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Same-Sex Marriage, Moving Candlesticks, and the Judgment of God

Same-Sex Marriage, Moving Candlesticks, and the Judgment of God

kineso ten luchnianMy instinctive reaction when I disagree with people on major issues is to come out swinging. Despite this instinct, I believe I am called to be a facilitator, to try to help people talk intelligently and communicate effectively about controversial topics.

So if you’re looking for a statement about what I believe regarding same-sex marriage, you’re going to be disappointed. If that’s what you’re here for, go for the “Back” button, mutter about click-bait, and go on to more productive activities. In fact, I’ve been criticized this very day, and on a few others, for not taking a stand on the topic. By “not taking a stand” people mean that I will publish material on either side of the same-sex marriage debate along with a number of other issues.

Do I have an opinion? Yes I do. Will I make it public? No I won’t. [sarcasm]I will restrain myself from benefitting the world with my great wisdom.[/sarcasm] I will, instead, follow what I believe is my calling. Face it, folks! While there is a great deal that has not been heard on this topic, it’s not because it hasn’t been said. In case you missed it in the previous couple of paragraphs, I believe I am called to be a facilitator. As a friend of mine recently pointed out, it’s difficult to be a facilitator and a prophet at the same time.

Just after I finished reading my dose of blogs and social media this morning, I joined in a conversation and Bible study, and I was asked an important question. We were looking at some interpretational issues in Revelation 2 & 3, the letters to the churches. There are a number of places where judgment is threatened. I was asked about Revelation 2:5, where the NRSV translates “remove your lampstand from its place.” It sounds a bit harsh. The question was, just what did this mean?

My answer is that I believe it is symbolic, but only at one remove.

  1. The lampstand is a church.
  2. The church does not repent.
  3. The church is removed.

I think we likely have many “removed” churches. They’re still sitting there occupying space, but the light has gone out. God is not there. The glory has departed. It’s harsh, but I think it’s true.

You see, I believe in the judgment of God. In fact, because of the way in which I believe God’s judgment works, I believe God’s judgment can be quite implacable. Mercy holds the door open while there is an opportunity for repentance, for change, but eventually the door shuts. I believe the door shuts, or the voice ceases, when we cease to listen. I would commend Hebrews 6:4-6 (or really, it would be better to read 6:1-12; or hey, just read the whole book!) on this. There comes a time when we no longer hear the call to repentance.

So my answer was that a church can fail. It can essentially lose its place because it does not listen to God. I think this is important. I’m not a universalist. I believe that God’s freedom gives us responsibility, and with responsibility comes the consequences of our actions. This means that we have a choice. The choice has a result. That result fits the choice.

I further believe that God has sent the Holy Spirit to guide us and the church. Yes, we start in scripture, but we read and interpret that with the help of the Holy Spirit. This may not result in agreement, but the most important part is the listening. As long as we are listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit, and willing to hear and to do, we have that opportunity to repent, to change direction. Once we are no longer listening, when we no longer have ears to hear, we will no longer hear what the Spirit says to the churches. America is filled with churches that affirm doctrinal statements and action plans, yet do not do what they know.

As I facilitate discussion, I let many things pass. People seem to get tense mostly about abortion, homosexuality, and evolution. I find myself restraining myself on many other topics, including immigration, care for the poor, spreading the good news of God’s grace, carrying out the mission of the church, and training and empowering our young people (to do all of the above, of course!), all of which I consider of critical importance for the church today.

Not all of you are to be facilitators however. I can leave definitions undone in a publishing company, but if your church is to do ministry you have to make decisions, and to make good decisions you need to listen for the voice of the one who walks among the lampstands (Rev. 1:9-20).

Please do listen. “I will remove” is a very harsh phrase.

But I think it’s very real.

 

Is There Such a Thing as a New Testament Church?

Is There Such a Thing as a New Testament Church?

nt church booksI’m planning to finish resume and complete my blog series on Seven Marks of a New Testament Church with added commentary from the books Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations, and Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel. This process was interrupted by SBL, by some bug I picked up in Atlanta that slowed me down for several days and by the time taken to catch up afterward.

In the meantime, I encountered the following:

There is no blueprint for churches in the New Testament, and to try to form New Testament churches is only to create another system which may be as legal, sectarian, and dead as others. Churches, like the Church, are organisms which spring out of life, which life itself springs out of the Cross of Christ wrought into the very being of believers. Unless believers are crucified people, there can be no true expression of the Church.”—T. Austin Sparks, Words of Wisdom and Revelation, p. 62, (quoted in Frank Viola, Finding Organic Church, p. 19).

There’s a great deal of truth in that statement, but there is also a great deal of danger. Let me quote a couple of paragraphs from Frank Viola from just before he uses this quote to illustrate:

Consequently, the “biblical blueprint” model is rooted in the notion that the New Testament is the new Leviticus. Advocates approach the Bible like an engineer approaches an engineering textbook. Study the structural principles and then apply them.

But church planting is not a form of engineering. And the New Testament isn’t a rule book. It’s a record of the DNA of the church at work. … (Finding Organic Church, p. 19)

I would love to spend some time discussing this view of Leviticus, which is, in many ways a record of the DNA of Israel as God’s people at work, but I’ll skip over my perennial annoyance with the way Christians handle the Hebrew Scriptures. And Leviticus is definitely closer to a  rule book than is anything we have in the New Testament, however inadequate the term may be in describing the book.

