Thursday, May 28, 2009

Twitter, Tralfamadoria and The Church 2060 Part II

Valencia feels herself coming down, emotionally, from the worship experience. The tears are still flowing, running down behind her cheeks, across the bottom of her ears and down the back of her neck. Only then does she realize that, in the non-virtual world, she is still lying in bed and gravity still exists.

Immediately, while she is still relishing in the moment, a screen comes up with a new menu. Tender music is still being played in the background as she is given the opportunity to increase her tithe-subscription. With just a millimeter of movement of the aim of her pupils, she can increase the automatic monthly deductions from her bank from $300 Euros (the U.S. currency in 2060) to $400.

She chooses not to raise her monthly tithe-subscription, the program then leads her to a different window. There the external markets of the church are explored, including their work in helping the starving Christians from the Korean War II. There’s a very moving video of the CEO-Pastor passing out bags of rice and SCL (satellite connected laptops) to the children in the devastated areas around Seoul, after the nuclear exchange. When the video is complete, she is given another opportunity to increase her external market tithe-subscription. Valencia decides not to increase her deductions for that cause either.

The last worship window opens. In it she is asked to rate her worship experience as feedback to the worship team. After rating the experience, she then sets her next “worship level.” This morning’s level was a five. Valencia knows that by the law of diminishing returns that she will soon have to set her worship experience level to a six, or she won’t have the emotional experience that she had today.

The “worship team” is made of the CEO/pastor plus four other talented co-pastors. A team of programmers and artists with expertise in CGR (computer-generated reality) make up the rest of the team. They can afford such talent because their live (those who donate) market is about 130,000 people world-wide. They do have a brick and mortar church in Riverside, CA with a real present audience of about 1000. But to experience the worship program the way it was intended, even those in the building wear the headsets.

Valencia is taken to a final menu where she can choose from an assortment of Christian entertainment or venture into the FH (Fellowship Hall). She chooses the FH, as this is virtually (pun intended) her only contact with other Christians.

Valencia had gone to Kinko’s the year before and had a 3 D image made of herself. The Duplicator® is a round, vertical tube that you step into. A laser copies your entire body in EHD in about ten seconds and sends it directly to your SF via wireless Internet. Valencia could then manipulate her image in any way she wanted. It is common practice to take twenty pounds off your body’s frame and twenty years off your age. Some change much more. Others download entire images (not even bothering with getting a 3 D scan) that are computer generated but totally indistinguishable from real people . . . but bearing no resemblance to their appearance in the material world.

Valencia did the standard weight and age changes. Then she subscribed to Warp-robe®, an online wardrobe service. Automatically her image is digitally dressed in the latest styles as arranged by some of the best clothes designers in the world. The Warp-robe® company guarantees that if you are ever in the same room with someone else wearing the same outfit, you will get a 20,000 Euro reward. It other words they guarantee that the computer program will dress each person uniquely.

As Valencia enters the room, she is surrounded by about 200 other people, many with coffee or juice in their hands. Valencia smells the coffee strongly and looks down to see the china cup in her own hand. She walks up to the first people, a man and a woman in lively conversation. She smiles. As soon as a break in the conversation comes, she reaches her hand and introduces herself.

But Valencia suffers from significant social phobia. She utilizes a Christian fellowship program. It says and does the most socially appropriate thing in the Christian social context. She has the option of either reading from a teleprompter, which drops down as a “heads-up display,” or she can go fully automatic. This morning, because she feels more fearful than usual, she switched the fellowship program to automatic. The voce that is spoken by the computer is identical to Valencia’s own voice. It says the most appropriate thing in every situation . . . the thing that a woman of God would truly say. Valencia’s only choices, unless she takes it out of automatic mode, are which people to talk to and for how long.

In the room is a whole spectrum of people. Some are old, some young, Asian, African-American and Latino. Most are connected to some material truth . . . some vaguely so.

Maeve, is 28 and has her wonderful Christian husband, Raven, at her side. Together they are present in the FH every Sunday morning. They have two darling children, a boy and a girl—both preschoolers. Today, they will join many other Bryce Franchise customers (the new name of church members) and do a virtual Pro-life march on the Capital in Washington.

In their material worlds, Maeve and Raven are not married but live together and have no children. They did have one on the way. However, Raven found a great deal on airfares to Europe in September. They were too good to pass up so they aborted their baby at the fourth month. There is no way that Maeve wanted to travel when she was pregnant. (My point in this story is not about Maeve and Raven’s choice but the fact that their real lives are so incongruous from their church lives).

A few people have even more mischievous reasons for hanging out in the FH. Darst, with a virtual appearance of a 26 year old, single, computer programmer and avid surfer from Laguna Beach, CA . . .is really a married 54 year old man named Braden. He is paper pusher with the NHID (national health insurance department). He comes to the Bryce Franchise FH every Sunday for one reason . . . to develop a relationship with young (think Drew Peterson here) single women. Little does Braden know that the young attractive gal he has cornered this morning . . . well, she is really Garish, a 40 year old closet gay man with a wife and three kids in Kansas City.

Kaetean is a 65 year old widow, who comes as 30 year old business woman, hoping to hook up, virtually, with a nice Christian man.

Probably the most troublesome disguise is the kind grandma, Catlin, in the corner. She’s having a conversation with, Jerrod, one of the ministry team members. She, as a grandmother of eight, feels that God is calling her to be involved in a children’s ministry. In her material world Catlin is 42 year old Roger, twice convicted of acts of pedophilia.

Commentary: Do I think that the church will really look like this in 2060? No, I don’t. I tell this story just to illustrate the path that the church is on right now. I am a true optimist at heart and lean in the Post-Millennium direction. I really think that all things in society, and within the Church are destine to get better, not worse. I’m not dogmatic on my eschatological views . . . it is just a hunch. Mike

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Twitter, Tralfamadoria and The Church 2060

I’m sure that Headless Unicorn Guy could tell this story much better than me. But, try to follow me and let’s see where this goes.

Valencia awakens by the soft hum of her SF (slica friend) by the side of her bed. The SF is a state of the art all purpose electronic device. Besides having 5 terabyte virtual hard-drive and a blazing, 40 GHz CPU, it has a perpetual Internet connection adding a practical resource of all human knowledge, every bit of software that has ever been produced and almost limitless storage capacity. The Internet connection has a top speed of 5Tbps via a 3-d integrated wireless network. The device itself is about the size of a pack of gum with a sleek outer look fashioned out of a virtually indestructible titanium shell. It has an energy supply made up of a mere fifty plutonium atoms that will power it for at least 300 years.

After stretching a bit, she reaches over picks up a basket ball sized black object and slips it over her head covering everything except for the tip of her chin. Across the forehead of the ball is the logo, “Headwomb.”

The headwomb is a portable virtual reality device. It has a high definition, stereo sound system that cradles each ear with a soft, silicone cup. In front of each eye are stereo EHD (extremely high definition) screens. Even her nose and mouth are contained in a soft recess that can recreate not only a particular oxygen flow rate but also a wide palate of scents.

Within the front of the snug-fitting device (each one is tailor made for the owner) are micro-sensors that can detect her voice, facial expressions, eye movements and tears. In the scalp area are EEG (electroencephalographic) receiving electrodes. These EEG leads, and program within the SF, can not read brain thoughts (yet) but can read emotions and different stages of alertness. The inward “skin” of the headwomb also has micro-stimulators that can reproduce the sensations of cold, heat, sharp pain, dull pain and burning on one pixel or the entire surface of her head.

Valencia has programmed her SF to speak to her with the voice of her grandfather (for whom she has wonderful memories from childhood). She even calls her SF “Pa,” a loving name that she used for her grandfather until his passing when she was only ten. The SF comes on automatically when she puts on the head gear.

SF: “Good morning Valencia. It’s so good to be with you today. I hope you are feeling well.”

Valencia: “I am thank you.”

SF: “It’s Sunday morning . . . are you going to church today?”

Valencia: “Yes . . . I believe I will.”

She has the option of using voice controls or using her eyes as a mouse. By looking at menu buttons she finds the “church” menu. The EEG reads her intent to “click” and the church menu opens. At the top the words, “Bryce F” highlighted. This stands for the “Bryce Franchise,” which is her “home” (as in web home) church. It was named after a Pastor Bryce who started a huge church northeast of LA way back in the 2030s.

Concepts of church affiliations of course started even before the death of the Apostle Paul. Christians started to be identified with certain leaders . . . until Paul rebuked them. But later, the name of leaders materialized as handles before the church settled on the capitals of empires, Rome or Constantinople. Then it became men again, Luther, Calvin Wesley. Next came the era of being named according to styles, Presbyterian, Methodist or Baptist. By 2015, another era of names was ushered in, following the names of great pastors (Joel Osteen . . . jr) or churches (Saddleback-New York branch).

