Category Archives: Missions and Ministry

A Conversation About Jesus and Religion

Yesterday evening while driving for Uber in Baltimore I picked up a man I”ll call Sammy, who was born in India but was raised in America. I picked him up at a bar in Baltimore and I could tell he had a few drinks but he was a nice man and was telling me about his work, which involved working with clients all around the world. Then he asked me what I do and that’s where things became interesting.

I explained to Sammy that I’m a Christian and have spent the last ten plus years of my life serving as a minister with churches. Sammy then told me that he is not religious but respects anyone who is because religion normally make people better people. The conversation then went something like this…

Sammy: “Do you really believe in one God?”

Me: “Yes, I do.”

Sammy: “Do you believe Jesus is the only one who can save everyone?”

Me: “Yes, I do.”

Sammy then proceeded to share with me his difficulty in believing like I believe. He said that at the end of the day all religions teach us how to be nicer people to others and that’s what he thinks is important. Then Sammy said, “But you believe differently.”

I could tell he was waiting for a response but I paused for a moment as we were pulling up to his destination. Then I said, “Sammy, I believe that Jesus was crucified but that God raised him from death and exalted him as Lord… as the one who is King over all. That’s why he is the only one who can save everyone. Of course, if Jesus wasn’t raised from death then none of that really matters. But if he was, and I believe he was, and if you believe he was, then even if we don’t understand how God works all this salvation stuff out, we know that it is through Jesus that God saves because Jesus is the Lord… the King.”

Sammy stayed silent for a moment. Then he said, “Wow, I never thought of it that way before. I know I have to go now but thanks, I need to think about that more now.”

Christians… If God has raised the crucified Jesus from death and exalted him as Lord, as we confess, then may the Spirit empower us to boldly live as witnesses for this good news of Jesus the Messiah!

What Am I Looking For in a Church?

     With the Columbia Church of Christ disbanding, I find myself looking to what is ahead and how I might continue serving God with the gifts he has blessed me with. I am thankful for those who have encouraged me to continue in ministry as a life-vocation, as this has reaffirmed God’s calling into ministry which has come at very necessary moments. I am also thankful for the Christian community that was known as the Columbia Church of Christ. Though the outcome was not what anyone expected when I began serving as the minister, it was the leading of God and along the way I also learned a lot about leading a church in a pastoral sense for the sake of God and his mission.
     Even though I have learned from all of my experience and education, it is my experience with the Columbia Church of Christ, participating in the Mission Alive training labs, and the Doctor of Ministry studies in missional leadership I am working on at Northern Seminary that has helped me understand how I must serve as a minister. And now that I am talking with some other churches about serving with them as a minister, one of the questions that always seems to come up is what sort of church am I looking for as a minister. So here is my answer to that question.
     Let me start by saying what I am not looking for. I am not looking for a church that is afraid of considering something new, reluctant in taking any risk, and simply interested in maintaining things the way they are. But on the other hand, I am not looking for a church that is just trying to change in order to follow the latest trends of what some other church is doing. Instead I am looking for a church that wants to pursue how God is working among them and in their local community for the sake of his mission so that they can continue participating with God in that work.
     So besides preaching and teaching, casting vision, spending time visiting with people, and all the other work that ministers often do (which I enjoy doing), I am trying to foster a conversation. This is a conversation about how we, as a church, participate with God in his mission, serving one another and our community as we serve God. It is a conversation in which the gospel, as known through scripture and the Christian tradition, is brought into conversation with culture so that we may discern how God is calling us to embody the gospel followers of Jesus. When this happens, there is participation in the mission of God.
     For me, as a minister, that means serving as a listener first in order to learn how God has been at work among the church as well as the local community. By listening and learning myself, I believe I am better equipped to help the church listen and learn so that we are able to discern how God is leading us. This also means that I am seeking from the elders shepherding the church buy-in on a commitment to leading by listening and learning, so that we are listening, learning, and leading together for the sake of God’s work among the church and  community. That’s ministry leadership… pastoral leadership… missional leadership!
     When this happens, we are able to discern as a church not only where God is leading but what might need to change and how that should occur. Further more, this ministry leadership enables us to discern how God is gifting various Christians within the church in order affirm their giftedness and encourage their faithful service using such gifts.
     That’s the sort of church I am looking for. The sort of church that wants to discover how God is at work among them and where he is leading them next in order to go there in faith, just as the people of God have done many other times.

