Study IS Ministry

I wrote a much longer version of this topic over the weekend, and just decided the post was too long and complicated. So, here is the abridged version. Still might be too long . . . but, oh well.

As a result of a questionnaire I completed recently I had somewhat of an epiphany – a light bulb over my head kind of moment. Although I was aware of the truth of this thought for some time, I don’t think I had ever really put it into words, or as few words, as I was able to do. To cut to the chase, here is my epiphany:

Study is ministry.

I have found that many congregations have a dualistic view of the role of a minister. Either he is a vitally involved, active minister, tending to every aspect of congregational life, or he barricades himself in his office, only poking his head out of his shell long enough to teach a class or preach a sermon. Either a minister or a bookworm. Either a do-er or a be-er. Either an extrovert or an introvert.

Such a dualistic view is not only wrong – it is actually dangerous – dangerous for the church that thinks it, and dangerous for the minister who is forced into accepting one extreme or the other. Congregations must learn that study (serious, quiet, involved, and undisturbed study) is critical to any healthy ministry. In fact, study is in itself, a minister’s ministry.

I offer three arguments, although others could be suggested as well:

  1.  Quality classes and sermons do not just happen. A man with 25-30 years of study and experience may be able to open his Bible and preach a full sermon extemporaneously. I would suggest that most who try, however, end up offering a collection of opinions, worn out cliches, and more than a few sentimental remembrances. Just as you can go to any McDonalds or Burger King and eat a meal in 10 or 15 minutes, you can pull an outline from a file or glance at a book and whip up something to occupy 35-40 minutes of dead time. But a quality, challenging, and most important, biblically sound class or sermon takes time – lots of time. The time a minister spends in study is critical, solid ministry. It is ministry in the word.
  2. Bad theology will eventually destroy a congregation. How do strong, seemingly invincible congregations come to wither away and die? Many reasons can be given, but high on the list has to be anemic preaching. Anemic preaching is the result of anemic study. Either a preacher thinks it is beneath his dignity to have to study for a sermon, or the congregation he serves thinks it is more important for him to be seen at every civic and social event of the community. There are only so many hours of useful work in a day. Every hour spent glad-handing and being “visible” to the community is an hour that cannot be recovered in the study. I am not arguing that having a visible presence in the community is not important – it clearly is! What I am arguing, however, is that there has to be a priority assigned to either being a minister of the Word or a public relations specialist. Being popular in the community does not translate into being faithful to God’s word. Know this for sure – when a crisis hits, a family will much prefer a minister who has solid, concrete words of comfort as opposed to a “busy” but otherwise empty-headed populist.
  3. Theology really does matter. Why gather together to listen to a speech that really has no meaning? Why spend the time in assembly if that assembly has no purpose? The very reason that a minister is hired should point to the priority of his time and effort. And, yet, strangely it does not! We do not gather on Sunday mornings to hear a report on the monthly Kiwanis club meeting, or to learn what is happening with the Rotary club. We do not assemble to listen to a re-play of the last football game, or to hear a critique of the community dinner theatre.  We gather to worship, and a major component of that worship is to be taught, to be strengthened, to be edified, and occasionally to be disciplined by the reading and explication of Scripture. The time that a minister devotes to his study is healthy ministry for the congregation. It is his ministry to the congregation. And, most important, it is his ministry to his God who has blessed him and equipped him for the role he must fulfill.

Please do not read this post to be a defense of a minister who never visits, who cannot be bothered to call on the members of the congregation as needed, who feels it is beneath is exalted station to get out and pull weeds or mow the lawn of a needy member. I am not excusing laziness or an irrational withdrawal from the community or the activities of the congregation. The office-turtle is no more sound and healthy than is the community gad-about. The point of this post is simple: the study that is demanded of a minister IS his ministry, and if he fails in that over-arching ministry it simply does not matter how personable or popular he becomes.

Success is not demanded of any member of the church, but faithfulness most certainly is. And if that is true of each member, it is exponentially more important for the minister.

