Without the Glue

8 November 2022

Back in college, I was part of a “cell church.” The idea was that the actual church meeting was the small-group meeting that happened during the week, where we shared a meal and spent time discussing how to apply the Bible to our lives. The Sunday morning gathering, where all the cells came together (in our case, in a rented synagogue), was not the church meeting proper, but a time of celebration and teaching. The goal was to get a little closer to the kind of church life we see in Acts 2, and it worked…we got a little closer.

Over the next couple decades, I had a variety of formative influences, and I grew as a Christian, but I never really learned how to disciple effectively. I learned how to teach effectively. Every attempt to make disciples devolved into teaching, and while teaching is part of the task — a necessary part — it’s not the whole job. I knew I was missing something, and didn’t know what, or how to get it.

Moving to Englewood, Colorado, changed that. Here, the local pastors gather monthly and pray for one another and the One Church in Englewood (which happens to meet in separate buildings). One of the older men in the group, a Dutch Reformed pastor named Dave, took several of us under his wing. Over the next couple years, Dave taught us to disciple effectively, and also pitched the concept of missional community: a spiritual extended family on mission together, as it were.

Now, most of the writing around missional communities at that time wanted to market it as some exciting new move of God, which didn’t make any sense. To the extent that there was a solid New Testament case for something like it–and there clearly was, in the first-century oikos–the missional community obviously couldn’t be new. Certainly there was a New Testament case for making disciples; that was hardly some exotic new move of God; it was Christianity 101.

And yet, the North American church, desperate for effective interventions in the culture, was doing everything but that. If we total up all the time, talent, energy, money, etc. that the churches were expending — a sort of ecclesiastical equivalent to the GNP — we’ll find that the vast majority of the Gross Church Product goes into things that really have nothing to do with making disciples. That being the case, the great need was and is simple repentance: We have occupied ourselves with secondary things at the expense of our primary mission. Time to get back to it.

No shortage of ink has been spilled on that particular subject, so I won’t belabor it here, except to say this: in the intervening decade or so, nearly every “missional community” I’ve seen, heard about, or been part of, has fizzled out, stagnated, or fallen back into being a standard-issue church small group (not necessarily a bad thing to be, but hardly the heady vision were were sold, is it?). Not coincidentally, there’s a significant difference between the first-century Christian oikos and the twenty-first century missional community that is supposedly emulating it. Joining a twenty-first century missional community was a boutique lifestyle choice. The members’ survival needs were attended to elsewhere; missional community was a leisure-time activity.

The preindustrial oikos was not a choice; it was a survival strategy. In the preindustrial oikos, members spent their days working shoulder to shoulder to care for one another and serve their larger community in ways that generated income for the oikos — whether they were making purple dye like Lydia’s household in Philippi or bringing fish to market like Simon Peter’s in Capernaum. An oikos like Lydia’s and Peter’s got transformed into an engine for mission when its members came to Jesus, of course, but that was never its only purpose. The preindustrial oikos was how people survived. Your oikos was not just a social club; it was your job, your living arrangements, your educational system, your medical care, and your retirement plan, all rolled into one. You couldn’t opt out of your oikos without cutting your own lifeline.

When we tried to replace the preindustrial oikos with a social club devoted to serving a particular group of people–however noble the cause–it overwhelmingly failed. Of course it did! We were trying to have an oikos without the glue that holds an oikos together.

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Some Pastoral Prayers

16 August 2022

These are in no particular order; just prayers I’ve found myself praying for people who (as we all do) needed Jesus. I hope they will be a blessing and a help to you.

Lord God, my friend _____ is afraid as the Exodus generation was afraid of you in the desert. Please teach him to be like Joshua and Caleb and trust himself to Your kindness and mercy. Please show him Your mercy in tangible, hard-to-miss ways, so that he can see it and learn to trust you. And as for the disordered loves in his heart that cause him to be attracted to the dark path that shrinks away from You, please excise them. We ask for this in the strong name of Jesus, who lives and reigns at Your right hand, and through the power of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us. Amen.