Church Renewal: Discerning The Way Forward

Many churches find themselves struggling to carry on the mission for which they are called. With membership numbers slowly declining and once vibrant programs running like a dial-up internet in an age of high-speed wifi, the concern is palpable. And even planting new churches, which is always necessary, is not guaranteed of a better outcome. For as many “successful” church plants, there are many more “unsuccessful” church plants. The issue isn’t a matter of how to do church better or start a new program that might grow a church. The challenge has to do with mission itself, particularly how we participate in the mission of God.

What Is The Challenge?

For many churches, “missions” has always been a program led by a committee to oversee the sending and supporting of missionaries among a foreign culture. Missions has not been the adjective missional describing the life of the local church belonging to Christ. That is to say that churches have not understood themselves as a missionary-people among their local community and culture, and therefore have not thought about the purpose like a missionary.

When missionaries enter a foreign culture, they seek to indigenously plant the gospel seed among the people they encounter. Doing that requires a cross-cultural approach that strives for both faithfulness to the gospel and contextualization of the gospel within the local culture. The missionary question asked is how is the gospel faithfully planted in a contextual manner so that indigenous Christianity forms? Most existing churches didn’t feel the need to think like this and ask this missionary question because the local community was shaped by Christendom worldview where regardless of how many non-Christians there were, the culture of the community was shaped by and functioned out of a broad Christian ethos. For example, public prayers were always prayed “in the name of Jesus” and whether or not a person lived like a Christian should, they were likely a member of some Christian church.

Things are much different now as the American cultural landscape is quickly becoming post-Christendom. Besides an overt secularism, society is shaped by pluralism where numerous voices present. These voices are engaged in a table conversation about the purpose and meaning of life and each voice is vying for an equal hearing (side point: sometimes those other voices would love for the Christian voice to get up and go to its own table… which is why Christians need to learn good table manners). This is the new culture churches find themselves among and it requires a cross-cultural missionary approach. The big difference is that instead of crossing into a foreign geographical culture, churches must cross into a foreign social-culture from their own. So the driving question is the driving question is how does the local church embody the gospel in a faithful yet contextual manner?

Engaging The Challenge

In the pursuit of the driving question, part of the challenge for the local church learning how to enter into a different social-culture as missionary people. This  has been of interest to me as a minister ever since I became aware of the new cultural context churches are finding themselves in. So as a minister, the question is how do I help lead a church to embody the gospel in a faithful yet contextual manner? 

I don’t make any claims of having the final answer on this issue, as I am still a learner myself. However, I am fairly convinced that the issue is deeper and more robust than just than trying the latest trend that appears from afar to work in another church, etc… The beginning place is always humility, realizing that something has to change. Once this posture of humility is present, a new listening posture can take shape where the church is able to enter into a necessary conversation.

This conversation is what the image to the left depicts as a “trialogue” where the gospel, known through scripture and Christian tradition, is brought into conversation with the local church at it is presently (not just in its “glory days” or where it would like to be in the future, though both the past and future cannot be completely discarded) and the local culture…

  • Gospel: This is listening to the creative-redemptive story of how God is reconciling and restoring in and through Jesus Christ, told through scripture and the historical traditions of the church. Such listening requires an openness to the reality that there may be elements of the gospel the church has missed or sort of neglected.
  • Church: The church is listening to one another, discerning how God is at work among the church. Of importance is the way in which Holy Spirit is gifting the church and the sort of passionate dreams that God may be awakening among each other.
  • Culture: The church is listening for the ways that God is at work among the local culture, so that the church might possibly join God in that work.

