Category Archives: Newark Church of Christ

Time To Celebrate: The Parable of the Prodigal Son

I grew up hearing the story Jesus tells in Luke 15:11-32 spoken of as The Parable of the Prodigal Son.* It’s a wonderful story that has everything to do with the grace of God. It reemphasizes the mercy and compassion of God, who is patient and full of steadfast love. 

Whenever I read this story, I recall the late Neal Pryor. He was a preacher and Bible professor at my alma mater Harding University. I think of him because I can remember listening to him preach this parable to an auditorium full of college students. About twenty-five minutes later I saw numerous college students  lining up to confess their faith in Christ and give their lives to him in baptism. 

That’s the way the grace of God surprises us sometimes. People, in this case, students, who seem to have their lives all together but know that underneath the masks and veneer they put on, their lost in sin. But when they hear about the mercy and love of God, they come to life as they put their faith in Christ. 

Yet when reading a story like this parable of the prodigal son, it seems that the story Jesus is telling is quite provocative regarding the grace and mercy of God. To hear the provocation, we have to hear the story within the larger story the Gospel of Luke is telling. 

At the beginning of chapter fifteen, we read how “All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Lk 15:1-2).

Apparently, the gatekeepers of the faith missed some Sunday school lessons on the prophet Isaiah as well as Elijah and Elisha. That’s because in Luke 4, Jesus enters the synagogue and reads from the prophet Isaiah. In doing so, he declares himself as the fulfillment of this good news for the poor that is freedom for the prisoners, sight for the blind, and liberation for the oppressed because now is the time of God’s favor (cf. Lk 4:18-21). In proclaiming this good news, Jesus also associated himself with the prophets Elijah and Elisha, who were sent not to Israel but to a widow and Gentile. 

Failing to understand this, the Pharisees and lawyers are displeased to see Jesus  hamming it up with the sinners and tax collectors. Responding to his critics, Jesus begins a little tale about a lost sheep and lost coin. Things anyone can relate to. At least, I can. I mean if the TV remote goes missing at my house, there’s a mini crisis on hand and heaven forbid if we misplace our iPhone’s.

Somehow though when it comes to people, especially “the tax collectors and sinners,” whoever they may be, the concern is usually a measure of judgment and condemnation. Especially the people who can’t cover up the shame of their sin the way most can do with their sins. 

Now these stories Jesus is telling about the lost sheep and lost coin are beginning to make some sense but he doesn’t stop there. Jesus continues on telling a story about a father and his two sons. The younger son takes his inheritance and runs away with it until he squanders it through his “extravagant living” or “dissolute living” (NRSV). After squandering his inheritance, the younger son finds himself at the bottom of the barrel with no place to go except back home to his father. 

Then there’s the older brother, who I like to think of as the pouting brother. He’s not too happy to hear about his younger brother’s return. In fact, he’s miffed that his father would welcome back this rebellious brother so easily with nothing but a big homecoming party. Exasperated, the older brother says to his father “…I never disobeyed your instructions.” His attitude (self-righteous?) has blinded him from seeing that what was a terrible loss has now become a great reunion. 

“The grace of God isn’t just for those who think they are God’s elect but for the rest of us too because the election of God is his desire that we all would come home as recipients of his grace extended to us in Christ.”

That’s the story Jesus is telling to a bunch of Jewish Pharisees and lawyers who are bothered by Jesus spending his time with the sinners and tax-collectors. That’s the larger story which is really about Israel and the Gentiles. In our day, we might say the church folk, perhaps self-righteous church folk, and any number of unbelievers who never ever think about coming to a church service.

The cool thing about the story Jesus is telling is that the younger son thinks he’ll go back to his father except… As Jesus tells the story, the father was already looking for his lost son and when he saw him off in the distance, the father “was moved with compassion.”

Borrowing the langue of the apostle Paul, we Christians sometimes speak of people being dead in sin (cf. Eph 2:1, 5). However, the story Jesus tells should keep us from pressing the metaphor too far because though that is true in a sense, it can’t mean that we literally dead to God. Even when feeling as though we’re drowning in the deepest and most shameful pits of sin, God still knows us. Not only does God still know us but moved by compassion, God is looking for us so that he can lead us home.

