Post-Industrial Revolution Ecclesiology

4 January 2022

One of the great tensions in the 21st-Century church is the place of business operations. The vast majority of churches – especially large churches – run as corporations. Many leaders have objected to the trend. John Piper published a book for pastors titled Brothers, We Are Not Professionals. Mike Breen regularly comments on how the saints of future centuries will look back in bemused wonder that anyone ever thought it was a good idea to run a church like a business. Darvin Wallis does a particularly good job of showcasing the flaws of taking our leadership lessons from the business world. But so what?

Nobody’s listening. While the occasional dissident complains, the juggernaut keeps moving. The pragmatists among us simply keep feeding the beast, tending to the needs of the business. There’s a budget, a mortgage, utilities to pay, payroll to meet every month, big events, and more. The show goes on. Nobody’s going to stop treating the church like a business without some sort of viable alternative.

There is one. A different model to steer by, and it’s been sitting in the pages of the Bible the whole time. In Ephesians 3, Paul describes the church as the household of God.

You’re probably thinking, “So what?”

The modern household has fallen so far from what it was in the first century that it barely even registers as a category. We think “household” is a synonym for “family.” It’s not.

Our modern households are pits of consumption and consumer debt that don’t really produce anything or have any particular purpose, other than as holding pens for human beings when we’re not doing something productive. Naturally, in seeking to run productive churches, we’ve looked elsewhere for a model, and – surprise, surprise – ended up looking to business, with all the problems that entails. 

The first-century household, by contrast, was a center of production. Take Peter’s household, for example. He ran a commercial fishing concern, and the whole family would be involved — from gardening to tending the little children to mending nets to preparing the fish for market, everyone would have work to do. The household produced food, raised and educated children, and interacted in the marketplace. This engine of production was what Paul had in mind when he described the church as the household of God, and we’re so far from it, we can barely even think about what that means.

So let’s quit trying to mend our ecclesiology by thought experiment, and mend it by real experiment. Let’s recover productive households, so we can learn what the church should look like. We can’t all move to the country and homestead, but we city-dwellers don’t have to live in a pit of consumption either.

A productive household has a mission. Chiefly, it gives the world functioning adults, which it brings into the world as babies and then raises and educates until they’re prepared to enter the adult world, but a productive household is also an economic entity that operates in the marketplace. A household maintains property and tends to its business interests, but a productive household has a mission beyond maximizing profits or shareholder value, a mission for which the business interests are necessary, but to which they are subordinated. It gives something to the world, and it raises children who are givers in their turn.

So let’s get about it. What does your household produce?


Letter to a New Pastor

21 October 2021

Some years ago, a friend of mine stepped reluctantly into pastoral ministry. I wrote this letter on that occasion; perhaps it will be an encouragement to you, too. (Names and other identifying information have, of course, been altered.)

Dear Jack, 

Congratulations again on rising reluctantly to the role of pastor. I thought at the time of the announcement to set down a few thoughts for you, and as is characteristic for me, it took a while to think through what I actually wanted to say. 

It turns out that, upon reflection, most of what I would ordinarily say simply doesn’t need saying. You have always struck me as an intelligent, godly man, and I have every confidence in your ability to rise to your responsibilities with grace and good sense. So I’m going to restrict myself to commending a few oft-neglected spiritual disciplines I have found particularly helpful in pastoral work. These took me a long time to learn, and would have saved me a lot of suffering if I’d learned them sooner. Perhaps I’ll be able to save you some time and anguish.

If you are the sort of shepherd you should be, Jack, people will love you…until they don’t. We are in the trouble business, and one of the features of our work is that people lie about us. You will be lied about, outrageously. You will be surprised at who believes the lies. (And at who doesn’t — not all the surprises will be bad!) It will hurt — especially the first time, but the truth is that I’m not used to it yet, and maybe I never will be. 

