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This essay is going to be a bit jarring for some of you.

There are a lot of things we do at churches that would be foreign to the church Jesus started:

  • Youth Groups
  • Choirs and Bell Choirs
  • Men’s Ministry
  • Receptionists and Offices
  • Robes and Liturgy
  • Ordination
  • Christian Counseling
  • Christian Schools
  • Cantatas
  • Full-time Ministry People

Now please hear me; all of these things can be good things. They’re just not essential to what church is, or Jesus would have at least mentioned that we might try them.

The problem is, glance at that list again and you’ll see that these “markers” have become the very distinctives of church life. We assume that church is about doing them and promoting them.

So here’s a question: Does Jesus want our churches to have food banks?

It seems assumed by all, that charity work is the essential work of the church. But is that true?

Now, before you think that I’m some kind of anti-poor-people wingnut, let me go on record by saying that I believe that it is the responsibility of any society to feed its:

  • Widows and Orphans
  • Disabled Veterans

I would add children to that list, since children are poor through no fault of their own.

I would also add that there are times of famine throughout the world, and that the Christians have been and should be at the point of the spear in responding. The Apostle Paul gathered an offering for the upcoming famine in Jerusalem.

Able bodied men (and women) should be working. And families should be the first line of defense. Solve the family problem and you solve the hunger problem. Divorce shreds the fabric of extended families and real people fall through the cracks.

It seems obvious to me, also, that most of the panhandlers in our midst (at least in the US) are mentally ill. We used to institutionalize them. I still think we should. For their own good, and out of love for our neighbors who can’t make their own good decisions.

I think it’d be a great idea for you to have a food bank at your church, especially if you feel led by the Lord to do so. We don’t have one. Not out of principle, but because we don’t feel led by God to do so, at least at this point. We work hard to empower single women who were considering abortions, usually because of poverty, to make a path toward sustainable life: http://hisnestingplace.org It’s what we feel called to do and we hope it’s helping.

The truth is, however, that much charity work (giving a man a fish) actually reinforces poverty, rather than teaching a man to fish. Giving to a panhandler (which I sometimes do and can’t explain why) rewards begging. And we all know that begging and more giving to beggars is not the answer to the problem of poverty, so why reinforce it?

I am struck and saddened by the level of obesity of those waiting in food lines in the USA. Many going back home to cable TV. Many of whom smoke while in line. There is a food bank across the street from my house, behind the library, and a bus stop just feet from my door. Much food gets left behind at the bus stop (stuff they decided not to keep). More than you think, as you picture it.

Let’s discuss, as responses to this essay, ways to end poverty. I believe that it is possible. Jesus said “the poor will always be with you,” but not that the poor would always be with us, 20 centuries later. There has been much progress against poverty in my lifetime. Breathtaking progress, to speak the truth.

But it doesn’t come through:

  • Wealth redistribution (left wing answer). It ends up being forced, and then fails.
  • Rugged individualism (right wing answer). The strong just get stronger and the weak can’t keep up.

It comes through great creativity, the Spirit of God, and relational solutions.

The truth is, poverty is a curse. And people need to be taught out of it. Here are some suggestions, meant to help. Some may work. Some maybe not.

  • Teaching children out of poverty mentality and into abundance mentality. Not reinforcing victim mentality. In schools and in churches.
  • Providing better public transportation so those who can’t afford cars can get to work.
  • Making it harder to get divorced. Divorce compounds poverty. Encouraging people to have babies IN marriages. Not just in church, but in all of our schools.
  • Abolishing welfare “as a way of life” for able bodied adults.
  • Strengthening extended families and teaching them to care for the “least of these” in their midst.
  • Trying to focus your help on those with whom you are willing to go the distance (e.g. the Good Samaritan). You can’t do this with everyone. Quality of aid over quantity.
  • Re-establishing public healthy living communities for the mentally ill. Homelessness is expensive! In Canada, it costs $110,000 per year per person (money spent on homeless divided by number of homeless) to care for these people (homeless) who are moving targets. Not sure what the American number is, but it can’t be too different.
  • Stop selling lottery tickets, 40 oz beers, etc. in underclass neighborhoods. Redline them if you have to.
  • Re-establishing Christian mutual aid (common in NT times). Church members would receive from the offerings when there was need. This kept the giving relational. The Mormons are the only ones still doing it well.
  • Incentivize entrepreneurial immigrants (e.g. South Asians) to settle in underclass neighborhoods. This may have done more to help blighted US neighborhood economic development than anything else.

There is great reason for optimism. Poverty is much less a curse than it was a couple of generations ago.

What are some of your ideas?

If you have a food bank, great. But let’s think beyond the foodbank.

Waiting to hear from you…

This article is not just for Lutherans. It applies to most North American faith families.

The above chart spells unmitigated disaster. And it’s a few years old. It’s gotten much worse since it was first printed.

