Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Prayer for a New Year

It is commonplace in our culture to make "New Year's Resolutions." I intend to do no such thing this year, although the idea is intriguing. To "resolve" to do something, anything really, requires the will and resources to accomplish said resolution. It also implies that we as human beings have the interior character and strength to make it happen. That's simply not me. Can't do it. I have the idea, I know what needs to happen, but simply don't have the will or interior strength to see it through. Truth is, I don't need to resolve to loose a few pounds; I am, however, changing my diet, exercise and lifestyle regimen in order to be healthier. Truth is, I don't need to resolve to be a 'better' teacher; I am, however, adjusting my classroom approach in order to give my students a richer, though boundaried learning experience. Nevertheless, it will be 2010 in a few days and I need a fresh start and a fresh attitude. So what gives you say?

Well, first a list of New Year hopes:

1) I hope for opportunities to love, to share and to be generous;

2) I hope to draw closer to my family;

3) I hope to draw continually closer to my God.

In light of those hopes, rather than offer a New Year's Resolution, let me offer a New Year's prayer for all of us.

Abba Father, this is your servant, Jay, and 2009 was a rugged year. I'm tired and ready for a change. I believe many of my family, friends and readers are too. There is nothing within me that can resolve to make the kinds of changes you want to see occur in my life. I realize that you are the only agent of lasting change and that it is only when we fully rely upon your grace, wisdom and direction that any of us can be and do what you desire. So here I am, here we are, hoping, but more than that, asking you to come into our lives and perform a total home makeover. Would you empower your Spirit to burn up the dross in our lives, fortify our wills that they may accomplish your plans and pour love into our tanks so that we will never be alone? Will you implant an unquenchable desire for your Word in our hearts so that we can never be satisfied with anything less than the glory of Christ in our lives? Will you give us a passion for personal health, so that our bodies may truly be your temple? Will you give us a sense of your Holiness and purity, so that our lives might mirror your Son's life? To be honest Lord, I'm tired of living two lives and would like to just live one before You! I hunger and thirst to live as a child of God before the rest of the world, every moment of this life. Will you help us do that O Lord? Finally, Father, will you help us to stop hurting each other, and give us the strength to Love one another, even when it hurts? Will you let that truth be the hallmark of our lives. This is my prayer, this is our prayer, for the new year. Thank you for 2009, I think we learned a lot. But Father, let this year be the year that we draw ever closer to your unquenchable love and in the process see that love spill over into our world!

We pray this prayer in the name of your Son, Jesus, amen.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Christmas Carol 2009

A Christmas carol (also called a noël) is a carol (song or hymn) whose lyrics are on the theme of Christmas or the winter season in general and which are traditionally sung in the period before Christmas. Christmas carols can focus on the birth of Christ, or on secular themes. (

Although Mr. Wikipedia gives us a good definition of "Christmas carol" above. What I want to share with you is a more "Dickensian" Christmas carol. Charles Dickens wrote "A Christmas Carol: In Prose. Being a Ghost Story about Christmas" in 1843 as an indictment against industrial capitalism, its excesses and neglect. I believe the story continues to be popular today because of its enduring message, continually calling modern humankind away from the precipice of greed and selfishness and towards the hope of joy and giving.

My Christmas carol will be a bit briefer and more pointed. I spent 2009 in the midst of a great test. Not an intentional test mind you, but a test nevertheless. I spent the year testing the boundaries of love. Love for students, love for friends, love for family and love for God. As a theologian / pastor it is easy to talk about love - in this instance, agape - but it is a whole different matter to live it.

Yes, I know what phileo, storge and eros are: affectionate, brotherly love; parental love and physical love. But agape is something very different. Agape is unconditional. We can derive personal pleasure from the expression of the first three types of 'other' focused attitudes (let me use the word 'attitudes' in place of the word love - in English language cultures the word love has become so abused that I think it is important to express it another way!) and so we become conditioned to satisfying that need for acceptance, happiness and physical pleasure under the general rubric of love.

But that is not agape. Agape is not necessarily an individually pleasurable attitude. Agape is absolutely other-centered. It has nothing to do with your own personal pleasure. It is an attitude that is completely focused on the well-being of the other. It is an attitude that is impossible to sustain or even comprehend in our own fallen condition. Indeed, a human being can only embody agape once they have embraced God; for God is the embodiment of agape. It is God working in and through us that enables us to be bearers of agape. We cannot do it on our own. We are simply too messed up - rooted deeply in our sinful selves. We cannot do selfless acts - we always, always expect something in return whether it be a "thank you" or a smile or like act in kind. I say that honestly, because when we attempt selfless acts and are not in some way appreciated for that act, we feel hurt or unappreciated. Worse yet, if we are chided or disparaged for the selfless act, we respond with bitterness and withdraw into ourselves.

