Thursday, September 30, 2010

History on steroids

More church history -- this link will take you to a lengthy but fascinating (and funny!) lecture by Phyllis Trickle, an amazing historian and analyst. Her material in this talk has a great deal to do with Central and the directions we're heading. (She gets to us about 20 or 25 minutes in so be patient.) She has a lot of interesting things to say about "sola scriptura" (Scripture Alone) and several other topics along the way.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Total Church book discussion

If you've been around this blog for any length of time, you've heard me pushing the book Total Church. The book's basic argument is that the good news of Jesus Christ is not just a theological construct but a social construct -- that is, it's not enough to say, "I believe in Jesus" but the gospel has implications for how I live that relationship with Jesus out in a community of believers.

I honestly believe that this topic -- Christian community -- is going to be the sweeping reformation of the church in our times. As we move beyond Christendom into a time where Christians don't enjoy a privileged position in society, where the religious landscape is made up of many choices and many gods, Jesus' followers will have to figure out how to live together in community.

Are you curious? Interested? Let's get some people together to talk about this book and the topics it raises! How about Wednesday evening, October 20th, 6-8 pm? Central is amazingly crowded on Wednesday evenings so how about Dunn Brothers Coffee in Elk River? If you're planning to come sit in on the conversation, let me know. You can get a copy of the book on Amazon or in the Central bookstore!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Historical example

Thinking more about my last post about Acts 1, and remembering an example from recent history:

After World War 2, many young men returned from military service with a desire to be pastors. Seminaries were full and in the early 1950's, churches saw a boom both in babies and in highly trained leaders. Look around the suburbs today and you will find many, many church buildings from the late 1950's and early 1960's. These pastors were at the height of their careers in the late 1960's when something remarkable happened in the church.

In the late 1960's, the Holy Spirit began to move forcefully through the church in America. Looking back today, we see movements like the Jesus People and many charismatic explosions of new believers, dramatic conversions, and creative, Spirit-driven ways to share the good news of Jesus. (For example, the entire contemporary Christian music movement grew out of this time period when groups like "Second Chapter of Acts" and Petra and the Imperials began in response to this move of the Spirit.)

What we often forget is that this move of the Spirit had its earliest beginnings in Roman Catholic and mainline (Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, etc.) churches. A few people got excited about Jesus and what he was doing in their lives, and a few congregations responded favorably. But by and large, the Roman Catholic and mainline churches had too much to lose. They had well trained, highly respected leaders, massive buildings, and everything seemed to be going well for them already. For the most part, these churches and leaders did not welcome this new movement of the Spirit. So those who were not welcomed in these churches moved out and began new churches, or joined Pentecostal churches who trace their roots back to a similar revival (commonly known as the Azusa Street Revival) in the early 1900's.

Mainline pastors felt this new movement was too risky, and not theologically correct. (Keith Miller wrote a book in the mid-70's called The Taste of New Wine that specifically addressed people who had experienced this renewal, but who had been condemned or rejected by their pastors and churches.) By squelching this revival, pastors and church leaders set their churches on a pattern of decline that continues to this day.

What if these highly trained, well-resourced churches and leaders had welcomed what God's Spirit was doing? What if they had recognized that in the excitement of a new thing God was doing, there might well be some excesses -- but with qualified leadership, the initial frenzy over time could be turned to earnest passion for Jesus?

Fact is, for many of these leaders it was the passion that scared them away. They had too much to lose, and they were not willing to take a chance on something that might make them or their churches look foolish.

Keith Miller's book was reissued recently because he saw the same pattern happening again. People are coming to know Jesus, their lives are changing in radical ways, and their churches are suspicious. Are we at a point where we are in danger of missing a new thing God is doing? Are we desperately in need of re-reading the book of Acts to see how God might be shaping and renewing his church? Do we have too much to lose?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Acts 1

At Central we've started working our way through the New Testament book of Acts. Last week we started with Acts 1:1-5, and this week we'll continue with Acts 1:6-26. I believe that this chapter -- Acts 1 -- is one of the most critical in the Bible. Why?

Many church leaders want to jump to Acts 2 right away -- we want to see the Holy Spirit come in power on the church, we want to preach the big sermon that interprets to the world what these amazing (and slightly bizarre) events in the church really mean. We want to see church members living in tight fellowship and growing. Let's be honest, we want the 3,000 converts in one day. But none of these things happens in a vacuum.

Before the Holy Spirit comes, Jesus tells the disciples to wait. This waiting is not a passive thing. It is ACTIVE waiting. While they wait the disciples do several specific things.