And better theology is not going to rescue us. We Lutherans have always had the odd idea that if we could “nail” the philosophical content of the Gospel, then everything would line up and we would thrive. Truth is, we have right-leaning Lutherans (LCMS) and left-leaning Lutherans (ELCA) and ALL of us are headed down the same demographic waterslide hand-in-hand.

I’m a theological conservative with no illusions that more conservatism would stem this tide. Our big problems are demographic.

The gay issue in the ELCA churchwide assembly of 2009 will be seen as a blip, historically, compared to the real crises:

1) Lutherans don’t have enough babies. We seem to see them as a liability. Ironic that we did backflips, inducing great trauma to the ELCA, to include the LGBT group (on their terms) which has the lowest fertility rate on earth. It’s like we’re trying to form a no-baby union.

Here are confirmation pictures from 1969 and 2004 from the same Lutheran congregation. These trends are the rule, not the exception, for most congregations. Do the math.

2) Lutherans don’t retain enough of the babies they have.

3) Lutherans have no clue how to do evangelism which leads to large-scale adult conversion and baptism. Some even have an “in principle” allergy against doing it; for them, praying with someone to become a Christian is some kind of theological felony. We did 14 adult baptisms at our last church picnic (and we are only a church of 200). Have a look at the video>> LINK We are shooting for 30 this year.

4) Many of our congregations are led by informal juntas of empty nesters and retired people which sabotage every step taken to try to create a young-adult-friendly environment, young adults who tend to have babies, by the way. The trauma many of our missional pastors carry is not unlike that of soldiers returning from Iraq. PTSD is rampant among the younger half of our roster (which is tiny–the average ELCA pastor is 59 and aging). It’s not the pagans who beat on them, it’s their own church members.

5) Lutherans do not do well in urban areas where they have had many churches (big cities like LA, Chicago, St. Louis, etc.) when those zip codes diversify ethnically. In general, we’d literally rather die than reach the new immigrant residents. And we seem to think that urban Latinos and African Americans are looking for high-church worship with a PC message; intelligent Catholicism in black and white without the magic. Small wonder they are staying away in droves.

6) Our denominational corporate structures are clueless about the “opt in” revolution created by social media. They still think they can control their rosters and not have to attract, cultivate, and maintain “opt inners.” Both the lists of congregations and clergy are brittle and fragmenting. Denominations are like Tower Records trying to discipline iTunes. Good luck.

7) Lutherans are also clueless about the communications revolution. Most of them spend half of their office hours producing bulletins and newsletters which are among the poorest quality print media in America, and no one reads them. Most of our pastors don’t have blogs or a social media presence of any kind, let alone a podcast (click for example) that would hold anyone’s attention. Many Lutheran churches have no website or screens in the church. And the ones that do have websites usually have a big picture of a Jetsons-Gothic postwar church building (see pic below) with other useless information. Generalities abound on such websites (e.g. love the world and love God), and there are no branding distincitives (i.e. what makes us unique) that would attract someone. The mission statements are so vague that Taco Bell could probably use them. And you can never find a picture of the pastor or get a feel for her or his vibe. Anti-branding. Fine, don’t have screens–and while you’re at it, get rid of your parking lot and hope streetcars will come back. If you’re not at least toying with the idea of crafting a smartphone “app” for your church, you may simply never catch up.

8. We have over-merged. Some talk about the “emergent” church. Well, we are the “overmergent” church. A few generations ago, when Lutheranism was thriving, we had a bunch of solid medium-sized Lutheran denominations which were very relational (every pastor could go do every national gathering), and each one had clear branding and vibe. There was loyalty to their one seminary and tiny handful of major global mission fields. Now we have two mega corporations which have no branding and spend all of their time fighting, because we are forcing together constituencies that don’t belong together. Many of our seminaries are going broke. Our leaders can’t name our global mission fields. Former ELC pietists have no business slugging it out for turf within the ELCA with former ULCA East Coast types. No branding, no new customers.

9) Most Lutheran sermons are virtually impossible to understand. I was a Fulbright Scholar and I can’t follow most of them. We tend to preach in the formal register with tertiary reflection; writing a weekly term paper for a professor who isn’t even there. And we are humor-impaired. Our preaching culture is non-existent. We don’t celebrate our (few) preaching stars. Name them. See?

10) We treat our successful churches like pariahs. Reading the Lutheran for years, you’d have no idea which churches they are. The ones that are growing and thriving, reaching lots of new converts, and baptizing them. The ones that are transforming their communities. Heaven forbid we celebrate any success. Synod staffs, churchwide, and struggling congregations tend to be at least passively aggressive towards any success. And if new church plants innovate? Don’t let them on the roster! Unless they impersonate the other dying congregations.

I value the opinions of liberals. Some of them I share; some I don’t. Respectful liberals return the favor. Some just scream at you. Bless them :-).

