They are playing soccer, paying bills, shopping, visiting museums, meeting friends for breakfast. People in your community have a lot of reasons to get up on Sunday morning. But they’re not getting up for church.
If you have the courage to join him, Chuck Gutenson will take you on a journey through contemporary America and into the heart of your congregation. You’ll see your own assumptions about church and people in new light, and wrestle with issues lurking just beneath the surface in your church and in your life as a leader: What does humility look like? What is the meaning of ‘radical’ hospitality, (and why does it exist almost nowhere in the Church)? And what does it mean to be authentic, really?
Along the way, this thoughtful and convicting book introduces ten church leaders who offer helpful insight from their own experience in churches from California to Georgia. This is not a book on church marketing. There are no tips here on how to dress up what you’ve already got, to make it more appealing. This is a book that will challenge, embolden, and equip you to make church worth getting up for, this Sunday and every Sunday.
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About the Author
Dr. Charles (Chuck) Gutenson is a church consultant andformer Chief Operating Officer of Sojourners. He previously served 10 years atAsbury Seminary in Kentucky, most recently as the professor of Theology andPhilosophy. He received an M.Div. from Asbury in 1995 and a PhD inPhilosophical Theology from Southern Methodist University in 2000. A member ofthe International Society of Theta Phi, an honor society for theological students, scholars in the field of religion and outstanding religious leaders,Chuck is the author of three books (one forthcoming) and numerous articles on avariety of theological and philosophical articles.
Read an Excerpt
Church Worth Getting Up For
By Charles E. Gutenson
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 Charles E. Gutenson
All rights reserved.
Putting Jesus Back at the Center
When people say: "I would like to have a coke, please," do they really mean they want that brand of soda known as Coca-Cola? Or, by asking for a "coke," are they merely intending to ask for a soda, using the term "coke" as a generic for soda or soft drink? Often, we really don't know without asking. Have you ever thought about how much of a marketing advantage it is for the manufacturers of Coca-Cola to have their brand, "coke," as the generic term used for soft drink or soda? One of the biggest obstacles to the success of a new consumer product is the creation of brand awareness for that product. You can't buy a product you don't know exists—no matter how good it may be. So, all product manufacturers strive to have the brand of their product line become a household word, recognizable by almost everyone. Other brands that have become synonymous with specific product lines include: Xerox (copy company or for copies); Q-tip (cotton swab manufacturer or the swabs on a small stick); Sea-Doo (the company or the generic for jet ski); Jello (the brand or generic for gelatin dessert); and Jacuzzi (the brand or generic for hot tub). There is no guarantee that such brand recognition will result in success. The product still has to be a good one, but such brand recognition creates enormous opportunities for these companies, which is evidenced by the huge sums of money they spend to create and preserve a high level of brand recognition.
Now, before we get too much further into this discussion, let me again assure the reader that my goal is not to identify some clever marketing scheme that will transform churches so that they seem a "superior consumer choice" to the other Sunday morning alternatives. While I strongly resist going in that direction, the challenges we face are brought into sharp relief when we consider the concepts of branding and brand recognition. What sort of "brand experience" do folks have with church—generally speaking? It's really quite a mixed bag, isn't it? If the brand experience of the church is loosely defined as the sum total of all interactions with "the church," then we are going to get answers that fall across the spectrum. However, what studies show us is that the younger demographic (those under thirty-five, for example) are increasingly finding that their brand experience of church is either neutral ("yeah, church is okay, it's just irrelevant") or negative ("I've had enough of church, I quit"). In other words, the church has very high brand recognition (folks know what church is). However, when you look at the long-term health of the church, neutral or, perhaps more commonly, bad brand experiences create significant concern. Because of bad brand experiences, the brand image of the church (again, speaking generically) is perceived quite negatively.