A few years back in Chicago, I was sitting with a few pastor friends in the outside patio of a bar. As our waitress, Brittany, was taking orders, it was obvious that she was very pregnant. So to make small talk, I asked her if she was having a boy or girl. The baby was a boy and she planned to name him Brian, named after her brother who died from leukemia a few years prior. 

Well as it turned out, this was Brittany’s last day of work before she went on maternity leave and in the small talk conversation, she learned that everyone at our table was a bunch of pastors sitting at a bar. That kind of took her back for a second and then she looked at the all black outfit she had on as she said, “Don’t think because I’m dressed in all black that I’m some kind of satanist or something. My boyfriend and I have actually thought about finding a church so that we can raise our son right.”

Now being that this was a Thursday evening and we were all planning to fly back to our homes on Friday, the most we could do was get her contact information and pass it along to a local pastor we knew. But don’t miss the fact that here was a young woman looking for God and I like to believe that God was using us pastors siting in that bar to begin showing Brittany that God is looking for her too.

So back to the story Jesus is telling. The father explains to his angry older son how, “we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.” No scolding, shaming, or making the younger son beg for mercy, just a big welcome and party to celebrate the younger son coming home.

The grace of God is that great. No matter the sin and no matter how far down in the pits of sin we climb, the door is open for us to come home. When it comes to salvation, what God has predetermined is the extension of his grace to us in Christ. It’s a standing invitation for all, just as it was for the Gentiles. To say it another way, the grace of God isn’t just for those who think they are God’s elect but for the rest of us too because the election of God is his desire that we all would come home as recipients of his grace extended to us in Christ. 

That’s why Jesus tells us a story like this parable of the prodigal son. It’s because the grace of God is for everyone and when God finds his lost children, it’s not a time for judgment or heaping on a bunch of shame; it’s time for a celebration.

May the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and the love of our God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all!


* This is a modified manuscript of the message I preached last Sunday to the Newark Church, whom I serve with as the Lead Pastor. You can also watch a video recording of the actual message on the Newark Church Youtube Channel, just click here.

Poetry In Motion: A Vision for Being Church

Two weeks ago I began a new message series with the Newark Church called Poetry In Motion. The series is about being the church based on what I regard as a visionary passage in terms of ecclesiology. According to Ephesians 2:10 “we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for those good things to be the way that we live our lives.”

Poetry In Motion

There are a couple of points to note about this passage that have to do with the way we embody this visionary purpose here.

  1. The says that “we are God’s accomplishment…” That’s how the Common English Bible renders the text. Other translations render the text saying we are “God’s handiwork” (NIV), “God’s workmanship” (ESV, KJV), or “God’s masterpiece” (NLT). The word in the original language is poiēma which is where we derive our English words “poem” and “poetry” from. It’s a word that describes a piece of art, like a sculpture, a painting, or even a poem. That’s why the New Jerusalem Bible renders the text saying that we are “God’s work of art…” The claim here, I believe, is that God’s intention for us is that we will be a living portrait of the new creation he is bringing about in Christ.
  2. The good works we are created to do as our way of life is best understood in relation to the context which has to do with God making both Jews and Gentiles into one new community. So rather than just having an abstract idea of doing good, such as being a nice person, our good works nurture our fellowship with God and each other. Nurturing this fellowship does not mean agreement with each other on every issue, as unity is never about uniformity (which is virtually impossible). Instead, knowing the grace God has extended to us, we also extend that grace to others. That’s how we live as God’s accomplishment on display so that others will see there is hope beyond all the suffering, racism, and violence that exists around us.

This ecclesiological vision is what it means for local churches to live as God’s poetry in motion. Understood within the narrative of scripture, it’s historical arch and destination (telos), our ecclesiological vision is Christ-centered and kingdom-oriented. In other words, the church, both locally and universally, is a community in which the fulfillment of God’s redemptive mission in Christ is manifest.

