasn’t easy, and I can’t even promise that I will refrain from commenting or snarking in the future, because sin just runs that deep in me. But, I will pray for the Spirit to be at work in me so that I can be better.

The last few days were so difficult that I almost thought about taking a long break from Facebook and other social media. It was, after all, causing me to sin, and if something causes me to sin, I am supposed to pluck it from my life, right? On the other hand, while some of my Facebook friends are barely acquaintances, most of them are people whom I love and care about. I enjoy being connected to people all over the globe, seeing photos of their families, and learning about their lives. It really was a battle to decide what to do. For the time being, I’ve decided to remain, mostly because I realized that while I can delete social media from my life, that doesn’t really delete the problem. The problem remains; it just becomes invisible to me. And that, most definitely, is not what I want. I am called to shine light in the darkness, and in order to do that, I must go into the darkness. Even the darkness of social media.

So, if friends posting crude and hurtful things on social media isn’t the problem, what is the problem? I ask myself this question a lot when I see people reacting strongly to any current event or news story, and inevitably, the answer is always the same. The problem is sin (our own, as well as everyone else’s). Expanding on that, the problem is that we are all trying to deal with the problem of sin, and so many of us are dealing with it in a way that absolutely can never save us from it. For Christians who know that it is Christ alone who saves us from sin, the weight of the frustration that this causes can be almost unbearable.

Almost all of the groups posting on social media over the past few days were attempting to make the government responsible for saving us from sin. That may not be how they were thinking about it, but that’s essentially what they were doing. Our new President wants to build a wall to keep the sin out. The women were marching for a variety of reasons, many of which remain unclear to me, but it seemed that many of them feared that their treasured rights would be taken away from them. They were also concerned that rights that they do not currently have and desperately want would not be granted to them. Some felt that our new President’s personal comments about and behavior toward women would seep into official government policy about how women should be treated (or at least make it more socially acceptable to treat women with disrespect). They feared sin and wanted to take a stand to say that they weren’t going to take it any longer. The pro-lifers who spoke out on the Roe v. Wade anniversary and the days following want Roe to be overturned so that abortion could potentially be diminished or even eliminated. They were begging for this grievous sin to be undone. (NB: Overturning Roe would not do this per se, and the majority of pro-lifers understand this, but it would be the first step in getting the states to put more restrictions on abortion.)

In short, all of these groups want to legislate morality. They see the problem of sin, and their response is to create laws and policies that would keep it at bay. I see the logic here and even acknowledge this as a noble goal. Certainly we have laws in place that aim to legislate morality, at least to some extent (i.e., it is illegal to murder or assault someone, it is illegal to steal what does not belong to you, it is illegal to use some drugs, etc.). Yet, while there are appropriate policies that should be in place to protect individuals and groups, at the end of the day, morality cannot really be legislated.

For example, I have been active in the pro-life movement since college, and I agree that Roe v. Wade should be overturned. I believe that it is unconstitutional and that the states should have the right to determine laws and policies regarding abortion. However, I have never – not even for one second – been under the illusion that overturning Roe would solve the greater problem and that is that there are women who are in situations where abortion seems like the only or best option for them. Making abortion completely illegal does not solve the problem of pregnancies being unwanted, and that is the problem that I really want to see solved. Now, I do think that overturning Roe and creating more restrictions on abortion would be better than what we currently have going on, because there would be fewer children being murdered in the womb, and I see value in that in and of itself. But, I also care deeply about these women who have no other perceived viable options, and I care about children who are born into circumstances that are less than ideal or even horrific. Those are the root problems when it comes to abortion, and those are problems that the government just can’t address. (NB: access to unrestricted, legal abortion does not solve these problems either.)

But Jesus can. And his church – even though it is wildly imperfect and messy – can. When I see people (Republicans and Democrats alike) clamoring for more government interference on this or that, I get upset. What I long for is a government that takes care of some basic needs for its people (defense/police, infrastructure, etc.) and then gets out of the way and lets God’s people do the work that they are called to do. That’s why you didn’t see me at any of the events of this past week – not because I don’t care about the President, women, or the unborn. I do. But I do not think that the government is my savior. Petitioning the government is often like a child pleading to someone else’s parent. You might change their mind – or you might not – but you’re not solving the problem.

Christians, whatever injustices are on your heart, take them to God in prayer. And then get to work. Immigration policy may or may not change, but we can welcome the stranger and proclaim God’s good news to all we meet, which will transform hearts of stone into hearts of love. We can also work to change hearts and minds in other countries so that millions of people are not forced to leave the lands that they love due to cruel and unjust rulers, terrorist groups, or policies. Abortion policy may or may not change, but we can support women and children, foster healthy relationships, talk about the value and beauty of chastity, call for responsibility among both men and women, teach parenting skills, and uphold the institution of marriage. Women will always be different from men, but we can educate and love and demonstrate why those differences are good and ought to be celebrated. We can raise up men who treat women with respect (and women who treat men with respect). These, no doubt, are the harder tasks. They take longer and require more of us. It’s easy to take a day and march. It’s easy to fire off an e-mail to your congressional representatives. It’s hard to live a life that reflects the saving power of the gospel.

