Posts Tagged ‘fortress’

Ran across some great words today from Max Lucado’s book, “Fearless”:

“When fear shapes our lives, safety becomes our god. When safety becomes our god, we worship the risk-free life. Can the safety lover do anything great? Can the risk-averse accomplish noble deeds? For God? For others? No. The fear filled cannot love deeply. Love is risky. They cannot give to the poor.  Benevolence has no guarantee of return. The fear-filled cannot dream wildly. What if their dreams sputter and fall from the sky? The worship of safety emasculates greatness. No wonder Jesus wages such a war against fear.”

You can read the entire chapter here.


How could Osama bin Laden have hidden in plain sight in that Pakistani city for five or six years? Didn’t anyone see him? Talk to him? Invite him over for a game of lawn darts and a cold one?

I don’t know much about Pakistan’s culture, but in American suburbia, going unnoticed doesn’t even take much effort.

I’m ashamed to admit this, but Osama bin Laden could have been living in most of the houses on my street and the neighborhood never would have known. He could have driven to work every morning … taken out the trash … walked his dog (I’ll bet bin Laden had one of those annoying little yappy dogs).

We have friendly, back-fence relationships with three families on our street, and we’ve had a few conversations with two others. I’m not sure I would recognize the rest of my neighbors on sight at the mall.  And they would only know me as that really tall guy who needs to address his dandelion problem.

If you live in a well-networked neighborhood, you are an exception. And that’s anywhere: big cities, suburbs, small towns and rural roads. On college campuses, like the one where I work, more students than ever before request single rooms. People disappear for days at a time, playing video games … alone.  I’ve even been to large churches where my family and I visited several times and went completely undetected. We may as well have watched it on TV – which you can do now.

We addressed this problem last October in the post, “Dulled Ears.”

Robert Putnam’s important 2000 book, “Bowling Alone,” was researched and written before the mobile-device explosion. But even then, Putnam pointed out that America had become far less connected than in decades past – more individualistic, less community-minded. People are less likely to form a worldview because, well, we aren’t viewing the world. Just our little corner of it. 

If community is what occupies the space between people, then we here in America and in the American church have lost a lot of community in favor of … well, nothing. We’re a bunch of individuals, simply co-existing in separate, noisy realities.

That’s not a very hopeful picture of a world where we are called to be salt and light. But it’s certainly not hopeless. People still need and want community. Where that used to happen without much effort, today it takes intentionality. It’s about not being too busy to have an end-of-the-driveway conversation with a neighbor. Hey, maybe it’s even inviting them over for dinner this weekend. Or – if you want to get really crazy – getting several families involved in planning a neighborhood party.

My wife and I aren’t great at planning social events. But you know, every time we’ve intentionally set aside time to do something with the neighbors, the evening always – always – ends with, “We should do this more often.”

You probably won’t root out international terrorists in your midst. More likely, you’ll develop friendships and your neighborhood will become a better place.

There can be long debate about that gospel question, “And who is my neighbor?” But I don’t see any way to exclude the people who live on my street.

One spring day about 20 years ago, I went to Menard’s to buy paneling for a basement project. Then and now, I typically go for the cheapest product available if it looks good in the store. So I chose a wood-grain pattern in $6.99 sheets the approximate thickness of a business card. I loaded the 4-by-8-foot sheets onto one of those raised, flat carts, paid and wheeled everything outside.

I’d forgotten that this was a blustery April day. As soon as I reached the crosswalk between the store and the parking lot, a wind gust of about 40 mph whipped the top sheet of paneling off the cart and sent it sailing just over the heads of two elderly women on their way toward the store.

I don’t know if there are any documented cases of decapitation by cheap paneling, but this came horrifyingly close. The soundtrack still plays in my mind:


The paneling landed harmlessly in the parking lot. The ladies didn’t seem like they’d even noticed – they were both wearing those plastic rain bonnets sold at Walgreen’s for 79 cents; consequently they had no peripheral vision.

My basement project proceeded with scratched paneling and no court date.

And then, in a damp basement, within a couple of months the cheap paneling warped and got moldy. I ended up tearing it all out and throwing it away. The paneling that had looked so good under the protective store roof lasted only a couple of seconds when exposed to the outside world. And then, even surviving that shock, it quickly became useless and embarrassing when permanently placed in a hostile environment.