A book written by one of these great pastors in 2020, The Value of Life, finally broke down, what the author called the artificial walls of demarcation, between the commercial and spiritual interests of people. After all, he reasoned, if money = time and time is the building blocks of life, then money = life and life = money. He said, it is now the “business” of the church to shape the way in which our lives are “spent.”

Soon after this, the church affiliations became known as “Franchises.” Congregations, both those who were part of the church and those potential members (even the non Christians) were to be known as “Markets.” By 2060 everyone was comfortable with these terms.

The next major philosophical development came in 2035. A book, Finding God in the Spirit (which was soon declared by Time Magazine as the “Book of the Century”) was written by a popular Pastor from Chicago. In it, he argued that since God is only concerned about our spiritual state, therefore the material world is . . . well immaterial. Reasoning from that point, he went on to say that virtual reality was not only a reasonable alternative to reality but could be, in some ways, superior. A Christian could live more spared from the ills of this world if they spent more of their in a virtual world, which had been “created” closer to the ideal that God intended.

Once Valencia was at the top of the Bryce F menu, she had several options. With just a look of her eyes and a mental “click” she could choose between among a variety of church experiences. Her default church was based on an early childhood experience in a contemporary community church back in 2020.

With her next mental click, instantaneously she was transported to a very real church setting. It was filled with people, many who looked familiar to her. She was playing the role of an adult, but her Grand pa (computer created) waved at her from across the sanctuary. Next to her sat her mother and her, now deceased, father.

The tall, handsome pastor looked across the crowd of four hundred and then directly at her.

Pastor: “Good morning Valencia. I’m so glad you are here.”

The service continues with professional quality singing by a virtual choir. The words of the songs began to take on life. Valencia felt herself flying up from her padded folding chair, up fifty feet, towards the tongue and grove pine ceiling. She floats right through the wood, the insulation, shingles and out to a brilliantly blue sky.

The choir and orchestra continues performing ( a song she had never heard before ) “Fly Valencia fly . . . up into the arms of Jesus . . . feel His love pouring over you . . . “ at those words she could see a very real image of Jesus coming down to her and embracing her. A cool wind blew across her scalp and her hair whipped across her face. Jesus held her tightly and they sailed upward through the clouds. She felt the moisture on her cheeks as real as any mist she has ever felt before. But soon the clouds were below her as she and Jesus raced toward the stars engulfed in flames.

Valencia had never had such a spiritual experience and tears, real tears were pouring down her face and dripping from beneath her vinyl helmet.

Soon, the pastor took the podium and looked directly at her. He read from John chapter ten,

1"I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. 3The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.

Even before the words were done being spoken, Valencia is transported to the Galilean hills circa 30 AD. She could hear the bleeping of sheep, smell that strange sheep smell that she remembers from Pa’s farm. Then, she looks down and sees her own wool. She is a lamb. There is Jesus walking on the hill, behind him the sun setting on the grasslands below. “Valencia! Valencia!” She hears Him calling in a deep, safe voice.

I will continue this story in the next post but for now, it’s getting long.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Twitter, Tralfamadoria, and The Church

Thought 1 (all thoughts will merge in the end)

I was reading Time Magazine Saturday morning and read the article about Twitter being used in some larger churches. The parishioners would bring their laptops to church and twitter the worship team during the service. It sounds like the worship team, in most circumstances, can’t read the messages until after the service. I don’t know why, and I am still naive about Twitter, they just can’t just wait until they got home and then send an ole-fashioned e-mail or, for goodness sakes, walk up and TELL someone what you think?

Time listed some of the messages received. They include things like; “God is blessing me right now,” “I really enjoyed that music piece” or “I don’t feel close to God anymore.”

Thought 2

I’m working my way (okay maybe there is a better word than “work,” what about enjoying my way) through the top 100 English novels of the twentieth century. Right now I am reading Slaughter House-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Believe it or not, it is for the first time. Either my Appalachian schools were so bad that they never exposed us to the classics, or the fact it was in the Bible belt, these books were possibly banned. Anyway, it took my own kids to introduce me to Vonnegut.

Slaughter House-Five
is an odd book, in a pleasant way. The main character, Billy Pilgrim had been abducted by an alien race from Tralfamadoria, but returned to earth to live his mundane . . . and sometimes not so mundane, life. The Tralfamadorians had a unique perspective on time, a lot like we envision God’s perspective. It is like looking down on an old 45 record where you move the needle from one point to another . . . and back again. Therefore the book bounces around in Billy’s life on a whim.

Thought 3

Now imagine we could take the Twitter churches and move the needle on the chronograph ahead by 50 years. Before I describe what this would be like my paranoia must speak.

I have nothing against technology. Actually, I love technology. In itself, I see technology as amoral. The same world-wide-web can be used to expose war crimes and solicit help for staving people, and exploit little children for the most heinous cause . . . child pornography. The point, which I’m trying to make, is not about the evils of twittering in the church. But the fact that I think, when it comes to church, we’ve lost our way . . . and it happened a long time ago. The reason I’m still thinking about this is a continuation of my discussion about our youth. When I mentioned that Sunday morning church would be optional for the kids (based on their motives), several people, including my own wife, thought that would be the deal breaker.

In my usual way, I must also throw in a caveat or two; the first one is about the science of futurism. It’s a tough job. The reason is, while you can predict trends based on present trajectories you can not predict sudden changes in that trajectory. The best example I can think of is Arthur C. Clarke writing the screenplay for 2001 A Space Odyssey. He based his expectations of space travel, in 2001, on the rapid development of space travel in 1968. He had no way to know that certain political developments in the US (for one was the rise in power of the religious right) would abruptly and totally change this course.

So, I want to explore what it would be like to suddenly be teleported to the year 2060 (based on present trends) and then imagine what it would be like for a first century Christian to be teleported to one of our Evangelical church services today. To keep from making these posts too long, I will add two more to cover each episode of time travel.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Blatant Meaning from Obscure Verses – An Oxymoron Possibly?

I'm about to open another bag of snakes and I really shouldn't. I keep making a personal vow not to post any more blogs for a while. But I'm so disobedient. Then something happens that really moves me. Then something else happens and the dots start to be connected.

The second reason that I should not post is that I'm so busy that I have to do it on the run. When I do that, my typing becomes typo-ing.

The third reason, if two were not enough, is that I'm seriously sleep deprived. It's a long story but I've been averaging about 5 hours of sleep per night and then last night I had one. It was a combination of being on call, having a seriously ill patient in the hospital (who is dying) and no one can figure out why. Where's House when you need him. The second reason I'm so sleep deprived is that Tyler (21) is living at home right now. Things are okay when he was alone, but now that all his friends are home from college, they start their day . . . at our house . . . at 10 PM.

But to my point.

The first dot that appeared was at church last Sunday. I have not been to Sunday school in a while, because I find it so frustrating. People ask me why I stay with this church and the reason is simple. Okay, maybe complex. The main reason is that my wife said she is not changing churches for any reason. Her friends are at this church and to her, friends are a huge part of church. Teachings and issues that drive me crazy really don't matter to her. So I don't think a husband and wife attending two different churches is a healthy thing.

Now back to my story.

Chuck is a darling, elderly gentleman at our church. Personally I really like him a lot. However, he has a theology degree and is some what of the pastor’s right hand man. The pastor really looks up to him (maybe the only layperson he looks up to in our church because Chuck is the only one he will allow to stand in for him as a Sunday school teacher). Chuck is also the head elder.

The problem is that Chuck and I don’t see eye to eye on most things that are Christian. Many times he has said to me, “If you really believe such and such, then you can’t be a Christian.” The problem is, I really do believe such and such. So I find it a little hurtful that Chuck says I’m not a Christian.

The issues were we differ on include:

1. Chuck says you can not be a Christian if you doubt that the earth is older than 6,000 years. In my book I don’t care how old you believe the earth is.

2. We should forbid our kids from going to any college but a Bible college (a segue with my last postings) because those who go to secular university leave the faith.

3. We should only read Christian books. He has caught my kids and I reading diverse things, some by great atheists.

I could go on. But I will come up to the latest event, and that was Sunday school last Sunday. Chuck is teaching the Ten Commandments. This week was the second commandment:

From Exodus 20: 4 (NIV)

"You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand {generations} of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Chuck went on to say, that examples of these idols include all images of God or Jesus. He described how he had to cut the picture of Jesus out of the children’s Bible he used to teach children’s church.

So, at the very end of his 80 minute lecture (he actually read his entire lecture, word for word, from a 14 page script that he had typed up) when questions were allowed, I asked him about Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. Chuck said it was an idol and God forbids it. Then he added his cliché that he uses every time, “God said it, I believe it, it is settled.”

The question was being begged and it was on the tip of my tongue but I looked at the clock. It was now 1:30 PM and I had endured a 80 minute lecture on a beautiful sunny NW day . . . to the point that my head was about to cave in. So, I let it go. But I really did want to ask him (as I have before ) “Where the hell did God say don’t paint pictures of Him!”

But Chuck always makes it an issue of believing God nor not. He said the same thing about the earth being 6,000 years old. “God said it, I believe it, it is settled.”

