Sunday, June 26, 2011

Seven Sons of Sceva

This story, in Acts 19:11-20, is one of the most fascinating -- and least known -- stories in scripture. If you're not familiar with it, take some time and read it now.

There will always be people who try to use the kingdom of God for their own ends. These sons of Sceva are a case in point. First of all, it might help to know that there never was a Jewish high priest named Sceva. So from the get-go, these guys are frauds, or their father was a fraud, or something.

Next, we see these guys not caring about the substance of Paul's message, but merely about its effectiveness. In other words, they want to use it for themselves. They make their living by casting out demons, and Paul seems to have a better mousetrap. So the next time they have opportunity, they confront a demon by saying, "In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches ..." How foolish! How idiotic! They don't have a clue what they're messing with, but they want to use the name of Jesus because it works.

The demon's response is fascinating as well. "Jesus I know, and Paul I have heard of, but who are you?" This has to be one of the best comic lines in all the Bible. Unpack it. First, the demon knows Jesus. Doesn't obey Jesus, doesn't worship Jesus, but knows him. (See James 2:19) Second, the demon has heard of Paul. In other words, if you begin to make an impact for God's kingdom, the spiritual world is going to pay attention to you. In fact, the Bible says that one of the main reasons God started the church was to teach the spiritual world about his grace and mercy (see Ephesians 3:10). Third, you can't use Jesus for your own ends. It won't work. He won't serve you. You can hide behind him and deceive people in the short term, but long term you'll be found out.

Finally, look what happens to these shysters. The demon-possessed man beats them all up, and leaves them naked and wounded. Is it just possible that this is exactly where God wants these guys -- naked and wounded? God is close to the broken, the hurting, the exposed. And they are close to him. If they will turn to him in that broken moment, he will receive them, heal them, and reveal himself to them. This is the good news!

I'll leave you to read what happened after -- how God used this incident to move people to repentance! Also, take a look at Ephesians 6 and see how Paul continued to lead the church in Ephesus deeper into the truths of the spiritual world.

Friday, June 24, 2011


If you've been reading along through Acts 18-19 these last few posts, for the next section (18:24 through 19:10) I'll refer you to my sermon from Sunday. There's lots more we could say about these verses but I think we'll let the sermon suffice, and move on.

NOTE: Apologies -- I had intended on this post to include a link to the sermon, but Central is having some webpage problems right now. I'll get a link up as soon as I can. Sorry!

Strengthening the disciples

Acts 18:18-23

One of the patterns in Paul's ministry is that he stays in touch. In these verses we see him returning to Jerusalem, where the Jesus movement started, and then to Antioch, to the church that sent him out initially. Then he returns to the churches he planted on his missionary journeys to check in and encourage them.

Here's the basic model Paul follows:

1. Go to a new place where they haven't heard about Jesus.
2. Proclaim Jesus and gather those who respond to the message.
3. Start a church -- that is, equip this group to continue meeting.
4. Equip leaders in the areas of teaching, hospitality, leadership, etc.
5. Deal with problem issues.
6. Move on to the next place and repeat the process.
7. Write letters or come back to visit to encourage the church.

This is a fascinating model of church planting that is being rediscovered in our day as a dynamic way to start healthy churches. Too often, we have followed a model that looks more like this:

1. Equip a key person to know as much as possible.
2. Send them into a new place where people haven't heard about Jesus.
3. Have that person invest every possible resource to gather a large group around them.
4. Have that key person serve as the leader of a new church -- preacher, teacher, leader.
5. Have that key person stay in that place as long as possible. Five years is good, twenty-five is better.
6. Agonize over why the church doesn't continue growing and doesn't seem to produce more leaders. Instead it remains passive and dependent on the same key person.
7. In the majority of cases, this model totally fails and the church never outlasts the initial key person who tried to found it.

Why did Paul's model work -- producing a church that grew in just 200 years to take over the Roman Empire -- and ours, with the benefit of so much technology, wealth, and information, has a mixed track record at best?

If you're fascinated by this question, you might want to look up an old book by Roland Allen called Missionary Methods: St. Paul's or Ours? Allen takes this question head-on. It's a fascinating read, especially since Allen's ideas were written in the early 1900's and he recognized that no one would pay any attention until the later half of the 20th century. He was right.

