Saturday, December 20, 2008
First, the “why”-- I consider most of my blog-reading to fit into the category of “personal development,” in the same way that someone might read a newspaper or a trade journal. Maybe a dozen of the blogs I read are written by friends and strictly for the purpose of keeping me informed of their lives. The rest are related to something I am or that I do: ministry, writing, technology, productivity... plus a small handful of news blogs and feeds. This post is a perfect example of why I read blogs.
Now, a few more words about what sort of blogs I read. Here are some key factors for deciding whether I’ll continue to read a blog or feed:
- Teach me something frequently. A lot of the blogs that have earned a longstanding, permanent place in my feed reader* are there because they regularly give me something to chew on-- even if it’s “just” a quote or a short snippet of an idea. If you want me to look forward to seeing a new post from you, give me something to think about.
- Write with humility. Help me see that you don’t think you have the final word on a topic, unless it is your own opinion-- and in that case, help me see that you don’t think that yours is the only opinion that matters.
- Spending all of your energy selling me something. I won’t deny any blogger the right to make some money from their blogs, but don’t make it all about that. Just yesterday, I removed a feed because every post was centered around a book that was linked to (through an Amazon affiliate link) and the gist of each post was, “to REALLY learn about this, buy this book...”
- Toot your own horn often. It’s great to hear about something you’ve done that is praiseworthy. If more than half of the posts in a given week or month are all about your accomplishments (especially if they read like, “let me tell you about the great thing I just did...”), you can bet I’ll stop reading soon.
- Focus often on a topic that isn’t germane to your blog. It’s one thing to offer an occasional comment or idea about something that is apparently outside your normal field of topics; it’s another to spend a lot of time (yours and mine) on it, especially with a tone or voice that suggests that I should take your word as more than just another opinion. During election season, I dropped a couple of blogs from my feed-- one from a popular Reformed writer, and another that is supposed to be a news source for our denomination-- because both spent at least every other post hawking the editors’ personal political views.
- Put yourself forward as the watchdog for a particular group or cause. Someone recently said, “commentary is, sadly, always a few notches below creativity.” One thing I’ve come to despise is the set of blogs from folks who spend most of their time pointing out where everyone else is wrong. I tried reading some of the blogs that offer frequent discussion about matters in the PCA, but I just couldn’t stomach it.
- Write with no concern whatsoever for grammar or style. There are a few blogs that I would read regularly, if only the writers would use decent punctuation, capitalize properly, and break their text up in to paragraphs. As much time as I spend staring at a computer screen, if my browser is suddenly full of text that looks like an unbroken string of characters from top to bottom, my eyes glass over and everything goes fuzzy.
So, for whatever it’s worth, thats a quick summary of why I read blogs, and what sorts of blogs I read (and what sorts I don’t).
*I use a piece of software called a “newsfeed reader” that handles all of my blogs and other feeds. The one I use is called NetNewsWire. I only read blogs that offer an RSS feed (or something like it, that my reader can use)-- these notify me of new content and automatically summarize it for me. If a blog doesn’t offer a feed, I won’t read it with any regularity.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
NINJA HAULER: 2005 Nissan Xterra - $12900 (Ronan / Lake County)
Reply to: firstname.lastname@example.org [?]
Date: 2008-12-02, 7:25AM MST
OK, let me start off by saying this Xterra is only available for purchase by the manliest of men (or women). My friend, if it was possible for a vehicle to sprout chest hair and a five o'clock shadow, this Nissan would look like Tom Selleck. It is just that manly.
It was never intended to drive to the mall so you can pick up that adorable shirt at Abercrombie & Fitch that you had your eye on. It wasn't meant to transport you to yoga class or Linens & Things. No, that's what your Prius is for. If that's the kind of car you're looking for, then just do us all a favor and stop reading right now. I mean it. Just stop.
This car was engineered by 3rd degree ninja super-warriors in the highest mountains of Japan to serve the needs of the man that cheats death on a daily basis. They didn't even consider superfluous nancy boy amenities like navigation systems (real men don't get lost), heated leather seats (a real man doesn't let anything warm his butt), or On Star (real men don't even know what the hell On Star is).
No, this brute comes with the things us testosterone-fueled super action junkies need. It has a 265 HP engine to outrun the cops. It's got special blood/gore resistant upholstery. It even has a first-aid kit in the back. You know what the first aid kit has in it? A pint of whiskey, a stitch-your-own-wound kit and a hunk of leather to bite down on when you're operating on yourself. The Xterra also has an automatic transmission so if you're being chased by Libyan terrorists, you'll still be able to shoot your machine gun out the window and drive at the same time. It's saved my bacon more than once.
It has room for you and the four hotties you picked up on the way to the gym to blast your pecs and hammer your glutes. There's a tow hitch to pull your 50 caliber anti-Taliban, self cooling machine gun. I also just put in a new windshield to replace the one that got shot out by The Man. My price on this bad boy is an incredibly low $12,900, but I'll entertain reasonable offers. And by reasonable, I mean don't walk up and tell me you'll give me $5,000 for it. That's liable to earn you a Burmese-roundhouse-sphincter-kick with a follow up three fingered eye-jab. Would it hurt? Hell yeah. Let's just say you won't be the prettiest guy at the Coldplay concert anymore.
There's only 69,000 miles on this four-wheeled hellcat from Planet Kickass. Trust me, it will outlive you and the offspring that will carry your name. It will live on as a monument to your machismo.
Now, go look in the mirror and tell me what you see. If it's a rugged, no holds barred, super brute he-man macho Chuck Norris stunt double, then contact me. I might be out hang-gliding or BASE jumping or just chilling with my ladies, but I'll get back to you. And when I do, we'll talk about a price over a nice glass of Schmidt while we listen to Johnny Cash.
