Ditching the Whitelist

19 April 2019

Modernism fancied all spiritual powers a delusion. Nothing was real but matter in motion. The vast majority of contemporary Christians have adopted that worldview, with the exception of a whitelist of powers and miracles in which they feel obliged to believe in order to be Christian.

(As I’ve explored elsewhere, how many of those powers and miracles we feel obliged to believe depends to a large degree on how much academic credibility we aspire to.)

But this is not the teaching of Christianity. Christianity has always believed that the old gods are absolutely real—and that we are at war with them. Their heads are to be crushed; their images burned; their sacred groves cut down: Boniface had the right idea. Their followers are to be called to repentance, delivered from their willing slavery to the darkness into the freedom of the light.

On too many occasions over the past 2000 years, impatient Christians have tried to deliver the slaves by force, whether they wanted to be delivered or not. By now we have—let us hope—learned our lesson. The weapons of our warfare are most assuredly weapons, but they are not the carnal weapons of coercion. Our weapons are truth and righteousness, faith and salvation, readiness with the gospel of peace and the word of the Creator Himself, spoken afresh by us.

We live as invaders among the gods and their people. With word and water, bread, wine, and oil, we retake the territory unlawfully stolen from the Creator and prostituted to demons. Our ally is the whole creation that groans with birth pangs, waiting for the revelation of the sons of God.

Christianity is both relationship and religion. Without the relationship, the religion is empty. Without the religion, the relationship is confined to occasional experiences that, while beautiful in themselves, find no tangible expression in everyday life.

The relationship must be real. This is neither a thought experiment (“What if…?”), an arrangement of mental furniture (“I like to think of it like this”), nor a matter of observing principles (which would collapse relationship into religion). It is a real dealing with a particular Person (three, actually) outside ourselves. That means that we carry out our lives in the living presence of Almighty God. That Person births us into His new family, and thereafter grows us up as His children, with the goal of making us partakers of His divine nature. We engage in dialog; we ask for and receive help; we receive comfort and offer up praise. If we are not mystics in this sense, then we are not Christians; we are merely ideologues whose preferred genre is religion.

Now, with that said, what must the religion look like that gives tangible expression to such a relationship?

In order to function in this environment, we need a religious expression that…

  • embraces the magical nature of the created, spoken world in which we live,
  • addresses the spiritual realities of both human and angelic/demonic realms,
  • integrates empirical knowledge of the fertile fields of natural revelation, and
  • is concrete, livable, and permeates our daily lives.

So what does that look like? Well, that’s the project. I’m workin’ on it. Wanna join in?

Advertisements

What Fellowship Really Is

16 April 2019

“Let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good deeds, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but encouraging one another, and so much the more as you see the day approaching.”
-Hebrews 10:26-27

Consider one another. Think about what we’re being called to do here: look at the other believers you’re close to, and ask yourself the question, “How do I help move this person to be more loving, to do more good things?” And you let those people ask the same question about you, and act on their answers.

In 3DM, a “Huddle” is a small group of 5-8 people that meets for teaching, mutual encouragement, and support. One of the criticisms I see of huddles is that participants are vulnerable to inappropriate influence by the group leader, and that “groupthink” is a real danger. Uh, yeah. Any close relationship is vulnerable to inappropriate influence, and any group is in danger of groupthink. If you think that’s dangerous, try not having close relationships, small groups, or leadership. See how that works out.

Warning people away from a huddle because of the dangers of groupthink is like like warning people away from math class because they will encounter math problems. The danger is real, but quitting school is not the answer. The answer is to solve the problems, learn from the experience, and over time grow into the sort of person who can solve those problems easily. You take the math class because you want to get better at solving math problems. You join a huddle to get better at fellowship.

You will never listen to a sermon or Bible study lesson without the danger of false teaching. You will never be part of a meaningful group without the danger of groupthink. You will never have a close relationship without the danger of undue influence. You will never drive your car to church without the danger of a traffic accident. You will never eat the Lord’s Table (or anything else) without the danger of food poisoning–but consider the dangers of not eating.

