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Friday, December 28, 2012

Transformation is Not a Passive Process

“Transformation is not a passive process.  
It is a process in which we continue to make choices and our character develops.” 
Dallas Willard

     Ask anyone in church if they desire to grow in their faith, to become more like Christ, and the usual response is “Yes.”  Follow that question with another, “What are you doing now for that to happen?” and the usual response is a puzzled look.  Rarely does the average church member think about intentional steps for growing in their faith.  Others mistakenly believe that regular attendance in worship does the job.  Make no mistake, regular worship is vital for a growing faith.  But alone, from any other intentional practices, worship will accomplish little in spiritual growth.

     I have written a book, Faith Journey: a Pathway for Traveling with Christ, which is really a curriculum in Christlikeness.  This fourteen-week journey with a small group looks at the nature of discipleship, the five irreducible faith practices of a follower of Jesus and guides each person in the development of a personal, intentional, spiritual growth plan for becoming more Christlike.  In one sense, this curriculum is a “starter kit” for beginning an authentic walk with Jesus that leads to personal transformation.

     Dallas Willard is right that spiritual transformation does not just happen because we wish for it.  We clearly see this truth with our physical bodies.  If we desire to be physically fit and full of energy what is required is intentional practices of regular exercise and good choices with our diet.  No one has ever “wished” pounds off.  Choices must be made and acted on.

     Fortunately, there is help with nearly every desire for change.  Alcoholics Anonymous has helped countless people move away from an unhealthy dependence on alcohol, Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig have assisted many in losing weight, and similar support groups for other difficulties abound.  Rarely does someone have to “go it alone” when seeking transformation.  But in every one of these organizations, membership is followed by intentional practices.  Faith Journey (available on Amazon.com by placing “W. Douglas Hood, Jr.” in the search engine) was written to be your partner in spiritual transformation.  Naturally, there are other resources available that guide the individual along a pathway of spiritual growth.  One of the best is Discipleship Essentials by Greg Ogden, also available on Amazon.  Regardless of the resource selected, transformation of character into that of Christ will require the kind of intentionality these resources provide.  Yes, each of these resources requires energy and effort.  But I ask you not to think of it as “homework” but, rather, as “faithwork.”  Your life will be changed.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

New Models for Ministry

“Why do we keep doing church the same way even when we know it’s in critical decline?”

“The problem is that our present evangelical ‘Come to us’ paradigm of the church has not been an appropriate missiological response to the paradigms that exist in our world.”

Both quotes from, The Tangible Community: Creating Incarnational Community

     I agree that that second quote is fairly jargon laden.  But the insight is an important one. The problem with the way many congregations do church is that they attempt to “institutionalize” the way church was once done, and the way we like it, and expect people to come and share our preference.  Examples abound.  We want worship that only uses music that suits our taste, Sunday School that uses traditional curriculum and programs offerings “like we remember it used to be done.”  Rather than asking the important question, “How might we connect more people to Jesus Christ?” we become guardians of “old” church.

     Consider this quote from another book, A Field Guide for the Missional Congregation.  “The speaker was trying to be gracious, but he also wanted to be honest.  Addressing a large number of pastors of a midsized mainline denomination, he remarked, ‘You know, if the 1950s ever come back, your congregations are well prepared to respond.’”

     Fortunately, the numbers of people in our church who are discontent with “old” church are multiplying.  They are persons who have a contagious passion to share Jesus Christ with others.  And they are determined to do so even if it means developing new models for ministry.

     This, of course, does not mean that everything old is bad.  Traditional worship, with its traditional hymns, continues to speak to the deep needs of many persons.  Traditional Sunday School curriculum can still be effective for some and programs that have been repeated for years may still have value.  The conversation here is not about “out with the old and in with the new!”  The point these books wish to make is that it is shortsighted to expect unchurched persons in our community to be spiritually nurtured in the same way that we are.  Rather than wholesale dismissal of everything old and embracing only what is new, these authors suggest a principle of “and also.”  This principal simply means that the church continue with what still works while exploring “also” other approaches to connect people with Jesus and nurture their faith.

      In the New Year, your leaders will be wrestling with how we might keep our focus on the main thing, bringing more people to Jesus Christ.  Celebrating what already works while developing new approaches will require much discernment and care.  Your continued prayers for your Elders is solicited and appreciated. 


Thursday, December 13, 2012

Building a Great Church

“Let us build a church so great that those who come after us may think us mad to have attempted it!”
Unknown Christian leader whose words led to the building of the Cathedral of Seville

     Naturally, the definition of “great” is subjective. Different people will have different notions of what “great” looks like. Yet, many members of any church would say they would like for “their” church to be “great.” Some might say that their church has already arrived – that their church is now a great church. I believe that it is safe to say that the unknown leader whose words are quoted above defined “great” as a building of incredible size and beauty.

     Some members of First Presbyterian Church of Delray Beach believe that this church has already arrived – that this is a great church. I have heard some mention our “great music program.” Others have pointed to the beautiful Sanctuary. Still others speak with considerable delight about the positive impact the church makes in the community addressing homelessness, hunger and addiction. Each one is right, of course. By each of these measures, First Presbyterian Church is a great church.

     But let’s return to our original notion that “great” is subjective. It all comes down to what any particular person considers “great.” While celebrating what First Presbyterian Church already does well, there remains other areas where “great” is still out in front of us. Each person will have their own list; their own idea of where this church can still achieve greater distinction. Permit me to share my dream list:
*    Increasing numbers of people organizing themselves in small groups for the purposes of intentional spiritual formation.
*    Increasing numbers of people who equip themselves for contagiously reaching others for Jesus Christ and inviting them to full participation in the life and ministry of the church.
*    Increasing numbers of people who chose to give-up the notion that they have “done their duty” to the church but continually look for ways to be in ministry that the church may be more effective.
*    Increasing numbers of people who chose to live with a spirit of financial generosity to the church recognizing that nothing has greater value than the impact of the church upon the world.

     Your list may be different. But I hope that you have a list. It is dangerous not to have a list. The absence of a list suggests that nothing more needs to be done, that God is satisfied with the current ministry. That kind of thinking not only results in smugness and eventual lethargy and death of the church, it is simply not faithful to the Bible. God simply will not rest until every human heart has been fully transformed from thoughts of entitlement and self-interest to the selfless character and generosity of spirit that possessed Christ. 


