The Year (Really) In Review

This is the time to recap the year that was.

There are a number of ways to do it, all 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 twelve-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 “What” questions from 2013:

1.      What is twerking?

2.      What is ricin?

3.      What is DOMA?

4.      What is Molly?

5.      What is gluten?

6.      What is sequestration?

7.      What is Obamacare?

8.      What is lupus?

9.      What is Snapchat?

10.    What is bitcoin?

Top trending searches in 2013 from around the world:

1.       Nelson Mandela

2.       Paul Walker

3.       iPhone 5S

4.       Cory Monteith

5.       Harlem Shake

6.       Boston Marathon

7.       Royal baby

8.       Samsung Galaxy S4

9.       PlayStation 4

10.     North Korea

Top “life advice” searches:

1.       How to tie a tie

2.       How to file

3.       How to get a passport

4.       How to blog

5.       How to knit

6.       How to kiss

7.       How to flirt

8.       How to whistle

9.       How to un-jailbreak

10.     How to Vader

And finally, the people we were interested in:

1.      Paul Walker

2.       Cory Monteith

3.       Nelson Mandela

4.       Aaron Hernandez

5.       Adrian Peterson

6.       Miley Cyrus

7.       James Gandolfini

8.       Paula Deen

9.       Mindy McCready

10.     Trayvon Martin

Welcome to our world.

James Emery White

 

 

Sources

“What did the world search for in 2013?”, Google.com, read online.

The Real Christmas Carol

(Editor’s Note: This blog was originally published in 2010. It is a favorite of the ChurchandCulture.org Team and we thought you would enjoy reading it again this year.)

Most people have seen one or more versions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Hands down, it is among my favorite Christmas tales: the story of Ebenezer Scrooge having his conscience reawakened through the apparition of his former partner, Jacob Marley, and the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future.

I like the characters.

I like the Victorian-era Christmas charm, complete with frosted windows, mistletoe and plum pudding.

I love the streets of Old London.

But when I first read the novel itself, after viewing various editions of the movie, I was shocked. Scrooge was not the buffoonish, almost cartoon-like character some of the movies made him out to be.

He was genuinely evil. Cruel. Malicious. He was a dark and sinister man. The story actually reads more like a Stephen King novel.

When you study the era itself that Dickens wrote about – and he published A Christmas Carol in 1843 as a social statement against harsh child labor practices – you realize that it was dark and evil as well.

Historian Lisa Toland once wrote a fascinating essay on the reality behind the story.

Almost 75% of London’s population was considered working class, many of them children laboring in the factories. In fact, every member of a family had to work in order to survive. Dickens himself worked as a young boy to support his family while his parents were in debtor’s prison.

The time was known as the Hungry Forties, because there was a depression along with a time of poor harvests. The London skyline was little more than smokestacks putting out clouds of sooty grit that covered rooftops and the cheeks of the young chimney sweeps.

It was the coal-dependent nature of these factories that created the famed London Fog. It wasn’t fog at all, but a combination of smoke and soot and grit. The streets were covered in rainwater, the contents of chamber pots, and animal waste. Rats were abundant.

Small, often emaciated children sold flowers and matches while the wealthy class’s horse-drawn carriages swept past. London’s poor were forced into shrinking housing districts. Multiple families lived in single rooms in rundown buildings.

That was Dickens’ London.

And people had turned a blind eye, because supposedly there were “services.” When the two men ask Scrooge for money, and he says, “Are there no prisons? And the Union workhouses? Are they still open?...The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigor, then?” There is much there that we fail to understand.

What makes Scrooge’s comments so biting is that the Poor Law, with its accompanying workhouses, were despised by the poor. The driving principle was to make the conditions in those places worse than how they would have lived and worked had they had a job. And in trying to determine who did deserve to go there, the group that fell through the cracks was children. The father or mother would be sent to the workhouse, leaving the children alone to beg in the streets. 

Or worse.

If you died while laboring in a workhouse, your body was automatically turned over for dissection. You wouldn’t even receive a burial. The conditions were so bad, and people there were treated so poorly, that many of London’s poor chose to beg on the streets or enter into prostitution in order to avoid them.

From that darkness, Dickens gives us a tale of redemption.

The story of someone being saved.

There is another story we tend to romanticize.

We’ve all seen the Christmas cards that go out; pictures of Mary in flowing robes, gentle animals gazing lovingly down on the baby, who is always blue-eyed, blonde-haired, and while supposedly newborn, has the look and weight of a six-month old.

