Archive for the ‘Church Ministry’ Category

In February 2009, The Christian Century featured Daniel Bell’s article, “God Does Not Require Blood” on their cover.  The imagery found there was as evocative as the title, showing two band-aids placed in the form of a cross.  The article itself was adapted from a chapter of the same name in God Does Not…, a 2008 resource published by Brazos Press challenging not only the demand for blood, but also conceptions of God as matchmaker, entertainer, cure-all, or as one in a hurry.

Bell’s article begins with an accurate statement concerning the Christian aversion to blood sacrifice.  Christians have not killed animals, or their firstborn, in worship of God, and have found such forms of sacrifice abhorrent and unnecessary.  But despite the rejection of blood sacrifice as a Christian practice, Bell declares, the logic of blood sacrifice significantly influences first how Christians think about God, and then subsequently how they act.  Herein lies Bell’s concern.

Bell knows that we live in a violent culture, and he is deeply concerned that Christians, far too often, have allowed the notion of redemptive violence inherent  in “the logic of blood sacrifice” to reinforce and perpetuate such violence.  As examples of where such logic fails, he points to any Christian defense of capital punishment, Martin Luther’s encouragement to peasants to “endure their affliction” and remain in their station, and pastoral counseling to battered spouses advising them to remain in those relationships.  As far as the theological implications for such forms of redemptive violence, Bell states quite plainly, “All of this is wrong.  God does not demand or require blood to redeem us.  God neither inflicts violence nor desires suffering in order to set the divine-human relation right.  In spite of its pervasiveness in Christian imagery, the cost of communion, or reconciliation and redemption, is not blood and suffering.”

Bell further illustrates redemptive violence as the concept underpinning our national response to September 11, 2001 as well as the basic plot lines of most television action dramas, in which bad guys commit violence only to be overtaken by good guys who commit “good” violence.  He notes government initiatives to wage war on drugs, disease, or obesity, and how most popular video games “revolve around apocalyptic levels of violence” as further evidence of our deeply ingrained propensity to seek blood.  

But redemptive violence is not the only problem for Bell.  On the flip side of the same coin, Bell names redemptive suffering and the associations made with Christian life and practice as equally troublesome.  Bell is concerned for those that might suffer unjustly.  As one example, Bell recalls how Martin Luther King, Jr. was urged to forestall his work by a group of white clergy, and thus prolong the suffering of both he and the African-American people.  He would not wait and suffer redemptively.  King understood that the time demanded action.  In response, those clergymen received the now famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” 

From here Bell turns to the cross and the atonement.  He asks, “Wasn’t this the supreme act of redemptive violence?  Isn’t it the case that in spite of our visceral reaction against blood sacrifice, Christ was the ultimate blood sacrifice?”  Here, of course, we meet Anselm, the medieval theologian charged with most clearly articulating the substitutionary or satisfaction theory of the atonement.  Bell also introduces the governmental theory of atonement to cite an second example where Christ’s death on the cross satisfies the payment for either our individual sins or our corporate transgressions “in order to uphold the integrity of the moral order of the universe.”

It is at this point that Bell wrestles with the choice many have faced in wrestling with these dimensions of the atonement within classical Christian theology.  He acknowledges that some, in their desire to reject the notion of a God who demands blood, have also had to reject the cross.  He notes that this leads to a rejection of the cross as redemptive or central to God’s redemption, an appeal to the love of God that renders a focus on sacrifice an error, or declaring Christ’s death on the cross as some form of divine child abuse.  After recognizing these pathways, Bell surprises the reader by refusing to accept them.  He says, “I believe any effort to make the case that God does not demand blood cannot simply skip over the cross but must pass right through it.”

Bell states:

I believe that Christ’s work of atonement, when rightly understood, demands the rejection of blood sacrifice and the logic of redemptive violence.  Christ’s work on the cross is not about satisfying a divine demand for blood, but about showing us that God does not demand blood.  Christ’s work on the cross is the divine refusal of blood sacrifice, as well as any notion that suffering violence is or can be redemptive.

Bell goes on further to say that “This love of God expressed in Jesus saves us.  It is the love that would rather die on the cross than give up  on us.”  As we are joined to Christ, we then are “transformed (sanctified) and live our lives according to another logic.”  We love our enemies, forgive, and renounce violence.  In the process we may suffer, but only “because suffering is the cost that humans in their sinful rebellion impose on other humans.”  Bell rejects the notion that such suffering could in itself be redemptive.  It is simply a consequence of living in the world.

Bell’s account is interesting, for it is challenging.  But it does not seem right.  The terms do not seem correct, as the idea that God “does not demand blood” counters an equally opposing idea that “God does demand blood.”  

I have listened to enough preachers (particularly Reformed and neo-Calvinist voices) whose rhetoric from the pulpit gives this impression, so I do see where such an idea might come from.  And I believe Bell does support his claim by examining governmental and substitutionary examinations of the atonement.  But as I consider the story of Christianity and Judaism found in the New and Old Testaments, to designate God as one who “demands” or “not demands” blood seems wrongheaded.  The term “demand” appears to be misplaced.

