Wednesday, April 04, 2018

How to avoid putting limitations on your church

We've all probably seen it at one time or another:  A worship leader insists they have something upon their heart that they have been led to share.  And for the next however many minutes the congregation is subjected to a personal revelation that fails to communicate; partly because it's unplanned, but more fully because that personal revelation was . . . well, personal.

Or the pastor leads the church in discovering their vision.  And along the way, it becomes more clear that the the "congregation's" vision is, in fact, actually just the pastor's.  It's colored by his personality, his experiences, his gifts.  It fits him like a glove--because it is his glove, after all--but it's a poor match for the congregation.

Or even, on a much smaller scale, the one person in the prayer meeting who continually cycles through the same limited scope of prayers.

Now, it's not as though these things are bad.  But we should probably ask why we allow--and often encourage--these things to happen.

I believe that we have a very basic fear of limiting God's work among us.  An aversion to putting God in a box.  And somehow, we've developed this understanding that if God has laid something on your heart, you are not merely permitted, but well-nigh expected to run with it.

And even then, I'm likely to tell you that's a good thing (okay, well . . . I'll tell you it's a good thing if we can remove all the pseudo-spiritual jargonese that we tend to throw in there, but perhaps that's a post for a different time).  But here are the million-dollar questions

If a leader foists their own personality upon the entire congregation . . . is that indeed the freedom the church needs?

If the church is limited by the gifts of a particular leader . . . is God quite so free to act as we suppose?

In the name of freedom and spontaneity, we allow--and again, often encourage!--the entire church to be limited by the personality and gifts of a very few.  We'd like to believe we're refusing to quench the Spirit, but in fact we're reducing God's movement to the personality of a single individual.  We're limiting God's speaking to the whims of one person.  And so the gifts, the needs, the desires, the insights of the entire congregation are stripped away, and done in the name of God's ability to work broadly.

How very, very odd.

And how very, very common.

Pay close attention this Sunday in worship.  How often do you see the personality or the whims of a worship leader come to the fore?  It's very frequent.  And the end result is limiting God to how a single person feels that day.

I've got a solution to offer you, but first we'll need to agree that God certainly does use individuals to bless others.  And that He uses their personalities and experiences to further His work in His church.  And, finally . . . we'll need to agree that a church can nevertheless be held hostage by a person who doesn't understand how they're allowing their whims to limit the scope of God's work.

If we're on board with that, then here you go.  The solution for broadening God's work among us and reducing the limitations we place upon Him:


Yes, that's what I said.  Liturgy.  Liturgy is the thing that reduces the limits your church has placed upon God.

Now, it's at this point that we'll typically divide up into two groups.  The one says, "Oh yes, absolutely."  I'm not writing for them.  So if that's you, thanks for coming this far, but you're free to go elsewhere now and use your time for other purposes.  But if you're in the second group, the one that says, "Liturgy????  That's so stifling!  It's so formal!  There's no way that God can freely work through that!" . . . okay, I hear you, and I'm asking you to hear me.

What liturgy does (one of the many things it does, but let's focus for a moment on this one issue) is ruthlessly strip away the personality and whim of the individual in worship.  The very structure of liturgy refuses to allow any one person's mood of the moment to run the show.  There is no place for confusing a personal revelation with something to be spoken to all.  The word of God is spoken to His whole church, and that word is not limited by whether the worship leader is feeling free or convicted, joyous or repentant, regardless if the whole church shares their exact emotion or not.  Thus in the liturgy, God speaks more freely, because He speaks more wholly.

In the liturgy, the church's prayers are broad and far-reaching.  They range widely over the world, and they also settle intimately on our cares for our neighbor.  In the liturgy, the church consistently prays for all whom God asks us to pray: pastors and penitents, government and servants, the ill and the hurting.  The all-encompassing nature of the church's prayer ensures that the church prays, and not just one individual speaking their own personal cares in the name of the church.

And the liturgy shapes the church's vision, as well.  The shape of liturgical worship shapes the church's life: it comes, it gathers, it receives, and it goes forth into the world, inviting others to come and gather the next time.  There is no question of whether the pastor's gifts are driving the church's vision, because through liturgy the church has been formed around God's gifts.

