Preaching When Words Have Lost Their Power

This is a blog I wrote for the Center for Pastoral Leadership at Nazarene Theological Seminary. Here is a preview of the work: “Preaching from a posture of Wisdom requires dying, which relinquishes the need for acclamation, control, power, violence, and conformity. Wisdom is the way of Jesus.”

You can find the rest of the article at the Center for Pastoral Leadership’s blog:

The Myth of Progress and an Invitation to Fail

There is an overwhelming and pervasive sense of anxiety in our society.  Of course, it hasn’t merely trickled into the Church; the waters have rushed through our doors.  There are many reasons for the anxiety.  A great resource for reading about some of those reasons for anxiety in our culture is Walter Brueggemann’s Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks.  As I have reflected on my cultural context and the intersection with the Church in America, there is a strand woven through the very fabric of our lives which compounds our anxiety: the myth of perpetual progress.  (Incidentally, though not insignificantly, this myth leads to violent practices, like “evangelistic” movements called Crusades which utilize manipulation and coercive techniques).

There are many reasons for the propagation of this myth, especially because it appeared to be true for so many years in our borders.  The proliferation of technology and medical science and so many other useful tools painted a picture of prosperity that would continually rise to new levels.  Economic growth, particularly after WWII, seemed on a constant upward trajectory (setbacks were always believed to be temporary).  The Enlightenment’s ethos promised that everything would evolve to higher degrees of rationality, creativeness, wealth, power, and success.  And, as such, such success could be measured and monitored.  If progress seemed impeded, it wasn’t because perpetual progress was in question.  Rather, it was time to change leadership or fix this or that problem which prohibited further expansion and development.  But, fundamentally, the idea and myth of perpetual progress remains unquestioned and unchallenged.

This ideology of progress has increasingly become one of the dominant ideologies in the American church.  I constantly see it expressed in my denomination’s polity, but I know that isn’t particularly unique to our denomination either.  There is continuous pressure to grow, to expand, like ecclesiastical colonialism reaching toward an obscure Manifest Destiny we call “evangelism” – or, more honestly, cultural assimilation.  If the negative connotation of assimilation seems too strong, consider the methods of most church planting/ church growth models.  The “target audience” is typically monolithic – young, urban professionals with young families, which can support the ministry with their disposable income.  Everything within the worship service is then geared to appeal to this group’s interests and desires.  Progress and consumerism (both dependent upon numbers and percentages) are conjoined twins, particularly because “progress” has been reduced to an individual’s capacity to choose what suits their desires (this plagues most any age group in our culture).

But, the church in America and other Western countries has had to wrestle with diminishing incomes, sliding attendance, fewer volunteers, and a culture that continues to encroach on the times that were previously reserved for churches.  In other words, we are beginning to see the myth of progress, not only in the culture, within the Church be exposed as an untenable promise.  Deny it as strongly as we might, the reality, and its attendant anxiety, is palpable.

Of course, this does not mean that the myth of perpetual progress has died.  Too many are in denial for it to have died so easily.  Instead, we merely redouble our efforts at marketability, business acuity, and technological reproduction.  In other words, we seek any methodology, technology, or technique that will give us an edge to once again regain our ascendancy within the culture and our particular community.  This effort is undergirded by a particularly acidic theology of chosenness and exceptionalism (both within the culture and the Church, which tend to horribly mix into civil religion).  By the way, this same mentality leads to Israel’s Exile and Jerusalem’s destruction, yet the Church follows suit as if it is immune to such judgment.  The idea of exceptionalism and chosenness is not that we are simply set apart by God but, furthermore, that we are ordained by God and can thus never fail – perpetual progress.  It is the belief that God is always interested in our expansionistic success and has blessed the whole affair (i.e., imperialism).  We revel in resurrection, but neglect crucifixion as a distinct possibility when following Jesus – even as an institution.  Resurrection without crucifixion is merely the prosperity gospel, which lacks any family resemblance to Jesus.

