Discipleship In Community: A Review

Like other church denominations in America, Churches of Christ are facing many challenges in the twenty-first century. While the tasks of ministry are the same as they have always been, the monumental shifts in culture have brought new challenges. In many ways, local congregations are facing a realization that the new social context is uncharted territory for which the maps used in navigating previous territory are obsolete. However, this doesn’t mean congregations are helpless and left blindly navigating their way forward. For uncharted territory, Tod Bolsinger says the first task in going forward is a recommitment to the core identity (Canoeing The Mountains, p. 94). As Christians, our core identity is a theological commitment and this is what Mark E. Powell, John Mark Hicks, and Greg McKinzie offer Churches of Christ in their new book Discipleship In Community: A Theological Vision for the Future.

41ucepfegxlFresh off the press of Abilene Christian University Press, this book is 190 pages, divided into eight chapters and then followed by three responses as well as a couple of appendices. Though the three authors all teach theology at the academia level, the book is written in very accessible prose. With some basic familiarity of the Bible and Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement (SCRM) history, readers will easily follow along. As the title suggests, the book offers a vision for navigating the way forward by providing a theological framework that is focused on the formation of disciples within the local church. This framework is anchored in the historical Christian faith affirmed in both scripture and Christian tradition. On a personal note, I attended seminary with Greg McKinzie at Harding School of Theology in Memphis where we both had Mark E. Powell and John Mark Hicks as professors. So reading the book reminded me of some fond memories we all shared inside the classroom.

The core work of the book is within chapters two through eight and each chapter builds upon the previous. So rightfully, chapter two provides the theological foundation which is a Trinitarian understanding of of God which then opens space for the eschatological orientation of God’s mission that churches are called to participate in. Essential to such participation is reading the Bible as a practice “called theological interpretation of Scripture, as a way of encountering the living Word” (p. 70). This is a narrative approach that seeks to avoid both populism and perspicuity or the idea that anyone can pick up the Bible and rightfully understand scripture because the meaning is always self-evident. The authors intent is not to suggest that only people with theological education can understand the teaching of scripture. Rather, the point is that understanding the scriptures requires a relationship with God that results in character transformation, which is “to conform to the Spirit’s nature” (p. 81).

Having this Trinitarian foundation that is eschatologically oriented as churches engage in a narrative reading of scripture cultivates a framework for understanding what it means to be church. By church the authors have in mind the Believers Church tradition, which is associated with the Anabaptists but still confesses with the Nicene Creed that “the church is one, holy, universal (or catholic), and apostolic” (p. 94). This brings more clarity in understanding the place of the sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, in the formation of disciples and what it means for local churches to live as participants in the mission of God.

The vision presented by Powell, Hicks, and McKinzie seek to incorporate the healthy aspects of the SCRM while challenging aspects of this tradition that need challenged. For example, their book encourages Churches of Christ in continuing to take scripture seriously as our Restoration tradition has historically sought to do. At the same time, while remaining respectful in tone, they are rightfully critical towards some of the Trinitarian views held within the SCRM and allow the greater Christian Tradition to correct these views. As hinted at earlier, readers will also find the three responses by Lauren Smelser White, Stanley Talbert, and Carson E. Reed helpful. I was especially appreciative of Reed’s response because while I too see the place of finding continuity with our past, I also see a need for some discontinuity if churches are to go forward on mission with God. A Reed mentions, “To point out such discontinuous spaces with regard to practical theology highlights the need for Churches of Christ to recognize that new strands of DNA may well be necessary for mission and ministry in the twenty-first century” (p. 179). In other words, Churches of Christ cannot realistically expect to find renewal through the formation of disciples if the practical outworking of theology  (theological praxis) among local churches remains the same. That’s doing the same thing while expecting different results, which we know is the classic definition of insanity.

One concern I have is what I believe is missing from the book and that is a chapter on the subject of Christology. The authors rightfully ground the foundation of discipleship within a Trinitarian understanding of God and they rightfully help us see that following Jesus is eschatologically oriented towards the future. However, because Churches of Christ are rightfully a people of scripture, the hermeneutical question of how we read the Bible so that we may participate in the mission of God as disciples matters. The answer to the hermeneutical question is answered in part by having a Trinitarian foundation and an eschatological orientation. However, the narrative of scripture is centered in Jesus Christ as the one who reveals God and his mission to us (cf. Jn 1:1-4, 14-18; Col 1:15, 19; Heb 1:2-3). Our participation in the mission of God as followers of Jesus and the moral/ethical formation that demands is centered in who Jesus, so that our lives are increasingly conformed to the life Jesus lived — his beliefs, values, and practices — which willing embraced the cross as the way of redemption. In my judgment, this book would be perfect with a chapter on Christology, explaining how the doctrine of Christ and the logic of the cross that Christ embraced should shape our reading of scripture and thus our formation as his disciples.