To sweeten the deal a little, I'm throwing in this pair of MC Hammer pants for the man with rippling quads that can't fit into regular pants. Yeah, you heard me. FREE MC Hammer pants.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
This quote demonstrates how thoroughly the ideas of “postmodernism” have influenced even the church. Without getting deeply into all of the aspects of postmodern philosophy, one thing that is notable is how the shifts in philosophy have led to consequent shifts in the seat of authority-- when, by “authority,” I mean the arbiter of truth, stability, and purpose. Follow with me:
Whether he realizes it or not, this pastor (quoted above) has clearly become convinced of the Post-Modern position, at least as far as whose role and duty it is to care for those in need. Historically, the Church has been the default institution that would be assumed to be charged with caring for the needy. In that sense, it would be just the opposite: the governmental services would be filling the gap the Church left.
How is that our mindset? Do we recognize that the Church’s job-- not the government’s-- is to attend to the needs of those in need? Do we understand the implications of this for the way that we vote or take up political activity? When we believe that the fundamental and primary solutions to our social and community problems is to vote the “right” person into office, have we sold out our biblical view of the church for a Postmodern illusion of solutions?
Monday, December 15, 2008
The Church Year
Q 1. Why do we have different seasons of the year?
A. God created the seasons for man’s use and enjoyment.
Q 2. What do Fall and Winter remind us of?
A. Fall and Winter remind us of sin and death because it is dark and cold.
Q 3. What do Spring and Summer teach us?
A. Spring teaches us that God brings light and life to the world through Jesus Christ.
Q 4. What does the church calendar chiefly celebrate?
A. The church calendar celebrates the life of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Q 5. Why does the church have her own seasons?
A. The church has her own seasons to teach the world that true life is found in Jesus Christ and to resist reducing life to politics and economics.
Q 6. How are we to sanctify the seasons that God created for our benefit?
A. According to 1 Timothy 4:5, we are to set apart the seasons with the Word of God and prayer.
Q 7. How has the church set apart the seasons with the Word of God and prayer?
A. The church has chosen readings from the Old and New Testaments for each season and has ordered the prayer life of the church to match the life of Jesus.
Advent & Christmas
Q 8. What does the word “Advent” mean?
A. The word “advent” means “to come” and has to do with the coming of Jesus.
Q 9. What portion of the life of Jesus does Advent celebrate?
A. Advent celebrates the times leading up to the birth of Jesus as well as his coming again at the last day.
Q 10. How many Sundays are there in Advent?
A. There are four Sundays in Advent.
Q 11. What are the colors for Advent and what do they mean?
A. The colors for Advent are purple and royal blue. They remind us that Jesus is a glorious King.
Q 12. What do we pray for during Advent season?
A. During Advent we pray that Jesus our King would continue to come to us and serve us as he has promised.
Q 13. In our Advent prayers are we pretending that Jesus has not yet been born?
A. No. During Advent we are praying for him to come to us again and again as he has promised.
Q. 14. How did God fulfill his promises to his people in the Hebrew Scriptures?
A. God fulfilled his promises by uniting himself to our human nature in his Son, who faithfully lived a perfect life of service, died the death we deserve, and was raised to life again as the new man, and all this for our salvation.
Q 15. How has Jesus promised to come to us today?
A. In many different ways—to be with us on Sunday for worship, to help us daily when we are in trouble, and at the end of the world to establish the new heavens and earth.
Thanks Jeff! Also, be sure to check out Jeff’s collection of posts defining and defending Advent and Christmas.
Friday, December 12, 2008
If the factors I mentioned are at play, it is easy to see why churches remain small. To refresh, there appears to be an inherent limit to the number of relationships we can actively “manage” in our heads, and that number is somewhere around 150. Many more than that, and evidence shows that people naturally begin to break into smaller groups. This built-in limit, I suggested, is the reason why churches often seem to hit a wall around the 150-200 size and cannot easily grow larger than that.
Back in the 1970s, some smart men began to study the idea of church growth, and their studies realized about the same thing: without (apparently) applying the sociology and psychology that I mentioned in the last post on this topic, they nevertheless arrived at 200 as a cap for what they called “small churches.”
[An aside: why 200, instead of the sociologically-proven number of 150? Here’s my reasoning: in a church with 200 members, it’s easy to imagine that 50 or so are not actually a part of the regular social and relational life of the congregation. There will always be home-bound and shut-in folks who are elderly, sick, or otherwise unable to regularly attend worship and other activities. There will inevitably be a few households where part of the family-- maybe the wife and children, but not the husband-- are more active than the rest. And there will be others who are considered members of the congregation-- and even consider themselves as members-- but are either in the process of switching to a different congregation or their commitment to participation in church has ebbed. So a congregation with a membership of 200 probably has 150 or less people in active participation.]
This study eventually became known as the Church Growth Movement, led by Dr. Donald McGavran. Now, this movement has its fair share of critics, and in many cases the critics make important points. Let me be clear about this: I’m not promoting the Church Growth Movement, or suggesting that I accept and promote all of the theories, principles, or methods of that movement. I do believe, however, that there is much to learn about the life of the church from them.
One of the men who has written more recently as a part of that movement is Gary McIntosh, a professor at Talbot School of Theology, which is the seminary of Biola University in California. McIntosh is a prolific writer, but the work of his that I want to focus on here is called One Size Doesn’t Fit All, and details the differences between the different-sized churches.
McIntosh breaks all churches down into three categories by size:
- Small churches-- 15-200 worshipers
- Medium churches-- 200-400 worshipers
- Large churches-- more than 400 worshipers
Now, it’s worth mentioning here that 80% of all churches in the U.S. are smaller than 100 in membership (which means they are even fewer than that in worship attendance), while more than 90% of the churches in the U.S. are 200 or less. So the second and third categories that McIntosh describes represent less than 10% of all churches in the U.S.
Still, these are helpful categories because of what McIntosh goes on to develop in terms of how each category differs in how it must be led. For example, McIntosh says that the structure of a small church is as a “single cell” while a large church is a “multiple cell” structure. The leadership in a small church resides essentially in key families, while in medium churches it resides in committees, and in large churches it resides in select leaders. Decisions in a large church are made by staff and leaders and are driven by vision, whereas in a medium church they are made by committees and driven by changing needs, and in a small church they are made by the whole congregation and driven by history.
