Even though we are notoriously good at partnering with nature to fill any vacuum in our over-scheduled lives, we are being helped in our discipline by a world that is moving at a slower pace.
First a confession: I totally stole my title from a tweet by Andy Crouch. As soon as I read it, I started laughing and said “Exactly!” With everything that is going on with COVID-19 it is easy to forget that we are still in the season of Lent… but we shouldn’t! Embracing Lent might just help many of us through these next few weeks. Let me explain.
It really is fascinating looking at how fast everything is developing with this Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic (yes, it is officially a pandemic now). I just glanced at my last post and I find it hard to believe that it was only 15 days ago that I wrote it! We are now in an almost complete shutdown. Schools are closed, sports events are cancelled, restaurants and bars are closed (except takeout), no large gatherings are allowed, worship is going online for all churches, recreation facilities are closed, the US-Canada border is closed, and on and on. It seems like every day we get news of more closures and restrictions. San Francisco has already issued a “shelter in place” order, and we may see that here too before this is all over (before I could even finish this article I saw a news alert that ALL Californians are being told to say home!).
Life as we know it has come to a screeching halt. Those of us that can work from home are doing it, some are still able to work with modifications, but many are simply staying at home. There is a bit of novelty to it that is… dare I say… fun? But we all know that feeling won’t last if this goes on for weeks or months. And beyond that, there is the very real concern that those we know and love could become sick or even die. And even if it isn’t someone that is close to us, we know that there are many in this world who are suffering at this moment.
I need to add a quick note here: There are those for whom this time is very much the opposite of a slowdown. Our health care workers and first responders (and others too) are busier than ever and may even be working to the point of exhaustion. This post is not primarily for them – I recognize that they are in a much different place. This post is directed at those who find themselves in a kind of “quarantine.”
So back to Lent. How can this ancient Christian practice help us now? The season of Lent is a time when many of us choose to “fast” in some form or another. We choose to cut things out of our life in order to create more space for prayer – more space for the Holy Spirit to move and speak into our lives. But now we have things being cut out of our life that are not by our choice. Even though we are notoriously good at partnering with nature to fill any vacuum in our over-scheduled lives, we are being helped in our discipline by a world that is moving at a slower pace. The way things are looking right now, for many of us the adventure of our week may be going to the supermarket or the hardware store. This lack of control can be unsettling, but it can also be a blessing. We can look at all of this as a curse, or as a potential gift.
My two boys are now 14 and 16. The way things are going I have no doubt that they will be telling stories for the rest of their life about the “coronavirus pandemic of 2020.” I hope that some day they will be old men sharing the story and their kids and grandkids will roll their eyes at the beginning of the well-worn tale. But what tale will they tell? Right now we all hope that it will not be a tale of sickness and death. But I also hope that it will not be a tale of fear and insecurity, or a tale simply of lost weeks and months of life.
The decisions that we all make right now determine what this break in routine will be. So why not embrace the “fast?” Take the time to pray more and wade more deeply into scripture. Look for the opportunities that come as friends and neighbors need a helping hand or a listening ear. Be present with our families, reach out in love to the lonely. Read some of those books that we have been putting off. Plant a garden. Take a walk. Avoid the temptation to make this about productivity and instead look for joy and peace. And if suffering comes? Well, that too is part of Lent, is it not? Jesus Christ suffered and died so that we might have life.
How do we as modern Christians respond to something like the Coronavirus outbreak?
Right now we are in the midst of another global epidemic – this one from a novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). Nobody knows how far this COVID-19 disease will spread, or how bad it will be, but it has arrived now in our community here in Washington and has already caused some deaths. Most likely it will be similar to other epidemics we’ve experienced in recent decades, and it will be a cause for legitimate concern, will peak, will wain, and in the end will probably cause less deaths than the Flu this winter. But right now we don’t know, and it is in that space of unknowing that fear breads.
As I write this, though I have not seen it myself, I am told that there has been a run on the grocery stores, hardware stores, warehouse stores, etc. People are stocking up and hoarding food, hand sanitizers, surgical masks, and apparently toilet paper (I admit I don’t get that last one: “It might be the end of the world! You know what we really need in order to survive? Toilet paper!). The stock market has fallen about 10%. I wouldn’t be surprised, as has happened in past times of crisis, that we will also hear that gun sales have spiked this week and that generators are sold out. There is a sense of “Every man for himself!” that seems to be spreading through the nation. As a pastor I wonder: what should a Christian response to this crisis look like?
