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The Anxious Christian – A Sermon

The following sermon was preached on July 23rd, 2017 at the Clarksville Highway Church of Christ in Joelton, Tennessee. The sermon title is borrowed from the book The Anxious Christian by Rhett Smith (see endnote below). As with any sermon I preach I use some of the material and others I leave out. I tried to stay as close to the manuscript as I could. Grace and peace as you read this.

The Anxious Christian

It was the Fall of 2013 and we had just completed a crazy summer in youth ministry. Most summers are hectic but this one served as one of the craziest I have ever experienced. I honestly felt like responsibilities came at me in supersonic waves and before I knew it I was put through the ringer. Couple all those responsibilities with some major changes at church and I was ill-prepared for what was about to happen. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18% of the population.”[1] I remember sitting in my office one day while I was studying Scripture and a wave of dread came over me in an indescribable way. It was like a cloud of darkness suddenly engulfed my thinking and all I could think about was the pit of my peril. The anxiety manifested itself into a belief that I was dying and I became obsessed with small pains in my body that, through the lens of anxiety, seemed like signs of cancer or a life-threating illness. I Googled symptoms and things got worse. I was in my house one day and felt a sharp pain in my leg and immediately started to panic and rushed to the Emergency Room. I thought it was blood clot. After extensive tests their conclusion was that nothing was wrong with me.

I kept getting headaches and I learned that anxiety will sometimes lead into other symptoms and cause serious physical problems. Consider Job’s experience:

The churning inside me never stops; days of suffering confront me.  I go about blackened, but not by the sun; I stand up in the assembly and cry for help. I have become a brother of jackals, a companion of owls. My skin grows black and peels; my body burns with fever. (Job 30:27-30)[2]

I called a Psychiatrist because I knew something very wrong was going on with me. I didn’t grow up with anxiety problems or depression issues and so I had no language to describe what my mind was thinking. In fact, my mind kept playing tricks on me. In one month I visited the ER a total of three times, the doctor four times and various specialists two times thinking something was drastically wrong with me. I finally got my diagnosis a month and a half later: I had what was called Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I tried different medicines and eventually settled with one that helped reset the chemicals in my brain. I started to work out more, read more and with the help of God I slowly have learned to cope with anxiety.

So why am I sharing this with you right now? When I first started struggling with anxiety I felt like churches were not really a safe-haven for those inflicted with anxiety. I would talk about my struggles and people would say, “Robbie just quit worry about stuff and trust Jesus” or they would say, “Perhaps you need to pray more” as if my mental plight is directly related to how many times I pray (or don’t). Church, unfortunately, was not safe space for me. So I started blogging about it and droves and droves of people started messaging me describing their anxiety and how they wish the church could be more of a safe space for folks. A place of healing. A place of learning about our struggles. So this message comes to you in the audience who are currently in the thicket of anxiety and you feel like nobody is listening. This message is for you. It is also for those of us who are called to “bear one another’s burdens” which means walking with people in this difficult time. A caveat is I am not a mental health professional and so most of my message is learned from folks who poured into me to help with healing. So I have two groups of people to talk to today. The first…

To the church in general…

I think we need to do better at helping people who struggle by admitting our own.

Whether explicitly or implicitly we have made the church to look like a collection of nice folks who have it all together who meet a few times a week for a “pick me up” by singing a couple of happy songs and sharing in on a positive message. The closest we get to talking about our problems is quoting Romans 3:23 saying “all are sinners” but rarely does our struggle sharing delve deeper than that. The result is people simply go elsewhere with their problems or worse; they don’t even address them at all. I remember sitting in an AA meeting one time and the topic of church came up and one particularly disgruntled man said about his alcoholism, “We can’t talk about this stuff (he used another word) at church. There’s no place for us there.”

Church if we are not helping the brokenhearted and struggling people then we are simply setting up shop and wasting our Lord’s time. I read the pages of my New Testament and there were some pretty messed-up folks that our Lord loved. When it comes to anxiety I didn’t know where to turn and people from church didn’t seem to resonate with my struggle.

I think we as a church also need to work on good ways to help but also understanding bad ways to help folks with anxiety.

People simply are just not educated about how to help so sometimes they say the best thing that they know about at the time.

  • Quit worrying…I wish I could. It is not like a microwave that has a power button.
  • It’s all in your head…of course it is. I need to deal with it though.
  • Doctors are just trying to shove meds down your throat, don’t take them…But what if I need them? Shouldn’t a professional make that decision for me?

You want to know how a person can help folks with anxiety? Presence. Not an answer. Not a formula for getting rid of it. Simple presence. Someone who advocates to the father on your behalf and is willing to pick up the phone when you are having a tough time. I once thought about starting a support group for those with anxiety and calling it something unique like AA 🙂 or something but I have yet to do it.

We need more support.

We need each other.

Now a word or two to those in the audience who are struggling with anxiety.

First of all, anxiety is a gift.

