Self-Inflicted Wounds

Recently I was reminded of a Charlie-ism, a saying of the late Charles Siburt, who had a knack of compressing a great amount of wisdom in a few pithy aphorisms. Since I did my Doctor of Ministry work under his leadership, I heard many of his sayings first-hand. One was “Most wounds are self-inflicted.” And how true that is for leaders–at least, I can give testimony of this piece of wisdom.

I wondered if this might also be true of congregations. As I have coach and counselled churches and their leaders through the years, I have come to realized that getting churches to quit doing the counter-productive things was nearly as important as helping them do the right things. For example, if a church is not collecting basic information on visitors, then there can be no follow-up. Or if a church is not tracking individual attendance, then, they cannot be proactive in caring for people who are thinking about leaving.

While pondering the meaning of Charlie’s statement, it occurred to me that Peter Wagner in his book The Healthy Church (Regal, 1996) gave a list of what he called “Church Diseases” and, as I noticed, most of them were self-inflicted. Here is Wagner’s list with a quick explanation:

Ethnikitis happens when a church finds itself in an changing neighbourhood and refuses to adapt to serve the people who now actually live in their community.

 

People Blindness occurs when we look past the different kinds of people around us. The people are there but we, for various reasons, seem not to be able to see them.

 

Hypercooperation happens when a church works harder to get along with other believers rather than focusing on God’s mission .

 

Koinonitis is the disease we experience when our local fellowship is too tight to let new people in.

 

We suffer from Sociological Strangulation when the potential of growth is there but we can’t keep up with leadership and structural development to support growth.

 

Arrested Spiritual Development is the condition where long-time “disciples” of Jesus have not progressively grown into becoming like Jesus..

 

Saint John’s Syndrome is apathy, or “lukewarmness.”

Wagner was being somewhat playful in naming his “diseases,” but his goal was to help us do critical self-reflection and assessment in our work as congregational leaders. My point in sharing is that it’s possible in congregational life for most wounds also to be self-inflicted. And this leads me to another Charlie-ism, “If you can name it, you can manage it.”

 

How Should We Then Live

One of my favourite readings from early Christianity is this excerpt from an unknown writer offering a defence of what it means to be a Christian to a certain (also unknown) Diognetus. Writing about the end of the second century, the author seeks to show that Christians have a certain relationship to the countries and governments under which they find themselves living. Given the present politicized environment, it might be good medicine to help the church get back to being the church.

For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. 2 For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric way of life. 3 This teaching of theirs has not been discovered by the thought and reflection of ingenious people, nor do they promote any human doctrine, as some do. 4 But while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. 

5 They live in their own countries, but only as nonresidents; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. 

6 They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. 7 They share their food but not their wives. 

8 They are in the flesh, but they do not live according to the flesh.  9 They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. 10 They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws. 

11 They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted. 12 They are unknown, yet they are condemned; they are put to death, yet they are brought to life. 13 They are poor, yet they make many rich; they are in need of everything, yet they abound in everything. 14 They are dishonoured, yet they are glorified in their dishonour; they are slandered, yet they are vindicated. 15 They are cursed, yet they bless; they are insulted, yet they offer respect. 16 When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; when they are punished, they rejoice as though brought to life. 

17 By the Jews they are assaulted as foreigners, and by the Greeks they are persecuted, yet those who hate them are unable to give a reason for their hostility. 6:1 In a word, what the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world.

Epistle to Diognetus 5:1–6:1

[Paragraphing added to aid reading]

Helping the Donald Find the Collection Plate

Every religious action of Donald Trump is being scrutinzed to see if he might actually be a Christian as he claims to be. Yesterday we caught the Donald confusing the communion plate for the offering plate and should actually be praising him for his willingness to give.

But Trump’s gaffe provides a perfect opportunity to raise a question about how we help outsiders find their way when they worship with us. Since I was not there, this is a general reminder that we do many things in church life that is just baffling to unchurched people as well as to people raised in other traditions.