I won’t get into details about any of these; I won’t even try to present the whole paradigm to you about how the sizes differ. But I want to draw out a key, crucial point about this that McIntosh develops: the “medium church” size is almost always a transitional stage. In other words, small churches that are growing and reach that size will typically either continue to grow and eventually hit “large church” size, or they will reach the struggles of the “medium church” for a season and that will push them back to a small size.
What are the struggles of the “medium church” that either force continued growth or natural reduction? Here are some of the things that McIntosh points out: since decisions are driven by changing needs, things always seem to be changing which brings a sense of instability. The obstacles to growth for a medium church are inadequate facilities, inadequate staff, inadequate finances, poor administration, and increasing complexity-- all of which demand a change in status quo. Consequently, the strategies for growth in a medium church are: develop a distinct identity, add additional staff, use facilities multiple times or expand facilities, offer multiple worship services, write a long-range plan, and improve the quality of ministry.
You can see how implementing these growth strategies could result in the congregation soon becoming a “large church”. On the other hand, failure to address the growth obstacles and other difficulties that a “medium church” faces will bring a natural reduction in their numbers-- which, by returning them to “small church” size will bring the stability that the members and leadership craved during the struggles of medium church status.
This is why, historically, churches are usually big or small. However, some churches and other ministries have tried to find another way-- and I’ll discuss that in a future post.
Monday, December 8, 2008
So I’m back to it now, and I’m pleased to announce the winners: Adam and Kara! Congratulations, y’all. I apologize for taking so long.
Adam, I have your mailing address; Kara, would you e-mail me yours?
I think many of us look at “Advent” and, internally, we ask, “What means this?”
Sure, a lot of us go around at this time of year reminding everyone that “Jesus is the reason for the season” and that we must “keep Christ in Christmas.” Some folks have taken things a lot farther in attempting to define (or redefine) the “true” meaning of this season. And of course we can always give the default answer: that it’s all about Jesus.
But do we really get what it means? Probably not-- I certainly find myself learning more about it all the time.
“Advent” is a derivative of a Latin word that means “coming” or “arrival.” Thus, Advent is focused on the coming of Jesus as Messiah. It is a season of preparation, anticipation, and waiting. It has traditionally (and by traditionally I mean, in the church and for Christians, not in the traditions of Americans in the last 50 years) been a season of fasting, reflecting on the individual and corporate need for a Savior, and openly longing for the soon-coming return of Christ to reign forever.
Christmas (and Christmastide), on the other hand, is a time of celebration, of feasting, focusing on Incarnation of the second Person of the Trinity as Emmanuel, “God with us.”
So it should make sense to us that Advent is distinct, and quite different, from Christmas. Historically, Christians have set Advent apart from Christmas in these ways (among others):
- With an entirely different set of hymns for Advent from the carols of Christmas
- By fasting throughout Advent, while anticipating the feasts (yes, multiple feasts) of Christmas
- In decorating their homes for Christmas in the last days of Advent-- even traditionally on Christmas Eve (think of the scene in a Christmas Carol when Scrooge visits the family who, on Christmas Eve, is decorating their tree together)
- By having worship services that were marked by more solemn and quiet tones than at other times, especially Christmas
If you’ve been thinking, “What means this?” about Advent, a couple of good resources to learn more are Ken Collins’ Web Site on the Season of Advent and the “All About Advent” page at Churchyear.net.
- Living Streams: Journeys of a Life Well-Lived by Stuart Briscoe. This memoir is from a pastor/preacher I had heard of, heard some lectures by, and even read an article or two he had written, but didn’t know very much about. (I was mostly familiar with him through his wife’s ministry, which publishes the magazine Just Between Us for ministry wives.) I found in him a wonderful and humble man who God has clearly used in mighty ways, telling the story of how God uses His saints. Briscoe began preaching at age 17, and now at 80 has a wealth of wisdom and insight into ministry, which oozes out of every page. (9+)
- The Crucifixion of Ministry by Andrew Purves. A great book on how ministry isn’t all about us. Think of this one as a pastoral theology of sorts, with the brunt of the focus on how the Gospel is primary at all times. There’s some helpful discussion of how this looks, and a healthy dose of rebuke and humility. I needed this book, even though in some ways I didn’t feel ready for this book: there is a base assumption in Purves’ writing that most of us have gone astray in this manner, and I’m not sure I’ve been in ordained pastoral ministry long enough to be as entrenched as he assumes-- but maybe that in itself affirms how much I needed it. (8+)
Friday, December 5, 2008
This time, I want to encourage you toward an article that appeared recently in First Things, which is a wonderful journal about religion and culture. The article, by Joseph Bottum, is entitled “The End of Advent” and it reflects very helpfully on why Advent is so crucial to the Christian life.
A couple of key excerpts:
...the disappearance of Advent seems especially disturbing—for it’s injured even the secular Christmas season: opening a hole, from Thanksgiving on, that can be filled only with fiercer, madder, and wilder attempts to anticipate Christmas.
I find this to be the crux of the matter, and a huge reason why Advent is so important. Why, after all, DO we anticipate Christmas? It is because of what Christians have historically focused on during Advent: our growing awareness of our need for a Savior, and our longing and anticipation for the coming of One.
Advent has been lost, though-- and in losing it, we’ve lost the purpose for Christmas. (Why do we need a celebration of the incarnation of God Himself if, after all, we have lost our sense of awareness of the need for a Savior?) The fruit of this is that Christmas becomes a nostalgia-fest, looking backward instead of looking forward. Here’s more from the article:
Maybe that’s what has happened to Christmas. The ideas and the emotions have all broken free and smashed their way across the fields. From Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s I heard the bells on Christmas Day / Their old, familiar carols play to Irving Berlin’s I’m dreaming of a white Christmas / Just like the ones I used to know, there has been for a long time now something oddly backward looking about Christmas music—some nostalgia that insists on substituting its melancholy for the somber contrition and sorrow of forward-looking Advent.
