Category Archives: Missions and Ministry

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.

Participating in Global Missions

This is a guest post from a friend and fellow follower of Jesus, Will. In this post Will talks about global missions, how he and his wife are participating in missions, and one way in which you might join in this work.

——————–

Jesus said we’d be his witnesses even to the ends of the earth. The missionary community has been pushing towards that goal for almost two millennia now. As it turns out, we’ve already reached the easy geopolitical areas. What’s left are places like Somalia, whose government is in shambles and violence is an everyday fact of life. Or perhaps the northern border country of India, where in one region kidnapping is the number one economic activity. Or even the restricted access countries like China, Vietnam, Russia or the Muslim-bloc countries. Or the geographically brutal jungle tribe regions in the Amazon and in Papua New Guinea. Most of those areas left are hostile to both God and humanity. The point is that the final push to the absolute ends of the earth is the hardest one.

Conversely, church giving to pioneer missions is pretty low. Current giving is estimated as less than 0.05% church resources dedicated to pioneer missions. The number of full-time professional missionaries going to the field is also on the decline. These facts hit home on my Harding University graduation day in 2006 when I saw more than 1000 of my peers graduate, and only 2 of us were missions majors. A few more than that minored in missions. Something had to change, I though. We cannot move forward if we can’t send more.

A couple of trends in missions came to bear at that moment. First was a blended model of missionary activity and health care. Now, missionary activity should be thought of as actively sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ and forming new believers into a local, indigenous church. Many of us have participated in medical missions, and they are truly a blessing when we are able to participate in these social endeavors that support the indigenous church. We don’t often get to share our faith in medical missions, because we often don’t speak the language or understand the local culture. For the last ten years I’ve been serving in a number of social work roles in different organizations in three different countries, speaking in five different languages. The second trend is “business as mission”. It was first termed in 2004 by the Lausanne Committee. It too is a blended model, but it unites business activity with missionary activity. In my years trying to help people both medically and economically, the realization came that jobs are really what brings economic development. It was an “aha!” moment, followed by a “duh!” moment.

When I interned as a missionary in Switzerland, and when I lived as one in Guatemala, one of the hardest things to overcome was a lack of role in the host culture. In other words, when people asked what I did, my answer didn’t really make sense to them, and I was relegated to the “weird guy” role. Fast forward to 2015. My wife and I now own an importing business. We sell high-quality loose leaf Coban black tea online at an affordable price. This allows us to truthfully say that we are importers when we are introducing ourselves. It also allows us to speak the gospel of Jesus to our suppliers and buyers. It also allows us to go to countries in the Muslim-block, which is a major consumer of tea, without fear of retribution.

Tea is to Muslim countries as beer is to Texas. We can make relationships with people who would never have anything to do with a missionary, and we can tell them about Jesus. It’s really exciting to talk to a Muslim about Jesus and to give them a copy of the gospel in Arabic. There really isn’t a feeling like it that I can describe, except by elation. It’s a very simple task, but so profound. Not only can it create jobs and create relationships, but it can also create fundraising opportunities for pioneer missions, which is one of our goals with this business. We currently operate in Guatemala and the USA, but our next phases will be to open markets in major Arab immigrant communities in the USA, then to North Africa, and then to Afghanistan.

If you’re a tea-drinker, I hope you’ll join me in supporting our business and the mission at TRW Fair Trade Imports.

——————–

Bio: Will and his wife, Karen, and live in Atlanta, Georgia. Will is a graduate of Harding University with a Bachelor of Arts in both Missions and French and is currently working toward an Master of Business Administration at Harding where he is on track to graduate in 2015. Will also works full-time as a patient navigator, providing resources for elderly cancer patients across Georgia. Both Will and his wife are active members of North Metro Church in Kennesaw, GA.