I thought of that brush with infamy the other day after talking with a college student. He grew up in a small town far from suburbia, went to the small church there and lived a sheltered life. When he arrived at a large state university, he quickly realized that a majority of people there saw life very differently than he did. Things weren’t as black and white as he’d been led to believe. Good people did some pretty bad things. People he’d been taught were bad were actually pretty nice. The people having the most fun didn’t seem to hold any faith at all.  Exposure to the bigger world made his faith seem irrelevant. The other small-town values he’d grown up with seemed irrelevant, too.

Two issues here. One, his faith wasn’t very deep. He’d been living his parents’ faith, which also wasn’t very deep – more cultural than spiritual. And two, he’d never tested it in the culture he’d eventually live in as an adult. So a big part of it blew away like a piece of cheap paneling in a windstorm. The remaining part was unsuitable for its new environment, so he soon discarded it as useless and irrelevant.

In the current issue of Relevant magazine, Barna Group president David Kinnaman observes:

“The ages of 18 to 29 are the crossroads – the time in life when people – if they are going to do it – are most likely to rethink their spirituality. Though people often become more spiritually minded as they get older, they don’t change very much in terms of spirituality. They tend to stay committed to faith perspectives that have served them for decades.”

Here’s what this looked like in the not-too-distant past: Most Americans, like my student, grew up with some Christian experience – anything from twice-a-year church attendance to devotedly following Christ. During their college and young adult years, many placed their faith on a shelf – or saw it shredded in a cultural hurricane they weren’t ready for. A fair amount eventually would pick up that faith again – often when they had young kids of their own.

Today, a huge proportion of American youth have no church experience – none. Their spiritually disillusioned parents never took them. Faith has absolutely no role in their lives and Christianity is no more than a punchline on a cartoon show. This has happened quickly – within one generation. Too many churches failed to recognize the scale of the problem until it had snowballed. Now it’s a crisis.

In a blog post titled, “This is Why We Plant Churches,” Scott Thomas of Mars Hill Church in Seattle cites Barna research in noting that, in the past 20 years, the number of Americans who don’t attend church has nearly doubled. At last check, only 18 percent of Americans are attending church on any given Sunday – and that’s projected to drop below 15 percent in the next decade. The largest unchurched population? Twenty-somethings.

I realize that church attendance and Christian faith don’t necessarily co-exist for everyone any more. But generally they still do. And that means Christianity has little to no role in the lives of a heavy majority of Americans today – especially those under 30.

So, while spiritual rethinking still likely happens between ages 18 and 29, it now occurs, for many, without any Christian context. The usual end result is wishy washy, inclusive theology (all roads lead to some concept of heaven) that has no basis in anything other than good feelings. That kind of world view, when truly tested, gets whipped into the street like a sheet of cheap paneling. And people are left looking for better answers.

Churches that focus heavily on reaching and discipling young adults – even at the expense of other ministries – are likely to become part of a new reformation that’s already begun. Those that fail to do this may find their doors closed. Very, very soon.

Fort Apache

Posted: December 1, 2010 by Jim Killam in church culture, fortress, movies, pop culture
Tags: , , , ,

In the early 1970s, my brother and I owned a Marx Carry-All Action Playset. It looked like a painted steel briefcase, but opened into Fort Apache, loosely modeled after the 1948 movie starring John Wayne and Henry Fonda which, according to the trailer, celebrated “the courage and daring of a nation’s pioneer spirit.”

Inside, you got a dozen blue plastic cavalrymen and a dozen orange plastic Indians, plus all of their weaponry and luggage. My brother and I would take turns being the cavalry or the Indians. The cavalry occupied the fort and had cannons, rifles, horses and corner watchtowers. The leader looked suspiciously like General George Custer, walrus mustache and all. The Indians had bows and arrows, hatchets, a stray horse, a couple of tired-looking ladders and, inexplicably, a totem pole.

We’d set up elaborate formations of plastic figures, someone would yell, “Go!” and then … nothing happened. We quickly realized that, if you were the cavalry, your safest option was simply to station all of your men inside the fort and never open the steel gates. If you were the Indians, you were pretty much out of luck. The ladders always fell over before Cochise and his men could climb the fort walls and swing their limp plastic hatchets at a cannon.

This scenario hardly displayed “the courage and daring of a nation’s pioneer spirit.” It was simply about waiting for the other guy to get bored and do something stupid like, oh, opening the fort gates. If this didn’t happen, we’d sometimes allow the Indians to call in an airstrike … from the G.I. Joe Adventure Team Helicopter, which was almost as large as Fort Apache itself (these were the days of 12-inch G.I. Joes with Lifelike Hair, not their Lilliputian descendants). From the big yellow helicopter, Joe could drop Lego bombs – sometimes 30 or 40 blocks clustered together – and quickly wipe out General NotCuster and his confused comrades. One time we even bent the fort.

