Tag Archives: Discipleship

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!

And Who Is My Neighbor?

Most people have heard the story Jesus told in Luke 10 commonly referred to as The Parable of The Good Samaritan. You can read the story here if you would like to reacquaint yourself with the story, which I would highly recommend. Why? Because despite the casual familiarity society has with this story, which has undoubtedly served as the inspiration for the names of numerous “Good Samaritan” hospitals and other “Samaritan” charities, this story really isn’t about a Samaritan.

Yes, you read that correctly! The Parable of the Good Samaritan really isn’t about the Samaritan whom, by the way, is never described as good (or bad) in the actual text. So while we may derive a side point about the virtuous character of the Samaritan, it’s not the main point of the story.

The story is actually about a conversation between a Jewish lawyer and Jesus. The lawyer approached Jesus wanting to “test” him by asking him a question about how he may inherit eternal life (v. 25). Wisely, Jesus turns the tables on his little religious test and asks him about what the Law says. More importantly, Jesus asks this lawyer about how he reads the Law (v. 26). It’s sort of analogous to saying “What does the Bible say about inheriting eternal life? How do you read the Bible?” That’s important because in becomes clear as the story unfolds that Jesus and this lawyer don’t read the Law exactly the same. Their hermeneutic for understanding what is necessary for inheriting eternal life is different. It begs the question of us, as we read the story, as to whether our hermeneutic differs with Jesus.

The lawyer responds by reciting what we commonly refer to as the greatest commands: 1) love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and 2) love your neighbor as yourself (v. 27) (see also Matt 22:36-40; Mk 12:28-31). If this lawyer was simply taking a test, he would have passed because he is right that about loving God and neighbor. The problem is his understanding of what it means to love your neighbor as yourself. He doesn’t want to really love every neighbor as himself and so to justify himself, he asks Jesus just who his neighbor really is (v. 29).

In turn, Jesus responds by telling him a story… Well you know the story. But the shocking part of the story is that of all the characters Jesus could have chosen to play the role of hero in the story, Jesus chose a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans hated each other with an enmity that was full of mutual distrust, discrimination, and animosity. And yes, Jesus knew this and that’s the point. Because Jesus is saying to this Jewish lawyer is that the Samaritans, whom he hates, are his neighbor too and if he wants to have a place in the kingdom of God then he must learn to love the Samaritans as his neighbor and that looks something like how the hero Samaritan of the story loved the man who was viciously assaulted along the roadside.

“…we may never realize just how much we attempt to justify ourselves, just like the Jewish lawyer, so that we don’t have to love our neighbors as ourselves.”

So where do we find ourselves in this story? Who are we more like? The Samaritan or the Jewish lawyer? Of course, we want to become like Jesus but to do that we first need to ask if we’re not more like the Jewish lawyer than we realize. If we don’t discern that question then we may never realize just how much we attempt to justify ourselves, just like the Jewish lawyer, so that we don’t have to love our neighbors as ourselves.

When Jesus made the hero of his story a Samaritan, he was saying that our neighbors include those we regard as enemies, those we may fear, and even those we may discriminate against in one fashion or another. Had it been a White American evangelical Christian approaching Jesus like this Jewish lawyer, who would have been the hero of the story Jesus told? I think the hero of the story would have been a Muslim father from Pakistan, Egypt, etc… Or a LBGTQ Feminist girl attending college at Harvard, Stanford, etc… or a young Black male living in Chicago, Baltimore, etc… Or a Latino woman originally from Honduras, Mexico, etc… Or a… The list can go on and on and on.

The point is that our neighbors are also Muslims, LBGTQ people, Blacks and Latinos, and whoever else we think of as different from us. Jesus told the Jewish lawyer to go do as the Samaritan did and extend mercy to our neighbors. We don’t have to agree with our neighbor, share their same religious and political views, or even like their way of life but we must love them as ourselves by showing them mercy − doing acts of mercy as we have the opportunity. In fact, we’ll never see the kingdom of God unless we can learn to show mercy and be their neighbor by loving them.

“Until we learn to love these neighbors are ourselves, we are the Jewish lawyer!”

I’ll push this even farther because it is time we get the point. The currency of our gospel, the gospel of Jesus Christ, is that we love God by loving others… we love one another but we also love our neighbors and even our enemy neighbors. It doesn’t matter what we preach and teach if we cannot love our neighbors as ourselves! To paraphrase Paul somewhat, if we cannot love our neighbors then we are as useless as a noisy gong.

Let’s be more than a useless noisy gong. We believe that we are called to be witnesses of Jesus, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God to the world. Very good! But remember that begins by loving our neighbors and the best place to begin is right in our own neighborhoods with the people living next door or just a few doors down no matter what skin color they have, what sort of lifestyle they live, what their nationality of origin is, or what their religious and political beliefs are. Until we learn to love these neighbors are ourselves, we are the Jewish lawyer!