That's not the way it was.

They were desperate to find a place for her to give birth, and couldn’t find one. They ended up in an outdoor livestock area. Unclean, unkept, unwelcome. Tradition, dating back to Justin Martyr in the second century, says it was probably some kind of cave. Smelly, damp, cold.

They had to use a feeding trough as a bassinette. The word “manger” is very warm and fuzzy, but don't romanticize it - a manger was a feeding trough for the animals. 

This was a desperately stark and sad scene.

And lonely.

The Bible tells us that Mary wrapped the baby in cloths. That was common for the day.  Long strips of cloth that were used to wrap the baby tight and keep their legs and arms straight and secure. The process was called swaddling.

It tells us something of the lonely nature of Mary's motherhood that Luke records that she was the one who wrapped Jesus up after His birth - there was no midwife or relative helping, which would have been the norm.

And she was young. Very young.

Engagement usually took place immediately after entering puberty, so Mary may have just entered her teens - 13, 14, or at the most 15.

And from that darkness, we also are given a picture of redemption.

Another story about being saved.

Another story that can be romanticized, but was very, very real.

Real in a way that drives us further on our knees to marvel at God come to earth to save…us.

James Emery White

 

 

Sources     

Lisa Toland, “The Darker Side of A Christmas Carol,” Christianity Today, December 2009, pp. 44-48.

Generation X-Mas

(This blog has been updated from its original version published in 2007. The Team at ChurchandCulture.org thought you would enjoy reading it again as we approach Christmas.)

Several years ago a film crew from our church hit the streets of Charlotte to produce a “man on the street” video asking people “What comes to your mind when you think of the Christmas story?”

Number one answer? 

“The movie.”

Yep, the 1983 “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid” tale from 1940’s Indiana of a nine-year-old boy’s desire for a Red-Ryder Carbon-Action 200-Shot Range Model Air Rifle BB-Gun (and, lest we forget, with a compass in the stock).

An intriguing editorial in Time magazine at around the same time chronicled how A Christmas Story has become the quintessential American film for Christmas, replacing It’s a Wonderful Life. Titled “Generation X-Mas,” it chronicled how an “upstart film became a holiday icon for the post-boomer set.” 

As for George Bailey? 

“Not so into him anymore.”

In a 2006 Harris poll (and I haven’t found one more recent), those from older generations picked Bedford Falls, along with Macy’s (Miracle on 34th Street) as their favorite film destinations. 

But respondents a bit younger, from 18 to 41 years old, granted the “major award” to Scott Fargas, Flick and the Bumpus’ dogs - hence this season marking the 14th year (with steadily rising ratings) of the 24-hour marathon on TBS come December 24-25.

This is one of the “pop-cultural shifts,” suggested Time – such as football overtaking baseball, salsa defeating ketchup – that “signal bigger changes.” Perhaps because it’s everything It’s a Wonderful Life is not – “satiric and myth-deflating, down to the cranky store Santa kicking Ralphie down a slide.” 

 

Or, as Time noted, perhaps it is because of the changing relationship between the community and the individual. Whereas the older films position Christmas as that which “uplifts the suicidal, raises every voice in Whoville, [and] renders peace between Macy and Gimbel,” A Christmas Story “inverts the moral.” 

Now it’s the individual Christmas experience that matters. Getting the BB-gun, instead of protecting the local Savings and Loan for the poor, is the point. Or as Time put it, “It’s the individual Christmas that matters. Bedford Falls can take a hike…[it’s not about] angels’ getting their wings. Christmas is about the kids’ getting their due.”

But perhaps we can go where Time could not.

The great divide between It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story is more than just the radical individualism that marks our day, but what has spawned such individualism. 

The real divide between the two films is that one retains the idea that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus, and one does not. Unless I have missed it, A Christmas Story does not have a single reference, symbol, picture or event that would suggest Christmas is about the birth of Christ, or has religious significance of any kind.

It’s a Wonderful Life, on the other hand, was rich in Christian idea and ethos, from traditional Christmas songs celebrating the birth of Christ (the climax of the movie is marked by the spontaneous outburst of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”) to the central character of an angel.

A Christmas Story is marked by the complete and total absence of anything religious at all, much less Christian. No nativity scenes, no church services, no Christian music – even the department store, Higbees, honors the season not with shepherds or wise men, but with characters from The Wizard of Oz.

