Tuesday, January 31, 2012

For Your Consideration: A Church Growth Strategy

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD.  “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.  As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth:  It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:8-11). 

At our annual meeting on Sunday, I read the above passage.  It will be a verse we focus on this year.  Being in an institutional church (The Episcopal Church) that is shrinking (the Diocese of Newark, for instance, has shrunk 2% per year for the last decade), I have to hear about church growth all the time.  We are constantly told that we are "doing church" in an old model, and that that model is not working anymore.  We teach each other about websites, inclusivity, and "radical" welcome.  At a recent convention a speaker from an organization called Green Faith suggested that we use our commitment to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions as an "evangelistic tool."  I suppose he meant that people would see how kind we are being to the environment and want to worship with us.  

All of these things can work.  The problem is that, at the same time, they can all fail.  John Wimber, a charismatic pastor in California many years ago, suggested that churches concerned with growth must be like surfers:  a surfer can have the right board, outfit, and wax, and can have practiced paddling and "popping up," but the one thing that a surfer can't do is create waves.  Having a great website can help people find your church.  It may not.  Being inclusive and green are good things.  They don't, however, seem to be helping churches in the Diocese of Newark grow.  We forget, as we ask ourselves all these church growth questions, that we're talking about making waves...as if we can do that!  The more we attempt to convince ourselves that we can "make waves," we'll beat our heads against this "church growth" problem, fail time and again, eventually destined to give it all up (if we fail completely) or become intolerably self-righteous (if we hit on something that actually works for a time).  Both options are a kind of death.

If the best thing a Christian can do is "let go and let God," isn't that the best thing a church can do, too?  What if we actually believed that God's word would not return to him empty?  That it would actually accomplish the purpose for which he sent it?  That God, being the one who creates waves, doesn't really need us to do his work at all?  The only wave-creator I know is the Gospel...the Word of God.  We preach Jesus, a Jesus who lived, who died, and who was resurrected for us, to reconcile us to God.  This word goes out into the world, producing bread for the eater and seed for the sower.  Bread for the eater is a comforting word for a sinner.  Seed for the sower is a word of proclamation for the church.  The Gospel is preached, waves come, and churches grow.  

What is "The Gospel" Anyway?

In my life in and around the church, and in and around Christianity, I've heard the phrase "the gospel" used many times and in many different ways.  It has sort of become a catch-all word for anything that has to do with God, even in the most oblique way.  The most common way I've heard it used is in the context of "living out the Gospel."  What people generally mean by this is "doing good things for other people."  So "the Gospel," then, must be translated, in this instance, to "good things for others."  I submit to you that this is a gross misunderstanding of what the Gospel is.

First of all, "gospel" is a word that comes from an old English translation of the Greek word euangelion, which means "good news."  So, more than anything else, the Gospel is news.  More specifically, the Gospel is an announcement.  More than that, though, the news (or, the announcement) has to be good.  The announcement that you must "love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength" is news, but it's not particularly good if you're a human being like me.  Classicly speaking (and the reason that the "G" in Gospel is capitatized here, denoting a particular announcement), Christians have defined "the Gospel" as the announcement that Jesus has died to save sinners.  Those six words.  Period.  The phrase "living out the Gospel" makes no sense when "the Gospel" is understood in this way: an announcement of good news.

When you watch your favorite newscast, you can't "live out" the news.  You can react to it, certainly, and knowledge of it may well influence the things you do.  The Gospel is the same way.  It will, no doubt, impact your life.  But that impact is not the Gospel.  It can't be.  It's the impact of the Gospel.  And it should be noted that "the Gospel" itself does not demand a certain response.  It makes no demands at all; remember, it is an announcement.  Hearers of the Gospel, from St. Paul to Richard Dawkins, have recommended responses, but again, these things are not "the Gospel."