So obviously Chuck thinks that “God said it” in that Exodus 20:4. If that verse says that we are to never to have images of the real God, you have to read a lot more into that verse than is really there.

That brings me to my last point (another segue to my last postings) about what is the church? Our pastor, after observing many people leaving the church, some becoming freelance Christians or in other types of emerging churches, did a lecture series on why God wants you to stay in the “Chuch.”

But of course he defines the “church” as only the American Evangelical traditional church. Meets on Sunday morning at 10 AM., has Sunday school and preaching (our preaching comes first). The “worship service” being the center piece of the whole church experience.

I will conclude this thought by saying, back in the early 90s when I was trying to put my Christian-Humpty-Dumpty world back together again, I spent a whole year trying to figure out what the church really was. I was amazed, once I divorced “church” from the cultural context and really only looked at scripture . . . blatant scripture. I also did a lot of studying on church history. I really enjoyed a book called, Ante Pacem (the church before Constantine).

I challenge anyone to honestly define the church in the New Testament, but first taking off your cultural glasses and reading the mandates for what a church is . . . using only the blatant verses. You would be amazed how simple it really was.

But, maybe the church really should be defined as a building of people who meet on Sunday mornings at 10 AM for 1 hours Sunday school, followed by a worship service, with hymns, then a sermon by the pastor, who is the king of the church but with an elder board. But after all, this is what God "said" the church is . . . so I believe it and, I guess, that settles it . . . or does it?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Why Do Our Kids Leave the Church - Part II - A Possible Solution, Step 3 (and Final)

When I was taking a basic physics course in college, to keep things simple, we had real-life problems but were allowed to ignore important factors such as the coefficient of friction. So far, I’ve ignored the coefficient of parents, which as my wife pointed out, would be a deal breaker.

Certainly, I, as youth pastor, would have to have a meeting with the parents in the beginning. Then, there must be a parallel course with them. In this idealized, fictional world, I imagine that the senior pastor or someone else has the exact same vision as me and is willing to lead that small group . . . or it possibly would have to fall on my shoulders.

This parent small group would be looking at many of the same issues as their kids, understanding both the American evangelical culture that we are in, and the post-modern secular culture in which we are immersed.

But another fundamental process would have to take place. There needs to be a lowering of the level of dis-honesty among the parents (increasing candor in other words). This of course takes time and trust. But eventually, this small group of parents would hopefully feel safe enough to start taking about their own problems . . . looking for support and help. In any given church there are secret issues among the parents of things like, 1) alcoholism, 2) prescription drug abuse, 3) pornography addiction (a recent survey mentioned on imonk said that 52% of pastors confess to having looked at internet porn in the previous year), 4) emotional affairs (where there is no sex but you confine and find more emotional support from an opposite sex friend than your own spouse), 5) sexual affairs and not to mention the more ambiguous ones like materialism. But it is my humble opinion that one of the biggest drivers of the youth away from the church is the hypocrisy they see within their own homes.

My parents were good Baptist who opposed all forms of alcohol. That’s why I was so shocked to find a secret stash of about 20 bottle of hard stuff in my parents' bedroom. When I found it, at age 12, I first attempted to get drunk on it (acting out) and I decided I would never go to church with them again. I’m not saying that the parents should throw out their alcohol. I like Alaskan Amber beer a lot. I’m talking about the hypocrisy of preaching that alcohol drinking is sin at church, but being an actual alcoholic in secret. Plus these parents need help to overcome these problems . . . they can’t do it alone.

So in closing this topic (it could go on for a hundred posts) I want to mention a few more things that I would like to do with the kids.

Deconstruction of the Evangelical Sub-culture:

I've attempted twice, in real life, to create a course like this for youth groups. Both times I brought fear to the pastors of those chruches. This course would be simply the process of separating simple Biblical teaching from the complexities of American, Evangelical Christian Subculture. I think this helps kids a lot and keeps them away from the legalism that eventually break their spirits.

It starts as an open discussion about this concept that some things come from culture and only a few things are mandated in scripture. It takes great discernment to tell the difference.

Part of this class would be looking at the psychology of our Christian social circles. A real ice-breaker to this discussion would be watching the movies, "Saved" and "Jesus Camp." Of course both movies are distortions of the American church, but they do stir up some real issues. We wouldn't just watch these movies and move on. We watch them, look at the backgrounds of the producers, directors and writers (trying to grasp their perspectives that may taint their views). Then we honestly open the discussion of what about these movies are true to real life and which ones are not. It really can open a wonderful can of worms.

After spending the first four weeks deconstructing our own culture, then we want to learn about the larger-secular culture in which we live. Schaeffer's works, the book Escape From Reason and his movies series (although now dated) are great tools. While kids want to roll their eyes at this stuff (in the old montra) thinking ignorance is bliss or "Jesus wants you to be stupid" or "use faith not worldly knowledge" doesn't work. Kids can understand this stuff if they are willing and the teacher knows enough about it to teach it in a simply way.

While we are working through the first two courses we will certainly use scripture for a reference routinely. However, another great barrier to helping our kids is the concept that ONLY scripture should be used in church.

The worst example of this mentality was a man I met at a homeschooling conference. He had a long beard and his wife a bonnet (both looked like an American version of the Taliban). He raised his voice and declared (as we were having a discussion) "The Bible is the only book allowed in our home!" How sad. Those poor kids don't have a chance.

I was teaching an adult Sunday School class in Minnesota, a large E. Free Church. It was a class of about 30 adults. Most of us traveled from a large area to meet and we really didn't now each other. I decided to break up into small clusters (each week) and for the first 10 minutes answer an ice-breaker question, share a personal prayer request, pray and then come back together. The "ice breaker" questions were simply, "Where were you born?" "How did you meet your wife?" "What do you do for a living?"

The first time I did this, one man became very, very angry. He threw his chair back and marched out of the room. My wife was in his cluster so she followed him into the hall. He was in pure rage. By having people answer these personal questions, in his opinion, was a humanistic ploy that did not belong in a church. Only Bible teaching belonged in the church.

This is the same barrier I've run into with kids. There is so much for them to know and it is beyond Bible stories. They had Bible stories beat into their head since they were little. When you start to look at other things, rather than just scripture, many parents have a celestial coronary.

Besides using scripture as a frequent reference, the next course would be about hermeneutics. I want the kids from that point on know how to fish. So we will not spend a lot of time in Bible study . . . but a lot of time in "How to read and study the Bible."

I think I've said enough on this topic and will end it here. I was going to to into more of the field trips for example to a hospice center and talk to dying people, go and talk to all kids of non-Chistians, Buddhist, Mormons, atheists . . . because, it is my belief that it is far better to have you kid's faith challenged intensely, while you are around to help them sort it out, than to just "protect them" from any outward challenge . . . then when they are in college or have moved away, they meet these challenges alone.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Why Do Our Kids Leave the Church - Part II - A Possible Solution, Step 2

Obviously I’ve never gotten past step 1 . . . but this is fiction (but hoping to raise some real questions).
Feel free to chime in under comments and add your thoughts:

First Youth Meeting: I would try to meet away from the church building, such as a coffee shop (or wherever the kids like to hang out . . . if it is quiet enough to talk).

I would tell them that we are embarking on a totally new, and radically different, approach to Christian youth groups. I would encourage them to give my ideas a chance to work before creating an opinion. Next I would pass out a copy of my ground-rules/syllabus for the coming year.


1. The space of the youth group is a sanctuary. There is to be no judgmental attitudes from each other or from me. Jesus covers you entirely . . . PERIOD.

A. You can say anything in our group and the only important thing is that it is true. Doubting is welcomed. Talking about your mistakes is welcome . . . I’ve made a huge number of them.

B. I will not promise that I won’t speak to your parents (for example if a student voiced suicidal ideations) but I’m not going to report on them on a continuing basis.

C. I will treat you like adults and so therefore you will be expected to act like adults. Adults respect one another.

2. Honesty is paramount. You are to be the same person in youth group as you are anywhere else. You come to youth group with a seamless transition from your world outside of youth group. I want to deprogram the ideal that church is where you act superficial. So this means;

A. You should use the same language in youth group as you do along with your friends. If you use words that offend other kids in the youth group, then as adults, you should refrain out of respect. However, the one offended should also be “offended” in all contexts of their lives and not just in youth group.

B. If you smoke or have other bad habits, I don’t want you smoking in our setting due to health concerns (not legalism) but don’t try to cover up your breath with mints for our behalf.

3. Sunday morning service is optional. Yes, that’s right. Sunday morning service is optional. You should NOT go to Sunday morning church if you do it for;

A. Penitence, believing that coming to church makes God more pleased with you,

B. Guilt, feel too ashamed before God, your parents or your Christians friends if you skip church.

C. You SHOULD only go to Church if it does something positive for you such as fellowshipping with other believers, giving you a true sense of worshiping God, learning something meaningful from the pastor.

