Did you ever want to know how Santa gets his job of giving presents to the children of the world done in a single night? Well, Martin gives an explanation in this YouTube exclusive. Follow the link to end the mystery.
Martin W. Bender
Last week I was able to take the kids to the mountains for a few days and we decided to go camping with my sister and her family. North Georgia has a ton of great places to camp, hike, and explore so we made the most of the opportunity. I love camping but haven’t been deliberate in going since I’ve started having kids, but now that they are a little older it’s time to get back into it.
One thing I wanted to try on this trip was using a hammock instead of a tent. Hammock camping is becoming the norm for backpackers and the like which makes sense, a hammock and rain fly are a lot lighter than any tent. So I stopped off at the Bargain Barn (it’s like a Bass Pro but without all the fuss) and picked up an Eno Single Nest, some tree straps, and a tarp for cover.
We camped at Doll Mountain. It’s a great place to camp with a bunch of sites, access to Carter’s Lake, and even a bathroom with running water. I know it isn’t very hardcore but cut me some slack, one of my kids was not into the camping idea at all.
Setting up the hammock was remarkably easy. A strap around a tree followed by a carabiner, repeat the process, and the hammock is ready for sleeping. I also ran some 550 cord over the hammock to support my tarp. The tarp took longer than the hammock, but it all took less than ten minutes, not too shabby for the first time trying it out. It wouldn’t be long before I was snoozing away in the ultralight campsite.
At least that’s what I thought.
Turns out, I’m very much a stomach sleeper. I had a really difficult time falling asleep in the hammock because I couldn’t turn over onto my back. I was perfectly comfortable but just couldn’t seem to drift off into dreamland. Of course, there were extenuating circumstances as well. Leia had been out of town for a while by this point and I hadn’t been sleeping that great. Due to the heat, I had been drinking a lot of water (if you get my meaning). And I was in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar sights and sounds. All that might have added to the trouble I had falling asleep.
The second day we spent in the water swimming, making rafts, and the ever popular ice cream run. By the time the kids had gone down for the night and the fire was burning low I was sure I’d knock out almost immediately. This time I was sure to do a few things: first, I put my flip flops in the hammock pocket. This meant I would be able to find them quickly without getting up. Second, I used a sheet to keep myself a little warmer (even though it was wicked hot during the day I got pretty chilled as the night wore on). Third, I turned to sleep almost totally on my side. These little changes made a huge difference in my ability to sleep in the hammock. The second night I was out like a light.
So, will I do hammock camping again? Absolutely. There’s a minimal learning curve to get things just right, but now that the first trip is out of the way I think it’ll get much easier. Some things that I’ll do a little differently are using a ratchet strap to hang my tarp, bringing a flat pillow, and maybe setting up some sort of mosquito netting. All in all, I really enjoyed the experience and think Leia will be willing to try it herself. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Martin W. Bender
Yesterday, Dave and I played a little Pokémon Go. The concept of the game is simple: walk around, find some Pokémon, train them, dominate your enemies. On our outing around the block we missed some of the critters that were nearby, but eventually found a Pinsir, Doduo, and a Rattata. Sure they’re all fairly common, but going out and catching Pokémon just like Ash and the gang was pretty fun.
Pokémon Go is practically just a skin over Ingress. The game mechanics and graphics are nearly identical, but with Pokémon characters added in. PG will almost definitely be more popular as it allows the millennial generation to live out their childhood dreams of catching them all. I’ve always liked the Pokémon video games and this one certainly has a similar feel. It may hold my interest a little longer than Ingress because there is the possibility of catching a Pikachu.
Pokémon Go is the first bit of augmented reality to have mass appeal. This means you will probably see people walking around your neighborhood staring at their phones talking about imaginary animals and looking around desperately for something they lost. I realized I must look crazy to my neighbors as I was walking back and forth on the road gazing intently at my phone screen. It was worth it to get that Pinsir, though.
