Trading execution for thoughtfulness

“I can’t help but thinking that at this level, it’s not really the priority.  I mean, I’d gladly trade my Lotus developed suspension for some Toyota developed door trim.” – James May, reviewing an inexpensive Malaysian car.

Let’s be honest. There is an element of any corporate worship service that boils down to performance. This isn’t meant to be a criticism per se, but simply to state what I take to be a clear reality that the way things are done in contemporary worship settings (and by this I mean contemporary as in current, not any particular style of worship), execution of the specific elements matters. Anyone who has been to a church where the worship band was awful or the preacher put you to sleep is keenly aware of this. Some level of execution is important. Most people, given a choice and all other things being equal, would choose a service with a high production value over one with generally poor execution.

One disturbing trend in many churches, though, is a preference for execution over thoughtfulness. There are many reasons for this, I think, and many of them have their roots in the more widespread emergence of what Lindbeck would call “experiential expressivism” in recent years. Whatever the cause, most worship pastors, and to a large extent most parishioners prefer well executed services to meaningful ones, or, perhaps to put it differently, the “meaningfulness” of a service is a function primarily of its execution, rather than its content.

This actually leads to some pretty interesting consequences, at least in practice. Consider, for instance, the abundance of new worship songs which sound fun, have a good beat, and can move people to a different emotive state, but whose content is either remarkably thin, or worse borders on theological garbage. Think about whether, at a typical worship service, the songs are chosen because they sound good together (or have a particular emotional movement to them), or because they harmonize theologically. My sense is that if many of us were honest we find ourselves in services where, if there is planning, that planning is primarily centered around emotional content rather than theological content, which suggests that the primary aim of our execution of worship services is to make us feel good, rather than to actually encounter God in some sort of meaningful way.

Which brings me to my opening quote. What, really, is the priority in what we’re doing in corporate worship? It seems to me, unfortunately, as if we’ve traded our foundational beliefs and theology for a more emotional product that makes us feel good, at the expense of some pretty serious theological incoherence and inconsistency. I want to be very clear that this is not a question of worship *style*, at least in the sense that many of us think of it, nor is it a function of the amount of pure effort or thought – I’ve been in thoughtful an coherent services ranging the gamut of multiple dimensions in the traditional / progressive divide. What it is a question of, I think, is the *types* of thought we put into our services:

  • Do our words, welcomes, prayers and songs speak with a unified theological voice? Do they suggest a common eschatology, soteriology, etc? If so, what is that voice? If not, what message are we sending?
  • Do we spend more time thinking about the flow of the service, especially the emotional flow of the service, than we do the voice of the service? For example, when we consider movement, are we thinking primarily along the dimension of how a particular sequence of elements will people will feel, or about the progression of the message and proclamation of the sequence (e.g. fast song, fast song, slow song; or song about Jesus’s life, song about Jesus’s death, song about Jesus as risen Lord)?
  • What metric do we use to evaluate whether a particular service was “effective” or “well executed”? Do we look at performance criteria (i.e. how well everything came off), emotive criteria (i.e. how well everyone felt at the end), or transformative criteria (i.e. did anybody actually change as a result of what we did here)?

Unfortunately it’s not hard to find examples of services which are, by and large, both poorly planned and poorly executed, but it’s probably even easier to find services which are poorly planned and well executed. Perhaps it’s too much to ask for a well planned, well thought-out, well executed service on a consistent basis. But if we have to choose between the three, it seems to me the priority shouldn’t be on execution.

Pro-Life, or Anti-Sex?