Thursday, December 6, 2012

Our Shared Ministry

“Victimized by nostalgia and buffeted by fear, the church is focused too much on
 merely holding the small plot of ground that it currently occupies to
 confidently reimagine a robust future.”
-Michael Frost

     Frost argues that many churches today have become so preoccupied with self – the preservation of old programs, maintenance of old leadership models and a “good-enough” attitude toward its facilities – that they no longer are a major force in the community for God.  Such churches spend more energy on resentful sadness about what was, and now is not, than on confidently listening for God to lead them into a robust future.

     Amazingly, I am hearing something different from many members of this church. I hear that you understand people today expect quality and our church must meet that expectation in all that we do, that the needs of people have changed so our approach to ministry must change, and that God will never be honored with a “good-enough” attitude.  These comments and many more have been on the lips of church members in the short time I have been with you. These comments are not typical for a church as old as First Presbyterian. 

     As I complete my first six months as your pastor, I am continually surprised and delighted by the number of persons who have been seized with a forward view for our shared ministry.  You are not a people who desire to rest upon past success.  God has much more to accomplish – until every nation has acknowledged Jesus as Lord – and you seem energized by how God will make you a part of that future.  For that I am deeply grateful.


Friday, November 30, 2012

How To Do Ministry Over Time

“When the Spirit breaks in, old ways of thinking and living are left behind
 and new ways of thinking and living begin to take over.  
Old boring, oppressive, and dead social structures and institutions are transformed
 into exciting new, liberating ones.  It may not happen all at once, 
but when the Holy Spirit comes there is the dawn of a new day, 
hope for a new and different future, and courage and strength to move toward it.”
Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine

      These words are from an old seminary textbook I had during my seminary days more than twenty-five years ago.  Yet, they still speak with freshness to the church today.

     The author was my professor of Reformed Theology.  He continued to challenge his students to look for the activity of the Holy Spirit in the church.  He also challenged his students to look for obstacles that good church people continually put in place to prevent a fresh work of the Spirit.  Idolatry, Guthrie taught, was evident in Christian churches as well as in secular culture.  Idolatry was simply placing our hope and security in something that is familiar and fixed; something other than the God of the Bible who is always mixing things up.

     We don’t like change very much.  This is especially true in the church.  Guthrie observed that when the world changes rapidly around us, we seek refuge and protection from the unfamiliar in the church.  Problem is, says Guthrie, if you don’t like change, you won’t much like God either.  God is always mixing things up.  Pay close enough attention to the Bible and you will hear again and again, “I am accomplishing a new thing!”

     Your church leaders, the Elders, are continually called to prayer and discernment of what God is up to in our church.  The natural result is a visioning and planning process that most certainly results in changes in how we do ministry over time.  If we didn’t intentionally plan for change, we should not be surprised if we continue to get more of the same; same level of church membership, same level of worship attendance, same level of financial support for God’s mission in the world.

     I believe that it was Jim Collins who mentioned that the reason a major railroad company experienced rapid decline in profits at one point was that it never realized what business it was in.  The company thought it was in the railroad business when, in fact, it was in the transportation business.  As the transportation business demanded new models, the railroad stubbornly stuck to running a railroad business and almost bankrupt.  The church must remember what business it is in, lest it also bankrupts.  We are in the business of making disciples for Jesus Christ and the way we once did that may no longer be effective.    


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Committed to Making Discples

“When it comes to the church, the object of the game is to make disciples. 
The object is not to find them, gather them, or improve them. The object is to make them.”
 John Edmund Kaiser

     Kaiser continues in his book, Winning On Purpose, that the reason – the primary reason – that many churches are in trouble today is that they have forgotten the object of the game. The object of the game is to make disciples. When that object, or purpose, is forgotten, church members become lost in much activity, much of it good activity. But it is not the object of the game. Jesus states that the object of the game is to make disciples.

     Another way of looking at it, asserts Kaiser, is that the object is all about the inflow of people beginning their relationship with Christ. That is measured by the number of professions of faith that results in baptism or persons making a reaffirmation of faith, meaning that they are starting again. Transfer of Church letter as a means of receiving new members isn’t bad. They represent more disciples to advance the mission of the local church. It’s just that transfers can’t legitimately be counted as additional disciples for the kingdom. They have simply transferred from there to here.

     So what happens in many churches? Kaiser says that when the primary object is forgotten, the focus turns to any number of things, such as pastoral care, Christian education, fellowship activities and keeping the people happy. None of these activities are bad in themselves. Trouble is, says Kaiser, these activities are not really making disciples but merely servicing disciples in a way that makes them comfortable. And the supreme danger sign for the church is when the leaders no longer count how many new people came to the Lord in a given year but how much care was given, lessons taught and fellowship activities offered.

     A new scorecard is required! If First Presbyterian Church of Delray Beach is committed to God’s supreme purpose – making disciples of Jesus Christ – then greater attention must be given to the practice of ministry. Pastoral care, teaching and preaching are still important. So are opportunities for simply gathering together to enjoy each other like our recent Dancing with the Stars. Yet, none of these accomplish making new disciples for Jesus. The challenge before your elected leaders is praying deeply and thinking broadly about what must be done to become a disciple-making church. Your prayers for our leaders are coveted and appreciated.


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Not Looking to the Past

“Whenever a church becomes static, its members begin to look only to the past.”
David H. C. Read

     Though I have considerable admiration for David H. C. Read, I would have reversed his comment above. I believe what is more poignant is: “Whenever church members begin to look only to the past, their church has become static.” The Bible celebrates a mobile God who continually calls His people to be on the move. An eye cast backward instead of forward is the clearest signal that vitality for imaginative ministry has waned and nostalgia has overtaken a church.

     What does it mean to look forward? Simply, a church that looks forward understands that the church doesn’t exist for the members. The church exists for advancing God’s mission. Make no mistake. The Bible is clear that as the church advances God’s agenda each member has the responsibility to demonstrate genuine concern and care for one another. Yet, there is a huge difference between an organization that simply exist to care for one another and the church that cares for one another while it pursues God’s mission.