Engaging Culture As Followers of Jesus

Part of following Jesus Christ is living as a learner, learning just how to live as his disciple. I’m still learning and sometimes I show how great of a student I am and sometimes, actually a lot of the time, it is evident how much I still have to learn. Nevertheless, because I believe that God is redeeming, reconciling, and restoring all of creation in Jesus Christ, I keep following. I want to participate with him in the mission of God, making the world aware of the good news and embodying that good news in the way I live. Doing that means involves at least two activities: 1) becoming aware of how God is presently at work in the world in order to join in that work and 2) knowing how to faithfully engage in that work among the world. I do neither well, at least not if Jesus is the standard by which I measure myself.

Becoming Present

When it comes to the first activity, part of my daily prayer is to see how God is presently at work around me and how I might participate in that. My trouble is that it more often I see God at work around me only in hindsight and by then, it’s a little too late to join in that work. That’s because I tend to be too tasked focuses on what I am doing and what I plan to be doing that I miss out on what God is doing (that’s not an excuse though!). However, lately I have really felt the conviction of the Spirit that I must become more present to what is happening around me and who is around me in order to more faithfully live on mission with God. And that opened up two incredible conversations this past weekend that I want to share.

  • The first conversation took place at pool-side with another parent while we both were waiting for our children who were having their swim practice. I was reading a book by James K.A. Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular, for my upcoming D.Min seminar and this parent asked me about the book and why I was reading it. This particular person is a pediatrician who was grew up in England and is about to finish a Ph.D. in botanical medicine. Obviously, ver smart! Realizing that I am a minister engaged in theological studies, she asked me a question about homosexuality and what it means to be created in the image of God. Her own Episcopalian and very politically left background means that she has some different beliefs and values than I have when it comes to this issue, which I was aware of as we talked. Nevertheless, we had a good conversation sexuality and how Jesus showed hospitality to those regarded as sinners.
  • The second conversation happened, in of all places, while sitting in a hot-tub. Someone who knew that I went into Baltimore during the recent riots and protests to pray with and listen to the protesters asked me why I would do such thing. This question wasn’t a passive-aggressive attempt in maligning me for doing this, just an honest question from a person who happens to be Black. So I explained that I am a follower of Jesus and as his disciple, I refuse to let issues like racism and violence divide… that I want to do what I can to bring about reconciliation. So we had a good conversation about this.

Now let me get to why I want to share these two conversations with you.

Which Battle to Win?

As you know, both issues, sexuality and racism, are difficult issues that both the church and culture at large are wrestling with right now. Everyone has their beliefs on each issue and any conversation about either issue has the potential to quickly disintegrate into an argument that only creates further division and animosity. So as Christians, how do we engage in such conversations? This question brings us back to the second reality of participating on mission with God discussed above… of how we faithfully engage our culture, particularly our friends and neighbors.

In engaging our friends and neighbors, we want to remain faithful to Jesus. So besides treating others as we ourselves wish to be treated, we also want to speak truthfully about what we believe. That is, we want to speak the truth in love (cf. Eph 4:15). But I want to suggest that sometimes speaking less is what it takes to speak in love and that this is how we must learn to engage our friends and neighbors. And if Facebook is any indication, this is something most followers of Jesus, including myself, need to learn.

This is about deciding what battle it is that we want to win. It requires listening and discerning first in order that we may create a dialogue. Part of the discernment is knowing that not every battle, or the entire battle itself, must be won in in one single moment. Therefore we must decide which battle do we want to win. Do we want to win a theological argument about sexuality and human nature or a political argument about racism and violence in a city like Baltimore? Or would we rather the win be that someone, one of our friends and neighbors, now knows that we are safe enough to ask questions on difficult and potentially volatile issues without being judged and dismissed because they may have some significant disagreements with us?

For me, the big battle, is about helping others to see God at work in Jesus, coming to believe in Jesus and follow Jesus because I believe that God is redeeming, reconciling, and restoring his creation in and through Jesus. I’m still learning how to do this and I already see in hindsight some ways that I could have handled to two conversations mentioned above a little differently… and probably better too. Nevertheless, we must pray that we may learn to be present in each moment, remaining open to the opportunities for engaging our friends and neighbors as followers of Jesus, and remaining patient and wise about what to say and what not to say. God has already won the big battle, we just need to kindly and patiently point others to that victory!

