Friday, January 12, 2018

How can we help without hurting?

Daily, we observe listless transients, hoisting scraps of cardboard emblazoned with slogans like, “Anything will help -- God bless!” Kingsport’s ubiquitous homeless community migrates well beyond our downtown, so it’s not hard to bump into them, you’d have to purposely avoid them if anything. Considering that the homeless network regionally, have we attracted even more here because of our reputation?

What should you do about the plight of these poverty-stricken people and how responsible are you for their well being? Has our generosity proved ineffective at improving their plight? Moreover, can our efforts to help vagrants actually hinder their development?

What happens when we ignore the principle of Give a man a fish, feed him for a day? Similar to how rocking horses experience movement without ever going anywhere, have we unintentionally swapped progress for motion?

Such questions might sound counterintuitive, if not sacrilegious. Responding could prove more complicated than you think, considering how rapidly this dilemma is metastasizing.

Jesus’ response to this predicament didn’t promote laziness or inactivity (anymore than His sacrificial death promotes sin). He helped people and moved on. Jesus certainly wasn’t callous but He wasn’t fixated on poverty, nor was He ever hoodwinked. For example, when a certain crowd tracked Jesus down all the way from Galilee to Capernaum, He confronted their improper motivations, “Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” (JN 6:26 ESV)

Sadly, swindlers fleece the hospitable without intending to improve, and opportunists will repeatedly take advantage of anyone’s generosity. If getting conned is the extent of our involvement with the homeless, are we guilty of “enabling” them through poor stewardship?

Am I saying we shouldn’t help out? Not at all. Read Matthew 25:31-46, it offers a vibrant reminder of the value Jesus places on having benevolent hearts. In this parable, Jesus separates the sheep from the goats based on their responses to real needs. One set of people inherits God’s eternal Kingdom, the other set is exiled into eternal fire.

The damned in this parable aren’t punished for hurting people, instead, a careful reading reveals Hell is the consequence of their apathy. Notice, those rewarded with eternal life didn’t “earn” their salvation by doing good works.

They all appeared clueless as Jesus described their activities, their consistent response to feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc. was, “When, when when... when did we/didn’t we do this?” Were they contradicting Jesus, did they have amnesia, or was there something so seamless about helping others/neglecting others that it was simply “second nature” for them?

How do we know if our motives to help are “second nature” --or are we merely trying to alleviate guilty feelings from living a more privileged life? Analyze how much distance we purposely keep between our lives and theirs the rest of the week. It takes authentic personal, in depth connections and purposeful interactions with the folks we are trying to help to transcend just “feeling good about ourselves.”

It comes down to rejecting compartmentalization, restoring their dignity, and focusing on equipping them. You see, it’s one thing to maintain a sterile distance from those who are less fortunate while helping them at arm’s length. It’s quite another to learn their names, to know their stories, while teaching them to read, get their GED, to write a resume, find a job, get sober, or to meet Jesus...

Remember, Jesus healed people, fed people, raised people from the dead, cast out their demons, and more, as proof of His divinity -- once people believe in Who He is, they can believe in Him. Ultimately, He focused on rescuing people from the darkness and bringing them into the light, i.e., incarnationally transforming lives.

It’s tough balancing good intentions with common sense, but whatever we do, let’s avoid perpetuating helplessness. Supporting people without nurturing a culture of handouts/panhandling honors the Mission Jesus established.

What now? Whenever it comes to helping anyone out, ask: What’s the difference between touching someone’s life (feels good) and personally transforming them (does good), how do we overcome apathy, make lasting changes, and collaborate with folks who know what they are doing?

Thankfully, Kingsport has a cornucopia of well organized food-pantries, clothing-closets, and soup-kitchens. Having volunteered with a few of these organizations, I’ll attest to their place in our community -- the consistent work of the Salvation Army, the kitchen of Hope, Shades of Grace, Second Harvest food bank, and Broad Street Methodist is impressive. They aren’t alone, but they are very capable, going the extra mile in serving “the least of these.” I appreciate the hard work they’re doing and I encourage you to consider helping them financially, or by rolling up your sleeves alongside them as well.

