The Church I’d Like to Start: A Church that GIVES

I’ve thought a lot recently about starting a church. If I had more energy — or should I say, more zeal — I might already have tried to find some like-minded believers to do so.

Celtic Cross, St. Nicholas' Church, Lazonby
(“Celtic Cross, St. Nicholas’ Church, Lazonby,” by Peter Hughes, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

I should point out to my science fiction and fantasy friends that I do not mean starting a religion, and to my Christian friends that I do not mean starting a denomination — I mean, simply, starting a church.

I’ve thought a lot about this because my wife and I have visited a lot of churches recently and haven’t found one that really effectively balances the contemporary with the traditional; that combines deep, thoughtful, Biblical teaching with enthusiastic, Christ-centered worship; that is large enough to offer a variety of ministries without being desperate for more workers, yet small enough not to be overwhelming or reliant on communications technology; and that has a healthy mix of people from all backgrounds and age groups.

Our church search often reminds me of these lines from the Steve Taylor song, “Steeplechase” (from the album I Want to Be a Clone),

… you started church-shopping, did ya?

It’s been a problem, finding one to fit ya
you didn’t feel good, did ya?

From time to time I’ve thought that my Mormon friends have it a little easier in that they don’t have a plethora of church options available to them. As I understand it, whatever ward they live in, they go to that church and fit in as best they can.

But aside from being unable personally to find the right place to worship and learn, I’ve thought a lot about starting a church because I’ve observed over the years that few churches seem to give back very much to the communities they purport to serve. Most of the tithes and offerings that those churches collect stay within the church. Maybe that’s necessary — the light bills have to be paid, after all — but I’m not so sure.

It seems to me that a church pursuing the ideals of the Gospel would call believers to a higher purpose than weekly meditations and occasional fellowship. Such a church would serve others more than it serves itself. It would be more concerned with the world outside its walls (physical or figurative) than with its sacred cloisters.

I think if I started a church, then, I’d like to start a church that makes giving its most fundamental reason for being. I would call it The Gift Church, or The Gift for short.

I think of it like this:

Purpose. The purpose of the Church is to advance the Gospel of Jesus Christ through service to the community and the world. The Church has been given gifts that are meant to be shared.

Central Tenet. Believing that the Lord Jesus Christ’s declaration is true (as reported by Paul the Apostle to the Ephesian church leaders in Acts 20:35), that it is indeed more blessed to give than it is to receive, the Church shall devote more of its monetary resources to serving the needy than it does to its own internal obligations, needs or desires.

I don’t think I’ve ever been part of a congregation (and I’ve been part of a lot of congregations through our years of moving from place to place) that purposed to spend more on helping others than it did on helping itself. But since the idea came to me — on a walk one morning, about eight months ago — I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. Maybe it’s an unreasonable, unworkable aim; I don’t know, but it intrigues me.

I don’t know yet if I will say any more on this subject, or whether it resonates with or interests anyone else at all. But the idea of a church with a strong purpose in this world, that practices radical generosity on a regular basis, resonates with me. I think if its worship was lively and its teaching sound, I might like to be a part of such a church.

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Christians: Roses, Daisies, Dandelions, …?

Some thoughts about metaphors that can describe the church — not the building, but the body of believers — and our relation to the world.

Best Overall Division Wildflower Program - 1st Place - Div 4
(Image by NCDOTcommunications, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Is the church like a rose garden? Have each of us as individual believers been cultivated for special color or shape or fragrance, for what our beauty — despite our thorns — can offer to brighten an otherwise drab world? Do those we encounter find us winsome, and come to appreciate what we offer?

Or are we daisies or other wildflowers, growing freely and with less restraint? Less fragrant than roses, but more plentiful, and pretty rather than beautiful? Do we bring fleeting smiles to those we encounter, but leave them unsatisfied?

Or are we dandelions? Weeds, sprouting and taking root wherever? With less to offer in terms of beauty, but still with some aesthetic value? Do we annoy those who encounter us, and make them struggle to be rid of us?

It seems we may present ourselves as one or the other at different times of our lives. And the difference may be less in our appearance than in how we respond to those who encounter us.

As roses, we can be difficult to handle, delicate and easily bruised, and our thorns can injure the unwary and keep them at a distance. As daisies, we would certainly be easier to grasp, and tougher, but we may not be suited to the innocent who would pull our petals off one by one — “He loves me, He loves me not” — heedless of its effect on us. As dandelions, we can be deep-rooted but surprising fragile at the head, especially when we’ve gone to seed … at which point a breath or a breeze can blow us apart and send those seeds flying.

And the seed is important.

You can choose your own metaphor, of course, but as I think about how important the seed is maybe in the end it would be better to be like sunflowers: reaching ever upward, sturdy and strong and bright, producing seeds of truth and love that nourish those with a taste for them.

