Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Unwanted Notoriety

My hometown of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, has been receiving national recognition in the news recently, but the increased visibility has nothing to do with down home music, home cooked food, or Southern hospitality. The news deals with a proposed Islamic center on the outskirts of our community and the opposition voiced by some local residents. The fact that we are in an election season has not helped the problem. I admire those candidates who have stood up for religious freedom and espoused a welcoming attitude for people of all faiths rather than appealing to the fears of the electorate.

Things turned ugly over the weekend when vandals poured gasoline over construction vehicles doing site preparation for the Islamic center and set one vehicle on fire. Although there had been some vandalism earlier involving a sign on the site, this violation crosses the line.

In an interview on WPLN Radio today, Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen called for tolerance and “a step back.” He asked citizens “to please have great respect for anyone’s religious preferences and their rights to practice those in the United States. I think it goes right to the heart of what this country is about.” He also stated that, like a marriage quarrel, there is a line you don’t cross. The line of what is constitutionally protected, he said, is a hard one to jump back over.

People in our community are good people, but many are afraid. When you are afraid, you look for some one to blame. Things are changing. Economic conditions are trying for many. Our community has become more ethnically diverse in the last thirty years. People with beliefs that differ from our own—Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus—are now a part of the community. (In fact, a Buddhist was elected as a county commissioner in a recent election.) Up to this point, we have found ways to be inclusive and caring amidst all this change.

We need to recognize that we live in tense times, but we most find ways to resolve the tensions without vandalism or violence. We must love our neighbors as we love ourselves. This is not only the American way, it is the Christian way.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Our community is not large, but we now have several coffee shops. As I stopped by one this morning, I started thinking about the differences among the several that I frequent.

There is, of course, the major national (international?) chain. They have at least three locations locally. Last year, the corporate offices closed the one that I liked best, but they are still my primary supplier since they have two drive-through windows. Although the interiors vary, the product is standardized. I know what I will get when I order a particular combination. I would tag this supplier as consistent and comfortable. You know what you will get when you go there.

Another shop on our side of town recently changed owners. After my visit last week, I probably will not go back. The product is good, but the atmosphere is confrontational—from the sign on the door about not accepting credit cards to the unengaged person behind the counter. There is a certain “take it or leave it” attitude communicated.

Then there is the local coffee shop. This particular shop took over the location of a failed predecessor, and they have worked to develop a welcoming, unique atmosphere. This one is a little more out of the way, and I only go there when I have time to sit, drink my beverage, and read or think. The menu changes on a regular basis. The owners are building a community and this will make their survival more likely.

Naturally, I tend to draw implications about different types of churches. There is the church that belongs to a particular denominational brand. The quality is good, the atmosphere is accepting, and you know what you will get there. Very often, this type of congregation requires little commitment and they are happy if you come, partake of the presentation, and provide financial support. If you want to do more, that’s fine, but it is not expected.

Some churches are like the coffee shop that is less than hospitable. They are so busy pushing their cause—and often it is one primary cause—that they are not concerned about anything else. Sure, they are glad that you came, but you are primarily there to further their agenda. Their approach is definitely, “Take us or leave us. No matter.”

Finally, there is the church bent on creating community. They have seen failure, and they have learned from it. Things may sometimes be a little off center and even a little messy, but the intentions are good. They are glad you came and would welcome you as a regular, but if you can only come by once in awhile, they will be there.

All of the shops sell coffee; all of the churches share the Gospel. Take your choice.

Monday, August 23, 2010

There are No "Dumb Questions"

Perhaps it is a remnant of my years as a campus minister, but August and September always bring a feeling of change, challenge and opportunity. Of course, we all have experienced this in our own elementary and secondary school days and during college. We see it now with our children and grandchildren. A new grade, new friends, new beginnings—to a large extent these are forced on us. We are dropped down with a new group of people and must deal with unfamiliar surroundings and ideas.

Educational institutions are fortunate that they have this continuing infusion of new people. There are always commonalities among any group of students, but each group has unique characteristics and special challenges. This not only allows but demands a certain receptivity to change and new ways of looking at things.

