The Mission of God and Church Growth

Among churches that have recently experienced decline there is an expected anxiousness about the loss of members and the future of the church.* This anxiousness often causes a shift in focus from the mission of God to growth, resulting in churches attempting nearly every new faddish idea that comes along in hopes of reversing the decline. These attempts are fear driven, rather than faith, attempts at self-preservation that only destabilize the health of the church further as every new attempt doesn’t work like it is at that other growing church. All the while, it didn’t work because it didn’t organically emerge from the discernment of where and how God is leading the church. In order for the church to pursue the mission of God, which will bear fruit, this cycle of anxious response must be let go of.

Churches seeking renewal must learn to act in faith, rather than anxious fear. That comes about through discernment of God’s missional calling. As God is sought through prayer, through scripture, and through the community of believers, churches begin to hear where the Spirit is leading them, what that looks like, and what must change about them in order to follow Jesus on mission with God. Then these churches must obey and act upon that leading of the Spirit. When this happens the church changes because the believers who make up that church change as they are being spiritually transformed for renewal in God’s mission. This will impact every aspect of the churches life, from how it worships, to how it fellowships with one another, to how it ministers among it’s community — especially the broken, hurting, and suffering — and to its children whom the church is called to raise as faithful followers of Jesus.

These are churches where faith in Jesus Christ is living and active, as opposed to churches whose only faith is the nostalgic longing for the “good old days.” These are the churches where increase comes because that mustard seed faith is growing spiritually into a gigantic tree. These are the kind of churches, I believe, that God wants to place those who are seeking him among because these are the kind of churches that will nurture the new emerging faith of these seekers with grace and truth, making disciples of Jesus.

So when it comes to numerical growth, it will happen but not by focusing on church growth which is our way of trying to bring about the increase ourselves. Numerical growth will happen when the church trusts in God and learns to live on mission with God through renewal as it discerns the will of God. Along this journey, there will be strategic decisions and actions to make but what those decisions are will be revealed through discernment. In the mean time, keep the focus on God and his mission and growth will come as God gives the increase.

And this − the opportunity to help a church walk on mission with God − is what excites me about serving as a minister of the gospel!

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* This short essay was originally written for a church I am discerning with about serving as a minister with. I have slightly modified what I wrote into this present post.

Living The Dream

The last time I checked, my children attend school with children from thirty-four different nationalities. Our neighborhood is a diverse dwelling of different races, ethnicities, religious beliefs and most everything else you would expect of a suburban community located between the cities of Baltimore and Washington D.C. There aren’t separate water fountains and everyone is free to sit where they like on the city busses. So clearly things have improved from the not-to-distant days of the past when racial segregation was legal in America.

For that reason and for good reason, we observe January 19th as Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” 

- Martin Luther King Jr.

But we would be foolish to believe that dream has been fully realized.

On The Other Side of the Tracks

The neighborhood I live in is also on the decline. It’s a neighborhood where some of the homes are designated as Section 8 housing. That means the increase of lower-income residents, which are more likely to be minorities, and the perceived increase of other social problems such as drugs and crime typically associated with lower-income neighborhoods. Yet I distinctly remember a Christian advising me to pick a different neighborhood to live in, one that wasn’t like “the hood.”

In fact, this is not the first time I have had a Christian offer me advice on where to live based on the conditions and social make-up of the neighborhood. I once had a Christian tell me I should avoid living in an area of town literally on the other side of the railroad tracks that had a lot of Muslim immigrants. When I lived in Memphis, in a neighborhood with its share of challenges, there were several occasions when a Christian questioned my wisdom about where my family and I lived.

None of these Christians are bad people. There not white supremacists or anything like that. They believe in civil rights for everyone and they will gladly volunteer serving meals to the homeless, organizing school supplies for students in need, giving to local charitable organizations, and even helping their church with its benevolent ministries. But then they go back home where it’s nice, quiet, and above all, safe.

Happy to Help, As Long As…

I am writing this because every Christian I know believes in loving others and believes in helping those in need, like the poor. Yet this help is often done at a distance, socially and physically, that we, who are the privileged control. Roberto S. Goizueto writes in his book Caminemos Con Jesús,* “As a society, we are happy to help and serve the poor, as long as we don’t have to walk with them where they walk, that is, as long as we can minister to them from our safe enclosures. The poor can then remain passive object of our actions, rather than friends, compañeros and compañeras with whom we interact” (p. 199). Do we see the problem?

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; ‘and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.'”

- Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King spoke of a dream that had to do with human equality. Certainly our society closer to realizing that dream than it was back on that August day in 1963 when Dr. King spoke of this dream. Yet full realization of the dream destination awaits. Ultimately redemption awaits the return of Jesus who will come and make everything new (cf. Rev 21:5). Yet we, who are the church and already share in this newness of life, are to live as a portrayal what this future hope is life among the present. But this requires more than just ministry to those who have less, little, or none, who don’t live in the nicest or the safest neighborhoods, who may exasperate their struggles with their own poor choices, who may for now only know how to depend on the government for welfare and other social-services… This is a call to walk among them!

Changing the Conversation

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not sure what all of that should entail at the most concrete level, where the rubber meets the road. I also know that I talk a better game than I play. However, I also know that as Christians we believe God loved us by becoming one of us… becoming flesh in person of Jesus and dwelling among us. So for us to truly care about helping those living in various degrees of poverty, loving them as neighbors just like God has loves, then we must learn how to dwell among them.

One way of dwelling among such people involves changing the way we go about deciding where we will live. Let’s have a different conversation about where we should live. Instead of prioritizing safety, quietness, and convenience when we buy or rent homes, we move where we can participate in the mission of God as dwellers among the people we are called to serve. That begins with prayer and discernment regarding how and where God is calling us to live on mission with him and then we trust God as we obey his leading. Instead of flinching at a neighborhood because it suffers socially, we ask God if this is where he is leading us and how he wants us to serve.

Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. It’s a dream that I believe is anchored in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Let’s live the dream.

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* “Let us walk with Jesus”

When Someone Dies

The news this past Sunday that Stuart Scott, a veteran journalist and ESPN sports commentator, passed away after a long battle with cancer is a reminder of how shocking and terrible death is. Scott was still a young man, only 49 years old, with plenty of life left to live. More importantly, he was a father to two young daughters who are now left to live life without their father.

Death is never easy but it is something everyone of us will experience and not just our own death or the death of someone very close to us. Everyone of us will eventually have a friend, co-worker, etc… who receives the heartbreaking news that someone they love dearly has died.

Real time! What do we do? There are not any trial runs for this. What we do next, how we respond is what we will do for better or worse. I’m saying this because in my experience many people still struggle with what to do when someone they know is now faced with this grief and suffering.

I don’t want to diminish the loss of any life but it is one thing when we are talking about the death of someone in their 80’s or 90’s who has lived a great life. While their is still grief for the family and friends of that person, there is reason for celebration too. Maybe their death is a relief in some way since at an elderly age, death likely means the individual is no longer suffering from ill heath. But when we are talking about the death of someone younger, such as the death of a child or the death of someone leaving behind young children (as in Stuart Scott’s case), there is only sadness, grief, and suffering.

There are some things that we can do that will help others through the process of grief:

  1. Say “I’m sorry!” Don’t say anything else. That is, don’t try to explain it, theologize it, or mitigate it with words. That will not work. There is nothing that we can say that will make the loss of a loved one any easier except by saying, “I’m sorry!” By saying this, you are letting your friend know that you sympathize with them and believe me, that means more than it may seem.
  2. Give time! I don’t really like the phrase “Time heals all wounds” because I’m don’t think it is true. Nobody “gets over” the loss of someone they love. However, people can learn to live with the grief and pain of someone’s death but that take time… a lot of time. It has been 12 ½ years since the death of my son and eleven years since the death of my younger brother. Both losses still hurt. But I have learned to live with each loss, which took time as in years. Don’t force those who have suffered a loss to get over it but allow them the time to learn how to live with the loss. It’s a process that may involve counseling at some point or participation in a support group but regardless, it’s a process that requires time and time that cannot be regulated by us.
  3. Remember! Throughout the process of grief there will be certain days that are harder than the others… the birthday of those who are lost, the anniversary of their death, holidays. Can you imagine what the next Father’s Day will be like for Stuart Scott’s children? Thanksgiving? Christmas? A simple phone-call or a card says “We remember!” And this is not just about remembering the person who died but remembering the people who still grieving in pain.
  4. Say a prayer! As a believer, I believe in prayer and so I believe it is important that we remember to pray for those who are suffering the loss of someone they love. There is always the question of if and when do we pray with them and ask them if we can pray for them. It’s a good question but there isn’t any right or wrong answer except to say that through our friendship and experience, we’ll gain the wisdom necessary to answer that question.

Thank You All!

