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I wanted to let you know that I have accepted a position at First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, PA. Effective April 1, 2014 I’ll serve as Director of Discipleship. I can’t tell you how excited both about the position and about the church.

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One of the passions that animates my life is developing fully devoted disciples of Christ who love God with heart, mind, soul, and strength. A church is never stronger than its ability to make disciples.

As Director of Discipleship I’ll lead a team of dedicated and excellent staff who minister to children, middle schoolers, high schoolers, and through the church’s weekday preschool. Each of these ministries is strategic and critical to the church’s fidelity to the Great Commission and I deeply believe that all of them is incredibly important. I’m eager to see these ministries continue to thrive, to grow, and to develop to be even more effective in forming students as Christians.

The ministry of formation doesn’t stop when a child goes to college or even when s/he graduates. Discipleship is central for the entirety of our lives. As Discipleship Director I will work to build on the effective ministry of small groups established by my predecessor. On top of that, I will work to develop a discipleship program that provides a meaningful context for growth as Christians. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to explore ways in which the resources of the reformed tradition can enrich our devotional lives, facilitate growth in the use of spiritual disciplines for growth in Christ-likeness, and many other ways to make adult disciples.

Would you pray for me as I turn this corner in my vocation life and enter into a new phase of ministry? Would you also pray for our whole family as we prepare to uproot from Winston-Salem–our home for the last seven years and where both of our kids were born–and transition to Bethlehem?

Thanks in advance!

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10 Evangelical Distinctives

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I recently wrote a post asking whether–and if so, how–the Presbyterian Church (USA) is evangelical. This generated some interesting conversations about what the word evangelical really means. In light of these conversations, I thought it worth exploring the variety of perspectives on the evangelical movement.

One of the most significant leaders of modern evangelicalism was Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Lloyd-Jones, a Welshman, served for many years as Pastor of Westminster Chapel in London.

ImageIn 1971, Lloyd-Jones preached a series of messages at the Conference of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES). He had, for many years, been involved with the British Inter-Varsity Fellowship, itself associated with IFES. Note: my employer, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, is the American arm of IFES.

During this time Lloyd-Jones had grown concerned with what he perceived as a watering down of the gospel message. He took the opportunity to address this when spoke.

Years later his messages were published by Banner of Truth as What is an Evangelical? 

Lloyd-Jones argued that there are ten distinctives that provide definition to the notoriously fuzzy word, “evangelical.”

Here they are with my commentary added in italics. Note: Lloyd-Jones represents a conservative, separationist evangelicalism. On the other hand, John R W Stott (whom we’ll look at later) represented a more moderate evangelicalism that was able to survive and thrive in a mixed (broad) church.

  1. Entirely subservient to the Bible. The evangelical attempts to live his life in submission to Scripture as thoroughly as possible. He is, as John Wesley put it, ‘A man of one book.’ 
  2. Evangelical before all else. The evangelical has a great loyalty to the evangelical way of following Christ than to the denomination of which she may be a part. If forced to choose, the evangelical will always follow his convictions.
  3. Watchful. The evangelical is aware that she has to evaluate, discern, and measure all teachings in the church against the rule of faith, the Word of God. 
  4. Distrustful of reason. The evangelical places a higher value on revelation than reason. He sees the work of the philosopher as necessarily limited since it does not have access to the revelation of God in Holy Scripture.
  5. Always takes a low view of the sacraments. Evangelicals recognize only two sacraments, not allowing things like marriage or ordination to become sacraments.
  6. Takes a critical view of history and tradition. Lloyd-Jones writes, “The evangelical believes in the principle of discontinuity.” In other words, the church has a tendency to fossilize spirituality and many of the divisions are the result of evangelicals removing themselves from bodies who life and practice was no longer compatible with evangelical belief and practice.
  7. Always ready to act on his beliefs. The evangelical finds it impossible to compromise or to remain in a place that requires him to compromise his beliefs.
  8. Always simplifies everything. Lloyd-Jones contrasts the evangelical with the Catholic. The reformed belief in the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture holds that the Bible can be read and understood by the ordinary reader. There’s no requirement to read the Bible through the church’s magisterium or through some other interpretive lens. There is, according to Lloyd-Jones, a “plain meaning” rooted in historical context and authorial intent.
  9. Always concerned with the doctrine of the church. The chief purpose of the evangelical is finding a denominational body that is theologically pure: “His idea of the Church is that it consists of the gathered saints.”
  10. Emphasis on re-birth, personal holiness, and the Christian life. “He is not interested in dead orthodoxy, he is not interested in Protestant scholasticism.” Instead, he cares about being re-born of the Spirit and following Christ as his disciple.

