Monday, November 17, 2014

Saved? From What?

As I work through the Book of Acts for Sunday morning Bible study, I am becoming more aware of the similarities between the pre-modern world of the first century and the post-modern world of the 21st century.  For example, we have assumed certain things about the Philippian jailer that may not be justified.  You know the story.  Paul and Silas have been thrown into prison because of an act of generosity.  This is what happened next: 

 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”  The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:25-30, NIV)

We have usually jumped to the conclusion that the jailer wants to be saved from his sins.  But how would he know that he needed to be forgiven?  He was a pagan, perhaps a retired Roman soldier who had been rewarded for his service with a nice government job.  There is no indication that he had ever heard about the God of Israel or the teaching of Paul and Silas about Jesus.  So from what was he asking to be saved?

I believe he was asking to be saved from his fear of the unknown.  Something unexpected had entered his life.  His world had been turned upside down.  There was an earthquake which threw the doors of the prison open.  What had caused this?  Were there hostile gods or spirits behind this?  Had the prisoners escaped?  If so, he feared retribution from those in the Roman government he served.  His fears were rooted both in the existential and the material.  His fragile sense of security was in shambles.  All seemed to be conspiring against him.

This is certainly the postmodern dilemma.  Bad things happen and people have no framework with which to understand them.  Sometimes they cannot even give a name to those fears.  They are cast adrift and need to be saved.  They fear the unknown and unknowable.

There is a God who understands that bad things happen and who helps us to deal with those things, a God who provides a base for building a life of faith and hope.  This is the Good News that Paul and Silas proclaim:  You can be saved from your fear of the unknown.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Going Against the Grain

My friend Mark Tidsworth recently shared this quote by Hans Kung in The Church as the People of God:  "A church which pitches its tents without constantly looking out for new horizons, which does not continually strike camp, is being untrue to its calling. ... [We must] play down our longing for certainty, accept what is risky, and live by improvisation and experiment."

You will rarely hear this preached in a Sunday morning worship service.  Most of those who step into pulpits feel compelled to preach about certainty, stability, and safety.  Even those who do not proclaim a gospel of prosperity are reluctant to tell their congregants, “Don’t get too comfortable.  Not only are things going to change but, if we are the people of God, we should expect them to change.”

When rightly lived, the message we proclaim of the Kingdom of God is about instability, change, and new challenges.  My pastor preached on Luke 13:18-19 yesterday.  In this passage, Jesus says, “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to?  It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches.” (NIV)  The sermon emphasized the potential in the smallest of seeds to grow into an expected expression of the Kingdom.  The preacher got the message of the passage and delivered it clearly.  The Kingdom is about surprises.  When we least expect it, the Kingdom will break in among us and upset our best laid plans, calling us to new opportunities for ministry.

If the church today is to be an expression of the Kingdom of God, then we had best pack our bags and be ready to move. 


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Developing Emerging Leaders

I have had the opportunity to serve in ministry leadership roles in several situations.  I keep in touch with most of those ministries, and I am always interested to see how they have changed over the years.  This is a good thing.  If the ministry is still doing the same things it was doing when I was there, something is wrong.

No matter how capable you may think you are as a leader, your time will pass.  You move on to another responsibility in the organization, respond to a new opportunity elsewhere, or retire.  You may have implemented important policy changes, developed sound programs, and designed creative processes, but these will change over time.  The only lasting investment you make in any situation is your investment in the people with whom you work.

The primary goal of any leader is to develop other leaders.  This does not mean simply reproducing yourself in others but calling out and encouraging each person’s unique gifts and abilities.  How do you go about developing emerging leaders?

First, you take the time to mentor others.  Mentoring is time consuming, but a good leader does not seek to hold on to information or skills but freely shares them with those who are teachable.  In so doing, the leader may find ways to improve his or her own performance.

Second, you coach others as they implement what they have learned and as they make new discoveries.  Good coaches encourage emerging leaders to stretch themselves and set challenging goals.  Emerging leaders often do not know their capabilities unless they are pushed to do more.

Third, you give others not only the responsibility but the resources and authority to make things happen.  You can give emerging leaders the opportunity to do something, but you must also be willing to provide the time, money, and other necessary resources to get it done.  

Fourth, you trust others.  Avoid micromanaging and give emerging leaders the freedom to succeed or fail.  Emerging leaders need the chance to learn from success and from failure.  Certainly there is risk involved here, but risk is necessary to really learn.  After the fact, you celebrate successes and process the failures with the emerging leader.

