Saturday, November 22, 2008

Monday, November 10, 2008

Communitas: intimacy through adventure

Many of us crave teamwork, adventure and risk in our leadership environment, but most of the time these are sorely missing. We are caught between our need for stability and success in ministry, and the powerful lure to live an edgier form of Christianity, like we imagine Jesus Himself and the apostles lived.

How many times have we bemoaned the lack of commitment we see from church folks? No matter how hard we promote and cajole, it seems like the same folks always make up the core of volunteers. There must be a better way to carry out Christ's mission. What began as an amazing safari turns into a tedious trip to the zoo.

I think I may have found an answer in what Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost call "Communitas". defines it as "the sense of sharing and intimacy that develops among persons who experience liminality as a group." "Liminality" refers to a place of threshhold, where a group is out of their normal environment and culture and moving into a new phase of experience.

Communitas describes what I felt on the cold and wet soccer field or in the suffocating wrestling room as my fellow athletes struggled together chasing the elusive goal of greatness. It is found in perhaps its most extreme form on the field of battle, when soldiers very lives depend upon their intimate relationships with their comrades.

I have always wondered why I have not found a greater sense of teamwork and closeness in church life, even among peers in our denomination. I have found most relationships to be pretty much surface level, and cooperation to be short-lived. I know I am not alone.

As a fraternity brother in the 1970's the pursuit of communitas in the house was very intentional. In fact, it was the main goal when bringing new members into the house. The hazing and rituals were all about creating a "brotherhood" through liminality. While Christ's methods and goals are very different from those of a secular fraternity, lessons can be drawn from what they are able to achieve.

There have been times when I felt a greater sense of communitas, as opposed to the shallow and paltry sense of "Community" we usually end up with in the church context. Short-term missions trips produce this level of relationship because they place us in a foreign environment with limited resources and uncertain outcomes. Folks feel united, exhilirated and renewed after such an experience, and are generally disappointed when they return to "normal" church.

But I have identified a few other practical ways to promote and create communitas in our churches and lives. Group fasting creates a type of communitas, as do retreats, certain types of small groups, spiritual discipline groups, and intentional missional outreaches. Articulating purpose and vision and plunging into it with others is what these ordeals are all about, and they energize people. There are innumerable ways to do this.

The idea of liminality is crucial because while we go to great lengths to make people comfortable in church, the way to intimacy and greater commitment may lie in calling them, counterintuitively, to a higher level of separation and sacrifice.

I am still researching this idea, but believe that the renewal of our movement and churches may lie in pursuing communitas. Paul had communitas in the churches he planted, and in his planting team. Jesus had it with His disciples, and when given the chance to opt out of it they replied, "Master, to whom would we go? You have the words of real life, eternal life." John 6:68

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Honor the king

There is a strange feeling to this day after the election of a new president. It is certainly an historic day. But I don't think we know where we are yet.

I have watched the jubilation of enraptured Obama fans. I wonder if they know why they are so happy. I think they are as happy to have defeated what they consider to be backward thinking, heartless conservatism as they are that their party now holds the reins.

I have read a lot of scary things about our president-elect over the past few months regarding his associations, radical activities and proclivities. If they are all true, and he has chosen to lead us in a similar path, then we are in very deep trouble. I am hoping that they are not true, at least not all of them, and that there is some semblance of Christian and American sensibility in this man. I hope he is true to his call to unite us, but in an age of such divergent visions for America, I don't see that to be realistic, and I am under no delusion that he is some sort of messiah with unearthly powers.

I do not resent his blackness. None of us should. That is irrelevant. I am wary of his leanings, and of the possibility of unchecked power lurching us sharply to the left. That is not in the interest of this country. It will not bring together a divided nation. It will create deep resentment, and set the stage for a battle royale in four more years.

I am having twinges of 1976. I was much younger then, and not as aware of history as I am now. Our nation is unhappy, and we have elected a man who promises better. But like 1976, he is a somewhat untested man, at least at this level. The office crushed Jimmy Carter, and I hope we do not see that repeated.
Our nation is facing monumental difficulties here and abroad. We really do need to work together to make this a better place. The problem has been and remains that we chase competing pictures of what America should look like. There is no common vision, but a nearly evenly divided image of what is good and right and how to get there. Amos 3:3 (MSG) "Do two people walk hand in hand if they aren't going to the same place?"
I will be praying for and honoring Barack Obama. Not because I agree with him or want to see his agenda enacted, but because I want to be obedient to God. Scripture is clear, 1 Peter 2:17 "Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king."

