Monthly Archives: April 2014

Why do we go to church? – When church attendance hinders faith

Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus (there is no salvation outside of the church)

The statement above summarized the belief the Medieval Western church held in regards to the importance of the church. For centuries, Christians have attributed the local church as the center of salvation and spiritual growth. There were exceptions, as the monastic movements in the early 2nd – 4th century reminds us, who believed spiritual vitality was to be found in the desert. Yet, for most of church history, the focus has been on institutional participation. There is much to be said about finding spiritual nourishment outside church services. But what if church participation actually hampers and limits spiritual growth?

Let me explain. In the last weeks I’ve been looking over two books that shed some light in the current transition in the North American church. The first one is the The American Church in Crisis which summarizes current trends based a 200,000 church database research. The second one is Quitting Church in which a journalist compiles the stories of people who have recently left the church. The picture painted by these books is revealing and cannot be ignored any longer. Let me quickly summarize them in a few bullet points pertinent to our topic above:

– Every denomination in the US is currently undergoing either decline or slowing growth. While some churches are growing, the overall trend is clear: a smaller % of the US population will be attending churches in the future.

– While there is a net growth (opens minus closures) of 300 churches in the US, this is far below what is needed to keep up with population growth.

– Single women, people over 35, influential people, mature Christians and even charismatics are leaving the church in significant numbers. The millenials are in no hurry to get and in and single men stop considering it an option a long time ago.

– People that left the church over time show little sign of missing the experience and some have found alternative ways to fill their spiritual needs.

As one who works with data for a living, I appreciate both these authors research and reporting of their findings. Their analysis of the problem is right on. Yet, both seem to ask the same question as the next step: “What can churches do to get them back?” Usually, the answer goes: plant more churches. Now, you have to ask, is the approach to current problem to do more of what has not worked in the past? I understand the value of church plants and how they tend to grow (or die) faster than established churches. But really, is that the best we can do?

A group who is not captured by these statistics is those who stay but struggle. Given my personal experience and those around me, even married couples with children (for long the prime demographic of church attendance) are starting to have doubts. I am also overwhelmed by the stories of hurt from  church plant experiences – life plans shattered, families falling apart, promises un-kept, depression, financial ruin to name a few. I hear a lot of things from seminary friends these days but planting a church is not one of them. This is not a good sign, possibly foreshadowing a future decline beyond the current trends. When you see so many faithful and strong Christians struggling to stay in the very institution designed to help them grow, you have to wonder: Maybe the surprise shouldn’t be why so many people are leaving but why so many have stayed.

What if the right question is not how to get them back (or keep them in) but how to help them thrive spiritually wherever they are? Much of the books written on the topic seem focused on helping churches become more efficient organizations so they can grow enough to make up for their losses. This is a business mindset way to address the problem that can only do so much. You can market a product in a 1000 different ways, but it will still not sell if people don’t want to buy it. And by the way, word on the street is that customer service is very poor. Certainly, this is not just a business problem but an issue of institutional survival.

What if the problem is more systemic? What if the local church centered system has become obsolete and believers need new ways to fill their spiritual needs? What if the church can thrive outside of the “church” instead of confined in it? What if the local congregation is no longer the center of spiritual growth and formation? What would this world look like and how would it function?

In the next blogs, I would like to explore this topic that has occupied my thoughts lately. I hope to provide some good information and insight but above all to start a conversation. I welcome your feedback and comments: positive or negative.

I don’t claim to be an expert on this but intend to become a disciplined learner.

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Internal Mazes – One world, two realities

Wonderful work from some missionary friends from Brazil.

A God Colored Girl in a Grey World

“Continuous effort – not strength or intelligence – is the key to unlocking our potential”  –Winston Churchill

I am pleased to announce that the first trailer to our new feature-length film, “Internal Mazes” is now uploaded on YouTube. The English subtitles are up and all you have to do is activate the captions in the bottom right corner of the YouTube screen. This film was birthed with the desire to combat human sex trafficking, prostitution and tourism, being that the World Cup will be held this year in Brazil and the Olympics just two years from now.

Synopsis:

It tells the story of Beto, a well-respected man in his community, who married a former prostitute named Suzana. After their wedding, wanting to forget Suzana’s past, they move to a small town in the country to rebuild their lives. Soon enough, however a number of events happen that bring Suzana’s…

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Individualism and Community in Frozen

Maybe you are one of the few people on this planet who has not watched or don’t know what Frozen is. If you are parent, especially, the movie is unescapable. You have probably watched it many times and possibly hummed “Let it Go” in the office inviting puzzled stares from co-workers (check out the Jimmy Fallon version  or this one ). Frozen is more than an animated movie – it is a cultural phenomenon. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the near future books are written about its influence and meaning in our society. If anything, it should be a family favorite that I’ll watch with my girls for years to come.

