Addressing the Narcissistic Church

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I recently saw a post suggesting that church often functions in narcissistic ways. I have the same concerns. The ten reasons listed on the blog are compelling. Below, I suggest some actions which will move a church away from a narcissistic tendencies. First a brief review of narcissism.

Narcissism is when someone is excessively enamored with themselves. Sometimes there is a pursuit to be exceptional in response to some earlier experience of shame or from a fear that their true self is deficient. Whenever the shame is in threat of exposure, the person may overreact in a harsh way, as a subconscious defense mechanism. Perhaps you can see how the top ten list in the afor mentioned post relates.

Addressing potential narcissistic behaviors is a balancing game of affirming the individual (or entity) in a healthy way, truly addressing (healing) the shame, and supporting an acceptance of their true self in contrast to the exceptional faux version of them.

Process Evangelism

  • Some approaches to evangelism may unwittingly support and feed narcissistic tendencies within a Church. Making the salvation call a big production which gives excessive attention to those proclaiming conversion could actually be damaging. This approach could feed the ego of one needing attention rather than introduce them to the Savior who wants to forgive their sin and cover their shame and bring them into his holy community. The big production approach can attract the emotionally weak to the promise of being AMAZING without addressing their shame or offering needed follow up. Follow up is needed to invite people into a new way of being (holy) in a new community based on authentic relationship and mutual exchange.

Shame Covering Theology

  • In preaching, instead of eliciting shame and guilt as an emotional response to sin, exalt grace and repentance as solutions to shame and guilt and sin. While we need to run from sin, it is valuable to be able to sit with our sinfulness and own our depraved nature. While we have a new nature, we must humbly confess we still have the old. We must realize the worse thing is not sin but to deny that we do (see I john 1:). This is delicate. Sin is bad and destructive and I’m not condoning an acceptance of it. But the narcissistic personality avoids shame at any price and can disassociate himself with sin in a way that refuses to acknowledge and own up to their own sin. It’s the whitewashed tomb syndrome. That is why I’m condoning an ability to self-search with honestly knowing it’s better to be honest about sin than to portent perfection. If we don’t, we risk denying deep personal flaws for fear of being shamed or exposed, while that exposure is what can bring us to grace.

Freeing Leadership

  • Leadership which works in teams (to support each other) acknowledges human limits and weakness. This is healthy. Sharing the pulpit occasionally can be a good thing and proves that it’s not all about the senior pastor. It also may give him a much needed rest.
  • Pastors: Be free to be you, and don’t fight for membership – let the people go to where is the best fit for them. It isn’t a reflection on you and doesn’t mean you aren’t gifted or skilled. If your elder board doesn’t realize this then you have an opportunity to teach them about different giftings of different congregations and about God’s providence in conversion of souls in his time. Being clear about your calling and the direction God has for the particular church you serve will cast a vision which will compel the people to stay who are on board. Set expectations. Similarly, encourage other leaders of other churches to be clear about their calling and rejoice with their successes.

Congregational humility

  • A congregation needs to allow their leaders to be human (and fail) instead of always being perfect and ‘amazing’. Is your pastor the greatest? Is he Amazing? Is he the Best? If you talk about your pastor in hyperbole and extremes you are contributing to the narcissistic approach. Many congregations need their pastor to be the spiritual success that the members aren’t. That’s a lot of pressure. It is neither helpful nor healthy for your pastor. The pressure promotes a form of legalism. The expectations, which often aren’t even Biblical, are hard to live up to. You put him at risk. Instead, treat him as a normal person (but with respect). Give him some slack with his family (especially if his kids aren’t worse than yours). If your life or spiritual life is disappointing and less then what you’d hope, take action in the area of spiritual disciplines and pray regularly for the church before requiring more from the church. It’s not the churches (or pastors) responsibility to make your Christian life “Amazing”. You are called to obedience. 

Cultivate Empathy

  • Begin practices (service initiatives) which cultivate empathy – helping, in love, those in a place of weakness without needing to change or fix them, and identify with them in their weakness and brokenness. To merely serve them as a privilege giver is not the same as identifying with them in their poverty or brokenness. To cultivate empathy you need to be with them. I heard of a soup kitchen which first required of all volunteers – including the rich executive – to eat with the homeless and be served food by homeless people, before being a server. Being with and accepted by those in a place of societal shame will challenge but also perhaps help heal narcissist.

Other Practices to combat narcissism

  • Acknowledging other groups and churches which are doing good things to realize your congregation isn’t the only gift to God’s earth.
  • Respond with patience and grace when criticized especially from other churches; acknowledge different viewpoints while remaining clear about your own.
  • Allow others to think differently then you (more on this in a future post)

My honest reservation

I’m concerned with a post like this, in that, if some of these suggestions are followed the congregation may be disappointed. This discomfort is the growing pains the church experiences when growing out of adolescent narcissism. They may no longer have that Amazing Pastor for which a narcissistic church longs. A wise Pastor and Elder board will realize a shift in congregational personality may take time.

