Tag Archives: Ministry

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.

Post Christendom America: Understanding and Accepting the New Reality

Christianity in America is currently in somewhat of a precarious state. Many local churches are declining, with some even closing, and while the influence of Christianity’s past is still evident, it is increasingly contested and rejected by the populace. The beliefs and values embraced by society reflects a growing acceptance of religious pluralism. We now see the convergence of humanism and secularism expressed through the American lens of individual liberty, which is welcomed under the rubric of tolerance.

Empty Church Building

Now I’m neither celebrating nor lamenting the changes that have taken place in America. I’m simply trying to name what is happening with the intention that I might be of some help to Christians and local churches in navigating the new challenges we face in the wake of such changes in culture.

One of these challenges is facing the reality that Christendom is over. By Christendom, I am talking about the importation of post-Constantinian Christianity from Europe into America in which the culture of society was heavily influenced by the power and prevalence of Christianity. By saying that Christendom is over, I am speaking in a proleptic sense in which its future death is already a conclusion or prognosis like that of a person diagnosed with stage-4 pancreatic cancer. That is, even though the vestiges of Christendom are still visible in America, the future fate of Christendom is already known and it’s evident by loss of Christianity’s influence in American culture.

The challenge for local churches and the Christians who make up those churches is learning to live as faithful followers and witnesses of Jesus in a post-Christendom society. Part of that challenge is overcoming any denial, though that is easier said than done. As Douglas John Hall points out:

In some places, including much of our own continent, it can even appear that Christendom is alive and well, unless one looks beneath the surface. In such contexts, Christian congregations and even whole denominations are able to carry on as usual, as if nothing had happened. But this response is often visibly contrived, and it is viable only as long as the economic conditions of churches are relatively sound. With each new decade, more and more Christians are driven to realize the watershed through which Christendom is passing (“The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity,” p. 4).

In other words, the relative “success” of a local church is enough to obscure the reality of what is taking place. Christians are likely only hit with the post-Christendom reality when they see the decline of Christianity’s influence in visible manifestations. These manifestations might be the realization that once effective evangelism programs are no longer effective, that the small crowd of gathered worshipers are mostly over the age of fifty, or even seeing a church close for good.

Another challenge, it accepting the loss of Christendom and learning to live as the church in a post-Christendom culture. Many Christians are still trying to preserve a Christendom culture and in doing so, hinder learning how to live as “exiles” participating in the mission of God among a secular society that once was Christian but is no more.

One recent example is Franklin Graham encouraging Christians to vote saying, “Make sure that you are registered to vote, otherwise we will lose our country.” Can the post-Christendom reality not be any more clear when the suggested way for Christians to avoid losing is voting in an election? Can we not see the death of Christendom when fear is the motivation for engaging in state politics, a coercive form of power, in an effort to retain Christian interests?

Now don’t misunderstand me. I’m neither opposed to Christians voting nor am I trying to suggest whether Christians should or should not vote. Voting isn’t the problem per se. What is the problem is the suggestion that Christians must vote or lose. Franklin Graham’s plea begs the question of what is it that Christians stand to lose? A worldly kingdom or the kingdom of God? Which kingdom are Christians really fighting for if the fear of losing America, or any other nation, is what motivates their political engagement?  The suggestion is just another example of the way Christians fail to understand and accept the post-Christendom reality that is America in the twenty-first century.

But in coming to the point where Christian are implored to vote if they wish to win, perhaps we can see the futility in clinging to the vestiges of Christendom. If so, then there might just be some space opening up for reimagining how local churches can live as faithful followers of Jesus in a post-Christendom society. For that, stay tuned.

An Alternative Politic: The Faithful Witness of the Church

I know we have this thing called the separation between church and state in America but just a casual observation and we can see how that separation has often been blurred. This is why American culture was influenced by the reality of Christendom (was being the key word), with most Christians participating in politics through voting and holding public offices.