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P.S. Thank-you to my newsletter readers who sent comments on the early draft of this post! If you’d like to receive my every-so-often newsletter, sign up with the “subscribe” button on my web site. GR

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The Mystery of Faith

One of my favorite parts of the liturgy — which I don’t recite very often, since we go to a Baptist Church — is the Mystery of Faith:

Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.

On Easter Sunday especially, the Mystery of Faith resonates with me. I think it’s aptly named, i.e., that the basis of our faith is ultimately mysterious and beyond human comprehension. To the worldly wise it is a foolish thing that confounds them; to those of us who are not so wise it can be a confusing thing, difficult to understand and harder to put into practice.

I don’t understand it — neither the mechanisms of the miracles nor the depths of such sacrificial love — and because I don’t understand it, of all the disciples I relate most to Peter the denier and Thomas the doubter.

To me it is, and probably always will be, a mystery.

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Our Geeky Church, and a Little Space History

Before we get into today’s space history, a “quote of the day” from last night’s small group Bible study. As we were gathering, Maria grabbed one of our STAR TREK coffee mugs for Elliott, so I mentioned that ReConStruction, the North American Science Fiction Convention (NASFic) is coming to Raleigh in August. True to the nature of our science fiction church, Elliott said, “If that’s not a church trip, I don’t know what is!”

Yes, we’re geeks. But you already knew that, didn’t you?

Back to the topic at hand, an interesting launch 40 years ago in space history. On January 23, 1970, a Delta rocket out of Vandenberg AFB carried two satellites, ITOS-1 and Oscar-5.

ITOS-1 was the first prototype of the “Improved TIROS Operational System” — that is, a new and improved version of the remote sensing satellite featured in yesterday’s space history item. ITOS-1 was built “to provide improved operational infrared and visual observations of earth cloud cover for use in weather analysis and forecasting.”

Oscar-5, on the other hand, was an amateur spacecraft built by students at the University of Melbourne, Australia. It has the distinction of being the first remotely-controlled amateur micro-satellite.

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Economic Recovery Blues

Introducing my second foray into songwriting: “The Economic Recovery Blues,” the 2009 Industrial Extension Service (IES) Song, now available on YouTube.

And now, the story behind the song …

Friends from the Titan System Program Office at Vandenberg AFB may remember that I penned quite a few Titan-related lyrics to Beatles tunes, but “The Economic Recovery Blues” was only the second time I’ve tried to write lyrics and something of an original tune. Back in late 2008, my first attempt was “The I-E-S Song” — I wrote the lyrics and had the basic tune in mind, and Mark Minervino (my Pastor at North Cary Baptist Church) fleshed out the music. He also did all the instruments and the background vocals — his versatility is boundless — and I just sang the main lyrics. Then I put together a video montage and showed it off at our annual Christmas luncheon.

The original “I-E-S Song” was a big hit with the folks at work. Several of us wanted it to go on YouTube, but the humor was a little too sharp — mostly self-deprecating, but it got in digs at some other North Carolina institutions of higher learning. Maybe the powers-that-be will change their minds one of these days.

I had so much fun doing the first “I-E-S Song” that I figured, why not do another one? So in December 2009 the process repeated. I had the lyrics and the beginning of a tune, and Mark figured out (and performed!) the rest. Because I didn’t get started as early as the first one, we didn’t get this song done in time for the IES Christmas luncheon, so at that I sang another song — this one a work-related lyric sung to “Oh, How I Love Jesus” — and then finished up “The Economic Recovery Blues” over the holiday break. The video montage is rougher than the first one,* but the office folks decided to post it “as is.” So this is the first song I’ve done to be posted online. Hope you enjoy it, if you go in for that sort of office-related-silliness thing.

Meanwhile, if you know of anyone who needs some business consulting in lean manufacturing, “Six Sigma” statistical process control, ISO quality management standards, safety and health, or growth services, point them at the Industrial Extension Service — and at “The Economic Recovery Blues.”

Ah-one, and ah-two ….

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*A note on the video montage. For the first one, we purchased some nifty graphics off the web; for the new song, I used Creative Commons images and put attributions in the credits at the end of the song.

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When Religions Grow Up

If part of growing up is realizing that you can’t realistically expect to get everything you want, what happens to religions when they grow up?

Is it a mark of maturity for a religion that it accepts that not everyone will (or will want to) adhere to it?

I think about Jesus and the rich man — sometimes described as a “rich young ruler” — who asked him what he needed to do to gain eternal life (Matthew 19:16-22). The man walked away from the opportunity, and what did Jesus do? Did Jesus chase the man down, berate him for his stubbornness, or threaten to take his life if he didn’t repent and convert? Not at all. Jesus let him go, and used the event as a teachable moment for his disciples.