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Missing the Missional Noah

The Noah Movie is presenting a great opportunity for the Church to be missional and once again she seems to be failing the test… but I’m jumping way ahead so let me start with a framework on why you should see the Noah movie… and follow that with how you can be missional.

Why you should see the movie
If the only reason you aren’t seeing the Noah film is because you don’t think it will be Biblical, then you may want to start throwing out your Christian music (CCM). A movie with biblical precision would be quite short given the brevity of the text. The characters would be flat and the plot too simplistic. Instead, the screen writer as an artist, was faced with the challenge to fill in characters whose failures and successes are cohesive and believable… into a story which is engaging and satisfying. In this case given the breadth of the Biblical account, the movie had to extend beyond the text. But that’s where the artist comes in.

Artists, I believe, have a prophetic nature where they see beyond and fill in a story into something visual, whether that’s a stained glass window, the Sistine chapel or a painting. A good Christian artist thinks theologically to capture the emotion and theme of the Biblical narrative or concept… but they think beyond to challenge the masses. I believe this can also be done by a secular artist.

I remember one painting at a secular gallery in Dallas. The painting title referenced the garden of Eden. A business man was laying back disheveled with some liquor, a questionable woman was an influencer. The coloring was dark, the painting was massive 5’ * 8’ if memory serves me correctly. It was so big we were part of the painting participating in the darkness of the fall though in a contemporary context. That is theological accuracy. (Though it wasn’t biblical of course because Adam never wore a suit.)

The state we are in
The surest way to see if an organization is in decline or growth is to observe its level of protectionism. An organization focused on protection is in decline. I remember that is how our consulting firm responded during the economic downturn of 2008-2009. Sadly, it is how our churches function today. We take a protectionist stance railing against anything that messes with our scriptures. If we are truly missional, we would want more people to mess with our scriptures – not to rewrite them – but to engage with them.

Sadly, the movie industry moves with cultural option and money. We can’t fault it for following the money. That’s just business. We have no reason to expect more from them. But here is where, to be missional, Christians can be supportive of the money making industry to support a framework for movie producers. Instead, ironically, the producers credibly provided that framework for believers. For, if we are too demanding and fickle with those who tell our stories we risk having our stories forgotten

Moving Missionally
The church should be helping believers think missionally: How do you train a movie producer to tell your story. What is the criteria (especially when you have less than a chapter of text). The movie’s theme needs to be theologically accurate – the flood was not due to global warming but to sin. Salvation was through God and His revelation. If they have that right, they should be commended. The rest can be entertainment, realizing, as the Rich Mullens stated – ‘if you want good theology go to church, if you want to be entertained come to my concert.’ It’s the same with movies – ‘if you want an exegesis of the text then go to church, the movie is entertainment.’ But it is more.

Let’s think more about being missional. I believe being missional means living as a missionary in your own context. It’s easy to go to a 3rd world country and give them stuff and share the Gospel but often times we attempt evangelism in another country in a way we would never risk doing in America.

As local missionaries we need to build bridges – bridges of communication. I think a Biblical movie is a great opportunity since a) the content is in a neutral social space and b) it covers a biblical narrative which can promote conversation. Far too often our evangelism requires people to come to a religious event which is radically culturally different than anything they can relate to. A movie theater is safe for unbelieving friends. Showing the same movie in a church is not. If Christians will not go to a movie theater, that proves my point from the other perspective. Physical spaces are rarely neutral.

Secondly, conversation is a good thing. Far too often we think that the key to evangelism is to package information to be distributed and immediately accepted. We expect far too much of the Holy Spirit. I believe it is the norm for conversion to take time. It is the repeated and developing exposure to revelation which has impact and which the Holy Spirit can use. The Noah movie isn’t required to be the be all and end all. But it can be the beginning… of a good conversation.

I believe this movie will raise a lot of good (yet difficult) questions about the nature of man (Are we naturally good? Broken? Bad?), of the influences of society (How are we affected by society? How do we respond to unhealthy influences?), and in intervention of God (How does God intervene? What is the nature of his intervention?). I believe there are really good questions that this movie could raise.

Good art should make people think… perhaps this movie is revealing that this is a task Christians find too burdensome.

A Chaplain – The power of being no one

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While serving as a college pastor at a church I was encouraged to also be a chaplain, supported and affirmed by my church. This was a great opportunity to be on campus with the students to support and encourage them. There were several chaplains from different denominations and religious backgrounds.

By the way, if this is the first post you’re visiting on my missional journey, feel free to start at the beginning here

I quickly developed respect for one Christian Chaplain, Michael Wagenman*, who invited me to a meeting he was hosting. So, there I was, in the chaplain’s office. The attendees were not who I would have expected: the head of the campus police, the fire chief, the head of the students’ council, the head of the residences, the ombudsman… those carrying the responsibility of the university.

