What is the church?

The gospel teaches us that the Church is the one and only foretaste of heaven now because she alone has a real participation in the life of God on earth…. This divine reality of foretaste and first fruits is the key to understanding the Church’s power and relevance.

Scot Sherman, “Why the Church?” in Looking Forward: Voices from Church Leaders on Our Global Mission. (MTW, 2003).

Why become a Christian?

Mission must spring from a lead back into a quality of life which seems intrinsically worth having in itself. If we answer the question “why should I become a Christian?” simply by saying “In order to make other Christians,” we are involved in infinite regress. The question “to what end?” cannot simply be postponed to the eschaton…the life in Christ is not merely the instrument of the apostolic mission, it is also its end and purpose.

-Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God, 147.

Three things I learned when I turned out the lights

A couple of years ago Anna and I participated in an event called Earth Hour. The event provides an opportunity to stop using electricity in its various forms as a way of recognizing the need to give attention to sustainability or, as I would put it, the importance of caring for God’s creation. You can find more information about it here.

Wake Forest University dimmed all the lights on campus. We chose a simpler approach. We also recognized as a simple thing we could do on a regular basis  in order to both simplify life and make it more enjoyable.

Here’s what we did:

  1. We turned off all lights.
  2. Unplugged all non-essential electrical devices.
  3. We lit some candles and put them on our coffee table.
  4. We talked.

It was such a wonderful experience, we’re thinking about doing it each week as part of our observance of Sabbath, an area of spiritual practice where we have plenty of room for growth!

During and after Earth Hour, a couple of observations came to mind:

  1. I was amazed by how bright our neighborhood is. Several of our neighbors have lights in their back yards that could alternately be used in a prison facility. For some reason, folks in our little suburban enclave like to light up vacant back yards. I was amazed at the amount of this light that spilled into our house. How much energy could be saved by simply turning off those lights?
  2. It’s noisy. Perhaps lessened light leads to greater sensitivity to sound. I found myself noticing how many cars pass by our house and how noisy they are…a persistent low drone in the background. It seems that we are always running hither and thither, except on Sundays.
  3. Light and sound is stimulating. Sometimes I find easy access to the internet and bright lighting to be an enemy to real relaxation. During our Earth hour sabbatical, I found myself experiencing a deeper level of relaxation and also wondering what it would be like to spend a week in a cabin that didn’t have electricity…call me Walden. Sounds crazy, but my father grew up in a house in urban England in the 1940s (when my house was built) that had no electricity, limited gas for lights, and no inside bathroom. It isn’t that long ago that people did without those things we perceive of as necessity in West and, of course, there are countless people today who are in the same boat.

The Gospel does…

The Gospel does not come to each of us in isolation. It comes to us through a particular book and through a particular fellowship….and that fellowship, like all human fellowships, has maintained its existence in history as a visible organization with visible tests of membership, with officers, rules and ceremonies. It is a false spirituality, divorced from the teaching of the Bible, which regards this visible and continuing Church as of subordinate importance for the life in Christ. ‘Those who have God as Father must have the church as mother.’

-Lesslie Newbigin, The Reunion of the Church, 29 (quoting St. Cyprian by way of Calvin, Institutes IV.1.1).

Do you have a game plan for Christ-likeness?

We are, therefore, about to found a school of the Lord’s service, in which we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome…. But as we advance in the religious life and faith, we shall run the way of God’s commandments with expanded hearts and unspeakable sweetness of love; so that never departing from His guidance and persevering in the monastery in His doctrine till death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ, and be found worthy to be coheirs with Him of His kingdom.

-Prologue, Rule of St. Benedict

We live in a manic age and in internet time. There is always something screaming for our attention. Cell phones mean that we are reachable at any moment in the day, by voice, text, or email. The internet has created a web of information that has become so large as to be almost useless or at least overwhelming.

It has never been more difficult to find a manageable rhythm of life, especially for those engaged in ministry. And so to those of us caught up into this whirlwind existence, the immensely sane words of Saint Benedict seem like a draught of cool water: We are, therefore, about to found a school of the Lord’s service, in which we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome.

