Grace…that one incredible, unthinkable but life-changing gift!

Grace

Anne Lamott: “I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”

This past Sunday in our faith community, I spoke on subject of grace. The topic had snuck up on me at a gathering of friends a week ago as we were reading a “soon to be published” book by author Deanna Nowadnick. Grace is something that is so surprising…so out of the ordinary…so outrageious that one needs to stop every so often and delve into its healing waters once again. This idea of grace…just when you think you’ve got everything in life figured out…your little religious system working just right…God comes along as says “hey following me isn’t about systems, rules, accomplishments or seniority…it’s about grace. Life is about God’s undeserved, unmerited favor and love. Remember, Grace is always about God’s action, character and nature of love but it is “targeted” directly and personally toward you and me.

So, just in case you need a bit of reminding, here’s my quick list of three things to never forget about God’s grace:

1. Grace is undeserved

You can’t do anything to earn it…you don’t deserve it. Grace isn’t a right; it isn’t something God is bound to; Grace is free – God’s love? Free! God always takes the initiative, moving toward us with His grace to show us again mercy and love despite anything or anyone around us who wants to tell us otherwise. We don’t deserve Grace. What do you and me deserve? Here’s a question for you…since most of us who are reading this devotional have God in the overall picture of our lives, what can you and me actually demand from God? What do we deserve from God? I’ve thought about that question a lot lately so without getting into a big long story on the subject that would probably bore you and make this devotional lot longer than you are praying it is, let me say this: We don’t deserve anything! We can’t demand anything!

Turn on the news sometime and see for yourself…it’s not as if we are doing a good job in this world and we have some sort of earned right to stroll up to the throne of God and say something like, “hey Jesus…we’ve been doing pretty good lately…have you noticed?” I don’t know about you, but I’d say we flunked the “we’re doing pretty good” test. And even when we do try to clean up our act or straighten up or live some sort of stellar life, we eventually do mess things up royally. You know that to be true! And what does God give us as a result of all that? What does God give us even when we consistently prove that we don’t deserve a darn thing? Nope…He doesn’t shell out judgment or punishment…HE GIVES US GRACE. You see, what we deserve from God isn’t the issue – it is what we GET…we get grace!

2. Grace can't be earned.

So many people over the years I’ve talked to…so many have said almost these exact words, “Robin, of course God accepts me, I know that…yet He still expects me to live up to some specific level of spiritual performance, doesn’t he?” Performance based religion has been the bane of humanity since the beginning of time. For some reason, while Adam and Eve were still wiping their mouths from the juice of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, something clicked in humanity where WE GOT THE IDEA that we could pick up the slack of our lives on our own. And, as we are apt to do, we took it further because then we started to take some very good things like prayer, worship, serving God, the bible, friendships, etc. and twist them into sort of checklist of performance.

You see, this is what performance religion is all about:

• We can be our own God – do it ourselves

• Life depends on what we do, how well we perform, how good our efforts are

• What we receive in life comes from what we have achieved on our own

• Our culture reinforces this thinking with reward systems, raises, approvals, success stories…when the tragic thing is that, in the long run, it only messes with our mind and heart

The biblical story is a story, in many respects, not only about God and His grace but the story of humanity’s unsuccessful attempt to save themselves. We can’t save ourselves from ourselves, and believe me, its right there in black and white. People have tried to FOR CENTURIES. What’s going on now is NOTHING NEW. That’s why you can’t earn grace. God’s love and approval of YOU is completely detached from what YOU do or can do or should do or would do if given enough time and information. God’s love is given to you freely and uncontrollably…it’s just true and it’s just there…for you and me!

3. Grace is not part of a bargain, in other words; some people try to turn the love of God into a deal.

“If you do this for me God, I’ll repay you…” ever done that? “If you get me out of this jam…pay my taxes…get me healed…fix my husband or wife…give me a better paying job…I’ll repay you.” Are we called to offer ourselves back to God in response to His love and grace? Yes, by all means! But let me tell you straight…Jesus doesn't say I love you because…or since…or if…or when…or after…or provided…or presuming…He just says I LOVE YOU! That love is not a loan, it is a gift! You can refuse it but you can’t stop it. And I know that there is always someone in some room who is a cynic who will be tempted to say, “well, if that’s true, what if I blow it? Doesn’t that affect God’s love for me?” Well, the truth is, yep; we are all going to choke on some aspect of life. But let me tell you something that you can take to the bank. It is so powerful, so you have to read this slowly:

