Thursday, July 11, 2013

A Message of Release

In Luke 4, following His trial in the desert, Jesus returns to His hometown of Nazareth.  While He is home, Jesus attends the weekly synagogue service, something it seems He did on a regular basis.  As such, He is asked to read from that week’s assigned text and provide a teaching on the meaning of the text.  In the text for his sermon, Jesus links Isaiah 61:1-2 with Isaiah 58:6.  Together these passages herald the coming of the Messiah, the one who will “bring good news to the poor.”  The poor in Luke’s Gospel are not only those who are poor financially but also those who poor in spirit.  Jesus says that He will overturn the social status of the poor and redefine the term as a cultural term rather than an economic term.[1]  The Messiah will not only “bring good news to the poor,” He will also “proclaim release to the captives.”  Later, in Luke 5:20, Jesus heals a paralyzed man by proclaiming that the man’s sins have been forgiven.  The Greek word from which we get “forgive” can also mean “release.  Therefore, Jesus literally released this man from his sins!  When He came “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” Jesus came to proclaim a message of forgiveness and release from sin.

You may be wondering why I offer these thoughts from Luke 4.  Well, on one hand, I am teaching a summer class on Luke and Luke 4 was today’s reading.  Preaching and teaching, after all, finds its genesis in our own daily disciplines.  On the other hand, this reading causes me to stop and reflect on what message I offer to people each week in my preaching and teaching.  The air in religious circles is always thick with debates and discussions.  The battles that are waged in pulpits across the country today over the theological and political definition of marriage or the role of women in church leadership are not new topics, just this week’s or this year’s topic.  These are important theological and political issues that church-folk need to address.  However, let us not get so bogged down in counting how many angels can stand on the head of a pin that we forget to “bring good news to the poor” and “proclaim release to the captives.”  There is a time and place for defining the particulars of our doctrines and practices.  We should and must do so if we are to consider ourselves pious (i.e., practicing) Christians.  Yet, let us not forget our mission.  For as long as there is breath in our lungs, our mission is to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” which means bringing “good news to the poor” and proclaiming “release to the captives.”

[1]Joel B. Green, The Theology of the Gospel of Luke, New Testament Theology (Cambridge, UK/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 81-82. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Measuring Effectiveness

Over the weekend, a friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook that brought back some memories.  When I was in college, I launched and directed a Christian theatre troupe that traveled to youth rallies, retreats, camps, and even Sunday night devotionals to talk about our faith through sketches.  It was great fun, and an early crucible for me to learn about leadership.  This particular picture was taken 15 September 2001 at a congregation just outside Pittsburg.  The congregation had invited us to perform for a small youth rally.  However, if you noticed the date, the nation was in a moment of crisis.  The question was raised of whether we should go, given the circumstances.  I decided that we should go, and I asked who wanted to come.  It was a difficult decision, one that I really struggled with both before going and after returning.  We went and did our thing, having a great time in the process.  Also, about a week later, we received word that some teenagers who had been at that rally had decided to become Christians afterwards.  In the end, it was a missional win.

As I looked at the picture and reminisced over that particular trip, I started thinking about how we define effectiveness in ministry.  What defines a “win”?  How do we measure “success” in ministry?  For all practical purposes, this particular trip was questionable.  We traveled from Searcy, Arkansas, to Pittsburg during a national crisis when travel was being discouraged.  As I mentioned, it was a small rally.  The recruiting quotient was really low.  Only a few teenagers accepted Christ’s offer of salvation and were baptized, and even this was after the rally.  Was this trip “effective”?  Was this trip “successful”?  I know many who would say that we wasted our time going.  (In fact, another theatre troupe has turned the rally down, noting that it was “too small” for them to perform at.)  Yet, the Gospel was proclaimed and some accepted the call.  Why can that not be enough success for the Church?

I spent four years working as a hospital chaplain.  During that time, I came to the conclusion that no area of ministry is more emotionally, psychologically and spiritually challenging than chaplaincy.  During my first year, I was the pediatric chaplain, serving the Pediatric ICU and outpatient pediatric oncology unit.  Yeah.  The next three years, I spent working in the hospital’s Emergency Room.  Yeah.  My days were simple: Visit and pray with as many people as you can; complete your consults; make your unit meetings.  My days were difficult: Visit and pray with as many people as you can; complete your consults; make your meetings.  A “win” in chaplaincy is not being thrown out of a room.  In four years, I think that happened twice.  The question never was how people had I visited; it was had God been present to those in crisis.  And for that person or that family, being present and offering a prayer was, often, enough.

I have been in full-time ministry since 2001 (1997, if you count the theatre troupe).  Although I have done some consulting, I have yet to be invited to headline a national conference, although I speak at 2-3 conferences a year.  I have yet to serve a congregation larger than 200, unless you count those where I did my internships.  On paper, I would judged by many to be an ineffective and unsuccessful minister.  Yet, Jesus did not call us to build big churches.  He called us to “go” and “teach” and “pray” and “forgive” and “baptize” and “make disciples,” and leave the kingdom-building up to Him, His Father, and the Spirit.  To that end, I think I have been effective because I am fighting the good fight, running the race, and keeping the faith.  And so are you.  Brother and sister in ministry, I hope you find this encouraging.  Grace and peace.   