I will state first that the commandments as they were given to Israel were regarded as gift and responsibility, not burden or obligation.  Israel was given “teaching” or “instruction” to offer sacrifices to their God, and that practice included the shedding of the blood of animals.  Any reading of the Old Testament account would find that sacrifice was not regarded as meeting the demands of a blood thirsty God, but was rather a way of remembering those narratives that were foundational for the constitution of a people called Israel.  Through sacrifice, the people of Israel are reminded of God’s holiness, otherness, and purity.  As God is somehow distinct from his people, the people of Israel are to be distinct from the nations.  In a sense, Bell is right in saying that God does not “demand” blood, but this does not mean that the shedding of blood does not have a place in telling the story of God.

When we turn to the New Testament, Bell’s account of Christ’s shedding of blood seems insufficient.  Stated plainly, it is missing the eschatological claim that in the cross God put violence to death and constituted a people called to be God’s peace.  While in the Old Testament the people of Israel may have met their responsibility in their worship of God through the practice of blood sacrifice, in the New Testament we see God taking the sins of the world upon himself in the person of Jesus Christ, suffering crucifixion, and in the process declaring an end to violence.  In Christ’s death, we do not see Jesus of Nazareth meeting a demand for blood, but rather declaring victory over the powers through the gift of his obedience.  In the New Testament as well as the Old, the language of “demand” does not fit the narrative.

Of course, who am I to question a professional theologian?  My own understanding of the atonement needs strengthening.  I have found the approach taken by Scot McKnight in A Community Called Atonement more helpful, as McKnight argues that the various theories are all necessary for a robust understanding of what happened in the cross.  Bell’s effort to dismiss substitution or governmental theories of atonement in favor of what appears to be a moral influence approach, in my opinion, fails because it is undertaken on the wrong terms, does not adequately fit the biblical narrative, and lacks the eschatological dimension necessary for any account of atonement.

Thinking about the atonement is important, and Bell’s concern that accounts of Christ’s death that depict God as a blood thirsty tyrant can have negative repercussions for how Christians think and act is valid.  We would do well to heed his warnings, but must move beyond his account, I believe, if we are to speak of the atonement in a robust manner, a manner which includes regarding Christ’s death as a sacrifice which does away with our sin, justifies us before God’s throne, and inspires us to greater acts of love and sacrifice.  Such a vision is possible, and, I believe, indicative of Christ’s blood flowing through the heart of his body, the Church.

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Over the past few years I have been fortunate to hold subscriptions to both Christianity Today and Christian Century magazines.  I don’t always do the best job staying on top of my stack of publications, but over the past two weeks I have carved out time during my day to browse through my collection and learn more about the current state of Christian world.  Over the next few days I’ll be commenting on a few of the articles I found intriguing.

First among the articles I found of note was a Christianity Today piece in the August 2009 (current) issue entitled, “Mega-mirror: Megachurches are not the answer or the problem.”  I grew up in a large church in an East Texas town, and have served as a volunteer or staff person in three different large churches since college.  The CT article briefly captures the ethos of the American megachurch, references recent studies that have grabbed headlines from major media outlets (such as this Hartford Institute For Religion Research report, “Not Who You Think They Are: The Real Story of People Who Attend America’s Megachurches”), and draws parallels to the ways overseas missionaries adapt themselves to the culture in which they minister so that they might share Christ.  In the same way for megachurches in this country, the CT article concedes that, “In corporate America, it may be necessary to use the ethos of marketing to gain a gospel hearing.”

This proposition has been, and continues to be, quite seductive.  In an effort to make inroads into the world of suburban, middle to upper professionals, church leaders have adapted the best techniques of the marketplace to build a constituency.  Most churches who have implemented marketing techniques have appealed most to the power-brokers of our communities, and, as the CT article acknowledges, have yielded success.  And I concede that this is a good thing.  But along the way, I have questioned whether such techniques, or means, in the end, can be justified by the type of person (Christian) that they produce.

After acknowledging that American megachurches have achieved some good by adapting themselves to the culture, CT issues a challenge.  CT returns to those missionaries working overseas, who, in cultures where polygamy was practiced, were willing to tolerate such an idea for the first generation, but by the second generation were working to teach fidelity between one husband and one wife in marriage.  The piece raises the question as to whether the cultural adaptations made by America’s megachurches to reach the masses have resulted in a loss of “gospel culture,” and challenges megachurch leaders to consider how their second generation ministries might shift away from business and consumer language.

CT cites a number of familiar but disturbing findings from the “Not Who You Think They Are” study (sponsored by Leadership Network), highlighting that megachurch attenders are:

  • younger (young and single adults are more attracted to megachurches than to smaller churches);
  • transient (nearly two-thirds have been in these churches fewer than five years); and
  • passive (45 percent of them never volunteer at church).

CT states, “Spiritual consumerism is clearly one reason the megachurch attracts so many–and one reason many wonder what type of faith people are being discipled into.”

The CT article then takes an interesting turn.  The editors chose to cite that, when the data is analyzed more closely, it can be demonstrated that the megachurch is “more like a megaphone,” amplifying the reality of the American church as a whole.  The article states that most medium-sized and smaller churches “are not that much different in demographics,” and even goes so far to say that “many a small church chases after ‘strategies and programs’ that can ‘meet spiritual needs’ and ‘multiply effectiveness.’”  Stated differently, CT simply believes that “business culture” is far more dominant than “biblical culture” in our churches, and those pointing a finger at megachurches as either the problem or heralding them as the solution have failed to recognize systemic shortcomings that plague us all.  After challenging the reader to admit that all churches fall short of God’s glory, the article ends by saying, “Once we all admit that, the Spirit can start working with us to create a gospel culture in our churches.”