“If our failures could stop grace, it wouldn’t be grace”

Jesus loves you. He accepts you. He willingly comes to live with and in you. He grafts you into his life. Jesus calls you His son or daughter not because of, but just because. Many times in my life, I’ve felt like a failure. And I’m sure you have as well. And many times in my life I get the sense that God isn’t happy with me. It doesn’t matter how much of the bible I read, how many times I pray, how many times I try to listen to God and serve God, sometimes it never seems to be enough. Unfortunately, little do I truly understand that when I’m thinking like that, I’m in inescapable bondage. When I believe that a better performance would please God and prompt him to give me something I don’t already have in abundance, I’m in trouble and caught in a trap. And when you are in that type of bondage, it will, I guarantee you, pull whatever joy out of your life and love of God that you have experienced in the sum total of your days.

Performance based religion will chew you up and spit you out. You’ll be trashed. But if you can just wrap your head around, or better yet, wrap your heart around God’s grace, well, then you are in store for some massive healing. You will FEEL worthy because God has deemed you worthy to receive His love and grace. And God can give you that relief, that sweet relief we all need from keeping tabs on ourselves. When we try to always keep up the good performance…when we have that inner critic taking shots at us all the time telling us lies about how much we mean to God, when we are truly relieved of smoldering resentment and building anger against a god who always seems to demand more than we can possibly give, we can truly find peace. But that can ONLY BE in God’s grace. And trust me on this too, when grace brings you relief, you will find that you have some grace left over to give to others. You see, my experience tells me that UNGRACED PEOPLE have LITTLE GRACE TO GIVE. And when grace isn’t given, yes even and especially on a daily basis, you can bet that broken relationships, anger, resentments are sure to follow. That’s why GRACE can impact you and when it does, it spills over to others. TONS of people I know need to know more about God’s grace and the only way they might see it is from YOU! But you have to let it wash over your soul and continue to wash over your soul to the point when you pick up a cup of what is always there, leftovers, and you pass it on to another person. So, surrender to God’s grace and do it NOW!

Here are some closing words from Father Richard Rohr to encourage you to “let go to God’s grace.”

To Western or comfortable people, surrender and letting go sounds like losing. But it’s actually accessing a deeper, broader sense of the self, which is already whole, already content, already filled with abundant life. This is the part of you that has always loved God and said “Yes” to God. It’s the part of you that is Love, and all we have to do is let go and fall into it. It’s already there. Once you move your identity to that level of deep inner contentment and compassion, you realize that you’re drawing upon a Life that is larger than your own, and from a deeper Abundance. Once you learn to do that, why would you ever again settle for some scarcity model for life? But sadly, we continually do just that. The scarcity model is the way we’re trained to think: “I am not enough. This is not enough. I do not have enough.” So we try to attain more and more, and climb higher and higher. Thomas Merton said we may spend our whole life climbing the ladder of success, only to discover that when we get to the top our ladder is leaning against the wrong wall. Fall into the Big Truth that we all share, the Big Truth that is God, that is Grace itself, where you are overwhelmed by more than enoughness! Your spiritual journey is about living more and more in that abundant place where you don’t have to wrap yourself around your hurts, your defeats, your failures; but you can get practiced in letting go and saying “That’s not me. I don’t need that. I’ve met a better self, a truer self.

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An Amazing Facebook post by Ann Lamott

I have been a fan of Ann Lamott since I saw her speak at a conference a number of years ago.  Since then, I've read almost all of her books.  I admire her transparency and the depth of her personal journey.  I also follow her on Twitter…well, yesterday Ann posted something on Facebook that caught my attention.  See what you think  -  

Many mornings I check out the news as soon as I wake up, because if it turns out that the world is coming to an end that day, I am going to eat the frosting off an entire carrot cake; just for a start. Then I will move onto vats of clam dip, pots of crime brûlée, nachos, M & M's etc. Then I will max out both my credit cards.

I used to think that if the world–or I–were coming to an end, I'd start smoking again, and maybe have a cool refreshing pitcher of lime Rickeys. But that's going too far, because if the world or I was saved at the last minute, I'd be back in the old familiar nightmare. In 1986, grace swooped down like a mighty mud hen, and fished me out of that canal. I got the big prize. I can't risk losing it.

But creme brûlée, nachos, maybe the random Buche Noel? Now you're talking.

