Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Rethinking 'Viral' Church

To begin, I need to offer three confessions. First, none of this article is based on hard data, but rather, on speculation. As I’ve lived and pastored through this pandemic, I’ve found myself curious about how churches are operating now and how they might function moving forward. Then secondly, I must own up to my personal preference for small churches over large. Of course, I’m biased as the pastor of a small church. But I also fundamentally believe that small church is a better way to function as the body of Christ than large. And thirdly, I’ll be painting with very broad brush strokes here, as not all “large” churches are created equally and have the same priorities.

That said, here’s what I've been intrigued with lately. I wonder if larger churches will start to reshape their ecclesiology (their way of doing church or their thoughts on how church should be done) as a result of this viral pandemic. I mean, they have to, right?! In a globally connected world where goods, services, and ideas, including a virus, can be spread throughout the world in a heartbeat, I would think large churches would need to rethink their methods of cramming as many people as possible into as large a room as possible to have as great an impact as possible. It’s a noble ambition—the attempt to reach as many people for Christ as possible—but it just doesn’t seem like a feasible or wise model for ministry in both the short- and long-term. 

I would think these large churches would need to re-strategize for how they might reach people and do ministry differently in a world that can be so quickly infected and affected.

But then that thought led me down the rabbit hole to the next one—this time a critique of the large church model. I began wondering about the idea of a “virus” or things going “viral” as a metaphor for the way the church-growth and megachurch movements think about the gospel and church. I think you could accurately say that megachurches (and the churches that aspire to be them) want the gospel and their churches to go “viral.” They want their ministry and influence to blow up quickly, to take off like a flash. They want it to spread like wildfire, reaching as many people as humanly possible—multiple services, large sanctuaries, and a massive online presence.

And again, I don’t think this impulse begins from a bad place, but this desire can become sickening really easily and quickly. Reaching the world for Christ is certainly a noble pursuit, but the aspiration for ministry to go “viral” can easily become self-gratifying, shallow, and sometimes even toxic. The goal can easily become growth for the sake of growth, rather than the fulfilling and expanding of God’s Kingdom. People tune in from the fringes, but often fail to plug in deeply to the way of Jesus and the life of the church.

Not to mention the fact that this “viral” ministry model seems contrary to the ministry of Jesus. For Jesus, the metaphors he uses to speak of the gospel and the kingdom are mostly agricultural. You till the soil and plant the seeds. You water and pray for sunshine. It takes a while and requires much patience. You don’t see instant success—or sometimes any success at all. But that’s the way the gospel grows: slowly and steadily. 

That’s the way Jesus went about his ministry, patiently and persistently. A few followers here, a few miracles there, a sermon or two sprinkled in on occasion. He wasn’t in a rush. His ministry was far deeper than it was wide, with Jesus even encouraging people to keep quiet about his work for fear it would spread too quickly. When crowds would clamor to him, it only took a quick reminder of the difficulty and demand of the gospel for the multitude to rapidly reduce. There was nothing “viral” about Jesus’ ministry.

And that’s the way the early church grew as well. Sure, there were times where 3,000 or 5,000 were added to their number in a day, but the church still spread through small, local, hidden house churches. They organized themselves to be able to care for real needs, sharing all things in common and joining together daily for worship and the breaking of bread. That sure doesn’t sound like a ‘viral,’ megachurch mentality to me.

The gospel or the church going “viral” most likely means it’s not taking root deeply, here today and possibly gone tomorrow. And churches going “viral” probably means that those people will catch the next viral bug that comes along—the next big, trendy church—and off they’ll go, infected by the next strain of ‘viral’ church.

