Category Archives: Christian History

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.

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!

An Alternative Politic: The Faithful Witness of the Church

I know we have this thing called the separation between church and state in America but just a casual observation and we can see how that separation has often been blurred. This is why American culture was influenced by the reality of Christendom (was being the key word), with most Christians participating in politics through voting and holding public offices.

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Although many Christians are still very engaged in politics, the Christendom culture has nearly become thing of the past and will eventually pass altogether. While there are many Christians still clutching to Christendom, trying to preserve the past, the reality is that America is now a post-Christendom society in which Christianity is of little influence.

Lament if you with but I believe Christianity must shoulder some, if not a lot, of the reasons for the cultural shift. There are a variety of reasons but when some churches are more concerned with preserving their traditions, like wanting to revive the use of hymnals, and other churches are driven by consumerism, then the mission of God is subtlety lost among other utilitarian goals. There’s another reason why Christianity must take responsibility for the loss of influence that is more difficult to accept and it has to do with politics.

       “It’s time for a new reformation that opens space for an alternative community that embodies the gospel as an alternative and subversive politic.”

As already mentioned, most Christians in America have engaged in politics. They have done so with with good intentions but in doing so, many have given themselves to politics. Mainline Protestants veered to the left, while evangelicals turned to the right. Yes that’s a generalization but it’s one that more people are beginning to realize, except maybe for those Christians still deeply invested in politics. The investment itself serves a binary system defined and dominated by Democrats and Republicans, which really just represent two different sides of the same coin. That is, even though each side has significantly different ideas about how to govern (= rule) society, they both believe the only way forward is through the state. Also, it is this system that has determined the rules of engagement.

Locked within this binary system, Christians have been led to believe and will tell each other one side is good and the other is not. This has meant adopting the good side as our side, supporting it and defending it while ignoring or mitigating anything that might question the virtuosity of our side. Believing then that there are only two options, Christians will pressure other Christians to get involved because failing to vote for the good side is a vote for the other. This is why I have had Christians tell me that if I vote Republican, then I support a platform of injustice towards minorities and immigrants while other Christians have told me that by voting for a Democrat, then I am supporting abortion by voting for a pro-choice platform. Christians from both sides have told me that not voting is a vote for the other side, which is exactly what the binary systems wants everyone to believe.

According to the binary system, there isn’t any other options. But I beg to differ because I am a Christian who believes in Jesus and is striving to live as a faithful witness of Jesus and the kingdom of God. I believe there is an alternative to the futility of state politics, an alternative political party called the church of Jesus Christ. I know that sounds counterintuitive, especially in knowing the ways Christianity has woefully failed to live according to the teachings of Jesus within history. These failures are due, in part, to the rise of Christendom in which the church gained a favorable status, sought to maintain that status, and in doing so, compromised the gospel witness. Thankfully though the Protestant Reformation gave us the language semper reformanda (always reforming) because its time for a new reformation that opens space for an alternative community that embodies the gospel as an alternative and subversive politic.

   “The alternative for Christians requires an exclusive commitment to this way of Jesus Christ rather than trying to do both church and state at the same time.”

When Shane Claiborne tweeted about the need for a political party with a consistent pro-life stance, my reaction was that there should be such a party offering a consistent social-ethic and moral character derived from the gospel, the church of Jesus Christ. That politic was one of the distinctives among the community of disciples in the first century when they declared themselves to be an ecclesia. That’s because ecclesia referred to a public assembly that was open to all in which the concerns of the city, the was life was organized and lived.

That’s politics. Ecclesia was a political assembly. However, as an ecclesia gathering in the name of Christ, the allegiance of the people gathering in this assembly was to King Jesus rather than Caesar. In fact, had the followers of Jesus merely wanted to exist as a religious community, then there were other words they could have identified themselves with (e.g., thiasos, eranos) which referred to private religious associations. Doing so may have even made the disciples more tolerable in the religiously pluralistic Roman culture but the disciples steadfastly understood themselves as an ecclesia, an alternative politic that was a threat to Roman peace.

This understanding of church is largely unknown in America where our English word “church” is derived from the German word kirche, meaning building. So instead of understanding the local church as an alternative politic, the church has become a building located in place to gather for worship and then leave, returning to American life as usual — politics as usual.