     Many years ago I heard a pastor ask his congregation this question, “Why is the windshield of a car larger than the rear-view mirror?” The answer is that what is ahead of us is far more important than what is behind us. It has been said that the devil resist anything new in the church because he may lose ground to Jesus. The most used and worn tool of Satan is placing seven words into the hearts and minds of church members, “We never did it that way before.” The implication, of course, “…and we shouldn’t do it now.”  But if that verdict wins, the result would be a static church whose members only look to the past.


Thursday, November 8, 2012

Healthy Grieving

“Healthy grieving frees us for healthy new visions.”
Patrick Keifert

     Let’s begin with unhealthy grieving. That is the grieving that refuses to let go – refuses to let go emotionally of someone who has died, refuses to let go of an old place of residence even when a change in life circumstance suggest that it is best to move, refuses to let go of old ways of doing things. Unhealthy grieving wants to freeze time in a comfortable place. I have practiced unhealthy grieving at various times in my life. So have you.

     Healthy grieving is still grieving. The difference is accepting that things change. More than that, healthy grieving anticipates that God – and God’s blessings – will be present in the new thing. Yet, there is still grief. The fact that grief is present is a demonstration that what is left behind was something good. It added value to our lives and brought a measure of joy. Healthy grieving acknowledges the good that passes into our history and celebrates that our lives are the richer for that which must now be left behind.

     According to Patrick Keifert, healthy grieving also frees us for healthy new visions. Whereas unhealthy grieving seeks to hold us in a moment of time, refusing the future that moves with great certainty toward us, healthy grieving lets go of the old and extends open hands to the future.

    Missional Church thinking, Missional Church behavior is the future toward which God is leading the church. And for anyone who has loved the church this leading of God results in grief. Grief is experienced because what is left behind is the old way of being church – that church where we were baptized and married and raised our children. The church that gave us community, filled with meaningful relationships and support for life’s difficult moments. The question then becomes, what will your grief look like? Will it be unhealthy grief or healthy grief?

     To answer the question fairly demands an important piece of information – why this new thing? Why the Missional Church? It is an honest question and one that deserves a deeper response than can be provided here. More attention will be given to this question in the coming year. For now, the quick answer is that this new way of being church, this Missional Church movement is really old. It is the only way of being church and doing church spoken of in both the Old and New Testament. Somewhere in time we recreated church – the church we are so familiar with. But this church is unknown in the Bible. The Missional Church Movement is really a Holy Spirit thing, calling the church to return to God’s blueprint for the church. Understanding that this is of God, that this is really a return to the original design for the church, helps me personally to make the decision in favor of healthy grieving. And it frees me for healthy new visions.


Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Something Bigger Than Ourselves

“Sadly, many people really are satisfied living as consumers, 
and they are just looking for a place to hold their beliefs together 
and to provide a sense of belonging relationally. 
In other words, all they want are some sermons and some friends. 
They aren’t looking for transformation, 
either for themselves or for the world.”
Hugh Halter

“It is tough to die for self and live for Christ.”
Bob Verhelle, Elder, Lenape Valley Presbyterian Church, New Britain, PA

     Listen carefully and you will hear many church members express sadness that the church seems to be losing ground in North America, particularly with college and post-college age young adults. Membership is down, worship attendance is down and overall interest in church is down, with some exceptions of course. What is unfortunate, writes Hugh Halter and other cultural observers, is that many of the churches that are the exception are the exception precisely because they appeal to the “consumer denominator” of the culture. That is, they offer what the consumer wants, excellent worship, excellent need-meeting programs and excellent facilities.

     Let’s be clear, there is nothing wrong with excellence. Every church should strive for excellence in ministry. Excellence is not the problem. Often the trouble for many churches which are large and apparently strong is that their ministry is only about the delivery of religious services in a consumer marketplace: making sure every need is met with excellence. Little attention is given to the question, “Are we building disciples whose concern is less with meeting personal needs and more concerned about advancing God’s kingdom?” Here is the test: How many times have you heard from someone that the reason they left a particular church is because “my needs” were not being met or “I” wasn’t being fed? Whoever told them that the church was “about them?”

     Reggie McNeal, a leading thinker and writer about missional church and missional-driven ministry, writes that we have it all wrong when we say the church has a mission. That suggests that we are in charge, which again makes it about “us.” No, writes McNeal, the church doesn’t have a mission, the mission has the church. What is important is not “us” but “God” and “God’s mission” in the world. And the church’s primary purpose is not to meet our needs but to be an instrument in the hands of God for advancing “God’s mission.”

     George Barna, another observer of cultural trends that influence the church, recently had his organization ask several thousand young adults why they weren’t interested in the Christian faith any longer. Their response was surprising. “You got it wrong. We are very interested in Jesus. It’s the church we have lost faith in because the church looks no different from the culture…the church seems to be about giving people what they want. We are tired of it being about ‘us’. We want to be about something bigger than us. When the church gives us that opportunity, we will return.”


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Do You Have the Courage to Ask?

“My sense of centrality decreases and the influence of Jesus within me increases.”
Earl Creps - speaking of the inner change of persons who begin to live missionally.

     Here is one way of understanding what it means to be a Missional Church: a community of persons eagerly living for the Kingdom of God to come.

     Reggie McNeal, one of my teachers at Fuller Theological Seminary, made an interesting observation during my time in his class. He said that most church people are usually reluctant for the Kingdom of God to come. The unchurched persons living in our communities anticipate God’s Kingdom with great urgency. But those in the church are generally reluctant because church membership has become club membership. Familiar customs, traditions and relationships have been developed and club members don’t want to risk losing all of that with God coming along and doing something new.

     Club membership thinking is rarely recognized as such by those in the church, continues McNeal. Church members love God. They want to be about something that blesses others. Yet, in often subtle ways, they fall in love with the familiar and comfortable. Certain ways of doing things become the dominant culture of a local church. New people are invited to join, of course.  But they are invited only as long as they don’t move the furniture around and change cherished customs. No longer are church members willing to give-up their life, figuratively speaking, for the great commission of making new believers. They would rather settle for protecting the way things have always been done.

