The Gaping Hole in the American Church: Part 1

At the conclusion of a bible study group I recently attended, someone sought me out saying “After listening to you today, I thought for sure you’re a pastor’s kid!” When I told her I wasn’t, she immediately asked if I was a pastor’s wife. At that point I laughed and explained I’m a normal person who just studies a lot. She was blown away and told me she didn’t realize an average person could know that much about the Bible. It was a compliment I treasure, but it left me uneasy. A person’s family background shouldn’t hold them back from becoming a serious student of anything, especially the Bible.

A week later, I received different feedback. I had a brief interaction with someone I barely know who pointed out the ways my observations from a passage in the New Testament fell short, alluding to how unqualified I was to speak on the topic. I was appreciative of the feedback, but left disappointed at the lie chewing holes in the fabric of the American church today.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard comments like either of these, and while they no longer surprise me, they do sadden me. Because the first question we ask a  person who shares from the Scriptures shouldn’t be what their qualifications are or what church their dad preaches at.

Well intended or not, these kinds of comments show the narrow-minded, churchy way of thinking Christians are notorious for: that the only people who are gifted enough, qualified enough, or knowledgable enough are the special people who’ve been to seminary. And so if you haven’t been to seminary, then you must not know enough to run a bible study. Or teach a class. Or lead a ministry. Or counsel the pastor.

The concept of lay leadership is virtually absent from the American church. It is so much more than being on the greeting team or in the worship band. It’s beyond a friendly smile in kid’s ministry, passing the communion tray, or being on a planning committee for next season’s retreat. To be clear, all of those jobs are important. Volunteers are the backbone of the organized church. You simply cannot run a modern church service without them, no matter how many people show up on Sunday. Volunteerism is vital, and reveals much about a church’s spiritual health and attitude toward service.

But we must not confuse volunteerism with leadership.

Unfortunately, lay-person involvement rarely progresses beyond the typical volunteer positions that come with the in-and-out tasks of operating a church facility. We in the church are not quick to grow new believers to maturity and delegate the responsibility of multiplication to them. That might be too hard. Instead we leave them in their somewhat menial positions, eager to hire out the big responsibilities of shepherding the flock to the professionals. Show me a church where the everyday attenders are also mature believers, teaching on a regular basis. Or even more, a pastor who is actually training unpaid leaders to preach, counsel, or oversee and then expecting them to do so. In 25+ years of following Jesus I’ve almost never seen church where this is the norm.

And yet it’s what Jesus asks. He expects us all to be pastors of our families, counselors in our communities, teachers to those who look up to us, and servants to anyone in need.

But for so many of us, it’s easier to farm that out. More often than not we expect our paid church staff to do those things while also providing opportunities for us to pitch in when it works for our schedules. Or, on the other end, we actually desire to be leaders but feel inadequate or ill-equipped, too inexperienced and lacking confidence to step up even in small ways.

And perhaps the worst evil of it all is that our church leaders (both paid and unpaid) allow us to live this way. They rarely hold believers accountable, calling us out in our complacency, mostly because we will run them out if they do! A passage in Judges 17 takes a sobering look at what happens when God’s people hire their spiritual leaders, and it’s a difficult story to swallow in light of the mass amount of pastoral burn-out, turnover, depression, and even suicide that exists within the American church. These people have dedicated years of their lives and thousands of dollars to earn them a job where their brothers and sisters abuse their abilities.

We have paid our leaders to be mature for us, holding a standard and putting on a show we approve of. But in the process, the body of Jesus is languishing in spiritual weakness, vulnerable to deception and attack. Is it any wonder we often look no different than the world crumbling around us?

But the Good News is Jesus. He has equipped His followers with gifts from the Spirit, who is eager to work in humble hearts and ready to move in the body. We all have gifts valuable and precious—young, old, male, female, educated, uneducated, working class, upper class, black, white, tie-die….none of it matters! All of Jesus’ followers are critical parts of His kingdom. But we cannot all be babies. We cannot all sit around and hire people with degrees and training and time to do the work we should be doing ourselves.

Friends, we do not need more believers showing up to small group having not read the Scripture passage for that week. We have enough of those. We do not need more self-righteous critique of our leaders or more self-loathing among our prayer circles. We do not need more qualified people leading the unqualified.

We need a priesthood of devoted men and women who are faithfully doing the work daily. Our Lord has called us to bear His name, to image Him in everything we do, and to help our brothers and sisters do the same. This goes beyond just being nice and moral and trying to volunteer at church once a month. It’s a practice that involves complete transformation of our minds and lifestyles. And it takes time.