Exactly what it will look like for local churches to live as an alternative politic in a post-Christian American culture is still an open and ongoing discussion. While America embraces free speech, freedom to assemble and religious freedom, it seems enslaved within a political binary system that has little capacity for imagining any alternative. So becoming an alternative politic in this context won’t be easy but that is what I believe that Christian, gathered as a local ecclesia, are called to be and in doing so, embody the gospel as a faithful witness to Jesus and the kingdom of God. This is the alternative politic that witnesses to a life beyond the futility of state politics but it requires a new imagination, relearning how to live as followers of Jesus and not just mere church-goers. The alternative for Christians requires an exclusive commitment to this way of Jesus Christ rather than trying to do both church and state at the same time. It will also require faith, trusting God to bring about the good through our faithfulness witness even if the results are not seen in our lifetime, which is the point of Heb 11:1-12:2.

For Those Who Wish To See The Christian Faith Prosper

Should churches ditch their projector screens and go back to singing from hymnals? Yes, according to Tom Raabe, who wrote an article that was published on The Federalist website titled Why Churches Should Ditch Projector Screens and Bring Back Hymnals. When I first read this article during the past summer, I just shook my head a little and then didn’t give the article any more attention. However, since then I keep seeing this article show up in my social media news feeds as though people agree with the author. So indulge me for a few moments because I would like to offer a response.

439859_5_As you can probably tell already, I disagree with the conclusion that Mr. Raabe draws in his article. The author observes the disappearance of hymnals over the years as more contemporary expressions of church have emerged. He laments this loss on the opinion that projected screens are “horrifically ugly” and especially so in traditional worship sanctuaries. That is his opinion, which he is certainly entitled to hold, but such anecdotes seem to be little more than just filler information.

The crux of his argument is that the loss of hymnals will result in a weakened theology and so a weakened Christian faith. According to Mr. Raabe, “Old hymns were carefully crafted with theology at the forefront. Traditional hymns present doctrine clearly and beautifully convey the gospel story of saving grace.” Perhaps so, but that’s an argument for singing older hymns and not retaining hymnals. The problem is the claim of the article which is offered with this conclusion, a conclusion that lacks any supporting evidence for the claim that is offered:

Those who wish to see the Christian faith prosper, however, should consider the long-term effects that replacing hymnals with screens will have on worship and faith itself. What technology giveth, technology taketh away. The musical and theological repertoire of the church will be constricted. Even marginally unfamiliar hymns will slide out of the public consciousness, forgotten forever—and worship will be impoverished for it.

If we wish to see the Christian faith prosper? Really? For every church that is struggling to navigate the rather uncharted secular waters of a post-Christian America, vitality is simply a matter of turning off the video monitors and digging out some hymnals from a storage room?

If this were the case, then how do we account for the vitality of churches throughout history that existed long before the invention of the Guttenburg Printing Press? Those are churches that didn’t possess any hymnals. Or how do we account for those vibrant churches in third-world countries who don’t always have the luxuries of either hymnals or video-projection systems? Let’s be honest and recognize that Mr. Raabe’s concern is not a problem with western Christianity, it’s a problem with traditional Christianity in America. This is an American issue and a concern of some who sense a great loss as they see their church, and other churches too, declining or even closing and don’t have any idea of how to stop the decline.

I actually sympathize with this concern because as a pastor, I have served in such churches and know of many more churches that are facing this very real concern. However, trying to turn the calendar back into the mid-twentieth century when most churches still sang from hymnals will do nothing to address the concern. There are many reasons why churches are declining and addressing the issues will require more than just a technical change, something that can be done without any new ways of thinking and acting.

Arguing for the resurgence of hymnals assumes a building-centric model of church. It’s possible that this sort of church model will not even exist in America by the later half of the twenty-first century. Of course, nobody knows for sure but what we do know is that the problems that keep churches from fully living as participants in the mission of God are deeply embedded issues in the way that churches think and behave. The article I am critiquing is but one example but when the issues are beyond technical problems, an adaptive approach is required. That is, church leaders must discern the difficult questions about the modes of thinking and doing within their church that is contributing to the loss of mission. Once these problems are identified, the solutions will require new practices based on new ways of thinking. Hence, adaptive change.

Adaptive change always begins with a renewed commitment to living as followers of Jesus who are learning to contextually embody the gospel once again. While such embodiment of the gospel should remain faithful to Jesus and thus a coherent expression of the gospel, the expression will differ because it is a contextual expression. Those who wish to see the Christian faith prosper will remain resolute in following Jesus and inviting others to join them in this kingdom life. And when a church that is serious about following Jesus gathers for worship, that gathering will be one saturated in a deep and healthy theology of the Christian faith — God the Father, Son, and Spirit at work.

A Word To The Church

The church has a problem with discipleship. But that’s nothing new. Most of the pastors I know are aware of the discipleship problem facing Christianity in America. What some may not realize is that the problem isn’t unique to us. Peek behind the curtains of the church from any time and place in history and I think we’ll see that discipleship was a challenge then just as it is now. Even in the New Testament this challenge existed, just go reread the apostle Paul’s letters we call Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, and Galatians.

