Archives For for leaders

University campuses have always been dangerous places. You never know where you might end up should you dare set foot on one. I doubt that Martin Luther had any inkling that one day his exercise of academic freedom (commingled with spiritual anguish) in the ancient university town of Wittenberg would set in motion a renewal movement that would change the church forever—both in its Protestant and Roman Catholic expressions.

Almost 500 years ago, Luther strode up to a large wooden door. Paused. Then unfurled a hand-written scroll. With a few swift strokes of a hammer, the nail bit into the door’s wood. There the scroll hung, curled slightly by the breeze.

It was a young professor’s invitation to seriously and publicly discuss a medieval Catholic doctrine that was tearing apart the fiber of his soul: salvation. What is repentance? How are we made right with God? What role does the church and, more specifically, the Pope play in granting the forgiveness of sins?

It was October 31, 1517—the beginning (if it could be called that) of what we today refer to as the Protestant Reformation. Many churches celebrate Luther’s bold action today (known too as All Hallows Eve or Halloween, of course). But it’s also fitting that Reformation Day falls right before All Saints’ Day (November 1), given that the Reformation emphasized, among other things, broadening ministry to those outside of ordered ministry (bishops, priests, or deacons) and religious vocations (those who belonged to a monastic order, as Luther himself did).

Sinner and Saint: Making Sense of Salvation

Luther’s grievance flowed from the internal tension between his lived experience of being a Christian, his ministry as an Augustinian priest and preacher at Wittenberg, and his role as a teacher of theology in the divinity faculty. As a priest and professor, Luther was obliged to believe and teach the (medieval) Church’s doctrine of “progressive” salvation (soteriology)—the idea that salvation takes root in the life of the believer through seven sacraments, which dispense grace to Christians so that they can be saved over time. The sacraments were baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, marriage or ordination to Holy Orders, confession, responsive penance, and, in the end, administration of the Last Rites that aid in the transition from this life to the next.

This foundational medieval Catholic theology was problematic for Luther for two principal reasons. First, Luther faithfully participated in the sacramental life of the church and yet found that his soul was still anguished concerning his own salvation. As long as salvation equaled moral perfection, he lived in utter defeat, turning from his sin only to eventually fall once more into transgression of God’s law. And he feared the “righteousness of God” (Romans 1:17), which he understood as God’s holiness, purity, other-ness, unity, and perfection. Indeed, to Luther, the righteousness of God was the basis of God’s wrath toward sinners.

Second, Luther came to believe that the church had misunderstood the what and when of salvation. As he prepared lectures on Paul’s letter to the Romans, Luther discovered that what he—along with the rest of medieval Catholicism—had read as “the righteousness of God” could also mean “the righteousness from God.” This changed the meaning of the verse altogether: “For in it [the gospel] the righteousness from God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written: ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” In this interpretation, God’s righteousness becomes the gift of right-standing before him on the basis of his gift of faith to the believer.

Luther came to experience peace with God only as he grasped that he was at once both a sinner and justified (given right standing before God) on the basis of faith in the gospel alone (simul justus et peccator). This means our relationship with God cannot be altered by performance. It can only be altered by God’s declaration, like that of a judge, that we are not guilty by virtue of Christ’s sacrifice. And the result of this making-right is reconciliation with God and the bestowal of the Holy Spirit, whose inward ministry causes us to grow in holiness (sanctification).

Why We Should Celebrate

On Reformation Day we celebrate how God worked through a troubled young academic theologian in the context of a university. Through Martin Luther—and others—God altered the course of Christian history, returning it to a more authentically scriptural understanding of salvation.

As with Luther, this is no merely academic exercise. How we understand salvation affects how we experience salvation and life as a follower of Christ. If sinner and saint cannot exist in a single person then we are all doomed to a life committed to placating God by fulfilling his law, a task possible only for Jesus. It is a profoundly liberating experience to realize, as Luther did, that God’s righteousness is given to us and we are declared “not guilty” because of Christ, even as we experience life day-to-day as a people who still sin. The reckoning has been made and now we follow Christ, trusting that he will transform us to be more like him.

PASTORAL PRAYER | October 18, 2020

Our Father and Our God,

We give you thanks that we may approach your throne not as strangers and aliens, but as adopted members of your family through the Lord Jesus, our elder brother.

We thank you that our sins have been covered by Christ’s perfect record and that the penalty for them has been born by him too.

As we reflect on our own lives and our life together as a church help us to honestly ask and answer the question: what are we willing to do? 

What are we willing to do in order to bring honor and glory to your name?

What are we willing to do in order to connect people to the Lord Jesus so that he can transform their lives?

What are we willing to do so that we can have an effective ministry and mission in this community?

And if we find, within ourselves, the answer returning to us as “not much,” help us to lay our unwillingness before your throne and turn from it. 

And if we find ourselves thinking, “I don’t really know,” by your Spirit guide and inspire us with one thing we can do to make a change in our own lives and in our congregation.

And if we find ourselves longing to see change come about, give us the grace to encourage and build others up as together we lean into your mission for us.