If you’re feel led to do more, don’t reinvent the wheel, partner with those who are already hard at work. I’m not advocating abdicating your personal responsibility -- instead, amplify your effectiveness by joining with the people who are already active on the scene!

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Why people don't take you seriously and what you can do about it

Ever feel like the Surgeon General's warning label?  Gas pumps, cigarette packages, wine bottles, all carry warning labels that receive about as much attention as the stewardess who instructs us on how to buckle our lap-belt before takeoff.  Why, you might wonder, do our claims fall on deaf ears when we are so certain of the facts?

Have you ever felt like the boy who cried wolf?  Probably not.  At least, we wouldn't willingly compare ourselves to anyone who exaggerates or makes up a story just to be heard.  The reality is, most people when they hear you complain, disagree, take an opposing stance, or voice an unpopular view, they unknowingly attribute a degree of discrimination as they listen to your claims.

In other words, you lose credibility the moment you differ with most people.
Once you say what they don't want to hear, they don't take you seriously.

Why is it that people don't take us seriously?
For starters, no one wants to think their opinion is mistaken.  We don't enjoy being wrong.  We don't like it when others point out flaws in our thinking, and when they do, we get upset and begin to protect our point of view.  And the best way to protect ourselves is to subconsciously discredit the person who disagrees with us.

Another obstacle to communicating our ideas stems from our presentation.  The louder we yell, the more they will close their ears, metaphorically speaking.  Emotional outbursts are the quickest way to turn off our audience.  We like movies that make us cry, but we get really uncomfortable when the people around us lose control of their emotions.

And why are emotions detrimental if you want to be taken seriously?  Projecting your emotions, right or wrong, seems manipulative to most people.  We feel like we are being sold something we don't want when people are overly emotional.

Another reason people hesitate to take us seriously is when we parrot unoriginal perspectives.  If you mostly quote other people or stand behind the views of a Party stance, you lose credibility.  People want to know what you think, not what a faceless crowd stands for. 

What else gets in our way? When your message contradicts your methods, people will reject you and your perspective.  If you constantly eat fast food and yet complain about a society of unhealthy people, no one will listen to you.

What can we do to gain an open minded audience?
Whenever we try to influence others, passionately, our body-language gives off signals that others interpret as manipulation.  Therefore, quit trying so hard to convince people you are right and they are wrong.  Accept the fact that as you present your ideas, the other person might not agree with your ideas, which relaxes you, and when you are relaxed, people can let their guard down.

The moment a conversation moves from a dialog to a debate, it becomes adversarial, debates require winners & losers and no one likes to lose.  The less defensive another person is, the more likely they are to consider our point of view.  Simply put, the more pressure we apply, the more they will resist us. 

If you truly want people to take you seriously and be swayed by your ideas, it comes down to this: Be consistent, be genuine, be honest, be yourself, and be willing to be proved wrong.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Until Christians "Wow!" the rest of the world...

It’s interesting that Jesus, as far as I can remember, never told the crowds, “I’m a big deal, in fact I’m the real deal. Now, watch as I amaze you and I’ll prove it to you.” Instead, it seems like most often, Jesus told the people about who He was in response to being questioned about how/why He did what He did. In other words, people were curious about what they saw -- His actions elicited an interest in Him, which caused people to ask more about Him.

These days, we’ve approached people differently. We have the habit of saying, “We are Christians, I’ll prove it to you...” which usually entails unpacking a long list of doctrines of which we are correct about, while having very little to do with our ability to “practice what we preach.” Rarely do our actions proceed our explanation, unless we are caught in a mistake...

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the impression Jesus left on people. I doubt many people of His day walked away from encountering Jesus feeling merely indifferent about Him. I think most all of the people knew from the way Jesus carried Himself and how He acted, He was the real deal.