This is not the first time that the world has faced an epidemic and it won’t be the last. In fact, this may turn into a “pandemic” before it is all over. We are, after all, much more connected globally than at any other time in the world’s history. Lately I have been reading through Jerry Sittser’s book Resilient Faith: How the Early Christian “Third Way” Changed the World. In it, he describes how the response of Christians to a plague in the Roman Empire in AD 250 had a big impact on their witness to the love of Jesus Christ (146). Scholars estimate that up to one fifth of the population of the Roman Empire died during this plague! It was so bad, that people began leaving bodies and dying people littering the streets. One biographer from the time wrote “All were shuddering, fleeing, shunning the contagion, impiously exposing their own friends, as if with the exclusion of the person who was sure to die of the plague, one could exclude death itself also” (Sittser 147). But while many were fleeing and hunkering down and looking after only themselves, the Christian response was different. They began to wash, wrap, and bury the bodies.
Not only did these early Christians take care of the dead, but they also took care of the sick. While they had no understating of germs and viruses like we do today, they knew that if they cared for the sick, then they were likely to get sick too, and perhaps even die themselves. They also knew, that if cared for, some of the sick would survive. Their theology developed to be something like this: If we Christians step in and care for a sick and dying person, we may be able to take their sickness from them, prevent death, and take their place in sickness and in death as Jesus has taken ours. Some miracles of healing did happen – the Spirit was at work – but the larger miracle was in the way the Christian Church became knows as the one community that would care for and love those who had nowhere else to turn – even if it was a risk to their own life and comfort. So I wonder… do we still carry this same faith and witness today?
I’m certainly not suggesting that we Christians need to begin rushing to put ourselves in harms way of this disease. We live in a different world with different ways of caring for and managing an epidemic. However, I do know that our response should be to give rather than to hoard, to live in hope rather than fear, to seek the welfare of others ahead of our own, and to be people of courage, hospitality, faith, and love. Rather than hunker down and bar the doors, we are called to reach out in the love of Jesus Christ.
“…for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”
It is like we are standing in waste-deep water on the beach, but rather than withstanding one wave, catching our breath, and then fighting off another, we are instead facing a massive tsunami that is way over our head and unrelenting!
On a recent vacation I had the opportunity to take some surf lessons on the beach. I grew up skateboarding, I’m a descent wakeboarder, and I can snowboard, so I didn’t think it would be all that difficult. And I was right – once I actually stood up on the board, it wasn’t all that hard. But getting up, that was the challenge! And not only getting up, but getting back out to catch the next wave! My patent instructor would stand in about 6′ of water, hold the board for me while I got onto my stomach on the board, and then tell me when to start paddling for the wave and let me go. I would make an attempt to stand, sometimes successfully, and then jump off quickly before I got too shallow, or fall off and tumble into the shallows. Then I would turn around and walk/swim the board back out through wave after crashing wave to my instructor. It was exhausting! I longed to simply get up on that board and take a long ride on the wave. I appreciate wakeboarding a lot more now. Give me a boat!
I read a fabulous Verge Network article today by Hugh Halter called “Cheap Church: Bi-Vocational Living.” In the article he discusses many issues that I have also been thinking about in terms of the way that churches are changing, and the challenge of leading a congregation in light of those changes. Some of these changes are financial, some are cultural, some are structural, and some are spiritual. And of course, all of these changes are interconnected. Major shifts in just one of these areas would be challenge enough for the Church, but right now all of these areas are changing at one time, and changing rapidly. It is like we are standing in waste-deep water on the beach, but rather than withstanding one wave, catching our breath, and then fighting off another, we are instead facing a massive tsunami that is way over our head and unrelenting! Some people see this happening and say that the Church in the U.S. will simply drown. Others say, “let’s get the surfboard!” Here are some brief thoughts on some of these challenges.
Emerging generations of Christians in the U.S. don’t give financially in the same way as previous generations. I’m not sure if I have read any definitive statistics on whether they give more or less, but I do know that they give differently. Hugh points out in his article that they prefer to give to things that have “meaning” – either something that they perceive to be making a big difference in the lives of others or something that gives them personal satisfaction. Compare this to previous generations that gave out of a sense of “loyalty” to an organization, and often in the church out of spiritual obligation to “tithe” (give 10%). This means that even if these young Christians are official members of a church they are probably not interested in giving most of their charitable donations to the church – especially since paying for staff, buildings, and utilities doesn’t check the “meaning” box.
The western church’s business model based on the expectation of growth, optimism, and promise of financial blessing has proven to be a consumer nightmare.
– Hugh Halter, Cheap Church
Churches of all kinds are feeling this pinch in their budgets and wondering how to move forward. Some dig harder into old habits, requiring members to pledge and running ongoing “stewardship campaigns” that are often thinly-veiled manipulation campaigns using modern fundraising practices laced with scripture. Others have adapted by allowing people to give to specific causes within the congregation (thus meeting the “meaning” standard). This of course leaves a smaller and smaller pool to cover the unsexy costs of keeping the lights on and the lawn mowed. And some are realizing that there are tectonic shifts happening that will require greater adaption by the Church. I appreciate that Hugh mentions the emerging economic realities in his article. Things like: the emerging generation of young adults will be the first in U.S. history to make less income than their parents, and most people have to remain mobile and moving in order to get better jobs.
