Category Archives: Spiritual Formation
(Note: in this series, which will show up from time to time, I want to address some issues concerning ministry from the point of view of the minister. But I want to do so in a constructive way, the way I wish someone had spoken to me many years ago. I may not have listened then, but just hearing the words might have helped. Feel free to share these words with a young man who is contemplating entering the ministry, or who has just started in ministry. If I just help one young family, I will have accomplished my goal.)
Dear young preacher,
I want you to know I write from love, the kind of love that has walked a mile in the shoes you are trying to wear every Sunday. I want you to know that not everything I will say will apply to you – so pay attention to what you think might fit and throw away the rest. Also, no one person can experience everything, so no doubt you will come across some things that I did not see, hear, or feel. As an old car sales commercial said a long time ago, “Your mileage may vary.” But on the other hand do not be too dismissive. As the inspired preacher once said, what goes around comes around (paraphrased, as you can guess). Nothing is ever entirely new. Life as a minister is always life as a minister.
I want to begin with this letter about your calling, your motivation to become a preacher. To be blunt, what makes you think you can even be a preacher? Has someone told you you should become a preacher because you have a powerful speaking voice? That you have great stage presence? That you have an air of confidence? That you are smart? Maybe even that you are handsome and attract people to you? Congratulations, but don’t think you are a preacher. Don’t get me wrong, these are all wonderful attributes. But none of them qualify you to be a preacher. A good sportscaster on TV, maybe. A preacher, not.
Church members are good at a lot of things, but guessing who will or will not be a good preacher is not one of their better strengths. If it was, every young man who ever stood up on Wednesday night and read a Scripture or led a song would become the next Billy Graham. Preaching – or rather the work of ministry – does not work that way. The world, and that means those who sit in the pew, look at the outside. God looks at the heart. If you do not have the heart for ministry it will not matter how handsome or beguiling your voice is. Your ministry will ultimately fail, no matter how popular you might become. If you have the heart for ministry God will make your service a success, even if you never preach to more than 50 people at a time. Don’t settle for the red stew of popularity if what you are searching for is the birthright of ministry.
Here are some other questions that might be more valuable in helping you decide if ministry is for you: Do people search you out for comfort and advice with their problems? Are you approachable and caring, or cold and prickly? Do you ache when you see someone else hurting? Are you able to just sit in silence with someone, or do you always have to have a quick solution? Can you sit for hours reading and studying out a complex literary problem? (let’s face it, the Bible is literature, if you cannot handle reading and meditation, go for the sportscaster job). Can you take pure, unabashed, venomous criticism and let it fall off your shoulders, or do you get upset if someone criticizes your favorite football team?
I hate to say this so bluntly, buddy, but when Jesus told his disciples to “take up their cross and follow him,” it is in all possibility that he – and they – were looking at a crucified criminal. Whether that is true or not, soon they would be looking at him hanging on that cross. Jesus did not call his disciples to a life of ease and comfort. To be quite honest, it very often hurts to be a minister. Don’t sign up unless you are at least willing to feel the pain.
Our world is up-side-down when it comes to viewing ministry. We look at the “wunderkinder,” the amazing twenty-or-thirty somethings who preach for multi-thousand member congregations as the pinnacle of preaching. Don’t go there. The majority of congregations of the Lord’s people have less than 150 members. Many have less than 100. Sure, some guys get the big gigs. Scratch their life very deep, though, and you might be pretty disgusted by what you uncover. As Jesus once said regarding a certain false piety – they have received their reward. It takes a certain kind of minister to properly lead a congregation of more than 1,000 members. Lord willing you will be there one day. But don’t try to bake a cake in 15 minutes. Take your time. Learn to love people. Learn to love the book. Learn to love God. If he wants you to be in front of a crowd, he will put you there. The cream always does rise to the top of the milk. Dead fish float to the top of the lake, too – so be careful about wanting to be on the top.
Yea, I know this letter has been kind of a downer. But, Jesus was careful to lay out the cost of discipleship before he accepted anyone’s enlistment papers. Take some time and think about you, your wife or girlfriend, your plans, your hopes, your dreams. Ask yourself if you are more interested in hearing the applause of the crowd, or hearing the quiet, “Well done” of your Father in heaven. I have much more to say about the joys, and humor, of preaching. I just wanted to “show my cards,” so to speak, before we get too deep. There will be plenty of time later for the confetti and cake.