It has occurred to me, people (probably quite frequently) used some culturally-relevant form of “Wow!” after interacting with Jesus. And I wonder how this world would be, if we too left this type of impression. Would churches even need to advertise? Would we have to invite people to visit our churches? What could happen if we wowed the world...?

Not all of the people were wowed by Jesus, obviously. He was crucified after all. Still, there is something in Jesus’ example for us to consider implementing. People said “Wow!” or something to its equivalent, because was Jesus so special.

Guess what, you are special! Sadly, I think we forget this. I’m not writing about Jesus’ wow-factor to make you feel guilty or to discourage you, no it’s quite the opposite. I want to encourage you. I want you to rethink how you approach people (or rethink how we respond to our difficulties in front of others), and how you can lead others to a better understanding of you really are and what God is really like.

Remember: We have been raised to a new life by God, we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and we are set free from sin and death! People will recognize our christianity when we live out what is within. We won’t have to “prove” our faith to them -- it will be evident. Hopefully as we face life’s challenges and sufferings people will ask, “How do you do it?” based on how we respond to our circumstances.

Life isn’t easy, and in fact for some of us it’s quite hard at times. What are you facing today, what are you going through? I can imagine it feels like you are the only one who has to deal with the problems you have, and maybe you are. This much I know, people are watching you, they are observing, and they will draw conclusions about you and your God as they watch.

We can’t expect people to react with amazement when we merely do something nice or good. Why? Simply put, because that is an expected behavior. For example, last week a cashier at the grocery store overpaid me when he gave me back my change. I mentioned he might want to recount the change as I handed him a $20 bill back. He didn’t say a word. No, he didn’t even fall to his knees asking how to find salvation. He didn’t ask me why was I so kind. If he had shortchanged me instead and I respond that politely, then he might have wondered to himself. Who knows, but I think you get the point.

I want to live my life, going forward, helping people to say “Wow!” and that might happen when I do good things. More than likely, I think it will happen as a result of how I control myself when the typical response for most people might be a display of hatred, anger, or revenge.

The world doesn’t need another Messiah, Jesus already died on a cross. The world needs more people who die to themselves daily and who reflect the image of their Risen Savior in every and all circumstances.

Until we “wow” the world on a more consistent basis, I don’t expect much to improve. I think the news will continue to be filled with mass-shootings, rampant crime, and gross inequality -- until that day comes. In the meanwhile, as I think of the potential of the wow-factor, I can’t help but think of the old saying, “Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.”

Saturday, October 28, 2017

What can Pres Trump teach our churches?

Let me clarify, this piece isn’t about politics and I’m not interested in getting political. Instead, the current object lesson playing out in Washington is too valuable for us to pass up. Love him or hate him, President Trump’s administration illustrates a mental-trap many of our churches fall into. Trump was used to doing business with businessmen and he assumed that his style of leadership would automatically/seamlessly translate over into the White House. Has it?

Regardless of what he has or hasn’t accomplished in your view, Trump’s agenda faces challenges. Why? It’s my opinion that Trump thought he could manage politics like he did business. Instead, it looks to me like politicians respond very differently to different methods of motivation. Elected officials might not hold the same values or feel the same pressures from certain types of leverage in the same way someone from the world of business does. And this gross misunderstanding is where we in the church can learn a valuable lesson.

By the way, the subject of President Trump is a lightning-rod issue and our nation is polarized about his position. Neither idolizing him nor demonizing him helps much, but, according to Scripture, since he is a government leader, praying for him is every believer's responsibility.

Back to my point. Unfortunately, many of our churches mistakenly think that an executive/manager who is successful in the marketplace automatically makes for a good church leader. Worse yet, our churches often adapt a worldly business model of leadership because of the influence of the folks we typically select to lead us.

You can’t “run” a church like you do a business. Well you can try, no one here can stop you.

