This month: 183 - The Place of Obedience
Exploring the Heart of Restoration

Remember Me    Register ›

Archives for 115 – Navigating Change in Churches of Christ

What I’ve loved about Wineskins for over two decades now, is its safe environment to exchange our new ideas, or to even stretch our comfort zone.  I would like to utilize this format now to raise an issue none of us really want to face head-on, yet this common struggle is decimating us.

Take a deep breath, and let’s be brave together.  If there’s one great weakness we’ve mutually experienced through our blessed Restoration Movement, it is the inevitable fracturing within our fellowships.  Our tendency towards fragmentation is the “elephant in the room” and it is our Achilles tendon.

The main factor contributing to our division isn’t necessarily what we typically think it is.  Our main problem does not stem from the way we individually view Scripture, or how we might understand doctrinal positions like women’s roles, or even how we chose to worship.  I think those are all red herrings.

Our inability to maintain unity is due to our lack of one very particular skill.  Conflict resolution.

We are afraid of conflict because we are unequipped to manage it.  Our anxiety levels skyrocket at the mere thought of confrontation.  We therefore repeat an unhealthy cycle, over an over again, one that almost feels like a self-fulfilling prophesy.  Conflict, to be clear, isn’t the problem, but not knowing how to deal with it is killing our brotherhood.

I know about this fallout from a painful and very personal experience.  Several years back as I ministered in what could be described as a fairly mainline church, we eventually called up the “Church Doctor” when our corporate pain was unbearable.  Yes, we reached out to none other than Charles Siburt.  Two years after our work with Dr, Siburt concluded, the pain was still too raw for a slim percentage of our congregation, and nothing would satisfy this small group short of my departure.

This is a story that feels as old as time itself.  A church has a conflict, the minister moves on or there’s a new set of elders installed, and we repeat the same scenario three to five years later.  As a result, we all limp along, somewhat wounded, somewhat cynical.  Could this be why so many of our younger people shy away from our churches?

But that’s not the end of the story.  We can write a new chapter when God happens to breathe new life into those who are open to His moving.  It seems like the Spirit is closest to us in our most difficult times, or shortly thereafter.  And, afterwards, once the healing begins, we learn to apply some of the core Scriptures that instruct us on how to live as a community, on how to get along, on how to be the Body.

If we want to thrive in our congregations and see God’s Kingdom increase, we need a new perspective on conflict.  If you attempt to implement change, you can be sure there will be conflict.  Conflict is almost necessary for growth, because at its basic level conflict is nothing more the friction that happens as two or more opinions are shared.  Conflict is neither evil nor harmful, what makes conflict healthy or unhealthy is how we manage it.

Sadly, in our Movement we haven’t had the greatest history of dealing with our conflicts very well.  The good news is, once we acknowledge our very real problem, we can turn a new page and embrace our differences, and we can overcome our conflicts through practicing the one doctrine that unequivocally bonds us together, that being, Love.  It’s only by this Love that all people will know that we are His people.

Call me old fashioned, but maybe it’s time we revive an old saying in earnest, “In the essentials unity, in the non-essentials liberty, and in all things love.”

 

 

“Frozen Zoo Offers Last Chance for Some Species.” This was the headline from a February 12 Fresno Bee story. According to the article, San Diego Zoo researchers have spent 40 years amassing genetic material from 1,000 different species. These are all preserved in nitrogen-cooled, stainless steel vats—thus the Frozen Zoo moniker.

One of the most critical cases is that of the northern white rhino. Only five animals remain in the world, and none can reproduce. Some scientists are busy trying to find ways to save the white rhino.

But according to the article, not all scientists are thrilled with the money and resources spent on preserving dwindling species. According to Paul Ehrlich, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment, there are far higher priorities than saving white rhinos. “The Frozen Zoo is basically rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” He says that this distracts attention from more important issues such as loss of habitat and population growth. He argued that many species will go extinct by the time we artificially save one “lost cause.”