1. They are gathered together. This is not individualistic waiting or meditating. They are together. Even in its earliest stages, preparing for its own birth, the church is a community. They are gathered together both in the temple and in the upper room, which was a meeting space in a home. They have both formal and informal gatherings.

2. They pray together. They spend time together in prayer, seeking God and building their relationship with him. They are waiting in conversation with God.

3. They deal with leadership issues. One of the key moves an organization needs to make to go from Good to Great, according to Jim Collins, is what he calls "getting the right people on the bus." In other words, put the right people in positions of leadership and influence. The whole business of casting lots for a replacement for Judas is about getting the right people into the organization.

4. They study the scriptures. Acts 1 doesn't specifically say they are reading their Bibles and talking about it, but notice how often Peter, in Acts 1-2, quotes specific scriptures that help him make sense of Jesus' death and resurrection, Judas' betrayal, and the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. Peter has been digging in his Bible.

If churches, or church leaders, or individual Christians, are hungry for God to work in our lives, we would do well to spend some time learning from Acts 1. We need to be together -- praying, studying, and dealing with leadership issues -- so that when God decides it's time to move, we're ready.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Marriage needs community

I'm inside of Total Church again. I don't have to read long before I run across another quote I want to share with you. This one is kind of long, but well worth while:

"Let us apply some of these convictions [about living in Christian community and its implications for pastoral care] to the specific issue of marriage. The same difficulties faced by people outside of the church, where divorce rates are approaching 40 percent [note -- in the U.S. they are closer to 50%] are also those faced by people within. A significant element of this pressure is individualism. In a culture in which the rights and desires of the individual are sacred, bringing two individuals together in a relationship as close as marriage is bound to create problems. There is also a disposable attitude toward relationships in general in our society, and this affects attitudes toward marriage.

The breakup of the extended family with increased mobility has contributed significantly to the strain placed on marriage. The oft-quoted African proverb claims that 'it takes a village to raise a child.' But Western culture is now prepared to leave it almost entirely to a couple (and in some cases to a single person). Many of the support structures of previous generations have been removed, leaving marriage exposed and vulnerable.

There is no better place for marriages to be nurtured than in a communal setting for two principal reasons:

1. The Christian community provides the context in which we learn what it means to be persons-in-community. This is a foundational truth if we are to live successfully with other people. If the Western world's prevailing culture reinforces individualism, a different culture is necessary to present an alternative. The church is a great context in which to learn what it means to live in relationship with others. It is the location in which my self-preoccupation will be confronted. This happens as I hear the Bible being taught. It happens as I am encouraged and rebuked by my brothers and sisters who take responsibility for my godliness. It happens as I respond to the Lord's call to love God with all my heart and my neighbor as myself. It happens as God's truth conspires with my circumstances to show me that this is not my world and I am not God. It happens as the community responds to my sin with love and grace.

2. The Christian community provides the best context in which marriages can flourish. In the contemporary context, marriage is sometimes little more than 'plural individualism.' In the church we find practical support structures. In the church we find people who are committed to our marriage. They know from God's word what godly marriage involves and will help us live that out. They know what godly marriage involves because, whether married or single, they themselves are part of a relationship of submission and love with Christ (Ephesians 5:22-31). The church provides a wider context that prevents marriages from becoming inward-looking and self-serving." (Total Church, pp. 136-137)

Do you see how much the church as Jesus envisioned it -- people sharing not only faith, but LIFE -- can impact real problems and issues? Take the divorce rate. If those who bear the name "Christian" lived in communities that were both encouraging and accountable to one another, how might it impact the divorce rate among Christians? As it is, the divorce rate within the church is indistinguishable from the rate outside. What if Christian couples -- because they lived within a group of people who encouraged them, prayed for them, talked about difficult issues, etc. -- what if Christians were able to avoid half the divorces that came down the pike? How would those healed marriages affect communities and cities? How would the sheer statistics impact couples wondering where to turn? What if, because they had worked through their problems, Christian couples had resources to encourage their neighbors?

The possibilities are endless. What about other issues besides marriage -- what about parenting, time management, financial responsibility, and more?

Speaking for myself, I am becoming more and more convinced that the early 21st century will see an awakening in the church centered around what it means to live in Christ-centered communities. I'm not talking about people growing their hair out and wearing tie-dye shirts and all going in on one big house where they raise sheep -- no, I'm talking about people who intentionally participate in each other's lives, meeting and eating together, talking and studying together, praying and worshipping together, on a weekly or biweekly basis. This kind of sharing life focused on Jesus sounds alot like the last few verses of Acts 2.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Surrendering my choices

Not long ago I spent a week hunting for bears in northern Minnesota. Sitting on a tree stand has always been some of my best reflective time.

