Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Do Unto Others

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We have heard this phrase from Matthew 7 since we were toddlers, so why don’t ministerial search committees practice it?

Although I am no longer in a judicatory role, I still receive contacts from ministers who are seeking new places of service and calls from search committees asking for references on prospective ministers. Inevitably, I will run into a person who has been seriously “courted” by a committee and ask the person for an update. Too often the response is, “I never heard from them again.”

We can learn something from the secular world here. Most businesses who interview prospective employees will usually give them an immediate “yes” or “no” or a date by which a decision will be made. It would seem to me that church committees could do the same. When you are asking a man or woman to uproot their lives and perhaps their families to take on a new ministry, you at least owe the person the consideration of some resolution to a budding relationship (even if it is nipped in the bud!).

Here are some suggestions in order for ministerial search committees to be more humane in their dealings with prospective candidates.

First, provide a written acknowledgement of every resume received. This may be a form letter sent out by the church secretary. This simply lets the person know that their information has been received by the appropriate group.

Second, if at all possible, review resumes as they arrive and make a prompt decision about the potential of applicants. If you have developed a profile of the type of person you are seeking and a candidate does not fit those criteria, simply send a letter saying, “We are grateful for your interest, but your gifts, experience and/or skill set do not fit our profile.”

Third, if you have conversations with a candidate, go to hear them preach, or invite them to your community and then decide that you are not a match, let the person know as soon as possible. Some committees fail to do this because they say, “We may have to go back to this person.” You probably won’t and if you do, you will need to explain what took you so long. When you are finished with a prospective minister, let the person know.

Fourth, once you have recommended a person to the church and he or she has accepted, your work is not done. Your committee should send a letter to each person who was a possible candidate and express appreciation for his or her interest. You do not have to name the person selected (the Baptist grapevine will take care of that!) or the reasons for their selection, but the candidate will have some sense of closure to the process.

Is there any rule written somewhere that says that a committee must do this? No, but such responses are an expression of integrity, an acknowledgement of a fellow believer, and the way that you would want to be treated in a similar circumstance.

Monday, June 28, 2010

What I am Listening To

When I travel, I like to listen to audio books. On the recent trip to Charlotte for the CBF General Assembly, I had the opportunity to listen to two and both were very informative.

Despite its provocative title, Getting Naked by Patrick Lencioni is a business fable about “shedding the three fears that sabotage client loyalty.” Although written from the perspective of a business consultant, the lessons can apply to any number of fields including coaching. The author suggests that “naked service” requires that the provider be vulnerable. This means being willing to be humble, selfless, and transparent for the sake of the client. To do this, the provider must overcome three fears—a fear of losing business, a fear of being embarrassed, and a fear of feeling inferior.

Lencioni has several lessons for coaches. First, coaches should be willing to ask dumb questions. It may be that these are questions that the client is afraid to ask himself/herself. Second, tell the “kind truth.” This means that the coach is willing to say what no one else will say to the client for his or her own good. Although it is done in a loving, constructive way, it is done! Third, the coach should make everything about the client. The whole purpose of a coaching (or consulting) relationship is to help the client become the best that he/she can be.

The other audio book was Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink. Pink has reviewed decades of research to give a fresh perspective on motivation. Motivation 1.0 was based on survival needs—hunger, thirst, sex. Motivation 2.0 came out of the “scientific management” era and centered on the punishment/reward or “carrot/stick” approach. Motivation 3.0 recognizes that people are basically curious and self-motivated and work best when given the opportunity to take initiative for their actions.

He suggests that we consider a one-year-old child. He or she is naturally curious and eager to learn. Having an 18-month-old grandson, I can identify! Children naturally want to excel but that motivation is not always encouraged.

The author differentiates between a Type I management approach based on Motivation 3.0 and Type X management that depends on Motivation 2.0. There are three key elements to Pink’s Type I model: autonomy (people want to have control over their work); mastery (people want to get better at what they do); and purpose (people want to be part of something that is bigger than they are).

If you work with people, I encourage you to read (or listen to) these books.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Meet and Greet

One of the first people I saw at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Charlotte greeted me with, “Didn’t you use to be somebody?” Well, I was and I am. In fact, everybody at the General Assembly was somebody to friends and colleagues they encountered.

