Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The energy of movements is generative

This is the third in a series of posts on movements written by my friend, Stephen Currie of Wycliffe Bible Translators.

Gospel movements are not about reforming complex theological dogma, restoring past traditions and recapturing the past glories.  These movements are happening when the Gospel is simply and faithfully shared and God’s Spirit works to reconcile groups of people to Himself.  The Gospel spreads through oikos (household, home, or family) groups, just as it did in New Testament days with Cornelius of Caesaria and Lydia of Philippi.   

God puts new wine into new wine skins.  When Jesus tells us that new wine must be put in new wine skins, he goes on to say, “But no one who drinks the old wine seems to want the new wine. ‘The old is just fine,’ they say.” (Luke 5:39 NLT).  The focus of movement energy is not on reform or renewal, but regeneration and rebirth that comes from the life-transforming power of the Gospel of Jesus. 

Gospel movements do not come from adaptive change.  If that were so, we would see many Gospel movements in the western church today.  Instead, movements come from radical transformation.  When lives are truly transformed, there is a cascade effect that ignites a wildfire of spreading of the Gospel.

Regenerative life in us gives birth to regenerative life in others.  Human energy may lead to change and even growth, but only Holy Spirit energy leads to exponential multiplication of disciples, leaders, and churches that are clear signs of a movement.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Movements are bigger than big leaders

This post continues observations by my friend Stephen Currie on Christian movements.

Leaders do play a vital role in catalyzing movements, but movements cannot be dependent on key personalities.  A movement is not about attracting people into crowds, but inviting people to participate in the redemptive work of Jesus.  So God raises up many leaders within a movement and established leaders are intentional about mentoring emerging leaders.  Movements are not dependent on the energies of one person or an inner circle of people.  Naturally, some movement leaders will develop a greater sphere of influence than others. 

But leaders cannot control or direct the growth of the movement.  This was true of the Apostle Paul.  He had a long list of individuals he was developing to be next-generation leaders--Titus,  Timothy,  Epaphras,  Onesimus,  Priscilla, Erastus,  Trophimus, Lydia,  Luke, and even John Mark.

Movements are dynamic enough to permit multiple leaders to have a place of influence without the credibility of the leader being challenged or threatened by other leaders.  So there was room for Paul, Barnabas, Silas, Apollos, Aquilla and Priscilla, Peter, James, and many others.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Observations about Movements

My friend, Stephen Currie, is involved in Partnership Development with Wycliffe Bible Translators.  We had an e-mail conversation a while back about the role of spiritual movements.  Over the next several days, I want to share some of Stephen's observations, then wrap up with some observations about the "movement" emphasis as it applies to the church and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship today.  I think you will find Stephen's comments interesting and a bit controversial.

       "Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life.   So don’t be surprised when I say, ‘You must be born again.’  The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit.”  John 3:6-8 NLT

When I think about the church today and its mission in the world, I can’t help but think that we are a long way from being the church as Christ intended us to be.  We have lost the movement ethos that was at the heart of the New Testament church.  Leaders focus on delivering trendy, culturally relevant messages and church programs.  Churches focus the vast majority of their energy and resources on gathering and warehousing large once-a-week crowds.  Christians measure their maturity by where they go to church on Sundays and listening to the latest pop hits on Christian radio. It all seems good and healthy, and in many cases, God seems to use these things.  But in all honesty, all this can be done with human power.

Church leaders would greatly benefit from studying movement dynamics.  Gospel movements have happened throughout the history of the church, and we can see patterns that are common to many of these movements.  Leaders who have influenced my thoughts on Gospel movements and the mission of the church include Neil Cole, Paul Pierson, Alan Hirsch, and David Garrison, and what follows are insights that I have gleaned from these mentors. 

Contact Stephen at stephen_currie@wycliffe.org

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Are You Ready?

Kenda Creasy Dean is a United Methodist  ordained elder and professor of youth, church and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary and the  author of Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church.  In a recent blog, she suggested several questions those considering seminary should ask about prospective schools.  One that particularly caught my attention was “How will I be prepared for ‘the Church of 10 Years from Now’”?

