Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Next Christendom

Several years ago, a friend took an extensive trip through Asia. He met a number of missionaries and took a lot of pictures. When he came back, I had the opportunity to hear a presentation (complete with pictures) of his trip. As best I remember, the main point of his presentation was, "These people are deprived and their lives would be a lot better if they were more like us." I don't think the missionaries told him this, but this probably expressed my friend's bias about the real purpose of missions. His idea was that "missions" was something we do to people, and much of that involved their adopting our culture.

Today we find ourselves in a unique situation. Where Christianity has taken hold in Asia, Africa, and South America, believers are articulating their faith in ways that reflect their own traditions and culture. This is a dynamic and exciting movement of the Spirit. Philip Jenkins has written about this in his book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. God is working in unusual ways in what we have often called the Third World (or "two-thirds" world). The reality of this, however, is that we may not be entirely comfortable with some of those expressions of the faith.

Of course, this is not the first time this has happened. When the Christian message began to be preached throughout the Roman Empire, its proponents had to grapple with the Hellenistic mindset. This meant that they often appropriated ideas, metaphors, and philosophy that was part of that culture. Was this a bad thing? Only if you think that presenting the Gospel in a way that people can understand and appropriate it is wrong. We are Christians today because they were able to do this.

What is happening among our brothers and sisters of the Southern Hemisphere is not a bad model for those of us in North America. We are called to engage with our culture and find new ways to present the faith so that it will be heard by nonbelievers. This is the challenge that we face. We can learn from how others are doing this. Maybe we need to be more like them!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Wave of the Future

In 1949 Popular Mechanics magazine stated that "Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons." In 1977 Kenneth Olsen, president and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., said, "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home." Today, there are probably over 300 million personal computers in use in the United States. You are using one of them right now.

Twenty years ago, who would have imagined the impact of personal computers, the Internet, cell phones, and wireless networks on our lives? We sometimes complain about them, but that is when they don't work as well as we have become accustomed to them working!

There is a saying, "What seems like only a ripple today can become the wave of the future." As we approach the start of a new year, this causes me to ask, "What new thing will impact our lives in the future in ways that we least expect?" What machine, process, or movement in its infancy today will change significantly the way that we think, act, and live?

As a believer, I tend to think that the Holy Spirit is doing some things in the church today that are peripheral to most of us, but things that will have significant impact in coming days. What do you think? Do you detect something happening that has the potential for this kind of impact? How will it change the way that we relate to each other? To God? To the world?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Risky Business

The Bible teaching ministry (usually called Sunday School) in the local church is a fascinating enterprise. In most Baptist churches, it is not as structured as it was 20 years ago. There is more flexibility in grouping (often interest or lifestyle based rather than grouping by ages), more diversity in curriculum choices, and more use of media and outside resource people. There is, however, one persistent feature of the Sunday School in the local church that has changed little--the dependence on lay leadership to carry it out.

I have been exposed to a variety of Sunday School teachers over the years, and I must say that the best teachers I have known were (and are) lay people with no theological training and limited formal education. My own father is one example. Because my grandfather was killed when my father was in his early teens, my Dad had to work to support his mother and younger brother. He was not able to complete high school with his class, but later received his diploma through GED. He never went to college and would have been called a "blue collar" worker. Despite (or perhaps because of this) he was a great reader, hungry to learn, and a great student of the Bible. One of my earliest memories is of my Dad telling me stories of Old Testament figures, stories that brought these people to life. At a certain point in their spiritual journeys, my parents made a recommitment of their lives to God and began working with married young adults in SS--my Dad as a teacher and my mother as the outreach/ministry person. Dad was a good teacher. He studied his lesson, he asked good questions of the text, and he applied it to the lives of his class members. Dad was never a deacon, a church program leader, or an usher, but he made an impact on the lives of many people through his teaching.

There are a lot of people like him in our churches. They are the ones who make our Christian education program work. Without them, it would not happen.

Now I know that not everyone is a good teacher, and we sometimes wind up with people presenting unusual interpretations, voicing pet peeves, and promoting personal opinions in their classes. This is one of the risks we take in giving lay persons this role in the church.

But isn't this what "the priesthood of all believers" is about? The individual approaches the scriptures for himself or herself and asks God to provide understanding and insight. Of course, the other side of this is that other believers have an equal opportunity to accept or reject that teaching. Bible study is best done in community with the give and take that happens when each person brings his or her life experiences and questions to the table. It is a communal activity.

It's risky business, but it's still a good idea!

Friday, December 01, 2006

What Will the Church Look Like in Fifty Years?--Christian Formation

When I use the term "Christian formation," I intend it to be an umbrella term encompassing ideas like Christian education, discipleship, spiritual formation, and catechesis. Basically, this is the process by which a believer is not only instructed in the faith but transformed into a practitioner of the faith. Of course, this process is never complete but it is one in which every follower of Christ should be involved throughout his or her life.

How will the church practice such formation of believers fifty years from now? I imagine that it will take a variety of forms, but my hunch is that we will engage more in an "action-learning" approach to Christian formation. There will be an intentional effort to link the believer's growth in Christ with her or his daily life. As one encounters various challenges in life, these challenges will become the raw material for reflection and learning.

The sources that ground such reflection and learning might be best characterized by what has been called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Although John Wesley may never have consciously articulated it in this way, he seems to have used four sources in coming to theological conclusions:
  • Scripture - the Holy Bible;
  • Tradition - the two millenia history of the church (and its present practices as well);
  • Reason - rational thinking;
  • Experience - our personal and communal journey with Christ.

