Becoming Responsible For Our Faith

Few Christians, if any, move into to a new town and just decide to join the church that meets closest to their house, like the church around the corner. There’s a lot that goes into deciding what church we’ll join. We want to know what the church believes, what their mission is, what sort of values do they embody, if there are any major troubling issues, if this is the sort of community we want are children to be a part of, and on and on go the number of questions we want to know.

That’s all fine. I get it because I have those questions too. In fact, those are some of the questions I ask of churches seeking a new minister to serve with. However, somewhere in time, we started concerning ourselves with other questions too that have to do usually with just a couple hours on Sunday… worship and preaching. We know the concerns in the way people judge evaluate whatever church they just visited… One person wants contemporary worship, while the other prefers the liturgy. Someone else can’t stand all those old hymns, while another person thinks the contemporary praise choruses are just a bit too shallow for their liking. Then comes the preaching issues… the sermon is too long, too short, lacking humor, not serious enough, too theological, too shallow, and on and on it goes.

From A Consumer Faith to a Dead Faith…

Somewhere in time our worship preferences became the standard by which we decided whether we liked a church or not, whether we would join that church or not. Somewhere in time the consumerism of American culture became a value among Christians and we started shopping for churches like we shop for everything else. Don’t believe me? Go visit any bookstore and look at the Bible section. Besides having to decide which English translation we prefer reading from, we now have specialty Bible’s marketed to almost every niche imaginable all to satisfy our consumeristic value.

Back to worship and church. We evaluate worship and the church based upon our consumer driven desires. Are we getting fed? Does the service inspire us? Are we happy? Somehow, church and worship became about us? But here’s the problem: When church and worship becomes about us, we develop an appetite that will never be satisfied! It becomes like an addiction and we need that bigger emotional high or that next powerful sermon to get our fix. The only problem is that as time goes by, it gets harder and harder to keep getting our fix. That’s usually when we bolt for another church because the church we’re at doesn’t get us high enough anymore. If we’re lucky enough, perhaps we can find a good sermon podcast or catch some cool church streaming their worship live but eventually that well runs dry too.

Before we know it, our faith has become dependent upon the church and its Sunday worship gathering. When the can’t deliver the goods, our faith begins to sail like a lead balloon. Eventually we come to the point where there isn’t any church with enough juice to fill up our faith and so we are left with a dead faith.

Maybe out of fear of God’s judgment, we keep showing up and going through the motions. Or maybe we show up because we have friends. But regardless, our faith…

What faith?

From Consumers of God to Worshipers of God…

But it doesn’t have to be this way. It shouldn’t. It never was meant to be this way either. There are numerous passages throughout scripture that suggest we have a part in maintaining our faith that we must take responsibility for. This isn’t to suggest that we earn our salvation, that we make up our own faith, or that our faith is dependent upon us. It’s like food and eating. We’re dependent upon God for blessing the tree with fruit but if we’re going to reap the blessing of that fruit, then we need to go pick some fruit off the tree and eat it. If we can’t do that, then hunger is what we get.

“How can a young person maintain a pure life? By guarding it according to your instructions! …In my heart I store up your words, so I might not sin against you.” – Psalm 119:9, 11

“Be devoted to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving.” – Colossians 4:2

“But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith by praying in the Holy Spirit, maintain yourselves in the love of God, while anticipating the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that brings eternal life.” – Jude 20-21

The best way for us to take responsibility for our own faith is to devote ourselves daily to the scriptures and to prayer. Such discipline is not always easy to maintain because there is so much in life competing for our time and attention these days. There are numerous daily Bible reading plans available on the internet. Some are free and some will cost a few dollars but as long as we can afford five dollar coffee drinks at Starbucks, we can afford to spend a few dollars on a Bible reading plan. So Pick one! After your reading spend a few minutes praying about it. Pick a couple of other times slots throughout the day for prayer and do that every day so that you can develop a rhythm.

By taking responsibility for our own faith through daily attention to scripture and prayer, not only will we discover our own faith coming alive but our experience during worship will change for the better too. Whether we’re in a high church, low church, traditional church, or contemporary church, we’ll come full of the Spirit. We may come with great joy or great sadness on our hearts, depending on what is happening in our own lives, but we’ll come with a genuinly Spirit-filled faith in Jesus Christ ready to truly worship God with our church.

