Wednesday, March 26, 2014

What is a Missional Ecclesiology?

Hardly a week goes by without another poll dealing with the decline and marginalization of the church.  One might become easily discouraged by such reports, but I believe that one antidote is to develop a new way of looking at the life and work of the church.  This comes through the understanding and implementation of a missional ecclesiology.

In theological circles, ecclesiology is the study of the doctrine of the church.  There have been a number of ways of interpreting the nature of the church informed by the Bible, history, context and practice.  Ecclesiology is an evolving doctrine.

The term “missional” refers to the essential nature and vocation of the church as God’s called and sent people.  Missional is a way of being and doing life as individuals, groups, and congregations.

Living missionally means that we ask the question, “What does God want us to be, do, and become to continue the ministry of Christ within our own community and global context?” rather than, “What do we want to be, do, and become to respond to our denominational programs or unexamined beliefs and traditions?”

Rowan Williams has expressed what it means to embrace a missional ecclesiology in this way:  “It is not the Church of God that has a mission, but the God of mission who has a church.”  A missional church is the sent church of a sending God.

What’s the difference between “missions” and “missional”?  In the Christendom era of the church (which some of us believe still exists), missions was understood to be a program of the congregation supported by financial offerings, prayer, organizations, and projects.  In the age of the missional congregation, missions refers to those initiatives taken by individuals, impromptu groups and organized entities to respond to identified needs in the world, as a continuation of the mission of God.

Developing a theology of the church (ecclesiology) that is informed by a missional vision gives one a new perspective on what it means to be the church today.  As a result, we are no longer concerned about survival but faithfulness, no longer invested in growing our influence but in serving others, and no longer inward focused but outward focused. 

Your vision will determine your ecclesiology.  What is your vision for the church?

[Additional resources about a missional ecclesiology:   A Missional Journey Guide (Atlanta:  CBF; 2002), and Darrel Guder, et al., MissionalChurch:  A Vision for the Sending of theChurch in North America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).]

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Learning from Experience

According to the story, a young person asked an older, wiser person, “How do I avoid mistakes?”  The mentor said, “Get experience.”  The young person rejoined, “Then how do I get experience?” The reply:  “Make mistakes.” 

Of course, this assumes that one learns from his or her mistakes.  Unfortunately, many of us make mistakes again and again but never learn from them.  How do we learn from mistakes?  Let me suggest several steps.

First, pray that God will give you a teachable spirit.  If we are unwilling to learn from our mistakes and adapt our behavior, we won’t improve.  We will continue to do the same thing again and again and expect different results. Albert Einstein called that insanity.

Second, give yourself the space to reflect on exactly what happened.  Don’t obsess about it, but make sure that you have a well-rounded picture of events.  You might even ask a trusted friend who observed the event or action to give you some honest feedback.  The perspective may well be very different from your own.

Third, consider some alternative ideas, approaches, or ways of acting.  This is another place where a trusted mentor or friend may help by offering suggestions.  Try to find out what others have done in the same situation.  Their experiences may not be replicable in your case but may stimulate your thinking.

Fourth, practice a new way of doing what you did before.  This is more than “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”  This is “If at first you don’t succeed, try a different, more informed approach.”

I once confessed to a supervisor that about half of the things that I was trying in my ministry situation were not working.  His advice was, “Don’t stop trying.”  Even failures can fuel successful if we use them wisely.

This post originally appeared as an ABP blog in January 2014

Monday, March 17, 2014

Calling and Vocation

Despite the vast changes in work and society, we continue to ask children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  We plant in children at an early age that their work, their job, will be an important part of their identity.  Perhaps we would serve them better if we asked the question, “What will you become?”

There seems to be renewed interest among Baptist Christians in the concepts of vocation and calling.  The words are used in different ways in various contexts.  Although we tend to think about only those who work with the sacred as having a “calling” and those who work in the secular world as having a “vocation,” this is not true in all Christian traditions and is probably poor theology.

Whether we see what we do as a vocation or a calling, they are intertwined.  The message is the same:  We serve God by responding to the prompting of God to do that for which we are best equipped. Our vocation or calling should be an expression of what God has designed each of us to be and become.

My own experience of calling to a ministry vocation slowly emerged as an inner sense of “rightness” and an outer affirmation of other voices came into alignment.  I did not hear that “still small voice,” but I became gradually aware of my own gifts and competencies and, almost hungrily, grasped any word of encouragement or affirmation I received from mentors or peers about my gifts for ministry.  The truth here (in my experience anyway) is that the call to vocational ministry does not happen in a vacuum.  It results from the intersection between one’s growing understanding of his or her God-given gifts and one’s involvement in a community of a faith.

