Archive for the ‘spiritual formation’ Category

As we explore the basics instincts (though not uniform beliefs) of Anabaptists, let’s pause for a moment to talk a little bit about the Schlietheim Confession and what it says about Anabaptists. During the Reformation and the Radical Reformation, three streams of Anabaptist believers came together in Switzerland to concretize a central set of beliefs and practices; practices which largely distinguished the Swiss Brethren (the other, non-pejorative name for Anabaptists) from the Reformers and the Catholic Church.

Among the items discussed were Baptism (to be administered to those who have chosen baptism for themselves); The Oath; The Sword; The Ban; Eucharist; piety and the role of Pastors. Having discussed baptism, we move on to The Oath.

The conversation regarding “The Oath” in Anabaptist traditions is simple: No oaths should be taken! While this has not historically included an orthodox confession of faith; “Jesus is Lord,” it has, to some degree or another included nearly every other oath imaginable – including the Apostle’s Creed, and, for some, oaths of office and giving civic testimony. There were two dominant reasons for the prohibition against oath-taking in Switzerland. For one, Anabaptists were reacting (rightly or wrongly) to a Catholic Church that insisted all kinds of oaths and verbal commitments and believed the Reformers intent to continue taking oaths to be a half-measures. The early Swiss Brethren, did not see this cacophony of oaths in the scriptures, and did not feel they were appropriate for Christians. Second, Anabaptists took literally Jesus’ command to assuage oath-taking (Matthew 5.34).

How Anabaptists determined what to do about oath taking reveals a significant theme in the religious life of Anabaptists. That theme is one of reading the scriptures free of traditionalism. While there are some difficulties in approaching the biblical text this way, the benefits, it seems, outweigh the deficits. Both the Catholic and the Reformed Tradition  in the 16th Century, as they do today, read the biblical text through the lens of the tradition itself. They are concerned with and give privilege to what others inside the tradition have written and said before (yes, I know this is an oversimplification). Anabaptists feel no compulsion to do so. While what Popes,  Martin Luther, John Calvin or Martin Lloyd Jones said about an issue might be good — or even right — Anabaptists do not appeal to them as being authoritative. Though most Christians do not think they read the Bible through a traditionist lens, Anabaptists have enshrined the value. Therefore, when a traditional belief or practice is questioned (take the traditional understanding of hell, for example), Anabaptists don’t feel a need to protect it, and would never refer to the “teaching of the church.”

Many times, new Christians or church members ask me, “What does your church believe about _______?” Typically my response goes something like this, “Well, people in our church believe a variety of things about ________.” This, I find, leaves people feeling dissatisfied. And many pastors, teachers and Christians within other traditions find this unbelievable. But nearly always, the questions people ask regard something non-essential, i.e. “Is this a Republican or Democrat church…?”

Anabaptists have always believed that thoughtful, spiritual people can come to their own conclusions about non-essential matters and, more importantly, we can lovingly coexists in disagreement. At the root of this is something many contemporary Christians refuse to believe: On some issues the Bible isn’t necessarily all that clear. In response, Anabaptists seek charity is non-essentials, which can only be done when believers rightly understand the place of tradition.

It is right and good to know what others have said and thought concerning the scriptures. These men and women should be both living and dead. The present moment is not privileged in BIble reading; we need to reflect upon and learn from our sisters and brothers. At the same time, Anabaptists know that God still speaks a fresh word, free from the constraints of other and older interpretations whose age or prominence does not necessarily equate to rightness.

Recently I’ve found myself, once again, thinking about what brings people to faith. This has been prompted by two things: (1) I’m walking a church group through Tim Keller‘s best-selling book, “The Reason For God”, and (2) multiple conversations with Atheist and Agnostic friends. I love these conversations. They force me to refine my thinking, listen to new people and perspectives and process what I actually believe.