Oddly, this sounds like the same conversation we seem to have in our churches these days. Are we artificially preserving “dying species”? And in doing so, are we missing out on chances to make crucial changes? Are we truly addressing the more major problems that cause people to reject organized religion? Tough questions.

Social scientists talk about these issues by using two terms: technical change and adaptive change. Technical change is the kind of fix we make all the time using current skills and know-how. When my cable provider has an outage, it makes technical changes to the network in order to get it up and running again. When a restaurant decides to update its menu, it makes technical changes to its food ordering, preparation and signage.

Adaptive change, by contrast, requires skills and know-how that we don’t currently possess. Twenty years ago, the process of bringing telephones to residents of Third-World villages seemed impossible. To run phone wire and provide infrastructure using existing skills and know-how just couldn’t get the job done. But along came the adaptive change of mobile communication. Thanks to wireless phones, people in some of the world’s remotest places send texts, transfer money and talk to faraway friends and family—all using a technology that didn’t exist a couple decades ago. That’s an example of adaptive change.

Churches typically live in the world of technical changes: liven up the worship, hire a new preacher, build a new children’s wing, freshen up the weekly newsletter, add female scripture readers, install an espresso machine, and so forth. These changes may be helpful for a given church. They may even be necessary. But they all rely on current skills and know-how. They are in essence “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” They are all about US and OUR skills and know-how. They can’t address the cultural changes that surround us.

In the same way that many animal species face major problems from loss of habitat and climate change, our churches confront a world that is increasingly unchurched and even hostile toward organized religion. Folks on the outside view Christians as intolerant, prejudiced, and inhospitable. While a few mega-congregations seem to still thrive, most struggle to maintain numbers.

This is a challenge that requires adaptive change. Yet we tend to spend all our energy and capital on technical change. We’re fighting adaptive challenges with technical solutions. It’s no wonder we’re frustrated!

It’s not hard to be sentimental. When I stop and consider aspects of our faith that were still thriving when I was young, I feel grief over an age that is gone. From great four-part harmony to teen training programs to Sunday night services, these and many other components of congregational life were a critical part of my environment growing up. Many of these things were beautiful. They nurtured my faith. They helped make me who I am.

But that world is gone. The era that allowed those things to thrive is no longer our context. Our way of thinking and acting isn’t sufficient to stem the tide that is working against us.

What should we do? In faith, we have no choice but to turn and ask God to provide new skills, new know-how and—perhaps most importantly—new people. Together, these may lead us into new ways of thinking and acting that will realign us with the missional heart of God and bring our message of hope to a generation of people in need of God’s good news.

Here’s the key question: Is your church building a frozen zoo? Are you holding on to dying ways of doing things? Are you clinging to the belief that one day the world will magically change and that those things of a bygone age will once again find fertile reception? Are you rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?

Or here’s the alternative: Do you and your church recognize that we live in a changing world? Are you learning to trust God to provide for you? Are you realizing that you face challenges that you’ve never before seen and that require resources you don’t presently have? If so, then you are in a place where faith and divine provision can come together in new and exciting ways. The human-centric story (a focus on technical changes) so prevalent in many of our churches may be dying away. Thank goodness! As we fall on our knees in humility before God, a divinely inspired narrative (a movement toward adaptive change) can rise up that opens the way to gospel for the world around us.

In some ways, change is a dirty word among some churches. The mere mention of change jolts some church members so much that extra Lipitor is needed. Yet change is necessary and will happen, whether we are aware of it or even whether we agree with it. Some may disagree that change is necessary but this is just denying reality.

As we grow in faith, our understanding of scripture and how as a church we participate in the mission of God changes too. As our perspectives shift, so comes the need for actual change that can accommodate our new understandings. And for the sake of clarity, I am talking about change that is born out of biblical and theological conviction and a pragmatic need for how our churches live out such conviction.

However, as necessary as change is, it is never easy. The bigger the change, the more stressful and difficult it is. So how can our churches manage the process of change?

I want to suggest that churches need more grace. That is, churches must learn to practice more grace with each other.

