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Resources for Progressive Preaching: Pastor2Pew

Resources for Progressive Preaching: Pastor2Pew

One of the least accurate characterizations I hear about progressive Christians is that they don’t care about the Bible. Now it’s hard to get a single image of the average or perfect progressive Christian, so generalizations are hard to make, but let me note that the generalization that progressive Christians in general disrespect the Bible, is not accurate.

One conservative response to this is a list of biblical positions on doctrine, as held by the same conservatives, which progressives do not espouse. If progressives fail to see these very clear teachings of Scripture, how can they possibly be regarded as anything but disrespectful? On the other hand, progressives sometimes point out conservative doctrines on things like money and the treatment of others that they feel—equally strongly—are violations of scriptural teaching. Rev. Steve Kindle even wrote a book about all this, titled I’m Right and You’re Wrong: Why we disagree about the Bible and what to do about it. Clearly it’s a book containing the answers to all of life’s questions, including the meaning of life. (No, not really, but it will help you understand why you don’t have those answers.)

Now Steve has set out on another project, designed to help progressive pastors find commentary on the Lectionary passages. He acknowledges the difficulty that not all pastors, progressive or otherwise, follow the Lectionary, but you have to start somewhere. In searching for resources Steve found that the material one could use in speaking to one’s congregation in a relevant way was embedded in a mass of material that used approaches that were not nearly so helpful. So he started On Tuesday night, I interviewed him for our Energion Tuesday Night Hangout. Here’s the video:

My title, “A Progressive Christian Preaching Scripture” may sound snarky. In fact, it may be snarky. But ask yourself this: Who am I being snarky about? What I’m really trying to do is emphasize my own point here: There are many progressive Christians who study Scripture, write about it, preach from it, and believing, as strongly as any fundamentalist, that they are living it. They are just finding different things there.

I don’t know precisely what to say about the people Steve is interviewing, except that I didn’t find anyone there so far that I don’t want to hear. I mention Walter Brueggemann above. Steve also interviews Energion author Bruce Epperly. Bruce spends a great deal of time studying Scripture and doing the homework that means he deserves to be heard, not only by other progressives, but those in other streams.

I strongly recommend Pastor2Pew as a resource both for progressives, and for others who would like to get some challenging and different approaches to the text. Even if, in the end, you reject them, I think you’ll find that your understanding deepened as you did so.

PS: Check out our Energion “Church Health” category, including Steve’s book Stewardship: God’s Way of Recreating the World.

Seven Marks of a New Testament Church – Sacrificial Living

Seven Marks of a New Testament Church – Sacrificial Living

nt church books

… salvation of necessity leads to service. (Seven Marks of a New Testament Church, p. 43)

This is the final post of my series on this book, and I’d like to make an observation about the entire enterprise. I’ve become increasingly convinced of two things during this study. First, there is no single form of church organization or structure mandated by the New Testament. Second, there are quite a few principles that should be applied in any church structure that we may choose to use.

Those may sound like they are at least in tension, but I think any tension is both appropriate and quite possibly intentional on the part of New Testament writers. I also do think that one’s organizational structure can either aid in applying Christ-like principles to one’s church structure or they can hinder us from doing so. Unfortunately, we can turn the best organizational plan into something dangerously hierarchical and lacking in accountability.

The determining factor in how our churches will function is whether we are prepared to actually be the body of Christ, living under one Spirit (1 Corinthians 12). Unfortunately, many have seen the test of the church as being the power of the miraculous signs that are displayed, when the real message of that chapter (really 1 Corinthians 12-14) is that the test of the miraculous signs is the one Spirit.

This final chapter of Seven Marks is critical for this reason. It says that we really mean it. Now we can’t neglect the other elements, but the final demonstration is going to be involved in sacrificial living. Note that the title is not “sacrificial giving.” We can give sacrificially without accomplishing anything for the kingdom. When we are emotionally persuaded to give large amounts of money for an unneeded or ostentatious facility or program, we can give sacrificially, while still failing to live sacrificially.