This time around I started thinking about all the choices I make when I'm hunting. The surprising insight for me was that I realized in all these choices I submit my will to the animal I'm hunting. For example:

  • I don't wear whatever I want when I'm hunting; I wear clothes that will be silent and camouflage patters that will blend into the surroundings.
  • I don't cough, clear my throat, or turn my head whenever I want; I control these urges in order not to spook the animal.
  • I don't walk where I want -- I walk in a way and down trails that lead me to the animal or put me in a position where I might get close to the animal.
  • I don't bathe or wash clothes with whatever soaps I want -- I use materials to minimize my smell, out of respect for the animal's nose.
  • I don't choose the most comfortable place to sit; I perch up in a tree or crouch behind a screen of camouflage so that I am hidden from the animal's senses.
I could go on and on, but do you see? Every one of my choices is surrendered to the animal. I could certainly wear my comfortable nylon shell, but the noise it makes rubbing on branches as I walk through the woods would scare the game away. I could cough, sing, or talk on my cell phone -- or even bring a DVD player and watch John Wayne movies -- when I'm on my stand, but that would drive the animals away from me. I could take my bow or my rifle and sit in my comfortable recliner, but the animals don't choose to hang out in my living room, so I go out in the less-than-comfortable woods. I surrender these choices because I am single-minded in my goal of killing a deer or a bear or an elk.

As I sat high in a tree on a small platform stand considering these things, I realized that I want to be even more single-minded in following Jesus. So what does that mean for my decisions? Am I willing to surrender my will to Jesus, to make different choices out of respect for him? Am I willing to regulate what I wear, where I go, what I eat, when I speak and when I am silent, out of respect for and devotion to Jesus?

One reason Christians in America today are largely lukewarm and have little impact on our culture is that we so often believe we have a "free will" -- in other words, that Jesus saves me, but I can choose to do whatever I want, including choosing Jesus or not. And in most areas of our lives, we exercise our choices based purely on our own preferences. If I can choose whatever I want, then my choosing one breakfast cereal over another or one kind of car over another doesn't matter -- does it? But if I am surrendering in every possible way to Jesus, then he might have a preference what I wear, what I say or don't say, or even what I drive.

What do you think of this? Are there decisions you're making that are submitted to Jesus? Are there some decisions that you've held onto your own will and refused to surrender?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

To those who reject Christianity

This is a piece written by a friend of mine, a young woman who is currently studying for a graduate degree at a Bible school in Singapore. It is quite relevant to some of the threads of thought that I've been writing about the last couple weeks. Kristina posted it as a note on her Facebook site and graciously granted permission for me to reprint it here. Her blog is well worth checking out.

Christianity: Hope of Civilization or Failed Medicine?

by Kristina Bjorkman on Saturday, September 18, 2010 at 6:58am

The church of the western world is largely in decline. While the statistics vary, any casual observer can see that, regardless of church attendance numbers, the church is going out of style fast. Her influence in the political and cultural sphere have dwindled to almost nonexistence, her presence in education has been severely cut short, and her visibility in the public square has decreased significantly. The overwhelming attitude of the western nations towards Christianity seems to be twofold.

“Oh my gosh, that is SO last century.”


“Civilization tried Christianity and it didn’t work.”

The first attitude is just the natural reaction of our rabidly progress oriented culture. We want bigger, we want better, we want new and improved. Progress is on the march, and Christianity is last week’s news, so get out of the way. The same things happens to other philosophical, cultural and political ideologies all the time.

The second attitude, however, is a direct challenge to the efficacy of the church. Christianity ruled the western world, directly or indirectly, for hundreds of years, but in many people’s eyes, failed to live up to its promises of peace on earth, goodwill toward men and all that jazz. Been there, tried that, no thanks. However, I would like to contest that the Christianity that civilization mostly experienced has been a watered down or false version of the faith it claims to be. For much of western history the majority Christian church has not been the true Christian church. This is not to say that true Christianity was completely absent, nor that the majority church was completely devoid of true Christianity, but that often the version of Christianity we see in history was not true Christianity.

So, here are some guidelines for figuring out if the Christianity you’re rejecting is true Christianity, or just a diluted/deluded (hee hee) fake.

I like to call the book of 1 John a field guide to recognizing a true Christian. John writes it to a church that is plagued by a false form of Christianity called Gnosticism that was trying to undermine orthodox Christian teachings and practices. He has multiple stated purposes in writing the book, but their culmination is basically to affirm those who are truly in Christ and to denounce those that are not. The whole book is a series of contrasts between truth and falsehood, light and darkness, love and lovelessness, Christ and the antichrist. John is prolific in his use of creative imagery, illustrations and words pictures to make his points, but the high point of His writing is in 3:23-24, where all of His field notes are condensed into two verses.