Politics and The Way of Jesus

If there’s one takeaway from this past political season for me, it’s that most Christians are still trying to conserve a Christendom culture in America. Not a Christian culture or gospel culture but a Christendom culture. That’s a society where Christians are the dominating force in shaping laws, practices, and cultural values. With Donald Trump* as President Elect, some Christians may even think they have won the latest battle in effort of saving Christendom. But really, it’s just one more anxious response that will fail.

Regardless of what Christian-friendly policies the succeeding government may enact, morality can’t be legislated and neither can religious beliefs and values. More importantly, neither Christians nor any supposed Christian nation is made by legislation. Christians are formed as people see Christ among local churches in the lives of the Christians who make up those churches, as people see the church embodying the way of Christ in word and deed. So while the election may prolong some semblance of Christendom in America, it is only avoiding the inevitable death of a Christendom society. This election will certainly not change the souls of the growing number of non-Christians, who have a growing distaste for their perception of Christianity and particularly evangelicalism. Yet the more Christians leverage political power for the conservation of Christendom, trading the power of the gospel for state political power, the more  alienating Christianity becomes and unnecessarily so.

In general, it is the church in America that needs to hear Jesus saying, “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:15). Christians, of which I am unapologetically one, must learn again how to embody this good news of the kingdom of God as their way of life in every local church. Put another way, we Christians must learn to follow Jesus again. We must learn to believe what Jesus believes about the kingdom of God and share the same values as Jesus so that our way of life becomes an imitation of his life. We can’t treat this gospel simply as a propositional truth we proclaim while serving for an end of some political agenda. Either the truth of the gospel becomes embodied as our way of life, lived together as local churches within local neighborhoods and community, or else the truth is lost.

As far as politics go, we must remember that the gospel itself is a politic. As Eugene Peterson once said, “The gospel of Jesus Christ is more political than anyone imagines, but in a way that no one guesses.” Thus, our way of life as followers of Jesus should be a politic itself, a gospel-politic that is neither Democrat nor Republican. Let’s occupy ourselves with the gospel-politic rather than trying to control the political outcome of the state. Though there may be particular political issues that are of interest to us because of their impact on our local community, we must realize that the means of American political power − both the right and left − is incompatible with the kingdom of God. The power of the gospel is expressed in a life of humility and love that’s dying to self in service to others, where as American political power (like all worldly politics) involves various expressions of a coercive “might makes right” force. The power of the gospel invites people to participate in the Kingdom of God by faith, rather than legislating a way of life by political mandate.

The question that we Christians must ask is what do we want? Do we want to participate in the mission of God and see the kingdom of God extended into our local communities? Or do we want laws on the books that may reflect some Christian values but only create barriers between Christians and non-Christians? If the time has not already come, it is very near when we will reach the proverbial fork in the road. Which way will we go? I submit that only one way is the way of Jesus, lived out as local churches serving on mission with God.

* Regardless of who you or I believe should have been elected as the next President of the United States, Donald Trump is now the President Elect. Just as we should do for all governing officials, we must also pray for Donald Trump as he prepares to lead America as the nation’s next President (cf. 1 Tim 2:1-2).

 

 

Ministry 101: Leading By Example

Years ago I worked for one year as a machinist at a Briggs and Stratton manufacturing plant turning pistons inside a CNC lathe. There wasn’t anything spectacular about the job but I remember my immediate supervisor, whose name was John. Like any good manager, he expected people to put an honest effort at work. One of the things I appreciated most was that when people went on break, John ran there machine for them. He was not above doing the very work he asked of everyone else. That’s leadership by example.

One of the issues that generates a lot of attention these days among church and ministry conferences that pastors and ministers attend is the subject of discipleship. Everyone knows that discipleship is a challenge facing Christianity in America and closely related is the challenge of spiritual formation. If discipleship is, in simplest terms, learning to follow Jesus and spiritual formation is having our minds or imaginations reformed in the beliefs and values of the good news of Jesus and the kingdom of God, churches are really struggling with both. The pews and chairs of the church sanctuary may be full on any given Sunday but when people leave the worship gathering, they return to their busy lives which often doesn’t reflect much of the life Jesus That at least is the premise for most conferences on discipleship.

Whether the challenge of discipleship is as great as we think or not, we would have to be very naïve to say there isn’t any problem. That raises the question of how do we make disciples of Jesus Christ and spiritual form such people for continued living as disciples?

