We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Friday, September 30, 2011

Fellowship (xx)

FPC, Lowville, NY
This is the twentieth posting in this series working on what it means to be a church, based on eight criteria the Mars Hill Church uses to define its branch congregations as churches. The series began (here).  We turn now to the seventh criterion, which reads, "The church is a loving community that devotes itself to fellowship."

Most churches recognize the importance of fellowship although not all of them are very good at it.  For many people, however, the church family is an important part of their personal and social life as well as (often even more than) their spiritual life.  A generally healthy church, in any event, cares for its own flock.

Many years ago, a church history text I was using for a course on early church history at the McGilvary Faculty of Theology, Chiang Mai, Thailand, (where I taught an occasional course) noted a number of factors that led to the rapid growth of the church in the Roman Empire.  Apart from the usual factors of good communications and the zeal of the early Christians, two other factors were central and left a lasting impression on me.  One factor was the person of Christ.  From the beginning he was spiritually attractive especially to the urban underclass but even among the wealthy.  His love, gentleness, and humility stood in stark contrast to the gods and prophets of other religions in the empire.

The other factor was the quality of congregational life in the early house churches, which popped up like mushrooms all over the place.  People became Christian because of Christ and because of the love Christians showed each other.  The earliest church was mostly a movement with little organization, no manuals of operations, and no agencies to carry out the work of the church.  It mostly grew of its own inner power, which centered on Christ and the love his disciples felt for each other.  In spite of the persecution, which could be intense at times, it was better to be part of a church than not.  The church grew in important measure because of its fellowship, which was augmented by evangelism.

It's a lesson we do well to remember even now.  A church can be large, wealthy, and well-known, but it is only as strong as the strength of its fellowship.  Amen.

Suddenly It's a Stable

Last April, I became responsible for developing and managing the website for First Presbyterian Church, Lowville, NY, where I serve as pastor. As we developed the website, I decided that it was time to start blogging and Rom Phra Khun and Rom Phra Khun Reviews are the result. We were fortunate to work with Mr. Brad Zehr, who designed and hosts the FPC website, and I decided that it would be wise to transfer my personal website, herbswanson.com to Brad's care as well. Having done that, I'm now in the process of slowly, slowy reformatting and simplifying the website.  Most recently, I volunteered to develop and manage a website for the Lay Academy of Utica Presbytery, again with Brad Zehr's assistance. So, suddenly, I'm running a stable!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Goals & Realities (xix)

FPC, Lowville, NY
This is the nineteenth posting in a series working on what it means to be a church, based on eight criteria the Mars Hill Church uses to define its branch congregations as churches. The series began (here).  Before we turn to the seventh criterion in the Mars Hill list, I would like to return one more time to a concern I have with the wording of several of the criteria.  As I've noted already a couple of times in this series, the Mars Hill criteria describe the church in its "pure" state.  In fact, most of the eight criteria describe something that does not exist.  Real churches in the real world are not made up only of regenerated believers.  Their leadership is not uniformly competent and qualified.  Real-life congregations are only partially unified under the Spirit, at best.  Sometimes, they can be terribly disunited.  And so forth through the list.

Thus, the seventh criterion reads, "The church is a loving community that devotes itself to fellowship."  In our dreams.  To be fair, there are some impressively loving people in most every church, and experienced church people can think back to times when their church showed real love for someone in need.  We have seen parishioners do things for other members of their congregation have taken our breath away.  That, sadly, is not all we have seen.  I remember an experienced restaurant server once telling me that she tried to avoid working Sunday noons because of the "church crowd."  They are demanding and give lousy tips.  Again, to be fair not all of us are like that—but some of us are.  It's a trivial illustration of a serious point: churches are not perfect embodiments of the Kingdom and sometimes they are far, far from that dream.

Local churches seek to be even struggle to be unified under the Spirit (Criteria #5), holy (#6), loving (#7), and visibly evangelistic (#8).  These are goals, visions, and measures of every church's limitations.  It is vitally important, in sum, that we acknowledge the fact that the church described in these criteria does not exist, otherwise we will become discouraged by and even bitter at the imperfections we find in actual churches.  It is our goal and dream to become something like these criteria.  We believe that God in Christ through the work of the Spirit is gently, persistently pulling us forward toward our goals and dreams.  But, we're a long way for the goal line when in it comes to actually being the church of our prayers and dreams.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Recommended Reading

Churches are in decline all across our nation, and a report just released by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research entitled, "A Decade of Change in American Congregations 2000 – 2010," indicates that the decline is accelerating.  CNN provides an overview of the report in a news posting entitled, "A rough decade for American congregations." Both the news article and the larger report are worth reading.  The executive summary of the report describes its contents in this way:
Conducted in 2000, 2005, 2008 and 2010, the FACT series shows that the decade brought: A continued increase in innovative, adaptive worship; A surprisingly rapid adoption of electronic technologies; A dramatic increase in racial/ethnic congregations, many for immigrant groups; A general increase in the breadth of both member-oriented and mission-oriented programs.
It also gave witness to: An increase in connection across faith traditions; A twist in the historical pattern of religious involvement in support of the electoral process.
But the decade also saw: A steep drop in financial health; Continuing high levels of conflict;
Aging memberships.
The net, overall result: Fewer persons in the pews; Decreasing spiritual vitality.

One "interesting" fact contained in the Hartford report is that among the major Christian groups in the U.S. today, Presbyterian churches show the highest average age of congregations.  Fully 62% of Presbyterians are 65 years old or older.  In contrast, only 4% of Mormons are 65 or older.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

We Helped You Get Rich

"I hear all this, 'well, this is class warfare, this is whatever'. No. There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear:

"You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did."

Elizabeth Warren
Candidate for the U.S. Senate, Massachusetts

Reconciliation (xviii)

FPC, Lowville, NY
This is the eightteenth posting in a series working on what it means to be a church, based on eight criteria the Mars Hill Church uses to define its branch congregations as churches. The series began (here).  We are still on the sixth criterion in the Mars Hill list of criteria for being a church, which is, "The church is a holy people. When they sin, they repent of their sin. If [a professing Christian] should fail to repent, the church and its leaders lovingly enact biblical church discipline in hopes of bringing the sinner to repentance and to a reconciled relationship with God and his people."