Nothing harsh nor burdensome. This not the way many of us would describe our life, our schedule, those commitments we have made to the work, family, church, friends, etc. Consequently, there’s a lot of wisdom in trying to order our lives in such a way as to give appropriate attention to each of these spheres and, ultimately, ordering our life so as to grow in Godliness.

Through the ages, Christians have used a rule of life as a personal compass to order their life for growth.

A rule is simply a pattern or rhythm of life (including spiritual disciplines) that is helpful in allowing us to grow as followers of Christ that is unique to each individual. A good rule should be realistic – this has to be something that is manageable – and, take personality, gifts and temperament into consideration. 

If rule seems a little arcane or legalistic you could call it a “curriculum in Christlikeness” (Willard) or a game plan for spiritual growth.

There are three major sections to a life rule:

  1. Self-assessment – evaluate your life as a follower of Christ. What are your besetting sins? Where are you stuck? What challenges to Christian maturity does your particular stage or season of life present?
  2. Outline of practices – make a list of the spiritual disciplines you will practice and include an explanation of how those disciplines relate to your self-assessment. How do they address the particular sins or unhealthy patterns you’re dealing with. Make sure that your selection of practices balances head, hands, and heart (thoughts, actions, and affections) and has both inward and corporate disciplines.
  3. Source of accountability – with whom will you discuss your progress in following this rule of life? Some choose a pastor, spiritual director, friend or spouse.
Again, the goal of the rule is to center your life on loving and following God. It’s not a to do list so much as a to be list. In the Christian tradition the way to being is through doing – God works through means of grace, spiritual disciplines.
So why don’t you take a Sunday afternoon, get your Bible and your journal, and sit for a bit. Take time to ask God how He wishes you to grow and come up with a plan, a rule, that will center your life on that critical task. 

Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt 11:30).


[Missional Monday 3] – Why prayer is the fuel of missional ministry

This is the third post in our series about missional ministry. In the first post I defined what missional is. I defined being missional as, “at it’s heart being…about placing God’s mission at the center of the life of the individual and the center of the church’s existence. I argued that the church needs adaptive change–a change in strategy–to a missional model of church rather than tactical change (like altering church service times or simply adding a contemporary service).

In the second post I noted that it’s impossible to be missional alone. I noted that community is essential to missional ministry for four reasons: security, encouragement, accountability, and perspective. This week we ask the question: what role does prayer play in missional ministry?

In our exploration of missional ministry, we’ve used the account of the sending of the seventy-two as a foundation or starting point for our discussion. To recap, this is the first ‘sending’ of the church into the community for the purpose of the proclamation of the Gospel and the establishment of kingdom outposts in advance of Jesus’ visit to particular cities in order to preach. The account is found in Luke 10:1-11, which is reproduced below.

call to be missional the_t_nv

After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.

“When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house.

“When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.’

The missional vision for ministry–a vision which sees the church in a missionary encounter with culture–was certainly lived out by the early church.

The church of the early Twenty-First century is being called back to this approach. As we attempt to make the missional shift, one question plagues me. Does the church of the Twenty-First century have the character and the practices to be ample to engage in missional ministry in a Godly way? 

I could ask the question another way: is the current church sufficiently rooted in Christ so that this shift will be more than simply a fad or a trend, but will be the product of deep repentance for missed opportunities, the product of a deep desire for the salvation of men and women, and the product of a profound wish for the church to be collectively faithful to the witness of Scripture in describing and envisioning the church as a missional community?

If this is to be the case then we have to ensure that the church places prayer front and center in its mission. It’s important to begin with a simple definition of prayer.

Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God for things agreeable to his will, in the name of the Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.

Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q/A 98

In other words, prayer is talking to God. Sometimes we talk to those we love formally, and sometimes we talk with them informally. It’s the same with prayer. Sometimes we will speak with God using formal, set prayers. At other times we will simply tell him what’s on our heart.

Prayer is the fuel of missional ministry. More precisely, common prayer is the fuel of missional ministry. A missional church will structure its life together around common prayer. The form of prayer will vary with the tradition of which the church is a part, but what’s not up for debate is the primacy of prayer in the life of the church. Why?