In subsequent years, I have learned that this calling to a vocation is not a static experience.  As we go trough life and encounter new experiences, learning, and opportunities, our sense of calling continues to evolve.  Ernesto Carnedal wrote,

"God’s call, vocation, is twofold. God calls us saying, ‘Come, follow me.’ We arrive and then we must follow. We find but must go on seeking. God’s call is a never-ending call, to the unknown, to adventure, to follow him in the night, in solitude. It is a call incessantly to go further, and further. For it is not static but dynamic (as creation also is dynamic) and reaching him means going on and on. God’s call is like the call to become an explorer; it is an invitation to adventure.”

No matter what age we may be, we can continue to ask the question, “What will you become?”

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Saint Patrick: Legend and Inspiration

This week many will celebrate the life of Saint Patrick of Ireland with green shamrocks, green clothing, green beer, and even green rivers.  The day has become a time to celebrate the mythos of Eire, the Emerald Isle, and to party, but we can also take advantage of the day to take a second look at Patrick the churchman and his legacy.

As one might expect, much of the story of Patrick is shrouded in myth. The accepted story is that he was kidnapped from Britain by Irish raiders when he was 16 and taken to Ireland where he was a slave for six years.  He eventually escaped and returned to his family, but he took vows with the Church and returned to his place of enslavement as a missionary.  He is credited with converting the island to the Christian faith.  By the seventh century, he had come to be revered as the patron saint of Ireland.

The genius of Patrick seems to have been his ability to contextualize the faith in order to win converts.  He took advantage of the well-developed stories, customs, and institutions of Ireland to present the Gospel in a powerful way.  So significant was this approach that it gave birth to what we call Celtic Christianity, a movement that differentiated itself from the Roman form of the faith for centuries.

 In his book The Celtic Way of Evangelism, George Hunter identifies several aspects of this approach:

·         A team strategy.  The followers of Patrick usually worked in cohorts for mutual support and encouragement.
·         Spiritual empowerment from a community of believers.  Celtic Christian created a number of “foundations” (also called houses or monasteries) that became centers of civilization and learning as well as evangelism.
·         Imaginative prayer.  They took seriously the world around them as a gift from God and immersed themselves in its beauty and power as a means of becoming closer to God.
·         Hospitality.  They readily accepted seekers, guests, and refugees into their midst.
·         A conversion model based on fellowship.  Whereas the Roman model could be summarized as believe, belong, and practice, the Celtic model was belong, practice, and then believe.

How much of this can be credited to Patrick is by no means clear, but accounts testify to him as a man of both commitment and creativity.  Patrick and his followers seemed to show a love and respect for their fellows which built a bridge over which unbelievers could cross without fear.  Mythic or not, the example is inspiring to believers in the 21st century.

(A version of this was originally posted in March 2011.)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Spirit-Prompted Creativity through Community

Create student Angela Powell
Angela Powell entered seminary to pursue her ministry calling.  She had responded to the leadership of the Holy Spirit to begin Bright Future Ministries, but she realized that she needed to know more to be an effective leader.  As a create master of divinity student at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, she became part of a community that has equipped her with the ministry and entrepreneurial skills to expand that ministry.

Create is an innovative approach to theological education that helps a student develop his or her unique ministry vision.  Classes and internships are designed to equip, challenge, and empower students toward that goal.  Create is not your typical master of divinity program but calls students, instructors, and administrators to be open to “the wind of the Spirit” in a supportive faith community.

This is particularly true in Angela’s case.  For one of her create internships, she had the opportunity to work with the Institutional Advancement team of the seminary -- Molly Marshall, president; John Gravley, vice president for institutional advancement; Robin Sandbothe, director of seminary relations; Debra Sermons, director of recruitment; Francisco Litardo, director of social media community; and the administrative staff.

As she worked with the members of team, Angela learned much about fund raising, communicating vision, and teamwork. She observed, “As I witnessed the genuineness of this team, I have grown to understand and know what a true team player looks like as well as be one.”

Community born out of a Trinitarian theology brings new life.  In a Review and Expositor article, President Marshall once wrote, “When the community expresses its life as Imago Trinitatis, certain practices ensue: Generativity, Humility, Hospitality, Diversity.”  These attributes are what Angela discovered both in her create cohort and in her work with the Institutional Advancement Team.  As students are involved in community with other believers, they discern more clearly the leadership of the Spirit in their lives and ministries.

The new models of theological education adopted by Central—an entrepreneurial master of divinity degree, contextualized internships, global partnerships, language contextualization programs, online classes, coaching and mentoring for students—allow for the Spirit of God to work creatively through community as students are formed for ministry.  This is a unique gift.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Seeing and Believing

My friend Larry Taylor was our supply preacher on Sunday morning.  Larry always brings a unique perspective to a passage and wrings new truth out of familiar words.  He did it again on Sunday as he preached from John 11 about the raising of Lazarus.  I came away thinking about which comes first for a Christian—the seeing or the believing.