But with a drift toward liberalism, comes, without question and statistically provable, a less church-going population (see the recent Gallup results–a conservative is twice as likely to be in church as a liberal), and less tendency to have big families (NPR families have way less kids than NASCAR families) that will carry on the important missional work we are doing for generations to come. I think that’s worth questioning, once in a while. Even if I’m wrong, which many of you believe and may indeed be the case, I will plant my flag on the right to ask the question. The survival of our movement is at stake.

There will always be Lutherans in America. We are too strong in the Upper Midwest to disappear entirely. But we have squandered our “pole position” which we had after WW2. Instead of contributing to the core of the project that is America, we seem to be choosing to be a quirky footnote to life here.

Follow me on Twitter @RobinwoodChurch

Please pass this on to all your church leaders. Shortlink to copy: http://wp.me/pGQxY-bY

Surviving the Deep Winter of the Church

….that I may know how to sustain with a word, him who is weary…

Isaiah 50:4

Preach the Word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.

2 Timothy 4:2

The current economic recession is much more severe than we first thought, and the discouraging thing about it is that it’s hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel. It won’t last forever, but it certainly is feeling lengthy…

Along with this financial downturn, we, as a church, seem to be approaching a spiritual “deep winter.” The church of Jesus Christ has gone through more ups and downs than any other institution in history. Saying “we have seen it all before” is never an overstatement with us. We’ll get through this season as we have prevailed, 100%, in the past. We outlast every other endeavor on earth, over time. Always have. Always will.

Please hear me, I am a militant optimist about the eventual outcome; God will get his way with all creation. But I am also good at reading the signs of the seasons (Remember Jesus talking about the fig tree in Matthew 24:32?).

Many of us came to faith in the heady days of the Jesus Movement, the explosion of Praise Music, the Charismatic Renewal, and the Church Growth Movement. We had spring, summer, and even, as these movements matured nicely, autumn.

You may disagree with me, but I sense the chill of a long winter setting in. It could last a half generation or longer.

Many Christians are just tired. One visitation pastor said to me, last week, over Thai food, “I am just so OVER church.” She echoed the feelings of many young adults raised in our congregations, who are staying away in droves.

Evangelism (actually leading non-believers through Christian conversion) seems like pushing water uphill. If you haven’t had to re-write your “napkin drawing bridge illustration” for salvation, you haven’t been paying attention. Most of our evangelistic tools from the 60’s (including the bridge illustration) are totally ineffective with many of today’s folks.

I can’t tell you the last time we had a wave of  “church shoppers.” It seems like we have to create the demand for church-going itself. Many of our churches would not fill up next Sunday even if we offered $100 bills for all new visitors.

Everybody wants to be “spiritual,” but not necessarily committed to church. Record numbers of young adults, raised in the church, are no longer attending anywhere (some 70%).

Remember the times when thousands of young people, after coming to concerts at Calvary Chapel, were baptized in the ocean? Remember the first time you heard “Shout to the Lord?” Remember the first time you saw signs and wonders blowing through your congregation full-steam? Remember when starting contemporary worship and small groups actually led to church growth? We’re simply in a different season now.

Of course there are exceptions proving the rule. But they are getting fewer and farther between. 15 years ago, all of the largest ELCA churches were growing. Now, it’s one or two of them. And I’m talking about North America, not the thriving church in the Global South.

We also find ourselves, as a church, in the razor-blade meat grinder of the culture wars between political right and left, shredding what little stability we had as winter approached. Some of our congregations have literally been torn asunder by this “perfect November storm.”

This winter could last many years. There’s no way of knowing how long this “season” will last.

So what good news is there in all of this? Actually, there’s a lot for which we can be thankful:

1) Church “winter” is a time for study. Picture Abraham Lincoln reading his Bible in the log cabin, to candlelight, in the primeval winters of a younger America. I like to imagine my Scandinavian ancestors huddled around the stove reading the classics, with everything pitch black outside.

We’re too busy planting and harvesting during the sunny days to take study and growth seriously.

2) Winter is a time for relationships. In the Kingdom, we are brothers and sisters for eternity. As some church programs dry up for lack of interest, we can refocus on eating and praying with those people in our fellowships who mean the world to us. When the task-orientation of high summer sets in, it’s easy to see relationships as disposable. In the winter, we have to huddle together for warmth.

3) Winter is a time for prayer. In the frenetic days of summer, it’s easy to be too busy to pray. The darkest days of Advent are the time to light candles. Cultivation of a prayer life is hard when church life is at full throttle. Busy-busy pastors never have time to pray. The best time for that is “winter.”

4) Winter is a time to turn your heart toward home. It is not a time of travel. That comes later. Our church buildings were packed during the Jesus Movement. Now, during an “emptier season,” we can focus on a Josiah-like repair of our houses of worship. You church building has deferred maintenance that needs attention.

6) Winter is a time to safeguard our treasures. The “weather” can be hazardous outside. In past “winters” Christians in monasteries had to safeguard the treasures of the faith while pagan hordes ravaged the countryside. We also need to keep the fire burning in the fireplace. The flame of the Holy Spirit must not be allowed to go out, or we will freeze to death. We need to defend the Bride of Christ, the Church, and keep her warm, at all costs.

