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How being nice and loving can be two different things

I was once at a conference talking about how loving one another is the most important ministry we have to each other. It is a value I hold to firmly. Once someone objected to this saying we can’t just be loving all the time, that sometimes we have to be tough and be prepared to hurt a few feelings. In a sense I didn’t disagree, I just don’t see how it is inconsistent to love someone and be tough with them. Loving someone means be tough after other options have failed, and especially when other people are being hurt. It also means telling people when they are wrong.

The nice thing to do is to let stuff slide. When a mistake is just a mistake letting stuff slide is a loving and merciful thing to do. Being and nice and loving often overlap. However when a mistake has substantial negative consequences letting it slide is a very unloving thing to do. It is short sighted thinking. Sweeping things under the rug avoids the potential hurt from a confrontation now but it increases the risk of much more hurt later. Integrity calls us to think not just of ourselves and the person we might need to challenge but all the people connected with a situation.

When a culture of niceness becomes deeply embedded in a community conflict starts to leak out in less direct ways. Direct conflict is replaced with passive aggressive actions. When people share concerns they are vague and generalized making it truly difficult to find out what exactly is going on. I was part of one community where half of all issues raised were “communication” problems. I was given the task of finding a technological solution to the “communication” problems. When I set out to discover the real world examples I found that people just weren’t doing their jobs. It is nicer to generalize things as a communication issue. Needless to say, nothing I could think of would have solved the problem.

Another terrible symptom of the niceness culture is over sensitization. People know full well that no one will directly challenge them, so they are on high alert for any decision or comment that just might be veiled criticism or a veiled attack on them. People who tend to speak and act passive aggressively often believe everyone else operates as they do. Heaven help the poor schlep who actually speaks his mind directly and over sensitive people everywhere start to freak out. I’ve found myself in that situation. I tend to mean what I say, and say what I mean. If I’m going to be critical, I’ll be critical and say exactly what I mean. That doesn’t stop people from dragging me kicking in to crazy town.

When a niceness culture dominates it undermines any semblance of accountability and left unchecked it can kill an organization or a community. There is no real accountability when everyone is afraid to hurt someone’s feelings. Without accountability small problems become big problems. People are left in dysfunctional patterns and leave a trail of wounded souls in their wake.

When it comes down to it the culture of niceness isn’t very nice at all.

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The original contemporary worship song!

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Religion is…

Religion is what we do to earn something that in fact we’ve already been given.

Baxter Kruger

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The first casualty of religious obligation

The first casualty of religious obligation is the truth, at least any semblance of sincerity in the truth.  The communities I’ve thrived in are communities of sincerity.  The relationships that give life are ones where reality doesn’t have be sanitized.

In an empire of lies telling the truth is a revolutionary act.

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Donald Miller and Church

A few weeks ago Donald Miller posted a bombshell revelation: he doesn’t attend a church often!  I’m not well tuned in to the blogosphere these days so I didn’t pick up on this until someone posted a link to a follow up interview on facebook.

Now I found this all very fascinating.  Coming off a house church network retreat where I guided a session on “What is church” it has been an intriguing exercise watching people freak out over Mr. Millar’s comments.

I may not end up in the very same place as Donald but I feel pretty much exactly the way he does about conventional worship services.  I usually don’t connect with God through corporate song nor do I learn much in a sermon.  Much more than most of his critics I think I understand where he is coming from. 

I’ve looked through a few rebuttals and I’d have to say I’m startled to see so many people appealing to scripture to prove Miller wrong.  When simple church folks start appealing to scripture about church we start to hear answers like “there is no biblical model” or “the church has evolved from its primitive roots.”  In other words, stop being so picky about making church look like church did in the New Testament.  It is rich to see such staunch defenders of the status quo lean so heavily on scripture.

Inevitably people bring out the reformation ideal which defined church as the preaching of the word and the right administration of the ordinances.  Noble thoughts, but they don’t carry much weight with me as I don’t consider the writings of Luther or Calvin scripture. 

There isn’t much ink spilled on baptism in the New Testament and most of what we have on the Eucharist is a few examples and an admonition to leave enough food and wine for everyone to enjoy.  The proclamation of the gospel was and still is an important ministry, but there is absolutely nothing in the New Testament that says said proclamation needed to happen through an exposition of scripture delivered using the Greek art of oratory.    Neither word we translate as “preach” actually defines the medium by which we share the good news or make our proclamation.  While a sermon can certainly be the medium of proclamation, lots of others things are as well, including the Eucharist.    

