Monday, December 30, 2013

The Household of God

I have been thinking lately about the nature of the church.  It's not hard to make that leap during Christmas as we think about what the incarnation means.  What does it mean that God has become Emmanuel, Jesus-in-the-flesh, God with us?  Then, make a short leap with me to Jesus' words to his followers -- "As the Father has sent me, so I send you" and think about what it means that the church has become incarnate, or as Paul writes in First Corinthians, "the body of Christ."  What does it mean that the church is a physical body called into the world?

To help in some of that pondering, I have been reading Lesslie Newbigin's lectures assembled into a book entitled, The Household of God.  Of course, I highly recommend it.  Warning, however, that you should read slowly and frequently go back to repeat a paragraph or a page.  It's dense stuff, though not hard to understand if you take your time.

Here's a sample worth pondering:

"... the life of the new man in Christ is both a reality now given, and a reality whose completeness awaits the day of Christ's return.  In this time 'between the times' we are made one in him by the Spirit -- and the Spirit is the spirit of promise, the earnest, the foretaste of the completed victory of God.  It is the mark of human life 'after the flesh', that is human life in its separation from God, that it seeks to have its fullness in itself as a present possession.  It is the mark of life after the Spirit that it looks always to God in dependence and hope.  It longs for the day of God's victory and places all its confidence in that.  Under the conditions of the flesh, the victory of God is known only as defeat.  The sign of the Cross is the sign under which the Church must ever live in the flesh.  When the Church, in the flesh, under the conditions of this present age, claims to have in itself the completeness of God's victory and therefore to be incapable of sin, it becomes precisely 'of the flesh' -- carnal.  The true mark of the Church's life in the flesh is the mark of the Cross, of life through death, of 'bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be manifested in our body' (II Cor. 4:10)."

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas!

Dear friends,

We are at the top of the slide -- about to leap onto the slope and go screaming downhill into Christmas!  What I mean is, I am sitting in my office at Central in a shepherd's costume (wrinkled and fastened with a safety pin in the best tradition of Sunday School Christmas programs through the years) and in twenty minutes, we'll start the first of five Christmas worship services here.

I pray that wherever you are, you are keenly aware of the love God has for you that caused him to come in Jesus so you might know him, so that you might live with him.  May his presence transform your life and brighten your soul, not just at Christmas but for Jesus' sake, throughout the year!


Friday, December 20, 2013

Getting ready for Christmas

I had a lot of fun this morning re-reading this set of Christmas meditations.  If you are looking for a way to prepare for Jesus' birthday, I encourage you to take some time in the next few days and read through them.  You can also get to the same document by clicking on the link to the right that says "Twelve Meditations for Christmas."  Enjoy!

Thursday, December 19, 2013


"And the Word (Christ) became flesh (human, incarnate) and tabernacled (fixed His tent of flesh, lived awhile) among us; and we [actually] saw His glory (His honor, His majesty), such glory as an only begotten son receives from his father, full of grace (favor, loving-kindness) and truth." (John 1:14, Amplified Bible)

There is an idea floating around in the church that God is spiritual.  We think this is a biblical idea because the Bible in fact says "God is Spirit."  Jesus himself said this (see John 4).  But what we mean by "spirit" might be quite different from what Jesus meant by the term.  When we talk about spirits, we usually mean a Caspar the Friendly Ghost kind of spirit that can float through walls and is more than a little translucent.  We use "spiritual" in a way that is somehow the opposite of "physical."  This is NOT what the Bible means by "spiritual" -- so when the Bible says "God is Spirit" it is not talking about a lack of a physical body.

We should not be surprised, then, at Christmas.  Jesus' birth into humble, physical circumstances is not surprising in the sense that it's strange for God to become physical.  God has been doing exactly that throughout the Bible.

Think of the Garden of Eden, for example, where the Lord God came walking (not floating) in the garden in the cool of the day to enjoy fellowship with Adam and Eve.  Or think of Abraham's three visitors, one at least of whom seems to be God in some sense.  I'm quite sure Jacob experienced God as a physical reality when he wrestled with him on the north bank of the Jabbok.  God was at least physical enough to throw Jacob's hip permanently out of joint.  Moses experienced a real bush, and a real fire.  

Maybe the burning bush is a good illustration.  What Moses experienced was real enough -- physical enough.  But the burning bush was not bound by the conventional laws of physicality.  According to the normal, physical laws of The Way Things Are, the bush should have been consumed.  It was this failure of fire to act in normal, physical ways that first drew Moses to the conflagration in the first place.  

In a similar way, God's "Spirit" nature does not prevent him from being physical; rather, God's spiritual nature means he is not bound by the conventional expectations of physicality.  So when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are thrown into the fiery furnace, King Nebuchadnezzar sees a fourth person is walking in the flames with them, and by his presence with them they are protected from the conventional physical laws that people in infernos have to burn up.

This Advent season it is worth setting aside some time to ponder the Incarnation -- that doctrine that says Jesus is God in human flesh, God in the physical stuff of his creation.  This is not the first time God moves into the physical realm, as we've demonstrated.  Instead, it is biblical to say that God is constantly getting physical (apologies to Olivia Newton-John) with his creation.  

So in Jesus, the Word becomes flesh and pitches his tent (love that translation) among us.  We see throughout Jesus' life that he is completely physical, but he is not bound by the conventions of physicality.  Instead, he is the ultimate Spirit-filled person.  The Spirit of God filling Jesus doesn't make him less physical in any way.  He breaks bread, sleeps in a boat, drinks water, touches people, draws in the sand.  In each of these activities he is acting beyond the simple limitations of physicality.

Christmas is the grand celebration of the Incarnation, of Jesus-in-the-flesh, but it doesn't end there.  God insists on getting physical by pouring out his Spirit into Jesus' followers.  Pentecost is the great physical multiplication of God, as the Spirit fills the church.  Thus it is no contradiction when Paul writes, "Now you are the body of Christ ..." (see 1 Corinthians 12).  God continues to get physical.

Someday, the Bible says, God's essence, God's Spirit, God's self will inhabit all of creation, and none of the physical world will be subject to the limits of physicality, of entropy, of sin and death.  Instead, the creation will be made new and it will become "a land in which righteousness is at home" (see 2 Peter 3).  

This is a big idea to cram into one holiday.  But as you're enjoying the physicality of Christmas -- the tree, the presents, the food, the drink, the embraces, the lights and the smells -- don't think God is somehow above it all, outside it all.  Instead he is in the midst of it, closer than your taste buds.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Shame, vulnerability, and courage

If you heard my sermon at Central on Sunday (or if you didn't) I referred to an NPR program, "On Being", that I had heard on the way to church that morning.  Here's a link to that program.  The interview was with Brene Brown, and it's worth an hour of your life to listen to it.  Especially if you're a parent.  Or some other kind of human.  Well worth your while.