An old friend.
I learned something today in my daily Bible reading that (1) opened up a new line of thought for me and (2) simply reaffirmed how important it is to read the Bible continually lest we think we know everything about everything. My apologies to those of you who have already seen/learned/known this; I’m not the sharpest bulb in the litter, so excuse my excitement for a few moments as I ponder this observation.
The text I came across in my assigned reading included these verses:
The LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” (Genesis 18:17-19 ESV)
Now, for a number of decades now I have interpreted the LORD’s decision to inform Abraham of His plans to be based on the future role of Abraham – the fact that he would surely become a great and mighty nation and so on. But today, for some inexplicable reason, my mind immediately recalled the words of Amos:
For the LORD God does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets. The lion has roared; who will not fear? The LORD God has spoken; who can but prophesy? (Amos 3:7-8 ESV)
How odd, I thought, for God to feel like he had to reveal his “secret” to Abraham, because the language sounded just like the LORD was including Abraham as one of his prophets.
Then, no sooner had I taken a sip of coffee and turned the page, I read this:
Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours. (Genesis 20:7 ESV, emphasis mine)
The conversation is between the LORD and Abimelech (who had been duped into believing Sarah was an available bachelorette by the aforementioned Abraham). Yes, the liar (okay, half-liar, but he did it twice, so that makes him a whole liar) is a prophet; and not only a prophet, but one who was chosen by God to become a great nation and through whom all spiritual blessings would descend. And here is the kicker – Abraham is to fulfill his role by “command[ing] his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice.” Not bad for a man who has a singular inability to admit his wife is indeed his wife, and who will have just as much trouble ruling his household without some dysfunctional moments.
Okay, so I learned more than one thing this morning. Abraham is arguably the first “prophet” of God. And, as trite as it may sound, even prophets of God stub their toes now and again when it comes to promoting “righteousness and justice.”
Sort of reminds me that we all, prophets or not, are made of clay; and regardless of our desire, some days our calling exceeds our obeying.
I begin my 2017 musings in a minor key, but addressing an issue that I believe is important if Americans in general, and Christians in particular, are going to make any kind of difference in the world today. If you narrow the audience down to members of the Churches of Christ, then I would say this topic rises to the level of urgent, if not critical.
I shall begin by posing a question (two actually): When, and how, did Americans become so soft? How is it that we have become a nation of victims?
I recently viewed a video clip of some twenty or thirty something year old who was discussing the issue of the problems facing millennials (the generation born in the 1990’s and into the 2000’s). He was making some really good points: this generation was raised by parents using a defective parenting philosophy. This was the generation that was told it was impossible to “lose” and that no one was “superior.” Everyone gets a trophy or a medal, no matter if you come in first or last. Parents were told to become their children’s best friends, and the child’s self-esteem is the be-all and end-all of parenting. Also, technology has had a significant impact on this generation – from smart phones to iPads to social media platforms, this generation is truly drowning in technological inventions. This has created an entire set of social problems – a millennial can have hundreds of “friends” and thousands of “likes,” and yet be utterly alone and bereft of any social skills whatsoever. Additionally, this is the age of instant gratification. From microwave ovens to instantaneous download speeds, this generation simply does not know how to wait. Patience? That is so yesterday – or worse.
Then, just when I thought the speaker was on to something, he launched into a blistering indictment of modern culture and how “we” were going to have to act if this generation was to be salvaged. “We” (and I’m not really sure who he was speaking to, although corporate America seemed to be the general focus of his tirade) are going to have to change everything so that this generation can cope. These poor little darlings are so fragile, so soft, that any challenge to their survival is going to have to be overcome by anyone and everyone who is not a millennial (because, obviously, the millennials did not create any of these problems, so how can they be expected to solve them?)
Assuming his earlier points were valid (and I thought he was pretty astute), let me ask a few follow-up questions:
- Which generation alive today was raised by perfect parents? I defy you – no generation has been perfect, and every generation has had to deal with dysfunctional family situations.
