Category Archives: Missions and Ministry

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!

Who Can Read Scripture?

As you may already know, I have an interest in the issue of hermeneutics when it comes to scripture. In particular, the question of my interest is how should a local church read scripture in order to participate in the mission of God. A healthy reading of scripture will enable a local church to embody the gospel of Jesus Christ in a faithful yet contextual manner as the church navigates the various circumstances they encounter.

There is more to embodying the gospel than just reading scripture but how a church reads scripture is integral to this goal. Consequently, I read books related to this issue and recently finished reading Stephen E. Fowl, Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation, 1998. I don’t plan to offer a complete review here but if this is an issue that interests you, then I do recommend Fowl’s book.

One of the strengths of this book is the focus on the character of those who read scripture, what the author describes as a virtuous reader. Such readers recognize that they are sinners and are therefore engaged in the practices of forgiveness, repentance, and reconciliation (p. 84). Without recognition of God’s grace which not offers us forgiveness and calls us to a new life of holiness lived in in Christ with other disciples of Christ, the way we read scripture will certain be skewed.

“…for Christians, practical reasoning is Christ-Focused.”

Pressing further about the character of those who read scripture, attention is given to the letter of Philippians and the Christ-likeness that Paul calls the church to exhibit. Referring to Philippians 2:6-11, Fowl writes:

Philippians makes it particularly clear that, for Christians, practical reasoning is Christ-focused. The account of God’s activity in Christ rendered in 2:6-11 is the norm or rule from which Paul then moves analogically to account for his own situation, for the situation of those known to the Philippians, and for how the Philippians ought to live in light of their present struggles (pp. 196-197).

The concern is the reasoning that all Christians employ as they read scripture. Ironically, we never learn what the actual issue the Philippians are dealing with (though we can make some feasible deductions based on the letter itself) and that seems important here because there isn’t any particular issue that a Christ-focused practical reasoning is limited to. A local church must employ Christ-focused reasoning in all of its reading of scripture and with every issue it faces as it reads scripture. Such Christ-focused reason involves the humility of self-surrender or submission. That it, Christians do not read scripture to advance their own personal agenda and have their way but to submit to the work of the Spirit in leading the church to embody the gospel.

There are all sort of issues a local church must navigate through such as conflict like the Philippians were likely dealing with, theological issues involving a christology (doctrine of Christ) like the Colossians were dealing, or even pastoral issues like those that Peter was addressing to the churches of Asia Minor in 1 & 2 Peter. Or even some of the pressing issues of our own day such as…

  • How a church engages its Muslim neighbors
  • What are the sexual norms for Christian faithfulness.
  • How a church works out the question of gender and equality
  • What sort of practices will the worship and fellowship gatherings of a church involve
  • The role of the Holy Spirit in the life and witness of the local church
  • Whatever issue your church is currently wrestling with

Whatever the circumstances and issue, Christians must read scripture in a virtuous manner and that includes employing a Christ-focused reasoning. And to be clear as to why this is so important: in my experience as a minister, there are Christians who read scripture with a self-focus, whether it is to try conserving the status-quo or progressing their own self-interest. It begs the question of just who can really read scripture among the church and the answer to that question are those Christians with Christ-focused reasoning.

May the Spirit form in us the mindset of Jesus Christ so that as we read scripture, the churches we belong to will embody the gospel to the glory of the Father, Son, and Spirit!

Church Discernment: Navigating Unchartered Waters

Between the holidays and getting prepared for an upcoming D.Min seminar at Northern Seminary, I have’t had much time for writing on this blog. However, I hope to return to regular blogging soon. In the mean time, one of the books I have read for my upcoming D.Min seminar is The New Parish by Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight J. Friesen (2014). The book is offers a vision for how we can live as the church beyond the building, participating in the mission of God among the neighborhood. It’s an easy and accesible read that draws on some of the recent thinking regarding missional leadership and contextual theology.

For churches moving forward as participants in the mission of God among our neighborhoods, discernment is absolutely necessary. With all of the cultural changes taking place among society, we are in many ways navigating through unchartered waters. With each new day comes new challenges and we all, as local churches, exist among particular contexts that differ in degrees from each other. Therefore, rather than chasing after easy one-size-fits-all answers that don’t really help, we are invited to discern the way forward. Leaders in particular are called into discernment.

Discernment presumes that we are listening for what God is saying and then acting upon that discernment. It is risky, requiring faith, but as the authors say, “To substitute faith in God for your own controlling strategies is to undermine that which is most central to the gospel” (p. 64). My conviction is that God speaks through scripture, tradition, and each other as we gather in submission to God and one another. I am not saying that God speaks in an audible voice, for if he did then we wouldn’t have any need for discernment. And even though some are apprehensive of such a seemingly subjective endeavor that has room for error, we must trust that God, though the Spirit dwelling among us, is leading us as followers of Jesus to move forward in unchartered waters.

However, as we consider possible actions and choices, the authors list several questions that I believe will help us in the discernment process (p. 129):

  • Is the ministry of Jesus being continued in what we do?
  • How might we as a gathered community be formed if we act in this way?
  • Will these actions invite us to be more faithfully present to God, once another, creation, and our parish?
  • Will we be invited into mutually beneficial relationships with others?
  • Will this action invite the flourishing of life for all and for creation?

How might our conversations about worship, community involvement, ministry to the poor, etc… change if we are asking these questions?