Category Archives: Missions and Ministry

What If Our Churches…?

Maybe it’s time to admit that we’re broken! As Christians, we live in a culture that appears increasingly secular and uninterested in the gospel our churches have to offer… and maybe we just don’t have as much of that gospel to offer as we would like to believe.

Yesterday I posted an article titled Reasons Why Your Church Isn’t… It was a response to an article titled Why Church Members Don’t Invite Others to Church in which the Christians involved in the study seemed to cast blame on their church as to why they’re not participating. My post was intended to counter that blame because it is easy for Christians who are not involved in the ministry of their church to just place the blame on their church, when in fact they are part of the problem.

But the truth is that yesterday’s post does little to nothing in terms of offering a better way forward. So it’s time to shift the conversation back to Jesus.

A Different Way!

Do we know how to follow Jesus? Learning to follow Jesus is where we need to begin. After all, it is the invitation Jesus extends us. After commanding us to “repent and believe the gospel,” he invites us to embrace the challenge of being his disciple saying, “Follow me…” (Mk. 1:14, 17).

Now we can point the blame at each other for the problems facing our churches. Church leaders, like myself, can say it’s the fault of members who want to just sit in worship as consumers attempting to feed an appetite that will never be satisfied. Likewise, church members can blame the leadership for the lack of vision and courage as they keep trying to pour new wine into old wineskins in order to avoid upsetting the status quo too much. Ministers can blame the elders, who blame the deacons, who blame the ministers… and round and round we go.

But really, what good is blaming one another doing? I don’t recall reading any “one another” passages in the Bible that says we should blame one another.

Perhaps what we need is to take a step or two back and ask ourselves what does it mean to follow Jesus? What would it look like if we followed Jesus together? What would it look like if we change our expectations (repent) of what the entire church stuff is supposed to be and live with anticipation (believe) of seeing God at work (the kingdom of God at hand) as we follow Jesus together? What kind of activities would we then do together? What sort of things would we need to let go of in order to follow Jesus again?

A Place For Lepers

One of my favorite Jesus stories is the one told in Mark 1:40-45. It’s a story about Jesus and a leper whom Jesus heals. But it’s so much more.*

A Kingdom Story!

ImageLet’s think about the context a bit more. As already mentioned, this story occurs early on in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus has already appeared in the Galilean region proclaiming the good news (gospel) of the kingdom of God. This is a declaration that the reign of God has started breaking forth upon history and that people should change (repentance) everything about their expectations of what this means and accept (believe) what they hear and see, which is Jesus preaching and teaching with authority as well as healing the sick and driving out demons.

That all sounds good but it makes even more sense why this was called “good new” when we read of Jesus’ encounter with this leper. This leper approached Jesus and said to him, “If you are willing, you can make me clean” (v. 40). Take notice that the leper did not ask about the ability of Jesus to make him clean. He already believed Jesus had that ability. What he questions was Jesus’ willingness and that is apparently because Jesus’ religious contemporaries were unwilling to help this leper at all.

But Jesus was… Jesus is!

Here is what happens. The text says, “Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched our his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I am will. Be clean!'” (v. 42). I suppose Jesus simply could have spoken and cured this leper of his disease but that’s not what Jesus did. Moved by compassion, Jesus treated this leper as a human being by touching him. He didn’t have to but he did because restoring a sense of value and dignity to this leper was that important. That’s because this is what it looks like when the kingdom of God is at hand.

Moved With Compassion…

Now here’s the caveat… In chapter one of the Gospel of Mark, as Jesus proclaims the good news of the kingdom of God, he calls us to follow him. And we say “Yes! We will follow Jesus.” But even as we say yes, I wonder how many people there are around us who are crying out to Jesus saying, “If you are willing…” The encounter Jesus has with this leper teaches us something very important to following Jesus. If we want the people in our community to believe in the good news then just as Jesus was, we had better be the people who are moved with compassion when they cry out to God. Whether we encounter an actual leper or just someone who has become a societal leper because of their present life circumstances, we dare not be the religious people who turn a deaf ear to their cries.