- Which generation has not been told they are brighter and smarter and more likely to succeed than their parents? In other words, which generation has been told they are the one exclusion of the evolutionary family tree? I posit that none have been.
- Which generation has not been significantly impacted by technology? My grandfather, for instance, was born before the Wright brothers made their first flight, yet he lived to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. Can any millennial claim to have witnessed that kind of technological leap? I dare say, NO.
- Which generation alive today was not handed a critical, life changing and potentially world altering political crisis? I would suggest there is only one – the one generation that claims to have had life the worst – the millennials. World War 1 and 2, Korea, Vietnam – these were real shooting wars, and the last three involved the use (or at least the potential use) of atomic weapons, so, please, do not tell me that the events of 9/11/01 or the election of Donald Trump qualifies as a real crisis.
I think I could go on, but I hope you get the point. The millennial generation is no worse off, and in a number of ways is so much safer and more prosperous, than any generation in recent memory. Yet, to hear the majority of Americans talk today, you would think we are the most impoverished, insulted, abused, and persecuted culture to have ever existed. How did we get so soft?
And, lest you think I am drawing a line of distinction around Christians, think again. Just let someone say, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” and you would think Adolf Hitler himself had been resurrected. Persecuted?? Because prayer has been taken out of public schools?? Because homosexuals have been granted the “right” to get married?? From what I hear from a lot of “Christians,” prayer has been removed from a lot of churches and “Christians” have long been trashing the sanctity of marriage as well, but I suppose that is a rabbit that will better be chased on another day.
My point is that we, as Americans – and that includes Christians equally, if not more – have raised victimology to a fine art. Everyone is offended by everything these days. Political correctness has not only destroyed higher education (exhibit “A” – the number of colleges and universities that had a collective emotional melt-down the day after the general election), but it has permeated and is in the process of destroying the church as well. Preachers should not be worried about Hollywood or Washington telling them what they can or cannot preach – they should be worried about the members in the pews who do not know the definition of the word “sin” or the significance of Jesus’s death on the cross. Jesus did not die because humankind was perfect – he died so that his disciples might be made perfect. And the only way his disciples can be made perfect is to die themselves – die to the world that is so blatantly seeking to destroy the church today.
I have no idea what the future holds for America. Politically and socially we are on a downward trajectory and I personally see no reversal in the near future. If we continue this head-long plunge into narcissism I fear for the future of the Republic. However, we as a nation have proven ourselves to be incredibly resilient against a number of enemies, so maybe we can overcome our own seeming desire for self-annihilation as well.
As regards the church, this I know for sure. We will not be able to save ourselves. Humankind never has, and never will be able, to overcome this depth of fatal self-absorption. We are going to have to return to being a people of the cross – that horrible symbol of God’s judgment on human hubris – if we are going to have any meaningful message to speak to the world.
In the vernacular of the day, we are going to have to put on our big boy pants and suck it up, buttercup. We are not the victims, we are the sinners. We, the church, collectively and individually as members of it, are all “miserable sinners” (in the words of the older Anglican confession. Sadly, even that has been modernized.). We are going to have to start preaching against sin and we are going to have to start practicing both positive and negative church discipline. If we (the church) had been faithful to our mission we (society as a whole) would not be in the mess we are in now. So, let’s be honest with ourselves, honest with God, and honest with the world.
Let us pray that in 2017 we can have the courage to stop being victims, and start being responsible disciples of Christ.
Okay, really short post today! I was reading in Clark Pinnock’s book, Most Moved Mover, when I came across this quote –
The element of risk may belong to the time of our earthly probation and our ability to choose may diminish; as choices become habits, habits become character, and character becomes our very being. In a sense, we are becoming our choices. (Clark H. Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness, Baker Academic, 2001, p. 171.)
I’m going to let this one simmer for a little while, but I will probably come back to this quote in future posts. In the meantime, I think it is enough to ask, “What are you becoming?”
And now, the moment you have all been waiting for – okay maybe not all of you, and maybe not THE moment you have been waiting for . . . but here it is anyway!
Thanks to my lovely wife and the talents and kind assistance of one of our members, here is a video of the latest attempt at a sermon by the ol’ Freightdawg.
Anyone needing (or just wanting) a new preacher – feel free to share.