I read a book in 2013 during my struggles that changed my thinking. It was called The Anxious Christian by Rhett Smith and in that book he shared a couple quotes that I will not soon forget. He said:

  • Anxiety can often indicate to us that there is something constructive happening within us, beckoning us to follow it in order that our lives may be transformed.[3]
  • Anxiety reminds us that we are alive, a feeling that is important in keeping us from going numb and withdrawing from the life God desires for us.[4]

In the moment of angst when the world is spinning around it is hard for us to fathom that what we are struggling with is a gift. Curse is more like it. But gift? Yet through my anxiety I have been able to know God deeper than ever before. Paul said, “We boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom. 5:3-5).

That leads me to my next point…

God is not absent in our anxiety but right in the thick of it.

Psalm 94:19 in the Common English Bible reads: “When my anxieties multiply, your comforting calms me down.” Rhett Smith is again informative in his book:

One of the reasons we experience anxiety is that God is persistently trying to move us through the wilderness, because it is in that wilderness that we are most dependent upon Him. It is in that wilderness experience that God shapes us into the people He desires us to become.[5]

I remember coming home from work early one day wondering why I could not shake this anxiety deep within me. At one point I remember running into the boys’ room, locking the door and I started balling like a baby. Uncontrollable sobbing. With my hands clinched I punched the bed and yelled, “Why God? I have everything I could possibly imagine and I still am miserable.” I couldn’t hear God then but slowly I started getting an answer from him. He said to me, “You’re right Robbie. You do have everything. A loving wife, a nice home, a wonderful job, beautiful kids. But you don’t have me.”

In my worries and angst I had neglected reading of Scripture, praying and God was there even in the midst of all of that. When I look at many of the characters in Scripture I see a lot of humanity in turmoil. Death, financial hardship, frustrations, anguishes is all part and parcel for the course of life in this world. The dream God has for us is not the same as the American dream. Folks, if all we get is God then we have gained the entire world.

Dear friend, in your anxiety God is with you.

Thirdly,

You are not alone.

When I endured this I remember thinking that I was the only one feeling this way. What made it worse was that somehow in this struggle I felt like less of a man. I remember apologizing to Heather a lot because I was not the man she deserved. In one particularly weak moment I remember calling my dad trying to explain to him what I was feeling and not having the right words to say so I just inaudibly cried while trying to talk to him.

After walking through my struggles with a counselor I remember feeling a sense of peace when she assured me that I was not alone and that many men feel this way. Then soon my friend began to struggle this way too and he and I began to journey together.

Friend, I am not sure where you are at in anxiety. Perhaps you worry about the future and it paralyzes you from making decisions. Maybe you have anxiety because of some physical ailments that leave you weak or disabled. Maybe your anxiety stems from chemical imbalances in the brain. Maybe you are afraid of something happening to your family and anxiety keeps you from letting them mature like they should. Maybe anxiety has led you to cope with life’s difficulties through alcohol, pills, drugs or some other coping mechanism.

I don’t know where you are at but I do know one thing.

You are not alone.

Here’s the thing, God wants you to open your eyes to him and in the midst of your struggle to hang on with him. I am not promising your anxiety will be gone as mine comes and goes. It may become more difficult before it gets better. I am not promising an easy solution that God is going to miraculously take your anxiety away (although I pray for that).

What I do promise is God’s unwavering presence in your plight and you will have my arm around your shoulder in the midst of this. Then my prayer will be that others will look at your struggle and will come to one conclusion and one conclusion: How great is our God.

 

__________________________________________________

[1] https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/any-anxiety-disorder-among-adults.shtml

[2] All Scripture comes from the New Revised Standard Version.

[3] Rhett Smith. The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good? (Kindle Locations 383-385). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[4] Ibid., (Kindle Locations 387-388).

[5] Ibid., (Kindle Locations 541-543).

 

Dear church, our struggle is not against a denomination…

For those of you reading this and are a bit baffled I want to extend both an apology and an explanation. I am a youth minister for a church of Christ which is a small local expression of a larger movement which has historically opposed denominationalism maintaining a strict adherence to Scripture as authority and not some ecclesiastical hierarchy. Anything that smells denominationally is to be rejected because it must hail from some sort of human innovation and is thus not God authorized by God. If you talk to many ministers from the Churches of Christ they will tell you that we are, in fact, not a denomination but each local church is its own expression of the original first century church. When it gets down to it I think it is more semantics than actual biblical mandate as to why we are not a denomination but that is not the point of this post. I actually think the autonomous nature of the church is more theologically accurate than hierarchical structures but another post for another time.

The point of this post is to apologize to other expressions of Christianity that have been maligned, castigated and disregarded as “unfaithful” because of _______________________ (insert doctrinal qualms here). Christianity seems to be one of the fewest movements that actually eats their own (aside from American politics). I actually had this conversation with someone before:

Concerned church member: “Hey Robbie did you hear about Jim Bob and where he attends worship now in college?”

Me: “Ummmm no I didn’t.”

Concerned church member: “He actually goes to a Baptist church and is plugged into their college ministry. Can you believe that?”

Me: “I am so thankful.”

Concerned church member: “That is a denomination and…”

Me (Interrupting): “Would you rather have them doing keg stands at I Tappa Kegga and attending a church of Christ once a week?”