What does it mean to live sacrificially? I must, of course, recommend reading this entire chapter. But let me suggest that for the Christian, this means putting everything we have and everything we are in God’s hands. It’s not a percentage of giving. It’s not a percentage of our time for worship. It’s a complete commitment of ourselves to being the body of Christ, to act as citizens of God’s kingdom while we are aliens here. (Mixing metaphors is fun!)

Christianity is not something you tack on to the rest of who you are. Yes, I belong to the ___ club, I’m part of the ____ political party, and as for religion, I’m a Christian. No! Being a Christian is not like a club or political party membership. It defines who you are.

Bruce Epperly, in Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel, p. 46 puts it this way:

As Acts 2 proclaims that the first Christians “devoted themselves to the Apostles teaching, to the community, to shared meals, and to prayers …. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” They did not separate economics from theology or spirituality. Within the body of Christ, unity of spirit leads to the quest for physical well-being. While there may have been inequalities in income and property, there was no destitution or neglect. Everyone had enough of the Earth’s bounty to have the energy and inspiration to share the good news of God’s life-transforming Shalom. Putting God first lead Jesus’ first followers to generosity and sacrificial living in which the neighbor’s need outweighed property rights and personal comfort.

Ruth Fletcher expresses the vision and the goal well in her book Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations, p. 48:

Those first followers gathered around Jesus’ table in order to be shaped by the values embedded in the story of God’s New Creation. They came together to be equipped with the tools and the courage necessary to make God’s intentions real. Although not large in number, the small bands that followed Jesus began to affect the whole fabric of the culture around them. They were like grains of mustard seed springing up like bushes everywhere. They were like leaven affecting the whole loaf, like salt flavoring the whole pot of soup. They were like light shining from a lamp stand showing what God had in mind for the world.

Today we look to large church programs with the goal of bringing people into the church. Might we not accomplish more if we became those grains of mustard seed in order to impact the world around us. In order to do that we have to be willing to live sacrificially, not as a momentary impulse, but as a lifestyle.

One last thing I’d like to note about this series is that, while I’ve followed Dave Black’s outline from Seven Marks, I’ve been able to find very similar notes from my other two authors. These three authors come from different denominations and different tradition streams, yet they find many similar principles for how we should live as the church.

There are many things we can argue about, but I perhaps we can agree that we should be living as a community, caring for one another, and carrying out our witness through caring for the entire world.

What Have They Seen in Your House?

What Have They Seen in Your House?


Yesterday the Scripture for my Sunday School class was Isaiah 40:21-31. The daily readings in the student guide included the first 20 verses of the chapter as well. Those acquainted with critical scholarship on the book of Isaiah recognize this as the opening of 2nd Isaiah, chapters 40-55.

At first I was going to avoid the topic of authorship and date, but two things intervened: 1) The teacher’s guide brought the subject up, thus reminding me that people in the UMC will be hearing about and discussing this, and 2) I believe chapters 36-39 intentionally transition from the collection of oracles in the first 35 chapters. I don’t mean by this that I argue unified authorship for Isaiah. In fact, I favor the idea of an Isaianic school that was active from the time of the prophet through the exile, producing the three major horizons of the text.

But treating the book as two tends to make us treat it as though the first and second parts are not related. Just because one believes in collection and editing doesn’t mean that the original writers, the collectors, and the editors were stupid or uncreative.

The critical question of Isaiah 39, I believe, comes in verse 4: What have they seen in your house?

Chapter 38 tells us of Hezekiah’s miraculous healing. In fact, chapters 36-39 are about God’s power active in and for Israel. Then comes the time to show people what’s important, and what does Hezekiah show? His treasury and his equipment.

The power and sovereignty of God were there, but Hezekiah was more interested in the wealth and the military equipment. Despite God’s healing and rescue from the Assyrians, his value was in the stuff.

