In the midst of life, we are in death

I was lining up at gate B10 at the Atlanta airport, waiting to catch my flight to Nashville. All of a sudden the silence of the gate area was broken by a cry of “Make way! We need room!” Around the corner emerged some paramedics pushing a large, shirtless man on a gurney. His face was covered by an oxygen mask. He looked less frightened than in great pain. He groaned repeatedly as he was hurriedly rushed to the waiting ambulance. I prayed.

As I continued into the jet bridge, I couldn’t help pondering how mortaliy had invaded that man’s life; how death was trying to push its way into life.

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Certainly, at the beginning of his day that man had not given much thought to that fact that today might have been his last. I know that as I got into my car and drove to the Greensboro airport, I didn’t pause to consider it. Most days, even in Lent, I’m ignorant (or at least only subconsciously aware) of my mortality.

It’s with good cause that many Compline services end with a prayer that acknowledges before God our need of His persevering grace should we pass from this life into the next while we sleep.

Our culture is profoundly afraid of death. We are remarkably detached from mortality. We committed to perpetuating a strong delineation between life and death–we don’t die well, nor do those of us who continue to live do well in experiencing the death of another.

The church must give closer attention to the way it guides parishioners in approaching death and in the way we walk with those whose friends or loved ones die. We need a theology of death.

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.

[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.

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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.

[Missional Monday 1] What is missional?

This is the first post in a series about how congregations can become more missional in how they understand and carry out ministry in their community. Missional is popular. A lot people are using the word, but I’m not always sure how clear they are on its meaning.

A simple way to get a little bit better of a handle on this word is to substitute “missionary” for “missional.” I’m sure there were good reasons for choosing missional over missionary, probably related to some of the cultural baggage associated with missionary, but the two words are both derived from the root word “mission” and essentially mean the same thing.

“Missional living” becomes “missionary living” and

“missional church” becomes “missionary church.”

At it’s heart being missional is about placing God’s mission at the center of the life of the individual and the center of the church’s existence, where it was surely meant to be all along. Let me unpack that a little.

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The central belief of those of us who affirm a missional/-ary theology is that it is the nature of God to act in the world and that His action is in furtherance of His purposes. Ultimately, God is the initiative-taker, and nothing happens absent His first acting.

The church has been brought into being by the action of God with a distinct charter and purpose. In like manner to the way in which God sent His Son into the world to redeem a people through his perfect life, atoning death, and overcame sin in His resurrection, the church is sent into the world with a message. Jesus says as much, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (ESV).

That message is the gospel, the good news or glad tidings of Jesus’ victory over sin and death and this ushering in the kingdom of God. As Jesus ends His earthly ministry, He launches the church:

6Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [Mt 28:16-20, ESV]

Encapsulated in a relatively few words are the entire mission of the church. We are out into the world to:

  1. make disciples (which includes evangelism and discipleship),
  2. to administer the sacraments,
  3. to catechize and instruct Christians in godliness,
  4. and to do so in the fellowship and with the power of the risen Son of God until time is no more.

As the church goes it must go with a certain type of posture. This is critical. As the church goes into the world, it must go as a missionary.

One of the central observation of missional theologians is that we have reached, as a culture, a tipping point–we have become a culture that no longer privileges Christianity. Clearly American culture is not monochromatic so the degree to which we are secular varies by region. Even in the south, I think, it is fair to say that Christianity is no longer privileged by the culture. It is no longer the assumed religion of everyone.

As the church is going, it is going into something new: a post-Christendom culture. This is a cross-cultural journey as so requires several things:

  1. Interpretive acuity: as Christians engage culture, we have to learn to interpret it. What are our culture’s deepest values? What are our gods? What is missing? Who is missing? How do we relate to one another?
  2. Wisdom: we have to be able to be aware of what we know and what we no longer know. For this journey, things written a thousand years ago in pre-Christian europe will be more helpful than something written by a 1980s church growth guru.
  3. Humility: we’re not the “it thing” anymore. In some ways, people are beginning to look at the church like they look at the Rotary Club–they’re not even sure they know what it is. Even if you invite them, it won’t be enough to overcome the growing barriers. I’m not talking about the false humility of progressive Christians. I do not believe that the Gospel has changed–we preach the same message yet vary the context and the means.
  4. Attentiveness: a cross-cultural encounter requires attention to observe and thereby learn more about the culture in which you find yourself. The missional church and the missional Christian will be making perpetual observations about their city, their culture, and factoring that into their engagement with it.
  5. Curiosity: one of the biggest reason I love to travel is because I’m curious about all manner of things. Missional Christians have to be curious about what makes our friends and our cities tick. We want to enter into their mind and see what they see not simply to convert them, but because there’s inherent value in coming to see the world through another’s eyes.
  6. Flexibility: we’re going to have to be flexible in our definition of success, in our way of doing and being church, and in a whole lot of other things. Christians who worship abroad often encounter practices that are uncomfortable and, for the most part, are able to live with the tension. God is asking us to become uncomfortable in certain ways in order to truly be missionaries for his gospel.

In my next post, I’ll explore the difference between “missional” and “attractional” as two distinct ways of understanding the ministry of the church and of the Christian. I’ll argue for something I call “hybrid church,” that is a blending of missional and attractional ways of doing church. 

