Category Archives: Churches of Christ

Discipleship: Jesus Calls… …We Follow

Discipleship Series Pic “When Christ calls a man, he bid him come and die,” wrote the German theologian, pastor, and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his influential classic The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer understood perhaps more so than many contemporary Christians that following Jesus may call for our death — martyrdom — as a witness of Jesus. For his own commitment in following Jesus led him to lead what became known as the Confessing Church which became a movement resisting Nazi power, which ended for Bonhoeffer on the gallows at Flossenbürg Concentration Camp on April 9, 1945 at the young age of thirty-nine.

This coming Sunday, August 5th, I am starting a new and fairly short, four week, message series for the Newark Church of Christ on the subject of discipleship. While we will likely never be called to suffer any physical persecution, much less death, for following Jesus here in America (or at least anytime soon), we are nonetheless called to follow Jesus and this call is always counter-cultural. Discipleship is a life of living-sacrifice and obedience unto Jesus whom we confess as Lord. As I wrote in a Wineskins article back in 2013, Discipleship or following Jesus is about “learning to living in the way of Jesus.”

In this message series on discipleship, my aims to help the church (re)imagine the sort of kingdom vision Jesus is calling us to follow him in living, and broadly what that requires of us. In doing so, this series will cover four passages of scripture, one from each Gospel, beginning with Luke 4:14-30 followed by Mark1:14-20, Matthew 22:34-40, and John 13:1-18. Also, if you are someone who enjoys reading then here are two book recommendations that deal with the subject of discipleship.

  1. Scot McKnight, One Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010. A very practical book, the author explores how following Jesus and living the kingdom life relates to relevant life issues such as love, peace, and church, and even sex and vocation. This is a book that I have given to students graduating from high school or already in college because it deals with challenges and question everyone faces in adult life.
  2. Lee C. Camp, Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008. Though still accessible reading, Camp offers a primer on what it means to be a Christian. The book serves as a counter vision to the easy pop-Christianity that has so easily co-opted American idealism, going back to scriptures and the cross-shaped vision Jesus calls people to follow him in living.

The Questions of Declining Churches

Empty ChurchAround the country, Churches of Christ continue to decline in numbers of local churches and individual members. You can read this article from the Christian Chronicle that provides and explains the data. Such decline raises the anxiety among elders and ministers along with raising questions about the reason for such decline. However, sometimes it seems like some people just want to keep asking the same questions that lead to the same answers.

I haven’t seen a copy of the Spiritual Sword in almost ten years but that changed when someone sent me a copy of the April 2018 issue (Vol. 49, No. 3). Dedicated to the legacy of N.B. Hardeman’s Tabernacle Sermons, the editor Alan E. Highers concludes with an editorial titled “What Can We Learn?” Speaking of the Churches of Christ, which in his sectarian view constitutes “the body of Christ”, Highers writes:

Why have some young people forsaken the body of Christ and moved into a denomination, a community church, or back into the world? In all likelihood they have not heard the preaching on the sin of religious division and the identity of Christ’s church, perhaps in their lifetime. Why have some among us minimized the authority of the scriptures and concluded that instrumental music is marginal and unimportant? (p. 47).

The answers he provides to his own questions are unfounded assumptions. That is, there isn’t any evidence cited to support such answers. In fact, I doubt very much that a thorough social analysis on why people are leaving the Churches of Christ and regard opposition to the use of instruments in Christian worship as unimportant would ever yield the conclusions that Higher’s asserts.

Alan Higher’s and his associates are free to regard as important whatever set of beliefs they want to hold on any issue they like. However, the conclusions that Highers assumes reveal just how out of touch with reality some Christians and Churches of Christ are in this postmodern and post-Christendom American society we live among. There are likely several reasons why people are leaving the Churches of Christ and why people, myself included, don’t regard the use of instruments in Christian worship as sin. I can only speak for myself but whatever the reasons are, apart from the person who has just abandoned following Jesus entirely, they have nothing to do with a lack of preaching/teaching on church unity and a minimizing the authority of scripture. I have read the Bible from cover to cover and have a high-view regarding the authority of scripture. I’ve even preached on the subject of Christian unity and on the authority of scripture, it’s just that I’ve reached a different conclusion about what the scriptures teach on the issue of Christian unity and singing in worship.

