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.

 

 

 

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.

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.

Soul Harvest

The restaurant was a front for a Chinese gang. It was full of bodyguards, yet the tough guys ran out when he strolled in.

“I’m surprised to see you here.” The boss’s voice had a slight tremble.

“Think of me as a gentlemen farmer, coming to collect my harvest.”

“You put me in charge, I have it under control.”

“I am the landowner; you are merely a sharecropper. I planted the soil starting with the night your father visited that prostitute you called mom. I fertilized the fields with drugs and gambling. I weeded the land by driving out churches and bribing the police.”

“Don’t you mean I did those things for you?”

“No, I mean I used you to do them, giving you every idea and opportunity. I did it. Not you.”

The boss put his hand on a gun hidden under the table.

“Go ahead, shoot me. It will help me with the harvest.” It was one last command given the hireling.

The bullet passed harmlessly through the farmer, out the glass, and lodged in the wall beside of a thug. The man returned fire, and the harvest began.

Inside the restaurant, the boss had a neat hole through his head. The police never found a bullet.

This story was written for a flash fiction competition I entered this morning.  Probably one of my favorite stories of this sort. It is an example of being able to imply things with fiction that would be complicated to discuss in a teaching setting. Do you see anything in this story, stated or implied, that you would like to discuss? I would love to hear from you.