Monday, September 23, 2013

The Church - it is Different Than...

In what ways is the Church different from other organizations?

For a few weeks now my mind has been caught up in the issue of the church - the body of Christ here on earth.  With all of its manifest problems, dysfunctions, and frustrations, is it an utterly unique and uniquely empowered institution that has survived centuries of abuse and neglect.  God has chosen to create the church, both universal and local, to be the conduit for his will and work here on earth.  The church manifests God's kingdom now before it comes in its fullness on the day of the Lord.

So, what makes the church an utterly unique institution?  Here are just a few thoughts to prime the pump of your own reflections.  We are starting a longer and in-depth study of the Church on our Sunday nights at LHC beginning this weekend (Sunday, September 29th, 2013, 6:00pm) and you are welcome to come or listen in on the audio once each week is posted.

The Gospel of Christ
While there are a lot of organization that come alongside the church (parachurch organizations) to help proclaim the gospel, it is the church that exists as the locus in a community where the gospel in total is preached and lived.  Beyond these organizations, however, there are none which are dedicated to the good news that Jesus Christ is God in flesh, that he lived, died, and rose again to secure salvation for "whosoever will."  As useful and helpful as other institutions can be within a society, none of them teach the gospel the church is tasked to teach.

Our Doctrine
As with the proclamation of the gospel, there are many organizations dedicated to teaching and propagating Christian doctrine, but none of them in the ways that belong to the church, especially the local church.  Ideally, good doctrine is preached at church.  Then, a group of people who have dedicated themselves to these truths and to each other go and live out their daily lives.  Eventually it will become clear to them all that there are significant connections between the two and they will begin to encourage each other and hold each other accountable for the living of their beliefs.  Coming together on a regular basis becomes the training ground for the connection between what Christians believe and what they do.

Baptism and the Lord's Supper
Where else on earth are these two ordinances of the church practiced - especially when we understand them as acts which portray central elements of the gospel of Jesus Christ?

A Moral Mooring
My wife recently had a conversation with an old friend from another church background.  Her friend noted that her views about sexuality (and other things) had "changed with the times" and that she was comfortable at her current church because her pastor "was real" and easy to listen to.  Knowing a few of the details behind the conversation, it was easy to draw a direct line between how easy her church was to attend with how easily her moral views had changed with the cultural pressures around her.

A local assembly of people who call themselves a church and yet is willing to "change with the times" on central and important moral issues places a question mark at the end of their self-designation as a church.  A church is rooted in not just the doctrine once and for all delivered to the saints, but to a particular moral vision of humanity and creation founded on the unchanging nature of the God.


Our moral and doctrinal foundations lead us to recognize the need for discipline within the church.  Deciding what we believe about God or how we behave with each other is not up to us as individuals - a contemporary heresy if ever there was one.  And since the church teaches and lives its doctrine and beliefs, it is incumbent upon us to exercise discipline and restoration where possible.  Not every belief about God is right, not every behavior between people is good.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Dangerous Call Of Pastor And What To Do About It

Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry. (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway 2012). 227 pages.

Paul Tripp is convinced there is a systemic problem with the pastoral culture.  It may have its roots in the seminary culture and a system of education that turns the faith into something simply academic, it may have other roots in the way pastors view and treat themselves as believers who are somehow set apart from the normal course of discipleship that they preach to others, and it may have roots in church culture where pastors are not treated and handled as humans who need church community and the ministry of the gospel of grace.  In any event Paul Tripp unpacks what has gone wrong and where we find evidence of these malfunctions in how pastors live, minister, and are viewed by the church culture.

The book is broken into three sections: Examining Pastoral Culture, The Danger of Losing Your Awe, and The Danger of Arrival.  In the first the author builds a case that the dysfunctions he has seen through the years in pastoral ministry are not localized, but common among pastors, and possibly more ubiquitous than we would want to know.  This section is also deeply concerned with how we have put ourselves in this situation.  In the second he begins to trace a set of solutions through the need for ministers to maintain a deep and sincere sense of the greatness of God.  We are not the all-in-all that God uses to minister the gospel.  That would be him.  In the third section he addresses the problem of pastors losing sight of who they are as sinners in need of grace under the rule and goodness of God.  Our positions often lend themselves to heady successes or life-destroying failures.  In each and every case, the pastor is a sinner saved by grace and in need of pastoral direction themselves.

I found many of Tripp's ideas and prescriptions helpful, and the kinds of things I hope I will come back to over the years of ministry God may grant me.  I also saw myself and pastor friends in the sad stories he relates detailing where ministry can take its toll in life, family, and devotion.  Beyond a simple exposition of what has gone wrong, Tripp's pastoral heart is exposed as he reveals things about his own short-comings, and spends a great deal of time offering solutions to the problems.

Pastors are not above being ministered to by the gospel they preach.  They are not necessarily recipients of the truths they try to impart just because they work on it from week to week and deliver successful sermons.  They are people who need to sit under their own preaching, have circles of people they trust who can do the hard work of pastoring them, and they need the right kind of open community of friends that a congregation provides.  That last thought struck me as especially significant.  We have created an atmosphere between pastors and churches where there is a manufactured disconnect between the two, which easily leads to short-term ministries and unrealistic expectations.  Maybe a bumper sticker is in order, "Pastors are people, too."

