Spiritual Practices

“If you’re not careful, you can go to this meeting, and teach that class, and visit the Sunday school party, and wind up spending your life carrying on a program, and never reproduce disciples. 
That’s what you have to watch. It’s difficult to keep that perspective.”
Robert E. Coleman
     Coleman wrote these words to pastors. But they speak to all of us, don’t they? It is very easy to become busy in good church activities and neglect the intentional work of spiritual growth. What is most tragic, many who are busy planning meetings and various church socials think that is all there is to “doing” church. What are neglected are intentional spiritual practices such as daily prayer, study of the Bible and seeking intentional application of God’s teachings to the daily living of their lives. Many are good at “playing church” with all their good intentions, energy and effort. And the church is the stronger for their effort. Difficulty is, what all this activity produces is exhausted Christians who show little formation in their personal lives.
     Make no mistake, the church must have people who will run meetings and plan social activities. The question is, “What is all this activity about?” The bottom line for Jesus Christ – and every organization must have a bottom line – is that increasing numbers of people begin to live differently from the rest of the world. As William Willimon once said, “We know we are making progress in the Christian life when others look at us like we are some sort of alien.” People who are growing in Christ simply look different from the rest of the world. They are more generous with their money, they exercise care with how they speak and treat one another and there is urgency in their lives to advance the work of God in their spheres of influence. Church members who are busy with church functions certainly make the church stronger for all their effort. People who are attentive to their Christian formation make the church the bride of Christ.    

Discipleship is a Life-long Commitment

Discipleship is not a program. It is not a ministry. It is a life-long
commitment to a lifestyle
(George Barna)
     There is a crisis in the church of NorthAmerica. A growing number of voices are joining the chorus that is giving voice to the crisis, most prominent among them, Darrell Guder of Princeton Theological Seminary. The symptoms of the crisis include diminishing numbers, clergy burnout, the loss of youth, the end of denominational loyalty, biblical illiteracy, the perceived (italicized word my own, reflecting my bias)  irrelevance of traditional forms of worship, the loss of genuine spirituality, and the widespread confusion about both the purpose and the message of the church of Jesus Christ. The typical response of church leaders, asserts Guder, is to identify methodological solutions. All it takes, it would seem, is money, talent, time, and commitment. This approach to the crisis may seem to be the answer but it is not. The answer to the crisis of the North American church, continues Guder, will not be found at the level of method and problem solving. The answer, quite simply, is a recovery of the missional church.

     Foundational to the missional church is the nurturing of a congregational culture where all members are involved in learning to become disciples of Jesus. Disciples of Jesus think differently, behave differently, and use financial resources differently than persons not actively following Jesus. Disciples of Jesus are less concerned with whether the local church is meeting personal needs and preferences and more concerned with intentionally integrating their life with the practices and habits of Jesus. Disciples view membership in the local church not as entitlement to privileges but as an arena where citizenship in God’s kingdom is actively lived.

     The difficulty, according to Dallas Willard, another voice in the chorus, is that in many churches, persons are expected to automatically know how to grow as a fully committed disciple of Jesus. What many church leaders are now discovering is that they don’t. A clear, manageable, pathway for being shaped into Christ-likeness is not presented to church members with the unfortunate result that many are asking, “Is this all that there is to being a Christian?

     This November, First Presbyterian Church of Delray Beach will host Dr. Greg Ogden, a Presbyterian pastor, author and leading voice today in Christian formation. The small group resources he has published are the most effective materials today for moving people deeper in their formation in Christ. Your elected leaders and staff want an even more robust future for our ministry. Such a ministry will have an exponentially greater impact for God’s kingdom in Palm Beach Countyand the world. This future begins with increasing numbers of church members taking personal responsibility for intentional Christian formation in their lives. Greg Ogden will show us the way.