This game may mark a change in casual gaming (I realize at the moment it isn’t very casual) that puts people in contact with one another who otherwise wouldn’t meet. As I play around with the game more I hope to meet some folks in real life and whoop up on them with my ferocious team of digital mons. In the same way the Wii and mobile gaming appealed to a huge audience of casual gamers I hope games like Pokémon Go will shift our understanding of gaming from the isolated event it largely is today to a far more social interaction.
Martin W. Bender
On one occasion when the scribes and Pharisees were trying to trick Jesus into saying something inflammatory they brought up the controversial issue of taxes. To many Jews, paying taxes to Rome was illustrative of political and cultural support. It implied religious support as well. Those seeking to cause Jesus problems asked him if it was lawful to pay taxes to a godless tyrant like Caesar. Jesus responded in such a profound manner his critics all marveled.
Jesus’ response to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” has a profound effect on how Christians ought to view their relationship with worldly authorities. Christians have a responsibility to give to the government that which it is owed, but to withhold from the government that which it does not have by right. Caesar was owed taxes, but Caesar also demanded worship. The Jews could not in good conscience render worship unto Caesar as he commanded, but they could, and in fact are compelled, to pay the taxes demanded by him. In much the same way, Christians are obliged to follow the laws of the land, provided those laws do not infringe upon giving God that which is his.
Paul builds upon the Christian’s relationship to governing authorities in Romans 13. He explains that the government is appointed by God to accomplish his own purposes in the world. As such, Christians should obey them as rulers are not a terror to good conduct. Our relationship to worldly authorities, including the government, should be one of submission, both to avoid the wrath of God and to maintain a good conscience.
Very frequently, though, American congregations I have been involved with tend to grant the nation more than that to which it has a right. As I prepare for Sunday’s service I recognize many in my congregation are expecting some sort of patriotic service rendering honor to the U.S. of A. The trouble I have with such services is that doing so takes away time we typically devote to the Lord in corporate worship. On Independence Day I encourage Americans to consider the founding of the nation, to celebrate the good we have done, and honor those who have made it possible. But on Sunday, the Lord’s Day, render unto God the things that are God’s: solemn worship and celebration of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Martin W. Bender
The final perspective in understanding congregational life is practice. This is what the person does. It represents the existential category of Frame’s tri-perspectival epistemology and is likely what most people think about when discussing church membership.
“I go to the church on top of the hill.” That’s what many of us say when asked about church. We typically describe the location we meet to give the other person a sense of where we gather. It allows them to use their previous experiences with that congregation to form a little background for our faith and practice. It connects us with a particular group of people and ideas creating a sense of identity deeper than that which is established through conversation.
Practicing Christianity among a specific group of believers has been done since the church was established. The early Christians met together, learned together, prayed together, ate together… you get the idea. Christianity is practiced within community. This idea sounds like the situational perspective but has more to do with how one expresses their individual faith. I participate in the Christian life as an individual within a group.
Practice is an important part of congregational connectedness. Participation in the actions of a congregation places the individual at the heart of that congregation’s beliefs and community. One can self-identify with a group, but if they fail to engage that community their self-identification is irrational.
As I continue to consider what it means to be a member of a congregation I will be looking at the interaction between belief, belonging, and practice in order to further the development of all these areas both personally and within my congregation.
Martin W. Bender
Initiating change in a congregation is a little nerve racking. This Sunday we are changing our order of worship a fair amount. Many of the elements in the service will remain, but they will occur at different times. The purpose of the change is to reduce the number of transitions taking place and to have a smoother progression from one activity to the next. Our hope is that by shifting the order of events we will be better able to keep the attention of our audience while reducing distractions from the service. We also hope to have greater flow from one activity to the next, emphasizing the theme of the service.
At the same time, we are exploring how our website can be better used as a supplement for our congregants. For each Sunday morning service, we are building a page designed for mobile use providing additional information to what is presented in the sermon. This will enable us to provide the congregation with resources that will enrich their worshiping experience.
