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.


Serving the Corporation

23 February 2021

I went through a period of about a year and a half where my floridly bivocational work situation necessitated missing church some Sundays, and visiting a handful of different congregations on the weeks I could attend church. I had deep, regular accountability with multiple different believers and close friends during that time (as I still do), and I made worship a priority even on the weeks that I wasn’t able to get to a service. But one of the things I remember most from that time is the look of concern on pastors’ (and other church people’s) faces when they asked where I went to church and I explained that I didn’t go to the same church every single week.

Here’s how the conversation would go down: they would launch into an explanation of how important it is for a believer to have accountability and regular fellowship. I would explain that I met weekly with two different small groups of men who kept me accountable, and spend time in the homes of three Christian families for regular fellowship. They would express  relief that I wasn’t totally neglecting fellowship and accountability, but usually still have some reservations. Didn’t smell right somehow. 

It’s laughable, if you think about it. How many Christians do you know that have two accountability groups and close relationships with three families? I was enjoying some of the best fellowship and accountability of my whole life, and somehow it didn’t meet expectations!

Now we all know that if I’d just said, “I go to XYZ Bible Church,” the follow-up questions would have been different. They’d have asked things like “How do you like it there?” or “What kind of music is the worship?” There would have been no follow-up scrutiny of whether I was getting real fellowship and accountability at XYZ Bible Church; the bare fact of my church attendance would be satisfactory. But why is that? Don’t we all know people who are regular church attenders who aren’t plugged into any kind of meaningful fellowship or accountability? In fact, don’t we all know people who, despite regular church attendance, struggle to “get plugged in” at their church? We all know that church attendance doesn’t actually solve the fellowship and accountability problems, yet we act as if it does.

Here’s a useful tool for thinking about life: anytime there’s a visible gap between our behavior and what we say that we care about, that’s something worth paying attention to.  In this case, our words say we care about fellowship and accountability, but our actions say we care about regular attendance at the same building. What’s up with that?

As we’ve been discussing, the Body and the corporation are two separate things. On the available evidence, it wasn’t my lack of body life that made people nervous. I demonstrably had more body life than many of the people I was talking to. No, they were nervous that I didn’t belong to one particular corporation.

Now, I can’t see anybody’s heart, but I have a nasty suspicion that the real source of the nervousness here is the demonstration that the status quo isn’t inevitable. Very few people are cynical enough to try to drag me to their church specifically so they can collect my tithe money (especially considering the small size of my tithe!) However, the vast majority of pastors are committed to — and reliant on — a corporate structure that depends on congregants devoting their tithe money and volunteer hours to one specific corporation. That’s how their salaries get paid.

Just by living as I was, I showed that a believer doesn’t have to be the property of one specific corporation. If believers no longer regard a corporation as a one-stop-shop, if we rely instead on the organic body around us, without regard to which corporation a particular person might belong to…that could be a game-changer. Such a network of believers is not a threat to any one specific church, but it’s a profound threat to the entire system.

Maybe that’s a good thing. 


Killing Vision

16 February 2021

We’ve done a couple of posts on the troubled relationship between the church body and the church corporation. The first one focused on the fact that these are two separate entities with conflicting needs. Another post addressed how to manage the two sets of needs properly.

In this post, I want to spotlight another area of conflict between the corporation and the body: vision. Inconvenient as it is for the corporation to expend its resources on the things most necessary for spiritual growth, it is even less convenient to empower the rank and file to hear and respond to God’s leading in their own lives.

They have a way of getting involved in their neighbors’ lives, their local elementary school, all kinds of things that take their time, effort, and money away from the corporation’s vision. And they make mistakes — mistakes a slick ecclesiastical professional wouldn’t make. Better they stuck to proper channels and put their effort into fulfilling the institution’s Five Year Plan.

If you’re gonna have a vision-directed institution in the manner of such churches, the very first order of business, oddly, is to kill off the vision in the congregation. Such an institution enlists its people in the vision cast by the corporate leadership, and crowds out opportunities for its people to hear God leading them, and respond to the opportunities He is giving them in their own lives. To be fair, not every church does this. But many do it half-consciously, and some churches are deliberately, ruthlessly effective at it. I’ve heard pastors bragging about it. I’ve heard conference speakers bragging about it to a roomful of pastors. (Not, happily, anyone in my city!)

But no. You can’t schedule a revival. The Holy Spirit doesn’t have a booking agent you can call. The Wind that is the Spirit of God blows where He wills. He is gloriously, thoroughly untamed. He certainly does plan…but He doesn’t do your plan.

