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Posts Tagged ‘ministry’

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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Who does the work of the church? Is ministry God’s work or our work?

The biblical book of Joshua can point us to an answer.

In that ancient story, God tells the Israelites to march around the city of Jericho once a day for six days with priests carrying horns and accompanied by a sacred box called the ark. On the seventh day, the Israelites are to march around Jericho seven times, and the priests are to blow the trumpets, and the people are to shout. They do all this, and the walls of Jericho fall, and the Israelite army is victorious.

That part of the story is in chapter 6. In chapter 8 we see a different approach. God tells the Israelites to set an ambush and attack the city of Ai. The Israelites practice some ancient but nonetheless impressive military strategy. One group hides. Another taunts Ai. When Ai responds, the taunting group retreats. Then the hiding group surpries Ai, and Israel gains the victory.

Chapter 6 doesn’t have any human strategy, but chapter 8 does. Sometimes God works with passive people, performing mighty deeds without much human contribution. At other times, God works with active people, performing mighty deeds through human effort.

How can Christians today know when to strategize in cooperating with God and when to let God accomplish the mission through us as passive pawns? This requires prayer, study, and discernment.

I cannot answer the question for every person, for every family, for every organization, or for every congregation. God works in different ways in different places and times and cities and cultures.

But spirituality involves strategy. Sometimes ministry happens without much input from us, and sometimes it happens with careful planning.

I have heard church leaders talk about the need for ministry strategy, and I’ve heard church leaders preach about avoiding strategy and letting the Holy Spirit lead the church. Both sides of the discussion have helpful things to say, but balance is needed. Relying on our own strategic skills to the neglect of the Spirit’s guidance is arrogant, perhaps even idolatrous. Refusing to strategize is negligent. Spirituality needs strategy, and strategy needs spirituality.

Is ministry God’s work or our work? Both. God works through us.

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It was my first month serving with Park Avenue Church of Christ in Memphis. As a new staff member and a new member of the neighborhood ministry committee, I sat at a table with several good people whose faces were still new to me.

One new friend suggested that we have a Friends Day in the coming year. The congregation had done a similar event annually but had stopped about a decade ago. After some discussion, the proposer solicited my opinion. I replied with something like this: “I think it’s a great idea. Since I’m new, I prefer not to be the organizer or the public voice for the event.” The committee penciled the Friends Day into the church calendar for April 21.

You guessed it. For several weeks leading up to Friends Day, I was praying, brainstorming, planning, organizing, and in other ways juggling previously unexplored chaos. What should Friends Day be? What should it do? What tasks need to be done? Who should do them? These and other questions claimed much of my attention and had numerous possible answers.

Friends Day for us became a day to focus on our calling as Jesus-followers to love the world. On Friends Day, the emphasis of that calling narrowed to our immediate surroundings, giving us opportunities to extend love to our friends, family members, co-workers, and neighbors. We welcomed all guests and especially encouraged Park people to invite friends not already plugged into any faith communities.

Friends came. They came to the Bible classes. They came to the reception. They came to the worship gathering. They came to the lunch. We glorified God, and we reminded each other of the love God shows us and calls us to live out in our relationships across every line our society assumes.

The planning process intimidated me, but friends joined me as teammates, and our collaboration brought diverse people together in the name of Christ. Every aspect of the special day, from the sermon to the pasta, involved God-and-neighbor-loving teamwork (Mark 12:28-34).

Park, I’m blessed to serve with you!

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Life in God’s mission doesn’t let us just hang out in our homes or offices or church buildings with people who talk and act like we do and make us feel good about ourselves.

When we look at the life of Jesus, we see him spending time with people. We see him touching people’s lives. We see him talking with social outcasts and eating with people who are despised by the religious establishment. When he’s asked about the greatest commandment, he says basically, “Love God and love others.” And Jesus does more than say it; he lives it—a love that rescues individuals and revolutionizes societies and redefines realities.

New Testament scholar N. T. Wright says, “Jesus was going around ‘doing the kingdom’, healing the sick, cleansing lepers, feeding the hungry, he was celebrating at a party with all the wrong people, transforming people’s lives and saying cryptic things such as: ‘Let me tell you what the kingdom of God is like.’”

That was a radical way to live. Imagine the people’s shock when they heard Jesus say, “…whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” That life might seem strange, but it’s the life Jesus calls us to. And it’s still radical today.

This post is a modified part of my sermon, “The Immediate Kingdom,” in Memphis, TN, on Sunday, January 13. You can click here to listen to it.

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Religion has a bad reputation these days. People claim to be “spiritual but not religious.” Our understandings of both terms have suffered warping. We tend to think of spirituality as feelings or ideas instead of the life of discipline it is, and we often use the word “religion” in reference to institutionalized religion that has lost relevance and authenticity.

The end of James 1, however, gives us a different definition of religion. Real religion, according to this text, is “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” Of course this is countercultural, but it’s our calling. The universal church, local congregations, and individual members of them are all to be about God’s mission among people in need, including but not limited to orphans and widows. (Those were the needy in the community James was addressing.)

Numerous alternatives can compete for our attention, but helping people in need must remain at the heart of our mission. Everything else of importance should lead us to that.

(Day 353: James 1-5)

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Paul, along with Silas and Timothy, writes a letter to a church they love. The short document commends Christians in first-century Thessalonica for their continued growth in faith and love: “We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing” (2 Thess 1:3). The authors also encourage their readers to continue working and to avoid idleness: “never tire of doing what is right” (3:13).

New Jesus-followers usually are excited about spiritual growth and ministry involvement. After a while, the passion and commitment tend to fade. If you’ve recently joined the life of Christian faith, keep the zeal. If you’ve been in the church for several years, hear Paul’s words and pray for continual renewal of your desire to grow and work.

(Day 347: Second Thessalonians 1-3)

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Some New Testament letters begin with long sections of happiness. Almost the entire first chapter of Ephesians is praise and thanksgiving, but Galatians completely omits the standard thanks and jumps to rebuke instead.

A few days ago, I accepted an invitation to join the ministry staff of Park Avenue Church of Christ in Memphis, TN. One of Park’s leaders emailed the congregation a link to this blog, so it’s been getting a lot of hits (mostly from Park people, I assume).

I want to greet you Park members with praise and thanksgiving, not rebuke. I praise God for you and am thankful for your faith and your commitment to living out the gospel in your community. I’m glad we get to be a team, and I look forward to joining you soon.

(Day 340: Galatians 1-3)

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