Friday, December 6, 2013

One of those weeks

Do you ever have one of those weeks?  Not the kind where everything goes wrong.  I've had those, too, and they're lousy.  Sorry about that.

No, I mean one of those weeks where you're almost TOO alive.  Where things keep engaging your heart, where you have to deal with reality straight up over and over again from a whole bunch of different directions, and you feel every nerve ending in your soul like you're really, actually alive.  Emotions run raw from the highest heights to the lowest lows.  Beauty breaks out of the skies without warning and breaks your heart open.  Music floats into your relationships.  Tears flow from what you thought was going to be a polite sob into that ugly crying that no one wants to see.  You laugh like a maniac just for the sheer joy of it.  You dangle in the wind and writhe in pain waiting for resolution as if you were wrapped up in duct tape.  You sit by the fire and enjoy languid sips of good conversation and hot, delicious coffee like velvet.  You burn your tongue not enough to really hurt, just enough so that you taste everything at a new level.  You look your own death in the face and realize it's not happening today, so you're joyously alive.

It's been one of those weeks.

It kind of hurts, in a really good way, like a serious core workout.  And maybe that's what it is.

Monday, December 2, 2013


It's December 2nd as I write this, and there's a new dusting of snow on the ground outside my office, with considerably more in the forecast.  I think we may be headed into winter, right on schedule.

It's also the second day of Advent, when we focus on the coming of Jesus -- remembering his coming two thousand years ago (give or take), anticipating his coming to bring all of history to completion, and -- most immediate -- his coming into our own hearts and lives.

I encourage you to use these days of Advent, between now and Christmas Day, to focus intentionally on Jesus' coming.  Here is an excellent blog post that provides an easy-to-use format for families or groups of friends to celebrate a weekly ritual of scripture reading, candle lighting, and song.

Or, if you prefer, you can use this selection of scripture readings that includes the birth narratives of Jesus as part of anticipating his coming.  This might be a better choice if you are just doing this as an individual, but it's up to you.  I highly recommend, even if you're just doing these readings as an individual, that you light an "advent candle" (better yet, and advent wreath) while you focus on these meditations.

In any case, Advent is a great time to hunker down into the dark and quiet, more meditative days of December.  While we try so hard to put up lights and get our shopping done, it's worth setting aside a few moments each day to let your body, mind, and spirit be reflective and quiet, abiding with Jesus in the growing darkness, relishing his presence as the Light of the World.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Veggie Tales and Morality vs. Christianity

Love this quote:

"The gospel is not about making bad people moral, but about making dead people alive."

Click here to read the blog post -- "How to raise a pagan kid in a Christian home" (NOTE: Please also read the author's note at the beginning of the post about the use of the word "pagan" -- it's important for those who are going to speak about spiritual / religious matters that we use words accurately.)

Okay, one more quote from the post because it's so good and I'm worried you won't go read the post itself: 

 "Do you teach your kids "be good because the Bible tells you to" or do you teach your kids that they will never be good without Christ’s offer of grace? There is a huge difference. One leads to moralism; the other leads to brokenness. One leads to self-righteousness; the other leads to a life that realizes that Christ is everything and that nothing else matters. "

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Cool Christianity

This is a lengthy read that requires some careful thought, but I think the author makes an excellent point.  Faith that looks radical but is really built on a foundation of cultural coolness is not going to last through the hard times, and is probably not much about Jesus at all.  My friend Curt passed this along -- well worth reading!

Friday, November 22, 2013


Read an interesting blog post where the author shares comments from non-Christians all over the U.S. who were asked what they would like Christians to know.  It's a little depressing, but important for Christians to hear.  I don't agree with all these posts (duh) but I'm impressed (not in a good way) by the common theme in so many -- "Christians don't listen to me, they just want to impose their agenda on me."  If we're called to love our neighbors, it's important to listen to them, to show more interest in them than we do in imposing our will on them.

I firmly believe that Jesus is the core and center of God's plan for all creation, including all humanity. Or to quote the book of Acts, "there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved."  I think, though, that too often Christians are guilty of being less interested in saving people than we are in saving ourselves by making converts.  We're not good at being aware of who we are and how we come across.  (This is one of the many things I appreciated about Donald Miller's book, Blue Like Jazz, which I highly recommend.)

Here's the blog post.  I encourage you to read it!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Parents Night

For Confirmation at Central we've started having an almost-monthly "Parents Night" when, you guessed it, parents come to be with their 9th & 10th grade confirmands for the evening.  It starts with some killer music played REALLY loud.  Parents tend to sit in the back of the sanctuary.  Then announcements -- last night it was a few details about upcoming stuff in December plus a promo for the Honduras mission trip next summer.  All this happens with middle schoolers and 11th & 12th graders in the room.  Then everyone else is dismissed and I get to talk with parents and confirmands.

I love this format.  I love to talk with parents and students about a topic that is (or should be) of interest to both of them.  So a month ago we talked about how to raise kids in a post-Christian world. Last night we talked about how to prepare your son or daughter for college.  After I get about 25 minutes to talk with them together, the confirmands and their Journey Group leaders head out for 10-15 minutes of discussion, and I get that time with the parents alone.

I love this format because my hope is that we can open doors for some faith conversation in homes.  I know that if parents are willing to talk about these things with their kids, it's likely to have a huge impact on everyone involved.

Last night we talked about how to deal with biblical truth, basically anticipating the Freshman Biology class in which a six-day creation is going to be nailed to the wall.  If all a student has experienced for faith formation is Sunday School stories of Adam & Eve, a biology prof's withering sarcasm can shred their faith and convince them that Darwinian evolutionary theory disproves the Bible.  (Actually, you're far more likely to encounter a Christian in the Biology Department on most campuses than you are in, say, the Philosophy Department.)

So we looked at options.  Last night we laid out four options of how you can view the Bible:

Option 1
Hide our heads in the sand, believe what we believe and that’s the end of it.  When we encounter hard questions, try not to think about it.

Option 2
Make the Bible our source not only for religion, but also for science and history.  At the same time, find as much evidence as possible to say that science can’t be trusted.

Option 3
Say that the Bible is a book full of inaccuracies and fables, but today we know better.  Trust science to teach us the real truth.

Option 4

Figure out what God is saying through the Bible to its original audience, then apply it to ourselves.

As you might expect, I am an advocate for #4.  All too often families operate, intentionally or not, in Option 1 or Option 2, neither of which will get you through college with your faith intact.  Option 3 is what most college campuses default to, and what most college graduates end up believing by the end of school.  Option 3 is our culture's overwhelming belief about truth.  

