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

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Archives for 144 – The Church-Jesus Disconnect

One story in the gospels that always catches my attention is that of the paralyzed man in Mark chapter 2. Jesus is preaching to a group of people crowded into a small home in Capernaum. Four men approach the house, carrying a paralyzed man on a stretcher. When they see that they can’t even get close to the front door, they decide to climb on the roof, make a hole, and lower their friend down to where Jesus was teaching.

Jesus notices the great faith of those men on the roof and decides to help their friend. He looks at the man and says, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

How would that scene have played out in most churches today? Some would have been irritated at the interruption to a well-attended event. Others would have quickly dispatched a team to repair the damage to the roof. I suspect that most would have wanted to tend to this man’s physical needs by procuring a wheel chair or arranging for advanced medical treatment.

How many of us would have placed a priority on the sin in the man’s life? How many would have broached that subject at all?

There was a time in the history of the Restoration Movement where we had little to offer to the world outside of a presentation of the gospel. We wanted to talk about getting saved and being a member of the church, or we didn’t want to talk to people at all.

The pendulum has swung, and now we often offer everything but the good news. We bring in our neighbors to help with their finances, improve their marriages, entertain their kids, and share a meal together. We share with them all we’ve learned about living a better life; rarely do we talk to them about eternal life. If we’re not careful, we’ll find that people can visit our churches for months and months and never learn how to have their sins forgiven.

We must never forget that the unique mission of the church is to share the good news of Jesus Christ. Secular non-profits can feed the hungry and house the homeless. They can give family seminars and financial training. They can even provide community and fellowship. But only the church has the words of eternal life. Only God’s people can tell of Jesus sacrifice and what it has done for us.

We need to be ministering to those around us, providing for their physical and emotional needs as best we can. But we must never forget that the greatest need people have is the need for a Savior. The best news they will ever receive are the wonderful words: “Your sins are forgiven.”

My suggestions:

  • Make sure that as many members of your church as possible know how to present the basics of the good news. They need to know how to talk about Jesus and not just about your congregation. They need to be able to explain why we need a Savior and why Jesus is the Savior we need.
  • Identify the gifted evangelists in your congregation. Some people have a special gift for spotting needy people and inviting them to come to your church. Others have the welcoming spirit that can make those people feel a part when they visit. The gifted evangelists know how to respond when someone says, “What do I need to do to be saved?” Identify these people and let your members know that they are available to help teach outsiders about God’s salvation.
  • Encourage your preacher to offer an invitation. It doesn’t have to be every sermon, but on a regular basis the preacher should let people know that God’s good news calls for a response. Outsiders should be given a chance to talk with someone about their situation, and the moments right after a sermon are a great time for that. You can invite them to the front of the auditorium, to the back, or to a room off to the side. Just make sure that people hear once in a while that they are being invited to respond to God.
  • Celebrate evangelism in your congregation. Make sure that new converts are identified and welcomed. Recognize those that were involved in reaching out to these people. Let your members see that this is important to who you are as a congregation.

People need a Savior. They need the gospel. They need to know that their sins can be forgiven. And we’re the ones God has chosen to make sure they hear that good news.

Elders and Ministers: Working and Praying Together

Earlier this year, the Barna Group published a major report on the status of ministers.1 The report is full of great information, challenging insights and valuable data to help congregational leadership teams support and empower their ministers. One section focused on elder-minister relationships.

Most ministers reported positive perceptions of the relationship between themselves and elder teams. However, several other indicators suggest some critical weaknesses. Namely, only 44 percent of those surveyed noted the relationship between elders and ministers is a “powerful” one, and only 34 percent said that they engage in “frequent prayer together.”

If only one in three ministers can say they pray regularly with elders, and only four in 10 have solid relationships with their elders, it is no small wonder many churches are in decline or are struggling with mission and the future.