However, I’m going to push further and say that by drawing the conclusions which Higher’s does is more a means of scapegoating than anything else. Such conclusions allow local churches to blame those who have left or no longer adhere to the traditional Churches of Christ dogma for their decline. By scapegoating these issues, local Churches of Christ by means of their leaders can then ignore the deeper questions about their church and mission. These are questions that might open their gospel imaginations regarding their own contextual theological praxis, resulting in new ways of embodying the gospel as participants in the mission of God. This may be the biggest challenge facing Churches of Christ: Do local Churches of Christ have the faith to ask different questions that would lead them in a new direction as participants in the mission of God? Alan Highers is only one voice but his voice says “No!” and that is lamentable.

If a local church just keeps asking the same questions and imposing the same answers on those same questions, they’ll end up with the same results. In psychological terms, that’s called insanity. Drawing on a biblical metaphor, it is to remain safely in the water even though Jesus is calling the church out into the water. Until local churches by means of their leaders have the courage to step out into the water, which requires faith rather than dogmatic certainty, continued decline will happen as participating in the mission of God gets lost from the safety of the boat.

So let me suggest that rediscovering how God is calling a local church to participate in his mission requires us to ask better questions that anticipate different answers. Ergo, instead of asking “why someone has become a part of a local community church?”, how about asking instead “how is our church doing in the practice of hospitality and charity towards one another?” That question might lead to inquiring about whether the people in the nearby neighborhoods find a welcoming and friendly environment among us (which can only be answered by asking the people in the neighborhoods). Such questions open space for learning and rediscovering ways as well as opportunities for how the local church might embody the gospel among the neighborhoods and begin extending the kingdom of God into the neighborhoods rather than just continuing in decline.

This is something to think about. However, by all means, let’s quit scapegoating the reasons for why Churches of Christ are declining.

Back East: A New Ministry With The Newark Church of Christ

We’re on the move. That is, this coming spring my family and I will be moving back east to Newark, Delaware where I will begin serving as the senior minster with the Newark Church of Christ. Those of you who follow me on other social media networks like Facebook and Twitter likely already know about this news but I wanted a chance to say more about this move.

IMG_E2700Since we only moved from Columbia, Maryland to Chillicothe, Missouri last July, some people have asked why we are moving back east so quickly. I don’t want to go into a lot of details but we moved to Missouri so I could serve with a church but things didn’t work out as we anticipated and I was let go rather quickly. This had nothing to do with any illegal, immoral, or unethical activity on my part, so it came as quite a shock and with a lot of questions for my wife and I as it pertains to our family as well as the vocation of ministry. In fact, I actually began giving a lot of consideration to leaving the vocation of Christian ministry as a full-time occupation all together (note: not giving up on following Jesus, just serving as a church pastor/minister). However, the Lord had other plans.

While I was still uncertain about my future in the vocation of Christian ministry, my name had been recommended to several churches as a candidate to consider becoming their next minister. Most of these churches were working with Interim Ministry Partners, a ministry partnership I highly recommend if your church is seeking a new minister. One of these churches was the Newark Church of Christ, who contacted me back in early November of 2017. As I began a conversation with the search committee, it became clear that God is at work in some amazing ways among this church.

To begin with, after much discernment, the Newark Church of Christ embraced a new vision form God of being people who invite people to experience Jesus together. This vision was clear in their support of ministries such as Blue Hens For Christ, the campus ministry at the University of Delaware, The People’s House, and the monthly Saturday morning pancake breakfast where guest can also acquire goods necessary for daily living. This was even more clear in church’s decision to transition their traditional Vacation Bible School to a summer outreach week and the begin a second contemporary and instrumental worship service that will attract new people seeking Jesus.

