Give or Take

I hope you had a great Thanksgiving. We spent ours with our parents and my mom's parents, and had a great visit with all of them. I preached this past Sunday, so I was busy doing last minute sermon prep and didn't get around to finishing a book for the week. So, rather than review something that isn't fresh, I figured I'd write about something else that's on my mind this morning. I think I should be able to get back to a book next week.

I had two conversations this past week with friends of mine who are serving in two different churches in two different parts of the country. Each of the churches are struggling in different ways, but I think they all go back to the same source. In each case, the lead pastor was wounded by circumstances at some point in his ministry, in which he believed he had lost a large degree of credibility with his congregation.

One of the pastors received a "no confidence" vote several months ago by the church's governing body with regard to an issue of policy within the church. The other pastor saw several of his key leaders leave the church several years ago, and level accurate (but wrongly spoken) accusations against him and his leadership. In both cases, the pastors are deeply loved and respected individuals, but were wounded by someone or some circumstance in ministry.

Each of these pastors felt, as a result of the two different circumstances, their credibility with the congregation (or at least with the leadership in the church) was at stake. And in each case, the pastor has responded to a perceived lack of credibility by attempting to grab leadership back.

It looks different in each situation, but in both cases the pastors have reacted to an attack by going passive aggressive and attempting to grab credibility and leadership back. The result is resent from other leaders in the church, and mistrust by those within the church - even when they don't realize exactly what is happening. The end result, in both these cases if nothing changes, will be that the pastor grabs for credibility so hard that it becomes obvious he doesn't deserve it.

You see, leadership and credibility are given - never taken. People who grab and take followers are called dictators, not leaders. And although I don't think either of these pastors is intentionally manipulating his church, that's exactly what is happening. His knee jerk reaction is to grab for control when he feels as though he's losing it, rather than continuing to earn it despite the wounds.

In reality, neither of these pastors needs to be grabbing for control. They're both loved and respected, and had gobs of credibility before they started trying to take it. Their response to their woundedness could have allowed them to become heroes. Instead, they come across as bitter, power-hungry control freaks, and are inflicting others with wounds that are much more severe.

Searching for God Knows What

I guess you could say I have a love/hate relationship with Donald Miller. I read Blue Like Jazz when everyone else was reading it, and both loved and hated it at the same time. I told one of my best friends (who will remain nameless), who loves Donald Miller, and he recommended "Searching for God Knows What." Honestly, I loved it and hated it for the same reasons.

Donald Miller has an incredibly relaxed writing style that reflects his teaching style. I've heard it described as "stream of consciousness," but it really isn't that. Stream of consciousness rarely has the destination in mind when the train leaves the station - Miller knows where he's headed, he just tends to take the scenic route.

With scenic routes on road trips, sometimes you visit new and interesting places you would never have seen before. Sometimes you get lost out in the middle of nowhere, and wonder how the heck you're going to get back home. Miller's book contains both of these things for me.

The majority of the book centers on Miller's musings on the Lifeboat theory. He talks about the moral dilemma question where a male lawyer, a female doctor, a crippled child, a stay-at-home mom, and a garbageman are floating in a lifeboat lost at sea. In order for them to survive, one of the members of the lifeboat has to be thrown overboard. The exercise is to debate which person should be thrown overboard.

Miller's thesis is that humanity functions as though the lifeboat story is reality, except we find ourselves on the lifeboat - constantly trying to prove to people that we deserve to exist. A great deal of what we do as humans - especially in the Western World - is compare ourselves to one another. In reality, as Miller rightly points out, the Gospel eliminates the need to prove we deserve to exist. Rather than cast someone over the side of the lifeboat, God sent His Son to die.
That's the destination. But remember, Miller takes the scenic route. And, as promised, he presents some interesting things you might not have seen before in an interesting way: Miller does a good job of showing how the desire for comparison has woven its way throughout our culture. Furthermore, that Jesus possessed virtually none of the characteristics that we exalt in our own lifeboat theories (looks, wealth, popularity). Instead of reverting to lifeboat theories with God's name attached (religion), Miller demonstrates that humanity was created to gain its significance, acceptance, and recognition through a relationship with God - not through comparison with others. And he rightly points out that much of Christianity has reduced the Gospel to a mere formula of a few spiritual laws, or the Roman Road, or some other tool, while forgetting altogether that a relationship with God is not a formula... no relationship is.