Last week, Richard Beck posted a piece on his blog which puts very well something I’ve been saying for years (here, or here, for instance) – namely that if we’re going to claim that we’re Pro-Life, we should actually be Pro-Life, otherwise we should shut up about it. Beck, interestingly, takes things one step further by pointing out that in reality, “Pro-Life” looks a lot more like “Anti-Sex”.  An extremely interesting read, and one which I’ve posted (in its entirety) below:

It seems to me that most Pro-Life people I know really aren’t Pro-Life at all. They are, rather, Anti-Sex. That is, the abortion debate is often just a cover to wage war on the sexual revolution and the Dawn of the Pill. What many Pro-Life people are angry about is the casual sexuality of our age, an era of “abortion on demand.” Pro-Life advocacy, then, is often (consciously or unconsciously) really a way to get sexually promiscuous people to face the “consequences” of sexual activity. The focus on life is often cover for Puritanical worries about sexuality in modern America.

Why do I draw this conclusion? Because most Pro-Life people I know are only Pro-Life in this one area, and only in this one area. They are not, generally speaking, consistently Pro-Life. For example, most Pro-Life people are…

…not Pro-Life when it comes to gun control.

…not Pro-Life when it comes to preemptive war.

…not Pro-Life when it comes to capital punishment.

…not Pro-Life when it comes to global malnourishment.

…not Pro-Life when it comes to universal health care.

…not Pro-Life when it comes to entitlement programs for the women and children of the working poor (to remove the economic incentives for abortion).

…not Pro-Life in promoting condom usage to prevent teenage pregnancy or AIDS in developing nations.

In short, the only thing many conservatives are Pro-Life about is, well, abortion. Which, incidentally, is the only thing on the list that’s about regulating sexual behavior.

Which kind of makes you wonder…

if what you do to survive…

Well I’ve got God on my side
And I’m just trying to survive
What if what you do to survive
Kills the things you love
Fear’s a dangerous thing
It’ll turn your heart black you can trust
It’ll take your God-filled soul
Fill it with devils and dust

Springsteen’s words have been on my mind in the past few days with the current hot button issue in the church I currently worship at, at least for the next few months. The issue itself isn’t really my concern – frankly I could completely care less, and I suspect most of the people in my general area probably agree. I’ve been well beyond where the progressive group is wanting to go, and I think they’re going to be highly disappointed when they get there and realize it’s no different from where they are now, but for the moment let’s set that aside. The larger issue here, in my view, is the one raised by Bruce: What if what you do to “survive” kills the things you love?

The core motivation for the push, in my view, is for the “next generation” – our kids, if you will. I think this is, on the surface, wholly commendable. Certainly when you talk about a tradition, one of the questions that isn’t asked enough is how we can change and adapt the tradition to make it relevant to the next generation – how we as the current generation can excite and enable the generation below us to continue practicing that which we have found to be true and important, even if the specifics of that practice looks slightly different than the ones we embraced. I think in this particular case there is sincerity in the motive of those who would move things forward – they are genuinely fearful of the state of worship that will be handed to their children, and I think with good reason.  Personally I would have a whole different list of concerns when it comes to worship if I were making the list, but I can certainly understand their dissatisfaction and desire to pass to their children something better than what they experience themselves.

But here’s the issue: what if what you endure to bring change ends up being more destructive than the status quo – in other words, again, if what you do to survive ends up killing the things you love. Put in the context of this specific discussion, if the transition becomes a fight, and the fight becomes nasty (which isn’t, you know, entirely out of the question when you’re dealing with things that have marked traditional social boundaries for 150 years), do your kids inherit a legacy of different worship, or do they inherit a legacy of their friend’s parents – people who called themselves Christians – saying really mean-spirited, hurtful things about their parents? In college ministry we deal often with kids who’ve come from churches which have endured painful splits, and the fallout from the deeply personal attacks that result can be dramatic, having powerful and destructive consequences for the children of those involved in the actual arguments years after the fact. If what you do to pass your children a legacy you think they’ll appreciate (which, in fact, they might not) results in driving them away from the tradition of Christianity altogether – fear is a dangerous thing.

My personal opinion is that given the current climate, it is going to be difficult for either side to come away with a victory worth having. Neither group stands to gain enough to offset the incredible level of damage that might result should either side start taking things personally. I think there may be solutions which are acceptable to both sides, but crafting something that diffuses the situation – let alone making everyone come away feeling good about it – is going to take divine guidance to say the least.

