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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!

Living the Life we WANT to live!

Gwen is wanting me to quit using this picture of us. When I asked her why she said, “It’s 8 years old and we are more beat up now then when the picture was taken.” We laughed…. but inside we knew the truth of her joke. Perhaps, like many of our pictures–they are memories of a more innocent time–a time before big things happened that altered our life forever.

You know what I mean. The death of a parent. Losing your job. Erosion in your 401K. Life was more simple back then. The smiles were perhaps—well–deeper.

Life has a way of beating us up sometimes. When we closed our CaringBridge Blog, I could not help but notice that all but one of my friends who ever did a Caring Bridge blog had all died. I guess you can say that they were beat up by their cancer, their tumors, their illnesses and their disease–created dis-ease in their lives and every thing changed. The Cancer eventually did them in. This might sound crass but let me ask you a question:

Are you living the life you want to live before you die?

It’s a simple question and don’t read on before you pause with my quesition for a moment. One of my favorite authors and literary mentors is David Whyte. He wrote words I’ll never forget and I quote them often. He said, “Sometimes we have to unmake a living before we can live the life we really want to live.”

Gwen’s back surgery now seven weeks ago has unmade us. We’ve been forced to think and rethink much of our lives. Recovery is going slower than we both anticipated. She’s still not able to lift more than a gallon of milk and is now beginning her pool therapy which will help her recover the numbness in her leg. She’s making good progress you’ll be glad to know. This is a picture of her and me along with our friend, Dr. Curt Thompson (author of The Anatomy of the Soul, which we highly and strongly recommend).

She looks great doesn’t she? But behind every picture there is an inner story. Both of us were profoundly impacted by Curt Thompson’s book and the weekend retreat he led for us at our Inn in Colorado. We were so impacted that we’re beginnging now to make even more adjustments in our thinking about—well, about nearly everything. Curt’s a follower of Jesus who is also a psychiatrist. We spent hours together talking and sharing some of our lives with Curt. It was so helpful to get great insight and feedback–resulting in us vowing to ourselves, “We really do want to live the life we WANT to live—not just HAVE to live.” There’s a difference you know and perhaps Jesus came to offer us this difference—this Jesus Life, not an ordinary life.

So, in these fall days, we’re beginning to re-think much of our lives, whether or not we WANT to remain in our home or sell it and move to the retreat. How we want to be more involved in the lives of those we love and less involved with people and things that take the life out of us. As we begin to blog together, you’ll be able to hear from both us— watch our struggles to come to grips with some deep regrets that we both have our seeking the courage to set out to live and experience the life we really do want to live.

We were reminded….The Kingdom of God is actually here and now…not just ours through death. How’s your kingdom life going?

Steve and Gwen Smith
Colorado Springs, CO
Potter’s Inn

The Place of Transformation

Transformation does not happen in a vacuum. A key ingredient in the transformation process is place. We are not Halloween ghosts floating through time and space. The soul’s address is a physical body and every soul needs a place to experience change. Think about it with me. Remember back on some life-changing experiences that you’ve shared. Where were you? At the beach, in the mountains, attending church, with a friend, driving down some road, hiking a winding trail?

When and if we really change, we always change in a place. A wonderful author, Robert Hamma has named these places, “sacred spaces”. He calls them sacred because these are thin spaces–thin because you can see the sacred through them.

Eleven years ago, my work changed. I left the place of church and entered the place of retreats. I came to the realization that for me, change was happening in me and in most of the people I worked with in places where they could focus, get a way from the buzz of life and cocoon in a place where they could think, feel and experience God’s love in major and new ways. I am not saying that change does not happen in church–because it does. But when you think about it, Jesus never attended church like you and I do today. He used the thin places of forested Olive trees to disclose his deepest truths. He used the natural world of vineyards, lakes and mountain tops to reveal the deepest truth about himself and about those he loved. It always involved places.

In these eleven years of focusing on this insight, we have set out to participate in the construction of a retreat—a cocoon for the soul. It’s the retreat now known as Potter’s Inn at Aspen Ridge, a 35 acre place–thin place near Divide, Colorado. I actually like the fact that our address is “Divide.” At our dividing place many new, life giving decisions have been made that have resulted in transformed lives and changed hearts. Each heart has required a sort of spiritual cocoon to morph into something that they could not do on their own. They needed a place. They needed space. They needed a retreat.

Where are the places God has used to change you?

What special places to you call “thin” or sacred?

What role have retreats–at any length impacted your life?

What room in your home feels thin? What places do you long to go and experience?

Fodder for the fire of this discussion on the role of “place” in our spiritual formation!

Potter’s Inn

Soul Shaping: A new resource for spiritual formation

I’m holding in my hands this morning the final proof of Soul Shaping. I’m grateful that David C Cook will publish this important resource. It’s actually the first resource that Gwen and I developed when founding Potter’s Inn six years ago. In this resource, I use the timeless image of the potter and clay to help us understand what God is up to in our lives; how the shaping of our lives began in our mother’s womb and how being re-shaped and molded really happens throughout our lives in relationships, time with God, work, and more. I’m excited because we have seen first-hand how useful, practical and user-friendly this guide really is and it’s been tested in several churches and small groups with tremendous feedback.

It’s one of the missions of Potter’s Inn to produce resources for people in their spiritual journeys. This guide will really help!

The resource will release in January or February 2011. It’s the ideal tool for churches, groups and individuals to use in their quests to understand spiritual formation.

Biblically deep, artistically rich, personally challenging, and user friendly. Sou Shaping by Steve Smith is the finest resource I have seen for the serious pursuit of personal transformation. If you desire to be formed by the loving hands of the Master Potter, this is your guide for becoming moldable clay.”–Howard Baker, Denver Seminary and author of Soul Keeping

Download Chapter One – Soul Custody

We’re in trouble.  We need help. The once upon a time American Dream has turned into an all too real nightmare that sears our minds as we try and sleep. Life is not working as we think it should

Look around you.  Listen.  You can feel it.  It’s the violence.

News updates inform us every single day that our world is in trouble. Domestic violence is up; gang violence is out of control in many communities; sexual abuse against children is rising; drug abuse and prescription abuse are rampan…

Read the entire first chapter here.
Order the book here.