The goal of repentance and of church discipline, according to the Mars Hills criteria, is reconciliation. In the 1960s, the then United Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (UPCUSA) wrote a new confession of faith, The Confession of 1967, which restated the Christian faith for a turbulent era in American history.  The theme of the confession is reconciliation, which it describes as both the work of Christ and the particular need of humanity in the 1960s.  The confession goes on to state:
"In Jesus Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself. Jesus Christ is God with humankind. He is the eternal Son of the Father, who became human and lived among us to fulfill the work of reconciliation. He is present in the church by the power of the Holy Spirit to continue and complete his mission. This work of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the foundation of all confessional statements about God, humanity and the world. Therefore, the church calls all people to be reconciled to God and to one another." (Confession of 1967, 9.07)
While the confession doesn't define reconciliation as such, in a section entitled "Reconciliation in Society," it describes reconciliation as meaning in the 1960s the overcoming of racism and discrimination, the expansion of international understanding and cooperation, the end of poverty, the end of sexual exploitation, and the renewal of family life.  Reconciliation brings down barriers.  It fosters justice.  It builds a new order, which fulfills God's creative intentions for humanity.  And, as the Mars Hill criteria suggest, it is the experience of individual Christians and congregations in their walk of faith.  It is an important part of what we are all about.  Amen.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Repentance, Discipline, and the Church (xvii)

FPC, Lowville, NY
This is the seventeenth posting in a series working on what it means to be a church, based on eight criteria the Mars Hill Church uses to define its branch congregations as churches. The series began (here). We are still on the sixth criterion, which is, "The church is a holy people. When they sin, they repent of their sin. If [a professing Christian] should fail to repent, the church and its leaders lovingly enact biblical church discipline in hopes of bringing the sinner to repentance and to a reconciled relationship with God and his people."

A couple of observations: first, a holy people evidently can still sin. Their holiness is preserved or marked by the fact that when they do so they repent. Thus, repentance is an important characteristic of the church; local churches can't preserve their identity as churches without it. Although the so-called mainline or ecumenical churches don't normally emphasize the importance of repentance to this extent, it is also true in their congregations that the ability to give and accept forgiveness is extremely important. People, including church leaders including (especially) pastors, make mistakes and need to be able to ask for forgiveness when they do; equally important that have to be able to give forgiveness as well. (I should note that I've actually expanded on the idea of repentance, which in and of itself is only a feeling of remorse over having done something wrong. Having felt repentant, we need to act on our feeling, which leads us to seeking forgiveness).

Second, this sixth criterion points to the idea of church discipline and its role in preserving the holiness (purity) of the church. From the Reformation until the early 20th century, church discipline was a dominant mark of local churches. The sessions of Presbyterian churches, thus, regularly examined errant members and handed down punishments up to and including excommunication. Such things still happen, but they are rare, and the whole notion in the Presbyterian Church (USA) of our sessions, presbyteries, synods, and the general assembly functioning as "judicatories" has fallen into disfavor. The new PC(USA) Form of Government now refers to these bodies as "councils" rather than judicatories.

The need for churches to exercise disciple, however, continues to be significant.  Pastors and lay leaders from time to time continue to behave in ways that are hurtful to the "peace, unity, and purity" of the church.  While we no longer haul members before the session for personal moral lapses, it is important for the health of a church that it maintain a disciplined congregational life—i.e. that conflict is resolved in a Christ-like manner, that no one person or group dominates the church, and that hurtful behaviors are addressed rather than overlooked.  The goal of church discipline today is not the preservation of orderliness or conformity so much as the establishment of peace, a very different thing and much harder to attain or even, often enough, to gauge.

The True State of Women's Sports

Regular readers of Rom Phra Khun will have figured out by now that I am still a fan of Minnesota sports even though I haven't lived in Minnesota for nearly 50 years.  It is really, really hard to kick some habits!  In any event, being a Minnesota fan there's something I don't quite understand.  This weekend (Sept. 24-25) the Minnesota Gophers football team (men's football) was beaten by North Dakota State in convincing fashion—North Dakota State!  The Vikings (men's football) led the Detroit Lions 20 to zip at half-time and managed to lose in overtime 26-23.  The Minnesota Twins (men's baseball) managed to win their third game in their last 21 tries (that's embarrassing!).

Meanwhile the Minnesota Lynx (women's basketball) pounded Phoenix, 103-86, to advance to the WNBA championship. They never did that before. And 103 points in a game isn't all that usual in the WNBA.

Now, here's the thing I don't get (or, maybe I do).  The Minneapolis Star Tribune website buried the Lynx story at the bottom of its main sports page (here)—below the Gophers, the Vikings, and can you believe it even below the hapless, pathetic Twins.  You would think that the Lynx victory today would be emblazoned in 50 point headlines at the top of the page.  But, nope.  It's at the bottom.  Minnesota sports fans are starved for athletic success at the state level—and here's a pro basketball team going to the finals!  -- Oh, I forgot, it's just women's basketball.

Go Lynx!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Preserving Holiness (xvi)

FPC, Lowville, NY
This is the sixteenth posting in a series working on what it means to be a church, based on eight criteria the Mars Hill Church uses to define its branch congregations as churches. The series began (here).

We move on to consider the sixth criterion in the Mars Hill list of criteria for being a church, which is, "The church is a holy people. When they sin, they repent of their sin. If [a professing Christian] should fail to repent, the church and its leaders lovingly enact biblical church discipline in hopes of bringing the sinner to repentance and to a reconciled relationship with God and his people."

A good deal depends here on what is meant by "holiness," but this sixth criterion poses the same problem that I raised concerning the first criterion (here), which reads, ""The church is made up of regenerated believers in Jesus." By saying that the church is a body of "regenerated believers" and is "a holy people." we state something that is simply not true and can lead to serious misunderstandings regarding the brokenness of every church that ever there was or that exists today. Holiness generally means in biblical terms to be set apart from the world at large, which unfortunately is only partially true in even the best of cases. Our constant struggle in every church is that for all of our good intentions and spiritual experiences we still act too much like everybody else. We are sadly incomplete and not very faithful versions of God's ongoing creation of humanity. We should be set apart, but we aren't. This is not to say that churches don't do a lot of good and sometimes show themselves to be loving, concerned, and faithful. The thing we know that at best we are only partially these things.

Now, it is true that some classes of churches do pretty much separate themselves from the rest of society to one degree or another.  Their members mostly listen to "Christian music," read "Christian books," visit "Christian websites," send their kids to "Christian schools," and mostly socialize with other members of their churches.  Their members live in a Christian ghetto of sorts.  That, however, is not what the Bible has in mind when it calls on Jesus' followers to be separate from the world.  Biblical "holiness," or separateness, is a quality of life that reflects Christ and gives worship to the one true God.  It is open to the promptings of the Spirit.  Indeed, one could argue that for most practicing Christians God's call is to live in the world and not in a religious ghetto—excepting only those who live in monastic communities.

