Friday, January 30, 2009

Viva la Revolucion! But What Kind?

I thought Jailbreaker's last comment to the previous post, "Ministry Models--Jailbreaker's Take", was worth promoting to the main page (and if you haven't paid attention to the conversation, I urge you to go back and read the entire dialogue):
You're right, organization of some kind is essential and your point is well taken. Let me make one last comment that will hopefully bring this back full circle to the original topic of evolutionary and revolutionary models.

From the revolutionary perspective, it's not a matter of "deconstructing" what exists (though admittedly some do think that way) as much as it is a matter of finding new pathways for the Gospel and new expressions of body life for those who have never been a part of our Christian “system” (particularly for those in rocky soil nations).

Clearly, we're in the middle of yet another major paradigm shift in church history and the “positive way forward,” as you put it, is regrettably going to be a bit messy.

George Barna, in his thought provoking book “Revolution” states the following: “The revolution is not about eliminating, dismissing, or disparaging the local [institutional] church…. The core issue isn’t whether or not one is involved in a local [institutional] church, but whether or not one is connected to the body.... The revolution is about recognizing that we are not called to go to church. We are called to be the church.”

He goes on to say that his research shows that about 30% of “true” believers in America are already functioning as a body outside our current institutions (particularly amongst home schoolers). Clearly God is at work in a way that most of us are completely unaware, not to mention being totally out of our control.

The so-called evolutionary model and the so-called revolutionary model both play key roles in advancing God’s kingdom. We need both expressions and which side of the fence we sit will no doubt be determined by God's calling in our lives.

(btw, for an interesting read on "Churchless Christianity" in India, check out this link:

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Chief's New Blog

Congrats to the Chief for his new blog: Jesus and Clio. If the perspective of Christian teachers intrigues or inspires you, I invite you to join him at his new home. You'll be treated to thoughts like this:
But I think I'm beginning to grasp the concept of paradox. I like to do creative things and fun things and have small group discussions instead of lecturing all the time - things I know won't bore the students. That's because I really care about the students and have a passion for my subject as all of you out there do. That is my gift (I hope!). That is also one side of the paradox. I care, I create, teaching and learning matters. Now the other side of the paradox is what happens to me if the students don't cooperate. For me, for example, if I am trying to do something creative and it isn't appreciated I grow resentful. I get hurt and say to myself "why knock myself out for this crowd?" I should just do the minimum and then sling the test their direction. Then I'll just relax and take it easy." But the other side of the paradox is that the reason I get hurt in the first place is because of my gift - because I care. If I decide to just do the bare minimum I am also negating my gift. If I decide "I won't let this bother me" I am also negating my gift and becoming someone completely different than what God created me to be. So, instead of denying that I am hurt or upset and protecting myself against further hurt by not caring anymore, I need to face the paradox head on. Face it, and find creative ways to deal with my hurt without denying either who God created me to be or the needs of my students.

Good stuff! We wish him well, and trust that his devotion to Christian teachers over there won't make him a stranger in the Jailer's cell! Hail to the Chief!

Ministry Models--Jailbreaker's Take

Some good discussion is brewing in Jailer’s thought-provoking piece, “Ministry Models: Evolutionary and Revolutionary.” Since Jailer referred to me a couple of times in his comments, I thought I better jump into the discussion as well and feed the fire.

I’ve discovered that there’s nothing like living in the “rocky soils” of the world to get a person thinking about the deeply rooted assumptions they hold about life and ministry. Though few will ever have a chance to spend a couple of decades outside their own culture, perhaps the following might pass for a close second.

Imagine a time in America when we enter an age where, just as Jesus predicted, God’s people are hunted down and killed. No more First Amendment Clause to protect our right to freely gather and worship as we please; no more tax-exempt status for church property or Christian organization budgets; no more “full-time” Christian workers receiving a salary for their labor; in short, no more tolerance for God’s people and a great increase in hostility toward us.

God forbid that a time like that should come upon us anytime soon, but if and when it does, will the church as we Americans know it today be able to exist in that environment? What will a “legitimate” church look like to us when religious freedom is gone? Though it may still be a long way off for us in America, it’s a reality in many nations around the world right now, and it's forcing us to take a step back and examine some of our deeply rooted assumptions about ministry in the light of Scripture.

Simply put, if the church (and our mission) cannot be imagined apart from programs, memberships, formal meetings, professional clergy, expository preaching, elaborate organizational structures, and even fundraising and facilities, than the people of Iran and North Korea are truly without hope.

Though that’s the “revolutionary” perspective, it doesn’t make the evolutionary perspective any less valid. That’s the beauty of the body of Christ. We see things through different lenses but the body of Christ is big enough for both.