As people lose their sense of stability, security and sustainability, their tendency is to move from generosity to scarcity—they simply won’t give like they used to. At present, the average Christian gives to the church at the exact percentage non-believers give to charities—just fewer than three percent.
– Hugh Halter, Cheap Church
Obviously some new ways of doing things are required. As a church planter, the one thing discussed often in my circles is the idea of a bi-vocational or “co-vocational” pastors. Of course, there are plenty of challenges associated with this, but there are also plenty of opportunities for further engagement of a pastor with the community. Another common assumption being challenged is that of the church building (often confusingly called “the church”). How much building do we need, and is the building being fully utilized or sitting empty most of the week? Are there other ways to use existing community space that might meet our needs? These two areas alone (staff & property) account for the bulk of most church budgets.
People, even those inside the church, are exhausted at giving to boxes or buildings whose influence is waning, and they simply won’t give to keep the lights on or pay the staff. They want to help real people with real needs.
– Hugh Halter, Cheap Church
If people don’t give financially in the same way that they used to, they also don’t attend worship and other church activities in the same way that they used to. And in my experience, this has less to do with any generational changes, and more to do with larger cultural shifts. I often tell people that I am lucky to see our church elders two Sundays a month! And that is not to disparage the elders, they are the ones elected by the congregation because of their spiritual maturity! This is to say that if even the most spiritually committed are at worship about 1/2 the time, that means that many others are going to be there even less than that!
As church attendance declines nationally, and as we fail on a global scale to see new disciples made, mega churches and growing churches are tasting what could be the last wave of transfer growth before the reality of the trends hit home.
– Hugh Halter, Cheap Church
There are definitely many reasons for this shift, and undoubtedly some of it has to do with increasing “competition” for people’s time from things like sporting events, kid’s activities, and endless entertainment options. Here in the Pacific Northwest, even a sunny day can be competition – and how do you compete with the sun? (Hint: you can’t!). Add to this mix the fact that many more people are working on Sunday mornings and on nights and weekends. Also, the fastest growing demographic in many U.S. communities are single-parent homes. I can’t imagine life as a single parent, but I can imagine how difficult it would be to get the family to a worship service after a hectic week! This is to say nothing about the access to endless content online with the click of a button. YouTube, podcasts, email subscriptions and more offer access to all kinds of Christian content from sermons by celebrity preachers, podcasts by professional theologians, to live-steaming videos of worship services and worship music on-demand. Some of this content is excellent, and some of it is garbage, and unfortunately few churches are doing anything to help navigate these waters.
The response to this in some churches has been to compete head-on! Make a consumer-oriented worship experience featuring the best live concert-style worship music, the most awesome venue, cutting-edge advertising and technology, entertaining preachers, etc. And of course, this will often result in what Hugh calls “transfer growth.” These exciting congregations will often attract consumer-Christians from older, traditional, smaller, or less-appealing churches. Other churches have responded by digging in their heals and holding on dearly to the way that they have always done things in the name of faithfulness and orthodoxy – even if it means that they will slowly die. They pretend that nothing has changed except for the level of sinfulness and compromise in the population at large.
Yes, there will always be churches that expand through transfer growth and that can keep their pastors paid and their churchy folks happy and safe, but what about the rest of us who are no longer content to simply exist in the religious zone?
– Hugh Halter, Cheap Church
All of this, in my opinion, misses the bigger problem. Churches of all stripes are failing to effectively make disciples in the world that we live in today (this topic is already the source of some of my other blog posts and will be again in the future). Time is precious, and people are less willing to spend it doing something that they perceive to have little value. The truth is, the Church does not need to compete at all, but it does need to think about new models. The Church already has the one thing that people desperately need and that they cannot find elsewhere: the community formed by Jesus living together on mission. This community can be structured in a lot of ways that work well in this cultural context – but it will necessitate new forms inspired by the Holy Spirit.
So are we at a moment of desperation or opportunity, or both? I suppose the answer to that question depends on whether we want to try to stand our ground and take on the waves, turn our backs and ignore the waves, or grab our surfboard and take a ride.
I just finished reading a fascinating blog post by Michael Brendan Dougherty titled “This Election Is God’s Judgment On Us.” He wrote this on the eve of the general election, before anyone knew what the result would be. I feel like I need to preface any following comments by saying that I am not sharing this to express my thoughts on the results of the presidential election but rather to reflect on what brought us to the point that we are at in American politics. Neither is this intended to endorse the author – this is the first post that I have read from him so I don’t know where he stands on other issues.
