Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Whatever your pastor is, he's a theologian

Whatever your pastor is, he is first and foremost a theologian.

Or should be.

When you go to your dentist, you'd like to be assured that she considers herself a dentist.  That she regularly hones her dental skills.  That she stays abreast of developments in the dental field.  That she knows both the age-old wisdom of dental care as well as the cutting edge discussions that might one day become age-old wisdom.  Teeth and the care of them . . . that should fascinate your dentist.

Your mechanic . . . you'd like him to be a guy who knows cars.  What makes them go. What makes them stop.  You'd like him to know old school carburetors and new-fangled computers.  You'd like him to be a guy who studies cars because he loves cars.

The pastor of your church is, by very definition, a professional theologian.  Now, I know that particular combination of words makes him sound like an egghead that sits in an office all day long, poring over ancients texts and making obscure (and largely irrelevant) discoveries.  And you know, honestly, if that's your pastor, you could do a lot worse.

Because if that's your pastor, you at least know that he's fascinated by God-words.  He's amused by little quirks of the Scriptures, the way the language of the Bible flows and moves.  He's intrigued by a particular Greek form that communicates a truth of God in a unique way.  He'll sit motionless, stunned by a Hebrew phrase that speaks of God's undeserved favor.  He might even take up the study of an archaic language like Latin just so that he can delight in God-words from the ancient church.

But maybe he's not a theology nerd.  No matter.  Your pastor is still a professional theologian.  That doesn't have to mean he's an egghead, but it does mean someone who gets paid (there's the word "professional") to be knowledgeable of, to speak of, to be educated in, the words of God.  A theo-logian is one who studies (that's the logia part which, by the way, is related to the Greek word logos, meaning "word") the stuff of God (that's the theo part, from the Greek theos, meaning, "God").

A pastor is a guy who gets paid to be a God's-word-studier.  A far as a definition of "professional theologian," that's it.  It can mean more, but it certainly doesn't mean less.

And this is what you want as a pastor.  Certainly, a pastor at times has to wear different hats, has to take on different roles as each individual church needs.  A pastor most certainly needs to have a variety of skills.  Some churches need a pastor who's adept at getting volunteers organized.  Others need a pastor who can manage a large staff.  Others still need a pastor who's great compassion and loving heart makes him a natural for visiting folks in the hospital.  There are pastors who fit the mold of the Thinker; of the Doer; the Leader, the Speaker.

But there's not a one of them who refuses to be a theologian.  There's not a one of them who can refuse to study the words of God.

Because that's what a pastor traffics in.

Because that's what every pastor is called to do.

Because it is the words of God that give life.

At the end of the day . . . and at the beginning . . . and I guess for that matter in the middle and all points in between, your pastor is tasked with the responsibility of knowing and communicating God's word to you.  Whatever other hats your church may have given him, that's the one you can't live without.  The one your church can't live without.

So, look . . . do your church a favor by doing your pastor a favor.  Make sure he has enough time to indulge in some theologizing.  Make sure he has enough time to sharpen his theological sword  Make sure he has enough time to not just cram in some sermon study, but to delight in God's word.

And while you're at it, encourage him to indulge in it.  Here's a secret (I'm probably not supposed to tell this, but I'm going to anyway): sometimes pastors feel guilty for indulging in theology.  We feel guilty for just sitting and doing nothing other than delighting in God-words.  There are times we feel we need to make it look like we're busy, we're doing, we're producing.

But honestly, in our heart of hearts we're just like three-year-olds, full of the joy of discovery, of seeing things anew, and want nothing more to run up to somebody--anybody!--holding our latest and greatest discovery and say, "LOOK AT THIS!!"  Be that discovery a funny-shaped rock in the form of a curious Greek word or be it the life-changing revelation that fire is, indeed, HOT . . . we just want to explore, to delight in, and to show you the God-words, the theology, that you pay us to do.

When you make sure your pastor has enough time to theo-logia, you're going to be assured that he's the best pastor he can be.  He'll be sharp.  He'll be in the know.  He'll be growing in his field.

He'll be a professional theologian.

And that is what you want your pastor to be.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

"Maintenance ministry" and "Mission"

I want to make a proposal.