Allen recognized that what we have done in our missionary methods is not to create churches, but to create dependent groups. We have not developed leaders and moved on; instead we have injected pastors who most often came from a different culture and had a disconnect from the context in which the church was planted. Paul developed indigenous leaders who came from the context in which the church was planted.

One lesson to learn from this is that maybe most of us are called to serve within our own context. In our own community. In our own culture. Maybe God wants you to catch fire where you live and then draw people like yourself to come and catch fire with you.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Shaking off the dust

Acts 18:5-11

One of the difficult themes that is consistent throughout the New Testament is "shaking off the dust." We don't like this much, and we tend to de-emphasize it in our preaching, our reading, and in our practice.

What is it?

When Jesus sends out the Twelve in Luke 9:1-6, he tells them: "Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them." The assumption is that many people will welcome the good news of Jesus and his kingdom, but others will reject the message. The disciple is not called to keep trying to get through or to compromise the message to make it more palatable to a difficult audience. Instead, the disciple is instructed to leave that audience and on the way out of town, to shake the dust off his or her feet "as a testimony against them." This "shaking off" is part of the message -- it is a warning.

There is ample Old Testament precedent for this. Most specifically, Ezekiel is instructed by God to warn the people and if they don't receive his warning, their blood is on their own hands. (See Ezekiel 2-3). The Bible is very realistic that some will receive the message and others will reject it. The disciple, called to announce the kingdom, is advised to spend his or her time and effort on those who receive the message. The rejection of the hard-hearted is to be acknowledged -- then abandoned. The abandonment is its own message.

So Paul, in these verses in Acts 18, is rejected by his Jewish hearers. Undoubtedly some of the Jews listened to him; it is not that all Jewish people rejected his message. We learn later, in fact, that Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, is baptized with all his family. So we know that some of the Jews received this message in a way that changed their lives. But apparently many -- even most -- of those in this particular synagogue "opposed and reviled him." So Paul shook off the dust from his clothes and spoke words of warning (Acts 18:6). He then announced his plan to go to the Gentiles and announce the kingdom to them. The next several verses detail how Paul set up a mission to the Gentiles in Corinth right next door to the synagogue. (Do you suppose Paul was rubbing it in the faces of his own people, just a little bit?) The text leaves it a little ambiguous, but sort of suggests that possibly Crispus and his household became believers after Paul spoke this judgment on the Jewish synagogue. In any case, many people from Corinth -- probably mostly Gentiles -- became believers. Paul spent a year and a half proclaiming Jesus, equipping leaders, building a church.

What does any of this have to do with us?

I have rarely seen Jesus followers in this day and age willing to speak a word of judgment. We are very critical, but that is different. We stand in our own little group and criticize the world, we criticize those darn teenagers, we criticize other churches. That's not the same. Rarely is a preacher willing to name hard-heartedness and then turn from the hard-hearted to focus on a more responsive audience.

I know a rural congregation that has been served by excellent pastors over the decades -- pastors who have preached God's word passionately and carefully. Many, many times I've seen these pastors try to lead people deeper into God's Word through Bible studies, through retreats, through programs or small groups or any number of initiatives. Consistently the same four or five people show up, but the vast majority of this congregation's members blow these things off. They have an attitude that says they want to come to worship on Sunday, passively listen to a sermon, bring their kids to Sunday School, and talk about the weather over coffee and cookies after church. That's it. Nothing more.

What is a wise course for these pastors to take? In this particular setting, these pastors serve multiple congregations -- over the years, somewhere between three and eight congregations at a time. They are spread thin already. They barely have time to suggest a Bible study, let alone time to really invest. They don't have emotional energy to deal with the frustration and heartache that shaking off the dust would require. I don't think most of them have even considered that shaking off the dust, living out a word of judgment, might be God's call to them in that situation.