In one sense, this trialogical conversation is simple but it is also an open-ended conversation that (re)discovers how God is at work leading the church to live as his missionary people. Questions may arise about everything from the way the church practices benevolence to teaching and forming disciples to the new ways that fellowship becomes an intentional practice of church and so on. What is up for reconsideration is the gospel itself, as the church can only participate in the mission of God so long as it continues in the gospel first proclaimed by Jesus and then his Apostles.

A Final Word

One of the disastrous notions of modernism is the need to control and know the outcome. Seeking control in order to know and even manage the outcome, which is often motivated by fear, traditionalism, and maintaining comfort for the comfortable, already misses the point of a church living as God’s missionary people. Mission is not the result of the church doing God’s work, rather the church is really the result of disciples living on mission with God and that happens when the church is animated by the Spirit rather than controlled by human motives.

Engaging Conflict Requires An Attitude

Conflict is a part of life, period! It exists in everything from marriage to the work place and larger society. The only person who lives without any conflict is a hermit living on a remote island by him/herself and that’s a lonely life. For the rest of us, conflict is a given. In fact, I just spoke with a person who was telling me how an ongoing work place conflict, lasting for over a year, has been favorably resolved. Conflict can be stressing and perplexing but it can be a healthy thing too.

Yes! Conflict can be a healthy thing too and that’s good news for Churches, since every church I know of has its share of conflict.

Because conflict is amoral, this should not bother us. What should concern us is how we handle the conflict. In fact, that is where the anxiety about conflict arises because too often we don’t handle conflict well. Given the choice of fight or flight, we either run in hopes of avoiding the issue all together or we fight by responding with selfish postures attempting to win by injuring the other…

“She just believes every last word that Joyce Myers says.”

“He just think that because he has money…”

“They just don’t care about what the Bible says.”

“He just can’t see past his own traditions.”

“She just takes everything too personally.”

Those are just some of the things I have heard Christians say about someone else in their church. I’ve probably made similar such comments too. Although sometimes spoken in a direct manner, most of the time this approach is passive-aggressive in nature.

The problem with conflict is how we handle it. Often when challenged, we become defensive. Believing that we are right with little, if any, consideration that we might be wrong, we argue and protest against the other. If it is a policy or practice we disagree with, we’ll dig our heels in and turn what often is a minor issue into a major issue that must go our way. But again, the issue isn’t the conflict itself but the way we respond to the conflict.

The difference between healthy and unhealthy conflict hinges on how we handle the conflict. A healthy response to conflict begins with Christ-likeness. So the apostle Paul says that we are to have the same attitude of Christ, who humbled himself as a servant and became obedient even to the point of death (cf. Phil 2:5-8). In practice, having this attitude means…

  • Listening to understand before responding. Humility means recognizing that be wrong. Even if we’re not wrong, we can’t help resolve any conflict without listening first. Listening also involves, as my friend Fred always says, assuming the best about the other person when they speak.
  • Extending grace toward each other. Jesus was obedient to the point of death even though he was never in the wrong. His obedience is the extension of God’s grace and like Jesus, we must extend grace even when we have been wronged. That means forgiving and loving one another.

I’m not trying to suggest that conflict is easy. If it was easy, we wouldn’t try avoiding it or do so poorly with it at times. But ignoring conflict or failing to rightly deal with it allows what could be a great opportunity become a problem that threatens the and undermines the health of the church.

Listening and extending grace toward each other amidst conflict requires talking. One of way of doing this involves table fellowship. Serve each other by eating together. Invite some others to join if needed but the act of eating together helps create and maintain a hospitable atmosphere where we hear one another, clarify misunderstandings, apologize, forgive, and resolve to speak/act rightly moving forward. The result is reconciliation and at the end of the day that is what engaging conflict is about… so that we may be one even when we don’t agree.

May we all engage conflict with an attitude… the attitude of Christ!