On how we see God working

A couple of days ago a friend posted a status update on Facebook about his personal experience of searching for God working on that particular day. His final sentence ended as follows: “Even if we do not see God working we need to have faith that he is still working in us Even if we do not see God working we need to have faith that he is still working in us.”  That status update raised a few personal questions for me regarding how we perceive God to be working in the world, and some deeper issues associated with that.

The core of the issue, really, comes down to this question: “When we look for evidence of God ‘working’ in the world, what criteria do we use to judge whether God is actually working in the world?” While there may be some objective truth about whether God is working in the world around us, the way we interpret events around us as either being part of God’s plan or not seems to be much more subjective and open to personal interpretation.  Our tendency, I suspect, is to judge what God is doing in the world based on our perception about the relative success of particular things we think God should be doing in the world – in other words our perception of how God is working in the world is intimately colored by our own values and agenda, and in a very subtle way, we’ve changed the question from, “How is God working in the world?” to, “How is God working in the world around me to increase my wealth/happiness/satisfaction?”

It may seem like a narrow distinction, but there is a huge gulf between believing that God is working toward my happiness, wealth, and satisfaction and simply believing that God is working. Even though most people say they don’t believe in a prosperity Gospel, most of us have an implicit assumption in our theological foundation that God should reward those who are good and punish those who are evil. As someone who is good, then, I should be able to see evidence of God working around me to make my life better – I should get the new job, or the raise at work, and my kids should never act up, always get good grades in school, and be the star of their respective soccer teams. We wouldn’t be so naive as to publicly say we believe this, of course, but let’s examine the core question again: what criteria do we use to determine whether God is working in the world? Do we really believe that God is working (at the time) when our 401k takes a 40% hit, or we suddenly have termites eating up our house? Insurance companies and lawyers seem to find God working in tragedy (always nice to see they aren’t liable for “acts of God”), but we seldom take that view ourselves when the ball comes up double zero. No, if God is working, he must be working *for* me.

The danger then, as I see it, is this: if God is in the business of looking out for my personal interests (as I define them), then everything is fine, so long as things are going the way I want them to. But when your father dies of cancer, or you lose a child to a miscarriage, or your husband leaves you after three months of marriage, it becomes rather difficult to write those events into the narrative “God is working for good” if by “God is working for good” we really mean “God is working to improve the personal satisfaction, happiness, and wealth of all those who are called according to his purpose.”

If God is ultimately, primarily interested in improving the lives of those who are faithful to Him, then the conclusion one is forced to draw in the above situations is that a) God isn’t doing a very good job of “working for the good” or b) the people in the above situations more or less deserve what they got. It’s also possible to conclude that c) the situations above really aren’t that bad, and that the people in them stood to suffer far more unless these situations happened, but I think this argument cheapens the very real pain and suffering people go through in times of crisis. If we accept conclusion a), then God is impotent or tyrannical, and if we accept conclusion b) we move quickly to a place of pride and arrogance or guilt and shame, depending on which side of the crisis we’re on.

One of the major underlying issues in this process is our common practice of using analogies that point from man to God, as opposed to the other way around.  In the ensuing discussion, my friend compared how his father treated him (not letting him steal candy from a store) to how God treats and sometimes disciplines us.  Both my friend’s analogy and our tendency to apply our personal thought process to God fall under this category of analogy. The problem is that the analogy between God and man turns out to be rather tenuous.

Let’s consider the example of comparing God the Father to an earthly father. When we invoke this analogy in the incorrect direction, we are saying that we can infer how God the Father treats us by observing how earthly father’s treat their children.  Thus just as earthly fathers may know much better than their young children which actions are beneficial and which ones are not, God the Father knows better than us and influences things around us so that we will make better choices.  The problem with applying this logic is that we are in some sense creating God in our image, rather than the other way around.  Furthermore, every analogy breaks down at some point – so exactly how far do we carry this particular one? Can we also infer that God the Father abandons his children, as earthly fathers often do? Does he disappoint them with no good reason, as earthly fathers often do? What of fathers who treat their children with indifference or neglect? Are these qualities we can ascribe to God as well? Just how strong is this analogy?