We are, in sum, to be in but not of the world, as the saying goes.  It is a hard line to walk.  It is our burden that we don't walk it better.  It is our hope that God is a God of mercy quietly, persistently recreating us as a new people.  Amen.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Unnecessary Assumptions

Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr. opened a recent editorial (here) on The Christian Post website with the following statement,
The affirmation of biblical inerrancy is nothing more, and nothing less, than the affirmation of the Bible’s total truthfulness and trustworthiness. The assertion of the Bible’s inerrancy - that the Bible is “free from all falsehood or mistake” - is an essential safeguard for the Bible’s authority as the very Word of God in written form. The reason for this should be clear: To affirm anything short of inerrancy is to allow that the Bible does contain falsehoods or mistakes.
His goes on in the editorial to quote the "Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy," which states that,
The authority of Scripture is a key issue for the Christian Church in this and every age. Those who profess faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are called to show the reality of their discipleship by humbly and faithfully obeying God’s written Word. To stray from Scripture in faith or conduct is disloyalty to our Master. Recognition of the total truth and trustworthiness of Holy Scripture is essential to a full grasp and adequate confession of its authority.
The underlying assumption is that in order for the Bible to be authoritative it must be absolutely true, absolutely without blemish, and absolutely without error.  It cannot contain even one single falsehood or mistake because, if it does, then its authority is undermined.  Ostensibly, this assumption is based on the nature of God.  God is perfect.  The Bible is God's Word.  Therefore, the Bible must be perfect.  But, here again there is an underlying assumption: since God is God, God must be perfect, that is all-knowing (omniscient), all-powerful (omnipotent), and all-containing (omnipresent).

As someone who tries to be faithful to Christ, I simply don't buy the assumption.  It's a human, philosophical assumption that one can accept or reject as a philosophy.  I don't accept it because, first, it tends to replace Christ, the Word (John 1) with the Bible, which is a form of idolatry.  Second, those who profess biblical inerrancy have a history of using the Bible as a tool for oppression.  Before the Civil War, southern clergy used the Bible to "prove" the inferiority of black slaves and that slavery itself was part of God's plan.  More recently, biblical literalists have used it to imprison women in second-class citizenship in the church.  Today, they use inerrant scripture to prove that homosexuality is a sin.  These are not Christ-like views.  And in each case, those holding them have to cherry-pick a few biblical passages and then interpret them in ways that generally are out of context.

Third, the assumption itself is simply not necessary.  One can humbly submit oneself to the core teachings of the Bible without believing that it is all perfect.  We can seek to live our lives as Christ taught us in scripture to live them without thinking that the Bible is inerrant.  The thing is, in the Christian tradition, we are firmly convinced that the Holy Spirit works through imperfect humans calling us to faith.  The Spirit was alive in the early church although it was far from perfect.  The Spirit spoke through Peter, Paul, and the other apostles even though none of them were even remotely perfect.  Indeed, Christ himself was a real, physical person with a human body that was decaying day by day, as all of our bodies do.  He was an imperfect human—and the Son of God.  By the same token, we call the church "the body of Christ," and no one ever accused it of perfection.  Still, the Spirit is alive in churches.  As best as I can understand it,  God works with and through the imperfect, calling us forward.

The authority of scripture need not lie, then, in a philosophical perfection that it does not have.  It is a very human document, filled with the stories and the faith of real people who were clearly far from perfection.  It's authority, rather, lies in its witness to the way in which God is actively Present in human history calling us forward to Something New.  Thus, the story of the Exodus is an amazingly inspiring story, which remains powerful in our day—a vision of justice and freedom.  The occupation of Palestine by the Hebrews, well not so much.  It's a story of genocide and race war that we need to see  as being something that ancient folks might have found inspiring, but in the light of Christ we don't.

In the end, it is simply a fact that is clear from the writings of the biblical literalists themselves.  Biblical literalism is all too often used as a cover for personal opinions and prejudices, which undermine the otherwise good intentions of faithful Christians who believe in a perfect Bible.  You see, even if the Bible were perfect, we humans always find ways to taint and tarnish anything, including the Bible.  Even if the Bible were perfect, we simply cannot read it or live it perfectly.  The problem is not, ultimately, the Bible.  It is us.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Fruit of the Spirit (xv)

FPC, Lowville, NY
This is the fifteenth posting in a series working on what it means to be a church, based on eight criteria the Mars Hill Church uses to define its branch congregations as churches. The series began (here). We continue to consider the fifth criterion in the Mars Hill list of criteria for being a church, which is, "The church is unified by God the Holy Spirit."

In Galatians 5:16-26, Paul describes "the fruit of the Spirit" both negatively and positively. Verses 22-23 are among the most well-known verses of the Bible and enumerate nine ways in which the Spirit is at work in the world. We believe that wherever we find any of these nine qualities evident, the Spirit is working for the building of God's peaceable, loving, and inclusive Kingdom. It's interesting that "unity" isn't on the list.  However, if we consider Paul's list of things the fruit of the Spirit is not, then we find that , among other things, it is not enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, dissensions, factions, and envy (5:20-21), which is to say that the Spirit does inspire unity.  Paul, among other things, does call on his Christian readers to practice unity.

That being said, it seems that Mars Hill's fifth criterion's emphasis on unity is too narrowly constructed considering how much more the Spirit seeks to weave into our lives than just unity.  I'd like to suggest that we might broaden number five to read something like, "The church is marked by the work of God the Holy Spirit."  Or, maybe, "The church, as the seed of God's kingdom, is constantly being reconstructed by the Holy Spirit in ways that lead to love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)"  Indeed, focusing on unity alone can almost seem like a concern to maintain control over the church; that is, the Spirit keeps people from behaving or thinking in ways that might sow discord in the church.  That may be the case generally—depending on what we mean by discord—but sometimes the Spirit actually works by creating discord and conflict in a church where "bad" behaviors such as tyranny, arrogance, quarrels, and so forth are all too evident.  In their calls for justice and a return to God, for example, the prophets of the Old Testament frequently sowed discord and broke rather than preserved the unity of God's people.

In sum, the Spirit works on hearts and minds to the end that we all—not just church folks—might experience the fruit of the Spirit in our own lives. Our task in the church is to be as responsive as we can to that work and then to share its fruit with others.  Amen.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Unity in the Spirit (xiv)

FPC, Lowville, NY
This is the fourteenth posting in a series working on what it means to be a church, based on eight criteria the Mars Hill Church uses to define its branch congregations as churches. The series began (here).

We turn now to the fifth criterion in the Mars Hill list of criteria for being a church, which is, "The church is unified by God the Holy Spirit."  As an aside, it is interesting that the Mars Hill criteria don't directly mention the work of God the Father and God the Son but does mention the work of God the Holy Spirit and equates that work with the unity of the church.  It might be worthwhile to pause for a moment to consider the nature of the Trinity and its relationship to the church.

Somewhere in my reading recently, there was the idea that in fact each person (or face) of the Trinity equally performs all of the works of the Godhead.  We think of God the Father as creator, but it is equally true that the Son and the Spirit are "agents" of creation.  [It's for this reason that I hesitate to use some other term for the First Person of the Trinity than "Father."  While I recognize the danger in attributing gender to the First Person, it is not helpful to use some attribute to name the Father as all of the Father's attributes are attributes of the Son and the Spirit as well.]  Thus, it would be equally true to say that, "The church is unified by God the Father," or that, "The church is unified by God the Son."