In response, I have to ask, “What exactly is a gospel culture?”

While the CT piece borderlines on being prophetic, in the end I was disappointed.  The reader was told that “business-like” and “consumer-driven” megachurch ministries are problematic.  But in the final three paragraphs it seemed as though those ministries, who in their second and third generations should be shifting toward a new ethos in ministry, are simply let off the hook underneath the umbrella of “we are all broken.”  It seems as though the CT article points to the reality that there is another way to think of ourselves ecclesiastically, and that there is another way for us to exist as the church in America that is in greater accord with the gospel, but, in the end, does not provide us with even a hint of how that might be accomplished.  We are only given the vague appeal for “gospel culture.”  I understand that there is an appeal to the Spirit, but the writer(s) also say that the Spirit will “work with us.”  So, what are we to do?

When I have engaged in discussions with large-church leaders (and even smaller church leaders) who are extremely market-driven I have found that the greatest limitation to their ability to move beyond the “salesmanship” mentality is either that of imagination or that of faith.  Many leaders do not believe that a message that is unsensational or lacking in hype will result in the growth of the church.  Without cool graphic work, excellent promotional videos, or email marketing heralding the next thing at the church as “the most exciting and best thing we have ever done,” there is a fear that people will be bored, they will disengage, and they will be lost forever, as though the work of bringing people to Jesus had everything to do with the leader and their ability to manipulate the environment, and little to do with the power and grace of God.

If the CT article is right, that “Each American church in its own way has been co-opted and fallen short of the glory of God,” I pray that we as leaders would have the imagination and the faith to dream that things can be different, and rather than throw up our hands in despair, continuing on in our old patterns, I pray that we would begin to work toward what a gospel culture might truly be, acknowledging that a result resembling that dream would not be to our own glory, but to the One who called us and sustains us.

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My friends Ashlee Alley and Creighton Alexander are excited about the fall. They are excited to know that as the colleges where they minister begin the fall semester there will be many who are praying for the students, faculty, and campus ministries at their institutions. They are encouraged to know that so many have expressed their enthusiasm by virtue of their Facebook group and through other conversations, and anticipate how God will move in the coming year.

Creighton and Ashlee understand that campus ministry is important. They also have recognized that many United Methodist leaders received their call to ministry during this crucial and formative time. Campus ministry is important. It serves as a link between the local church and the broader family of Methodism during a time where young people are discerning their identity, asking serious questions about the Christian faith, definitely thinking about career and perhaps thinking about family, and dreaming about where their life is headed. Solid campus ministries have the opportunity to encourage and equip college students for life in college and beyond, and are vital for the moral formation of our students during this season of life change. Campus ministry is important, and even if nobody cares about campus ministry, they should.

I would encourage you to check out the 40 Days of Prayer for Campus Ministry effort and lift your voice with other leaders. This initiative is a way to support and undergird the United Methodist Church’s effort to raise up and equip principled Christian leaders. Visit their Facebook page and sign up. Download the prayer guide here on August 10, or visit this web site for more information.

Join God’s people as we lift our voice.

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It is no secret I’m a music geek.  It is also no secret that I am in love with words.  When I was in high school a great deal of my life was determined by music.  My friend Scott Beimler and I would listen carefully to all kinds of music, mining the lyrics for kernels of truth that would “relate” to our present life.  We would spend hours picking through his expansive music collection, browsing sleeve inserts and reading through the printed materials that came along with some of his best boxed set collections.  We were fascinated with lyrics.  We would find words that possessed power, and those words were heightened by instrumentation and music that would resonate with the present state of our soul, whether we were soaring at our highest heights or had plummeted to our lowest of lows.  I have continued to have friends with whom a shared love of music has been important to the relationship, such as Scot Huber or Mike Hibit, and I have been thankful for the sharing of harmony, rhythm, truth, and beauty that music has the unique power to convey. 

Last week I had the opportunity to share the music of a community that has blessed me in recent years, and I took great joy from the conversations and shared passions which were born through those conversations.  I asked a handful of students whom I walked alongside last week which musicians they listened to, and I came home with a list of 15 to 20 bands or performers they found compelling.  I had work to do on iTunes.  I also shared some of my musical preferences, most notably the work of Mike Crawford and His Secret Siblings.  It was particularly exciting to share “Words to Build a Life On” and see the students incorporate that anthem into our camp worship experiences.

If you haven’t heard of Mike Crawford, check out his work at his MySpace page, and if you’re interested in learning how to play a couple of the songs that have been born out of the Jacob’s Well community, check out Mike’s YouTube Channel.  You can also check in with Mike Crawford’s website, which is under construction, but according to Mike’s comment I found on this blog post, it is forthcoming soon and will feature charts and tabs.  If you’re interested in picking up their two CD collection, you can click here or wait till mid-August, at which time you can purchase it through iTunes.  Both the music and the lyrical content are fantastic.

Mike’s music is stuff I would recommend.  I particularly love the way in which the words of Scripture are sung throughout the album, which, at this time in my life, are the very words upon which I feast.  Mike’s music also allows for the Word to be heard in fresh ways, and, in a sense, recaptures the narrative of Scripture in a manner that ignites the imagination and opens up new possibilities for how that Word may be born in us as followers of Jesus.