Fifth, you recognize the successes of emerging leaders in the way that is most appropriate to that person.  Not everyone wants personal recognition.  Some desire quality time with supervisors or peers, freedom to pursue their own ideas, or opportunities to learn and grow.  

Who are the emerging leaders around you?  Who are you investing in today?

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Need for Continuing Renewal

Over the weekend, I divided the students in my seminary class into two groups to debate this question:  Resolved: The most effective way to pursue the missio Dei in the 21st century is outside the institutional church.”  If you have ever been involved in a formal debate of this type, you know that debate topics tend to oversimplify issues and attempt to encourage the debaters to take an either/or stance with no ambiguity.

The debate was interesting.  The teams spent two hours discussing the pros and cons, defining terms like “the missio Dei” (mission of God), “institutional church,” and “missional church.”  They reflected on Scripture, their assigned readings, and personal experiences and then they presented their cases.

Of course, there was no clear cut winner in the debate; the goal was to get the students talking about the topic.  They provoked some good thinking on the topic.  As a result of this discussion, I came away with some observations.

First, every institutional expression of the church was at one time designed to further the mission of God in the world.  Most churches don’t start out to become institutionalized but begin with a vision for being a creative, effective ministry within their culture.  Over a period of time, however, a church can become fixated on survival rather than ministry.

Second, too often churches choose survival over mission.  Whether it is the small membership church where members want to assure that “there will be somebody here to bury me” or the megachurch that will do anything to assure that its growth momentum does not falter, survival can easily take the place of mission.   In this situation, the church is no longer concerned about being part of the mission of God but only about keeping the doors open.

Third, every expression of the body of Christ must be renewed from time to time.  If a church becomes fixed in its methodology, structure, or ministry expressions, it is on the road to stagnation and death.  The Spirit of God is a dynamic, empowering presence that continues to give new insight and understanding to those who will listen.  Is we listen, the Spirit with refresh and renew the people of God for mission.

Every church has the potential to be involved in the mission Dei in the 21st century; the real challenge is the willingness to accept that opportunity.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Barnabas: Missional Leader

Last month I wrote of my search for an icon of Barnabas and of his example as the prototypical Christian coach.  A couple of things have happened since.  I found the icon on line (pictured here) and it is now hanging in my office.  I have also been teaching The Book of Acts on Sunday morning and have been immersed in texts on Barnabas’ role as a leader in the growth of the early church.  I still affirm his empowering role as a coach, but I have seen another aspect of Barnabas as well.

Barnabas was a missional leader.  He was committed to the missio Dei—the mission of God.  The missional church concept is built on the nature of a missional God, One who sends.  God sent the prophets, God sent Jesus Christ, and God is now sending us.  This God has a people who are living out his mission in the world.  Barnabas was one of those people.  Although he was not officially an apostle, he was one of the “sent ones” who furthered God’s mission in the early days of the church.

We see his missional life style in several situations in the Book of Acts.

First, Barnabas showed a spirit of generosity by his care for others in the church at Jerusalem.  He saw possessions not as something to be accumulated but an opportunity to bless others.  Missional Christians are very conscious of the proper stewardship of those things with which God has blessed them.

Second, he exercised hospitality even if it involved taking a risk.  When Saul came to Jerusalem and could not get a meeting with the leaders there, Barnabas took a risk and became his advocate.  In so doing, he was exercising radical hospitality to a former persecutor of the Way.  Missional Christians today are challenged to open their doors, hearts, and lives to those who are different, even potential antagonists.

Third, he found where God was working and got involved.  When he visited the church at Antioch, he sensed the work of the Holy Spirit there and not only became engaged himself but sought out Saul to join the community.  Missional Christians are sensitive to where God is working (and God is working just about everywhere) and invest themselves there.

Fourth, Barnabas was open to the leadership of the Holy Spirit.  When the Spirit set aside Saul and Barnabas for what we now call “the first missionary journey” to the Gentiles, there is no indication of hesitation on his part.  He accepted the opportunity willingly.  Missional Christians today need to recognize the leadership of the Spirit into new places of service and ministry and respond quickly.  

Fifth, he was willing to be creative and innovative in sharing the Gospel.  Barnabas and Saul worked together to penetrate their culture for Christ.  When the leaders of the synagogues rejected them, they moved on to other venues and new relationships.  Missional Christians are willing to adopt new (and sometimes old) methodologies to reach people for Christ.

Missional Christians today can learn much from the faithful example of Barnabas as a missional leader.