Obviously I think there is something to the analogy – we do not call the first person of the Trinity “God the Father” for no reason, and the Bible itself clearly speaks in these terms (see also Matthew 7).  But I believe the analogy should generally run from God to man, rather than the other way around.  In other words, we should infer how to treat our children based on how God treats us, rather than inferring how God treats us (especially on a topic as diverse and intricate as theodicy) based on how we treat our children.  When we start to run the analogy backward, there are some pretty serious issues that come up.

These issues seem small, but they manifest themselves in devious ways when we make inferences about how God thinks/acts based on how we think/act.  It shows up when we superimpose our will on God’s will, when we take our interests and judge God’s actions on how well he promotes them, while ignoring or overlooking the possibility that God might be interested in, or doing, something else in the world (think Isaiah 55).  It happens when we write our stories in such a way that God is on “our side” to the exclusion of other people.  Do we really think that God chooses sides?

The functional upshot of all of this is that we don’t always know what God is doing, and we have to accept the idea that he isn’t always doing what we think he should be.  As God promises to usher in “a new heaven and a new earth”, we need to be aware of the fact that God’s work might mean we lose the privileged position we occupy in the current world. Unfortunately, we often find it easy to write our view of God’s agenda as if it is pretty much identical to our own, limited, personal agenda. When we do this, we begin to measure God’s faithfulness in terms of whether or not he is serving our own interests, rather than by looking at events in the world and engaging in the process of discerning what God is doing, and how we can participate in that.

The first view prays for God to “bless us”, while the second view asks for God to reveal to us where is working, believing that God’s work is blessed already.

So in a practical sense, we return to the question, “What criteria do I use to judge whether God is working?” If my standard amounts to me getting a raise at work, the kids doing great in school, my 401k not losing value, attendance at my church generally trending upward, and Republican candidates winning political races, I would suggest that I’m thinking in terms of the first view rather than the second, and that I’m making “God’s agenda” into my agenda, rather than the other way around.

Evangelism as a “practice”

Another quote for thought from Stone’s book, “Evangelism after Christendom“… This one is heavy…

The problems involved in thinking about evangelism as a practice, therefore, are not only strategic but ultimately theological. The argument of this book is that the prevailing model of practical reasoning employed to a great extent by contemporary evangelism is inadequate to the Christian faith, ecclesiologically bankrupt, morally vacuous, and tyrannized by a means-end causality that is eschatologically hopeless insofar as it externalizes the means from the end. The way this usually works is that once the aim of evangelism is asserted in terms of converting, initiating, recruiting, or persuading, strategies are developed and implemented, typically on the basis of their strictly utilitarian value in reaching that end.  Both the “end” and the “means” then tyrannize the church as it is forced to forget itself and the One whom it follows in the name of both the end and the means. In the process, the church’s fundamental calling to bear faithful witness is edged out in favor of what “works.” Moreover, we who have been made witnesses by the Holy Spirit fail to be guided in our practice by Spirit-formed virtues such as love, hope, faith, presence, patience, humility and courage, for “witness” has now been hijacked by an evangelism that turns it into a tool employed as a means to something else – namely the converting or initiating of other persons. Evangelism finds it all too easy to jump ahead to some imagined result and then to adjust the meaning of witness in accordance with what will “work” to achieve that result.  It forgets that Christian witnesses engage in the practice of evangelism for no other reason than that they have been made witnesses.

The failure of apologetics, the failure of example.

“3 out of 4 Christian teens walk away from the church after they leave home,” the website loudly proclaims. Why? “[M]ainly because they are not equipped to examine the skepticism and atheism they encounter after leaving home, often coming from their college professors.” The answer? A new wave of Christian Apologetics, of course, complete with plenty of rhetoric, and tried and true arguments that have been in freshman philosophy textbooks for ages.

