Promoting Peace: Churches Living in a Post-Christendom Society

This past Sunday I began a new three-week message series with the Newark Church of Christ called Neighbors: The Church Among Society. The idea of the series focuses on the question of how does the church, as followers of Jesus, live among society as neighbors. At face value, that might seem like a simple task and in some sense it is. However, now that many churches in North America, including the church I serve, find themselves living in a post-Christendom culture, the task becomes more challenging.

Neighbors - The Church Among Society

The challenge of a post-Christendom culture is that Christianity exists more and more on the margins of society. No longer is Christianity at the center of society and no longer is Christianity attached to the state so that the policies of society favor a Christian view. I happen to believe that is a good thing because there are beliefs and values intrinsic to the gospel that were lost, or at least diminished, when Christianity moved from existing as a mission-movement into a Christendom culture. However, with the post-Christendom shift, it requires churches to rethink what it means to live as followers of Jesus in a society the beliefs and values of the church differ from society.

So as followers of Jesus, how do we live as neighbors among society? Well, the prophet Jeremiah has a word that can help us reimagine our role as God’s people in a post-Christendom society:

The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.

This text is important because it’s a word for how Israel should live in a society not of their choosing. In a nutshell, Jeremiah tells Israel that they should get used to living in Babylon and make the most of it because they’re going to be there for a while. That’s also an important word for churches living in the post-Christendom culture of North America today. Get used to it and make the most of the opportunity because it’s going to be this way for awhile.

Of great importance to the prophet is that Israel should “Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray for to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.” The idea of promoting the welfare of the city is to “seek the peace” (NIV) of the community and doing so requires a particular posture.

To begin with, there isn’t a word in the text about retreating or resisting the changes taking place in society. Withdrawing from engaging in society is out of the question but unless a church is careful, that’s what happens. I know because I once remembered eating in a restaurant owned by a Muslim family that catered to the small population of Somalian refugees. The restaurant had been open for about four to five years. So I was astonished when the owner told me that I was the first Christian to ever come in and eat at his place. Such avoidance of engagement with non-Christians is the sort of retreating that churches must avoid. Just the same, churches must avoid resisting the changes. Promoting the welfare of the community doesn’t happen by boycotting Starbuck or protesting the local PRIDE parade. Doing so only helps erect obstacles that places Christianity in an unnecessary adversarial relationship with society at large.

Promoting the welfare or seeking the peace of society requires learning how to exercise good table manners. We enter and engage our neighbors as neighbors who listen to understand before we attempt to contribute to the good. We do so by extending to others the courtesy and respect we hope they would extend to us (and do so even if they won’t). In doing so, we avoid offering banal answers to difficult questions and challenging issues. Instead, we are able to contribute by becoming what Tomâś Halík describes as “competent partners respecting the rules of dialogue” (Night of the Confessor, pp 134-135).

Taking such a posture doesn’t mean or require churches to abandon any convictions. Instead, the local church is able to discover where God is already at work in society and participate in that work for the sake of the kingdom — the will of God done on earth as it is in heaven. This approach is possible in a variety of different avenues, from partnering with local agencies that serve people in need to planting new churches that also seek to serve their neighbors as they lead people to follow Jesus.

Whatever form promoting the welfare of the city takes, it will involve prayer. So I’ll end this post with the Peace Prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi:

Lord make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy
O divine master grant that I may
not so much seek to be consoled as to console
to be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it’s in dying that we are born to eternal life
Amen

The Spirit and the Mission of God

Last week I finished reading the book Poured Out: The Spirit of God Empowering the Mission of God by Leonard Allen, the Dean of the College of Bible and Minister at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. If you’re looking for an accessible and very good introductory read on the work of the Holy Spirit, look no further. I really recommend this 208 page book.

Poured OutMy intention here is not to offer a review of Allen’s book but I do want to draw some attention to the connection he makes between the outpouring of the Spirit and the church’s participation in the mission of God. Before doing so, it is important to understand that the Holy Spirit is the third-person of our Triune God and therefore remember that God is Trinitarian: One God in three Persons, the Father, Son, and Spirit. Allen is right to ground his understanding of the Spirit in Trinitarian doctrine and I do so as well.