The question comes down to this. As workers in God's kingdom, how are we best to deal with the hard-hearted? Do we keep cajoling, encouraging, inviting, hoping? Or do we speak a bold -- though perhaps gentle and compassionate -- word about boundaries and consequences, then walk away to focus our time and energy on those who respond to the word? Paul's actions in Acts 18, and the witness of the rest of the New Testament, certainly seem to provide an answer. Do we have ears to hear?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


In Acts 18, we first meet Priscilla and Aquila, who become coworkers with Paul. By coincidence -- or what sometimes is more accurately called "God-incidence" -- they share the trade of making tents. The Bible says that Paul "went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade." So Paul, Priscilla and Aquila worked as makers of tents to supply their own needs while they proclaimed the good news of Jesus Christ. There's no question which was more important to them -- Paul never said "for me to live is tentmaking, and to die is gain." Instead, he said that about Jesus Christ. As far as we know, Paul was never beaten or shipwrecked for the sake of making tents. He was willing to suffer in these ways for the sake of Jesus Christ.

Today, "tentmaking" has become Christianese -- Christian shorthand, a kind of insider code word for the kind of work a person does in a "secular" job to pay their expenses while they do Christian ministry in the rest of their time. Tentmaking today might mean working as a custodian, a plumber, a phone repairman, a teacher, a financial consultant, or anything at all. Very few people, if any, actually fabricate tents to pay their expenses.

What's very interesting today is that this practice -- tentmaking, or working another job to pay expenses while serving Jesus in some way -- is growing more common. This growth parallels another trend that I have portrayed many, many times on this blog, namely, that the church is getting pushed to the margins of our culture today. As churches get farther and farther from the centers of power and influence, we are less and less able to pay full-time pastors. So more and more churches are smallish groups of people who cannot -- and don't really want to -- afford a full-time pastor, so they have a leader, a pastor, who works forty or fifty hours a week doing finish carpentry and who spends another ten or twenty hours a week working on pastor things like sermons, leadership, equipping others for ministry, and so on.

A couple things happen in this scenario. First, it's very hard to put a finish carpenter up on a pedestal. He has sawdust in his hair and he smells a little like wood glue and he's got that band-aid where he popped a nail through the fleshy part of his finger the other day. It's easy to put a full-time pastor on a pedestal because they're so holy. Yeah. And if we put them up on a pedestal we don't have to feel any pressure to be like them. But if a person can work a real job (sic) and still be concerned for the kingdom of God, then maybe I should, too.

The other thing that happens here is that more than likely, a tentmaking pastor is going to be a lot more in touch with the real lives of people in his or her church than a seminary-educated pastor who knows the difference between Docetism and Gnosticism but who hasn't dropped the business end of a hammer on his finger and dealt with the ensuing verbal consequences in a very long time. There's something real about tentmakers.

Round about 1992 I took on a second job as a custodian in a local HMO clinic to augment my small youth ministry income. The guy who trained me in was a tentmaking pastor. He had a "congregation" of about eight people who met in his home and were actively in the business of inviting others to come and join them each week. Paul -- the custodian / pastor / tentmaker -- taught me the ropes of how to clean the toilets and the carpets and the countertops. He also taught me how a custodian can communicate Jesus' love to doctors, nurses, and patients in some very simple ways. For example, each night Paul would take a strip of paper and fabricate a seal for the toilet seats -- the kind you sometimes find in fancy hotels where the maids certify that nobody has used the toilet before you. Then he'd take five minutes on his break and look through the Readers Digest in the waiting room to find some funny, pithy saying which he would write on the paper, tape the toilet seat shut with the strip of paper, and move on to the rest of his job. Each Tuesday morning (Paul worked at that clinic Monday evenings) the nurses and doctors would watch for Paul's strip of paper, and usually it ended up carefully taped to the mirror in that bathroom so everybody got to read and enjoy it. People loved Paul, because he took a few seconds extra to try to brighten their day in addition to keeping the clinic spotless.

It's incredibly significant that the Apostle Paul (along with Aquila and Priscilla) worked as a tentmaker. Paul knew the significance of this, and he refers to it several times in the New Testament.

