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Conflicts between groups of people plague us. Nations wage war. Neighboring cities compete. Allegiances to political and religious institutions divide.

I’m already beginning to see the havoc in the first weeks of a history class about early and medieval Christianity. Of course Christianity is not the only religion to experience conflicts. Just glance through a good introduction to the major religions (something like Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World), and you’ll see what I’m saying. And of course we see intergroup conflict between other kinds of establishments.

Group of People Standing Holding Culture

Christianity isn’t the only conflicted religion, but its story certainly has its fair share of the mess. And I get to learn about it this semester.

(Although I haven’t always appreciated church history, I’m enjoying this course. Over the last 15 years, as I’ve seen history explain contemporary experiences and even provide some possible responses, I’ve grown to value it. For example, why do Churches of Christ typically worship with voices unaccompanied by other musical instruments? How should church leadership be done? What do I pray when my life is falling apart? Church history addresses all of these and more.)

There’s a lot of positive in the story of this religion. There’s also plenty of negative. But I want us all to understand that the negative doesn’t discredit Christianity in relation to alternative worldviews. All the options have imperfections.

Questions of Culture

One of the imperfections in Christianity (but not just here) is conflict between cultural groups. In the early church, we see this between Jews and non-Jews. (Nothing against Jews here! Jesus is a Jew.) There also was conflict in the church between Jews who wanted to welcome non-Jews and Jews who weren’t so open to that. (Remember that this kind of thing happens everywhere. If the church had started in my home state of Texas instead of Israel, I’m sure there would have been cultural conflicts between the Mexicans and the white folk and between people open to intergroup relations and those preferring monoculturalism.)

This is a struggle in the early life of the church. How can we worship and work together if we’re so different from each other in our talking and thinking and eating and other cultural practices? We still ask similar questions today. What worship songs can connect with all the cultural groups represented in our communities? Where can we find preaching styles that connect cross-culturally? How can we get past the excessive whiteness of our traditional worship styles? (Not to ignore churches that deal with other cultural limitations or have learned to worship and minister in more diverse ways.)

In response to all these questions, we need to hear two answers. One is beautiful but theoretical, and the other is more practical but not as easy as you might want.

Answer One: Jesus

The first answer is that Jesus is our peace and has broken down the dividing wall of cultural hostility (Ephesians 2:14). Some people joke that, when you’re asked in a church Bible class a question to which you don’t know the answer, the answer probably is Jesus. In a sense Jesus is the answer, but in many cases other answers might better respond to the questions. Here, however, the answer is Jesus, who has destroyed the dividing wall between people groups. The people addressed in Ephesians 2 are cultural groups. In the struggle to worship and work together as members of Jesus’ church, we should remember that Jesus “is our peace,” a peace that we are to embody and enact.

Answer Two: Ministry

The second answer responds to questions of how we live out that peace. Should we worship and work in separate communities of Jesus followers, with people of one culture in one congregation and people of another culture in another congregation? Should we strive to incorporate people of diverse cultures in the same congregation? If so, how should we navigate cultural differences? The answer is neither singular nor simple. Church leaders must wrestle with these questions, praying for divine direction, in their respective cultural contexts. What works in Memphis, where I live, might or might not work in Los Angeles or Singapore.

A Needed Conversation

Congregations of Jesus’ followers must proceed through these issues prayerfully and carefully but intentionally and actively. Choosing not to wrestle with matters of cultural reconciliation is choosing not to participate in the peace that is Jesus. When we move forward, with guidance from the Holy Spirit, in efforts to bring diverse cultural groups together in the church, we live out God’s mission of reconciliation (Ephesians 1:9-10).

This was not easy in the early church, and it’s not easy today. Not all cultural groups connect well with all styles of preaching, music, and leadership. One cultural group might benefit from sitting on pews and listening to a lecture, while another might worship more meaningfully when sitting in a circle and engaging in a conversation. One group might experience God through slow, meditative hymns. Another group might more likely encounter the Divine through energetic praise songs. A group might function well with hierarchical leadership, and another might function better with more egalitarian leadership.

