Friday, August 30, 2013

Pastorates manuscript #4


Just before he ascended into the heavens, Jesus told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they had received the promise of the Father.  So in Acts 1, they wait in a very active way, studying the scriptures, praying, and dealing with some leadership issues.  Then in Acts 2, the Holy Spirit comes on them with power, just as Jesus had promised.  Eventually -- after six more chapters of hanging around Jerusalem -- the disciples move out into Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).  It is only by the power of the Holy Spirit and under the authority of the ascended Lord Jesus Christ that they can do this.  Every time these Jesus-followers opt for their own agendas, they fail.  Every time they choose to operate in their own strength, the movement falters.

The Church of Jesus Christ can only be the Church of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.  If we are operating by any other power, we are not operating as the Church that Jesus intended.

Look back through Christian history with this lens and you see a fascinating landscape.  Movements rise and fall by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Individuals arise at just the right time in history and wield amazing power because they trust in the Spirit.  

Modern students of history are often tempted to secularize history -- to view it as a purely human chain of causes and effects.  Jesus’ followers must never give in to this temptation.  We need to remember (as Paul boldly proclaims in Acts 17) that the events of human history are Spirit-driven events.  

I am not saying that all events are caused by God.  The debate between strict predestination and open theism is far beyond me, though I believe Scripture tends to favor those who give God more credit, not less.  However, it is important to recognize that God is active in history, moving his followers to build his kingdom, to speak truth to power, and to proclaim Jesus in all ages and all places.

In the early 1900’s a group of Christians experienced a supernatural outpouring of the Holy Spirit complete with miraculous healings and gifts of “glossalalia” or speaking in tongues.  Since that time, the word “Pentecostal” has usually referred to these Christian sects that expect the miraculous gifts and intervention of the Holy Spirit.

However, Mark Noll has described “Pentecostal” in a deeper and wider sense.  I quote him at length from a lecture at Roanoke College in 2006.

The simple demography of the world situation today forces -- or should force -- Christian believers in the West to reexamine questions that they may not have thought of for quite some time.  

I'm a Presbyterian.  Presbyterians are defined by:

A. Resistance to change,
B. A desire to have lots of committees, and
3. [sic] An inability to move past a mile or two an hour on any kind of conceptual issue. 

The world -- the Christian world we live in today is not a world made for Presbyterians.  It is a world changing fast, that's demanding Christian and theological reconsideration.
For example, how close is the world of spirits to the world in which we live?  In other words, what is to be made practically of the traditional Christian belief in the supernatural?  All Christians in one variety or another believe in forces beyond nature, in a God who acts for his own purposes when he wishes.  In most of the Christian world today, however the abstract belief in God's ability to act supernaturally is connected to a strong belief that God acts supernaturally, practically, in the world almost all the time ...  

[Noll describes a work by a Canadian author on images and experiences of Jesus in West Africa, and the sophisticated theological reflection that grows out of these images and experiences.]  

What I was impressed by was how standard, how ordinary, the expectation that God would normally, often, in the regular course of things, act for his own purposes, to bring about physical healing ...  

[Noll next describes a friend of his who leads seminars in the Philippines and elsewhere in the world on Bible reading.]  I asked John, "Now, how many of the people who come to your seminars -- and they would be Baptists, they would be Presbyterians, they would be Nazarenes, they would be Catholics, as well as many from independent churches -- how many of these people would be Pentecostal and charismatic?" He shakes his head and he says, "Every single one."  

They all are.  They all are expecting God to act immediately. 

Well, I don't.  I'm an academic Christian who thinks through things, and I want the Lord to kind of take his time.  But on such questions, it actually might not mean a whole lot what I think, very very soon.

Mark Noll has his finger squarely on one of the most important divides in Christianity today.  Christianity is not divided so much between Catholic and Protestant, or rich and poor, or Arminian or Calvinist.  Those divisions are real, but less important than this simple question:  Does God act freely, commonly, often, even daily, by his Spirit, to intervene for his own causes in the created world?  Those Noll labels "Pentecostals" would say a firm "yes!" to this question.  The rationalist protestantism I grew up with might more likely say a cautious, "Maybe."

Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds across the globe.  Much of this growth is happening in Africa and in China.  The growth that is happening, whatever denominational label it has, is a "Pentecostal" kind of Christianity in this specific sense: It is a Christianity that expects God to act immediately, supernaturally, in tangible ways.  It is a Christianity that is filtered more through the book of Acts than the book of Romans.

In 2011 Pastor Paul Johansson from Central spent some time in Ethiopia and Tanzania as part of his sabbatical.  One of the conversations he had during that time included observations about the Lutheran churches in Kenya and Tanzania.  In the 1960's, a charismatic revival broke out across the globe, including East Africa.  The Lutherans in Kenya discussed the revival and said, "This is not what our Lutheran churches are about."  They rejected this revival, and the Lutheran church in Kenya today has a few hundred thousand members, much the same size today as it was in the 1960's.  Next door in Tanzania, the Lutherans -- about the same size in the '60's as the church in Kenya -- embraced this charismatic revival as a legitimate work of the Holy Spirit.  The church began to grow by leaps and bounds, and today there are more than five million Lutheran Christians in Tanzania.  The Lutheran church in Tanzania continues to be Pentecostal in its expectation that God will act in a daily, supernatural way.  It continues to grow like mad.

Those who are doing cutting edge work in theology today have to speak about the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the church and in the world.  We cannot cling to a rationalistic, Enlightenment-based distortion of Christianity that we think somehow reflects the Protestant Reformation, but that loses the heart of the New Testament.  Theology today must find a way to speak with clarity about this kind of expectation, this kind of Pentecostal expectation that God will act.  This is pneumatology, the study of the ways of God's Spirit and the difference that this Spirit makes in the life of the believer and of the church.  If Noll is right -- and I believe he is -- then this expectation cuts across every denomination, every tradition.  Expectant Lutherans have far more in common with expectant Catholics than they do with more rationalistic Lutherans.  This Pentecostal expectation has not exactly undone the Protestant Reformation, but it has certainly created a new watershed within Christianity.  On one side of the divide, the church is growing deeper and wider.  On the other side it is shrinking.

What does this have to do with pastorates?  Everything.  If pastorates are a program initiated by humans in response to a need within our churches, they will fail.  But I believe that the Spirit of God is moving through churches in the world today.  Not surprisingly the Spirit has started with churches where human beings hold the least power -- churches among indigenous peoples in the global south, churches in the secularized cities of western Europe, churches in the chic, agnostic populations of the Pacific Northwest in the United States.  Among these power-poor churches the Spirit has started to create Jesus-centered communities that exist in the Spirit’s power.  These communities are thriving for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that they actually work.  In a short time this book will examine the why, what, and how of pastorates.  First we need to take one more historical detour into the Protestant Reformation.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Pastorates manuscript, #3

Christian churches throughout the world proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Why, then, are so many churches -- especially in the developed world, in the West -- decaying, declining, and dying?

I love movie versions of the life of Jesus.  Jesus’ story makes such great cinema!  Nearly every story of Jesus ends with his resurrection.  Often when we proclaim Jesus in the Christian church, our proclamation ends with his resurrection.  When we consider our own identity as his 21st century followers, we think of his death and resurrection.  But the New Testament story does not stop with Jesus’ resurrection.  

In the first verses of Acts, Luke writes that in the first book (the gospel of Luke) he wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until his ascension.  The implication is that after his ascension, Jesus continued to act and to teach.  We should not be surprised by this!  Before his crucifixion, Jesus himself told his disciples, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.  But when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13).  If we are to understand God’s intention for the Christian church, we need to better understand both Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost.