In A New Kind of Christianity, Brian McLaren discusses this idea of bringing in a new day with new people. He includes this quote from scientific philosopher Thomas Kuhn: “Almost always the [people] who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change.”

The uninitiated in a discipline often ask “dumb questions” because they do not understand the background or context. They are trying to put all the pieces together, but sometimes they come up with a different configuration. In so doing, they bring a fresh perspective to life, study, and even ministry.

There is so much we do in the church that is tied to an old paradigm—times of service, expectations of leaders, methods of education, allocation of funds. When those unfamiliar with the system come on board, their questions can be the opportunity to rethink and change. As McLaren notes, “And it’s the seekers who are welcomed into a faith community that often transform that community, just as a new infant or adopted child can transform a family.”

Although this is not a comfortable process, the questioning and reconceptualization of paradigms—“the way things are”—encourage growth and new learning. If you want to understand your situation better, try to explain it to an outsider and be ready for the questions.

Monday, August 16, 2010

For the Bible Tells Me So

I am settling into a new Sunday school class (actually a class that I helped start several years ago and have returned to after doing some other things on Sunday morning). The class emphasizes freewheeling discussion and has studied an eclectic assortment of books on a number of topics. Our substitute teacher decided to review some of the books and topics that the class has covered over the past year or so and began by referring to this passage:

This is what the LORD says:

"Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom
or the strong man boast of his strength
or the rich man boast of his riches,
but let him who boasts boast about this:
that he understands and knows me,
that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness,
justice and righteousness on earth,
for in these I delight,"
declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 9:23-24, NIV)

As he began his review, he asked the question, “Has any of this helped you to grow closer to Christ?” Although I have not been in the class for awhile, I have read most of the books they have studied, so I applied the question to myself. As I reflected, I began to think about my own pilgrimage in relationship to Scripture. Over the past fifty plus years since I became a believer, my concept of the Bible has certainly changed. When I was in my twenties, I probably thought that I had answered most of the questions I had about the scriptures, but as time went on, I realized that scripture still had a number of questions to ask me!

Various writers and teachers have expanded my appreciation for the scriptures. For me, the Bible is at the same time a very familiar and a very surprising book! Where I stand today, I would list these observations about my relationship with the Bible.

1. I have come to realize that while scripture may be a comfort in time of need, I tend to grow more when scripture makes me uncomfortable. The primary purpose of studying the Bible is not to make me feel good but to produce some level of discomfort that results in personal change.

2. I have come to understand that the Bible is dynamic. The canon may have been closed, but the Bible continues to provide new truth through the work of the Spirit of God.

3. I have learned that it is important not only to have some understanding of the context in which scripture was originally written and the audience to which it was addressed but the present context to which it speaks.

4. I have discovered that I can listen to perspectives on scripture that differ from my own without harming my faith. In fact, some of these perspectives have enriched my faith.

5. I have learned that my study of scripture is limited when it is simply an individual exercise. I need a community to help me to achieve a more balanced understanding of how God speaks to us.

6. Finally, and most important, I have discovered that I must always use the lens of Christ in reading scripture. Only a Christocentric approach provides the focus that results the balance between believing and behaving.

So I can read contemporary writers like Borg, McLaren, and Wright, or writers of an earlier time like Augustine, Luther, or Fox to gain perspective on the Bible, but in the end I read the Bible and allow God to speak through it.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Jumping Through the Hoops

In a recent issue of The Christian Century, columnist M. Craig Barnes recounted the story of a Presbyterian minister who had left a well-paying job as an accountant and relocated her family to Pittsburgh so that she could complete her degree in preparation for ordained minster. Now a year out of seminary, she has yet to find a place of ministry and is questioning her calling.

Barnes uses this story to discuss the call to ministry and the process of discerning God’s will. I believe that he is misusing this woman’s story. Her experience is not about calling but about preparation for ministry. She has been asked to “jump through hoops” in order to fulfillment the church’s requirements to serve as an ordained minister. This has nothing to do with discernment or calling.