Here’s my plea: Let’s become more explicit about what we are doing during our worship times. Not only will visitors appreciate it, the church will benefit from the teaching that results from this kind of instruction. Here are some of my suggestions for how this might be done.

  1. At the beginning of the service, explain briefly what will happen in the service.
  2. Before communion, explain in every day langauge what is about to happen. Since I belong to a fellowship that does communion weekly, this is a weekly opportunity to tell how communion participates in the story of Jesus.
  3. Before the offering, explain why the church is taking up money both fiscally and theologically. Invite visitors to give as they are moved. (Please don’t tell them they don’t have to give and that it is just for members as this short-circuits what God may be doing in their lives–they may really need to give because of where they are).
  4. Have attractive literature ready as a guide for newcomers and those from other church traditions so they can find their way around the facility but also through the service.
  5. Have hosts speically trained and available for those who might need some help finding their way. Call on the people who have the emotional sensitivity to read the comfort level of others.
  6. Learn to recognize and not use “insider” language that only those trained in church-ese would understand.

Ok, here are some of my suggestions to help the Donalds of the world find their way in a new church setting, perhaps you have others.

So should the Donald visit your worship gathering, make sure he can find his way easily.

To Dream Again

All organizations and organisms have life cycles. Old churches have a different feel about them and new churches and churches in the prime of their ministry have that special something that seems to be missing from churches that have plataeued or are winding down. The same can be said of other institutions, including schools, hospitals, college, etc.

In the chart we have words that describe the various stages of an LifeCycleCurveorganization’s life cycle. New churches all begin with a dream. Even before the church formed, someone had a dream that a church was needed. Very quickly the new church orders itself around what it believes, goals were set, and appropriate structures were set in place to accomplish those goals. Within a few years, a church often finds itself doing the ministry the dreamers set out to do. This stage can last for many years but in time will become the “good ole days.”

If the leaders are savvy enough, they will sense when the church begins to lose its edge. And if they will help the church catch the vision again, or dream again, the church can experience many more years of full-fledged ministry.

However, most churches, in time, find themselves, slipping. One of the first signs is when it is easier to tell stories about what God use to do among us than to be excited about what God will do next. In time questioning and polarization sets in, and dropouts follows. Amazingly churches can exist in this semi-comatose state for years—until the money runs out or that last two people die. The Good News is that this does not have to be in the end of the story. Options include becoming a legacy churches that is willing to give their lives so others can dream, where the life cycle can begin again; or a church can choose to do the hard work of revitalization where they dream again.

While it is much easier to spur a church to dream again as they are coming off of a successful season of ministry, a church that has plataeued or declined can find new life—if they want it and will turn to God for it. And this is  key. The people, members of the church, must want to see their church live again with all their hearts. So if either of these are your story, I would love to hear from you.

So, join me. Let’s dream again.

Then Came John

Lectionary Gospel Text for Jan 11, 2015: Mark 1:4-11

4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.  7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Mark 1:9   In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The rhythm of the larger context (Mark 1:1–15) of this text on John the Baptist is

Gospel > Desert > Baptism > Holy Spirit > Baptism > Desert > Gospel

The centerpiece of the text is the Holy Spirit and though Mark rarely says another thing about the Holy Spirit in his Gospel, he begins he Gospel with the confirmation that Jesus is not only baptized (immersed) in the Holy Spirit but, more so, Jesus is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Later in this context, Jesus is the one who is “cast out” by the Holy Spirit into the second desert of our text.

On one side of Holy Spirit is John and on the other Jesus. And though Jesus is certainly more important, John gets some attention in the text. Later in chapter five of the Gospel, Mark  gives an extended account of John’s martyrdom but that story belongs to another time.

Back to our text. The NRSV quoted above states that John “appeared.” Not a bad way to translate the Greek “came” or “became” (ἐγένετο). In literary terms, Johns arrival is not unanticipated. Mark had previously quoted a blended text from Isaiah, Exodus, and Malachi to prepare the reader/listener for the one who would herald the way of the Lord as the voice in the wilderness (desert). Then John came in the wilderness . . . to prepare the way of the Lord.

