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When I visited other churches (What I Learned on Sabbatical, Part 4)

2 May

https://justindametz.files.wordpress.com/2015/09/old-church.jpg?w=876&h=584

One of the most frequent questions I got before going on sabbatical, and during sabbatical was, “Where will you go to church?”

When I asked people what they thought I should do about church, there were many different responses.  Some people suggested I take a break, which is essentially the definition of sabbatical.  I seriously considered not going to church during the whole sabbatical. I concluded that it would not be wrong to take three months off.  But I was excited about another idea.

I looked at Sunday morning as an opportunity to visit other churches.  From my first Sunday, when I felt nervous and awkward going to another church, to my final church visit, I found it exciting.  It was like being on a field trip each week.  Remember the energy you felt as a kid when your school class went on a field trip?  Each visit was informative, even eye-opening.  I would return home, open my laptop and wrote a report about the visit.  I recorded my thoughts about that church’s website, their parking lot, their greeters, lobby, worship service, bulletin, use of technology, sermons, and on and on. Here’s a bit of what I learned:

First of all, we need to visit other churches!  I would recommend that all of us, pastors included, should be visiting other churches at least once or twice every year.  Some people say that is what vacation weeks are for.  Others say vacation weeks are for taking a break from church.  I’ll let you decide.  I believe there is very good reason to just simply take a break sometimes.  I personally found on sabbatical that it was beneficial to visit other churches.

The writer of Hebrews say: “Let us not give up meeting together.”  The Christian habit of gathering together is not some random, legalistic biblical principle.  Being highly committed to a weekly practice of gathering as a church family is important, the writer of Hebrews says, because when we gather, we encourage one another.  When you prepare yourself to gather together with other Christians, get yourself prepared by praying, “Lord, I am asking you to help be an encouragement to my church family today!”

Also read Acts 2:42-47, which describes the pattern of the first followers of Jesus.  They gathered regularly to hear the teaching of the word, to pray, to give, to fellowship and encourage one another, to worship God.  Then met in a large group at the temple, and they met in small groups in homes.  We need to make our church family’s regular gatherings a priority.

Within that context of intentional, consistent gathering, I recommend that at least once or twice each year, though, you visit churches outside your comfort zone.  Think about it.  What expressions of church or worship styles seem most distasteful to you?  Attend them.  Go to a liturgical church. Go to a megachurch with rocking music.  Go to a house church. Go to a church from a different ethnicity.  It is good to put yourself in the place of a first-time guest.

Second, we need to reach out in kindness to guests.  It is hard to be a first-time guest.  It feels awkward. The parking lot, the lobby, the service, the fellowship time…all of it is brand new.  A guest has no idea how it works or what will happen.

At one church I visited, they instructed guests to fill out a connection card, similar to ours.  I am not in the habit of bringing a pen with me.  And there were none in the pews.  I couldn’t fill out the card.  It felt awkward.

At another church I walked into the lobby about 8-10 minutes before the service was to begin, and it was nearly empty.  I peeked in the sanctuary doors, and though the lights were one, the sanctuary was empty.  I was confused.  There were plenty of cars in the parking lot.  Where was everyone?  Did I get something wrong?  I then realized they had Sunday School first…but still I thought, shouldn’t there be more people here with only 8 minutes to go?  It felt awkward.

Soon a whole bunch of people started entering the lobby from a different part of the building. I overheard people saying that they had been at a congregational meeting, and it only let out a few minutes before their worship gathering started.  Now I understood. But there was no signage about this.  And the few people in the lobby never greeted me.  It felt really uncomfortable.

Another church was in the middle of a sermon series that relied on printed materials that they had given out at a previous date.  It was a guidebook that had Scripture and notes pages.  So once they were reading Scripture, they told people to go to a particular page # in their guidebook.  As a guest, I never got one, and was uncertain of what they were talking about.  No one offered to share.  It wasn’t a big deal.  I could follow along in my own Bible.  But as a first-time guest it immediately had me feeling out of place.

And then there were the liturgical churches…they took awkwardness to a whole different level.  I’ll talk about them later on.

There were a couple a churches who greeted guests very well.  They had people at the front door who were friendly, people in the lobby with big smiles on their faces, welcoming me.  That made a difference.  To come to a church that is new, especially where you don’t know anyone, takes courage.  It feels super awkward, and it is why so many people just stay home.  But in the smaller churches like mine, we know right away when someone new comes. The newcomer knows that too.  So we need to go out of our way to reach out to guests with balance and grace.  We don’t want to overwhelm people.

I encountered a few more things about interacting with guests, about finding that healthy balance of being friendly and welcoming without being overwhelming:

There was the church where, at the end of the service, a guy seated in a pew near me actually engaged me in conversation.  He showed interest in me.  Asked me questions.  It wasn’t overwhelming.  It was just nice.  Made me feel like a human.  That should be the minimum we strive for.

At one church I actually stayed for a fellowship meal afterwards.  And there, people at my table entered into lengthier conversations of course.  It was great.

Let us be a people who reach out to guests, and by that I mean actually go to them and talk with them. Ask their name, where they are from, the basics.  Offer to answer any questions about the church.  Invite them to have coffee and tea in the fellowship hall and to stay for classes.  This goes for those who are not just first-time guests.  Reach out to those in your church family who you have seen before but don’t really know.  Even if you have seen them many times.  Reach out.  Make connections.

As you talk, be gracious and non-pressured.  Have in your heart and mind that those seeking a new church family are in a very stressed situation.  Leaving their previous church was likely an emotionally conflicted decision.  Often it came after many months and lots of deliberation.  It is daunting to step foot in a new church.  It means they are being courageous, but they are also often coming to church from a wounded place.

So we need to be gracious.  It is not about us.  We don’t want to give any impression that we are salivating for new people to join us.  It is about God’s Kingdom and what is best for his Kingdom.  We can be gracious and admit that our church might not be the right church family for a person for many reasons.  That’s okay.  We are who we are, and we can be secure in that.  And it is okay if guests are looking for a different kind of expression of Christianity than who we are.

The next big thing I learned from visiting other churches is that there were intentional elements of worship services that left me totally confused or distracted.

One church had a lady tastefully waving flags throughout their singing times.  I’ve heard that some churches do this.  But as a guest who had never experienced it before, I had questions that were never answered.  What was the purpose of the flag?  They were green and white.  Did the colors mean anything?  I wish I had understood a little more about what things meant.