Jesus’ Ascension

Sometimes well-meaning teachers talk about Jesus’ ascension as if the problem is just to get Jesus’ physical body out of the way so that his spiritual presence (via the Holy Spirit’s arrival at Pentecost) can empower believers simultaneously all over the globe.  This is not the Bible’s teaching!  No, Jesus ascends to the heavens physically, but more importantly he ascends in authority.  The ascension of Jesus (see Acts 1) points to the fact that Jesus is now exalted as Lord of all creation.  It is in the ascension that Jesus takes up his rightful place “at the right hand of the Father” as the creeds put it.  During his earthly ministry, Jesus’ most common title for himself was “son of man,” an allusion to Daniel 7:13-14.  Daniel sees one “like a son of man” who comes before the Almighty and is given authority to judge the nations.  Jesus alludes to these verses during his trial before Caiaphas, and the song of all creation in Revelation 5 echoes these ideas.  Paul certainly understands Jesus in these same terms in Philippians 2 and Colossians 1.  Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords.  It is in Jesus’ ascension that he takes up this mantle of authority.

To be the church, we must rightly understand the sovereignty of Jesus.  As someone has put it, if Jesus isn’t Lord of all, he isn’t Lord at all.  Jesus is Lord over all creation, over all nations, over all people, and -- don’t miss this -- over the church.

What does this mean?  It means that the church doesn’t belong to us.  When Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the son of the living God, Jesus said, “On this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18, emphasis added).  Jesus is Lord of the church.  So all our positions of authority, whether as pastors, as teachers, as members or tithers or committee members or volunteers, are under the authority of Jesus.

This is obvious, right? If it is so obvious, why do we strive to control the church?  Why do we battle to the death over the worship schedule, the stewardship program, or the color of the new carpet?  Why is it so hard for people who have received some position in the church to share that authority?  Why do so many Christians have a complex about trying to control things?  If we strive to get our own way, to have our own control, we are not living in the ascension of Jesus Christ.

The ascension means Lordship for Jesus, and it means freedom for us.  It means that there are very few hard and fast ironclad rules for the church.  What ironclad rules there are have to do with the Lordship of Jesus, not with the structures or traditions of the church.

In the ascension Jesus takes up his authority, his sovereignty over all time and all space.  When we face a decision, it is Jesus’ word alone that matters.  When our circumstances seem difficult, we can trust that Jesus is working to shape and lead his church.  When the work of the church is too difficult for us, we can confidently ask Jesus to raise up workers -- and then we can confidently share the load without trying to control the outcome.

While it may seem that this is all obvious, the church has too often been held captive by human desires for control.  We must do more than pay lip service to the Lordship of Jesus.  We must learn to trust him to be Lord in fact, not just in name.  How does this work in practice?  It has to do with Acts 2, with the Father’s gift to the church -- the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Pastorates manuscript, #2

Let’s be clear about something from the start.  The New Testament knows nothing of church buildings, of pews and hymnals and committees changing the altar cloths or debating the color of the new carpet.  The movement Jesus started is about people, not about property.  The idea that a person can “go to church” and sit in a building for an hour, then go back to an unchanged life for the rest of the week, has little or nothing to do with New Testament Christianity.  

The Bible envisions a church -- an ekklesia -- of people who gathered together, most often in someone’s home (see Romans 16:3-5, for example).  They read scripture, worshipped, and prayed together (see 1 Corinthians 14:26).  They shared in a mission to impact the world in the name of Jesus.  In fact, non-Christians accused these Jesus-followers of “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).  By following Jesus’ example, living in community with other Jesus-followers, and loving the world around them, they changed the Roman Empire and eventually the whole world!

What does the task of “making disciples” (meaning, making followers of Jesus) look like today?  In the early years of the 21st century it’s not hard to see that many churches have failed in this task.  We may baptize scores of people, our Sunday Schools may (or may not) be bustling, our youth programs crowded, our worship services pleasantly full.  But how many lives are changed in a lasting way?  

It’s been said that many of our churches are like football games.  A football game is 22,000 people who are desperately in need of exercise watching a game played by 22 men who desperately need rest.  Sadly, many people come to church to observe.  We relate to Jesus not so much to follow him or even to admire him, but to use him for our own ends.  In order to be blessed in this life and avoid hell in the next life, we are encouraged to pray a prayer inviting Jesus into our hearts.  At its worst, it’s cheap fire insurance.  Sadly, in most of our churches, few people experience the “abundant life” (see John 10:10) Jesus longs to give his followers. 

