Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Church Has Many Faces

I visited today with a friend who is a missionary in Western Europe. His task is to share the Gospel in an area that is post-Christian. We may want to unpack that term a bit. For centuries, Europe was part of Christendom—an institutionalized form of Christianity characterized by established or state churches (with a few dissenting groups thrown in to keep it interesting). My friend points out that he tries to differentiate among the terms Christendom, Christianity, and being a follower of Christ. Many people with whom he works look upon Christianity as a failed experiment—“Been there, done that”—when what has really failed is the institution of Christendom. His role is to bring people to Christ, not Christianity.

In order to do this, he and his team are taking some unique approaches to “doing church.” Although his context is different from that of my friends in Southeast Asia who are developing an indigenous church in a country that has never been Christian, the tasks are similar—establishing culturally appropriate faith communities that will reach and nurture believers.

This basically is the “missional church” concept. If we look at what this team in doing in Western Europe and my friends are doing in Southeast Asia, we realize that few churches in North America have really embraced what it means to be a missional church. Developing a strategic plan and adopting “missions” activities does not mean that we are engaging our culture with the message of the Kingdom of God. In fact, most of our churches do not even take their context seriously when it comes to being the people of God in their setting.

Perhaps we need to have the kind of experience that Bishop Leslie Newbigin had when he returned from India and discovered that “Christian” Great Britain was a mission field. That would change our thinking significantly.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Virtual Book

I love books. My wife said recently, “I don’t know if we have room for another book in the house!” Of course, she loves books, too, and has an extensive collection of children’s books that she has used in teaching over the years and shares with our grandchildren. We are readers. We have read to our children, and we now read to our grandchildren. I always have at least one book or magazine with me to read in spare moments.

When I was in seminary, I enjoyed browsing the library. There were always unexpected discoveries and insights. Although I visit libraries from time to time now, my browsing takes place more often these days in a bookstore. I am in something of a transition, however. Today I tend to buy my books on line. In fact, I may find a book in a bookstore and then buy it through (sorry, Barnes and Noble) because I can get it at less expense.

The transition from bricks and mortar bookstore to online bookseller was a precursor to my latest change—from paper book to e-book. The TCBF Coordinating Council recently gave me a Kindle—the e-book developed and marketed by It is wireless, so you can download books directly at less cost than a paper book. There is a way to “highlight” sections of the book and make notes (which I love to do in paper books that I own). There are other advantages, too, but I will stop before this becomes a full-blown commercial.

So I am “beta-testing” the Kindle (or is it testing me?). As I have used it in several public places, I have had questions about the device. A couple of young adults were even a bit envious that I had one! When I was asked, “Do you like it?” I responded, “Give me six months and I will let you know.” I appreciate the gift and the opportunity to experiment with a new delivery system for the written word. I’ll let you know if it “takes.”

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Back to School!

It’s back to school time! When I was a campus minister, this was one of the most exciting (and taxing) times of the year. Students were back from their summer work or mission service, new students were arriving for the first time, and the possibilities seemed limitless. For 14 years, this was the time of the year I worked the hardest. If we didn’t make contact with some of these new folks in the first two or three weeks, they probably would not connect with the Baptist ministry on campus.

I thought about the excitement of this time of year when I visited at University Heights Baptist Church in Springfield, Missouri, this morning. This beautiful stone church sits across the street from Missouri State University. For the past ten years, the church has hosted the MSU Pride Band for worship and lunch on the first Sunday before classes begin. The place was packed with the band members and a number of other students. Pastor Danny Chisholm preached an appropriate sermon on “A New Beginning,” associate pastor Cory Goode handled the logistics for lunch, and students were involved in worship leadership.

How many of these students will be back next week? I am sure that there will not be as many as there were today, but those who attended today were exposed to a Baptist church that “gets it” when it comes to collegiate ministry. They were greeted, feed (on the Word and with sandwiches), and respected. We need more churches that are willing to do this!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Building Up the Body of Christ

Dr. Molly Marshall and the folks at Central Baptist Theological Seminary have been very kind to me. Since I became volunteer director of the Murfreesboro center of the seminary three years ago, they have graciously accepted me as a co-worker and colleague although I am something of a “barbarian within the gates.” I am not an academic, but I do enjoy working with them to develop men and women for Christian leadership.

Most recently, I was invited to be part of a faculty retreat at Lied Lodge on the Arbor Day Farm, a beautiful setting in Nebraska City, Nebraska. The primary presenter was Dr. Dan Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools. I know Dan from his days at Southern Seminary. I was a guest presenter in a couple of his classes, and he was the outside reader on my doctor of ministry project.

