Category Archives: Churches of Christ

Following Jesus in 2020

Face of Jesus ChristHere we are in the second week of 2020, which seems a bit surreal. I was just getting used to saying 2019 and now it’s 2020. Churches have just traversed from a season of Advent into the season of Epiphany, from the birth of King Jesus to God’s revelation of King Jesus to the entire world. But does that mean anything?

As we step forward into year 2020 in America, we do so in a year of contention. President Trump is facing an impeachment trial, there is a rapidly escalating conflict with Iran, and there is an upcoming political election that is sure to bring out the worst vitriol and anger in many people. Besides all the contentious politics in America, we live in a society that has been sinking into a moral quagmire for sometime. Whether we talk about the life of the unborn, the increasing number of socially displaced poor living in our neighborhoods, or the life of immigrants seeking refuge from war and violence in their homeland, their livelihood always seems to come at the expense of politics. But where I find myself is with a growing disappointment for the ways in which it seems some Christians respond, acting as though the politics of right and left matter more than lives affected by these challenges.

Have we forgotten what it means to live as followers of Jesus? I’m talking about the Jesus we read of in scripture, who embraced the powerless over the powerful, took up the cause of the oppressed by show mercy and acting with justice, became a humble servant rather than an ego-driven despot, and who chose the way of the cross rather than the much easier way of the sword. This is the Jesus we are called to follow and the Christianity we profess as our religion must be coherent with the life Jesus lived, is nothing but another self-made false religion.

So as 2020 is upon us, I’ve heard a lot of pastors talking about sharing a “2020 Vision” with their church. I don’t have any problem with the language, playing on the year 2020, if that helps captivate the attention of the church. But from where I sit, churches don’t need a 2020 Vision for some new ministry initiative or how they can help take their church to the next level, whatever that means. What churches need is a 2020 vision for who Jesus is and the kingdom he called us to serve in as his followers.

On the night before Jesus was crucified, he prayed for this disciples. As a part of his prayer, he asked his Heavenly Father…

“I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, os that they also may be sanctified in truth.” – John 17:16-19 (NRSV)

Clearly Jesus did not want his followers withdrawing or from the world, which I believe includes not avoiding the problems that society must face. Rather, Jesus has sent his disciples into the world. However, in sending his disciples into the world, he does so with the expectation that they will be sanctified which has to do with being set apart in the world for the mission of God. This is the rub, the tension. How do we, as followers of Jesus, live in society facing numerous challenges and live as believers who singular focus is participating in the mission of God? 

I certainly don’t have the final answer but I remain committed to living as a follower of Jesus. And by that, I mean striving to live my life by the same beliefs and values that Jesus lived so that my life might be a coherent reflection of who Jesus is. I’m sure I’ll fail along the way but that is my commitment. As a pastor, I am also preaching through the Gospel of John this winter and spring with the Newark Church of Christ. As I preach through the Gospel of John, I am asking the question of what God is doing in Jesus as a way of trying to understand what is this eternal life that the church is called to participate in as believers following Jesus. And that’s it… I hope that by living as a follower of Jesus and preaching about Jesus, that whatever influence I have will be harnessed towards encouraging others to live as followers of Jesus.

 

Reading The Bible as Followers of Jesus

What does it mean to be a Christian? I suppose if you stood on a street corner and asked ten random people that question, you would come away with eleven different responses. That’s probably true if you asked ten random people who profess the Christian faith as their religion. Just plug that question into your Google search engine and you’ll see how the answers to that question vary. In fact, the way Christians answer that question will reveal much about their own theological formation.

handwriting-headline

Anyhow, most people with even a vague familiarity of Christianity understand that being Christian has something to do with following Jesus. That’s correct too. According to all four of the canonical Gospels in the Bible, Jesus begins his public ministry in the Galilean region. In The Gospel According to Mark, Jesus begins his ministry with a summons. “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news” (1:15). Then he spots two men, Simon and Andrew, fishing and says “Come, follow me… and I’ll show you how to fish for people” (1:17).

This summons is our calling too. We’re called to repent and believe the good news of God’s coming kingdom and follow Jesus in living out this kingdom life. That’s what participation in the mission of God is and I can’t think of any Christian off hand that would disagree with me at this point. If you do, then you’re wrong but I digress. What I’m getting at is that instinctively I think we all understand that being Christians and being a local church is about Jesus and the kingdom of God. We may not understand everything that implies but we know this life we are called to live is about following Jesus in living the kingdom life.

Because we believe that living as a Christian is about following Jesus, it seems that this fundamental conviction should shape the way we read the Bible too. That is, if we’re called to follow Jesus then we ought to be reading the Bible in order to live as followers of Jesus. However, that’s not always been the case.

