Monday, December 31, 2007

Homecoming--Sort Of. . . .

I had an unusual experience last Sunday, and here's the background: As I said before, my family has left the church we'd attended for lo, these many years, and where I was a deacon, elder, teacher and associate pastor. Friends had asked us to start a house church. That's been a bit of a fizzle, so we decided to visit some churches in our town.

Last Sunday, we went to my boyhood church. I was a bit anxious; I'm not looking for a "church home." Though it had been over 20 years since I was last a member there, I have great respect for the pastor (who has served there about 25 or 30 years). And showing up for a hit-and-run visit--well, that can hurt a pastor. I know; I've been on the other side of that one.

What I saw was a church of mostly elderly people--a congregation of 24, not including their five visitors that morning. They were sweet, kind people who were clearly glad to see us; but I thought of the days when an attendance of fifty or less meant it was the evening service. The pews had been re-arranged; about a third of them had been removed. I saw a few people I recognized and more whom I did not. I wondered where the folks I'd known had gone.

This church had never been packed; at its best it had run just under 80, but the members I'd known had been faithful. They'd come to this church for years and over half were 3-time-a-weekers, meaning that they came Sunday a.m., p.m., and midweek. But those folks are mostly gone; and their kids aren't here either, except for one whom I saw, one of four sisters. None of her sisters are out of the area; and none of them were there. Nor were her parents, who still live in this town.

After church, this woman talked with me--just chit-chat--while my wife talked with the pastor's wife. I really wanted to ask: "What's happened to this church? Where did all the people go?" I missed the way the place had been when I was a boy. I missed the faces. I missed the fire.

As I said, I have great respect for the pastor. His wife is also a thoughtful, caring woman. The people who are there now seem to be sincere, caring. . . but their church is declining. I felt a pang of regret over a body that gave me a foundation and my first training in Christ.

When I talked of this to my wife, she reminded me of something I'd read this last year, that a pastor's most influential and effective years in a church were usually between his fifth and tenth years; ministry effectiveness wanes noticeably after fifteen years. The average pastor, at that point, has become stale not so much in his relationship with God as in his style of ministry. And pastors become concerned more with maintaining than with leading.

How many churches in the nation are in decline because their leaders can't, or won't, see the need for a fresh approach to ministry--for fresh goals, fresh stories and fresh ways of talking? This isn't a question I can ask without turning it on myself. I hope to be one of those leaders some day. Will I recognize a stale style in myself?

Pastors are taught that a fresh relationship with God will solve all the problems; a pastor with a fresh walk with God will be refreshed and refined in vision by the Spirit. But is there a role for the local assembly to play in this? Does a pastor have an obligation to let himself be evaluated by the body he serves, or at least by trustworthy and known leaders in the body? If a pastor relies on the Spirit of God, but not on the body God provides, for refinement and refreshing, is he really leaning on the Spirit of God? If we close ourselves off from God's people, how open are we really to God?

We tell the folks in the pews that they need each other. Jesus left a community of faith. Yet many pastors ignore the same need in themselves. Is this right? Does the command to "submit to one another" extend in some way to leaders, or only to the led?

Saturday, December 29, 2007

You Gotta Read This Book!

The best books, like the best movies, are the ones that get you thinking for yourself. They tell you something about yourself, and the insights become keys that unlock doors to places you've never gone before. They take you beyond where you are.

Here's a book I've just finished reading, one that I highly recommend to one and all: Understanding Who You Are: What Your Relationships Tell You About Yourself. It's a short book by Dr. Larry Crabb, and you can find it at Christian Book Distributors here. A friend gave me his copy, and it was more than I bargained for. In less than 80 pages, Dr. Crabb gives his basic framework for understanding who we are. It's a framework that's in line with Scripture and with real life. Read it, and you'll come to some unsettling truths about yourself.

What is it that really drives us? At heart, what are we really wanting from God? "Depravity" is a word theologians use to describe the effect of Adam's sin on us, and it means a fallenness that has touched every nook and corner of our souls. Dr. Crabb defines "depravity" as selfishness that rules our relationships with people and with God. We want God to make our lives comfortable, not Christlike. In America we can see it clearly when we look at Christian culture. I can see it clearly when I look at myself, too.

Much of what we teach as Scripture, Dr. Crabb contends, bears little resemblance to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We take the Bible and work it into this framework of selfishness. We want to control what happens to us in life and we use the Bible as a tool to give us security. One example: "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old. . . ." You know the rest of it. God's promise guarantees the outcome, and your kids will be safe because you've done the right thing. (Has anyone besides me noticed this irony: Solomon, the man who wrote that, was trained as a child in the way he should go and, when he was old, he departed from it?)

Here's Dr. Crabb's take: "The principles [God] reveals are given to guide us in our commitment to reflect His character, not to comfortably organize our lives. We are intended to trust the goodness of God, not the reliability of principles" (italics his). And the aim of God is to bring forth Jesus Christ in me. His goodness is about making me like Jesus, and what does not make me like Jesus is not good.

