Church Brands

Marketing experts will tell you that, in business, “branding” refers to what makes your products or services so special … and what sets them apart from the competition.

be uncommonChurches also offer services … they compete for business (members) … and promote a unique, extraordinary product.

We call that product, “God.”

In fact, godliness is our byproduct, evidenced by the changes we experience as we grow in grace and increasingly exhibit the fruits of the spirit sown and cultivated in communities of faith.

Churches come in all different shapes, sizes, and … brands: Baptist, Episcopal, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Lutheran … the biggest and most powerful one, your corner community church, churches that speak in tongues and churches that don’t … churches that believe we’ll be raptured before the great revelation and other churches that maintain Christians will be still here to suffer along with everyone else … there are churches that worship on Saturday, the Sabbath, and those that worship on Sunday, the Lord’s Day. 

So, I can’t help but wonder whether the God that all these churches worship is the same One as mine.

For me, it’s important to understand my own brand of faith and to purposefully live it, because it reinforces who I am and what I believe … as well as what attracts others to, come, follow me.

HRC JesusWhich is something we’re all called to do as disciples of Jesus, isn’t it? 

Come, follow me! 

(No, not me … but Jesus!)

So, when I was called to pastor a church in Jacksonville, Florida, it was crucial that I understand what it believes and stands for … to identify its brand.

 “A Rainbow Spiritual Community,” the sign outside the church said.  That I understood.  Yeah – wink, wink – I got it!  We know about rainbows and pride parades, unicorns and drag queens.

But, “Innovative Ministry in Service to God,” the church’s vision statement … imprinted on letterhead, envelopes, business cards and brochures?  What did that mean?  Sounds great on paper; but what do you do with it?

Churches where LGBT people are welcome use “code” words that speak to their audience.  People know what words like “welcoming,” “inclusive,” and “affirming” really mean.

Saying you’re a welcoming, inclusive, and affirming congregation means more than just repeating these three words and using them as a slogan or mantra.  It means that you’ve got to embrace and abide in those words which name qualities of God’s goodness and justice that, as Christians, we’re expected to live. 

Welcoming, inclusive, and affirming are vital signposts of the Way of Jesus and the way we are called to be.

I Corinthians 13How many churches claim in their advertising and on their signs outside, “Everyone welcome here!”?  Yeah, right!  Everyone welcome, except …. you, and you, and you.  Fill in the blanks. It’s not too hard to figure who’s not really welcome and why.

Remember Sodom and Gomorrah?  No, it wasn’t a sin of same-sex attraction.  In fact, it wasn’t about attraction at all.  Quite the opposite.  It was about rage and rape, about taking advantage, a lack of hospitality to others.  Especially strangers.  The people of Sodom and Gomorrah weren’t welcoming; in fact, they were totally clueless of the angels in their midst.

That’s why Jesus warns of a worse judgment for those who don’t show hospitality to his followers, when he dispatches us to share the Good News:  “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town,” he says in Matthew 10:14-15.

Welcoming churches are spiritual communities that show love and kindness, compassion, friendship and hospitality, to those that they know … and to those that they don’t.  People at such churches can actually feel the touch of God’s love tugging at their hearts when they greet each other, pray together, and share the peace of the Lord through word and deed. 

 Next on our branding list is “inclusive.”

a place at the tableAn inclusive church beckons all to come in and be part of its communion.  Oh, I know that calling a church “inclusive” is a not-too-subtle euphemism, a clue that it accepts LGBT people.  That’s how it should be.  But it also should be so much more!

Black and white, old and young, single and married, mentally handicapped and physically challenged, afflicted by all sorts of illness, demons, and distress, people who speak Spanish and English or Pig Latin, those with willing spirits but weaker flesh – whosoever! – an inclusive church should be the mortar that binds us together and to God.

Look at Jesus: Who did he hang around with?  Certainly not the religious zealots presumed to be the “good guys.”  Nope.  He could be found with prostitutes and charlatans, tax collectors and publicans, a Roman centurion who loved his male servant, in every sense of the word.  When push came to shove, Jesus called people rejected by others to come and be with him.

For me, that’s a major difference between the Old Covenant and the New: The Hebrew Testament was exclusive; its long list of rules and regulations was designed to keep out all but a few.  Those allowed in were to be a nation of priests, a light to the nations.  Except that they weren’t.  Instead, they worshiped idols and were so self-centered that they put themselves first … even before God … time and again.

