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 incarnating not one but 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:

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Second Chances

ImageI believe in second chances.  And third, fourth, fifth …

Recently, we celebrated Easter which — this year — coincided with Passover on the calendar.

Passover is a time to remember God’s deliverance of the Jewish people from their slavery in Egypt.  But the whole history of the Hebrews is filled with examples of God giving second chances to his chosen people: Noah and the flood.  Abraham and Isaac.  Isaac and Jacob.  Jacob and Esau. Joseph and his brothers.  The captivity in Egypt.  The 10 plagues each preceded by a plea from Moses to Pharaoh, “God says: Let my people go!”

In some ways, Easter is also about second chances.

God gave creation, humanity, a second chance through Christ Jesus.  And, through the power of his resurrection, God gave Jesus a second chance to accomplish what the suffering servant couldn’t do before his death on the cross and atonement for all:  Reconciliation.

A month after Passover is another special Jewish holiday known as the Second Passover … or Pesach Sheni.

Many of us probably never have heard about this holy day because it’s buried in several verses found in the book of Numbers (9:6-11), which – like Leviticus and Deuteronomy — is filled with lists of rules and regulations rather than the more memorable stories we find in Genesis and Exodus.

According to the story, a group of people were unable to celebrate the Passover with the rest of their community on the appointed day because they were considered ritually impure and unclean.

Why? Because they had attended a funeral and came in contact with a dead body.

Upset, disappointed and, I suspect, a bit resentful because they were excluded from worshiping with their family, friends and neighbors, they approached Moses and asked him to intercede on their behalf with God.  They wanted another chance. Moses responded that he’d consult with God and report back to them on what the Holy One had to say about the matter.

God told Moses to establish a “make-up” date, one month later, after the unclean and impure had the time to purify themselves.  The “Second Passover” thus became a second chance at keeping the feast.

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You know, sometimes it seems like life isn’t fair.  That we’re being treated unjustly because of stuff that’s out of our control.   Why should we be left out … excluded … or deprived?  What did – or didn’t – we deliberately do that’s causing us to be shunned by others?

Often, nothing!

In this case, some people had attended a funeral, paying their respects to someone who, presumably, had been part of their lives.  But, because they had come in contact with the dead, they were deemed unclean according to God’s explicit terms and conditions.

So they were left out, deprived of the opportunity to engage in communal worship.

Is this fair?  Is this our concept of social justice?

Think about it:  A bunch of people are dismissed because they were considered contaminated, outcasts, outlaws, socially undesirable … a group not to be welcomed, accepted, or associated with.

Second Chances 2

Can you imagine how that must feel?

So, they complain and grumble – “Why should we be deprived?”– and they ask their leader to intercede on their behalf.

According to rabbinic commentary on these Scriptures, the Second Passover — celebrated one month after the appointed day for Passover — represents the power of teshuvah—literally, return or repentance.

In other words, it’s our God-given second chance.

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Remember when one of the Pharisees tried to trick Jesus by asking him which of the law’s commandments was the greatest and most important?

 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and with all of your mind and with all of your might.’This is the first and greatest commandment. But there is a second to set alongside of it:  Love others as well as you love yourself.  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Second Chances 6That said, brothers and sisters: I have three questions to ask you today:  (1) Do you give others second chances?  (2) Do you give yourself second chances?  (3) Do you give God second chances?

Not easy questions, huh?

Christians believe that they’re good at “forgive and forget” doctrine … but how often do we deny giving others a second chance?

Do we have the right to withhold forgiveness and second chances from people who’ve hurt us — even deliberately — once or even several times?

When Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?  Until seven times?”  Jesus said, “I do not say to you until seven times; but until seventy times seven.”

The words of Jesus are clear: We have no right to withhold forgiveness from others, considering how often God continues to forgive us.

Jesus had a soft spot in his heart for the despised and rejected, the social outcasts, those who weren’t loved or accepted but considered criminals and sinners by society’s norms.  These were his “neighbors,” just as they’re ours.

Second ChancesWhat about you?  Do you give yourself second chances?

Perhaps you’ve failed at something in your life.  Not said “I’m sorry” to someone.  Or maybe you’ve just been afraid to take a chance.

Maybe it’s a bad habit – like smoking, drinking, or gambling – that you’ve tried to stop but continue to do.

Or, perhaps you’ve tried to lose some weight by dieting … only to put on even more extra pounds.  Could it be that you’d like to spend more time in prayer or doing good works, but tend to get side-tracked?

Whether it’s marriage, a job, a relationship, or your finances, God hasn’t given up on you.  So, please, don’t give up on yourself!

It ain’t necessarily Scripture, but you know the old refrain: If, at first, you don’t succeed … try, try again!

From my own experience, I can tell you that we worship a God who believes in giving us many, many second chances.

Right now I’m on my 47th or 448th chance … I lost track about 30 years ago and – you know what? – it doesn’t really matter!

Because God doesn’t keep score.

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How about God?  Do we give God second chances?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had many more “wilderness” experiences – times I’ve felt alone and away from God’s presence … than I have had “mountain top” experiences where I can feel God right there beside me, with me, within me, all around me.

Second Chances 5I’ve felt spiritually hungry and looked for God in all the wrong places: in religious traditions with their rites and rituals, sacraments and observances.  I searched for God in my Jewish roots, in the Roman Catholic mass, in Episcopalian … Lutheran … Methodist … Presbyterian … Pentecostal and Charismatic churches.

Whenever I encountered God, it wasn’t in any of these places.  It was in Spirit and in truth.  Because that’s where God resides: in our hearts and our souls, not inside the walls of a building.

So, yes, I give God second chances.  Countless chances.  And you know what?  God continues to be revealed to me.

“You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart,” God says through the prophet Jeremiah.

Now, that’s a hard thing to do: to give of ourselves with all of our hearts.  To anything or anyone.  Even God.  But we do want to try!

We expect either too much or too little from God, imagining that he’s angry and carries a grudge against us.  That he won’t give us a second chance.  Or even that God is a “he.”  But that’s not the God of our Bible.  And that’s certainly not the nature of Jesus.

Jesus always reached out to people like you and me, people with problems and issues, aches and pains, people needing second chances.

Embrace that second chance and allow God to help mend your mistakes and disappointments.  That’s how we can find true “Shalom” – the peace that transcends understanding  – empowering us to forgive and give second chances to ourselves … to others … and to our God.

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