We do see a description of church in 1Cor 14 where see an orderly but a broadly participatory gathering of people who above all else love one another.  Alan Knox has done a lot of great work on this and he concludes rather correctly that the purpose of the gathering of the church is to build up one another in love.

The purpose of church isn’t to sacrifice oneself in dedication to an institution which claims their goal is bring glory to God through their corporate success.  Shockingly, Miller doesn’t seem to consider how important it is to be in a worship service to glorify God regardless of whether he is built up, cared for, learns anything or communes with God.  His critics thunder “Church is not about him and his felt needs!  It is about glorifying God.”  I wonder if the Pharisees thought similarly about the Sabbath.  “We must remember the Sabbath in order to glorify God!” and in their eyes Jesus wasn’t remembering properly.  Jesus’ response “God made the Sabbath for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

Let me introduce a radical thought…”God made the church for man, not man for the church.”  Taking my cue from Jesus’ prayer in John 17 I’d say that the church is intended to be a community of people communion with each other and God.  That the glory of God is manifested in us in our communion.  We do not simply gather for the glory of God, we gather because of the glory of God.  We become one, and through that we witness to the truth of Christ’s love, light and life!

When I look at the oft quoted Hebrews 10:25 in defense of assembling together I see the words “encourage one another.”  How does one encourage one another in an event where one cannot speak?

When I look at Eph 5:19-20 I wonder how we might speak to one another, when all we hear is the amplified voices and instruments of a concert.

How can we teach or admonish one another in adherence to Colossians 3:16 when we meet in an environment that makes it near impossible to truly get to know one another?

If Mr. Millar has an informal network of relationships by which he participates in real fellowship, receives real encouragement and admonishment, where he has an opportunity to teach and to learn I dare say he has more essential elements of church than a typical church member.


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My perception of church has changed

I’ve been on a journey for over 10 years investigating simple expressions of church.  Over those years my thinking has evolved and where I find myself is in a very different place than where I started.  When I started “simple church” was a church based around a better type of meeting.  While small meetings are better for somethings I’d say deprecating the event in favour of building relationships has revolutionized my whole concept of church and even the gospel.  The rhythms of a communal life changed my perception and now conventional ministry seems very foreign to me.

1Cor 8:1b “But while knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church.”

That little snippet doesn’t say it all, but it says enough.  We gear almost everything we do to acquire more knowledge.  We gauge our success at how many people we accumulate to hear our knowledge, or are willing to pay to hear us speak or see the words we write.  The kicker I can write this and it becomes just another item flowing down the stream in and our of people’s conscious minds.  The only way people understand the value of love is to experience it.  Now that I have what so many other people care so much about seems irrelevant.



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It has been a long time

It has been a long time since I posted anything of significance here.  The last year has been difficult for a number of reasons.  It is only now that I’m starting to get my energy back.  I’ve been intentionally resting since August and it has been very good.  We took a break from hosting church gatherings in our home.  Carol and I have stayed connected with the people we use to gather with regularly.  Some of these friends have found great faith communities to be a part of.  It looks like the timing was good.

I’ve been writing and hopefully around the new year I’ll launch a new website dedicated to organic church life and ministry.  I’ve been part of simple churches for 10 years now and I finally think I have some really good things to say about it.  I keep revising and revising.  I hope it has helpful as has been.

I think one of the reasons why I haven’t written much is because I’m engaged by debate.  I like to respond.  When I have written something, it is usually because I encountered something that didn’t sit right with me.  So much of what I’ve responded to in the last few years isn’t my former blogging fare.  I’ve been neck deep the brokenness of people.   In respect for the privacy of all involved I’ve kept quiet.

One thing I have been thinking about is integrity and trust.  I’ve learned that character and integrity is so much more important than giftedness, talent or intelligence.  Sometimes the loyalty we have to certain friends or celebrities is misguided.   There are a few people in my life I’ve avoided and I’m glad I did.  There are others I wished had avoided more.  Not so long ago I read the biography of a man I worked with and was stunned at how sanitized the story was.  There was another person I was pretty close with that was incredibly intelligent and well connected but he was constantly doing and saying dramatic things in order to gain sympathy and attention.   Over time I noticed how the facts in his stories changed.  It took years but it slowly dawned on me that I was being used and manipulated.  My friend wasn’t intentionally malicious, just self-absorbed and he had issues with self-esteem.