All that changes in the New Covenant, where everyone – good and bad and in between – is invited to the wedding banquet to celebrate the marriage blessing between Creator and creation. 

Whosoever believes.” 

That’s all it takes to be invited to feast at the tabernacle of faith and welcomed into the Kingdom of God.

But we continue to build fences, keeping people out simply because they don’t believe this or won’t accept that.

How silly is that … and, oh, such a shame!

God wants us all to be one: “Echad,” that composite unity, is like a cluster of grapes or one team with many players.  The Hebrew scriptures cry out and testify, “Hear, O Israel, the LORD is our God … the LORD alone!”

Fences around AgapeStill, we prefer to worship around our differences, the creeds and dogma and doctrines that separate us … rather than those things that, as Luke put it, we so assuredly believe among us.

Is that so wrong, such a bad thing, to want to have a special relationship – a covenant, if you will – with certain people in given places along God’s way?  No, not in and of itself.  But, when it excludes people from participating and treats some as better, more holy and righteous than others, then it’s exclusive and contrary to God’s will, I believe. 

Asked which of the commandments is the greatest and most important, Jesus was quick to reply: “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and with all of your mind, and with all of your might.”  And then, in the same breath, he tacked on this addendum: “Love your neighbors as you, yourselves, would be loved.”  It was at that point in Luke’s Gospel, Luke 10, that Jesus shares the parable of the Good Samaritan.  We’ve all heard it, I hope, and we all know what it means: that even those people we don’t particularly care for or would rather not be around should be treated with dignity and considered our neighbors!

Which brings me to the final word in this holy trinity of words reflecting qualities I believe God would brand our hearts to be: affirming.

Lots of churches claim to be inclusive and welcoming.  And I don’t doubt their sincerity.  But it’s one thing to invite people into your building, letting them sit in the pews.  That doesn’t mean, though, that the churches are supportive and positive about you, asserting and expressing their commitment to you as a truly beloved child of God.

Just as you are.

More than recognizing that we exist and acknowledging that we’re people with feelings, thoughts and, perhaps, something to contribute, affirming churches actually endorse us as made in God’s image and worthy to be celebrated in all that we do!

jesus on a tree-crossAffirming means saying “yes” rather than “no” … looking for the positive, instead of the negative … lifting up, not tearing down … accepting not rejecting … believing rather than denying or condemning … seeking and approving the good over the bad. 

After each act of creation, what does God say? “It is good!”

It’s there in the Scriptures, friends.  We only need to look for it, focusing on the good news in the message instead of the bad.  Remember what the Apostle Paul said about love? 

That it doesn’t dishonor others and isn’t self-serving … but rejoices with the truth.  Patient and kind, love doesn’t boast and isn’t proud.  It always protects, trusts, hopes, perseveres.  In a word, therefore, love is always affirming!

In my humble opinion, there’s way too much bad theology out there, misguided Christianity that nails Jesus to the cross and crucifies him repeatedly, instead concentrating on the more powerful message affirmed by a risen Lord. 

The world may have said “no” to Jesus when it rejected and crucified him … but God Almighty said “yes,” resurrecting him – and us! – to newness of life.  Now, it’s up to us to spread the good news of God’s everlasting and unconditional love!

Showing hospitality comes from the heart … it’s the desire of our soul to be welcoming, loving and compassionate to others.  To affirm the goodness of God and God’s amazing creation.

To be inclusive is to be just and to put justice into practice.  It’s a matter of the mind, deciding that we’re not going to show preference for one over another.

 So, give somebody a helping hand.  A heartfelt hug or embrace goes far to demonstrate fellowship (fillyship?) and friendship.  Reaching out and shaking hands is symbolic of greeting someone and using our body language to say, “howdy!”  Even putting your hand in your pocket and reaching down deep to provide for God’s Kingdom is a matter of might, of physical effort.

Every one of us is created in God’s image … but, over the years, through socialization and worldly influences, we have lost our God-connection and ceased to act as God would have us do.

Love, compassion and forgiveness can be abstract concepts that we talk about, yet don’t do enough or put into practice.

But by living welcoming, inclusive, and affirming lives, we become more loving, compassionate, and forgiving people transformed into God’s body and image.

