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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Restoring God's Mission to the Church

Now I encourage you, brothers and sisters, in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ:
Agree with each other and don’t be divided into rival groups.
Instead, be restored with the same mind and the same purpose.”
 1 Corinthians 1:10

     I have served on the Committee on Ministry at two different times in my ministry. This is the committee of a regional area known as a Presbytery and is responsible for the care and well being of local churches within that particular region. During each period of service, I have worked with a congregation that was experiencing division – either of a theological nature or simply disgruntled members who simply didn’t like how things were being done by the leadership. In each case the church lacked vitality simply due to the consuming energy poured into quarrelling with one another. I imagine that such churches bring a smile to the face of Satan. That is because quarrelling distracts the church from passionately pursuing God’s mission.

     What is unfortunate is that most churches experience some level of disgruntled gossip. One group makes harmful comments about how the pastor spends her time. Another group second-guesses leadership decisions made by the governing board. In every case the result is distraction – distraction from the sole reason God called the church into existence, which is to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Usually such quarrelling is nothing more than selfishness. Rather than legitimate concern for advancing God’s work, these people are expressing personal hurt or believe their opinion is superior to that of other leaders. And Satan’s smile broadens.

     This is precisely the trouble the Apostle Paul addresses in the first four chapters of this first of two letters to the church in Corinth. And Paul’s attitude and approach is remarkable. There is nothing subtle or indirect in the way he approaches gossip and division. With considerable courage, Paul “calls-out” this bad behavior and reminds the church of its primary reason for existence; the church is not for championing personal desires and preferences but for advancing God’s work in the world. Frankly, gossips and complainers are diminishing that work.

     It will be helpful for us to examine our own speech and behavior as a member of the faith community called the Church of Jesus Christ. Is God’s Kingdom being held in check by our criticism and disrespect of one another? Satan desires that we remain distracted, disrupted and in constant dispute. Such a church fails to offer anything attractive to the world. So Paul urges us to put away such divisions and remember again what it is that called us together in the first place – to know, love and follow Christ Jesus.

Joy,

Thursday, January 23, 2014

His Talent is His Call

“Each man has his own vocation; his talent is his call.
There is one direction in which all space is open to him.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

     This month and next, I am engaged with twenty-two persons on Wednesday evenings exploring together the question: “What is God’s call in my life?” Some have gathered simply because the subject material presented an interesting curiosity. Others are present because they authentically desire to understand with greater clarity how they might be useful to God. What I have made clear each time we gather is that we are all invited to a purpose that is bigger than ourselves. Naturally, the purpose I speak of is the Missio Dei, the mission of God.

     Each Wednesday night, I remind those gathered of four critical principals – critical because God has so stressed them in the scriptures, particularly in I Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4. The first principal is that each person has been included in God’s distribution of spiritual gifts. No one has been overlooked, no one excluded. What the Bible makes abundantly clear is that some have received a greater distribution of gifts than others. There is no explanation for this apparent inequity. Yet, what is additionally clear is that everyone has received some distribution, some spiritual gift. It is the responsibility of each person to correctly identify their gift. The Wednesday night group is one of the most helpful ways of doing this.

     The second principal is that every gift has been distributed for the common good of the church, God’s community of faith. Whatever our spiritual gift may be it has been given by God for the purpose of placing it into the service of the local church. This is how the church not only survives but thrives. Uncommon power is released through the local church into the community as increasing numbers of members put into service their unique spiritual gifts.

     The third principal is that the local church is God’s primary tool for advancing God’s purposes in the world. As each baptized person steps forward, identifies their God-given spiritual gift and deploy that gift in service, the church is strengthen for God’s use. The strength of any local church is directly proportionate to the percentage of its membership who faithful answers God’s call to provide ministry according to their gifts.

     The fourth and last critical principal is that God has purposed our spiritual maturity through the process of discovery, development and deployment of our spiritual gifts. Ephesians 4:11-13 could not be clearer that God’s plan for spiritual growth and ultimate maturity in the faith is through the exercise of spiritual gifts. There are simply no shortcuts to spiritual growth. God intends that each of us continually be contributors to the work of the church. Each person is to be doing something.

     It is certainly true that someone can be a good person without belonging to a church. There is simply too much evidence to dispute that. What is not true – but frequently claimed – is that someone can be a good Christian without belonging, and participating in a local church. That is because God has clearly defined what makes a good Christian: someone who identifies how God has gifted them and places into the service of the church that spiritual gift. It is not an overstatement that God simply frowns upon spectators – everyone is called to contribute in such a way that the power of the church in the local community is unmistakable. That is the church I long for.

Joy,

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Till Jesus Christ's Ghost Has Been Laid

“…till Jesus Christ’s ghost has been laid.”

