Belong Before You Believe?

The church has it all backwards.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the church. I am personally invested in the church. But I’m pretty sure that the church needs to change directions.

Of course I’m talking about the visible church, the one found in physical locations, not the invisible church, also known as the body of Christ. The invisible church is doing just fine, thank you very much. It’s the visible church that needs to rethink its strategy.

The strategy I’m referring to comes in a lot of different forms and formats, but mostly it can be summarized in one little phrase: “Belong before you believe.” The strategy behind the phrase is quite simple. If a church can attract people through its preaching and music and programs—all presented by cheerful, friendly, successful people—then visitors to that church will be compelled to keep coming and eventually believe what the preacher and the music and the programs are talking about.

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Books Are Cool Again

Once upon a time people bought books in bookstores. I should know. My family owned a Christian bookstore chain. It was an idyllic, almost magical time when independent stores like ours and large bookstore chains like B. Dalton Bookseller, Walden, Borders, and Family Christian Stores—plus thousands of independent bookstores—dotted the landscape. Almost every town of any size had at least one. 

Today all those bookstore chains are gone, and the number of independent stores, both general and Christian, has shrunk dramatically. I could list many reasons, but there are just two that matter: the rise of Amazon and the appearance of e-books. Physical bookstores, even those owned by big corporations, just can’t compete with the selection, prices, and convenience of Amazon. And what can possibly match the instant delivery of a book to a device you’re holding in your hand?

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In the Bleak Midwinter

The Christmas poem, In the Bleak Mid-Winter, was written by Christina Rosetti in the 1870s for Scribner’s Monthly magazine. The haunting verse was set to music by Gustav Holst in 1906 and remains one of the most beautiful and truest expressions of the miracle of Christ’s birth.

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk,
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air -
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give Him -
Give my heart.

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A Christmas Carol and the Power of Art

Art has the ability to inspire us and captivate our imaginations like nothing else can. You experience this when seeing a particularly powerful film, where the story and characters take you to a different emotional place. Whether viewing a classic like Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life or a current movie such as Martin Scorsese’s Silence, you are affected viscerally in a way only art can prompt. A painting can be transcendent as well. Henri Nouwen was so moved by Rembrandt’s visual interpretation of The Return of the Prodigal Son that he wrote a book based on the impressions he saw in the work.

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Answering the Toughest Questions About God and the Bible

I'm excited to tell you about the newest book from Bruce & Stan, Answering the Toughest Questions About God and the Bible. We don't pretend to have all the answers (never have, never will), but we do know how to wrestle with doubt. In this new book, we ask some of the most important questions people have about God and the Bible. Here's an excerpt to give you an idea of our approach.

The world is full of questions. Whether the topic is politics, race, relationships, the environment, or religion (especially religion), there seem to be more questions than answers. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s quite good. In past generations, asking questions was considered rude or disrespectful, especially when it came to God and the Bible. “God said it, I believe it, that settles it for me” was the response Christians were supposed to have. Anything more and you were labeled a Doubting Thomas. People were reluctant to ask questions about God out of concern they would be considered un-American (we’re not kidding).

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750,000 Words

There’s a saying in publishing that writers should take to heart: Edit to amplify. Editing is hard work, but it makes all the difference in the world. Too many unnecessary words dilute the message and cloud the story. As Mark Twain famously said to a friend, “I would have written you a short letter, but I didn’t have time, so I wrote you a long one instead.”

There’s no one who exemplifies the power of crisp editing better than God, the world’s all-time bestselling author. His written word, known by modern readers as the Bible, clocks in at an efficient 750,000 words.

You may be rolling your eyes at that number, thinking that three-quarters of a million is a lot of words. If so, consider this. William Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets total 960,000 words. The Harry Potter books come in at just over a million. As Jon Bloom observed in his blog, “Numbers like these simply make us pause and wonder over God’s written word economy.

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Do We Live in a Dark World?

People who see the world as “dark” aren’t held in high regard. They are called curmudgeons, pessimists, even villains.

By contract, people who see the world in a positive light are considered optimistic. They’re the good guys.

Donald Trump’s speech at the close of the Republican National Convention was castigated by the opposition and the press as being “dark.” President Obama was so bothered by its tone that he felt compelled to reply the next day, “This idea that America is somehow on the verge of collapse—this vision of violence and chaos everywhere—doesn’t really jibe with the experience of most people.”

Taking politics out of this discussion (I know, that’s nearly impossible), this sunny statement by the president against the negative images conjured by Trump begs an important question, one that doesn’t concern only our time, but all of time, the way it’s always been, at least since the fall.

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Why Trump Is Winning

In this crazy, unpredictable, perplexing election year, we’re seeing candidates who are redefining what it means to be a politician. Or not.

Consider the candidacy of Donald Trump, who is frustrating the living daylights out of the Republican establishment. You could say Bernie Sanders is having the same effect on the Democratic party, but he is a long shot, while Trump seems to have a chance of being his party’s presidential candidate.

Whether you are horrified or intrigued by that prospect, my purpose here is to neither endorse nor denigrate Trump, but to offer one very simple explanation for why one of the most polarizing figures in modern political history is winning. In fact, it has to do with why.

Trump is very clear about why he is running, and I’ll bet you know “why.” That’s right. He’s running to make America great again.

I’ve been doing a little experiment with the slogans (or tag lines) of the seven remaining presidential candidates (two Democratic, five Republican). I went to the websites of each candidate and noted the slogan of each one. Here they are:
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Spiritual Lessons From My Fitbit

I received a Fitbit as a gift for Christmas. I knew a little about this data-collecting device you wear on your wrist—that it counts how many steps you take, tracks your heart rate, measures how many calories you expend, etc.—but I had no idea just how popular these “activity tracker” devices are.

In fact, the Fitbit and similar products (such as Jawbone UP and Nike Fuelband) are part of the “Quantified Self” movement, first proposed by Wired magazine editors in 2007 as “a collaboration of users and tool makers who share an interest in self-knowledge through self-tracking.”

Nothing new about that. Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Benjamin Franklin tracked 13 personal virtues, and Jonathan Edwards developed a list of 70 spiritually centered “resolutions,” which he vowed to read once a week.  I’m certain Socrates, Franklin, and Edwards would have worn a Fitbit had one been available to them.

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What Does God Look Like?

I’ve been thinking about God lately, but not like I usually do. Normally I think about who God is, what He does, what He has written, that kind of stuff. But lately I’ve been thinking about what God looks like. I know, you’re not supposed to do that.

Besides that commandment about not making an image of God in any form, the Bible tells us God is spirit, so there’s no physicality to Him. All of the talk in Scripture about God’s eyes, feet, hands, arms, etc. are anthropomorphisms. It’s the writers applying human traits to God so we better understand Him. But in no way is that to suggest that God has a physical body. Still, we humans can’t help but try to imagine what God looks like. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Artists have been portraying God for centuries, the most famous being Michelangelo’s gigantic creation painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, where God’s finger is touching Adam’s finger. God is old and white-haired and pretty buff.

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Stan's entire life has been wrapped in content: selling, writing and publishing books and resources that help ordinary people capture a glimpse of extraordinary things.