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Although many Christians are still very engaged in politics, the Christendom culture has nearly become thing of the past and will eventually pass altogether. While there are many Christians still clutching to Christendom, trying to preserve the past, the reality is that America is now a post-Christendom society in which Christianity is of little influence.

Lament if you with but I believe Christianity must shoulder some, if not a lot, of the reasons for the cultural shift. There are a variety of reasons but when some churches are more concerned with preserving their traditions, like wanting to revive the use of hymnals, and other churches are driven by consumerism, then the mission of God is subtlety lost among other utilitarian goals. There’s another reason why Christianity must take responsibility for the loss of influence that is more difficult to accept and it has to do with politics.

       “It’s time for a new reformation that opens space for an alternative community that embodies the gospel as an alternative and subversive politic.”

As already mentioned, most Christians in America have engaged in politics. They have done so with with good intentions but in doing so, many have given themselves to politics. Mainline Protestants veered to the left, while evangelicals turned to the right. Yes that’s a generalization but it’s one that more people are beginning to realize, except maybe for those Christians still deeply invested in politics. The investment itself serves a binary system defined and dominated by Democrats and Republicans, which really just represent two different sides of the same coin. That is, even though each side has significantly different ideas about how to govern (= rule) society, they both believe the only way forward is through the state. Also, it is this system that has determined the rules of engagement.

Locked within this binary system, Christians have been led to believe and will tell each other one side is good and the other is not. This has meant adopting the good side as our side, supporting it and defending it while ignoring or mitigating anything that might question the virtuosity of our side. Believing then that there are only two options, Christians will pressure other Christians to get involved because failing to vote for the good side is a vote for the other. This is why I have had Christians tell me that if I vote Republican, then I support a platform of injustice towards minorities and immigrants while other Christians have told me that by voting for a Democrat, then I am supporting abortion by voting for a pro-choice platform. Christians from both sides have told me that not voting is a vote for the other side, which is exactly what the binary systems wants everyone to believe.

According to the binary system, there isn’t any other options. But I beg to differ because I am a Christian who believes in Jesus and is striving to live as a faithful witness of Jesus and the kingdom of God. I believe there is an alternative to the futility of state politics, an alternative political party called the church of Jesus Christ. I know that sounds counterintuitive, especially in knowing the ways Christianity has woefully failed to live according to the teachings of Jesus within history. These failures are due, in part, to the rise of Christendom in which the church gained a favorable status, sought to maintain that status, and in doing so, compromised the gospel witness. Thankfully though the Protestant Reformation gave us the language semper reformanda (always reforming) because its time for a new reformation that opens space for an alternative community that embodies the gospel as an alternative and subversive politic.

   “The alternative for Christians requires an exclusive commitment to this way of Jesus Christ rather than trying to do both church and state at the same time.”

When Shane Claiborne tweeted about the need for a political party with a consistent pro-life stance, my reaction was that there should be such a party offering a consistent social-ethic and moral character derived from the gospel, the church of Jesus Christ. That politic was one of the distinctives among the community of disciples in the first century when they declared themselves to be an ecclesia. That’s because ecclesia referred to a public assembly that was open to all in which the concerns of the city, the was life was organized and lived.

That’s politics. Ecclesia was a political assembly. However, as an ecclesia gathering in the name of Christ, the allegiance of the people gathering in this assembly was to King Jesus rather than Caesar. In fact, had the followers of Jesus merely wanted to exist as a religious community, then there were other words they could have identified themselves with (e.g., thiasos, eranos) which referred to private religious associations. Doing so may have even made the disciples more tolerable in the religiously pluralistic Roman culture but the disciples steadfastly understood themselves as an ecclesia, an alternative politic that was a threat to Roman peace.

This understanding of church is largely unknown in America where our English word “church” is derived from the German word kirche, meaning building. So instead of understanding the local church as an alternative politic, the church has become a building located in place to gather for worship and then leave, returning to American life as usual — politics as usual.