This got me thinking, at some length, about "the goodness of God" and what that really means. I'll blog about that in my next post, sometime in the coming week. But here's a question: What do you make of this? Is Dr. Crabb right to think that depravity is, or at least shows itself most clearly through, selfishness? How much has that selfishness invaded your life? And what do you do to try to avoid the issue?

Once again, I strongly recommend you read this book. It just might change the way you see who you are, and what you were made for. If you are serious about discipling others, you may want to pass this book on to them as well.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

In The Bleak Midwinter

Very, very soon, Christmas will be here. Tonight, as I left work, I wished most folks I saw a merry Christmas because many will be taking a four-day weekend this year, and I'll not see them until Dec. 26. We'll be celebrating like everyone else. Family all together, kids opening gifts, and outside the Midwestern midwinter gloom hemming us in. But we'll have a fire going, lights twinkling, and the gloom won't get into the house. Or into our hearts.

Long ago I read one of those "what the first Christmas was really like" articles. The writer pointed out that no one knows for sure the month of Jesus' birth, and that many scholars were (as I think he put it) sure that it was any month but December. For a long time, I was convinced it was August (my own birth month). In fact, I felt quite superior to all those folks who believed December 25 was the birthday of Jesus. I even thought about celebrating Christmas another day, in another season, just to show that I was more "informed" and "authentic" than they (translate: "snobbish").

I feel differently now. Maybe the date of Christmas was first chosen to Christianize a pagan holiday; maybe Jesus was born some other time of the year; and, yes, the most important thing is not when He was born but that He has indeed been born. But I'm glad we celebrate Christmas when we do, "in the bleak midwinter," as one song puts it, when "earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone." Now, at the darkest time of the year, and the most bitter so far as nature is concerned, we celebrate the invasion of the world by Light.

It's all too easy, in midwinter, to fall into the gloom that falls upon the earth. Outside my window, I see grey everywhere, not just in the skies but on the streets of my town and in the windows of the houses I drive past. It is cold, upper Midwestern cold--not southern cold that bites at you but the kind that can devour you if you let it. The world is a place to retreat from--not the earth only, but the whole of life. The bleakness of the earth sometimes serves only to turn our thoughts to what has been bleak and bitter in our own lives.

Yet God has overturned all that. Through the coming of His Son into the world He has drawn us to the Light that commands our worship. God the Son has come; and God the Son overturns darkness and bleakness and bitterness. Darkness has not overcome the Light. Not the death of the earth in winter nor the death inherent in all created things can stop the Life that is in the Son and in the Spirit of God Who dwells in all who believe in Jesus Christ.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Behind The Curtain

We've started something new. Since my last post, so very long ago, we left the church we'd attended for 14 or so years and have begun a home fellowship. Whether this informal gathering ever turns into more than a few folks singing, talking and praying is more than I can say; but I hope and intend that it will become a new body doing church in a new and yet old way. Our reasons for leaving are varied, but we knew beyond a doubt that it was time for us to leave. The nest was uncomfortable, and it's time for us to learn to fly.

Last week, reading the story of Job in the Message Bible, three things struck me as if for the first time. I know I'd known them before, but I guess you can say they were handed to me in a fresh way, getting my attention again. Each of them applies to us as Christians now.

  1. God let Job be put through the wringer for one reason, and only one reason: God wanted to show off Job's single-hearted love for God rather than for the things God gave Job. Job was a very blessed man, but God bragged on one thing: that Job loved God more than the gifts God gave. Here's a challenge to everyone who says s/he is a Christian: Do I love God for His sake alone, or for the sake of what He gives me?
  2. Job, with his life ripped apart--children dead, flocks (and wealth) stolen, his own body rotten with disease--still knew that, in the sight of God, he was a righteous man. His friends argued the point, and almost led him into unrighteousness; but Job was convinced of his righteousness before God. He was bold in proclaiming his righteousness. If this man in the Old Testament could (rightly, in the judgment of God) say that he was righteous, then why do Christians hesitate to call ourselves righteous now? Why do we call ourselves "sinners saved by grace" and not "saints"? When did Paul, or Peter, or John, write to "the sinners in Rome" (or wherever)? It's true that we are saved by grace, but this grace makes us no longer sinners but men and women who have been given the nature of God.
  3. In the end, after facing Job down and humbling (almost humiliating) him, God still called Job His servant. He showed that He was on Job's side. Job, face-to-face with God, put his face in the dust and said: "I had heard of You, but now I see for myself." Job had all but accused God of unfairness, had spoken out of turn--but God still called Job His servant and held him up as an example of righteousness before Job's friends. Though Job had been a fool, God was still on his side. And God is on our side as well, not because we have done all things wisely and perfectly but because we are His possession.
Job never got to look behind the beginning of the story; he never saw the first act. But he looked behind the curtain in the end, seeing God in power. That glimpse of God as God, the fearsome whirlwind, the One Who poses riddles we can't even begin to answer, made Job a true believer. That's the way it is: when we see God for what He is, not for what people tell us He is, He puts us on our faces in the dirt before Him. The God behind the curtain is "not a tame lion." That was all Job really learned from seeing God; but it's enough.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Servants' Quarters

