Categories
Christian Living Good News

The Proximity Gospel

One place the Good News needs to prevail is helping to reshape our neighborhoods. 

We, as a culture, obey the rule of affinity in our lives. Who we gather with, who we have as friends, where we go to worship… our entire place in this world is governed by affinity.

We do stuff we like. We are friends with people we like. And we worship with people we like. We eat what we like, we wear what we like, we shop where we like, it never ends.

We’ve liked the life out of ourselves.

Doing stuff we don’t like. Well, that’s yucky.

Affinity’s Impact on the Church

Do you remember that kid in your neighborhood who would get ticked off because things weren’t going his way? He’d get all huffy, take his ball, and go home. Every kid in the neighborhood hated that guy. He was a brat. But we were friends with him because he had a nice basketball.

That’s pretty much the story of the protestant faith. Affinity– gathering by what we like– is the weakness of our religious DNA. Taking our ball and going elsewhere has been a tradition since the Reformation. How many protestant denominations were started because of disagreements going back to… “Well, we want to baptize people this way and you don’t, so we’re going to start another church across the street.” Pretty much all of them.

Don’t you hate church history? It reveals so much truth!

The result of this DNA weakness is what we see now. People go to the church that they go to because they like it. They’ll drive 45 minutes to go somewhere they like…. passing dozens of perfectly good churches along the way. Consequently, churches who have something for everyone to like tend to grow.

And this has been the unspoken narrative of church people for a long, long time. We go to a church ultimately because we like something about it. We like the kids program or the music or the pastor or what they do in the community or because we grew up in that faith tradition and it feels comfortable or because of an affinity-based conviction.

I’m not trying to cheapen these things. I am 100% guilty as charged. All I’m trying to do is raise awareness of this inborn propensity we have to gather by affinity.

Here’s where it plays out…

This morning a friend posted on his Facebook wall something like, “I’m tired of my pastor friends getting hurt because families leave. Why can’t they just work out their differences and stay?” The answer is affinity. For generations we, collectively as protestant church leaders, have told (in acts and/or deeds) people that they ought to gather together and worship based on shared affinities. (Again, not cheapening values/traditions/theological differences.)

The Problem with Building Church Around Affinity

The problem is affinity is cheap. Affinity is fickle. By telling people they should worship with people they like in spaces they like and attend churches that meet their needs is that that stuff all changes all the time. We live in a society that changes fast. And our churches pride themselves on moving slowly. So you are always caught in a cycle of being 5-10 years behind what culture wants! (This is something I call depreciating returns. It’s not 1-2 things that have killed the mojo in a church, it’s lots of things which have resulted in a gradual slow down.)

So, while it hurts we can’t be frustrated when people go to what they want because that’s what we’ve taught them… “Worship Jesus how it works best for you and your family.So they do. That makes church consumeristic. That makes it transient. That makes it, in some ways, cheap.

It’s Romans 7 lived out in church leadership. We do the thing that hurts the most and we don’t know why but we keep right on doing it. And as a result, Satan gets a stronger and stronger foothold in our society.

Proximity is the Long-Term Answer

The Good News of Jesus isn’t an affinity thing, it’s a proximity thing. Christian people from the same community, empowered by the Holy Spirit can overcome the rule of affinity. (We can/should/must look to our Catholic brethren. The parish model is a beautiful thing!)

People of all walks of life really can and should worship together. They should recognize and celebrate differences of opinion, they should love that the church reflects their neighborhood, they should see power in willfully worshipping with people with different needs, people whom they might not be comfortable with. If you watched the vice-presidential debate you heard Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, two faithful Catholic men, express two wildly different viewpoints on their Catholic faith. Their differences were not a weakness at all, it was a demonstration of the strength of the Gospel! Two people who truly see things from different vantage points can and willfully do share one communion cup. That’s the Gospel lived out in proximity in full denial of the rule of affinity! 

Proximity is how you bring Good News to the Neighborhood. Proximity is how you build lifelong, grace-filled, messy, overcoming relationships.

But to get away from affinity and towards proximity, we all need to repent of our personal preference sin. And confession and repentance, well… we don’t like that.

Categories
Christian Living The Proximity Gospel

The Rule of Affinity

Two men had robbed a bank a few miles away and while being chased by the police made a wrong turn into our neighborhood. Full of canyons and dead ends the robbers got lost, ditched their car, shot at a cop, and ran into backyards a few hundred yards from our house. Soon a police helicopter hovered over our block.

After a little while the sound was aggravating– infuriating even. It shook our house and rattled our nerves. While the police told us to stay inside and away from their barricades everyone was drawn out of their house by the thunderous claps of the helicopters blades.

It stayed like this for 5 hours.

