Sunday, March 28, 2010

From the Beginning of Time

Humanity is in a constant struggle between good and evil. Perhaps this is why last week’s episode of Lost entitled “Ab Aeterno” (from the beginning of time) was so satisfying. The storyline was dominated by Richard Alpert (Nestor Carbonell), the ageless character who has popped up from time to time as a messenger, advisor, or observer in relation to the trials and tribulations of the Oceanic Air survivors. (By the way, Carbonell should get an Emmy nomination for this performance!)

When the episode is over, we not only understand this mysterious figure, but we identify with him. Ricardo/Richard is a man who has sinned and seeks absolution for that sin. He commits murder, loses the love of his life, is sold into slavery, shipwrecked, tempted, and struggles to make the right moral choices. Although we might not have encountered all of these challenges, we certainly can identify with the last two!

Although “gifted” with an ageless life, Richard is still very human. He questions his choices and motivations. He seeks assurance and validation. He wants to be faithful but is tempted to faithlessness. He may be one of the most human individuals we have encountered on the island.

What does Richard Alpert symbolize? Is he a Christ figure, an angel, or just a struggling human being like each of us? We don’t know, but he is certainly a pivotal figure in the struggle between good and evil. I can identify with that.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Developing People Not Programs

In Missional Renaissance, Reggie McNeal makes a strong appeal for the church to move from a program-driven focus to a people-centered focus. He suggests that the effectiveness of a missional church is based more on the quality of its people than the quality (and quantity) of its programs.

The North American church has been very successful with program development. We have produced structured, goal-oriented, structured programs to involve the masses. This emphasis grew out of the industrialization and mass production model of early 20th century America and our enchantment with bureaucracy coming out of World War II. This approach worked well in the 1950’s and into the 1960s, but a new day is upon us. One size does not fit all (if it ever did).

People development multiplies the ministry of the clergy and moves the church into the real world. A congregation that wishes to foster a people development culture will see members as missionaries who are called and sent out to the world. This means recognizing the uniqueness and giftedness of each person, equipping each with appropriate life and ministry skills, and coaching the person in their ministry lifestyle.

We must not put all of this on the congregational leadership, however. Missional Christians should not settle for being placed into “slots” in the church programs, but they should seek to live out their full potential as followers of Christ. This may mean seeking out those on the staff or in the congregation who can help them do what they have been called to do.

This is a cooperative endeavor that recognizes the great opportunities in an externally-focused ministry. Church leaders and members must work together to make this a reality.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Walking as Jesus Walked

Jesus withdrew regularly for prayer, but he was found most often among the people. Several years ago as I was watching a film about Jesus, I was struck by how he mingled openly with people. He walked the dusty roads, entered into homes, crossed through Samaria, entered the Temple courts, and interacted with people everywhere. He appeared comfortable in every type of venue. As he spent time with people, he was exposed to every vice, need, and problem of humankind.

The greatest challenge for the church today is to get out among people. You might respond, “What do you mean? Aren’t church folks people?” Yes, but they tend to prefer one another’s company and fail to see the needs of those outside their doors. They don’t fully engage with the world.

I must admit that at this time of the year, many church members are venturing outside their doors. In some states, churches are doing door to door visitation and leaving packets inviting strangers to church. Spring is the time that many church groups go on mission trips or engage in community mission projects on the weekend. Some of these efforts will actually lead unchurched individuals to check out the church for the first time and will certainly enhance the churches’ reputations.

I think there is an even more important byproduct to such activities, however. When we do these things, we often find ourselves on streets we don’t usually walk or in neighborhoods we often avoid. We come into contact with people whose needs are both like and unlike ours. In sum, we see what the world is really like! When we do that, we are changed.

We need to do more “walking the roads” because we serve a Savior who did this every day. He was out among all kinds of people. Would he be surprised that his followers are not?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Finding Community in a Digital World

In Reboot: Refreshing Your Faith in a High-Tech World, author Peggy Kendall addresses the challenge of community in the 21st century, both on online and in the church. Online technology provides us with instant connection with friends around the world but that connection is not complete. It is mediated through technology and allows us to control exactly what we share about ourselves and also the opportunity to be selective in our response to friends.

