Three Suggestions for Church Leaders

aaeaaqaaaaaaaallaaaajdy0zwuwotfkltfkntatngjkzi1hnjyylwnmywvmntmwnwu2maRegardless of what might pass a leadership among society, the church is different or should be different. Leadership within the kingdom of God is not about positional authority or ruling over others but about serving. As Jesus said to his disciples in Luke 22:25-26, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves” (NRSV).

Notice the contrast Jesus makes between ruling over people and serving people. When church leaders, such as ministers/pastors and elders/shepherds, act as though their role is a position that entitles them to make decisions, they are ruling over rather than serving the church. Regardless of the intentions, acting with positional authority will create problems that usually brings about decline. At the same time, for there to be leadership then those called to lead must do so with vision and courage just as Jesus himself did. Timid leadership can just as easily result in problems that brings about decline.

At the surface, it sometimes seems like there is a paradox between serving and leading. Perhaps so and if there is indeed a paradox, then we should let it stand and wrestle with it rather than trying to eliminate whatever tension it creates.

With that being said, here are three simple suggestions for church leaders:

  1. Lead by example. In the economy of God’s kingdom, leaders are followers of Jesus first. Leadership is thus characterized by having a humble and self-sacrificial posture that is willing to care for others. Setting an example also means going first where one desires to lead others. Leaders must themselves cultivate a life of discipleship if they seek to be a church making and maturing disciples.
  2. Lead by listening. Spend time with people and get to know them, learn who they are and what they’re passionate about or what sort of struggles they have as well as questions and concerns they have. Doing so validates their existence and feelings as well as opening space to ask questions that will allow everyone to further discern where God is leading and then begin to go there together.
  3. Lead by Conviction. At the end of the day, leaders must be decisive. However, good leadership makes decisions based upon beliefs, principles and values rather than popularity. This doesn’t negate listening to others but no matter what decisions are made, someone will always disagree. So at the end of the day it is better to lead from convictions rather than the approval of others as right is always right regardless of it’s popularity.

So now, what says you?

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Imagining The Church

One of my favorite books, perhaps the best, I’ve ever read is Vincent J. Donavan, Christianity Rediscovered, 25th Anv. Ed., 2003. The book is an account of Donavan’s ministry in Tanzania as a Catholic missionary and his reassessment of what it means to follow Jesus which led to rediscovering his Christian faith. I like the book because not only is it a great story to read but whether you’re reading the book as a lesson on multi-cultural mission work or just a devotional text on faith, Donavan’s story is encouraging.

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Donavan’s story reminds us that when we follow Jesus, the church Jesus desires will always follow but that church will not necessarily be what we expected. This was the lesson the apostle Peter learned too. If you recall when Jesus told his disciples that he was going to be crucified, it was Peter who rebuked Jesus (Mk 8:32) for speaking about dying on a Roman cross. While Peter was able to discern that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, his imagination for what it meant to be part of this Jesus movement couldn’t fathom how crucifixion fit into that scheme. But Peter would learn and learn again.

In Acts chapter 10 we read about the conversion of Cornelius, a Gentile who served as a Roman soldier. In the story Peter is given a vision during his sleep of heaven opening up with animals that Jews considered unclean appearing in the vision as Peter is told to eat. However, Peter rejected such an idea and why… because his imagination for what it meant to be a part of this Jesus movement did not have any capacity for inclusion of the Gentiles. But the Lord spoke saying in v. 15, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” Thus Peter, who was still loyally committed to following Jesus, learned.

What lesson did Peter exactly learn? Well, we can obviously say that Peter learned the kingdom of God is inaugurated the the crucifixion of Jesus the Messiah. We also can say that Peter learned the kingdom of God is a realm without an ethnic and national boundaries. But I believe Peter learned even more and that there is more that we can learn too.

Peter learned that in following Jesus, the church Jesus desires will always follow too but that church will not necessarily be what he expected. But can we learn that lesson too? You see, everyone has an imagination for how we understand the church to be…

  • What the church should look like.
  • How the church should act.
  • Who belongs to the church.
  • What the markers of the true church are.
  • How the church should participate in the mission of God.

These ideas all constitute what we hold convictions and there’s nothing wrong with having convictions per se. The question is hold tightly or loosely do we hold our convictions about the church. Can Jesus challenge our imaginations about what it means to be the church?

I hope so.