That’s what it took for neighbors to talk. A police barricade. Locked down on a Saturday afternoon and each of us couldn’t stand being in our houses. With no way to escape… we were forced to talk. Names were shared, hands were shaken, houses were pointed to, stories were told, and we all got to know one another a little bit.

The Rule of Affinity is so powerful in our culture that this is what it takes to meet the people who live within 300 yards of my bedroom. Power outages, blizzards, bad storms, earthquakes, and other moments that force us awake from our Affinity stupor reminding us that there are actual people behind those front doors and mailboxes.

The Rule of Affinity is all-powerful. I don’t mean that it’s an axiom or a rule of thumb, I mean that it rules our lives like a king rules his people.

  • Where you work is defined by affinity.
  • Where you worship is defined by affinity.
  • Who you are friends with is defined by affinity.
  • What you do with your free time is defined by affinity.
  • What you eat? Affinity.
  • What you wear? Affinity.

This list never ends because affinity rules our lives. Our affluence affords us choices. And our choices drive us to seek deeper and deeper levels of affinity. We do what we do because we like it and avoid what we don’t like.

Think about it like this: Whenever you have a choice, the Rule of Affinity drives your choice to gather not by proximity but by affinity. 

The internet, especially social media, amplifies this effect. Because you can find community with people just like you online you don’t need proximity. Affinity allows you to consider your best friends to be people you’ve never met face-to-face. You know 500 things about a stranger but nothing about a neighbor. That’s the power of the Rule of Affinity over your life.

And yet, the Rule of Affinity is actually killing your soul. You feel like you’ve found community with people just like you but what you’ve really found is communal loneliness and further isolation.

Affinity is shallow. It’s weak. It’s junk food. It lacks the full flavor and nutritional value of Proximity.  Intellectually, affinity is small. It’s easy. It’s drinking a Coke and calling it a fine vintage. It’s foregoing literature for a grocery aisle romance novel. One result is that we live in a society of psychiatric drugs. We medicate the pain caused by the Rule of Affinity’s malnutrition. Filled with false community and Affinity’s lies about our place in the world we lean on drugs to seek a normal we know nothing of. As we drive toward further and further affinity we gain more and more isolation, our soul starving our soul further, eventually leaving us a rotten core of our true selves.

The Gospel, the Good News of Jesus, challenges us to reject the Rule of Affinity for the realities of Proximity. In the Garden, Satan tempted Eve with affinity… “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5) While Adam and Eve had perfect Proximity to God, Satan tempted them with the Rule of Affinity where they could gather with God on their terms.

The Gospel overcomes the Rule of Affinity and re-introduces the Garden’s Proximity into our lives. Jesus’ re-introduction of Proximity looks at the bank robbers face and says, “There’s a better way. You seek something temporary and I offer something permanent and beautiful.

Jesus gutted the Rule of Affinity with His invitation to new way of living,

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Matthew 22:37-39

Categories
youth ministry

Teenagers are Desperate for Good News

One reason youth ministry is flatlining is crappy theology.

Kara Powell, executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute, was recently interviewed by Relevant Magazine about the present reality that youth ministry presents a faith students easily walk away from in college. She was asked, “Do you think there are any misunderstandings or misconceptions that contribute to young adults leaving the church?”

Her response:

The students involved in our research definitely tended to view the Gospel as a list of dos and do-nots, a list of behaviors. We asked our students when they were college juniors, “How would you define what it really means to be a Christian?” and one out of three—and these were all youth group students—didn’t mention Jesus Christ in their answer; they mentioned behaviors.

Source

Allow me to translate that. Students are learning really crappy theology from their culture, their parents, and their churches.

Is your Gospel even Good News?

Here’s what I encounter when I talk to students in our ministry and even random students I talk to out on the street. They are desperate for Good News. They are looking for Good News. In their honest moments they are desperately searching for Good News. (From Jesus, Buddha, or Katy Perry)

Their lives need Good News. Somewhere. Somehow. In some fashion… they are hard-wired for and looking for Good News. Why? Because their lives are surrounded by bad news. They need a Jesus who is real, who can help them, or their life isn’t going to get any better.

If God doesn’t show up they are in trouble.

And what do they get at a church? Not much. A 30 minute pep talk, some laughs, and some songs. Or, at best– a Christian version of Dr. Phil with an invitation to talk to someone after church.

But a God who meets them where they are at? Or people who are willing to intervene? Nope. And forget about delivering anything that is actual Good News in their lives.

