Category Archives: Church and Theology

Like Reading a Seven-course Meal

as kingfishersOver the last year or two I’ve come to appreciate the pastoral wisdom of Eugene Peterson. Previously I had known him as the writer of The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language but I didn’t know that he was first and foremost a pastor. He was the founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Maryland and lead the church for 29 years.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of God is a book that is directly birthed out of Peterson’s pastoral experience. In fact, the book is built around 49 of Peterson’s sermons, preached to his church. The book reaches to dramatic heights and delves into phenomenal depths. Peterson’s words show the richness of scripture while making them accessible and able to be brought into the sermons of pastors today.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire is a collection of 49 sermons grouped into seven sections. Each section is introduced by Peterson to invite the reader into the conversation of what it means to preach in the “company” of Moses, David, Isaiah, Solomon, Peter, Paul and John. By “company” Peterson means for the reader to “enter into the biblical company of prototypical preachers and work out of the traditions they had developed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit” (xxi). Peterson achieves this goal beautifully; he speaks of story telling, praying and poetry, allowing our imaginations to be “Jesus-filled,” and preaching theologically.

There is so much good in this book that it is hard to pick just one example- but I’ll do just that. In the introduction to “Preaching in the Company of Isaiah,” Peterson says this: “The unrelenting reality is that prophets don’t fit into our way of life. For a people who are accustomed to fitting God into our lives or, as we like to say, ‘making room for God,’ the prophets are hard to take and easy to dismiss. The God of whom the prophets speak is far too large to fit into our lives. If we want anything to do with God, we have to fit into God” (116). This is such a profound and needed flip that we must do-especially within our Western culture. God cannot be something I just add into my life. As if we can add God to the plate of our already full lives. We must flip our understanding to see that we fit into God. We join God. We are found in God. We become a part of what God is doing. Peterson points out such an important point in this short paragraph- and that is just one example.

This is one of the books I will continually reference and quote within my own sermons and sermon preparation. When this book is released on May 16, 2017, it needs to be on your list to buy, read and reflect upon.

I received this book from Blogging for Book in exchange for this review. Find more information on the book here.

Or watch this extremely interesting short-film featuring Eugene Peterson and Bono talking together about Psalms.

A Beautiful Gospel

The message of the gospel is beautiful. Sometimes we need to be reminded of that. Especially for those of us who are ministry and church insiders, by that I mean pastors, ministers, teachers and volunteer leaders, we need to be reminded that the message of the gospel is the most beautiful message there is. Often we get too busy to see its beauty. Or maybe we get too close and, like zooming in on a human face, we see the unevenness, the pours, the oil and the imperfections. Sometimes we need to zoom back out and see the full picture once again. And in seeing the full picture again, we can re-see, reconnect and re-appreciate the beauty of the gospel.

This song and video have done that for me. It has allowed me to once again see and hear the beauty of the gospel. As you watch it, I think that it will do the same thing for you.

Millennials, We Need to Help Close the Gap

This month I’ve written two posts on the church and it’s relationship with Millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000). In the previous posts, we talked about how the church is failing to make an enticing sales pitch to Millennials and how the church can engage Millennials in a way that anchors them in the rich history of the Christian faith while embracing the future. Both of those posts were about things the church needs to go to close the gap to Millennials. In this post, I want to change audiences and speak to some things Millennials, specifically Christian Millennials, need to do to close the gap to the church. As much as non-religious Millennials feel a gap between themselves and faith and church, Christian Millennials often feel that the church is missing them too.

“Help me help you.” I’m sure you’ve heard that saying before. Often it’s used when someone asks for help or assistance but then does something to undermine the help they are asking for. My generation needs to help the church help us. We cannot expect the church alone to close the gap, there has to be intentional movement on our part to close the gap as well.

I want to suggest three things that Millennials can do to help close the gap to the church.

Read a simple book on theology. I don’t think is necessary to read a multi-volume set on systematic theology but every Christian should read a basic theology book. At the same time I’m not talking about Christian Living books, as helpful as they might be. I’m talking about books that help us define and better understand the richness of God and the gospel. Here are a few suggestions by authors who are alive and writing theology for our context:
Unknown-2

Jesus: A Theography by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola. This book is a theological-biography (theography) of Jesus. If you want an in-depth look at the life of Jesus but without all the academic jargon, this is a great book. At 310 pages, it’s long but manageable.

Unknown-1

Any number of books by N.T. Wright. My top three include: How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels

Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters

Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense

All three of these book are in the low to mid 200 page rage in length, making them very accessible to those who know a lot or a little about theology. Plus, they are written by one of the most well respected New Testament theologians-ever.   Each of these books will help you see what Jesus and Jesus’ message meant in his first century context, why it was revolutionary and how it still impacts us today.

imagesCenter Church by Timothy Keller. This is a fantastic book if you are interested in how theology and the church (ecclesiology) intersect. If you want to get a feel for the book, check out my favorite quotes from Center Church, part 1 and part 2.

