Thursday, July 20, 2017

Liminal Space

I have just completed the first of two eye surgeries that remove cataracts and implant a new lens in each eye.  This is a time of transition.  The vision in one eye is improved significantly while the other remains the same as before.  My old eyeglasses work great for the eye that has not had surgery, but not at all for the one with the new lens.  The transition will continue through the next surgery on the other eye and for some time after.

This is a liminal space for me.  Alan Roxburgh introduced me to the idea of liminality.  In a ritual, this is the state of being on the threshold from one way of doing life to another.  One is almost there but not yet. It is a time of disorientation, stress, and promise.

The nation of Israel experienced liminal space as they passed through the wilderness. They were no longer slaves but they were not yet what God had called them to be.

Parents experience this liminal space when children graduate from high school and begin college, a job, or military service.  Their sons and daughters are not quite adults but they are no longer children.  What will relationships be like in this new stage of life?

When we change jobs--either voluntarily or involuntarily--we find ourselves in liminal space. We knew the expectations and environment in the old position, but what will be required of us in our new role?

At retirement, we give up what is familiar to move into a different pattern of life.  Too often, we do this with a lack of clarity and enter into a time of uncertainty and identity confusion.

When churches lose a staff member, they find themselves in a time of change.  Many will grieve over the loss of a beloved minister and may even be concerned about who might take her or his place.  Will the new person be open to establishing healthy relationships with church members?  How will church members have to change to work with the new person?

These are the experiences of life.  The only way to deal with these liminal spaces, these times of uncertainty and change, is to keep moving.  Take the next step.  Be willing to address what comes in a positive way, seeking God’s support as we do so.  Liminal space is not only a time of loss but of promise.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Signs of Hope for the Church: Spirituality

When I was a young person in the church, I was blessed by being involved in a strong program of “religious education.”  I learned the books of the Bible, learned how to pray, and even learned some theology, church history, and Baptist polity.

Early in my ministry, I immersed myself in an emphasis on “discipleship” which included spiritual practices such as Bible study, scripture memorization, prayer, and witnessing.  Toward the end of that period I discovered Richard Foster’s work on historical spiritual practices and disciplines, taking my understanding of discipleship to a new level.

Today, believers in many Christian denominations seem to have rediscovered and begun to practice these spiritual disciplines that help us to go beyond knowing about God to knowing God personally.

Is it possible that the church in the 21st century is becoming more spiritual?  More of us are becoming aware of practices initiated by the church fathers and mothers and making them part of our daily lives.  This can only be a good thing!

How can we take this step toward a deeper spiritualty in our lives and thus empower us as we are part of the missio Dei?

First, we must unlearn some things.  We typically ask questions of the biblical text, but what if we let it ask questions of us?   In order to let the Bible speak to us through the practice of Lectio Divina, we must not only use the tools of biblical exegesis but interact with the text on a personal level.

Second, we must be willing to let go of certainty and control.  When we enter into a practice such as contemplative prayer, we give ourselves over to God and God’s presence with us.  This may have surprising results.

Third, we can become part of a small group to support us in our quest.  Real Christian growth takes place in a community of accountability.  We need others to challenge and support us in our spiritual journey.

These commitments strength us individually and equip us to be more effective in the Body of Christ.  In so doing, we embrace the work of the Spirit in our lives and in our faith community.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Signs of Hope for the Church: Innovation

My former pastor Mike Smith once said something to the effect, “Don’t say that Baptists have never done a certain thing.  Baptists have done a lot of things they may not be doing now.”  This is true of the church at large.  Every form of ministry was at one time new and untried. 

In a missional church class several years ago, students helped me to see that innovation happens in the church in response to a cultural need, the innovation matures and become institutionalized, and then society changes and innovation is needed once again.  In reality, the church must always be in the process of renewal.

This is not to say that innovation is quickly accepted.  Once a practice becomes established in the life of the church, change is hard if not impossible.  One reason is that change is uncomfortable.  Another is that each practice has someone willing to fight for its continuity even if it no longer works.

Innovation is not easy, but reality eventually dawns and I believe more churches are becoming open to trying different methodologies as part of the mission Dei.  How can we encourage innovation in the life of the church?

First, we must know what is essential and what is not.  What are the basics of faith and practice and what is negotiable?  These are hard conversations, but just because we have always made certain statements and done things one way does not mean that these are central to our theology.  The scriptures do not tell us when to worship but we are encouraged to do so.  Eleven o’clock on Sunday morning may be an accepted time for worship but it is not biblical!

Second, we must exegete our culture and understand the opportunities there for ministry.  Our example is Paul the Apostle, who never abandoned his faith in Christ, but was willing to use his knowledge of the Greek and Roman cultures to clearly articulate the Gospel while building on the Jewish practices of mutual support to establish new faith communities.  His innovations provided a way to penetrate first century culture with the Christian faith.

Third, we must recognize the gifts and skills of those within our fellowship that broaden and strengthen our ministry.  God sends our way those needed to build up the body of Christ.  Whether clergy or laity, we must unleash their abilities in order to engage our context.