Though I’m having conversations with both Christians and non-Christians regarding faith, our language – in some cases – is strikingly similar. One linguistic construct we share is the notion of “a leap of faith.” What is commonly meant by a “a leap of faith” is acting as if something is true regardless of the evidence present. Both Christians and non-Christians mean the same things by this phrase. What I want to suggest is that taking “a leap of faith” is not a Biblical understanding of what it means to “come to faith.” More to the point, the Bible does not ask anyone to make  “leap of faith,” but the scriptures do call all of us to make a “leap at faith.” Here’s why:

Christianity Isn’t for Stupid People. To the dismay of many, Christianity requires thinking.  Taking “a leap of faith” connotes that evidence doesn’t matter. Another way we call faith stupid is by calling it “blind faith.” The truth is, no one does anything on “blind faith.” We all do what we do out of some calculation. The calculation may be ill-informed, misguided, or poorly constructed, but we don’t do anything that matters “blind.” No one takes a “leap of faith,” we negotiate the knowns and unknowns and select. That’s not a leap, it’s arriving at a decision point and taking a step, not a leap.

Plus, I don’t know about you, but my faith is neither blind nor stupid. Yes, it is the product of participation in a particular community over the course of a lifetime, but I have also read, studied, and questioned. My questions about the Bible, the nature of God, and the nature of the world are tougher and more accurate than the passing machinations of a freshman philosophy major somewhere because I bothered to seriously investigate. I investigated Christianity, Atheism, Buddhism, and Mormonism in particular. My list isn’t exhaustive, but I’ve studied the world’s major worldviews enough to know what I’m talking about, and I’ve tried to take all claims seriously.

Taking a “leap at faith” means those both inside and outside orthodox faith owe it to themselves to investigate earnestly what is at the heart of the world and ask the toughest questions they can imagine. Christians should not fear what the hard sciences discover or what historians unearth. If we believe all truth is God’s truth, then what is there to unnerve us? Real faith is not a leap, it’s the intentional examination of the available evidence and then carefully formulating something that is philosophically coherent and realistically useable. The Apostle John even instructs us to do so in 1 John 4. Our job is to “test the spirits.”

Christianity Isn’t Mental Assent. Far too many folks think “a leap of faith” means “a change of mind.” Of course, in many ways, this is accurate (just think about the literal meaning of “repent”). Though coming to a place where you believe that God exist does mean that you’ve made a philosophical shift – that’s just the beginning, and can oftentimes mean very little. As James, the brother of Jesus, reminds us, “even the demons believe…” (James 2.19). One of the great problems in the world is that Christianity has become nominal (Christian in name only) and notional (people like the ideas of Christianity).

Taking a “leap at faith” means looking at the life and teachings of Jesus and trying them on, taking them out for a stroll, not just agreeing with a few principles. Faith is a lived-experience, not a thought-experience. If interaction with Jesus doesn’t result in kinder words, radical generosity and justice, engagement with the poor and self-denial, it just ain’t faith. There’s only way to know if God is truly the Provider or if His Spirit will be with you in times of disappointment and brokenness; you have to try it. It’s not theoretical, it has to mean something. That’s why the people you know who have a mental assent to faith, but who haven’t experienced what the Apostle Paul would call “circumcision of the heart” are some of the worst people you know. Jesus’ instructions to those living in His time was simple: “Go and do likewise.” It was about trying it out and seeing if Jesus was right.

Ultimately I’m advocating that faith isn’t a stumble in the dark. Those inside the church who believe so, do God, themselves and their fellow-believers a great disservice. And those outside the church who would suggest that faith is “blind” simply haven’t done their homework. But worse still, Christians have made their homework harder by not reflecting the real thing.

…it’s time to get serious about transformation. You know you’ve waited long enough to transform whatever it is that you think you want transformed (and yes, I said “think you wanted” because if you really wanted it, you would be doing it already.)

