Category Archives: Missions and Ministry

For Ministers: Serving With An Assumption of Grace

Every Christian is a human, including elders and ministers. All are redeemed but all are still being refined and made into the image of Christ.

With that being said, let’s acknowledge that there are some very bad elders just as there are some very bad ministers. I’m talking about people who are very unethical and even malicious in their treatment of others. However, in my experience, this is the exception rather than the norm.

In fact, in my experience, most church leaders mean well and intend to do well. However, like everyone else, every church leader has faults and weaknesses too. That includes me too. Realizing this has become very freeing because it has allowed me to forgive and move on. I’ve learned to minister with an assumption of grace towards others, including other church leaders. That is, I don’t expect other church leaders (e.g., elders) to be Jesus, I expect them to be themselves and I have already forgiven them for that. I hope they will forgive me for being myself too.

This is freeing as it allows me, as a minister and church leader, to serve my church with grace because I know that I am in as much need of grace as they are. Yes… our churches will disappoint us from time to time. But as difficult as the disappoint will be at times, learning to minister with an assumption of grace will allow us to serve with joy even in the difficult moments.

May the grace of God in Christ and in the power of the Spirit be upon us all!

Will You Vote Today?

I’m currently preaching through the book of First Peter and I have been reading through Miroslav Volf’s book Captive to the Word of God (hereafter CWG). Between these two endeavors and reading through some social-media feeds yesterday on Election Day got me thinking about Christians and voting. So let me ask this question: If you are a Christian, will you vote today? Will you vote tomorrow, the next day, and the day after that?

Maybe this seems like a silly question to ask since yesterday was Election Day in America. But if you are a Christian, a follower of Jesus who belongs to his church, then every day is an election day. The only question is how you will vote.

The Christian Distinction

According to the Apostle Peter, Christians belong to a different reality than the rest of society. It is a reality received through the new birth (cf. 1 Pet 1:3) that marks the church off as a distinct priesthood and nation who reside as aliens and exiles among the rest of society (cf. 1 Pet 2:5, 9, 11). The distance between Christians and the rest of society is neither one of isolation or assimilation but one with “a presupposition of mission” (CWG, p. 82-83).

This mission, the mission of God, becomes the duty of the church and therefore every Christian. The duty is not to make America or any other nation a better nation. Rather, the business of every Christian is to live in such a manner that the gospel of Jesus Christ is clearly made manifest in the life of the church. While this business may at times share similar interests with America and the many other nations of this world, it may also set the church at odds with the nations, including America, just as it did for the church living among the Roman Empire. That is to say that sometimes living as faithful followers of Jesus Christ will make the church appear as terrible national citizens. And that’s okay! After all, Christians are foreigners among society.

Christian Voting

By participating in the mission of God, the church is called to a distinct way of living. This living has to do with conduct and it involves no longer conforming to the former ways of living before receiving the new birth but instead living as the holy people of God (cf. 1 Pet 1:14-16). The letter of First Peter spells out what some of this conduct involves from a concrete standpoint in regards to practice. But what the conduct does, as Volf points out, is allow mission to take on the form of “witness and invitation” (CWG, p. 84). That is, instead of trying to make the world of this age a better place, the Christian duty of participating in the mission of God through faithful living testifies to what the age to come looks like (which has already appeared in Christ) and calls those of this age to become a part of the age to come.

In essence, to be a Christian and to belong to the church of Jesus Christ means daily voting. Regardless of whether Christians should vote or not state elections, the church is called to cast a vote for the gospel of Jesus Christ on a daily basis. So everyday the church will vote for what it believes is the way, the truth, and the life by the manner in which every Christian lives his or her life. The real question then is not “will you vote today” but “what will you vote for today?” Will the conduct of the church cast a vote for the way of Jesus and the age to come or will the vote be for this present age?

I dare say that when the primary concern of Christians is making the nations of this world better nations, the vote that is casted is a vote for this age. It’s a vote for something that will not last, no matter how good it seems. But there is a kingdom that will stand forever. May the church of Jesus Christ learn to discern wisely and vote wisely!

For The Imperfect Churches

One of the metaphors for a church is family, namely the family of God. Thus Christians often refer to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. I used to think that sounded pretty archaic but these days it seems like churches need to recover a more robust sense of being family.

