God in a Doctrinal box

I am busy researching for my next book project (with Mark Nelson) which is about seeing God, people, and mission through a much larger frame. Trying to expose damaging reductionisms in our thinking and practice that have all but obscured who God is in himself, but also have reduced the ways in which we can see what he is doing in lives beyond the narrowed confines of the church. Part of that research has taken me to explore the idea of theophany...the always surprising ways that God reveals himself to people...and how people encounter God in myriad ways without knowing it.

Anyhow, the book starts by addressing the the all-too-religious penchant for locking God down to selective doctrinal formulas. So, in my reading I came across this piece by a scholar called Matthew Skinner, in a book that explores the nature of theophany as expressed in the Acts of the Apostles. He shows great insight into religious pathology here....

“For another reason, the religious leaders who kill Stephen have, we might assume, allowed their responsibility to protect their understanding of God to become so pressing to them that it eclipses their ability to be curious about that understanding. That is, they cannot engage Stephen in authentic conversation about God because they (perhaps like him) have religious commitments that they will not permit to budge, commitments they will protect to the hilt before they consider other ways of understanding God. Their commitments might extend to presuming they know exactly how God works, and therefore they refuse to make room for anything a professed visionary like Stephen might say. They lash out in violence because they have fallen victim to the oldest sin in the book. idolatry,

Idolatry worships a creation instead of the Creator. Idolatry loves symbols more than the thing to which a symbol points. Idolatry satisfies itself with knockoffs and shadows. Idolatry imagines God an be contained and therefore controlled and owned. Because idolaters think they know where the treasure resides, they allow no alterations to their maps and they punish explorers—with violence, if neccesary.

Stephen's speech to the high priest warns about idolatry when it re-proclaims (following Isaiah 66:1-21) God's dwelling as encompassing all of heaven and earth, not limited to a temple on a hill. He does not say the temple in Jerusalem is inherently idolatrous but that some--including a core group in his audience--have come treat it in an idolatrous manner, giving it outsized importance and becoming unable to glimpse other places and ways where promised to be present.

The idolatry perverting Stephen's foes hardly afflicts them alone. It connects to more than a high regard for temples and rightly interpreting the Law of Moses. It involves temptations that beset probably all religious people (including Stephen?): to turn a quest for God into an enterprise of self-assured arrogance instead of a search requiring humble reliance on fellow seekers and openness to new and old ways of finding God. Steven's story is not about the bad guys. It's about coming to terms with the reality that all of us are prone to reject God's messengers and cling ferociously to what we already know, or think we know, very well.

The antidote to idolatry is not to avoid being religious. Violence and self-assurance are hardly limited to religious people. It is not to withhold passion and conviction from our beliefs, not to distrust all we think we know who can know about God. The answer involves keeping in view the object of our convictions–the possibility of encountering God. It likewise involves vigilantly noticing how our pursuing and safeguarding of these convictions leads us to deal with differences and dissent. If our convictions leave broken bodies in the wake, or if our pursuits of our religious values and prerogatives snuff out people's vitality in other ways, then we are almost certainly doing something wrong.

Fortunately, Acts, given its many connections to the Gospel of Luke, keeps our attention on Jesus's example. Not a high-octane Messiah but one willing to risk vulnerability, this Savior knows these dynamics of aggression and coercion up close, having suffered from them himself. Because of this, or perhaps despite it, he nevertheless remains committed to delivering us from our worst proclivities – even from our very violent selves.” ~ Matthew Skinner, Intrusive God, Disruptive Gospel, P.48-9

Sound familiar?

Church for the Rest of Us

One thing I always find interesting about church as we know it are the narratives and archetypes we have so unquestioningly accepted.  I believe that for us to become a people of faith that can reach the whole word, these narratives should be teased out so that we can examine them and make choices on how to change them.

One way to identify a narrative is by looking at who is missing from our church bodies, or who is uncomfortable in them...and then find out why. The last few years has introduced me to a group often ignored or even shamed in our churches: introverts.

The typical evangelical church is not a friendly place for introverts, and the larger the congregation, the more uncomfortable the experience. If we walk through a new church experience with the eyes of an introvert, it might surprise us (better yet, ask an introvert how they experience your church).

Imagine being an introverted new believer who has never been to church and walking onto an unfamiliar church campus. How do you know where to go? How do you know what building or door to walk into? Most churches, due to their lack of signage or maps, create uncomfortable experiences for people.

Think about Disneyland.

You don’t have to ask where something is, there are signs everywhere. Street signs pointing the way to attractions and bathrooms. Campus maps everywhere to help you know how to find things. Whether Disney or your local mall, the designers want you to feel comfortable and like you belong. Churches, however, don’t think about that and often created a very unwelcoming experience for people. This causes new people, who don’t know where to go or where things are, to be reminded consistently that they are an ‘outsider’. This is not a welcoming feeling.

