Category Archives: Churches of Christ

Caging The Tiger: Church Leadership and Toxic Christians

The Church of Christ my family and I were a part of when I was a child was a small congregation. Most of my church experience, especially as a minister, has been with small congregations. By small, I mean congregations of less than one-hundred people and that includes children.

If you talk to members of these congregations, they’ll usually talk about the closeness the members have with each other. The local church is like an extended family, which seems good. In fact, one of the challenges that larger churches face is trying to retain this sense of close community so that all members have a sense of belonging and deeper relationship with at least a few others in the church. This is one reason why small groups have become so popular. Another thing about small churches is that most of them want some numerical growth. So generally, there is an excitement when someone decides they want to place membership and for various reasons, these small Churches of Christ are always happy when a person from another Church of Christ wants to become a part of their church. However, there’s a real danger in that sometimes there is such a desperation to welcome a new person or family that someone toxic person is welcomed without any reservation or qualification.

“If you want a lamb and a tiger to live in the same forest, you don’t try to make them communicate. You cage the bloody tiger.”

– Edwin H. Friedman

Who is the toxic person I have in mind? Typically he or she is a Christian who every few years gets upset about something in their church and leaves for another church (note: they’ll always has a “scriptural” reason that justifies their reason for leaving). This person is toxic because he or she is an argumentative and divisive bully who thinks they are smarter than others. They’re eager, too eager, to assert themselves as a leader which has more to do with their own ego than it does with serving. They are quick to correct others and will even insult others as a way of demonstrating their diluted sense of superiority, especially when it comes to knowing the Bible and matters of sound doctrine. However, there’s a reason why such a person has left the last church. Though not always the case, sometimes such a toxic person leaves is because the others of that church had enough and someone rightfully stood up to them. Like any bully, the last thing this toxic Christian can handle is anyone who will not cower to their coercive and intimidating pressure.

So what should be done with such a toxic person among a church? In Friedman’s Fables, the Friendly Forest fable ends with these words, “…If you want a lamb and a tiger to live in the same forest, you don’t try to make them communicate. You cage the bloody tiger.”

Cage the tiger?

Yes!

Let me say it again… Yes! Cage the tiger!

Caging the tiger here takes some courageous and wise leadership so as not to create further conflict, if that is possible. So ignoring the problem until either other people begin leaving the church or become so frustrated that they lash out will not work. The only way of caging the tiger is to confront the individual  and speak the truth in love, candidly explaining the problem. If the person will not listen and change, then you must lay out the resolution for them (which is no longer up for discussion). If the tiger is not caged and a toxic person is passively empowered then there more problems will surface. I know of one church where most of the adults stopped participating in any Bible classes because they were tired of always being corrected and insulted by one particular toxic individual. I once witnessed people get up and walk out of a meeting because they had reached their limit for tolerating the lecture they were about to receive from another toxic member (who had acted like this many other times). That shouldn’t happen and it doesn’t have to if someone will have the courage to lead by wisely caging the tiger.

Cultivating a healthy culture in your church depends on caging the tiger!

When I was serving with the Columbia Church of Christ, a man started visiting our church. He had previously served as a minister with several other Churches of Christ but was now on disability and our church was the nearest Church of Christ. So he showed up but made it quickly known how much he disagreed with our gender-inclusive practices. So for the next two weeks when he showed up to Bible class, he promptly told the women how wrong they were and you could see the hurt and frustration on everyone else’s face. It was rather obvious that he was here to create division. So I met with him and explained to him that though he was welcome to be a part of our congregation, gender-inclusiveness was a part of who were as a local church and if he could not accept that then there were other churches in the community for him to visit. He never came back and that’s ok. The following Sunday, the atmosphere of our Bible class was back to normal with a lively discussion fostering an an encouraging conversation about how we live as followers of Jesus.

That’s one example of caging the tiger. It’s not the only way, just one way. But by all means, if you’re a church leader then have the courage and wisdom to confront the toxic people and cage the tiger. Cultivating a healthy culture in your church depends on caging the tiger!

So again, I will say it and close with these words… Yes! Cage the tiger!