The Gospel is that Jesus has died to save sinners.  Do you agree?  If I were to ask you "What is 'The Gospel' anyway?" what would you say?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Federer v. Nadal in Australia: A Live Blog

Here's what went down when Roger Federer met Rafael Nadal in the first men's semi-final of the Australian Open last night.

First Set

Federer wins the first three games of the first set, including a break of Nadal's first service game, very easily. Most common Chris Fowler and Patrick McEnroe "analyis": "Wow." "Uh-huh." "Yup." Federer plays, as has been said many times, an otherwordly style. He really looks as if he's not trying at all. Nadal, on the other hand, is a beast: a roiling ball of energy and explosion.

In the sixth game of the first set (Federer up 4-1) a bullfrog starts croaking loudly during Nadal's serve. He wins the game anyway, to stay within one break. Only down under. Next, Paul Hogan will be showing up to tell us what a knife really looks like.

The ESPN producers have apparently decided that the coolest thing in the world is the super slo-mo replay of the players hitting the ball. It's an interesting way to watch the angle of the racquet through the ball, but the looks on their faces...I'm expecting an alien to burst out of their stomachs every time.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Movie Review: Win Win

Known more for his work in front of the camera than behind it, Tom McCarthy nonetheless bring assurance and wit to his new indie comedy Win Win.  But let's stop right there.  The phrase "indie comedy" can raise ire in people, and I want to be clear: this is the cream.  Immune to the excruciating preciousness of films like Juno, (500) Days of Summer, or Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, Win Win retains its grip on reality.  There are no wise-beyond-their-years little sisters, hamburger phones, or people with cute, idiosyncratic hobbies that would, if they existed in the real world, send their practitioners to padded rooms.  There's not even a soundtrack of album music by some up-and-coming alt-rock band.  Lyle Workman's score is definitely at home in the indie-comedy world, but not overwhelmingly so.

Paul Giamatti stars as a slightly-down-on-his-luck lawyer and high school wrestling coach who takes on guardianship of an old man and all the complications that ensue.  It's a credit to Giamatti that he can remain the protagonist even as McCarthy (who wrote the screenplay from a story for which he shares credit with Joe Tiboni) saddles him with a moral failing so profound that a less likable (and capable) actor would have died under its weight.  In addition to Giamatti's wonderful (as usual) work, Amy Ryan and newcomer Alex Shaffer are wonderful as his wife and top wrestler, respectively.  Shaffer, most notably, plays the anti-Juno MacGuff...that is, a totally believable teenager.

The plot turns on the oldest trope of all time: One of a couple tells a lie, and then the lie is discovered and the relationship is ruined...right up until everything is nicely healed in time for the closing credits.  I've always been wrankled by this convention, as the person who's been lied to inevitably acts like a fifteen-year-old, unable to hear the apology for, or the rationale behind, or anything about the original lie.  The innovation here is that the character who's been lied to IS a fifteen-year-old, and it makes the reaction seem wholly appropriate, and the reconciliation earned.

Bobby Cananavale and Jeffrey Tambor give solid supporting performances in a feel-good movie about real people, with real problems, that actually makes you feel good without feeling manipulated.

Win Win:  4 stars out of 5

Friday, January 20, 2012

Movie Review: Haywire

Despite its title, Steven Soderbergh's most recent film Haywire is anything but.  Newcomer (and MMA fighter) Gina Carano plays Mallory, a private contractor (we don't really get the details of what she does) who gets sold out by one of her bosses.  She sets out to find out who, and exact her revenge.  The candidates are Ewan McGregor, Antonio Banderas, and Michael Douglas.  Channing Tatum and Michael Fassbender play other contractors who either help her or try to hurt her, depending on the situation.