Exactly what it will look like for local churches to live as an alternative politic in a post-Christian American culture is still an open and ongoing discussion. While America embraces free speech, freedom to assemble and religious freedom, it seems enslaved within a political binary system that has little capacity for imagining any alternative. So becoming an alternative politic in this context won’t be easy but that is what I believe that Christian, gathered as a local ecclesia, are called to be and in doing so, embody the gospel as a faithful witness to Jesus and the kingdom of God. This is the alternative politic that witnesses to a life beyond the futility of state politics but it requires a new imagination, relearning how to live as followers of Jesus and not just mere church-goers. The alternative for Christians requires an exclusive commitment to this way of Jesus Christ rather than trying to do both church and state at the same time. It will also require faith, trusting God to bring about the good through our faithfulness witness even if the results are not seen in our lifetime, which is the point of Heb 11:1-12:2.

Reading Scripture as Followers of Jesus

Reading the Bible is as necessary to living as a Christian as sleep is in living as a healthy person. Continuously deprive ourselves of sleep and it’s our health that suffers. As Christians, deprive ourselves of reading the Bible and our faith will certainly suffer. But just as we can have habits that make sleeping more difficult, like eating right before bedtime, it’s possible to read the Bible in ways that actually makes living our faith more difficult. This is why it’s not just important that we read the Bible but it’s also important to think about how we read the Bible.

Coffee and BibleIn my experience as a pastor, there are some ways in which Christians read the Bible that are unhelpful, at best, and may in fact hinder discipleship. These include readings that ignore the context, dogmatic proof-texting or cherry-picking, and readings that focus simply knowing the times and dates of presumed prophetic event to come, and prosperity readings, to name a few.

Part of the problem is that there just does not seem to be enough attention given to thinking about and learning how to read the Bible. There’s plenty of encouragement towards reading the Bible but seemingly little attention given to the how of reading the Bible. That must change and it must change because as Christians, we are called to follow Jesus.

So as followers of Jesus, we ought to read the Bible in order to become more like him so that we may more faithfully embody the good news of the kingdom of God like Jesus did. That means we must go beyond just a reading of scripture that says, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” The Bible says a lot of things but that neither settles the matter nor does it mean we just automatically do ________ because the Bible says so (which is impossible anyway). Instead, I want to propose that we must ask about how Jesus lived the ________ teaching in ________ passage of scripture from both the Old and New Testament.

Take for example two passages of scripture, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament. First, Jeremiah 29:4-7

“The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.”

and then, 1 Peter 2:11-12

“Dear friends, since you are immigrants and strangers in the world, I urge that you avoid worldly desires that wage war against your lives. Live honorably among the unbelievers. Today, they defame you, as if you were doing evil. But in the day when God visits to judge they will glorify him, because they have observed your honorable deeds.” – 1 Peter 2:11-12

The historical context for each passage is different. Jeremiah is addressing how the people of Judah should live in exile, whereas Peter is addressing how Christians in Asian Minor should live as people whose faith makes them exiles among society. The common thread in each passage is that both passages are addressing the way God’s people should live within a society that is not their true home. Another common thread is that as we read each passage, we know that we are not facing the same exact circumstances as the people of Judah and Asia Minor.

So instead of reading each passage and literally transposing it’s instructions onto our own circumstances, I believe we must start with the question of how do we see the teaching of these two passages lived out in the life of Jesus. Answering this question is far from settling the matter of how we live (embody) these teachings and it is is a question that is better discerned within a community of believers. However, once we discern this question then we can also ask how Christians have embodied this teaching throughout history (tradition) and what/where God is working in our local community (culture).

This is the missional hermeneutic, in which Now we engage scripture, tradition, and culture together in a conversation. I believe this is where God opens space for us to reimagine what it means to embody the gospel. The result is a new way forward, that is both coherent with the life Jesus calls us to follow him in live and relevant for the local community we live among. As we do, we live the teaching of scripture among the community as followers of Jesus bearing witness to the kingdom of God.‬

Tell me what you think?

Water to Wine: Drink Freely and Live

“I have climbed the highest mountains
I have run through the fields
Only to be with you…
But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for.”

