Category Archives: Discipleship

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.”

Got Faith?

Willmar TornadoThe picture you see to the right was the tornado that touched down a third of a mile from my house on July 11, 2008. My family and I had just moved to Willmar, Minnesota and I had just returned from a stop at the nearby Best Buy where I overheard there was a confirmed tornado touch down in Kandiyohi County. I didn’t make much of it because the skies were still bright but five minutes later, while retrieving a flashlight from the trunk of our car, I noticed that the branches on the trees looked like a vacuum cleaner was sweeping them up. In what seemed like minutes but really was a couple of seconds, I heard what sounded like a jet approaching and noticed my ears were beginning to pop as I looked up at the sky to see the twister approaching.

As soon as I realized that a tornado was coming, I ran back into house screaming for my wife to get the children and get into the basement immediately. Fortunately for us, the tornado made a slight turn in direction and we, along with the other residents on the south side of Willmar were spared a direct hit. Damage was minimal, with only two injuries and some property damage nearby (including three homes that were leveled).

Fear and Faith On A Stormy Sea

I have a fascination with storms, especially tornadoes but on that particular occasion, I was scared. So when I read Mark 4:35-41 where the disciples are become frightened on a boat as a storm comes along, I can identify with them. In fact, I really want to speak out in their defense. These were seasoned fisherman who were used to the seas but this storm was big enough to scare them. In fact the storm was strong enough to cause the waves to break over the boat. So if the boat should capsize, they all are probably going to drown and they know that. That’s why disciples wake Jesus up and frantically ask him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

Well, if you’ve read this story then you know Jesus rebukes the storm and silences it, saying “Peace, be still” (KJV). But then Jesus turns to his disciples and says to them, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

Can we have enough faith so that our natural impulse of fear does not become our master? 

I used to think that Jesus was rebuking his disciples for their lack of faith which is why it seemed like Jesus was being a little unfair. However, the text never says that Jesus is rebuking his disciples per se. So what is Jesus doing? Perhaps his question about fear and faith is not so much a rebuke as it is a teacher challenging his learners (which is what a disciple is). After all, I think Jesus, as a human, can understand why a storm provokes fear and let’s not forget that fear is a normal reaction too. But Jesus has also began to demonstrate the inbreaking of the kingdom of God by healing diseases, driving out demons, and teaching with authority that was unlike any of the other religious authorities. Then, according to the Gospel of Mark, in chapter four Jesus has taught a series of parables about the potency of faith. So it seems that Jesus is taking advantage of the opportunity to point out their fear and remind them that they need to have faith.

Faith, of course, is important and necessary. Jesus knows that his disciples will face more danger, more unnerving encounters, and challenges bigger than this storm. And for that, they will need to have faith. Not just intellectual assent that confesses belief in Jesus, but a living faith that is willing to follow Jesus even to the point of death on the cross. Can the disciples have such faith? But the more important question: Can we have such faith?

Assuming you’re a Christian like I am, can we have enough faith so our natural impulse of fear does not become our master? 

Faith and The Way of Jesus

Right now we live in a volatile society that is rupturing quickly. I’m not one for doom and gloom but there’s hardly a day that goes by without the report of another terrorist attack somewhere and sometimes that somewhere is here in America. Political extremism, racism, and violence are spending like cancer and regardless of who’s to blame, such evil is a danger to everyone. Those without faith think the problem will be solved by more of the same, matching one extremism with another extreme or trying to solve violence with more violence. But as the late Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

The only way of peace is the way of Jesus, the way of the cross. That is, the kingdom of God breaks upon the wold as we, the disciples of Jesus, his church, embody his self-sacrificial life and emulate his character as a witness to the rest of society. Some Christians don’t get this. Even though they proclaim the cross as God’s victory over evil, they’ll reason (utilitarianism) as to why God’s power of the cross must be set aside for the power of the sword in one form or another. But how can we live under the cross as follower of Jesus and set aside the cross. As Leonard Allen writes, “The church that lives under the cross will consist of people possessing cruciform values, that is, the character traits and virtues necessary to follow the way of the cross” (The Cruciform Church, p. 187).

According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus calls us to follow him all the way to the cross. With a hindsight faith, we believe that even though Jesus was crucified and buried in a tomb, the tomb is now empty and Jesus is alive. Sin and death have been defeated and the kingdom of God is appearing. It is our calling to live as witnesses and show the world the way of peace, where hatred is replace with love, where the light drives out the darkness of racism, violence and any other malady. But this is not an easy call. It never was and never will be. It takes faith.