You will be tempted to indulge a wide set of variations on the theme “Why me?” Things like “I was helping her!” “I’ve never done anything to him; why is he doing this?” “What are they even hoping to gain from this?” To the extent that these voices represent how you really feel, pour them out to God — He always meets us where we are. To that end, I commend to you the regular reading of the Psalter. Your prayer book [The Book of Common Prayer] has a schedule that will take you through the Psalter in a month, and I would suggest that you keep to it for at least a year. The Psalter teaches us to pray in extremis like nothing else can, and trust me, my friend, you’re going to need the practice.

However, keep in mind that all the variations on “Why me?” are also a temptation to feel sorry for yourself. Exorcise them with St. Symeon’s rejoinder to all self-pity: “The Son of God was tortured to death on a tree, and you want justice?” Remember who you are following; a servant is no better than his Master.

When you are slandered, and you will be, remember Jesus’ instructions: “Happy are you when they castigate and persecute you, and say all manner of evil things against you falsely for My sake — rejoice and be very glad, because your reward in heaven is great — in the same way they also persecuted the prophets before you.” When you’re keeping that kind of exalted company, celebration is in order, and I am afraid that we often hurt ourselves by failing to take Jesus’ instructions seriously. Accept the discipline of rejoicing: go out and buy a bottle of 18-year-old Macallan (or your comparable drink of choice), have a few friends over, and celebrate. Drink your whisky, and get happy. Jesus said to. And besides, celebration is a weapon against which the enemy of your soul has no defense — nothing squelches self-pity and bitterness quite like unfettered joy

It may help to realize that most of the people who attack you won’t have anything against you personally. You’re just in the way, means to an end, and a year or two after the incident, they won’t have any particular feelings about you one way or the other — however much damage they might have done you. On rarer occasions, you may acquire an actual enemy — someone who will continue to go out of their way to hurt you as opportunities arise. I have accumulated five such enemies over the years, and I have accepted two disciplines into my life regarding them. Both have done me a world of good, and I commend them to you. First, pray regularly for God to bless your enemies. We are Christians, and that’s what we do — but it’s alarmingly easy to let six months go by in which you have not blessed your enemies, so it’s wise to be intentional about it. Second, a couple times a year, take an inventory of your enemies, and ask yourself if there’s something you might do to bring peace that you have not yet done. In my experience, if I’ve been conducting myself well to start with, the answer is usually no — but I change, they change, and circumstances change; every once in a while, something comes up. Being cursed, we bless — so keep an eye out for opportunities. God may well send you one, and it would be a shame to miss it.

My final encouragement to you requires a little biblical background. Please bear with me; I am still enough of a seminary professor to insist on setting this up properly. In Ephesians 4, Paul lays out the fivefold ministry — apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. We often think of these as spiritual gifts, and content ourselves with having a sense of which of these big-box categories we belong in. Knowing our place in the fivefold ministry can certainly be instructive, as far as it goes, but Paul is actually teaching us something far subtler. In chapter 3, he describes his own ministry: “To me, the ‘leaster’ of all the saints this grace was given: that I should proclaim among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ….” Paul is not just an apostle, although he is that. The grace of God given to Paul is to be the apostle to the Gentiles — not just a gifting, but a specific calling. Paul then explains early in chapter 4, “To each one of us grace was given….” It is not just the rock stars like Paul who have a specific calling. We all do.

So you are a pastor, clearly. But of what sort? To whom? To what purpose? As God shows you answers to these questions, attend to them. They are the grace given to you — and the grace given to you will be unique to you, just as the grace given to Paul was unique to him.

Therefore, my last piece of unsolicited advice is to hold all advice lightly. We are all of one Author and we are all one volume, as Donne wisely said, but the fact remains that the Spirit blows all our scattered leaves to some very different places before He brings us all back to be bound into the Book of Life together on the last day. The Good Shepherd Himself is your teacher, and He does not train us all to be the same kind of pastor.

When I reflect on the men and women who trained me, and the “best practices” they taught me for being a pastor…well. I break many of those rules, often. I’m not at all what they hoped I would be, and it’s not because I didn’t want to be. The truth is, I would have been content to be just like them, and if God had let me be in charge of my career, that’s what would have happened. But God had other plans, and so I’m afraid I’m the black sheep of my nondenominational, cessationist Bible church tribe these days, which has had the happy effect of thoroughly mortifying my pride and ambition. An early Puritan described this as “learning to live in the high mountain air of public calumny.” It encourages me to know that however weird my path may be, others have passed this way long before me. 

