Category Archives: Churches of Christ

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.

Dad, Daughter, and the Pepperdine Bible Lectures

IMG_0142I brought my 9 year-old daughter with me to the Pepperdine Bible Lectures so that she could participate in the “Making Waves” children’s classes. She’s having a great time and so am I! Last night, on our walk back to our room (about a 15 minute walk) we had a wonderful conversation as my daughter asked me a question saying, “Dad, what is the gospel?” It was good to explain the gospel to her and let her chew on it, as she is thinking about a lot of things right now that have to do with Jesus, baptism and the Holy Spirit. She said, “I know that baptism is what people do when they decide they’re going to live their life for him!” So I asked her what it means to live our lives for Jesus and she said, “It means that everything we do should be about Jesus and what he would do.” My daughter’s faith is emerging and when she’s ready, I pray that she’ll give her life to the Lord and be baptized into Christ.

The picture is my daughter and I standing on the Pacific Ocean. Thanks for letting me share my joy with you!

Pepperdine Bible Lectures 2014

It’s that time of year again. I’m leaving today for the Pepperdine Bible Lectures. This year I am taking my 9 year-old daughter, Caryn, with me and she’ll be participating in the Making Waves children’s program. Trust me when I say, she’s excited. Join me in praying for her faith formation.

This year’s theme is Enter the Water, Come to the Table. As expected, it will be a faith enriching time and it will be good to reflect on what it means to live from the reality that I am baptized into Christ and share in his table fellowship.

I look forward to the sunshine, balmy weather, blue-waters of the Pacific Ocean, and the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains (yes, it’s a hard life but someone has to live it!). I also look forward to the great periods of worship in the Firestone Fieldhouse as well as the challenging key note messages and the many classes. But the lectures would not be complete without seeing many friends, some of whom I’ve only known thus far through social-media (it’s the new world). So if you’re headed to Malibu, I look forward to seeing you!

This Is God!

I’ve not blogged much of late because I’m very busy working on a paper for a class. But I thought I would share with you a video of me preaching :-).

This is a sermon I preached before the Picayune Church of Christ in Picayune, Mississippi on Sunday, April 13, 2014. The message is titled “This Is God!” and it is based on the text from Exodus 3:1-10.

“The good news comes to us as a promise so that we can endure with hope. And we’re able to endure because we know that suffering and death will not be the final word of life. Jesus has not only died but Jesus has been raised from death and has been exalted as the Lord. And therefore the last word, the word that endures is the promise of life in Jesus Christ.

“…So I don’t know what you’ve been told about who God is but right here in this passage in the Bible, God does tell us who he is. And God reveals himself as the Holy Creator, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, who comes to deliver, to rescue, to redeem!”

N.T. Wright on Gospel and Mission

Recently N.T. Wright lectured at Oklahoma Christian University. Below is a YouTube video of one of those lectures, probably a “chapel sermon,” on the relationship between gospel and mission, the vocational challenge we have as followers of Jesus. I believe you will really be encouraged and challenged by what you here, so do yourself a favor and listen.

Grace Is When God…

I’ve started reading through Pastrix: The Cranky Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber, who is a Lutheran Pastor. After hearing the author speak once and knowing something of her story, I was intrigued when this book came out. One I started reading the book and learned that she was raised in a Church of Christ, it makes even more sense why I find her story intriguing. Now a word of warning to those with super-disdain for foul language… you are warned.

The author is just like us all, a sinner in need of God’s grace. I lament that she didn’t learn about the grace of God in a Church of Christ but I understand. I only hope that as preacher in a Church of Christ, those who hear me preach and teach will learn of God’s grace because we’re all hopeless without it.

As I do reflect on my own preaching and teaching as well as my own relationship to God, I become ever more aware of my own short-comings, my failures, my sins, my… I’m thankful the love of God, a love that has given me life in Christ and assures me that there isn’t any condemnation in Christ (cf. Rom 8:1). And then as I was reading Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber had this to say about grace:

Grace is when God is a source of wholeness, which makes up for my failings. My failings hurt me and others and even the planet, and God’s grace to me is that my brokenness is not the final word. My selfishness is not the end-all… instead, it’s that God makes beautiful things out of even my own s***. Grace isn’t about God creating humans as flawed beings and then acting all hurt when we inevitably fail and then stepping in like the hero to grant us grace—like saying “Oh, it’s OK, I’ll be a good guy and forgive you.” It’s God saying, “I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new.” (p. 48).