These lyrics from the band U2’s song I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For seems to capture the journey that most of our religious and philosophical pursuits seek. We go in search for meaning and purpose in life. When we near the end of our lives and are ready to, in the words of Alfred Lord Tennyson, cross the bar, we want to be at peace.

chateau-lafite-1965According to the Gospel of John, all of our religious and philosophical pursuits find their answer in Jesus Christ. One of the stories John tells early on is Jesus changing the water into wine at a wedding celebration in Cana of Galilee (John 2:1-11). Only it’s not just any old wine that Jesus offers. This is the best wine, kind of like being served a premier bottle of aged Chateau Lafite Rothschild. It was the first of many signs Jesus did, which revealed his glory (v. 11). In other words, the Gospel of John tells us this story about Jesus turning the water into wine so that we might believe and have life in his name.

But I wonder how much some really believe — Christians included?

Just ponder that question for a moment while I explain the question. You see, I’ve been serving as a pastor for nearly twenty years  has allowed me to meet numerous Christians from every state in America and many other places around the world. Some Christians seem so full of life and they’re filled with love, joy, and peace. But some are not.

I’ve stood bedside of some Christians who were near death and listened to them express, with fear, uncertainty about their own salvation. I’ve encountered other Christians who are hostile towards anyone with a different viewpoint than their own while others are fearful of anyone whose race, religion, politics, and sexual orientation is different than their own. And these days, in the age of social-media there are Christians increasingly becoming angry over politics, blaming people who vote differently than they do for for the direction the country seems to be going (and that cuts both ways).

In the Gospel of John there are plenty of religious people who are missing out on the best wine that is life because their pursuit has taken them down the wrong way. So now might be as good of a time as any to remind ourselves that no matter how much we go to church and how much biblical language we use, we can still take the wrong way too. And this should especially concern us if we find ourselves constantly consumed with anger, fear, and uncertainty, all of which are not the way, truth, and life of Jesus.

The Gospel of John says that Jesus is the answer to the life we seek but the answer comes with an invitation. The invitation says come drink the wine and do so believing that in Jesus is life. So as we raise the glass of wine we receive from Jesus and drink freely, we receive his life which is the eternal life that begins now and lives on beyond death into eternity in Jesus Christ.

May we know the difference between cheap wine and the best wine!

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.

 

Advent: Meth, The Messiness of Lie, and the Incarnation of God

Years ago I was sitting in the living room of a couple that I was reading the Bible with. I met them because I had seen the man hitchhiking in the rain and stopped to give him a ride. As I go to know them, I heard that both he and his wife had been released from jail for crimes related to a methamphetamine habit. Nevertheless, they were nice and I was hoping to teach them about Jesus

On this particular day, the wife had made some brownies and she offered me one. I knew it would be impolite to refuse, so I politely received the plate with this very appetizing warm and fresh out of the oven chocolate brownie. The problem was that is was so gooey that I needed a fork and so when I asked for a fork, I was told to look in a particular drawer in the kitchen. So I did and when I opened the drawer, there on top of the utensils was a used hypodermic needle which presumably was used to shoot up meth.

As you might imagine, every worst case scenario of possible health issues suddenly came to mind. I also had a decision to make. Do I eat the brownie or do I not? Be polite or possibly risk offending this wife? Do I put my own health first or the relationship I am building with this couple first? What does faith look like in this moment and do I have that faith?

Joseph, Mary, and Baby Jesus

I mention all that just to illustrate how messy life can really be. The good news is that God doesn’t avoid the mess, our mess, that life often is. Instead God embraces the mess by becoming one of us, becoming flesh, in the person of Jesus. We call this the Incarnation and a significant portion of our incarnational theology flows from reading the Gospel of John but the Gospel of Matthew has something to say about our understanding of the Incarnation too.