All said, I highly recommend Discipleship In Community for you to read. Powell, Hicks, and McKinzie provide a compelling theological vision for navigating the uncharted territory ahead of us. Knowing the three authors, I’m sure they would agree that this book should be read as a conversational prompt rather than holy writ and that is what a good book, such as this, should always do. So don’t wait. Instead, go purchase your copy and read.

A Little Musing on Sermon Preparation for Pastors and the Church

I’m a pastor who preaches. Like many other pastors, most Sundays I will be preaching a message to the church I serve. I’ve been doing this for over twenty years now and still love doing so. Although I cringe sometimes when I read some of the sermons I wrote when I was younger, I’m thankful to God for his grace upon both myself and the churches I have preached to.

preaching-errorsAlthough my approach to preaching has changed over the years, the message strives to faithfully take what the scripture says and bring it to bear upon the life of the church. This is so much more than just exegeting a passage of scripture. You see, I believe that preaching is a way of helping lead the local church in following the way of Jesus by proclaiming the word of God as both a pastoral affirmation and/or prophetic declaration that is an invitation and challenge spoken in love and seasoned by humility, grace, and truth.‬ While that work is dependent upon the Holy Spirit, it does require sermon preparation on both the part of the pastor and church.

Preparation in preaching begins with following Jesus. Both the pastor and church must share a commitment in living as a community of disciples. How can a pastor lead people in following the way of Jesus if the pastor isn’t striving to follow Jesus? How can a church follow the way of Jesus if those who gather together on Sunday as the church are not following Jesus? I begin here because we all know examples of nominal Christianity in America, examples of Christianity in which consumerism, nationalism, and traditionalism have eclipsed the mission of God. Such idols obscure our eyes and hears from seeing and hearing the gospel. So good sermon prep begins by following Jesus in seeking first the kingdom of God (cf. Mt 6:33).

Preparation for the pastor also involves listening to people and reading books. First, let me say that reading theology, philosophy, etc… does not mean ignoring scripture or regarding the Bible as deficient in some manner. What reading does is allow the consideration of perspectives that otherwise might go unnoticed, cultivating a depth of knowledge and wisdom that shapes the message being proclaimed. In my own experience, such reading opens space for seeing more clearly how God might be at work in the world so that the church might continue participating with God in that work. However, in addition to reading and the exegesis of scripture, I am convinced that good preaching requires time spent with people, listening to their desires, struggles, and so forth. Listening to people is how the Spirit, in revealing the things of God (cf. 1 Cor 2:10), enables us to hear the word of God as a word to the people who will hear his word preached.

As suggested earlier, good sermon preparation isn’t just the work of the pastor. The believers who will gather for worship to hear the word of God proclaimed also have some preparation to do as well. The, whether as a monologue or dialogue, is not a passive occasion just to receive a “booster shot” for the week ahead. If preaching, as I contend, is to help the church follow in the way of Jesus, then our preparation as hearers of God’s word begins with the regular prayer of the psalmist, “Teach me your way, Lord, so that I can walk in your truth” (Ps 86:11).

Good preaching will always proclaim the word of God that we need to hear, which is not necessarily the word we will always want to hear. While hearing that word of God is impossible apart from the Spirit, preparation is a means in which the Spirit works so that pastors will have a message to preach that the church will hear. 

A Moratorium On The Word Biblical?

I’m sure you’ve heard about the biblical truth, having a biblical worldview, the biblical view of manhood and woman hood, the biblical view of marriage, the biblical view of… And on and on it goes. In general terms, the use of this adjective biblical is to say that here is how the Bible views this or that subject. However, that itself is often to claim too much. Plus, any claim is always a matter of interpretation which will be shaped by a person’s hermeneutics or how they read the Bible.