God.

Love.

Makes all things new!

Feast on that over the weekend. Let the grace of God be a balm to our soul. Let it transform us, forgetting the past and striving for what lies ahead (cf. Phil 3:13) to the glory of God!

Book Review: God, Freedom & Human Dignity

Among the western world, freedom is arguably the chief value we seek as democratic societies. Our freedom is what dignifies us as human beings but that evokes the question of what exactly is freedom and whether or not God is a suppressor of freedom. This is the issue that Ron Highfield* addresses in his book God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing A God-Centered Identity In A Me-Centered Culture. Published in 2013 by InterVarsity Press, the book is 227 pages and includes both a subject index and scripture index. Also, to my delight, the book includes footnotes rather than endnotes.

The book aims to show why God is the foundation for true freedom and human dignity, whom we can love God and give ourselves to without loss of joy (p. 12). In order to unpack this claim, the author divides the book into two sections. In the first half, the author explores how we, as autonomous individual modern selves, the “Me-Centered” selves, conceive of freedom and view God as an obstacle to freedom. The second half of the book then explores the Christian view of God as the self-giving Father, Son, and Spirit in whom we find our true identity and gain true freedom and dignity to live as the people God has created and redeemed us to be which is a “God-centered” life. The book weaves a tapestry of theological and philosophical voices from into conversation with the biblical story, making a very solid argument for a wider range of readers. In other words, scholars and pastors will appreciate the depth of the book while students and lay people will benefit too because of the book’s accessibility.

The book demonstrates how among western culture freedom is an ideal without limitations which we must achieve through our own initiative. The problem with the western notion of freedom is that it requires the removal of every impeding obstacle and therefore satisfaction is never found because there is always another obstacle which we must overcome (p. 103). Though the modern autonomous self regards this illusion as freedom, it always falls short of true freedom. Alternatively, God is the foundation and giver of true freedom, as  Highfield demonstrates. This freedom, which is found in Christ, stems from the fact that in Christ, God has set us free from sin and death. This gives us the freedom to live as our true selves, the people whom God has created and redeemed us to be, which mirrors the image of God (p. 189-190).

One book can only do so much and will always leave the reader with unanswered questions. Having said that, I wish the book would have explored how this understanding of true freedom finds expression within the church, since the church is the collective new creation of people who belong to God in Christ. Speaking of the church, I also believe that some discussion questions at the end of each chapter would help as well. That’s because this book will make for a very useful small group discussion or even for a “Bible” class to read through. Nevertheless, this book is a great read! It is an easy and engaging read, providing a good overview along with solid theological and cultural engagement on a subject that hits very close to home for many people, including myself.

I am thankful to both Ron Highfield and IVP for providing me with a copy of this book.

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Ron Highfield, is the Blanche E. Seaver Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University where he teaches classes in systematic theology and Christianity and culture; he also serves as a Shepherd of the University Church of Christ.

A Good Minister of Christ Jesus

When I was a student at Harding University, I belonged to the “Timothy Club.” [1] This was a group for those preparing to serve as ministers of the gospel named after the Apostle Paul’s protégé Timothy. The club provided further encouragement and mentoring for ministry students beyond the college classroom. And all of these students, including myself, believed God had called us to serve as ministers and was preparing us for that task so that he may send us out. [2]

Leaders Among the Church

Paul wrote Timothy saying, “If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching you have followed” (1 Tim 4:6). Space will not permit much analysis of what “these things” are. However, the passage hints at the great responsibility Paul expected of Timothy and under different yet similar circumstances, I believe Paul expected the same of Titus.

Whether we call them ministers, evangelists, or else, the work of Timothy and Titus was a continuation of what Paul began in helping establish the churches in Ephesus and Crete.  From a cursory reading of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, this ministry involved preaching and teaching as well as administrative work, all for the purpose of building up the churches as God’s holy people. For example, when it came to addressing the concerns of widows, Paul told Timothy to “Give these commands” [2] to the church (cf. 1 Tim 5:7, NRSV).