     I believe the primary reason for club membership thinking among church members is fear. Change in the world is growing exponentially – at a rather dizzying rate – and it always feels that we are about to lose our footing. If we can maintain familiar customs and language at church our lives are steadied. The winds of change may beat around us but at least in our church we can find a hiding place; a place where our spirits may rest. Trouble is - that is idolatry. If we seek rest in anyone or anything other than Jesus, we have misplaced our source of hope for the future.

     So what are we to do? According to the scriptures, we are to confess our idolatry and again place our hope in Jesus alone. And we are to pray. Pray that in following Jesus we may discover that our fears are absorbed in the cross and we become bold once again to look, listen and take notice of the new thing that God is doing all around us. Someone once said that prayer is “fast forwarding” the future – asking that God’s Kingdom will come, whatever it may mean for us personally. So the question becomes, do you have the courage to ask for the Kingdom to come?


Friday, October 12, 2012

“People don’t want to just read the responsive reading when they are told to.”
George Barna

“People are weary of all the constraints.”

Perhaps you are familiar with the famous story told by Peter Drucker: “This reporter stops by a construction site and he interviews three bricklayers. He asks the first bricklayer, ‘What are you doing?’ And he says, ‘Well, I’m making a living laying these bricks.’ The reporter says, ‘Oh, that’s great. That’s very noble.’ He asks the next bricklayer, ‘What are you doing?’ And he says, ‘Well, I am practicing the profession of bricklaying. I’m going to be best bricklayer ever.’ And the reporter asks the third bricklayer, ‘What are you doing?’ And he says, ‘I’m building a cathedral.’”

It seems to me that most of us want to contribute to building a cathedral. Trouble is we become so preoccupied with the process of building that cathedral that we forget why we even showed-up for work. Though it is true that the small things matter they can distract us from what its all about – building a cathedral. Of course, the cathedral I speak of is figurative for most of us. Our cathedral may be a meaningful relationship with another, a successful career, a comfortable retirement or purposeful involvement with a charitable and life-changing organization.
As disciples of Jesus Christ (or as “members of the church” some would say) we have each pledged ourselves to building the grandest of cathedrals, The Church of Jesus Christ. I’m not talking about buildings but about people – building people in relationship to the person of Jesus. Young congregations do this well, making new followers and multiplying disciples for Jesus Christ. And as a result, lives are transformed (Hear a mission statement in that somewhere?). Young congregations know that together they are building a cathedral. Unfortunately, as many congregations mature (grow older) they become bricklayers. More time is spent writing “Responsive Readings” for worship than making disciples and placing constraints upon people who want to do ministry. Example: Telling someone that before they do something great for Jesus in the church they must first have committee approval and then Session approval. And friends, do I need to tell you that both bricklayers and cathedral builders become tired? Yet, of the two, cathedral builders rarely notice.

If we are going to be effective for Jesus Christ many reading this will need to change their focus and the way they speak around the church. Bricklayers argue about such things as “the worship service is too long” or, “someone is sitting in my place.” Cathedral builders care more about whether lives are being changed.


Friday, October 5, 2012

“We intend what is right, but we avoid the life that would make it reality.”
Dallas Willard

I have met very few “bad” people in my ministry though defining “bad” with any precision is a slippery slope. Most people I know, and have known, are basically good and decent people. They have been people who belong to churches and people who don’t. Membership in a church is a weak benchmark for identifying the character of people. That conviction has continued to be strengthened by people I meet who demonstrate considerable generosity, both financially and with volunteer time to nonprofits, and have a grace about them that simply blesses all who know them – yet they personally appear to have no interest in the church.

Many of those good and decent people have also shared with me that they intend much more with their lives, greater generosity, greater demonstration of love for others and greater movement toward some identified set of aspirations, core values or moral standard. They want to be so much more than they are now. The difficulty is that identifying a pathway “from here to there” isn’t done. What they “intend” for their life is rarely realized by the lack of a purposeful approach.

For Christians, the primary “intention” for life is to grow in the character of Christ. This isn’t one choice among several. Christlikeness is the intention, it is what “Christian” literally means: to become a little Christ. Naturally, this intention will rarely be realized without a purposeful approach. What is unfortunate is that for some who take a purposeful approach to growing in the character of Christ, they take the wrong road. That road may be marked by profession of perfectly correct beliefs, more study of the Bible or greater participation in the activities of the church. These are certainly good activities but each are insufficient for realizing our intention to be Christlike.

Dallas Willard, perhaps the most influential thinker in spiritual formation today, argues that there are two primary objectives for realizing authentic character development in the likeness of Christ: falling dearly in love with our Heavenly Father, constantly delighting in Him and realizing that there is no condition to His love for us and disrupting habitual patterns of thought, feeling and action that diminish Christ in us. The first is developed through the regular reading of scripture, not for more information but to experience the presence of God and regular worship, private and corporate. The latter is accomplished by developing intentional practices that, over time< become formative of our nature such as the practice of solitude and prayer, expressing gratitude regularly and financial generosity. The life that is pattern by these two objectives will find its way into the embrace of Christ.


Thursday, September 27, 2012

“Feelings, as Eugene Peterson once said, are remarkably unreliable guides to the state of your relationship with God, and are indeed seldom very reliable as guides to the state of your relationship with others.”
 Ben Witherington III

I received a discouraging email this week from a friend in Pennsylvania. The email spoke of another friend who has decided to drop out of his weekly Bible Study. The reason was that he simply could not “feel” God. This man was weary of chasing a relationship with a God that seemed absent in his own life. What surprises me about this particular individual is the regular, disciplined approach he took to reading the Bible. His love for the Bible and hours given to its study each week would make most church folk blush. My surprise, therefore, is that given all the time he has spent reading the Bible he must have discovered that it is replete with characters who have felt the absence of God. Chief among them is Jesus, “My God, My God, why have You left Me?” (Matthew 27:46 Common English Bible)

Where did my friend ever get the notion that relationships must be built upon “feelings?” Not from me. I have been married too long, I know better. Certainly, I love my wife. And for most of the twenty-five years of our marriage I have “felt” that love for her. That is to say, of course, that there have been moments where I have felt other things than love. To be fair, there have been more than a few moments when my wife has felt much about me other than love. What has kept us from walking away from each other in those moments is a commitment to the relationship. “Feelings” is simply too fragile of a foundation to build something as important as a marriage. The same is true for a relationship with God.

