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Mark Love

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Jerry Taylor will be preaching from Ezekiel 37, the valley of dry bones, and if that doesn’t give you goose bumps of anticipation, then you don’t know either Jerry Taylor or Ezekiel 37 well enough. AND, we will have an African-American church choir lead in that period of worship. Can’t wait.

And while we’re talking preaching, I can’t wait to hear Mallory Wyckoff preach on the groaning of the Spirit and of all creation from Romans 8 in our closing worship. I’ve had Mallory as a student in the Lipscomb DMin program and she is top shelf.

And while we’re mentioning women from Nashville, Claire Frederick Davidson will be doing a “VH1 Storytellers” type presentation, featuring songs written by women in the Tennessee Women’s Prison. Claire’s an accomplished performer and budding theologian who has participated in a project with other Nashville songwriters to bring the words of these women to music. Can’t wait.

And we’ll have other storytelling as well. In Ted-talk format, presenters will be sharing stories of the Holy Spirit, both from their ministry context and from history. Stories from charismatic-Anglican, Disciples of Christ, Churches of Christ, inner city Chicago and Detroit will be told alongside Acts 2, the Montanists, Cane Ridge, Azusa St, the Civil Rights movement, etc. I can’t wait.

I can’t wait, and I haven’t even talked yet about our main presenters.

If you don’t know Amos Yong’s work, you should. He’s a serious theologian and a serious pentecostal, and those things haven’t always gone together. He’s doing so many important things by making pneumatology (teaching/experience related to the Holy Spirit) the centerpiece of contemporary theology. One by one, he finds a new way forward where theology has been at an impasse. And he takes current philosophical and historical perspectives seriously, avoiding the charge of anti-intellectualism so often associated with pentecostal life. Can’t wait.

And it will be so great to sit at Leonard Allen’s feet again. Here’s a Church of Christ guy who brings deep experiences of the Spirit together with searching theology. I find Leonard an enthralling presenter and know you will too. Can’t wait.

There are a few theological adjustments that are absolutely necessary if the word missional is going to mean anything more than churches doing more outreach. One adjustment is related to eschatology and the coming Kingdom of God. The other is the move toward a more participatory understanding of God as Triune. And for both, the Holy Spirit is front and center.

Put more directly, there is no participation in the mission of God apart from the empowering of the Holy Spirit.

If you’re planning to come, registration before September 1 gives you a discount.

If you’re planning to come, share this post with your friends.

If you’d like to come, share this post with your friends.

Holy Spirit, come.

Originally published at Mark’s blog Dei-liberations, in this post. Mark has an outstanding blog and we hope you will take a few moments to head over there and read a few of his posts. His writing is always a blessing.

MarkLoveLast blog, I pursued the question of one of my students. If N.T. Wright is correct that justification by faith is not the heart of Paul’s gospel, what does that look like in church life. I began my response by suggesting that it fundamentally changes the way we think about evangelism. And this, in turn, changes pretty much everything else. Evangelism is the clearest place where a church’s theology becomes visible. A change here is a change everywhere. My working proposal is that congregations enact whatever they think salvation is (this is the focus of my dissertation).

So, if you think salvation is centered in the experience of the individual, the experience of the individual becomes the focus of the congregation. And I think this one single fact explains most of evangelical Christianity for the past 200 years or so.

You don’t think so? Ask an elder or a minister if they have anything in their bag of tricks that trumps personal dissatisfaction at church. I don’t like the preaching. I don’t like the worship. I’m just not being fed by this style of preaching. There aren’t programs here for me or my kids. I don’t like the songs we sing. Now, I’m not saying that elders and ministers don’t have good responses to these complaints (though my hunch is that the answer most often given is some version of, “give us time, we can make you happy”). I’m saying they don’t work. Personal dissatisfaction always wins.

OK, need another? How many churches do you drive past on Sunday morning to get to “your” church? What does that say about what you think church is? It used to be that we drove to the church that was our denomination. The denomination expressed a particular theological understanding. As many have told us, denominational loyalty is a thing of the past. Now, I’m no fan of denominations per se, but I don’t think this is the unmitigated positive many of my friends think it is. It says to me that now not even denominational stances can trump personal preference. This could very well be the final triumph of the personal. We call this consumerism and I think its pretty much the opposite of the gospel.

