Taking a Posture of a Mother and Father: Paul in 1 Thessalonians 2

Last night I had the privilege of having a hand in dedicating 3 children from our community to God, each other, and in a very real way, the onlooking world. We’d been planning on having this event for awhile now and, thankfully, our lectionary texts for the day proved to be invaluable.

The text I decided to preach on was found in 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12. Here we find Paul describing his life-on-life approach to founding a community of disciples centering their lives on, around, and in Jesus, also known as a church. He comes to them as one looking to proclaim the kingdom of God brought about by the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. He does this, however, not through seminars, classes, street preaching, or questionnaires, but through giving his life over to them. Words alone will not suffice; he must meld his life with theirs and embody or incarnate the message he is attempting to bring to them. This is because it is not simply a hodge podge of words or some mythical story. No, he is presenting to them Jesus.

Here we find the idea of posture through Paul’s metaphor of coming to them as both a mother and father.

As a mother, Paul comes to this community opening himself up in love for the sake of them. Picture a mother nursing her child: it is an image of love and self-giving for the betterment of the child. It is a depriving of herself. It is a posture of weakness, not in a pejorative sense, but in a sense of sacrifice and, ultimately, love. It is a posture of invitation that seeks out the other with open arms.

And Paul continues to push our imaginations by claiming to also have come as a father. He came to them under the pretense that he would labor and work in order to not be a burden upon them. He was “exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of [them] you” because he saw the need for their growth. As a disciple himself, he had to be taught what living life like and in Jesus was about. He was pushed and shaped and formed and now he was seeking to do the same. Yet again we see the love and tender care that he employs here. He wasn’t a burden, he wasn’t a hypocrite; he took on the posture of challenge and enveloped it with the posture of invitation he embodied/incarnated as a mother.

And, again, where did Paul learn all of this? He learned this from being a disciple (the Greek actually means learner) of Jesus. Jesus knew that his posture towards others would be the means by which he would influence. Like a mother, He called children to himself and used parables involving children to provoke our redemptive images of God and ourselves. Yet he pushed his followers to a fuller and more holistic way of life: a life within his new creation as his kingdom unfolds and they become the humans they were supposed to be.   If you look at the gospels, you can see that it was his embodiment of love (his posture of invitation and challenge) that powerfully formed people; his message typically pushed people away. So, we see it was his actual person/being that “attracted” people to himself, so they could understand his message. In other words, they saw how to live his message long before they could articulate his message.

And I believe this is what Paul is causing us to recall. He didn’t come up with this stuff on his own. No, he learned it and it was for the “kingdom and [God’s] glory.” He brings to our attention the earthiness of our faith in that we don’t have to look very far to see how Jesus was and is: simply look to a loving mother and father. He reminds us that our lives, our practicing resurrection, must be lived in a posture that depicts what we believe. We have been called into the kingdom of God, which demands not a mere set of beliefs, but a life that interlocks and intermingles with the lives of everyone around us. In our culture, we have become good at speaking words (demonstrating what we think we know), but not incarnating words (demonstrating what we actually believe). We must be patiently postured in the midst of our family, friends, and neighbors in order to articulate our message.

Perhaps if others haven’t wondered more about our faith it is because we haven’t postured ourselves in love for God’s kingdom and glory.

David Fitch on Missional Order (video)

I’ve been blessed to be able to spend some time listening to and learning from David Fitch through a few Ecclesia Network events. He’s a professor at Northern Seminary and a pastor at Life on the Vine, both of which are in the Chicago area. This makes him not only a theorist, but also a practitioner; a somewhat rare breed here in our American context. Basically, the man knows what he’s talking about  because he is living it. If you need more, check out his blog at Reclaiming the Mission. Enjoy.

Any thoughts? Comments? Complaints?

Is the Church on a Broken Escalator?

I saw this video, which is for some health company and I can’t edit it to not show that part, at work the other day. It was being shown to demonstrate the new technology being added to our classrooms and the help that would come with it. Teachers need not fear the new technology for the tech specialists were always around ready to guide, lead, and aid them into the future.

Of course, as I watched it all I could think about was how might this be interpreted in relation to God and the Church. These types of things happen regularly with me, especially since I finished seminary a few years back.

It seems to me that many, many people are riding along the escalator their church has determined is the correct one. It is the proper path heading to the proper destination. Now, without going into the horrendous theology that makes the purpose of Christianity a destination, i.e. heaven, we’ll push ahead to another reality present in a large portion of churches.

Just as in the video, many people in the church are merely riding the escalator as passive spectators. Rather than being active participators many church-goers are simply that: church-goers. They religiously show up every Sunday morning for their hour and a half of churchly duty. They interact with each other and wonder who made the coffee this week because it is unusually weak. They sit as if at an entertainment venue (ever notice how even our architectural design perpetuates a passive stance?) where everything is done up front and on a stage. Emotional music, pseudo-therapeutic/self-help sermons, and tv screens all push us, whether we’re aware of it or not, into a passive posture. We come, we consume, we go home. We’ve been conditioned by our culture to be passive and, unfortunately, many of our churches are doing the same.