Disembodied Gospel

Come with me to the Corinthian church for a few moments. The Corinthians are a pretty messed up church as we meet them in scripture. From what Paul tells us about them, they’re definitely not a model for how to do church.

For the sake of brevity, the main issue with the Corinthians is that they have failed to embody the gospel as their way of life. This has resulted in numerous problems, including selfish behavior as they gather for partaking in the Lord’s Supper together. While they should be gathering for this communion meal where everybody eats and drinks together, there are some who are eating and drinking while leaving others out. The problem is so egregious that some are even getting drunk while others are left hungry.

Paul’s remedy for this problem is reminding them of what the Lord’s Supper is about. In doing so, Paul does a little theology with them so that they might not only understand what they are doing as they partake of the Lord’s Supper but also understand how that shapes their practice with each other.

The Lords Supper and the Social-Practice of Grace

1 Corinthians 11:23-26 is a well known passage in many churches. Here is what Paul says:

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed took bread, and after he had given thanks he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, he also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, every time you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For every time you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.[1]

Our familiarity with this passage may cause us to overlook the deepness of what we are doing and saying when we partake of the Lord’s Supper. According to Paul, we are both remembering and proclaiming.

This act of remembering the body and blood of our Lord is rooted in Israel’s own observance of the Passover in which they would remember the grace God acted with in delivering them from Egyptian bondage.[2] So in partaking of the body and blood of our Lord, we are remembering the act of grace − his death upon the cross − by which God has delivered us from the bondage of sin and death. Yet, as we remember this act of grace, we are also proclaiming this act of grace as our only means of salvation. This proclamation of “the Lord’s death until he comes” looks to the past, present, and future.[3] In making this proclamation, we acknowledge that we continually receive this act of grace as our means of deliverance form sin and death − past, present, and future.

That sounds wonderful. It is very encouraging to know that in all of our struggles, we received this grace of God that assures us of our salvation until the Lord comes again. But then Paul begins in v. 27 saying, “For this reason…” and with those three words, we are reminded that the grace we have received must shape our social-practices as the church.

As Christ, So We

This is where our belief and practice converge. Such convergence involves what Miroslav Volf describes as an as-so structure so that “as God has received us in Christ, so we too are to receive our fellow human beings.”[4] Every Sunday as we gather and partake of the Lord’s Supper together, we are remembering and proclaiming the grace of God that we have received in Christ. So then, we must also extend the same grace towards each other. That is why Paul insisted that the Corinthians must wait for each other when they come together (v. 33).

When I think of church and change, I know it is difficult. There are miscommunications, misunderstandings, and sometimes just some unpleasant ways of treating each other. We come for a meeting tired from the day’s work, sometime bringing a lot of stress and personal struggle with us. Then someone says something but we hear something completely different or someone says something that does not sit right with us. So we are tempted to respond in our own negative way… perhaps saying something we’ll regret ten minutes later or perhaps saying nothing but instead letting a very minor matter fester with anger and resentment.

We need more grace for one another. We must learn to embody an assumption of grace with each other whereby we automatically grant the grace of forgiveness to each other for being less than perfect. This is not to suggest that we ignore those character issues where a Christian is repeatedly abusive towards others, trying to control and manipulate others to his or her own selfish desires. That is an entirely different issue. What I am talking about are the bad days that everyone of us have where we fail to put our best foot forward. It is then, in those moments and times, that we need to know that we are forgiven, that nobody is going to hold it against us. Why? Because we are a family who receives each other with the same grace we receive in “the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Change is never an easy process for any church but it is much easier for when we learn live with an assumption of grace towards each other. May it be so among us just as it is in the Lord, Jesus Christ!

_______________

[1] Taken from the NET Bible (New English Translation), 2005.

[2] Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997), 199.

[3] Ben Witherington III, Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 251.

[4] Miroslav Volf, Captive to the Word of God: Engaging the Scriptures for Contemporary Theological Reflection (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 46.