You can no more avoid teaching or close relationships than you can avoid eating. You may not simply show up at church, swap small talk over coffee for a couple minutes before the service, and check off the “fellowship” box on your to-do list. You must study your fellow believers in order to stir up love and good works. The risks associated with obedience are risks we are required to run.

Do you gotta do it in a 3DM huddle? Of course not. Do it your way.

So here’s my question: who are you studying, and who is studying you?

Your answer should be a list of names. If your answer to either question is “nobody,” then something is wrong, and for you, joining a huddle would be a step in the right direction. A huddle is one way to obey the command. It’s not the only way. It might not even be the best way. But it beats the pants off disobedience, ya know?

I like the way a huddle fellowships better than the way most churches just don’t. So should you. It’s a handy means of obedience, and helps you form the habit of meaningful fellowship. (Same goes for LTGs, well-run small groups, etc.–we should cherish every form obedience takes.)

Let’s go back to those two questions: who are you studying, to stir up love and good works? Who is studying you? The names on my list are mostly not people I’m in huddle with. I make close fellowship a priority in my lifestyle. There are three families where if I don’t show up at their home unannounced a couple times a week, I get phone calls. If I don’t talk about anything consequential when I do show up, I get a raft of pointed questions. What about you? If you isolate yourself, who will call you? If you quit sharing your heart, who will ask pointed questions? If the answer is ‘nobody,’ you’re already isolated. Please, in the name of Christ, fix that.

Having made the case for close fellowship, I also want to acknowledge that human beings can screw anything up, so of course there are real dangers and temptations that come with it. Any cohesive group has the danger of groupthink. The answer to that is more fellowship, not less. Whatever you’re talking about in group, have significant conversations on those topics with people outside the group. In a multitude of counselors, there is safety.

As the group coheres, there’s a danger of the leader exercising undue influence. Same answer: get fellowship elsewhere too, so that you’ll notice if something weird is going on. For leaders, the answer here is humility. The purpose of the group is not to develop your followers as followers of you. The purpose is to develop your followers as followers of Jesus. Some of them might start very dependent on you–as Jesus’ followers started very dependent on Him–but your job is to grow them into co-laborers, as He did, as Paul grew Timothy and Titus, as Barnabas grew John Mark, and so on.

Which brings me back to an important feature of the huddles I’ve been part of: they stop. You graduate. The relationships you formed in huddle continue, but they come out of the greenhouse that is the huddle and into the wild and woolly garden that is the life of the church, which is the way it should be.

Maybe you end up leading your own huddle; I’ve done it a few times. Maybe you use other relational vehicles; I’ve done that too. But if the huddle has done its job, you have formed the habit of close fellowship with your fellow believers, and you’ll never go back to thinking that two minutes of small talk at the coffee pot is what “fellowship” really is.

And that’s a wonderful thing.


On Disrespecting the Manure

12 April 2019

One of the most basic promises of Christianity is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and His continuing ministry to the believer. Every church and ministry I’ve ever worked with has affirmed this…in theory. In practice, there was a bit more variation. The idea that you could have a meaningful and vital relationship with a spiritual being–not just a doctrinal system or an arrangement of mental furniture, but actual person that is not you, communicating to you–well, that was challenging for a lot of folks. In many churches and ministries, they tended to cover their asses with an orthodox doctrinal statement on the point, while denying any instance of it in practice. They all believe the Holy Spirit speaks through Scripture, but tell them that He showed you something in Hebrews 2 an hour ago and they don’t believe it.

When interacting with such communities, believers with a more robust relationship with the Spirit often point to John 16:13:

However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come.

The objection we often face in response is, “That was referring to the apostles, the people Jesus was talking to at the time.” On the face of it, the claim has some curb appeal. It draws directly from the context–who could argue with that? 