And so we get Isaiah’s prediction of exile and the loss of all that treasury.

Now comes chapter 40, and the horizon has changed. The people are in exile. What is it that they should be talking about? What should they rely on?

It’s the one who sits above the circle of the earth (40:22). It’s the One who saved Jerusalem from the Assyrians and who healed Hezekiah. But Hezekiah didn’t give credit where it was due for what had happened.

I think this might be the question God has for us in our churches today. When someone visits and we show them around, what have they seen in our house? When someone hears me talk, what have they seen? Is it the building or the parking lot? Is it the multitude of our programs? Is it the erudite pastor? When someone hears me teach about the Bible do they see Greek and Hebrew tools in action so as to praise my education?

If so, then I have failed if following God’s call. In Isaiah 36-39 we see Hezekiah receiving God’s blessings. Salvation came not from the treasury or the weapons in the armory but from God’s action. He is healed by God’s intervention. Yet when he has visitors, his witness is to the treasury and the armory. Similarly, when I speak about God, I can either bear witness to God, or I can bear witness to myself and my stuff, whether that “stuff” is knowledge, a library, a church setting, or a catalog of church programs.

Stuff is quite useful, yes, but only when it reflects its creator.

So what have they seen in your house?

Why I Believe in Dialogue, Respect, and the Gospel Commission

Why I Believe in Dialogue, Respect, and the Gospel Commission

angrymanfist-300px_redI’ve recently said and written a few things about the gospel commission, including my claim in my concluding presentation for my video series on eschatology that eschatology is all about the gospel commission. You’ll hear more about this in my foreword to Dave Black’s new book Running My Race. It’s in the final stages of production and should be available soon.

This isn’t a new perspective on my part, but as soon as I start using words like “evangelism,” “mission,” or “the Great Commission,” I start getting questions about whether I believe in dialogue or whether I’ve started to think that all non-Christians are horrible people.

On the other hand, each time I start talking about respect, interfaith dialogue, inclusion, and similar topics, someone is bound to ask me whether I’ve given up on evangelism and mission. Perhaps I no longer think Jesus is important.

So let me put both of these things together. First, I am never going to abandon the Gospel Commission. It’s what being a Christian is about. I follow Jesus and I help others follow Jesus. I am a witness to Jesus as I follow Him. I proclaim his good news, and that good news is the central fact of my life. If I didn’t believe that, I would not be a Christian publisher. Frankly, while there are many things I enjoy about publishing, it’s hard work, the pay isn’t as good as it is for my other occupation (small network technical support), and I’d hardly keep at it without this greater “joy set before me.”

Second, I believe that respect and love for one’s neighbor are central to the gospel. If I don’t love my neighbor as myself, I am not following Jesus Christ, and in turn I can hardly be effective in making other disciples, who would, in turn, be expected to love their neighbors as they love themselves. (There’s a “loving God” thing in there too, but see 1 John 4:20 for my emphasis in this case.)

Contrary to the perception of many Christians, not only is respectful dialogue not opposed to carrying out of the gospel commission, it’s essential to it. But there are reasons it so commonly doesn’t seem so.

Evangelism is tainted, I believe, by two false directions, each of which bears an abundance of poisonous and rotting fruit.

The first false direction is the idea that evangelism is about giving the maximum possible number of people their “get out of hell free” card or, seen more positively, getting them their ticket to heaven. In this diversion from the gospel message we look for ways to get people to say the right prayer, then wipe the sweat from our brows (evangelism is hard work!), and say, “One more person saved.”

This leads to other spiritually dangerous activities, such as promising people prosperity if they accept Jesus, emotionally manipulating them, or even converting them at sword point or gun muzzle. We can justify whatever behavior we might engage in on the grounds that even if we did use underhanded methods, the person should thank us for not burning in hell forever.

