Sunday, November 25, 2007

Not One Stone

Chapter 24 of Matthew's gospel begins with Jesus responding to his disciples' comments about the grandiose nature of the Temple with these words: "Truly I say to you, not one stone here shall be left upon another, which will not be torn down." His comments remind us of the transitory nature of all man-made institutions, even those built to attest to the Holy.

November is a good time to think about the evanescence of institutional relationships in Baptist life. State Baptist conventions have been meeting and many continue the process of renegotiating their relationships with institutions such as colleges, hospitals, and charitable entities.

When the interim president of Carson-Newman College was asked if he could foresee a time when the college might want to sever its relation to the Tennessee Baptist Convention, he responded, "No, but a time may come when the convention will want to leave the college." Although he did not spell out the circumstances, we can assume that he understands that this is a two way street. Right now, some conventions are fighting to hold on to the institutions that they helped to create, but the realities of a post-denominational age may cause judicatories to want to distance themselves from their children!

I believe that the day is near when all of the institutions founded by Baptists will want to be free of the conventions and the conventions will want to let them go. Institutionalism was an effort to put into bricks, mortar, and programming the mission of the church(es) to lift up the downtrodden, educate the illiterate, and heal the sick. Churches were at the forefront in establishing colleges, hospitals, orphanages, and nursing homes. Eventually, the missions of these creations became intertwined with the modern agenda and secular society bought into their work. This meant that some of these even became money-making endeavors (or at least became recipients of government funding that strengthened them in their work) and became attractive from an economic perspective. When economic competition entered the picture, everything changed. The playing field has been altered,and the institutions must adapt in order to survive.

In a postmodern era, churches will think twice about putting all of their marbles in the institutional bag. Ministry will happen closer to home and will be held lightly in hopes that those outside of the community of faith will not only join in ministering to the needs of society, but in so doing may find themselves part of the Kingdom.

Baptists, you did well and created some wonderful institutions that "stood in the breach" to meet the needs of society! Now it is time to move on and work in areas that others are neglecting, pioneering new approaches to mission and ministry.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Questions for the 21st Century Church

Church membership and participation are very fluid for young adults. I often find myself in discussions about the future of the church, especially at it relates to reaching and engaging young adults. As we watch our committed church members grow older, it is natural to ask the questions, "Who is next? Who is stepping in to take their places? Who is willing to serve?" I could probably make a case that these are the wrong questions and ones that speak more to our desire to maintain an institution that build a community. At any rate, I think there are some questions that the church must answer if it is to be viable for anyone in the 21st century.

First, what is the church? We have been tied to buildings, trained professional staff members, and programs for so long that we have come to think of these things as the church. These things represent the church, especially in a modern American context, but we must remind ourselves that the church is actually an organism that must continually be reborn (or reformed) day by day, year by year, and decade by decade.

Second, what is the Bible? In the old days, we could say, "It is the Word of God." What does that really mean in a postmodern context where the metanarrative of Christendom has broken down? Does this really communicate anything positive to those who are outside or on the fringes of the faith? We live in a time where we are picking up the pieces of a century old (at least) conflict between fundamentalists and liberals (I use these terms in a classical and not pejorative way). It is time that we recognize that both approaches missed the point, embracing modernist views of text that makes little or no sense to many people today. We must articulate a "third way" of addressing scripture that takes text, original context, present context, and application seriously. Only as we engage the Bible as a living, dynamic source of inspiration, encouragement, and correction can we speak to the needs of a postmodern generation.

Third, what does it mean to be "spiritually formed"? Put another way, what does it mean to be a disciple of Christ? Conversion is a past, present, and future activity in the life of a believer. We too often want to nail down a particular time and place when we were "saved" without considering how God is saving us every day and will save us in the future. It is time that we articulated that process in a challenging manner that invites participation.

Fourth, how are Christians to relate to the world around them? We cannot ignore our culture if we hope to minister within it, but at the same time, we cannot fully embrace it without some loss of our identity as "citizens of another kingdom." If this world really matters (and I think it does since God chose to become incarnate in it in the person of Jesus Christ), we must engage it with the gospel message.

As I review these questions, I realize that they are the very questions that our Baptist forbears have struggled with since John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, and Roger Williams organized churches in the early seventeenth century. They were concerned about the nature of the church and who should belong to it, the application of the Bible to their lives and times, how one might grow in his or her faith, and what difference being a Christian made in the society of their day. Baptists and other believers have been struggling with the same questions since then. The answers were not always the same, but the ones they did come up with required faith, courage, and commitment in order to put into action. Do we have the same willingness to face and answer these questions?