In order for this formation to take place, believers in the future will be more deeply invested in the community of faith. This will find expression not only in the larger congregation but in relationship with an on-going small group of fellow believers and perhaps a one-on-one relationship with a spiritual director. Just as we have seen the emergence of personal trainers and life coaches, I think we will see a greater role for spiritual coaches in the future.

What about curriculum? We have the entire historical archive of the church to draw upon as well as the stories of believers and non-believers who struggle with life issues. The curriculum will not be as important as the individual struggles that the believer brings to the discussion and context in which those experiences are processed.

The next few years offer rich opportunities for bringing together both classic and contemporary modes of learning to form healthy, growing, ministering followers of Jesus Christ.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

What Will the Church Look Like in Fifty Years?--Ministry

There are many "entry points" into the life of the church. In the past, this was often the Sunday School. For many people today, it is the worship service. For others, it is the opportunity to be involved in one of the ministries of the church--some within the walls of the church facility (Upward Basketball is an example) and some in the community (Habitat, etc.).

The door of ministry, especially ministry outside the walls of the church, will provide the connecting point with many non-churched people in coming years. Young adults are often looking for places to serve, and the church can provide those opportunities.

Working alongside Christians provides the non-churched person the chance to develop relationships with believers. Perhaps one of the things the church of the future needs to do is to prepare members for this type of interaction. This doesn't mean learning a pat "presentation of the gospel." It does involve knowing one's own story, how that relates to God's story, and being able to relate it in a loving, humble manner (but that gets into Christian formation, the topic for another blog).

George Hunter (see The Celtic Way of Evangelism) introduced me to the concept of the powerful witness of a serving community. This is the pattern he found in early Irish monastic communities. These communities were not restricted to those who had taken vows; certainly, they were at the center of the community, but many others attached themselves to the monasteries because of the benefits they saw there. After awhile, they learned enough to identify with the Christian community personally.

Perhaps the church of the future will do a better job than we have done in giving people on the edges the opportunity to "taste and see" what the Christian faith is all about by observing that faith in action.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Conquering America?

Let me break my series on the future of the church and comment on an article that appeared on the Baptist Center for Ethics website.

BCE reports that David Clippard, the executive of the Missouri Baptist Convention, recently said, "The real threat we are facing today is that Islam has a strategic plan to conquer and occupy America." Part of this plan is funding Islamic studies and opening mosques near colleges and universities. "They are after our sons and daughters, our students," Clippard is reported to have said.

I don't know if Clippard's observations are correct or not, but the idea of attempting to reach a nation through its college and university students makes sense. In the early 20th century, many Christian groups (including Baptists) decided to do the same thing. This gave birth to the Baptist Student Union, the Student Volunteer Movement, the Wesley Foundation, and many other denominational and non-denominational groups. This resulted in the equipping and calling of thousands of ministers, educators, missionaries, and lay leaders for the churches.

The unfortunate thing is that this strategy is not being actively pursued by Christians today. Southern Baptists have pulled much of their funding for national programs for college students, and state programs of campus ministry are facing frozen or declining budgets (Mr. Clippard's MBC is a good--or bad--example).

Those of us in the CBF camp haven't done much better. With a few exceptions, most churches, state and regional organizations, and national entities have not made ministry with college students a priority.

There is a vacuum in ministry to college and university students. Maybe the Muslims have found a "niche." If so, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Monday, October 30, 2006

What Will the Church Look Like in Fifty Years?--Leadership

My understanding is that Ephesians 4 teaches that some believers are called to equipping ministries--these include apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. All of these are necessary for a healthy balanced church, but the way in which these equipping ministries are represented in the church today is very different from the way they were exercised in the first century. I won't pursue that topic in this posting, but I do want to make clear that there is and will be a continuing need for ministers who "equip God's people for the work of ministry" in the church fifty years from now.

In the future we will still have those who serve the church full-time as staff ministers. At the same time, we will have many part-time or bivocational ministers serving the church in various roles. The most interesting thing about these "professional" ministers will be where we will find them and how they will be trained.

First, many of these staff ministers will come out of the church in which they are already members. Their gifts will be recognized through the exercise of those gifts in the church, and their calling to ministry will be not only confirmed but often initiated by the congregation.

Second, they will receive their theological education through satellite centers of seminaries (see Central's "teaching church seminary" model, directed individual study in consulation with veteran ministers, and cohort groups led by qualified ministers with specialized theological degrees. In other words, the seminary will come to the students rather than vice-versa. This will not only allow them to remain in their places of ministry but to enter into a dialogue between praxis and formal education.

Third, there will be more itinerant ministers pursuing their ministries either outside of the church or in conjunction with several churches. Many of these will be "apostolic" ministries, taking the gospel to new areas or new groups. The most healthy arrangement will be for these folks to be commissioned by a local church or group of churches. Such an arrangement will provide flexibility, stability, and accountability.

A final word here about those with advanced theological training--PhDs, etc. We will still need these folks, but they will not be teaching on seminary campuses. They will be ministers in local churches who also teach, teachers who are themselves "circuit riders" (traveling from place to place to teach groups of students), and teachers in colleges and universities who also "do theology" in churches.

Ministry in fifty years will be both interesting and challenging!

What Will the Church Look Like in Fifty Years?--Worship

In fifty years, the worship practices of the church will be all over the map--just like today! The good news is that people will still be assembling together for worship. The "virtual church" is an interesting idea, but it will not take the place of believers coming together in one place to do "the work of the people"--worshipping God. The good news is that those who plan worship will be comfortable drawing on all the many facets of the Christian tradition to do worship.

Music is always the big issue when we talk about worship. I think we will see less "contemporary" music and more music that draws on scripture (such as the Taize tradition), chants, classical music, and traditional hymns. This goes along with a general trend among young adults today to embrace mystery and transcendence in worship.