Unfortunately, human nature is such that – even in churches – it’s easy to be seduced and fall into the trap of saying “Stay away!” or “Keep out!” rather than, “Come join us; we’ll make room at the table for you” … it’s more comfortable to form cliques and circles around those we know best and longest, instead of venturing outside our comfort zone to get to know a stranger better … we find ourselves more likely to shout, “No, you can’t!” than to echo, “Yes, of course, we can!”

Welcoming.  Inclusive.  Affirming.

Or:  Alien.  Self-centered.  Denying.

Which three word sets brand your church?  Which words brand the church of Jesus Christ?

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A Bigger and Better God

Have you ever met people who question your beliefs, assume that you can’t possibly really believe in God because of your “lifestyle,” or, worse, imply or declare without reservation that, “God couldn’t — wouldn’t — love you because …”????

Silly questions, huh?

I believe what they’re saying, in effect, is that their God isn’t big enough to include people like me.

Someone I know, a Seventh Day Adventist, had emailed me Bible verses, all the “usual suspects” plus Genesis 1:27 (“So God created man in his image – male and female he created them.”) and Genesis 2:24 (“For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife.”).

Apart from not agreeing with the translation, I found myself getting a bit irritated by her insistence on setting me straight.

After asking why she had felt compelled to send me these Scriptures and being told that she and her religion disagreed about the ability of two men to live together, truly love each other and be blessed by God, I gently made my case:

“You know, I grew up Jewish,” I began, relating to her own hard-and-fast beliefs about worshiping on Saturdays and keeping kosher in diet.

“Be that as it may,” I continued, “the God I believe in is less concerned about the letters of the law you’re so focused on, than on us loving our neighbors, whosoever they may be.”

Whosoever they may bebecause God’s grace is unconditional.

DogmaI certainly didn’t mean to pick on Seventh Day Adventists—every religion, every denomination, every Bible believer I know tends to place limits on what’s acceptable to God and what’s not.

Some examples:

~The Bible, the King James version at that, is literally the infallible word of God.

~Creeds – Nicene, Apostles’ or otherwise – accurately affirm and testify to the veracity of our beliefs.

~We must use wine/not grape juice for communion  … or, no: we must use grape juice/not wine.

~You’re not “saved” unless you’ve answered an altar call, been baptized … and filled by the Holy Spirit—as evidenced by speaking in tongues.

~Some people are predestined to be “saved” … God purposely excludes others.  Or, God loves us unconditionally vs. God loves us when or if …

~If you believe the Bible and faithfully confess what it says, but an expected blessing doesn’t come to you, the problem must be your own lack of faith.

~Jesus will return for his “second coming” either before, during, or after the Great Tribulation.  When, specifically, is the stuff of denominational division.

Fitting God in a BoxBecause we’re human and finite, all of us tend to limit God and make God smaller to ourselves as well as to others.

We need to be cautious about attempting to capture and control the parameters by which we define God. 

The Holy One of Israel is Almighty and always has had a way of eluding human attempts to be restricted, restrained, or retained.

When all is said and done, our ‘gods’ are too small; God is bigger than our beliefs.

So, rather than argue or debate the religious fundamentalists over their select agenda of Bible verses and interpretations, I now simply say to them:

“My God is bigger – and better – than that!”

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Doing Church Differently

I’m looking for a church:  A place where “religion” is more than rote and ritual.  Where prayer is spontaneous and heartfelt, rather than recited from a prescribed book—whatever the edition.  Where spiritual fruit, not religious nuts, is cultivated.  And where the God whom I pray to is acknowledged as personifying all people … not just a blessed, biased, and/or bigoted old man somewhere in the sky.

denominational diversityI’m seeking a house of worship that’s truly welcoming, inclusive, and affirming—a church focused more on God’s love, compassion and forgiveness than the wages of sin and a whole bunch of “thou shalt nots.”  I need a place where resurrection is the focus, not crucifixion.

I guess it comes down to this:  I’m looking for a spiritual community that’s doing church differently.  One based on beliefs which don’t necessarily resonate with other churches that I know: a mustard seed growing in a place where a Christian’s old wine skins may no longer be fitting.

Unfortunately, there’s no church in the ‘hood where I live that echoes my list of imperatives and beliefs:

Ask more questionsFaith is not about concrete answers, religious absolutes, creeds, or dogma.  Faith is about the search for understanding, the raising of important questions, the open honesty of having doubt, and the realization that no one has it all completely right, nor does any human hold all the answers.  Religious absolutes of dogma, legalism, and strict doctrine can become stumbling blocks and litmus tests for who is “in” and who is “out” of the circle of God’s grace. They’re tests Jesus never required that get in the way of truly believing and following the Lord’s teachings.