Concerned church member: “Well no Robbie but clearly it is wrong for them to be involved in that ministry because they _________________(insert doctrinal qualms here).”

Me: “ I support them because they are with a ministry that believes in advancing the gospel, baptizing the lost and plugging them into the kingdom to do the same thing. That is alright in my books.”

Many of you reading this are probably throwing your hands up and screaming, “Flaming liberal!” I think you miss the thrust of my conversation and the point of this post. Our struggle, brothers and sisters, is not against denominations but against the unseen forces of evil. Does that mean every doctrine a denomination practices gets a nod? Of course not. Does that mean you endorse everything denominations do? Stop it!

It means that my focus and energy are fixed on those who have no concept of Christ. Many denominations are so focused inwardly anyways that there is no room for discussion of those who are on the outside (wink-wink my Stone-Campbell brethren). I also do not have time to engage in discussion about minute differences in theology. I am sure this is a fruitful and necessary endeavor but one that I am most assuredly ambivalent to. I am not creating a dichotomy in which one chooses over the other but I am simply not interested in those discussions. Ripping apart denominational doctrine is low-hanging fruit for a Wednesday night bible class but for me I simply have no energy to do so.

I understand that doesn’t mean churches should blindly give the high-five of fellowship to any and all movements but I also believe it says something when all churches in a community practice solidarity except for some that believe their way is the only way. I also try to give folks the theological benefit of the doubt. I was reading a paper I wrote many moons ago and if I was a professor reading this for the first time I would be ashamed I what my student wrote. I was (still am?) so presumptuous in my conclusions that I failed to grasp the big picture.

So can we stop the kindergarten my-church-is-better-than-your-church conversations and shift our focus more towards those who are not in any church at all? Can we leverage our combined focus on Christ and use that to advance the gospel in our own context? Can we eschew our foolish pride that says we have to have our name stamped on a program and unite with other brothers and sisters to be light on a hill?

That sounds more eternally minded to me…

 

Church attendance receives a bad rap sometimes.

How many of you have heard a preacher use Hebrews 10:25 as a verse to say missing church is a sin? Here is the verse: “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (ESV). The KJV uses the phrase “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together.” Perhaps you heard the preacher bang on the lectern “stepping on your toes” highlighting that if you miss on of Wednesday night, Sunday morning and Sunday evening services then you are in danger of breaking this “command.”

Now…I do not have the time nor the energy to discuss what this verse means in context but I simply bring it up to highlight how many feel about church attendance. Some see church attendance as the barometer of a person’s spiritual atmospheric pressure. In response to that many have said that we cannot use church attendance in a checklist-Christianity-mentality because, as some have said, many simply just attend church services and then act how they want to act as soon as they leave the building. There is some truth to that.

Yet…perhaps church attendance is like a method of transportation but is not the only way to transport. What I am saying is that church attendance has gotten a bad rap. I do not think it is healthy for any leadership to place judgment on those who can’t (note I am not saying “won’t”) attend every time the door is open.

But…and this is a big but (:))…I don’t think it is healthy for church members to develop habits that make missing church services a fairly easy decision. The gathered assembly is a vital time to center who are in worship, community and mission. When we assemble it means “we love each other, we love God and God loves us” to borrow phrases from Dr. John Mark Hicks.[1] A cursory reading of Scripture lends one to the conclusion that if the church is the imagined community of God then assembly is the natural growing fields of that community.

I simply do not buy in to the argument that one can get their “church” by watching it online or on the television. At that point worship becomes a product instead of an identity. I understand some may be home bound and certainly this does not apply to them.

May we gather to the assembly and meet our brothers and sisters in sweet communion.

___________________________________

[1] See his three part series on the assembly here (1, 2, 3). Also he co-wrote a book with Johnny Melton called A Gathered People: Revisioning the Assembly as Transforming Encounter in 2007.

7 Signs Proving Your Church May be Out of Touch with Your Community

Have you ever looked at pictures of abandoned buildings in Detroit? A website called Detroiturbex has hundreds of pictures of abandoned schools, churches and buildings that were once esteemed in beauty but now house nothing more than rats and bats. I love the tab “now and then” because it highlights this stark contrast between what used to be and what currently is. Here is an example:

Cass Technical High School

I look at those pictures and I am reminded of many churches that have closed their doors because they no longer have enough membership. The reason many churches close their doors is that they simply have become irrelevant to the community around them. This was no surprise to many of them as dying usually does not happen overnight with churches. They ignored the signs and refused to change and so, like a slow cancer, the death took a while but it surely came. Below I share 7 signs that your church is out of touch with its community. These come from many articles read, being a minister for 11 years and having conversations with many people in leadership.

#1 Your church does not look like your community

I have spent plenty of time with this before but suffice it to say that if you are a church in a multi-racial and an economically diverse community yet your church is filled with a homogeneous race and economic group then you are out of touch with your community. In the leadership Jesus chose he had the rich (tax collectors), poor and everything in between. His leadership looked like a sample from first century Palestine. I know people disagree with me on this but I firmly believe our churches need to represent our communities racially and economically.

