Category Archives: Missions and Ministry

Seeing Again: A 20/20 Kingdom Vision

It’s not any secret than many established churches find themselves struggling and in decline. Facing different challenges, one wonders if there is hope for renewal or if these church must just hang on until than can no longer continue and then decide to close. While I’ve helped close a church and believe doing so is the right decision in some cases, I also believe that renewal is very much possible but it begins with seeing again. Allow me to explain…

2020_vision

Getting Older: A Brief Story… A Point

More than a few years back, my wife and I were driving during the wee hours of the night from Indiana to our home in Searcy, Arkansas. In the bootheel of Missouri US HWY 412 makes a left turn as it enters the town of Kennett and heads southwest for a few miles before turning and heading towards Paragould, AR.

It was at this left turn in Kennett where I accidently turned into the path of a semi-truck and nearly had a head-on collision, one that surely would have killed my wife and I. It was my fault too, as I had turned into this truck’s right-hand turning lane. Frightened and perplexed then as to how this happened, I began noticing that I was not able to read the street signs until I was just about to pass them. So I decided that it was time to visit an eye doctor and when I did, I learned that I was only able to read the top three lines of the eye-exam chart. The doctor told me the obvious, that my vision was bad and that I needed eye-glasses and/or contacts in order to see with 20/20 vision again.

As of today, I wear contact lenses and the difference is huge. It’s not that I’m blind without corrective lenses but that I cannot see well enough to engage in tasks that are necessary to living a healthy and productive life, such as driving or reading and writing. Of course, this is not some shocker to anyone. In fact, many people will resonate because they too wear glasses or contacts. Poor vision is a fact-of-life, a part of aging and getting older, and if we’re fortunate enough, we’ll make an appointment with an optometrist in hopes of restoring our vision to 20/20.

Eyes and Ears: But Do We See and Hear?

In my experience established churches begin suffering from poor vision as they age. This has to do with a kingdom vision, one of understanding what following Jesus involves as participants in the kingdom of God. Such was the problem the fist disciples of Jesus were suffering from and why Jesus asked if they had eyes and ears but failed to see and hear, if they still failed to understand (Mk. 8:17-18, 21).

This is exactly when we read the story of a blind man who Jesus had to touch twice in order to fully restore his vision. Here is the account in Mark 8:22-26:

They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”

He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”

Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him home, saying, “Don’t even go into the village.”

The point is that the disciples of Jesus see the kingdom, which is why they have followed him, but they have yet to see the kingdom clearly. The Jewish faith of these disciples has aged and in that process of aging, their 20/20 kingdom vision is impaired and they are the ones who need Jesus to touch them again that they might see the kingdom of God with clarity.

As a minister of the gospel, I believe this is the problem facing many established churches. That is, many local churches suffered from an impaired kingdom vision and because these local churches are made up of individual believers, the problem is both individual and communal. An impaired kingdom vision is something that every follower of Jesus, including me, can suffer with and for a variety of reasons. Here are a few examples I have encountered…

  • Our understanding of church (ecclesiology) is reduced to a worship gathering.
  • Maintaining traditions are more important than embodying the gospel.
  • Sharing our political views are more important than sharing the gospel.
  • Doctrinal dogma obscures and openness to scripture and Christian Tradition.
  • Safety and security, rather than faith, guides decision making.
  • The wisdom of the cross is subtly replaced with conventional wisdom.
  • Avoiding conflict and appeasing critics is more important than change.
  • Anxiety and quick-fix solutions trump dealing with the underlying difficulties.

Like the disciples who needed to be touched by Jesus again in order to see the kingdom of God clearly, aging local churches also need Jesus to touch them again. How this happens is the work of the Spirit but I would like to suggest that it begins with prayer.

Can We Pray?

I want to end this post with a prayer historically attributed to St. Francis of Assisi and suggest that when such a prayer becomes the cries of our hearts, Jesus will come touch our churches again.

Lord, make Lord, make us instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Amen!

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!

Churches Seeking Ministers: On Renewal and the Way Forward

Over the last couple of years I’ve had the opportunity to talk with plenty of churches seeking a new minister to come serve with them. One thing that nearly every church has in common is they want to grow. They seek both spiritual and numerical growth that will result in fruitful ministry and this is a good desire. However, in my experience, many churches don’t really understand what they are wanting. That’s why I find this cartoon below funny… It’s all too real!

pastor-search-committee

Very few churches, if any, would say it in so many words but the truth is, most churches want growth without having to make any changes. In fact,

One of the questions I like to ask search committees is what sort of goals or outcomes does their church wish to accomplish with the new minister. The answers almost always includes evangelistic growth and getting more church members involved in the ministries of the church. I then follow this response  with another question asking about what sort of changes might be necessary. In other words, what must the church begin doing differently in order to obtain the results it desires? Most of the time the search committee struggles to answer this question, sometimes the answer is an awkward silence. Why is that? Why is there an expectation of the new minister to help the church go forward without any change? In the worst case scenario, any suggestion of change might is an anathema.

It is silly to expect any sort of future growth without change. Actually, it’s insanity. If a church keeps doing the same thing then it will keep getting the same results. Also keep in mind that every church is perfectly organized to get the results it is getting. So if a church expects something different with the new minister, change is necessary. If a church that has plateaued or began experiencing decline want to experience new growth, reach new people, engage in more fruitful ministries, etc… then something must change and that change is much deeper than just finding a new minister.

Without change then, the expectations of the new minister are unrealistic. Yet, at the same time, the new minister may have unrealistic expectations of the church if there is an expectation of change the church is neither ready for nor has had time to discern. And so it becomes a catch-22 with the only likely result being a lot of frustration. Sound familiar?