Both of these changes are part of a deliberate effort to be more effective in communicating the gospel to a rapidly changing culture. Check out this Sunday’s site and let us know what you think.
Martin W. Bender
Belonging is third in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. He argues that all people require a sense of belonging in order to be healthy. This innate need often overshadows the need for safety or physical needs. Everyone desires a sense of belonging be it within a family, a group of friends, or the work place.
Religious groups also meet people’s need for belonging. When someone says, “that’s my church” they are making the point that not only do they worship at a particular location, but that they identify themselves with a specific worshiping community. This sense of belonging is almost tribal. Congregations develop unique cultures, languages, and worldviews they teach to their children and into which they submerge prospective members. Developing a strong sense of belonging in a congregation creates opportunity for improvements in fellowship, service, and evangelism.
Creating a sense of belonging cannot be done artificially. A new member class may be helpful in introducing a person to the beliefs of a congregation, but developing belonging is far more labor intensive. It takes time and shared experiences to create the feeling of belonging. Perhaps the best way to develop this feeling is by overcoming challenging situations.
The greatest sense of belonging I have ever felt was in the military. My experiences in the Army, particularly on deployments, created a sense of belonging that continues years after I have seen any of my old buddies. The sense of belonging was created by the following factors: a clear objective to accomplish, time spent together, shared experiences, and crises overcome. All of these can be applied to the congregational setting.
Can you think of ways to develop a sense of belonging within the church? What pitfalls can come from creating too strong a sense of belonging? How strong a sense of belonging do you have with your congregation and how has it developed through the years? Hit me up in the comments with your thoughts.
Martin W. Bender
In a few previous posts I’ve written about triperspectival ministry. The idea is that ministry ought to be considered in terms of normative, situational, and existential categories in order to best understand an individual’s relationship to their congregation. Instead of using those big seminary words I’ll simplify by referring to belief, belonging, and practice.
Belief is doctrine. The ideas and values communicated by the teachers in the congregation. It takes form in sermons, lessons, and statements of faith. Belief is also defined by the practice of the congregation and is rooted in the congregation’s traditions and habits. The way the Bible is interpreted, explained, and understood all fall under the category of belief.
People define themselves by their beliefs. The statement, “I’m a Baptist” provides a lot of information. It greatly reduces the amount of effort in figuring out where a person likely stands on a number of issues. When a couple recently joined my congregation I was able to rightly assume much of their theology based on the type of church they left. At the same time, it’s important to be able to distinguish the differences people may have with their congregations.
Communicating the beliefs of the congregation is profoundly important. The deliberate, creative, repetitive articulation of a congregation’s core beliefs will create greater levels of agreement of those listening resulting in members becoming increasingly attached to the group. As agreement increases, so does cooperation and the level of investment the member is willing to put into the congregation.
For this reason, the elders and I spent an entire year developing a statement of faith that better articulates the informal beliefs of the congregation. This statement will be used in the creation of lessons and sermons delivered in order to deliberately increase the degree to which the congregation agrees on important theological and practical issues.
In my next blog post I’ll describe how an individual’s sense of belonging has an effect on their relationship to the congregation. Until then, think about your beliefs and those of your congregation. Do they line up? Are there significant differences? What can you do to be in line with your congregation’s most important beliefs?
Martin W. Bender
How should a Christian congregation respond to trends within the religious world? As the preacher of a congregation in transition, I carefully look at church trends to help guide the ministry process where I serve. In doing so, I have noticed three stereotypical responses to church trends: ignoring them, bucking them, or following them.
Ignoring trends in the church is perhaps best illustrated by the Mennonites. These are people who hold to a very specific manner of both congregational life and interaction with secular society. As such, they have had very little influence on the societies in which they live and, with the possible exception of pacifism, have added little to modern expressions of Christianity (of course this is part of their point).