My grandfather took a ragged breath and continued, “Son, I never taught you to oppose the Lord. And I have the right to be hurt.” I had just informed my grandfather who had dedicated more than 50 years of his adult life to preaching in the conservative Churches of Christ that I disagreed with him. I told him that there was great likelihood that the Church of Christ where I serve as the preacher would soon add another worship service that would possibly include instrumental worship and incorporate women in public teaching roles. I had not called him to explain my theological rationale to him—I knew that he would not change his mind, nor would he change my mind on this. I had called him to be honest with him, to tell him that although I disagreed with him, I loved him and respected him.

He was hurt—he had a right to be. But in his hurt, he lashed out. He said he was ashamed of me. He told me that he hoped I failed, my church failed. He told me I had become an opponent of Christ and his church. He told me I was no longer in Christ’s kingdom. He told me that I was going to hell and he was withdrawing fellowship from me.

When my father left our family my senior year in high school, my grandfather stepped in and became the most influential and important man in my life. As he continued to rebuke me, I didn’t try to argue. I just repeated myself over and over. “I called to tell you that I love you. That I respect you. That even though I disagree, I care deeply about you. I called to ask you to still be my friend. Will you please be my friend, Papa? Please.”

I believe that it was hard for him to say, but in the end he said that he had to withdraw fellowship from me. I felt like I had begged the only father figure I had left to not leave, and he had left. It hurt.

 

[the original post has been edited by the author to be as fair as possible to my grandfather]

 

Honestly, this conversation was very recent, and I am still raw from it. I don’t share it so that I can relive the pain or buy some sympathy. I don’t share this to somehow impress you with my own maturity or self-control in a heated conflict, and I certainly don’t share it to run my grandfather down publicly. I mean this: It’s not about me. This conversation is one that many people have had with loved ones over issues like this, and I think that conversations like this are becoming more frequent for those with roots in our fellowship.

Here is what I know—the church of Christ has been arguing and dividing over interpretation for a long time. But lately the conversation has changed. And my disagreement with my grandfather is a clear example of this change. I believe that the current divisions we see cropping up in our fellowship are not about interpretations of scripture, but are more fundamentally about the use of scripture—about our understanding of the nature of scripture and its purposes.

In the past, our fellowship argued and divided over how to interpret the commands, examples, and inferences that we found in our Bible. Should the local church support orphan homes, have kitchens, have Sunday school, or fellowship divorced persons? All of these centered on which interpretation of the commands and examples and necessary inferences of scripture were most compelling. And in truth, we also argued over instrumental worship and women’s roles in the assembly along these same lines—and there was widespread uniformity at our conclusions, because we mostly assumed together that the scales were fair, all we had to do was pile up the arguments and measure.

Hill-hermeneuticsAndConflict

Honestly, the divisive issues that are currently facing the church of Christ are not any different than most of those in the past. Questions of instruments in corporate worship or women in public teaching roles are no more significant or substantial now than they were fifty years ago. But, I believe that the current disputes are very different in terms of essence. The difference is that now, instead of arguing about issues, we are arguing about how to argue over issues.

We find ourselves arguing over how to most healthily read the Bible altogether. Many in our fellowship (myself among them) no longer assume that a hermeneutic built on commands, examples, and necessary inferences is consistently correct or even healthy. So we find ourselves at an impasse, because neither side is playing the game with the same set of rules. We no longer all agree that the scales are fair—and some of us believe the scales are not even the best tool for the job at all.

This explains why when my grandfather brings up the “strange fire” of Nadab and Abihu, I want to ask him if he really believes the grand theological narrative of scripture would place that single story at a central place.

This is one of the issues at center of the dispute over women’s roles in public worship assemblies. “Conservatives” point to Paul permitting women to learn in silence and highlight the SILENCE part. “Liberals” point at the PERMISSION part and ask why we should presently use a text to oppress when it was originally intended by the author to liberate.

When “conservatives” urge people to Behold The Pattern, “liberals” start summarizing The Blue Parakeet.

The bottom line is that some of us are pointing out what we believe the Bible plainly says, and others of us are asking about how the Bible actually speaks in the first place.