Again, I would certainly agree that the New Testament doesn’t provide a “rule book” for your church, though we need to consider our understanding of the term “rule book” as well. Even rule books differ in approach! I would also agree with, and even applaud, the characterization of the New Testament as “the DNA of the church at work.” But there’s a certain negative view of engineering involved here, which is just one of the things I think is potentially dangerous.

There’s an interesting form of binary thinking that seems to go on with the question of whether and how we apply the Bible to anything. Someone asks whether the Bible teaches a certain thing that we believe, and the pious thing to say is that it does. So we say it. Then we’re left trying to find just where it does say it. Take the doctrine of the trinity, for example. Does the Bible teach it or not? Can I discover anything about the Trinity from the Bible? Well, if you want a doctrinal statement of “trinity,” such as you’ll find in any of the Christian creeds (yes, they differ, but take any one), then you’ll have to admit the Bible doesn’t say that. Yet the pieces, or at least the questions, start from scripture. I think you can say something similar about almost any of our doctrines. They are rooted in scripture to various degrees, but we wouldn’t have so many confessional statements if the Bible clearly said what we wanted it to.

Having grown up as a Seventh-day Adventist, I confronted this problem early. We were a church that believed in the Bible and the Bible only. Anyone could study the Bible for themselves, and the Bible was sufficient. Well, except that people kept getting the wrong things from the Bible. So we had a doctrinal statement and  baptismal covenant. When I was baptized I publicly affirmed a substantial list of doctrines, all of which the church regarded as biblical. But it was not regarded as sufficient that I affirm the Bible; I had to affirm the list.

I think humans tend to be somewhat binary in our thinking. On discovering that the Bible doesn’t actually have a full list of the “true” doctrines or the “ideal” rules for governing your church congregation, we decide that there’s nothing at all. Let’s get away from talking about characteristics, habits, marks, or even transforming moments. The true church is the one that is produced by people transformed by the gospel.

And yes, it is. Transformation by the power of the gospel is where it starts and it is the key. But we still read scripture. We still have to decide to meet somewhere. We still are going to do some things during our church service and not others. We’re still going to choose some activities in carrying out the church’s mission and not others.

The danger, I believe, is that we do this sort of thing without thinking and consideration. Transformed people will be motivated to carry out the gospel commission, but will they know what to do next? Generally there is someone who leads. I have been in churches that claimed that their worship services were run by the guidance of the Spirit and were very free. No rules.

Well, on paper. In their rule book it was true. But in practice, there was a definitely hierarchy. Who was a prophet who would speak? Who would give the message, which was as long as, if not as organized as, the sermon in any mainline or evangelical church. The “free Spirit” definitely flowed in the way human beings directed.

In fact, despite my apparently sarcastic description, it is quite possible that the Spirit was flowing precisely as the Spirit wanted to, having chosen to work through those people. But if so, there was more structure than people were willing to admit. There were leaders in the congregation. They were just not acknowledged as formally as they were elsewhere.

And it’s in this informality that there is a certain danger. If we do not acknowledge and plan our leadership and our actions, then some form of leadership happens. It may be good or it may not. But very frequently in places where structures are not defined, people with forceful personalities, or even people with negative agendas can take over the process. These persons are very hard to move aside to allow the Spirit to actually move, because they will often deny what they are doing.

So how do you avoid this? More importantly, how do you avoid this without turning the church into a bureaucracy and the Bible into a procedures manual?

Well, I think you go back to the source. Not just the New Testament, though that should be our starting place as Christians. And not just the Bible, but rather the Bible combined with our discernment and what we can hear from the Holy Spirit as we listen to the Holy Spirit and discern what we need to do as a community of believers in Jesus. I think this will be a constant process as we look at what is around us, at who we are, at our Lord, and how we can be the body of the Anointed One in the world.

We can even learn a little bit from engineers in this process. Yes, engineers can be very picky people. I’m reminded of something Jody said as she was about to enter the doctor’s office. She was taking a particular action which she wanted the doctor to note because, she said, “Doctors are very much cause and effect kinds of people.” Engineers likewise. Every time I get into my car and every time I get on an airplane, I am very happy that engineers are cause and effect kinds of people. That’s because I really like the causes to get together and produce the effect of my car staying on the road and the airplane staying in the sky as needed. I flew nearly 7,000 hours in the Air Force relying on that sort of thing.

One thing an engineer can do is study one thing, see how it works, and duplicate the effect by creating a similar machine. Such principles applied to scripture might include looking at the church in the New Testament and asking what caused the church to grow. Can we duplicate that? Of course times and circumstances have changed. In fact, they changed from one moment to another in New Testament times. Engineers can also take a device and adapt it to different circumstances.

I have a smartphone, for example, that is water resistant. If I drop it in a puddle, I should be able to pull it back out, dry it off, and go on. I haven’t tried this. The prior model of the same phone didn’t have this capability. Some engineers got together and added new capabilities to the ones the previous model had. I used that previous model, and I like the new one better. There are principles that apply to both.

