Recovering the beautiful simplicity of church

Let’s make our faith communities beautiful again using the unsexy, ordinary tools that have always worked: truth, confession, humility and prayer. They are surely not fancy, but they save and heal.

Jen Hatmaker

SerlioChurchFacade

The Washington Post features an article by Jen Hatmaker on the terrible cost of a consumer church model for the staff and people of a congregation. She describes a sort of dysfunctional spiral where the people expect results from the pastors/staff and, in turn, the pastors/staff feel like they’re forced to make committed volunteers’ lives busier and busier.

Each group feels resentful; pastors wonder, What more do these people want from us? and the church folks wonder, What more do these pastors want from us? This approach is not making disciples but is creating a lose-lose situation where no one feels they can deliver.

 It sets leaders and followers up for failure, creating a church-centric paradigm in which discipleship is staff-led and program-driven.

The truth is that, ultimately, none of us can deliver.

That’s the message of the gospel–Jesus has done what none of us can do, and he is making happen those things that we cannot make happen.

Only Jesus can ransom us and free us from the penalty of sin and deliver us from the wrath of God. Only Jesus can transform our lives from the inside out so that we are holier people–reflecting him in our character and our actions.

Your pastor can’t do that for you.

If you expect that from your pastor, and he or she buys into that message, then here’s the likely outcome:

Maybe we start here: 90 percent of you [pastors] believe you inadequately manage the demands of your job, and half of you are so discouraged, you would abandon ministry if you had another job option. Any career in which 90 percent of the laborers feel insufficient indicates a fundamental problem. When your nearly unanimous cry is “I cannot do it all,” maybe the answer is simple: You actually cannot do it all and should quit trying. [Emphasis mine]

In my own reflection on ministry, I’ve come to see the beautiful simplicity of the Christian life when viewed through the prism of the classical reformed faith. What I’m talking about is a way of life that places the ordinary means of grace as central to the life of the individual and of the congregation. You can read my post on this topic, here.

What does this look like?

This is a start:

Q: What are the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption?

A: The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all of which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.

The church needs to recover ordinary means ministry. That is, before we start talking about missional practice or the five-fold model of ministry, we need to establish that the foundation of Christian faithfulness is no less than following the pattern established by the apostles—gathering for word, sacrament, and prayer.

Our congregational gathering for common prayer, for the proclamation of Scripture, and for the celebration of the sacraments provides the corporate foundation for our private and family lives of devotion. It also provides the base from which we are sent into the world as part of God’s mission to the world.

The one thing that ties together the great works of God across the centuries is the resurgence of the means of grace as the heart of life in Christ. For the church to stand firm in its new cultural exile, we must once more embrace word, sacrament, and prayer. The reality of the Christian life is that a thousand whispered prayers while hanging laundry on the line is of more value than a handful of celebrity pastor conferences.

Additional resources: Ligon Duncan on the Ordinary Means of Grace [link]

The pastor’s marriage

Pete_Scazzero_web

Our marriages are meant to be our first ambition in life. When we marry we make a vow to love our spouse exclusively until we die. That vow informs every decision we will make the rest of our lives….In the same way, if we are married, we have made a vow. That vow informs every decision we make. The pace of the church, and our commitments, take into account our call to be a sign and wonder for Christ through our marriage. We publicly vowed to make visible something invisible (the love of Jesus for His church) through our physical, earthly relationship.

For this reason, if we are married, our first ambition is not our work as pastors or leaders. It is Jesus and our marriage. These are inseparable commitments for all married people – especially leaders. All our fruit for Christ flows from this fountain of love.

 

Pete Scazzero

 

 

 

Some counsel in challenging times

O Gracious Father, we humbly beseech Thee for Thy Holy Catholic Church,

that Thou wouldst be pleased to fill it with all truth and in all peace.

Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in anything it is amiss, reform it.

Where it is right, establish it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it;

for the sake of Him who died and rose again and ever liveth to make intercession for us,

Jesus Christ Thy Son our Lord.

Amen.

The Book of Common Worship of the Presbyterian Church (USA), 1946, 1964.

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It is a tumultuous time to be a part of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Our culture is shifting and with it our church. Some changes are for the better, some relate to things indifferent, and some run counter the tradition we have received as members of the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic church. I have my opinions which readers of this blog will likely know. Rather than write about issues, today I’d like to offer some words to those of us (which is really all of us, regardless of our theological orientation) living through these times of change. In a sense, I am writing this post to myself as much as to anyone else. If, then, you are so inclined, join me in reflecting on how we can respond to the challenging times in which we live.

