Category Archives: church

Of Mutts and Methodists and Mennonites

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morgans-best-friend-gingerOf Mutts. My families, by both birth and marriage, have owned a number of dogs, mostly mixed-breeds. Caesar joined our family when I was in second grade, we affectionately referred to him as a cross between a cocker spaniel, a dachshund, and a mutt. The dog we now own, Graceyn, is a Westie-Poo, a mix between a West Highland terrier and a poodle. Only Ginger, a golden retriever we had for a few years, was a purebred.

My wife’s family has owned a number English bulldogs. It’s a tenacious and tough-looking dog originally bred to take down thousand-pound bulls. But they’re very loving and loyal to their owners, with the endearing wrinkles of a fuzzy teddy bear. It’s also a breed in trouble, as this recent CBS News article reports.

That’s the thing about purebreds: the inbreeding leaves animals without enough genetic diversity to overcome inherited health problems. The very thing that keeps the breed pure also risks its extinction.


Of Methodists and Mennonites. When I was a kid my family moved around a lot, so I’ve been part of many different churches. Though our roots were in one of the 31 flavors of Baptists, those roots did not define us as we sought out a new church home with each move. I first made a faith commitment to Jesus in the Sunday School of our “community church” in Minnesota. In Texas we joined a “Bible Church.” In British Columbia, I was baptized in an Evangelical Mennonite Brethren church.

During high school in Germany, we joined the American Protestant Church, whose pastors were primarily Methodists and Lutherans. I went to a Free Methodist university for a year before joining the Air Force, where I sat under chaplains from the United Church of Christ, Salvation Army, Southern Baptist, and Seventh Day Adventist denominations. Later I would attend both Presbyterian and Assembly of God churches. I guess you could say I’m a bit of a spiritual mutt.


Inbreeding is as harmful in churches as it is in dogs.

In some church worlds, it’s all about doctrine: we are united by what we agree on, and because we agree. Of course, we are also therefore divided by what we believe. But Jesus sought and prayed for unity within His body, the Church. He rarely talked about believing the right things—unless it was about who He was or what He could do.

Shortly before He was crucified, Jesus prayed “that they [His followers] may all be one … so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). In other words, the greatest strategy for growing the Kingdom of God is unity within the Church.

For too long, though, Christians have sought a false unity, focused not on who Jesus is, but on how we should behave: who can and should lead, how much water to use in baptism, and which sins are acceptable and which will keep you from heaven. We argue about fine points of doctrine: what “is” really means in the Lord’s Supper, and when Jesus will return. (Hint: even He didn’t know!)

Our arguments divide rather than unite, and they keep bewildered onlookers out of our churches and out of His Church.

Doctrine—right believing—is important. Right doctrine leads to right conduct. Seeking right doctrine is what led to numerous councils over the past two millennia, beginning with the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15, Galatians 2). Seeking right doctrine gave us the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and more.

Over the past several years, I’ve looked at hundreds of church websites and doctrinal positions from a dozen or more denominations. Ironically, for all the distinctions in these groups, the doctrinal statements are so similar you’d think they could be from just one or two churches, not dozens. And one of the most common introductory statements is this: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

The problem is, we cannot agree on what are the essentials but seek—in vain—for unity in the non-essentials; and we show precious little charity in most things.

As a result, our differences are centered around things on the periphery, and what unity we have has led to the same type of inbreeding that is endangering the English Bulldog.

We need some doctrinal cross-breeding. We need tables for conversation, not fences down the middle of God’s Kingdom.

We need to breed more spiritual mutts.

 

 

Silence and Stillness

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Today’s post is from Pastor Pete Scazzero*.

EHS Stillness_SilenceSilence and stillness are the two most radical spiritual disciplines that need to be injected into a paradigm shift of how we do discipleship in our churches. They are indispensable to slow our people down so they cultivate a first-hand, personal relationship with Jesus.

My transformative experience with these disciplines took place in 2003 with a community of Trappist monks and the Taize Community in France.  I remember sitting at Taize, and struggling, during the 8-10 minutes of silence that was part of each morning, afternoon and evening prayer.

Yet my relationship with has Jesus changed dramatically as I slowly learned to integrate silence and stillness into my daily life. Scriptures such as the following came alive:

  • He says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Ps. 46:10
  • Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.  Ps. 37:7
  • Moses answered, “Do not be afraid…The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” Ex. 14:13-14
  • When you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent. Ps. 4:4-5
  • Be silent before the Sovereign Lord, for the day of the Lord is near.  Zeph 1:7

If silence is the practice of quieting every inner and outer voice to be attentive to God, stillness is the practice of letting go of our grip on life to relax in Him (see Peter Craigie, Psalms 1-50, WBC, Vol.19).  They are closely related, but slightly different.