Instead of signs, churches often use people to help you know where to go or how to find things. This is great, unless you are new AND an introvert. The last thing you want to experience as an introvert is people coming up to you wearing a colored t-shirt and giving you a download of information and relational energy. If you are not already exhausted in trying to find out where to park, how to find the front door, or the bathroom, you will be by the time you past 7 well-meaning extroverted greeters.

Then let’s think about worship. Let’s say I’m a creative introvert. What does your worship look like for me? If I sit and contemplate Christ, will people be looking at me or will an usher ask me if I am okay? If I want to paint or draw, do I have a place to worship in your church? Most worship in the evangelical church is designed for extroverts. This is even more so in pentecostal churches (which I say as a proud Pentecostal). Liturgical churches have worship more amenable to introverts, with their chants, meditations, and hymns of lament. I know more than a few introverts who have changed denominations because the worship style was more conducive to their personality and life-giving to them.

The next terrifying encounter is the inevitable meet and great time. A standing ritual of evangelical churches, the forced socialization serves as a pop-quiz for occasional attendees. It is another reminder of outsider status and failing memories. And given our national struggle with church attendance, could it ever become a place ‘where everybody knows your name.” While I know the heart of this ritual is to help people feel welcome, it often has the opposite effect. Moreover, if we think that a sense of community is created merely by greeters and ritualized handshakes, we have missed the heart of Christ entirely.

This brings us to discipleship. Many of our process and methods are designed for a narrow bandwidth of people-types. To illustrate this, consider my husband – the most introverted man I know who has opened my eyes to these issues. He, like many introverts, is social but being around more than 4 people is exhausting to him. This means that he is not going to share his heart in a group larger than 4. If your discipleship process is all about small groups, it is not going to work for him. He is also not a verbal processor and needs time to be introspective and have a conversation with God. Most small groups discussion situations are highly emotionally draining and he gets little out of them besides a tired soul. In light of that, what could life-giving discipleship look like for introverts?

My husband also does not learn much from reading; it is not a strength of his. So if your discipleship process involves a lot of scripture reading, how does that work for different learners? The truth is, most of our ideas about discipleship come from either those who are more academic and thus discipleship is study, or from those who are extroverted and external processors and thus discipleship looks like small group discussions. That means that a whole lot of people (3/5s if we are looking at APEST corollaries[1]) would not find life in our current discipleship processes.

For my husband, he finds like in discipling another person. He spends time in scripture and prayer seeking God on how to come along-side them. He is discipled in the process of discipling someone else. But if he were to walk into a new church body, it would take time and vetting to be formally given this opportunity. His participation in church life would be evaluated. His engagement in ‘serving’ ministries and worship would be considered as a litmus for his ability to lead. But in many environments, those thresholds require extrovertedness or large personality types. This means that the gate is narrower than we intend it to be.

Our church cultures are unintentionally designed to identify, groom, and celebrate a specific personality type which leaves most introverts unseen, undeveloped, and left with a stigma of guilt and shame. Our ministry and discipleship opportunities implicitly communicate what a ‘disciple’ looks like, what ‘ministry’ looks like, or what ‘leadership’ looks like. And most of those narratives are very, very narrow.

When discussing these cultural norms with one pastor, he confided in me that he did not understand introverts. He thought it demonstrated weakness of character or spiritual desire. He actually thought the expressions of introvertedness were things people should be exhorted and coached out of.  I wonder how many other pastors don’t see, can’t relate to, or misunderstand the introverts in their congregation.

The truth is, church as we know it is designed to make a small number of people feel welcomed and a small number of people feel successful in their spiritual life. It is designed by ESTs (Evangelist, Shepherds, Teachers) for ESTs. It is designed by extroverts for extroverts. I have worked to experience church through the eyes of an introvert and all of the examples I’ve mentioned are things that introverts feel but will never tell you, because they are introverts!

If we can create spaces, social experiences, even celebrate those with a different way of engaging in worship, discipleship, or leadership, we will have a church that can be a place for the rest of us. And that, in turn, will cause it to look more like the Jesus it seeks to reflect.

[1] Those with a high teacher capacity will get a lot from scripture study, while those with a high evangelistic capacity will find life in the small group discussions.

Finding your War Time Rhythms

A quick observation from what I'm seeing in some of the people I'm coaching right now and experiencing in my own life.

For many Christian leaders, a sad reality is that there aren't the scriptural patterns of abiding with Jesus in a rhythmic way that define their reality. Rather than working from a place of rest, they push and push on work until they are forced (or crash!) into rest (though it's more like recuperation).