Fear is a natural response to any storm, whether it be a literal storm like a tornado or a metaphorical storm in the form of racism and terrorism. But here is Jesus saying to his church, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

Church Renewal: Becoming The Gospel

For churches seeking a minister, a common theme seems to be the question of how to evangelize and grow as a church. Some churches realize this question is bigger than any simple answer while others seem as though the church just needs a minister who is good at starting new programs. This desire is certainly laudable but I would like to suggest that this is placing the cart before the horse. I’m not against programs, evangelism, and other ministries but any such movement and the way a church organizes itself for that movement must flow from the way a it follows Jesus and embodies the gospel among the community.

I’m reading Michael J. Gorman’s book Becoming The Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission, since it relates to my Doctor of Ministry studies. As the title suggests, Gorman argues that the churches Paul ministered among were not called just to believe the gospel but also become the gospel. This is what I mean when speaking of the way a church must follow Jesus and embody the gospel. Gorman describes this becoming the gospel as “…the church is a living exegesis of the gospel of God” (p. 43). That is, the local church serves as a faithful interpretation of the gospel, which is how the disciples participate in the mission of God.

[Let me pause here and point out too that faithful interpretation of the gospel does not mean a reproduction of first century, fifth century, sixteenth century, or even twentieth century ecclesial forms, as the interpretation must always speak contextually in the social-anguage of the local community but that is really another issue. I just want to be clear that we are not talking about restoring any past easier segment of the church, this is about participating in God’s mission of restoring life by reconciling people to be a new creation in Christ. Now back to the point.]

For Gorman, by becoming the gospel, a church becomes a proclamation of the gospel in word and deed. This must happen both in an inward (“centripetal”) and outward (“centrifugal”) direction. However, the deed of the gospel must always proceed the word of the gospel. Those worried about whether this diminishes the evangelistic need of teaching the gospel to those who do not belong to Christ need not worry. Such evangelism will happen naturally as the church becomes the gospel in deed.

Driving this point even further, Gorman says, “As they [local churches] become the gospel, they will have opportunities to speak the gospel” (p. 45). What he is getting at is the natural response of a church speaking the gospel by virtue of being what a church is always called to be, an embodiment of the gospel or, to use his words again, a living exegesis of the gospel. He illustrates this point by referring to a barking dog, which never needs someone to instruct it to bark… Dogs know naturally when to bark and how to bark so as to alert of a danger, warn a possible intruder, etc… Ergo, when churches become the gospel, they will naturally know how and when to speak the gospel.

So why is this so important? Beyond the need for local churches to become living embodiments of the gospel (which is immensely important), this also has something to say about not putting the cart before the horse. Local churches want to engage their community, evangelizing and ministering to people outside the body of Christ, which is a good thing. But instead of focusing on that per se, which is the cart, focus on the horse. That is, the focus should be on the  formation of disciples who learn how to follow Jesus and embody the gospel amongst themselves and within their local community. So instead of asking how to develop a new evangelistic program, a church might ask:

  • What does it mean to live as a follower of Jesus and what is involved?
  • What changes (repentance) are necessary in order for a church to continue following Jesus?
  • What particular practices are vital for embodying the gospel among various gatherings, different neighborhoods, and even in the home?
  • What means of creative expression might help make this living gospel contextually intelligible among the local community?

I’m thinking out loud a bit with these question but I believe that by asking them and listening for how the Spirit of God speaks in the conversation, churches will begin seeing the way forward. When that happens, the beginning of renewal among local churches is at hand.

Psalm 23 and Pastoral Leadership

One of the Lectionary readings for this coming Sunday is Psalm 23. The most popular Psalm, known to most from the King James Version, this Psalm has been featured in Hallmark Cards, recited at memorial services, and quoted numerous times in a plethora of different contexts. It’s certainly an appropriate scripture to read for worship and devotion on the fourth Sunday of Easter, as the Lectionary suggests. After all, since God has raised Jesus from death and made him Lord, by faith we can live confidently knowing that the Lord is indeed our Shepherd and is guiding us as he invites us to eternally dwell with him at his table and in his house.

As I read through Psalm 23 I couldn’t help myself from thinking about ministry as it pertains to pastoral leadership. Pastoral responsibilities is a part of serving a church as a minister. Besides preaching and teaching, a minister works at the bedside of someone in the hospital or at a local cafe having lunch with someone wanting to talk about some struggles. This is the primary reason why we who serve as ministers are often called “Pastor” in our day.

Yet because I believe that leadership in a local church includes elders serving as shepherds, my concern for pastoral leadership isn’t just with the role of the pastor/minister but the role of those called to serve as elders. When reading Psalm 23, I am immediately drawn to the sense of peace David has with the Lord. David knows that he can trust the Lord to do right and lead him in the right way no matter the circumstances, including those times of walking “through the valley of the shadow of death” (v. 4, KJV). That raises a question about pastoral leadership in the local church, since the Lord is shepherding his flock through the leaders he has raised to serve that church. The question can be stated as the following: How must the leaders of a church serve in order to attain the trust of the congregation to lead them and do so even in difficult circumstances?

