Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Restless Spirit - The U2 Church Search

In 1987, international sensation pop band U2, fronted by singer Bono, released its album called “The Joshua Tree.” Perhaps the most popular song on that album, one that Bono often called “a kind of gospel song with a restless spirit,” is the hit “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Ambiguously speaking simultaneously to spiritual journey, romantic mishap, and life’s enigmatic quest for purpose, the lyrics address choices made, options experimented with, and fulfillment missed. Despite the number of doors opened and experiences tried, Bono mournfully sings “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”

This blog is not a music review, nor is it an attempt to analyze the spirituality of a self-professed Irish Catholic rock band. The lyrics do warrant mention, however, in a wholly different light – the phenomenon of the twenty-first century church-search.

We all know them: they are the church-searchers. The church-searchers are not seekers. (As we have come to define them, “seekers” are those non-Christians who feel a real emptiness – the “God-sized hole” – in their lives and are seeking an answer. For the seeker, a variety of churches exist to provide the style and presentation necessary to help find the answer, and I applaud that. The Great Commission demands of us that we teach and baptize all, and the Lord’s invitation remains open to seekers through many different styles of Christian worship and evangelism.) Unlike seekers, the church-searchers are Christians, or at least they believe they are Christians. They are not seeking a savior, but they are clearly searching for something. They may spend time in a small, traditional mainline church. They may move to a megachurch, usually one with a conservative evangelical bent. Often, they flow to a non-denominational “community church.” Whether such churches are actually affiliated with a denomination is rarely relevant to the church-searcher; the sign in front and the website do not display “Baptist” or “Presbyterian,” and the church-searcher does not really care.

What seems to be prevalent about the church-searchers is that they still haven’t found what they are looking for.


I want to make a radical suggestion. Perhaps the problem is not with the church-searcher. Perhaps the fault lies with churches who are leading the church-searchers to look for the wrong thing.

It is interesting to examine the statements of “purpose,” “mission,” or “vision” that many churches publish. Here are some actual statements I found on the web (with the names deleted to protect the guilty):

“ ___________ Church exists to bring all people into a fully devoted
relationship with Jesus Christ by discovering and meeting their needs.”

“Our goal at _____________ Church is to promote and encourage wholehearted enjoyment of God, our families, each other and those who are still looking for Jesus.”

“ ___________ Church exists in order to meet people at their point of need and enable them to become all that God had in mind when He made them.”

Should a church be a safe, comfortable, inviting place for a seeker? Without doubt.

Should a church strive, as a primary goal, to meet the needs of its own? No, it should not.

First, the church is the body of Christ, and whatever else Christ was and is about, He was and is not primarily about meeting His body’s own needs. Churches’ purposes range from worship to discipleship, from evangelism to ministry. And while fellowship and inreach are certainly valuable by-products of a healthy, loving church, for them to become primary goals is to turn the focus of the church inward. The dying world, except for that rare brave seeker who will take the initiative to come through our doors on his/her own, goes on dying.

Second, a diverse group of individuals will have needs too numerous to be met by an organizational church on a consistent basis. No church can successfully provide Bible study for twenty-something single women, “sandwich generation” caregiver assistance, basketball, youth choir, marriage counseling, job placement, women’s shelter, Christmas crafts, and a music academy without running the risk of omitting racquetball, crisis pregnancy support, FCA, senior adult cafeteria clubs, and couples’ doctrinal study. More to the point, the church that is focused on trying to meet all these needs for its members has precious little – in terms of time and resources and energy and initiative – for things like ministering to the poor, mission work in the projects around the corner or around the world, planning and polishing a worship experience in which the Father is exalted, and yes, preparing a message for the seeker.

Third, styles change. Methods change. The church that seems to provide what the church-searcher needs today will be doing something different in six months. Personal testimonies give way to acoustic guitars and bell bottoms. In turn comes drama, which is replaced with rock bands, and then come movie clips, popcorn, and Starbucks. Even if the style hits for a while, it is likely the church-searcher will see things change and again find himself or herself saying, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”

Fourth, none of us is perfect. We have bad days, bad weeks, bad years. Suddenly, even if our church has only gotten better at meeting our needs, our own selfishness and our own personal crises blind us to what the church is offering. We leave a service unhappy because we never tuned in to start with, having been caught up in our own pain, failure, illness, or whatever. We find ourselves not “getting anything out of it” when we go to church. Going somewhere else to try a different church - if not staying home altogether - begins to look a lot more profitable.

