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How ‘church growth at all costs’ mentality weakens worship


Listen to the 10 min audio

Read the transcript:

THE CHURCH HAS LOST ITS THICKNESS — WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

TOM LAMPRECHT: Harry, I’d like to take you to an article written by John Stonestreet out of Breakpoint. The headline is “Are our churches truly leaving a mark on people? Or, another way to think about it, are our churches thick or thin? What’s the difference between a job and a vocation? David Brooks of The New York Times writes, ‘The difference is thickness. A thick institution,’ Brooks writes, ‘becomes a part of a person’s identity and engages the whole person, head, hands, heart and soul.’” John Stonestreet asks, “Are our churches thick enough?”

DR. REEDER: David Brooks has brought something up and let’s build on his metaphors. One time, I was watching my mother fix some gravy and she said, “Well, that’s not thick enough,” and I said, “Oh, what do you do?” She said, “Well, here’s what you need to add,” and she began to add some things. Then I remember her language, “Gravy needs to have texture and it needs to have a little thickness to it in order to be tasteful.”

WORSHIP HAS CHANGED — BUT FOR THE BETTER?

Well, I think the same thing’s true in terms of the church. What we have been through, Tom, is a series of years where the church growth mentality has so dominated the thinking of the leadership of the church that the notion is not simply, “We need to simplify,” but, “We need to make less challenging the message of Christianity,” and it’s been seen particularly in how we do worship.

Worship has not only taken on an entertainment dynamic and the whole notion is, “How is the audience receiving this and will it attract an audience? And we need to have worship services that attract. Well, the culture uses entertainment to attract so we’ll make our worship services entertainment.”

We introduce video cuts, we introduce drama, we introduce dance and we introduce all of these things which, actually, I have no issue with in, let’s say, an outreach event or a concert or something like that. However, worship is something different. Worship is something unique and wholly other.

WORSHIP SERVICES SET THE TONE FOR THE WHOLE CHURCH

Now, why am I saying this? Because I believe worship services set the thermostat for the life and texture of the church. Worship has to have gravitas. Some people, in an effort to have gravitas, reach for complicated liturgy and some reach for gravitas in terms of the performance of the leadership on the stage but, historically, evangelical Christianity — and if people will allow me to talk about my own branch of Christ’s church, the Presbyterian Church — we have said that there needs to be simplicity, not shallowness, but simplicity in worship.

Worship needs to be preaching, and prayer, and confession and the sacraments but there’s not this complicated liturgy that complexity is the notion of substance, but there is substance because of the weightiness of the Word.

Therefore, in our effort to be entertaining, we have cut back on the message and we have cut back on our worship in order for it to be just a simple gathering of entertainment where everybody feels good and has a great experience and, “By the way, won’t you come back to be a part of this church?”

Well, the objective of Christianity is not for people to become a part of our church. The objective of Christianity is for the church to present Christ in all of His glory — that means His transcendence as well as his imminence. That means not only the simplicity of our intimate relationship with Him, but the majesty of our transcendent relationship with Him.

WORSHIP MUST LEAD US TO THE GREATNESS OF GOD

I was looking as I was going through the cathedrals of Europe and I was looking at where they once were in these massive cathedrals that were declaring the transcendence of God. Well, that is something that, historically, has been there, that the transcendence of God is declared in worship and then the imminence of God is taught in worship — that He is with you, that He loves you, that He dwells within you.

“But who is this that dwells within me?” It is not some watered-down version of a God, but the God of the Bible, Who speaks and the winds obey His voice, and the mountains quake and all of the universe stands in awe of Him. And it is this fear, or awe of the Lord, that would then penetrate the worship of God because he is so majestic.

And then comes the message that this God has loved you, He has given His Son for you and He will send His Spirit to live within you so you can be right with this majestic God and this majestic God is right within you.

