Category Archives: Churches of Christ

Moving With The Spirit

Last Friday I published a post titled Animated By The Holy Spirit, which was an updated version of an older post. The point of the post was to state why I believe that the Holy Spirit is essential for the local church’s participation in the mission of God and mention two guiding convictions I have regarding the work of the Spirit. My friend Amy commented “…how do congregations begin to rely more on the Spirit and less on their traditions? I get prayer but I wonder if the Spirit can even work if we have other objects to over come.” So I want to write more about how how our churches are animated by the power of the Holy Spirit over several posts and I’ll begin with what has to change for us to see where the Spirit is leading.

Repentance Is So Much More

Repentance! It’s a word very familiar to our Christian vernacular but perhaps too familiar. We often think of repentance as turning away from whatever ungodly ways we lived in the past, meaning that we are not indulging in immoral and destructive behaviors any more. To say it sort of sarcastically, repentance, we think, means saying goodbye to the endless summer nights of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. There’s a lot of truth to that but in truth, the call to repentance is so much more.

When Jesus began his public ministry and Peter later preached the gospel on the Day of Pentecost, both called for repentance. Jesus called the people to repent and believe the good news of the inbreaking kingdom of God (cf. Mk 1:14-15) and Peter echoed this call with even a stronger sense of urgency since God had raised the crucified Jesus from death and exalted him as Lord and Messiah (cf. Acts 2:36-39). But what we often miss is that on both occasions, this call for repentance was issued to the Jewish people who were already religiously devout people seeking to live righteous lives. And yet… they still needed to repent. Jewish nationalism, religious traditions, and contempt for the Gentiles blinded them to the work of God among them and they needed to let go and become followers of Jesus.

Now hopefully this doesn’t come as a surprise to you but spiritual blindness is not a disease that has disappeared. As local churches and as individual Christians, we are capable of becoming blind to the ways in which God is at work. Consumerism, traditionalism, politics, careers and personal ambitions, and even a lifeless apathy towards the gospel are ways that obscure the kingdom of God so that it remains hidden from our eyes and ears (cf. Lk 8:9-10). This must change… We must repent!

We Pledge Our Allegiance…

Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost challenges and invites us to “repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” assuring us that not only will our sins be forgiven but that we will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (cf. Acts 2:38). Now here is the important caveat that goes overlooked to often: Peter is telling us to pledge our allegiance to the Lord, Jesus the Messiah! Join the movement, follow Jesus and receive the gift of the Spirit that animates our life together and enables us to move with the Spirit as participants in the mission of God. That’s the invitation and challenge.

But… Moving with the Spirit requires change! That’s what repentance is. It is changing, letting go of whatever other commitments we have and living, not as consumers of religion or just good church-going Christians, but as passionate followers of Jesus participating in the mission of God. As Christians, who presumably have already been baptized, that means remembering our baptism… remembering that given our allegiance to Jesus.

By remembering our baptism and living as people committed to Jesus and aligned with his kingdom, we learn to see and hear where God is working among us and how the Spirit is animating us for participation in that work. Then we are moving with the Spirit and learning to move with the Spirit.

Following Jesus Together

Let’s not kid ourselves and think that this is an easy thing to do. Even Peter, when told to not regard as unclean what God had made clean, struggled to move with the Spirit (cf. Acts 10). So I assume we will as well. This is why we need our Christian community and particular people who will speak the truth to us, challenging us to see what we are struggling to see… to see where God is trying to lead us through the Holy Spirit.

God can and will certainly speak through the hymns and liturgy of worship as well as through the reading and preaching of his word. God can even speak in a dream if he so chooses (far be it for any one of us to tell God in what ways he can and cannot work!). However, God’s normal way of working seems to be through people who themselves are moving with the Spirit. God is working through you and I, if we are aligned with him. So when we encounter Christians who are placing things like traditions above participating in the mission of God, we must have the courage to lovingly but boldly call for repentance.

A lot of this has to do with leading missional renewal among our local churches which is so necessary. However, rather than expecting an entire church to change at once, renewal will happen as we, along with a few others from our church, begin to reimagine what it looks like to follow Jesus together. As we learn to embody the gospel in new ways, we become a breath of new life that God uses to bring renewal and change within the church overtime as we move with the Spirit. So if you find yourself among a church that seems lost in tradition or anything that has stifled the mission of God then my suggestion is finding a few other people and invite them over to your home, inviting them to break bread and into the word of God as you pray together and discern together how God is calling you to serve together on mission with him (but more on that in another post).