The last two weeks have been about as grim and hopeless as any of us can remember, and yet, I have not gotten out the lobster bib and fork. The drunken Russian separatists in Ukraine with their refrigerated train cars? I mean, come on. Vonnegut could not have thought this up. Dead children children on beaches, and markets, at play, in the holy land?? Stop.

The two hour execution in festive Arizona? Dear God.

And let's not bog down on the stuff that was already true, before Ukraine, Gaza, Arizona, like the heartbreaking scenes of young refugees at our border, the locals with their pitchforks. The people in ruins in our own families. Or the tiny problem that we have essentially destroyed the earth–I know, pick pick pick.

Hasn't your mind just been blown lately, even if you try not to watch the news? Does it surprise you that a pretty girl's mind turns to thoughts of entire carrot cakes, and credit cards?

My friend said recently, "It's all just too Lifey. No wonder we all love TV." Her 16 year old kid has a brain tumor. "Hey, that's just great, God. Thanks a lot. This really works for me."

My brother's brand new wife has tumors of the everything. "Fabulous, God. Loving your will, Dude."

My dog Lily's ear drum burst recently, for no apparent reason, with blood splatter on the walls on the entire house–on my sleeping grandson's pillow. Do you think I am well enough for that?
Let me go ahead and answer. I'm not. It was CSI around here; me with my bad nerves. And it burst again last night.

Crazy!

Did someone here get the latest updated owner's manual? Were they handed out two weeks ago when I was getting root canal, and was kind of self-obsessed and out of it? The day before my dog's ear drum first burst? If so, is there is an index, and if so, could you look up Totally (omitted word here) Overwhelm?

I have long since weeded out people who might respond to my condition by saying cheerfully, "God's got a perfect plan." Really? Thank you! How fun.

There is no one left in my circle who would dare say, brightly, "Let Go and Let God," because they know I would come after them with a fork.

It's not that I don't trust God or grace or good orderly direction anymore. I do, more than ever. I trust in divine intelligence, in love energy, more than ever, no matter what things look like, or how long they take. It's just that right now cute little platitudes are not helpful.

I'm not depressed. I'm overwhelmed by It All. I don't think I'm a drag. I kind of know what to do. I know that if I want to have loving feelings, I need to do loving things. It begins by putting your own oxygen mask on first: I try to keep the patient comfortable. I do the next right thing: left foot, right foot, left foot, breathe. I think Jesus had a handle on times like these: get thirsty people water. Feed the hungry. Try not to kill anyone today. Pick up some litter in your neighborhood. Lie with your old dog under the bed and tell her what a good job she is doing with the ruptured ear drum.

I try to quiet the drunken Russian separatists of my own mind, with their good ideas. I pray. I meditate. I rest, as a spiritual act. I spring for organic cherries. I return phone calls.

I remember the poor. I remember an image of Koko the sign-language gorilla, with the caption, "Law of the American Jungle: remain calm. Share your bananas." I remember Hushpuppy at the end of Beasts of the Southern Wild, just trying to take some food home to her daddy Wink, finally turning to face the hideous beast on the bridge, facing it down and saying, "I take care care of my own."

I take care of my own. You are my own, and I am yours–I think this is what God is saying, or trying to, over the din. We are each other's. Thee are many forms of thirst, many kinds of water.

Reflections on VBS Soccer Camp 2014, Monroe Washington

1Soccer CAmp bottle logoReflections on VBS Soccer Camp 2014

Philippians 3 (The Voice paraphrase) 12 I’m not there yet, nor have I become perfect; but I am charging on to gain anything and everything the Anointed One, Jesus, has in store for me—and nothing will stand in my way because He has grabbed me and won’t let me go. 13 Brothers and sisters, as I said, I know I have not arrived; but there’s one thing I am doing: I’m leaving my old life behind, putting everything on the line for this mission. 14 I am sprinting toward the only goal that counts: to cross the line, to win the prize, and to hear God’s call to resurrection life found exclusively in Jesus the Anointed. 15 All of us who are mature ought to think the same way about these matters. If you have a different attitude, then God will reveal this to you as well.