But there’s more… More importantly, as I talked with the search committee and later with elders, the passion for Jesus was palpable. I could hear it their prayers and see it in their faces when they talked about what God was doing in your church. As I spoke with the search committee and elders it was apparent that the Holy Spirit is the one breathing life into this church, filling it with a passion for the gospel of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God.

Throughout the conversation, the process required much prayer and discernment. Remember, that there was a part of me considering that my time serving in the vocation of Christian ministry was over. So I was simply praying that the Lord would reveal if serving with this church was his will. As the conversation continued and as it became evident of the way God was working among the Newark Church of Christ, the Lord kindled a desire to serve with this church. In fact, I don’t know how else to describe it except to say that my desire to serve with this church increased so my that in my prayers I simply began petition for the Lord to open this door so that my family and I could become a part of the Newark Church of Christ and I could serve with them as a minister of the gospel.

I am beyond excited to announce that I will begin serving as a minister with the Newark Church of Christ later this month. I am also confident that God will continue leading us forth, filling us with the Holy Spirit, as followers of Jesus who invite people to experience Jesus together.

Evangelism: The 72 Includes You

Evangelism is a ministry task that many churches struggle with, for various reasons. Beyond such reasons, evangelism sometimes has been relegated to the job of a revivalist preacher going from town to town preaching the good news. With all appreciation to such preachers like Billy Graham or my own tribe’s Jimmy Allen, evangelism isn’t their responsibility alone. Similarly, evangelism is neither about standing on a street corner preaching a hellfire and brimstone sermon to other pedestrians nor can it be reduced to knocking on some unknown person’s door.

4517So what is evangelism? If that’s a question you’ve wonder about or if the subject of evangelism interests you, then perhaps the book I am writing to tell you about can help. A few weeks ago IVP Books was kind enough to send me a copy of The Power of the 72: Ordinary Disciples in Extraordinary Evangelism. This book, authored by John Teter, who serves as Pastor for the Fountain of Life Covenant Church in Long Beach, California, is a very easy to read book of 162 pages in length. In fact, one of the things I appreciate about this book is that the author has written in a manner that is accessible to any reader, whether they have a theology degree or not, and has done so without dumbing down the theological content of the book.

After an introduction, the book divides into two sections, with the first made up of three chapters laying a theological foundation and the second made up of five chapters on application. Throughout the book, the author works through the story of Jesus sending out the 72 to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God in Luke 10:1-20. Overall, the author asks of the Christian reader to see himself or herself as one of the 72. That is, Christian readers are challenged to consider themselves as people Jesus is sending out to proclaim the good news — evangelists engaged in evangelism. To that end, the author offers a fourfold purpose of 1) providing a theological foundation for evangelism, 2) presenting his theory on the process of conversion, 3) call the reader to master ministry tasks pertaining to evangelism, and 4) prepare the readers for rejection (p. 14).

The author is not offering a step-by-step “how to” manual for evangelism, which is good since I have always found problems with such manuals (which is beyond the scope of this post). However, besides presenting a solid theological praxis for evangelism, I found the book inspiring and encouraging. Without any guilt trips, I found myself wanting to be better at evangelism as I read through the book. Though there didn’t appear anything of significance to dispute in this book, there were a couple of places where I thought the author was trying to hard to make the biblical text support his conviction. However, I’m sure the same could be said for any pastor-theologian, including myself.

One point the author makes in the book does warrant some further discussion because it is such a good point for churches and individual Christians to remember. In discussing the work that God is already doing, the author says:

“Evangelism is not going into newly formed relationships doing all we can to create a hunger for God. Evangelism is becoming flesh in a situation where God is already at work. The hard work has already been done” (p. 97).

As with every aspect of Christian ministry, the task begins with discerning where God is already at work so that we may join in as participants in the mission of God. Likewise, because evangelism is participating in the work God is already doing, we can trust God to bring forth the harvest among those who are seeking him. Consequently, evangelism does not and should never be a coercive or manipulative tactic on our part. We simply share the good news of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God, allowing the Spirit to convict and call those seeking God to respond.