We have heard since we were children that “seeing is believing” but the introduction of digital photography, CGI, and Photoshop makes that a questionable statement.  We now see things on the screen that are impossible or fantastic but they are there anyway.  Even in actual events such as a traffic accident, witnesses often disagree on what took place.  Each has his or her own perspective.

Larry suggested that perhaps believing more often precedes seeing (at least that is what I heard).  We have to have a frame of reference in order to really understand the meaning of events.   Many who saw Jesus, heard his teachings, and observed his miracles still rejected him.  The raising of Lazarus led to belief by some but rejection by others.

How do we know God and see God’s work among us today?  Most often we see God at work through the eyes of faith.  In other words, as believers, we know what to look for.  Is this subjective?  Yes, it is, but we must realize that scientists often admit that they get what they are looking for.  Quantum physicists discuss whether light is made up of particles or waves.  Usually they get what they expect when doing observations. 

There is a special blessing for those who see with the eyes of faith.  At the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus is reported to have said, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29, NIV)

Perhaps the impact of the statement is seen more clearly in The Message:  “So, you believe because you’ve seen with your own eyes. Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing.”(John 20:29, The Message)

Seeing or believing?  Which comes first in your life?

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

You Need Four Kinds of Mentors

Mentoring is a very popular term today with a number of definitions and formats.  Mentoring allows us to benefit from the skills and experiences of others as we identify our own strengths and areas of potential growth.  The practice is important not only in corporations but for churches and not for profit organizations as well.  Several of types of mentoring are suggested in a blog from the Harvard Business Review, and I have added one more.

1.  Buddy or peer mentoring is much like an “apprenticeship” that helps a person “learn the ropes” in a new setting.  Formal peer mentoring helps a new person to mesh into an organization, but much of this type of orientation and assimilation takes place informally.  In a ministerial setting, we often find this type of mentoring with fellow students in seminary, other staff members, or in lunch or coffee groups with ministers in the community.  Although this may be done informally, the process is very important to becoming oriented to a new ministry setting.

2. Career mentoring is very intentional in large organizations but ministers often must seek it out for themselves.  The career mentor, who is usually not the person’s supervisor, serves as career advisor and internal advocate in an organization.  For those in ministry, the career mentor is often a former pastor, a seminary professor, or an older friend in ministry. Although this type of relationship develops naturally among male ministers, women in ministry often have to seek out such advocates.

3.  Life mentoring is very important as one’s responsibilities grow.  Everyone needs someone in whom he or she can confide without fear of bias.  Such trusted mentors are sounding boards for career challenges such as changing jobs or pursuing a new place of ministry.  Several years ago, I was asked by a realtor friend to join with two other people—both businessmen—to be his personal “board.”  As trusted friends, we walked alongside him as he launched a new phase of his career.  We were serving as life mentors.  

4.  Reverse mentoring provides the opportunity for a seasoned leader to learn something from a younger person and for the younger person to contribute to the organization in a special relationship with a leader.  The concept is discussed by Earl Creps in his book Reverse Mentoring.  For example, you might match a young leader to a senior executive to teach him or her how to use social media.  The executive will learn about social media, and the young adult will experience how the organization works.  This happened in a church setting when the minister to students was given an iPad and given the task of helping the church office become “paperless.”

We all can and must take advantage of the opportunities to both learn from others and share our own knowledge and skills with them.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Reaching Young Adults for the Church

Concerns about reaching young adults for the church came up in three different conversations in which I was involved last week.  One was an online peer group call with ministers who have a particular interest in this demographic.  Another was with the minister of Christian formation in a local congregation who wants to make sure that these folks are included in church life.  The third conversation was with leaders from several states who seek to raise funds for collegiate ministries in areas where Baptists have limited resources.

Of course, when we talk about young adults, we often neglect the diversity within the age group.  The demographic included singles, married couples, single parents, college and university students, graduate students, blue collar workers, young professionals, and military personnel (just to name a few).  This is not a monolithic group although they share many characteristics.  Some may resist be considered as part of a “young adult” demographic but this is the way we tend to think and plan in religious circles.

Why is the church so interested in reaching this group?  I can think of several reasons.

First, there is the matter of survival.  As one person has said, “The church is always one generation away from death.”  As a living and dying organism, the ranks of the Christian faithful must be continually replenished with new or restored believers.  Young adults who are making choices about their commitments and lifestyles are a particularly attractive source for “new blood.”

Second, some leaders are motivated by a desire to bring young adults into fellowship with Christ.  Although this may overlap somewhat with the previous reason, this concern is more motivated by sharing the love of God than sustaining an organization, even if it is the Body of Christ.  They want young adults to experience salvation and a daily walk with God.

Third and certainly related to the other two is to nurture young adults in the Christian faith so that they may become part of God’s people and be involved in the work of the Kingdom of God.  This takes more of the long view that becoming a believer is part of a lifelong process of discovery and service.

Whatever our motivation, we will continue to discuss, plan, and attempt ways to connect with young adults and bring them into the family of God.