What I notice is that as people begin to develop daily, weekly and seasonal rhythms, often time for the first time in a way that is sustainable, they do it during what I call "peace time." In other words, things in their life are often quite stable, repetitive and "normal." They are able to wake up at the same time, have the same travel rhythms, put aside the same sabbath day; basically, able to manage their energy and schedule in a sustainable, peaceable way. Another way of looking at it is they are developing them when they have emotional and spiritual margin for that kind of activity.

Which is fantastic.

However, I'm noticing that this is really stage one.

Because things don't stay "peace time" all the time.

Babies happen. Work can pick up. Travel can increase. Parents move in with you. People pass away. We experience sickness. Spiritual warfare. Sleepless nights. Things happen out of the blue that are completely unexpected and these unavoidable realities keep us from living out the rhythms we have painstakingly set up.

Perhaps a practical example: In "peace time," I like to get up quite early in the morning, do something physical, then spend about 90 minutes by myself reading scripture, praying, journaling, listening to music, etc. That's the best case scenario for me. And there was a time where this was possible.

And then Jude, my second kid, was born. And then my daughter Avery started to get up much earlier as she got older. And then our third child, Sam, was born and the cycle started all over again. And then Sam turned 18 months old and this crazy side of him came alive. And now he's almost 4 years old and it seems to be getting worse!

Big cannonball explosion into my rhythm.

Suddenly, really through no fault of my own, my rhythm became unsustainable. I've also seen the same thing happen in heavy travel seasons. I've seen it happen with time changes (my body does some weird things for daylight savings time!).

What I noticed was that I almost needed a second set of rhythms that proved to be the drumbeat of my life during these times. What were things that I could do that kept me connected to the Father, continued to nourish me while I was in a more trying season without as much time and energy? This time isn't negotiable, but the way in which I take these times can be. I don't have as much time which means the time I do have needs to count just as much if not more.

It won't be like this forever, but it's reality right now.

I've seen in myself and the people I'm investing in that this war time rhythm is something that probably needs to be attended to, particularly in the day to day. My observation is that when this happens, we will actually need to double-down on our efforts for our weekly sabbath, but really give ourselves to seasonal times of retreat and nourishment with the people (spouse?) who we do life with and draw life from.

Am I alone on this? Has anyone seen this in their life?

God is already working. So what now? Las Vegas gives a clue.

One of the most basic assumptions of the incarnational missionary is to assume God is already involved in every person’s life and is calling them to himself through his Son. Our mindset should not be the prevalent one of taking God with us wherever we might go. It must be, instead, that we join God in his mission.

This means that the missionary God has been active a long time in a person’s life. Our primary job is to try to see where and how God has been working and to partner with him in bringing people to redemption in Jesus. Understand- ing that all humans are made in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:27), and in the deepest possible way made for God, we can assume that every human is motivated by spirituality and search for meaning. Even idolatry indicates that people are seeking to worship something beyond themselves. It is deformed spirituality to be sure, but it is spirituality nonetheless—and you can work with that. Recognize that behind many of the things not-yet-Christian people do lies a search for something else. C. S. Lewis once noted that all our vices are virtues gone wrong. If we take this as a clue, we can develop new missionary eyes to see what God is up to in people’s lives.

Let’s take a deeper look at this: consider Las Vegas, the consummate sinner’s town. And it is that—a deeply broken place where people get really messed up. But we can put aside our moral misgivings and choose to look at the gambling dens with more missional eyes. We might ask, what is the person who is sitting at the slot machines really searching for? Perhaps it is the search for redemption but in the wrong place. It is the belief that to win the jackpot means to be changed and transformed into a new life. This search might also be driven by a now pathological need to take risks because life has lost its sense of real adventure.

We can literally work our way through any type of event or activity in this way:

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We can trust that because of the way God has designed us, in the end human beings are always searching (albeit in false and idolatrous ways) for real meaning, authentic relationships, to love and be loved in return.

One more dimension of this that must be mentioned is that all people have religious experiences. It is false to say that only Christians can experience God. Anyone looking at a sunset can experience an in-breaking of God-awareness. In The Color Purple, Celia recalls a time as a child walking with her mother past a field of violets when she felt that God was making a pass at her in the flowers. God is constantly “making a pass” at us in everyday experiences—we simply need to become much more aware of him. People call these experiences theophanies (God encounters), and our task as God’s sent people is to bring a meaningful interpretation to these experiences and point people to Jesus as the center of the God experience. This is what Keller means by telling people’s stories in the light of God’s story—the gospel.

Hope for the very worst pastor ever.

In Part 1 of this series, I talked a little bit about the difficulties of the calling of being a pastor when you're not a people person. Specifically, about how it requires you to push into weakness, learn things that will be uncomfortable and foreign, all the while expecting the Holy Spirit to show up. But specifically, I need to lean into that for the good of the congregation and for the good of my own spiritual growth. I don't get a pass on this.

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