Blessed is the minister whose congregation honors and protects his study!

Evangelism – to What?

I have been struggling for some time to find a way to express some impressions I have regarding the status of the church of Christ and its role in American society today. What I see happening in the United States today in terms of the disintegration of morals has been equaled only by the period of 1860-1900 and the years 1914-1945. What differentiates those epochs from today is the crushing circumstance of three wars (the “Civil” war, and World Wars I and II). The rapid and, I would argue, unparalleled evaporation of Christian ethics today is unique in that we are not being faced with a military enemy (foreign or domestic); we are being destroyed by our innate human capacity for self-destruction. As Pogo so famously observed, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Enough of the political and economic lecture – what of the church? Is the church not focused on the kingdom of God, of setting things right, on the most basic Christian duty of evangelism? I think in some convoluted kind of way the answer is yes, and therein lies the problem. I simply do not have any confidence that the church knows what it is evangelizing for.

Over the past few months I have been been trying to come to grips with the concept of evangelism. I am not by nature an evangelist. I am hoping that by nurture I could possibly be made one. But I have been utterly unable to discover a source that addresses the twenty-first century situation on the one hand and the message of the New Testament on the other. In other words, what I find is either a complete sell-out to contemporary culture on the one hand, or a hackneyed, right-wing, reactionary, escapist Pharisaism on the other. As I see the New Testament, neither is healthy, sound, or Biblical – however you want to describe it. If followed to their logical conclusions, both will kill the church.

If I can summarize my understanding of evangelism it would be this: the word itself means “sharing the good news.” If you see the gospel as “good news,” that means by definition that the gospel is confronting, or overcoming, “bad news.” The bad news is that, even though God created the world good, through man’s rebellion it (and mankind) has become evil. Thus the gospel is the good news that overcomes the evil. The key word that both the left (cultural accommodationists) and the right (reactionaries) want to avoid is the word sin. The cultural accommodationists want to deny the word outright, and the reactionaries see it everywhere but in themselves.

To understand evangelism aright, we must all, every single one of us, admit to ourselves and confess to others that we are utterly incapable of good in-and-of ourselves. “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” (Romans 3:10-11) “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:22-23). This is the admission that neither the far left nor the far right can make. The left dismisses it as absurd, the right cannot take it upon themselves. Therefore neither the church of cultural accommodation nor the church of the self-righteous can properly evangelize. 

It is at this point that I turn, once again, to the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I know, I know. Some of you probably have to grit your teeth when I mention Bonhoeffer. I cannot help it though – I am drawn like a magnet to the clarity of his vision and the honesty of his writings. Born in 1906 he was old enough to be aware of the events of WWI (one of his older brothers was killed in action) and he died just weeks before WWII ended. Therefore, few men have had a more “up front and center” position from which to observe, and critique, the world and the church’s reaction to it.

One aspect of Bonhoeffer’s response was that he relentlessly attempted to get the church to confront the sin of both the eroding German culture, and the complete refusal of the church to oppose the Nazis. Modern readers love to quote Bonhoeffer as he stood up to Hitler (yea, Dietrich!). But how many sermons have you heard, or how many memes have you seen on Facebook, that repeat Bonhoeffer’s blistering attacks on a naive, complacent, and even complicit German church (boo, Dietrich!). Too many people want to turn Bonhoeffer into some 19th century American evangelical. To be sure, Bonhoeffer would not be welcome in many American church buildings today. He knew well the meaning of the word, SIN.

I just wonder today, as I ponder what it means to be an evangelist in the year 2017, if the church is not killing itself by trying to do something it totally misunderstands? My main question is this, “What does it matter if people are being baptized into a church that no longer believes in its core message?” What good is evangelism if there is no sin, if there is no “bad news” to destroy? And what good is a church that cannot admit to, that cannot confess, its own sin? If we say there is no sin, or if we say that we are not sinners, do we not make God out to be a liar? (1 John 1:10)

It seems that everyone today is mourning the decline of the church in America (and, indeed, in most of the industrial “West”). This, I believe, is good. We cannot change something that we do not recognize is wrong. But we cannot change something by mindlessly repeating the mistakes that got us here. We must go back to the core message of the New Testament – of the Bible even. We are, every one of us, miserable offenders. Only if we begin here can we move toward evangelism.

“Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred and strayed from thy wais like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults. Restore thou them that are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter life a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy Holy Name. Amen.” (A general Confession to be said by the whole congregation, Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, 1662, emphasis mine, PAS)

How to be Remembered

Once upon a time I was asked how I wanted to be remembered. I was flummoxed. It was not the first, nor the last, time I was speechless, but the experience was unnerving. I still remember how uncomfortable I was, and that feeling still remains today. How do you want to be remembered?

So, I was reading in Eberhard Bethge’s magisterial biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer the other day, and I found it. I found the sentence that describes perfectly how I want to be remembered. It was penned by Bishop George K.A. Bell, Bonhoeffer’s friend and confidant during the stressful years of the church struggle, and later during Bonhoeffer’s dangerous work with the German intelligence agency and his connection with those who were conspiring to get rid of Adolph Hitler. Bell wrote in a 1948 forward to Bonhoeffer’s book, Discipleship:

He was crystal clear in his convictions; and young as he was, and humble-minded as he was, he saw the truth, and spoke it with a complete absence of fear.

(Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: a Biography, rev. ed. p. 362)

Now, that is how to be remembered.

How to Win a Complex Theological Argument Without Really Trying – A Lament

I saw it again today. A complex theological discussion ended abruptly, yet without a legitimate conclusion. One side walked away feeling euphoric, the other feeling cheated and abused. The discussion was over, yet nothing had been settled. Neither side was changed; indeed, because of the nature of the argumentation neither side could be changed. What is sad is that through the specific use of tactics the conversation is likely never to be honestly entered into again. The “victor” obviously sees no need to, and the “vanquished” rejects the inherent dishonesty of the other. Never again shall the twain meet.

How do you win a complex theological argument without ever really trying? It is profoundly simple, actually. All you need to do is appeal to experience. Experience is the “Mother of all Debate Bombs (MOADB).” Drop it once and your enemy is reduced to picking up the splintered shards of whatever evidence they might have produced. Its effect can be devastating – although virtually never appropriate or legitimate.

Consider the two examples where I see this most frequently used. (No names will be provided to protect the guilty). A respectable, although intense, discussion begins over the significance of baptism, both in terms of salvation and the larger issue of ecclesiology (who should be considered a member of the church). At a critical point in the discussion one of the participants asks a rhetorical question: “Are you saying my father, God rest his saintly soul, will not be in heaven?” The MOADB was just dropped. How can there be a response? Say, “no” and all the fiery pit of hell will explode. Say, “yes” and derail the entire discussion into who has the mind of God. Say, “I do not know” and the discussion then becomes moot. Why discuss something with an ignoramus? (Never mind that option three is clearly the best, unless someone DOES have access to God’s infinite wisdom.) The point is that with the introduction of the dearly departed saintly relative, the issue becomes one of experience (the experience of having to deal with relatives/loved ones who disagree with me) and the playing field never will be level again.

Example two: A proponent of gender egalitarianism defends his (and it is almost always “his”) change in understanding the increased leadership role of women in a worship service. “I knew I was wrong when I looked into the eyes of my sweet little 10 year old daughter and realized she would never be considered worthwhile in my church.” Here is a case of the double MOADB. First, who wants to accept the role of arguing with a “sweet little 10 year old girl.” My daughter has had me wrapped around her little finger ever since the day she entered this world. Two dogs and a turtle are ample proof of that, and my fortress of arguments against a rabbit is crumbling by the minute. But I digress.