Before starting, I think it’s only fair to say that I’m a stakeholder in this debate on multiple levels. I’m a Christian, but more than that I’ve been actively involved in university ministry for over 10 years. In that time I’ve dealt with close to 1,500 students as a speaker, class teacher, and counselor. I’m as concerned about the exodus of teens as much as anyone else, but unlike the New Apologists, I have a very different perspective on why it is occurring, and consequently what the solution should be. I think it’s also important to say that I recognize that the men who are crisscrossing the country on speaking tours do genuinely believe they are doing good, that their work is a “ministry”, and that ultimately they are doing God’s work, saving people from the evils of liberalism. Unfortunately, my own experience suggests that Christian Apologetics – specifically Christian Apologetics as it is currently practiced – misses the mark in several important areas, and indeed causes more harm than good.

The New Christian Apologists read the absence of the 18-35 demographic in our churches to be a symptom of good, biblically based, young Christians from strong families meeting activist, staunchly atheist, liberal professors in their university classrooms, who pervert the truth of God and lie to our children.  The problem, then, is one of information – if we can supply our children (and specifically those in college and those about to be in college) with “good” information about how they can counter the “bad” information they are receiving or are about to receive, then we can really make a difference in the problem of our teens leaving the church in droves. There are a wide variety of takes on what this information should look like, and my purpose here is not to debate any of them head on. I agree, in general, that we could and should do a much better job of inviting our youth into meaningful discussions about faith, and that we should try to get them to engage in the philosophical dialog with the world that Christianity has been involved in since the time of Paul. Where I disagree, however, is in the fundamental premise that this lack of information is the real cause of students rejecting Christianity. There are a lot of kids who leave the church, to be sure, but there is something else – something much more major – going on here, I suggest.

I’ve been doing this for a while, and the students I know personally who’ve walked away from churches numbers probably in the tens-of-dozens.  In that total number of cases, I can think of only a handful – four, perhaps – who cited traditional apologetic questions (“I don’t really believe there is a God / How can there be evil in the world if God is all good and all powerful, etc”) as even a contributing factor in their decision to walk away.  Furthermore those who have talked about apologetic questions as reasons of their rejection of the prototypical Evangelical Christian lifestyle tend to be very well read on the subject – people who’ve done a fairly extensive amount of searching on their own in both Christian and non-Christian apologetic literature, and ultimately find more doubt than faith. This in itself is a powerful topic, and one that I might tackle later, but is somewhat tangential for the purposes of the immediate discussion. I submit that the evidence, at least gathered from an informal survey of people who actually *are* leaving the church, suggests that apologetic questions (and by extension militantly godless, atheist professors) are not really the major reason the college students I’ve talked to are rejecting faith.

Fundamentally I think there are a number of reasons why those in the New Apologetics movement make this mistake, but I’ll take a quick shot at three of them.  First, when you hold a really good hammer, it’s easy to see every problem as a nail. A dozen years ago, decent apologetic literature was genuinely difficult to find, and in general I applaud the apologetic community for a much needed refresh of presentation in the past decade. Today, however, there exists a wealth of apologetic literature, classes, books, cd’s, tapes, videos, and radio shows, all of which have a vested commercial interest in trying to cast apologetics as the solution to as many problems as possible.  As a result, the New Apologetics movement seems to be, as we like to say in the engineering trade, a “solution in search of a problem”, and when you are a solution in search of a problem, almost any problem will do. I feel like in some ways I’m being a little unfair, so let me pause and say that Apologetics does actually do a lot to help some very real problems, and I think that in some sort of academic sense it’s important that it continues. The issue, I think, is when the apologetic movement tries to create problems that don’t really exist, especially when doing so seems to serve its own economic interest.