#2 Your church lacks young families.

How many twenty somethings are in your church compared to older folks? Are there a lot of children in your church? If our churches lack the young families we need to ask the question, “Why do we not have the young families attending our church?”

#3 Your church has an intractable, unilateral programming.

Meaning, your church only has programs that benefit…wait for it…your church. Two words: GOSPEL MEETING. I saw a sign the other day that read, “Come to our gospel meeting,” and I cringed a little. This is insider language that only a select group understands and the meeting itself is really geared toward those in the “know” anyways. Think about it for a second. How many unchurched, community people drive by and read a sign that says, “Gospel Meeting” and think to themselves: “Wow. That sounds amazing. I really want to go to that strange place and meet strange people because gospel meeting sounds really enticing.” That goes for many of the different programs that seem to benefit only those internally and not really appeal to those externally.

#4 Not many people from the community use your building.

Many churches are so protective of their building like it is the temple of David or something. If someone wants to use it for their wedding they have to give a background check, blood sample and if all of that passes they better not bring in an instrument. Because clearly an instrument in a building used for secular purposes is a clear sign that the mark of the beast is upon that church. Does your church allow AA, Al-Anon, Community Suppers (not the bait-and-switch kind), Charities or other organizations to use your building? If not, then your church may be more of a burden than a blessing.

#5 When a community event needs to happen your church is not called on to help.

Relay for life, 5k/10k runs, school support, blood drive, sports tournaments, community awareness meetings or anything along those lines. Living in Springfield, Tennessee there are a couple of churches that I hear who are always involved in community events. Whether it is hosting the hospitality tent at a state baseball tournament or having a booth and every local fundraiser these two churches are synonymous with this community. The cynic in me wants to say that it is more about marketing than the messiah but the realist in me says that they understand that if they are going to make a difference with the lost then they better make a difference in the community.

#6 Conversations in the church hover on the “good ole days” instead of today.

“Hey Bill.”

“Hey there Fred.”

“You remember when we used to have 450 people come to Sunday morning services?”

“Sure do, Fred.”

“We could get about 375 every night at the Gospel Meeting. Bro. Traveling Preacher would lay it on us thick each night.”

“Sure did, Fred. Stepped on our toes like we needed. They don’t make gospel preachers like they used to.”

“Heck no Bill. Man those were the good ole’ days weren’t they?”

“You ain’t kiddin’.”

Conversations like that in leadership and in the church are a clear sign that they do not have the pulse of the community in their minds and hearts. A blogger and youth ministry aficianado Adam McLane tweeted one day:

Your organizations best path forward is to stop investing in stuff that didn’t work yesterday. (@mclanea).

We have got to work on things that will improve our churches impact in the community right now and quit spending time on the hamster wheel of old ways of doing things. If we do it the old way it looks like this:

via GIPHY

#7 Nobody in the Community Talks About the Church

I understand this may be subjective especially if you live in a huge city or one with a bunch of churches.

“Hey my name is Sarah Churchmember and I go to First Church of Robertson County.”

“What church is that?”

“Oh…you know…First Church of Robertson County.”

“Not ringing a bell. Is it a new church?”

“No, we just celebrated our 100 year anniversary.”

“Whoops. Well I have lived in Robertson County my whole life and never heard of ya’ll.”

There are many ways to describe that conversation but a face palm seems to be in order. Does anyone in your community really know about your church? Can they tell you even exist? How? What tangible evidence exists to prove it? I am afraid many of our churches are pieces of brick and mortar that simply house our mundane worship because really we just want to be zapped up to heaven anyways.

Here’s the deal. My point and purpose of this post is to get you and your church moving to be a light to the community instead of a piece of property that pays the bills. To do that we have to be advocates for our community and super-involved from the leadership down to the pew members.

What would you add to this?

5 Ways You Can Help Your Church out Right Now

I am not an accurate forecaster but it seems that the church is going to continue to struggle on a number of fronts. People are looking for more authentic reasons to be a part of a church than simply because my parents did it and it is the right thing to do. Also, in my opinion, people in the younger generation want more than simply to show up for services. As someone who is in a leadership role I am sensitive to the next generation’s perceptions of the local church. Yet, I also believe strongly in intergenerational kingdom living and so I am sensitive to the other generations as well. I don’t think we should settle for “old churches, young churches, hipster churches, 1950s churches” but we should, in the name of unity, blend the two. It starts with helping the church you are at right now. Here are five ways to get the ball rolling…

#1 – Make Sacrifices for the Church

I cringe when I hear people talk about how difficult it is to plug into the church because it is fairly “inconvenient.” Their schedules simply do not have room for it. When I respond with, “I usually make time for things that are most important to me,” they then will say, “Yeah but you don’t know how busy we are bud.” Here is the blunt truth I had to grasp: Following Jesus is inherently inconvenient. Click To Tweet. I am a youth minister paid by a church and there are many Sunday mornings I do not want to be there. If you are appalled by that statement then try having a service project all day Saturday, running to two baseball games, one soccer game and then spending three hours finishing my bible class that night. Yet, I consider it a sacrifice that I am continually making.