Yet this reflects more than the choice of one movie over another. An analysis of 48,000 hours of programming by the NRB (National Religious Broadcasters) in December of 2002 (again, a study I have not found repeated) found that 90 percent of programming did not have a significant spiritual theme. 7 percent had a religious or spiritual theme, but did not refer to Jesus or the biblical story of His birth. 

Jesus was the focus of only 3 percent of all Christmas programming.

Yet I confess that A Christmas Story has become one of my favorite movies. The nostalgia of the time, and the way it reveals how Christmas often “works,” runs deep and familiar. But when I watch it this season, along with millions of others, I will remind myself that while it is a Christmas story, it is not the Christmas story.

For that I would need to return to Bedford Falls. 

Or better yet, the little town of Bethlehem.

James Emery White
 

 

Sources

“Generation X-Mas: How an upstart film became a holiday icon for the post-boomer set,” James Poniewozik, Time, December 10, 2007, p. 90, read online.

National Religious Broadcasters analysis can be found in the Winter 2004 edition of Enrichment, and also on the website of Preaching Today (a service of Christianity Today magazine). The website for the NRB is www.nrb.org.

Men without Chests

It was only a matter of time.

An animal rights group has filed what it claims is the first U.S. lawsuit seeking to establish the “legal personhood” of chimpanzees.

At issue is a 26-year-old chimp named Tommy.  A New York State court is being asked to declare Tommy “a cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned.”

It is not, however, the first case of its kind worldwide.

Consider the Spanish parliamentary committee which adopted resolutions that would give great apes, such as chimpanzees and gorillas, the right to life, freedom from arbitrary captivity and protection from torture. 

In other words, the same legal rights as humans. 

The reasoning was based almost entirely on what it means to be human, which, according to the naturalistic philosophy in place in our world, is entirely genetic. “Chimps...share 98.5% of human DNA, making them as genetically close to humans as horses are to zebras,” noted an article in USA Today

So why not treat man’s closest genetic relative with the legal and cultural rights they so genetically deserve? 

What else, to a naturalistic mind, would there be to consider? 

Then there was the court case from Austria wanting to actually declare a chimp a person so the animal could have a legal guardian and funds for upkeep. The effort to declare the chimp (named Matthew Hiasl Pan) a person was not successful, but it was appealed to the European Court of Human Rights. “If Matthew should win,” noted one reporter, “the case would set a legal precedent across Europe to treat apes with some of the same rights as people.”

There can be little doubt that cruelty to animals should be deplored, but that is not what is ultimately at hand in such cases. 

What is at hand is the very definition of human identity.

Which is our soul.

To be human is to be made in the image of God, which in essence is the ability to respond to and relate to God. We talk of being “magnanimous,” and often define it as being noble in intent. But the word literally means “high-souled,” for only through a soul can there be such nobility.

Or as C.S. Lewis put it, to have “chests.” 

As Lewis explains, there is intellect, and there are appetites. Between them, for humans, lies something utterly distinct:

“The head rules the belly through the chest – the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments…It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.”

Removing this would create “Men without Chests.”

But that is precisely how our world views human beings. We have intellect, and emotion, and appetite, but not soul. As a result, why not declare a chimp a person? They have everything required to be so deemed.

Of course, this creates a bit of a social dilemma.

As Lewis ends his essay,

“We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise.”

That doesn’t work with chimps.

It doesn’t even work with humans.

James Emery White

 

 

Sources

James Emery White, Christ Among the Dragons (InterVarsity Press).

“US lawsuit demands 'legal personhood' for chimpanzees,” Bonnie Malkin, The Telegraph, December 2, 2013, read online.

“Activists pursue basic legal rights for great apes,” Jeffrey Stinson, USA Today International, July 16, 2008, p. 2A, read online.

C.S. Lewis, “Men without Chests,” The Abolition of Man.

A Great Man

South Africa was ruled, since its independence from Britain in 1931 until its end in 1994, under a system that was later to become known as apartheid, meaning "apartness" in Afrikaans. It was a system designed to perpetuate the rule and privileges of the white minority on the grounds that black South Africans were not capable of self-rule. 

Under apartheid, blacks could not travel on "whites only" buses, picnic on "whites only" beaches, or take their sick children to "whites only" hospitals.

I can honestly say that I grew up fairly color blind. 