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Your Church: Monument, Museum, or Mission?

Note: I realize that it has been some time since I have posted.  The goal of the plate-spinning trick is to make sure that the audience concentrates on the plates in the foreground and that they are still spinning at the end of the performance.  Over the past couple of months, this blog has been one of the background plates.  This is not an apology, merely a statement.

I woke up to a thought this morning: “Monument, museum, or mission?  Which best describes my congregation?”  I have traveled professionally more this year thus far to conferences, speaking engagements and consulting appointments than I have ever before.  And the number one question that I have been asked is what my vision is for the local congregation.  As Christians, we know that the Church will continue through God’s grace and the Spirit’s guidance. 

However that does not mean that local congregations are automatically going to continue opening their doors each week.  Now, most of these people who have asked to pick my brain assumed that I would automatically herald the bountiful blessings of the mega-church movement, validating that they—and only they—are the answer to the Church’s future.  “Bigger is better and better is forever,” I heard one leader say in a consulting session.  Yet, the longer that I work with congregations and the more research that I read, the less and less convinced I am that megas are the answer.  If you will hold one for a moment, let me explain what I mean.

I am not saying that mega-churches are unnecessary.  I think they were an evangelism trend that, in many cases, has seen its day.  However, they are here to stay.  What I am saying is that building a massive religiously-affiliated recreation complex in the middle of a cornfield in Indiana is not the answer.  What is the answer?  Simple: “Go, find someone who does not know about God, and tell them.  Teach them, pray with them, minister to them, baptize them, and disciple them to go and do likewise” (my paraphrase of Matthew 28:18-20).  The answer to unlocking the future of the local congregation is mission!

Think about your congregation for a moment: How would you describe it?  What goes on from Sunday to Sunday?  What values does your congregation hold?  What is the institutional ethic that powers your congregation?  Earlier this summer, my family and I drove to San Diego for vacation (they are still there).  Along the way, we saw a few monuments, some museums, and a mission or two.  Here is how they relate to the local congregation:
  •  Monument—The congregation is large, large enough to attract people simply with its presence.  It did not start that way, yet neither did the Lincoln Monument.  And neither did the story behind the monument.  It is open certain times during the week, inviting passersby and season-pass holders to come in and hear again the monument’s tale: “We started off small.  But we decided to reach out to the community, so we built a gym.  Then we added (a food pantry, daycare, outreach clinic, etc.).  And before you knew it, we built this big wonderful building!  Enjoy the coffee shop, and make sure you buy a CD or book from the gift shop on your way out.”  Like all monuments, some congregations have become testaments to the great things we did.  Yet they do not look to the future.
  • Museum—This congregation comes in all sizes.  Yet the defining mark of a “museum” congregation is that it is locked in the past.  Museums tells story, whereas monuments are simply for show.  Museums invite people to learn history, and perhaps be inspired to retell the story to someone else.  Living museums, like the Mormon Battalion in San Diego, are great at this.  “Museum” congregations have not experienced change in years, opting to stay locked into the “glory years” of their history and acting as if nothing has changed around them.  Fewer and fewer people come, dust collects in the corner, and the symbols become tarnished.  Yet the faithful continue to gather each week to retell their story in the hopes that someone new might be impressed enough by the show to drop a coin or two in the collection plate.
  • Mission—Whether they were in Ireland or San Antonio, missions existed for one reason: to serve as a central location for evangelism.  The monks and preachers would find their way to the mission, receive their “marching orders,” then go out and proclaim the Gospel to all they could find.  Today, “mission” congregations are not Sunday-only operations like “museum” congregations.  Nor are they like “monument” congregations where people must come to the building to take advantage of the membership perks.  “Mission” congregations are active and actively involved in their community.  For example, small groups are popular in “monument” congregations.  However, they have become focused almost primarily on fellowship.  The reason is because fellowship and community have been sacrificed on the altar of “bigger is better.”  Yet, “mission” congregations continue to effectively use small groups as evangelistic and discipleship tools because unchurched people are not going “to church” on Sundays.  Yet, they will meet at a pizza buffet or burger joint on Thursday night because they have to eat.  In short, “mission” congregations do not exist for the sake of an expansion project or to entertain the tourists.  They exist to proclaim the Story to as many people as possible.
So, which type of congregation best describes the one you attend?  Now, let me make something clear: Every congregation should be a “mission” congregation, regardless of size.  Smaller congregations are actually better-equipped to be “mission” congregations, yet that does not mean that mega-churches cannot be.  The problem is that smaller congregations operate out of a desperate need to stay open and mega-churches operate out of a consumerist mentality.  Yet both can and should be “mission” congregations.  The answer to whether we are a “mission” congregation is found in this question: Where is our focus?  Is it in here, or is it out there?