The Ministry of Cultivating A Gospel Passion

I’m reading through Charles Taylor’s book Modern Social Imaginaries which is one of those thick reads akin to running a race waist deep in mud. Nevertheless, if I understand Taylor correctly, he describes how modernity brought about the notion of a modern-state as the means of establishing civility among European society where much savagery existed at the time. Of course, the idea that that morality and civility can be brought about by legislative governing is a modernistic idea and an anthropocentric one too. That is, the capacity to generate a well ordered life for people is an activity of human power.

Now I might be making too much of a leap here but given this modern notion that centralized authority could establish and regulate civility, this also gives some understanding of how the modern church denomination became so popular. A denomination provided structure that could regulate beliefs and practices of the Christians who belonged to the various churches within the denomination.  Even among the Churches of Christ, though not structured with the typical polity of most denominations, the editors of various journals along with the popular “gospel meeting” preachers served to regulate the local church.

The Limitation of Regulation

Like the modern-state regulated civility with establishment of new laws, the drafting of statements of faith and church by-laws by denominational boards helped regulate the beliefs and practices of local churches. Sometimes this regulation, as in the case of the Churches of Christ, was predicated on a legalistic reading of scripture that turned the Bible (and particularly the New Testament) into a constitution that served as the foundation for the regulation. In the end, the objective of such regulation was faithful Christians and faithful churches.

However, even though the modern denomination remained a strong presence throughout the twentieth century, it was during that time that we began to see the impossibility of regulating civility by legislation. Despite such coercive power, the twentieth century proved to be one of the most deadliest in history (if not the most) with numerous wars and conflicts that have now spilled into the twenty-first century.

Few believe that governments can maintain lasting peace, though without a doubt they will continue trying. I also suggest that like the inability of governments bring about civility, church denominations cannot make faithful Christians by regulating the beliefs and practices of a church (and that includes appealing to scripture as a legalistic text). Despite written and unwritten creeds, church’s still struggle to live on mission with God and Christians still struggle in remaining faithful to Jesus.

Cultivating Passion

Nothing can replace passion! When someone is passionate about something, they will pursue that passion vigorously and good will come of that provided that the said pursuit is based upon a health passion. So it also seems that local churches flourish when there are a core group of people with a passion that is rooted in Jesus and his gospel and that individual Christians are most likely to remain faithful when they have this passion.

And where does this passion come from? A living encounter with God and what he is doing in Jesus by the power of his Spirit! It is a spacial-jouney whereby a new core identity takes shape, one that is in alignment with the kingdom of God. This is why Jesus announces the gospel (cf. Mk 1:15) and then invites us to come follow him (cf. Mk 1:17), which is an invitation to come learn how to live the kingdom life as an embodiment of the gospel he has announced. The fulfilling of this passion is then brought into fruition by the Spirit rather than enforcing regulation, which is exactly what we read of in the book of Acts.

If the fulfillment of this passion could be achieved through regulation of law, we would have a different story to tell about the Pharisees and religious leaders of Jesus’ own day. But that won’t work and I think we are coming to realize this with what we see happening in many churches across various denominations and fellowship. If ministers of the gospel and other church leaders want to form people with a passion rooted in Jesus and his gospel, a passion that results in people serving as God gifts them and calls them to do so, then we must, as Alan Roxburgh suggests in his book Missional Map-Making, cultivate that passion as an artisan working soil (p. 138).

This cultivation involves, I believe, preaching, teaching, and leading people to see what God is doing in life. Doing this requires presence among the people while simultaneously having the ability to ask good questions as a listener of both the people (the church you serve) and culture. Scripture is still very much involved but the aim is more than just pointing people to scripture. Ministry points people beyond scripture toward that living encounter with God.

Our Redemptive God

This message, This Is God, was preached before the Westside Church of Christ in Baltimore on Sunday, July 12, 2015. The text I preach from is Exodus 3:1-10 which is one of my favorite passages to preach on, especially as a guest preacher. I hope this message will encourage you!

People Matter… Including The Poor!