I meet students who are struggling with stuff like this:

  • Have hurts I can’t talk to my mom about.
  • Hurts caused by a mom and dad who love themselves more than they love me.
  • Does anyone love me? Am I even worth loving?
  • Why isn’t my dad around?
  • Who the heck am I? What am I going to do with my life?
  • Sex is like a big rock rolling me over. I am so confused and hurt about sex.
  • I’m stuck in the same problems my parents are, can I break the cycle?
  • My family is late on the rent again. We can’t pay our bills and I feel like a big burdon on my parents.
  • I have big dreams but no one can help me get there.
  • I’m stuck in drug and alcohol abuse and I can’t talk  to an adult about it.
  • I’ve been molested by someone in my family and I can’t talk to anyone about it.

These aren’t rarities. These are just below the surface for a majority of students I interact with. And the churches answer? Come to church. Listen to a message. Attend a Bible study.

Is there any doubt why 95% of teenagers opt-out of that? They are saying, “I need Good News. I need Jesus to be real because I have no other options.” And the churches solution for everything is prayer, Bible study, and attending worship services?

Really?

That’s not Good News. That’s Good Behavior. 

It’s inadequate. It’s a failure. And it’s certainly not the Jesus they encounter when they read the Bible. You know–  the Jesus who was so desperate to help them that He gave His life for them. They want that Jesus and when He doesn’t show up at their church…

They are leaving and I can’t blame them. 

Teenagers desperately need a roaring lion Jesus who will come into their lives, protect them, and help them figure stuff out. They will give anything to a God big enough to do that. Instead they are presented with a smiling, carefree, half-empty suburban-friendly Jesus like substance which cares more about their surfacey behavior than the condition of their heart.

It’s crappy theology. No pastor would admit to teaching it. But that’s what students are learning.

And we arrogantly say we don’t need radical change? Hmph.

Flatliners logic.

Students are trying everything they can to find Good News! They need Jesus to help them with their real, physical problems. 

Will your ministry be the one who steps up, gets messy, and points them to the messy, grimmy, grace-covered Good News of Jesus Christ that touches not just their soul but the sole of their feet?

You want to flip the world upside down? Become Good News to a teenager.

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Categories
Church Leadership

Economy of Words

Good communicators are aware of an economy of words.

Whether its blogging or public speaking or preaching– you must have a constant awareness of how many words your audience is capable of processing in the amount of space/time you have.

Too many words and people get overloaded and tune you out. (or navigate to another website) Sloppy word usage or a lack of creativity? You’ve lost them. They may be present, but their minds are gone.

Have you ever wondered why people can recount exactly what happened during an episode of their favorite show but can’t remember the three main points of your last sermon?

The secret? Editing.

Television shows, movies, magazine articles and even songs are all edited to maximize your retention of the words.

They go through a process. Someone writes it. It gets edited. It gets rehearsed. It gets edited again. Then it gets performed. (If its recorded then it gets edited one more time.)

Let’s review:

1. Unimportant messages, things flowing from the entertainment industry, are edited to maximize impact with an understanding that the audience can only handle so many words before they stop taking it in. (Entertainment is passive in response, by nature. But looks at it’s impact in moving people!)

2. Important messages, let’s say… things that are taught in youth group or Sunday morning at church… are almost never edited, rehearsed, or vetted in any way. (The Gospel message is active in response, by nature. But look at it’s impact in moving people!)

And we wonder why the message doesn’t get through?

Categories
Church Leadership

Nehemiah vs. The American Church

Photo by Nick Chill via Flickr (Creative Commons)

I love the audacity great faith brings.

It’s idealistic. It’s over-the-top. It’s incomprehensibly arrogant simplicity. It’s stupid fun to be around.

And that’s why I love my church.

This little church in the city truly believes they can be instrumental in seeing a new San Diego rise up to be an amazing place to live.

Right now, we’re in a sermon series on the book of Nehemiah.

As I read the narrative I can’t get past step one.

Step one of rebuilding your city? Chapter 1… lay on your face and be honest in confessing to God.

O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses. Nehemiah 1:5-7

What I love about Nehemiah and its message to the church is obvious… it’s not about your church, people. The purpose of the church isn’t to build a little empire. It’s to bring life to a dead and dying city. It’s to see the gospel bring renewal.

When I look out over the landscape of church culture I can’t help but see that we’re missing step one.

We need to deal with our own hearts. And we need to focus on the city and not our fiefdom.

This next passage absolutely wrecked my view of the local church. At the end, when Jesus comes to judge the church, Revelation 2-3 gives us a glimpse of how he judges the church… it should change how you and I do business.

v. 1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write”

v. 8 “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write”

v. 12 “To the angel of the church in Pergamum write”

v. 18 “To the angel of the church in Thyatira write”

3:1 “To the angel of the church in Sardis write”

v. 7 “To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write”

v. 14 “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write”

In case you missed it. Jesus isn’t judging the work of a single, local church. He’s judging the work of His body in each city.

Can I get an Amen?