At the two liturgical churches I visited, I was really out of place.  The Catholic Church had no bulletin. If I had not gone with friends I would have been totally lost.  Even with my friend’s guidance, there were a few instances where I felt like I was line dancing at a wedding. Have you ever been line dancing, and you have no idea what to do, but you want to join in and not be the awkward one left out?  So you’re watching the person next to you, but you’re constantly late with a step, or totally off, and you feel like everyone in the whole room is watching you make a fool of yourself?  That’s me every time I’ve tried line dance.  That’s also how I felt at the liturgical churches when there was kneeling or standing or making the sign of the cross.

But hear this: it can be a good thing, a very good thing, to feel out of place and out of your comfort zone.  We also need to remember that most people in our culture do not like that feeling.  Just showing up as a first-time guest will feel like that, no matter what church you are in, simply because it is new, with new people.  How out of place do we want people to feel?  What is the balance?

There are times when we change things up at Faith Church during worship, when we experiment, and we do that purposefully so that we all feel a little out of place.  There is a time for routine and habit, and there is a time for getting uncomfortable, as it can and should cause us to learn.

But I also think it is very healthy, like I said last week, for us to have an honest opinion about ourselves as individuals.  Today I ask that about our large group expression.  Are we so different or confusing that we are actually distracting?

Faith Church family reading this, how are we unique or different or odd?  Our open-mic sharing time?  Not a single other church I was in did that.  I suspect it is rare.  And sometimes it is awkward, isn’t it?  But we keep doing it because we believe that all of us are participants in worship.  Sharing the good and the bad is what a family does, and we want to be able support and care for each other.

So let’s be odd, but in a balanced way.  Let’s know how we are odd and why we are odd.  Odd is not always a bad thing.  It’s okay to be doing something different from another.

Fourth, I learned that in every church gathering there was something unintentionally disruptive.  And that gave me great solace because of how often disturbances happen during worship at Faith Church!

At one church a baby cried during the entire sermon.  And the parents and baby were sitting up at the very front!  I kept thinking “Why don’t they take that baby out?”  I wondered what the pastor was thinking.  It can be hard to preach when there is disruption. And it can be hard to listen when there is disruption.

At one church the projection system stopped working just before the service started. The computer locked up and the same slide was showing on screen from the time I sat down a couple minutes before the service, through all the welcome and announcements, the whole way to the midway point of the third song.  Before he started playing music, the worship leader deftly mentioned the technical difficulties and led us in beautiful worshipful singing anyway.  In that third song, you could start to the see mouse pointer on screen moving all over the place.  Then finally, they got it working and displayed the correct slide.

The much larger church was a bit different.  They had a worship service with no distractions that I noticed.  But after worship there was a major oversight.  They ran out of coffee!  Ha!

Our goal for our worship gathering is not to produce a perfect show.  We want to pursue excellence, for sure.  If we make mistakes, we strive to improve.  But our goal is to worship the Lord, and to help our church family learn from him.  If and when mistakes happen, I encourage you to be gracious and smile.

Finally, I want to talk about what I learned during my visit to the Orthodox Church.  I went to Christ the Savior Orthodox in Harrisburg where my friend is the priest.  Father Stephen and I were in the Clergy Leadership Program together.  The Clergy Leadership Program is a pastoral education program based out of Messiah College, and our cohort met from 2015-2017.

For those of you who are not familiar with the Orthodox church, it has a legitimate claim to be the oldest Christian denomination.  They would say that the Roman Catholic Church broke away from them.  While they are quite similar to Catholics, there are also many differences.  My personal impression is that I felt like the Catholic worship service was rather familiar.  The Orthodox worship service felt like a whole new ballgame.  I want to describe the Orthodox church for you a bit more in detail because there was an idea that struck me that day, an idea that I want to share with you.

The first thing I noticed was the numerous times throughout the Orthodox service where they used incense.  I like smells.  But I struggled a bit with that smell, which I suspect was frankincense.  I wonder if they can use other smells such as fresh bread?

Incense was not the only way Orthodox worship was so different.  There was no technology, except a couple microphones.  There were no musical instruments.  Zero.  Instead there was a call and response choir in the back.  They did call and response during the entire 2 hour and 15 minute service.  Sometimes we would sing with them.  And did you hear me say that they service was 2 hours and 15 minutes?  Also I would venture a guess that 75% of that time we were standing.  That included a period of about 45 straight minutes of standing during communion at the end of the service.

There was tons of kneeling and bowing and kissing.  Anytime the liturgy mentioned the name of God, they made the sign of the cross, and the liturgy said the name of God a lot!  The service followed a prayer book which was in the pew.  I was constantly flipping pages, thinking I found the right spot, and then getting totally lost, and flipping pages again.  Afterwards my friend told us that the whole time we were in the wrong section of the book!

And then there was the communion part of the service.  I was not allowed to participate in either Catholic or Orthodox communion, because you have to be a member of their churches, and I respect that.  So I observed from my seat.  At the Orthodox church, I had never seen anything like it.  Participants went forward in a single-file line.  They had deacons holding a napkin right under the participants’ chin so as not to drip a single drop of the blood of Christ.  The priest is carrying a huge goblet. Inside the goblet is the bread soaked in the wine.  He then dipped a spoon and ladled a piece of wine-soaked bread out with the spoon, and spoon-fed it right into the participant’s mouth.  Person by person by person. At the same time the choir in the back was repeating one line over and over, slowly, chant-like, “This is the body of Christ, the fountain of eternal life for you.”  And the congregation was singing with the choir during the whole communion.  I think we must have sung that line at least 50 times, maybe more.  My feet hurt, my back hurt, and I admit that I got to a point where I wanted it to be done.

And you know what I thought?  It was actually refreshing.

It was long, smelly, and made my back and feet hurt from all the standing.  It was confusing at times, beautiful at others, and somewhat hard to follow.  And I found it refreshing.  Why wasn’t it distracting like some of those other worship services?  You know why?

Because the Orthodox Church is what they have been for centuries, and they stick to that. Furthermore, every single element of worship carries significance.  From the incense to the candles to the kissing and the liturgy and the icons and the spoon-feeding, all of it has a theological underpinning.  There is a beauty to the depth and symbolism of all. I found that super-refreshing.