We need your help. We are weak, but it is in our weakness that your great strength is revealed.

And now, we turn to the needs and concerns of this day.

We pray for the peace of the world, that a spirit of respect and forbearance may grow among nations and peoples.

For those in positions of public trust especially that they may serve justice, and promote the dignity and freedom of every person.

For all who live and work in this community.

For a blessing upon all human labor, and for the right use of the riches of creation, that the world may be freed from poverty, famine, and disaster.

For the poor, the persecuted, the sick, and all who suffer; for refugees, prisoners, and all who are in danger; that they may be relieved and protected.

We pray for this congregation–for those who are present, and for those who are absent–that we may be delivered from hardness of heart, and show forth your glory in all that we do.

We pray for our enemies and those who wish us harm, and for all whom we have injured or offended.

We pray for ourselves; for the forgiveness of our sins, and for the grace of the Holy Spirit to amend our lives, we pray to you, O Lord.

 And we remember all who have commended themselves to our prayers; for our families, friends, and neighbors; that being freed from anxiety, they may live in joy, peace, and health, we pray to you, O Lord.

And now, as our Savior Christ has taught us, we are bold to pray:

Our Father,

Who art in heaven; hallowed be Thy name. 
Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done
On earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil;
For Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory, forever. 


I have seen a lot on social media about how 2020 is the year that changed everything. And there’s some truth to that assertion. The COVID-19 Global Pandemic upended everyday life in a way no felt since World War II. The #BlackLivesMatter movement moved into the mainstream and now commands the support of major sports franchises, global corporations, and cultural elites.

A lot has changed, but 2020 is only the end of the beginning.

In his essay “The Lost World of American Evangelicalism” Aaron Renn makes the case that we entered a new cultural moment at or around 2014.

According to Renn, in 2014 we moved from a cultural neutrality toward traditional Christianity to antipathy.

Here’s how he sketches the cultural development from 1994 to the present:

Positive World (Pre-1994) – To be seen as a religious person and one who exemplifies traditional Christian norms is a social positive. Christianity is a status enhancer. In some cases failure to embrace those norms hurt you.

Neutral World (1994-2014) – Christianity is seen as a socially neutral attribute. It no longer had dominant status in society, but to be seen as a religious person is not a knock either. It’s more like a personal affectation or hobby. Traditional norms of behavior retain residual force.

Negative World (2014-) – In this world, being a Christian is a social negative, especially in high status positions. Christianity in many ways as seen as undermining the social good. Traditional norms are expressly repudiated.

He continues by offering some concrete examples:

Positive World – In 1987 the Miami Herald reported that Sen. Gary Hart had been having an affair, and cavorting with the woman in question on his yacht. He was forced to drop out of the presidential race as a result.

Neutral World – In 1998 the Drudge Report broke the story that Bill Clinton had been having an affair with intern Monica Lewinksy, including sex acts in the Oval Office. Bill Clinton was badly damaged by the scandal but
survived it as the Democratic Party rallied around him and the public decided his private behavior was not relevant to the job.

Negative World: In 2016 Donald Trump, a many whose entire persona (sexual antics, excess consumption, boastfulness, etc.) is antithetical to traditional Christianity, is elected president. The Access Hollywood tape, for
example, had no effect on voter decisions about him.

Renn’s analysis makes sense to me, but the point of this post isn’t to defend it or critique it. Regardless of the details, we’re in a remarkably different place culturally in 2020 than we were in 1987.

Most of us can agree on that. In light of that, how can the church respond?

If being a traditional Christian is seen as a social negative, the way that we live out our faith will need to adapt. After all, it’s been a long time since the last time Christianity was thought of as a strange and dangerous culture.

Those of us who think, read, and write about religion in America often go round and round about the reasons for the decline of church attendance, both in mainline churches and in evangelical ones.

The two most popular views–at least from my perspective–are that church decline is a function of (1) doctrinal impurity or (2) of doctrinal rigidity.

The former claims that the church has ceded too much ground to culture and compromised its doctrinal integrity: restore the church’s doctrine and its vigor will return.

The latter claims that the church has too long held onto views that are oppressive (at worst) and outmoded (at best). The church’s teachings need to change if the church is to survive the century.

Could it be that, in addition to the influence of these two factors, there is another factor?

Could it be that consumer capitalism is making the church as we know it implausible? Or worse, impossible?


Consider this argument advanced by Dave Barnhart, a United Methodist church planter in Birmingham.

He believes that while theology is important, the church is being buffeted by something else–the economy. And COVID-19 has only exacerbated this.

…I believe all of the discussion about theology and mission is largely irrelevant to Protestant decline. It’s important stuff, certainly, and worthy of discussion. I’m just skeptical that it has much to do with the growth or decline of the church. Our churches have been beating ourselves up about our theology and mission and so on for thirty-some-odd years, and while there may be some insightful critiques in all the hand-wringing, I believe the decline of participation in both evangelical and mainline churches has more to do with two things: money and birthrates.