The most insidious aspect to the myth of perpetual progress within the Church is the fallout experienced by pastors and local churches.  In fact, they feel this acutely and it often causes distress and tension within the pastoral-congregational relationship.  It is easy for the church or the pastor to become a taskmaster pushing for limitless progress or a return to the glory days of cultural ascendancy.  Despair characterizes our gatherings when we don’t measure up to the ideal of progress.  So, we make excuses or dismiss our “failure,” putting a positive spin on it (not unlike media spin-doctors).  To use contemporary language, we employ “alternative facts” in our reporting to paint an overall picture of health, no matter how much we may have to twist the truth of reality.  Denial concerning the myth of progress gives way to despair when we don’t “measure up” and we are left disillusioned about faithfully fulfilling our calling.  Likewise, significant theological issues, such as salvation or sanctification or discipleship, are reduced to a  paltry reality which can be numerically captured on paper.  Thus, because we sought to measure it in one moment, salvation became a singular moment, rather than an unfolding reality into which we are continuously invited to participate.  It is an anemic Christianity which has replaced discipleship with “showing up” (see Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship).

But, if we allow the myth of progress to be broken open and give ourselves permission to move past our denials which struggle (even with good intentions) to recapture an imagined glorious bygone day, we may find ourselves engaging a future of God’s new possibilities.  But, again, this is no guarantee of success, no imagined exceptionalism that insulates us from failure.  But, it is possible that the spectacular failures in which we endeavor may yet find God miraculously and surprisingly working through them, and us, in ways we yet to imagine.  In fact, we would be given permission to “fail” and to fail gloriously, to risk much and trust God for the “results.”

It is the kind of failure which is present in a dying church in a dying town, and yet proclaims hope.  To preach Good News in communities  that will never make national headlines and yet to see this as the most important work in which we might engage.  To imagine that the smallest acts of kindness and compassion unleash seismic shifts in the lives of those for whom we care.  To imagine that greatness is in serving.  To believe that death may be a new beginning.  To pray that even small mustard seeds of faith can uproot the grandest mountains in our path.  To imagine that the greatest metrics can never be measured and that the smallest, weakest, seemingly insignificant people, places and practices are quite possibly those upon which God smiles and blesses.  Maybe… just maybe… the vital work of the Church can be re-energized for the mission of God, not by playing the myth of progress game, by painting a compelling vision of God’s Kingdom unleashed in our midst, a costly discipleship, inspiring us to greater acts of love – regardless of the outcome.  I see many pastors, ministers, and laity, often in obscure corners of the world, leading unafraid from underneath. They take the slow & tedious road of faithful discipleship that lacks the star power of conferences or the glory of large crowds.  But, their work is every bit as vital and beautiful and important as the “success stories” of those fast growing, cutting edge churches.  And, perhaps, we can confess that “growth” does not translate into success, especially if it looks more like corporate takeover than actual evangelism.

To put a point on my argument, I am reminded of the story of Jonathan in 1 Samuel 14.  A massive Philistine horde stands ready to descend on Saul’s men, save for a ravine between the two encampments.  Jonathan and his armor bearer sneak off and move toward the enemy.  Jonathan suggests showing themselves to the enemy and awaiting their response, either come up or stay where they are.  If told to come up, this will be a sign that God has given Jonathan and the armor bearer the victory.  Two men outmatched and yet willing to risk greatly despite an uncertain future and outcome.  Jonathan affirms as much: “Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf.”  Jonathan does not presume success in his endeavor, the future is obscure from his sight, yet he acts in hope-filled expectation that God is at work.  Jonathan does not display certainty of “God will act,” but the trusting confidence that exclaims the not-so-presumptuous “perhaps.”  The myth of perpetual progress cannot imagine the “perhaps,” but ever only the idolatrous certitude of progress, prosperity, and power.



God’s Promise on a Precipice

Pastors tend to live between the world of idealism and reality. Perhaps the majority of theologians (both academic and otherwise) live within this liminal space as well. It is this thin margin between envisioning what might be and observing the reality of the facts on the ground. Most of the time they don’t align. Inevitably, this creates a kind of dissonance within us as we strive toward the future we sense can happen and the hurdles that seem to impede the possibility of arriving at that place of hope. This might be easily dismissed if it is only the pastor or theologian’s vision of the future. However, there are times where the hope moves beyond mere idealism, rising out of a life of study, prayer, and discernment of the Kingdom-shape in which God is molding a community. The tension between the now and not-yet is sharpened when God is the One shaping the vision.

