Power Postures

The church is at its best when it can easily see itself reflected in the stories of the scriptures, but it isn’t always that way. Sometimes the things that we face are alien enough to the scriptures that we struggle to perceive what it means for us to fulfill their calling. They were, after all, given to the church first of all in their own day, and were primarily meant to help those disciples find and follow the way of Jesus through their own world, which sometimes looks like ours, but not always. The witness they bear to the values and truths that could help those disciples are still critically important today, but we just have a bit of discerning to do if we’re going to be able to fruitfully unpack them. There still is a way of Jesus in our world, and it still anticipates the same climatic end as it did in the first century. However, the world has shifted itself around around us, and that leaves us with some work to do if we’re to fruitfully respond to the scriptures, or at least not become distorted by naive readings of them.

For example, take the church’s relative power position in its culture. Everything you read in the New Testament assumes a minority position in culture. The early church was faced with either apathy or antagonism from the dominant powers of its culture, seen as a fringe group with little clout. Everything you read in the New Testament assumes a minority position in culture.The writings of the N.T. give counsel and encouragement from the standpoint of that perspective, and here’s the rub—interpreting those text from a different perspective requires discernment.

Everything you read in the New Testament assumes a minority position in culture. Click To Tweet

For instance, one of the things required for that minority church to gain a hearing in the world that saw them as irrelevant or dangerous was boldness. The texts encourage that in a variety of ways, from the narrative depiction of the bold apostles in Acts 4 to Jesus’s polemic (a form of antagonistic teaching about opponents) in Matthew 10,  or in Paul’s letters (Phil 1:14). For a marginalized, unknown people, boldness is a critical trait. However, without care that same spirit of boldness in an empowered people who make up the majority of the culture can easily turn coercive, becoming oppressive and condescending.

Drift

The big catch is that this sort of perspective change happens very gradually, and we don’t generally realize we need to shift the way we read the texts sometimes until it’s decades—or even centuries—overdue. We don’t leap into power or out of it, we drift into and out of power—at least culturally, although the formal structures of power can change hands more quickly and make the change feel sudden. Because the change is gradual, we don’t realize that our former modes of interpretation have lost their appropriateness, and continue to use them far past their fruitfulness. You read the story from the perspective of the Israelites, and keep doing so long after you’ve transformed into Pharaoh. You read the story from Israel's perspective, and do so long after you transform into Pharaoh. Click To Tweet

That’s why reading scripture fruitfully requires not only diligence (careful and persistent work or effort), but vigilance (careful watch for possible danger or difficulties.) It’s important not just to keep an eye out for those ways that our own perspective, and the subtle changes of our posture in the world, can distort the way we read the text. Occasionally, that can lead us further away from the way of Jesus, rather than further along it. Vigilance leads us to notice and recognize ourselves in new and different ways in the text, this allows us to hear the Spirit’s call to repentance and continual conversion. Paying attention to not only our own context when we read the text, but our position and posture within our cultural context, thus allows the word to have not only a static message for us, but one that is dynamic and alive, always calling us forward.

Different

This past week’s sermon was from Luke 18, specifically the part where Jesus tells a story about a Pharisee and a tax collector who go to the temple to worship, and whose prayers evidence that they are miles apart—only not in the way that both of them seem to assume.

Scripture seems full of stories like this. Lately that theme has relentlessly pushed me toward the conviction that disciples of Jesus have to change the way we see our neighbors. Naming on the basis of categories like class, race, or any external factor just isn’t an option for us—Jesus seems bent on teaching us how to to see people differently.

One effect of this in my own life is that over time, God has been bringing me more and more friends whose lives aren’t mirror images of my own—they have different starting places, different twists and turns, different challenges and obstacles, and echo with different tones. All of that may not seem unusual to you, but—and here’s the big point—it is different to me. Much of my life, at times intentionally and at other times just by force of habit, has been lived in the midst of similarity— real, assumed, or pretended. My experience of church has been set in homogeneity; my brothers and sisters had often seemed to have had backgrounds that looked a lot like mine, and followed a similar plot.