Does Your Church Have Faith?

In terms of work, serving as a minister is my second vocation. Besides working for my father, who owned a small excavating business, for a few years after high-school, I also worked four years as a machinist. It was during these years that I became a follower of Jesus, began to sense a call to ministry, and eventually returned to college in order to engage in biblical and theological studies in preparation for ministry.

Though it sounds simple, this journey was far from easy. Many difficulties came, most notably the death of my son Kenny in the summer of 2002. Yet long before Kenny’s death came the first test and it had to do with whether or not I could step forward in faith or go backwards to what was known, manageable, and predictable.

It was the spring of 1999 and my wife and I, newly married, were living in Rolla, Missouri where my wife had a teaching job nearby. I had a machining job that paid a quarter above minimum wage which irritated me knowing that I had left behind a machinist job in LaPorte, Indiana that paid nearly three times what minimum wage was. Like most newlyweds, money seemed tight and that frustrated me… I mean, it really frustrated me. Though I was already accepted and scheduled to begin studies at Harding University in the fall, I told my wife that we should just move back to Indiana where she could get a teaching job and I could either get my old machining job back or take my brother’s offer up and go to work for a construction outfit through the Carpenter’s Union. Of course, you know the outcome. Thanks to the prayerful encouragement and persistence of my wife, we pressed ahead into the unknown and unpredictable.

There’s a reason why I am telling this story and it has to do with local churches and Christianity in America. But first a story about Israel and I think the point I want to make about local churches will make more sense.

Israel and the Uncertainty of the Wilderness

According to Exodus 12:40, Israel spent 430 years in slavery under Egyptian tyranny. That’s a long time. Given the brutal and harsh conditions that Israel suffered, Israel was eager for redemption. Yet once they found themselves in the wilderness, there feelings changed. Facing the perils of the journey as they encountered opposition, Numbers 14:2-3 tells us just how the Israelites felt:

“If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had perished in this wilderness! Why has the Lord brought us into this land only to be killed by the sword, that our wives and our children should become plunder? Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?”

Would it be better if Israel returned to Egypt? Of course not! But when we consider the circumstances they were facing, we can better appreciate the question.

For Israel, the way ahead was full of uncertainty and well beyond their manageability. Regardless of the oppression was, 430 years allowed Israel to become well acclimated to life in Egypt. It became a predictable life in which they knew the rules and everything they needed to do in order to survive. It was a manageable life that they understood, whereas the journey ahead was full of risk that required faith rather than their own understanding which was well acclimated for the past. But the temptation of returning to the safe, predictable, and manageable past was great… “So they said to one another, ‘Let’s appoint a leader and return to Egypt’” (Num 14:4).

The Local Church, The Past, and the Future?

Come back to present day and the question facing many local churches. It’s the twenty-first century in American and Christians no longer exist in world that many local churches were established in. That was a world characterized by modernism and Christendom, two socio-political realities that predates America as a nation. It was a world shaped predominately by Christian rule and human reason as the sure foundation by which we could be certain about what is true and what is right. More importantly, it was the world that many local churches remain well-acclimated for… unlike the postmodern and post-Christendom world these churches find themselves among now.

Because churches now find themselves existing in a postmodern and post-Christedom world, they find themselves in a wilderness so to speak. The world of modernism and Christendom safe, predictable, and manageable because it was well-known territory. Despite the problems it created (and both modernism and Christendom were fraught with problems), local churches knew how to function for the sake of God’s mission. Ministry programs at the church building would attract people to the church and evangelistic tracts using human-reason as their teaching method helped bring people to Christ. But that was then!

Now local churches find themselves living in unchartered territory, the wilderness of a postmodern and post-Christendom world. The way forward seems uncertain. Follow Jesus… Yes! Embody the gospel… Yes! Embody the gospel in a contextualized manner… How? The context has changed and the rules that easily provided clear direction and certain in the past no longer work so easily. Sometimes they don’t seem to work at all.