Now from my Christian upbringing, anytime a Christian called a meeting it would be for a Bible Study or prayer meeting or something. This agenda was very different.

They were there to discuss issues on campus, further the priorities of the university president and share any issues that required networking with each other. It was fun to see the interaction. The head of the residences were informing the campus police of some issues they needed help on. The fire department chief discussed some upcoming changes relating to fire safety. These people were working together – he was simply providing the safe context for people to work together in a way that they might not without him. He was doing nothing but he was building shalom on campus! (And that’s something!)

It was so amazing to see this chaplain support cross department communication and collaboration. In a world where most people look out for advancing their own priorities – include their Christian ones, he was using his position to help others and help them connect for the good of the campus.

I was amazed at how different this approach was vs some campus ministries who, in their eagerness to evangelize, were creating tension on campus. I remember as we were passing by a booth, this chaplain asked the Muslim Student Group if any Christians were being idiots. I didn’t understand it then but it reflected his theology of how to approach a pluralistic culture. Is the point to evangelize and convert at all costs?

To clarify, this wasn’t a chaplain from some liberal branch of Christianity. He believed in salvation by faith in Christ alone. Perhaps he realized that building good will on campus was part of his greater Christian responsibility and witness. More recently I’ve observed a whole Biblical theology around the need to do good in society and its importance to the churches’ advancement (more in an upcoming post).

When we push the gospel too hard we become just one other sales voice is a world that is already cluttered with noise. When we support people in their important tasks we become a trusted and respected voice of healing and hope. And we all know the world needs more of both.

Live it Out:
What groups of people are in your sphere who have tension against each other? Is there a way you can provide a safe context for support and collaboration? What are some priorities that other people have that you could offer support or collaboration? Who are those people with differing priorities? How might your support show them a different better way of living?

*Michael Wagenman is involved in the Kuyper Centre for Emerging Scholars (www.kuypercentre.ca) which is heavily influenced by the work of the Paideia Centre for Public Theology (www.paideiacentre.ca).

The Mega Church – Building a Community (without Social Skills)

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One of the saddest emails I ever received was while I was a college pastor in Canada. Now I’ll admit, on the spectrum it wasn’t too bad, but for me it was a tip of an iceberg, revealing a deeper problem which is easy to miss at first glance.

By the way, if this is the first post you’re visiting on my missional journey, feel free to start at the beginning here

The email was from a 38 year old. She was excited about all the fun events we could have now that a young adult pastor (that would be me) was on staff. Now perhaps I am being too hard on her, but I couldn’t help but thinking, ‘at the age of 38 why do you need a young adults pastor to organize activities for you?’ (While I admit gathering older singles and creating healthy community can be a challenge, this issue was something different.) As I thought about this it hit me, we have trained people ever since they were in high school to depend on the church as their social facilitator. From high school youth group to college ministries to young adults ministries, the church has provided social programming. My newfound fear, however, was that this provision of social programming over multiple decades had robbed them of developing their own social skills – skills that are critical to reaching a post Christian world.

This gets even more disheartening when viewed through the lens of sociology and the church. If the church has deprogrammed people from developing their own social network, then they have limited the ability for any grass roots social network evangelism. The evidence is not hard to find. Any evangelism which happens these days tends to be big events programmed by the church in a day when the people need to see real believers down to earth. We have missed something.

Unfortunately, while this church over-programming may be motivated by a desire to keep people connected, it is problematic when it functions to keep people dependent on the institution. To reverse spin an old saying: “teach a man to fish and he won’t need you, sell a man a fish cheaply at first and he will depend on you forever… (or until he finds someone else to sell him a cheaper alternative).” Is there a subtle implied concern that if young adults were to possess excellent social skills and community building skills then they would leave the church? If so, we lack faith and trust – both in God and in our young adults.

When we see the life of Jesus we more often see him interacting around groups of people and people within groups, not in isolated conversations nor always in large scale sermons. Sure there are sermons on a mount, but far less than our current church culture would imply if we were modeling after the ministry of Christ. This all goes back to my radically different perspective that the church should not be the institution controlling people’s social life nor managing their ministry possibilities.

So what would a more socially healthy church look like? (I don’t want to be one of those people who criticize without providing better options). What if the church held a course – small group format- which provided education and wisdom on healthy social dynamics, true hospitality and community building? This would be the foundation for a more viral and grass roots faith building community. Of course, this could be supported with training on Bible teaching and spiritual formation.

The next post applies this discussion of healthy ministry to a university campus setting.

Live it Out:
Would you agree or disagree with the observations in this post? What are some skills you’d like to learn regarding building a social community? What are some things you’ve had to learn the hard way? What pieces of advice would you offer to young community builders?