T.S. Eliot, in his poem “Ash Wednesday,” observed:

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

We live in a world where the Word is unheard and unspoken.  But Mike’s music points to the Word, the light which shone in the darkness, which stands silent and waits to be spoken, and, even when it is unspoken, still stands at the center.  Mike’s music is witness to truth and beauty that has a name, Jesus the Christ.

If you haven’t already picked up Mike Crawford’s work, do it, and let it bless you.

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In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell begins with the tale of Roseto, Pennsylvania, a small, immigrant community nestled near the community of Bangor.  The story of Roseto falls into a familiar pattern–one repeated again and again in American history.  Gladwell chronicles how the earliest settlers of the community travelled from their native Italy in search of employment, found work in a slate quarry outside of Bangor, and began purchasing land to establish a new community for their families.  As family members immigrated to the Americas, they began replicating their life together in the old world.  They replicated the community structures and the religious and family life.  They continued to foster values of multi-generational family care, work, visiting one another, egalitarianism and an aversion to flaunting wealth, church, and the sharing of meals.  The community itself was unique, and was a key factor in what became known as the “Roseto Effect,” or what Gladwell calls, “The Roseto Mystery.”

Roseto became known to the wider world thanks to the work of a man named Stewart Wolf.  In the late 1950′s Wolf spent his summers on a farm in Pennsylvania not far from Roseto.  Wolf was a physician who had studied digestion and taught in the medical school at The University of Oklahoma.  Wolf’s discovery of Roseto was a surprise.  While having a beer with a physician who had practiced medicine in Pennsylvania for seventeen years, he was confronted with the remark that this doctor rarely found anyone from Roseto who was under sixty-five and suffering from heart disease.  Wolf was floored.  This was before the widespread usage of cholesterol-lowering medication and, at the time, heart disease was the leading cause of death for men under sixty-five.  Gladwell states, “It was impossible to be a doctor, common sense said, and not see heart disease.”

This propelled Wolf on a quest.  He was determined to discover what made Roseto unique.  What was it about this community that had led to so few cases of heart disease?  After assembling a team of medical students the research began.  They scoured the records of physicians.  They conducted interviews.  They reconstructed the history of the community.  They examined dietary habits.  They formulated theories.  Wolf hired a sociologist named John Bruhn to help him.  He was shocked by the findings, saying, “There was no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction, and very little crime.  They didn’t have anyone on welfare.  Then we looked at peptic ulcers.  They didn’t have any of those either.  These were people dying of old age.  That’s it.”

Wolf determined Roseto was an outlier, “(1) something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body; or (2) a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others in the sample.”  In seeking to determine the reason for the long life of those living in Roseto, Wolf ruled out diet, genes, exercise, and location.  There was not anything special about what they ate (some residents struggled with obesity), their genetics (Rosetans living in other parts of the U.S.A. were not as healthy), exercise (no yoga fanatics), or geography (other nearby towns had death rates three times as high as Roseto for men under sixty-five).  As Wolf reviewed his data, he could make no other conclusion than that the reason for longevity in Roseto was none other than “Roseto itself.”

For Wolf and Bruhn, this began a revolution for how the medical community would have to think about heart disease.  They began emphasizing the importance of community living, or looking beyond the individual for indicators of health.  They emphasized culture and values, recognizing, “the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are.”

This story provides a perfect segue into my life this past week.

Institute 2009 :: Faith Under Construction

For the past four summers I have been part of a 98 year tradition at Baker University: Leadership Institute–a ministry to students sponsored and coordinated by the Conference Council on Youth Ministries of the Kansas East Conference of The United Methodist Church (I think I gave shout outs to all appropriate parties).  Institute is a Christian camping experience that is led and coordinated by a team of student and adult leaders within the conference.  The students play a unique role in executing the camp, as there is a designated “Youth Coordinating Team” that directs morning gatherings, elements of worship, and community wide events (crazy olympics, Bible skit night, Talent/No Talent Show, Community Dance) in partnership with an “Adult Coordinating Team” (one female, one male).  While that team is surrounded by a “Community Life Coordinator,” “Spiritual Life Coordinator,” “Facilities Coordinator,” and “Care Group Staff Coordinator” (care groups are small groups of students and leaders (8 to 12) who meet together throughout the week), the students bear a significant burden of leadership for making the week of camp a success.  They are critical for the community.

I fell into Institute four years ago thanks to the invitation of Mike Hibit, a dear friend who is a school teacher in Kansas City, Kansas and worship leader at FirstLight in Gardner.  Mike invited me to come along as a care group leader and as a teacher during an elective session called a “Lifesaver,” which consists of four sessions on a particular topic related to the life of faith, such as “Bible Study Methods,” “Prayer,” “Relationships,” or “How to Be a Christian in College.”   Each summer I have returned to Baldwin City during the month of July to lead a Care Group and teach a Lifesaver.  Each summer I have chosen to teach some aspect of the Bible, whether it be the grand narrative of Scripture, the life and teachings of Jesus, or, as I did this year, I focused on the New Testament writings of Paul and the sayings of Jesus and how they form the spiritual life.