With Thanksgiving… An Advent Message

Sunday, November 27th, was the beginning of the New Year per the Christian Calendar. It was also the First Sunday of Advent. Below is the video of the Advent sermon I preached at the Westside Church of Christ from Psalm 100 which is called “With Thanksgiving.”

Ministry 101: Leading By Example

Years ago I worked for one year as a machinist at a Briggs and Stratton manufacturing plant turning pistons inside a CNC lathe. There wasn’t anything spectacular about the job but I remember my immediate supervisor, whose name was John. Like any good manager, he expected people to put an honest effort at work. One of the things I appreciated most was that when people went on break, John ran there machine for them. He was not above doing the very work he asked of everyone else. That’s leadership by example.

One of the issues that generates a lot of attention these days among church and ministry conferences that pastors and ministers attend is the subject of discipleship. Everyone knows that discipleship is a challenge facing Christianity in America and closely related is the challenge of spiritual formation. If discipleship is, in simplest terms, learning to follow Jesus and spiritual formation is having our minds or imaginations reformed in the beliefs and values of the good news of Jesus and the kingdom of God, churches are really struggling with both. The pews and chairs of the church sanctuary may be full on any given Sunday but when people leave the worship gathering, they return to their busy lives which often doesn’t reflect much of the life Jesus That at least is the premise for most conferences on discipleship.

Whether the challenge of discipleship is as great as we think or not, we would have to be very naïve to say there isn’t any problem. That raises the question of how do we make disciples of Jesus Christ and spiritual form such people for continued living as disciples?

I’m not really going to answer that question because there are plenty of books, articles, and blogs addressing that issue. Just do a Google search! What I do want to focus on is the example we set and by “we,” I mean those of us who serve as pastors and ministers among a church. If we want to see the churches we serve full of growing disciples who are being spiritually formed in the way of Jesus, then we must live as an example of what discipleship is and what it means to be someone who is being spiritually formed.

Let me share a story and I hope you’ll understand that what I’m about to share is not to pat myself on the back but because of the observation that I made.

Two weeks ago I was invited by one of my elders to help serve at a spaghetti fundraiser dinner in Chillicothe, MO for Operation Help which helps serve the homeless and other people in need of benevolent assistance. This isn’t an opportunity that I would have voluntarily sought out but because I was asked, I agreed to go serve and spent three hours serving up pasta. Another lady who has served at many of these fundraiser dinners remarked that I was the first pastor to ever come help serve at these particular fundraisers. Now I know there are plenty of pastors and ministers who voluntarily serve outside of their expected church duties. However, this women’s observation struck a chord with me because almost all of the churches in Chillicothe support and partner with Operation Help, which depends on volunteer help and yet there’s never been a pastor or minister who have volunteered in this way before. Why is that?

Every pastor and minister I know would love to see members of their church volunteering with an organization like Operation Help. In fact, we would say that such service is an indicator of discipleship and spiritual formation… certainly not the only indicator but at least one and perhaps an important one. So we would encourage members to give up their own time outside of work and in addition to whatever responsibilities they might have with their own children and grandchildren. But how can we who serve as  pastors and ministers expect other Christians to volunteer and serve if we don’t set such an example?

Discipleship and spiritual formation are certainly key ingredients for a church growing as a healthy body of faithful and mature believers. As I alluded to earlier, there is plenty of literature available on how to go about making disciples and spiritual forming them in the way of Jesus. I would simply add that it begins with the example we set − leadership by example − and I am certainly not always the example I should be, so it begins with me. In January there will be a chili fundraiser dinner for Operation Help and I will gladly be there to serve again.

“If we want to see the churches we serve full of growing disciples who are being spiritually formed in the way of Jesus, then we must live as an example of what discipleship is and what it means to be someone who is being spiritually formed.”