The Barna report cites a research project in Scotland highlighting this point. There, researchers discovered that churches whose members pray missionally and make prayer an integral part of their mission are more likely to be growing churches. Indeed, the leading difference in this particular survey between growing churches and those that are flat or declining is praying specifically “for the challenges of living faithfully in a post-Christian culture.”2

Additionally, larger churches (250 members or more) are twice as likely as smaller churches to have a strong partnership between elders and ministers. Likewise, ministers are much less likely to burn out in contexts in which ministers and elders are working well together, ministers are truly appreciated by elders and there is clear decision-making authority

All of these factors suggest how critical it is for ministers and elders to work together and to spend a great deal of time in prayer. What steps might you take in your congregation to foster strong and prayerful relationships among your elders and ministers?

Blessings,
Carson


[1] The State of Pastors: How Today’s Faith Leaders are Navigating Life and Leadership in an Age of Complexity. Barna, 2017.
[2] Ibid., 70.

NEWS

Church leadership and a crazy ostrich

A recent encounter with an aggressive ostrich led Steve Ridgell, an elder at Southern Hills Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas, to reflect on church leadership. In his CHARIS post, he writes that this bird reminded him “that I am never really in charge, that people are messy, and that this world is not my reality.” Ridgell also is director of ministry with Hope for Life, a Herald of Truth Ministry, and author of Can I Tell You a Story?

Does starting a Christian school fit the mission of your congregation?

The National Christian School Association (NCSA), an educational organization comprised of more than 120 secondary schools affiliated with the Churches of Christ, invites congregational leaders to explore the feasibility of their churches planting or housing Christian private schools. A school might be a wholly managed ministry (discipleship, community outreach, etc.) or a rent-paying tenant of the church.

“Both models – a church-owned school or a tenant school – have a place in our communities and are valuable to both church mission and school vision,” said NCSA president Kelly Moore (pictured at right). “Over the years, we have witnessed congregations experience positive impact on mission advancement, as well as financial stability.” The association supports and accredits Christian schools across the United States, stressing academic excellence in a Christ-centered environment. To learn more, visit nationalchristian.org or email info@nationalchristian.org.

Countdown to Summit 2017; app and music are live

Summit 2017 is almost here! The Summit team has once again brought together an exciting variety of speakers, topics and events, including the first Summit Film Festival. You can get all the details by accessing the newly updated ACU Summit app. If you downloaded the app in 2016 and kept it on your mobile device, the updates should have posted already. If you don’t have it or did not receive the updates, you may download it for free in the Apple store or Google Play. Program booklets will be available at the event. In the meantime, you can view the Summit 2017 programming information online.

Among so many great offerings, the Summit Team is excited to amplify the sounds of United Voice Worship (UVM). An a cappella singing group with members from across Texas, UVW is dedicated to honoring Jesus Christ by promoting intentional dialogue among people of different backgrounds. UVW will be leading worship on Monday at Summit and will offer a mini-concert before the evening theme session in Cullen and then an expanded concert following the session.

Summit will take place Sept. 17-20 on ACU’s campus and explore the theme Ancient Scripture, Future Church: The Choices We Make and the God We Serve. For more information and/or to register, visit the Summit website.

MARK YOUR CALENDARS

THOUGHTS TO PONDER

“Critical judgment does not change anyone or anything in the universe. If you dislike someone or react negatively toward a certain behavior, it does not change the person or the behavior you are judging. When you judge another critically, you do not define that person. You define yourself. Your harsh judgment says something about you. It describes your likes and dislikes. Accusation – “you, you, you” – is really about “me.” – Dr. Peter L. Steinke, Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach

“So much of a pastor’s work involves feeding others, reaching out to their needs, giving of self, teaching, and sharing one’s time and energy in service to the church. Therefore the pastor needs friends. Friendship tends to be intrinsically valuable; it is engaged in for its own delight. In friendship, the pastor, who has so often been giving to others receives, and is nourished by others.” – Dr. William H. Willimon, Calling & Character: Virtues of the Ordained Life

Let’s imagine our hearts are like a ball of twine. When we are born, the ball is neat, and
the twine soundly bound, all tidy, everything in its place. The ball is round and perfect in this state, as it is. Somewhere in childhood, the end of the twine becomes loose from the ball. It starts to pull and fray. A person, an ideology, or a home situation can all be sources of active fraying upon the twine’s end. Over time, the twine gets pulled further and further, several inches out, frayed down to a single thread at the endmost inch. The once intact ball at birth is relentlessly unwinding. This may be a conscious or unconscious occurrence, but nonetheless it is happening in real time to a real human spirit. Quite literally, this soul’s heart has changed and taken on new proportions and shape. Life has rearranged the heart’s strings.