I don’t have the definitive answer to such a question and I believe it is a question that can only be answered by each local leadership. However, I do want to clarify a couple of things which might help any local church leadership answer this question. First off, when I speak of local leadership, I have in mind both the ministers and elders working together in a collaborative effort. Both ministers and elders are leaders that Christ has given to the local church. Failure of ministers and elders to work collaboratively to lead as a team creates unhealthy tension and disunity, which in turn diminishes the ability of a church to trust its leadership. Secondly, trust is attained on the ground with people and not just in an office or leadership meeting. Minister will spend some time in an office preparing teaching lessons, elders might choose to meet one evening a week to pray for their church, the elders and minister will meet to talk about the circumstances of the church in order to discern the way ahead, and… But ministers and elders must spend time meeting with people, listening to them, and serving them, if they want to gain their trust.

One suggestion I have for when ministers and elders meet together is to spend sometime dwelling in the word and they might do so beginning with Psalm 23. Spend some time reading this Psalm out-loud and dwelling on it, listening for what God might be saying about the way they serve and what it means for pastoral leadership. Then talk about this with each other, listening to what God might be saying through one another. Finally, as ministers and elders discern together how God is calling them to serve in order to attain the trust of the congregation to lead them and do so even in difficult circumstances, hold each other accountable to such service. If the leadership of a church can do this, I believe the result will become a much more healthy and spiritually mature church that is able to continue participating in the mission of God.

Lent: Because We Are Sinners

According to the Christian liturgical calendar, today is Ash Wednesday. It is the beginning of Lent, a season of forty days leading up to Easter Sunday. Christians who observe Lent will participate in prayers, periods of fasting, and self-denial as a means of self-discipline and concentration unto the Lord.

Growing up in a Christian tradition that did not follow the liturgical calendar and therefore did not observe Lent, the purpose of Lent has always remained somewhat nebulous and maybe that is due in part to my own observance of this season. I have never attended an Ash Wednesday service and had ashes placed on my forehead, however the idea of remembering that I am but dust and shall return to dust, and therefore in need of repenting and believing in the gospel of Jesus Christ, is something I need to remember. I am give planning to practice some self-denial as I spend time in prayer, though prayer is a part of my daily life already, while anticipating Holy Week in remembrance of the suffering death of Jesus Christ upon the cross and his resurrection unto life upon the third day.

Yet as I think about Lent, it seems that the purpose is a way of reminding us that we are sinners in need of a Savior, who receive that salvation from God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And that is why we might need to observe Lent more than ever.

Though we are all sinners, we live in a culture that increasingly forgets this. Even Christians, myself included, are not immune to this forgetfulness. There is a quickness to criticize and condemn others for their short-comings, just ask Cam Newton. Forgiveness, mercy… Not so! In the coming months, politicians will tear each other apart, painting each other in villainous way, and they will have plenty of help as people use social-media to pass along their same vitriol in memes, tweets, etc… Even when acknowledging our own sin… our mistakes, poor-judgment, and wrong doing, there is an ever temptation to mitigate such sin even though that same judgment isn’t extended to others.

This season of Lent, might we say “Enough!”

This season of Lent, might we say, “We are sinners and therefore are not in any position to condemn and criticize others!”

This season of Lent, might we say, “Lord, have mercy upon us and everyone else!” 

This season of Lent, might we say, “Lord, teach us to be as merciful to others as you are merciful to us!

May this season of Lent remind us that we are all sinners! Not so that we can mitigate our sin but so that we will look to Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected, through whom we all have the forgives of sins. Perhaps then, as we emerge forty days later from this season of Lent, we will not be a people who judge and condemn others but instead be a merciful people of who sing the praises of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, as the one who saves us all!

Lord, have mercy!

Whom Shall A Church Follow?

There isn’t any such thing as a local church without leadership. All communities of people have leaders whom the rest follow and so it is with local churches too. The real question is what kind of leaders does your church have? Who are the people whose influence is charting the direction which the church journeys in and where is that journey headed?

The local church is neither a business like an investment company nor is it a squadron or company within a military structure. So while there are lessons in leadership to learn from businesses and military life, the question of what kind of leadership and leaders does a local church need is not found in either approach. What I mean is that leadership among a local church is neither a minister functioning like a CEO or Commander nor elders functioning as a board of directors or tribunal. Though God raises ministers and elders up as leaders, such spiritual authority derives from their wisdom displayed in the way they live and serve.

