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.

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.

 

 

 

Church Politics

For Politics Monday today I will talk about the politics within the church.  This is a topic I am intending to touch on more often.

Some people undoubtedly will be offended just by the phrasing.  Please bear with me, my definition of politics is the normal flow of relationships whenever people interact with each other, whether these relationships are local, global or somewhere in between.

By this definition, the only church that does not have politics is the church where the people fail to interact with each other at all. This would mean they fail to form friendships, fail to produce teamwork and never experience fellowship.  All of these things are produced by the synergistic power of relationships.

Most often, whether a church is a good church or a bad church, whether it is a church that does lots of good in the community or a church that barely manages to pull off worship, is ultimately determined by the strength of the relationships within the church.  A church that ‘works’ is a church that has good, strong relationships. When something breaks the fellowship of a church, the church will lose its strength.

Unfortunately, everywhere there are relationships, there are also relationships that go wrong. In the church, relationships gone wrong have different degrees of disruption to the overall congregation. For example, a couple living together will have a minimal impact in the strength of the group when they are non-serving attenders. On the other end of the scale a pastor who lies, cheats and steals will totally dismantle his church’s effectiveness.

The takeaway for this discussion is every church member, especially serving church members, should take care to protect the fellowship of the church. The primary tool for accomplishing this is to live right, because living wrong on any level disrupts that fellowship.  A secondary method is to extend grace to your fellow church members when they fall short, so that problems are not escalated after they develop.

Philosophy of Effort

What do you believe about human effort?  Should we, since we are not saved by works, therefore not put any effort into getting work done?  Or going just a little bit further, perhaps all human effort is inherently tainted by sin and therefore we should never do anything for God, but instead expect that all of Christian living and God’s kingdom on earth should be accomplished by Him without our participation?

It seems like the opinion that everything we do is sinful and worthless is very strong today. In this philosophy, humanity must allow God to build His church. The idea is that we are not able to help, and when we try we simply mess it up. For those who proclaim this message, I have this question.  Are you not doing a work by proclaiming this ideology?  Isn’t teaching, preaching, and instruction in practical application, tasks which require some degree of labor?

We need a better understanding of human effort in the kingdom of God. Consider 1 Corinthians 3:14, here quoted from the NASB.  “If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward.” You will want to open your own Bible and explore the context of this verse, but the general idea is that God expects us to work, will test our work, and that those whose work survives the test will be rewarded.

So let me suggest a philosophy of effort.  We should work to do our best as Christians. This is not for the purpose of being saved, because we are all saved by grace. Instead our efforts are for purposes of bringing glory to God, most notably by building His kingdom.  Our efforts in this regard are only successful when done in cooperation with Him. Because He empowers these efforts, He gets all the credit for any success.

The Immorality of Not Voting

This is a very unusual presidential election. In many ways it seems as if the candidates are the least likely individuals that each party could possibly find.

One individual brings a long stream of controversial episodes to the table. The most recent of these is the handling of classified information in such a way that made it more accessible to the Russians and Chinese than the US government officials who subpoenaed it.

The other is a brash attention seeking businessman who also has a history that generally would not be called suitable for politics.  This candidate subjects the American people to an outlandish set of promises as to what will be changed under their guidance, and how fast.

For many Christians, the question has become, how can I vote for either candidate in good conscience? I am bothered by how many of my friends in ministry have decided that there is no way to cast a moral vote this election year.

To these individuals I ask this question, have you considered the immorality of not voting? Not voting strikes me as the equivalent of folding your arms, sitting back in your chairs, and saying to the secular society around us – you made this mess, now you fix it.  Lowering that to a more common denominator, it is Christianity packing up their toys and going home.

I believe that a part of our Christian living is to be responsible citizens in our society. In this society that means praying for our president. In this society that means casting a vote to try and bring in the best possible candidate.  In the current election, as in all recent elections this includes two primary parties with opposing views as to how the country should move forward.

I disagree with the platform of one of those parties in several major ways.  I agree with the platform of the other in several major ways.  I will vote.  I will vote for a candidate whom I do not totally trust fulfill their promises, or even to keep the priorities spelled out in the platform.  I will cast this vote because voting for the other would support someone guaranteed to go in the wrong direction. And I will not abstain from voting because to me, that is the most immoral choice.

Concerts: Pain and Grace

“The first time you hear the screams is always the hardest; it gets easier to ignore them with time.”