What does the unraveling do to the heart? Well, one would presume things feel less secure, less grounded. That roaming and shredding thread is no tight fishing line. It has been reduced to near air; anything with a force beyond breath could feasibly snap it. The unraveling can create weighty pain which can affect the heart’s life forevermore. The hurt of the morphing heart string can drive the human to all manner of negativity, whether mindset, addiction, or futile soul hole-filling with false love.

So knowing this experience is not only possible, but probable, how do we help the pulled heart string? We can’t wind it back up, tuck it in and pretend it doesn’t exist. Such attempts are fruitless. However, we can acknowledge the existence, name the origin, and begin the careful, tedious work of acceptance. We hurt and heal, message on repeat. We address and accept, message on repeat. This can be a lengthy, arduous process, but one that must happen for us to have a life of genuine happiness and emotional health.

Where in Scripture does a message appear of healing in this area? Psalm 147:3 reveals,
“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” The Great Healer can hold that frayed thread, whisper mercy and grace over it, and keep it close. We are never alone with our pulled heart string. The Maker of our hearts can most certainly handle the tattered twine. After all, mercy shows up mightily in dire circumstances. Most importantly, God wants to hold our hurt for healing to happen.

Have you ever heard of the Goldwater rule? If you have worked in psychology or psychiatry, chances are you are familiar with it or at least should be. Here is how wikipedia explains it,

“The Goldwater rule is the informal name given to Section 7 in the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Principles of Medical Ethics, which states it is unethical for psychiatrists to give a professional opinion about public figures they have not examined in person, and from whom they have not obtained consent to discuss their mental health in public statements. It is named after presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.

The issue arose in 1964 when Fact published the article “The Unconscious of a Conservative: A Special Issue on the Mind of Barry Goldwater”. The magazine polled psychiatrists about American Senator Barry Goldwater and whether he was fit to be president. The editor, Ralph Ginzburg, was sued for libel in Goldwater v. Ginzburg where Goldwater won $75,000 (approximately $579,000 today) in damages.” – From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goldwater_rule

This has been brought up recently with people trying to psychoanalyze President Trump and his fitness for being President. How is this relevant to us? There is a principle here that even non-clinicians should pay attention to. When you go around psychoanalyzing people on social media you are crossing a line. When you connect the dots from what someone is saying to what you think is wrong with them you are on dangerous ground. When you attempt to read people’s minds and assign motive you have already demonstrated you aren’t a worthwhile conversation partner.

There is always more to the story you don’t know about so don’t assume you do. One of the counseling professors I know has a great line in his instruction, “Let your judgements be gentle.” Why? Because there is always more to the story.

You really don’t know what is going on in someone’s life or mind and asking them a handful of loaded, agenda-laden questions won’t get you any closer. I have yet to see a single statement of consent on social media for the things people do to each other. We can have a conversation without getting into personal attacks, character flaws, and all manner of shoddy diagnosis.

Seek to understand rather than seeking to win. If you seek to win, you have already lost.

I’m no geneticist but I’ve worked enough with DNA to know about genetic flaws and how some of them are ticking time bombs just waiting to take down an otherwise healthy individual. While Alzheimer’s has multiple causes, Early Onset Alzheimer’s has one: a gene that is dormant until, suddenly, when its host is between the ages of 40-55, a fast paced version of the disease overtakes them. In 3-5yrs they will be dead. The only reason this gene still exists is that it does not strike until the prime reproductive years of its host have passed. In other words, they’ve had their children — half of whom will carry the gene — before it makes its move.