For those who've read and been intrigued by the insights of our dear friend Julie S., I have great news: You can get to know about her, Brian (her witty and Mac-addicted husband), their family, and their creative vision at their new Olivia Rose blog. I encourage you to visit the blog, e-mail the link to everyone on your contacts list, and just generally make some noise about them. Brian and Julie Swegle are truly two of the most gifted, loving and downright original people you'll ever get the chance to meet. Check out the photos they took from their extended China visit a couple years ago. The pictures will whet your appetite for their promised book. And note the "made on a Mac" logo at the bottom of the page.

And back in February I mentioned the theologian Simon Chan, author of Liturgical Theology (one of my Valentine's presents, and an intriguing and challenging read). ChristianityToday Online posted an interview here, and I thought others might find it worth reading. Chan is Ernest Lau Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Theological Seminary in Singapore, and CT says he "may be the world's most liturgically minded Pentecostal." Now there is an interesting combination.

This is a busy week in my family, and a challenging one as well. Along with all the normal business of life--work, family, home fellowship--we are volunteering time to care for a widow whose son is out of town. To be honest, I have learned a few important things about myself through this. I was more or less put in charge of this project against my will, and I thought that our small church wouldn't be able to pull it off. I worried, plain and simple. I nursed a bad attitude. You know how it goes; you're the one in charge, reluctantly, and you know that if someone doesn't show up you are going to have to pull the load longer and farther than you had counted on. So you grumble.

Along the way, I cracked open my second Valentine's present, Side by Side, A Handbook: Disciple-making for a New Century. In the book was an extended quote by Roy Hession from his classic, The Calvary Road. I've only read excerpts from Hession's book. Here's one I'm sharing with you:

In Luke 17, Jesus compares the person who would be his disciple to a bond-servant. The five marks of a bond-servant are as follows.
First of all, he must be willing to have one thing on top of another put upon him, without any consideration being given him. On top of a hard day in the field, the servant in the parable had immediately to prepare his master's meal, and on top of that he had to wait on him at table--and that before he had any food himself. . . .
Secondly, in doing this he must be willing not to be thanked for it. How often we serve others, but what self-pity we have in our hearts and how bitterly we complain that they take it as a matter of course and do not thank us for it. . . .
Thirdly, having done all this, he must not charge the other with selfishness. . . . He exists to serve his master, and the selfishness or otherwise of his master does not enter into it with him. . . .
Fourth, having done all that, there is no ground for pride or self-congratulation, but we must confess that we are unworthy servants--we are of no real use to God or man in ourselves. . . . [I]f we have acted as willing servants, it is no thanks to us, whose hearts are naturally proud and stubborn, but only to the Lord Jesus, who dwells in us and who has made us willing.
The fifth and last step is the admission that doing and bearing what we have in the way of meekness and humility, we have not done one stitch more than it was our duty to do. God made man in the first place simply that he might be God's bond-servant. Man's sin has simply consisted in his refusal to be God's bond-servant. His restoration can only be, then, a restoration to the position of a bond-servant. A man has not done anything specially meritorious when he has consented to take that position, for he was created and redeemed for that very thing" (quoted from Side by Side: A Handbook, copyright 2000, Cook Communications and NavPress Publishing Group; Steve and Lois Rabey, General Editors).

The truth of this hit me hard, so that I felt like crying. I had made a big issue of what was really a very simple job: comforting a widow in her affliction. I had made the issue about me. First, I had judged the ones who (to my way of thinking) had ducked the task and lengthened my time pulling the load. Then I had made it an issue of proving myself: "All right, then; I'll show them who really cares about Mrs. M! No, sir, I won't let God down!" In all of this, serving God was not the crux of the issue, nor was serving Mrs. M. She had become a proving-grounds of, firstly, my authority and, secondly, my righteousness.

There is a difference between proving yourself faithful and serving. I see this as I hadn't before. If the goal of a servant is to prove how well he can serve, he is turning the focus from his master to himself. He isn't a true bond-servant if he has something to prove. To others it isn't obvious; but in the servant's heart it is, though he hides it well. I know it was to me.

I could try to relate this to major evangelical scandals, of course; but then that would be too easy. I think God would rather have me stand in the harsh burning light myself than have me push someone else into its glare while I hunker down in the shadows. How many sermons, then, have really been not about God but about me? How much of what I did as if for God was really done in the hope of His rewarding glance of recognition?