Yet, sometimes Miller's greatest writing strength is his greatest writing weakness. The scenic route involves quite a few rhetorical questions that Miller never gets around to answering. Often, that leads the reader to do a little more thinking on an issue. Sometimes it confuses the wrong issue. He raises some questions about end-time events as an illustration (pg 144), that ends up confusing both the discussion of end-time events and the point he was trying to illustrate. Similarly, earlier in the same chapter (pg 121), Miller uses some "scenic" language to describe both Christ and Heaven that at best confuses what he's trying to say in my mind.

The most frustrating thing for me about reading Donald Miller is also the thing that I like most about him. He has a way of weaving an obscure thought throughout a book, only to tie the loose ends up towards the end in an interesting and profound way. Who else could take a book about a lifeboat, Romeo and Juliet, and an alien, and make it all make sense in the end. On the other hand, I sometimes feel like I'm wading through an awful lot of deep kimchi before I get to something I can use. I'd rather someone put together a list a-la Tony Morgan of "Smart Things Donald Miller Said" and let me read those instead.

But then again, I never was much for the scenic route anyway.

Going All The Way

Craig Groeschel, pastor of sent his newest book "Going All the Way" to me for free, in return for me blogging about it. That's a pretty good trade for me, seeing as how the weekly book review thing can be hard on the budget. If any of the rest of you have books hot off the press and wants to scratch my back, I'll scratch yours!

I don't know Craig personally at all, though my father-in-law is one of the pastors at the church next door to Craig's. He has nothing but great things to say about the entire staff, and how helpful they have been in the few conversations those two churches have had together. And personally, though I've posted before some concerns I have about the multi-site movement, I have nothing but respect for Craig Groeschel and his leadership.

"Going All the Way" is subtitled, "preparing for a marriage that goes the distance." I anticipated it being a book geared towards couples who were engaged or newly married. It is probably a better book for singles or those in the initial stages of a relationship.

As a pastor leading a ministry of young singles who was once single myself, I've read stacks of books on dating, relationships, marriage, and other such topics. This one ranks up there with the best. Groeschel writes like he teaches - in a laid back, conversational way, but also in a way that is unabashedly biblical and practical. Most books on dating or marriage seem to be written at either a sixteen-year-old level or a sixty-five year level (Anyone else have to read advice on sex from Tim and Beverly Lahaye when you did premarital counseling? Gross....)

Groeschel begins by pointing out the futility of pursuing "the one." In reality, singles should be pursuing "The One" (Christ) long before deciding to pursue "the two." This is a concept that I've been teaching for years, but I have never put it as concisely and practically as Groeschel does in this book. Those couple of chapters alone are worth recommending the book to a single friend.

"Going all the way" also has a couple of helpful chapters to those who are considering living together. And because his authenticity and vulnerability shine through the whole book, he earns the right early to say some difficult things in these chapters. His advice to couples considering this move is straightforward, logical, and biblical... the triple threat.

Groeschel includes a chapter on priorities called "Leaving Room for the Big Rocks," that was the only chapter I wish wasn't in the book. It talks about priorities, and advises young couples to put things in the right order first: God, then spouse, etc... He says "What matters most has to come first." I struggle a little with the priority lists in a marriage (or in any other walk), because to me it can send a message that you are not able to serve priority #1 (God) while you're serving priority #2 (your spouse). Or, that you can't serve your spouse by serving God.