The point, my friend, is not that you should be like me. God led me along a path that was perfect for me, and in the process he shaped me into something quite unexpected, something for which my friends and mentors could not have prepared me, and which I would not willingly have chosen. But it’s good, and He didn’t put me out there alone. Others have gone before me — and wherever He takes you, others will have gone before you, too.

He will undoubtedly lead you along the best path for you, however different that might be from what others envision for you. Trust His heart for you and choose your models according to the grace given to you. You may serve in one church fulfilling your expected role for decades, and be exactly the shepherd God is calling you to be. You may find yourself forced to step widely out of bounds in order to fulfill the grace given to you. The one path is no better than the other, and the ease or difficulty is never the point — the only thing that matters is Who you’re following. Stick by the Shepherd; His heart is always for your blessing, and all His ways are good. 

I have no doubt that your pastoral service will be a deep blessing to many. For what my private wishes are worth, I hope God keeps you here so I can see your ministry flourish for myself. In my experience, we all at times profit from reaching outside our customary circles, especially when things are tough. If you should feel a need, please call on me; I would be honored to hold you up in prayer. I can’t promise you sage counsel — although you’re welcome to it if I happen to have any lying about — but I will pray with you and for you. And I’ll buy the first round of drinks, so that’s something. 

If there is any other way I can serve you, please don’t hesitate to ask; your church and her people remain very dear to me.

May Christ the Sun of Righteousness shine on you, and scatter the darkness from your path.

Your fellow servant, 

Tim Nichols


Cops AND Robbers

17 August 2021

When I was a kid back in the day, we used to play “cops and robbers.” One group would be the cops, and the other group would be the robbers. In the grown-up world, there’s — how to put this delicately? — a certain amount of overlap.

I’m not particularly interested here in the single officer that goes bad and pockets a bunch of cash from a drug bust, or some such. That needs to be dealt with, of course, but that’s just ordinary human sinfulness. The temptations come with the job; screen how you will, every now and again someone yeilds to the temptations. It’s the same in any profession.

It’s different when there’s a major incentive to sin built into the system. That’s not just ordinary temptation; that’s an extraordinary problem that calls for decisive action. Civil forfeiture is just such a problem, and it has got to go.

It’s important to grasp the difference between civil and criminal forfeiture. In criminal forfeiture, the accused — innocent until proven guilty — must first be convicted of a crime by a jury of his peers. After conviction, the prosecution can seek to confiscate the proceeds of the crime. That is holy and just and good; the criminal must not be allowed to profit from his crime.

Civil forfeiture is another matter altogether. In civil forfeiture, no conviction is necessary. The person isn’t accused of anything directly; the property itself is accused of being proceeds of a crime. Why accuse the property instead of the person, you ask? Because property is not innocent until proven guilty.

So the officer can make up a story in his head about where this particular car, wad of cash, etc. came from, and then confiscate it on the basis of the story in his head. He will write up an affidavit to justify his actions, and if the rightful owner wants his property back, he will have to prove that the officer’s story is wrong. Backwards, you say? Even illegal? Sure, it would be — if the officer were accusing the person of anything. People are innocent until proven guilty. People have to stand trial and be convicted. But in a legal maneuver worthy of the Pharisees, the accusation is technically against the property, not the person. Property is not innocent until proven guilty. The gold sanctifies the altar, as it were.

Civil forfeiture is a direct (and frankly, transparent) violation of the Fourth Amendment. It is illegal, which is an important observation for Christian resistance. That’s a discussion for another day, because there’s a prior concern: civil forfeiture is sin. Even if it were entirely legal under the laws of the land, it is a violation of the laws of God, specifically the Eighth Commandment. It is stealing, plain and simple.