Of course, there are plenty of situations we can point to where “leaders” have claimed to know what God wants and it later came to light that God probably didn’t have much to do with the vision in the first place. There have been plenty of abuses of power in this regard. While not dismissing the possibility of abuses of leadership, I want to focus on those particular moments where the vision really is from God and the leader(s) is in alignment with what God desires. In those moments of seeing what can be and what God desires while facing the reality that we aren’t there yet can spiral into an abyss of defeat, demoralization, and despair. This is especially true when there is strong opposition to the vision from others. Sometimes that opposition comes from outside pressures on the Church, sometimes from within the Church. By leaders I don’t mean ministers exclusively. Ministers can sometimes be the biggest opposition to God’s vision. After all, we’re finite creatures with limited perspective, too. Regardless of the source, these barriers to the new future can create deeper tension within the leaders and communities vying for that future.

Sometimes those barriers to God’s new future are minimal and easily scaled. However, there are times where the opposition is fueled by fear and selfishness. What might have been an easy hurdle begins to look more like an impenetrable fortress, a Berlin wall of refusal to move or budge toward God’s future. Then, there are those that actively pursue counter action. Not only do they dig their heels in, they begin to tug in the complete opposite direction. It may be from good intentions, but it can be devastating to a community. Although it may be frustrating when people are hesitant to walk with you toward a new future, it is absolutely painful when there is intentional, perhaps malicious, energy aimed at working against you. Again, it is easy to despair of seeing God’s new future come to fruition.

The reception of God’s promised hope for a new future brings about energy and joy in those that receive it. It is exciting to imagine the possibilities. But, without fail, God’s promises always find themselves threatened, teetering on the edge of the precipice of failure. God promised Abraham that he would be a great nation and a blessing to all nations. Problem: Abraham and Sarah are old and barren. God’s promise doesn’t seem so sure when Sarah is 90 and Abraham looks like he’s about to kick the bucket. God’s covenant-promises to Abraham’s family appear doomed when Esau trades his inheritance for some “red stuff” to his manipulative brother. Jacob has to run into hiding for being a deceptive cut-throat. So much for God’s promise to bless others through this family that doesn’t even get along. Further down the line, God’s covenant-promise is again threatened when Abraham’s descendants find themselves in the land of Pharaoh making bricks as slaves. Pharaoh tries to extinguish their family tree by killing off their young boys. You can’t be a numerous people if you are enslaved and then killed. The stories continue over and over again. God’s promise is constantly under threat of extinction. Barrenness, infidelity, murder, foolishness, idolatry, destruction, death, exile, and crucifixion attempt to derail God’s promises from finding their fulfillment. Yet, in each moment where God’s promises edge close to disaster, even certain doom, God manages to bring about those same promises, despite the incredible opposition to God’s new future, both from God’s people and from the others.

When God’s promises appear to hang by one finger on the edge of a cliff with jagged rocks below, our reaction is to wonder if it’s even possible. The writing is on the wall and we can’t conceive of any way forward. We are at the end of our creative and motivational capacity. The temptation is to focus so intently on the things that threaten God’s new future that we cease to focus on the God that has promised that new future. Perhaps I’m more egotistical than most and so I think I should be able to accomplish the task at hand. When I fail my attitude sinks because I see the divide between where we should be and where we are and my inability to span the gap. It’s quite possible that those are the very moments where I have become the biggest barrier to God’s new future because I am consumed with what now appears to be the impossibilities of God’s promised future. It’s impossible, therefore, why try?  Or, the future is dependent on me, so force the issue. Both culminate in similar experience. I find myself sitting on the sidelines soaking my hurts in the cynicism of despondency. The subtle shift of hoping in God’s promise to a prideful hope in our own capabilities inevitably falls short and concludes in hopelessness.


Advent brings us right into the frustration and conflict.  It thrusts us right into the middle of  our hopelessness and our closed off futures.  We are confronted with our fears and failures.  Advent reminds us that God accomplishes God’s promises in God’s time – in the fullness of time.  Like a pregnancy, you can’t rush the gestational time required to give birth to new life.  As such, we are called to enter into the waiting – that necessary space where we learn to trust, hope, and act in abiding faithfulness – not because of our capabilities to enact a new future but because of God’s promises.  And, like the stories where God’s promises always appeared on the verge of disaster, we are brought into the canonical (read scriptural) imagination which says God accomplishes that which God promises from the beginning.  As Zechariah 9:12 states, “Come back to the place of safety, all you prisoners who still have hope! I promise this very day that I will repay two blessings for each of your troubles.”  When vision and reality are separated by a chasm, remember the One who has bound us in hope and return to that firm foundation.

