Category Archives: Missions and Ministry

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!

Church Renewal: Give Up The Old Wineskins

Last year the Christian Chronicle, a monthly newspaper for the Churches of Christ, ran an article on the Bar Church of Abilene, Texas that the Southern Hills Church of Christ helped plant. The Bar Church is a community of Christians that originally gathered inside a local bar for worship, fellowship, etc… in order to reach people who will likely never step foot inside the gatherings of a traditional church. As expected, news of a church plant meeting in a local tavern drew both praise and criticism. Without knowing any more details than what has been reported, I am one who applauds such effort and I want to briefly focus on the criticism as a way of discussing a larger issue with the gospel and the mission of God.

One critic said in response to the news of a church meeting in a bar, “Jesus might have gone to Matthew’s house, but he did not teach his disciples to go to places of public intoxication…” Not surprisingly, I actually disagree because Jesus himself, according to the Gospel of Luke, even acknowledged eating and drinking with these sinner’s and tax-collectors to the point that he gained the reputation of being a drunkard and glutton (cf. Lk 7:34). I suppose we could say that Jesus was only going into places of private intoxication (insert snarky face here) but the point is that Jesus not only sought out the “sinners” but was also teaching his disciples to do so as well. Yet the critics, who all likely come from a church fellowship that is declining, resort to the box they have the gospel contained within to rationalize their complaint. And this is a problem…

Listen to Jesus

According to the Gospel of Mark, the first parable that Jesus teaches occurs in chapter two:

No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and the tear becomes worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the skins will be destroyed. Instead new wine is poured into new wineskins (vv. 21-22).

This parable occurs within a series of five stories in which the authority of Jesus is challenged (Mk 2:1-3:6). The problem with Jesus is that he does not live according to the expectations of the Jewish lawyers and Pharisees.

The Pharisees themselves meant well. Like Jesus, they wanted to see the kingdom of God at hand too. But unlike Jesus, they believed that the kingdom of God would only come when all of Israel returned to a strict observation of the Torah, especially the laws pertaining to the Sabbath and those that separated the clean from the unclean. For Jesus, however, the kingdom of God is already at hand (Mk. 1:15), so the efforts of the Pharisees are futile. Instead they, like us all, need to follow along with Jesus and learn how to participate in this kingdom, which involves something as simple as eating when you’re hungry rather than fasting or something more radical like wining and dining with the “sinners and tax-collectors.”

The kingdom of God looks like a reality where sinners are welcomed with hospitality, where those who suffer find healing, where showing mercy trumps the sacrifice of Sabbath keeping, and so forth. This is the kind of life Jesus calls us to follow him, learning how to participate as disciples. Yet Jesus is clear: As long as we continue trying to fit this way of life into our old paradigms (theological, ecclesiological, etc…), it will not work! That is why Jesus tells us the parable of sewing a new patch on an old garment and pouring new wine into old wineskins. We need new wineskins for new wine! We need new a new paradigm for this gospel of the kingdom of God that Jesus preaches and calls follow him in living as his disciples!

Old Wineskins Will Not Do

I began this blog post with story of a Church of Christ that planting a very non-traditional seed of the gospel by helping plant a new church meeting in a bar. It’s but one example of what it might look like for a church to the new wine of the gospel into new wineskins. Just one example. It is by no means a suggestion that this is what every church needs to do. I believe way too much in the need for local contextualization of the gospel to even begin suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach. What I’m concerned about is those who want to cling to their old wineskins while criticizing any attempt at pouring new wine into new wineskins.

Any one familiar with the Churches of Christ can see the decline. Most churches, including the Columbia Church of Christ with whom I serve as a minister, are less than one-hundred members and declining. The culture around us is rapidly changing and learning how to navigate the waters in this ever changing climate has been… Well, as far as I can tell, were not sure how to do that.

In such uncertain circumstances, there are more questions than answers which that creates a lot of stress and anxiety. “How do we move forward in all this mess?” is the question that gets asked. Yet our human nature is to take the path of least resistance and that usually means reverts back to what we already know… the so-called tried and true approach. I think this is why Michael Shank’s book Muscle and A Shovel has become so popular. Because despite it’s sectarian approach that promotes a gospel focused on the “true church,” a form of legalism that many in the Churches of Christ seemed to have let go of, it offers an approach that is very familiar (if you read the book then make sure you also read this very well-written and critical review of the book by John Mark Hicks). But Jesus is clear: As long as we continue trying to fit this way of life into our old paradigms (theological, ecclesiological, etc…), it will not work!

Then What Do We Do?

