Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

jobfair-660x330About five months ago when I returned to full-time ministry in a local congregation I wrote a post discussing the lessons I learned while working in the corporate world. In my previous post I addressed (for the most part) the ways in which the church has brought the market into the church treating pastors as employees. Moreover, the church (institution) has even begun treating membership numbers (as well as giving amounts) as the bottom line by which to evaluate the success of ministry. This is not to say that numbers are not important, but that they should not be treated (and interpreted) in the same way as the market uses them. Essentially I focused upon the church as institution and the congregation’s contribution to this ecclesiological move. In this post I will be looking at some of the lessons I learned from the other side.

The contrasts between corporate America and the church are undeniable in so many ways that I am often astounded by efforts made by pastors and clergy to compare them in a way that unwittingly expresses a desire to be treated as such. In conversations with pastors I have heard comparisons of the position of pastor in the congregation to be like a CEO. I was once told point blank that I needed to “dress for success” in church ministry. What is especially alarming in all this is the extent to which this syncretism is taking place and that church leaders are instigating it.

As I worked my job for two years as an operations manager with some account manager responsibilities, I learned what it really means when the business motto is that the client is always right (regardless of how wrong they might be). The numerical bottom line is paramount and the company pulls out all stops to protect the revenue stream that begins with the customer. I shouldn’t even need to begin making the argument of how wrong it is to bring this approach into the church. But what I learned most was that even in my prior ministry context, in spite of protesting such syncretism, I indeed became enamored by the bottom line mentality. With this form of reasoning pastors often measure the success of their “career” as pastors by the numerical bottom line.

When this model is adopted, it is a slippery slope to where the pastor begins seeing herself as a successful business person who is deserving of a “salary” comparative to the (numerical) success of the church. Moreover it doesn’t take long for attitudes to begin shifting away from ministry focus to employment focus in which there is expectation for comparative compensation for hours worked. As if it were a company workplace it becomes easy for the pastor to then begin counting hours worked doing “church business.” This is one consequential implication I was trying to warn about when I stated, “What I have ironically experienced in the Anabaptist/Pietist tradition is the full attempt to articulate the relationship between congregation and the pastor using the business language of employer/employee.” Indeed this is an unfortunate irony that leads to behavior and attitudes that are quite unlike what would be considered a biblical and spiritual calling (pastoral and congregational attitudes of entitlement, tendencies toward monetary legalism, etc.).

2016-05-19-1463647608-1254725-businessMy simple argument is that for the benefit of the church and the role pastors serve in the church, the pastoral calling should never be considered a career or employment. There are three (perhaps more) reasons that I think this. First, the standard of qualification for a career or some form of employment is based upon previous personal accomplishments and accolades. The implications of this is that if a person can write up a good enough resume (or profile) that includes particular accomplishments with a noted numerical bottom line result, then that person would be more attractive and more likely to be “hired.” The tendency here is to minimize a spiritual discernment process to being essentially a time to scour through numerous resumes and profiles to pick the most attractive one. The qualifications are understood to be education and accomplishment centered. The underlying result of this is to begin believing that anyone can be trained to be a pastor.

Secondly, this will inevitably result with the pastor claiming responsibility for congregational performance either positively or negatively. The consequence here is double edged. I have seen pastors who have taken responsibility for the great successes of their congregations providing fodder to build a false sense of self. I have also seen pastors leave the ministry because they have taken on the responsibility for failures of the church. At this point I need to qualify this also. In as much as there are occasions where responsibility predominately lies with the pastor. It is never that simple. Pastors are part of the church. Therefore the congregation necessarily always shares in that responsibility, whether negatively or positively.

Finally, and most significantly it changes the fundamental understanding of the role and call of ministry for the church. Rather than the emphasis being upon the role of the Spirit gifting the individual in the context of a congregation and that congregation discerning those gifts and calling them out, the emphasis is changed to human accomplishment. Once again the consequential belief is “if we can send them to seminary, then we can train them and in teach them the necessary skills to be a career pastor.” The theological and spiritual implications are devastating to the church and to the pastors alike.