The question caused me to stop and think about the kinds of competencies that ministers will need in order to be effective in the churches and ministries of 2022.  Here are some suggestions.

The minister of 2022 will need to not only understand the Bible but be able to see how it intersects with her or his own story and that of the people in the congregation.  If one fails to make that connection, the biblical message is only an historic artifact of little importance.  Creatively linking ancient and contemporary stories will require imagination and sensitivity.

Our minister of the future will need to be able to see the theological implications in contemporary cultural expressions.  As people read less, their world view and values are molded by motion pictures, television, and other forms of media.  The minister must be not only familiar with these cultural expressions but be able to perceive and name the theological consequences of their content.

A person who wants to be an effective minister in the future will have to be proficient in not only cross-cultural communication but interfaith dialogue as well.  Our churches are already faced with a complex and rich ethnic landscape, but we must have the tools to enter into meaningful discussion with other faith traditions and skills to work together in our communities.

The minister of the future will need to know and appreciate the challenges of the workplace.  If the minister does not understand the environment in which church members spend the majority of their time, he or she will not be effective in relation to them.   In fact, the most effective minister of the future may well be bivocational or an entrepreneur who  is doing ministry outside the walls of the church.

Some of these competencies can be developed through a seminary experience but some cannot.  Because of this, theological institutions must be open to creative partnerships and alliances not only with churches but education institutions, businesses, and not-for-profit organizations.  The resources for developing the skilled minister of 2022 will not be found only within the seminary.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises, the final installment in this incarnation of The Batman franchise, will be forever linked to the murders of innocents by a lone gunman in Aurora, Colorado.  This is sad but also ironic because the film is the story of how a vigilant is redeemed through community.

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has always been an obsessed and troubled person, but at the beginning of the film we see him hurt, withdrawn, and disillusioned. The millionaire has rejected his role as The Batman and become a recluse on his estate.  He is not only detached from people but he is in the process of alienating his servant Albert Pennyworth (Michael Caine), the only person who seems to care about him.  He begins to break out of his self-imposed exile when his safe is robbed by Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway).  Wayne quickly finds himself and his empire at the center of a plot to destroy his beloved Gotham City.

Wayne/The Batman’s ultimate redemption comes when he begins to look to others for help, although he makes some poor choices along the way.  Although this is truly an epic film with not only believable special effects but masses of people battling in the streets of the city, the filmmakers never loose their focus on the characters.  And these characters are not only three-dimensional; they tend to be morally ambiguous and deeply flawed.  Even police commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), an “honest cop,” is carrying the guilt of perpetrating the martyrdom myth of “white knight” Harvey Dent (in the second film, The Dark Knight) at the expense of the reputation of The Batman.  He is tortured by this, has lost touch with his family, and has become rather world-weary.

Selina Kyle (who is never referred to as Catwoman but fulfills that role) is a petty thief with a thick “rap sheet” and a manipulative streak.  Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), president of Wayne Enterprises, seems more interested in creating high tech devices than facing the crumbling of his friend’s empire.  Detective John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is pretty much a “straight arrow” and the moral center of the film, but he is troubled by the death of his parents.  (Spoiler Alert!) These characters and others, such as the prisoners in The Pit where Wayne is imprisoned, join together to bring The Batman back and save the day.

 This is a beautifully produced film with allusions to the French Revolution and Dickens’ The Tale of Two Cities.  It is not so much political as apocalyptic.  This third film in the series continues themes and characters introduced in Batman Begins and is faithful to the mythology.

Ultimately the film assures us that vigilantes are not the means to bring justice.  Only people working together in community can make that happen.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Gate Keepers or Permission Givers?

Several years ago I attended a conference in California made up of people who had an interest in what has come to be called “the emerging church.”  One session featured the pastor of a church that was known to be committed to reaching young adults.  One of the participants asked, “How long does it take to get a new ministry going in your church?”  The pastor, visibly uncomfortable and embarrassed, fumbled around without answering the question directly.  Evidently his congregation had a number of “hoops” one had to jump through in order to begin something innovative or unusual.