But, we must do this. We must do this because we have the answer to the problem of sin: a Savior who lived his whole life without it, died the death that we were supposed to die because of it, and was raised to new life to defeat it. This same Savior grants us the power, through his Spirit, to mortify our own sin and call others to do the same. It is our job to share this good news and call others to faithfulness. We cannot let the government attempt to legislate morality; the problem of sin is far too big to be dealt with by a legislator’s words. But it is not too big for a crucified God and the people he calls his own.

Tim Keller says, “If you can’t show the difference between religion and the gospel, people will confuse morality with a changed heart.” Precisely. We don’t really need morality (though morality is not bad per se); we need changed hearts. And the law just can’t do that. The law can restrain evil, show us our sinfulness, and demonstrate how we should live. But only the gospel can change hearts. Christians, live and share the gospel. It is our only hope in this world of darkness and chaos.

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A Gorilla, Fear, and the Myth of Safety

I waited quite awhile to weigh in on the tragedy regarding the young boy who made his way into the gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo. I did this mostly because I’ve been fascinated watching the aftermath on social media. I’m not going to comment on what actually happened because a) I wasn’t there, and b) I’m not an expert on zoos, gorillas, or watching children in the midst of chaos and crowds. I will, however, comment on the crazy behavior of everyone on social media because, unfortunately, we have all become experts in that. People responded to this situation with a great deal of anger at all involved. Some called for the parents to have their children removed from their care, and there were even death threats. It caused me to reflect on why people responded in this manner. So, this post is not really about the gorilla situation at all; it is about what thoughts and emotions were behind people’s reactions and what that means for our lives.

After some reflection, I decided that it was likely that the main reason that people reacted with such vitriol is that they were afraid. It’s no secret that fear makes people do crazy and awful things, and this was no exception. Parents and others watched the video of the young boy with the gorilla and immediately thought about their own children or the children in their lives. They pictured what might have happened if the story had had a different ending. And it scared them. BUT, if they blamed the whole situation on the parents’ poor parenting skills, it allowed them to sleep at night. If they came up with a list of rules and regulations that should be put in place “so that this never happens again,” it allowed them to believe that future similar situations could be completely prevented, and they felt in control again. They could go to bed saying, with relief, “THAT would never happen to MY child. I would never be in that situation.” And it took away their fear. So the bashing continued, the demand for new rules and regulations continued, and everyone felt better about themselves, their lives, and the safety of their own children.

But, the truth is that we in America only live under the illusion that we are in control of everything. We believe that if we just work hard enough, take enough precautions, and put enough rules and legislation in place, we can keep ourselves and our children completely safe from all harm. But, that is a lie. You can be the best parent in the world and still lose a child. You can take every precaution and still see harm come to your child. We can legislate to the gills, and people will still find a way to cause pain and suffering to others. Even the best parent is not perfect and even the best situations can yield the worst outcomes. Why? Because the world is broken. It’s scary to say it, but the reality is that no matter what you do, you cannot ensure your child’s complete safety.

Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take reasonable precautions. And I’m not saying that the parents in this particular situation did everything perfectly; I honestly don’t know. And I’m not saying that some rules aren’t necessary and good. But, I do know that disease, accidents, death, and violence can happen to children of very capable parents when all of the right rules are in place.

So, that’s a scary thought. And it definitely raises some important questions about how we should respond to such a reality, especially in our world of extra-cautious behavior. Many well-meaning and loving parents, both Christian and non-Christian, have clearly responded by overreacting and overprotecting. While I understand such a response (and could easily imagine myself being guilty of the same thing), I have to wonder if that response is the best one. So, I posed some questions to myself, namely the following: What are the spiritual consequences of overprotecting our children?  In what ways do we harm our relationship with God by lying to ourselves about how safe we are? And, related to the first question, is protecting our children the most important thing that we can do for them?

What are the spiritual consequences of overprotecting our children?

Not long ago, I took some kids from my church to a local Christian camp for a retreat. At the start of the weekend, the camp staff made it clear that the kids would be exposed to a moderate amount of reasonable “danger” in their activities (I use the term loosely…we’re not talking Hunger Games here) over the course of the weekend and that the parent chaperones should resist the urge to jump in and rescue them. The parents nodded in agreement, but throughout the course of the weekend, a group of them couldn’t resist shielding their kids from any difficulty. I started to refer to this group as “the helicopter moms” (admittedly, that was not terribly nice), and watching them was fascinating. They complained about the lack of safety when one girl faced a challenge on a ropes course. The girl was fine (she ended up with a minor scratch), and most importantly, she overcame the challenge and grew because of it, which was, of course, the point. When a group of girls (including some from my own church) complained during free time that the kids were not being fair while playing tether ball, the moms jumped in and made a bunch of rules. (When the girls had complained to me, I encouraged them to figure it out for themselves.) It’s easy to see how a good desire to protect our children can result in the stunting of their development. The camp’s (right) philosophy is that children grow when they have to overcome adversity.

We must learn to recognize that our primary job as Christians is not to keep ourselves safe. It’s not even to provide safety for others, though we do that when we can. Instead, we are called to be present where God is present and point out his activity in the midst of pain and suffering. God is there in the midst of unsafe situations. Indeed, he put his Son in the most unsafe of situations on our behalf. He sent his Son to stare evil directly in the eye and overcome it. And by the power of his Spirit, he calls us to do the same thing. By keeping our children from this holy task, we do not include them in God’s mission, we do not honor their baptism, and we stunt their spiritual growth. They may end up being safe, but they do not end up being faithful, and they never grow into the people whom God has called them to be.