These spiritual practices turn life upside down. We normally determine the agenda and pace of our lives. We go our own way, the very essence of sin. When we sit in silence and stillness, we begin the process of allowing God to be the center of our world. We let go of control and surrender to Him.

*Pete Scazzero is the Founding Pastor of New Life Fellowship Church in Queens, NYC. After serving as Senior Pastor for twenty-six years, Pete now serves as a Teaching Pastor/Pastor at Large. He is the author of two best-selling books: The Emotionally Healthy Church and Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. He is also the author of The EHS Course and Emotionally Healthy Spirituality Day by Day. Pete and Geri are founders of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, a groundbreaking ministry that equips churches in deep, beneath-the-surface spiritual formation paradigm that integrates emotional health and contemplative spirituality. For more information, visit www.emotionallyhealthy.org.

Of Pith Helmets and Snake Skins and Coffee Shops

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Cardboard Record PlayerThe memory couldn’t be much clearer if I had a photo: a large classroom, probably twenty feet wide by thirty long. Tables in the middle and around the edges of the room covered with all sorts of exciting and intriguing things: photos, cardboard record players, blowguns. A twenty-foot snake skin, no less than eighteen inches across.

What else could a ten-year-old boy want in a church basement?

I grew up in church, and my parents have been what I affectionately refer to as “professional Christians” since before I could know anything different. They have never liked being known as missionaries, and I didn’t think of them as that until our fifth move—to the exotic foreign lands of West Germany—when I was fourteen. But from long before my birth, our family was involved with churches that were passionate about global missions, and that sought to instill that passion in their congregations through annual missions conferences.

While missionaries to India, China, and Africa shared their stories and gave their challenges to the grown-ups upstairs, the younger crowd of fidgety boys and girls wandered wide-eyed through the displays that had transformed their Sunday School rooms. In the same rooms where we learned ancient stories about lions licking their lips at Daniel, we now heard about men like Jim Eliot and Nate Saint who had, just twenty years earlier, died at the hands of the Aucas in Ecuador.

Long before Indiana Jones traveled the world in quest of the Holy Grail or the Temple of Doom, that adventure-laden classroom when I was ten grabbed my own heart. 

Long before the Jesus film became the most-translated evangelistic tool in history, that cardboard record player was the first audio New Testament I’d seen and heard.

It seems strange that only this one conference has wedged its way into my conscious memory. My family’s frequent cross-country trips to raise financial support and visit churches often coincided with those churches’ own missions events, but none evokes the memories of that snakeskin and blowgun.

I have been to many other missions conferences over the years, as well. The speakers and their presentations are often (not always!) polished and engaging. High-definition photos and professional-quality videos shown on massive screens bring the missions to life for those of us whose biggest adventure is often a twice-daily freeway commute. But for a ten-year-old boy, nothing could compare with feeling a snakeskin or shooting a blowdart.

Not everyone who sits in church on Sunday morning is called to cross oceans as a missionary. Jesus called some to follow him and others to go back to their homes. But every Christian has a part in the “all peoples” mission of God—a mission that reaches from our homes to our communities to our nation…and to the ends of the earth.

So how will we train our kids, our young people, our churches to reach those ends? How will we grab their hearts for places and people a world away? 

 

Papua New Guinea StarbucksAs I write this, I’m sitting in Starbucks working on a paper about engaging the local church in missions (and, interestingly, listening to Chris Tomlin’s “Good, Good Father” play over the house speakers!). I’m surrounded by a dozen books about the what, why, and how of missions. And on the walls, paintings evoke the many areas of the world where the company gets its beans: Sulawesi, Tanzania, Yergacheffe, Papua New Guinea.

Maybe the heart-grabbing could begin right here as we find those places on a map and start learning about the people behind the coffee.

First Dates: Getting Churches and Pastors Together

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the-best-baby-name-bookIt was one of our first dates and we were at a bookstore and coffeehouse called Upstart Crow. I would ask her to marry me in this very place, but that question was still eighteen months off. Tonight, we were just having fun and starting to get to know each other. She was young and fun and romantic; I was a little older, more serious, and in love with love. And the only thing I remember about that evening was one book we looked at together: baby names.