  1. Do not be afraid. Offering God’s help to Israel, Isaiah prophesies: “[D]o not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand” (41:10). Fear is natural, but fear can give way to faith when we prayerfully recite and rely upon God’s covenant promises to us found in Scripture. The reformers used a motto that captures the broader perspective of the trials we know face: post tenebris lux–“After the darkness, light.” Christ is Lord of his church and he has not forsaken her.
  2. Do not be hasty. The Proverbs contain this admonition: “Desire without knowledge is not good, and one who moves too hurriedly misses the way” (19:2). When we are afraid or anxious, it is easy for us to rush to judgment. In so doing, we easily move too fast and perhaps move further or faster than we ought.
  3. Do not cease in prayer. Prayer is central to the Christian life: it is one of the chief means of grace. Paul writes, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12). God both hears our prayers and by our prayers works in our lives to give us comfort and care.
  4. Do not compromise your convictions. Scriptures gives us the example of Daniel, who remained faithful to God even when instructed not to pray. If there are matters upon which, like Luther, we find that the Word of God will not allow us to compromise then we must stand firm. It may mean that you’re the only vote against a motion; it may mean that you do not participate in some service or action of a church of council. Regardless of what it is, stand firm.
  5. Do not cease confession. Nothing is more dangerous to the soul than sustained theological disputation. By nature we are prone to sin and nothing is more tragic than winning a theological argument while losing one’s soul. Martin Luther remarked, “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.” He also is famous for having said, “I have so much to do today that I’m going to need to spend three hours in prayer in order to be able to get it all done.” The heroes of our faith were all men and women who dedicated themselves to prayer.

Final Question: How do you deal with challenging times?

 

 

Making a life or making a living?

News reports regularly give statistics about the rise or decline in new applications for unemployment benefits. Each of us probably knows at least one person who has been unemployed for more than a year. We likely know many more who have been without work for a shorter period of time. Our society has generally embraced the model of work for wages–we exchange our knowledge and/or manpower for cash. Most of us can’t think of any other way in which to order our lives. The question is, however, does this arrangement really work all that well? Does making a living require us to sacrifice our lives?

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Frederick Buechner has written:

We must be careful with our lives, because it would seem that they are the only lives we are going to have in this puzzling and perilous world, and so they are very precious and what we do with them matters enormously.

Given the premium our culture puts on comfort (the ‘good life’), it’s ironic how little we intentionally our lives to see if we are treating them as precious or as simply a means to an end. Are we simply doing more and more meaningless things with ever greater efficiency?

What does making a life really look like? In a recent post Scott Martin notes:

Those focusing on making a living see wealth solely in the context of the cash nexus: the opportunities, possessions, luxuries and leisure that money affords. Those focusing on making a life see wealth in terms of the depth and quality of their relationships, the strength of their home, the memories they make, the moments they share, the lives they touch. In fact, the people I most respect who have made lives worth emulating rarely focus on money at all. There have been times when they have had plenty and times when they have struggled, but the constant is in how deeply they have loved.

Imagine sitting down with a financial planner and in addition to totaling your bank accounts and mapping your investments, you also mapped your significant relationships and explored your relationship to your home.

Martin continues quoting Buechner:

Buechner writes that the world is full of people who “seem to have listened to the wrong voice” and are doing work that “seems simply irrelevant not only to the great human needs and issues of our time but also to their own need to grow and develop as humans.”

It’s ironic that some of the vocations that directly seek to meet the greatest human needs are the least esteemed (and rewarded) in our culture: teacher, care-giver, social worker, priest. Could it be that our value system is inverted?

Ask yourself: am I making a living or making a life? What two things could I most easily change in order to improve the quality of my life (in terms of relationships)? Resolve to start making those changes.

Five ways to respond to disappointment

ImageEach of us is going to experience significant disappointment during the course of our lives. Funding for a ministry project doesn’t materialize; a position you thought yourself well qualified for goes to another; attendance drops despite your fervent prayers and well-prepared sermons; the congregation chooses an option that you disagree with.

Failure and disappointment is often an inevitable by-product of the attempt to actually get off your rear and try to do something. As Teddy Roosevelt put it,

Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.

Knowing this, however, doesn’t take the sting out of disappointment. At best, it can help to redeem it. The question is: how are we to respond to disappointment? Is there a way to make something out of the nothing of rejection or failure?

My friend Kathy Tuan-Mclean has written about disappointment in the context of helping her children move through it. You can read her post here. Kathy identifies the five responses we typically move through in the face of disappointment or failure:

  1. Blame someone or something.
  2. Blame (or shame) the victim.
  3. Stop caring.
  4. Just quit.
  5. Work harder and try again.

Then she adds, “But perhaps the best thing to do, at least initially, is to mourn. To just be sad.” And to be sad is specific way: to grieve cleanly. Grieving cleanly means, according to Kathy, experiencing the pain without inflicting pain on others.

The promise when we grieve cleanly, as Jesus said, is that those who mourn will be comforted.  When we mourn with God, we remember that God, not our loss…defines our hope and future.

God reminds the exiled covenant community through Jeremiah: “For I know the plans I have for you…plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” So when disappointment knocks on your door, remember to:

  1. Give yourself permission to mourn and feel the loss
  2. Entertain and reject poor responses
  3. Admit your weakness and lean on God’s grace
  4. Remind yourself that God’s purposes are greater than your circumstances

Doing this won’t eradicate disappointment from your life, but it will be the yeast that leavens the loaf of failure and redeems it to become something God uses to make you both holier and humbler.