Archive for category Church

Singles, marriage and a match made in church?

Calling all singles of faith, in the church or perhaps checked out of the church.  Can you help me sort out a few things?  I’ve been thinking about life as a single person in a community of faith, and then wondering about the role and reality of marriage for today’s single.

Here’s why I’m thinking about these two realities. I’ve just finished reading a book by Julia Duin, religion editor for the Washington Post.  It’s called Quitting Church and explores the exodus of faith-filled Christians from participation in the local church.  One of the realities she kept circling back towards was the life of a single person in the church.  The obvious trend is that many people remain single far longer than in past generations, for a variety of factors: extended studies, emphasis on career development, reactivity and fear towards poor or failed marriages, a cultural bias against marriage, our formation within the ethos of individualism leaving us with a diminished capacity for community and commitment to others, the idolatry of choice and the subsequent FOMO paralysis (fear of missing out), a misunderstanding of the nature and function of marriage, etc. (for a pointedly funny piece, check out John Tierney’s classic essay “Picky, picky, picky” here)

I understand all that but here is where Duin surprised me.  She wonders why don’t churches offer matchmaking services?  If marriage is the good, spiritually formative gift the church affirms it to be, why then won’t churches help singles find mates within the church?  She writes: “Singles desperately want to marry, although many feel ashamed to admit it.  If churches automatically assisted their singles in finding mates – unless specifically told not to – this would remove the shame factor and restore the marriage process as a natural stage in life.”  Wow – didn’t see that one coming at all.

Alongside of this, I pulled up a 2009 article by Mark Regnerus on The Case for Early Marriage, a call for the church to encourage Christians to marry earlier rather than later.  You can read the article here.  I love the contrarian wisdom he presents.  One of his arguments is that while many Christians bemoan the sexual crisis among young adults (the rates of sexual activity among Christian young adults are only slightly less than the dominant culture), in actuality Regnerus names it a marriage crisis.  Christians have subtly aided the delay of marriage (“get established first, find the right partner, don’t rush into it” – mostly extra-biblical injunctions) while young adults are entering their peak of sexual maturation and desire, and yet at the same time told them to remain chaste until marriage.  Now that seems a recipe for frustration, both sexually and spiritually.

So can we talk, singles?  I’ve just tipped on the marriage-single fulcrum in my life, being married for more years than I’ve been single, so help me out here:  what are your thoughts and assessment of Duin’s idea and Regnerus’ article?  What are your hopes for marriage?  Fears?  What has kept you single?  When do you think is the best time or situation to get married?  What are the particular frustrations and struggles you’ve had in seeking a mate, if marriage is a hope for your life?  How do you feel about someone helping in the mate selection process?  Can you imagine seeking out help to find a mate (other than anonymously, i.e. a dating service)?  How might a covenant faith community, like the church, graciously come alongside singles in their hopes for marriage?

I’m not sure how to answer Duin, Regnerus and the many singles in church.  And there’s so much more to explore, so will have to post more later.  But I first need to shut up and listen.



Family Day in the city

Today is Family Day in a variety of places across Canada.  Who can argue with a holiday in February? (yet another reason, my good American friends, you should want to be Canadian!)

And since the holiday is about family, here’s something for all my family and friends who might think me stark-raving mad for moving to the city with young kids in tow (full disclosure – this would include myself at times).  Whenever you do something that runs against the grain, like raising a family in the city, you look for any affirmation and encouragement.  The piece below is written by Kathy Keller (here’s the link to the original post – thanks Alex for the link) who moved to New York City with her husband Tim to start a new church in NYC in the 1980’s.

And for all my new friends at Knox, here is a good rationale for you to stay in the city whenever you might start a family (or to move back into the city)!

Of course, there’s no best place to raise a family.  So happy Family Day to you all, wherever you’re taking on the challenge of raising a family.

Why the City Is a Wonderful Place to Raise Children

In 1988 when Tim first mentioned the idea of us going to Manhattan to plant a church, I reacted by laughing. Take our three wild boys (the victims of below-average parenting, as well as indwelling sin) to the center of a big city? Expose them to varieties of sin that I hoped they wouldn’t hear about until, say, their mid-30s? My list of answers to “What is wrong with this picture?” was a long, long one.