Here is an excerpt from the end of his post:
So these are the last of tens of thousands of words I’ve written in the run-up to this wretched election. I have lost my illusions about my political allies. Everyone seems to recognize the world tipping into craziness, and they respond by holding on tighter to their own version of craziness. Maybe this is mine. Roll your eyes if you like. I no longer fear Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or their fans. This election has taught me to fear God.
I have often said publicly, and I will continue to say, that I do not believe that God deals with nations now in the same way that God did before Jesus came to make everyone part of the family. It seems that in the years that I have been alive, every time something bad happens to this country there is some “Christian” leader somewhere hollering that this was “God’s Wrath” upon our nation. I think that this is absurd! To me it is just as ridiculous as the claim that every time we get sick or hurt that God is punishing us for something that we have done.
I do, however, find the argument compelling that part of experiencing “God’s Wrath” on sin is experienced when God allows us to corporately pursue our own demented desires to their final conclusion. In other words, even though there are undoubtedly faithful individuals within any society, the society as a whole will still suffer when God allows the masses to pursue rebellion and rejection of God’s desires for humanity. The author seems to imply that our two major party candidates for this election are examples A and B of this phenomenon. Please don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying that I agree with all that is said in the referenced article, that is not my point. I don’t. In fact, if you have the time to read it I would love to hear some of your thoughts and reflections because I think it is very well written and worth further digestion. But I do believe that this election is likely to have a terribly negative effect on many of the most vulnerable individuals in our society, and perhaps even more around the world. This makes me grieve and also causes me to repent of the times when I have remained silent or sent a tweet when in fact I should’ve been more involved in doing God’s kingdom work.
A reflection of the process, four years into planting a missional church and on the verge of chartering as a congregation. Why did it take so long to get to where are today?
In October of 2012 my job transitioned from the Youth Director at Mountain View Presbyterian Church to the Organizing Pastor of a New Church Development or “church plant” (also now called a “New Worshipping Community” in the Presbyterian Church). Next week our Presbytery will be voting to approve the chartering of Tidelands as an official congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Soon after, we will ordain and installed our first elders, and I will be called and installed as the first teaching elder (pastor).
What took so long?
Four years is a long time, but it sure doesn’t feel like it has been a long time. Maybe time just seems to go faster because I am getting older. Or maybe, it has something to do with the old saying “time flies when you are having fun!” It has been fun! Some might say it has been “hard,” but in my experience some of the most fun things are hard! In truth, this process has taken even longer than four years. The planning and discernment phase took over a year as well. Welcome to the world of thoughtful, intentional Presbyterian mission! I had a good friend jokingly say early on, “If we Pentecostals were planting a church in Stanwood the city would all be converted by now!”
The Model Determines the Pace
There are many models for planting a church. The important thing, in my opinion, is to pick the model that fits the mission, and not the other way around. Many church plants start with a “bang!” They first get facilities, staff, musicians, lots of advertising, lots of lay leaders, and then do a grand opening. This works well for reaching a certain group of people and probably is the correct model for some. However, this would not have worked well for us, and quite honestly, I doubt that I would be the right pastor for that church. You see, we knew that God was calling us to reach out to those that either couldn’t or wouldn’t come to a Sunday morning church worship service. So while we could’ve leveraged a large group of people from Mountain View to launch our Sunday services off with big numbers, that would’ve done little to help us connect with those that would not come to our worship service. Besides, there are some really great churches in this community that do amazing Sunday morning services already and appeal to a wide range of believers. So we started slow and small with a focus on missional communities and an emphasis on going to where people are at, rather than trying to get them to come to us.
Slower Than Expected?
Without a doubt, using a model based on missional community is much slower than we anticipated. Multiplication takes time if you are going to do a good job of raising capable leaders and discipling new believers. Could we have gone faster? Probably. But the real question is should we have? And I still don’t know the answer to that question yet, and I hope to do some more reflection on that in the near future. I probably need to do a blog post about the things that we would do differently if we had a “do over.” But overall, I am happy with where we are at. There is some wisdom in the statement: “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast” (Apparently this comes from the tactical training world, but I find that it works in many different situations, including church development).
Some things certainly have happened much faster than we anticipated! The biggest one by far is that we actually have our own building! That wasn’t in the plans. And the truth is that every time we take a step in one direction it closes some doors and opens some others. The essential element is to be both intentional and discerning about every decision and how it lines up with the vision for the church and the leading of the Holy Spirit. We have said “no” to many things that, when looking back, would’ve taken us into directions that we are glad that we didn’t follow.
Organic Growth – Where We Go From Here
I know, I know… “organic” is one of those trendy words that is almost as popular as “missional” right now! I first heard this concept being applied to the church at a conference at Regent Seminary where someone was talking about church worship styles, and I’ve used it in my ministry ever since. The basic idea is that if you want something to grow and be healthy you have to use the ingredients that are there. As it applies to worship music, this means that you shouldn’t try to force in musical styles that you are copying from other churches when you don’t have the people to accomplish it. Use what you have. This also goes with the leading-from-strengths idea.
