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Christians have become quite prolific at naming their enemies. We know well, and talk regularly in our churches and with our friends about the issues we face and struggle with. Ironically though, one of the greatest challenges that the church in the information age faces is staring at us every time we discuss our challenges with each other without ever being named. We may be our own greatest barrier to discovering unity and truth.

Although feeling this struggle subconsciously for some time, I couldn’t name it and work against it until I found insight in one of the least likely of places: a book about fantasy football. Fantasy sports have been a hobby since I was a little boy picking Paul Coffey in front of my parents’ fire place in our four person Kramer family hockey pool. I was looking for beach reading, and instead was stuck with the profound insight that is “confirmatory bias”. “We believe what we believe, and now more than ever, those beliefs are easy to cement. In the age of information, ignoring the other side is the easiest thing we do all day”, wrote C.D. Carter[1]. It was a chapter meant to help fantasy football players better think about how they read and process information about players and games. Instead I was floored by the implications of confirmation bias for the believer.

The lifestyles of many believers are insular. Our friends are church people. We read Christian living books and novels. We listen to Christian music. Our pastors are careful to read the right commentaries and make sure not to rock the boat too much. Our conferences feature speakers from our own particular flavour of faith. We follow the right voices in our Twitter and Facebook feeds. Never has the ability to interact with the breadth of opinion and information existed, and never have we so purposefully worked to make sure we hear almost exclusively the ones that agree with what we already believe to be true.

We have a great deal to learn from those with whom we disagree most. If we are truly right, we have nothing to fear from interacting honestly with those we differ with. If there’s any chance at all we could be wrong, then we have that much more reason to seek out those with different perspectives from our own as we seek after truth. If we take Jesus at his word that he is indeed “the truth” than the pursuit of truth is the pursuit of God. Rather than circling the wagons when faced with a contrary opinion, we need to open our arms to the possibility of being drawn more closely to God: whether through the confirmation of our current beliefs or the beginning of finding something better.

David McRaney in a blog post about confirmatory bias wrote, “You seek out safe havens for your ideology, friends and coworkers of like mind and attitude, media outlets guaranteed to play nice. Whenever your opinions or beliefs are so intertwined with your self-image you couldn’t pull them away without damaging your core concepts of self, you avoid situations which may cause harm to those beliefs.”[2] This wasn’t written with people of faith as its subject, but if we have any measure of self-awareness this should hit us in the gut with a solid “oof”. When we hold so tightly to our beliefs as they are that we can’t change our minds without an identity crisis we have ceased to find our identity in Christ, and rather find it in our dogma.

We need to make space in our lives – personally and corporately – for contrarian thought. I’ve come to live by the general rule, “If I already agree with it, it’s not worth my time exploring.” After all, what is learning, other than the process of discovering where we are currently wrong? So let’s read books that are not in the church library, let’s listen to speakers other than from Christian conferences, let’s talk to people openly and vulnerably from outside of our churches – not as the people with all the answers, but rather, the one’s who are boldly seeking them out where they may be found through the guidance and leading of the Holy Spirit.

Just because we listen to an idea, doesn’t mean we have to accept it as true. Our minds, as empowered by the Holy Spirit, are best used as sieves not sponges. We do not have to, nor should we ever desire to, embrace all ideas as equally true and valuable. There is such thing as a dumb idea. If we are to have a voice in our culture of diversity though, we must be people who seek out truth wherever it may be found, interacting honestly with a multitude of voices, rather than being seen as people who are sheltered from it. We do a disservice to ourselves and our young people in the information age to try to learn and play only where things are seemingly safe while we constantly tread in deep waters.

We need to listen to hear and learn, not just rebut. It is healthy for us to hear divergent opinions in our study conferences. It is healthy for us to study books in our care groups that we may not agree with. It is healthy for us to listen to other perspectives, not with the aim of learning how to apologetically debate the issues, but rather humbly learning to understand things well from other perspectives so that we may continue to learn and grow.

