Faith, Media

Minecraft, Creating, and Consuming

For the last year and a half, I’ve been absorbed in a game called Minecraft (this feels like a confession, not sure why). It’s become an internet phenomenon and seems strange to anyone who only thinks about the photorealistic graphics you’ll find on the PlayStation3 or Xbox 360. Minecraft’s viral appeal spread not because of its graphical power, but because of a powerful idea: you can create your entire world.

The world is rendered in 1 meter blocks. As the player, you have the ability to remove, collect and build blocks however you want. You gather different resources to build more advanced tools and structures. I know I sound like a complete nerd, but trust me, it is awesome.

This game captured my creative urges more than almost anything I can think of in my life (Again, feeling a little sheepish to let that cat out of the bag). This is what I find most interesting: in this post-modern Western culture, it’s so much easier to express our creativity in a virtual world rather than in the real one.

We live in a culture of consumption. Instead of being what we eat, we are what we buy, what we consume. I’ve said it before, and I probably won’t shut up about it: the message we are bombarded with thousands of times a day in so many nuanced, tongue-in-cheek, parody-laden ways is that we are not complete as a human being until we buy X. Geico Insurance. Nike shirts and shoes. Old Spice deodorant. Go Daddy websites. Levi jeans. The newest, newest iPhone (which I thought looked really silly until I watched Apple’s little video, and then I was all like “That thing is beautiful.”)

So it’s no wonder that with all these creative powers rolling around within me (rolling around in all of us), that I would find it much more appealing to express those in a computer game rather than in my writing, or in my relationships, or in my faith.

God creates. It may be the most distinctive and persistent part of God’s character versus all the other gods that have been imagined. And while I believe being created “in God’s image” means a lot of things, one of those is most definitely that we humans are set apart in all creation as creators ourselves. It’s in our being to want to create.

I remember when the show “American Chopper” was first hitting popularity, I watched and thought, “Man, how cool would it be to have a job where you created something every day.” I longed for that feeling at the end of the day to look at my work, touch it, and say: “That’s what I did today. That’s what I created.”

But as long as I listen to the commercial message that engulfs us, my creativity has zero value or purpose. Maybe less, because by creating I’m replacing my need to buy their product. What’s perhaps most ironic with my Minecraft obsession is that I paid for the game. I had to consume before I could create.

So it’s really no wonder to me that the Christian faith, scratching and clawing to remain viable in our culture, has become so consumer-friendly. We go “church shopping” like we’re looking for new shoes. It’s no stretch to imagine visitors wondering, “How does this church express my individuality?” And since so many are programmed to think this way, the church was worked very hard to turn faith into a commodity. If we didn’t no one would know what to do with it.

Is the greatest expression of who we are what you have consumed or what we create?

Are your friends a commodity you consume or are you creating community?

Do you consume your faith or are you creating faith?

Do you spend more time consuming God as a product or are you willing to co-create a more beautiful life with God?

With your creation, the world will be so much more beautiful than it is with the robotic march of a billion consumers. The church would be so much more vital if we all felt we could create there rather than just consume. And she would stand as a stark witness over against this consumer culture, declaring the good news that we are not what advertisements say we are, but instead we are what God created us to be.

I for one have waited too long to share God’s image that I carry around. We’re here to create, let’s get to it.


The Death of the Program Church

Some folks get concerned that the church is dying. I think that’s a little egotistical to think that we humans could kill the church. We can hurt the church. We can maim the church. We can cry wolf so much that we become impotent. But not you, nor I, nor the Pope, nor the Southern Baptist Convention, nor Fred Phelps, nor any judicatory, nor any mega-church pastor can kill the church. God maintains control of the church. It’s God life that fuels the church, not ours.

I do believe the church is going through a metamorphosis, meaning that it is going through a death of sorts. The church as a whole is not dying. But the church we’ve all known is passing away. And a new church is about to emerge out of it.

I’ve often talked about the Field of Dreams method of evangelism that the mainline church has used for the last fifty years. When trying to attract new members to a church, all you needed to know was “If you build it, they will come.” This meant that when it came to evangelism, we just got lazy. Our evangelism muscles have atrophied and when we don’t see as many people — especially young people — walking through our doors, we feel helpless to make any change.

There’s been a significant changing of the tide in how the culture around us views the church. We once had a designated seat next to all the staples of the local community: Mayor, Neighborhood Association President, and Pastor… The question when you met your neighbor was “Which church do you go to?” because church membership was a foregone conclusion. And now we would be bold even to ask “Do you go to church at all?”