A lot of energy is spent these days on the declining influence of Christianity in the western world. I have a strong feeling that everything will be just fine so long as churches learn to follow Jesus and become a place for lepers, reaching out and touching them with the compassionate hand of Jesus!

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* This post is my contribution to the Compadres Blog Tour.

Leadership for a Struggling Church

This Sunday I am beginning a new message series with the Columbia Church of Christ titled Leadership in the Local Church. Beyond the need for understanding local church leadership, this series should help the move forward rather than becoming complacent with things as are. But given some of the questions about church leadership that I have encountered as a minister, I want to say a few words about the issue and what a struggling church needs in terms of leadership.

Church and Leadership?

For some time the subject of church leadership has been all the rage among evangelical churches. Some might say the issue has become an obsession among certain pastors. The interest has yielded both a plethora of books on the subject as well as numerous conferences. Though I am painting with a very broad stroke here, much of the conversation has focused on incorporating insights and the practices of corporate business models. The pastor or minister became the “Senior Minister” acting as the church CEO with associate ministers and assistants carrying out specific ministry responsibilities (functioning as support staff) and a board of elders providing administrative oversight (functioning like a board of directors). While the Churches of Christ have not taken this approach as far as some other evangelical churches have, the corporate business model has  increasingly become operative to carrying degrees.

In the last few years as the missional church conversation gained more traction, there has been some push back on the obsession with church leadership. To a certain extent, this has been necessary. If we take the scriptures seriously in the way we think about church, then our construal of church leadership is amiss when corporate business models–rather than the gospel–define what local church leadership is. Some seem to be pushing back even more, suggesting that talk about leadership altogether is wrong. However, in my view, that is too much of an over-reaction. The local church is always an organization or people brought together by God for life and mission and like any organization of people, a local church community needs leadership.

What Sort of Leadership?

The question is what sort of leadership is necessary for a local church? This is part of the question I hope to begin answering in this message series on church leadership. Yet, I want to say up front that the sort of leadership needed is above all mission-oriented and Christ-formed. Church leadership is necessary so  that the local church may live as a participants in the mission of God and this requires that leadership functions in the way of the crucified Christ who came to serve, rather than be served. Leadership is about being present with people showing them by example and service how to journey on mission with God. So even as we read key texts from scripture on the responsibilities of ministers, elders, etc…, we read through the lens of the gospel itself.

Yet there is more we must consider when asking about the sort of leadership necessary for a local church. That is because every local church is set within its own context and therefore the form of leadership must fit within the context we find ourselves in. When it comes to form, all local leadership is contextual leadership. One size does not fit all and having the “biblical” form (the form of church leadership in the New Testament is far from monolithic) does not automatically translate into a healthy functioning leadership. The struggling (and often smaller) churches today must remember that they are neither the church in Ephesus or Crete that Paul had in mind when writing the Pastoral Epistles to Timothy and Titus nor are they the latest and most trendiest mega-church. All churches must take their own context into consideration as they think through leadership issues.

Where To Begin

Having said all that, thinking constructively about leadership in the local church begins by taking the scriptures seriously as well as taking serious the mission of God and the life we are called to follow Christ in. But the aim should not be the reduplication of the form per se of any church in the first century, sixteenth century, or twenty-first century. Instead the interest is helping construct leadership that contextually fits with the church in its own context so that it may live as a participant in the mission of God, wherever that may lead.