I get it that other people might find Orthodox worship very distracting.  That’s okay.  To be honest, my feeling of finding it refreshing stems from a couple places.  First, the priest is my friend. I have a personal connection.  Second, I am a pastor, and my feelings were impacted by that.  Let me explain.  A pastor in the Orthodox church doesn’t have to make sure the PowerPoint is good, or that he has great videos, or cool illustrations in his sermons.  There is no pressure to have really awesome worship services to reach people who could just as easily go to the ultra-cool church down the road. They just don’t care about the consumer-minded culture of their people.  And man, that was a breath of fresh air to me.

That is the idea I wanted to share with you.  That we Americans are steeped in a consumer culture, and we bring that to church.  But we should be on guard against that.  A consumer is one who chooses between a multitude of options as to what they like, and they select what they like, and they consume it.  The focus is on them.  The Orthodox church, in how it worships, assaults this notion of the consumer as the focus. Clearly Jesus is the focus.

We low-church protestants tend to give high-church liturgical worship a bad rap.  We say that we don’t see high liturgy anywhere in the New Testament.  The reality is that when I read the New Testament, I also don’t see the kind of worship that non-liturgical churches like ours practice.  What worship is acceptable to Jesus?  Probably all of it, if he is glorified, his word is preached, and people are encouraged to be faithful to God, with an opportunity for the sacraments.

And I saw Christ honored in every single one of the churches I visited.  Jesus was glorified at the megachurch, and at the small church. He was glorified at the liturgical churches, and he was glorified at the churches with worship services like Faith Church.  I saw a theme in all the churches I visited: worship should help us stop being self-focused consumers, and reshape us to be God-focused disciples of Jesus.

I don’t think Faith Church is perfect or better than those churches I visited. But I can say that I love where we have come on our journey learning about gathered worship services.  We have learned some important biblical principles that we are trying to apply week in and week out.  Worship first and foremost must glorify God.  He is to be the focus of all we do.  Worship should be participatory.  That means including a variety of people in the church family.  Worship should be experimental, meaning that we should be teachable learners, admitting that we don’t have the corner on the worship market, and thus willing to try new things from time to time.

And that experimental attitude was at the heart of my desire to visit other churches.  It is something I commend to you too.  So at least a couple times each year, go visit a church you’ve visited, and be a first-time guest, be a learner, worship God with that local expression of what he calls his body, the church, and come back and report on what you learned so that we, this local expression of his body that we call Faith Church, can learn from what you experienced!

Why I am Going on a Three-month Sabbatical

3 Jan

I started sabbatical January 1st.  For the first three months of 2018 I will put my pastoral duties on pause.

I have so much gratitude to Faith Church for allowing this, and for facilitating it.  Over the last few years, as the church considered and planned for the sabbatical, there have been numerous people in the congregation who have invested much time and energy to make it a reality, and I deeply appreciate it.  Now, as I begin my sabbatical, I look at how many people in our church family are serving in new and different ways just so I can go on sabbatical.  That is incredibly meaningful to me.

As I start the sabbatical, I am keenly aware that most people don’t get a sabbatical and could never dream of one.  Sabbaticals seem most common in the educational realm, especially in higher education.  But in my congregation, filled with hard-working professionals, a sabbatical is unheard of for most.  So I’ve wrestled a lot with whether or not I should even want one in the first place.  When so many people in my church family work in fields that don’t offer sabbaticals, maybe I shouldn’t get one either.  Like me, they work long hours in sometimes difficult jobs.  What makes me different?

In most ways, I’m not different.  In other ways, very different.  For example, my denomination recommends that pastors receive a sabbatical from their church every 7 years of ministry.  I started full-time at Faith Church as Youth/Associate Pastor in October 2002.  Then in July 2008 I became Senior Pastor.  I started talking about sabbatical in 2009 when I hit the seven-year mark of full-time ministry.  But having just become senior pastor the year before, my wife and I decided to hold off on that discussion.  Once I reached seven years as senior pastor, I brought it up again.  So I am within denominational recommendations for taking a sabbatical.  But again, I question, should I?

Here’s why I pursued the sabbatical.  We Americans tend to have a very individualistic mindest, and with that, we’re loathe to admit weakness.  I often succumb to both of these tendencies.  I just don’t think of it as a succumbing. Instead, and maybe you think this way too, when I am successful as a lone ranger, I can feel so affirmed. I did what I was supposed to do. I was responsible and accomplished and strong. It’s easy to become prideful, under a guise of being responsible.  But the reality is that deep within, I feel much less certain, individually strong and accomplished than I might give off.  To reveal more of what actually goes on inside my mind, I need this sabbatical.

Pastoral ministry is difficult, and yet as I type that, I hate to admit that.  On one hand I’m concerned about coming across as saying “my job is harder than your job.”  There are many jobs that require a lot from people.  Pastoral ministry is not alone in that regard.  But I do think it is fair to say that pastoral ministry is a difficult profession.  Plenty has been written about the rigors of being a pastor.  Here is an example.  And another.  (Furthermore, being a pastor’s wife is a uniquely difficult role.)

As I have served for 15 years, I see the value in my denomination’s recommendation that pastors take a sabbatical every 7 years.  I am ready for this sabbatical.  I feel the strain of those 15 years deep within, and I feel it bubble up to the surface, all too regularly.  Don’t get me wrong, I am so thankful to God for bringing us to Faith Church, and I love my church family. I am very much looking forward to many more years pursuing the mission of God’s Kingdom together.  And I am convinced that this sabbatical, and another one in seven years, and another in seven more years beyond that, and so on, will enable us to have a healthy future serving the Lord.

I recently read an article saying that the pastor can be the greatest hindrance to the church’s growth.  Those words “church growth” can mean many different things to people.  The kind of church growth I am talking about is not more bodies, buildings and bigger budgets.  Instead I am talking about people experiencing transformation in Jesus.  That transformation looks like people stopping a selfish sinful life and learning from Jesus how to live what he called the abundant life, and after having been changed, helping more people get transformed too (which we call discipleship). I’ve written about that elsewhere on this blog.

Deep down I worry that, in my role as pastor of Faith Church, I can be the greatest hindrance to people in my church family actually experiencing that kind of transformation. I wonder if my personality, preaching and leading abilities (or lack thereof…in all three areas) are the biggest hindrance to the church’s growth.  At various times I think I don’t pray enough, visit enough, sacrifice enough.  The balance to all those concerns is that no one is perfect, and I do work on personal growth in all those areas, and know I have much learning to do.  Surely I can be a hindrance to the cause of discipleship to Jesus, because of these areas.

