Category Archives: church

Smart Minds & Big Words

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2016_annual_logoI spent a recent weekend with a 350 really smart people who use really big words. Most, it seems, are PhDs or in the process of earning a PhD. They come from and have ministered on every continent of the world, with the possible exception of Antarctica. They are pastors and missionaries and university professors; anthropologists, sociologists, linguists.

I felt … not out of place, but out of my league—like a weekend soccer player taking the field with  the likes of Lionel Messi, Rolandinho, Neymar, and Cristiano Ronaldo.

The Evangelical Missiological Society gathers these academicians and missiologists each year to share research and practice around a central theme. This year’s theme was Missions and the Local Church — a matter close to my heart as a pastor, a missionary kid, and a missions practitioner and advocate.

Truth be told, I went for my own fifteen minutes of fame: I was invited to present a paper I had written about how a church I pastored sought to shift how and what we did in missions. But I have to confess: I also went with low expectations of the weekend; academic researchers are not always known to be dynamic presenters, and their papers are not always compelling subjects for guys like me who just want to lead a church to make disciples at home and somewhere around the world.

My low expectations were vastly exceeded. So much so, in fact, that I needed to take a break from the presentations that have greatly encouraged and challenged me in order to put some thoughts down on paper. (Or a computer.) A sampling:

In The Burden of Healing: How Pentecostal Believers Experience and Make Sense of Chronic Illness, Shelly Isaacs shared the stories of men and women suffering from chronic illnesses, whose burdens were made heavier by the unfulfilled promise and expectation of divine healing. The stories hit close to home, as I could relate each one to my own friends who also hoped, prayed, and had faith to be healed … yet never received the expected and desired answer.

Steven Weathers, a PhD student, shared research about ideologies that inform evangelical perceptions around Black Lives Matter. His words were often hard, and challenged me (as a white evangelical man) to again confront my own implicit biases—that is, those that I am not even aware of lurking sometimes deep in my heart and sometimes just under the surface. A couple statements worthy of noting:

Evangelicals are not countercultural, but call for personal change that leaves systemic cultural norms in place. [from Emerson & Smith; source unknown]

Black Lives Matter won’t matter to white evangelicals if we think individually; we need to think systemically. [Weathers]

These are particularly damning statements. They suggest we are willing to change ourselves just enough to be comfortable, but we won’t fight against the cultural realities that lie at the root of Black Lives Matter (or the civil rights fight of fifty years ago).

Some final thoughts from Ed Stetzer’s keynote address on Priorities for Churches in Missions: the decline of denominationalism and the rise of non-denominational churches has not been a neutral influence on cross-cultural missions. Historically, missions had a voice at the table with denominational leadership, and there was a clear and intentional pathway to missions through denominations. With the growth of non-denominational churches (400% since the 1980s—and now the largest evangelical bloc), “innovation is now a higher priority than missions awareness and engagement.”

Within evangelicalism, “missional” has grown while “missions” has declined; gospel demonstration has increased (a good thing), but gospel proclamation has taken a back seat (not so good).

We must no longer merely give lip service to balancing demonstration and proclamation; we must actively practice both.

In my own paper about engaging the local church in global missions, I included this statement from a book by three missiologists: “the center of gravity in missions has moved from the agency to the local church.” I think that’s a good thing; but Stetzer brought a tempering perspective: Churches are vexed about the nations, but don’t have the connections, training, or constructs to engage well and effectively.

The great charge to the Church is to make disciples of all peoples, everywhere. One of my great burdens is to help local churches do that well and effectively … whether it means engaging with the Black Lives Matter movement, offering hope and healing to the chronically ill, serving refugees, rescuing victims of human trafficking, or preaching Jesus where His name has not yet been heard.

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.