If you’re seeking to gain more confidence in evangelism yourself, here’s an easy book to read that God can use to equip you with more confidence. Perhaps you’re looking for some material on evangelism that can use to facilitate a discussion about becoming more evangelistic among your church or small group you’re part of. If so, I think you’ll find this book a helpful place to begin that conversation.

The Pastor and Theology

Pastors, or ministers, are those who serve in local churches as minister of the gospel. Their vocation is primarily one of proclaiming the word of God in order to equip the believers to live as faithful witnesses of the gospel. While the aim is not to become a good theologian, the pastoral vocation is a theological enterprise. In other words, serving as a pastor is to serve as a pastoral theologian. The questions then is what kind of theologian should a pastor be and what does that involve?

The issue the above question asks is raised in the book The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting An Ancient Vision by Geral Hiestand and Todd Wilson. Before getting into this issue more, there is a related concern that needs some attention. Within the Churches of Christ there are still some who think negatively of theology. This sentiment is rooted in the Restoration vision of just going back to the Bible without realizing just how indebted such a vision is to modernity and enlightenment thought. As the C.S. Lewis quote in the picture above suggests, everyone has a theology. So the only question is whether we have a good or bad theology… a well informed theology or a theology formed by ignorance.

While theology proper refers to the study of the Christian doctrine of God, the task of theology is more expansive in that it deals with how the Christian faith is understood and practiced. So I agree with Hiestand and Wilson in their description of theology as attempting to “make sense of the world in which we live, of God, and of ourselves. It teases out the connections between ideas and actions and helps to create new ways of imaging reality — ways that are distinctly Christian, or, we might say, distinctly real” (p. 55). So when we declare the Christian doctrine “Jesus is Lord!”, the task of theology is expounding on what it means for Jesus to be Lord, how that shapes our understanding of history and the way we live as followers of Jesus. We do this theology, of course, by engaging the Biblical text in conversation with Christian tradition and our located culture (more on that later) even as we draw from our abilities of reason and experience.

The question then is to what end is the task of theology? This is where I differ with Hiestand and Wilson. Their vision of a pastor theologian is what they refer to as the restoration of an “ancient vision” where the pastor “constructs and disseminates theology for the broader church” (p. 80). Their vision is anchored in their belief that there is an unhealthy gap between academia, where many academic theologians serve, and the church, where pastors serve. The ideal is a return of pastors doing academic theology for other pastors rather than leaving that work to the academic theologians and thus filling the perceived gap between theology and church. However, I’m not convinced that this is as big of a problem as they think. While there are some academic theologians who seem uninterested serving the church and some pastors who seem uninterested in theology, there are plenty of academic theologians interested in serving the church with their academic discipline (e.g., Walter Brueggeman, Miroslav Volf, N.T. Wright) and plenty of pastors interested in theology (myself included). The need is for a culture among local churches that embraces the theological enterprise and encourages their ministers to serve as pastoral theologians.

“…good pastoral theology is contextual theology.”

So let’s briefly hone in on the questions of what kind of theologian should a pastor be and what does that involve? Hiestand and Wilson suggest “the renewal of the church depends on the renewal of the church’s theology” (p. 123). Church renewal actually depends on much more but good theology is certainly an imperative. However, I believe the pressing need for this theological work is on the local. That is, every local church exists within a particular cultural context that must be considered if the church is to embody the gospel in a meaningful way among the local community. So it is within this local cultural context where scripture and Christian tradition must be engaged along with reason and experience. Why? Because while good theology is expressed in beliefs and practices that are faithful to Jesus, the local church must also contextualize this expression to what God is doing among the local church and local community. The pastor’s theological task is to help the community of believers to both understand and articulate these beliefs in concrete practices so that there is congruency between how the local church lives and what it proclaims as faith. In this sense, the task of good pastoral theology is contextual theology.