Until we as a fellowship reconcile the hermeneutical question, we will struggle to really make headway with regard to our divisions. At best we will agree to disagree, and at worst, we will divide our fellowship and see more families undergoing the same heartache as mine. Churches must be willing to address the deeper question of hermeneutics before they can even begin to talk through questions of interpretation. What is troubling is that few seem willing to enter into this discussion about hermeneutics, I think, because it is hard.

For now, I am compelled to believe that it is a minister’s job to take the lead in equipping, modeling, and training those sheep in his/her care in how to read the Bible most healthily. And this is not a single sermon, or even a series of sermons on narrative theology and some caricatured straw man approach to the command, example, inference hermeneutic. Ministers must commit themselves to the long term process of the day-in and day-out application of the scripture to life—the rhythms of biblical reading, interpretation, and application we call Christian living.

Part of this, quite frankly, calls for much better preaching on our part. If we want our communities of faith to learn to read differently, our preaching must come from and exhibit the reading we want them to embrace and learn. Simply put, we have to stop being satisfied with moralism—preaching morals and virtues. Not because moral living or virtuous living is bad, but because the core of the gospel narrative of scripture is not becoming a better or more moral you. The point of the gospel narrative of scripture is that you are loved and chosen and God has done and will do everything to restore creation and redeem his people.

So, the point of—let’s say—Esther is not to tell people to be more courageous (yes, I have preached that sermon before). You might as well tell them to be prettier too. The larger point of Esther is that God is still at work to redeem everything, and God uses every opportunity—even our “diaspora” moments where we feel so weak and powerless and caught up in things beyond our control—to move forward on the mission of redemption. We are not forgotten. That is gospel in light of the biblical narrative as a whole.

And preaching the beatitudes won’t charge people to get better at being a peacemaker or increase their humility, as if it were a list of virtuous precepts that we must master to receive the promises that follow (and yes, I have preached that sermon too). Why would we try to make mourning sound virtuous (it’s mourning over sin, right? If only the text said that.)? The point of the beatitudes is to express how radically present the kingdom of God is—even and especially among those who in their grief, their brokenness, and their humiliation think they are being left out of God’s blessings—and to help us realize that God’s kingdom is bigger and better than we ever imagined. That is gospel in light of the biblical narrative as a whole.

When we as preachers and teachers relentlessly communicate everything in light of the grand story of the gospel (instead of stopping at the pop-psychology and expected personal piety boost that moralism offers), we begin to change the culture of Bible reading in our community. We begin to tap into the collective imagination that our church shares regarding scripture and how to use it.

This calls for great patience. It will take years to retrain our eyes to see something else, to get us to read something in a new light. And it will take much longer if we don’t learn to read together. We must cultivate space in our assemblies for us to read scripture together and imagine the world in light of that gospel truth together. Do we have room for this sort of practice and discussion in our services?

What makes all of this so hard is that it doesn’t necessarily have a really nice product at the end to offer as proof that the process was worth it. It is sort of like the difference in building a house and making a home. Building a house is an activity that has its value in the extrinsic product—the house. Making a home is an activity with intrinsic value that has its worth in the tickle-fights, bedtime stories, snuggling, and dinner tables of the actual ongoing process. But in the end, there is no tangible extrinsic product to point at.

Committing ourselves to changing a hermeneutic is messy. Shifting from a fractured or ineffective hermeneutic does not always result in a new hermeneutic that offers clear concise answers with easy handles. Shifting to a narrative theological hermeneutic will instead offer you nuance, complexity, questions, and a “more-art-than-science” finger-painting messiness that most of us don’t want to live with. I mean, finger-painting is fun to do with the kids, and maybe we’ll keep one piece of “art” as a keepsake, but would you finger-paint every wall of your house?