Missionary Training – Killing a Disease

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If this is the first post you’re visiting on my missional journey, feel free to start at the beginning here

The Christian Associates church planters’ assessment in Den Haag Holland was very interesting, unique and comprehensive. One illustration really stuck with me and was very formative.

“How do you kill a disease?”

Really?!

Really. That was the question.

“How do you kill a disease?” he repeated. He paused before finally proceeding leaving just enough time for our brains to start turning.

He answered his question: “Either inoculation or quarantine.” I failed to see the relevance until he made the connection. “How do you kill Christianity?” The parallel puzzled me until I remembered that Christianity used to be huge in Europe and somehow it all but died out. “How do you kill Christianity? How do you keep it from perpetuating? Same answer: either inoculation or quarantine”.

Christianity can be eroded through inoculation. This happens when people have just enough exposure to Christianity to think they are fine. It doesn’t have to be the real thing just as a vaccine isn’t the living virus. It can be a selling of the Christian culture instead of a sharing of salvation. It can be a watered down version or an overly religious version – just so long as people think they have enough or know enough – enough to reject the real thing without ever encountering it.

This has been an issue in Europe where Christianity became a cultural thing. European Churches have now become museums and have lost their purpose and impact. I wish I could say that is just the case in Europe, but Christianity is being increasingly marginalized in Canada and the US. To re-popularize Christianity isn’t the solution as if we can make it cool again (see quarantine below). Rather, we need to teach the Word clearly and with present world application so that the gospel can be incarnated – lived out in our day. The real impact is believers living out the truth in the work place – being a good employee and a good witness.

Perhaps for Europe, the occurrence of liberal theology provided a significant dose to develop immunity – where the gospel that they were given no longer had the bite of a truly human divine Savior dying a real painful death for actual sin. They were given a Bible of good stories with good morals to put them to sleep.

But applied to the US, the Christianity that most people are exposed to is often pop-Christianity – a rockstar or sports hero thanking God for helping them win (really?), or the radical Westborrow church picketing in the name of Jesus. This exposure is just enough for people to think they know what Christianity is about without actually hearing the real message. Media is not our friend in these cases where what sells is just shock value and perhaps that just underscores the point. There is no healing in the message anymore…. People have had enough… of a watered down or polarized message to be thirsty for the real thing.

The other way you kill a disease is through quarantine. This is where the infected is isolated so as not to harm the rest. While a church can be geographically close to a population, keep the believer isolated and separate from that population. Make the Christian social subculture so increasingly weird to create a barrier to unbelievers. Let them have their own phrases and lingo so as to create a communication barrier with the rest of the world. Keep the Christians away, in their own social circles and make those circles difficult to penetrate. Let them believe that they are making a difference all wrapped up in their own world and unbelievers will be insulated from their message.

When I see the big Baptist churches with their church softball league, or the Christian hockey league I see the quarantine in effect. They keep cloistered to themselves so the darkness doesn’t get exposed to the light even in a social context. And perhaps this is for the best because sometimes Christians are the sorest of losers. Of course you can act like a heathen in those leagues because since it’s a Christian league everyone knows you are good – there is no reason to act like it.

So what is the way forward? For me spending time outside the culture made me realize the odd lingo I had developed. I became aware of Christian norms which didn’t relate to the general population and became aware of other societal norms which are actually healthy, worthy of picking up and which helped me connect with people.

The integrated life – the lack of quarantine – creates challenges. Seeing things from their perspective makes it harder to provide pat answers (thank goodness). It has also made me ask different questions of the Bible and has made me see the Gospels in a new light.

So, this inoculation-quarantine illustration really stuck with me. It would come to mind during my next two ministry locations (see the next two posts). It would haunt me every time I’d hear someone in these churches promote some really cool outreach event which was rooted in a weird Church subculture (I’ll explain later). I only wish I had shared the poignant question that maybe we were killing a blessed disease.

Live it Out: How are you and your Christian friends isolated from the world, or diluted in the world?
What are some social circles which you find uncomfortable? What is it about it that you find uncomfortable? What differences are atmospheric vs moral? To what degree do you think people are uninterested or anxious about outreach events based more on culture or atmosphere vs a real encounter with Jesus? How would you compare encounters with Jesus in the New Testament vs typical North American outreach events?

Alpha Groups in a Post Christian Culture

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If this is the first post you’re visiting on my missional journey, feel free to start at the beginning here

The month leading up to that Church planters assessment course I was able to hang out in Europe and be involved in some of the churches’ ministries. It was fun to see how the church plant was doing from the perspective of a recent and eager seminary grad. One experience, which I didn’t quite understand at the time but really appreciated much later, was their Alpha Course.