But that is not what the article was talking about.  The article was talking about how pastors too often do the work of ministry for the people.  In the church family people do serve and give quite a lot.  But there exists a line where that serving stops.  When people get to that line (and the line is different for every pastor), the people think “I’ve done what I can do, and now I’ll hand it off to the pastor, because it is his or her job to do the rest.”  I suspect you know what that line is for your church and your pastor.  You know what the result of the line is?  The pastor feels fulfilled because he has pastoral work to do, but the people never grow beyond the line.  If the pastor always takes over at the line, the people will only grow up to that point.

What if Jesus has transformative work he wants to do in people’s lives, but it will require them to go beyond the line of pastoral ministry?  I am convinced that Jesus does have that kind of work he wants to do, and by maintaining that line, we pastors hinder the growth of our people.

So during my sabbatical the line at Faith Church is about to be crossed.  People in the church family will be stepping across the line to do nearly everything that the pastor does.  I’m nervous about that, and I’m excited about that.

Will I be out of a job when I get back?  I don’t think so.  What I hope, though, is that perhaps I’ll need to change my job description. Maybe I have been preserving the line, when I should be pulling people over it.  I can’t say for sure.  My sabbatical has just begun.  I don’t know where it will lead.  I do have some goals.  One is to learn to recognize the voice of the Lord.  Some other goals are to read a lot, write a lot, and get away to quiet.  I’ve already deactivated my Facebook account.  Weeks before that I deleted all the video games from my phone and my laptop.  I want to learn to be more present.  I want to learn to not be hurried.  That one I learned from Carey Nieuwhof’s podcast interview with John Ortberg (it is episode 168), who was very close with Dallas Willard.  Ortberg said Willard was wholly unhurried.  That amazes me.  I’m always hurried. Always checking the notifications on my phone.  Always wanting to do not just one thing, but usually trying to do two things at the same time.  “Redeem the time” can be an excuse for all sorts of poor use of time.  I want to learn all these lessons so that they are not just for sabbatical, but so they can flow into whatever pastoral ministry will look like starting April 1st.  (Which is Easter, by the way.  I know it is April Fool’s Day too, but I have a feeling Easter is going to take precedence.  And on Easter, we talk about new life!  Very interesting juxtaposition of themes for this sabbatical.)

So this will be my final post until April 2018.  I wish I could write about Psalm 148, which was the text for my final sermon before going on sabbatical. It is so joyful, and needed after four weeks of lament.  Just read it and you’ll see.

A Guided Lament you can use right now

21 Dec

Image result for lament

Do we lament when life is so rotten and dark that we have no where else to turn?  Yes.

Do we lament when there is still hope, but much work yet to be done?  Yes.

What we have seen this Advent as we’ve studied psalms of lament, is that lament is a faithful, clinging to God, an emotional plea asking him to intervene.

When we lament, we pray, “How long O Lord?” because we are waiting for him in the midst of our pain.

When we lament we are asking God to restore and revive us.

As you read this post, you may be at your wits’ end.  And you might not be.  No matter if you are going through a difficult time, or if things are relatively good, I encourage you to practice lament.  Include lament as a regular part of your prayer.  So what I’ve created below is a guide that you can use to help you lament.

Maybe even take the guide and use it to lament with your family or small group.  When we used this guide during our worship service at Faith Church, I read a section, then gave a few minutes for people to lament.  I invited our church family to lament out loud if the wanted.  Some did!  Most prayed quietly to themselves.

You’ll notice that the guided lament below starts broadly, lamenting for our world, and then gradually narrows, finishing with a lament for yourself.  Feel free to read over the brief description I’ve created ahead.  You might want to personalize, add to it, totally change it!  What I have listed below is just a guide.

So find a quiet place, away from distractions.  You might want to put your phone on airplane mode, light a candle, and take a few deep breaths.  Maybe read Psalm 126 again.  And then when you’re ready, address your lament to God.

Lament for our world

Lament for our world.  Lament for the refugees without a home, often scraping together an sparsee existence in a war-torn camp.  Lament for the families around the world who have lost loved ones because of terrorist attacks. Lament for fractures that run deep between people and nations in our world.

Lament for our country

Lament for our country.  Lament for the homeless who wonder how they’ll survive the winter.  Lament for damage that sexual predators have caused.  Lament for the pain caused by mass shootings.  Lament for communities devastated by flood and fire.

Lament for your community

Lament for your community.  Lament for the hungry coming to food banks for help.  Lament for the people living in motels.  Lament for broken families and how deeply it affects children. Lament for the many in our community who do not know Jesus.

Lament for your church

Lament for your church.  Lament for those in your church family who have been experiencing physical pain for many months and years.  Lament for the families that have dealt with a different kind of pain, the pain of loss and brokenness in its many forms.

Lament for your family

Lament for your family and all the difficulties you’re facing.

Lament for yourself

Lament for yourself.

The time our church was accused with the words: “That’s not worship!”

18 Oct

“That’s not worship.”

The person speaking the words was really frustrated at our church.

They were talking about a change we made to our worship service.  In that person’s view, the change had turned our worship service into something that was not worship.

What change could we make that would take a worship service and no longer make it worship?  How did this person know what worship is?  Were they right?

As I look back on that situation, I see evidence of the tendrils of tradition, sneaking their way into the hearts and minds of people unawares.

This October 2017 at Faith Church we are looking at the Five Solas of the Reformation, because it was 500 years ago this month that a German Catholic monk name Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation leading to sweeping changes in Christianity.  The Five Solas are summaries of the teachings of Luther and his fellow reformers.  After Sola Gratia (Grace Alone) and Sola Fide (Faith Alone), we have begun to look at Sola Scripture (Scripture Alone).  I started by asking questions about the Bible and Sola Scriptura here and here.

To begin to answer those questions, I said yesterday, we need to attempt to understand the religious culture Luther lived in.  I am no church historian, so this summary is basic at best.

Luther was trained in the Medieval age of the church, during which time the church placed a high value on tradition alongside of or even above the teaching of Scripture.  In Rome, which was the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, there is something called the Magisterium, the group of leaders of the church including the Pope.  What the Magisterium said in Luther’s era was given equal or greater weight than what Scripture said.