So this year I have learned... When you enter into a life of agape, you only do so by sharing in the life of God and God was crucified for His love. The world could not bear the selflessness. Even confessing Christians practice a half-way agape. We want to love unconditionally until it costs us something. In other words, we like the resurrection part of our faith, but don't really care for, and even try to avoid at all costs the crucifixion part. Sadly, you can't have one without the other. The New Testament is replete with admonitions to "take up your cross" or "being crucified with Christ" or take the "narrow way" or "give your life for your brother"or "whoever leaves father, mother, children" will inherit eternal life...

As Americans or even as English-speaking Christians, we are prone to this "half-way" agape. Our materialistic, greedy, consumerist, pride-filled culture has ensured that we will always struggle with agape. We sing the old hymn, "O' How I love Jesus" but when push comes to shove, we try harder than ever to defend our "half-way" agape and even turn our backs on agape, when 'our' lives, 'our' lifestyles and 'our' choices are threatened.

Now I am no saint. Whatever goodness there is in me is Christ's doing. I've learned this truth the hard way this year. My constant prayer now, right now, is that God will strengthen me to be a vessel of His love and that I could love unconditionally - always. That is my prayer for you, my reader as well. I've tasted crucifixion several times this year and the pain is excruciating. The earliest Christians knew that crucifixion was part of the reality of following Christ and it was a cost they were prepared to pay. They knew that extravagant love required extravagant sacrifice.

Because of what I have gone through this year, I understand a bit better God's desire for this life. This Christmas, as I watched my daughters and wife unwrap presents, I could not stop thinking about 'the Gift' God gave to us so many thousands of years ago. The baby in the manger is the very gift of God's agape. And so I embrace a theology of the cradle. Yet, we will not see the extent of that love until we embrace the cross as well. You and I want to remain at the manger, with all of its joy, hope and possibility. But true love - agape - can only be found when we take up the cross and love people without condition or reserve, just as Christ loves us. Make 2010 the year of agape; for only agape will change our world.

Truly a Merry Christmas to all of you.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Yielded to God...

Since I answered God's call to ministry over 20 years ago, I never cease to be amazed at how God works in me and through me. I've never had a "superman" sensation, where I felt as though I personally had the strength or the skill to perform the tasks laid out before me as a pastor, preacher and even teacher. Quite the opposite. I am not an imposing figure. I do not have what I would consider a powerful preaching voice, nor do would I consider myself "handsome in the pulpit." Indeed, I constantly battle my weight, and must work on my sermon delivery so that it would at least be intelligible to the listener. At times, I am very discouraged by my lack of discipline in the pulpit and the corresponding lack luster delivery. There have been many times where I thought I should have remained in the music field, where I continue to have success! So, I stand in awe of the men I have met who had "the voice", "the skills" or "the imposing personality" who fit the standard paradigm for a successful preacher. I continue to learn from their personal study habits, daily routines and delivery mannerisms. Yet, I am me. My prayers before each sermon always have been, "please use your servant and this message to bring glory to yourself and expand the boundaries of your kingdom."

Then there are Sundays like yesterday. I have a cold. I am fighting laryngitis. I am tired. I am bloated by too much rich Christmas food and I am personally discouraged by my Christmas schedule of events. All of the "signs" suggested that I shouldn't preach. Nevertheless, something in my heart said to persevere and so I did. I preached twice this past Sunday, until I had no voice left and was exhausted. But God was good when I was not. The 'Word' went out as it has for thousands of years and God used it, in spite of this vessel.

What do I constantly learn from lessons like these? I have learned that its not about skill, talent, voice or education. It is first and foremost about being "yielded" to God. Life becomes one giant act of worship - everything you do, every word you speak, every moment of service to the Triune God makes a difference if the person is yielded in humility to the voice of the Master. God does not honor separations between "my home life" and "my ministry." Life must be lived authentically and transparently before God. God expects us to live and speak the truth, then He will do the rest. If I'm having issues with my wife or problems with my children; or if I'm having ego issues - then God lifts his hand ever so slightly and turns me around to face those issues before I get back to the task of ministry. God then uses me as He wills - preaching, teaching, pastoral care, leadership - it really doesn't matter. What matters is having a heart absolutely yielded to God.