The second, and more insidious, experiential argument in the above statement is the declaration (accusation, actually) that a female is considered “worthless” in a congregation that places the role of leadership solely upon qualified men. But I hear it all the time! In a recent article in a national magazine, the writer stipulated that one of the factors in deciding whether a congregation was “healthy” or not was whether there were females participating in significant leadership roles in the worship service. Clearly, not having women (plural) on the stage means a congregation hates women (and, I would assume, that means the women in the congregation hate themselves – a rather pernicious loathing, I might add).

However, once dropped, the MOADB cannot be recalled. The discussion is over, regardless of whether the subject is a dearly departed relative or one’s precious little progeny. Move the discussion from reason (logic, exegesis, historical examples, etc) to emotion (experience) and the battle is won. You really do not even have to try very hard. It is so simple it is astounding.

All of this is to illustrate, and to stress, my Undeniable Truth of Theological Reflection #1 all over again. If your goal is to win the argument (or at least prevent your opponent from answering you), then by all means drop the MOADB. But if your goal is to humbly submit to the truth of God’s word, and to lovingly attempt to correct someone else who you feel is in error, then the pretentious use of empty emotionalism is absolutely forbidden.

To paraphrase a teaching of our Lord, it is far better to lose an argument and maintain your virtue, than to win a debate and lose all sense of your honor.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

“The Wrong Side of History”

Today just some rumination on a phrase I keep seeing, or hearing, and that really makes no sense to me. That phrase is “I don’t want to be on the wrong side of history.” Or, put into a threat, “If he doesn’t change, he will be on the wrong side of history.”

Okay, just how exactly does one get on the “wrong side of history”?

History, in its most basic definition, is simply the fact of what happened. The record of those historical events is how one person, or a group of people, interpret those events. For example: Donald Trump was elected to be the president of the United States – that is a historical fact. Donald Trump being considered the savior of the republic or the instigator of the collapse of the republic would be the view point of an historian. The problem is that history is rarely, if ever, recorded dispassionately. The victors always skew the record of the event in their favor, and the vanquished do the same. It matters a great deal if you view General Custer’s demise as a massacre or a great military victory.

Now, back to my major problem with the phrase, “wrong side of history.” You cannot be on the wrong side of a physical event. You can certainly interpret an event as being fortuitous or evil, but the event itself is simply that – an event.

So, when someone accuses me of being “on the wrong side of history” in regard to my refusal to accept homosexual lifestyles or gender bending “sexual identification,” my response is very simple: my decision may be a matter of historical certitude, but the interpretation of history will not be final until time, and therefore history, is complete. And, at that point only one interpretation will matter – that of a Holy God.

Stated another way – it matters to me not one little bit whether I am considered to be on the “wrong side” of one person’s interpretation of one tiny little blip in the overwhelming history of humans on earth.

It is exceedingly important that my faith and my actions are judged to be on the right side of God and his eternal word. It will only be on the day of final judgment that I do not wish to be found, “on the wrong side of His story.”

The Vibrant, Healthy, Living, Conquering, Transformational Church

Past couple of posts have pointed out what causes congregations to die. Now, time to turn the tables. How can a congregation overcome the problems that are proving to be so fatal to so many? In a word, the congregation that wants to grow, to become vibrant, to conquer and to overcome, must be a transformational church.

A wise man once warned that if you marry the philosophy of the day you will soon be a widow. Church leaders that rush to make their message compatible with the prevailing worldview will soon realize that they have to change their message about as frequently as they change their underwear. Put a little bit more “homey,” a wise old preacher once said, “never try to fiddle folks into the church, because when you quit fiddlin’ they are just going to go find another fiddler.” Oddly enough, this is exactly what happened to many conservative congregations during the 40’s and 50’s of the last century. The country was basically conservative, the world was reeling from two disastrous world wars, and the idea of many churches was to present a message that fit that conservative time.

