The Year (2016) in Review

This is the time to recap the year that was.

There are a number of ways to do it, many of which are interesting. You can look at a year in terms of notable deaths, viral events, political rises and falls…

But how do you really get a 12-month snapshot of a culture's zeitgeist?

I would argue for two words: Google searches.

I'm not saying that this will be what historians will mark in 10, much less 100 years… even less what is most significant. But I will say that it may be the clearest window into our current soul.

So here we go with a few peeks into our inner world, courtesy of Google itself.

Top 10 Trending Searches:

  1. Powerball
  2. Prince
  3. Hurricane Matthew
  4. Pokémon Go
  5. Sliter.io
  6. Olympics
  7. David Bowie
  8. Donald Trump
  9. Election
  10. Hillary Clinton

Top 10 "How To…?" Searches:

  1. How to play Pokémon Go?
  2. How to register to vote?
  3. How to play Powerball?
  4. How to make slime?
  5. How to move to Canada?
  6. How to battle in Pokémon Go?
  7. How to appear funny?
  8. How to catch Pokémon Go?
  9. How to vote early?
  10. How to use Snapchat filters?

Top 10 "What is…?" Questions:

  1. What is Pokémon Go?
  2. What is a Caucus?
  3. What is Brexit?
  4. What are electoral votes?
  5. What is the Electoral College?
  6. What is Aleppo?
  7. What is the mannequin challenge?
  8. What is the European Union?
  9. What is Citizens United?
  10. What is a Superdelegate?

And finally, the Top 10 People of 2016 we were interested in:

  1. Donald Trump
  2. Hillary Clinton
  3. Michael Phelps
  4. Bernie Sanders
  5. Steven Avery
  6. Ryan Lochte
  7. Simone Biles
  8. Cam Newton
  9. Usain Bolt
  10. Kevin Durant

Welcome to our world.

James Emery White


Sources

See the "Year in Search in 2016" for the United States, Google, read online.

Best Toys Ever

Wired magazine ran an article on the five best toys ever. Wired is one of the most innovative, bleeding-edge publications you'll read to learn about all things technological. Which is why, at first, the list surprised me, but then I realized their angle and couldn't help but appreciate their wisdom.

Here's the list:

1. Stick

2. Box

3. String

4. Cardboard Tube

5. Dirt

Anybody want to argue with them? I doubt it.

It's an important reminder that the best things in life – and often in ministry, leadership, business and family – are the simple things.

The dilemma is how our culture seems to refuse to give simplicity a place.

But think about when it insists on intruding and the wake it leaves behind.

For example, imagine a snowstorm brings your town to a standstill. You stocked up on bread and milk and a few other things you didn't really need, so when the storm hits you settle in. The power goes out, so you light candles and gather by the fireplace for warmth. Board games that have been gathering dust for years are pulled out. You play them and have more fun than you can remember. You venture outside and actually play – throwing snowballs, making snow angels, building a snowman.

It is golden.

You will probably talk, years later, about that magic night and how you'd give almost anything to go back and relive it, and wish there was a way to recreate it in the here and now.

In a complex, always "on" world, perhaps what we need to remember is that we need to intentionally unplug every now and then.

Even if it is just to remember that the best toys in the world – like the best times – are the simplest.

And in truth, the most available.

That is my holiday wish for you. May you enjoy the simplicity and holiness that resides in the stillness between Christmas and the new year.

And maybe have some fun with a leftover box or two.

James Emery White


Sources

Jonathan Liu, "The 5 Best Toys of All Time," Wired, January 31, 2011, read online.

Editor's Note
This blog was originally published in 2011. The Church & Culture Team thought you would enjoy this annual tradition once again. Merry Christmas!

Closed for Christmas

Editor's Note: This blog was last posted in December 2011, which was the last time Christmas fell on a Sunday. The Church & Culture Team felt it appropriate to offer again this year.

Many churches, finding that Christmas falls on a Sunday this year, are choosing to scale back their services or even cancel them in light of the holiday.

"This is a consumer mentality at work: 'Let's not impose the church on people. Let's not make church in any way inconvenient,'" offered David Wells, professor of history and systematic theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. "I think what this does is feed into the individualism that is found throughout American culture, where everyone does their own thing."

Fuller Theological Seminary professor Robert K. Johnston worries that another Christmas tradition is fading: "What's going on here is a redefinition of Christmas as a time of family celebration rather than as a time of the community [faithfully] celebrating the birth of the Savior. There is a risk that we will lose one more of our Christian rituals, one that's at the heart of our faith." Ben Witherington III, professor of New Testament interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary, called it a "capitulation to narcissism."