Family-Church

I love the large worship gatherings of the church, whether it’s fifty or so people gathered in a small chapel or a thousand plus people gathered in a theatre of sorts. Yet if that’s the extent of our life together as a church then there is something deeply wrong. Nobody can read the scripture honestly and come away believing that church life is just a cooperate worship gathering, usually on Sunday mornings. However, reading scripture will confirm what we already know based upon our own experience: family life can be crazy . . . sometimes very difficult.

The Corinthian church is an easy example because they had so much wrong but there example also gives us hope. For all the problems, all the doctrinal error, sin, and dysfunction among the Christians in Corinth (and there was a lot), Paul still wrote saying,

to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, and called to be saints, with all those in every place who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours. Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! – 1 Cor 1:2-3.

Yes it’s just a greeting but it’s wasn’t necessary. Paul certainly didn’t offer the such a greeting when he wrote to the church in Galatia (cf. Gal 1:1-4). So the fact that Paul could still see the Corinthians through the grace of God is, I believe, good news for a many of churches today.

Most churches today are not that large vibrant and growing community with opportunities bursting forth, led by a group of dynamic shepherds and talented ministry staff. And if you’re reading this blog, the chances are that you don’t belong to one of those churches either. This is not to say that your church is bad or that the leadership of your church is a failure. Nor am I trying to mitigate the problems that exist, which must be courageously addressed by the leaders of the church. It’s simply to say that most churches are like the churches we read of in scripture, churches with problems. So maybe the place to start is by reading Paul’s greeting to the Corinthian church as a greeting to your church.

I plan to follow this post up with another post on the Lord’s Supper and family life as a church because I believe the Lord’s Supper is a remedy to many of nagging conflictual issues a lot of churches lives with. However, I wanted to begin with Paul’s greeting to the Corinthian church because I believe there are many less-than-the-ideal churches that need to hear that they are still the church, sanctified believers, living in the grace and peace of God.

Because Jesus Says “Come!”

I don’t know what it would be like to walk on water as Peter did but according to the story, doing so led Peter to Jesus. Well, that was until he became afraid and took his eyes off of Jesus. That’s when he stopped walking on the water and began sinking. You can read the entire story of Peter in Matthew 14:22-36.*

Stepping Into The Chaos

Most people who remember the story do so thinking of Jesus. But we shouldn’t forget about Peter because in many ways we are Peter. We here Jesus say “Come!” and that means we must step out of the boat and walk. But stepping out of the boat is scary business because to do so means stepping out and on to the sea, the great symbol of chaos throughout the Bible.

Chaos is difficult and frankly, nobody wants it or needs it. Not I. Not you. The boat is a much safer place. Though it may be surrounded by chaos as it sails on the sea, staying in the boat gives us the illusion that everything is ok and will be ok. Whatever danger staying in the boat may pose, it seems manageable. Faith is unnecessary, we just need to keep sailing until we reach the shore. The only problem is that Jesus isn’t standing on the shore . . . he’s walking on the water, telling us to get out of the boat and come to him.

Peter did the right thing when Jesus called. He got out of the boat and with his eyes fixed on Jesus, he began walking on the water towards Jesus. What got Peter into trouble was taking his eyes off Jesus. That’s when he began sinking. Yet even in sinking, he still did the right thing. That is, he still reached out to Jesus.

Perhaps we would do the same when we feel ourselves sinking in the chaos. But I also know that the boat remains a few yards away. So we might just try swimming back to the boat, thinking that if we can just get back to the boat and get control of the situation ourselves − or at least get things back to manageable situation − then everything will be okay.

It won’t! Jesus isn’t there. Jesus is out on the water bidding us to come join him. Peter did. Even cowering in faith, he reached out to Jesus. And Jesus saved him and sent on to become a founding apostolic witness for this kingdom of God movement that has now gone global.

But Peter never got back into that boat!

Eyes Upon Jesus!

Of course, I’m not really talking about a boat! I’m talking about the church. Your church. My church. Our church.

Jesus is calling but to step on the water and go to him, we have to step out of the boat and that is full of risk. Yet the boat, as we know it, appears safe. It’s surely more convenient. It appears more manageable, as we know how to row this boat because we’ve done it for some time. And if we step out on to the water and find ourselves sinking in the chaos, which seems normal, the temptation is to swim back to the boat, grabbing for a life-preserver, a boat oar, or anything else to feel safe again. But doing so loses focus on Jesus because he isn’t sitting in the boat . . . he’s out walking on the water.

So keep our eyes focused on Jesus and we’ll walk on water, joining Jesus and following him in this Kingdom journey. Just like Peter did . . . who never got back in that boat!