The following is the article “Thank You All” that I wrote for the latest and final edition of the Connecting Newsletter, a bi-monthly production of the Columbia Church of Christ (Connecting Newsletter 29, 2014). The article reflects upon our decision as a church to close and the future in light of the gospel story. At some later point I plan to write about the decision and process of closing a Church of Christ as I think this is a decision that more Churches of Christ will face in the coming years but for now…

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Church Logo

For most people, the holidays are a joyous occasion. With Christmas, we have the pleasure of gathering with our family and friends to celebrate life and we are also reminded of the birth of Jesus which is the dawning of hope for the world. Following Christmas, we celebrate New Year’s Day, saying goodbye to the past year while also anticipating with excitement what is to come in the new year. All that is to say that the end is never the end but a new beginning.

An End

As you may already know, the Columbia Church of Christ has made the difficult decisions to close. The following announcement has been posted to our website:

Thank you for your interest in the Columbia Church of Christ. After a year of discerning the direction God has for us as Christians, we have come to the conclusion that he is leading us to merge with other churches where we can continue serving him and his mission. Therefore as a church, the Columbia Church of Christ will close at the end of January 2015. Until then we will continue meeting every Sunday at 10:30 for worship in the Stone House (8775 Cloudleap Ct., Columbia, MD 21045). On Sunday, January 25, 2015 we will have a final celebrative worship gathering as a praise to God for the way he has worked through our church over many years.

Along with that closure comes the end of the Connecting Newsletter which has been produced for twenty-nine years now. So this article marks the final entry into the final newsletter as we enter into the final month for the Columbia Church of Christ.

While there is sadness that comes with this decision, there is reasons for giving thanks. I am thankful for the legacy of this church and I am equally proud to have served as one of her ministers. This congregation has been “a family of grace in Columbia” where the hurting and the struggling have experienced the hope of Christ. This church was also one of the first Churches of Christ to break with tradition regarding the role of women which has help pave the way for a growing number of other Churches of Christ to do the same. This church has been a generous supporter of global missions and local ministries offering help to people in need. So while closure is near, there is good to celebrate.

A New Beginning

Although the closing of the Columbia Church of Christ marks an end, it is not the end. Rather, we are entering into a new beginning. According to the gospel of Jesus Christ, “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor 15:54). Therefore there is never an end but always a new beginning which we anticipate.

While the Columbia Church of Christ is closing as an organization, the kingdom of God is not losing anyone. God is leading us forth into other local churches where we can continue serving as disciples of Christ using the gifts that we have received from the Spirit. The earliest Christian community, which resided in Jerusalem, was eventually scattered through persecution (Acts 8:1). At the time, it may have seemed like the end but it wasn’t. God was at work and through the faith of these Christians, the body of Christ continued growing as a movement that is now a global witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. While we cannot know the particulars of the future, we know that we will continue living as participants in this mission of God.

A Word of Thanks

To all of you, who have continued supporting and praying for the Columbia Church of Christ, thank you! Words will never fully express our appreciation for you but they must do for now. May God bless you as he blesses each and every one of us… “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace” (Num 6:24-26)!

Evading Jesus: Christians and Violence

Brian Zahnd recently wrote a blog post titled You Cannot Be Christian and Support Torture that went viral within the evangelical sub-culture. The post generated a lot of conversation, including a lot of disagreement. That’s not surprising but it is saddening. If I didn’t know any better, from the way some Christians defend the use of torture and violence I just might conclude that Jesus is a violent warrior who makes right by violent might.

Of course, that’s ludicrous! Jesus had the opportunity to lead a violent revolution but chose instead to humbly die on the cross at the hands of his enemies rather than killing his enemies. This is how Jesus loves even his enemies and Christians know this. Christians know that Jesus teaches us to love our enemies (cf. Matt 5:44). Christians know that Jesus calls us to follow him by picking up our own cross (cf. Mk 8:34). In fact, Christians know that the teaching and example of Jesus does not include violence.

Even if it can be argued that there are times where some level of violence is permissible (cf. Doctrine of Just-War), there is nothing virtuous about violence.  Violence is nothing for a Christian to champion. But that doesn’t matter for some.

In order to negate the teaching and example of Jesus in the canonical Gospels, some Christians are now claiming that Jesus employed violence in the Old Testament as the second member of the Trinity.