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Why is this important? It matters because it seems easy, perhaps even en vogue, to romanticize churches from other locations or periods of history as material for comparison against the worst problems of church in America. This is one of the major complaints I have regarding Francis Chan’s latest book Letters To The Church, 2018. Throughout the book Chan compares the attractional megachurch model in America with the cell-church or house-church models he has encountered in other countries, particularly throughout Asia. The problem is the idealism with which he paints the later so that he can contrast the seemingly worst characteristics of the attractional megachurch model in America with his romanticized view of the cell-church or house-church models.

Comparing the best against the worst of another is hardly fair but Chan also does so with little more than anecdotal evidence and an ad hoc (perhaps even post hoc) use of scripture. The result seems to suggest that if Christianity in America would just change, embracing the idealistic picture of the cell-church model, that churches would be making and forming disciples again. Now Chan, to his credit, seems to warn against reading his book like this (pp. 199-200) but it’s difficult to imagine how else we might read the book.

I’m not upset with Chan. I love his commitment to following Jesus which also, in his case, has meant a commitment to serving as a pastor. As a pastor myself, I know how trying this commitment can get at times. So my hat is off to Chan. I also agree with him that discipleship is a real challenging issue right now for Christianity in America. Consumerism, individualism, relativism, and probably a few other isms are a hinderance to following Jesus and we all, myself included,  struggle with these obstacles.

So what’s the solution? How do we face this challenge so that we might take more serious the call to live not just as church-going believers but as believers who are learning to follow Jesus on a daily basis?

Well, I don’t think we can just wipe the slate clean, so to speak, and start over. That is a myth inherited from the Enlightenment but no matter how much we try, we will still be shaped by the circumstances of our particular context. So although the Newark Church of Christ, whom I love serving as a pastor, is far from being the attractional-megachurch, it is still a more traditional church that gathers on Sunday’s in a worship space and then finds other opportunities for gathering together in prayer, community service, etc… And that’s okay! Could we do better? Of course, but God is still at work in this church through his Spirit, so I can’t just write off what God has done and is still doing.

Here’s what I can do and what you can do where you’re at, with the churches we participate among. Begin by observing how God has been at work and share those observations with a few others while considering what God might doing now and how the present work of God connects with the past for the hope of the future. In pastoral theology, this is called Appreciative Inquiry (recommendation: Mark Lau Branson, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations, 2004). When we begin to have a bigger sense of what God is doing among our church and where we sense that might be leading, consider how we might participate in that work as followers of Jesus and invite those others to join us on this journey. Let this journey be filled with prayer and scripture but let it also begin with where we’re at instead of succumbing to the apathy that gives up on our churches, writing them off as a hopeless cause. The apostle Paul never did that and neither should we.

I know what I’ve just suggested isn’t any quick-fix solution to the challenges we see in our churches and other churches. That’s because there aren’t any easy quick-fix solutions. The challenge of discipleship is great and requires more than just another simple step 1, 2, and 3 solution. I can’t promise that the road ahead will be easy because it probably won’t be but it is the way forward and the way of taking control over the one thing that God gives us the control over: our own decision to follow Jesus. So live as a follower of Jesus, serving as a pastor or whatever vocation God has called us to serve in, and as we invite others to come along the journey with us, they will come. Then we’ll be surprised at what the Lord has done in us!

I’m Not Renouncing My Faith

In recent weeks a couple of more popular Evangelical Christians have publicly renounced their Christian faith. In particular, I’m thinking of former pastor and author Joshua Harris as well as Hillsong Worship Leader Marty Sampson. Both seem to be struggling with the Christian faith as they understand it, though I’m not sure if that means they have completely abandoned belief in Jesus Christ or they’re just struggling with a lot of doubt right now. What I do know, based on what I have read, is that both are struggling with their faith.

iBelieve Series

My point isn’t to criticize or pass any judgment on anyone, including Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson, who struggle with doubts and even for a time may lose their faith. I’m just mentioning this to provide some context for this blog post. You see, I actually sympathize with those who struggle in their Christian faith because I have struggled in my Christian faith too. In fact there was a time during my seminary years, of all places, when I nearly walked away from this life of following Jesus because I wasn’t sure of what I believed anymore and I wasn’t even sure if it mattered.

The existential crisis for my own struggle with faith was the death of my first son, Kenny, followed by the death of my younger brother, John, a year later. Such suffering has haunted me. Not only did the death of my son and brother burden me with much grief and pain but my eyes began to see the suffering of others and the unfairness of it all. I remember well the afternoon I went to visit someone in the hospital battling cancer and walked through the pediatric oncology ward… Haunting!