This can be true in the church as well. Kendall is honest about her family’s preference for a megachurch that provides worship experiences that (partially through technology) leaves them personally refreshed and rejuvenated. At the same time, she realizes that this approach also leaves them less involved. As she writes, “I feel less restricted but less anchored, less encumbered but less connected, more personally moved but less engaged in the meaningful work of the community.”

The corrective they have adopted is to become involved in a small group sponsored by the church and some of the church’s ministries. She understands that “Big and high-tech church experiences can move us and speak to the hearts of lots of people, but it’s the small communities that remind us of the calling and commitment that are central to the Christian faith.”

Even in moderate size churches, the worship experience may draw people in, but the small group experience of a Sunday school class or Bible study group keeps them engaged. Where once Sunday school was considered the outreach arm of the church, it has now become the engagement (or, if you prefer, “assimilation”) arm of the church.

Why is this true? Because as much as we want to be involved in contemplation and worship of the Holy, we ultimately must come to see the face of God in our peers. God has created us for community—both with God and humankind. If either is lacking, we will not grow as believers.

Technology can be used to facilitate community, but it cannot meet all of our needs for true Christian community.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Serving the Local Church

“What is the value that we are bringing to our local churches who primarily fund what we do? How relevant are we to the local church?” These are the words of Michaele Birdsall, treasurer and chief financial officer for National Ministries of American Baptist Churches USA., who recently called for the denomination to seek longer-term and tougher solutions to effectively serve churches in the 21st century.

The denomination Birdsall serves has gone through major budget and personnel cuts and various attempts at reorganization, but she recognizes the need for a fundamental change in how the denomination will relate to and serve churches in the future. The same concern is being expressed by denominational entities across the nation. In order to become a 21st century denomination, several steps must be taken.

First, denominational entities must become missional, acknowledging that the Christian mission is God’s mission—it originates with God and is empowered by God. The goal is not to build a denomination but to build the Kingdom. This perspective opens doors for new partnerships and collaboration.

Second, denominations must become more decentralized. Surprisingly, the exact opposite seems to be happening. In an age of decentralization, denominations are attempting to centralize decision-making and church support. This is movement in the wrong direction. The best thing that denominations can do is disperse staff and get closer to the grassroots.

Third, denominations must become more relevant. Too many judicatories are addressing questions that no one is asking. Denominational leaders must spend more time listening to church leaders and members and discovering the issues with which they deal on a daily basis. This should form the basis of the denominational agenda.

Fourth, denominations need to spend more time developing people and less time creating programs. Programs will come and go, but people will endure. Time spent in mentoring and coaching church leaders will provide results for years to come. Denominations need to be in the people business.

Fifth, denominations must seek the leadership of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit speaks to the people of God. As Birdsall notes, “As we open ourselves up to God and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,” we may be surprised at the opportunities and resources that emerge.

These are steps that should have been taken a decade ago. I have no doubt that God’s work will be done in God’s way, but whether the present denominational entities will be part of that work is a different issue.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Finding Our Way in a Digital World

In one week recently, I did not leave the house for four days, but I was connected with people in multiple ways. I led a coaching group composed of people in three states. I taught an online class with students in Tennessee and Missouri. I participated in a seminary faculty meeting with colleagues in Shawnee, Kansas, by video link while wearing my sweats. I coached three individuals by telephone. I listened in on an online conference of church leaders from across the nation. I accessed any number of websites, downloaded music from the iTunes Store, and watched a couple of TV shows on And, of course, I answered e-mail daily, checked in with friends on Facebook, and posted three blogs.

Quite honestly, I am the target audience for Peggy Kendall’s new book, Reboot: Refreshing Your Faith in a High-Tech World. I can spend a busy and productive week without leaving the house and only spending face time with family members, but are there drawbacks to that kind of life? Kendall would say, "Yes." Her goal is to challenge Christians to consider how they are using technology and to use it well.

