Ministry Leadership: Saying “No!” to the Visitor

If you’re like me and you have children that you are raising or you have already raised children, then you know what it is to vet their friends. You size them up… who are they, who are their parents, what are they like, how do they behave, and so on. You want to make sure your children are not hanging around people who will harm them.

Last year, my wife and I had to make a decision to not allow our son to play with one of the neighborhood children and we told this other child that he wasn’t allowed to play with our son anymore. Why? Because this child was a bully who kept hitting our son. I am sure you would have made the same decision. Why? Because as parents, we’re not going to allow someone to come around our children when they are harmful to our children. We strive to protect our children from harm and sometimes that involves taking very specific and decisive actions.

Our decision to not allow our son to play with the neighborhood boy was not about that boy, it was about our son and his welfare. Yet, sometimes in the church when it comes time for leaders to act for the welfare of the church, there is a hesitancy to do so.

For example, since most churches are small (less than a hundred members), most churches are very interested in retaining anyone who begins visiting their church. But let’s say that in getting to know such visitor, you learn that this person holds some very different views on different issues and is showing him/herself to be very divisive with those views. What should you say or do?

Last year with the Columbia Church of Christ such a visitor started coming to our Sunday morning Bible class and worship gathering. He made it very clear that he disagreed with our gender-inclusive practices, our understanding of God’s grace, with our way of worshiping, and with some of my preaching (surprise, surprise!). He also demonstrated that he wanted to try debating these issues during our Bible class, sort of hijacking the time for his own purpose. So after he was reminded a couple of times that this is not the place for such discussions, as they only cause division, I went to him and explained that this is who are church is and if he is not comfortable with that then there are other churches for him to visit.

I don’t have any regrets about doing so. Not only was he causing disruption among our church, there was also one couple who were new in the faith that I was trying to protect… just like a parent protecting their child.

Part of serving as a leader in the church is protecting the church from those who may cause harm. In an ideal situation, the church will have elders shepherding the church so that this responsibility does not fall to the minister(s) only. Regardless, someone must take very specific and decisive action. Parents don’t really want to tell a neighborhood child that they cannot play with their child anymore. Likewise, Church leaders don’t really want to tell a visitor that they are should look elsewhere. Yet sometimes serving as a leader requires stepping up in a difficult way and saying “No!” to the visitor for the sake of the church.

Christians: Not of the World?

“Be in the world but not of the world!”

It’s a well known phrase that has been preached in many sermons and repeated by many, many more Christians. It is a conviction which many Christians, especially of the Bible-believing, conservative-evangelicalish type, understand the relationship they are to have with the world. That’s why you won’t hear such Christians talk about going out to see the movie Fifty Shades of Grey followed up by dinner at some restaurant like Hooters or Tilted Kilt.

Being “in the world but not of the world” is actually rooted in some solid biblical teaching. Jesus himself desired that his disciples would be both sent and sanctified. According to John 17:15-19, Jesus prayed to his Father about his disciples saying…

“I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth” (NRSV).

The idea of sanctification means to be holy, set apart for God and his mission. While Christians are sent into the world, rather than withdrawn from the world, Christians must abstain from living as the world because they do not belong to the world. The Apostle Paul expresses a very similar concern as he commands the Christians in Rome saying, “Do not be conformed to this present world… (Rom 12:2).

To See The World as God Sees

But living as people who are not of the world is more than just abstaining from certain segments of the entertainment culture.

In his book Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf writes about the strangeness that Christians are to have regarding their culture as a result of their allegiance to God rather than country. Such strangeness gives “…a vantage point form which to perceive and judge the self and the other not simply on their own terms but in the light of God’s new world…” (p. 53). Thus, by embracing this strangeness, Christians are able to see the world as God sees it and respond in ways that reflect the new creation they belong to.