Option 4 is tricky because you need to acknowledge that the Bible isn't written directly to you (though I certainly believe that when your read it the Spirit of God informs and enlightens your reading, and may use the text to speak directly to you).  You have to do a little work to understand its original context.  You have to make the leap to apply the text. 

It's work, but it's worth it.  Which option do you use most of the time?

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Two ways to give to the Philippines

I hope you've been watching coverage of the recent typhoon in the Philippines.  When our Alpha team from Central visited the Central Philippines in March 2012, we grew to know and love so many people there.  The areas we visited are less affected than some of the islands to the north and east, but there are still huge needs in these local areas.  

My friend Ronald, a pastor on the southern part of the island of Panay, emailed me about the devastation there.  Panay is getting very little press coverage because the damage on islands to the east like Leyte and Cebu is so much greater.  But Ronald says this:  

"Here in Panay we have around 70 dead and 12 missing and 100+ wounded and around more than 100,000 people are homeless ... The Iloilo Pastors have an emergency meeting about the disaster and how can we help.  We decided to appeal to all church members in the city donate used clothing, can foods, noodles, utensils, medicines, mosquito nets, rice, biscuits, mineral water, slippers, coffee and others. Unfortunately, we will send relief goods in Panay island only ... because in our own Panay island the needs are so enormous.  If any possibility that some of our friends there can donate anything for the victims of Panay we would appreciate it." 

If you want to donate to this dedicated group of pastors and churches, we'll be sending funds next week to Ronald.  I have personally worked with Ronald for more than ten years and I know that he is absolutely honest in managing money that is donated for various causes.  To donate to the concerns on Panay, visit Central Lutheran Church's website, click on "GIVE" and follow the instructions.  Be sure to designate your gift "Philippines" and we'll see to that it gets to Ronald and the churches there next week.

A member of our church has connections to an American family living and working on the island of Cebu, one of the hardest hit areas.  They are in position to funnel these donations directly to some of the hardest hit parts of Cebu.  This family says:
Please consider donating – and be assured that every single dollar we receive will go directly to families here in the Philippines. Relief efforts continue but people need help NOW. Our family has volunteered our time and we will continue to do so, but what we need most right now is to put funds directly into the hands of these people so they can start the rebuilding process. 
Every single dollar helps! Even if you can only donate $ is $1 more than what they had before. Most of these families live on less than $5 a day. With the cost of a (modest) new home priced at $1500, it will take years for these people to get back on their feet. Think of the difference you can make! 
Please, please consider donating. The people of the Philippines – the people we have come to know and love – will thank you.

To donate to their efforts, visit their webpage here.

Jesus said: 
"I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me." (Matthew 25:35-36)

Thanks for being generous!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


We have guests at Central these days.  Five delegates from our partner churches in Njombe, Tanzania are here for a week.  They have been seeing all kinds of places and things and activities, plus they have been participating in the life of our church as much as possible.

Yesterday we got to hear a presentation on the work we're doing together in their parishes, and then we got to hear some of their perspectives on what they've been experiencing.  One question they asked us is, how have you learned to be so welcoming, so hospitable?

A couple of our church members took a stab at answering.  One talked about learning together from God's word, being in relationship with others within our church, and how that has shaped and formed us.  The other talked about the relationship we have developed with the Tanzanians over the last twelve years and how that moves us to want to welcome them.

Isaac, the leader of the Tanzanians, said, yes, it is all about relationships-- and I have been in your homes, in your pastorates, and I have seen how you have learned by digging into God's word together that you are to be in relationship with each other and to care for each other.  It is that care that we feel extending beyond your groups to welcome us!

One of the side benefits of investing in pastorates that are rooted in God's word and digging deep into relationship with one another.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013


I just recently wrote about the Edict of Milan, which was signed 1700 years ago by the Roman Emperor Constantine.

Tomorrow is Reformation Day (October 31), the day on which Martin Luther reportedly nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517.  That makes it 496 years ago.

Today is October 30th.  If my parents were still living (Mom passed away suddenly in 1994 and Dad died of cancer in 2000) today would be their 54th wedding anniversary.  I always figured they got married after corn chopping and before deer season.

I always get a little nostalgic this time of year.  I miss my folks, for one thing.   I wish they were around to see what my siblings and I are up to.  I think they'd be fascinated to hear about Kevin's work with the oil sands in Alberta.  I'm quite sure they'd be proud of what Les has made of the farm where we all grew up.  They'd have so much fun hearing about the fishing trips Janet and Ken take, and they would absolutely dote on their girls.  They'd love Darin's farm down in Welch and all the creative things he's doing with it.  And I think they'd be so happy for Angie's new place in Hutchinson.

I'm quite confident Mom and I would have spent thousands of hours -- literally -- talking about church stuff.  She loved the ins and outs of churches as they help people connect with Jesus in an authentic way.  Dad would have listened to those conversations and would have had a keen insight or two along the way that cut right to the heart of the matter.  He didn't say much, but when he talked he was worth listening to.

I have yearned many times for the grandparenting they never got to do.  They knew Kevin's kids early on, and Mom knew Erica when she was little.  Mom died the day we first heard Mathea's heartbeat in utero.  Dad knew the grandkids for slightly longer, but never got to meet Janet & Ken's girls or Darin & Stacy's boys.

Life moves on.  The Psalm says "the generations rise up and pass away before you, Lord."  How true it is.

In some ways we go through a similar kind of nostalgia with the Reformation, or even with Constantine.  Lutheran churches have big celebrations this time of year to play up the importance of the Reformation.  Martin Luther occasionally makes an appearance, via some actor talking about the values of the Reformation -- sola scripture, sola fide, sola gratis, and on it goes.  But just like my siblings and I have moved on and continued to build lives beyond the scope of what Mom and Dad knew, the church faces things today Luther was not aware of.  I hope I never leave behind the values Mom and Dad taught me, and in the same way there are lasting principles, lasting insights that come from the Reformation.  But we need to be careful to adapt those insights to living in 2013.  We may honor Constantine's decision to legalize Christianity, and yet recognize all the damage that has been caused by the establishment of churches.

This kind of historical perspective is invaluable for Christians today.  We need to know where we have come from, and we need to be able to adapt to our current surroundings without trying to rewrite either history or scripture.

And it's okay to be a little nostalgic now and then.

Friday, October 25, 2013

1700 years ago ...

Did you know this year marks the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan?

Sorry, let me take a minute for the deafening cheers to die down.

You say you didn't know about the Edict of Milan?  Probably not by that name.  You may know that in the early centuries of Christianity, under Roman law, Christianity was considered an illegal religion.  Sometimes Christianity was tolerated, most of the time it was ignored, and once in a while it was violently persecuted.  You're probably familiar with gruesome stories of  early Christians being beheaded, burned at the stake, or torn apart by wild animals in the Coliseum.

