On Transitioning Church

Harding University’s New President

26 November 2012

When I was at Harding, I was a member of a social club that could sing. And boy did they sing. I sang, too, but not as well as those in the chorus of folks that surrounded me. While my voice didn’t add much to the quality of what was being sung, I did feel as though I belonged, and that my voice was welcomed and perhaps even useful, and that I was a small part of something that mattered, and that in the end I did contribute something unique.

On Rich Little’s blog, a few folks (including friends of mine that I really respect, like Mark Moore, Dusty Rush, Sara Barton, and Mary Beth Picker) have expressed some concern about the appointment of Dr. Bruce McLarty as our new president. The concern is not with Dr. McLarty, mind you, but with the priorities used by the majority of Harding’s Board of Trustees to make the appointment. As I’ve read all of these very powerful (and equally gracious and hope-filled) posts that have articulated so well some of the thoughts and feelings that I have about Harding (and the Church of Christ in general), the thought that I should add my small voice to this chorus of very strong ones has lingered. Perhaps I’m still looking for my place to belong at my beloved alma mater, longing for my voice to be both welcomed and useful, desiring to be a part of something that matters, and that in the end, perhaps I do have something to contribute that is unique.

So here I put on a robe and join this chorus of great singers on the risers, hopefully harmonizing with them, and perhaps with one small solo – that is, one more angle on this that has yet to be presented, and one that I feel uniquely positioned to give a voice. photo

I write as a proud Harding Alumni, like all of these others. I cherish my experience there, for how it grew me up in Christ, gave me a spiritual family, and launched me into a life of Kingdom impact and ministry. They were simply the greatest four (and a half – I’m slow, and didn’t want to leave) greatest years of my life.

I write as a parent of three kids who already want to go there, following in the footsteps of their dad, their grandmother, and their preacher great-grandfather. So my hopes are significantly invested in Harding’s near-future, since the most important people to me and my wife will be saturated in the environment that Harding creates.

I write as a former youth minister. I spent 14 years with “the next generation” and have not had one year where students that I have been blessed to call friends haven’t been at Harding, most of them now alumni themselves.

I write as a minister of a “mainstream Church of Christ.” At least I think I am after reading the Christian Chronicle’s interview with Dr. McLarty. Our church family practices what he lists there as “the distinctive convictions of baptism for the remission of sins, acapella music in worship, and male spiritual leadership in the congregation,” making us the very kind of church that Harding specifically says it wants to show solidarity with, as stated in their “Expanded Mission Statement,” that he quotes. Further, our church family has Harding alumni on staff, in our eldership, and in our membership. We have students that have returned from Harding, are currently at Harding, are about to attend Harding, and our youth group is taking a trip to visit there this coming weekend. We are a real life, living and breathing brochure of what Harding wants to produce, complete with an atmosphere that promotes and ensures Harding’s continuation into its bright future.

I write as a follower of Christ. While this is the most important identity marker for me in my life, and in this list, it is not the last one I’ll mention, because this next one (which is the natural result of this and the previous one) is more to the point of what I’m compelled to contribute to this conversation.

I write as a minister trying to serve the Church of Christ in a way that is faithful to both the Church of Christ and to Jesus Christ. And it is from this experience that I offer one more verse to this chorus that has been present in many of these posts, but not stated explicitly, and it is this:

When our loyalty to a Church of Christ value and our loyalty to a Jesus Christ value collide, it is the Church of Christ value that should give way.

Ironically, I learned this from my Church of Christ heritage. I grew up being taught to be wise concerning any religious belief suggested, to never blindly put the weight of my salvation upon other people’s convictions without weighing them against scripture. I, and a vast army of my peers, took this to heart. But when we applied this Church of Christ teaching to all Church of Christ teachings, we found that some of our teachings were only “distinctive convictions of the Church of Christ” (who we rightly love, appreciate, and want to be faithful to), but they were not Biblically-unquestionable distinctive convictions of Jesus Christ (whom we rightly love, appreciate, and want to be faithful to even more).

Since Bible demands this, it should surprise no one that the mainstream Church of Christ has begun to demand this, because we are above all else, people of the Book. It is our continued study of and persistent faithfulness to the living and active contents of this Book that keeps our movement faithful to its heritage. This and only this will help us to remain faithful to our name, that is to remain a church that is “of Christ.” 

Dr. McLarty, in the Christian Chronicle piece, makes this powerful observation and corresponding commitment: “As part of my doctoral work, I studied the tendency of faith-founded colleges to drift away from their founding church, to abandon their core mission, and often, to become enemies of the ideas and principles on which they were started. This solidified my resolve to do all I could do to see that this does not happen to Harding.”

I love our new president’s resolve to not allow Harding to drift away from the Church of Christ. Let’s stay a family, and keep Harding in the family. We can remain open to all without having to drift away from the Church of Christ. And let’s certainly not throw this association to the wind in order to attract more students or become more academically or athletically prestigious. Amen! While I appreciate his concern, I don’t sense Dr. McLarty will have to fight as hard as he is preparing to protect this. I’ve not heard any among our Harding family that wants to go the way of Duke, or Yale, or Harvard, each of whom did lose their attachment to their founding church affiliation, and then eventually lost their attachment to Christ and the Bible. If a call that threatens this comes from some segment among us in the future, I will gladly be counted among the folks who will ensure that he does not stand alone in his resolve. But I haven’t heard anyone call for or even have a desire for this. I know that I and those like me do not. All we are asking for is that Harding would (officially) agree that when loyalty to a Church of Christ value and our loyalty to a Jesus Christ value collide, it is the Church of Christ value that should give way.