#2 – Have Open Communication with the Leadership

I think many elderships need to practice more transparency but many parishioners need to seek them out and have dialogue with them. An eldership should know their flock but the fact of the matter is that they cannot help what they cannot hear. I hear many horror stories about how the only time elders hear comments from the members are when they do not like a particular minister. ME GENOITO!

#3 – Ask the Four -Word Question

“How can I help?” How many of your churches have these statements in your bulletins:

  • Need teachers.
  • Need nursery attendants.
  • Need pantry items.
  • Need chaperones for youth trip.

I get tired of seeing those as much as you do. So here is the deal. Go to your leaders and ask them, “How can I help?” If they respond with, “I don’t know,” then leave the church. More than likely they will respond with, “Here are five options for you but please pick one.”

#4 – Support the Church Financially

Shameless. I know. My salary depends on generous donations from folks who see it fit to help fund the work of a local church. Churches need to be stewards with the money given but sometimes we are limited because our funding is down. I am one of those who has struggle to give because of, well, poor choices and student loan debt. Yet, many Americans simply do not see it fit to donate to any charity.

Average percentage of income donated to charity by income level

So on average many of us only give 3-4% of our adjusted gross income. While I think we should give from our hearts, most see 10% as a good barometer for donation. Maybe you can’t do that right now but I would ask you to sacrifice (point #1) to help the local church and other parachurch organizations.

#5 Set up Roots Somewhere

I had a conversation like this with someone who graduated from college:

Me: What’s up dude? How’s the new job?

Dude: It’s going well man and I am loving the new church we have plugged into. I hope you understand why me and Dudette decided to go there and not come home.

Me: Dude…no worries man. I want you to go where you will plug into the local church and be able to lead others and glorify God.

Dude: Thanks Robbie!

Some churches have ego issues when people decide to go somewhere else other than their own church. Numbers are important but if they are plugged into a church somewhere then we should be happy. What I don’t advocate is to church-hop every 2-3 years and using the church like a buffet. Set up roots and plug in.

There you have it. Five ways to help your church. What would you add?

Why are our churches not racially diverse?

Why in the world are our churches not more racially diverse?

I am typing this post on a wonderfully mild February day enjoying the sounds of the neighborhood kids playing in our front yard. For whatever reason our yard has become the hub for where the neighborhood kids gather and play football, basketball, tag and a host of other things. The kids seem to get along because they all go to school together. They blend really well. Yet they all seem to have a different race. Here is the sampling of kids playing right now:

  • Hispanic – 4 Kids
  • Caucasian – 7 Kids
  • African-American – 2 Kids
  • Kurdish – 2 Kids
  • Mixed Race – 2 Kids

The amount of diversity in Springfield is astounding. Using 2013 data here is what our city looks like in terms of racial diversity:

  • White – 10,193 (61.3%)
  • Black – 3,918 (23.6%)
  • Hispanic – 2,142 (12.9%)
  • Two or more Races – 1.5% (249)
  • Asian – 105 (0.6%)
  • Native American – 25 (0.2%)

I would say that the numbers for 2016 have grown even more than that now. You would think a rural town like Springfield would not have as much diversity but it does. I would challenge you to go to City-Data.com and discover your diversity in your own zip code. It is fascinating.

Yet, I would say that most of the churches in our city do not accurately represent that diversity. In other words, what you will find is that each church will either be Hispanic, black or white but never a mixture like the numbers above. So say you had a church of 350 in Springfield and say it was diverse like the numbers above it would break down like this:

  • 210 White members.
  • 84 Black members.
  • 45 Hispanic members.
  • 11 Members dispersed above.

I am not sure what your situation is like and I certainly do not want to paint with a broad stroke but the fact of the matter is that most of our churches are poor representations of being multi-ethnic.

Why? They started out that way and never changed. Speaking for the churches of Christ I know for a fact that many churches in the south would have a white church help support the institution of a black church so that each race could have their own church but not have to intermingle with each other. I once heard of a white minister who was helping a black man with some benevolent needs. The man was visiting the all white church often when one of the elders of that church came up to the minister and said, and I quote, “I wonder if it would be better if he attend the _____________ church down the road where there are people like him there.”

Let the brevity of that statement sit on your heart for a bit. Then understand that those words were said in 2010, not 1955.

Why in the world are our churches not more racially diverse?

I know that some churches actually exist in a city or county where there is no racially diversity even in their population. I understand that. Yet, far too long we have had homogeneous churches with a homogeneous vision. We have come a long way from Jim Crow but in many aspects we still have a long way to go. Now I hear people with snarky comments against “the Mexicans” (a term people use for anyone who is Hispanic) and do not get church-folk started on people who are Muslim. That is a whole different animal in and of itself.