This gifted woman—a talented lay person, committed wife, and loving mother—was probably already serving a vital role in her church when she perceived the call to ministry. When she expressed a desire to serve, she was asked to follow an academic path that was designed at least 150 years ago for single young men who had recently completed a college degree. In order to become a minister, she must follow a path that is impractical, wasteful, and uninformed.

Now I am not questioning the need for education, a responsible process of discernment, or the achievement of a specific level of competence to be recognized as an ordained minister in a denomination. I am questioning the delivery system. Asking someone to follow the path required of this woman is the height of arrogance. The assumption is that there is only one way to do this and it will be imposed with no flexibility.

With advances in distance education, self-directed learning, and accessible travel, there is no need for a person who has been called to ministry to pull up stakes and relocate across several states in order to be trained as a minister. Seminaries and churches can work together to provide quality learning environments for prospective ministers. If we do not follow this path, we will not only lose competent and committed servants for the cause of Christ and his church but we will assure the irrelevance of denominations.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Impact of a Resurgent China

One of the more unusual speaker choices for the Global Leadership Summit last week was Peter Zhao Xiao, a Chinese economist. In keeping the Willow Creek Association’s philosophy of highlighting the convergence of global business and the Christian faith, Zhao was chosen because he has espoused the view that China’s economy would benefit from the spread of the Christian faith and the application of Christian principles. Although he is a Communist, Zhao is also a professed Christian. From his research, he has concluded that Christianity is the key to America’s economic success.

In addition to teaching, Zhao is the chairman of the Cypress Leadership Institute, an organization which seeks to help transform the business culture in China through the application of Christian principles. This can be as simple as embracing honesty by only having one set of financial books for an organization or as complex as expressing love by providing humane working conditions.

Dr. Zhao presented an interesting overview of the China’s history. He pointed out that in 1820 China’s economy was 33 percent of the world’s economy. Prior to the 18th century, more than half of the world’s books had been written in Chinese. Until the 14th century, China was a leader in almost very aspect of culture and civilization. He concluded this review with the statement, “China is coming back.” By 2020, China is expected to become the largest economy in the world once again.

The cynic in me responded, “And this is good news?” I must admit that during the Cold War, I was much more suspicious of the Chinese than the Russians. Although the USSR was supposed to have the nuclear arsenal that threatened the United States, the mainland Chinese where the ones who seemed to be most active in promoting conflict in places like Korea and Southeast Asia. This was a prejudice, and I have come to know some Chinese who are very friendly and open people. Still, am I ready for a resurgent China?

Zhao’s point is that since this is happening, Christians need to be involved and Christian principles (as he espouses them) need to be part of this movement. In fact, he talked about China as “a city on a hill” (a term borrowed from early American Christian leaders and often applied to the United States by contemporary leaders such as Ronald Reagan) and a potential “blessing to the world.”

Even without this economic impetus, the number of believers in China is certainly growing, although accurate figures are not available. An article by Philip Jenkins in the current issue of The Christian Century points out the difficulty of knowing the number of Christians in China, but he tends toward a conservative estimate of 65 to 70 million. Even so, he points out, this outnumbers “the total population of major nations like France, Britain or Italy” and rivals the number of Communist Party members in China.

Dr. Zhao’s message is a wake up call. Even as China’s economic dominance grows, we may well see a growth in the number of Christians there. Whether or not there is a link between the two, China is destined to play a major world role both economically and religiously in this century.

Monday, August 09, 2010

A Fourth Option

At the Global Leadership Summit last week, pastor Bill Hybels set up a hypothetical situation and provided several possible responses. He suggested that the leaders present imagine that they were sitting there and received a text message that a staff member had just resigned. He suggested several possible responses. First, the leader might say, “Whew! That’s a relief.” Second, the leader’s reaction might be, “Ugh! That’s a real loss for us.” Third, the response might be, “Oh, no! This is an irreplaceable person. What are we going to do now?”