The officer who initiates the forfeiture is a thief, taking that which does not belong to him, justifying his theft with a story he made up in his head. The property clerk who receives the stolen goods into his custody is committing the same crime that any fence commits. The chain of command that condones the officer’s actions and any judge who approves of it — thieves, the lot of them. The fact that their jurisdictions have conspired to pretend the theft is legal doesn’t make it right; it just implicates the voters in the theft as well.

This is one of the things we have church discipline for, and in jurisdictions where civil forfeiture is going on, churches should be exercising it.

For further information, read Policing for Profit.


Aiming for the Bullseye

22 June 2021

I talked in a previous post about the tendency to weasel-word our mission statements so we can pretend that whatever happened is what we were aiming for all along.  There’s a second issue also in play in our evangelical culture of ineffectiveness.  When we do aim for something definite, we often aim for the wrong thing.  Often a good and glorious thing — but God didn’t tell us to aim for it.

For example, we focus on planting churches, but where does the Bible ever tell us to plant churches?  It doesn’t.  The closest we get is Paul’s instruction to Titus to appoint elders in all the churches — which is not church planting; it’s organizing the churches that are already there.  Jesus said He would build the church: “On this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”  What He told us to do is make disciples: “Go and make disciples of all the nations….”

The evangelical church in America is pretty good at building churches, but has forgotten how to make disciples.  In fact, we’ve gotten so bad at disciple-making that at least one major ministry operation I’m aware of gets paid handsomely to travel around the country and teach churches how to do it effectively.  They’re pretty good at it, too.  I’m glad they do what they do, but I can’t overemphasize the absurdity of the situation.  A church that doesn’t know how to make disciples is like a library where the staff can’t read or an army where the soldiers don’t know how to shoot.  It’s crazy — this is the primary mission Jesus gave us.

What are these pastors and their flocks doing, if they’re not occupied with making disciples?  They’re building churches.  When we focus on building churches, we tend to get preoccupied with marketing, building programs, group dynamics, corporate papers, committees, and all the appurtenances of 21st-century organizational structure.  In the process, we lose sight of the priority of making disciples, and we end up not making very many…if any. 

There’s a very compelling built-in motivation to focus on building the church organization rather than on making disciples.  Building an organization is a process we understand and have some control over.  Send out x number of mailers to get y number of responses, do demographic surveys, run some focus groups, meet the felt needs of the community, buy some radio spots, etc.  There are definite action steps to take, and far more often than not, they work.  The hard part is getting the money to do what needs to be done.  

Making disciples is a lot cheaper, but it’s a slippery, messy process.  We have to trust God to operate in other people’s lives, and we have to be willing to accommodate what He is doing rather than try to program it to our convenience.  Disciple-making doesn’t work in semesters, or 10-week series.  It doesn’t confine itself to Wednesday nights from 7 to 8:30.  It’s about inconvenient phone calls, spur-of-the-moment painful conversations, dropping everything to attend to a crisis. It requires being present, involving people in your life, getting elbow-deep in theirs.  It doesn’t just end at a pre-defined point; disciple-making creates relationships (and obligations) that last for years.  

Churches are a good and glorious thing.  If we focus on making disciples, we will eventually have churches — Jesus said He would build His church, did He not?  But we have to trust Jesus to do it His way while we do what He told us to focus on.  That’s really uncomfortable for us.  

There are a lot of other areas where similar loss of proper focus has occurred.  The “worship wars” of the 80s and 90s were about whether we ought to sing the old hymns or the newer spiritual songs.  Paul says twice (Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16) that we should do both — and sing psalms, too.  We focus on social justice programs for third-world coffee farmers and Albanian victims of human trafficking because Jesus said we should love our neighbors — but we don’t even know our literal neighbors’ names, much less tangibly love them.  I could go on, but you get the idea.

But if we focus on the things God told us to, and those things are messy and impossible to program or control…then what do we do?  What does that look like?  Stay tuned….

*****

Prayer Exercise

“God, what are my real priorities, the things I really focus on?  Not just the things I would say on paper, but what I really do?”

Take some time to list them out.

“Father, is there something You want to adjust in my priorities?  What is it?”

Wait in silence and see what God will say to you.  