“Robbie, why can’t we just have white churches, Hispanic churches and Black churches? I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

John, exiled on the island of Patmos, saw a vision from heaven and it looked a bit different than many of our current churches:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.” (Rev. 7:9-10)

If every tribe will eventually be gathered in heaven why not let the kingdom now look like the kingdom that will be? The fact of the matter is that many churches are in sharp decline and simply refuse to take the steps it needs in order to adapt to its surroundings. There are a lot of ways to describe their lack of movement but the word I am thinking of is “death.” Perhaps you have heard it said that the most segregated hour in America is during worship on Sunday morning (MLK said this I think?).

I am also not naïve in thinking that there are no potential issues in trying to start a multi-ethnic movement. People from different cultures have different worship styles, time management issues and preaching. So many churches that want diversity simply want others to conform to their ways of doing church. I would think some give and take would be in order much like the Jew/Gentile dilemma the Jerusalem church faced in Acts 15.

Perhaps what I advocate is too much. I know the work would be tremendous and the amount of flack from the community would be enormous but I think it would be a movement God would smile on. In many ways this may have to start in a church plant as an original vision of the church instead of asking a hundred-year-old church to change their thinking (not sure they could or would).

I plan on purchasing Rodney Woo’s The Color of Church and weighing through some of his material. I interviewed him years ago on some things that burdened my heart at the time. You can see the interview below.

7 EASY Ways to Help Your Church Leaders

I am not sure what your church hierarchy looks like. You may have a committee of men conducting business meetings, or maybe you have just one man who leads a group of people. Most of you reading this will have a group of men leading called elders who “shepherd” your church, drawing the members closer to being disciples.

This post is about how to support and encourage those people who lead you at church in  whatever capacity they serve.

#1 – Pray for them

Shocker. If I did a random poll of those who attend church regularly I wonder how many of them said they pray for their leaders on a regular basis. It is hard to pass judgment on someone when you are praying for them. Give them a call, send them an email or shoot them a text saying, “I am praying for you.” Careful though…they might die of a heart attack if they see this out of the blue text.

#2 – Back them up

It is not hard to get on the negative bandwagon. With as many opinions (expert I am sure) people have about how a church should perform it is easy to criticize those in leadership. Shannon Alder said, “Your perspective on life comes from the cage you were held captive in.” Make that cage positive friends. Back them up.

#3 – How can I help?

This question may also lead them into cardiac arrest. I am not sure how many times this was said to me but each time I was completely floored by this question. “How can I help?” is a question nobody in leadership (who has a right mind) will turn down.

#4 – Communicate with them

I remember bemoaning a leader’s style because this particular person never prayed with me. A friend of mine was very helpful in his rebuke: “Robbie, did you ever communicate to him that you wanted this?” Ouch. Communicate everything with them (not with others) about how you want them to pray for you, lead you, help you grow, etc.

#5 – Handle your own problems

Your leaders are not glorified school principals. Big boys and girls solve their problems face to face. If you have a qualm or disagreement with someone then work it out. Don’t gossip about it and don’t use the leadership as leverage for your problem. If you have tried to work it out and the other person is not trying then go to the leaders for discernment.

#6 – Attend church functions

We love that you come to worship services but we want more from you. We want you to plug into a ministry and be present in the community life of the church. We are not equating church attendance with spiritual vitality yet we think there is some correlation there which helps you grow.

#7 – Give them the benefit of the doubt

We all make mistakes and their decision(s) on a particular subject(s) might not be the best or most ideal. Sometimes leaders make decisions that we do not practically agree with but in many of those circumstances they deserve the benefit of the doubt. Many. Whenever you come to a judgment of criticism think to yourself, “How would I have responded if I were in their shoes?” It is tough leading church folk.

REAL QUICKLY: YOU SHOULD NOT SUPPORT YOUR LEADERSHIP WHEN…

  1. Moral failure is involved. Jared Bumpers makes a wise statement in his post, “Supporting your lead pastor“: “1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 both contain a list of moral characteristics preachers are called to display. These are non-negotiables, and pastors who disqualify themselves must be lovingly confronted.” I would add that this applies to anyone who is in a leadership position. If they are failing here then our support is not required.
  2. False Teaching. Some benefit of the doubt here but when it is clear they do not know the Scriptures nor care about them then you need to leave. This does not mean throwing a fit for issues that are opinion-based but issues that are clearly abiblical.

What would you add?

If I visited your church, would I matter?

A couple of Sundays ago I had the opportunity to go to a different church other than the one I serve. I always love going to new a different places than the current context I am in because it allows me to get new ideas and worship without worrying about being a “leader.” I want to share my frustrating Sunday morning.

  • I wanted to visit Church A but I could not find the worship times on their website nor an updated calendar (seems to be an epidemic).
  • Instead I decided to visit Church B for class. I went to Church B walked in after their early service and tried to find a class. No greeters to help me along the way. No signs locating classrooms and topics. I wandered aimlessly for about 8 minutes. I decided to leave.
  • I went to Church C because I knew their exact class time. I walked in, was greeted nicely and invited over to sit down with them over a cup of coffee. I finally felt like this was going to go well. I sat down and they talked about the weather for 20 minutes. I went to class where I was the youngest person (by 25 years…I am turning 35 next week) and we studied (eh hem…read) from a prefab class booklet.