Finally, and most importantly, we Christians must not be primarily concerned with what our church offers us. Not because all human institutions will ultimately fail to please us all the time – they surely will fail – but rather because Jesus calls us to something much more important than that. He calls us to be His arms, hugging the abandoned child and the widow. He calls us to be His eyes, seeing needs in the dark places. He calls us to be His ears, hearing the cries of the hungry and of the misguided. He calls us to be His feet, going to the beggar and to the CEO, neither of whom will come – as “seeker” or otherwise – to us. He calls us to look not inward but outward, not towards meeting our needs but towards sacrifice of our needs so that others might be touched. He calls us to walk where He walks, among the harlots and the lepers and the Pharisees and the crosses.

I am not against seeker-sensitive churches. I have good friends called by God to pastor several of them, and such churches are a part of His grand mosaic, bringing the message to some who will not hear it elsewhere.

I am not against church programs aimed at the membership. My family and I take advantage of them and will continue to do so.

I understand the church-search. I spent my teenage years in a dynamic church that prioritized a youth group with its own pastor, who fed me and nurtured me and helped me because he and the church focused on kids like me. I spent college in the largest church college department in the city where my denomination’s largest university is, and my “college church” unashamedly ministered to me and my cohorts. I spent the first dozen years of my married life in one of America’s most historic churches, where ordained ministers make up more than 10% of the congregation, and where I was taught and groomed and allowed to flourish. I know, therefore, what it is like to be in a church that meets my needs. I have also been in a church that does not provide what I need – a good church striving to follow Jesus, but one that does not have the resources or the inclination to meet my personal whims or even to build a worship service that is likely to speak to me deeply on a regular basis. I understand the temptation to say “I’m not getting anything out of it,” to move on, to continue the church-search.

Yes, I believe there are times when it is appropriate to leave your church. Churches can move so far away from what an individual believer understands God’s role for her to be that she needs to disengage and find a place where she can serve as God would have her serve. Some churches change radically, whether through the call of a new pastor or simply by radical internal shifts, and some members cannot in good conscience serve God under those circumstances. The picture of devoted disciples who changes church membership because they can no longer follow what they understand God’s call on their service to be is a horse of a different color from the plethora of church-searchers I am describing.

That I understand the motivation of the church-searcher is not to say it is right. At some point, I have to conclude that as long as I am looking for my own needs to be met, my restless spirit will eventually cry out, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”

When I see my church as my opportunity to serve Him and serve others, to love God and love people, to worship Him and confess my own failings… it is then that I find what I am looking for. Because God will meet me there. He meets my true needs – to serve, to love, to worship, to confess. He enables me to disciple, to train, to evangelize, to minister, and yes, even to fellowship.

The fault lies not with the church-searcher, at least not primarily. The fault lies with the churches who offer up shallow self-indulgence and popular quick fixes. Christians will not long be comfortable in seeking self, because He Himself indwells us, and He will not be comfortable with our seeking self. The church-search focused on meeting the searcher’s needs can lead to nothing but a restless spirit. It is up to the church, therefore, to refocus, to lead, to remind, to model sacrifice, and to cast a vision that goes beyond the members’ needs – their enjoyment of one another – and touches a world that needs Jesus Christ. Then, and only then, will His Holy Spirit calm our restless spirit. Then, and only then, will we find what we are looking for.

Friday, April 10, 2009

John David - a Good Friday lesson

I met an extraordinary young man yesterday. His name is John David.

John David suffers from brain damage, apparently a result of having been born ten weeks prematurely. He has had both brain surgery and heart surgery. He wears a complicated hearing aid system to combat his near-deafness.

John David is one of the most articulate people I have met. His father, a nuclear physicist, is one of the smartest people I have ever known - John David's IQ outstrips his father's by 20 points.

Within seconds of meeting me, John David engaged me in a complicated conversation. He reads on the level of a college freshman.

John David just turned eight years old.

John David proudly explained to me that he is getting ready for adenoid and tonsil surgery, which will be (I think) his seventh operation, and proclaimed that he is a "surgery veteran" and is ready for the next one.