And yes, I'm aware that said proposal might seem a tad snarky to some.  That's fair.  I confess that the proposal idea was born in snark, and that in snark did my mother conceive me.  Snark is, for me, something of a way of life. 

But in all honesty, what was conceived in snark has matured beyond that.  It's moved into a serious thought, a genuine proposal, that still has just a touch of bite to it.  So I ask you to please trust my sincerity in this, and hear out my proposal.

I'm a bit . . . well, allergic to certain terms used in certain contexts of ministry.  Terms like visioning.  Strategic planning.  Leadership.  Use those terms around me and I can all but guarantee you'll see my face scrunch up for just a second, or maybe my eyeball will twitch.

I'm allergic to those terms because I at one time believed very, very strongly in them.  I shaped my pastoral ministry around them.  I conformed myself to that image.  And, frankly, I overdosed on it.  It took a long, long, dry season for God to burn a lot of things out of me, and when I emerged on the other side of that season, I had a significantly different outlook on ministry.

My outlook on ministry now became focused completely on the gospel.  Upon proclaiming it.  Upon offering it in Word and Sacrament.  I now saw how it is the gospel--and the gospel alone--that solely effects life change.  That it is the gospel that brings about genuine transformation.

And I also became acutely aware that at one time I had preached very little gospel.

I had preached very little gospel, but I had extensively relied upon the tools of visioning, etc., to do the work of the gospel.  What I had done was to expect those tools to produce something that they were incapable of producing.  A church vision cannot make make a person dead in their sins to come alive.  But the gospel can.  Strong, effective, servant-leadership cannot cause Christ's Kingdom to grow.  But the gospel can.

See, pastors have to function in a couple of different worlds, but we often talk about those worlds in ways that run right past each other.  In one world, we deal with hidden realities: things that God says are true; things that must be accepted by faith; things that affect eternity.  In the other world, we deal with visible stuff: organizational issues; volunteer staffing; budgets; buildings. 

Both of those have a claim to the term "real world."  So my first proposal is that we don't use that term any more.  No more saying, "Well, yes . . . but in the real world . . ."  No.  Because God's Kingdom, though hidden, is no less real than the annual budget you're staring at.  In fact, I personally would consider it more so.

But physical things do matter.  It does matter whether or not the building is clean and in good repair.  It matters whether or not the volunteers are trained.  And yet, we should acknowledge that those things--while good--are not gospel.  A clean and welcoming atmosphere is going to help a person overcome their aversion to going to church, but it can't do a split thing about forgiving sins or making alive. 

Therefor, my second proposal is aimed at calling those things what they are, and not confusing them with actual gospel stuff.  When we're talking about leadership, strategies, budgets, etc. . . . what we're really talking about is the proper running of a solid organization.  We're talking about properly maintaining that organization so it performs as well as it can.  If that organization is the church, then without a doubt that stuff is related to gospel ministry.  I would say that it even supports gospel ministry, but it is not gospel ministry itself.

So let's call all that stuff what it is: the maintaining of things important to ministry.  Let's call it "maintenance ministry."  Call it that, and I promise my allergic reaction won't show a bit.  Call it "maintenance ministry," and I'll be all like, "Oh yeah, bro . . . that's stuff's important.  Let's chat over that for a bit."

And then, for those things that are actual gospel ministry itself--things like preaching, confession, absolution, baptism, the Lord's Supper . . . things like the study of the Word, pastoral counseling, prayer--for those things that are the way that Jesus Christ has said, "Do these things, because in doing these things you give My people My gospel" . . . let's call that "mission." 

God's mission is to bring all people into His presence.  He does this through Christ.  And Christ in turn establishes His church as the place where this mission really, truly happens.  It's in the church where baptism makes people new.  It's in the church were the faithful are nourished and sustained by the Bread of Life.  It's in the church where the life-giving gospel is proclaimed over and over and over again.  And though the church might perform these actions, God's mission is actually God's work.  That's what makes it mission.  That's what makes it gospel.

Two small proposals (we're ignoring the first one) that help us keep clear all of what's really going on in the church, and who's doing it.  When we do the stuff that is critical for the maintaining of the organization, we'll call that "maintenance ministry."  But when it's God doing stuff for the salvation of people, we'll call that "mission."