7) Winter is a time for dreaming about the coming spring. Planting season is around the corner. The trees will bud. The robins will return. God will do all kinds of new things among us. Many will come to faith. Our churches will fill again. But God will do that in his time. We don’t know the day or the hour, and can’t even predict a simple childbirth, let alone a spring thaw.

8) Winter is a time for faith. The church is sturdier than you think it is. It is not going under or out of business. Jesus guarantees us that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church.

God must love physical seasons–he invented them. And plainly, by history, he also loves spiritual seasons. As Ecclesiastes says, for everything there is a season.

Not every season is a season of revival.

Don’t beat yourself up as a leader because things are not as they were in the spiritual “summer.” You are not the master of the weather. Another summer will come.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe a lengthy winter season is not coming to the church. But I think it is.

Winter is not a bad season. It’s just different. Is it time, in your church to embrace the good parts of winter?

And it never hurts to look forward to spring.

Which always comes.

While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.

Genesis 8:2

This is the number two question I get, after:

Are there pets in heaven?

Both questions are tough to answer in a simplistic way!

First of all, there is often a “question behind the question.” So,  before answering, I counter with “What do you mean by Lutheran?”

Let’s start with Martin Luther (1500’s in Germany). I once was blessed to meet the greatest Luther scholar of the 20th century, in person, Roland Bainton, in the early 80’s after a lecture. I asked him why he never joined a Lutheran Church. His witty response was: “I’ve never seen one. Luther himself, ironically, would not be welcomed in most Lutheran churches today.”

Martin Luther

So, are you Lutheran? If you can answer difficult theological questions simplistically, you probably aren’t following Luther’s pattern.

Asked whether there is pre-destination, Luther answered “yes and no.” Asked if we can lose our salvation, Luther answered “yes and no.” Asked if we are basically sinners or totally justified, he answered “yes.” Luther was a Bible teacher, and not a systematic theologian. He loved the (obvious) dramatic tensions in scripture and was OK with just leaving them be. His counterpart, Calvin, seemed to have a high need to cram the Bible into a neat system.

There are parts of Luther’s teaching and personality that I, without reservation, condemn and reject. His bizarrely anti-Semitic view of European Jews was an outrage. His mowing down of the peasant revolt was inexcusable. His eschatology was primitive at best and incomprehensible at worst (He thought Pope Leo was literally THE Antichrist). He had no sense of Christian mission to the majority of the non-Christian world.

But he was spot-on right about the whole Bible revolving around Grace, Faith, and Christ. And he was crazy-courageous in standing up to the whole authority structure of his world (Popes and Emperors) to make it stick. He rediscovered Paul’s “Jesus plus nothing” and remade much of the Western Church around it.

Along with Isaac Newton, he is one of the most mercurial and influential humans ever to walk this planet (Newton, like Luther, had his mega-quirks). By deconstructing the monastic world-view (which had been dominant for centuries), philosophically and practically, Luther helped lay the foundation for the Modern World in which you and I live.

Ironically (I thought of this while walking the ancient stones of the Via Sacra), Luther and Paul were the two greatest historical figures ever to walk the streets of Rome. No one at the time, in that city, even noticed them. Luther and Paul could care less–they just went out and re-made the world. All of the emperors and heroes of Rome amounted to: not much. We name our sons Paul–and our dogs, Nero.

Am I a follower of Paul or Luther? No. So perhaps I’m not a Lutheran, in that sense. Luther didn’t want us to use the term “Lutheran” (see his exact quote at the bottom of this page) and Paul, in 1 Corinthians, was horrified that people would label themselves with his name. I, like Luther and Paul, am a follower of Jesus Christ alone.

But what about faith families? What about denominations? I am totally a product of Lutheran theological-cultural upbringing, and can’t do much about it. It’s like being Jewish, it’s a cultural tattoo which you can’t remove without lasers. Even if I (God forbid) were to become an atheist, I’d be a Lutheran atheist.

If I were to join a Baptist or Catholic congregation, I’d still be a Lutheran member of that church. If you are Jewish or Lutheran, you understand the tribal implications of these labels :-). I’d actually, if I had my ‘druthers, like to be a charismatic Anglican (the Alpha London folks), but I’m too blue-collar Lutheran to pull it off long term.

So, is the church I pastor, Robinwood Church, Lutheran, because I am the primary teacher? Perhaps. We affirm (in our bylaws) the unaltered Augsburg Confession, the Small Catechism, and the ecumenical creeds.  We would qualify, thus, for joining the Lutheran World Federation.

But we are non-liturgical. Totally. More than you think. And we are very Pentecostal in our expression. It doesn’t look “Lutheran.” We have no Euro-centric trappings of any kind. We are a California beach church that meets in a warehouse. No Lent. No Advent. No lectionary. No altar table. No permanent cross. I don’t own a clerical collar. There isn’t a single hymnbook in the building. It would be hard to find the word “Lutheran” on our website. I only wear shoes if it’s a cold day. The music is loud.