And these differences exist not only along cultural lines but also along lines of age, sex, economics, education, and other demographics. There is no single answer that fits every context. I encourage church leaders to study their respective cultural contexts as they study scripture and theology. The best course of action in any situation arises from a conversation between these voices. The point here is to have the conversation, to pray about what needs to be done, and to take action in partnership with God who is reconciling the world through Jesus, our peace who has knocked down the wall.

Churches need such conversations in every generation. If a church had this kind of conversation decades ago, that’s great; but the church needs to regularly ask the questions in order to faithfully and responsibly embrace changing cultures with God’s love.

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Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).

This week I learned about goal setting from Dr. Ed Gray, Professor of Counseling at Harding School of Theology. His lecture used a “MAPS” model to teach that goals should be measurable, attainable, positive, and specific. The whole time I was thinking, “This can apply to church leadership!”

Leaders in each church need to ask, “What has God gifted this specific congregation to do in this specific community? Where can this church’s resources, skills, and passions meet the opportunities in the community?” Exploring those questions can result in goals that are measurable, attainable, positive, and specific.

Malaysia Football 2007 cropped

Measurable

Churches can struggle to set measurable goals. We don’t want to force the Holy Spirit into any box of our own understandings and ambitions, nor do we want to become so numbers-focused that we measure success by buildings, budgets, or baptisms. We can, however, set measurable goals. They might include increasing church members’ involvement in small groups, better integrating the various components of the church’s education ministry, or equipping more Christians to serve in the surrounding community. Even if we never establish numerical expectations, we can look back after a few months to see if we’ve made progress.

Attainable

We need goals that are challenging yet attainable. Changing our city into a utopia might be a bit unattainable and lead us to discouragement and maybe even burnout. Partnering with a local school’s tutoring program might be more attainable. Implementing conflict management processes can be attainable. Equipping people for intergenerational relationships and missional service is attainable, as is offering teachings about prayer.

Positive

Church goals need to rise above “Don’t do ______.” Positive goals are about what we plan to do. Maybe we want to preach more from the Old Testament while not neglecting the New Testament. Maybe we want to become more holistic in our support of missionaries. We might want to plant a church. Maybe we want to build friendships with residents of a nearby apartment community.

Specific

Churches can benefit from general goals like “lead people to Jesus” or “bless the world.” But we need to complement general goals with specific ones. We need to ask, “Based on who we are and where we are, what specific ways might God want to use us here? Whom do we want to lead to Jesus? How do we plan to do that? What are specific ways that we can bless the community around us?”

Collaborative Leadership

Dr. Gray said, “When clients have clear goals, they make better progress.” This is true not just in counseling but also in church leadership.

For that progress to happen in a healthy way, leaders need patience and sensitivity. We need to avoid any temptation to barge into church decision-making and push our own agendas, no matter how right or important we think our own convictions are. Faithful church leadership requires intentional practice of the other-centeredness we find in Jesus. Effective leaders empower other people to join the process of setting goals. Instead of immediately taking action or quickly offering solutions, we need to guide people to determine church goals.

Only then can we practice the “body of Christ” approach to ministry that the Apostle Paul teaches (1 Corinthians 12).

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The biblical book of Joshua begins in a bigger story. After divine deliverance from slavery, Moses’ people get distracted, seem to forget who they are, and wander around in a wilderness for about four decades. Just before the book of Joshua begins, the generation that experienced the exodus from Egypt is almost gone. A new generation is about to enter the land of promise. Moses, the leader, doesn’t have much more time with his people, so he gives them a farewell address.

Deuteronomy is that farewell address. It reminds the people of whose they are and, therefore, who they are and how they should act. Moses gives his people a bunch of commands from God and tells the people to stay true to their identity as God’s people, even when that’s hard because of the people around them. Moses reminds the people of what God has done for them and what God expects of them. Then Moses takes his final hike, and Joshua becomes the new leader.

