Thursday, March 27, 2014

On Vouchers and Grace

As pastor I often get people in seeking assistance.  It was not one of my favorite things to do when I started in ministry, but the more I do it, the more I enjoy it. Except for when I don't.  Two recent examples come to mind.

Our church is right on main street, the only one, and so I often get benevolence requests from people traveling through town.  One day I pulled up in the parking lot over by the dumpster to throw something in, and a lady got out of her car parked by the office door and came over.

"Are you the pastor?"  she asked

I really didn't want to say yes, because I knew where this was going.  But lying about being a pastor seemed especially wrong, so I told her I was.  I got a long story about a doctors appointment in a far away town, a broken gas gauge, etc etc.  She asked for money for gas, and when I was not quick to reply she jumped in telling me

"My pastor at home said anyone who won't give me gas is not a true man of God"

I had an errand to run and it couldn't do anything right that moment and told her come back in about 30 minutes. She never did, so I guess she didn't need it that bad. We help people often, in all sorts of ways.  But I was really put off by her demanding some help.

Last week a man came in just wanting to talk, and so we did.  He had been without work, and was discouraged.  He was actively looking, but hadn't hit anything yet.  I offered some help for him from the ministerial alliance, and he became overwhelmed.  A twenty dollar gas voucher and twenty dollar grocery voucher brought him to tears.  He knew he didn't deserve it, even though it wasn't much.  He offered to work to pay for it, and I told him no.  This is from the church to you, I explained.  As God has blessed us, so we bless others.  He again pressed to do some work, and I said maybe next time, but for now take this as grace to you.

Seeing him overwhelmed at a small offer got to me as God spoke to my heart.  Am I overwhelmed at His offer for me?  I surely don't deserve the gift of His son he gave to me, but I still bang on the door to heaven, demanding that God give me all I want.  I'm too much like the first woman, because I think I'm entitled to handouts from God.  With arrogrance I approach the throne of grace, demanding God fix my problems.

But that defies what grace is.  My pastor growing up explained it like this

Justice is getting what you deserve

Mercy is not getting what you deserve

But grace, God's grace, is getting what you don't deserve.  Grace is the balance between justice and mercy.

Imagine I get pulled over by a policeman for speeding.  I was speeding and he gives me a ticket.  Justice.  I got what I deserved

Or I get pulled over for speeding. He gives me a warning.  That's mercy.  Not getting what I deserve.

Now imagine I get pulled over for speeding, the officer writes me up, and then pays the ticket for me.  That's neither justice or mercy.  It's grace. It's getting what I don't deserve.

There is no reason that we should not be constantly overwhelmed by the grace of God.  He showers us in love and kindness as only a gracious God can.  His son paid the debt that we owe, giving us eternal life. Giving us what we don't deserve.

Be overwhelmed by His grace and ask God for a new vision for all he's done for you. When you stop demanding and realize your position before a Holy God, you can't be anything but grateful.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

My Biggest Mistake as a Pastor

I grew up in a great christian home.  My dad was (is) a principal at a christian school, for the past 40 years or so.  So I was surrounded by Christianity on that end. And in a great church, a healthy church, that had great teaching and leaders.

As I grew up I began to grow spiritually, thanks in small part to my surroundings.  We memorized verses every week at school, did Awana's at church, had a great youth group.  We did mission trips, outreach, all types of things.  As I grew I felt God was calling me to preach, and so I did.  I began to become involved in leadership, and I began to share where God allowed me.

I thought, that this growth happened because I was in church.  I was at church, that's why I was growing and other people didn't.  They weren't as involved as I was, didn't have a supportive home, didn't get to study the Bible at school.

So when I became a pastor, at a too-young-of-an-age, I thought the most important thing I could do was get people to church. That's where the growth happened right?

What I soon found out with alarming certainty was that being in church was no indicator of spiritual maturity.  It's possible that someone who has been in church the majority of their life has little spiritual maturity.  Perhaps their church has been anemic in preaching the word, or they have taken it in on the surface level only.  I'm not sure how that happens, but I know it happens.

Because I thought I just had to get people to church, then my methods focused on changing what we did to get people in, or on big events to draw people in.  Hook them, as it were.  I thought the music, the sound system, the look of the sanctuary, or the friendliness of people was the problem.  It was never the preaching of course, just other things that people needed to let me fix.  I also thought that if I got people to attend, then spiritual growth happened automatically.

I soon learned, through much pain, that more was needed.  People grow spiritually when they seek God not just an hour or two a week but everyday.  It seems like common sense, but it took me several hard lessons to learn it.