I’m not really going to answer that question because there are plenty of books, articles, and blogs addressing that issue. Just do a Google search! What I do want to focus on is the example we set and by “we,” I mean those of us who serve as pastors and ministers among a church. If we want to see the churches we serve full of growing disciples who are being spiritually formed in the way of Jesus, then we must live as an example of what discipleship is and what it means to be someone who is being spiritually formed.

Let me share a story and I hope you’ll understand that what I’m about to share is not to pat myself on the back but because of the observation that I made.

Two weeks ago I was invited by one of my elders to help serve at a spaghetti fundraiser dinner in Chillicothe, MO for Operation Help which helps serve the homeless and other people in need of benevolent assistance. This isn’t an opportunity that I would have voluntarily sought out but because I was asked, I agreed to go serve and spent three hours serving up pasta. Another lady who has served at many of these fundraiser dinners remarked that I was the first pastor to ever come help serve at these particular fundraisers. Now I know there are plenty of pastors and ministers who voluntarily serve outside of their expected church duties. However, this women’s observation struck a chord with me because almost all of the churches in Chillicothe support and partner with Operation Help, which depends on volunteer help and yet there’s never been a pastor or minister who have volunteered in this way before. Why is that?

Every pastor and minister I know would love to see members of their church volunteering with an organization like Operation Help. In fact, we would say that such service is an indicator of discipleship and spiritual formation… certainly not the only indicator but at least one and perhaps an important one. So we would encourage members to give up their own time outside of work and in addition to whatever responsibilities they might have with their own children and grandchildren. But how can we who serve as  pastors and ministers expect other Christians to volunteer and serve if we don’t set such an example?

Discipleship and spiritual formation are certainly key ingredients for a church growing as a healthy body of faithful and mature believers. As I alluded to earlier, there is plenty of literature available on how to go about making disciples and spiritual forming them in the way of Jesus. I would simply add that it begins with the example we set − leadership by example − and I am certainly not always the example I should be, so it begins with me. In January there will be a chili fundraiser dinner for Operation Help and I will gladly be there to serve again.

“If we want to see the churches we serve full of growing disciples who are being spiritually formed in the way of Jesus, then we must live as an example of what discipleship is and what it means to be someone who is being spiritually formed.”

Got Faith?

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

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

Fear and Faith On A Stormy Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith and The Way of Jesus

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

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

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

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

The Gospel According To Us

“Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary use words.” This famous quote is often attributed to the twelfth century Catholic Friar, St. Francis of Assisi, though as far as we know he never actually made such a statement. Christians often share this quote as a reminder that the life of Christians should be a proclamation of the gospel itself and that the gospel proclaimed in spoken word is insufficient. Of course, this quote attributed to St. Francis has also come under criticism in an attempt preserve the necessity of preaching the gospel in words. Ed Stetzer goes so far as to say that “the quote is not biblical.”

Is it really unbiblical to suggest that we should preach the gospel and only use words as necessary? Stetzer thinks so and makes his case by appealing to the Apostle Paul, particularly what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8:

The Apostle Paul summarized the gospel as the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ… The gospel is not habit, but history. The gospel is the declaration of something that actually happened. And since the gospel is the saving work of Jesus, it isn’t something we can do, but it is something we must announce. We do live out its implications, but if we are to make the gospel known, we will do so through words.

The problem with this is that while it’s fair to describe what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 about the gospel as a summary, we must remember that it’s just a summary. As with any summary, there is much more detail to what the gospel of Jesus Christ is and that is found in the larger biblical narrative which is why Paul says that the death of Christ is “according to the Scriptures” (v. 4). Beyond the mere facts of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, there is a kingdom with a particular end (telos) that cannot be separated from the gospel. Even more so, behind the historical facts of the gospel is the actually life which Jesus lived and called us to follow him in living too. We read of this life in the four canonical Gospels, the Gospel According to Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John. As Scot McKnight points out, these four books are called “Gospels” because they each are witnesses to the storied life that Jesus lived (The King Jesus Gospel, pp. 81-82). That’s important because Jesus himself proclaimed the gospel in both word and deed. Put another way, Jesus both demonstrated and declared the gospel, the good news of the kingdom of God.

Unequivocally then, the gospel is preached in both word and deed, and therefore something which is both seen and heard. So rather than making a dichotomy between preaching the gospel in word and deed, turning this into an either/or issue, let’s treat preaching the gospel in word and deed as a both/and issue. If someone thinks the gospel only needs to be lived and never proclaimed in word, then Ed Stetzer has a valid reason for concern and I join with him in voicing such concern. However, I suspect that some Christians regard the gospel demonstrated as less important that the gospel declared. I don’t know of a Christian who would admit such devaluing of the demonstrated gospel but when we look at what is done, there are reasons for such suspicions.

“Jesus both demonstrated and declared the gospel, the good news of the kingdom of God.”