I'm a full-time pastor. I get a good salary and benefits. The upside of this is that I can devote myself full-time to serving my church. The downside is that I often start to think of being a pastor as my "job" and I forget that it is a holy calling, as holy as being a custodian or farming or making tents. My great grandfather preached whenever he could and farmed to pay expenses. I often have to remind myself not to let myself get complacent, not to let myself lose his passion for the good news of Jesus Christ.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Acts 18

As promised on Sunday morning at Central, I'm going to spend some time this week writing about Acts 18-19, because there was nowhere near enough time Sunday morning to unpack all of that -- in fact, we barely touched on the last few verses of Acts 18 and the first few verses of Acts 19, looking at God's heart for Ephesus and the church he wanted to build there.

So diving in:

At the beginning of this section, Paul goes to Corinth. I read a very interesting series of articles lately asserting that in Corinth, Paul really starts preaching the fullness of the good news of Jesus. You can see some of this even in the events leading up to Paul's traveling to Corinth.

In Thessalonica, Paul (again) gets into trouble with the Jews. In Berea, they get a much better reception. In Berea, Paul has reached the apex of his appeal to the Jews. He leads them into the Scriptures (Acts 17:11) and many of them come to believe. This is the most successful appeal to Jews that we have recorded in all of Paul's journeys. I can imagine Paul using every tool of his wisdom, his education, his life as a Pharisee, and his knowledge of the scriptures to persuade them that Jesus is the Messiah. But the troublemakers from Thessalonica come down the road to stir things up against Paul and Silas. Paul, the crux of the trouble, gets shipped off to Athens to prevent rioting and violence. He is not successful in planting a church in Berea.

In Athens, Paul has to make a totally different kind of an appeal. Here he has no Jews to talk to, but philosophers who are totally Greek in their thinking. Paul taps into his secular education and his knowledge of Greek customs and teachings. He uses their religious monuments. He quotes their Greek poets. He mentions several philosophical ideas that were keys to Greek thinking. Yet for all the excellence of his appeal on Mars Hill (and Paul's methods here get lifted up and imitated in many churches) Paul is unsuccessful in planting a church in Athens.

Have you noticed that in the New Testament we don't have a letter either to the Bereans or to the Athenians?

I can imagine Paul wandering on down the road from Athens, step by step feeling like he's pounding his forehead against a wall. Why isn't this working? Why did my best Jewish wisdom and scripture, my best Greek knowledge and reasoning, fail to bring people to Jesus?

I believe Paul did have a sort of epiphany -- probably a very humbling one -- between Athens and Corinth. We get just a hint of this in the letter Paul wrote to the church he planted in Corinth. In 1 Corinthians 1-2, Paul makes clear that the church is not about his gifts or his abilities. "And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:1-2).

Paul sets aside his lofty wisdom, his great reasoning, to proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified. What were the results? We have not just one but two letters in the New Testament to the church at Corinth. Apparently proclaiming Jesus Christ alone was more successful than Jewish wisdom or Greek intelligence. Paul said, "Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1 Corinthians 1:22-25).

What does this mean for us today? Churches and church leaders are constantly scrambling for the latest method, the latest tool, the latest strategy to create successful churches. However, successful churches are not those who use the best technology or the niftiest small group program. Living, vital churches know Jesus Christ and him crucified.

This is why it's so important at Central that we know what is central -- that it truly is about "Making Jesus Known" -- not in the sense that we know a lot of intellectual information about him, but in the sense that we know him crucified for us and risen from the dead for our sakes, that this is the central event that shapes and forms our lives.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Father's Day

Here's a well-written meditation for dads on Father's Day. If you think it might apply to you, read it again and take it seriously.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Wild Church

I'm thinking back a couple posts to the wolf that escaped at the Minnesota Zoo, and the question I ended that post with: does Jesus intend his church to be domesticated, or should the church be a little wild?

Now, I know what some of you are thinking. You're thinking you've been to wild churches, and NO THANK YOU. All that shouting and hands in the air and people speaking in gibberish all the time, why would anyone want a wild church?

That's just Pentecostalism and it is not the kind of wild I'm talking about. That's just a worship style, like singing traditional hymns to the accompaniment of a pipe organ is a worship style.

The kind of wild I'm talking about is the kind where the church gets beyond the boundaries of social nicety. We get out into the world and make a difference in real people's lives. People discover meaning, marriages get healed, lives get transformed, families get reunited, addicts get sober, because the church is doing what it's supposed to do.