The best churches I know find ways to notice what God is doing among their people, and support it. In small fellowships like they had in NT times, that’s easy to do — you can’t not notice what God is doing in a group that size. In bigger, corporate-model churches, that’s harder to do, but by no means impossible. The really tough problem is that it’s harder to want to do.


Why Character Matters

2 February 2021

I have seen more than one ministry implode. Beyond the obvious scandalous causes (pastor sleeps with counselee, treasurer runs off with the money), there are some less-discussed, but very common, patterns.

I’ve seen relational problems build up over time: petty power plays, minor wrongs never confessed, refusal to forgive, personal jealousies, frustrated ambitions, etc. Then one day, people begin seeking occasions for accusation and conflict rather than reconciliation. Out of nowhere, there’s a long string of “offenses” and “concerns,” often never raised before, that preclude discussion and demand immediate action. (Either the “offended” party leaves in a huff, or arranges the ouster of the “offender.” Either way, it doesn’t generally end well.)

I have made the mistake of recruiting someone for his evident skills, and not looking closely enough into the character underneath. Those skills that I thought were so valuable, such a good complement to my areas of weakness, were turned against me and people I cared about, to devastating effect.

From a distance, you can’t necessarily tell these things are happening. A lot of these cases get disguised as a doctrinal disagreement, a difference in philosophy of ministry, or just papered over with a simple “we feel the Lord is leading us in a different direction.” Everybody buys it, partly because they respect their leaders, and partly because it would be too uncomfortable to call BS on the easy explanation and find out what actually happened. But I’ve been in the ministry world my whole life, and I’ve had ringside seats for a bunch of these messes.

Very often, at the root of it all is a simple lack of character, a preference for taking the easy way out rather than doing the hard work of keeping short accounts, a desire to hide rather than live in the revealing light of openness to God and each other. Anyone who’s been in ministry for a while has had similar experiences.

Godly character–a cultivated habit of openness, and willingness to do the hard thing rather than take the easy way out–is the foundation for everything else. Skills and gifting are important, but without the character to support them, they’re a house built on the sand. In ministry, we’re in the trouble business; there’s always another storm around the corner.

That kind of character is impossible without the Spirit. It’s easy enough to be loving and inviting if you never say hard things, and it’s easy enough to say hard things if you’re not loving and inviting. To do both, and expose your own flaws in the process–that takes the Spirit of God, drawing you into the life-sharing dance of the Trinity. Which, in the process, brings you into step with all your other brothers and sisters who are also in the dance.

There is no crucible for building those habits like the one Jesus used: immersion in ministry, bringing the good news of God’s Kingdom everywhere you go…and debriefing along the way. We should do more of it.


40,000 Reasons to Reconsider Seminary

12 January 2021

So let’s talk about seminary. You ship yourself off for two to four years of preparation, and come out the end ready to go, a newly-minted ministry professional. What’s not to love, right?

Well…

You’re attending an Institution of Higher Learning. There are Impressive Buildings, Distinguished Faculty Members, and Excellent Administrators (more layers of them every year!). There’s a library measured in acres (which will be named the Big Donor Resource Center; “library” is entirely too prosaic). It’s a wonderful place to read and study, it really is. (I get it; I love the smell of books too!) But you know who pays for all that academic and architectural bling? You do. Sure, generous donors cover some of it–note the bronze nameplates everywhere–but you cover a significant portion.

So what does that look like? As I write this, I’m looking at a fairly typical degree plan from Major Seminary (I won’t mention which one). It’s a three-year M.Div. requiring 78 credit hours, at about $580/hour, for a total of $45,240. (Another one I’m looking at totals just under $60K, so you’re getting off cheap with that first one. Count your blessings.) Unless you’re pretty rich, you can’t afford that, so you’re going the student loan route. If you borrow the whole amount, you’ll come out saddled with about $500 a month in loan payments, for 10 years–which would be absolutely crippling. But that’s silly. Of course you’re going to work while you’re in school; let’s say that you can afford to pay a little under half the school bill as you go, so you only need to borrow $25,000. (By the way, that means you’re paying over $550/month during your 3 years of school; good luck!) After you get out, your monthly loan payment will be roughly $275. A little more doable.

You graduate and take an entry-level job in a ministry field, paying, what? $30,000, if you’re lucky? That’s $2500 a month. More than a tenth of your meager income is going to your student loan. And then the kids come….