We didn’t know it at the time, but my brother and I were playing out the end of two eras. One was the era of playing cowboys and Indians — which has mostly vanished in a generational wave of good taste. The second was the era of the military fort. Throughout most of world history, the people with the best forts had tended to wield the most power and control. Any city-state with any hope of not being overrun by marauders was fortified with walls – depending on the time period, some combination of dirt, stone, wood, concrete, steel or briefcase sides – and ditches. You wanted your fort to be on the highest ground in the area, so the enemy couldn’t take up positions above you.

If a fort got large enough, or if multiple forts were combined, it was called a fortress. Somehow, the extra syllable made it sound more impenetrable.

Forts and fortresses didn’t work so well as technology advanced in the early 20th century. Back when adversaries wielded hatchets, bows and arrows, a solidly built, well-located fort was still golden. But now armies had gained more firepower – enough to destroy practically any stationary object and everything inside by lobbing bombs over the walls. Concentrating all of your side’s strength inside a fort made you more vulnerable to an overpowering attack.

As warfare became more mobile, the utility of frontier forts faded. Advancing armies simply could run around the fort and keep going. Then came the airplane, and everything changed. Someone quickly realized you could drop bombs right into a fort, and render its high walls useless. (Think: The G.I. Joe Helicopter.) Armies began to spread out along a long and mobile line, with offensive armaments just behind that line.

Today’s war zones have few working forts. Most forts are either military bases far from the front lines, or they are historical relics. What we do have, however, are underground bunkers. Terrorists use them. The United States and other countries have them in the event of nuclear war. They’re places to hide until perceived danger has passed. You can’t offensively engage the enemy from a bunker. You can plan an attack, defend against an attack, even order an attack … but you can’t launch one.

The American evangelical church seems to be growing out of a period marked by two ends of a spectrum: a heartfelt concern for the spiritual needs of the world, and an insular, protect-my-family-at-all-cost fear of that same world. A fortress, if you will. These work directly against each other, and for generations we failed to recognize that.

A friend and disillusioned Christian remarked to me once: “The evangelical church seems to be about building and provisioning a bunker.”

Much has been said and written about the Christian buzzword “missional.” And I suppose any term, once it begins to be overused, becomes more a brand name than a mindset. To me, it’s a hopeful opposite to the fortress culture: Christ followers genuinely living out their faith amidst the culture instead of waiting for the culture to come to church.   

It’s time we throw open the gates and get moving. Too many are losing their faith before they ever leave the fortress.

One of the most frustrating things for a journalist is needing to speak with a person central to a story – anyone from a police chief to a company CEO to a member of Congress — and instead only getting access to a public-relations person. PR professionals speak for their bosses, all right. But every word is carefully managed, with an eye toward protecting the boss’ image. All negatives are spun into positives. Problems become “challenges” or “opportunities.” Firing people becomes “downsizing.” Gambling becomes “gaming.” Knowledge becomes “awareness.” Pitching a story to media becomes “reaching out.” (In fact, PR people don’t even make phone calls any more. They just “reach out.”)

Any good journalist is left suspicious. Everything can’t be this perfect and managed. What are they hiding?

As a reporter, I once toured an auto-assembly plant and innocently shot some photos. The plant’s PR guy didn’t see me doing this, but was told about it later that day. He called me, and I quickly learned that the corporate world viewed this as akin to selling state secrets to Kim Jong-Il. They’d need to review those photos before any were published. Because they were shot on private property, my newspaper agreed.

Well. One of the photos showed an assembly-line worker wearing shorts. Another showed a worker with a Bart Simpson T-shirt. This wouldn’t do. What would the community think? (Thousands in the community worked in that plant, so about all they would think is that it was a hot day.) The paper ended up not publishing my photos, and I was left with the impression that the plant was run by a bunch of uptight people with no grip on reality.

Working in the trade press in the metal fabrication industry, Lincoln got a regular snoot-full of PR propaganda at trade shows and company-sponsored press junkets. A running joke at trade shows among the magazine editors was the “booth babes” – attractive (and often articulate) women hired to work the show floor and explain the virtues of the machine tools punching out parts behind them at decibel levels rivaling a Led Zeppelin concert. They didn’t actually have to know much – they just had to look good.