My Sunday morning was off all because, as a visitor, I could not find my way. I want to post later this year about how to specifically help your church with visitors but I just want to ask the question first:

If I visited your church, would I matter? Click To Tweet

Casting Crowns sang and rather inditing song called, “If we are the body” where he chronicles people who encounter church folk and their subsequent responses to those encounters. Here is a sampling of the lyrics…

A traveler is far away from home
He sheds his coat and quietly sinks into the back row
The weight of their judgmental glances
Tells him that his chances are better out on the road

But if we are the body
Why aren’t His arms reaching?
Why aren’t His hands healing?
Why aren’t His words teaching?
And if we are the body
Why aren’t His feet going?
Why is His love not showing them there is a way?

Thom Rainer wrote a post a couple of years ago entitled, “Top Ten Ways Churches Drive Away First-Time Guests?” and here are the 10 ways:

  1. Having a stand up and greet one another time in the worship service. 
  2. Unfriendly church members. 
  3. Unsafe and unclean children’s area. 
  4. No place to get information. 
  5. Bad church website. 
  6. Poor signage. 
  7. Insider church language. 
  8. Boring or bad service. 
  9. Members telling guests that they were in their seat or pew. 
  10. Dirty facilities.

I can certainly resonate with many of these. Looking at the list which ones does your church struggle with the most? Thom did this as an informal Twitter survey but I would say these are certainly true for many of us.

So what would you add to this list above? Would I really matter if I attended your service? Do you even care about visitors?

5 Things Church Bashers Have Taught Me

In the last six months within the Churches of Christ I have seen a number of different issues that seem to garner much attention over social media. The pattern (though not always) seems to go in this order:

  • Controversial issue[1] occurs at a church
  • Issue finds its way to social media channels
  • Ensuing social media discussion follows
  • Bashing of churches (or people) usually in a derogatory way.
  • Further polarization.

Church bashing is nothing new and I am sure this occurs in denominations all over the planet. I can only speak from what I have seen in my small little corner of the world which, admittedly, is very limited. I want to share 5 lessons I have learned from those who bash churches but I want to first give a disclaimer.

DISCLAIMER: There is a difference in “bashing” a church and speaking truth to a church. I understand many are hurt by various churches who have either misused their authority or have appeared very much like the Pharisees Jesus spoke against. Jeremiah and a host of other prophets called the people of Israel to radically change their lives to pursue a more authentic walk with God free from hypocrisy. Church bashing is characterized by those who are more concerned about their “rightness” instead of helping churches become filled with God’s “rightness.” All churches need prophetic nudges at times but the bashers are those who seem to speak out of anger rather than love.

So here is what I have learned from those who bash the church…

#1 They have lost their focus

I talked with a baptist minister recently and the topic of differences between us came up and what he said was, I thought, very wise:

“To be honest Robbie I don’t have time to focus on all of our differences when their are so many people lost out there who need Jesus.”

Thinking about what he said I wonder if all of our efforts to talk about what this church has done or that church has done is akin to us shooting ourselves in the foot. In the animal world they call this type of thing filial cannibalism where animals eat their own kind. The Hebrew writer (whoever she is…) told us to “fix our eyes on Jesus” (Heb. 12:2) and if we are doing that we know that his focus was to “seek and save the lost” (Lk. 19:10).

#2 – They have forgotten the beauty of church autonomy

One of the reasons I love the Churches of Christ is their firm belief in the autonomy of local churches. Each church is governed by a local eldership made up of a few men who meet the principles found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. One of the unspoken maxims is that the Church of Christ has no creed but the Bible. I like that. But I also like the Apostle’s Creed and Nicene Creed but I digress. When someone comes up to me and says, “Robbie, did you hear what Church A has done?” my usual response is, “Who cares? Church A is not your church so let their eldership worry about it so we don’t have to.” If there is serious error in the church then it is biblical to sit down with their elders and discuss things but that is about all you can do. Even doing that might be a bit of a stretch. Calling them out in public forums and putting them on Brotherhood Watchdog lists does nothing but feed the belief that we actually are not autonomous.

#3 Church bashing comes from all sides

It is tempting for some to think that “legalists” are the ones who bash churches but I have seen it from all over. These are actual statements I have seen or heard:

  • “That church just started using praise teams. Bunch of liberals.”
  • “You don’t want to go to that church as they preach with the NIV.”
  • “Their youth group goes to Winterfest. Pretty soon women will start preaching for them.”
  • “Why don’t you come to our church. That other church is stuck in the 1950s.”
  • “Nobody cares about that church. They are irrelevant and will slowly die off.”

All of this is church bashing and it comes from those who are progressive and those who are more conservative. This leads me to a very important point…

#4 Church bashing lacks humility

When I get to a point where I have to prove to someone just how right I am I might need to read Philippians 2:1-11 again and do a serious heart check. I would say that humility is a Christian discipline par excellence and that when we do not have the interests of others in mind then we find ourselves wanting in regards to humility. I certainly do not possess a corner in the market in terms of understanding the best position a church could be in theologically or otherwise but who does?