Perhaps, instead of bringing the market into the church, the church should begin looking at pastoral ministry more like missionary service in which the church commits financial support so that the ministry to which the believer is called can perform that ministry on behalf of and for the church. Instead of approaching pastoral ministry as hiring an employee from “outside of us,” maybe we should begin with a spiritual and relational model derived from scripture. I don’t know for sure, but something inside of me thinks that might be a more suitable approach (note sarcasm).

Another lesson I learned over those two years is that if the church becomes the market place it will cease being the “the presence of Jesus.” I am more convinced than ever that this world doesn’t need another business (whether entertainment or marketplace). It desperately needs the church to be the church, shining with the love of God for the world.

Over the past couple of weeks I have been considering this “rule of lifDSCN2853.JPGe” for Brethren discipleship that is being developed even now. The very premise that o
ne needs a “rule of life” presupposes that living according to particular habits is efficacious toward desirable faith. What is most interesting to me (right now) about this is the underlying prem
ises—what the trajectory (or desired results) of this form of living is and how it will take shape.

One of the central teachings of Jesus in his “Sermon on the Mount” is the necessity of one’s radical re-orientation toward God’s projected (and incarnated) imaginary (God’s kin(g)dom) and away from the empire’s projected imaginary as well as the misshaped protested responses to its imaginary. Take notice that this is not about merely two competing narratives but more accurately multiple narratives. In Matt. 6 what is often considered a teaching on giving or stewardship, Jesus emphasizes a posture that is distinctive from the other competing narratives. It is one that requires practicing personal piety in secret and not ways that make it obvious to the world. Most significantly it is requisite of breaking socio-cultural bonds and practices that define one’s place in society, i.e., not announcing one’s charitable giving and systemically changing how one perceives wealth.

Moreover, this section of his sermon intentionally addresses how practices (orientation) affect the allegiances of one’s heart. Thus, Jesus tells stories that require rich young rulers to sell their possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. In this particular context, however, Jesus is addressing people who were more probably living at the subsistence level (barely getting by). So when Jesus follows up his teachings about nonresistance and how to give benevolently with instructions on prayer and fasting, he reaches the climax of his sermon with words regarding orientation and allegiances. In this it is assumed that human beings possess a natural capacity to create bonds and emotional ties to inanimate objects. And that such bonds project these allegiances. It is a natural human response to a teaching concerning the expectation of benevolence and nonresistance that the p
erson would begin wondering the future cost of such behavioral practices. “How can I afford to give someone my outer garment when they have already taken my inner?” “How can I afford to lend to anyone who asks without expectation of being repaid let alone not charging interest?”

soci_benevolence_imgThese questions are especially justified when our bonds and ties to the inanimate objects are based upon ownership and possession. In the twenty-first century northwestern world, with its obsession over wealth and ownership, it becomes a radically more difficult teaching. And yet it speaks specifically to the reality of one’s allegiances (or bonds of the heart). I believe Jesus understood well the complexities of these relationships, especially the effects of liturgies surrounding and leading to them upon the people of the first century. Within the Roman culture society was structured vertically. It mattered explicitly where one was located on the societal ladder as it was determinative as to the rights and privileges one was afforded. Unfortunately, this vertical structuring was not limited to the Roman culture. Jewish culture was similarly structured regardless of where one found itself in the community. Admittedly, Pharisaical Judaism was an attempt to reform these structural impositions to a more horizontal nature. Yet even so it was the means by which it too imposed such reforms that inevitably resulted in a similar structure.

One of the underlying assumptions of the “Sermon on the mount” is the power of practice to definitively shape allegiances and identity. I suppose another way of posing part of these recent thoughts would be to consider the necessity of being oriented to the kin(g)dom of God. According to the “Sermon on the Mount” living according to the habits listed is requisite for such an orientation. When we posture ourselves in such a way that our attention is benevolently directed toward the margins of society and the people who are excluded, our bodily attitude (with all its values and judgments) is reformed and kin(g)dom shaped. It is no coincidence that in chapter twenty-five Jesus sets up the standard of judgment according to how one treats and relates to this marginalized population. He essentially tells them (those hearing the parable) that whatever they do (or not) to or (not) for them, they do (or not) to or (or not) for him. This intimate association Jesus makes with this population is determinative of the trajectory and consequential effects of the practices by which he is instructing his followers to live.