 

Reading theology books like these are going to help you and I better understand the full scope of Jesus, Jesus’ message and what Jesus’ message means (in his time and in our time) that we simply cannot get through sermons or small groups. This isn’t the fault of pastors or small group leaders but those settings typically aren’t the right place for the kinds of conversations that these authors engage in. If you want to invest in your faith, beyond sermons and small groups, then dig in and read some theology books- and these are a great place to start.

Know the full story of Scripture. As Millennials, we need to be better at our understanding to Scripture. Specifically we need to understand the two major narrative arches in Scripture. First, the historical arch. We need to know and understand the historical timeline that provides the framework for the Old and New Testaments. We need to know the historical markers from Creation to Exodus to Exile to Jesus. Second, the theological arch. We need to understand the overall story that Scripture tells. Everything from the Law, the Prophets, the Psalms, the Gospels and the Epistles tell one overarching story of God moving to bring salvation to the world. We need to understand how each of those parts fit into the larger story. It’s by understanding the historical arch and the theological arch that we can know how our lives, churches and point in history fit into what God is doing to redeem the world.

Go talk to your pastors/ ministers. The role of a pastor or a minister is to equip those under their care to minister and serve. The truth of the matter is that pastors and ministers don’t always know the best way to do that.- especially if there is a generational gap. That’s where you and I come in. Go talk to your pastors/ ministers. Get to know them and they will get to know you in return. Let them know what issues you and your peers are encountering. Let them know the “times” and “seasons” of your culture. For example, in your culture maybe Thursday nights during the spring would be a bad time to plan an event because of kid’s sports practice. Perhaps a service project at an outdoor concert during the summer would provide families who don’t attend church with great exposure to the love of Jesus. Nobody knows how to impact those around you with the message and love of Jesus better than you- where ministers can be involved is in helping you do that. But if they are trying to equip you in ways you don’t need to be equipped or if they are not equipping you in the ways you need to be equipped, go and tell them or neither side will reach it’s full potential to reach those in your community with the message and love of Jesus.

There’s a gap between the church and the Millennial generation (my generation). There are things the church needs to do the begin closing that gap but there are also some things we can do to help. These three suggestions aren’t hard but I believe they will prove beneficial to help us, as Millennials, close the gap between us and the church.

The Law of Religious Evasion

Currently I’m reading Dallas Willard’s classic book The Divine Conspiracy. There are so many good things that Willard writes that we could talk about but one section really impacted me due to current events and the church plant that I’m in the process of exploring.

In the section in question, Willard brings Clyde Reid into the conversation and quotes from Reid’s book The God-evaders (1966). Willard writes, “A few years ago Clyde Reid wrote a painfully incisive discussion of how our church activities seem to be structured around evading God. His ‘law of religious evasion’ states, ‘We structure our churches and maintain them so as to shield us from God and to protect us from genuine religious experience’ ” (201).

For Willard, Reid’s  “law of religious evasion” is just another example of how “it seems to be a general law of social/historical development that institutions tend to distort and destroy the central function that brought them into existence” (201). When we strip away the building, the programs, the institution, and the money away from church, what is the church’s central function? It is, in Willard’s beautiful words, to be a “school of eternal living” where we learn from Jesus as “apprentices of eternal living.” Jesus is the master teacher and we are called to learn, as apprentices, his ways.

Think about the way an apprenticeship works. The student follows, watches, copies and tries to imitate the master. Often the apprentice begins with no skills but through the process of learning (seeing, then doing), skills develop and as they are mastered the apprentice is able to assist the master in his/her work. Apprenticeships consist of careful and deliberate steps of teaching, trial and error, re-teaching, practice and finally the student begins to do the skills in such a way that there is little difference in the work of the master and the work of the student. In the end, the apprentice that began with no skills has become a copy of the master.

I think you can see how that description overlaps with the Christian life- or, at least, is supposed to. How well are our churches taking those with no skills and teaching them to copy the Master? If we took an honest look at ourselves, how well are we apprentices of the Master?

I think many of our churches do exactly what Reid describes. We hide God behind  our amazing worship music. We hide God behind our traditions. We hide God behind our bureaucratic structures, policies and procedures. We hide God behind our ministry programs. Sometimes, we even hide God behind our mediocrity. If someone comes into our church, are they getting their fill of those things while missing God entirely? Instead of allowing for a genuine religious experience, do our churches actually assist us in evading God?