In what ways do we harm our relationship with God by lying to ourselves about how safe we are?

We Americans feel safe, generally. This makes us feel in control and independent from God. Third world parents don’t have this luxury. They know that no matter how good their parenting skills, their children are at high risk for disease, early death, or being victims of crimes. This is why the gospel spreads rapidly in these areas. The people are under no illusions about who is in control. We think that we are better off than they are (and perhaps in many ways we are), but in this way, they are better off than we are. Instead of elevating safety to be the highest good, we need to acknowledge our imperfections, our inadequacies, and our need for God’s intervention in our lives. We need to recognize God’s sovereignty and pray for his will to be done, even in the midst of unsafe situations. The truth is that we can never be in right relationship with God if we believe that we are the ones in control.

We need to acknowledge that God loves our children even more than we do, but that does not mean that he will always keep them out of harm’s way. What he’s doing in the world is so much bigger than simply keeping his children safe and comfortable.  His desire for them is not merely to survive, but to bring, through the power of his Spirit, his kingdom to bear on the earth. He will and does put all of his children in the line of fire to do just that. (Ever read the story of…well, almost everyone in the Bible?) When we in the church believe that God’s main mission is to keep his people safe and comfortable, we miss out on what he is really doing, and our relationship with him suffers.

Finally, is protecting our children the most important thing that we can do for them?

I recently heard a parent say that she didn’t want her church reaching out to those in need in its community because she didn’t want her children to be in contact with those kinds of people (addicts, criminals, etc.). In her own words, her primary goal as parent is to protect her children. I understood where she was coming from, but I was also sad for her. In an effort to protect her children, she is keeping them from the places where God is most at work and where God calls us to serve.

Of course it is a natural instinct for parents to protect their children. Their love for them drives them to do it, and certainly God has created humans this way in order to ensure that the species survives. But, I don’t think that protecting their kids is the highest calling that parents have, though it certainly is part of it. Instead, parents are to parent in the way that the Father parented his Son: not by removing their children from all harm, but by teaching them to be faithful in the midst of every situation and by calling them to bring hope and healing to a broken and hurting world. Is that hard? You bet. Is it counter-intuitive and counter-cultural? Sure thing. But is it our mission? I think so. Does it bear fruit? It does. It draws us closer to the Father and allows us to participate in his work in the world. It also shows children that their highest aspiration for their lives should not be mere survival, but that their purpose is to live the life that God has called them to live, even in the midst of danger.

 
I remember being at a conference a few years ago and one of the speakers said, “Don’t pray for God to keep you safe. Pray for him to make you dangerous!” He talked about how when his children were afraid of monsters under their bed, he never prayed for the monsters to go away. Instead, he prayed for the children to be brave. I’ve never forgotten this. As an anxious child, I prayed for God to keep me safe quite frequently. I’ve since changed my prayers and have asked God to make me dangerous. We become dangerous to the enemies of God when we act faithfully. So, this is my prayer for all of the children whom I know and love: not that they are kept safe from all harm but that they are equipped to stare darkness in the face and beam the light of Christ straight into it. While this may not keep them free from all adversity, it will shape them more and more into the image of Christ, and that is what I most desire for them.

Please don’t worry; I would not allow my child to play in a gorilla pit as a character-building exercise. I would, of course, do everything in my power to prevent such a thing from happening. I do not consider putting proper precautions in place at zoo exhibits and vigilantly watching children (though no parent can do so perfectly) to be “overprotection.” These are normal and good protective measures that should be in place and should have been in place in Cincinnati. My point is not that we should allow our children to enter into unsafe situations willy-nilly, but that we should not allow fear to rule our lives. More importantly, the fear should not be stilled by overprotection and countless rules; it should be stilled by trust in a loving God who is at work setting the world to rights. It is a dangerous place. But, praise be, we have a more dangerous God.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

– C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

An Ascension Day Devotional

Blessed Ascension Day! It is truly one of the most important and least celebrated holy days in the church year. Take a quick moment and use this devotional as you contemplate the mystery of the Ascension of Christ.

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Scriptures: Psalm 93; Luke 24:44-53

How often do we hear something along the lines of the following, “If God is really in charge, then why is there so much evil in the world?” As Christians, we struggle to understand how we can hold the following three premises together: 1) God is good, 2) God is all-powerful, and 3) Evil is real. Taken by themselves, we are confident in proclaiming that each statement is true. Put them together, and we do not know what to do, particularly in the midst of terrible, real evil.

These passages on the ascension can help shed some light on who is in control and how we can come to understand a world that seems to be completely out of it.

Psalm 93 reminds us that God is king. “The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty” (Psalm 93:1a). However, because of the witness of the present reality, this psalm also reminds us that we often face two temptations: that evil is really in control, or that we are really in control. Amid both of these temptations, we must proclaim the foundational truth in Psalm 93: God reigns. This means that, no matter what is going on, no matter what struggles we may be facing, we belong to God, and so does the world.