The Alpha Couse is this program where people come together, eat a nice meal together, watch a dry 45 minute message on VHS by a guy named Nicky Gumble, and then discuss the message. I was appalled by the video – straight up apologetics – Why do we believe the Bible is the word of God? Does the Bible say that Jesus is the Son of God? I was not appalled by the basic truth of what he was saying. It was solid. I was surprised at the lack of clever tactic. I was surprised at some of the circular argumentation. It wasn’t really that cool either. BUT… but… the group dynamic was very interesting. You see, the main difference was that in this group in Europe, there were just as many unbelievers as there were believers – perhaps more!

In the first meeting we got really honest reactions – people would flat out disagree with what was said on the video. But, they liked the people and enjoyed the meal. Would they come back next week? Yes. Thus begins a process. The following weak they would still disagree with most of it but would find something interesting. As the meetings progressed, they would begin to connect the dots and instead of analyzing and rejecting one Biblical truth against their humanistic world view, they began to see a whole new belief structure that had weight to it. The community and fellowship was keeping them in the process.

In the years that followed I found a new appreciation for the text, “Faith comes by hearing”. The way I always understood it was that upon an initial introduction to the Christian message people, if elect, would hear the word and automatically and immediately believe. This is a convenient understanding since it releases teachers from the difficult work of cultivating hard soil.

How would it change our approach to missions and church planting if we believed that the most solid faith was developed by a repeated exposure to the Word? Overall, it implies a responsibility to provide avenues for patient Bible investigation instead of an atmosphere of crisis and panicked decision.

I honestly, (and I hope not naively), believe that a significant number of people would be open to spending time in a safe community exploring what Christians believed as long as there wouldn’t be a pressured sales pitch. And really if it is the work of the Holy Spirit to convict people of sin and reveal Christ then couldn’t we simply share the message then trust Him enough do a transforming work in their hearts as He wills?

What would honest group conversation look like? It could be probing questions while reading through one of the gospels. It could include goofy stuff Christians do, why they may do it, and why it may not even be “Christian” (thus addressing their phobias of Christianity). I’m sure there are lots of different options. The sad thing is that so many evangelical churches would rather spend a lot of time and money on a on-off event rather than invest time in cultivating a culture of informing faith.

Live it Out:
I’m hoping that you’ve been able to share this post with some friends. What would it look like for you and your friends to host an investigative bible exploration group? Would you be open to praying with them about this?

Do you have some unbelieving friends who you know well enough to know whether they’d be interesting in learning more about Christianity? Would they see it as a safe place to explore or would they be concerned that it would be antagonistic or pressured? To be clear, the purpose isn’t to convince or convert, but to educate and clarify what Christians believe – perhaps you could respond to some of the things they find weird about Christianity (see Living it Out item from an earlier post! 🙂 ).

If you find bridging this gap with unbelievers difficult they you will be interested in the following post.

Missionary Training – Shared Leadership

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If this is the first post you’re visiting on my missional journey, feel free to start at the beginning here

My travels through Europe continued to be fun and interesting. I was able to stay in Europe for a month until the Christian Associates (CA) church planters assessment course. This gave me an opportunity to observe things at the CA church plant in Holland. It wasn’t until years later that I would be able to appreciate the themes of shared leadership that I saw modeled and supported at that small church plant.

One of the biggest surprises and notable differences at the church plant of 200 was how the senior pastor shared the pulpit with his other 3 staff members. He was clearly the better speaker yet only spoke around 50% of the time. While the senior pastor maintained a lead presence and would often do announcements when not preaching, his lack of pulpit presence frustrated me at the time. From my North American perspective having the better speaker teach all the time would be a practical application of specialization and would likely develop larger crowds and support a better Sunday event. In the US it is an approach often used to centralize leadership in the non-denominational church settings.

The different approach at this church plant however was intentional. While the senior pastor led in orchestrating harmony, he considered the team leading as a collective. Years later I would see the value and wisdom of share leadership and a shared pulpit from the missional engagement perspective: he would be freer to be involved in making connections, support existing connections, and further build community. Also, (and I didn’t realize it until years later, but) speaking every week takes a lot of energy and can be draining on the spiritual life of a Pastor.

For someone to be on stage all the time would smack of American popularism and would be counter cultural and counter productive especially to the Dutch culture. There is so much visibility that pastor worship often occurs in the US – a very negative thing in Europe. Instead of all the staff sitting looking to the pastor, a mutual sharing and practice of gifts was modeled for the community. I only wish I had perceived the benefit at the time.

The value of shared leadership also existed in the planters assessment course. The course was very informative and helpful and insightful. I shared some of the challenges I experienced with other leaders with whom I had worked in the US. The coach’s response was very balanced. ‘If you join CA we would want to you express your different ideas and views, but we’d also hope you can allow them to be molded and modified and adapted or delayed. We’d need you to hold those ideas loosely.’ This was a healthy and balanced perspective to be involved and contributing yet not dominant and controlling. That sort of shared leadership is rare in most ministry settings that I’m familiar with in North America. It would be something I would only remember several years later after leaving ministry. I wish I had understood its wisdom earlier.

Next: See one expression of how this shared leadership was mobilized.