Over the three days we were at the conference center, Dan made several presentations on the state of theological education and the church. Much of it was not new, but one particular thought is underlined in my notes: “Theological education is the servant of the church.” What does that mean? This might be explained by another quote: “The church can exist without theological schools, but theological schools cannot exist with the church.” We could unpack that at length, but the bottom line is that the mission and calling of theological schools is to prepare men and women to serve God through the church (and the churches’ various auxiliary enterprises such as chaplaincy, teaching, etc.). This does not mean that the churches dictate to the seminaries what they should be teaching; it does mean that the seminaries must be cognizant of what is happening in the churches and the contexts in which the churches minister in order to be effective in the preparation of ministers.

Based on Aleshire’s comments and some personal observations, let me suggest several things that seminaries can do to prepare men and women for ministry:

1. Ground them in the faith by helping them to develop spiritual disciplines that they will continue to practice throughout their lives.

2. Encourage in them a love for learning. I continue to be inspired by the seminary professors who (forty years ago) were not ashamed of the passion they had for their chosen discipline—whether biblical studies, theology, philosophy of religion, or ethics—and openly shared that with their students.

3. Help them to “learn how to learn.” No matter who much a student puts in his or her notebook (or computer), it will not be enough to carry that student through a lifetime of ministry! We use the term “lifelong learner” often, but it is important to remember that a real lifelong learner must have some tools to understand what he or she needs to learn, the ability to seek out the resources that will supply that information, and the discipline to use what one has learned.

4. Instill in them a desire for Christian community. It can lonely in ministry. Ministers need community for encouragement, accountability, and balance.

From time to time, seminary professors are blamed for ministerial failures, but the failure more often is in the minister than in the minister’s preparation! I can affirm that the Central seminary faculty are doing the best that they can to encourage the development of ministers who are grounded in spiritual disciplines, who love learning, who are “learning how to learn,” and who will seek out authentic Christian community. What the students do with this is their choice!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

What Should We Do?

(These are my remarks to the Tennessee CBF Coordinating Council on responding to the challenges that face the organization today.)

You don’t fight trends. You discern them, try to understand them, and learn to live with them. This is the dawning of a new reality. What resources can we bring to bear on such trends?

1. Agility--We are still young enough as an organization to be flexible and adapt to the needs of our constituents; however, this may mean adapting a new paradigm for a middle judicatory like ours.

2. Relationships—We are relational. “Fellowship” is our last name. This is one of our basic values.

a. We have the good will of many people in the churches.

b. We continue to develop new relationships with churches, ministries, and other partners.

c. Our future growth will not be based on bringing established churches “over to CBF” but in strengthening ties with the churches who already identify with us and establishing new churches.

3. Grace—I believe that in all we do, we have attempted to incarnate the grace of God. We reach out to people that others reject, we open our doors to those who have not found a home elsewhere, and we extend a hand of fellowship to those seeking community.

Building on these resources, I believe that ten years from now Tennessee CBF will look very different from what it is today. That’s not bad—that’s good.

The times are difficult, but the resources are available. Understanding the times and acting accordingly is part of the work of the Kingdom of God. This is God’s work. I pray that God will bless you as you do it.

(Note: At the end of these remarks, at the invitation of our moderator, Jerry Mantooth, Coordinating Council members responded to these comments. In closing out this discussion, Jerry graciously stated that these characteristics--agility or adaptability, relationships, and grace--are those that I have exhibited in the role of coordinator of TCBF. I am appreciative of these remarks and, if true, I pray that TCBF will continue to exhibit these values in the days ahead.)

Understanding the Times

(Today, I met with the Coordinating Council of the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship for the last time. In this post, I want to share the challenges I presented to that group.)

In I Chronicles 12: 32, we read about the people of Issachar who “understood the times” and “what Israel should do” (NASB). I don’t claim to have such a gift, but let me share several challenges that we should understand and leave it up to you to determine what we should do.

1. Pastoral change. In the next year, three of our top ten giving churches will undergo pastoral change—one is seeking a pastor, one pastor will take early retirement in December, and the other has announced that he will retire next year. Of course, there may be others!

Although we believe in congregational polity, the pastor is a person of great influence in the Baptist church. I make it a practice to work with pastors and avoid “end runs” around pastors. Where the church is already supportive, pastoral change in the wrong direction may hurt us financially and strategically. The question is not only “Is the pastor supportive of the CBF movement?” but “Is the pastor a person of cooperative spirit?”

2. Local congregational stress. I rarely go through a week without talking to a pastor, church staff member, or lay person who is dealing with conflict in the church. Some of it is understandable and some makes no sense at all! It may be frustration over lack of growth, generational, or interpersonal.

Basically, this is a challenging time to lead or belong to a church, especially a well-established, traditional church.

