Monday, April 29, 2013

Journal entry

This morning I took a few minutes to reread the journal entries I've written over the last couple months.  This paragraph caught my attention -- I think I spend a lot of time feeling like this:
It feels more and more like Christians are caught up in a culture that has long since walked away from Christ.  The church is in a confusion of grey -- not knowing where we stand, who we are, where to turn.  The few voices that stand against the cultural drift get labeled haters and fundamentalists, and the church is so divided within herself that we have no organic unity.  I find myself doing my best to plant seeds for another generation -- seeds that will hopefully someday bear fruit in tiny communities of Christian fellowship that become islands of the Holy Spirit’s power in a world running from God, in lives given over to Jesus no matter where the culture wanders.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Pastorates project

Here's an excerpt from a project I've been working on.  I'm trying to write up an in-depth account of pastorates -- why they're important, what they are, how they fit within the Christian and the Lutheran tradition, and how we've implemented them at Central.  Here's part of what I wrote yesterday:

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.

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 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 Paul, a friend and 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, Paul, what’s going to change the church?”

“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 Paul’s 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 limit myself to a couple comments, or perhaps questions, in the course of the Word-focused portion of our pastorate gathering.  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 the ability to read and interpret the Bible in those who participate.  Second, the leaders of our pastorate are reinforced, encouraged, and empowered in their leadership as they learn to lead the discussion 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.  The first steps of this empowerment included focusing on teaching the Bible and on helping people understand what it means to have a dynamic relationship with Jesus.  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.  To put it another way, belonging and believing were tied together.  This is a biblical idea that too often gets lost in our churches.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Brennan Manning

Brennan Manning died recently.  Many, many people have remarked about this remarkable man, about his authenticity and his amazing ability to speak the truth about what it means to follow Jesus.  I won't repeat all that, though I agree.

However, I just read this quote on my friend Curt's blog and it fit with some other things that have been on my mind all day.  So here's Brennan Manning:

"The only way for a Christian to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that their very existence is an act of rebellion.  There is nothing more maddening than a free person."

How to interpret scripture?

In these days Christians are often tempted to accept interpretations of the Bible that make it say something different from what it seems to say.  I ran across a quote from Martin Luther today where he addresses this idea.  Specifically, Martin is addressing the debates about Communion in his own day, but I love the way he says this:

"... no violence is to be done to the words of God, whether by man or angel.  They are to be retained in their simplest meaning as far as possible.  Unless the context manifestly compels it, they are not to be understood apart from their grammatical and proper sense, lest we give our adversaries occasion to make a mockery of all the Scriptures."  (On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, written in 1520)

So today, when Christians find the larger bulk of society rejecting scripture, we are tempted to unsay what the Bible says for the sake of not giving offense to society.  But we must be careful with this, or we will find ourselves washed downstream with the crowds rather than standing on the firm foundation of Scripture!  Read it, understand it, live it in its plainest sense.  Where the context lets you know that the Bible is speaking metaphorically, go with the metaphor.  (In other words, don't literally cut off your hand or pluck out your eye.)  Where the Bible speaks literally, however, go with the clearest, most simple meaning.

In other words, it is critical for Christians to submit to the words of the Bible and not to try to reign over scripture as its lord, commanding it to say that which it does not say, and commanding it to be silent where it speaks uncomfortably to us.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Well worth reading

This blog post makes an important contribution to the conversation about violence in our culture and especially in our schools.  Why is this not part of our public discourse?

Mega-mall churches

Julie and I had a delightful conversation with my cousin Karen last night.  It's such a gift to be able to catch up with family!

One of the richest parts of the conversation for me is that Karen is a strong believer -- she knows Jesus and is tuned in to what the Holy Spirit is up to in the world today.  So a lot of our conversation wove in and out around the church and what works in the church today and where church people are missing the boat.

We talked a bit about churches that still seem to be building more-or-less successful ministries around a 1980's model -- meaning big institutions, big buildings, big programs, big staff.  I believe that some churches can continue to appear successful using this model.  In the 1980's we saw tons of churches growing in this direction.  Willow Creek was the leader of this pack, creating a corporate-headquarters-style church in the suburbs west of Chicago.  Thousands and thousands of church leaders streamed to Willow Creek's leadership conferences over a couple decades.  I was there myself a few times, and learned a lot.