I really wanted to like this movie.  I was excited about it, having loved The Limey, the previous collaboration between Soderbergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs.  Soderbergh does make some interesting choices, not least of which is casting Carano to play opposite a bevy of talented actors rather than no-namers who might not throw her lack of acting ability into sharp relief.  Carano admirably holds her own, however.  Dobbs does a good job of giving her dialog that she can manage, and Soderbergh helps by giving her hero shot after hero shot, making verbal banter unnecessary.  In addition, he makes the right choice of having no score over the fight scenes, drawing our attention to each blow and the havoc it wreaks.

There is something lacking here, though, and I think that this is...well, there's nothing going haywire!  Even as Carano's life falls apart around her, reducing the number of people she can trust to zero, that feeling is never really transferred to the audience.  In an early scene, Carano chases a bad guy through the streets of Barcelona, but despite the fact that they're both moving quickly, the scene lacks energy.  It won't be a popular opinion, but I think Haywire could have used an edit by the Tony Scott school of quick cuts, blurry motion, and frenetic pace.  This goes against everything that Soderbergh believes in (and everything that he's done so well in past, e.g Traffic, Erin Brockovich, The Informant!, and yes, The Limey) but feels necessary here.

It's not a film about Carano working through clues...when her chief antagonist escapes to Mexico near the end of the film, she finds him in the next sequence, with no explanation for the viewer.  It's not a thriller: Carano's victory is never in doubt, and her adversaries are obvious from the beginning.  In a sense, it's no different than any film vehicle for an MMA fighter or professional wrestler (think The Condemned or 12 Rounds).  Put adversaries in his or her path; let the butt-kicking commence.  Soderbergh, Dobbs, and the rest of the cast lend an air of respectability, and Carano is beautiful and a physical powerhouse.  It's a pretty picture, but like Soderbergh's other notable style-over-substance effort The Good German, there doesn't seem to be much point to the exercise.

Haywire:  3 stars out of 5

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tom Brady, Meet the Unyielding Demand of Perfection

Tom Brady found himself in an untenable position last weekend, as his Patriots played the Tim Tebow-led Broncos for a spot in the AFC Championship Game.  In the words of Bill Simmons, writer for ESPN.com, founder and editor of Grantland.com, and huge Patriots fan, before Brady's big win:
"It's the first-ever Boston sporting event with zero upside. Name one result that would make Patriots fans feel fantastic afterwards. For example, let's say the Patriots win by 35, with Brady finishing 34-for-35 for 450 yards and 6 TDs. What does that mean? So the no. 1 seed Patriots took care of business at home, after a bye week, by blowing out a .500 team featuring a QB who can't throw a 10-yard out, an overworked running back who's running on fumes and three above-average defensive players (and they're six days removed from one of the most emotional victories in recent football history, no less)? Can you really celebrate that?

Meanwhile, any other result is a potential heart attack … or worse. That's why most Patriots fans are a nervous wreck heading into a game in which their team is favored by 13½ points and playing a team it already crushed. Has that ever happened before? Even if Super Bowl XLII will always be the worst defeat in the history of the franchise, this particular loss would be more excruciating because we can see it coming … even though, again, losing this game makes absolutely no sense."

So here's the thing.  Tom Brady is, by far, the best quarterback playing right now.  It's easy to forget that, with the modeling, the formerly flowing locks, and the Brazilian supermodel wife.   Get him on a football field, though, and he's truly in his element.  So...what happened when perfect Brady met the seemingly-touched-by-the-divine Tebow?  Annihilation.  Eerily close to Simmons' best-case scenario, Brady threw for 363 yards and 6 touchdowns, and the Patriots won, 45-10.  But what interests us is Simmons' (and others') acknowledgment that, for Brady, everything hung on this game.  He "had" to win this one, in order to validate is glorious stature, but, at the same time, winning was just the thing he was supposed to do.  A classic no-win situation.

