In a recent essay I wrote on the future of evangelical ecclesiology I came to the following conclusion regarding the need to engage the culture in a different way. “We need to “disestablish” and “disengage” ourselves today if we hope to bring anything meaningful from Evangelical ecclesiology to culture. “Until we have learned to distinguish the Gospel of the crucified one from the rhetorical values, pretensions, and pursuits of society, our churches will fail to detect, beneath the rhetoric of official optimism, the actual humanity that it is our Christian vocation to engage.” We must liberate ourselves from the conventions of cultural religion. We are not advocating an abandonment of culture, but a recognition that Christianity has a responsibility in culture, not to it. We are salt, light and yeast. We must re-discover the possibilities of ‘littleness.’”
When you next meet with your non-Christian friend, make the case to her that she’s an evangelist and ask her about her message and its effect. Whether people have great faith in Jesus Christ or none at all, everyone is “preaching” a message. When they hear the word “evangelist,” most folks think of Billy Graham. Billy’s preached the plain, unadorned gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ to over 200 million people and, through various media, to multiple millions more. But Adolf Hitler was an “evangelist” too! His message, in a book called Mein Kampf, was Aryan European supremacy and that destiny included the needful extermination of all Jews. The cost of his “evangel” was 62 million lives, including nearly 6 million Jews. Both men were evangelists; their messages and the results, however, were incredibly different! Of course, the world is full of different “evangels”—some are hateful and destructive like Hitler’s; many, many more are hardly positive or helpful because they are the result of people’s being hurt or simply self-absorbed. Your friend would probably agree that many evangelists and their messages could stand improvement at least, if not complete transformation. At Mark 5:1-20 we meet a man with a message. Possessed by demons, his “evangel” was to hurt himself and the people around him. Jesus, out of love and concern, effected a miraculous transformation of both the man (v. 15) and his message (v. 19). Put in his right mind, the man was told, “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” New man; new message! Make the case to your non-Christian friend that she, like everyone else, is an evangelist. See where it leads. Of course, she may ask you what your “evangel” is. What will you tell her?
Last week I was talking to my students about the challenge of helping listeners overcome their objections to the sermon’s big idea. I likened the challenge to fishing. I’m not much of a fisherman, but I know that once you’ve got the fish on the hook, you don’t just bring the fish into the boat. You’ve got to let the fish run a little. What I mean is that we have to create room in our sermons for the listener to struggle with what they have heard. We have to let them fight back some if we expect them to take hold of the message and truly own it. We can’t just explain our big idea and sit down thinking "I’ve made my point." We may have explained our point and the listeners may have understood it but that doesn’t mean that they are ready to give their lives for it. I love the image provided by Hemmingway in The Old Man and the Sea of the ancient fisherman who takes two full days to bring in the giant fish that he has hooked. This isn’t going to come easily. If we want our listeners to respond to the gospel, we’re going to have to fight for it. We’re going to have to struggle. The best way I know how to do this is to anticipate the things that the listener is going to have to overcome and then to use the listener’s voice in articulating these things in the space of the sermon. The listener needs to recognize her or his own voice in the sermon. The listener needs to know that the preacher is speaking as a listener and for the listeners. It is a matter of showing respect for the listener as a person with dignity who has the right to make his or her own response to God. Let the fish run. When it’s ready you’ll be able to bring it into the boat.
“I am in kindergarten and I know everything!” exclaimed my granddaughter. It took me a moment to process this amazing declaration. I then realized what my problem had been – I never attended kindergarten and so I now understood why it took me twenty years to reach the end of my formal education. If only my parents had sent me to kindergarten! Human beings have a wonderful, but dangerous tendency to think they know it all. How many times do we presume we know the truth and the right response, only to discover our perception was quite skewed! Leadership is sometimes defined as ‘sense-making’, but this human capacity for self-deception should create considerable caution in our attempts to help others make sense of their lives, individually and corporately, or make sense of an organization’s ministry. Jesus warned his followers that “if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness” (Matthew 6:23). While we may not be clear about everything Jesus wanted to teach through this saying, he certainly was emphasizing the human problem of distorted perception and knowing. He said the cause lies in our human constitution – our eyes are bad! Our sinful disposition and creatureliness lead to futile thinking and living in the dark (Ephesians 4:27-24). Because of near-sightedness personally I have had to wear glasses for many years. I know how bad eyes create dangerous misconceptions. But I also know that steps can be taken to correct this handicap. Jesus encourages us to believe that our eyes can be good and our “whole body” can be “full of light” (Matthew 6:22). What steps can a ministry leader take to ensure that his or her “eyes are good” and that the sense being discerned is indeed true, valid, and trustworthy? One strategy is to make sure our loyalty is fully given to God and the Lord Jesus Christ, so that we are living with integrity and not in hypocrisy. A second help comes in realizing that God’s Spirit speaks through His people and that our collective ‘vision’ may be more accurate than one individual’s perception. Third, the greater clarity we have about Kingdom principles, the more capable we will be to discern God’s direction. Fourth, God encourages us to pray for wisdom – the ability to see things through His eyes – and He promises He will give it generously. Finally, humbleness is a critical component. We must recognize and live contentedly with our limitations, relying happily on the assistance that God provides us from others in His family. Paul warns us that without love all of our knowing is useless because we “are nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). We may be right and we may be smart and we may be clever – but without love, this sacrificial desire to bring benefit into the lives of others for the sake of Jesus – these gifs and abilities produce nothing that is useful to God. True belief creates true seeing. Discernment takes time, persistence, and considerable patience.