For congregations that choose to ignore societal trends and changes in culture one has to wonder if their particular expression of the Christian faith is worth maintaining. Today, we look at the lifestyle of the Mennonite and find it ever so quaint, but generally choose to lead lives that embrace the wonders of our age. Congregations ignoring contemporary religious trends do so at the risk of becoming like the Mennonites: faithful to their particular theological paradigm, but little more than a footnote in history.
Bucking trends within the religious world is equally dangerous. The Westboro Baptist Church has made a name for themselves by actively bucking just about every popular trend in American Evangelicalism. As they have done this, they have become a caricature of the church in the US bringing shame not only upon themselves, but on all Christians. This congregation is an extreme example, but there are numerous fellowships bucking any new trend with the discernment of a teenager, never even considering how a new approach might further the gospel.
Some trends need to be bucked. There is a trend among Christians to redefine marriage, ignore biblical gender roles, and deny the existence of Hell. All of these are clearly counter to scripture and need to be rejected on individual and congregational levels, but cultural questions like the use of information technology, various musical styles (remember that nonsense?), and communication techniques are not inherently counter to revelation and should be carefully considered prior to rejection.
Trend followers are those that follow the methodologies of other congregation perceived to be successful. Conferences, books, blogs, and programs are created to market to trend following organizations. After the success of Saddleback Church congregations copying their methods were everywhere attempting to achieve the same results. There is nothing wrong with this, but it does present some challenges in maintaining a congregation’s distinct identity.
Each congregation is different. This is a simple truth, but is often overlooked. Not all of the strategies that are successful with one group will work in another. It would be unreasonable to assume a program that worked well in California would be equally successful in rural Georgia. So when following trends, a congregation must be very intentional in applying ideas that are culturally appropriate to have the best opportunity for success.
There is of course one last option for congregations: establish trends. The establishment of trends is predicated on success. As a congregation is successful in developing an area of ministry they can then share how they achieved that success.
A local example of this is Savannah Christian Church. SCC has been very successful in both growing their congregation and in developing a very specific culture. They share how they are accomplishing this through a conference as well as being intentional in mentoring leaders of other congregations. In doing this, they have been able to have greater influence than would have been possible otherwise.
The likelihood of a small rural congregation establishing a large scale trend in congregational ministry is low, but there has never been a time in history where it was more feasible. As communications technologies continue to improve and become less expensive the possibilities for small congregations has never been greater. Those who are able to leverage the tools of the age to communicate the gospel will be the next generation’s trend setters. It could come from anywhere, why not here?
Martin W. Bender
One of the challenges of congregational leadership is maintaining and developing a sense of connectedness among the membership. At a recent workshop I was giving as a part of our congregational development plan I was asked how we can ensure new attendees are integrated into the life of the congregation. It’s a great question all church leaders have to answer. This is the beginning of my answer.
Congregational Connectedness is the degree to which an individual is aligned with a congregation in terms of belief, belonging, and practice. My previous post begins the process of explaining these criteria and can be read here, but the short version is that belief equates to doctrine, belonging equates to self-identification, and practice equates to participation in congregational activities. Too easy, right?
In the diagram below we see the intersection of three circles. The orange circle represents belief, the pink circle belonging, and the blue circle practice. As people begin to be affiliated with a congregation they often will be stronger in some areas and weaker in others. Greater congregational connectedness occurs when an individual moves from the outer edge toward the ABC area where the categories of belief, belonging, and practice intersect. This is where we as leaders endeavor to move all of our congregants.
(ABC – members, A – nominals, AB – Lapsed, B – Acquaintances, BC – friends, C – Traditionalists, AC – mystics)
Once individuals associated with the congregation are categorized within this system they can then be ministered to in their greatest area of need in order to move them toward membership where they have the greatest degree of congregational connectedness. This, of course, does not answer the question of how a congregation goes about moving people toward membership, but it does provide a framework from which ministries can be developed. Ministries that are explicitly created for the purpose of increasing congregational connectedness, thus improving the overall health of the congregation.