Ironically, such a nostalgic approach to the days leading up to Christmas-- I won’t call that Advent, since it clearly isn’t-- too often longs for the Christmas of our childhood. And what was that? A time when we couldn’t wait for Christmas to get here, yet a sense that, daily, it WASN’T here yet. A time when the days before Christmas had something oddly special about them. Bottum captures this exactly:
When I was little—ah, the nostalgia of the childhood memoir—I always felt that the days right before Christmas were a time somehow out of time. Christmas Eve, especially, and the arrival of Christmas itself at midnight: The hours moved in ways different from their passage in ordinary time, and the sense of impending completion was somehow like a flavor even to the air we breathed.
Yet, even that has shadows of that true sense of Advent, doesn’t it? A longing, an anticipation that was so real and present that it shaped how the days even felt.
Isn’t that what Christmas-- and Advent-- bring to the Christian’s life? We know our need; we know also that our need has been, is being, and finally and completely will be met in Christ. And we long for that in Advent, which leads us to celebrate its realization at Christmastide.
I highly recommend Joseph Bottum’s brief article, “The End of Advent.”
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
I find much of the baggage of evangelicalism stifling to my faith, my ministry, and the life of the church. I appreciate his gentle critique, and find it helpful to have some new categories to think in.
What do you think of it? Could you consider yourself a “Post-Evangelical” according to these criteria?
Saturday, November 29, 2008
No sign of the buck(s) that is inevitably with them; he is almost certainly playing it safe just inside the edge of the woods, since it has been a busy hunting season around here lately (I’ve regularly heard gunshots from the church grounds.)
Friday, November 28, 2008
Hearing the announcements that some department stores would be opening as early as 4am this morning, Marcie and I shook our heads in awe. What about the poor employees? we thought-- wouldn’t that mean they would be forced to be there earlier, probably 3am? They ought to be paid extra wages for coming in that early, just to serve others’ greed.
Well, the wages of sin (including greed) is death-- and the Valley Stream, NY Wal-Mart can vouch for it. It seems a Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death when the surge of crowds pressing in (having literally broken down the doors) flooded into the store.
No one stopped to help him. No one heeded the other employees who were trying to help him. Their eyes were blinded, hearts hardened, and minds clouded by the lust and greed that drove them in.
In fact, others were injured in the same incident, including an expecting mother. One of the policemen present said, “I’ve heard other people call this an accident, but it’s not. This certainly was foreseeable.”
If I bought the hype that the government holds the answers-- that so much was “at stake” in the election earlier this month that Christians truly had reason to fear-- then I might think, “they ought to pass a law banning this sort of thing.” And maybe they should anyway.
But the answer to this isn’t legislation; friends, the answer is repentance. We need to repent, as a culture and as a nation, for the sins of greed, lust, decadence, and envy. We need to repent of the idolatry of stuff that breeds the phenomenon of “Black Friday.” We need to repent of our desire to get something for nothing-- and for our support of a corporate culture that overcharges so much for goods that they can be discounted so steeply on sale days like this. We need to repent of being able to foresee how our greed and lust could lead to others’ injury, yet doing nothing about it.
And we need to pray for the family of Jdimypai Damour of Queens, NY, as they learn a new meaning to the label “Black Friday”-- that they would be drawn to Christ, that they would know true love and grace in Jesus, that they would forgive us for our sins that led to the apathetic killing of their loved one.
This is not a Wal-Mart problem; this is a society problem. As a part of that society, I am culpable and so are you. God, forgive us.
December 14 1 Peter 1:3 -- The gift of hope
December 21 Hebrews 1:1-4 -- The gift of revelation
December 24 Isaiah 12:3ff -- The gift of joy (Christmas Eve Candlelight Service)
December 28 Luke 11:1-13 -- Learning to pray
Thursday, November 27, 2008
I trust you and your families are resting, feasting, and enjoying the community and fellowship of family and friends. We are having a small but delightful family gathering here in Oakland-- my sister came down from St. Louis to join us for the weekend. We’ll have turkey, rice and gravy, green bean casserole, pineapple and cheese casserole, yeast rolls, and pie. This afternoon will be about rest, football, and feeding babies.
I apologize for the general slowness of posting here lately. I hope you will excuse me for putting pastoral ministry and family above blogging. I plant to resume more regular/frequent posting in the next week or so.
Meanwhile, here’s a recent shot of the twins-- they are growing fast.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Monday, November 17, 2008
In my view, Jesus Creed has become as close to an online “church” as it is (currently) possible to do so-- the readers are the congregation, and Scot is the Pastor, and he regularly feeds them from the Word and encourages them in the growth of their faith, while they learn and grow together in fellowship and discussion.
Scot recently had the opportunity to expand the reach of his blog, and after careful consideration, he took it. When he announced the changes that would take place (which included “moving” the blog to a large online community called BeliefNet), he got mixed reactions. Here is an example:
My concern about a lowered level of dialogue remains also. There is thoughtful, quality commentary in many of the actual articles on Beliefnet. But perusing the comments and looking at those ads mentioned above, Beliefnet feels more like the fast food station in Wal-Mart, while this blog has felt like a cozy community-owned cafe that has its own community-shaped culture. Maybe rather than the McDonalds in Wal-Mart, the Starbucks in Barnes and Noble is a more fair analogy to Beliefnet, I don't know. I'd still prefer the locally owned coffee shop with its own community based culture over the corporately created ambience of the B&N Starbucks. I hate the fact that this sounds snobbish. But the level of discourse here is one of the reasons I come, and if in order to find one thought provoking comment I have to wade through multiple posts that don't follow the basic rules of logic or show an awareness of how to make a point cogently while trying to ignore obnoxious advertisements, then I'll probably come less often.
This comparison-- small vs. big, community-based vs. corporate, local vs. chain, etc.-- reflects a common posture toward the church today, and one that is the fruit of social, psychological, and anthropological constructions. While the Jesus Creed blog isn’t a church, it presents an interesting case-study that helps us understand why churches are usually big and growing larger, or small and staying so.