This also means more art, more candles, and--generally-a more experiential and participative approach to worship. The Eucharist--communion, Lord's supper--will be even more crucial to worship than it is today in many of our (Baptist) churches. In fact, many churches will observe the ordinance weekly.

What about preaching? Yes, the proclamation of the Word will still be vital to worship. Although in some cases it will be supplemented by visuals, I believe that the current resurgence in the oral tradition--especially story-telling--will continue. Media may enhance the presentation of the Word, but effective preaching and teaching will still rest upon the spoken word with clear explanation and appropriate application. We will probably even use more scripture in worship than we tend to do today--reading the text, listening to others read the text, and meditating on the text.

I think we will also see more opportunity for worshippers to share their own stories and to be involved in a dialogue with the preacher/teacher. This goes along with the participative nature of worship.

Worship will continue to be the "front door" of the church for most people, but many will come just to observe and learn about the Christian faith as expressed in worship.

Friday, October 27, 2006

What Will the Church Look Like in Fifty Years?--Part Two

In fifty years, we will see a number of churches that do not own buildings and will have no plans to acquire a building. These "churches without walls" will probably have offices (usually rented) and storage areas. Some will choose to have their offices in malls or shopping centers with high foot traffic and adequate parking. They may even do some ministry there, but this will not be the real presence of the church in the community. It will be elsewhere.

Much of their communication with participants (the number of "members" will be limited, but that is a subject for another day) will be digital--e-mail, websites, or whatever follows our present day digital communication.

What are the forms in which the church will be physically manifested?

First, small groups will meet regularly, perhaps weekly, in homes, coffee shops, hospitality rooms in condo developments, etc. The primary focus of these groups will be fellowship and Christian formation.

Second, church participants will meet in certain locations to do ministry. These individuals make come from several small groups, but they will coordinate their responsibilities and assignments. The locations may be a Habitat construction site, a soup kitchen, a school for tutoring, etc.

Third, the church will hold regular gatherings for worship and fellowship in rented spaces--community centers, theaters, schools, or churches that do own buildings--on an as needed basis. They will be truly be a "nomadic" church.

What are the advantages of such an arrangment? First, the presence of the church will be manifested in the community through its fellowship, study, ministry, and worship.

Second, it will be good stewardship. The cost of operating and maintaining buildings will continue to increase and people will be more interested in seeing their money go into ministry than bricks and mortar.

Third, it will make the church more accessible to people. The church will go where the people are rather than asking the people to come to the church.

Will this be easy? No, but it will be effective in many communities.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

What Will the Church Look Like in Fifty Years?--Part One

Someone asked me today, "What do you think the church will look like in 50 years?" Well, I love science fiction and I love the church. Maybe I can bring the two together and do a little scenario thinking over the next few days.

Although I embrace the concept that the church is the people and not the building, we still tend to think of buildings when we think of churches. So let me say a word first about buildings. Most churches in existence 50 years will still have buildings, even though they will be expensive to maintain and many civil authorities will resent the churches for having them and not paying taxes! (This will be challenged increasingly in the next few years, but I believe that church and state separation will prevail although some churches will pay a services fee just to get the local government off their backs.) In some settings, the buildings will be seen as an asset to the community and local governments will make efforts to encourage their upkeep and viability.

These buildings will be extremely multipurpose. Worship areas will be used at least twice on Sunday mornings. Most will be designed to be used for other purposes during the week as well--fellowship, recreation, etc. Some will be designed so that they can be used by the community for concerts and theatrical productions. Even so, there will be more art and imagery than we currently see in most Baptist churches.

Other parts of the church building will be used seven days a week for childcare, community ministries, adult Christian formation, and seminary education. There will be plenty of technology incorporated into the building. There may even be a bookstore on the premises.

If churches with buildings are going to survive, they must increasingly perceive their facilities as a tool for ministry. This will be hard for some members to accept, but it will necessary for churches to move from maintenance to ministry to make a difference in their communities.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Prophetic Voices

At the GOCN meeting in Kansas City last week, I had the opportunity to meet George Hunsberger, one of the more prolific writers on the missional church. George is pictured here (on the right) with Dale Ziemer of the Center for Parish Development. George is a professor of missiology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, and comes out of the Reformed theological tradition.

Hunsberger was greatly influenced by missionary and missiologist Lesslie Newbigin and is the author of a book on Newbigin entitled Bearing the Witness of the Spirit. You may recall that Newbigin was a missionary in India for most of his ministry. While there he found ways to communicate the Gospel in a non-Christian context. When he returned to his native Great Britain for retirement, he discovered that he was again living in a non-Christian context! He spent the rest of his life writing, lecturing, and exegeting Western culture as a mission field. His work provides a foundation for missional church theology.

I remarked to Hunsberger that I often find Newbigin's books on the shelves of pastors who attended seminary 20 or 30 years ago, and I am amazed at how little it seems to have impacted their ministries! OK. I realize that a lot of us bought books in seminary that we never read or read only under pressure! At the same time, it would seem that the seminal ideas that Newbigin presented would have impacted our vision for reaching our culture for Christ. We still have time to avail ourselves of his insights.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Can the Church Change?

I spent the last three days in a conference with folks who believe that established churches can change to become missional--that is to participate with God in a mission to the world. The missional church takes seriously the culture in which it functions and the gifts and calling of its people in order to be on mission with God in that culture.

The Gospel in Our Culture Network basically developed out of a dialogue between those in the Reformed and Anabaptist traditions on what it means to be such a church in 21st century North America. They have not only produced a significant amount of theological literature (such as Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America) but they have also discovered and researched places where it is happening (see Treasure in Clay Jars: Patterns in Missional Faithfulness).