Likewise, Luke 24:44-53 gives us confidence in the fact that Jesus is ascended on our behalf. Jesus blesses the disciples and assures them that he will continue to care for them, even in his ascended state. In verse 49, he says, “And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” It is he who is in control. While the church is commissioned to do the work of Jesus here on earth, the church is not the equivalent of Jesus. Jesus is still Lord over the church and over the world. The church is the world’s servant, sent to proclaim the good news of forgiveness. Why does this matter? It matters because if the church is your Savior, you will be disappointed. But, if Jesus is your Savior, you will be free from despair. In his book, Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright states, “To embrace the ascension is to heave a huge sigh of relief, to give up the struggle to be God (and with it the inevitable despair at our constant failure), and to enjoy our status as creatures: image-bearing creatures, but creatures nonetheless.”

Psalm 93 was likely proclaimed during the time of the exile. Luke 24:44-53 took place during the in-between time, before the Spirit was sent at Pentecost, and was likely proclaimed during the first days of persecution of the church. Hearers of both passages were likely experiencing evil on a daily basis. Yet, the message remained the same: God reigns.

It is very often difficult to believe this, because it certainly does not seem as though God is in charge. (And, we think, if God is in charge, God could certainly be doing a better job!) In our minds, if God is in charge, then everything would be perfect. Since everything is not perfect, God must not be in charge. Yet, perhaps there is a third option, and this is the option that the writers of these passages had in mind. Perhaps we are simply in an already-not yet state, wherein the kingdom is here, but will come more fully as the church completes its mission. Again, N.T. Wright declares, “The kingdom will come as the church, energized by the Spirit, goes out into the world vulnerable, suffering, praising, praying, misunderstood, misjudged, vindicated, celebrating: always—as Paul puts it in one of his letters—bearing in the body the dying of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be displayed.”

Questions for reflection:

  • In the midst of our everyday toils and troubles, it is often difficult to see how God is at work. Where have you seen God at work lately?
  • In the face of real evil, how can the church faithfully bear witness to the reign of Jesus Christ without trivializing the suffering of others?

Prayer:

O God, thank you for reigning in my life and in the world. Please help me to see my role in your kingdom, that I might be one who bears your image and tells the world through my actions and words that Jesus has died, is risen, and now reigns at your right hand and on behalf of all of your children. Through Him, I pray. Amen.

Moneyball and the Missional Church

I love the movie Moneyball. I have a love of sports movies in general, and I love underdog movies, as well, and Moneyball certainly fits both of those categories. But, that’s not really why I love it. Every time that I watch Moneyball, it screams “CHURCH!” It’s all about ministry in the US today (if you look at it through those lenses). It inspires me to keep going when I just want to give in. So, I thought that I would write a blog post about some lessons that the missional church can learn from Moneyball. But, first, a re-cap of the movie’s plot:

Moneyball is based on the true story of the Oakland A’s baseball team. The A’s were facing a difficult challenge: they had a tiny budget compared to teams like the Yankees. Therefore, they weren’t able to get—and keep—the big-name players. So, the general manager, Billy Beane, decides to take a different approach. He realizes that he can’t put a team together the same way that teams like the Yankees do. So, he starts looking for a different model. Instead of buying big-name players, he focuses on buying runs. He hits all kinds of challenges on this road. But, in the end, he comes away with a winning team, a team that had a record-breaking, 20-game winning streak.

Now, when I’m making an analogy between Moneyball and the church, let’s be clear that I’m not talking about anything to do with money. I’m talking about the difference between the attractional church model (the old way of looking at things) and the missional church model (a new way of looking at things—actually, it’s an even older way of looking at things, but that’s neither here nor there). In the church, we often talk about things that don’t really matter anymore. “If we only had (fill in the blank…better children’s programs, a really charismatic youth pastor, exceptional music, etc., etc., etc.), then our church would thrive again!” These conversations are exactly like the conversations that the scouts have in the movie. They’re talking about things that simply do not matter anymore (a prospective player having a good body, an ugly girlfriend, or a funny way of throwing the ball). They should be talking about how to buy runs and therefore wins. But, they have a flawed understanding of how the game is played today. They’re still talking like they did when the financial playing field was more even between teams, back when money wasn’t the main focus. Billy Beane tries to change the conversation. And—amid struggles—he does.

And we can learn a lot from him. So, in no particular order, here are the top four things that the missional church can learn from Moneyball.

  1. No one—inside or outside your organization—is going to get what you’re doing. It’ll be harder to fight the people on the inside.

Billy Beane struggles with this throughout the entire movie. Once he embraces this new way of thinking and hires his new assistant, Peter Brand, who also embraces this way of thinking, he heads off and starts making decisions. No one understands what he’s doing, even after he explains it. And they all start going nuts. Billy asks the scouts, “What’s the problem that we’re trying to solve here?” They all start talking about how they need to replace their top players. He tells them that that is not the problem. It may be the surface problem, but it’s not the root problem. He says, “The problem we’re trying to solve is that there are rich teams and there are poor teams. Then there’s fifty feet of crap, and then there’s us. It’s an unfair game. And now we’ve been gutted. We’re like organ donors for the rich. Boston’s taken our kidneys, Yankees have taken our heart. And you guys just sit around talking the same old ‘good body’ nonsense like we’re selling jeans. Like we’re looking for Fabio. We’ve got to think differently. We are the last dog at the bowl. You see what happens to the runt of the litter? He dies.”

That’s the problem for the missional church movement, as well. The old guard is trying to solve the membership problem, the problem of getting butts in the pews and money in the plate. But, that isn’t the problem. It might be the surface problem, but the deeper problem is that the culture can no longer hear the gospel. We’re not speaking in words that they can understand. That’s the problem that we need to solve. Anyone can get butts in the pews. It takes more to transform lives. What’s more is that the more that we try to solve the surface problem without addressing the root problem, the closer we come to death.