But the measuring of the worthiness of a hermeneutic by a product at the end seems to be ingrained implicitly in us. After all, don’t we want to point to something at the end of our scriptural exploration and be able to say it worked—look! our method produces faithful Christians. But, is it that simple? What if the value (worth…worthiness) is not in the product, but the process—what makes a Christian faithful is their continuing engagement with and abiding presence before God. What if the value of a hermeneutic is how well and how frequently and consistently it delivers the reader to surrender to God, reliance upon God, and bold trust in God? What if the value of Bible reading is not so easily found in the structures built as a result of reading, but in the reading itself?

Leading a community through a hermeneutical shift takes more patience, energy, time, and commitment than most of us have (certainly more than I have by myself). Oddly enough, this is why it is so essential that ministers commit themselves to others who can minister to them. Persistence and perseverance are communal practices.

As for me, the costs are real and the hurt is real. But I would rather spend myself doing this hard thing that will prepare our fellowship for the future than stay safe by letting our fellowship live hand-to-mouth when it comes to our reading of scripture… because I love the church.

 

———-

Postscript (added 02/26):
For everyone who has taken the time to read this (many more than I expected), I have a request:
Please pray for my relationship with my grandfather. He is such an amazingly good man with a true love for God and a zeal for his word. Yes, he lashed out in his hurt, and that was not right. But he is no villain. He is still one of my heroes and I love him deeply. Please pray that our relationship can weather this and God’s grace will make good out of this. Thanks. -AH

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.

____________________

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.

_______________

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.

CouchThe other day I was listening to a comedian on the radio tell a story that deeply resonated with me. Apparently his family had bought their first home and as they were moving their belongings into the house his wife was trying to decide where everything should go. He walked into the living room and placed the couch against the back wall, because it was the only place it would fit. But his wife was not sure that was the best place for the couch. She had him move it in front of the window, but it didn’t look right. She wanted the couch moved it to the other wall, but you couldn’t really see the TV. Next, they tried the fourth wall, but it stuck out over the doorway about two inches. They tried it in the middle of the room, but that just looked ridiculous. Finally, the wife decided they needed to put it against the back wall because that was the perfect place for the couch.

Just like that couch, the church has moved a lot over the last 1,500 years. After being established at Pentecost the church was remarkably unchanged for the first 300 years. According to the Acts Story, the early church met house to house and in the temple courts. They considered everything communal property and were willing to sacrifice for the good of others. (Acts 2:42-47). In 313 Emperor Constantine was the first one to move the couch with the Edict of Milan and in 380 Emperor Theodosius moves it again by making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. For the next 1,600 years through reformation and restoration we have moved the couch again and again trying to get it back to where God put it in the first place.

While our culture is in constant flux, the church stands in a unique position of trying to provide stability in an ever-changing world while remaining relevant to our culture. The question that every Church faces is how can we provide stability in a world that would rather get their news from The Daily Show on Comedy Central than the evening news. Our culture desperately needs the church to be relevant and for that to happen we must move the couch back to the place that God intended for it to be.

In the face of this change, I have hope. Over the last 15 years I have noticed an exciting trend in the communities where I have had the privilege to work and worship. There was a time when you moved to a new town the first thing you would look for was the name on the church sign. What I have noticed over the last 15 years is that fewer and fewer people care what name is on the building or even what doctrine is being preached and practiced. What they’re looking for is a place to belong, a place to be included, a place to be excepted. I’m a big believer in preaching good doctrine and for practicing good theology, but we have an opportunity to be relevant and to provide and answer to the bigger problem. As our culture continues to become more jaded and more isolated, the church can once again be the place where people of all kinds can come and find hope, help, love, and acceptance.

I wonder if there are times that we have been the Church for so long that we forgot what it is like to be the body. Where the world needs the Body, we have been offering them the Church. Where the world needs love and acceptance we have offered them tradition and structure. We have offered them what we thought they wanted and withheld what they really needed. We have moved the couch and we have no idea how to move it back.