The problem is that so often the line between Scripture and tradition starts to blur.  We can assume that a certain tradition is taught in the Bible.  Luther confronted his Medieval church about these blurred lines.  He said that if a doctrine or practice is not taught by scripture, it must be seen as just an opinion.  He held the writings of the church fathers, and the creeds, church councils, in high esteem, but said they too must be judged by Scripture.  Luther taught that Scripture birthed the church, not the other way around.  Therefore Scripture should be more foundational than the church.

To demonstrate this, Luther translated the Bible into German, and some believe that was his greatest contribution.  He wanted German farm boys, for example, to feel the words of the Bible in their hearts, and that was only possible in their own language.

Prior to Luther, the Bible was in Latin.  You had to be a priest trained in Latin to read and teach the Bible.  Of course the rare Latin scholar could read it as well.  But most people didn’t know Latin.  They were Germans who knew German.  They were French who knew French.  English who knew English.  They would go to church, however, and the church service, including the Bible reading would be in Latin!  Copies of the Bible were too expensive to own, so in the Medieval age, most people did not have a copy of the Bible, and thus they couldn’t be like the Bereans in Acts 17:10-15 and test out what the priests and church magisterium said.  They just followed along.

That meant the church had tons of power.  Luther felt they abused their power.  One way they abused their power, and this really got under Luther’s skin, was the practice of indulgences.  Indulgences were pieces of paper that the church sold to people.  The paper was a certificate saying that a person had purchased forgiveness of sins.

The church leaders in Rome were trying to build a big new cathedral.  They were strapped for cash to build this monstrosity, so they sent representatives around Europe to sell indulgences.  These reps told people that paying money can get your sins forgiven.  Would it surprise you to learn that the church made a lot of money?  It reminds me of this In Living Color skit (starting at the 9:00 minute mark):

Luther seethed at this.  As he should.  The church was seriously abusing its power.  They were creating a tradition that was not supported by Scripture.

This is very reminiscent of Jesus’ concern with the Pharisees.  Jesus would say to the Pharisees “haven’t you read the Scripture?”  “Don’t you know what the Scripture says?”  Imagine that scene.  Jesus telling the Bible experts that they need to go back and read their Bibles!  (Matthew 12:3 and 19:4 are a couple examples.) How did this happen?  How could Bible teachers miss out on the true teaching of the Bible?  It happened because the Pharisees were so concerned about their traditions that they allowed the tradition to be more important than the heart of the Scripture.

But thank goodness we don’t do this anymore, right?  We don’t lay any traditions on top of Scripture.  We have the Bible in our own language.  Like the invention of the printing press made it very possible for Luther and other reformers to get the Bible in the language of the people, we have the internet making it even easier yet!  So that means we don’t have any problems with tradition and false teaching, right?  We have this Sola Scriptura thing are cared for, right?

Wrong.

That takes me back to the situation I mentioned at the beginning of this post where someone at my church said, in response to worship changes, “That’s not worship.”  Here’s what happened.

In 2006-7 we participated in a church health survey sponsored by our denomination, the EC Church.

We took the survey in 2006.  Results came back saying that we needed to work on our worship service.  So we started making little changes here and there.  One of the changes was that we opened the accordion dividers separating our fellowship hall and sanctuary.  The dividers are there in case our sanctuary is so full we need overflow space.  Normally they are closed.  As a result of the survey, we opened the dividers and invited people to sit in the fellowship hall during worship if they wanted.  Our thought was that maybe some people wanted a less formal setting.

The accordion dividers were open for one month, and then closed again.  Why?  Because some people reacted negatively against them being open.

That’s not worship?

It was in a worship committee meeting, as we were reviewing the changes and negative response that the person said, “That’s not worship.” They were adamant about it.

But think about that.  “That’s not worship?”

What did that person mean?  They meant that a worship service, in their understanding, should only take place in a sanctuary with all the trappings of a sanctuary.  And they wanted the accordion dividers closed.

Where did they get their idea of what worship is, that it can’t be in room that has pews on one side and tables and chairs on another side?  I can tell you they did not get it from the Bible.

You read how the early worshiped in the New Testament, in the book of Acts and the Epistles.  They met in homes.  They worshiped on riversides.  There were no church buildings and sanctuaries in the Christian church for a couple hundred years.  Worship is not about a building, we read in the Bible, but worship is about worshipers, people, who are worshiping the Lord.  Not a location.

So what did this person mean when they said, “That’s not worship”?

That person was talking about tradition!  They had grown up in and become comfortable with and appreciated a certain kind of worship.  There is nothing wrong with worship services in buildings that have rooms with pews and pulpits and pianos or organs or praise bands, or movable chairs, or any of the many variations that sanctuaries in church buildings have.  There is nothing wrong with it, but we cannot say that the Bible tells us to worship like that.

That person had elevated tradition over the Bible.

Years ago we did a summer reading club and read Frank Viola’s book Pagan Christianity.  It is eye-opening about how much tradition we have placed over the Bible.

Sunday School is another example.  You won’t find that in the Bible.  But I once had someone tell me Sunday School is the backbone of the church, insinuating that we better not mess with it.  That person was elevating tradition over the Bible.

I could go on and on, but instead I encourage you to read Pagan Christianity.  Perhaps we are just as guilty of elevating tradition over the Bible, though 500 years Luther warned us of this very thing.

So what do we do with these Bibles of ours?  What is Sola Scriptura?  By Scripture Alone.  What does it mean?  I’ve taken a long time to say what it doesn’t mean.  Now that we have asked the questions, showed Scripture’s primacy over tradition, we can examine Sola Scriptura, and that is where we’re headed tomorrow.

Is Sola Scriptura broken? (or Can we really read the Bible and hear from God?)

17 Oct

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When you read the Bible, do you think that God will speak to you through it?  How do you know that you will understand it properly?  What if God wants to tell you X and you believe he said Y?

Does Sola Scriptura mean that any Christian can just open up the Scriptures and understand it by the work of the Holy Spirit in their minds?  Do we need the church to interpret Scripture for us, or can we interact with Scripture alone?