Live it Out:
What examples have you encountered of shared leadership? What do you think it would look like? What makes shared leadership difficult? What are advantages to it? Why do you think shared leadership is important when thinking about and discussing missional initiatives? What are ways that you exercise shared leadership with your friends and or spouse?

A Parable in Europe – A Movie Producer, an Actress and a Nun on a Train

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If this is the first visit to this blog, feel free to start at the beginning here

After graduating from Seminary, several ‘coincidences’ led me to travel to Europe for a couple of months. This opportunity first emerged from a roommate who invited me to coach a youth band at a German-English language camp he was running. Two weeks after that, Christian Associates was running its summer conference to which I was invited. This allowed for two weeks in between where I could travel around Europe and travel I did.

One experience, on my way to Krakow Poland from Prague, caught my attention and represented a parable to me. When I got on the train, I ended up sitting with a young couple. They had met in film school – he was behind the camera and she was an actor. He was from Eastern Europe and she was from the West. They were from very different worlds. They were heading to the wedding of his brother. It would be the first time she was to meet his parents – so she was preparing herself by ramping up on her intoxication levels… but I digress. They both spoke English and we had a very enjoyable conversation – Europeans from my experience often enjoy discussing politics and world events without needing to be the winner the way in which Americans may often come across. Things are discussed in terms of similarity and differences and as preferences rather than better or worse and good or bad. This makes for easy and interesting conversation.

We had to switch trains once we entered into Poland. He was extremely helpful in quickly reading the sign and getting us all to the correct platform to catch the train to Krakow. We only had a minute between trains so his familiarity is Polish was tremendously helpful. Once we got on the next train, for whatever reason I entered into a box where there sat a nun. Don’t ask me why. (For this train, there were compartments which would seat 4 -6 people instead of subway type seating.) The young couple followed. This was all an odd set of events in and of themselves. So there we were in this one compartment- a European couple, a nun and myself.

So… a European couple, a nun and a Canadian (myself) are all seated in a train compartment. Here is the cue for one of the characters to say something, but the bizarre combination of people kept us quiet. The punch line would have to wait.

After a couple of stops, the young couple got off the train, I wished them well. About a mile down the tracks I thought it good to encourage the sister to pray for the heathen couple and in so doing delegate out my mission work to this professional. It was apparent that she didn’t understand English. I motioned to her, to pray, for them. She was very impressed and enthused to see me making the universally known clasping-of-the-hands motion for prayer. She then started talking to me in Polish but I had no idea what she was saying.

At this point I need to clarify the image of the nun you may have conjured up on your minds eye. She wasn’t a young attractive Polish woman – in case you were wondering. She was a large, jolly baby faced nun. Did I say large? She was pleasant enough as we sat in the same booth exchanging polite smiles and nodes – the kind people do when impeded by lack of social skills or a common language. However, this all changed once I motioned their need for prayer.

She became more excited and more animated. I said slowly, “I don’t understand”, but unfortunately, was unable to find a corresponding universally known hand motion. The more I defended my ignorance, the louder … and closer… and more enthusiastic this very large nun became. It was actually a little scary!

The stop at Krakow soon arrived and as it so happened she was getting off in Krakow as well. She convinced me to follow her off the train and introduced me to the priest who was there to pick her up. I had shown her where my youth hostel was on the map so I was hoping it was my lucky day with a car ride to the hostel – I was also partly afraid she was going to take me to the nunnery! Instead, our mode of transportation would be the bus – all very Europeanly efficient.

I reluctantly followed, unsure of the implications of the associations I was making with my new Catholic friends. We seemed to be going on a route that was towards the hostel. Time would tell. After several stops she began talking to me again – with the same assumption as before, as though if she was loud enough or dramatic enough somehow I would understand her. I think she forgot about that tower of Babel story.

So, after she made her last speech she pulled the chord to signal to the bus driver to stop at the next drop site. Out of the blue a young attractive Polish girl decked out in goth attire seated ahead of me, spun around and spoke to me in broken polish,

“she sezs, you muwst git uff eat negzed stoop.”

Finally, a familiar word in broken English from a Polish Goth.

I often look back at that experience as a parable of how the young pop culture is speaking this global language – or able to converse cross culture – weather the film school students or the young goth girl, while the church in their best intentions leave those they lead confused and unsure.

Can God’s people not do better in how we communicate? Can we not speak into their culture? It requires that we incarnationally be among them to truly reach them. Yet instead of “living among” it is so much easier to shut ourselves up in a convent and miss the world in transit. While I do have to acknowledge the sisters help and I don’t want to minimize the importance of solitude and the work that those in convents may do, perhaps there is a greater lesson even for us: That far too easily we can hedge ourselves in our own subculture instead of being God’s healing presence in the word. While there are many convents I do not see masses involved in missional engagement. Is not the great commission to go into all the world? Does that not include subcultures which may shelter people from the Gospel?

