Not Done Listening

     Recently I have had conversations with a few people, both from my previous home in Pennsylvania and in this community that I find rather taxing. What I mean is that they are persons who are absolutely convinced that their position, theologically or politically, is the correct one. I submit that the Christian witness is at a disadvantage whenever one person seeks to foist a simple, dogmatic position on another. So certain that they have the right answers they no longer listen. This obstinacy diminishes the Christian witness by its simple denial that there is anything new from the Lord, no deeper understanding to be discovered.

     Perhaps the greatest strength of the Reformed Tradition of the Christian faith is the declaration that we are not done listening; listening to God and listening for God through one another. All our speech, all our notions of theological orientation and political initiative must continually submit to humility and civility. Speech must be steadied with equal measure of listening.
     This is not to deny passion in our convictions. The North American church would be the stronger if more of its members were to experience their convictions a little more deeply and share them more expressively. Yet, we must maintain some uncertainty about our sense of what is right. More, we would experience greater delight in the church if more maintained greater uncertainty about their righteousness. What must happen increasingly is the spiritual discipline of pointing beyond ourselves to God. We all would benefit from the sinners prayer in the Gospels. “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
     Correctly heard, scriptures teaches that the line that separates good and evil, right from wrong, runs right through the middle of every person. We are all culpable for the brokenness in our communities. For that, we all need a God-sized savior to match the enormity of the present need. Fortunately, the Gospels declare that that is precisely what has been given to us in Jesus.



What Is the Missional Church?

“The life of the New Testament churches was centered around their missional vocation and their formation to practice it. “
                                   Darrell L. Guder, Princeton Theological Seminary
     In the time I have been your pastor, many of you have noticed that I speak of “the missional church.” I am grateful to those who have honestly asked, “What does that mean?” You are an intelligent congregation with an eye to what God is up to in the community. More, you are eager to join in God’s work. For that I am grateful.
     So here is a basic definition of “missional church.” A missional church is a church that acknowledges that God is already at work in the community and seeks to join God in that work. This isn’t a nuanced change from our old way of thinking about missions. The difference is significant. The first big difference is that the old way of thinking saw “mission” as one tiny part of what the church does. Missional Churchsays that everything the church does is about participating in the Missio Dei, the mission of God. Second, the old understanding was that “mission” is something we do “for” God. Missional Church says that “mission” is something we “join with God” in doing. The Missional Church Movement is a return to a sound biblical understanding of being church.
     Rob Weingartner, Director of the Outreach Foundation of the Presbyterian Church USA, provides additional insight of what it would look like to return to a biblical model of being church:
*   We used to describe mission as a program of the church; now we’re discovering that mission is the purpose of the church.
*  We used to talk about the church’s mission; now we seek to discern how God is at work in the world and participate in God’s mission.
*  We used to plan and program to get the world into the church; now we’re working on getting the church into the world
*  We used to argue about whether mission was primarily about evangelism or justice; now we know that saving souls and compassionate action and advocacy are essential dimensions of the one gospel of Jesus Christ.
*  We used to believe that the mission field was “over there” somewhere; now we know that the mission field is everywhere, including right here!
*  We used to think that only those called to special service in far off places were missionaries; now we know that in our baptisms every believer is commissioned into a missionary society.
*  We used to focus primarily on what we had to give and do in mission; now we understand that as we serve our lives are being transformed, there are things we must receive and learn.
*  Mission used to be from the West to the rest; today it is from everywhere to everyone.
     Weingartner further points out that being missional is not about church activities. It is about the church’s identity. God did not create mission in order to give the church something to do; rather, the Father who sent His Son out of love for the world and poured out the Spirit upon the disciples calls the church together and sends it into the world to bless the peoples of the earth in Jesus’ Name. Weingartner concludes with a question for local congregations: “Are you thinking in old, outmoded ways about the church and mission? Maybe the time has come for a new beginning!

The Nature of Mature Faith

Dr. Edward White, a ministry consultant with the Alban Institute, Bethesda, MD,shared with my former church in Pennsylvaniathat persons of mature Christian faith have eight characteristics:

  1. Trusts in God’s saving grace and believes firmly in the humanity and divinity of Jesus.
  1. Experiences a sense of personal well-being, security, and peace.
  1. Integrates faith and life, seeing work, family, social relationships, and political choices as part of one’s religious life.
  1. Seeks spiritual growth through study, reflection, prayer, and discussion with others.
  1. Seeks to be a part of a community of believers in which people give witness to their faith and support and nourish one another. (They show-up for worship and participate in a small group.)
  1. Holds life-affirming values, including commitments to racial and general equality, affirmation of cultural and religious diversity, and a personal sense of responsibility for the welfare of others.
  1. Advocates social and global change to bring about greater social justice.
  1. Serves humanity, consistently and passionately, through acts of love and justice.
     These eight core dimensions of faith were identified after interviews with theological scholars, denominational executives, and open-ended surveys with several hundred adults from six participating denominations, and reviews of the literature in psychology and religion. Where are you on your journey toward mature faith?