So, according to the apostle John, here’s how to identify a true Christian

“By this we shall know that we are of the truth…”

1. Belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God (verse 23)

This one is pretty straightforward, but it is the hardest to determine definitely as an outside observer since a belief is primarily internal. However, when push comes to shove, this belief should be verbally professed and really, if you do believe that God loves you enough to personally come to earth in the person of His Son and die for Your sins, and that He is powerful enough to raise Himself from the dead, that kind of changes how you look at and live your life in a noticeable way.

2. Love for one another (verse 23)

John really hammers this one throughout the entire book of 1 John. Basically, if a person is not loving, they are not a Christian. That may be kind of an extreme statement, but John doesn’t leave a whole lot of wiggle room on this. Does this mean that all Christians love perfectly all the time? No. But it does mean that their main characteristic in interacting with people is love. As John says, “Anyone who does not love, does not know God.” If someone is not loving, they are not a Christian. Period.

3. Obedience to Christ’s teaching and commandments (verse 24)

Again, this is a big theme in John and also one he doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for. “Whoever says, ‘I know him’ but does not keep His commandments is a liar…” John asserts in 2:4. Because if you claim the name of Christ, if you claim to belong to Him, doesn’t it make sense that you would do what He says? If someone is not obeying Christ’s commands, that person is not a Christian. Again, all of us make mistakes, all of us mess up, but there is still a big difference between someone who is living their life according to their own rules, and someone who lives their life in recognition of a higher authority to whom they are submitted and accountable.

4. Assurance and presence of the Spirit of God in their life (verse 24)

This one can also be kind of hard to measure from the outside, but the other writings of the apostles do help give us some helpful pointers. One of the main passages for this is Galatians 5:16-24 where Paul also draws some pretty stark contrasts between those who walk according to “the flesh” (their natural being) and who walk according to the Spirit. He lists several “fruits” of the spirit including love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. I appreciate his imagery of “fruit” here, because these virtues are not instantaneous, but are things that grow and develop over time. If you know someone who claims to be a Christian and yet exhibits few if any of these and doesn’t show any signs of developing them, that might raise a red flag.

5. Christ Centered Life

This final attribute of a true Christian is more implicit than explicit in 1 John 3:23-24. It is based on the observation that all of the four characteristics listed above are centered on Christ. We believe IN CHRIST. We love just as CHRIST commanded us. We keep CHRIST’S commandments. We have the presence of the Spirit that CHRIST gave us. Basically, all of the four things listed above begin and end with Christ. A person can work hard to do all the right things, but do it only for their only glory and benefit. That is not true Christianity. The practice of true Christianity is centered on a love for, obedience to and fellowship with Jesus Christ.

So, to sum up, usually when people hate the Christianity of the past, the Christianity of the present, or even specific Christians in their lives, they are often hating a watered down mutation of Christianity, and not the true thing itself.

“Civilization tried Christianity and it didn’t work.”

Civilization tried a version of Christianity that, as it rose in power and influence, was often watered down or entirely false. Just like a watered down medication, the label on the bottle may claim it has power to cure, but the substance inside is not real enough to fulfill the promises it makes.

So, if you want to hate Christianity and Christians, use the guidelines above to make sure you hate the right ones. You may just find that the thing you hate, is not Christianity at all, but a false version of it.

Friday, September 17, 2010

How did Jesus design the church to work?

The year I started seminary, Rick Warren (who was relatively unknown at that time) wrote a book called The Purpose Driven Church. His ideas were simple -- and today, we'd maybe say simplistic -- but at the time, he was clearing new ground in the area of church leadership. One piece that stuck in my mind for years after reading this book was a simple diagram that Rick Warren used to talk about different groups with different levels of faith commitment in the local church. His diagram looks like the one above.

Warren spends the last portion of his book explaining how to reach the Community and the Crowd. (His strength is really in reaching out -- evangelism -- and he understood some things from his work in forming Saddleback Community Church that were pretty cutting edge in 1995.)

I percolated for years on this diagram, and somewhere along the way I began to turn it on its side. I imagined the deeper level of spiritual and lifestyle commitment in each of these concentric rings as more of a funnel ... so when I began to visualize it in three dimensions, it looked more like this:

As I worked with this diagram, I began to think about Jesus and how he conducted his ministry. I realized that many of the problems in our churches today plague us because we have failed to understand the methods of Jesus and follow in his footsteps.

In the ministry of Jesus, we see him interacting with each of these categories.

The Community is the Jewish people and the other peoples who lived on the fringes of Israel.