During the four years I have been part of Institute, the camp has changed.  Leadership has changed.  We have re-designated “Free Time” as “Sabbath Time” to better teach students the Jewish and Christian practice of rest and play.  We have re-designated “Hug Groups” as “Reflection” to focus the conversations students have with adult leaders at the conclusion of the day by directing their thoughts toward what they have seen and heard.  We have also done a better job at theme development, raising the level of intensity at camp, directing students more fully to the person and work of Jesus, creating space for students to explore a calling toward the ministry of deacon or elder, encouraging Care Group leaders to open the Bible with their students during the week, and directly inviting the students into a personal, dynamic relationship with Jesus Christ as both Lord and Savior.  We have carved out space where students can receive prayer from other adult leaders, either for the purpose of dedicating their lives to Christ, recommitting themselves in their walk, or to receive words of encouragement and healing that are needed due to the burdens they bring with them into our week together.

My assessment of our camping experience is not meant as a knock on past leaders, nor is it meant to indicate that we have created a camping experience that has attained the greatest measure of excellence that Institute could possess.  But it is meant to indicate that I believe that Institute is a healthier environment today than it may have been four years ago.  It has only been strengthened.  Members of the Vision Team (the body responsible for forming the plan for camp each year) have done a good job recommending changes for how the camp is executed, and have derived ideas for camp themes that have been intelligible and encouraging for our students.  The decision to empower the Spiritual Life Coordinator to give consistent voice at evening worship has been a positive change, not only in my opinion, but in the opinion of many students whom I know have experienced evening gatherings with a diversity of voices.  When I came to Institute the strength was found in the environment of love that permeated the camp.  That has now been coupled with an environment of intensity and intentional, purposive discipleship to Jesus Christ.

This year we should celebrate the simplicity of words that welled up from deep places during the messages and testimonies of people like Tami Clark, Eduardo Bousson, Jacob Cloud, Alayna Humphrey, Drew Bauerle, Beth Bowman, Jordan Cardone, and Seth Snavely.  Each one of these leaders directed us toward the great love of God and gave us a glimpse of their heart as it has been formed in the way of Jesus.  We have great reason to thank Steven Blair for his leadership as the Spiritual Life Coordinator, guiding us from Plotting the Path, to Clearing the Path, to Laying the Path, to the Fork in the Road, Driving on the Road, and then to our Final Destination.  Skylar Gotte should also be thanked for her leadership as the Student Spiritual Life Coordinator.  We should give great thanks to Nolan Frank, Kayli Holloway, Beth Bowman, Drew Bauerle, and Michael Rice (all teenagers) for leading us during worship in music and song.  Their lives are great witnesses to God’s goodness.  And we should thank Kagen Fell for providing us with the Time Machine Dance.

This week I was most encouraged to hear of three students who are deeply impressed that God is calling them toward ordained ministry within United Methodism.  This is phenomenal, as these types of stories are a positive development in the life of the Institute community.  I was also encouraged to hear leaders pronouncing God’s forgiveness to students who were convicted of sin, and who were seeking a fresh start in their walk with Jesus as they went forth from camp.  I rejoiced on hearing of students making firm commitments to Jesus for the first time and hearing personally from students who desired renewal or to move beyond stasis towards an active discipleship.  These students expressed their desire to advance in the Kingdom life.

The Kingdom

Institute, in a sense, is an environment like Roseto.  It is an environment where the Kingdom of God manifests itself, and where life can thrive.  Stanley Hauerwas, quoting Walter Kasper, reminds us that “the Kingdom is ‘totally and exclusively God’s doing.  It cannot be earned by religious or moral effort, imposed by political struggle, or projected in calculations. We cannot plan for it, organize it, make it, or build it, we cannot invent or imagine it. It is given (Matt. 21:43; Lk 12:32), ‘appointed’ (Lk 22:29).  We can only inherit it (Mt. 25:34).’”  Therefore, Institute, and the work God was conducting through those willing servants called YCT, ACT, and other members of the Coordinating Team, as well as Care Group Leaders and other members of the community, is purely God’s good gift.

It is only fitting that I conclude with a story that illustrates how the environment at this camp called Institute displays that which Christian people call Kingdom.  In doing so I hope to avoid a reductionistic account, as though this one story “sums up” our experience together last week.  There are more stories to tell that would provide a richer and fuller account of God’s work.  But, alas, I must choose one.

During the week one of my students shared with me her perceptions of her community.  She lives in a suburb of Kansas City located in south Johnson County, a very affluent area.  She chronicled that the power of the week for her was found in that the people she encountered at Institute were “so alive here,” and, thus, her encounter with God through the life of the community was made all the more profound by the power of what is called witness.  Describing the plastic environment from which she had come, she could not help but note that the eternal kind of life embodied by the saints in Baldwin City for one week was like a wellspring of hope for what it might mean to follow Jesus Christ.  After having a taste from that “stream of living water,” she desired deeply to share in that type of life.  And from Monday to Saturday, I saw a life transformed.

As I go forth from camp, the joy that welled up in my heart remains from stories like these and from the encounters I had with young people who possessed a deep desire to fall in love with the God Jesus knows.  I am encouraged by friendships, inspired by the saints, and emboldened to continue the work of the ministry that God has given me.  May my new friends continue to experience God’s blessing, and may they, in turn, be a blessing to God’s good world.

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Many of you know that I attend worship at The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, whose central campus is located in Leawood, Kansas.  My wife is campus pastor at Resurrection West, located in Olathe, Kansas.  Resurrection is a large church, and is significant within United Methodism in great part thanks to the work and ministry of God through our Senior Pastor, Adam Hamilton.  Pastor Adam is not only significant within Methodism, his voice is influential throughout American Christianity.  God has done a fantastic work through him and through people in Johnson County (and other counties nearby) over the last two decades, and his leadership has been vitally important during that time.