Following Jesus is counter-cultural, radical, and disrupts the status-quo. The Brand - Christianitygood news of the Gospel is intentional in its inclusion of those who are traditionally marginalized, refused or rejected by Mainline Christianity.  I believe that each of us has been created in the image of God and, therefore, we are called to welcome, accept, and affirm each other.  Denominations, churches, and individuals who judge others and find them unacceptable, deficient in their own prescribed rule book, don’t speak for God or the Church envisioned by Jesus Christ.

The words of Jesus found in the Gospels – specifically, what he states are the greatest commandments: “Love God with all of your essence and love your neighbor as you should love yourself” – are to be the focus for all of his followers. Other than that, Scripture can be considered mostly sacred commentary that reflects the history of a particular people, the Israelites, in the Old Testament … and an emerging community of Christians in the New Covenant.

Creating fellowships and communities dedicated to lifting up, affirming, and equipping one another for God’s work calls us to stress being active in peace-making, striving for justice and equality of all people and nations (Micah 6:8), loving those who are labeled by our government, society, and – at times – ourselves, as “enemies,” caring for God’s creation, and bringing hope to the poor and poverty-stricken, the hungry and the hostages.

faith and reasonGod created humans with a brain capable of discovery and reason. God does not require us to “check our brains at the door,” along with our coats and hats in order to be a part of the faith. Faith and Science are not in conflict; they can work together in harmony.

The Church is not a four-walled institution, but a ministry without walls that surrounds and encompasses everything, everywhere.

Jesus’s central message is about radical inclusion: everyone should be welcomed to participate in the congregation without judgment or forcing them to conform to our “likeness” or subscribe to any creeds in order to be accepted. We are to invite and offer all a place at the table – no exceptions.

Until there’s a church here in my ‘hood that practices and preaches these beliefs, please join me here — online — with our virtual congregation and church.

Visit us at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/FaithCommunityOnline

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Eunuchs

4For thus says the LORD,
“To the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths,
And choose what pleases Me,
And hold fast My covenant,

5To them I will give in My house and within My walls a memorial,
And a name better than that of sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name which will not be cut off.
“–Isaiah 56:4-5

Imagine if you were a special “type” of person … someone who belonged to what might be called a “sexual minority” … a person who would be conveniently used by others when your special gifts and talented were needed … yet, although you were good-natured, attractive, talented and trustworthy, you were despised and damned by many people.

Not too hard to imagine, huh?

Well, that’s exactly the predicament faced by a group of people known as “eunuchs” in the Bible.

Image

Rembrandt’s Baptism of the Eunuch

Eunuch. 

Even the name, itself, sounds strange.  Be that as it may, some scholars say there upwards of 40 Old Testament verses containing a word – in Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic – used to mean “eunuch” … while, in at least two New Testament passages, eunuchs are at the heart of the message.

So, what, exactly is a eunuch?

Simple: A eunuch is someone who has no physical attraction to people of the opposite sex.  Back in the Bible, eunuchs didn’t have sex with women and they didn’t have children.  Since they had no children, they had no vested interest in leaving a fortune to the next generation.  Therefore, they had no reason to be crooked or seek advantage for their own offspring.

Some people were just born that way.  Others were made that way surgically in order to serve their masters.  Still others chose to deny themselves and be celibate in order to focus entirely on God.

Translated to English, eunuch essentially means “keeper of the bed chamber” or “overseer of the household.” 

Put another way, a eunuch was an “emasculated man.”  Many historians believe that eunuchs were homosexuals.

In other words, people living thousands of years ago all across Europe and Asia acknowledged a certain category of men as different from the norm.  Their difference consisted in the fact that they had no sex drive toward women and that difference was conceived of as natural and inborn.  We know, too, of ancient cultures where there were women who, by nature, had no lust for men. 

Does the island of “Lesbos” ring a bell?

The ancient Hebrews didn’t practice castration. The Law excluded eunuchs from public worship, partly because self-mutilation was often performed in honor of a heathen god, and partly because any maimed creature was deemed unfit for the service of Yahweh.  That ban, however, was later removed.  The kings of Israel and Judah often followed their royal neighbors in employing eunuchs as guardian of the harem and other official posts. 