Knowing the true path of a disciple of Christ, we can then order our services, churches, and our lifes around the things that do produce change.  Namely the Word of God and prayer.  I spend a lot of my time telling the importance of bible reading, and of prayer.  I do not promote these as things to check off on a box to be a good christian, but rather the ways and means by which spiritual growth happens.  We do this through a weekly scripture memory verse, through bible reading plans, prayer guides, even through exegetical preaching.  This shows that the Word of God, Jesus, is the only on that can really change our lives.  It takes the pressure off of us, to perform, to inspire, or change people ourselves.  It leaves the burden in the hands of the one who can do it.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Man has one thing to do

In 1956 Jim Elliot and four other missionaries were killed in Ecuador.  They had been trying to reach the Acua Indians for some time and had finally landed their plane on the river.  They were all speared shortly thereafter.

But work did not stop in reaching the Aucas.  Their families and others continued their work.  Elizabeth Elliot wrote a book about her time after her husbands death and the time she later spent reaching the Aucas and time spent living with them.

Many told her she needed to come home, to give up, to quit trying to reach those people.  In her book The Savage, My Kinsman she gives great advice for all seeking God's plans.

"It was clear to me that the central issue was not of methods.  Something could go wrong with the very best plan.  Some unexplained factor could throw off the wisest calculations.  I simply asked the Lord to do what he wanted to do about it.  For once in my life I had no suggestions to make to Him about how He was to do it.  I placed myself in his hands, saying that if He wanted to give me a part in reaching the Aucas, I was ready.  I had noticed throughout the Bible that, when God asked a man to do something, methods, means, materials, and specific directions were always provided.  The man had one thing to do: obey."

Too often we focus so much on the methods, that we forget God always equips what he calls us for.   I am as prone as everyone else to thinking that if I can just figure out the right system, the right methods, then it will all fall into place.  She wrote these words while contemplating God's plan for her and her young daughter.  Had God called them to reach the Aucas?  If God had called then all we must do is obey.

 For a pastor working to revitalize a church, these words have great meaning.  We often think that all our church needs is better methods, better practices, and then it will all fall into place.  Even if we have the best plan and the purest hearts, something will not go as planned.  It certainly did for Jim Elliot and the others killed.  But if God calls us to something, methods, means, materials, and specific directions are provided from the Lord.  Take comfort in your calling from the Lord and do the one thing required you: Obey.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Faith and Families

I have not read but would like to this new book about faith and family.

In 1969, shortly after being hired at U.S.C., Professor Bengtson began a study of 350 families, whom he interviewed regularly until 2008. In some families, he interviewed four generations. In all, his respondents were born in years spanning 1878 to 1989.

Professor Bengtson’s project yielded more than 200 articles, many focused on aging and intergenerational conflict, topics on which he has become an expert. Now, at last, he is ready to draw some conclusions about religion, the issue that got him started.

In “Families and Faith: How Religion Is Passed Down Across Generations” (Oxford; $29.95), written with two colleagues, Professor Bengtson argues that families do a pretty good job of passing religious faith to their children. More interesting, for those who fret about children leaving the fold — that is, clergy members and parents everywhere — Professor Bengtson has theories about why some children keep the faith while others leave.

Read the whole Article for yourself.  On Faith and Family

Monday, February 17, 2014

What are you so afraid of

A great exchange with Ravi Zacharias. As he often does, he gets straight to the heart of the matter of this young man's question.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Missionary Practice for the Rural Church

In preparation for a mission trip in a few months, I was told to read Tradecraft for the Church on Mission.  I was greatly encouraged by the book, as I mentioned in my review here.  Much of it centers around missionary practices of mapping, relationships, protecting indigeneity, persons of peace, and so on.  Having never studied anything like this I was impressed with the thought and details in the book. While much of it would seem common sense, it is far from simple pragmatism and is grounded deeply in reaching people with the gospel.

It's also centered around large cities, which I am not in.  To be fair they never state, its never stated its only for big cities, but the pictures they paint imagine large cities. The place I live and serve is about 3500, and it is the biggest town for miles.  County seat, ya'll!  But the practices they talk about are also helpful in exegeting a rural city, so I want to give some thoughts on doing that.

Mapping is one of the first practices they mention. Getting a feel for a city, for it's boundaries, and where people gather etc.  My community has less people than a neighborhood in a large city, so it may seem like it's easier to map it to understand it.  In some ways it is, like following the paths that people take around town.  When you have only two stoplights, most of the traffic goes through there.  My church is right across from Sonic, and EVERYONE in town knows where Sonic is.  But I think it's harder with less people because there is less data to draw from and less people to observe.  It makes it more difficult when you have a smaller group sampling to observe. This is not to say that it's impossible, just harder.  