The General Assembly is your typical “meet and greet” denominational meeting where you catch up with friends with a brief handshake or hug, chat for a few minutes before moving on, engage in a 15 to 20 minute conversation about what’s happening in your respective lives, or share a meal together. These are opportunities to share joys, troubles, words of encouragement, and assurances of prayer.

Of course, this type of interaction has some dangerous moments. You might run into the chair of that search committee that never called you back (embarrassing for that person) or misidentify someone you should know. I only had one serious experience of the latter this year. When you don’t recognize someone right off, it is usually safe to ask, “How are things at your church?” and hope that their response will trigger some recollection. Only problem was that I did this with a person who has not been in a church staff position in years and works for a professional organization. Embarrassing! I should have known better.

There were many more pleasant and affirming encounters. I ran into Esther Burroughs and her husband, Bob, who reminded me that I was the one that started her on the college lecture circuit talking about sex and marriage. A number of former students introduced me to their sons or daughters who would be college freshmen in the fall! I saw a number of former campus ministry colleagues, a number of whom were able to transition into good ministries as chaplains, educators, pastors, or church staff members when their state conventions changed their philosophy of college ministry.

I celebrated with some the joys of ministry and sympathized with others about the challenges they are facing. One friend shared his vision for a new church start that would reach unchurched people in the rural part of a southern state. Another talked about the work he and his wife will do in the Philippines.

I am always pleased to see and speak to those folks who have been my “heroes” in Baptist life—James Dunn, Carolyn Weatherford Crumpler, Emmanuel McCall, Bill Sherman, and Harlan Spurgeon (among many). Many of those individuals who have been my contemporaries—like Bill Leonard and Carolyn
Anderson--are now moving into another phase of their ministries but are still important contributors to the CBF movement. I was especially impressed by the young leaders, including a number of women, who have assumed leadership roles. I am pleased to know some of them personally

Of course, it was good to see former state CBF coordinator colleagues (although there is transition in those ranks) and Tennessee CBF friends. With a new coordinator, Terry Maples, on board, TCBF has an opportunity to move in new directions in the days ahead.

I also enjoyed time with some relatively new friends—my colleagues at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. We had to answer the question, “Where is Molly (Marshall)?” a number of times, but our president was busy representing the seminary’s interests at the Association of Theological Schools Biennial Meeting in Montreal (I assume that it was cooler there). Those of us representing the seminary were no substitute for Molly, but we did our best.

It was also a good time of fellowship with my “boss” and colleague, Mark Tidsworth, of Pinnacle Leadership Associates. Mark and Melanie, as well as their daughter Erin and her friend Jessica had a great Chinese meal together. Mark and I both attended the Leadership Institute with Alan Roxburgh and had the chance to share some insights from that and other parts of the program.

Of course, I noticed those who were not there, as well. Cecil Sherman has gone on to join his dear wife, Dot, leaving both a heritage and sense of loss. Other friends are at the age where they can no longer travel to the meetings, but they have made a significant contribution to the moderate movement. Then there are those who have chosen to move on to other pastures of denominational or vocational life. Their departure is our loss.

Since I am an only child, I value the folks I encountered at the General Assembly. They are my siblings, brothers and sisters in Christ. It was family reunion time.  Our personal conversations may be infrequent, but we have walked the same road together and this year our steps converged in Charlotte.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

What a Fellowship!

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship meeting in Charlotte was a positive, encouraging meeting, but there was an undercurrent of change. Executive Coordinator Daniel Vestal alluded to this in at least two ways during his address to the Friday morning business session.

First, he acknowledged that the CBF movement, as it approaches its 20th year, must consider new ways of cooperation and mutual support. This reflects the selection of the “2012 Task Force” to study the organization’s missional and organizational future.

Second, he recognized Christy McMillan Goodwin, the new moderator of the Fellowship. Goodwin, 38, is associate pastor at Oakland Baptist Church in Rock Hill, South Carolina. She attended the initial gathering that led to formation of the CBF as an 18-year-old student at Furman University. She will be the first leader of the organization whose entire adult life has been lived after the Southern Baptist Convention controversy that birthed the movement.

There is a future for the Fellowship movement. The presence at the gathering of many young adults, some with babies in strollers, is a good sign for the future. The attraction for many of these young adults seems to be the various affinity groups that meet in conjunction with the Assembly (seminary alumni groups, Baptist Women in Ministry, Baptist Center for Ethics and so on), the workshops, the Resource Fair, and the chance to reconnect with old friends. Worship sessions are well attended, but business sessions do not seem to be a priority for the younger members of the Fellowship.