35244-biblereading-bible.1200w.tn_

My concern is the way I see the word biblical used to contrast one view, the alleged biblical view, against another view. Most recently I’ve encountered this in relation to conversations about racism and critical race theory. Now I don’t know enough about critical race theory to evaluate it but I do know there are some Christian who see some value in critical race theory while other Christians don’t. But for those that don’t, to say that critical race theory is inconsistent with a biblical world view is to claim too much. Such a claim appears as just an inconspicuous way for Christians to equate their interpretation of scripture as the totality of what the Bible says.

For anyone to claim their interpretation as the biblical view, as though their understanding is what the Bible teaches in toto is too much of a claim. Perhaps the interpretation is fairly consistent with certain teaching in scripture but it may also be that the biblical view, even the so-called “biblical worldview” is absorbed in another worldview. Plus, while the Bible tells a complete and coherent story from Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is a collection of sixty-six writings. These writings, which constitute different genres, span several covenants within particular historical periods and were originally written to different people in a variety of different circumstances. As a result, the Bible is hardly monolithic and at times is likely to express several different views on any given subject.

Also, maybe it’s just me but sometimes it seems that using the adjective biblical is just a way of shutting down consideration of other viewpoints. It works similar to when people say “if you disagree with me on ____ then your argument isn’t with me, it’s with God.” There’s another theological term for this called Hogwash. It’s hogwash because it is entirely possible for sincere followers of Jesus to read the Bible and draw different conclusions about what the Bible says regarding a slew of different issues. In fact, some of these conclusions may even be the result of putting the cart before the horse in what amounts to eisegesis rather than exegesis. As Christian Smith said, “far from scripture functioning as an independent authority guiding the lives of believers, the Bible is often used by its readers in various ways to help legitimate and maintain the commitments and assumptions that they already hold before coming to the biblical text” (cf. The Bible Made Impossible, 75). So for anyone to claim their understanding as the biblical view of… may in fact be rather audacious and presumptuous.

Anyway, I’m saying all this to say that maybe it’s time we place a moratorium on using the adjective biblical when expressing our understanding of scripture. Instead, let’s just say that as followers of Jesus who take the Bible seriously, this is how we understand whatever issue we are talking about.



Update: I’m speaking with hyperbole when I suggest placing a moratorium on the word biblical but I’m doing so for a reason. This adjective is used so frequently that it is almost meaningless (again, I highly recommend Smith’s book “The Bible Made Impossible”). Also, the Bible doesn’t always present a monolithic view on some subjects (e.g., manhood/womanhood, divorce, etc…), so the question isn’t what is the biblical view but which biblical view. This is why I suggest moratorium, which is always temporary, so that Christians might better learn to speak about the Bible and in some cases, not use that adjective as a way of stifling any further conversation.

Let’s Not Turn Love Into a Platitude!

Over the last several months we have witnessed society delve ever deeper into an abyss of contempt and hostility. Beginning with the Covid-19 pandemic, followed by the high profile murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breona Taylor, and George Floyd, the vitriolic climate that has lurked mostly beneath the surface in America has began spewing. Some might even say the volcano has already began erupting. What we see is the rightful protests against systematic racism and the ever widening political gap between the direction America should pursue.

Some see the anger, injustice, and violence and wonder why we can’t all just get along. Such a sentiment isn’t new at all. Rodney King, a black man who suffered a horrific beating at the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department, expressed the same sentiment back in 1992 following the riots in Los Angeles. Others will say we just need to love people. I heard two different people express that sentiment the other day. So let’s think about love just a little more.

woman-caught-in-adultery-painting-facebookMany people, Christian or not, know the two great commands in the Bible are loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Whether people believe in the existence of God or not, nobody can argue against the virtue of love. To love others implies acting benevolently toward others, doing good for them. This kind of love is what the Greeks called agapē but could also include friendliness towards others, the kind of love referred to as philia. But can we all just love others so easily?

Here is where I want to press more deeply into my Christian faith and speak about love, especially to my fellow Christians. You see, we all agree that Jesus was the perfect embodiment of love. But that ought to tip us off right there that there is more to love than just saying the word, being a nice person, and being kind.

Jesus loves me, this I know
For the Bible tells me so…

Yes, we believe that Jesus loves but how is his love expressed? Read the Bible. Read what Jesus actually did and what it cost him.