What is the “core mission” he doesn’t want abandoned? Is it the mission to exalt Jesus Christ? Or is it the mission to exalt some distinctive doctrines of the Church of Christ?

What are the “ideas and principles” he is resolved to keep Harding from becoming an enemy? Are the person of Jesus Christ, the Kingdom, and the Gospel message the ideas and principles upon which Harding started? Or, are a distinctive set of Church of Christ doctrines and worship practices the ideas and principles upon which Harding started?

This really matters.

The mainstream Churches of Christ, many of which are full of Harding students – past, present, and future – has necessarily learned from the Bible that it must distinguish between these things. Only the “rigid legalism on the Right” in our fellowship would assert, for example, that there is no difference between the Gospel message and our historically distinctive Church of Christ worship practices. One is centered on Christ; the other is centered on Sunday morning gatherings. One is worth dying for; the other is an edifying practice that our churches utilize to worship God. One saves souls, the other does not.

Dr. McLarty continues by saying: “In the reflection chapter at the end of my dissertation, I wrote that my research had crystallized within my thinking the following goal: ‘To prepare Harding University to remain Christian in our core identity until Jesus returns.’”

There is none of us in any Church of Christ, even those who are extremely “Right” or “Left,” that would disagree with this crystallized goal as it is written. Further, this is not even a uniquely Church of Christ statement.

Why is this important to note?

Because, another historical heritage marker of our fellowship is the taking of universal, Biblical, and Christian words and packing them with uniquely Church of Christ meanings. If his phrase “remain Christian” means “remaining faithful to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ,” then great. But if he intends the phrase to actually mean, “remaining faithful to the distinctive doctrines and worship practices of the historical Church of Christ,” then many of us in the mainstream Church of Christ cringe, concerned that Harding is not being faithful to a Word of God that is still living and active, and to a scripture that is still useful to teach us, rebuke us, correct us, and train us to a fuller and truer righteousness as a fellowship.

In the article, Dr. McLarty quotes the 2008 Expanded Mission Statement (proving, I guess, that we can expand our mission statement should our followership of Christ call for it) when it says: “Though we live in a time of significant confusion over our brotherhood’s identity, we are determined that Harding University will become captive to neither a rigid legalism on the Right nor a formless liberalism on the Left. ‘With gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3:16, NIV) we continue to affirm such distinctive convictions of the mainstream Churches of Christ as baptism for the remission of sins, a cappella music in worship, and male spiritual leadership in congregations.”

The mainstream Church of Christ that I serve has not changed these distinctive practices, but we have prayerfully and necessarily moved with regard to our distinctive convictions. With gentleness and respect, we affirm such distinctive convictions as Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, Christ-honoring music in worship, and Christ-centered spiritual leadership in congregations. This shift has come, not from some slippery slope caused by a move away from scripture’s authority, but by a slow, methodical, and diligent study of scripture and a stricter adherence to it. As a result, our traditional tight grip on baptism has become tighter, but with a focus on Christ rather than on baptism. Our traditional practice of acapella music has not been replaced, but moved from being a Biblical requirement for salvation (demanding our judgment of those who practice differently) to a beautiful and chosen preference, allowing us to better follow the Biblical requirement of not passing judgment on disputable matters, which has kept lessor issues from hijacking our soul-saving focus Christ who saves. Our tradition of male spiritual leadership in the congregations is still practiced organizationally and positionally, but we are learning how to not hinder the powerful exertion of spiritual giftedness that is so obviously placed in both men and women by Christ, who’s Kingdom seems to operate in a way where it doesn’t distinguish between male and female (Galatians 3:28), and seems to teach and promote the priesthood of all believers, not just male believers.

These are examples of the tension that is currently present in the mainstream Churches of Christ.

It is our faithfulness to scriptural authority, the most important and cherished value of the Church of Christ, and the one upon which all others are measured by, that has moved us here. If Harding wants to stay connected to the mainstream Church of Christ, well, this is what we are doing and learning and struggling with.

As a child of this movement, a son of Harding, and a minister out here working to be faithful to both the Church of Christ and Jesus Christ, I really need Harding to help me. I don’t need it to be super sure of itself regarding where our constant Bible study will lead us in practice, nor do I need or want it to be hasty about dismissing our conclusions or practices from the past. What would be useful is for Harding to use its talented resources and faculty, its momentum in successfully ministering to our kids, and its powerful Kingdom influence to lead and provoke these hard introspective conversations that our brotherhood’s constant Bible study demands. It is exhilarating to experience Harding when it is the instigator of such honest, probing, and integrity-filled faithfulness to Bible study. But it is disheartening and discouraging to experience Harding as the entrenched guardian of the honest conclusions of our father’s and grandfather’s Bible study.

It is important to note that among almost all Christian movements, a commitment to an external religion, with all of its forms and rituals, attempts to replace that movement’s commitment to Jesus Christ alone. While I am somehow encouraged that we in the Church of Christ do not have a monopoly on this problem, I have been discouraged by our movement thinking that its commitment to scripture made us immune to it. This is hard for all of us to swallow, but humble Bible study demands it, and humble Bible study is doing so in the mainstream Church of Christ, to the praise and glory of God.

