Bridge Building in the Church

I often feel a stress about how infrequently I am blogging right now.  However, a couple of years ago I began to feel called to administrate a men’s retreat for affiliated churches in my area.  This has been where all my extra energy has been going. 

Today I have something on my mind in relation to church politics.  So, I am preparing to discuss it under my ‘Politics Monday’ category. 

One of the strongest choices a church can make is to find ways to build bridges to the community.

But what exactly does that mean? Simply put, it is finding ways to connect with people who do not have a church, and possibly would not normally consider setting foot on church grounds. If a congregation’s only chance to evangelize is to witness to those folks who happen to visit, they will be missing the entire point of the great commission.

When people talk about bridge building they will often center on whether an outreach event is on the grounds of the church or not.  And this does have a point to it. A lot of the people we should most want to reach would never attend an event on the church grounds.  Not in the fellowship hall, not in the parking lot and absolutely not in the sanctuary. But some will.

Those who would be willing to visit an outreach on the church grounds might well be the low hanging fruit of the great commission, but low hanging fruit needs to be picked too. For this reason, I am not in agreement with those who assert genuine outreach and evangelism cannot take place on church grounds.

However, doing events off the church grounds has tremendous value. Not only will you have a chance to meet people who you will not meet on the grounds, but you will also see the church’s faith stretched and the community’s hearts opened. The church that is seen by community involved people as also being community involved will be their most likely place to land. Furthermore, If you are always standing on the safe ground, were exactly is the faith in that?

But before you dismiss me as being a Pollyanna let me explain that both claims have another side.  When you see into the hearts of the community you might well have that tattooed biker chick who wears her pierced earrings everywhere except her ears dropping in on the senior ladies sewing circle.  It might mean having a perfectly normal looking teen boy bring his boyfriend on his first visit.

This is about the time when you begin to find that a congregation’s faith can crack or break when it is stretched too far too fast.

I suspect to many people it sounds a little bit like compromising with the world.  To others it sounds like polluting the purity of the church with the effluence of unregenerate souls.

So, bridge building is not for the faint of heart.  But then again, no part of faithful Christianity is. Real people have real problems and sometimes we get too accustomed to our view of the church as a trouble-free zone.  But it was real people for whom Christ died.  People with fears; people with flaws.  People like you and me.

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The Pastor I Want to Be

This morning I came across Philippians 2:19-30, and came to see it as an example of the type of pastor I wish I was and should strive to be.

In these verses, Paul speaks of Timothy and Epaphroditus and the encouragement they have been to him. Before looking at what he said about these two men let’s remember the situation Paul was in as he wrote these things.

They encouraged him in ministry. Only those who are well outside the loop believe ministry is an easy course. These men encouraged him in his imprisonment. Paul had been imprisoned for the gospel, in a world where prisons were especially brutal. They encouraged him as he faced the likelihood of execution. Paul speaks of his survival as a fifty-fifty shot.

This is the most amazing thing about this passage. Paul wanted the Philippians to experience the encouragement of these men so much that he was willing to send them, rather than to keep them close, serving himself.

So what does Paul say about these men?

First thing I notice is that Timothy is described of having the interest of others, from the perspective of Jesus Christ.

The opposite of this is to seek your own interests.  This is a constant challenge for a pastor or minister of any type. Just yesterday I sat with a missionary who spoke of the difficulty of speaking on God’s behalf without allowing the message to decompose into personal tirades at the people we love, because of our private, and often frustrating, knowledge of their sins.

Another challenge of seeking the interests of your congregation is that they don’t really know what is in their own best interest.  They too have a way of making their self-interests selfish instead of Christ-centered. So, in order to avoid telling people what they want to hear, you have to temper your message constantly with a deep connection to Christ.  This is the only way that you will know His best interests for your hearers.

The last thing I want to mention about this maintaining the interests of those you serve, is that it helps to have a support system outside of the circle of your own congregation.  Often others can see things in us we have carefully hidden from ourselves.  An honest friend will tell you what you need to hear to allow you the opportunity to improve. Every Paul needs a Timothy and every Timothy needs a Paul.

Second, Paul speaks of Timothy as a person of proven character.

Proving anything takes time. Proving character takes a lifetime. Timothy was not spoken of as someone whom Paul just met and had a good feeling about, but instead as someone that had served alongside Paul for an extended time.