I need to say more about the church as a manifestation of God’s redemptive mission in light of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. This movement has focused on restoring the past of first-century ecclesiology. However, if the ecclesiological vision is about portraying God’s redemptive mission, then churches are to be a people in whom the future is discernible. This means that the embodiment of the gospel is proleptic reflection. It also means the purpose is not about restoring the past, first century or any other historical period. Instead, the church as God’s accomplishment of everything he has brought together—the things of heaven and of earth. In this regards, the church embodies the gospel as a living portrait so that others might begin to see what new creation is and will be.

This is what I mean then by describing the church as poetry in motion. The question is how do we go from the ideal to actually putting this vision into concrete practice. To answer that question, the series focuses on truth, healing, justice, and reconciliation and I will address these matters in subsequent blog posts. In short, when we can learn to be honest with the truth, then space opens for becoming communities in which healing, justice, and reconciliation can be practiced which then concretely becomes God’s poetry in motion.

Reflections on Church Leadership During the Covid-19 Coronavirus Pandemic

More than a month has passed since the church I serve, the Newark Church of Christ, decided to stop gathering together during this Covid-19 Coronavirus pandemic. I must admit that when we first made the decision, I wondered what would become of our church. If we are not able to gather together for several months, I wondered if there would we even be a church left. Of course, as soon as this wave of anxiety came over me, so did my leadership reflexes.

Worship Center

The first rule of good leadership is don’t be anxious. Don’t panic and don’t give a foothold to the devil of anxiety. Yes, what we are going through makes for more difficulties but panicking amid anxiety either results in doing nothing or making an anxious decision. Neither of which is helpful and most likely would only make matters worse.

Like many churches, we began streaming online worship gatherings. However, as important as worship is, there is more to living as a church than just worship. If we’re to bear each others burdens, love our neighbors, and join in the work we see God doing—participating in the mission of God—then we remaining connected with each other was paramount.

So one of the things we’ve done as a church is begin including two short videos of different people from our church in each online streaming of worship on Sundays. These videos have allowed us to hear from each other and have helped remind us that we are a community, a family of believers called “church” in this life together. We have also began organizing online connection groups so that we could meet during the week for encouragement and continue growing in our formation as followers of Jesus. So using Zoom, Google Meet, etc… we spend some time checking in on what we are thankful for and concerned about, and then we spend some time in scripture but not just for the sake of Bible study. Instead, as we come to understand what God is teaching us in scripture, we want to embody that teaching in the way we live.

     “But I have been reminded that church is neither a building, place, or time. Church is people following Jesus and that’s what we are.”

In the meantime, our church still seeks to love our neighbors. Loving God and each other through worship and fellowship matters but so does serving and caring for people in our community. One opportunity was preparing sack lunches for people who might otherwise go hungry. Now our church is receiving shipments of masks that we are going to distribute within our community where there is need. And as we see other opportunities to the good works that God is doing, we’ll gladly do so as followers of Jesus.

Oh me of little faith… I initially wondered if we would even have a church after this pandemic. But I have been reminded that church is neither a building, place, or time. Church is people following Jesus and that’s what we are. So as a pastor, even though helping lead the church during this pandemic has required some adjustments, I have also realized that leadership is still much the same. That is, I serve as a minister of the gospel and so my role is still that of what any pastor’s role should be: helping the church hold to the gospel and allow the gospel to frame our way of life as a church. As that happens, we will continue participating in the mission of God as followers of Jesus.

What the results are is neither in our control nor something we need to worry about as church. The same is true for the church you serve among too. But perhaps the eyes of those living in our local towns and neighborhoods will be opened to see real community taking shape among our churches as we embody the gospel. And if that’s the case then we’ll see the church growing as it should, with the seed of the gospel pollinating and blooming anew.

One: On Mission with God

This is the prerecorded message that I preached for the Newark Church of Christ this past Sunday. The message, One: On Mission with God, is based on John 17:15-24 and is about the church being sanctified and sent as followers of Jesus united in our participation in the mission of God. The message is also challenges the notion that the basis of Christian unity is based on adhering to a list of dogmas and rules that have often divided churches, hindering their participation in the mission of God.