The importance of this strangeness cannot be overstated. Two Sunday’s ago I turned on the news and was horrified by the news that twenty-one Coptic Christians were beheaded as martyrs of Jesus Christ by the terrorist group ISIS. It is horrible and as expected, everyone believes something needs to be done about such terrorism. The world, including the United States, will meet such violence with violence. Militaries will wage war and the masses will champion the cause as if it will really save the world, ridding it of evil.

Yet a lot of Christians, including some preachers, are among the masses cheering this cause and here in the United States it too often ends up having to do with what is best for America… filtered through whatever political camp one affiliates with. So much for being not of the world!

To Speak As Christians

I’m not writing this just for the sake of being critical. I’m concerned with how the church is going convince this broken world of the gospel when so many Christians speak as people who still belong to the world?

I went and saw the movie American Sniper yesterday. It was a realistically brutal portrayal of war, in more ways than one. Besides the bloodshed and the loss of lives of both Americans and Iraqi insurgents, who both bear the image of God, families suffered on both sides for the gods of war. As the movie finished, I was left with nothing but sadness. There was anything to celebrate, there wasn’t any winners to applaud, and there wasn’t any heroes to venerate as a legend. What I saw were victims. That’s right, victims! I saw victims of a dark and broken world where everyone keeps trying to kill everyone not in a war that ends all wars but as a war that only begets more war.

The only way the world is ever going to know there is hope beyond such mayhem, the future hope which Jesus has established through his own crucifixion and resurrection, is for Christians to speak of such hope… to speak as people who are not of this world in response to the terrorism and violence of this world. The world doesn’t need the church to champion its way of the sword, as it already has plenty of people ready and willing to do that. What the world needs is for Christians “to be concerned about nothing among [the world] except Jesus the Messiah and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2) because it is only through the crucified Jesus that the world will ever know the hope of the resurrected Jesus.

Ministry: Cultivating Gospel People

Here is an interesting thought to ponder for ministry. In the introduction of his book Exclusion and Embrace, theologian Miroslav Volf writes, “…theologians should concentrate less on social arrangements and more on fostering the kind of social agents capable of envisioning and creating just, truthful, and peaceful societies, and on shaping a cultural climate in which such agents will thrive” (p. 21). For Volf, social arrangements are the way that societies organize and function politically and the social agents are the people who shape the political function and organization of society.

As a minister, I immediately thought of how this idea would work in churches. It’s easy for ministers, or pastors, to focus on the church as an organization and how the church should function. We focus on what sort of ministries should the church engage in, what sort of structure is necessary so that the church can fulfill its vision, and what sort of changes are necessary for the church to thrive. That isn’t wrong either, so long as we keep it in perspective. But it is also possible that we can become so focused on the church as an organization that we lose sight of the organic aspect of the church, which is the people. When this happens, we end up cultivating (or attempt) a church that functions with a particular structure in a certain way and then expect the people to fit into that organization. The only problem is that the people may not so easily fit into that organization because we have not taken the time to cultivate the sort of character that wants to belong in that church we have cultivated or are trying to cultivate.

What if the thrust of ministry was focused fostering the kind of Christians who are capable of envisioning how to embody the gospel within their particular context?

In this aspect, the focus is on the organic side of the church. The focus is on people, not programs. This doesn’t mean that we should completely ignore the organization aspect (which is impossible to do), especially since in applying Volf’s statement our focus on shaping the lives of Christians includes shaping the cultural environment that will allow the people to thrive as Christians. By way of example, in focusing on the people the shift goes from creating a new ministry to care for the poor to cultivating the sort of character in people that loves the homeless the way God does. Or by way of another example, the shift goes from focusing on what changes must happen in the worship gathering to improve the worship experience to cultivating the sort of character in people that desires to passionately worship God in spirit and truth.

It seems that once we have cultivated the sort of character in the people of the church so that they are capable of envisioning how to embody the gospel within their own context, then the organizational changes will organically begin happening. The people will begin forming new ministries or changing existing ministries so that they are able to embody the gospel as they now envision it. This is where the need for giving attention to structure and function is necessary but it only is because of what has happened organically within the church, particularly within the lives of the people who make up the church.

