Wanna write a Christian bestseller?

#106 The Side HugMy cousin is a real thinker. He graduated an engineer, then became a patent attorney and never married, so not only can he think, he’s got the time and energy to do it. He’s basically a self-taught theologian. I really applaud thinkers. They get a bad trot in Christendom – written off as all talk, no action. But I think generating ideas is action and can certainly be a catalyst for action.

Anyway, cuz really has a message about the Father heart of God – which he says is the apostolic message that’s getting drowned out across modern western Christendom by speakers and authors talking about principles for the successful christian life – e.g. seven steps to a powerful prayer life, three easy stages to holiness, five ways to a horny God-honoring marriage. He wants us to come back to the Father heart of God but to do it, he needs to do some pretty solid and heavy exposition of Ephesians 1-3 and Romans 6-8 and everything else in the bible.

When I asked him who his audience is, he says the man on the street – average Joe Believer. But when he tells me what it’s going to take to support his position it sounds like the only people who would be able to digest this high-fibre, zero fat, low carb, extreme protein power bar of thought will be  scholars. I explained to him that there are a couple of issues with the rest of the audience.

Firstly, there is the dumbed-down audience that love reading the latest from TD Jakes and John Bevere on a certain topic usually outlining how to master a certain aspect of the Christian life (western christian mindset). Today’s Christians are saved by grace and then bust their boilers and give themselves nose bleeds working out their salvation by mastery i.e. applying “proven” principles to get results to be a successful, God-honoring believer (never mind that following Christ and the idea of “mystery” has fallen by the wayside). We might be saved by faith, but we definitely live by trying to figure it all out in individually wrapped bite-sized portions.

The dumbed-down audience want to read “safe” authors who are recommended by their pastor or someone else “safe”. Author’s must be able to demonstrate their personal success (i.e. mastery) by leading a large church, loving a happy family (all smiles), speaking at big conferences, owning two large houses, traveling to over 40 countries, writing best seller books translated into 93 languages, having 80,000 twitter followers, with a ministry on TV broadcast to the said 40 countries and soon into outer space (don’t laugh about the outer space, I personally know a pastor who is trying to broadcast their worship and music into outer space).

Cuz, I said sagely, we all know you write to this audience to make money – a necessary evil, but then you pour this money into your “vision” so the ends justify the means.

The other audience he could try is the non-churched Christians, post moderns and emergents. The issue with these guys is that they don’t want to look at the bible as a text to be sliced and diced and analysed. The bible isn’t seen as a constitution or wiki on the Christian life. It’s seen as a true, earthy, primal story made up of many stories about many people, the central character being Christ. The overarching story is about God and people. So if the bible is a narrative, your writing might want to be…. a narrative! And it better be released for Kindle as well.

I explain that modernism takes a technical, analytical, systematic view of the bible producing works like “systematic theology” but emergents don’t want to analyse, they want to synthesise. They don’t want technical, they want organic. They don’t want more information, they want relationship. They don’t necessarily want more knowledge of good and evil, they want life, community, worship and they want this in a social justice, eco-friendly, sustainable and all-inclusive package…. don’t even think of using the word “exposition”.

If you write to these guys, you might want to invest in some pop culture (Erwin McManus has his own clothing line and Rob Bell should definitely have his own line of spectacle frames) or maybe you could practice writing stories. Christian fiction is the new non-fiction! Just look at the success of The Shack. After all, everyone loves a good story don’t they?

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The Happiness Trap

I’ve just finished reading The Happiness Trap by Dr Russ Harris. He featured recently on a TV series called Making Australia Happy and was working with participants who lived in the “unhappiest” suburb of Sydney to try and lift their well-being. One little mindfulness exercise he had them do was very cool. He got them to take five minutes (or thereabouts) to experience a single sultana.

He asked them to pretend they’d never seen one before. So they were to study it. Look at it’s shape, color, texture. Smell it. Feel it. Squish it. Nibble on it. Savor the taste, the feel in the mouth. Closing their eyes, heightened the sense of smell and taste. He even had them listen to it! When the time was up, the effect was really powerful. People were so relaxed and anchored in the “now”. The experience of mindfulness had pushed away the other pressures and anxiety’s and made them “present”. It’s very similar to meditation but not connected to any “spirituality” per se.

Harris argues in his book, that the “now” is really all we have. We spend too much time ruminating over the past, and worry over the future, that we’re missing the stuff that’s happening around us right NOW.

I took my kids for a 16km hike a fortnight ago up a mountain. I tried this little exercise on them because kids always want to know “Are we there yet?” and “How far to go?” and I wanted to see if I could get them to have a richer experience. I asked them to focus on five things they could see. This was fairly easy obviously, but I really wanted them to “see” so I got them to explain what they could see in more detail…. fine moss on rocks that looked like a beard, textures in rocks and colors.

