Friday, August 31, 2007

They Love Jesus. . . But the Church?

My wife and I had the opportunity to share lunch this week with a young Christian couple who pursue their vocations in a southeast Asian country. Although the young man originally went there to do evangelistic work, they now operate a ministry center that provides outreach, fellowship, and skill training for people in the community.

The husband pointed out that he had initially seen his ministry as reaching people for Christ and then introducing them into local churches so that they might be discipled and nurtured in the Christian faith. He was surprised and disappointed when he discovered that this second step was more difficult than he had anticipated! The local churches erected barriers (both cultural and theological) that were difficult for new believers to overcome. In many cases, these barriers were western in origin--practices, worship styles, and customs that were completely foreign to the indigenous culture.

As a result, this young man is helping young believers as they form an "organic faith community" (avoiding the use of the term "church") to aid them in their Christian growth and ministry. He says, "They see their gathering as not only a way for them to redeem the beauty of their culture as followers of Christ, but also as key witness to those considering making the huge step of faith into God's family but are reluctant to embrace a 'foreign' religion. For [these people], Jesus is very appealing but most feel they would have to give up their cultural identity to follow Him."

Now, this is not a missionary "going native," it an example of a committed ambassador for Christ learning how to speak most effectively to a non-Christian, non-western culture. This is an example of cross-cultural contextualization--presenting the Gospel in such a way that it can be heard and embraced within a particular culture. In fact, this is what the Apostle Paul and his companions had to do as they pushed out in the Greco-Roman world. They had to decide what was essential about the faith and what was just baggage that could be discarded without harm.

Although most of us are not facing the kind of challenge that my friends in southeast Asia encounter, perhaps we need to ask ourselves, "Are there barriers that we raise in our churches that make it difficult for people to hear the real message of Christ?" It is food for thought.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Love the Church

A couple of weeks ago I attended an ordination service in east Tennessee. Loyd Allen, professor at McAfee School of Theology, brought the "charge" to the young woman who was being ordained. He presented some excellent comments, but one stuck in my mind. He said, "Love the church but don't worship the church." He reminded the candidate (and all of those present) that the full allegiance for the believer is to God alone. He was warning us that worship of the church can become an idol.

We may accept the fact that we are to love our spouse, or our children, or our work, and not to worship any of those, but can we accept that warning when it comes to the church? Are there times when we really seem to be worshipping the church?

I think we worship the church when we are not willing to acknowledge its failures. Failure is not bad, but if we do not learn from failure, we are missing an opportunity for growth. I think we worship the church when we allow church activities to take the place of time with God. Just because we are busy with "religious" things does not mean that we are about God's business. I think we worship the church when we make preservation of the church the primary motivation for serving the church. The church has survived a long time without me, and it will without me.

Allen also made the comment that "the church is not the kingdom but it witnesses to the kingdom." This is good missional church thinking. The church is part of God's kingdom, but it does not encompass all that God is doing in the world. The people of God need to be alert to all of the ways that God is acting for redemption and reconciliation in our time.

I love the church and have committed my life to "building up the body of Christ," but I must always remember that the church is not an end in itself and its work is ultimately in God's hands.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Leadership Summit

I spent the last three days attending the Leadership Summit of the Willow Creek Association at one of the several hundred satellite sites to which it is broadcast. This is my fourth time to attend--once at the South Barrington, Illinois, campus. I am sure that there will be some who will wonder why I attend this conference and ask "What can you learn from a flashy, seeker-oriented, mega-church?"

Honestly, I believe that this is one of the best leadership conferences offered. The program planners bring in a diverse group of speakers from the church, management, and business. This year's roster included Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard; Marcus Buckingham, author and management consultant; Colin Powell, former Secretary of State; John Ortberg, pastor of Menlo Park (CA) Presbyterian Church; Richard Curtis, writer, film maker, and poverty activist; and Jimmy Carter, former President of the US. They are not afraid to bring folks to the platform who might present views that diverge from those of their primarily evangelical, conservative audience (Bill Clinton has even been on the program). In fact, the mix reminds me of the old SBC Christian Life Commission seminars that featured people like John Claypool, Jerry Clower, Brooks Hays, Jimmy Carter, and Robert Schuller (among others). You might not agree with everything they said, but at least you were able to hear them present their views in their own words. As pastor Bill Hybels asked,"Who can a leader learn from?" The answer, of course, is "Anyone you are willing to listen to and whose views you will to thoughtfully consider."

Willow Creek Church itself has been proactive in many areas that other churches have been reluctant to address. They openly engage the culture through music, dance, drama, and other media. They are strong proponents for women in leadership roles (including ministry). They not only talk about racial reconciliation but the church is actively seeking to become more racially diverse. They are dealing aggressively with issues like poverty and HIV/AIDS.

Willow is an easy target. One does not have to go far to find something to criticize, but isn't that true of any church? Whether they are doing things the right way may be open to discussion, but at least they are trying!

Whom can we learn from? You would be surprised.