Lord God, who revealed Yourself to us as our just and loving Father through Jesus Christ your Son, grant to this son of yours, __________, an unmistakable and unshakeable knowledge of who You are to him because Jesus Christ’s blood washes away his sin, through the Holy Spirit who seals him forever into the family of the Triune God. Amen.

Father God, you made your daughter ________ to be free, and we know that you mean to set her free from every lie and false obligation, from every bad habit and weakness. We confess that sometimes it’s hard for her to tell the difference between those things: when there’s a weakness that needs to be purged, versus when there’s an impossible false obligation that needs to be repented of. So we’re asking you to give her bucket-loads of discernment, to know the true from the false, the good from the evil, to see the difference between sin and finitude. Pour out your Spirit on her, give her Your eyes to see. We ask in the name of Jesus, who died for her, that she might be free. Amen.


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.  


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?


Why Prepare When You Could Practice?

13 November 2020

When Jesus called Matthew, He didn’t put him in a classroom. He took him on a three-year adventure. They cast out demons, healed the sick, baptized converts, preached the Kingdom of God. They did the work together, and along the way, Matthew absorbed Jesus’ teaching so well that he eventually wrote a book about it—the Gospel According to Matthew. Matthew organized his gospel around big teaching sections, a series of lectures Jesus gave, you might say: the Sermon on the Mount, the sending of the Twelve, the Kingdom Parables, and so on. But those lectures are interspersed throughout a historical narrative that covers Jesus’ ministry. It’s not that Jesus didn’t give lectures. It’s that Jesus gave them in a context of ministry. He didn’t spend a year preparing the disciples for the work; He took them with Him into the work right away, and trained them as they went.

In the modern church, we have succumbed to an ethic of over-preparation. We’ll yank you out of your context for three years of schooling–during which we’ll keep you entirely too busy reading fat books to really try applying much of what you’re learning–and only then turn you loose to really do it. By then, you’re on your own. If you’re lucky, you have some good people to debrief with, but sometimes you won’t. And all too often, your first few years of ministry will be filled with “Welp, they didn’t teach me that in seminary!”

What were they teaching you? Wasn’t the whole point to prepare you for the work?

Jesus had a better way. His way was to practice, right out the gate. If you were at your job, minding your own business, and Jesus called you: “Hey, you! Come follow Me!”–you didn’t go into a classroom to prepare. You went with Jesus to practice ministry with Him. You would preach, pray, heal the sick, cast out demons, go to a wedding, do whatever He was doing that day. You were in it all the way, right away. And it worked! The people Jesus trained that way turned the world upside down.

So what about you? Do you want to go prepare, or do you want to practice?


Missing an Important Point

18 February 2020

In last week’s post, I commended to your attention a set of Theopolis Conversations posts on Paths to Human Maturity. As you’ll have noticed if you read them, there was one very sharply dissenting voice. In a follow-up post after Dr. Field’s rejoinder, Wilson moderates his stance somewhat. Now to my eye, Wilson missed a whole slew of considerations, about which more later, perhaps.

More important, though, the entire conversation about whether to undertake projects like Dr. Field’s missed a vital point.

Even if the conversation were undesirable, it’s no longer optional. The horse has left the barn. The unbelievers we meet, and our parishioners as well, are neck-deep in depth psychology and Zen-derived mindfulness practices. Our whole culture is. They are having this conversation whether we join in or not. Many of them have found these beliefs and practices tangibly beneficial. I know addicts who testify that mindfulness practices have helped them stay clean, trauma survivors who testify that mindfulness practices have helped them recover, master their fear, embark on relationships they never could have had before. Similar claims can be rightly made for depth psychology. These people often testify that they sought aid and comfort in the church and found none, then found it elsewhere. The question, to them, is not whether these beliefs and practices highlight questions they should ask of Christianity. It’s whether Christianity has anything to offer to the conversation at all.