As I thought about this, I also had the thought of what happens if the way the people begin envisioning how they embody the gospel differs from how we, the minister, have in mind. This is where humility is needed. Because such a thought is really about control, which is something that I think most ministers wrestle with. We’re the ones with the seminary education, we’re the ones usually attending the conferences where we here the next latest great ideas, we’re the ones probably reading the latests books on all things missional, worship, etc… So we know what is best, or at least we think we do. Yet at the end of the day we must, with humility, admit that we are simply called to plant seed and cultivate it. It is up to God to bring the increase of that seed, including what that plant will look like in full bloom. So I ask one final question…

Can we let God be in control of deciding what the embodiment of the gospel will look like in our churches by focusing on fostering the kind of Christians who are capable of envisioning how to embody the gospel within their particular context rather than focusing on what the embodiment of the gospel should look like?

Persecution: A Time For Faithful Prayer

Twenty-One! That’s the number of Christians martyred the other day by the terrorist group ISIS… Milad Makeen Zaky, Abanub Ayad Atiya, Maged Solaiman Shehata, Yusuf Shukry Yunan, Kirollos Shokry Fawzy, Bishoy Astafanus Kamel, Somaily Astafanus Kamel, Malak Ibrahim Sinweet, Tawadros Yusuf Tawadros, Girgis Milad Sinweet, Mina Fayez Aziz, Hany Abdelmesih Salib, Bishoy Adel Khalaf, Samuel Alham Wilson, Exat Bishri Naseef, Loqa Nagaty, Gaber Munir Adly, Esam Badir Samir, Malak Farag Abram, Sameh Salah Faruq, and an unnamed worker from Awr Village.

I really appreciated the words of Jonathan Storment in his blog ISIS and “The Nation of the Cross” that he wrote shortly after the news broke. Like many of you, I am horrified by the image of seeing my brothers in Christ beheaded and having their blood spilled into the ocean. I have not stopped thinking about it. Those are my brothers in Christ… your brothers in Christ, if you are a Christian.

How do we respond? Some will suggest military action. But I am not asking how should the nations of this world respond to terrorism nor am I denying the role that God has allotted governments in punishing evil doers (cf. Rom 13:1-5). My concern is about our response as people who follow Jesus Christ, who are not of this world but belong to the new creation God has made in Christ. How do we respond here and now when our fellow Christians are being persecuted?

One response is to pray just as Jesus taught us (cf. Matt 5:43-44) and just as our first century brothers and sisters in Christ did when they faced persecution (cf. Acts 4:23-31). We pray not because we believe prayer will be effective in bringing about the results we desire; we pray because we believe that God the Father  remains Sovereign over his creation and we do so in order that our brothers and sisters in Christ may be strengthen by the power of the Holy Spirit to live as faithful witness of Jesus because only the light of faithful kingdom witness will dispel the darkness. By praying for our fellow Christians being persecuted we join in solidarity with them in faith as they suffer, serving the same Lord as members of the same kingdom.

And that is more important than we may realize!

You see, eventually we who live as Christians in America are also going to face persecution. And I’m not talking about being told that we can’t lead a prayer over the intercom at a school sporting event or having the Ten Commandments removed from the courthouse lawn. That’s not persecution! I’m talking about being kidnapped and killed just as our brothers in Christ from Egypt were persecuted. Eventually this is going to happen to us Christians… perhaps not in our lifetime but somewhere in the not so distant future. How we respond to the threat of Christians suffering persecution may determine how we will respond when faced with persecution. And it will teach our children how they should respond, rightly or wrongly.