D. If none of the group can find a reason under “C.” to attend Sunday morning church service, then that is not your problem anymore than it is the customers’ fault that a store goes out of business. It is the fault of the ones who put on the Sunday morning service.

4. Being “stupid for Jesus” is no longer cool. It would be a great aspiration for each person in the group to get a PhD from a great school like Harvard, Princeton or Oxford. However, if you have no interest in higher education, then be or do whatever fulfills you.

5. Our youth group will be made up of a core curriculum plus field trips, which are described in the Syllabus.

6. The field trips for the youth group would not be water parks, go cart riding, skiing or Christian concerts. Those things are fine and God is glorified when you are laughing and having fun. However, the public schools, parks and recreation and other groups already do that. Go with them! We don’t need a separate “Christian” area of having fun from the non-Christian. Having fun is important but being entertained or having fun will not be a key part of the youth group. We will do some fun things together only because no one else is doing it (like museums).


Core curriculum

This course will be for one hour each week and will deal with a variety of factors over the year. Consistent with the proverbial statement, “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach him how to fish” (okay, you know the rest), this course will not teach you WHAT to think, but HOW to think. This includes Biblical interpretation (hermeneutics), philosophy and all aspects of culture and thinking. (I will expound on this in my next post).

Regarding hermeneutics, I will steer the students away from the Gnostic/Dualistic Biblical interpretation that is endemic in most Evangelical settings . . . including youth groups. No more “God showed me a verse this morning.” It will also be studying the Bible, looking for the intended meaning of the authors in their cultural context. No more closing your eyes, ramming your index finger into a random verse, and knowing that was God telling me to ”Ask you out to the prom.”

We will spend a lot of time on culture, understanding where it comes from and how to live within it (or above it at times). This is includes all of its contributing factors of history (secular history not just the Old Testament), psychology, sociology and politics. None of this will be the “Christian (meaning politicized) Perspective,” but the actual facts. None of our study of history will have anything to do with pointing to the “End Times.”

The purpose of studying culture is found in the previously mentioned proverb. If you teach kids what to think, then they must live the rest of their lives behind tightly arranged, high walls to protect themselves from everything that is not included in those “whats.” But if you teach a kid how to discern, then you open the entire world up to them to explore . . . without fear. No more worrying about the demon behind every video game, book, song etc.

The field trips would include:

1) Going to Walmart and loading up on toenail clippers, emery boards, lotion, towels and basins. Then we would drive to the “Nicholasville” homeless camp in Seattle. Offer free pedicures to all the homeless people. The youth would not be there to “Share the Gospel” nor even allowed to (unless, in some odd way, one of the homeless people demanded to know). Nor will we mention that we are from any kind of church. We will clean those stinky (and I’ve dealt with homeless people’s stinky feet before . . . gross) feet all day long and have a ball doing it. While we are trimming their nails and scrubbing their feet, we will talk to them . . . one person to another and asking and learning about their lives. We would see the beauty in every person.

2) We will go and visit the dean of the department of Evolutionary Biology at the U. of Washington. We will ask him to try and convince us that there is no God and all life forms evolved from nothing . . . by chance. We will say nothing back but just listen and take notes and thank them for their time. During out next core class, we will discuss what he/she said . . . their good points and their bad points. The clichés (lazy person’s way out of any argument), such as, “Well I know God is there because there is a God-shaped void in my soul that He fills” will NOT be allowed!

3) We will take field tips to visit art museums, science exhibits and concerns of all types of music. We will go to comedy clubs, poetry readings and philosophy discussion groups.

These are just starters. I will add more over the next couple of posts. Feel free to add your own under comments.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Why Do Our Kids Leave the Church - Part II - A Possible Solution, Step 1

(Pictured at the right- "The Church Board")

The problem, which is well stated in Michael Bell’s article on Imonk, is that about 85% of the youth raised, who leave the church, do so by age 23 . . . never to return. I will add another statistic that one survey showed that 88% of kids raised in Evangelical churches, eventually leave. I want to move on and talk about some of the solutions, in my humble opinion.

As I mentioned under my personal caveats posting, I have tried and failed in the past. I am confident that others, who are far better gifted than me, could (and do) have a far more significant impact that I have had. I keep hearing rumors of these wonderful church situations that seem very healthy. I’ve been involve with seven churches since I’ve been married. I hand selected them as the best ones in each community. Yet, they were all typical of the churches that continue to hemorrhage the youth and in each one I ran up against the wall of traditional evangelical culture.

I will also mention Hope T.’s comments (three posts ago) that she hopes that her kids DO leave the Church. To expound her point, I agree, the 80% figure also captures youth who still consider themselves Christian, but have found that they can not function within the traditional Church. They may become what I call, The Donald-Miller Freelance Christians (DMFC). Most pastors, including my own, are extremely opposed to this concept. Of course they are opposed because they are deeply invested in the traditional church model. I would add that in my perspective, I don’t think the DMFC is the ideal . . . in the perfect world . . . however it may be the lessor of evils in many circumstances.

I know for one, my son Caleb (if he ever settles that he is a Christian) would have to find an extremely unique church before he would be involved in it. However, I do see him as this DMFC. The typical evangelical Church would drive him nuts . . . to the point of leaving the faith again. He can not stand the farce factor that he sees in most churches.

With that said, I want to launch out on how I would approach this problem, within the traditional church. I want the make the point that I think there are some legitimate and more radical approaches to the problem that would mean completely disassembly of the traditional church and starting over fresh. But the approach that I will describe will mean working within the traditional church.

A second point is that even with the best approach for our youth, still a substantial number will leave Christianity and there is nothing we can do about that. But that number could be more like 30-50% rather than 80%.

I will conclude this post with my step 1 and I will keep it brief. I will set the scenario that I am a full time youth pastor and I’ve been hired to help a large evangelical church (Grace Community Church) to reach their own youth because 80% + have left the church in previous years. Since this is fiction, I will make my character far more gifted in these areas that yours-truly really is.

Step 1: I would have a long, 2-3 hour informal meeting with the pastor. Then I would meet with the church board. I would drive home a few main points.

A. A huge issue at stake here. It is time to take radical steps to make a real difference.

B. You HAVE TO TRUST ME!!!!! I am theologically orthodox. I believe virtually the same things that Luther believed. Please don’t assume I am a heretic, a liberal or a new-age Christian with every choice that I make.

C. The American Evangelical Culture is an idol. Most churches worship this idol more than they do the true God of the old and New Testament. The whole church needs a deep repentance from worshiping this idol. I will not hesitate to violate principles of this idol but you must trust me . . . I will try very hard never to violate true teachings of scripture.

D. The boundaries of what we are allow to do can not be set by the most legalistic, anal-retentive, American Evangelical Subcultural worshiping 5% of the parents. They have the freedom to pull their kids out and find a new church that matches their unfortunate positions . . . and those churches would not be hard to find. There is virtually one on each corner.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Why do Our Kids Leave the Church - Part I Randy's Story


I’ve picked Randy as the “face,” not because his story is extreme or unique. I think he is more typical than most Evangelicals realize. He was raised in the church, has left the church, and will never be back (from my perspective) unless God does something outside the laws of sociology or psychology. As I describe his story, see if you notice any subtle hints as to why he may have left.

A number of years ago, I got to know Randy when he was about 12. His mom, Jane, was in our home Bible study.

Randy’s parents had met within the context of a Church of God. His father got involved in church ministry and eventually went to a two-year Bible school to become a pastor. Randy’s early church experience was within the C of G. There spirituality was defined by supernatural (outside of the laws of physics) events. Speaking in tongues, “healings” were commonplace in their church service.

His father, as an associate pastor, had many of those dynamic proofs of his spirituality and God’s “reality.” His father, at the same time, was also having a sexual affair with one of the church's staff . . . eventually leaving Jane, Randy and his two siblings . . . moving to the other side of the state.

Randy, at about age seven, saw his dad walk out the door never to return.

Jane struggled to raise her children as a single parent (and very limited income). Her husband did not pay child support, although he was now the head pastor of another Church of God. The church that she has raised Randy in, which his father had the affair in, left such a bad taste in her mouth that she eventually left and brought her kids to our church.

Randy ultimately developed some emotional problems (as did his siblings). He was diagnoses as ADD and placed on medications. Jane, continued to struggle as a single mom, often working two jobs.

From the distance I observed that Randy was a social out-cast in our church’s youth group. The first time I watched the interaction up close was when I volunteered to take entire group on a rappelling trip. Randy was about 14 at the time. He was hyper and in constant motion and with frequent irritation expressed towards him by the other kids.

When the youth pastor left, a couple of years later, I saw a crack of daylight for trying to make a difference. I asked the pastor if I could take over the youth group. He gave me a four week trial period while they searched for another youth pastor.

During the first class meeting, in the basement of our church, I tried to settle the kids down, gently, so we could start talking. During that time, I noticed how everyone picked on Randy . . . especially the Pastor’s son and daughter and one of their best friends. “Sit down Randy!” or “Shut up Randy!” was their constant cry.

