A Brief Statement of Faith (and Works)

This beautiful and challenging “statement of faith” was among the responses at last night’s gathering of the Atlanta Mennonite Fellowship. It is an extract from a larger writing of Meno Simmons, the Dutch Anabaptist leader from who the Mennonite’s gained their namesake. You will see the distinctive Anabaptist flavor in it, one which unequivocally states that faith will lead to good works. Often the Anabaptists were so explicit about the connection between faith and good works the Protestants accused them of being Catholic and so sure of their justification apart from works and based on faith alone that the Catholics accused them of being Protestants!                     

Statement of Faith

For true evangelical faith is of such a nature that it cannot lay dormant; but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love;

it dies unto flesh and blood;

destroys all forbidden lusts and desires;

cordially seeks, serves and fears God;

clothes the naked;

feeds the hungry;

consoles the afflicted;

shelters the miserable;

aids and consoles all the oppressed;

returns good for evil; serves those that injure it;

prays for those that persecute it;

teaches, admonishes and reproves with the Word of the Lord;

seeks that which is lost;

binds up that which is wounded;

heals that which is diseased and saves that which is sound.

The persecution, suffering and anxiety which befalls it for the sake of the truth of the Lord, is to it a glorious joy and consolation.

- Menno Simons, Why I Do Not Cease Teaching and Writing, bold my own

What do you think of this focus of the Anabaptist? Do you see faith and works connected in your worshiping community? What is difficult about connecting the two for you?

Reimagining the Worship Gathering: The Sermon (Part Three)

Today’s post will conclude this series on reimagining the sermon and will only make sense if you’ve read Part One and Part Two. I’ll continue to structure today’s post with a few statements on what our current paradigm says about our church culture; what we do often says more about what we believe than what we say (see JR Woodward’s excellent book, Creating a Missional Culture: Equipping the Church for the Sake of the World for more on how our culture communicates our values). I’d love to hear your creative ideas and how you respond to these challenges in your context, especially as these posts are only a start and I’d love this to be a conversation that provokes all of us to deeper examination of our gatherings.

See here for statements one through three.

3.  Discussion is not an important part of the learning process

When lecture is primary format and no time for interaction is allowed, we are not so subtly communicating what we think about learning. I’ll offer my suggestions below, under number four.

4. Learning is a passive, consumeristic act

This goes hand in hand with number three. By creating a gathering, where for the majority of the time we create consumers, we are showing that we value what American culture at large does, the act of consuming. It is interesting to me that many pastors and practical theologians will critique the worship through singing in churches as being too consumer driven, yet they never think to turn their gaze upon the sermon that has in many ways mirrored this pattern.

What if the sermon were shorter and there were some type of open discussion period where anyone could offer questions or their own insights into the text? It seems to me that this is what Paul envisioned in Corinthians. Yes, it would be messier and more difficult. It would mean giving up “power” from the pulpit and learning the skill of facilitation and not just dissemination. There would still be a facilitator to guide the conversation and wrap it up at the end and guide the gathering into a time of worshipful response.

Another even more communal way I’ve actually done this before is to have people sit around tables and during the sermon stop periodically for discussion around the tables. Then there was a time for people to share with the larger group anything they thought was exciting or insightful. This again reinforces the value of community and the priesthood of all believers in the gathering. (I’m not discounting the difficulty in shifting as pastors and as gatherers who are used to a particular way of worshipping to something new. The question I’d pose is this: what does shifting say about our values and how important is this as a counter-cultural witness?)

5. Learning biblical truth is an impersonal process of “information dump” (this is only exacerbated by video screens piping in the sermon from Timbuktu)

This is spoken not only by the length and importance of a sermon in our worship gatherings, but by the content of the sermons themselves. Many sermons are long expositions of a piece of biblical text, going in great detail and minutiae or they offer three practical points of application that could be given by Oprah or Dr. Phil. While the latter doesn’t merit comment,  as a theologian I obviously think that understanding the biblical text is important, but is the purpose of our worship gathering primarily information or formation?