In my quest to develop a thorough theology of ministry this is where I currently am. Am I way off base or does this make sense? Hit me up in the comments with questions and criticisms.
Martin W. Bender
I was reading an article by a Mennonite about participation in government (insert nerd joke here). The article explained voting as a means of conflict resolution. If you are at all familiar with the Mennonites, you likely know the article concluded that voting is inappropriate for Christians as the government inevitably uses violence as its primary tool. Pretty much extreme pacifism.
I am by no means a pacifist, but I did like how the article brought to mind how Christians should interact with the state. The challenge American Christians face is the morality of voting for individuals who hold views counter to Christian teaching. As Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders vie for the presidency, the thoughtful Christian must ask, “Which of these candidates best reflects Christ’s thought, action, and character?”
Perhaps I’m being a bit too idealistic, or maybe I’m a little irritated that after having switched favorites twice in the primaries I now have even fewer options, but there simply doesn’t seem to be a candidate even remotely tolerable in terms of applying biblical morality to the most powerful office on earth. I don’t suppose I have much cause for complaining though, as elected officials generally try to reflect the positions of the people in order to maintain power. I find myself leaning closer to the position of the Mennonites and early Baptists regarding the separation of church and state as a result.
The question I am left with is whether voting remains a valid form of conflict resolution for me in terms of national politics. The article listed negotiation, voting, and violence as the typical means of conflict resolution, but at the end suggests all of these result in the compromising of Christian thought and that the best means of changing society is not through political action, but through the proclamation of the Gospel.
The church would be better served by focusing its attention on the Gospel rather than attempting to change the world through worldly means. At the same time, Christians bear a civic responsibility to use the power they have to promote the Christian message. This means there needs to be an element of Christian participation in government, but that participation ought not replace the continual declaration of Jesus Christ and his work.
I've not yet decided how I'm going to participate in this year's presidential election. I do have a sense of peace, however, knowing God is sovereign over all that happens and it is through him any come to political power.
Martin W. Bender
I enjoy a good system. One of the reasons I liked working at UPS and remained there so long was the very systematic manner in which the work was done. There’s just something comforting about stone cold efficiency.
Now that I am in vocational ministry I find it’s fuzzy nature less enjoyable. My congregation having left its denomination for the vague theological world of congregational independence has me feeling like I’m floating. Not floating in a good way, like when you’re on a raft in the pool. Floating like you have just fallen off the 31 boat and are watching it slowly slip from view (this was a reoccurring dream I would have when on missions). To combat this lack of clarity I’m currently working on a theology of ministry.
My last blog post about belief, belonging, and practice is the jump off point for me. I am trying to merge the normative, situational, and existential perspectives from Frame’s thinking with Natural Church Development’s rather pragmatic barrel analogy. The end result should be a system by which we can assess congregational and individual member’s connectedness to the congregation and develop a plan for addressing most help needed areas.
Presently, the most help needed area seems to be belief. Not belief in terms of saving faith, but belief in terms of congregational identity. This is being addressed with a more robust faith, vision, and mission statements than were held to previously. Over time, as the area of belief becomes more unified practice and belonging will also be addressed as deemed necessary by the congregation’s leadership.
It is my hope that thinking of ministry in terms of the normative, situational, and existential perspectives will help to move away from event based programing toward connectedness based ministry.
Upcoming blog posts:
Defining congregational connectedness
The perspectives explained in terms of congregational ministry (likely three separate posts)
The barrel analogy
Martin W. Bender
This began with me researching about the Christian understanding of luck and grew into a triperspectival understanding of church membership. In retrospect, maybe I should have stuck with the luck idea.