For the last four years, as a faith community, Peace has embraced a lifestyle of living the Kingdom of God in our midst. There have been understandable moments of confusion in this journey because living the Kingdom of God instead of simply being a local institutional church are two divergent definitions of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. To put it plainly, we have decided to GO instead of demanding that people “come” to us. We have challenged ourselves to invade our neighborhood and community with God’s love and grace instead of waiting for people to grace our doors. The world has changed…culture has changed…and, by all means, the life of a local church has changed. There are not denominations Christians beating down doors to local congregations…there are not people hiding out in their homes waiting for an invitation to come to “church.” Rather, people are living their lives, in most instances, not knowing or caring what a local institutional expression of religion is doing on an average Sunday.

Faith communities across the country are facing the challenges that ours is facing. Pressures, both financial and numerical, make it increasingly difficult to do what came as natural and easy in decades past. Guarantees of happy families and growing membership rosters simply because of denominational loyalty or a culture wide embrace of the Christian story are now vestiges of the past. WE live in a time of not only increasingly apathetic attitudes toward institutional expressions of faith but we also live in a time where people put higher value on self-indulgence during their free time (which is usually at the expense of traditional worship habits) as well as a general distaste or distrust of organized religion. Mega-churches, once a phenomenon within American Christianity, are now commonplace and, more and more, are the expression of choice by consumeristically driven religious customers intent on enjoying a wide array of “goods” offered by these sprawling expressions of the post-modern religion. To be in a small faith community means more transparency, more responsibility and more likelihood of the consumer being asked to be “self-feeding” and intentionally spiritually responsible. Usually, that doesn’t jive with the average 21st century American Christian who wants religious convenience over community…a plethora of choices over the personal responsibility to own the faith journey.

VBS Soccer Camp (from 2011-2014) is our faith community’s attempt to live another way…not pretending that we have our act together versus any other expression of local church but rather our commitment together (in time, lives and treasure) to graciously love our community without expectation. We challenged each other to love children and their families NO MATTER what their ilk and/or religious background. We said that we were willing to sacrificially give of our time and lives and resources to simply “love on” kids and provide a week of organized fun and recreation in partnership with other local organizations. We were HUGELY blessed and surprised this year when a number of Monroe institutions contacted us about forming a coalition of partners in providing this service to our community. The Police Department, School District, housing and relief agencies as well as four other diverse faith communities bonded together to do something that would ONLY bless our neighborhood. And that it did.

I don’t have a clue what God will bring out of this…all I know is that “seeds were sown” not in secret but publicly, under the glow of the sun that can produce a harvest beyond my wildest dreams. Could this become a Mustard Seed story (see Matthew 13)? Maybe, maybe not. Did we do this to get more “butts in seats?” Absolutely not…we did what we did, pressing on to the goal of glorifying Jesus in and through our efforts without expectation and relying on God and God alone to bring about fruit. God is the one who brings growth…all we accepted responsibility for was to offer our lives as living sacrifices and trust God with the results.

So, after 250 children, 100 volunteers, many local agencies involved, adult classes, meals served freely to the children and their families, we are exhausted but blessed in the knowledge the we are reaching for the prize. Do we know what God will do with this? Nope! And you know what? That’s OK! We served and loved…that’s what Jesus called us to do…love Him and love others. To tell you the truth, I’ve never felt MORE like the real Body of Christ than I felt last week. Worship experiences are good things, don’t get me wrong, but when the table is turned and we “worship” through loving action, the Kingdom becomes real in a manner that is surprisingly delightful and unexpected. Instead of waiting for the “real presence” to come to us, we became the presence of God in our community. People saw that…kids felt that love…the grace of God was palatable…and that’s really all that matters!

For those of you who are reading this and you were part of our effort and ministry, God bless you this week as you seek some much needed rest and peace. But take pride in the fact that you were LIVING THE KINGDOM…you got a dose of eternity last week! Savor that memory and pray that your hunger for MORE of those moments will only deepen. For those of you who weren’t, what are YOU doing to live God’s Kingdom in your life? No, we all don’t have it all together at any one moment but we do press on and seek the Spirit’s presence and guidance in being faithful to our Lord Jesus. That is the challenge of a lifetime!

The Importance of Moments of Silence!

