Category Archives: Missions and Ministry

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?

Church Leadership: Posture and Presence

Years ago I worked as a machinist for Aero Metals, which was a small but growing manufacturing corporation in La Porte, Indiana. The company was locally owned and even though I worked the grave-yard shift from 11:00 PM to 7:00 AM, I met the owner on several occasions when he came in early in the morning. He would stop by to ask how everything was going, if I had any concerns, and other questions like that.

At the time I didn’t have any idea of what this guy was doing. I just figured that he was making sure every person was doing their job since he was the owner and the person who ultimately was writing the paychecks. Twenty years later and with a lot of ministry experience, I have a different perspective.

From the Office to the Floor

You might recall watching the show Undercover Boss which runs on CBS television. The show is about a boss, usually the CEO of a very large and lucrative corporation who puts on a disguise and then does the job among those doing the manual labor. He or She, the head honcho becomes one of the store clerks, the delivery person, the food server, the warehouse personnel, etc…

As the boss does this, he or she engages in real conversation with the employees about the job and about their life. In doing so, these CEOs become aware of the struggles and challenges their employees face, both on the job and in their own personal lives. With awareness, each CEO is able to intelligently act in a way that positively affects their employees personal lives while also affecting positive change for the operation of their business.

By going out on the ground floor, listening and learning to the employees, the boss is able to serve the employees in a way that is win-win for all involved.

Christ-Like Church Leadership

My friend and fellow minister Fred Liggen* defines leadership as listening, learning, and loving. It is essentially what the undercover bosses are doing (just substitute the word “serve” for “love”). But more importantly, it is the sort of leadership we see from Jesus.

Jesus is among the people, in the fields and at the table with them. He meets people where they’re at and engages in conversation with them their. He is listening, learning, and loving them and therefore he is able to lead them. And according to Luke 22:24-27, we can see how Jesus expected that those who would lead in his kingdom would imitate his model of leadership… A dispute also started among them over which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.  So Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ Not so with you; instead the one who is greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is seated at the table, or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is seated at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”

Thanks to Jesus, my friend Fred, and a few others, I am convinced more than ever that this is what leadership in the church is. Ministers (Pastors) are not CEOs of their church, neither are the elders/shepherds. They both are called to be servants. Their capacity to lead is in the ability to come out of the office or out of the elders room at the building a gather with the members of the church in their homes, in the hospital room or waiting area, at a park, on the golf-course or in the fishing boat, at a restaurant, at a coffee shop, and even at the pub.

It is in these places where the listening, learning, and loving occurs and that is how servants of God can lead. It is about posture and presence among the people and with the people. This is where leadership happens. This is where church leaders are able to acting a way that blesses the individual lives of the church they serve as well as the church as a whole. It works for the Undercover Boss and it will certainly work for the minister or shepherd of the church who comes clothed in nothing but the love and humility of Jesus Christ.

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* I have had a sense of this leadership since following around my friend Ricardo Maia, who is a minister in his homeland of Brazil, as this was Ricardo’s way of leading as a minister. However, it is my friend Fred Liggen, who serves as the minister of the Williamsburg Christian Church, is the first person I know to use the phrase “Listening, Learning, and Loving = Leadership.” Both men are courageous ministers following Jesus as servants in the kingdom of God.

The Conversation Churches Must Engage

As the circumstances of our surrounding culture and community change, so do the issues that face every local church. Often the issues, be it poverty, sexuality, religious pluralism, etc…, remain general enough that a church can ignore them if they wise. But at some point a church will have a visitor come from that new Section 8 housing down the street, having many needs and lives in that new Section 8 housing around the corner. Or that church will learn that the local Muslims are planning to build a Mosque across the street from where the church meets. Or someone in that church will come out of the closet, telling others that they are gay. Suddenly what remained as general issue  become very particular issues that impact the local church in such a way that whatever the response is, it will reshape the identity of the church.

This is called a kairos-moment in the life of the church. The word “kairos” comes from the Greek language and literally means time but not in the chronological sense like the time of day. It refers to an event that is happening among the church which is an opportunity for the church. Regardless of the circumstances of such a kairos-moment, it is an opportunity from God to listen and then walk on mission with God in such a way that the church is transformed. Or, depending on how the church responds, it is an opportunity from God that the church ignores, rejects, etc… which leads to a loss of mission. This is where churches begin to decline, anxiously seeking to go back in time and repeat the past because they fool themselves into believing trying a hundred different versions of the same thing over and over will somehow reap different results.