Friday, December 18, 2009


Have you ever just felt lousy? Maybe you have a little cough, a stuffy nose which amount to the onset of a cold... Maybe you are swamped with so many decisions to make that you have reached overload and find yourself grinding to a halt... Maybe the you've come to the end of a project and you don't feel the joy that you thought you would... Maybe you looked in your checkbook recently and your expendable income isn't as expendable as you thought it would be... and all of sudden it hits you that it is the season of Christmas, which just makes these maladies all the more acute. All of these symptoms confirm a condition I like to call the "Bah-Humbugs!" And I have a moderate case of them at the moment.

The "Bah-humbugs" are an interesting malady that prevent us from engaging and enjoying life as we should or even could. They are the disease of self-interest. In other words, the "Bah-humbugs" are so focused on our own personal condition that they prevent us from seeing and experiencing what is going on around us. Indeed, they cause us to become envious and bitter of the joy that others are experiencing. The obvious signs of the "Bah-humbugs" are a sour demeanor, terse if not angry responses to even the kindest of questions and the pathetic need to be alone or the demand for the absolute attention of everyone!

Whether a person will affirm it or not, no one really wants the "Bah-humbugs"... we want to be on the same track as everyone else this holiday season. We want to experience the joy and love of Christmas. The solution or cure to the 'humbugs' however is not found in extra attention or better banking balances or the absence of the sniffles and cough. The cure is to focus on "enhancing the good of the other"...

The "other" is someone other than yourself. What I means is simply this: find another person who needs something you have and give it to them. Maybe its a helping hand; maybe its a small gift; maybe it is just a smile; maybe you can just text them a :-). Make a connection and give the gift. Although your sniffles might not go away immediately and the pile of decisions will not have diminished, your attitude will have changed significantly and you will be able to face the problems with resolve, instead of resignation. You see, we were created to give ourselves away. That's love.

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served,

but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

Mark 10:45

Although only Christ came to give His life for all, He sets the example for us. The "Bah-humbugs" run counter to God's design for us and can be debilitating. Don't let them get you down this holiday season. As you can see, I'm already starting to come out of mine!

lux lucis eternus fulsi in vestri vita is dies

[May the light eternal shine into your life this day!]

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Eighteen years of love...

Yesterday something special occurred in my home:

my daughter received her acceptance letter and scholarship offer to Baylor.

This is an event that most families experience - a son or daughter is accepted to a university - but for me the impact hit deeper and harder than I thought. Eighteen years of love ran through my mind in a fraction of a second. My little girl, though still growing, has grown up. Its almost time for her to "fly the coup" as they say. I've been preparing myself for this moment for the last four years, but it hits like a ton of bricks. Although she is almost ready, I am not. I'm not ready for her to start kindergarten yet... I'm not ready for her to be in high school... I'm not ready for her to drive (though she is a good driver)... and I was definitely not ready for boyfriends! It seems like just yesterday that she was my little bundle of joy. I remember her birth; I remember holding her in my arms and naming her. I remember taking her back to our base housing at MCB Quantico in the snow. I do vaguely remember the infractions and punishments for disobedience and the like... but those things pale in comparison to the overwhelming joy and love I have for the gift to me that she is.

I know that her education will be costly - both for me and her - but I also realize that it is the final release for her from her birth family to what God has for her next - vocation, husband and her own family. I know that over the next few years she will make good and poor choices. I know that she will learn both the easy way and the hard way. I know that in some way I hope to spare her from the difficult life lessons, but I also realize that I cannot and should not. She needs them.

Overall, what strikes me today, this moment, is how much I love her and how much I have grown with her. I have not been able to provide all the material things for her in life, but I have given her a household of love in which to live and a family to sustain her. I have given her opportunities to see some of the world and to encounter God in her world. In all of this process, God has matured me. Through the joy and pain, love and disappointment - God has grown me.

I realize now, more than ever before, that "Children are a gift from the Lord." [Psalm 127:3] The eighteen years of love that He has given to me in her have changed my life forever.

Thank you Lord for my children.
Thank you for the gift and responsibility of love that came with them.
Help me to continue to be the father you ordained me to be for them.
Help me to treasure them always...
to encourage their person and gifts and
to help them to learn to live responsibly on this earth
as your child.
Thank you God
for eighteen years of love.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

It has been awhile...

I must say that it has been awhile since I have posted anything to Sojourn - and so I must apologize to my friends and readers, for sometimes life just gets in the way. However, I have my friend Kalie and her blog to thank for getting me back on track! She wrote a piece on the topic of "waiting on God" and it just caught me off guard. If we will listen, God speaks to us in the most wonder-filled and surprising places.

