Monday, July 31, 2017

Forming Laity for Ministry: A Paradigm Shift

Bivocational or biprofessional ministry has always been part of Christian ministry.  The idea of serving as a minister while earning a primary or secondary income is nothing new, but the concept has been more common in some eras than others.  With the declining revenues in many churches and denominations, some are asking such questions as, “Can the church andminister afford each other?”

Biprofessionalism is one alternative that many churches consider.  Those ministers who are biprofessionalism understand both the positive and negative aspects of the practice.  A new paradigm requires new ways of thinking.  One challenge is helping the church to transition to the idea that the pastor can longer give his or her full-time to the congregation.  On the other hand, the trend provides opportunities for lay leaders to reclaim significant ministries in the life of the congregation.  This is the topic I want to address.

Lay leaders may be asked to take on increased responsibilities for pastoral care, worship, age-group leadership, and community ministry.  Although laity have been key participants in these ministries in the past, when the minister becomes part-time, how will their roles grow?

In the past, denominations took the lead in training lay leaders through conferences, retreats, and consultation.  These resources have diminished significantly and often the churches must look elsewhere for training opportunities for lay leaders.

Ministers often assumed this equipping role in the local church or parish, but as more ministers become part-time, their time and resources to do this are limited. 

Where does theological education fit into increased use of laity in roles that ministers might have filled previously? This question deserves serious consideration.  This is a door of opportunity for theological institutions.  If seminaries and theological schools wish to serve the needs of local churches, this is an emerging need--the formation of laity to assume increased responsibilities for leadership of vital ministries.  In subsequent blogs, I hope to unpack these opportunities further.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Signs of the Kingdom

Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God was already here but not yet present.  The Kingdom is a reality that is breaking through but has not yet come.  Each day we should be alert to signs of the Kingdom of God breaking into our ordinary existence.  Such signs give us hope, encouragement, and direction. 

I was reminded of this recently when I read this text from Matthew 19:14: 

“Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’” (NIV)

With grandchildren in our home on a regular basis, I have had the opportunity to think about this verse in a real-life context.  We love our children and grandchildren, but we also recognize that their conduct is not always exemplary.  They argue, they are selfish, they fail to get along with their siblings, but they do show genuine expressions of love and concern when we least expect it.

In this verse, I believe the intention is not that we should attempt to replicate the typical behavior of children in order to be closer to the Kingdom.  There is something else here.  In context, Jesus’ statement is preceded by this verse:

“Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them.”

What was the purpose of those who brought the children for Jesus’ blessing?  The place of children (especially female children) was not significant in the New Testament world, but perhaps in bringing their children to be blessed by Jesus, these parents and friends were expressing a desire for something more for these youngsters.  Perhaps they saw in Jesus a new way of valuing people and wanted to have that passed on to a new generation. 

I suggest that one sign of the Kingdom may be the hope that things will be better for those who follow us.  We hope that the Kingdom will become more real in their lives than it has been in ours until that generation in which the Kingdom of God is complete.  Therefore, we invest in nurturing Kingdom vision in those under our influence.

Another teaching here for us comes from the reaction of the disciples.  Did they think that blessing children was not worth their Master’s time?  Were they so concerned about their own position in the peaking order of the Kingdom that they were jealous of the time that others might spend with Jesus?   A sign of the Kingdom may be our willingness to share citizenship with others.

Finally, unlike many who followed Jesus, the children came expecting nothing except time in the presence of Jesus.  This may be challenge to us:  by spending more time with Jesus we will be better equipped to perceive the Kingdom at work.  Our perception of the Kingdom grows as we practice the presence of God in our lives.  If our spiritual senses are not properly tuned, our reception will be inadequate.  We won’t see the signs if we are not prepared to see them.

We may be citizens of the Kingdom, but we are still discovering its geography.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Asking the Hard Questions

Having coached for almost ten years now, I have assumed that one thing that makes me attractive as a coach is my easy-going attitude.  For the most part, I come across as non-judgmental and supportive.  Some have termed it “Southern graciousness.”

At some point in a coaching relationship, however, I may find it necessary to set this persona aside if I am to effectively coach my client.  I was reminded of this last year when I attended a coach training event in California.  We were asked to identify skills we needed to work on to be better coaches.  I chose three:  challenging, intruding, and taking charge.

Now all of these run counter to my normal way of doing things, but our trainers pointed out that sometimes a coach should stretch and step outside of his or her comfort zone to serve the client more effectively.

Clients do not need a coach who is a “yes” person but one who will make them dig deeper and discover the abilities, determination, and initiative that is too often been dormant.  Sometimes a coach needs to move a client into less comfortable territory.

Some questions that display these skills are:

“You have used this approach in the past.  What have been the results?”  When a coach has worked with a client for awhile, he or she has seen how the client addresses certain concerns.  The coach realizes that the client has an accepted modus operandi that probably should be challenged to determine its effectiveness in the current situation.

“Is this something you really want to do?  Your failure to follow through indicates otherwise.”  If a client has set a goal and fails to pursue it, the coach digs deeper to help the client identify motivation and assess commitment.  Perhaps this item is no longer a priority for the client and there is a need to focus attention elsewhere.  On the other hand, the goal may need to be redefined or clarified.

“When are you going to ‘pull the trigger’ on this project?”  If a client has clear goals or great ideas but never acts, what’s the obstacle? Perhaps there is no sense of urgency or a fear of failure.  The coach’s role is to help the client get “unstuck.”

“What’s the real concern here?”  Often a client will talk at length about a situation, perhaps as a way of avoiding action.  The coach can help the client to focus and move on by calling the conversation to a halt and challenging the client to determine the real issue and a plan of action.