The people with whom you worship with don’t want to be managed, they long to be led -- they deserve to be nurtured and encouraged. The mistake Trump made in thinking one type of leadership translates into all fields, is the same mistake we make when our churches gravitate towards gifted leaders who are successful in their places of work without realizing business acumen isn’t a guaranteed promise for shepherding God’s people well.

I’m not saying people in the business world are disqualified from serving and leading in our churches because of their profession. That’s not my point at all. Besides, I know really great people with business backgrounds (even a few lawyers) who are very spiritual.

I am saying churches need to be led like a church, not like a business. The church is a physical manifestation of a supernatural reality. There isn’t a Dow Jones Industrial Average influencing our quarterly decisions. The WSJ isn’t evil, but it isn’t the publication we turn to for learning about living the Christian life.

We don’t go to auto-mechanics to fix our marriages, no matter how talented they are at being problem solvers, we seek out counselors. You wouldn’t take your child to a carpenter if they needed braces for their teeth. No matter how well a poker-player can read faces, we don’t ask them to teach a classroom full of students to read. If we want people to become more Christ-like we need to find people who imitate Jesus to help us accomplish that, wherever we find them and from whatever their professional background may be. If we want our churches to thrive, we don’t need to look to a conference table half as much as we need to be gathered together around the Table.

Friday, August 25, 2017

We will thrive when

We live in strange times.  Though I imagine every generation thinks theirs is special, ours seems unique.  With all that’s going on these days, what could be missing?

Not long ago scientists discovered a tiny lizard, a chameleon, the size of an ant.  I can now browse the internet and “cast” a movie from my phone straight to my television, without using any wires.  Certain laws protect the speech of hate-mongers, but as we recently observed, instead of confronting racism our culture politicizes it without really improving the situation.  Meanwhile, across the pacific ocean there’s a dictator ruling a slim peninsula of land who is threatening our nation with nuclear destruction, but no one here seems to have a good way to handle him.  And earlier this week, millions of “eclipse tourists” traveled to watch the sun disappear in the middle of the day while a handful of others predicted these astronomical events were ushering in the Apocalypse.  

What’s going on?  With all of our advances and discoveries, life should be improving both in quality and satisfaction -- instead it seems like while we have more opportunities, we express less optimism.  We have so much potential, yet we seem fearful of the future.  

Perhaps too many people are living for “today” with no thought for tomorrow.   We live in the present, which in a sense is healthy, but being obsessed with the present isn’t.  Lately, we’ve attempted to rewrite our history in many circles while we’ve forgotten about our future in others.  

With all of the uncertainty that accompanies our global turmoil and the craziness that captures our nation as well, how are we supposed to move forward and keep our heads on straight?  It comes down to perspective.  It rests in being firmly rooted.  It depends on being anchored to something solid.    

I know you’re expecting me to say something about how we sharpen and perfect our perspective by focusing more on God.  While that’s true, the context in which God most often nurtures our lives is through family.   It’s not impossible, but it can be harder to stay devoted to God when we are disconnected from our families.  

Spiritually speaking, there seems to be a symbiotic relationship between how we understand/experience God and how we function as a family.  Honor your father and mother is in the same paragraph as don’t take the Lord’s name in vain.  God never said He hated divorced people, but He said He hated divorce because of its negative impact on the spiritual development of children (see Malachi 2:13-16).

Without being too simplistic, our fractured family structure is probably to blame for many if not most of our current woes.  Our culture experiences too much crime and when we’re not dealing with crime, it struggles with welfare concerns; these are easily traced to a breakdown in the home.  

There’s probably nothing more detrimental to our development than an absentee-father.  We can’t blame this poor estate of the modern family on a lack of education, we have more access to learning than at any other time in human history.  So is the church to blame?  

We are, by and large, products of our families.  Family can be messy, they can embarrass us, they can drain us, and they can wound us like no one else can.  Family also can be one of the greatest blessings this life has to offer.  