What struck me most about meeting this remarkable little boy is how God blesses in unpredictable packages. I know that John David's life has been an incredible challenge to his family - financially, emotionally, stamina-wise, and spiritually. I know there were weeks ... months ... years that had to be filled with questions - to be fair, his parents have expressed none of that to me, so maybe I am projecting. Maybe they dealt with the situation with proper aplomb from Day One. Let me rephrase to say that I think that I would deal with such a situation with questions, and I am sure with a little anger. But since I have not walked in those shoes, it is dangerous for me to project.

But past whatever questions they had, beyond the emotions and the stress and the surgeries and the uncertainties, there is John David. He is incredible. He is smart and articulate and happy. I am confident he will make amazing contributions to this world. Oh, he still has surgeries and therapy ahead. He still faces the stigmas attached to being "different", and he will have to learn how to grow up in a world with kids who do not understand his challenges.

I am going to make a leap now. It is an unfair comparison for John David, and please don't try to read too much into it.

Today is Good Friday. The singular worst event of human history has been christened "Good" by historians, because the most incredible blessing of all time arose out of that terrible event. If ever there was an unexpected package, this was it. The sky grew dark for three hours. At three o'clock, Jesus cried out in a loud voice (quoting the twenty-second Psalm), "Eloi Eloi, lama sabachtani?", which means, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" The rocks split and the temple curtain was torn in two. The Son of God literally died at the hands of those whom He had come to save.

It gets no worse than that.

And yet, of course, Easter Sunday is coming, and the grandest victory imagineable awaits.

John David is not perfect... he is not Jesus, and what he has gone through is not a crucifixion. I understand that I am using hyperbole.

But I think that his parents must have had a Psalm 22 moment once or twice, a time of wondering (whether aloud or quietly), whether God's face was turned away. John David could have refused to do the hard work it has taken to learn to walk and to face yet another test in another hospital room. Still, I think, as they have gone through yet another surgery and another therapy, they have had Easter moments as they see how God is bringing them through to see a life that must have been unimagineable.

Resurrection is the ultimate blessing from the most unexpected package.

I am glad to know John David. He reminds me that God is at work through the darkness.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Two Recitals and a Blog Review - Must Be a Monday

I have had an unusual day. It was made unusual because I have unusual friends. Let me share a few quick anecdotes.

I went to an organ recital today. Not something I do very often - in fact, I can count on one hand (and maybe one finger) the number of organ recitals I have attended before today. But Andrew was playing. I first met Andrew when we were small children. Because his father pastored the church where my grandparents were members, I would see Andrew when I would visit Grandmother and Granddaddy. Ironically, Andrew was in the music school at Baylor with Gena, my wife, and Andrew ended up being her accompanist. Andrew played the organ for our wedding. He is an incredible organist, and it was a privilege to hear him play again today.

I went to a flute recital tonight. I had never done that before. But Tiffany was playing. I have only known Tiffany a couple of years, but she and her husband have become good friends of ours. Her daughter and my daughter text each other a couple of dozen times a day. Tiffany's graduate recital was tonight, and it was fabulous. It was a privilege to hear her play.

I had a call from Bill today. Bill and I have been friends since the summer after my sophomore year in high school. We are very different - Bill is in his late 40s or maybe has hit 50 by now. He is single. He is a liberal Catholic. But he and I have resonated on many topics we have discussed over the years. He has spent some time reading my blog, and he called today to tell me that he has enjoyed reading it. He found it "humane" and "not too Baptist" for him. He also said it was "real." This is high praise from a discriminating reader who has no reason to blow smoke at me. It is a privilege to know that people like Bill read what I write in this space.

I may never have another day where I attend two recitals of classical music. I may not get another unexpected review of my blog any time soon. It could have only happened on a Monday.

But the real reason it happened is because I am uniquely blessed to be surrounded by amazing friends, talented people who are unique and surprising. Today, it was not just Andrew and Tiffany and Bill - for I intersected today with Jake and Cailin and Charlie and Wanda and Fran and Mark and Paul and Harriet and Tammy and Brent and Jeff and Shelley. Life is full. Friends are treasures.