Some of the comments on Rich’s blog are asking why so many students, including those who’ve posted concern on his blog, are leaving Harding so spiritually successful, and why enrollment continues to grow, if this commitment to traditional Church of Christ doctrine and worship practices are so desperately needing to be revisited. They suggest that Harding “must be doing something right” or this kind of fruit could not be produced. Let me conclude my thoughts by offering another possible explanation.

When I was at Harding, there was a distance between the Board (and the values that they voted to have officially sanctioned by Harding) and the students (with our need to have the space to safely question everything if we were, in fact, to be “educated for eternity”). It was this distance, not Harding’s stance, that allowed me and my peers to find our own faith in Jesus Christ. So instead of Harding’s officially stated core convictions being the proactive, involved, and fully alive instigators of my spiritual growth, they served instead as representative of a static, entrenched, and superficial set of church practices that I was actively searching for a God to save me and the world from. Much like Christ, who chose to use the Pharisee’s Bible-justified, but non-life-giving, non-soul-saving, missing-the-point religious convictions as a backdrop for his disciples to learn about the real and vibrant Kingdom of God, I suggest that Christ had created space on campus for students to use Harding’s Bible-justified, but non-life-giving, non-soul-saving religious convictions as a backdrop to teach me about the real and vibrant Kingdom of God, too.

So I’m in a dilemma, because I agree with the observation that there are many alumni who went through Harding’s environment (that at least half of the Board has now voted to maintain) and have come out the other side very convicted, Christ-centered, Kingdom-promoting, Gospel-sharing citizens (as opposed to very convicted, CofC-centered, CofC-doctrine promoting, CofC-worship-practice-sharing ones). Something about this environment works to produce people committed to creating truer environments.

So the dilemma: do I want to change this backdrop that Harding’s official positions provide to create this faith-forming space between the Board and the students? Might this be a developmentally appropriate environment for the 18-22 year old to be in? Do our sons and daughters, like the disciples, need a somewhat rigid-Right institutional position to use for their own spiritual “teething,” providing a useful, off-the-mark ecclesiology upon which to discover a truer, more scriptural one? I must admit, nothing drove me into the scripture more than when my honest questions about deeply entrenched Church of Christ doctrines were met with pushback from some of the powers that be at Harding. It was perfect timing for me, and a perfect environment for me to zealously find my own faith in Jesus Christ. I don’t need an answer to this dilemma. I’m grateful for it, because it makes me both unafraid of and hopeful about, and finally, trusting God for where this all goes.

I can disagree with some convictions of some of the Board and still trust them as powerful and loving and Godly contributors to our student’s spiritual growth. One thing is for sure, and I want to be absolutely clear about this, I believe the motives behind their convictions are the exact same as mine. A desire to love God and be faithful to scripture.

That said, I would much rather Harding be a place that has stated core convictions, a Board, and a president that teaches our students, in institutional word and institutional deed, that the mainstream Church of Christ is all about faithfulness to Jesus Christ, no matter what. And this, even when that means that the Church of Christ must itself be transformed by the renewing of its corporate mind, because our movement-long commitment to being people of the Book will not be abandoned, even if that Book requires that we abandon other, lesser, movement-long commitments once seen as requirements of that Book.

While these thoughts and feelings are addressing issues that pre-date my knowing Dr. McLarty’s name, since I have mentioned him and his words in this piece, I wanted everyone to know that I am sending him these thoughts in letter form, addressed to him for his consideration. I don’t know Dr. McLarty personally, but people that I respect, respect him greatly, and I intend to continue to support Harding and him during his tenure there, which I know, one way or another, will exalt Christ and advance the Kingdom. I will be forever grateful to him for being willing to serve the Kingdom in this way.

May God bless us all, and may His grace fall over us, and may love abound even in our disagreements.

Doubts

7 December 2011

“When doubts come, and they will, beware of taking them too seriously.” – Your Truly

Doubt is probably not usually listed as one of your primary villains in life, but it should be. This little demon is so subtle that I don’t even know what to categorize it as. A feeling? A thought? An instinct?

Is it emotional or rational? Be careful answering too quickly. I’ve seen it come initially as an emotion, and then quickly rationalized in order to justify feeling it. And I’ve seen it come initially through a logical thought process, only to be defended quite emotionally when challenged with more logic.

Have you heard of homeostasis? It is something in your brain and body that is constantly at work to keep things the way they are. I sometimes wonder if doubt is as much physical as anything else.

Whatever it is, it is potentially insidious, and is certainly responsible for gazillions of hours of people’s attention every single day.

People have a love-hate relationship with doubt, too, so it is very difficult to want it to just go away forever. Add to that the legitimate role that doubt can play in life when properly utilized and you have the perfect backdrop for a conspiracy to sabotage the potential of your life and freeze you in your tracks (at least in any meaningful way).