May we, who believe in and follow Jesus Christ, be filled with the Spirit in order to faithful participate in the mission of God!

My Worst Mistake As a Minister

All ministers make mistakes and I want to tell you about what I believe is the biggest mistake I have made as a minister. When I say “mistake,” I mean the sort of things we do because we didn’t know any better which are done out of naïvety as well as a lack of experience and wisdom. In other words, I’m not talking about sin per se, although my biggest mistake did come with a lot of hubris and pride. So it does involve some sins of the heart and that is why I’m so thankful for the grace of God that forgives sin and lets one learn from the mistakes of the past.

Churches and Ministers

So let’s talk about churches and ministers. Churches call upon a minister to serve with them as a pastor (that’s the typical function whether or not the minister is referred to as a “pastor”). Besides preaching and teaching, the church anticipates growing and engaging in ministry among their community and beyond because they have a minister.

Ministers know this, as I certainly did and still do. I’ve read plenty of books on all things ministry and church growth. In 2007 when I graduated from seminary with my Master of Divinity, the word missional was just beginning to appear on the horizon. The emerging church, which now seems more like just a new approach to the church growth movement, was all the rages. I had read books like The Purpose Driven ChurchBuilding A Contagious Church, and Church For The Unchurched along with many other books, articles, and even blogs. The books all detailed the strategies of some of the biggest growing churches in America.

What I came away with was the idea that I had to have the vision for where the church needs to go, how the church can grow evangelistically and engage in ministry among its community. After all, I’m the minister with the theological education who has read the literature on church ministry (note the hubris and pride!). It didn’t dawn on me, and it probably wouldn’t have mattered at the time, that most of these “high-profile” churches were planted by their current pastor, who had a blank slate to cast a vision and that the church I was called to serve was an existing congregation with an existing culture.

And so here is my biggest mistake: I came to serve in a church with my vision of how the church should be and where it should go.

That was a mistake and a big one. When a minister serves a church that has already existed for a number of years, that church already has a culture. More importantly, God has already been at work in that church. Regardless of whatever problems the church has (as many churches do), God has been at work among those Christians forming them and gifting them for participation in his mission. Failure to see this and respect this has disaster written all over it.

A Change in Leadership

What has changed for me as a minister? I still believe the minister should have a vision for what God is calling churches to become. However, ministers need to hold that vision with humility and openness because they certainly are not the only ones in a church that God has imparted a vision for the church upon. So instead of coming in to serve by casting a very top-down vision and expecting the church to jump on board with that, the minister needs to come in first listening and learning.

As a leader, not the leader but a leader, the minister needs to hold out a vision of Jesus. That is, the minister needs to share with the church how Jesus expects his followers to join him in participating in the mission of God. This is done through preaching and teaching in both formal and informal settings, such as during the Sunday worship gathering or while sipping some great Brazilian or Ugandan brew at a local coffee house. But… Just as the minister holds this vision of Jesus before the church, the minister must also be listening and learning from the church to know where God has led them thus far and how God has gifted them for ministry. Then, and only then, is the minister able to help the church begin discerning where God is trying to lead them for the future. Once the church, together with the minister and other leaders (e.g., shepherds), have spent time discerning how God has gifted them and where seems to be leading them, then the church can begin assess and implementing whatever changes seem necessary.

For example, one of the challenges many churches face is that they are saddled with too many programs that have become more of a tiresome burden. So in order to move forward in following Jesus, a church may need to let go of something in order to do something. It’s like the first disciples who had to let go of their fishing nets in order to follow Jesus and become the fishers of people Jesus was preparing them to be (cf. Matt 4:20). A church, through discernment, may sense that God is leading them to engage in acts of mercy by using their building to be one of several neighborhood churches who feed the homeless one night per week. So maybe instead of participating in a weekly traditional small-group meeting every week, the small-groups take turns once a month serving meals to the homeless instead of just gathering for some Bible-study. But the church will only know this as the minister, along with other leaders, and the church are discerning together how God has gifted them and where God is leading them.