This would be a great addition to the pastor's shelf to be pulled out in times of personal burn-out or distress, or in a season where a pastor needs to remind themselves of what makes for a healthy and long-term life of ministry.  It would be helpful for boards and elders to read.  In it they will find an honest exposure of a pastor's heart and life and find ways to be a significant support to them, and in turn, to the congregation they serve.

If you found this review helpful, please say so on Amazon.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A Vision of God Changing

"I don't expect less of him, I just assume less."

My friend has a very bright, analytical mind.  He grew up in a good Christian home, his father was a pastor in a small town for many long years before he passed away, and my friend's faith is strong and deeply rooted.  But if you were to talk with him seriously about his faith he would have posed questions that cause most Christians, especially those raised in evangelical homes, to squirm a bit.  "If the Bible says we pray over the sick and they will be healed, why aren't they?"  "What about those untold numbers of people who have died because of evil in the world, especially if they have never had the chance to respond to the Gospel?"  He was never punchy or pushy, but he was always honest about these kinds of questions.

For the last year or more he has suffered a great deal.  His body has not done well.  Some might even call his condition a kind of long-term death sentence.  But he was strong and healthy when he got sick, so what has been taken away from him was room his body had to spare.  There is no denying, however, that it has taken its toll.

We had not met for lunch in a long time so it was good to be able to get together and talk over how things have gone over the last few months.  The last time we talked was not long after the diagnosis and there were still questions to be answered and programs of treatment to be prescribed.  Now, on the other side of a year, things were different.  What was once an unknown has now become a murky burden.  It seems the more complex the diagnosis, the harder it is to settle in on a single, obvious means of treatment.  What were once hopeful medical prescriptions have become semi-successful, body-draining events.

Suffering is changing the way he understands God and life under God. But that is a good thing.  His mind is still sharp and searching, but this time he sat across from me and answered the question about how things have gone between him and God over the last several months by replying, "I don't expect less of him, I just assume less."  I think this statement reveals a deep and helpful shift toward trust in God that we all need to hear.

Instead of simply assuming that God will act in certain ways because we think he ought to, can we be ready to take what life and God give and remain confident in him?  Must we have all our questions answered to our personal satisfaction before we give God the privilege of our belief in his existence and goodness?  What does God have to do for you (that you find acceptable or beneficial) before you will let him off the hook?  And if God is in our personal defendant's chair waiting for the jury to come in, then who exactly is the god we worship?

Hundreds of years ago three young men were persecuted in a pagan land for their belief in the God of Abraham.  Their unswerving devotion to him brought them to the hearth of a fire built to burn people alive and they were asked to change their minds.  They answered that God was powerful enough to save them from the fire, but if he chose not to do it, they knew he was God anyway and they would not recant.  Here is a belief in the reality of the existence and goodness of God that has nothing to do with what we get from him or how he meets our personal, felt needs.  It is a belief that is grounded in reality - in truth itself.  God exists, he is good, he deserves my worship, and he has made provision for his children in this life and in the one to come.  So then, why would I change my mind on the edge of the fire?

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Pastor and Trauma - Seriously?

I help run an organization that works closely with girls rescued from human trafficking.  We are trying to do the hard work of providing long-term solutions for them including ministry and spiritual support.  In this world of working with girls 'in the system' and who come to us with a lot of complicated and life-altering issues, there is a lot of counseling and therapy for everyone involved.  Our training, for instance, has tried to prepare our workers for the realities of working with minors with all kinds of baggage by providing crisis management techniques, intervention rules, and tools for self-care.

But I have also learned that we can neither neglect nor under-emphasize the role of pastor in the lives of our girls and our workers.  With all the work we have done with the state, child placement agencies, and county human services, it is easy to rely too heavily on the techniques provided for us that have nothing to do with the state of their souls.  I do not want to ignore the importance of counseling either, but we live in a social atmosphere that tends to neglect the role of spiritual care in favor of the more scientifically driven therapeutic care.  After all, do we really know what a pastor does in a situation that involves serious trauma, the kind of trauma most would think needs medication?

An appointed counselor is a periodic support and dispenser of self-regulation advice (among many other things).  Very often they are a tremendous and practical help with extraordinary conditions and situations where most of us simply do not have the experience or the tools to deal with people and emotions well.  We ought not to ignore what that kind of expertise and input can do for people.

But where is the pastor?  Where do we think spiritual support fits into some of the most complicated and long-term problems of life?  I would argue that we rank that kind of support somewhere between a good bowl of ice cream and a long nap.  We might say - literally say with our mouths - that we believe spiritual wisdom and suppo
rt to be very important, but where do we spend our time and our money?  Probably, therapist first, ice cream second, pastor third.

If, however, the Christian is serious about how their worldview orders reality they need to learn to pay more attention to the states of their souls.  After all, we are embodied souls, eternal spirits who will one day be reunited with a resurrected body.  We are everlasting beings whose souls have the opportunity to be renewed day by day while our earthly bodies decay.  A soul is a terrible thing to ignore, but we do it all the time.  To make a horrible turn of phrase, we are practical soul-neglectors.  We believe they exist, but we act as if they do not.

Is good counseling helpful in traumatic and complicated situations? Of course it can be.  Will you thrive in the long-run as a follower of Jesus Christ if you use that as a substitute for the care of your soul? I really don't think so.