Humans do not have to be sponges by nature – just mindlessly sucking up and incorporating everything they encounter. God has blessed us with amazing minds with the ability to think and reason. God has blessed his people with the gift of the Holy Spirit, “to guide you into all truth”, as the gospel of John puts it. Let’s live in faith, holding to God’s promise, and listen and learn so we can continually grow into the faith we profess.

[1] Carter, C.D. (2014-05-29). How To Think Like A Daily Fantasy Football Winner: Applying psychological lessons from the poker table and Wall Street to capture a competitive edge in the daily fantasy sports marketplace (Kindle Locations 892-894).

[2] David McRaney – http://youarenotsosmart.com/2010/06/23/confirmation-bias

I was at some denominational meetings in March, and throughout them I felt a discomfort. It wasn’t just the fault of church chairs or the brown colored water we usually pass off as coffee. There was something about out conversations about ministry together that left me feeling unsettled. I wasn’t until a few weeks later that things came together in my mind and heart around what made me feel as I did. These thoughts on ministry and the church were birthed from those rumblings.

Matthew 9:9 – As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Be missional,” he told him, and Matthew got up and developed a missional ecclesiology.

Matthew 16:24 – Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be relevant must deny themselves and take up their cross and start an intergenerational ministry.”

Ever since the church first sensed an inkling about 50 years ago that it may be on the outs with greater society, it has done everything that it can to try to re-introduce itself to the West. We have seen – and maybe been a part of – movements like fundamentalism, born again, Jesus freaks, big tent evangelism, What Would Jesus Do, friendship evangelism, emergence, missional movements, and a constant grasping for relevance. The most recent name tag for our lost identity seems to be intergenerational ministry. If we can just get the kids to talk to grown-ups, maybe even their parents, then the problems we sense with the shallow and innocuous faith evident in our churches will certainly be rectified so we can get on with the business of introducing people to Jesus. More than likely though, it’s likely just another bout with amnesia that has us struggling to know ourselves and experiencing crisis over forgetting the name of our beloved. If this name tag doesn’t stick though, it won’t be long before the next travelling book tour makes its way through the Christian publishing marketplace to rename our problem.

At the root of our problems is a lack of a path to real, deep, and transmittable spiritual growth. Even if we examine ourselves deeply enough to realize a lack of discipleship is the root cause of our trouble, how many of us or our churches could really explain what discipleship looks like? Church history has many examples of roads to growth that the early followers of Jesus encouraged new followers to traverse in order to grow in their faith and grow into functional members of the church. Unfortunately, our evangelical anabaptist heritage has left us almost devoid of roads to go down. We are surrounded with biographies, we are over-run with programs for kids, tweens, youth, young adults, seniors, offer small group experiences and Sunday school classes. Often though, these programs lead to the aging out of their members. Until we can define what a disciple is, how one is made, and what growth looks like, we’re likely to continue churning out Christians without a Christ-like identity.

Until we can look ourselves and our issues in the face and realize it’s Jesus we’re looking for we’re going to keep on nervously fumbling with the spiritual change in our pockets trying to look like we know what we’re doing. Discipleship is the lifelong process of coming to know Jesus and then to continually be formed more closely into his image as we humble ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit.

Discipleship can start at any age, so we need plans and processes that can incorporate people into the life of Christ and his church however they may come. A forty year old single father with no church background who decides to follow Jesus won’t have the history of Sunday School to fall back on in conversation. Where does he begin? The high school kid who called Jesus Lord at age four and is now reading Barth’s Church Dogmatics doesn’t likely need an evening explaining how Jesus loves him and forgives all his sin. Where does he fit? People are more complex than our programs.

What we need are not age driven programs, but growth plans based on spiritual maturity giving people starting points and stepping stones to work from as they come to the church seeking to know Jesus and follow him faithfully. It’s going to take actually getting to know people, and letting them into our lives to let them know us. Until then we likely will just keep putting new name tags for Jebus on church ministries instead of introducing people to the life changing person of Jesus.

I’m just working on a sermon here from Mark 8:27-33 – that famous passage where Jesus asks his disciples who they say he is – and I was struck by the insights of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.  Now they may not strike you as the most insightful of western theologians, but there are some stunning similarities between the life of Jesus and the life of the character in their song, “Mama’s don’t let your babies grow up to be Cowboys.”