“The Holy Spirit and Preaching: The Gift of God’s Future:” Preaching – IV Redemption — Explorations in Theology

Our guest, Levi Jones, discusses a fourth theological perspective on preaching, from the eschatological angle. (For the earlier posts, see one, two, & three) Here we see that not only is preaching a participation in God’s creative speech, but it also draws us into the new-creation opened up by the Spirit. I have tried to show in […]

via “The Holy Spirit and Preaching: The Gift of God’s Future:” Preaching – IV Redemption — Explorations in Theology

The Subjective Religious Experience and Certainty

I had the opportunity to meet and dialogue with a group of clergy this week discussing the issue of honesty.  It was a dialogue about ways to engage in honest dialogue in the Church.  That may seem like a strange thing to say, considering the Church has always considered itself to be a place where honesty and truth are welcome.  Of course, in practice, we know that this is not always the case, but we are not always willing to admit the myriad ways we have failed to make this reality on both a personal and communal level.

In reflecting on the difficult nature of honesty, I was reminded of a conversation with a parishioner.  The conversation centered on worship and some of the practices that were being implemented.  The congregant was quite concerned about these practices and was curious why we were doing them in the first place.  As best as I could (which, admittedly, was probably very deficient), I tried to outline the reasons using theology, scripture, church history, and other tools for understanding the importance and necessity of these practices.  After I finished my dissertation, the parishioner quickly swept my explanation away, simply saying, “Well, that’s your opinion.”  My jaw was probably laying on the floor in puzzlement.

Granted, my explanation was an interpretation of how best to understand scripture, theology, and church history.  But, it was an educated interpretation – and, not one that I had simply conjured up as an opinion.  It was part of a larger tradition into which I have been ordained to embody and express faithfully (that does not mean it is without fault, but that it is not simply private opinion).  Yet, my words were dismissed by chalking it up to opinion – that realm of subjective, private experience that may or may not be rooted in some kind of truth and cannot possibly have any bearing on another person.  The dismissal of an “opinion” also dismissed any possibility of dialogue or engaging the issues at hand.  Thus, the parishioner could maintain “their opinion” without the incredible hassle of dealing with a contradicting idea or position.  Furthermore, it didn’t need to engage in theological reflection on Church practices, tradition, or scripture, which may very well have supported their understanding – or, perhaps, undermined it.

Thus, in this scenario there were two operating definitions of “opinion.”  Opinions differing from my opinion were merely subjective fancy and irrational imaginings, hardly worth considering their validity.  On the other side, “my opinion” is a matter of certainty, especially because I feel it so deeply to be true.  My experience and what I know are the markers for what is true, even if there is evidence to the contrary.  “Opinion” has this very strange relationship with truth and honesty.  It can be quickly dismissed if it challenges my presuppositions.  At the same time, something is a matter of Truth if I hold it to be true.  This strange tension finds its roots in the larger cultural forums, politics in particular.  And, as demonstrated in politics (and, too often the Church), it results in a polarization of “opinions” where no dialogue is possible.  Because my “opinion” is rooted in certainty and opposing views are just some “personal experience” that demonstrates clear naivete, there is no need to converse.  There are only two options: “My way or the highway.”  Hardly conducive to dialogue.

Where dialogue is no longer possible, neither is the capacity for honesty.  If personal, subjective opinion is the base-line for truth, dialogue is quite inconceivable and finally impossible.  That’s where postmodernism lands – everything eventually implodes into self-validated “truths” and the person with “the biggest stick wins.”  This logic is particularly foreign and fundamentally corrosive of the Christian faith as articulated in the life of Jesus.  Jesus makes the astounding claim: “I am the truth.”  Truth is not subjective opinion, as if we get to make up who Jesus is.  Truth is a person and one determined by the life of God, empowered by the Spirit.

Jesus makes honest conversation and dialogue possible because truth is not rooted in the personal psyche of each person.  It is rooted in him.  And, wherever we stand in relation to Jesus (i.e., liberal, conservative, bigot, caretaker, rich, poor, humble, haughty, greedy, giving, wise, foolish, etc.), Jesus calls us from where we are to where he is.  Thus, Christian dialogue moves from trying to prove who is right and wrong toward both parties seeking to discern who Jesus is.  I can’t tell you how radical of a transition that is for everyone.  But, it certainly has radical implications for how we engage in difficult conversations.  We aren’t seeking a position on which to stand; we are seeking Jesus.  When we can dismiss another person simply for the reason that they differ from me, we have lost the capacity for honest conversation.