This line of thought also works as it relates to tribes. A tribe is a group of people that self identify in order to fit into a larger group.  Tribes are as loose as cheering for the same sports team, on down to close knit groups like families, close friends, etc.  People often get their identity from their tribe, including how to think about certain subjects, how to dress, views toward authority in a culture, among others.  Upon reading the chapter on tribes I made a list of the tribes in my community.  Without thinking too deeply I came up with the following:

Law Enforcement
The Local Junior College
Volunteer Fire Department
Chamber of Commerce (business)
College Students
High School Students
Community Involvement (development groups, Mason's, Lions, etc)

There are many others to be sure. But again, because it's a smaller rural community, there is less people to draw from.  And many (most) people travel in many different tribes.  I'm thinking of one man who is a Mason, a church person, works at the college, and in involved in local business.  The point is that it can be harder to reach out to an individual tribe, and that many "tribes" can be just 2 or 3 people.  If someone wanted to reach the skater community in my town, it would be about 5-10 kids, only 2 of which are seriously committed.  A rural community church pastor must be adept in crossing all of these tribes. This echoes the biblical words of Paul to be "all things to all people"  A pastor in this setting might attend a breakfast at the college, hang out with college students at the local Baptist college ministry, lead services, and deal with those seeking benevolence all in one day.  This type of  pastor is constantly crossing boundaries (tribes) as he deals with a typical day.  

This can work to a churches advantage as they pursue diversity, in order to honor God.  God is glorified in diversity, states Tradecraft.  While true, diversity is hard to come by in rural communities.  That's not to say there is not diversity.  My own state of Oklahoma has the third highest inter racial marriage rate in the US..  Many people think small towns are all white, or indian, or whatever.  But if you look around as you go about your business in town, you will see great diversity. Not on the scale of a large metropolitan city, but diverse nonetheless.  But while there is diversity, Sunday morning is still greatly segregated. There are many reasons for this, but only one solution: the Gospel of Christ that unifies those in the church to one another.  Often times there are huge barriers to overcome in this reaching for diversity.  Many communities have long standing barriers, spoken or unspoken, that segregate people. But as so many people in a smaller community are spread across so many tribal boundaries, this can be a great source to encourage diversity.  Rural community churches must strive hard to overcome these barriers in pursuit of diversity that glorifies God.

This leads to the next point, the exegeting of a community.  Rural communities have stories that define them like everywhere else. But our stories don't change as often.  And if you're not a part of the story, and don't know every ones role, it can be hard to get yourself in.  I moved to a church in a community of about 2k, and on the first day the music minister shook my hand and said "I've been here 20 years and I'm still an outsider."  He was exegeting the community for me, in one sentence!  In a large city with population turnover, the feel of a neighborhood can change quickly. Gentrification is an example of this. But with rural communities with a stable population, things stay the same for much longer. This is good, because it promotes stability. But with regard to exegeting a culture, it can prove difficult, as what defines a community is not what happened last week, but what happened 100 years ago.  There is a lot of story to wrap your head around as you unpack in a rural community.  You cannot insert yourself quickly into the story either, it takes time to do that.

Lastly, it is important to protect idegeneity, but what exactly that is remains to be seen. While no group is ever completely homogeneous, rural communities have more diversity than many think because you cannot section yourself off with only people like you.  In SoHo, or Hells Kitchen, or Austin, or the suburbs of Houston, you can find enough people like you to form your tribe for everything you do.  Many young people leave smaller communities who don't fit in because they are looking for the acceptance that a large group of peers brings.  But as was mentioned, people in rural communities must cross boundaries constantly, from ethnic to tribal to socio economic.  Protecting idegeneity in a rural community means not just trying to bring the big city church to the small town.  It means having liturgy and worship in a way that honoring the story of the community, it's values, and practices.  You cannot simply throw out years of practice and tradition in rural communities. It's a good way for a mutiny!  But you must do that and still reache out to those around you.  It could be country, or rock and roll, or a giant pipe organ.  But make sure the practices of your church reflect the practices of the rural community, in so much as they honor God.  

There are many ways to think like a missionary in a rural community. What are some ways that thinking like a missionary can help in a rural community setting?

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Tradecraft For the Church on Mission

Moving to a small town not long after being married, I felt like a missionary in a foreign land. Even though we spoke the same language, cheered on the same teams, and watched the same movies, that small town environment was a new world to me.  Unfortunately, I couldn't figure it out and bailed on the ministry too quickly.  