Wisdom and Insight: Companions For A Complex Life

One of the questions that many churches want to know of their ministers has to do with various moral/ethical issues, especially those involving marriage and all things sex. For example, what should we do when a couple from church say they are pursuing a divorce? Or how should we respond to some parents who say their teenage child is gay?

Regardless of the issue and the hypothetical scenario, the response hinges not only what we believe but also how we should respond. One of the difficulties here is that such hypothetical questions are so vague that it would be hard for us to offer any response beyond our basic beliefs regarding any number of moral/ethical issues. But a bigger problem is that in real life, such issues always present themselves in a particular set of circumstances that rarely, if ever, are simple. Part of the complexity is that the circumstances which the issue presents itself in is almost never a one to one correspondence to the circumstances in which the issue is addressed in scripture. This is where we encounter the limits of reading scripture as a law.

Just like any policy or procedure, a doctrine is contextually ignorant. In real life, acting upon any moral/ethical doctrine requires wisdom. Barry Schwartz gave this brilliant TED Talk about the need for practical wisdom in an age overran by bureaucracy. I wholeheartedly agree! While doctrines or rules and policies are necessary, so also is wisdom. However, for ministers, not any form or wisdom will do. What is needed is gospel-wisdom. By gospel-wisdom, I mean wisdom that is shaped by the biblical narrative, what it teaches, and how that teaching is revealed and embodied in everything we know about Jesus whom the church follows. But that is only part of the task.

Proverbs 4:7 says, “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever else you get, get insight” (NRSV). The sage is telling us that both wisdom and insight are necessary. While not the same, wisdom and insight are neither exclusive from each other as both sharpen each other. The purpose of wisdom is counsel as it doesn’t tell us how to respond but offers guidance for how we might respond in any given situation. That assumes a posture of listening, as we cannot even begin to know what is the appropriate response unless we have listened first. So when that couple says to me that they are pursuing a divorce or those parents who say their teenage child is gay, my first response is to listen by asking good questions that will allow me to understand the circumstances better and get a better feel for the complexities. Only then does wisdom have the insight necessary to offer any counsel on what you or I might do.

Whether you’re a minister, an elder, or just a Christian trying to help someone else out, you need gospel-wisdom and insight gleaned from listening to that someone. Your own moral/ethical beliefs and values are certainly valuable and necessary but in real life situations, which are as different as they are many, wisdom and insight are indispensable companions for a complex life. So get wisdom, get insight!

Seeking With The Spirit

I’ve been writing some on how a local church lives as a community animated by the Holy Spirit. That naturally raises the question of how does this happen and, as I said in another post, that begins with repentance. Yet that is only where a church begins. There is more…

Two Modern Church Practices

Growing up as a child, there were two practices of the church that need mentioning here.

  1. Men’s Monthly Business Meetings. These meetings were open to any male member of the church and by that, I mean any baptized male. So at age nine, after being baptized, I was considered a man of the church and was asked to attend where I would vote along with the other men on any and all decisions. That’s right.. vote. Each meeting proceeded according to Robert’s Rules of Order because it was a business meeting. Whether the issue was buying a church van, giving support to a missionary, or else, as long as all the details appeared fiscally responsible, then a motion would be made, seconded, and approved by vote — democracy at its best.
  2. Monthly Congregational Singing. These singings we’re joyous occasions because I liked to sing and there wasn’t any sermon (how ironic now that I’m a preacher). Everyone present would name a hymn request and then the men capable of leading a hymn would take turns leading the requested hymns. Each singing would begin and end with the customary opening and closing prayers, and occasionally someone might read a passage of scripture but the primary reason for gathering was to sing hymns.

Now you are asking yourself, “Rex, what did these business meetings and congregational singings have to do with the church living as a community animated by the Spirit?” My answer is that they didn’t! Yet these practices were highly valued by the church of my youth and still are valued in some churches.