“The best barbecue is slow-cooked barbecue!”

What I want to suggest is a different way forward with some slightly different expectations of the new minister and church. What if churches and ministers had different expectations of each other? What if instead of expecting new growth and change, the expectation became discernment? This means the minister, along with other leaders (e.g., shepherds), and the church are listening to one another for how God is leading each other forth as participants in his mission? Together in prayer and dwelling in the word  (scripture), the minister helps the church discern how God might be working. Here the minister is helping the church to hear God’s voice as to what sort of changes might be required so that the church may obey God’s voice and continue bearing kingdom fruit. That’s what discernment is… hearing and obeying so that the church might faithfully participate in the mission of God.

This is a different set of expectations that not only opens space for God to work through his Spirit but also gives pastoral consideration to the reality that change is difficult. No longer is the cart placed before the horse, so to speak. The new expectation is discernment − hearing and obeying − rather than growth but with the awareness that such faithfulness will yield the fruit God desires in his own time. The role of the minister still involves preaching and teaching as well as equipping but on a path of discovery with the church, helping the church discern the way forward. Now instead of the minister having the responsibility of trying to facilitate change, for which the church may not be ready for, in order to bring about growth, the minister and church may grow together as they discover together where God is leading

This is admittedly more difficult as it requires patience and time. But keep in mind a little barbecue wisdom: the best barbecue is slow-cooked barbecue! And with apologies to those churches where I attempted change as a quick-fix solution for growth, I’ll admit that I’ve only learned this through some frustrating moments in ministry. But this is where renewal begins. It’s going back to Jesus and the his gospel, wrestling with what it means to follow Jesus as a local church and embody his gospel among the local context. It’s a question of discernment that takes place in prayer and with scripture, allowing God to chart the future of where he wants the church to go.

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

Proleptic Vision: Christians, America, and the Upcoming Presidential Election

How should Christians, people who profess to believe in and follow Jesus Christ, live? In one sense that seems like a simple question to answer: Christians must become like Jesus Christ. That’s why the Apostle Paul says, “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal 4:19). However, this opens other important questions such as how such life formation shapes the way we act towards the poor, the way we live in marriage, the way we love our enemies, and so on.

Though it has not always been the cast, most of these other questions are a no-brainer. Of course, the life Jesus lived should shape the way we act as husbands or wives, the way we love our enemies (even if we don’t agree on what all that entails). Yet there is one aspect in which Jesus doesn’t seem to have a lot of influence these days and that is how Christians relate to earthly nations in light of history.

The fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians is a well known passage of scripture for its proclamation of the gospel, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the promise of salvation this gospel offers to those who believe. Consider though, the historical implications of the gospel. Because of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul says in vv. 20-24:

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.

What a huge historical claim this passage makes about the future and end or goal (telos) of history. As Jürgen Moltmann notes, the future and hope is already present to Christians in Christ (Theology of Hope, p. 161). This makes history proleptic whereby the future of history is already known to those who believe, giving the church a proleptic vision. All dominion, authority, and power is and will surrender to the reign of Jesus, who will then hand over the kingdom to God the father.

…Christians must regard all nations and history in light of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ along with that appointed time when the kingdom of God is handed to God the Father and all other kingdoms are destroyed.

Right now, America is engaged in a vitriolic and contentious political campaign that will culminate in the election of a new President of the United States. In varying degrees, Christians in America are for the most part also engaged in this political campaign. Some Christians would even suggest, as one article does, that the future of America is at stake with this election. Should Christians have such a concern? Remember what the passage above from 1 Corinthians already implies for believers: the future of America and every other earthly nation is already known. Whatever claims of sovereignty America and other earthly nations make, Jesus Christ has already defeated such sovereignty which will surrender no later then when the end (telos) of history dawns.

This must change the way Christians live historically in relation to the nations and that includes America. Sine Jesus Christ is already victorious over all dominion and authority, including America and every other earthly nation, then the work of Christians in every local church is the proclamation of this victory (cf. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, p. 147). Just as I suggest that Christians should read the Bible through the hermeneutical lenses of christology and eschatology, the Christian life and ministry must be christologically-centered and eschatologically-oriented. The doctrines of christology and eschatology should shape the proleptic vision of the church, changing the way Christians should relate to all earthly nations and history. That is, Christians must regard all nations and history in light of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ along with that appointed time when the kingdom of God is handed to God the Father and all other kingdoms are destroyed. The Christian witness then involves letting the world know of this victory. All earthly nations, including America, must know that they are neither eternal nor sovereign because God has already established his eternal kingdom through the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord, Jesus Christ.

Lest I be misunderstood or even falsely accused, I do not hate America. Problems notwithstanding, America has and will most likely continue to be a good nation to live among. So please, if you’ve read this far, do not think of me as an anti-American hater, because I’m not. I just believe that Jesus is Lord and that my allegiance is therefore due to Jesus and his kingdom.

So how should Christians in America relate to earthly nations in light of history, particularly as it pertains to the upcoming election? As November 8th approaches, it does seem that Christians have good reason for concern (though neither fear nor anxiety). Whoever is elected as the next President of the United States or whoever becomes a Mayor among any number of American cities does matter. Those holding such such offices should be people who will serve by seeking the relative good of all people. However, Christians must not be misled into thinking that the future of America is really what matters. What matters is that Jesus Christ is the crucified and resurrected Lord! What a failure it is for Christians to become so entangled in the business of who wins an election that the gospel takes a back seat, resulting in a diminished and compromised Christian witness.

For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, let them see and hear!

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!