Adam's Legacy: Fear, Shame and Hiding

The Cypress Times has published another of the Jailer's articles here. Long-time readers will recognize it from November's "The Heart of an Encourager," all cleaned up and ready for the publisher.  

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Ministry Models: Evolutionary and Revolutionary

I'm part of certain social networking communities, some of which involve others interested in web-based ministries.   In one such community, I shared a link to this blog and asked for comment.  Here's one that came back just today:

it seems like mini-church. it great folks are ready their bible and studying but it's too much like big church. it's talk, talk, talk.

the other thing that is a problem is the phrase "lay-leadership." what other type is there in scripture? the bible says you are all brothers (and sisters). gifts are distributed by the Spirit to all. so lay-leadership is a deragatory term. like there is professional leadership? how well has that gone?

God hates leadership. he says call no man your father on earth because you have a heavenly father. He states he hate the deeds and doctrine of the nicolaitans (people rulers). paul states we have ten thousand teachers but not many fathers.

leaders will always have small groups that focus on learning. why? because that way they get to be the arrogant fount of knowledge. there is little to no emphasis on living and acting. it keeps leadership safe when action and belief are separate.

fathers are servants who participate in the development of another, leading to that individuals independence and ability to function. in other words "get things done" in the world.

Jesus was totally different than how he's often taught about in church. Leadership is not what the church needs. Talk is not what the church needs. the church needs sacrificial living with Jesus as our leader.

The writer finds himself among those who are frustrated by the church's traditions and dogmatic adherance to our structures ... to include those that are just emerging (like small groups).  Within some of the frustration, there are some worthy thoughts to pull out.  Here's the response I sent him:

I think I understand your perspective, and I find I agree with you in some measure. Yes, the we in the Western church have become far too professionalized, and this has cost the cause of the gospel much in our society. Yes, sacrificial living is in short supply and badly needed.

However, I don't find Scriptural support for your contention that "God hates leadership." Instead, what I find is that God hates arrogant leaders, but that He raises up leaders of many kinds. The Apostle Paul even says about spiritual gifts: "If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully."

Moreover, my friend and contributor, the "Jailbreaker" (a missionary to Japan), once told me that as he was learning how to break apart the western, cultural trappings we package the gospel in and to get back to the "Scriptural Roots of Ministry", he had to re-teach himself not to be judgmental of his brothers and sisters back in the US. So apparent had our church culture's flaws become to him, and so frustrated was he by our inability to grasp the importance of stripping our traditions and cultural baggage away from the central message of Christ, that he found it difficult to associate with our "church people." He had to re-learn how to be gracious and patient with our religious culture's flaws, "to win as many as possible." (Acts 9:19-21)

I think this is a worthy discussion, because it sits at the edge of where the Western church has been, and where it is going. 

One thing this discussion surfaces is the natural tension between evolutionary and revolutionary change.  I guess I'd consider myself more of an evolutionary leader, insofar as I tend to work within the structure and make change at the edges, rather than abandoning the structure.  There is a definite place for revolutionaries though, such as my friend the Jailbreaker, who is using an utterly different, relationship-based model of ministry, "de-Westernizing" the gospel in order to reach the Japanese.  It is a bold, necessary, lonely calling, and one from which I learn much.

I'd suggest that both models are important to moving the church forward, though they often find it difficult to understand one another.  Moreover, while we evolutionary types can be too timid and complacent about the sad state of things, revolutionaries may suffer from the sins that emerge from the frustration of their calling:  excessive anger, judgmentalism, loss of perspective ...

UPDATE:  Much more in the "Comments".  Please read/share your thoughts there.  Also, see Jailbreaker's Take two posts up!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Getting Past the Superficial in Small Group Prayer

The earlier post by Jailer on transparency brings up another issue I could sure use your collective wisdom on. One thing I notice as a teacher in a Christian school and as a small group leader is the banality of prayer requests. At the risk of seeming insensitive to physical ailments, how do you all get past the "pray for my Aunt Susie's knee operation next week" litany? I can share my own needs but this does not often lead to honest sharing of needs or requests that go beyond the typical prayers for healing.
Jailer's Intro: Hail to the Chief! Welcome aboard and thanks for contributing. Chief is an exceptionally gifted Christian thinker ... I remember during one very deep Bible study in Okinawa, the Jailbreaker and I were struggling over some complicated doctrinal point while the Chief was out of the room. We bantered it around playfully, but both of us had to admit later that we were just stalling until Chief could come back in to rescue us! I'm grateful to have him on board.

Oh ... and I really appreciate this topic! My first thought is ... we (as leaders) must lead the way into transparency! That doesn't come without some risk, by the way ... I remember once confessing my struggles with sometimes doubting the very existence of God to a small group. The leader looked uncomfortable and then told me he'd pray for me. Obviously that didn't open any doors toward greater transparency, and in fact may have shut a few. And so we're back to "Aunt Susie's knee operation."