The Chillicothe Church of Christ

This year will be one of transition for my family and I as I have been invited to serve as the minister with the Chillicothe Church of Christ in Chillicothe, MO. This comes after many prayers regarding our future and with more than a few conversations with different churches. Ultimately my prayer became one of submission to God, that whatever door he should open is the door we would walk through. Fortunately for us, we believe the Chillicothe Church of Christ will be a great fit with our family as well as a great fit for who God has shaped me to be as a minister of the gospel. We are joining a church in which God has been at work and in which we anticipate God continuing to work among for the sake of his kingdom and glory.

loving-god-loving-people

As the picture taken from the church’s website says, I look forward to helping this church in “loving God by loving people” and serving alongside of the other elders and deacons. While we won’t move as a family until next summer, I have already begun working with this church and will do so throughout the year by traveling to Chillicothe frequently over the next eight months. This will allow me to begin doing some of the necessary ethnography with the church and community that allows for a reimagined contextual embodiment of the gospel for the future to come as participants in the mission of God.

Later this month when I am in Chillicothe, I will preach a short message series called Living Gospel. With this series, and looking at the texts of Ephesians 2:1-10 and John 14:15-24, I want to cast some vision about embodying the gospel as a church seeking to faithfully follow Jesus − the fundamental calling of the church − as participants in the mission of God. And yes, this has everything to do with how the church loves God by loving people. Below is the poster picture for this upcoming message series.

In the meantime, I ask that you will pray for my family and I as well as the Chillicothe Church of Christ. Pray that God will give us patience and wisdom throughout this period of transition, just as he has throughout the last year as we were waiting and listening for a new ministry opportunity. Pray also that God will fortify the Chillicothe Church of Christ in love, strengthening us all with his Spirit so that we may grow in faith and unity as followers of Jesus Christ, and that good fruit comes out of this ministry for years to come.

livinggospel

Cruciformed: Reflections on the 2016 Pepperdine Bible Lectures

A week ago I was on my way to the best Pepperdine Bible Lecture’s to date, at least in my opinion. I’m thankful for the leadership of Mike Cope, Rick Gibson, and the rest of the staff for organizing and hosting such an encouraging time of worship, fellowship, and teaching. This years theme was Cruciformed: Living In Light of the Jesus Story which is always a very timely but perhaps even more so as more and more Christians among North America recognize that we now live in a post-Christendom/post-Christian society.

The main features of the Pepperdine Bible Lecture’s are always the worship, fellowship, and teaching. The bonus is the location of Malibu, California with the view of the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Monica Mountains. I had many people ask if I was having a good time and I’m sure I asked other people the same question. Nevertheless, it seems that one would really have to try hard not to have a good time.

I have always enjoyed gathering for worship at the Firestone Fieldhouse, as the singing is uplifting. Whether singing a song like How Great Is Our God or The Lord Bless You and Keep You as a blessing to Ruby Bridges, my heart is filled with joy. And yes, I just mentioned Ruby Bridges, who delivered a powerful message late Wednesday evening. Her message was one that everyone in living in America, and especially every parent, needed to hear. Hearing N.T. Wright and Greg Boyd speak and teach was a joy because I have learned so much from these two Christian scholars from their books. While I was encouraged and challenged by every keynote address, I especially appreciated the addresses delivered by Randy Harris on The Scandal of Carrying the Cross and Dave Clayton on The Scandal of the Resurrection. I enjoyed all of the classes I went to but really the 2-part class taught by Pat Bills called Once Bitten, Twice Shy which is about the way elders and ministers lead together (available on a free podcast here); if you’re an elder or minister then I highly encourage you to download the two sessions and listen to them.

Hula PieBesides the worship and teaching at the Bible Lectures, fellowship is also a key feature. Like always, I run into old friends and make new friends. Some people I meet in person for the first time after already knowing them through social-media, which is really nice. I’m terrible at remembering names but if I ran into you, it was my delight to speak with you even if it was only for a brief minute or so. Of course, the one disappointment, as there is never enough time to spend with friends. And to the friends who recommended that I order the Hula Pie at Duke’s (pictured to the left), it was great but next year I really hope that my wife can come with me to share some pie as well as some great worship, teaching, and fellowship.

Baptism: What Are We Missing?

Sadly, the teaching and practice of baptism is a conflicted issue among Christians. Talk to ten different churches in any community and one will certainly hear at least several different views, if not more, expressed about baptism. The snarky part of me wonders if the only thing Christians agree one about baptism is that it somehow involves water and is mentioned in the Bible. While that’s an overstatement of the case, it does highlight the confusion that exists over the issue of baptism. It also seems that what most churches have to say regarding baptism is, at best, only a part of the story. So could this not actually be a problem and one that runs deeper than the issue of baptism itself?