The priorities these young adults exhibited should provide some guidance as the Fellowship considers its future. The first priority of these younger Baptists is fellowship. They want to give and receive encouragement in their lives and ministries. The second priority is doing something that will make a difference in the world. They want their churches to be engaged in issues of gender equity, racial inclusiveness, and response to human need. They expect the same of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. If there is a third area of interest, it would be personal and spiritual development for themselves, their peers, and their families.

If CBF wants these participants to continue their engagement in Fellowship life, leaders must place the emphasis in coming days on people rather than programs. In these dynamic and uncertain times, people will be around long after program emphases are forgotten. This means investment in reaching and discipling young adults—both lay and clergy-- and equipping them for ministry within their contexts.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Looking for a Fresh Start?

The Southern Baptist Convention met in Orlando last week and adopted sweeping changes in the way that cooperative mission endeavors will be funded in the future. Once committed to clarifying theological identity, the SBC is now trying to halt its decline in baptisms and church membership.

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship meets in Charlotte, NC, this week to begin celebrating its 20th anniversary as a movement/organization/quasi-denomination (choose your preferred term). CBF will be considering ways to sharpen its focus while dealing with declining revenues.

Such is the challenge for large national denominational organizations at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. Membership, finances, cooperation, and mission priorities are concerns. A reporter interviewed Bill Leonard, retiring dean of the divinity school at Wake Forest University, after the SBC meeting. Leonard said the decline that all denominations are facing is part of the changing nature of American religious life.

"For people 40 and under, there tends to be less and less interest in denominational names and identity. It's not about theology. It's about the changing nature of religion in the country," he said. He went on to comment that, to the extent there is interest in participating in churches, the trend among the younger generation is toward independent congregations. Neither the Southern Baptists nor the mainline denominations are going to disappear anytime soon, but barring some major cultural shift, it seems they are past their peak.

Sobering words from a long-time observer of the American religious scene, but they certainly reflect the observations of anyone interested in the way that church is being done today.

What new thing will God do in the coming days? The writer of 2 Corinthians expresses this word of hope for individuals: “Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons!” (2 Corinthian 5:17, The Message). Certainly the same opportunities are available to God’s people as they work together.

Monday, June 21, 2010

A Friend for the Journey

Take a trip with me. Think back to when you were five or six years old. What was your “working image” of God? As best I can remember, I thought of God as an old guy with a long white beard and a white robe sitting on a throne looking down on the earth like a benevolent father figure. Now, we could continue this exercise on to ages 12, 18, 30, and so forth. In each situation, I would have a different idea of God and, I imagine, so would you. Did God change? No, but our perception of God did.

This is the issue that Brian McLaren addresses in A new Kind of Christianity as he considers the varied images of God found in the Bible—creator, avenger, lover, friend, shepherd, etc. Did God change? No, but the understanding of God’s followers did over time as they encountered new challenges, opportunities, and failures. Their perceptions and understanding changed as they encountered life.

What does this say to contemporary Christians? McLaren says, “If we can look back and see the process unfolding in the past—in the Bible, in theological history—then we have no reason to believe that the process has stopped unfolding now, even at this very moment as I write, as you read.” In other words, we are still involved in a dynamic process with a living God who cares about us and wants to provide the insight and understanding that we need for today.

The challenge for the church is the following statement: “To be a member of a faith community . . . is not be a lucky member of the group that has finally arrived; it is to be in a cohort that is learning together.” The church is not a bunch of pioneers who have drawn up their wagons in a defensive posture, but a group who are traveling through new territory that challenges their assumptions and expectations. Each new day provides new vistas and difficulties, but God is along for the journey to provide insight and understanding. God as traveling companion--that is a beautiful picture.

Note:  The writer received no compensation from the author or publisher of this book in exchange for this commentary.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Becoming Missional: Build on Your Strengths

For years we have talked about the uniqueness of every individual and the fact that “God has wired us up” in a certain way. As a result, we have made efforts in the church to help individual believers discover their gifts, passions, and personality types in order to serve more effectively. Is this true for the church as well?