SET-APART AND HOLY WORSHIP IS BIBLICAL

Tom, the real point of this thing is worship. Worship sets the thermostat. There’s an interesting moment when Moses is telling Pharaoh, as the spokesman for God, “Let My people do that they may go three days out to this mountain and worship Me.” And, in the sixth plague, Pharaoh says, “Listen, we’ll let you worship. Here, I’ll create a nice little place for you here. You don’t have to leave, but you can stay here and worship.”

And then there’s an interesting thing that Moses says to Pharaoh, as this mouthpiece of God, and that’s this: “Our worship will not be understood by your people. We must go out to worship.” Worship is a wholly other event. It’s not a concert. It’s not an entertainment. It’s not a lecture. It’s not a classroom. It is a moment where the people of God have assembled together in the presence of God and the glory and majesty of God is being lifted up and praise is given to God. That’s what brings gravitas to the church because then you can deal not only with the simplicity of the Gospel message, but also the depth of the Gospel message.

The church has lost its texture. It’s lost its tastiness. Why? Because it’s lost — and I’ll use David Brooks’ metaphor — it’s lost its thickness. What we have said, historically, is the church is five miles wide and one inch deep. And then you have reactionary churches that are one inch wide and five miles deep.

Well, I think what the Bible is telling us is that the church is to be five miles wide and five miles deep. There is a texture, there is an expansion of it and there is a depth of it — a thickness of it. And that’s what draws people, not this simplicity of another faddish organization, but the embassy of the kingdom of God has shown up. Look at the depth of the relationship that the people have with God, look at the majesty of that God and then look at the intimacy they have with God and with each other.

CHURCHES AND OUR CHRISTIAN IDENTITY

TOM LAMPRECHT:  Going back to David Brooks’ analogy, he writes, “Some organizations leave a mark on you and some pass through with scarcely a memory.” Harry, are our churches leaving a mark?

DR. REEDER: He’s put his finger on it — no. You can take them and leave them because they’re not all that significant. They have no demands any longer. “Wouldn’t you like to join our church? By the way, it’s nothing much. Can you come, maybe, once a month to a worship service and, by the way, give a little bit of money every once in a while? Would you join up for a little project?”

There’s this minimizing of expectations even though all of the analysis tells us it is the heightening of expectations. Now, we obviously want to be Biblical in this. What does it take to join the church of Jesus Christ? It takes one basic thing: a credible profession of faith in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. However, what are the vows of that membership? The vows of that membership is not that this is an incidental organization that I may stop by periodically. By the way, how many meetings do I need to come to, to be a member of the Rotary Club?

That’s not the way you look at the church of Jesus Christ. This is a covenant commitment to the one organization that Jesus died for. God, as creator, has put a sacred institution — it’s called the family. God, as provider, has put a sacred institution — it’s called government. God, as redeemer, has put a sacred institution — it’s called the church, which is called the family of God, which is called the body of Christ, which is sprinkled clean with the blood of Jesus.

CHURCH LEADERS, ASSESS YOURSELVES

And Jesus said that, “I have loved my church and given myself for her. I have purchased her with my own blood.” Therefore, there is a commitment we make that reflects the depth of the commitment of the Savior.

However, here is the point. The leadership of the church has got to renew our commitment to making sure that the door and threshold of the church is simple Gospel message, but the life of the church has depth and texture — it’s tasty because there’s something to it. There is gravitas.

And, finally, my proposal is this: the worship service sets the thermostat for the thickness and the thinness of the church. It sets the thermostat. Worship is the key element.

Dr. Harry L. Reeder III is the Senior Pastor of Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham.

This podcast was transcribed by Jessica Havin, editorial assistant for Yellowhammer News, who has transcribed some of the top podcasts in the country and whose work has been featured in a New York Times Bestseller.

25 mins ago

A.G. Gaston Boys and Girls Club breaks ground on $7.2 million clubhouse at Birmingham CrossPlex

A.G. Gaston Boys & Girls Club is building a $7.2 million Walter Howlett Jr. Clubhouse at Birmingham CrossPlex, but if history is any indication, it’s also building future leaders.
Leaders like Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, who is a self-proclaimed “club kid” having grown up in Boys & Girls Clubs.