But one of the most interesting visits I made to Willow Creek was in the early 2000's when I heard them say this:  We expected that if people got more involved in our church, that they would love God and love their neighbors more.  But when we studied this, we found that being more involved in church bears no relationship to how much people love God or love their neighbor.

That tears the guts out of the megachurch model.  If participation doesn't equal discipleship, the whole basis of Christian ministry in the last couple decades of the 20th century is suspect.

Look around at the church and that's indeed what you find.  As I said, there are still some megamall churches (meaning churches focused on buildings, programs, staff, etc.) that seem to be doing fairly robust business.  But look closer and you'll find that they have a pretty big "back door" where lots of people are streaming out looking for something else.

What are people looking for?  Just as consumers may still go to the Mall of America for a day out, or for the entertainment, consumers will still go to a church for the programs or for a whiz-bang worship service.  But the disciples, the believers who are living lives dedicated to the kingdom of God, are seeking that out in the world.   They're in conversation with other believers.  They're finding ways to help hurting people.  They're being salt and light, not retreating into a sacred building.

I'm more convinced than ever that the Holy Spirit is creating human community centered in Jesus that operates in a loose relationship with traditional churches.  It's a difficult task today for traditional churches (including the big contemporary worship non-denominational churches) and traditional clergy (including the soul-patch, blue-jean, preaching-from-a-barstool clergy) to figure out their place in this loosely structured world.

The church has left the building.  Now what?

Friday, April 5, 2013

The common good

This short article gets at a little bit of what I was ranting about recently in my post, "Love Conquers All" -- without ever specifically mentioning love or marriage.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Missional Communities

For a few weeks now I've been slowly starting to read Reggie McNeal's book Missional Communities. It's basically McNeal's take on the movement that at Central we are calling "pastorates."  They're mid-sized communities that function almost like a house church.  

Here's an intriguing quote I ran across this evening while I was reading.  If you are at all concerned with the church and its mission in the world, this is thought-provoking:

Though God can lay claim to all peoples of the earth, he has created a people with the responsibility of partnering with him as he pursues his work in the world ("Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." Exod. 19:5, NIV).
God is the primary missionary.  He is the one who has been The Seeker since the Garden of Eden.  The mission has been under way since Adam and Eve, well before Abraham and the creation of a covenant people.  In other words there was a mission before there was the church.  The church did not invent the mission nor does it have exclusive rights to it.  Those belong to God.  Said another way, the church does not have a mission; the mission has a church.
Why does God need a partner?  The simple answer is, he doesn't.  So why does God create a partner people?  Two reasons seem apparent.  The first is that God has a preference for incarnation when it comes to revealing his nature and intention.  God prefers to work through people when possible.  Abraham is blessed to show the world God's intention for all humanity.  His offspring embody the story of God's redemptive efforts.  Then ultimately God chooses to wrap himself in human flesh in Jesus.
Those of us who are aware of God's mission in the world grow accustomed to God sightings, though we never grow accustomed to the God who is behind them.  We get to see resurrections of hope and life and love.  Everything else pales in comparison to the work of God we see all around us.  And he is pleased that we notice!  (pp. 19-20)

Too often we in the church are prone to overvalue our own efforts and our own work.  Fact is, the mission is God's -- it is his generosity and his love that invites us to be a part of it.  When we make the mission about us and our efforts, we miss out on God's presence in it and we miss out on the joy and fellowship with him that he wants for us.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

World enough, and time

I am lamenting lately the lack of time for pondering.

It sits like a weight on my neck.  There are just too many things to think about, and too little time to think all the needful thoughts.

In the middle of my workday, sitting at my desk during two hours of time set aside for projects and planning, I -- all innocent -- ran across two or three old scrawled sheets of plans.  Each bore a heading like "Possible timeline for ..." or "Goals for the next three years."  What do you do with that, when you find yourself two years into the three-year cycle and reality does not match the plannings on the page?  Certainly seems like it should be time to sit and assess, and maybe even reassess.

But the afternoon is full of appointments, responsibilities, schedules, and miles.  Promises to keep and all that.

I may have to take the drastic step of restructuring my priorities and actually setting aside some time.  How radical is that?