When was the last time you went to a family reunion?  When was the last time you enjoyed any inter-generational activity with family?  A meal with family members of different ages, or even a game night?  Family reminds us of where we have come from, what’s truly important today, and why our future is so special it deserves to be protected.

Does this mean that if I have the perfect family, my life will be perfect?  No.  But common sense tells us when we are more secure in our home we are more confident out in the world around us.  Perhaps, the best gift you can give your children might not be a good college education or a new car, it just might be the example you set for them on how you treat each other.   

If you have a healthy family, thank the good Lord above regularly and take some time to share your love and experience with those less fortunate.  If your family isn’t all it could be, pray for your family and purposefully spend more time with godly families who can help yours grow.  Families only thrive when family is a priority.  

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

An open letter to people who hide their hatred behind the name of Jesus

I’m writing an “open letter” here, to you within a certain slice of the Christian population.  Dear rule-keepers, sticklers, and those who freely point out the perceived faults in the rest of us, please stop.  
Please stop spewing hatred and strife in the name of Jesus.  

Whether you know it or not, you are doing more harm than good.  Your legalistic attitudes and your judgmental behaviors, which you probably think are championing the Truth, are not serving God faithfully.  The reality is, you’ve joined those who “bind loads you can’t carry and you close the doors to those who would enter the kingdom.”  

My question to you is, when was the last time you changed your opinion on anything?  If you haven’t, then you aren’t growing or maturing.  If you have, then how do you deal with the fallout of your disagreements with those you challenged in the past, but now you see “it” differently?

Part of the damage you inflict is from your hateful/bombastic language and your use of vitriolic phrases, and too many people begin to think all believers have your attitude.  Then they are driven even further from the Kingdom, becoming doubly lost and this chastising approach of your is the polar-opposite of the Great Commission.  You are responsible for creating more atheists than Darwin.  
You see, instead of attracting people to Jesus, your legalism repels everyone else, making it nearly impossible for the other Christians to reach the people you’ve wounded along the way.  In case you didn’t know, judging people or shaming them embitters them -- it doesn’t endear them to you.  
Secluding or cocooning ourselves from the world, and then hammering everyone else who disagrees with our theological perspectives, ruins any influence we could’ve had for the Kingdom.  Not to mention, this is terrible PR for Jesus.  

We don’t have a Biblical precedent to be mean-spirited or hateful.  So, you set yourself apart from the world and judge it.  You may even love to quote John 3:16, but you’ve obviously overlooked John 3:17, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  Enough with the condemnation.  

Sadly, most everything which judgmental and legalistic Christians argue and debate over fall under “gray” areas.  From meeting times to the color of the carpet to the name over the door, to consuming alcohol and politics, from women’s roles to which translation of Bible is authorized, to the “style” of worship.  Ugh.  Why isn’t Jesus enough for you?

I’ve seen this damage firsthand, having been on the receiving end of condemnation drummed up by Christian witch hunts, and I’ve watched as friends wither, and I’ve cringed as loved ones suffer from the hands of Bible-carrying hatemongers.  I’ve seen the sincere and the seeker driven away, and it’s hard to swallow.  

When you label others as liberal or you think your theology is superior to everyone else’s, you’ve not said anything about others, you’ve only revealed more about yourself.   Your “stance” says more about yourself than it does others.  The end results of your animosity towards everyone who disagrees with your narrow perspectives are simply devastating.  People outside the faith avoid “church” and those within the fold are driven away by your actions.  And as people trickle away from the church, they lump all Christians into the same camp: Hateful, judgmental ogres.  This must end, quickly.

There’s no harm in holding different opinions on many doctrines, but how we articulate our differences and how we view/treat others makes all the difference in the world.  Remember, Jesus said all men would know we were His disciples by our love for one another, He didn’t say people would know we were His by being correct about everything or by our doctrinal accurateness...    