Today the country has changed. Conservatism has a bad name, the buzzword today is “tolerance,” and the last thing anyone wants to be identified with is a narrow, legalistic, authoritarian, or exclusive message. So, modern “worship” services basically duplicate modern music concerts: the lyrics of the songs might be different, but the atmosphere is the same. Ditto for “egalitarian” worship leaders. To be “hip” with the modern scene you need plenty of women up on the stage. A practicing gay or lesbian worship leader will score you extra points with the “open and affirming” crowd. And whatever you did last week must be exceeded this week or the crowd will find a more exciting venue next week. The pressure of performing for these congregations must be unbelievable.

Well, I hate to rain on the postmodern parade, but God’s message is narrow, it is clearly presented in terms of covenant law, God is the ultimate authoritarian, and the message of the cross is entirely exclusive. You either accept it or you do not. There is no gray, “uncommitted” choice.

So, how does a church speak to such a world without becoming a part of that world? Answer: By transforming both itself and the culture in which is is found.

I spoke of at least three issues that are plaguing the church. Notice how a transformational church addresses these issues:

  1.  Narcissism. A transformational church conquers narcissism by promoting the universal submission that is one of the hallmarks of Christian unity (Eph. 5:21ff). If I submit to you, and you submit to me, what is left of our mutual narcissism? It disappears! I look to what builds you up, you look to what builds me up. We all, as equals in God’s sight, seek the building up of the church. I surrender my rights for you, you surrender your rights for me. “Rights” disappear – mutual submission arises to take its place. Narcissism is transformed into mutual love and edification. The church wins.
  2. Anti-authority. A transformational church does not seek to eliminate authority (which, in no way can be done regardless of the suggestion otherwise). However, in a transformational church authority is recast to be in the image of God’s authority. Notice how both Paul and Peter spoke to the ruling elders of their respective congregations (Acts 20:28ff; 1 Peter 5:1-11). Notice the imagery – shepherd, care, nurture, protect, lead. The New Testament never shrinks from authoritarian language – but it is always an authority that comes from humble service. It is transformational authority. When leaders lead through service, who would not want to be in their flock? The church wins.
  3. Cowardice. I did not previously use that specific word, but it is there. Church leaders have been afflicted with a wretched case of cowardice over the past 3-4 decades. We are afraid to confront anyone (well, a few are willing to confront, but they do so in a most distasteful manner.) A transformational church on the other hand fears nothing except becoming unfaithful to God’s message. A transformational church intentionally seeks to transform both its members and those with whom it comes into contact. A transformational church is by definition a courageous church. It changes lives by confronting both the immediate and the systemic sins which destroy those lives. When people’s lives are changed by the gospel, a culture is transformed. The church wins.

The early church was a transformational church. It did not bend its teachings to fit its culture. The church was born into a world of sexual, economic, militaristic, religious, and philosophical dysfunction. It refused to participate in those dysfunctions, however. In confronting each of those dysfunctions it risked absolute failure. Within the space of just a few centuries, however, those aberrations were largely (although not totally) transformed. No, it was not perfect. The church has never been perfect, nor will it ever be perfect.

However, we have never been asked to be perfect. We have been charged with being faithful to God’s purpose – and that is to be transformational. As we transform ourselves first we begin to witness what can be done in this bent and broken world. One person, one transformation at a time, and God’s kingdom will grow.

A dying church is one that has been conformed to the pressures of this age.

A transformational church conquers the “principalities and powers” of this world and is a victorious church.

So, which church do you want to be a part of?

Why the Church is not Growing (Pt. 2)

Yesterday I wrote about what I think is the number one reason the church is not growing – basically focusing on the role of the preacher/minister, both from a misguided opinion of his role by the church and a misguided (and too often prideful and selfish) opinion of himself. However, the issue of the declining church is far too complex to assign just one cause. I still believe that ministers/preachers carry the majority of the blame, but here are some other issues that must be mentioned:

Narcissism – growing up in the late 20th century I thought my generation was spoiled, but the “Gen X” generation and the  “Millennials” have raised narcissism to a fine art form. I am not the only one to say so – read just about any critique of modern culture and you will read the same thing. Now, before any of you get your dander up and protest that you have a grandson/granddaughter/niece/nephew that is absolutely the salt of the earth, I am not saying every teenager or twenty-something is a narcissist. However, as a class or generation there is no doubt but what those age groups can only be described as narcissistic. We were bad, and we passed on the worst of our selfishness to our children, but we did not need “trigger warnings” in our classrooms before a professor talked about a controversial subject. We did not need, nor did our colleges provide, “safe rooms” where precious little snowflakes could go if they heard something on campus that upset their delicate little psyches. We did not riot for days simply because someone of the opposing political party was elected president.