A Pauline Thicket of Prepositions

15 June 2021

A few years ago, I was talking with a good friend who has been deeply involved in church ministries for years.  She’s a psychotherapist, and part of her professional responsibility is to manage a crisis response team at work (24-hour hotline, that sort of thing.)  Her church recently set out to start a Christian crisis response team, and naturally they asked her to serve on the team that was setting it up.

So they get the team together — a rep from the pastoral staff, people from the congregation with expertise, and a consultant who helps churches do this kind of thing.  One of the first orders of business (after sorting out the snack schedule, of course) was a mission statement.  

The conversation was productive.  The team didn’t just want to pass out band-aids to people with problems.  Any crisis hotline does that — what difference would it make that this was a Christian hotline?  They concluded that in addition to connecting people to the resources they need, they wanted to help people meet God in the midst of the crisis.  Not hand out holy-sounding platitudes, not “evangelize” them, just introduce them to God, for real. So far so good, right?

So someone came out with a mission statement that started off “To redemptively shepherd people in crisis…” and then continued into a string of prepositional phrases and gerunds worthy of the book of Romans.

“Hang on,” my friend said.  “If what we want to do is connect people in crisis with the resources they need and help them meet God in their crisis, then why don’t we just say that? ‘Our mission is to connect people in crisis with the resources they need and help them meet God in their crisis.’”

Well, if you’ve been around churches much, you already know what happened after the hemming and hawing died down. Further chattering ensued, and in the end they adopted a mission statement: “To redemptively shepherd people in crisis…” plus a Pauline thicket of prepositions.

As my friend was telling me the story, somewhat baffled by it all, it suddenly hit me: I know why we do this!

It’s about accountability.  Say the ministry adopted my friend’s suggested mission statement: “Our mission is to connect people in crisis with the resources they need and help them meet God in their crisis.”  Say I take the Tuesday night shift. How would they check to see if I was fulfilling the mission? 

My friend: Jack, I understand you recently called our crisis line and talked to Tim.
Jack: Yeah.
My friend: So, did Tim connect you to the resources you needed?
Jack: Uh, I dunno.  I guess not.
My friend: Tim didn’t connect you to any resources?
Jack: No.
My friend: Did Tim help you to hear from God?
Jack: No.
My friend (turning to me): Tim, what did you do for an hour?

But if I’m working under that “redemptively shepherding” monstrosity of a mission statement, I can let Jack cry into the phone for an hour, do nothing that actually helps him, and still make it sound awesome.  “Mindful of the biblical command to ‘weep with those who weep,’ I provided Jack with a sympathetic ear and built rapport that would allow me to speak into Jack’s life.  I feel Jack is very close to recognizing his true need for a savior.”  Notice I didn’t say that I did speak into Jack’s life, just that I might be able to.

(Now, I recognize that from time to time a particular person in a particular moment needs something that’s off-mission for the ministry, and God will use that ministry to meet the need anyway.  Wise leaders recognize that when it happens and don’t choose that moment to get cranky about the mission statement.  But we’re talking about the overall mission of the ministry here.)

Moral of the story?  Not only do we have a culture of ineffectiveness, at some level, we know it.  So we avoid spelling out what we’re going to do in ways that would expose how little fruit we really see.

Why is that?

****

Prayer Exercise

Ask God to show you if there are areas of your life where you are afraid to ask Him to do specific things — things where it would be obvious if He showed up or not.  Wait in silence and see what He will show you.  

Don’t be concerned if nothing comes to mind; just remain attentive over the next few days and see what comes up.

If God does bring an area to your attention, pray, “God I confess that I am afraid to ask You to show up and act in definite ways in this area of my life.  Please give me the wisdom to know what to ask for, and the courage to keep asking.”  

Then keep praying for wisdom in that area until God shows you what to ask for.  When that happens, keep praying for it.


A Prescription for Free Grace Theology

8 June 2021

Any theology can become a dead ideology instead of a living knowledge of God. For some people, Free Grace theology has become that, and you can see it in their lack of love. But the problem is not universal, and I see that as a promising sign; therein lies my basic prescription. The Free Grace movement must internalize the truth of 1 Corinthians 13: without love, it is nothing. When it begins to genuinely love God and its brothers first, with everything else a distant second priority, then we’ll see real growth.