Look at the life Jesus lived and the way he interacted with people. In short, Jesus loved by the way he extended mercy to the suffering, justice for the oppressed, care for the poor, healing for the sick, hospitality to the outsiders (Gentiles), openness to the children, embrace for the unclean, and grace to the sinners. What is more important is that Jesus loved like this even when it meant breaking the religious rules of his day. He did so as a revolution, while calling his followers to do the same, even when it mean agitating the political powers of his day. Jesus loved even to the point of angering others, risking his own reputation, and causing great concern for his mother and brothers. Jesus even loved by speaking truth to power, to those whose concern was to preserve the status quo that benefited them. In the end, Jesus loved even to the point of suffering death on the cross.

And God vindicated Jesus, and the way he loved, by raising Jesus from death and exalting him as Lord and Messiah.

What it means to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves ought to be unequivocally clear from the example Jesus gave us. Loving people like Jesus means we might likely just anger and agitate some folks who benefit from injustice. Some of these folks will be found among the post-religious who reject Christianity but some might be found among the church. Our love for the oppressed, the poor, the sick, the unclean, the outsiders, and the sinners, might just threaten the livelihood of those who live comfortable with the religious, political, and socio-economic status quo. Our love might just require us to bear our own cross as followers of Jesus. Our love for God and neighbor calls us to follow Jesus and seek the kingdom of God, not the status quo of an unjust world. All that is to remind us that love is difficult and quite possibly dangerous. Nevertheless, it is what God commands us to do.

If we cannot love like Jesus, then any talk of love just seems like an attempt at ignoring the injustices and evils of our day. When that happens, we reduce love into nothing more than an empty word used as a platitude. Let’s not. Let’s not turn love to a platitude!

 

Christianity and Racism: What Might We Do Next?

On Monday, May 25, 2020 I watched the video clip of George Floyd being murdered by a Minneapolis Police Officer. It was horrifying to see the officer so callously keep pressing his knee upon the neck of George Floyd while Mr. Floyd was struggling to breathe and began crying for his deceased mother to come help him.*

Multi Ethnic Hands

Words are inadequate to describe what happened. I can only imagine how the family of George Floyd feels as well as the many black Americans who witnessed yet another black person unjustly killed in America. George Floyd’s name joins a long list that includes recent names like Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Botham Jean, Philando Castile along with other well known names like Martin Luther King Jr., Emmett Till, Mary Turner, and many others.

Since the murder of George Floyd, protests have erupted across America and even in other parts of the world. We see the frustration and hear the cries for justice. It is unfortunate that along with the protests, violence and looting has also occurred but we cannot allow that to silence the righteous protests against systematic racism and police brutality.

America has a long history of systematic racism rooted in white supremacy. Denying this history or downplaying the problem only makes matters worse. With the way that systematic evils work, people can unknowingly be complicit in maintaining this injustice without having a shred of racial bigotry in their souls and regardless of their race/ethnicity. That, of course, only makes addressing the problem even more complex but that should not never be a deterrent. I want to be clear though that I unequivocally condemn racism and racist acts, and stand in solidarity with all who are striving for racial equality in all of life — especially my neighbors who are black. Those who are racists must repent [full stop].

Having a black nephew, having witnessed overt racism among a church years ago, and having served as a minister mostly in multi-racial congregations, the Spirit has routinely convicted me to speak out against the evil of racism with whatever platform I have. However, I am also understand the need to be constructive and help cultivate justice and reconciliation. So this is my concern and when Christians ask about what they can do, I want to say “be the church” but that requires some explaining too.

When I say that Christians need to be the church, I have in mind the life that the gospel envisions. This is rooted in a conviction that the church, manifested in local congregations embodying the gospel as followers of Jesus, is the living portrayal of true life where justice and reconciliation exist.

As people learn to follow Jesus, they begin embodying the gospel and in doing so, other people of different races and ethnicities are seen as people made in the image of God. Embodying the gospel also allows people to be honest with the truth, including both personal and corporate sins, which opens space for confession and repentance. That’s because in this new open space of confession and repentance, the gospel is also the grace of God which forms people to forgive and receive forgiveness. From the gospel, people also learn how to love one another so that a community of justice and reconciliation forms.