So…

#5 Church bashing comes from different views on how we interpret Scripture.

“I can’t believe that would do such a thing like that! Can’t they see it is plain as day in Scripture?” The short and less complicated answer to that is, “No.” Practicing some humility is it not healthier to say that maybe the method we use to interpret Scripture might not be the most accurate or theologically helpful way? I think there are plenty of things in Scripture that are “non-negotiables” but I also think there are plenty of things that are negotiable. How we arrive at those conclusions is very important but admittedly the tension arrives because we often use different systems to get there.

In the end I think it is biblical for other churches to confront churches that are in error but to bash them in a way that is demeaning, self-serving and free from love is something, I believe, the Lord is displeased with. I have done this before in previous posts years ago and I fully believe I did this with arrogance and no humility in me whatsoever. It is easier to bash something you don’t understand than to try to wrap our brains around it. I want to be known when Christ comes again not for poking fun at the bride of Christ but by making every effort to being peaceful with both those I agree and disagree.

IMAGE CREDITS: United Methodist Communications

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[1] When I say “controversial,” those who are not associated with the Churches of Christ (or Stone-Campbell Movement) might be scratching your heads thinking to yourselves, “What is he talking about?” Some of the controversial issues in our context are (but certainly not limited to): women in leadership, instrumental music, praise teams and open fellowship.

THE COMPLETE BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO AUTHENTIC COMMUNITY – PART 4 – The New Testament and Authentic Community

To see the first three posts visit http://www.robbiemack.co/category/blog-series/a-beginners-guide-to-authentic-community/ and it will give you a chance to cycle through the posts in order.

Something I want to say at the forefront of this post is that the six points I wrote about in the Old Testament concerning authentic community does not vanish away at the death of Jesus. They are still woven in the fabric of God’s people just like they were thousands of years ago. We still, for example,  are to be a holy people (Lev. 11:44 with 1 Pet. 2:9), look out for each other (Psalm 82:3-4 with James 1:26) and we have a similar ethos (Deut. 6 with Matthew 22:39-41).

So what do the New Testament authors of scripture testify as to the nature of authentic community?

Authentic community in the New Testament is inextricably bound with the Church. That does not mean we cannot get community elsewhere but it seems that if it is to be authentic it must come from the church. This is the place where the divine nature of God comes down to be with man to experience perfect fellowship with one another. Paul said, “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Rom. 12:4-5).

As such, the authentic community has a divine purpose. Paul says that Jew and Gentile are reconciled sinners to the cross and are now citizens of the kingdom with Christ now reigning (Ephesians 2:11-22). The important thing to think about is that this new community of believers has a bond with all of humanity where there is no separation based on race or class (Gal. 3:28). The ultimate goal of this community is to enjoy God’s creation forever when the new heavens and the new earth begin (Rev. 21:1-5).

People participate in/with authentic community by having faith in Jesus, committing their lives to him as disciples and going down in the waters of baptism to initiate that process. George Eldon Ladd is helpful here:

The ekklesia welcomed into its fellowship all who accepted the proclamation of Jesus as Messiah, repented, and received water baptism. Now that Jesus is recognized as the resurrected and exalted Lord, baptism becomes the outward sign of admission to the Christian fellowship, and believers are baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38). A Theology of the New Testament, p. 387.

Participants in the community are equipped to perform acts of service (diakonos) that mirror God’s love for humanity and his reign on earth. Grenz’s outline on this concept is incredibly helpful to me:

  • Worship – Giving God the glory that belongs to him.[1]
  • Edification – Building each other up to maturity (Eph. 4:11-13)
  1. Mutuality (one anothering) – Living in harmony with one another (Rom. 12:13; Gal. 6:1-2; Heb. 10:24-25)
  2. The Church as a Praying People – The vehicle through which ministry occurs (James 5:16; John 17:15-17). “Central to all intercession is the desire that believers come to know and reflect the divine will.”
  3. The Church as Community to Its Believers – “Community is a group of people who are socially interdependent, who participate together in discussion and decision-making, and who share certain practices…that both define the community and are nurtured by it.”[2]
  • Outreach – We exist to minister to the world around us
  1. Outreach as Evangelism – proclamation, announcement of the reign of God, disciple making and prayer is crucial.
  2. Outreach as Service – serve the world in his name, involvement in social action, ministry of service, prayer is crucial.

Authentic community is a group of folks infused with hope.Scot McKnight in Kingdom Conspiracy said, “…if the final kingdom centers on a fellowship of God with the people of God, of the people of God with God, and of the people of God with one another, then fellowship in the here and now anticipates the final kingdom.” We long for the wrongs to be made right and for the disposal of evil. But, as my southern friends say, “It ain’t happened yet.” So we hope with anticipation and joy for Jesus to come again (1 Thess. 4:13-18). 

What would you add to this list?

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[1] Stanley Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 486-510.

[2] Robert N. Bellah, Habits of the Heart (Berkley: U of C Press, 1985), 333.

[3] Scot McKnight, Kingdom Conspiracy (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2014), 201.