Second, the majority of people who actually participate in driving the movement are travelling speakers and authors, as opposed to ministers. It’s not terribly difficult to imagine why this is, given that ministers generally have more than enough on their plates without spending time writing apologetic literature. Where this gets us into trouble, I suggest, is that the people who write the literature and give the speeches and drive the movement in general have become disconnected from a day-to-day ministry context in a single place. I take it to be a simple fact of life is that ministry looks very different day in, day out on the ground than it does at 30,000 feet flying over Wichita, KS on the way to your next speaking engagement. This is not to say that speaking engagements can’t be an important part of ministries in a local context, but it is to say that you can never truly understand what the particular problems in a particular ministry in a particular place (say, Wichita) are unless you actually spend time there, and a good bit of time at that. In the same way, to actually understand the needs and problems of campus and youth pastors, in a very real sense you have to be one, rather than just interacting with them.  This disconnect shows up most strongly in that apologists spend most of their time talking *to* students and pastors instead of listening to and dialoging with them.  I’m certain that every apologist worth his or her salt can of course come up with students who they’ve touched, and people who they “listen to” to help change and guide their ministry – and I’m not at all suggesting these people don’t exist.  What I am suggesting is that the majority of contact those on the professional speaking circuit have listening to actual students and ministers is self-selecting at best, and causes them to seriously overstate the prevalence of students rejecting faith due to a lack of apologetic information. This isn’t a criticism of apologetics, per-se, as much as it is the crusader type of Christian ministry that has been prevalent ever since the Great Awakening. Revivals and crusades may draw really large crowds and look really good on paper, but they often leave a lot of wreckage in their wake that pastors on the ground have to deal with months and years after they’re gone. Regardless of their message, whether these revivals and crusades on balance are a greater source of harm or good is certainly up for debate in many circles, and with good reason.

Finally, the new apologetic movement has invested itself heavily in support of a particular, and in my mind problematic soteriology – namely that salvation hinges primarily on the intellectual acceptance of a few key propositions.  In other words, salvation itself is primarily a problem of not having good information, and as a result good apologetics equates to good evangelism, and vice versa. There are a lot of things we could say about this, but I think we’ll save them for a later post. Suffice it to say that this brand of soteriology causes a lot of practical problems when you try to apply it, which lead to some of the disconnects we’ll talk about later on.

So all of that being said, if the apologists really have missed the boat and there really is something else going on here, what is it?  After all, it’s not just enough to say that kids aren’t leaving for apologetic reasons unless you can provide a decent alternative that explains why they’re headed for the door in ever increasing numbers.

For my money, the single factor that I can point to in about 75% of cases when students reject faith is the cognitive dissonance they’ve felt for 18 or more years between the outward message they hear preached at church and the actions of church members, most importantly their parents and youth pastors.  From the time kids are young, they’re told that God should be the most important thing in their lives, but the see their parents place money, work, kids, family, church – almost everything above God. In Bible class they are taught about the fruits of the Spirit, and that a life where Jesus is Lord will have certain characteristics, but they observe the lives of “Christians” around them and note that instead of peace there is worry, instead of patience there is anger, instead of kindness there is bitterness, instead of gentleness there is callousness, and the list goes on.  By the time they are entering college and having to make their own decisions about what they want to do with their lives, they’ve been given so many conflicting messages about what it is supposed to mean to be a Christian and what it seems to mean in actual practice that they’re done with the whole thing, and ready to try something – anything else. The problem, in other words, is not bad apologetics, but bad praxis. It’s easy to find a good book on Christian apologetics, but it’s much harder to find a person in churches today who lives a just, merciful, humble, Christ-centered life – and at the end of the day the problem most college students have with Christianity is the lack of the second, rather than the lack of the first.