In the Old Testament, there were sacrifices known simply as "burnt offerings--an aroma pleasing to the Lord." The sacrifice was wholly burnt, the giver (and the priest) eating none of it. It was burnt only to honor God, not to gain His favor, not to win something from Him or to pay Him something. Its message was simply: "You are God. You deserve this. Others might think it a waste, but You are worthy of this." It was the same sort of giving done by the woman who poured out spikenard on Jesus' feet. It was pure, unmixed devotion and service. It was the devotion of the bond-servant.

It's a lesson I hope to learn yet.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Mine, Yours, His

So here's a thought I'm thinking, as I'm reading a newsletter. The sincere and respected pastor tells me that, in order to follow Jesus' model for ministry, I must practice delegation, i.e., "involve other people in your ministry." And while I agree with the idea, it's at this point that something clicks. Three little words:




Is something wrong here?

When I think of delegation, I think of giving qualified people a piece of my action. Those people are in place to work out my plan of action. Their positions exist for my sake. I give some of my own authority to them so that they can do what I want but can't (because I haven't the time or the expertise, perhaps).

And then there's the word "your." Delegation is, at heart, about what's mine. You can have some of it, but remember: It's mine. God gave it to me. My car (I can drive it wherever I want); my house (I can let you in or keep you out as I please); my. . . .


Is something wrong here? Because suddenly the concepts of "mine," and of "delegation" as we use it, don't apply. They just don't seem to go with the idea of creating a body in which Christ is the Head and people take up functions based on giftings. And possession doesn't go with the idea of serving; and that, of course, is what "ministry" means.

I don't mean to say or even imply that there is no such thing as authority in the local fellowship of believers. The Bible's clear about it. At times, Paul stood forcefully on his apostolic authority when he corrected believers. But there are two points to be clear about. First, he never called any ministry his in the sense of owning it. What he had was a trust, not a possession. Second, ministry didn't matter to him anyway; people did. They were his crown, his joy, and his gift to God.

Right, so this is straining at gnats. We know that pastors don't really believe ministry matters more than people. Nor that they really possess "their" ministries. Nor that delegating means letting folks in on "my" action. So why bother pointing these things out?


Form follows function, and words describe concepts. If we use the wrong words, this might show that we have the wrong concepts. Is it possible for us to use more "body" terms and fewer "ownership" terms? Would doing so return the Church to the form Jesus Christ left behind Him, the form the Holy Spirit gave life to?

If this sound angry, I want to make it plain that most pastors I know care very deeply about their people. They try hard to shepherd their flocks in the knowledge that God will hold them to account for their work as overseers. But there are many, many well-meaning pastors who simply lose perspective--in part, I think, because they are taught to think of ministry as "theirs." And those they "delegate" are seen less as God's appointees than as the pastor's appointees. There is a difference between helping gifted people grow into their gifts and picking folks to implement my vision. It's easier for us to confuse the two than we would like to think.

Powered by ScribeFire.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Trusted With A Gift

I'm surprised by the reaction to the May 5 post and a bit disappointed at the reaction to the May 15 post. One-man shows apparently touch a nerve; but many of the comments there could just as well have been left in response to the last post. What should be the shape of the church, both the local body and the church around the world, for it to effectively be God's instrument for the release of His power in the world today?

My friend Mrs. S, who has seen church in a variety of situations (semi-communal, Third World, and megachurch), has lots of experience to draw on. My friend Mr. B and I have a shared church history up to about 12 years ago. We've all seen leadership done wrong. Sometimes we've felt that leadership is a necessary evil. I think Julie's reluctance to use the word "office" likely stems from that, at least in part (correct me if I'm wrong). We see pretenders (TBN's full of 'em) and we see people claim incontestable authority and we rightly want nothing to do with that. And since so many of those folks have assumed for themselves these NT titles, we're reluctant to use the titles, though we acknowledge the gifts.

A question, though: Don't gifts show function? If you have a spiritual gift, doesn't that indicate your function in the Body? If you were a body part with the gift of sight, then don't you have the function of seeing? And if you have the function of seeing, should I refrain from calling you an eye? Does it hurt or help me to refrain from admitting that you are, indeed, an eye?

I think Julie's getting at the point when she writes: "Servants don't seek leadership roles, nor do prophets, spiritual teachers, or evangelists. . . ." We have a biblical right to "sincerely desire the greater gifts" but also a reprimand to serve one another, for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve. We have seen many who have insincerely desired the greater gifts and have not served. We ourselves (and many of our friends) have been taken in by some of them; we've been wounded. But what if we could learn to sincerely, humbly desire those greater gifts? If God withholds them, then He is always right; but could we perhaps become the kind of people who could be trusted with these gifts?

What if, tonight, Jesus appeared to you and said: "I will give you the gift of prophecy," or of teaching, or the calling of an apostle--could you handle it? If we can't, then shouldn't we get on our faces and ask God to make us into people who could respond to that call, who could take up that gift and be faithful with it?