Human beings seem to have a natural inclination to want to believe our friends and associates.  It is fitting that we give people the benefit of the doubt.  Sometimes there is some aspect of the relationship that brings a benefit.  To address falsehood in the relationship would mean the benefit goes away.   It is only when they flagrantly take advantage of us or do something that starkly contrasts their stated values that we start to consider that all is not what appears to be.  Even then many willingly bury any critical thoughts and allow themselves to be exploited, cheated or lied too.

What can we do?  Even if we are taken advantage of isn’t it better, on balance, to have an open heart?  How much caution and suspicion can one person hold before it starts impair the natural growth of healthy relationships?  No one is perfect and I doubt there is a person alive that doesn’t compromise their values at one point or another, especially when the pressure is on in the moment.  When does someone pull away or confront?  When do you appeal to an authority or an agency to hold the person accountable?

These have been some of the hard questions I’ve wrestled with over the last year.

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Millenials: They suck and they’re sorry

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Andrew Coyne on the Nasty Party

Andrew Coyne nails it

Let me venture to suggest this is not accidental. If today both Harper and the party he leads are actively disliked by more than seven voters in 10, it may be because they have gone out of their way to alienate them in every conceivable way — not by their policies, or even their record, but simply by their style of governing, as over-bearing as it is under-handed, and that on a good day.

When they are not refusing to disclose what they are doing, they are giving out false information; when they allow dissenting opinions to be voiced, they smear them as unpatriotic or worse; when they open their own mouths to speak, it is to read the same moronic talking points over and over, however these may conflict with the facts, common courtesy, or their own most solemn promises.

Secretive, controlling, manipulative, crude, autocratic, vicious, unprincipled, untrustworthy, paranoid … Even by the standards of Canadian politics, it’s quite the performance. We’ve had some thuggish or dishonest governments in the past, even some corrupt ones, but never one quite so determined to arouse the public’s hostility, to so little apparent purpose. Their policy legacy may prove short-lived, but it will be hard to erase the stamp of the Nasty Party.

Perhaps, in their self-delusion, the Tories imagine this is all the fault of the Ottawa media, or the unavoidable cost of governing as Conservatives in a Liberal country. I can assure them it is not. The odium in which they are now held is well-earned, and entirely self-inflicted.

Read more: Vancouver Sun

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Processing conflict in the church: Matthew 18 and beyond

One of the more difficult things to handle in the life of the church is conflict. It is inevitable that conflict occurs, because people are people. Jesus gave his disciples instructions on what to do when there is conflict.

"If your brother sins, go and show him his fault when the two of you are alone. If he listens to you, you have regained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you, so that at the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. If he refuses to listen to the church, treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector.

(Mat 18:15-17)

The principles are pretty straight forward. At the heart of Jesus instruction is the desire to regain a relationship. By going to the offending person privately you have a much higher chance of successfully convincing them they have harmed you. Very often we tell an authority and the authority confronts the person in question. This doesn’t communicate the same commitment to relationship that going privately does. People are less likely to become afraid if it is just a peer that confronts them. When trying to get through to a dysfunctional person you want to do everything you can to affirm how much your relationship with them matters to you so they don’t feel condemned, shamed and become defensive. If you desire someone to change you want them to understand their actions are wrong. You don’t want them to feel like they are a horrible person. The goal isn’t to make people feel bad or punish them, it is to help people become safe, functional members of your community.

Don’t be legalistic about this rule. If there is conflict between two people and they are already cynical and distrustful of each other having them meet privately probably will just make things worse. The question you have to ask is “Who is the best person to talk to the dysfunctional person and what is the best way to talk to them?” Consider your plan of action carefully and look for the best possible outcome for everyone involved.

Perhaps there is some other crisis that is more important and the issue at hand can wait. If someone’s dad died you don’t confront them on how they don’t do a good enough job cleaning the church bathroom. There is an obvious judgment call that needs to be made. If the person is continually damaging others you accelerate the process. If the problem isn’t a major one then just wait until it is a good time to talk to them.

Sometimes talking to someone one on one doesn’t work. The next step is to escalate by confronting the person with one or two others. The offending person might be in denial, they might think the problem is just you. By bringing more people in to the situation you can establish that the problem isn’t just the figment of someone’s imagination.