As Jesus faced persecution himself, he prayed to his heavenly Father. It was a submissive act of faith that cried, “…not my will but yours be done!” (Lk 22:42). As Jesus hung from the cross, struggling just to breathe, he prayed for the forgiveness of his enemies… “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34). When the disciples of Jesus began facing persecution, they came together and prayed for the Lord to “pay attention to their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your message with great courage… (Acts 4:29). When Stephen, the first follower of Jesus to be martyred, was being stoned to death, he prayed “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit… Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7:59-60). Prayer matters! It is an act of faith. How we pray as other Christians suffer is how we will pray should we suffer persecution. In fact, how we act now, whether our first response is the faithful act of prayer or the necessary acts of pragmatism due to a lack of faith, will determine how we act then.

And as I have said before and should we ever be called to suffer persecution for the name of Jesus Christ… Courage comes from conviction. We will never have the courage to be a martyr for Christ unless we learn to live now with the conviction of the martyrs for Christ now.

O Lord God, your Son Jesus Christ suffered and died for us. In his resurrection he restores life and peace in all creation. Comfort, we pray, all victims of intolerance and those oppressed by their fellow humans. Remember in your kingdom those who have died. Lead the oppressors towards compassion and give hope to the suffering. Through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

- An Anglican Prayer for the Persecuted

As You Come Together

Here is a video of me preaching at the Westside Church of Christ in Baltimore on Sunday, February 8th. The sermon is titled As You Come Together and is based on 1 Corinthians 11:23-34.

I Don’t Miss Mayberry. . . And Neither Should You!

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Mettitt

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Mettitt

I’m old enough that I can remember watching The Andy Griffith show air regularly as reruns on television. I also remember watching the shows Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons. It was good wholesome family oriented television that parents could watch with their children without having to worry about what those little ears and eyes might encounter.

Of course, The Andy Griffith Show took place in the fictional town of Mayberry. It was a small town, an all American kind of town. Neighbors knew each other, there weren’t any video games to keep children from playing outdoors, and the most serious crime was when Barney, the Deputy Sheriff would take Otis the drunkard to jail to sleep it off. That certainly seems like the ideal kind of place to live and make a life for ourselves. Heck, even though I didn’t grow up in a single parent home, it certainly would’ve been nice to have an Aunt Bee around always having a fresh-baked apple pie hot off the stove. If only we could return to way back when, right?

Wrong!

As the title suggests, I don’t miss Mayberry and what it represents and neither should you. As wholesome and pleasant as Mayberry may seem, I’m sure not a single Black person would enjoy going back to America’s Mayberry era. Not when being black meant being forced to ride at the back of the bus, not having the right to vote, and even being lynched. In fact, there’s more than a few groups of people that would not enjoy going back in time. That was a time when many still believed a woman’s place was nowhere else but in the home (not that there is anything wrong with women choosing to be homemakers) and sometimes that was a home where women were abused by their husbands while the law did little to nothing since it was a “domestic problem.” Let’s not forget the mentally ill, the mentally handicapped, and many other groups who were marginalized and mistreated.

So no, I don’t want to go way back when and I don’t know why any other Christian would either. In fact, I don’t know why Christians would long for any idyllic American culture, be it the traditional culture that Mayberry represents or the more progressive culture that America has seemingly become.

Growing up, we would sing the spiritual This World Is Not My Home during church services. Some churches still sing it. But do we really mean it? Because whether it’s the down-home traditional America or the more progressive America, many American Christians seem baptize the American ideal as the best thing since sliced bread.

Can We Recover Our Hope?

Christianity in America really needs to recover a sense of eschatological hope. That is, the church needs to learn once again what it is to live with hope. . . to be in the present what it awaits for and what it already is in the fullness of time. The Apostle Paul writes Philippians 3:20-21,

But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

Only when Jesus returns will everything in life, including our own bodies, become what it is meant to be. Right now we live with a promise which is hope to us in Christ because we know what our future is. So if this is what we are to eagerly await, why dream and politic for good ole’ Mayberry or it’s American antithesis? Christians belong to neither and await neither!

