Category Archives: Churches of Christ

In The Cross… Be Our Glory Ever?

Most Christians enjoy singing Franny J. Crosby’s wonderful hymn Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross. With enthusiasm the church sings the chorus “In the cross, in the cross, be my glory ever…” But there are days when I wonder if we really mean that.*

As I preach through the Gospel of Mark, I am reminded of the centrality that the cross takes in the life of those who follow Jesus. After speaking of his coming crucifixion and resurrection, an indication that he was not leading a violent revolution against Rome, Jesus spoke what the cross means for his followers. Jesus says in Mark 8:34-35, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel will save it.”

What Jesus says and what Mark wants reminds us of is that the cross is not something just to admire but the means of our way of life… if we’re going to follow Jesus. In other words, our glory in the cross must shape our way of life, which is discipleship, as much as it shapes our hope in life, which is for salvation. We cannot glory in the cross for salvation but disavow the cross when it pertains to discipleship. Neither Jesus nor Mark will let us take this route.

Wars, Terrorism, and The Cross

Now why does this matter? Why do I want to remind us about the cross which we are called to pick up if we’re are follow Jesus?

Well, I don’t want to dwell on doom and gloom or sound like a fear-monger but if you’re watching the news at all and watching what is happening both in Eastern Europe and in the Middle East, it’s hard not to believe that a large war may be on the horizon. I don’t like that at all and I hope my suspicion turns out to be nothing. But if war of some sort takes place then I wonder what responsibility we have as followers of Jesus Christ?

Let me unequivocally say that I believe the responsibility of the church, as followers of Jesus, is first and foremost to remain faithful to Jesus and his teachings, which includes trusting in God rather than the presidents and kings of this world. That goes for all Christians, not just a select set of disciples like those who serve as pastors or missionaries. But I also know that as humans, when we’re faced with threats of injustice, violence, and other forms of evil then we’re prone to take matters into our own hands and this usually involves setting aside the cross as our way of life.

For instance, Phil Robertson, of Duck Dynasty, who is now a celebrity Christian of sorts and a fellow member of the Churches of Christ, recently spoke with FOX New’s Sean Hannity regarding the terrorist group ISIS. Robertson said, “In this case, you either have to convert them, which I think would be next to impossible… I’m just saying convert them or kill them — one or the other” (here’s the article and here’s the video) That’s it… No talk of how we might love our enemies and pray for them, just convert them or kill them. Ironically, that’s the same philosophy that some accuse Islam of embracing. What this illustrates is just how easily the cross is forgotten… when perhaps it matters the most too.

Embracing The Cross

I’m not sure how the nations of this world should respond to terrorism or unprovoked acts of war-aggressions by one country upon another. While I would like to have an easy answer, I am concerned more with what sort of witness Christians live in such a dark and evil world. And as a minister of the gospel, I believe God calls me to voice this concern.

Far too often, Christians leave Sunday’s worship gathering after singing a chorus like “In the cross, in the cross, be my glory ever…” only to become cheerleaders of a nationalism, militarism, and everything else that relies upon human wisdom and strength. Yet God’s response to evil is in the cross of Jesus! We don’t always like that… I sure don’t. Yet this wisdom of God, the cross of Jesus, is what we are called to faithfully embrace.

Sometimes faithfully embracing the cross will cost us our very own physical lives as it has for many followers of Jesus. Other times it requires us to courageously point people back to the cross in the way we speak and act, even as unpopular as that may be. Whatever the case may be, if the church cannot faithfully embrace the cross of Jesus as its way of life then the cross becomes nothing more than religious talk within the church building but means superstition among a lost world.

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

Church Renewal: Give Up The Old Wineskins

Last year the Christian Chronicle, a monthly newspaper for the Churches of Christ, ran an article on the Bar Church of Abilene, Texas that the Southern Hills Church of Christ helped plant. The Bar Church is a community of Christians that originally gathered inside a local bar for worship, fellowship, etc… in order to reach people who will likely never step foot inside the gatherings of a traditional church. As expected, news of a church plant meeting in a local tavern drew both praise and criticism. Without knowing any more details than what has been reported, I am one who applauds such effort and I want to briefly focus on the criticism as a way of discussing a larger issue with the gospel and the mission of God.