The conference included representatives from Mennonite, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Lutheran churches and judicatories. They are in various stages of grasping and implementing the missional church paradigm. The good news is that they are trying! They believe that the church can change.

During the conference, someone commented that is unfortunate that most churches must come to a point of crisis before they are willing to change. It is unfortunate, but isn't this true for most of us as individuals as well? When one is faced with the potential of heart disease, he or she becomes more concerned about healthy habits. When addiction causes aberrant behavior, it is time for a change. Crisis and opportunity go together.

The key is helping churches to realize the crisis they may be facing if they do not embrace a new paradigm. Is your church healthy? Maybe it is time to embrace a healthy new regimen, becoming a missional church.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Hope for the Church?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the approach of Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost in the Missio Intensive conference and in their book is that the church has already failed to reach people in our culture. I understand why they have come to this conclusion based on their experiences in Australia. As Frost points out, the first settlers in America came to seek religious freedom and by choice (although we must admit that the promise of commerce motivated many). In Australia, the first "settlers" were mostly Irish convicts who did not choose to travel to the other side of the world. Their "chaplains" were Anglican priests who were also the magistrates who pronounced judgement on trangressors! The basis of the cultures was very different.

At the same time, I realize that we are faced with both a secular culture (is there any other?)in the US as well as rapid and discontinous change. Most people are not antagonistic the church; they are indifferent to the church! Even in the South, Christian churches are no longer respected as they once were.

The approach that Hirsch and Frost have adopted is radical. They call for a change from an attractional to an incarnational approach to penetrate niche communities of non-believers. They have basically "written off" the established churches as effective means to reach people for Christ.

They may be right! I believe that there are places in our state where this will work, especially in urban areas; however, I still hold out hope that many of our established churches can refocus themselves as missional churches--churches on mission in their context. This is something to which I am committed, and I am attempting to lead our organization to help churches make that transition.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Shaping of Things to Come

Rita and I just returned from a trip to California that included a Missio Intensive Event at Fuller Seminary. The conference featured the authors of
The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church. The authors are Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, both Aussies. Michael is a professor of evangelism and missions at a seminary in Australia and a church planter. He has a Baptist background and the gift of evangelism. Alan (pictured here) is a South African Jew (now a Christ-follower) who has lived in Australia but is now making the shift to the US. Michael is the apostle/prophet of the team; Alan is the strategist/conceptual person.

I will write more about this meeting later, but I just wanted to share a few initial observations. The theme of the conference was reaching people for Christ in a post-everything context. Michael and Alan have served in a part of the world that is de-Christianized. Being a Christian in Australia is not a matter of pride. Indeed, it may be a barrier to getting on in society! Their approach to sharing Christ is both missional and incarnational, but it assumes up front that the church has failed to reach people with its present strategies.

We aren't there yet in Tennessee, but the time may not be far away. While in California, I passed a church only two blocks from the seminary that was advertising "rental space of weddings, receptions, parties, and office." This is a sign of a church in trouble. I think we need to be alert to the fact that the context for "doing church" is changing, even in Tennessee. We already see it in some urban areas in our state. How will we respond?

Monday, September 25, 2006

Back to the future?

The US is making plans to return to the moon. And guess what? The crew vehicle will be a space capsule! Yes, the new Orion spacecraft will look like the old Apollo crew vehicle and not like the space shuttle. The Aries launch vehicle will be based on the shuttle launch system, but the crew will ride on top of the booster "where God intended for them to be" (according to one veteran astronaut). The new space system will be a mixture of the old and the new, the proven and the innovative.

Perhaps there is a word here for the church. Whatever we undertake, it is always a mixture of tradition and innovation. We look to what God has done in the past, but we trust the Spirit to bring fresh insights and understanding for the present and future.

In THE SKY IS FALLING, Alan Roxburgh points out two tribes in the church that are seeking to deal with discontinuous change--the liminals and the emergents. Those who come out of the mainstream are the "liminals." These are the folks who bring institutional memory to the dialoque and are seeking stability. On the other side are the "emergents" who bring innovation and imagination to the mix and are more than ready to embrace radical alternatives.

The liminal folks basically want to retool what has worked in the past. The emergents want something new, realizing that it may or may not work! Roxburgh reminds us that both need each other and both need to realize that the Spirit of God is already among the people of God offering a way through this time of change.

We look to the future without throwing out the past. This may just be the way forward for NASA and the church!

Monday, September 18, 2006

Face to face learning

This past weekend, David May of Central Seminary was in Murfreesboro to teach the first session of the introductory New Testament course. There were 14 students present, three of those "lifelong learners" who are taking the course for their own personal enrichment. This brings the number of students at the Murfreesboro site of "the teaching church seminary" to 12 degree-seeking students and three lifelong learners.

This was seminary education at its best. Dr. May is an excellent teacher, and his interaction with the students was positive and helpful. The students came with high expectations and those were fulfilled. For three hours on Friday night and 10 on Saturday, they were challenged to learn more about the New Testament, its people, its setting, and its implications for our time.

Although much education can be accomplished online (especially with those who are digitally savvy), there is no replacement for face to face, personal interaction. I am pleased that the Central seminary program offers this as the major part of its Master of Divinity studies. Students need to interact with God-called women and men who love the Bible so much that they have committed their lives to its study. Faculty members need to get to know students who are making sacrifices to pursue their education in preparation for ministry. Quite fankly, I think "church happened" around those tables this past weekend.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Future of Seminary Education?