——————–

* This article was originally published in Connecting 29 (October 15, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ, and has been reformatted for this blog.

Genuine Dedication to the Lord

It’s Thursday morning here at Northern Seminary. My mind is already tired but at the same time my heart is filled with joy. It’s so wonderful to be around pastors from a variety of Christian traditions who simply want to follow Jesus and help others to do the same.*

As expected, we are engaging in some very rich and challenging conversations about the kingdom, church, and the mission of God. The teacher is Scot McKnight, who is a prolific evangelical New Testament scholar who writes for the church rather than academia. That’s something I appreciate.

The class itself is enriching our understanding of scripture as it speaks to the church in relation to the kingdom and mission of God. Simply put, we cannot read scripture and ignore the role of the church in the mission of God. The body of Christ is called to witness, to declare through word and deed the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s not a call just for a certain group of Christians, such as pastors or missionaries, but for every Christian to live as disciples embodying the way of Jesus as our way. That is our witness… our calling!

Yet as I think about this calling and I think of so many local churches who are struggling in this calling, I am drawn to the words of Jeremiah. This prophet of Israel speaks at a time when the people of God were losing their way and had forgotten their calling. As Jeremiah speaks the oracles of the Lord, one line stands out where the prophet reports the Lord says, “…you must genuinely dedicate yourselves to the Lord and get rid of everything that hinders your commitment to me, people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem” (Jer 4:4, NET).

Churches, including our own, and every Christian must take notice of this language. Ministers, like myself, and other church leaders must take notice of this language. It’s so easy to just go through the motions, show up for a church service on Sunday but never give our all. It’s an epic failure that may never be realized until it’s too late. So Jeremiah implores to “genuinely dedicate” our lives to the Lord, letting go of everything that impedes such dedication.

In other words, half-hearted commitments will not do! Our faith, our calling and commitment is not a part-time gig.

For Israel, what hindered commitment was idolatry. Today idolatry takes the form of time, work, safety, family, nation, etc… Maybe we’re too busy with work to live our lives in true fellowship with each other, loving one another as we bear each others burdens. Or maybe our prophetic witness to the world has been silenced because we have become preoccupied with exalting the nation. Whatever the case, idols hinder commitment to the Lord who calls us to be the church living as a community bearing witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Missional renewal happens when there is total commitment. The lack of total commitment is what led to Israel’s downfall and it is this same lack of total commitment that leads to the downfall of local churches.

So let’s meditate on the words of Jeremiah the prophet and ask ourselves: What must we get rid of so that we can totally commit ourselves to the Lord?

——————–

* With few changes, this article was originally published in Connecting 29 (September 17, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ, and has been reformatted for this blog.

What Question Are We Asking?

Reading the Bible is a good thing. But how we read the Bible may or may not be such a good thing! As I’ve said before and as I’m sure many others have said too, how we read the Bible matters just as much as whether or not we read the Bible.

Consider Jesus and the Pharisees in a story from Mark 3:1-6. There they all stand among a synagogue on the Sabbath Day. According to Exodus 31:15, doing work on the Sabbath day was a violation of the Law and anyone committing such a violation was subject to capital punishment. So as a man with a withered hand approaches Jesus, the Pharisees are looking at Jesus to see if he is going to keep the Sabbath regulation or if he is going to violate it, which in their eyes he has already done enough of (read Mark 2). That’s when Jesus asks the Pharisee a very interesting question in v. 4:

“Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath, or evil, to save a life or destroy it?” 

That’s one question but in reality it reveals two very different questions being asked, one by Jesus and the other by the Pharisees.

In one sense, Jesus and the Pharisees have a lot in common. They both love God, seek righteousness, and are committed to faithfully doing the will of God . . . kind of like us. Yet in another sense, Jesus and the Pharisees are very different. Their understanding of God’s will is different and it all stems from their understanding of the kingdom. The Pharisees believe the kingdom will only come by a strict adherence to the Law of Moses, which includes the traditions associated with Torah. But Jesus the kingdom of God is already at hand (and has already declared this good news – cf. Mk 1:14-15) and therefore believes that he and his disciples simply should live out the kingdom life.

And that is why when the man with the withered hand approaches, the Pharisees are asking a legalistic question “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” while Jesus is asking a kingdom question of “How do I do good in this place, bearing witness to the presence of God’s kingdom (reign)?”

Two very different questions!