Thanks, and as always, I appreciate your companionship in the fog . . .
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.’ (Luke 13:1-5, ESV)
Trigger alert – for those who believe that Christians must “join in solidarity” with every group that experiences some misfortune, this post will definitely be damaging to your mental health. Continue at your own risk.
Literally within hours of the horrific murders in Orlando, social media sites were lit up with accusations against Christians, Muslims, and anyone else for that matter, who disapproved of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning – I’ve heard both explanations) lifestyle. The fact that no on knew any of the pertinent facts of the case did not stop anyone. Well known and highly respected “Christian” authors jumped into the fray, calling for the “church” to join in solidarity with the LGBTQ community and excoriating anyone who dared to disagree.
Well, I disagree.
I just have one question – a question that has not been answered by any of those who call for this solidarity – “WHY?” Is it because of the manner of death? Is being shot by a crazed psychopath a more horrific death than dying as your plane falls from 30,000 feet into the ocean? Is it because of the alleged religious background of the killer? Does being killed by a Muslim terrorist make you more vulnerable than being killed by a Christian terrorist – or even an atheistic one?
No – the only reason I can decipher from reading the quotes and commentary is that Christians should join in solidarity with the victims because – they practice forms of sexual deviancy that are clearly and emphatically condemned in Scripture! Not as, “we are all sinners” (which we are, note the above Scripture), but we should be particularly sympathetic – and even empathetic – to this group specifically because of their lifestyle.
As more facts emerge from this tragedy I feel like my head is on a swivel. First the murderer was alleged to have sworn allegiance to ISIS – the terrorist group that is wreaking havoc all over our world. But, then a funny thing happened. It has also been reported that the killer had an account with a homosexual dating app – and frequented the very club in which he committed this atrocity. Apparently he was a common visitor in a part of town known for its gender-bending clientele. (So much of this is allegation, early and mistaken reporting, and who knows what else. I doubt we will know the whole truth for weeks, if not months). If any of this is true it certainly casts a deep shadow over the “Muslim terrorist” angle. I am no Muslim scholar, but I seriously doubt that Allah would approve of one of his followers hooking up on a homosexual dating app.
I understand the outrage. I feel it myself. I feel it after every mass shooting, bombing, or other form of mass murder. It was a horrific act – make no mistake and the victims did not “deserve” their deaths (contrary to the stated opinions of many other “Christian” commentators) any more than those little children and their teachers at Sandy Hook elementary school. As Christians I feel we have several responses that would reflect the love of Christ. Certainly we are to “bind up the wounds” and treat the survivors and the families of all the victims with love. I also believe that now is not the time to pull out the sermons on Sodom and Gomorrah or Romans 1. There is, as the Preacher once wrote, a time for weeping.
However, to suggest, even in the most innocent sounding or oblique manner, that the bride of Christ is somehow united or in “solidarity” with a community that flagrantly repudiates the beauty and wisdom of God’s creation is patently absurd bordering on obscene. Physicians heal, not by becoming one with the disease or the patient, but by standing over the patient and against the disease. Light does not become one with darkness, but light drives darkness away. The Son of God drew crowds of broken sinners to himself, not because he became one of their number, but because he showed them how to be reconciled to his Father.
Events such as these should cause us all to stop and reflect – to what extent are we guilty of prejudice, hatred, and, yes, even sexual sins that are just as clearly condemned in the Word of God as homosexuality. One of the most profound aspects of the faith and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was that he openly confessed the sins of the German church in regard to the crimes of the Nazi party. But while he was willing to sacrifice his life to protect the defenseless, he never proclaimed himself to be anything other than a Christian. He could, and did, protect the other, the outsider, without claiming to be the other. And it was only because he maintained that separation that he could be an authentic witness to Christ.
That kind of behavior requires an enormous amount of courage – and a clear, focused theology. Our response to events like Orlando should come from Christ, through Christ, in order to bring people to Christ. Let us work to unite the world to Christ, not the church to the world.
I shared last post about silence. Today I move from silence to prayer. Silence is the ground from which prayer is grown.