Growing up in the Churches of Christ, the Bible was read as an instruction manual for restoring the ecclesiological pattern of the first-century church in the New Testament. This hermeneutic resulted in a de facto creed producing sectarianism, legalism, and division by marking of a boundary of who was a true Christian based on this ecclesiological pattern. Such Christianity was about boundaries, who’s in and who’s not. If you kept this creed, you were considered a Christian and still live a life that reflected very little, if any, of the life that Jesus. Just uphold the right doctrines regarding baptism, the Lord’s supper, singing in worship, women in the church, church leadership, non-denominationalism, and the list goes on and on. But becoming more merciful like Jesus, living a self-sacrificial life like Jesus, and all the other characteristics of Jesus’ life was never a part of this system.

I could share stories upon stories to illustrate this point but I think most readers familiar with this tribe understand what I’m talking about. Also, this is not to say that there were not any Christians among the “CofC” tribe who were not striving to become more like Jesus. I could also share stories upon stories of such Christians striving to live like Jesus. My point is that discipleship was more about staying within the boundary than will following Jesus in such a manner that our life reflected more and more of the Jesus we read about in scripture. And that’s because we weren’t reading the Bible to follow Jesus, we were reading it to follow an assumed ecclesiological pattern.

The fact that Jesus summons to follow him after proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom is significant. Without getting too technical at this point, it tells us that our eyes and ears are to be focused on Jesus as we learn how to embody the kingdom that Jesus is ushering in. So as for reading the Bible, we are given a new hermeneutical lens that is Christ-Centered and Kingdom-Oriented. We are now reading scripture to understand how it reveals the mission of God to us that is fulfilled by Jesus. Our eyes and ears are tuned to the way of Christ (Christ-Centered) so that our life together as a church is joined with God’s goal or aim in Christ or restoring his kingdom (Kingdom-Oriented) upon earth as it is in heaven.

This is how we participate in the mission of God who is bringing about redemption, reconciliation, and restoration to his creation, making all things new—new creation in Christ. We do this as people who are filled with the Holy Spirit not always trying to repeat what other Christians have done, either in the first-century, the sixteenth century, or even other “successful” churches today. Instead we do this by gathering as local churches who are engaged in worship and fellowship with each other as we are engaged in prayer and absorbed in the biblical narrative told throughout the Old and New Testament scriptures. At the same time, we must be engaged in our local community as listeners who observe and partner with the people of the community. Then we are poised to discern together how God is calling us to partner with him in his mission, which is what reading the Bible from a Christ-Centered and Kingdom-Oriented lens is all about.

Misreading Scripture

Christians believe the Bible is about the creative and redemptive work God is fulfilling in Jesus Christ. With all of the different stories and teaching told through different genres written in specific historical contexts, the Bible, stated in the most simplest of ways, is about Jesus. In fact, this is so fundamental that I can’t imagine any Christian who would disagree. Yet it’s still possible to read the Bible and miss Jesus, or at least miss what it really means to believe in and follow Jesus.

The Bible - Living As Participants in the Mission of God

In the message I preached to the Newark Church of Christ this past Sunday, I mentioned three lenses that Christians sometimes read the Bible through. Each lens appears legit because there is enough scripture and Jesus in the lens that the problems are easily overlooked by the indiscriminate reader. The three lenses I have in mind are:

  1. The Prosperity Lens. This lens, sometimes called The Health and Wealth Gospel, is based on the belief that God promises material wealth and physical well-being to those who seek him. Receiving this promise is a matter of faith. One major objection is that such a notion fails to account for how many faithful seekers of God, including Jesus and his apostles, all suffered on account of their faith. Right now, there are many Christians in countries like Iran and China who are suffering persecution for following Jesus. The fact is, that following Jesus just might result in suffering physically in some manner as well as enduring material poverty.
  2. The Soterian Lens. This lens is what Scot McKnight refers to as the soterian gospel in which the gospel is equated with salvation (The King Jesus Gospel, p. 29). The gospel is reduced to a concern of just getting people saved and thus about sharing the Four Spiritual Laws. The problem with this lens is that it relegates discipleship as secondary, creating a false-dichotomy between believing in Jesus and following Jesus. Thus, a person can come to faith in Christ and thus “get saved” but not necessarily become a disciple. 
  3. The Blueprint Lens. This lens, which is particular to my own history within the Churches of Christ and the larger Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, reads the Bible, and particularly the New Testament, as a blueprint or constitution for the church. The problem is that the New Testament, a collection of twenty-seven different occasional writings, becomes a new law focused on restoring an assumed ecclesiological pattern. Faithfulness to Jesus is about keeping this pattern rather than following Jesus and embodying the gospel he proclaimed as the real pattern for how his followers should live. (As a side for those among the Churches of Christ, to learn more about this hermeneutic and a better theological hermeneutic as an alternative, I highly recommend the new book by John Mark Hicks, Searching For The Pattern, 2019.)

As I said earlier, we can proof-text enough scripture and sprinkle in enough Jesus to justify each lens. One problem with each lens is that they shift the aim or the end (telos) of scripture away from the gospel that Jesus and his apostles actually proclaimed. Though the shift often seems subtle, the significance is important because it may (and has) hinder our participation in the mission of God.