Woman Being Baptized

Two Opposite Positions…

Most of the conversation about baptism has to do with the bigger subject of salvation. As humans, we are sinners and our only hope for salvation is the grace of God, particularly expressed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This good news calls us to renounce our sinful way and receive this grace, the promise of salvation, from God which calls for a response of faith. That much all Christians seem to agree on but it is at this place in conversation where baptism is located and also where a divergence of trajectories regarding the role of baptism begins.

There are two popular positions among contemporary Christianity which are polar opposites of each other. The first position, and one I am the most familiar with since it is held by most Churches of Christ, says that baptism is essential for an individual to receive the promise of salvation from God. In the most extreme expressions of this position, it is held that one cannot possibly be saved without baptism and without receiving baptism for this reason which unintentionally seems to reduce to nothing more than a “ticket to heaven.” The other position says that baptism is not essential for an individual to receive the the promise of salvation from God. In the most extreme expressions of this position, baptism is viewed as merely a symbol that may even be optional as to whether or not one participates in baptism.

It’s important to understand that churches espousing both positions can cite biblical proof-texts and put forth reasons based on those biblical passages to support each view. My own view is that baptism is a necessary part of receiving the promise of salvation and therefore baptism cannot be reduced to a mere symbol but that baptism as a sacrament (means of grace) cannot be expanded into the sum-total of God’s grace so that we cannot exclude from the fellowship of Christ those who, for whatever reason, have believed in Jesus but were unable to be baptized (in fact, I am personally inclined simply to proclaim Christ and invite those who believe to receive baptism and let God do the judging about who receives his promise of salvation and when they receive that promise). But the problem with both positions is that they seemingly fail to account for the real reason why Paul even mentions baptism in Romans 6:3-4 and Galatians 3:27-28 (I have linked to the extended passages in each book so you can click on those links and read the passages for yourself).

Digging Deeper…

In both Romans and Galatians Paul is dealing with issues stemming from differences between Jewish and Gentile Christians as a result of the inclusion of Gentiles in the gospel. In Romans, Paul is particularly addressing the question of how God can show favor (grace) to both Jews and Gentiles. By insisting that both Jews and Gentiles are justified by grace through faith, Paul must deal with the question of whether Christians should continuing in sin so that the grace of God might increase. In short, Paul’s response is an emphatic “No!” and his reason is that the Christian has been “baptized into Christ.” In Galatians, Paul is dealing with the question of whether or not one is saved on the basis of faith or the Mosaic Law. By insisting that Christians are saved on the basis of faith, Paul must deal with the question of whether the Law or any other status marker, such as maleness, gives one an advantage. Again, in short, Paul’s response is an emphatic “No!” and his reason is that Christians have been “baptized into Christ.”

Do we see the problem? When we reduce baptism to merely a “ticket to heaven” or just a symbol having nothing to do with salvation, we lose the meaning of baptism in both Romans and Galatians. We also reduce the biblical meaning of salvation from being redeemed and transformed into the image of Christ to mere forensic justification of our sins but I digress. Getting back to the problem, in both cases Paul is neither concerned with the issue of baptism being necessary for salvation (though based on my understanding of scripture, I believe Paul would be dumbfounded at the suggestion that baptism is unnecessary) nor with whether baptism nullifies faith if it is indeed necessary (Paul, I believe, would say that baptism is part of our faith response to the work of God in baptism which we receive from God, which is why he speaks of our baptism in the passive-tense voice). These are issues we bring to scripture ourselves, sometimes making so much of them that we fail to see what scripture actually says. Furthermore, if baptism is merely about getting saved or just a symbol of salvation, what Paul says about baptism in Romans and Galatians makes little sense.