One thing I am certain of is that if we follow Jesus then the church Jesus wants us to be will always follow, though it may be different from what we imagine the church to be. However, if our imaginations for what the church should look like, how it should act, who belongs in the church, what it’s true markers are, and how it participates in the mission of God never changes, then perhaps we might start asking if it’s Jesus whom we’re really following.

Agape Blitz in Portland, Oregon

Two weeks ago I accompanied three other adults and six students, including my daughter, from the Chillicothe Church of Christ on a service mission trip to the city of Portland, Oregon. The purpose of our trip was to work with the Agape Church of Christ as part of their summer Agape Blitz in serving people who are homeless.

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Group photo taken with the family of Ron and Lori Clark. Ron serves as the Minister with the Agape Church of Christ in Portland.

We did this by working in some homeless camps that provide housing shelter to those who otherwise would likely be sleeping on city sidewalks or underneath some overpass. We also participated in a Night Strike which according to the website “is a community gathering that mobilizes volunteers/services, meets felt needs, and develops relationships that transform lives.” This is a weekly event that provides everything from basic care, such as haircuts and feet-washing, to services that extend human dignity to people who often are ignored by much of society, such as offering a hot meal and friendship.

Besides the work we were doing, we enjoyed the fellowship we had with one another as we took a day to travel into the mountains and visit both Seaside and Canon Beach on the Pacific Ocean. In addition, we enjoyed some meals together, a few stops at local coffee shops, and a visit to the famous Voodoo Donuts, which provided us with opportunities to grow closer to each other as people who are all on the journey of following Jesus.

To sum up this trip, it was an opportunity to not only love people but to teach our students what it means to follow Jesus. Our goal was to #SeeJesusBeJesus. Or in other words, we wanted see how God is working in Jesus and to participate in the work that God is doing in Jesus among the world. Of course, that is something we can and are learning to do in our everyday lives as people of “the Way” (cf. Acts 9:2). As Jerry, a deacon of our church who organized this trip, says, “Everybody is somebody, so treat everybody as somebody.”

I personally am really proud of our students. When it came time to work, they worked hard without complaining. When it came time to interact with people whose lives and circumstances were very different than their own, they loved and served without fear or judgement. Here is a slide show video of our trip…

The Christian Mind

If we want to know how someone thinks, the place to begin is with what the person does. Except for the ignorance of acting without thinking, which we all are woefully guilty of at times, human action reflects human thought. The important question we must ask ourselves is what kind of thinking shapes the way we live?

Living Christ PosterThe question of what kind of thinking we do is important because virtuous thought doesn’t always seem natural. Just take children for example. Get any group of three-year old children together and they will play together without any concern for matters such as skin colors, clothing apparel, etc… But they’ll need to be told again and again to share. Sharing toys with each other is not a part of their thinking.

Unfortunately, as they grow up, this me-first selfish mentality is reinforced over and over. I remember years ago seeing a bumper-sticker that said “He who has the most toys wins!” And if you remember watching the MTV show Cribs, a reality television in which viewers received a tour of the homes belonging to Hollywood celebrities, actors, musicians, and athletes, then it sure seemed like there was truth to that bumper-sticker.

As Christians though, we are called to a different way of life and one that reflects the good news of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. But old habits die hard. Following Jesus requires a new way of thinking so that our new way of living will take shape over time. This is the reason why Paul reminds us of the Christ-hymn in Philippians 2:5-11:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very natureGod, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! 

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The point isn’t simply to tell us about Jesus and help us develop a more sound doctrine of christology, though that’s certainly helpful. Paul is interested in cultivating our mind-set, as v. 5 says.

This matters because most conflicts in church are made difficult not because people disagree but the way people disagree. When “selfish ambition or vain conceit” as opposed to the humility of regarding others before ourselves and caring for the interests of others guides our train of thought, conflict becomes a disaster. As Christians though, we must learn to think in a selfless manner that seeks to serve others because that is the model and example we have learned from Jesus Christ. It is the Christian mind in us that places others above ourselves, considering their needs before our own and even when the cost to us is great.

A couple years ago I listened to Dr. Kent Brantly share his story of caring for patients with Ebola in the African country of Liberia. While treating patients, he contracted the deadly virus and nearly died. Yet he didn’t regret his decision to go serve others suffering from such a terrible illness. But in talking with a few other Christians about his story, I heard someone remark about the faith of Dr. Brantly and then quip how they doubt they could ever do that.