What this means for us is that we will likely have some times of rapid growth, and some times anemic growth. It will all depend on the people that are part of community and what they are ready, willing, and equipped to do. To take the organic analogy one step further, I want our church to be a perennial, not an annual. When the time is right, and the resources are there, I hope that we create brilliant, beautiful growth. When resources are scarce, and times are hard, I hope that we will take advantage of it to prepare for spring – deepening our roots, rather than simply giving up and dying.
Freedom to Fail Because Jesus Has Succeeded
No matter what happens, I know that we would not have gotten this far if we had not stayed grounded in the Gospel message. Jesus has already accomplished all that we need. Now we have the freedom to live in faithfulness, knowing that our failures and our successes do nothing to affect God’s love and acceptance of us. I remind myself of this every day. I could not do this work without that ongoing assurance. Whether Tidelands grows into our vision of a church that has missional communities all over our area and plants new churches in other regions, or whether our circle of influence remains small and we are deemed insignificant, I know that God is pleased with faithfulness and patient endurance and that nothing can separate us from God’s love (Rom. 8:38f)!
The other day I received an unexpected phone call from a local realtor. He said, “the old Stanwood Presbyterian Church building is for sale or lease and I was wondering if you might be interested?” It took me a moment to process this revelation before letting him know that I would indeed like to take a look at it. You see, I was under the impression – I think all involved with Tidelands were under the impression – that there had never been an official Presbyterian Church congregation in Stanwood before! It turns out, that not only was there a Presbyterian Church founded early in the life of the Stanwood community (1906), but there was one founded on Camano Island as well (1915). I had to do some digging, but found this information listed in volume I & II of The Stanwood Story by Alice Essex. According to this same source, the Stanwood Presbyterian Church building was dedicated in July 1909 and the Rev. Mark Matthews of Seattle was involved (you can read more about his life in the book The Reverend Mark Matthews: An Activist in the Progressive Era by Dale Soden).
Before I say more about the building as it currently stands, let me share a bit about the journey that God has been leading me on. A few years ago, I did some interviewing for various pastoral positions in the PC(USA). One congregation I visited had an historic church building in a small, Washington community. The building was in constant need of repair and was surrounded by old downtown homes. After my visit I remember telling my wife, “That church wants to grow and expand but they have a building that is no longer functional for them. They need a pastor that will help them move out of their 100 year-old facility and organize a building campaign – but they don’t realize it! I don’t think that I am that guy.” At that time I still couldn’t conceive of a healthy, growing, congregation that wouldn’t need a large, modern facility with lots of rooms for all the programs. That has all changed since starting Tidelands.
In fact, two months ago at our board meeting (we call it our “Core Team” since we do not yet have an official session) I tried to share my “vision” for the kind of space that I could see us in. We have always known that our current worship space at the Stanwood Community & Senior Center would be temporary, and there have already been some Sundays where things have gotten a bit crowded. We want to have permanent office space in the community too, and ideally the two would be together in one place. However, we define ourselves as a congregation based on the missional community model. This means that our primary mode of being the church here is lived out in small, neighborhood, missional communities. This means that we don’t need a huge space with a lot of rooms for programs. We also don’t want to get sidetracked or impeded in our mission with a facility that requires a lot of time or money. So what might that space look like?
I wrestled to find the right words as I talked with our Core Team, trying to explain what I felt in my heart to be the kind of space that would mesh our mission with this community and our identity. I didn’t do a very good job! Our clerk recorded this in our January minutes as she tried to capture what I was saying: “…looking for a space with a ‘grandmotherly’ feeling like the Social Room at the Senior Center has. A space that doesn’t feel commercial and cold, feels natural and authentic, a functional space in Stanwood possibly.” While I’m pretty sure I didn’t say “grandmotherly,” I know what I had in my mind. And what I had in my mind is exactly what I saw when I visited the old Presbyterian Church building!
So back to the building: Why would we even consider an historic church building in the old downtown part of Stanwood? If you take a look at the pictures in this post you will notice that the building itself has a small entry area, one large sanctuary area, and one side-room with a small kitchen on one end that would have to function as a multi-purpose room. There is one bathroom (handicap accessible), and a small raised platform area on the side of the sanctuary (original choir loft?). That’s pretty much it. There is no property to speak of outside. The building has been beautifully remodeled (we were told that the current owners found hand-written notes in the walls from the first members of the congregation). The floors are all hardwood and look original. You can even see an outline on the floor of where the original pulpit/chancel would have been.