But if any trained theologian were to visit us for three Sundays, he or she would say:

They sure aren’t Calvinists or Arminians. Not Roman Catholics. Not Southern Baptists. Not Eastern Orthodox. Not liberal North American PC activists. Not Anglicans. By default, they must be Lutherans. Expressive, non-legalistic, missional–but pretty dang Lutheran at the core.

If Luther were to show up at Robinwood Church, I’d probably tell him off (privately) for that goofy Jew-bashing (and a few other things) of his, but we’d pour him a beer (and cut him off at two) and share his love of God’s Word, and the tensions that are simply there in it.

Is Robinwood Church Lutheran? Yes and no 🙂

And like Luther and Paul, we don’t care if “important” people don’t notice what we’re up to, we’re busy remaking the world.

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For more information:

Robinwood Church Website

Robinwood Church Worldwide Podcast

My book explaining Pentecostalism to Lutherans.

Follow me on Twitter @RobinwoodChurch

Join the Facebook Group: Robinwood Church

LUTHER’S QUOTE on LUTHERAN LABEL:

“People should not call themselves ‘Lutherans’. ‘What is Luther? After all, the teaching is not mine. Neither was I crucified for anyone . . .How then should I — poor stinking maggot-fodder that I am — come to have men call the children of Christ by my wretched name?’ Not so, my dear friends; let us abolish all party names and call ourselves Christians, after him whose teachings we hold.”

Who said that?

Martin Luther.

–from, “A Sincere Admonition by Martin Luther to All Christians to Guard Against Insurrection and Rebellion 1522”

Of course, you could say that we are thousands of years old (from the date the first human set foot on Alaskan soil) or 234 since the Declaration of Independence. But I prefer 1607, the day people started speaking English and living here (Jamestown). That’s when America as we know it started to take shape.

I am hopelessly patriotic. Not sure where that comes from, because I never set out to be that way. And my patriotism is not comparative. I don’t think in terms of “better” than other nations. Having traveled extensively, I can easily see why Italians and Ethiopians are also patriotic.

So, let’s talk about America for a few paragraphs, since we’ve taken another trip around the sun together. Some random thoughts:

1) Patriots can question America and point out faults. Family can do that.

2) Americans need to respect their political opponents more. I am so tired of conservatives and liberals bashing each other.

Conservatives who don’t think liberals are right about anything (and vice versa) lack perspective. I am a family-values free-market guy. But I actually listen to my political opponents, value them, and learn from them. Demonizing Bush or Obama (depending on your flavor) closes your mind. Keep it open.

3) The immigration issue has degenerated into sound bites and posturing. Where are the real solutions that would actually work?

Politicians stir up xenophobia in order to pander for votes, and then they present no real plans to solve the issue. The result is hypocrisy (let them in but say we won’t tolerate it).

Like him or hate him, the last one to present a real solution was W. And his own party shouted him down. Since then it’s been useless pundit-pulpiteering.

4) America needs to re-embrace having children.

Listen to people talk about having kids or being pregnant. Trust me, they will usually imply that children are a liability.

This, not politics, is at the heart of our abortion statistics. Children should be seen as a blessing, not a curse.

And economically, we aren’t having enough of them to pay for our retirement. And then we wonder why we need so many immigrants to keep the country running.

We think that having children will get in the way of our development, but all of us with children know that NOTHING develops and matures us like having them!

And children with more siblings tend to be healthier and have better social skills.

5) America needs to go on a diet.

This is the main problem behind our soaring health care costs. I struggle with it as everyone else does.

6) America needs a big project or a frontier.

We lack vision as a nation. Haven’t done anything cool together since Project Apollo.

7) America needs to embrace the Open Source revolution.

This will most affect education. Stacking kids in huge buildings and talking at them is no longer the best way to maximize learning. We need much smaller schools which encourage friendship building and teamwork. Children need to be evaluated for aptitudes and these skills need to be brought out in teams. We need to re-visit job skills (whatever happened to vo-tech schools?), apprenticeships, and stop implying that everyone needs to go to the university. Children should learn how they are wired up and be motivated to develop those gifts.

8. America needs to solve her energy problem.

The gulf oil spill is a painful reminder that, economically, environmentally, politically, and otherwise, running our national engine on gasoline and diesel is not sustainable for the rest of the century.

Which of you is going to be the new Edison? Time for major breakthroughs.

9) America needs to redesign her cities around people, not cars.

The way we have built suburban tract housing has isolated our children and created a sedentary generation. Most Americans now live in a setting where there is nothing meaningful to which we can walk. It’s all designed around cars.

After many years in tract-land, we moved into a real (old school) neighborhood 8 years ago. I can easily walk to: library, bank, drugstore, post office, UPS, the beach, schools, and 25 places to eat.