We might say, “Yes! We can definitely read the Bible for ourselves and hear from God.”  Take a look at 1 Corinthians 2:12.  Paul says that we have been given the Spirit of God so that we might understand what God has given us.  Seems like that could really apply to understanding the Bible.  Actually, it does apply to the Bible.  When we read Scripture we can and should pray that the Holy Spirit will help us understand it.

But let me push back on this idea a bit.

Anne Hutchinson’s example is a case about how this view of Sola Scriptura didn’t work.  Why?

She felt the Holy Spirit was helping her understand the Bible.

Her Puritan religious community also felt that the Spirit was helping them understand the Bible.

You see the problem yet?  They both claimed the Spirit’s help, and they came to different interpretations.  Now do you see the problem?  If they both had the same Spirit’s help, then shouldn’t they have arrived at the same interpretation?

Would the Holy Spirit give them conflicting interpretations?  No.  So what was going on in Boston in 1636?

The reality is that Christians arrive at conflicting interpretations all the time, and we have done so from nearly day 1 of the church.  So if the Holy Spirit isn’t giving out conflicting interpretations of the Bible, what is going on?

I think there are many possible ways to answer that question:

  • Maybe there are Christians who claim to have the Spirit’s interpretation, but they actually don’t?  I’m sure that happens more than we realize.  But how would we ever know who had the Spirit’s interpretation and who didn’t?
  • And shouldn’t preference be given to church leaders who go to seminary and get ordained, because they have training?
  • Is it possible that the Puritans were not correct in their teaching of Sola Scriptura, or maybe Anne Hutchinson just misunderstood what it meant?

More importantly, what does all this mean for us?

How many of you own a Bible that is printed in English that you can read on your own?  How many of you have the Bible on your electronic device, like the Bible app on your phone?

We believe that we can read those Bibles and understand what God is speaking to us, right?

Are we wrong to believe that?  Perhaps we should be a lot more cautious?  Should we only get our interpretations of the Bible from ordained pastors, from those who have gone to school to learn the Bible?

To answer those questions, it will be very helpful for us to go back to Martin Luther.  His 95 Theses pretty much set things in motion for us to ask all these questions.  So to arrive at some answers, we first need to get an idea of how Martin Luther’s religious culture looked at the Bible.  And that is where we’re headed tomorrow.

What kind of worship does God really want?

3 Jul

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Years ago I had a summer book club at Faith Church, and one of books we read was Jim & Casper Go To Church.  It is written by a Christian, Jim Henderson, and an atheist, Matt Casper.  Jim invited Matt to travel around the country and attend worship services in churches of all shapes and sizes, from a couple massive churches in arenas to smaller churches and many in between.  As he took in worship services at these churches, quite often Casper asked Jim the same question, “Did Jesus really tell you to do that?”

That’s a good question.  It is basically the question, “Is this how God wants us to worship him?”

It could be very easy to be critical of the mega churches. smoke machines, and professional praise bands, and huge auditoriums. But it is a question that should be asked of any church worship service.

On any Sunday at Faith Church, I look around the room we call a sanctuary, and I think that we should ask the same thing: “Did God tell us to do this?”

Do you know the answer to Casper’s question?

God says that we should worship him. No doubt about that.  But did God tell us that he wants to be worshipped like this?

Did he want us to build church buildings?

The answer is No.  God wants us to be people who worship him, Yes.  And we can worship him in a church building, with songs and chairs and classes.  We can worship him with sound systems and video projectors and hymnals and pews.  We can worship him with all of it.

But let us remember that God didn’t ask for all that.  When it comes to worshiping him, he didn’t ask for any of the religious, churchy stuff that we spend a lot of time and money on.

Furthermore, the danger of all the churchy stuff is that we can deceive ourselves into thinking that Sunday morning worship and all the activity that we do on Sunday is what God desires.  We can deceive ourselves into thinking that if we come to a church worship service, then we have satisfied the desires of God.

Here’s the harsh truth.  We don’t need any of this to worship God.  None of it.  We don’t need a building, we don’t need all the stuff in the building, and we don’t even need a timeslot on Sundays for a worship gathering.  We can satisfy the worship desires of God without any of it.

But how?

By understanding what God desires worship to actually be.  The answer to Matt Casper’s question is “no, God did not tell us to do all this.”  We added it.  All this churchy stuff is not inherently wrong.  We can worship God in a church building, by singing songs, giving an offering, praying, sharing stories of how God is at work in our lives, by studying the Bible, by fellowshipping and encouraging one another.  All this stuff we do on Sundays, all of it, can be worshipful.  But we need to see that we added it.

So what is worship supposed to be?

First of all, prepare to worship every day. 

Paul once said that no matter what we do, even whether we’re just doing the mundane everyday stuff of life, like eating and drinking, do it all to the glory of God.

So how do you do that?  Try to have a daily practice of starting each day by offering thanksgiving to God.  Count your blessings.  Maybe when you first wake-up.

Then Read Scripture. When we read Scripture consistently, it results in more knowledge of God, and that results in more accurate worship.  In Scripture we learn to know him better, more accurately, more intelligently.

Second, see worship as happening 24/7.  How do you do that?

Saying “Your will be done”.  Remember when Jesus was about to be arrested and crucified?  He was praying in the Garden.  He knew how incredibly hard it was going to be.  He was headed toward a brutal beating and death.  He was in anguish about this as he prayed to God.  But he worshiped God anyway saying “Not my will, but yours be done.”

We might not like the situation we’re in.  Work might be horrible.  Parenting can be frustrating.  A relationship can be awful.  Money might be tight.  Worship God 24/7, right in the middle of the pain by saying “Not my will, but yours be done.”

By saying that, Jesus was essentially saying “God, I’m in the middle of the junk.  And I want to honor and glorify you even if the pain and crisis and struggle is not taken away from me.”  That’s some real, deal worship right there.  And when you worship like that, you are saying to God, “I want to obey you, Lord, even though it might get hard.”

This is very much in line with what Paul says Romans 12:1-2 – what is our spiritual act of worship – to offer our bodies as living sacrifices.

Say, “Lord, here I am at school.  I offer myself to you.  Here I am at work, I offer myself to serve you.  Here I am at home, I give myself to you.”

Thankfully, life is not always hard!  In fact, many times, praise God, he blesses us, and we get to enjoy the fruits of our labor, the joy of the Lord, the wonders of life on planet earth.  We can and should worship God during those times of blessing as well.  If you haven’t seen the movie Chariots of Fire, I urge you to check it out. It is the true story of Eric Liddell who was an Olympic miler. He was also a Christian.  He talks about how when he ran, he could feel God’s pleasure!  You can worship while you run, while you eat, while you enjoy vacation.