Let me suggest a fourth response. When receiving such a message, the leader might respond, “Well, this will be a loss, but it may be an opportunity for us to rethink some things.” In most churches and church-related organizations, we are reluctant to make staff changes. When tough economic times come, we struggle with budgets and will “lay off” staff members only as a last resort. In normal circumstances if a person is doing an adequate but not exceptional job, we will give the person a pass and look for the few good things that might come out of his or her ministry.

When a person chooses to leave voluntarily, however, we should see it as a gift and the opportunity to ask some questions. First, do we really need this position to accomplish our mission as a church? Second, is there some way to restructure the responsibilities of this position to give a new person the opportunity to be more effective? Third, are there responsibilities here that other staff members might pick up? These questions should be asked of staff members, church leaders, and constituents most impacted by the staff loss.

The most productive staff situations provide opportunity for regular reassessment and allow some fluidity in staff responsibilities. This is not always easy to do. There are always some tasks that no one wants to do, and these need to be shared equitably. On the other hand, staff members thrive on the opportunity to pursue their ministry passions as much as possible. A leader must be sensitive to this and find ways to allow this to happen. A “good vacancy” may provide the opportunity for evaluation, reassessment, and reorganization that is a true gift.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Key Insights from the Global Leadership Summit

The 15th edition of the Willow Creek Association’s Leadership Summit (now the GLOBAL Leadership Summit) is now history. The two days were filled with a number of excellent speakers, some good preachers, and upbeat music. Although the language at the Summit is not gender inclusive, WCA’s advocacy for women in leadership roles receives more exposure among evangelical leaders in these two days than many of them experience in a year in their home churches. The meeting is consciously ethnically inclusive as well. All that to say, this is not everyone’s cup of tea, but the Summit continues to bring together an interesting collection of leaders and leadership scholars each year and is worth attending.

Our printed programs suggested that we select our key insights from each session, so here are mine:

Bill Hybels, founder and senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church—“Teams are catalysts for change.”

Jim Collins, author and business guru—“Never give up!”

Christine Caine, pastor and teacher, Hillsong Church, Sydney, Australia—“Refuse to be a victim!”

Tony Dungy, former NFL coach and author—“Don’t mistake the number of hours you put in for productivity.”

Adam Hamilton, founder and senior pastor of the Church of the Resurrection (UMC), Leawood, Kansas—“Although we are held to a higher standard as leaders, we are all tempted and in need of grace and redemption.”

Dr. Peter Zhao Xiao, economist, Beijing, China—“The most important part of China’s necessary reform is spiritual.”

Andy Stanley, senior pastor of North Pointe Church, Alpharetta, Georgia—“The role of the leader is to manage the necessary tension in the organization.”

Jeff Manion, senior pastor of the Ada Bible Church, Ada, Michigan—“The land between is fertile ground for transformational growth.”

Terri Kelly, president and CEO of W. L. Gore & Associates—“Leadership is defined by followership.”

Daniel H. Pink, business thinker and author—“Our essence as human beings is to be active and engaged.”

Blake Mycoskie, founder and “chief shoe giver” of TOMS Shoes, Inc.—“Give.”

Jack Welch, former chairman and CEO of General Electric—“If you don’t feel the fire, you can’t pass it on.”

T. D. Jakes, chief pastor, The Potter’s House, Dallas, Texas—“What is the source of your passion?”

Overall, this was the best selection of Summit personnel in several years. Did I agree with everything presented? No, but I was given a lot to think about in relationship to leadership and its application in the church. I will be reflecting on it for awhile.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Teaching of the Twelve

The Teaching of the Twelve: Believing & Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache CommunityAnyone who has been to seminary has heard of The Didache, the ancient Christian guide for believers, but very few of us have read it. Tony Jones has. In fact, he has done a translation of the document which he includes along with some commentary in The Teaching of the Twelve: Believing and Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community. Jones’ presentation is informative and would be an attractive study for those interested in an orthodox but fresh approach to practicing the faith.