In 1990 Grace Davie began publishing articles and books exploring the impact of Christianity in post-Christian Europe. Her work looked at how those who lack belief in the Christian faith often maintain a feelings of belonging to the church. Those who identified as such frequently held positions on political and social issues that were in line with their believing counterparts demonstrating a lingering sense of Christian morality grounded upon traditional association with the church while lacking formal acceptance of Christian doctrine.
Challenges to Davie’s work stated such indications should include not only the categories of belief and belonging, but must also include practice. Davie used ‘belonging’ to indicate participation in the life of the church and ‘belief’ as holding to its doctrinal positions. Francis and Robbins argue for an additional category to be added in order to allow practicing habits to also be included in future study. They demonstrate that there are many who identify as belonging to the church without holding to the beliefs of the church. Such are likely to actively engage in elements of church life while remaining doctrinally separate. Their contention is that “the religious climate within Britain today is one of ‘belonging without believing’, and of ‘believing without practising’.” When the category of practice is included with belief and belonging as ways in which people interact with the church they then fit neatly into Frame’s triperspectivalism.
Triperspectivalism (How’s that for a seminary word?) is John Frame’s attempt to develop a distinctly Christian epistemology. It divides the whole of human understanding into three categories: normative, situational, and existential. The normative perspective is that which is reveled to man by God in the Scriptures. The situational perspective is that which is known through community. The existential perspective is self-knowledge. When these perspectives are applied to Francis and Robbins’ categories belief corresponds to the normative perspective, practice to the situational, and belonging to the existential.
At this point you may be like my wife and wondering who cares about nonsense like this? I admit, it’s a nerdy way to think about the relationship people have with the church, but understanding this complex relationship will be helpful in ministering to and sharing the gospel with different types of people. Based upon these categories there are eight different types of relationship with the church.
First are members. These are those who engage in the church’s beliefs, practice their faith with the church, and identify themselves as belonging to the faith community.
Second are friends. Friends do not share the church’s beliefs, but do actively engage in the community and identify themselves with the church.
Third are traditionalists. Traditionalists actively participate in the church, but feel neither a sense of belonging nor hold to the theological positions of the church.
Fourth are mystics. Mystics maintain the beliefs and practices of the church, but do not have a sense of belonging.
Fifth are nominals. Nominals believe the doctrine, but have neither a relationship with the church nor identify themselves with it.
Sixth are the lapsed. The lapsed believe in the church’s teaching and identify with the church, but do not participate in the corporate aspects of Christianity.
Seventh are acquaintances. Acquaintances are those who identify as belonging to the church, but share neither its beliefs nor engage in the worshiping community.
Eighth are the non-churched. The non-churched are those who have no belief, sense of belonging, or practice within the church.
Identifying individuals in terms of these categories can be helpful in ministry. Knowing areas where people are detached provides the opportunity to overcome those disparities. On a larger scale, if a congregation has a disproportionate number of a particular category steps can be taken to overcome the corresponding area of weakness.
What do you think? Could such a system of categorization be helpful in planning ministry activities in both individual and group settings? Hit me up in the comments below.
 See Grace Davie, “Believing without belonging: is this the future of religion in Britain?” Social Compass 37 (1990): 455-69; Religion in Britain since 1945: believing without belonging (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994); Religion in Modern Europe: a memory mutates (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); and “From obligation to consumption: a framework for reflection in northern Europe,” Political Theology 6, no. 3 (July 2005): 281-301.
 Davie, “From obligation to consumption,” 282.
 Leslie Francis and Mandy Robbins, “Belonging without believing: a study in the social significance of Anglican identity and implicit religion among 13-15 year-old males,” Implicit Religion 7, no. 1 (April 2004): 38.
 Todd Murphy, “Tri-Perspectivalism: An Introduction to John Frame’s Reformed Epistemology (Part I),” The Aquila Report, http://theaquilareport.com/tri-perspectivalism-an-introduction-to-john-frames-reformed-epistemology-part-i/ (accessed April 19, 2016).