The best PR people we know are also the most honest and forthright. They know their job is to promote their company or organization. But they don’t need the PR doubletalk, because they truly believe in their employer and simply want to “tell their story” (to employ an overused but sometimes-accurate PR term). When news is bad, they say so, without hiding behind nondenial denials or silly terminology that’s easy to see through. In the process, they earn journalists’ respect and trust, because they are real.

Christians often look at themselves as PR agents. In a way, that’s correct. People form their opinions about God through what they see in his earthly representatives. But in another way, it’s warped because we act more as PR agents for the imperfect church than for a perfect God. We protect the company image at all costs. We simply can’t have anyone thinking that our lives aren’t always happy and perfect and worry-free, or that our churches sometimes deal with gossip, slander and … well, jerks. What kind of an ad for Christianity would that be?

In his book, “Ruthless Trust,” Brennan Manning writes:

“The great weakness in the North American church at large, and certainly in my life, is our refusal to accept our brokenness. We hide it, evade it, gloss over it. We grab for the cosmetic kit and put on our virtuous face to make ourselves admirable to the public. Thus, we present to others a self that is spiritually together, superficially happy, and lacquered with a sense of self-deprecating humor that passes for humility. The irony is that while I do not want anyone to know that I am judgmental, lazy, vulnerable, screwed up, and afraid, for fear of losing face, the face that I fear losing is the mask of the imposter, not my own!”

And so, while anyone with a brain can see that I often am a spiritual train wreck, or that the church is full of imperfect people, my PR voice shouts to gawkers, “Nothing to see here! Move along.” Only we aren’t even that direct. We use lingo that sounds weird to anyone outside the church, or anyone checking out the church. Christians don’t gossip, we share. If it’s something really bad, we speak the truth in love. We don’t talk in groups, we fellowship. We give love offerings (money).  And I know what it means for the church to be called the Bride of Christ, but I’m guessing an outsider is picturing the Bride of Frankenstein.

As a whole, the church has been slow to figure this out, but thankfully, it’s starting to happen. We’re learning to be real with people. We’re realizing that fewer people than we thought bought the story that we were selling. We’re realizing that Christian culture is being marketed to the public through saccharine radio stations, bad films and ridiculous TV networks. This might attract Ned Flanders, but most others will see right through it.

We have a lot of damage to undo. Or, in PR terms, we have a lot of people to reach out to. They need to see Jesus, and realize that we are his far-from-perfect representatives and that we’re OK with that.

Or, to keep it simple: Down in front.

Sarah Palin represents why a lot of people I care deeply about have no interest in Christianity.

In her new book, “America By Heart,” she (or more likely her ghostwriter) writes:

“Most of those who write for the mainstream media and teach at universities and law schools don’t share the religious faith of their fellow Americans. They seem to regard people who believe in God and regularly attend their church or synagogue as alien beings, people who are ‘largely poor, uneducated and easy to command,’ as the Washington Post once famously put it.”

As part of both the godless, commie media and godless, egghead academia, I can tell you she’s wrong about both groups, and that several statistically valid surveys bear that out. Whatever. My real problem with Palin is that she’s blissfully unaware that she’s part of a dying breed of Christian: the shrill culture warrior bent on political conquest.

In “The Next Christians,” Gabe Lyons writes that culture warriors “believe they have to take up proverbial arms against secularists who would pillage America’s Christian heritage. These devoted followers regularly consume newsletters, radio shows and magazines by Christian patriots, pastors and pundits. … If you disagree with their cultural posture, beware. You might be labeled unpatriotic or worse … ungodly.

“Culture warriors, many of whom are sincere and well-intentioned, simply don’t know how else to promote the ideas of their faith in the public square. Yet they are often unaware of how their tactics are perceived by others . … As the culture grows more ‘godless,’ the Christians have reason to circle the wagons. Caring little about any broader purpose in the world (other than seeking conversions), they shout their views at the world and huddle safely with each other – far away from a world they believe is literally going to hell.”

Most under-35 people I know – Christian or not – want nothing to do with Palin. And it’s not always that they disagree with her politics, or even her message about declining faith and morality in America. The problem is her delivery. It’s consistent with a generation of boomer evangelicals that got drunk on political power and forgot to read the gospels a little more carefully. It’s also why the authors of the book “UnChristian” found that 87 percent of young-adult “outsiders” see Christians as judgmental.