About two years ago, I became aware of two very specific needs of our constituents which I felt were not being addressed by moderate theological institutions. First, I knew several mid-career adults who were exploring the call to ministry but could not pull up roots and pursue theological education in another state. Second, I knew some individuals who were already serving on church staff--either full-time or bivocationally--and desired additional training, but they did not understand why they had to give up their ministries and relocate to obtain a seminary degree.

I contacted several CBF related seminaries to see if any had an interest in providing a satellite or extension site in Tennessee. About the same time, Mike Smith, pastor of First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, expressed a personal interest in this opportunity. The most positive response I received was from Central Baptist Seminary in Kansas City. Dr. Molly Marshall was interim president and academic dean at that time and expressed an interest in developing a site in Murfreesboro as part of CBTS's new strategy of becoming "the teaching church seminary."

The church provided housing for the classes, Tennessee CBF provided promotion and my services as volunteer site coordinator, and we identified local people who might serve as adjunct faculty.

Last year was a slow but important first phase as the seminary offering two courses on site in the fall and two in the spring. All classes were taught on weekends. Laura Moore came from Kansas City to teach Hebrew Bible both semesters and Mike Smith taught Christian Heritage. Laura had six students the first semester and five the second. Mike had about ten each semester, four of those lifelong learners. The number of degree-seeking students fluctuated as some "tasted" the possibility of local theological education and decided that it was not for them.

This weekend we launched the second year of classes and saw the fruit of the labors of Molly, Laura, Mike, and myself as well at those of Steve Guinn, director of admissions, and Dean and Lisa Allen, CBTS administrators. The first weekend of the Formation for Christian Ministry class had 12 students enrolled. Seven were returning students and five were new students. I anticipate that all will be back next weekend for the New Testament class taught by CBTS professor David May. We will probably have three lifelong learners as well.

This response is a clear validation that the need we perceived is very real. There are God-called women and men who want to develop their skills for ministry and will invest the time and money to do so, even in the midst of busy lives.

Is this the future of theological education? I believe that it is at least one very viable stream. I am grateful for all of those at Central Seminary who have nurtured this dream and to Mike Smith and FBC, Murfreesboro, for being a part of this bold experiment.

What does the future hold? Stay tuned.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

He brought a child to his side . . .

I don't know how you spend your weekends, but grandchildren usually play an important role in the weekend schedule for Rita and myself. We spent time with Erin (our two-year old granddaughter) on Friday, then took Noah (our seven-year-old grandson) to the football game on Friday night where our 17 year old granddaugher, Kayla, was in the half-time show. Noah spent the night and we took him to his soccer game on Saturday morning. Tomorrow we plan to have lunch with our 19-year-old grandson, Bryan. OK, I'll spare you the pictures, but you get the idea--children and grandchildren are important to us.

This was brought home to me this morning when our pastor, Mike Smith, preached on Luke 9:46-50 where Jesus attempts to settle an argument among his disciples about "who will be the greatest" by bringing a small child to his side. Mike pointed out that in Jesus' day, grown men ignored children in public settings. It just wasn't done! So Jesus' action was particularly surprising as he pointed out the value of one of the least in society by identifying himself with the child.

As I looked out over the congregation, I noted children sitting with their parents, one father holding his daughter in his lap, and a little boy cuddling up next to his mother. Certainly this says something about the value we have come to place upon our children. To cap it off, three youngsters made public professions of faith at the close of the service!

Children are important to us as Christ-followers. I admit that there are times when the emphasis may get out of balance. We've come a long way from the "children should be seen and not heard" approach of a previous generation. We are much more aware of the potential inherent in each child and the importance of encouraging them to develop their abilities and gifts. As a result, we invest time in their education and nurture, both in the church and elsewhere.

But think about this in light of the text Mike used this morning. First, we value children not just because of what they may become, but because of what they are. Although least in the kingdom, they are important in and of themselves. Each child has intrinsic value in the sight of God. Second, we must recognize that not all children are valued, even in our supposedly enlightened society. Some struggle just to survive. What are we doing to help such children?

Whatever we invest in children--either our own or others--is well worth the effort. It is part of our God-given calling.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Discovering needs through a new church start

Trinity Baptist Church (a new church start in western Murfreesboro)held its first major community outreach event yesterday. Sponsored by First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, and the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the event--called the Family and Neighbors Festival--offered activities for children, bar-b-q, fellowship, and door prizes. In addition to about 35 people from the launch team (and their children), there were about 40 guests who dropped by. We considered the event a success.

Not only was it successful in numbers, but the event helped us to discover some needs in the area. In addition to married couples and their children, there were several single parents there. Many are searching for a caring and supportive community for themselves and their children.

This was a positive step in identifying with the community and discovering new ways to work in that community.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Learning from the megachurch

Last week, I joined a group of friends to attend a telecast of the Willow Creek Leadership Summit in our area. I won't take the time here to justify this choice(although I will say that the Willow Creek Church in South Barrington, Illinois, has a better record of affirming women in ministry and reaching out to ethnic people than many of our progressive Baptist churches)but it was a great learning experience. Participating in this meeting also reminded me of the shifting patterns in cooperation among churches today. These new relationships cross denominational, regional, and ethnic lines.

Even the huge churches that measure weekend attenders in the thousands seek ways to partner with other churches for the sake of the kingdom of God. They realize that kingdom work is not a "lone ranger" task and that no church can do all that God has called believers to do.

These churches and many smaller congregations may not carry the Baptist name, but their theology is often very close to ours. For one reason or another, some have chosen to leave the Baptist name aside to further their ministry (and we could chase that rabbit for awhile, too).

I wonder if there are possibilities for CBF to partner with some of these folks? Many times these churches are looking for mission opportunities and we certainly can offer many possibilties for such involvement. Does this compromise our identity? What do you think?