And that’s important. It’s nice to say that if our church comes forth from people who have met Jesus and been to the foot of the cross (or one of those other common phrases). That must be the foundation, because church will doubtless not work with people who have not been transformed (or better, are being transformed; we are none of us there yes). But this is a principle I get from reading the New Testament. And it’s not the only principle I get.

The good engineer knows how to look at principles and apply them to a new environment. The good Bible student knows how to look at the church in action in the New Testament and find out how to apply not every action they took, but the fundamental principles by which they tried to live, to our modern times.

So Seven Marks of a New Testament Church doesn’t provide you with a rule book. It doesn’t replace the New Testament. It certainly doesn’t replace the gospel. But it shows you what one worker in the vineyard has discerned as principles that can be applied. The other two books, Thrive, and Transforming Acts, are doing the same thing.

The problem isn’t really thinking like engineers. The problem is bad engineering, engineering that applies rules without understanding. Not inflexible engineering that ignores the complexity of human communities. Engineering that ignores reality is just bad engineering. I, for one, think the church could use some genuine, good engineering.

Seven Marks: Genuine Relationships

Seven Marks: Genuine Relationships

nt church booksThe fourth mark of a New Testament church that Dave Black finds in Acts he calls genuine relationships. The early believers devoted themselves to the fellowship, to their community. There are so many words for it.

9781631990465mIn America today we rarely think of the church as a community and even more rarely as our community. Yet much of the New Testament’s teaching on the church centers around things that relate closely to this idea. We go to church for a “service.” We don’t participate in community. We take our children there for some moral education, not so that they can build relationships for their life. Often we barely know one another.

I’m not trying to make us all extroverts. I’m an introvert. I tend to make small numbers of closer friendships. I’m not talking about the number of friendships we each make. I’m talking about how we fit together into this larger community, one that includes various personalities, a wide variety of gifts, people who are like us, and also people who are not-at-all like us.

What we think about our community is going to impact everything else we do. Dave’s first mark is “evangelistic preaching.” That’s proclamation of the good news. But is the “good news” of your church the idea that one can join up, provided they’re not too different and become just like everyone else there? Or is the good news that through God’s Spirit we can all, with our various backgrounds, become one in Christ Jesus, contributing with various gifts, and receiving the salvation and healing that Jesus offers?

I suggest reading 1 Corinthians 12-14. Don’t skip over chapter 13. So frequently people who want to study about spiritual gifts study chapter 12, those who want to look at church order and how to structure your meetings at the church read chapter 14, and those who want to talk about love read chapter 13.

But that is to miss what Paul is doing. In this book Paul is looking at the various reasons why there are factions in the Corinthian church. When he comes to the start of chapter 12 he’s looking at the great gifted ones who lord it over everyone else. Genuine love, as expressed in chapter 13 is the key. How can one identify genuine gifts in action? It’s by the way they operate under the direction of that one Spirit and the way they carry out love in the church.

1 Corinthians 13 is not about marriage but about the church. It gives good advice for a marriage because it tells us how genuine relationships work.

ThriveHow do followers of Jesus work together when the church meets? Chapter 14 tells us they work for “edification.” That’s building. That building is based on the genuine love that is expressed in chapter 13. So these three chapters work together.

I heartily recommend Dave’s chapter, but I’m going to quote this time from Ruth Fletcher in the book Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations. Fletcher defines a difference between “friendliness” and “welcome”:

Friendliness assimilates newcomers into what already exists; welcome integrates newcomers by helping them know they belong. Friendliness says, “We’re glad you came to our table. We hope you feel at home here eating what we like to eat and doing things the way we like to do them.” Welcome goes beyond friendliness to say, “We want you to bring your gifts to this community. We know when you offer those gifts that we will be changed by your presence among us.” (p. 78)

Fletcher implicitly provides us with a good description of community. Rather than being a place where the current members give and others receive, it’s a place that welcomes people to become part of the giving, whatever it is that they may have to offer.

9781938434648s
Bruce Epperly discusses this in his chapter Faith Without Fences

One of the critical things we need to look at in the church if we are to be such a community is gossip, judgment and criticism. For us to help one another grow, we need to be able to talk about ways to grow. Serious discussion of spiritual growth will not prosper where there is no trust, and gossip destroys trust. Gossip is always followed by judgment and criticism, and it destroys community.

Losing this spirit of judgment does not mean that one loses the ability to discern between different options, nor that one cannot recognize sin or destructive behavior. It does involve a change in the way we think and talk about these things. Our talking will be impacted by our thinking. Don’t imagine that you can pretend not to be judgmental and nonetheless deal with issues as a community.

I’m fairly unreceptive of the complaints of those who think that repenting of gossip, judgment, and criticism (three sins endemic in church life) means that we can no longer reform or call others to repentance. Gossip, judgment, and criticism don’t result from a genuine desire to help others find repentance. They result from our desire to feel that we are better than others and to let others in our inside group know that we are better than others.

A genuine concern for others will result in talking to them and doing it in constructive way. Note that this isn’t a strategy change. It’s repentance from a sinful approach (judgmental) and a turn to a genuinely constructive  approach (edifying/building). If we have genuinely repented of the need to feel morally superior to others, I think we will generally know the difference. Most of us have been helped to find a better approach to some issue by a more experienced or knowledgeable friend. It feels different.