I have been on a journey this fall; one of which I haven't even been truly cognizant. I have been working hard on my thesis, teaching my classes, leading seminars, attending elementary school and high school functions; I have been judging marching band competitions and trying to squeeze in family time. I have been to England - across the sea - and Austin - across the state. I have tried to love people that have been hurt and I have hurt people that I desperately love. I have learned to hold tightly on to Jesus so that his love might grow me and to let go of those things that I love that they might grow...

It has been a long fall and a short one. Nevertheless, I am trusting that God will lead me and lead you - my friends, family and readers - into deeper relationships with Him.

I have been on a journey, seeking where and how God desires me to serve and grow. I am still on that journey, so I appreciate your prayers and guidance.

A few "thank you"s need to happen as I begin this journey in earnest though:

• My dad and mom for encouraging me in very different ways

• My friend Carol for helping me to see myself when I could not and for always pushing me towards grace, even when she didn't realize it.

• My colleagues at HPU for always encouraging me and praying for me

• My students at HPU for always making me think a little bit harder

• For Chris and Fran for reminding me of God's call...

• For Catherine and Hannah, the beacons of joy in my life

• For Melissa, the one who always reminds me of unconditional love

• For Christ my Lord - the one that I long for and the one that I seek, so that I may behold His beauty all the days of my life.

• For you who follow this blog, for joining me on the journey.

Grace and Peace to You...

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Future of the Church: Small is Beautiful

In our fast-paced, size-obsessed Western culture a healthy church tends to be equated with a church that has many, many members. I have come to question that kind of thinking. I understand what Luke reports in Acts 2:41 - "So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls" - Is this however the emphasis of the passage? Is this the measure of the health of a church? Rather, doesn't the next part of the passage give us better criterion for the healthy church?

Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved. [Acts 2:43-47]

Rather than pure numbers, the healthy church is concerned about character - a character reflected in the embodiment of Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, it would seem that the concern of the human members of the church described in Acts was to draw closer to Christ in worship and service. This was the work of the Spirit in each member's life. Numbers was the "Lords" concern, not theirs. What 'role' do numbers play then? If Luke mentions numbers, there must be a reason; even if they are not the central concern...

Here is a possible answer: numbers represent the fulfilling of need. The organization that is "increasing" in numbers is fulfilling a need; the organization that is decreasing, is missing the need. This 'need' can be filled in a holy fashion, or in an unholy fashion, resulting in either increase or decrease. In some churches, numbers can increase due to personality-driven leadership, entertainment-oriented ministries and comfort-focused facilities. The focus of this church is not Christ then, but self - yet the numbers increase - because the easiest thing for any organization to do is to appease the self. So numbers can't be the sole indicator of church health. The measure has to be something else.

Rather than numbers, the key to church health would seem to be 'character transformation'. Do the persons who make the church have transformed character? Together, do these people exhibit a community character that could be described as "like Jesus"? The addition of 'numbers' then becomes the responsibility of the Lord (Acts 2:47). The joy of the church then must come from the presence of the Spirit in the transformed character of the people of God. The Western - and particularly the American - church must change its understanding of the function of numbers and the reason the church exists. Indeed, the most satisfied self is ultimately not the comfort-driven self, but the self-in-Jesus.

Small, then, can be beautiful. A church whose members seek self-transformation in Jesus find 'solace' not in creature comfort, but in the cross. Church health then is reflected in a luminous character, imbued by the Spirit in the image of Christ. This luminosity draws hurting people in - some stay and are transformed, and yet some do not stay, finding the cost to self to be too high. Yet growth is present, first in character, then in presence. The healthy church will go through cycles of numerical growth and decline, but will always have a tremendous sense of character in the Spirit due to the abundant presence of love.

In the future, the church will focus on character transformation. The congregations of believers will vary in size, but due to outside pressures, will most likely be small. Rather than focusing on large rolls and big budgets, the church of the future will be smaller, more mobile and will be enclaves of the character of Jesus. Traditional or contemporary, believer or seeker sensitive, emerging or cowboy - those facets will not matter to the church in the future. The question will be - how do you embody Jesus?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Future of the Church: Now

They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.

Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:43-47)

So what about the church now? What about the church tomorrow? What about the church in our life time? It is easy to project out an apocalyptic scenario that is far beyond our immediate experience. But where do we go from here?