I know a lot of folks that get frustrated by this new reality, which is to be expected. If you haven’t exercised for twenty years, put on 50 pounds and then someone asks you to run a mile, odds are you’ll be frustrated too. Or if you’ve had a butler to cook all your meals and a maid to clean the house for fifty years, and then all of a sudden you can’t afford them anymore and are asked to do all that work yourself again, odds are you’ll be frustrated too.

What I mean to say is that we enjoyed a certain luxury as the mainline church for the last fifty or so years. When you lose a luxury it is not injustice. It is not persecution. You can shuffle your feet and say “Woe is me” if you want to. But a luxury is not a “right.” And the only way to fulfill our mission as a church is to pull up our sleeves, get ready to get our hands dirty, get ready to go through the aches and soreness from exercising muscles we haven’t used in a long time, and get to work.

And I think if we choose to do that, we will discover a new life and vitality to our faith that will seem very unfamiliar and completely invigorating. We will be like Plato’s cave dwellers stepping out into the light that was casting the shadows – the only thing they had seen their entire lives. “So this is what it’s really like” we’ll say.

I believe that the church we know, that is passing away, is the program church. We have designed our church structure around programs: membership, outreach, education, worship (and then that pesky evangelism committee dangling off the side that doesn’t really seem to do much other than update the ad in the Yellow Pages). Schedule an event, invite people to come, host the event — this is the life of a church. Or this was the life of the church.

I believe the church that will emerge from this time of difficult transition is the relational church. Jesus’ expression of the greatest commandment was to love the Lord our God with all we have, and love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

The growing challenge in our media-saturated culture is how do we compete with the estimated 3,000 advertisements an average American sees on a daily basis? Option A is to join the race. Put our ads of our own. Sell ourselves just as fervently, just as cleverly, as Wal-Mart and Nike and Coke and Old Spice and Geico and so on and so on and so on, ad nauseum. This is a tall task. And in investing so much of our resources and mental creativity, we run the very real risk of becoming like these companies in order to remain viable.

By why become a part of the noise when the gospel offers such a radical alternative? Option B is to be the church. Option B is to be something so radically different from everything else that is offered, that we cannot help but standout as something very strange, true, but also something authentic and unique. Option B is slow. Option B is hard work. Option B is loving God not just with our wallets, not just with our Sunday mornings, not just by squeezing him into my schedule between my workout and my 8am staff meeting. Option B is loving God with our whole selves. It’s loving other people until it hurts. I think I’m not the only one who senses a boundary in loving people. You can love them up to a point, and if you pass that point, it is socially unacceptable. Or at least weird. Option B is breaking down that barrier and loving them when they don’t deserve it. Loving them when it is not socially acceptable. Loving them to such an extent that most rational people would tell you you’re doing too much, you’ve gone too far. Option B is costly, and it is not safe.

But Option B, the only true option for the faithful church going forward, will establish a depth in relationships that will be something new even to the church right now, not to mention anybody who might witness how we do things. We will have people that know us better than our family members. We will have people that we can be completely vulnerable and honest with, instead of people that we are cordial with every Sunday. And because of this, we will know God more intimately, we will know God more deeply, and we will only want to know God more.

In the end, the question is not: will the church make it? God is in charge of the church. So long as God is alive and Christ has not returned, there will be a church. The real question is, what kind of church will thrive in the coming century. God is not going to abandon God’s people. The question is, what type of people is God going to use the most in the coming decades? The question is, are we ready to be that people?


Take a Sabbatical, Church

I’ve been thinking that the church needs to go on vacation. Well, vacation probably isn’t the right word. Vacation implies leisure, and this elusive notion that our ultimate happiness is always just over the horizon if we could just do nothing for a while. No, I guess as a preacher, I should use a more biblical word like sabbatical.

Imagine if you would that every congregation in the U.S. simply locked up the doors to their buildings for a year. Maybe we could leave a sign on the door that says, “Thanks for seeking us out! If you want to find us, you’ll need to go back to your street or neighborhood or building and start asking some neighbors and friends about how and where they worship. God bless.”

So we’ll be on our own to worship in living rooms and public parks and soup kitchens and on hiking trails and by throwing block parties in the streets on Sunday mornings. Some of us will be quiet and meditative. Some will be dancing and partying. A lot of folks won’t even bother.

For a year each congregation gives up its name and that desire to beat out the Baptists down the street for new members. We’re no longer the First Church of the Correct Side of the Argument that Broke Out in 1880. We’ll just be the church. Your neighbor asks to come to your group and you say, “Great! Come to apartment 55B a little after lunch.” “But who are you? What is the name of the group?” And you get to say, “Well, for now, we are Christians.”