We now are coming up on 23 years as residents of New York City. Our sons have grown up here, been educated in the New York City public school system (as well as private and Christian schools), married, and—to the surprise of my 1988 self—expressed the desire to never live anywhere else. Two have already bought fixer-upper apartments, and the third is doing everything in his power to move back as soon as he graduates with his MBA. Our granddaughter is a New Yorker bred and born, and already knows her way around the playgrounds and museums of New York, as well as how to charm a free flower from the man at the corner flower stall.

I learned in those intervening decades that the city is a wonderful place to raise children, a place where families flourish in a way that they may not in the suburbs or the small towns. (See the list at the end of this article that Redeemer elder Glen Kleinknecht put together [with a few additions from me] for staff considering moving their families here.)

As a summary I would say that the two main advantages of raising your children in the city are also its two main characteristics—its darkness and its light.


The darkness of the city is easy to see. In the first few years we lived here my sons saw, from the vantage point of the back of our van where they were waiting for us to come out of the evening service, a robbery suspect chased down the sidewalk, caught, and spread-eagled, handcuffed, and Mirandized on the hood of the car parked behind us. We drove past hookers in silver lame bikinis and stilettos, watched over by their pimp, on our way home. We watched one man knock another one out in a fistfight at a street fair; and, memorably, a well-dressed man in the financial district drunkenly fall to his knees, vomit all over himself, and then stagger off.

Naturally, these incidents were the subject of lengthy family conversation and discussion. That sin should be so visible, and appear in its true, ugly colors, is of inestimable value in a culture that glamorizes depraved behavior, laughing off drunkenness and promiscuity as “partying” and mocking those who don’t participate. I never had to give one lecture on the evils of drunkenness to boys who had seen them live, in living color, for themselves.

In the city your kids see sin and its consequences while you are still with them and can help them process it. Eventually they’re going to encounter it for themselves, usually when they leave the protected environment of home for the big wide world—just when you are no longer around to discuss things.

I have had parents counter this suggestion by saying that, as valuable as processing the ugliness of this broken world with your children might be, there is such a thing as seeing too much, too soon. Possibly so, but my daughter in law (with degrees in education from Vanderbilt and Harvard in both primary and secondary education, and experience in teaching both) pointed something out to me—if children are really that young, too young for some sights, they simply won’t see them, or understand what they’re seeing. Children find a great deal of the world inexplicable to them, so the very young are not usually in danger of being damaged by fleeting glimpses of the sordid world. By the time they are old enough to notice what they’re seeing, it’s time for parents to be talking to them about it, anyway. And it’s usually way younger than you thought!


The other characteristic of the city that makes it a great place to raise your family is itslight. Just as the city showcases the worst of the human heart, it also lifts up the best that human culture has achieved. Art and music, drama, architecture, sports, all are the best that they can be. And when you are attending a church full of younger-than-yourself Christians in these professions, your children have role models they can actually embrace. I have often said that the best thing you can do for your teenage children is not to have them in a great big youth group (of other teens as clueless and confused as themselves), but to have lots of young adult, cool, ardently believing friends.

Two incidents in our family illustrate this. It has been our custom at Thanksgiving to gather those who have nowhere else to go. One year several students from Juilliard School of Music came to our Thanksgiving dinner, and afterwards brought out a violin and a viola for an impromptu recital. Our boys loved music, but it had somehow never dawned on them that music was made by people. Their jaws hung open as they watched these two young women pull magical sounds out of pieces of wood.

More seriously, the time came in the life of one of the boys when the club culture cast its allure, especially a fabled den of iniquity known as the Limelight. Begging to be allowed to go fell on deaf ears. Sneaking off to try to talk his way in resulted in being caught and grounded for decades. We were bemoaning this seemingly intractable desire to walk on the wild side to a 30-something friend. He was a talent agent who represented very well-known people, and my sons thought he was the coolest person they’d ever met. When the son in question walked up, Steve turned to him and said, “I hear you want to visit the Limelight. If you want to go, I’ll take you. I went there many times before I became a Christian, and I never want to go back. But if you want to see it for yourself, I’ll take you.” We never heard another word about it. Steve had been there, done that, and found Christ better. His words had a power that our lectures never could have.

My sons loved the city growing up, and love it even more now, not just New York, but all cities. London, Hong Kong, Berlin, Singapore all excite them, whereas a quiet, empty suburb bores them to tears. They love the density of people, the diversity of culture, even the sounds and bustle. While they have an appreciation for mountains and the sea, for camping and hiking, they always want to return to the city, with its needs (one son is a pastor) and its possibilities (one is an urban planner). Having them nearby is just a bonus.


