Monthly Archives: August 2011

Quote of the Week

“If I asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” - Henry Ford

Boogity! In Appreciation of Pastor Joe Nelms

If you have an internet connection (and I’m taking a stab that you do) it’s likely that you’ve seen this prayer by Pastor Joe Nelms before a NASCAR race in Nashville.

It’s become an internet sensation, getting songified by the Gregory Brothers (warning: it’s unbelievably catchy),

From this spawned further versions in Gregorian chant and hip hop. It’s got so deeply in my head this week that I can’t begin a prayer “Heavenly Father” without hearing a Tennessee accent in my head, nor end a prayer with “Amen” without thinking “Boogity boogity boogity.” I write this post as a kind of exorcism – perhaps I can get it out of my head by getting it into yours…

It’s an amazing scene. A pastor is asked to lead a crowd of 170,000 people in prayer, and he comes out with that! What was he thinking? We don’t know. But we do know:

(1) The prayer was surely “inspired” by this hilarious/outrageous scene from the movie Talladega Nights (warning: unsuitable for children, unsuitable for parents).

(2) The philosophical phrase “boogity boogity boogity” was the trademark of legendary NASCAR commentator Darrell Waltrip, who marked the start of each race with “Boogity, boogity, boogity, let’s go racing boys!”

(3) Interviewed since the prayer, Pastor Nelms stated that he didn’t receive a corporate cent for name-dropping thanks for Dodges, Toyotas, Fords, Sunoco Racing Fuels, GM Performance Technology, R07 Engines and Goodyear Tires (“which bring performance and power to the track”). He told the Christian Post that he was only trying to show the joy Christians have in Jesus Christ. “Our whole goal was to open doors that would not otherwise be open … There are a lot of folks who think churches are all serious people who never enjoy life and [who have] just a list of rules.” He added, “We who have been saved by Christ, we know that living has just begun. When I accepted Christ, that’s when I really learned what joy was.

So was Pastor Nelms’ prayer a silly stunt, a mindless sell-out to consumerism, and a mockery of Christian faith, as some have decided? Or was it a fine piece of contextualized mission, proclaiming in the middle of a hyper-commercialized setting that God is the giver of all good things? Was his ridiculous language (to most people) actually full of meaning to that particular sub-culture?

My point is this: We don’t know. And it’s hard to tell. That’s the (often unexpected) price of contextualization – the fierce criticism of quick-to-judge Christians towards whom the ministry is not aimed. It reminds me of “He eats with tax-collectors and sinners.” Those who step out to name Christ outside the church deserve at least our admiration for being there and having a go. To Pastor Joe and others like him I say Boogity boogity boogity!

A Laughable Gospel?

[I was called upon at the last minute to write an article for PRAC magazine about the use of humour in mission. I dashed out to the half-bakery for some ideas. I thought 'It's hard to be funny under pressure,' and decided to use that as the first line. PRAC mag by Crossover is (otherwise) good - keep an eye out for it!]

It’s hard to be funny under pressure. Hey, it’s hard enough for some of us to be funny at all. So here’s a helpful little column to tell you that you absolutely must be funny if you are to reach Australians at all. Must. Or there’s no hope for you. You’ll need to minister in some other country – like Switzerland or Canberra.

So no pressure.

Humour in reaching Australians is important for three reasons, four of which I’ll outline here:

It’s disarming. And that’s pretty important to connect with Aussies at all, most of whom are increasingly guarded against Christianity. They expect us to be Pharisees, though they use other terms. So I heard of one church that put on its sign “Smithfield Baptist Church: Surprisingly Uncreepy”. Now there’s a motto that beats “Because You’re Going To Die One Day” hands down. Wish we’d thought of it before all that printing.

When you make someone laugh, you’re a friend, not an enemy. Unless they’re laughing at you.

It’s interesting. So many Australians live lives of desperate boredom. Tuning out from the millions of banal messages they are bombarded with daily, they search and scan even the pages of PRAC magazine looking for a half-decent column. (That bit was just to see if it gets past the editor.) When the medium is the message, we cannot afford to dress up the gospel in the form of a university lecture any longer. She’s worthy of something more eye-catching.

We intuitively do this in children’s ministry – make it fun! But little do we realize that adults’ attention span is just as short – they’re just better at pretending to look interested! On the inside they are climbing the walls. This is why I engineered a never-ending packet of Tim Tams, and have concealed accomplices under stages, in air-conditioning ducts, and baptisteries to make surprise entries. It’s also a fun way of torturing my claustrophobic friends. Don’t accuse me of stunts; I get others to do the dangerous bits.

It’s absurd. When you’re filling the bathtub with custard, it’s hard to keep the camels from escaping. Just think about that.

It brings perspective. This is actually how humour works. All good jokes (so I’m told) start off as serious stories, and have a surprising ending that suddenly puts the rest of the story in a new perspective. This is precisely what the gospel does. Particularly in a post-Christian culture, we are working right at the base level of paradigm, of perspective. We are saying “Ha! What you’ve thought was so important is not important at all, and what you dismissed is actually crucial!”

Even in these increasingly dark and worrying times, Christians should have a glint in their eye – a twinkle that says, like the Dread Pirate Roberts in The Princess Bride, “I know something you don’t know.” There is a different ending to what people expect. The gospel brings the laughter of people who have found riches only when they struck rock bottom, and people who won a prize only when they finally stopped striving for it.