Throughout the film, Billy continues to butt heads with the other leaders. Eventually, he has to fire one of his top scouts. He has to let go of some players who are preventing the field manager from playing in the way that Billy wants him to play. The field manager may be the toughest nut to crack. Billy puts a team together that, if played the way that they are designed to play, will win games. But, the manager refuses to play them that way because he doesn’t believe in the theory behind it. So, it fails. Billy tries to talk to him, but he ignores him and keeps doing the only thing that he knows how to do.

This happens in missional church thinking all the time. When one staff member or volunteer or even a small group within a church get the missional bug, they start making changes. And, most missional church people expect some resistance, especially from older people in the pews who are accustomed to a certain way of thinking about the church. But, what no one ever tells you is that it’s other leaders who will bring you down. You can design a missional ministry perfectly, but it will never be effective if it’s not implemented in the right way. And, many of the people in charge—in your congregation, in your presbytery, district, whatever—do not want it to be done in this new way. They will take what you’ve designed and they will apply it to the old model, and when it doesn’t work, they will point the finger at you. Which brings me to…

  1. When things go wrong, you will get the blame. When things go right, others will get—and willingly take—the credit.

There are scenes in the movie when Billy is listening to commentators on the radio. When the team is failing at the beginning, all fingers point to the general manager’s office. When they start to succeed, the field manager gets all of the credit. This is frustrating beyond belief to Billy’s assistant, Peter Brand. He knows that the field manager was the reason for the failure in the beginning and not at all the reason for the success toward the end. He asks Billy if he’s hearing what the commentators are saying. Billy just says, “All I heard was seven [wins] in a row.”

While I can’t tell anyone how to develop this kind of thick skin, I can say that this is exactly what is needed in order to do missional church work. If you’re in it for the credit, walk away now. If you can’t handle taking the blame when it’s completely undeserved, walk away now. It just comes with the territory. You have to be willing to be the villain and watch the real villain be heralded as the hero. It’s not easy.

The problem is that the movie ends well for Billy. He doesn’t get fired. In fact, he gets offered a very lucrative position with the Boston Red Sox (which he does not take). In the missional church life, you very well might get fired (if you’re a staff person), and you might be driven out of your church (if you’re a volunteer). The reason for this is…

  1. This way of thinking is a threat to those who have been doing it differently for so long.

When the Boston Red Sox offer Billy the position at the end of the season, they acknowledge that Billy has been beaten up for this way of thinking. They explain to him why what he’s done is a threat: (I’ve removed the curse word for this family-friendly blog and put in a slightly nicer word.) “It’s the threat of not just the way of doing business, but in their minds it’s threatening the game. But really what it’s threatening is their livelihoods, it’s threatening their jobs, it’s threatening the way that they do things. And every time that happens, whether it’s the government or a way of doing business or whatever it is, the people are holding the reins, have their hands on the switch. They go bat [crap] crazy.”

There are people in the church who have been working (or volunteering) in the church for many, many years. It’s been their life’s work and their passion. They’ve been doing everything that they know to do. And they’re still failing. Then, you come along and tell them that they’ve been doing it wrong for all that time. The threat of their life’s work being a total waste of time scares the living daylights out of them. They don’t want to face that reality. They would rather just get rid of you and keep the delusion that their way of doing things works. It’s easier to lie to themselves than it is to face the truth. And you are expendable. They will expend you. And then they will dig in their heels and continue to do the same thing that they’ve been doing, even more.

The problem with that is, of course, that it doesn’t further the Kingdom. They really do need to change their ways in order to bring the gospel to bear on their community. They really do need to face the fact that how they’ve been doing it isn’t working anymore. Some will. Most won’t. Keep going. Jesus will have his church. I recently heard a sermon where the preacher suggested that the real fear that people have is that they’ll discover that Jesus was there all along, working and ministering, without the help of any of us. Yeah. That’s a real threat. We like to think that we matter in this process. And, of course, we do…but probably not as much as we think that we do. Be sensitive to the fact that you’re criticizing how these people have spent their whole lives. And then gently and firmly coax them into a new way of being.

  1. You can’t do this alone. You have to get people on board.

Billy starts the season out without really explaining his vision to anyone. You get the impression that he just sort of expects it to be obvious and that he thinks that it doesn’t really matter if people get it. That changes midway through the film. There’s a montage of him explaining things to the players. He tells them that he wants them to walk more, he doesn’t want them stealing or bunting. They slowly start to get it, and things start to turn around. I’m not sure that he ever convinces the field manager or the scouts. The movie doesn’t really go into that. But, I think that the point is still the same: you need people on board. You need to cast a vision. You need a small group of people who get it and who will help you execute the plan. The main leaders may never get it. Work around them. You may find some unexpected partners. But, either way, you need a team.

There’s no easy way to do this missional church stuff. And nothing, not even Moneyball, can give us all of the answers. But, when it gets tough (and it WILL get tough), take some inspiration from this movie. A new way of doing things is always going to be a threat to those who are doing it the old way. But, for the last 2,000 years, the church has managed to speak to all different kinds of cultures in all different times and places. And by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, we can do it here and now, as well.

Do you have thoughts on Moneyball? What insights have you gained from the movie? Please share!

