Thursday, February 18, 2016

As I was studying yesterday, I read a few of John Knox's famous quotes.  I was just captivated by this one.

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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Live Your Pupose Now

You were made for a purpose!  Have you found yours?  Are you living yours?  It is so easy to over-complicate our quest to find and live our God-given mission.  Fortunately, God has given us 5 simple practices to help us live our purpose every day.  In this teaching series, presented on Sundays in February at New Vision Church, you will discover a simple plan to live your purpose every day.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Discover Your Mission Now - a Book Review

Yes, I did just read another book by Dave and John Ferguson, of Exponential and Community Christian Church.  (I am beginning to feel like a groupie).

The subtitle of the book is simple:  5 simple practices to change your world.  From what I have heard, the Fergusons worked to discover a simple, yet effective way, to move their church towards a missional orientation.  (In other words, they wanted the people in the church to do more than show up to church activities, serve at church activities, and give their money for church activities).  They landed on asking their small groups to be missional and to do missional work as part of their group life together.  I am wondering if this was the message series that launched it all?

In this short book (also available for free by download from this link) we read of five ways to engage the people around us in order to share God's love, including his gift of salvation.  Using the acronym of BLESS, the reader is encouraged to Begin with prayer, to Listen, to Eat with, to Serve and finally to share our Story with the people who live and work around us.

I like this approach for several reasons.  First of all, it is relational.  It not about a program and doesn't allow us to stay at a safe distance from people.  Like the work of Jesus, it is face-to-face.  Second, it is AND-oriented in that it promotes compassion AND proclamation.  Third, it starts in prayer and completely depends on God.

I am seriously considering incorporating this in an upcoming teaching series at New Vision Church.  However, I am first going to lead a small group through this material in order to see what works and what is a struggle, as well as to gather a few local stories that can be shared with our congregation.

If you are looking for a way to engage your church people (or just yourself) in the mission of God, check out this helpful resource.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Heart and The Fist - a Review of Eric Greitens' story

I met Eric Greitens at a meet-and-greet a month ago as he was touring the state in the initial phase of his run for governor.  Similar to the Presidential race, the Republican field for the Missouri governor's race is growing.  The first thing that impressed me about Greitens was his willingness to listen.  He sat with eight of us around a table, learned our names, and then heard our stories and our concerns about the pressing issues in Missouri.  He asked clarifying questions and only rarely responded with his own ideas.  I felt as if he genuinely cared. 

Then a friend loaned me his book, The Heart and The Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, The Making of a Navy Seal.  The books tells Eric's story, and what a story it is.  He tells of his initial disappointment with higher education as he studied public policy at Duke University, but he later tells of how he appreciated his professors' passion for learning.  Many of the chapters tells of his humanitarian trips during summer breaks.  Within those chapters, his grand theme emerges:  in areas of extreme hardship, like Bosnia, Bolivia and Rwanda, he witnessed incredible human strength; the best humanitarian efforts made the most of those strengths.  However, he recognized the need for others, including outsiders, to work to defend the weak, including using force when necessary.  After college, Greitens received a Rhodes scholarship and studied at Oxford, earning a Ph.D. by studying what really works in humanitarian aid.  This reveals an inquisitive bent in Mr. Greitens.  He wants to know what works and what doesn't, and he is willing to look, to listen and think deeply.  We need leaders who will do these things.  We need leaders who will lead from a place of deep reflection!

The second half of the book follows his next adventure.  In an interesting twist, Greitens describes his gnawing desire to take action.  After years of observing and studying, he wanted to execute, to get personally involved.  So he joined the Navy with the promise of one shot to qualify as a Navy SEAL.  He gives several chapters to describing the intense training and physical and mental testing of SEAL qualification.  The book concludes with a few chapters in which he describes his various deployment experiences, plus a chapter about his post-Navy life as he started his foundation, The Mission Continues.  Eric continues to do great work in helping combat veterans return to daily life, and to find meaningful service.

A secondary theme that runs throughout the book is that of living a meaningful and fulfilling life.  As Greitens recounts his own young adult years, his observations of others around the world, and his current work with returning veterans, he constantly reminds the reader of the elements of a meaningful and fulfilling life: service to others. I really appreciate this strong theme.  It is so greatly needed, especially in our consumer-oriented culture.