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Dually Aligned?

Someone recently asked , "Is your church dually aligned?" My immediate thought (left unsaid) was, "Or course not. We are aligned with Christ." OK. I know what he meant: "Is your church affiliated with both the CBF and the SBC?" Not an usual questions but certainly an irrelevant one.

The question is based on a modern paradigm that saw the local church (even if we called it "an autonomous Southern Baptist church") as a local franchise of the national body. Thirty years ago you could walk into any Anglo Baptist church in the south and find people using the same hymnal, using the same literature, supporting the same missions program, and using the same terminology about the faith. Certainly there were variations in worship. We Baptists have always covered the spectrum when it comes to worship, but most of us were using some edition of the Baptist Hymnal. One value of this approach was that you always felt "at home" in church, whether you were in Texas or Alabama.

This "McDonald's" approach is largely irrelevant today. I would like to think this has happened because we cleaned up our theology, but we know that is not true. The changes in denominationalism have brought us the opportunity to embrace a more biblically based theology of the church. This is the idea that the church is the Missio Deo, the mission of God in the world. This approach calls upon each local expression of the Body of Christ to be culturally relevant, ministering to the needs of those in their community and linking with other expressions of the Body to work for the Kingdom of God.

This means that the local church is not only autonomous; it is also responsible. The church must make its own decisions about worship, spiritual formation, leadership, missions, and ministry. The church must discover resources and partners to help it carry out its God-given mission, a mission unique to it. The answers don't come prepackaged from Nashville, Atlanta, Dallas, or Grand Rapids! At the same time, resources may be found in all of these places and many others.

This new paradigm means that the church is at the center of a web. There are no longer just one or two strands linking the church to ministry partners; there are dozens! We also find churches linking with one another in unique and creative ways in their Kingdom work (often with Christians whose theology may be a bit diffent).

So, is your church dually aligned? I hope not.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Why do we care about the Emergent conversation?

Several years ago, I was teaching a SS class and led the class in a discussion of Brian McLaren's book, THE CHURCH ON THE OTHER SIDE. It was not an easy study, and I realized why it was so hard when we came to the last session and someone observed, "Well, all this is important only if you really want to reach postmodern people."

Suddenly I realized that the speaker and I were on two completely different paths! Yes, I really care about reaching postmodern people. I care about reaching anyone who is not part of the Kingdom. This is not trumphalism but compassion. I believe that a person who is a Christ-follower has a better opportunity to have a fulfilled life and to bless others than one who is not a Christ-follower. I believe one is better off knowing God!

Mike Young and I talked today about the importance of being involved in the emergent conversation. Why? Because we think it is important to reach postmodern people and we will only do so through relevant dialogue, authentic concern, and genuine compassion for them as people. CBF talks about ministry with the marginalized of society. Who is more marginalzed than one who is alienated or disinterested in a relationship with the Creator? Many of the folks who find a home in emergent gatherings are sincerely seeking a deeper spirituality. They may not perceive this as a relationship with God, but perhaps we can introduce them to God through a loving, intelligent conversation.

We care about the emergent conversation because we see it as a way to open the doors of the Kingdom to those who are outside. I think that's what Jesus was trying to do as well.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Emergent Conversation

My colleague Mike Young hosted an "emergent conversation" in Chattanooga last week. I was not able to attend, but I understand that it went well with about 20 people present. It was intergenerational and ecumenical (for want of a better word). As with most "emergent" gatherings, the gathering just "mushroomed" overnight, the fellowship was good, and the meeting concluded with no specific goals for the future. That's fine. One thing with which this movement struggles is how far can it go and how effective can it be without becoming organized or institutionalized.

A couple of people have asked me recently, "What is the unifying force behind the emergent movement?" (Another question asked was "What is the emergent movement?" but I will address that at another time.) A common thread for those involved in the movement seems to be a bad personal experience with fundamentalist (or propositional) religion. Many of the leading voices in the movement have come out of evangelical churches (some Bible churches) where their search for faith was criticized, ridiculed, or ignored. These were thinking people who had concerns about the ways in which faith was being articulated. When they tried to address this, they were spurned. For many, this created a lot of personal pain and anger; thus, the concern with institutionalism of any type.

This may be the common ground for any dialogue between those who embrace the emergent movement and those who are part of the CBF movement. We have both been hurt in some way by religious institutions. The greatest fear that I have is that CBF is moving so quickly to become an institution that the alienated and angry may see us as part of the problem rather than part of the answer. Even so, I think this is fertile ground for progressive Baptists, especially those interested in reaching and encouraging a young generation of seeking Christians.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Preaching Voices of Women

Amy Mears, left, was one of the preachers and a seminar leader at the women's preaching conference last weekend. She is talking here with Melissa Roysdon, pastor of Providence Baptist Church in Cookeville.

Amy, co-pastor of Glendale Baptist, Nashville, not only delivered a wonderful sermon at the conference, she shared significant insights about how women might be perceived in the preaching role.

What Do Women Bring to the Pastorate?

I will admit up front that I am treading on dangerous ground here. I fear that I will fall into stereotypical assessments of the qualities that a woman might bring to the pastoral task, but I welcome being challenged on these observations.

What particular strengths might a woman bring to the pastoral ministry? First, I certainly think that she would be more concerned and, perhaps more importantly, sensitive to relationships than many men are. From a male perspective, we often fail to detect the signals that someone is hurting, puzzled, or just plain angry.

Second, I think that most women ministers would be more concerned about aesthetics than the majority of men in the ministry. We tend to be interested in the content rather than the context. Male ministers are concerned about the task and reaching the goal, while females in the ministry are more concerned about presentation--"How will this be perceived? Will it be acceptable?"

