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.

 

 

 

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.

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.

Reading into Scripture

When I worked in aerospace, the group manager I worked with had an inside joke about sending left over documents to the Redundancy Department of Redundancy. Of course, that psychotic disposition to rechecking everything was both job security and helped keep future passengers on the airlines safe, so we didn’t complain too much.

Theology can be a little bit like that. Once a person has become convinced of an idea, they see it in all kinds of other Scriptures. Passages that previously would have had another meaning to them, will now point to the doctrine that they have recently adopted. The same affect occurs when defending a point of belief, having put it in the forefront of your mind you see it in every passage for a while.

This can be good or bad, depending on whether what you are seeing is really there, or whether your enthusiasm has caused you to read into the passage what you wanted to see. We humans are really good at reading into the Bible instead of reading out of it. Whether we want to admit it or not, we tend to read looking for what we are already convinced it is going to say, instead of looking for what it will say.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to check what point you are drawing out in several ways. Does it fit the context, either as a main point or as a logical aside? Could this passage be read so as to mean something else on the point I am seeing? Does it agree with the nature of Scripture and the character of God?

Scripture can be misread, but we can protect ourselves from misinterpretation with a few simple questions and an open mind.

Understanding Mission Funding

Theology should be practical. It should never be a purely intellectual exercise. Instead the things you believe should always find an expression in behavior. Whatever settles into your mind, will in some manner, also leak out your toes and fingertips. Doctrine hasn’t completed its purpose until it changes your work and walk.

One of the areas on my mind right now is how we fund missions. When I say it like that, it probably draws to mind the missionary offerings we take at this time of year. Whether your church has a missionary society or a board or whatever, Christmas is a great time to raise funds for missions. I love the Lottie Moon offering, which is my denomination’s major funding event for International Missions.

But special offerings have a serious weakness. After the Christmas offering is done missionaries need to continue their work from January to November, not just in December. So there needs to be a means of funding missions the rest of the year too. The need is year round, so the giving also needs to be year round. For my church this means giving a percentage of the churches income to missions.

But don’t forget that the work of the local church is also a part of the mission. The tithes of the church members pay for the work of the pastoral staff, and a whole lot more. The buildings, grounds, teaching programs, potlucks, and fellowship groups all are part of that mission carried out by the local church on the local level.

Yet I don’t think any of these are the most important way that missions are operate and are funded. Spreading the gospel is the heart of our purpose, and its best fulfillment is in the witness of individuals who personally sacrifice to tell others. In today’s world witness is very seldom a chance encounter but instead is developed through a personal relationship. The wise Christian will intentionally build bridges with their neighbors and acquaintances in order to earn the right to tell them about Jesus.

Every believer in the church should see themselves as a part of the purpose. They learn about it, they develop a pattern of giving to it, but also they begin doing it, and this where the mission really takes shape. A Christian man volunteers in a local school. A Christian woman takes neighbors out for coffee on a regular basis. A believing senior pays for his bushes to be trimmed, but also pays for the widow next door to have her bushes trimmed. All of these things are done intentionally in order to one day have the opportunity to share the gospel.

This is how it becomes a reality that every believer is a missionary. The most important and effective work of our mission is done by a believer reaching whomever happens to be right next to them, whether that person lives in rural America, the Bible belt, a great urban center, or anywhere else along the way to the ends of the earth.

 

A Philosophy of Gratitude

I believe Christians should be grateful. They should live a life shaped by gratitude, among other attributes appropriate to Christianity.

This gratitude begins with salvation. The person who recognizes what Christ did for them on the cross will overflow with appreciation when they turn from their sin and turn to Jesus in order to receive the great gift of grace made available by His suffering. Nothing I am aware of matches the glad exuberance of a new believer.

If a person has never had this experience of overflowing thankfulness, it may well be they never had a genuine encounter with Christ. You see it’s possible to believe in all the right things and still not be a Christian. Redemption begins with a sinner becoming aware of the magnitude of his sin and the price paid for our sin by the Lord. This is followed by a conscious decision by the convert to accept the gift of salvation, which naturally is followed by a huge relief of the pressure felt by having been aware of the ugliness of his own sin. Salvation is not in the knowledge of the facts, but in the experience of making a personal commitment and receiving forgiveness.

But as I mentioned earlier that starting point produces a wonderful gratitude in the believer’s heart. What comes as a surprise to many is that this sense of having been blessed, will not last forever. Even though the gift of salvation is eternal, the human heart will not retain the same gratitude for this salvation that it had when the experience first occurred. After the passing of time our thankfulness becomes more of a mental exercise, knowing we should be grateful, than an overwhelming, overflowing rush of emotion.

Nevertheless, I still believe my first assertion. Christians should be grateful. As we walk and grow with Christ the ongoing experience of living as a believer should bring us back to the point of overflowing gratitude again and again. In other words, the proper living of the Christian life will bring you to thanksgiving, not just because of its miraculous gift at the start, but also because of the ongoing experience with a miraculous God in your day to day walk.

Therefore, as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, overflowing with gratitude. Colossians 2:6-7 (NASB)