Salvation, sacraments, and Sunday sports

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I wrote yesterday about how churches need to consider contemporary realities in the way we schedule our programs. In other words: the time, energy, and gifts and resources of families has changed significantly over the last twenty years. If churches fail to take these shifting realities seriously then our ministry will become less effective.

It might sound like I’m advocating that churches accommodate and adjust to the preferences of attenders like any business might. I don’t think that such an approach is either biblical or prudent.

No, there are certain things that churches ought to be able to expect of their members. Of course, the truth is that you cannot expect something from someone unless you first instruct them. We sometimes assume that people intuitively know what it means to become a Christian and to become a church member. That is a fatal assumption.

In a post-Christian culture people intuitively know very little about the faith, its content, its practice, and about the significance of church membership in the life of faith. People have a cultural category for, say, joining a Country Club or a Swim Club; for joining a gym or the YMCA. They carry that notion over into the life of the church, which, after all, is (in the eyes of many) another service organization rather than the very Bride of Christ.

Instruction is part of the solution to this cultural challenge, but only part.

Teaching elders, ruling elders, deacons, and other ministry leaders need to become very clear on the importance of church membership to the life of faith. 

As a Calvinist, I have a very definitive answer to why join and attend church. Those reasons come variously from the Bible, the Westminster Standards, and the great theologians of our tradition. Chief among those theologians is John Calvin, whose view of the church is significantly “higher” than many people realize.

In The Institutes of the Christian Religion. John Calvin’s approvingly uses the metaphor of mother to describe the church. The church is, according to the head of the chapter, “mother of all the Godly.”

In doing this Calvin mirrors an earlier writer, Cyprian of Carthage, who affirmed in De catholicae ecclesiae unitate, “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the church for his mother.”

As children cannot become fully-formed, healthy, functioning adults without the assistance of a mother and a father, so Christians cannot come to spiritual maturity in Christ absent the ministry of the church.

Calvin refers to the ministry of pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4:11) as helps provided by God for the nurturance and practice of true faith. These pastors and teachers are placed within an authority structure—the visible church—that is a means by which God sustains and develops Christians.

Calvin then turns to biblical examples of marriage and motherhood as analogs to the church. God has joined us to himself through the church, therefore “let not man separate” the one from the other.

So, why go to church?

If you want to be a Christian, you must be joined to the church which is itself united to Christ and draws its sustenance from him. Unless we can communicate this important element of church to ourselves, and to our people we will be lacking the foundation that undergirds all of the ways that we think and act about the church.


The church's biggest challenge

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“Consider the circumstances of the average family in a local church. Families have those same four resources—time, energy, gifts and resources—but the deck is dealt very differently. A family with young children; with one or two people working; with school and associated commitments; with life-administration; who also want to have meaningful relationships within their community… People in this stage of life have extremely limited time resources, and very limited energy. Their gifts have by now emerged and been developed, and there is often now a stable income with a base for sustainable giving. But time is very precious, and every draw on that resource is a zero-sum game. It’s the same with energy. A late-night, poorly-chaired elders meeting can take literally two or three nights to recover from in terms of the sleep-debt. The weekend lie-in is a long way off. At certain stages of family life, it does not exist. Time and energy are finite resources.”

Rory Shiner [Read here]

The church’s biggest challenge isn’t maintaining buildings, meeting budgets, or communicating its existence to its community. No.

The church’s biggest challenge is scheduling.

It’s the easiest thing in the world for a church, especially a large one, to have something every night of the week.

It’s easy to have a dozen or so major ministry events spread through the year.

Roy Shiner bring up an interesting point in the blog post I linked to above:

“There is a concept in medicine called iatrogenesisIatrogenesis refers to the harm done by the healer. For example, before we knew we were supposed to wash our hands, unintended harm happened all the time. Think about that: an encounter with someone genuinely wanting to heal you often left you worse off.” [Read here]

Shiner’s question is: can the way we schedule our life as a church unintentionally harm people and hurt our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ? I think the answer has to be: yes, possibly.

He writes, “The idea that a good church member is someone who’s there every Sunday, at small group every Wednesday, and active in another area of service, is an assumption at which we need to pause. For some people, that’s a very reasonable or even light expectation. For others (let’s say, the single mother), simply to make it to three out of four Sundays is positively heroic.”