We used these lies to try and console each other, and we said these words to the few visitors who came to our house. None of them ever returned. The ear-splitting shrieks were too much for children our age to endure.

But it was alright, because we came to dislike having company. You see, we had to ignore the sounds, since we were there all the time. After a while your brain doesn’t register the cries, even though your ears still hear them. You can’t help but hear them. When a visitor lifted their head to listen, it called our attention to the sound again. It would remind us of the terrible nature of where we lived. So maybe we were better off without visitors.

I was seven when we moved into that shack. My brother was an older, wiser ten. He had seen more of the world, and he knew of what was happening on the other side of that tall fence. But our mother forbade him to speak of it to me. She didn’t want me to know what the noises made plain enough. What was she protecting? My innocence? My sanity?

So every night we listened to the concert. The clatter of machinery formed the base notes. Shrieks of terror mixed with—so much more—formed the tenor. We could never quite picture what it was in between, that formed the alto in the nightly concerts of our pain and injustice.

It was a horrible thing to experience as a child, but the other locations we might have afforded were even worse. That was the reality our mother faced. She was the one who had to work to pay the rent. We would live here, where the rent was low, because no one else wanted to live, under the shadow of the bedlam, trying to sleep through the cacophony.

Five years later I could no longer claim apathy or innocence to what was taking place. I had peeked through holes in the fence. I had asked a million questions of those who had ventured where I could not. My sense of injustice was boiling over.

It was about that time that a man began coming round, paying attention to momma. The year I turned fourteen, they married and we moved away from there.

We no longer live in poverty. Our new home is large, safe, and quiet. At first we thought we would never hear those sounds again.

Our new daddy bought us season tickets. We went to the amusement park at least once a week. We found the alto voices, which had been so indistinguishable from the shack, were barkers on the midway. We felt the rumble of the bass as the machines lifted us up, and we threw our voices into the tenor parts of the nightly concert, on the way down.

For us, it was no longer a concert of hopelessness, but of fulfilled dreams.

From the top of the Ferris wheel I could see they were tearing down the old shack.

I was glad to see it go.

I was sad to see it go.

I want to always remember what it was like before. Before we were able to add our voices to the concerts of grace.

Philosophy of the Backbone

I have heard for years that in order to grow our churches we should soften our stand on the issues that society finds divisive. Emphasize unity over truth. Strive to be less offensive on non-essentials in order to earn a right to be heard on spiritual issues. We are paying the price for intentionally softening our resolve.

I have tried to study the issues regarding homosexuality and court cases involving churches. Every church I know has a strong desire to protect themselves from being pulled into court over this issue. There are numerous sources who will issue advice on how to design their documents, policies and procedures to make this less likely. I suspect that it is not possible to avoid the issues completely.

The Bible defines homosexual behavior as wrong. This fact will not go away. Attempts to redefine the Bible only work if you have not given it a serious read. So those of us who read and respect the teachings of Scripture will continue to see homosexuality as a sin.

The courts have been busy deciding that disagreeing with homosexuality is prejudice. This conclusion is based on the idea that homosexuality is less a choice than a result of how a person was born. The phrase is often used that ‘God made them that way.’

So believing this perspective regarding the practice of homosexuality allows the courts to rule that traditional Christianity is discrimination. Since it has become trendy to include sexual orientation in discrimination laws, the idea has legal teeth. There has been an attempt in many places to make laws which clarify that religious freedom is a higher priority than these discrimination cases but the courts have repeatedly stuck these down and probably will continue to do so.

While I will take actions hoping to protect my church from these lawsuits, I don’t believe any defense will ultimately shield us. The battle is going to find us. Perhaps the end result will be that Bible believing churches will no longer be allowed to legally operate or to own property. The result may be that we manage to put the first amendment back into the first position again. I don’t really know what will happen, but I know it will come with conflict.

The reality is that churches in America have gotten soft. Because of generations of living under the protection of the first amendment we have not had to defend Biblical truth. Since we have not had to defend our beliefs, American Christians are not practiced in standing up for what we belief, nor are we accustomed to paying a cost for our choice to love and serve God.

Scripture makes it clear that our association with Christ will bring conflict with the world. We must not allow this to be a surprise; nor should it be a point of dismay. It is a point of opportunity to demonstrate the backbone of Christianity. The church itself will be stronger, more Biblical, and make a more significant impact on the world around us, when our resolve becomes visible.