It turns out that we have built-in levels of capacity. Seven happens to be the highest number of memorable digits-- which is why the Bell company originally chose seven digits for telephone numbers: they wanted the highest number of digits possible that would still be something easily committed to memory. Psychologists have tested this and proven that, by and large, this is a built-in limit for most people. They call this “channel capacity.”
Our built-in limits to handling information affects us relationally, too. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has developed extensive theories about what writer Malcolm Gladwell calls our “social channel capacities.” Here’s Gladwell describing Dunbar’s findings:
If you belong to a group of five people, Dunbar points out, you have to keep track of ten separate relationship; your relationships with the four others in your circle and the six other two-way relationships between the others. That’s what it means to know everyone else in the circle. You have to understand the personal dynamics of the group, juggle different personalities, keep people happy, manage the demands on your own time and attention, and so on. If you belong to a group of twenty people, however, there are now 190 two-way relationships to keep track of: 19 involving yourself and 171 involving the rest of the group. That’s a fivefold increase in the size of the group, but a twentyfold increase in the amount of information processing needed to “know” the other members of the group. Even a relatively small increase in the size of a group, in other words, creates a significant additional social and intellectual burden. [Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2000), pp. 178-179.]
This inherent increase in complexity explains why growing groups appear to struggle, while static groups seem to be more consistently content: there is an intellectual and social challenge attached to growth that is correlated in an exponential way to the addition of members. For every single person added to the mix, that represents an additional challenge of much more than one more relationship-- and that addition increases with every new member.
[Quoting Dunbar] “The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us. Putting it another way, it’s the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.”Dunbar has combed through anthropological literature and found that the number 150 pops up again and again. For example, he looks at 21 different hunter-gatherer societies for which we have solid historical evidence, from the Walbiri of Australia to the Tauade of New Guinea to the Ammassalik of Greenland to the Ona of Tierra del Fuego and found that the average number of people in their villages was 148.4. The same pattern holds true for military organization. “Over the years military planners have arrived at a rule of thumb which dictates that functional fighting units cannot be substantially larger than 200 men,” Dunbar writes. [Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2000), pp. 179-180.]
So we’re beginning to get the point: we tend to cluster into groups of 150 or smaller. Does this apply to churches too?
Yes it does. One more quote from Gladwell:
Then there is the example of the religious group known as the Hutterites, who for hundreds of years have lived in self-sufficient agricultural colonies in Europe and, since the early twentieth century, in North America. The Hutterites (who came out of the same tradition as the Amish and the Mennonites) have a strict policy that every time a colony approaches 150, they split it in two and start a new one. “Keeping things under 150 just seems to be the best and most efficient way to manage a group of people,” Bill Gross, one of the leaders of the Hutterite colony outside Spokane told me. “When things get larger than that, people become strangers to one another...” At 150, the Hutterites believe, something happens-- something indefinable but very real-- that somehow changes the nature of community overnight. “In smaller groups people are a lot closer. They’re knit together, which is very important if you want to be effective and successful at community life,” Gross said. “If you get too large, you don’t have enough work in common. You don’t have enough things in common, and then you start to become strangers and that close-knit fellowship starts to get lost.” Gross spoke from experience. He had been in Hutterite colonies that had come hear to that magic number and seen firsthand how things had changed. “What happens when you get that big is that the group starts, just on its own, to form a sort of clan.” He made a gesture with his hands, as if to demonstrate division. “You get two or three groups within the larger group. That is something you really try to prevent, and when it happens it is a good time to branch out.” [Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2000), pp. 180-181.]
This explains why the readership on Scot McKnight’s blog are antsy about the changes that will draw more readers and, by implication, commenters (who will become members of this online community). They have felt the struggle of that exponential increase in social/intellectual challenge before. They realize that it will happen again-- to a community that they love. They are acting on instinct.
This is also what happens in any church-- especially an historically small congregation-- that experiences rapid growth. The original members push back instinctively. Pastors and leaders tend to dismiss this as a poor attitude toward growth, but what Gladwell wrote above suggests that it is more than that, and far more unconscious and innocent than that.
I’ll continue this post
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
- Fascinating stuff: looking at NFL football from all the angles, through new online-only services.
- Good words on what Christianity should look like. (HT: Christopher)
- Things like this make me think we get closer to the Prime Directive every day. I love the idea; but can businesses survive on the advancement of brand alone? Something tells me this would only glut the already bloating market for consultants.
- Interesting article: “Why not a 40-MPG SUV?” This offers a lot of apologetic for my piece on vehicle taxes.
- Great words from my friend Paul on Preparing for the Word-- Paul, you’ve made me want this book!
- Thanks to Ligon Duncan for this excellent advice on praying for our President-Elect.
Saturday, November 8, 2008
To combat the problems and struggles of being overweight, our culture offers us a number of “solutions.” (Sadly, our culture doesn’t offer any real help for the struggles of being underweight.) You can take pills that will suppress your appetite. You can have the fat literally sucked out of your body, and even have your digestive system permanently altered so that you are physically unable to eat “too much.” You can buy into a “subscription” diet program where every bit of your diet is prescribed for you. All of these will cause you to lose weight-- and there is nothing inherently wrong about any of them.
But none of them address the real problems of overeating. With some relatively rare exceptions, every chronic overeater does so for the same sets of reasons: as a coping mechanism, because of lack of self-control, out of greed, or even because of boredom. How does a person overcome these?
A friend of a friend asked exactly this question. He had been a collegiate wrestler, and this had completely messed up his metabolism. When he found himself significantly overweight not long after college, he determined to deal with it in a manner that is a consistent outgrowth of his Christianity. He called it “felling the idol.”
Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols. ~John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 1, ch. 11, sec. 8
The real solution to the problem of overeating is to turn away from the idols in our hearts and find our hope in the Lord. What does that look like for an overeater? Maybe realizing that Christ alone will pacify the sadness and turbulence in her heart. Maybe owning that a biblical view of moderation will make us more satisfied in the long run, not less. Maybe in finding outlets for our boredom in a creative endeavor rather than only in food. Maybe relearning how to eat in moderation, enjoying the delights of food that God made (and that He made good). (As programs go, Weight Watchers does a good job helping with this.) Maybe starting an exercise program that improves your health and complements a healthy and moderate diet.