I want to see a real Book of Acts outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and I have been seeking a specific gift. Even looking at that last sentence, I think: These folks are gonna think I'm arrogant! But I want to be the kind of person who can be trusted with the gift. I see the need in my assembly. I want to step up and fill the need. But being the kind of person who can fill that need, who handles that gift trustworthily. . . that's the kicker. That puts me on the hook.

I don't think I'm the only one God wants on the hook. If we say we want an outpouring of the Spirit but can't be trusted with His gifts, then we are fooling ourselves and had best come clean about it. We either change or accept that what we have now is all we're gonna get, because by not changing we're saying that what we have now is all we really want.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Shape of the Worshipping Church

Anyone following the CT postings of the debate between Christopher Hitchens and Doug Wilson?
Hitchens is author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Wilson is senior fellow of theology at New Saint Andrews College and author of Letter From a Christian Citizen, and is as sharp and amusing as Hitchens. And apparently much more persistent, at least in this debate. The link is to part 3, and the first 2 parts are well worth checking out. The topic: "Is Christianity Good for the World?"

My last post was about allowing the members of a church body to freely exercise their gifts. I mean all the gifts of the Spirit, of course, both structural and charismatic. The interesting thing about this is that this was the pattern of the New Testament church, as the charming and lovely Mrs. Swegle pointed out. You can find it desribed in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40, where Paul tells the Corinthian church to have their psalm, their message in tongues (interpreted), their prophecy, their revelation, their teaching--and to do it decently and in order, with everything done for the good of the assembly rather than for the reputation and standing of the speaker(s). Two, or at the most three, messages in tongues; and two, or at the most three, prophecies. This is a rather vague outline of worship but parts of it are pretty clear:

  1. Gifted people were expected to exercise their gifts in the meeting.
  2. More than one gift was expected to be exercised.
  3. More than one person was permitted to exercise his/her gift (but no more than 3!).
  4. Prophets were expected to subject their utterances to the judgment of other prophets.
  5. There was a known, though not specified, order in which these things were done.
To be honest, as I told a chaplain friend yesterday, I don't know of any denominational churches in which things are done this way. I don't mean there aren't any Pentecostal or charismatic denominational bodies doing it like this, only that I don't know of any. Does anyone else?

So here's a question, based on the idea that "form follows function." If this is the function of the worship service, what should the form of the body be to adhere to this function? How should a congregation structure itself so as to allow this kind of worship? What form would best create this true New Testament worship? Would mega-churches? House churches? Small churches? Mid-sized? Elder-led? Denominational? Independent? Co-pastored?

This is "ecclesiology," and it's more important than we think--and not for the reasons we think. Ecclesiology isn't so much about authority as about creating a structure that releases the work of the Spirit. We focus on "decently and in order" while neglecting "let all things be done." Because we think authority and order are the function of the church, we give the local body a form that keeps it from its full function--the exercise of all the gifts of the Spirit. So, give me your thoughts. What kind of form should the local church take to fulfill its function?

Saturday, May 5, 2007

On With the (One-Man) Show

Okay, so I been bad. No posts for 2 WHOLE MONTHS! My apologies, my very sincere apologies, to all 3 of you who've read the past posts.

I was going to blog about something a while back, but now something completely different came up. This last Wednesday night at our home fellowship, I was teaching about gifts of the Spirit. I read from the 12s--Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12--to show the NT lists of the gifts. 1 Cor., of course, has the "charismatic" gifts while Rom. has the "structural" gifts (my terms). We separate the two lists but Paul puts them all together as one group, the "gifts of the Spirit." And notice that when he writes about the church as the body of Christ, it's in the context of the gifts of the Spirit. He is saying, not that we need each other, but that we need all the gifts operating in the assembly.

Evangelicals, during the Reformation, exalted one gift above all others: the gift of teaching. Pastoral ministry became teaching; the sermon became the main focus of the worship service. When the Pentecostal renewal began, teaching was again just one of many gifts. Now we are once again copying the Evangelicals here. We leave no room for the other gifts to really operate. We stifle prophecy (mostly because we have more pretenders than prophets). We let the pastor do everything, and usually that means teaching. Gifts of mercy and administration are locked away rather than brought to the front. Evangelists are professionals who move from church to church rather than working within one assembly. Other gifts (discerning of spirits, for example) operate only in one-on-one situations rather than for the whole body. But teaching and teachers have become the focus of the church.

The problem is that 60% of leadership is then non-existent. No apostles, prophets, or evangelists; only pastors and teachers. And the vast majority of the gifts of the Spirit go unused and (even worse) unsought. The Average Churchgoer hears a one-person show on Sundays, maybe ties into a small group in the week, and wonders what he/she is there for. To be a clone of the pastor? To provide an audience? Is this the sum of Christianity today? Is it any wonder, when our corporate worship is so uncorporate, that we narrow our day-to-day focus to personal spirituality?

