Category Archives: Missions and Ministry

Church Discernment: Navigating Unchartered Waters

Between the holidays and getting prepared for an upcoming D.Min seminar at Northern Seminary, I have’t had much time for writing on this blog. However, I hope to return to regular blogging soon. In the mean time, one of the books I have read for my upcoming D.Min seminar is The New Parish by Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight J. Friesen (2014). The book is offers a vision for how we can live as the church beyond the building, participating in the mission of God among the neighborhood. It’s an easy and accesible read that draws on some of the recent thinking regarding missional leadership and contextual theology.

For churches moving forward as participants in the mission of God among our neighborhoods, discernment is absolutely necessary. With all of the cultural changes taking place among society, we are in many ways navigating through unchartered waters. With each new day comes new challenges and we all, as local churches, exist among particular contexts that differ in degrees from each other. Therefore, rather than chasing after easy one-size-fits-all answers that don’t really help, we are invited to discern the way forward. Leaders in particular are called into discernment.

Discernment presumes that we are listening for what God is saying and then acting upon that discernment. It is risky, requiring faith, but as the authors say, “To substitute faith in God for your own controlling strategies is to undermine that which is most central to the gospel” (p. 64). My conviction is that God speaks through scripture, tradition, and each other as we gather in submission to God and one another. I am not saying that God speaks in an audible voice, for if he did then we wouldn’t have any need for discernment. And even though some are apprehensive of such a seemingly subjective endeavor that has room for error, we must trust that God, though the Spirit dwelling among us, is leading us as followers of Jesus to move forward in unchartered waters.

However, as we consider possible actions and choices, the authors list several questions that I believe will help us in the discernment process (p. 129):

  • Is the ministry of Jesus being continued in what we do?
  • How might we as a gathered community be formed if we act in this way?
  • Will these actions invite us to be more faithfully present to God, once another, creation, and our parish?
  • Will we be invited into mutually beneficial relationships with others?
  • Will this action invite the flourishing of life for all and for creation?

How might our conversations about worship, community involvement, ministry to the poor, etc… change if we are asking these questions?

The Gift of Non-Judgmental Grace

Working as an Uber Driver is a temporary gig and even though it’s not something I want to do for much longer, it’s really a pretty good job for what it is. One of the reasons I say that is because of the opportunity to meet a variety of people, as brief as our interactions are, and learn mostly through listening and observing.

I drive through the city of Baltimore, picking up one rider after another. One person is heading home after a day at work or college, another is headed to a bar or restaurant to meet some friends. It’s amazing to hear some of the things that riders will talk about with the person they are riding with or talking on their phone with when they forget that they are sitting in a car with someone they don’t even know. One couple chats happily with me about their new baby child, which they are enjoying a needed break from, while another couple argues with each other with one vulgar insult after another. Another rider is inquisitive about my religious beliefs while another rider is too drunk to care about anything but falling asleep (which he tried doing in the back seat of my car).

One couple I picked up was mocking a homeless panhandler we saw standing  at an intersection. They assumed the panhandler to be a drug-addict, which might be true. But this homeless person could just as easily be suffering from mental illness, could be a military veteran suffering PTSD stemming from his tours of duty in war, or he could be… Well, does it really matter?

As a minister I have spent time with people going through difficult times. Divorce, mental illness, addictions, jail-time, and so on. Though not always the case, often times the struggle stems from some bad choices the person has made… Sin! But something I’ve learned, which a few of my psychology friends have helped me understand, is the difference between excuse and explanation. Nothing excuses the wrong a person does but in many cases, there is an explanation for it. That is, there is an explanation for why that homeless panhandler just might be addicted to heroin or why that couple thinks they are better than that panhandler as I drop them off at the Capital Grill to eat a $300 dinner.

“But for the grace of God, there go I.” It’s something I try remembering as I encounter other people struggling though difficulties… especially since I know that I am a sinner too! And if it we’re not for the grace of God, we all…

We find it is easy to sit in judgment upon other people, especially when their sin is not our sin. It seems that our social-media experiences, where we quickly pass along memes and editorials that criticizes everything we disagree with in society, only encourages such judgmentalism. Regardless of the cause, we should resist the temptation to judge because if it were not for the grace of God…

Instead, perhaps we could give others the gift of non-judgmental grace. That is, instead of passing judgment on others, we empathize instead. Rather than assuming, we listen and/or observe in hopes that we might understand better. I’m not suggesting that we can never say something or someone is wrong but that instead of looking down on others for whatever circumstances they find themselves in, we regard others with mercy rather than scorn. Maybe giving others the gift of non-judgmental grace leads to other acts of kindness and blessing but whether it does or doesn’t, it makes us as people who are safe… people whom others can trust and approach when they are facing trouble. And that is where we join Jesus in the redemptive work of restoring and reconciling people to God, each other, and the life they have been created to live.