But it gets worse, because that’s assuming you land a full-time job. Let’s be honest, those jobs aren’t exactly growing on trees. More and more of us are bivocational, because our ministries just can’t afford to fund full-time workers. At the last church I worked for, every person on the pastoral staff was bivocational; we all had one or more side gigs that we needed, just to make ends meet. The few full-time jobs that are available usually require 3-5 years of experience. So probably you don’t land one of those right away.

How are you planning to gain experience? Well, you’ll take a youth or associate pastor gig that pays $600 or maybe $1000 a month for what they’ll say is 10-15 hours a week (actually 20+), and then you’ll do something else on the side. Barista, bus driver, parking valet, waiter–the kind of jobs that have flexible hours so you can do the ministry work. You’ll be bouncing back and forth between your “side gig” — which actually pays most of your expenses–and your ministry job, struggling to get by, and paying an extra $275 a month for your student loans…for 10 years.

Sounds fun, yeah?

I thought not. There is another way, an older way. A way closer to what Jesus did, a way that the Church used for centuries, until very recently. It’s better than grad school–and coincidentally, it doesn’t leave you in crippling debt. What if we tried that?


Body and Corporation, Part II

15 December 2020

The body is the church. The corporation is an asset of the church, a possession. It not the church, it is something the church owns. Once we understand that, we know what to do with the corporation. Use it, just like we would use any other asset of the church: a building or a van or a sound board. It does not exist as an end in itself; its job is to serve the needs of the body.

We would find it odd if the whole church directed its energy toward the upkeep of the church van. Can you imagine? The whole church turns out on a Saturday morning to wash the van. The VBS sponsors a bake sale to get a new turbocharger. We don’t let the youth group use the van, because they always leave Cheeto crumbs under the seats.

When something like that happens, we realize that the van has become an idol. Likewise, when all our energy is being misdirected into the corporation to keep it running like a good business, things have gone awry.

And it is really easy for things to go awry in exactly that way. It turns out that the corporation can survive quite handily without indulging in the messy and inconvenient business of bringing its people into real relationships that provide fellowship and accountability. As long as the people keep attending, keep giving, and keep volunteering, the corporation hums along like a well-oiled machine. The metrics look great.

And–in our present cultural milieu, at least–many of the people have no interest in getting mired in such challenging relationships anyway. They want to be consumers of religious services, and the corporation that can provide the programs they’re shopping for will get their dollars and volunteer hours.

And so the vast majority of churches have established and well-understood patterns for taking care of the corporation’s needs, a clear understanding of who is responsible, and meaningful accountability to ensure that the job gets done. These same churches often have no established pattern for moving people into deep relationships that strengthen and feed them, do not understand the process, and hold no one accountable for doing it.

For example, I once worked for a church under the title “Pastor of Discipleship and Logistics.” During the two years I held that job, I had regular accountability and support around items like getting the bulletin done on time or ordering up on copy paper. Never once did anyone in my chain of command initiate a conversation about discipleship, check to see who I was discipling, how it was going, or if I needed support.

Not once.

In two years.

I wish I could say that’s an extreme example. In fact, it’s very common.


Flipping the Language

8 December 2020

In the previous post, we looked at how the interests of the body and the corporation diverge. In this post, we’re going to look at a very common failure to understand what the Bible says about life in the Body.

New Testament churches didn’t have a corporation. The New Testament doesn’t contemplate the needs of the corporation, or give commands regarding its upkeep.

As a result, there aren’t easily preachable biblical commands about taking care of the corporation, which presents a problem. How do we inspire the faithful to make sure the needs of the corporation get met? Well, there are a bunch of biblical commands about the individual believer’s relationship to the body. It is convenient for the corporation to re-interpret those commands (loving one another, accountability, fellowship, etc.) as though those commands were speaking of things that benefit the corporation.

And so commands to fellowship, for example, are taken as though they are simply commanding regular church attendance. Commands to be generous with the poor are taken as commands to give to the coffers of the corporation.

In order to shove the new corporation-serving meaning in, the old body-oriented meaning frequently gets shoved out. A person who regularly attends church is understood to have fulfilled the command–even if he gets no actual fellowship, as he frequently does not. A person who gives to the capital campaign is counted generous, no matter how he ignores his poor and needy neighbors. And so on.

The person who attends such a church often feels as if something is missing. He’s frequently isolated, lacks deep relationships, living a shallow spirituality. But the very commands that would guide him into a more godly and fulfilling life have been emptied of their life-giving meaning. Even when he’s looking right at the passage, he doesn’t see it.

He is likely to remain blind until someone shows him the real thing.