For the past two years I have been volunteering in three different ministries learning what God designed the church to be. I am working with an adult center that serves adults with mental and physical disabilities, a men’s drug and alcohol rehab treatment center, and a hospitality center that feeds 120 homeless people daily. The language in these places is a bit salty, decent and in order allows for someone to act out a bit, and there have been a few times that I was a bit worried about what was going to be done or said. But in everyone of these places you can see Couchwhat the church is supposed to be; a place of true concern, acceptance, and love.

In these ministries I have seen folks reach out to comfort a fellow man in times of stress. I have seen folks sit and listen without condemning. I have seen folks share words of acceptance and forgiveness. I have seen hungry folks give the last piece of chicken to someone else who was hungry. What I have seen in these places is the very same thing I have seen in the people who walk into our doors on Sunday Mornings. It is the very same thing I see in the book of Acts when the Church was acting like the Body.

The Church flourished in the first century because it was a place of mutual sacrifice and acceptance. As our world seeks out new ways to find the truth, the church must be willing to navigate different ways to reach out to the broken people that are deeply loved by God. We must be willing to have the difficult conversations that keep people up at nights. We need a bit of satire in a world full of stress; we must understand the need for levity in a world full of anxiety. I am not sure that if Jesus walked into one of our worship services, those times we meet once a week and sit solemn faced looking at the back of one another’s heads, He would recognize it. For the church to survive and even flourish it must get back to the call to be a family; the place where folks who are struggling and broken can come together to uplift to encourage and support. We need to navigate the winds of change so that we can put the couch back where it was in the beginning.

cruiseshipThe inimitable Patrick Mead recently posted this story on Facebook

Breakfast at hotel before boarding ship. A man comes in greeting everyone. Asks me my name. Immediately says, “I’m a preacher for the Lord’s church in —-. Brother Mead, for shame. I saw your website with that woman on there.” He shakes his head to shame me. So how is your first day of vacation going so far?

“Your website with that woman on there” is a reference to a YouTube video of a female preaching intern who shared the pulpit at Patrick’s church one Sunday to fulfill a requirement for a course she was taking at Lipscomb. That is, the preacher was unhappy that Patrick’s elders allowed a woman to speak to their church about Jesus from the pulpit.

I’m wondering whether my reaction to the preacher’s remark is anything like anyone else’s? So before you read the rest of this post, pause a second and ask yourself: What was my first reaction to Patrick’s post? Read more »

ComfyShoesI like to go to church now and then
To hear I’m doing right is good news
I dress up so I do not offend
and wear my old, soft, comft’rble shoes.

I want my old soft comft’rble shoes
to tap my feet to gospel-and-blues
Church is a holy place
You’re there by walking, not grace
So wear your old, soft comft’rble shoes.

The Bible’s so convenient for me
It authorizes all the right “do’s”
And if you do a “don’t,” don’t you see,
You won’t have golden slippers for shoes.

I need my old, soft, comft’rble shoes
To walk the old paths that I choose
If I like ‘em, they’re hot
If I don’t like ‘em, they’re not
Authorized by comft’rble truths (I meant “shoes”!).

Repentance is a wonderful thing
For folks who need to leave behind sin
with faith, confessing and baptizing …
I’m glad I’ll never need it again.

I love my old soft comft’rble shoes
to tap my feet to gospel-and-blues
I changed that once for Him
So I don’t have to again
Won’t change my old, soft, comft’rble shoes.

Now worship is a serious time
A little joy but not too much happiness
If you do it right, it is sublime
If you do more or less, you’re in a mess.

I’ve got my old soft comft’rble shoes
to tap my feet to gospel-and-blues
Don’t need no podium plants
Don’t need no spiritual dance
Don’t want to see raised hands
Don’t want to hear praise bands
Don’t need no grace-filled rants
Don’t need no women in pants
Just a cappella songs
And hearing “We’re right; they’re wrong”s
And wearing old, soft, comft’rble shoes.

I hope you’ll honor my last request
When you put me down for the big snooze
Just dress me up like all of the rest
And put me in my old comft’rble shoes.

I want my old soft comft’rble shoes
to rest my feet to gospel-and-blues
So when it’s time to fly
into that sweet by-and-by

just-give-me-my

old,

soft,

comft’rble

shoes.

rrrRedeemed. Restored. Reconciled.