You can worship during the mundane as well.  Life is neither always awful, nor always joyful. Often life is filled with tasks that just have to get done.  Some you might dislike.  But you can also enjoy the mundane.  Mowing the lawn.  Raking leaves.  Worship while you work through these tasks too, like changing diapers, cleaning the toilet.  All of this can be done in worship, Paul said, done to the glory of God.

We especially spend a lot of time at work, don’t we.  So work as unto to the Lord.  Work hard.  Work without complaining.  Work with joy.  With creativity.

Practice the Presence of God.  Be in a conversation with God all day long, as much as you can.

Invite God to be right there with you.  Next to your desk.  Watching what you watch on your computer.

Third, learn the spiritual exercise of focused periods of worship as larger church family.

Let me share a private thought I have, one that I wrestle with. We have 130 people in our congregation.  But our Sunday morning attendance?  It has been around 95, 100, or 105 over the last few years.

What is going on?  25% of our congregation is not here, on average, every single week.  That is true in most churches.  Why is this happening?

But know this: there is an element of the Christian life, that can never be experienced by watching worship on TV or the internet, by listening to a podcast, or being alone in nature.

Worship is not just the songs.  Worship is the giving, the sharing, the encouraging, the prayer, the learning.  An extremely important part of worship is doing it together.  Getting the family together.  Do you need to change your heart attitude toward Sunday worship?  Do you need to gather with your church family more frequently?

Fourth we should practice the spiritual exercise of personal periods of focused worship.  This is when we take some time to focus on God, alone with him. This is when we put aside all we’re doing, get alone, without letting anyone know what we’re doing, and worship God alone.  This time alone with God can include song, Scripture, prayer.  It’s up to you.  When I read the Psalms, many of them were written out of an individual’s private, personal worship of God.  Include this as part of your regular prayer and Bible reading.

Start the day with personal worship.  Do not worry about other people who can do it better than you.  You don’t have to go to seminary or be a professional theologian to get alone and worship God.

Maybe just count your blessings. One of my favorite passages is Psalm 116:12-18. Allow the history of God’s blessings in your life to motivate you to praise and thank him, so that you can live out your day in a thankful, worshipful heart and mind.

We’re all different.  Some people might really be able to worship while driving, and for another person that might be next to impossible.

But remember that if worship doesn’t mean singing praise songs all day long, we can think about worshiping in other ways during the day.  Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.

Rejoice in the Lord, always, and again I say, rejoice, Paul reminded us in Philippians.

 

In conclusion, like any of the spiritual disciplines, Worship can be hard work.  Think about it.  Worship is an act of retaining focus on God.  We can be a people of short-attention span.  It can be hard to stay focused on God.

But when we focus on God, something amazing happens.  People become like that which we focus on.  Focus on God and we will become like him.

Have an attitude that says “I want to learn to worship better.”  So maybe you need a trainer.  If you look at a person and realize “That person excels at worshiping God 24/7,” contact them as ask them to train you to be a better worshiper.

Advice to a new young pastor (and what all of us can learn from it)

27 Mar

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On July 1, 2008 I became the senior pastor of Faith Church.  I was scared.  What had I gotten myself into?  I had been youth/associate pastor at the church for the previous six years.  The youth group was awesome, and I had a ministry umbrella over me, deflecting the rain of difficulty, responsibility, and leadership.  That umbrella was the senior pastor.  On July 1st, 2008, I learned what it was like when that umbrella was gone.

Actually, I was surprised to discover the umbrella wasn’t gone.  I became the new umbrella.  I was the responsible one.  In the months leading up to that day, I was excited, I had dreams and looked forward to becoming the pastor.  I also held secret fears and anxieties.  Was I cut out for this?  I had a really good gig as youth pastor! Was I stupid for making the change?  So I read and listened to one passage of Scripture over and over.  It is a good one for young or new pastors.  If you’re not a young or new pastor or leader in the church, I think you’ll find that it is very important for you as well.

Take a look at 1st Timothy 4:11-16, and see if you can find out why this passage was meaningful to me.

I identified with Timothy because in verse 12 Paul says to Timothy, “don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young.”

I wonder who was looking down on Timothy?  When Paul goes on to ask Timothy to set an example for the believers, it is best to understand that it was people in Timothy’s church looking down on him because he was young.

But how young was he?  We don’t know.  The word Paul uses could refer to someone as old as 40.  Some feel Timothy was maybe in his mid-30s.  I was 33 in July 2008, so this verse seemed like it was written to me!  Most scholars tell us that at the time Paul wrote this, Timothy could be anywhere from 25-40 years old.  The point, though, is not his specific age but that culturally it was not normal for a young person to have a position of authority.

Furthermore, Timothy is trying to fill some big shoes.  This church was started by Paul, one of the most respected leaders in the entire Christian church, from Jerusalem to Rome.  These Ephesian Christians could easily be talking to the Christians down the road in a town like Colossae, saying with chests puffed out, “Yeah, Paul is OUR pastor.  You should have heard the other day the discussion we were having in the lecture hall of Tyrannus with some Greek philosophers.  He schooled them!  It was awesome.  It rocks having Paul as your pastor.”

After a few years Paul leaves, and he installs Timothy as leader.  Timothy was young, and because of what Paul says to Timothy in his letters, we wonder if Timothy also had a much more timid style than Paul.

What a difference from older respected Paul to younger timid Timothy!

Over the years I have heard of pastoral transitions gone bad.  A new pastor follows the tenure of a well-loved leader, and the new pastor struggles in the shadow of that leader.  Maybe you’ve heard of a church like that. It happens regularly, truth be told. Anecdotal evidence suggests that 25% of a congregation will leave a church when there is a pastoral transition, and if true, that is sad.  From July 1, 2008 to July 1, 2010, we experienced something like that at Faith Church. Some of the attrition was the result of poor decisions on my part.  Some was death.  But a number of people left because I was different from the previous pastor.  I suspect some moved on simply because I was young, about half the age of the previous pastor, and young enough to be the grandson of many of the senior members of the congregation. I know there was a lot of talk going on during those years.  Some of it made it to me, much didn’t.