To me, priority list living in a marriage leads to a kind of separation between our spiritual life and our married life that is ultimately unhealthy. In reality, my wife selflessly loves me while she is selflessly loving the Lord (Ephesians 5:22). Similarly, the very best way I can love my life well is to serve God well. I realize that's nit picky, but I really do think it's important for young singles and young couples to realize that there isn't a hard distinction between priorities in life. Instead, all of life is a stewardship for which we're responsible.

Off my soapbox and back to the book. If you are a young single contemplating marriage at some point in your life, read this book. If you have a young single friend who is contemplating marriage at some point in their life, buy them this book. If you are a person who is doing ministry with singles, this is a great book to read and recommend. It is a quick, easy, informative, practical read that will be a great resource for any young singles you know.

Please Stop Ruining My Testimony

Had a conversation last night with a guy who set foot in a church activity this month for the first time in about 15 years. He came to faith in Christ out of a Catholic background, and showed up in an ultra-Fundamentalist Baptist church because it was down the street from his house. He walked out of the church a couple of weeks later after the pastor said during his sermon "If Jesus doesn't return first and it's time for me to go, I want him to die in a car wreck that takes out a whole van full of gays."

I told the guy, "I want to be as careful as I can when I say this, lest I commit the same error from the other side, but I'm fairly certain those kinds of guys are going to be the end of my ministry someday. Because one of these days I'm going to meet one of them, and they're going to say something like that to me. Then, you'll see my picture in the newspaper the next morning with both my hands still clinched around their throat."

I hope I could control myself better than that, but frankly, it would be the challenge of a lifetime.
This guy's story, coupled with the goofballs being fined for obstructing funerals makes me need to let off some steam. Then I'll go back to reading and reviewing books.

What ever made the Church think it was okay to get the Gospel so bass ackwards? What ever made us think that God hates people who don't love Him, when He loved us when we didn't love Him? What ever gave us the right to legislate morality for people who don't know the Chief Legislator? Who do we think we are?

I see that Pat Robertson just endorsed Rudy Giulianni for president today. Well thanks for that Pat, because the rest of us Christians were sitting around scratching our head wondering what the heck we were going to do with the upcoming election, and needed a really spiritual person to tell us who to vote for. Meanwhile, all my buddies who don't know Christ are mixed up; are we promoting Jesus or are we promoting the Republicans? Because sometimes it's just so gosh darn hard to tell.

I know you're not supposed to blog when you're frustrated, but this thing wears me out.

I'm doing my best to share Christ with people I meet. Not Jesus the conservative politician, not Jesus the gay hater, not Jesus the policeman... Jesus the Christ. And I already have one strike against me because most people who don't know pastors aren't real likely to open up to me about their belief systems. And then doofuses like these guys come along and ruin any shot I've got at sharing my story with the people I see every day because they're too busy preaching an agenda to preach the Gospel.

Please stop. Please stop adding stuff to the front of the Gospel that doesn't belong there. Please stop telling people that the God of the Universe will only love you if you change your behavior. That's not the Gospel. The God of the Universe loves us despite our behavior, to the point that He sent His Son to die in our place, and offers us eternal life as a gift. Whether you're living a homosexual lifestyle or vote Republican is not the issue. Please stop pretending it is.



Well, it's birthday week in the Freeland household. The dog celebrates her 3rd birthday today which, if you know my wife, is a big deal. They're at PetSmart picking out a birthday present right now. I'm sure it will have a squeaker. Lucky me.

Kari's birthday is tomorrow, which is just great. Actually, she's pretty easy to shop for, and I've got this new idea for dinner. One of the guys in the singles ministry just reminded me that as long as you sit down, Taco Bueno qualifies as a "sit down" restaurant. Then again, maybe that's why he's still single!