Here and now is the heterogenous church. There are many expressions of the body of Christ; as many expressions as there are people types it would seem - particularly in the individual oriented West. Indeed many of our churches are 'personality' driven! The reformation of culture we are undergoing, however, is obviously influencing seismic shifts in our church cultures. The postmodern emphasis on community, as well as individuality; the demand that music and ministries be "relevant" and the increasing drive to be "missional" all contribute to this cultural shift. Nevertheless, there are many churches and communities that are not experiencing the postmodern influence to the degree that most are. These churches recall a time when the church seemed much more homogenous and long for the day when that homogeneity can be recovered. But that is simply not our reality.

In the West, the church is - not, will be - but is, fragmented. Despite the common assumption that the church is being a positive influence for change in culture - and it is to a degree - today, it is probably at its most ineffective and self-absorbed. Its focus tends towards the myopic or nearsighted and thus becoming less and less effective: it problematically focuses on worship preferences, service issues, denominational loyalties and doctrinal boundaries. As the church has grown over the years and become a popular 'spiritual outlet' on the whole it has lost its focus on spiritual transformation. Interestingly, these types of problems cropped up almost immediately in the early church. Paul's epistles to the Corinthians, the Ephesians and to Timothy are good examples of apostolic "fire control." Paul was right: until Christ returns, believers live in a sin-stained world, where the tension between following Christ and following self is excruciating. If this has been a problem since the church's inception, why the fuss now? Good question. In my opinion, due to the fragmenting of the church in North America today, we have an opportunity to recover a much more genuine understanding of what it means to be the church, the body of Christ.

As I read the passage from the book of Acts quoted above, I do not discern similar emphases in the earliest expression of the church. I am particularly drawn to the phrases "Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe" and "sincerity of heart" - There is an obvious focus on Spiritual transformation and the character of Christ. In our heterogenous church environment, we do not have to seek uniformity, but can communally seek the character of Christ. The homogeneity we can find is not to be found in the externals then - worship styles, minutiae of doctrine or denominational loyalty, but rather in an embrace and embodiment of the character of Christ not only as individuals, but as communities of faith.

This means a focus on biblical discipleship, spiritual transformation and prayer-filled worship that transcends any one style. It means a "turn towards the other" in love. If our churches will allow this shift to occur, Christ will use us to transform our world in the here and now.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Future of the Church: The Form

For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Romans 12:4-5

What is the architecture of the church? In other words what should a church look like? What should a church look like in the future? We agree that the church, as in its current state is floundering, struggling for its life. It has forgotten that it is the ecclesia - "the called out ones." We agree that the church needs to refocus on its "life in the Trinity" and primarily recoup an understanding of the Spirit's work in its midst. Indeed, cooperation with the Spirit is crucial! But then what will this living and breathing organization 'look' like?

At some point in its 2000 plus year existence, the church became identified with the structure in which it met. Like a temple or synagogue, it had a sanctuary, an atrium and like the early Roman house churches a water source for baptisms. Within several hundred years, the church building took on a particular form and by the sixteenth century Reformation had found its ideal architectural style. In contemporary America, most people know a "church building" - it can be white or usually brick, a raised roof, stained glass lining the sanctuary and a steeple of some sort. Any one of these or a combination of these elements are indicative of the church building with or without a sign. But is this the church? According to our preliminary studies, the answer would have to be no.

Well, here are some preliminary thoughts:

1) The church is the community of believers, drawn out of the world (ekkaleo), by the Spirit, in Christ, to participate in the program of the Trinity.

We are a community of people, readily identifiable by our character in the Spirit, constantly pointing to Christ as our source and the Father as our glory.

2) The church looks and acts, like a "body."

Paul consistently referred to the church as the "body" of Christ. See Romans 12 especially.

3) The church functions as priest to the world.

The closest any other Biblical writer comes to Paul's vision of the church as "body" is Peter, in 1 Peter 2:5 - "you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ."

We stand as witnesses to a lost and dying world of the absolute love of God and point to the salvation that is to be found in Him alone.

With those thoughts in mind....

4) In the future, buildings will be irrelevant. Indeed for many churches in North America, function already trumps form.

This will be hard in a transitional age. There are many in North America who have so closely identified church with building that the shift in understanding will bring bewilderment, resentment and even anger. See the "emerging church" on this polarization. Nevertheless, as the church recovers its identity as the Body of Christ, an increasing focus will be given to mission and radical discipleship. The idea of catechetical instruction will return.

5) In an increasingly secular and antagonistic culture, the places where the church meets will increasingly focus on functionality - as staging points for ministry.

Locations of where the church meets, might even shift on a regular basis due to the emphasis on functionality and the possibility of antagonistic response by the secular community. This is already the case in third world, socialist or Islamic countries.