Scripture does contain information, but that information is for the purpose of spiritual formation and not purely information. A reintegration of the two is needed and a shift towards formative sermons that place us in the biblical narrative and create space for us to be affected by the Spirit  in our emotions and wills as well. We all encounter countless amounts of information everyday and that shows that information alone won’t lead to change, yet that is our focus. As pastors we need to remember that a good sermon touches head, heart, and will at the same time; only by moving beyond mere information to the latter two is real formation and life change taking place. I have to admit I struggle with this shift as a thinker, so my practical advice is limited to sermons being a place for connecting our story to God’s story and seeing our place within God’s narrative. This touches not just the information part of our minds, but our imaginations as well, giving us visions of what our lives could be and touching our emotions in ways that sheer information cannot. I’d love thoughts on this shift as I struggle with it.

Concluding Thoughts 

When our churches organizational structure is setup in such a way that it is “Sunday-centric” we re-inforce all of the above by saying that what happens on Sunday in this non-communal, information driven, consumeristic atmosphere is the most important part of being the church. I want to challenge you to get involved in this conversation, push back, but ultimately to use your imagination and allow the Spirit to give you visions of worship that allow for community and for the primary focus to be Jesus Christ and being formed in His image.

Reimagining the Worship Gathering: The Sermon (Part Two)

In my last post I offered some great quotes from “Flipping the 40-Minute Sermon” by Karen E. Yates and today I want to think through some implications of the ideas she’s pointed out. This post will only make sense if you go back and read both her thoughts and mine as well. As someone who has regularly preached in past (and will again soon) this issue is something I pray, dream, and talk about a lot with others. Yates articulately brings to our attention two primary weaknesses of the current paradigm of preaching: lack of community participation\relation and the purpose of the sermon. Let’s think through these together; I’d absolutely love to hear what you think about these issues.

I want to structure today’s post with a few statements on what our current paradigm says about our church culture; what we do often says more about what we believe than what we say (see JR Woodward’s excellent book, Creating a Missional Culture: Equipping the Church for the Sake of the World for more on how our culture communicates our values). I’ll discuss each statement and begin to reimagine what our worship gaterhings would look like if formed along different, more communal and formational lines. I can only begin to imagine differences for the sake of space, but I’d love to continue the conversation in the comments and see what creative ideas you birth.

1. Community is a periphery issue when we gather in a large group setting

How many times have you sat next to someone in worship and only exchanged pleasantries during the millisecond greeting time? Have you ever been that person who was longing for interaction, burdened by the heavy weight of life’s crushing complexities?

This is a case of what economists call an “opportunity cost” in action. When we decide to have a forty to fifty minute sermon the trade-off is that other facets of worship are reduced; the opportunity cost is the price what we pay for having a longer sermon. What if sermons were only thirty minutes and we had a lengthier time for communal interaction? Yes, people could come early or stay late, but some people need to be formed and learn the value of community and including it as part of worship could be just the formative process they need to begin to live into closer community. Beyond this more communal time boldly communicates that we value community.

2. One person’s opinion, usually one with some type of “power,” is valued above the community and their thought

The whole setup of our worship services points towards this fact: one person speaks for forty-fifty minutes, from a stage above everyone else, behind a pulpit, and no one else offers input. I’d argue that this is a vestige of the the Roman Catholic system that was not purged through the magisterial Reformation; the priesthood of all believers is in fact only given lip service in many Protestant churches in America. Even though the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers came out of the Reformation, the magisterial Reformers never completely enacted it and in this area continued to exercise an extreme sort of top-down authority (I’m not arguing for flat leadership, but true servant leadership in the pattern of Jesus and I’ll post on this more extensively at some point). Historically this has been one of the strengths of the Anabaptist churches and I’d conjecture from a theological perspective it needs to be emphasized everywhere. Why?

What is seen as the center of our service in our current paradigm? Is the Eucharist the centerpiece or something, no someone else? At Life on the Vine in Chicago the setup is different: they worship in the round and the sermon (which is only twenty minutes) is given from the edge of the circle, on the same level as everyone else. More importantly the center of the circle is the Eucharist. I’m not saying we all need to copy LOV; there are a multiplicity of ways to communicate what we value. What I am saying is that we need to ensure that Christ and not the sermon or worship songs or liturgy are the center.  I challenge you to examine whether or not an outsider would say that Jesus Christ is truly the center of your gathering.

In the last post of this series I’ll offer three more statements and some concluding thoughts. For now, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the above. Any creative ideas come to mind for how to overcome these issues? Are they even issues?

