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.