One critical point is that it comes from relationship. I have friends who help me with my business decisions who can quite comfortable tell me that some idea would be idiotic. We’ll laugh and go on to a better plan. Why can we do that? Because we have a relationship that comes before the correction. I highly value those friends and that correction. It has saved me from many errors.

“Genuine relationships” open the way to the various elements of community. If you truly want to help those you think are on a wrong path, establish a genuine relationship with them first. As you do so, you may become aware that you also have things in your life that can be improved by what you learn from them.

I think back on growing up in my missionary family’s home. You could not visit my parents’ church without getting invited to lunch. Not invited to join us at a restaurant, but to come join us for the family meal. My mother always made sure she had enough to feed guests. One never knew who would be a guest.

In Mexico, when a mother and son needed refuge from violence, she was invited into our home, even though there was a threat of violence to us involved. She was different from us, of the Chamula people, and only spoke a bit of Spanish, much less any English. But she had a home with us as long as she needed it.

Think about your own church. Would a visitor be welcome? Any visitor? As you bring in new members do you try to remold them after your own image or do they become a genuine part of the church family with their gifts and their warts? Does anyone in your church invite people home to lunch or dinner? Are your homes open? If someone was escaping domestic violence would they get a referral to a nearby shelter or would someone in your church open heart and home to them? If you see young people in your church without parents do you gather in groups to complain about “this generation” or do you decide to welcome the opportunity to get to know them and even mentor them?

I think becoming a community built on genuine relationships will require a great deal of repentance on the part of the American church. But if we want to truly be disciples of Jesus, carrying out the gospel commission, this is one mark we can’t afford to lack!

Seven Marks: Excursus on Change

Seven Marks: Excursus on Change

nt church books9781631990465mOne of the most interesting and troubling things I’ve found about myself and my church (any of the churches of which I’ve been a member!) is the number of things we know we should do and even decide we will do, but which never get done. Seven Marks of a New Testament Church is certainly ecclesiology, but is it shelf ecclesiology (that’s nice) or is it practical ecclesiology (let’s do that)?

In this case I can’t point fingers. In my personal life I need to get more exercise and lose a significant amount of weight. How long have I known this? Well, I’m the son of a doctor who was medical director of a health conditioning center when I was in my teens. And yes, he knew about these things before that time and after that time, and he taught them to me. I cannot claim that I didn’t know what the health effects of a sedentary lifestyle and excessive food intake (biblical gluttony, no?) would be. While I’m working on reforming this now, I do so slowly and under constant temptation to avoid the needed change. It’s not that I’m tempted to do useless things. In fact, I’m tempted to work, and for me work involves being in front of a computer. So one good thing tempts me away from another one. But that doesn’t make it right. I know I should get more exercise. I know I should eat less. Making those changes so that they are a fundamental part of my new normal is very difficult.

Romans 7 anyone? I know many Arminians see Romans 7 as a description of our pre-Christ experience. I see it as very descriptive of what I and many Christians live every day. The problem comes in when we make Romans 7 into a continuous, hopeless loop about everything. Yes, we all have our Romans 7 experiences, but we’re invited into Romans 8. Not that we’ll live at “Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord” (7:25) at all times and on all subjects.

It’s easy to make excuses. I’m very busy. It’s hard building up a small publishing company. I have a lot of work to do. I’m very healthy, taking no medications and very rarely missing work. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I’m a vegetarian, for heaven’s sake! (Ice cream, sweets, lots of butter, bread—they’ll do it even to a vegetarian!)

But no matter how many excuses I produce, I know this: I need to change.

There are many reasons why we don’t change, and many excuses for why we can ignore things that we hear.

  1. We find some fault with the messenger. The wrong person is making the suggestion, so it can’t really be right.
  2. We nit-pick the message. There’s something in there that won’t work in our situation, so we discard everything new and go back to what we were doing.
  3. We are change-weary. We’ve tried to make changes so many times and have failed. Why should we try yet another thing?
  4. We don’t see our present problems. We’re so used to the way things are and the level of success we’re having, that we think that’s precisely what should be going on.
  5. Other people are much worse off than we are. The church down the street is so inward-looking. By comparison, we’re outgoing, gospel-oriented, and on fire for missions. (This is like my “I don’t smoke” excuse. I’m better than the person who’s killing himself with cigarettes.)
  6. This change is going to cause problems. Usually this means that the leadership is afraid of losing control.
  7. I don’t have enough guidance. Where is the calendar, worksheet, study guides, long term plan, etc.?

I could go on, but we’ll stop at seven. Nice number!

I think, nonetheless, that our bottom line is fear. We are surviving the way we are, but will we survive after we change? The pastor wonders if he’ll lose members. The members wonder if they’ll be happy with the new church service on Sunday morning. The education team wonders if anyone will attend Sunday School. Everyone wonders whether they’ll be annoying their neighbors. And while we might not admit it, we wonder whether we’ll be happy ourselves. So we stay the same.

One of the great fears is that we will lose control. This has been the bane of the church from very early times, I think. We’re very much afraid of the movement of the Spirit because the Spirit is not under our management. Not that we don’t try!

In Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations, the 12th habit Ruth Fletcher mentions is Choosing (p. 123). Here’s a key quote:

Transforming congregations learn to choose and choose again. They don’t have to get it right the first time around. They can gain insight from any action they take and that insight will aid them opting to take the next step into the future. Transforming congregations acknowledge that when they act with courage, some people may decide to leave, but they would rather decide to do something than to remain lukewarm about everything. (p. 126)

Bruce Epperly comes at this from another angle in Transforming Acts:

The spiritual leaders acknowledged that they couldn’t do everything. They confessed that the task of sharing God’s word left no time for taking care of domestic issues. They needed partners in ministry: so they prayerfully chose a group of people to insure that everyone had a share in the community’s resources. They let go of control, and let go of power, so that human needs could be met.

In ways that are still countercultural, they relinquished the power of the purse for a greater good, the well-being of the whole people of God. They recognized that within the body of Christ, everyone  has a role – their spiritual leadership of the community did not lead to micromanaging or power plays, or a sense of spiritual superiority, but a vision of shared responsibility. Perhaps, their selfless  leadership inspired the Apostle Paul’s vision of the multi-gifted body of Christ in which the well-being of one shapes the health of the whole body and the whole body, operating effectively, provides nurture and support for each constituent part. (pp. 67, 68)

Giving up control and choosing to act. When we have acted, we choose to learn from that action and act again.

What has impressed me about the church, not to mention my own life, is what a difference we could make if we simply acted on the things we already know are right. Yes, new information is good, but we have a tendency to collect the information and fail to perform the actions. There are many controversial things. But if we laid those aside and simply acted on what we know to be right, what might happen?

I doubt that church would like like the church in America at this moment.

Seven Marks: Baptism

Seven Marks: Baptism

nt church books(This continues a series that started here, and continues with part 2, part 3, and part 4.)

The second mark of a New Testament church according to Dr. David Alan Black is Christian baptism. He explains why he explicitly uses the term “Christian” with baptism. There’s a distinction there that’s important and Dave discusses it. Here’s the video. The discussion of Christian baptism begins at about 08:45.

There are several things that Dave says about baptism that I fully agree with. He believes in baptism by immersion of believers, i.e., people who make the choice to be baptized. He also believes baptism should immediately (or very closely) follow the decision. I also, however, believe that this is an area on which there should be a great deal of tolerance for differences.

For example, I attend a United Methodist congregation. The norm is to baptize infants and then confirm them as youth. I grew up in a church (Seventh-day Adventist) where one dedicated children as infants and then baptized them when they made their own decision. I made my decision to be baptized at age 9.

While I strongly prefer one option, and many of my reasons are the same as Dave’s, I am quite able to be a member of a church where the practice is different. I would note that the United Methodist Discipline does allow for baptism by immersion, so a United Methodist pastor can practice believer’s baptism by immersion. He or she could not, however, refuse to perform infant baptisms, at least as I understand it. I know that some Methodist pastors are quite dogmatic on the point. My preference would be to see a quite open choice. For example, if a family prefers some kind of baby dedication, where is the problem? Again, I also know a number of Methodist pastors who would go along with that.

I’m going to refrain from arguing the biblical material on this. I think Dave has gone over that quite well, and in this case I am substantially in agreement.

Let me bring in short quotes from our other two authors.

Ruth Fletcher brings in a completely different issue that may cause some concern to United Methodist readers, or those from any other church that has a fairly high view of sacraments. I’m quoting from Thrive, page 141:

As the church finds its way into the future, the role of clergy will shift even more than it already has. Although some ministers will preach and lead worship, many will give their time to training lay people as worship leaders and small group facilitators. Although some will offer pastoral care, that care will extend beyond the members of the church into the neighborhood. Although some will teach, that teaching will focus on equipping individuals to serve in various roles both inside and outside the church. The sacramental tasks of baptizing, leading in communion, presiding at weddings and funerals increasingly will be shared with people beyond those who are ordained.

Here I would have to say two things. First, I personally don’t see that baptism should require an ordained person. Second, as a member of a community that requires that an ordained person carry out any baptism, I will not put my first belief into practice. That is a matter of submission to the community. While I would forcefully argue for and even insist on using the community’s permission with regards to the method and time of baptism, I would also argue that where my community has a firm position, I should, as a member, live in accordance with that rule. Nevertheless I do believe that every member should be in ministry, and that ordination should not be reserved for one gift or set of gifts but should be for all. We should lay hands on and commission every member to minister using their gifts.

Let me continue with a slightly longer quote from Bruce Epperly in Transforming Acts (p. 85):

Such dramatic experiences – whether evangelical or mystical in nature – are not normative for all Christians. Some of us are born Christian. As cradle Christians, we are dedicated or baptized as infants, and then grow in grace not by drama but through a gentle, day to day walk with God. Nevertheless, most of us eventually face moments in which we have to say “no” to one way of life – or certain behaviors or lifestyles – to say “yes” to another.

Providence is both gentle and dramatic. We can experience God, while we are playing with our children and looking across the table at a beloved spouse or friend; we may also discover God in the storms of life, helpless yet saved by a power beyond ourselves.

Third, Paul’s Damascus road experience invites us to connect our spiritual experiences, whether at worship, at camp, or on the road, with discovering our vocation and mission in life. Paul is clear that his mystical experience was not an end in itself, but an invitation to a new self-understanding and vocation as God’s messenger to the Gentile world.