The Edict of Milan put an end to that.

In 313 AD, Emperor Constantine signed this edict saying that Christianity was officially tolerated -- that it was a legitimate religion under Roman law and not open to persecution.

That didn't quite end the debate; there was an emperor after Constantine who revoked Christianity's status for a while and started killing Christians left and right, and finally in 380 AD Emperor Theodosius passed a law that not only made Christianity legal, but made it the official religion of the whole empire.  (Other religions were still tolerated, but now Christianity was, in technical terms, "established" -- meaning it had the backing of the government.)

This changed Christianity in radical ways.  Prior to establishment, Christians had mostly met in homes.  Christian leaders were usually not paid for their work, certainly not on any kind of fixed salary structure.  Rank and file Christians took their lives in their hands by their decision to follow Jesus.  Church buildings were almost unheard of.

Some things about those days were really, really bad.  Getting torn apart by animals, Coliseum or no, is bad.  But there were also some good things.  Namely, very few people were tempted to be "cultural Christians" -- those who claim the name Christian without any real commitment.

For about a millennium and a half, Christianity in the western world (the world that inherited the cultural influence of the Roman Empire, including the U.S. of A.) enjoyed varying levels of establishment.  Lots of other things changed in those 1500 years.  Philosophies came and went, cultures rose and fell.  But all along the way, Christianity in the major countries of the west was the official religion in some shape or form.

A few key decisions knocked away that established Christian foundation.  (The changes in philosophy set the stage for these changes, but we're not going to dig that deep.)  One big one was in 1789 when the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights was enshrined as the law of the land in America.  The first amendment, if you remember, says that the U.S. Government shall make no law regarding the establishment of religion.  In other words, Christianity has no official status as THE religion of the U.S.

For a couple hundred years after that, Christianity enjoyed primacy in the U.S. just because the vast majority of citizens were part of a Christian church to whatever degree, and they assumed part of being an American was to support Christianity, actively or passively.

In the mid-1800's, science started to provide answers to questions that up until that point had been the exclusive domain of religion.  Darwin taught us that we might not have descended from Adam and Eve -- instead, it might have been Cheeta (remember Cheeta?).  We learned about electricity and light bulbs and suddenly that whole bit in Genesis 1 about God creating night and day seemed a lot less important.  Henry Ford convinced people to build garages to keep their new cars in when they weren't driving around the countryside and the Wright brothers made it possible to fly from New York to L.A.   Things changed.  Big time.  Christianity began to seem a little outmoded.  A couple post-war economies taught us about materialism and Woodstock taught us about free love.  In short, our culture changed more in a hundred and fifty years than it had in the 1500 years previous.

Religion is notoriously slow to keep up with cultural change.

Today, Christianity finds itself in a world we are ill prepared to face.  Our culture is post-Enlightenment, postmodern, and post-Christian.

What does this mean?

In terms of relationships, it's tough.  What is the etiquette of cell phone use at the dinner table?  You won't find that one laid out in the Bible.  What does Christianity have to say to a friends-with-benefits culture where serial monogamy is the norm and single moms outnumber non-divorced married couples?

Plenty, you say.  Just plenty.

I agree.  But we've got to scramble to get a word in edgewise in this overstimulated world.

The Edict of Milan has pretty much run its course.  We're not headed back to the days of wild animals in the Coliseum, though there are places in the world where Jesus' followers face that kind of danger, and we'd do well to pay attention.  But mostly the culture is just passing Christians by without so much as a wave.  How do we live in the middle of this mess?

A couple thoughts.  It's going to take banding together with brothers and sisters who know Jesus.  We need community, and I'm not talking about Facebook.  We need to be in each other's homes and in each other's lives.  We need to stop waiting for the pastor to tell us how it is, and get busy digging into our Bibles.  We need to pray like mad for our kids, and spend as many hours as we can pouring our lives into those relationships from day one -- not waiting for "someday" when they can make up their own minds.  The culture is evangelistic about the benefits of relative morality and situation ethics, and it will sweep your kids away if you don't lay a good foundation in their lives before age six.

I'm so not joking about that last sentence.

It's a new day for Christianity.  Here's the most important thing yet:  God is not surprised by any of this.  What's he up to?  What's his agenda?  That's the right question.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The future of the church

I'm not a doomsayer about the church.  I firmly believe that Jesus is going to get his church to do and be what he wants it to do and be.  No question in my mind.

The question comes when you start talking not about the church of Jesus Christ -- the Body of Christ across the world -- but about a specific congregation.  What we affectionately refer to as "our" church or "my" church.

That's telling, isn't it?  When we start to refer to it as "our" church, not the church of Jesus, then the future comes into question!

So take a specific congregation.  Take one that you love or at least care about.  What will be the future of this church?

It depends.

The thing is, churches thrive when they are following Jesus.  And -- this is key -- Jesus doesn't hang around much inside churches.

Don't get me wrong, he visits.  He'll show up on Sunday morning to be praised, to bring healing, to have a conversation with those praying, to help connect people to one another.  But if those same people aren't concerned about him from noon on Sunday to 8 am the following Sunday, he'll eventually stop showing up at that church.  Why?  Because those people don't really want him there.  If they really wanted Jesus, they'd want him Monday through Saturday as well, and not just in a "Jesus, I can't find my car keys again" kind of way.

So if people in your church are interested in following Jesus in a whole-life kind of way, Jesus is a lot more likely to be present on Sunday morning -- because people know him and want him in their church.  What's more, they've been having an ongoing conversation with him all week about what he's up to out in the world.

They're his friends.  (See John 15.)

That church will probably grow and thrive, not because lots of people are coming to the church but because the people in the church are following Jesus out into the world, wanting to be a part of what Jesus is doing out there.

Pretty simple, when you really think about it.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Pastorate manuscript #14

(NOTE: This is the last in a long line of pastorate posts; however, it is quite possibly the strongest argument for the benefit of pastorates in the local congregation.  Pastorates are an effective tool for developing fruitful leaders -- leaders who don't just know information, but who are actively involved in ministry.)

Developing Leaders -- how does it happen in pastorates?

Hang around with church leaders and you’ll hear some common refrains.  One is the complaint that it’s so hard to find adequate volunteers in our churches.  Even more, it’s hard to find good leaders.  Many, many churches function as staff-led organizations.  The church members are responsible to give enough money to pay the staff, and then to show up for the worship and other events which the staff (and a few volunteers) lead.

Is this the way the church is supposed to function?  Not if you read the New Testament.  Widespread passivity, professional ministry, and a few overworked volunteers are the product of an established church (think Constantine), not of the dynamic, living church Jesus released into the world.