Well…me. I have questions:

  1. Sez who? On what basis? Can I use that same approach to dismiss anything Jesus ever said that I don’t want to apply now? (“I mean, sure, He said lust is as bad as adultery, but that was only for the people He was talking to at the time….”) No? Okay, distinguish that case from this one.
  2. We’re ready enough to apply 14:2, 14:27, or 15:13-14 to any believer, anytime, with no discussion whatsoever. We do this because Jesus is speaking to these men as “His own;” we are also His own, and in fact inviting us to become His own is kinda what the book is about. So on what principle are we so ready to read 16:13 differently from other things Jesus said to the same people in the same immediate context?
  3. These folks usually want to apply 16:13 to the men in the room…and Paul. The interpretation proposed flatly excludes him, and he’s a clear counterexample. How is this not blatant special pleading?
  4. 1 John 2:27. From where I’m standing, John directly applies the doctrine Jesus gave in John 16:13 to his readers, extending it well beyond the apostolic circle. If we needed some extraordinary justification for reading 16:13 the way we already read, say, 15:13-14, isn’t John providing it?

I want to set forth a positive case for reading this passage as speaking about something that happens for us, today, if we are listening. Most of my case is implicit in the questions above.

Jesus is speaking to His own, talking about what it will be like when the Spirit has come. He told His disciples, one of whom–John–preserved those words and wrote them down in a book that invites its readers to join in that group and become “His own” too. John’s Gospel invites believers into a lively relationship with the Spirit.

John reiterates that stance toward relationship with the Spirit–and this particular aspect of the Spirit’s guidance in our search for truth–in 1 John 2:27, for yet another group of addressees; so why shouldn’t we expect Him to do the same for all those who belong to Jesus, right down to today?

I have no doubt that a suitably educated theologian could apply his theological system or his scholarly skepticism in such a way as to bury the above two paragraphs under a mountain of doubt. It is also possible to bury a diamond under a wheelbarrow-load of manure. This does not call into question the nature of the diamond; it just reveals the guy with the wheelbarrow for a churl and a lackwit.

As the diamond does not cease being a diamond, a true reading of Jesus’ words does not cease being true, no matter what is being heaped upon it. We are not obliged to treat the manure with respect.

 


“Language Creates Culture” …Or Does It?

9 April 2019

Let’s just be honest here: no it doesn’t.

The maxim “language creates culture” is one of the central pillars of Building a Discipling Culture and the whole 3DM approach (and it works for them, for reasons we’ll get to below). There’s only one thing wrong with it: it’s not remotely true. At best, it’s a dramatic oversimplification.

Come on, we all know how this works:

  • “Secretary” is deemed too dismissive, so all the secretaries get an upgrade to “administrative assistant.” But since neither the pay nor the responsibilities change, pretty soon everybody knows that an administrative assistant is just a secretary.
  • The term “Social Justice Warrior” was invented by activists who applied it to themselves in a vain attempt to ennoble their whiny and meddlesome pursuits. But they didn’t change what they were doing, and so their whiny and meddlesome ways came to define what “Social Justice Warrior” means. Now, the term is so badly tainted that SJWs have (hilariously) taken to accusing their opponents of inventing it as some kind of dismissive slur. No–it became a dismissive term because the people who applied it to themselves are moral and intellectual lightweights. Developing new language didn’t change anything.
  • The CEO decides “Our mission is quality” is the new company slogan. But he doesn’t improve inspection processes or fund improvements to product lines. Relentless pressure for quarterly profits continues to drive a culture that rewards quickly producing something that’s barely adequate, releasing it, and moving on the the next product. “Our mission is quality” rapidly becomes something jaded employees hoot at one another as they discuss the flaws of yet another substandard product they’re about to ship.

The existing culture is far more likely to corrupt the new language than the new language is to change the existing culture. Those of us who’ve been around awhile have probably been part of several such failed culture changes. A young friend of mine tried to introduce “language creates culture” to his huddle of older businessmen, and it went over like a lead balloon for exactly this reason–they all knew better.