One drawback to the book is the noticable secularity.  Greitens does mention religion, especially as it related to his parents, but I am thinking bigger than religious affiliation or activity.  The theologian in me constantly looks for a God-orientation in one's worldview.  The absence of a God-ward orientation is simply a secular, and therefore humanist, worldview.  I fully believe in the values of both compassion and strength, the need for strong hearts and strong fists.  The basic motivation, however, must be the heart of God. We need to look for and capitalize on human strength wherever it can be found.  I believe that in order for it to sufficient and lasting, though, we must acknowledge God as the source of that strength.  While I do not expect to find a reference to God on every page, I was disappointed to find few references to God or even to the place of faith in public discourse and policy.  This may be an unfortunate result of our increasingly secular higher education system.

In the end, the book serves as a great introduction to a man who will undoubtedly lead our country in this generation.  I believe that Eric Greitens is the kind of leader that we need, including and especially in the Republican Party.  We need leaders with knowledge and experience in humanitarian work, which is usually believed to be the rightful domain of liberals, who can form policy around conservative principles that actually work.  If you want to think about the intersection of compassion and armed force, take a look at this book.  If you want to discover the philosophy of a young, up-and-coming leader, then check out this book.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Do I, a Preacher, Have the Right to Tell You How to Live?

"No one has the right to tell me how to live my life."  I can't count the number of times I have read this in various social media posts recently.  Whether discussing the legality of gay marriage or any other social issue, this is the common response to anyone who dares to label a specific behavior as "sinful."  The logic goes something like this:  Only God can judge me.  You are not God.  Therefore, you have no right to tell me how to live my life."

Can we talk about this?  I promise I will be gentle.

Last February, President Obama spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast.  Within hours, a two minute video clip went viral.  The headlines proclaimed that that the President insulted Christians by comparing the Crusades to terrorism.  But if we read the entire speech (which I am guessing my share-happy friends did not), we find so much more.  President Obama didn't say, "You Christians," but rather, "We..."  Most us of also missed the next part: ". . . this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith."  He is right on, isn't he?  For a minute there, he sounded a lot like a preacher.

I would argue that the President was calling us to humility and, where needed, to repentance.  By the way, isn't humility the appropriate starting point for prayer?  Jesus thought so. (See Luke 18:9-14)

Now I must admit at this point that I am no fan of the President's administration, policies and tactics.  I didn't vote for him either time.  In fact, I disagree with much of the rest of that same speech!  But I can't ignore the call to humility, to examine how I am tempted to distort my faith to justify sinful actions.

So how did many Christians respond?  Two ways.  They attacked the message and the messenger.  Pundits interviewed experts, who nit-picked the reference to the Crusades by measuring which side killed more people.  (It was interesting that the President's references to slavery and Jim Crow laws were ignored.)  Second, they discredited the messenger.  Who does he think he is to try and tell me how to live my life?

These tactics are not new.  No one likes to be confronted and told to straighten up.  I don't like to admit that I am wrong.  And so, to relieve any guilt, you and I resort to two tactics.  First, attack the message.  If I can find logical holes in your argument, then maybe I can convince myself to ignore the main point.  Second, attack the messenger.  You are not God; you are a sinner, just like me.  If I can drag you down to my level, then I can ignore your message.  Now I can confidently say, "You can't tell me how to live my life."

Prophets and Prophecy

One of the first things I learned in Seminary was that prophets were not merely future-tellers.  While God sometimes gave a "prophetic word" to address a specific person or situation, the prophets usually spoke to bigger issues.  The prophets pointed out where people were getting off track, and they vividly described the "dead end" of off-track living.  Their motivation was holy.  They wanted people to experience the good ending waiting for those who live "on-track."  But in order to promote God's way, they had to clearly and specifically identify "off track" living.  In other words, they declared that specific actions were sinful.

The prophets recognized that they were merely messengers.  They weren't sharing their own opinions.  Since their messages came from God, then to reject the messages was to reject God.  The prophets weren't trying to tell people how to live their lives.  They were trying to tell people how God wanted them to live their lives.  But no one likes to be confronted and told to straighten up.  As we discover in the Bible and in history, prophets were often rejected and even killed.  Attack the message.  Attack the messenger.  Relieve the guilt.  After all, who does he think he is telling me how to live my life?