The Prophet Amos preached a message of judgment against Israel because, among other things, of their unjust treatment of the poor. In fact, when we read the prophets of the Old Testament it becomes clear that the poor matter to the Lord and that he expects people to act justly towards the poor, showing them mercy.

It’s also seems pretty clear in scripture that people are greater than the principles or policies we often organize and script our lives by. When laws and objectives are carried out at the expense of the people, there is injustice. When dogma and doctrine suppresses people, denying them mercy and justice, it is wrong.

I think this is why Jesus tells the Pharisees, “To and learn what this saying means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice'” (Matt 9:13). The Pharisees have placed greater value on maintaining their tradition than extending grace to those they consider sinners but Jesus says they have it wrong. Offer mercy rather than sacrifice! In other words, people matter more than their traditions (and more than our principles, policies, laws, etc…) so they should be more concerned with doing right for the people.

Of course, when it comes to the poor, it is so easy to just trample upon them… either literally or metaphorically. That’s why the prophets speak so powerfully about justice for the poor.

And little has changed. We all know of numerous examples of how the poor are neglected and even afflicted by the lack of mercy and justice. So it is a great joy when hearing examples of service to the poor, especially when they show us that the poor matter more than revenue… or whatever other principle, law, or doctrine we are tempted to value over the poor.

Such an example comes from this story about a restaurant in Baltimore called Tabrizi’s, a Mediterranean/Middle-Eastern dinner place along Baltimore’s waterfront. Rather than taking in the big money to be made during Baltimore’s Restaurant Week, the owner of Tabrizi’s, Michael Tabrizi, is partnering with local homeless shelters to feed the homeless. According to the story, which you can read here, Tabrizi said, “It isn’t about revenue and money right now, we’ve done restaurant week before and we know the numbers, but right now it’s more important to promote the welfare of the city and its residents rather than to promote the business.”

That’s right. People, especially the poor, are more important than the business of making money, just as people are more important than a said principle, law, etc…

Tabrizi goes on to say about the homeless, according to the article, “These people don’t only suffer from hunger, but also from hopelessness, they feel that they don’t have any dignity anymore… We want them to come in and feel like they’re cared for.”

I don’t know what Michael Tabrizi’s religious convictions are but I know this sort of care for the poor reflects the image of God, our Creator. His example of using his business to serve the poor is an example for us all. May we take the opportunities were are given and the gifts we have received to care even for even the poor, blessing them as we have been blessed!

And one more thing… The next time I am down on the waterfront of Baltimore to dine out, I know which restaurant I’ll be trying.

Beyond Innocence and Ignorance: Practitioners of Reconciliation in an Age of Racism

Growing up as child, one of my favorite shows to watch was the Dukes of Hazzard which aired on CBS television from 1979 through 1985. That should come as no surprise. After all, not only did I think of Bo and Luke Duke as two cool dudes but they also drove one of the coolest cars ever, a ’69 Dodge Charger known as The General Lee. As for Daisy Duke… I was too young to care one bit about her short-shorts and cleavage. Later on, as an adult, I never had any interest in seeing the 2005 Film titled The Dukes of Hazzard but I have on occasion enjoyed a little childhood nostalgia by watching an occasional rerun of the show.

Innocence and Ignorance

For the sake of disclosure… I am white and I am a Christian trying to follow Jesus. I was born in Arkansas and raised in a small Indiana town by two working-class Christian parents, and I am comfortably in my element among southern and midwestern cultures. I share my little history with The Dukes of Hazzard because unless you have been hiding out somewhere deep in a cave, then you are aware of the controversy surrounding this show now. On June 17, 2015 a mass-shooting occurred at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina that left nine Christians dead. The killer, driven by racist motives, intentionally targeted black people. In addition to the discovery of the killer’s racist manifesto, photos surfaced of the killer waving a Confederate Flag… surely as a symbol of his racism and hatred for black people.

