The Manifold Nature of Understanding the Church

Beautiful church

“His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms,  according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” –Ephesians 3:10-11

My life has been about the church. I have lived all of my life within the church. My folks starting taking me to church at six weeks of age and I have not stopped going since.

But here’s the truth. I have not always liked the church. I’ve seen beautiful people marred by the church and within the work of the church, I seen people shoot the wounded, not help them. They have hemorrhaged and bled and been wounded only to find people within the church still kick, abuse and kill them in God’s holy halls.

I have been on a journey in my recent years of understanding the church. I watched my own four adult children join me on this journey—because they, like me were raised in the church as well. I call myself a “recovering Baptist.” I’m recovering in most areas of my life where I messed up.

In working with thousands of leaders who work in the church, I’ve grown weary, tired and disillusioned to be honest. I’ve witnessed so much abuse by men who wear robes and leaders who wear authority that I’ve grown suspicious. Yes, suspicious is a good word to describe my taking a step back and evaluating the relevance, the need, the look and feel of the church in the 21st century.

To say that I stumbled upon a verse in the Bible is not the correct way of telling you what shifting my entire paradigm about the church today. This verse had been there all along—throughout the entire birth of the church until this very day. It’s just that I missed it. I overlooked it on my way to find what I felt might be even more verses to help me and to help others.

Ephesians 3:10-11 leaped out at me and has nearly knocked me unconscious. “The manifold wisdom of God.” I have sat with that word—“manifold”—trying my best to figure out precisely what Paul intended by choosing such a word.

The word “manifold” means: “having many different forms, features, or elements: manifold breeds of dog.” The manifold wisdom of God regarding the wisdom within and about the church is just this: The church too has many different forms, features and elements just as the breeds of the species we call dogs.

Because of my work—the work with leaders who feel called to live their life; do their life and give their life because of the church, I’ve seen passionate leaders feel like their church is the right church; the only church; the best church; the hippest church; the most multi-sited church, the largest; the fastest growing and then it morphs into something darker. Every church should be like my church. Since I am with the right church, then everyone else is experiencing something less; something outside of God’s intent.

Pride, authority and a seminary education can create the perfect storm for leaders of the church to suffer a malady that infects their own soul and the ministry to which they feel called.

Some leaders might feel like their church, call it a blue church, is the way to do church. You have to think blue. You have to be blue. You have to hang with blue people to really be in the blue movement.

Then in another state; perhaps another city or even across the street are the orange folk who think and feel exactly the same way that the blue folks do in the blue church. Then there is the red church. The green church and yes, even a pink church.

But now, let’s use this word “manifold” here…. And see if we can ease our tension a bit by embracing that from God’s perspective, it is not about the right color. And what if this is true because from God’s perspective there is no right color. There are just a manifold of colors—all seeking to do the same thing but in different ways.

As some of you will know, no person on the face of the earth, living or dead has impacted my life more than that of Dallas Willard. It was Dallas who told me years ago when I went to a Catholic (Is Catholic a color?) Monastery with him for a month to recover from my toxicity and my addiction of being a pastor, “Steve, Jesus only spoke the word, “church” two times in his entire life that we know of. Why have you made “church” your God?” That question undone me and I have never, ever recovered from his question. I don’t think I will ever recover either. Perhaps now, 20 years later, I am just now beginning to understand the depth’s of Dallas Willard’s question to me in that Prayer cell were monks fled to do their own version of church.

Now, there is more wisdom…. And it is this, if you are in a blue church and I am in a red one, can we surrender our efforts to compete against, degrade and throw rocks at the people who do their life in a yellow church?

Perhaps from God’s perspective, it takes all the reds and hues of red; all the blues and hues of blue; all the yellow and hues of yellow to express what God has intended. Perhaps this is so because no human system has dibs on the truth. Not the Lutherans, not the Presbyterians, not the Charismatics, not the Bible-believing-fundamentalist, not even my church or your church. We lay down our efforts to defend our color church and we surrender our dogmas to the fact that in history and through history—no creed has survived in all colors but Jesus. No book has been lifted higher than our Bible. No god has been worshipped but our God—the God who created the manifold ways in which we try every six days to “gather to gather to ask the Lord’s blessings. We hasten and chasten his truths to make known.”

Stephen W. Smith

Copyright 2014

All Rights Reserved.

Five Reasons the North American Church is in Trouble!

by Stephen W. Smith

Friends, because of some much reaction to my entry today in the Potter’s Inn Journal, we need to switch this discussion to the blog so more folks can read what I’m reading. So feel free to leave your comments here. If you want to write to me personally, then just email or use the “reply” to the Potter’s Inn Journal.

So here’s what I wrote and sent out to 1400 people this morning!

Never in my life time have I personally experienced so much discontent with the church. It’s been brewing for years but now it seems to be at a feverish pitch and in many ways this is very, very good. Many pastors and leaders are hemorraghing while thousands are giving up on the church. As one 35 year old market place leader told me, “I’m not convinced that Jesus wanted us to be “little churchians.” I want to be a follow of Jesus and that may or may not include the church as I experience it now.”

We are not the first, to become dissatisfied with the church. The history of the Christian church reveals epoch battles between people who hold the power and the keys to the church and those who are demanding change. The good news here is that the church can change; has changed and will change. I hope that in my own lifetime, we will witness a complete reformation of the church. I say this because it is my personal belief that the church is in deep trouble. It is holding on to old paradigms that need to die in order to be re-born. Please let me explain.