The relegation of religion, in particular Christianity, to a privatized, subjective opinion or experience hijacks the nature of the Christian faith.  It was never meant to be something that I alone decide or something that is done in isolation.  It is a faith which is always received and it is received from Jesus through the hands of a wounded Church.  That means that we should be honest about our shortcomings and our failures to fully understand and live like Jesus.  It also means that we need to be ready to receive the gifts God gives us through other people – people wounded just like me.  And, although we might not come to full agreement on all things, we can certainly agree to live in love with one another.  But, oh my, how hard the work of honesty can be – even within the Church.

Jesus words in Matthew 7 come to mind: “Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. For you will be treated as you treat others. The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged. “And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye. “Don’t waste what is holy on people who are unholy. Don’t throw your pearls to pigs! They will trample the pearls, then turn and attack you. “Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Let us seek Jesus together with all honesty.

The Beauty of a Seed – God’s Folly of Extravagant Grace

Extravagance.  Without caution, the sower throws the seed wherever it may fall.  Extravagance is the only word that I can think of to describe the scene of the sower.  Slinging the seed without caution, without calculation.  There is an extravagance in that act.  Regardless of the soil, the seed is sown.  The seed doesn’t always take root.  Yet, the sower casts the seed in anticipation of the harvest.  Extravagance is a good word.

Grace is a good word as well.  Unmerited gift.  Like that sower of the seed, God’s “seed” is cast wherever it might fall, regardless of the soil it might find.  Not every soil, not every life, will allow the seed to grow.  Some will immediately close their ears to the message of God’s coming Kingdom that is even now taking root among us.  The seed is never tilled into the soil and thus never takes root.  Others will receive it with joy, yet will quickly fade away with pressure (tribulation/ trial) or “the chase” (persecution).  Like the sun withering a shallow-rooted plant, the pressure of the world conforms such people back into its mold.  Still others will begin to grow but become choked by the cares of the world, by riches and their desire for things other than the Kingdom.  Regardless of the soil, the seed is cast out as a gift.  It is a gift that can be rejected, to be sure, but a gift nonetheless.

Such extravagance, such grace, seems to fail so often to produce the harvest.  It fails to take root.  It flounders under anxiety and fear.  If only the sower had been more cautious to sow in soil more hospitable, more selective in the task of sowing good seed in good soil.  Yet, that has never been the way of the sower.  Such is the nature of grace, such is the nature of the Gardener.  Though the seed seems to be an overwhelming failure, yet the Sower is not deterred.  Almost imperceptibly, the seed finds good soil and takes root.  It springs forth in abundance: 30, 60, even 100 times.  The extravagant nature of the sower is imaged in the extravagant nature of the harvest.  It is abundant, full, and overflowing.  The seeming failure of the seed and the sower is proved to be wisdom rather than folly, hope rather than despair.  Such is the nature of grace, such is the nature of God.

Such is the nature of Jesus – that Good Seed of the Kingdom of God.  The cross was folly, it was extravagant.  It appears to be failure of the greatest magnitude: the death of a criminal.  Yet, the Seed was thrown into the soil of Creation.  Although it appeared to be wasted extravagance, yet the resurrection unleashed the power of the abundant harvest, which has produced fruit beyond the imagination.  Jesus’ words to his disciples scatter them like seed back into the world: “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”  Freely we have received, freely we must give that same grace that was lavished upon us.  Sling the seed upon whatever soil you might find and watch what God might do as the seed finds good soil.  Yet, even if our sowing seems in vain, fling God’s grace, which cannot be exhausted, as faithful sowers anticipating the harvest – even if we don’t get to see its fruit now.

The Ministry of Prophetic Weeping

The prophets were an interesting group of people. Sometimes misunderstood (sometimes understood perfectly). Sometimes an outsider to the community (more often members of the community). Usually called to speak a difficult word to a people that might not receive it. The prophets sometimes spoke and sometimes demonstrated their message (think Hosea’s marriage to Gomer). The message would typically involve a word of judgment that would end with a future hope, a new beginning that God would bring about. But, even with the promise of a new beginning, hearing judgment passages was difficult (who likes judgment?).

This seems to be the general pattern of prophetic ministries – speaking difficult words of judgment that would eventually emerge as God’s new work. Jeremiah, Isaiah, Jonah, Hosea, John the Baptist all lived out these kinds of ministries. Sometimes those words were rejected and at other times they brought about confession and redemption. But, it rarely left people on the fence, but called for response.