Live it Out:
Think about the subcultures around you – social groups which would otherwise have no intersection with God or His people. Try to name five. Be as specific as you can. Thinking of where they gather, their age, their uniqueness. This all helps with specificity. What would it take to connect with them? How would you go about speaking in their language? What are some cultural barriers? How would you overcome them? Is there a role you could play even though you may be outside of that culture?

What are some social circles you are in, in which your pastor or priest would not have access? These represent social circles that you have the opportunity to speak into. What advice would you give to missional thinkers who desire to speak hope and love into the social circle where you find yourself? What are the cultural barriers they may not be aware of and how would you suggest they overcome them?

Next Post: Lessons Shared Leadership

The Poetry Cafe – Loving Bad Poets

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How do you mystify people? Try loving people who are different then you. If this is the first post you are reading, feel free to start at the beginning here

While I was in seminary I really needed an adventure and outlet to stretch me out of the sanitized Christian circles which encompassed me. Somehow I started leading some fellow believers to a coffee shop every night for poetry readings. I still remember the first time we all walked in the coffee shop. We all wore black. We wanted to fit in and be considerate. We were challenged immediately.

“Don’t look at me!” These were the first words I remember as our attention was immediately solicited by the poet on stage who just put his poetry book down and switched gears upon our entrance. “Don’t look at me and my long hair and my tattoos.” The poem was no doubt for us. Subtle but honest enough. While I can’t remember the poem the theme drew our understanding and empathy. He didn’t want to be judged. He didn’t want us to look at him and make immediate assessments. Thankfully everyone in the group was mature enough that we appreciated his sentiment. We were neither detoured nor antagonized.

The small coffee shop held quite a variety of people. Most poems were free flowing journal entries littered with pain. Few rhymed. Everyone was encouraged by the host who though young knew more about leadership then many Christians I know. He was always supportive of everyone and taught us to be supportive. We all clapped after every poem no matter how strange. And many were strange. But the supportive culture he created was home for many. I remember one girl introduced her poem by saying, “this is for my sister who took her life this past week”. That is the quality of honest and transparency that support brings. It was family.

It was hard not to love the band of misfits who frequented that place. While their uniqueness peeked my interest, their brokenness drew compassion. We got to know them. The rite of passage seemed to be sharing a poem. We were on their turf and you weren’t accepted until you were exposed. So we shared and we were accepted. We were even invited a party hosted by one of the poets, which was just a bunch of people hanging out. It was cool. Complete with “special” brownies. (coincidentally, none of our group had any but when one of our Christian lawyers found out he high tailed it out of there).

So yes, there was a measure of temptation that crept in – perhaps it was simply the fact that one of the only ways they knew to respond to our expression of kindness way to respond in unhealthy ways. I was offered ecstasy over the phone referenced by the short term “x” which I declined politely not fully knowing what I was being offered but knowing it wasn’t good. There were other temptations from which the Lord graciously protected us.

I think that’s one of the risks of living out there. Temptation can be pretty overt which is why this should be an endeavor by those with spiritual maturity and several years of holy living under their belt. That is also why this should be done in community with debriefing, accountability and prayer. I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that I felt its pull. Being connected to a redemptive and restorative community is important.

Things had been going well for about 2 months. Then for one week the cafe switched the poetry reading to a Sunday night. I wasn’t in attendance but I later heard that one of the poets read their poem about raping a woman. Everyone was uncomfortable. Instead of allowing the host to lead the community to censor itself for what all agreed was out of bounds, a more unfortunate thing happened. That night ‘the establishment,’ which formerly had been anonymous and completely absent, came out of the closet. The coffee shop revealed that it was funded by a Christian organization and they laid down the law that poems from that point on could only be about happy things like flowers.

That single pronouncement represented everything we had set out to overcome. These kids didn’t know how to write poems about flowers. That positive experience was so far out of their reality… The place became irrelevant for them and within a couple of weeks, the poetry night fizzled out.

Had I had the confidence I do now, I would have approach the religious leaders and open a can of whop ass on them for being so stupid. However dysfunctional, it had been a place of shalom for these broken poets in a way that the church had not been. This real life illustration of the difference between mandating spirituality (to no effect) versus being incarnational, living among and being light is one of the main points of this blog series.

There were some definite highlights. One in our missional community, and one by the attendees.

I still remember the night that we read poems on the back patio. It was a nice night unusual for the typical hot Dallas climate. It was the turn for one of the girls in our group to read a poem. She dedicated it to the young man who had greeted us with his poem upon our first entrance our very first week.

“Don’t look at me… Don’t look at me with my frizzy hair….” She continued through her poem flipping rhetoric of the first poet we had heard. In the same way he had not wanted us to judge him, she requested he not judge us. While we were different from them we wanted acceptance to be part of their lives. It was brilliant (to use a UK word). It was wise. It was fitting. Her gentleness and softness made it even more powerful. It was incarnational. It was beautiful.