How might this happen?

First of all, it happens when the church takes Jesus seriously. Too many churches, and too many Christians, don't take Jesus seriously. We think he's a Really Nice Guy and we pat him on the head and say, "Sure appreciate that business about the cross and all you did for us. Thanks. We're having a potluck in your honor after church next Sunday."

Churches that take Jesus seriously go do the things Jesus did. They hang out with criminals and hookers and tax collectors. They feed the hungry and clothe the naked. They pray for sick people, and sometimes those sick people are even healed. They visit people in prison. They bang on the gates of hell, demanding that Satan give up the people he's holding in bondage.

That's the kind of wild the church needs to be.

One of the crazy things that happens when churches start doing these things is that teenagers and young adults get excited about doing Jesus stuff with their lives. They want to go live in the inner city for a year volunteering at a soup kitchen, or they want to go to foreign countries and plug into churches there. Their middle-aged, middle-class parents are more often than not appalled and get really freaked out by all this radical behavior. They have had plans for a decade and a half that he'll be a doctor or she'll get an MBA. It's tough for parents to give up those dreams just because the kid got a taste of something radical.

Let the church start behaving this way, and suddenly much of the New Testament starts to make sense. Lots of things Jesus said that we've forgotten about begin to leap off the pages because they sound like our lives.

I think more churches should get a little untamed. Every now and then, I see stuff happening at Central that gets my adrenaline going, and I'm thankful to be part of a church that is -- at least a little bit -- wild.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

On why we must be afflicted

I'm reposting this from Pastor Leon Stier's devotional. You can find this and many other excellent meditations here. This quote is from C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain.

My own experience is something like this. I am progressing along the path of life in my ordinary contentedly fallen and godless condition, absorbed in a merry meeting with my friends for the morrow or a bit of work that tickles my vanity today, a holiday or a new book, when suddenly a stab of abdominal pain that threatens serious disease, or a headline in the newspapers that threatens us all with destruction, sends this whole pack of cards tumbling down. At first I am overwhelmed, and all my little happinesses look like broken toys. Then, slowly and reluctantly, bit by bit, I try to bring myself into the frame of mind that I should be in at all times. I remind myself that all these toys were never intended to possess my heart, that my true good is in another world and my only real treasure is Christ. And perhaps, by God’s grace, I succeed, and for a day or two become a creature consciously dependent on God and drawing its strength from the right sources. But the moment the threat is withdrawn, my whole nature leaps back to the toys: I am even anxious, God forgive me, to banish from my mind the only thing that supported me under the threat because it is now associated with the misery of those few days. Thus the terrible necessity of tribulation is only too clear. God has had me for but forty-eight hours and then only by dint of taking everything else away from me. Let Him but sheathe that sword for a moment and I behave like a puppy when the hated bath is over-- I shake myself as dry as I can and race off to reacquire my comfortable dirtiness, if not in the nearest manure heap, at least in the nearest flower bed. And that is why tribulations cannot cease until God either sees us remade or sees that our remaking is now hopeless.


Hebrews 12:4-7 -- In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? (NIV)

Job 5:17-18 -- Blessed is the man whom God corrects; so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty. For he wounds, but he also binds up; he injures, but his hands also heal. (NIV)

Hebrews 12:11 -- No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (NIV)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Transitions and other lessons

I woke up yesterday morning on the south shore of Lake Ashigan, about three miles and four portages from the Canadian Border. In my sleep I listened to the roar of a stunning waterfall three fourths of a mile to the southeast, the call of loons back and forth discussing the fishing, territorial disputes, and the presence of predators. An otter spent a half hour feeding off the shore of our campsite just before I went to bed Sunday evening, and I watched him surface and dive over and over again while I managed the dying coals of a birch log I'd broken up earlier in the evening. Yes, there were mosquitoes punctuating the night, too, with their on-and-off assaults.