Then I had them name five things they could hear. They could hear their feet crunching on gravel. They could hear birds, water, and the sound of their own breathing. I asked them for five smells and tried to get them to be as specific as possible. Then finally, five things they could feel. The sun on their skin, their pants touching their legs, air passing through their nose and lips. It’s such a grounding experience and made the bushwalk not just the means to the end (standing on top of a 1233m mountain) but a holistic experience from start to finish.

Interestingly, Acceptance Commitment Therapy (which is what mindfulness is based on) has been proven in evidenced based studies to deal effectively with depression, anxiety, chronic pain, addictions and has even been used to ameliorate schizophrenia. Most therapies don’t have a great evidence base. Watch this space, because I think mindfulness is a real winner.

Fat, Forty and Fired

My wife also gave me “Fat, Forty and Fired” by Nigel Marsh, the story of an advertising exec, whose company was bought out. Very funny and a great read, with some very reflective thoughts in between. I guess I’m not alone.

The more I thought about it, the more I wanted a change. I’d recently read a book called Manhood, by a Steven Biddulph, that argued that every man should be forced to take his fortieth year off. His theory was that the vast majority of men don’t have a life – they pretend to have one. In reality they are lonely, emotionally timid, and miserably, compulsively competitive. One of the main reasons they never get out of this tragic state is that they are enslaved by soulless jobs and careers that lead them to put their lives on hold until retirement.

Of course, when this arrives it is too late. While they work they are too busy to think and therefore they have empty lives where they never develop a rich and sustaining inner life.

As Biddulph puts it “Our marriages fail, our kids hate us, we die of stress and on the way we destroy the world.” I wasn’t sure if it was the effects of the medication i was on, but his year-off notion struck a real chord.

As a young man I used to have a vibrant social life both inside and outside of work. I don’t want to pretend I was a culture vulture but it would be fair to say I had the skill of burning the candle at both ends down to a fine art. Irrespective of how immature and irresponsible I was, the one thing my life wasn’t was one dimensional. Now I only seemed to work, prepare for work, complain about work or go to sleep – and dream about work.

Also, more worryingly, my “nice factor” was diminishing. I was sure all parents shouted at their kids but I was less certain they shouted at them quite as often as I did. I’d become a bit player in my family – leaving in the morning before they got up and arriving home after they were in bed (but early enough unfortunately, to catch Kate and bore the tits off her with yet more dull stories of my work travails).

Pagan Christianity II

Following on from the shocking stats on the pastorate that Barna and Viola give in their “Pagan Christianity” they follow up with these insightful words about pastors:

“The demands of the pastorate are crushing; they will drain any mortal dry. Imagine for a moment that you were working for a company that paid you on the basis of how good you made your people feel. What if your pay depended on how entertaining you were, how friendly you were, how popular your wife and children were, how well-dressed you were, and how perfect your behavior was?

Can you imagine the unmitigated stress this would cause you? Can you see how such pressure would force you into playing a pretentious role – all to keep your authority, your prestige, and your job security?

The profession dictates how pastors are to dress, speak and act. This is one of the major reasons why many pastors live very artificial lives. Congregants expect their pastor to always be cheerful, completely spiritual, and available at a moment’s call. They also expect that he will have a perfectly disciplined family. Furthermore, he should never appear resentful or bitter. Many pastors take to this role like actors in a Greek Drama.”

I’d have to say they’re right. And it’s not that we want to act or be artificial, it’s just that the church can’t handle us being real. By and large our motives are good. We wish to set a good example and demonstrate our faith rather than being all talk and no action. While this has good motives, it has a huge, cancerous downside.

In the Q&A at the end of the chapter, Barna addresses this.

“Some (pastors late in their careers) have personally confessed to us ‘it didn’t affect me for a number of years, but after a while, it began to change me without my realizing it.’ They explained how they became people-pleasers, trying to play to their ‘audience’ and maintain a particular image. This observation has nothing to do with a pastor’s motives. It has to do with the powerful influence of an unbiblical system.”

Pagan Christianity I

So a friend who dropped out of church (while I was leading it by the way) but remained a good friend (I lead him to Christ some 5 or 6 years ago) handed me Barna’s Pagan Christianity yesterday. By this morning I’d finished it.

I read it with interest. The authors cover basically how the traditional church has ended up in it’s present forms, but with a skewed focus on what happens in the building and the building itself.

They do a reasonable job of debunking the “traditions” we hold so dear in our institutional churches, but I think they get confused with scriptures that relate to the “house to house” meetings with the city-wide church, with the large “temple” style church meetings and that leads them to some extremes and some large holes.

So how does this relate to we of the scrapheap? They spend one chapter on the pastor, and I was drawn to a few statements (without going into the origin of the role as we know it today).