In a later chapter, we will discuss the perceptions that persons have of Christians and our church. Here, however, we will summarize quickly. In a study published by Kinnaman and Lyons, the three most common terms or phrases people used to identify Christians (and by implication, the church) were: hypocritical, judgmental, and antihomosexual. In other words, the "brand image" (brand image is a mental construct made to capture the experiences and expectations associated with a particular brand) of the church in general and Christians in particular leaves rather a lot to be desired. Let's come at this from a somewhat different angle and see what we can learn from it.
Consider the following little experiment (or, better yet, conduct it yourself). Let's imagine that mid-morning in some large U.S. city, we wander out to poll anyone who will stop long enough for us to ask one question. That one question is this:
Of all the people who have ever lived, who would you consider to be the three greatest?
Word the question in that particular way—not who are the most influential or not who are the best known (since either of these would likely allow folks to include persons who have had negative impacts). Who do you think would be candidates for such a list? Alexander the Great? Socrates or Plato? Copernicus? Newton or Einstein? I'll make the following prediction: in the overwhelming number of cases, Jesus will be listed as one of the top three. In those cases where he is mentioned, he will most often be named as the greatest person ever to live. To use our earlier terms, I am sure we would find not only that Jesus has excellent "brand recognition" but also that he has an overwhelmingly positive "brand image." I wonder what to make of that?
Let's imagine you were able to get a few more minutes with several of the persons who agreed to take our one-question poll. Imagine they were willing to answer one more question:
Why do you think Jesus was one of the greatest people of all time?
What sorts of answers do you suppose you would hear? A vague affirmation of his teachings? We would probably hear that answer with some frequency. Perhaps people would focus on his call to love all those around us, most especially our enemies. Perhaps they would focus on his affirmation of the value of each and every person by the way in which he invited all into relationship with himself. Some would name his utterly unselfish way of living. There would be a variety of answers you would get to this question, but one thing of which you can rest assured is this: the answers would run in precisely the opposite direction from the criticisms of the church mentioned above. In other words, while the Christian church and Jesus would both have very high brand recognition, their brand image would be very, very different. The difference is captured in a quote often attributed to Ghandi: "I love your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." And, there you have it in its most succinct form—many love Jesus and their perception of his life and values, but they look at us Christians and our churches and they see a huge disconnect. What's up with that? Well, the short answer is: to be worth getting up for, we in the church need a major reboot, with the result that the life and behaviors of Jesus return to the center of what following Jesus is all about. Only then can we expect a culture tired of those who play at religion to sit up and pay attention to the good news.
Unfortunately, too often our answer to the different perceptions between Jesus and the Christian church is framed in a self-serving way. For example, I recall one author arguing that there really was no difference between Jesus and his church. Instead, he argued that Ghandi had created a Jesus of his own making, a Jesus that was not particularly biblical. It's no wonder Ghandi preferred that Christ, the argument continued, but we Christians don't need to take this criticism seriously. I suppose the conclusion we are supposed to draw is that Ghandi, and those like him, really should dislike both Jesus and the church. Is it the case that there are those who have created a perception of Jesus that really is just a "tamed down" version of the biblical Jesus? Is it possible that the Jesus so admired by some really is quite disconnected from the real Jesus? Of course, it is possible, perhaps even likely. However, before we dust off our hands, comfortable that we have undermined this particular criticism, we need to think much more deeply. Perhaps there are some other reasons for the fact that folks have such divergent views of the church and its Lord and Founder. And, maybe, just maybe, there is some validity to the fact that people love Jesus, but feel very differently about many who claim to be his followers.
Before moving on, it is worth noting one likely reason that some feel that popular conceptions of Jesus are constructs that are quite different from the biblical Jesus. Those who "love Jesus but hate the church" tend to focus on Jesus' behaviors, the ways in which he engaged those around him: loving them, healing them, feeding them, offering them hope. Those on the other side tend to focus more on doctrine and beliefs. The former see Jesus most fundamentally defined by his interactions and relationships, the things that he did and the ways in which he related to others. The latter see Jesus most fundamentally defined by the theological statements the church developed and affirmed about him. One side can't imagine why it would matter what you believe about Jesus if you are not engaged in a life that looks like his. The other, because of its firm commitment to salvation by faith alone, too easily overlooks the significance of a life that imitates Christ. Both sides have a point, for sure. However, at a time when the disconnect between Jesus and his followers is so great, we need to be much quicker in listening and acting on the criticisms and slower to feel the need to engage in self-justification. So, when critics of the church say that Christians do not look very much like Jesus, what exactly do they mean?