Post-Christendom America: Living as Church in the New Reality

In the new post-Christendom society of America, Christianity has lost the positional power of having dominion over society as it once did in the days of Christendom. Without the positional power, Christians are only left with the power of witness. Yet many Christians are in denial of this cultural shift in America. Though nothing speaks louder to Christianity’s loss of dominion than when certain leaders tell Christians that they must attempt to exercise positional power by voting or lose America.

Empty Church Building

I’m referring to an example I shared in my previous post Post Christendom America: Understanding and Accepting the New Reality in which Franklin Graham saying urged Christians to vote on a Facebook post saying, “Make sure that you are registered to vote, otherwise we will lose our country.” That Christians must vote or lose is telling. That is, if the only way we believe that voting is the only way that some “Christian” goal is achieved, then we’ve already lost (and if we don’t see the loss then why must we vote or lose?). We’ve lost our influence in America and we’ve lost the way of God’s kingdom which only comes by way of the cross.

All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them.” – Jesus of Nazareth, Mark 8:34-35.

These were the words that inspired the slain missionary Jim Elliot to write in his journal “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Yes, Jim Elliot penned was writing in a very different context but I believe they are appropriate for Christians facing the challenge of a post-Christendom society and the loss of Christian influence. Why? Because I believe that by understanding and accepting the loss of Christendom power, new space opens for thinking about how to live as faithful followers of Jesus in a post-Christendom society. By understanding and accepting the loss, we can return to the way of Christ and learn to regain the power of the Spirit-filled witness by following Jesus. So there’s a paradox at work here in that by losing, Christians stand to gain which is also a gain for our local churches.

The question we must ask is whether we can let go of the assumed right to win, carry instead the cross and follow Jesus to his cross? Doing so is how we embody the gospel  because the good news of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. Because the wisdom of God is Christ-crucified (cf. 1 Cor 1:23-24). It’s not by adopting any political power or platform and voting so as to see certain laws pass, it’s by laying down our need to win and trust that God can bring about his kingdom through our willingness to carry the cross of Christ.

Now I’m not opposed to voting nor am I saying that Christians can’t vote. But there’s a difference between voting and spending our energy trying to convince other Christians to not only vote but also who to vote for (and who they shouldn’t vote for). The later makes us part of the world manifested in serving as an extension to the political parties of society, which obscures our identity as the church because we can’t embody the gospel if when the focus is winning a political election.

So here is how we live as the church in the new post-Christendom reality. We make following Jesus our singular focus so that we may learn to embody the gospel he proclaimed—the kingdom of God—in the new context, the new reality. That means getting more involved as a local church and not just for worship and fellowship but also serving together in the local community. A good place to start might be going on a prayer walk together, not stopping people to pray for them but praying quietly for the people and places you see. Out of this praying together, comes listening and learning for the ways in which God is already at work in the local community and how God is gifting the local church to serve. This means becoming present in the community but not as heroes, experts, and authoritarians, instead just as servants seeking to do good and even collaborate with the community where that is possible.

Here are some of the ways we do this in the church I serve, the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, Delware:

  • The People’s House: A ministry that works with the local hospital by providing free housing for families from out of town who have a loved-one staying in the hospital.
  • Blue Hens for Christ: This is our campus mission on the University of Delaware but in addition to leading students to follow Jesus, we help international students learn English and the BHC students also engage in service-oriented projects.
  • Food-Run/Pantry: The church operates a substantial food pantry for families in need and every Friday we take additional food into a couple of nearby neighborhoods. The groceries from our food run is supplied by supermarkets through a rejoined food pantry.

These are just some examples and I’m only sharing them as an example. Doing so doesn’t mean we have fully figured out how to navigate the new post-Christendom reality as follower of Jesus but we are learning.

At the end of the day, there isn’t any going back or turning the clock back to the era of Christendom, so the only way is forward into the murky waters of a post-Christendom and post-Christian society. The way forward isn’t promised to be easy and the good that God can and will bring, is not likely to be fully seen in our lifetime. But like all the people of faith listed in Hebrews that didn’t receive what was promised, let’s run this race with our eyes fixed on Jesus and not on the temporal positional power of state politics.

Don’t Let The Political Tail Wag The Dog!