I started to toss out questions, just to explore the direction that I would take the group in.

Me: “So, what’s on your minds? What do you really want to learn about during the next month? Any big questions that we should take on?”

One of the pastor’s kids spoke up. “We should learn more about Church doctrine, that’s what we suppose to be doing (then rolling her eyes).” There was something in the way she said it that told me that she was not expressing what her heart told her, but what she thought I would want her to say.

“Okay,” I said. “But before we go there, let’s talk about some more personal questions. Do any of you have any doubts . . . you know, for example, wondering that something you were taught in church really isn’t true? Do any of you doubt God’s existence . . . even now and then?”

With silence filling the room, I continued, “I’ve had a lot of doubts over the years. Even now and then I have real doubts.”

Randy was fidgeting in his seat and then said in his high pitched voice, “Hey, hey . . . you know . . . there are times when I’m laying awake in the middle of the night and I ask myself, how do I know that Christianity is true? Maybe Buddhism is correct”

One of the pastor’s kids reacted very profoundly, like she was embarrassed that Randy would say something like that, “Oh good heavens Randy . . . you are such a moron! Of course Christianity is true!”

Me: “Wait a minute, I thought what Randy said was profound. That would be a great place to start.”

We did talk about doubts for a while, and Randy had a very engaging understanding of the concepts, far above what I expected. I was even starting to think that maybe he suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome, instead of ADD. In Asperger’s the person often has above average intelligence . . . although they have social difficulties.

By the time that first meeting was over, I decided to try and help them in the area of critical thinking and cultural discernment.

In the next class meeting I basically discussed the essence of how philosophical thought enters culture, explaining it in very simplistic terms. I reviewed the Schaeffer book, Escape from Reason explaining it in day to day terms that they could understand. They seemed to grasp it well. Then to bring it home, I asked them to tell me their favorite part of American culture . . . was it a movie, TV show, or music lyrics?

Randy responded first. He was really interested in a particular genre of rock music. Again, several of the others in the class started to ridicule him. I asked him to bring the lyrics of his favorite song next time and we would discuss them, and then we (mostly me) would do research into the life of the song writer, trying to figure out where they were coming from.

The other students were either quiet or offered up ideas that I knew that they were only saying for show, “Oh, I mostly like hymns that we sing in church.” I knew that was a crock.

Randy brought his lyrics to the next class meeting and no one else brought anything. He did a profoundly insightful analysis of the song, the song writer and how it influences teens that he knows (btw, the lyrics put a favorable spin on suicide as an option to give meaning to your life). I was really impressed. But the whole time Randy was trying to talk, in the background the pastor’s kids, and others, kept throwing out derogatory comments like, “Why do you listen to that trash! You are such geek!” Randy and I both tried to ignore their insults.

I was getting excited because Randy seem to get what I was talking about and I was hopeful that soon the other 12-13 kids would catch on.

I asked them about a movie or TV show. Finally one of the girls said, “Oh, I love the TV show Lost!”

“Great!” I said. I will rent an episode and let’s watch it at my house, in our home theater next Sunday morning. We can get popcorn, pop, coffee and relax. We can then have a great discussion.”

I spent the entire week studying the TV show Lost. Previous to this, I knew nothing about it. I typed up a list of four discussion questions. The writer of the series had powerful influences in his life from pantheism, which shows through in his writing. Most of my questions compared the Judo-Christian perspective to the pantheistic one.

We watched Lost. For the first time, the entire group seemed to be onboard with the direction, which I was going in . . . and not just Randy.

During these first few weeks of the class, I kept the pastor up to date with what I was trying to accomplish. He didn’t have much positive to say, but raised concerns each time. For example, “Mike . . . some people in our denomination don’t watch TV or even allow it in their house. I ‘m not sure how parents are going to react to their kids just watching TV for class.”

It didn’t make sense to me because I knew that each of the kids in the class had TVs and watched them all the time.

When I mentioned that we were talking about doubts and critical thinking about culture, the pastor raised the question, “How do the parents feel about that? I mean they expect their kids to be studying the Bible or church doctrine.”

Outside the classroom, I felt the tensions building each week, while inside the class I was seeing some real breakthroughs. The kids had never, ever been taught to think critically about culture.

To make a long-story short, the pastor canned me after four weeks . . . and he took over the class.

Randy and I didn’t have a lot of contact after that. Looking back, I wished I had tried to be a mentor to him. I did talk to him about music and video games each time I saw him. I just think I was too busy with my own kids and work. I did invited him over to our house to play video games with my son . . . he came once.

The last part of the saga involved his mother. Some of us men at church were trying to help her with her old house now and then. One Sunday morning the pastor grabbed me and pulled me to the side, “Mike, someone in the church has donated a good some of money to replace all of Jane’s windows. They want to remain anonymous. I would like for you go and break the news to her.”

Me: “Wow. That’s great. Do we need to put them in for her?”

Pastor: “No. The money will cover installation.”

I told Jane that morning and she broke into tears. She was overwhelmed with the gift. I almost had to hold her up she was so overtaken with emotion.

A couple of weeks passed and I asked Jane, “Well any words about the windows?”

Jane: “Hmm . . . not since you told me.”

I asked the pastor that morning when the windows were going to be replace, he seemed evasive.

A month passed and I asked Jane, “Any word on the windows?”

Jane: “Not a word.”

I asked the pastor about it, “Don’t worry about it Mike . . . I’m taking care of it.”

Another couple of months passed . . . winter on the way . . . and I asked Jane, “Did you get your windows replaced?”

Jane: “Mike I’ve never heard a word from anyone since you told me about them five months ago. I just knew it was too good to be true.”

I asked the pastor, “What became of Jane’s windows?”

Pastor: “There’s been a change in plans. I think we will use the money for something else she needs more.”

Jane and Randy eventually stopped coming to our church except for a rare visit. Two years passed and she never had new windows or anything replaced and I don't have clue what that was all about. I just know that I will never get involved again in giving someone a message when I’m not involved in the plan of making it happen.

The last time that I saw Jane and Randy was one of their rare appearances to our church. Randy now out of high school and looked quite differently. He sat down right in front of me and he had a friend with him. They were loud and Jane seemed embarrassed. When the pastor was praying, I heard Randy say to his friend, “Listen to this!” and then he farted really loud. Both of this burst out laughing, loudly. Jane asked them to leave the church. They got up and left, and I never saw him . . . or his mother again.

Why do Our Kids Leave the Church - Personal Caveats

It’s my paranoia taking I just know, but when I sound critical, I start to read the minds of the listener. The best example of my realized paranoia was when a poster on Imonk said something to the effect of, “I’m tried of these highbrow people sitting in Starbucks and typing criticisms about the church from their Blackberrys.” The implication of his comment was that was all they do (Vs doing anything about the problem). I had to laugh because I was one of the previous posters, who said critical things, and I was literally reading his comments on my Blackberry at Starbucks. LOL.

But there is truth to the concern about those critics who do nothing else. I’m not a fan of clichés but the one, “You are either part of the problem or part of the solution” is sometimes true . . . maybe.

So, I thought I would humbly give my background of how I’ve tried (and as they say down South . . . “God knows I’ve tried”) to make a difference. I share my background in humility, not trying to boast about any of it. Actually take any church ministry expert and let them review my record and they will tell you that everything I’ve attempted in the past 30 years has been a complete failure. But, you will realize that I don’t happen to sit in Starbucks all the time and throw hand grenades at the church across the street from the safety of my round burnt-orange table (don’t call the police it is just a metaphor).

I became a Christian when I was 17. When I was 18, I took over the leadership of our youth group and functioned as the youth pastor for the next four years (while I was in college). Simultaneously, during my four years of undergraduate school, I was involved with the Navigators in a very intense ministry on campus of East Tennessee State University.

After finishing college, I moved to Lexington, Kentucky for the main purposes of a.) attending graduate school, b.) helping to start a new Navigator campus ministry at the University of Kentucky and c.) to endure (and endure is a polite word) a very intensive Navigator staff training program for four years.

After graduate school, I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan where I worked full time plus attempted to start a new Navigator ministry at Eastern Michigan University. My wife and I eventually became involve with international students (more so than American) at EMU. We were a host family to Yemenese students for four years.

During that same four years, I led the college and career group at our local church.

From that point, we went as Navigator missionaries to the Middle East, to work with Muslims. We were missionaries for three years.

Once we returned to the states (and I haven’t mentioned our own children yet) our family grew to five children. I had a few years of confusion before we settled back into the church scene.
I was the “Deacon of Small Groups” at our church for four years, while our children were still young.

When I kept running to barriers at the traditional church (after spending a huge amount of energy and research) I started a house church. It lasted for a little over a year and I disbanded it when the families wanted to turn it into a cult. But my main reason for trying to start the house church was to create a more positive church experience for our kids.