In each church, there are systems that can either encourage innovation or smother it in the crib.  Very often these are formal systems—committees, deacons, elders, or the session—that are concerned about accountability, liability, and expense.  Sometimes they are more informal entities—staff members, entrenched leaders, or influential persons—who are concerned about prestige, “turf,” or power.

There are no quick or easy ways to overcoming some of these barriers.  Too many churches have adopted the perspective of the gate keeper who is concerned about keeping people out rather than inviting them in, a desire to control rather than to bless.  Very subtly our organizations can come to believe that their primary mission is to protect and defend.  Think about the major change in perspective that would occur if the church came to see its structures as permission-giving in nature, blessing and empowering church members to try something new and innovative.

This is one reason that many Christian leaders, especially young adults, have adopted an entrepreneurial mindset and established ministries that have not been blessed by churches or denominational judicatories and operate outside of traditional channels.  They got tired of running into gate keepers rather than permission givers.

Whenever we say to a person, “We can’t do that because . . .” we may well be squelching the leadership of the Spirit in a person’s life and robbing ourselves of the opportunity to see God move in an unusual way.  The loss is ours because the Spirit will prevail.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Investing in the Servants of God

The door closed on one aspect of my ministry yesterday when I stepped down as coordinator of Central Baptist Theological Seminary Tennessee and passed the mantle to Dr. Sally Holt.  Seven years ago, three entities came together to initiate a new approach to theological education in middle Tennessee. Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Shawnee, Kansas; First Baptist Church of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship partnered to offer classes that would allow students to receive a Master of Divinity degree or a Diploma in Theological Students without leaving home.  Seminary president Dr. Molly Marshall embraced the concept, pastor Dr. Michael Smith came alongside as partner and instructor, and I agreed to serve as volunteer coordinator.

Seven years later, we have graduated six students with the Master of Divinity degree.   Although several students were already ordained ministers, four others have received ordination by their churches. Over sixty students have taken classes, many of them lay people who enrolled as lifelong learners.  Our student body has been gender inclusive, racially diverse, and ecumenical.  We have offered 35 classes (105 hours) of graduate level theological education. Supportive faculty from the main campus at Shawnee and committed local adjunct professors have assured quality instruction, practical insights, and caring support.

We also received accreditation as a degree-granting site by the Association of Theological Schools, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association, and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.  In recent years, Dean Robert Johnson has been a faithful and resourceful guide through that process.  Generous financial support came from the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (thanks to Terry Hamrick), and a number of friends of theological education.  Volunteers like Judy Fryer have provided services that have enriched the lives of students.

Along the way, I received a contract as site coordinator and began teaching classes in spiritual formation and ministry praxis. I have found this especially rewarding and hope to continue to teach classes locally, on-line, and in Shawnee (as part of the Doctor of Ministry program).

This road has not been easy.  “Jumping through the hoops” of accreditation and licensing is difficult and sometimes frustrating work, but I have been proud of the impression that our adjunct faculty and students have made on visiting accrediting teams.  One visitor asked, “Where do you find these great people?”  My answer has been, “God provided.”   We were in the right place at the right time and got the right people “on the bus.”

The future of this site is in good hands.  There are challenges ahead, but there continues to be a need and an effective delivery system.  Please pray for Dr. Holt, our students, and Central Baptist Theological Seminary Tennessee in the days ahead.

Monday, July 09, 2012

How Do You Know When Your Church Needs Help?

Since I was raised in a tradition that not only valued but almost idolized congregational autonomy, I hesitate to suggest that a church might need help from outside in dealing with any concern. I concur with Alan Roxburgh’s idea that the Spirit of God is at work among the people of God to provide both direction and means to accomplish the missio Dei (mission of God).   There are times, however, when an outsider might best facilitate healthy dialogue and discernment.  Often church leaders and members are too close to a problem to help the congregation address it. 

Usually we assume that a congregation needs help when its numbers (nickels and noses) are declining or people are shouting at each other in the business meetings.  Numbers and lack of civil discourse are only the tip of the iceberg, however. If you want to recognize when your church is really in trouble, listen for these statements.