Third, because women have so often been placed in roles where they are powerless, I believe that a woman minister will have a different approach to both authority and leadership than a male minister does. My guess is that the woman's approach to leadership will be rooted more in community than in position. This certainly fits the postmodern context in which we do ministry today.

Fourth, I think that women will have a healthier balance between public ministry and private life. Because of their concern for relationships and community (see above), I have found women in ministry to more concerned about self-care and private time, whether that is family, friends, or leisure activities.

Am I missing the boat here? What do you think?

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Women as Pastors

I just returned home from our first women's preaching conference which was entitled "Celebrating the Preaching Voices of Women." Tammy Abee Blom, TCBF's associate coordinator for leadership development, planned the program with the assistance of Cheryl Prose, Carolyn Blevins, Nennette Measels, and Amy Mears. Amy Mears and Elizabeth Evans (a former TCBF scholarship recipient) preached. Danny Chisholm and Amy led seminars. It was a good (OK, an excellent) meeting, and I will be debriefing it on this blog for awhile.

The gathering reinforced my conviction that "moderate" Baptists in the South have missed the mark by doing little to encourage women to pursue their calling to the pastoral role. To be very clear, we don't consider women as viable candidates to pastor our churches. Yes, we talk a good game, but the recent study by Eileen Campbell-Reed and Pam Durso on the state of Baptist women in ministry should cause us to hang our heads in shame.

I may be a traitor to my gender here, but I am continually amazed that if churches have a choice for pastor between a highly qualified woman and a marginally qualified man, the man will win out!

When the group was asked today, "What would be your response to having a woman pastor?" I replied, "I could get used to it!" Nennette said that was the right answer. I have had several women as mentors in my life, and I have learned as much from them as the men who have mentored me. I think it would be the same for a pastor.

Why don't we see more women in the pulpit? Because we don't give them the chance. I will reflect in a subsequent submission on the unique qualities that a woman brings to pastoral leadership, but isn't it time that we start acting like the progressive Baptists that we say we are and open the door to all called to the pastoral ministry?

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Christian Education in the 21st Century

In the last several years, I have noted a trend in churches away from talking about "Christian education" to discussing "spiritual formation" or "Christian formation." Churches are no longer looking for "ministers of education" but are seeking "ministers of spiritual formation" or some similar title.

My question is, "What has driven this shift in nomenclature?" Is this just a fad or does it represent a fundamental change in our approach to adult faith development? If it is a fundamental change, does this mean that Sunday school is on the back burner and has been replaced by something else or does it mean that we are still looking for viable alternatives to SS?

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Why pastor?

Some weeks, I find myself asking, "Why would anyone want to be a pastor?" Many pastors I know are struggling. They see needs and try to lead their churches to meet those needs, but they run into resistance. They think they understand what their church members expect of their pastor, and suddenly find that they have it all wrong. They go the second and third miles in ministry, but they find it is not enough. Therefore, many pastors of my acquiantance are disappointed and even depressed. They are seeking other places of service or even considering leaving full-time ministry.

Is it any wonder that many of our young adults go to seminary, but boldly declare, "I don't want to serve in a local church!" We have to find ways to help our pastors lead and serve. Maybe then more people will want to be pastors!

Am I just having a bad day?

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

How can we help Emergent church planters?

I sincerely believe that it takes different kinds of churches to reach different kinds of people. One type of church that has appeared recently is the emergent church. I won't try to describe what an emergent church is, but most are urban, skewed toward young adults (although others are not excluded), draw on many aspects of the Christian heritage for worship, and tend to be relational and experiential.

Emergent churches bring a new edge to the Christian movement. We could use a few in the CBF movement! The catch is, do emergent church planters and leaders want to relate to any institution, even one as loosely structured as CBF?

Emergent leaders tend to be very entrepreneurial. They already have a vision of what they want to accomplish and a way to get there. So do they want coaches? Probably not. Are they looking for funding? In most cases, no. They are a bit afraid of the "ties that bind" and are afraid that this will be selling out.

What do they need then? I think they need relationships. They need friends with a different point of view who are willing to dialogue with them about what it means to be church. They need colleagues who recognize that we are all doing kingdom work. They need encouragers to say, "Go for it."

In reality, maybe we need them more than they need us. They are the scouts out on the new frontier of postmodern culture. They may well challenge us to follow in their steps as pioneers on the new frontier.

Do you know anyone doing an emergent ministry? What's your relationship like?

Monday, June 26, 2006

Did New Testament Jews Get a Bad Rap?

There was a recent article about the work of E. P. Sanders in THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY that I found interesting. Sanders has suggested that we need to rethink "common wisdom" about rabbinic Judaism of the first century. Sanders questions if the Jewish leaders of the first century were as legalistic has we have been led to believe.

I am not sure that I follow all of Sanders' argument, but I do remember there are times when I have felt that many of us who are "religious leaders" may have more in common with these first century leaders than we wish to admit. Sometimes the "good" that we attempt to do falls far short of what the world really needs. "Let the one without sin cast the first stone."

Sunday, June 25, 2006

What are you reading?

What are you reading? I just started PRACTICING GREATNESS by Reggie McNeal and purchased PLANTING MISSIONAL CHURCHES by Ed Stetzer.

Defining the Territory

Our SS class is studying the BCE material on the Ten Commandments. Our teacher spent some time this morning describing the context, according to the Book of Exodus, in which the commandments were presented. The Hebrews had been an enslaved people in the richest nation in the world--a nation of polytheism, slavery, and a religious dictatorship. They were unmotivated, rebellious, and uncertain about where they were going. The commandments provided a basis for conceiving the world in a new way. They provided a new definition of the territory--the world they found themselves in. Although he did not use the term, the Decalogue introduced a meta-narrative--a way of bringing order to a disordered world.