My people, the church I love, have a genetic flaw that kills, not at birth, but later on once a congregation has been established. Some fault for this flaw’s inclusion in our DNA has to come from my tribe’s founders, a crew of mainly Scots and Scots-Irish who brought their cultural assumptions with them to America. In Scotland, the elders of the kirk (church) march solemnly into St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh every year for the Kirk Session. Inside, cloistered from all others, they make the decisions that will rule the Church of Scotland for the next year. While there were a variety of ideas about the office of shepherd — or elder — among the early leaders in the Stone Campbell Movement, the “ruling board” mentality won out. And it is a genetic flaw that waits until the absolute worst time to shut down growth, freedom, and the lives and fortunes of its ministers.

I’ve had three friends fired in the last 16 days. None were given a cause. For two of them, it came out of the blue. They entered a meeting believing all was well. They ended it with a letter, a stern warning not to discuss anything with anybody, a bit of blackmail…and facing the task of telling their family they were going to have to move…somewhere. I used the word “blackmail” because I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in many of these firings over the last few years. It is almost as if our genetic flaw is mutating and becoming even worse. A clause is inserted into the notice of termination: insurance coverage and salary will continue for a period of time but only if the fired minister never tells any member anything about their firing, problems with elders, etc. They are to go mute or, worse, lie and say they had decided to resign and move on (I’ve seen this order to lie in three letters over the last year). If they don’t comply, well, their family will not eat and their insurance coverage will disappear. And this is Christian? This comes from leaders of Christians?

Our genetic flaw elevates men of business or those who’ve had success in other secular realms and then appoints them rulers over the spiritual lives of a church. It also gives them power over the minister and the direction of the church. This power deferential is real and has to be acknowledged. A dear man of God and a friend of mine named Gary was once my shepherd. He made the comment that the elders and the ministers were friends. I replied, “We are friends, but there is something always hovering over that friendship. One of these friends can fire the other. But the other friend has no ability to respond in kind.” Adding to this tense and awkward situation is: those with the least theological education and with the least experience in building and leading churches have absolute power over the one with the most education and experience in the room.

I’ve heard for 30yrs that our church has a serious preacher shortage. We tried plugging that hole with schools of preaching but most of those (and the quality and philosophy of these varied widely) have closed and most of their graduates are not in the ministry today. Look at online and print ads for ministers and you find that most churches are small, ruled by elders, and unable to pay a decent wage, especially to a man who has a young family and who has invested years and a lot of money getting a theological education. Most of the ads are looking for a franchise preacher who will preach the franchise doctrine to please those who like the franchise. The code word for that kind of man is “sound.” By “sound” they mean “traditional, controllable, and who will never rock the boat or have an original thought.” And with the rapid firing of so many ministers comes the loss of those men to ministry. They and their families have had enough. They quit our church or they quit ministry. Most often, they quit both.

I spent a good deal of the last 20yrs flying all over the country working with elder/shepherd groups that asked me to come help their church reboot, find and verbalize a vision, or otherwise change their congregation’s trajectory. Looking back, most of those churches made some improvement. Some didn’t. More than one invited me in, paid me well, and had me at their table only so they could push back, ignore what I suggested, and, by so doing, justify inaction while saying they had tried. This left men who were poor leaders in their positions of power, unthreatened and (functionally) unopposed. They were like a married person who agrees to counseling so that they can claim they tried (and “prove” that counseling didn’t work).

I have tried to go through my memory and emails to count but I was unable to nail down my numbers. My best guess is that I have seen 18 good men fired in the last 12 months. I know of more than twice that number of minister/friends who are trapped in churches where the elders constantly criticize them and play control games with them and each other. Those men are hostages to a paycheck, unable to quit while dying on the inside. And I know four good men — GOOD men — who cannot find a pulpit because they are thinkers and doers and elders are afraid of them (I honestly cannot think of any other reason they have not been chosen for a pulpit).