It didn't help that some of the megachurch spokespersons gave less than helpful answers as to why – such as the desire to cater to the family (which could hold true on any other Sunday as well) or simply to be "lifestyle-friendly," which positions them to charges of wholesale capitulation to culture. Even worse was the response that church services would be cared for through DVDs, which is jolting to anyone with even the barest of theological sensitivities to the doctrine of the church and its worship.

But somebody needs to call "time out" for a minute, because neither side is getting this one right. The critics are being too quick on the draw, and the reasoning offered by the churches cancelling their services isn't what best validates their choice.

First, evangelical churches of all kinds throughout the United States have seldom held services on Christmas Day even when it has not fallen on a Sunday (a tradition that dates back to the Puritans).

Second, marking Christmas has never been tied to a Sunday-specific celebration (as with Easter). If there is a day that has uniformly been seized by churches to celebrate the birth of Christ, it has been Christmas Eve, and the large churches being chastised for not having Sunday services on the 25th are planning on offering numerous services on the 24th.

Third, it is not simply the megachurches who are doing this – churches of all types are, at the very least, scaling back their service offerings for the 25th – so making this about a megachurch sellout is unfair.

Finally, some of the rhetoric criticizing churches for opting out of services on the 25th skates dangerously close to Sabbatarianism, with a fair dose of legalism to boot. To insist that we must meet on a Sunday – any Sunday – can be debated. Early church records show a preference for worship on the "Lord's Day," but only the 2nd century church manual – the Didache – directed Christians to meet at that time. No day was set aside in Gentile Christianity for worship until the time of Constantine and the institutionalization of the church, but nowhere is it directly commanded in Scripture.

So are we admonished to gather together as believers? Yes.

But not necessarily on a Sunday morning.

For many years, Christmas Eve has been the day of choice for the communal celebration among Christians of the birth of Christ. Celebrations could be held on Christmas Day, but very few would come. If one cares about leading the church to celebrate the birth of Christ, they should go with the hundreds or even thousands that can assemble on Christmas Eve against the handful they might be able to engage on Christmas Day – particularly since there is the biblical freedom to do so.

This isn't compromise, it is common sense.

But it is a moot point for most churches. The volunteer base needed for a Christmas Day service simply cannot be met. As I joked with one reporter, the critics who want to insist on a Christmas Day service have no intention of being the one sitting in the nursery watching someone else's child. They may not have any intention of attending at all. I recall a deacon in the church I pastored while in seminary insisting on a Sunday night service on Super Bowl Sunday. We had the service, and he stayed home to watch the Super Bowl.

The larger issue, of course, is how best to address the valid cultural concerns expressed by individuals such as Wells, Johnston and Witherington, who are well-intentioned and justifiably concerned about the world in which we live and what it might be doing to the church.

My contention is that they have the right description of a cultural malady – materialism, individualism and consumerism – but the wrong diagnosis (that it is demonstrated by whether you go to church on December 24 vs. December 25), and have certainly applied it to the wrong patient (the churches choosing to scale back or cancel on the 25th). This makes their prescription – that to fight the culture war we should have services on the 25th – all the more ineffective.

We will not keep Christ in Christmas through a Christmas Day service – whether on a Sunday or any other day of the week.

We will keep Christ in Christmas by working to keep His birth in the center of our hearts and celebrations, as Christmas Eve services will most certainly do.

We will keep Christ in Christmas by avoiding the materialism our culture places upon the holiday season.

We will keep Christ in Christmas, most of all, by reaching out to individuals within our culture for Christ so that one day they may celebrate His birth with us…

… whenever it is we meet to do it.

James Emery White


Sources

Rachel Zoll, "Some megachurches closing for Christmas," Associated Press, December 6, 2005, read online.

Frank E. Lockwood, "Why do churches close on Sunday?", Kentucky Herald-Leader, December 4, 2005, read online.

Manya A. Brachear, "Evangelical churches such as suburban Willow Creek will close on Christmas so members can focus on family," Chicago Tribune, December 6, 2005, read online.

Ken Garfield, "No church today; it's Christmas," The Charlotte Observer, December 7, 2005.

Laurie Goodstein, "When Christmas falls on Sunday, megachurches take the day off," The New York Times, December 9, 2005, read online.

Skye Jethani, "Leader's insight: Closed for Christmas," Christianity Today, December 12, 2005, read online.

Giving to Christ at Christmas

What is the most important thing you can do this Christmas?

There's a long list to consider, to be sure. Let's bracket off honoring the birth of Christ by attending a church service celebrating the event, as this should be a given. What else is there to consider?