The truth is that Jesus will reframe the whole conversation in the most productive and glorious way possible. Unfortunately, the church is not really prepared to represent Him well.

Here is the claim we’re going to have to make: All the things that helped them, all those things exploit the way God made the world to work. Moreover, the features of the world that they have exploited without quite understanding them are more fully revealed in Jesus Christ, and what they have experienced to this point is the very least of God’s good gifts. Therefore, they should forsake these systems of thought and practice that enable them to muddle along without acknowledging God, and embrace the freedom that comes in knowing Him, and not needing to hide from His revelation.

That’s the case we need to make, and we will need to give a compelling, detailed presentation of it. Are we, their shepherds, prepared to make that case?

Very few of us are even marginally ready. Virtually none are ready to do it well.

How will we get ready? By going it alone, on the fly, caught flatfooted when someone starts talking about what meditation has done for them? Not likely. We’re Christians. We are a body. We prepare best together, in exactly the kind of public, collaborative, confessionally committed study that Wilson tried so hard to stop.


Jesus Broke the Billy Graham Rule

18 June 2019

A lot of folks in ministry espouse the Billy Graham Rule: never meet with a woman alone. I was taught the rule as a teenager, along with various permutations and corollaries (leave the door open if you must have a conversation with a woman in your office, or have the secretary sit in, that sort of thing).

I went through Bible college and seminary thinking these were wise guidelines and expecting to live by them. I started my ministerial career living by them. I vividly remember the day I departed from them.

It’s a long story and the details aren’t important. Suffice it to say, I was faced with a simple choice: give my female counselee the dignity I’d expect in the same situation, or go through a bunch of gyrations to make sure I followed the Billy Graham Rule. I decided a choice between the man-made rule and the Golden Rule was no choice at all, and I followed Jesus.

That prompted me to re-examine things. Like Mark Twain liked to say, it’s not what you don’t know that gets you—it’s what you know that ain’t so. I “knew” that the Billy Graham Rule was the way you keep away from adultery. But upon consideration, it’s just not so.

I’ve known pastors who didn’t keep the Billy Graham rule, and ended up in adultery. It’s easy to say, “Well, if he’d just kept the Billy Graham Rule, it never woulda happened.” That’s a stupid thing to say. Why are we focusing on the man-made rule like that? Why don’t we say, “If he’d kept the 10 commandments, it never woulda happened”? That’s a lot more to the point.

But even God’s law doesn’t give us the power to resist sin. Why do we think that a man-made law will keep us from sin, when even God’s law cannot? Why do we trust schemes of our own devising more than we trust God? To ask the question is to answer it. We still pretend to godhood.

Stupid people let themselves think they can’t get entangled in adultery—because they’re strong, because they’re impotent anyhow, because they live by man-made rules that are supposed to guarantee it. All those reasons are idols, and all idols must fall.

Man-made guidelines, however wise they might be in a particular case, are not a substitute for the Spirit.

Nothing makes you impervious to sin except walking in the Spirit. Nothing.

I’ve known pastors who made it their lifestyle to live by the Billy Graham Rule, and ended up in adultery anyhow. Having your secretary sit in your counseling sessions doesn’t stop you from meeting the church pianist at a cheap motel on Highway 19, as it turns out. The external, man-made standard is not the difference that makes a difference, and no one but a Pharisee thinks it is. (And what sort of Jesus-follower thinks man-made rules are a means of holy living, anyhow?)

All those external regulations are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh. Righteousness doesn’t come by the law, because there is no law that gives life; you gotta get that from the Spirit—as a smart guy once told us. That smart guy was much maligned by the religious establishment for his teaching and display of liberty, if you can imagine!

When a pastor ends up in adultery, it is not because he met with a woman alone. James tells us how this happens; it’s not some big mystery. He had a desire—for sex, for emotional intimacy, to feel like a man again, whatever. What he should have done is bring that desire home to his wife; instead, he allowed it to focus on his counselee. Then, instead of responding to that warning sign by asking the Body for help, he hid it, kept it to himself, nurtured it. Desire conceived and gave birth to sin; sin, when it matured, brought forth death. Do not be deceived, like the man said.