Let me offer two hypothetical but very real examples of contextual theology. Let’s say that there are an influx of Muslim refugees who have very little in terms of basic physical needs (food, clothing, etc…). How will your local church respond? Beyond generalities, I can’t answer that question because part of that question will depend on how your church understands the gospel (or not), how different people view Muslims, and so forth. However, answering the question of how the church should respond involves doing theology for the sake of the local church. Likewise, the same is true when a church is having to navigate the waters of conflict when two or more believers are in sharp disagreement with each other and where there may be potential offense (sin) involved. How the church responds and engages in this conflict, ideally toward full reconciliation, will involve doing theology and this is part of the pastor’s task whether it be in preaching, counseling, or just reflecting in silence for the sake of gaining clarity.

For the record, I don’t think Hiestand and Wilson would disagree with me on the need for pastors to be engaged in theology among the churches they serve. Where we differ is on the need for more pastors to be engaged in academic theology. It’s not that I’m opposed to academic theology and value greatly from those who are blessed with a Ph.D and a seminary position to teach and research from. I just believe local churches need pastors who are also contextual theologians for their local church and community.

What say you?

Agape Blitz in Portland, Oregon

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

IMG_2254

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

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

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

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

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

Christian Baptism and Christian Identity

Among Churches of Christ, the subject of Christian baptism has always been generated a lot of conversation. Much of the talk has been about the relationship of baptism to salvation in Christ and the question of whether baptism is necessary for receiving the promise of salvation. Less talk, and perhaps very little, has focused on the significance of baptism as it pertains to Christian identity and how baptism initiates believers into a new way of life that is embodied in daily living.

Brueggemann Meme on Baptism

The other day I shared the above photo with the quote from Walter Brueggemann on Facebook. Brueggemann is aiming at the unhealthy and ungodly patriotism, sometimes called nationalism, in which the identity of Christians has been baptized into American values to the point that Christian baptism is failing to yield a new identity of faith and discipline evident in the way Christians live. But notice that the problem is a baptism issue.

I wrote the following article (see below) for the Chillicothe Church of Christ weekly bulletin last Sunday, May 21, 2017. I did so and am also sharing it with you because there is an important aspect of baptism that needs more of our attention. Enjoy!


On Baptism Into Christ

The church of Jesus Christ consists of those who have been baptized into Christ. Notwithstanding all the debates about the purpose and practice of baptism, this is a conviction historically held by all orthodox Christians and is importance for more reasons than we might always understand.

For Paul, the importance of baptism largely has to do with what we have become in Christ which is inseparable form what has transpired in baptism. So even though Greco-Roman society defined people by their social, ethnic, and gender status, the church was defined by equality and mutuality. Why? Because Christians have been baptized into Christ (Gal 3:27-28).

Baptism then signifies a change in our identity but at the same time, a change in the way we live is expected as well. We might recall how some Christians in Rome thought they should continue sinning so that the grace of God would abound. In response to that woeful misunderstanding Paul recalls the memory of baptism into Christ as the reason why Christians should discontinue in sinful living (Rom 6:1-4). However, in doing so Paul also recalls what has transpired in baptism. Namely that Christians have been baptized into the death of Christ where they are buried with Christ and then raised into new life with Christ (note: baptism is not what we do but what God does to us). Thus in being baptized we have been crucified with Christ and then raised in the resurrected Christ by God.

And this changes everything about who we are and how we ought to live!

Consider this… We all come from somewhere and were born into different circumstances. Sometimes we point to our roots, so to speak, to explain who we are. For example, I was born in Arkansas as a caucasian but raised in a small midwestern Indiana town. Having lived the past six years on the east coast among people of different ethnicities and national origins, I see how different upbringings shaped people and that’s okay to an extent.

To use a botanical metaphor, as Christians we have been replanted in Christ and our roots are now being nurtured by a different soil — the Spirit dwelling among the church. Thus we should be growing differently and increasingly reflect a life that is filled with the Holy Spirit rather than the “spirits” of our upbringing. So it’s not okay to justify unChristian living and unChristian values by saying that’s how we were raised because if we have been baptized into Christ then we have been raised anew in Christ.

And that’s at least one important reason for remembering our baptism into Christ!