3. Decline in giving to us by local churches. Why is this happening?--A decline in church health in terms of commitment, stewardship, etc.; sometimes due to the church moving in new directions and stretching their resources; the economy; and cashflow problems.

We experience the “downhill effect” of this. The model we follow makes us very dependent on healthy, functioning, cooperative churches. What does that say about the focus of our ministries?

4. New approaches to ministry. I have talked with at least a half-dozen people in the past year who have started their own ministries. Some of these replace services formerly provided by a denomination. Others are launching out in new directions with new paradigms. These parachurch structures may provide the framework for a new denominationalism.

5. An aging constituency. The “founders” are moving off the scene. We can no longer depend on the leaders who got us started. We can no longer depend on the financial support of those who learned stewardship and learned it well. In fact, individual giving to TCBF dropped from 17% to 14% of budget gifts this past year. How can we say "thank you” to those who have giving in their DNA while nurturing a younger generation of supports?

You don’t fight trends. You discern them, try to understand them, and learn to live with them. This is the dawning of a new reality.

(Next: Resources for facing a new reality.)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Cutting Edge of Theological Education

In A New Kind of Christian, Brian McLaren briefly presents a model for theological education that would support the church of the future. He refers to this model as “one part monastery, one part mission agency, and one part seminary.” The monastery would care for spiritual formation, the mission agency for involvement in God’s work in the world, and the seminary would provide the content. Of course, this is not a fully formed approach to seminary education, but it does move beyond the academic model that predominates today.

The key is the interaction between the three elements—spiritual, practical, and intellectual. Each of the elements is vital not only for the practice of ministry but for the life of the church. When any model of doing church leaves out one of these ingredients, it becomes malformed. If theological education is meant to serve the church (and that is what its most vocal advocates say that it is supposed to do), then it must equip leaders who can help to form a balanced, healthy Body of Christ.

My experience is that seminaries have always been committed to the intellectual part and that many are now taking the spiritual formation part seriously. The engagement with the world is a relatively new component. Although many seminary students have been involved in part-time and even full-time church ministries for years, these more often have been opportunities for additional income and occasionally laboratory experiences for honing their ministry skills. I believe that McLaren is asking for more than this when it comes to involvement in the world. This component must take seriously the emergence of the Kingdom of God in this time and place, providing the skills—practical, spiritual and intellectual—to be part of this movement.

Seminaries can provide this in cross-cultural experiences, internships, and focused placement programs. One size doesn’t fit all. Such opportunities must be crafted to fit the gifts and needs of the student, the appropriate places of ministry, and the resource of the theological schools.

This is the cutting-edge for theological education today.

Monday, August 04, 2008

A Recovering Modernist

Believe it or not, you can learn a lot in Baptist Sunday school. One week ago yesterday I taught a class and yesterday I was the participant in another class. Although the topics were very different, I detected a common thread.

The class I taught was based on I Corinthians 14. The passage deals with the chaotic worship of the Corinthian church. The theme of the lesson was that we should avoid creating barriers in worship that would exclude newcomers. Of course, we spent a good bit of time talking about glossolalia—speaking in tongues. In writing to the Corinthians, Paul never says that they should not speak in tongues. In fact, he testifies that he has the gift himself and often uses it in his private times of prayer. His point is not that the gift of speaking in tongues is not a valid gift but that it is a spiritual gift that needs to be used properly to build up the body of Christ. Paul embraced the mystery of the work of the Spirit of God.

The more recent class was the concluding presentation on the book of Job. In the discussion, one class member pointed out that Baptists were rationalists who rejected the mystical in the ordinances of the church. In keeping with good Baptist tradition, he argued that these are symbolic acts without any power or “saving grace.” They are not sacraments. (I won’t go into the explanation of what this has to do with Job. Remember, this is a Baptist Sunday school class.) I understand the concept and have articulated it myself from time to time, but this rejection of mystery made me a bit sad.

Baptists are certainly children of the Enlightenment. Although the pendulum swings from one extreme to the other, our approach to “doing church” has very often been associated more with the head than the heart. We have tended to be thoroughly modern in the philosophical sense. Having grown up in a Baptist church, worship has often been an intellectual exercise for me rather than a mystical encounter. In recent years, I have realized that the rational approach to worship is not enough. I look to Paul as an example. He was certainly a learned man, but he was also a mystic. The one did not exclude the other.

In my worship, I am seeking more of the mystical. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, I hold the bread before me and take a moment to think on the mystery of the Word made flesh. Before drinking the juice (“fruit of the vine”), I consider the mystery of the blood of Christ shed for me. Are these elements transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ? No. I am more “saved” after I partake of them? Perhaps I am. I hope by celebrating the mystery of the body and the blood that I have moved further along in the Christian journey.

I am not ready to speak in tongues, but I crave the mystical more than ever.