Last week after various evangelical leaders met with Presidential Candidate Donald Trump, James Dobson of Focus on the Family declared that Trump had accepted Jesus Christ and therefore was now a Christian. Regardless of Trump’s political views, there is good reason for raising questions about Trump’s alleged conversion when months ago Trump said that he has never even asked God for forgiveness and did not have any need of repentance. However, as one article recently said, this is not about Trump:

But I think these things are less the failure of Trump’s Christian infancy as much as they are a microcosm of the underlying problem with much of America’s evangelical movement — we actually have no idea what it means to be Christian. We lack a meaningful understanding of faith and belief.

That’s right, the issue is really a problem for Christians.

However, I believe such confusion about what it means to be a Christian flows from a misunderstanding of the gospel itself. If we think that demonstrating the gospel is somehow less important than declaring the gospel with the spoken word then it’s easy to define a Christian based on what they say, such as claiming to have accepted Jesus Christ. Identifying a Christian has less or even little to do with the transformed living that comes from the Spirit at work as we repent and receive our baptism into Christ.

While we all, as Christians, including myself, struggle in someway to live congruently with the faith we profess, our faith in Jesus is intended to become an embodied life as much as it is a confession. Yet one only needs to open up the status feed on social-media to see that what Christians often believe in, value, and advocate for is far removed from Jesus… Like when a woman’s right to choice or a person’s right to bear arms eclipses all consideration of the thousands of unborn children or the numerous civilians who are being slaughtered by gun violence across America… Like when fear of terrorism, Muslim refugees, and undocumented immigrants justifies an expedient exemption from love our neighbors as ourselves and even loving our enemies… Like when the need to either be politically correct or politically offensive allows the demonization of either the police or the #BlackLivesMatter movement, depending on what side one falls on, or despise the LBGTQ community…. Like when sounds more like an echo chamber of Bill Maher or Bill O’Reilly than Jesus and the Bible that bears witness to Jesus. And like I said, one only needs to turn to social-media to see what I’m getting at.

“…our faith in Jesus is intended to become an embodied life as much as it is a confession.”

The only way forward begins with a better understanding of the gospel, which includes understanding the gospel as an embodied way of life rooted in the mission of God. I’ve just finished reading Michael J. Gorman’s book Becoming The Gospel which summarizes this saying:

From Paul’s perspective the gospel itself is a powerful word of transformation, its content being given voice not merely in words but also, and inseparably, in actions. This does not eliminate the need for, or the importance of, words, but it does imply that the words have meaning and power only in action. God did something in Christ; Christ did something in becoming human and giving himself for us; the Spirit does something to and through the people who believe the good news of this divine activity.

     Furthermore, the content of the gospel Paul preaches is so thoroughly rooted both in the peculiar Christological shape of this divine activity — the life and teaching, and especially the death and resurrection, of Jesus — and in the Scriptures of Israel, with their promises of the Spirit and of shalom, that people who believe such good news are ineluctably drawn into its strange Christ-shaped and Scripture-shaped reality. So if the gospel has to do with a faithful God, a Suffering Servant who inaugurates God’s shalom, and a prophetically promised indwelling Spirit, then the individuals and communities who believe in that good news will be shaped in their minds and bodies, their thinking and their living, into Godlike, Christlike, Spirit-enabled people who in some real, if imperfect, way instantiate the message they believe (p. 298).

This connection between the gospel as historical reality and embodied life is what seems lacking, in varying degrees, among many Christians and local churches.

I’ve talked with more than a few churches over my years as a minister. Most are experiencing some decline and seeking renewal, desiring both spiritual and numerical growth. That’s good but we must understand that renewal is the work of God which sprouts from the gospel as it is believed in word and embodied in deed. So I would like to suggest that we must give as much, if not more, attention to demonstrating the gospel in the way we live as we give to declaring the gospel with words — without drawing a sharp distinction between word and deed since what we believe, value, and advocate for with spoken words reflects and impacts how we live.

How we demonstrate the gospel matters more than ever if we are to have any credible gospel witness. In fact, in our post-Christendom society where our Christian voice is increasingly marginalized, how we demonstrate the gospel becomes a currency of sorts for gaining a hearing. Without demonstrating the gospel, we lose the audience of those who may be open to the declared gospel. Stated in the positive, demonstrating the gospel as our embodied way of life gives us the credibility for declaring the gospel and “preaching the word” then becomes an explanation of what is seen rather than just an argumentation for what we profess. After all, the only gospel of Jesus Christ others are going to see and hear is, as the picture above suggest, the gospel according to us… the gospel we embody in word and deed. So to invoke the alleged wisdom of St. Francis of Assisi again, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary use words.”

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.