“I can personally speak to the power of the Boys & Girls Club,” Woodfin said. “I spent some formative years here as a club kid.”

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Woodfin said it was on the sports practice fields in downtown Birmingham where he learned the value of teamwork.

“The greatest lesson I learned from the club … is the importance of teamwork in this city,” he said. “I learned that no matter how great the individual players were as part of the club or on the team, it’s the unity that ensures victory.”

Former U.S. Secretary of State and Birmingham native Condoleezza Rice has made mentoring and youth programs like Boys & Girls Club a pet project nationally. She praised the possibilities the new clubhouse in Birmingham holds.

“This great, new clubhouse for the A.G. Gaston Boys & Girls Club is just going to be full of possibilities,” she said. “It’s not just programs that they deliver on. They deliver on caring and compassion for our young people.”

Rice co-chaired the campaign to build a new clubhouse for the A.G. Gaston Boys & Girls Club along with Altec CEO Lee Styslinger III and Regions Financial Corp.Chairman Grayson Hall.

She said those who contributed to the new clubhouse initiative have demonstrated they make children a priority.

“This is about the possibilities when a community comes together,” Rice said. “It’s absolutely the case that when the corporate community and private citizens like the McWanes and people from across the city come together and say, ‘We’re going to do something special for our kids,’ something magnificent happens.”

Frank Adams, CEO of A.G. Gaston Boys & Girls Club, said the new facility will include a new gym, a music room, a game room, a new café able to serve hot meals and STREAM (science, technology, reading, engineering, art and math) labs. The two-story facility will have a floor dedicated to teens and will be able to serve twice as many children as the Kirkwood R. Balton facility it is replacing.

Adams said the clubhouse will be a great addition to the CrossPlex campus.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to help revitalize this area while serving our kids at a higher level,” he said.

Walter Howlett Jr. was a prominent member of the business community in Birmingham and served as the chairman of the board at A.G. Gaston Boys & Girls Club for more than 20 years. Adams said it’s a worthy tribute to name the new facility after him.

The CrossPlex campus and the new facility are in Birmingham City Councilman Steven Hoyt’s district. He said the new clubhouse will be a welcomed addition.

“Today is very much about an orchestrated optimism and the future of our young people,” he said. “This new club is a symbol of hope.”

Rice said that hope has been realized again and again through Boys & Girls Clubs.

“The Boys & Girls Clubs talk about building great futures,” she said. “Well, you can only get a great future if you have a great start and that is what this is really all about.

“The best in us believes that every life is worthy, and every life is worthy of greatness,” she added.

Who knows, maybe the next mayor or the next secretary of state will come from there.

“I believe in the A.G. Gaston Boys & Girls Club because I know it’s power,” Woodfin said. “It’s a training ground to guide our young people in the right direction. It’s where they will make lasting friendships, make community connections and acquire life lessons that will serve them well when they become the next leaders of our city.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 hours ago

Exceptional Foundation carolers bring holiday spirit to Alabama businesses

What the Exceptional Foundation carolers may lack in perfect pitch and rhythm they more than make up for with enthusiasm and sheer joy.

The result is exactly what is intended: delivering the Christmas spirit to businesses around Birmingham.

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That delivery is clear by the smiles produced among the audiences.

This is the fifth year the Exceptional Foundation carolers have visited corporations to thank them for their support. CEO Tricia Kirk said the number of performances has grown from less than a handful of businesses in the first season to five or six a day this year.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

4 hours ago

Alabama Power works to save threatened snails on Coosa River

While many property owners used this fall’s Coosa River drawdown to make repairs to boathouses, piers and other structures along the water’s edge, Alabama Power biologists were on another mission.

APC Environmental Affairs employees worked with members of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) to protect rare snails on Lay and Mitchell lakes.

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The first step involved surveying threatened species — literally by counting the number of snails in a given area.

Two species of freshwater aquatic snails listed under the Endangered Species Act, the rough hornsnail and Tulotoma snail, call the Coosa River home. Both are native to Alabama and are found nowhere else in the world.