Martin Luther famously said that "the quest for glory cannot be satisfied...only extinguished."  Tom Brady knows what that feels like.  Had Brady retired before this season, he would have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer and a necessary mention in any Greatest Quarterbacks of All Time discussion.  Once he suited up against Tebow last weekend, however, he had to win to maintain the glory that he had achieved.   Lose, and you're just another broken corpse in the rubble left behind by the Tebow juggernaut.  Win, and...well, that's what you were supposed to do; you were favored by almost two touchdowns!  Win, and move on to the next game in which all of your accumulated glory is at stake.  Little wonder that Todd Marinovich gave it all up.

We Christians know this feeling, too.  There is no quiet time long enough, no WorldVision donation generous enough, no act of devotion passionate enough to quell our fear that God's demand remains unsated.  And the tremendously unsettling truth is that God's demand is unsated.  Jesus claimed the the requirement was nothing short of actual and literal perfection (Matthew 5:48).  Tom Brady, why didn't you throw for 7 touchdowns?  How do you account for the eight out of thirty-six passes that fell incomplete?  Tom Brady, you'd better beat the Ravens this weekend, or we'll forget all about your wonderful (but not perfect!) performance on Saturday night.

As Tom Brady knows all too well, the quest for glory is never satisfied...only extinguished.  Retirement is the only way to relieve the pressure.  For the Christian, retirement comes in the arrival of a savior; one who says, "It is finished."

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Rooting for the Evil Empire: The Etymology of a Sports Fan

How does one come to root for the teams one roots for? Often, it boils down to the town in which you're born. But sometimes, it's more complicated. I root for the Phoenix Suns, Miami Heat, Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Yankees, and the University of Arizona. Three of the five are easy to understand; the other two require some explanation.

I went to college at the University of Arizona. Boom. Fan of the teams. Living in Arizona, I became a fan of the Phoenix Suns. Boom. After living in Arizona for eight years and never becoming attached to the atrocious Arizona Cardinals, I went to seminary in Pittsburgh. Boom. Steelers fan. If you like NFL football and move to Pittsburgh without a pre-existing allegiance, you will become a Steelers fan. The people get in your blood and a Terrible Towel gets in your closet.

My rooting for the Heat and Yankees, though, looks like bandwagon jumping. I started rooting for the Yankees just before they won their most recent World Series, and I started rooting for the Heat immediately upon their signing of LeBron James. In short, just when each team started to get good (although the Yankees have been a powerhouse basically since Abner Doubleday invented baseball), I became a fan. This is the worst sort of fandom...if it was an accurate representation of what happened. It isn't.

I have always been an appreciator, if not a fan, of great talent. Case in point: I recognize that Ray Lewis is (or at least was until very recently) a great linebacker. I can't stand him nor the Ravens, the team for which he plays. I love watching the best of the best, whether I'm a fan or not. Roger Federer, Lionel Messi, Roy Halladay...I love to watch sports greatness. I was never a Bulls fan, but watched every Michael Jordan game I could get my TV dial turned to. Remember TV dials?

So I appreciated both LeBron James and Alex Rodriguez, even before I became a fan of their teams. LeBron always struck me as an amazing athlete (he's 6'8", 270lbs, no body fat, and as fast as a wide receiver) and a master on the basketball court. His recent well-documented fourth quarter failures aside, he never seemed to have any weaknesses. I appreciated that, as one appreciates a fine painting in a museum. Alex Rodriguez, for his part, is one of the greatest hitters in the history of baseball. He hit 30 or more home runs for 13 consecutive years from 1998 to 2010. He's made 12 All-Star teams and won 2 Gold Gloves. I appreciated that, too.

Then, just before I started rooting for them, both James and Rodriguez came under fire. James became a pariah for "snubbing" his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers and choosing to sign with the Miami Heat in the summer of 2010, and for having the gall to broadcast the announcement on a live TV show called "The Decision." Rodriguez, on the other hand, seemed to be disliked just for being himself. Or, rather, for not being himself. He was seen as an image-conscious marketing creation rather than a human being (this is, of course, before he was accused of, and admitted to, using steroids). I began to root for James and Rodriguez the way one roots for underdogs: hoping that they'll prove their detractors wrong. Both players were roundly criticized for failing to be "clutch" in big (i.e. playoff) situations, and so I began hoping that both would a) make the playoffs, and b) perform well in them. This entailed rooting for their teams. And just like that, I realized that I was something I thought I'd never be: a Yankees fan. I was also something that many sportswriters claim doesn't really exist: a Heat fan. I was rooting for them because they were under fire.