Friday, October 31, 2008

Vampire writer Anne Rice loves Jesus!

Bestselling vampire writer Anne Rice came to faith in Jesus Christ a few years ago, and now vows to only write books that would please Him. Read about her latest book here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Five things to do every day to stay sane

Psychologists in Great Britain have discovered five things people can do in order to help maintain proper mental health. Not surprisingly, the five habits are also things that scripture affirms as effective for a healthy Christian life.

According to the study people should try to connect with others, to be active, to take notice of their surroundings, to keep learning and to give to their neighbours and communities. These are all things that will help us live effective lives as missionaries for Christ in our changing world.

Check it out for yourself here

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Skatepark hearts awakened!

During our Faith in Action group last Sunday we spent some time at the Shamokin Skatepark again. Pastor Jerry Conley was able to share his powerful testimony with a group of five teenagers. The response was good, and they each prayed to ask for the Lord to cleanse them of their sins and make Jesus their Lord.
This is the result of five weeks of serving these kids, and seeding the park with prayer and the Word of God.
Please continue to pray for us as we plan what the Lord would have us do next. This is not a driveby evangelism event as we will be following up and seeking additional opportunities to serve, plant seed and water it.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Seeds planted in unreached Shamokin tribe

I visited our local skate park in Shamokin alone last night with 7 Bibles in hand to give away. Last week a group of 17 of us cleaned up their park again and served BBQed burgers and dogs, but I think we overwhelmed them and felt we invaded their turf. The Lord showed me last week what I needed to do to plant some seed. Going alone was the right thing last night.
As I got out of my car I approached a group of about 8 youth in the parking lot and asked if they wanted free Bibles. They were suspicious and unreceptive and said they did not need a Bible. I was glad there was another group over by the skate ramps or this trip would have been a bust in 30 seconds flat!
As I approached the group by the ramps I was glad I had called for prayer support from my wife Faith. I could feel the Lord's hand on me. Cold call evangelism is not my style, so I was glad when some of the kids recognized me from our previous clean up trips.
I asked them if they would like a free Bible and they all said "sure". I then asked if I could read a chapter to them and they said "no problem", and started asking me questions about heaven before I even got started. I was concerned that one wise guy would dominate and distract the group with silly questions, but his questions turned out to be sincere. He even told me that he gets afraid sometimes that heaven is real and he won't be there.
There were 7 kids at first, all boys, but then a few others came over to see what was up. We talked for 40 minutes and I got to look into their eyes and see a lot of pain and hunger. I told them that connecting with God was the most important thing, we talked about repentance and drugs and demons and miracles. Some of them knew quite a bit about the Bible, and you could tell which ones knew right from wrong. The focus was on Jesus and what He came to do on this earth. I left when it got dark and told them I would be back soon. I need more Bibles...
This was one of the most exhilirating times of evangelism I have ever had. I think it was because of the uncertainty. I like security and usually try to make any ministry opportunities a "sure thing" with no room for error. I don't think Jesus operated that way. He was on the edge all the time. It did not make Him nervous, but it gave the disciples fits!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Lure of the Automat

The Horn and Hardart Automat Restaurant in NY City, circa 1960's

My dad was a child of the depression and spent his early years in Brooklyn before my grandfather moved the family out to what was then "the country", but is now just another congested NY City suburb, the Village of Valley Stream. My dad maintained a fascination for the city, linked with a healthy fear that he passed on to his five children.
One thing that had special lure for him was the famous Horn and Hardart Automat in Manhattan (the first one was actually in Philadelphia). I remember him taking us there when we were small. There was an amazing array of freshly prepared foods behind crystal clear glass doors that were available "automatically" when you dropped your nickels in the slot. This was real Americana and the height of consumerism.

In Organic Church author Neil Cole describes the "all by itself" principle of church growth/discipleship that Jesus spoke of in Mark 4:26-29.
"...The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how. For the earth yields crops by itself: first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head. But when the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come."

That was the lure of the automat. It seemed as though the food just presented itself without any human involvement at all. That had great appeal in an era when we had yet to really see the dark side of science and technology. (Remember the Jetsons cooking food in those magic machines)

But the fact was that "automats weren’t truly automatic. They were heavily staffed. As a customer removed a compartment’s contents, a behind-the-machine human quickly slipped another sandwich, salad, piece of pie or coffee cake into the vacated chamber." (Wikipeda reference)

Christian Schwarz (Natural Church Development) also speaks of this same principle which says that if the circumstances and environment (church health) are right then church growth and discipleship will begin to happen all by themselves. This runs counter to our strategic style of planting churches which emphasize demographics, facilities, flow charts and powerful launches.
The thing we must wrestle with is what Jesus says. He is the one, in parabolic form, who says that the kingdom grows "all by itself". Our role, according to the parable is to scatter seed in order to grow the kingdom. This task of sowing is emphasized in the Parable of the Soils and the Parable of the Mustard Seed as well.