As I mentioned earlier, it is not the most practical building for running a lot of programs simultaneously. But, at least for now, our “programs” are our missional communities and our worship gathering. It is in our missional communities that discipleship, Bible study, prayer, fellowship, children’s ministry, outreach, and so much more take place. The beauty of this is that this only requires wiling hosts to open their home (we also have a MC starting at the Senior Center utilizing their available space). This building would give us a functional office space in the side room, but it would need to be a shared space. I could see us setting up some simple workstations by the wall, thus keeping the bulk of the room open for children’s ministry or other activities. This would create a base for volunteers and a place for me to get administrative work done. I would maintain my “study” at my house (my current office). In the sanctuary we could utilize folding chairs and tables and a folding stage. This would give us the ability to keep the room open for community events or as a rental space to earn extra income (it was most recently used as a dance studio).
Obviously, this is not a new, modern space. While that would undoubtedly create some challenges, it also does something that we have been striving for from the beginning: it would root us into the story and fabric of this community and place. And what a story! With all that is being said about the demise of the church in our society, how wonderful it would be to be able to reclaim this historic church building as a house of worship and prayer! That, in itself, proclaims the gospel in a culture where new is often better and old is easily cast aside. Thus we could proclaim a new work of God for today in an old place.
I don’t know what happened to that original Presbyterian Church. I hope to eventually be able to do some more research and dig something up. I also realize that this building might not seem “old” to those of you living on the East Coast (and especially not to those living in Europe), but in this part of the county this is an “old” building. In the meantime, it is fun to dream of what could be.
For me the key word here is “discipleship.” Whatever we decide, we want our kids to know what it means to follow Jesus on Halloween. For me, this means that Halloween is another opportunity to bless others in the name of Jesus, to connect with those that don’t yet know Jesus, and proclaim that light has triumphed over darkness.
I have long considered myself a Halloween “grinch” – if there is such a thing. I don’t like dressing up. Answering the door every few seconds and pretending to love costumes is exhausting. I’m not a huge candy fan. And I hate anything that glorifies evil. “Bah Humbug!”
It hasn’t always been this way. My mom was a master at creating elaborate Halloween costumes. I still remember the year that she sewed full zip-up E.T. body suits for my brother and sister. Amazing! Somewhere there is still a box full of custom-made superhero capes from my many years of Halloween dress-up. But this all changed as I aged, and I grew to despise the holiday and all that came with it.
This became a huge challenge when I took on the role of youth pastor at a church. How do you talk about and guide youth through Halloween? In my early years I simply went with the Halloween alternative: a costume contest/party at the church facility complete with candy and tons of messy games. It was a huge hit with the youth, but not so much fun for me as I tried to navigate the murky waters of appropriate vs. inappropriate costumes (it didn’t help that these were the years when the Brittany Spears midriff-baring look was all the rage with young ladies). After awhile I simply gave up trying to create the alternative, and instead focused on using it as an opportunity to teach about All Saints Day and the power of Christ over evil.
Then my own children were born. As much as I despised Halloween, I also felt that it hadn’t negatively effected me spiritually or otherwise (I never had cavities as a kid). And since my wife loves any excuse to celebrate any holiday (an endearing family trait), I grudgingly did my duty hauling the Halloween costumes to daycare, and then school, and taking my turn walking through the neighborhood and knocking on doors for candy.
Eventually, we connected with a couple of other families from our church with kids our age that wanted to go “trick-or-treating” together. We came up with a fabulous plan of gathering every year over pizza, hot cider, and usually a football game on TV. Better still, we alternated each year between dads taking the kids out and moms taking the kids out – giving everybody a year off. This was our tradition up until last year when the Holy Spirit turned everything upside down for us.
As we established our missional community we focused intensely on putting more gospel intentionality into everything were doing. So when it came to Halloween, we knew that there was a golden opportunity (and one of the families we have always gone trick-or-treating with is part of our MC). I also read an article on the Verge Network last year called “Ways to Be Missional This Halloween” that challenged me further. So we decided to do three things: First, even though there are almost no trick-or-treaters on our part of Camano Island, we decided to stay in our neighborhood even if it meant less candy for the kiddos. We recognized that Halloween was an excuse to knock on people’s doors and introduce ourselves. Second, we decided that no one gets to stay home – we all went together with the kids through the neighborhood. Third, we decided to invite other families to join us.
As we went trick-or-treating around the neighborhood there were many people that were surprised to see us since they rarely get visitors even on Halloween. And while I’m sure we annoyed a few Halloween grinches (I get it – I really do!), we also made the night for a lot of retired folks that rarely have neighbors come knocking and were thrilled to see the kiddos dressed up. Best of all, it was on that night last year that we met a family that has now become some of our closest friends on Camano Island. Before Halloween we didn’t know them, but after trick-or-treating with them we made plans to get together again. It wasn’t long before they joined us at our missional community, and now they join us in worship as well (did I mention that they had no church background to speak of). So with one stroke Halloween has been forever transformed for me!