  1. Prayer brings us into the fellowship of the Holy Trinity. As Christians we are connected to the Godhead through the Holy Spirit who lives in us. In a sense, it is God who enables us to pray and it is God who gives us the words to pray, and it is God who carries our prayer and receives our prayer. C. S. Lewis notes this in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer when he writes that, essentially, prayer is God talking to Himself.
  2. Prayer is a means of grace. We need grace for the journey. The way we are walking is greater than our ability to complete. The journey of faith is like the Appalachian Trail–we need a guide and we need a power greater than our own. In prayer we receive the sustaining grace of God that can carry us in our journey.
  3. Prayer forms the way we think and act. This is most powerfully true when we become familiar with praying a set liturgy or a portion of the Scripture. When we pray, we name reality before God and ask him to intervene. This is all the more powerful when in our naming of reality we are aided by the prayers of others who have gone before us.
  4. Prayer connects us with one another. Common prayer provides a powerful context for reconciliation and repentance against those in our number who we have wronged or who have wronged us. This sets the stage for a powerful unity in love that enables the fellowship to be willing to try new things and to reach out.

The church that wishes to be missional must pay attention to the requirements of community and prayer before anything else. Failing to pay attention to this will derail a community as it attempts to make the missional shift.

When the govern…

When the government compels us to perform some act, we realize it. Some of us resent it. On the other hand, when big business compels us to perform some act it’s all the more insidious for its being cloaked in the language of choice and consumption. There’s just as much–if a different type–of force in both instances. One we curse; the other we laud.

Five reasons your pastor needs to be a thinker

There was a time when pastor meant theologian, thinker. The church looked to its teaching elders to faithfully teach Scripture and to communicate the reformed tradition through teaching young and old about the faith through catechesis. In evangelical circles we’re losing something of this tradition. Increasingly we’re looking for pastors who are, before anything else, excellent non-profit leaders.

I don’t want to downplay the importance of pastoral ministry as it relates to the management and stewardship of the resources with which God has gifted the church. This is an important aspect of pastoral leadership. However, we do a disservice to the mission of God when pastors think of themselves primarily as people who run churches.


As important as leadership and management of the church are–and some pastors will be more gifted at this than others–it isn’t the central calling of the Christian minister. It’s also not the thing that a congregation needs most of all.

More than anything else, churches needs pastors who are committed disciples of Christ, devoted to studying the Scriptures, formed in the theology of the reformed tradition, and engaged in active thought about how the mission of God can best be pursued by communities of Christian disciples–churches.

There are five reasons that I think this is the case:

  1. Society is rapidly changing. Ministers can be a thinking guide to churches so that they understand and effectively navigate these changes that are pushing the Christian church to the margins of society as we move into a post-Christendom context. As this happens, it will increasingly be important for pastors to be able to effectively and intelligently converse with those who do not share the same intellectual starting point or worldview.
  2. The church is rapidly changing. The church is responding to these societal shifts in different ways based upon underlying theological presuppositions. On the surface, the turbulence in the church seems both highly complex and perplexing. Examined more deeply it becomes possible to trace the connections between presupposition and outcome. Ministers can also be guides to church members who find themselves tossed around by changes in the church.
  3. The nature of ministry is changing. Younger clergy are finding it increasingly difficult to find calls to churches that can pay enough for them to both live and pay off student loan debt for their graduate education. In order to care well for themselves ministers need to take the time to think deeply about what ministry is and what it will look like in a new context. Creative ideas need to be embraced to help younger clergy enter effectively into new and creative ministry.
  4. Scripture and theology need to be applied to life. The purpose of theology and Scripture is faithfulness in belief and faithfulness in life. It takes time and deep, prayerful thought to effectively communicate the connection between Scripture and theology to the life of the individual Christian and the life of the church.
  5. Avoiding burnout. Effective leaders grow through mentoring relationships, often with people long deceased who we encounter in books. Clergy need to do the hard work of engaging with theologians and pastors of a bygone era to learn how the church has envisioned itself in ages past. For example, as we enter a post-Christendom context it seems clear that much can be learned about how to read Scripture, live and minister as the church, and engage culture from the pre-Christendom church of the Church Fathers.

I fear that ministers are increasingly doing what they need to do to keep the church running and losing sight of this calling to be a theological guide to faithful life and ministry in a changing context.