The reality of suffering leaves me with many more faith questions than I have any satisfactory answers. Beyond that, as a pastoral-theologian, I know that life is much more complex than the fundamentalist Christian worldview some Evangelicals have. There are issues about creation and science, the end of time as well as God’s judgment, the nature of scripture, and so forth that I still wrestle with because some of the answers I have are not dogmatic absolutes. At least they’re not for me because the issue seem far too complex for such black and white solutions.

All that said, I still believe in Jesus. Even though there are questions for which I’m unsure of the answer, I still believe.

I still believe in the good news about Jesus, his death, burial, and resurrection, because I find the testimony about what happened to be believable. That is, I find the story of Jesus dying on the cross and being raised back to life (and bodily resurrection) to be reasonably credible. I’m not saying that this story is provable like one can prove the laws of gravity but I do think the story is credible, and therefore believable, just like the story of the American Civil War even though we weren’t alive to witness either event with our very own eyes.

What makes the story of Jesus believable is the evidence we have, the testimony that has been passed on from those who did see (cf. 1 Cor 15:1-8) and the effects what happened. While it might be possible that the story of Jesus was all just a ruse or some lie perpetuated by the early Christians, that possibilities loses their probability when considering the suffering of persecution many of these Christians endured. In one-hundred years time, from AD 25 to AD 125, history went from no existence of Christianity at all to a movement so numerous that some saw Christians as a new human race (N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 359). This happened even though the believers didn’t have any legal standing and faced much opposition, including persecution and death. The only explanation is that what they believed about Jesus, his death, burial and resurrection, did really happen.

I also still believe in the good news of Jesus because of the hope that blossoms from such faith. The good news of Jesus is the story of how God overcomes sin and death, bringing about a new creation. Without that promise, our life ends in death so that all the suffering endured to that point is without any hope. Nihilism is what we are left with. As difficult as suffering is, it becomes utterly unbearable if life is nothing more than just “Life’s a bitch and then you die.”

As I said earlier, there are many questions about faith that I don’t always have satisfactory answers for but there is one thing I do know. If the story of Jesus being crucified and resurrected is true, and I believe there is credible reason for believing it is true, then it changes the course of history. The life Jesus lived, with all of his teaching, is the life that God is bringing into existence and it’s the life I want to participate in as a follower of Jesus. It’s a life lived by faith and a faith that’s big enough for and can co-exist with the questions and doubts we sometimes have.

So I’m not renouncing my faith and I pray you won’t either.

Church: Mission or Model?

As a pastor, I serve with the Newark Church of Christ. As a Church of Christ, we are connected with the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement that began on the American frontier during the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century. The movement began with the vision of restoring New Testament Christianity which meant, at least in part, restoring the form of the first-century churches. Consequently, the New Testament was read as a blueprint for how people became Christians as well as the organization and worship of the local church.

Our Mission

With this post, let’s think a little more about the organization of the church or the form of the local church and how that relates to participating in the mission of God. Now despite my own history in the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, I have come to the conclusion that the attempt at restoring any form is the wrong approach. To begin with, I don’t believe the New Testament presents a monolithic description of the church. Their are several forms or ways that Christians organized in the New Testament and that seems as much a response to their cultural-context and needs as it as response to the gospel. Also, without dismissing any need for form, the New Testament seems more concerned with function.

I say all this just to acknowledge the lens through which I view the challenge of leading churches to follow Jesus as participants in the mission of God. So the issue I am concerned with is the attention given on finding the right form or model of church. Right now I am reading through Francis Chan’s book Letters To The Church (see also Tim Challies review here) who assumes a monolithic church model in the New Testament (house churches) and compares it against the now traditional church model that most churches, including Restoration Churches, have adopted.

While Chan makes some valid criticisms about Christianity in America, his book compares the best of the house church model against the worst of the traditional model. Such comparisons hardly seem fair but there is a bigger issue that needs to be considered, which is the fact that all church models are just that — models, and not churches.

Here’s my point: The church is always the people no matter how they are organized. So regardless of how much idealism we muster up to promote one model over another, the reality is that people are still people and thus same basic challenges will surface eventually. Therefore, rather than advocating one model, a better approach might be to allow the church to form around the Spiritual-giftedness of the people in response to the local context but that’s for another post. I’m just voicing concern I have that when churches, especially those struggling with decline, go mining book for the next best model (remember The Purpose-Driven Church?).

The key to participating in the mission of God is discerning how God is at work among the local church and the surrounding community so that the believers can join in that work as followers of Jesus. Fortunately, the Newark Church of Christ is relearning how to do this. It doesn’t mean we’re perfect but we are beginning to see some of the kingdom-increase as we journey on mission with God.

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!