On the other hand, maybe all we need is a little mood music ...

Until Then ...

The first time I saw this was when I was in Iraq.   I still get misty every time ...

Let us not neglect to pray for those who yet labor in bold view of death daily, so that others may live in peace and freedom.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Fort Leavenworth Resources

Back in November, I posted on the exciting small groups ministry Tom and Jean Schmidt quarterback at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.  If you're interesting in how they organize this dynamic  project, drop by and visit their new web site, where you can find lots of interesting news, notes and resources.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Piper on Small Groups: "Two or Three Move the World!"

One of the features of the American church is the historical focus on the large "tent meeting" atmosphere for life-changing decisions. At many churches, every worship service ends with an "alter call" wherein people are invited to declare their decisions publicly.  While there is a place for this kind of thing, my experience has been that the vast majority of serious, vital Christian growth occurs primarily in smaller groups, where the Scriptural teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness really takes hold.  Those who don't take part largely remain stagnant.

John Piper exhorts those who don't meet in small groups:  "You are cutting yourself off from extraordinary blessings."

Piper further illustrates the point in another message on how it is in small gatherings that we have our "Esther Moments", when God challenges us to take large and life-changing steps of faith.

The text for the entire message on "Esther Moments" can be found here.

Friday, January 16, 2009

"I Hope You Find Some Better People"

Chelsea was a faithful participant in our morning devotional during one of my tours in Southwest Asia.  We spent many a Friday morning contemplating everything under the hot desert sun:  theology, work, family, mission, leadership, evangelism ... 

The issue of pointed concern to Chelsea, though, was grace.  Often we would spend time after the devotional broke up discussing how God's sanctifying work is a process, not an event, and that a healthy Christian often feels more sinful as she grows closer to God's holiness.  Still, the burden of her sin was heavy around her neck, so that Chelsea could truly cry aloud with the Apostle Paul, "What a wretched (wo)man I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?"

One day, after a particuarly long discussion, Chelsea looked at me and said, "You know, you're probably one of the three most important people in my spiritual life right now."  Flabbergasted, I blurted out the first thing that came to my mind:  "Well, I hope you find some better people."

This probably wasn't the most appropriate response, but it certainly reflected my surprise.  After all, Chelsea's tour in the desert lasted only 4 months, which seemed hardly enough time to generate this kind of spiritual connection (especially considering that male-female prudence demanded we avoid any kind of real one-on-one alone time).  My gut reaction was self-consciousness, and a concern that my words of "wisdom" were, in fact, wise.

I suppose this brings me back to my "Daisy" story from last October.  All God asks from us is faithfulness in using the talents He's given us.  It's not our extraordinary skill that that changes lives, but God's Spirit working through our faithful service and the gifts He's given us ... to the praise of His glory.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

You Are Holy

I came to know Christ in the '80s, when Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith were very "in". I'm not embarrassed to say I've still got a soft place in my heart for MWS in particular ... here he is singing one of my favorite praise tunes.

So what does this have to do with small groups?  Well, nothing really.  Just a little self-indulgence on my part.  Hard not to notice how the audience is all a bunch of 40-somethings, getting somewhat rounder in the middle and balder on the dome.  These are my people!  :)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Predestined to Write This?

Into almost every small group a little predestination must fall ... the topic will inevitably come up sooner or later.  Perhaps someone will identify themselves as a Calvinist, an Arminian, or something in between.  Often the issue is framed as a question of whether to believe in predestination or "free will".  Very often people will get very emphatic about this issue.  What you do depends in large part upon where you stand, of course, but you'll want to think through how you handle this issue.

For my part, I begin by framing the issue thus:
  1. Everyone who believes the Bible is true believes in predestination.  It's an explicitly biblical term.  The question is not whether you believe in it, but rather what you believe about it.
  2. The tension between predestination and free will is real, but exacerbated by the limits of our human understanding.  To many of us, to accept the idea of predestination would seem to reduce us to mere automatons.  To be sure there is mystery here, but choice is not a zero-sum game.  The Bible clearly teaches that God foreknew, predestined and then called me, but it also clearly places upon me the responsibility of choosing to "Repent and believe the good news."  God chooses, and I also choose ... both are true without diminishing the other, in the same way that my body occupies physical space without in any way reducing the amount of space left available for the omnipresent God to occupy.
  3. The topic of predestination is often discussed in Scripture within the context of our hope security as children of God.  We are to rest, to have joy, to have courage and great confidence, for the God of the Universe has committed Himself to us for all eternity--why should we fear or doubt?  
  4. In the place where the Bible deals most directly with the implications of this topic (Romans 9), the Apostle Paul ultimately responds to our objections with a rebuke:  "But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?"  Let's not let our natural curiosity devolve into impertinence.  There are limits to what we can ultimately comprehend about the eternal, infinite, almighty King.
  5. Rejecting predestination, on the other hand, doesn't resolve the issue of God's "fairness."  After all, some seem to get a better opportunity to receive Christ than others.  For example, the glorified Jesus Christ intercepted the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus in order that he might be saved, while many others throughout history have died having never heard the gospel at all.  Yet all will appear before God and be judged for their sins, for which all are held responsible.  Tearing the "predestination passages" out of our Bibles solves nothing with respect to this issue, and in fact confuses it further.
  6. Understanding God's sovereignty over our evangelism is tremendously liberating.  We don't need to fret over whether clumsy words or inefficient methods have cost someone a chance at salvation.  Instead, we can concentrate on honoring God by obeying Him and participating in His saving works, trusting Him for the results.
In the end, we must confess there is a perspective that we have, in which we fully experience our choices and are fully responsible for them.  Yet God has His own perspective, which we need to appreciate without letting it overwhelm or frustrate us ... by simply letting God be God, and being glad that He is in control.  

