Sunday, November 11, 2007

Litmus Test for a Healthy House-Churcher

I recently came across a house-church website whose mission is to " inspire those whose spiritual hungers cannot be met in the conventional expressions of Christianity."

Woah there, Betsy. Who ever said anyone's spiritual hungers can be met "in the conventional expressions of Christianity?" I certainly have always known mine cannot. It's by every word that comes from His mouth. It's through my daily walk with Him, feeding on His Word.

Greg Dawkins and Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Church in Chicago have been surveying America's churches to find out whether the needs of the congregations are really being met. They found that for seekers, and new and growing Christians, the local church is doing it's job. But seasoned, mature believers are giving a different report: they are increasingly becoming dissatisfied--even dissillusioned with the local church.

Dawkins and Hybels diagnosed this problem with the fact that church leaders are not helping their people to become "self-feeders." I would agree with that. I think house churchers recognize this too, but it seems their way of dealing with it is to leave the local church and continue self-feeding.

Here's an idea: What if we "self-feeders" stayed in the nest and started feeding the baby birds (teaching them how to become self-feeders)? Oh I know God wants us to get dangerously on the edge of conventional thinking and leave the comfort and safety of reliance upon a pastor and the "system...." but try this on for size: What if we became so much "like a little child"--so "poor in spirit"--that we saw an opportunity in the local church to roll up our sleeves and get working, forgetting about whether or not our needs are being met? Just what if we started showing up to serve? I can't help but wonder if Willow's statistics would change.

None-the-less, I'm just as embarrassed by many aspects of conventional Christianity as anyone. Some days I come close to throwing in the Church towel and becoming a spiritual hippie. I'm glad people like Hybels and Dawkins (Barna and the like) are waking us up to the fact that the local church is failing miserably in a lot of ways. And I respect my brothers and sisters who choose to leave it. As for me, I choose to stay in for now, speak up and affect change. Someone's gotta!

(Sep. 2008 update) I'm not against house church. There are a lot of healthy house churches whose members are in it for the right reasons. But unfortunately, statistics show that many house churches are made up of disgruntled or disillusioned church members. Here's my litmus test for a "healthy house churcher:" Can you visit a local church at any time and feel at home with the Body of Christ? Or has it been years since you've darkened the door of a church? Is your speech about the "organization" laced with cynicism--or humility? Are your church-going friends uncomfortable bringing up the subject around you, fearing they'll be judged as being "still stuck in the institution?" Would your friends hesitate to invite you to hear a special speaker at their church--or do they shy away from the topic in order to keep peace?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

On Excellence in Churches

If my "Cheesy Church" post left a bad taste in your mouth, try a bite of this.

I've been having conversations with an individual on the subject of excellence. This person and I have in common that we appreciate excellence on all levels and in all areas of life. In a word, we both hate, well, cheesiness. Sloppiness. It bugs us both when things aren't carried out in a professional manner. And church is the place where we most desire to see things done right.

However my friend and I part company when it comes down to the extent that we value so-called excellence. He recently left his church in search for a place where the leadership has it all together. I wish him luck. Actually--I give him a year. My guess? The honeymoon will eventually be over and alas, he'll be on to greener grass.

(And don't get me wrong--he has good reason to move on. The things that drive him crazy in churches and among ministers annoy me to no end.)

As I've reflected on my friend's decision to go in search of church-done-his-way, I've been asking myself these questions: What am I really after in church? Why am I there? What is and should be my--our--sole purpose in going to church week in and week out?

These questions are answered loudly and clearly every time I see a watery-eyed, broken soul drinking in truth during the adult Sunday School class. Or light-bulbs coming on as I dramatize Bible stories for the children in Kids' Church. Every time someone makes the walk to the altar and reconnects with God I'm reminded of the answer: It's not about me. It's about them.

To the little old ladies that faithfully prepare a Sunday School lesson every week, to the young youth workers who exhaust their energies in planning outreaches, and to the busy mothers who invite visitors over for Sunday dinner--thank you. Thank you for placing people above professionalism in the things you value in church. It may never get better. Some things never change. The sermons may be dry, the stage may look tacky, and the restrooms may stink. But we're all just people trying our best to keep people a priority. I really think God is far more concerned about that than getting us to sharpen up our style.