Essentially the development and implementation of these habits in one’s life ultimately expresses a rejection of the societal structures of the earthly powers. Through behavioral assimilation into such a rule, one’s life becomes a protest of the current social systems and the injustice and oppression they incur. Moreover it becomes a rejection of the Empire’s social reality and all the violent responses to it. Thus living according to this rule reshapes the desires and imagination of the disciple. In terms of spiritual formation, such discipline postures the disciple in such a way as to submit to the formative power of God’s Spirit. This is to say that what may begin as a discipline soon becomes a way of life that is effortless due to the transformation of one’s whole person (not merely heart) in the process.

How Can We Worship?

Posted: July 15, 2016 in Theology, Things of Faith

handsOver the past two months I have been spending considerable time
catching up on my readings and devotional practices. Over the brief two years I spent working outside of church ministry as an operations manager I was re-introduced to the struggle for faithful living in the church while balancing family and career. It’s not an easy life and I humbly confess that I was not good at it. In my experience I found that my devotional life was the first part of my life to suffer. And so as I have re-entered full-time ministry I have enjoyed the extreme privilege of having a vocation that not only encourages devotional living but requires it.

This is all to say that in the process of being immersed in this life of devotion, I have experienced the Spirit working in unexpected ways in my life.  So I suppose this blog entry will be essentially confessional.

Today I am writing with a heavy heart. I wanted to write last week but I couldn’t. I felt led to silent reflection as I sought the inner peace only Christ can provide. Unfortunately this did not come. With the recent events (the shootings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile as well as the fatal shooting of 5 police officers) coupled with my devotional readings, the Spirit of God has pricked my heart. Being one who avidly writes blog posts I wanted to respond with outrage but the Spirit silenced me. I wasn’t silent out of fear or avoidance. I was silent out of holy patience. The Spirit of Jesus was speaking to my heart with painful words of conviction.

All the words I could possibly write would have been not only useless in this social environment but most significantly hypocritical. They would have feigned the political responses we have become accustomed to hearing. What has been revealed to me through much painful reflection is that I am a culpable participant in a social structure (institution) that systematically oppresses and persecutes people because of the color of their skin. As I have been preparing to preach a sermon this Sunday on a passage of scripture that says that if you come to the alter with your offering and realize that a brother or sister has something against you, that you are to leave the offering and go and make things right before returning to worship. Moreover I had incidentally just finished reading a book that describes how this passage was a core text for the early Christians and formed a basis for their living in peace.[1]

What has come to my mind most starkly is the fact that worship-waysthe white church (of which I am a part) has not only suppressed the reality of this evil system but has in many ways perpetuated it. How can we worship when brothers and sisters have something against us? This is a big question that requires humble confession. I think that our primary mistake (as well as ongoing sin) is buying into the lie that the sin of racism is located somewhere other than in us. I have to confess that it is within me.

The dilemma that is breaking my heart is that I feel compelled to go and make things right by confessing my complicity (both in general participation as well as my specific behaviors) but because this is such a large and systemic sin and so many have been hurt by it that I’m not sure where to go and to whom I should confess to make right or even whether I am able to make things right. This doesn’t even take into consideration that I’m not sure how “the making right” will take place. I understand the corporate aspects of this, but what about the personal and individual dynamics. This is a very personal issue that requires the reformation and transformation of the core being. It does not feel like it is enough to simply acknowledge and confess such complicity. Real change is required. Not the promise of change or the commitment to a process of change, but essential ontological change in the person and corporate body. Such participation in a system cannot be allowed to continue in the church of Jesus our Lord!

I humbly admit that I don’t have concrete answers and actually feel quite helpless. But I do have some inclinations as to what the answers might look like. So I continue to hear the questions in my mind shouting, “How can we worship when we actively participate in this system?” “How can we worship when we know that there are sisters and brothers who have something against us?” “Where do we go and what can we do to make things right?”

[1] Books that have contributed to my thoughts here, see Kenneth E. Bailey, The Cross & the Prodigal; Drew G. I. Hart, Troubles I’ve Seen; Alan Kreider, The Patient Ferment; Miroslav Volf, Against the Tide.