One critic said in response to the news of a church meeting in a bar, “Jesus might have gone to Matthew’s house, but he did not teach his disciples to go to places of public intoxication…” Not surprisingly, I actually disagree because Jesus himself, according to the Gospel of Luke, even acknowledged eating and drinking with these sinner’s and tax-collectors to the point that he gained the reputation of being a drunkard and glutton (cf. Lk 7:34). I suppose we could say that Jesus was only going into places of private intoxication (insert snarky face here) but the point is that Jesus not only sought out the “sinners” but was also teaching his disciples to do so as well. Yet the critics, who all likely come from a church fellowship that is declining, resort to the box they have the gospel contained within to rationalize their complaint. And this is a problem…

Listen to Jesus

According to the Gospel of Mark, the first parable that Jesus teaches occurs in chapter two:

No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and the tear becomes worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the skins will be destroyed. Instead new wine is poured into new wineskins (vv. 21-22).

This parable occurs within a series of five stories in which the authority of Jesus is challenged (Mk 2:1-3:6). The problem with Jesus is that he does not live according to the expectations of the Jewish lawyers and Pharisees.

The Pharisees themselves meant well. Like Jesus, they wanted to see the kingdom of God at hand too. But unlike Jesus, they believed that the kingdom of God would only come when all of Israel returned to a strict observation of the Torah, especially the laws pertaining to the Sabbath and those that separated the clean from the unclean. For Jesus, however, the kingdom of God is already at hand (Mk. 1:15), so the efforts of the Pharisees are futile. Instead they, like us all, need to follow along with Jesus and learn how to participate in this kingdom, which involves something as simple as eating when you’re hungry rather than fasting or something more radical like wining and dining with the “sinners and tax-collectors.”

The kingdom of God looks like a reality where sinners are welcomed with hospitality, where those who suffer find healing, where showing mercy trumps the sacrifice of Sabbath keeping, and so forth. This is the kind of life Jesus calls us to follow him, learning how to participate as disciples. Yet Jesus is clear: As long as we continue trying to fit this way of life into our old paradigms (theological, ecclesiological, etc…), it will not work! That is why Jesus tells us the parable of sewing a new patch on an old garment and pouring new wine into old wineskins. We need new wineskins for new wine! We need new a new paradigm for this gospel of the kingdom of God that Jesus preaches and calls follow him in living as his disciples!

Old Wineskins Will Not Do

I began this blog post with story of a Church of Christ that planting a very non-traditional seed of the gospel by helping plant a new church meeting in a bar. It’s but one example of what it might look like for a church to the new wine of the gospel into new wineskins. Just one example. It is by no means a suggestion that this is what every church needs to do. I believe way too much in the need for local contextualization of the gospel to even begin suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach. What I’m concerned about is those who want to cling to their old wineskins while criticizing any attempt at pouring new wine into new wineskins.

Any one familiar with the Churches of Christ can see the decline. Most churches, including the Columbia Church of Christ with whom I serve as a minister, are less than one-hundred members and declining. The culture around us is rapidly changing and learning how to navigate the waters in this ever changing climate has been… Well, as far as I can tell, were not sure how to do that.

In such uncertain circumstances, there are more questions than answers which that creates a lot of stress and anxiety. “How do we move forward in all this mess?” is the question that gets asked. Yet our human nature is to take the path of least resistance and that usually means reverts back to what we already know… the so-called tried and true approach. I think this is why Michael Shank’s book Muscle and A Shovel has become so popular. Because despite it’s sectarian approach that promotes a gospel focused on the “true church,” a form of legalism that many in the Churches of Christ seemed to have let go of, it offers an approach that is very familiar (if you read the book then make sure you also read this very well-written and critical review of the book by John Mark Hicks). But Jesus is clear: As long as we continue trying to fit this way of life into our old paradigms (theological, ecclesiological, etc…), it will not work!

Then What Do We Do?

Learning to follow Jesus together begins with hearing afresh our Lord’s first commandment: “Repent and believe the gospel! (Mk 1:15). We have to change our expectations of how we expect to see the kingdom of God at hand. Seeing God’s kingdom at hand does not happen by trying to restore the first-century church pattern from proof-texting the New Testament. The way forward is found in embracing the values and practices of Jesus as our own, within our own local contexts. That requires much discernment.

In order to discern, churches and especially the leadership of the church must learn how to listen together for the leading of God. You might consider reading Pursuing God’s Will Together by Ruth Haley Barton as a resource in learning how to listen as a church. Only as we listen and discern together will we discover the new wineskins necessary for the new wine of the gospel. Also, you might consider contacting Mission Alive, an organization that helps equip church planters and churches seeking renewal to live as “kingdom communities on mission with God.”