But the beautiful irony is that a virus could be the very thing to help churches see the problem with their viral ecclesiology. We are being forced to slow things down, spread people out, and not continue the incessant sprint of ‘viral’ ministry toward church growth. And I intentionally used the word we, there, because even small churches aren’t immune from the lure of viral ministry. But my sincere prayer for all churches during this time, and especially large ones, is that we would recommit to the ministry of Jesus—a slow, intentional, deeply-relational way of being with people that grows incrementally by emphasizing the depth of the few instead of the breadth of the many. Let’s stop worrying about going ‘viral’—the rapid growth of butts, bucks, and buildings—and be more invested in the slow, steady, often unnoticed and unheralded work of loving our church, our neighbors, and our community—the flourishing of our world.  

Monday, June 22, 2020

The Hard Work of Becoming Better

It’s hard work improving. It’s not always easy becoming the person we were created to be.

Maybe I’m no worse than most, but I’m the kind of person who generally prefers to take the easy or fun way when it comes to any obstacle or challenge. I’d rather ride the chair lift with my bike or skis than ‘earn my turns’ through a grueling uphill. I’ll run, but only if I’m dribbling a soccer- or basketball. Give me the fun of rock climbing over the taxing ascent of mountain climbing any day. If I can avoid the hard work and still get the fun, I’ll do that all day, every day.

And that’s true for me emotionally, relationally, and spiritually too—as I constantly push back against the difficulty of development, the inconvenience of improvement.

I was thinking about that part of my personality again last night—as I was dying after mile two of five on a long, arduous climb on my mountain bike. I don’t like to work hard. I have no patience for things not going well or simply. I love it when life is easy and fun. It’s best when everything just works out nicely and neatly.

But, of course, that’s rarely how life goes—and certainly not the way progress and maturity work. Growth is a grind. It takes effort and intentionality, humility and hope, perseverance and patience. And usually (and unfortunately) it takes sacrifice and surrender. If we want to be a better person, spouse, friend, and neighbor, it’s going to take effort. If we want to grow in our faith and follow Jesus more closely, it’s going to be costly and challenging.

But, of course, the hard work is worth it.

Despite the fact that I despise the difficulty and detest the needed dedication, the grueling grind is always worth the effort. You get to that peak, take in the beauty of God’s creation, and then get to soar down the mountain in sheer delight. You agonize over those papers and cram for those exams, but you one-day find yourself walking across that stage to receive your diploma. You suffer through the hard work of breaking that habit, fixing that relationship, or starting that new practice, only to realize that the end result was absolutely worth the work.

And even when the finished product isn’t perfect or great or even good, I almost always find that the arduous journey was still worthwhile—that something profound and transformational happened through the process, not just in the product.

So, even though it’s easier to remain stagnant, not change, and never push ourselves to be better, let’s remain committed to the lifelong process of growth and discipleship—of mastering the art of living and becoming more in-tune with the ways of God’s kingdom. Let’s be willing to do whatever hard things are required of us to grow and mature in faith.

Paul tells the Philippian church that “…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.” That sounds like pretty good advice to me. So, let’s be intentional about focusing on the ways of God and disciplined to do the hard work it will takes to become, even more, the people of God.

Monday, June 8, 2020

An Existential Exhaustion

I’ve been unusually tired lately, and until last night, I couldn’t figure out why. I’ve been going to bed earlier than usual to combat my fatigue, sleeping in a little longer, when I can, to battle against this weariness, and even recently had a week of vacation at our cabin to relax and refresh. Yet I still feel tired and worn-out, constantly dwelling in a state of exhaustion.

And it’s been confusing to process and challenging to verbalize, because it’s not just physical tiredness I’m experiencing—it’s also some sort of spiritual and emotional fatigue. The best way I’ve found to describe what I’m feeling is existential exhaustion—being tired, worn out, and depleted at my core. But I wasn’t able to understand and name why this was happening until last night, through a conversation with Mandy.

I think it’s all connected, for me, to Facebook.

I’m not alone in this, but the last three months of my communal and pastoral life have been spent on social media. I’ve been almost exclusively a phone-based friend and an online pastor. Facebook has been my home—my primary connection to the outside world, including the congregation I serve.