My Last Thought

The top-down approach may work but in my experience, it causes more problems than it solves. More importantly, the top-down approach is borrowed from the world of corporate America rather than from Jesus. Jesus calls his followers to be servants like him and if a minister wants the church to learn how to follow Jesus more deeply and passionately, it begins with the minister exemplifying the servant-leader approach of Jesus to the church.

Ministry and Envy

Everyone wants to be appreciated for the good they do and at some level, everyone needs to feel appreciated. That includes pastors too. Although the ultimate reward for all Christian service comes from God, its hard for anyone to keep giving their best when their best seems to go unnoticed or is continuously met with criticism.

However, in ministry the need for appreciation can also develop into an unhealthy envy. The need for appreciation morphs into the need for recognition.  This is a problem that most pastors, including myself, have struggled with from time to time.

Yesterday Rich Little wrote a blog piece titled 5 Difficult Questions Pastors Must Ask and the first question was “Do I feel competitive with my peers?” Yes, I have at times. I’m sure other ministers have and do as well. This especially seems to be the case when our pees are recognized and we’re not… or at least not the way we think we should be recognized.

You see the problem. It’s the problem of envy, a sin of the heart that is often coupled with a lot of pride and sense of entitlement.

Saul, the King of Israel, struggled with envy too. After David had won the battle against the Philistines we are told in 1 Samuel 18:7 that women throughout different towns were singing “Saul has struck down his thousands, but David his tens of thousands.” Then in the very next verse we read that this “made Saul very angry.” And if you read the rest of the story, Saul attempts to kill David several times.

Attempted murder. That’s the result of Saul’s envious heart. It might be easy to ignore this as a warning since most of us would never even contemplate committing murder. However, when our hearts are consumed with envy, we become dissatisfied and frustrated with the ministry God has called us to because we want what our peers have. Maybe that frustration gets taken out on the family at home, whether that means becoming a workaholic who neglects our family because we’re trying to chase something we think we don’t have or just turning our anger into physical and emotional abuse. Or maybe that sense of entitlement turns into other unethical practices, such as buying one’s way onto the New York Times Bestsellers book list, to provide for ourselves what we think we don’t have. Or maybe we take our dissatisfaction out on the church we serve, berating them with “bold preaching” for not being the church that our envious imagination says we should be pastoring.

The best antidote for envy is prayer! Pray with thanksgiving for the way God has gifted us for ministry and with thanksgiving for the ministry God has called us to, whether that is with a large church or small church… a church in the city or a church in the country. Pray also for the people we serve in ministry. Doing so keeps the focus where it belongs, on God and others rather than ourselves.

And if you’re reading this and you’re not a pastor, then send your pastor a card telling them how much you appreciate their ministry. Believe me, such words of encouragement are precious and your pastor will appreciate it more than you realize.

Ministry Leadership: Saying “No!” to the Visitor

If you’re like me and you have children that you are raising or you have already raised children, then you know what it is to vet their friends. You size them up… who are they, who are their parents, what are they like, how do they behave, and so on. You want to make sure your children are not hanging around people who will harm them.

Last year, my wife and I had to make a decision to not allow our son to play with one of the neighborhood children and we told this other child that he wasn’t allowed to play with our son anymore. Why? Because this child was a bully who kept hitting our son. I am sure you would have made the same decision. Why? Because as parents, we’re not going to allow someone to come around our children when they are harmful to our children. We strive to protect our children from harm and sometimes that involves taking very specific and decisive actions.

Our decision to not allow our son to play with the neighborhood boy was not about that boy, it was about our son and his welfare. Yet, sometimes in the church when it comes time for leaders to act for the welfare of the church, there is a hesitancy to do so.

For example, since most churches are small (less than a hundred members), most churches are very interested in retaining anyone who begins visiting their church. But let’s say that in getting to know such visitor, you learn that this person holds some very different views on different issues and is showing him/herself to be very divisive with those views. What should you say or do?