We moved to another town, about the time the oldest ones were becoming teenagers. One of the reasons we moved was because a good friend of mine was the youth pastor of a large church in that town. I was also involved with that ministry for that year. That church went through an ugly split and my employer was in a mess so we moved again.

One of the main reasons that our next move took us to Rochester, Minnesota was because that was the US headquarters of LAbri Fellowship International. I wanted my kids (and myself) to be exposed to their unique ministry. They also had a school “Schaeffer Academy” that we planned on enrolling our kids in (but it never worked out for reasons too complicated to describe here). We lived there for five years. We went to a large church that had a youth pastor, but my wife and I were very involved with those youth groups and things for the younger kids, like Awana.

We eventually moved from that area out here to the West Coast about six years ago. It is a long story, but one of the reasons we moved was the negative influence that a couple of our teenagers were experiencing via friends in Minnesota. It was a smart move.

In the last six years we have been very involved with a local church. I’ve been an elder, head elder, Sunday school teacher for both adults and teens and a small group leader.

So throughout this 30 year saga, I’ve worked very hard to make the church what I think it should be. But most, if not all, of the time I’ve failed miserable. So I don’t just sit in Starbucks and type on my Blackberry. Actually I’m sitting in Starbucks right now but I’m typing on my VAIO laptop.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Saturday in the Park . . . or Something Like That

It has been a tradition of ours (my son Ramsey, age 16, and I) for about a year to meet at the local Starbucks on Saturday mornings for a book reading and discussion. As soon as the weather started improving on our little island, I started riding the bike for the seven miles, over the pass and into our sleepy fishing village. It takes that effort to burn off my mocha. Ramsey drives in because he could drink mochas all day and not gain an ounce.

This morning we did something a little different and it was a lot of fun.

I rode my bike in and went to Starbucks and had my mocha (and read) but when Ramsey showed up we went up the street to where I had heard (though some connections) that a philosophy professor was having a discussion over coffee. We joined the group of seven and had a wonderful time for the next two hours.

I was reflecting, afterwards, that it is so much fun to sit and talk in a group where we take on real questions of life . . . in a very honest and thoughtful way. There is not that king of freedom when I meet with most Evangelicals (unless it is at a LAbri conference). In those settings, we are always inspecting each other that we are sticking to precise dogma to “True Evangelism.” There are also so many clichés thrown around in Christian discussion groups that the communication comes to a standstill. Our lips still move . . . but there’s no real communication.

This is not just a Christian problem. I took Ramsey once to a "spiritual" discussion group. Not a Christian-spiritual, but a new-age spiritual discussion group. I thought it would be a good experience for him.

That later group was so ridiculous that there was no communication from anyone even from the start . . . just a bunch of emotional-spiritual words thrown in a blender and slung on a wall like an abstract impressionist artist.

Today’s discussion was very different. I hope to join this breakfast group again for their monthly meetings.

Most Evangelicals would not condone me taking my 16 year old son to a philosophy (and certainly not a new age) discussion group. But this is the neat thing about it. It is far better to be with your child when they encounter these great questions of life, with their smorgasbord of possible answers, than to allow them to deal with them alone some day (and they invariable will).

I am lucky to have a 16 year old son who considers his dad his best friend and mentor. He’s a smart kid too. He’s about to finish his first year of college with a 4-0. That’s quite a lot for a 16 year old. He aspires to be an astrophysicist.

This segues to my next topic.

I decided a couple of days ago not to doing any more postings for about a week and spend the time reading other peoples’ blogs. I got on to imonk’s blog (see the link at the side) last night. It is has been a couple of weeks since I’ve visited. There is always a scholarly discussion going on there. Last night it was a discussion by Michael Bell on the issue of our youth who do not stay in the church. He shares his statistics in his article but, in summary, it is an average of about 80% of kids who are raised in the church that leave by the age of 23.

I’ve done long postings on this before (about a year ago). But that topic pushed my buttons. I couldn’t comment on imonk’s blog long enough to share my real thoughts. So, like the case presentations for DSM IV mental disorders, tomorrow I hope to be back and share a real live story of a kind, Randy, raised in the church, and who is not in it now (and never will be again save some intervention by God).

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Missionary-tourism A Personal Perspective

Over the past year I’ve been working on a project where I’m trying to create a clinical rotation site for PA students in the developing world. At first I tried very hard to create this situation in the Middle East. I’m about to give up on that area for several reason. Now my focus is Nepal. If this is successful, later I would add other (physician) medical students and nursing students. I would handle all the US logistics; however I need to partner with an indigenous group on the ground.

The interesting thing, and this should be no surprise, is that there is a notion of medical-relief-tourism or maybe what I could label philanthro-tourism (which is much broader). The people in the developing world are figuring out that there is a big business in giving Americans the opportunity to unload their guilty consciences.

The different indigenous groups, which I’ve been working with, fall at various places along this continuum between true philanthropy and tourism. For example one Egyptian group seemed to only be interested in the tourism end of the spectrum. They said something along the lines of, “Sure Meekeel, we would love to work with you. We can take your students to the Pyramids, the National Museum, a boat ride on the Nile . . . oh of course we could take them by a clinic where poor people come. They could have their pictures made there. They can pose with sick babies. We can do all of this for only $4,000 in US dollars of course.”

But my program must meet the requirements of a clinical-educational experience of the different medical schools so it MUST be on the other end of the spectrum. A week-end raft trip (in Nepal) is fine . . . but they must be helping and treating real patients for eight hours a day during the rest of the week.

This got me thinking again . . . this time about the whole philanthropic paradigm . . . including Christian missionaries.

I know that I may sound paranoid (and probably am, and would fit into some DSM IV category) but I must add my disclaimer again. Christians get uncomfortable when I sound critical. But this is not the spirit in which I do this.

My muses are really deconstructions of what we Evangelicals think are true . . . down to the honest reality . . . applying it to myself as well. So as I try to unscramble the motives of the evangelical missionary experience, I will remind the reader that I, too was a missionary overseas and I was guilty of these things.

But my real point isn’t how bad evangelicals are (or I was) but simply, in the human condition, we are on the same page . . . and there is nothing wrong with that. I am only suggesting that we be honest about it. It’s fine—in my book—to go overseas as a missionary with an assortment of motives. My wife and I support several missionaries right now. I know of at least one that has confined in me the he is a missionary because he couldn’t find any other way to support his family in the U.S..

The error is the Evangelical myth of the “pure motives.” When I was an evangelical, we would often confront one another about, “Did you do that with pure motives?” There is no such thing, not with Billy Graham, or any with anyone. We are humans first, Christians second. There is no escaping our nature. So in everything that we do, there is a smorgasbord of motives at best and “pure motives” is elusive and nothing more than window dressings.

When I went overseas a missionary, I went from church to church (raising critical money) saying the same thing . . . “God called me to go to the mission field.” That was it, pure and simple. I was called by God, so I must obey and go, or live my life in sin.

I thought about ranking my reasons for going here, but that would be impossible. The ranking drifted from day to day, maybe from hour to hour. So I will put the motives in a pile of words.

I honestly wanted to find God’s pleasure (which I rarely did). I wanted to feel the pleasure of my Christians friends. I wanted to bring pride to my family. I wanted to hear my mom say, “That’s my son . . . the missionary.” I wanted to see Muslims become Christians. I wanted to be known as someone who had helped Muslims to become Christians. I wanted the adventure of traveling and living in exotic places. I wanted to be my own boss, where money (donor’s money) came in on a regular basis and I could do what the hell I wanted each day. I could spend the day in the park with my kids. I could sit and read books. I could go out to the bars with my Muslim friends (juice bars). I wanted my wife to look up to me, “He’s my husband, the missionary.” I wanted to walk into any church in American and immediately be respected as a spiritual person. I wanted to help someone who was poor and sick to get better. I also wanted to be seen helping someone sick and poor getting better.

I think you get the point.

My wife and daughter are going to Kenya this summer to work in an orphanage. I have the gut feeling that virtually all those motives above apply to them and I am still proud of them.

I rarely listen to Christian radio, however, I’m driving my wife’s car this week and she keeps it on a praise channel. I heard an ad about an adventure trip for Christian high schoolers. It was a four week trip in the wilderness with the title, “Encounter God in the Mountains.” Without sounding too cynical, I will say that this group is just a business like any other business but who’s clients are evangelicals. Evangelicals often feel guilty about doing any kind of trip unless they can spiritualize it as some great thing they are doing “for the Lord.” I was pleasantly surprised when I sat with a guy on a plane flying from Tennessee to Denver recently. He was on his way to lead a Christian group down the Grand Canyon. He was very honest saying, “It doesn’t pay much . . . but where else can you get a job doing what you love to do anyway, fishing, hiking and rafting?” He didn’t try to spiritualize it at all.