While this pattern is important and indicative of how we might preach in our contexts, it neglects an important aspect of the prophetic: weeping and lamenting. The prophetic ministry is sometimes viewed as dispassionate truth-telling. No doubt truth-telling is in view in prophetic proclamation, but the prophets were hardly disinterested robots that did not feel the sting of the prophetic word they had initially received. In fact, most of the prophets suffered, wept, and lamented what they saw coming and what they were called to communicate. The passion that drove much of the prophetic proclamation to the community of faith was rooted in the fact that these prophets wanted the best for the people of God. They desperately wanted to see God’s new future take root. And, they knew that they were as much a part of the problem as everyone else. They did not stand outside of the scope of the message of judgment they had received and were called to communicate.

Isaiah hears a word of serious judgment against Israel. His first reaction to being confronted by God’s presence is to recognize that he is a “man of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips.” In other words, it is lament and confession that drives Isaiah’s further oracles of judgment and redemption. But, I think it is informative that Isaiah’s prophetic power is rooted in his lament over the community and the part he plays in their brokenness.

Jeremiah is known as the “weeping prophet.” Perhaps he had a mood disorder, but it is just as likely that his mourning is deeply rooted in the destruction he sees that lies ahead. He identifies with the pain and knows it only too well as a personal reality. Jeremiah mourns what is lost, mourns for his people, and mourns for the disconnection between God’s people and God. Jeremiah is a reluctant prophet. It’s a wonder his words could be heard through the tears.

Others could be mentioned. But, I think Jesus embodies the prophetic lament. While standing outside of Jerusalem, Jesus sees a fig tree bearing no fruit. He curses the fig tree to shrivel up because it lacks fruit. The curse on the fig tree is a symbol of the coming judgment upon Jerusalem. A few scenes later, Jesus laments, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 See, your house is left to you.” Jesus’ prophetic words are mixed with the sorrow born of weeping for that which he loves. Jesus compares himself to a mother hen that desires to draw Jerusalem close but is instead rejected. The prophetic words, even difficult words, arise out of the deep love for God’s people.

Prophetic words are spoken from the deepest ache of a heart that longs for God’s new life to break out. These are words spoken out of grief and lament, mourning and woe. To be prophetic, in the best sense of the word, is to weep as one standing under judgment but who must proclaim the judgment so that redemption, salvation may follow. And, the prophetic ministry is one that laments the gap between where we are at as a community and where God desires us to be.

Prophetic words are intended to draw us toward God’s new, preferred future. But, it’s not always the case that the community wants to move in that direction. We’re comfortable where we are situated. We’re familiar with the way things are and don’t see any real need for movement from this spot. Or, we may desire for things to be different but expect God to do the new thing in the same way that God acted in the past. Although God acts in continuity with God’s previous action, God will sometimes do an entirely new thing.

I think the prophets have given us an example of what it means to be able to move toward God’s new future. It involves weeping and lament as well. It’s okay (most of the time) to weep what has been lost, the sense of displacement that we experience when things change. It’s okay to weep over what once was but will not be again. Mourning can be an appropriate response, but we cannot remain there. “Weeping lasts for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” Weeping, lamenting, mourning our sense of loss can be helpful for us to move toward what God has in store. Holding on to our past by refusing to weep may end up meaning that we miss out on the joy which God has in store for us.

Now, I’m not suggesting that everything about our past, our traditions are wrong or will suddenly be changed. There do remain things that are consistent with our history. We aren’t going to get rid of prayer, reading scripture, communion, baptism, and many other aspects of our common life together. These elements have played a significant role in the life of the Church from its beginning and have been testified to in the experience of the community of faith over time. There’s longevity in their practice because of those things.

But, there are many things that the early Church did that we no longer do. Most of us don’t speak Greek or Aramaic. We don’t sing the songs the early Church sang. We don’t organize our life together in the same ways. We don’t necessarily use the same methods of leadership, accountability, or finances. We’ve incorporated things from our culture that have sometimes helped us do things the early Church couldn’t do – like using technology to reach more areas of the world with the Gospel. Change is sometimes necessary as the culture shifts for us to communicate the Gospel anew again and again. Although not all change is beneficial or faithful, change is a part of life and it has always been a part of the Church. If it the early Church had not been willing to change as the Spirit led, then, as Gentiles, we wouldn’t be part of the Church. Faithfulness sometimes requires that we change our methods and means for communicating the Gospel.