It began with the great love of my childhood, Catherine, a dear African-American woman who cared for me as a boy. Catherine loved me like few others, and I her. 

On my birthday, she would hide candy bars in my bed to the number equaling my age; we would get inside sleeping bags and slide-race each other down the stairs; she would always make me my favorite lunch, macaroni and cheese. 

One day I came home from school and Catherine was waiting for me in our kitchen. While trying to hide it from me, she had been crying. I remember feeling so upset – what had made my Catherine cry? I asked her what was wrong, and she simply said that a great man had died that day.

I discovered later it was Martin Luther King, Jr.

I didn’t face racism until much later in life. 

I was born in Chicago, and then raised out west in Los Angeles and then later Seattle. Moving from Seattle to a small coastal town in North Carolina, just before my sophomore year in high school, was nothing less than a culture shock. 

I had always played basketball, and had played for my high school as a freshman in Seattle. I went out for the North Carolina team, and soon discovered that I was one of only two white boys who did. At that school, white boys played football, and black boys played basketball. 

I made the team, and loved those guys. But many of the whites called me “Oreo,” after the cookie. Get it? A little bit of white in the middle of black.

But there was more community on those long bus rides back from games, listening to the Commodores and Parliament on my teammate's “Boom Boxes,” than anything I had ever experienced before.

Now flash forward...

I was in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2004 on the very day when the tenth anniversary of the ending of Apartheid was celebrated. 

During my time there, I went to the Apartheid museum. 

There are two entrances. When you buy your ticket, you are randomly assigned to one or the other. You then find out that one is the “White” entrance, and the other is the “Non-White” entrance. You are only allowed entrance through the door of your race.

It’s then you realize that the entire museum experience places you under apartheid.

I was assigned “non-white,” and had to enter that way, and experience what that would be like. I felt everything you might imagine – awkward, ashamed, and sick to my stomach that humans would ever treat each other that way. 

But most of all, I felt the evil of it all. 

Because it was evil. 

It was the antithesis of God’s call on our life, which is to enter into community with others. The vision of human community is a gathering of old and young, black and white, male and female, rich and poor. 

And most foundationally, to be able to join with others and experience life as family that is both holistic and healthy.

When you drive-up to the Apartheid Museum, you are struck by the starkness of the building’s form, which you are told was intentional, reminiscent of apartheid’s spiritual impoverishment. You also discover that the harsh lines and raw brick walls are meant to bring to mind the poverty forced upon so many through apartheid’s laws and penalties. The wide use of steel and cement speak the universal language of oppression; fear and menace penetrate the dark images on walls and monitors. There is a noted absence of color everywhere, purposeful testimony to a time when hope was in small supply.

The entire museum is a visual testimony to the fallen nature of human community.

Little wonder that the halls of the museum in Johannesburg feature displays of nooses and weapons – both sophisticated and homemade – as armed struggle took resistance to a new level. 

The museum does not attempt to hide that it was a nation in flames.

The turning point in South African history took place in the late 1980’s, and this process is my lasting thought from the Apartheid museum.

Housed in the museum is a replica of a Robben Island prison cell, specifically Cell Block B that for eighteen years housed a black man by the name of Nelson Mandela, who became a Christian after watching a Billy Graham crusade on television.

In 1988, while still in prison, Nelson Mandela extended an invitation to the government to negotiate an end to apartheid. 

Fast forward in time, and you have the election of 1994 – seen by many as a miracle – and one of the only times in history that a colonizing group gave up its power without a civil war or large scale external intervention. After his release from the prison that year, Nelson Mandela became the state president of South Africa.

What led to such a turn of events?

The former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, simply said, "Had Nelson Mandela...not been willing to forgive, we would not have even reached first base."

We think of the dream of community birthed in Mandela’s heart, but too often forget Tutu’s insight. It was not a community that happened naturally; it was forged through specific acts and decisions, mostly of the spirit.

Or as Mandela himself once wrote, “a refusal to hate.”

But without the acceptance of Christ, the refusal to hate could never have taken root.

And Mandela let it take root.

So I’ll echo the words of my precious Catherine.

Once again, a great man has died.

James Emery White

 

 

Sources    

James Emery White, A Traveler’s Guide to the Kingdom (InterVarsity Press).

On the Apartheid Museum, see www.apartheidmuseum.org

David Aikman, Great Souls: Six Who Changed the Century (Nashville: Word, 1998).