One of the blessings of preaching before the Newark Church is looking at the faces of those gathered for worship and seeing the diversity. Before my eyes are one church composed of people with different colors of skin, different nationalities, and even people who root for the Dallas Cowboys sitting amongst many fans of the Philadelphia Eagles. That sort of diversity is a beautiful thing and a living expression of the gospel.

115041Within the church I serve there even exists some theological differences. While we all share the same common confession of faith that Jesus Christ is Lord, there are other issues where you will find different perspectives. Creation, Election, and Spiritual Gifts, to name a few. That’s a victory there because there was a time when it was thought in our tribe, the Churches of Christ, that Christians must agree on nearly every matter of doctrine for there to be any fellowship. Today though, like the Newark Church, many churches understand that there are a number of different theological issues which Christians can differ on and still share in fellowship as they serve King Jesus together. Yes, there are some that still believe unity means uniformity but thankfully most churches recognize that it’s the blood of Christ, not our theological positions, that make us one in Christ.

That said, I sense a challenge that churches are going to increasingly face when it comes to embodying the gospel by living as a unified community of believers.

Politics.

“Just as we embrace the peace of Christ when we serve together as people of different skin colors and theological differences, so we must by joining together with people who hold different political views than our own.”

Unless you’ve had your head buried in the sand, you can already see the growing political division taking place in the United States. We also see that the gap in this division is growing as the differences on a variety of issues becomes more and more pronounced. Regardless of whatever political views we hold, what should alarm us is the impact that political division is having upon churches. According to research from two years ago, “More than half (57 percent) of Protestant churchgoers under 50 say they prefer to go to church with people who share their political views. And few adult Protestant churchgoers say they attend services with people of a different political persuasion.”

This is what I call allowing the political tail to wag the dog. Now don’t get me wrong, we all have political views and so we are going to hold different opinions. However, we are refusing the peace we have received in Christ, which he brokered upon the cross (cf. Eph 3:14-16), if we allow differences in political views to determine who we will break bread with. Just as we embrace the peace of Christ when we serve together as people of different skin colors and theological differences, so we must join together as people who hold different political views than our own.

Now I’m not suggesting that unity means we must suppress our political views, which is unlikely to happen anyway. What we must learn to do with any matter of difference is to speak and act towards others in a charitable manners, which is likely the biggest challenge. My hunch is that the reason why more people prefer a church where their political views are shared is because each side, to use the binary language of left and right, increasingly looks at the other with contempt and thus an enemy. And when people do express a political opinion, it is often met with some degree of vitriol — spoken or unspoken.

Is it any wonder why more people are basing the church they serve with upon whether the people of that church share their political views? This is all the more reason why we must listen to the instructions from that say, “Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love…” (Eph 4:2). Taking those instructions seriously means rethinking our political conduct. If the way we express our political views make people with a different view afraid to express their point of view too, then we are the problem. If we speak of people with pejoratives like “cuckservative” and “deplorable” or “libratard” and “snowflake,” then we are the problem. If people are weary of sharing their views because they know that rather than listening first, we will only shout louder the same old tired talking points, then we are the problem.

Humility, gentleness, patience, and love is the way we live into the peace of Christ, uniting with our political differences rather than allowing those differences to divide. And as a contentious election year is upon America in the midst of an impeachment trial, this matters now. Don’t let the political tail wag the dog! Though we will hold different political views, let’s stand on the side of Christ by leaning into the virtues of humility, gentleness, and patience as we accept one another with the love of Christ.

Following Jesus in 2020

Face of Jesus ChristHere we are in the second week of 2020, which seems a bit surreal. I was just getting used to saying 2019 and now it’s 2020. Churches have just traversed from a season of Advent into the season of Epiphany, from the birth of King Jesus to God’s revelation of King Jesus to the entire world. But does that mean anything?