Each week Pastor Adam sends an email alerting the congregation to important events in the life of the body, what is taking place in his life, and what will take place in weekend worship.  The email drops in my inbox each Friday.  I take time to read the email, as I’m sure many others do.

Being the summer months, this is the season wherein new pastors are appointed to new contexts.  Resurrection is no  exception.  Each summer we learn who has been appointed to new places, and bless them as they go forth in ministry.  We also learn the names of those we will welcome for the coming year, and rejoice that the Bishop has sent us able servants to minister and lead us forward.  Those called are sent by those given authority within the Church.  There is beautiful theology in that idea.

Here is an excerpt from Pastor Adam’s email, wherein he welcomes three new pastors to our full time staff:

2. Meet Our New Pastors
This weekend we will be introducing you to three new clergy on our team. Michael Maroon has been serving in congregational care for the last 18 months part-time as he was finishing seminary. He’s been a terrific part of our team and we’re excited that the bishop has appointed him to serve full-time as the Congregational Care Pastor for those with last names J – L and as the Pastor of Prayer Ministries. (Russell Brown has been serving this pastorate and he will now focus full-time on our support ministries including Celebrate Recovery and our Reset Ministries for those affected by the economic crisis). Before coming to us Michael served for two years as a youth pastor. Prior to going to seminary Michael worked in the financial sector at MetLife and Edward Jones. He is a graduate of Saint Paul School of Theology and of the University of Kansas. He married his wife Becca in 2005. Michael was attending Church of the Resurrection before he went to seminary and actually heard his call to ministry as a part of our congregation. 

Wendy Lyons Chrostek will serve as the Congregational Care Pastor for persons whose last names begin with D – I. She grew up in Louisiana on a farm. She went to college at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi where she majored in Biology and was a pre-med student. It was during her senior year that she heard God’s call to ministry. She attended Duke Divinity School where she met her husband Scott (who is also a pastor joining our team – see below). They met while camping out for Duke basketball tickets. Wendy and Scott have spent the last three years since graduating from seminary in the Detroit Annual Conference where Wendy served as Associate Pastor at Central UMC in Waterford, Michigan where she gave leadership to young adults, justice ministries and pastoral care. Wendy is very familiar with our church, having been here twice for our Leadership Institute.

Scott Chrostek joins our team as the new Campus Pastor for Resurrection Downtown – our new campus launching this fall at 9th and Grand at Grand Avenue Temple. Scott is a graduate of the University of Michigan with a degree in economics. Prior to hearing the call to ministry he worked at MassMutual Financial Group while volunteering with the youth group at his local church. It was there he heard a call to full time ministry. Scott attended Duke Divinity School where he met and then married his wife Wendy. Scott has served for the last three years as an associate pastor at Brighton First UMC in Michigan where he had responsibility for youth, missions, worship, finance and long range planning. Scott has dreamt for years of launching a church in a downtown area and is excited to be tapped to lead Resurrection Downtown. He and Wendy live in the Western Auto Building downtown. 

I’m excited about our three new pastors.  But as I read these introductions, I was reminded of one concern that I have had for some time concerning Pastor Adam’s rhetoric in introducing new leaders into our local church context.  As the credentials for each person are listed to the congregation, no mention is made of the most significant context for spiritual formation in the life of each of these persons.  Read it again.  It isn’t there.  Positions of authority, undergraduate and seminary education, geographical origins, academic honors, and other professional experience is listed, as well as interesting biographical details.  But the Church is neglected.

Granted, it may be the case that for Michael, Scott, and Wendy, there is not a single local church that has made a formative impact on their life in Christ.  But somehow I doubt this is the case.  Rather, this detail is omitted because it is not seen to be significant.  The names of these places would not serve to bolster the credentials of these persons, so we do not spare the few words it might take to name them.  

The first 18 years of my life were formed within the context of a single local church.  That is where my education in the Christian life began, and no doubt it is where many of my most significant lessons were learned.  I would like to know: What bodies of Christian people most significantly formed Michael, Wendy, and Scott as they grew up?

Over the past several years, I have listened to Pastor Adam introduce new pastors to the congregation, and many times the impression is given that we must “send off” our leaders to “some other place” to be “educated” and “formed” for leadership in the church.  The bachelor’s degree and seminary requirements for the ordination as elder is given far more weight than any other factor in our recognition that our leaders are fit to be given the mantle of authority.  All too often this leaves the impression that the local church is only minimally important.  It is often noted if the person is “one of ours,” but if someone has come from outside our context, more emphasis is placed on their business and/or professional experience or their academic credentials.  If the local church is the center of our ministry and our greatest hope for sharing the good news of Jesus Christ to the world, this rhetoric will have to change, even if that means naming small, and, in the eyes of the world, “insignificant” bodies of Christians who have created the contexts where our leaders can hear God’s call first to follow Christ, and then to lead his people.

I can tell you from personal experience that when I share with other Methodists that I am part of Church of the Resurrection, this means something.  The same can be said for any other congregation of any other size.  By naming those places from where we come, we strengthen connection, honor the lives and witness of others, and more truthfully tell the story of where we are from and how we are formed.

Spiritual formation occurs in the midst of God’s people.  Stated differently, the Church matters.  Let’s not forget it.