Sometimes I think we try to reap a harvest when there has been little in the way of real sowing of seed. We spend an enormous amount of resources on impersonal advertising, growing programs, events and churches, but what would qualify as "sowing the seed" of the Gospel gets neglected.

This is meant as a word of encouragement. I have always taken more responsibility for the growth of my church than I think the Lord would ask of me. Perhaps we should spend more time removing stones, turning over ground, keeping our furrows straight, placing seeds in the ground, and keeping them watered. After all, the growth is up to the Lord Himself!

1 Corinthians 3:6-7
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.
So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters,
but God who gives the increase.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Me and Steve

This article was written for a National amateur wrestling publication and will appear sometime this winter.

At first glance thin-framed film actor Steve Buscemi might seem like an unlikely wrestler but his connection to the sport is actually quite strong. Buscemi spent six successful years on the mat for legendary Long Island wrestling coach and mentor Harold Earl of Valley Stream Central, a suburb just outside of New York City. He remains grateful for the life lessons he learned, and for the wonderful relationships built that continue to this day.
Steve Buscemi is an accomplished actor having appeared in over 115 films. He is also a gifted writer and has directed 4 films, including “Trees Lounge” which he also wrote. (“Trees Lounge” takes place in Valley Stream, NY and if you look carefully you can see him perform a pretty good “duck under”) He is married to choreographer, artist, filmmaker and photographer Jo Andres and lives in Brooklyn. They have one son, Lucian.
Buscemi has achieved status as a cult type figure because of his remarkable talent and preference for independent film. He is best known for his work in Fargo, Con Air, Armageddon, Big Fish, Spy Kids, Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, The Sopranos (he directed some episodes), most of the Adam Sandler films, and numerous voice roles in animated features like Monsters Inc, Charlotte’s Web and Igor. He has received numerous awards, and recently started his own production company with actor Stanley Tucci.
Steve and I met in seventh grade in 1969 when we both joined the soccer team at Valley Stream Memorial Junior High School. We became fast friends. When winter came I invited Steve to join the wrestling team and we became partners. “I recall how honored I felt that Mr. Earl considered me good enough to practice with Rich who was already an accomplished wrestler,” Buscemi says.
Steve spent a lot of time at our house. One Christmas we both asked our parents for unicycles, and we rode them to school together. It was quite a sight to see two skinny kids riding unicycles down the streets of Valley Stream in the middle of winter.
Steve was on the small side and so did not begin his high school career until 10th grade when he was second string behind me at 98 pounds. I finished that year second in the Nassau County tournament. As a junior Steve wrestled first string at 105 lbs. and had a good year on a very competitive team.
As a senior Steve came into his own. He had pretty well perfected his trademark reverse cradle. His secret was in his long arms, which enabled him to lock his hands and finish this difficult move. That year he finished fourth in the league tournament, and fell just shy of making it into the county tournament. Highlights of his senior season included pinning the eventual county champion with a reverse cradle and he used a simple half-nelson to pin a county place winner in a dual meet that same year. That win gave Valley Stream Central the edge and they won that crucial dual meet.
Buscemi was a three sport man. He played soccer, wrestled and ran track. “I really miss that whole time,” he said when we spoke recently. “I wish I could go back there again.” Buscemi recalls being especially energized when his performance made a difference for the team. That kind of selflessness has made him a respected actor and film director. He appreciates the team dynamic.
Referring to the nervous energy felt just before a match Steve says, “I feel the same nervousness when I am in a performance, but once I get out there, it goes away.” Coach Earl was known as a technician and placed strong emphasis on drilling moves. Steve remembers having “too much fun” as my partner in my dad’s grueling practice room. “Those practices were brutal and goofing around made it all bearable,” he said. I have to agree, and there were times when we were laughing so hard we got in trouble.
“It was a privilege to wrestle for Harold Earl in his prime. I took it for granted at the time, but it was really very special,” Buscemi says. Steve especially looked forward to the “matside chats” my dad would give after practice. He would comment on politics (he remembers the old coach sharing his disappointment with Spiro Agnew and then Richard Nixon during the turbulent Watergate years), and the unique dangers that girls, smoking, and cars posed to wrestlers. All of Earl’s wrestlers remember those talks with fondness.
After graduation Steve remembers running into Coach Earl in Valley Stream one day in 1977 as he had just begun taking acting classes in New York City. “I was embarrassed to tell him what I was up to, because I was not sure how he would respond” he says. “ I told him I was pursuing acting and he got a big smile on his face and was so positive about what I was doing. He seemed genuinely happy for me. And that proved to be a great inspiration.”
Steve and I still talk and get together from time to time. I am a pastor now and Steve showed up for service one Palm Sunday with his son Lucian as they were on their way to Pittsburgh. Our church folks did not recognize him at first, but after service he was found out, and graciously greeted some fans.