A Conversation About Jesus and Religion

Yesterday evening while driving for Uber in Baltimore I picked up a man I”ll call Sammy, who was born in India but was raised in America. I picked him up at a bar in Baltimore and I could tell he had a few drinks but he was a nice man and was telling me about his work, which involved working with clients all around the world. Then he asked me what I do and that’s where things became interesting.

I explained to Sammy that I’m a Christian and have spent the last ten plus years of my life serving as a minister with churches. Sammy then told me that he is not religious but respects anyone who is because religion normally make people better people. The conversation then went something like this…

Sammy: “Do you really believe in one God?”

Me: “Yes, I do.”

Sammy: “Do you believe Jesus is the only one who can save everyone?”

Me: “Yes, I do.”

Sammy then proceeded to share with me his difficulty in believing like I believe. He said that at the end of the day all religions teach us how to be nicer people to others and that’s what he thinks is important. Then Sammy said, “But you believe differently.”

I could tell he was waiting for a response but I paused for a moment as we were pulling up to his destination. Then I said, “Sammy, I believe that Jesus was crucified but that God raised him from death and exalted him as Lord… as the one who is King over all. That’s why he is the only one who can save everyone. Of course, if Jesus wasn’t raised from death then none of that really matters. But if he was, and I believe he was, and if you believe he was, then even if we don’t understand how God works all this salvation stuff out, we know that it is through Jesus that God saves because Jesus is the Lord… the King.”

Sammy stayed silent for a moment. Then he said, “Wow, I never thought of it that way before. I know I have to go now but thanks, I need to think about that more now.”

Christians… If God has raised the crucified Jesus from death and exalted him as Lord, as we confess, then may the Spirit empower us to boldly live as witnesses for this good news of Jesus the Messiah!

What Am I Looking For in a Church?

     With the Columbia Church of Christ disbanding, I find myself looking to what is ahead and how I might continue serving God with the gifts he has blessed me with. I am thankful for those who have encouraged me to continue in ministry as a life-vocation, as this has reaffirmed God’s calling into ministry which has come at very necessary moments. I am also thankful for the Christian community that was known as the Columbia Church of Christ. Though the outcome was not what anyone expected when I began serving as the minister, it was the leading of God and along the way I also learned a lot about leading a church in a pastoral sense for the sake of God and his mission.
     Even though I have learned from all of my experience and education, it is my experience with the Columbia Church of Christ, participating in the Mission Alive training labs, and the Doctor of Ministry studies in missional leadership I am working on at Northern Seminary that has helped me understand how I must serve as a minister. And now that I am talking with some other churches about serving with them as a minister, one of the questions that always seems to come up is what sort of church am I looking for as a minister. So here is my answer to that question.
     Let me start by saying what I am not looking for. I am not looking for a church that is afraid of considering something new, reluctant in taking any risk, and simply interested in maintaining things the way they are. But on the other hand, I am not looking for a church that is just trying to change in order to follow the latest trends of what some other church is doing. Instead I am looking for a church that wants to pursue how God is working among them and in their local community for the sake of his mission so that they can continue participating with God in that work.
     So besides preaching and teaching, casting vision, spending time visiting with people, and all the other work that ministers often do (which I enjoy doing), I am trying to foster a conversation. This is a conversation about how we, as a church, participate with God in his mission, serving one another and our community as we serve God. It is a conversation in which the gospel, as known through scripture and the Christian tradition, is brought into conversation with culture so that we may discern how God is calling us to embody the gospel followers of Jesus. When this happens, there is participation in the mission of God.
     For me, as a minister, that means serving as a listener first in order to learn how God has been at work among the church as well as the local community. By listening and learning myself, I believe I am better equipped to help the church listen and learn so that we are able to discern how God is leading us. This also means that I am seeking from the elders shepherding the church buy-in on a commitment to leading by listening and learning, so that we are listening, learning, and leading together for the sake of God’s work among the church and  community. That’s ministry leadership… pastoral leadership… missional leadership!
     When this happens, we are able to discern as a church not only where God is leading but what might need to change and how that should occur. Further more, this ministry leadership enables us to discern how God is gifting various Christians within the church in order affirm their giftedness and encourage their faithful service using such gifts.
     That’s the sort of church I am looking for. The sort of church that wants to discover how God is at work among them and where he is leading them next in order to go there in faith, just as the people of God have done many other times.

Church Renewal: Discerning The Way Forward

Many churches find themselves struggling to carry on the mission for which they are called. With membership numbers slowly declining and once vibrant programs running like a dial-up internet in an age of high-speed wifi, the concern is palpable. And even planting new churches, which is always necessary, is not guaranteed of a better outcome. For as many “successful” church plants, there are many more “unsuccessful” church plants. The issue isn’t a matter of how to do church better or start a new program that might grow a church. The challenge has to do with mission itself, particularly how we participate in the mission of God.