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Last week I was in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and, having failed to schedule a blog post on the first action day for 6 Questions for The United Methodist Church, I thought that today I should direct some traffic to this initiative and encourage participation on the part of those who occasionally click through my blog.  6 Questions is an effort to directly respond to God’s work in our lives that began prior to and through 40 Days of Prayer, giving voice to those stirrings that have taken place throughout the church as we have turned our collective face toward the One who has constituted the Church–Jesus, the Messiah from Nazareth.  To borrow a phrase from James Surowiecki, we hope that through the wisdom of crowds we will be able to discern the right questions to be asking and addressing as the church moves forward toward the heavenly city.  Our results will also help us better discern “What is going on?”, which, as H. Richard Niebuhr observed, is a question which should precede the asking of “What shall I do?”

When you visit the 6 Questions page, you’ll find a description of the project and a number of links on the left hand side of the page.  These categories are specific initiatives, persons, or areas of church ministry that need good questions.  At first it will seem a bit overwhelming, but I would encourage you to patiently click through each category, cast votes, and submit questions.  I would also encourage you to bring together groups of friends (Christian or yet-to-follow Jesus) from your corner of the world to help us discern what we should be asking.

To learn more about 6 Questions you can click the links in the quotation below, or check out this video:

This update from Andrew Conard is encouraging:

By September 30, I believe that it is possible to see 10,000 people submit 2,500 questions and cast 75,000 votes.

What do you think?

To participate visit: http://bit.ly/6qumc

To read more, visit: http://www.umcyoungclergy.com/6qumc

Click the links.  Watch the video.  Visit the website.  Vote.  Submit questions.  Help us better discern who we are and where we are going so that we can develop resources, direct conversations, and conspire together to be faithful to God’s calling on the church in this generation.

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It is no secret that among my favorite theologians Stanley Hauerwas stands tall.  My closest friends who have read Hauerwas’s “work” recognize how my theology has been influenced by his thought, his cantankerousness, his wit, and, most importantly, his love for the church.  I am not just a “fan” of Hauerwas.  I have done my best to read his writings carefully and mine from the riches found there those things which ring true and bring them to expression in an actual lived life–my own.  I have learned from Hauerwas that to be Christian we must undergo training that teaches us how to see, and we learn how to see through saying, or liturgy.  We are trained as we participate in the life of the people called “Church.”  There we are taught how to be God’s peace in the world through the power of the Holy Spirit, the telling of the story of Scripture, and the witness of the saints.

This week I have been reading A Cross-Shattered Church: Reclaiming the Theological Heart of Preaching.  The book is a collection of sermons written on various occasions.  Some are written for weddings or other special life-happenings, some for worship in local churches, and others for those gathered as part of the Divinity School at Duke University.  This morning this quote gave me pause:

We are well schooled as Christians.  We know that we are not to identify with Judas.  Yet we cannot help but think, thief though he was, Judas was right–the costly perfume should have been sold and the money given to the poor.  If we are honest we cannot resist the conclusion: Judas is appealing.

Moreover, if any conviction characterizes what it means to be Christian in our day, it is surely the presumption that we ought to be on the side of the poor.  No longer sure we know what it means to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, we at least take comfort that to be a Christian requires that we care about those less well off.  Of course that means for us–that is, for the moderately well off–to care for the poor usually extends no farther than our attempt to make the poor like us, that is, moderately well off.

Given the world in which we find ourselves, a world that thinks what Christians believe must make us doubtful allies in the struggle for justice, the Christian concern for the poor can win us some respect.  The cultural despisers of the church at least have to acknowledge that Christians do some good in spite of our reactionary convictions.  So it is good that we burn with a passion for justice.  The only problem with such a passion is that it can put us on Judas’s side.

-Stanley Hauerwas, “The Appeal of Judas”, A Sermon for Duke Divinity School, March 28, 2007 in A Cross-Shattered Church, 95

This strikes me as true.  For those of us that deeply burn for justice, our temptation is to sell out Jesus for a bag of silver.  Preaching Jesus as God’s Son, God’s peace in a violent world, who, in being hung on a cross brings an end to violence, an end to sacrifice, expresses the full measure of God’s grace, and there declares the forgiveness of sin, are peculiar truths in a world like ours.  It is much easier to say that we should be nice people with a concern for those who are monetarily less well off.

Hauerwas continues his sermon by reminding us that Jesus’s response to Judas is something we wish he would have never said, “You will always have the poor with you, but you will not have me.”  Hauerwas further raises excellent questions for the church, saying, “The church has glossed over Jesus’s response to Judas by not asking, ‘What if we did more than care for the poor?’ or, ‘What if we celebrated the poor?’”  He then follows by simply stating, “That such questions are not asked reflects a church that has forgotten that Christianity is determinatively the faith of the poor.”

Hauerwas’s reminder extends in two directions.  First, Hauerwas gazes across the span of church history and acknowledges the church’s buildings, liturgy, music and hymns, is a beauty for the poor.  In addition, “The literature of the church, her theology and philosophy, is distorted if it does not contribute to the common life determined by the worship of a Savior who was poor.”  This last quotation leads directly to Hauewas second point of emphasis–the Messiah Christians worship was poor.  Indeed, “The poor you will always have with you.”

I can only hope that my theology as it has been embodied among my peers and among the students I have mentored has reflected a celebration of those who are poor.  I also hope that I am not among those who are “no longer sure what it means to believe Jesus is the Son of God.”  I hope that my care for those that are poor is an extension of my belief that Jesus is who Scripture and the Church across time has proclaimed him to be.  