The Didache (teaching) is probably a combination of tracts written about the same time as the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) but earlier than the Gospel of John. Although some of Paul’s letters may have been written by this time, this community seems to be unfamiliar with the theology and writings of Paul. The influences present are similar to those that produced Matthew’s Gospel and may well have been directed to a small, rural Christian community on the Syria-Palestine border.

Much of this is supposition, but what Jones makes clear is that this is not a work of theology but a rule of life. Although there is some interest in eschatological issues, the Didache’s primary emphasis is on right living—choosing between the two ways of life, living in community, observing baptism and the Eucharist, and welcoming visitors. He writes: “The real power of the Didache is in its ability to remind us what is truly important in Christianity: showing the love of Jesus to the world.”

The Didache is not long. I was in a workshop with Jones in the spring that lasted about 90 minutes. We passed the book around and took turns reading the text and still had 45 minutes for discussion. The oral reading provoked smiles, nods, and some frowns. This is a good indication of how modern Christians will respond to this document of a very primitive group of believers.

“The Didache’s vision of community life in Christ is powerful and potentially transformative,” writes Jones. To show this, he provides some observations about how his friend, Trucker Frank, and his community of fellow believers in Missouri have applied it to their lives. This fresh vision of the faith is pre-Constantinian, pre-Reformation, and pre-modern. It challenges many of our accepted practices of the faith.

One of the refreshing ideas, according to Jones, is the attitude of “centrist pragmatism” that permeates the document. Unlike the apostle Paul who always seemed to set the highest standards for everyone (including himself), the message of the Didache is “do your best.” It shares the preferred way of doing things but also acknowledges that “life happens.” Jones’ observation is that if this approach had been dominant in the church universal, we might have helped avoid some of the church schisms over the centuries: “Had we heeded the Didache’s advice to ‘do your best’ . . . , we might not have had the ideological battles that have so hurt the proclamation of the gospel.”

Some of the commentary Jones provides seems a bit superficial, and I would have welcomed references to parallel passages in Scripture. His translation of the text of the Didache is modern and easy to read and apply. I recommend the book for that portion alone, but the entire volume would be the good basis for group discussion and application.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

A Fighting Chance

Churches in decline are often in denial as well. When members are willing to face reality, they can make wise choices that will assure that the work of the Kingdom will go on. This is not an easy process; therefore, we have few success stories from which to learn. This week I had the opportunity catch a glimpse of two churches that took stock of their situations and pursued a viable alternative.

Several years ago, Northwoods Baptist Church and Northeast Baptist Church in DeKalb County (northeastern Atlanta) faced the fact that each was declining in membership, attendance, and resources. McAfee School of Theology professor Graham Walker and his wife, Mimi (former missionaries) were serving as interim pastors of Northwoods. Brian Wright, a recent McAfee graduate, was pastor of Northeast. The churches began to engage in a process of discernment which led to a merger with the two congregations joining in the Northeast facility. Brian became the pastor of the merged congregation and the minister of music at Northwoods assumed the same position in the new fellowship.

To make a long story short, there were bumps along the way, but Northeast is facing the future with hope. Funds from the sale of the Northwoods facility not only benefited several institutions, but also provided renovation of the Northeast facility with improved spaces for children, youth, and senior adults. Rick Bennett, Director of Congregational Formation for CBF, led the church through a visioning process to provide clarity of identity and envision new ministries to the community.

Today, the church continues its traditional worship service on Sunday mornings and has recently added a contemporary service with assistance from McAfee students. Northeast hosts three ethnic fellowships in its building—Korean, Vietnamese, and Hispanic. They are providing some innovative ministries to connect with unchurched people in the area. One is a farmers market on the church lawn on Saturday mornings featuring local produce, organic bread, and other treats.

Northeast is fortunate to have had friends to help them in this transition. The two original churches not only recognized their situations, but they were willing to reach out and utilize the resources available to them. The story is not over, but the days ahead will be exciting for Northeast. Pastor Brian Wright says that is has not been easy, but “at least we have a fighting chance.”