Discernment and Mission: Seeing Beyond Our Own Church

“But the word of God kept on increasing and multiplying.” – Acts 12:24 (NET)

Many commentators treat this statement simply as a summary of what’s going on among this early movement of Jesus followers. While it’s entirely appropriate to this passage as a summation, we miss a lot if we limit this text to mere rhetorical strategy. Regarding v. 24, Luke Timothy Johnson says, “it is also a triumphant assertion of the movement’s growth despite the attempts of a tyrant to suppress it through the harassment of its leaders” (The Acts of the Apostles, p. 216). Therein is a clue regarding what ought to challenge every church’s understanding of what participation in the mission of God may involve.

Baptisms and Bible-Studies

Let’s first take a few steps back and think about church and mission. I think it’s fair to say that when it comes to the church and the mission of God, there’s a lot of for the spectacular occasions. For example, in the book of Acts, churches love to talk about chapter two where the Spirit is poured out and 3,000 plus people are baptized upon hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ preached. The same is true for chapter eight where an Ethiopian eunuch is baptized after basically asking Philip to study the Bible with him.

Churches love stories like these and would love for them to be the stories of their churches. That’s why churches talk about their yearly number of baptism or about the evangelistic Bible studies taking place, as if the number of baptisms and evangelistic Bible studies are the sure marks of a good church (don’t get me wrong here, I’m all for baptisms and evangelistic Bible studies). However, turn to Acts chapter twelve and we won’t find any spectacular stories of baptisms and evangelistic Bible studies. What we find is a church struggling in turmoil and this is where churches today must pay attention because, as I’m suggesting, they can learn a lot about what participation in the mission of God may involve.

A Theological Conundrum and Persecution

At this point in the book of Acts, its somewhere between 41-44 CE during the reign of Herod Agrippa and the church is facing a lot of challenges. First, Peter has already baptized Conelius and his household (ch. 10). The baptism of Gentiles has now thrusted a theological conundrum upon the church that results initially in a counsel (ch. 11) but one in which the church, through the ministry of Paul, will wrestle with for the next several decades. Second, Herod has begun persecuting the church, having James executed and Peter arrested (presumably to suffer the same fate as James).

While Peter is rescued from his imprisonment by an angel of the Lord, the church doesn’t know this. So when Peter returns to his church gathered at the house of Mary where, according to v. 12, “many people had gathered and we praying” (churches brag about baptisms but how often do they brag about gathering for prayer?). Peter, who already realized it was the Lord that rescued him from prison, tells the church that it was the work of God. Then we are told about Herod’s death (which also is the work of God), which says something about the continued unstable political climate the church lived within. But… With all these challenges facing the church, “the word of God kept on increasing and multiplying” (NET).

Seeing Beyond Our Church

Why did the word of God, the gospel of Jesus Christ, keep increasing and multiplying? This is, after all, what matters. The answer is none other than God. God was at work and this early Jesus movement believed so, which is why they continued faithfully following Jesus even when the difficulty of their circumstances escalated. If more churches would understand that the multiplication of the gospel is the work of God then they might also understand the futility and unnecessary need for the utilitarian thinking that undergirds many books on ministry. The increase of God’s word is the work of God that happens through the faithfulness of the church and not through turning this multiplication into an end that justifies whatever means gets the job done. This is not to say that churches should cease casting vision and planning for ministry. Rather, vision and planning for ministry must begin with the question of discerning: how must the church live faithfully as participants in the mission of God within the current circumstances?

As I suggested earlier, Churches love to talk about the mission of God when it involves preaching, a lot of evangelistic Bible studies, and especially a lot of baptisms. More importantly, Churches love the mission of God when it means church growth with lots of people joining their church. But… That is not how God always works. Sometimes God is taking that large church gathering in Jerusalem and scattering it though out the region (cf. Acts 8:1-3) so that the word of God may keep on “increasing and multiplying.” Sometimes God simply needs the church to gather for prayer and fasting so that Barnabas and Saul can be sent off as missionaries to serve somewhere else (cf. Acts 13:1-3) so that the word of God may keep on “increasing and multiplying.” Sometimes a church’s best vision and planning for future ministry is not how God is working. Sometimes the vision for growth and new ministry Churches have for their church is not how God is working. And let’s be clear… The mission of God is about the increase and of God’s word, not the increase of their church or our church per se.