In the meantime, one practical step that Christians can take is becoming more informed about the issue of systematic racism in America. First, have a conversation with other church members, coworkers, and neighbors who are black. Ask questions, listen and learn from their experiences. Sometimes doing so might come with other pleasant surprises. With one church, I was visiting with an elderly black couple who migrated from Georgia to New Jersey when they were young. Their basement was a display of all the pictures, tools, and other artifacts that had been passed down in the family. It was quite a history lesson on what life was like for black sharecroppers working on peanut farms in Georgia during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Reading books and watching films are also another way of becoming more informed. So I would like to make several recommendations:

  1. Here are some books I recommend which are all written by black authors.
  1. Here are several fairly recent movies I have watched that reveal the struggles that black people have lived with in America.
    • Just Mercy, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2019.
    • Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi, Fox 2000 Pictures, 2016.
    • Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, Paramount Pictures, 2014.
    • The Blind Side, John Lee Hancock, Alcon Entertainment, 2009.

May the church of Jesus Christ live with humility and love, in the power of the Spirit, so that by the grace of God, his kingdom, in which there is true justice and reconciliation for all, may flourish! Amen.

____________________

* This post is a slightly revised article I wrote and sent to the Newark Church of Christ on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. The revision is the italicized portion in the fourth paragraph.

The Pentecost Message Today: Becoming The Alternative to Racism

This past Sunday was Pentecost Sunday. Many churches corporately observed Pentecost Sunday because it’s on the liturgical calendar that is followed in planning worship. Even so, #PentecostSunday is hardly trending news. For me though, as a pastor, the day is one of my favorite Sunday’s to preach because the more I learn about that day and texts like Acts 2, the more the events of the first Pentecost Sunday matter.

Pentecost Sunday

Since I wasn’t in Jerusalem for the event, it’s hard to know what the mood of the people was like then. What we know is that the apostles Jesus had selected were in Jerusalem, just seven weeks from when Jesus was crucified as an insurrectionist by the Jewish authorities conspiring with the Roman authorities. What they witnessed—Jesus being beat and whipped, publicly humiliated, and viciously crucified—was a vivid reminder of Roman rule.   

The events of that Pentecost Sunday began with an accusation. Speaking about the works of God in the tongues of all the different languages present on that day, some said that the apostles had too much to drink way too early in the morning. So Peter spoke up and began to quote from the Prophet Joel and the Patriarch David, quoting passages of scripture every devout Jew was familiar with. His message to the people was that the day of God’s salvation was upon them. What they were witnessing, with the fierce wind blowing and the apostle’s speaking in the different tongues, was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon all, male and female, young and old. And it’s happening because the Jesus they crucified has been raised from death and exalted as Lord and Messiah.

Convicted as they were, they wondered what they should do. So Peter’s response was to call them to repentance and to baptism in the name of Jesus Christ (for the remission of sins) and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. It was an invitation to participate in God’s kingdom, the new creation that God was ushering in as a new covenant made by the body and blood of Jesus Christ. And participate they did, so much that within one-hundred years this Jesus movement went from virtually nothing to a movement so large that a philosopher named Aristides spoke of Christians as a new human race alongside of Barbarians, Greeks and Jews (Aristides, Apology, 2).

The Jesus movement from the get go was envisioned as an all-inclusive movement in which all participants were regarded as equals. Pursuing that vision wasn’t without struggle but as the apostle Paul later insisted, what mattered was their baptismal identity as all who were baptized into Christ—Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female—  were one (Gal 3:27-28). So whether people realize it or not, the Pentecost message matters because it serves as a catalyst for a new community where all people are loved as equals.

But this is where we run into a problem. Two-thousand years ago, the Pentecost message was new. Today though, it’s not and that’s not for a lack of churches. In fact, many Americans have experienced American Christianity, in its more liberal Protestant expressions and in its more conservative Evangelical expressions. What they found though didn’t seem much different from the rest of society. Apart from a few religious phrases unique to Christianity, what people found was a worldly church of individuals driven by consumer appetites clamoring for political power so that they can have everything their way.

The Spirit Poured UponIn fact, the gospel experienced among many churches, though not all, doesn’t resinate as good news. Instead, it’s become like a television rerun aired one too many times and now the people are changing the channel. Right now, America is slow suffocating under the weigh of systematic racism that has existed from the beginning, though it has certainly changed in the way it manifests its evil presence. Sadly though, the church in America has largely failed in embodying the equality of the gospel message proclaimed on Pentecost. Instead of existing as the alternative to the racism (and other inequalities), Christianity in America has often compromised with racism. Too often, Christianity in America has failed to see that God has poured his Spirit upon black people too.