Several years ago I heard Marcus Buckingham speak at the Willow Creek Leadership Summit. Buckingham is the author of several ground-breaking books including First, Break All the Rules and Now Discover Your Strengths. While he was with the Gallup Organization, he helped develop the
Strengths-Based approach to management. The basic idea is that we should spend more time using the abilities we already have than trying to improve upon our deficits or weaknesses.

Out that conference came the idea that this may be the best approach for churches to pursue as well. Contrary to the Natural Church Development approach of discovering where your church falls short (“where it leaks” in NCD terminology), a church would be better off to accentuate its unique strengths.

How does this apply to the missional church? Each church is uniquely gifted to do something in its setting than no other church can do or, at least, do as well. Due to your location, facility resources, the gifts of your membership, and the abilities of your leadership, you can address a community need or develop a ministry for which your church is uniquely gifted.

How do you do this? Two things are essential. First, pray to find and be open to the leading of God’s spirit. This must be open-hearted, not holds-barred praying. Second, engage in purposeful conversation among church members. This involves ongoing, face-to-face dialogue among everyone in the church. Of course, both of these activities take time, but it would be time well invested if the church can come to appreciate its strengths and discern how to use them effectively.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Online Class for Leadership Summit

How do we call out the best in church leaders to meet the challenges of the 21st century? The Global Leadership Summit, an annual conference of the Willow Creek Association, attempts to address this challenge. The main sessions will be held at the South Barrington, Illinois, campus of Willow Creek Community Church and telecast live to 225 locations across North America on August 5-6, 2010. The Summit features outstanding speakers from the church, academia, the workplace, and the non-profit sector.

For the first time this year, Central Baptist Theological Seminary offers an opportunity for participants to process the ideas and innovations of the Global Leadership Summit as part of a collegial group. Ircel Harrison, director of the Murfreesboro Center, will teach “Ministry Praxis: Global Leadership Summit 2010” (MP506e) during fall semester. Students will attend the Summit either at Willow Creek or one of the satellite broadcasts of their choice on August 5-6 and then participate in the class during the following months. The class can be taken for three hours academic credit or as a lifelong learning activity.

Students will discuss readings related to the Summit and leadership development, define their own understanding of leadership from a biblical and theological perspective, and develop a specific action plan for their setting.

For additional information about the class, contact him at To register for the class, contact Steve Guinn at

Becoming Missional: Get Outside the Walls

An interesting thing strikes me about the early church. Much of what they did was in very public places such as the city square, the marketplace, and the Temple. Early Christians did not have buildings, so they were out among the people, interacting in the everyday flow of life.

This same type of involvement is needed today by those of us who are believers. If we hope for our churches to become more missional, we need to get outside the walls and get to know our communities.

I had lunch with some friends in another city this week, and they decided to take me to (what we call in middle Tennessee) a “meat and three” restaurant. While we were eating, one of my friends commented, “These folks are very different from those who come to our church on any given Sunday.” This was very perceptive. He noted that most of the people who attended their church were of a particular social and economic class; there was not a lot of diversity. The realization provided insight about their particular focus.

We need those “Aha” moments. Most of them will come only when we take ourselves into different, often unfamiliar, environments. We can drive a different route to work, eat at a new restaurant, or seek out invitations to various civic groups. Whatever we do, we must be intentional about getting outside of our normal routines to begin to understand what God is about in the world.

I believe that those of us who are church people are called to be both gathered and scattered. We gather to worship, learn and encourage one another, but then we need to scatter around our community. When we do that—keeping our eyes, ears, and hearts open—we will start becoming more missional.

Paying Our Debts

The great writer Anonymous said, "History repeats itself because no one listens the first time.” I was reminded of this after reading an article in our local paper about public dissent at a recent county commission meeting considering the approval of the construction of an Islamic mosque.

Although some present based their protest on lack of proper public notice related to prior zoning approval, a number openly opposed  the building because it would be built by an Islamic group. The pastor of a local megachurch commented, “"We have a duty to investigate anyone under the banner of Islam.” This takes the protest in a whole new direction.

We have forgotten that many people came to this country to escape a religious climate marked by distrust and oppression. In the colonies, Baptists were often persecuted because they did not want to support an established church. They were labeled as dissenters, anarchists, and heretics because of this stand. Fortunately, Baptist leaders like Roger Williams, Isaac Backus, and John Leland stood up not only for their rights but for those of others, including followers of Allah.  They were not afraid of those who said, "We have a duty to investigate anyone who is a Baptist."