The signs of liturgy and sacramental beauty - such as bright brass crosses and communion vessels, stained glass and carved wooden symbols of our faith - will become portable and even hidden. The main form of worship will return to prayer and gentle singing. (See Ephesians 5:19)

6) The church will become a movement.

Different denominational expressions of the church in the community will dissolve. Much of the membership will be lost to secularization while a few will reform as the movement of Christ. The Holy Priesthood, the Living Stones, the Body of Christ will go about doing the miraculous work and ministry of Christ with no permanent place of worship; they simply will utilize what they have on hand to affect worship and make disciples.

7) The church will be anonymous. There will be but one name: Christ.

No more first, second and third churches. No more this street and this avenue churches. No more consumer based church shopping and hopping. No more church splits. No more personality driven ministries. There will be but one body, one Spirit and one baptism. The members of the body will exercise their Spiritual gifts in the name of Christ to the glory of the Father.


In an era where the institutional church has forgotten who she is, a younger generation of Christians is working over time to recapture the roots of the Christian faith. Especially in Protestant Baptist life, where we are so focused on Scripture and the revivalist tradition. This younger generation has finally said, "enough!" to the constant bickering over buildings and the nuances of biblical authority. They see it for what it is, the quest for power and division by the enemy. So the institutional church has given them no choice if they want to find the roots of their faith: start over. And they are. They are going to different denominational or non-denominational faith expressions. They are returning to the Roman church. They are forming house churches.

Although the church is fragmenting now, in my life time we will still have church buildings, traditions and beautiful stained glass. There will still be believers who love the liturgy and the beauty of where they worship. They will love the organ, the praise band and the Christian music stations. We will spend time in Christian bookstores and watch Christian movies. Nevertheless, we must prepare for the future and refocus our lives as the Body of Christ and invest ourselves in the concerns of our Savior.

Food for thought my friends.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Future of the Church: The Spirit, pt. 2

"I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you."
John 14:16-17

"The Spirit itself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God."
Romans 8:16

As Christians, we worship the God that is Father, Son and Spirit - or better, Son, Spirit and Father - for our first tangible experience of the Trinity is the Son in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the "word made flesh", who is the absolute revelation of God the Trinity on the earth. It is when God condescends to humankind in the form and substance of man that He can be perceived by our fallen senses. But even the truth of this experience is mediated to us by the Holy Spirit, for it is the Holy Spirit that affirms to our hearts and minds the reality of God the Son. This is how the truth of this reality is communicated to us after 2000 years of history: the Spirit.

When Jesus responds to Judas (the Son of James) in John 14:23, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him" - He is stating the reality of all Christians.

When we accept the truth and sacrifice of Jesus into our fallen lives (initiated by the grace which emanates from the Trinity itself!), the Spirit takes up residence and continues the process of transformation. Indeed, as Jesus states, the Spirit is the very presence of both Son and Father in our lives. Individually, the presence of the Spirit gives us hope, joy and peace. It gently corrects us and nudges us in the direction of wisdom. It points us constantly to Jesus, His Word and thus his guidance. But it is this same Spirit that is working in all believer's lives and not for the purpose of simply making us feel better as individuals! The Spirit's work in us as individuals serves a greater goal. The Spirit has a mission...

The Spirit is drawing us into community as the Body of Christ, where each of us functions in the power of the Spirit together, for God's glory. In most of the passages where Jesus or Paul refers to the Spirit's work in 'you', it is most often not referring to the first person singular 'you' but the second person plural: all of you. The Spirit is making the 'each' into an 'all' - bringing the solitary individual into a community of love. There is no place for pride, preference or pugilism in this body! The truly effective Saints in the Kingdom of God - the Body of Christ - today, constantly deflect praise for his or her work. They continually credit God and those around them for the marvels in which they participate. It is the working of the Spirit he or she says, and "I give God the glory"...

If the heartbeat of the Church is Christ Jesus, then the life blood that beats through its veins is the Holy Spirit, providing energy and nutrients to the rest of the body. If the Christ is the head of the church, then the Holy Spirit is found in the electrical impulses that move from the head to the rest of the body, guiding its movements as the head directs. What happens then if the body has no blood and the soul "loses its nerve"? Death.

Without a healthy, balanced - and thus orthodox - view of the Holy Spirit as mediated through scripture; the local, institutional church is in great danger of dying a slow, painful death. There is little love, no power and constant struggle. Most Western churches, suffering from poor theology, selfish concerns and even an unregenerate membership, settle into a death process which lasts one to fifty years.

