It’s not news that the Christian church is not proliferating in Japan.  It’s less than half a percent of the population.  There’s an interesting phenomenon in the Japanese language that help accounts for this.

In Japanese, a religion is named with the title of that religion, followed by the suffix pictured here, pronounced “kyo” (rhymes with crow).  So Christianity is “Curisoto-kyo.”  Islam is “Isulamu-kyo.”  Literally translated, it simply means “teaching,” but as with many words, there is a nuance not captured by the strict definition.

The nation of Japan is not religious in the Western sense.  They may offer worship to idols or ancestors, loosely grouped under the title, “Shinto,” but Shinto has no clearly defined doctrines.  When the Japanese talk about religions, they are generally referring to ideas from outside.  And when they think of such things, they still discuss the 1995 subway gas attack that killed 13 people and poisoned thousands.  The leader of that attack was executed this summer.  The name of that cult was Shinri-kyo.  “Kyo” has subsequently come to imply “cult.”  Because Christianity falls under the same broad umbrella of religious teachings, it too now bears a suffix that implies “cult.” Everyone in Japan has heard of the gas attacks.  Less than 1% of the population is Christian.  But when Christianity comes up, it’s immediately branded as related to the gas attacks.  No surprise that it’s not catching on.

A word to wise Christians in America: guilt by association is a real thing.  If Christians generally associate with unloving power-mongers who are more interested in politics that loving the lost, don’t be surprised when no one wants to talk to Christians any more.  At that point, the faith might as well be branded “The Christian Party,” because the suffix captures exactly how it’s thought of.  In America, there is a real risk that people may come to think Christianity is just a political slate that claims to have fallen from heaven.

That’s simply not what Jesus came to build.  He wasn’t out to create political power structures to shelter the fearful.  The teachings of Jesus (Jesuskyo?) are all about surrendering in the name of love.  The more his followers do so, the more likely Japan and the rest of the world are to see Christianity stand apart from cultish shadows.


My book is available!

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My new book, It’s Like This: Visions that Help and Hurt the Church is now available by ebook at Amazon.  For everyone who cares about the church, It’s Like This is meant to be an essential step towards a God-sized vision.

Churches languish for lack of vision, and pastors often blindly misunderstand the way their congregations already think about the church’s vision.  Everyone has a governing metaphor by which they think about the gathering of God’s people – some think it’s a country club, and some think it’s a battle ship.  Some think it’s a circle of wagons, and some think it’s a kingdom under construction.  Identifying the metaphor you think best for the church is critical to casting a vision for the church’s future.

It’s my hope that any church attender, church leader, pastor, or visionary will find the book of use.  Enjoy the book and pray for your church!

It’s Like This, page 1

ChurchThruLens FINAL


This is an excerpt from the opening page of my new book, It’s Like This, to be released before Christmas, with an introduction by Olympic Gold Medalist Bryan Clay.  If you’d like to receive a free copy of the first chapter and a notification when the book is published, sign up at the bottom of this page.



Church Fights

I’ve been assaulted in church twice.  The first time was during a worship service by a 275 lbs. amateur boxer who was high on crystal meth and stalking a woman in the congregation.  The second was by an organized and judicious Board of Elders who decided I was not qualified to be a pastor.  If I had to choose between the two, I’d take the former.  The first incident left a precise spine of stitches woven into my right eyebrow.  The scar is invisible and harmless, and memories of it are only triggered when I’m bragging to my seminary students.  The second incident was as precise as a shotgun blast.  They handed me a seething letter saying that if I didn’t leave the church quietly they would damage all of my future career opportunities.  I shivered an unnatural kind of shiver.  I had young kids at home to support.  One of the Elders, sneering ear to ear, told me I could just let the congregation know on Facebook that I had left the church.  Fortunately, these wounds resolve into scars as well, my therapist assures me.

I had lost a fight over metaphors.