“Language creates culture” is not true; in fact it’s hopelessly naive. If only culture change were so easy! If you’re going to change culture, you have to a high-accountability change in values. (Remember that sentence!) When you are successfully incarnating, modeling, and passing on new values you often turn out to need new language that highlights the things you now value, and in that way, language can be part of a good culture shift. But just shifting the language won’t do it. (If you want a good look at the multiple drivers that change culture, The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle is a good place to start.

So why does 3DM repeat the “language creates culture” slogan endlessly?

The people who are repeating this are good folks, and they honestly believe it’s true, but they’re not thinking effectively about what they’re actually doing. But they are actually doing something that–in a number of cases–is working pretty well. So let’s take a look at it.

The language they have in mind is the shapes, and what they’re actually doing with the shapes–at least in the average American church–is much more than changing the language. Remember, the average American church is very good at producing programs and sermons, and very poor at helping people become more like Jesus. Enter 3DM: what would you, as an average pew-sitting churchgoer, experience as you start to engage the first few shapes?

  • the circle: Suppose you begin to listen for what God is saying to you, test it in community with other believers, and take action on it.
  • the semicircle: Suppose you begin to prioritize rest and reflection, not just work.
  • the triangle: Suppose you begin taking regular inventory to see whether you are investing your time and attention in God, in His people, and in the world.

The point of these shapes is to get you to elevate certain priorities (hearing God’s voice, abiding over doing, and tending to your duties to God, His people, and the world), ask good questions about where you stand with those things, and act based on the answers.  Those questions challenge your existing values, and coaching and huddles provide accountability as your values begin to shift. So there it is: high-accountability change in values, which is what you actually need to shift your culture.

So in an odd way, in the total context of huddle and coaching, language really does create culture–because 3DM means something much more by “language” than what that word normally means. The “language” in question, the shapes, is not really a language but a set of teachings. 3DM is using the shapes to highlight concepts that most Christians agree on in theory but don’t actually practice very well.

That wouldn’t change things any more than a sermon does, (as some folks who taught Building a Discipling Culture as a sermon series or Sunday school curriculum found out the hard way,) except for one key factor: the concepts aren’t being introduced in the context of teaching. They’re being introduced in the context of small community discussion and accountability. That’s where change actually happens–ask any twelve-stepper. 

So to sum up: “Language creates culture” is bunk. It’s just not true. However, in the context of 3DM, the “language” of the shapes, used in the context of small-group discussion and accountability, shifts your values, which in turn begins to change your culture. Which is to say, there’s a lot more than language going on.


Not in the Atonement?

5 April 2019

I’m not going to name names here, but I was browsing about the interwebs a bit ago, and I ran across the website of a school that in general, I think well of. I began to read through their doctrinal statement (yes, I know, I have an odd idea of fun), and came upon this chestnut:

God can heal but physical healing is not in the atonement. God heals miraculously today when it is His perfect will to do so. Healing cannot be claimed through the guarantee of the atonement. At times it is God’s will for sickness not to be removed.

Now, I understand what they’re trying to guard against. Suppose a believer goes to a healing service, is told that Jesus died for him and his healing is included in the atonement, is prayed for, and then send home to “claim his healing.” What happens if he’s not healed? Does that mean his sins have not been atoned for either? He begins to wonder, “Why am I not being healed?” And one of the obvious answers is, “Maybe I’m not really saved!” Then all the doubts come pouring in, and the last state of the man is worse than the first. (This is not some churchlady’s imaginary danger, by the way. It actually happens, and it’s a real pastoral disaster.)

This school rightly values every believer’s assurance of salvation, and it’s awesome that they’re going out of their way to head this kind of nonsense off at the pass.

Problem is, with the best of intentions, they’re propagating a lie. “Physical healing is not in the atonement,” is certainly one way of doing the theological math so as to guard against this kind of doubt-inducing situation. But the Bible doesn’t say that.

Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, yet we esteemed Him smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.

How’s that again? By His stripes we are made righteous? By His stripes we are justified? No. By His stripes we are healed. (Psalm 103:3 would also be relevant here.)