The church that preaches Jesus, must live Jesus. In order to live Jesus, they must allow the Holy Spirit to work in and through their lives. When the Holy Spirit works in and through their lives, the world changes around them. A church that "proclaims the Word" better live the "Word" - the proof is in the fruit (Galatians 5:22-23) or it will find judgment as the last word.

The Spirit is the key to church - not programs, not music, not architecture, not Bible translation, not parking lots, not even espresso machines! The Spirit pushes the church beyond concern for form to function, beyond the concern of individuals to the Body of Christ.

A friend of mine shared that she was placing the subheading, "Living in the Spirit" as a description for Romans 12 in her Bible. I agree. What happens if the every member of the Body of Christ took "living in the Spirit" seriously? What if every member of the Body of Christ stopped placing their own individualistic interests at the forefront of their lives and allowed the Spirit to shape his or her role in the greater Body for God's glory?

I don't know, but I want to find out - for here lies the future of the church...

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Future of the Church: The Spirit, pt. 1

In recent posts I have been reflecting upon the historic trajectory of the Western church in order to provide a context from which to ascertain its future. A friend of mine from Stroud, in the United Kingdom, reminded me of the seminal fact that the church exists as the Body of Christ in and through the instrumentality of the Holy Spirit. This fact has not escaped me, I just wasn't there yet!

In this short post, let me simply make this assertion, which will be explored further in later posts:

The future viability of the church in Western culture depends upon the willingness of the Body of Christ to allow the Holy Spirit to work in and through them.

The Spirit poured the grace of God into our lives that we might believe. The Spirit called us out of the world and into the Church, giving us gifts and responsibilities. The Spirit reveals the glory of God in worship. The church prays in the name of Jesus to the glory of the Father in the power of the Spirit. Yet, phrased in the negative, if the people who assemble together and call themselves "Christians" refuse to embrace the actual presence of God in the Spirit, then the future is bleak. This assumption arises from several premises:

1) The New Testament clearly gives witness to the Holy Spirit as the power of life in the Church. Jesus, Paul, James, Peter and John clearly maintain that the Body of Christ is founded upon the empowering presence of the Spirit and to attempt to operate as the Body of Christ outside the Spirit is to be in the flesh.

(John 14-16; Rom. 8, 1 Cor. 12, Gal. 5 (among others); Hebrews 6; James 4:5; 1 Peter 1)

2) In Western Protestant theology, the doctrine of, or teaching on, the Holy Spirit frequently has been relegated to secondary status. By secondary status I mean either practically ignored or theologically "gerrymandered" to the point of irrelevance. This marginalizing of the doctrine not only defrauds a thoroughly Trinitarian faith, but also renders the church practically powerless and prone to painful death. For the church to live outside of the power of the Spirit is akin to a human being unintentionally suffocating themselves to death because they do not believe they need to breathe air to live.

3) Without the Spirit, the word ceases to be the dynamic life-giving rule of faith, and becomes cold hard law. Without the Spirit, love ceases to be the identifying character of the church. Without the Spirit, the worship of the Body of Christ turns into a rote recitation of songs, choruses, creeds and formulas, thus ceasing to be a glory giving tribute to the Living God. Without the Spirit, the supernatural, miraculous witness God intended for the church degenerates into a mealy moralism, which attracts no one and repels almost everyone.

Thus, it would seem that to be the church, its members must love Jesus. To love Jesus, believers must allow the Spirit of God to work in and through them - constantly - to God's glory. Please note: this is not to promote the individualistic interpretation of the Spirit that so plagues much of the charismatic church today. Yes, the Spirit works in us as individuals, but always for the purpose of drawing us into community, where the Spirit of Christ will do even greater things.


Friday, September 4, 2009

In the world, yet not of the world...

World: from the Greek, kosmos; "adornment"

The New Testament is filled with directives and admonitions about the "world." In general, the concept refers to the ever-changing, sin-stained, yet unavoidable human culture. As human beings, we live on the earth, but in a particular culture. "Culture" is the sum total of the relationships, the signs, symbols and the practices that define our existence and enable us to give some sort of meaning to our lives. To live in a culture is part of living; it is unavoidable.

Nevertheless, Jesus, Paul, Peter, James and John all assert that there is a tension present in culture. As followers of Christ, we dwell in a particular culture, but are not of that culture. In other words, although I reside in a culture that could be described as "Western", quasi-rural, religious and technologically-influenced, that culture is not my primary identifier. As a follower of Christ, the culture that defines me is the "Body of Christ" - or the culture that is marked by the symbols, story and practice of the people filled by the Holy Spirit and gathered as the "church". John 17:11-21 is the defining scriptural passage for this understanding:

I am no longer in the world; and yet they themselves are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even as We are.