Resolutions are weak! They fail because (1) they begin at the level of behavior, (2) are hastily made and typically cliche, and (3) are arbitrarily set. Yet many of us want to change and live healthier, more productive lives. Here’s how:

  1. Begin With Who NOT What. To sustain a change, you need to decide who it is you want to be; what you want others to think about you and say at your funeral. For instance, if I want to be a generous person, there are endless possibilities – time, money, talent, hospitality, credit. But if you simply want to give more money to charity, your decisions will be predicated by your bank statement. Plus, you have to seek out agencies to give to. Trust me, if you decide to live a generous life, it will transform all your interactions not just one.
  2. Structural Change. We are people of habit. If you want to lose weight this year (which is a bad resolution when compared to being healthy), you’re going to need to physically change  functions in your life. Where is the workout time going to come from? Where will you get the money for new shoes, workout clothes, a trainer, gym membership, or a treadmill? Who are you going to give permission to hold you accountable? What are you going to do with your kids while you workout? How are you going eat differently? Do you need to buy organic? Where will the money for healthier (and more expensive) food come from? If you don’t execute a structural change around your transformation, it will fail.
  3. Reward. You’re going to have to reward yourself – no one else will do it! If you’re looking to lose 40lbs, you’re going to have to celebrate losing 2lbs. This is what Chip and Dan Heath would describe as “shrinking the change.” Before you begin, you should determine when and how you will pat yourself on the back. Major changes take a long time, congratulating yourself along the way will help keep you motivated.
  4. Focus On The Good. It’s easy to quit something after you feel you’ve failed. However, that’s the wrong thing to do. Forgive yourself and start anew. Lamentations says the Lord’s mercies are new every morning. God’s willing to do it for you; do it for yourself. If you miss a deadline or going to the gym one week, just go back. And remind yourself that last year you weren’t going at all.
  5. Embrace The Spirit of Discipline. Of course, it’s going to take some discipline to get where you want to go, but often it’s not the discipline itself that thwarts us. We fail because we don’t understand the “spirit of disciplines.” The spirit of disciplines is that change comes from doing small, often boring things repetitiously and change is produced over time.  Whatever you’re doing is going to take time, become boring, and appear as if it’s not working. You must know this going in. If you don’t, the monotony will wear you down. Remember, the change only comes through the tediousness. When you’re bored, it’s beginning to work

Transformation can come for you, it just takes serious, focused effort over time. Go for it! I’m in your corner.

 

 

I’m sick of it!

And if you’re a pastor/preacher/minister, you’re likely sick of it too. You’ve seen all the tweets and articles in magazines that act as if the pastor is a singular human in their organization, capable of creating and sustaining wonderful health and growth all by his or her own lonesome.

Here are some of the doozies I’ve heard lately:

  • As the pastor, you should be the happiest person in your church.
  • Pastor, what’s your staff culture? Remember, you set the culture for your staff.
  • If you don’t have 5 evangelistic relationships going on, how can you expect your congregants to have any?

On and on the lists go. It all adds up to this: As the leader of your organization you’re expected to have a great family, exercise daily, be studied in theology, history, culture, music, Bible and the local and national news. You’re also solely responsible for the culture and spiritual growth of your staff and congregation, as well as their intellectual and emotional health and growth. By the way, how up-to-speed are you on fund-raising and systems thinking and implementation? What about addiction, co-dependency, visitation, guest-services, and community activities. Oh, before I forget, don’t you have a sermon to preach this weekend?

The problem with these little maxims is that they are partly true. As a pastor and leader, you do carry some level of responsibility for all these things. Yet there are so many things to be responsible for that no human can do them all well. I don’t mean to be snippy toward our mega-church leaders who hand down their tools of the trade. Rather, I would like them to consider some real-world limitations that many leaders have to deal with and sometimes can’t be overcome. While these considerations run the risk of being labeled excuses, for many people they are the water they swim in. They are real. In nearly 20 years of working near, around and in churches, I know these considerations to be depressingly true.