Now either that means exactly what it says—and in a passage famously about the atonement, too—or…wait, no, there’s no second option. We believe the Bible; the right thing to do is swallow hard and revise our theology.

On reflection, it won’t be all that hard.

We all agree that the atonement in Jesus Christ is the answer–the whole answer–to the sin problem. At the cross, Jesus bought the right to justify us (declare us righteous), and moreover, to sanctify us until we really are entirely righteous, and to heal the damage we have done to ourselves, and each other, and our world with our sin—the whole bit. God is just and the justifier of the ungodly, through Jesus alone.

In the end, it won’t just be our spirits that are redeemed; He will redeem our bodies too. In fact, He will resurrect the entire world, a new heaven and earth without sin and its effects. When He does that, there will be no pain, no sickness, and so on, just as surely as there will be no sin. How dare God do that? God committed this world to our dominion; we committed sin and visited its consequences on the world; what gives a just God the right to erase the consequences of our freely chosen actions?

The atonement, that’s what. God’s authority to eradicate sickness along with all sin’s other effects was established at the cross, when the Seed of the Woman crushed the serpent’s head, and cried “It is finished!” And so it was. Nothing else need be, or could be, added. So let us have no silly nonsense about how healing is not in the atonement. It could hardly be anywhere else.

And if that is the case, then there is nothing stopping God from exercising that same right today, on the basis of the atonement. That said, He plainly does not always do so. What’s that about?

Once upon a time, Jesus said that He came to set the captives free. He went about, ministering, while His cousin John languished in Herod’s prison. Eventually, John sent messengers: “Are you the Messiah, or not?” Reading between the lines, I hear: “If you came to set the captives free, and you’re the real deal, then why am I still stuck in here?”

Jesus said, “Go and tell John what you see: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor hear the good news. And blessed is the one who is not offended because of Me.” In other words, “Yes, of course I’m the real deal — look around! But don’t get mad when I don’t do things the way you thought I would.”

The prayer is “Thy kingdom come” not “my kingdom come.” It’s His kingdom, and it comes in His way and His time. We know what the consummation will look like (kinda); we don’t know what God is going to give us today, what He’ll do tomorrow, and what we’ll have to wait longer to see. And so healing is most assuredly in the atonement, as sanctification is in the atonement. But its achievement in experiential reality is a process, and God superintends the process. We have to trust Him with it. If I’m not healed today, the biblical response is to trust in God’s goodness, not doubt my salvation.

And if I’m sick today, the biblical response is to trust in God’s goodness, and ask for healing: “thy kingdom come.”


Another Look at 3DM

2 April 2019

Fast forward from 2011 to 2018. By this time, I’d spent quite a bit of time with 3DM materials, read most of the books, and could comfortably use the concepts I’d found helpful. During my years of work in the biblical Story, I had developed a lot of my own tools that stayed closer to the biblical text. But in real-life ministry, you use the best tool for the job, no matter where it came from. If my tools were a good fit for the person I was discipling, I used mine. If a 3DM tool was a better fit for the specific person and situation, I didn’t hesitate to use their tool instead, with joy and thanksgiving.

Meanwhile, my friend and mentor Dave, who originally introduced me to 3DM, was looking for a successor to step into his role at Centerpoint Church, a mission congregation composed mostly of homeless folks. He asked me to consider it, and as I prayed about it, God put a couple things in my heart: first, that I should say yes, and second, that there was no way I could do the job without serious coaching, accountability, and support.

Now, where does the new bivocational pastor of a 90% homeless congregation go to get coaching? Not a lot of places leap to mind, I can tell you.

In God’s kind providence, there was one place I knew I could trust…and we already had a relationship with them. It was Centerpoint’s parent church, Faith Community Church in Littleton. I had known Faith Community’s pastor, Jeff Allen, for years. In fact, Dave had introduced Jeff to 3DM in that same group I’d been part of back in 2011. In the intervening years, Jeff had gone all in with 3DM, becoming a coach, leading learning communities, and even writing a book (Small Church on a Big Mission) that used the 3DM platform to equip small churches.