Bruce is talking about the dramatic conversion experience of Paul, which relates in some ways to baptism. Numerous times I’ve encountered people who do not remember a time when they did not know Jesus. They don’t recall a particular decision moment, because they were believers from as early as they can remember. In some ways, my own view of baptism as a thing to be chosen by believers relates to my own experience. I grew up in a Christian home, but I distinctly remember the time when that belief became mine rather than someone else’s. It was no longer my parents’ faith. It was mine. That was at my baptism.

Who Needs Evangelism?

Who Needs Evangelism?

nt church books(This continues a series that started here, and continues with part 2 and part 3.)

Dave’s first mark of a New Testament church is evangelistic preaching. (Book: Seven Marks of a New Testament Church.) I’m a member of a church that’s part of a mainline denomination. I’m a mainliner. In general, we don’t like the word “evangelism” or related terms like “evangelistic.” You can watch Dave’s remarks starting about about 4:45 in the video and runs for about 4 minutes.

In the book Dave calls this sign “evangelistic preaching.” The word “evangelism” here is used to emphasize that this is not the kind of preaching we normally think of when we hear the word “preach” in modern English. The preacher preaches and sermon and the congregation says “Preach it, brother!” This, on the other hand, is not speaking to the congregation in order to teach them about the faith of which they are already a part. Rather, this is proclamation of the message to those who haven’t heard it before.

The word “evangelism,” and of course the related word “evangelistic” has a bad reputation in mainline circles. (Remember that I’m thinking about this in the context of being a member of and working in a United Methodist congregation.) I don’t particularly mind if people want to avoid the word, just so long as we don’t avoid the activity. Mainliners have an excellent way of avoiding ineffective or offensive methods of evangelism: We just do no evangelism at all. By offensive I don’t mean offense at the gospel itself. There are those who are offended, for example, if I say that Jesus loves even terrorists. That’s fine. I’m still going to say it. Jesus does love them. On the other hand if I say, “You bigoted moron, Jesus loves terrorists as much as he loves you,” it’s quite possible the hearer will be offended (quite justifiably) at being called a bigoted moron and may never even hear the second part.

It’s especially important to realize that people can disagree with you without being bigots or morons. It’s even more important to remember that Jesus loves everybody, and that includes bigots as well. In fact, it would be really great if we quit thinking of people in those categories. Challenge their ideas or their actions as dangerous, but value everyone as a person, especially those you find hard to value.

9781631990465mDave used one way to say “evangelize” in the video when he said “share the love of Jesus with them.” How do I do that? Well, it starts with learning to love them myself. It’s much easier to act from love if you do actually love. Then fit your proclamation, whether in actions, words, or any combination of them, to the particular situation.

We’re going to share the love of Jesus much more effectively when we do it because we are loving like Jesus, rather than doing it in order to build church membership, build up our personal count of people saved, or justify ourselves and our way of life. If we thought of evangelism as “sharing the love of Jesus” I think we would find that easier to remember.

Dave starts with this point because that’s where the passage he’s using, Acts 2:37-47, starts. The passage starts there because this is the historic moment. We won’t always find ourselves with an audience that needs to hear words.

Bruce Epperly, in Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel, also presents proclamation in his first chapter. The details are different, the text is different (Acts 17), but I think you’ll see the connection (pp. 13-14):

9781938434648sThe description of Paul’s message at the Areopagus rings a familiar bell for twenty-first century North Americans. Paul is sauntering through the marketplace of spiritualities – it could be Cambridge, Ann Arbor, Berkeley, Madison, or Washington DC where I live. He is gazing at the seat of intellectual, political, and spiritual power and prestige. Statues are everywhere, not unlike Washington DC, London, Paris, or Beijing – to gods and heroes, sacred and secular, known and unknown – each portraying a certain vision of human life and ultimate reality. Paul is both amazed and scandalized at the panorama of diverse and conflicting spiritualities.

Jewish by upbringing and theology, Paul is overwhelmed by the thought of people worshiping objects that are less alive than themselves. Perhaps, he is amazed that people still worship gods such as Zeus who are not only promiscuous in their dalliances with human beings but also vindictive, angry, and punitive. Why would anyone worship raw power when you can experience God’s love? Why would anyone follow a religion of fear when he or she could experience God’s loving acceptance, grace, and companionship? Why would anyone exalt the gods of violence when the prince of peace welcomed them with open arms?

He engages in conversation with some of the local spiritual leaders and philosophers of the city. They don’t know quite what to make of his vision of a universal God, whose life cannot be contained by statues or institutions, and whose love was manifest in a suffering savior. “Tell us more,” they ask, because like our culture, they lived with gods aplenty – there as many religious options as there are cable or dish television stations.

Paul enters into dialogue, honoring their religiosity, affirming their quest, but suggesting another better alternative, the path of salvation and wholeness pioneered by Jesus of Nazareth who was unjustly crucified, but miraculously resurrected to bring healing and wholeness, transformation, and love to all creation. There is an “unknown God,” whose wisdom is luring us forward even when we are unaware of it, and this is the God Paul has experienced through his encounters with Jesus Christ.

Here we tie a different portion of our modern experience to a different portion of the book of Acts. Does the book of Acts seem more relevant to you with either of these approaches?