Many churches today have rediscovered an interest in “discipleship.”  When a church gets fired up for discipleship, usually it means adult education starts to grow.  We develop a series of Bible studies or small groups.  We expend tremendous amounts of money, time, and energy in these discipleship programs.  But do these kinds of programs produce fruit?  Do they raise up workers for the harvest, like Jesus described?  As Ephesians 4 puts it, do they equip the saints for the work of ministry?

One of the most exciting things about pastorates is that they are a powerful engine for developing leaders -- real leaders who are capable of doing real ministry, not just answering a series of questions about a biblical text.  I’m certainly not against biblical knowledge.  However, the Bible is not intended just to inform us but to transform us.  

Because pastorates are too big for one person to lead, we create leadership teams.  Tim Matthews from HTB says that when they start a new pastorate, they recruit three people: a teacher, a worship leader, and an administrator.  These three people -- and any or all of the three may bring a spouse along into the mix -- create a leadership team for that pastorate.  All three of these leaders are encouraged to work intentionally to give their jobs away.  That’s just part of the expectation.  So the teacher recruits others to share their teaching in the pastorate.  The administrator gives away some administrative duties to others.  The worship leader recruits and develops other worship leaders.  Over time what happens is that certain individuals discover their gifts in a new way and get to practice leadership in a forgiving context.  Some may go on to use their gifts within the wider congregation, if their gifts are exceptional.  The majority of these leaders find a comfort level working within the pastorate.  As the pastorate talks and plans and prays toward the goal of giving birth to a new pastorate, these leaders may form a natural core group for that new mission.

In addition to these formal leaders who take on the important tasks of leading, teaching, and organizing God’s people in the pastorate, all the participants in the pastorate can step up to do ministry in situations demanding pastoral care or missional outreach.

For example, when one person from our pastorate is hospitalized, others from the pastorate naturally step up to visit, to offer lawn mowing or meals or help with gas vouchers.  They step up in these ways not because they think they are doing ministry; they step up because their friend is in need.  This is the most natural way for us to learn to give our lives away -- by caring for those who we hold dear!  In stable cultures where extended family relationships surround the individual, this happens naturally as we care for grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.  In mobile Western societies, pastorates provide an extended family with a web of relationships that help us learn to care.

Once we have learned this simple lesson, it’s not a giant step to be able to visit someone else in the hospital or offer to mow a neighbor’s lawn even if we don’t have a close relationship.  We’ve been schooled in our pastorate to provide pastoral care, and suddenly we discover that we have been equipped for outreach!  Certain individuals within the pastorate will be attentive to larger needs within the community, and they will become like a burr under the saddle of the pastorate as a whole.   They are “mission champions” who call the pastorate to action.  Again and again they will bring up needs in the community, encouraging the pastorate to step up.  Mission grows organically out of the web of relationships.

Throughout these processes, the pastorate is developing leaders.  If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, the biblical texts will call us to be salt and light for our neighbors.  As these opportunities come up, the Holy Spirit can nudge hearts that have been prepared by God’s word.  It just takes a little encouragement and an opportunity.  Each time we step up to serve, each time we meet and someone else does the teaching, each time a new person agrees to make phone calls, each time someone new plans or leads worship, the pastorate is developing leaders.  Some of these leaders will sprint on ahead.  Others will grow comfortably into their role at a pastorate level.  

Over time the pastorate develops leaders not through a churchwide program, but through a web of relationships.  When failures happen (and they will) the pastorate can be a generous, gracious place to help pick the potential leader up, dust him or her off, and encourage him or her to try again.

LCMC Annual Gathering

Sunday through Thursday this week I was at, or traveling to and from, the LCMC (Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ) Annual Gathering 2013.  About 800 people representing 275 congregations gathered in Dearborn, Michigan for a gathering that was a very small part politics with moderate doses of entertainment, all fellowship, and all faith.

Good stuff.

I really enjoy being a part of LCMC.  I recall going to denominational gatherings previously that felt forced, too political, too pompous, or totally beside the point.  At one of these gatherings, a delegate from our church leaned over to me and asked, "What are we doing here?  We've spent the last half hour talking about fair trade chocolate -- and since we got here yesterday, Jesus hasn't been mentioned once!"

In Dearborn, Jesus was mentioned frequently, not as a superhero in the sky but as the leader, role model, and power for the association.  Scripture was quoted and taken seriously, authoritatively.  There was a healthy sense of urgency to these diverse Lutherans (including some from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Australia, and other places).  They carried a sense that God has work for this group to be doing, that it's important work, and that we'd better get busy.

I was privileged to lead a breakout session on the topic of pastorates.  It was well attended, especially by quite a few younger leaders.  They seemed energized by the creative ideas and new possibilities.  (If any of you reading took my advice at that breakout to check out the manuscript I've written about pastorates, the easiest way to access it is to click on the link at the right under "Pages" that says "Pastorates: New Testament DNA for the 21st Century Church."  That will take you to the entire document in one easy chunk.

Part of the fun of a gathering like this one, of course, is seeing people you haven't connected with in a while.  I talked to people from my days at the Lutheran Bible Institute of Seattle ('83-'85), from my days as a pastor in North Dakota ('98-'03) and from various ministries around the Twin Cities.  What's more, I got to spend time with Bjorn Dixon and Craig Otto from the Why Church that meets at the YMCA in Elk River.  Great fun!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Pastorates manuscript #13

What about children?

In our experience at Central, by far the biggest challenge we’ve experienced is how to incorporate children into the life of the pastorate.  We should note at the start that pastorates are inherently good for families.  Children see their parents taking time to nurture their relationship with Jesus and to spend time in his word and with his people.  As much as possible, then, children should be included into the pastorate life.  As noted above, there may come a time during the evening when children have their own activities or duck out after some time in worship and the word.  In other pastorates, parents choose to keep their children in the pastorate throughout the evening.  With younger children, parents will usually take turns overseeing the children in a separate area of the house.  

Note that the goal of the pastorate is not to have a quiet, solemn church service-type atmosphere.  There is ample room for children to be involved and even noisy.  More experienced parents can mentor younger parents who may feel self conscious about the activity level of their children, and if a child needs special attention a pastorate usually includes several adoptive grandparents or aunts and uncles.  

