Those Unhelpful Labels!

What kind of Christian do you consider yourself? A liberal or conservative? Perhaps a progressive or traditionalist? Maybe you consider yourself a fundamentalist or one of those “spiritual but not religious” Christians. What about a Neo-Calvinist or Missional?

Once Upon A Time…

In the year 2007 my wife and I moved to Ithaca, New York, a small town full of an earthy, free-spirited, political culture. Down the road from my house was a trendy little coffee shop that I frequented a couple times a day. One day one of the Barista’s, who knew I was a Christian, asked me if I considered myself a mainline-protestant or an evangelical? Well, I’m not one who likes to be cornered but I also knew that there were (and still are) some assumptions this person had attached to both choices that I didn’t want to claim. Fortunately, having been raised in the Churches of Christ, I responded as any Church of Christ member would and said, “I’m just a Christian.”

Several months later, the same Barista asked me if I believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation. Knowing that the person asking the question was not a Christian, I invited her to have a cup of coffee with me sometime so we could talk about her question. She did. And I did my best to explain over a nice cup of coffee why I believe Jesus is the only way of salvation. Her response… “So Rex, you really are a conservative!”

It’s kind of ironic because a year before that, when still living in Memphis, I had someone insist that I was a liberal because they knew I rejected a literalist reading of the Genesis creation narrative (creationism) and opposed the war in Iraq.

So Am I a liberal? A conservative? Or am I… Truthfully, I don’t really care!

Hyphenated-Christians?

But if you must know whether I consider myself a liberal or conservative, or whatever other designated tag you want to label me with, it all depends on where you stand in relation to me. You see, from my perspective, I stand perfectly in the center and it’s you who are either too far to the right or too far to the left.

How’s that for an answer! It also shows the absurdity of such labels. They’re all just too nebulous and too loaded for the kingdom of God. Fortunately, followers of Jesus don’t need such labels. That’s one of the values I greatly appreciate about my Restoration heritage that reminds me, we can just be “Christian’s only.” Not the only Christians but Christians only!

To say that we are Christians only without any additional hyphenated adjective allows us to stop defining ourselves by our own terms and instead define ourselves simply as followers of Jesus, which is what we are. Any thing else is too nebulous and in my experience as a minister, people and churches are too diverse to fit into the categories we want to label each other with.

So let’s just be Christians… followers of Jesus!

What If Our Churches…?

Maybe it’s time to admit that we’re broken! As Christians, we live in a culture that appears increasingly secular and uninterested in the gospel our churches have to offer… and maybe we just don’t have as much of that gospel to offer as we would like to believe.

Yesterday I posted an article titled Reasons Why Your Church Isn’t… It was a response to an article titled Why Church Members Don’t Invite Others to Church in which the Christians involved in the study seemed to cast blame on their church as to why they’re not participating. My post was intended to counter that blame because it is easy for Christians who are not involved in the ministry of their church to just place the blame on their church, when in fact they are part of the problem.

But the truth is that yesterday’s post does little to nothing in terms of offering a better way forward. So it’s time to shift the conversation back to Jesus.

A Different Way!

Do we know how to follow Jesus? Learning to follow Jesus is where we need to begin. After all, it is the invitation Jesus extends us. After commanding us to “repent and believe the gospel,” he invites us to embrace the challenge of being his disciple saying, “Follow me…” (Mk. 1:14, 17).

Now we can point the blame at each other for the problems facing our churches. Church leaders, like myself, can say it’s the fault of members who want to just sit in worship as consumers attempting to feed an appetite that will never be satisfied. Likewise, church members can blame the leadership for the lack of vision and courage as they keep trying to pour new wine into old wineskins in order to avoid upsetting the status quo too much. Ministers can blame the elders, who blame the deacons, who blame the ministers… and round and round we go.

But really, what good is blaming one another doing? I don’t recall reading any “one another” passages in the Bible that says we should blame one another.

Perhaps what we need is to take a step or two back and ask ourselves what does it mean to follow Jesus? What would it look like if we followed Jesus together? What would it look like if we change our expectations (repent) of what the entire church stuff is supposed to be and live with anticipation (believe) of seeing God at work (the kingdom of God at hand) as we follow Jesus together? What kind of activities would we then do together? What sort of things would we need to let go of in order to follow Jesus again?