I woke up there yesterday morning just after sunrise. My daughter Teya and I enjoyed breakfast, then broke camp and were paddling before the sun was half of the way up the sky. The water, heavy with pollen from the pines, lay like a mirror displaying clearly every minnow's feeding, every waterbug's tracks. We paddled through the remainder of the morning as the wind kicked up at our backs and then turned to fight us as though to keep us from leaving. By noon we were at our landing. At two p.m. we sat eating BLT's and writing our memories of the trip -- Friday through Monday -- in permanent marker on our map, which Teya will then hang in her room or keep with her other memories. At three we were hurtling down the highway at seventy miles per hour, strange feat for those who so recently considered a four-mile-per-hour average to be phenomenal time. About seven we drove into our own driveway.

It was a day of transition.

Sunday morning next to the waterfall between Gibson and Cattyman Lakes, I had the opportunity to reflect with Teya and some friends about what Jesus told his disciples in Mark 6 -- "Come away by yourselves to a quiet place and rest a while." These few days in the Boundary Waters have been a quiet place for me, a place to rest. Seems a little strange when you think that daily life when canoeing means packing and unpacking camp each day, carrying eighty to a hundred pounds across multiple portages, cooking over a camp stove, fetching water out of the lake and purifying it before you drink. Each evening one of the last things I do is stash the food pack to keep it away from camp-accustomed bears, and the first thing in the morning I have to walk back out in the woods, well off trails and a hundred yards or more from camp, to retrieve our food pack. Meals have to be rehydrated, and there are no microwaves.

Why, then, do I come back from the Boundary Waters feeling rested? I can think of a few reasons, but the first is that it is a quiet place. Our first evening on Ashigan Lake I heard the dull buzzing -- not as loud as a mosquito -- of a boat motor from Newfound Lake, four miles to the west of our campsite. Yes, it was quiet. No playlists, no ring tones, no traffic. The first night of our trip we stayed along the Canadian border on Birch Lake. We could easily hear words from conversations of other campers in their campsites a quarter mile or more away. (In fact, I struggled on Birch Lake with how "crowded" it was.) The Boundary Waters is certainly quiet. Another translation of Mark 6 has Jesus saying "come away by yourselves to adesolate place." I think we need desolation, we need quiet, we need the lack of activity and noise and constant demands on our time.

Another reason I come back from the Boundary Waters feeling rested is that I am physically active. I've noticed a pattern in this over the last twenty or so times I've been there: The first two days my back aches, my hips hurt, my shoulders rebel against the constant paddling, carrying packs, and hunching over. (Lack of chairs in the Boundary Waters means that you are constantly hunching over -- over the fire, over your shoes, over a map, over a camp stove.) But after the second day, my body gets used to the demands and I feel good. I still get tired out and sometimes my muscles are fatigued from hard work, but it's a good feeling. I feel healthier in the Boundary Waters, as a rule, than I do in my soft recliner or my ergonomic office chair. We are made for movement and physical work, and our bodies feel best when they function this way.

At a deeper level, the Boundary Waters is a spiritually quiet place. It is a place where for a few days I let go of the hectic, double-booked, fifteen minutes late, squeeze in one more phone call schedule that so dominates too many of my days. Instead I focus on a few important things -- listening. Conversation. Noticing things. Taking care of the necessities, like food and water and rest. I don't spend more time talking to God in the Boundary Waters. Over the years I've struggled with this fact. But I'm starting to realize that being there unstops my ears, takes the blindfold off my eyes, so I can begin to connect with him more completely. While I don't pray a lot in the Boundary Waters, I do spend a lot of time just looking out at the lake at sunset, watching the subtle shift of colors, the perfectly mirrored image of the trees on the far shore reflected upside down in the water, the way ripples from a bass feeding spread all across the lake and distort the images. I may spend a half hour just sitting and looking. It's not very productive time, in one sense. But it is spiritually quiet time -- and I am convinced it's exactly what Jesus was recommending to his disciples.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Wild things

Article on the front page of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune this morning tells of a Mexican Gray Wolf at the Minnesota Zoo that escaped its enclosure by squeezing between two panels of a chain link fence, then jumping a second fence (eight feet high) to wander among the pedestrians. Zoo response teams quickly shot and killed the wolf.