As we step forward into year 2020 in America, we do so in a year of contention. President Trump is facing an impeachment trial, there is a rapidly escalating conflict with Iran, and there is an upcoming political election that is sure to bring out the worst vitriol and anger in many people. Besides all the contentious politics in America, we live in a society that has been sinking into a moral quagmire for sometime. Whether we talk about the life of the unborn, the increasing number of socially displaced poor living in our neighborhoods, or the life of immigrants seeking refuge from war and violence in their homeland, their livelihood always seems to come at the expense of politics. But where I find myself is with a growing disappointment for the ways in which it seems some Christians respond, acting as though the politics of right and left matter more than lives affected by these challenges.

Have we forgotten what it means to live as followers of Jesus? I’m talking about the Jesus we read of in scripture, who embraced the powerless over the powerful, took up the cause of the oppressed by show mercy and acting with justice, became a humble servant rather than an ego-driven despot, and who chose the way of the cross rather than the much easier way of the sword. This is the Jesus we are called to follow and the Christianity we profess as our religion must be coherent with the life Jesus lived, is nothing but another self-made false religion.

So as 2020 is upon us, I’ve heard a lot of pastors talking about sharing a “2020 Vision” with their church. I don’t have any problem with the language, playing on the year 2020, if that helps captivate the attention of the church. But from where I sit, churches don’t need a 2020 Vision for some new ministry initiative or how they can help take their church to the next level, whatever that means. What churches need is a 2020 vision for who Jesus is and the kingdom he called us to serve in as his followers.

On the night before Jesus was crucified, he prayed for this disciples. As a part of his prayer, he asked his Heavenly Father…

“I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, os that they also may be sanctified in truth.” – John 17:16-19 (NRSV)

Clearly Jesus did not want his followers withdrawing or from the world, which I believe includes not avoiding the problems that society must face. Rather, Jesus has sent his disciples into the world. However, in sending his disciples into the world, he does so with the expectation that they will be sanctified which has to do with being set apart in the world for the mission of God. This is the rub, the tension. How do we, as followers of Jesus, live in society facing numerous challenges and live as believers who singular focus is participating in the mission of God? 

I certainly don’t have the final answer but I remain committed to living as a follower of Jesus. And by that, I mean striving to live my life by the same beliefs and values that Jesus lived so that my life might be a coherent reflection of who Jesus is. I’m sure I’ll fail along the way but that is my commitment. As a pastor, I am also preaching through the Gospel of John this winter and spring with the Newark Church of Christ. As I preach through the Gospel of John, I am asking the question of what God is doing in Jesus as a way of trying to understand what is this eternal life that the church is called to participate in as believers following Jesus. And that’s it… I hope that by living as a follower of Jesus and preaching about Jesus, that whatever influence I have will be harnessed towards encouraging others to live as followers of Jesus.

 

Misreading Scripture

Christians believe the Bible is about the creative and redemptive work God is fulfilling in Jesus Christ. With all of the different stories and teaching told through different genres written in specific historical contexts, the Bible, stated in the most simplest of ways, is about Jesus. In fact, this is so fundamental that I can’t imagine any Christian who would disagree. Yet it’s still possible to read the Bible and miss Jesus, or at least miss what it really means to believe in and follow Jesus.

The Bible - Living As Participants in the Mission of God

In the message I preached to the Newark Church of Christ this past Sunday, I mentioned three lenses that Christians sometimes read the Bible through. Each lens appears legit because there is enough scripture and Jesus in the lens that the problems are easily overlooked by the indiscriminate reader. The three lenses I have in mind are:

  1. The Prosperity Lens. This lens, sometimes called The Health and Wealth Gospel, is based on the belief that God promises material wealth and physical well-being to those who seek him. Receiving this promise is a matter of faith. One major objection is that such a notion fails to account for how many faithful seekers of God, including Jesus and his apostles, all suffered on account of their faith. Right now, there are many Christians in countries like Iran and China who are suffering persecution for following Jesus. The fact is, that following Jesus just might result in suffering physically in some manner as well as enduring material poverty.
  2. The Soterian Lens. This lens is what Scot McKnight refers to as the soterian gospel in which the gospel is equated with salvation (The King Jesus Gospel, p. 29). The gospel is reduced to a concern of just getting people saved and thus about sharing the Four Spiritual Laws. The problem with this lens is that it relegates discipleship as secondary, creating a false-dichotomy between believing in Jesus and following Jesus. Thus, a person can come to faith in Christ and thus “get saved” but not necessarily become a disciple. 
  3. The Blueprint Lens. This lens, which is particular to my own history within the Churches of Christ and the larger Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, reads the Bible, and particularly the New Testament, as a blueprint or constitution for the church. The problem is that the New Testament, a collection of twenty-seven different occasional writings, becomes a new law focused on restoring an assumed ecclesiological pattern. Faithfulness to Jesus is about keeping this pattern rather than following Jesus and embodying the gospel he proclaimed as the real pattern for how his followers should live. (As a side for those among the Churches of Christ, to learn more about this hermeneutic and a better theological hermeneutic as an alternative, I highly recommend the new book by John Mark Hicks, Searching For The Pattern, 2019.)