Reasons Why Your Church Isn’t…

Do you ever wonder why your church isn’t growing, why it seems like it’s just stagnant or even beginning to decline? I do. Of course, I serve as a minister with a church, so that should come as no surprise. But what about you?

Maybe your church just needs to be a little more outgoing, so that visitors might feel welcomed. That might certainly help. Perhaps your church just needs a little more lively worship, a few more praise songs and some stronger preaching. I suppose that might help too. Or maybe your church just needs to get more involved in the community, being the hands and feet of Jesus to the most needy and vulnerable. Certainly a little more compassion and mercy will help. And of course, maybe…

Have you considered that the problem might be you?

Last week I read a brief article on Thomas Rainer website titled Why Church Members Don’t Invite Others to Church and if you click on the link, you can read it for yourself. As I read the reasons, my immediate thought was “How many excuses do we need to justify why we don’t invite others to church?”

Don’t misunderstand me. I know the mission of God is not about inviting people to church services, per se. There’s nothing wrong with offering such invitations but this isn’t exactly what Jesus has in mind when he tells us to “go and make disciples” (cf. Matt 28:19). However if those who took part in this study understand that part of the mission is inviting people to visit their church worship gathering then they might as well just say “Here are ten reasons why we won’t participate in the mission of God with our church.”

I may be in the minority but this is just lame excuse making. I’m not saying that church problems should be ignored, that solid preaching isn’t necessary, and so on. But let’s get real for a moment. When we see Jesus face to face, the same Jesus who gave his very own life for us, are we really going to make such excuses?

Whatever the excuse, it likely says more about you than it does your church. Every church, big and small, young and old, has it’s problems. If there’s one thing I’ve learned is that there isn’t any perfect church (and there isn’t any perfect minister either!). Yes, some churches are very healthy mission-minded communities while others are so full of problems that they contaminate everyone around them. But the biggest problem with most churches is always you…

And I…

Because we are the church!

So here’s a thought: Maybe we should stop making excuses!

A Place For Lepers

One of my favorite Jesus stories is the one told in Mark 1:40-45. It’s a story about Jesus and a leper whom Jesus heals. But it’s so much more.*

A Kingdom Story!

ImageLet’s think about the context a bit more. As already mentioned, this story occurs early on in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus has already appeared in the Galilean region proclaiming the good news (gospel) of the kingdom of God. This is a declaration that the reign of God has started breaking forth upon history and that people should change (repentance) everything about their expectations of what this means and accept (believe) what they hear and see, which is Jesus preaching and teaching with authority as well as healing the sick and driving out demons.

That all sounds good but it makes even more sense why this was called “good new” when we read of Jesus’ encounter with this leper. This leper approached Jesus and said to him, “If you are willing, you can make me clean” (v. 40). Take notice that the leper did not ask about the ability of Jesus to make him clean. He already believed Jesus had that ability. What he questions was Jesus’ willingness and that is apparently because Jesus’ religious contemporaries were unwilling to help this leper at all.

But Jesus was… Jesus is!

Here is what happens. The text says, “Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched our his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I am will. Be clean!'” (v. 42). I suppose Jesus simply could have spoken and cured this leper of his disease but that’s not what Jesus did. Moved by compassion, Jesus treated this leper as a human being by touching him. He didn’t have to but he did because restoring a sense of value and dignity to this leper was that important. That’s because this is what it looks like when the kingdom of God is at hand.

Moved With Compassion…

Now here’s the caveat… In chapter one of the Gospel of Mark, as Jesus proclaims the good news of the kingdom of God, he calls us to follow him. And we say “Yes! We will follow Jesus.” But even as we say yes, I wonder how many people there are around us who are crying out to Jesus saying, “If you are willing…” The encounter Jesus has with this leper teaches us something very important to following Jesus. If we want the people in our community to believe in the good news then just as Jesus was, we had better be the people who are moved with compassion when they cry out to God. Whether we encounter an actual leper or just someone who has become a societal leper because of their present life circumstances, we dare not be the religious people who turn a deaf ear to their cries.