Searching for a new lead pastor can bring about some of the same jitters as dating—for both the search team and the candidates. In both cases, two individuals want to get to know each other. What do they like? What are they like? What moves them? What scares them? How do they carry themselves in public and in private? Of course, these aren’t the questions we ask, they are the observations we try to make as we spend time together. But we need to ask questions, and the questions themselves can tell as much about us as the answers tell about the other person. Even the timing of certain questions can be revealing, just as looking at baby names on our first date revealed something about both my wife and me long before we were married.

One church I applied to asked every applicant to complete a ten-page questionnaire as the first step in the process. They asked for four separate philosophy statements, covering everything from leadership and administration to missions and evangelism. That felt like talking about not just baby names but parenting philosophies on a first date.

Another church I interviewed with handed me a list of thirty questions, from which they had selected six or eight to ask. Every one dealt with moral issues or specific scenarios—from “is gambling a sin?” to “what would you do if a homosexual couple walked into the church?” The questions on those pages told me everything I needed to know about my fit with that church.

There’s nothing wrong with a leadership team wanting to know about a candidate’s philosophy of leadership or how he would handle a moral issue, but I would suggest that they’re not the best first-date topics. So what questions, and types of questions, should we be asking, and when? I’ll suggest some specifics in a future post, but here are four areas to be considered:

  • Vision and Values. Some churches are clear about their vision and values, and expect a new pastor to lead toward those. Others want the pastor to come with a vision and help the church implement that. I don’t think one is better than the other, but this should be fairly clear early in the process, and discussed throughout.
  • Theology. Many churches ask applicants to indicate agreement with a doctrinal statement. Instead of looking for a yes or no, ask if there is anything in the statement that raises questions or concerns. The search committee, working with the church’s leadership team, should have an idea of what theological matters are critical—the die-for or divide-over issues—and where there is room for variation. The critical issues should be raised early on; the less-critical ones can be saved for later in the process, or maybe not even addressed at all.
  • Leadership. This comes down to two basic issues: Who leads? and How do you lead? The first is partly a question of structure and governance: is the church led by staff (i.e., the pastor), elders, deacons, a board of trustees, or the congregation? The second goes to the leadership style of the pastor; is he hands-on or hands-off? A micromanager? The first question may need to be addressed early in the process, while the second may be able to wait.
  • Personality. This can be at the same time both the easiest and the most difficult area to grasp…and is one of the most important. The easy ways to gain insight into a candidate’s personality involve a variety of assessments: Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), Clifton StrengthsFinder, and other profiling tools can give us common language. Yet there is so much variation within each personality type or strengths mix that only time and relationship can reveal whether a church and a candidate are a good fit.

My wife and I dated for a year and a half before I proposed. We were engaged another eighteen months before saying “I do.” What sustained us over those three years—and for the twenty-three that we’ve been married—was not our shared interest in children or what they would be named, but a mutual commitment to working through the daily challenges of merging two lives into one, and working together to toward a common goal, each growing and learning from each other. The relationship between a church and pastor is not altogether different.

What Level Change?

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Walking into the church for the first time, the pastoral candidate noticed something unusual on the bulletin board in the lobby. Where he might have expected to see announcements about upcoming events, new babies, or community needs, he instead found several invoices under the heading, “If you can pay one of these, please take it.” Clearly, something at the church needed to change if it was to survive, much less thrive as an outpost of the Kingdom of God.

As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are in the business of change. We look to Christ to transform our lives and we call others to be transformed by Him. But with a 2000-year history that’s as marred by sin as the lives of the people who comprise it, the Church—and individual churches—needs also to be transformed. The question is how, and how much?

The candidate walking into that lobby helped the church by identifying three levels of change:

  1. Minor adjustments. On the whole, we believe we are on the right path and doing well. We just need to tweak a few things to get over the next hump.
  2. Substantive changes. We are doing okay, but need to make some significant, substantive changes if we are going to move forward effectively. These may be in the areas of staffing, structure, systems, or priorities.
  3. Wholesale transformation. We are in trouble if we don’t make some major changes; we may die a slow death, we may implode, or we may simply continue our decline into ineffective mediocrity.

The church admitted that they needed wholesale transformation—and they called that pastor to help lead them in the process. A dozen years later when I came on the scene to serve alongside that pastor, I found one of the healthiest churches I have known, transforming lives, communities, and churches both locally and globally.

When a church is between pastors, one of the most important questions it needs to answer is, What level of change do we need? It’s not a question the search committee alone can answer, but the answer will shape their search; they need to identify candidates with the vision, passion, empathy, and energy to lead into and through the change.

Want to practice? Read the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3. Identify the level of change each might need, and some ways a pastor might need to lead each church through that change.