Well, it does take a lot of faith but that faith is the product of a mind that has been cultivated as a Christian mind. Our heroes of faith are people just like us who simply have allowed God to conform them in the likeness of Jesus Christ. That’s the only difference. So while I don’t want to downplay their faith, I don’t want to supersize it in a way that allows us to say that could never be us because that’s just not true. The question of faith is just a matter of how much our mind-set has been cultivated as a Christian mind, reflecting the mind-set of Jesus. So instead of saying we could never… we should begin with the dangerous prayer of “Lord, Jesus Christ, make me like you!”

What Matters Most

A lot has transpired for my family over the last month. We have finally made the move from Columbia, Maryland to Chillicothe, Missouri so that I can serve full-time as a minister with the Chillicothe Church of Christ. Since moving 1,000 miles across country is time consuming and stressful, I haven’t had time to write much on this blog. However, now that I’m done with the move, I plan on returning to more regular writing.

Living Christ PosterThough I have been swith the congregation since last October, traveling back and forth between Maryland and Missouri, last Sunday was my first sermon as a Chillicothe resident. I have begun a summer preaching series based on the book of Philippians called Living Christ. Now that I’m here full-time, I wanted to begin by talking about what I believe matters the most and that is Jesus Christ. Paul makes this clear in his letter to the Philippians as he seeks to guide this community of believers, who are facing opposition and struggling with some conflict, to continue in way of Jesus Christ. In this way, Paul is confident that the work God has begun in the Philippians will continue until the day of Jesus Christ (1:6).

This is how I feel about the Chillicothe Church of Christ. God has already been at work with this church, something he began long before I was even born. My work as a minister of the gospel is to help this church continue in the way of Jesus so that the work which God has already begun will continue until the day of Jesus Christ. In many ways, this is an invitation from God to continue seeing what he is doing in Christ and join in that work.

But with that invitation comes a challenge too. When Paul wrote to the Philippians, he was in prison and possibly facing execution for preaching Jesus. Yet he rejoiced because his suffering had encouraged confidence in other believers to preach the gospel (1:14). Even in acknowledging that some were preaching for false motives, he is fine with this since they are preaching Christ (1:19). That might seem strange but for Paul, the one thing that matters is the proclamation of Jesus Christ. So in what is kind of a mantra for Paul, he says in Philippians 1:21, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

What matters most for any church, including the Philippians and the Chillicothe Church of Christ, is Jesus Christ. In particular, what matters is the proclamation of Jesus in word and deed. Everything we do, every decision we make and ever endeavor we pursue, must be shaped and guided by the proclamation of Jesus Christ. This also is a challenge to embody the gospel of Jesus Christ as our way of life because without such embodiment, our proclamation in word just becomes meaningless chatter to the surrounding society.

Pray for the Chillicothe Church of Christ and pray for every other church in the community as well as your own church and the other churches in your community. Pray that we may all prioritize Jesus Christ. Whatever problems, struggles, and questions there are facing churches in America, the way forward is by refocusing on what matters most: Jesus Christ.

“I want to know Christ — yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.”

– The Apostle Paul, Philippians 3:10-11

A Confession: The Blessing I Forgot

“Rejoice Christian! Your sins are forgiven and you have the gift of eternal life in Christ,” says the preacher.

jesus-crucified-08-2“Good sermon, preacher!”, says me the faithful, church-going Christian. It’s the kind of sermon I want to hear and it’s all true too. It’s nice to be reminded of such spiritual blessings in Christ and it’s good to be so blessed.

Then like a good Christian should do, I pick up my Bible and read. Today I’m reading in Philippians, a letter written to Christians by the apostle Paul.

And so I begin reading about how thankful Paul is for the Christians who partner with him in the gospel and how Paul is in prayer for such Christians. That’s nice. I need prayers and I’m sure there are plenty of other Christians who need prayers too. So it’s good to know that Paul is full of thanksgiving and prayer for his fellow Christians.

And then I read how Paul is actually “in chains” for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. How terrible it must be for him to be confined to a jail cell like that but I’m thankful for his faith. I’m thankful too that nobody has ever put me in prison for being a Christian.

And then I read how Paul says, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Can Paul get an “Amen!”? Maybe a “Hallelujah!”? Of course he can. Now we got an idea for the next student devotional, the next church retreat. Hey… a good preacher might even develop a good sermon series about living for Christ, knowing that when we die — hopefully a very long time from now when were really old people — that we’ll gain our eternal inheritance in Christ.

Wow… this is going to be a really wonderful book of the Bible to read through.

But then Paul talks about standing firm in Christ and says… “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him…” (Phil 1:29, NIV).