Transformational Leadership

\”If you believe that mission happens naturally in congregations through business as usual,
then the only kind of pastoral leadership you need is operational leadership:
someone to preach the Word, conduct services, oversee programs, and keep the campers happy.
If, however, you believe that mission happens only through the courage to 
continually realign an organization\’s culture with the values of Christ,
then you need something more in a pastor.
You need transformational leadership.\”
John Edmund Kaiser
     Rarely does mission happen naturally.  That is largely due to the fact that congregations are made up on people – normal people who find that our default setting is to look out for ourselves before having a concern for others.  As church consultant Bill Kemp once observed, \”It is human nature to be protective of ones own turf and to perpetuate practices that have become familiar and habitual.\”  Intentional change to adapt to a changing world is difficult.  This is true for the church.
     Where does the church begin?  The starting place for a vital and compelling ministry in the local community must always be the assertion, \”It\’s not about us.  It\’s about God.\”  Congregations that lack vitality are ones that operate as if \”our preferences, our tastes, and our needs\” were the most important considerations.  Naturally, such a belief makes \”us\” the center, not God.
     The next step is personal formation by each member into the character of Jesus.  The Bible is quite clear that the church is the body of Christ, called to continue the earthly ministry of Christ.  Another way of saying that is to imagine the whole gathered church standing in front of a mirror.  Does the reflection look anything like Jesus?  Or does the mirror simply reflect a whole bunch of people wrapped-up in self-interest?  Christian formation is simply the intentional process of changing our form, our reflected image in the mirror, to look more and more like Christ.
     Finally, the effective church is one where those who are being formed into Christ accept some responsibility, some ministry in the church that makes sense to their own ability and talent.  God never intended the church to accomplish ministry by paid staff only.  The strength of any church is measured by the number of members who understand that they have a responsibility to share in the common ministry.  Additionally, the Book of Ephesians teaches that the work of ministry is an indispensable tool for continued growth into the image of Jesus (Ephesians 4:12-13).
     Someone has correctly said that it\’s time to get serious about the reason our congregation exists.  We are not here for ourselves.  Through our baptism, we have joined a movement larger than ourselves.  We are now on God\’s mission.  And that work will not be completed until, as scripture says, every knee, of every nation has bowed before Jesus Christ and acknowledged Him Lord.

Pastoral Role in the Discipleship Model

“The pastoral role in the discipleship model is a function of leadership, not chaplaincy. 
One of the great tragedies of the chaplaincy model is that it sets pastors up for failure. 
No matter how committed pastors may be, there is simply no way they can always be present in times of need. Times of crisis come when the family or individual least expects them. 
Pastors are often not immediately available or may be so exhausted or so pressed for time that, 
even when they are available, they are not entirely there”. 
Michael W. Foss
“What is needed in today’s context are not pastors who ‘do’ ministry but pastors who, 
from the wellspring of their own spirituality, ‘lead’ others in the doing of ministry.” 
Michael W. Foss
“When they found Him, they told Him, ‘Everyone’s looking for You!’ 
He replied, ‘Let’s head in the other direction, to the nearby villages, so that I can preach there too. That’s why I’ve come.” 
Mark 1:37-38 (Common English Bible)
     Pay close attention to what is happening in Mark’s Gospel.  The previous day, Jesus exhausted Himself providing pastoral care to increasingly large numbers of people.  Isn’t it true that when you are handing out what people want, they seem to show-up in large numbers?  Well, Jesus finally had to call a day a day.  He was depleted.  Jesus went to bed.  Early the next morning, the crowds returned for more.  The disciples went looking for Jesus who rose early for prayer.  When they found Him, they told Jesus, “Everyone’s looking for You!”  That was the short way of saying, “Come back and continue giving away the good stuff that You were handing-out yesterday.  Everyone loves You for it!”
     Trouble is, Jesus didn’t feel He had to meet people’s expectations of Him.  Jesus never lost focus of His primary purpose – to expand the God movement that was underway in the world.  Yes, He performed miracles, healing and administered pastoral care the previous day.  Yet, all of that was simply to provide a glimpse of the power of the God movement – not its purpose.  The people tried to harness the power of the movement for themselves, to take care of their wants and needs.  Jesus saw that and refused to go back.  “Let’s head in the other direction,” Jesus said to the disciples.  Essentially, Jesus was saying that His purpose was evangelism, not caring for the flock already gathered.
     The Bible teaches that the church is charged – or commissioned – to continue the ministry of Jesus.  That means the church continues with the same guiding purpose that directed Jesus, the expansion of the God movement.  And the book of Ephesians teaches that pastors of local churches are to lead the movement with their own congregations.  The practical dimension of this is that pastors are not to be chaplains.  Chaplains go back to the gathering large crowds.  Jesus did not.
      Naturally, people need prayer, pastoral care and encouragement.  Life’s journey sometimes becomes difficult.  But what scripture teaches in Exodus 18, Acts 6 and Ephesians 4, along with so many other places, is that pastoral care is to come primarily from the people of God to the people of God.  Pastors are to lead; people are to care for one another.
     This notion may not find favor among some people.  It simply doesn’t fit their idea of what a pastor should be and do.  Jesus was placed on a cross because of the same thing; people expected something different from a Messiah.  As someone once said to me, “Some people will not allow the Bible to interfere with what they believe the pastor should do.”  Pastors that capitulate to the people’s desire will find that they have become chaplains to dying churches.  God simply will not bless any design for ministry that is not God’s own.    
     Make no mistake, Jesus did some pastoral care.  And it is reasonable that any pastor will provide some pastoral care as well.  But the pastor will do so within a larger system or network of people.  Additionally, larger churches such as First Presbyterian Church of Delray Beach are fortunate to have the financial resources to have additional pastors who direct the pastoral care of the church.  Even then, however, it is unfaithful to the scriptures for any associate pastor to assume all the care responsibilities.  Faithful leadership by these associate pastors is to “equip” church members for an expansive program of care.  Stephen Ministry is one way that this is done.  As congregations search the scriptures, embrace God’s blueprint for the church, and surrender false and selfish notions of what they expect from the church’s leadership, an unnatural power is released.  That power is simply God being God in the church and among a faithful people.