  1. Many pastors have no say over their staff. Who they are? How well trained? How committed? They can neither reduce salary for underperformance or increase it for a job well done. They do not hire and fire, and can’t even make recommendations to do so. What’s more, for many people, the staff is inherited. Thus, the staff culture is inherited. While a good leader can change the culture, it takes time. Sometimes a long time.
  2. Some church systems are anti-leadership.  The pastor is NOT the leader and no one wants them to be. Decisions are largely made by committee. Believe it or not, some folks think that’s the Biblical way to do it, even if it’s not efficient. Plus, it’s not as easy as you think for people who’ve gone through the process of education and the processes of becoming ordained, just to pick-up and leave their church or denomination. This becomes more difficult when children and family are involved.Many were reared in these churches, went to camp in these denominations and are deeply rooted relationally. To leave isn’t merely a job change, it’s a life change!
  3. Many pastors are flying solo. While some have no say over their staff others have no staff at all, save volunteers. Surprising as it may sound to you, sermon preparation takes just as long in a 20-member church as it does a 200-, 2,000-, or 20,000-member one. And the clergy-person in the 20-member church has to oversee building concerns, adult ed, children’s ed, the youth group, processes for spiritual formation, pastoral care and nearly everything else. While some jobs in the church do scale with the size of the organization, some do not, and when you’re doing it all by yourself, you’re doing it all by yourself.
  4. Most ministers aren’t starting from scratch. I’m a big-believer in church-planting, but that’s not what most clergy are doing. Most are working within existing cultures and systems. If you asked them, they could name 50 things they’d change tomorrow if they could. Why don’t they? They have chosen being pastoral over being a CEO-type leader. Pastoring means walking with people, guiding them along — often at a slow pace. I’m struck with a little referred to story of Jacob meeting Esau. As they leave for Sukkoth, Jacob – who was traveling with his wives and children – ask Esau to go ahead of him so that he can care for his children and flock. Jacob tells his brother he needs to slow his pace to the speed of the children. This, my friends, is ministry too — slowing down for the ones who cannot move more quickly. Some ministers choose to do so in order that we all arrive to worship God together.

These are just the beginnings of ministry in the real world. Again, I’m not saying that much of the counsel offered by church leadership gurus isn’t valid. It’s shaped who I am and how I lead. I am saying that I’ve not always been in the kind of context I am now, and I remember what it was like to work within other kinds of systems.

So, I  question whether much of what is flippantly stated in church-leadership conversations is realistic. More so, I question if it’s dismissive of the context the majority of ministers work in. If so, our gurus are speaking to a very small audience. It doesn’t mean that these men and women won’t show up at your conferences and buy your books, it just means that the beautiful meal you’re serving is going uneaten.

Perhaps it may be time for many of us to recalibrate our leadership message from, “what works for me” to “what can work for you.” Maybe we need an orientation that sees ministry in live-action and on-the-ground, rather than from the preaching Pentagon.

Seriously! Who are you talking to?

In our hectic, dog-eat-dog, workaday world, where so much rest on productivity, meeting deadlines and getting things done, you cannot forget that the people you deal with everyday are people. I can’t tell you how many times in a week someone comes into my office, or I see them at my daughter’s school, and even as people walk onto our campus for worship or Bible study and they act as if the people around them are means to an end.

No, “Hi.” No, “Good Morning.” Nothing. They just launch into the business they want to cover – usually something they want someone to do.

The obvious sentiment is this: I don’t care about you, I only care about my agenda. Incidentally, these are the same people who can’t sit down with you over lunch or coffee without checking their phone 50 times. If you’re one these people,  I’ve got a newsflash for all of you: You’re RUDE!

Before you all start thinking I’m just ranting, all this rudeness is actually hurting you professionally and relationally. Each day you are given a gift: People! Your relationships with them and what you can accomplish together is the arena of your success. People know when you’re using them or when you’re speaking to them to advantage yourself and your agenda and no one likes it. People are willing to deal with it for a little while, but not forever.  Each of us has to push against the tide of a culture that objectifies people. Here’s how:

1. Ask, “How are you?” when you greet people. Of course, 99% of people will say, ” I’m fine” in response. That’s okay. But in simply asking, you’ve affirmed a basic truth of our creation; we are made in God’s image. That means that people have inherent worth. Would it be so bad if all of us went to bed at night and knew at least one person inquired about our lives? You don’t have to be interested in the details of other people’s lives, but other people’s lives have details that matter to God. And if you’re a Christian, this simple question (in a world where it’s increasingly not asked anymore) may be the slight opening you and God need to do some powerful ministry.