The funny thing about the church is that it is a paradox–it is a heavenly, theological reality lodged in the concreteness of a creation populated by broken people and systems.

As such, notes Barnhart, it is also a sociological reality:

Robert Wuthnow is one of few researchers pointing to sociological causes, and his book After the Baby Boomers completely changed the way I think about these issues. To wrap your head around the various causes of decline in church membership, remember this fact: The best predictor of church attendance is if someone a) is married and b) has children. I’m not saying that this should be the case. I’m not saying that married people with kids are the only people in church or the only people who count. I’m just describing empirically-verifiable data.

Epistemologically, I’m not all that amenable to the caveat: “I’m just describing empirically-verifiable data,” since the capturing and interpretation of data is itself an interpretive act. However, it’s worth considering.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for many people to economically achieve and maintain the sort of life that makes regular church attendance possible.

When people have to work two full-time jobs to raise a family, they don’t have time to go to a worship service on the weekend. Speaking of jobs, Wuthnow pointed out that it is less likely that anyone will be employed by the same employer in the same place for more than a few years. With all that job-and-place-changing, people don’t settle down anywhere, nor do their children get habituated to church attendance. At a recent church-planter training, Jim Griffith pointed out to us that since people can’t afford to take two-week vacations anymore, they wind up taking multiple weekend trips during the year, decreasing the time they have to participate in church activities. All of these lifestyle and economic influences make it less likely that people will commit to a church.

A friend–I can’t remember who–recently linked to this article: “Why a medieval peasant got more vacation time that you.” 

It’s a great title, not least because it challenges the assumption that we must be in every respect superior than our medieval forebears.

Now, I’m pretty sure that my dental hygiene is superior to my medieval ancestors by several orders of magnitude.

What the article makes clear, however, is that in all likelihood you and I have a lot less “disposable” time than did our ancestors.

Plowing and harvesting were backbreaking toil, but the peasant enjoyed anywhere from eight weeks to half the year off. The Church, mindful of how to keep a population from rebelling, enforced frequent mandatory holidays. Weddings, wakes and births might mean a week off quaffing ale to celebrate, and when wandering jugglers or sporting events came to town, the peasant expected time off for entertainment. There were labor-free Sundays, and when the plowing and harvesting seasons were over, the peasant got time to rest, too. In fact, economist Juliet Shor found that during periods of particularly high wages, such as 14th-century England, peasants might put in no more than 150 days a year.

I am fortunate to have four weeks of vacation annually, significantly more than many Americans. Many of us have to “quaff our ale” in a single week or two of paid vacation each year.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way:

John Maynard Keynes, one of the founders of modern economics, made a famous prediction that by 2030, advanced societies would be wealthy enough that leisure time, rather than work, would characterize national lifestyles. So far, that forecast is not looking good.

The takeaway is that its more likely than not that most people who aren’t retired or independently wealthy have been forced to construct a type of life (really, a range of lifestyles) that makes it all but impossible to be meaningfully involved in a church.

That type of life is quickly becoming normative.

And as something becomes normative, resisting it becomes something that requires both intentional effort and sacrifice, both on the part of congregations and of individual Christians.

Start with resolve

In the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry, there comes a point where we’re told, “he turned his face towards Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51-56).

It’s a statement showing Jesus’ resolve to carry out the mission that His Father had given to him, “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Resolve is central to making chage that matters.

For Jesus, a certain resolution was necessary because the nature of the mission would cause him to die. And while we’re not called to die–at least not literally–there is an element of sacrifice in any attempt at change, especially change that really matters.

woman looking at the map
Photo by Leah Kelley on

Engage stakeholders

Stakeholders are a critical part of the change process, especially when it really matters. And whether it’s church members of employees, stakeholders can make or break any effort toward important and significant change.

As a result, one question I sometimes use to engage stakeholders is: what kind of company/agency/organization/church do we want to be?

Then I ask people to spend a little time and write a paragraph describing reality five years from now:

  • Who will work there?
  • List some key clients be?
  • What will worshippers there look like?
  • Describe worship services services be like?
  • What will office culture be?
  • What will the key ministries or initiatives be?
  • Why does moving toward this change matter?
  • Why’s it important?

Do some digging

What’s more, I’m a data guy. I love to intuit on the basis of hard numbers.

When I work with churches, I help them explore data. We look at the demographics and psychographics of people who live in a 15 minute drive time of their campus.

In doing this, our goal is to understand more fully who our neighbors are. We need to know what their needs are. And what some of the ways are that we can reach out to and connect with them.

Reaching them will likely involve some change. Reaching people is a mission that matters, and will likely demand important change.

Consider the Cost

Change is hard, especially change that matters.

It helps to imagine what the cost of not changing might be. And you could also imagine what good might happen because of the changes that are made.

Ask yourself: what will happen if things remain as they are?

Or, a more positive way to frame the question is, what good things can happen if we embrace change?

If you want to be brave, you might reflect on this question.

In order for my company or church to become all that I hope it will be, how would I need to change?