The prophets were also not restricted to addressing only the sins of "insiders" (Israelites, Christians and other religious folks who were expected to follow God.)  The prophets regularly condemned other nations.  Jesus called everyone to obedience.

God's way is to speak to humans through his prophets.  Even when God came to earth himself, the ministry of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was recognized as that of a prophet.  Before he ascended to heaven we read in several places that Jesus gave authority to his followers to continue the prophetic work of spreading God's messages through human messengers.  While this focused on the message of good news, it included the related message of bad news.  Grace, and the sin that grace redeems.  History tells us that eleven of his original twelve apostles were rejected and most were killed.  Attack the message.  Attack the messenger.  Relieve the guilt.

With this understanding of prophecy that spans both Testaments, preachers have continued the work as messengers bearing a message from God.  Like the prophets before us, most of us don't feel worthy.  (And the ones who do feel worthy don't last very long).  We bring good news, but we also bring bad news.  We preach love, grace and forgiveness.  But those ideals make no sense without the related message of sin.  No, I don't have the right to tell you how to live your life.  But God does.  And I am the messenger.  (To be honest, I don't like it any more than you do.)

We Really Do Appreciate It

I think that somewhere deep inside, you are glad that I, the messenger, might dare tell you how to live your life.

You are probably glad that John Newton, a British minister, spoke against slavery for decades, even preaching aloud on December 19, 1797, that, "I fear the African trade is a national sin, for the enormities which accompany it are now generally known..."  Yes, he called it sin.

You are probably glad that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed that, "We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools."  That was no mere suggestion.  Must is a word we use when we are telling people how to live.

These preachers, believing that they were messengers inspired by God, boldly told people how to live.  Their influence shaped even our own lives today.  They believed they had a right to tell people how to live, and we are glad they did.

Do you really want to muffle the voices of preachers?  Do you really want to restrict preachers to saying only nice things about God and humanity?  If I am not allowed to tell you how God wants you to live, then our faith, both yours and mine, will cease to connect with anything in life.  If I am not allowed to tell you how to live, I am like the doctor who is no longer allowed to give prescriptions for future health, but is restricted only to comforting you in your pain.

So yes, I do have the right to tell you how to live your life.

With some fear and hopefully a lot of humility, I will preach and teach.  I will preach good news and God's grace.  As appropriate, I will define, describe and decry behaviors and attitudes that are simply out of line with God's best.  I will call them what they are: sin.  In smaller settings, such as a small group or a private conversation, I will do the same.  I will seek to apply God's truth, constantly answering the question of how to live God's truth in our everyday lives.  Wherever the message intersects your life, it will feel as if I am telling you how to live your life.

I Promise This

Having said that, here my promises to you:
  • I will view you as a person who is created in the image of God and is loved and valued by God.
  • I will listen to your story and will mourn with you as you share the painful parts.
  • I will not verbally attack you in public.  While I will identify specific sins, and, from time to time, identify specific groups, of which you may be a member, that exemplify such sins, I will not personally attack you.
  • If necessary, I will address your behavior in person, in private.  If the situation needs additional attention, I will follow the instructions of Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17.
  • I will remember that I am a human who is prone to the temptation of pride, power and a host of other sins.
  • I will at some point mess up, and I invite you to confront me whenever I am wrong, as long as you will do it privately and in person.
  • I will do my best to speak the truth in love.
A few years ago I cracked a joke in the middle of a sermon.  I felt like maybe the joke was not appropriate, but I ignored that prompting, opting instead to gain a few laughs.  But the joke was racist.  I intended no malice, but I was still unwise and just plain wrong.  It didn't feel good when a couple of young adults confronted me.  But they did it privately and yet boldly.  I am glad they confronted me.  They were right to tell me how to live my life.  I needed it.  My guess is that you need it regularly as well.

Spark: Igniting a Culture of Multiplication (My Review)

After attending the Exponential Conference in Florida a couple of months ago, I read the short book given to every conference participant.  Continuing the theme of the conference, this short book discusses the need to work towards multiplication in our local churches.

The primary tension that defines the problem and illustrates the proposed solution, centers around the imagery of "addition" versus "multiplication."  The author contends that the church growth culture of recent decades focuses on "addition."  We fulfill our mission by reaching more people.  Every one person matters to Jesus, right?  If we reach one person at a time, we eventually reach the entire world, right?  Maybe not.  The author rightly reminds us that the problems that accompany this "addition" mindset include the necessity to constantly add seats, staff, programs and structure to effectively minister to all of the added people.  In the end, too much time and money is spent accommodating our growth by addition.