But as you all know, Facebook, now more than ever, is a place of divisiveness and hostility. Everyone has an opinion, no one is agenda-less, and most people hold their opinions with far-too-much certainty. So, when you combine that with the fact that misinformation abounds, from all parts of the political spectrum, it makes for strange and strained relational dynamics. Facebook is a dangerous place to live right now, rife with political, racial, and social landmines that might explode with any false step.

And that’s what I find to be existentially exhausting.

I’ve only just begun to recognize it, but as a human, friend, and pastor, I’m finding it downright draining to navigate the information and misinformation, opinions and reflections, posts and comments of Facebook on a minute-by-minute basis. As someone who seeks to avoid the fray of partisan politics as much as possible, has family and friends on both sides of nearly every issue, and who pastors a church of immense political diversity, I’m finding it incredibly difficult to know how to be faithfully and pastorally present on Facebook.

If someone shares an article or a comment that I agree with, how do I respond? What message am I sending through a ‘like’ or a comment? Is that the message I want to publicly display?

If someone shares or comments in a way I disagree with, how do I proceed? Do I push back? Do I let it go? And then if I do let it go, I find myself mulling over what I *would* have said had I *not* let it go?

And what do I personally share or not share? Or if I share something or comment and someone pushes back against me, do I respond or let it go? And what do I say and how do I best say it?

It’s all very confusing and frustrating. But what I’m just now realizing is that it’s also quite debilitating. It’s stealing my soul, robbing my energy, and distracting me from what’s really important. I find myself thinking about these questions way too much, and it’s taking a toll on my body, mind, and soul—not to mention my ability to be present and attentive to God, my family, my friends, and the world.

So, I’m stepping away from Facebook for a little while, to give myself space to rest, heal, and focus on what’s really important. I need a social media detox. I’m deleting the Facebook app from my phone and will only use it for my job, including live streaming our worship gatherings. Any Facebook posts you see will have been automatically linked from Instagram, which is a fun resource for connecting with friends and not an exhausting platform for debating and arguing issues. I have no idea how long this Facebook Fast will last, but I’m excited to see how my body, mind, and soul might heal from this existential exhaustion.

[Note: if you want to reach me, please do so via phone/text (406-581-0749), email (jasonbowker1@gmail.com), or Facebook Messenger]

Friday, May 22, 2020

The Reward of Prayer

I’ve found myself praying a lot more than usual during the last few months, but the prayers have been different. Often my prayers are bold, brash, and pragmatic, asking God to provide something or do something or help me out in some specific way. Then I sit back and see if the prayer gets answered. And some of my prayers during this time have been like that—like “God, would you end this virus.” But most of my prayers during this period have been different: more simple, honest, and communal—like “God, I need you” or “God, please help” or “God, thank you” or “God, give me wisdom.” It’s as if the peculiarity of this time has stripped down my prayer life and named the truest parts of my relationship with God.

Our audible and/or conscious prayers can often be fairly selfish prayers of petition, where we’re asking God to provide something for us. And I think that’s because we don’t really know what else to talk to God about. But I think if we were able to acknowledge and name the truest prayers of our hearts—the true desires we wish to express to a power greater than ourselves—we would more often find ourselves praying these simple, beautiful, communal prayers. We would pray like the psalmist, saying, “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts.” Deep in our inmost parts, we really just want to know God and be known.

Which is what Jesus says will happen when we pray sincerely.

In Matthew 6:6, Jesus offers us these instructions about prayer: “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

Now, at first glance, that sort of prayer still feels like a bold, brash, and pragmatic prayer of petition, where we ask God for something and then await our reward: the answer to our prayers. But that’s not exactly the picture the Greek word for “reward” (apodosei) is trying to convey. The word literally means “to give back” or “return.” So, the pray-er gives something…and then God gives it back or returns it. Which, what does the pray-er give? Nothing more than time, attention, dedication, and complete presence. So then, that is the ‘reward’ we get back from God; the thing he gives back or returns. Sometimes God responds to our prayers of petition with practical and tangible answers. But God always responds to the deepest, simplest prayers of our hearts with time, attention, dedication, and complete presence.