Before I tell you about our plans for this year, let me address the elephant in the room (or the “witch” in the room in this instance): Halloween has a lot of troubling elements associated with it that make it tough for us Christians. There is a great article out by Seth McBee and Verge Network this year called 3 Tips for Discipling Your Kids Through Halloweendirected at Christian parents wrestling with this issue. Here is an excerpt:
To most families in America, Halloween is a fun time to eat candy, dress up, and have fun with friends. Yet because some choose to use this holiday to celebrate evil and its effects, it also can be a dark holiday.
With such a complicated mixture of influences, it’s important for each family to use discernment and wisdom in determining if and how to celebrate this holiday. I believe that there are sinful ways to participate in Halloween, just as there are with any holiday.
However, I also believe there are many aspects of this holiday that we have freedom in Christ to participate in. Regardless of how you choose to engage in this holiday, I urge you not to miss out on all the opportunities to disciple your kids that the Halloween season provides.
For me the key word here is “discipleship.” Whatever we decide, we want our kids to know what it means to follow Jesus on Halloween. For me, this means that Halloween is another opportunity to bless others in the name of Jesus, to connect with those that don’t yet know Jesus, and proclaim that light has triumphed over darkness. No amount of evil will keep us locked up at home with the lights off and curtains drawn! So this year we are planning to do things much the same as last year with a couple additions: We are going to invite more people to join us for a bonfire and food after the trick-or-treating, and we are going to have our kids give out $5 gift cards to everyone that gives them candy (I can’t wait to see how that goes!).
I’m sure I still have a lot to learn about what it means to live missionally, especially in light of something like Halloween. However, it helps me to think about it in terms of mission. For example, I imagine myself being a missionary in a foreign land to an unreached people group. Undoubtedly these people will have cultural celebrations that have nothing to do with the gospel and perhaps even conflict with it. So what is my response as a missionary? I certainly wouldn’t sit at home and pretend that nothing was happening! No way! I would see it as an opportunity to engage people right were they were. I would celebrate where appropriate, always looking for opportunities to proclaim the good news while also clearly drawing a line against anything contrary to the gospel. Ideally, aspects of the celebrations would be redeemed for the purposes of Christ.
What I like about the article I referenced above is that Seth gets right to what I see as the root of the problem: fear. There certainly isn’t a one-sized-fits-all approach to Halloween, but I do know that there is no reason to fear. Light has overcome darkness, Jesus has triumphed over evil! Whatever we decide to do may it be motivated by our identity as missionaries of this good news!
In the video below, Dallas Willard talked about how the biggest danger to Christianity is the attitude that it is a statement of belief rather than a life of discipleship. I was particularly struck by his comments about pastors being accused of “bait and switch” when they try to do intentional discipleship. I have heard similar comments from those that are farther along in developing missional communities than we are at Tidelands. Longtime “church” people can struggle with the idea that they are being asked to be part of a group that is focused on following Jesus in all aspects of life. Sometimes our focus on church programs and sunday morning performance results in immature Christians that want to be “fed” rather than disciples capable of leading others in being disciples of Jesus.
Perhaps this is why I often get quizzical reactions from other Christians leaders when I talk about our missional communities. I have even fielded questions asking whether we are a “cult” or a “commune.” Why would a description of people living on mission in their neighborhood result in those kinds of labels? One possibility is that I am simply not being very articulate in describing what we are doing (I’m working on this). The other possibility is that a life of following Jesus as a disciple sounds foreign to them. If the latter is true, it begs the question: what kind of “Christian” doesn’t feel comfortable with discipleship? I believe this is the kind of thing that Dallas is addressing in this video. If discipleship sounds like a “switch” then what is being used as the “bait?” Certainly not the gospel of Jesus!
Ash Wednesday is the day marking the beginning of Lent – 40 days (not counting Sundays) leading up to Easter. This year, that happens to be March 5th. Traditionally, Christians have taken time during the season of Lent for repentance and prayer – often accompanied by fasting. While I grew up in a Christian tradition where I was never exposed to Lent, I was introduced to the concept of fasting for spiritual reasons. During my university studies I first encountered Lent, and since then I have embraced it as an important part of my yearly rhythm.
Fasting has long been an important spiritual practice for those desiring to draw nearer to God. Even Jesus fasted for 40 days immediately after his baptism. I’m not going to take time in this post to give a full explanation of fasting, other than to say that it is a way to focus more attention on God while denying some of your physical desires. If you have never done it, you should give it a shot and Lent is a great time to test the waters.