In my last post I attempted to stress the critical importance of silence. God created, God spoke, out of the primordial silence. Jesus was led into 40 days of wilderness before his speaking ministry would begin. “Be still (silent)” the psalmist directs, “and know that I am God.” If there is no silence, then speech becomes meaningless. It is silence that gives meaning to our words.
Silence, however, is not our highest passion. We are not called to vows of silence. We use the silence we are given (and that which we create) in order to move into prayer. Prayer is the proper goal of silence.
I know I am in the minority when I say this (perhaps the ONLY one who would say this), but I believe Christians have destroyed the gift of prayer. Christians have trivialized it, manipulated it, commercialized it, secularized it – and emasculated it. Far from being a path into the awesome throne room of the Almighty God, we have turned prayer into a perfunctory prelude before a meal, or worse yet, the opening rite before a disturbingly violent and utterly un-godlike sporting event. We use prayer to begin a legislative session in which women are given the right to murder their children, and where laws are passed to protect and even promote the deviant lifestyle of those who pervert God’s design for human sexuality. To salve our wounded conscience we declare one day out of 365 to be a “National Day of Prayer.”
National prayer for what? Have we never read Jeremiah 7:16ff and 11:14ff? Brothers and sisters, those are terrifying passages of Scripture! How can we be so hypocritical?
What then, is prayer?
Prayer is the path I take to align my bent and broken will to that of my Father in heaven. Prayer is the process by which I submit my heart and my body to the service of my Lord. Prayer is the method of communication that God has given me so that I can be at one time utterly human, and at the same time share in his transcendence. Prayer allows us to touch the infinite. Properly understood and practiced, prayer is the most powerful gift of expression that humans are allowed to use. Is it any wonder that when Jesus’ disciples heard him pray that they begged him to teach them how to pray? How many of us get down on our knees and ask God, “Teach us to pray!”?
This partially explains why we cannot pray today. Our world is so full of our words, of our noise, of the expression of our self importance, and even our own self righteousness that we cannot grasp the single most important component of prayer – the humiliating (making humble) and purifying presence of the gift of silence. We must listen before we can pray. It is then through the penetrating silence of God’s presence that we can begin to lift our own voice.
God wants us to pray. Jesus taught his disciples (and through their words, he has taught us) how to pray. The apostles commanded unceasing and fervent prayer. It is one of the great tragedies of the church that we have taken such a gift, yes, even such a command, and have turned it into something so base, so trivial.
Are we, as Christians, really serious about prayer? Maybe we need to begin by asking God to teach us, really teach us, how to pray.
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come, your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
(Matthew 6:9-13, ESV)
Our culture has lost a great treasure. It did not happen quickly – in fact it has taken a couple of generations to completely disappear. Sadly, although the church should have been the caretaker of this precious commodity, we are complicit in its disappearance. What is it that has become for the majority of Americans a distant memory? Silence – the gift of utter and complete emptiness. The ability to be filled with the glorious sense of quiet.
Our world is dominated with noise – but not just any kind of noise. Our world is filled with the noise of words. From the time our alarm clock goes off in the morning until we finally collapse exhausted in our beds at night we are drowning in a toxic quagmire of words. Many of these words are verbalized, either in the form of speech or songs. Perhaps even a greater number of these words are printed – showing up on billboards, on posters, in newspapers and magazines, and always present on our computers, tablets and phones. We exist in a stagnant, putrefying, poisonous ocean of words.
The irony is that as you read this, you are reading . . . words! Christians gather on Sunday mornings to sing songs of praise to our God. We collectively lift up prayers to God. We expect, even crave, to hear words of encouragement from the eternal Word of God. I want to suggest, however, that none of these words will have any significance at all if we do not enter into our worship (either solitary or collective) out of the purifying quality of silence.
Before there was anything, before there was even time, there was God, and – silence. God spoke his first creative word out of the creative silence. In John’s mystifying vision of the future, amidst all the praise and worship that constantly surrounds the throne of God, there is the sound of awe inspiring silence. In order to hear God’s voice, there must first be silence!
Most westerners (Europe, England, the Americas) are terrified of silence. We do not understand those “mystical” people from the East who can sit for hours – alone or in a group – and do or say nothing. We even shy away from enclaves of silence within our own noisy culture, the Amish and the Mennonites and the Quakers, and those weird monastics. We may admire them from a distance, but we hope that we never catch their disease of quietness. Sad thing, really. Why are we so afraid to be silent, unless we are afraid to hear . . . God?