The Crowd is those who flocked to Jesus but did not follow him (think of the feeding of the 5,000, for example.) These are with Jesus roughly 10% of the time.

The Congregation is the group of roughly 120 people mentioned in Acts 1. These are with Jesus about 30% of the time.

The Committed is the Twelve apostles and a handful of others (like Mary Magdalene) who were with Jesus the majority -- maybe 60%? -- of the time.

The Core is Peter, James and John who went nearly everywhere with Jesus, and were with him 90% of the time.

So you see that Jesus spent most of his time with the highest level of commitment, and from this Core he developed leaders to continue this process of growth and development. In Matthew 28:18-20 and Acts 1:8 he commissions his disciples to continue this process -- to make disciples and to draw from the Community to pull people into the band of Jesus-followers that became the church.

Healthy churches still function in this pattern. The idea is that people grow in their level of love for God and for other people, and as they grow they move down the funnel. The Core become those who move out in ministry beyond themselves and quite possibly beyond their local church, as representatives and extensions of their church's ministry. (Think of Paul and Barnabas in Acts 13, for example, commissioned to go out as representatives of the church in Antioch.)

But too often in our churches, we have:

  • Failed to commission the Core -- these are to be the missionaries -- so the end of the funnel has become plugged and self-centered.
  • Neglected the Committed -- these are the elders (not necessarily in the sense of a formal position, but rather as respected "pillars" within the church) -- these need investment, discipling, equipping.
  • Focused on the Congregation -- these are sheep -- and pastors too often ask, "What do they need from me?" while the congregation sits passively waiting and watching and expecting to be served.
  • Forgotten about the Crowd -- we should be witnessing and inviting these, sharing what we have seen and experienced -- we must ask, "What do these need?"
  • Made policies for the Community -- we must be an example, leading by our actions rather than seeking to exercise legislative power over them.
Even the words we use demonstrate how we have mistaken our task in church leadership. We talk about "congregations" and we mean the whole church. So we focus on the congregation, serve its needs, and it becomes self-centered and bloated and clogs the whole funnel so that nothing moves down the line.

One key in church leadership is to find activities, events, methods that intentionally grow people from one layer of this funnel to the next. This is one reason I love Alpha -- it draws people from the Community and the Crowd into the Congregation, it grows individuals from the Congregation to a new level of commitment, and it also provides a leadership training opportunity that helps the Committed and the Core grab hold of what it means to do ministry.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

If you can't get enough historical stuff ...

... here's a paper I wrote at Luther Seminary in 1998 addressing the church's experience from about 100-300 AD and what the church today can learn from that period.

Monday, September 13, 2010


For some of you, this is old hat. But I've been pondering the state of the church for a long time now, and I think it's worth revisiting an idea I first encountered in about 1991 that has revolutionized my thinking about the church since that time.

It's a question of history. To oversimplify:

After the initial era of the apostles, the church settled into a basic pattern. Churches met in homes, and a "congregation" consisted of a dozen or a couple dozen people who met together each week. The fact that their religion was officially illegal (though public opinion varied from support to persecution and back) kept them growing closer together and supporting each other. Their fellowships were intimate groups of people who shared life together, caring for each other's needs, eating together, and loving each other. This pattern of care spilled over into the larger community, and these "Christians" (an insult thrown at them from the wider community who mocked them for following the crucified "Christos") soon got a reputation for tending the sick, helping the poor, and taking in the outcasts. So their fellowships grew, and soon larger cities would have a network of congregations meeting in homes scattered throughout the city. Sometimes these networks had a leader, an "overseer" (episkopos in Greek) who watched over a group of several house-congregations.

These tiny knots of Christians met, worshipped, and lived under the radar of the wider society for the most part; yet in other ways they were very public. They were not afraid to speak to others about their faith in Jesus Christ, except during times of active persecution. They actively worked to provide means to care for the sick and the outcasts. From time to time some of their leaders wrote and spoke boldly, either appealing to the wider population to consider Christianity, or to defend Christian faith against unreasonable attacks, or to rebuke others who claimed the name of Jesus but distorted his teachings.