It’s not all going to be rose-colored windows though. There’s going to be a lot of upset people. All those plaques on the side of the building. How else will we honor and remember those who came before? All that money sunk into sound and video equipment, all the planning to ensure the most spit-polished performance on Sundays. What will we do when we lose the total control of our worship environment? All those organs and pianos and hymnals and non-portable drum kits? How will we express our love for God only with what we can carry with us? All those committee meetings to plan events. What will we do?

Don’t get me wrong, I love so much about churches as they are. The haunting minor key of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” piping through an organ on a dark, cold Christmas Eve night. Watching a choir of children, half too scared to sing, the other half happy to soak up as much spotlight as possible, sing to an aging congregation, “Jesus loves me, this I know.” The occasional moment in a church board meeting when they decide that instead of using that extra $1,000 to clean the pews, they’re going to send it to Cambodia to build a house for a homeless widow. I wouldn’t give it up for anything.

But in this country where the barrage of commercial messages drive the same message deeper and deeper (what you have is not enough, you’ve got to go get our product!), we’re really good at forgetting what we’ve got. And what we’ve got as the church is a God who loves us extravagantly who is slow to anger and abounding in love, a risen Savior, God’s Holy Spirit (unfortunately stuck in a jar, buried under artificial flowers in the storage room in too many places), God’s calling to be something truly loving and different and remarkable, a fabulous collection of talented people each with their own calling to share their gift for God’s Kingdom, wealth and resources that would seem scandalous to a church worshipping on a dirt floor, and the freedom to do nearly anything we can imagine to pursue God’s kingdom in the world today.

Perhaps a year’s sabbatical is just what we need to remember the beauty of those gifts. Perhaps a year’s sabbatical could release the stifling air of inevitable decline in so many churches too scared to take a risk. Perhaps a year’s sabbatical would help us remember that we do not exist simply to trade members back and forth.  Maybe when we unlock the doors, take down that little sign and walk back into our sanctuaries, we will realize that God and God’s Moving Spirit were there all along. After a year, we may even be willing to move some ourselves.


Parenting is Time Travel

Parenting is time travel. When you have your first kid, you get flooded with the past. My mom kept bringing me all her favorite outfits of mine when I was a baby/toddler/kid. When we travel to grandparents’ homes all the old toys finally get some more play.

As I time travel with my son into my childhood, I’m repeatedly dumbfounded by a vivid memory of this toy or that book that I haven’t seen or spared a thought on in over 25 years. And yet when I hear the dings of this little music box, or see the way the whiskers of that lion curl in that book, the memory engulfs my senses.

The universe is suddenly simple and beautiful and magical again.

Then I time jump into the future. I realize that every moment I have with my son could have that effect on him when he is grown. It’s incredibly humbling. I can no longer view any minute I spend with him as mundane.

Every little song we sing. Every silly dance. Every accent for the talking animals in “From Head to Toe.” Every tiny thing could become his Rosebud. Every moment is magical. Every moment is sacred.

And then, when I finally return to the present, I put my feet back on the ground and realize that nothing actually has changed. It’s always been that way.

Every moment is magical. Every breath is sacred.

The notion that any moment of life is mundane, average, ho-hum or unimportant is a lie. Thinking that way is sin. God is always singing with me, dancing with me, reading a book, putting me to sleep. I stand on the sloping edge of the present, filled with the meaning of the past, sloping into the purpose of the future.


Why Do I Follow Jesus?


Once upon a time I was researching church websites and saw that a lot of them had a page titled something like “Why Jesus?” And all their answers where very impersonal and formulaic, citing 2 dozen scriptures and laying out the steps to salvation. While I really don’t have a problem with that, it just seemed to be such a dry answer to such a rich question. So I decided to give it a try for myself. Here’s what came out.

Continue reading


Another blog?

Why would the world possibly need another blog? Especially one dealing with Christianity and faith…

Well, in a word, it doesn’t. But maybe I do. I’ve wanted to write (in fact I have written, just never very intentionally) regularly on matters of faith and media for a long time. So here’s my online notepad. Perhaps having something public will give me some accountability.

I am a minister in the Christian Church  (Disciples of Christ), in my early thirties, in the Bible belt… all of which might lead you to stereotypes that are not true. Or maybe you’ll have me pegged perfectly. Who knows.

To get things going, I’m going to post a few older pieces that I still like. Hopefully, by the time I’ve really committed to writing regularly, these will all seem amateurish and naive. For now, enjoy them.