Do that, and it will help us all keep straight who does what, and why.

Do that, and we can have exceptionally good conversations about ministry.  About mission.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Yeah . . . so about that whole "loving people" thing . . .

I think we can all agree that, yes, love hurts at times.

Okay, that's a polite understatement.  When love hurts, we don't all politely agree to that.  When love hurts, it's an inarticulate howling of the heart.  A terrifying maelstrom that leaves our sails shredded, leaves us stranded, leaves our ship wrecked.  "Less than fun" is one way to describe it.  "Oh my God I'd rather die than risk death again" is another. 

But still, it happens.  It happens because love involves intimacy.  Whether in friendships, or in marriage, or in family, love fosters a deep knowledge of the other; their failings and flaws as well as their strengths.  Love knows both victory and vice.  Love has knowledge of memories that can lift up, and it has memories that can tear down.

Superficial relationships don't suffer from this problem.  You can have a work acquaintance that you like chatting with, or perhaps another that you avoid.  You might find some people fascinating and be drawn to the account of their hobby or their achievements, but you are content to leave them on a sort of pedestal, unsullied by the real-life realities of being an actual and complex human being.  Other people might honestly be irritating, so you feel free to safely label them as troublesome.  You mark and avoid, placing them in a pit instead of on a pedestal.  But in either case, knowledge of the other is surface-level only, for you haven't done the work (or had the time . . . or the desire . . . or the opportunity) to get to know them in their depth and complexity.

But love cannot be superficial.  If it is, it is not love.

And so there is a danger inherent in love.  To love is to entrust, and to love is to trust.  Love entrusts the other with significant, complex knowledge of your own self that is as potentially delightful as it is damning.  And love trusts that the other will never use what is damning to . . . well, to damn.  Love trusts that the other will never damn, but always delight, always hope, always persevere.

But sometimes . . . love turns. 


And the other is left with damning knowledge of you, and is no longer restrained by the delight of genuine love.  What was once entrusted becomes ammunition.  The one who was once trusted becomes a terror.

When that happens, it's easy to refuse love.  I'll not love again.  I'll not have friends again.  It's too risky.  I'll be nice, I'll enjoy the company of people, I'll be generous, I'll be gregarious . . . but I will not allow love, for if I allow someone in again, they will hurt me.  They will betray me.  And I cannot, I WILL not, pay that cost for love.

Sounds good to me.

Except . . . to live without love is not to live.  Not to our full potential as human beings.  We are made to give, to risk, because that is what love is.  And we are creatures that are made to love.

I know this because we are creatures made in God's image.  And I know God is love.  And I know that nowhere is His love more perfectly revealed than in the cross of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ delights in you.  He loves you for who you are.  And He has that damning knowledge of you.  He looks at you and knows full well what loving you will cost.  Will cost Him.  And He knows full well that, even if He pays the cost of love, your love for Him might still one day turn.  Sour.  And betray.

Yet, He does it anyway.  He loves you with a mighty and all-giving love, a love that wraps up damnation and delight alike into the blood-soaked arms spread wide apart and nailed to a cross.  He gives all, risks all, because to do less would be less than love.  And, having loved you to the very end, He steps back and offers it to you freely.  No strings.  No manipulation.  Just free love, freely given.  And no matter what you do with that love--whether you return it, embrace it, or reject it and sour it--no matter what you do with that love, you can never deny that love was given.

To you.

In full knowledge of all your flaws and failures.

In full awareness of the risks.

Love.  Given.  Freely.

As it should be.  As genuine love genuinely is.

So perhaps you can risk love again.  Perhaps I can.  Perhaps we all can.  Yes, it may hurt.  In fact, I'm sure it will, at some point.  Not gonna lie. 

But what if it does?

Then it does.  But that's just it: love--genuine love--costs.  There's no escaping that reality.  But it's a cost that was first paid by Jesus Christ as He loved you.  And in loving you, He gives you the ability to love others with that same fearless freedom.  You won't have lost anything, because you can only give love if you've first received it.  If nothing else, you will have the knowledge that you freely gave love.  And you will have Christ standing behind you, speaking gently, "Yes . . . that is what love does.  It gives.  It risks.  I know.  I know, and I'm so glad that I gave my love to you."

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.