Here are some of the spirit-killing ways in which doubt merges with otherwise good people:image

  • The Incessant Doubter – This person has the finely tuned gift of locating the unarguably significant obstacle in any idea, disguising his desire for the status quo under a cloak of “wisdom”.
  • The Last-Minute Doubter – This person likes to see themselves as fearless and bold, and will go through all the motions that lead up to the daring leap of faith, but at the last minute, can not go through with it because of some glaring issue that “only just came clear”.
  • The Doubting Dead – This person has become so assaulted by the inevitable doubts that arise with any plan whatsoever, that they have decided to avoid it’s dark discouragement by never doing anything of significant risk again. These doubters are invisible, since they need not lodge their doubts about anything they might do, because they are not doing anything.
  • The Selective Doubter – This person only mentions the doubts they have concerning other people’s plans or ideas that they themselves are uncomfortable with, or just too ego-driven to let any major course of action be anyone’s idea but their own.
  • The Self-Doubter – This person, under the guise of humility, spends far too much time looking for every possible reason to convict themselves of some impure motive, some disqualifying characteristic or past mistake, and gets frozen from action in the name of being “self-aware”.
  • The “Honest” Doubter – This person never wants to be seen as the reason that a plan, his own or someone else’s, is not pursued. So when he is the reason, he puts forth doubts as deal-breakers, and hides behind some form of the words, “I’m just sayin…”. They are never just sayin…

Can you think of others?

We have to master doubt. Doubt should be something that we use to refine plans, it should not use us to stop us from our plans.

You can spot the person who knows how to do this by how they present their doubts. Two different people can say the same words (“You know, I think that Jim Bob is going to have a tough time signing on to that,” or “Wow, that is going to cost a lot of money we don’t have”), and one means it as an end to the conversation, and the other means it as a legitimate obstacle that needs some conversation, brainstorming, idea-producing, and action.

It’s all in the tone of voice, and that tone comes from the intent in your spirit, and that spirit comes from your ability to be a “believer” or not, and that belief is proven genuine by your faith, and your faith is not real unless it results in bold action, and that action is impossible without confronting and mastering doubt.

It seems to me that Jesus didn’t take people’s doubt too seriously. He wants us to consider the validity of it’s source (Mt 4:31), and he suggests that it’s a troubling and unnecessary nuisance (Lk 24:28), and even challenges us to be like the ones who have overcome it (John 20:27-29).

But he never, ever made it a condition of followership. Even after he was resurrected from the dead, and he was meeting with his closest and most committed allies, scripture notes that these who had least reason to, doubted (Mt 28:17).

Jesus doesn’t even address it, rather he immediately pronounces onto these doubting disciples the most important commission that can be pronounced on anyone (Mt 28:18-20), and they ended up being world changers whose mission is still on the move today.

Beware of taking your doubts too seriously. 

Jury Duty

7 April 2011

I had an experience during jury duty this past Monday.

I was assigned to a panel, and along with about 35 others, went into the courtroom to undergo the questioning of each lawyer for jury selection (which is actually jury de-selection, since they are deciding who they don’t want serving).

I was way back on the 3rd row, so I went through about 2 hours of questioning without having to speak. But then the defense attorney asked a general question: “Do any of you know any law enforcement officers?” I was among those who raised their hands. His eyes landed on me first, I guess, and he says, “Okay, Mr. Mashburn. And you are Church of Christ preacher, right?”

Why was my knee-jerk reaction to feel like I had just been busted for something bad? Why was I feeling some emotional mixture of fear and defensiveness?

Now outwardly, I handled this just fine. I think I just calmly said, “Yes, sir, I am”.

Inwardly, however, I wanted to say, “Yes, but the Church of Christ I serve with is not what some of you might be thinking! And I am probably not like the Church of Christ minister that is popping into your head right now! And I do not believe or preach or focus on what some of you might have experienced from some of the Church of Christ people in your life!”

Outwardly, this whole thing just lasted a few seconds.

But inwardly, I had left the courtroom, trying to examine what this reaction in me was, where it has come from, if it is necessary or useful.

Pause.

Certainly, part of this has to do with me and my stuff. It has to do with me being confident about who and Whose I am, needing nothing (properly understood) from any man, and thereby settling into a sort of invulnerability against the judgments of people. This is all absolutely true and has been and continues to be my work.

But I also know that there is another part of this. A historical part based in reality. A part that has to do with a “Christian religion” replacing relationship with Christ, an “institutionalized legalism” replacing Christlike life, and “Church practices” replacing Church family. Yes, indeed, part of this has to do with the Church of Christ and her stuff.

So, back in the courtroom: I wasn’t the only one who reacted to the lawyer’s “outing” of me. Not everyone, but many in the courtroom (some with an urgent snap of the head and others nonchalantly acting as if they just happened to be looking in my direction anyway) turned their heads to get a look at me once the pronouncement was made.

Like they all wanted to know…what does one of those look like?

I can’t be sure what was going on in them, of course. Not everyone (maybe anyone) in that room was having a negative reaction to the news. But, because of far too many experiences, I am sensitive the fact that some may have.

Now, part of my sensitivity was from the lawyer identifying me as a “minister.” That title can carry it’s own generic baggage for some people these days. Maybe I get linked with the crazy guy in Florida who thinks burning a Koran is an effective way to represent Christ. Maybe I get associated with a Catholic priest who’s vow of celibacy was broken in the some of the worst ways. Maybe I get connected to some questionable TV evangelist.

But the major part of my defensiveness was the lawyer indentifying me with the Church of Christ.

  • Was that scowling woman going back to the time her Church of Christ minister or elder told her she could not leave her physically abusive husband unless he committed adultery?
  • Was that guy’s friendly smile because he’s a “Church of Christer” just glad to have a “brother” from the “Lord’s church” on the panel with him?
  • Were any of these folks Baptists, Pentecostals, or Catholics remembering how condemned they felt by zealous Church of Christers in the past for their “flawed beliefs” about baptism, prayers, the raising of hands, or the use of musical instruments in worship services?