The bottom line here: Christians must learn to face the sin and fallenness that causes them to overeat and struggle against that-- not simply treat the fruits of that sin and fallenness with solutions that don’t get to the heart of it. What if eating in moderation was your natural inclination, the fruit of the Holy Spirit granting you self-control?
This can only happen if we think and live like disciples, not like food vessels that expand and contract mechanically.
So it goes...
The same is true for other perpetual struggles. For example, over the past 15 years there has been a substantial rise in use of pornography, even among Christians (and the struggle isn’t unique to men, either). One recent statistic suggests that as many as 50% of Christian men and 20% of Christian women are addicted to pornography (comprehensive statistics here.) The rampant availability of pornography on the internet accounts for much of the increase in this problem, while our over-sexualized culture easily accounts for the rest.
So, what is a Christian to do about that? Well, the “stomach-stapling” solution is to simply activate the filters and blockers that are built into many computers, or perhaps subscribe to a similar (but more effective) service that offers the same. And there’s nothing wrong with doing that. But this is treating the symptoms, not the root problem.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. ~Matthew 5:27-28
A service like Covenant Eyes is a step or two in the right direction: beyond mere filtering, Covenant Eyes offers internet accountability, where a report of your internet activity is regularly e-mailed to one or more accountability partners, who (one would presume) have agreed to exercise true accountability if they see something amiss. As I said, this IS better-- it puts in place a system and structure that allows real growth and healing through accountability.
Even better (perhaps in addition to using something like Covenant Eyes) is to get deeper. God has created sex (and sexuality), and He made it good and pleasurable. He also designed it for certain contexts and relationships. A biblical treatment of the problem behind pornography (and addiction to it) is to face the sin of addiction, the struggle of lust, the indignity of objectifying others, and the neglect of God’s beautiful and perfect design. We must fell these idols in order to truly deal with a struggle with pornography.
Christians can do this-- it isn’t impossible to overcome addiction or a struggle with pornography. Resources like New Man magazine and Mark Driscoll’s e-book Porn-Again Christian are good places to start. The church can help, too, by making it safe to discuss this struggle (and other “taboo” topics) honestly and without fear of judgment or ill-treatment. What if desire and lust were checked quickly, and dignity and God-honoring treatment of others instinctively came to mind, as the fruit of Christ at work in you to restore a righteous view of people and relationships?
This can only happen if we learn to live like disciples instead of amoral, sexually perverse creatures.
Broadening the application...
So, if we deal with overeating only by treating the symptom through stapling our stomachs or denying ourselves food, we’ve missed the point. Likewise, if we deal with a struggle with pornography only by cutting off our connection to it, we haven’t truly dealt with the sinful lust in our hearts.
I would argue that we would do the same by making the outlaw of abortion our sole approach to dealing with the sin of abortion.
Make no mistake: I believe that abortion is a sin. I am appalled by the statistics related to legal abortions in the United States, and long to see it eradicated as a practice. I believe that, as a nation and a culture, we all have blood on our hands and ought to be regularly on our knees in repentance.
But if our agenda for dealing with the sin of abortion is simply to make it illegal, we’ve ignored the sin behind abortion. In short, we’ve become Pharisees-- who were utterly concerned with the appearance of righteousness, but inwardly were indifferent.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. ~Matthew 23:23
What about the sin of immorality that led to many of the pregnancies that were aborted? What of the sins of selfishness and lazyness that drove some to abort because a pregnancy-- let alone a baby-- would be too much of an inconvenience? What about the sin of those around an aborting mother, who allowed or even drove her to believe that abortion was her best option? What about the sin of a culture that leaves so many children languishing in foster care and orphanages because we won’t step up to adopt? What about the sin of a world that tolerates a highly-sexualized culture-- even participates in and encourages it-- that persuades children to take sexual relations so casually?
There is great sin involved in abortion. Be assured of this: if we do not attend to the litany of sins wrapped up in abortion, we will not reduce abortion substantially simply by making it illegal. Abortion wasn’t invented in 1973, and it wouldn’t be eliminated by the passing of legislation.
But if we fell the idols of abortion, we create an environment where abortion is reduced or even eliminated because it isn’t necessary. Women and men alike take sexuality seriously enough to not engage in it lightly, and they take responsibility for their actions if she does get pregnant by not aborting (and by giving the child up for adoption if they cannot properly care for him or her). The culture around them supports this out of an inherent value of all life, and few children who need adopting aren’t adopted, few mothers who need spiritual, social, and financial support lack it. No one who faces the struggle of being pregnant at a young age or out of wedlock becomes a pariah, because all acknowledge that their sins are just as severe-- and yet neither do they go without loving accountability.
What if abortion was essentially eliminated from our culture because there was no need for it?
It can happen if we learn to think and act like disciples, rather than political activist culture warriors.
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
Thus, I offer the following modest proposal to solve several problems at once:
An annual federal property tax should be assessed on vehicles that fit criteria deeming them fuel-inefficient.
Here’s how it would work:
- All vehicles would immediately be subject to the tax. (Any vehicle may qualify for exemption based on a set of criteria-- see below.)
- Any vehicle with a fuel efficiency rating of 20 MPG or higher* would automatically be exempt. This rating would increase on a regular basis (more on this in a bit).
- Any vehicle that is registered as an antique would automatically be exempt.
- Any driver may also qualify for exemption of one or more vehicles, as long as he/she can demonstrate that circumstance require them to drive that vehicle (more on this in a bit).
- Any driver may also qualify for exemption of one or more vehicles, as long as he/she can demonstrate that the vehicle was used for carpooling to work for a certain percentage of the mileage driven.