Why is it that we root for the underdog, even when they stretch the limit of what it means to be an underdog to crazy extremes, like LeBron James and Alex Rodriguez? Why do we hate Duke unless we went to school there? I've talked about this before, and it's a phenomenon that continues to interest me. We root for the underdog because we feel that we are the underdog. With James scoring no points in the 4th quarter again last night and the Heat blowing another big lead -- and struggling mightily against a zone defense, it looks like it's going to be a tough road for the Heat to win a championship this season. A tough road is what we face every day. It's what we identify with. It's where we live. We'd like some company.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Movie Review: Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol

The fourth installment in the Mission: Impossible franchise brought together two of my favorite things:  Mission: Impossible and Brad Bird.  Mission: Impossible, you're probably familiar with...Brad Bird, perhaps not so much. I first became aware of Brad Bird as an avid Simpsons watcher.  Bird served as "executive consultant" for 182 Simpsons episodes from 1989 to 1998, the period everyone agrees is are the show's glory years.  Listening to the commentaries on those episodes (The Simpsons DVDs provide audio commentary on every single episode) is like listening to the coronation of a king.  Bird is renowned in the animation world as something of a story-telling and animation savant, always coming up with the perfect idea or narrative beat for the situation, and a way to work out the imagery.  His first feature, the (hand-drawn) animated The Iron Giant, is a critically-heralded and beautiful piece of work.  His next two features were for the powerhouse Pixar Animation Studios (Toy Story, Finding Nemo), The Incredibles and Ratatouille.

And then, seemingly out of the blue, Tom Cruise and J.J. Abrams hired him to direct the next Mission: Impossible project, his first non-animated assignment.  Everyone was curious to see how this animation maven could do with live actors.

He did great.  In Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, Cruise returns as Ethan Hunt, head of a team of secret agents (including Paula Patton, Jeremy Renner, and a returning Simon Pegg) who are falsely accused of blowing up the Kremlin.  It turns out that a madman (Cruise keeps running into those, doesn't he?) wants to start a nuclear war in order to wipe the human slate clean and start over.  The cast performs admirably, although Jonathan Rhys Myers and Maggie Q are missed from M:I 3.  Ving Rhames, a staple of the first three films, does show up, but only for a cameo in the coda.  The real drop-off,a and maybe the only reason Ghost Protocol comes up a tiny bit short of its predecessor, is on the "villainous madman" front.  Philip Seymour Hoffman chewed scenery wonderfully in M:I 3, and the stoic cipher played by Michael Nyqvist can't compete here.  He's not bad, he's just not memorable.

The star of the show, fortunately, is Bird's camera.  Whether he's circling Cruise clinging to the side of the world's tallest building in the face of an oncoming sandstorm or quietly following a cat-and-mouse parlor game exchange of launch codes and diamonds, Bird is in control. A final sequence in a high-tech automatic car-park is almost without equal.  The action is pulse-pounding, but always easy to follow.  Michael Giacchino provides the score, and his action beats and theme (another derivation of Lalo Schifrin's original classic) are far superior to his occasionally tone-deaf where-in-the-world-are-we scene settings (a loud russian hymn, reminiscent of The Hunt for Red October, annoyingly announces that we're in the Kremlin).