Need another? Next time you go to church, ask yourself what constitutes the bullseye this church is aiming at? (I know horrible grammar, but it sounds so stuffy to say it with good grammar). I think about three things when I ask this question: is the church aiming at the interior life of the individual? the communal life of the congregation?or the conditions of the world that God loves? I think all three should be present, but if one predominates, you may have trouble. And our trouble is around the interior life of the individual. The songs? Definitely the interior of the individual. As several have noted, much of contemporary worship music sounds like “Jesus is my boyfriend.” The sermon? Most sermons I think are aimed at inspiring the inner life of the individual. Communion? Individual portions, private meditation. Children’s worship? Theater seating? Youth groups?

Now, I’m not saying that any of these things are bad in and of themselves. Well, maybe a few of them. What I am saying is that taken together they say that our congregations are built primarily around the experience of the inner life of the individual.

One last example. Because of all of this, the congregation’s life is nearly totally self-referential. It exists to serve the needs of its members and to make the number of members higher. The neighborhood in which it exists is secondary at best, totally inconsequential at worst. And because Sunday worship is the raison d’être of the consumer church (I think of Craig Van Gelder’s quip that in North America worship has replaced Christianity), the congregation too easily can distinguish between its inner life and “outreach.” The same kind of compartmentalization that happens in Christians who think their inner life is one thing and their business practice another, happens in the congregation where what happens within the congregation is church and what happens outside is benevolence or outreach. What happens inside is being (primary), what happens outside is doing (secondary). So, periodically we go to a poor neighborhood and clean things up or serve a meal. This is something we do, but its not our way of life. (Don’t get me started).

I think all of this is the fruit of seeing the gospel as being primarily about the eternal happiness of the individual.

But if we see the gospel as the announcement of the nearness of the Kingdom of God, then many of these things change. As George Hunsberger has put it, the church exists not as a vendor of religious goods and services, but as a sign and foretaste of the Kingdom of God. So, what would this kind of church look like? In other words, it exists fundamentally to “picture” what the realities of the eschaton will be. And while this has certain intrinsic benefits for individual well-being, the Kingdom of God is fundamentally a new social, or even ecological, set of affairs under God’s rule or reign. As Mary sang, “he has exalted the lowly and sent the rich away empty.” As Jesus says, “who are my brother and mother and sisters? Those who hear the word of God and do it.” As his enemies said of Jesus, “he eats with tax collectors and sinners.” As Paul said, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.” Or in another place, “all creation will be set free from its bondage to decay and experience the glorious liberty of the children of God.” Or in another place, “welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed you for the glory of God.” Or as John saw it, a slain lamb conquers every imperial power, a victory that brings with it a new heaven and a new earth. The church lives to point to these coming realities.

And I have little idea what that church looks like completely, because I have never been a part of one. But I have some clues.

It will not be an aggregate of individuals who drive past other churches to find the church of their preference. Rather, the church will consist of people belonging to specific neighborhoods, overcoming the powers of sin and death and working for human flourishing among their neighbors. The church will not be built around the interior life of the individual, but around the work of the Holy Spirit in creating new social realities among people in actual neighborhoods. I’ve long said that these new Christian communities will not be asking as their primary question, “how can we get people to belong to us?” Rather, their orienting question will be, “how in Jesus’ name do we belong to these people?”

There are groups living this way. I think of the new monastic movements, or the important networks forming around The Parish Collective. These are important harbingers, I think, of congregations that are living in a story larger than justification by faith. Living with and among people is not “outreach,” but a way of life. The raison d’être for these communities is not the Sunday assembly, but the loving of God and neighbor every day.

These groups are going all in, now. They are living in ways that subvert contemporary congregational life and offer a clear alternative. Most of us, however, won’t choose the radical option. Nor, do I think, should we. I think that incremental steps can be taken that allow our existing congregations to lean into a different future. And I think that congregations can learn to give their lives away over time to experiments like these, and find that this doesn’t threaten the church’s life, but makes it more vibrant. Steps in a different direction. I’ve got a million of these.