 

Reimagining the Worship Gathering: The Sermon (Part One)

My wife is an educator so we’ve often discussed how obscene it can be that the Sunday sermon is aimed at one particular learning style (auditory/audial) and largely neglects the rest. And it takes up the majority of our Sunday service times. That’s why I wanted to stand up and cheer when I came across the post “Flipping the 40-Minute Sermon” by Karen E. Yates. I want to share what I felt like was the heart of her post in hopes that you will read the rest:

“Although the message from the pulpit can seem like the “main act,” going to church is about relating to one another in Christian community. Spread so thin from our jobs, college schedules, parenting responsibilities, meetings, volunteer opportunities, community activism, social media, and extracurricular activities galore, we in the Western church hardly have time for each other. Many Christians are lonely; many people are lonely. We come to church eager for friendship, to connect with God and with one another, because he made us for relationship.

Yet, the format of most Sunday church services rarely affords more interaction outside a handshake or “nice to meet you.” We sit shoulder to shoulder for 20 minutes of music, 5 minutes of announcements, 40 minutes of lecture, and 10 minutes of music to close. The greatest opportunity for community happens in the courtyard after service or on the slow trot to the car. Deepening relationships at church usually requires more time (which few of us have)–an additional Bible study, a prayer group, a mid-week community group to get “plugged in.” Meanwhile, the most interactive learning on Sunday morning consists of asking, What did you think of the sermon?”…Would we allow that the church is not the church because of our pastor’s sermons, but because of the interaction of the congregation, the formation of community around the Word of God?…

Incorporating more opportunities to interact with one another during the Sunday service both addresses our need for community and our need to engage more deeply with the pastor’s instruction. How would it be if, instead of a Sunday morning 40-minute lecture, the pastor chopped his teaching into four shortened podcasts or You Tube videos for the congregation to listen to during the week. What if we actually asked questions about the topic or discussed the teaching with others? What if the pastor directed us with prompts, texts to read, and specific questions about what we learned mid-week? What if each “sermon” was collected into a downloadable eBook that we could share with friends, available for reference on our e-readers, and accessible for discussion during the Sunday morning church service?”

In a second post, I want to discuss more in depth one aspect Yates highlights, community participation, and one that she implicitly points towards, how we view the sermon’s purpose.

What do you think about her practical ideas? Do you agree/disagree that the sermon largely neglects most learning styles? 

The Church, the State, and Gay Marriage

“Debate on “church and state” or “the church and secular vocations” has gone on for ages, as if the issue were the relationship between two administrative hierarchies or between two segments of a person’s life; yet under it all nothing had shaken the assumption that all of society could and should be spoken to in Christian terms, and that the Christian community can well afford to sacrifice its specific identity in the creation of a wider Judeo~Christian civilization

Most evidently, Christian discipleship is for a minority in that it presupposes the resources of faith: the assurance of forgiveness, the counseling and accepting fellowship of the Christian brotherhood, the presence of the Holy Spirit as source of insight and motivation, a changed attitude of the regenerate will. It is the puritan misunderstanding of Christian obedience to feel that there is any value in imposing on others who do not claim to dispose of these resources the kind of external behavior patterns which, for committed Christians, are the normal expression of an attitude of faith. A hypothetical world where it could be presupposed that everyone else would operate on the basis of Christian assumptions, where we could generalize our Christian standards, would be precisely a world in which Christian behavior would not be much needed.”  (John Howard Yoder, “The Radical Revolution in Theological Perspective” found in For the Nations: Essays Public and Evangelical, 103 and 112)

I want to tie these two quotes, from different parts of a rather rambling essay on the civil rights movement and the role the church was to play in it, together to make a broader point about gay marriage and the church. When certain strands of American Christianity attempt to legislate and dominate the legal landscape in relation to gay marriage they are implicitly capitulating to the government and sacrificing their own views of marriage in an attempt at “the creation of a wider Judeo-Christian civilization.”  By having so much vested interest in what the state defines to be marriage, the church is allowing their own definition of marriage as covenant to be subjugated to a thinner, legal definition of marriage. Those who oppose gay marriage are in fact saying that the state’s legal definition of marriage is more important than their own view of marriage as a covenant act before God and community. 