And the point I’m making about God’s “rewards” is only further confirmed through the next section of text about fasting, where Jesus uses the same Greek word to once again say that we will be rewarded for fasting—which the reward here is clearly not physical or practical, but can only be meant in terms of God’s time, attention, dedication, and complete presence. When we are present to God through fasting, He is present with us as well. And the same is true in prayer.

So, the point I’ve not-so-succinctly spent nearly 700 words to arrive at is simple: when you pray, especially in this time, allow your prayers to be simple, honest, and real, tapping into your deepest and inmost parts. Because the reward for these prayers is intimate community with the Creator of the universe, your Father in heaven. Yes, we should pray bold, brash, and pragmatic prayers for God to do the miraculous in our world. But Jesus’ wisdom for us in this time (and beyond) is to primarily be people who spend their prayer life in simple, honest, and communal time with God, because when we do, we will be rewarded with God’s very presence—including his comfort, peace, assurance, and hope. He rewards our prayer lives through giving back. When we lean into Him, He leans right back. He meets us in that place and rewards us with His very self.

So, may you lean into God’s presence during this time of uncertainty and stress, and truly sense God returning the favor.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Celebrating the Ascension

Today, in the church calendar, we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus—which is an often-neglected holiday, but one worth considering.

Essentially, this is a day of empowerment. Jesus told his disciples—including us, as his present-day disciples—that they would do even greater things than him. But that can’t happen with him around. Time after time, the disciples turned to Jesus to teach, help, heal, and feed people, rather than doing it themselves. And nothing has changed. I want Jesus to do the miraculous, but often fail to step in and be the miracle people need.

Jesus leaving earth is liberating and enabling. He is still with us in spirit, but leaves the world in our hands to do the things he’s been doing, bless the people he’s been blessing, and form a community of love like he’s been forming. Jesus’ ascension is his bold declaration to us that “you’ve got this!” He believes in us to be the church, empowered to do the ministry he left behind. So, let’s get busy teaching, helping, healing, and feeding.

Friday, May 8, 2020

An Angry Run with Ahmaud

That was an angry run.

I love to keep active and stay in shape, but I hate going running! With a passion…always have, always will. But being unable to play basketball during the pandemic, I’ve resorted to running to stay in shape.

And tonight was the perfect night for a run. I was running for Ahmaud.

But nothing quite went as expected. My dog got sick of running and forced me to take her home mid-run. We ate dinner too late and I felt it in my stomach the whole time. I’m badly out of shape and 2.23 miles is a stretch for me right now. And then, of course, it rained on me for most of the run.

But you know what didn’t happen?! I didn’t get shot.

No one suspected me of burglary based on what I look like. No one chased me down with guns. And no one killed me. Nor did I even worry about any of that for one second. Because I don’t have to…especially where I live…because I’m white.

So, tonight I ran for Ahmaud…and for all the people in our country who face fear and danger simply because their skin is more colorful than mine.

And I ran angry…because it’s unjust and unfair and I simply can’t believe that in the year 2020 we still haven’t progressed to a point where a black man can go for a run in his neighborhood and not have to worry about whether he’ll make it home.

I ran committed to stand up against racism, bigotry, and violence when I see it. I ran to remind myself of the power and privilege I have as a white man in our country and committed to using my power and privilege for good and not evil. I ran to remember those who have been lost to the evil of racism.

Lord, deliver us from evil. For yours is the Kingdom…and it’s a kingdom of love and grace.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Jesus Wisdom on Patience

As I’ve pondered and preached on Jesus’ wisdom for us during this COVID season and beyond, one thing I’ve thought a lot about is patience. I know that patience is a fruit of the spirit, but it’s not a fruit that generally grows freely on my spiritual tree. This season is testing my patience, but also refining me into a more patient person.