We need to stop going to church and start being the church. We need to take the burden off our wonderful paid pastors and staff, and take up the responsibility for our own growth, becoming people who meditate on the Word day and night and offer ourselves as servant-leaders in kingdom of the God we claim to love.

Someday when my daughter is older, I hope she is never asked a question about her qualifications or her upbringing, as if the only people who can do anything impactful in the church must be well-educated or pastor’s kids. I hope she is looked upon as a wise leader worth following because she faithfully follows Jesus. I pray that by the time my sons are grown men they can open their Bibles anywhere and teach anyone without being professional pastors—I pray that that’s the norm within the church.

I pray by the time my children are grown that pastors have stopped measuring their success by how many people come back each Sunday, and more by how many people leave prepared and willing to go multiply themselves, wherever and however that looks. And in the mean time, I pray I can somehow inspire, encourage, and equip God’s people to love their God, love their neighbor, and seek God’s wisdom for themselves, no matter what their life experience has told them so far.

The gifts of our King surpass the greatest treasures of this world. And He’s bestowed them on us all. May we humbly ask Him to teach us how to use them and then actually go do the work.

The Glory of Summer

It’s mid-August and the back-to-school rush has begun. Perhaps it’s the relaxed routine is driving parents mad. Or maybe it’s that most American families have been without the structure of school since late March. But here in my home, we’re hanging onto summer. It’s just been so very good.

We swam, we hiked, we played ball. We’ve had nights spent outside too late, running with friends in the backyard. There have been popsicles and ice cream, BBQ’s and picnics. Many sweaty, red faces and dirty feet in the bathtub at the day’s end.

Every day I watch them ride ahead of me on their bikes. All three have grown stronger, taller, faster. Asher has said the phrase “Wait for me, guys!” more than anything else this summer. And then been out of breath as he speeds to keep up with the big kids, his dark tan deepening with every minute under the gorgeous golden rays.

Ayla’s hair has bleached into soft, caramel locks. Her fairy garden–now totally overgrown with weeds–sits tucked in the flowers, holding onto her many magical wishes. If I stand there long enough, I can still hear the echo of her happy melodies she’s sung there all summer, squatted down in the foliage. I close my eyes tight, and try to etch her precious heart in my memory forever.

And as the blue sky stretches above us, Crew has expanded our summer with his endless ideas. Every day his thoughts bubble over, exploding from his brain like a rocket and moving onto the next thing just as quickly. He is bright and cheerful and so incredibly chatty.  What would I do without him?

Every day we take a walk, Huck content to watch the world from the stroller. Chubby little legs peeking out at the bottom, small little voice babbling away to himself. We’ve laughed with friends, and dug in the sand, and cooled off in the lake. Our garden has been an oasis of delight, providing both food for our table and work for our hands.

And of course there’s the share of scraped knees, bee stings, and endless games of tag. There have been water gun fights, jumping rope, and lots of swinging. Our home has hosted birthday parties and meals with friends. And as I stare out the window now, it’s four beautiful faces dripping with watermelon juice in the shade. Blue sky above. Green earth below. Sunshine all around. It’s breathtaking, all the goodness.

Soon the air will get crisp and the sun will descend faster. We’ll crack open the books and make chili and wait for that enchanting first snowfall to come. But right now, we’re still soaking up summer. We’re still taking that moment to stop and feel the cool breeze blow through our sweaty hair. We’re playing at the park during those golden hours after dinner. We’re sitting at the beach, letting the waves tickle our toes. We’re breathing in the air during thunderstorms and getting completely soaked washing muddy garden produce. And we’re turning on a mid-day movie when we are too hot and tired to do anything else.

School will be there when we are ready. The routine, the agendas, the politics, people’s opinions, the endless openings and closing and latest restrictions, and the headaches of life right now–they’re all still there, waiting for us.

It’s true that this summer the entire world went crazy. But I guess I’ve been too crazy about my world to notice much.

Right now, they are nine, six, three, and one. And they are the glory of summer.

 

A Mother’s Prayer

The Lord bless you, and keep you,

The Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you.

The Lord turn His face toward you, and give you peace. Num. 6:24-26

My His blessings rest upon you and a thousand generations, for your family, and your children, and their children, and their children. Generation after generation.

When you wake up, when you lie down, when you go out or come home, when you cry in pain or laugh in delight, know that He is with you. Always with you.

May His presence go before you, behind you, and beside you, surrounding you forever, and filling you deep within. He is for you, like I am for you.