I’ve wondered this myself. Each time I lead a new member class I realize that we present to those desiring to join our church the opportunity to commit to more things than they could healthily sustain.

Because of this, we limit our explicit expectations to: (1) attending worship, (2) being part of a group, and (3) finding a way to serve inside or outside the walls of the church.

It’s not perfect, but its better than making people feel like Jesus will only be happy with them when they come to the church building every day.

I even take it a little further sometimes. I’ll often say to new members that I hope they will take one step of obedience to Christ as they join the church. That may be joining a group. It might be some other type of service. I try to start small, and then encourage growth from that point on.

My life as a patient

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2017 has arrived with a whimper while 2016 has gone the way of the dodo while making a rude gesture, pneumonia.

I’m almost a week into this thing, and I’m growing tired of it.

Of all the things to get? Pneumonia? I feel like I ought to be in cottage hospital at Downtown Abbey. The doctor will have said there’s no hope for me–I should just cough my way into the world that is to come.

It’s clear to me that in Downtown, I would be the chap who mucks the stalls not the guy who drinks champagne and sleeps in the guest room. The storyline will have needed something “earthy” to balance out the sheer ebullience of life in a family that wants for nothing and managed to create a society ostensibly designed to meet its every need.

Of course life in contemporary America is nothing like, so ever now and again there needs to be a working lad thrown into the story.

Matthew Crawley’s annoying mother would, however, not permit me to shuffle off this mortal coil. Armed with some half-remembered remedy her late husband had once used, she would surreptitiously swan into me room and inject me with some unknown concoction that would, within the confines of the episode, restore me to health.

Gratefully, I would return to shoveling manure grateful that what’s her name from “the family,” had condescended to save me so that I once more might smell the sweet aroma of horse crap.

The story line would then move along to something infinitely more interesting like the seduction of the heiress by an Turkish diplomat or the delightful Maggie Smith issuing one-liners that eviscerate an opponent without seeming impolite.

I didn’t think real people got pneumonia. It’s known as “the old man’s friend,” because generally as one approaches death, pneumonia slips in and finishes the job started by some other illness.

Apparently pneumonia is typically contracted after something else, in my case the flu. Yes, 2016 really did give me a special send off didn’t it?



Does anyone else hate December?

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Over the eight years since we first became parents, I have found December to be the hardest month of the year. Period.

And it’s about this time every year–that is, mid-month–that I start thinking to myself, can’t we just cut December from the calendar?


No. My middle name isn’t Ebenezer or Grinch. I really do love Thanksgiving, Advent, and Christmas.

It’s just that around mid-December each year a perfect storm hits my kids’ lives. The result isn’t pretty… it’s like each factor compounds with the others and right about now there’s a balloon payment due.

Three months of 8:00-4:00 schools days compounds with…
four-day, multi-hours of nightly homework sessions, and…
Three months of evening activities, some very physical, and…
Weakened immune system from sickness, and…
Short, frigid days with little sunlight, and…
Simmering excitement about a visit from St. Nick, and…

You get the picture. The most wonderful time of the year, it isn’t.

Perhaps other parents understand what I’m talking about. Perhaps we’re the only family who experiences this.

Either way–if you’re the praying sort, say a prayer for families bowing under the weight of, well, life.


How to please everyone

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A colleague shared this mantra the other day: if you want to please everyone don’t be a leader, sell ice cream.


You know what? He was right.

Selling ice cream is a great way to be popular. The thing is, in the grand scheme of things, selling ice cream isn’t all that important.

Don’t get me wrong, I love ice cream; but selling it doesn’t demand much. It’s just giving people what they want.

Leadership is not giving people what they want. It isn’t telling them what they want to hear. 

Leadership is describing reality, telling the truth, and painting a picture of a preferred future.

It’s often difficult to be told the truth. It’s easier to hear what you want to hear, even if it’s untrue.

To speak the truth is often difficult. It’s easier to tell people what they want to hear, even if it’s untrue.

That’s not leadership; it’s not love. When we love a person, we tell him the truth. We needn’t be overly harsh, but we must direct.

Anything else–if we’re honest about it–betrays a self that craves approval.

No. Even when it’s hard, we tell the truth.