Still, it is fine to go with the statement as it stands and to recognize that God the Holy Spirit inspires churches to experience unity.  We should also recognize, however, that "unity" is not "conformity."  This is an important distinction.  The tendency is for like people to worship together in their own church, which in America has led to a long tradition of ethnic churches.  The tendency is also for like-minded folks to worship together often to the exclusion of non-conformists.  We Protestants are especially good at this game, some times splitting from each other over apparently trivial matters such as whether we can use musical instruments in worship or not.  Those who do not conform are welcome to leave!  This is not unity.

The unity of the church does not, furthermore, exclude conflict within the church.  Churches experience conflict.  It's what churches do with conflict that matters.  Ignoring conflict for the sake of the peace of the church is not unity—and is irresponsible.  Being quiet in the face of conflict is not unity and usually only serves to prolong the conflict.  (Keeping still as a short-term strategy, however, is often wise.  Dealing with conflict requires calm and insight, which usually takes some time to acquire).  Leaving the church to avoid conflict or as a consequence of conflict does not unify the church although sometimes, sadly, it may be the least worst option if there seems to be no will in the church to resolve the conflict.

So, if unity is not conformity and it is not an absence of conflict, then what is it?  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Leadership & Followership Once More (xiii)

For twelve posts now, we've been working on the Mars Hill eight-point definition of the church (here) and have gotten as far as the fourth criterion, which has to do with the sacraments.  Forgive me, if I digress for one posting to go back to the second criterion, "The church is organized under qualified and competent leadership."

Isaiah 11:2-9 contains a powerful description of the biblical understanding of leadership.  Reading from Today's English Version (TEV) [here], the salient points are:

  • leadership is God-given and has a spiritual focus;
  • the inspired leader is wise, knowledgeable, skillful, pious, and fair with all esp. the poor & defenseless;
  • this ruler can make the hard decisions concerning those who are a danger to peace;
  • "He will rule his people with justice and integrity" (11:5)
  • under inspired leadership those led will live in profound peace, and there will be no harm, no evil;
  • "The land will be as full of knowledge of the Lord as the seas are full of water." (11:9)
The business of leadership is peace.  The marks of leadership are wisdom, knowledge, justice, and integrity.  The foundation is a trusting faith in God.  The end product is a people who "know" God, that is faithfully put their trust in the divine—and consequently themselves live in peace.    Recalling the fifth posting in this series (here), however, it is important to remember that leaders and followers live in a dynamic, reflexive relationship.  If the people aren't open to and themselves seeking wisdom, justice, and peace, their leaders will fail.  The above list of biblical traits of leadership thus also applies to followership.  Amen.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

As Close to Christ as We Can Get (xii)

FPC, Lowville, NY
This is the twelth posting in a series working on what it means to be a church, based on eight criteria the Mars Hill Church uses to define its branch congregations as churches. The series began (here).

We turn now to the fourth criterion used by the Mars Hill Church to define its branch congregations as "churches," which is, "The church is where the biblical sacraments of baptism and Communion are performed regularly."  This seems quite straightforward as long as we don't specify the number of "biblical sacraments" or go into such things as the centuries' long debate on how Christ is present or not present in the Lord's Supper.  In nearly all cases, the sacraments have been key elements in the life of local churches in spite of all of our differences in our different understandings and practices of them.

Something I have shared regularly with the churches I've served is that the sacraments of baptism and communion, esp. communion, are as physically close to Christ as we can get.  They are more than "merely" an act of remembering.  They embody key moments in the ministry of Christ that led to the birth of the early church.  When we look at the Table, we see Jesus with his disciples on that chaotic last night.  In the cup and bread, we see and experience the crisis and the agony of Jesus' last hours.  In a sense, however incompletely, we become time travelers who are transported back to the first century to participate in the events of Jesus' last evening.

In our modern world, we've pretty much lost a true sense of the holy, but as best we can we should remember every time we come to the sacraments that for a moment we stand on sacred ground and in sacred time and space.  If we go into these things with our eyes open and hearts focused (mindfully in Buddhist parlance), we encounter Christ and look for a moment into the core of our faith.  Amen.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Evangelical Shift Further Documented

Evangelical Christians are have historically been  identified with a web of conservative values, attitudes, and beliefs that include such things as a salvation limited to Christian believers, a literal interpretation of the Bible, pro-life values, and ant-homosexuality.  As we have seen in a series of posts, however, contemporary evangelicalism is far from monolithic; and while its adherents tend to resist (supposedly) change, they are changing.  The changes are significant, and they include shifting attitudes towards homosexuality.  Last month, we saw (here) that the Willow Creek Church now takes a more nuanced, balanced attitude regarding homosexuals, enough so that the church has come in for criticism by other evangelicals.

Recent research conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) provides evidence that a generational shift is taking place in evangelical circles regarding homosexuality. In a summary entitled, "Generations at Odds: The Millennial Generation and the Future of Gay and Lesbian Rights," of a larger report (here), PRRI researchers report that, "Forty-four percent of white evangelical Millennials favor allowing gay and lesbian people to marry, compared to only 12% of evangelical seniors and 19% of evangelicals overall."  "Millennials" are young adults aged 18 to 29.  The difference in attitudes between young and older evangelicals mirrors a similar difference in American society generally where there is a widely documented shift in attitudes towards homosexuality.  That is to say that in this important case changing social values are having a significant impact on young evangelicals just as they are among younger Americans generally.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Responsive to God (xi)

FPC, Lowville, NY
This is the eleventh posting in a series working on what it means to be a church, based on eight criteria the Mars Hill Church uses to define its branch congregations as churches. The series began (here).  We are still working on the third criterion used by the Mars Hill Church to define its branch congregations as "churches," which is, "The church regularly gathers to hear God’s Word rightly preached and to respond in worshipful ways."

There's a final point I'd like to make, which is superficially "just" a wording issue with the third criterion.  As written, it seems to suggest that congregations are to respond to preaching in worshipful ways.  They regularly gather to listen to a sermon and then "respond in worshipful ways."  Worship, however, is something more than responding to a sermon worshipfully.  The focus is on, the response is to, and the worship is of God not the sermon or the preacher.  We are there on a Sunday morning because we feel or want to feel God's presence in our lives and experience that presence as grace.  And when worship is at its best all of its elements work together to help us worship God, not just the sermon.  Indeed, some come to worship for the music, some for the prayers, and some just to be with their church friends.  Preaching is important, but it is not the be all and end all of our praise.  Nor should it be.  Amen.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Worshipping In "Interesting Times" (x)

FPC, Lowville, NY
This is the tenth posting in a series working on what it means to be a church, based on eight criteria the Mars Hill Church uses to define its branch congregations as churches. The series began (here).