The difficult part is in deciding and discerning when that must happen. When must we change and what must we preserve? Is this like putting new wine in new wineskins? Is this like sewing an old piece of material on an old shirt? When is one appropriate over the other? That can be a hard tightrope to walk. But, as the prophets demonstrate, walking into that new future means that some things are pruned in order for new life to emerge. Lament the distance between where we are and where God desires us to be. As we do so, in all love, crying out to God readies us for what God is doing now.

Losing Market-share of the Religious Landscape: Beyond the Brickyards

The Pew Research Center recently released a survey detailing the American religious landscape (find article here). Some of the data indicates that there is a rise in those that affiliate with no religion at all. This trend is sometimes called “the rise of the ‘nones.'” Along with this upward trend is a downward trend in those that identify as Christian, regardless of the denominational affiliation.

Of course, without must surprise, the onslaught of moaning about the demise of the Church and the emphasis on ministerial techniques to reverse this trend have been plentiful. Some see it as the moral decay of a nation and shout to rally the troops so that they might retake Capitol Hill and reclaim some kind of power to assert their influence again. Others see it as a matter of ministerial, pastoral technique that will ensure recovery. So, plant churches because that’s “the most effective way to reach the un-reached” or market to a particular demographic or create programs that will get people hooked on the church (sounds like we’re peddling drugs). Or, perhaps, and this has been my tendency, it is a matter of better education of laity and pastors that will ensure the Church’s future.

But, unfortunately, those are all inadequate. They are woefully inadequate because they focus on “technique.” By “technique,” I mean developing the skill set to achieve a purpose or goal. It’s about management. Essentially, it’s about control. Finally, it’s about power. The underlying motivation for the above-mentioned techniques is typically motivated out of a desire to maintain or gain ground in the market-share of the religious (and perhaps non-religious) consumers. That’s the primary difficulty in reading the Pew Research Center’s survey – people are reduced to percentages. And, where people become numbers and percentages for a market-share, they cease to matter as anything more than a means to our ends. They become commodities, useful until used up. Their humanity is diminished, especially if they don’t serve our bottom line.

The result, with little, if any, exaggeration, is that people do not matter in the Church. Thus, the “rise of the nones” threatens our market-share kingdoms. It becomes a fearful thing to see this downward spiral, even if we don’t see it as bleakly as the survey paints it. The rise in the opposition to the Church or to religion in general is easily viewed as a threat to our longevity and viability. But, this is only a threat to a Church that does not know how to die, that has left the cross behind for the tools of management. Isn’t this the very thing that Pharaoh fears in seeing the rising strength of Israel? They’re too many and what if Egypt is attacked by other nations; what if Israel turns their strength against Egypt? So, Pharaoh orders them to make bricks, he begins building projects, he turns to technique in managing the loss of market-share. In so doing, he attempts to de-humanize God’s people. The end result is that Pharaoh has no real identity – he’s never named.

I see this turn to technique and the Church’s resistance to embrace dying as a move in line with Pharaoh. We see the rising threat to Christendom, want to desperately hold onto our power, and are willing to go so far as to de-humanize those whose rising power might threaten our own sense of security and privilege. When this is our position, we operate out of fear and self-protection. We create “brickyards” out of our sanctuaries that tell people to work harder, lest we lose more ground. And, in the process of de-humanizing others, we find that we have lost our identity. We resemble Pharaoh, not Jesus.

Personally, I have found hope in the numbers because I believe in resurrection. Yes, we must go through death, but Jesus has shown us that life is on the other side. I’m okay with Christendom dying, with the Church dying, with me dying because I know there is hope where God is at work and that life springs up from dead stumps, dead bones, and dead bodies where God speaks. New life is able to break out with the death of Christendom because we might finally come face-to-face with our own false claims and narratives. We might hear the Gospel again when it has been extracted from the cultural narratives that we have swallowed. We might stop relying on our own power to control the outcome and re-enter into the difficult work of imagination, wonder, and surprise. We very well might find that being crucified with Jesus will free us from the bondage of playing power games and developing leaders that play those games. Instead, we might find disciples utilizing the tools of towel and basin, bread and cup, and the cross as the call to serve others and “not lord is over them.”