“We do a manual count, which gives you an estimate of the number of that species within a certain area,” said Jason Carlee, APC Environmental Affairs supervisor. “You can then multiply that number by the area of the lake bottom affected by the drawdown to estimate how much of the population is affected.”

The work wasn’t limited to surveying. The biologists were also charged with saving snails affected by the drawdown. Snails that might have had trouble navigating to the lower lake levels were picked up along the riverbank and returned to the water.

“The primary objectives at Lay Lake and Lake Mitchell were surveying known populations of Tulotoma and rough hornsnail, searching for new populations of the species and relocating species to suitable habitat in deeper water,” said Chad Fitch, a biologist with Alabama Power.

The snails live anywhere from one to 30 feet below the shoreline but prefer to live just below the water’s edge, according to Carlee.

“The lowering of the water forces the snails to follow the water and, as they move, they can get trapped by vegetation or stuck behind a log or rock,” Carlee said. “Our priority is to identify new populations and to salvage as many snails as we can.”

The teams focused on areas with known populations and salvaged snails when the water was at its lowest level to make the most significant positive impact. A previous survey and salvage effort was conducted during the 2013 drawdown, and additional snail surveys were done in 2009 and 2012.

“Part of our week was spent searching for new populations of rough hornsnails, and we found them,” said Fitch. “Before this week, the species was only known to occur in four different locations on Mitchell Reservoir, but we found them in three other creeks this week as well as along the shorelines in the main channel.”

Several other steps have been taken to protect the snails. For example, the timing and frequency of the fall drawdowns have been adjusted to benefit the species.

“Historically for Lay and Mitchell, there were drawdowns every year. Then they went to every other year. Since the discovery of rough hornsnails at Lake Mitchell and at Yellowleaf Creek on Lay Reservoir, drawdowns are conducted every five years to decrease impacts to the snails,” Fitch said.

Tracks left by the snails leading from the riverbank to the water indicate that the species can adjust to water level fluctuations. Lake levels are now lowered very slowly over a three-day period, to give snails more time to follow the dropping water.

Alabama Power works with USFWS and ADCNR to find ways to protect and improve habitat conditions for snails and other aquatic species as part of its license to operate dams issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. All the hard work is paying off. The Tulotoma snail was downlisted from endangered to threatened in 2011 as populations below Coosa River dams increased. It was the first time a freshwater species of mollusks, which includes clams, mussels and slugs, was downlisted. New populations of rough hornsnail provide hope for its recovery.

Results from this year’s snail survey will help regulators determine the impact of water level fluctuations on species like these snails and help provide guidance concerning future drawdowns.

This story originally appeared in Shorelines magazine.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

Alexander Shunnarah gives back to the community with the first annual ‘Shunnarah Seasons of Giving’ initiative

Most people know Alexander Shunnarah for his infamous “Call me Alabama” slogan and the massive trail of billboards commonly spotted by travelers along I-65. However, what many aren’t aware of is Shunnarrah’s heart for giving back to the city he calls home.

To show his love and appreciation for Birmingham, the Alabama lawyer just launched the first ever “Shunnarah’s Seasons of Giving” initiative and is surprising locals in the community with various acts of service throughout the month of December.

Shunnurah described this initiative as a, “…small part in giving back to the community and paying it forward.”

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To begin the month-long program, Shunnarrah stopped by Etheridge Brother and Sister Barber and Beauty Shop in downtown Birmingham last week where he gave locals an opportunity to receive a complimentary haircut.

“It’s been a great initial kickoff in the seasons of giving,” Shunarrah said.

In addition to these pop-up visits, Shunnarah’s law firm is partnering with The Shoe Clinic LLC for the clinic’s third annual ‘Saving One Sole at a Time” Sneaker, Sock and Coat Drive. The drive will take place at The Shoe Clinic LLC on Saturday, December 15th from 12:00 – 4:00 p.m.

Donations are accepted now through December 15th. Both organizations hope to collect 500 sneakers and coats, and 1000 pairs of socks by December 15th.