Now stepping forward in an unpredictable and uncertain world is risky and very uncomfortable at times. It requires faith but no amount of faith will eliminate the anxiety and the temptation to think that it would be easier if we just return to the past. In fact, many church will attempt to go back. I think this explains why some churches continue to talk about creating more building-centric programs, thinking that people will come if they build it. It is also, I believe, why in my own tribe, the Churches of Christ, many churches and Christians have become enamored with the book Muscle and a Shovel (despite it’s numerous theological problems (see John Mark Hicks 3-part review here, here, and here)… because despite the sectarianism and legalism of the past, most Churches of Christ know how to function in that past culture. Even though returning to the past will not help in learning how to engage among the new cultural territory, returning to the past is more comfortable than doing the messy task of faith which is continuing to journey forward through the wilderness learning how to live as a colony of heaven in an unChristian world.

One Final Word

The question churches face in the wilderness is whether they will try returning to the past or continue stepping forward. It’s a question of faith. It’s the question I faced in Rolla, MO, the question Israel faced in the wilderness, the question many other people of God have faced on occasions, and the question facing local churches in America today. How the question is answered is either a matter or faith or a lack of faith.

In the meantime, remember that Israel made to the promise land not by their own strength but by their faith in the God who delivered them. The church of Jesus Christ will make it too not by her own strength but by faith in the God whose promise in Christ is sealed by the Spirit dwelling among the church. I’m tired of reading article about the ten reasons why millennial won’t… or the ten steps every church needs to do in order to… At the risk of oversimplifying the journey ahead, churches just need to press forward in following Jesus and learning how to embody the gospel in contextualized manners. It’s a messier task filled with unpredictability, requiring discernment bathed in prayer and scripture but the church today is not the first to make this journey. So press ahead!

The Ministry of Cultivating A Gospel Passion

I’m reading through Charles Taylor’s book Modern Social Imaginaries which is one of those thick reads akin to running a race waist deep in mud. Nevertheless, if I understand Taylor correctly, he describes how modernity brought about the notion of a modern-state as the means of establishing civility among European society where much savagery existed at the time. Of course, the idea that that morality and civility can be brought about by legislative governing is a modernistic idea and an anthropocentric one too. That is, the capacity to generate a well ordered life for people is an activity of human power.

Now I might be making too much of a leap here but given this modern notion that centralized authority could establish and regulate civility, this also gives some understanding of how the modern church denomination became so popular. A denomination provided structure that could regulate beliefs and practices of the Christians who belonged to the various churches within the denomination.  Even among the Churches of Christ, though not structured with the typical polity of most denominations, the editors of various journals along with the popular “gospel meeting” preachers served to regulate the local church.

The Limitation of Regulation

Like the modern-state regulated civility with establishment of new laws, the drafting of statements of faith and church by-laws by denominational boards helped regulate the beliefs and practices of local churches. Sometimes this regulation, as in the case of the Churches of Christ, was predicated on a legalistic reading of scripture that turned the Bible (and particularly the New Testament) into a constitution that served as the foundation for the regulation. In the end, the objective of such regulation was faithful Christians and faithful churches.

However, even though the modern denomination remained a strong presence throughout the twentieth century, it was during that time that we began to see the impossibility of regulating civility by legislation. Despite such coercive power, the twentieth century proved to be one of the most deadliest in history (if not the most) with numerous wars and conflicts that have now spilled into the twenty-first century.

Few believe that governments can maintain lasting peace, though without a doubt they will continue trying. I also suggest that like the inability of governments bring about civility, church denominations cannot make faithful Christians by regulating the beliefs and practices of a church (and that includes appealing to scripture as a legalistic text). Despite written and unwritten creeds, church’s still struggle to live on mission with God and Christians still struggle in remaining faithful to Jesus.

Cultivating Passion

Nothing can replace passion! When someone is passionate about something, they will pursue that passion vigorously and good will come of that provided that the said pursuit is based upon a health passion. So it also seems that local churches flourish when there are a core group of people with a passion that is rooted in Jesus and his gospel and that individual Christians are most likely to remain faithful when they have this passion.

And where does this passion come from? A living encounter with God and what he is doing in Jesus by the power of his Spirit! It is a spacial-jouney whereby a new core identity takes shape, one that is in alignment with the kingdom of God. This is why Jesus announces the gospel (cf. Mk 1:15) and then invites us to come follow him (cf. Mk 1:17), which is an invitation to come learn how to live the kingdom life as an embodiment of the gospel he has announced. The fulfilling of this passion is then brought into fruition by the Spirit rather than enforcing regulation, which is exactly what we read of in the book of Acts.