If someone is concerned about property values or traffic, they may have a legitimate complaint, but opposition based on religious preference alone is counter to our Constitution. Fortunately, the county planning director pointed out that under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a project cannot be rejected on the basis of religion.

A leader of the local Islamic community explained that many in their group were professional people who had been part of the community for over 40 years. These people are taxpayers and responsible members of the community. I have met and talked with several of them over the years and have found them to be friendly and cooperative. They deserve to build their place of worship.

Those of us who are now in the majority owe those in the minority the benefit of the doubt, but when it comes to religious freedom, our debt is to our own forebears.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Becoming Missional: Start Small

Often we fail to act because we may know our ultimate goal, but we have not mapped out all the steps that will get us there. We understand and appreciate the need for our church to become more missional, but we can’t articulate the plan that will get us there. We become bogged in the details. The good news is that we don’t need a well-thought-out plan to start the journey. It is more important just to do something!

Small steps can lead to great strides. Last year Jessica Jackley, co-founder of, a micro-investment program, spoke at Willow Creek Association’s Leadership Summit. In her interview with Jim Mellado, President of the WCA, she said, “Don’t be afraid to start small.” KIVA’s founders didn’t apologize for starting with just seven entrepreneurs. Jackley pointed out that you can talk all you want about an idea, but once you begin and actually do something—even if it’s small—people respond to you differently. The best way to create big change is to have the patience and attention to focus on one particular area and to serve that area as well as you can.

Where is a good point to start in your church? The beginning point may be acknowledging in some way those who are already actively involved in ministry in the community even if it is not an “official” church ministry. Another possibility is to start thinking about putting more time into people development (coaching, mentoring, instilling spiritual disciplines) than program development. Perhaps it involves getting the staff to read and discuss a book on what it means to be a missional church. It may mean identifying one thing the church is doing that is no longer needed and invest that time and energy into a new outward-focused ministry.

Our initial efforts may not show remarkable success but at least we will be moving in the right direction. We may make mistakes, but we may also discover the Spirit of God speaking to our congregation in a special way.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Becoming Missional: Build Trust

A friend who raises funds for a theological institution has repeatedly pointed out to me the importance of relationships—whether you are dealing with individuals or foundations. “The best way to get funding from a foundation,” he says, “is to know someone on the inside.”

The same is true if you want to move a church toward being missional. You must build relationships and develop trust within the congregation, even if you are already on the inside. This can happen in several ways:

A priority is to find a champion. If you are the pastor or a staff member, the champion may be you. If you are not, seek to share the vision with the pastor or another ministerial staff member. This person will be part of staff discussions and will also be aware of the resources in the congregation—people, finances, facilities, equipment—that can be assets in the missional journey.

Second, you should not only make this a matter of prayer but seek opportunities to ask others in the church to pray for openness, opportunity, and receptivity to a missional mindset. This may be in Sunday school classes, committee meetings, or prayer services. This not only adds a spiritual dimension as you and others seek God’s leadership, but it also makes others aware of the possibilities.

Third, practice transparency and flexibility in this effort. Even if you have a vision of what your church might become, you must be candid and admit that you are not sure exactly how this may play out. The Spirit of God often surprises us (consider Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch) and pulls us in unexpected directions. Even the most committed leader does not have the full picture and needs to be open to new possibilities. People will trust you more if you exhibit openness to new ideas and approaches.

Fourth, find opportunities to give the vision away. The vision of becoming a missional church is not something to be hoarded but a treasure to be shared. As you do so, you not only bless others but the vision takes on new strength and vitality as others embrace it.

This may take time but don’t be concerned about a timetable. Transitions like this take place only when the people are ready to perceive God’s mission.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Becoming Missional: Know WHOSE You Are

Some people seem to be a little tired of the term “missional church” and dismiss it as just another phrase tossed around by those who are unhappy with the way that their church functions. This is a bit unfair. The idea that the church does not HAVE a mission but IS the mission of God in this world is a transforming concept. My concern lies elsewhere with those who assume that the only way to have a missional church is to disassemble the old church and start from scratch.

Many of the most popular books on the missional church make this assumption and provide numerous examples of those who have just left the established church and started something new. Their approach is that “it’s broke, so don’t waste your time trying to fix it.” There is a place for such efforts, but I firmly believe that those of us who have cast our lot with the traditional church can work within its systems to help it become more missional.

