Pandemic Reflections

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been watching and listening to the people that I interact with on a regular basis and processing how they are coming to terms with the reality of this pandemic.

My pastor friends seem to fall into two distinct categories.

The first category is built from the mindset “Once this inconvenience blows over, it’ll be back to normal for everyone.” Their timeframe is very short, sincerely believing that probably everything will be fine in another 2 weeks or so. Every time they share something, they talk about how much they can’t wait to get back together, how they are going to be running up and down the aisles and hugging and kissing everyone they can. They sincerely resent not being able to meet on a regular basis and they are extraordinarily uncomfortable with online church or any other form of church that may be different then simply coming into the church building, worshiping, listening to the sermon, and then leaving. I often wonder if quietly many of them are whispering to themselves that everything else is heresy…

The second category is built from the mindset “The church will never be the same, the old has gone and the new has come!” Their timeframe is much longer, believing that we will be in shutdown until at least June or July and that nothing will ever be the same again. They’ve adapted quickly to this new paradigm. Many of them are secretly relieved that church is no longer business as usual and they are quietly hoping that some of the “problem” Christians that attend their church will leave for other churches. They are so relieved to be rid of the routine and they are embracing and taking advantage of every single moment in this crisis to reinvent how they think about and do church.

My political friends, both conservatives and liberals, are operating out of an entirely different mindset.

My conservative friends, particularly the Libertarians of the group, are absolutely convinced that this pandemic is a direct result of the Democrats trying to destroy Trump’s chances at reelection and the economy at the same time. They aren’t buying what the news channels or experts are saying, they think the entire pandemic is a scam and they are refusing to change how they live or interact with others. They believe that the experts and reporters are grossly exaggerating the numbers and using the argument that people are actually dying from the Flu and not Covid-19, if it even exists at all. And interestingly enough, they are beginning to resent Trump for what they see as bowing to the pressure.

My liberal friends are taking the pandemic seriously. They are staying home and encouraging others to stay home. They are listening to all the news channels and experts and drawing interesting and convincing arguments about the severity of the pandemic. Like my conservative friends, they don’t believe the experts and reporters are accurately reporting the numbers, instead they believe the numbers are actually much higher then what is being shared because the U.S. responded late and there aren’t enough tests or accurate tests for everyone to be tested. Initially, my liberal friends continued to blame Trump for this pandemic, but interestingly enough, many of them are now quietly praising Trump for how aggressive he has been in responding. They still don’t like or respect him, they still think he’s a barely literate idiot, but they are appreciative that he’s doing what he can do to try and prevent the spread.

And then there are my normal friends.

They have jobs, or used to. Their kids are in school, or used to be. They have offices and co-workers that they went to and saw everyday, or used to. They had some savings, or used to. Their response to this pandemic is to just keep holding on. They are doing everything they can to hold things together. Some bills aren’t going to be paid this month, they know that. Some of them are running short on food, toilet paper, and essentials and they’re trying to figure what to do about that. They are scared and worried, but they are just trying to take things one day at a time, take care of their families, and figure out what to do next.

But my friends that scare me the most are my Christian friends.

The reason for this is because my Christian friends are also my pastor friends, my political friends, and my normal friends. They are intermingled with every group that I’ve written about. Some are pastors convinced this is temporary. Some are pastors convinced everything’s changed. Some are conservatives convinced this is a scam. Some are liberals who are taking this seriously. Some are just normal people trying to make it through another day.

What scares me about some of my Christian friends is this, through their statements and interactions on Facebook, phone calls, and other means, it’s clear that Jesus might be their savior, but Jesus is clearly not Lord of their life. They are the Lord of their life and while they are forever indebted to Jesus for His sacrifice, they’ve never truly made Jesus the Lord of their life. They are still in control of their thoughts, words, and actions, those have never truly been surrendered to Jesus.

Here’s the point I want to make. You cannot call yourself a Christian and not have Jesus as Lord of your life. It’s just not possible. You cannot claim Jesus’s sacrifice and then retain complete control over how you think or respond or act. When you claim the sacrifice, the old person who controlled everything is gone. A new person is created who has agreed to submit to letting Jesus be Lord of their life. You cannot claim to be new and still live like the old – it’s just not possible and people see right through the hypocrisy.

So this is a wakeup call both for me and for others. Who is really Lord of your life? I hope you say Jesus and I hope that the Lord will grant you the wisdom and discernment to move away from the things you are attempting to control and serve Him faithfully and without question.

To Dream Audaciously

I’ve been thinking about what it means to dream audaciously. This comes, in part, out of a conversation that I had with an individual regarding a mindset of 1950’s or 2050’s when it comes to the church. This individual’s argument was that it was audacious to believe that we could do anything now that would be relevant to the church of 2050.

I’ve thought about his question, and I choose to give him the benefit of the doubt and believe that by audacious he was meaning to show a willingness to take surprisingly bold risks to share the gospel message of Jesus with a hurt and broken world.

Perhaps it is a bit audacious, however, I would contend that perhaps we need to be a bit audacious in order to innovate and create.