Consequently the Confederate Flag has come under scrutiny, with various states and business seeking to remove any display of the Confederate Flag. Ergo, the decision of TV Land to cease airing reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard. Of course, like so many other issues of our day, this has become a political controversy with people taking sides. Some are for the Confederate Flag, claiming that it simply represents southern heritage while others, like myself, won’t shed a tear over its loss because they see it for what it is… a symbol of racism.

Caught up in this issue is The Dukes of Hazzrd. Is the show simply a portrayal of a couple of good ole’ boys living their down-home southern country life or does it also represent an era full of racism that was sanctioned by southern state power? As a child, I was oblivious to any of the cultural meaning this show symbolized. I watched the show purely for entertainment, imagining myself as Bo and Luke Duke driving around in a cool muscle car. When I watched The Dukes of Hazzard, I was innocent but I was also ignorant.

Let me expand on this innocence and ignorance a bit more. At ten years old I knew very little about slavery and racism. I certainly didn’t know that for all the good things one might say about southern culture, that there was a horrible history of oppression inflicted upon black people that still lived on in the minds and values of some people. It’s the same way with The Andy Griffith Show. For all the good qualities we might make about the fictional town of Mayberry, in real life most of those good qualities existed only for white people. As I have written about before, I doubt many, if any at all, black people want to go back to the era of America that gave us Mayberry… “Not when being black meant being forced to ride at the back of the bus, not having the right to vote, and even being lynched.”

Reconciliation Trumps Politics

It’s the year 2015 and in less than a month I will turn forty-two. I am neither innocent nor ignorant anymore and neither are you. I am more and more aware of the ways in which I have helped sustain racism in America (read this personal story I share here) and I am more and more aware of the oppressive racism that still exists today. Further more, you may claim if you like that the Confederate Flag simply represents southern heritage… that it isn’t a symbol of racism but that is just a flat out denial of the truth! The Confederate Flag has always symbolized racism and white pride which is exactly why the Klu Klux Klan has always carried it and why Dylan Roof so proudly waved this flag for the camera.

I won’t lose any sleep if I never see another car chase involving the General Lee. It’s the same with the removal of the Confederate Flag. More importantly, I don’t see why you would either… especially if you are a Christian. I’m not naïve, so I don’t believe that removing the Confederate Flag from display on public properties will end racism. What I believe is that as Christians, God has called both we are called to something much more glorious than clinging to the foolish politics of supporting the Confederate Flag.

As Christians, we are called to live as participants in God’s ministry of reconciliation. In fact, at the heart of the gospel is God’s work of reconciling all people as one in Christ. That is, God is destroying the barriers of hostility that divide us so that we can live as neighbors rather than enemies (cf. Eph 2:13-14). So even if I wanted to, I won’t wave around the Confederate Flag because I know how offensive that might be to my black friends and neighbors… Because I believe that the ministry of reconciliation trumps politics everyday and that means valuing a relationship with people over seeing a Confederate Flag on display when I visit the south. To say otherwise and to value preserving the Confederate Flag over pursuing reconciliation with with people, including neighbors of different race, ethnicity, etc…, puts us in opposition to the work of God. Woe be to anyone who opposes God!

Moving Forward

If you care, and as a Christian you should, go talk to your neighbors, especially those who are different than you. Speak to those who believe differently, have a different skin color, talk in a different language, and so forth. More importantly, listen to what they are saying. Listen and learn! Listen to their stories. That’s when you will begin to hear the nuances of how systematic racism is still at work, which is necessary if our society ever hopes of bringing justice to this issue. But more importantly, when you listen, you’ll begin let go of those things that may divide you from your neighbor and in turn learn how to love them as yourself.

That’s the way forward because that is what the future will be when Christ returns. There won’t be any flag, not even an American flag, nor any racism or the symbols that holds on to those broken politics. If you want to participate in the new life that God is bringing about in Christ, then clinch not to the politics of the old dying world but live fully as practitioners of reconciliation by loving God as you love your neighbors as yourself.