May He show you His face, and turn your ears to His voice. May you know Him, may you seek Him, may you find Him, and may you love Him.

In your triumphs and your failures, in your weakness and your victories, in your wandering and your resting, He is working goodness for you.

Dwell in His lovingkindness, search out His wisdom, walk empowered by His breath, rest in His promise.

Yahweh, bless them. And keep them. And make your face shine upon them, and be gracious to them. Please turn your face toward them, and give them peace. Let your favor rest upon their shoulders, generation after generation, to their families, and their children, and their children, and their children. May the legacy of the gift and inheritance of renewal be to them a promise that endures and a blessing that multiplies. Give them a home and a life in the realm of your glory, a house along that mighty river of life, and a spirit made whole.

 

 

 

*Portions of this prayer were inspired by Kari Jobe’s song, “The Blessing.” Highly recommend!

The Wilderness of Coronavirus

The weight of weariness is heavy.

Four of my friends have experienced panic attacks this week. Another two reported they cannot get the medical care they need for painful, urgent issues due to medical staff furloughs and decreased appointment slots. Some people in my community are struggling to manage two or even three businesses, without childcare for their kids all while being prohibited from actually operating. I have friends who are still waiting on stimulus checks and others who have yet to see payment for the unemployment they filed weeks ago. And this is just in my town.

People around the globe are exhausted, scared, and angry. They don’t know what to do amidst the trying times we find ourselves in. They’re worried for their health. Their lives have been completely uprooted; their livelihoods in serious jeopardy of permanent collapse. Government aid has fallen short while local elected officials sit powerless to do much of anything under the current orders. For one reason or another, everyone is afraid.

Yes, the weight of weariness is heavy. When the system you rely on collapses and all the things you hoped would come through for you don’t, the shadows get long, the road ahead becomes confusing, and even sleep deprives you of rest.

My friends are praying people. They cry out in their exhaustion and anguish to a God they know loves them, hears them, and provides for them. But He couldn’t feel further away. They emerge from reading the Psalms with the courage to face the day, only to have their peace snatched up and their hope fainting within hours of closing their Bibles.

Their hurt is stingingly real. Their pain is long suffering. Their confusion is justified.

And their God is deafeningly silent.

It reminds me of Elijah, weary and outrunning death at Mt. Horeb.

And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

10He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

11The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

14He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

15The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. 16Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. 1 Kings 19: 9-16 NIV

Ah, that still, small voice, calling at the edge of the cave. But it is not the comforting sweetness we might expect. In his weariness Elijah loses sight of the plan to the point God removes him from his vocation as prophet and sends him home.

In this time of great trial and despair, perhaps we too are like Elijah. In our searching for answers, have we missed our God passing by? Have we looked for Him to change our circumstances or remove our burdens, even while faithfully doing the work He appointed us to? Have we cried out longing for Him to take away our pain and bring justice on our enemies without the wisdom to see how He works?

To my suffering friends, my heart is burdened in heaviness for you. What our world is facing is unfair on so many levels, with human evil at every one.  But to attempt to offer you cheery answers would be to fail you now. And so I can only sit alongside you in your suffering and offer this ancient story of a broken man in the wilderness at the foot of a mountain.

The truth of this story is that so often our Maker does not remove our hardship, even for his most trusted partners. He never promised to rescue us from our circumstances. Rather, He promises that no circumstance could ever change His plan to rescue us. And He asks us to be faithful regardless.

“Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.” 1 Kings 19:18

Our God will never relent on His people. Even in the face of unspeakable horror, He is faithful to His plan to restore His Kingdom.

So we may bleed out. We may suffer oppression, disease, terror, and heartache. We may fight the vicious monsters, and we may even lose the fight. But take heart if you can, because God has not lost His fight.

When the global system collapses, famine breaks out, plagues fall on the entire world, poverty threatens our children, and imprisonment and warfare linger on the horizon, His Kingdom is still at hand. And we are still His. (Gen. 37-50)

And so like true exiles, we must seek the peace of Babylon to the best we can. Live in harmony with our neighbors, take care of those who need us, breathe out kindness and generosity, and if the day comes and we can no longer abide under the law of the land, we remain faithful knowing only evil is burned up in the end.

Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Jer. 29:7

Weary friends, I will not fling another out of context Bible verse of hope at you. But know that your burden is not unseen. (Gen. 16:13) Your wilderness is not desolation. It is where your God will meet you and teach you how to be His own. (Ex. 40:38)

There’s Enough

Lately the entire world seems to be running out of things. At first it was the toilet paper. Carts so overloaded with the stuff that entire warehouses ran out in minutes. Then it turned more serious with food shortages. Bread, eggs, frozen pizzas, and cleaning products–all the basics in low supply. Last week the headlines turned to the shortages of masks, gloves, ventilators, and oxygen tanks. Experts predict that next the terrifying deficit will be hospital beds, doctors, and God forbid, morgues. Leaders are slamming other leaders; not enough medical help, not enough federal aid, not enough money.

If you are not working in an under-resourced hospital or other essential service that’s squeaking by on the bare minimum to keep things running, then you are probably one of the millions of Americans truly stuck at home with no job, no paycheck, and no idea of when those things will return.

Both as a nation and a world, we’ve come up painfully short. We are short on hospital space, lab technicians, and tests. We are short on ideas. We’re short on cash, and we’re short on time. To address one problem only worsens another. We either doom people’s lives or doom their livelihoods.

Our knee-jerk reaction during times of crisis is to protect ourselves. All it takes is a walk down a Walmart paper goods aisle to see that. We look for ways to keep our own families safe. In the face of scarcity, we stockpile. Turned inward, we conserve what we have, and damn others when they get in our way.

It’s easy to see the world through the lens of scarcity right now. However, as a follower of Jesus, that lens doesn’t fit in what should be my frame.

The worldview which supposedly defines me is one of abundance. God plants a garden. He gives it to humans as a generous gift and tells them to eat freely and go make more of it. An astute reader will notice an undercurrent of unrestricted fruitfulness–of endless resource and bursting potential–that runs the whole length of the Bible. And while we’d like to think in times like this that sin has messed all that up, Jesus himself operates under the worldview that there is enough.

For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on…Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap, nor gather into barns, and yet, your heavily Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they…If God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you?…But seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Matt. 6: 25-33

The truth is that humans love to dwell in worry. We love to think of ourselves, worry about us and our clan, and take advantage of things to get the upper hand.

In the mind of Jesus this is how the world works, but it’s not how the Kingdom works. In the Kingdom, there is enough. There is a generous Giver who bestows everything lavishly on everyone. There is a cloud that rains down manna, a rod in the hand of an old man that parts the sea and swallows our enemies. There is a garden and a tree, and a new Vine bearing enough fruit to feed the entire world. We can’t see it, but it’s here. Jesus told us the Kingdom is at hand. Abundance is at hand.

In this time of global crisis where everything is scare, I’m challenged to wake up and look at the world through this lens of abundance. But when people are separated from their loved ones or when the system we count on collapses under the pressure, this becomes a hard ethic to embrace. When the paycheck stops and money is weeks away, what are we to do?

And I am no saint here. It wasn’t long ago that questions like these would have sent me into a panicked frenzy. In my own home right now, this virus is affecting our family. Our source of income is on hold, and we have no idea when that will resume or what damage this shutdown will cause. Like many we are healthy now, but for how long?

And so our grim situation creates the atmosphere the world is currently running on: anxiety, desperation, and fear. But in my spirit I am wrestling against those natural responses. While all very real, they are at odds with my new humanity in Jesus. When the world tells me there isn’t enough, He calls me to live in the abundance of the Kingdom.

Brothers and sisters, I will not downplay the gravity of the COVID-19 situation. To do so would be a grossly insensitive and frankly, unhelpful, move. Instead I urge my fellow Jesus followers to see this as a time to dig in. It’s a time when we are called to live by Kingdom rules when the Kingdom is hard to see. We must choose to live as though there is enough, even in scarcity.

This means radical generosity. It means unwavering trust. It means purchasing the extra bag of groceries for a friend or assisting a neighbor when they’re in need. It means leaving a larger tip, being unusually inventive, choosing to exercise extra patience with our families, and spending the extra ten minutes at bedtime going to war in prayer for those on the front lines. It means we reach out wherever we can, however we can, as often as we can. And it means that when we are down and out, we lay down our shame and guilt and ask for help.

Kingdom living takes grit. And grit is hard to come by when the tragedies once on the other side of the world are now pounding relentlessly on our doors. But Jesus words echo loudly in my mind. “You of little faith!” Matt. 6:30

It is with great faith we must step forward into the Kingdom. We live by its rules and hold fast to the truth that our jobs, our money, our children, the food in our pantries, the gas in our cars, and the very breath in our struggling lungs is a gift. An abundance mindset should define us all; it should be the light in this uncertain time. May we have the faith to give freely and use our resources wisely, trusting that the God who provides for the birds provides for us. Because in the Kingdom, there is enough.