I don’t think of myself as a closed person. Indeed, I’m often fascinated by hanging out with people from different backgrounds, who have different stories—but lately I’m realizing that these aren’t the same as having forged friendships. I wonder what it will take for me to develop that capacity.

I Just Wanna be a Sheep (Baaaa)—A Sermon on Receiving Shepherding

A couple of years ago a movie was released that I suppose a few have seen, although I have not and hopefully presume that not many of you have either. Indeed, it is astonishing that there was a market at all for Black Sheep. The film is set on a sheep farm in New Zealand, and tells the story of a farm where a bit of genetic engineering goes terribly awry, creating a new breed of—wait for it—Zombie Sheep. Yes, Zombie Sheep. The generally docile creatures turn bloodthirsty, devouring whatever humans they can find, and in true Zombie film fashion, develop the ability to turn some of the bitten farmers into mutant were-sheep—hideous creatures covered with wool, frenzied and ready to join the attacking horde-flock in their quest to devour the remaining humans.

This may well be a parable of the church.

While much attention continues to be given (appropriately) to training leaders and discussing the evolving model of elderships within churches, but we need to talk more about the other side of the relationship—what we sheep bring to our relationship with our shepherds. Like any relationship, we can’t work on only one side of the equation. For our model of shepherding to become truly effective, it can’t just be about the shepherds. We have to also develop our sense of what it means to receive shepherding. You can’t have good healthy shepherds in a church full of bloodthirsty zombie sheep.

Continue reading “I Just Wanna be a Sheep (Baaaa)—A Sermon on Receiving Shepherding”

Elders Part 1: The Value of Growing, Caring Shepherds

(Note: My faith tradition, the Churches of Christ, are organized into autonomous churches governed by multiple elders. In this series, I’m going to write some of my observations about how those elderships work, or don’t. If your faith tradition has another organizational practice, don’t let my language freak you out too much. I would imagine much of what is written here about our leadership structure would be useful across other church leadership structures.)

Elderships have a bad reputation, and sometimes for good reason. Churches with dysfunctional leadership teams get burned by terrible decision making, the failure to spiritually care for hurting people, and harsh judgments. Beyond that, there is a thick layer of communication problems that have built up over time, and elderships that have made good and wise decisions have often struggled to nail the follow-up and communication elements of leadership, intensifying distrust and creating distance between themselves and the congregations with which they have been entrusted.

One of the reasons leaving Little Rock was a tough decision for us was that Kelly and I were aware of how common those problems are, and also extremely comfortable with the leadership team at Pleasant Valley. Perfect they most certainly are not, but they are largely functional, and are committed to fulfilling their role in that body as well as they can.  They are extremely prayerful and wise.

That made it hard for us to leave, because we were afraid to trade in the blessings of that highly functional group of shepherds for the unknown element of wherever we would land! Frankly, it was terrifying to walk away from that group of shepherds who had shown us much love and blessed us with much wise counsel over the years. So far, those fears have been misplaced, and we’ve found the eldership here at Cedar Lane to be extremely supportive and helpful. I see in these men the same dedication to spiritual care that I loved and admired at PV, and a commitment to growing in all the various ways they show leadership throughout the church.

Leaders committed to their own personal growth and development into caring shepherds model these things for their churches. They foster two extremely important cultural climates within the church. The first is a culture of personal compassion, where people actively seek to care for other people. In a community dominated by this culture, people extend hospitality to their brothers and sisters, making space for them in their lives. They seek ways to help others carry their burdens, and take initiative to get involved with people on the level of their broken and hurting hearts.  When elders take compassion on as their primary job, it helps everybody else understand that this is really the church’s job. We create a culture of compassion.