Responding To A Kairos-Moment

As I said, such kairos-moments are an opportunity for the church. Yet because the particular circumstances of these kairos-moments are difficult issues that raise theological questions and awaken sensitive political triggers, it is tempting and easy for churches just to avoid the issues. Or what happens is that people in the church simply react with a defensive (and highly emotive) response. When this happens, various platitudes, that have more in common with the American left and right than they do with the gospel, are underscored with biblical proof-texts and used as weapons to win the fight. Yet, neither avoiding the issue nor taking a defensive posture will help. By avoiding these kairos-moments, churches are unable to hear God’s voice and by taking a defensive posture, churches are unable to see where God is working.

The first response to such kairos-moments is spiritual-discernment. Such discernment is a conversation that leads to a thoughtful and contextualized response so that the church may continue living on mission with God as faithful followers of Jesus who are animated by the Spirit. It is a conversation that the leaders of the church must have with each other but it is also a conversation that the leaders must have with the rest of the church as well − and the conversation between the leaders and the rest of the church must shape the conversation that the leaders continue having amongst themselves. Failure to have either conversation will again simply result in a lost opportunity, likely rendering the local church as futile among the surrounding culture and community.

Engaging In Spiritual Discernent

I want to suggest two criterions for engaging in spiritual-discernment regarding any particular kairos-moment that I believe will help churches step forward on mission with God These are not the only criterions that could be discussed but they are two that I believe matter immensely.

PROCEED BY GRACE WITH FAITH. The spiritual-discernment necessary here is a process that takes the church into a wilderness so to speak. Sometimes it can feel like walking on ice in the dark… to find the shore, everyone must continue forward but with each step there is a bit of uncertainty as to whether the ice is going to break. It’s easy to become frustrated.

Show each other grace, allow each other to think openly and even say things that may not sound so wise at the moment. And don’t worry about making some mistakes along the way. The journey into the wilderness will come with some mistakes but have faith. Just as God preserved Israel as they journeyed through the wilderness, so will God preserve his people today. What the promise-land looks like will be as surprising as it was for Israel but God will lead the church there. So proceed forward but do so by the grace of God for each other with an abiding faith in God.

ENGAGE SCRIPTURE, TRADITION, & CULTURE TOGETHER. The particular issues that churches face today may share many similarities with the circumstances that other churches find themselves in. Yet they are not exactly the same either, so churches cannot simply juxtapose scripture or Christian tradition down upon any issue and say that what was done before is the church should do now. This locks the church into merely trying to repeat the past rather than living as a present embodiment of the gospel.

The conversation of spiritual-discernment involves bringing scripture, tradition, and culture into conversation with each other. By doing this, churches will discern what their theological praxis (how the church embodies the gospel) must involve for the present circumstances. Formulaically, the conversation of spiritual discernment is: Scripture (S) + Tradition (T) + Culture (C)= Theological Practice (ThP).

S + T + C = ThP

By bringing scripture, tradition, and culture into conversation with each other, the conversation is asking “What does the gospel look like in this?” and “How does the church enact the gospel Jesus lived in this?” The only thing left is for the church to faithfully follow Jesus where the Spirit leads, acting upon what God reveals.

One Final Thought

There is obviously much more to say about bringing scripture, tradition, and culture into conversation with each other that can be said in one blog post. So I hope to say more in the coming months. Nevertheless, this is the sort of conversation that the church had at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), has had at different moments throughout history, and must keep having. Yet it’s also a conversation for every local church because that is where the circumstances of culture are encountered in the particular. With that in mind, such conversations must always take place from a posture of listening, that is bathed in prayer and unequivocally faithful to Jesus, who is the Lord, and therefore a faithful embodiment of the gospel Jesus lived and proclaimed.

The Mission of God and Church Growth

Among churches that have recently experienced decline there is an expected anxiousness about the loss of members and the future of the church.* This anxiousness often causes a shift in focus from the mission of God to growth, resulting in churches attempting nearly every new faddish idea that comes along in hopes of reversing the decline. These attempts are fear driven, rather than faith, attempts at self-preservation that only destabilize the health of the church further as every new attempt doesn’t work like it is at that other growing church. All the while, it didn’t work because it didn’t organically emerge from the discernment of where and how God is leading the church. In order for the church to pursue the mission of God, which will bear fruit, this cycle of anxious response must be let go of.