The question is then, are churches willing to participate in the mission of God even if it means faithfully walking down a path different than it envisioned? The answer to this question takes discernment but the story here in Acts is inviting and challenging churches today to see beyond the realm of their own church so that they may fully live as participants in the mission of God.

 

Compadres Blog Tour!

Compadres BlogI belong to a Facebook group called Compadres which is made up of Christian ministry leaders, most of whom serve on staff with a local church. Like myself, many of these men and women are bloggers. So this summer, beginning June 3rd, we are doing a “Compadres Blog Tour” writing about the glory of Jesus Christ, with each participant writing a different post on the sayings and stories of Jesus Christ.

I’ll be posting links to the different blog posts here as they go live. Look for the picture to your left, which will be included with the different posts. I think you’ll enjoy reading these post because the people writing them have a deep love for God and his mission who are committed to faithfully serving Jesus Christ and his church in a gracious manner.

If you like what you’re reading – I hope you will and expect you will – then please feel free to share the link… and feel free to leave a comment. I have enjoyed blogging and have enjoyed reading many blogs, learning from the bloggers and commenters through my reading and interacting, so here’s to some more enjoyment and learning for all of us!

Community, Sexuality, and Redemption

“I thank you God that I was not born a Gentile, a slave, or a woman!” That was the ancient daybreak prayer that Jewish men recited. So what a radical vision it must have been to hear that a day was coming when the Lord would pour out his Spirit upon all people in this oracle from Joel 2:28-32.

For a better understanding of this passage within it’s historical context, I suggest this post by John Mark Hicks. The significance of this oracle cannot be underestimated. Biology, sociology, and nationality matter not, for as is has been declared, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” In fact, the apostle Peter will even recite this entire oracle in Acts 2 to declare the outpouring of the Spirit as the sign that the promise of the Lord’s redemptive grace has been fulfilled in Jesus and is available to all. So we cannot underestimate the redemptive significance of God pouring out his Spirit upon all people. It is the declaration that all people matter to God, not just the Jewish male. All people are invited to share in the new Spirit-empowered community that God has created in Christ, for all people are equal.

It’s very important that we remember this is for all people. To that end, we’re on solid ground saying that one’s race, ethnicity, social-standing, and even sexual identity matter not because all are equal, all are welcome! But it is this last point – sexual identity – that needs further explanation. I still hold the conviction that same-sex relationships are not the will of God for our lives but I don’t believe that a people should be unwelcome in this new community because they identify as gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, or trans-gender. That is because we all, regardless of our sexual identity, come as equals… We’re all sinners!

All Are Equal ✟ All Are Welcome

Regardless of our sin, we come in response to an invitation that God has extended in Jesus Christ who offers us salvation. However, this salvation is a lifetime journey. To borrow the language of Paul, salvation is justification, sanctification, and glorification. What God is doing is inviting us into a new community that belongs to Christ where we have been justified, are being sanctified, and will be glorified. But justification, sanctification, and glorification are not requirements for accepting this invitation from God, they are the results–more precisely, the result of God’s finished work of redemption.

Let me express what I’m saying another way. When God has completed his work of redemption, when Christ comes again, when heaven and earth again become one and God dwells among people (cf. Rev 21:1-4), I fully expect that there will be people who have struggled with sexuality, including people who struggled with same-sex attraction all their life. I expect this just as much as as I expect that there will be others who have struggled with addictions to drugs and alcohol, or with anger and hatred towards people of other races, or with selfish and greedy desires, or with with being honest and ethical in their business practices, and so on. We all are sinners and we all still struggle with sin in one form or another. Throughout our journey we confess our sins to God and cling to Christ as our only hope of salvation, a hope the Sprit dwelling among us assures us of.