Being Church In A Burning World

I want to mention three recent events, two of which you are already aware of unless you just crawled out of a cave and another issue that many of you are unfortunately all too familiar with. But let me first ask you one question: What do you think it means to be the church?

Coming Apart At The Seams

So, as I said, unless you just crawled out of some cave, you know that Robin Williams died last week. Like so many others, I was disappointed because he was a truly brilliant actor, comedian, and entertainer. Of course, I’m sure that those who knew him personally, especially his family, are heart-broken. It was even more sad to read that in the midst of suffering from depression among other health-related issues, Robin Williams took his own life. However, his death also reminded us of just how terrible and deadly the illness of depression can be. Sadly, thanks to the ridiculous blog of person and his absurd follow up post (which I won’t link to hear, so as not to give his ilk more publicity), we also know just how badly our society still sometimes misunderstands mental illnesses.

Also last week in Ferguson, Missouri, a young man by the name of Michael Brown, who was unarmed, was shot and killed a police officer. This has triggered both protesting and rioting. While we don’t know the full details of what happened that led to the shooting of Michael Brown, his death joins a list of unarmed black males killed by law enforcement. Regardless of what the investigation into the death of Michael Brown reveals, the fall out of his death has reminded again that racism is still an issue in America. And it seems the hostility is weaved into the ever increasing political polarization taking place in America, which political pundit Glenn Beck describes America as being “at or near a cold civil war.” Whether you agree or disagree, one thing seems clear: the cracks are getting bigger and the little 238 year experiment called the American Dream is fading.

Of course, while society around us is coming apart at the seams, some Christians would rather continue on pursuing their adventures in missing the point. Two weeks ago I spoke at the Bowie Church of Christ for their Wednesday Evening Praise on following Jesus (you can listen to the message here). It was a wonderful evening and the praise team did an amazing job of leading the church in worship. It was nice to visit with another church that allows women to serve as God has gifted them. However, word of this church having a praise team got out and it drew sharp criticism from another area Church of Christ who suggested that this violated the teaching of scripture.

Now do you understand what I mean by adventures in missing the point?

Being Church… Following Jesus!

We’re called to follow Jesus… learning to live our lives as Jesus lives his life. When churches and Christians are still occupied with trying to convince others why praise teams are wrong or arguing about who’s going to hell while the black community is living in hell (you should really click on that link and read the article), you can be sure that we’ve forgotten how to follow Jesus.

Our best response to a world suffering in depression, racism, and many other issues is simply to be the church, just like Richard Beck describes in this blog post (and you should really click on that link and read it too). You see, when we follow Jesus we learn how to become better neighbors, how to become hospitable with people who are different from us… different in skin color, country of origin, religion, and even sexual orientation. When we follow Jesus we learn how to show solidarity with the poor and oppressed, with the suffering. Only then do we gain the credibility to speak truth… to speak about this good news of the kingdom of God, the good news that Jesus preached.

The question of what it means to be the church is a huge question, one that too large to answer in one blog post. So don’t take this as an exhaustive answer but let me clearly say: we are being the church when we follow Jesus! Just because we are gathering to sing and pray does not necessarily mean we are being the church. That’s just a religious service. But we can be the church in that religious service when the invitation of Jesus and his communion table moves us to welcome the stranger, listen to the pains and fears of others as we bear that burden with them, and love each other enough to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of serving one another. We live as the church when this way of life transcends beyond the walls of our church buildings and becomes our way of life in our homes, our neighborhoods, our work and social spaces, and so on. Then… we can speak the truth of Jesus we are compelled to speak because it’s a message that has transformed our own way of life.

The world around is burning. Sometimes it’s a small smoldering fire and but here lately it seems like a wildfire that’s burning out of control like it seems to be right now in Ferguson, MO, The Ukraine, Iraq and Syria, Israel and Palestine, and West Africa. What we can do is learn to follow Jesus again! Can we do that?

Discipleship and Prayer

I’ve thought about writing on developing a rhythm of prayer for several months but have hesitated, as I don’t want come off as tooting my own piety which truly is nothing to brag about. However, in writing this, which involves sharing something of my own prayer discipline, the hope is that it might help someone else in this journey of following Jesus.