We are still working on the third criterion used by the Mars Hill Church to define its branch congregations as "churches," which is, "The church regularly gathers to hear God’s Word rightly preached and to respond in worshipful ways."  Having looked at preaching, I'd like to turn to the worship part.  Back in the early 1970s, when I served my first congregation—a smallish church in central Pennsylvania—the standard Presbyterian worship service was done by the pastor, featured traditional music and hymns, and had few responses other than a "responsive reading" taken from a selection of readings in the back of the hymnal.  It fit on one page of the bulletin or maybe a little more.  In the 40 years since, Presbyterian worship has changed significantly and mostly gone in one of two directions.  Either it has become more formal and like Catholic worship with lots of sung and congregational responses and pastors all robbed up in clerical garb, or it has become less formal and more like evangelical, semi-revivalistic worship with praise songs and clapping.  The majority of Presbyterian (USA) churches have gone the more "high church" route of Catholic-like worship.  Some have gone the "low church" route of evangelical-like worship.

In my experience, few Presbyterian churches do neither the high church or the low church approach very well.  If you're looking for effective Catholic-like worship the best place to find it is in a Catholic or maybe Episcopal church—or Orthodox church if there's one nearby.  If you're looking for effective evangelical worship, the best place to find it is in an evangelical megachurch (or a branch of one).  The average Presbyterian church doesn't have the esthetic sensibilities for candles, incense, and ritual or the enthusiasm for revivalism.  What Presbyterians do best, I think, is old-fashioned, simple, direct worship with a service that is orderly, fairly traditional, and can be printed on one page or a little more.  In our day and age, it should include a fair amount of lay participation, some contemporary music, and focus on reminding folks of God's place in their lives.  Technology is fine and helpful as long as it facilitates worship rather than dominate it.  Indeed, the creative use of screens and PowerPoint can free a church from the printed order of worship and makes it easier to introduce new music to the congregation.

Now, it has to be said that some Presbyterian churches do the high church liturgy really well and some engage in worship with true evangelical fervor, which is all to the good.  All I'm saying is that they are not the norm, that's all.

The thing is, it is easier to do simple worship well precisely because it is simple.  Presbyterians aren't looking for high church or low church—for the most part—but rather for meaningful worship that keeps them in touch with ultimate things.  Or so it seems to this gray-haired preacher from the 1970s who feels that simple is better, less is more.  Amen.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Right Preaching (ix)

FPC, Lowville, NY
This is the ninth  posting in a series working on what it means to be a church, based on eight criteria the Mars Hill Church uses to define its branch congregations as churches.  The series began (here).

We are still working on the third criterion used by the Mars Hill Church to define its branch congregations as "churches," which is, "The church regularly gathers to hear God’s Word rightly preached and to respond in worshipful ways."  There's one more thing I'd like to deal with in terms of preaching: the phrase "God's Word rightly preached."

The first has to do with God's "Word," capital "W."  We have to be clear that God's Word is Jesus Christ (John 1:1) and not the Bible, which is "the word of God written," small "w," to quote the Confession of 1967 of the Presbyterian Church (USA), section 9.27.  (I dealt with this in a previous posting, "here").  While we preach from the Bible, what we always preach is Christ.  It is important to remember that Christ constrains and binds scripture, and where the Bible contains things that do not reflect the love of Christ (e.g. the mass murder of non-Hebrews) we must reject the words of the Bible in the name of God's Word, Jesus Christ.  It is for this reason that the PC(USA) ordains women in spite of clear teachings in the Bible forbidding us from doing so (see I Corinthians 14:34-35).  We are constrained to do so by the Word of God, whatever the words of the Bible might say.

Second, we must also be clear about the idea of "right preaching."  It sounds as though there is one kind of preaching that exhibits God's Word "rightly preached" and other kinds that don't.  Actually, that might be the case, but if so not in the way probably intended by the authors of the Mars Hill criteria.  "Right preaching" is best understood to be contextual preaching—that is, where the preacher reads the Bible in light of the congregation that will hear the message and seeks to deliver that message in ways that will be readily understood by the congregation.  Good preaching translates the Bible into the local idiom using local images that reflect local concerns and needs.  In a sense, then, "right preaching" is not biblically based but rather church based, applying the teachings of scripture to the situation of the church in light of the person of Christ.  "Right preaching" does not impose an outside and infallible word on a church but, rather, shares the person of Christ in the local language.  So then, "God's Word rightly preached" is churched-based and Christ-focused.  Or, it is church-focused and Christ-centered.  Or, good preaching arises out of the real needs of the real people of Lowville, NY, bringing God's Word, Jesus Christ, to bear on those needs.  Amen.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Buddhism & Science

The Dalai Lama
This past July (2011), the Dalai Lama gave a wide-ranging interview to Rolling Stone magazine (here), and among many other things he touched briefly on the relationship of Buddhism to science and his contribution to that relationship.  He said,
"I have done one thing that I think is a contribution: I helped Buddhist science and modern science combine. No other Buddhist has done that. Other lamas, I don't think they ever pay attention to modern science. Since my childhood, I have a keen interest. As far as inner sciences [science of the mind] are concerned, modern science very young. In the meantime, science in external matters is highly developed. So we Buddhists should learn from that as well."
 In this brief statement,  the Dalai Lama suggests a relationship between religions and science by which religion offers us a science of the mind and modern science contributes a science of the physical world.  Each science contributes to a full, integrated life, and each has something to teach us.  There is no hint here of the science-religion relationship being inherently an issue or a problem although traditional monks generally ignore science because it is, well, untraditional.

For practicing people of faith, from the Dalai Lama's perspective, the relationship of their faith to science is not so much a theoretical issue to sort out as it is a spiritually practical meshing of two crucial elements of life.  Faith's contribution, speaking from a Christian perspective, is to open our hearts and minds to God, to daily practices that quiet our hearts and minds, and to a life that is oriented away from self and toward others.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

PowerPoint Preaching (viii)

FPC, Lowville, NY
This is the eighth  posting in a series working on what it means to be a church, based on eight criteria the Mars Hill Church uses to define its branch congregations as churches.  The series began (here).  At the moment, we're looking at Mars Hill's third criterion, "The church regularly gathers to hear God’s Word rightly preached and to respond in worshipful ways."  And I'd like to digress for a minute to briefly consider the use of modern digital projection technology (i.e. PowerPoint) in preaching.  I served a congregation in Lansing, MI—Delta Presbyterian Church—that has an excellent projection system, and I used it for preaching every Sunday.  Now, I'm serving FPC, Lowville, which does not have the technology.

I can do both and feel I've learned some important lessons about the use of projection technology with preaching, which is in a nutshell: don't generalize.  Some years ago I attended a worship workshop at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI, which included a "unit" on PowerPoint & preaching.  The instructor made all sorts of sweeping generalizations that are largely useless—because you can't generalize.  Using PowerPoint in preaching depends largely on the church, the sanctuary, and the pastor.

At Delta PC, the congregation had used its projection system for several years although it wasn't used creatively for preaching.  They had by my time generally accepted the technology.  I also was comfortable with it to the point of enjoying it.  Delta's sanctuary, moreover, is a large room originally intended to be a social hall, which means that the technology fits.