How to Fast for Lent
Those who fast for Lent typically choose to “give something up” during the season in order to make more room to pray, meditate, and have space for God to speak. For many people this involves the traditional idea of fasting from food (think “break-fast” as the time when you break your nightly fast). Sometimes this is a food or drink that you don’t really “need” (like chocolate, pop, sweets, etc.) but one that you crave. In this way you have a reminder throughout your day to pray whenever you crave that particular food – a constant reminder of your need for God. Personally, I prefer fasting from a type of food for this reason. But if you struggle with food in general (dieting , eating disorders, overeating, etc.) then a food fast is probably not the best idea. In fact, there are many other things that you can “fast” from in order to create some space during Lent. Here are some ideas that I have heard of:
If you drive a lot (commute): give up the radio/music in your car (a great time to pray)
Fast from certain types of media: music, TV, movies, Facebook, Twitter, video games, etc.
Give up sleeping in late so that you can get up earlier to read your Bible & pray
There are lots of great ideas of things that you can fast from – you are only limited by your imagination.
If you are dealing with an addiction (smoking/alcohol/etc), then fasting from those things is also probably not a good idea. Addictions require serious professional help and a “season” of fasting is not going to be enough. Also, don’t use this as your next diet plan. Fasting is meant to draw one closer to God, not as a self-improvement project (this could apply to other “bad habits” like swearing, criticizing others, etc. being used as a fast). The reality is that there are many bad things that we could “fast” from, and they are something we should address. But the kind of fasting we are talking about with Lent is more about giving up something that is quite possibly “good” in your life – in order to deny yourself and turn to God.
Why Not Just “Add” Something Instead?
I’ve heard a lot of talk in recent years about adding something good for Lent instead of fasting (like volunteering, reading a devotional, etc.) While I understand the motive, I would caution people who might want to use this approach. Most of us probably have busy lives already and “adding” one more thing is just another way to stay in control (and even perhaps to justify yourself) without having to do what is really hard – slowing down! Fasting is about denying oneself – a very different thing. So while Lent may be a good time to develop some positive habits in your life, don’t confuse that with the concept of fasting.
If you are going to give fasting during Lent a try, set a realistic goal. Give up something that will be difficult, but not so hard that you are bound to be miserable. Also, remember that this is not about proving yourself somehow. Some people start off fasting strong, then as soon as they partake in what they were fasting from they give up because they “failed.” Just pick it up again and keep going. Remember: the goal here is to draw nearer to God through repentance and prayer and to create space for that to happen. Finally, pay attention to Jesus’ warning about fasting:
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18).
A flyer recently arrived in my mailbox from a new church plant, promising me relevant and practical messages, contemporary “urban” music, and great coffee. The idea is that if you offer such things, people will come who wouldn’t normally come.
It’s a subtle and enticing temptation. All we have to do is encourage casual dress, offer Starbucks coffee, play rock music and then deliver a “felt needs” message in a style similar to the popular speakers of the day and we will automatically grow.
And if you want to guarantee your growth comes from a younger demographic, just throw in skinny jeans, designer t-shirts and a noticeable tattoo. It will instantly turn the most middle-of-age pastor into a Millennial magnet.
People already have those things. They do not need to go to church to find them. If they want Starbucks, they’ll go to Starbucks; if they want to hear contemporary music, they have iTunes and their iPod. They may appreciate those things once they attend, but it is not what will get them to attend.
This approach may have worked back in the ’80s and ’90s, but that was because the typical unchurched person was a Baby Boomer who had been raised in a church, just starting to have kids. They had the memory and the experience; once they had kids, they actually wanted to find a church. When churches took down the cultural barriers associated with attending (eliminating stuffiness, boredom, irrelevance, empty ritual, outdated music), Boomers were attracted.
And yes, back then, if you built it, they came.
But this is no longer our world, and hasn’t been for quite some time.
As ubermarketer Seth Godin notes, “The portion of the population that haven’t bought from you … is not waiting for a better mousetrap. They’re not busy considering a, b and c and then waiting for d. No, they’re not in the market. … As a result, smart marketers don’t market to this audience by saying, ‘Hey, ours is better than theirs!’”
Bottom line: The foundational way that people divorced from the church and a life in Christ will come to church and find that life in Christ is if a Christ-follower does three things: builds a relationship with them, shares how Christ has intersected the deepest needs of their life, and then invites them into the community to see, hear, taste and explore.
I appreciate the way these concepts are articulated in this article. So often when I talk to people about this concept people say, “Oh, you’re talking about ‘friendship evangelism.” Inside I cringe when I hear this because I know that for most people “friendship evangelism” equates to finding a way to invite your friend to a church worship service. But inviting them “into the community to see, hear, taste and explore” is about so much more than bringing them to a worship service. In order to do this you have to be part of a community that is living the gospel out together beyond the worship service and outside the church building. This is why I love the missional community model.