Kendall is a wife, busy mother, college professor, and active church person. She brings training as an educator, counselor, and communications professor to her consideration of the impact of technology on our values, relationships, and faith. Her basic theme is as old as the Book of Genesis—life involves choices.

Kendall credits media theorist Neil Postman with the statement that “for everything that we gain with technology, we give up something.” Life is always a trade off. By gaining speed and efficiency, we may sacrifice patience and quality. By expanding our network of relationships, we may lose intimacy. By immersing ourselves in powerful media experiences, we may lose an appreciation for the real.

The author is not negative toward technology. She simply emphasizes the choices that it calls upon us to make. She not only identifies the sacrifices that we may make through the use of these new tools, she also suggests ways that they can augment our relationships and enrich our lives. Her primary point is that believers must be intentional in the way they use the media. We must not lose sight of the fact that each time we use a bit of technology we are making a statement about what is really important to us.

The title of the book suggests that we should “reboot” from time to time and “refresh our systems.” In other words, we should stop and assess how intentional we are in the use of our high-tech gadgets. This provides a clearer focus for our relationships, values, and faith.

Although written in an accessible style, the ideas presented are neither simple nor unimportant. Given the biblical, philosophical, and relational issues that Kendall raises, the book would be a good resource for Christian education classes or study groups.

(In interest of full disclosure, I was provided with a complimentary copy of this book by the publisher, Judson Press.)

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Finding Redemption on Lost

There have been a number of bloggers such as Chris Seay who have put a great deal of time into deciphering all the plot twists and turns in TV’s Lost. I am a regular viewer but only occasionally pick up something that seems to have a faith connotation. Of course, this season has been more messianic and apocalyptic in tone!

I was hit in the face with one last night. Ben (Michael Emerson) has been delivered from certain death by John Locke/Man in Black (Terry O’Quinn). As he makes his escape, he is overtaken by Ilana (Zuleikha Robinson), his captor. When she asks him why he is going to join Locke, Ben replies, “He’s the only one who wants me!” Ilana’s replies, “I want you.” She turns and walks away and Ben follows her back to the beach with a look of uncertainty and incomprehension on his face.

My first response was “This is church.” Ben Linus is certainly one of the more vicious characters on this program. He even stood by and watched his adopted daughter, Alex, be killed by assassins who wanted him. In previous episodes, he led in the mass extermination of the Dharma Initiative (including his own father), murdered John Locke, and stabbed Jacob, the island’s apparent benefactor. Although we saw a more giving Ben in the “flash sideways” portion of this episode, the Ben on the island is not a nice guy!

When Ilana accepts him, he is left confused but willing to respond to her invitation. Isn’t this what the church should be about? Although our sins may be abundant, Christ invites us into a fellowship of the redeemed. Each of us is invited to lay aside the baggage that we have accumulated over the years and enter into a new fellowship. Will Ben make the final leap to be included in the little group assembled on the beach? I don’t know, but increasingly, redemption and fellowship are emerging as key themes in Lost.

Now, that’s church!

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Thank You, Friend

Someone once told me, “Tom Logue is too nice a guy to be a state director of student work.” Tom Logue passed away on Saturday in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was a nice guy and a Christian gentleman. He was one of the most genuine people I have ever known. The phrase “what you see is what you get” applied to Tom.

Tom was part of what we call “the greatest generation.” They were great not just because they won the Second World War but because they went on to rebuild the world and bring fresh vision to a denomination. For one example, Tom is representative of those Baptist men and women who took a stand on the side of human rights in the 1950’s and 1960’s. He was state director of Baptist student work (campus ministry) in Arkansas when Central High School in Little Rock was integrated. When the state student convention met in Jonesboro that year, the students passed (with only one dissenting vote) this resolution:

“We believe that the Christian position in the matter of race relations includes the teaching and example of Jesus regarding the worth of all individuals . . . and abstaining from and discouraging violence in the settlement of any differences.”