If you want to talk professional--how about being professional in the way we love each other? Isn't it a rather sloppy love that says, "I love this church and this pastor until it no longer measures up to my standards of excellence?" Contrast that attitude with "professional agape": "I love this church and this pastor because they are God's people and He loves them too." And if you really want a PhD in God's kind of love, try repeating this to yourself until it gets in your heart: "I am no better." Now that's excellence.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Cheesy Church

When I was eighteen I had a friend whose father was just starting his own church. I remember the tiny metal warehouse he rented in which to hold services. I attended one of the very first meetings and wondered where those humble and small beginnings might lead him. When I visited my hometown last summer (eighteen years later) I had a chance to find out.

Imagine my astonishment when a parking attendant led me in front of a multi-million dollar, several thousand member, state-of-the-art facility complete with a cafe, giant TV monitors and a Nickelodeon-like children's program.

As the service progressed and I took in the wonder of it all, I asked myself, What were the keys to success here? What is the difference between this and what I see so much of elsewhere--"cheesy church?"

Of course there are entire books devoted to the subject of how to grow a church, but if I might offer my puny opinion, here's what I came up with:

1. Progressive worship: If you sing modern worship choruses, keep them relatively current. For years I've seen churches take good songs and sing the life right out of them (I've gotten all I'm going to get out of "Come, Now is the Time to Worship"). And for the love of all that's holy, please don't ditch the hymns.

2. Relevant preaching: People that attend church on Sunday mornings have real life issues. If the message doesn't hit home, home is where they'll stay next time.

3. Excellence: It's a shame that secular entertainers outdo the church in this area. It seems that you have to look to the world for things like: a professional sound, an attractive website, and everything else on down to clean restrooms and floors. If we don't excel in these simple areas, why should people expect us to excel in the more important ones?

4. Authenticity: I've come to realize that authentic Christianity--not "Churchianity"--is what people, especially the younger generation, are craving. We need to ditch the fluff and stick with real stuff. Bake sales, attendance books, members-only mail boxes, floral arrangements, panty hose, offering plate pitches, and long announcements were nice back in the day. But there is a body emerging within the Body that is increasingly being turned off by such plethora. They're tired of Cheesy Church. (The pastor of one church I visited actually wore a suit that was yellow with three-inch wide brown stripes. No kidding.)

Speaking of authentic Church, I recently visited a church that I believe just may be in the beginning stages of what I described earlier. I hope they're looking for a bigger building....

Here's what I experienced at the Vineyard Church of Ithaca ( I walked into a gym bustling with a very diverse crowd of mostly college age kids. The service began with a half hour of coffee, donuts and mingling (they had me right there). The lead pastor then promptly began his teaching. I was expecting some kind of pre-show, so I had to scramble to get out my notebook and scarf down my french cruller. The message was relevant and applicable. I took notes for the first time in years. And then we worshipped for a while. The band was simple, but they sounded good. The songs were fresh.

We visitors were smiled at, greeted warmly and given a gift bag (picked up at a table) containing a professional music cd and the book The Case for Faith (perfect for college town intellects). We weren't forced to stand and tell our life story. We were allowed to simply enjoy. And enjoy it I did.

And the best part? Visitors were encouraged (in the bulletin) to fill out the church's on-line visitor survey. Wow! I've always felt every church should have a suggestion box.

One final and very important note: Don't assume I'm equating "success" with large numbers, talent or high tech equipment. There are plenty of churches that have all these and more, and yet are failing miserably in weightier matters such as preaching the truth and sincerely caring for the flock. By the same token, there are those small, humble gatherings that offer what I consider the finest in authentic Christianity. I belong to one such group--about eight of us who meet regularly to pray with and edify each other. We've become a family that bears each other's burdens. A replica of the early Church. Success!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Say No to Crack!

I am about to become an instant prude—a totally uncool, narrow-minded, old-fashioned biddy. It’s been nice knowing you.

The fast-approaching hot weather compels me to finally say what I’ve always kept in the confines of my home and discussed with only my husband. To be blunt, I hate immodesty.

Oh brother, I hear you groan. She’s one of those.

Actually, I’m one of many who are hesitant to voice what we wives have been thinking and feeling about the issue. And that is this: Please cover your cleavage, loosen your shirts, lengthen your shorts, and say no to “crack.”