Giving to God… Christianity in America

July 4th, the American Day of Independence, is around the corner, coming this Friday. Like every year, it will be a festive holiday with much celebration. I’m guessing that for many Christians the celebrations will be tempered by a sense of concern over the direction that America as a nation seems headed in. But that won’t be due to an unswerving holy allegiance to the kingdom of God as much as it will stem from an unholy allegiance to America. That’s the problem for Christians!

What Belongs to God…

What unholy allegiance? Well, here is Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. It’s the final week and Jesus has entered into Jerusalem, that holy city held hostage by the rule of Roman tyranny. Jesus understands what will happen to him in this politically and religiously volatile climate… death upon the cross! And he has reminded his disciples that if they are to continue following him, they should be prepared to carry their own crosses too because that is what might happen to them for participating in the kingdom of God.

The Pharisees and the Herodians know that Jesus will not align himself with Roman power, so they attempt to trap him with a simple question about paying taxes to Caesar. Jesus’ response is familiar to us… perhaps too familiar.

“Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” – Mark 12:17

Most Christians cite this well known response of Jesus as justification for paying taxes. Fair enough, as Jesus certainly seems ok with paying taxes. But what most Christians miss is what else Jesus is saying… that his disciples dare not give to Caesar what belongs to God – their life.

The coin has Caesar’s image on it so it is ok to give the coin back to Caesar but people bear the image of God, so they dare not give their lives to anyone but God. That means Christians, who follow Jesus, pledge their allegiance to nobody but God… not any nation and nor any president and the flag that signifies them. No allegiance to anyone except for Jesus who is Lord. But many Christians in America fail to see this and as a result they live quite comfortably aligned to a America, identifying themselves with the cause of America, and supporting almost every American endeavor to achieve and maintain that cause. However, now more than a few Christians see America as turning away from God, so their response is to fight for America to return to the ways of God. However, this is part of the bigger problem for Christians living in America.

A Turning Point?

The United States of America was never a Christian nation, regardless of what Christian values it may have one time embraced. As a nation, it’s goal has always been its own sovereignty which is completely incompatible with the Christian conviction that Jesus alone is Lord (Sovereign). Further more, regardless of whatever Christian values America at one time embraced, it also rejected many Christian values in order to establish itself through war and the exploitation and oppression of non-European people such as Native Americans and Africans.

Yet because many Christians, probably of White/European descent, believed in America as a “Christian” nation, they were comfortable among that version of America (this should be a call for much contemplation knowing that the Bible was read in a manner that allowed Christians to be comfortable with a secular nation). But now these same Christians feel a sense of loss… the loss of a “Christian” nation.

Perhaps this loss will allow a new recognition to take hold among Christians living in America, that we do not belong to Caesar even when Caesar is robed in the colors of red, white, and blue… that we must never give to Caesar America what belongs to God — our allegiance. Yet this will only work if there is an awareness among Christians who believed in the “Christian” nation version of America that this unholy allegiance to America was and is wrong. Without that recognition, Christian will likely only continue wasting time on trying to conserve the “Christian” nation that never existed and falter in following Jesus and living as witnesses of the Kingdom of God.

Discipleship Among a Secular Nation

As expected, there are a lot of Christians who disagree in some manner with the recent SCOTUS decision ruling in favor of gay marriage. That’s ok. But it’s also time to breath and relax. The decision is not as big as some Christian voice make it out to be. The SCOTUS ruling in favor of gay marriage will not make America any less of a Christian nation because it never was one to begin with. So with that in mind, instead of fighting for America to return to this allusion of a Christian heritage, it’s time to spend energy learning how to live among a secular American nation. That means learning how to live as a faithful follower of Jesus, embodying the gospel he proclaimed. Do that and the church in America becomes the people who “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Racism, Violence, and An Anemic Church

The murder of nine black Christians who were gathered for Bible-study at the historic Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina last Wednesday by the hands of a single gunman who was there “to shoot black people” is horrific. But it is also a terrible reminder or the racism and violence that pervades America as a society. Unequivocally, racism and violence are two major issues in America, both of which causing great harm to the victims of such evil as well as undermining any sense of a civil society. The good news is that the church, called to live as an embodiment of the gospel of Jesus Christ, is poised to counter such racism and violence with the love and peace of Christ. Yet when the church ignores racism as a significant issue and justifies violence as a sometimes-necessary way of life, the church loses its prophetic gospel witness amidst an American society full of racism and violence.