How I love those three words.
Each is different.
But each is fundamentally intertwined.

And when it comes to navigating change… honestly, I wonder how much heat the whole idea of changing anything would generate if we recognized the changes those three words spark in our walk with God (and his people too)…

For the greater part of my life, all three words have been important to me theologically and doctrinally. After all, they are Bible terms. They express great truths. They explain, define, describe, and declare what God has been and continues to do.

Each of those words will preach. You can be soft-spoken and gentle and use those words to convey with great emotion the wonders of our God. You can be loud, passionate, and demonstrative thrilling the listener with this amazing God we serve.

Whatever preaching or teaching style you employ (or listening preferences you enjoy), redemption, restoration, and reconciliation soar above, beyond, and through a world desperately needing hope, mercy, and grace.

I am glad we serve a God willing to self-sacrifice in order to secure our redemption from sin and self—to restore us to Him—to offer reconciliation to the lonely and broken.

Heaven knows we need it.

Because sin destroys.
Not only does it break our relationship with God, it also destroys our self-image, our reputation, and so many of our most intimate relationships.

Because sin destroys.
It robs us of our innocence, honor, and respect. It takes what is vibrant and leaves it in tatters.

Because sin destroys.
It leaves us devoid of value and seeking meaning in things that only further erode our sense of self-worth and value.

Because sin destroys.
And sadly enough, it does so before most of us recognize the truly shattered life we live…

Is it any wonder then that we need a Savior?
Is it any wonder we need one who will redeem us and restore our value—not in our eyes, but in the eyes of the Only One Who Really Counts?
Is it any wonder we need reconciliation not only with God but with the people we love?

Colossians 1:13-14, He has rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son He loves. We have redemption, the forgiveness of sins, in Him.

That’s Jesus.
My Savior.
My redeemer.

And in the best TV pitchman voice I can muster… But wait, there’s more…

Theology and doctrine aside, redemption is so much more than just the forgiveness of sins.

On the one hand, as long as sin is just a legal issue between you and God, redemption will just be a theological, doctrinal, and legal term bound up in a contract. Salvation will just be a plan you follow to uphold your end of the contractual bargain.

But on the other hand, people who have been broken by their own self-inflicted sin… people who have seen their lives shattered by other broken people… people who have come to understand just how broken they truly are…

These people long for and rejoice when God also redeems their story!

I love these words:

You traded riches to run to my rescue

Oh, my redeemer

You take the pieces and turn them to praises

Oh, my Redeemer

Oh, my Redeemer

(Chris Tomlin, Jesus, My Redeemer)

Broken, shattered pieces?
Pieces turned to praises?
That’s redemption.

When the long dark night is over and the light shines again?
That’s redemption.

When you find yourself using your own pain to help another?
That’s redemption.

I love the story of Joseph.
Reviled by his brothers, they sold him into slavery. Other difficulties would follow. There would be pain and prison. There would be heartache with all the potential of despair.

But then one day it changed.
In short order, Joseph accrued power and honor.
Eventually, he would meet his brothers again and be in a position to save them from the ravages of an unyielding famine.

Remember Joseph’s words to his brothers? You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people. (Genesis 50:20 NLT)

This story is often told from the perspective of God’s providence. But to me and I suspect Joseph as well, it is a story of redemption.

The Bible is full of redemption stories.
When God rescued Israel from Egyptian bondage, He was redeeming their story.
When Jesus told the women at the well to go and sin no more, He was redeeming her story.
When Paul urged Philemon to accept Onesismus as a brother, he was actively participating in the redemption of both.

Redemption: the forgiveness of sins and the rewriting of our story.

I thank God for redeeming my story, for giving new meaning to broken things.

Redeem me, O Lord.
Redeem me again…
And in the redemption, may my story be the one You want to tell!

Les Ferguson, Jr.
Madison/ Ridgeland, MS

Page 1 of 2:«1 2 »