Proving leadership has a trait in it that many people miss.  One of the ways that you become a good leader is by being a good follower. Paul’s leadership over Timothy helped bring out Timothy’s abilities in that area. Leaders who cannot follow, at least in my opinion, also cannot lead. Remember job one for any leader is to follow Christ.

Character is not weighed on scales, so that as long as more half their characteristics are good, they are a good men. Character is not a litmus test, meaning that when a strong majority of their characteristics are pure they are a good person.  Character is on the gold standard.  If it is not 100% pure then it is still in need of refinement. All of us are still in the process, but don’t use that as an excuse to change out to any other standard than Christ.

Finally, Paul speaks of Epaphroditus as a man who was willing to sacrifice all.

The first sacrifice was being willing to live broken-hearted for the people he served.  The passage describes it as longing for the Philippians, and indeed, leaving behind those you love is one sacrifice most face in ministry.  But the sacrifice of a broken heart comes in many other ways too. Everything from watching people drown in their sin to burying your beloved members break your heart.

He also was willing to walk the line of public scrutiny and shame.  I say this because prisons in that time and place were difficult to survive. Paul most likely would not have made it through if Epaphroditus was not bringing him food, water, medicines and encouragement.  But bringing these things to Paul meant he was willingly associating himself with the crimes the Roman overlords assumed Paul was guilty of.

Finally, Epaphroditus almost died from illness while performing these ministries. This was the context in which Paul said we should hold men like Epaphroditus in high esteem. Are we as willing to risk everything for the gospel?  We live in such comfort today that it is hard to tell. But if you are not willing to make the many smaller sacrifices included in ministry, you are not training yourself to be ready to make the ultimate sacrifice if, or maybe when, the time comes.

 

 

 

Presidential Imperfection

This morning I scanned the news and was amused by one commentary which went to great lengths to diagnose the mental conditions held by our new president.  Just out of curiosity I checked his credentials and did not see a degree in psychology among them.

The President certainly is interesting.  However, I believe it is foolishness to expect any president to be perfect.  The common pattern of behavior by politicians is to present a façade of perfection.  Therefore, the real choice is not between perfect and imperfect, but instead between transparent and guarded.

With transparency comes a sea of criticism, but at the same time there is the chance to understand the person as an individual. With a guarded persona comes an assurance they will always be professional in public, but at the same time you may never be able to understand or trust what they are doing in private.

Given those choices I am willing to accept the president who allows his true self to be seen, even though I don’t always endorse the character displayed.

Taming Hypocrisy to Win America

While reading through Zechariah today it occurred to me that God often magnifies a people’s sin in the process of setting them up for judgement.  For example, the foolishness of the idolatry of Israel was put on display by the events with Elijah on Mount Carmel. The selection of Saul entirely apart from any understanding of his character moved the people toward the misery of living under a King other than God their King.

Perhaps a more modern day example is taking place in our time. The two presidential candidates both had deep moral flaws. They could easily represent the abuse of power and the obsession with sexuality, two evils which currently define our nation.  We have willingly given ourselves to these evils, and both are highlighted in the public accusations against the two candidates.

I also notice, more while reading Matthew than Zechariah, that hypocrisy is a sin of special concern in Jesus teaching. He chastises the religious leaders for despising the common people. The leaders accuse them of falling short on the minor points of the moral law, while they themselves ignore or work around the weightier points. He helped the rich to see that their belief in their own goodness was false, and that their devotion to wealth was greater than their devotion to God.

A modern day example of this hypocrisy is visible in that those who favor a candidate so easily accuse the failures of the opposing candidate. It didn’t matter which candidate won, there was going to be immediate calls for impeachment. Meanwhile both sides fail to see that the candidate on their side has genuine problems, as well. Even worse, the nation continues to deepen this divide by demonizing the supporters of their opponents.

No matter who had won the election, the path to saving America must include the unifying of the population.  It is a myth of our times, that people with opposing viewpoints cannot work together. We can stand together to rebuild our strength, without agreeing on anything more than America needs to be better. If we unify then we can take an honest look at the evils enslaving us. Seeing those evils will require us to abandon the hypocrisy and to see the weaknesses of both sides. But if we do this, if we humble ourselves before God, we will begin to tame these issues by the resources provided to us as one nation, once again choosing to be, under God.

Presidential De-Proclamation

President Barak Obama became somewhat famous for legislating with the pen. He didn’t produce as many proclamations as some presidents, but he did press the power of proclamation into the realm of putting forth as new laws. But law making is the jurisdiction of the legislative branch, not the executive.

As this happened many people across the nation were dismayed, myself included.