The same is true for short-term missions trips that are popping up everywhere. I think I have about 4-5 nieces or nephews at any one time who are overseas on a mission’s trip. We get a constant stream of cards asking for money. They get to raise the money to support their efforts. They are doing good deeds and that’s great. But I’m also saying, they are doing it for the adventure and the fun and there is nothing wrong with that. The non-Christian who backpacks through Europe wishes they could send out donor cards too. I hope the Christian students are not doing the mission trips to feel more pleasing to God . . . or their Christian friends. Jesus said something about living water, which you can drink and never thirst again. I know that I’ve spent too much of my Christian life thirsting for God’s approval . . .and the approval of the brethren.

The photo above is when I went to Pakistan three years ago to help after the big, and horrible, earthquake. Why did I go? The adventure. My honest concern for the sick and injured. To look like a hero to my family and friends. To get attention in my church. To meet new and interesting people. The list could go on.

I’m not saying that the dishonesty in motives is a Christian phenomenon. I went to Pakistan with a secular group. They had a lot of mix motives as well. A big one was for the glory. They had already been on 60 Minutes (in a previous trip). We took with us a writer from People Magazine and a documentary movie maker. The movie maker was going to film us for a program on the Discovery Channel. There was a lot of glory to be had. I wasn’t camera shy either. But, I never made People article and the Discovery Channel program never made it to the little screen.

But in the rubble of Pakistan I saw a lot of mix motives among the stench of rotting children’s corpses. The Pakistani army was in town (for the first time ever) to get more control. Muslim groups were coming from the Gulf, in to prove they are good Muslims. Con artist coming in to con what was left from the poor victims. We saw a lot of Pakistani politicians (escorted by beautiful women with TV cameras) taking pictures of them holding babies . . . then flying off in a helicopter. The cost of one helicopter could have bought 50 bulldozers. One bulldozer could have saved many lives. Oh, the Pakistani doctor that I’m picture with . . . his motives were simple. He had been ordered to the area by the government. He couldn’t have cared less about the local mountain people. The survivors could have rotted for all he cared. He kept zipping up our treatment tent so the patients couldn’t find us . . . so he could play Mine Sweeper on his cell phone.

But that’s the human condition.

Back to my story. Why am I trying to create this overseas clinic? I will rank this in order of how I feel at this moment; 1) The adventure, 2) To be seen as a teacher, 3) To help the poor, 4) To get a break from seeing self-absorbed patients in the US (those who go from imaginary illness to imaginary illness). 4) I hope that some day the tuition will pay for my chance to travel to exotic places. 5) Oh yeah, to share Christ’s love to those in need.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

DSM IV Axis II - The Church's Dirty Little Secret Part IX -Narcissistic Personality Disorder Part III

The Choice of Sophia

I wanted to conclude the Narcissistic Personality section with a true case study. I may end this DSM thread after this . . . although there are disorders to discuss. I just don’t want to run it into the ground..

In case you are just joining this discussion, I wanted to add a little caveat. The catalyst that started on this thread was hearing a forensic psychiatrist on the Today Show make the comment that “Church people are naive about mental illness.” I happen to agree.

I also think there is a purpose in having dialog about these issues. For one, once we know that certain behaviors are actually the signs of mental illness, rather than them being just immature Christians, it helps us to cope with the situation. It also helps us steer away from their webs of chaos. Lastly, it should help us figure out how we can help them. A magic wand made of Bible verses doesn’t make mental illness instantly go away. But many of these mental health problems are helpable, if treated appropriately.

The case before us is Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). I searched my mind trying to come up with the best example I could think of. I mentioned that Saul (in the Bible) seemed to suffer from it. I’ve known a couple of doctors who certainly had it . . . but neither were Christians so they don’t make good examples. I’ve known a few Christian men over the years that seem to fit into the description, but I feel a little uneasy defining them as having NPD when I’m not sure. However, one person, my aunt Sophia, has a NPD for certain . . . and she expresses this disorder within the Christian context. I hesitated on using her story because she, being a woman, is not stereotypical.

Remember, the key factors of NPD are 1) A grossly over-inflated view of themselves, 2) a deep insecurity, 3) using other people for their own gain without hesitation and 4) believing that they are so important that they are above the rules (civil laws, Biblical laws and social mores).

My earliest memory of my aunt Sophia was that she was the most important person in our extended family. I didn’t know why. She and my uncle lived in a big house on the top of a hill. They always drove brand new Cadillac cars (the red-necks’ BMW). Oddly, she always drove the car and my uncle sat silently in the passenger’s seat. He carried Sophia’s huge, designer pocket book wherever they went. She was always well dressed, even for a family picnic. As a small kid I always thought it was odd that my uncle was constantly waiting on her. “Bring me some water, bring me a sandwich, go find that book, and go get the mail,” she would say . . . and the orders went on and on like he was her butler.

I got to know Aunt Sophia well when I was sent to live with her for a week each summer for the “refinement of my social skills.” She ran a very formal household. Dinner was proper, at the table, with real china and silverware. The biggest problem with this life style was that my uncle worked in a factory. I didn’t figure out that they lived above their means until I was in high school. How they did, I’m not sure, but later I will share some thoughts that may shed light on it.

Sophia never worked outside the home . . . nor even inside. She had an elderly, emaciated woman (in her eighties) who cleaned her house, scrubbed her floors on her hands and knees and cleaned the toilets. Sophia always called her “Granny.” She was always giving Granny orders . . . clean this better and take that garbage out back etc. Honestly, it wasn’t until Granny died (and I was in the eleventh grade) that I realized that she was Sohpia’s biological mother. She never paid her mother a dime for her maid service over forty years. After granny had died, my sisters and I learned that my own 85 year old mothered had been procured by Aunt Sophia for the same janitorial services in her home, at about $5 and hour. My mother has always suffered from false guilt and a very low self esteem (which is another long story) so she has always been vulnerable to people taking advantage of her, like her sister-in-law Sophia. My sisters and I quickly put an end to this indentured servitude.

The way that Sophia was able to coerce my mother into this role of being a maid, and this is typical behavior of NPD people, was through guilt manipulation. My mother’s brother, Sophia’s husband, had died a few years earlier. She would tell my mother that cleaning her house several days a week is what he brother would want.

Sophia was also known within our extended family as the most “Christian” of all our relatives. She and my uncle, if you saw them on a Sunday, wore a chest-full of Sunday school attendance metals. They had so many that they looked like some third-world dictator. All their vacations were planned around them being in a city on Sunday morning where there were Southern Baptist Churches so they could attend. They would get a letter of attendance from that pastor to keep their 20 year perfect attendance record going.

Both were leaders in their Baptist church. Sophia, until this day, has been the official money counter. She collects all the offerings, takes the money home, counts it and deposits in the bank. She loves that role (wink, wink). I will add at this juncture, while my mom was still cleaning her house, one day she ventured into my aunt’s bedroom (which Sophia had told my mother never to go into) and she opened a chest of drawers looking for blankets to make up the guest bed. When she slid open the drawer, my mom found it stuffed to the brim with bundles of cash. There must have been thousands and thousands of dollars in that drawer. My mother asked Sophia about it. She explained that she keeps the money for a couple of the elderly women in the church because they didn’t feel that the banks are safe. My aunt also persuaded them, as the church’s money handler, to make her the administrators of their estates.

My uncle had been a deacon for all his adult life. Both of them, but especially Sophia has always worn her piety on her shirt sleeves. My uncle and aunt gave $1200 toward our financial support when my wife and I went as missionaries. They made a huge deal about their gift. I’m sure they would have loved to have had a photo in the newspaper with them holding one of those giant checks and handing it to my wife and me. Since that date (back in 1988) Sophia has held that gift over the head of my mother as leverage for manipulation. The most recent example is where Sophia talked my mother into giving her 25 year-old oxycontin addicted grandson a “loan” for $1500. Her pressure included, “I gave your son $1200 for his mission’s trip so it is now time to pay back the money.”

Sophia was not sick that often. She didn’t suffer from a somatization disorder (what they use to call hypochondria) but when she was sick, her illness was grandiose. For example, if she were sick this week, it would one of the “proven cases” of Swine Flu (even though she wouldn’t give any proof). She calls all her doctors, including specialists that she has dealt with by first names. “Yeah, Robert wanted me to meet him at the Hospital so George . . . you know the cardiologist . . . could look me over.” Her medical stories invariable end up with some famous doctor being, “flown in” from Duke University, or maybe New York City . . . just to go over her case.

I haven’t mentioned that Sophia has a daughter named Karen, whom she has groomed to be just like herself. Karen may have more of tendency of somatization disorder as she has had many more grandiose illnesses and specialists around the country being flown in for her behalf.

Sophia had put great pressure on Karen to marry well. She always was arranging for Karen to date doctors’ or lawyers’ sons when she was in high school. I allowed Sophia to set up one blind date for me when I was in high school. It was with a beauty queen (Miss local city) and who was the daughter of a doctor I believe. I never took her out on the second date because I felt so awkward.
Her daughter did marry well . . . twice. First she married the son of the largest land tycoon in the area. She eventually had five children with him, all of whom became addicted to prescription medications by the time they turned 20 (including the one who was trying to borrow money from my mother).