In some cases, leadership in a local church happens by popular vote or the influence of a smaller “ruling” group within the church. Even in churches with ministers and elders, sometimes the direction of a church is determined by a fear of upsetting the perceived mass. Of course, this is wrong! The local church is neither a democracy led by popular vote nor is it an oligarchy ruled by a few who may offer generous contributions or happen to have the most seniority in terms of having the most amount of years being members of the church. I’ll also add that the local church is not a monarchy either. While the universal church of Jesus Christ is a monarchy of whom Jesus is the King, leadership in the local church is not a dictatorship.

Leadership is shepherding sheep. It is of utmost importance that anyone seeking to provide leadership realize that the people who make up a local church are sheep in need of shepherding, not cattle to be driven. Shepherding people requires dwelling among the people, listening and learning from them in order to know them and build a relationship of trust with them. Shepherding people also requires setting an example that is worth following.

So where does a church begin is asking the question of what kind of leaders and leadership will it have? Whom should the church follow?

“Shepherding people requires dwelling among the people, listening and learning from them in order to know them and build a relationship of trust with them. Shepherding people also requires setting an example that is worth following.”

The most obvious beginning place for identifying a leader worth following is Jesus. Throughout his ministry, Jesus lived as a servant to others to the extend of forsaking himself for the sake of others. Christian leaders are servants who will forsake themselves for the sake of others. Anything else is toxic and sure to become a problem. Moving beyond Jesus, the story of the apostles calling for the selection of seven men to lead the distribution of food in Acts 6 to offer some help in answering the question of what kind of leadership will a church follow. The apostles empowered the rest of the disciples to select seven men “who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” (v. 4). For those with eyes and ears to see and hear, it ought to be rather obvious who is full of the Spirit and wisdom. Elsewhere, Paul will tell the Corinthian church to follow him as he follows Christ (1 Cor 11:1). Spiritual leaders among a church are followers of Jesus too. Not just good church goers but followers of Jesus. And here too, it should be rather obvious if someone follows Jesus.

This certainly is not an exhaustive look at what defines those called to lead God’s people among a local church. It’s a beginning point that reminds us that healthy church leadership requires servants who are Spirit-filled followers of Jesus. These servants are not perfect, as all people are still sinners and live with various struggles from time to time. But they will exemplify an abiding faith as they follow Jesus, growing in their knowledge of God’s word and excelling in good deeds, demonstrating their wisdom as leaders worth following.

When Our Reasoning Fails Us

“God gave us a brain, so use it.”

It’s a well known phrase you’ve probably heard over a thousand times. I certainly have. Surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve heard this phrase repeated a lot by Christians when discussing something to do with church business and ministry. Sometimes it has seemed like an effort in reasoning one’s way around the good news of the kingdom of God, dismissing Jesus by saying “Yeah, but.”

I was a seminary student living in Memphis and was working part-time with an older church that was in decline. They provided housing for my wife and I, and I would preach once a month and engage in other ministry opportunities in the neighborhood. But that is where the challenge was.

The church, a community of about 80 to 100 middle-class white people, gathered for worship in a poor neighborhood of minorities that challenged by drugs, poverty, and crime. As far as the neighborhood the church gathered in, it had its share of homeless people, many of whom suffered with mental health issues and/or drug and alcohol addictions. And that was the problem.

A friend of mine and I tried serving those who were homeless as best as we knew how. Besides hanging out with them in places like a Waffle House, we offered food from the church’s pantry, and invited them to join us for worship on potluck Sundays. But it became clear that the homeless were unwanted and some of the other church leaders went so far as to tell them so, locking the doors behind them. A few of the church members were even blatant racists, which is equally disgusting. But as we pushed against this disdain for the homeless, some of the church members voiced their reasons…

“We can’t help everyone.”

“It’s dangerous, with the drugs they’re on and what not.”

“Let them get cleaned up first so they can show respect to God in his house.”

They even were able to invoke the Bible, proof-texting in order to justify their reasoning.

And here’s the scary thing about this story… It illustrates how Christians, people who profess faith in Jesus and read the Bible, can reason their way around the gospel and faith as they actually rationalize following Jesus right out of the equation.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” – Rom 12:2, NRSV

So yes, God did give us a brain… a mind, that is, and we should use it. But it also must be renewed in Christ by the Spirit if it is to be of value to us living as Christians. That raises an important question for us: Are we are seeking transformation that leads us to live more like Jesus and to make decisions that reflect the good news of the kingdom of God?

Living and making decisions based on fear, self-preservation, discrimination, and national politics only continues our conformation to the world. We can reason ourselves into living and making decisions based on the fear, self-preservation, discrimination, and national politics, and even proof-texting the Bible in order to justify our rationale, but when this happens our reasoning fails us!