All of this changed about 280 years after Jesus' death and resurrection, when Constantine became emperor of the Roman Empire. Up until Constantine's reign, various emperors had tolerated or persecuted Christianity, but it was always officially an illegal sect. (The Romans distinguished between a religion, which had time and tradition behind it, and a sect, which they considered simply a deviant religious movement. They classified Christianity under the heading of "sect".) Through a complex series of events still much debated by historians, Constantine became a Christian and declared Christianity a legitimate religion in 313 AD with his "edict of toleration." A short time later, in 380 AD, Emperor Theodosius declared Christianity not only a legitimate religion, but the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Now the church faced both a great opportunity and a great problem. Until now, persecution and public scorn had kept complacency in the church to a minimum. Those who converted to Christianity knew they were stepping outside the accepted boundaries of Roman society; conversion was a counter-cultural move. After Constantine and Theodosius, however, the church had Rome's carte blanche to proselytize, evangelize, missionize, preach and invite the public to consider the claims of Jesus. The sheer number of Christians grew by leaps and bounds, but the level of commitment of the average Christian dropped dramatically. Instead of being rooted in tight, highly committed fellowships, the church existed in giant congregations. Somewhere along the way, someone got the idea that one professionally trained leader could manage a larger congregation, and soon one shepherd was expected to manage and lead a congregation of hundreds of people. Instead of meeting in homes, churches built separate buildings and created an administrative structure modeled after the Roman government itself, complete with an emperor (pope), prefects (cardinals), and governors (bishops) to oversee the priesthood. Church became closely allied with government, and church leaders got concerned with public policy more than with individual piety and community life. In short, the cost of following Jesus had just been greatly reduced.

Now the average Christian was asking new questions. Instead of asking, "What is this life of following Jesus like?" converts began to ask, "How much do I have to do to go to heaven?" Instead of asking, "What do my brothers and sisters in the church need?" the average Christian began to ask, "What time is church?" and "Is the preacher any good?" Certainly there had been complacent believers over the past 300 years, but suddenly these questions became the norm rather than the exception.

This alliance between the larger society and the church is a state of being we call "Christendom" -- the kingdom of Christ allied to the kingdom of this world. So throughout Europe over most of the last thousand years, to be part of society meant to be baptized; to be a citizen meant to be part of the church. The two were one and the same. So when Martin Luther's followers were ejected from the church of Rome in the 1500's and they needed some kind of oversight for their churches since they no longer had a network of bishops, Luther turned to the secular princes and gave them the (what he thought was temporary) role of leading the church. Thus developed the state churches, where each nation had an official church, and the alliance between the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of the world reached a new level.

All this changed in 1789, at least in terms of the West. (Missionaries in many other parts of the world had been living at the fringes of non-Christian societies for years, of course, but they were most often sent from nations that considered themselves part of Christendom, and part of what they hoped to bring to these "heathen" societies was a version of Jesus ruling over society.) In 1789, the fledgling United States of America ratified its new Constitution that included a Bill of Rights which specified a division between state and church. Suddenly Christendom was officially broken, though the consequences of this breakage have taken more than 200 years to take effect. In reality, it is only since the 1950's that this separation has become visible to the naked eye, as American culture has drifted farther and farther from the church. Church leaders are no longer assumed to have standing in the secular marketplace, and Jesus-followers begin to find themselves scorned for their faith. In Europe, where the state-church system held sway for so many years, the decay and disintegration of Christendom has been more rapid and more thorough. The pinnacle of complacent Christianity may have been expressed by the Archbishop of Sweden while that country debated about voting to end the state church system (which they did) in the 1990's. When asked about the vote, the Archbishop said, "The church in Sweden is much like the Post Office. No one thinks very much about it, but where would you be without it?"

So here we are in 2010, living in the tumbledown ruins of Christendom. In many ways it's like we're marching backward in time past Constantine, back into a post-apostolic time when the church existed at the margins of society, without political power, without automatic authority, but with growing commitment and with great opportunity to do good and reach people who are outcasts, disillusioned, and disenfranchised. Question for us is, what will we do with these opportunities? Should we try to retake society, re-establish Christendom? Or should we seize the chance to see commitment among Jesus-followers increase and seek to form knots of Christians sharing life together, meeting in homes, caring for the needy in their communities?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A different view of the church ... !

From Total Church, pp. 109-110:

"[Christians] are not to think of themselves, first and foremost, as citizens of the Empire. They are 'citizens of the gospel.' They are to ask themselves: How do citizens of the gospel live? How can our ordinary lives and mundane decisions express the gospel? The net result will be a gospel identity and lifestyle in which they are 'contending as one man for the faith of the gospel' (Philippians 1:27).
"At present the military and economic might of Western nations is struggling to counter the threat of international terrorism. It is proving difficult to defeat an enemy made up of local cells working toward a common vision with high autonomy but shared values. They are flexible, responsive, opportunistic, influential, and effective. Together they seem to have an impact on our world far beyond what they would if they formed themselves into a structured, identifiable organization. Churches can and should adopt the same model with a greater impact as we 'wage peace' on the world."