Where love revives the movement, we’ll see a shift toward service and mission. Many Free Grace people are admirably engaged in evangelism, missions, and discipleship already. What is lacking is for the Free Grace movement as a movement to become outward-facing. As the movement is able to receive and embody life from God, it will serve the broader Church beyond its borders, and in the process, it will recover a robust practice and doctrine of Church unity.

I have written much about unity elsewhere, so I won’t repeat it all here. I will just say that we should love one another and get along together for the sake of our mutual friend Jesus. In my experience, that leads to doing as much as we can in partnership with as many of Christ’s people as we can, across all the denominational boundaries. When God’s people obey in this way, we find that all the scattered branches of the Church have something to offer us, and we to them…and we’ll get a chance to both give and receive. (And you don’t need to be in a Free Grace church to do this, either.)

I expect this proposal to be met with skepticism, if not scorn. I am sure a multitude of theologians can advance armies of reasons why it can’t work. I am willing to hear the counter-arguments, but at the end of the day, I will answer them all with a Chinese proverb: “The man who says it can’t be done should not interrupt the man doing it.” I am already living the proposal I am making here. It can be done, and productively, too: I am far more productive for the cause of Christ now than I ever was in my sectarian days.


Dust and Breath: A Sermon

20 April 2021

Being who and what we are, how do we live together? I had a chance to preach on that subject this week.


Like Begets Like

20 March 2021

When a human man and a human woman make a baby, what kind of baby do they make?

A human baby.

Frogs make more frogs, fish make more fish, and dragonflies make more dragonflies. Like begets like; you reproduce what you are.

The same is true in education. When I was learning to be a school bus driver, all my instructors were school bus drivers. When I went to massage therapy school, all my teachers without exception were massage therapists.

Makes sense, right?

So if you want to be a professor, it makes all the sense in the world to spend years of your life with professors. How else would you learn to be one? It takes a group of academics to make an academic; how else would you get one?

But if you want to be a practitioner, you need to spend time with practitioners. Nothing is sillier than thinking you can spend three to four years in classrooms with professional academics and emerge a fully-formed ministry practitioner. In what other context would you accept such a ludicrous idea?


Washed

9 March 2021

I had occasion to finally summarize my research and teaching on baptism over the past decade or so. Here it is.


No Jobs; Plenty of Work

2 March 2021

When the farmers settled the Great Plains, they were often farming a homestead many miles from the nearest town. Establishing a farm like that, there is never a shortage of work to be done. With winter coming fast, you don’t have a lot of time to build, so you probably throw up the smallest shed you can get away with and spend the first winter sharing it with the animals. Speaking of animals: they need daily care, and there’s new ground to break, weeds to pull from the garden, equipment to fix, and on and on — an endless amount of work.

Work that nobody pays you for.

If you do your work hard, quickly, and well, you will survive the winter so you can expand it all next spring. If you’re industrious and the harvests are decent, by the time a few cycles have gone by, you’ll have a house, established fields and garden plots, a barn for the animals, and so on — a thriving homestead. Maybe you’ll have a little spare time and garden space to raise tobacco or some such for a cash crop. Or set up a still to turn your leftover grain into whiskey you can sell.

But you still won’t have a job. Nobody pays you to work the homestead. You have the fruits of your labors. Either that’s enough, or it’s not.

That’s the kind of ministry to which many of us are called. The harvest is plentiful, but nobody’s gonna hire you to bring it in. Either you will do it anyway because Jesus said you should, or you won’t.

There may be times you’re able to make a paycheck doing ministry work, or people give you gifts that enable you to devote more time and attention to the work. There’s nothing wrong with that; Paul did it at times and so have I. But Paul’s decisions about where to minister don’t seem to have ever been determined — or even influenced — by the availability of paying ministry gigs. He cheerfully went places where he had to support himself to do the work, and so have I.

And so should you.