Maybe you had a good Monday too?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

If We Keep Quiet - a Palm Sunday Thought

Today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. A week of irony, of contrasts, and of course of the critical events in human history. Until this week, Jesus has led a ministry of preaching and miracles, of healing and touching, of reaching out and calling followers. But what He has not done yet is fully accept His royal title. He is still - certainly to those outside His immediate band - more Clark Kent than He is Superman. He is not completely under wraps, but He has not allowed the full message of His identity to be declared.

Think about it... Jesus has healed and then told those healed to tell no one. Transfigured into His full glory for a moment before His closest apostles, He begs them to tell no one of the event for the time being. When given an opportunity to display His wonders, He has responded that His "hour has not yet come." In the Gospel of John, we are repeatedly told that people attempted to seize Jesus at various times, but because His "time had not yet come," He simply drifted away from them.

Now, Jesus' time has come. He is voluntarily marching to His own destruction. I heard a wonderful illustration today, relating Jesus' entry into Jerusalem to the first responders' rush into the burning, falling buildings on 9-11. While the crowd ran one way, away from the flames, they rushed in. So too is Jesus heading into certain death. His time has come.

But if the time for His sacrifice has come, so too has the time for Him to step into His full role as King arrived. Before entering Jerusalem, he meets blind Bartimaeus, who asks for healing and calls Jesus the "son of David," a clear reference to His royalty. While others tried to shush Bartimaeus, tellingly Jesus does not. A man who walked everywhere, Jesus now rides a donkey, the animal of royalty and the one prophesied by Zechariah as the messiah's steed. Jesus now hears and accepts the cries of "Hosannah" from the people, and He tells nobody to keep quiet.

This week will continue with the cursing of the fig tree, Jesus' only miracle done solely to show off His power in order to inspire faith; the cleansing of the Temple, something that only one with authority would dare; and the anointing by Mary, an act Jesus accepts because He is worthy of it and because she is properly preparing His royal body for its burial.

And in the midst of this week is this unusual statement the fully recognized Jesus makes to the Pharisees when they command Him to rebuke the disciples' cry of "Hosanna." Jesus says: "I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out." (Luke 19:40)

I think Jesus has at least four different meanings here.

First, I think Jesus knows His scripture. He is joining with the Psalmist, who has written of how the heavens declare the glory of God, and with Isaiah, who has told of how the trees of the field will clap their hands. Jesus is understanding the cry of creation in praise of the creator. St. Francis would later write, "All creatures of our God and King lift up your voice and with us sing 'Alleluia.'" Jesus is making something of the same point.

Second, I think Jesus is giving a warning, a lesson if you will, to His disciples. They - and by extension we - are it. If they - and we - keep quiet, there will be nothing but the rocks left to praise Him, no one else to proclaim, to worship, to declare. If we keep our voices silent, there will be nobody else to take up the call.

Third, and in keeping with Jesus' finally taking on the mantle of the King, I think Jesus is enjoying - celebrating even - the praise of His people. There is a little "in your face" to the Pharisees here, a hint of, as Tim Rice puts it in the rock opera, "Don't waste your breath moaning at the crowd. Nothing can be done to stop the shouting. If every tongue were stilled the noise would still continue... the rocks and stones themselves would start to sing 'Hosanna'.'" It is not self-righteous, for Jesus is uniquely deserving. It is simply the King's accepting the adulation of His subjects, and the Pharisees best shut up about it.

Fourth, and most ominous, I believe that Jesus is foreshadowing the coming Friday. I do not know how many of those cheering on Sunday were a part of the crowd yelling "crucify" on Thursday, but I do know that those who would support Jesus, those followers and disciples who had so far stood by Him, were quiet when the chips were down, when it mattered. Even if they did not join the throngs yelling for His blood, they did not stand up and fight for His release. They were silent. And, of course, Jesus ended up on a cross. And, Matthew tells us, at the moment of Jesus' death, "the earth shook and the rocks split." Chilling, isn't it? Do you see it?... If the disciples' voices are silent, the stones will cry out. Not in joy, as the Psalmist and the prophet had written, but instead in anguish... and pain ... and (dare I say it?) victory.

If we keep our voices silent, then will the very rocks cry out. It is a word of fulfillment of scripture, a lesson in proclamation, a celebration of the arrival of the King, and a recognition of the role of silence of His followers in leading to His death.

It is a good word to remember as we enter this Holy Week.