By grounding our understanding of the Spirit within the Trinity, we have a guard against certain abuses and claims that are sometimes attributed to the work of the Holy Spirit. This is because the Holy Spirit will never lead us to say or do anything that is contrary to the will of the Father that has been fully revealed in the Son. So if we want to know how the Spirit is leading, we must look to the will of God revealed to us in the life and teachings of Jesus (which scripture faithfully bears witness to). This will is about forming us to live as his people, following Jesus as we participate in the mission of God. So in Trinitarian language, as Allen puts it, “we can say that Christian discipleship means following the risen Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory and praise of God the Father” (p. 71).

Understanding the work of the Spirit within the Triune Godhead won’t eliminate every potential controversy but it does help because it points us toward the mission of God. However we understand this or that text within the Bible or lean a certain way on some difficult theological issue, we know that our calling is to live as followers of Jesus. We receive the Spirit of God to participate in the mission of God as followers of Jesus, which is really the key focus of Allen’s book as it should be for us too. So when reading the book of Acts, what we have “is a commentary on the Spirit’s unrelenting focus on Jesus and empowering the proclamation of Jesus” (p. 103).

This commentary on the work of the Spirit must open our imaginations for the way the Spirit is seeking to work in our local churches participating in the mission fo God. Allen suggests that the difference sometimes experienced between the work of the Spirit in churches today and the work of the Spirit in Acts stems from the loss of mission. With the onset of Christendom, the role of the church aligned with the state so that the church served as a chaplain to society rather than as the prophetic witness to the inaugurated kingdom of God. Consequently, Allen writes, “With the receding of the church’s mission orientation, the doctrine of the Spirit was constricted, now redefined by the settled caretaker role that the empire required. The loss of mission correspond to a narrowed and tamed doctrine of the Spirit” (p. 116).

A local church cannot fully participate in the mission of God as followers of Jesus without power of the Holy Spirit. However, the catch is that if a local church wants to experience the power of the Holy Spirit at work among them, the community of believers must commit themselves to living on mission with God. What that looks like will differ, in particularities, from one church to the next but it will always be a faithful-yet-contextual embodiment of the gospel. Is that not what every church wants?

Come, Holy Spirit!

The Outpouring of the Holy Spirit Again?

Last year Jonathan Merritt wrote a piece for The Atlantic discussing then decline of Christianity in the US. The article was titled America’s Epidemic of Empty Churches and based on Lifeway research, Merritt mentioned the fact that roughly 6,000 – 10,000 churches discontinue to exist every year here in the US. This grabs my attention because I once helped close one of those churches. So now that churches in the United States find themselves living amidst a postmodern and post-Christendom society, the question faced is how do we continue participating in the mission of God?

The answer to the question of participating in the mission of God is huge but a significant part of the answer is the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that forms us and animates us to live as followers of Jesus, to be the church on mission with God. Yet, in more than a few churches the work of the Holy Spirit is neglected and even suppressed at times.

The prophetic vision declared in Acts 2 is the outpouring of God’s spirit upon all people, men and women as well as people of every race, ethnicity, and nationality. The Spirit gifts these people to live as faithful followers of Jesus so that, as local churches, we may continue stepping forward on mission with God. But our need to be in control has a way of stifling the Spirit. So even though we neither own God nor rule over Christ but that doesn’t stop us from wanting to control the Spirit.

Here’s how that happens: With a proof-text of two from scripture and an ad hoc argument, many churches have silenced half the believers simply because they were born female. Then with other finely crafted rhetoric, movements of the Spirit among followers of Jesus are shut down simply because they don’t fit within the tradition of the church. What’s left is a stagnant church living in the boundaries of its own comfort-zone while admiring the acts of the Holy Spirit in Acts but never realizing that God is pouring out the same Holy Spirit again and again and again and… Then unexpectedly, the same local church is added to the list of 6,000 to 10,000 disbanding churches.

It doesn’t have to be that way though. I recently heard another pastor say something along the line of “Every church has a decision to make about the book of Acts: Either it is a historical documentation of the early church or it is a vision for the church in every generation.”