Individual personalities limit God's work and speech to a very small sphere.  For those limitations to be lifted, the personalities need to get out of the way.  And that's one thing liturgy does very well: it gets personalities out of the way, and lets God speak broadly and boldly.  Liturgy broadens the church's worship, the church's prayers, and the church's ministry.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

You don't need the gospel to have an amazing church

You don't need the gospel to have an amazing church.

You don't need the gospel to have a warm, welcoming community.

Or vibrant worship. 

Or relevant, practical teaching.

Or a "come as you are" attitude.

You don't need the gospel to have a vibrant community presence.

Or a strong, active youth group.

Or community clean-up projects.

Or an outward-centered focus.

You don't need the gospel to have a streamlined, flexible church leadership structure.

Or a healthy institution.

You don't need the gospel to have an amazing church.

But if you don't have the gospel, you won't have "church" in any recognizable form at all.

If you don't have and hear "Jesus Christ died on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins" . . . it's not church.  It may be amazing.  It may be fun.  It may be exciting.  But it won't be church.

The church is, simply put, the gathering of the faithful around Word and Sacrament.  Around the gospel.  Gathering around Christ's gifts of forgiveness of sins, of life and salvation.

And the church that gathers around the gospel should certainly be mindful of being welcoming, of showing compassion, of mercy.  The church that gathers around the gospel should be mindful of inviting others to join them, of looking outside their own walls to see who is on the outside that could be invited to join in the gospel-centered gathering on the inside. 

But the church that has the gospel is also keenly aware that there is only one thing that is gospel . . . and there are many, many, many things that are not.  Some of those things are good and beneficial.  Some are even Biblical.  Some might even be commanded.  But the gospel--the forgiveness of sins in Jesus' name and on His behalf--alone stands unique and utterly necessary for the church.

You don't need the gospel to have an "amazing church"--whatever that has come to mean.

But you absolutely can't have genuine church without gospel.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Of Sacraments and flu shots and whether Church compassion is a thing . . .

The Church's proper work is Word and Sacrament.  That is the work that she is given to do.  That is the work that she alone can do.  And if she does not do it, nobody else can.  It's the stuff of eternity.  What the old ones called "the medicine of immortality." 

This work of the church is so central to her very identity that the "church" who doesn't do them cannot rightly be called "church" at all.  They may be a spiritually-minded group of compassionate people.  They may be social activists intending to change the world.  They can be anything but the Church, because the work of the Church is Word and Sacrament. 

But does that mean the Church does no other work?

In America at the moment, there is a flu epidemic.  Many are dying, many, many more are sick from an illness that could have been avoided with a simple vaccine.

Except that, this year, the vaccine doesn't quite work the way it should.  It's not perfectly effective at blocking the particular strains of the flu that are going around.  And yet, doctors are still urging people to be vaccinated.  Why?  Because an imperfect solution is still better than no solution.  Even getting an imperfect vaccination against the flu improves the prospect of the flu season's severity being lessened. 

There will never be any shortage of crisis in the world.  Sin and brokenness will continue to destroy lives and damage relationships.  No matter what is done to help, it will always be an imperfect solution.  Temporary.  Fleeting. 

And yet the Church will see, and the Church will act.  It will act because she has the compassion of her Lord.  The compassion that Christ felt over death and destruction, the compassion that moved Him to actions of healing, of restoration, of equity--that is the compassion the Church feels, because she has His heart.  She acts in this world, knowing that her aid is temporary, fleeting, imperfect . . . but she acts because a temporary solution is better than no solution.  A loving hand in the moment of need may not fix the whole of one's life, but it darn sure helps in that moment.

But because the Church has Christ's heart, she is always first and foremost about the things that matter not for this life, but for eternity.  Think of Jesus Christ: every person He healed ultimately got sick again.  Every act of restoration would be eventually overturned by the brokenness of the world.  Even those He raised from the dead would ultimately one day again die.  But every miracle, every healing, every teaching of Christ had one thing in common:  they were fulfilled in His cross.

The cross alone gives complete healing.  The cross alone gives complete restoration.  The cross alone is the ultimate, lasting, and perfect solution.

And nothing that is done on this earth has any lasting value unless we also have the cross.

So the church engages the world. She offers physical comfort.  She corrects injustice.  She feeds the hungry.  Befriends the lonely.  Silently holds the hand of those who mourn.  Sits with the afflicted. 

But as she does so, she knows that these are temporary solutions.  Band-aids.  And so she always and ever does what she alone is given to do.  She always and ever treasures her sole and unique possession. 