How can we change this? How can we make our leaders know that we hunger for more than their Sunday messages? How can we put teaching in its right place, making room for the rest of the gifts of the Spirit? And how can we put into practice the "charismatic" gifts without falling prey to disorder, false moves of the flesh, and "miracle-ism"? What do you think about this? What answers would you give from Scripture?

Sunday, February 25, 2007

A Church Worth Joining

A friend called to say he'd been reading my blog regularly. That was cool. Of course, since I've been posting irregularly that means he's been doing a hit-and-miss checkup. Still, he's READING it! Now all I have to do is think of things worth saying.

About a year ago I set my browser homepage for ChristianityToday. If you're interested in a good blog, one that will get you thinking about current issues in the church, then check out their Leadership Journal blog "Out of Ur." If I've done my job correctly, you should be able to link to it from here. It's a good one to subscribe to.

One thing I've seen is that we all seem to have different definitions of what the church is. We start with the Bible's definitions or metaphors, such as: "The church is the Body (or Bride) of Christ," or: "The church is the people who worship God," or: "The church is the saints of God who believe in Jesus." But when we get to specifics, we go all over the map. We use Bible definitions in human ways, in the ways we've been taught by our elders (sometimes spiritual elders, sometimes family elders). God's terms become our own code language.

This matters because how we define the church is how we define what we are supposed to be and who joins us in being that. If church is rules, then we are supposed to follow rules and hang with people who follow the same rules. If church is doctrine, then we are supposed to believe certain doctrines and hang with people who also believe those doctrines. If church is conservative or liberal politics, or culture or ethnic background, then we are supposed to be conservative or liberal or intellectual or artsy or whatever, and must hang with people who are also whatever. And the un-asked question is: "Is this really the church?"

The New Testament church came to a point where it had to decide whether it would accept its own preconceptions about what it was, or God's definition of what it was. God's definition was surprisingly broader than theirs. As it turned out, God's definition didn't include such things as kosher foods or circumcision. God's definition was much more simple. It was the people who believed on Jesus as His Son and believed that He had raised this dead Son to life. Nothing more was needed to define the church. Not activities, not race, not culture or heritage or politics. Just "Confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord, and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead."

What would happen if we began to redefine ourselves Biblically? Would we stop giving the attention we do to denominational affiliations? Would form of worship matter more or less to us? Would it matter to us when others think the Rapture would take place? Would we care that they are Calvinists while we are Arminians, or vice versa? Would we mind if they read the New Living Translation rather than the King James Version?

The thing is, we think that when we make these things part of the definition of the church we really are defining ourselves Biblically. We think we are purifying by splitting hairs. And in hair-splitting, we are Christ-splitting. But if we return to the New Testament definition of the church, then we exalt and lift up Jesus Christ. We show the unity that shows the world He really is the Son of God. If we confess Him as Lord, then we also will inevitably grow in holiness, because you can't call Jesus Lord and at the same time excuse what your Lord calls sin. If we believe that God has raised Jesus up from the dead, then we can believe that this same God has now, in this world, sowed the seed of immortality and new spiritual life in us--and death can't stop that life anymore than it could keep its hold on Jesus.

I have to accept that anyone who confesses Jesus as Lord, and who believes God has raised Jesus from the dead, is a part of the church. I have to treat that person as a brother or sister, and to seek to stay in the unity that the Holy Spirit brings. Unity comes from a common sharing in the life of Jesus and a common indwelling of the Spirit. That person is as much a partaker of the covenant of God as I am. That person has what I have. I can serve, encourage, teach and learn; but I cannot define that person out of the Body of Christ. This isn't an excuse for tolerating sin; there is a clearly-stated time for Biblical discipline. All too often, though, I see Christians treat one another as if "sin" means "not doing it my way."

It was said of the early Christians, "Behold how they love one another." What if people could say the same about us--that we all love one another no matter what church we went to or what translation we read? What if we try to live up to God's definition of who we are and not our own? Wouldn't that make us a church worth joining?

Monday, February 19, 2007

Why We Love

It's five days past Valentine's Day now, and I'm just starting to dig into my Valentine's gift from my beloved. We do things differently here; for a celebration of our love, my wife gave me two books. One is on discipleship; it's called Side by Side, and I'm looking forward to reading it. But the other, by Simon Chan, has engaged my attention. Its title is Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community. What better way to say "I love you" than a book on liturgy and the evangelical church? (Yes, in our house, this is normal.)

I've gotten out of practice with reading academic books, but I plan to give this one a lot of attention. Chan teaches systematic theology at Trinity Theological Seminary in Singapore. He starts this book off with the very question I've been thinking over: Why does the church exist? This isn't the same as asking what the individual Christian life should be; in America I think we confuse "Why am I here?" with "Why are we here?" and never notice the difference. But the answers to the one do not fully apply to the other. My own life, of course, is meant to show the person of Jesus Christ. But what about the community that makes up the church? Why is the church here?