In short, Matthew draws attention in the genealogy to the names of four women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and “the wife of Uriah” which we know is Bathsheba. There is scandal attached to each of their stories which sets us up for the scandal attached to the story of Joseph and Mary, namely the fact that Mary is unmarried and pregnant. You see, prior to the angel of the Lord appearing to Joseph, all he knows is that Mary is pregnant and he’s not the father. In his eyes, Mary has committed adultery and this is why the angel must first tell Joseph “don’t be afraid” (Mt 1:20). Then in the eyes of their neighbors, who are unaware of what the Angel says about Mary conceiving a child by the Holy Spirit, Mary simply appears as unmarried and pregnant.

Those two words, unmarried and pregnant, are word that no pious and God-fearing person wants to hear in the same sentence. It’s scandalous! And yet this is the story in which this baby child, who will be named Jesus because he save his people from sin, is born (Mt 1:21). It also is the fulfillment of prophesy in which child will be called Emmanuel because this child is “God with us” (Mt 1:23).

This is the scandalous story that Matthew tells of the Incarnation and it tells us something about who God really is. God doesn’t run from our sin, with all of its scandal and shame. Rather, in Jesus, God risks becoming associated as a sinner so that he might embrace us as sinners and save us from our sin. In fact, God took this risk knowing that  the cost of salvation would lead Jesus into Jerusalem to suffer death by crucifixion on a Roman cross. Though we feel the shame of our own sin and often our hesitant at involving ourselves in the lives of others, whose sin we seem to deem as more shameful than our own, God risks his own self to embrace us and the other so that he might save us from sin.

And if you’re wondering, I ate the brownie and it tasted good. I never became sick or experienced any illnesses that I irrationally feared might happen. I don’t know what ever happened to the couple because it wasn’t long before they both were back in jail facing new criminal charges. But on that day, as the ambassador of Christ that I am, I hope they somehow saw that God loves them and isn’t afraid or ashamed to be around them because of their sin.

That’s good news to us as well. For we know very well that we are sinners too and yet God still loves us and embraces us with the grace extended in his Incarnation. And this is another reason why Advent matters. It’s the messiness of life, marred by our sins, that is met in the coming of God Incarnate, born among us as the Savior.

Born that man no more may die:
Born to raise the son of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King !”

The Witness of Preaching The Word.

If you’re a pastor then one of your responsibilities likely includes some preaching and the same is true for me. You may not preach every Sunday or maybe you’re a student pastor who speaks at a gathering of high school students every month. Whatever your role as a pastor among your church is, you understand the importance sharing a word from God in the scriptures when the time comes. As the apostle Paul says, “Preach the word…” (2 Tim 4:2).

preachingWhen it comes to preaching, most of us understand the importance of preparation. We’ve read a few books on the subject of homiletics, we’ve learned the skills of exegeting a biblical text and reflecting theologically on that text. More importantly, we know that tending to our own faith is important if we are to preach from a life of authenticity. That is, we know that we must be disciplined in living as a follower of Jesus ourselves if we are going to preach messages that ultimately are asking people to place their trust in Jesus and follow him.

That’s all good and I don’t want to diminish the importance of sermon prep and tending to our own faith at all. However, I do want to talk about another aspect of good sermon prep that doesn’t seem to get as much attention. I’m talking about the being with other people, which is both very pastoral and, as I will try to explain, necessary for good preaching.

In his book Faithful Presence, David E. Fitch writes about the way God is present in the world and the church is the people whom God works through to make his presence known. That’s because the presence of God isn’t aways obvious and so “he requires a people tending to his presence to make his presence visible for all to see” (p. 27). Later in the book is a chapter devoted to the discipline of preaching and a part of that chapter is about the preacher.

The preacher must not stand over the community but must stand as one among the community being present to the people in the community’s midst, for it is in this space that Jesus is found. From this posture comes the practice of proclamation. This is not a rhetorical performance. This is proclamation of the gospel for the people gathered in Christ’s name in this space and in this time (p. 100).

In times where we hear too many stories of pastors who stand over the people as authoritarians because they have a large platform, that is worth reading again and again but I digress.