Yet people inside and outside the church today are hungry for exactly what Jesus’ first disciples found as followers of the Way.  We are hungry for meaning, for community, and for a mission that is worthy of our sacrifice.  Not knowing where to find what we really need, we flock to Facebook and Twitter to find community.  We let advertisers, smart phones, and sports teams tell us who we are and what we need.  We clutter our schedules so that we don’t have to face the disturbing questions that confront us in quiet moments.

This book is about a community life, abundant life, centered in Jesus.  As much as possible, the goal of the pastorate movement is to live as followers of the Way in the 21st century following the example of those early Jesus-followers.  This is not an idealized effort to deny our history and somehow return to the cultures of the New Testament.  Rather, it is an effort to take seriously what Jesus taught about the church he came to create.  In short, the purpose of this book is to help set a group of people on the road to living as disciples and making disciples.  I believe with all my heart that the abundant life Jesus desires for his followers begins in the context of Christ-centered communities where Jesus’ followers love God, love one another, and serve the world.  As we live together in this way, the New Testament comes alive and we come to know Jesus in a new, powerful, personal way.  Across the world, churches -- gatherings of people who know Jesus as the Way, the Truth, the Life -- are experiencing what Jesus himself called “abundant life” (John 10).  Pastorates are one good way to be the church, to follow Jesus in the mission he gave us.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Pastorates series

I've spent a lot of time and mental energy this summer working on a manuscript to sum up pastorates -- the mid-sized groups we've been implementing at Central for the last couple years.  I'd like to share portions of that manuscript on this blog, starting below. 

My hope is that people who read this will chew on the ideas, whether you have any firsthand experience with pastorates or not.  If you have feedback, or if ideas are unclear, I would love to hear about your thoughts here via comments, or via email at  

The manuscript I've written starts out with the "why" of pastorates, and appropriately enough we begin with the resurrection of Jesus.  Have fun reading, and feel free to offer any feedback!  I will post a new section of this manuscript every 2-3 days. 


After Jesus rose from the dead on Easter Sunday, the Bible tells us that he talked with his disciples for about forty days before he ascended into the heavens and sent his Spirit to give his followers direction and power.  During those forty days, Jesus gave clear directions to his followers.  They were to take up the task Jesus had started.  They were to be sent out to the world, even as he had been sent to Israel.  They had received training from him over a three-year period, and now they were to go out and invite others into this Jesus-following movement.  Nearly all of the New Testament writers include some version of Jesus commissioning his followers for this task.  

We are probably most familiar with Matthew’s gospel, where Jesus tells his disciples, 

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20). 

In John, Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21).  In Acts, Jesus tells his followers, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  Paul certainly embodied this call in his whole life of traveling around the Mediterranean, telling people about Jesus and starting fledgling churches everywhere he went.

Jesus’ followers called themselves “followers of the Way” (Acts 9:2, 19:9 & 23, for example).  Only later were they labeled Christians, and that term came from their enemies as an insult.  Early on, these people saw themselves as followers of Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  This new relationship with Jesus redefined everything in their lives.  They experienced a new power and a new sense of relationship with God that came from the resurrected Jesus. 

They gathered together in groups with others who knew Jesus, who knew this new power and new life.  They referred to these gatherings as “churches,” which brings to our minds pictures of buildings and steeples, pews and hymnals, but for these early Jesus-followers, the word referred to groups of people.  The Greek word was “ekklesia” (from which we get our word “ecclesiastical”, meaning something that refers to the church).  Ekklesia means literally, “those who are called out.”  Jesus used the term himself a couple of times (see Matthew 16:18 and 18:17), and in the book of Acts ekklesia becomes the standard term for a group of Jesus-followers.  These are the ones who have been called out of the world and its ways, called to follow a different Way, called to be like Jesus and to be part of his movement in the world.