The locker room is an essential part of the culture of sport. It is an environment charged with team bonding, encouraging speeches and correcting rebukes, practical strategizing, the repair of both cuts and wounded egos, relief from the pressure of the game, the enjoyment of physical and mental refreshment, the adjustment and sharpening of equipment. It is important for the success of the team that it be kept clean and well organized. The atmosphere can cause a team to succeed or to fail. But what happens in the locker room is not the game. Neither the players nor the coach should be satisfied with good relationships in the locker room, even though only healthy cooperation will ensure success in the game. Both players and coach have a role to play on the field and it is the quality and function of the relationships on the field that guide the coach in shaping the activity in the locker room. The team is not judged on how they relate in the locker room, but how they perform in the heat of contest. The church organization – building, services, programs – is the locker room. The people are the players. Those in leadership play the role of the coach. The occupational hazard of the leadership is to engineer a clean, well-organized, enthusiastic locker room with excellent speeches explaining the rule book – and miss out on the essential aspect of coordinating the team’s effort to bring about gospel transformation. In the final analysis, the church will be judged not on the activity in the locker room, but on how they play the game of life, in the world.
A recent email from a colleague describes a decision made at his church regarding their Baptist identity. It begged a response and so I have followed this quote from the email with my own response. The email states as follows:
"We have stopped making reference to being "Baptist" for a few reasons. First, the denominational distinctives are often based on spurious biblical arguments which have nothing to do with the heart of the biblical theology. Thus, adding denominational qualifiers often disqualifies people who come from other labels. Secondly, we aspire to be a Christian, Bible based church, where people who seek to purse God under the authority of God’s Word can worship together without artificial barriers. Thirdly, our congregation at the present is made up of people from all Christian traditions like Baptists, Mennonites, Brethren, Pentecostals, Anglicans and others. We are a mosaic of Christians going well beyond Baptist distinctives. Thus, while there are many claims which make Christianity exclusive. Our name, while helping people to identify us and find us, should be as inclusive as we can make it without erecting unnecessary barriers and divisions. For accountability, and in order not to multiply the denominational fragmentation, we still remain a part of the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches of Canada."
Now, this sounds to me like another effort at, "lets return to the pure form of the church" that gave rise to "Baptists" in the first place. At some point all churches have to establish a set of doctrines, even if one of them is, ‘we have no set doctrines.’ The moment they do that they will form a new denomination, of sorts. Call it the ‘non-denominational-non-doctrinaire church of Christ’ if you will but they will have to teach their beliefs, train others in them and then ensure structures are in place to continue the process. That is essentially what a denomination is. Every church has standards of membership. What are they going to say to people who want to retain the Baptist identity? "You no longer belong!?" Labels are inevitable because it is part of human nature. So they are deluding themselves if by denying their Baptist heritage they think they will succeed in alienating less people. That’s my belief anyhow!
I’m told that British Columbia, being part of the Pacific "ring of fire," has quite frequent earthquakes. Our province can experience as many as 30 or more quakes per month, which is pretty average. Of those quakes, five are magnitude three and only one is magnitude four. It’s a curiosity to me that I’ve only actually been aware of two or three of those quakes in my whole life. Maybe I’m not that sensitive. But there are seismologists who record every quake, determining its intensity and its focus and monitoring the many smaller aftershocks. I’m not that sensitive to the earth’s movements, but the earth’s movements are their whole job. Jesus listens for tremors of faith in people with infinitely more passion and commitment than any seismologist. When the woman plagued by a chronic bleeding problem touched Jesus’ clothes in faith as he was making his way through a jostling crowd, Jesus knew it immediately (Mark 5:24-34). The lesser motives of the crowd and their pawing were unremarkable to him. But the slight touch of faith stopped him in his tracks. He turned around to ask, "Who touched me?" …….. There was a second reason for his question. Jesus didn’t want for the woman to be an anonymous believer in him and, just as much, he didn’t want to be an anonymous Savior and helper to her. That’s why He called her openly to confess what had happened. As she did, Jesus declared, "Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering." (v. 34) In all of the pushing and shoving of the crowds on the way to Capernaum that day Jesus was listening. In all of the activities in churches round the world Sunday by Sunday and in the world everywhere, Jesus is listening. This is a great encouragement to everyone-but especially to the beleaguered, the newcomer and the quite timid who reach out to him. Faith in him will effect transformation. But he does call for an open confession. Your faith in Jesus is the most important thing!