Rich Earl is the son of legendary coach Harold Earl of Valley Stream Central on Long Island in NY state. Harold Earl is a Lifetime Service recipient in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and coached at Valley Stream Central from 1951 to 1981.
Rich Earl was a New York State Champion in 1974 at 112 lbs. His brother Jim won that same title in 1973. Rich wrestled for Lehigh and Jim wrestled for Penn State in the late 1970’s. Rich has been pastor of Mountainside Assembly of God Church in Coal Township, Pa. since 1998.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Second unreached tribe discovered in Shamokin

My last post seemed to generate some interest so I am following it with this which occurred Sunday night. I do believe that the discussion and implementation of missional ideas and practices is just beginning. Experimentation and retooling are words we had better get used to.

The fact is that unreached tribes make up most of our culture. When we focus on being attractional we see these tribes as competition because we want them to leave their tribe and join ours. But that's not how successful missions work accomplishes the goal of growing the kingdom. We cannot merely put on native clothes in order to infiltrate the new tribe. We must have genuine love for people, and be willing to spend time with them.

Our Faith in Action team of 25 (including teens and children) met at 6 pm for prayer and the Word before heading out on four mercy missions. I shared Luke 14 -the Parable of the Great Supper -to give foundation to our task of going into the highways and hedges. We also included our prayer team, who remained at the church to intercede for our work.Space does not permit me to elaborate on the amazing God moments experienced by the three smaller groups we sent out. But the group I was leading discovered a second lost tribe of young people at a local skate park. It resembled "Lord of the Flies" as there were no adults in sight, and there was an aboriginal feel to the place.

We first set out for the park where we discovered the "Ultimate Fighting" tribe a few weeks ago (see earlier post). They were nowhere to be found. So we cleaned up the park again and talked and prayed with a group of five who were playing basketball. They seemed embarassed, but grateful as we gave them each a 20 oz. ice cold energy drink.

Next we headed to the skate park. A notoriously dirty and dangerous place. It was filthy, but the tribe of about 30 skaters between the ages of 11 and 20 seemed oblivious to their surroundings. We began sweeping and picking up, waiting for a chance to speak with some of them. We had only 19 energy drinks to give out, but with 30 kids there, I was afraid giving them out would start a riot, so I began to ask the Lord what to do.

Then it became clear to me that I could stand in the middle of the park and hand the drinks out to those who answered questions I would ask. It was a bit risky, but I ran to the van and got the cooler. I summoned anyone who wanted an energy drink to come close, and instantly had a group of 15 hanging on my words. (the older "cool ones" did not come around, it was mostly the younger ones)

I proceeded to ask them general Bible questions off the top of my head. "Who was Moses and what was the most important thing he did?", "Name one thing Jesus said," "Who was Judas and what did he do?", and so on. It was electric. These kids were thinking and talking about God. One kid recited the entire Lord's Prayer. They came up short on John 3:16, but it gave me a chance to tell them about it.

The spontaneous atmosphere, and incarnational character of what we have been doing opens the door for the Spirit to do more than if we had stayed in our church box. It also gives more value to the times we do meet for worship and teaching because that's where we get fueled for the mission.

As we were leaving some of the boys came and said thanks for cleaning up, and for the drinks. I am hoping they will begin to take pride in the place and keep it clean themselves. Then one of the boys, who was wearing a Led Zeppelin t-shirt, came up to me and said, "I think you were my pastor when I was a kid." I thought he looked familiar, and it turned out to be Georgie. His family had left the church in a split a few years ago, but George always sat up front and loved to be in church. It was great to reconnect with him, and I think something stirred in his heart. I know something stirred in mine.