That’s the claim I am reading among some commenters on various blogs and Facebook thread. But plain and simple, this is grasping at straws. There are at least two problems with such an argument:

  1. Suggesting that Jesus used violence in the Old Testament as the second-member of the Triune Godhead broaches upon the heresy of decetism. While such a claim doesn’t actually deny the physical existence of Jesus’s life, it negates the physical life he lived, which was both a non-violent and an exemplary life, by appealing to his divinity in order to justify violence as part of the Christian life. This claim, of course, is made while ignoring the fact that while Jesus is the eternal Son of God, it is only in his flesh as God Incarnate that he reveals the fullness of the invisible God (cf. Col 1:15, 19).
  2. Suggesting that Jesus used violence in the Old Testament as the second-member of the Triune Godhead employs an anachronistic reading of the Bible. The Bible has a directional flow to it’s narrative that such a claim ignores by imposing Christian theological claims upon the earlier part of the narrative while ignoring the claims made in the later part of the narrative. That is, those making such a claim impose Trinitarian theology upon the Old Testament in order to make Jesus violent while setting aside the Trinitarian revelation of God in Jesus Christ which culminates with the cross rather than a sword.

Such carelessness on the part of some Christians, including some who have a theological education, clearly reveals just how much the tail is wagging the dog. In the end it just reveals how much Christianity in America is willing to ignore the elephant in the room… evading the Jesus whom we are called to follow just so that we can continue legitimizing the American way, which includes violence.

Maybe we need to learn from Jesus again…

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.” - Jesus, Matt 5:9

Testing the Gospel Among Us.

Nothing like a video announcement of a Church of Christ taking on a female preaching intern to stir up the waters. The video was available here but has been made private. In sum, the Fourth Avenue Church of Christ in Franklin, Tennessee has recognized the gifting and talents for preaching that God is developing in Lipscomb University student Lauren King. By doing so, the Fourth Avenue Church is provided Ms. King an opportunity to further develop her calling under the mentoring of Senior Minister Patrick Mead.

The Bigger Issue…

In case you’re wondering and for the sake of putting my own cards on the table, I applaud the opportunity that the Fourth Avenue Church is giving to this young preacher-in-training. If you are interested in my reasons for such applause, you can read my post titled “Neither Male Nor Female (Part 4)” which will also provide you with links to parts 1-3. What I am interested in is how churches and Christians respond to such news which I think has a lot more to say about whether we truly understand the gospel of Jesus Christ than whether we agree or disagree with the decision made by the Fourth Avenue Church.

If you’ve read this far then you’re probably familiar with the subsequent conversation that has taken place. As expected, some of the conversation is necessary and helpful but certainly some of the conversation has been unnecessary and the least bit helpful. For an example, just read this post and the comments that follow on Brotherhood News which is but one example of the divisive comments I have read.

It matters not whether we agree or disagree with the decision of the Fourth Avenue church. When our response to a decision that other churches and Christians make descends into divisive accusations, we may justify it all we want under the guise of pursuing sound doctrine but in the end it shows a failure of the gospel at work among us. That is to say, the bigger issue here is about whether or not we truly grasp the gospel of Jesus Christ. The decision made by the Fourth Avenue Church has simply provided an occasion for testing how well the Churches of Christ are embodying the gospel.

Among the Corinthian Church…

Here is what I mean… Take the Corinthian church in scripture as an example. That was a church where division was but one of several significant problems. The Corinthian Christians were allowing baptism to divide them (1 Cor 1:10-17) and the divisive spirit among them play out in several ways but perhaps none bigger than among their worship gatherings. That is why chapters 11-14 of First Corinthians are addressing matters pertaining to the corporate worship.

Part of Paul’s strategy was to remind the Corinthians of the Lord’s Supper they eat together as a church. This meal, which takes place by the invitation of Jesus at his table, is the church’s way of continued participation in the gospel story which has reconciled both Jew and Gentile as one unified body in Christ. Because it is the continued participation in the gospel story, when Christian act divisively towards each other they show their failure in grasping the gospel itself.

But wait a minute… what about when a church or Christian does something that we believe is a violation of biblical teaching? After all, that is what the subsequent conversation about the Fourth Avenue Church’s decision is about. Those who disagree with the decision believe that this church is violating biblical teaching. So should those who disagree not voice their concern?

Of course, they should. There’s nothing wrong with voicing disagreement. But when that disagreement turns towards inflammatory accusations that slander fellow Christians and churches, that voice becomes divisive and here is why. For all the disagreements that existed among the Christians in Corinth, Paul never once tells them that they must agree with one another. Unity is not uniformity! Instead, in one of the most famous chapters in the Bible, chapter 13, Paul points the church back to the practice of love. Then he goes on to instruct them by saying, “Pursue love and be eager for the spiritual gifts…” (1 Cor 14:1).