In the last couple of weeks, I’ve found myself at the center of a number of converging themes. As we’ve been preparing to meet with the churches in the Kootenays for the Best Practices for Church Boards Basic Workshop, I’ve noticed that a number of the congregations are eager to address strategic planning. At the same time, I am working to develop the Advanced edition of the Best Practices for Church Boards workshop to be held in June. The topic for that workshop was selected because of the high level of response from churches that have attended the basic workshop. I guess it’s no surprise that it, too, is focused on the role of the board in Vision Development and Strategic planning. A third stream along the same theme that captured my imagination came when I asked several church leaders what they hoped to accomplish in creating a strategic plan. Their answer was revealing: "we want to get rid of our weaknesses." That has always struck me as a good way to doom the process to a spirit of desperation. To start with a negative seems a good way to insure that things will go downhill from there. Which is why I was caught by an article that made its way through my newsletters this week. Tucked away in the Strategy and Vision resources of Building Christian Leaders is a tidy little article by Larry Osborne, "Unconventional Wisdom That Works: Doing Things Differently Can Pay Off." In it, he lists three principles to guide a healthy, intelligent planning process. At the top of the list he writes:
Ignore your weaknesses: The usual pattern for planning in churches goes something like this: size up the ministry, identify any major weaknesses, develop and implement a plan for removing them. Yet, this strategy is counterproductive: time spent worrying about weaknesses siphons away time and energy better spent on identifying and developing strengths. Instead of taking a creative and proactive approach, planning ends up defensive and reactive. The result is most often a mediocre program. Churches, like individuals, have been gifted and called to do some things uncommonly well – and other things not at all. [http://www.christianitytoday.com/bcl/areas/vision-strategy/ articles/howto-030610.html] ……..
Some may react to the thought. It may sound unrealistic. After all, we can all list our weaknesses without any problem. Our strengths, however, may been hard to recognize. Even harder to own. But, they do exist, and if we were to humbly begin to build on them, we might just be able to have enough momentum to do something positive about our weaknesses.
I ran into the same problem with two of my students yesterday. Both of them submitted sermon plans that required a little help. When I suggested alternate and more appropriate ways of approaching the text, they both agreed with me. The problem, they said, was that the texts and themes had been assigned to them by their Senior Pastors. It seems that these pastors had divided up their texts and assigned themes without taking their study of the text to the necessary level. In essence, they had prejudged their texts. I understand that there is value in knowing what we are going to be preaching on well in advance. The worship leaders like it. It definitely helps with marketing. Still, could I simply ask that we don’t determine what the text is saying until we actually study the text? The first step to understanding a text is to read it. I mean that we must read it with enough diligence and thought that we aren’t emerging with what we want the text to mean but what it actually means as God intends it. Is this too much to ask?
In a post-Super Bowl comment, winning coach Tony Dungy is quoted as saying, ".more than anything else, Lovie Smith and I are not only African-American, but also Christian coaches, showing you can do it the Lord’s way." He doesn’t drink or rant and rave at his players or curse them. Such things are not necessary for good coaching. You can coach in the NFL using God’s values and still reach the top. The ability to control what you say reflects an attitude of heart, a personal discipline that is committed to goodness. Today, Northwest Baptist Seminary is launching a newly redesigned website. Our first desire is to promote thoughtful, godly discussion around key contemporary issues, seeking the Lord’s way in such matters to the best of our ability. Secondly, we want to provide useful resources that will help ministry leaders in churches and other Christian agencies fulfill their calling with excellence, doing things the Lord’s way. And thirdly, we want to demonstrate what it means to think Christianly, applying our minds to follow the Lord’s way. Doing things the Lord’s way is a discipline of learned obedience. Only when we know and understand the Lord’s way can we possibly discern its influence on and implications for our daily living. In his ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (Matthew 5-7) Jesus pressed his followers to live the Lord’s way. Wise people will listen to him, learn and respond; fools will hear, disregard him and crash. The Lord’s way begins by going through a ‘narrow gate’, the way of salvation as Jesus defined it, and follows a pressured road, but it leads to life. The Lord’s way is not popular or the way most frequently chosen. Jesus said there were few who would find it. But he also promised that if we truly seek it, God will disclose the way and enable us to find it. The Lord’s way provides ‘the salt’ and ‘the light’ that our world needs. Our prayer is that this website will be one way through which people might discern, discover and find life in the Lord’s way.