What Is The Challenge?

For many churches, “missions” has always been a program led by a committee to oversee the sending and supporting of missionaries among a foreign culture. Missions has not been the adjective missional describing the life of the local church belonging to Christ. That is to say that churches have not understood themselves as a missionary-people among their local community and culture, and therefore have not thought about the purpose like a missionary.

When missionaries enter a foreign culture, they seek to indigenously plant the gospel seed among the people they encounter. Doing that requires a cross-cultural approach that strives for both faithfulness to the gospel and contextualization of the gospel within the local culture. The missionary question asked is how is the gospel faithfully planted in a contextual manner so that indigenous Christianity forms? Most existing churches didn’t feel the need to think like this and ask this missionary question because the local community was shaped by Christendom worldview where regardless of how many non-Christians there were, the culture of the community was shaped by and functioned out of a broad Christian ethos. For example, public prayers were always prayed “in the name of Jesus” and whether or not a person lived like a Christian should, they were likely a member of some Christian church.

Things are much different now as the American cultural landscape is quickly becoming post-Christendom. Besides an overt secularism, society is shaped by pluralism where numerous voices present. These voices are engaged in a table conversation about the purpose and meaning of life and each voice is vying for an equal hearing (side point: sometimes those other voices would love for the Christian voice to get up and go to its own table… which is why Christians need to learn good table manners). This is the new culture churches find themselves among and it requires a cross-cultural missionary approach. The big difference is that instead of crossing into a foreign geographical culture, churches must cross into a foreign social-culture from their own. So the driving question is the driving question is how does the local church embody the gospel in a faithful yet contextual manner?

Engaging The Challenge

In the pursuit of the driving question, part of the challenge for the local church learning how to enter into a different social-culture as missionary people. This  has been of interest to me as a minister ever since I became aware of the new cultural context churches are finding themselves in. So as a minister, the question is how do I help lead a church to embody the gospel in a faithful yet contextual manner? 

I don’t make any claims of having the final answer on this issue, as I am still a learner myself. However, I am fairly convinced that the issue is deeper and more robust than just than trying the latest trend that appears from afar to work in another church, etc… The beginning place is always humility, realizing that something has to change. Once this posture of humility is present, a new listening posture can take shape where the church is able to enter into a necessary conversation.

This conversation is what the image to the left depicts as a “trialogue” where the gospel, known through scripture and Christian tradition, is brought into conversation with the local church at it is presently (not just in its “glory days” or where it would like to be in the future, though both the past and future cannot be completely discarded) and the local culture…

  • Gospel: This is listening to the creative-redemptive story of how God is reconciling and restoring in and through Jesus Christ, told through scripture and the historical traditions of the church. Such listening requires an openness to the reality that there may be elements of the gospel the church has missed or sort of neglected.
  • Church: The church is listening to one another, discerning how God is at work among the church. Of importance is the way in which Holy Spirit is gifting the church and the sort of passionate dreams that God may be awakening among each other.
  • Culture: The church is listening for the ways that God is at work among the local culture, so that the church might possibly join God in that work.

In one sense, this trialogical conversation is simple but it is also an open-ended conversation that (re)discovers how God is at work leading the church to live as his missionary people. Questions may arise about everything from the way the church practices benevolence to teaching and forming disciples to the new ways that fellowship becomes an intentional practice of church and so on. What is up for reconsideration is the gospel itself, as the church can only participate in the mission of God so long as it continues in the gospel first proclaimed by Jesus and then his Apostles.

A Final Word

One of the disastrous notions of modernism is the need to control and know the outcome. Seeking control in order to know and even manage the outcome, which is often motivated by fear, traditionalism, and maintaining comfort for the comfortable, already misses the point of a church living as God’s missionary people. Mission is not the result of the church doing God’s work, rather the church is really the result of disciples living on mission with God and that happens when the church is animated by the Spirit rather than controlled by human motives.

Engaging Conflict Requires An Attitude

Conflict is a part of life, period! It exists in everything from marriage to the work place and larger society. The only person who lives without any conflict is a hermit living on a remote island by him/herself and that’s a lonely life. For the rest of us, conflict is a given. In fact, I just spoke with a person who was telling me how an ongoing work place conflict, lasting for over a year, has been favorably resolved. Conflict can be stressing and perplexing but it can be a healthy thing too.

Yes! Conflict can be a healthy thing too and that’s good news for Churches, since every church I know of has its share of conflict.