1 Corinthians 15:58 With all this going for us, my dear, dear friends, stand your ground. And don't hold back. Throw yourselves into the work of the Master, confident that nothing you do for him is a waste of time or effort.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Unreached tribe discovered in Shamokin

Many of us have been reading a lot over the past few years about the missional church and how to reach our culture. It is obvious that things are changing rapidly, and we are lurching farther and farther away from the type of church we grew up in. We are clearly at the place where we must be true missionaries who bring the gospel to unreached people, rather than trying to return the culture to a church they never really knew.

In light of this new reality many have spoken of the tribalization of our culture. We are no longer a homogenous "American" culture, but rather a panoply of tiny and distinct tribes. From skaters to goths and from Nascar to NY City arts types, not to mention the many ethnic groups, we seem to be coalescing around fairly narrow personal interests and affinities. The trend is accelerating. The church is seen as a separate subculture all it's own, with numerous sub subcultures. This has profound implications for us in pastoral ministry as we move away from a purely attractional model.

Mountainside began a bold experiment (bold for us, anyway) this summer as "Faith in Action" was born. We morphed a successful in house small group ministry into a team mission approach to reach our own community. The tiny group of 8 who began with us a few months ago has swelled to as many as 32 as we branch out every Sunday night to perform acts of service for whoever needs help. The focus is on the unreached, though we help church folks too. There are no strings attached, and we have not pushed or promoted our church at all. We do pray with people (they almost always cry grateful tears when we do) when we are done, but prefer to wait for them to ask us why we are doing what we are doing. We have had some visit our services, and one single mom has already surrendered to Jesus. Teams then gather at a local eatery to discuss our excursions and share what God did each night.

This past Sunday I took a small group of teens to do some street sweeping and trash pickup at a local playground. As we drove up we were surprised to find a large group of about 35 teens and younger kids gathered on a grassy patch. They were cheering and we noticed two shirtless teens wrestling in the middle. At first I thought they were just wrestling (Shamokin is a wrestling town), but as I spoke with some of the boys, I found out it was their own version of "Ultimate Fighting". There is no punching, but choke holds are allowed, and you either pin your opponent or they have to "tap out". They alternated matches between older teen and pre-adolescent boys. There was not an adult in sight.

I have an extensive history in amateur wrestling and I am not a big fan of the more brutal forms of the sport. Much like missionaries to Africa were forced to overlook the nakedness of primitive tribes in order to be accepted by them I had to withold my criticisms and safety concerns in order to engage the members of the tribe in conversation. I was able to meet a few members of the tribe and set the stage for a return visit in a few weeks.

Shamokin is a difficult mission field. The city is facing bankruptcy and everything good is shrinking, while negatives abound. We have seen 4 churches close in the past few years, with many others holding on for dear life. The situation is dire.

Any strategy to see this community transformed must be long term or we should really not bother. Single events or splashy presentations will not make a ripple. Missions work is not for the faint of heart or glory-seekers. If we had been holed up in church that night we never would have discovered this "lost" tribe. Now we must pray for an open door for the gospel. The need for our being there is acute as we seek to gain their confidence and provide a redeeming presence.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Bell to well

Some futurists and cultural observers are positing the demise of the familiar Bell Curve which charts normal distribution and the ascendency of what is being called the Well Curve. Some have said that this only happens in times of great social upheaval and transition.

In modern times it was a given that there was a large middle and smaller extremes. The middle class was the norm, with the very rich and very poor at the fringes- smaller in number.

The theory of the well curve assumes that the middle has been slowly disappearing, and the extremes are on the rise. This is hard to argue with when you consider the evidence in education (achievers and dropouts), economics (rich and poor), technology (small and big), politics (liberal and conservative). There are examples in almost every aspect of life.

I heard Leonard Sweet touch on this at a conference last year and was intrigued. I looked for signs of this phenomenon in church life and the news. I am seeing more evidence as time goes on. The megachurch movement is an example. It seems we are seeing rises in large churches which value diversity and excellence, and also in small and house churches which value community. The "plain vanilla" church with little to distinguish itself, is becoming less attractive. I spoke with a seasoned ministry pioneer recently about a church plant in a certain community and he said the only thing that would work would be something that had "an edge to it". That's the edge of the well curve as I see it.
It seems this is already affecting our churches as we have some folks who are very involved in our mission, and others stay aloof and merely attned on Sunday. Some churches are doing away with membership, while others are raising the bar or providing options for membership.
Perhaps this explains the difficulty many churches are having with maintaining a viable Sunday School. It is based on a premise that everyone wants the same thing on Sunday morning. Vanilla is no longer the preferred flavor- everyone wants a custom flavor.
I think this is something to watch in the days ahead. There may be adjustments we need to make to maintain our "edge". I think Jesus lived there!