Praying Kingdom Come

It’s a simple idea, and a deeply biblical one, woven into the very fabric of the prayer Jesus taught us to pray.

“Thy kingdom come.”

For God’s will to be done, His kingdom to come...what would that mean? “What would stand and what would fall?” reflects Frederick Buechner. “Who would be welcomed in and who be thrown the Hell out?...Boldness indeed. To speak those words is to invite the tiger out of the cage, to unleash a power that makes atomic power look like a warm breeze.”

When we pray, we are to pray for God’s kingdom, God’s will, to not only come into our lives and take root, but through us to spread throughout the earth. God’s kingdom was announced by Jesus, and makes its way into the world from that beachhead as individuals give their hearts and lives to Christ. 

In that sense, God’s kingdom has arrived, and we have been brought into that kingdom as believers. But the full consummation lies ahead. So to pray that the kingdom will come is to pray that His kingdom will grow as we pursue our witness to Jesus, and live lives of salt and light. 

So with the great commission comes a cultural commission. We pray for the kingdom to take hold on the planet; governments and institutions, judicial systems and media. 

I was in Johannesburg, South Africa, on the tenth anniversary of the end of Apartheid. That day was born on the prayer for God’s kingdom to come.

Years before I was in Moscow, worshiping in a church filled to capacity. Seeing the front rows filled with women wearing scarves, singing with a passion and intensity that was captivating, I leaned over to the pastor and asked through my interpreter who the women were. He answered, “Those are the women who prayed communism out of Russia.”

The kingdom is meant to come.

“The real Christian,” writes Evelyn Underhill, “is always a revolutionary.” And as John Stott writes, “What Jesus bids us pray is that life on earth may come to approximate more nearly to life in heaven.” 

As this is prayed by us as individuals, the inescapable fact is that God’s kingdom on earth is to begin with us as individuals. We pray for God’s will to be done on earth, and then rise from our knees to meet the challenge. Indeed, the time of prayer is what binds us to action in the first place. 

In fourteenth-century England there were holy women who placed themselves in little rooms at the base of churches and gave themselves to this kind of prayer. They prayed for the church and its members, and the extension of the kingdom of God. These women were called by the quaint but telling name of anchoress, for they were spiritual anchors that held the church amid the storms of that century. 

This is why prayer must never fall into a passivity of spirit. Instead it is a frontal assault on the god of this world and the farcical “kingdom” the evil one is attempting to establish in rebellion against the true kingdom of God. 

Or as Evelyn Underhill noted

To say day by day “Thy Kingdom Come” – if these tremendous words really stand for a conviction and desire – does not mean “I quite hope that some day the Kingdom of God will be established, and peace and goodwill prevail. But at present I don’t see how it is to be managed or what I can do about it.” On the contrary, it means, or should mean, “Here am I! Send me!” – active, costly collaboration with the Spirit in who we believe.

So pray the prayer.

Just don’t ever kid yourself that it is a safe one.

James Emery White

 

 

Sources

Adapted from James Emery White, The Prayer God Longs For (InterVarsity Press).

Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life.

Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism, Abba, and The Spiritual Life.

John R.W. Stott, Christian Counter-Culture: The Message of the Sermon on the Mount.

Douglas Steere, Dimensions of Prayer: Cultivating a Relationship with God.

A Very "Selfie" Word

By now you may have heard that Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year is “selfie.” Clueless? It’s a reference to a smartphone self-portrait, now shorthand for any self-taken photograph. Pictures used to be taken, and later shown, as a way of saying “We were there.” Now, they are taken and instantly relayed through social media to say, “We are here.”

It’s a good word for our day, as without a doubt, it has become a very “selfie” world. Or as Christopher Lasch presciently noted, ours is a culture of narcissism.

In Greek mythology, Narcissus is the character who, upon passing his reflection in the water, becomes so enamored with himself that he devotes the rest of his life to his own reflection. From this we get our term “narcissism,” the preoccupation with self.   

More to the point is the prevailing value of "narcissistic hedonism," the classic "I, me, mine" mentality that places personal pleasure and fulfillment at the forefront of concerns. Or as Francis Schaeffer maintained throughout his writings, the ultimate ethic of our day is the pursuit of personal peace and individual affluence. 