I know those words were not written directly to me or any other Christian living today, yet those words are part of the story we’re called to embody. But when I think about the blessing of being included in Christ, suffering for Christ isn’t a part of such thinking. In fact, my first inclination is to say, “Thanks for such a grant but no thanks!”

Lord, have mercy on me… a sinful man!

A More Violent Christianity?

“Do not treat prophesies with contempt but test them all: hold on to what is good” (1 Thess 5:20-21). Discernment has always been necessary for Christians because the difference between “good” and “bad” prophesy is never so black and white. Like spiked punch, the bad is always cloaked in enough good that it appears good to the undiscerning.

Unsalty Salt: Misreading The Bible

Such is the case of these words spoken Dave Daubenmire, a Christian and former high-school football coach turned activist on the religious right. In a recent live episode of his Pass The Salt, the “Coach” said, “The only thing that’s going to save western civilization is a more aggressive… a more violent Christianity.”

Well, Coach Daubenmire is just flat wrong! If that’s salt he’s passing, it’s lost its saltiness! Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not denying that Daubenmire is a believer or that he doesn’t mean well but when he suggests that America needs a more violent Christianity, he is speaking what we might call false prophesy.

i283445314525658362-_szw480h1280_If you listen to Coach Daubenmire, it’s clear that he has read the Bible and regards the Bible as the inspired word of God. But suggesting a need for a more violent Christianity is a great example of how one can completely misread the Bible. That’s made clear also when he talks about the violence in the Bible and then says, “The Bible teaches violence as a last resort.”

Yes, there is violence in the Bible. There’s also polygamy in the Bible as well as kings ruling over the people but I doubt the Coach is ready to suggest that western civilization needs polygamy and monarch rule again. So how does he suggest that Christianity needs to become more aggressive and violent? Because his reading of the Bible is neither Christ-centered nor kingdom-oriented!

Christian Faith and The Bible

The only reason there is a worldwide group of people called “Christians” is because of the historical existence of Jesus, whom Christians confess as Lord and Messiah. As part of jesus-crucified-08-2the confession of faith in Jesus, Christians not only believe that Jesus was crucified and resurrected but that he also is the Son of God, the second-person of the Trinity who is God Incarnate revealing the fullness of God. In fact, Hebrews says that Jesus “is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being…” (Heb 1:3). So when it comes to the question of who God is, Christians point to Jesus. And it’s not just that Jesus is like God but that God is 100% like Jesus… that is, Jesus is God in living flesh and he calls us to follow him.

The revelation of God in Jesus both centers and orients faith, thus also centering and orienting the way Christians read the Bible. In other words, Christians do not read the Bible indiscriminately because doing so would mean that one could make a case for offering sacrifices for the atonement of sin since such teaching is a part of the Bible. But that won’t happen because Christians read the Bible in light of the life and teaching of Jesus. But somehow when it comes to the issue of violence, there are some Christians who resort to an indiscriminate reading of the Bible.

A Christian reading of the Bible is one that is Christ-centered and kingdom-oriented. It’s that simple and that complex, depending on how one looks at it. Since Christians are called to follow Jesus and thus be conformed into the likeness of Christ (cf. Rom 8:29; Gal 4:19), Christian faith and the reading of scripture is centered by Christ. That is, Christians read scripture to embody the way of life Jesus lived which took him to the cross. However, Jesus’ own life and teaching was also oriented towards the kingdom of God rather than any particular earthly civilization or society. That is to say that Jesus was bearing witness to the life that was to come, the reign of God where his will is done on earth as it is in heaven (cf. Matt 5:10) and had already begun breaking into the present. Christians too are a witness of this kingdom life and though imperfect, are called to embody God’s kingdom future in the present.

With a Christ-centered and kingdom-oriented faith shaping the way Christians read the Bible, it is unbiblical to say that Christianity must become violent. This has nothing to do with the ethical dilemma of whether there is ever a so-called “just-war” or whether Christians can use a measure of violence in self-defense. This is about following King Jesus rather than the world.

An Example…

Coach Daubenmire alluded to the violence that early Christians encountered saying, “You look at all the crap that the disciples went through…” They did suffer persecution and sometimes even unto their own death but they never called for Christians to become aggressive and violent towards their persecutors. In fact, the Apostle Peter wrote to some Christians who were suffering persecution and he said,

“But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pet 2:20-21).

But this will likely never make sense to Christians whose faith is centered in and oriented towards something other than embodying the way of Jesus and the kingdom of God.

Discern wisely! Test all prophesies and hold on to what is good!