How can a church become more missional without casting off everything that it is presently doing? I would like to address that question beginning with this post.

The beginning point of becoming a missional church is to know WHOSE you are. You read that correctly. It is not as important for you to know who you are as a congregation—past history, present circumstances, and future possibilities—but to know the God who called your congregation into being.

Even if your church was birthed out of division and controversy, you are still the people of God and God has something prepared for you to do. The beginning point of joining God on mission is to acknowledge your dependence on God. The church does not exist primarily for its rituals, fellowship, or community involvement; it exists to be part of God’s mission in this world.

If your church wants to become missional, you must begin with the central truth that without God, you can do nothing. The mission of God—missio Dei—is the life of the church. That is the beginning point.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Old Bones, Little Life

Some of the most creative work coming out of the Southern Baptist “shop” these days has been the product of the work of Ed Stetzer, the Director of Lifeway Research and Lifeway's Missiologist in Residence. Because of his creativity, Stetzer has sometimes found himself at odds with some of the “old heads” in the convention.

In a recent article in Christianity Today, however, Stetzer has compromised his objectivity. The article, titled “Life in Those Old Bones” carries the subtitle “If you're interested in doing mission, there could hardly be a better tool than denominations.” He attempts to present the case that denominations have a great future in fulfilling the Great Commission, but his examples are highly qualified and tend to be contradictory. The denominations he values look more like those of the past than those of the future.

For example, he suggests that newer efforts at cooperation between congregations (such as Willow Creek Association and the Acts 29 Network) “can best be understood as proto-denominations.” He goes on to say, “The denomination-like networks will, I believe, become more like denominations than networks in the years to come, just like the networks of the past (e.g., the Methodists) are denominations today.” Then he gives examples of “successful” denominations that are basically controlling hierarchies, something that the examples he cites are not designed to be and would fall apart if they attempted to exercise control over participating congregations.

The real fallacy of Stetzer’s reasoning is that things will evolve the way that they have in the past. In other words, past performance determines future performance. Seasoned investors will assure you that this is not a good argument for buying stocks! The contemporary networks and cooperative structures he identifies are based on collaboration and cooperation. They are characterized by empowerment rather than standardization and control. This is not the 19th or even the 20th century. We need to look forward for our examples and not back.

To show the value of denominational structures, he states

A denominational church in crisis has a relational network, experience, and a support system on which to draw. For example, if a dispute arises in a Presbyterian congregation between the pastor and the session (the governing board), it has an entire denominational structure filled with leaders to help guide a redemptive process. Not so with an independent congregation.

With due respect to my Presbyterian friends, I am not looking for this type of intervention.  I’m sorry, butas a Baptist, this looks more like a controlling hierarchy than congregational autonomy to me. I am not ready for the state Baptist convention or even the local association to come into my church and help us sort things out. I have seen how that works. Other examples given by Stetzer are of a similar nature and highlight the value of “doctrinal consistency” in relationships between congregations.

I hope you will read the article for yourself, but I came away disappointed by the lack of internal consistency and the obvious bias toward centralization and control. This is a polemic for a step backward rather than a step forward for congregational cooperation in the 21st century.

A Research and Development Department for the Church?

How does your church come up with new ideas or at least find new applications for old ideas? Is there some pocket or space for creativity in your congregation?

In A New Kind of Christianity, Brian McLaren suggests a new for “free trade zones” and “research and development departments” where Christian leaders can experiment, create, and learn new ways of doing church. In such settings, both established and emerging leaders can come together to address issues and needs with fresh eyes and open minds. Of course, this is more easily said than done and requires at least one “champion” in the system to get the ball rolling.

I have had the opportunity to be part of a group for the past two years that attempts to do this. When the minister of Christian formation at our church put together the Christian Formation Team, I am not sure that he knew what he was getting into! This group of five church members (plus the minister of Christian formation) took seriously the challenge to find new ways to engage church members in spiritual formation and development. We took off down some paths that were rewarding and others that were just hard going! On the journey, we found new ways (for us anyway) to involve our church in the liturgical year, adult formation, and people development. In some cases, we just put a fresh façade or our own spin on an old idea, but these efforts provided new life and momentum for the church.

This has worked for several reasons. First, we had a leader who was willing to provide the “space” for this to happen and walk along with us in the process. Second, we had a committed and creative group of people (myself not necessarily one of them) who embraced the challenge. Third, we had a pastor and church staff who willingly joined us in our efforts or stepped back and provided moral support.