As a minister of Christ Jesus, this responsibility comes from Jesus himself. While all good ministry involves communal discernment, it is not a responsibility subject to the church’s approval but for the sake of the church — so that the church may continue participation in the mission of God. Both Timothy and Titus were sent as leaders among the church… not the only leaders, as they were to appoint elders and deacons (cf. 1 Tim 3:1-13; Tit 1:5-9), but leaders nonetheless.

The Need for Ministers

Churches today find themselves among a drastically different historical context and sometimes facing very different issues. Nevertheless, even though the circumstances are different, churches still need a minister of the gospel like Ephesus and Crete needed Timothy and Titus. Churches need ministers who spend time drinking from the deep well of God’s word so that they may preach and teach the scriptures, always pointing the church in the way of Jesus. Likewise, churches need these ministers acting administratively so that God’s people may, as followers of Jesus, increasingly become living expressions of the scriptures.

Whether a minister serves in the role of a “lead” or “senior” minister or in other specialized roles, such as a“youth” or “children’s” minister, they serve with the church as ministers called and sent by God to the church. Whatever fiscal arrangements are made for supporting a minister, these provisions should not bear upon the minister’s spiritual responsibility. This is not to suggest that there are never circumstances in which a minister has lost the ability to serve but to say that a minister’s service should not be reduced to employment.

Like elders, deacons, and even the church, ministers are not perfect. However, a good minister, one who understands the responsibility as working for God, has spent years learning and continues learning. Like Timothy, a good minister nourishes “on the truths of the faith” and has a good sense regarding what is necessary for building the church up. Likewise, a good minister is not defined by the approval of the church but whether or not that minister remains committed to that “good teaching” from the word of God.

A Final Word

There is so much more to say about the responsibility of a minister. However, in closing this essay, remember Paul’s encouragement to Timothy saying, “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God…” (2 Tim 2:6). The greatest service a minister can offer the church is to do just this.

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  1. This post is dedicated to my fellow Compadres (you know who you are), who serve God and the church as ministers of the gospel. Keep up the great work!
  2. A similar article is published as the same title in Connecting 29 (March 20, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ.
  3. The word paraggellō involves making an announcement and is an expression used throughout the New Testament in an authoritative sense, see Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3d ed., rev. Frederick William Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 760.

The Web of Faith, Love, and Hope . . . And Doubt

In my church we sing the songs Lord, Reign In Me and I Surrender All. But to actually totally surrender ourselves to the Lord and let him reign in and over every part of our life… Well, that’s difficult to do.*

I tried doing this once. I prayed to God that he would have his complete way with me, transforming me into the likeness of Christ so that he could use me for service in his kingdom however he saw fit. Then my son died.

At the time, I wondered how Kenny’s death might be part of this process. As time went on and I began to see how God was using the tragedy of our son’s death to shape me, I became afraid to pray that prayer of surrender because I was afraid of what else it might cost me.

In some ways, I still am afraid of that prayer. But I know that I’m not alone.

What I’m speaking of is the struggle to trust God. And I know that there are many Christians who struggle with this. It’s not that we don’t have faith in God or that we don’t believe in Jesus. It’s a different struggle . . . a different sort of doubt. Imagine being hit by a car as you cross a street and then being asked to cross the street again. And so it is with life!

They Got Hit!

I imagine this is part of the struggle the Thessalonians were encountering. They put their faith in Christ and were taught to live a new life in Christ, renouncing their ungodly living, with the expectation of the immanent return of Christ. But when some fellow believers passed from this life before Christ returned, they got hit! Doubt set in and questions of trust gripped the consciousness of their faith.

After giving a report on some of his ministry happenings and exhorting the Thessalonians in godly living, the apostle Paul addresses the coming of Christ (1 Thess 4:13-18). This is Paul’s way of reassuring these Christians that they have not believed in vain. Paul continues on, saying in 1 Thess 5:8-10:

“But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on the faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.”

Paul actually uses the action language of “putting on” faith, love, and hope because of the promise of life — salvation through Jesus Christ.