It’s Like This

I begin my seminary class by talking about the power of metaphors.  “Metaphors are as powerful as a crystal meth addict,” I say sagely.  In fact, they do have a strength of their own.  Metaphors sneak a world of ideas from the mind of the speaker into the mind of the listener.  They serve as a filter for implications but don’t tell the listener which ones are intended.  A single image communicates an entire system of relationships.  Furthermore, when someone takes an image as authoritative, it becomes the defining force in the way they think about and relate to a given subject.  Would you rather marry the person who thinks that love is a flower or the one who thinks love is a battlefield?  The governing metaphor shapes everything else.

Metaphors are not just poetic flair.  They decide from which vantage point a thing is looked at.  If someone compares an argument they just had to a war, it’s very hard for anyone to imagine the possibility that the two debaters might have been able to come to a helpful, mutual conclusion.  If he compares the argument to a dance, one might see it as creating community rather than damaging it.  The metaphor through which one views arguing will shape the way one argues.  Metaphors are not add-ons to language.  They shape language, and they shape thought.

There are metaphors for the church, and everyone has one.  Our operating assumptions about the purpose of church derive from our preferred analogy.  Some see it as a mission and others as a museum.  A few churches are modelled on nightclubs, and even more on castles.  Historically, churches were based on the structure of the classroom – lecturer up front pontificating, pupils in chairs, staring at the clock.  The Bible uses a range of metaphors for churches.  They’re not pretty.  The most shocking are pornographic. The more we pursue an appropriate metaphor for the church, the more we may find that God doesn’t think about it the way that we do.

Whatever metaphor for the church we choose, it defines everything we expect from the church.  Every complaint ever made by a church-attender was made because the experience didn’t match the assumed metaphor.

The same is true about the way pastors are thought of.  If a pastor sees herself as a shepherd, she may be compassionate but condescending; if as a general, distant but effective.  Perhaps some of the most important metaphors for pastors come from Eusebius of Caesarea, who, in the fourth century, distilled a description of Jesus down to three images: prophet, priest, and king.  This means that as a prophet, he scolds us and tells us what we did wrong.  He makes us feel a little bit guilty, and then tells us what we need to do to fix it.  Sometimes there is a thin line between a biblical prophet and your mom.  As a priest, he cares enough to plead our case before God in our defense.  As a king, he rules over the birds of the air, the beasts of the earth, the fish in the sea, the sorting of the mail, and so forth….


If you’d like a free copy of the first chapter and a notification when the book is published, sign up here:


The Honduran Exodus

honduras-flag.gifThere is a migrant train of over 7000 people walking north towards the southern border of the US right now, Honduran refugees fleeing a context of poverty and violence.  It’s an exodus.

What’s walking towards America is more than that.  An awakening and an ethical decision is approaching. 

Americans have long thought of ourselves as the world’s good guys, using force to back up democracy and justice.  We are the ones who landed on the beach at Normandy.  Our first President couldn’t lie about chopping down a cherry tree.  We stand for Jesus and family.  Now that we’re the richest country in the world, it’s assumed that God has materially rewarded our spiritual and moral goodness like a parent reinforcing a well-behaved child with treats.

A 2007 report showed Honduras to be over 80% Christian.  They’re praying as they come.

American Christians have for a long time voted for candidates who claimed to be Christian, or, at least, promised to support Christian values.  Voters have rarely paused to consider the fact that that set of values has never been defined for them.  “Christian values,” in public discourse, seems to include freedom of religion (especially its expression in schools), a general opposition to abortion, and opposition to gay marriage.  They may include some nebulous affirmations like “Love thy neighbor,” but there is a sizable omission when it comes to Jesus’ very clear teachings about money and the poor.  In the American suburbs, these are generally add-ons for the specially motivated.

“Christian values” in America don’t especially exclude values which seem to be at odds with the teachings of Jesus and the early church, like xenophobia and nationalism.  Someone who is in an adulterous relationship would generally be seen as out of keeping in American churches, but someone who spends their money frivolously, doesn’t donate to charity, and doesn’t care what happens to the poor in other nations does not stand out.