As Cruise and his team inevitably triumph, saving the world, we might start asking ourselves why we were so worried that Bird wouldn't do the same.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol:  4 stars out of 5

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Tim Tebow, We're Not Through With You Yet

Everyone is seemingly tired of talking about Tim Tebow. And yet, they talk. And talk and talk. I witnessed Kordell Stewart get visibly angry this morning on ESPN's First Take when talking about the chances that Tebow is getting compared to chances that African American quarterbacks with the same skill set have gotten in years past. At one point, he simply sighed and said, "I'm just so tired of talking about Tim Tebow." But even after Tebow's Broncos are eliminated from the playoffs (hopefully this week by my beloved Steelers), we'll talk about whether or not Tebow is the "quarterback of the future" for the them or if he has a future on any NFL roster.

Even Saturday Night Live is talking about Tebow. Admittedly, the above clip is several weeks old, and the Broncos have lost their last three games. Apparently, Jesus stayed away longer than he thought he would. But this post isn't about Tim Tebow. Surprised? Well, it is and it isn't. It is in the sense that Tebow's play (terrible for three quarters, dominant in the fourth) illustrates a common misconception about God: that he's involved in the good stuff and absent for the bad stuff. The Gospels, on the other hand, overflow with stories of Jesus becoming involved with sin, illness, and death. He said explicitly that he didn't come for the healthy, but for the sick (Mark 2:17). My friend John Zahl has famously said that "God's office is at the end of your rope."

Another thing that Saturday Night Live gets wrong (who knew they were such a flawed theological source?) is the idea that what God really wants is for us to do most of the work ourselves, or at least, to "meet [him] halfway." This has been said another way: God helps those who help themselves. Only...that's not true. Remember, Jesus said that the healthy have no need of a doctor. If someone is well enough to work, they'll convince themselves that they don't need saving after all. If we might be so bold, Tim Tebow highlights the Broncos need for a savior by helping put them in a seemingly untenable position each week. Indeed, God's power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).

As funny as Jason Sudeikis' Jesus is, he's unlike the Christ in two profound ways: he wishes humanity would do more to help itself and his absence means that things will probably go awry. Luckily, our Jesus helps the helpless and makes his home in our weakest moments.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Movie Review: The Descendants

It's been a while since Alexander Payne made a movie.  He's one of my favorite directors, and I've loved all his films.  Sideways (2004) was probably his most successful work, and in the 7 years since it came out, I've been anxiously awaiting his next offering.

I loved The Descendants.  It's not an overwhelming film, in the sense that you don't walk out of the theater thinking, "WOW!  What a movie!"  In fact, as I left the theater, I wouldn't have put it among Payne's best work. Let the story percolate for a few days, though, and it only gets sweeter.

George Clooney plays a descendant (get it?) of King Kamehameha and, as such, a trustee of vast expanses of Hawaiian paradise.  Life is not all cocktails and beach blankets, though, as he deals with a dying wife, daughters he can't control, and disturbing revelations about the past.  The performances are measured and believable.  Shailene Woodley, especially, is excellent as Clooney's eldest.  The best thing about The Descendants, though, is the writing.  And I don't mean the dialogue; Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash (Dean Pelton on Community, of all things) adapt a Kaui Hart Hemmings novel, and between the four of them, they just nail it.

The film has twin themes, and both resonate deeply:  first, that things are often NOT going to be okay, despite our protestations, and second, that it is precisely in these situations that we find ourselves drawn closest to those we love.  Clooney's Matt King suffers in the same way that the less fortunate do.  Despite his friends' and family's continued assertions that "everything will be okay," and that his wife is "strong" and that "she'll beat this," Clooney knows better.  Payne continually cuts to the wife, in bed, immobile and dying, not shying away from close-ups, driving home the point that this thing is not okay.

Clooney admits pointedly throughout the film that he "doesn't know what to do" with his daughters, but finds the travails of normal life bringing his family together, in ways that he never expected.  What you can expect?  Another heartfelt and beautiful Alexander Payne film, right in line with his best work.

The Descendants:  4 stars out of 5
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