As I said earlier, we can proof-text enough scripture and sprinkle in enough Jesus to justify each lens. One problem with each lens is that they shift the aim or the end (telos) of scripture away from the gospel that Jesus and his apostles actually proclaimed. Though the shift often seems subtle, the significance is important because it may (and has) hinder our participation in the mission of God.

In a conversation Jesus was having with the Jewish leaders, who wanted to kill him, he observed how they read the scriptures but missed Jesus. John 5:39 says “Examine the scriptures, since you think that in them you have eternal life. They also testify about me.”  Yes, that was possible then and is still possible now. Christians may not wish to kill Jesus but they certainly have killed in the name of Jesus because their view of Jesus looks more like a John Rambo than the King who became a slaughtered lamb on a Roman cross. Missing Jesus is how some Christians of the past justified segregated churches while saying that Civil Rights was not the business of Christians. It’s how some Christians today downplay the continued problems of racism or pretend that racism is a “political issue” that has nothing to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In some upcoming posts I will explain why the Bible is centered in Jesus Christ and oriented toward the kingdom of God. In more theological terms, the Old Testament and New Testament present a narrative that is Christiologically centered and eschatologically oriented. This narrative, read through the lens of Christology and Eschatology, provides the script for and hence opens space for discerning how our local churches might contextually embody the gospel on mission with God. But first, there may be some lenses that simply need to be discarded if we’re going to read the Bible in order to live as participants in the mission of God.

A Word To The Church

The church has a problem with discipleship. But that’s nothing new. Most of the pastors I know are aware of the discipleship problem facing Christianity in America. What some may not realize is that the problem isn’t unique to us. Peek behind the curtains of the church from any time and place in history and I think we’ll see that discipleship was a challenge then just as it is now. Even in the New Testament this challenge existed, just go reread the apostle Paul’s letters we call Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, and Galatians.

youth-group-lessons-on-discipleship

Why is this important? It matters because it seems easy, perhaps even en vogue, to romanticize churches from other locations or periods of history as material for comparison against the worst problems of church in America. This is one of the major complaints I have regarding Francis Chan’s latest book Letters To The Church, 2018. Throughout the book Chan compares the attractional megachurch model in America with the cell-church or house-church models he has encountered in other countries, particularly throughout Asia. The problem is the idealism with which he paints the later so that he can contrast the seemingly worst characteristics of the attractional megachurch model in America with his romanticized view of the cell-church or house-church models.

Comparing the best against the worst of another is hardly fair but Chan also does so with little more than anecdotal evidence and an ad hoc (perhaps even post hoc) use of scripture. The result seems to suggest that if Christianity in America would just change, embracing the idealistic picture of the cell-church model, that churches would be making and forming disciples again. Now Chan, to his credit, seems to warn against reading his book like this (pp. 199-200) but it’s difficult to imagine how else we might read the book.

I’m not upset with Chan. I love his commitment to following Jesus which also, in his case, has meant a commitment to serving as a pastor. As a pastor myself, I know how trying this commitment can get at times. So my hat is off to Chan. I also agree with him that discipleship is a real challenging issue right now for Christianity in America. Consumerism, individualism, relativism, and probably a few other isms are a hinderance to following Jesus and we all, myself included,  struggle with these obstacles.