The team is evolving in a new direction now, adding new people and moving into subgroups around creative expression, adult formation, and people development functions. I am not sure how this will look a year from now, but we are definitely in the “research and development” business. I am reminded of a quote attributed to Albert Einstein: “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”

We may not know what we are doing, but we are enjoying the trip.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Church as Table Fellowship

Growing up as a Baptist in the south, “dinner on the grounds” was practically the third ordinance of the church after Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In fact, most of us considered Baptist potlucks as a continuation of the Lord’s Supper. How wrong we were because we usually confined our table fellowship to those like ourselves. Jesus practiced a different standard both in those he selected as dinner partners and in the institution of the Lord’s Supper (or communion).

The final biblical image of the church presented by Curtiss Paul DeYoung in Coming Together in the 21st Century: The Bible’s Message in an Age of Diversity, is table fellowship. Jesus was notorious for inviting anyone to the table where he was eating, whether he was the host or someone else was (Mark 2:15-16 and Luke 15:2, for example). DeYoung points out that “Jesus even shared a table with Judas, who was preparing to betray him in a few hours.” From a theological perspective, Jesus even saw table fellowship as a sign of the kingdom (Luke 14:15-24; 16:19-31).

Many of us remember not only the days when African-Americans and Euro-Americans did not sit down at the dinner table together, but we also remember the first time we broke through that barrier. For many of us, it happened within the context of Christian fellowship. By breaking bread together, we were not only nourishing our bodies but our souls as well. We were acknowledging our relationship to those who were our brothers and sisters and from whom we had been separated for too long.

Whether it is the dinner table, the café table at Starbucks, or the Lord’s Table of the communion, all must be welcome if the church is true to the desires of its Master. Jesus was ready to sit down with anyone. Are we?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Church as Koinonia

One of the major challenges facing most churches today is that members really do not know each other. They have little in common in their daily lives or in the church. They no longer live in proximity with one another and cross paths daily. Many people commute long distances to work and may even commute to their church on the weekend. When they come to worship, they often participate as spectators in a service led by others and then leave as quickly as possible. There is no community cohesion in daily life or in the church.

In Coming Together in the 21st Century: The Bible’s Message in an Age of Diversity, Curtiss Paul DeYoung provides the biblical image of the church as koinonia, the Greek word for “fellowship,” “participation,” or “communion.” He writes, “The biblical image of koinonia epitomizes a quality of fellowship that encourages participation and togetherness linked in a common cause.” He uses the church at Jerusalem (Acts 2:44-47; 4:32-35) as an example of the church functioning in this way.

DeYoung comments that, “This passage [sic] informs us that true community is possible only when there is sacrifice and substantial sharing.” He goes on to observe that many Christians today are so selfish that they cannot conceive of sharing economic resources as the will of God. For me, the amazing part is that these people knew each other well enough to know who was in need!

True koinonia comes in two ways—through the investment of time getting to know one another and as the gift of God. As believers spend time together sharing their stories—their struggles, their needs, their defeats, and their victories—they come to discern the Spirit of God working in their midst. We can set the stage for koinonia to be created but the gift will only come when God provides it. This type of fellowship is rooted in our individual relationship with Christ as well as our individual commitment to one another. The horizontal relationship with other believers is born out of our vertical relationship with God.

In an age of instant gratification, are we willing to take the time for koinonia?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Church as Household of God

One of the most powerful images of the church that Curtis Paul DeYoung highlights in Coming Together in the 21st Century: The Bible’s Message in an Age of Diversity, is the church as the household of God. The phrase is found in 1 Peter 4:17, Galatians 6:10, and Ephesians 2:19. In Ephesians 2:19-20, we read:

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.

“Household of God” may be a more powerful image than “family of God” for believers. The home was the center of life in Jesus’ day. Very often the economic as well as the social lives of family members were centered in the home as family members had particular responsibilities in a family business. Roles were understood and responsibilities were accepted. Everyone had a place in the household and a contribution to make.