So, for example, a farmer, general contractor, or other laborer who uses a pickup truck for his daily work would qualify for exemption and would pay no tax. A family with more than two children that owns a minivan would qualify for exemption and would pay no tax. A working musician whose performances require him/her to carry gear in a full-sized van would qualify for exemption and would pay no tax. And if any of these can demonstrate that multiple such vehicles all fit the exemption qualifications (a farmer with more than one working truck on his farm, for example), all would be exempt. Commercial vehicles would automatically be exempt.
Furthermore, any individual or family who preferred a larger vehicle such as an SUV or a pickup truck would be free to own one, or as many as they would like-- they would simply have to pay a tax for it. Those who want them for recreational purposes would likewise be free to have as many as they want, provided they pay the taxes. (The exception of cars and trucks registered as antiques is not a threat to the integrity of the concept, since such registration includes a mandated limit on mileage driven per year.)
The tax would need to be a high enough rate-- $200 or $250 annually, perhaps-- that would deter folks from casually or thoughtlessly buying a gas-guzzler. Every year, the MPG rate should increase by a mile or two, to “encourage” the auto makers to improve on the fuel efficiency of their vehicles.
The proceeds from this tax should be split three ways:
- Up to ⅓ would fund an annual tax credit for drivers of high-MPG vehicles such as scooters, hybrids, and electric cars (50 MPG or more). The remaining amount would be divided evenly between the other two efforts:
- ½ would subsidize gas costs to keep prices affordable, so that the economy isn’t affected so drastically as it was over the past year.
- ½ would support government-funded research into alternative fuels and renewable energy sources.
It might not be a perfect system, but I think it would be a good move.
*The average Miles per Gallon (MPG) of passenger cars in 2006 was 22.4, while “other 4-wheeled vehicles” averaged 18.0 that year. Since that was two years ago and the average, it is safe to assume that most cars and even trucks would qualify for this exemption initially.
Monday, November 3, 2008
- Sound words on how to think about what happens tomorrow from Dave Burchett (author of When Bad Christians Happen to Good People). If you read only one of these, read this one.
- Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed has an open response to a letter about “can a Christian support Obama?”
- Here’s a helpful list of suggestions for standing in line while waiting to vote, from Mac|Life magazine, of all places.
- This video has been making the rounds-- good words by John Piper:
- And here is a critical response from Justin Taylor, Publisher of Crossway Books.
- If you’re looking for a write-in candidate, Internet Monk has invited suggestions (and gotten a good number of responses).
My guess is that the race won’t be quite as close as the “undecided” numbers suggest-- in other words, we’re not in for another 2000 marathon, I’m betting. (And for what it’s worth, a full 20% of voters were undecided as late as September 2000.)
Most of the scoffers are either single-issue voters, straight-ticket devotees, or those who love to believe the spin, rumors, and lies. Anytime I hear, “he [or she] scares me” I realize I’m dealing with a scoffer-- and probably one who has put political movement (above all else, including God’s sovereignty) forth as the hope for our future security and happiness.
The real surprise (though most of the scoffers don’t think of it in this way) is how many voters are undecided because they are finding their normal categories for decision-making challenged or even turned upside-down. But considering these gives answer to the question, “why still undecided?” Here’s a glimpse of what I mean:
- Categories of faith: this could be seen as a “neither,” “both,” or “really? him?” category. Senator Obama is a professing believer, and has spoken openly about his Christian faith. Senator McCain is, at best, tight-lipped about whatever faith he professes (some will say that his choice of Governor Palin was a direct appeal to the faith-based vote). Even if you doubt the sincerity of Senator Obama’s profession-- or worse, believe the misinformation about him being an alleged closet-Muslim-- that, at best, makes him and Senator McCain even on what is typically a category where the Republican candidate has strength. (As an aside: I think President George W. Bush has done a lot to erode this as a Republican stronghold. While I don’t doubt his faith, he has been inconsistent, at best, in applying his faith to the decisions he has made.)
- Categories of role: I think almost everyone has assumed that the first woman elected to be president or vice-president would be a political liberal-- thus, most Christians were comfortable that they could oppose the politics behind the leader, and not have to speak to the gender or role issues. Governor Palin turned that on its head, stepping forth as a professing evangelical Christian AND a Feminist (she’s a member of Feminists for Life) and breaking all of the stereotypes. Now Christians are forced to decide: do they really oppose Feminism? Do they inherently oppose a woman in leadership? Can they be consistent in voting for a ticket that could put a woman in the Oval Office, while still maintaining that she mustn’t hold an ecclesiastical office? There are no easy answers here, but I think most Christians who hold a complementarian view about women’s roles recognize that they have a difficult decision in supporting the McCain/Palin ticket.
- Categories of ability: There’s no doubt that Senator McCain has more experience and preparation to serve as president, by far: distinguished military service, multiple decades in national politics, and broad and deep familiarity with foreign policy (and the people involved) add up to an impressive resumé, and Senator Obama cannot hope to compete at this level. However, Senator McCain faces an obstacle of inability that his experience has no sway over: perception, both domestically and internationally. Given that the perception of Senator McCain is that he would essentially represent a continuation of current policies-- which have been increasingly unpopular-- he is facing something of a lame-duck posture, whether he is actually that close to President Bush’s policies or not. On the other hand, Senator Obama is seen worldwide (and, for the most part, within the U.S.) as a break from status quo and a pursuit of true change. Couple that with Senator Obama’s support with congress, which will probably increase in number of Democrats, and whatever ability Senator McCain has is balanced out.
- Categories of issue: Yes, some of the single-issue topics polarize the candidates. On abortion, for example, there is little doubt that Senator Obama supports legislation that protects abortion rights, while Senator McCain is a strong opponent of abortion (and its legalization). On other issues, however, what should be important to Christians is not necessarily a shared priority with Senator McCain. Education and poverty, for example, don’t really rank as significant issues with Senator McCain, but Senator Obama has highlighted both as areas of priority. Even on the abortion issue, Senator McCain’s lack of substance on poverty undercuts the viability of any progress there, since a decrease in abortion will certainly amount to an increase in social need. Isolating the issues doesn’t help the voter understand which candidate is a better one. The media hasn’t helped, with some painting Obama as a socialist (he’s not), while others declare McCain as a warmonger (he’s not).