Now let’s get a taste of how Ruth Fletcher talks about this. Remember that she starts from looking at thriving churches and asking: “How did it happen?” The following is from pages 53-54 of Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations, which talks about Spiritual Habit 5 – Engaging:

9781631992070sEvery once in a while, those foreign missionaries would visit the congregation, telling tales of difficult living conditions and cultural challenges they had encountered while trying to share the good news of Jesus Christ in some exotic location. Some were doctors who brought healing to those who were sick. Some were teachers who helped young people learn and grow. Some were engineers who helped villages dig wells and install sewer systems. Some were evangelists who established new churches.

I remember listening to their presentations, being impressed by their stories, and feeling just a little bit glad that they would be returning to the dangers of the mission field while I would go back to putting my change in the offering box in the safety of my own home. Of course, I was not the only one who took comfort in being able to leave the mission work to the professionals; in those days, most members of historic Protestant churches were content to offer their monetary support and prayers for others who would travel to the mission field, out there, over there, while they stayed within the familiar circle of congregational life.

Yet transforming congregations do not just play a supportive role in the mission of the church; they actively participate in that mission. They see that the mission field of the 21 st Century begins at the church’s doorstep and stretches out into the neighborhood and into an interconnected, interdependent world. They understand themselves to be the missionaries who are called and sent, ready or not, to engage in making real God’s New Creation. [emphasis mine]

Now Dr. Fletcher is going to get involved in scripture in the next few paragraphs, but again, look at the starting point.

Also, while the position is different, some focus on mission, evangelism, proclamation, or perhaps we should just say “sharing the love of Jesus” is part of this basic approach for all three authors.

Now you’ll find differences in many areas. That’s part of what I want to celebrate. I believe that as I move to a new congregation (no, I’m not a church professional, just a member), and try to work with my fellow-members of the body of Christ, the ideas of gotten from learning from these three different authors are going to help. What is it that God is calling me to do to share his love in and with this new church community? I’m sure I’ll be finding out soon!

I’m embedding below my interview with Dr. Ruth Fletcher. I don’t have a full interview with Bruce Epperly on this topic, though we’ve discussed a number of his other books in various interviews. Just press “Play” to get rid of my picture and see and listen to Dr. Fletcher!

Experience, Belief, Action: An Exercise from Bruce Epperly

Experience, Belief, Action: An Exercise from Bruce Epperly

9781938434648sI will be putting more material from Bruce Epperly in as I post more on the church, but here’s an exercise he suggests in his book Transforming Acts, pp. 19-20.

Acts of the Apostles is clear that doctrines are symbiotically related to behavior. Our doctrines emerge from spirit-centered experiences. Our experiences are clarified by our beliefs and take shape in practical application. Accordingly, what behaviors might your beliefs inspire in the areas of:
»» Personal stewardship
»» Care of family and children
»» Marriage and other significant relationships
»» Community involvement
»» Political involvement
»» Care of the Earth
»» Response to diverse opinions
»» Ways we respond to personal or global conflict (violence, reconciliation, consensus, peace-seeking balanced by appropriate protection).
»» Involvement in justice issues – first-hand support of vulnerable people and/or political involvement to achieve a social order more reflective of Jesus’ values.

One of the great strengths of Bruce’s book is that he challenges us at the end of each chapter to thoughtfully and prayerfully move to action.

Some Lessons from Tilling My Garden

Some Lessons from Tilling My Garden

Well, my prospective, perhaps presumptive garden, that is.

One of the important elements to understanding stories in the Bible, parables included, is our perspective. In Christian circles, when we hear “the sower went forth to sow,” (Matthew 13:3), or perhaps “a farmer went out to sow his seed,” we generally see ourselves in the role of the one doing the planting. We are evangelising, and people have different kinds of hearts. Have you ever heard someone describe another person as being rocky ground? Or perhaps someone has said, “He’s trying to dig some hard ground there!” Usually these expressions are used regarding targets of evangelism.

garden and tillerI’ll mention evangelism later, but first, let me place myself in the role of one receiving the seed. Is that not what I do when I pray and hope to hear from the Lord? Is that also not what I do when I open my Bible and hope to be changed by God’s message? So I am the ground, not the sower.

But let me tell you the story of my garden thus far. Fortunately for me, I have few plans that involve saving money on food, supplementing my diet, or saving on the food budget. I had one purpose in starting a garden: I need to spend more time in physical activity. Now I’m a bit of a workaholic. I have a hard time not doing anything. The easiest way to get myself to do what I need to do was to make it into work. Then I can feel good while I do it.

So I picked a plot on our little place out here and started to work on it. It has gone through being broken up with an excavator (at which time I killed power to my office and broke our water line, but that’s another story), lots of hoeing and raking, and digging up of roots and rocks. This morning I finally got to the point of being ready to actually till the plot. My previous work had been aimed, not at getting the soil ready for actual planting, but at removing obstacles. I have a large pile of brush, roots, and rocks at either end of the plot, things I have removed as I worked.

Then I had a period of time when I was just too busy with work. Between my work with computers and computer networks and my publishing work, I was simply overwhelmed. The phone would ring by 8 am and I wouldn’t get that much done outside. What do you suppose happened? Well, the plot got some new growth, but not the stuff I want to grow, of course, since I hadn’t yet planted. So out came the weedwacker, the hoe, and finally the rake.