Reasons to Love City Living

Money Savers

  • no car purchase + insurance + parking + gas + repairs
  • many free cultural events (e.g., Shakespeare, Philharmonic in the Park), not just amateur performers
  • avoid the many hidden costs of house ownership

Savings of Time and Money

  • subway
  • no house repairs
  • no lawn and garden care
  • no auto maintenance

Lifestyle Benefits

  • simplicity more possible—you collect less stuff in small apartments
  • immediate family is closer physically, harder for kids to isolate themselves; meals together more likely
  • apt cleaning/care is easier, less time-consuming than a house
  • you don’t spend all your free time on house/yard chores
  • no scraping off your car in icy weather—enjoy walking in the snow instead
  • no school snow days—the subway is always working
  • sense of community, bonding, in your immediate neighborhood
  • for new parents, especially stay-at-home moms, you don’t experience the isolation and despair of being stuck at home all day, unable to go out or even see another adult person—just a trip to the laundry room gives you someone to talk to, and a stroll outside brings you to the world
  • many large American cities have something like Fresh Direct: order your groceries online and have them delivered the next day, boxed, to your kitchen; great if you are sick or time pressured
  • fresh fruit and cheap flowers at corner stands rival expensive shops elsewhere
  • great food in every restaurant—no bad meals


  • less peer pressure; great diversity of interests and skills in every school cancels the need to fit into a mold
  • diversity of friends and classmates makes them comfortable anywhere in the world later on
  • babysitters within walking distance or travel on own—no driving them home late at night
  • babysitting less expensive with neighborhood co-op
  • kids’ friends often within walking distance, or meet at playground; no carpooling
  • easy access to cultural enrichment activities (music, art, drama, parks)
  • you do things with your kids, rather than sending them out to play in the yard
  • teens don’t need a car
  • teens aren’t riding with other teens who may be reckless, drunk, or newly minted drivers
  • navigating the city makes them resourceful—not going to be unnerved anywhere else
  • kids as young as 9 years old can take themselves to their own dental and allergist appointments, music lessons, playdates
  • if you pray and talk frankly in front of your children about your fears and challenges regarding church planting, and your kids see you deriving the strength to go on with it from God, you will be a hero to your children, one who practices what he preaches
  • you are able to process the sinfulness of the world, which is up close and visible in the city, with your children; they aren’t shielded from it until just as they are leaving home and you are no longer as much an influence in their lives.
  • BEST REASON TO RAISE KIDS IN THE CITY: they see young, hip, cool urban Christians in the church, new believers who have been there and done that and find Christ better than all of it; these young believers are role models that parents can never be—no kid wants to grow up to be their parents; but the artists, musicians, politicians, and others they find in the urban church are a huge aid to making Christianity plausible to kids
  • sin is more visible and salvation more plausible in the city


  • airline prices are cheaper to/from larger cities; fewer transfers
  • closer to ministry opportunities, especially diverse groups, the poor, ethnic communities (instead of traveling many miles to reach a people group); virtually all people groups are in the city, especially Africans, Russians, and South Americans
  • less expensive for getaways; can travel by subway to a new neighborhood or a cultural enclave for a change of pace; so many unique experiences close at hand
  • wealthy people in cities are always happy to lend their vacation homes to ministry families for weekends and getaways, as long as you are flexible; since ministry happens on weekends, mid-week getaways don’t generally conflict with the owners’ desire to use it on weekends
  • easier to reach the suburbs from the city center than to reach the city center from the suburbs
  • accessibility to the best of the best in: professional sports, cultural interests (museums, lectures), entertainment (theatre, music, improv), educational opportunities/options, shopping, influencers in every field, restaurants, medical care


The eighth deadly sin?

I think we need to update the list of deadly sins – and  I vote that shopping just might be the greatest modern enemy to living the Jesus life.

The church in North America is in such a dangerous place and we hardly know it.  We exist in an environment of consumerism; it’s the air we breathe and so we hardly notice it – even in church.  The demon is in deep and we’ve been discipled into a consumer way of life instead of a Jesus way of life.  It shapes our expectations of church, our hopes for the Christian life, the desires of our hearts.  And I’ll be the first to own this: “Hi my name is Phil and consumer living has co-opted my allegiances and heart desires.”