So instead of being able to simply walk up the escalator-turned-stairs, we become stuck and wonder where the help is. We idly stand by awaiting the professional with the answers. Unfortunately, again, when the paid professional shows up, he too cannot help. From a church perspective, why is this? Why do we get stuck in our Christian lives and await the paid professional (pastor) to get us out of our stagnancy, just to find out that he/she can’t get us anywhere?

I think the problem lies in the lack of discipleship within the Church. As passive spectators we expect the professional, gifted, ultra-spiritual ones to put on “church” for us. We expect them to “do” church for us. We show up, easily enough, for the worship service and head home. Discipleship is tacked on as a by-product or as a secondary result of the worship service rather than the other way around. As has been said elsewhere: You make disciples, you’ll always get a church. You make a church, you won’t always get disciples.

A reality that is becoming more and more prevalent, however, is the lack of discipleship within the ranks of those attempting to lead a church. I have spoken with many pastors, and I include myself in this group, who get to a point where they have graduated from seminary, have gathered people, have taught them, but then hit the wall. There is somewhere or something they have envisioned, but can’t seem to take others there. The problem? Most pastors, especially younger ones, haven’t been made into disciples who make disciples. We have become passive spectators. Just like the mechanic who came to fix the escalator, we get leaders who can lead, but who can’t make others simply walk off of the escalator because they can’t walk off it themselves. People end up hurt, confused, and, in many cases, walk away from their faith because it, like the escalator, seemed broken.

As I said, I consider myself in this group of undiscipled leaders. Discipleship was always a secondary thing compared to Sunday-morning-only “church”. Sure, there were moments here and there, but never any intentional discipleship. Therefore, I have made intentional steps to remedy this. I don’t want to be another Christian who “does church” instead of being the church. I don’t want to be able to put on the worship service and tack on discipleship somewhere. I want to make disciples and then go from there. Simply put, I want to be a disciple who makes other disciples. But I’ll get back to these steps at a later date.

Does this sound familiar to anyone? Does this resonate with you? What am I missing? Thoughts?

The End of Evangelicalism?: An Interview with David Fitch

Over at The Other Journal is an article (found here) with David Fitch, a pastor and professor in the Chicago area. I’ve been blessed to spend some time with Fitch, as he is heavily involved with the Ecclesia Network. The interview deals with his newest book, The End of Evangelicalism?: Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission, his use of Slavoj Zizek’s cultural critique and political philosophy, and Rob Bell’s Love Wins among other things.

Below is the first paragraph in the interview, which will hopefully whet your appetite, and curiosity, to give the rest of it a look. Enjoy.

The Other Journal (TOJ): Your newest book, The End of Evangelicalism?, uses the thought of the iconic cultural critic Slavoj Žižek to look critically at the public presence of evangelicals. Your book was released just a couple of days before Rob Bell’s book on heaven and hell, Love Wins, a book that has generated national attention on the evangelical world and its fissures. Let’s say Žižek spent a couple hours reading the blogs on Rob Bell from his detractors—what do you think he would say about the media storm associated with Love Wins?

David E. Fitch (DF): Žižek would probably notice the extreme amount of media activity surrounding the prerelease of Love Wins and the Neo-Reformed response to Bell. He’d suggest that there is almost a perverse enjoyment in John Piper’s saying “farewell Rob Bell?” the kind of enjoyment that says more about us than the person we are targeting. Žižek would perhaps note that in finding a heretic, we found a reason to feel validated in our beliefs, and boy does that make us feel good. Of course, along the same lines, he would take notice of how the publishing world is creating this swirl of activity to ask, who is the church? Is not the church being shaped around these crazy discussions that are generated by publishing empires? Is this not a sign that evangelicalism has become a groupthink that generates no real activity for change in real life? He would note that we are, in essence, having discussions that allow us to be complicit with the ways things are, the status quo.

Should churches rent/purchase store fronts?

Today I had an interesting conversation with a woman at work. We were discussing the local town we both live in. It is a smaller town, just north of Syracuse. We were discussing the fact that we both grew up outside of the town, which is the kind of place where everyone knows everyone. Those who grew up here know everyone and those who didn’t grow up here are easily pointed out. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, it is what it is.

Within this town, and its resulting culture, has sprung up a recent church plant. Now before I go any further, if you don’t know, I am completely for church planting. I love the church, blemishes and all. In fact, I’m attempting to follow the Spirit’s leading in establishing a faith community. We need more Christian communities of faith, especially here in central New York where the only options seem to be the Roman Catholic Church or low-church evangelicalism. We need more middle of the theological road, missionally minded, kingdom oriented, liturgical leaning communities that exist for the sake of others. But that’s another story.

The interesting thing about today’s conversation was the apparent angst regarding the location of the town’s recent church plant. Just outside of our village is a small strip mall comprised of mainly mom and pop eateries, a dollar store, a gym, and empty spaces. Found in the corner of the strip mall, in the largest spot available, is this church plant. My co-worker asked me in a very annoyed tone if  I had seen this church and her hopes regarding its eventual departure: “I hope they’re renting it”, to be exact.