Why does this matter? Because when we read through the book of Acts about the beginning of the church, we don’t find the community of Christians engaged in either such practices. That’s not to say that they never came together to make decisions or to engage in worship through singing hymns… they surely did but the prioritized other practices that have been given very little priority among many churches today.

Two Ancient, Yet Relevant, Practices

There are two practices of the earliest Christians that need mentioning which are vital for churches discovering today how the Spirit seeks to lead them:

  1. Table Fellowship. This is a smaller gathering of Christians in a home around the table enjoying a meal together where everyone can engage in each other’s life. It is a time and place where deeper and more meaningful conversation about how God is at work in each other’s lives, how the scriptures bear upon each other’s lives, and how each person can lovingly encourage one another to embody the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is one powerful way in which the Holy Spirit, who dwells among each believer, works to reveal what must be done in order to participate in the mission of God.
  2. Prayer. This practice is rooted in the profound belief that Christians are incapable of embodying the gospel based on their own strength. On their own, fears and temptations will have mastery over them. But by creating space and committing time for prayer — whether it’s for family facing personal challenges, someone having an evangelistic conversation with a co-worker, the church seeking a bold vision for engaging the neighborhood, and so on — the church turns to the Sovereign Lord who, in a mysterious manner, gives power through the Spirit to overcome with faithful witness.

Part of the challenge in recovering these ancient practices is overcoming vulnerability and humility. You see as long as Christians only gather in large assemblies for worship, preaching/teaching, and fellowship better known as potluck meals, there will likely never be any deep engagement of life seeking participation in the mission of God. That’s because such engagement requires vulnerability and that is more likely to happen as believers gather for table fellowship. Similarly, as long as a church thinks it only needs to maintain its current way of life, believers will never come together for a committed time of prayer.

Don’t get me wrong! I’m all for gathering as a collective group for worship where the church can sing, read scripture publicly, here that scripture preached, etc… but that alone is insufficient. It’s very passive and doesn’t require much. Plus, few Christians really want to stand up in such large gatherings and say, by way of example, “I’m struggling to get along with my new neighbors of a different race and religion, what might I be doing wrong? Could you help me and pray for me that I might better love them as my neighbor?”

When we read though Acts, we read of a movement of Jesus followers who were committed to table fellowship and prayer, among other practices. Because they were committed to such practices, they were able to discern the work of the Spirit among them and live a life animated by the Spirit. Such commitments helped them when they had to make decisions such as who should replace Judas (cf. Acts 1:12-26), which seven servants should be appointed to care for the ministry of the widows (cf. Acts 6:1-6), and even when faced with a decision regarding what the gospel requires of Gentile believers (cf. Acts 11). Such commitments drew them immediately into prayer when they realized that the opposition the apostles were facing (cf. Acts 4:23-31). Neither coming together to make a decision or for corporate prayer was the response of democratically human power but the seeking of God at work through his Spirit so that these followers of Jesus might embody the gospel faithfully and continue participating in the mission of God.

A Final Word

Beyond the Sunday gatherings of public worship and fellowship, every local church needs believers who are committed to table fellowship and prayer. That means someone making their home available, inviting a few others over, and taking the lead so that the time is spent purposefully engaged in life and the work of God, where time can be spent in prayer. This is where the Spirit begins cultivating organic change that will undoubtably not only enhance the Sunday gatherings but also lead to organized change as the church discerns how the Spirit is empowering them to live as a faithful yet contextually relevant embodiment of the gospel among the local community.

So what say you?

Moving With The Spirit

Last Friday I published a post titled Animated By The Holy Spirit, which was an updated version of an older post. The point of the post was to state why I believe that the Holy Spirit is essential for the local church’s participation in the mission of God and mention two guiding convictions I have regarding the work of the Spirit. My friend Amy commented “…how do congregations begin to rely more on the Spirit and less on their traditions? I get prayer but I wonder if the Spirit can even work if we have other objects to over come.” So I want to write more about how how our churches are animated by the power of the Holy Spirit over several posts and I’ll begin with what has to change for us to see where the Spirit is leading.