So may I suggest that the Pentecost message today is a message for the church to hear again. If churches are going to embody the gospel that Peter proclaimed in his Pentecost message, then change is required. That’s because the gospel can only be embodied by a church that lives from its baptism, living in the name of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. The gospel message can only be truly proclaimed by people who regard all people equally and therefore embody the prophetic life that brings justice and equality for all into the present reality. Anything less is why Christianity in America is increasingly irrelevant.

Pentecost is the day when God poured out his Spirit upon all flesh, including black people. The Hebrew word for Spirit is ru’ach, which may also be rendered as “breath.” We may think of the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit as God breathing new life in Christ upon all people. How ironically tragic it is that the week before Pentecost a black man named George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis Police Officer by means of asphyxiation, prompting the protest of “I can’t breath”. It’s past time that the church in America hears the chants of “I can’t breath” and hears once again the Pentecost message, so that black people and other minorities may find a community where they can breathe.

Lord, have mercy!

Like A Servant: The Necessity of Character in Christian Leadership

If you’ve know me, then you know I read a lot. Mostly a wide range of books relating to theology and Christian ministry but some philosophy and social-culture too. Most pastors I know are also readers and frankly, it’s hard to imagine serving as a pastor without reading. I say this because reading a book is like having the author as a conversation partner forcing you to consider an idea or perspective that otherwise might remain hidden.

Leadership Concept

So within the broad category of theology and Christian ministry, I aim to read at least one book per year on leadership that I believe will help me serve as a better pastor. Of the books I’ve read, the best is Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve, 2007. Besides Friedman, other authors I’ve read and recommend include Alan Roxburgh, Mark Lau Branson, and Ruth Haley Barton.

Reading books on leadership increases an understanding of the challenges as well as the practices and skills to navigate those challenges. That said, as necessary as good practices and skills are to leadership, equally necessary for good leadership is good character. We live in a time when there are numerous examples of leadership failure, in churches and other segments of society, that seem rooted in a lack of character. Sometimes it almost seems as if character is unimportant so long as competency is evident. I don’t want to devalue competency but let’s be certain that a lack of character is a recipe for disaster.

By character I’m talking about the qualities a leader exhibits, especially in relation to the community organization he or she serves among. The word “serves” is of utmost importance for the character of Christian leadership. I say that because my point of departure for the way pastors and other Christian leaders serve is Jesus, whose life was that of a servant. Rather than employing top-down coercive or manipulative tactics, Jesus led by example and invitation.

During the last Passover Meal Jesus shared with his disciples, he heard them arguing about who among them was the greatest. So Jesus quickly responded saying in Luke 22:25-27, “The kings of the Gentiles rule over their subjects, and those in authority over them are called ‘friends of the people.’ But that’s not the way it will be with you. Instead, the greatest among you must become like a person of lower status and the leader like a servant. So which one is greater, the one who is seated at the table or the one who serves at the table? Isn’t it the one who is seated at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”

Just think about the difference between leaders who see themselves first as a servant and those who think their position ranks them above others. A servant leader seeks what is best for others rather than what serves his or her own agenda. A servant leader seeks to build others up and equip them for service, the other one often see others as just a means to their own end. Such a disposition doesn’t hinder the servant leader from taking a stand for what is right, it just means the stand isn’t self-serving.

To lead as a servant also impacts the way the leader relates to others. A servant leader isn’t concerned with stroking his own ego. The servant leader sings the praises of others, sees the potential in others and seeks to draw that out for the sake others. When mistakes are made, the servant leader take responsibility rather than blaming others. And let’s not be naive, there will always be someone who criticizes the decisions and actions of a leader. Rather than belittling and disparaging the critics, the servant-leader presses forward with discernment. If the servant-leader realizes the criticism is warranted, her or she owns it and if its unfair or baseless, the servant leader lets it go and moves on.

The character of good leadership begins with becoming a servant. And this is especially so among the church, where all serve under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, who said those who lead must become “like a servant.”

Discipleship and The Local Church

Anyone that’s read the four canonical gospels knows that when Jesus began his public ministry, he also began calling people to follow him. This is where most conversations about Christian discipleship begin. As the conversation goes, most church leaders are aware that making and forming disciples of Christ is a challenge, to varying degrees, among churches in America.

Disciple-Making

Seeing the lack of discipleship has resulted in a renewed focus on making disciples, that is, forming people to live as followers of Jesus. This is a good thing. However, many times when a problem is recognized, attempts at correcting tend to swing the pendulum too far and in this case I wonder if the pendulum is swinging too far in focusing on making disciples.