A lot of energy is spent these days on the declining influence of Christianity in the western world. I have a strong feeling that everything will be just fine so long as churches learn to follow Jesus and become a place for lepers, reaching out and touching them with the compassionate hand of Jesus!

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* This post is my contribution to the Compadres Blog Tour.

Leadership for a Struggling Church

This Sunday I am beginning a new message series with the Columbia Church of Christ titled Leadership in the Local Church. Beyond the need for understanding local church leadership, this series should help the move forward rather than becoming complacent with things as are. But given some of the questions about church leadership that I have encountered as a minister, I want to say a few words about the issue and what a struggling church needs in terms of leadership.

Church and Leadership?

For some time the subject of church leadership has been all the rage among evangelical churches. Some might say the issue has become an obsession among certain pastors. The interest has yielded both a plethora of books on the subject as well as numerous conferences. Though I am painting with a very broad stroke here, much of the conversation has focused on incorporating insights and the practices of corporate business models. The pastor or minister became the “Senior Minister” acting as the church CEO with associate ministers and assistants carrying out specific ministry responsibilities (functioning as support staff) and a board of elders providing administrative oversight (functioning like a board of directors). While the Churches of Christ have not taken this approach as far as some other evangelical churches have, the corporate business model has  increasingly become operative to carrying degrees.

In the last few years as the missional church conversation gained more traction, there has been some push back on the obsession with church leadership. To a certain extent, this has been necessary. If we take the scriptures seriously in the way we think about church, then our construal of church leadership is amiss when corporate business models–rather than the gospel–define what local church leadership is. Some seem to be pushing back even more, suggesting that talk about leadership altogether is wrong. However, in my view, that is too much of an over-reaction. The local church is always an organization or people brought together by God for life and mission and like any organization of people, a local church community needs leadership.

What Sort of Leadership?

The question is what sort of leadership is necessary for a local church? This is part of the question I hope to begin answering in this message series on church leadership. Yet, I want to say up front that the sort of leadership needed is above all mission-oriented and Christ-formed. Church leadership is necessary so  that the local church may live as a participants in the mission of God and this requires that leadership functions in the way of the crucified Christ who came to serve, rather than be served. Leadership is about being present with people showing them by example and service how to journey on mission with God. So even as we read key texts from scripture on the responsibilities of ministers, elders, etc…, we read through the lens of the gospel itself.

Yet there is more we must consider when asking about the sort of leadership necessary for a local church. That is because every local church is set within its own context and therefore the form of leadership must fit within the context we find ourselves in. When it comes to form, all local leadership is contextual leadership. One size does not fit all and having the “biblical” form (the form of church leadership in the New Testament is far from monolithic) does not automatically translate into a healthy functioning leadership. The struggling (and often smaller) churches today must remember that they are neither the church in Ephesus or Crete that Paul had in mind when writing the Pastoral Epistles to Timothy and Titus nor are they the latest and most trendiest mega-church. All churches must take their own context into consideration as they think through leadership issues.

Where To Begin

Having said all that, thinking constructively about leadership in the local church begins by taking the scriptures seriously as well as taking serious the mission of God and the life we are called to follow Christ in. But the aim should not be the reduplication of the form per se of any church in the first century, sixteenth century, or twenty-first century. Instead the interest is helping construct leadership that contextually fits with the church in its own context so that it may live as a participant in the mission of God, wherever that may lead.

Discernment and Mission: Seeing Beyond Our Own Church

“But the word of God kept on increasing and multiplying.” – Acts 12:24 (NET)

Many commentators treat this statement simply as a summary of what’s going on among this early movement of Jesus followers. While it’s entirely appropriate to this passage as a summation, we miss a lot if we limit this text to mere rhetorical strategy. Regarding v. 24, Luke Timothy Johnson says, “it is also a triumphant assertion of the movement’s growth despite the attempts of a tyrant to suppress it through the harassment of its leaders” (The Acts of the Apostles, p. 216). Therein is a clue regarding what ought to challenge every church’s understanding of what participation in the mission of God may involve.

Baptisms and Bible-Studies

Let’s first take a few steps back and think about church and mission. I think it’s fair to say that when it comes to the church and the mission of God, there’s a lot of for the spectacular occasions. For example, in the book of Acts, churches love to talk about chapter two where the Spirit is poured out and 3,000 plus people are baptized upon hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ preached. The same is true for chapter eight where an Ethiopian eunuch is baptized after basically asking Philip to study the Bible with him.