Narcissism may be bad for education and for the country, but it is simply inconceivable in the church. However, as the world goes, so goes the church, and we can see the results of a narcissistic church all around us. The choice to attend a particular church is no longer based on doctrine or denominational loyalty. Now it is based primarily on worship style, and that has more to do with the style of music than anything. Increasingly another style of worship is gaining popularity, and that is whether or not a woman is highly visible as a speaker/leader. Gender neutrality or blanket acceptance of LGBTQ agendas are co-located with gender egalitarianism. In other words, if I feel it, I want it, and if you are not going to give it to me then I will go where I can find it. Increasingly that means anywhere but the church.

Rejection of Authority – the postmodern philosophy rejects the concept of authority. Authority has inherent within it the concept of power, and to the postmodernist the use of power is the unforgivable sin. There is a deep sense of hypocrisy here, as student bodies and rioting mobs all seek to assert their power over “the establishment,” but consistency of thought went out the door a long time ago. Teachers, professors, police officers, and elected officials in general have all lost the respect they deserve – simply because they represent authority.

It should go without saying that the church is going to suffer here, because the church flows from God, and God is the ultimate power and authority. But, notice how most “church” language has changed. Jesus is no longer “Lord” (meaning Master), he is our “lover” or “friend” or “fellow struggler.” God is a prattling old grandmother who refuses to punish sin (reference The Shack). When was the last time you heard any kind of discussion about “church discipline”? The church is no longer a place of holiness, where right living and right doctrine are pursued and expected, it has become a social club – and a poor one at that. Why go to church when the local sports bar is so much more entertaining?

The inability (or unwillingness) to confront – okay, back to preachers again here. One positive aspect of the younger (Gen. X and Millennial) groups is their willingness to confront evil when they see it (well, except their own corruption, but weren’t we all blind to our own faults?) What they see in the church is an almost universal inability or unwillingness to confront systematic evil. Sure, preachers will rant and rave about drinking, dancing, and rock-and-roll (okay, I’m a little dated here), but they basically ignore systemic issues such as racism, poverty, corporate greed, and an industrial/military complex that has poisoned our environment and threatens to destroy entire cities.

Read Amos some time. Or Micah. Or even Isaiah. Or Jeremiah. You might even want to re-read the words of Jesus. The prophets (and Jesus!) had no problem calling out evil – even if it well all the way to the throne. Twenty-first century preachers have lost their (our, since I am one) voice. We do not preach against a comfortable acceptance of the status quo, if that status quo happens to also be the hand that feeds us.

I could be wrong, but I think that if the younger generations heard a genuinely prophetic voice, one that spoke with clarity and sincerity and honesty, they would respond as the crowds responded to Jesus. Some would reject that voice, some would just be mildly amused – but I think that many would be truly converted.

[By the way, I think this is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer is so popular among people who read him today. How often do you see a man willing to stand up against an entire political regime based entirely upon his understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Christ? They may not understand him, and they may not agree with him entirely, but they are certainly fascinated by him!]

I have to confess – I have not been the prophet I often pictured myself being. I too have feet of clay. But I sense that this world needs some Amoses and Micahs and Isaiahs and Jeremiahs. Every survey shows that the church is shrinking. What “we” are doing is simply not working. That means maybe I need to rethink what I have been doing as well.

Maybe it’s because we have been trying to ascend higher, and God wants us to ascend lower. Maybe we need to do things God’s way again.