“The contemporary pastor…does damage to himself. The pastoral office has a way of chewing up many who come within its parameters. Depression, burnout, stress, and emotional breakdown occur at abnormally high rates among pastors. At the time of this writing, there are reportedly more than 500,000 paid pastors serving churches in the United States. Among this massive number of religious professionals, consider the following statistics that testify to the lethal danger of the pastoral office:

94% feel pressured to have an ideal family
90% work more than 46 hours per week
81% say they have insufficient time with their spouses
80% believe the pastoral ministry affects their family negatively
70% do not have someone they consider a close friend
70% have lower self-esteem than when they entered the ministry
50% feel unable to meet the demands of the job
80% are discouraged or deal with depression
More than 40% report they are suffering from burnout, frantic schedules, and unrealistic expectations
33% consider pastoral ministry an outright hazard to the family
33% have seriously considered leaving their position in the past year
40% of pastoral resignations are due to burnout
1400 ministers in all denominations across US are fired or forced to resign each month

Adventures in Missing the Point.

I’m just rocking the boat I know, but I really liked this book title. I’ve read one of Brian McLaren’s books (A new kind of Christian) and am ordering the rest of that trilogy. This looks a great read.

Adventures in Missing the Point: How the Culture-Controlled Church Neutered the Gospel

There is a stirring among churchgoers. Many are looking at how the Christian faith is being played out, wondering if somehow we’re missing the point. What if there is more to our faith than just getting our souls into heaven? What if there is a power in the gospel that’s been kept under lock and key because of our culture-controlled church? If we placed our beliefs and their origins under the microscope, what would we see?

If you’re brave enough to take an honest look at the issues facing the culture–controlled church—and the issues in your own life—read on. Do you ever look at how the Christian faith is being lived out in the new millennium and wonder if we’re not doing what we’re supposed to be doing? That we still haven’t quite “gotten it”? That we’ve missed the point regarding many important issues?

Join Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo on an adventure—one that’s about uncovering and naming faulty conclusions and assumptions about the Christian faith. The authors take turns addressing how we’ve missed the point on crucial topics such as: salvation, the Bible, being postmodern, worship, homosexuality, truth, and many more.

We’ve gotten really positive response on this book, especially from people in “the Christian subculture” who feel it kicks some doors down and opens some windows for needed fresh air.

Get a pdf of one of the chapters on salvation here: Missing the Point: Salvation

Worked over by John Maxwell

One of our co-contributers, a fellow Scraphead Pastor recently posted a comment about “hating” John Maxwell. Thanks for the candid comment! The postulations of Maxwell, far from being helpful became a rod for his back.

I went and saw Maxwell speak at a hugely popular conference a couple years back and he was riveting. Far better in person than in print, so our blog doesn’t seek to defame him whatsoever. But I know what our contributer is talking about.

Interestingly I am halfway through a Masters of Arts degree with a leadership major at a national bible college. Maxwell is never mentioned at all.

See the problem with Maxwell and other similar pseudo-christian leadership guru’s is that what they spouse, are truisms. A truism is a statement which is so obviously true that it is almost not worth saying, like “when it comes to health, prevention is better than cure”. Truisms are a bit like platitudes or cliche’s, but if it’s the first time you heard it you think “wow, that’s so true!”

So Maxwell kicks off with a riveting true story and then comes out with stuff like “if you’re a true leader, you must be far enough out front to lead, but not too far out to stay connected”. It makes sense. It’s truistic. The masses will get it. Makes for good reading and to be honest some of the stuff he comes up with can be useful particularly for secular management.

But there are big problems. Most of what Maxwell serves up is stuff like “true leaders do ABC or XYZ.” So you end up wondering “am I a true leader? I’m not sure I’m doing ABC like he says”. And if you’re sure you’re a leader (like me), then you end up pondering over the above truism and wondering “exactly how far in front am I?” “Am I in front?” Am I too far in front?”

Unfortunately that’s about as deep as Maxwell takes things. There is no diagnostic tools, reflection tools it’s just truism after truism and great story after great story. It’s easy reading. Basically Leadership for Dummies. If you get into any serious leadership research, you’ll find it nothing like the stuff that Maxwell churns out for the popular masses of wannabe leaders who want to grab something they can read quickly and head out to the coal face and do something.

To be fair to Maxwell, he is committed to taking biblical ideas and packaging them for the secular management market (which is massive) and I’m sure he has his place there. I’m also sure he is a genuine committed christian doing what he does best.

Here’s the kicker. Forget about what Maxwell says. Figure out how Maxwell learns the stuff he learns. I’m not suggesting you figure out some new truisms (or dress up old ones as is sometimes the case), I’m suggesting that the power of ideas comes from where those ideas are coming from. And if good ideas are coming from God, then it’s the connection TO God that gives our life momentum and abundance, not the information FROM God alone (which is what Maxwell is doing). Simple… sort of.