But as the pendulum has swung, I am now beginning to see the benefits in him having behaved in this manner.  Namely that whatever he did with the power of the presidential pen, can be undone with the same power, by the new president.

Just think how much more difficult it would be to correct these actions if they had been legally enacted by the legislature.

This should be a lesson for all of America including those who will be shortly taking control. There is a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things.  If you take the time, and respect the process, by doing things right your actions may stand the test of time.  Take shortcuts and they may short lived.

In Favor of Unity

I remember how I felt shortly after the election when Barak Obama was first elected President. It was not a pleasant feeling. It was downright confusing how so many people could see this man’s agenda as good or even appropriate. It was disheartening when his opponents were sometimes demonized as racist. It was ridiculous when some of his allies treated this new president as a political messiah. These feelings were made worse by the immediate and foolish actions which served to press his agenda, but divide the nation. I am still angered today by such, now famous, words as “elections have consequences” and “we will have to pass it to find out what is in it.” These manifestos of control divided the country in even deeper ways.

All across the urban areas of this country, people on the other side of the political spectrum are now feeling the sting that my conservative friends and I have felt for the past eight years.

So what should we conservatives do next?

We could retaliate now that we have control. We could pass every piece of legislation we want in a frenzy, we could speak out our own manifestos of control, and we could label our opponents as obstructionist, libtards, and whatever other term we find useful.  But this would make us just as divisive as the worst of our opponents have been.

Or we could look for ways to genuinely cooperate and move together.  No doubt legislation will be passed, but do so under normal rules of order, including healthy debate. No doubt proclamations are going to be undone, but don’t replace them with our own proclamations. Instead allow these ideas to weather the tests of congressional scrutiny and be passed as laws.  Instead of furthering the divide, let’s demonstrate that operating within the constraints of constitutional guidance works well without the need for creative interpretations of the document.

This work of reunifying our divisions is our most important challenge.

Many have pointed out that national debt is a huge problem. Obviously there is some unknown limit where the debt is beyond our ability to overcome.  Beyond that point our nation would lose its economic footing, be forced to default on loans, and our failure would affect not just our country but the whole world.

Similarly there is a limit to how divided we can be as a nation before the problem becomes unrecoverable. If we cause that to happen, or allow it to happen while blaming our opponents, the results will be even more disastrous.

Theology of Politics

It might be a good time to remind America that God is in control. It is at times like these that we need to have a sound theology of politics.

I know the idea of a doctrinal statement about politics, governments, elections and so on, will rub some people the wrong way. That is largely based upon a false doctrine in this country called separation of church and state.  But let me save that conversation for another day.

Today let me present a few things a Christian should believe about politics. First, we should believe that being a good citizen is a part of our Christian responsibilities.  There are a lot of verses that tell us as much, some very directly. For starters consider Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17, 1 Timothy 2:1-6, and Titus 3:1-11.

But beyond citizenship we need to know that there is a cause and effect relationship between how well we perform the duties of citizenship and the state of our nation. If we lift God up, honor and revere Him, use our resources to spread His kingdom, and build into our country positive moral values, then we can expect God to bless us.  But when we are not behaving as Christians ought, then we can only expect to see judgment. Consider Joshua 23:1-13, Psalm 33:12, and 2 Chronicles 7:14.

Finally we also need to recognize a Biblical pattern. This pattern may not be as clearly stated as some of the other things we have discussed, but I am certain that it is true. God chooses and directs leaders as one of the major ways that he guides history forward. Part of that is rewarding those who have earned blessing with good leaders, and another part is condemning those who have earned judgment with bad leaders. This pattern is demonstrated in the exodus event by the idea that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. It was not simply a matter of Pharaoh’s free will at work, but also how God was using Pharaoh’s decisions to create the history He wanted to bring about.

Another example is Proverbs 21:1 (NASB).

The king's heart is like channels of water in the hand of the LORD; 
He turns it wherever He wishes. 

This verse tells us that God is guiding the decisions of the king. It does not imply that the king is aware of this process, or that the king is immune from responsibility for the decisions.  The verse doesn’t really say anything about how it is worked out at all, and reading it only for this purpose is missing the point.  The key point of the verse is that God is moving history forward by working with leaders.

That said then we have to believe God knows what His plans are for us by the outcomes of our elections.  Whether this past election will mark the beginning of judgment, the end of judgement, or some other great purpose of God, only time will tell. Whatever God is up to, our first priority must be to trust Him no matter what it is that He has planned.