Oddly, the movie The River, staring Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek was filmed on Karen’s farm. The two actors lived supposedly in my cousin’s house for about six months while the movie was being made. During this time, it was like my aunt was their best friends. It seemed that all she could talk about was “Sissy” said this or “Mel” said that . . . then she would laugh. My aunt actually did have a role in the movie. It was very fitting. She was singing a hymn in a church. It took all day to shoot the scene. Sophia thought this would launch her career . . . however; the footage was cut from the final film. But for years Sophia talked about her buddies, Mel and Sissy . . . like they called her every day for her advice.

The next time that I heard from Sophia was when she sent me an instruction manual (handwritten) for my wedding. It told me how to behave properly during the ceremony, what is the proper role of the groom at the rehearsal dinner, etc.

She continued taking advantage of my mother over the years. Up until this day, she will bring my aging mother’s house bushel baskets of fruit and ask her to make jam for her or Karen. She will pay my mom $10 for the 20 hours she puts into it. My sisters and I have tried to keep her in check as she was doing this weekly up until last year. My poor mother is getting old and tired but Sophia has this odd lack of empathy (which goes along with most personality disorders).

The last saga in Sophia’s life happened a couple of years ago. Karen divorced her first husband when he declared bankruptcy about a decade ago. Then my aunt arranged for her to meet a grocery store tycoon . . . whom she married (my cousin is very beautiful, which gives her an advantage). Soon after that, and with her new husband’s money, my cousin ran for Congress . . . and was not elected (by a landslide). This was despite my cousin’s and aunt’s attempts to visit all the Baptist churches in their district telling them that God had called Karen to Washington and wanted them to vote for her.

Soon after the election, Aunt Sophia was arrested for shoplifting. It was very embarrassing to have her name in the paper. However, she came up with the story that she had been framed in order to persecute her and her daughter for standing up for the Lord.

Friday, May 8, 2009

DSM IV Axis II - The Church's Dirty Little Secret Part IX -Narcissistic Personality Disorder Part II

While Narcissistic Personality Disorder is less common than some of the others I’ve mentioned (only 1%), these people often seek highly visible or leadership roles. At first impression—with their appearance of confidence and knowledge—they look like good leaders. But once in a leadership role, he or she (and most NPDs are male) can have a very rocky tenure. (Saul may have had NPD) The reason is, that while the NPD person seems to function on a higher social plane than everyone else, inside they are very insecure. If anyone challenges them,(like David) they can become very angry very quickly. While they assume that everyone is jealous of them, they too are very jealous of competitors.

The fundamental problem is the NPD person has a very, very inflated view of themselves. Some theories believed that this was learned by excesses praise or over-evaluation by parents. But there are some cases that seem to be related to being a victim of childhood abuse. Like most serious mental disorders, genetics may play an important role as well.

They also see other people as inferior, socially and intellectually. They have a strange lack of empathy. If someone is diagnosed with cancer, the NPD will quickly pass it off as they didn’t take of themselves so in a way, they deserves it. They also will not hesitate to use other people for their own gain, even to the other person’s detriment.

The NPD individual seeks to have connections to important people and exaggerates the few connections that he does have. They feel that they must have the best car, house, clothes and belong to the best clubs. If they are not lucky enough to have used their great confidence to land a good paying job then they will live above their means.

The NPD within the Church

As I mentioned, this person is usually male. Since the incidence is only about 1%, a church of 400 people would expect to have 3-4. But those 3-4 men will be move visible than their few numbers represent. They are often have important roles as the Pastor (but won’t stay and one church for very long due to their difficulty getting along with people) or other church leadership roles. If not in church leadership, they often seek roles of high social status . . . to help support their inflated self-esteem. This could mean that they are a doctor, lawyer or college profession.

In the vestibule, the NPD person will have the tendency to dominate conversations. Sometimes the NPD personality will take on Christian characteristics. Rather than thinking that they are from a bluer blood than others, they will see themselves as far more spiritual than others. They will have the tendency to harshly judge others, and say cutting things (spiritual put downs) at every chance. However, they seem themselves on such a high plane, that the rules (even Biblical rules) don’t seem to apply to them. They can be very critical of men who have confessed to being involved with porn, but be having an extramarital affair themselves and not see the connection. In their psyche, they feel that they deserve the affair.

If the NPD achieves the role of pastor, and the church’s “pastor search committee” is duped by their over-the-top persona, they will only be at the church for a few years due to their inability to get along. They see themselves as so far above everyone else, they will see all other ideas, but their own, as stupid. This puts them in constant conflict with oversight boards such as the elders.

These people will have a small (or sometimes large) crowd of groupies, who have been hoodwinked by their over-confidence. These devotees will follow their glorious leader to the bitter end. Many cult leaders suffered from NPD. Many church splits come at the helm of a NPD pastor, with his groupies following him to start a new church, even though his arrogance destroyed the last one.

I will try to tell a true to life story next posting, about someone with NPD.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

DSM IV Axis II - The Church's Dirty Little Secret Part VIII - Narcissistic Personality Disorder

This is one of the most difficult issues to talk about because, frankly, we are all narcissistic at times. It is a matter of degree.

It is estimated that about 1% of people could be diagnosed with this disorder. In this posting, I want to simply list the official diagnostic criteria. I will come back and talk about some of the causes, and how this may play out in our church setting.

Diagnostic Criteria:

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

(1) has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)

(2) is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love

(3) believes that he or she is "special" and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)

(4) requires excessive admiration

(5) has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations

(6) is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends

(7) lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others

(8) is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her

(9) shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

DSM IV Axis II - The Church's Dirty Little Secret Part V II- Boarderline Personality Disorder - Final

In simple laymen’s terms I want to make a few points about borderline personality disorders. First, it is fairly common, affecting about 2% of adults. So in any given church of 400 people, there should be 8 people suffering from it.

Secondly, while the first two disorders I wrote about mostly affect men, BPD is mostly a disorder of young women. As I mentioned last time, if there is one simple root cause it is a deep insecurity and fear of abandonment.

The other point I want to make is that it is a recognized mental illness. This is where I think Evangelicals can be naive. In these lesser (as compared to schizophrenia or psychosis of any type) mental illnesses, it is easy to assume that these are just bad people (or in some cases they leave you feeling that you are the bad person). But, by recognizing it as a disorder, I think we are better equipped to cope and steer away from the complexities.

The best hallmark of dealing with someone with a BPD is that they have a rapid changing of opinions of others. They can easily start as the best friend you have ever known. They can be over the top with praises for you. They will bring you gifts, never forget your birthday and quickly consider you their BFF . . . forever until you disappoint them.

You can disappoint them for reasons that just don’t make sense to you. But remember, they have a very deep insecurity and fear of abandonment, and this is where this fear is manifest.

For example, you may simply go out of town to visit your mother. But when you return, your new BFF is very, very angry at you. But in the Christian context, and if the person has learned the game well, they know that the only “approved anger” is righteous anger. So for the Christian BPD person to express their anger, they have to “dress it up” as righteous anger.

“I’m so disappointed in you. We were working on this (church) project and I called your house and you are not even home. This is NOT the way that someone treats their sister in Christ! I wasted three days because of this. If I had been warned of your sudden disappearance, then I could have solicited someone else to help me. I just think that when you do God’s work you must be faithful. You know, once you put your hand to the plough, you never look back!”

Remember, in this situation you simply went to visit your mother for the weekend and it wasn’t really your friend’s business. But the BPD person will blow it hugely out of proportion. This is where it gets tough. As a sincere Christian, you can be overwhelmed with a false sense of guilt, like you had done something horrible . . . and that’s exactly what the BPD person wants you to feel. They are angry that you “abandoned them” and they want you to pay a hefty price for it.

The BPD person is known best by these “stormy” relationships. They are known second best by their impulsive actions, which seem outrageous.

The best example of this kind of behavior, which I can think of today, is a young lady in my mom’s church. I do think she has BPD plus a couple of other disorders (including a somatization disorder or what they use to call being a hypochondriac.)

This girl (about 28 years old and married) keeps herself at the center of attention of the church with fantastic prayer requests (and amazing miracles) to report. She gets very close to different women, usually using her imagined chronic illnesses to keep them close (fake pregnancies, fake cancer etc.). But she breaks up friendships very quickly and dramatically if someone crosses her or does not live up to her very high expectations (forgetting the anniversary of when she miscarried).

However, last year she was trying to become the official church pianist (vs an older woman who had been the pianist for years). One man, the head deacon (in his late 50s and married) would make the final decision. To make a long story short, she slept with the deacon to get the post and it was exposed (they were caught with their pants down—literally). This seemed to come completely out of the blue, but BPD people often do these outrageous acts (many times either sexual or going into debt).

But sincere women, who want to be their friends, often find their worlds turned upside down in these relationships

The good news, when compared to some of the other disorders, the BPD is treatable and there is hope of near complete recover . . . unless it is not understood.