What’s walking towards American Christians is a reality check.  Jesus isn’t as obsessed with sex as we are; he is far more obsessed with the poor and the outcast.  The package of values American Christians have accepted needs to be unpacked, separated, cleaned up and lightened up.  Some of it needs to be thrown away.  Self-identified evangelicals are overdue to face their baptized love of money and apathy for the oppressed. 

What’s going to be ironic about the American Christian response to the Honduran exodus is that we have an Exodus in our own Scripture, and consequently in the DNA of our faith.  God was on the side of the wanderers fleeing oppression for the sake of a land of freedom in that Exodus.  “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Ex. 20:2). What do you think Honduran Christians hear when they read that?  Probably the same thing the first European immigrants to the US were hearing when they read the same scriptures – that is, the ancestors of a lot of Americans.

So, before the story takes over the headlines and the blogosphere, a word to Christian America: remember Jericho.


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Jesus sat with a Samaritan woman (John 4) talking about life and eternity.  For all the interesting aspects of the conversation, my favorite detail is this one:

“Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, ‘What do you want?’ or ‘Why are you talking with her?’”

In a highly conservative culture, Jewish men would not be seen alone with a woman who was not their wife.  People would talk; assumptions would be made.

Jesus sat eye-to-eye with a woman, on a flat, 180˙ plane, which was not the normal angle.  Men looked 45˙ down to women.  This was the Creator of the universe parenting all the boys of the world.  If you want to be a good man, this is what it looks like.  Eye-to-eye.

I love not only that he did it, but that the disciples had already given up trying to change him.  They were surprised but surrendered.  He’s just going to do it this way.  We’ll probably just have to do it this way too.  Eventually maybe all men will sit eye-to-eye with women.


Nets and Lures

johannes-plenio-262531-unsplash.jpg“They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen.  ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.'” (Matthew 4:18-19)

Jesus called his followers to fish for people.  His followers now, across America, largely gather on Sundays to watch a show that might, on a good day, relate to fishing, but which never obligates any of them to head for the shore.  We are not the sailors you would expect to find gathered around the teachings of a fisherman.

Fishing for the American church is in a big shift right now.  It used to be that if you wanted to attract to people to your church, you would just lay out a big net, and eventually some amount of fish would swim into it, you would be hailed as an evangelist, and you could write a book on church growth.  That system is dependent on a culture where

  1. A good deal of the population feels obligated to go to church, and
  2. Church exists in a culture that is generally friendly to and supportive of it

That day is over.  The American church is poised to fall like a domino behind the European and Canadian churches.

There are some decent churches which are shuttering their windows and locking jakob-owens-208995-unsplash.jpgtheir doors for the last time, and the people are baffled as to why it’s happening.  They’re such a nice congregation after all.  They have a nice facility.  They have history.  Those are all a net thrown where there are no fish.

The American church is now going to have to switch from net fishing to line fishing.  We’re going to have to cast to reach the fish.  We’re going to have to walk to new spaces.  Throwing out a net and waiting is a fruitless activity, because the fish aren’t swimming to church.  The Fisherman is teaching us a new skill, and we either learn or we go home hungry.

Specifically, any follower of Jesus must see themselves on a daily mission to share the good news of Jesus with a lost world.  At work, at school, and in line at the grocery store, faithful Jesus-followers and fishermen in training must remember that they are called to a mission.  The mission is not to sit in a chair on Sunday.



Melting Point

metal.gifMetals melt at different temperatures.  Gold, for instance, melts at a temperature of just under 2000˙.  If you wanted to reduce that gold cross around your neck to a liquid and recast it into a ring for your finger, you’d need an oven stronger than you have in your house. (Most people need to recast their wedding rings with the cross of Jesus, by the way.)

Human hearts are a lot like metals.  They come to church made of the right stuff but molded in the wrong shape. The purpose of preaching is to bring people to their melting point.  The gospel burns people down to their most basic parts – makes them focus on the purpose of life and consider shedding meaningless excesses.  Then, once we’re reduced to materials God can work with, he recasts us into the shape he means for us to be.