John’s clothing and life style mark him out to be a prophet, or at least, someone claiming to be a prophet. He wore the same clothing that the ancient prophet Elijah had (2 Kings 1:8) and like prophets of old, he depended on what God provided for his food, locust and wild honey. But more exceptional than this clothing was his message.

From the beginning John preached that what God was doing was not about him. It was instead about the one that would come later. That one would be more powerful and so prestigious that John saw himself as unworthy even to be the slave that would remove his master’s sandals.

Yet the central contrast between John and the one to come was that John came baptizing people for the forgiveness of the sins in water–not an unimportant job, to be sure. His job description was clear: prepare the way of the Lord. His task was to get the people ready for the one to come. And this he did. However, he notes, that the one to come would do more than baptize the people in water as John had done, the one to come would baptize them in/with/by (the Greek can do all these, so pick one) the Holy Spirit. Through this one to come the people would experience the very presence of God in deep ways. They would be plunged into the Holy Spirit

Just before John leaves our text he has one more job to do. He baptizes Jesus. Even after that, I’m sure John would still say he was unworthy of such an honor.

John then is a model for our ministry today. Our job remains pointing to the one who was to come and the one who came.

John did his work, then came Jesus.

We do our work in the hope that Jesus will come again, now and for the last time.

Costco and the Bible

Did you hear? Costco has labeled the Bible as fiction.

Now what has that got to do with anything? I would say nothing really.

However, I’m not sure any label would actually do justice to what the Bible is. Literature? Anthology? Non-Fiction? Inspiration? Religion? Self-Help? Myth? Legend? Home Decor?

All of these fit someone’s use of the Bible.

What is being missed in this concern over Costco’s (mis)labeling of the Bible as fiction is that Costco is still selling Bibles. Did you hear me? Costco is selling Bibles. If Costco has some grand scheme to discredit the Bible, would it not be just as easy not to sell Bibles?

So, now, let’s get on to something more productive, like loving our enemies, forgiving those who wrong us, helping the poor . . . you know the kind of stuff imagined in the Bible.

Reflecting on Pentecost

Working among the Disciples of Christ now for past two years has given me a greater appreciation for the liturgical calendar. Having grown up among those who “judge all days to be alike,” it has been enlightening to work with those who “judge one day to be better than another.”

Yesterday was one of those “better days.” It was Pentecost and so I found myself thinking more about the meaning of that special day. And preaching on it only made me think even more about its meaning.

Several things “coincided” to open my ears and eyes to a deeper reading of the Pentecost story. First, on Saturday, I led our monthly Re-Reading Scripture study which “happened” to be on Joel. Second, of course, was that the following day, Pentecost. Thirdly, Pentecost as a theological reference point has always been important regardless of which side of the holy day divide you find yourself. It is the church’s birthday, so it should be important to every Christian. Finally, the egalitarian ring of Joel’s prophecy was louder for me this time than it had been before. Thus, I was drawn to Peter’s use of Joel 2.28 and following:

28 Then afterward
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
29 Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit…
32 Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved…

Even though “all flesh” should be clear enough that Joel intends to include all humanity, this prophecy from Joel seems intent on clarifying how inclusive it seeks to be.

All flesh includes both men and women. The notion that the Spirit of God would come to both men and women in the OT was a novel concept. I can’t think of a single time in the OT where God’s spirit is said to come to a woman, though there are clearly several notable “Spirit-led” women in the Old Testament. Moreover, it was even a rare man who had God’s Spirit come upon him and then often for a limited time to get a certain job done. Once the Spirit came upon seventy elders at one time, but generally it was on this man or that man. So what Joel is predicting is quite unprecedented in the Old Testament and remained so to the time of Jesus. Luke, who wrote Acts, saw this being fulfilled in the early church and will often point out to readers where women are participants, patrons, or even prophets. Unfortunately some in the church still denies the full meaning of Pentecost.