As I begin this day, that is my prayer.

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Counseling is a responsibility of pastors.  Or so many would say. I have talked with friends who commonly meet with parishioners to listen to their struggles, whether they be emotional, spiritual, physical, relational, financial, or otherwise, and after listening they strive to then offer a word of wisdom, a bit of encouragement, or glimmer of hope.  Maybe they just offer presence.  One of my friends, Nicole, has sought to ask herself how she offers Christ to each person with whom she meets.  There is much to be commended in this posture.

This week, during my time away at the Renvoare’ Conference, I heard from Chris Webb.  Chris relayed a story of his time as an Anglican parish priest, in which a woman came to him to discuss the horrible end to her marriage–a terrible, ugly divorce.  She described how the relationship had deteriorated, how she had been destroyed by the actions of her husband, and how she was angry.  Before Chris could speak, she told him that she already knew what he was going to tell her to do.  She surmised that he was going to tell her to forgive.  She told him that she could not.

His reply surprised her.  He said, “I wasn’t going to tell you that, though I can see why that might have been your supposition.”  He continued, “I cannot help you to forgive,” he told her, “but as an Anglican priest I took vows to help you to pray.”  He explained to his hearers, “I did not take vows to offer counseling, but to teach people to pray.”

His next word of pastoral advice took her further by surprise.  He said, “Do you wish that your husband would die?”  She said, “Yes.”  He said, “pray that.”  She said, “What?”  He said, “Yes, I want you to pray that he should die.”

Chris then pointed to Psalm 55, a Psalm of David, a man after God’s own heart.  Beginning in verse 12, the Psalm reads, “If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were raising himself against me, I could hide from him.  But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship as we walked with the throng at the house of my God.  Let death take my enemies by surprise; let them go down alive to the grave, for evil finds their lodging among them.”

This surprises us, of course.  But Chris challenged his hearers by saying that David was radically honest with God.  He told the truth about himself.  And God could handle it.  After seeing the woman who had suffered so greatly at the hands of another once some time had passed, Chris asked her how things were going.  She said she was still in prayer, but she doesn’t pray Psalm 55 anymore.  God had been working on her heart.  Those words no longer fit her emotions.  God had been at work healing her in the midst of her honesty.

There is a lesson for us there, for our own prayer lives and for our ministries.  Do we offer people counsel, or do we teach them to pray?  May we be those, like David, who are radically honest in our conversations with God, even when what we find there is unattractive, ugly, repulsive.  May we face our heartache, our pain, our hurt, our shortcomings, our sufferings, and be truthful to the one who is the Truth.

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After being delayed on the runway in San Antonio, redirected mid-flight to Waco for refueling, rescheduled on two different flights at DFW, eventually being bumped to a Thursday morning return flight, experiencing an unexpected layover in Dallas (thanks, Fitzhugh family), I’m home.  And it is good to be home.  I am thankful for what I have learned these past few days in the company of those in Christ at Renovare’, and return home with a renewed joy in my calling as a follower of the Jesus way.  What a great time.

My final day in San Antonio I heard from John Ortberg, Pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California.  The best quotes from his talk were captured on my Twitter feed, so if you’re curious you can scour the content there.  We then engaged in a closing time of worship.  We sang hymns I knew and others I did not.  We celebrated what God had accomplished during our time together.  I witnessed impressive displays of humility from Dallas Willard and others, and was captivated by the sheer joy of Richard Foster during a time of closing conversation.  I was thankful that I was able to hear from both men and women who inspired me in my faith.  My admiration for them reaches beyond them to the source of what makes them admirable.  The life of “the saints” can indeed result in praise of the Almighty God who, by grace, has made them what they have become.  I do not worship the saints, but I am thankful to God for the saints whom I heard from during my time with Renovare’.

For friends and other readers of this blog, I can confidently commend the ethos, ideas, and practices spoken of at Renovare’.  These people are concerned with the spiritual life, they are concerned with growing the soul, they are concerned about holiness.  They are centered on Jesus.  And I believe they know from whence their “success” comes: from God alone, by grace.  As a means of response for my readers, I would encourage all to read and reflect on a document introduced on Tuesday of the conference: A Call To Spiritual Formation.  Think about the ideas presented here, and, if you find them compelling, commit yourself to them.  Here are the six headline statements from this document:

  • God calls us all to become like Jesus.
  • As we are rooted in Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims, we are progressively transformed.
  • Our engagement with God’s transforming grace is vital.
  • Spiritual formation happens in community.
  • Spiritual formation is, by its very nature, missional.
  • We invite all people, everywhere, to embrace with us this calling to be like Jesus.

For my Kansas City area friends, I would welcome a discussion of what it might mean to commit ourselves more deeply to these ways and encourage one another in holiness.  For my friends who are more distant, or are connected with me through this blog, I would also be interested to know if you are interested in this call and in these ideas.  I would like to foster a network of peers who are committed to these ideas and this kind of approach to spiritual formation, and perhaps creatively formulate some means to facilitate an ongoing conversation wherein we might inspire one another in ministry, in service, and in our journey to become more like the person of Jesus so that we might more accurately serve as signposts to his kingdom, his reign, his gospel, and the salvation found in him.

May you be a blessing to the One who gives you, by grace, life, breath, love, hope, and charity.

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