Repentance Is So Much More

Repentance! It’s a word very familiar to our Christian vernacular but perhaps too familiar. We often think of repentance as turning away from whatever ungodly ways we lived in the past, meaning that we are not indulging in immoral and destructive behaviors any more. To say it sort of sarcastically, repentance, we think, means saying goodbye to the endless summer nights of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. There’s a lot of truth to that but in truth, the call to repentance is so much more.

When Jesus began his public ministry and Peter later preached the gospel on the Day of Pentecost, both called for repentance. Jesus called the people to repent and believe the good news of the inbreaking kingdom of God (cf. Mk 1:14-15) and Peter echoed this call with even a stronger sense of urgency since God had raised the crucified Jesus from death and exalted him as Lord and Messiah (cf. Acts 2:36-39). But what we often miss is that on both occasions, this call for repentance was issued to the Jewish people who were already religiously devout people seeking to live righteous lives. And yet… they still needed to repent. Jewish nationalism, religious traditions, and contempt for the Gentiles blinded them to the work of God among them and they needed to let go and become followers of Jesus.

Now hopefully this doesn’t come as a surprise to you but spiritual blindness is not a disease that has disappeared. As local churches and as individual Christians, we are capable of becoming blind to the ways in which God is at work. Consumerism, traditionalism, politics, careers and personal ambitions, and even a lifeless apathy towards the gospel are ways that obscure the kingdom of God so that it remains hidden from our eyes and ears (cf. Lk 8:9-10). This must change… We must repent!

We Pledge Our Allegiance…

Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost challenges and invites us to “repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” assuring us that not only will our sins be forgiven but that we will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (cf. Acts 2:38). Now here is the important caveat that goes overlooked to often: Peter is telling us to pledge our allegiance to the Lord, Jesus the Messiah! Join the movement, follow Jesus and receive the gift of the Spirit that animates our life together and enables us to move with the Spirit as participants in the mission of God. That’s the invitation and challenge.

But… Moving with the Spirit requires change! That’s what repentance is. It is changing, letting go of whatever other commitments we have and living, not as consumers of religion or just good church-going Christians, but as passionate followers of Jesus participating in the mission of God. As Christians, who presumably have already been baptized, that means remembering our baptism… remembering that given our allegiance to Jesus.

By remembering our baptism and living as people committed to Jesus and aligned with his kingdom, we learn to see and hear where God is working among us and how the Spirit is animating us for participation in that work. Then we are moving with the Spirit and learning to move with the Spirit.

Following Jesus Together

Let’s not kid ourselves and think that this is an easy thing to do. Even Peter, when told to not regard as unclean what God had made clean, struggled to move with the Spirit (cf. Acts 10). So I assume we will as well. This is why we need our Christian community and particular people who will speak the truth to us, challenging us to see what we are struggling to see… to see where God is trying to lead us through the Holy Spirit.

God can and will certainly speak through the hymns and liturgy of worship as well as through the reading and preaching of his word. God can even speak in a dream if he so chooses (far be it for any one of us to tell God in what ways he can and cannot work!). However, God’s normal way of working seems to be through people who themselves are moving with the Spirit. God is working through you and I, if we are aligned with him. So when we encounter Christians who are placing things like traditions above participating in the mission of God, we must have the courage to lovingly but boldly call for repentance.

A lot of this has to do with leading missional renewal among our local churches which is so necessary. However, rather than expecting an entire church to change at once, renewal will happen as we, along with a few others from our church, begin to reimagine what it looks like to follow Jesus together. As we learn to embody the gospel in new ways, we become a breath of new life that God uses to bring renewal and change within the church overtime as we move with the Spirit. So if you find yourself among a church that seems lost in tradition or anything that has stifled the mission of God then my suggestion is finding a few other people and invite them over to your home, inviting them to break bread and into the word of God as you pray together and discern together how God is calling you to serve together on mission with him (but more on that in another post).