Sending Cheap Signals

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is bending my mind. I’ve just started reading his New York Times bestseller, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. So far I’ve read the prologue and the first six pages of Chapter One and I’ve already come across a dozen or so concepts that have made me stop and think, knowing that it will take a serious investment of my time and energy to process this man’s continuously surprising perspectives.

A Disclaimer: Before going any further, this book has nothing to do with the Natalie Portman movie, Black Swan, so please don’t go there.

I have a feeling that reading and processing The Black Swan is going to be a many-months project and I have no intention of trying to distill Taleb’s thinking down into simplistic, dot-connecting nuggets. Maybe this will be the only time I mention Taleb, or maybe his unconventional view of life and how things work will inspire dozens of entries. Who knows? For now, one concept has caught my attention with such force that I’m now writing my first blog in months.

Consider this quote from page 6: “It is one thing to be cosmetically defiant of authority by wearing unconventional clothes – what social scientists and economists call ‘cheap signaling’ – and another to prove willingness to translate belief into action.” This is my first encounter with the phrase, “cheap signaling,” but it brought so many things to mind.

Two typical teenaged suburban girls walk into a trendy coffee shop. One is wearing a Harley-Davidson tee-shirt and you know she’s never been near an authentic biker or his two-wheeled power ride. The other sports an iconic Rolling Stones big-lipped mouth with protruding tongue tee-shirt and you know that Mick Jagger is older than her grandfather and that she probably couldn’t name two Stones’ hits. What are they doing? Cheap Signaling.

An unaccompanied man boards a steamboat in New Orleans for a 2 1/2-hour tour of the Mississippi River. He carries an iPhone attached to a long selfie-stick. Throughout the tour he takes photo after photo, holding the iPhone-on-a-stick as far out as possible and always taking shots of himself in profile, as if they are candid shots of him in the middle of some festive activity. What is he doing? Cheap Signaling.

So what has this got to do with church vitality or ministry at large? It occurs to me, or at least I wonder, that much that happens in the name of church or faith might truly be cheap signaling. Do we really take care of the poor, the widow and the orphan, or do we just talk about it in our Bible studies? Do we truly honor Jesus as the priority in our lives or do we simply nod in agreement with the biblical principle? Do we put our money where our mouth is when it comes to supporting God’s work in the world? Do we follow through with commitments to share our faith with those around us?

I’m not looking for a guilt trip here but, rather, a reality check. Could cheap signaling be the new hypocrisy? I’ve often said that the church is not full of hypocrites, it’s full of weak people who don’t quite live up to what they believe, myself included. But maybe that’s too easy an alibi. I’m searching for the cheap signaling in my life and hoping, praying, for better.

 

 

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Permanent Half-Mast

As usual, I was up early this morning. I made the familiar drive to a local shopping area to visit a familiar grocery store to pick up milk and a few other items. Pulling into a parking space, I noticed that the American flag that graces a prominent spot on the premises was flying at half-mast . . . again. It seems that American flags are frequently flying at half-mast these days, and the thought crossed my mind that, with all that’s going on in our country, American flags might not make it back to full mast any time soon.

For some reason, Joni Mitchell’s song, Woodstock, popped into my head. This is the song that memorializes the Woodstock Music & Art Fair held in White Lake, NY, in August 1969. I was a freshly turned nineteen years old then and missed Woodstock, but I did make it to a similar extravaganza the following summer called the Atlanta Pop Festival held near Byron, GA. It was there that I saw Jimi Hendrix perform. He would be dead less than three months later.

Back to Joni Mitchell and Woodstock – the short chorus in this song ends with the phrase, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden. The garden alluded to in this chorus is the Garden of Eden, a literal and metaphorical utopia, free from strife, free from pain, free from hatred, free from the Viet Nam War that was raging at the time – a symbol of peace and love, the counter-culture mantra of the late sixties. According to the biblical Book of Genesis, when Adam and Eve inhabited this garden, they were free from sin, but because of their sin, they, and mankind as a result, were expelled from the garden, hence the need to “get back to the garden.”

So far, so good. I would agree with Ms. Mitchell that it would be great to get back to the garden, to get back to being able to fly our flags at full mast. Her mistake, and the mistake of the typical secular humanist, is in thinking that we can get ourselves back to the garden. There is but one way to true peace and true love, the way of the Lord.

Acts 2 captures the scene of the preaching of the first Christian sermon. Peter reveals the sin of the people of that time and we’re told that they were “cut to the heart” and asked, “Brothers, what shall we do,” (Acts 2:37). Peter’s response, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

We can’t get ourselves back to the garden, but we can find peace and love through the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ. How? Through confession of our sin and the forgiveness of that sin that follows. This is our only hope personally, and this is our only hope as a nation. Will our flags fly high again?

