Sunday, July 31, 2005

The Essentials

When I think about Jesus' prayer to the Father in John 17 that His followers would be one as He and the Father are one, I weep for the church today. In our unique American market-driven expression of the church, we have created more denominations that I could even list. Every group has ended up splitting from another group, claiming that their corner of Christianity was more pure, more "biblical", more faithful to the New Testament church. We have been divided against one another for too long. In the absence of strong unity, the church has hurt itself and its testimony in the world. How can we claim to be followers of Christ when we disobey His command to have unity within our ranks? We have become obsessed with our own egos and decided that we would rather have our own group than do the hard work of reconciliation. As a friend of mine said recently in church, "it is like we are all on the same team, but we are all too busy taking out our teammates to fight the opponent." And personally, I believe that the enemy of the church likes it this way. When local churches band together to pool their resources and talents, they can make an amazing impact on their communities. But most church leaders are not willing to take the initiative required to build the unity bridge. They would simply rather build their own kingdom than the kingdom.

How do we begin to tear down the walls that separate churches and work together for the good of Christ's kingdom here on earth? I believe the major challenge is for each church to decide on the essentials. What is it that we think someone must believe and affirm in order for us to work with them? Of course, the list of essentials may be longer within our own churches (like to screen teachers, elders, etc.), but I am talking about the list of essentials that should guide ecumenical work. How do we decide who we should partner with and who we shouldn't? It seems to me that the reason that we separate from each other into smaller and smaller segments rather than working together is because we make the essentials list too long. If I believe the KJV is essential to the faith, then I am going to separate myself from everyone who uses another translation. With me? So, what are the essentials that should guide us? Personally, I see my list getting smaller and smaller over the years. I would say now that my list of essentials includes the following: the Trinity, salvation by faith, the incarnation, the resurrection, and the authority of Scripture. If someone can come to the table with these beliefs, I really think that I could work with them. I am amazed how many things we fight about are not on this list - worship style, building style, spiritual gifts, end times theology, ecclesiology, etc. I could go on and on. Why are we so divided if we agree on the main things? What do think the essentials should include? What core beliefs do you think are necessary for us to be "Christian"?

I pray the church of the future will grow in unity as it continues to discuss the essentials to the faith.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Why is the church here?

I was listening to Erwin McManus lecture the other night about growing leaders in the postmodern generation, and he was fielding a lot of questions about the "emerging" church that he leads called Mosaic in California. The main thought that he left me with, which I am still praying through, is not a new thought to me - but it is still a profound one. And it has been reinforced by my re-introduction to the ministry of Mission Arlington this week. Erwin said that the problem with most churches today is that they have forgotten why they exist. He said most churches believe that the church exists for itself, but that the Scriptures teach that the church exists for the world. You would think after four years of seminary and six years of ministry, I would really have already understood the reason the church exists. But I really don't think that I have thought about it clearly. We always quote the Great Commission in our minds when we talk about the church's mission - to "make disciples." But what does this mean in reality? Does it mean that we exist to build into one another in the local congregation and hope that those on the outside will like what we do and become a part of our community? Or does it mean that we exist to engage those outside the four walls of our church? Does it mean we have been called by God to look outside our church for the reason we exist?

This really bothers me in a religious environment where most churches spend most of their money on themselves. Most churches spend most of their money on programs for them, ministers to teach them, buildings to house them, and technology to entertain them. If we believe we are to really be about leading the world to follow Christ, what are we doing? I was told by a leader in my faith community recently that most churches in my denomination are failing to simply convert their own - and by that he meant the kids of the church members on the role. I think we are struggling more than we are willing to admit sometimes. And I think this issue of mission is really a huge part of our problem. Why are we here? McManus said that he believed that mission was the fire that fueled the passion of the church. In other words, if we are not on the same page about why we exist, we will never fully and passionately pursue that goal. I hope that we can move beyond the place of saying that we want the world to convert to the church and begin saying that we want the world to convert to Christ. I sincerely hope that the institutional church today is not keeping people away from following our Savior. And I say that with trembling fear because I am a member and a minister in the institutional church.

