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.

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Providence, Vindication, Vengeance

26 April 2019

I take an occasional interest in a doctrinal fight that I really don’t have a stake in, some bit of inside baseball in a tribe that’s not my own. It’s a tedious exercise, since it requires me to get up to speed on issues I wouldn’t normally pay any attention to, but the work pays off. When you’re not on one side or the other, you can see a bunch of other things more clearly: how they treat one another, how they treat the Spirit-created unity they all have despite their differences, how the fight is perceived by the outside world, that sort of thing. In this way, I’ve learned a lot of hard lessons that I apply to the fights I do have a stake in. Here follows one of those lessons.

Many years ago, some folks in the PCA went after Peter Leithart, accusing him of heresy. At the time, I didn’t know Leithart from St. Moses the Black, but the accusations were related to one of those controversies I was studying. The matter went to trial before the presbytery; I remember listening to the recordings. The lead prosecutor in that trial, one Jason Stellman, argued (among other things) that Leithart was sliding slowly toward Rome, and had departed from the doctrine of the PCA.

As it happens, Leithart was (rightly) acquitted, amid much howling by the heresy-hunters, but that’s not really the point here. The point is what happened next. Fast forward a couple years, and lo and behold, this same Jason Stellman resigns his ordination in the PCA…and joins the Roman Catholic Church. Meanwhile, Leithart remains (as ever) a Presbyterian.

***

In Philippians 3, Paul urges his readers to have no confidence in the flesh, and recounts his own fleshly pedigree:

If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ.

Because we’re conditioned by our heritage of revivalism, the meaning we see right away is the individual salvation from hell: Paul has forsaken his reliance on fleshly credentials for the sake of justification by faith. He now trusts in God alone. But there’s more here: a social layer of meaning as well as a theological one.

Remember that Paul had been excommunicated from synagogues multiple times for teaching that Jesus is the Messiah–which He is! They should have welcomed Paul with open arms for teaching the true meaning of the Hebrew Bible, and instead they threw him out.

Now imagine what would have happened if he’d gotten hung up on that. If he’d spent his whole life in a vain search for a retrial, for a fleshly vindication that he’d been right all along. Hold on to that idea, and read what he says next.

Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Again, the individual, theological meaning is there, but so is the social meaning. Paul is not seeking a vindication before the Law. A human court has nothing to offer him. He’s leaving all that behind to pursue Christ. If he suffers, if he’s wrongly convicted–that’s just another way to be more like Christ, isn’t it?

If God wants to vindicate him, then God can do it. Paul isn’t going to waste energy chasing that vindication. As it happens, God did vindicate him, although Paul didn’t live to see it. In A.D. 70, God delivered Jerusalem into the hands of Titus the Roman, and expressed His opinion of the Temple that rejected His only Son. Not one stone was left on another.

***

If we wait, if we just keep pursuing God, we often find that God will vindicate us. He vindicated Paul in the destruction of Jerusalem. Anybody with eyes in their head could see what was happening there (although many are blind).

The same thing happened with Leithart’s heresy trial, not through the acquittal, but in the subsequent events. If you have eyes to see, Providence has painted a little picture in the form of Jason Stellman–the federal head of the heresy-hunters–swimming the Tiber. We are being invited to consider the Romishness of their position, and it’s right there in the trial transcripts, if you missed it the first time through. God has decisively vindicated Leithart in this matter.

I’ve been on the receiving end of similar attacks myself–two stand out as particularly memorable. In one case, I don’t think it was all that hard for bystanders to see what was happening at the time. In the other, it was very hard to see. “The sins of some follow after them,” like Paul said. But in both cases, as time has passed, Providence has done its vindicating work. The people that matter, know. They may be fuzzy on some of the details, but they know enough.

Things become clearer over time.

  • One person holds to the doctrine he was accused of abandoning, while his accuser—that guardian of orthodoxy–abandons it.
  • One person remains faithful to the people he was accused of failing to serve, while his accuser skips town, leaving a trail of wrecked relationships in his wake.
  • One person continues in unity with the believers around him, while the one who excluded him in the name of “preserving unity” excludes more and more people until there’s only a few he’s not at war with.

Over time, it becomes easy to ask a few clarifying questions. Where are the two parties today? Look at one. Look at the other. What do you see?

***

“He who covers his sin will not prosper,” the proverb says, and the sin of slander is certainly included. God has the habit of causing the truth to come to light in time, and this is one of the practical reasons for leaving vengeance to God.

God does not say “Vengeance is bad;” He says “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” As we are tempted to push for vindication, we are also tempted to seek vengeance. Don’t. God’s got it…and He’s better at it than you are.

Count it all loss for the sake of Christ. Pursue knowing Him. Let God take care of the rest.