2. Put Away Your Phone. For centuries families, businesses and nations were productive and healthy without cell phones. Your e-mail, twitter feed, or facebook page can wait. If you’re not concerned about your spouse going into labor, it can wait! It really, really can. We all have cell phones now, whiping yours out and checking your e-mail doesn’t make you look important, it makes you look pompous!

3. Take Off Your Sunglasses. Good grief, we’re not standing at the North Pole. The sunlight isn’t going to burn your retinas. You’re not Paris Hilton, for Heaven’s sake! What are you hiding from? When you’re talking to someone, look them in the eyes. When we look people in the eyes you tell them that they matter, that what they’re saying is important and are worth your time. Hiding behind sunglasses makes people wonder what you’re looking at and what, other than me, is occupying your attention right now.

4. Touch Someone. You’d be amazed at how many people live day-to-day without anyone touching them – no handshakes, no hugs, no pats on the shoulder or back. This is unacceptable. Years ago I had a professor show me a video of Mother Theresa. He said, “Don’t listen to the audio, just watch what she does with her hands.” That video changed my life. One of the things that amazed people about Jesus was that He physically touched people — even untouchable people. Obvious, this should be done appropriately.

I have a simple rule: Every person needs a look, a touch, and a word. If you did this you would soon become one of the more popular and respected people in all the environments where you engage.

I was slightly taken aback when one of our church members – a friend and supporter of mine – joked to her husband that she listens to me 40-minutes every Sunday. Trust me, no one knows better than I do when I stray over my allotted time. In fairness, my sermons are typically about 30-minutes, not 40. A co-worker complained to me once that a particular sermon was 38-minutes (I could tell she had only checked the time stamp on the podcast and hadn’t listened to it. There was more recorded than the sermon and she hadn’t been in worship to hear it the first time. That sermon was 30-minutes). However, she was right in that my sermons are longer than (1) I was trained to make them, (2) have typically preached them in the past and (3) than I grew up hearing others preach their sermons.

What’s more, I’m not the only one who is preaching longer. As I examined the podcasts I listen to, began paying attention to the length of the sermons I watch online in the early hours of Sunday morning, talked to local preachers and perused all types of church websites, I’ve noticed something: Hardly anyone preaches 20-minutes sermons anymore! As a matter of fact, recently we had  a family join our congregation only to leave a month later. When I encountered the husband one morning in BestBuy, he reluctantly confessed he left because of “the teaching.” Surprised by his bluntness, I stepped back. He continued, “Sorry, Pastor, It just wasn’t enough. I need an hour of teaching; 50-minutes at least.” I’m finding that while attention spans in America may be getting shorter, sermons are getting longer. And there are 4 reasons why!

1. Biblical Illiteracy. When Rochelle and I came to Northern California we wanted to break out of the Bible Belt. We got all that and more. In the last 20 months we’ve had folks ask us if Abram and Abraham are the same person, who the “Lamb” is in reference to songs we sing, and hosts of questions we had answered for us in VBS as kids. It is an honor to introduce new people to the scriptures. We can never fault people for not knowing the basic narrative of the Bible, but it does mean that during the preaching event, nothing can be taken for granted. Each week preachers have to cover more of the narrative than they used to because many in the congregation don’t know it. This is especially true out of the Bible Belt and for churches growing with lots of non-churched people.