I wish this was all in the far distant past, and pray that before too long it will be, but I know an older woman right here in my town who told me that her husband had stopped attending church due to physical limitations as she kept going faithfully. One Sunday, she approached an elder in their Church of Christ and asked if he would come over sometime and read the Bible to her husband (“Oh, how he loves that,” she told me). This elder angrily said that they at the church don’t owe her husband a thing since he didn’t bother to attend their church services.

Seriously?

I wonder if someone like her was in that jury pool? We were there to potentially judge some evidence and declare someone guilty or not guilty based on that evidence about drug possession. All of a sudden, with just a “title” thrown out there without some disclaimers, I felt like this jury was out on me and the group that I am a part of.

Hear me…I’m beyond grateful that I am a part of a Church of Christ family that humbly works to live up to the name on our building outside, trying to be a church that is actually “of Christ”. This stellar group of people is journeying together, transforming more and more into Christ’s image, imitating (by God’s grace) Christ’s heart, character, mission, and priorities.

I’m proud to be a minister at the Southwest Church of Christ.

But am I right to be sensitive about this? Is this concern outdated in your circle of influence? In your own heart?

The Potential of Small Group Relationships

1 October 2010

“[The small group] was full of sweet and patient Christ followers who would allow me to ask questions without feeling ashamed or embarrassed.” – a report from a friend of a friend of mine who decided to follow Christ at 29 years old

A good friend of mine told me about a girl he dated as a young man. He was very fond of her, but because of his pursuit of Christ’s life and her lack of it, they parted ways.

Some would say it’s not a good reason for a couple to break up, that their love for one another should be enough. In some cases, and depending on the maturity of the couple, I would say that’s true. In others, however, I would suggest that the the life and ways of a devoted Christ follower are so vastly different from all other ways of life that the act of love for one another is to break up – if they weren’t going to attempt it together (Paul says this a little bit more bluntly than I would in 2 Corinthians 6:14-16). 

Anyway, out of the blue, 15 years later, he gets a letter from this girl. Here’s some excerpts:

I am writing to share with you and your family the place you marked in my journey with Christ. When you and I knew each other I did not know God. I remember how you responded to me. You started inviting me to church and gently talking to me about God to try and get a grasp of where I was in my belief system. One evening you tearfully pleaded with me to realize God is real and wants me to be His. At the time, I felt offended and put off and I could not grasp what you were trying to explain to me.

It would be years later before God would rescue me and pull me into a relationship with Him. I was 29 years old when I was baptized.

I married a wonderful Christian man when I was 24 and still a “non-knower”. He hosted a Bible study in our home and it was full of sweet and patient Christ followers who would allow me to ask questions without feeling ashamed or embarrassed. My precious husband lovingly supported and lead me to Christ and I will be forever thankful.

Sometimes I would wonder why God waited so long to save me. Then I remembered you. You were the first person to really talk to me about who God is and what He wants from us. God did love me all along. Even when I was not seeking Him, He called on me.

I think a lot about God and how He loves us and how He uses us to love on each other. I hope you are still bold and courageous for Christ. Thank you wanting so desperately for me to know God 15 years ago. May it encourage you to know that even though I rejected that message that day- today it marks an expression of God’s love for me, through you, even when I was lost and not seeking.

My friend was a relational expression of God’s love for her. The group of folks that met in her house were too.

Because of where we are as a church here in Amarillo, I couldn’t help but notice not just the message that she heard (the greatest one I’ve ever heard) but the method through which she was able to hear it.

She heard it through relationships.

Not sermons on Sunday. Not a large group gathering in a building designated for it. I’m not opposed to those things, and indeed they can be an expression of God’s love for people, but they are not relational expressions of God’s love. The sermon can be heard through the computer as easily as it can be heard on Sunday. The large group gatherings in a church building can be as impersonal and non-participatory as a movie in a theatre.

But individuals with other individuals (ie: small groups) have a better chance at the relational part of expressing God’s love.Small Groups Logo - no words

Our leaders are asking everyone in our church family to reorganize ourselves into small groups. Not because it’s the only way to make disciples of Christ. But because the unique call on the Southwest church is to make disciples through relationships. And small groups are a better way for all of us to learn how to do relationships (an under-practiced skill, as you know) and then communicate Christ’s love and message to others through them.

My friend is doing it, and evidently, has been for a long, long time.

May God bless all of us who have found a better life in Christ to share it by being sweet and patient, relationally expressing God’s love for people, open to questions and conversations with anyone and everyone without making them feel embarrassed or ashamed.

Here is What We are Doing

4 September 2010

“Pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” – Jesus

The church family I run with is making a profound change. Like right now.

We are moWhite pewsving from pews to living rooms. From one big room to dozens of small ones. From one large central location to numerous small ones all over town. From a single centralized gathering to many scattered out gatherings.

As my new friend John in Atlanta says, we are moving “out of rows and into circles”.   Circle Couch

Why?

A circle calls for more participation from everyone. A circle invites more authentic interaction with people. A circle meets more people where they are at. A circle is more personal. A circle can address a broader spectrum of subjects custom fit for a broader number of people.  A circle is more intimate. A circle is less consumeristic. A circle notices when someone is missing. A circle ask “how are you doing?” and exists to have time for a real answer. A circle is more relational. A circle is more likely to live out the dozens of “one another” instructions in scripture. A circle is less likely to fall into a mind numbing religious routine.