Besides taking time to engage in some exegesis of the text, an important and critical aspect of sermon prep is spending time with people. Whether that’s visiting someone in the hospital, spending some time in a local coffee house with a college student, or just enjoying some food and fellowship with a small group, this time spent with others is invaluable to preaching. Not only will it (and should it) help shape the focus and function  of our message (cf. Long, The Witness of Preaching, 3d ed., 2016) but it will also help us discern what biblical texts we might preach, whether we’re selecting from one of the lectionary readings or planning a themed sermon series.

When we spend time with others, listening to them we are able to discern where God might be working. This opens space for the intersection of the gospel with the lives we are living so that we all might reimagine how God is working in our lives both individually and as a church. This is why Fitch rightfully says that “Proclaiming the gospel is always contextual” (p. 103).

Now as a pastor, I understand that it’s impossible to spend equal time with everyone but spending time with people is more about the quality of that time than quantity. Are we attentively listening and observant as to how God might be working when we are with people? Another important question is to ask if we are even spending time with people? I don’t know that it’s a given practice of serving as a pastor anymore, which is a shame. But if you want to preach good sermons that help lead others in the way of Jesus, spend time with those people. Yes, still take the time to care for your own faith and carve time out in your schedule for engaging the biblical text exegetically and theologically but also take the time to be with the people whom God has entrusted to your pastoral care as you preach. When we do, we are able to be the witness in preaching the word.

For Those Who Wish To See The Christian Faith Prosper

Should churches ditch their projector screens and go back to singing from hymnals? Yes, according to Tom Raabe, who wrote an article that was published on The Federalist website titled Why Churches Should Ditch Projector Screens and Bring Back Hymnals. When I first read this article during the past summer, I just shook my head a little and then didn’t give the article any more attention. However, since then I keep seeing this article show up in my social media news feeds as though people agree with the author. So indulge me for a few moments because I would like to offer a response.

439859_5_As you can probably tell already, I disagree with the conclusion that Mr. Raabe draws in his article. The author observes the disappearance of hymnals over the years as more contemporary expressions of church have emerged. He laments this loss on the opinion that projected screens are “horrifically ugly” and especially so in traditional worship sanctuaries. That is his opinion, which he is certainly entitled to hold, but such anecdotes seem to be little more than just filler information.

The crux of his argument is that the loss of hymnals will result in a weakened theology and so a weakened Christian faith. According to Mr. Raabe, “Old hymns were carefully crafted with theology at the forefront. Traditional hymns present doctrine clearly and beautifully convey the gospel story of saving grace.” Perhaps so, but that’s an argument for singing older hymns and not retaining hymnals. The problem is the claim of the article which is offered with this conclusion, a conclusion that lacks any supporting evidence for the claim that is offered:

Those who wish to see the Christian faith prosper, however, should consider the long-term effects that replacing hymnals with screens will have on worship and faith itself. What technology giveth, technology taketh away. The musical and theological repertoire of the church will be constricted. Even marginally unfamiliar hymns will slide out of the public consciousness, forgotten forever—and worship will be impoverished for it.

If we wish to see the Christian faith prosper? Really? For every church that is struggling to navigate the rather uncharted secular waters of a post-Christian America, vitality is simply a matter of turning off the video monitors and digging out some hymnals from a storage room?

If this were the case, then how do we account for the vitality of churches throughout history that existed long before the invention of the Guttenburg Printing Press? Those are churches that didn’t possess any hymnals. Or how do we account for those vibrant churches in third-world countries who don’t always have the luxuries of either hymnals or video-projection systems? Let’s be honest and recognize that Mr. Raabe’s concern is not a problem with western Christianity, it’s a problem with traditional Christianity in America. This is an American issue and a concern of some who sense a great loss as they see their church, and other churches too, declining or even closing and don’t have any idea of how to stop the decline.

I actually sympathize with this concern because as a pastor, I have served in such churches and know of many more churches that are facing this very real concern. However, trying to turn the calendar back into the mid-twentieth century when most churches still sang from hymnals will do nothing to address the concern. There are many reasons why churches are declining and addressing the issues will require more than just a technical change, something that can be done without any new ways of thinking and acting.