Is your neighborhood designed around human beings or cars?

10) America needs to embrace local food and urban gardening.

You don’t want to watch massive food factories at work, especially with animals.

11) Our children need to be given more social free time.

We are over-supervising and over-scheduling their lives. As a result, they are no longer developing leadership skills.

12) It’s time to revisit our spirituality.

American faith is potent and vital. Its taproot is in the slave songs of the cotton fields. It is empowerment-based and transformative.

Listen to gospel music on a regular basis. It’s one of America’s greatest cultural gifts to the world. And develop a live relationship with a live preacher. Having a “rabbi” and a faith community is deeply enriching. There is a little “indie” church near where you live that could use your presence. They are doing a lot of good–join them.

13) We need to withdraw our military from the Eastern Hemisphere. Our future is in teamwork with Canada and Latin America. All North Americans should learn some Spanish. All Latin Americans should learn some English. We need to build a 21st century railroad to South America. We need to send out brightest and best north and south, not east and west.

Our over-involvement with the Old World has caused nothing but trouble and heartache. Most all of our war casualties (since 1865) have soaked the battlefields of the Eastern Hemisphere with their blood, and we don’t have a ton to show for it. The founding fathers saw this ahead of time and warned us against “entangling alliances.” We are obsessed with virtually impossible blood feuds in the Middle East, which they are going to have to solve on their own, and we all saw how this bit us on 9-11. Badly.

We could easily protect the Western Hemisphere, with about half of our military budget. Dream a little. What if we sent all of our young adults on a one-year sojourn to Canada or Latin America (instead of straight to college) to work and learn and build contacts?

In the broadest sense, everyone in the New World is an American too.

All that being said, I love living in this country. I love being American. We can rise to prevail over all of these challenges. I feel blest every time I wake up here.

God bless you all and God bless the United States of America on her birthday.

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Please pass the link to this essay on to everyone you know. Thanks!  Short version: http://wp.me/pGQxY-b0

Our institutions are rusting out.

Let me say from the beginning that I am an optimist for the human race and for the Creation in general. God will have his way with Creation and people are amazingly resilient and adaptable.

But I am a pessimist about the ability of our major institutions to survive this century.

The rust has gone beyond cosmetic. The core of our institutions are rusting

Sure you want to read this?

The church, the government, education, the military, and the economy are in terminal trouble.

Not that some form of church, government, education, military, and economy won’t survive. All of these functions are going to survive; but the institutions which carry these functions now may not.

CHURCH

Arguably the most resilient of all institutions (outliving languages and nations, and ALL ideologies), the Church has gone ‘sideline’ in the space of one generation.

The Church was the only major institution to survive the fall of the Roman Empire.

Irrelevant and ignored are the two adjectives that come to mind when I think of the 21st Century church.

Virtually no explicit Christian leaders, for the first time in 2 millennia, are first-team varsity culture shapers on our planet. We don’t even have an Oprah, let alone a Churchill.

Today’s 15-30 year-olds are ignoring the Church in unprecidented droves.

Most denominational organizations are ripped apart by political issues and are reaching terminal blood loss levels. Christianity is fragmented like never before.

GOVERNMENT

I live in California.

California, more or less first to try out everything, became ungovernable a few years ago. The USA is not far behind.

Our current form of  ‘democracy’ is based on British parliamentary and American constitutional decision making. Also on the idea of the sovereign “nation state.”

More Americans seem to believe in the sacred inerrancy of our constitution than believe in the veracity of the Bible. But its days are numbered because the institution it calls forth is no longer able to solve problems. It can’t do its job.

The truth is, the folks in Sacramento and Washington DC are no longer at the helm of our culture. They are not calling the shots.

The models they follow are based on pre-industrial and pre-information-age interaction. They are more and more unable to solve the challenges we all face together.

The European Union is facing increasing opposition from client states and their citizens. It is a faux-empire with no mass appeal or loyalty (from the citizenry). It lacks patriotism.

The Romans were unable to adapt to changing situations. Patriotism and effort is not enough.

Sometimes you just have to think differently.

EDUCATION

We all know that there are great educators out there.

Most of us were influenced by outstanding teachers.

But there is a nagging consensus that the way we do school and university is not working as it should.

We have been unable, in the USA, to figure out how to include all of the major lifestyle ideologies in our official education process. Abraham Kuyper of Holland was the last one to pull this off (about 100 years ago). So we settle for lowest-common-denominator secular humanism as our official education vibe.

And pencils and classrooms? In the 21st century? Our current elementary education model doesn’t even assume the presence of electricity. It would work almost as well with a pot belly stove and a chalkboard.

MILITARY

We are unable to create safety for productive citizens. Our USA military was designed to beat the Germans (tanks) and the Japanese (aircraft carriers).

The military of other countries is more or less totally impotent and unable to project power anywhere. Europe couldn’t even take care of Kosovo without our help.

The real threats are politically and psychologically (sometimes both) fringe people. Especially when they congregate and organize.

