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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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“Jesus is Lord!” The phrase maintains a prominent place in Jesus-followers’ identity.

This morning my ministry teammate, Dana Baldwin, ended his message with a rousing exploration of the statement, applying it to our lives and letting it challenge our hearts.

In Mark 11:27-33 we find questions of Jesus’ authority. The next part of the story (Mark 12:1-12) creatively presents Jesus as the Son of God.

Followers of Jesus today must ask more than “Do we believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that Jesus has divine authority, that he is Lord?” We must ask ourselves, “Do our lives show that belief?” Do our co-workers, neighbors, family members, and neighbors see that faith lived out in our interpersonal interactions?

Good questions, Dana! Thanks for the challenge.

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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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Caleb in PACC nursery by Wendi Sisson on FBReal love is more than flowers, candies, and cards; more than smiles, hugs, and kisses. It’s more than fleeting feelings, more than blingy gifts, more than self-centered sensuality.

Real love is sacrificial. It’s other-centered.

Jesus came announcing the kingdom of God, a kingdom of good breaking down a kingdom of bad (Mark 3:20-35). That kingdom is a way of life that involves changes of thought and behavior (Mark 1:14-15), a way of life shaped by love for God and people (Mark 12:28-34). Jesus demonstrated that love, so much so that he died for the world he loved.

I’ve been talking a lot about this other-centeredness recently. It’s at the core of the message of the cross, and it even shows up in the textbook I use for the University of Memphis. Yesterday, however, I almost forgot the call to put others before self.

Tamara asked me to start changing Caleb’s diaper and told me she would take over soon (because I was sick, not because I can’t complete a diaper change). As I removed his clothes, I caught a whiff that tempted me to stall. I held my son in my arms, and he laid his head on my chest, and I hoped he would stay content long enough for his mom to relieve me before the opening of the diaper.

Then I remembered my lecturing and preaching. The virtue of other-centeredness filled my mind. Guilt pinched me. I reclined Caleb onto the changing pad, unsnapped the diaper cover, and stayed through the task’s completion.

The story of Jesus calls me to real love, sacrificial love, other-centered love. That’s easy to forget. Sometimes I feel like avoiding it, not thinking of it. Sometimes, however, it grabs me and refuses to let me go and surprises my life with fullness.

[Photo by Wendi Sisson]

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Alan TaylorJesus is in a crowded house when a noise comes from the roof, a hole appears, and a stretcher lowers. Friends have brought a person suffering from some sort of paralyzing disease. Jesus looks at the friends’ faith and forgives the man (Mark 2:1-12).

Jesus forgives the man neither because of anything the man does nor because of what he believes. The forgiveness is not a response to the man’s faith; it’s a response to his friends’ faith. The man has faithful friends, friends who believe that something powerful and life-changing is happening in Jesus, friends who have so much faith that they bring their friend to Jesus. They bring their friend whom everyone else wants to avoid. They bring their friends who’s an outcast. They bring their friend who cannot help himself. And they have faith that Jesus can help him. That’s what real friends do.

That’s pretty much part of what I said to my congregation this Sunday morning, and today I found Alan Taylor’s blog post that speaks more fully to relationships among Jesus, his followers, and “those on the fringes.”

When we interact with people while maintaining a sanitized circle we may be doing good and meeting needs, but we are not imitating Jesus, and we still have much to learn about the fullest dimensions of living a cruciform life in the model of Jesus. I’m convinced that the call of Jesus demands that we not only love and meet the needs of those on the fringes, but that we allow ourselves to be counted as one and the same. Isn’t that the heart of the incarnation?

For more on this, read Alan’s entire post by clicking here.

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Martin_Luther_King_Jr_NYWTS_3_bisWhat characteristics do you consider when looking for a local church to join? What characteristics help you decide to stay in a congregation or to leave and look elsewhere?

This morning I read a blog post designed for church leaders. According to it, research has shown that “members have ideas of what a local congregation should provide for them, and they leave because those provisions have not been met.” In other words, “the main reason people leave a church is because they have an entitlement mentality rather than a servant mentality.”

The way of Jesus is more than something we receive. It’s something we give.

It’s more than something we believe. It’s something we do.

Today my nation remembers a man who gave and did. He wasn’t perfect, but he preached and practiced justice and reconciliation through nonviolence. He saw and proclaimed the heart of God, a heart still aching from our ongoing brokenness.

Maybe a better way to choose a “church home” is to find a group that has a place for you to use your specific skills and interests to participate in that “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). If you choose a faith community in that way, you’ll be less likely to leave for self-centered reasons.

Don’t look for a show. Join a mission!

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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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