Jesus was certainly audacious in communicating his disdain for the religious institution of the time while communicating a message of hope and love to the people of the time. That audaciousness sparked a movement that has forever changed humanity.

Certainly Martin Luther was bit audacious in nailing his 95 thesis to the front door of a church. That audaciousness catapulted the people even further into the arms of God.

I’m confident that John Wesley was considered audacious after being thrown out of churches and continuing to preach in the fields. That audaciousness has led the way in defining the significance of disciplining every individual, regardless of race, gender, education, financial position, etc. so that they can become fully devoted followers of Christ.

Certainly in 1950, drive-In revivals were considered audacious by many traditionalists. But from what I understand, many people came to know Jesus because of them.

Bus ministries were audacious in the 70’s. Could you imagine driving a Bright Blue school bus around to various neighborhoods just to bring kids WITHOUT THEIR PARENTS to Sunday School? I can’t, but I’ve heard story after story of how effective those ministries were.

The same goes for the Seeker-Sensitive movement that started in the 80’s and in many cases still existed up until a few weeks ago. To step away from tradition, to abandon the hymns and attempt to create an environment where people actually enjoyed coming, where the musicians were incredibly well-trained, where pastors preached relevant and timely messages that met people where they were and pointed them to Jesus – that is definitely audacious.

And to dream… in the midst of a pandemic… when fear and uncertainty run rampant throughout our culture… to dream and to ask God to help us in this moment of time to take wild and surprisingly bold risks and to rethink the organizational structures of the church and how and why we do things. To do all that now in the midst of this chaos so that in 30 years the gospel message continues to be spread like wildfire through online churches and micro-churches and who knows what else God will inspire His people, and His under-shepherds to create. That is most DEFINITELY audacious!

So my call to all who may listen, is to be audacious! Dream with me and the others about what the church in 2050 will look like and join with us in creating it! It’s worth the risk!

A Theology of Virtual Sacraments

Oftentimes, I have people asking me my opinion on the validity of virtual sacraments. So here’s the foundation of theology of virtual sacraments.

1. Technology is not autonomous.
No matter how sophisticated the technology is, it still has to be programmed by a human being. Everyday I depend on sophisticated bots to collect and gather information from a variety of sources. But I was the one who programmed those bots to search out, identify, qualify, collect, and distribute the desired information.

So what this means is that every time we interact with some entity virtually, regardless of the skin the avatar is using, behind that is a real person. Which means, the conversations and relationships you build with the individual in the game or virtual world has the same value as if someone had come and sat down in your office or home.

To devalue the individual just because of where you first met them, is to devalue the reality that Jesus loves and sacrificed for that person.

2. Communion is adaptable.
At the last Supper, Jesus shared both wine and unleavened bread as a means of communion. And for hundreds of years, that’s how communion was served. But in the 1890’s, a Wesleyan-Methodist pastor by the name of Dr. Thomas Welch created pasteurized grape juice so that those of the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition who are opposed to alcohol could still take part in the sacrament of communion. I’ve seen the communion “wine” presented via water, kool-aid, soda, and beer as a representative of taking part in the blood of Jesus.

I’ve seen the communion bread presented with the wafers, those weird little tick-tak style of bread, actual bread, and most recently gluten-free bread. I’ve even seen pastors use M&M’s, crackers, pretzels, and slices of pizza as a means of consuming the body and remembering Jesus.

What’s important is not the elements, but rather the symbolism of the elements. Remembering the death of Jesus, intentionally choosing to be part of the body of Christ, and the commitment to love and care for the other believers in our own congregation and across the world.

3. Baptism is fluid.
Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. A river that people used to bath in and clean themselves. A river that people used to wash their clothes in. A Living water that flowed and washed away the impurities.

But today, we baptize in weird, semi-heated bathtubs in our sanctuary. Or we baptized in stock tanks meant for livestock. Occasionally you’ll hear of someone going to a lake or a river to baptize, but that’s rare. Some people just sprinkle water from a container on people.

I’ve heard of some in Africa during long periods of drought, that have baptized with dirt. I’ve heard of others who have used the anointing of oil as a means of baptism. The reality is that if we think that baptism is simply about water, we’re missing what is significant.

What’s significant is the testimony of the believer. The public declaration that they have chosen to abandon the world and have committed to following Jesus. The water is simply a substantive vehicle that physically conveys this public declaration.

4. God doesn’t care.
I can see and understand the animosity of those against this and I can see and understand the affirmation of those for this. However – at the end – I don’t think it really matters to God at all. It matters to us, but not to God.

And if it did matter to God, then I’m not sure I’d want to be in a relationship with God. Because what if I spent my whole life committed to following and serving God, only to have Him disqualify me from being in relationship with Him for eternity just because I took communion with grape juice rather than wine or that I was baptized virtually instead of in a living river like Jesus was? I don’t want to be in a relationship with a God like that and I sincerely doubt anyone else who is serious about their relationship with God would either.