I know a lot of cynical journalists who love God. I know a lot more who haven’t completely abandoned the faith of their youths. They’re just not quite sure about it. At the same time, they are idealists, in our business to make the world a better place. They’re generally a little left-of-center politically, but where a lot of them land on particular “moral” issues might surprise you. And, they are genuinely committed to fair reporting, without any agenda.

So, when Sarah Palin tosses grenades at our whole industry (well, except for Fox News), how exactly does that make journalists more likely to check out the claims of Christ, or visit a church?

She thinks we’re all godless heathens? Well, pass the tea. I’m changing teams!

What Palin, conservative talk-show hosts and Christian culture warriors fail to realize is that when they lob their judgmental grenades into the media, or academia, or Hollywood, the Christians working in those arenas get hit, too.

Is that awkward and counterproductive? You betcha.

Down in Front!

Posted: November 2, 2010 by Jim Killam in Christ's example
Tags: , , , ,

When I was in college in the early 1980s, I worked part-time as a sports writer for a daily newspaper in northern Illinois. One of the job’s perks was that I occasionally got to cover Chicago Cubs games. In those days, Wrigley Field had plenty of empty seats, both in the stands and in the press box, and it wasn’t hard to score a magical piece of paper called a press pass. I could enter the clubhouses before and after games. I could enjoy free lunch in the media room. A couple of hours before the game, I could walk down the grandstand steps to a gate next to the Cubs’ dugout. With a flash of my press pass to the usher, he’d open the gate and I could step onto the field … where, if I wanted to, I could walk right up behind the batting cage and watch hitters take their practice cuts. Satisfied after my “research,” I’d return to the stands.

 I’ve never much liked being the center of attention, but let me tell you, I felt pretty important striding from that batting cage toward the dugout while all those fans in the expensive seats fixed their eyes on me and wondered, “Who’s that guy?” All because I had something they didn’t: a press pass.

During games, my pass allowed me to sit anywhere I wanted, as long as a paying customer didn’t have that ticket. The first time I tried this privilege, I spotted what looked like the best seat in the house, two rows from the field and near the Cubs’ on-deck circle. I thought, “Why not?” and planted myself.

It was an enjoyable two minutes until an usher approached. “I see your pass,” he said gently. “But you’re sitting in the owner’s box.”

The Cubs fly one of two flags after every home game: one with a big “W” when they win and another with a big “L” when they lose. I might as well have worn the “L” flag as a giant cape as I slinked back up the steps, avoiding eye contact with those same fans who I was sure had been so impressed with me a few minutes earlier. I found a seat down the left-field foul line and returned to oblivion.

Thanks to that moment, I got the hang of press-pass seating and learned to stay clear of where the bigwigs sat. I could sit in the press box or in an empty seat in the stands. I’d often choose the latter because I wanted to take photos and didn’t have access to where the real photographers stationed themselves alongside the field. But again, doofus pride got the better of me. During one game I descended the grandstand steps again – this time near the visitors’ dugout to avoid another awkward encounter with Cubs management. I reached the gate to the field, flashed my press pass to the usher and started taking photos.

Then, a cigar-chomping Cub fan about 80 years old shouted, “Down in front!”

I turned and realized I’d been blocking the view of about a dozen fans who didn’t have the privileges, the access, that I had. Sometimes I’m a little slow to grasp the obvious, but in that moment something finally dawned on me. Where I’d assumed that fans looked at me and my press pass and wished they could be like me, a lot of times what they really were thinking was: What a jerk.

Embarrassed at having been exposed in front of an entire section of box-seat holders, I again slinked back up the steps. This time I kept climbing, all the way to the back section, and found a cheap seat where I could still see the game but where I would not block anyone’s view.

Those three words – “Down in front!” – changed my whole attitude about covering Cubs games. It wasn’t about immaturely parading my credentials in front of the crowd and silently projecting a “don’t you wish you were me?” attitude. It was about staying out of people’s way and doing my job. Which was, watching the game, analyzing what happened, questioning players about it, and writing a report that might help others understand it better. In other words, placing all of the attention where it belonged. No one was there to watch me or to marvel at my shiny press pass. They were there to watch the game.

Those experiences for me gave vivid meaning to Jesus’ words in Luke 14: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place.”

I’m ashamed to say that I’ve only recently realized I spent years doing the same thing as a Christian. Without even realizing it, I silently projected an ugly attitude: “I hold an all-access pass to God. And I live very differently than the rest of you because I want to call attention to that. So look at me, and how humble I am, and be attracted to Jesus.”

And instead of people being impressed and falling to their knees to get right with God, they simply thought: What a jerk.

More about this on Thursday.