Today I finally got to the tiller. That’s the tiller, in the picture to the left. I borrowed it from my friend Tom Hunt. If you need a floorplan done for a new house, he’s the one to go to.

There were some interesting things about using the tiller as well. Weeds leave behind small roots that tend to wrap themselves around anything available. No matter how may rocks you’ve removed there may be a few more. Run the tiller in a couple of directions. The pile of dirt from one pass may hide some hard soil. Power tools are great, but I ended my morning session more tired than when I worked with the hoe. The tool helps, but the human still better put heart and back into the effort.

Let me apply these to Bible study just a bit. You might want to reference my post from yesterday. Here are some thoughts I had while listening to that wonderful purr (or roar) of the tiller motor.

  1. Different tools accomplish different things. No matter how much you may have gotten with one approach, try taking another look from another angle or with some different help.
  2. Weeds don’t stay dead. You’re never really done. It’s easy to get complacent and think you already have it covered. Now it’s all about telling other people. Don’t get in that place. If you neglect your heart garden for a while, you may find the ground hardening and the weeds getting tall.
  3. Don’t imagine that a period of neglect is the end. That’s what weedwackers, hoes, shovels, rakes, and tillers are for. Those of you who have forgotten your biblical languages after seminary, consider this as well. How about working on reviving them? Yes, I believe you can study the Bible effectively without the biblical languages, but after investing all that time and effort wouldn’t you like the benefit of that tool?
  4. Don’t be blind to the rocks that are still there. You may have removed bunches of rocks, yet there are still some to find and remove. I often joke with Jody that it would be nice if I could measure the quality of my cleaning by the quantity of dirt I removed and not by what was left. Read 1 Corinthians 8:1-3 if you’re thinking you’re good!
  5. Tools help but they don’t do the job. I love Logos Bible software. I love sites that let me compare versions (BibleGateway.com, for example). But these things don’t do your studying for you. They will make you more efficient. Many Bible students amass information and yet don’t get to what the text is saying to them. I was reminded of that forcefully as I moved the tiller through my prospective garden. It did more work than I could have accomplished with the hoe, but it still required me to make the application!
  6. Sometimes you get so tangled with the weeds that you can’t really go on clearing and tilling. I experienced this as left-over weeds and roots tangled up the tiller. I had to stop and clear the blades so the tiller could work efficiently. I’ve experienced this in preparation for teaching my Eschatology series on Google Hangouts on Air (link to next session, Thurs. night at 7 pm central time). Eschatological views are based on many, many texts, and there are many, many views on each of these texts, plus mountains of theology done to tie them together or explain them away. It’s very easy to get so tangled in the details that you can’t see the actual text in front of you. I bounced this off my wife Jody, who has a practical mind set. I asked her to read Mark 13 the other day and then question me about it. She had a set of questions that helped clarify the chapter.

I’m sure there are many more lessons, but those are the ones that occurred to me as I worked this morning. But does any of this apply to evangelism?

  1. Quit trying to judge the people you witness to. You can’t see what’s under the ground.
  2. The best way to witness is to till your own heart. I can’t emphasize this enough. Most people can tell very quickly if you’re trying to use them for something else. So if you are making relationships with other people in order to convert them or make them into church members, they’re going to get that feeling. But if you are genuine and genuinely care about them, they will also know that.
  3. The Christian life and Christian witness isn’t a strategy. See #2. Enough said!
  4. God is the one who changes people. You witness. God acts. Be humble enough to give God the credit. Be humble enough to let God take the responsibility.

Do you see what happened? Quite frankly, all the lessons but one applied to me. As for reaching others, I have one duty: plant the seed. Now planting the seed can be complex, but I suggest that it starts with some of the points I made above. Let God’s word impact your life. Continue to let God’s word impact your life. Continue some more letting God’s word impact your life. Continue yet much more letting God’s word impact your life.

You’ll impact the lives of others.

 

Keys to a Church Following Jesus

Keys to a Church Following Jesus

Before I dig into this series organized around Dave Black’s book Seven Marks of a New Testament Church, I want to make a couple of off-the-cuff remarks.

Over the last few years I’ve come to believe that we have two key elements that need to be changed, but more fundamentally, we keep talking about the church too much differently than we talk about individuals. As individuals, we need to be following Jesus, not just appropriating the label “Christian.” As a church, we need to be following Jesus. Those who are following Jesus will be witnesses. A church following Jesus is a witness.

What do I see as the two key elements?

  1. Lack of Bible study and reflection. I see this broadly, as in study that leads us closer to God.
  2. We do not lead lives of prayer. This differs from praying occasionally, or offering pre-written prayers in a church service.

I think that if we were to correct these two elements, others would correct themselves. I need to correct them as well. There are those who commend me on my biblical knowledge and who consider me a man of prayer. (Others, not so much!) But the fact is that I don’t live up to the standards I believe in. While we are, indeed, all imperfect, we can all keep heading in the right direction.

I also think these two elements are much more closely connected than is generally realized. Prayer should be communication, conversation, not a monologue directed at God. Bible study should include the discipline of listening and a constant process of opening one’s self up to what God has for one in scripture.