To donate to the sneaker, sock and coat drive, visit one of the two drop-off locations listed here:

The Shoe Clinic
1801 11th Ave S. Birmingham, AL,

Alexander Shunnarah Law Firm
2900 1st Ave. S. Birmingham, AL.

To see where Alexander Shunurrah visits for the next “Shunnarah’s Seasons of Giving” pop-up, visit his Instagram page at @alexander_shunnarah.

6 hours ago

Artur Davis: What the next Montgomery mayor needs

The coming mayoral race in Montgomery matters whether you live in city limits, or whether it is simply important to you or your business that Alabama’s capital thrives. The conversation on the ground is that the outcome could be the next historic milestone for the city that launched civil rights.

Former U.S. Magistrate Judge Vanzetta McPherson caused a stir with a recent Montgomery Advertiser column that argues “it is time for the occupant of the mayor’s office to reflect the predominant (African-American) citizenry.” She further suggests that there is a burden on black voters and leader to “filter black candidates early,” so that the ranks be purged of those who by some test fail, in her words, to “serve the best interests of the African-American community.”

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I know the judge’s sentiments are well-intentioned but as one of the seven or eight folks who will be running for Mayor, as the only contender who has officially registered a campaign committee, I view this election through a different lens. Montgomery has challenges at every turn. The test is not the mayor’s color or gender but whether the city’s next leader is visionary and substantial enough to unlock those opportunities disguised as challenges.

Mayor is not an entry-level job, as the judge correctly observed. The mayor-to-be will have to learn and master the details of making urban policy work for ordinary people. The job demands persistence and a clear eye about the questions that threaten Montgomery’s future.

Can our schools be rescued? For a while now, the leadership of our school system has resembled its population demographically: that by itself has meant nothing to the children in our eleven failing schools, or the 37 percent of children who graduate high school without core reading and math skills. The next mayor must join forces with the new school board to extricate the schools from the state takeover, a mismanaged event that creates the kind of uncertain chain of command that makes it impossible to attract a national caliber superintendent. The next mayor will have to sell the neighborhoods whose children are in magnets or private schools on the imperative of financing traditional schools adequately. He or she will also need to overcome forces who resist innovative reforms or stricter accountability.

Can we make a real dent in Montgomery’s poverty problem? West and North Montgomery are statistically identical to the chronically poor Black Belt. The southern boulevard is one long patch of neglect and collapsed businesses. Too many of our working people are still poor and trapped in dead-end jobs. For decades, the struggling parts of our city have had representation that “looks like them.” That fact has not yet stopped the decline.

Can we roll back crime and the root causes of crime? An overwhelming majority of criminal defendants are drop-outs. Our city has yet to fashion a comprehensive plan to identify and engage students who have encounters with the law or are chronic disciplinary problems. At the same time, if a city as complex as New York can reduce its rates of gun violence and murder, the next mayor of Montgomery should be expected to devise an anti-crime plan more robust than empathy and short-term anger management courses.

I could go on. We have reached new heights in corporate investment in the city but more of that newly infused wealth must be targeted toward creating jobs that pay high wages. Promoting minority investment is an urgent, consistently unmet need that takes more than conferences at the Renaissance to solve. Our municipal government structure has not been reorganized since the time when smartphones had not been invented and the internet in this city was limited to government offices.

The record of the mayor who is leaving, Todd Strange, will loom over this election. I ran against him but will grant him this: in an era when national politics has degenerated into all or nothing partisanship and what the experts call tribalism, Mayor Strange has kept the volume temperate and moderate in Montgomery. The next mayor should emulate that decency. He or she must match it with a boldness and a capacity to challenge old assumptions and challenge 21st Century problems.

I do agree that this city is on the edge of making history. But the test for candidates is not how well we represent one community or satisfy that community’s insiders and gatekeepers. It is whether any of us has what it takes to make Montgomery a trendsetter in repairing failing schools and blighted neighborhoods and in forging a more prosperous, more equitable future.

If you live in Montgomery, vote for the guy or lady you think just might know how to get us there.

Artur Davis is a former four-term congressman from Montgomery running for mayor.