This can also (or even in turn) lead to other shallow approaches to faith, such as the meme I saw on Facebook today built around the old idea of the wager of faith. As I understand faith, the wager simply isn’t—it isn’t faith and it isn’t even a wager, since there’s nothing of value on either side. Believing in Jesus isn’t an “in case” sort of thing. It’s not a wager, it’s a total commitment. Pascal’s Wager is an intellectual approach to a spiritual problem.prohibitionsign2-300px

Further, this sort of evangelism doesn’t actually represent love for one’s neighbor. It’s a sort of concern, but it’s more like the hunter has concern for the deer. No, I don’t mean the killing part, though that can happen as well, but rather the concern is for how the deer will fill the hunter’s needs.

The second false direction is one of church growth. In this case, evangelism is simply the process of adding members to the church, and more specifically your church. At least this has a longer term goal, i.e., to get the person into a church community. But far too often, this simply feeds into another selfish numbers game. The value of the person is not in who they are or who they can be, or even what God wants them to be, but rather on church statistics. While evangelicals are more likely to go for the first diversion, even progressive churches can fall for this second one.

As the saying goes, however, sitting in church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car. I think we can identify what’s really important to us by what we pay for and what we report on, and in many of our churches I’m afraid that the concern is increasing membership, which, in turn, is to produce increasing financial support, which will allow us to get more members.

What I believe about evangelism is this: It’s a lifestyle. You live as a disciple of Jesus, and you will, in turn, make disciples. I don’t mean that we should all shut up. Of course you talk about your faith because it’s not just important it’s fundamental. There’s another dichotomy between living our faith and proclaiming our faith, but I think it’s also false. Talking about our faith is one way we live it. If we’re talking too much, that’s ineffective living of our faith. I do not keep silent about something that is fundamental.

In looking at motivation, I can say that it is a command, and it is. But at the same time it simply follows essentially from what Jesus has done for me. I will share a good thing. Sharing a good thing doesn’t mean forcing others. It’s a natural and friendly thing to share, just as it’s a natural and friendly thing—not to mention loving—to let the other person make their own decisions, including about how long they want to listen.

Conversion, in turn, is something between God and the person converted. It’s gotten almost cliched to say that I can’t convert anyone; God does. But unfortunately we turn right back around and pretend it’s all about us. Grab hold of that mustard-seed of faith (I usually feel that I have somewhat less than that, but whatever) and trust God with salvation, conversion, and the spiritual health of others.

Further, however, trust God to let you know how you need to be involved, and listen. Listen to God. Listen to other people. God loves each person involved more than you do. He even loves you more than you do.

In studying eschatology (and I just completed a video series), I’ve found that God is deeply concerned about the spiritual health of God’s earthly children. I see the story of Revelation as being one of repeated opportunities, with the bottom line message that God does have this under control. Our part is to follow Jesus and make disciples.

That doesn’t require being rude, obnoxious, manipulative, violent, or disrespectful. It requires love, and love values the other person, not some imaginary thing I think that person should be.

On Using Titles in Church

On Using Titles in Church

Discussion Ahead traffic sign in woman's hand on a white background
Discussion Ahead traffic sign in woman’s hand on a white background

Titles for people, that is.

Thomas Hudgins makes some important points on this issue in a post on the Energion Discussion Network. I tend not to be radical (well at least I think so), but on this it seems like Jesus was pushing us pretty strongly away from hierarchies and spiritual authority.

There’s a great—and quite sarcastic—line in Herold Weiss’s book Meditations on According to John, p. 152:

The sacraments were established toward the end of the first century when Christianity was becoming institutionalized and starting to create official channels through which the Holy Spirit could flow under ecclesiastical control. (emphasis mine)

I’m thinking that often we consider the people we put in leadership to be such official channels. Isn’t that what we mean when we want the pastor, rather than some “ordinary” member to pray for us?

We are all ministers. “To each of us was given grace according to Christ’s gift” (Ephesians 4:7).