More importantly, why would that happen? Reid says it covers up the fact that our churches don’t actually “change lives or influence conduct to any appreciable degree.” Willard says it’s because we worry about the judgment of others and desire praise from men rather than God. I agree with both of those conclusions and want to add my own as well. Another reason our churches actually assist us in evading God is because we cannot control God but we can control a worship service, a ministry or a bureaucratic structure. When we really reveal God, things begin happening, they often force a choice between the institution and God.

When it’s all said and done, are we trying to make apprentices of the institution or the Master?

 

* If you want more information about what a church plant in Midland might look like, please pass along your name and email here (at the bottom). We are also looking to have an informal get together next Tuesday (10-6-15) night- I’ll be inviting people through text, email and phone call but if you want the where and when, let me know.

 

What I Think About All This and What I’m Doing About It

It’s no secret that the church I belong to is in a mess. I think the front-page story in the newspaper pretty much made that clear. Over the past three weeks I have heard of closed-door meetings, back room dealing and platform posturing that would make a politician proud. But this really isn’t about all that; it’s about finding the real solution to the real problem.

I am not writing this to create waves or controversy but because a real solution cannot come if the real problem is not addressed.

The problem is not personnel being laid-off (fired)- I was fired from the church in 2012 for budget reasons but nobody said anything in my defense. The problem is not about transparency or who makes decisions- no one wants to be involved in the hundreds of small decisions but only in the one big decision. The problem is not finances or budget- God is bigger than any amount of money.

The problem is that the Church (big “C”) has forgotten, missed, bypassed and turned from its mission in the world- and my church (like many churches) is simply a case study. The problem isn’t about power or money; it’s about God’s Spirit. Could it be that, just as in the days of Ezekiel, God’s Spirit has left the church- and we’ve been too busy or too blind to notice? Could it be that we have been too proud of our money, too content with our comforts, standing too much on our own strength? How do we know? Jesus said to look at the fruit, what is our fruit?

I’m not saying anything new. I’ve written on this very topic time and time again. Just scroll down and look at the posts under “Church” and “Church and Theology” and see that I’m not saying anything I haven’t said before. Specifically read my post, “Am I Just a Hater? Or (Why I Write” to see why I believe this topic stands at the most important topic in our lifetime.

I don’t think it is hopeless, however. Again, just as in Ezekiel, God can bring the dry bones together, give them life and put God’s Spirit back into them. But as God so often does, it may not look like what we think it should. But as I’ve written elsewhere, I want to be a part of what that looks like.

So how does that happen? Well, this Tuesday (July, 28) I’ll be at Murray’s, on the corner of Midkiff and Wadley, at 8 pm and ready to talk about the Bible and what it might look like when God starts putting the bones back together to make something new and you are invited to join me.

Honestly, I’m so tired of whole issue that has overtaken my church for the last month so I’m not going to write anything else on it or say anything else about it. There are over a hundred thousand people in this town who don’t know Jesus (or at least they aren’t a part of a church community) and many of them are my peers (Millennials) but also people of every age, race and gender. I want to explore the creation a community through which they can encounter God. That’s what makes me excited. If you want to explore with me, you’ll know where I’ll be- Murray’s at 8pm on Tuesday, July 28.

I genuinely hope and pray to see you there too.

Praying Prayers Together: Why I Don’t Sing at Church

It’s been over two years since I’ve sang at church.

It’s not because my church plays one kind of music while I prefer another. It’s not because I’m angry at God. It’s not because I’m deathly afraid to sing in public. I just don’t sing at church.

But isn’t corporate worship part of going to church? Isn’t singing a huge part of that corporate worship- at least within the modern day church?

Yes, I guess you could argue those points and on one level I would have to agree with you. My response, however, is why? Why do we sing?

Bonhoeffer said that church singing is a way for a group of people to pray the same prayer. It’s a way for people of different ages, genders, social classes, education and spiritual maturity to all say the same thing to God at the same time.

I love the picture that Bonhoeffer creates. It’s the same picture we see in Revelation when people from every nation are gathered around the throne of God and sing “worthy is the Lamb that was slain.” If that were explained in church then I might be able to sing. Instead of standing to sing because standing to sing is what we do at church, the church was lead- shepherded, pastored- to the throne of God to pray the same prayer to God that would completely change how we sing church music.

Two other things also hinder our churches from realizing Bonhoeffer’s vision.

