Category Archives: Missions and Ministry

Speak Carefully: Words Do Matter!

This post isn’t about the politics of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton but it is an observation and an opportunity to learn. I want to offer some thoughts about the words we speak in public. While I have in mind church leaders such as elders and ministers, what follows is sound advise for anyone and might just help you avoid having to insert a foot in your mouth or worse.

Unless you’ve been cave dwelling for the last few days, you know that Donald Trump is taking a lot of criticism for his remarks about Hillary Clinton and the second amendment. Trump suggested that Clinton wants to take away the second amendment right to bear arms and that there’s nothing that can be done about it but then suggested that people “the second amendment people” could do something about it. Trump’s critics believe that this is a veiled threat while his supporters believe it’s only a plea for increased political activity.

Hillary Clinton responded by reminding her supporters that “Words matter…” Whatever Trump may have meant is besides the point. What is important and is at least one thing that Clinton is right about is that words do matter!

“Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity.”

– Proverbs 21:23

Let’s not pretend that words are insignificant and meaningless. What we say does matter and so we better take care to think about the words we use.

Everyone of us, especially those who speak in public forums, will eventually say something ill-advised. That’s seems par for the course and when it happens, the best thing we can do is apologize. However, the more we speak out of turn, saying something careless or hurtful, the more credibility we lose. And remember, credibility is part of our trust factor and it’s like a tree… it takes years to grow and just a few minutes with a few foolish words to tear down.

As a minister, I write my sermons out word for word as a manuscript. While I don’t preach word for word from the manuscript, writing my sermons out like this accomplishes several objectives and one of those is giving careful thought to the words I say. I’ve learned this lesson the hard way because I have had to apologize for something I said, something that was true but was poorly stated, which led to insult rather than instruction. In fact, if your a beginning preacher, here’s some free advise: take the time to write your sermons, thinking carefully about the words you use because the words you speak do matter.

A politician might be able to play the game of political spin and get away with saying something careless but that is not so likely with us who lead among churches. Regardless of what Trump may have meant, let’s see his carelessness as a reminder that our words do matter. Let us resolve ourselves to be wise and give thought to what we say before we speak!

Church Leadership: No Surprises!

One of the things I stress with churches and particularly other church leaders is not dropping any surprises. By surprises, I mean saying or doing anything that is controversial or will have a significant impact on the church without discussing it first with other leaders.

Perhaps a couple of examples might help explain more. What I’m talking about could be a minister who preaches a sermon on a controversial subject without even so much as letting the other ministers and elders know so that they can be prepared for the reaction. Or perhaps its an elder who announces the beginning of a search for an additional minister without ever talking about it with the ministers and elders. I know of churches where each of these examples have occurred and nothing good came of such surprises. Of course, I could give other examples too.

In conversing with different churches, dropping a surprise does nothing except creating frustration, distrust, and consequently unnecessary conflict. The problem with such surprises begins with the fact that it makes the rest of the leaders look incompetent before others when others approach them with questions only too see that they are caught off guard. When the leaders of a church appear incompetent, they are viewed as incompetent and their ability to lead is made even more difficult.

Another problem with dropping a surprise is the internal distrust and frustration it creates among leaders. When one leader, such as a minister or elder, drops a surprise, it says to the rest of the leaders that they cannot be trusted enough for the leader to seek their input first. Also, instead of working as a team, one individual places him/herself above the others. That is essentially an insult to the rest of the leaders which only makes for a more dysfunctional leadership, especially if this sort of behavior is tolerated.

It’s better to have no surprises! If a leader is about to say or do something that has the potential for controversy or making a significant impact on the church, it is something that should be discussed with other leaders first. And not just in a quick impromptu meeting but with enough time for prayer and discernment so that the leadership is not only prepared but supportive. If a leader is not sure then it’s better to discuss. The old adage “Do first and ask for forgiveness later” may work but that currency is very small and once it is spent, anything else will only create trouble.

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.

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.

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.

Is Your Church Looking For A Minister?

Coffee and BibleFor the past fifteen years I have served as a minister. Besides pursuing an education in theology and ministry, serving as a minister has included opportunities such as volunteering in a local county jail, short-term mission trips to Brazil, and vocationally serving with churches in part-time and full-time roles. I’ve learned some important lessons along the way, including the sort of minister God has formed me as and gifted me for. I like the word minister because it speaks of one who serves. More than a job, ministry is a way of life lived in service to God and neighbor. Ultimately, serving as a minister is about helping people as a follower of Jesus.