Now…read that last paragraph again replacing the words “a circle” with the name “Jesus”.

You see it?

A church of circles needs more leaders developed. A church of circles goes out into all the world rather than needing the world to come in. A church of circles trusts the Holy Spirit to move and act through more people. A church of circles represents the Kingdom in more and varied places, in more and varied ways. A church of circles is agile and able to plant churches from it’s own number for more people groups where those people groups live. The ministry of a church of circles is definitely more messy than a church of lecture hall and classroom, but it is also less constrained by anything or anyone that would stand opposed to it’s mission. A church of circles is to it’s city what leaven is to bread…it makes the whole thing rise.

Now…read that last paragraph again replacing the word “circles” with “Christ”.

Isn’t it obvious…why we are doing this, I mean?

Our church family feels commissioned to make disciples of Jesus Christ through relationships. For too long we’ve been trying to make disciples through a meeting on Sunday mornings. We’ve even tried to use the meeting to develop relationships…with some success, I might add.

But if we can do it better, we should. We must. And now we are. We’ve been talking about it for a long time. Both our duty and our love compels us. So every single one of us in our church family is being asked by our leaders to circle up – with a few friends – and gather weekly for the purpose of relationally helping each other become more like Christ.

When we do…

  • Goal 1 is for all of us to learn how to better be in deeper relationship with each other.
  • Goal 2 is for each of us to offer that kind of relationship to people who are spiritually lonely.
  • Goal 3 is for to offer that someone our whole group of friends.
  • Goal X (the one that “marks the spot” that all of this revolves around) is that everyone gets into deeper relationship with God, becoming more like Christ, and experiencing a fuller life.

To make this personal, I want my wife, my sons Shade & Jakin, and my daughter Callie to have a tight group of friends that exists to help each of them become more like Christ. I want that for me, too. You, too. Our church family is organizing to help with that. And then offer it to everyone.

Creating tight groups of spiritual friends. That’s what our church is doing. As many times as (super-)humanly possible, that is what we are doing.

I’ll post more details about what we specifically mean by “a tight group of spiritual friends”.

I’ll post how we are using our church-family resources create & sustain these city-penetrating groups in ever-increasing numbers.

I’ll post the steps we are taking this Fall (our “Give Groups a Try” campaign) to move all of our current family members “from rows to circles”.

But for now, do you see how this differs for people substantially (as opposed to superficially)? How it changes the typical church member’s “religious practices”? How it calls for more loving relationships out of more people? How it offers loving relationships to the world? How much more human it is? How much more potential there is for it to offer life-giving, Christ-exalting relationships with more and a wider array of people in our city?

Do you see why we are opting for this kind of change rather than the superficial changes of how we do worship on Sundays? Or what day of the week we offer it? Or what time? Or how women should be “allowed” to participate? Or whether classes are offered before or after worship? Or how long the sermon should be, or what teaching style is used, or who is preaching it? Or the role musical instruments will play? Or whether the Lord’s Supper is offered monthly or weekly or in one cup or multiple ones? Or what we name our church on the church sign by the street? Or whether we should sing ancient or contemporary songs or both?

We want to become more relationally connected to each other & then to our world, so that when we invite people to “our church,” we’re inviting them into a circle of good and spiritual friends of depth, rather than to a auditorium ushering in rows of friendly and polite people.

We’re changing things. You can hear more about it here from our elders.

The New Wine has Burst the Wineskin

27 August 2010

“Pour new wine in old wineskins and the skins will burst.” – Jesus Christ

The skins have burst. 

It’s not going to happen. It has happened.

No, not for everyone. Perhaps not even for the majority of you reading this blog. But for most people, it has.

There is Wineskina “new wine” that we are serving. I, for one, am one of the people that have been willing to try to serve it in the old wineskin. It has not been without some success, I can admit. But the success has come in the form of converting current church goers that the new wine is truer & better than the old. And this has been good.

But if success is partially measured (and it is) by how powerfully and effectively we are serving up this new wine to people in our world (outside the church, that is), then we are failing miserably.

The good news is that the church people I run with have at least agreed with (and been energized and freed by) the quality of the new wine.

And it tastes better. It makes more human sense without compromising it’s holiness. It’s not that the old wine isn’t accurate, really. It’s that the old wine isn’t enough. Here’s my best attempt at a simple summary of the old wine vs. the new:

 

Old

New

Goal:

Baptism for salvation

Discipleship for Kingdom Identity

Strategy:

Develop Programs to get people to church with Christians

Develop Missionaries to give people relationships with Christians

Teaching:

Live Morally

Live Christlike

Authority:

The Bible

Jesus

Meetings:

Present the gospel to an audience

Live out the gospel with a community

 

While this new wine (our message) has been delivered to our church through the old wineskin (Sunday morning services), our leadership has decided (after much, much trial, patience, and prayer) that the old wineskin (Sunday morning services) is just not capable of containing and delivering this new wine (our message) to the world we live in that desperately needs it.

So… we are changing the wineskin. We will deliver our new message through a new means.

I’ll tell you what we are doing…but for now, what is your reaction to my summary of the new goal, strategy, teaching, authority, and meeting? Is this accurate? Does the new seem to be truer, as I claim?