So what if the acts of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts became a vision for our churches? What do we have to be afraid of in praying for God to fill us with his Holy Spirit? What might happen when we pray for God to pour out his Spirit again upon our churches?

The Church: God’s New Future Unleashed

It isn’t any secret that Christianity in the United States is facing some challenges. In a post-Christendom society churches are getting smaller and even closing. There are likely many reasons for this but that is also why there continues to be a market for books on growing churches, connecting with the unchurched, and reaching the next generations (Millennials, iGeneration, etc…).

Now I love reading and have nothing against such books per se. However, when we open our Bible up to the book of Acts, what we have is a summons to receive the Spirit so that we may fully live life as a follower of Jesus. That’s what repentance and baptism is (Acts 2:38). Nothing said about growing churches, reaching the next generation and so forth, just a summons to repentance and baptism. That’s because the way we participate in the kingdom and journey on mission with God is by the power of the Spirit under the authority of Jesus Christ. That is, we submit our lives to Jesus and are formed by the Holy Spirit to live life as Jesus lived.

Luke gives us a description of what happened with the community of believers in Jerusalem when they responded to this summons. Acts 2:42-47:

The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.

I believe we should read this as a description rather than a prescription. In other words, rather than trying reduplicate or mirror everything we read exactly as we think it was done then, Luke’s description is meant to evoke our own imaginations. What might happen when we allow the Holy Spirit to (re)form us as people living in the name of Jesus?

The answer to that question will vary from one local community to another, though I do believe that there will be some commonalities. Commonalities like remaining committed to apostolic teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer, as well as demonstrating the goodness of God — loving God, loving neighbor — to everyone. The result will always be putting into motion the kingdom way of life that Jesus proclaimed and faithfully lived, even to the point of being put to death on the cross. It is a way of life shaped by the cruciform-character and kingdom-oriented life of Jesus.

Bottom line, what we read in Acts is what happens when we are formed by the Spirit to live as faithful followers of Jesus. As a church on mission with God, we become the new future that God has unleashed into the present.

Let’s be this church! 

Repentance and Baptism: More Than Fire Insurance

Every evangelistic tract I have ever laid eyes upon focused on answering a question about salvation. Namely, how does a person get saved from sin and God’s eternal judgment? Now if a person has never committed their life to Jesus and is experiencing an existential crisis due to some moral failure, the question might address their crisis. The problem is that this view of salvation  is too narrow.

In Acts, the apostles were not thinking about how they would be saved from sin and judgment. They wanted to know when Jesus was going to restore the kingdom to Israel (1:8). So it seems that when the pious Israelites at Pentecost realized that the Jesus they helped crucify had been raised from death by God and exalted as Lord and Messiah, their question about what they must do (2:37) was a kingdom question. That is, they weren’t just asking how could they now be forgiven and spared from God’s judgment but now that God is restoring his kingdom in Jesus the Messiah, how could they participate in the kingdom?

The question of how do we participate in the kingdom is much broader than just how do we get saved from sin and judgment. Yes, such participation includes salvation from sin and judgment but the question of salvation is as much about the life we are being saved to rather than just what we are saved from. The point is that salvation is so much more than just escaping eternal damnation! So here the summons to repentance and baptism again:

“Change your hearts and lives [repentance]. Each one of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” – Acts 2:38

Now despite the countless debates about the meaning of “for the forgiveness of sins” and when is a person “saved” in relation to baptism, such a focus is too narrow. What makes this summons to repentance and baptism different is that it is 1) in the name of Jesus Christ, and 2) associated with the promise of receiving the Holy Spirit. That makes sense because the entire Pentecost sermon was a declaration that God is now pouring his Spirit out on all people now that he has raised Jesus from death and exalted him as the Lord and Messiah.

The question we must ask in Acts chapter two is how do we participate in the kingdom that God is restoring? The answer is repentance and baptism because in doing so — in turning away from the old life that is passing and to the new life as we learn to live as followers of Jesus [repentance] and surrender our lives in submission to King Jesus [baptism] — we are immersed into a new life where we live under the kingdom-reign of God where we are then formed and animated by the Spirit to live as the church of Jesus Christ. This is the way we are summoned to participate because neither repentance nor baptism is a one-and-done transaction but an immersion into a transformative life as the people of God.