Remember to give people time. There are a lot of honest people that don’t react well to an initial confrontation but after some time and the emotions settle they come around. Give people the time to process what they heard. I’ve taken months to talk to someone just because I know they were going through a really rough time and they aren’t coping in a healthy way.

If having two or three people confront the person doesn’t work the next step is to apply more leverage. At this point you are starting to pick between bad and worse options. Exposing someone’s failings to a group of people is going to do some damage to everyone involved. It is a difficult thing for most people to do. My guess is that well over half of the world would rather let things slide than risk hurting someone’s feelings by telling them a difficult truth. Sometimes this bad option is better than the worse option of doing nothing.

It is a drastic step but it is good for a couple of reasons. Some people will respond if several of their best friends tell them they are in the wrong. When taking the issue to the whole church you have to have a strong case against someone that would past the scrutiny of several people. Notice there is no room in this for heavy handed backroom tactics by leaders. How many controlling church leaders conveniently punt out their critic’s one or two at a time and tell the rest of the congregation their very biased version of the story?

If the whole community can’t convince someone to stop hurting others then they should be removed from the group until they are safe again. It is really important that this is communicated. Regardless of what you say people will come away feeling worthless and condemned but it is worse if you treat them like they are worthless. Don’t ever write people off. Always leave the door open to reconciliation and restoration.

Now there are times in which this process doesn’t fit the situation and it is appropriate to skip or modify steps. In most cases the primary goal is to restore relationship but if that appears unlikely then your goal is to keep people safe.

If the offending person is abusive don’t expect an alleged victim to talk to them in private so they can be abused again.

If there is an established pattern of abuse by someone in a position of power and previous attempts to confront the person have failed there isn’t any point to sending another person to confront them personally. Abusive leaders have very effectively hid behind a truncated legalistic interpretation of Jesus’ words here. As soon as someone confronts them they go on the offensive and discredit the person that confronted them. Many honest people have been labeled divisive or rebellious just for asking the wrong questions.

Now if you don’t follow step one the many leaders will complain that you didn’t follow the procedure. In some cases this is a legitimate but separate issue. Just because someone is bringing up issues in a poor way it doesn’t mean the issues aren’t relevant or true. If someone has a problem with me I’d hope they could tell me personally, or at least tell someone else we both trust and talk about it before it becomes the topic of gossip. However just because someone doesn’t confront someone the best way doesn’t mean their complaint is illegitimate. It is rarely easy but a good leader will make an attempt to see past the misguided actions or inflammatory words of a critic and consider the kernel of truth that might be found in the complaint. It is a credit to a leader when they have people around them that can see through the kerfuffle and say “you know so and so has a point here.” Counter accusations are not a defense for sinful behavior.

There are times when following Jesus’ directions here isn’t enough. If there are allegations of abuse whether it is physical, emotional, sexual or spiritual there needs to be a proper investigation by an appropriate authority. Often in cases of abuse or exploitation what we see is just the tip of the iceberg and there is a lot more going on that is concealed. We need people looking in to the situation with the ability to get to the bottom of things. This usually involves social safety agencies, child protection services, and law enforcement. It can turn out to be a big mess but the alternative is worse. Far too often churches have been satisfied with shallow investigations while abuse continues. Victims often grow up to be abusers and the cycle continues.

If you know with great assurance that someone is a danger to others your first priority must be the protection of innocent people. If you have firm evidence some one sexually assaulted someone in your church you make sure they don’t go anywhere near the alleged victim or other potential victims until a thorough investigation is finished.

Why do I feel the freedom to more loosely interpret Jesus’s instructions? Because Jesus didn’t always follow the procedure he outlined in Matthew 18.

Read through Matthew 23. Did Jesus personally approach the Pharisees in private before lambasting them publicly? Paul corrected Peter in front of a whole crowd of people (Gal 2:14). Paul pointed out the false teaching and faults of the self-proclaimed super-apostles in a letter. He had no opportunity to confront them directly. It doesn’t appear that John confronted Diotrophes in person either (3John 1:9-10). There are lots of examples where it wasn’t feasible to confront someone personally.

In general I see Jesus’s priorities following along two lines. If it is feasible do what you can to restore relationship causing the least amount damage. Failing that do what you need to do to ensure people are safe.

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