Secondly, eldership have a unique opportunity to model a culture of growth for the church. When elders commit to  growing and demonstrate that they are in full pursuit of what it means for them to live as disciples, they foster those kinds of attitudes within the church. On the other hand, how many eldership out there are communicating, intentionally or not, that their own lives as disciples is a fixed entity? How many are communicating that discipleship is about being stable and static? Growth is essential to our lives as disciples, it is a fundamental part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus—somebody that is learning from him what it means to live in the kingdom of God. Elders committed to their own growth as disciples create an expectation within the church that we are all growing, that discipleship is an active, ongoing process.

These two factors could make a tremendous difference in churches across the country. I’ve been in two churches where it already is making a difference. And I know that those two elderships are just getting started.

The Destructive Mentalities of a Disengaged Church

In this series of posts, I’ve been writing about the concept of church mentalities, and particularly the sorts of mentalities that need to be developed if the church is to be meaningfully engaged with the local community. As painful as it may be, we must recognize that we aren’t developing those mentalities in anything like a vacuum.  There is no truly clean slate.   Rather, we are simultaneously developing one set of mentalities while working to counter destructive mentalities already exerting influence.  Mentalities destructive to the church’s purposes are often thoroughly entrenched within the church for a variety of reasons in the personal histories of church members.  Any of the potential purposes the Church might take on faces this process of reconstructing the proper mentalities, but here I’m specifically interested in our particular purpose of engagement with the surrounding community and its problems, and what mentalities potentially exist that would be counterproductive to that purpose. Below is my initial list of these potential destructive mentalities that threaten to keep churches disengaged. Truthfully, some of them are foils, but I think others ring true and are closer to home than I like to admit.

1. Service is a painful discipline. You just have to suffer through it, and force yourself to get it done. If it was fun, it wouldn’t be service.

2. We serve because we get something out of it.  Service is great for the high school kids’ college applications, our personal resumes, our social lives, and our reputations (particularly in the church). Not to mention the fact that God will someday reward us if we serve!

3. We have what we have because of our hard work. It is God’s way of blessing us for doing things the right way, so that we can enjoy the things he gives us.  We don’t owe anything to anybody, really.

4. Evangelism is about helping people obtain forgiveness. Conversion is infinitely more important than “discipleship”. The first steps of the Christian journey are by far the most important, because they involve accepting God’s forgiveness—if people are motionless after that, at least they won’t be going to hell.

5. We are a peaceful and stable church. This is how we’ve grown! When we take new initiatives, we threaten what we’ve spent years building, and threaten the very peace which brought people to our church in the first place.

6. The church is primarily interested in saving souls. Everything else we might do is a vehicle towards that end. We can judge our success by the number of conversions, and if we don’t see many of those, that we can at least hope that we have planted the seed of the gospel in their mind so that it will eventually bear fruit.

7. Service is a special gift of some christians. It’s great that god has given some people such servant hearts.  It’s the job of the rest of the church to encourage and support those people.

8. We want to support our people in service. The best (or only) candidate for a partner is the one who thinks like we do, talks like we do, and practices like we do.

9. Most people’s problems are a result of their own sin. If they hadn’t made some bad decisions, they wouldn’t need our help.  In fact, most people asking for help are probably abusing the system. They’ll probably go to hell even more because of that.

10. Commonality leads to friendship. Our best friends are people with whom I have common interests, common ideas, and a similar background. In fact, we’ve probably already been friends for a while.

11. It’s us against the world. The world is full of so much corruption that it’s better to isolate ourselves from it, and make sure not to associate ourselves with evil of any kind.

In some ways these might stand as opposites of the mentalities that encourage community engagement, so that they constitute poles on the opposite side of a spectrum. Alternatively, we might understand these mentalities as threads within the tapestry that makes up our mindsets as individuals and as a group with a corporate identity. Within that tapestry are threads of many different hues, some of which are brighter, some are darker.  In other words, some of these darker threads might exists alongside lighter threads, and it is a blending of light and dark threads of many colors that influences our thoughts, actions, feelings, and words in particular moments and over time. Part of our work in creating a good “working” tapestry is developing positive mentalities, in other words, weaving lighter strands into the fabric.  On the other hand, there may be darker threads that need to be pulled, removed from the tapestry.