2. Children’s Ministry. In my childhood church there was no such thing as children’s ministry. And no one envisioned children’s church and the plethora of fun teaching environments my kids enjoy. That meant as my brother and I fidgeted in church, my mom and dad had to control/ entertain us. In this environment, the preacher received tacit (and overt) signals to stand up, speak up and shut up. With kids outside of the preaching event and experiencing specialized programs that need quite a bit of time themselves, there is opportunity to teach more – and longer. When I was young, worship services were one-hour, now I don’t know a church that’s less than an hour and a half, and many are two hours. As a matter of fact, our children’s minster recently told me that a slew of the programs available to purchase are now in 2-hour formats.

3. Better Presentations. Sermons are more entertaining/interesting than ever. As a youth all my preachers had in their arsenal was the Holy Spirit and their personal rhetorical skills. Nowadays, there are videos, props, object lessons, dance teams, dramas, etc…. Preachers can use the full weaponry of their creativity and because churches are now filled with adults who came of age in modern-day youth ministry, audiences are used to and expect engaging, visual presentations.

4. No Sunday Night Services. Again, when I was young, we worshipped on Sunday morning & Sunday night. That meant there were more opportunities for teaching in the life of the church. Let’s face it, most folks in our churches only get the weekly sermon in terms of spiritual formation and education. Of course, it shouldn’t be that way, but it is…for most! Increasing the sermon a few minutes helps make up what used to be standard.

The miraculous part is that many of the churches with longer sermons — think Francis Chan, Tim Keller, Rob Bell and Andy Stanley (all who go a MINIMUM of 40 minutes) — are growing. These pastors, and many much lesser known churches, are growing and impacting their communities. Longer sermons seem to be a trend…and I think, within reason it’s good.

The challenge for preachers is to maximize the time. If you’re not a gifted communicator, cut back. If you are, continue to master your craft. It matters less how much time you take, what matters is the time you waste.

——-

P.S. Sermons from Redwood Church can be subscribed to via iTunes.

This week Redwood Church launches new small groups. These groups are a major part of what we’re doing and will do to impact our community and world. In fact, our groups are so crucial that I believe  if our small groups fail, our mission will fail. Our mission, generic as it is, is “To Know Christ and Make Him Known.”

This is how our organization works: To “know Christ” we invite our friends and community to environments for spiritual formation – namely Sunday worship, ongoing teaching environments and small groups. This is where people can “come and see” what Jesus is doing in the lives of our members and discover what God has done in the person of Jesus on their behalf and on the behalf of the world. Then to “Make Christ Known” we commission our small groups to do ministry on their own — it’s a requirement. Yes! We expect our small groups to do ministry without the entanglements of a budget line item, with no administrative hoops to jump through and no executive approval. We could add those hurdles if we wanted to, but we choose to trade on and trust in personal passion, group interests and — wait for it — the movement of the Holy Spirit. My fundamental, rock-bottom belief is that the Spirit of God is among the people of God and the best thing for church leadership to do is clear the way. As I’ve said many times; only church leadership can stop a church from growing!

So, why do I tell you this? Because your organizational structure should be simple, clear and easy.

Many will push back saying, “Where are your retreats, women’s days, pancake breakfasts, monthly service projects, fellowship dinners, etc…?” Well, we have those, but they arise out our core behaviors and are infrequent. As Jim Collins points out, organizations that do more than three things, do a lot poorly. We have deliberately chosen to focus. If you ask our staff members they will tell you not only our mission, but how we do our mission. (They will soon grow sick of hearing me talk about it, I’m certain.)  After they recite our mission statement they can tell you our strategy: “Relevant worship, small group interaction, and local and global responsibility.” It’s that simple, that clear, that easy.

In contrast, I sat in a board meeting for another organization recently. It was not unlike many board meetings I’ve been in throughout the years.  No one in the room could tell me either the mission nor the strategy of the organization. Everyone wanted the organization to grow, do more and have a greater impact on the community, but no one knew what impact or how they were trying to do it. This kind of organizational vagueness is rampant in non-profit organizations and churches, but riddle me this: If you can’t articulate a compelling reason for the existence of your organization, why would anyone else wish to be a part of it?