I guess the question I want answered is "are we too attached to our methods and traditions that we fail to engage the next generation with the all-consuming, life-transforming story of Jesus"? Are we really more concerned with having church "our way" than about introducing our community to the Savior? Because I believe the Bible teaches us that the church exists for the world, not for itself. If not, then why has God even left us here?

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Historical Amnesia

I'm more and more weary with American Christians' inability to think clearly about the history of our own country. The nostalgia that so many feel for "Christian" America seems to be a view that is completely misguided and uninformed of what the founding of our country actually looked like. What many people mean when they talk about a "Christian" America is really a statement about the loosening of standards for what is acceptable in the public arena. But looser standards in the public arena do not really have anything to say about the hearts of people or the general morality of a culture. For example, the early American culture (that I have been reading a lot about lately - 1776, Founding Brothers, His Excellency: George Washington) was a more genteel place of "gentlemen" and "ladies." It was driven by an aristocratic understanding of life driven by a hangover from the feudal ideology of medieval scholasticism. In other words, those who had power and status in early American society knew how to handle themselves in a socially acceptable way in the public arena (according to what the "culture" said was acceptable)), but those who actually had this power and status were few and far between. The early American culture was dominated by hard living, hard drinking, and incredible discrepancy between those who had titles and land and those who did not. Early American cities were just as likely as today to have centers of local prostitution, gambling, ungodly entertainment, and drinking. The major differences in culture between early America and today is that technology has changed the dissemination of cultural influences.

My premise is actually really simple - I think that nostalgia for a "Christian" America is driven by a feeling that we are losing the hearts of Americans, not the culture war. Whatever happens to our culture in America does not fundamentally change the function or the mission of the church. The church was called to spread the life-giving message of Christ to sinful man in the 1770's and in the 2000's. If the mission and function of the church is bound by the godliness of the culture, then why is the church growing fastest in places like communist China where Atheism is the state religion? If the church wants to shape culture, it has to get it's mind out of the clouds and think clearly about the world and it's mission. If we want to see change, then we need to be investing in spreading the gospel to all people - not hoping to legislate morality from Washington. The idea that we are now in a "post-Christian" society implies that America was once a "Christian" nation. From my study of history, I really struggle to see this. Were there Christians in early America in prominent positions of authority? Sure, but there are evangelical Christians involved in every area of government today. My hope is not in government and fundamentally not even in culture. My hope is in the gospel, and we need to proclaim the true source of our hope.

Because we live in a generation that is generally ignorant of history (read world and church history), we constantly have to fight this tendency to say, "if we would just go back to when..." This historical amnesia puts false hope in the culture of the past and points people away from what amazing things God is doing in our generation with the gospel. I personally don't desire to go back to the days of slavery and social injustice that gripped early American culture. You see - nostalgia over American history really has to do with your remembrance of the past. Hoping not to sound too postmodern, I truly believe that we have forgotten the sins of past generations. Have we lost decency in the public arena? Yes. Are we committing our own moral crimes by killing 1.3 million innocent babies a year in abortion? Yes. Are we going to legalize same-sex marriage within my lifetime? Probably. But will these changes have an impact on the church or my ministry? Not likely. You and I are called to love people and share Christ with them in whatever cultural context we find ourselves in. My mission is not to fix the culture, but to change hearts.

What do you think?

Monday, July 11, 2005

Measuring Success in Ministry

Two articles in the weekend editions of the Dallas Morning News caught my eye today. One was the cover article of Saturday's religion section documenting Lakewood Church's move to their new 16,000 seat sanctuary at the converted Compaq center in Houston this weekend. The other was in Sunday's metro section. It was also about a preacher - but this one wasn't about a huge building or mass ministry. It was the story of Rev. CBT Smith who is close to his 90th birthday. He is receiving the Living Legend award from a Dallas preaching conference this week for his lifetime of ministry. And when I say lifetime, I mean it - 70 years of preaching the gospel.