1please-be-quiet-poly-350x200-polyThe Importance of Moments of Silence

I’ve never been a person committed to silence. Most of those who know me would most likely wish and hope that I WOULD BE committed to silence, but alas, my life is filled with words. The truth is even when I’m not talking, I’m thinking about talking. Pitiful isn’t it? Nonetheless, I’m trying to learn more about silence and cherishing the present moment. The lessons I’m learning have to do with being quiet in the moment…in other words, in order to savor and look for the presence of the Spirit (Kingdom of God) in the present moment, I need to be quiet, even if it is for a minute or two. A deep breath, a series of seconds of silence and a prayer of awareness can keep me “tapped in” to what God is doing and saying to me. I want to join God in what He is doing in the world…I’m sure that along with my desire are the words that God needs to share with me, “if that’s true, shut up and listen.”

Silence in the traditions of the Christian journey has been equated over history to death. Centuries ago, people who followed Jesus equated the idea of solitude and silence with look death “straight in the eye.” In fact, Alan Jones in his book, Soul-Making, writes:

“Facing death gives our loving force, clarity and focus.”

There is an interesting but provocative story in Jones’ book that I found helpful in putting silence in its proper framework for my life…maybe it will mean something to you.

A desert father (from the 3rd century A.D.) was asked for a word of wisdom by one of his disciples.“Go to the cemetery and curse the dead,” said the old man. The disciple went off and stood among the graves and shouted: “You cowardly, sinful brood! The stretch of your sins is an offence to heaven. I curse you with all power at my command. May you never see the light!” The young man went back to his master and told him that he had completed the task. “Did the dead say anything to you?” the old man asked. “Not a word!” answered the disciple. “Now go to the cemetery and praise the dead.” The young man ran off, stood among the graves, and began a great eulogy: “You are greater than the apostles. Your good deeds rise up to heaven like the incense. You inspire those you have left behind to good deeds. Such is your power, you glorious saints!” The young man hurried back to his master’s cell. “Well,” said the old man, “how was it this time? Did the dead have anything to say?” The disciple answered, “They were as silent as before.” After a period of silence, the old man said, “That is how you have to be – like the dead; beyond cursing and praise, unaffected by the opinions of others.”

We all face SO much when we are silent. You may not even be aware of it…I know I wasn’t! I just “feel” uncomfortable and am usually anxious to get some “sound” going to fill those moments of perceived emptiness. Little did I really know or appreciate how much is going on when we are silent. When we are silent, we are alone with our thoughts, temptations, urges, worries, anxieties and fears. That’s why our moments of silence are important in our relationship with Jesus. For prayer is, in many respects, a moment-to-moment willingness to place ourselves on the threshold the death and wait there. In those moments, our hearts, our thoughts, and again, our fears, apprehensions, anxieties, worries, attitudes, and desires all are laid bare to the Lord. Silence gives us an opportunity to face our dependence upon all things material…it renders our personal strategies of self-deception less effective. In these moments, sometimes what the bible alludes to as “cave” or “wilderness” or “times away” moments, these are the places there is nothing less than the dwelling place of God. Jones says,

“Stopping the world, therefore, is an inescapable first step. It is the means by which we break out, or are broken out of, a way of thinking and believing that confuses our descriptions of things, people, and events for the realities themselves. This breaking out not only widens our visions, it changes it…stopping the world is an exhilarating experience. Just for a moment, we have no choice but to see all our dogmatic and philosophical baggage thrown overboard as we stand ship-wrecked on an unknown island.”

This “unknown island” is a dependency upon God and an awareness of His transforming and loving presence that oft goes ignored purely because we can’t sit still and be quiet, silent before the Lord. I read that phrase and it REALLY made sense to me! I love exploring…I’m naturally curious but this “unknown island” though exciting to think about will ONLY BE EXPLORED in my life when I take the time to “be still and know that I am God.”

So, how is it for you? How important are moments of silence? Do they show you more of yourself than you are comfortable with? If that’s so, I think you might want to join me in exploring that “unknown island” so that it can be known and show us, again, that we have a HOME in the Lord.

That’s why I play the blues

1pill-form-enjoy-the-bluesI decided to stick to two specific genres of music now that I'm approaching my 60th year. I'm past a lot of the music that is flashy or even personally original.  I find even when I am flirting with "the muse," I'm more apt to adapt a current song for some use in ministry than take the time and focus to write anything original.  I don't think I've written a new song since a little ditty I wrote for a puppet show back in 2002.  Rather now, I'm enjoying simply sitting back and playing simple chords and licks for the fun of it.  Yeah, I'm still strumming along with worship songs and sets…I made a commitment decades ago to stick with that and I'm not apt to negotiate with God.  A commitment and promise is just that…something that I'm not bound to give up.  But the Blues are self-explanatory…the genre is raw, simple, emotionally complex and real.  