Personally, over time one of the greatest gifts I’ve seen in pastorate life is the impact it has on children.  Children who grow up in this kind of Christ-centered community are shaped by it.  They recognize that being part of a relational community that prays and worships and studies God’s word together is just normal.  As they grow older, they will seek out this kind of community, not settling for a “normal” life as the world defines it -- a life that is barren of significant spiritual relationships.  Also, children grow with a sense of kingdom possibilities and a heart for the mission of God in the world.  They learn along the way as naturally as breathing that God wants to bring healing, to speak light into the darkness, and that they may well be called to have missional adventures in the name of Jesus!  These things grow naturally out of the life of the pastorate.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Pastorates Manuscript #12

(A word of explanation:  Much of my work at Central over the last several years has focused on "pastorates," which are mid-sized groups of 25-35 people of all ages meeting together in homes for worship, hearing God's word, sharing communion, and vibrant fellowship.  Pastorates have become a core practice for us at Central Lutheran Church, imitating the model developed at Holy Trinity Brompton in London.  This series of posts is taken from the rough draft of a manuscript on pastorates I'm writing.  My goal is to encourage and enable other churches to consider whether pastorates might be a good fit for them.  This is #12 in a series.  Eventually these posts will all be shared on this page when the manuscript is finished.)

Size, Schedule, and Newcomers

I often refer to pastorates as “mid-sized” groups to distinguish them from the “small” groups people are so familiar with.  However, a pastorate is not primarily defined by its size.  A group of 30 people meeting in a home may not be a pastorate if they function more or less like a small group.  A group of a dozen people might be a strong pastorate if they function like one.

Small groups usually function like a single-celled organism.  The emphasis in a small group is on being together -- together in the same conversation, together in a discussion about a Bible passage, together around a table enjoying a meal.  

One main principle of pastorates is that there is never just one conversation going on.  Tim Matthews, the pastor who has overseen the pastorates ministry at Holy Trinity Brompton for the last five years, says that when he sees his pastorate starting to all share in the same conversation, he’ll intentionally turn to someone next to him and start a new topic.  That way there are at least two conversations going on.

What’s the big deal?  Why worry about having more than one conversation at a time?  Simply this: If we function as a single cell, it limits how many people can function in leadership, how many people can comfortably join the group, and how many people’s needs can be met through the group’s time together.  Pastorates always function with more than one cell, more than one conversation.  

In every facet of a pastorate’s gathering, you’ll see this principle at work, with one possible exception.  The possible exception is that during worship and word time, the pastorate is usually all focused together, just as a larger congregation gathers as one unit to praise and to hear God’s word.  So in this way, a pastorate functions a little like the larger church gathering, the “celebration.”  In every other time, however, the pastorate functions with multiple cells:  During the meet-and-greet time, there will be a half dozen tiny knots of people enjoying independent conversations.  After hearing the word, the pastorate may separate into buzz groups for conversation and prayer.  Even going out into the neighborhood or into the world in mission, the pastorate usually has several smaller knots of people working together as multiple cells.  

It is often tempting to have one large group discussion in a pastorate.  However, this is a way of growing the pastorate down into a small group and should be avoided.  

Scheduling is another way pastorates function differently than small groups.  As noted above, pastorates meet twice each month for a three-month term, then take a month off (April, August, and December).  Because pastorates are significantly different from small groups, it’s wise to encourage people to form their own cell groups to complement the life of the pastorate.  At Central we call these cell groups D4D groups (Designed For Discipleship).  They are groups of two to five men or women -- groups are gender specific.  They are not expected to multiply, but rather to grow deep together into God’s word and into one another’s lives over time.  Most often they meet twice each month, ideally on the “off” week when the pastorate is not meeting.  D4D’s function most often as closed groups, not inviting newcomers in.  As people observe D4D’s and want their own, they’re encouraged and supported to form new groups.

So pastorates, by virtue of the fact that they’re always multi-celled, are inherently able to welcome newcomers.  D4D groups are not expected to do that.  Those who crave the stability, depth, and intimacy of the small group are able to experience it, and yet the pastorate provides an engine for evangelism, for mission, and for leadership development.  Pastorate leaders always try to cater to the newcomer so that the discussion avoids intensity that might be off-putting to a newcomer.  That kind of conversation is more appropriate to the cell group.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Faking it?

Taking a break for a moment from the series of Pastorates Manuscript posts.  (Thanks to those of you who keep coming back!)  We'll be back to the pastorates shortly.  For now, what do you think when you hear the term "faking it"?

"Faking it" is never a good thing.  Think about the phrase -- doesn't it give you a nauseous feeling in the pit of your stomach?  You don't want to be close to those who are faking anything.  Words like lying, hypocrisy, and broken trust follow quickly behind.

The same is true in the church.

Here's a fascinating exchange that happened during Christianity Today's 2013 interview with Rick Warren.  The interviewer asked the question in bold, and Warren responded:

More resources are expended on evangelism in America than in almost any other nation. Yet surveys say the country is becoming less Christian. What’s your take?

Cultural Christianity is dying. Genuine Christianity is not. The number of cultural Christians is going down because they never really were Christian in the first place. They don’t have to pretend by going to church anymore. 
I don’t trust all the surveys out there. Newsweek did a cover on the decline of Christian America based on a Pew survey that said the number of Protestants has dropped precipitously. That’s an old term. It’s like saying I’m a Pilgrim. Nobody calls themselves a Pilgrim or a Puritan anymore. So the number of Pilgrims and the number of Puritans have dropped precipitously in America! That’s a straw man. 
Of course Protestantism has dropped. The only people who might still call themselves Protestants are the liberal Protestant churches—the ones that have died the most.
I think Rick Warren has nailed something here.  Church attendance in big, mainline churches is dropping like a rock.  This is no surprise.  Cultural Christianity -- the sort of social system that sees itself as more-or-less-Christian -- is dying.  Look around you:  Schools don't avoid programming on Wednesday evenings (if you're over 40, do you remember "church night"?)  and even if the schools avoid Wednesdays or Sunday mornings, for that matter, the community leagues are all over those time slots.  Cultural Christianity is no longer part of the social expectations that most people live with.

So in essence, what Warren is saying above is that people don't feel pressure to "fake it" anymore.  They don't have to pretend.

What do Jesus followers do with this bit of information?  We can grieve the loss of power.  We can mourn that people no longer feel pressured to behave like Christians.  Or -- and this is a big change -- we can recognize that we have an opportunity to be salt and light in a darkened culture.

Churches that get what it means to be in the world but not of it -- to live in the world and rub shoulders with the world, but not to soak up its values -- will thrive in this environment.  Churches that don't get how to live for Jesus in the midst of a world that doesn't share those values will decline.

Pretty simple.  But look at the churches around your neighborhood.  How many get it?  How many are wishing we could go back to the days when people felt the pressure to fake it?

What about you?  Do you wish we could go back to the days when the church was at the center of social power?  Or do you recognize the movement of the Holy Spirit in bringing us to a time when Jesus' followers have an opportunity to be salt and light in their own neighborhoods?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Pastorates manuscript #11

Implementing Pastorates

So what do pastorates look like? What are the practical details of implementing pastorates in a congregation?