I know you’ve heard and been turned off by pleas like this before, but perhaps no one has ever explained why it is and should be an issue—especially for Christian women in the church. Simply put, our men—our husbands, sons, worship leaders, pastors, elders, nephews and brothers—are human. It’s not that they are perverts and need to redirect their eyes. And it’s not that we wives are insanely jealous and insecure about our own bodies. The fact of the matter is, normal--even Christian--men are visual. God made them that way. And he gave them wives to look at half naked--not you.

When my husband and I are in Christian circles, he's been known to mutter about scantily clad women, “Put on some clothes.” He’s speaking for all the guys. It’s hard enough when they’re out there during the week, constantly fighting the temptation to “look.” Church should be a safe haven for them. Women should respect their brothers in Christ in the way they dress. And they should respect their friends’ marriages. If you think my husband has “a problem,” read For Women Only, by Shauntie Feldhan. You might be surprised at how men are wired.

Yes, there are those men who do have a particularly serious problem in this area. Put yourself in the place of their wives. You come into church hoping your husband finds deliverance from his addiction to porn. Instead, there’s one more hindrance in the row in front of you—the lady who doesn’t respect you enough to dress decently. She worships God impressively, while she makes her brother stumble.

It never ceases to amaze and sadden me that, while we'd never think of offering a beer to a recovering alcoholic, we don't think twice about tempting men with something infinitely more difficult to resist--a glance at our boobs, butt, thighs and belly.

On behalf of all of my brothers in Christ, let’s dress to help—not hinder them. I’ve been guilty too. I hate throwing out that cute red halter top. But I’ve got a responsibility to our men—and to please God.

You can be sure I'll take a lot of flack for this post--from Christians.

Oh, and check out what the guys have to say at

( For those freedom-flaunting individuals who embrace an "all-that-matters-is-love" philosophy, I challenge you with this: Look your best friend in the eye and tell her you're playing by the Golden Rule when you knowingly lure her husbands eyes to your skimpy-clothed body. I dare ya.)

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Rules for the Christian Game of Life

For the Beginner:

If offended, do not react.

Player may craft a brilliantly sarcastic email, but may not click "send."

Player may not use masterful verbiage to put the offender in his place. To do so will immediately disqualify the player.

Player must be genuinely kind to the offender, behaving as though the offense never occured.

Intermediate Level:

Player may not casually mention the offense to team members.

Player must be willing to take the initiative in seeking restoration. 

Player may not require confession or owning of the mistake before forgiveness occurs.

Player must be willing to appear foolish enough to believe excuses and accept denials, and dumb enough to remain mute.

Player must pray fervently and sincerely for a blessing on the head of the offender.

Advanced Play:

Player must esteem the offender as better than herself.

Player must actively seek out opportunities to bless the offender.

Player must love and cherish the offender as one of her own team members.

Player must let the offender win.

(I wished I'd read the rules before I bought the game.)

If anyone competes,...he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. II Tim. 2:5

My Final Word on the House Church

I have several friends who house church and I know would love to see me leave the man-made, "non-New Testament" institution called the local church. They figure, as I do, that my personality would better fit into the more intimate, freestyle setting of a house church. They're right--it would. I love authenticity, tend to rebel against tradition, and am a sucker for letting down one's hair and getting real.

But I'm still stuck behind the four walls, putting up with nonsense like membership, offering plates, annual business meetings, heirarchy, nylon stockings, the telling clock on the back wall, dirty politics, endless pleas for giving more of my time, the programs and agendas...on and on it goes. And let's not forget those dear individuals Christ has placed in the Body to constantly test and try our character. Honestly sometimes House Church looks real good. But there's just one problem. I'm in love.

No, not with one of the elders--I'm in love with the Body of Christ. I can't get enough of it. For some reason, every single time I come away from a church meeting I feel pumped, charged, and ready to go face my world again. Just from being with them. Granted, it's not the ideal setting condusive to the "koinonia" house churchers celebrate. There's a lot I'd like to change. But somehow just being present and looking out of the corner of my eye at people so different from me sincerely worshipping the same God is enough to keep me coming back. It energizes me. I'm just not ready to trade that in for the luxury of sitting in a cozy living room surrounded by like-minded people, feeling smug because we do church right. I left a "group think" long ago. I'll never go back.