This has got to stop. There is a grand total of one elders’ meeting in scripture…and I am being generous in calling it an elders’ meeting. It is in Acts 15 and the leaders said it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and them not to make things harder than they had to be. They never addressed the quarrel brought to them in their letter. Instead, they told both groups to stay pure and not act like pagans. They didn’t demand obedience or uniformity. And while we are counting, there is a grand total of one line of instruction on how to pick and place men into the position of elder: the minister (Titus) was told to pick and place them. How many “we do things the Bible way” churches do you know of that follow that particular example?

We are not perfect at Fourth Avenue (for I am here and that makes it de facto an imperfect church) but we have a better shepherd/minister relationship than most. They ask me what the Bible says about things and invite me to teach them. I acknowledge their superior skills in pastoral care and prayer (no false humility here — they are miles better than me). They are shepherds full of love and sacrifice. I am a pastor who is half gunfighter. We get along famously because we respect each other’s gifts and do not consider our own to be superior to those of the others.

It’s almost as if we had decided to let love be our law, Jesus our Lord, and answering his prayer for unity our goal. It is almost as if we considered this congregation to be the family of God and we were determined to treat each person accordingly…including me, the minister. “Behold how good and pleasant it is…” indeed.

What are we to make of this inexplicable sponge soaking up our sin and pain
while simultaneously releasing everlasting freedom…

An unending, last-drop-of-the-ocean wheel turning eternally, reflecting us as one
in need, yet also one overflowing…

Such sweet and ripe grace injected into our spirits as each sand grain drops
through a perpetual hourglass…

With fragile hands, we openly receive this direct grace-hit into our marrow, bone
and blood, soul to sole…

This limitless sky of a gift, unboxed and untied, surrounds us like a cottony and
cumulus cloud, simply yet profoundly there as air
…there as air

Grace most certainly undeserved, much less in canyon-full, waterfall mode
pouring and drenching over and into us.

A woman caught in adultery is thrown at Jesus’ feet in John 8. As Jesus dismisses her accusers, he gives her freedom through the forgiveness of her sin AND he tells her to go and sin no more.

In Mark 5 a demoniac comes running out of the tombs to see Jesus. He is naked. He is bleeding. He is unclean and demon-possessed. After Jesus frees him from his demons the man asks to join Jesus and his disciples. Jesus, instead, sends him home to tell people there what the Lord has done for him.

There are many similar stories and examples of the idea that with freedom comes obligation. We could add the opening of the 10 commandments – I am the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, have no other ‘gods’ before me…and many other passages to make the same point – freedom comes with obligation.

This is not a divine “gotcha”.

This is no holy bait and switch.

Freedom properly understood should bear the fruit of obligation. If you know where you were and you know how you were freed, it should leave anyone with half a heart asking what they should do in a response of gratitude. “Since these things took place, what now is required of me?”

This sense of obligation is missing in our world today. We have so valued freedom and self-determination that many have jettisoned their sense of obligation to their fellow man.

One Summer Sunday evening we had a panel discussion, hearing from people of varying generations. A Vietnam vet in his late 60s said that he thought what his generation could teach the younger generation was obligation.

I think he was right.

We have emphasized freedom without pairing it with obligation. When you have been set free it comes with a response of obligation to others…the desire for them to also experience the same kind of freedom you have been given.

Freedom without obligation is the slave master mentality. I get my way and I have no obligation to you.

Obligation without freedom is slavery. I must do what you say regardless of how I feel about it.

One without the other is abusive.

We are seeing people today expressing extremist positions – neo-nazisim, KKK, you name it. They are exercising their freedom without pairing that freedom with an obligation to their fellow man. You have the freedom to say many things but what you say has repercussions. Freedom does not mean freedom from the consequences of your actions. If what I see on social media is any indication, some seem to be unaware of this.

We need to uphold our freedom AND understand the obligation to others that comes with it. This has been lost today and it must be reclaimed if we are to have any chance of engaging in a healthy dialog toward a brighter future.

The church must lead the way on this.