My guess is, if you prefer to judge or shame others, you probably suffer from some deep-seated insecurities.  People hide behind self-righteousness because it quiets their fears that they haven’t quite measured up or they aren’t good enough.  

Let me close this open letter with this thought: The very people who instigated the death of Jesus were religious to the core.  They believed they were in the right, but they were dead wrong.    

Friday, July 7, 2017

Are Christians blocking "church growth"

How do you feel about the lack of enthusiasm most people seem to display when it comes to church?  Many Christians lament the fact that, overall, North American church attendance has been steadily dwindling for years.  Some church-goers blame this decline on our decadent/depraved culture, others blame technology and our resulting lowered attention spans (read: church is boring), and others fall back on the Bible passage that says in the end-times, things will go from bad to worse.  

But, could we as believers be to the ones to blame for the universal lack of the church's growth? Perhaps where we've traditionally focused our attention has been detrimental to the Kingdom's growth.  So much of our "in-house" arguing/disagreements on the part of modern-day believers has relatively little to do with what Jesus taught about, or what lost people focus on.

Part of maturing spiritually is growing in the ability to reflect on our transformation and to see areas where we need to submit even more to the Spirit's leading.  It's my opinion that far too many of us waste time and energy on fruitless pursuits which will not win people to Christ, in fact I'd go as far as to say our corporate passions have pushed people away.

For starters, too many believers politicize church.  Regardless of your political affiliation, folks on both sides have merged politics and faith.  And, if you don't vote their way, you aren't voting for God's candidate.  An honest survey of the Bible will quickly reveal that there weren't many Godly leaders and most of the governments listed in the Bible were not led by believers.

How does our unhealthy obsession on politics damage our testimony?  Think about the strife & separation it's causing amongst believers, and then step back and think how outsiders view our insane divisiveness.   We have to stop allowing our political views from spilling over into our churches, and we need to quit this fantasy that we know is best for the world when it comes to the realm of government.  We can't even "govern" our congregations very well, how could we be so arrogant to think we can influence a less important organization like a temporary earthly government?   

The next area we might be faltering in is our immature attachment to church-property.  If you can’t imagine church without the church building, then we should stop and think.  If your faith, energy, and time are consumed by a church building and your rituals are constructed around programs, you might suffer from a case of religious pietism.

The question becomes then: Are you more in love with your religion than He Who reigns -- have you become more attached to the form of your religion than He Who forms us?

But, one might think, so much good happens within this structure.  Is it helpful, or is it a crutch we've become overly dependent on.  The age old church battle over change is a joke.  We argue over the color of the carpet while lost souls perish.  We’re acting like the staff on the sinking Titanic, rearranging the deck furniture while the lifeboats remained empty.  

If you can't imagine practicing the Christian faith apart from programs and parking lots or if the building dictates the majority of your decisions, there might be a problem.  I know these are unpopular opinions I'm sharing, but how much longer can we continue down this path before we realize what we are doing is counterproductive?  

But Craig, you are wrong! you may say. There are several churches with fabulous foyers and positive programs that are growing!  Actually, what we are doing in Christianity is shuffling the deck.  We've simply moved one herd from one location over into another pen, but the flock isn't expanding.  What's happening? People leave one church and go to another, without any net gain for the Kingdom.  Sure, maybe we are retaining Christians in the Kingdom, though that's doubtful, but are we reaching really lost people?  Nope, not really, not like we should be.  

What we win people with is what win them to.  In other words, what we try to attract people with is what they become.  If we win over their hearts with God's love and grace, then we help them to attach to Jesus.  If we win people over with programs, rituals, and stained glass, then we have lost our purpose and we have missed the mark because their loyalty will last only as long as the facade we've won them to does.

The church I read about in the New Testament never got involved in politics, they didn't own church buildings -- instead they focused on being disciples sharing the story of the Death, Burial, and Resurrection of Jesus.  They were Spirit led people who believed the return of Christ was eminent.  And somehow, all of that was attractive to a debased culture that deified their Emperor.