The purpose of preaching is to bring people to their melting point.

Worship, after the gospel, plays a cooling role.  We are reshaped by the gospel, and then we cool into our redefined shapes, a new and holy form that requires disciplined maintenance.  When we sing our response to God, it is an act into cooling into the form of a people of worship.  If you leave church a self-righteous, judgmental, gossip-filled religious person, you haven’t reached your melting point, and you’re definitely not cool(ed).  If you leave worship with a sense of humility, realizing you are only made right by the God who loves you, if you realize the only message you have for broken people is a message of love, you’ve been reshaped as you were meant to be.

See you on Sunday for worship.  God, melt us and mold us.


Magritte.pngHere’s a painting that’s changed the world.

It’s by Belgian surrealist Renee Magritte of a man in a hat with a green apple where his face should be.  You can tell it was painted in the 1960s, because when you look at it, you wonder, “What was that guy on?”

Magritte said that the painting was intended to capture that feeling that we all have that there’s something more than what we can see, something behind the visible.  We feel it every time we try to communicate and feel that we’re not getting our message across.  Know what that feels like?  If not, date someone.  You’ll experience it.

I was content to give the painting a quick glance and then walk away, but I saw the title of the painting: The Son of Man.  That’s a title that is distinctively Judeo-Christian.  Daniel uses it in a prophecy about a coming savior, and Jesus takes up the term for himself to refer to his humanity, which often veiled his divinity.  So then I wondered at the religious possibilities.  An apple has a well-publicized connection to the Christian faith.  Adam and Eve ate one and were kicked out of Eden.  The Bible doesn’t actually say that the

forbidden fruit was an apple, but the Latin word for apple tree, malus, is also the Latin word for evil, so the play on words contributed to medieval artistic portrayals of the garden.

The apple represents the Fall, the brokenness of the world.  And that is the thing that stops us from seeing the Son of Man.  His disciples missed it, his family missed it, certainly his enemies missed it.  God walked the earth and we couldn’t see him, because we were blinded by our own brokenness, by the Fall.


Coincidentally, Beatles’ member Paul McCartney bought one of Magritte’s paintings of an apple and named his record company Apple Corps (a play on “apple core”).  Another young hipster who loved the Beatles started up a computer company and named it after McCartney’s record company – Apple Computers.

So that little icon on your iPhone is courtesy of a Belgian agnostic who couldn’t quite find God, but had a sense that the brokenness of the world stood in the way of us seeing him.  Think about that when you see the Apple logo.  It sits over devices that are supposed to allow you to see most of the knowledge in the world.  And yet, because of human brokenness, we’ll never quite see it right.  It’s only because God breaks through our brokenness and saves us that we can ever see.


Forwards and Backwards


Faithful churches are looking forwards and backwards – forwards in methodology and backwards in creed.

Dying churches are looking forwards and backwards – backwards in methodology and forwards in creed.

Faithful churches exist for getting the gospel out and welcoming failures in.  We are always looking for new, creative, innovative, and box-breaking ways to do it.  Credally, we are ad fontes, back to the sources from which we sprang, back to Jesus, the Bible, the early church.  It’s an old story we’re retelling.  But the language in which we tell is is always new.

Dying churches do it exactly the other way around.  Methodologically, they say things like, “Remember how we did it 20 years ago?  Wasn’t that great?”  They go back to the same styles, the same sounds, the same vocabulary, and often the same (stagnated) leaders.  Theologically they may (or may not) then be open to wandering.  They have little left to be committed to than the way things used to be.  Going back as far as Jesus is a dangerous thing for them to do, because in him they’ll find a pioneer and an adventurer who will leave the religious people who feel safe at church to go looking for someone who is lost (Luke 15).  They tend to replace theology with tradition.

If you’re following Jesus, he’s only going forwards.  The front windshield is bigger than the rear view mirror for good reason.