Marketing the Reformation to the Pope

23 April 2019

“Future generations will be amazed that at one time, we actually thought it was a good idea to run a church like a business.”
“Now that you’ve finished your SWOT analysis, here are some key ideas from the classic business book Good to Great that will help you shift the culture of your church.”
-same people

One of the biggest things screwing up our public rethink of church is the need to market the book/article/consulting service to the sorts of people who can afford pricey resources: successful church professionals.

These people are never going to reform church away from the corporate model, for the simple reason that they can’t. Externally, their organizations and donor base won’t let them, and internally, they have a cultivated blindness to the flaws of the status quo. It’s like trying to market the Reformation to Lorenzo de Medici.

Corporate church culture is certainly doing something, but let us not confuse organizational “success” with serving Christ. By every biblical metric, corporate church culture ties up huge amounts of resources for a very small return–when there’s any return at all. It makes dependent members rather than disciples of Jesus, it barely remembers the poor, and it generally pretends like other churches don’t exist. These are not simply shortcomings that can be readily fixed; they are natural results of the design. Every organizational structure inherently incentivizes certain behaviors and discourages others. The structure we’re talking about is a small number of paid, expert professionals providing religious services for masses of consumers. That structure needs loyal consumers and the amenities that reinforce that loyalty. Those loyal consumers donate, and the structure needs to keep the money in-house, where it can fund competitive salaries for its small stable of experts (and more amenities for donating members). Being a church, of course, it also needs a certain amount of visible outreach and charitable ministry. (Locally, that usually also serves as marketing to bring in more members.) But routinely, the total resources expended on mission are dwarfed by building fund or whatever.

There’s no reason why that model should control what we think of as possible, plausible, or legitimate. And so it seems foolish, if not outright self-sabotage, to choose the scions of that model as our primary discussion partners as we seek to reform the church.

3DM has done exactly that (as have most of the other folks in the discussion). I think it may be their biggest weakness.

 


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.


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?


Shamrocks and Crankypants

17 March 2019

Is it appropriate for a minister [in our tradition] to wear green in the pulpit on St. Patrick’s Day?

The question came up in a theology discussion group I happen to be part of, and quickly became a fairly sharp discussion. Of course there were cranky fundamentalists denouncing the whole affair as nothing more than an excuse to get drunk and start fights. (Presumably a minister should either preach against that, or just move on with whatever series he’s preaching at the moment.)

Other, more historically informed, folks made the usual observations about green being the Roman Catholic color, and orange being the Protestant color (which is historically true). Then the usual counter-observations were made that the orange-wearing (English invader) principals to the conflict in Ireland aren’t the sort of people we’d want to identify with, so we oughtn’t to wear orange, either.

It sounds like there’s a pretty good case for abstaining, if you’re in Northern Ireland. Wearing one color or the other might be a bit like choosing to wear red (or blue) in Compton. Maybe. I’ve never been to Northern Ireland; couldn’t say for sure.

But perhaps we’re missing the point. We’re not in Northern Ireland, and whatever the historical links between that culture and ours, the question that confronts us is not what either color meant there, then.

The question is what the culture means in our context, now.

Here and now, St. Patrick’s at its best is a celebration of a Christian missionary notable for both his effectiveness and his (deeply Pauline) methodology. A man who had been kidnapped and enslaved, escaped, and freely chose to obey God’s call to return as a missionary to the people that enslaved him. He obeyed God’s call at tremendous personal cost; a thoroughly admirable man.

At its worst–as already noted by the cranky fundies– St. Patrick’s is an excuse for amateurs to drink too much as a prelude to bad decisions about fighting, fornication, and karaoke.

But we are Christians. So as a pastor, I celebrate the best—whatsoever things are pure, true, noble, and all that. Of course I wear green and talk about the life of St. Patrick. (And not just on St. Paddy’s, actually. Good history never goes out of season.)

I’d encourage the crankypants among us to actually read the extant writings of St. Patrick. He was quite a follower of Jesus, and I look forward to meeting him one day.


Family in Community

7 December 2018

One of the early responses I got to an earlier post on community was, “Tim, most people in the evangelical world can’t relate to the experience you’re describing. They don’t have anybody present in their homes, much less participating in the family life.”

The question I want to ask is: why not? How can it be that the people of God, the visible reflection of the Trinity on earth, do not live in each other’s lives?

And the answer is, “Because we’re rich.” This is most definitely a first-world problem; the rest of the world is very different, and the rest of time more so. But here we are in the first world, and if it’s a first-world problem, we have it.