I’ve raised a lot of issues in this post that probably merit further discussion, and it’s already extremely long as is, but let me close for now with a final critique. The apologetic movement does try to draw people in and expose them to a brand of Christianity that is, at least on the surface, less anti-intellectual than Evangelical Christianity writ large. However, in practice it often suggests a very simplistic, almost black-and-white approach to answering what are, almost always, very nuanced questions. It doesn’t really seem honest, either in an intellectual or theological context, to provide half-page or 15 minute answers to something as serious and layered as the problem of evil in the world. Indeed, the presentation of such answers seems to represent a clear and present danger to honest discussion. As a result, I think it is absolutely critical to distinguish here between the idea of apologetics practiced well, and the actuality of apologetics practiced poorly – a distinction we will probably get into in subsequent posts.

Evangelism after Christendom – reflections (part 1)

A while back, Jeremy sent me a book entitled Evangelism after Christendom (Bryan Stone). For those of you who don’t have friends in interesting graduate programs that actually read books, I would suggest you find some, and then have them tell you what to read.  It cuts down on the amount of bad books you go through significantly, and allows you to read more bad books in your own field, if you choose.

With most Christian books I’ve read in recent memory, I generally read the first few pages, say, “Oh, I know what this is going to be about”, and then spend the next 300-500 pages discovering the book was, indeed, about exactly what I suspected on page 4.  With this particular read, however, I’m close to 50 pages in and I have absolutely no idea where he’s going to end up, which is an extremely exciting and refreshing feeling.

Stone begins his book with reference to the idea of Christianity in general, and evangelism in particular, as practice.  In doing so, he begins with Alasdair MacIntyre’s (virtue ethics) definition of a practice, which is probably easiest to explain using James McClendon’s analogy of a game.

One of MacIntyre’s core principles of a practice is that if a “means is internal to a given end”, then “the end[s] cannot be characterized independently from a classification of the means”. In other words, it is impossible to separate a practice from the “internal goods” of that practice. What are internal goods? It’s perhaps easiest to start by talking about what they are not.  For starters, internal goods are not merely skills or rules. Consider baseball, for instance.  There are a variety of skills that might be required to play baseball – running, throwing, and catching, for instance.  However, none of these *are* baseball. The practice of baseball is something other than running, throwing, or catching, though all of those skills are required in order to participate in the practice. Whatever skills are required for a particular practice, however, the practice cannot be reduced to any of them, and each skill is judged by how well it serves the practice, not the other way around.

Additionally, Stone  points out that there may be “external goods” which result from a practice – in the case of baseball, money and fame – but that these external goods do not define the practice, and in fact can generally be achieved by other means which have nothing to do with the practice in question (say, being a personal injury lawyer).  Stone also notes that often times our desire for these external goods can distort the practice, and cause us to miss the point of what the practice is “really” about, if they become our goal.

A practice, then, is about more than the individual skills required for it, and more than the external goods produced by it.  It is also about joining a tradition that self-justifies the practice, and requires participation to fully understand.  More on this in a later post, but for now suffice it to say that a practice is about more than having a certain skillset, or a certain set of rules, or a certain set of results, and even when it is done alone is an inherently social activity that requires a communal agreement on what the practice entails (think about the game of Solitare, for instance).

Let’s stop, then, and consider in our own particular context how these ideas might relate not just to the “practice” of Evangelism, but Christianity as a whole.

There are certainly a number of “skills” (for want of a better word) involved in the practice of Christianity. Prayer, meditation, study, service – each of these forms an important part of the Christian experience, but as a practice, Christianity cannot be reduced to any of them.  Additionally, it’s often tempting for us to think of these skills as the measure of the “Christian-ness” of a person, or of ourselves.  If we’re not careful, our pursuit of quiet time, study, or even service can actually subvert us from the ethos of what it means to live Christianity as a practice. Finally, we find it easy to mistake the external goods of the practice (morality especially) for internal goods.  While these external goods may result from the practice of Christianity, they are not unique to it (i.e. there are moral non-participants in the practice), and when these external goods become our ultimate aim, distract us from the essence of Christianity as practice.

What does it mean to practice Christianity?  What are the “internal goods”? What are the things so central to the practice that they cannot be characterized apart from it?