A Minister of the Gospel

So who am I as a minister? Perhaps the best way of summing this up is to say that I am a pastoral theologian and leader. I don’t mean a theologian in the academic sense, though I appreciate the work academic theologians. What I mean is that I am a pastor and teacher, in terms of spiritual gifting for leadership (cf. Eph 4:11).

  • As a pastoral theologian, I am continuously engaged in a conversation about what God is saying in scripture in light of present circumstances. In 2 Timothy 3:16-17, the apostle Paul says that “all scripture is inspired of God” that people might be “equipped for every good work.” So whether preaching, teaching a Bible class, or having a conversation with someone over a cup of coffee, I am trying to understand the gospel and its implications for the present circumstances so that others might live by the grace of God full of faith and hope in Christ. Whether it is preaching on Sunday, visiting with someone in a hospital room on Monday, having a Bible study with someone on a later day, and so forth, I enjoy it very much.
  • As a leader, I am seeking to help the church faithfully participate in the mission of God. In Ephesians 2:10, the apostle Paul describes the church as God’s “handiwork” or as God’s “work of art” as the New Jerusalem Bible renders the passage. Paul is describing the church as God’s artwork on display to the world as the church embodies the gospel through “good works.” My role is helping equip a local church for good works so that the gospel is faithfully embodied among the local community in a relevant manner. This is a task that requires listening to the way God is speaking among scripture, the local church, and the local community.

This is the minister I believe God has made me and called me to be. Though far from perfect, I seek to follow Jesus and take scripture seriously. With passion, courage, and conviction, I want to help a local church live as an embodiment of the gospel.

So, how could I help your church? By listening, modeling evangelism and ministry, by mentoring people for discipleship, and by leading the church in biblical reflection for its spiritual and numeric growth through preaching and teaching. If this is the kind of minister your church needs, then contact me at k.rex.butts@gmail.com and let’s begin a conversation.

Faith In The Wilderness?

When I moved to Columbia, Maryland, I was sure of what serving as a minister of the gospel meant. My family and I moved from New Jersey to Columbia and I would serve as the minister of the Columbia Church of Christ, a small church that had been through some struggles. Though we never expected this, the Lord decided that it was time for these Christians known as the Columbia Church of Christ to disperse among other churches to serve. You can read more about it in an article I wrote for the Christian Chronicle. Since then I have been listening and seeking where I might serve as a minister next and several opportunities seemed very possible but for various reasons, the Lord has closed those doors.

So for the last year I have been in a wilderness of sorts, wondering where the Lord is leading and when this journey through the wilderness might end… All with the weight of knowing I have a family to care for, driving Uber as a part-time job to help make ends meet, and trying not to look back since I have already put my hand to the plow (cf. Lk 9:62).

That’s the context in which I read Isaiah 43:16-21, one of the Lectionary reads for this week during this season of Lent. The text reads as follows:

This is what the Lord says— he who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, who drew out the chariots and horses, the army and reinforcements together, and they lay there, never to rise again, extinguished, snuffed out like a wick: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland. The wild animals honor me, the jackals and the owls, because I provide water in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen, the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise.”

Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord says to “Forget the former things and do not dwell on the past” because he is “making a way in the wilderness.” Putting aside historical exegesis for the moment and reading this text simply as a word from the Lord… reading as one who feels like I have been living in a wilderness of sorts for the last year, I find this passage both comforting and terrifying.

The passage is comforting because I know that the Lord is not looking at the past but what lies ahead… particularly what he is doing. God is at work in Christ and through the power of his Spirit. I am still a part of this glorious work of God. Praise be to the Lord, the God and Savior, Jesus Christ!

Yet the passage is terrifying because it calls for a faith I struggle to keep as I walk through the wilderness. Am I to trust that God is making a way? It’s so tempting to make my own way even though I’m not sure what that looks like. Nevertheless, it’s tempting… And in the midst of this temptation, I recall how God has gifted me and called me to live as a minister of the gospel. A year ago I was sure of what that looks like and what that involves but here in the wilderness, it’s hard to see so clearly. And the more blurry life becomes, the more need there is for faith but the more tempting it is to try making my own way rather than trusting in the Lord that he is making a way.

This is faith in the wilderness and it always has a question mark at the end because it’s always a question. …Can I trust the Lord? …How long must I wait?

I wasn’t sure if I should share this on my blog or not but after sharing it with a few other people, it was suggested that I do. So, perhaps you find yourself in some wilderness too, wondering how much longer and whether can continue trusting the Lord. Know this: You’re not alone. The struggle with doubt is not a lack of faith but because of faith!