She treasures the cross.  She clings to the gospel.  And through her, God gives the cross of Christ through Word and Sacrament.  In those--and those alone--we have the complete, perfect, and eternal healing that God would give us. 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Confessions of a pastor: Why can't I be more like them?

Confession:  As a pastor, I get jealous of other pastors.  I envy them.

There.  I said it.  And I'm glad I did.

It's not that I envy pastors that preside over large churches.  Good heavens, no . . . drooling longingly over church attendance statistics is SO yesterday.  And it's not that I envy pastors who preside over really active churches that have dozens of programs or ministries.  No, both of those aren't "pastor envy," they're "church envy."  And frankly, church envy isn't so much a problem for me.  When I see churches that are really doing solid work, I'm glad for them.  I praise God for them.  And while I'll investigate what they're doing and why, I don't necessarily feel any need to emulate them.

No, it's not churches I envy . . . it's pastors.  Not their ministries, not their lives.  But their gifts.  I see how God has gifted them, and I envy that. 

I talk with pastors who are always out and about in the community, and I envy their easy way of striking up conversations, their networking skills.  I talk with pastors who have decades more experience than I do, and I envy their wisdom and patience.  I talk with hard-charging, no-nonsense pastors who just think it, do it, and take no prisoners, and I envy their ability to get things done without worrying about fallout.  I talk with learned pastors and envy the depth of knowledge they have.  I talk with loving pastors and envy their limitless compassion. 

Every pastor I meet has a special giftedness that I always seem to lack.  And for every pastor I meet, I wonder, "Why can't I be a bit more like that?"

I'm keenly aware of my shortcomings--okay, let's be honest, my failures--as a pastor.  I'm aware of them because I keep them all locked in a tight little box and shove that box into a dark corner of my mind so that I muffle their howling accusations.  It works, mostly.  Until I meet another gifted pastor, and a ghostly echo from that box supernaturally drifts to my mental ear, "See?  THIS is what you lack!  THIS is what keeps you from being the best pastor you can be!"

Insecurities.  Fears.  Failures.  It's a constant game of comparison that, if I allowed it, would cripple me with indecision, a scattered ineffectiveness from trying to be everyone else.  Either that, or I'd have to deliberately blind myself to my own shortcomings by constantly criticizing everyone else's, unfairly weighing their weaknesses against my strengths simply so that I could feel superior.

But perhaps there's a better way.

Perhaps I could learn to better trust in God.  Perhaps I could learn to better trust in grace.

Who has carried me throughout my life, using my experiences to shape and mold my personality?  God has, certainly.  And who has gifted me with a blend of gifts; some strengths that I can intuitively rely upon, some weaknesses that I must watch over?  Again, the answer is  God.

And who has placed me here, in this place, at this time, knowing full well my strengths and my weaknesses, and said, "Be My voice and My hands here, now, to these people"? 

God has.

And who is the voice that sows discontent, that accuses, that causes fret and worry and doubt?  (Hint: It's not God.  Not this time.  Oh, no.)

But there is one who speaks louder and more true than that smaller, wicked, lying voice.  This One is the one who, when He sees my shortcomings become failures--when He sees me being inattentive to my weaknesses, when He sees me trying to rely upon my strengths, when He sees me envy others for their gifts instead of praising Him for theirs as well as my own--this is the one that speaks over me and says, "I know full well your failures, for I have made you.  And I fully forgive your sins, for Christ has saved you." 

The grace of Jesus Christ fashions.

The grace of Jesus Christ forgives.

And the grace of Jesus Christ calls.

There's no doubt that we must pay attention to who we are and what we're here to do.  Strengths are great to have, but weaknesses can't be ignored without them growing into sin.  But envying the gifts God has given to others is nothing other than a failure to trust His gracious wisdom in making you who--and placing you where--you are.

Perhaps . . . just perhaps . . . we can learn instead to trust Him to use us where we are.  To trust Him to use us for who we are.  And to trust Him to forgive us for all that we are not.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

A call to inaction

The Church of Now, if it is anything, is a place of action.  It is a force that propels ever forward.  It is a rousing call to action, and her members hear that call and obey.

How often do we hear the increasingly strident calls of "Now!"?  Change must happen NOW.  Justice must be given NOW.  The church needs to grow NOW.  Our people need to become missional NOW.  "Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel NOW?"




