The Girl from Kissimmee

I can still remember my first real date.  It was with this girl I met at summer camp.  She had been visiting a cousin in Charleston,West Virginia, but she was from a place called Kissimmee, Florida.  The first time she said it it sounded like an invitation.  “Where are you from?” I asked, and she said, “Florida.”  “Where in Florida?” I asked, and she said, “Kissimmee,” in a way that made it sound just like “Kiss me.”

I wanted to.  I really did.  But she was so young and I was so shy I just blushed and thought, “Maybe another time.”

So, when she wrote to me the next year and said she was coming back to visit her cousin I asked her if she’d like to go out.  She said she would, which created a whole new set of challenges.  I had just gotten my driver’s license a few months before and the only car we had that was nearly nice enough to take a girl out in was this old Fiat station wagon someone had given us.  At one time it had been a nice, bright red, but years of sitting out in the sun had dulled it to a red that was almost the color of rust.  Or maybe it was rust.  Either way, I spent most of a summer day washing that car and waxing it until that rusty red paint job was shining bright.  I got out the vacuum cleaner and an extension cord and sucked up all the dirt off the floorboards, I wiped down all the interior surfaces and washed the windows, and then I took a needle and a piece of brown thread and sewed up a rip in the driver’s seat until you could hardly see it at all. 

And then I cleaned myself up and dressed in my best blue jeans and got in that car and drove all the way to Charleston—an hour away—to see that girl. 

I’m pretty sure that engine had four cylinders in it, but on the way to Charleston I became convinced that only three of them were working, and if I got above 45 miles an hour that little car vibrated so badly I thought I would lose the fillings in my teeth.  I had trouble finding that girl’s house in those days before GPS’s were invented, and when I brought her out to the car all she said was, “It sure is little.” 

That didn’t sound like a compliment. 

I took her out to dinner where we quickly discovered that we didn’t have much in common and mostly ended up staring at our plates.  I brought her back home and can’t even remember if I tried to steal a kiss before I came around to her side of the car to let her out.  It wasn’t all that I had imagined.  It wasn’t even close.  But look what that girl had done to me!  How the very thought of seeing her again had kept me working all day to turn the sow’s ear of that old Fiat station wagon into a silk purse. 

That story came to mind in this season of Advent and made me think that if I would do all that for some girl I hardly knew, how much more should I be willing to get myself shined up and ready for the coming of Christ?

“Do Something!”

I’ve been asked to speak at an event called “Prophetic Preaching for Anxious People” in Tampa, Florida, next week.  I’m not sure how I got the job; I don’t know that much about prophetic preaching.  On the other hand, I do know some anxious people.   

I talked with one a few months ago.

It was shortly after our big vote on membership, when we decided that committed Christians from other denominations could join our church without having to be re-baptized.  Although the motion passed decisively it didn’t pass unanimously, and for several weeks afterward there was tension in the air.  The big, happy family at First Baptist had been shaken.  It affected our giving and our attendance. 

On one of those Sundays a member of the church knocked on the door of my study, holding a worship bulletin in his hand.  He showed me the attendance figures from the week before—a number so low I was sure there had been a mistake. 

“Look at this!” he said, waving the bulletin in front of me.  “What are you going to do about this?”  He wasn’t angry; he was anxious.  He loved his church and didn’t want to see it go into decline.  “What am I going to do?” I asked, smiling.  “I’m going to get a recount!”  He didn’t know what to say to that.  He stood there for a minute in silence, fumbling with the bulletin, and then he looked up at me with pleading eyes and said, “Do something!”

Do something.

As in, “Do something about attendance.  Do something to get our numbers up.  Do something that will get people to come to church.”

I think that’s the anxiety a lot of churches have been feeling in the last few decades.  The churchgoing boom of the fifties and early sixties was followed by a mass exodus in the late sixties and seventies.  The church’s response was to panic, and to do anything it could to get people back into the pews.  One of the strategies was to turn Sunday morning worship into a kind of youth rally in an attempt to win back those Baby Boomers who had been active in church youth groups, but dropped out of church when they went off to college. Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago practically invented something called “Contemporary Worship,” where you didn’t have to dress up, the preaching was relevant and edgy, and the music was more like what you listened to in your car.  And Willow Creek was successful.  Soon more than 15,000 people per weekend were coming to that church and soon after that almost every church in America wanted to be like Willow Creek.  

But I can still remember the day I went to a meeting in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and one of my colleagues—the successful pastor of a large Baptist church—came into the room complaining that he had spent three years trying to develop a contemporary worship service and he’d just heard on the radio that what people wanted these days was “liturgical worship.”   In that moment I thought, “Yes, and that’s how it will always be if you try to chase the latest fad.”

If we ask, “What do people want?” then we begin to design our programs and worship services around that, and we measure our success by how many people come and how much they give.  But if we ask (and keep on asking), “What does God want?” then we begin to structure everything around that, and measure our success in a different way.

People are fickle.  What they wanted last year is not what they wanted this year.  But here’s the good news: God is not fickle.  God wants what he has always wanted.  He wants us to make disciples of every nation.  He wants us to love him and love our neighbors.  In short, God wants the world he made to know him and love him, to do his will and love one another. 

He wants heaven on earth.

So, maybe what we need to ask is not, “How do we increase church attendance,” but “How do we bring heaven to earth?”  Regardless of what it does to our numbers—whether they go up or down—I think the church of Jesus Christ was called into existence precisely to answer that question.

What do you think?

A Simple Question

My recent visit to the mosque stirred up a good bit of discussion on Facebook, most of it from a college friend who is convinced the Muslims are trying to take over America.  I don’t believe “the Muslims” (all 1.5 billion of them) are trying to do anything of the kind, although I wouldn’t put it past some Muslims (or Christians, or Jews, or Buddhists, or Hindus) to give it a try.  There are extremists in every religion.  

One of the extremists in my religion has declared September 11th “International Burn a Koran Day.”  His name is Terry Jones and he is the pastor of Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, which he describes as “a New Testament church—based on the Bible, the Word of God.”  A link on the church’s web site directs you to a Facebook page called “International Burn a Koran Day,” where you are greeted by a banner that reads, “Islam is of the Devil.”  Under the banner is this announcement:

On September 11th, 2010, from 6pm – 9pm, we will burn the Koran on the property of Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, FL in remembrance of the fallen victims of 9/11 and to stand against the evil of Islam. Islam is of the devil!

Frankly, I cannot imagine a more effective way to stir up the anger of the Muslim world than to publicly burn its sacred text.  I can think of a hundred good reasons not to do it.  But the one that comes to mind most quickly comes straight out of the New Testament, which Pastor Jones describes as “the Word of God.”  Here it is, from Matthew 7:12: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

So, I want to ask Pastor Jones a simple question: “Do you want a Muslim Imam to burn a Bible on the property of his Mosque on September 11?  If not, then don’t burn a Koran on the property of your church.  This is good advice, and it comes from Jesus himself.  If he is your Lord, and not just your Savior, then you might want to do as he says.  If you won’t do what he says, then (with all due respect) what kind of pastor are you, and what kind of ‘New Testament church’ is the Dove World Outreach Center?”

I’m just asking, because I don’t want to have to answer that other question, the one my Muslim neighbor will ask me on September 11: “Why are you Christians burning the Koran?”