Arguing for the resurgence of hymnals assumes a building-centric model of church. It’s possible that this sort of church model will not even exist in America by the later half of the twenty-first century. Of course, nobody knows for sure but what we do know is that the problems that keep churches from fully living as participants in the mission of God are deeply embedded issues in the way that churches think and behave. The article I am critiquing is but one example but when the issues are beyond technical problems, an adaptive approach is required. That is, church leaders must discern the difficult questions about the modes of thinking and doing within their church that is contributing to the loss of mission. Once these problems are identified, the solutions will require new practices based on new ways of thinking. Hence, adaptive change.

Adaptive change always begins with a renewed commitment to living as followers of Jesus who are learning to contextually embody the gospel once again. While such embodiment of the gospel should remain faithful to Jesus and thus a coherent expression of the gospel, the expression will differ because it is a contextual expression. Those who wish to see the Christian faith prosper will remain resolute in following Jesus and inviting others to join them in this kingdom life. And when a church that is serious about following Jesus gathers for worship, that gathering will be one saturated in a deep and healthy theology of the Christian faith — God the Father, Son, and Spirit at work.

The Bible and Following Jesus (Pt. 2)

My conviction is that the church has received scripture as the word of God to us so that we may learn how to live as followers of Jesus who embody the gospel as participants in the mission of God. That is what I shared in The Bible and Following Jesus (Pt. 1) which requires, for many Christians and the churches they serve among, a new way of reading scripture. Such a reading involves a new hermeneutic that is Christ-Centered (Christology) and Kingdom-Oriented (eschatology). It matters because we, or at least I, want to see Christians and the churches they serve among faithfully embodying the gospel in a manner that is contextual appropriate for the circumstances they face.

i283445314525658362-_szw480h1280_So as people striving to follow Jesus, we must read the Bible as instruction for learning how to live as followers of Jesus. This matters all the more because in our ever-changing society we are facing new questions for which there are not always easy answers. I’m talking about questions surrounding realities like racism and reconciliation, peace-making in a violent society, gender dysphoria and sexual orientation, and escalating social displacement, to name a few. In order to discern what it means to embody the gospel as we face these questions, we must first read the Bible with the right hermeneutical question in mind.

Here’s what I mean. In recent months I have read a couple of articles asking the question of what does the Bible say about transgenderism and transgender-people. Now in one sense I want to say that this is a misleading question because the Bible says absolutely nothing about transgenderism and transgender-people. We know this because those words are never even mentioned in the Bible, so how could the Bible ever speak about something not even mentioned in the pages of scripture? Well, that’s easy. Indirectly, the Bible surely may speak to the questions we have on this subject just as it does so indirectly on a host of other subjects (e.g., firearms, vaccinations, climate change, etc…). So perhaps if we ask what does the Bible say about transgenderism and transgender-people, we might get an answer.

Not. So. Fast.

If we open the Bible asking this question first, we begin reading the Bible with a utilitarian goal in mind. My hunch is that most people, more traditional or progressive, who begin here in their reading of the Bible will simply discover that the Bible says exactly what they came expecting the Bible to say. That’s because such utilitarian objectives usually begin with a conclusion in mind.

As I have suggested, if we believe we are called to follow Jesus then we must read the Bible as instruction in learning how to live as followers of Jesus. This is why Paul says, “Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good” (2 Tim 3:16-17). Scripture is neither given to us to condemn or vindicate others. That is God’s job, not our. We have received scripture to teach us, correct our mistakes and develop our character so that we are able to do good works, that is embody the gospel.

So instead of beginning with a question that asks what the Bible says about _______, I believe we should open the Bible to ask how this word from God is instructing us to live as followers of Jesus. Then we are equipped for discerning together as a church what the scripture says and what it means to follow Jesus and embody the gospel to transgender-people, or people who are living in social displacement, or people who have endured racism throughout their lives.

     “The church has received scripture as the word of God to us so that we may learn how to live as followers of Jesus who embody the gospel as participants in the mission of God.”