Image courtesy of Gualberto107 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Gualberto107 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Questions to consider:

  • In what ways is the missional church way of thinking a threat to my own congregation and its leaders?
  • How would I respond if I were to be ostracized for my thoughts on being missional?
  • Where is Jesus in all of this?

Parents Matter Most

One of my favorite shows on television is the show Parenthood. There’s something special about the Braverman family and their relationships. They all have major flaws, but they tackle real issues, and they do it together. In an episode that aired a couple of years ago, there was a scene in which a couple was receiving premarital counseling from a pastor. The pastor asked, “Have you both considered what religious instruction you will give your [five-year-old] child?” The husband-to-be replied, “Well, I think that we’re probably going to encourage him to decide what spiritual path he’d like to take…and make sure that he knows about all of the options.” I couldn’t help but think that this kind of response is likely a very common one, even among committed churchgoers. I chuckled to myself as I thought about all of the things that this particular parent would make sure that he passed on to his child, and yet when it came to faith, this father was too afraid or unsure to share his own beliefs with his son.

At my last church, I loved watching some of the children’s conversations on Sunday mornings in the fall. Why? Because they were almost always talking about college football. Each week, I witnessed some of our youngest children passionately debating about which was the superior football team: Auburn or Alabama. I’d be willing to bet that most of these children did not come to these beliefs on their own. I highly doubt that they sat down, studied the statistics and history of each team and came to a rational decision about which team was indeed superior. No, chances are that their parents have a strong love for their football team of choice and have passed that love on to their children. They have done so by talking about their team, sharing game time experiences with their children, proudly displaying their team’s colors, and expressing joy when their team wins and sadness when their team loses. The same principle applies when one is sharing one’s faith with children. Faith is caught more than it is taught.

The research is nearly unanimous: parents matter most when it comes to the faith formation of their children. If you want your children to know Jesus well, you have to know Jesus well. If you want your children to feel the love, peace, and joy of Jesus, you have to show them that you feel that love, peace, and joy. If you want your child to read God’s word, you have to open it up yourself and share it with them. In the same way that your child “caught” your love for football or barbeque or Dolly Parton, your child will “catch” your love for Jesus and, at some point, make it his/her own.

We  in the Church must recognize that parents are the primary Christian educators of their children. If we are fortunate, we see your children for an hour or so each week, and we do our best during that time to nurture their faith, instruct them in the essentials of our tradition, and encourage them to form Christian friendships with one another. However, as important as that time is, we must know that it plays second fiddle to what happens at home. So, we need to renew our commitment to parents and families. We need to give you more tools to talk about faith at home, more ways to ensure that church attendance is a priority for your family, and more opportunities to share your faith with your children. I recognize that many churches are not doing this. Many churches are saying, “Bring your kids to us! We’ve got great curriculum and kind teachers. We’ll teach them everything that they need to know.” As controversial as it may be for a church educator to say so, I’m telling you to run the other way from that kind of church. (Or, perhaps a better response is to talk to and challenge the church leadership about this approach.) If your church is putting all of their time, money, energy, and volunteers into programs for children that happen on their campus and zero time, money, energy, and volunteers into supporting parents and what happens at home, they do not have your children’s best interests at heart. (Don’t get me wrong; they may have great intentions. Many churches simply don’t know any better. But, the end result is the same: your children not having their faith nurtured in the most effective way.)

Again, parents matter most when it comes to faith formation. If that sounds daunting to you or if you’re worried about the ways in which you are (or are not) passing values on to your children, think about the other things that you teach them. Think about the ways that you have taught them to work hard, be honest, eat healthy, or stay active. Think about the love for X (reading, fishing, baking cookies, etc.) that you’ve instilled. It really is that easy to instill love for Jesus…it just takes some intentionality. But, when your children are surrounded by it, they will pick up on it.

It’s also never too late to start nurturing your child or grandchild in the faith. I grew up a Cleveland Browns fan, and Cleveland Browns fans are conditioned to hate the Pittsburgh Steelers. Well, lo and behold, after college, I moved to Pittsburgh, lived there through two Super Bowl wins, and ended up marrying a Steelers fan. While I still don’t bleed black and gold, it’s hard to hate them anymore. The love that my husband has for them and the joy that they bring to the people of Pittsburgh are infectious. I consistently find myself rooting them on (except for when they’re playing the Browns, of course).

Surely, love for Jesus can be—and is!—just as infectious!

Image courtesy of photostock / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of photostock / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Questions to consider

  • How is our church supporting parents and families and providing resources and tools for parents to use at home?
  • If you are a parent, think about all of the things that you have shared with, taught, and passed on to your children. Which ones “took?” Which ones didn’t? What is the most important thing that you hope that you have instilled?
  • Some parents put nurturing faith as a low priority for their children, but they allow them to go to church with grandparents or friends. Knowing that what happens at home is most important, how can the church reach out to these children and their parents?

Godly Goosebumps: Embodying Awe and Wonder

This week, I’ve been preparing to lead a workshop for parents on “parenting in the pew.” I’ve been pondering just how unique the church experience is. For so many parents, they consider it a victory if they have managed to keep their children quiet and well-behaved during worship. For many of them, taking their children to worship is akin to taking them to a business function: it’s not for the children, but they have to be there, so the parents need to keep them as invisible as possible and do whatever they need to do to make it through. I wonder if it’s possible to shift this thinking so that taking children to worship is seen as an opportunity to introduce them to and participate with them in an amazing, wonder-filled experience of God.