A guitar player playing the blues doesn't have to impress anyone with three or four chords and improvisation that is more about "feel" than even technique or expertise.  I've listened to them all – from Robert John and Muddy Waters to the contemporary likes of Bonamassa and Moore.  It hasn't been too difficult to learn specific patterns on the fretboard or get that gritty sound out of my amplifier.  In addition, it's not too difficult to tap into feelings of brokenness and pain.  Truth is, that's the reality of the blues as well as the real story of most of our lives.  If "one-upmanship" is the plague of contemporary culture that is addicted to consumerism and popularity, the blues allows one to sit still, be quiet and accept the laments of daily life.  Because if there is ONE thing we all have in common, it is the restlessness and hurts of the heart.  

For me, the blues are hopeful because they start with where we are…they pull me out of my self-proclaimed and narcissistic sense of entitlement, my expectations of unending comfort, and the delusion that life is all about my happiness and fulfillment. Life is more…the journey of faith is more…in fact, it is in the silence and struggles of life in which most of us discover anew the presence of God.  Playing the blues as a guitar player lends itself to honesty and humility…because the truth is I really only know a few things about the music and instruments I play, though I do know how to be very good at bluffing.  I used to pride myself in being able to look like I'm playing really well…now I just take solace in doing my best, playing when I'm comfortable, and simply enjoying simple and truthful music.  Most days I play, I'm in a room alone with backing tracks put together by some brilliant musicians.  But my Fender Strat, that incredible Anderson electric that I've been blessed with, my Mesa amp and plethora of fun efx pedals do get their workout and I'm happy.  So here's to 12-bar blues and penatonic scales.  Here's to some of the online instructors and videos that have helped me have more fun and learn more about how to lean into playing genre.  And here's to my wife Vicky who has to live with the 5 watt setting on my amplifier that still feels like it is shaking the walls (and I don't live at any level above a "1," surely not an "11").  So, that's it for today.  A few reflections that are more revelatory than instructional…confessional than inspirational.  But, some days, that's the best I can do!

Something to think about – “How Churches Became Cruise Ships” – Skye snuck in another post

1downloadYep, he did it.  Just when I thought Skye was finished with his thoughts on this subject and it was safe to refer you to it, he snuck in another one.  So, for those of you who were interested in what he wrote, he's part 3 (the one HE CLAIMS is the last). Skye, if you are reading this, I'm a big fan!  Write as many posts as you want!  For my other friends, give this some thought:

How Churches became Cruise Ships – Part 3 – by Skye Jethani

In part 1 of this article I explored the emergence of megachurches and the parallel with the transformation of the passenger shipping industry from liners to cruise ships in the late 20th century.

In part 2 we saw how the desire for relevance has led both cruise lines and churches to lose sight of their unique value proposition. They have tried to compete in areas they can never win, while abandoning the one thing their competition can never provide.

In this final installment I outline the unintended side effects of both mega ships and megachurches, and how they appear more stable then they really are.

Earlier we saw how the desire to compete with land resorts fueled the construction of larger ships with more land-like features. Relevance was not the only motivation for building larger ships, however, they also created operational efficiencies. Putting 4,000 passengers on one ship is much more cost effective than putting the same number of passengers on four ships. Just as it costs less to take a bus than a taxi because the costs of the driver, fuel, maintenance, and tolls are spread across more passengers, so larger ships also benefit from an economy of scale.

In the cruise business a ship’s price is often calculated as the “cost per berth,” or the total cost of the ship divided by the number of passengers it carries. The Seabourn Quest, with only 450 passengers, cost $540,000 per berth to build. The world’s largest cruise ship, Allure of the Seas, with ten times as many passengers has a per berth cost less than half that of the Seabourn Quest. This is why cruise lines have come to believe bigger is better.

But is it?

While large ships are unquestionably more economically efficient there are costly tradeoffs. One of the advantages cruise ships have over land resorts is mobility. If a hurricane hits the Caribbean, hotels there may lose an entire season of revenue. Cruise ships, however, can relocate to Bermuda, Mexico, or South America. Similarly, a recession in the United States may lead a line to move ships to Asia or Europe where the economy is stronger. In other words, ships are nimble; they can react quickly to market changes and adjust.