I’m going to be blunt here but it’s something that needs to be said. Repentance and baptism is about so much more than “fire insurance” to escape whatever hell we think awaits. If we truly want to participate in the eternal kingdom of God, then we must learn what it means to live a life of repentance and baptism. And if we don’t, we really haven’t repented and the baptism we received has become nothing more than a cleansing bath.

God is restoring the kingdom. That’s why he has poured out the Spirit and exalted Jesus to his right side as the Lord and Messiah but the kingdom is not appearing in some magical hocus-pocus manner. The kingdom appears as we, who profess our faith in Jesus as Lord and Messiah, live a life that is form by the Spirit as an embodiment of cruciform-character and kingdom-oriented life Jesus lived. So our summons to repentance and baptism is an invitation to receive the Spirit and be transformed in the way of Jesus as we live under his reign.

Paradigm Shift: The Prophetic Vision of Acts 2

There are some things that seem almost universal to most cultures. One of those things is drinking, especially at festivals and parties. Whether it’s a glass of wine to bring in the new year with a toast or a beer to go along with the barbecue at the family reunion, drinking is quite common. So it’s not surprising to discover that some of the Jewish people present in Jerusalem for Pentecost thought that the apostles were drunk when they began speaking in the native languages of all the Israelites.

But they weren’t drunk. Instead, God is pouring out his Spirit on all people just as he promised to do and the apostle Peter points this out by quoting from the prophet Joel. However, Peter says this — the outpouring of the Holy Spirit — is happening because God had raised Jesus from death and exalted him as Lord and Messiah. That’s the essence of Peter’s famous Pentecost sermon as Luke tells us in Acts 2. However, the point is neither just that God is pouring out his Spirit nor just that Jesus is now the Lord (and Luke’s point isn’t about how people get saved). The second chapter of Acts recalls how God is unleashing a new reality, a paradigm shift, that will revolutionize the way in which people understand and live life. It’s a new paradigm ruled by Jesus and formed by the power of the Spirit.

MIT philosopher Thomas Kuhn coined the term “paradigm shift” to described the changes in the criteria by which resolve problems (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, p. 50, 109). Basically, when it comes to life, we all live out of a particular paradigm that incorporates a set or rules or criterions that help navigate through life. Whatever our paradigm is, it works until it doesn’t. That is, when the criterion of our paradigm ceases to make sense with what we are encountering in life then we undergo a paradigm shift in order to continue going forward.

Well, the outpouring of the Spirit coupled with the proclamation that God has raised the crucified Jesus from death, making him the Lord and Messiah, is a paradigm shift. It is if we believe…

“In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young will see visions. Your elders will dream dreams. Even upon my servants, men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and a cloud of smoke. The sun will be changed into darkness, and the moon will be changed into blood, before the great spectacular day of the Lord comes. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

~ Acts 2:17-21

The prophetic vision of Acts 2 is the new reality that God has unleashed. It is a life in which the Spirit is poured out upon everyone… Son and daughters prophesying while the young see visions and the old dream dreams. God will pour out his Spirit on all of his servants, both men and women, and they will prophesy. But even Peter, who is the one reciting this text from the prophet Joel didn’t fully understand. It would take the Lord speaking to Peter in a dream to see that this promise wasn’t just for Jewish people, that the promise extended to the Gentiles as well (cf Acts 10:14-16).

But we all know that Peter isn’t alone. Throughout history Christians have weaponized the Bible by proof-texting a few passages to justify and universalize racial and gender inequality. Right here in America, much ink was spilled by Christians in the past to defend the institution of slavery and argue against the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote. And these positions were always justified on the basis of “scripture” and a “rationale” argument.

Though the social structures that differentiate between Jew and Gentile, slaves and the free, and men and women were not immediately changed, the momentum for this change begins here in Acts 2. Now virtually every Christian I know has come to the conclusion that slavery is morally wrong and yet slavery still exists in our world, in the form of human trafficking or social-economic structures that keep people oppressed. In many churches patriarchy still exists even though there is discernible evidence that along with men, God has equally gifted women to serve as ministers of the gospel. Too often racism and hatred still exists among Christians too, as less than three years ago I had a Christian man storm out of the worship gathering while I was preaching shouting that he would never go to church where there’s a “Muslim loving preacher”.