Cowboys like smokey old pool rooms and clear mountain mornings,
Little warm puppies and children and girls of the night.
Them that don’t know him won’t like him and them that do,
Sometimes won’t know how to take him.
He ain’t wrong, he’s just different but his pride won’t let him,
Do things to make you think he’s right.

I’m not saying it’s a perfect fit, but just let that sink in for a minute.  Jesus loved spending time with the base people of society (pool rooms and girls of the night).  Jesus often retreated to early morning mountain tops, and embraced the children (clear mountain mornings, puppies, and children).  The part that caught me the most from this song and this passage was the middle two lines: it seemed no one knew quite what to do with him, and even his closest friends were often shocked and mystified by what he did. Them that don’t know him won’t like him and them that do, Sometimes won’t know how to take him.

In this passage from Mark Jesus asked his closest friends who they thought he was and they were far from sure.  They offered the opinions of others and stared at their feet for a while before Peter piped up and called him the Christ.  Even then only a couple verses later it becomes obvious that Peter didn’t really even know what he meant by calling him the Christ.  The Sanhedrin didn’t know him for who he was and didn’t like him, and even the people who seemed to know him didn’t really get it.

Now obviously, I don’t think it was Jesus pride that kept him from trying to win people over.  It was more his holiness and focus on his mission that kept him from begging people to love him, but even there there are deep similarities.  As with any metaphor explaining Jesus, it ultimately breaks down at some point as nothing can fully explain God.  The cowboy in this song is kind of a sympathetic character.  Jesus often doesn’t get the credit he deserves for having lived such a difficult life.  He was constantly misunderstood, derided, and wrongly accused in public and even his closest friends didn’t really get him until he came back from the dead.  That was a hard, lonely, life I’m sure and today I’m thankful he didn’t just ride away.

Well, today was my turn to preach again, and as always I love the process of getting there and delivering the message.  I always feel blessed to have the opportunity to study and prepare for a week and then share what I’ve learned and been challenged by with a few hundred people on Sunday morning.  This morning was Galatians 3:6-9.  I was challenged again this week that the heart of God’s covenant with his people isn’t just about blessing his people, but making them a blessing to all those around them.  I always think it’s interesting how we can turn Jesus message of hope for the whole of creation and turn it solely into a message of personal salvation.  Our culture is becoming more and more social and community oriented and yet the message many of our churches are trying to sell is that Jesus came to save individuals.  Now it may not be completely untrue, but I think there’s so much more to it than that and maybe a revisiting of how we’re packaging Jesus message to our culture is probably warranted.

All that being said, now that the task is done for another week, I’m finding myself in a far from unfamiliar place.  Kind of like that smell that your pillow takes on when you don’t wash it for a while but you just get used to.  It’s not a good smell, and realistically you’d be happier without it, but it’s not altogether nauseous and so you just get used to it.  It would take quite a bit of work to do the wash when you have other things in life to accomplish so you just kind of carry on and live with it.  That’s what my post sermon blues are like: it’s not altogether debilitating and I know they’ll pass so I just kind of learn to deal with them.  With great regularity after preaching I find myself quite exhausted for the rest of the day and am left with an overall bedgraggled feeling: a kind of mix of weariness, insecurity, and depression.  This is far from an overwhelming feeling but it often does color the rest of my waking hours with an hue on the blue part of the spectrum.

I think it probably stems from the perfectionist part of me that wishes a few thoughts had come out better, the self-conscious part of me that wonders what people thought of what I said, the defeatest part of me that wonders if it really made any difference, and likely just the overall physical exertion that comes from verbally “opening a vein and bleeding for the congregation” for half an hour as I once read it put.  I know that with some sleep and a “day off” tomorrow the world will look much different, but tonight I’m sitting here typing, getting ready for bed, drinking a decaf mocha and listening to Alanis Morrissette’s acoustic re-recording of her “Jagged Little Pill” album.  I know I’m dating myself with this, but I still think it’s one of the best albums recorded.

With that I’ll bid you farewell, adieu, and all that other stuff.