A typical sermon slide from my days at Delta PC, Lansing
As for the process of preaching, I found that while I spent a good deal of time each week preparing slides for the sermon, I spent less time having to learn the sermon because I had a ready made visual outline in front of me as I preached.  On the whole, I didn't spend more or less time in sermon preparation at Delta than I do now at FPC.  It was just different.  Delivery is also somewhat different.  I used fewer gestures, for example, and I tried to focus the congregation on the slides rather than me personally (I liked that).  In spite of what you might hear, the slides were not a distraction from preaching and, in fact, added a helpful visual dimension to it.  I should hasten to add that I generally avoided bullets, lists, and slides with a lot of words on them.  I used the slides more as an artistic aid for illustrative purposes than anything else.  That worked best.

While I was in Lansing, I did a couple of simple questionnaires to test the congregation's attitude about using PowerPoint for preaching, and the results were that a large majority of the church liked it and found it helpful.  More generally, when parishioners mentioned a previous sermon, they would often refer to it by a slide they remembered from it. During my three years at Delta PC, I learned a lot of do's and dont's about PowerPoint preaching, and it was very much a positive experience.

Not using PowerPoint, however, is just as positive.  Here at FPC, Lowville, we have an old, traditional, stained glass windowed, and well lit sanctuary that does not lend itself to the technology.  The church is not used to that kind of technology for worship.  So far as I can tell, there is no pressing desire to have it, and I believe I can preach just as well without as with it.  Lacking a compelling reason to introduce it, there is no reason to try to do so.  The quality of preaching (and of worship) is not dependent on it as such, and the church has other more pressing priorities.  Were it not for the nature of the sanctuary and less importantly the cost, I might be inclined to recommend that the congregation consider a projection system.  But the point is exactly this: PowerPoint technology for preaching works well where it is appropriate but is not the be-all-and-end-all of 21st century preaching.  I guess that's a generalization, but it's just about the only one to make regarding PowerPoint preaching.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Preaching Challenges (vii)

FPC, Lowville, NY
This is the seventh posting in a series working on what it means to be a church, based on eight criteria the Mars Hill Church uses to define its branch congregations as churches, which are listed in the first posting of this series (here).

As we've already seen, the third criterion used by the Mars Hill Church to define its branch congregations as "churches," is, "The church regularly gathers to hear God’s Word rightly preached and to respond in worshipful ways."  We've also seen that preaching "is in our blood" as Protestants.  It's what we do.  It's what we've been doing for centuries, and it's worth asking why we keep doing it—apart from the fact that we tend to keep on doing what we've always done.

Preaching today is challenging.  In the past, the Sunday preachers dominated the local media aside from printed newspapers.  They were the only regular, weekly game in town when it came to listening and watching public media.  They could preach for 60 minutes or more and hold people's attention.  In the old days, New England families devoted hours of table conversation to dissecting Sunday's sermon.  Then came radio, and now, of course, preachers are only one small voice in the overwhelming daily bombardment of public media.

So, the challenge is to say something on a Sunday morning that is entertaining, intelligent, and relevant to the lives of a congregation.  The entertaining part is crucial.  In education circles, there is a term, "edutainment," which means using entertainment media and techniques to communicate educational content.  The highly popular and effective children's TV show, Sesame Street, is the industry standard for quality edutainment.  How does one compete with that?  But, preachers have to try.  If we aren't entertaining, we won't be heard.

Preaching a relevant, meaningful, and thought-provoking message is also important—more so than ever, actually, in our world where soccer dominates Sunday mornings, worship attendance is on the decline, and our Protestant churches still want quality preaching as they always have.  Speaking personally, some weeks this feels daunting.  How does one stay fresh, interesting, and relevant week after week?  Still, it's not quite that grim.  Local churches continue to value preaching excellence, and the weekly sermon is important to them.  Preachers have an amazing array of resources, many of which the Web puts at their fingertips (literally).  Where there is great challenge, there is also great opportunity.  Amen.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Preaching & Worship (vi)

FPC, Lowville, NY
This is the sixth posting in a series working on what it means to be a church, based on eight criteria the Mars Hill Church uses to define its branch congregations as churches, which are listed in the first posting of this series (here).

The third criterion on the Mars Hill list is, "The church regularly gathers to hear God’s Word rightly preached and to respond in worshipful ways."  The fourth criterion reads, "The church is where the biblical sacraments of baptism and Communion are performed regularly."  Both of these criteria focus on worship, and while the order and wording may not have been intended to be important, it is worth noting that in this Protestant description of the role of worship preaching comes first, worship generally second, and the sacraments are third (although they do warrant their own separate criterion).  In Protestant worship, we emphasize preaching.  In my own preparation time for worship, I devote much more time to sermon preparation than to the overall "performance" of the worship service.  Whether for good or for ill, I'm not sure.

So, let's start with preaching.  Why do we put it at the center of Protestant worship?  Historically, I suppose, the early Protestants partly reacted to the high church "ritualism" of Roman Catholicism.  We didn't want to "be like them."  But, going back in time, early Protestant clergy faced congregations that generally had little or no Christian education background, no knowledge of the Bible, and hardly any sense that they were responsible for developing their own understanding of their faith.  They desperately needed teaching, and the reality was that the best time to do that teaching was during worship.  Protestant sermons became long, learned discourses aimed at teaching the rudiments of Christian faith to the ignorant.  We Presbyterians, in the good old days, even called our pastors "teaching elders," a term that the recent revision of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Form of Government has revived.

In a sense then, preaching is in our Protestant blood.  It defines who we are, at least in part.

In terms of the third criterion, there is one point that needs to be made about its wording, which says that one mark of the church is that it regularly gathers to hear preaching and "to respond in worshipful ways."  This is not a good choice of words.  It implies that the worship service doesn't begin until after the sermon and that it is the sermon that inspires worship.  I am sure the authors of these criteria did not mean to imply such, but the wording carries us to that conclusion.  Take it as further evidence of how deeply the centrality of preaching has seeped into Protestant worship.  Preaching, of course, is but one element in worship, and what congregants experience on a Sunday morning is not just the sermon but the whole worship package.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A New Review

I have posted a review of Mikael Stenmark, How to Relate Science and Religion, at Rom Phra Khun Reviews (here).  The review contains some general remarks on the science versus religion debate as well as comments on Setnmark's tome.


A "Tribute in Lights," New York City, Sept. 11, 2008
Resilience is the ability to work with adversity in such a way that one comes through it unharmed or even better for the experience. Resilience means facing life’s difficulties with courage and patience – refusing to give up. It is the quality of character that allows a person or group of people to rebound from misfortune, hardships and traumas.

Resilience is rooted in a tenacity of spirit—a determination to embrace all that makes life worth living even in the face of overwhelming odds. When we have a clear sense of identity and purpose, we are more resilient, because we can hold fast to our vision of a better future.