The renewed focus on making disciples seems to imply that every disciple should make disciples. For example, David L. Watson and Paul D. Watson say in their book Contageous Disciple Making, “Making disciples is about having a relationship with Christ that results in a lifestyle of obedience to Christ commands, which requires disciples to make more disciples” (p. 48). Or Jeff Vanderstelt writes in his book Saturate, “Life on mission is not just about being disciples, but also making disciples who make disciples—and that can be learned only while on Jesus’s mission” (Kindle ed., L. 1477).

I agree that to be a Christian is to be a disciple, one who follows Jesus and obeys his teaching and that includes the teaching of scripture. That is the kind of relationship all Christians are to have with Jesus. But does that mean that all disciples will be people who make disciples?

Perhaps we need to better define what it means for disciples to be making disciples first. Francis Chan does write in his book Letters to the Church, “We want everyone trained to make disciples. No one should come as a consumer, but we need everyone to come as a servant using his or her gifts to build up the body” p. 176). If we are talking about an entire community of disciples (a local church) serving together as the Spirit has empowered each person, using their specific gifts and talents, then I agree and I think the apostle Paul would certainly agree as well (cf. Rom 12:5-8; 1 Cor 12:4-11; Eph 4:11-13). However, that’s not always clear. The quotes I shared above from Watson and Watson as well as Vaderstelt are somewhat vague. Do they mean disciples working together as a community making disciples or each individual disciples making another disciple?

I’m raising this issue because in a lot of conversation I encounter and even sometimes participate in, there are some who seem to believe true discipleship means ever single disciple is discipling another person in a one-to-one relationship. But that is just not the picture that emerges in the New Testament. In scripture the emphasis appears to be on the local church, as a corporate community, faithfully embodying the gospel.

Take for example Romans. In this letter the apostle Paul describes his appointment as an apostle “to bring all Gentiles to faithful obedience for his name’s sake” (1:5). Towards the end of the letter Paul says in 15:15-16:

Nevertheless on some points I have written to you rather boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. (NRSV)

Then at the end of Romans Paul reminds the church again that the gospel he proclaims is to result in their “faithful obedience” (16:26).

If you’ve read this far then please know that I am not against making disciples. I am one who does believe discipleship, or the lack of, among Christianity in America is a problem. I just don’t see the way some tend to emphasize disciple making today as the focus in scripture. Instead, the focus seems to be on the faith formation of church so that the church, as we see in Romans, lives as a holy people unto God. Ideally, such a church will also be making disciples of the seekers, leading them into a relationship with Jesus that results in obedience to the teachings of Jesus. Then, as repentant believers who have been baptized into Christ, they too contribute to the churches participation in the mission of God as they learn to serve using their Spiritual gifts. So maybe instead of focusing on cultivating a disciple-making culture among our churches, we should just focus on the formation of faith in our churches and trust that as Christ is formed in our churches (cf. Gal 4:19) then the local body will function as her head, Christ himself, intends and organically make disciples.

Lastly, consider this blog entry as a thinking-out-loud con, something to consider but something that could undergo further nuance. What are your thoughts?

How Shall We Christians Respond?

As the length of the Covid-19 Coronavirus pandemic wears on, the endurance of society is challenged. Besides the number of deaths in the US alone, getting closer to 50,000, numerous other people are ill while others are out of work and many businesses are shut down, facing an uncertain future. Of course, I’ve not said anything you don’t know already.

Bay Care Nurses Sacrifice the Weak

What this pandemic has also done is bring out the best in some people and the worst in others. In the first picture are two nurses serving on the front line of this battle. We all know by now that medical personnel have worked tirelessly and under great duress to serve, caring especially for the sick. Their compassionate service is worthy of our commendation. Then the other picture is a woman protesting the shut down in the state of Tennessee. Her sign reads “Sacrifice the Weak/Re-Open TN” (ironically as she wears a face mask). She is essentially suggesting that if reopening the economy means letting more people become sick and possibly die, then so be it. Her mentality deserves our condemnation.

The pictures above illustrate how the best and worst are revealed in difficult seasons of life. For some, tragedy and disasters result in love that is embodied in acts of compassion, mercy, and service. For others, the result is hate cloaked in selfish desires and appalling attitudes.

But what about those of us who profess the Christian faith, who claim to follow Jesus Christ? While the example of Christ should spur us to acts of love, we are still sinners and so we are capable of acting with hatred. If you doubt that, just open a history book where there are plenty of examples. The answer to the question depends on how we are formed as Christians.