So what’s the solution? How do we face this challenge so that we might take more serious the call to live not just as church-going believers but as believers who are learning to follow Jesus on a daily basis?

Well, I don’t think we can just wipe the slate clean, so to speak, and start over. That is a myth inherited from the Enlightenment but no matter how much we try, we will still be shaped by the circumstances of our particular context. So although the Newark Church of Christ, whom I love serving as a pastor, is far from being the attractional-megachurch, it is still a more traditional church that gathers on Sunday’s in a worship space and then finds other opportunities for gathering together in prayer, community service, etc… And that’s okay! Could we do better? Of course, but God is still at work in this church through his Spirit, so I can’t just write off what God has done and is still doing.

Here’s what I can do and what you can do where you’re at, with the churches we participate among. Begin by observing how God has been at work and share those observations with a few others while considering what God might doing now and how the present work of God connects with the past for the hope of the future. In pastoral theology, this is called Appreciative Inquiry (recommendation: Mark Lau Branson, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations, 2004). When we begin to have a bigger sense of what God is doing among our church and where we sense that might be leading, consider how we might participate in that work as followers of Jesus and invite those others to join us on this journey. Let this journey be filled with prayer and scripture but let it also begin with where we’re at instead of succumbing to the apathy that gives up on our churches, writing them off as a hopeless cause. The apostle Paul never did that and neither should we.

I know what I’ve just suggested isn’t any quick-fix solution to the challenges we see in our churches and other churches. That’s because there aren’t any easy quick-fix solutions. The challenge of discipleship is great and requires more than just another simple step 1, 2, and 3 solution. I can’t promise that the road ahead will be easy because it probably won’t be but it is the way forward and the way of taking control over the one thing that God gives us the control over: our own decision to follow Jesus. So live as a follower of Jesus, serving as a pastor or whatever vocation God has called us to serve in, and as we invite others to come along the journey with us, they will come. Then we’ll be surprised at what the Lord has done in us!

Church: Mission or Model?

As a pastor, I serve with the Newark Church of Christ. As a Church of Christ, we are connected with the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement that began on the American frontier during the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century. The movement began with the vision of restoring New Testament Christianity which meant, at least in part, restoring the form of the first-century churches. Consequently, the New Testament was read as a blueprint for how people became Christians as well as the organization and worship of the local church.

Our Mission

With this post, let’s think a little more about the organization of the church or the form of the local church and how that relates to participating in the mission of God. Now despite my own history in the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, I have come to the conclusion that the attempt at restoring any form is the wrong approach. To begin with, I don’t believe the New Testament presents a monolithic description of the church. Their are several forms or ways that Christians organized in the New Testament and that seems as much a response to their cultural-context and needs as it as response to the gospel. Also, without dismissing any need for form, the New Testament seems more concerned with function.

I say all this just to acknowledge the lens through which I view the challenge of leading churches to follow Jesus as participants in the mission of God. So the issue I am concerned with is the attention given on finding the right form or model of church. Right now I am reading through Francis Chan’s book Letters To The Church (see also Tim Challies review here) who assumes a monolithic church model in the New Testament (house churches) and compares it against the now traditional church model that most churches, including Restoration Churches, have adopted.

While Chan makes some valid criticisms about Christianity in America, his book compares the best of the house church model against the worst of the traditional model. Such comparisons hardly seem fair but there is a bigger issue that needs to be considered, which is the fact that all church models are just that — models, and not churches.

Here’s my point: The church is always the people no matter how they are organized. So regardless of how much idealism we muster up to promote one model over another, the reality is that people are still people and thus same basic challenges will surface eventually. Therefore, rather than advocating one model, a better approach might be to allow the church to form around the Spiritual-giftedness of the people in response to the local context but that’s for another post. I’m just voicing concern I have that when churches, especially those struggling with decline, go mining book for the next best model (remember The Purpose-Driven Church?).

The key to participating in the mission of God is discerning how God is at work among the local church and the surrounding community so that the believers can join in that work as followers of Jesus. Fortunately, the Newark Church of Christ is relearning how to do this. It doesn’t mean we’re perfect but we are beginning to see some of the kingdom-increase as we journey on mission with God.