I was caught somewhat off-guard by her comment, but it got me thinking. In a town like ours is it beneficial to the overall economy to take up a potential business space to be used as a church? Are there taxes that are being lost for the benefit of the town? A related question is, if you have free coffee available for the public at your church during the weekdays, is it taking away from the only local coffeeshop in town? In a town like ours that is struggling to make ends meet and more jobs are needed, perhaps especially in entrepreneurial ventures, is a church taking away a potential business a detriment to its mission?

Without even knowing the beliefs and actions of this church, which, by the way, I know the pastor and they’re doing a wealth of good, my co-worker has already written them off because of their location. I’m merely wondering out loud if we as church planters should have a theology of location that informs our decisions. Should we do more cultural exegesis in our plans, perhaps including the possible economic disturbances our locations will bring about?

Any thoughts out there?

Post-Ecclesia National Gathering: Part 2

One of the fundamental qualities of Ecclesia is the importance of being relational. Trainings, conferences, and other events are infused with times of getting to know one another. Intentional periods of discussion around meals supplemented by  impromptu introductions between newly made friends are definitely highlights found within the Network.

While I was at the National Gathering I met people from Los Angeles, Hollywood, Denver, Brooklyn, Chicago, along with people from Iowa, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and New Jersey. Basically, nearly every area of the US was present. This not only enables everyone to get a little synopsis of the life and culture of these areas, but also what God is doing in these areas. The differences in context are certainly there, but the commonalities are rather surprising too. Churches are experimenting with different methods and thoughts; no one is copying each other in an effort to expand the kingdom. Yet, most people are very aware of our common mission: to make disciples.

I truly did enjoy all the random conversations I had with people. I have always been a relational person and feel that everyone has a story to tell. However, there was one conversation I had with my new friend Dave Kludt that sticks out.

I met Dave on Wednesday night as he sitting with my roommates from Denver for dinner. (My new friends Stephen and Jason are pastors at New Denver Church. Check it out.) Dave is an equipper with Kairos Hollywood out in California. (He blogs at Can’t. Catch. My. Breath.) We talked briefly that first evening, but it led to a deeper conversation Thursday during lunch with Dave and his fellow equipper, Audrey.

We discussed a variety of things, but stayed focused on the ideas surrounding what is typically called being bi-vocational. This is, typically within church circles, designated for pastors who get paid by their churches and also have an outside-the-church job. Usually, the nonchurch job takes up the majority of the week’s time. For myself, I work in a Special Education classroom, interim pastor at St. Andrew’s, and lead/partake in a smaller faith community. Dave works at Fuller Seminary while working with a team at Kairos.

The main thing that stuck out during our conversation was the reality of bi-vocationalism. More and more pastors, especially young pastors, come out of seminary, which is typically required by churches, under the load of school loans and looking for pastor jobs. Most churches require an MDiv (Master of Divinity) also known as 3 years of grad school in which you end up with 90-92 credits under your belt. Now since it is 3 years of grad school, most people come out with nearly $30-40,000 in debt. Now don’t forget, this is on top of the debt typically accumulated after 4 years of undergrad work. I have friends who have done both their undergrad and grad work ALL through school loans. For those who don’t know, this means they now owe well over $100,000. That means every month they pay between $1500 and $2000 in school loans. Furthermore, from what I have seen, most churches don’t start young guys with educations and little experience anywhere near enough to balance out their budgets. Needless to say, something has to give.

This isn’t what stuck out, however. Dave told me about his conversations with non-white pastors in California and how being bi-vocational affects them. I had never really thought about it, mainly because I’m a young white dude who grew up in the middle class suburbs, but for many, many non-white pastors being employed by different places has been a reality for quite some time.

We didn’t talk about this much, but Dave’s passing comments really stuck with me. Why is it that most non-white pastors practice a trade that pays the bills while pastoring their church? Why is that our non-white brothers and sisters have been out of their studies and offices meeting people and being influences in their communities while most white pastors have been isolated inside the church walls? Perhaps it is because so many predominantly white churches, especially suburban middle class churches, have had plenty of financial wealth. So much so that they employ multiple pastors with larger paychecks and benefits. (Please don’t hear me saying anything negative about this reality. I’m merely pointing out the bi-vocational situation among white and non-white pastors based on a simple conversation.)

I recently read The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. It addresses the fact that the Western, especially the American, white church is declining in population while the non-white population is rising. Basically, the underlying premise of the book is the lessons in faith and practice we white Americans can learn from our non-white church family. Such is the case with being bi-vocational. What can we learn from those who have had to be bi-vocational? How can we humbly discuss our struggles and anxieties in ways that can result in them turning into strengths and possibilities? What strategies could we take away from those who have been expanding the kingdom year in and year out in both the pastorate and in public?

There are many other questions that come from this. Hopefully, we can all learn for the benefit of others.

Thanks for the conversation Dave. It was appreciated.