Humour in hard times can be like rain in a desert. It’s for times like that that Eric Love and I wrote this song, promoting what we call “The Christian Swear Word” (‘Maranatha’ means ‘Come Lord Jesus’)

 

When your hammer slips and lands on the wrong nail
When you try to catch the final bus and fail
When your washing is exported by a gale
When you do your best, but all to no avail

When it all seems too much and you just want to weep
And you don’t know whether you’re Arthur or Martha
Don’t say ‘crikey’ or ‘blimey’ or ‘bother’ or [BEEP]
There’s a better word for it- say ‘Maranatha’

In the nightly news a litany of woe
And there’s nowhere in the world that’s safe to go
When disaster lands the poor a further blow
And relief is far too distant and too slow

When it all seems too much and you just want to weep
And you don’t know whether you’re Arthur or Martha
Don’t say ‘crikey’ or ‘blimey’ or ‘bother’ or [BEEP]
There’s a better word for it- say ‘Maranatha’

When the Lord says He’s preparing us a place
And a day when we will see Him face to face
And reward for those who persevere with grace
Be assured, it’s not just talk, but it’s the case

When it all seems too much and you just want to weep
And you don’t know whether you’re Arthur or Martha
Don’t say ‘crikey’ or ‘blimey’ or ‘bother’ or [BEEP]
There’s a better word for it- say ‘Maranatha’

 

But as I say, it’s hard to be funny under pressure, week by week. It can’t be cranked out. It’s the fruit borne naturally from deep roots of peace and joy in our wonderful, outrageous, hilarious God, who loves Aussies and whom Aussies will love.

The End of Church Planting?

In his blog “Reclaiming the Mission”, David Fitch recently posted this provocative article: STOP FUNDING CHURCH PLANTS and Start Funding Missionaries: a Plea to Denominations. The all-caps are his, and yes, it’s a provocative shout-out. The essence of his point is that it’s too difficult and too expensive and missionally ineffective to plant classic suburban congregations based around an entrepreneurial leader that will be financially self-sufficient in three years.

He suggests that instead, missionary teams of 3-4 leaders or leader-couples be sent to under-churched (often poorer) contexts, supported only short term and with only housing allowance and health insurance, with a view to a long-term (10 year) missionary engagement with the context that is supported by tent-making (all leaders having secular employment in the context).

This is a trend that is already strongly emerging in Australia – I see several groups of my friends doing precisely that (though usually with no financial support from the denomination). There is a LOT to like about Fitch’s recommendation. But like all provocateurs, he over-reaches a little. First, in thinking that this is not already happening (Start funding missionaries? What a new idea!), secondly in dismissing the entrepreneurial approach as impossible – some can still pull it off; and thirdly in considering this the end of church planting: He is, in my view, suggesting a more effective and affordable approach that still ends in sustainable Christian community.

In Christianity Today, Jason Hood writes an excellent, appreciative and balanced response to Fitch which is just as much worth a read: The End of Church Planting?

What I like about this conversation is that it is grounded in the realities of practice. What can we actually do – given the current limitations on our resources and the climate of the context to which we’re sent? I wonder whether churches with capital tied up in trust-deeds that demand it be used for “a place of worship” could buy houses to accommodate house-church planters, er, missionaries?!

Do read both articles – and then I’m very interested in your view!

Quote of the Week

The value of identity of course is that so often with it comes purpose.  - Richard R Grant

Do we see ourselves as Sacred Agents?

Structural Engineering for Churches

In 1943 Winston Churchill said “First we shape our buildings, and then they shape us.” How true. Politicians who moved from the cramped and crowded Old Parliament House to the new billion dollar House soon commented on how the building changed the politics. Members not having to share offices was a relief at first – and a good thing – but they soon noticed the reduction in collaboration and informal negotiation.

True also for churches. But I’m not here speaking about church buildings – I’d like to discuss the structure of churches. For some this might be a boring (or on the other hand stressful) topic, but I see how readily we can end up serving structures that are meant to serve us.

Planning a constitution or structure for a church should be done thoughtfully and prayerfully. It can be like designing an aeroplane – it needs to be both strong and light. Too heavy, and a church will struggle to really get off the ground and fly.  A church bogged down in committees and meetings and multiple layers of accountability quickly takes it eye off the ball of disciple-making. But if church structures are not strong enough, then poor accountability can lead to a low-discipline, anything-goes culture that sets a church up for dissipation at best and scandal at worst. Neither soars. Neither takes people from A to B. One is stuck on the ground, the other crashes.

We see this in the Simple-Church vs Complex-Church debate. Over-reacting to each other doesn’t help. We need to find structures that are optimal and that serve the mission that has been entrusted to us. It can be done, but it takes real wisdom and maturity to look for balance. Here are a couple of suggestions:

(1) If your structure takes stress from both sides, it’s a sign of balance. That is to say, if as a leader you’re taking heat from some who think the structure is too loose, and some who think it’s too tight, that might be a very good thing. If your church structure is only comfortable for mavericks, or only for actuaries and auditors, then I’d say you haven’t hit the mark. But what potential there is in a church that can hold both! A sense of adventure combined with attention to due process. Safe adventurers go further.

(2) As we move from a “building” image of the church (so 20th century) to an organic image such as  “extended family” (so 1st), we must realize two things: Firstly, organisms have structure – they’re sometimes quite complex! Throwing out structure and planning doesn’t get you to organic church. But secondly, the structures of organisms change as it grows. Buildings are designed to remain. Organisms to grow and multiply. So is there a dynamic in our thinking about church structures? Or do we still feel that the constitution we’re writing has to last for 50 years? A good constitution anticipates its own updating and allows a clear process for doing so.

Missionaries walk a tight-rope. To be in the world and not of it. Lesslie Newbigin put it this way: “Every missionary path has to find the way between these two dangers: irrelevance and syncretism. And if one is more afraid of one danger than the other, one will certainly fall into the opposite.” We need structures that keep us on the path.

What’s been your experience of church structures? For interest & comment, here’s my home church’s 1-page constitution, and here’s an outdated 14-page model constitution & by-laws I’m about to work on updating.

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