Write new music where salvation isn’t just about me and my boyfriend, Jesus.

In calls to worship, take notice of all of creation which longs to glorify God, and someday will. Build windows into your sanctuary. Recognize the world.

Stop talking about ministering “to” others, which reinforces the inside-outside distinctions, but find people “with” whom you are partnering to serve the coming Kingdom of God.

Spend as much time preparing members to love and engage their neighborhoods and workplaces as you do to participate in the “ministries” of the church. And not simply as a means to make individual converts, but as a way for God’s shalom to be more present in everything.

Find ways to receive communion that demonstrate that God is overcoming human distinctions to create a new family around the table of the Lord. Gathering around a table might be the way to do that.

Nail a sign above the door on the way out of the sanctuary that says, “servant’s entrance” (this is a George Hunsberger story).

Take to heart this little bit of pastoral wisdom: spiritual discontent is seldom the result of your needs not being served. It’s more likely the result of living a life that requires no power outside of the self. Pastoral care and customer service are not the same thing, and often they are exactly the opposite.

Stay on message: the gospel is not that we can be self-realized, but that we can belong to something bigger than ourselves.

I could go on and on, but the shift that Wright and others are describing theologically will change nearly all of our patterns. We’ll know we’re closer when people complain less about not liking the style of the songs.

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Re-posted by permission from Mark’s blog Dei-liberations. If you don’t follow Mark’s blog he is an excellent writers and thinker. You may want to consider subscribing to his posts, which you can do on his home page on the right sidebar.

Mark is Dean for the School of Theology and Ministry and Director for the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College.

MarkLoveOne of my grad students recently attended lectures by NT Wright at Oklahoma Christian University. (Kudos to OCU for getting Wright). These presentations hit my student after a course he took from me this semester, “Gospel and Cultures.” This course is a sea change for most students due to the fact that the default definition of gospel for most people is some view of substitutionary atonement. It’s a little jarring for some to realize that this is not the way Scripture talks about gospel. Instead of the gospel being a theory about how an individual has their sins forgiven, Scripture pretty consistently refers to gospel as an announcement (news) that the coming of Jesus (notably his death and resurrection) marks a dramatic turn of the ages in which the future reign of God is breaking into the present–the Kingdom of God.

Now, again, as I’ve had to caution often in posts like these, this doesn’t mean that the salvation of the individual isn’t important to God. Nor does it mean that the coming of Jesus doesn’t bring forgiveness of sins. It simply means that these are subsumed under a much bigger understanding of salvation–an understanding that is more in keeping with the biblical testimonies. Salvation means ultimately that God is all-in-all, that his glory is restored to all God has created, or as Ephesians says it, “all things, whether in heaven or on earth, will be gathered up into Christ.” It means that there is the possibility of one new human family “in Christ.” It means that creation will be “set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” It means that human lives can live free from the powers that impinge and distort our lives, and live instead by powers that will endure into the eschaton.

So, salvation is not so much a status that we own, but a realm that God owns in which we participate.

Now, I share with my students what I in turn received from others, including NT Wright. I was relieved that my student recognized in Wright’s lectures things that he had read for our class. In an email about his experience, he made the following statement:

So after our gospel discussions in class, hearing NT Wright say that Paul’s central message is not “justification by faith,” and reading your baptism posts on your blog, I have a question that is constantly on my mind.  One of the reviewers of Wright’s new Paul book (Dr. Thompson from ACU) asked a great question.  Now that we have this new view of Paul and his writings, what does this look like “on the ground” for the church?   

So, let me see if I can spend some time on this question. And let me begin with a caveat. We’ve been organizing church around a more individualistic notion of gospel and salvation for quite some time now. It will take us some time to figure out where this impulse will lead. I understand the need for the question, but I’m always a little struck that when encountered with something new we feel the need for a certain mastery over it before we lean into it, i.e. “What does this look like?” Not, “How will we learn to trust God in this time of transition?”