We need to start frank conversations in churches about this.  There’s a few good books out addressing this reality.  For example, James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom explores how we are formed by our desires and less so our thoughts.  It’s a very important introduction to the reality of how we are formed, despite what we might cognitively hold to be true.  Skye Jethani’s The Divine Commodity is an accessible critique of the consumerism that grips the North American church.

And there’s a new book out I’m looking forward to reading called The Renovation of the Church.  Here’s a soberingly good quote from the book:

I don’t know how to say this in a gentle way, but we should not assume that those people who are attracted to our church have been captivated by the message of Christ and his alternative vision of life. In truth, most North American Christians are not riding courageously on warrior steeds with swords waving wildly in the air, crying out, “Let’s change the world for Christ.” Rather, they come in the air-conditioned comfort of their SUV or minivan with their Visa card held high in the air, crying out, “Let’s go to the mall!”

We should be more truthful with each other here. They come because their high-school kid likes the youth program, or because their children don’t get bored, or because they like the music, or because the pastor preaches the Bible the way they believe it should be preached, or because they happened to be greeted by a smiling face one day, or because the worship leaders looks like Brad Pitt.

This is the hard, raw reality of life in the North American church. The people who come to our churches have been formed into spiritual consumers. This is who we are. It is our most instinctive response to life. And you can hardly blame us. Almost everything in our culture shapes us in this direction. But we must become deeply convinced that this is contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ, the one who invited us to deny ourselves and lose our lives in order to find them. If we do nothing to confront this in our churches, we are merely putting a religious veneer over consumerism and nothing is changed. We offer no real, viable, attractive, alternative way of living. And what is worse, our churches become part of the problem. By harnessing the power of consumerism to grow our churches, we are more firmly forming our people into consumers. Pastors end up being as helpful as bartenders at an Alcoholics Anonymous convention. We do not offer what people really need.


For the love of work

This week I began work again after a time of sabbatical.  And it is good to be working again.  The structure for the week, the purposefulness of a place to go where your skills are engaged, the craft of it, the mind/body engagement.  It’s good.

I missed my work; I was itching to get back at it.  This is a basic human impulse I’m feeling.  The gospel has a very high view of work, understanding it as intrinsic to a created, material world, to our nature as image-bearers of God.

And yet there’s been a long apartheid of faith and work at play in Christian circles.  More times than I can recall, I hear people concluding – mostly unwittingly – that only effort with ecclesiastical or pious connections is holy.  If that is the case, then the 88,000 hours an average person gives at work, from first day of work to retirement, is out of the range of the gospel, which makes for a very small, inconsequential faith.

Here’s a more beautiful truth the gospel opens up for us – your work is holy.  When you give your self to craft a table, feed a child, plan a meeting, repair a wall, compose a poem, heal a hurt, or design a product, that is something very good and sacred.  When you work, you are like God (throughout the Bible, God’s reality is unpacked through a variety images from the world of human work; he is a gardener, shepherd, tentmaker, builder, architect, farmer, composer, winemaker, potter, clothes designer/garment maker).  Our work – whether it draws in a huge salary or is freely offered, whether it is recognized and celebrated or unnoticed and undervalued by others – is a response of love to a deep call, to a created identity fashioned in you by the Maker of all things.

Labor Day is a good time to remind ourselves of the good, holy thing work is.  I recently read an old essay by Dorothy Sayers called “Why Work?”  It is a really fine piece that unpacks the radical and transforming nature of a Christian perspective on work.

Let her words remind you of the holiness of your work:

Christian people, and particularly perhaps the Christian clergy, must get it firmly into their heads that when a man or woman is called to a particular job of secular work, that is as true a vocation as though he or she were called to specifically religious work. The Church must concern Herself not only with such questions as the just price and proper working conditions: She must concern Herself with seeing that work itself is such as a human being can perform without degradation – that no one is required by economic or any other considerations to devote himself to work that is contemptible, soul destroying, or harmful. It is not right for Her to acquiesce in the notion that a man’s life is divided into the time he spends on his work and the time he spends in serving God. He must be able to serve God in his work, and the work itself must be accepted and respected as the medium of divine creation.

In nothing has the Church so lost Her hold on reality as in Her failure to understand and respect the secular vocation. She has allowed work and religion to become separate departments, and is astonished to find that, as result, the secular work of the world is turned to purely selfish and destructive ends, and that the greater part of the world’s intelligent workers have become irreligious, or at least, uninterested in religion.

But is it astonishing? How can any one remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life? The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.