Change How You Do Church or Watch Your Church Die

25 August 2010

“You do not pour new wine into old wineskins. If you do, the skins will burst, and the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. What you are to do is pour new wine into new wineskins. Then both are preserved.” – Jesus Christ

I happen to think that every generation needs (and deep down, wants) the message of life that Jesus Christ offers.

Who doesn’t want life to the fullest? The desire for life explains every single thing a human being does.

But not every generation seems to want to join the group that attempts to live in and live out that message of Christ (the church). According to a Thomas Rainer study:

  • 65% of the Builder generation attends church
  • 35% of the Boomer generation attends
  • 15% of Generation X (my generation) attends
  • 4% of the Millennials attend

The vote is in. At an exponential rate, the way we do church is not working as a wineskin for delivering the greatest message the world has ever known.

As you can see, the way we do church worked great for my grandparents generation. Most of them still go!

But 65% of my big brother’s and parents generations have stopped.

85% of my peers have, too. And a whopping 96% of young adults are just not having their hearts captured by the community of Christ the way they are offering it right now.

You can see why, generally speaking, the younger generations of people who have stuck with church are hungry for something new, and the older generation is usually more cautious about changing things.

More to come on this…but let me end this piece with the clear pronouncement that by CHANGE THINGS I do NOT mean anything as superficial as changing the worship style, or preaching style, or name of the church. If that stuff would work, it already would have. There is every worship & preaching style known to man available in the relatively small town I live in and it has NOT put a dent in the stats.

We must change much more meaningfully than that.

My Ever-Changing Relationship with Church

20 April 2010

Go and make disciples of all nations.” – the commission of Jesus to his church

“The only obstacle that church leadership faces in better organizing itself around Christ’s commission is their love for the church members.” – Yours Truly

“Love never stopped Jesus from progression toward his mission. Love fueled it.” – Yours Truly

I love the church. Always have for as long as I can remember.

Interestingly, as I survey my life, I can identify different stages and expressions of that love. By doing that, I can better see what stage I am in now, and then maybe even predict (or is it imagine?, or is it create?) how I will express it in my old age.

In the beginning, I looked to the church with excitement. By beginning, I really do mean it, because I was born into a church-going family. In my earliest memories, church represented a welcome and fun interruption to my otherwise somewhat ordinary week. There were other excitements in my life, but none as reliable and steadfast as “going to church” regularly as a kid. I remember loving nursery care, fun classes, loud singing, energetic puppet shows, new friends, and along with all of it, a sense of importance behind everything we were doing that went beyond what we were doing.

At some point, I began to look to the church with comfort.  It was what I was used to and could depend on. It became a friend, and I’m not just talking about the people. I could rely and anchor something deep in my soul to the rituals that my church used in their services. Two songs, a prayer, a song, a scripture reading, a song, a sermon, and song with an invitation to walk to the front, and then dismissal. It became a rhythm that was so normal and assumed, like breathing or mealtimes, that any interruption or variation was at a minimum very noticeable, and at a maximum, unacceptable.

It’s a blurry boundary that I can’t pinpoint, but I began to look to the church with satisfaction. It was home. This “home” was not so much with the people there, but with the people who were satisfied with the same things I was. And all of us were satisfied with how we did church and equating how we did it with true Christianity. I guess that our church hit the balance of calling for enough sacrifice, while not calling for so much, that as long as I did what the church called for, I felt like a fully developed Christian. Which made me feel satisfaction.

But slowly and surely, and in pretty dramatic fashion, I started looking to the church with longing. This switch came through a combination of factors that conspired to make me into someone who wanted “more” from church. My own personal study of scripture was one of those factors (the life it called for didn’t seem to match up with what I was experiencing). A traumatic family event was another (my family moved outside the scope of functioning that the church was trained to handle). A third factor was the surfacing of some deep need within me for authentic, real relationships (the church said it was the community where I should find them, but I didn’t). Another was the awakening of a desire to make an actual difference in the world to actual people (the message of Jesus seemed to be the best way to do that, and I thought his message belonged to the church, but it often carried a slight but significant distortion of that message). All of this, and probably more, combined to make me look to the church as if it should deliver all this to me.

Having lost my satisfaction, and thinking the church should meet these longings, I began to look to the church with responsibility. The church is me, after all, and if the church isn’t meeting some of the many valid human longings that Jesus says he meets, then it is at least partially on me to transition the church into doing so. It sounds quite noble, empowering, and self-responsible, I know. But I think I’m currently shedding the last bit of residue of this stage, still feeling some of it, but it is quickly giving way to to something that looks the same outwardly, but is much healthier inwardly.

That is, I now look to the church with opportunity. The church is my opportunity to be a part of the community of people who relate with God and each other and the world in a way that delivers the most abundant life available to people.

All of these stages have been valid, useful, and shaping for me. All of these companions of mine, different expressions of my love for the church, have actually been necessary for the church to do with me what Jesus commissioned it to do… shape me more and more into the image of Jesus Christ. In this beautiful way, the church has fulfilled (and is fulfilling) it’s great commission…to make a disciple of me.

It’s interesting to look back and observe that as I was experiencing each one, each stage seemed to be the pinnacle of love for the church.

And in a way, I guess each one was…for me…at the time.

I hope you can see as clearly as I the thread of God’s activity in and through all of these stages. I’m grateful for and honor each one.