As Daumier depicted Narcissus in a series of lithographs on the ancient Greek and Roman myths, the reflection that so captivated his life was not, in fact, an accurate portrait. Thin and gaunt, almost comical in face, H.R. Rookmaker notes that he was a “starving idiot, grinning at his own hollow cheeks.”

Feasting on yourself is a very sparse meal. 

So the names say it all: YouTube. MySpace. And, of course, the “i’s” - iPod, iTunes, iMac, iPhone and iPad.   

“Selfie” fits right in.

Tom Wolfe had earlier labeled the 1970s the “Me Decade.” In her book Generation Me, Jean M. Twenge writes that compared to today’s generation, “they were posers.”  But across all generations, the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said it best: “Man is the being whose project is to be God.”

Don’t believe it?

Just look at our latest “selfies.”

James Emery White

 

 

Sources

“Oxford Dictionaries: 'Selfie' is word of the year,” Sylvia Hui, Associated Press, Monday, November 18, 2013, read online.

"'Selfie'-reliance: The word of the year is the story of our individualism," Dan Zak, The Washington Post, November 19, 2013, read online.

"Forget the 'selfie': holidaymakers go for 'braggie' photos," Lizzie Porter, The Telegraph, November 21, 2013, read online.

H.R. Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture.

Jean M. Twenge, Generation Me.

Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Human Emotions.

Parts of this blog were also adapted from the author’s The Church in An Age of Crisis (Baker).

Strategic Strategy

There is nothing more critical to leadership than strategic decision-making. And nothing is more strategic in decision-making than, well, strategy.

Recently our staff reviewed five of the more pivotal decisions we’ve made regarding strategy over the course of our church’s life. We’ve certainly made more than these five, but these loomed large in terms of our church’s foundation and formation. You may not agree with our decisions – in fact, I’m sure many of you won’t. But that’s what made each decision strategic; it reflected a settled choice between competing ideas.

Here were the five:

1.    The weekend service is the “front door” of the church, and should be opened widely to the people we are trying to reach – specifically, the unchurched.

There are a number of outreach strategies that I have no doubt produce fruit. We’ve decided that the best is an “invest and invite” approach. Essentially, this is investing in friends and family, co-workers and neighbors, relationally – building the friendship. Then, in the context of that friendship, we invite them to attend a service or event that we’ve designed to be a good “front door” to the church and the message of Christ. We’ve decided to make the weekend services the primary front door.

2. Our small groups and serving teams are not primarily focused on discipleship, but spans of care.

Whatever small group system you have, and whatever role they assume in the life of your church, you have to determine whether they are going to function primarily to serve discipleship or community. I know, many will want to say “both,” and I would agree that they can. However, strategically, you should decide which of the two is the primary role of the small group. Our small groups certainly have a discipleship element, with groups going through content and studies, but we are not betting the discipleship farm on small groups. For us, that bet is being placed on our Meck Institute, which is a “community college” approach to classes and seminary, courses and learning. We are, however, betting the “spans of care” and “assimilation” farm on small groups and serving teams. 

3. We made the decision to go “multi.”

It’s currently in vogue to talk about going “multi-site,” but in truth, going “multi” is much more foundational. It means you’re not going to stay “uni,” as in having only one of something. For us, this meant options. Going “multi” meant giving options. It started with going “multi-service,” offering multiple weekend service times on Sunday. Then it grew into “multi-day,” offering multiple services over multiple days. Then it became “multi-site,” offering services at multiple venues and locations. Finally, it became “multi-medium,” offering services through our internet campus and talks through our app for smart phones and tablets.   

4. Children need separate programs and experiences to optimally serve their spiritual development.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to children and the church. One is that children should be with their parents at all times, worshiping and learning as a family. Another school of thought is that children have different levels of maturity, differing attention spans, and different needs, and should be served accordingly. We chose the second school of thought. While we intentionally create opportunities and events for families to worship and learn together – we call them “Family Nights” – our weekend services separate children birth – fifth grade from the service their parents attend in order to provide a unique experience and learning environment for their level of development.

5. There should be a gift-based approach to ministry.

Again, there are two schools of thought when it comes to ministry. One might be called the “professional” school of thought. This is when you “hire” a minister to do ministry in and for the church. You expect them to marry and bury, visit and teach, reach out and develop. If the spouse plays the organ, all the better. The other school of thought turns ministry loose; the people are the ministers, and the pastors are more the administers. Further, there is a deep belief that every follower of Christ has been given at least one spiritual gift to be used for the purpose of ministry in the life of the church (Romans 12, I Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4, I Peter 4). So in this model, you help people discover their gift, develop their gift, and then deploy their gift. Then you have leaders leading, singers singing, counselors counseling, teachers teaching, and so on. And it’s not just the “clergy” doing it; instead, every member is a minister.