“Laughing With…”

I was driving back from the store a week or so ago when I heard a song from the new Regina Spektor album called “Laughing With”.  Something about the lyrics captivated me enough to want to get the rest of the album, which I finally did tonight (will see how that goes tomorrow, perhaps).  None the less, I thought I’d post them here for reflection.

No one laughs at God in a hospital
No one laughs at God in a war
No one’s laughing at God
When they’re starving or freezing or so very poor

No one laughs at God when the doctor calls
After some routine tests
No one’s laughing at God
when it’s gotten real late
And their kid’s not back from that party yet

No one laughs at God when their airplane
Starts to uncontrollably shake
No one’s laughing at God
When they see the one they love hand in hand
with someone else and they hope that they’re mistaken
No one laughs at God when the cops knock on their door
And they say “We’ve got some bad new, sir,”

No one’s laughing at God
When there’s a famine, fire or flood

No one laughs at God in a hospital
No one laughs at God in a war
No one’s laughing at God
when they’ve lost all they got
And they don’t know what for

No one laughs at God on the day they realize
that the last sight they’ll ever see is a pair of hateful eyes
No one’s laughing at God
When they’re saying their goodbyes

But God can be funny
At a cocktail party while listening to a good God-themed joke or
When the crazies say he hates us
and they get so red in the head
You think that they’re about to choke
God can be funny
When told he’ll give you money if you just pray the right way
And when presented like a genie
Who does magic like Houdini
Or grants wishes like Jiminy Cricket and Santa Claus

God can be so hilarious
Ha ha, ha ha

No one’s laughing at God.
We’re all “laughing with God”.

Veni, Veni

Veni, veni Emmanuel;
Captivum solve Israel,
Qui gemit in exilio,
Privatus Dei Filio.

Gaude! Gaude! Emmanuel,
Nascetur pro te, Israel!

“why serve among the Churches of Christ?”

This article was originally posted by Edward Fudge, who maintains a large blog/email list, and was reposted by Brian Mashburn, who I occasionally read. I found it to be an interesting article, and one I identified with in some ways. Emphasis added.

My home base is with the Churches of Christ because that is where God has placed me for now. If I ever sense that God is leading me to a different subdivision on the Christian map, I will not hesitate to move. The truth is that I am at home wherever believers worship God, proclaim Jesus Christ, teach the Bible, live in the Spirit and love each other. The spiritual address is irrelevant.

I also remain in this nondenominational movement of my youth because I have complete freedom of understanding and conscience. I have a congenial home congregation, the Bering Drive Church of Christ in Houston, Texas, in which I have served as a teacher and an elder since 1982. A new generation of Churches of Christ is coming on the scene: one focused on Jesus Christ rather than on a church system, that proclaims justification by grace through faith rather than salvation through human effort or doctrinal conformity, and that enjoys fellowship with other believers based on commitment to Jesus rather than on sectarian allegiance or denominational membership.

I also reside among the Churches of Christ because I appreciate their founding ideals. The 19th-century Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement from which it sprang began with the goal of uniting Christians under the leadership of King Jesus without regard to human traditions or creeds. Its founders’ vision was to be “Christians only, but not the only Christians.” It adopted the more ancient slogan, “In matters of faith, unity; in matters of opinion, liberty; in all things, charity.” It professed to “speak where the Bible speaks and to be silent where the Bible is silent.” It offered freedom of conscience to individuals and autonomy to congregations. I find these ideals to be biblical in origin, refreshing in theory and hospitable for daily living on the ground.

Not everyone in Churches of Christ enjoys the freedom of which I speak, or encouragement in their local fellowship, or healthy gospel preaching from the pulpit. I encourage them to work for such results as God gives opportunity. If the doors are slammed shut in their face, these individuals must sometimes leave the “home-folks,” as the Apostle Paul was required to do, and go where God is leading. When that happens, I confidently commend them to his tender care. I deeply regret that some among these churches have been brainwashed to believe that they have no other spiritual option. Those who are responsible for such nonsense will one day answer to God.