All flesh includes the young and the old. In our culture, it is a good thing to be young; in ancient culture and non-western cultures, it is a good thing to be old. However, in light of the ancient culture where age was valued, the young could be devalued. Regardless of which culture one is in, this text suggest that God has a use for both the young and the old. One of the tragedies of our time is the disintegration of generational connectedness. This brokenness is often brought into the life of the church and we find churches offering contemporary vs. traditional services. We all know what this means. Young people this way; old people that way. I find this part of Joel’s prophecy challenging to the way we sometimes go about ministry to the old and the young. The “need” for multiple services may underlie a deeper fissure: that we have missed the meaning of Pentecost. I once heard Marva Dawn say something like this: “When we can’t sing each others songs, what does it say about us?”

All flesh includes both the free and the oppressed. One might think that gender is the hot-button issue raised by Joel’s prophecy and for some it is the only Gospel. However, this one should perhaps convict us more than the others. Back in 1929 Richard Niebuhr wrote an insightful study called “The Social Sources of Denominationalism.” When I first read it, I was floored. Niebuhr argued successfully that denominations represented the social class system of the lively experiment called America. Could it be then that our churches today still separate those who are free (read: rich) from those who are poor (read: oppressed). It is not hard to document that this is the case and I have been in way too many if-we-could-just-get-so-and-so-as-a-member and we-need-to-get-the-right-kind-of-members conversations than I care to admit. All this talk misses the grand vision that God gave Joel and then Peter: I will pour out my spirit on ALL flesh.

May we always accept those on whom God has poured out his spirit, regardless of gender, age, or social status. May we all get the Spirit of Pentecost!

Disciples are Learners

Disciples are, or should be, by definition learners. Beyond the denominational tag, Disciples should be disciples. When Jesus gave what we call the Great Commission, his marching orders to the church was to “make disciples” (Matt 28:19-20) Trying to find the right English word to translate the word mathētēs is not easy. Some attempts include student, pupil, trainee, or the like. Each of these fall short because these words tend to stress book-learning over character formation. They are good translations, but like many translations, none of them can catch the full nuance of the original word. A word I think comes closer is apprentice.

Once a common practice for a young person wanting to learn a trade or craft, an apprenticeship was very serious internship. As an apprentice, a young person would attach herself to a master artisan to become, in terms of that skill, just like the master. At one time, ministers were trained much in this way. A young person would attach himself to an accomplished minister to learn from that minister. In both of these previous examples, the young person would often live with the master and his family. In a similar way Jesus trained his first followers who lived, ate, slept and traveled with him. At the heart of being a disciple, then, is being close enough to the master teacher to become like that person.

Learning however was never limited to information. Rather learning was about transformation. The goal of being a disciples of Jesus is not just to learn what he can teach us about God and good living but to become more like him. Jesus once said to his followers, “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”(John 13:35). Loving one another goes way beyond mere information. The pivotal question for disciples of Jesus is not “What do we know?” but “What kind of people are we?

One can hear this concern in the apostle Paul as he was working Christians in Galatia: “My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you”(Gal 4:19). Or again, in his letter to the Colossians: “It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ”(Col 1:28). Or perhaps, what Paul tells the Christians in Rome:

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect(Romans 12:1–2).

Many other texts could be cited but these show how discipleship is about the kind of people we are becoming because of God’s work on our lives. Genuine discipleship is about spiritual formation. Robert Mulholland in Invitation to the Journey (1993) defines Christian spiritual formation this way: the process of being conformed to the image of Christ by the gracious working of God’s spirit, for the transformation of the world.” And Dallas Willard adds,“spiritual formation in Christ is the process leading to that ideal end, and its result is love of God with all of the heart, soul, mind, and strength, and of the neighbor as oneself. The human self is then fully integrated under God.

Disciples then are transforming learners, that is, attentive apprentices learning the way of Jesus. I’m grateful to be part of a church family committed to learning the way of Jesus.

Copied from my article at http://www.fcchammond.org/APROUTLOOK2013.aspx.