I have more to say about this than I can possibly start with tonight. First of all, let me say I believe the zoo crew acted promptly and properly. When my kids were little, we went to see the Mexican Gray Wolves through the glass. One of them was about four, and she stood right next to the glass where a male was pacing back and forth two or three feet away. Suddenly the wolf lunged at my daughter, jaws open, head turned to the side, teeth right at the level of her exposed neck. It hit the glass -- hard -- a foot away from her throat. Shooting this wolf was the right thing to do.

But there's more here. Lots more. Why, for one thing, do we think we can take wild things out of the wild and make them objects for our entertainment? Wild things will always, always find a way out, or a way to make things much more complicated just to show you up. I could tell you story after story. Yet we try and try to domesticate animals that are not tame. This wolf was born in captivity, but he was a wild wolf at his core.

For another thing, did Jesus intend his church to be domesticated? Or is there supposed to be something a little wild, a little scary, about the church when it's functioning properly? Have we tamed it to our own damnation?

I'll leave you to think about that. I'm going off where the wild things are for a while.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Bringing together a couple threads

So ... looking at the last few posts and thinking about convergence. When things come together.

Basically, here's my rocket science insight. If the quote in the last post about worship attendance is accurate -- and I believe it is -- we are in a situation where the Christian church is screaming at high velocity from a position of power and respectability in the center of the culture to a position of obscurity at the margins of the culture. Many people have identified this shift over the last couple decades, and if you're interested there are a ton of people explaining this shift out there. For my money, Loren Mead's old book, The Once and Future Church, explains it all as well as anyone.

The question gets to be, how do we respond to this shift? Because what worked at the center of the culture will NOT work at the margins. For example, there's a church not far from my home that has a big sign up every couple weeks advertising a neighborhood hymn sing. I don't know for sure, but it seems like they put the sign up to try to draw outsiders in. It's evangelism. But this is the sort of activity that will ensure the death -- or at least the increasing marginalization -- of the church. Hymn sings as an activity are not going to connect with a large percentage of the population.

More than that, hymn sings are not inherently an integral part of the mission of the church of Jesus Christ. Jesus did not tell us to go have hymn sings. Paul does say once or twice that we should sing hymns. But the key tasks of the church do not include sponsoring neighborhood hymn sings, or potlucks, or ice cream socials, or scripture seminars, or mission extravaganzas, or Ladies' Aid meetings or church conventions, or even Vacation Bible School or Sunday School or support groups.

Not to offend anyone.

These things are not what Jesus sent us to do. We in the church have done these things for one reason: we lived at the center of culture and at the center of culture, these things were effective ways to do what Jesus told us to do. As we speed toward the margins, if we continue to do these things it will be because we are sadly out of touch with reality.

This is where discontinuous change comes in. We can do better potlucks, nicer potlucks, Thai potlucks, tiki-torch potlucks, or any kind of potlucks. This is continuous change. But to do what Jesus told us to do in a radically new context -- from the margins of the culture -- we will have to make some clean breaks with old patterns. A few of our old structures might make the shift if they can serve our basic purposes in a new context, but most of them will have to go away.

This will not just look like doing Ladies' Aid differently and giving it a new name. Instead, the fundamental purposes of Ladies' Aid will have to change in order to align us with the purpose of the church in a new cultural context.

By now you may be asking, "What are the basic purposes of the church?"

My answer is go read the gospels and see what Jesus says. A couple helpful comments to get you started.

First, and most obvious, Jesus commissioned his church to make disciples. If we are not laser focused on creating Jesus-followers, we've missed the boat. Everything we do -- everything -- needs to be for the purpose of making disciples. To the extent that an activity is fruitful in raising up followers of Jesus, it should receive our loyalty, our energy, our money. Things that are not fruitful in this way should be abandoned. If our current structures and activities do not bear fruit to make disciples, we need to find new structures and activities.

The second thing that Jesus said that is quite thought provoking when it comes to the basic purposes of the church is this: "As the Father has sent me, so I send you" (John 20:21). So we are to be doing what we see Jesus doing in the gospels. His mission is our mission. His passion is to be our passion. His activity is to be our activity.

Simple? Yes. Easy? No. This kind of existence could cost the church its very life.

That's the point.