Much of our resilience comes from community—from the relationships that allow us to lean on each other for support when we need it.
Quoted (here)

New York Presbyterians remember 9/11 (here).

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Defining Followership (v)

FPC, Lowville, NY
This is the fifth posting in a series working on what it means to be a church, based on eight criteria the Mars Hill Church uses to define its branch congregations as churches, which are listed in the first posting of this series (here).

We are still working on the second criterion in the Mars Hill list, namely that, "The church is organized under qualified and competent leadership." The previous posting made the point that capable and faithful followership is as important to church life as is leadership.  "Followership" in the context of the church can mean a couple of things.  It can mean following Christ, acknowledging that he is the true head of the church.  It can also mean following the leaders of the church, meaning both duly elected lay leaders and the pastor (assuming the church has one).  Our concern here is with the second meaning, although the two are related to each other.

What constitutes effective followership?  In any human group, not just the church, certain characteristics define a "good" follower.  First, the follower is attentive to the church's leaders.  You can't follow if you aren't paying attention.  Second, the effective follower is responsive to those leaders.  Again, one can't follow another unless they are willing to get off their duff and follow.  Third, the effective follower has his or her own sense of direction, is not willing to be led too far off that path, and is willing to call leaders back to it when they seem headed in the wrong direction.  In the church, fourth, an effective follower takes time to exercise the disciplines of our faith, which include prayer, worship, study, and service.  The effective follower, fifth and finally, is knowledgeable in matters of the faith.

On the face of it, these skills and attitudes are not so different from those required for effective church leadership.  Church leaders must be attentive to those who follow, willing to lead even when its a pain to do so, have a good sense of congregational direction, be self-critical in holding to that direction, and exercise the disciplines of the faith.  Which observation leads us to an essential insight: church leadership is built into the life of the church and is shared by both "leaders" and "followers."  Leadership is carried out through two-way relationships, which brings us back to following Christ.  In a paper entitled, "Development of the Biblical Followership Profile," Rushton S. Ricketson writes that biblical followership of Christ entails five traits: "...(a) abandonment to the leader [Christ], (b) intimacy with the leader [Christ], (c) obedience, (d) faithfulness, and (e) persistence."  In other words, we take our commitment to God seriously and seek to live it faithfully.  While there's a lot more involved, in a nutshell, faithfulness to Christ is central to effective leadership and followership in the church, the point here being that faithful followership is at least as important as faithful leadership.  Amen.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Wisdom From Coach Kill

Give yourself until midnight to be upset about the loss and then you turn around and just focus on how you get better and not focus on the loss so much.

University of Minnesota Coach, Jerry Kill
After the Gophers lost to USC, 19-17
Quoted (here)

The American Jobs Act

Last evening, President Obama addressed a joint meeting of Congress (here) with a rousing stump speech that introduced the "American Jobs Act."  Although greeted with the inevitable wave of skepticism and criticism from a goodly portion of the "chattering class" of political pundits, the speech represented the president at his rhetorical best.  The goal of the speech was, apparently, to get the attention of both Congress and the public, and the president didn't give details of the legislation itself.  A more detailed overview of the American Jobs Act can be found (here).

Most of the pundits do seem to agree that it was a good speech, that the president drew on his more passionate side, and that he did try to reach across the aisle with a jobs plan that draws on recovery strategies from both parties.   Only time will tell whether or not Congress can actually pass any meaningful legislation that tackles the ongoing recession and unemployment, but the ball is now squarely in its court.  We'll see.  In the meantime, well done, Mr. President.

Followership Matters Too (iv)

FPC, Lowville, NY
This is the fourth posting in a series working on what it means to be a church, based on eight criteria the Mars Hill Church uses to define its branch congregations as churches.  The first posting in this series, which lists those criteria, is (here).

The second criterion used by the Mars Hill Church to define its branch congregations as "churches," is, "The church is organized under qualified and competent leadership."

One of the widely touted truisms of contemporary church life is that churches live or die by their leadership.  If a church has capable, creative, effective, and faithful leadership—especially pastoral leadership—then the chances are the church will prosper.  Poor leadership leads to weak churches.  As a consequence, there is a huge literature on church leadership, just as in the business world there is a massive literature on management and leadership.

Leadership is important.  Still, there are times when a pastor who did well in one church does less well in another church, and there are congregations where conflict is endemic.  There are churches where one pastor is successful while another equally capable pastor is not.  We speak about the importance of getting a good "fit" between a pastor and a church.  In other words, there is more to church life than leadership.  Followership (as one on line dictionary puts it "the capacity or willingness to follow a leader") is equally important—and much less often discussed or considered.  There is a much smaller literature on church followership.

In American society, we have a fixation with the role of leadership, witness our long process for selecting a president during which the pundits provide us with endless daily analysis of the candidates and their latest doings.  Yet it is interesting to note that after the debate over raising the debt ceiling a record 84% of Americans, according to a Gallup pole (here) disapproved of the way Congress was handling its job.  Considering the historic election of 2010 when the public returned a seriously changed body of representatives to Congress, these figures are as much a measure of our ability to elect capable representatives as it is of Congress itself.  In a fit of ire, we turned the Republicans out in 2006 and 2008, and then in another fit of ire we began the process of turning the Democrats out in 2010.  These are acts by an irritated American followership that can't collectively decide which party it wants to run the nation.  The point is that followership matters a lot, and we usually don't give it enough attention—either in national politics or in the lives of our local churches.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Vann Nath: Witness to Evil

Vann Nath (1946-2011)
Vann Nath (1946-2011) died on September 5, 2011, basically of injuries incurred when he was interned by the Khmer Rouge in the infamous death camp, S-21.  He was in that camp from January 1978 until he was released during the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia that brough an end to that regime in 1979, and he was one of only a handful of survivors of a camp that "processed" over 14,000 people.  During his time in the camp he experienced and witnessed brutal torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners.  Death was a daily occurrence.  He survived because he was a trained artist, and the Khmer Rogue used him to paint propaganda portraits of Pol Pot, their leader.

One of his paintings
Once free, it became Vann Nath's life's work to tell the story of S-21 and its victims through a long series of stark, sometimes brutally graphic paintings, which have become famous and been exhibited around the world.  Some of his paintings today hang in the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh.  His family, though saddened by his death, took quiet satisfaction in knowing that he would no longer suffer from the painful memories of his imprisonment or from the ailments that dogged him since that time until he died.  In his paintings, however, he will continue to give witness to the horrors of his personal experience and that of the Cambodian people under the Khmer Rogue.  He will continue to remind us that the evil we face in this world is not trivial nor a joke.  It is deep, rampant, and able to transform lives in horribly hurtful ways.  As much as the Nazi death camps, the Soviet Gulag, or the unimaginably vast horrors of World Wars I and II, the Killing Fields of Cambodia bear testimony to the most violent century in the history of humanity, the 20th Century.  And Vann Nath bears witness to the Killing Fields.