Let me start, though, with a scene from last night at Starbucks. I was sitting uncomfortably close (within my introvert perimeter) to a young couple having a very passionate conversation about God. She was a winsome evangelical. He was a skeptical something-or-other. She was giving this her all, because it seemed to me, they were serious about each other, but she could only marry a Christian. This was an all-or-nothing moment for her and she was pulling out all the stops. And she was getting creamed.

She was not getting creamed because she lacked the intellectual ability or because he was a better debater. She was getting creamed because she had a story that’s tough to defend. It wasn’t just that he disagreed with her. He was offended by her view of God.

Her story was predictable. All of us are sinners, and it takes only one to make us unacceptable to God. And there’s hell to pay, literally. God can’t simply forgive us our mistakes. He has to have a victim before he can forgive, a blood sacrifice. So, he sends his own son to die for us, to appease his otherwise unappeasable wrath.

For the young man, this made God a monster. It failed for him precisely at the level of being moral. God really can’t forgive me for a mistake unless someone dies? With all that’s wrong with the world–disease, war, hunger, slaver–God is obsessed with who I sleep with? He kept telling her that he was a good person who cared for others and took care of the earth and cared about global issues of justice. God was going to send him to hell for pre-marital sex? (He did seem a little pre-occupied with sex).

Now, I won’t take time to dissect the particulars of her story or the problems with his critiques. I want to look at the starting place in her story. Her story had as its center the problem of individual sin. Everything flowed from that premise. As a result, her rhetorical strategy began with isolating him in his sin and warning him of the grave dangers to him personally.

Now let’s try on a story that doesn’t begin with the individual as the issue. What if she had started this way: we live in a world that is totally screwed up. Sex-trafficking, poverty, disease, environmental disasters. We’ve made a hash of it. (He agrees). And being a really good person isn’t the answer. We’re both really good people and know a lot of other really good people and we fix some things and some don’t get any better and some get worse (He agrees). Even science, which makes our lives better in so many ways, also threatens to wipe us from the face of the earth (He agrees). And my question is, where is God in all of this? (And he agrees and hopes you have a satisfying answer). The Christian story says that God has revealed his power in a story of selfless love, which is the opposite of what the Bible calls sin and identifies as the root of this whole mess. God’s solution to the problem is not power as “control over” the contingencies of this life. Rather, the Christian view of the world is that God suffers with us, joins us, endures with us, and works for justice through paths of faithful love. Love, not as an emotion, but love as a way of always acting for us. And ultimately, this is the power through which all things will be made whole. The death of Jesus on a Roman cross is a demonstration that there is no power or circumstance that places us outside of his love. And his resurrection from the dead says to us that the powers of sin and death don’t have the final word. And the church is a group of people who live by the power of this selfless love, which the Holy Spirit gives to us, and who live in resistance to all other powers that would shape life in distorting or unjust ways, who live as a sign of God’s future where all things will be made whole. This takes more than just good people or moral people. Christians hardly have that market cornered, but it takes people who share a commitment to this way of being in the world. And when you live this way with others, you learn to recognize the unmistakable ways that God shows up, like those moments of power when we learn to forgive each other the way God lavishly forgives us. And when I live in this story, I find myself being transformed by the love God. The way this world gets on you and in you and contaminates you and weighs you down with shame and guilt and condemnation is defeated. And this transformed way of life survives everything, even death. (There’s lots more, but this is a blog).

Maybe he buys it, maybe he doesn’t. But the point is a different starting place makes a huge difference. By moving the primary issue from the individual to creation and history, the story unfolds in a different way. And you might tell it differently than I did. For instance, Paul doesn’t tell it precisely this way. But he’s starting with a different audience. I was starting with the young man at the Starbucks. This variety of audiences is one reason the Bible doesn’t tell the story only in one way. If the Bible doesn’t, why should we? And I’m convinced that if we place ourselves inside of a different story, it will change the ways we do things as well. More on that.

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Re-posted by permission from Mark’s fantastic blog Dei-liberations. If you don’t follow Mark’s blog he is an excellent writers and thinker. You may want to consider subscribing to his posts, which you can do on his home page on the right sidebar.

Mark is Dean for the School of Theology and Ministry and Director for the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College.