The alternative?  The author suggests that we multiply.  As in, send out members and leaders to start new churches.

This is much more difficult than it seems.  (I have tried it....We are trying it...It is really hard!)  But I think he is right.

I really appreciate three elements of the conversation in this short book.  First of all, the author takes an "and" approach.  He rightly acknowledges that multiplication cannot happen without addition.  Second, I appreciate that he acknowledges just how difficult this is.  He shares case studies of both successes and failures.  Third, he outlines 17 tensions, or decision-points, but from the perspective of one pastor who successfully lead a church through this process.  This is not just a book of theory!

My only negative critique?  It was helpful to have the tensions outlined.  It would have been more helpful to also read some general guidelines for where to land in a few areas. For instance, Tension #5 - "Filling our Church Vs. Starting a New Church" looks at how large a church should be before planting.  It would be extremely helpful to have at least a few suggestions with some numbers, or at least a suggestion of how to make this decision. 

In the end, it is another good book, that is worth being read by any church that wants to make a huge commitment to make a huge impact for Jesus. By the way, it is also available in ebook format from Exponential.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Rethinking The Church - my review of James Emery White's book

After recently reading James Emery White's The Rise of the Nones, I was excited to read this earlier work of his.  As the title suggests, White encourages church leaders to re-think everything.  As the church growth movement enters another generation, we must again rethink not only our methodologies, but our strategies as well.  He also makes a clarion call not to rethink, but to appropriately remember our foundation of mission and vision in light of the Bible and theology.

I really connected with the chapter on rethinking evangelism.  White first suggests that we need to re-think our audience.  If we are trying to reach those who are not trusting in Christ for salvation, we must understand their level of knowledge and familiarity with Christ and the claims of the gospel.  For the purposes of illustration, White suggests an evangelistic readiness scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being a follower of Christ.  He contends that in 1960, the average American was an 8.  They believed in Jesus, including that he was the son of God and lived a perfect life.  Many even believed that Jesus died on the cross for them. It was a short trip to trusting in Christ.  They merely needed to make their belief personal.  Several decades later, he contends that the average American now sits at a 3.  They likely know something about Jesus, but not much more than that he was a good teacher. They also have little to no trust in the church and religion.  It is a looooong, journey to a 10. In response, he emphasizes that evangelism must now be seen as a process, rather than a one-time event.  This is gold, especially for us long-time church folks!

The second best insight centers on White's assessment of the evangelistic environment of churches.  Using the "seeker" language of the late 90's, he describes a continuum with "seeker hostile" on one end, moving then to "seeker indifferent," then to "seeker hopeful," then to "seeker sensitive" and finally to "seeker targeted."  This is helpful and important for churches to take a good and honest look at their evangelistic ministry. After years of evangelistic emphasis, it is easy to remain even seeker indifferent.

From here, the book diminishes in quality in the remaining chapters as he addresses discipleship, worship, community and structure.  I just felt like it was very basic, and that I have heard this before, many times over!  I might be feeling this way for several reasons.  First, this book was originally published in 1997, then revised in 2003.  This means that the revised edition is 12 years old.  I have heard all of this for 12 years now, so it is nothing new, but it probably was when it was published.  Second, White acknowledges his indebtedness to Rick Warren and Bill Hybels.  In fact, his chapters pretty much follow the five purposes as outlined by Warren. I am so familiar with their philosophies of ministry that this is very old stuff to me.

In other words, this book might contain new ideas for some people, including many church leaders, but just not for me.  I cannot discount its value, for the first chapter was worth the entire book.

In the conclusion, White shares one more new insight.  He notes that as a pastor leads a church to change, the most difficult change will be from a "seeker sensitive" to a "seeker targeted" atmosphere, because at that point the average church member is forced to change and to stop seeing himself as the "customer."  While many might accuse White of supporting a consumer-oriented mindset of church, at this point he shows that he understands the missional nature of church and leaders.  But he also shows that he is a realist who understands that the move from consumer to giver/server is a long and slow one for the average church member.

If you are a church leader, especially a lay leader, trying to understand the changes happening in the church world, check out this book!