Nobody Ever Thinks They Are Creating a New Denomination

Nobody Ever Thinks They Are Creating a New Denomination

kineso ten luchnian
Revelation 2:5

Christopher Ritter is complaining, though only in the nicest, most creative way, about critics of the new Wesleyan Covenant Association. It’s interesting how efforts to reform often end up creating new denominations, even when the leaders don’t intend to do so. Just look at the example provided by Ritter in his post.

I commend Ritter for his excellent way of presenting his complaint, but at the same time I have to ask whether a movement to reform the United Methodist Church at this point is not also likely to contribute to the division of the denomination. It seems that we require such organizations to deny that they contemplate schism in any way. It’s part of the game. I suspect that the WCA people are entirely sincere in that desire.

Reality may not be on their side.

I’m a member of a United Methodist congregation. I would note that when my wife and I discussed the idea of moving to a new church prior to this move, we thought that our next church congregation would not be part of the UMC, but here we still are, and here we will stay as long as we believe God is leading us to do so.

What I’m not going to do is get stirred up over the survival of denominational structures. My friends sincerely wish to prevent schism, but as a church, we’re the product of a group that broke off from a group that broke off, and that earlier break-off was not very holy, I might note. Not to mention that I don’t see very much Jesus in the structures of any of the above.

Unless the Holy Spirit changes a bunch of people, the UMC is at an impasse over same-sex marriage and inclusion of LGBT people. We are a divided church. We can claim to be united, but it’s a fake. The question is whether the structures will follow the actual practice or whether we will continue to find ways (and spend large amounts of money) to pretend.

What is needed is to change our focus to become Christ’s body in the world, Christ’s witnesses, the bearers and proclaimers of Christ’s gospel. We are a church that is apathetic, self-centered, and wasteful. We are more concerned with our buildings and our power than with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But that is something that can change. I don’t know about the denomination, but the only person who needs to change in this is me. And you. And you. Each of us.

Is the church building taking up more money than caring for your neighbors? Get rid of it.

Do you pay more for Sunday School curriculum than for evangelism or textbooks for needy children? Cut it out of your budget!

Is your primary concern for your worship service done your way at your time? Drop it. Be concerned about your neighbors.

If you let the gospel become central, many things that seem critical right now will fade into the background. You may not change church headquarters, but you can change you.

A UMC House Church

A UMC House Church

nt church booksOne of the points I have tried to make in my series regarding the books Seven Marks of a New Testament Church, Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations, and Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel is that one can follow these “Jesus principles” of church leadership under many different formal structures. Some structures may make it harder than others, but I suspect it is more that each structure has different strengths and weaknesses, mostly the result of the fact that all of them involve humans.

Here’s a video about a house church under the UMC banner. You won’t see anything “non-Wesleyan” here, or violations of the Book of Discipline, but you will see a creative and dynamic living out of the Christian faith. This is certainly a thriving congregation, carrying out transforming acts, and showing marks of a New Testament church!

Let the Children Interrupt

Let the Children Interrupt

Children under a tree

This past Sunday the lesson was from Luke 18:15-17, Jesus blessing the children. Saturday evening, as I was thinking about this, a local church was promoting their variety of children’s programs and how that showed their care for the children. I know it’s probably unkind of me, but I was not impressed.

Yes, having children’s programs is better than ignoring the children. Having something for the children to do while their parents carry out the activities of the older folks is better than doing nothing. When we were overseas, my mother was often asked to donate to church building projects. She would always ask to see the plans. Frequently those plans would involve a church sanctuary and no educational rooms at all. She’d ask where was the space for the children’s programs, and was told they could meet under the trees until the church had the money to build their facilities. She’d suggest instead that the adults meet under the trees and that the space be given to the children.

Yes, it’s good to provide for the children. But the interesting thing that Jesus did is this: He let the children interrupt the activities of the adults. He didn’t appoint a “children’s apostle” or create a children’s “blessing room” where appropriately gifted leaders could work with the children. No! He invited them to where he was, right to the center.