For many years, I've felt that the single-most important act of the holidays is to give to Christ at Christmas.

Since 1994, those who attend Mecklenburg Community Church (Meck) have attempted to honor the gift God gave us in the Christ child through our annual Giving to Christ at Christmas offering. The idea is simple: We give gifts at Christmas in celebration and honor of the birthday of Jesus, so we should begin our gift-giving with Him.

For me, it all began with a simple editorial cartoon I saw while in seminary that is now reprinted every Christmas Eve in the Louisville Courier-Journalnewspaper. Or at least, it used to be annually (I hope it still is.).

It was so clear to me that this is what Giving to Christ at Christmas should be all about. So every Christmas, Meck comes together as a church to give the most generous, one-time cash gift we can – above and beyond our normal giving – as a direct gift to Christ Himself at Christmas. The money is then used strategically for the extension of His mission on earth.

Over the years, through Giving to Christ at Christmas, we have rebuilt orphanages, supplied relief to hurricane survivors in North & Central America, provided safe houses for girls rescued from human trafficking, and helped the poor and needy in our city. 

Giving to Christ at Christmas has also been used to give ongoing, strategic support to the building, development and payment of our campuses, freeing-up our annual budget to serve the daily needs of ministry and outreach to thousands of families in our community.

Every year we turn to God for leadership and discernment as to where this offering should be invested.

So once again this Christmas, I'll do all I can to encourage people to give to Christ. That means I want to encourage you, too, to do the same through whatever local church of which you are a part. I know that you are bombarded with requests to give to a number of causes over the holiday season. Many might be worthy, but most will not represent truly giving to Christ.

And that's what Christmas is all about.

James Emery White

On Mission for Christmas

Toys "R" Us wants you for Christmas.

I remember reading an article about a very targeted plan by the toy giant to "invade the mall [during the] holiday season, opening 600 'Express' stores in malls and other shopping centers around the country, more than six times [the previous] year's count, and hiring 10,000 seasonal workers."

During a time of economic downturn, then-CEO Gerald Storch saw this as a necessary "aggressive action" plan.

The company indeed went into action and the question simply became, "How big can we make this?"

Which led me to wonder, how big can we make Christmas?

Or more specifically, Christmas Eve?

Evangelical churches of all kinds throughout the United States have seldom held services on Christmas Day when it has not fallen on a Sunday (a tradition that dates back to the Puritans). In fact, marking Christmas has never been tied to a Sunday-specific celebration (as with Easter).

If there is a day that has uniformly been seized by churches to celebrate the birth of Christ, it has been Christmas Eve. For many years, Christmas Eve has been the day of choice for the communal celebration among Christians of the birth of Christ.

Christmas Eve services are a last bastion against the rampant materialism and secularism that threatens to overwhelm the true meaning of the season, and serve to keep the birth of Christ in the center of our hearts and celebrations.

They are also one of the most strategic ways we can reach out to individuals for Christ so that one day they may celebrate His birth with us in the fullness of the new birth He will bring to their life. Christmas Eve really is one of the best times to reach out to the unchurched in a culture that, for now at least, still draws them to attend such services.

As a result, we need to ask ourselves – as Toys "R" Us did – "How big can we make this?"

And by how big can we make this, I mean:

How many people can we reach for Christ who wouldn't darken the doorstep of a church any other time of the year?

How can we most strategically remind them of the reason for the season in a way their latest trip to the mall did not?

If they naturally turn their thoughts to church and Jesus, how can we serve those inclinations and let this Christmas Eve mark the advent of Christ in their life?

Our Christmas Eve services are planned months in advance, staff is out in full force, we employ hundreds of volunteers, we give a present to all in attendance (usually a book to serve a spiritual search or journey), and we offer a treat (like cookies and hot cocoa) after the service.

This year we will offer 18 services over six days and four campuses. A lot of effort, I know. But the way we figure it, there was a lot of effort in the incarnation, and it was for more than a Christmas card.

It was, as the angel said, to bring "good news of great joy for all the people."

So how big are we going to make it?

As big as we can.

James Emery White


Sources

Mae Anderson, "Toys 'R' Us opening 600 holiday stores in malls, hiring 10,000," USA Today, September 9, 2010, read online.

Editor's Note
This blog was originally published in 2010. The Church & Culture Team brings this blog annually as church's prepare for their Christmas Eve services.

Three Questions Every Small Group Ministry Must Answer

Most churches have some kind of small group ministry, whether a traditional Sunday School format or small groups meeting on various days and times throughout the community.