Paul is rhetorically invoking the experience of baptism into his arguments in Romans and Galatians because in baptism we undergo a profound change that reorients the aim (telos) of our life as believers who follow Jesus. Baptism is our surrender to Jesus in which we give up our old life in exchange for his new life. Faith here is not having perfect doctrinal knowledge of what baptism is but is entrusting ourselves to God, letting him do the work of crucifying us with Christ and then raising us into the new resurrected life of Christ (indeed a mystery of faith). Because we have been baptized and therefore have died to the old life, we cannot continue allowing sin to rule our lives. Likewise, our value and role is not determined anymore by our ethnicity, gender, and social-status since we have been baptized into Christ. As a result of God baptizing us into Christ, we are now equals in Christ who live our lives as instruments of righteousness and we have faith that God has saved us, is saving us, and will save us when Christ returns.

Why This Matters…

We have often heard it said that Sunday morning is the most segregated time during the week because local churches tend to be homogenous when it comes to race and ethnicity. There’s a lot of truth to this. Many local churches have also been fellowships where being white, wealthy, and male means power over minorities, the poor, and females. At the same time, the demarcation that the Christian church as the fellowship of Christ distinct from the world has becoming increasingly blurred, so much that some Christians are unsure of the differences between the way of Christ and the way of being a good American.

Perhaps it is just coincidence that this has also occurred when baptism has too often either been reduced to a mere salvation ticket or a mere symbol of salvation. But maybe it’s not a coincidence. Maybe it’s time that to rethink our understanding of baptism, dig deeper into the theology of this sacrament, and consider what it truly means to live as a people who have been baptized into Christ. After all, if we truly desire to follow Jesus as participants in the mission of God, it seems necessary that we truly understand that we have indeed been baptized into Christ and belong to his new life − lest we continue living as though we are baptized into some other reality still belonging to the old way of life.

As a minister who has been asking questions about baptism for sometime, I still feel like there is much more digging to be done and more repenting to do! How about you?

What Am I Looking For in a Church?

     With the Columbia Church of Christ disbanding, I find myself looking to what is ahead and how I might continue serving God with the gifts he has blessed me with. I am thankful for those who have encouraged me to continue in ministry as a life-vocation, as this has reaffirmed God’s calling into ministry which has come at very necessary moments. I am also thankful for the Christian community that was known as the Columbia Church of Christ. Though the outcome was not what anyone expected when I began serving as the minister, it was the leading of God and along the way I also learned a lot about leading a church in a pastoral sense for the sake of God and his mission.
     Even though I have learned from all of my experience and education, it is my experience with the Columbia Church of Christ, participating in the Mission Alive training labs, and the Doctor of Ministry studies in missional leadership I am working on at Northern Seminary that has helped me understand how I must serve as a minister. And now that I am talking with some other churches about serving with them as a minister, one of the questions that always seems to come up is what sort of church am I looking for as a minister. So here is my answer to that question.
     Let me start by saying what I am not looking for. I am not looking for a church that is afraid of considering something new, reluctant in taking any risk, and simply interested in maintaining things the way they are. But on the other hand, I am not looking for a church that is just trying to change in order to follow the latest trends of what some other church is doing. Instead I am looking for a church that wants to pursue how God is working among them and in their local community for the sake of his mission so that they can continue participating with God in that work.
     So besides preaching and teaching, casting vision, spending time visiting with people, and all the other work that ministers often do (which I enjoy doing), I am trying to foster a conversation. This is a conversation about how we, as a church, participate with God in his mission, serving one another and our community as we serve God. It is a conversation in which the gospel, as known through scripture and the Christian tradition, is brought into conversation with culture so that we may discern how God is calling us to embody the gospel followers of Jesus. When this happens, there is participation in the mission of God.
     For me, as a minister, that means serving as a listener first in order to learn how God has been at work among the church as well as the local community. By listening and learning myself, I believe I am better equipped to help the church listen and learn so that we are able to discern how God is leading us. This also means that I am seeking from the elders shepherding the church buy-in on a commitment to leading by listening and learning, so that we are listening, learning, and leading together for the sake of God’s work among the church and  community. That’s ministry leadership… pastoral leadership… missional leadership!
     When this happens, we are able to discern as a church not only where God is leading but what might need to change and how that should occur. Further more, this ministry leadership enables us to discern how God is gifting various Christians within the church in order affirm their giftedness and encourage their faithful service using such gifts.
     That’s the sort of church I am looking for. The sort of church that wants to discover how God is at work among them and where he is leading them next in order to go there in faith, just as the people of God have done many other times.