Thursday, September 9, 2010


I want to develop an idea that I threw out in passing. I've been pondering this one for years, and it bears some thinking / blogging time:

It's the whole "vaccination" idea. Edward Jenner developed this to combat the scourge of smallpox. Smallpox is deadly, highly contagious, and passes most easily through close relationships. Jenner noticed, however, that people who contracted a mild disease known as cowpox became immune to smallpox. So he tried taking some of the pus from the sores of a person who had cowpox, and injecting them into a healthy person. The injected person got a mild case of cowpox and from that point forward, they were immune to smallpox. Voila! The modern practice of vaccination was born. We have standardized and industrialized this practice so that now we manufacture dead or weakened versions of viruses which, when injected into a patient, spur the body to build defenses against that particular virus. We have vaccinations for everything from smallpox to the flu.

Great. But what I'm going on about here is that too often, the church has taken on Edward Jenner's task, and we have vaccinated the world against Christianity. You see, true authentic Christianity is a lot like smallpox. It is spread through close relationships. It is highly contagious. It demands death -- that is, the call to follow Jesus is a call to take up a cross, to die to ourselves, and follow Jesus. As the Apostle Paul said, "For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain."

Too often, the church has infected people with a cowpox-like strain instead. We've made Christianity a religion of one hour on Sunday and a commitment to try to be nice. We drop our kids off at Sunday School so they get a taste of it, sort of like making them take a Flintstones vitamin. I'm not sure it does them a bit of good to chew that thing, but I feel better. Later we force them through a Confirmation program so they can become a voting member of the church we don't attend. And they get infected with a cowpox version of Christianity that effectively prevents them from ever catching the real thing.

Now, I'm sure that sometimes it seems like I'm just harping on the church. I don't want to be a whiner. I believe that the church, with all its faults and problems, is God's plan to bring the world to know Jesus, to bring it out of darkness and into light. So I am passionate that the church must figure out how to begin to do what we are called to do! I get frustrated because I see so much in the church that is ALMOST what we are supposed to be, nearly what God hopes for. And believe me, I include myself in this -- that so often I fall far short of what God has designed me to be and to do.

What would a "smallpox" church look like? I think the book Total Church is a good beginning, because this kind of church would be laser focused on Jesus, passionate about the Bible as it bears witness to Jesus, and it would live in authentic gospel communities where the love of God was not a concept but a way of life, and sinners are loved toward holiness.

That's what I want.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Lutheranism -- where are we headed?

An interesting blog by an interesting guy -- David Housholder's take on Lutheran demographics.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Fake Christianity

Moralistic therapeutic deism. That's what the CNN article I referenced a week or so ago labels the fake Christianity that so many teens -- and by the way, adults -- buy into instead of the real thing.

Moralistic. It's about being good. Nobody's against being good -- but so often our attempts to be good are a childish attempt to make God love us, just like we tried to make our parents love us, by doing the right things. This is fake because in the end, Christianity is only -- ONLY -- for those who cannot be good enough to please God. We call these people "sinners." If you're not a sinner, Jesus has nothing to do with you.

Therapeutic. From the Greek word "therapeuo" meaning, "to heal". We go looking for something that will be healing for us. Certainly there is healing for the wounded in Christianity -- Isaiah 53 says, speaking of Jesus, "By his stripes we are healed." Amen. But when my faith becomes about me, about me feeling better, about my therapy, I have given away the heart of Christianity and bought a bowl of self-centered pottage.

Deism. Yes, this fake religion is about God, or at least a god, but he's really beyond us and we really can't know him, so we make him in our own image. He's a Really Nice Guy. This fake Christianity doesn't seek to know the invisible, invincible God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified and rose from the dead. It just talks about "God" as though we all agreed on who God was. True Christianity teaches that Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God, the full revelation of the unknowable deity, who makes him known. (See Colossians 1:15 and John 1)

In the end, so much of our false Christianity serves just to innoculate, vaccinate, us and our children against ever catching the real thing. It's sad. A vaccination gives you a weakened or dead strain of a virus so your body builds up defenses and you never catch the real thing. We've done exactly this with Christianity.

Be good and feel good. Both good advice if you can manage them, but they are not Christianity.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Short & sweet ... or at least short ...

"The theology that matters is not the theology we profess but the theology we practice."

-Total Church, introduction, p. 18

Sunday, September 5, 2010


Here's an interesting article that offers a different take on the task of the church. It's worth the time to read, then ask yourself: Is this the way most churches operate? Biblically, should this be what churches do? What prevents churches from functioning in this way? What prevents my church from functioning in this way?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Good News!

We ordered a dozen copies of Total Church, and the book is now in the bookstore at Central. I'm reading slowly, chewing on lots of really good insights about Christ-centered community and what it really looks like.