Right at the beginning, Chan puts forth two possible answers: (1) The church exists for the transformation of creation (or culture), or (2) the church exists in order to be in a covenantal relationship with God. How we answer that question, Chan thinks, goes a long way toward what we do as a church.

In my experience, there's growing awareness that #2 ought to be the right answer, the one we give by rote. Yes, Jesus changes the world; but He came to bring men and women to God. In day-to-day living, though, almost every major Christian leader is really pushing answer #1 above #2. This goes across the board, from the Christian right (Chuck Colson, D. James Kennedy, et al.) to the Christian left (that would be Jim Wallis and Brian MacLaren, among others). I may be doing these people an injustice, but when I get their mailings they are all calling on me to follow them as they seek to transform culture. I'm not quibbling about their politics or good works; much of what they want is commendable from a Kingdom perspective. I wonder if we should use the kingdom of men to attain heavenly goals, but that's beside the point. The point is whether our goals are as heavenly as we think they are. Doing acts of love as an expression of the covenantal relationship we have with God will lead us in quite a different direction from doing acts of love in order to transform culture. They might look the same at first, but one will lead to an outpouring of love while the other will lead to--well, a repeat of much of Christian history. Didn't the state churches try to transform culture? And end up secularizing Europe? Is American evangelicalism going to go down that road, too?

I am waiting for the leader who stands up and says, "We do what we do because God is present among us. We're imperfect at it, but all that we do is because God has brought us into a relationship with Him. We want to live in a way that shows His presence to the world, because we've been transfixed by the glory of His presence and we've been drawn into Him." If we show that our God is beautiful, if we live out the beautiful life that is ours because the Spirit of God lives in us, then I guarantee you that culture will be transformed. People filled with the Holy Spirit will want to bring others to the God Who has taken them to Himself and Who invites all the world to come to Him. Bring the presence of God to people, and you change the culture as a by-product. Try to change culture, and you end up exchanging the living presence of God for legalism--the letter of the law brings death, but the Spirit brings life.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Law of Averages

It's been a busy week and now I'm back to the blog. And along the way, this past week, I came across a review in of a group I'd never heard of before, Future of Forestry. Their music is rocking praise, and the sound is a bit like early U2. You can check out some of their music at (click the link). Their song "Open Wide" is available for a free download as an mp3 file.

My wife and I were part of a Marriage Encounter this past week. No, we weren't presenters; we had wanted to go to Marriage Encounter for quite a few years, and about a month ago some friends registered us for this one. We had a wonderful, but intensely emotional (in a very good way) time. Our friends told us we would get out of Marriage Encounter what we put into it, and they were right. I 'd recommend it to any couple, and I'd tell them the same thing: They will get out of it what they put into it.

I said something to my wife during our Encounter that ended up meaning more to me than when I first said it. I told her that I felt about our marriage the same way I felt about my own Christianity. I wasn't afraid of either of us walking out on the other, any more than I was afraid that I would convert to atheism. What I worried about was the same in both areas of my life: That I would settle for "average," or even "above average." We were doing okay, even better than most couples I know. In fact, when my beloved told someone we were going to Marriage Encounter, that friend exclaimed: "You and Robert? Really?" We do the right things: We make time for each other, we talk, bounce ideas off one another, and look for ways to minister together. Above average.

Same with me and God. Look at my bio: I teach, I'm an associate pastor, elder, and home fellowship leader. I even blog for Jesus! And do the occasional Bible College course as time and money make possible. Above average.

But the nagging question is: Am I sold out? Have I given all? And if not, why am I satisfied with being even "above average"? I'm going to let out a secret here: I'm not too terribly impressed with the "average" Christian in the US. The "average" Christian isn't much different from the average non-Christian. And the "above-average" Christian seems to stand out only because the "average" Christian is such a poor reflection of his Master. Take Jesus just a little more seriously than the rest, and you too can be a super saint.

There is, in the Christian life, this "law of averages" that sets in the longer you go on. It comes from not wanting to stand out. We don't want to be labeled as idiots, fundamentalists, and fools by non-Christians. So we do what we can to seem "normal"--which comes to mean "average." The fellowship of believers turns itself into a social club of people craving acceptance and surrendering, little by little, the distinctives that have made them what they are. You see this law at work with every reform movement and renewal movement in the church, after a while. The apostolic church became the hierarchy of Rome; the Lutheran and Calvinist movements became mainstream doctrinal Protestantism; the Wesleyan and pietist movements slowly lost their emphasis on holiness. It's happening as well to the Pentecostal movement, because we're more concerned now with size than with authentic Christian life. We are joining the learned theological masses of evangelicalism--fine in itself--but are forgetting that the Spirit, not the letter, gives life.