Now.  Before it is too late, act.  NOW.

And yet, what happens when things do not or can not happen now?  What happens when the Church of Now is called to be the Church of Wait?  "The worldly church . . . wants to see something.  Now it wants us to wait no longer.  It wants to go to work by itself, act by itself, do by itself what God and the prophet are not doing.  What is the use of the priest, what is the use of the church, if they are only left to wait?  No, our church ought to have something.  We want to see something in our church.  We do not want to wait."--Dieterich Bonhoeffer

The Church of Now cannot abide inaction.  It is disquieting.  It is unsettling.  Now requires action.  Now requires busy-ness.  Now requires a swarming beehive of activity.  It demands that actions be taken, that words be spoken.

But faith, more often than not, hears the "Wait." 

There are times when our eyes see and our hearts cry, but still the Lord says "Wait."  There are times when we long for change to come, for the dawn to break anew, for physical health or for spiritual healing to be finally given, and still the Lord says "Wait."

"Wait.  Be still.  I am God.  I am your God.  I am your good God.  And I ask you . . . wait."

Wait.  Listen.  Believe.  Trust


Waiting is not truly inaction, of course.  Waiting is fully active: full of a trusting hope, a longing faith, a praying confidence.  Waiting faith knows that the Holy Spirit blows when and where He wills, and that His word does not return to Him void.  Waiting faith knows that all things work for the good of those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.  Waiting faith knows that human strength can force, manipulate, and coerce "good" behavior, but that only the Lord can change the heart.

And waiting faith knows that, even when we become so anxious that we cannot help but act, jumping ahead of the Lord and summoning action by the very force of our own will . . . that even then God's plans are not thwarted, that His Word still remains secure, and that His promise of grace and forgiveness in Christ still stands, and that His Holy Spirit will manage to carry the church triumphantly down through the ages.  And, in the end, despite our follies, our childish wanting of all things NOW, even the gates of Hell will not be able to overcome His holy Church, and He will give us the fullness of His good gifts.  In His way.  In His time.

If we will but wait. 

Friday, December 29, 2017

Christianity, "Christianity" and Russel Brand

Relevant Magazine--a popular and influential shaper of Christianity and the church--recently published an article praising actor Russel Brand's sobriety and the spirituality he discovered through addiction.  The article is very much worthy of reading and reflection, as it is a strong indicator of what the Western Church--on the whole--values and believes about religion, spirituality, and Jesus Christ.  Link is below.

The Second Coming of Russell Brand Fifteen years after embracing sobriety, he’s now talking about how culture can stop its destructive patterns: by following Jesus.

To start with, I'd like to say that I'm incredibly glad Brand has gotten clean. No human being should have to live through the hell of addiction. It is truly a demonic thing.  And frankly, whatever method a person can use to get out of addiction is a good thing.
Furthermore, Brand--and the article--are spot-on in their assessment of our Western materialism-addicted culture. In spite of the increasing number of Americans that claim to be "spiritual but not religious," the sheer amount of money spent during the Christmas season confirms that, on the whole, Americans still really, really, REALLY like to have stuff.

But where Brand--and the article--go awry is in their understanding of what "Christianity" is. There are themes that Brand picks up on that are good (such as forgiveness, etc), but on the whole his "Christianity" is little more than a vague and Christ-less spirituality that is expressed through some common Christian terms and practices.  

And what is evidenced in the article indicates that what is missing is crucial. Brand looks upon the "Christianity" of a 12-step program--and thus at God--as a means to an end. Namely, Brand looks to the 12-step God as the means by which he can get and stay clean.  But that means what is missing is the cross.  Neither Brand nor the article speaks of the objective reality of forgiveness won through Jesus Christ, nor of the free gift of life and salvation in Him.  Simply put, Jesus Christ is the means to God's plan of salvation for us, not the means to achieve our plans for ourselves.  

Various troubling quotations:

"Instead of focusing on unhealthy patterns centered on self-fulfillment, the message of the Gospel offers an alternative: caring for others and helping those in need."--This is flatly, grossly, unbiblical. The message of the Gospel is free salvation, forgiveness of sins, and eternal life in Christ. While there is no doubt whatsoever that we have a Biblical command to care for others, it is not Gospel. Christ does Gospel, we do not.