 

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Glory and Beauty

I’m sitting in a cafe in Civitnova Marche, Italy, on the Adriatic coast checking my email. My wife, Sharon, and I are visiting our son, Reid, and his family. Reid is a pro volleyball player who plays here in the Italian Super League with a team called Volley Lube (Loo-Bay). Last night they earned their way into the European Champions League final four with a win over Halkbank in Ankara, Turkey.

In checking my email this morning I discovered a notice that someone had signed on to follow my blog and upon checking I further discovered that my last blog entry on this site was a year ago tomorrow. Wow! Time flies! So, it seemed an appropriate time to rekindle this blog site.

Part of my morning ritual is to read from the ESV one-year Bible. I just discovered this particular edition in early February so I’m reading two a day until I catch up sometime next week. This morning’s reading included Exodus 28. In this chapter, God spells out the requirements for the priestly garments that will be worn by Aaron and his sons. These garments are quite ornate and there is a phrase used a couple of times stating that these garments are for glory and beauty. Maybe it’s that I’m in Italy during Holy Week; maybe it’s that we toured the basilica in Loreto, known for the dome called the Black Madonna; but this phrase really struck me as I thought about how casually we worship God in our day.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not into religiosity and traditional church practices for the sake of tradition, but I do wonder sometimes if we have lost something of the holiness and majesty of God with the way we approach Him in a typical worship service these days. Have we become too casual, too complacent, too familiar – so much so that we almost treat God as if He is on our level? I don’t want to make too much of this, but I think many of our worship services these days could stand a bit more glory and beauty.

Happy Easter! He is alive!

 

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Christ-Centered Arts

The world of the arts is a world of fierce competition. There are many more people trying to make it as musicians, dancers, actors, etc., than there are opportunities. The artist must be willing and able to put his or her talent on the line at any moment, pushing for that illusive opportunity that launches one from being a hobbyist to being a professional. To be successful, the artist must be supremely confident and grab the spotlight whenever there is a spotlight to grab.

The cry of the secular artist is, “Look at me!” Self-promotion is a constant in order to rise above the din and be noticed. For every artist that gets the nod, many others do not, left to self-promote their way toward the next opportunity. Without this confidence and determination to be the best and be recognized for it, the secular artist will remain in the background unnoticed. Talent is important, but talent rarely rises to the top without relentless self-promotion.

The Christian artist has to be coming from a very different place; not self-promotion but Christ-promotion, but old habits die hard. The good news is that many secular artists have come to Christ over the years, receiving Him as Savior and Lord. The bad news is that many of these now-Christian artists bring their self-promoting habits into the church, fed by church leaders and congregations trying to capitalize on their talent to feature the “best” worship band and/or “best” arts ministry in the area.

When a secular artist comes to Christ, there must be a time of maturing in the faith before being placed in the church spotlight. The shift has to go from, “Look at me,” to “Look at Him.” This does not happen over night but takes time to develop. It would be ridiculous to take a secular speaker, say a motivational speaker, and put him or her in the pulpit a week after coming to Christ, yet that is the kind of thing we do with the artist who is a new Christian – one week a club singer, the next week a worship leader. I don’t think it helps that, on the music scene, the Christian music industry more or less mirrors the secular music scene with its Top Hits, fan clubs and awards shows. Really?!?!

God is the original Artist, the Creator who created all things. In our day, culture has become the dominant patron of the arts and, therefore, the artist. It’s time for the church to reclaim the arts and dedicate the arts and their artists to the glory of God. This will require care and nurture of the artist and not artist exploitation. The path from “Look at me” to “Look at Him” passes through spiritual growth bathed in humility. As John the Baptist said, “I must decrease; Jesus must increase.” As Jesus said, “Not my will but Your will be done.”

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Worship that’s Worth It

I think it’s safe to say that when most of us, as believers, hear the word “worship,” our minds go to a worship service. Prime time for most American churches is the Sunday morning worship service and much of the ministry work that is done during the week in a typical church is preparing for that worship service. I often say in my training, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that there is a Sunday in every single week. Every seven days, fifty-two times a year, there is a Sunday service (or two or three …) that requires a great deal of all who will be involved from the preacher to the nursery workers.

Worship services are biblical and important, but I want to look at worship through a different lens with this post. Rather than considering a worship service, let’s consider a worship life, a life of service that is, indeed, worship.