Lloyd-Jones’s list is longer than mine would be. However, I think it is helpful to consider that his position is representative of many evangelicals today. This can be helpful in understanding why some evangelicals find leaving a denomination that appears to them to be corrupt, a no-brainer.

Are there really two marriages?

Read in 3 mins[This is part one of two discussing Tony Jones’s series of blog posts compiled as, There are Two Marriages: A Manifesto on Marriage (2011) and available on Kindle.]

In his brief anthology of blog posts entitled, There are Two Marriages: A Manifesto on Marriage (2011), Tony Jones argues that the church ought to seek the strict separation of what he calls “legal marriage” and “sacramental marriage.” A result of this change would be the removal of much of the church’s resistance to same sex marriage. The church would conduct a rite that refers exclusively to the religious or sacramental nature of marriage, and the state would ratify a legal agreement between two people, known as civil marriage.

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Jones builds his case on the basis of what might be a called a strict separationist—even Anabaptist—view of the relationship of the church to the state. Jones’s argument is plausible, but is relies in places on a view of both the church and of the state that is problematic.

A central pillar in Jones’s argument is his discomfort at clergy acting as agents of the state in the case of marriage. This is an objection I am hearing with increased frequency, even outside anabaptist churches. He writes, “…almost all of them [pastors and priests] express extreme discomfort at this situation, for it actually requires the clergyperson to act as an extension of the state.”  Further, “…that conflicts with the theology held by many pastors, Calvinist and Arminian, Protestant and Catholic.”

At first glance, Jones’s argument seems compelling. On further examination, we’re forced to ask whether Jones has, in fact, gotten it backwards. Is the cleric really an agent of the state or is it the other way round? Is the state an agent of the church or at least offering sanction for a rite of the church that the state finds beneficial? In reality, neither is fully the case and perhaps that’s why marriage is often something of a mystery to modern and postmodern people—it presupposes that the spheres of religious belief and law can peacefully coexist and together accomplish a societal good.

Moderns and post-moderns—really, hyper-moderns—presuppose what Richard John Neuhaus referred to as the “naked public square.” That is to say, they presuppose a sharp division between religion and public life. Religious considerations ought not to shape public policy since religious knowledge is not universal and is questionable as a legitimate type of knowledge. Public policy is empirical and verifiable, religious knowledge is simply internal and subjective.

In arguing for the separation of religious and civil marriage, Jones appeals to the “two kingdom” view: “Jesus said his kingdom was not of this world. And the Apostle Paul expands this idea in the book of Ephesians, writing about the spiritual realm as opposed to the physical.” Jones’s reading of Jesus and Paul is, perhaps, a bit over the top. That the kingdom of God is not something currently apprehensible to the senses is not the same thing as saying that God is unconcerned with this world. It is surprising that Jones reaches this conclusion since later in the book he reveals himself as a panentheist. That is, Jones believes that “God indwells all of creation.”

Jones further claims that Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Locke all follow in the steps of Jesus and Paul by making a distinction between the church and the civil magistrate. Clearly blog posts are not the best context for discussing precisely what this differentiation means, but suffice it to say that Jones is clearly here unable to give a cogent rationale for his sharp division of the two. He fails to realize that marriage is necessarily the union of religious belief with the physical world.