Churches love stories like these and would love for them to be the stories of their churches. That’s why churches talk about their yearly number of baptism or about the evangelistic Bible studies taking place, as if the number of baptisms and evangelistic Bible studies are the sure marks of a good church (don’t get me wrong here, I’m all for baptisms and evangelistic Bible studies). However, turn to Acts chapter twelve and we won’t find any spectacular stories of baptisms and evangelistic Bible studies. What we find is a church struggling in turmoil and this is where churches today must pay attention because, as I’m suggesting, they can learn a lot about what participation in the mission of God may involve.

A Theological Conundrum and Persecution

At this point in the book of Acts, its somewhere between 41-44 CE during the reign of Herod Agrippa and the church is facing a lot of challenges. First, Peter has already baptized Conelius and his household (ch. 10). The baptism of Gentiles has now thrusted a theological conundrum upon the church that results initially in a counsel (ch. 11) but one in which the church, through the ministry of Paul, will wrestle with for the next several decades. Second, Herod has begun persecuting the church, having James executed and Peter arrested (presumably to suffer the same fate as James).

While Peter is rescued from his imprisonment by an angel of the Lord, the church doesn’t know this. So when Peter returns to his church gathered at the house of Mary where, according to v. 12, “many people had gathered and we praying” (churches brag about baptisms but how often do they brag about gathering for prayer?). Peter, who already realized it was the Lord that rescued him from prison, tells the church that it was the work of God. Then we are told about Herod’s death (which also is the work of God), which says something about the continued unstable political climate the church lived within. But… With all these challenges facing the church, “the word of God kept on increasing and multiplying” (NET).

Seeing Beyond Our Church

Why did the word of God, the gospel of Jesus Christ, keep increasing and multiplying? This is, after all, what matters. The answer is none other than God. God was at work and this early Jesus movement believed so, which is why they continued faithfully following Jesus even when the difficulty of their circumstances escalated. If more churches would understand that the multiplication of the gospel is the work of God then they might also understand the futility and unnecessary need for the utilitarian thinking that undergirds many books on ministry. The increase of God’s word is the work of God that happens through the faithfulness of the church and not through turning this multiplication into an end that justifies whatever means gets the job done. This is not to say that churches should cease casting vision and planning for ministry. Rather, vision and planning for ministry must begin with the question of discerning: how must the church live faithfully as participants in the mission of God within the current circumstances?

As I suggested earlier, Churches love to talk about the mission of God when it involves preaching, a lot of evangelistic Bible studies, and especially a lot of baptisms. More importantly, Churches love the mission of God when it means church growth with lots of people joining their church. But… That is not how God always works. Sometimes God is taking that large church gathering in Jerusalem and scattering it though out the region (cf. Acts 8:1-3) so that the word of God may keep on “increasing and multiplying.” Sometimes God simply needs the church to gather for prayer and fasting so that Barnabas and Saul can be sent off as missionaries to serve somewhere else (cf. Acts 13:1-3) so that the word of God may keep on “increasing and multiplying.” Sometimes a church’s best vision and planning for future ministry is not how God is working. Sometimes the vision for growth and new ministry Churches have for their church is not how God is working. And let’s be clear… The mission of God is about the increase and of God’s word, not the increase of their church or our church per se.

The question is then, are churches willing to participate in the mission of God even if it means faithfully walking down a path different than it envisioned? The answer to this question takes discernment but the story here in Acts is inviting and challenging churches today to see beyond the realm of their own church so that they may fully live as participants in the mission of God.

 

The Glory of the Son

Originally posted on Enduring Christianity:

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Six days later … Peter had confessed that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:18). Jesushad revealed to his disciples that he was going to die and be resurrected three days later, which was not well received (Matt. 16:21-24). Jesus had taught his disciples about the cost of discipleship, which included self-denial and bearing one’s cross (Matt. 16:24-28).

Six days later … Now, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to a high mountain for an experience of a lifetime. At the top of the mountain, Jesus reveals his glory to them in a way they had never seen and would never forget. The text reads: “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Matt. 17:2). The word transfigured (metamorphóō) means…

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