While I’m certainly not a Type-A, go-getter personality, I’m also not good at waiting. And I’m probably no different than most. Our culture has bred us to expect immediate results—fast food, two-day shipping, curb-side delivery. We are used to expediency. We wait for nothing.

And, in fact, sometimes patience is treated more as a vice than a virtue. Don’t wait, push for results. Don’t delay, get it before it’s gone. Don’t save for tomorrow what could be accomplished today. Heck, I’ll even alter my route home from work in order to avoid being stuck at a stoplight. We just aren’t great at waiting…but should be. And Jesus can help.

Now, while Jesus does very little talking or teaching about patience in the gospels, he most-certainly demonstrates it. Like, for example, he waits thirty years to start his public ministry. And even once he gets started, he delays his grand ascension to notoriety by continually asking people to keep quiet about his ministry. Jesus feels no need or senses no hurry to accomplish everything and heal everyone. He patiently makes time to escape, reflect, and pray.

And Jesus is constantly patient with those in his life—those begging and pleading, desperate for his assistance and excited for his presence. He often made time for people when I might not have. I think of the story of Jesus feeding the 5000. It’s an exhausting day of ministry, so much so that Jesus puts his disciples in a boat and sends them across the Sea to get away. But not Jesus—the text says that he takes time to greet the people and dismiss them. All of them. Talk about patience. And then, perhaps his greatest show of patience is through how he handles his disciples—who constantly require his patience as they argue, misunderstand, and make mistakes. He never fails to make time for them, explain a parable to them, or help correct a misguided idea.

I don’t know about you, but in this slowed season of COVID, I want to learn to be a more patient person. I want to slow down, tune in, listen more, and be more present to my family, friends, world, and self. I want to remind myself, in moments I would typically be impatient, to take a deep breath and have greater perspective on how this patience-testing moment is really not as inconvenient as I think.

I’ve appreciated the natural rhythms of this season that are helping me take steps in building patience. I didn’t start building puzzles, during this quarantine, to help foster more patience; but it’s certainly helped. And I didn’t expect to have our kids home with us 24/7 during the months of April, May, and June; but it’s definitely helping me hone the discipline of patience.

I’m certainly not happy this pandemic has happened, but I’m trying to allow this unanticipated season of patience-building to shape me moving forward. May we all be better attuned to the work of the Spirit within us, so we increasingly witness the fruit of patience in our lives.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

As Many Blessings as It Takes

We have a nightly ritual in our family of singing a blessing over our girls as we tuck them in and say good night. It’s a beautiful part of our bedtime routine that I look forward to each evening. But, simultaneously, by that time in the day I’m ready for them to be asleep and anxious for some time to myself and with Mandy.

Which is why this time of blessing can also be obnoxious—because, in her tiredness, Peyton often forgets that we’ve already sang her blessing and begs us to sing it again. It’s been a long day, I too am tired, and I can’t wait to get out of that room. So, I often find myself annoyed and upset when this happens, reluctant to have to sing for a second time.

This happened again tonight. But this time, as I was frustratedly rushing through the song for the second time, I found myself thinking about what was actually happening: I was irritated about getting to sing God’s blessing over my daughter. How strange for a father to be annoyed about that!

And I found myself thinking about God—about our Father who sings blessings over us—who looks down upon us and declares the same thing He did about His son Jesus: this is my beloved child, with whom I am well-pleased. I found myself thinking about God the way Jesus depicts Him in the story of the Prodigal Son, as a Father who runs to his wayward son, embraces him wildly, and blesses him profusely, regardless of what he’s done.

Can you imagine God responding to us the way I often do to Peyton—with frustration over getting to re-bless her? Of course not! Our God created us in His image, sees us as very good, and is anxious to sing blessings over us…as many times as it takes.

So, may you truly know how God sees you—that he loves you dearly and cherishes you as his beloved child. May you hear his song of blessing over you. And may the Lord bless you and keep you, make his face shine upon you and give you peace.

[and God…please help me be more patient as a father…
and to cherish the opportunity to bless my children]