Meanwhile, back in the real world, I just finished a book by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons called "UnChristian." Kinnaman is the president of the Barna Group, and must be older than he looks in his picture on the inside flap of the book. Gabe Lyons works for a new venture called Fermi Project after several years as the Vice President of INJOY with John Maxwell. I've listened to Gabe's "Catalyst Podcast" for the past couple of years, and was excited to read their new book.

"UnChristian," in typical Barna fashion, is loaded to the hilt with statistics and survey results with regard to the current perceptions and thoughts of twenty-somethings when it comes to the Church. The results indicate that the vast majority of twenty-somethings, when asked whether or not the Church today reflects the Person of Jesus Christ, answer "no." The surveys span a time frame of around three years of research.

UnChristian attempts to answer why the average twentysomething believes the Church is "UnChristian." Survey says: the Church today is "hypocritical, agenda-oriented, intolerant, sheltered, out-of-touch, and judgmental."


Kinnaman recommends that the Church work to change the perception by responding in a Christlike fashion to criticism rather than dismissing it as heresy, developing honest connections with twenty-something people, employing creativity, serving people, and living a lifestyle of compassion. It's hard to argue with that.

Despite the provocative title, this book is all about statistics and survey results. There is very little in this book that you're going to find controversial, or even ground breaking. Basically, you'll simply find statistics that back up what you've been hearing and reading elsewhere. Nothing wrong with that.

At the end of each chapter, several Christian leaders have written brief snippets of insight on each particular issue. These short vignettes are written by everyone from Margaret Feinberg to Chuck Colson, with a slant more towards younger leaders. These are often interesting, but kill a little of the momentum in the book, and compounded with the sheer volume of statistics make this book extremely difficult to read.

Even so, if you are a person who likes to see hard evidence for opinions, it's a good book to pick up to use as a resource. But I'm not completely convinced that it moves us very much farther down the road of actually making a difference. UnChristian is a good book, with some good statistics. It just feels pretty weak on real-life solutions to me.

It is obvious that we twenty-somethings have a skewed view of the Church. Kinnaman's research shows it, and many other authors have pointed to it. The challenge is, some of the problem is with the Church; some of the problem is with we twenty-somethings.

A good deal of twenty-somethings' dissatisfaction with the church can be blamed on those in the church who are agenda-driven - who use Christianity to make political statements. Need I mention Reverend Al Sharpton, or the "Christian Right" all the politicians are sucking up to today? Some of our dissatisfaction with the church can be blamed on people who are hate-mongers and homophobes in the truest sense of the word. Those wackos in Topeka deserve every single penny of the $10.9M fine for showing up at the funerals of our servicemen and servicewomen with their "God Hates Fags" signs.

But a good deal of twenty-somethings' dissatisfaction with the church can be blamed on the fact that we as twenty-somethings tend to be a selfish, inward-focused, ungrateful bunch. And with that in mind, the real challenge isn't figuring out how to revolutionize our churches so the selfish people can have it their way - that's a pipe dream because we'll just create a new group of dissatisfied people.

Why in the world are we preaching so hard at the majority to squeeze into the mold of a selfish, misguided minority? Aren't we going about this the wrong way? We don't need to revolutionize the Church so much as we need to help twenty-somethings today begin to gain a bigger perspective about what the Church is really about. We need to be platforming the churches who are doctrinally sound, people-loving, externally-focused, multi-generational representatives of God's intention for His Body on earth, rather than continuing to allow the poor representatives to speak more clearly. We need to be inviting twenty-somethings into relationships that already exist, and helping them move beyond selfish idealism to reality and maturity.
In fairness, I think that's the purpose of Fermi Project. I think they're working to head in the right direction. But I'm craving a book that presents a balanced perspective of the issues from both ends of the spectrum rather than either (1) a book bashing the twenty-somethings as young, stupid, and uninformed, or (2) a book bashing the older generations as old, out of touch, and uninformed. There's a middle somewhere in there, and I'd love it if someone would help me figure out how to live there.