If the fulfillment of this passion could be achieved through regulation of law, we would have a different story to tell about the Pharisees and religious leaders of Jesus’ own day. But that won’t work and I think we are coming to realize this with what we see happening in many churches across various denominations and fellowship. If ministers of the gospel and other church leaders want to form people with a passion rooted in Jesus and his gospel, a passion that results in people serving as God gifts them and calls them to do so, then we must, as Alan Roxburgh suggests in his book Missional Map-Making, cultivate that passion as an artisan working soil (p. 138).

This cultivation involves, I believe, preaching, teaching, and leading people to see what God is doing in life. Doing this requires presence among the people while simultaneously having the ability to ask good questions as a listener of both the people (the church you serve) and culture. Scripture is still very much involved but the aim is more than just pointing people to scripture. Ministry points people beyond scripture toward that living encounter with God.

Our Redemptive God

This message, This Is God, was preached before the Westside Church of Christ in Baltimore on Sunday, July 12, 2015. The text I preach from is Exodus 3:1-10 which is one of my favorite passages to preach on, especially as a guest preacher. I hope this message will encourage you!

The Tulsa Workshop… In the Rearview Mirror.

My son and I traveled to Tulsa, Oklahoma for the Tulsa Workshop last week. This was my first time attending this conference and overall it was a great experience. The theme was “Speak Life,” so here are my thoughts…

  • Traveling with Jared was a great thing to do. As his father, just listening to the different things he comes up with to talk about is priceless. But more importantly, the relationship we are building is so important and priceless too.
  • There’s a Facebook group (which shall remain nameless here) that I belong too that consists of different ministers and church leaders. It was nice getting to meet so many of these men and women, whom I interact with on Facebook, face to face.
  • The speakers and teachers such as John Alan Turner, Rick Atchley, Don McLaughlin, Robert Prater, Terry Rush, Patrick Mead, Josh Graves, Dr. Kent Brantley and Brandon Hatmaker were great but the two that spoke to me…
  • John Alan Turner spoke on failure and the grace of God, mentioning his own failed church plant. He reminded us that “God sees, knows, and wants to heal you from all the hurt and pain… Everything broken gets fixed.” As a minister who just helped close a church, I so needed to hear that word. Thanks John!
  • Dr. Kent Brantley. Really, I need not say anything. His story is compelling but also a great reminded of what following Jesus means. It’s risky and it always calls us to service of others, even at times suffering for the sake of others. Thanks Dr. Brantley for your faithful witness!
  • My son and I were shown first-class hospitality by Robert Prater, his wife Maggie, and their children. Thanks for twisting my arm and forcing me to eat BBQ!
  • Robert preaches for the Crosstown Church of Christ and took me by their church building. It’s situated in the middle of Tulsa among a neighborhood that has gone through a lot of social change over the years. So much potential for kingdom work their and Robert has the passion for that kind of work. Lord, bring gospel fruit from the gospel seeds this church is planting.
  • I took some time out to meet with the elders of a church in Oklahoma about their search for a new minister. Perhaps a move to Oklahoma is on the horizon… perhaps, but it’s too early to know for sure. In the meantime, if you know of a church looking for a minister where I might be a good fit then let me know.
  • There was one class where the speaker seemed (in my opinion) to use a lot of guilt and fear to motivate people for evangelism. I don’t understand this. Using guilt and fear might motivate people but it will only last as long as there is someone to keep heaping on the guilt and fear. And that never produces maturity. A better, more healthy way, of motivating people for evangelism seems to happen by inviting people into the compelling story of the gospel in such a way that they want to participate in it and share it.
  • Pie night at the dinner… a chocolate peanut-butter pie. Enough said there!
  • My son was asking me about what “grace” is. So we had a good conversation about grace. He understands as a young seven-year old boy does. His response, “I just want to follow the Lord, Jesus Christ.”
  • That’s what I want to do as well. Sometimes we do that well and sometimes we don’t.
  • Traveling back, we spent the night in St. Louis and then had breakfast with Bob Clark, who preaches for the Lafayette Church of Christ where my son and I stopped our travels to worship with other Christians. Mike Brown led the church in worship and Bob preached through Mark 10. As for me, I left with an overwhelming reminder that the Lord’s mercy is upon me and leading me to live as a merciful servant just like him. That’s also why I need to take time out from traveling on the road and gather with the church. To God be the glory!
  • Nearly 3,000 mils of driving latter and fifteen hours spent driving on Sunday, I am still physically exhausted. But I am glad I went.
  • To God be the glory!

Did you go to the Tulsa Workshop? If so, share some of your experiences.

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.

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.