I suspect these destructive mentalities might be more controversial than the positive set.  I’m not sure I even agree with how negative a couple of them are. I would very much welcome your comments, whether in agreement or civil dissent.  Help me think.

Mentalities for a Church Engaging the Community

In part one of this series, I talked about how complicated it can be to develop a particular set of mentalities within the church.  That’s not all that helpful without some concrete examples of what we mean by mentalities.

The church here at Cedar Lane (Tullahoma, TN) is working to become more engaged with the community, so here is a working set of mentalities that I’m teasing out as part of that transition.  They are not in any particular order yet.

1. We love to serve people. It’s not a burden to us, something we do reluctantly out of guilt.  We find joy in serving other people, and the more we do it, the more we love to do it.  We anticipate having a great time while we serve.

2. Service is a sacred duty. Although we could never repay the gift of Christ’s sacrifice, we receive his actions both as gift and lesson.  The cross is both the means and the purpose of our redemption, a binding path for us to follow if we are to honor our commitment as disciples of Jesus. The Lord bids us honor him by serving our neighbor.

3. Our lives are not our own. Everything that we are, do, and possess is conditioned by the Lordship of Jesus Christ over us. There is no question of convenience or desire.

4. Evangelism is the invitation to participate in the kingdom of God. This necessarily involves the invitation to serve. We don’t view ourselves as servants and others simply as recipients of our service, but everyone as having potential for service in the community.

5.  We are a “Servant” church. It is part of our corporate identity as a people.  Theologically, this is rooted in the idea that the church is the physical representation of Christ on earth today.  In as much as we recognize from scripture that Christ is “servant”, we work to fulfilling that identity in our body of believers.  It is part of who we are.

6.  Whenever we fight against darkness/brokenness, we fight with and for God. Darkness shows up in the world in thousands of different forms. Family failure, financial despair, emotional imbalance and the grief of life unfulfilled are all expressions of evil.  The mission of the church in the world is not just to get people to accept Jesus in order to gain forgiveness in preparation for their death.  Rather, the church exists to embody the God who works to restore and heal his broken creation.

7.  Everyone can serve. Everyone.  Absolutely everyone has a way of fighting darkness in the world.

8.  We want to help people help people. When we see someone taking initiative to push back against darkness somewhere, we don’t immediately suspect their motives, and we don’t jump into criticisms.  Our first reaction is to respect their initiative and passion.  What might they need in support?  Encouragement? Advice? Freedom or space?

9. We do not judge the people we serve. We recognize that before God we have our own problems, and our own sins.  We rely on the forgiveness of God, and are compelled to give what we expect to receive.  We relish opportunities to be gracious and merciful. We know we don’t occupy the high ground, we don’t have a status that allows us to stand in judgement over other people.

10. Service leads to friendship. Our normal thinking about status—that we are superior to others—is an illusion that stands as a fundamental barrier to relationships.  When we serve, he voluntarily dispel that illusion, and open up the possibilities for new relationships. We also deepen the friendships with the people we serve with, so that all the friendships of the church are built upon the identity of service and the practices of service.

11. We want to be great neighbors. Our church is planted within a particular community, and God calls us to be good neighbors to that community.  We are a part of our community, and don’t exist in isolation from the community and its problems.  Jesus teaches us how to be good neighbors, how to interact with the people with whom we share our city.

There’s my initial list.  I hope it’s useful in defining what I mean by strategic “mentalities”.  I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments below regarding what kinds of mentalities might additionally be helpful in making our transition, as well as how the ones I’ve listed strike you.  How present do you think these mentalities are? Are they sound theologically?

The next post in this series will address common destructive mentalities. I’d welcome comments ahead of that post as well!