     Shortly before I moved to Florida from Pennsylvania I worked with a personal trainer. One morning when I arrived for my thirty minutes of torture I found him disgruntled. Naturally I feared that this wouldn’t bode well for me. Summoning my best pastoral skills to restore some degree of calm before I went under the weights, I asked him what was bothering him. Apparently he heard our President of the United States say something along the lines of, “We are not a Christian nation anymore.” This simply did not sit well with him. I decided on a course of distraction – a fancy way of saying that I was trying to change the subject. I asked him, “Mike, where do you go to church?” His answer absolutely surprised me: “I don’t go to church.” Quickly I looked for a reason to turn around and go back to my car.

    Amazingly people become angry at the suggestion that our nation may be slipping as a Christian nation. Why is this? Why would someone like my trainer care so much when he doesn’t even bother to attend church? A more important question is why do so many church members care when one sees so little transformation in their own lives? Transformation is the natural result of intentional, purposeful activity to grow in Christian maturity. It flows from such activities of regularly reading the Bible, a vibrant prayer life and a commitment to gathering regularly with a small group for support, encouragement and accountability in our walk with Christ. Friends, there is a difference between being a member of a church and being an authentic follower of Jesus Christ.

     Actually, I am surprised that anyone would complain about this supposed remark from our President. I say supposed only because I didn’t hear it. The reason for my surprise is that I “checked-in” with a half dozen people later that week who are spiritual heroes to me – people who just simply radiate the love and joy of Christ. They are purposeful in growing daily in their faith and there is no mistaking it when you are near them. I asked them what they thought about this comment from our nation’s President. Every one one of them dismissed the remark; whether we are, as a nation, Christian or not is irrelevant. What matters is whether those who claim to be Christian are actually changing their lives to honor Christ.

     Many years ago Samuel Butler wrote these words: “There will be no comfortable and safe development of our social arrangements – I mean to say that there will be no permission of suicide, nor cheap and easy divorce – till Jesus Christ’s ghost has been laid.” It seems to me that my friends are right. It is irrelevant what is said about the faith of our nation. What does matter is whether persons who claim to be Christian are placing to rest the ghost of Jesus Christ simply because they are too busy to be intentional about personal growth. 

 Joy,

Friday, January 3, 2014

Church Leaders

     Church leaders, both elected lay leaders and clergy, tend to make church difficult. Somehow the notion has been advanced that effective congregational life is about doing more and more and more. What I am thinking about here is the notion that more Bible studies should be offered, more fellowship events planned and more service be provided to the community. The natural result is exhaustion – both for church members and the staff. What then follows are imaginative excuses from church members for why they are simply unable to attend this meeting or that Bible study. Underneath all those excuses is simple exhaustion. What is desperately needed today is simple church.

     Simple church is the notion that less is more. Rather than continually increasing the programs of the church, perhaps the church would be more effective by doing fewer things better. Pay attention to that last sentence. It begs for clarity, doesn’t it? Specifically, by what standard does the church measure “effectiveness” and what “few things” if done well brings the church to home plate? For those who don’t follow the game of baseball, “home plate” is a good thing. It means scores on the board ultimately resulting in a win.

     Fortunately the church doesn’t have to beg, plea and coerce a small group of people to come together and complete a study for what makes a church “effective.” Remember, church members and staff are already exhausted. No, a study isn’t needed. God is startling clear on that question. In Colossians 1:28 the church reads, “present each one mature in Christ.” Ephesians 4:13 puts it this way, “God’s goal is for us to become mature adults – to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ.” I will not answer for you but this seems to me to offer considerable clarity for what “effective” means for the church. Is the church right now presenting each member “mature in Christ?”

     Naturally, that moves us to the next question. The Bible isn’t as direct in providing an answer to the question, “what few things must we do well?” Actually, that isn’t true. The Bible doesn’t spell out the answer as it does for the measure of effectiveness. Rather, the answer is demonstrated in the life and ministry of Jesus. What is required is a careful eye and a heart open to God or, as a parent may say to a child, “Pay attention.” If careful attention is given to the Jesus of the four Gospels four very distinct activities are seen. First is that they “worshipped together.” Second is that they grew in faith through participation in a small group (twelve men and Jesus). Third, they sought ways to serve one another and others with whom they came in contact with. Fourth, they cared for one another. Four identifying words stand out: Worship, Grow, Serve and Care.

     Seems that a better way to “do” church is to simply urge members to worship regularly, participate in a small group where their faith grows, find one service opportunity and provide a ministry of care to those in their immediate network like members of their small group. Everything else is superfluous and can be discarded. Frankly, nothing is gained by making church life so busy that church activities are all-consuming. We must help church members preserve time for play, for meals together and for rest. Rest seems to be most necessary for many today.

Joy,