Big ships, however, are much less nimble than smaller ones. The Allure of the Seas, for example, is too large to transit the Panama Canal, and therefore it’s area of deployment is limited to warm weather areas of the Atlantic. Similarly, it’s massive size means it cannot call at smaller ports or serve smaller emerging markets. It’s size makes the ship efficient as long as market conditions remain stable. Large ships trade flexibility for efficiency.

The same is true for megachurches. One example occurred in 2005 when Christmas fell on a Sunday. Large churches across the country announced they would not have Sunday worship services on Christmas Day while most smaller churches remained opened. One megachurch admitted, “Organizing services on Christmas Sunday would not be the most effective use of staff and volunteer resources.” The church spokesperson said each service requires 90 staff and up to 700 volunteers. Factoring the cost of lighting and heating the huge facility, the cost of opening on Christmas Sunday would not be offset by the smaller attendance and offering collected. In this case being big was a limitation to ministry rather than an advantage.

If megachurches cannot flex for a predictable anomaly, like Christmas falling on a Sunday, how will they adjust to more dramatic market changes? What happens when a generation values cities more than suburbs (where most megachurch are located)? Or when young adults prefer to buy smart phones rather than cars (which most megachurches are predicated upon)? Or when confidence in large institutions plummets in favor of smaller organizations? Building a megachurch may appear efficient today, but church leaders are making a mega gamble that market conditions will remain favorable for decades to come.

Megachurches, like huge ships, project an appearance of stability and security, but it is precisely these qualities that make them vulnerable to disaster. The Titanic was called “unsinkable” because of her unprecedented size, but it was her size that made her unable to turn quickly enough to avoid the iceberg. Similarly, many church commentators continue to affirm the growth and stability of megachurches without recognizing the inherent vulnerability of these ecclesiastical Titanics that are far less nimble than small churches.

Not everyone is naive. Over the last 15 years more megachurch leaders have come to acknowledge the risks–particularly their inflexibility. They have tried to overcome this by pursing a multisite model that franchises the reach of a megachurch beyond it’s immediate 30-minute drive radius by launching multiple smaller congregations in different communities. This allows a church to engage emerging markets, adjust to changing conditions, and spread the costs and risks across a larger number of people. The multisite model appears to be a perfect solution. It incorporates the efficiencies of a megachurch with the flexibility of small churches.

However, most of these multisite megachurches still remain vulnerable to the Captain Schettino problem. Francesco Schettino was the master of the Costa Concordia who took over 4,000 passengers and crew off course to do a “fly by” of the Italian island of Giglio in January 2012. The ship struck a rock, capsized, and 32 people died. Schettino is facing trial for negligence, abandoning his ship, and manslaughter. Five other officers have already been convicted. Financial loses from the accident are estimated at over $2 billion, the worst in maritime history.

While putting 4,000 people onto one cruise ship under the command of one captain is very efficient, if the captain is a Schettino all you’ve done is ensure an efficient disaster. As vessels get larger they are required to have redundant safety features, but the growth in size simultaneously exacerbates whatever human failures may occur.

Multisite churches try to limit risk and expand their missions by decentralizing many of their functions. Most of these churches, however, are still driven by a central personality–a “captain” who serves as the lead pastor, preacher, and CEO of the ministry. Video and digital simulcasting allow a single person to speak at dozens of multisite campuses, and in some cases holographic technology provides an illusion of incarnation (a big hit with Gnositcs). In many cases these leaders are mature, godly pastors, but what happens when the pastor is a Schettino who takes his congregation of thousands on a joy ride to destruction?

Sadly we have seen too many stories of megachurches led by Schettinos who view their ministries as personal kingdoms to rule over and exploit. There is something amiss when the mission of an entire church, and the wellbeing of thousands of Christ’s people, are entrusted to a single person with little or no accountability. Yet this is the case in many megachurches that lack denominational oversight or sufficient internal checks and balances. Don’t assume this is a case against all megachurches, just as all cruise ships are not destined to end up like the Costa Concordia. Instead, we simply need to acknowledge the incredible responsibility pastors of megachurches carry and the inherent risk of placing so much power in the hands of one talented, but possibly immature, leader.

I do not believe megachurches should be abandoned, nor do I believe they are going to disappear as the religious landscape of America changes. There are challenges ahead, however, for the megachurch movement and for the smaller churches that seek to emulate its values. Our skill in navigating these waters will depend on our ability to understand why megachurches emerged, what makes them successful, and the inherent weaknesses they often disguise as strengths.