Call it extremism or whatever.

They want to blow up airplanes (from their underwear) over Detroit.

They form camps to train angry young men to hate and kill.

They are notoriously flexible and hard to locate. The most powerful military on Earth can’t find Bin Laden.

They generally hate Israel, America, or the UK–not necessarily in that order.

They, as strongmen, take over failed states and provide “stability” and pride for their followers.

As a result, harmless grandmas have to take off their shoes at airport security, getting their water bottles confiscated, and honest people have governments limiting how much money they can move around. I have an 827 credit rating and the bank has to put holds on my checks because of the “Patriot Act.”

New “nuclear powers” are added every few years. An obsolete form of national security, but it continues to spread. Who will be the first to pull the trigger? Pakistan? North Korea?

We, and other nations, spend bazillions on ‘military’ but most of it is still focused on a WW2 that is not going to return. Or on a Cold War that is just plain over.

And Bin Laden and North Korea continue to do whatever they want.

ECONOMY

The economy has been fragile for quite some time. “Recovery” seems to be an elusive thing. It may not arrive; at least in the sense of returning to the way things are.

People may well prosper in the future. I believe they will. But the Reagan and Clinton prosperity patterns are not coming back. We are moving forward into something new.

The big time bomb is China. They have huge problems. 300 million Chinese (the entire population of the USA) are seasonal itinerant migrant workers. Their environmental issues are like gathering national mudslides. Their core industries are rusting out, and only 8-10 percent annual GNP growth “keeps the doctor away.” The day that expansion slips below that level…

The effect of this on the global economy will be staggering.

Money, also, is making no sense. What is it anyway? We are constantly measuring something that is an abstraction at best. Money is a very old school way of value storage; kind of a reel-to-reel tape in an iPod financial era. Money is simply not keeping up–obviously.

And our global banking system can’t exist without huge infusions which the governments paying them can’t afford to make.

CONCLUSIONS

Archaeology shows us that institutions calcify and end up in layers of ‘digs.’

We may be facing revolutionary changes in our institutions. Many of us alive today may see these institutions (peacefully or otherwise) make way for new forms of completing the same tasks.

Even our cities may not survive.

Cities (bigger and bigger) have to get their food from farther and farther away.

They have to ‘trade’ something in return for being fed. Cities cannot feed themselves.

It used to be that cities, by concentrating people, could create innovation that they could sell to people who would feed them.

With technological and communication breakthroughs, people can live in Northern Alberta and create innovation in conversation with the whole world via technology. We don’t have to live in cities anymore.

De-urbanization (along with other things) killed the Roman Empire. Rome could no longer add value to the rural areas who were feeding the great city. People moved to the countryside and reorganized as local fiefdoms.

The 21st Century is going to be the most revolutionary since the 6th century.

Are you ready for it?

What are you doing to position yourself to prevail?

Come worship with us for two minutes!

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Christmas Eve worship at Robinwood Church in Huntington Beach, California, 2009

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Church activity levels in North America have always fluctuated.

This is not an essay on the global church, where exciting things have happened.

This is not an essay about Europe, which has its own dynamics vis-a-vis Christian activity.

North America’s ecclesial (church) vitality was always contrasted, in the past, with the “dead” church in Europe. It was also viewed as the “source” of the Global church.

American evangelical Christianity has always been seen as somewhat muscular, with the chiseled face of Billy Graham leading the parade.

It’s too early to tell, but there seems to be a shift in the weather, a change in the climate.

Church attendance appears to be experiencing the biggest drop in recent memory, and the financial climate of the country is contributing to a “perfect storm” which is putting the squeeze on a lot of congregations.

The Christian movement has also been strengthened (both economically and in terms of creativity), in the past, with a robust retail branch: books and music. The changes in technology have crippled these once mighty sectors of publishing, and you’ve certainly seen church bookstores close in your city.

Church leaders are in denial, and as is usually the case in such environments, point to the exceptions. There are big and growing churches all over the place. However, almost all of them are in areas of large population growth and suburban tract house cosnstruction.

National mainline church denominations, brought into being in the late 19th century by easy rail travel, are still holding voting conventions as if air travel and the internet had not yet been invented. Small wonder that the “votes” at these meetings get so much pushback from the grass roots. You can trace the decline curve of these archaic “railroad” organizations as an inverse line to that of air travel and video/TV/computer screens.

Roman Catholics have had their own problems, with the scandals and all. They have also lost huge numbers of young people, especially in the Northeast. Latinos will save the day, you might suggest. But half of the Latino Catholics who immigrate here ditch the RC boat and go Pentecostal or secular.

Evangelicals are the last of the three major groups to feel the pinch. A generation ago, if you had “contemporary worship” and small groups, your church would grow. If your theology was conservative, that helped too. Now, this “recipe” has reached diminishing returns. The church growth movement is over.

Here are some reasons I see. Please add your own to the comments. Let’s figure this out together.