I guess I see my relationship with the local church as being kind of like a healthy marriage. There will always be the little things (and big things) that drive me crazy. But the fact of the matter is, I'm in it for love. For better or for worse. In sickness and in health. The organized church of today is sick in a lot of ways. I happen to believe that I have something to offer. If Jesus could go to the synagogue (talk about man-made tradition!) day after day because He knew He had something to offer, I figure I should follow His example. Funny--He never house churched. He must have decided, as I have, "if you can't fight 'em, join 'em."
Don't badger me with quibbles about the greek meaning of "ekklesia." I'm too busy getting myself ready for Sunday morning. There are lots of needy people there, and someone just may need a word of encouragement.

Inside the Mind of a Controlling Woman

So I'm at this wedding reception and I go to get a drink, only to realize they've run out of beverages. "Why do I always find myself in these situations?" I mutter. "Am I the only organized person on the face of the earth?" I look around and see that no one is rushing to remedy the problem at hand and decide it's once again time to get involved.

I hate this! Part of me chides, "Let it go, Mary. The world won't end and you won't die if this party goes on without anything to drink." Then I notice the bride sipping from the bottom of her wine glass. I look at my watch. Three hours left--to dance, socialize, and get thirsty. I can't let this happen. I suck it up and casually stride over to her mother, the hostess. I kindly offer to "help" replenish the beverage station. She gives me the you're-only-a-guest-here stare and I flit away red-faced. For a moment I'm tempted to become part of the fresh floral arrangments and keep my mouth shut. But then, I wouldn't get watered.

My reputation is again superceded by the needs of others and I march with determination toward my son. Not only is he well respected (unlike us "controllers") but he's got connections. I explain the problem only to hear him say he'd rather not be bothered with it at the moment. This time I perservere; he knows what I'm all about. And I know he's my son and I'm his mother. In a few moments I'm giving orders to the attendants. They scurry about without question as guests look on, including the hostess, wondering who I think I am. I don't care. We need drinks.

Long story short, the bridegroom was quoted in the Cana Times for serving the best wine in Galilee at his wedding. My name was never mentioned, nor did anyone ever thank me for saving the day and the wedding. Do I care? Never! It was my Son's doings, anyway. He did tell me later that they needed me. That was enough. But I do hate to control. Really.

(This story adapted from the Gospel of John, chapter two.)

Hello, Halloween!

I love living in the country most of the time. There's one day of the year, however, that I always regret the rural seclusion. It's Halloween. If ever I want to be in a residential neighborhood full of traffic and people, it's on October 31.

Yet year after year I observe the same strange phenomenon among evangelicals: The people who travel across oceans to reach the lost are the same ones who shut themselves behind closed curtains on the one night of the year that scores of unsaved walk by their darkened doorway. The people who preach on city corners and pass out tracts are the same ones who lock their doors to a spiritually hungry multitude that knocks, literally holding their hands open for whatever we might give them--if only we were available.

Would somebody please tell me why Christians would rather turn off their lights and hole up in the basement during the greatest ministry opportunity to ever come to their neighborhood? While you're coming up with the answer, I'm getting ready to go trick-or-treating. Yep. Taking my kids and going to collect gobs of sugary junk. If they won't come to me, I'm going to them. For me, it's good-bye country, hello city. Good-bye selfishness and legalism, hello love and liberty. I've got my costume on, including feet that are shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace. One never knows what conversations might ensue; if I can touch one life with a word in season to the weary, it's worth every cavity and potential pass of judgment from my non-celebrating friends.

Besides all that (for those that would label me an opportunist), I just want to be where the people are. I once read of a young carpenter who felt the same way. This is the main reason I take my family trick-or-treating.

If you want to join me, I'll be walking around Elmira's West side with Cleopatra, Pocahontas, a ladybug and Snow White.

(It is with fear and trembling that I have written this post. One of my pet peeves is when Christian's offend others with their so-called "freedom in Christ." Jesus said that it would be better for me if a millstone were tied around my neck than to make a little one stumble. So listen up, you young'uns still living under your parents' roof: Don't even think about using this post to con Mom and Dad into letting you do the Halloween thing. In a few years, you'll have your own family and will be able to make that decision yourself. For now, if you go against your parents' authority, you go against God. Be afraid. Be very afraaaaaaaaaid!) ;)

The Visitor

Church goers at Southside Alliance were not expecting to see a homeless woman in the parking lot that Sunday in September. Charlotte Frazier herself wondered how she ended up in such dire straits. She hadn't eaten for a whole day. She stunk. Her feet were wet and cold from wandering through rain puddles. But this was a church. Surely she and charity would meet here....