"And after exploring faith, the teachings of Jesus have led to a revelation: The Kingdom of God can be ushered in on Earth, but only if we free ourselves from all of the trappings that distract us from it—the same ones Jesus Himself warned us about."--Again, this is a gross misunderstanding of the Kingdom of God. It is more in line with Schliermacher than the Scriptures. The Gospels present Jesus Himself and His appearing as the Kingdom. There is no Kingdom without authentic Christ.

The repeated use of the phrase "what this means to me."--I know that even in the Church we tend to speak like this. But truth and meaning are firstly objective; Divine reality--what a thing MEANS, period--and then only secondarily are such things applied to oneself. This is not so much a failing of Brand as it is of the Church that allows and even encourages such an emphasis upon the subjectivity of faith.

But the article--and Relevant itself--seems to uphold Brand's particular spirituality as an authentic and imitation-worthy expression of Christian faith, rather than a lamentable missing of the mark. And that is, perhaps, the most troubling thing to me of all.


What Brand well understands, though, is the inherent death of the world's system. He knows that because he experienced the fullness of it, and so was given the good grace to see it for what it is. In a very real way, he repented--turned away--from that system and is now free from addiction.  To quote the Scriptures, Brand is "not far from the Kingdom." God be praised for that, and God grant that Brand be given an opportunity to come all the way into it.  

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

I'm tired

I'm tired.

I know all the reasons why I'm tired.  Some are from necessity and the result of choices I've made and the way in which I've structured my months and weeks and days.  Some are the result of requirements of my vocation.  Other reasons yet are the result of when I've failed to structure, to plan, to sufficiently control my own calendar.  Either way, though . . . I'm tired.

This is not a complaint, and certainly not a whine.  I've been tired before. Much, much, MUCH more tired than I am right now.  And I'm certain I'll become wearied again in the future.  I don't know of a single person in the world that wouldn't say the same thing.  We're all pretty much in the same boat, regardless of our vocation: Things stack up and we'd like it to just stop for a bit.

And there it is, the thing I'm really thinking about.  I'm not so much concerned about being tired, but whether or not I'll be able to stop, to rest, to breathe.  Being weary isn't bad at all, but the question that comes unbidden to my mind is, "Yes . . . but for how long?"  Honestly, I get a bit selfish and want MY time back, I want MY control.  Sure, I'll put in my hours, but then just leave me alone and let me have my free time, like any normal human being.

Except "normal" people don't get that, either.  They volunteer, they serve, they give.  Their evenings and weekends get eaten up just as much as mine, and probably more so.  They have cares and concerns that weigh on their minds throughout the entire day.  And the daily demands and requirements of vocation do not and cannot stop.  In other words, there is still good to be done.

My prayerbook this morning had me pray this: "Enlighten those who teach and those who learn; renew their strength that they may not grow weary in their work; let their lamps burn bright in the days of darkness; and their hearts be strong in times of disappointment."  And the Scriptures themselves double down on that in Galatians 6:9, "And let us not grow weary of doing good . . ."

But when you're tired, you see such things and become more tired yet.  You think that, somehow, you must summon the courage and will to keep on doing good, because people need you.

Except they don't.

Need YOU?  HA!  They don't need you any more than they need me.  It's true.  When we start to believe that we have to keep on going because people need US . . . well, honestly, then at that point we have a greatly over-inflated sense of our own worth.  We believe that what we need to do is give out a piece of ourselves, as though somehow a piece of me is going to fix whatever issue there is.

They don't need a piece of me.  They need a piece of God.

And yes, it is true that God uses my hands, my feet, my voice to bless others.  It's true that He uses me, and it's true that He uses you.  And yes, it's also true that He uses us to give to others.  And yes, if that's all there was to it, we'd be giving away ourselves all the time, and be dang tired for it.

But it doesn't really work that way.  What we give to others doesn't come from ourselves, but from God.  We only give what we have first been given.  And whether that be peace, wisdom, advice, comfort, money, or anything . . . we don't have it to give unless God first gives it to us.  I don't have to manufacture some solution or strive to come up with an answer, I only need to give them what God has just placed in my hand to give.

When I get weary of giving, of doing, of serving . . . maybe it's because I've begun to believe that those things come from me.  That the gift from my hand is my time, my presence, my money, my, my, my . . .

Perhaps instead I should remember that the gift in my hand was placed there by God only moments before.  Perhaps I should instead remember that it is He who gives.