In that capacity, he mirrors for us as Christians the work of the Holy Spirit, which we believe works, works, and works to heal the wounds of even the most unspeakable evil—and calls, calls, calls us to a better way.  Along the path of that better way hang the inspired paintings of Vann Nath.  We pray that he rests in peace.  Amen.

News postings and obituaries remembering Vann Nath include:
  • Andrew Buncombe, "Peace at last for man who painted Khmer Rouge hell," (here)
  • Thomas Miller & May Titthara, "Tuol Sleng survivor Vann Nath dies at 66" (here)
  • Tom Fawthrop, "Vann Nath Obituary" (here)
  • The Telegraph, "Obituary: Vann Nath" (here)
And a gallery of his paintings can be found (here)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Church Regenerated (iii)

FPC, Lowville, NY
This is the third posting in my series working on what it means to be a church, based on eight criteria the Mars Hill Church uses to define its branch congregations as churches.  The first posting in this series, which lists those criteria, is (here).

The first criterion, as we saw in the previous post, is, "The church is made up of regenerated believers in Jesus."  It is worth our time to give pause to the meaning of "regenerated believers."

In general, regeneration in a theological sense takes place when an individual experiences "a new life in Christ,"  We sometimes call this experience being" born again" or "a conversion."  In the evangelical churches, spiritual rebirth is common and the generally preferred way of becoming part of a church.  "True" Christians, those who are saved, are born again Christians.  In ecumenical churches, fewer people are "born again" in the evangelical sense although not a few discover that a serious Christian faith changes them in significant ways.

An important point in the Mars Hill definition of the church is the clear implication that regeneration is a one-time experience that is at some point completed.  "The church is made up of regenerated believers."  Regenerated is used here in the past tense as if it is an action that is completed.   The problem is that when we look at the lives, the values, the attitudes, and the work of "regenerated believers," what we invariably find is a mixed bag of "stuff" that is all too human even among the very best of them.  Faith is a journey, not any one single event, however life-changing that event might be.  Being "born again" in faith is, in fact, much like being born physically.  Although we focus a lot of our attention on the moment when we are expelled from the uterus, "birth" is a much longer process, one that begins at conception, develops for nine months, enters the world, and continues to develop for years after that.  By the same token, spiritual regeneration continues for as long as we live.   For this reason, it would be better to say that, "the church, at its best, is made up of believers who are intentionally growing in their faith, service, and understanding."

This is not just a matter of words; rather, it has to do with humility and with acknowledging the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  Those who proclaim themselves "saved" in the past tense can come across as spiritually haughty and judgmental along the lines of the New Testament portrayal of the Pharisees. They also tend to be cliquish.  They only want to associate with others who are, like them, "saved."  In light of our continuing human limitations, the safest and most faithful path for us as Christians is one that treads lightly, makes peace, and embraces humility.  It is a path we walk as we celebrate the continuing regeneration we experience in the Spirit.  Amen.

Joining Presbyterian Bloggers

Rom Phra Khun is now a member of Presbyterian Bloggers, and we have been officially welcomed into the community (here) by the community blog, appropriately named "Presbyterian Bloggers: A Community for Those Whose Blogging is Decent and in Order".  Thank you, Presbyterian Bloggers, for the welcome.  Herb

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Impure Church (ii)

FPC, Lowville, NY
This is the second posting in a series working on what it means to be a church, based on eight criteria the Mars Hill Church uses to define its branch congregations as churches.  The series began with the previous posting (here).

The first criterion used on the Mars Hill list of criteria is, "The church is made up of regenerated believers in Jesus."

This criterion, first, describes the ideal church rather than a real one.  By "regenerated believers," we can take it the church is supposed to be made up of individuals who have gone through a conversion experience that has changed their lives fundamentally.  They are "born again."  This strongly suggests that churches are to be composed only of those who are "true" Christians.  And that is a problem.  In the real world, churches are a mixture of people consistently serious in their faith, people who are sometimes serious, people seldom serious, and people who belong to the church for other reasons—frequently because other members of the family go to the church.  No church is composed entirely of "regenerated believers in Jesus."

Since at least the time of Tertullian, an early church father who lived in the second century, the church has repeatedly struggled with the issue of its purity.  It was the issue that dominated the Protestant Reformation and has contributed to the frequent subsequent splits among Protestants resulting in today's horde of denominations.  The question of true faith and right belief lies at the heart of the great divide between ecumenical and evangelical churches.  These issues have repeatedly shaken the foundations of the Presbyterian Church (USA) as hundreds of churches and tens of thousands of members have abandoned the denomination especially over the question of homosexuality.

Among Protestants, at least, the purity of the church is of much greater concern, clearly, than is the unity of the church.  The problem is, of course, that a pure church is an impossible dream.  And, ironically, the pursuit of the dream does more harm than good because it fosters intolerance and judgmental attitudes, which are in spirit quite unlike Christ.  It tends to externalize our struggle with evil by encouraging us to see the speck in the eye of the other and miss the log in our own eye.  In its arrogance, the demand for a pure church made up only of "regenerated believers" actually offends others, drives them away from Christ.  And, in all of this, the desire for a pure church divides Christians one against another, weakening the church and its ability to serve in Christ's name.

The church's task is not to be pure but rather to be as effective as it can in service to Christ and neighbor, while confessing its own limitations and failures.  In the real world and facing our real human limitations, the church is not an organization of the regenerated but of the committed.  Our task is not to discover purity but humility.  Humility of spirit is a real, invaluable possibility.  Purity is a chimera.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Defining the Church (i)

The Mars Hill Church, a Seattle-based megachurch founded by Mark Driscoll in 1996, has recently decided to stop calling its several branch congregations "campuses" and to call them "churches" instead.  In a posting on the Mars Hill Church blog (here), one of the church's pastors explained that the word campus may convey the wrong image of the satellite congregations, which in fact fit the biblical description of the church.  Drawing on a book co-authored by Driscoll, the posting lists eight "biblical criteria" for being a church.  They are:

FPC, Lowville, NY
  1. The church is made up of regenerated believers in Jesus.
  2. The church is organized under qualified and competent leadership.
  3. The church regularly gathers to hear God’s Word rightly preached and to respond in worshipful ways.
  4. The church is where the biblical sacraments of baptism and Communion are performed regularly.
  5. The church is unified by God the Holy Spirit.
  6. The church is a holy people. When they sin, they repent of their sin. If [a professing Christian] should fail to repent, the church and its leaders lovingly enact biblical church discipline in hopes of bringing the sinner to repentance and to a reconciled relationship with God and his people.
  7. The church is a loving community that devotes itself to fellowship.
  8. The church is an evangelistic community where the gospel of Jesus is constantly made visible by its preaching, its witness of the members, and its Spirit-empowered life of love.
In some 22 more postings to follow, I'd like to play with this description.  I'm not sure that all eight are precisely "biblical" criteria, but they do present a good way to get at what it means to be a church whatever the background or denomination.  Stay tuned.