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Starting a Small Group from Scratch

I am fairly new to the agency where I work, but have discovered that there aren’t any small group studies going on (it's a small agency). I know of a few believers there, but not many. I have it upon my heart to start a small group study, but I will be honest that my main intention for starting one is so I can be fed and help accountable in the workplace, and not really to evangelize.

That said, with the likelihood of getting a critical mass of believers together to start a study being small, I’m interested in opinions on how to go about starting an investigative or other seeker-friendly study. For such studies in the workplace, how have you all dealt with issues of rank, supervision, etc., especially in terms of the non-believers who may be more uncomfortable/more not used to having discussions of faith with a superior than a believer would? I’d be interested to hear about the experiences each of you have faced.
Editor's Introduction:  Thomas, our newest contributor, is a skilled and well-grounded Christian leader with whom I've worked and served in years past.  He brings a solid grasp of Biblical theology and years of experience with church leadership, as well as a quick and penetrating intellect.  I look forward to his posts with eagerness.  Thomas begins (above) with a series of questions that go to the heart of this blog:  how to start a new small group

By the way, this offers me the opportunity to offer a tip for all our readers:  you can sort these posts by label ... look down the right side of the page until you see the section marked:  "CAN'T FIND WHAT YOU'RE LOOKING FOR? SORT BY LABEL!"  In this case, I would click on "Techniques" to get a list of posts which address this question from various angles.   Now's the time for you to add your 2 cents using the "Comments" function ... after all, iron sharpens iron!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

An Atheist Speaks II: Africa Needs Jesus

This is really something.  From last week's Times Online:
Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.
Truly, read the whole thing.  What really stands out, though, is the power of a life well lived for Christ, and the impression that created on this man even as a child:
The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world - a directness in their dealings with others - that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.
Given the deep impression these faithful witnesses have had on Matthew Parris' life, it's remarkable that he has remained so committed to his belief that there is no God.  I suppose this demonstrates that the lost don't primarily need more evidence ... they need to be reborn.

Regardless, the example set by these African believers and the work done by these missionaries have done much to glorify God and to proclaim the gospel in a very compelling way!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Read Through the Bible in 2009!

A couple of months ago, I recommended some strategies for reading through the Bible in a year.  Just yesterday I had a conversation with a friend about this topic, so I thought today would be appropriate to recap my recommendations (I have added a One Year Bible widget along the right column of this page):  
1. Count the cost. Reading through Scripture is a great objective, but the time will come from somewhere. Be ready to commit.
Remember this is a Bible survey, not an in-depth study. The key is to keep moving. Feel free to skim the genealogies, for example.
Don't solve every theological conundrum. You're going to encounter lots of new material. Don't get bogged down every time you don't understand something, or you'll probably never finish. Just file it away as something you'd like to learn more about, and perhaps bring it to the group when you meet for discussion.
Link arms. The temptation to quit will be strong, especially if you fall behind. You'll need your group to stick together to keep everyone moving.
Don't overwhelm your group if they're not all on board. This is not for everyone nor every small group. There may be many reasons why people can't or won't commit to this. You'll need to either meet separately with those who choose to take the challenge, or be very creative with keeping the others involved without making them feel guilty.

You don't necessarily need to start in Genesis and plow through to Revelation. There are plenty of published plans available. 
Discipleship Journal has a number of good plans available for a fee, or there are some older ones available for free in the public domain (I've generally used this). The One Year Bible also has some free options.
Another friend reminded me of one more important point:  Use a readable version of the Bible!  I won't suggest a particular one, as this tends to be a point of personal preferance, but if you decide to read through the King James Version in a year, well, good luck with that ... ;)

Finally, if you're new to this idea and want to take smaller steps before committing to such a demanding endeavor, try reading through just the New Testament in 2009.