     “My little children, I’m going through labor pains again until Christ is formed in you.” ~ Galatians 4:19

The Bible verse above, written by the apostle Paul, is one of the classic passage of scripture cited when talking about spiritual formation. While Paul was addressing a very different problem with the Galatians that what I’m writing about in this post, the point is that we embrace the name Christian are to have the way of Christ formed in us. Elsewhere, Paul spoke about such formation as transformation into the image of Christ (2 Cor 3:18) and being conformed his image (Rom 8:29).

I don’t have any clue about what those two nurses or the protester in the pictures above claim as their religious beliefs. My concern is with us who profess to be Christians, which is a claim to live as followers of Jesus. This pandemic will reveal whether it is Christ or the world (particularly partisan politics) being formed in us.

We just went through Holy Week, remembering the passion of Jesus Christ and yet I’m not sure we see the implications of his crucifixion and resurrection. On the cross is the One who humbled himself by giving up his very own life upon the cross for the sake of others, including the “weak.” If his way of life and example does not become ours, we have made sacrelige of his death, burial, and resurrection and we continue to do so every time we take the bread and wine in remembrance of him.

Everyone of us will have different opportunities before us in our own local communities. Opportunities to serve others or serve ourselves. I certainly hope we’ll choose the former, as we follow Jesus in giving up our needs for the sake of loving others. The choice we make is our witness as Christians and it will either bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ or it will make a mockery of his name.

Let’s choose wisely and faithfully, for the world around us is watching!

Reflections on Church Leadership During the Covid-19 Coronavirus Pandemic

More than a month has passed since the church I serve, the Newark Church of Christ, decided to stop gathering together during this Covid-19 Coronavirus pandemic. I must admit that when we first made the decision, I wondered what would become of our church. If we are not able to gather together for several months, I wondered if there would we even be a church left. Of course, as soon as this wave of anxiety came over me, so did my leadership reflexes.

Worship Center

The first rule of good leadership is don’t be anxious. Don’t panic and don’t give a foothold to the devil of anxiety. Yes, what we are going through makes for more difficulties but panicking amid anxiety either results in doing nothing or making an anxious decision. Neither of which is helpful and most likely would only make matters worse.

Like many churches, we began streaming online worship gatherings. However, as important as worship is, there is more to living as a church than just worship. If we’re to bear each others burdens, love our neighbors, and join in the work we see God doing—participating in the mission of God—then we remaining connected with each other was paramount.

So one of the things we’ve done as a church is begin including two short videos of different people from our church in each online streaming of worship on Sundays. These videos have allowed us to hear from each other and have helped remind us that we are a community, a family of believers called “church” in this life together. We have also began organizing online connection groups so that we could meet during the week for encouragement and continue growing in our formation as followers of Jesus. So using Zoom, Google Meet, etc… we spend some time checking in on what we are thankful for and concerned about, and then we spend some time in scripture but not just for the sake of Bible study. Instead, as we come to understand what God is teaching us in scripture, we want to embody that teaching in the way we live.

     “But I have been reminded that church is neither a building, place, or time. Church is people following Jesus and that’s what we are.”

In the meantime, our church still seeks to love our neighbors. Loving God and each other through worship and fellowship matters but so does serving and caring for people in our community. One opportunity was preparing sack lunches for people who might otherwise go hungry. Now our church is receiving shipments of masks that we are going to distribute within our community where there is need. And as we see other opportunities to the good works that God is doing, we’ll gladly do so as followers of Jesus.

Oh me of little faith… I initially wondered if we would even have a church after this pandemic. But I have been reminded that church is neither a building, place, or time. Church is people following Jesus and that’s what we are. So as a pastor, even though helping lead the church during this pandemic has required some adjustments, I have also realized that leadership is still much the same. That is, I serve as a minister of the gospel and so my role is still that of what any pastor’s role should be: helping the church hold to the gospel and allow the gospel to frame our way of life as a church. As that happens, we will continue participating in the mission of God as followers of Jesus.

What the results are is neither in our control nor something we need to worry about as church. The same is true for the church you serve among too. But perhaps the eyes of those living in our local towns and neighborhoods will be opened to see real community taking shape among our churches as we embody the gospel. And if that’s the case then we’ll see the church growing as it should, with the seed of the gospel pollinating and blooming anew.