Regardless of the type of small group ministry you may have, there are three foundational questions that must be settled for maximum effectiveness and clear focus – yet seldom are. And they are foundational questions because they speak to the heart of your philosophy of ministry.

Here they are:

1. Will we be a church of small groups, or a church with small groups?

If you are a church of small groups, then you are intentionally trying to have every single person in a small group unit. If you are a church with small groups, then you have a small group ministry available to any and all interested parties.

There was a season a few years back when some who espoused the "of" philosophy did so with a bit of spiritual arrogance. Groups, and being in one, was seen as a test of orthodoxy. The truth is that however much you might believe in the efficacy of being part of a small group, it is not a biblical directive. There is no "Thou shalt be grouped" in the Bible. Instead, you have reference to the "one anothers" – a series of directives that are meant to be played out in the church's community. Small groups are one way of doing it, but only one. Small groups are a methodology; a means to an end. The key is the "one anothers," not whether you have, or are in, a small group.

I think the reason I hear less of the "of" mantra of late is because while it sounded good, it was not realistic. I do not know of a single church outside of, say, South Korea (where the idea was first popularized to the Western church) where it has been achieved. The "meta model," as it has often been called, just didn't translate to American culture.

Further, many leaders have discovered a simple but important truth: Small groups are needed by people who need small groups. In other words, they aren't for everyone. Those who like them and are served by them, swear by them.

Those that aren't swear at them.

Many leaders are finding that what does reach the vast majority of attenders are serving teams. These are groups built around volunteer ministries that take time to connect with each other, and serve each other, as part of the serving experience. So a group of individuals preparing to serve on a Guest Services team would have a "huddle" on the front end, share prayer requests, introduce new members or celebrate new births.

At Mecklenburg Community Church (Meck), we've made the decision to be a church with small groups. We find that there are many who find them immensely beneficial. Many more are served by a short-term, 6-week small group experience that equips them with friendships. Others are most comfortable with a serving team. But regardless, all are challenged to practice the "one anothers" in the context of community.

2. Will our small groups be primarily for discipleship or community?

At first, you might disagree with the question, seeing it as a false dichotomy. But after many years in ministry, I am more convinced than ever that it is very difficult for a small group to optimally pursue both. They are simply two very different animals. And as I've talked with other seasoned leaders, most would agree.

If a group is primarily about discipleship, it is very curriculum driven. It is all about the study, the material, the depth. If the group is primarily about community, it is about relationships, spans of care and assimilation. The curriculum, while usually present, is more of a means to that end.

At Meck, while there is a discipleship component to all of our small groups, we view them primarily as community groups – a way for people to make friends, practice the "one anothers," give and receive support, and give and receive spiritual encouragement.

And for those who ask, "So where/when do you do focused discipleship?", that's through our Meck Institute, which offers a wide range of classes, seminars and experiences completely designed for optimal growth in life and knowledge, from learning how to pray or read the Bible, all the way up to seminary-level courses on systematic theology.

3. Will our small groups be "closed" or "open"?

A "closed" small group is just that – closed. No new members are allowed. The idea is for that small group to stay as that group, go long and deep, build trust and share intimately. And there can be little doubt that there is a comfort level in that, and no doubt some good.

An "open" group is one that has the philosophy of always welcoming someone new. Sometimes called the "empty chair" philosophy, there is always a spot for someone to come for the first time. As the group inevitably grows, it develops new leaders and launches new groups. The key is that small groups become integral to the assimilation of new attenders to the church, and the multiplication of new groups to accommodate ongoing growth.

Meck is an "open" group church. If we sense a resistance within a small group to add new members or, even if they want to stay together, if there is an unwillingness to develop new leaders from a group in order to launch new groups, we will have pastoral conversations with the small group leader(s) to ensure that every group holds to this philosophy. "Open" groups keep the mission in focus and can lead to healthier growth within the small groups ministry.

So there are your three questions. And in case you haven't noticed, there is a thread that connects all three questions. If your groups are about discipleship, you will probably lean toward having them be closed. And if that's the basket where you are putting your discipleship apples, you will probably want to lean as much as possible to the "of" instead of the "with" approach.

Likewise, if you have a multi-faceted approach to discipleship, or have it concentrated in another area, then you will seize the power of small groups and serving teams for assimilation and community, which is in many ways a small group's sweet spot. This will make you a "with" small group church and, obviously, an open one.

The point is not to embrace Meck's philosophy on these three questions – it is to have a philosophy that you have thoughtfully and intentionally embraced. Without such a settled philosophy, your small groups will blow with the wind, and each one will take it upon itself to constitute its identity and intent.

That is not good leadership and will blunt the full potential of groups in your church.

James Emery White