Ben Witherington III makes another observation I believe is useful to the conversation, love in the Bible is an action word. “It is your ethic, what you do and how you act toward God, others, and self. It is not really meant as a feeling. Doing loving deeds is what the Great Commandment is about. I am rather certain that the greatest loving deed of all time, Jesus’ dying on the cross for all of us, was not accompanied by warm fuzzy feelings. On the contrary, the story in the Garden of Gethsemane suggests that Jesus faced that prospect with icy dread. (Ben Witherington III, A Shared Christian Life, p. ix.)

What I know for certain is that God hasn’t given up on my friend. I have been praying for him since receiving the disappointing email. But my prayer has been less out of worry for him and more from a position of confidence in God. In the Garden of Eden story Adam and Eve hid from God out of shame. Yet, God pursued them. And God pursues us. We all experience those moments when we lose our grasp of God. What we must never forget is that particularly in those moments, when we lose our grasp of God, God does not lose His grasp of us.


Friday, September 21, 2012

“We are saved to be a community, not a church of individuals.” 
(Brad House)

            Perhaps one of the greatest obstacles to spiritual formation today is busyness. I have written elsewhere that a basic pathway for spiritual formation, being formed into the character of Christ, is fourfold: intentional formative practices, time in solitude with God, time in community of a small group and time sharing your faith journey with another. Each of these requires that we slow down our lives. There is a sturdy biblical foundation for this. The second chapter of Genesis opens with a declaration that God has completed God’s work in six days and now sets aside the seventh day for rest. As my former teacher, Walter Brueggemann, once commented, we are not to read quickly past this seventh day as if it were a footnote. Here, God announces that there is something of infinitely more value than striving and producing. The remainder of the Bible speaks to this though Jesus states it succinctly for us, love God and love your neighbor. Simply, our primary business is to be in relationship with God and one another.

            Many in the church have forgotten this. God’s seventh day has become a footnote, in very small print, as our lives become marked by ever escalating frantic activity. Lives are increasingly formed by the six days of the Genesis story and the seventh day, if considered at all, is regarded as a luxury or worse, that place where the lazy dwell. Spiritual formation might be the pursuit of some but its pursuit is largely done from a place of exhaustion and is unmoored from a small faith community. Without “rest” we imagine ourselves as more than the God who “rested from all the work that He had done in creation” (Genesis 2:3 NRSV) and separated from a small group, the pursuit is not Christian. As Brad House observes, we are saved to be a community, not a church of individuals.

            If there is to be a recovery of a vibrant Christian church it will be with a recovery of a vibrant experience of Christ by those who comprise the membership of the church. That simply isn’t possible until the seventh day is lifted from a footnote at the bottom of our lives and returned to where God intends, as the capstone to all of our activity. In that seventh day, and I am speaking figuratively here, we pursue not greater output but greater attention to relationships, God and neighbor. Attention to neighbor is optimally and authentically realized through participation in a small group. By planting ourselves in the community of a small group and recovering this seventh day of God’s rhythm of creation, we will train our attention toward God and remain in touch with what really matters in the midst of the busyness and noise of the other six days.


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

“And love, by its very nature, always reaches out.’
David G. Benner

            In my former church I often watched Kevin, an eight year old boy go around the church emptying trash cans into a large plastic trash bag. I looked forward to those evenings when he would come after school to the church to help his mother, our sexton, with her work. He was always pleasant, with a large beautiful smile that was occasionally punctuated with a near breathless excitement to share with me something he experienced that day in school. Kevin and I became friends and he would always brighten the day when he showed up with his mother.

            His mother,  a single mother of two young children, worked hard to provide for her family. The church provided her with ‘flex-time’ so that she could meet the needs of her elementary-aged children and complete her responsibilities for the church. This occasionally meant that she would have to pick her children up from school and bring them to church as she completed that day’s work. What fascinated me was that all she asked her children to do at the church was their school work. Yet, Kevin was compelled to help mom with her work in some way. The vacuum cleaner was larger than he was so that didn’t work. The soap dispensers in the bathrooms were out of his reach so that wasn’t a possibility. And there was no way she, being a responsible mother, would let Kevin near dangerous cleaning chemicals. What remained was emptying trash cans. 

            My fascination was Kevin’s unmistakable love for his mother. He adored her. And love, suggests David Benner, by its very nature, always reaches out. As Kevin “dwelt” in his mother’s love and his love for her, he could not help but to be caught up in his mother’s work. He participated in his mother’s work according to manner that he was equipped and had ability. He emptied trash cans and did so with sheer delight.

            Kevin is an inspiration to me. When I become weary by endless church committee meetings and have listened to innumerable people who always seem to know how to do my job better, Kevin reminds me that I am loved by God, and that I have been invited by that God to be “caught-up” in God’s work in the world. When I remember this, the spring in my step returns and once again I experience delight as a pastor, a pastor that serves our Lord in the manner in which I have been equipped and in which I have ability.

Doug Hood

Thursday, September 6, 2012

“God desires that we become Bible-hearted practitioners, not just Bible knowers.”
Klaus Issler

“…there is a great deal of disappointment expressed today about 
the character and the effects of Christian people…” 
Dallas Willard

            Following Jesus is about change. Change in our thoughts, speech and behavior. In fact, that good church word “repentance” literally means to “turn around and go the other way.” It is to change direction. Jesus came to us to show us another way to live. Knowing with considerable clarity what Jesus taught has no value to Jesus – none. That is, none unless it is followed by change.

            The church is populated with people who “know” the Bible. The Pharisees mentioned in the pages of the New Testament “knew” the Bible. Perhaps no one knew the Bible better than the Pharisees. But notice something else. The Pharisees drove Jesus nuts. Certainly they “knew” the Bible but their hearts were unchanged. Consequently, Jesus’ only mention of them was always as an example of what not to be. Klaus Issler is right – God desires that we become Bible-hearted practitioners, not just Bible knowers.