Anybody who has thought through what his or her particular marriage needs, and can articulate a strategy for protecting the marriage, deserves our support. Whether it’s the Billy Graham Rule or a different strategy, as long as it’s not forbidden by Scripture, we should applaud and support one another’s efforts to protect our marriages. And we have the right to decide for ourselves what that requires—for freedom Christ has set us free. And for exactly that reason, if that same guy ascends a soapbox and begins telling everyone else that his answer is best for their marriage, the very mildest response we should have is to point and laugh. No one gets to make such pronouncements—for freedom Christ has set us free.

The guy on the soapbox will always say that he’s just explaining what’s “appropriate” and “wise.” Me, I think Jesus was wise, and that it’s wise to imitate Him. (So did Paul: “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.”) Once upon a time, Jesus and his twelve accountability partners were walking up on a Samaritan village. He sent all twelve of His accountability partners into the town to buy food, while He sat by the well and started a conversation with a woman alone. A woman who turned out to be exactly the kind of girl no Christian man “should” meet alone.

When our rules contradict what Jesus actually did, that should give us pause. I’m not saying that you can’t have the Billy Graham rule. If you think that’s wisest for you, who am I to argue? Go for it. I am saying that someday, the Spirit might put you in a situation where you need to leave that rule behind. If He does, do what Jesus did.

Don’t worry; nobody ever followed the Spirit into adultery. That’s not where He leads.


Jesus Is Not A Multilevel Marketing Scheme

30 April 2019

Some people think of disciple-making as the ultimate MLM scheme. You find a good mentor, build a downline…but no. That’s not how it works. Jesus is not running a multi-level marketing company.

Among the followers of Jesus, disciple-making influence is more of a “one another” kind of thing. We love one another. Bear one another’s burdens. Encourage one another. Consider one another in order to stir up love and good deeds. When God gives me a newbie to disciple, part of my job is to grow him from dependent to peer, and quick. The harvest is plentiful, and I need help!

Through Paul, God gave us a genius mechanism for doing that job: “Imitate me, as I imitate Christ.” You can’t just teach people. You have to invite them into your life.

See, just teaching allows you to hold people at a comfortable distance. You can be the leader, the professional, the guru, and they are the follower, the client, the acolyte. But we’re Christians. That’s not what we do.

Paul’s example shows us another way. I call it the “open a vein” school of discipleship. We invite them into our lives, not just as learners but as coworkers, as friends, as family. Make no mistake, this calls for deep integrity. If I don’t practice what I preach, the closer they get to me, the more repelled they’ll be. Being a person who can imitate Paul’s example by calling someone to imitate me is a very high calling.

And you know what? No matter how deep my integrity goes, I guarantee you that when I invite someone into my life like this, he’s going to see my sin, my weaknesses, my failures. I’m not perfect, and my disciples aren’t stupid. The sin is there, and they’re gonna catch me out. Of course they will.

Here’s the thing: that is not a bug; it’s a design feature. The instruction and accountability do not just flow one way; we do these things for one another. God speaks to and through my disciples, and they’re worth hearing. I grow in response to their correction the same way they grow in response to mine–and *that* is a critical part of the example they’re following.

Many years ago and far from here, I once asked a roomful of older pastors, “Haven’t you had the experience of a baby Christian asking why you did something or calling you out–and them being totally right, and you being totally wrong?” They all looked at me blankly…and I permanently crossed every last one of those men off my list of advisors.

I had occasion to work closely with a few of those folks over the years, and they proved to be everything I suspected on the basis of that single interaction: professionalized, dictatorial, unhearing, unteachable. And man, were they hypocritical! The more so because no one could tell them. They wouldn’t hear anything you said if they “outranked” you.

There was no “one another” with those guys, and they were the poorer for it. Go thou, and do un-likewise.