Saturday, September 30, 2017

What Do You Value?

“They followed worthless idols and themselves became worthless.”--2 Kings 17:15b, NIV                                                                                                               

Following the death of King Solomon, Israel split into two kingdoms and both began a downward spiral into idolatry, rejecting the worship of Yahweh for the fertility gods native to Canaan.  They turned their devotion from God and gave it to other things.  In the scripture passage, the writer explains very clearly that if you worship worthless things, you become worthless. What you value determines who you will become. 

Each of us has certain innate values.  What we value gives us worth.  These are the things that make us get up in the morning, the things to which we are devoted.

We usually don’t think about these but we can identify them when we reflect on what is important to us.  When I do appreciative inquiry with a congregation, we begin with exercises that help the participants to recognize and share the common values that unite them.  Those present may vary by age, gender, economic status, and race, but they quickly identify those things that they value in common.

I submit that values may well be more important than vision in providing direction for a congregation or an individual. Our values provide both motivation and clarity. When we know what is important to us, we can decide what course we will pursue.  Our values determine what we will become.

The Christian values his or her relation to God above all else, but what are the behavioral, relational, and ethical values that grow out of that relationship?  It is a question worth asking.

(This post originally appeared on this blog on March 12, 2017)

Friday, September 29, 2017

Responding to Cultural Bias

Religion is not popular in the media.  Perhaps I should modify that to say “organized” religion is not popular in the media.  I am referring primarily to television (in all its platforms), movies, and much of literature.  Religious people are often represented as hypocritical, bigoted, and malicious.

On one television program that my wife and I watch regularly, I know that when someone is identified as a person of faith, they will turn out to be hiding some secret sin or be identified as the murderer!

I understand that many people have become cynical because of those who call themselves religious but eventually are revealed as embezzlers, adulterers, and megalomaniacs.  Sin exists and continues to manifest itself among even those who call themselves believers.  I can’t argue with the truth.  But there are any numbers of the faithful who are making a positive difference in their communities and are an influence for good because of their faith.

So how do we respond to the cynicism of popular culture?

First, we must to continue to be “salt and light” in the world not just to improve our reputations as believers but because it is the right thing to do.  Find ways to make a difference in the life of your community.

Second, we must not become defensive when the sin of another is held up before us.  Although Christians, especially clergy, are held to a higher standard, “we all like sheep have strayed.”  Pray for the fallen and acknowledge that grace is available.

Third, when we see a fellow believer or congregation doing something right, share it with others.  Pray for, become involved in, and financially support these initiatives.  Use your social media accounts to spotlight where believers are making a difference in the world. 

When the popular culture attacks, turn the other cheek and be a servant.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Culture as Gift

In his classic work, Transforming Mission:  Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, David Bosch writes:

“The Christian faith is intrinsically incarnational; therefore, unless the church chooses to remain a foreign entity, it will always enter into the context in which it happens to find itself.”

What is culture?  Culture is the way of life for an entire society. As such, it includes "codes of manners, dress, language, religion, rituals, norms of behavior such as law and morality, and systems of belief."

Usually when “culture” is discussed in religious literature, it is considered as an opponent to be overcome.  Culture often carries a negative connotation.  Reggie McNeal in A Work of the Heart points out that culture also serves God’s purposes.  We are not born into a vacuum; we depend on culture to give us a beginning point in understanding ourselves. As a result, we are both products of culture and interpreters of culture.  McNeal encourages spiritual leaders not only to connect with culture, but also “to influence culture rather than insulate against it.”

Our first challenge is to see culture through the lens of scripture.  Using a theological perspective as a means of analysis, what in our culture is life-giving and what promotes death?  What gives hope and what creates lethargy?  We dissect our culture and find ways to use it to propagate the faith.

The second opportunity is to appropriate the symbols and themes of our culture that will help interpret the gospel for today.  McNeal also writes, “The intended outcome . . . is that you as a leader treat culture as a gift and lead those you influence to missionally interface with culture.”

Consider the culture in which the Gospel began to spread beyond Palestine.  How did the missionaries of the young Christian movement deal with the Greco-Roman culture they encountered?  Would they attack it or use it to further their task?  Their choice was to find elements in that culture that would interpret and spread the Good News in that time and place.  Where appropriate, they embraced culture; where necessary, they stood against it.

Our challenge is to develop a mindset that allows us to engage our culture without being threatened by it, seeing it as a gift rather than an impediment to our ministry.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Accepting Reality

The man who came to my office was a retired moderate Baptist pastor who had moved to Tennessee recently.  He came to talk to me about ministry opportunities in the immediate area.  I expressed appreciation for his interest, asked him some questions about himself, told him a little bit about the nature of progressive Baptist life, promised to share his resume as opportunity presented itself, and suggested that he might want to expand his search to some other denominations in middle Tennessee.  He finally said to me, “I come in here asking for your help and all you can tell me is that I might have to seek a place in another denomination?  That’s not very helpful!”

Helpful or not, I had defined reality from my experience.  He had the choice to accept it or not. In this case, he did not.  The late Max DePree wrote, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.  The last is to say thank you.”

When we go to someone asking for insight or information, how will we handle the information we receive?

First, we can accept it as one person’s perspective or one piece of the puzzle.  Each of us tends to see reality from our own point of view, so talking with several sources of information provides balance.  We say, “Thanks,” and seek further counsel elsewhere.

Second, we listen to those we have asked for insight and use it to formulate a strategy that fits our own gifts, talents, and needs.  Too often we think inside the box rather than reconfiguring the box to fit the unique service we offer.

Third, we hang onto our own perception of reality because of inflexibility, lack of vision, or fear to move outside our comfort zone.  We try to make it work for us despite the obstacles. 

My visitor did talk to others in the area, but eventually moved on to seek opportunities for service elsewhere.  I think it was a good decision for him.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

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.

Those of us who are believers today need this same type of involvement. 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 recently, and they decided to take me to (what we call in middle Tennessee) a “meat and three” restaurant. The place was not fancy, the food was good, and the people were friendly. 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 fresh insight about their church, who it reached, and possibilities for change.

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.

 (This blog post is adapted from material in For Such a Time as This:  Aligning Church and Leadership for Missional Ministry by Ircel Harrison. The book is available from Amazon.)