 I could have used a book like Tradecraft.  While not serving as a traditional missionary overseas, I was crossing cultural lines.  And I was on mission, although I didn't see it that way.  I thought I was just a church staff person.  

Tradecraft examines the work that a person, any person, must do when trying to take the gospel to a particular people. Written collectively by Caleb Crider, Larry McCrary, Rodney Calfee, and Wade Stephens, it represents the work of people who have spent many year planting church, serving overseas, sharing the gospel and making mistakes along the way.  More importantly, it is the work of people who have thought deeply about the work of a missionary, and how that can apply to any church, anywhere.  

Tradecraft starts by deflating the assumption that the problem that many people have with church is not the message, but the medium.  "Surely, if we created a space where we did all the things we had done growing up in church, only cooler, lost people would turn to Jesus in droves."  Many a church was planted on this principle, especially in the U.S.  But it did little to understand the culture that people lived and worked in, and in many cases this approach to church proved to be temporarily fruitful, but ultimately empty.  Tradecraft reminds us that we are a missionary not because of where we live, but because of who we are, or better put, who God has made me.  

"We will cover nine basic missionary skills, or tradecraft, that we believe are foundational to missionary thought and activity."

Tradecraft spends a little time on the theology of missions, although that's not the main point of the book. They helpfully point out the impetus on all Christians to serve as Christ's ambassadors, and the characteristics of spirit led churches.  The book then dives into the meat of the book, the tradecraft that a church on mission, or a person on mission, needs in order to effectively reach their community for Christ, whether it is Sikh's in the middle east or farmers in the rural south of America, these tools will help understand our communities.

Tradecraft is defined as "the collection of knowledge that serves as the foundation of all artisanal labor"  This could be glass blowing, fence building, CPA work, farming, being a soldier, and almost anything else you can think of.  In regards to the church on mission, it is tools, strategies, and guides that help us understand our community and how to effectively reach it.  

"We quickly assume the posture of antagonism when we assume we have to prove someone wrong to win them over."

"Living on mission doesn't happen accidentally.  It requires intentionality, planning, and even practice.  Everything you do should leave the mark of Jesus."

The meat of the book goes through several strategies to understand your city, and to live as a church on mission.  Mapping helps you find gathering spaces, learning spots, social gatherings, and other places where people gather, and the architectural layout of a city can help you understand the flow of the place. Things like courthouses, coffee shops, and colleges all serves as hubs that people flow into.   Rivers, parks, transit and more shape and define how people flow.  Exegeting Culture teaches how to study the map and people to draw out the ideas, and most notably stories, that shape the place you're reaching. Seldom written down, stories guide all the decisions made by people.  The chapters on building relationships and Persons of Peace help identify people who are receptive to the gospel, and how to reach them in a manner consistent with the story of the area.  The authors do a great job of guiding us away from seeing people as "prospects" to be converted, and encourages lasting relationships into which the gospel can be breathed every day.

"We are not sent out to find the person of peace. We are sent out to proclaim the gospel of the Kingdom.   God then uses our proclamation to reveal the persons of peace whom He has prepared beforehand."  

"What people need now is not more information, but filters to sort through the information they already have access to."

The two following chapters on "Engaging Tribes" and "Contextualization" gives guidelines in thinking about the way people gather themselves into "tribes', or groups of people with common interest and hobbies.  This can be as vague as cheering for the same sports team to a family that sticks close together.  Learning the language that they speak, and sharing the gospel with them in that way, is contextualizing.  A great job is done of sharing the dangers of over and under contextualization.  The chapter titled "Alternatives Paths" challenges our ideas of how God works with his people through mission.  Through stories and instruction we are guided to think, support, and promote other ways the Gospel can be taken to the nations besides a typical missionary setting.  Lastly, "Protecting Indigeneity" reminds us that God is glorified by diversity, and as such we should to.  To put the Gospel into a local tongue, with songs, liturgy, and worship all their own glorifies God, and we should always strive to do so.

Not for "professional" missionaries only, I recommend Tradecraft to anyone who is looking to be used of God to fulfill the great commission.  Really, every christian should read this as it makes us think about how we view our world, and how they can be reached with the gospel.  We should all think deeply about reaching our neighbors and the nations for Christ.  I appreciate the great Bibliography that goes with the book, showing that much thought, time, and research has gone into the thoughts presented to us.  If every person took as seriously their commission from God, and worked at it as thoughtfully as these men, the Kingdom of God would be greatly advance.  

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"Our mission is not to export a culture, but to infect existing cultures with what always proves to be a radically counter cultural gospel."

"When God's people think and act like missionaries, we identify with our Savior and begin to truly serve as His ambassadors in the contexts in which we find ourselves."