I'm hoping to gather a group of people together to read and talk about this book sometime during this fall. If you have an interest in being part of such a discussion, let me know. As Central moves toward gathering people into smaller communities this book will be an important part of the strategy. We're still talking about what shape those communities might take -- Bjorn Dixon, our Director of New Worshipping Communities, and I had the privilege of meeting yesterday with Peter Churness, who among other things helps lead Life Together Churches, a networking resource organization that helps churches of whatever size or shape grow into true communities.

What is the difference between most churches and a Jesus-focused community? Here's what I was reading in Total Church this morning:

"It is in the family of God that I am able to care and be cared for, love and be loved, forgive and be forgiven, rebuke and be rebuked, encourage and be encouraged -- all of which are essential to the task of being a disciple of the risen Lord Jesus. Too often, however, churches are not contexts for making disciples so much as occasions for acknowledging relative strangers. Experience teaches that there is also an inverse ratio at work: the larger the group, the more inevitable is the superficiality of our relationships. Instead of churches growing beyond the point of being able to sustain meaningful life-on-life family relationships, an alternative (and maybe essential) strategy would be to begin new congregations through church planting ... Philip Yancey says, "We often surround ourselves with the people we most want to live with, thus forming a club or clique, not a community. Anyone can form a club; it takes grace, shared vision, and hard work to form a community." We might also add that it takes a miracle that only God himself can perform. But it is in such a community that disciples are made. To be a community of light from which the light of Christ will emanate we need to be intentional in our relationships -- to love the unlovely, forgive the unforgivable, embrace the repulsive, include the awkward, accept the weird. It is in contexts such as these that sinners are transformed into disciples who obey everything King Jesus has commanded." (112-113)

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Fake Christians

Set aside ten minutes and read -- really read -- this CNN article.

Now, what do you think? I would love to hear some feedback on this one. Make a comment below (preferably, so others can see your thoughts) or email me.

Another generation

Been reading and rereading Judges 2:6-15. We've been working our way through the story of Joshua at Central this summer, and this coming Sunday is the end of the series. This reading from Judges about the death of Joshua and what follows is sobering.

Last Sunday we heard Joshua stand up and say, "Choose this day whom you will serve ... As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord!" How bold! How inspiring! We put this up on plaques and sell them in Christian bookstores. But we don't often read what came after.

Part of the problem is, Joshua never commissioned a leader to follow him. Joshua was Moses' successor, but he never found a successor for himself. It was a different time; the Israelites were in the land now, scattered throughout Canaan and each (as verse 6 tells us) working on cultivating his own inheritance. Perhaps they didn't need a centralized authority anymore. Maybe Joshua thought that a group of elders would be enough for this settled people. Maybe he figured that they had all committed themselves (see Joshua 24) to follow the Lord, and that would be passed down the generations. Whatever Joshua thought, once his generation died out "another generation grew up who did not know the Lord." The Israelites began to go after the local gods, the gods who you worshipped if you were concerned about getting enough rainfall for your crops, the gods who promised you the good life. They abandoned the God who had brought their ancestors out of Egypt, who had given them this Promised Land, who had made a covenant with them at Sinai.

Not so different from our own times.

Take Lutherans, for example. In the early 1990's, a study of Lutherans in America indicated that there were approximately 13 million self-identified Lutherans in the United States. Totaling the Lutheran denominations' membership added up to about 8 million who had their names on the membership of a Lutheran church. And of all these, about four million ever attended a worship service. So, according to the statistics, the "average" Lutheran never attends church. A generation of Lutherans has grown up that does not know the Lord.

This is not so different from the general population. There is a generation within easy commuting distance of the churches in this country that doesn't have a clue about Christianity, about Jesus, about the gospel. They are contentedly living lost lives without a clue what they don't have.

Joshua and his generation bore the responsibility for passing on the covenant to a new generation, and they missed it. The church of Jesus Christ bears the responsibility of passing on the good news of a relationship with Jesus to a new generation. This good news will not take hold of them because of our political statements, our doctrinal stances, our policies. Preaching will reach a very few who happen to visit worship on a given Sunday. Sunday School and Christian daycares and schools will reach a few.

Like the Israelites, we are scattered, trying to take advantage of all the blessings God has given us. We are more focused on God's promises to me, and not enough focused on God's call to us as a people.

If the average Christians don't get a sense that God is calling them to live like salt and light in the world, to love people who are far from God, to build life-giving Jesus-focused communities that are like candles in the world's night, we will fail in the trust God has given us. People are not drawn to church buildings. They are drawn to churches -- that is, to groups of Jesus-centered people who live the life of Jesus in the world.