Because conflict is amoral, this should not bother us. What should concern us is how we handle the conflict. In fact, that is where the anxiety about conflict arises because too often we don’t handle conflict well. Given the choice of fight or flight, we either run in hopes of avoiding the issue all together or we fight by responding with selfish postures attempting to win by injuring the other…

“She just believes every last word that Joyce Myers says.”

“He just think that because he has money…”

“They just don’t care about what the Bible says.”

“He just can’t see past his own traditions.”

“She just takes everything too personally.”

Those are just some of the things I have heard Christians say about someone else in their church. I’ve probably made similar such comments too. Although sometimes spoken in a direct manner, most of the time this approach is passive-aggressive in nature.

The problem with conflict is how we handle it. Often when challenged, we become defensive. Believing that we are right with little, if any, consideration that we might be wrong, we argue and protest against the other. If it is a policy or practice we disagree with, we’ll dig our heels in and turn what often is a minor issue into a major issue that must go our way. But again, the issue isn’t the conflict itself but the way we respond to the conflict.

The difference between healthy and unhealthy conflict hinges on how we handle the conflict. A healthy response to conflict begins with Christ-likeness. So the apostle Paul says that we are to have the same attitude of Christ, who humbled himself as a servant and became obedient even to the point of death (cf. Phil 2:5-8). In practice, having this attitude means…

  • Listening to understand before responding. Humility means recognizing that be wrong. Even if we’re not wrong, we can’t help resolve any conflict without listening first. Listening also involves, as my friend Fred always says, assuming the best about the other person when they speak.
  • Extending grace toward each other. Jesus was obedient to the point of death even though he was never in the wrong. His obedience is the extension of God’s grace and like Jesus, we must extend grace even when we have been wronged. That means forgiving and loving one another.

I’m not trying to suggest that conflict is easy. If it was easy, we wouldn’t try avoiding it or do so poorly with it at times. But ignoring conflict or failing to rightly deal with it allows what could be a great opportunity become a problem that threatens the and undermines the health of the church.

Listening and extending grace toward each other amidst conflict requires talking. One of way of doing this involves table fellowship. Serve each other by eating together. Invite some others to join if needed but the act of eating together helps create and maintain a hospitable atmosphere where we hear one another, clarify misunderstandings, apologize, forgive, and resolve to speak/act rightly moving forward. The result is reconciliation and at the end of the day that is what engaging conflict is about… so that we may be one even when we don’t agree.

May we all engage conflict with an attitude… the attitude of Christ!

Wisdom and Insight: Companions For A Complex Life

One of the questions that many churches want to know of their ministers has to do with various moral/ethical issues, especially those involving marriage and all things sex. For example, what should we do when a couple from church say they are pursuing a divorce? Or how should we respond to some parents who say their teenage child is gay?

Regardless of the issue and the hypothetical scenario, the response hinges not only what we believe but also how we should respond. One of the difficulties here is that such hypothetical questions are so vague that it would be hard for us to offer any response beyond our basic beliefs regarding any number of moral/ethical issues. But a bigger problem is that in real life, such issues always present themselves in a particular set of circumstances that rarely, if ever, are simple. Part of the complexity is that the circumstances which the issue presents itself in is almost never a one to one correspondence to the circumstances in which the issue is addressed in scripture. This is where we encounter the limits of reading scripture as a law.

Just like any policy or procedure, a doctrine is contextually ignorant. In real life, acting upon any moral/ethical doctrine requires wisdom. Barry Schwartz gave this brilliant TED Talk about the need for practical wisdom in an age overran by bureaucracy. I wholeheartedly agree! While doctrines or rules and policies are necessary, so also is wisdom. However, for ministers, not any form or wisdom will do. What is needed is gospel-wisdom. By gospel-wisdom, I mean wisdom that is shaped by the biblical narrative, what it teaches, and how that teaching is revealed and embodied in everything we know about Jesus whom the church follows. But that is only part of the task.

Proverbs 4:7 says, “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever else you get, get insight” (NRSV). The sage is telling us that both wisdom and insight are necessary. While not the same, wisdom and insight are neither exclusive from each other as both sharpen each other. The purpose of wisdom is counsel as it doesn’t tell us how to respond but offers guidance for how we might respond in any given situation. That assumes a posture of listening, as we cannot even begin to know what is the appropriate response unless we have listened first. So when that couple says to me that they are pursuing a divorce or those parents who say their teenage child is gay, my first response is to listen by asking good questions that will allow me to understand the circumstances better and get a better feel for the complexities. Only then does wisdom have the insight necessary to offer any counsel on what you or I might do.

Whether you’re a minister, an elder, or just a Christian trying to help someone else out, you need gospel-wisdom and insight gleaned from listening to that someone. Your own moral/ethical beliefs and values are certainly valuable and necessary but in real life situations, which are as different as they are many, wisdom and insight are indispensable companions for a complex life. So get wisdom, get insight!