…To be continued…

How to train key leaders as disciples and leaders

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Last week I joined staff and area directors from sixteen campuses, along with our executive coaches, for training in ministry building. It was the best training of my ministry career. One of the things that made it powerful was the synergy that emerged from sharing the experience with one of my direct reports and our coach. All told, we spent more than 40 hours together face to face, which is more than we’d normally get in an academic year.

Key to the training is a tool—we received more than thirty tools over the week—called the “discipleship cycle.” It’s illustrated below. The discipleship cycle is the most effective way to both guide Christians in maturing as followers of Christ, but at the same to move them along a continuum of leadership development as well.

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“Hear the Word” – Through prayer, scripture, and in shared discernment, we come to agreement on what God is asking us to do. It may be agreeing to reach out to three people whom God has brought to mind. It may be taking the risk to approach another graduate student and encourage him in his faith. It could be any number of things.

“Respond actively” – When God leads us to do something—regardless of what it is—we respond actively. Hopefully out active response is also a full response rather than a marginal effort.

“Debrief and interpret” – This is critical to growth both as a leader and as a disciple. In community with another, we consider what God asked us to do and how we responded to his invitation. How did we feel? What was the outcome? What did we like about the experience? What was uncomfortable? What held us back from full obedience? You get the idea.

 

Asking questions is an incredibly fruitful way of coming to understand another. Answering questions is also an incredibly rich way to come to understand ourselves. Put these together with a trusted guide or coach who can, in reliance on God, attempt to bring some degree of interpretation to the experience and the combination is dynamite.

What’s so beautiful about this approach is that it can be deployed quite easily and naturally throughout the day and even a brief five minute encounter can become a micro-seminar with a very concrete, very particular lesson.

During the week, we used this tool and I found that it forced me to stop, consider the action or goal I had undertaken, evaluate my response to it, and then connect the two in the company of a coach who could help by clarifying, observing, and interpreting.

What tools do you use to help train followers of Christ as leaders?

 

 

 

You cannot have mission without discipleship

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Over the fifteen years since the publication of Darryl Guder’s landmark book The Missional Church, North American Christianity has become enamored of the word “missional.” This is no bad thing, but Mike Breen observes in this post that the future of missional may not be quite as bright as we hope. Could it be that in the next several years “missional” will sound in our ears much the same as “seeker sensitive” does today? Perhaps.

That may seem cynical, but I’m being realistic. There is a reason so many movements in the Western church have failed in the past century: They are a car without an engine. A missional church or a missional community or a missional small group is the new car that everyone is talking about right now, but no matter how beautiful or shiny the vehicle, without an engine, it won’t go anywhere.

Breen points out something that congregations often overlook: mission and discipleship are interdependent. Discipleship that fails to participate in the mission of God in some practical way isn’t really discipleship. Mission that isn’t rooted and sustained in Christ-centered community isn’t really mission at all.

 

 

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The real problem in today’s church is that we’re not at all sure how to root our lives in the presence of God and in Christian community. Skye Jethani notes:

Many church leaders unknowingly replace the transcendent vitality of a life with God for the ego satisfaction they derive from a life for God.

As we engage in mission, it is critical that our minds and hearts be connected God through a life of vital piety. 

It’s often assumed that evangelicals do not have the theological resources necessary to provide a foundation for missional discipleship. In the Reformed tradition, at least, nothing could be further from the truth. Calvin’s central critique of the monasticism of his time was not it’s practices, but that it was limited to a select few (see Boulton, Life with God 2011). Calvin saw the church as company of believers united around Word and sacrament and whose lives were marked by the intentional practice of the spiritual disciplines used by monastic communities. The difference–Calvin’s Christians were “monks” in the world and it was not a peculiar calling, but one that is universal to all believers–the democratization of the monastic spiritual disciplines.

In order to be missional in an authentic and sustainable way, we need to recapture Calvin’s sense of our being monastics in the world–people practicing the presence of God in the midst of our secular callings. Only then can we successfully integrate mission into life without simply burdening ourselves with another project for God.