Discipleship Malaise

“People don’t allow the Bible to get in the way of their theology.”
– Todd Martin, Discipleship Presenter at Lenape ValleyPresbyterian Church, 2009
     One way of defining “theology” is that it is how our worldview is shaped, the lens through which core values come into focus and the fixed-point of our lives by which we make judgments of what is appropriate and responsible. What Christians, and I am speaking here specifically about those who claim to follow Jesus, often miss is that our theology is sometimes shaped not by God’s Word but by how “we have always done it.”
     The history of the church is replete with moments when church leaders have sensed that theological thought and the practice of ministry have moved from the clear instruction of God’s Word. The challenge in those moments has been a recovery of sound biblical instruction and guidance for moving the mission of the church forward. Just as the human body suffers when proper nutrition is consistently ignored, such as consuming to much fast food heavy in salt and fat, so does the body of Christ, the church, suffer when its diet is something other than God’s design for health and growth.
     Naturally, when proper nutrition is ignored for too long, the body suffers. The human body loses strength, energy and vitality. The same is certainly true for the church. Each year, for the past 10 years, the Presbyterian Church USA has lost membership: the lost often totaling 60,000 plus each of those years! Our church was once nearly four million strong and today, barely half that. The Presbyterian Church, as most mainline, Protestant churches, is dying of poor nutrition.
     Today, multiple church leaders are looking closely at our practice of ministry to diagnose the source of ill health. They love the church and are concerned about its survival. One of those leaders is Greg Ogden, former Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA. Several years ago, Ogden accepted an invitation to spend a weekend at my former church, the Lenape Valley Presbyterian Church in New Britain, PA.He provided instruction to the Elders about his research into the illness that has diminished the strength of the Presbyterian Church. His presentation was titled, “Getting to the Root Causes,” and has been published in his book, Transforming Discipleship.
     Ogden identifies eight causes for the discipleship malaise that has gripped the church resulting in stagnant or dying congregations. Naturally, you can purchase the book from most booksellers and read the research yourself. What I hope you will do is mark your calendar for the weekend of November 9 and 10 this year and listen to Greg Ogden and interact with him. He will be our first guest in our annual School of Christian Formation at First Presbyterian Church of Delray Beach.
     I share with your leaders the desire that First Presbyterian will be a church that is marked by energy and vitality. More, we desire a church that will be a force in the local community for multiplying disciples for Jesus Christ. This, of course, means a recovery of the Bible’s instruction for a healthy church. The primary difficulty that your leaders will face was summed-up by Todd Martin: “People don’t allow the Bible to get in the way of their theology.” I pray that we will be better than that.



Disciples of All Nations

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations …”
Matthew 28:19a
     Making reproducing disciples of Jesus Christ is the central purpose of the church. Sometimes, as good Presbyterians, there is a tendency to think that each church should determine what the central purpose should be. I struggle in this area as well. After all, I was raised as a Presbyterian and well groomed in my theological training to appreciate the Presbyterian approach to being the church.
     But let me be clear, if we are to call ourselves The Church of Jesus Christ, then there are some decisions that are non-negotiable. The purpose of the church is one of them. Christ gives us our “marching orders” in the great commission of Matthew’s Gospel. The church’s primary focus is to direct resources that make disciples of Jesus Christ.

     It is easy to get distracted from this overall and primary mission. But then, in our personal lives, we see this all the time. We are distracted from God’s purpose in our lives by our own wants, needs and preferences. The Bible calls that sin. When our lives become more about “me” than “God” then Christ isn’t really Lord.

     There is a corporate culture in any effective organization, including the church. And that is a good thing, particularly when it provides guidance for optimal advancement of agreed-upon goals. The trouble, however, is that the corporate culture tends to assume authority in the church that belongs to Christ alone. Such a culture has rewritten the charter of the church over a period of many years. The result is a church that has edited out the biblical mandate to make disciples. In its place has come the concern with members’ interest and preferences. It is simply another manifestation of the classic struggle between God’s interest and the interest of the people who make-up the membership of the church.

     As your pastor, I am committed to continued study of the Bible and learning how God instructs all of us to be the church. This includes a determined dedication to the Great Commission of making disciples as our primary purpose. I am certain it will be a pulse-racing adventure!