1. The church is in trouble because the church has become more shaped by culture than by the Word. Paul’s words are clear: “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. (Romans 12:2, Message). Like a dry sponge many churches and denominations have soaked the culture of bigness, greatness, technology, performance and being program driven without thinking through the consequences. The result—well, it’s easy to see. Architecture that has shifted from “sanctuary” to performance halls. No windows blocking out God’s glory in nature and Power-Point overload. When churches absorb the corporate climate of North America, focusing on leadership rather than shepherding, we have swallowed a pill that is resulting in a dis-ease within the church. When a church models a CEO mentality rather than servant leadership, the church has knelt before the idol of power and human personality more than the Spirit of the Living God.
2. The church is in trouble because we have forgotten that Jesus spoke more about the Kingdom than he did the church. When church talk and obsession with programs replaces meaningful conversation about God’s kingdom—namely ‘what God is up to in the world and in my own life’ we are in water which is way over our head with no bottom to stand upon. Let me be clear. The only church Jesus talked about to his followers was the church of 2-3. I sometimes wonder if Jesus would even recognize what we’ve shaped the church today to resemble? Would Jesus know: multi-site worship? Would he condone meganess rather than the church of two or three? Would he even understand all of the jazz about being missional? Would he bless a movement which would ordain gay and lesbian leaders? Somehow, I think we’ve been swept into a current that is just plain hard to find the shore these days. We’re caught up in whitewater and calling it church.
3. The church is in trouble because the church has forgotten the basic message of Jesus. We herald programs. We espouse tips and techniques. It’s very clear from even an initial reading of the red-letters of Jesus’ words that he was about: transformation, life-change and service. Making more grease to oil the gears of the machine—never!
4. The church is in trouble because we are more captivated by technology than we are the things of the Spirit. We have become addicted to our iphones and the church of Facebook connects us more than sitting in mass in an auditorium where no one know my name and no one even cares. We call Steve Jobs an icon, Facebook our life-line and have swallowed the purple pill which says “faster is better; bigger is greater and new is where the action is always at!” We forget—even deny that the Bible says the direct opposite: stillness is where the action really is; Jesus celebrates the individual not the masses; and being in a herd and following the herd has always, historically been the wrong choice.
5. The church is in trouble because we need modern day prophets to rise up like aJeremiah, Hosea and Amos who are not afraid of speaking the truth even when it hurts us and makes us feel bad. We’ve lost the way today because quite frankly many of us have settled to be secure and comfortable rather than follow Jesus. Last time I checked, Jesus never talked much about security—except in heaven and there’s very little at all about how any follower of his is entitled to a life of comfort. The true church of the 21st century must walk the tightrope of being cutting edge along with being anchored in truth.

What is fascinating to me is to realize that in the 4th century and gain in the 15-16th century major movements rose up which turned the established church upside down. People left the church like they are leaving today. They left the institution and whole new movements began to arise which offered hope, comfort and platforms for learning how to live the Jesus way. We need this again. I, for one, want to be in that number.

Lastly, let me remind you that I am not throwing stones because I am an insider. I’ve always been on the inside. It’s just that now, there’s so much smoke, I can hardly breath. How about you?

I’m not going to leave us hanging here. But there is no space to continue this week. I’ll offer some clues, hints and suggestions for how to reform what has gone wrong!

Being Mad as Hell About the Value of My Life

by Stephen W. Smith

Seems like a rather bold headline from a former preacher doesn’t it? But today, I’ve been working on another chapter for a forthcoming book titled, “The Jesus Life”.  I’ve been sitting here wondering how the message of Jesus–about all the life he promised to give us has gotten to terribly screwed up and furthermore, who is really responsible for messing up the message of Jesus.

I wrote some paragraphs in the manuscript about how Jesus saved his furious wrath for the most religious right of his day–the Pharisees who took control of the truth, withheld it from thirsty men and women and morphed it into long lists of rules and regulations.  As I just sat for a while thinking about this, I got mad…angry. I said to myself, “I”m mad as hell can can’t take this anymore.”  I was feeling a surge of passion, adrenalin and in my old Baptist world, what is known as “Holy Ghost power.”

So, as I sat here, I remembered where those lines, for me, became indelibly imprinted on my soul. It was through the words of a frustrated news anchor in a movie called, NETWORK.

I googled the entire lines and they are worthy of posting here. But what I’m thinking about is encouraging people across America standing up in their Sunday morning worship services and shouting these lines out as the call to worship–of course–, “I’m mad as hell and can’t take it anymore!”

Now, before you actually do that, do you think you’re preacher would listen to you; to us?  Read these words and I’ll edit out one blasphemy for you.  ]

But what I think is this…until we get mad as hell, about how we’ve been duped and perhaps doped into a life that is not possibly the LIFE that JEsus promised we may never really find or experience the life he came to let us live… I’m sure my editor will not let this go in the book, but as I’ve said, you’ll read my book first here then the real thing has to wait until 2012 to come out. Yes, that long!

Now, here’s the quote from Network when Howard Beal, the network reporter who gets fired up:

I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s work, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TV’s while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We know things are bad – worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, ‘Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.’ Well, I’m not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad! I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot – I don’t want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a HUMAN BEING, GodXXXXit! My life has VALUE!’ So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!’ I want you to get up right now, sit up, go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell – ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Things have got to change. But first, you’ve gotta get mad!… You’ve got to say, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Then we’ll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it: “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!”

My questions (and this is Steve) is how would the pastors/preachers in America react if we all did this–THIS coming Sunday? I’m not saying get mad about what Howard Beale got fired up about. I’m talking about getting mad–feeling the anger over why so many of us are not living the abundant life and has this message been hijacked by the men in robes who want to promote church rather than tell us how to really live?

[I’d love your comments and feedback. Maybe I’m off here. Or feeling uneasy about the Chinese lunch I thought I enjoyed a bit ago.]