Is gay marriage the church’s “next big thing?”

Our current cultural moment is a perfect storm with respect to human sexuality. The broader culture has placed sexuality squarely in the hands of the autonomous and sovereign individual. In like manner–perhaps fearing increasing irrelevancy if it fails to do so–the church abdicated its authority to speak into the lives of its members, helping them to understand sexuality in a manner grounded squarely in the history of Christian theological reflection on Scripture.

As a result, with increasing speed it seems that progressive Christians are making headway in subverting the traditional understanding of human sexuality and replacing it with a thoroughly individualistic substitute.

In the process, they have also succeeded in eviscerating the message of the Christian gospel. Perhaps, in the words of St. Paul, they find the gospel to be “foolishness” and in need of replacement with a message more suited to the times. This new gospel is one of “inclusion,” which is understood to be the unquestioning affirmation of the validity of first person experiences with respect to sexuality. There is little room for any concept of disordered or misplaced affections. If you feel, it is argued, it must be true. And if this is true, then it makes sense to allow individuals to express themselves in the setting of the church through the blessing of same sex marriages.

Read the rest of the post here.

Who saves us? A word of caution

I’m a big proponent of theological formation for Christian living as well as confessional orthodoxy amongst the ordained officers of the church. At the same time, I’m aware of the subtle trap that can lead us to believe that our doctrine saves us. Jesus saves us–our responding to His grace offered in the Gospel is what reconciles us to God. Theology is the work of interpreting our spiritual experience in light of God’s revelation in Scripture.

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Dogmatic theology is a very dangerous science. Its elevation to a necessary mediator between God’s Word and the believer amounts to an idolatry and testifies to a fundamental misconception concerning its real character and position. If our salvation be dependent on theological dogmatics and exegesis, we are lost.”

Herman Dooyeward in Smith, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy (169).

The suffering servant and the un-suffering God

Earlier this year I read a piece in Books & Culture: A Christian Review by John G Stackhouse of Regent University. I’m not terribly familiar with Stackhouse except through his small book Finally Feminist which I enjoyed immensely and would encourage you to read (it takes only an evening). While you’re at it, subscribe to Books & Culture too. It is a wonderful resource.

The subject of Stackhouse’s January article was kenotic theology. This is a way of conceiving of Christ’s sojourn on earth that takes seriously the Christ hymn of Philippians two which tells us that Jesus “emptied himself.” Stackhouse defines the school of thought like this: “[Kenotic theology] suggests that God the Son voluntarily relinquished his powers as an equal member of the Trinity in order to experience a genuinely human life and death in our place.”
I have to confess not being all that familiar with the work of the any of the great theologians who emphasized kenosis. Having studied at a confessional and evangelical  divinity school, there wasn’t a great deal of space for left in the curriculum the study of kenotic theologians. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, all education is necessarily limited by constraints such as time, faculty, and students who are interested in learning the subject (unless it is required).
There are problems with kenotic theology when you look at it from a reformed perspective. As Stackhouse notes, it challenges both the impassibility of God as well as the immutability of God. In effect, it argues that there are changes that take place in the life God (and in humanity) that do not undermine God’s divinity just as suffering may be experienced without fundamentally altering God’s divine nature. It’s worth asking the question precisely how God can change without somehow undermining His divinity and how God’s inability to suffer (His impassibility) relates to His deep providential concern for His people.

Kenotic theology is appealing in a number of ways. I’m sure that what makes it chiefly appealing is its potential pastoral implications. It has long been a criticism of reformed theology that its emphasis on God’s otherness and omnipotence makes Him difficult to relate to. It’s also been noted that hyper-Calvinism has almost no place for Jesus — it’s almost as though nothing had changed in the coming of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.
In the midst of suffering is it more helpful (and we can argue about what this word really means) to hear that God is suffering with you or that God is in control of your situation? 

As a pastor, I think it depends.
It is, of course, foolishness to enter into the suffering of another with a pithy statement asking them to “let go and let God.” Likewise, it is foolishness for those of us who are teachers in the church to basically espouse what Christian Smith has called “moral therapeutic deism” from pulpit, table, and font before suffering comes and then expect our parishioners to somehow experience that suffering with their belief in God’s sovereignty, and indeed His goodness, intact.
Rather, the role of the pastor and of the church is to teach and live the Scriptures in such a way as to apply them to our life together and our individual lives as well as to communicate theology so that it becomes a set of lenses that gives insight and shape to our life and experiences.
Ellen Charry’s book By the Renewing of Your Minds suggests that theology is not an abstract academic endeavor alone, but it is also a pastoral, local, embodied, way of forming the way a people know, experience, and follow the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. The contemporary church is in danger of forgetting this.

One of the great challenges of the parish is creating what Eugene Peterson has called a theological imagination. It is one thing (and certainly no bad thing) to be able to quote the catechism, but it is quite another thing to be able to see in one’s minds eye how God can be simultaneously loving, powerful, caring, and unsuffering. I doubt that any of us will ever be able to fully do this, perhaps some of the saint have come closest, but in the end the purpose of the church isn’t to make us happy so much as to make us saints.
Sources:
     Ellen Charry, By the Renewing of Your Minds.

     Eugene Peterson. The Pastor.

     John G Stackhouse, Jr. “A Christ we can follow.” Books & Culture.