- Categories of tradition: Some voters are beginning to question the assumption that the “right candidate” will automatically equal the advancement of their political agenda. After 20 years of Pro-Life presidents in the White House, the legality and restriction of abortion is roughly the same as it was 30 years ago. With health care taking a prominent place in the election process for the past 20 years, the reforms that have been advanced by subsequent presidents have not made much headway in improving care or making it more affordable. Many of the undecided voters seem to be favorable to looking past these sorts of issues (what have been “traditional” deciding points for elections) and at other factors.
- No “good” candidates: More than anything I’ve heard this season, the comment I’ve gotten the most is, “I’ll have to pick the lesser of two evils.” This seems utterly unsatisfactory when it comes to how we pick our next president. My sense from the undecideds I’ve talked to is that their consciences are heavy about this attitude, and they have been holding out for further input that might shape the idea of “good” or “bad” perceptions of the candidates-- or inwardly debating a write-in.
Given these points, I don’t have difficulty understanding the undecided voter’s ambivalence. What about you-- do you have any thoughts about it?
Friday, October 31, 2008
There’s a lot of good stuff around commemorating today. Here’s quick round-up.
My friend Paul has a good summary of why Reformation Day is significant.
My friend James does too. (Also, check out his introduction to a good Reformation hymn.)
GA Junkie offers a different perspective on Reformation Day, also interesting.
Ligonier Ministries is giving away a nice Reformation Day gift: a “free” Reformation Study Bible with any donation.
Ed Stetzer offers an interesting perspective on haunted houses and “hell houses”.
Along the same subject, Internet Monk asks: where does the Bible say that Satan wants people to go to Hell?
You want to know what scares me? This (video below)-- which combines both Reformation Day and the scarier parts of Hallowe’en: the false gospel that is the prosperity gospel.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
- Churched by Matthew Paul Turner. I’ve already reviewed this book here. (9+)
- Preaching to a Post-Everything World by Zack Eswine. Nevermind that Zack is a friend and a former professor of mine; this was one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. It was like a post-graduate course in homiletics (the study of preaching), and a much-needed and appreciated re-charge of my vision for my own preaching. Zack picks up where Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Preaching leaves off and runs many miles further down that road. My one regret of reading this book is that I was only able to absorb about 10-15% of it, which means I need to re-read it every 6-12 months for the next several years. If you’re a preacher or teacher, this should go to the top of your must-read list. (10)
- How Would Jesus Vote? by D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe. I’ve reviewed this one already, too. (5)
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Was I right? Yes and no-- but, sadly, mostly yes.
The book is divided into three sections-- Jesus and Politics, The Issues, and Final Thoughts. The first section is very good, with good rationale for why a Christian ought to be concerned with the political process, a check on the notion that all of the answers are found in political solutions, and an encouragement toward a well-considered “World and Life View.” Though Kennedy’s political views are present in the three opening chapters, it isn’t offensively present. I found my skepticism being challenged, and I began to have hope that this book may be exactly the resource the church needs.
Let me take a moment to say what I mean by “offensive” in this context. Everyone has political opinions, even if their opinions are simply, “I don’t care.” But when someone who is influential in a non-political arena-- such as the church or an educational context-- utilizes their position to advance their personal political preferences and opinions, they are abusing their position and deceiving those under their leadership. I find this offensive, especially in the case of a pastor or other church leader.
Which leads me to the second section, The Issues. There are 10 important and considerable issues discussed here, and in spite of my initial skepticism I had hopes that Dr. Kennedy would handle them fairly and biblically, based on the general appreciation I had for the first section.
I was wrong. In almost every case, Dr. Kennedy presents only scant biblical support for the views and opinions he proffers in The Issues. Instead, he puts forth his opinions and biases, sometimes with Scriptural support and sometimes without much biblical input at all. Worst of all, he concludes each chapter in the section with a “How would Jesus Vote?” summary of his opinions.
Take the environment as an example. Are there biblical texts that speak to the environment and the Christian’s view of it? Absolutely. Can a believer extract a balanced understanding of how he or she ought to view matters (especially political matters) of environmental conscience? I think so. Does Dr. Kennedy expose us to these texts, and explain how we might derive a biblical worldview about the environment? No-- what he offers amounts to an attack on the current positions of the political liberals, especially the Democratic party, and pronounces arguments and evidence against them that is little different from any other Republican attack. There is little biblical support, and no consideration for a number of biblical texts that speak to the issue.
By and large, that is the case for all of the issues. In some of them, Dr. Kennedy does better, in others worse, with drawing out a full sense of the biblical position on a topic. The chief exception for that is the issue of immigration, where Dr. Kennedy actually does a very good job of working through the biblical words on the issue, and a good job of applying them (in general terms) to our context.
Other than that, though, much of what counts for biblical support is often Dr. Kennedy declaring his opinion, then searching for a proof-text to back it up. I cannot recommend the second section at all, and would urge readers to simply skip over it.
The closing section is something of a mixture of the other two, in terms of approach. The content in the final section is hit-or-miss, but largely it is acceptably good. I do appreciate the general tenor of it, proclaiming that there is something more important than politics.
Dr. D. James Kennedy is a dyed-in-the-wool, straight-ticket Republican. There is no denying that having read this book, and there’s nothing wrong with that, either-- he certainly has the right to hold whatever political convictions are his. But in How Would Jesus Vote? he draws a direct equation between his Republican positions and biblical Christianity. And there IS something wrong with that.
There is no doubt that a book that looks at each of the issues from a strictly biblical perspective is a needed tool and guide for Christians today. Make no mistake, though: How Would Jesus Vote? isn’t it. Such a book would need to at least straddle the various parties and where they are closer to a biblical perspective, or at best transcend the parties and consider only the biblical views-- NOT baptize a particular party’s platform under the auspices of biblical support.
I rate this book as a whole as a 5. (If Waterbrook were to cut out the middle section and just publish the first and last sections as a book (about 88 pages), I would probably rate it as an 8.)