You can bet that kind of talk is going on there in Ephesus.  And you can bet Paul has heard about!  “Man, Paul, are you sure about Timothy?  He’s…well…young.  Are you sure he’s ready?  I’m mean, have you heard him preach?”

It is possible that Timothy’s authority, gifts, and abilities for leading the church are being called into question.  I have a feeling that not only has Paul heard about it, but so has Timothy.  It might have been Timothy who contacted Paul saying, “Are you sure about this?  Are you sure I’m ready?  These people aren’t always responding so well.  I’m getting push-back about being young. I don’t know that they will respect me.”

And so Paul says “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young.”  What does looking down on mean?  It is defined as “to feel contempt for someone or something because it is thought to be bad or without value.”[1]

“Don’t allow people to look down on you, Timothy,” Paul says.  But I think to myself, how is Timothy actually to deal with this?  If people start disrespecting him, is he going to step in and say, “I do not allow you to do this anymore.”  You can hear the snickering if he would try that.  Now if it got to a point, yes, he could make it a matter of church discipline and confront the poor behavior head on. Maybe he had to. If so, that would have been really difficult.

Disrespect of a leader in the church is always wrong.  No matter how old or young they are, we should respect our leaders.  We might disagree, but we can disagree in a respectful way.  If there is contempt going on, it must stop.  Disrespect and contempt is sinful.  Timothy would be well within his right to confront sin.

When Paul says “don’t let anyone look down on you”, I suspect he is saying to Timothy “you need to deal with the contempt and disrespect, Timothy.  You can’t let it happen. I know it is hard, but if people are behaving poorly, you need to intervene and make sure it stops.”

That is not all Paul says though.  He also makes a very different second suggestion.  I suspect Paul knows that the root of the problem is the age difference.  People that are older do not always have a hard time submitting to and respecting younger people.  Sometimes it goes well.  But let’s face it, the general tendency is for younger people to have older leaders.

How many of you have gotten a new boss that is younger than you, and you have found it hard to respect them?  I’ve heard the stories.  The new young boss comes to the company with energy and new ideas and starts making changes, and it can be very difficult.  They don’t know the culture.  They don’t know the people.  They don’t know what you’ve been through.  And as much as you complained about the old boss, you now find yourself wishing you had the old boss back.

Think it is any different in the church?  It’s not.

Paul has situation on his hands.  He spent so much time with the Christians at Ephesus.  He loves them.  But he has left them in the hands of his young associate Timothy who he also loves. Paul knows exactly who the people in the church are.  He knows their ages.  He knows by name who is probably struggling with Timothy, and as I said above, Paul might already have been hearing from those people: “Can’t you just come back, Paul?  This isn’t going well with Timothy.  Come back!”

So Paul knows Timothy needs to grow up fast.  He gives Timothy a very interesting suggestion.  He says “set an example for the believers.”  Paul could go on and on telling Timothy to confront and discipline.  But he doesn’t.  He says one line about not letting the people despise Timothy, but he moves quickly into a suggestion that is far more powerful: set an example.

“Timothy,” I can hear Paul saying, “I want your life to shine so brightly, that those people have no reason to look down on you.  Set an example for them.  Let your life do the talking.”

When I was in high school at Warwick in Lititz, PA, we had a pretty good basketball program.  We were always a contender for playoffs, and some years went very deep into them.  We also had a very rowdy student section, which I loved.  Cheering for our guys in the overheated old gym is still one of the highlights of my life.  One of my favorite student section cheers was only one word.  Repeated over and over.  Can you guess it?

The game scenario in which we would use this cheer was when my team was leading, and other team would start rallying.  They would be scoring points, catching up, gaining momentum.  That would fire their student section up, and from the other side of the gym they would get louder and louder. Back on our side, we would be feeling nervous.  We didn’t want them to catch up!  Our guys on the floor needed a boost, and we would say one word: Scoreboard. Scoreboard.  Scoreboard.  It was a great cheer.  We would really draw out the word “Scoooooorebooooooard”.  We wanted it to be a sobering reminder to everyone there that though the other team was rallying, we were still ahead.  We were winning.  In that moment, the scoreboard did all the talking.  We didn’t have to say anything, except to point to the truth.

The absolute worst, though, was if the other came back and won the game.  You know what the student section from the other school would start chanting back at us? “Scoreboard…scoreboard.”  Whew was that painful.  But the point was made.  The scoreboard still did the talking.  We might be walking out of the gym dejected, angry, thinking “we are a better team than that. We are way better than that.  We should not have lost.”  But the scoreboard told the truth about what was really going on.

Paul, in other words, is saying here to Timothy, “Let your life example tell the truth about who you really are.  Those people might be saying all kinds of stuff about you.  That you are too young.  You are an inexperienced leader.  That you are not as good a teacher as me.  That you are not as smart as me.  That you are not me. But let your life be the scoreboard.  You won’t have to say a thing, Timothy.  Let your life do the talking.”

How should he set the example?  In five ways: speech, life, love, faith and purity.  These are crucial areas.  Imagine if you were setting the example in these five?

  • Speech obviously is how you talk. No surprise to me that Paul lists it first.  Our mouths get us in trouble!  What would it be like for people to look at you as someone who sets an example in how you talk?  You would be gracious.  You would be kind.  Your words would be gentle, self-controlled.
  • Life is your conduct, your way of life. What would it look like for you to set the example in how you live your life?
  • Love is the word agape. Would people say of you that you are a loving person?
  • Faith, it is important to note, is not just believing the right things. This is best understand as faithful.  Having faithfulness.  Can people say of you: “There is a person who is faithful”?  Not because you know the Bible through and through.  Not because you know a lot of theology.  Faith is primarily not about knowing and believing the right things.  It is that.  But it is much more a choice to live them out.  I recently heard Richard Rohr put it this way “you don’t think your way into a changed life, you live your way into changed thinking.”
  • Paul is kinda saying the same thing over and over here, isn’t he? Be pure.  Be holy.  It’s not easy to do this in our world.  But pursue it. Set an example of purity.

Clearly this passage is not just for young Timothy.  This can apply to everyone.  So review it those five categories, all of us.  Are we setting an example in them?  Might there be one category that you sense God is speaking to you to work on?

[1] Louw, Johannes P., and Eugene Albert Nida. Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: based on semantic domains 1996 : 762. Print.