In the words of the African-American spiritual, when Christ returns the entire new community of God’s people will have one common testimony, “I once was lost in sin but Jesus took me in…” What we need to learn how to do now is become as welcoming and inviting as God has been to us and is to all people. Then we’ll be a community where sinners just like us can discover the grace of God, find healing from any injury and be transformed by God the mercies of God which are new every morning.

Preaching Christ!

I’m a preacher, so call me biased but I believe there’s a need for preaching in the church regardless of the logistics involved. I don’t believe that preaching alone is sufficient for making disciples of Christ but I do believe preaching necessary for the purpose of forming Christ in us. The question is then what kind of preaching fosters the formation of Christ in us?

Last week I was asked to speak to some other preachers on this very question. So some of what follows is condensed version of what I said.

We’ll begin with the assumption that preaching must be based upon the scriptures and faithful to what the scriptures say. But is that all? Certainly not! Preaching must always proclaim Christ!

One of the first professors I ever had at Harding University, Dr. Dan Stockstill, used to say, “What we win them with is what we win them too.” In twelve years of ministry, I’ve seen nothing to suggest he was wrong. I remember a man who wanted me to know that his church was the only right church because they read from the King James Version only and interpreted the apocalyptic passages from Daniel and Revelation correctly. He obviously seemed won to his particular dogma or hobby-horse rather than Christ because that is what animated him, what he wanted to talk about and convert me to. We have to remember that if we are going to make disciples of Christ and expect preaching to foster the formation of Christ then our preaching must proclaim Christ!

The goal here is the proclamation of Christ so that God may call his people into the life of Christ as participants of the story Christ reveals to us which is the redemptive mission of God. There’s a lot there and it seems like a tall order to fill because it is. However, here are two criterions which I believe can help maintain preaching as the proclamation of Christ requires:

  1. Gospel-Centered. According to 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, the gospel is of “first importance” because it is about the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ “according to the scriptures.” That is to say, the gospel belongs to the story of which the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ is the climax. Gospel-centered preaching always connects the text to this larger story in light of Christ himself and the life he lives. Gospel-centered preaching is always rooted in this story so that it may point us toward our role and responsibility within this story as we become a living embodiment of all that the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ is. And yes, it’s an ongoing endeavor.
  2. Grace-Oriented. According to Titus 2:11-14, it is the grace of God that teaches people to say “No” to sin and live godly lives filled with hope and eager to do good works. Fear may temporarily motivate us to renounce sin and pursue righteousness but fear only works so long as fear continually employed. Further more, fear does not develop maturity where we learn to live as participants in the gospel story because it’s what we believe in and what we desire in our hearts. right themselves simply because it pleases God. Grace oriented preaching always remind us that it is God at work, who is bringing this story we are participants of to its final conclusion (telos). It is grace-oriented preaching that helps us learn to follow Jesus further into the gospel story as we trust him and obey him; obedience is always a response to the grace of God, not a condition.

It’s not always easy to preach Christ as I have described here. I’m still learning how to do it consistently but I believe such preaching is ever so needed in churches today. I’ll end by recommending one book that I believe is very helpful in helping us learn preach Christ as I have in mind here: John W. Wright, Telling God’s Story: Narrative Preaching for Christian Formation, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007.

The Church, Remembering and Hoping

Since it’s Friday and all of our minds are so full of energy, chew on this quote from Jürgen Moltmann’s book, The Church in the Power of the Spirit:

“In the light of the eschatological person of Christ, the church does not live from the past; it exists as a factor of present liberation, between remembrance of his history and hope of his kingdom. …It the eschatological orientation is lost, then remembrance decays into a powerless historical recollection of a founder at the beginning of things. The church can then itself take the place of hope, setting itself up as the prolongation of his former incarnation, and the aim of its growth as being his parousia. If, on the other hand, the christological remembrance is lost, then the church is filled by other hopes, visions and aims, taken over from non-Christian movements, or Pentecost pushes out Easter, and new experiences of the Spirit push out Christ” (p. 75).