            Bible “knowers” are easy to recognize in the church. They are the ones who are always offering “helpful” criticism to others. The words that come over their lips rarely “grace” anyone – rarely encourages or praises someone. Bible knowers not only know their Bible. They know how to “do” church better than anyone else. Fresh baked cookies for the fellowship hour, never store bought. The music should be softer in worship or the pastor shouldn’t be reading from such a worn copy of the Bible (this really happened!). It often surprises me just how many Pharisees there are in the Christian church. And I stand with Jesus – they drive me nuts!

            If the truth be told there is a little Pharisee in each of us. Each of us has had a moment here or there when we want to offer our opinion – to be “helpful” of course. But the best of us recognize those moments and cringe. We simply do not want to be that way. So we try to be different, to change. The difficulty is that every action, every thought and behavior and word spoken comes from the heart. Unless the heart is changed, willful determination to change will always fail.

            Heart change is the work of God. It is not our work. Yet we do have a responsibility. God’s empowering, formative “heart-work” in each of us is accomplished as we place ourselves in accommodating circumstances. Simply, God requires time with us in the silent places. Jesus demonstrated this for us time and time again. Regular time alone with God reading scripture and prayer and sitting in silence listening for God’s whispers in our hearts accommodates God’s work in us.

            It is well documented that sleep deprivation diminishes our mental clarity and physical health. We simply require sleep. Similarly, “God deprivation” diminishes us spiritually. Willpower alone can never carry the freight of living into the character of Christ. We will always be defeated. Fortunately, we are never asked in the Bible to live by our own strength. God changes hearts. But time alone with God regularly throughout the week is required. If we give this time to God, we will not be disappointed.





Wednesday, August 29, 2012

“Once we begin to realize that genuine spiritual growth is a continuous and sometimes difficult process, we may be tempted to think that it is an option we can take or leave.’
M. Robert Mulholland, Jr.

“One by one, they all began to make excuses.” 
Luke 14:18a

Clay, in its natural state, has little value. Yet, in a master’s hands, clay has nearly endless possibilities for both function and beauty. The difference is the master’s hand. God tells us in Jeremiah 18 that we are like clay. Each person has been created for useful service for God’s purposes. But until we have been molded and shaped by the hands of the Master we have little value in advancing God’s purposes here on earth. The Master I speak of, naturally, is God.

Spiritual formation is the process by which we participate in God’s molding and shaping us for God’s use. It is a shared activity: our willingness to place ourselves in God’s hands and God’s work in and upon us. Alone – apart from God – we cannot become all that God desires us to be. Without our willing participation in the shaping process, God will not create in us an instrument of useful service. Simply, spiritual formation is something we do with God.

            So how do we participate in the spiritual formation process? In my study of the scriptures, I have observed three patterns of active participation:
  • Time Alone with God in study and prayer.
  • Time in Community of a small group for support, encouragement, accountability and care.
  • Time Sharing our faith journey with another.

Through these three activities we consciously and willingly place our lives in the Master’s hands. What will come from all that activity is left to God. It is no different with clay. Soft, malleable clay in the hands of the master has no say what will become of it. The primary difference is that we know the Master – He is the One Who came to us in Jesus Christ and upon the cross gave His life for us. In such hands we have little worry about what will come of us. We have seen God’s intentions and it is good.

The tragedy is that many in the church are not experiencing transformation into useful instruments for God’s use. One by one, they all make excuses. The demands of marriage, raising children and advancing in a chosen career leave no time for genuine spiritual growth activity. No time for the study of scripture and prayer. No time for meeting weekly in a small group for spiritual nurture and growth. No time to share with other people about one’s personal journey of faith. Of course, if there is no time for intentional spiritual formation, there is no faith journey to speak of.

It seems to me that such thinking is really more of a confession than an excuse; confession that one is really not interested in giving-up control of their life to God. As M. Robert Mulholland, Jr. so brilliantly expresses it, spiritual formation is the great reversal: from being the subject who controls all other things to being a person who is shaped by the presence, purpose and power of God in all things. Churches are populated by members who make excuses. Fortunately, they are also populated by genuine disciples of Jesus who are being shaped by the Master’s hand.   


Thursday, August 23, 2012

“Do you want more of God? Then shut up and listen.” 
Leonard Sweet

“Be still, and know that I am God!” 
Psalm 46:10

            I know someone who cannot be still. If they are not physically moving then they are seated in front of a computer or mentally engaged with some hand-held electronic device. They are always in motion – physically or mentally. They don’t sleep very well. I’m not surprised. Their mind simply doesn’t know how to shut down and be still. The consequence is that they are always exhausted. Perhaps you know this person. Perhaps this person is you.

            One of the first lessons God teaches us is that we were created in a manner that requires us to be still on a regular basis. In fact, God demonstrates this lesson to us in the opening pages of the Bible; God creates the heavens and the earth and all that is in them. And on the seventh day God rests. To watch some people it would seem that they have more energy than God. They simply have missed God’s intention that we stop occasionally. I wonder if Isaac Newton was making a personal observation when he famously declared that a body in motion tends to remain in motion.

            The person I speak of – and I am thinking of a specific individual – is not only physically exhausted, they often live their life in a spiritual wasteland. They want more of God, they desperately long for more of God but God seems far away. I know because they often ask me how they can have more of God. I haven’t shared with him Leonard Sweet’s elixir, “Then shut up and listen.” That’s another thing with my friend, they don’t listen very well. How could they? Their mind is always racing with one thought or another.

            My friend needs to take baby steps. First, simply stop from time to time and watch people. Notice their behavior, their activity and how they engage with others. Make mental notes, “What do I see?” Naturally, this is still mental activity but activity that notices a world apart from oneself. Once that has been practiced for a period then what is required is actively listening to others. As those in the helping profession would say, active listening is putting aside any thought to a response – it is simply hearing another fully. Active listening frees us from a sense of isolation – another difficulty my friend struggles with.

            Once there is some familiarity with active listening – it is mastered only by the most disciplined – the most difficult step is to read scripture and sit in silence listening for God. Again, quoting Leonard Sweet, if you want more of God then shut up and listen. This isn’t easy. It has often been the most difficult part of my own spiritual journey.