Is this where we find ourselves today? In a postmodern world, what do we base our lives on? What is lacking for many in this world is a meta-narrative--a story to help them make sense of the world. Maybe the commandments are a good place to start.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Campus Ministers: Moderate Baptist Leaders

When I encountered three friends talking with each other as I strolled the halls of the Georgia World Congress Center during the CBF General Assembly, I suddenly realized that all three of these folks had been campus ministers at one point and are now pursuing other roles in moderate Baptist life.

Over the next two days, I started keeping a mental list of folks that I met and talked with who had been campus ministers/BSU directors/collegiate ministers at one point and are now part of the moderate Baptist movement. I am not talking about simply former participants in Baptist collegiate ministry, but those who had served as leaders. Some made the leap several years ago and found new places of service. There is the person who is now a leading Baptist journalist, another who is a pastor, another who is a pastoral counselor, and several who are working for state and regional CBF organizations. Some others are still in transition, seeking new places of service, obtaining additional training. There were several friends with whom I talked who are still serving in collegiate ministry, usually through a church, but a couple working on campuses for state conventions that are not dominated by fundamentalism (or fear of same).

In some ways, this made me a bit sad, maybe nostalgic. I loved working with college students (I could write several paragraphs about former students I saw at the meeting), but circumstances forced me to choose to pursue another form of ministry. But I still have something in common with all these folks--those still in campus ministy and those who have moved on--I believe that the college/university campus is a place where important decisions are being made by people seeking to know and respond to God's leadership in their lives. I believe that God works in a very special way in the lives of all individuals who seek to follow Him--men and women, young and old, the weak and the strong. I believe in a liberal God who gives His love liberally to all. That's why I was out of step with those whose view of God is more restricted in terms of love and grace. My friends in campus ministy--both past and present--believe the same thing. That's why we were at the CBF General Assembly.

The Future of Missions?

Jack Snell has done an excellent job as interim CBF Coordinator for Global Missions. He has brought a pastoral spirit and local church "smarts" to the role. A parting gift to Fellowship Baptists was this candid comment at the commissioning service for new field personnel in Atlanta on June 23:

“Our offerings are flat. We haven’t reached our Offering for Global Missions goal in several years,” he said. “In many cases our passions are dulled and our compassion is defeated by fatigue. Yet there continue to be unbelievable statistics that tell us one of four has not yet had the opportunity to hear and respond to the word of Jesus Christ. The world is groaning. I challenge you to be no less than Christ in a hurting world and challenge all of us to become nothing less than global disciples. Jesus is calling us to see the need, to be gripped by compassion and to move out from this place into the harvest field.”

In Tennessee, state budget gifts have declined. Thankfully, the Tennessee Partners in Missions offering has continued to be strong with church and individual gifts exceeding the 2005-2006 goal. This will help five creative, independent ministries in doing their work.

What's going on? A key issue is that fact that we have encouraged churches to be missional--to take responsibility for doing the Great Commission. Well, they have, and part of this is keeping a portion of their missions dollar to be used in projects that the church plan and control--often sending their own members to work with CBF (and other) missions personnel. We are in something of a Catch 22 on this! Hooray for churches who assume this responsibility, but how can CBF provide missionaries who provide the structure to support such church-directed ministries? How can TCBF facilitate linkages between churches and mission points without funding to support our staff who do such things?

Good News--the churches are more involved in direct missions! Bad News--Churches are cutting their support for mission-sending structures! How can CBF and TCBF adapt to this situation? What does the future hold? Let's get involved in a dialogue about the future of missions.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Experiential worship at its best

Trinity, our new church start in Murfreesboro, had its fourth Community Gathering on Sunday afternoon. Joel Emerson, associate pastor at Brook Hollow Baptist Church, and his wife, Ann Bassett, pastor of Peace Lutheran Church in Spring Hill, led our worship. The worship experience on "grace" included hymns, readers theater (with the children involved), readings, multimedia, a sermon,and communion (with Ann as the officiant). Not sure that I can handle all this stimulation in worship!

Joel's approach is probably a good example of what Robert Webber calls "ancient-future worship." This means that everything is on the table; we can draw from the entire Christian experience in planning worship.

This is an advantage of a new church--we can try new things. What have you tried in worship recently that was "out of the ordinary"?

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Some thoughts about new churches

One of the things I hear continually from "moderate" or progressive Baptists is that our future lies in starting new churches. If this is so, why aren't more of us investing ourselves in this effort? I can think of at least five possibilities for new church starts just in the middle Tennessee area, but there is little or no interest in supporting such efforts.

There is all kind of informatin available to testify to the value of starting new churches. New churches reach unchurched (and dechurched) people, identify new leaders, and allow the freedom to try new methods of worship, Christian nurture, and outreach.

The group that I work with is trying to find ways to start churches with very little money and with part-time, bi-vocational, or volunteer staff. I came to the conclusion last year that I could not really gripe about the lack of interest in new church starts unless I tried to do it myself. I am pleased that a good group of leaders from the church that I attend (First Baptist, Murfreesboro) have joined in the effort to start a new church in a growing area of our county. I have already experienced some of the frustrations of a church planter--limited resources, discouraged participants, etc. But I am also seeing people who are members of the same (sponsoring) church come to know each other for the first time. I am also seeing new leaders emerge. Our goal is to create community before we start a congregation. That may take some time, but we have started the journey.

Any ideas about the lack of interest in new church starts? Help me here!


Hello! I'm Ircel. Trying a blog is something of an adventure for me, but I am willing to give it a shot.