Your thoughts? 3… 2… 1… Go!

N.T. Wright on Gospel and Mission

Recently N.T. Wright lectured at Oklahoma Christian University. Below is a YouTube video of one of those lectures, probably a “chapel sermon,” on the relationship between gospel and mission, the vocational challenge we have as followers of Jesus. I believe you will really be encouraged and challenged by what you here, so do yourself a favor and listen.

A Good Minister of Christ Jesus

When I was a student at Harding University, I belonged to the “Timothy Club.” [1] This was a group for those preparing to serve as ministers of the gospel named after the Apostle Paul’s protégé Timothy. The club provided further encouragement and mentoring for ministry students beyond the college classroom. And all of these students, including myself, believed God had called us to serve as ministers and was preparing us for that task so that he may send us out. [2]

Leaders Among the Church

Paul wrote Timothy saying, “If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching you have followed” (1 Tim 4:6). Space will not permit much analysis of what “these things” are. However, the passage hints at the great responsibility Paul expected of Timothy and under different yet similar circumstances, I believe Paul expected the same of Titus.

Whether we call them ministers, evangelists, or else, the work of Timothy and Titus was a continuation of what Paul began in helping establish the churches in Ephesus and Crete.  From a cursory reading of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, this ministry involved preaching and teaching as well as administrative work, all for the purpose of building up the churches as God’s holy people. For example, when it came to addressing the concerns of widows, Paul told Timothy to “Give these commands” [2] to the church (cf. 1 Tim 5:7, NRSV).

As a minister of Christ Jesus, this responsibility comes from Jesus himself. While all good ministry involves communal discernment, it is not a responsibility subject to the church’s approval but for the sake of the church — so that the church may continue participation in the mission of God. Both Timothy and Titus were sent as leaders among the church… not the only leaders, as they were to appoint elders and deacons (cf. 1 Tim 3:1-13; Tit 1:5-9), but leaders nonetheless.

The Need for Ministers

Churches today find themselves among a drastically different historical context and sometimes facing very different issues. Nevertheless, even though the circumstances are different, churches still need a minister of the gospel like Ephesus and Crete needed Timothy and Titus. Churches need ministers who spend time drinking from the deep well of God’s word so that they may preach and teach the scriptures, always pointing the church in the way of Jesus. Likewise, churches need these ministers acting administratively so that God’s people may, as followers of Jesus, increasingly become living expressions of the scriptures.

Whether a minister serves in the role of a “lead” or “senior” minister or in other specialized roles, such as a“youth” or “children’s” minister, they serve with the church as ministers called and sent by God to the church. Whatever fiscal arrangements are made for supporting a minister, these provisions should not bear upon the minister’s spiritual responsibility. This is not to suggest that there are never circumstances in which a minister has lost the ability to serve but to say that a minister’s service should not be reduced to employment.

Like elders, deacons, and even the church, ministers are not perfect. However, a good minister, one who understands the responsibility as working for God, has spent years learning and continues learning. Like Timothy, a good minister nourishes “on the truths of the faith” and has a good sense regarding what is necessary for building the church up. Likewise, a good minister is not defined by the approval of the church but whether or not that minister remains committed to that “good teaching” from the word of God.

A Final Word

There is so much more to say about the responsibility of a minister. However, in closing this essay, remember Paul’s encouragement to Timothy saying, “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God…” (2 Tim 2:6). The greatest service a minister can offer the church is to do just this.

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  1. This post is dedicated to my fellow Compadres (you know who you are), who serve God and the church as ministers of the gospel. Keep up the great work!
  2. A similar article is published as the same title in Connecting 29 (March 20, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ.
  3. The word paraggellō involves making an announcement and is an expression used throughout the New Testament in an authoritative sense, see Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3d ed., rev. Frederick William Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 760.