5. You really don’t care either.
I’ll add this one last thought. As a pastor, if someone came to you and said they were saved, baptized, and discipled via an online ministry – are you really going to tell that person that it doesn’t count? That the relationship they have with God is invalidated because they didn’t do it the way you think it should be done?

There’s no way you’d do that. You’d welcome them in with open arms and great them as a brother or sister in Christ. They are family, no matter how they came into the family.

If you did reject them, then I would wonder if you should actually be in ministry at all. Because if we can’t accept that God is going to reach all kinds of people through all kinds of methods – regardless of whether we agree with those methods or not, then it’s probably best to stop being a pastor and take some time to learn what it really means to follow Jesus.

Trying ideas on…

I like to try ideas on.

I like to take an idea, an opportunity, a possibility, a whim, and try it on for a few days just to get a sense about what it might be like if it was real, if I actually followed through, if I made the decision to pursue this. This idea of trying things on works both in deciding TO do something and in deciding NOT TO do something.

I like to try on things like “I’m taking this new job” or “I’m moving to this new place” or “I used to skateboard when I was a kid, I could go down to the skatepark in the early morning and become an awesome skateboarder again” or “I could just ignore everyone and everything and never, ever risk again.”

Now, there’s some value to trying ideas on. You get a sense of the excitement of what might be. You can discover how you might feel about things. You can begin to address some of the fears in a relatively safe and rational environment.

But the problem with trying ideas on is that sooner or later you have to snap back to reality and come to terms with the fact that you still haven’t made a decision. You’ve spend hours, days, or weeks fantasizing about what might be rather than embracing the here and now.

I like to try ideas on, but only for a moment, because the real adventure begins when I make a decision and follow through on it. That’s when things get real.

Gripping panic and fear

There are random moments that I find myself crippled with panic and fear. Sometimes I can go days without this happening. Other times, it happens so frequently that I spend the entire day battling and find myself completely exhausted at the end of the day.

What cripples me is an irrational thought that God might not use me again. That I won’t be given the privilege of serving the kingdom, of sharing the good news, of being fully used by God for His glory. I fear that perhaps I’ve disqualified myself somehow or someway that I have yet to fully understand or comprehend.

And yet even in the midst of these moments, I hold tight to the following truths:

I know that God has not given me a spirit of fear. 2 Timothy 1:7 tells me this and so I hold onto that tightly. That fear is not mine, it is not from God, and so while it may impact me briefly, it does not have a place in my life of choosing to follow God.

I know that the calling of God is irrevocable. Romans 11:29 tells me this and when panic sets in that God may not ever use me again, I’m reminded that God does not make mistakes. He called me for a purpose. He will not revoke that calling and He will continue to use me as He sees fit.

So in this battle, I find myself gripping panic and fear with the truth that God has given to me. And those battles soon end and life goes on.

Conversational Church Style

The last church I pastored was a small, well-established church at the end of it’s life. We met in a coffeehouse that had previously been the church building and we engaged in what I called a “conversational service style.” Other’s might classify this as a “dialogical” approach to the weekly gathering.

We had transitioned to this style of service because I had become increasingly convinced that the congregation I served knew about Jesus and the Bible, but they did not know how to talk about Jesus  or biblical concepts. They could listen, absorb, and learn, but they struggled in actually talking about what they were learning.

In all fairness, if you were to ask the members of the congregation, I’m sure that they would deny my assertion, but the reality is that as the pastor leading a group made up primarily of heavily-churched individuals, I recognized the pattern of familiarity had created complacency and recognized there was a need for a different approach to learning how to live and think like Jesus.

Here’s the format we followed:

We gathered at an appointed time on Sunday mornings at 10:00 AM. We were pretty loose with when we started, sometimes we started right on time, other days we spent the first 5-10 minutes just catching up with each other.

Next, we entered into a time of worship singing. Typically this was 3-4 songs. Then the scripture passage for the day was read. Then I presented a 5-10 minute brief synopsis of the scripture referencing culture, timeline, various historical references, etc.

The remainder of the service, the congregation talked about the following questions:

1. How would you apply this scripture to your life? (15 mins followed by a brief community discussion about how to apply the scripture.)
2. How would you share this scripture with someone else? (10 mins followed by a brief community discussion about how to share the scripture.)
3. What is something that you need prayer for? (5 mins of sharing prayer requests followed by an additional 5-10 minutes of table prayer, followed by a closing prayer)
The results of this approach was varied. For those who were not heavily-churched, they began to grow and learn. I could see how talking about Jesus was helping to build their relationship with Jesus. They may not get the biblical concepts exactly right, but they were trying and learning from each other.

For those who were heavily-churched, this was an incredibly uncomfortable environment. A common complaint was that they just wanted a regular sermon, they didn’t want to have to talk with each other. Because of this, I could see how the conversational environment was a constant irritation to them. They didn’t know how to talk about the Bible that they had heard so much about and because of this, they were unable to see any value in what we were doing.

In the end, this format was terrible for individuals who held onto to the belief that the church was supposed to look and feel a certain way and extraordinary at helping individuals who wanted to actually know and have a relationship with Jesus.