One question I hear almost constantly today is, “How could the United States fall so far from its founding principles is such a short period of time?” I’m sure that many answers could be given. I think, however, all the answers have a common root. I believe we have lost that fundamental ability – and necessity – to “Be still (silent) and know that I am God.” (Ps. 46:10)
Here is a crazy idea: inoculate yourself with 30 minutes of silence every day, and see how much more clearly you can hear the voice of your God.
In response to my last post I received another good question – “So, where do the Churches of Christ go from here?” It seems to this feeble mind that I had already penned an answer somewhat close to answering that question, but I cannot find it – so I guess I did not. Anyway, since I clearly pointed out two reasons for what I would refer to as a “descent” into “cheap grace,” I will begin where I left off.
The first answer is so laughably easy to type, and so insanely hard to implement. You might even say, “pie in the sky by and by when we die.” But, to be utterly simplistic, Churches of Christ are going to have to change their culture. We are going to have to give up the victories we have won and the gains we have made in cultural accommodation. The first few centuries of Christianity clearly illustrate that the church was at best only tolerated, and frequently quite viciously hated, by the dominant culture in which it was placed. It is one of the great ironies of our movement that we look back to the first century as our polar star and at the same time try to move heaven and earth to try to be accepted by our 21st century hedonistic, secular culture. When a congregation can say, “you don’t have to change to be a member of this church” then you know that “the glory of the Lord has departed from Israel.”
Second, the Churches of Christ are going to have to rediscover the Bible. Yes, I said it. We are going to have to stop leaning on our professed affection for Scripture, and we are going to have to start using Scripture the way in which it was intended. The Bible was never meant to become an idol. The Israelites were guilty of thinking they were safe if they could utter the mantra, “The temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD” (Jer. 7:4). Contemporary Churches of Christ have modified that statement to be, “the Bible, the Bible, the Bible.” The word of God is a sign and a path, NOT a destination. One of the things you learn when you step outside of your own tradition is how other traditions have used what you thought was your own possession, and sometimes with much more accuracy and perfection than you have. Many churches claim to follow the Bible only. We have been claiming to do so for right at 200 years now. I have to ask in all honesty and conviction – where is the proof? Do members of the Churches of Christ love each other, and their neighbors, more than any other group? Are members of the Churches of Christ willing to go to prison for their convictions? Are members of the Churches of Christ the most charitable among all the other Christian churches? Are members of the Churches of Christ more willing to share the story of Jesus with those who have never heard it? Are members of the Churches of Christ the most hospitable of all religious groups? I think I could go on. The point is we love to love the Bible, but I am just not too sure we love the core message of the Bible. And I have been and am a continuing part of that digression.
I have often been a critic of our concept of “Bible study.” This is somewhat of a caricature, but not too far off. It goes like this – a teacher is recruited about two weeks before a quarter begins. A workbook is quickly ordered from a “sound” Christian publishing company. It arrives, but remains untouched until the first Sunday of the series. Twenty minutes before class the book is grabbed off the bookshelf as the family goes screaming out to get in the car. Five minutes before class the book is finally opened as the teacher stands behind the lectern, greeting his class members to an hour of “Bible study.” He begins by reading the book in a monotone voice, never once realizing that no one is really paying attention to him. It doesn’t matter whether the class is the adults in the auditorium, the high school class or the 2nd grade class. The process is mind-numbingly common in all too many congregations.
I pray your situation is different. I pray you have a teacher that is on fire every time his or her class meets, and they end the class session drenched in sweat and even more excited about next week. I pray you have a teacher that teaches from a bucket that is overflowing with equal parts passion and information. I pray you have a teacher that both assigns homework and insists on the completion of that homework. I pray you have a teacher that demonstrates and expects world work as well – the faithful practice of the lessons learned from the text of the week. I pray you have a teacher that sees Scripture as a journey into the Kingdom of God, where justice and mercy meet.