When Christianity was in its infancy, still an underground movement, it brought in Jews and Gentiles by way of powerful testimonies and the awesome revelation that God had made a way for people to be saved and changed. Coercion never seemed to come into play, for two reasons. One, because the faith (and the nascent Church) was relatively powerless to coerce anyone to join. Second, and to my thinking more interesting, is because the faith was based on traditional Jewish belief and Judaism, being already a venerable religion, was a mature faith and one that valued being set apart, a small island of monotheistic faith in the ocean of pagan humanity.

As the capital-C Church grew into what I consider its adolescent years, and especially as it obtained official status in the Roman Empire under Constantine, it became much more belligerent. Coercion became more acceptable to church leaders, both as a means to convince people to join and as a means to enforce adherence to doctrine. (We may remember that Judaism’s early days — its adolescence, if you will — also had its coercive phase, when the Jews established themselves as a nation through military victory.)

This leads to the question of Islam, which appears to be a religion still in its adolescence. It went through an adolescent phase before, spreading through coercion and conquest and gaining worldly power that it wanted to protect and expand. Faced with mounting opposition, it retreated into relative isolation; in its recent rise to prominence (or notoriety), however, it seems again to be going through adolescent tantrums, only this time with suicide bombers and AK-47s instead of dervishes and scimitars. The question in my mind is whether Islam as a religion will grow up, will grow out of this petulant and demanding phase, and how long it may take. It seems that it will take the Muslim equivalent of Martin Luther, someone who can initiate an Islamic Reformation, in order for Islam as a religion to mature beyond the need to spread itself by intimidation. That would be a wonder to behold; remember what Luther went through, and think what a Muslim reformer would face.

It also raises the question, to me, of whether the Christian Church is growing old gracefully. It’s one thing for us as Christians to eschew violence (Jesus, you may recall from Matthew 5:38-42, didn’t go in for “eye for an eye”) and to accept that some people will hear the Gospel and remain unmoved. But it would be a shame if we became so “mature,” so insular, so content in the old-folks’-homes of our churches, that we stopped caring about and for the world around us. May it never be.

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What about an Islamic Reformation?

Typing out loud on twitter* this morning before I got into the day’s work — which, I’m doing this before getting into the day’s work, too — I wondered: what is the possibility that Islam might experience a re-thinking of its doctrines equivalent to the Protestant Reformation?

What cleric might have the courage to be the Muslim version of Martin Luther?

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*Follow me at http://twitter.com/GrayRinehart

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What Does Minas Tirith Have to Do With Church?

If you’re not up on your Tolkein, you may not know Minas Tirith from Minas Morgul — trust me, there’s a difference, but time is short and I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice it to say that Minas Tirith was the capital of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings; you can read more about it on this Wikipedia page.

With that little bit of background, you might think Minas Tirith would have little to do with church. Ah, my friend, that’s because you haven’t had the pleasure of attending the festival of geekdom that is North Cary Baptist Church, in which our beloved Pastor Mark frequently pulls in all manner of science fiction and fantasy references for our edification.

In his sermon yesterday (referencing Paul’s speech to King Agrippa as recorded in Acts 26), Pastor Mark alluded to Minas Tirith when he said there comes a time to turn the fortress where we might feel safe and secure into a lighthouse, to shine the truth outward. It wasn’t a perfect metaphor, since the beacon at Minas Tirith was lit to announce a danger to the city and call for aid from afar — but that might work, too, because sometimes it’s when we feel most under attack that we shine the brightest.

So, yes: Minas Tirith and the church. Works for me.

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My Science Fiction Church: ST Klingon References

I attend North Cary Baptist Church, and I’m frequently pleased by the large proportion of genre fans in our church. (I even blogged about that in this post.)

Yesterday Pastor Mark started his sermon by explaining that the title of the book of Acts is the Greek word, “praxis,” at which our pianist remarked that Praxis is also the Klingon moon. This prompted the pastor to point out that the Bible is being (or maybe has been) translated into Klingon — is that right, Dr. Schoen? — and to give and receive from many of us the Vulcan salute. And at least one of us (that would have been me) exclaimed “success!” in Klingon.

We have a great church, and you’re welcome to visit any time.

[BREAK, BREAK]

In other news, I passed the 85,000-word mark yesterday in MARE NUBIUM, my novel about an early lunar colony. Still hoping to make 100K, if not finish outright, by the end of the month.

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Not the El Condor Pasa Snail

Yesterday Pastor Mark made the comment that, “It was only by perseverance that the snails reached the ark.” I turned to my lovely bride and said, “That’s why it took 120 years for Noah to build the thing.” 😉

Okay, so it’s not that funny, but it seems as if some of those animals had to come from a long way away….

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