Fourth, we must listen to the outsiders and neophytes.  If we truly want to make an impact in our community, we will listen to the voices of those outside our fellowship and tap into their expertise.  New believers or those who are new to our fellowship also offer valuable insight.  Why did they choose to join us? What do they see with “fresh eyes” that we have overlooked?

The mission of God was instituted by a creative God, one who continually surprises us with love and provision. As God’s people, we must be follow that example.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Signs of Hope for the Church: Diversity

This is challenging time for the church, but I submit this is not unusual.  In its two thousand years of existence, whenever the church attempts to be faithful to the mission of God, there have been both difficulties and blessings.  Each challenge provides the opportunity for a breakthrough.

In the next week, I want to share some positive words about the church in the 21st century--signs of hope.

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said:

We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic. 

While a Lifeway survey shows the desire for diversity in the church is still more of a hope than a reality, the research also shows more openness to racial diversity in congregations both from pastoral leadership and church members.

What are some positive steps that we can take to become more diverse racially and ethnically in our churches?

1.  We can commit ourselves to understanding both our cultural background and that of those around us. We did not get to the situation that Dr. King addressed overnight. In his address to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly, Brian McLaren explained that the division between the races and the subjugation of people of color in our hemisphere began over 500 years ago.  Just recognizing this is the first step to change.

2.  We must see people of other races, nationalities, and cultures as allies in transforming society by pursuing the missio Dei (the mission of God).  As believers, we have more commonalities than differences.

3.  We must value the contributions that all people bring to the table.  We should not be surprised when denominational groups with a strong racial identity are reluctant to work alongside Euro-American dominated churches.  Too often those of us in the latter category have assumed a paternalistic approach and assumed that our way of doing things was the only way.

Practicing these steps begins the long journey toward cooperation and breaking down barriers.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Love Your Neighbor

Daily News Journal photo
He [Jesus] answered, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” --Luke 10:27, NIV

Once again, a minority have displayed their hatred and ignorance by vandalizing the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, my hometown. Community response was swift as people of all faiths and none stepped forward to affirm the rights of all people to worship as they wish and to contribute to the common good in our city.

At a vigil of support, Noel Schoonmaker, my pastor, said:

"As a pastor and as a Christian, I believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and savior and I look to him and obey him in everything, and he taught me to love my neighbor as myself. So I am here to love my neighbor. We also have friends who worship here at the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro and we want to support them."

Schoonmaker models the attitude that Christians should take in our conflicted society.  Any other approach displays only fear and a failure to understand the Gospel.  Here are some things we should remember in our relationship with those who practice other beliefs.

First, you don’t give up who you are by loving your neighbor.   As Schoonmaker affirms, if you are confident in your own beliefs, you are not afraid to encounter those who are believe differently.  In the process, you become more complete because you are exhibiting love rather than fear and becoming more Christlike.

Second, when we love our neighbor, we recognize what we have in common, the basis for meaningful dialogue and cooperation.  Adherents of all faiths want a safe community for their families, good education for their children, and a healthy environment.  We can work together to accomplish these goals.

Third, when we love our neighbor, we seek to understand rather than to be understood.  Once we have built a bridge of trust, we can legitimately share who we are and what we value.  Otherwise, there can be no meaningful dialogue.

As Christians, we must take the initiative to show love, grace, and understanding to those that God has brought into our lives and establish genuine and supportive relationships.  Only then are we displaying true love for our neighbor.

Monday, July 03, 2017

The Evolving Nature of Ministry

Ministry in the 21st century takes many forms.  Leaders of theological institutions are aware of this diversity and many are ready to address this emerging need.

There are 274 member institutions in the Association of Theological Schools.  Schools choose to belong in order to challenge themselves to meet the high standards articulated by the Commission on Accrediting including its Degree Program Standards.  These standards are not static, however, but evolve to reflect the best practices of member schools, the needs of constituents, and new methodologies. 

In a recent report, the ATS Models and Practices in Theological Practices project identified ten emerging themes that have potential implications for the Standards of Accreditation.

One suggestion is the redeveloped standards should encompass a broadened definition of the nature of ministry.  Theological schools in North American have traditionally focused on preparing leaders for congregational ministries.  Today, however, students are using the skills they learn in seminary for a variety of purposes beyond the local church. 

A student with a theological degree today may become a not-for-profit executive, a community development advocate, a teacher in a variety of fields, a para-church ministry leader, or a social entrepreneur. 

Central Seminary has recognized this reality in redesigning its Master of Divinity, Master of Arts (Theological Studies), and Doctor of Ministry programs.  The new Master of Divinity is a competency based program that equips students for a variety of ministries in the church and in society.  The MA(TS) provides a foundation for discernment, thoughtful navigation, and engagement on critical issues with emphases in Biblical Studies and Peacemaking/Reconciliation.  The Doctor of Ministry in Creative Leadership equips professionals to take their organizations and vocations to the next level through the application of visionary and innovative skills.

As the meaning of ministry changes, those who equip ministers are changing as well.