Another stand out moment was when the host Austin had his mother in attendance. He introduced her to me. “This is Jeff. He goes to the seminary. We don’t know why he hangs out with us. We think it’s because he likes us.”

Even as I recount this a tear comes to my eye. Because I did like them. I miss them. I loved them. The sad thing in that statement is the implication that they would wonder why a Christian would want to hang out with them. Has Jesus’ followers become that unloving? From outside the Christian sphere the answer is a resounding ‘yes’.

I hope Austin remembers a Christian who liked him. It looked as though his perspective was changing. Or perhaps the institution which closed the coffee shop erased that fruit of our incarnational presence.

That wouldn’t be the last time I’d see the distance between the church and artists

Live it Out:
If you like this blog, share it with some Christian friends with whom you socialize outside of church or church programs. In what ways are you a communal presence of Christ even when you are not at church? Ask them what it might look like for you and your friends to be this presence even when simply socializing together in public.

Like a Bird – The song of a culture

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If this is the first post you are reading, feel free to start at the beginning here

It was all backwards. I’m a Canadian. Nellie Furtado is a Canadian. I like good music. So why was the first time I heard her song, “I’m like a Bird” in a brown bag meet-and-greet at seminary? I don’t know. But that doesn’t matter – neither does the fact matter that it’s an old song which you probably don’t recognize. What matters, in the context of how we interact with and see the world, is a short video I saw.

Here were the lines playing, “I’m like a bird, I don’t evaluate, I don’t know where my home is, I don’t know where my soul is”. Can you find a song that so honestly articulates the wandering soul of a culture? Up on the screen were shots of really cool single people – thin and attractive, along with the occasional descriptor: Communal… Technically Savvy… Spiritual… Globally Minded…

For probably the first time I saw MY culture – my generation – as a lost people group. I saw the transient youth culture disconnected and without grounding or direction. The descriptors were accurate. The search for communal experience at a beach campfire or rock concert is the backdrop of commercials. The technical savvy description proceeded the iPhone phase and is impossible to deny. It is a culture more apt to find comfort and solitude in yoga than church. And while this short slide show was intended to communicate the post Christian European mind, it accurately reflects the North American situation as well. It’s lost predicament is no less complex than those of other cultures.

For the first time I saw them as systemically lost with lives so different that their intersection with the church is unrealistic and impossible. I know for many this may sound ridiculous. “They have churches they can go to.” Some may argue. “They can read the Bible if they want.” But as we discussed last week, there are assumptions and challenges there.

If the real job of the missionary is to learn the language of the people and to share the Gospel in that language, should that not also be applied to those who speak our language but are in a different subculture. Are there not signs of life that exist in their culture that can point to Jesus? That is what Jesus did in his parables. He communicated truth, which would be missed by many but caught by some.

But it is important how we do this. If you want to use media to explain spiritual truth, don’t take the approach of identifying people or things as symbolical or as representations. This is called the allegorical method and is what Paul uses in Galatians. While this worked for Paul in explaining a theological concept using the Old Testament, this is not a good approach to use with movies or music when evangelizing. Neo is not Jesus. This approach weakens our credibility since it is usually far-fetched. It is also usually not the intention of the original writer so we twist someone’s art for our purposes – something very disrespectful to the artist. Furthermore, sooner or later the illustration breaks down leading to some wacky understandings of Christianity if people extrapolate too far – especially if there is a sequel or two which goes sideways!

Instead raise the conversation to the level of themes and values. If you use words like ‘This is like the kingdom of God’ you are probably starting off in the right direction. ‘The way in which the movie the Matrix depicts a deeper reality beyond our physical world is like the kingdom of God. There is a greater spiritual reality with different laws not bound by space or time.” Here we make a connection then we reveal. This allows the art to stand on its own and puts no implication on the artist. This approach is about making positive associations with what is true about the kingdom of God and being involved in the education (and revelation) process.

Far too often we ‘call’ people before we ‘connect’ with people. We sell before we love. The dual impact with Nelly Furtado was that I ‘caught’ truth instead of being forced truth.

We need to stop expecting the world to come to our turf – which is geographically close but socially and culturally worlds apart – and we need to go to their world. And that is what I did… I went to a poetry café.

Live it Out:

This week, be observant to the cultural messages you see. In what way does a commercial affirm or reject a Christian value? In what way might a song or movie affirm a Christian worldview? Don’t claim these creations as Christian. That smacks of being presumptuous and territorial. Allow the art to be appreciated for what it is… along with a possible added meaning. I’ll be interesting in hearing what you come up with.

Try sharing this with a fellow believer in the way we discussed using the language “I think the kingdom of God is like…”. See what they think. For the adventurous, try also sharing with someone who is not a Christian, perhaps the same individual you interacted with in the previous exercise.