But now I come to You; and these things I speak in the world so that they may have My joy made full in themselves. I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.

I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. That they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.

From this passage, it is clear that Jesus sees a two-culture citizenship: a culture that defines us (God's Culture) and the culture to which we are sent as transforming agents ("the world"). But as the rest of the New Testament writers firmly assert, we cannot be defined by "the world" nor can we allow its value system to become our own.


So what does this mean for the future of the church? Well, several things:

The church, as the Body of Christ is always in, but not of, a particular culture.

The church will always be located in a particular culture, always. The particular culture may be rural, urban, suburban, country, white collar, blue collar, Western, hip-hop, jazz, Bible-belt, Deep South, Southwest, West Coast, East Coast, New England, Midwest or any other number of geographic, musical, economic or political identifiers. Nevertheless, we can't escape our context as the church.

The church is not to adopt the values of a particular culture.

Nevertheless, as Christians, the culture that identifies us, that gives our lives meaning is God's culture with its signs, symbols, practices norms and values. Christians love God and affirm that our economic means originates and returns to God. Christians love one another. We abhor killing and war, attempting to avoid it if at all possible. We cultivate the fruits of the Spirit as personal character (Gal. 5:23) and pursue God's mission of reconciliation as our vocation (Matt. 28:19-20). Do these cultural signs, symbols and practices identify you?

On the other hand, every world culture has different value systems that determine the priorities of the culture. For example, in the United States, our economic and political systems tend to be the value defining systems. Are you a democrat or a republican? Are you wealthy, middle income or impoverished? Do you work at a skilled trade? Are you a 'professional'? Are you a 'scholar' or are you an unskilled laborer? These are labels and to some degree even Christians are identified by them at some superficial level.

Yet in a culture that exalts work, 'play' is exalted as well. All cultures have some concept of leisure, but in a capitalist economy, leisure and its pursuits are exalted as the "end of work." So we spend the money we earn on vacations, extreme adventures, retirement, and other ultimately 'self-gratifying' activities. Leisure is not a "sin", but an exaltation of leisure as the goal of our humanness is. On a micro level, this exaltation of leisure can become absolute self-gratification, which can be manifest in unlimited sexual pursuit, substance abuse and economic greed with its exploitation. These "world" values are precisely the values and excesses that Christians avoid.

The church must always seek to communicate to the culture in which it is embedded.

Jesus stated that we (the church) are in the world so that they (the world) may believe that Jesus is Savior. It is important then that we reject the values of the world and its focus on the unregenerate self. That rejection in and of itself is a witness to a dying world system and points to where human beings can find life eternal. Yet although we reject the values of the world, there are certain methods and instruments in the world which the church must adopt if it is to communicate to that world.

I am drawing a distinction then between world values and world methods/instruments. Values are laden with meaning. Indeed, a value is a definer of meaning. Methods/instruments derive their meaning from that which you invest in them. For example, a hammer has a positive meaning when it is used to construct or dismantle a house or other construction project. A hammer however has a negative meaning when it is used to break into a house or facilitate some other act deemed harmful to life and person.

The church throughout its history has adopted different methods in order to fulfill its divine commission. Over two millennia, the music used to enhance worship, the architecture of its facilities and the form of its proclamation (not content!) have changed with culture. This is not because the values of the world have taken priority over the values of the church, but because the church has adapted the methods available in the world and infused them with God's values. The prime scriptural example of this sort of usage is Paul's sermon on Mars Hill in Acts 17:22ff. At no time did Paul desire or attempt to adopt the world's values, he did not hesitate however to take the tools available to him in the world and use them for God's purposes.

The future of the church will be determined - at least partially - by its ability to be in, but not of, the world. The old, modernistic methods are quickly becoming irrelevant in a world that is changing exponentially. Just as the polyester leisure suit of the 1970s has found its way to the back rack of the second hand clothing store and is no longer worn, so are different aspects of the church's methods of being God's messenger in culture. The days of programmatic evangelism, the exclusivity of the pipe organ in worship and formal wear on Sundays are in serious decline if not practically gone. Relational evangelism, the guitar and casual wear are quickly becoming staples of the church today. This is neither good or bad. It is simply the body of Christ trying to find its way in an ever changing world.

I appreciate your comments, concerns and corrections as I continue to define my thought.