I think we are too concerned with having our busy routine interrupted. Perhaps if we let the children get involved some of the super-sacred elements of the order of service might be skipped. Perhaps some of the adults would have to listen to something simple and repetitive.

Those with special gifts for teaching and for connecting with children and young people are to be treasured and  their talents used in ministry. But children need to spend time with the adults as they learn, and not always be separated out into age segregated groups where six-year-olds learn from six-year-olds and teens learn from teens. Church should be a place where they can practice and learn. I’m in favor of having children and teens give testimonies, speak, and even present the message. Where better to learn than in their own community? Of course, all these activities should be done with the help of people of experience who can mentor and guide without controlling and suffocating.

I was visiting a small house church overseas and was asked to present a children’s story and also the message for the adults. I hadn’t tried a children’s story in many years. But I gave it a try. For the adults message I had carefully taken a passage and prepared an expository message. It was really pretty good since I say so myself! [Yeah, right.] I was uncomfortable with the children’s story. After I had presented both, and was chatting with my translator immediately after our time together, I noticed the head elder copying my illustration from the blackboard (yes, the old-fashioned slate kind). Then he asked me a few questions through the translator, all about the children’s message.

The children’s story had caught his attention and had met a need in the church. It was clear from our conversation that he was fine with my expository preaching. It just hadn’t connected. The children’s message had.

Is it possible there isn’t such a difference between our needs as older members and those of the children and young people in our churches?

Pastor Searches and Job Interviews

Pastor Searches and Job Interviews

Church politics is necessary. Even those who most avoid it live with it. What we must work toward is a way of making decisions in the church that isn’t just a pale reflection of the way things are done in the world.

One of the ways we create a pale reflection is by doing what the world does, only doing it less effectively. Growing up, I was informed regularly that the church functioned democratically. I could see, however, that it was much more of an oligarchy. Why? Because while the church wanted to carry out activities by vote, they didn’t want the discussion and potential acrimony that went with it. For a church such as the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which I grew up in, or the United Methodist Church, of which I am a part now, this “peaceful” approach, in which members vote for what the leaders have decided, generally breaks down as you move up the chain. In that breakdown, local church members see a great divide between what they would have wanted and what their church is doing.

ThriveThe form of democracy, without a lively dialogue and exchange of ideas on issues, doesn’t really function much like democracy. There are doubtless many reasons why we might not want actual democracy in the church, though the priesthood of all believers does tend to imply that more people have influence.

Thom Rainer, in a post titled FIVE QUESTIONS PROSPECTIVE PASTORS RARELY ASK SEARCH COMMITTEES (BUT SHOULD), perhaps unintentionally highlights this problem with a pastor search. A pastor search is like a job search, only with  spiritual veneer. So we sometimes avoid talking about the things that we really should be interested in and pretend the situation is other than it really is. (I should note that businesses are also very much subject to doing the job badly, though usually for different reasons than the church.)

In her book Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations, Ruth Fletcher discusses discernment frequently. She says,

In transforming congregations, leadership teams meet frequently to talk about what the Spirit seems to be doing in the congregation and to notice where the Spirit seems to be guiding the church to go. They keep their own sand moist by engaging daily in the spiritual habit of prayer, and practice the spiritual habit of discernment in their personal lives. They discipline themselves to open their minds to new understandings, to open their hearts to the plight of their neighbors, and to open their wills by setting aside their own agenda in order to seek God’s new creation. (p. 119)

Provided the church congregation believes it should have a paid pastor at all, this would seem like a good approach. Talk about what the Spirit is doing. Engage in the “spiritual habit of prayer” and the “spiritual habit of discernment.” Set aside “their own agenda.”

What would it look like in a church if the process of filling roles or offices in the church was a process jointly of congregational leaders and candidates setting aside their own agenda and discerning what the Spirit is saying to their church?