Tom was mentor and colleague to me in many ways. He modeled care and concern for those he supervised as a state leader. He had the ability to call out and encourage the best in those with whom he worked. On denominational and social issues, he was not afraid to take unpopular stands but he always did it in such a way that his opponents had a difficult time being offended! Tom encountered loss and grief in this own life, and he was candid about his struggles and the lessons he learned in those trials.

After retiring from Arkansas Baptist State Convention, Tom became founding coordinator of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Arkansas. He used his relational networks and personal prestige in the state to give the new organization a boost. When I was considering a similar move in Tennessee, I drove to Little Rock to meet with Tom and seek his insight (and perhaps a blessing). As always, he was encouraging and helpful to a younger colleague. His vision and passion was contagious.

There are not many like Tom left, but their influence lives on through family, friends, colleagues, and former students. At times of loss like this, I stop and give thanks for those who have blessed my life—people like Tom Logue.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

And Some Apostles

When we think about apostolic leadership, our attention usually goes immediately to the Apostle Paul—out there on the cutting edge, starting new faith communities, facing hardships, and winning Gentiles to the Way. In Missional Renaissance, Reggie McNeal reminds us that Paul was not the only apostle and there was more than one style of apostolic leadership.

In comparing the Pauline and Petrine styles, for example, he notes:

Some find that they can be missional only in new settings and are quite at home engaging cultures that are not culturally Christian. Other leaders are most comfortable and effective at home serving as missionaries to the church culture, challenging those in it to connect with the Spirit’s agenda in the world beyond them.

While Paul was penetrating the Gentile world with the Gospel, Peter and James stayed in Jerusalem and shared the message of Christ in the center of Jewish influence. They were confronting an established system with a message of renewal, but their mission was still apostolic.

Apostolic leaders are needed today both outside the church and within its structures. Those who function within the church are leaders who realize that just as God is a sending God (sending forth God’s own son), the church is a sending church. The church should always be looking outward to engage the culture, but someone may have to remind it to do so.

Those who work outside the walls to engage the culture get a lot of attention, but we must not neglect those who work in church and judicatory structures to lead their constituents in the process of becoming missional. More of us will find ourselves in that role than as missional entrepreneurs.

McNeal goes on to point out that there were others besides Paul and the eleven who were apostolic leaders—Lydia, Stephen, Onesimus, Barnabas, the unnamed Ethiopian official, Timothy, Luke---each worked in a unique way either within or outside the established religious structures to further the Gospel.

Where will you exercise your apostolic leadership?

Monday, March 01, 2010

Holy Discontent

If you are in ministry, there are times in your life when you have to make a decision about moving from one place of ministry to another. We often use very spiritual and theological language to explain this. In a conversation this past weekend, someone asked me, “How did you know when it was time for you to leave a ministry position?”

As I reflected on this, I had several thoughts. Each time our family has moved from one place of ministry to another (four times by my count including the move from seminary to first call), the circumstances were different. One theme that seemed to run throughout, however, was the phrase “holy discontent.” Something was just not right or was challenging me to deal with a specific need or issue.

I have borrowed this term from Bill Hybels, and I recommend his book entitled Holy Discontent. In my usage of the term, the state of holy discontent is one where I know that there is something that needs to be addressed and it probably will not be unless I do something about it. In my experience, it may be a need to work with a particular group of people or an opportunity to face a particular challenge. Sometimes, the call has been processed not through personal and ministry needs but family needs as well. In some situations, I perceived a need on the part of my family and God was certainly challenging me to do something about it.

I think we see the working out of “holy discontent” in the ministry of Jesus on a number of occasions. In Luke 19, we read the account of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem because he saw the great gap between the practice of worship there and the worship that God truly desired. He was discontent with this situation and was willing to make the sacrifice necessary to bring about a change.

Don’t be afraid of holy discontent. Learn to perceive it, nurture it, and then act on it responsibily.