Why does this happen? Yoder would argue that it is because we have so watered down our idea of Christian discipleship that we expect everyone to be able to live it out; it is no longer a radical call to follow Jesus within a community of disciples, but is something that everyone and anyone can fulfill if only we get the right legislation pushed through into law. This is why Yoder’s point in the second part of the quote is vitally important: we can’t expect those who do not have the resources of faith to live the faith. Yet many American Christians do just this and at the expense of their own values and morals. The only way to expect others to follow Christian morals successfully, without the resources of faith, is to make them easier to follow and thus no longer truly Christian.

I would argue that many American evangelicals, in their minds, have “created” just such a “hypothetical world” as Yoder speaks of above and because of this true Christian morals and discipleship isn’t “much needed.” The attempted generalizing of Christian discipleship for the broader society has allowed the church to accept a least common denominator instead of the radical call to follow Jesus in community. Instead of really creating a Christian society the believing community itself becomes the one to be the most effected as they too live out this easier, more comfortable vision of Christianity that they have painted for the masses. This leaves us without a true Christian witness. Attempting to create a supposedly “Christian” United States of America has massively backfired.

What does all of this mean? That maybe we should stop trying to impose our moral values on everyone. That we should cease to lower our standards so that all can follow them once they are legislated. That we should instead focus on creating intimate communities that center their lives on following Jesus and who embody hope for the world.

In these communities it is my hope that instead of allowing the state to define marriage, we would live it out as a covenant before God and community and take that idea seriously. If Christians truly took their own idea of marriage as covenant as sacred and weighty (instead of the legal definition), maybe something would actually be different about our marriages. Instead of mirroring the divorce rates of society at large and damaging our witness, we would be a light shining on a hill and a sign of the Kingdom of God that is already breaking into our world.

John Piper and God’s Judgment of Crossway Publishing

As a former neo-Reformed acolyte I purchased an ESV Study Bible the day it came out; in fact I purchased two, one for my wife and one for myself (and I told her she had to read it). On second thought I wouldn’t let her read it and put it in a glass case on the coffee table instead. But back to our story, ordering the ESV Study Bible from Crossway Publishing meant they had the key to my heart: my email address. And lately, they’ve been utilizing it. To ask for money. Again and again. If only they realized I a missional church planter (which means I’m actually not being funded by a mega church or pressing the play button for some other, older and hipper white dude’s sermons to be played) and PhD student maybe they’d feel sorry for me and leave me alone?

Why are they asking for money? Because by the judgment of God, Crossway was flooded on April 18th, covering the first floor with two feet of water. The extensive damage will take five-six months to repair. If they can get the money to fix it.

The patience of our kind and loving Father was tested by the patriarchy, theological exclusivism, and dismal picture of God painted by many of their books. Time had run out just as it did for those in Noah’s day. A flood of not so biblical proportions was God’s decided judgment. Out of white hot anger, our vengeful God decided that the presses needed to be stopped (or at least slowed down for awhile). The world needed a break from the repression of women. From hearing about God’s impatience and pettiness towards humanity. From the bounded theological categories that paint most of Christianity as either heretical or at the very least heterodox. From the stifling and stultifying voice that prevented seekers from searching and the doubting from exploring new frontiers.

It was time for God to act. For God to confirm, that hey Crossway, you make me out to be a crotchety old dude (like David Fitch) who is sitting around waiting to explode, so maybe I will be that crotchety old dude sitting around waiting to explode. I’ll confirm what you are teaching about me but it won’t be easy. I’ll do it in spite of the fact that it would mean mothers and fathers might lose their jobs and subsequently their families lose their homes and sustenance. Despite the fact that the impact of lost jobs would affect the greater community. That the biblical materials printed at Crossway would be delayed and the Word of God would be withheld from the hands of those who desperately need it. And even in light of the fact that I’ll be viewed as petty as Carrie Underwood and her key and Louisville slugger. God likes country music right? Someone has to…

Back To Reality

The above is my attempt at satire. Sadly, this attempt in some ways reflects what many people, including myself, see John Piper doing when it comes to almost every world and American tragedy: pronouncing in an emphatic way that God’s judgment has come to an area for this or that reason. Sometimes he is even so bold as to say specifically why the judgment came. God apparently picked up the Batphone and dialed Piper directly. (On a semi-related note, Pat Robertson seems to be the only other guy with access to a Batphone; not exactly the company I’d want to keep…)

Oddly enough I haven’t heard Piper relate the flood at Crossway to the judgment of God. Seems kind of odd doesn’t it? Seems like maybe he is hedging a bit on his judgment theology when it hits too close to home? Maybe God only conveniently judges those groups or peoples that disagree with Piper’s positions? I’d love to think the last statement wasn’t true, but the implications of his actions seem to be so clear.