I have no illusions that the scenario I have described above will happen any time soon, at least not on a national scale. If it happens it must begin on a person by person, congregation by congregation basis. It is going to take strong elders who lead their congregations away from the siren song of American nationalism back to the vision of dwelling in the Kingdom of God. Those elders are going to have to have the backbone necessary to resist – and even confront – those who claim that the Stars and Stripes are equal to the stripes and the cross. The church is going to have to be led by those who see the church as a path to the future and not just a relic of some mythical ‘golden age’ here on earth. In the most simple terms, the church is going to have to become solidly counter-cultural, unapologetically apostolic, and deeply apocalyptic in order for all of this to happen.
It has happened before. It can happen again. But there is only one way in which it can, and will, happen: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6)
[In case anyone is interested, here is a handful of resources that have been helpful to me in this study: The Worldly Church: A Call for Biblical Renewal 2nd ed., C. Leonard Allen, Richard T. Hughes and Michael R. Weed (ACU Press, 1991); The Cruciform Church: Becoming a Cross Shaped People in a Secular World rev. and expanded ed., C. Leonard Allen (ACU Press, 2006); Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of the Churches of Christ in America and Reclaiming a Heritage: Reflections on the Heart, Soul, and Future of Churches of Christ both by Richard T. Hughes, (ACU Press, 2008 and 2002 respectively); Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, (IVP, 2003); Dissident Discipleship: A Spirituality of Self-Surrender, Love of God, and Love of Neighbor, David Augsburger (Brazos Press, 2006); Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World, 2nd ed., Lee C. Camp (Brazos Press, 2008); Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…And Why it Matters and You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church … and Rethinking Faith both by David Kinnaman (Baker Books, 2007 and 2011 respectively); Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4, (Augsburg Press, 2001). And, the coup de grace, the stunningly brilliant examination recently done by someone we all know and love, We Can Bear It No Longer: Toward a Confessional Theology Within the Churches of Christ (unpublished dissertation, Fuller Theological Seminary, 2015). Caveat emptor: with perhaps the last source as the only exception, I do not agree with every conclusion of each of these authors. Actually, I don’t always agree with the last author either. Read carefully and judiciously – and always compare what a human writes with the one Word of God.]
Worship is not about us. Worship is about the One who created us, suffered for us, and redeemed us. Worship is not about style or place or who stands behind the podium. Worship is certainly not about the podium. Worship is about submitting ourselves to the one who is worthy of our worship. When we measure worship by human standards, we remove God from the center and place ourselves on His throne. Worship can never be about us.
Prayer is not about us. Prayer is not trying to get God to align with our wants, wishes, and goals. Prayer is about aligning our hearts and bodies with God’s designs and goals. Prayer is about transforming our mind into the mind of Christ. Prayer is the path to sanctification. Prayer is not about us.
Evangelism is not about us. Evangelism is about the God who calls all of us to be reconciled to him. When we decide that we have to have a “method” or a “style” of evangelism, we make evangelism to be about us. When we are more focused on the “unchurched” or the “unsaved” rather than the God who calls all people into community and salvation, we have made evangelism about us. When we can list exactly how many people have been baptized but we cannot name a single person who has been discipled we have made evangelism about us. We can never make evangelism about us.
Bible study is not about us. We do not study the Bible to confirm our prejudices or certify our phobias. Bible study is about learning the mind of God – through the mind of Christ. We do not worship the Bible, but we use the truths found in the Bible to lead us to worship the God revealed in those truths. We must never make Bible study about us.
When we make anything about us, everything disintegrates, because we are broken, fallible, human beings. All division, all sectarianism, all animosity of any sort has its roots in the fact that some person or group made some aspect of the church all about them. From the most arcane and virtually incoherent arguments about the nature of the trinity down to the whether women can preach or pass the communion trays, sectarianism boils down to one ugly little proposition: we are like God, knowing right from wrong, and we don’t have to pay attention to what God said, because we are at the very least as smart as God, and therefore we can direct our own paths. When everything is about us there is no room left for the Creator, and certainly not for the Crucified One.
What we see in far too many congregations today is tragically the result of making the church about us. We have put ourselves front and center, and worshipped our reflection in the mirror. As the culture around us becomes even more narcissistic, I fear the situation in the church will only get worse.
There is a solution – there is a remedy for this malaise. But we have to get one thing straight first.
It really is not about us, at all.