In John 4 we find the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. Much is said by Jesus in this exchange that has great teaching value, but let’s zero in on one thing. Jesus informs this woman that true worship is worship in spirit and in truth. Jesus has much more in mind here than how one participates in a worship service. He’s addressing how one lives a worshipful life.

What does it mean to worship in spirit and in truth? Again, much could be said, but let’s look at two particular verses – Romans 12:1-2. In Romans 12:1, Paul explains that presenting our bodies as living sacrifices is true spiritual worship. So to worship in spirit is to live a sacrificial life, putting God first and all else second. In Romans 12:2, Paul further explains that we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. What is it that renews our minds? Our minds are renewed by the Word of God, which is the truth. To worship in truth is to be driven by the truth that is found in God’s Word.

The worshipful life, then, is a life of sacrificial commitment to Jesus Christ guided by a mind that is renewed by the Word of God. To live such a life is to pay the cost of faith, and as we pay that cost, we worship.

Paying the cost of faith is WORTH IT, and if we truly pay the cost of faith, it’s WORSHIP. (Romans 12:1-2)  kenpriddy@kenpriddygroup

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The Busy Church

Over the years I have learned that one of the biggest obstacles to Great Commission ministry is church work  – church busy work. Many Christians and their leaders are so busy filling slots in the church’s programming and structure that they can’t find the time to do the REAL work of ministry – reaching the lost with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The vast majority of American evangelical churches is in plateau or decline. Characteristically, the church in plateau is over-programmed and the church in decline is over-structured. Churches in plateau tend to be driven by their programming, believing that whatever success or effectiveness they are experiencing is the result of the menu of programs that is offered. Careful observation will reveal that any growth that such a church might be experiencing is transfer growth, not conversion growth, as Christians leave churches with less appealing programming to attend theirs. The kingdom doesn’t grow but the church might. However, those attracted are typically not there to serve but to be served, and as soon as another church comes along with still more appealing programming, they’ll take their church business elsewhere.

Churches in decline tend to be structure driven as the inner workings of organizational framework dominate more and more as the church’s ministry shrinks.  Too many leaders attend too many meetings to repeat the same discussions and conversations again and again while the front line ministry of reaching the community fades further and further into the background.

What is God’s vision for the church? He envisions an eternal family of all peoples that is too numerous to count. They will be His people and He will be their God. How is this to happen? Those already in His family are to reach those who have not yet come in. They are to go and make disciples. They are to be His witnesses.

Countless pastors and leaders have told me they would like nothing more than to see new believers coming into their churches, but they’re so swamped with the work of the church they never get to the work of the kingdom. Could it be that we get so busy with church work that we neglect our Father’s business? Luke  2:49.

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New Comfort Zone

It’s no secret that many, let’s say most, Christians struggle with witnessing, evangelizing, sharing our faith – whatever you want to call it. I often hear the exhortation that we need to get outside of our comfort zones. I have frequently given that same exhortation in my ministry of training, coaching and consulting with pastors, church leaders and their congregations regarding gaining vitality in the church; in renewal or revitalization.

Recently, as I was thinking about the get outside of our comfort zones issue, it occurred to me that two default positions are inherent in that concept. First, to share our faith in an evangelistic way, we have to be uncomfortable. We have to step into a discomfort zone and the implication is that we will remain in that state of discomfort for the rest of our lives if we intend to be serious about Great Commission ministry on the personal level. We will always swim upstream; we will always fight against the odds in order the dutifully share the Gospel. Second, apparently our comfort zones don’t include personal commitment to the Great Commission, personal engagement in evangelism.

What’s wrong with this picture? To evangelize is to be uncomfortable. To be comfortable is to refrain from evangelizing. Really!? Is that where we want to be? Is that where we should be? I don’t think so.

Here’s what I’m thinking now: we need to create new comfort zones. We need to trade in our current hide-from-the-Great Commission comfort zones for new embrace-the-Great Commission comfort zones. To coin a couple of phrases, we need to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, our hearts, our souls, our strength (Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 22:34-40).

The objective is not to push through discomfort for the rest of our earthly lives by forcing ourselves to share the Gospel, as if we’re taking some horrible tasting medicine because we know we should. The objective is to become perfectly at home with freely sharing our lives in Christ as fruitful laborers working in the plentiful harvest. This might require a season of discomfort as we take those first steps outside of our current comfort zones, but that discomfort will move toward comfort and ease as we become more skilled, more fruitful and more committed to the Great Commission.

If your comfort zone excludes the sharing of the Gospel, I encourage you to pray that you will become uncomfortable with this fearful brand of comfort. Move to where the Gospel action is. By the grace of God, create a new comfort zone.

 

 

 

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