I believe revival is coming. This is not the post to get into it but I will soon and I ask you to pray that through these dark moments that God’s people seize the opportunity to stand in the gap and let Jesus shine through us to the world.

Imagine if we could turn “church scandal” on its head. What if we became so in love with Jesus, so radical about grace, and so in tune with the work of the Spirit that the church repossessed the same scandalous positions that Jesus embodied and embraced?

Loving the unlovable.

Adopting the unadoptable.

Forgiving the unforgivable.

Empowering the powerless.

Bring the marginalized to the center.

Expanding the center to the margins.

Boycotting boycotts.

Reconciling the races.

Economic self-exploitation (aka sacrificial giving).

The list could go on for quite some time. The church doesn’t need to avoid scandal. Jesus didn’t avoid scandal. The church needs to engage in the right kind of scandal – the Jesus kind.

Jesus engaged in scandal when he ate with tax collectors and sinners. People accused him of being one of them.

Jesus engaged in scandal when he choose the Sabbath as a great day to cast out demons and heal the sick. They accused him of being in league with the devil.

Jesus engaged in scandal by allowing who he allowed to be around him when no one else wanted them around. They believe he should have rejected such people, much less allow them to touch him.

Jesus didn’t avoid scandal. He engaged in holy scandal. We should too. What can the church do that will shock the world, not because of its immoral and unholy nature but because of its righteous and holy nature? This isn’t about creating “shock value” to create shock value. It is about being as radical as Jesus and his first followers were.

Recently I made a dramatic change; I opted out of various social media and news sites
because of one reason. This was injecting negativism into my life on a daily, sometimes
hourly basis. We reside in a highly-reactive society, mostly non-reflective online culture. No
matter what we say, as positive as it may be, someone somewhere will come along and throw a
landmine in it. Suddenly our beautiful moment with our thoughts becomes a sitting duck for
someone who woke up in a bad mood. I decided to expel the negativity, in a bonfire of goodbye.

After a week, I already feel so much lighter and brighter, and more peaceful to be sure.
Nowadays, I can’t give space to minus signs. I strive for the plus signs. The arrows up,
not down, the green lights, not the red. Life is complicated enough as it is from the minute we
awake. It need not be further complicated with the choice I was making to look at upsetting
things. Also, notably, I’ve felt much closer to God as well. I’ve sensed the presence of God much
more since ditching the noise. There is no substitute for peace of mind, rather than others giving
us a piece of their online mind.

What would God say about this transformation? I know Jesus as a pastoral presence, a
gentle calm. I have to believe God wants a noise-reducer on my life. Perhaps the presence I’ve
felt was that confirmation.

So, I inquire, what can we unplug in our daily lives to plug in more to
what truly matters? We don’t have to join a monastery to find quiet. It’s a matter of searching out
small ways that add up to less noise. This seems impossible in our app-obsessed society that
seems to primarily function on a USB port. But the world doesn’t turn on an iPhone; it turns on
the axis created by God.

The church will always have an image problem in the world as what the church is about is not in line with what the world is all about. However, there is an area where the perception of the church is remarkably different than the perception people had and have of Jesus.

People see Jesus as welcoming and grace-centered whereas they struggle to see the church in the same light. If you look at those who came to Jesus in the gospels and those who were coming into the early church in Acts you find consistency. They were drawing people who were desperate for healing and reconciliation: sorcerers, pagan idolaters, the sexually immoral and so many more.

The early church was a magnet for the marginal.

Today, it seems that many on the margins would see the church as the last place to go rather than the first. We can do better and I am convinced that we will do better to change this perception. How we do this doesn’t mean we have to become more like the world. How we do this means becoming more like Jesus and the early church, not less.

As Stanley Grenz once said we must be “welcoming but not affirming” and as Jesus said we forgive with the charge to “go and sin no more” (John 8:11, KJV).

This month let’s explore how we address this perception issue. Is it more perception than reality and if it is reality where does this come from? What kind of attitude adjustments do we need to make? What texts do we need to camp out on to change the culture of our churches? I am looking forward to the conversation and as always, thank you for reading.