There are a lot good things in the movie that would take a number of posts to fully unpack. In this one, I want to focus primarily on how the movie treats the conflict between individuality and community – a latent topic in our post-modern world. It starts vividly in the scene in which Elsa runs away singing the Oscar winning “Let it Go” sang by the “wickedly talented Adele Dazeem” (courtesy of John Travolta ). For some reason, the scene transcends the struggle of a girl’s coming of age to represent all of us in the discovery and affirmation of our individuality. I have to say, after watching a few times; the scene has moved me deeply. Suddenly, Elsa discovers that what she fears most is actually the very source of her greatest power. She has gone from being a scared little girl to a becoming a powerful woman. If the movie ended there, much could be learned. Yet, the story was not complete.

Part of her discovery of individuality is her decision to live alone, secluded in her ice castle. Elsa decides that the only way to be herself safely would be to stay in isolation. She is also unaware of how her power discovery was affecting her community. Arendale laid frozen by her own doing while she sat along in her castle. This is really where the movie goes beyond entertainment to share very much needed wisdom. It takes her sister Anna (which also happens to be our youngest daughter’s name – prophetic or what?), to make her see how her community was being destroyed by her assertion of individuality.

At first she resists the reality that she can’t live in isolation and is lost as to how she can help. Really, how much evil in the world is caused by fear rather than malice? A fearful person can also be a dangerous perpetrator.  It is only when her sister Anna saves her life in an act of self-sacrifice that she realizes that her power could be used for good.  Only when she turns her power to building her community that she can live in peace. In other words, the power of love was stronger than the power of her individuality. She could truly only be herself in community.

What an amazing message!  I may be reading too much into this (which is inevitable after you are forced to watch it 20 times!) but I hope that movies like these can help us understand the beauty and the peril of our individuality. Finding oneself is important and liberating. Yet, finding our true selves only happens in community. We live in this tension of discovering who we are while also learning our calling among the people God puts around us. Can we let go of our fears without letting go of each other? Let’s come down from our castles of isolation and meet in the plaza of human community.

Doing theology is like playing with Legos

As a dad, I enjoy playing with my children. My oldest, Sophia  loves building castles with plastic pieces. She always asks me to join her in this playful task. As we build together, we discuss every step and detail. I put a structure together and she expresses approval or disapproval. We then imagine together what the castle we are building looks like trying to reproduce it with the pieces we have at our disposal. They come in different shapes, sizes and colors allowing us to combine them in a myriad ways. Sometimes, I may have a picture of what I want to build but at the end the building happens through our interaction. While Sophia loves building castles, a big part of the fun is to tear them down. We then go back to pieces spread out on the floor ready to start on a new castle. We both find satisfaction in what we build and then are eager to show others. It is the joy of a creator looking at his or her creation and saying “this is good!”

 Our time of play is a good image for doing theology. Theology is about building a model by using the sources we have available to us to explain the Triune mystery. In our imagination we have an image that we translate to building with the pieces we have. The final product is not a perfect reflection of the original concept yet it is a faithful model of that picture.

 Whenever we try to articulate our ideas about God, we are doing theology. Because of the limitations of our pieces (i.e.: tradition, Scripture, experience, community, culture, etc.), our final product can never be a perfect picture but only an approximation. This reflects the potential and the limitations of theology. The potential is that indeed we have enough materials to make a faithful representation of God. The limitation is that this representation will always fall short of our inspiration. In light of that, it sounds rather foolish to wage battles about our Lego castles with each other. Yet, we have much to gain in learning from our different castles.

While there may ultimately not be a right theology, it is not all subjective. For a while when I played with Sophia we would get stuck not knowing what to build. Our play would eventually end because we ran out of ideas or could not quite build something we wanted. A couple of months ago my niece stayed with us and built some really awesome structures with our Legos. This improved our skill and spurred our imagination to be better builders. Therefore, in the process of theology it is important to learn from those who are better skilled than us. This can come from many sources: books, conversation, email exchanges and experiencing worship with communities outside our tradition. We need these interactions to improve our abilities to articulate the God reality.  

Finally, in theology the process matters as much as the outcome. We don’t build castles alone. The beauty of our Lego experience is both in the final product and in the process of building it. We start with different ideas but as we interact a castle is built which is better than both of our ideas. Above all humility is needed or else the whole process breaks done and nothing valuable gets built. We must enjoy tearing down our castles every once in a while. The goal is not perfection but enrichment through mining the boundless God.