In this context, I've really been wrestling with how you measure success in ministry. We have to confess that ultimately we are working in the eternal market and measurements are hard to come by. It seems that any kind of measurement in this world is temporary and therefore ultimately flawed. Only God really knows the ultimate impact of what we do in ministry - and therefore it may be futile to really try to measure anything. At the same time, however, we want to know that we are doing things in ministry that really matter. If we never take measurement of our own ministry efforts, how will we grow into the mature overseers that God needs for the church to grow? Evaluation seems crucial to me - the question then just revolves around what to measure. What do I try to measure and how do I actually measure it?

The attention of the world and the attention of most pastors centers on numbers. If we are running lots of people in the pews, then we are successful in ministry. While it is easy to be cynical of this view, numbers do represent people. And if we are truly honest, we do want to influence the most number of people that we can for the sake of the glory of Christ. The reality, however, is that numbers alone do not equate to ministry success. Surely, lots of personalities in the pulpit draw crowds with communicating any content. Therefore, we have to go further. Using Jesus' call to "make disciples" in the Great Commission, we could say that the measurement has to include a pastor's record on making disciples - but how do you measure that? It is possible, but it takes more space to discuss than I have here.

I think the one that hit me this weekend while looking over the paper is the quality of faithfulness. To spend a lifetime proclaiming the truth of God's Word without doing something in your life that distracts from your message. This is maybe the greatest success that any preacher can have - to use his whole life (not just part of it) as a testimony to God's grace by his faithful ministry of God's Word and his faithful obedience to what he preaches. Sounds simple - and hard. God, help me to make it to the end still burning with passion for the gospel that has transformed my heart.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Teaching Theology

The church has got to do things with more concern for theological reflection. We are not traditionally in the business of caring too much about theology (since most people hear the word and begin to assume immediately that you are talking about dead, stale, mental religion with no heart). Why can't the church be passionate about loving God totally with our hearts and totally with our minds (kind of sounds like Jesus' command)? I believe the church is always given to extremes in an attempt to fight the unbalanced approaches of the previous generation. For me, my church background included an environment where religion was about attending an hour long service on Sunday and hoping that I didn't fall asleep. For many young people who grew up in a spiritually dry church, the immediate reaction is to cling to anything that has passion and excitement in it. There is current youth ministry book out right now basically echoing these ideas. Kenda Dean in Practicing Passion basically argues for a church of passion (arguing against empty religiosity in the mainline churches) that will encompass the desires of young people to be a part of something that is worthy giving their lives for. In other words, the church today recognizes that empty tradition of a generation ago will not continue to produce a thriving faith in the next generation of students.

The result of this has been a focus on the heart and on passion. We have written love songs to God that we sing in worship every week. The more emotional we get at a retreat or a camp or an event, the more spiritual we think we have been. The emotions are good, but we are in danger of losing our theological distinctiveness as Christians if we are not careful. We, as church leaders, have got to realize that everything we do in the church teaches theology. We communicate something about God and His character every time we have church. Can we begin to think critically again about what we are teaching? Of course, to think deeply about what we are teaching about God, we have to think deeply about what we believe ourselves about God. The danger is that we have been consumed in Christian culture so long that we begin to use all of the Christian jargon that we hear without thinking well about what it means. What does it mean that Jesus is God incarnate? How does that impact my life and my ministry? What does it mean that God is Triune? How does that change the way I teach about God?

I am afraid that in all of our concern for emotional impact we have sacrificed theological reflection. I wonder if it is possible to be a part of a church that encourages both - passionate pursuit of intimacy with God and intense theological reflection about what the Bible teaches us about God. I hope it is, and I hope that the next generation of church leaders can work hard at keeping balance in these two areas so that we teach accurately and passionately about the nature of God.