Last year with the Columbia Church of Christ such a visitor started coming to our Sunday morning Bible class and worship gathering. He made it very clear that he disagreed with our gender-inclusive practices, our understanding of God’s grace, with our way of worshiping, and with some of my preaching (surprise, surprise!). He also demonstrated that he wanted to try debating these issues during our Bible class, sort of hijacking the time for his own purpose. So after he was reminded a couple of times that this is not the place for such discussions, as they only cause division, I went to him and explained that this is who are church is and if he is not comfortable with that then there are other churches for him to visit.

I don’t have any regrets about doing so. Not only was he causing disruption among our church, there was also one couple who were new in the faith that I was trying to protect… just like a parent protecting their child.

Part of serving as a leader in the church is protecting the church from those who may cause harm. In an ideal situation, the church will have elders shepherding the church so that this responsibility does not fall to the minister(s) only. Regardless, someone must take very specific and decisive action. Parents don’t really want to tell a neighborhood child that they cannot play with their child anymore. Likewise, Church leaders don’t really want to tell a visitor that they are should look elsewhere. Yet sometimes serving as a leader requires stepping up in a difficult way and saying “No!” to the visitor for the sake of the church.

Ministry: Cultivating Gospel People

Here is an interesting thought to ponder for ministry. In the introduction of his book Exclusion and Embrace, theologian Miroslav Volf writes, “…theologians should concentrate less on social arrangements and more on fostering the kind of social agents capable of envisioning and creating just, truthful, and peaceful societies, and on shaping a cultural climate in which such agents will thrive” (p. 21). For Volf, social arrangements are the way that societies organize and function politically and the social agents are the people who shape the political function and organization of society.

As a minister, I immediately thought of how this idea would work in churches. It’s easy for ministers, or pastors, to focus on the church as an organization and how the church should function. We focus on what sort of ministries should the church engage in, what sort of structure is necessary so that the church can fulfill its vision, and what sort of changes are necessary for the church to thrive. That isn’t wrong either, so long as we keep it in perspective. But it is also possible that we can become so focused on the church as an organization that we lose sight of the organic aspect of the church, which is the people. When this happens, we end up cultivating (or attempt) a church that functions with a particular structure in a certain way and then expect the people to fit into that organization. The only problem is that the people may not so easily fit into that organization because we have not taken the time to cultivate the sort of character that wants to belong in that church we have cultivated or are trying to cultivate.

What if the thrust of ministry was focused fostering the kind of Christians who are capable of envisioning how to embody the gospel within their particular context?

In this aspect, the focus is on the organic side of the church. The focus is on people, not programs. This doesn’t mean that we should completely ignore the organization aspect (which is impossible to do), especially since in applying Volf’s statement our focus on shaping the lives of Christians includes shaping the cultural environment that will allow the people to thrive as Christians. By way of example, in focusing on the people the shift goes from creating a new ministry to care for the poor to cultivating the sort of character in people that loves the homeless the way God does. Or by way of another example, the shift goes from focusing on what changes must happen in the worship gathering to improve the worship experience to cultivating the sort of character in people that desires to passionately worship God in spirit and truth.

It seems that once we have cultivated the sort of character in the people of the church so that they are capable of envisioning how to embody the gospel within their own context, then the organizational changes will organically begin happening. The people will begin forming new ministries or changing existing ministries so that they are able to embody the gospel as they now envision it. This is where the need for giving attention to structure and function is necessary but it only is because of what has happened organically within the church, particularly within the lives of the people who make up the church.

As I thought about this, I also had the thought of what happens if the way the people begin envisioning how they embody the gospel differs from how we, the minister, have in mind. This is where humility is needed. Because such a thought is really about control, which is something that I think most ministers wrestle with. We’re the ones with the seminary education, we’re the ones usually attending the conferences where we here the next latest great ideas, we’re the ones probably reading the latests books on all things missional, worship, etc… So we know what is best, or at least we think we do. Yet at the end of the day we must, with humility, admit that we are simply called to plant seed and cultivate it. It is up to God to bring the increase of that seed, including what that plant will look like in full bloom. So I ask one final question…

Can we let God be in control of deciding what the embodiment of the gospel will look like in our churches by focusing on fostering the kind of Christians who are capable of envisioning how to embody the gospel within their particular context rather than focusing on what the embodiment of the gospel should look like?