Anytime I think about living the Christian faith in the context of the world my mind immediately travels to relationships. Perhaps its a generation thing for me, but I can’t help but think that somewhere along the line we got things confused and backwards. I grew up in a faith tradition that placed a high emphasis upon doctrinal belief. For all the talk of theology and doctrine they suffered from the same issues as most of the other faith communities I had encountered. In my twenties and thirties I found my faith being drawn strongly toward the Anabaptist community and by 2001 I was a pastor in the Church of the Brethren. It was in this context I found myself formed through friendships and those dear brothers and sisters who took me under their wings as I entered this peculiar community. This faith community is different from the one I grew up in, rather than emphasizing doctrinal belief, service is at the center of our faith. Yet still in this faith community we struggle with the same issues as the other communities.

I think one of the things that we get wrong in our culture (and our church in particular) is that we frame everything in an either/or frame of reference. What makes us think that it has to be one or the other. This isn’t “Talladega Nights: The Ricky Bobby Story.” It’s not first or last, win or lose. There are countless other options in between. Liberal culture tends to frame its contexts in either/or terms. We love to look at existence as a spectrum. Why as spectrum? Why not a circle, square, or even a narrative? As much as I am convinced that the tradition I grew up in gets it wrong in their emphasis, I think that doctrine does matter and that the church should be involved in the work of doctrine. And on the other hand I believe service should be at the center of who we are as a community, but at the same time engaging in the theological conversation. I have become convinced that the best doctrinal conversations emerge out of service and ministry.

From a hermeneutical perspective I’m convinced that followers of Jesus  practice a particular way of living so as to change the way they look at the world (re-imagine) and even how they interpret the scriptures. Unfortunately we have become so integrated into western culture that we miss the point of this. We are so caught up in narcissistic individualism in a capitalistic democracy that we misconstrue rights, freedom and desire for discipleship. In his new book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, Alan Kreider makes the interesting observation that the primary virtue of the early Christians was patience. The fact that this virtue serves as the foundation of the primary markers (service of poor, no oaths, nonviolence, modesty, etc.) of the Christian faith is significant. In the book he notes the strong emphasis in forming the habitual living of initiates before baptism and argues that these practices being habituated precedes (and coincides) readings of scripture (habits form interpretive lenses). Service to the poor and acts of loving kindness were so embedded in the DNA of the community that by the time baptism took place the initiates way of living was already engraved with the virtue of patience. Admittedly this is a general statement but the gist of the idea is that the practices of the Christian community were of supreme import not because they wanted to be social advocates but because it was born out of a deep gratitude for the gift of grace given through Jesus to continue the work Jesus started.

When I look at how we address conflict today in the church I notice a significant absence of patience. Don’t get me wrong I’m not advocating procrastination or avoidance (especially not an extension of injustice), but a patience that seeks to love the other (even one we see as enemy), to serve the other. It is a patience that desires reconciliation. Whole relationship is required for communion. I wonder what the church would look like if we practiced virtuous living and held our tongues until this way of living was a habit? Perhaps if we found ways to serve those we consider enemies our approach to the conflict would change. Unfortunately, we seemingly haven’t the will to embrace the other. Maybe the church needs the Spirit to pierce its heart with the loving grace of Christ to reform the will as Augustine argues.

What has become evident is that our Christian living has not become so habituated in us that our first response is one of patience. In a desire to keep control of what is familiar and known we lose sight of the mystery of God and the other. We attempt to simplify debates into yes or no decisions without considering the larger perspective of relationship. What I’m not saying is that we give up on moral and ethical living, but to reconsider what that actually is. In my reading of scripture  it appears to be that grace, redemption and salvation all focus upon the reconciliation of God to humans and humans to each other. The implications to this is that it is all about the relationship. It is about a new standing and grafting into a new family where God is father and we are his children. The parables of the lost underscore the essential nature of this new standing and the cost that was given to create it. So I guess I’m wondering when we the church will grasp this and begin again serving the other (least and enemy) out of love before we ever say a word. Then maybe we will begin to catch a glimpse of the kingdom we desire.