Apart from castration, eunuchs were naturally incapacitated, either for marriage or for begetting children.

Eunuchs were common in other cultures featured in theImage Bible.  Remember Potiphar, who managed the household of a high-ranking official in Pharaoh’s court?  He was a eunuch.  Maybe that explains why the official’s wife made a play, instead, for Joseph, he of the coat of many colors.  Joseph tried to escape and left the woman holding his garment (but that, my friends, is another story).

Eunuchs were trusted around the women who were married since they weren’t a threat in committing adultery with another man’s wife or engaging in pre-marital sex with a household of women. 

In fact, eunuchs were exalted to such positions that they watched over the harems of the kings they served.  Both boys and girls were sold into slavery as eunuchs by their parents to give their child a better life or to provide for the rest of the family.

Eunuchs could be extremely beautiful and attractive.  Some say that Daniel – along with his friends Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego  — were virile and handsome men who were castrated before being banished into captivity by the Babylonians and sent to serve Nebuchadnezzar.  First century historian Josephus asserts that Daniel and his three friends were made eunuchs.  Even before that, the writer of 2 Kings 20:18 predicts, “And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood that will be born to you, will be taken away and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.”

While in exile, Queen Esther – the wife of Persian King Xerxes – had a eunuch assigned to serve her personal needs, showing that in this time period it was common for such women to be attended by “men who didn’t pose a sexual threat.”  According to the Book of Esther (1:10), the king had seven eunuchs who served him.

The New Testament also refers to eunuchs.  Candace, Queen of the Ethiopians, sent one of her eunuchs to Jerusalem to worship Yahweh, God of the Hebrews.  As the eunuch was drawing close to Jerusalem, the Apostle Phillip, one of the leaders in the early New Testament church, was sent by God to explain and preach the gospel to him. 

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here.  (You can read the entire story yourself in Acts 8:26-31.)

Ironically, some could say that the Apostle Paul was a eunuch in that he remained single and celibate to fully concentrate on his mission for Christ.

What’s really important here is the idea that even a eunuch could be baptized, draw close to God, and become part of God’s family. 

I believe this reaffirms the impartiality of God. 

“Whosoever believes,” says the Scripture … and that includes eunuchs.

Which brings us to what Jesus has to say about these extraordinary people.  Let’s take a look at Matthew 19:8-12, where Jesus and his disciples are discussing marriage and divorce, and the conditions under which it is permissible to divorce:

8Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.” 10The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” 11Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriagec because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

In this context, Jesus is saying that some people aren’t suitable for marriage.  His reasons are lumped together under the category of being a eunuch. 

The Lord himself expanded the meaning of eunuch to include those who are unmarried for a variety of reasons.  Some are made this way by others.  Some are born this way.  They are unable to get married because they have no natural inclination to have sexual relations with a mate of the opposite sex.

It is highly unlikely that Jesus is referring to a straight, but impotent, male … or a castrated one, for that matter … when he talks about eunuchs. 

Why?

Because castrated and impotent men still can be attracted to women. 

A eunuch is a man who can’t reproduce, not necessarily a man who isn’t sexual.  Some men were castrated specifically so they could stay young and pretty and be sexual with other men.

We’ve all heard the joke about the pamphlet entitled, “What Jesus Said about Homosexuality.”  Open it up and it’s blank.  Of course, that’s true. 

Jesus never mentioned homosexuality, per se. 

But as knowing and wise as Jesus was – or, as the fundamentalists like to say, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8) – wouldn’t you think that he’d know there would one day be a terrible problem in his church, in Christianity, and in culture over homosexuality, gay rights, and same-sex marriage?  Then, why didn’t he say anything specific?

I believe he did: 

Jesus said, “Let the one who can accept this accept it.” 

Not everyone can accept this. 

So, I have to wonder: Is Jesus talking to us, preaching to the choir?  Or is he talking about others in his church who need to understand and accept what he’s saying here about eunuchs … about those of us who don’t conform to society’s norms about gender identity and sexual orientation?

Eunuchs were foreigners to God’s temple when Isaiah made his prophecy, due to one of those damning Deuteronomy verses (23:1): “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord.” 

But Isaiah here states that God Almighty will wipe away the bonds of the Mosaic Law through his love, mercy, and grace.

It is, therefore, very clear that eunuchs not only have a place in heaven, but are given “a name better than sons and daughters.”

Can it get any better than that?

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