Of course, the best leadership teams understand that strategy should be held with an open hand. It must be continually evaluated in light of whether it continues to be the best strategy. If so, it should be affirmed with a deep sense of “why.” If not, new strategies should be considered and employed. 

We remain convinced these five are good choices for this season of ministry. 

Regardless, it bears repeating:

Nothing is more than critical to leadership than strategic decision-making, and nothing is more strategic in decision-making than strategy.

James Emery White

 

 

Sources

For a primer on strategy as a whole, see James Emery White’s Rethinking the Church (Baker).

A Most Converted Man

On Friday, November 22, 1963, three lives ended within hours of each other. John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States; Aldous Huxley, noted English novelist and critic; and a man known by his friends simply as “Jack.” 

But it was this third and final life that has arguably shaped the most lives and who, in the words of the London Times, “in his own lifetime became a legend.”

Clive Staples Lewis was born in Belfast, Ireland. Following World War I, where Lewis fought in France and was wounded in 1917, he went to University College, Oxford, where he achieved a rare Double First in Classics, an additional First in English, and the Chancellor’s Prize for academics. He was soon offered a teaching position at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was a fellow and tutor from 1925-1954, and then later at the University of Cambridge as professor of medieval and Renaissance English (1954-1963).

In 1931, Lewis came out of atheism into the Christian faith, aided significantly through his friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings. The intellectual questions that plagued him during his spiritual journey – why God allows pain and suffering, how Christianity can be the one and only way to God, the existence of miracles – became the very questions he helped others navigate with such skill as a Christian. 

His first work, The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason and Romanticism came out in 1933. Then came a torrent of works, eventually reaching 40 titles, the vast majority attempting to put forward Christianity in a very non-Christian world. Among the more widely known being The Screwtape Letters, a trilogy of science fiction novels (when the genre was hardly known), and the Chronicles of Narnia, a series of seven children’s books that are widely heralded as classics of fantasy literature. 

Lewis’ passion was thoughtfully translating the Christian faith into language that anyone could understand. He was driven to have people know what Christianity was about

It was a series of radio addresses, given over the BBC during the Second World War but later published in three separate parts, where his conversational style, wit, intellect, and rough charm revealed Christianity to millions. 

The first invitation was for four fifteen-minute talks. The response was so overwhelming that they gave him a fifth fifteen-minute segment to answer listener’s questions. A second round of talks were requested and given. The clarity of thought, his ability to gather together a wide range of information and make it plain, led one listener to remark that the talks “were magnificent, unforgettable. Nobody, before or since, has made such an ‘impact’ in straight talks of this kind.” The BBC asked for a third round of talks, this time stretching out for eight consecutive weeks. Lewis consented, but made it clear it would be his last. 

His goal throughout was simple: “I was...writing to expound...‘mere’ Christianity, which is what it is and was what it was long before I was born.”

Eventually the talks were gathered together in a single work titled Mere Christianity, which continues to make Christianity known to millions to this day.

But Lewis himself did not come to faith until late in life.

On Saturday, September 19, 1931, Lewis invited two friends to dine with him in his rooms at Magdalen, where he also taught. One was a man by the name of Hugo Dyson, a lecturer in English Literature at Reading University. 

The other was J.R.R. Tolkien. 

On that fall evening, after they had dined, Lewis took his guests on a walk through the Magdalen grounds, ending with a stroll down Addison's Walk. It was there they began to discuss the idea of metaphor and myth. Lewis had long appreciated myth. As a boy he had loved the great Norse stories of the dying god Balder, and as a man, grew to love and appreciate the power of myth throughout the history of language and literature. But he didn't believe in them. Beautiful and moving though they might be, they were, he concluded, ultimately untrue. As he expressed to Tolkien, myths are "lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver."

"No," said Tolkien. "They are not lies."

Later, Lewis recalled that at the moment Tolkien uttered those words, "a rush of wind...came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining. We held our breath."