About a year ago, my husband and I, along with my in-laws, went to Disney World. It was the first time that I had been there since I was five years old. We had a great time, and we did a lot of observing. We paid close attention to parents and kids, noting who was struggling, who was having fun, and what the factors seemed to be. (For your information, having children under the age of four, missing naptimes, and using strollers seemed to account for most of the challenges.). We also watched the Disney cast members very closely to see how they were being hospitable, paying attention to every detail, and creating this very special environment.

One of my favorite things to watch was the way that parents were demonstrating awe and wonder to their children. This is not hard to do at Disney. Almost everywhere you look, there is something amazing. However, these parents were not just doing it because of the amazing things; they were helping their children to have a better experience. They were joining in on the fun and participating in the magic so that their children could enjoy the encounter to the fullest. It was a lot of fun watching big, tough dads wear silly hats and act like star-struck kids when a Disney character walked by. And their children were better for it. It gave them permission to exhibit joy and awe and wonder, as well, and it created a meaningful, lasting memory.

However, although I have no hard evidence to prove it, my hunch is that these same parents have a totally different posture when they take their children to church. Instead of pointing and oohing and ahhing over the amazing things that are going on around them, they are probably silently encouraging their children to be still and distract themselves with a quiet activity. Why?

A few reasons, I think:

1.    Parents misunderstand the church’s expectations.

Most parents believe that the church wants them to bring their children to worship, but they also believe that the church expects their children to behave as adults during worship (sadly, many churches do have this expectation). If you brought your children to a children’s museum, would you expect them to calmly and quietly walk through the museum without touching anything? Would you want them to sit in the corner of the museum and distract themselves with a coloring sheet or iPad? No, you would expect them and want them to interact with the objects in the museum. You would want them to be delighted and fascinated by what they were seeing and doing. This is because you know that a children’s museum is for children.

Well, guess what? Worship is for children, too! It’s for all of God’s people. And when children are in worship, we should expect them to behave as children. This doesn’t mean that they should be running around the sanctuary screaming. It does mean that they will wiggle and ask questions and sing loudly and off-key. Making it clear to parents that children are encouraged to be themselves during worship is hard. It takes more than a passing comment by the pastor or other leader. It involves a shift in culture, and it takes time. But, if we consistently affirm children’s presence and participation in worship (and give parents some helpful resources for parenting in the pew), over time, the expectations will change and parents will begin to see worship as a very special experience in which they get to guide their children.

2.    Parents (and other adults) have lost their own sense of wonder and awe about what is happening in worship.

There is no question that everything at Disney is absolutely amazing, and there is something magical about it that I can’t quite explain. However, at the end of the day, it is a man-made place with actors playing parts (quite convincingly, I admit!). But, in worship, what’s happening is incredibly real. In fact, it’s even more real than anything else that we experience in our lives, because in worship, we are the restored people who God called us to be, rather than the broken people who we act like each and every day.

I’ve often asked parents the following, “What if I told you that the God who made heaven and earth, who put the stars in the sky, who makes the trees grow, who knows every hair on your head…what if I told you that that God was standing outside the door right now and about to walk in?” You’d be amazed, you’d have a little knot of excitement (and perhaps a bit of fear) in your stomach. If your children were with you, you’d hold them a little closer and point to the doorway with anticipation. Well, that’s exactly what happens every week in worship. God is really, truly present with us. But, instead of us pointing him out to the children around us, we tell them to distract themselves with a quiet game. If we truly believe that God is present and showing himself to us, we won’t let our kids sit there and play on their iPods. We’ll be thrilled to share this experience with them and won’t want them to miss a second of it. This is our chance to introduce our children to God and help them to see where he is at work in their lives and in the world around them. Let’s not miss it.

3. The church does not assist parents in exhibiting awe and wonder.

The thing about the Disney cast members is that they never make you feel stupid. When we were there, we weren’t seeking out photo opportunities with all of the characters. However, my mother-in-law and I did manage to score a photo with Belle. When we got to Belle, my mother-in-law said, “My granddaughter (referring to my niece) just loves you!” The cast member playing Belle could have laughed and made a comment, but she never broke character. She smiled and told us to tell my niece that she said hello. She brought us into the magical world, and for a moment, even I believed that we were taking a photo with a real-life princess.

Church members, however, are often quite different. Many are kind and offer encouraging smiles and compliments. Some are less kind and offer an evil eye or a disparaging remark. But, very few participate in the magic with you and make you feel like you are sharing an experience together. I’m as guilty as the next person. Even when I am in awe of the mystery that is happening in my midst, I don’t want to step on parents’ toes by saying anything to their children, especially if the children don’t know me very well. When you offer to assist parents, it can come across as though you’re criticizing their parenting skills or as though you think that they can’t handle it. This, again, requires a shift in culture.

The church leadership has the challenge to create a culture in which this kind of community is genuine and expected, where everyone sees themselves like a Disney cast member who is playing a part in pointing out the magic. At Disney, even the folks sweeping the streets are in character. And, they are always willing to lend a hand. If you ask for directions or they see you struggling, they never make you feel silly or embarrassed. They’re right there with you, showing you grace and helping you find your way. In my observations, parents were not offended and did not take their offer of help as criticism of their parenting skills. They were grateful to have these partners on the journey. Our churches can, and should, offer the same sense of community.