In a conversation Jesus was having with the Jewish leaders, who wanted to kill him, he observed how they read the scriptures but missed Jesus. John 5:39 says “Examine the scriptures, since you think that in them you have eternal life. They also testify about me.”  Yes, that was possible then and is still possible now. Christians may not wish to kill Jesus but they certainly have killed in the name of Jesus because their view of Jesus looks more like a John Rambo than the King who became a slaughtered lamb on a Roman cross. Missing Jesus is how some Christians of the past justified segregated churches while saying that Civil Rights was not the business of Christians. It’s how some Christians today downplay the continued problems of racism or pretend that racism is a “political issue” that has nothing to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In some upcoming posts I will explain why the Bible is centered in Jesus Christ and oriented toward the kingdom of God. In more theological terms, the Old Testament and New Testament present a narrative that is Christiologically centered and eschatologically oriented. This narrative, read through the lens of Christology and Eschatology, provides the script for and hence opens space for discerning how our local churches might contextually embody the gospel on mission with God. But first, there may be some lenses that simply need to be discarded if we’re going to read the Bible in order to live as participants in the mission of God.

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.

A Little Truth On Loving Our Neighbors

“What must I do to gain eternal life?” It’s a question that many sermons, evangelistic tracts, and other church literature has answered. And if you’ve been around any church, you know how the answer goes. In the churches I have been a part of, the answer has always seemed to include teaching about the necessity or repentance and baptism. But when a Jewish lawyer came testing Jesus by asking the same question, the conversation about gaining eternal life went in a very different direction.

Bulletin Message Picture

In Luke 10:25-37 we have a well known story that has traditionally been known as The Good Samaritan. But the story, as Luke tells it, doesn’t begin with a man encountering assailants along a desolate road. It begins with a Jewish lawyer asking “What must I do to gain eternal life?” So Jesus answers the lawyer but not in a way that most Christians would expect. Jesus simply asked the lawyer “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”

There are two observations worth noting here. First, Jesus seems to assume that knowing what is necessary for gaining eternal life is found in the Law of Moses. If living the eternal life is understood in terms of the kind of life we live and not just the length of life, then it makes sense. We can begin knowing how to participate in the kind of life Jesus is offering by reading the Old Testament. Why? Because the Law in its essence is about loving God and neighbor (we cannot do one without doing the other), which the Lawyer knows. So when he answers Jesus’ question by reciting the two great commands, Jesus replies “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”

But, but but…

The lawyer wanted to justify himself, so perhaps with some chutzpah he asked “And who is my neighbor?” That brings up the second observation about Jesus’ question. How one reads the Law of Moses, or in our case, the entire Bible, will indeed shape how we define our neighbor. If we are followers of Jesus then we must read the Bible in light of who we know Jesus to be, the life we know that he lived, and the aim (telos) for which he lived his life — the kingdom of God.

Lest we misunderstand, Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan. The Samaritan was despised and seemingly beyond the boundaries of God’s kingdom in the eyes of the Jewish people. Yet this Samaritan became The Good Samaritan or the one who was a neighbor because he exemplified love for his neighbor. Perhaps if Jesus was telling a story today, perhaps he might speak of an American Evangelical Christian and a “Truth-defending, Sound-Doctrine” Preacher as he tells a tale about an undocumented immigrant or a Muslim loving their neighbors (like Imam Abubakr Absullahi, an 83 year-old Muslim Cleric who is being honored by the US Government for hiding 262 Christians to protect them during an attack in Central Nigeria last year).

I mention this because we all have known of Christians who have made defending Biblical truth and sound-doctrine, which always seems to be their own dogma, the essence or primary focus being a Christian. Don’t misunderstand me. Truth and doctrine matter but when such concern is elevated about loving God and neighbor (and history is replete with examples), not only does such a pursuit become an idol but it takes a wrong turn away from eternal life.

Yes, I just said that. When our concern for sound-doctrine is elevated above or ignores loving God and neighbor, we turning away from participating in eternal life. That doesn’t mean we can’t turn around and get back on the right path. The grace of God says we can. That is why, when the Jewish lawyer recognizes that the neighbor is the Samaritan “who demonstrated mercy,” Jesus says “Go and do likewise.”

To love our neighbors as ourselves is to love God and if we love God with all our heart, being, strength, and mind, we will delight in loving our neighbors. But let’s also remember, that it’s possible for a Samaritan, an undocumented immigrant, or a Muslim just might be closer to the kingdom than some Christians because of the way they love their neighbors.

So what must we do to gain eternal life? And what does the Bible say? How do we read the Bible? Well, here’s a little truth on these questions that we should notice. In essence, the answer is that we should love God and love our neighbor. But to be clear, Jesus tells us a story of about loving our neighbor and how that involves extending mercy. Then Jesus simply says, “Go and do likewise.” Stop trying to justify ourselves like the lawyer, saying “Yes, but…” and just hear Jesus say “Go and do likewise.”

“Go and do likewise.” ~ Jesus

 

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!