Think about it. As Christians, we may be right on any number of different issues but if we don’t love those with whom we disagree then we are wrong. Unity is loving even those we disagree with. It’s that simple. And that includes how we speak towards each other and what we do with our knowledge (cf. 1 Cor 13:1-3).

So In Closing…

As Christians, we are free to disagree but we are not free to use our disagreement as an occasion for maligning other Christians, churches, and Christian organizations that differ from us. Until we learn how to season our responses on controversial matters with love, we show our own failure in grasping the gospel of Jesus Christ. So it appears past due we reconsider what it means to speak and fathom knowledge with love. Further more, for those who still think that the Fourth Avenue Church is wrong… so be it. But remember, for all the problems that the Corinthian church had, Paul still thought of them and addressed them as the church!

Christianity In An Age of Religious Pluralism

Perhaps you’ve heard of Duck Dynasty. I’m a fan. I’ve not seen every episode but I’ve seen a bunch. Besides the humorous adventures of the Robertson clan, the fact that I minister with a Church of Christ and that there’s enough red-neck still in me keeps my interest. One of the great values of the show is that every episode ends with the family eating and praying together, which is a great example to set.* 

Our Context Matters…

The show has established a platform for the family to express their Christian faith and Phil Robertson has seemingly taken advantage of this platform the most. On a few occasions Phil has made some comments which might not raise any concern in his own context but certainly do elsewhere. Having said that, I don’t want to spend any more time criticizing Phil or discussing his past remarks.

I mention Phil Robertson in order to make an observation about a difference between his context and the context of many other Christians, including those among the Churches of Christ. The Robertson’s live near West Monroe, Louisiana where those who affiliate with a Christian church make up roughly 90% of the population.  Compare that to Columbia, Maryland, where 56% of the people do not claim any church affiliation. On top of that, the last time I checked, my children attend school with children from thirty-nine different nationalities. As you might imagine, along with those thirty-nine different nationalities comes a plurality of religions and assortment of values that sometimes differ drastically from the values held by many Christians.

All that is to say that while I appreciate the public stance Phil Robertson is willing to make for what he believes, his example is not a model for every Christian. The response Phil Robertson takes is one that is shaped by his own cultural context. Yet more and more Christians find themselves living in an urban to suburban context that is very different, one where religious pluralism is a reality that requires a different approach.

Apologetics As A Way of Life…

When taking a stance for Christ, one of the frequently cited verses is 1 Peter 3:15. In this passage, the apostle Peter says, “But set Christ apart as Lord in your hearts and always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess” (NET). For many Christians, Peter is talking about defending the existence of God or the resurrection of Christ. That’s why this passage is a favorite proof-texts among the enterprise of Christian apologetics. I’m all for providing good intellectual answers for those who struggle with Christian belief but what Peter is talking about in this passage is apologetics as a way of life. That is, to set Christ apart (sanctify) in our hearts is about making the way of life that Christ teaches our way of life. A quick read of the entire letter of 1 Peter should make this abundantly clear. 

Embracing apologetics as a way of life involves at least two steps:

  1. The first step in taking a public stance for our faith involves the way in which we set Christ apart in our hearts as Lord. We make sure that our life reflects the life of Jesus. What we say and do reveals our true values and when we profess Christ as Lord but exemplify a different set of values than those which Jesus embodied while on earth, we nullify our witness. One of the values Jesus lived by while here on earth involved the formation of relationships with other people. When we form relationships with others our Christ-likeness becomes a testimony that gives us a credible basis for proclaiming Jesus.
  2. Because we regard Jesus as Lord, the way in which we give an answer for the hope we have matters too. We don’t have an argument to win, just the good news of God’s victory in Christ to bear witness of. As David E. Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw say, “Surely such claim for the supremacy of Christ pits us against other religions and other ways to God. But the conviction that Jesus is Lord actually does the opposite: it frees us from coercion and control. It is Jesus that is Lord, not us. We do not need to land a knockout punch to win an argument against another religion. We are witnesses! We do not need to be prosecuting attorneys on behalf of Jesus. We are witnesses!” (Prodigal Christianity, 158).

As believers and followers of Jesus, we are called to live as his witnesses. In an age of increased religious pluralism, we must become more intentional about taking a stance for the gospel of Jesus Christ. Such intentionality includes boldness but let’s not confuse boldness with brashness. Our bold witness of Jesus must reflect the life of Jesus if we are to truly set Christ apart in our hearts as Lord.

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* Except for a few stylistic changes, this exact article was originally published in Connecting 29 (December 3, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ, and has been reformatted for this blog.