The First Day of Christmas: This is our God!

25 December 2020

Have you ever wondered how the shepherds found Jesus? The angels had only given them a single clue: a swaddled newborn in a feed trough. Bethlehem was full of strangers that night, travellers from elsewhere. But labor is not a quiet process, and everybody would have known about the teenaged mom that gave birth in a barn. If the shepherds hadn’t already heard about it through small-town gossip, a few minutes of asking around would lead them to the right place.

What did they expect to find? Surely not a scene of great majesty, given the clue they were chasing. And what they did find was simple enough: a new teenaged mother, exhausted from labor, her not-quite-husband (bit of a scandal there, no doubt the talk of the town), and a baby, wrapped up and deposited in a feed trough.

Had we asked the shepherds a day earlier what the birth of their Messiah would be like, I doubt any of them would have predicted this. How vulgar. How…blasphemous, even. It is the first of many offenses yet to come. But the shepherds couldn’t shut up about what they’d seen and heard. They told everybody, and departed rejoicing and praising God.

And so should we.

Your Reputation in Heaven

22 December 2020

A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to address Faith Community Church in Littleton. Here’s the sermon:

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.

Body and Corporation

1 December 2020

Regardless of what our doctrinal statements say about the church really being the people, the American local church manifests itself as a corporation with property to maintain, payroll to meet, bills to pay. It’s important to remember that the body and the corporation really are two different things — witness the fact that over the past two thousand years, most local churches have managed to exist without drawing up corporate papers. Imagine trying to explain the church structure we take for granted to, say, the first-century church that met in Philemon’s house. “Corporate papers?” they would ask. “Isn’t that something you do for a business?”

Conversely, it’s entirely possible to be a service organization with corporate papers and not a church at all. The American Red Cross, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Boy Scouts of America have been managing it for decades.

But more often than not, in North America, we try to do both at the same time. The juggling act can be challenging. The corporation theoretically exists in order to serve the needs of the body. But the body is a familial structure and the corporation is a business structure. Families and businesses are different sorts of entities, and they operate on fundamentally different principles. What’s good for one is not always good for the other, and so the interests of the body and the interests of the corporation are often not well aligned.

Over time, the interests of the corporation almost always come to dominate. The needs of the corporation are immediately pressing and measurable. It’s easy to tell if you have enough money to cover this month’s mortgage and payroll, or enough volunteers for the fall program. You can give an employee a mark to hit, and everyone will know if he hit it. You can hire a slick, upwardly mobile manager of ecclesiastical affairs who will make sure he hits all the marks. As with any other such managerial position, you’ll work to find a good one, but if you’re willing to pay a competitive salary, you’ll get what you need. Thus far the needs of the corporation.

The body needs real, personal connection and relationships. These things provide no short-term benefit to the corporation, and they come with a huge opportunity cost: they’re messy, labor-intensive, and high-risk. The energy invested in doing them well could be going into something else, something that does the corporation measurable good: a glitzier children’s program, a slicker bulletin, the next capital campaign. Trying to find a capable manager for the corporation who will put the needs of the body first is…challenging, to say the least.

On Being Misunderstood

24 November 2020

Paul required that elders be of good reputation among those outside the faith (1 Tim. 3:7)–and this in a culture that sometimes accused Christians of atheism and cannibalism, that crucified us, threw us to the lions, burned us alive. Paul himself had quite the criminal history as a Christian, as did that escaped jailbird Peter and many others, all following the condemned and executed Jesus. Plainly Paul did not mean that you can’t serve in church leadership if anybody has bad things to say about you. He cannot mean that you’re only qualified if your godly conduct has never been misunderstood by the world. 

Yet we are surrounded by Christians who think that’s exactly what having a good Christian testimony means. These credulous folks have been lulled by four centuries of unprecedented prosperity and freedom, during which the culture took it for granted that being a Christian was a good thing. (Perhaps a little too wholesome and not much fun, but a good thing nonetheless.) But it has not always been that way, and–have a look around–it is not really that way now. 

We are going to be misunderstood. Sometimes it will be an honest misunderstanding brought about by simple confusion. The devil excels at manufacturing that sort of thing. Sometimes it will be a tactical misunderstanding, and the wounded party will be flopping about like a French soccer player, even though nobody was within 3 yards of him. There’s a great deal of the latter, actually, and our National Evangelical Leadership (all rise!) has been steered by the flopping soccer players of the secular world for some time now. Steered straight into severe compromise, and all in the name of empathy for the player with the allegedly injured leg. 

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?

Maybe We Won’t Have To

4 November 2020

I have made it my life’s work to know and love people who are very unlike me. As a result, I have a wide network of friends and contacts all across the political spectrum. I’m speaking to you all right now.

I wish you all knew each other the way I know you.

Most of the people you fear, or even hate, aren’t what you think they are. I know this, because I know them.

You could, too. The common ground is there. It might not be much, and it might not be something that’s all that important in the grand scheme of things: baseball cards, ‘40s movies, green chili. It might be something more consequential: losing your mom, a cancer diagnosis, raising kids, staying sober (or not). You all live in the same world; there are countless ways to connect.

Even as I write this, I can hear you thinking “Why should I? They [fill in the blank here].”

I know. Has it occurred to you, though, that human connection is a weapon? That it will be harder for them to hate and fear you after you’ve connected over your shared love of watercolor landscapes or good ice cream or jazz whatever it turns out to be? Has it occurred to you that they will have a hard time coming out of that experience unchanged?

So, of course, will you. Which may have something to do with your reluctance, if we’re honest.

Y’all are all over my feed promising not to give up fighting for your cause no matter what, and I’m not even gonna try to talk you out of that right now. But I’d like to see you add one more promise: commit yourself to make a human connection with someone that — if civil war broke out tomorrow — you would probably shoot.

Because then maybe you won’t have to.

How Seasoning Works

13 October 2020

You can’t season mashed potatoes by adding another potato. You also can’t season mashed potatoes by having salt in a saltshaker in your cupboard. Two things are necessary: you have to have something different from the food, and you have to bring that different thing into contact with the food.

You are the salt of the earth. Discuss.

Dodging the Ditch

6 October 2020

I was recently having a conversation with a friend about generosity. She was sorting through the tension between our finitude and God’s call to do things that are frequently beyond us, and had run into conflict with another believer about how to approach such things. It’s an interesting conversation in its own right, but we’ll save that for another day. Today I want to go a level up and look at a general trend in arguments about philosophy of ministry.

In anything we do, there’s more than one way to screw it up. In generosity ministry, there’s such a thing as stinginess on the one hand, and toxic charity on the other. (Sometimes our service to others is more about how it makes us feel than it is about actually helping the others in question.) There’s a ditch on both sides of the road.

Very often, our conflicts in philosophy of ministry happen thus:

  • Person A has already been in the ditch on the left side of the road, and he’s never gonna let that happen again.
  • Person B has already been in the ditch on the right side of the road, and is determined never to repeat his mistake.

Put them together, and hey, whaddaya know — a fight breaks out.

It’s easy enough for each to damn the other for steering toward a ditch, and then go their separate ways. That’s tragic, because their stickiest difference is actually the reason God put them together to start with. God means for them to honor each other and listen to each other, so they will balance each other out. If they can do that, they stay on the (narrow) road between the ditches.

As a pastor’s kid and lifelong minister, I’ve seen this play out many times over many different issues. Partnerships regularly fall apart over exactly the issues where they could benefit each other most…and then the resulting ‘independent’ ministries fall apart for lack of balance.

This to say: the unity of the Body actually matters. We are impoverished — and as a result, the world around us is impoverished — when we won’t live up to it.