Very few congregations can simply start a wholesale pastorate launch successfully.  Pastorates are close enough to small groups, close enough to more traditional worship services, close enough to mission teams, that a congregation with experience in any of these areas will find pastorates morphing into “what we already know.”  

Because of this, it’s important to lay some groundwork before implementing pastorates.  First, it’s worth taking time to get to know the model.  Do some research beyond this book.  Go to Holy Trinity Brompton’s website -- the church that started Alpha, the church from which we learned about pastorates -- and find out how they conduct their pastorates.  The Alpha USA website also has a library that contains quite a bit of information about pastorates.  Nicky Gumbel, vicar of HTB, has written a small booklet called “Pastorates: Life at the Heart of the Church” that is a helpful resource.

Once you’ve done some research, gather some interested people.  Share the vision of what pastorates are and why you believe they’re a good fit for your church.  Gather a group of potential leaders.  Pray together for your church and for God’s Spirit to help you discern if this is the appropriate vision for your church.

If it seems good to you and to the Holy Spirit to move forward, this gathering of people can become a prototype of a pastorate.  Make clear to this group of people from the very beginning that you are hoping they will become champions of the pastorate model and that you’re hoping they will become leaders of the pastorates that form in the future.    It’s important to plant these seeds from the start; otherwise the natural affinity people build in the life of a pastorate will make planting new pastorates very difficult.  

Meet together for a defined period -- three months at a minimum, probably six months maximum.  During this period build your pastorate with great care on the model described below.  This initial prototype will become the template in people’s minds of what a pastorate is supposed to be, so it’s critical to make this as much like the pastorate model as you can.  

After that time of learning, growth and discernment, discern what is the best way for this group of people to give birth to multiple pastorates.  Launching three or more pastorates in this phase will help later on; having multiple pastorates in the life of the congregation will help your church to avoid some of the initial resistance to growth and allow some diversity within styles of pastorates.  

A word of caution: In most churches, only about 15% of attenders are willing to jump on board a new program of any kind.  While it’s fun to think what your church might look like if everyone was part of a pastorate, it might take a while to get there.  It may be easier to launch pastorates for 10-15% of your worship attendance to start with.  If your church has a strong history of participation in home-based groups, you may be able to start with a slightly higher percentage.  However, in this case it’s critically important to help your leaders buy into the pastorate vision or the inertia of the church will pull the life of the pastorate back to the style of whatever groups have been dominant in the church before this.

Recruiting and training your new pastorate leaders is critically important.  The Book of Acts contains several examples of how seriously the early church took recruitment of new leaders.  Acts 1, Acts 6, Acts 13, and Acts 20 are all examples of how the early church dealt with recruiting leaders.  The books of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus are primarily about leadership issues.  This is important stuff!  Choose those who are your best leadership, who have the Spirit-driven gifts to shepherd people, who are experienced in handling God’s word well.  Choose them with prayer.  Choose them in the context of confidential, open conversation among one or two of your leadership team members.  Don’t have a leadership team?  Start one just for this purpose.  Pastorate leadership is too important to go solo on recruitment.

At Central we have handled training a few different ways.  Our initial training generally covers about six hours of theological and biblical material, description of the pastorate model, discussion of shepherding and leadership.  One of the most important ingredients of our pastorate leadership training is that we run through an actual pastorate evening complete with food, worship, word, communion, and prayer as part of our training.  This tangible experience is especially helpful to those who have less experience in actual pastorate life.

Six hours is not really much training, but it’s enough to launch.  Depending on the strengths and weaknesses of your church, you may want to move to a general sign up next, encouraging people to find a location and time of the pastorate that works best for them and plan to attend.  Pastorate leaders should be encouraged to recruit their friends, neighbors, and acquaintances.  Nicky Gumbel talks frequently about HTB’s pastorate leaders being encouraged to “mine the church” -- to look around on a Sunday morning at worship for those who may not be involved in a pastorate and to invite them.  

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Pastorates manuscript #10

NOTE: I am well aware that the previous post was marked #8, and this one is #10.  In my intention for the finished manuscript there will indeed be a section between these two -- but I haven't got it written yet.  So I'll jump ahead to this section, which might be of most interest to clergy, but I'll post it anyway.

What do pastorates mean for the current leaders in the church?  Specifically, what does a pastorate structure require of the church’s pastor?

One of the most drastic changes the church has experienced in the last century has to do with the status of clergy.  A century ago, pastors were important people.  They enjoyed prestige in the community and deference from nearly everyone, even other professionals.  Even the United States tax codes recognize the status of clergy through special exemptions, deductions, and allowances.  In implementing these special classifications for clergy (of all faiths, though by far the majority of people able to take advantage of these have been Christians), the government has affirmed that the church provides services that are critical to the general welfare of the United States and therefore, without discrimination or bias, the U.S. government wants to support the work done by clergy.  Many of these special tax classifications are being eroded away today.  The benefits accorded to the clergy are changing.

Partly because of increasing education among the general population and partly because of a decreasing respect for the church as a whole, pastors no longer enjoy as much public authority and prestige as they did in the past.  While those of us who are ordained might grieve for these changes, we have to recognize that God is at work here.  These changing perceptions are no surprise to him.  

It is important for pastors to realize that Jesus had a great many things to say about power and how it is exercised in the gospel community.  Rather than exercising power over one another, Jesus said, leaders in this community are to be servants.  Rather than seeking our own advantage or control, leaders are to give away power.

This idea of giving away power is deeply personal for me.  Before I went to seminary, I served in various non-ordained roles within the church for many years.  I enjoyed not being a pastor, helping other lay people to recognize that they, too, could live lives wholly dedicated to following Jesus.  Radical Christian lives were not just for pastors.

As I served in the church, I became increasingly frustrated by a variety of “glass ceilings.”  Over and over again I encountered limits to what I could do in the church because I was not ordained.  At a retreat in February, 1994, I vented my frustrations to a friend who was also a pastor.  I complained about how my Lutheran church loves to talk about the priesthood of all believers, but then we create systems where pastors have power and the rest of the church sits by, passive.  I railed about how pastors function like a good old boys’ club, holding the authority to make decisions on behalf of the church, then making those decisions in ways that protect their own power base.  Paul listened to my tirade attentively.  When I was through, he quietly nodded.  “I think everything you say is true.  Pastors are often guilty of protecting their own power.  We create systems that preserve our own authority in selfish ways that hurt the church.  Do you know what will change the church, Jeff?” he asked.  

I was still quite frustrated and I became a little sarcastic.  “No, what’s going to change the church?”

“The only way these things will change is if good people who understand what you have been saying get ordained and then give away their power.”