What happens in worship is truly amazing. It may even be more amazing than Disney World. It may even be the most amazing thing to ever happen. The God who made us comes to be with us. Ordinary things like water and bread and wine become extraordinary. Sins too heavy to bear are forgiven. Normal, everyday sinners become the holiest of saints. Tiny, helpless babies are declared to be children of God. A morsel of bread and a drop of wine inexplicably nourish our souls. Heaven, which often seems so far away, comes near. Can you think of anything more extraordinary? Can you think of anything that you’d rather share with your children?

 “But Jesus intervened: ‘Let the children alone; don’t prevent them from coming to me. God’s kingdom is made up of people like these.’” (Matthew 19:14, The Message)

Courtesy of Miriam Smit

Courtesy of Miriam Smit

Questions to consider:

  • In what ways can our church encourage parents and children during worship?
  • What are some steps that we can take to recover our own sense of wonder and awe about worship?
  • Think back about an experience that you have had (either as a child or as an adult) where you experienced awe and wonder. What made it special?

Magical Moments in Worship to Point Out to Children:

  • When the acolytes bring the light in (and out)
  • When the organist plays and the choir sings the anthem
  • When the bread is broken
  • When a baby (or adult!) is baptized
  • When we pray for God to speak to us during the sermon
  • When the sunlight streams through the windows
  • When someone helps someone who needs it

Translating the Gospel

I recently had a conversation with a pastor who was frustrated with his congregation. His church had an opportunity to minister to 14 young couples, but other than the pastor and his wife, no one seemed to be all that interested in getting to know the couples. He explained that these young people were, for the most part, professionals who worked in the church’s community. They were the kind of people whom any declining, mainline church would love to have as part of their faith community. By the pastor’s measure, the church members should have been falling all over themselves to get to know these people. He was astounded that the church elders had no interest in finding out who these young people are, what motivates them, or what they believe.

I, however, was not surprised. This attitude is very typical of declining, mainline churches. They are more than happy to welcome those who are different than they are (young people, people of another cultural background, people of another socioeconomic background, etc.), provided that they enter in on the church’s terms. As long as these individuals assimilate to the church’s way of being, believing, worshiping, etc., they will happily get to know them. But, they have no intention of meeting these individuals on their own terms.

When confronted about this phenomenon, these church members will often respond by saying something along the lines of, “These young people are so consumer-driven. That’s not what the church is about.” True enough. But, what ARE we about?

We ARE about bringing the gospel to bear on the culture. In every time and place, God has called churches to translate the gospel message to the communities around them. And many declining, mainline churches in the US today are failing miserably, because we have not learned about or engaged with the culture. Instead, we are assuming that the culture is the same as it was in the 1950s, so we’re ministering that way. We’re speaking that language. But, the reality is that the culture has changed, and we need to master a new language in order to translate the gospel to a new generation of people who desperately need to hear it in their native tongue.

Imagine with me for a moment. Imagine that I have shared with you that God has called me to be a missionary to Mars (it turns out that there are a whole lot of people living there, you know!). I’m really excited about this, and I tell you about my plans to go to a specific region on Mars and build a church. But, I decide that I’m not going to learn the language. I’m not going to learn about the history or the traditions or the culture. I’m pretty convinced that just by my being there (and perhaps by being friendly), the people of Mars will come to me. And, not only will they come, they will learn my language and my history and my traditions and my culture. Once they do all of that, I’ll be able to share the good news with them. This is my plan for reaching the people in this region of Mars. Sounds good, right?

No. It sounds ridiculous. It IS ridiculous. And a church in 21st century North America that refuses to learn about the surrounding culture sounds just as ridiculous. Every church is a missionary in its community, and that means that it must learn about the community. It means learning about its specific region and neighborhood and the people who live and work there, and it means learning about this generation of young adults. It doesn’t mean condoning their beliefs, behaviors, or assumptions. But, it does mean understanding them.

It’s true. Millennials are a narcissistic bunch. This is the “me” generation, the “selfie” generation, the generation who had helicopter parents, and the generation in which everyone got a trophy. That level of narcissism can be off-putting, especially for those in the Greatest Generation. But, off-putting or not, if you’re going to translate the gospel for them, you have to know them.

The good news is that there are many positive qualities about millennials. In fact, the positives may outweigh the negatives. They are an incredibly hopeful bunch. They are positive about the future. They believe that change is possible. (Our president won his election on “hope” and “change.” His campaign folks chose those words intentionally. They resonate with this generation.) Millennials are not nearly as cynical as those Gen Xers. They believe that their whole life should be integrated, and they want to have an impact on the world through their work, lives, and families.

When millennials have faith at the center of their lives, they can have a tremendous influence in the world. But, until the churches in their communities learn about them and begin to translate the gospel into a language that they can understand, we will have a generation of people who never experience the transforming power of Jesus Christ.

Church, it’s time to learn about this rapidly-changing culture and to begin to speak a new language. Let’s share some ideas about where to begin.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Questions to consider:

  • In what ways is our church like the church that is mentioned at the beginning of this post?
  • What are some steps that we can take to begin to learn more about and engage with our community?
  • What churches are doing this well? What can we learn from them? (I think that Tim Keller and the folks at Redeemer Presbyterian in NYC are doing a great job and would be a great place to start.)