I think Desmond Tutu’s response to the question about optimism in the midst of great travail is poetically potent: “I am a prisoner of hope.” Hope is not yet another technique of optimism that we must engender so that we can motivate people to a new future. Rather, it is a hope rooted in the gift of God’s ever-abundant, life-giving Spirit at work in the midst of the broken Creation calling forth a new Creation – a new heaven and new earth. As Romans 8 unfolds, we are in the midst of the groaning pangs of child-birth of the new Creation. We’re not always sure even what to pray. But, the Spirit prays with and for us as we await the redemption of our bodies, which includes social bodies as well. In this I find hope to actively wait and serve while putting aside the tools of manipulation, management, and control. The hope of God’s promised future allows the Church to die faithfully, seeing it as an opportunity for God’s new work of the Spirit to unfold among us. Church, move beyond the brickyards.

Pick Up Your Cross and Follow Me: Reflections on Co-pastoral Ministry

Here’s the link to a blog I recently wrote about co-pastoral ministry, power, and being a servant. The blog is posted on Shawna Gaines’ blog. Shawna and Tim Gaines serve as co-pastors in California. Their ministry has been helpful to observe and learn from as Becca and I began our ministry together. Grateful for others that are faithfully demonstrating what it looks like to live in community, sharing ministry together!

Link to article: Pick Up Your Cross and Follow Me: Reflections on Co-pastoral Ministry

Baptizing Our Child

The most popular conceptions of baptism revolve around what is typically called “believer’s baptism.”  A significant transformation or yielding of our heart to God is followed by a public proclamation of our intent to follow God and God alone.  In Evangelical circles, that is the typical way of understanding the purpose of baptism.  It is something I do in response to something God has done.

When baby/child baptism is discussed in these circles, it is sometimes looked at with suspicion.  If baptism is something I do, then how can the child possibly be baptized if they are unable to really respond?  Isn’t that cutting baptism short?  The quick answer is “yes” if baptism is about our response.

However, there are other modes of baptism even within the scriptures itself.  For instance, entire families that came to faith would sometimes be baptized, which included servants and children.  The early Church initiated a three year period of testing before being baptized in order to see that your life reflected the change you proclaimed, but baptism itself was not the proclamation of the individual.  Rather, it was the affirmation from the Church to God’s transformation in your life.  Baptism, throughout its history, has not always had one particular way of understanding what is happening.

Thinking back to Jesus’ own baptism is helpful as well.  Jesus is baptized under John’s baptism of repentance (believer’s baptism?).  Yet, Jesus has not sinned, nor does he.  Interesting.  In this baptism, Jesus is identifying with Israel’s sin.  As he rises out of the water, the Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove.  The Father says, “This is my Son in whom I am well pleased.”  As such, the significance of the baptism isn’t in Jesus’ testimony but about the Father’s testimony about the Son.  This is where I think we can discern something about baptism that we have muted in “believer’s baptisms.”

The primary speaker in baptism is God, not us.  In baptism, we hear God speaking the words over the waters: “This is my child.”  These are the waters of death into which we are baptized, yes.  But, they are also the waters of creation from which new life emerges, which is rooted in God’s claim over the Creation: “This is mine.  It is good.”  Now, that does not entail that this vision of baptism negates the response of the creature.  In fact, a response is intended.

After Jesus is baptized, the Spirit blows him into the wilderness to be tested.  The Father has spoken over Jesus, saying that Jesus is God’s Son.  Now, in the wilderness, we will see if Jesus will continue to live into that vocation.  Satan tempts Jesus to misuse God’s gift, to chase artificial means of establishing God’s Kingdom, and to take shortcuts that avoid pain and suffering of the cross.  In other words, the issue at hand for Jesus is what does it look like to faithfully live as the Son.  Jesus’ response to God’s affirmation in baptism is to live in faithful obedience… even to death on a cross.

I was recently asked why I would want to baptize my child.  It’s a good question.  When my little girl comes to me and asks why she was baptized, I want to be able to say, “It is because God loved you so very much and says, ‘You are my child; I knit you in your mother’s womb.'”  John Wesley would call this preventing or prevenient grace (the grace that goes before).  God loves us first before we can love Him.  In raising our child as a disciple of Christ, my hope is that she will come to live out her baptism as a child of God.  As the Spirit blows her out into the wilderness, hopefully, she will respond in faithful obedience.  Baptism is about God’s grace given to us.  I look forward to the day when my girl will be able to testify to God’s grace in her life as enacted in the waters of baptism.