Of course, these questions are productive only when one has developed trust and rapport with the client.  He or she must know that by asking these questions the coach is doing his or her job to help the client move to the next level.  

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Liminal Space

I have just completed the first of two eye surgeries that remove cataracts and implant a new lens in each eye.  This is a time of transition.  The vision in one eye is improved significantly while the other remains the same as before.  My old eyeglasses work great for the eye that has not had surgery, but not at all for the one with the new lens.  The transition will continue through the next surgery on the other eye and for some time after.

This is a liminal space for me.  Alan Roxburgh introduced me to the idea of liminality.  In a ritual, this is the state of being on the threshold from one way of doing life to another.  One is almost there but not yet. It is a time of disorientation, stress, and promise.

The nation of Israel experienced liminal space as they passed through the wilderness. They were no longer slaves but they were not yet what God had called them to be.

Parents experience this liminal space when children graduate from high school and begin college, a job, or military service.  Their sons and daughters are not quite adults but they are no longer children.  What will relationships be like in this new stage of life?

When we change jobs--either voluntarily or involuntarily--we find ourselves in liminal space. We knew the expectations and environment in the old position, but what will be required of us in our new role?

At retirement, we give up what is familiar to move into a different pattern of life.  Too often, we do this with a lack of clarity and enter into a time of uncertainty and identity confusion.

When churches lose a staff member, they find themselves in a time of change.  Many will grieve over the loss of a beloved minister and may even be concerned about who might take her or his place.  Will the new person be open to establishing healthy relationships with church members?  How will church members have to change to work with the new person?

These are the experiences of life.  The only way to deal with these liminal spaces, these times of uncertainty and change, is to keep moving.  Take the next step.  Be willing to address what comes in a positive way, seeking God’s support as we do so.  Liminal space is not only a time of loss but of promise.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Signs of Hope for the Church: Spirituality

When I was a young person in the church, I was blessed by being involved in a strong program of “religious education.”  I learned the books of the Bible, learned how to pray, and even learned some theology, church history, and Baptist polity.

Early in my ministry, I immersed myself in an emphasis on “discipleship” which included spiritual practices such as Bible study, scripture memorization, prayer, and witnessing.  Toward the end of that period I discovered Richard Foster’s work on historical spiritual practices and disciplines, taking my understanding of discipleship to a new level.

Today, believers in many Christian denominations seem to have rediscovered and begun to practice these spiritual disciplines that help us to go beyond knowing about God to knowing God personally.

Is it possible that the church in the 21st century is becoming more spiritual?  More of us are becoming aware of practices initiated by the church fathers and mothers and making them part of our daily lives.  This can only be a good thing!

How can we take this step toward a deeper spiritualty in our lives and thus empower us as we are part of the missio Dei?

First, we must unlearn some things.  We typically ask questions of the biblical text, but what if we let it ask questions of us?   In order to let the Bible speak to us through the practice of Lectio Divina, we must not only use the tools of biblical exegesis but interact with the text on a personal level.

Second, we must be willing to let go of certainty and control.  When we enter into a practice such as contemplative prayer, we give ourselves over to God and God’s presence with us.  This may have surprising results.

Third, we can become part of a small group to support us in our quest.  Real Christian growth takes place in a community of accountability.  We need others to challenge and support us in our spiritual journey.

These commitments strength us individually and equip us to be more effective in the Body of Christ.  In so doing, we embrace the work of the Spirit in our lives and in our faith community.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Signs of Hope for the Church: Innovation

My former pastor Mike Smith once said something to the effect, “Don’t say that Baptists have never done a certain thing.  Baptists have done a lot of things they may not be doing now.”  This is true of the church at large.  Every form of ministry was at one time new and untried. 

In a missional church class several years ago, students helped me to see that innovation happens in the church in response to a cultural need, the innovation matures and become institutionalized, and then society changes and innovation is needed once again.  In reality, the church must always be in the process of renewal.

This is not to say that innovation is quickly accepted.  Once a practice becomes established in the life of the church, change is hard if not impossible.  One reason is that change is uncomfortable.  Another is that each practice has someone willing to fight for its continuity even if it no longer works.

Innovation is not easy, but reality eventually dawns and I believe more churches are becoming open to trying different methodologies as part of the mission Dei.  How can we encourage innovation in the life of the church?

First, we must know what is essential and what is not.  What are the basics of faith and practice and what is negotiable?  These are hard conversations, but just because we have always made certain statements and done things one way does not mean that these are central to our theology.  The scriptures do not tell us when to worship but we are encouraged to do so.  Eleven o’clock on Sunday morning may be an accepted time for worship but it is not biblical!

Second, we must exegete our culture and understand the opportunities there for ministry.  Our example is Paul the Apostle, who never abandoned his faith in Christ, but was willing to use his knowledge of the Greek and Roman cultures to clearly articulate the Gospel while building on the Jewish practices of mutual support to establish new faith communities.  His innovations provided a way to penetrate first century culture with the Christian faith.

Third, we must recognize the gifts and skills of those within our fellowship that broaden and strengthen our ministry.  God sends our way those needed to build up the body of Christ.  Whether clergy or laity, we must unleash their abilities in order to engage our context.

Fourth, we must listen to the outsiders and neophytes.  If we truly want to make an impact in our community, we will listen to the voices of those outside our fellowship and tap into their expertise.  New believers or those who are new to our fellowship also offer valuable insight.  Why did they choose to join us? What do they see with “fresh eyes” that we have overlooked?

The mission of God was instituted by a creative God, one who continually surprises us with love and provision. As God’s people, we must be follow that example.