“A new pastor will fix all our problems.”  One could wish that it were that simple.  Seldom are church issues tied to one person; most often they are systemic.  When a friend once told me that every pastor at his church had left on good terms, I suggested that he take another look.  Five pastors in twenty years is about average but it is does not reflect a healthy church unless it is within 50 miles of a seminary and always calls seminary students to serve as pastor.  The problem was deeper, and he finally admitted it.  They needed help.

“We need to go back to the good old days.”  Short of someone inventing a time machine, don’t count on this happening.  We all remember how things used to be but often we remember them in our own way and with a certain rosy glow.  I liked “The Andy Griffith Show,” but I realize that it reflected an ideal rather than a reality.  If we tried to do things the way we did thirty or even ten years ago, we would be thoroughly disappointed with the results.  When we are looking back over our shoulders rather than looking ahead, we need help.

They are keeping us from moving forward.”  When a congregation comes to the point of a division between “us” and “them,” the church has become extremely unhealthy.  Although God’s people don’t always agree, they are all still God’s people!  As Jesus said, “a household divided against itself will not stand” (Matthew 12:25).  Nothing good can come out of a division between those who are “in” and those that are “out.”  This is a sure sign that help is needed.

“We need to get more tithers in the church so that we can meet the budget.”  I can’t remember Jesus ever suggesting that balancing the budget was a worthy basis for evangelism.  When outreach becomes more about survival than about mission, members are talking more like corporate board members than followers of Christ.  They need help.

“We are at the mercy of (some outside force)” When a congregation feels that it is no longer operating under the Lordship of Christ but is beholden to some outside entity—the denomination, the culture, the economy—it has lost its will to function.  There are indeed outside forces that impact a congregation, but the church is called upon to face and overcome those challenges because that is what churches do.  Jesus said that “the gates of Hades” would not overcome his church (Matthew 16:18).  When a congregation feels that it, or ultimately God, no longer controls its destiny, it needs help.

Where can the church find help to gain clarity and regain its momentum?  In the old days, denominational judicatories provided this help and in some faith traditions, they still do.  Today, the help often comes in the form of an intentional interim pastor, a congregational consultant, or a wise “friend” of the church.  Whoever the church calls upon for help, the members must always remember that the final decision about what they do is between them and God.  An outside friend can pray, ask questions, and help to bring clarity but after the process is completed, the congregations makes its choices and lives with them.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

What’s Special about Your Community?

I was talking with a friend recently about the vitality of our downtown area. My friend commented that when the head of a manufacturing company was deciding whether to locate a plant in our town, he asked to see the downtown area.  If the downtown area was alive, he felt that the community was open to growth.

 In many smaller communities like ours, the real action is at the fringes of the town, usually close to the major highway or interstate.  Although this is true of our town as well, the downtown square continues to be an active area where people can gather for various events.  On a recent Saturday, there were several events going on at the same time.  The weekly farmer’s market was being conducted while folk dancers from several countries were performing on the east side of the Courthouse.  Just a few blocks away, a group was observing Juneteenth with music, games, and speakers.  Our downtown is a unique part of our community because people have chosen to invest in it.

Our churches minister in different kinds of communities.  They differ by size, social expectation, economic health, racial makeup and many other factors.  As we consider the most effective ministries for a particular church, we must first come to understand the community where the church is located and where it will invest itself.  We might consider these factors as we develop local ministries for our churches.

First, what are the greatest strengths of our community?  What ministries or services are being done well by various organizations and other congregations?  Can we partner with them to make a good situation better?

Second, what are the points of greatest need?  Are there people in our congregation who are especially gifted to meet those needs?  If so, how do we encourage, empower, and equip them to address that need?

Third, are there hidden needs that we can discover and address?  To find these, we may need to talk with educators, police officers, and health professionals who work regularly with people who “fly under the radar” and will never cross the threshold of our churches.  Perhaps we need to talk to folks in the community who are not affiliated with any religious group and feel disenfranchised.

Every community is special in its own way.  That is why God has uniquely gifted each church for ministry in its own context.