I Went To Church And…

Ok, I’m not really a fan of saying “I went to church” or “I am going to church” since the church is a people and not a building or worship event. Nevertheless, that’s how our society speaks of gather for worship with a Christian church.

Most church communities have some sort of centralized gathering where people come together for worship and fellowship that includes singing, praying, reading scripture, preaching, and participation in the Lord’s Supper. Maybe these churches do a few other things together like Bible-class time or a meal but regardless, this is a very typical feature of church. Yet in recent years it seems like this tradition, especially of the contemporary style, has taken its share of criticism from both Christians and non-Christians (see, for example here and here). But yesterday, I went to church with my family and enjoyed it. So did my family.

A Little Context…

I am a minister of the gospel… a preacher or pastor, as some call me. I really don’t put a lot of stock in titles, as I am just trying to follow Jesus whom I believe is Lord. For the last three and a half years I served with the Columbia Church of Christ until the church decided it was time to close at the end of January 2015. I still believe I am called to serve as a minister of the gospel and so I am searching, waiting, and listening for the church God wants me to serve with next. But in the meantime, what do I do?

The first two Sunday’s in February I was doing some guest-preaching in a couple of different churches in the area. Then there were two different snow storms each of the next two weekends resulting in every area church canceling their services because of the weather and road conditions. So each of those two Sunday’s were spent at home with the family (no complaints).

Although I have daily disciplines such as regular prayer time and daily Bible reading to help maintain my own faith and don’t expect the worship gathering to sustain my faith, it felt odd to sit at home on Sunday and not be at church. Then came yesterday. I wasn’t expected to be preaching anywhere or doing anything else as a minister and I certainly didn’t have to get out of bed, should I have chosen to sleep in which I’ll admit was a tempting idea. So came the moment that I had to answer for: Do I go to church only because I’m the preacher or do I go because, for all of the criticisms I might raise, I really believe in and value gathering with other believers for worship and fellowship?

Into The Holy of Holies

So as I have said, I went to church. I went with my wife and children. We visited the Countryside Fellowship Church in Savage, Maryland where a few of the people from the Columbia Church of Christ are now visiting. I also happen to know the pastor of that church, so there was that connection too.

The atmosphere was relaxed, somewhat contemporary but it didn’t seem like the church was trying to keep up with the latest trendy fads in worship. The members were friendly and hospitable without pushing themselves upon us. The worship began with a reading from the Psalms and a call to worship. After singing several songs, the pastor preached on Revelation 3:1-6 (Jesus’ message to the Church of Sardis) and then we shared in the Lord’s Supper together before singing one final song. In so many ways the gathering was typical and normal with nothing spectacular except for the presence of the true living God. It was just church.

Yet it was nice, for a change, to sing, pray, read scripture, encounter the preached word of God, and share in the Lord’s Supper not as the preacher but just as a worshiper. It was nice to be reminded through song, prayer, scripture, word, and the Lord’s Supper that even though I am not righteous on my own accord, I belong to God and live in the glorious presence of God because of the blood of Jesus Christ by which I am made righteous. That message was especially pointed as we sang the song by Kutless Take Me In (To The Holy of Holies).

I Went To Church And…

I know that there are churches where worship is a lifeless endeavor of just going through the motions of a dead faith. Likewise, I know that there are other churches where worship has become such a professionally manufactured endeavor that the work of the Spirit seems stifled by a shallow faith. But as I reflect on going to church, I am reminded that when we come ready to give our heart to God we receive… not some superficial emotion that is meant as a mask to whatever junk we are dealing with. I’m still struggling with the worry of my family and I living in limbo as we await the next church I’ll serve with.

What I received was joy, the kind that Paul spoke of in Philippians 1 where he was content with whatever happens because of his solidarity with Christ. I received this gift of joy not because I deserve it or could obtain it as though it is a commodity. I received it simply because I showed up at church desiring to worship the God who, by his grace and mercy, has made me alive in Christ and given me his Spirit as the assurance of this life.

So yeah, yesterday I went to church and I am glad I did.

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.