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Reflections on Church and The Jesus Paradigm

As a publisher I have the joy of spending a great deal of time with a book as it goes through the process of publication. I don’t expect you to read my thoughts on The Jesus Paradigm as anything like a review, but there are some special things about this book and the way it has influenced me as I worked on it.

I like to think of my business as a ministry, which is “churchese” for “service.” It is my intent to serve both the church and the community with materials that challenge and educate. Now don’t get me wrong here. For a small publisher, signing an author who has written nearly as many books as the company has published is a sound business decision. I didn’t decide to sacrifice myself in service and publish this book contrary to my better judgment. It’s a good book; it’s a book that is likely to sell quite well; it’s also a book that is kingdom building.

Now as I frequently must, let me warn you that I’m going to be writing quite a few words. I’ve been thinking about the concept “church” for a long time and struggling with many things. This is also largely addressed to a Christian audience, so it may well bore others. Read on at your own risk!

What happened with this book was that a number of things I’ve been thinking about, things that have challenged me over the years, came into sharper focus while I was editing and preparing it for the printer.

I traditionally point out about now that I disagree with some things in a book I’ve published, and that this is a good thing rather than a bad thing. That’s part of developing brand identity since in a company founded by one person, it’s easy to confuse the person with the company.

But in this case I think anyone who looks at the header of this blog and reads a few essays, and then does the same thing on Dave Black Online will be in no danger of confusing the two of us.

What I think I need to emphasize instead is just how much I agree with in this book, and the tremendous value I find even in the things about which I have reservations (ecclesiology) or differences in emphasis (hermeneutics-maybe).

In my personal testimony I note how I left church after my seminary training (MA, not MDiv) because I then regarded Christianity as a total “one-way street” surrender. I note that at the time:

Some Christians argued with me that such a total surrender as I described was not required, but I could not see a partial surrender to God at the time, and I still can’t do so.

Despite believing that, I have struggled with how to put that into practice, particularly in church life. The extent to which “church” doesn’t work, or perhaps doesn’t appear to be what it seems the Bible points to, has continued to bother me.

Let me list some of the threads of thinking that have bothered me.

(1) Again as I note in my testimony, I felt God’s call to ministry as I was registering for the second year of a pre-law program. I switched to Biblical languages. Unfortunately I found that while many people would talk about a lack of Biblical knowledge in the pews, the church had no place for a teacher who was not also ready to pastor a church. I observed that pastors got overloaded and rarely had a chance to actually teach.

(2) If you look at most pastors and then write up a job description as you might for a business, you will see a job that nobody can actually perform. Our pastors cannot lead, teach, and equip, because they are so busy doing, and not necessarily doing the things that truly go with their calling.

(3) I grew up with missionary parents who were truly dedicated to their work. By this I mean being willing to go out to serve God at risk of life and limb and at times depending on God for their next meal. I spent four years in southern Mexico, and then three in Guyana (South America) and while we were in the United States, they worked in underserved areas.

In this process I experienced a number of things:

  • I experienced mission trips as loading up mules and backpacks and hiking to a village, or in Guyana getting in a boat and heading up river. This gave me a different view of “discomfort” than I have encountered in various short term missions in which I have been involved.
  • I experienced worship and teaching in circumstances that varied from outdoors under trees to small, simple churches that were no more than walls and a roof. I have felt the presence of God in places most Americans would regard as unusable.
  • I learned that “mission” was not necessarily something you did in somebody else’s country

(4) By contrast, I have sat in American churches that would be inconceivably luxurious while people debated the color of the carpet for hours. Somehow I just couldn’t get into it. We’re replacing chandeliers that don’t look just right; Christians somewhere else are trying to do the minimum necessary to keep out the rain.

(4) I have wondered just how we could create a church that would carry out the work of the gospel as its primary mission. I don’t like evaluating ministry purely on a numbers basis, but I believe that you can often calculate what real priorities are by looking at where the money goes and secondarily by looking at how time is used. By this measure the priority of American churches in general is neither social service nor gospel preaching but rather self-maintenance.

Enter The Jesus Paradigm. In a sense it is almost fitting that the author, Dave Black, contracted Malaria while in Ethiopia and the book was released while he was in the hospital. As I have noted recently in writing about 2 Corinthians, the person can be inextricably linked with the written message. Paul didn’t want to boast, but he had to, while at the same time defending himself from the charge of weakness by claiming that he was weak.

In some of the reviews and in comments brought to me personally there have been questions about a number of things that are either lacking in the book or that people question. I’m not going to try to defend this book by saying that every word is absolutely correct and will stand the test of time. I’m not trying to make Dave Black into a prophet or incorporate his book into the canon of scripture.

These questions relate to ecclesiology and the lack of extended practical directions, both of which I will address, and the political commentary, which I will not.

One major question has been the lack of detailed practical advice on how to put the message of this book into practice. I don’t like to criticize reviewers as a publisher, but I think that criticism misses the point.

The way you put this into practice is by prayerful, constant surrender to Jesus. Read John 6:28-29. The problem is that we want a checklist, a program, or at least a detailed guide. The fact is that we have one–scripture brought to the moment by the power of the Holy Spirit.

I recall from my experience here in Pensacola with the Brownsville Revival. Now please lay aside your issues with what was being done in that revival. I’m not pointing to Brownsville as an example. Pastors and church leaders would come from far away and they would want whatever it as they perceived that Brownsville had. So they would go back home and try to apply what they had seen at Brownsville.

They would use the same music, not just the same style but the same songs. They would organize their services in the same way. They would try to style their preaching after the revival preacher Steve Hill. Then they would wonder why it didn’t work.

It didn’t work because kingdom service is not a program, nor is it a checklist, nor is it an organizational manual. It’s a surrender.

If you don’t know how to do this, dig into Acts and the Epistles, though only after you’ve thoroughly dug into the gospels. Spend your time in prayer and study and in listening to what God has to say to you. You will find ways to put the Jesus paradigm into action.

Another issue is with ecclesiology. How can this material be applied to a different structure of church than just Baptist? Here we may certainly have many disagreements as to details. These are good to discuss with the proper spirit.

I can look at this from my Seventh-day Adventist background and now as a United Methodist, and I think that the most critical thing here s the way church leadership thinks of themselves and behaves. I believe a Methodist church pastor could spread the Jesus paradigm through the committees of teams of his church structure just as boards of elders can do so in other church structures.

But the bottom line, in my view, has to be more revolutionary, but again I think it applies to all different structures. The issue is this: Where do our resources go? Do they serve our desires or do they serve others? As I have looked at the church budgets of the churches I have attended over the last few years, the vast majority of the budget goes to buildings and staff salaries, and the staff is largely charged with maintaining the members that are already there.

As long as we’re spending the majority of our money on maintenance, we’re not going to be reaching people as we should either in social services or in proclamation of the Christian message.

This is why I’m so delighted to have the opportunity to publish The Jesus Paradigm, and yes, to have the opportunity to market it as well. It will challenge us to apply this “downward path of Jesus” (also a phrase from the book) to our circumstances wherever we are. It will direct us to Jesus himself and the early church to find ways of doing that.

I don’t think this will necessarily be simple, but I think it’s time for us to be praying, thinking, and listening for the Holy Spirit in regard to how we can accomplish it. Otherwise, our churches are just an extremely expensive and annoying form of social club.

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  1. Henry:

    Thanks for the post. I am almost finished with Dave’s book, and will be posting something on it shortly. It is very thought-provoking.

  2. Martin LaBar says:

    “. . . kingdom service is not a program, nor is it a checklist, nor is it an organizational manual. It’s a surrender.” Amen!

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