To begin with, Jesus was quite a bit different from the vast majority of Christians today. How so? Jesus saved his harshest criticism for the religious community, and even then, the strongest criticisms were saved for religious leaders. Today, we Christians seem obsessed with the culture at large, identifying its every flaw, blaming it for many of the problems that we face in the church, and we are often unwilling to accept our own contributions to those problems. We assume a "victim" mentality, sure that the culture at large is out to get us. Failing to realize our own shortcomings makes us the perfect target for a portrayal of us as self-righteous and unserious. We select "hot button" moral issues, mostly ones of which we perceive ourselves to be innocent, and we make them central to our critique of the culture around us. That moral agenda often looks thin and self-serving to the culture, and they conclude we Christians are hypocritical and judgmental—often quite rightly so. We would do well to heed Jesus' words to tend to the log in our own eye before worrying about the splinter in the eye of the culture. Or, perhaps we need more to "love the sinner and hate our own sin." Instead, we are perceived as excusing our own sin and hating the sinner, worried more about looking like we have it together than in expressing grace and mercy to those who readily admit they do not.
The Gospel writers remind us repeatedly about the temptations to become judgmental and self-righteous. Jesus points it out in the Sermon on the Mount with the log/splinter reference. In addition, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector makes the point with some force. The Pharisee would have been the epitome of all that was religious, and he did not fail to point that out to God in his prayer, recorded in Luke 18. He reminded God of all his good behaviors, even taking time to thank God that he was not like the despised tax collector. On the other hand, the tax collector as the representative of the worst of the worst merely prays for mercy. The outcome? The recitation of good behaviors benefits the Pharisee not a bit, and we are told it is the tax collector who leaves the synagogue accepted by God. In the fourth chapter of his Gospel, Luke has the audacity to place the first demon exorcism right in the middle of the synagogue. N. T. Wright suggests that Luke is trying to convey a central theme in Jesus' ministry: quit worrying about those outside the walls of the gathering place of God's people and focus instead on being faithful to God's call on you. Re-centering on Jesus will mean spending less time critiquing the culture and more time in a self-critique that brings our lives into closer alignment with that of Jesus.
The culture also finds disconnect between Jesus and the church regarding the positions from which we engage in ministry. In short, where did Jesus spend all his time? He was forever among the poor, the lame, those marginalized for one reason or the other. He hung out with the sinners, with the tax collectors (even taking one for a disciple!), with those the religious would have considered outsiders. I remember a friend saying to me once, quite well-intentioned, that he could never hang out at the bars, even if for ministry. He was afraid that folks would assume he was one of "them." Jesus seemed not so worried about that, obviously convinced that his presence among the sinners would do them more good than they could possibly do him harm. So, when the critics of church point out how different we are from our Lord, they notice how we do ministry from a place of comfort.
Some of us wander onto the margins from time to time, visiting briefly the kinds of situations and circumstances in which Jesus made his home. And while I affirm the ministries that engage the margins on a short-term basis, the critics of church notice how little we really have invested there. Chris Seay, pastor of Ecclesia Church in Houston, Texas, made this point beautifully to me with the following story. It seems he and his family had relocated to a new part of town to begin a new church. The church building was also where he and his family lived. One evening, he went out for a moment and noticed what he described as the tallest group of women he had ever seen. When he got closer, though, he realized they weren't women at all, but rather transvestite prostitutes. Before I could ask anything about it, he said, "Well, what could I do? I invited them in for coffee." To re-center on Jesus, we must become more known for our ministry from and on the margins, rather than to the margins.