The Problem With Prayer

To begin with, let me give you a little background so that you’ll understand my struggle a bit more. The Christian tradition I come from, the Churches of Christ, is really big on pot-luck fellowships and Bible study. Have a cook-out or a Bible-study and you can expect a decent turn out. Invite people over for a time of  praying together and the turn probably won’t be so great. I know this from experience. This isn’t to say that people from the Churches of Christ don’t believe in prayer, it’s just doesn’t hold the same value as eating and studying the Bible.

But here’s the deal: As followers of Jesus, disciples, prayer is a vitally important aspect of our life. Prayer was an important discipline for Jesus, who would get up early in the morning so that he could go and pray in a quiet place (cf. Mk 1:35). Yet when we haven’t learned to value prayer like this it’s difficult to establish a disciplined rhythm of prayer in life. I suppose it’s even harder to do so in our world which seems constantly on the move, where we have hand-held computers in our hand almost the entire day.

In the past, I’ve tried remaining vigilant about praying every-time I get in my truck and drive somewhere, even if it’s just to the store. This, however, is mainly just a prayer asking God to see where he is at work so that I might join him in his work, which I also forget to do at times. There’s nothing wrong with such a prayer but in reading through the Psalms, I am convinced that prayer is more than just this. I also like to go for walks (it’s great exercise) and will pray at times during these walks but as someone who struggles with remaining focused and keeping my attention (ADHD)… Let’s just say that since my mind is thinking in a thousand different directions, neither praying or reflecting comes easy on these walks.

A Rhythmic Approach to Prayer

Wanting to become more disciplined in praying, I’ve developed a rhythmic approach that I want to share with you. I don’t know if someone else has developed a similar approach but I’ve really found this helpful. However, before I do let me share two important disclaimers. First, though we should be praying people just as Jesus was, I don’t believe this means that we must go about praying exactly as Jesus did. That is, the idea is becoming more disciplined in the practice of prayer but we can do that without necessarily getting up at dark-thirty in the morning for a trip into the woods for prayer. Second, the approach I am sharing with you is intended as descriptive rather than prescriptive. In other words, my way is not the only way. So if it helps, great! If it doesn’t work for you, that’s fine too. But if I encourage you to become more intentional about the discipline of prayer then this post is worth the effort.

Besides praying on walks, praying with my family before bed, I have started practicing a rhythm of prayer based on the A.C.T.S. acronym. Perhaps you’ve heard of this before but for those who haven’t, this acronym stands for AdorationConfessionThanksgiving, and Supplication. While the acronym has four parts, the rhythm involves five times of prayer throughout the day that runs as follows:

  • The Prayer of Adoration at 9:00 AM (Morning Prayer) praises God for who he is as Creator and Redeemer. Reflecting on all that God is and all the ways that he is at work in the world, this prayer exalts him for this.
  • The Prayer of Confession at 12:00 PM (Noontime Prayer) involves a confession of faith and confession of sins. This prayer professes the fundamental beliefs of being Christian (i.e., “Jesus is Lord!”) and admits the things done and not done that are wrong and therefore are sin.
  • The Prayer of Thanksgiving at 3:00 (Afternoon Prayer) involves thanking God for his blessings and grace. That is, in light of all that God has done, including the continued grace and mercy he extends, this prayer expresses gratitude.
  • The Prayer of Supplication at 6:00 (Evening Prayer) involves petitioning God for the various needs I encounter. This is the prayer where personal needs as well as the needs of others are brought to God’s attention.
  • The Lord’s Prayer at 9:00 (Nighttime Prayer) is simply a recitation of The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). In some ways, this prayer is a rehearsal of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication.

As I suggested earlier, this rhythm doesn’t exclude other prayers and if you can take some time out every day for a prayer walk, that’s good too!

Let me share a couple of helpful ideas. One thing that I’ve done is scheduled these prayer times into the calendar on my iPhone. When the time comes for prayer, a little “alert” sound will ring letting me know what time it is. So if you have some sort of smart-phone, you can use the calendar to help establish this rhythm for you. Lastly, there are some days where my rhythm is thrown off and occasionally I blow it off (I’m a work in progress). That will happen to you as well but don’t fret about it and don’t be a legalist about setting a rhythm like this. I am convinced that having a disciplined rhythm of prayer is vital as we follow Jesus as but the rhythm itself is not the Lord. So if you miss, then just pick up where you left off.

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Do you find this might helpful? What other ideas you have or how you can incorporate a rhythm of prayer into your life? What suggestions do you have for me and others?

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!