I believe again, as was the case when Piper turned cartwheels with the biblical text to show that men can be taught by women in written but not verbal form, we see an underlying agenda revealed. We all have one. Often it is concealed and sadly many Christians use Scripture and theology to co-opt their own political agenda and pass it off as God’s will and decree. That’s what I see going on here with Piper. Because of some sort of deep seeded insecurity to accept and relate well to other positions, he feels the need to batter them with the ram of God’s wrath. It is a subtle or not so subtle way of maintaining an entrenched standing of power. This is clear in the case of judgment theology and even more clear when patriarchy and power grabbing is revealed by inconsistent manifestations of the hierarchical, complementarian position. In both cases if the biblical text can’t clearly be shown to be driving the statements, their must be something else at work.

Conclusion

My agenda here? To show the absurdity and double standards of Piper’s judgment theology. To reveal it for what it is. To challenge the notion that we can arbitrarily, as Piper does, assign the judgment of God to natural disasters.

And to finally say that God is love. The simplicity of John 3:16 paints a beautifully succinct statement of God’s love for the world. Not simply for some sub-category called the elect. Yes, there is a wrathful aspect of God revealed in Scripture, but we can’t let it be the most powerful image of God that we take from the narrative or give to the world and we must always read it as an aspect of God’s love. No, the singular most important message revealed in Scripture is the life and work of Jesus Christ. A life and work that clearly reveals that God is first and foremost love.

Things That Make You Go Hmmm….

Every Friday I plan (hope!) to link to some of what I feel like are most significant blog posts during the past week or two in hopes that they will cause you to think and even better, further the discussion. It has been a somewhat crazy week as we moved into our new house and started to unpack and sort through all stuff that has been in storage for almost two years while watching a very active toddle at the same time. That means the offerings are a little on the short side this week.

Is the Kingdom Outside the Church? Yes and Here’s Why: My Take on Matt 25, Reclaiming the Mission, David Fitch

“Is the Kingdom a.) contained within the boundaries of “the church?” the people who have already submitted to the Lordship of Christ?

Or is the Kingdom b.) outside the church where God is already working irrespective of where the church is or isn’t,

or c.) is there a combination where in effect God’s rule is already at work, but indeed the Kingdom becomes manifest materially wherever His people gather to submit to His presence in that time and location?”

Dallas Willard on Spiritual Formation being ‘Profoundly’ Social, Anabaptistly, Chris Lenshyn

“SPIRITUAL FORMATION, GOOD OR bad, is always profoundly social. You cannot keep it to yourself. Anyone who thinks of it as a merely private matter has misunderstood it. Anyone who says, “It’s just between me and God,” or “What I do is my own business,” has misunderstood God as well as “me.” Strictly speaking there is nothing “just between me and God.” For all that is between me and God affects who I am; and that, in turn, modifies my relationship to everyone around me. My relationship to others also modifies me and deeply affects my relationship to God. Hence those relationships must be transformed if I am to be transformed.” (Dallas Willard)

“God does not ‘love’ us without liking us…,” Rachel Held Evans

“From Dallas Willard:

“We must understand that God does not ‘love’ us without liking us – through gritted teeth – as ‘Christian’ love is sometimes thought to do. Rather, out of the eternal freshness of his perpetually self-renewed being, the heavenly Father cherishes the earth and each human being upon it. The fondness, the endearment, the unstintingly affectionate regard of God toward all his creatures is the natural outflow of what he is to the core – which we vainly try to capture with our tired but indispensable old word ‘love’.” 

― The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God

The God Who Calls and Sends (Brueggemann), Crux Sola, Nijay Gupta

““God’s call disrupts the lives of settled people, both in biblical times and now. God sends, then and now, to transform the present world, subject to alien powers, into the world God intends. Discipleship and evangelism are, therefore, not primarily about church membership and recruitment but about an alternative way of being in the world for the sake of the world” — W. Brueggemann (“The God Who Calls, the God Who Sends”)”