That’s Synod with a y

My faith tribe, the Christian Reformed Church, is holding its annual Synod (meaning “assembly” from the Greek word συνοδος) in Grand Rapids, MI as you read this (if you’re a keener, you can watch it here).  It’s mostly a big family meeting where we huddle up to listen, discuss and decide on weighty, and not-so-weighty, issues, get a 35,000 foot view of the church as well as get bogged down in church order process, eat lots of food, sit for too long, meet people from across the globe that speak with a Reformed theological accent, and hopefully come home with a renewed sense of purpose for the church today.  I’ve been three times – it’s often tedious, sometimes funny and mostly an important part of what it means to be a community of faith that spans two nations.

Check out the video below that a few twenty somethings from Austin, TX put together about Synod.

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What other sort of church is there?

The best quote I heard last week: “It’s difficult to love people who hurt and disappoint us … but what other sort of person is there?”  Those are words wholly applicable to the church.  We come to church mostly expecting pure and distilled divinity; what we mostly get is raw and uncooked humanity.  What other sort of church is there?

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Why bother with church?

Church attendance is in decline – I’m not presenting any shocking news here.  What’s surprising, however, is the shifting worship attendance patterns among committed Christians (my own informal survey concludes that twice a month is the new normal for core and committed Christians).

Of course we can come up with many fine reasons for why this is so – it’s a day of rest after all, and a busy professional/family just needs some downtime; it’s an opportunity to worship in creation (skiing, hiking), Sunday is the busiest sports day for my kids and my opportunity to connect with people who don’t come to church.  Then factor in the aesthetic quality elements (can’t worship be dreadfully boring, poorly planned, aesthetically weak, poor preaching, and all-round uninspiring) and you’ve pretty much made the case for doing something else on any given Sunday morning.

So why should anyone bother with going to church these days when there’s so many other, better, ways to accomplish what happens at a Christian worship service?  Do you want to hear the preaching of God’s Word?  Well, you can download pretty fabulous sermons throughout the internet.  Seeking to worship God?  Why not put a worship CD on and praise God with the best choirs or worship bands available.  Want to give money – every charity let’s you conveniently do that online.  So, again, why bother with going to church at all?

If church is simply about doing certain things (singing, listening, praying, giving), a place where stuff happens, where you find instruction or inspiration, there are surely more clean and effective means to meet these ends.

But what if this line of thinking reduces church to something less than its full biblical dimensions?  What if we’ve completely misunderstood church itself and so have distorted the practice of going to church?  What if its not a place where stuff happens, not an event where we do something?  What if that is all secondary and the most important thing about church is that it’s a people where God lives, and if you don’t gather with that community you’ve missed out on the actual presence of God.

Julie Canlis wrote a really fine article on this shift in our understanding of church in “Downloading our spirituality: why going to church doesn’t seem necessary in a virtual age.” (CRUX, Spring 2009).  She argues that we’ve become pagans (Gnostics), seeking out a “privatized, un-embodied” spirituality that we can mostly live out through our minds, seeking out a knowledge that will change us and save us.

But here’s the deal: the gospel is not a philosophy providing an insight that saves, not a therapy that improves our lives, providing peace and joy – if it was these, then the most important thing about church should be about knowledge or psychological salve.

The Christian gospel is not less than these but far more, the scandalous message that God works through flesh-and-blood means, that salvation is about a new relationship, one that necessarily connects us with other people who are now a part of us because we are now a part of Christ.  Julie Canlis writes: “Every time we go to church, we declare that we are not individuals – as the culture around us would have us believe – but rather are made up by these new relations (which are not always easy, not comfortable).”  We are saved and formed in relation.

It’s a scandalous notion in our day and age of privatized, ethereal spirituality.  If we’re honest, going to church offends our best sensibilities.  Seriously, aren’t there better ways to know God? How can God be in this amateurish affair, with these raw and uncooked people, in this forgettable worship?  That reaction parallels the offense caused by the humanity of Jesus – how can this carpenter, this one just like us, be the Messiah?  The mix of humanity and divinity, whether in Jesus or his Body, the Church, is always scandalous.

I continue to be grabbed by Lesslie Newbigin’s observation that Jesus never wrote a book, didn’t leave us a philosophy or a strategy for becoming spiritual – the only thing he left was a community.  That’s the place where the Trinity works and lives.

Who knew, the simple practice of going to your local church might be the most spiritually formative and radically counter-cultural thing you do all week.  See you Sunday then.