Semantic Shaming

Those of us who lead churches are generally on the lookout for ways to reach more people.  This might mean a change of strategy as culture shifts around us.  The gospel itself is unchanging, but the ways we present it, may become ineffective and need to be adjusted to fit the times.

For example, 30 years ago every evangelism method started with some variation of ‘all have sinned’.  But today they often start with ‘God made the world’.  This change is not a change to the gospel, but it includes a detail that thirty years ago everyone assumed and therefore didn’t need to be mentioned.

Along the route of perfecting our methods, there are going to be some missteps.  One particular pattern has begun to bother me.

A few years ago, I started hearing people use the term missional.  I don’t actually mind the new word, but I am more prone to use the term mission-minded.  As of yet I have not been convinced the two are not synonymous.  However, I have been accosted by enforcers who believe that by using the older term I am proving that I am antiquated, and ineffective in kingdom work. My church gives generously to missions, prays for missionaries, sends missionaries supplies and encouraging notes, and has often gone on mission trips. Don’t tell me these things will become more empowered by describing them with a new word, or that they become ineffective simply by the use of an older term.

Not long back there was a trend to stop referring to ourselves as Christians, but rather we should describe ourselves as Christ-followers.  I have no problem with this term either. But when I introduce a person who has made a recent decision as a new Christian, please don’t act as if I am somehow perpetuating the corruption of true Christianity.

The only argument in favor of the new term that makes sense to me is that it better defines the responsibility of the Christian life.  Many people use the term Christian without any intention of obeying Christ.

Still I don’t mind the older term because I know full well that the title Christian, meaning little Christs also started off as a term noting our allegiance to the Lord.  Being totally honest, it won’t be long till people call themselves Christ-followers without any intention of obeying Christ.

Like everyone else in church leadership I want the church to be more effective.  I want the kingdom to grow and God to be glorified.  I want us to continue to search for better ways to do these things. But real ministry is going to take more than a change of vocabulary.  And the energy expended in correcting people who have not adopted the change of vocabulary would be better used in witnessing, and instruction in Biblical lifestyle and Biblical growth.

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.

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.

Immutable God

I believe that God is relational. But the details of God being in relationship with humanity can be confusing. For example we think of God as being perfectly consistent. We even have a fancy theological word for this, immutability. Unfortunately relationships are never perfectly consistent, absolute consistency is far from perfect, and for that matter immutability doesn’t mean what many of us think it means.

We tend to picture God’s immutability as a strict set of rules down the order of, “if we do this, He’ll do that.” Or to put that another way, we want to formulate God. For too many people their entire spirituality is a series of observations about God and His past choices, assuming He will make the same choice every time a similar situation arises.

A boy steals a candy bar. His mom catches him, and punishes him. The child then believes that God will punish every thief. (When we do this, God will do that.) Being able to formulate God’s choices like this is only useful if you are looking for ways to manipulate or control Him.

The truth is that relationships disallow this kind of formulation. People who are in a relationship have to deal not only with variations in their own preferences and choices but also with these variations in the other person. God has a right to respond to the same situation in different ways at different times and with different people, just like we do.

God is immutable in that His character in unchanging, in that His purposes never waver and in that He remains absolutely sovereign. But these facts don’t change the reality that he might react one way the first three times you do something and then choose another reaction on the fourth. God may choose to draw a person to salvation with a heavy hand, or choose another person for some highly significant role in the kingdom, while clearly not doing the same for all people.

This is not inconsistency in God, it is just God expressing His sovereignty. He knew exactly what He would do in every case before history began, that is an expression of His immutability. This is not God being unfair, it is God being God.

Bewick’s Wren

Bewicks Wren

Recently I took a side trip into a field of millet approaching harvest. I thought the amber grain, although not as iconic as wheat, was very picturesque.

While walking between fields, I noticed birds frequently popped up. Most of the birds were some form of sparrow. I failed at getting any pictures of the sparrows, but I did get one picture tolerably focused.

Notice this bird has its tail cocked upright. This is the distinctive posture of a wren. Combine this with the fact it has a white eye line, and doesn’t have a black back with white stripes, and you have positive identification of a Bewick’s wren.

Like other wrens, it has a wonderful call. When the bird is growing up it learns to imitate the calls it hears, not from its father, but from the community of other Bewick’s wrens around it. Apparently the young birds have something in common with young men. Namely that it is easier to learn some things from people who are not too close to you.

I see this principle at work all the time in my church. I myself or one of the other men in the church can say things to a young adult or teenager which they would never accept from their parents. I have even had kids thank me for being straight up honest with them. I am frequently humored by this response, knowing they would have responded spitefully to their parents, who are far more invested in them.

1 Timothy 5:1-2 says “Do not rebuke an older man, but exhort him as a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and with all propriety, the younger women as sisters.” A part of this verse is to make yourself available to encourage and instruct younger Christians as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Unfortunately, in today’s world we have a suspicious nature toward experience teaching and assisting youth. That is a part of how we have restructured our society. We have come to the conclusion that people with bad intentions are everywhere. We have made good people afraid to do good, for fear of false accusations.

But beneath all the clamor, there are still young people who will hear the advice of an older person. Without that advice the world and its false values get free run. Be careful that you behave toward everyone with all propriety, but don’t hold back your advice. If you refuse to do the things you can do, you are cooperating with the decline of society.