Learning to follow Jesus together begins with hearing afresh our Lord’s first commandment: “Repent and believe the gospel! (Mk 1:15). We have to change our expectations of how we expect to see the kingdom of God at hand. Seeing God’s kingdom at hand does not happen by trying to restore the first-century church pattern from proof-texting the New Testament. The way forward is found in embracing the values and practices of Jesus as our own, within our own local contexts. That requires much discernment.

In order to discern, churches and especially the leadership of the church must learn how to listen together for the leading of God. You might consider reading Pursuing God’s Will Together by Ruth Haley Barton as a resource in learning how to listen as a church. Only as we listen and discern together will we discover the new wineskins necessary for the new wine of the gospel. Also, you might consider contacting Mission Alive, an organization that helps equip church planters and churches seeking renewal to live as “kingdom communities on mission with God.”

Amidst Racism, Wars, and Other Afflictions: What Says the Church?

It’s a predictable script. When something terrible happens, such as the police-shooting death of one unarmed Michael Brown or the recently release of a video showing the beheading of missing American journalist James Foley, people become indignant. Something is wrong and something should be done. So the question is asked, “Mr. President of the United States of America, what say you?”

Our Way or The Way of God?

That’s how the script always seems to play out. The President must do something or at least say something. Depending on his response, one either cheers him on from the sidelines or one starts cursing him in one fashion or the other. Issues of racism, violence, and other cancerous maladies become political issues for the government to solve. Yet because the politicians and the masses that elect them can’t seem to even agree on what the first step towards a solution should be, the conversation turns into a toxic pit that poisons everyone who steps into it. And maybe in writing this, I’m showing symptoms of poisoning too.

Having said all that, I think I understand why people always turn to the government for a fix. To start with, for some people, the government is their best shot. Regardless of what they claim on a religious census, they don’t have the living hope in Christ that allows them to see how the gospel is redeeming, reconciling, and restoring life. But some people, Christians included, would rather just turn to the government in hopes for a quick solution to the problems… like passing a new law, sending some more troops, or creating a new program and initiative.

I think the devil likes it this way… keeping people, Christians included, seeking quick-fix human engineered solutions to problems that will only be resolved through a slow process requiring personal sacrifice. As a Christian, and as a preacher and minister of the gospel, I believe the slow process leads right to the cross of Jesus Christ. It’s the process that the church is called to participate in. But as I said, it’s a slow process that requires personal sacrifice.

It’s A Way of Life!

In the Gospels when Jesus calls his disciples to pick up their crosses and follow him, he is calling them to a very different way of life than what the rest of the world seeks. Jesus is clear that answering this call may cost the disciples their very own life but he assures them that they will actually receive life, a promise made with his own death and resurrection (cf. Mk 8:34-35).

This way of life is bears witness to what life looks like when God’s redemptive, reconciling, and restorative work is at hand. It’s a life that loves God by loving neighbors and even the enemies. It’s a life that champions peace rather than trumpeting the 2nd Amendment as though an AR-15 assault rifle will keep the peace. It’s a life that extends hospitality rather than judgment to all people, including the neighbors who that came across the borders in search of better living and the single-parents buying their groceries with EBT cards. It’s a life that exalts God as the Creator and Redeemer of life rather than patronizing Old Glory as the symbol of life, liberty, and happiness. It’s a way of life in which the things said and done during Sunday morning’s church service are also the things said and done at home, in the work place, and even on Facebook, Twitter, and so forth (for those who have a presence in the world of social-media).

As I said, this way of life bears witness the redemptive work of God in Christ. In this way, the church lives as a proleptic sign of why the gospel really is good news. It’s God offering the world through Christ and his church the alternative to fear, violence, and hatred. It demonstrates the possibilities of redemption, reconciliation, and restoration so that ideals like brotherly love, joy in Christ, and the peace of God move beyond the realm of spiritual platitudes, becoming instead virtues with concrete meaning. Though the church will always struggle in this endeavor, without intentionally pursuing this way of life the preaching of the church sings like a broken record playing the music of religious superstition than the songs of life.

What I’m Saying

If the church has any desire to offer the promise of hope amidst racism, wars, and all the other afflictions that plague the world, then we, who are the church, must learn to be the church Jesus envisions. If we really believe in the good news that Jesus preached, then we must learn to embrace it as how we live. Then, we can tell the world about God and sound like we actually know God. The results will not come quick as this is and will always be a slow process requiring the personal sacrifice but in doing so–following Jesus in this mission–we join God in creating a life legacy of redemption, reconciliation, and restoration.

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!

——————–

* 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.