The answer? Fight the law. Stop worrying about what people think. We answer to God and not man. Stop worrying about being "above average." Our call as Christians is to be like Jesus, not like anyone else. He was never just "above average," and as long as we are fixing our eyes on Him and making His life the goal of our own life, neither will we be "above average." We will be something profoundly more. We will be changed into the likeness of Jesus by the Spirit Who lives within us.

This extraordinary kind of life is meant to be normal for every Christian. For this purpose the Spirit of God was sent to dwell within every believer. If we yield ourselves to the Holy Spirit, then this kind of life is inevitable. And if you are dissatisfied with the average life you've been leading, or with an above average life that impresses others yet rings hollow to you, then it's because the Holy Spirit is calling you to something more--to Christlikeness.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Here Among Thorns

Let me tell you about my day (he moaned, while his listeners rolled their eyes). No, seriously, let me tell you about it. Starting with last night.

First: my true love tells me our pipes had frozen. Her father suggests pipe insulation, which we purchase at Menard's (braving the sub-zero Midwestern cold that's making headlines). I crawl into a blocked-off room in our new old house (we moved 2 months ago) to find that the beams along the foundation are rotting. Surprise and disillusionment. Did the couple who sold us this house know? How can we fix this ourselves, without spending a lot of money?

Today: Snow, all day--four inches and still coming. I'm not looking forward to shoveling it. Then my wife tells me one of my sisters has called. It's an emergency, apparently. I fear the worst, but when I call her, my sister can't tell me what's going on. I stew while waiting for her call. Is she angry? Is somebody dying? What will she say? I imagine the worst.

When Jesus talked about the things that hinder the Gospel of the Kingdom of God in our lives, He spoke of a man sowing seed. Some seed fell on good ground, some on hard ground, some on shallow ground. And some fell among thorns. Then Jesus told His followers that each type of ground stood for something that hindered the Gospel. There was persecution (shallow ground) and there was lack of understanding that allowed "the evil one" to take the message away. No problem for me--I face no persecution and I understand the Gospel (I studied in Bible college, for Pete's sake!). But there was the third hindrance, the "cares of this life" that choke out the Gospel. Here, we're on to something.

The challenge we face is that we live in the world but we are not of it. Still it pries its way into our thoughts. Think about me, it cries. Face me! What are you going to do about me? And this is just what sucks the life out of most Christians I know. This is our biggest challenge, the place where we trip up. Here we forget that we are alive with the power of God's Spirit and that the Holy Spirit has an answer for all those things.

Once as I worried over my sister's call, the thought broke in: "What are you worried about? Can't God give you wisdom for this? Don't you have His strength? Why are you fretting?" But once was enough to make me see this from God's perspective. It's not death anymore that grips us but life. That's what happened at Pentecost; that's the point of Ezekiel's vision.

Things happen. That doesn't make them thorns--I make them thorns. Or I make them something else. They can choke life out or call me fully into real life, the powerful flood of life from Jesus. If we say that we are a mighty army that lives by the Spirit of God, then we also mean that we can shout with gladness no matter what we face, because our God is greater than all that. We will expect God's strength to show up in us and God's wisdom to come out of our mouths. We will honor God and rejoice. This is not trite; this is a point of view that we must hold onto day by day, moment by moment. If we don't, then the weeds choke us.

(BTW, Thanks, Tony. God bless you, bro.)

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Why "Dry Bones"?

Anyone familiar with Ezekiel's prophecies knows about his vision of the valley of dry bones (see Ezekiel 37 if you've forgotten). A few weeks back, I re-read that vision and saw it from a new perspective. I saw a parallel between that vision and the Day of Pentecost. Not that Ezekiel's vision foretells Pentecost, only that it mirrors what happened later: People gathered together, life poured into them through the breath of God, and a vast army formed--the New Testament church.

So what are we formed for? Culture wars, or revolutionary movements, or political change? For mega-churches and Bible studies and "taking the land for God"? For the GOP or the New Left or--well, what (and for whom)? Here in the "Valley of Dry Bones," just what are we supposed to DO? How should we look at the world, and each other? How should we think and pass our time?

We dry bones have been put together, joint into socket and muscle upon muscle, as warriors who live a common life and answer a common call. We are to be like Christ in every way, showing as a body the fullness of Him Who has called us into His Kingdom. Which means that we come together, learn what Christ-likeness means in our time, and put His Kingdom over every other allegiance we have--class, politics, race, nation. I'm not talking about simply finding common ground with one another. I'm talking about living out the basic mission of each Christian. What's essential? What matters? What's the heart of what we are?

That's pretty ambitious, but some ambitions are worth giving all for. This is worth the frustration of listening to each other and letting our golden calves get crushed into powder. So, this little blog will be my 2 cents' worth on the issue. Welcome to the Valley.