Churches seeking renewal must learn to act in faith, rather than anxious fear. That comes about through discernment of God’s missional calling. As God is sought through prayer, through scripture, and through the community of believers, churches begin to hear where the Spirit is leading them, what that looks like, and what must change about them in order to follow Jesus on mission with God. Then these churches must obey and act upon that leading of the Spirit. When this happens the church changes because the believers who make up that church change as they are being spiritually transformed for renewal in God’s mission. This will impact every aspect of the churches life, from how it worships, to how it fellowships with one another, to how it ministers among it’s community — especially the broken, hurting, and suffering — and to its children whom the church is called to raise as faithful followers of Jesus.

These are churches where faith in Jesus Christ is living and active, as opposed to churches whose only faith is the nostalgic longing for the “good old days.” These are the churches where increase comes because that mustard seed faith is growing spiritually into a gigantic tree. These are the kind of churches, I believe, that God wants to place those who are seeking him among because these are the kind of churches that will nurture the new emerging faith of these seekers with grace and truth, making disciples of Jesus.

So when it comes to numerical growth, it will happen but not by focusing on church growth which is our way of trying to bring about the increase ourselves. Numerical growth will happen when the church trusts in God and learns to live on mission with God through renewal as it discerns the will of God. Along this journey, there will be strategic decisions and actions to make but what those decisions are will be revealed through discernment. In the mean time, keep the focus on God and his mission and growth will come as God gives the increase.

And this − the opportunity to help a church walk on mission with God − is what excites me about serving as a minister of the gospel!

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* This short essay was originally written for a church I am discerning with about serving as a minister with. I have slightly modified what I wrote into this present post.

Living The Dream

The last time I checked, my children attend school with children from thirty-four different nationalities. Our neighborhood is a diverse dwelling of different races, ethnicities, religious beliefs and most everything else you would expect of a suburban community located between the cities of Baltimore and Washington D.C. There aren’t separate water fountains and everyone is free to sit where they like on the city busses. So clearly things have improved from the not-to-distant days of the past when racial segregation was legal in America.

For that reason and for good reason, we observe January 19th as Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” 

- Martin Luther King Jr.

But we would be foolish to believe that dream has been fully realized.

On The Other Side of the Tracks

The neighborhood I live in is also on the decline. It’s a neighborhood where some of the homes are designated as Section 8 housing. That means the increase of lower-income residents, which are more likely to be minorities, and the perceived increase of other social problems such as drugs and crime typically associated with lower-income neighborhoods. Yet I distinctly remember a Christian advising me to pick a different neighborhood to live in, one that wasn’t like “the hood.”

In fact, this is not the first time I have had a Christian offer me advice on where to live based on the conditions and social make-up of the neighborhood. I once had a Christian tell me I should avoid living in an area of town literally on the other side of the railroad tracks that had a lot of Muslim immigrants. When I lived in Memphis, in a neighborhood with its share of challenges, there were several occasions when a Christian questioned my wisdom about where my family and I lived.

None of these Christians are bad people. There not white supremacists or anything like that. They believe in civil rights for everyone and they will gladly volunteer serving meals to the homeless, organizing school supplies for students in need, giving to local charitable organizations, and even helping their church with its benevolent ministries. But then they go back home where it’s nice, quiet, and above all, safe.

Happy to Help, As Long As…

I am writing this because every Christian I know believes in loving others and believes in helping those in need, like the poor. Yet this help is often done at a distance, socially and physically, that we, who are the privileged control. Roberto S. Goizueto writes in his book Caminemos Con Jesús,* “As a society, we are happy to help and serve the poor, as long as we don’t have to walk with them where they walk, that is, as long as we can minister to them from our safe enclosures. The poor can then remain passive object of our actions, rather than friends, compañeros and compañeras with whom we interact” (p. 199). Do we see the problem?

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; ‘and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.'”

- Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King spoke of a dream that had to do with human equality. Certainly our society closer to realizing that dream than it was back on that August day in 1963 when Dr. King spoke of this dream. Yet full realization of the dream destination awaits. Ultimately redemption awaits the return of Jesus who will come and make everything new (cf. Rev 21:5). Yet we, who are the church and already share in this newness of life, are to live as a portrayal what this future hope is life among the present. But this requires more than just ministry to those who have less, little, or none, who don’t live in the nicest or the safest neighborhoods, who may exasperate their struggles with their own poor choices, who may for now only know how to depend on the government for welfare and other social-services… This is a call to walk among them!

Changing the Conversation

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not sure what all of that should entail at the most concrete level, where the rubber meets the road. I also know that I talk a better game than I play. However, I also know that as Christians we believe God loved us by becoming one of us… becoming flesh in person of Jesus and dwelling among us. So for us to truly care about helping those living in various degrees of poverty, loving them as neighbors just like God has loves, then we must learn how to dwell among them.

One way of dwelling among such people involves changing the way we go about deciding where we will live. Let’s have a different conversation about where we should live. Instead of prioritizing safety, quietness, and convenience when we buy or rent homes, we move where we can participate in the mission of God as dwellers among the people we are called to serve. That begins with prayer and discernment regarding how and where God is calling us to live on mission with him and then we trust God as we obey his leading. Instead of flinching at a neighborhood because it suffers socially, we ask God if this is where he is leading us and how he wants us to serve.

Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. It’s a dream that I believe is anchored in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Let’s live the dream.

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* “Let us walk with Jesus”

When Someone Dies

The news this past Sunday that Stuart Scott, a veteran journalist and ESPN sports commentator, passed away after a long battle with cancer is a reminder of how shocking and terrible death is. Scott was still a young man, only 49 years old, with plenty of life left to live. More importantly, he was a father to two young daughters who are now left to live life without their father.

Death is never easy but it is something everyone of us will experience and not just our own death or the death of someone very close to us. Everyone of us will eventually have a friend, co-worker, etc… who receives the heartbreaking news that someone they love dearly has died.

Real time! What do we do? There are not any trial runs for this. What we do next, how we respond is what we will do for better or worse. I’m saying this because in my experience many people still struggle with what to do when someone they know is now faced with this grief and suffering.

I don’t want to diminish the loss of any life but it is one thing when we are talking about the death of someone in their 80’s or 90’s who has lived a great life. While their is still grief for the family and friends of that person, there is reason for celebration too. Maybe their death is a relief in some way since at an elderly age, death likely means the individual is no longer suffering from ill heath. But when we are talking about the death of someone younger, such as the death of a child or the death of someone leaving behind young children (as in Stuart Scott’s case), there is only sadness, grief, and suffering.

There are some things that we can do that will help others through the process of grief:

  1. Say “I’m sorry!” Don’t say anything else. That is, don’t try to explain it, theologize it, or mitigate it with words. That will not work. There is nothing that we can say that will make the loss of a loved one any easier except by saying, “I’m sorry!” By saying this, you are letting your friend know that you sympathize with them and believe me, that means more than it may seem.
  2. Give time! I don’t really like the phrase “Time heals all wounds” because I’m don’t think it is true. Nobody “gets over” the loss of someone they love. However, people can learn to live with the grief and pain of someone’s death but that take time… a lot of time. It has been 12 ½ years since the death of my son and eleven years since the death of my younger brother. Both losses still hurt. But I have learned to live with each loss, which took time as in years. Don’t force those who have suffered a loss to get over it but allow them the time to learn how to live with the loss. It’s a process that may involve counseling at some point or participation in a support group but regardless, it’s a process that requires time and time that cannot be regulated by us.
  3. Remember! Throughout the process of grief there will be certain days that are harder than the others… the birthday of those who are lost, the anniversary of their death, holidays. Can you imagine what the next Father’s Day will be like for Stuart Scott’s children? Thanksgiving? Christmas? A simple phone-call or a card says “We remember!” And this is not just about remembering the person who died but remembering the people who still grieving in pain.
  4. Say a prayer! As a believer, I believe in prayer and so I believe it is important that we remember to pray for those who are suffering the loss of someone they love. There is always the question of if and when do we pray with them and ask them if we can pray for them. It’s a good question but there isn’t any right or wrong answer except to say that through our friendship and experience, we’ll gain the wisdom necessary to answer that question.