Denial and Justifying the Wrong

The racism and violence that pervades in America should concern the church but sadly, this is not the case for many churches and the Christians who make up those churches. Instead of calling people to embody the love and peace of Christ as a counter-narrative to values of racism and violence, Father’s Day sermons were preached in many churches − because that’s the expectation of the chaplaincy pulpit.

It gets even worse when we turn on social-media, for there we encounter the failure of Christianity in America to embody a prophetic gospel witness. First, there are some white Christians who just want to deny the reality of racism. They speak of their own un-prejudiced treatment of blacks and other minorities and think that because they are not prejudice, that racism is not really that big of an issue. Some Christians will defend the symbols of racism, such as the Confederate Flag, as though these symbols are meaningless. They don’t want to have any constructive conversation about racism, a decision that white privilege allows since it is not the white person who has historically suffered under racism.

When it comes to violence, some Christians would rather talk about how allowing a concealed-carrying gun permit would make us safer. Instead of asking how the church can church can press deeper into faithfulness during such challenging moments, they want to talk about what level of violent measures might be necessary to make our worship gatherings more secure. In order to justify the “necessary” violence, appeal is made to Jesus. Yes, Jesus! Ignoring the peaceable kingdom-narrative that Jesus embodied… ignoring the self-sacrifical manner of life that Jesus lived which refused to harm others… ignoring the fact that Jesus went to the cross and told his disciples that if they are going to follow him then they better be ready to carry their own cross, some Christians will proof-text the story of Jesus overturning the table and driving the animals out of the temple to suggest that Jesus was violent and therefore justifies our violence. I’ve heard others, in a twisted anachronistic logic, appeal to Trinitarian doctrine to say that since Jesus is God in the Flesh that Jesus in the Old Testament approves of violence since God in the Old Testament approved violence (and they don’t even see the hermeneutical problems… should we stone every adulterer too? And put to death disobedient children?).

Forget the Irrelevant Nonsense… Embody the Gospel

This is where the church needs to wake up! Every day I read some blog or article about the evangelistic struggles that churches are encountering. Most of these article offer nothing but more nonsense (another phrase comes to mind but I’ll restrain myself) suggesting that if pastors just double-down on more creative preaching, if churches just get on board with the latest trendy worship style… was it contemporary, Taizé, liturgical, or…, offering four or five strategies for becoming missional, or offering four to five leadership principles to reignite your outreach, and on and on it goes. Nonsense!

You want to know why the church is becoming more and more irrelevant? It’s because the churches in America have little left by way of an alternative life. Regardless of what churches say they believe when you click on their “about us” page on their website, too many churches offer little alternative to the pervasive racism and violence because of the way they, through the Christians that make up these churches, ignore the issue of racism and justify violence. Who needs a church when that church appears and sometimes does embody the same life embodied by the American society at large? Why should any non-Christian desire to become a part of a church that isn’t any different from America? Nobody needs a church for that, they already have America!

If churches want to reach their community with the gospel of Jesus Christ, they must learn to not only speak the gospel but embody the gospel. That means speaking prophetically to the issues of racism and violence while embodying the kingdom alternative which is the radical love and peace of Christ demonstrated through forgiveness and reconciliation. We saw a sign of that embodiment when the daughter of Ethal Lance, one of the victims killed at the Emmanuel AME Church, said to the accused killer “But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”

A Final Thought… The Kingdom Alternative

Are there other pressing issues the church should be prophetically speaking about? Of course, there are. But the issues of racism and violence are the issues at hand now and they are issues that have and will continue to plague society without any church ready to demonstrate the kingdom alternative. To dismiss the issue of racism and justify violence, or to try shifting the conversation by bringing up other issues, only makes the church more anemic. In such a difficult time, it is time to press deeply into the gospel and ask what it means to faithfully embody the kingdom alternative among a society plagued by racism and violence. That can’t be done pretending racism isn’t a big issue or engaging in hermeneutical gymnastics in order to justify violence. That happens by following Jesus who showed us what it means to love God and neighbor…even our enemies!