The first vehicle arrived for Sunday school. It was Jack in his slick SUV. Charlotte responded to his hearty, "Good Mornin!" with, "You got a dollah? I wanna get me a Egg McMuffin. I ain't eat since yesterdee." Jack instantly produced a five dollar bill and slapped it into Charlotte's hand.

"Thank you very much," the astonished beggar whispered.

More church members arrived. Charlotte casually made her way over to anyone who she suspected might show some compassion. Peter, a teenager, invited her in and gave her a dollar. Sue, a classy, professional looking woman took the time to welcome her. Bill asked her so many questions she began to feel nervous. She wondered if there was a catch. No one had ever showed that much interest in her pitiful existence. Then there was Mike. He had a preschooler in tow. Charlotte let him off the hook and walked the other way. But to her amazement there he was, offering her a hand to cross the street. What was with this place?

Eventually she heard the sound of music--the worship service had begun. Dared she accept the invitations to go in? Knowing she had nothing to lose and the hope that the unconditional love she met in the parking lot would be found inside, Charlotte stepped into the foyer of the church. She made a bold stride down the center aisle and sat on the front row. A woman behind her leaned forward and squeezed her arm reassuringly.

The worship progressed and the congregation sang these words:

King of all days you stepped down into darkness, 
Opened my eyes, let me see 
Beauty that made this heart adore you
Hope of a life spent with you 

Charlotte inched her way to the altar and knelt with her face in her hands. "Here I am to worship," she sang softly. Immediately she felt an arm around her. "Did you know you're beautiful?" the kind woman asked.

When Bette and Charlotte were seated the pastor choked out a sermon on loving the unlovely. Then he closed with an announcement. "I'd like to introduce a regular member of our congregation to you. Her name is Faith Bogdan. Faith, will you come to the front please?"

And I, Faith--Charlotte Frazier--walked sheepishly to the microphone as an astonished and befuddled congregation looked on.

I tearfully thanked them for reaching out. They had not played church; they had been the church. The New Testament writer warns us to entertain strangers, because they could be angels in disguise. I'll be the first to admit I'm no angel. But if you see Charlotte Frazier in your church parking lot next Sunday, be the church. I assure you that Charlotte--real or disguised--will be comforted and encouraged.

Lessons from Narnia

Today the main floor of my log cabin is suffering from housekeeper's neglect. The carpet is coated with Polly Pockets and cracker crumbs. Dirty sheets make the air stale. A mother's work never ends....

The messy rooms beckon, but I choose to stick to the afternoon reading routine. Anna, Sarah and I sink into the couch along with last night's popcorn kernels. I thumb through The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to find the chapter in which Aslan is killed.
I like this classic because it takes all the work out of teaching the gospel to my kids. The parallels are obvious . We are falling in love with Jesus all over again through Lewis' portrayal of the lion that's "not safe--but good."

Understanding dawns in my girls' eyes as I read about Aslan and the White Witch striking up a bargain to let punishment-deserving Edmund go free. I sense their sorrow as Susan and Lucy follow their beloved lion friend through the midnight forest to the Stone Table. There his devilish enemies bind and shear him, mocking and jeering at how lamb-like the once fierce King of Beasts has become. I hold back tears and read that Aslan could have easily bitten off a wolves's head while they muzzled with one great roar he could have sent his torturers running...And about the damage that might have been done with one blow from his giant paw.
But he didn't rescue Himself.

I ask the girls why Aslan would allow such a thing. They understand he is giving himself over to the death that Edmund was due, according to the Law of the Deep Magic. Blood must be shed for the traitor to go free.

I close the book momentarily and look into the faces of my young daughters. "Girls, we are Edmund."

Little Anna gasps and proclaims with sudden revelation, "How Jesus must love me!"

She rests her head on my shoulder, reflecting. I notice the sunbeams streaming through the window and think about gardening chores lost to yet another afternoon indoors. My mind drifts back to the dirty bedrooms I could be transforming. The achievements I won't soon realize, the careers I may never enjoy.
I turn again to watch my girls' watery, sober eyes as they consider Aslan...Jesus. How He loves them.

Quiet, you dusty shelves. Hush, you lofty ambitions. I am content in this moment. And most fulfilled.