            Psalm 46:10 provides guidance. Placed in the context of the whole Psalm, what we are asked to do is “lean forward” with attentive, expectant hearts for God’s speech to us. This is not an invitation to a passive posture, physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually. We are invited to a specific activity – leaning forward to hear a word from God. We wait for something to be revealed to us previously hidden.

            I believe that my friend is sincere in his desire to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. What is required is that the pathway of discipleship be located in a place of stillness before God. If he can find this beginning place – stillness before God, time alone with God – he may discover that his exhaustion, difficulty with restful sleep and loneliness will all be diminished. More, the Psalm promises, what he will know with certainty is God.


Friday, August 17, 2012

“The missional church at the dawn of the twenty-first century 
stands or falls on its capacity to make disciples.” 
Alan Hirsch

The primary business of the church is to make disciples. Preaching, teaching and pastoral care are each important so long as they serve the singular purpose of making disciples. Jesus demonstrated this priority in His ministry. In the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, the disciples seek Jesus early one morning and find Him praying. With considerable audacity they disrupt Jesus at prayer and tell Him of the urgency before them that day – the pastoral care load was already mounting. Jesus dismisses the disciple’s agenda for the day with another, going to the neighboring towns that disciples may be made in those places. “That is what I came out to do,” says Jesus as if He is surprised that He has to remind the disciples,

Additionally, Jesus told the disciples clearly and directly that the primary purpose of their ministry is to make disciples. At the close of Matthew’s Gospel, the church locates what has come to be known as The Great Commission. Jesus is prepared to depart from His disciples and has one final word for them. Last words or final words are usually chosen with care. The one speaking sifts through multiple thoughts, multiple concerns to locate the one thought, and the one concern that trumps all others in importance. Jesus’ final thought – His primary concern – is that the disciples understand that they have been called together and apprenticed for three years for one thing, to make disciples,

It is curious that church boards often spend considerable time in identifying and crafting a mission statement for their church. One would think by all that effort that the mission is negotiable. Jesus gave no indication that it is. The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Jesus demonstrated this in His ministry and told the disciples that it is to be their ministry. Making disciples is the main thing.

Alan Hirsch is right – the missional church stands or falls on its capacity to make disciples. Beautiful and compelling worship, thoughtful teaching and preaching and excellent attention to the pastoral care needs of a faith community remain important. Yet, if year after year all of that activity is for the same people, the church will have failed to advance the one thing Jesus said was most important.


Friday, August 10, 2012

“Ultimately, each church will be evaluated by only one thing – its disciples. If your disciples are passive, needy (“feed me,” “visit me,” “take care of my needs”), consumeristic, and not moving in the direction of radical obedience, your church is not good.” 
Neil Cole

“The unseen culture of a church powerfully shapes her ability to grow, mature and live missionally.” J.R. Woodward

The wonderful Presbyterian pastor, Craig Barnes has advanced – with considerable force – the singular notion that “It’s not about you.” A popular speaker at leadership conferences and as a guest in churches of every size, Barnes has crafted his “stump speech” around those four words. Thousands have heard those words enumerated in various and imaginative ways but the message remains: the work of the church is not, has not and never will be about “you.” What remains, of course, is the question, “Just what is the work of the church about?” Simply, the work of the church is about the Missio Dei – the Mission of God.

Unfortunately, something of a heresy has infected a great number of churches in North America. I limit this observation to North American churches only because my personal observation and reading has been so limited. The heresy of which I refer is a change of culture from the one that shaped the church of the New Testament; a change from the New Testament church’s self-understanding that it existed to advance the work of God in the world to the present North American understanding that the church exists to provide religious goods and services to it’s privileged members. As someone once observed, the Sunday morning offering has become membership dues and those that pay expect certain privileges. The church has become another club.

There is good news. Emerging in the last two decades is a recovery of the original charter of the church – the church exists for God’s ongoing work in the world. Church members, rather than being “club members” who demand goods and services are now identified as “disciples” who accept personal responsibility for God’s mission. Widely, this recovery is referenced as the “Missional Church.” Quite simply, this fresh understanding of the character and mission of the church is a movement from “What can the church do for me?” or even the more noble question, “What can I do for God?” to discernment of where God is presently at work and joining that work in a meaningful way.

Churches who are now possessed by this new culture are renouncing the heresy that once held the church captive. Abandoned are the artifacts of a culture that seeks to meet the personal needs of members. This old way of thinking about and being church is experiencing a New Testament rebirth that calls all church “disciples” to ministries appropriate to the spiritual gifts that they have been so endowed by God. Anything less is now recognized as idolatry – “me” before God.

How might a “membership” culture be changed into a “discipleship” culture?  Reams of paper have absorbed gallons of black ink orchestrated by those seeking to address that question.  Many helpful insights have been provided. What many have discovered is that specific tactics and strategies vary from region to region and church to church. Cultural change in a specific church is difficult work and requires more the careful hand of an artist than the blueprint of a strategist. But there are two biblical principles that drape over all tactics and strategies like a sacred canopy: repentance and prayer.

The Book of Jeremiah is instructive. In the eighteenth chapter, God has Moses tell the people – who are on the wrong track – that if they “turn from their evil,” then God’s response will be, “I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring.” What God is speaking of is “repentance,” by both the people and God. Simply, if the people turn and go the other way – the meaning of repentance – then God will also turn and go the other way. Many Christians are often surprised to learn that God has invited us into a dynamic relationship with God. And that relationship is sustained and nurtured like all relationships – through regular and substantive conversation. Such conversation with God is commonly called “prayer.”

Any cultural change within a particular congregation must begin with the leaders acknowledging that they are “going the wrong way.” Ministry that has been designed to serve the people and all their perceived needs must give way to a fresh commitment to the mission of God. Then leaders must do what leaders do – lead the people to a fresh encounter of the scriptures and understanding of the dominant theme found there – God’s mission in the world. Naturally, all leadership must acknowledge a dependence upon God for hearts to be changed and people mobilized for ministry. That is what will shape the content of their prayers.