Participating in Global Missions

This is a guest post from a friend and fellow follower of Jesus, Will. In this post Will talks about global missions, how he and his wife are participating in missions, and one way in which you might join in this work.

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Jesus said we’d be his witnesses even to the ends of the earth. The missionary community has been pushing towards that goal for almost two millennia now. As it turns out, we’ve already reached the easy geopolitical areas. What’s left are places like Somalia, whose government is in shambles and violence is an everyday fact of life. Or perhaps the northern border country of India, where in one region kidnapping is the number one economic activity. Or even the restricted access countries like China, Vietnam, Russia or the Muslim-bloc countries. Or the geographically brutal jungle tribe regions in the Amazon and in Papua New Guinea. Most of those areas left are hostile to both God and humanity. The point is that the final push to the absolute ends of the earth is the hardest one.

Conversely, church giving to pioneer missions is pretty low. Current giving is estimated as less than 0.05% church resources dedicated to pioneer missions. The number of full-time professional missionaries going to the field is also on the decline. These facts hit home on my Harding University graduation day in 2006 when I saw more than 1000 of my peers graduate, and only 2 of us were missions majors. A few more than that minored in missions. Something had to change, I though. We cannot move forward if we can’t send more.

A couple of trends in missions came to bear at that moment. First was a blended model of missionary activity and health care. Now, missionary activity should be thought of as actively sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ and forming new believers into a local, indigenous church. Many of us have participated in medical missions, and they are truly a blessing when we are able to participate in these social endeavors that support the indigenous church. We don’t often get to share our faith in medical missions, because we often don’t speak the language or understand the local culture. For the last ten years I’ve been serving in a number of social work roles in different organizations in three different countries, speaking in five different languages. The second trend is “business as mission”. It was first termed in 2004 by the Lausanne Committee. It too is a blended model, but it unites business activity with missionary activity. In my years trying to help people both medically and economically, the realization came that jobs are really what brings economic development. It was an “aha!” moment, followed by a “duh!” moment.

When I interned as a missionary in Switzerland, and when I lived as one in Guatemala, one of the hardest things to overcome was a lack of role in the host culture. In other words, when people asked what I did, my answer didn’t really make sense to them, and I was relegated to the “weird guy” role. Fast forward to 2015. My wife and I now own an importing business. We sell high-quality loose leaf Coban black tea online at an affordable price. This allows us to truthfully say that we are importers when we are introducing ourselves. It also allows us to speak the gospel of Jesus to our suppliers and buyers. It also allows us to go to countries in the Muslim-block, which is a major consumer of tea, without fear of retribution.

Tea is to Muslim countries as beer is to Texas. We can make relationships with people who would never have anything to do with a missionary, and we can tell them about Jesus. It’s really exciting to talk to a Muslim about Jesus and to give them a copy of the gospel in Arabic. There really isn’t a feeling like it that I can describe, except by elation. It’s a very simple task, but so profound. Not only can it create jobs and create relationships, but it can also create fundraising opportunities for pioneer missions, which is one of our goals with this business. We currently operate in Guatemala and the USA, but our next phases will be to open markets in major Arab immigrant communities in the USA, then to North Africa, and then to Afghanistan.

If you’re a tea-drinker, I hope you’ll join me in supporting our business and the mission at TRW Fair Trade Imports.

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Bio: Will and his wife, Karen, and live in Atlanta, Georgia. Will is a graduate of Harding University with a Bachelor of Arts in both Missions and French and is currently working toward an Master of Business Administration at Harding where he is on track to graduate in 2015. Will also works full-time as a patient navigator, providing resources for elderly cancer patients across Georgia. Both Will and his wife are active members of North Metro Church in Kennesaw, GA.