Tolkien's point was that the great myths might just reflect a splintered fragment of the true light. Within the myth, there was something of eternal truth. They talked on, and Lewis became convinced by the force of Tolkien's argument. They returned to Lewis' rooms on Staircase III of New Buildings. Once there, they turned their conversation to Christianity. Here, Tolkien argued, the poet who invented the story was none other than God Himself, and the images He used were real men and women and actual history. 

Lewis was floored. 

"Do you mean," he asked, "that the death and resurrection of Christ is the old 'dying God' story all over again?" 

Yes, Tolkien answered, except that here is a real Dying God, with a precise location in history and definite historical consequences. The old myth has become fact. Such joining of faith and intellect had never occurred to Lewis.

It was now 3 a.m., and Tolkien had to go home. Lewis and Dyson escorted him down the stairs. They crossed the quadrangle and let him out by the little postern gate on Magdalen Bridge. Lewis remembered that "Dyson and I found more to say to one another, strolling up and down the cloister of New Building, so that we did not get to bed till 4." 

Twelve days later Lewis wrote to his close boyhood friend, Arthur Greeves: "I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ - in Christianity. I will try to explain this another time. My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it.”

And pass on to believing he did.

Indeed, Walter Hooper - a longtime friend and personal secretary to Lewis - once commented that Lewis struck him “as the most thoroughly converted man” he had ever met.

A converted man who is still impacting millions fifty years after his death.

James Emery White

 

 

Sources

This blog is in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis, and is adapted from James Emery White’s Serious Times: Making Your Life Matter In An Urgent Day (InterVarsity Press) as well as A Traveler’s Guide to the Kingdom (InterVarsity Press).

Money Before a Watching World

There are few things more important to guard before a watching world than a church’s financial reputation.

With Billy Graham’s 95th birthday, and the “My Hope” effort across the world, I was reminded how few people have maintained the moral integrity necessary for a lasting and influential public ministry better than Billy. Without a doubt, he is finishing well.

For that, you can thank the Modesto Manifesto.

In November of 1948, as his public ministry began to take hold, Billy called his co-horts Bev Shea, Grady Wilson, and Cliff Barrows to his hotel room during an evangelistic campaign they were holding in Modesto, California.

“God has brought us to this point,” he said. “Maybe he is preparing us for something that we don’t know. Let’s try to recall all the things that have been a stumbling block and a hindrance to evangelists in years past, and let’s come back together in an hour and talk about it and pray about it and ask God to guard us from them.”

When they gathered back together in Billy’s room later that afternoon, they had all made essentially the same list, which came to be known among them as the ‘Modesto Manifesto.’ From it they made pledges to guard themselves, among other things, against the two most damaging to the cause: the inappropriate use and allure of money, and sexual immorality. 

Most Christian leaders steer clear of sexual sin, and when they fall into it, find themselves universally admonished by fellow believers. Oddly enough, money seems to be less and less of a concern within the Christian community.

But it is very much a concern to the watching world.

Those outside of the church, and far from faith, care about financial integrity in the lives of those who would preach Christ. They care about whether our relationship with money and material things meshes with what little they do know about Jesus and His lifestyle. 

So here are ten basic things, in no particular order, that every church and its leaders should endeavor to practice:

1.    The church should honor its debts and pay its bills in a timely manner.

2.    Churches shouldn’t feel compelled to share staff salaries, but the salary-setting process itself should be transparent and above reproach.

3.    The salary of the senior pastor should be set by individuals who are not related to the pastor or staff, do not receive compensation from the church, and are set aside by the church’s membership or denomination for that task.

4.    Have no part in “prosperity” theology, a “health and wealth” gospel, or any other such nonsense that ties God’s blessing to material riches.

5.    Have an annual audit from an outside agency, and make that audit available to any member of the church who wants to see it.

6.    Debt should be taken on for strategic purposes only (the mission), ideally for appreciable assets (land and building), and within the church’s means.

7.    Have the church’s annual budget submitted to the church’s membership for evaluation and approval.

8.    Any outside business/financial activities of staff or leadership should be separate from the finances of the church.

9.    Pastors and staff should be well compensated, but not outrageously so as Christian leaders should lead by example and without having a lavish, opulent lifestyle.

10.Avoid guilt and gimmicks when it comes to raising money or encouraging giving. Just teach the basics of Christian stewardship about savings, debt, responsibility to family, and generosity to the things of God.

James Emery White

 

 

Sources

On the “Modesto Manifesto,” see A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story by William Martin.