This is not to say that people’s needs do matter to God. The church only has to point to the cross of Jesus to demonstrate God’s concern for God’s people. What scriptures do say is that ministries to the needs of the people is to be done by the people of the cross-shaped community – not necessarily by the leaders, ordained and elected. Leaders direct the people into meaningful participation in the mission of God and the people minister to one another as the larger mission of God is advanced. This is what the Reformed Church has called “the priesthood of all believers.” 

Neil Cole is right. Each church will be evaluated by only one thing – its disciples. Attention to the expectations and behavior of any particular church will reveal whether it is a church that functions as another club in the community or a missionary force for God’s purposes.
Doug Hood

Thursday, August 9, 2012

“The church is not just called to be a body of disciples; it is called to make disciples.”
William J. Abraham

What is it to make disciples? What are we talking about? Lack of clarity on this one question – what does it mean to make disciples – doesn’t seem to be a place of anxiety for many mainline churches today. Not that there is a general understanding or consent to the answer. The absence of anxiety is the result of the question not being asked. Simply, for many churches in the mainline family of the Christian church, “discipleship” simply isn’t the primary focus.

This, of course, begs the question, what is the primary focus of these churches? According to my friend and mentor, Greg Ogden, one only has to pay attention to the informal criteria by which professional clergy are measured by the membership. Churches that care about discipleship will ask, “Is the pastor hanging-out in diners and coffee houses connecting with people who do not have a meaningful relationship with Jesus?” “Is she meeting weekly with one or more small groups of people encouraging actual growth in personal discipleship?” These are the concerns of a church membership that takes discipleship seriously.

On the other hand, argues Ogden, if the questions are, “Has the lead pastor visited our members in the hospital?” or “Is the lead pastor calling on the membership in their homes?” then what becomes apparent is that the focus is inward. Such questions disclose a church that has directed its focus more upon “care of their own” regardless of the printed mission statement.

Of course some churches will have additional pastors that are called specifically for the purposes of pastoral care. And churches that have the resources to staff in this manner are blessed. Ogden’s contention is that pastoral care must not be the primary expectation of the lead pastor, senior pastor or solo pastor. The primary function of such pastors is to direct the church in making disciples. Nowhere is this observation made more forceful than the first seven verses of Acts, chapter 6. Here the apostles answer “no” for the request that they spend time administering pastoral care to the membership. Yet, they do recognize that excellent pastoral care is an important mark of the church. What they do is set apart specific people who have the particular gift of pastoral care. The result for the church is stated in verse seven, “and the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem.”


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

“The faith that does nothing means nothing.”
Miroslav Volf

In my first year of theological studies I attended a singles Sunday school class of the North Avenue Presbyterian Church in Atlanta.  One particular morning a student asked if he could address the class. He shared that five years earlier he had made a profession of faith in Jesus and was baptized. He continued that since receiving baptism he had done nothing with his faith so his faith had done nothing for him. “That needs to change,” he said, “And I need your help.” Here was a class member asking other class members to hold him accountable for an active faith. He had grown bored of an idle faith.

Active faith is dangerous. It is dangerous because control of one’s life is handed over to another – it is handed over to God. For all that our faith teaches us about God, there is so much more that we don’t know. As the Apostle Paul writes in First Corinthians 13, seeking to understand God is like looking in a mirror that has become darken - you can see something but much remains unclear. Yet, Christian baptism is nothing if it isn’t handing personal control of life over to God. It is a dangerous move.

Active faith also holds a promise. There is a promise that life will be experienced with greater vibrancy. A life that is tightly grasped by the individual misses what cannot be imagined. But a life that is imagined by God – and directed by God in that imagination – holds unfathomable possiblities and surprises. Simply, God has larger eyes for what is possible than our own.

Perhaps the greatest wound inflicted upon the church is an idle faith by persons who otherwise assert that they are followers of Jesus. Absent in their life is evidence of listening to God, submission to God, actively learning all that Jesus taught and obedience to those teachings. There is an unwillingness to walk the narrow path – to be peculiar – as William Willimon would say. Life is left untouched and unchanged by the hand of God. The result is people living lives that look no different from the lives of those outside the church. The result, of course, is the question of popular culture, “Why follow Jesus?” “Nothing seems different.”

That young man in the singles Sunday school class finally realized that he wanted more from his faith. An idle faith wasn’t working. He started new by asking for accountability. With that simple request he became to all of us a great teacher for how to begin moving toward an active faith.


Thursday, July 26, 2012

The late Elton Trueblood’s statement in 1979 still rings true today:

Perhaps the greatest single weakness of the contemporary Christian Church is that millions of supposed members are not really involved at all and, what is worse, do not think it strange that they are not.

Elton Trueblood is of course speaking of involvement in the life, worship and ministry of the church. Yet, the involvement he speaks of is not one that proceeds out of duty or “have-to-do-this” but an involvement that proceeds from people in process of becoming spiritually mature. This kind of involvement is the natural result of persons growing in Christlikeness. Therefore, the greatest single weakness of the contemporary Christian Church is – in other words – that millions of members who say they believe in Jesus Christ don’t have as a personal priority a desire to be in relationship with that Jesus.

George Barna has found in his own research of the Christian Church that millions of church members lack the passion, perspective, priorities, and perseverance to develop spiritual lives. As a result they begin celebrating the wrong things. Halloween becomes a bigger celebration than Christmas, conquest over one’s personal enemies more important than forgiveness and reconciliation, material success trumps sacrificial lifestyles that would permit more resources to be poured into the work of the church.

The result, of course, is a church that is trying to reach the world without genuine disciples among its membership. I have to agree with Trueblood – this is the single greatest weakness of the contemporary Christian Church.

Through this blog it is my intention to cast a personal vision of God’s claim upon us as a people of God – and the intersection of personal faith and culture. Followers of Christ should serve the common good. This is the shared conviction of many great thinkers of the faith such as Lesslie Newbigin and Miroslav Volf. My hope is a growing dissatisfaction with “membership without relationship with Jesus.” As that dissatisfaction increases so will there be an increase in the power of the local church to impact the local community for God’s kingdom.   


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Dr. Doug Hood, Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Delray Beach will be writing a weekly blog.  Stay tuned for his first entry.