However, let me push this a bit farther. Within the context of Philippians 3:20-21, Paul is contrasting the Christian disposition of being set toward to the second-coming of the Lord with people who have their minds set on “earthly things (v. 19). While Paul is directly talking about people driven by hedonistic values where their own stomach becomes their god, it isn’t a stretch at all to say that Christians who for an idyllic American life also have their minds set on earthly things.

This is not to say that everything about America then and now is bad, as that would be a gross mischaracterization. There were and are many good things about America. Yet no matter how good we think America was or is, it will not be when Jesus comes again. One day when Jesus return, everything will be brought under his reign. Until then, the only way for the world to know now that Jesus is Lord is for us, the church of Jesus Christ, to live in hope of that day when every knee will bow and every tongue confesses. We can’t do that when we’re preaching sermons in the sanctuary, on Facebook, or else that says “I Miss Mayberry.”

Church Leadership: Posture and Presence

Years ago I worked as a machinist for Aero Metals, which was a small but growing manufacturing corporation in La Porte, Indiana. The company was locally owned and even though I worked the grave-yard shift from 11:00 PM to 7:00 AM, I met the owner on several occasions when he came in early in the morning. He would stop by to ask how everything was going, if I had any concerns, and other questions like that.

At the time I didn’t have any idea of what this guy was doing. I just figured that he was making sure every person was doing their job since he was the owner and the person who ultimately was writing the paychecks. Twenty years later and with a lot of ministry experience, I have a different perspective.

From the Office to the Floor

You might recall watching the show Undercover Boss which runs on CBS television. The show is about a boss, usually the CEO of a very large and lucrative corporation who puts on a disguise and then does the job among those doing the manual labor. He or She, the head honcho becomes one of the store clerks, the delivery person, the food server, the warehouse personnel, etc…

As the boss does this, he or she engages in real conversation with the employees about the job and about their life. In doing so, these CEOs become aware of the struggles and challenges their employees face, both on the job and in their own personal lives. With awareness, each CEO is able to intelligently act in a way that positively affects their employees personal lives while also affecting positive change for the operation of their business.

By going out on the ground floor, listening and learning to the employees, the boss is able to serve the employees in a way that is win-win for all involved.

Christ-Like Church Leadership

My friend and fellow minister Fred Liggen* defines leadership as listening, learning, and loving. It is essentially what the undercover bosses are doing (just substitute the word “serve” for “love”). But more importantly, it is the sort of leadership we see from Jesus.

Jesus is among the people, in the fields and at the table with them. He meets people where they’re at and engages in conversation with them their. He is listening, learning, and loving them and therefore he is able to lead them. And according to Luke 22:24-27, we can see how Jesus expected that those who would lead in his kingdom would imitate his model of leadership… A dispute also started among them over which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.  So Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ Not so with you; instead the one who is greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is seated at the table, or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is seated at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”

Thanks to Jesus, my friend Fred, and a few others, I am convinced more than ever that this is what leadership in the church is. Ministers (Pastors) are not CEOs of their church, neither are the elders/shepherds. They both are called to be servants. Their capacity to lead is in the ability to come out of the office or out of the elders room at the building a gather with the members of the church in their homes, in the hospital room or waiting area, at a park, on the golf-course or in the fishing boat, at a restaurant, at a coffee shop, and even at the pub.

It is in these places where the listening, learning, and loving occurs and that is how servants of God can lead. It is about posture and presence among the people and with the people. This is where leadership happens. This is where church leaders are able to acting a way that blesses the individual lives of the church they serve as well as the church as a whole. It works for the Undercover Boss and it will certainly work for the minister or shepherd of the church who comes clothed in nothing but the love and humility of Jesus Christ.

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* I have had a sense of this leadership since following around my friend Ricardo Maia, who is a minister in his homeland of Brazil, as this was Ricardo’s way of leading as a minister. However, it is my friend Fred Liggen, who serves as the minister of the Williamsburg Christian Church, is the first person I know to use the phrase “Listening, Learning, and Loving = Leadership.” Both men are courageous ministers following Jesus as servants in the kingdom of God.