It was like the Holy Spirit used his words to stick a pin in my ego.  I could almost hear my indignant rage leaking out like helium out of a balloon.  Within a week my wife and I had made plans to sell our house and I put in my application to seminary.  Since that time, my heart has been bent on being a pastor who gives away power.  I have returned again and again to Ephesians 4, where the apostle Paul describes how God gifted the church with pastors (and other leaders) in order to equip the saints for the work of ministry.  So if pastors try to do the ministry ourselves, we are working against God’s plan for the church, working against scripture.  The ministry -- the mission of the church -- is properly the work of God’s people, who are to be equipped and empowered by pastors and other leaders.

When I completed seminary and began serving two congregations in western North Dakota, I discovered (not for the first time) that it is not only pastors who resist the priesthood of all believers.  Often members of congregations enjoy being armchair quarterbacks in the church, able to second-guess decisions without taking responsibility.  Others take a perverse pride in having hired a pastor to do the work of the church on their behalf.  Many who bang the drum loudest for what they think is traditional Lutheranism also carry the most resistance to Luther’s idea that every Christian is ordained a priest in their baptism, authorized and responsible to carry out the ministry of the church.

As I have pursued the vision of pastorates for the last seven years, I have constantly been challenged to give away power in big and small ways.  One of the earliest lessons -- and one that is repeated most often -- is that if the gospel is going to create community, I have to give up the traditional pastor’s role of “answer man.”    Today when I sit as a participant in the pastorate my wife and I attend, I sit and listen, and if someone directs a question to me, I redirect it to the person leading our pastorate.  I find that this accomplishes several goals.  First, other participants are forced to grapple with their own questions and answers rather than simply looking to the pastor for the correct answers.  Over time this practice creates greater learning and develops in those who participate the ability to read and interpret the Bible for themselves.  Second, the leaders of our pastorate are reinforced, encouraged, and empowered in their leadership as they learn to lead through what are sometimes difficult issues.  Third, I tend to learn a great deal as I listen to the perspectives of my brothers and sisters in Christ!

In our church (meaning Central Lutheran), we have laid the groundwork for many years to empower pastorate leaders.  After a major staff transition in 2002-2004, we focused most of our pastoral attention on building toward this empowerment.  (At the time “pastorates” were not even remotely on our radar.)  The first steps of this empowerment included focusing our staff attention on teaching the Bible and on helping people understand what it means to have a dynamic relationship with Jesus.   (We were beginning with a congregation that was self-focused, biblically illiterate, and overwhelmingly complacent about everything from participation to mission.  The sad truth was that our new mission statement at the time, “Making Jesus Known”, caused quite a bit of controversy in some quarters.)  At the same time we intentionally created group experiences and raised up leaders to oversee those short-term groups.  We developed a strong Alpha ministry and trained a cohesive team of leaders who understood many different tasks -- set-up, clean-up, cooking, prayer, group leadership, administration, childcare, hospitality, and more -- as many different tasks that worked toward a common goal of evangelism and discipleship.  Alpha also created a natural association in the minds of both leaders and participants between relational groups and spiritual growth.  We used other small group experiences throughout the church to reinforce that connection.  To put it another way, belonging and believing were tied together.  This is a biblical idea that too often gets lost in our churches.

Another aspect of the culture changes we pursued during these years included saying “no” to many things that did not directly serve our mission.  In those days our mission statement was “Making Jesus Known.”  A worship team that enjoyed playing together but refused to pray together (it seemed to them like an exclusive practice) was held accountable and eventually dismissed from leadership.  We realized that families had fallen into a pattern of simply dropping their children off for Sunday School and then going out for brunch, and nothing we offered for adults seemed to draw them in.  So we did away with Sunday School, instead offering a children’s education time during worship for children who began and ended the worship service sitting in the sanctuary with their parents.  

These examples highlight a painful fact: You can’t give away power within structures that function to keep people ignorant, complacent, and avoiding responsibility.  Sometimes the structures themselves need to be changed in order to help people discover a willingness to take on authority and accountability.  

Along with our “Extreme Sunday Makeover” that deep-sixed traditional Sunday School, we began to teach parents intentionally that they are the primary faith educators of their children.  That simple message returns again and again as a challenge and encouragement to parents.  Many have stepped up and taken on their God-given authority as parents to disciple their children.  Others have walked away from Central and have gone looking for a church that still offers Sunday School.

Another challenge of giving away power is that it will not only challenge complacent pew-sitters; it challenges controlling pastors.  Many pastors lament the unwillingness of people in the pews to take responsibility.  However, these same pastors are unwilling to give up control.  You can’t ask people to take ownership if they have no say in the outcome.  Pastors have to go through an intentional process to give away power.  First the pastor -- the one who holds nearly all the power in the traditional Protestant model -- needs to discern a specific area in which to give away power.  Second, the pastor needs to back away from meeting everyone’s needs in that area.  In effect, the pastor has to create a vacuum where ministry is not being done, or highlight an area in which ministry is lacking without stepping in to meet people’s needs.  If there are no legitimate needs, why would people step up to take ownership?  Third, the pastor needs to recruit people who are willing to do ministry, equip them with both authority and with skills, and then walk alongside them as they begin to do ministry.  It is fascinating to read about Jesus’ methods in this regard.  In Luke 9, for example, Jesus first gives the disciples authority to complete the mission.  Only after he gives them authority does he instruct them and send them out.  Too often in our churches we are guilty of giving people jobs to do but no authority to make changes necessary to complete the job.  

As we learn to give away power within the church, we find several New Testament texts taking on new depth and meaning.  We read 2 Timothy 2:2 and discover that the New Testament vision of leadership development is multi-generational.  That is, as a pastor it’s not just about how I raise up leaders; rather, it’s about whether those leaders can raise up still more leaders who will be able to train and equip others.  So in effect, I can’t judge the effectiveness of my leadership development until my spiritual grandchildren are training faithful disciples.

When we read Ephesians 4, we discover that the reason Jesus gives leaders to the church is in order to equip the saints for the work of ministry.  In other words, as a pastor my job is not necessarily to do the work of ministry myself, though of course some of that will happen; rather, my job is to multiply the number and quality of people doing ministry by giving other Jesus-followers the tools they need.  What is more, only through this process of equipping the saints and releasing them to do ministry will we come to maturity, to the knowledge of Jesus.  

Think about it.  This is the same pattern Jesus followed with his disciples.  He walked with them, taught them, and lived with them, for a brief time.  Then he gave them authority and sent them out to do specific ministry.  He continued to walk with them through this process as they returned and reflected on their ministry, then went out again.  As they grew and matured and experienced successes and difficulties they became more and more able to do the work of ministry they had seen Jesus modeling.  The ministry of equipping is very near the heart of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  Pastors and church leaders would do well to imitate him!