I once knew of a thriving church of roughly 150 believers. They gathered for worship in a fairly new building on a side of town that was experiencing a lot of new residential growth. Some of the young parents began asking a kingdom question “How might we minister (do good) in this neighborhood?” After praying about this for a few months, they received a vision for how they might minister to other young families with children in that neighborhood. And with the blessing of their elders and minister supporting them, they began an exciting Sunday-School ministry, assisted by the purchase of a Joy Bus. God blessed this ministry and the church with lots of new growth and all seemed well.

And all was well until a few modern-day Pharisees came along asking a legalistic question “Where is their authorization in the New Testament for having a Sunday School?” By asking such a question while proof-texting the Bible, particularly the New Testament, in ad hoc fashion and resorting to their syllogistic reasoning, they divided the church. The Joy Bus was parked for good and this promising children’s ministry died!

Again, Two very different questions!

But what questions are we asking. When we pick up the Bible and read it, do we read it as a story where we ask how we might participate in the kingdom life as followers of Jesus in a consistent yet improvisational way? (See N.T. Wright, “How Can The Bible Be Authoritative?,” and pay attention to the section The Authority of a Story to understand what it means to live in a consistent yet improvisational way.) Or when we pick up the Bible and read, are we asking questions like “Does scripture authorize us to do…?” or “Is there a direct command, apostolic example, or necessary inference for doing…?”

By recognizing that the kingdom of God is already at hand, we are free to read the Bible as a story which we participate in rather than a law which we must some how try to meticulously keep. This is not to ignore that there are commands in scripture which as followers of Jesus, we must obey. What this does is open for us new possibilities as people who are learning how to improvise the story we are participants of in a consistent way among our own contexts. It doesn’t matter whether or not we have an example in scripture for . . . because it’s the wrong question and asking the wrong question usually results in getting the wrong answer.

And if your still not convinced that the difference between the two different types of questions matter that much, Jesus looked at the Pharisees with “anger” as he was “grieved by the hardness of their hearts.”

Questions For Reflection:

  1. How does this change our understanding of what it means to be the church? Participants in the mission of God?
  2. What do need to do in order to be a tangible expression of the kingdom of God in our neighborhoods?
  3. What changes might we have to make in the way we go about doing church?

Ministry Leadership: Blood, Sweat, and Tears

You’ve heard it said that leadership is influence and the ability to influence. There’s a lot of truth to that, especially when you serve among a church or any other organization where leaders are dependent upon volunteers. That begs the question of how a person acquires this ability to influence others?

There are likely a variety of factors that contribute to a person gains the ability to influence. Position, charisma, and expertise come to mind. In ministry, if one has good experience and a solid theological education to go along with a very engaging personality that exudes with vision and decisiveness then that minister likely some ability for influence. But don’t be fooled! Relying solely on position, charisma, and expertise has limitations that will become apparent sooner than later (as almost every President discovers). Also, reliance upon position, charisma, and expertise can easily become repressive, requiring more manipulation than influence, creating a toxic culture.

Another asset in gaining the ability to influence is character. People are willing to listen and follow a person who consistently demonstrates a virtuous life. This includes the way any would be leader treats other people, including his/her own family. For ministers, especially those who regularly preach and teach, character also includes demonstrating trustworthiness with scripture . . . showing people that you will preach and teach healthy doctrine. So character is very important and it is also important to remember that leaders can spend years growing a healthy tree and cut that tree down with one very unwise move (be thankful for the mercy that God often shows towards are mistakes that have not undone us!).

Beyond position, charisma, and expertise, and beyond character is one other attribute that will allow those whom God has called to serve in ministry to gain the ability to influence. This attribute is what I’ll call blood, sweat, and tears. The church is a community of Christians and as such, Christians are to bear the burdens of each other (cf. Gal 6:2). Whether it is sitting in the hospital visiting room with a family whose child has just been air-lifted to the trauma center, helping a family move from one house to another, or something as seemingly mundane as just picking up the telephone to call and say “Hi!”, you are engaging and sharing in real life with the people of the church . . . sometimes helping them bear a real heavy burden. That is, you’re showing your willingness to bleed, sweat, and shed tears with them.

When a leader is willing to share blood, sweat, and tears with the people, then they earn the currency to influence. This is, I believe, an important yet somewhat underrated aspect of leadership that is seen in everyone from Jesus and the Apostle Paul to more contemporary leaders such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Teresa. So also should it be among ministers, elders, and other church leaders. So if your a minister or serving in some other capacity of church leadership, let me encourage you to look for opportunities where you can share some blood, sweat, and tears with your church!