Joshua assumes his leadership role with much preparation. He’s already proven himself as a military leader (Exodus 17:8-16). He’s been Moses’ assistant for several years (Exodus 24:13). He’s learned to spend time with God and has shown confidence in God’s faithfulness (Exodus 33:7-11; Numbers 13-14). Joshua’s resume is impressive, but he’s not perfect (Exodus 32:17-18; Numbers 11:28-29).

What can the story of Joshua’s preparation for leadership show us about leadership preparation today? First, spirituality is a prerequisite of faithful leadership. Before leading God’s people, spend time with God. A second ingredient of leadership development is mentoring. Before assuming a leadership role among God’s people, find a Moses to coach you. Of course, spirituality and mentoring are needed throughout our lives of leadership, not just in the preparation. Third, experience is essential. We can learn from books and professors, but that learning needs to combine with hands-on experience. A fourth necessity of leadership preparation is recognizing that we are not perfect and that God can work through us despite of, sometimes because of, our mistakes.

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A mother asks Jesus to give her sons places of honor in his kingdom. The sons are followers of Jesus, and other followers get upset and whine. Jesus replies:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Greatness in the kingdom of God is not measured by power, prestige, or popularity. Greatness in that kingdom (way of life) is measured by the cross. Followers of Jesus seek to live cross-shaped lives. He gave up power and prestige (Phil 2:5-11) and laid down his life, and he calls his followers to that kind of greatness. It’s about others. It’s about humility. It’s about getting our focus off of ourselves and onto God’s mission of world transformation in people’s lives. As Shane Claiborne recently tweeted, “In the kingdom of God, we descend into greatness.”

(Day 282: Matthew 20-21)

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Early in his public ministry, Jesus invites a few people to join his mission. He doesn’t go after the respected, popular, influential, or educated. No, he invites people who aren’t in the “in crowd,” people like Matthew.

Matthew is a tax collector, someone the religious leaders don’t like. They see him as a scoundrel, a sinner. When Jesus invites Matthew to follow him and eats dinner at his house with the tax collector’s friends, the teachers of religious law criticize him. Jesus replies, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (He’s quoting Hosea 6:6.)

We in the church of Jesus today can learn from this story. If we want to partner with Jesus in his mission, we must listen. We need to reach out to and welcome social outcasts. We need to empower them for ministry. We need to integrate them into church leadership.

(Day 277: Matthew 9-10)

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Shepherd is a common leadership image in the Bible. The New Testament portrays Jesus as a shepherd and speaks of elders/pastors/bishops as shepherds. God speaks to selfish leaders as irresponsible shepherds in Ezekiel 34:

Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.

If these are characteristics of unfaithful leaders, they can guide us to think about characteristics of faithful ones. Like good shepherds, leaders should care for their flocks (people), not just themselves. They should help people in need and provide gentle, sensitive guidance.

In today’s reading, God is upset with the shepherds and assumes the shepherding responsibility that human leaders have rejected. Of course God has always been and will continue to be our shepherd, and we can learn a few things about shepherding leadership from that great shepherd.

(Day 252: Ezekiel 34-36)

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Thank God for righteous leaders! I’ve learned a lot from faithful people in leadership, and I’m eternally grateful for them.

Today I want to share two encouragements for leaders from Isaiah 31 and 32. First, let’s rely on the Lord instead of on the strength of ourselves or other powers:

Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help,
   who rely on horses,
who trust in the multitude of their chariots
   and in the great strength of their horsemen,
but do not look to the Holy One of Israel,
   or seek help from the LORD.

Second, let’s lead with righteousness and justice. When we do, we become blessings to the people we lead:

See, a king will reign in righteousness
   and rulers will rule with justice.
Each one will be like a shelter from the wind
   and a refuge from the storm,
like streams of water in the desert
   and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land.

(Day 215: Isaiah 31-35)

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