Jeff was more than ready to have me…and he was ready to release control of the ministry, if that’s what I wanted. “I know you have great relationships with the churches in Englewood,” he said. “If there’s someone else that you’d rather have as your umbrella organization, we’ll be happy to have them step into our role.”

“No way!” I told him. “You have two choices: parent us and get us into your next Learning Community, or find someone else to do the job.”

And that’s how I came to be in the first-ever 3DM Hybrid Learning Community. Jeff’s passion is helping small churches, and learning communities have always been cumbersome for smaller churches. For a church with a full-time staff of 10, it’s no big deal to commit a team of 3 to multiple weekdays of training twice a year; they’re on salary anyhow, and it’s part of their job. When your whole staff is bivocational or volunteer, well, that’s a little different. This learning community is optimized for us.

So I’m taking a deep dive into 3DM’s resources. I don’t expect to change my basic “eat the meat; spit out the bones” approach to things. And knowing Jeff and his team, I don’t expect that to bother them much.


Organization-Worship

29 March 2019

“I couldn’t imagine why he would have turned on me, but you never have the full picture on things like that. Circumstances change. People develop reasons where they had none before.” – John Rain
(from Rain Storm by Barry Eisler)

So many of us have the soul of a true believer. We want, we need, the organizations we join to live up to the ideals that motivated us to partner with them. But our hopes in organizations are invariably misplaced. The Republican Party is not conservatism or small government; the Democratic Party is not progress or equality; a particular church is not holiness or compassion; a particular nonprofit is not concern for the poor; a particular school is not education.

The ideals are ideals; the organizations are organizations. Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy triumphs at last: the people who come to dominate the organization are the ones for whom the organization is an end in itself. When the organization’s interests and its stated ideals align, well and good; when they don’t, the ideals get sacrificed (always “temporarily”) for the perceived good of the organization.

The ensuing cover-up generally destroys a number of people devoted to the ideals, while those devoted to the organization write the rules and control promotions, and invariably come out on top. The net effect of this is simple: that organization you love because you love what it stands for? It doesn’t love you back. Many of the people in that organization—people who would be horrified at the thought of betraying a friend for their own personal benefit—will stab you in the back in a heartbeat for the good of the organization. Some of them will feel bad about it, but that won’t stop them from doing it anyway. 

Some of you are thinking some variation of  “Surely not me!” Yes, you. I promise. Look at it this way: if you died in a car accident tonight, they might grieve your loss deeply, but they would find a way to replace you. The show must go on. Well, if for some other reason, they found it necessary to cut you loose for the good of the organization, same thing. They might grieve the loss, but they would find a way to replace you.

This belief that your place in the organization is secure amounts to a form of idolatry, and this idolatry, like all idolatries, must come to ruin.  Like all idols, first it will make you give up everything in order to keep it, and then it will destroy the very thing for the sweet sake of which you gave up everything else, and at the last, it will kill you—that’s how all idolatries work. The only way out of that progression is repentance: give up the idol. So let us not worship organizations or our places in them. At best, the organization aspires to live up to the ideals we project upon it; at worst it accepts the projection as a means of acquiring our service for its own ends. In either case, in the end, only God is Good, as Jesus once said to a young man badly in need of disillusionment.

The Church is unique in that unlike other organizations, God has committed Himself to purifying and perfecting her over time. Nonprofits come and go; governments come and go; whole civilizations come and go, but God matures His Church. But then the Church, crab-like, has shed many organizational shells along the way; history is littered with them. The particular local assembly that I lead—much as I love it—is fungible. It is unlikely to survive for even 50 years, and yet the Church marches on, as it has for centuries.

And on the last day, when we come to the New Jerusalem, the Church purified and perfected at last, the Church as she was always supposed to be—even then, when she is as worthy as she will ever be—we will dwell in her, we will bring our glory and honor into her, but we will not worship her.

So why would we do it now?