In a first-century village (or even a city), people lived on top of each other. They knew each other’s business in the same way that I know when my upstairs neighbors take a shower, make love, or leave for work in the morning. The ceiling’s not soundproof, and I can’t really help knowing what’s going on up there sometimes. By contrast, the American dream is to use our wealth to separate ourselves from each other rather than to grow more interdependent. We live in single-family homes. We park in attached garages; we’re already ensconced in our little steel-and-glass universes, radio tuned to our favorite station, before the garage door opens to the outside world. We shop in stores that serve a wide enough area that we usually don’t run into anybody we know. (I live in a relatively small town, and have a fairly wide circle of acquaintance. I run into someone at the grocery store every now and again, but it’s pretty unusual. Back when I lived in a big city (or the suburbs, before that), it was vanishingly rare.)

If the culture makes it hard to follow Jesus, then we need to be countercultural; it’s that simple. Wordliness is not about what kind of car you drive or how many iPads you have or hemlines and necklines (although it can be expressed in all those things). Worldliness is about how much The Way Things Are dictates your willingness to be obedient to Christ. When our culture makes sin look normal and easy, and righteousness look strange and costly, what will you do? Will you be carried by the stream, or swim against it? Will you follow Jesus when it makes you weird?

In the culture we’ve built for ourselves, it is actually very difficult to live in close community with one another. We’d have to go well out of our way to do it. Which is to say that our repentance really will be costly. But it will also be rewarding.

I’ve been seeking tight community since early adulthood. I managed a form of it…and then I moved cross-country to a new state eight years ago, and had to start all over again.

It wasn’t easy; I’m not a naturally outgoing person. But I got there. In my community now, I’ve called for help at 1 in the morning, and gotten it. I’ve been called for help, and dropped everything to go help with…whatever. Taking chicken soup to a sick friend. Babysitting during a family emergency (or to salvage a date night when the regular babysitter got sick at the last minute.) Providing a ride to the hospital. Taking my massage chair and oils to relieve a headache or back spasm. Running to the bank because my friend’s small business was out of quarters.

As I make my final editing pass through this post, there’s a spool of grey thread on the counter. I’ll drop it off with one of my friends later today, so she can mend a hole in a pair of her daughter’s pants. We noticed the hole yesterday; she doesn’t have the right thread, and I do. It’s a simple thing, a small extra errand.

But it’s also an extra errand in an already crowded day, and it would have been easy enough to avoid. All I needed to do was keep my mouth shut instead of saying, “I think I have the right color thread for that at home.” Why complicate my life? Because the right kind of complications are glorious.

Marriage complicates your life. Having children complicates your life. Making lasagne or bread or soup from scratch complicates your life. Deciding to build your own piñata for the birthday party instead of just buying one complicates your life. Calling a friend instead of an Uber complicates both your lives. Making music with your friends rather than just popping in a CD complicates your life. Close community is made of just such complications. We are choosing that rich complication over convenience. We want to live closely. We live for the triune God, and therefore for each other, not simply for ourselves and our own realization of the American dream.

How did I get there?

Not, I can assure you, through some virtuoso display of relational acumen. I’m actually kinda awkward. But I keep showing up, and I keep loving people. I followed God’s leading, and as I participated in His mission on earth, I found some fellow-travelers that would walk alongside me. We supported each other in our shared mission, and along the way, we became friends. We walk with God together, worship together. We support one another, day in and day out, in all kinds of ways. And we face the world together, caring for broken and hurting people, supporting the weak, bringing healing to the brokenhearted and light to the darkness.

When we ask each other, “How are you doing?” we actually want a real answer — first of all because we love each other and we care, and second because we do rough work together and if somebody can’t bring their A game today, we gotta know so we can adjust. (And it’s ok — nobody brings their A game every day. We cover for each other as needed. But precisely for that reason, honesty is prized.)

In the suburban churches I came of age in, there was far too little of all this. There was an awful lot of country-club Christianity: folks were saved, sure, and lived a generally non-scandalous red-state existence. Beyond that, their faith often seemed to make very little day-to-day difference in their lives. They came to church and pretended everything was great, no matter what was actually happening. I saw at least one family utterly ostracized for telling the truth about the ruin and hurt in their lives.

The teenagers, with their gift for cynicism, saw right through it all. They still see right through it all, and they’re disenchanted with the church, in droves. Rather be anywhere else. They want something real, and in too many churches, that’s simply not on offer.

In other words, the way we’re called to live is everything your jaded suburban teenager craves and doesn’t know how to ask for…and they are the future of the church. Get ’em involved in something real. Let them spend time with addicts and drunks and soccer moms and restaurateurs…people of all kinds, just like Jesus did. Let them serve, and bless, and have hard conversations, like Jesus did. Debrief with them, just like Jesus did with the disciples. And like Jesus did, lead by example–which means you go first.

It will do your heart good, trust me.