The shortest way to make the overall point is this: if we want to be a church worth getting up for, we will need to close the perceived gap between Jesus and the church. We are going to have to look a lot more like Jesus and spend less time talking about what we believe about Jesus. Jesus fed the poor and hung out with sinners. His parables tell of restoring the marginalized to communion and fellowship with God's people. He called people to unflinching commitment to God that costs one everything, but he made that call while modeling that sort of commitment himself. Jesus told his followers to love everyone, even their enemies, and loving them did not mean having the warm fuzzies for them. It meant willing their best and participating in making that a reality. None were unreachable to Jesus. Just as God blessed both the evil and the good, so are we to be a blessing to all without regard to merit.
Our Lord has remarkable brand recognition and overwhelmingly positive brand perception. If we church people really want to see renewal, really want to become a part of a church worth getting up for, the answer is near to us. We must re-center around Jesus, particularly his life and behaviors—be not just willing but actually pouring ourselves out for those around us. We must make a space for those we consider to be most unlike us. Even more, we must make a space at the table for those we consider our enemies, creating that space for others, not from a place of comfort, but rather taking up space alongside the very people Jesus did. Do we want to stop the criticisms of the church? Do we want to undermine the claim that Christians are not like Christ? All we have to do is start to become more like him, but therein lies the rub, doesn't it? To take seriously the call to be imitators of Jesus is a deeply scary thing. Who will protect me, if I take up space on the margins of life? Who will make sure that my family does not suffer if I take on such a potentially dangerous location for ministry?
You know, I really have no answers to those questions. I can say the answer Jesus gave. He said that all who had given up things in this life would receive them back one hundred times in the next. Beyond citing Jesus, I have nothing to offer. At times, I think the question is not whether or not we can create churches worth getting up for. Instead, the real question is: how badly do we want to have churches worth getting up for? Enough to imitate Jesus? Enough to suffer discomfort and social dislocation? Enough to participate with God in the building of churches that turn our normal conceptions upside down? Are there a few intrepid souls willing to wander down this path? If so, if we can convince ourselves to take these radical steps, perhaps God will be gracious and send a few souls our way. Because, remember, at the end of the day, ministry of this sort is every bit as critical to our own salvation as it is to those to whom we minister. Let's do a massive church reboot—one that puts the life of Jesus at the center. Let's take that first step toward becoming a church worth getting up for!CHAPTER 2
The Value of Authenticity
Almost without exception, the folks I interviewed for this project named authenticity as a critical component of a church worth getting up for. The sense was overwhelming that a major contributor to the ongoing decline of the church was simply weariness with "playing church" and with those who insist on "playing church." Set over against the feeling that we Christians gather together weekly primarily to reinforce each other in keeping up appearances was a call for authenticity, for a faith that is, first and foremost, lived out with honesty and transparency. Of course, that immediately raises the question: What does it mean to be authentic? What does it mean to live with transparency? Most essentially, to live authentically is to live so that who we are flows from our own true, inner selves, rather than from external expectations created either by social, cultural, political, or even religious pressures. For us as Christians, a critical part of our true, inner selves connects directly to the realization that we have been created by God, in God's image, and for intimate relationship with him and those around us. In the course of reflection, I have become convinced that this talk of authenticity runs in two different, but closely related, directions.
Excerpted from Church Worth Getting Up For by Charles E. Gutenson. Copyright © 2013 Charles E. Gutenson. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Putting Jesus Back at the Center 7
2 The Value of Authenticity 15
3 The Big Six 25
4 Radical Hospitality 37
5 Rebalancing 47
6 Focus, Focus, Focus 63
7 Right Belief, Right Practice: Equal Partners? 75
8 Moving beyond the Sacred/Secular Distinction 85
9 Go and Make Disciples! 95
10 Using All the Tools 105
11 Moving Forward with Hope 115
About the Author 132