So yes, we need to hear the prophetic vision of Acts 2 again and again. The future has been unleashed with the outpouring of the Spirit and this future is ruled by the crucified, resurrected, and exalted Jesus Christ. The prophetic vision of Acts 2 is an invitation to us all, to see and embrace a new paradigm called new creation.

For us who have eyes, may we see!

God’s Artwork: The Convergence of Beauty and Mission

A couple of years ago my family and I visited the Smithsonian Museum of Art in Washington D.C. I’m almost ashamed to admit it but here I was, in my early forties visiting an art museum for the very first time. I always thought it would be a boring way to spend my day but as I gazed upon so many fascinating pieces of craftsmanship, I realized that I could spend my entire day and then some.

That’s what good art does. Whether it’s a painting, a song, or else, beauty commands our attention. We are mesmerized, smitten with a sense of appreciation and even curiosity. The particular work may even cause us to think and reflect upon life in some particular manner, and it may also inspire us to participate in some capacity. Who hasn’t found themselves humming or even singing a catchy tune heard on the radio? As a guitar player who loves the blues, every time I hear the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, who I consider to be one of the best blues players to ever pick a guitar, I want to play my guitar — not that I am anywhere close to the caliber of SRV.

A lot of Christians may not realize this but the church, both in its universal and local expression, is understood as artwork. Ephesians 2:10 says,

Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.

The English word “accomplishment” is a translation of the word poiēma which other Bible translations render as “handiwork” (NIV), “masterpiece” (NLT), or “workmanship” (KJV). The word poiēma is a word for art and it is where English words like “poetry” and “poem” derive from, which makes sense because poetry is a form of art. Because of artisan meaning of this word, Ephesians 2:10 in the New Jerusalem Bible reads “We are God’s work of art…”

Though this is only one passage of scripture, the imagery of the church as artwork seems important and needs more consideration among Christianity in America. Understanding the capacity of art to speak is relevant to how local churches understand what it means to live as witnesses of Jesus and the kingdom as well as making disciples. Bryan Stone writes:

A faith born out of a response to beauty inclines organically, naturally, and perhaps even necessarily toward sharing. If Christians do not share their faith or seek to inspire it in other, perhaps the solution is not to berate, cajole, or otherwise ‘fire up’ luke-warm believers so they will go forth knocking on doors, button-holing passengers sitting next to them on a plane, or passing out tracts at the neighborhood grocery store. Perhaps the Christian faith has become unimaginative and unattractive and somehow disconnected from beauty. When faith is solely preoccupied with truth so that evangelism is aimed at securing belief understood as mental assent, perhaps it is no wonder that the average Christian has little interest in going about evangelism when it means convincing people to believe certain things. (Evangelism After Pluralism, pp 120-121).

As local churches embody the gospel as their way of life, evangelism happens naturally or organically. While there is a place for apologetics where there are intellectual questions about the credibility of believing in Jesus, the church as God’s artwork is a beautiful portrayal of the gospel and so preaching involves more explaining rather than debating about what is true and believable. Also, the commitment necessary for people to follow Jesus happens naturally because they are inspired and even compelled to do so based on the beauty that is seen in this living artwork known as the church. Just as person who loves to cook naturally wants to share a good recipe, the new disciple that has found the beauty of the gospel embodied among a local church will naturally want to share this discovery with others.

So this past year the Newark Church of Christ began making efforts to be more engaged and hospitable to our neighbors living in a nearby apartment complex. Most of the residents living in these apartments have endured plenty of struggles in life and seemingly have plenty of reasons for any skepticism. However, last year after one of the women who lives in the apartments was baptized, I asked her about starting up a Bible-study in her apartment that others living in the apartment complex could join. She agreed without hesitation and then without any suggestion or coaching on my part, she made up some flyers with details about the Bible study and posted them around the apartment complex.

Participating in the mission of God as a local church happens quite naturally when our imagination is captivated by the beautiful artistry of what God is doing among us.

Grace and Peace,

K. Rex Butts