This is a great example of cooperation, one that we need in the church today. A church in our area has chosen to reach out to other parts of the world to start new congregations. Their strategy is to put together teams of church members who will relocate to another part of the world to plant a new church. This is a long-term investment that requires them to give up their lives here and become part of the new culture. One team will soon leave for an Asian country and another is preparing to go to a European county. The genius of the plan is that they are spending their time prior to departure in studying, planning, and praying together. They are getting to know each other strengths, needs, and skills. They will truly be a family, a household of God, before they leave on their mission. When they begin the tough job of church planting, they will know how to support and help each other.

This is the way that a church ought to operate. In the church, we should come to know each other’s strengthens and needs, acknowledging our dependence on God to provide both the mission, priorities, and structure for the work. We can become what God has called us to be in this household because God is the founder and guide.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Church as Contrast Community

What is your image of “community”? One of the recurring themes I address in this blog is the nature of community, especially as embodied within the church. Not only is true community at the heart of the Christian life (and our Trinitarian theology), but healthy community is necessary for all human growth and spiritual development.

In Coming Together in the 21st Century: The Bible’s Message in an Age of Diversity, Curtiss Paul DeYoung provides several images of community found in the Bible. One of these is “contrast community.”

Although I first heard this phrase used in regard to the missional church, DeYoung points out that the concept is first introduced in the Hebrew Bible to describe God’s desire for the nation of Israel. They were intended to offer an alternative or contrast to the ways of other nations. He writes, “The laws given in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuternomy emphasized social justice and human relations. . . . The contrast community implies that for community to flourish, it must integrate equality and justice into the formation of its organizational principles and ways of daily living.” He concludes, however, that this was an ideal that was never fully actualized in the life of the Israelites once they entered Palestine.

What are the implications of this for the church that seeks to practice community today? We could quickly jump to the need to provide a contrast to society in our practices of justice and social equality, but I suggest that we look inward rather than outward for our critique. Our society (and the motivation may be economic rather than altruistic) has done more to promote equality and justice than many of our churches have.

Can a church that struggles with issues of gender and racial acceptance really be a Christian community? If we deny places of leadership to gifted women and look suspiciously at those of other races who worship with us, are we living up to God’s clear expectations for God’s people? Does the church exemplify humankind at its best or its worst? What do you think?

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

What is the Spirit Saying to the Churches?

American Christianity is in the midst of a transition that began sometime in the latter part of the 20th century. One of the most articulate (and entertaining) analysts of this transition is Bill J. Leonard, former Dean of the Wake Forest University Divinity School. Leonard was asked to share some remarks with a gathering of moderate Baptists at Callaway Gardens, Georgia, in late April. His topic was, “What Have We Learned in the Past 20 Years?” You can access a video of his presentation here.

I was particularly interested in Dr. Leonard’s comments about the various ways that Christians are finding to work together in the 21st century. He commented, “Denominations now join mega-church, emerging church and local church identities as one of multiple options for shaping American religious organizations.” Denominations were once the major players in joining individual congregations in cooperative efforts, but they are only one a number of alternatives available. Many formal and informal networks have developed of like-minded churches and leaders. These efforts are quite diverse. Some mega-churches are mini-denominations while some emerging faith communities glory in their lack of baggage (read “property” and “budget”).

Leonard goes on to say, “New coalitions of Baptists offer multiple options for interchurch cooperation and ministry relationships. ‘Partnerships’ between congregations and Baptist/non-Baptist groups for fellowship and shared ministry are beginning to take shape and are essential for the future.” I think that is interesting that Leonard points out that these partnerships cross the lines of denominational identity. Increasingly, missional churches are finding like-minded partners who carry a different denominational banner or no banner at all. The mission of the kingdom of God is paramount and often makes for unusual stable mates.

The real challenge Leonard notes is that “While regional, economic and racial divisions remain, a new generation of Baptist clergy and laity finds themselves without old systems for passing on ministry, mentoring, and identity, but is compelled to worship and work together in changing neighborhoods, interracial coalitions, community organizations, and ecumenical networks.” This is good news. Although still overcoming the loss of traditional support systems, clergy and congregations are seeking out and creating new ways to do ministry. There is an urgency to respond to need and to put together systems to do so “on the fly.”

These are times of great stress but also of great opportunity for the local church and its leaders. New forms are emerging.  Some will prosper and some will fail, but change will continue.  The wise among us will remember and respond to these words from Revelation: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Rev. 2:7a, NIV)

Thank you, Dr. Leonard, for prompting us to listen for the Spirit in our midst.

(My appreciation to Dr. Leonard for sharing a copy of his notes with me.)