Keep Putting On…

As mentioned earlier, there are times when I’m still afraid to completely trust God and perhaps there always will be. Yet I do try and as I do, I am consciously aware of my own sinfulness and the need keep allowing God to transform me into the likeness of Christ. I’m also aware of how much the sting of death still haunts me, casting doubts through unanswered questions. It would be easier just to say “no” in not so many words and keep God at an arms distance away. But that isn’t faith, nor is it love and hope.

Perhaps this resonates with you, even if in different ways. My word of encouragement is Paul’s word of encouragement: keep putting on faith, love, and hope, knowing that we have received a promise of salvation that God will fulfill in its entirety when Christ returns. It’s the promise of the life that we will have together with God.

And Gathered With My Church…

As a final thought, let me say a word about the church in relation to our struggles of faith. In the larger world of Christian blogging there’s been a lot of conversation about the church lately and whether we need the church? Putting aside the theological issues with such a question, I believe that the church does matter and that we do need the church because it’s the church that helps us put on faith, love, and hope.

It’s the church that has passed on the gospel tradition we belong too and the scriptures that teach about this tradition. It is also in gathering with the church for worship, fellowship, and ministry that we remind ourselves of the truth and in doing so, assembling as a church becomes a way of putting on our faith, love, and hope. When I gather with my church, the Columbia Church of Christ, I am reminded of God’s grace and truth . . . of God’s promise in Christ. And gathered with my church, the Holy Spirit strengthens me to carry on with this web of faith, love, and hope that is sometimes mixed with doubts.

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* A similar version of this article was originally published in Connecting 29 (February 20, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ.

Repost: Those Noble Bereans

I’ve been really busy this week and have not had the time to blog much, so let me share a post from a few years back titled Those Noble Bereans. The post is about how we read our Bibles, a subject that is of interest to me.

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In the Churches of Christ, there has been a great admiration for the Bereans. We have admired these Bereans for their “back to the Bible” legacy and for good reason. In Acts 17.11-12 we read:

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. As a result, many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.*

For clarification sake, it should be noted before going any further that the scriptures these Bereans were examining was what we Christians refer to as the Old Testament. There wasn’t any such thing as the New Testament yet.

So this passage in Acts 17 has been the oft cited proof-text encouraging the examination of the scriptures to test whether what is being preached is truth. Like I said, there is good reason for carrying on the legacy of these Bereans and I want to encourage every one of us to read the Bible, study the Bible, and let the Bible reveal the living God and his will to us.

However, it also seems that this passage has been cited for the wrong reasons at times too–not all the time, just sometimes. Here is what I am getting at. While praising the legacy of the Bereans for their examination of scripture, there has been a tendency to overlook the disposition of the heart with which the Bereans examined the scriptures. Let’s read our passage again but pay attention to what else it tells us (which I have emphasized in italics):

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. As a result, many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.

These Bereans were both listening to the message being preached by Paul and Silas as well as examining the scriptures with an open mind and open heart. That is why they were able to receive the message “with great eagerness” and “As a result” come to belief. This means they were not examining the scriptures just to prove Paul wrong.

As a Christian, I believe we should be reading our Bible’s but I also believe it should be done with an open mind and heart. That is the legacy of the Bereans. However, I fear that this passage is sometimes cited–and I’ve heard it cited nearly all of my life–to justify an approach to scripture that simply seeks to prove others wrong. If this is our approach to scripture, I think we will succeed in accomplishing our goal every time we try. One of the things I’ve learned over time is that when we open our Bible just to prove something or someone wrong, in almost every instance we will find what we are looking for whether the Bible really says it or not.

Thus, as I said in my last post, “As Christians we can be people who have a strong faith in Jesus Christ but are humble enough to remain learners and know that some of our views regarding the Christian faith might be wrong. This requires us to never become complacent about what we’ve learned or where we are at in the way we live in the footsteps of Jesus. It requires an openness to God’s work through the Holy Spirit as we pray, read scripture, join in fellowship with other Christians, and listen to other voices so that we can hear a word from God that we have yet to hear.”

This is what it is to honor the way of the Bereans. So yes, be like the Bereans, reading and studying our Bibles but also be like the Bereans, reading and studying our Bibles with an open mind and heart.