1. We must have prayers worth praying. In our conversation this means that we must have songs worth singing. Have you ever really paid attention to the words to some of the songs we sing at church? There are many songs that have well developed theology but there are many songs that do not, they just string a line of adjectives together and apply them to God. It brings me to the question, what does it mean to praise or worship God? Is worship merely describing God- God is holy, God is loving, God is full of grace? Is worship thanking God for what God has done? I’m not an expert on worship and I honestly haven’t done much research on the topic but when I read the Psalms or the early hymns of the church I see more than just assigning adjectives to God or thanking God for what God has done. Though I see those things, beyond them I see a change in the relationship between God, who is being praised and worshiped, and the one offering that praise and worship. In the Psalms we see the psalmist moved to steadfastness and action or we see evil crumble before God. When Paul writes or quotes an early Christian hymn, it ends with every knee bowing and tongue confessing that Jesus is Lord. I may be wrong and I may change my mind, but I don’t see many of our church songs causing a change in the relationship between God and the worshiper.

2. We must have community that is worth belonging to. If singing is praying prayers together, then it reasons that we need to know each other. In Romans, Paul tells us to rejoice with those rejoice and weep with those who weep; if we don’t know who is rejoicing and who is weeping, how can we rejoice and weep with them? If I don’t know what is going on in the lives of people around me, how can I pray prayers of thanksgiving with them, or prayers of comfort, or prayers of distress, or prayers of hope? What happens is that I sing or pray my little song in the context of my world in my rejoicing and my weeping and you sing your little song in the context of your little world in your rejoicing or your weeping and we are singing two individual songs instead of singing one song together. It’s only though really knowing those around us that we can truly sing and pray together.

As I said earlier, I really love Bonhoeffer’s picture of what church singing is suppose to be. Above that, I think it’s the picture we see in the Bible and in the example of the early Christian church. God hears enough of us singing our individual prayers- everyone in the world can do that- what we need more of is singing prayers as one body and that means having prayers worth praying and knowing what prayers to pray by being in true community with each other.

 

Censorship and the LifeWay Banned List

Blogger Cameron Dobbins wrote a post recently about an alleged email that was sent by LifeWay to all employees outlining a list of banned authors/ musicians/ resources. Dobbins says he was given the list by a LifeWay employee but LifeWay won’t confirm that the list is authentic. According to Dobbins, books and resources by banned authors will not be available for purchase in LifeWay stores or on LifeWay’s online site. You can review the list here.

Commenting on the list, Dobbins writes, “ If its true then I want to applaud LifeWay for this decision which will encourage Christians to be more discerning about what they read and share with others. It blows my mind how Christians will believe something just because it’s in a book or in a movie without diligently searching the Scriptures to be sure their receiving biblical truth and not mysticism and other unbiblical nonsense.”

I will agree that there are authors on the list who, I believe, mislead through harmful theology. A few examples of this are: Creflo Dollar, Benny Hinn, Gloria and Kenneth Copeland and Joel Osteen- to name a few.

However, there are authors on the LifeWay list that who’s work I have read and appreciate. The following is a list of authors on the alleged banned list and the number of books I personally own by each:

  •  Karen Armstrong- 1
  • Rob Bell- 1
  • Marcus Borg- 2
  • Tony Campolo- 2
  • Rachel Held-Evans- 1
  • Tony Jones- 1
  • Brian McLaren- 4
  • Doug Pagitt- 1
  • Phyllis Tickle- 1
  • The Voice Bible- 1
  • Henri Nouwen- who I don’t own but want to read

I guess I’m a sucker for “unbiblical nonsense.” The larger issue behind this alleged banned list is the question of censorship. LifeWay, as the official merchandise seller of the Southern Baptist Convention, should be able to choose what they do and do not want to sell. And people seeking to find works from these authors are able to purchase them at other retail locations or online. However, it is a slippery slope when a single person can deem something heretical and unbiblical nonsense for an entire group of people. We only need to look back through history in order to see that censorship never, ever leads a more free, open and intellectual society. Censorship that begins as an attempt to save the population from corruption ends up being a way for the one in charge (in this case the CEO of LifeWay, I imagine) to silence any voice they disagree with or simply do not like.

One of the beliefs of Protestants is that each and every believer has the privilege and responsibility to read and interpret Scripture, commentary on Scripture and works that apply Scripture to life for themselves. I wrote about this in a little more detail here.

I don’t think that people need to support Creflo Dollar and his quest for a multi-million dollar private jet. I don’t believe Benny Hinn is able to heal people. I don’t  believe Joel Osteen preaches anything more than a glorified self-help seminar and definitely not the gospel of Jesus. But I also believe that voices like Phyllis Tickle, Marcus Borg, Tony Campolo and others challenge Christians to expand their idea of what the Christian faith means and what it means for the world.

Most of all I believe in each Christian’s responsibility to decide for themselves, and hopefully through their Bible study, prayer life, pastor and church they have help in knowing what to believe and not believe. Overall I don’t think our churches and pastors do a good job of that, but it’s through those means- along with Scripture, prayer and the guidance of the Holy Spirit- that should form our beliefs, not the author of a list of banned authors.