  1. American Christians of the last generation did not have enough children. They fell in love with the pill. Half as many kids means…
  2. Many Asian immigrants (there are exceptions) are not Christian–this has diluted Christian cultural monopolies where they once existed.
  3. African American churches have virtually lost a whole generation of young men–totally unable to capture their imagination.
  4. Christian Conservatives are the least likely group to be able to dialog with a new generation raised in post-modernity.
  5. The evangelistic models of the past (e.g. the “bridge” illustration) no longer work in the current cultural climate.
  6. Contemporary Christian Music has failed, to some extent, to embrace both country and urban music. Most of it sounds very suburban.
  7. Parent/Child relationships are more strained than in the recent past, because there are less children and there is more “parenting per child.” You are perhaps familiar with the “helicopter parent” syndrome. Christian parents often equal non-Christian kids, for this reason.
  8. The first decade of the 21st century was hard on churches (and the country), economically.
  9. Churches have failed to embrace new media. Within a few months, I was able to establish more social media presence than all but a handful of the 20-30 thousand Lutheran pastors out there; with virtually no effort. Culture is being created out there and we are not present. See my essay on Pastors and New Media.
  10. Many churches are over-theological and resist open spiritual and supernatural practice. This new generation is drawn to the supernatural and we try to discourage it rather than channel it.

I don’t have a lot of answers, but this should set up a good discussion.

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Click on the above link to see a short video of an excptional idea from a donor at our church.

Instead of being charity-oriented only, shouldn’t churches also show confidence in the local business marketplace?

What are your thoughts?

American national church denominations are not as old as people think.

We have no real memory before national denominational corporations, because they started before any of us saw the light of day; but not long before…

They came into being with the advent of the railroad.

For instance, with Lutherans, we used to gather, more or less, in state-sized groups:

-The Pennsylvania Ministerium
-The Ohio Synod
-The Iowa Synod
-The Missouri Synod
-The Wisconsin Synod

etc. etc.

The railroad changed all that. It made a national bureaucracy and national gatherings (assemblies) possible and affordable. This new transportation method also created the big political party conventions.

Nothing lasts forever.

These statewide church groups merged into national groups which merged some more. Along with the “Peter Principle,” they advanced to their level of incompetency: they became politically and economically unmanageable.

There are many reasons for the demise of national church corporations:

1) Many, if not most young adults, prefer being part of cool indie projects to being “tools” of large corporations.
2) The mergers have created coalitions with incompatible viewpoints (sexuality, etc.)
3) Lutheran versions (more so than other brand names) of these corporations tend to operate as closed systems (tightly controlled roster, Lutheran seminary requirements, etc.).
4) These corporations, in efforts to hold things together and make structure and function coherent, have discouraged innovation by entrepreneurial types.
5) For whatever reason, these corporations have very strained relationships with their best practitioners.
6) Generational and ethnic diversity issues have become too heavy for the corporations to carry.

This does not mean that church brand names are a thing of the past. It just means that the national church corporation is unraveling before our eyes. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men will not be able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. There is nothing wrong with this and it should not be seen as a failure–every human organizational form has a life span.

This does not mean that faith families and connectional Christianity are dead.

Post-denominationalism is just a reality that is emerging. I want to clarify: this does not mean post-brand-name.

This means that the national corporations are failing and will continue to fail. There is no point in any effort to “renew” them.

I don’t know what the post-denominational world will look like. But I do know that:

-Railroad-era national conventions are a thing of the past.
-Coalitions will replace national corporations
-The effort to form smaller, new “theologically correct” corporations to replace national denominational corporations will fail if they follow the template of the national church corporation (parliamentary conventions, national office, official rosters, closed systems, etc.). That’s railroad thinking in a Twitter-world.
-The influential congregations within faith families will fill the leadership vacuum, along with the more innovative evangelical seminaries (Fuller, Asbury, Gordon-Conwell, Bethel, Luther, etc). Classic “div schools” (Chicago, Yale, Union) will become irrelevant to church life, as will “company shop” seminaries of dying corporations.
-A lot of people won’t be able to separate the faith family names (Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, etc.) from the national corporations. Some of those names might not survive because of this. Hard to say.
-National leaders with a clear life message and a New (Social) Media presence will rule the roost. If it doesn’t matter on Twitter, it doesn’t matter.

My advice:

1) Think both/and, not either/or. We are in a postmodern era.
2) Stop trying to renew the denominational corporations.
3) Find new ways of being connectional.
4) Resist the temptation to build up new theologically “correct” corporations which are infected with the same terminal virus.
5) Find ways to embrace the good things about your faith family and preserve them for the future forms which will emerge.
6) Take social media seriously. Very seriously.
7) Be willing to let people of color and Global South Christians take the lead. It’s their churches that are doing the best. The New African Churches are very post-denominational and organizationally effective.
8) This will take time; perhaps a whole generation. Practice patience.

It’s a brave new world. Let’s watch it emerge, together.

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