And to do that today is to own and fully engage with and enjoy the stage that I am currently in. So for today, I have been given the opportunity to shape the church (which, no matter what else it includes, means to shape myself) to reflect and offer the commission of Jesus Christ to my world a little bit better than it does right now. In this looking to the church with opportunity, and acting, I honor what it is God is doing to shape me with the church, and to shape the church with me.

Like all the stages, and contrary to what it feels like when in each one, it won’t last long. Way sooner than I may be comfortable with, this opportunity will be handed down to my kids. And they, above all else, help me stay diligent and desirous of not being wasteful of this stage…inasmuch as it has to do with me.

But when this stage passes, what is next? When I’m done looking to the church with opportunity, what will be left?

Love. Just love. I will look to the church with love. My imagination says that the next stage will not be needing any more qualifiers to try to describe how it is I’m showing that love. I should be agile enough, mature enough, and Christ-like enough to need nothing from it, to feel no burdensome or guilt-producing obligation to it, but only love…which produces whatever labor from me that will be demanded in each and every moment, no matter the cost. I will show love for everyone at every stage, and hopefully be useful as a guide for anyone at any stage, personally and relationally, to help anyone (inside or outside the church) take their next step towards the point of it all…intimacy and relationship with God.

This point of the church was the point of Jesus Christ. That is why the church is called Christ’s. And we each members of not just “it”…but “him.”

God help me.

My Angst of the Day

25 February 2010

I got this email today from a friend. And while this kind of note or phone call is common for me, today I’m just in a space where it triggered some deep emotion.

Brian: [I have met] a young man that you might be able to connect with. He’s really adrift and feeling pretty worthless. His dad is in prison (don’t know for what) and he is terribly afraid of disappointing his grandfather. He doesn’t seem to have a strong connection to his mom. I thought if maybe you could find the time to just come and have a coke with him, you might be able to connect with him. He apparently goes to (or has in the past) church, but he’s really struggling with his faith along with everything else. Let me know what you think – he sounded like he would be willing to talk to you if you would be willing. Thanks.

If you got this email from your friend, what would you do?

There are not many circumstances that I can say this about, but for this one, I can say that I know exactly what I will do.

I’ve already emailed my friend back to tell her I’m willing and asked her for the best way for he and I to connect.

I’ve already prayed for this guy. And not so much that all of his problems will disappear, but for me to start seeing and feeling him as a real human being…to have an openness to accept him as a brother or possibly as a son. This is so I won’t treat him like a some kind of “project” or as an inconvenience to my routine or as a problem to be fixed or as an issue to pass on to someone or something else. I’ll have to return to this prayer constantly, and I will.

I’ll then drive down there and buy him a coke and listen to him deeply and single-mindedly. Since you can’t really listen to someone while doing anything else (contrary to popular belief and practice), I’ll work hard to ignore the distractions of my phone, my thoughts, and my watch. I’ll have to do this work constantly, and I will.

Then, and I guarantee this, I will feel completely over-whelmed and over-my-head, baffled with questions of how to help him and what to do next. This happens every time, and I’ve come to expect it…even welcome it… for me, it’s always proof positive that I have followed God, and will need Him to be of any use. 

Even with this, I still know what I’ll do next. I will invite him to my basement on Tuesday nights at 8:30pm, and/or to my living room on Sunday evenings at 5:30 for him to get to know a whole bunch of us who have felt (or does feel) like him and are experimenting with how Christ can help us connect with God & each other in a way that heals, restores, and transforms.

That’s pretty much the extent of what I’ll do.

But here’s what will happen next: If and when he comes to either of these groups, he will be engaged personally, invited to share his story (and hear ours, if he is at first uncomfortable in sharing his, which you may surprised is rarely the case), and surrounded by support and love. Then, if and when he is willing, his name and phone number will be in about a dozen new people’s cell phones, and theirs in his. No matter how he has sinned, what his personality is like, what quirkiness he exhibits, he will be in the midst of people that love to work a little bit harder than most I know (Christian or not) to find this guy’s beauty and potential as a child of God. Inasmuch as this guy wants it, he will be accepted where he is at and challenged to take responsibility for moving towards the best possible life available to him…the life of Christ.

This is my life. It is a good, good life. And when I do this, I feel more like I’m being the church that Christ intended than I ever have.

And here’s the thing…for me to have the agility and ability to do that when the opportunity arises (which it does for everyone when you have eyes to see), I have to already have in place something else. A system.

I kinda hate the clunkiness of the word, but I need one, so I’m going with it.

I can do what I’m going to do because of a system that I already have in place that makes room for this guy in my life (or in my “church”). This system (which is, simply put, a couple of small groups that meet weekly for the purpose of taking off the mask and helping each other become more like Christ) is almost completely relationally based, demands involvement from anyone who would come, gets to matters of the heart quickly, and believes in everybody.

How many people in this city do you think generally fit the description that my friend has chosen to describe this guy?

  • He’s “adrift”
  • Struggling to feel worthy
  • Spiritually fatherless
  • Afraid of disappointing others
  • Lacking strong connections with important people
  • Has tried church and is left wanting
  • Struggling with faith

And here’s the kicker, and the opportunity that I keep finding with almost everyone I meet “…he sounds like he would be willing to talk if I am willing to talk.”

And I am. This is my life. And I love it.

My day job consists of me trying to transition an incredibly loving and committed, but stereo-typical local church, from one system to another. A system that better makes room for this guy and addresses what my friend said he’s ready, willing, and open to addressing. A system that is more relationally based (like Christ), demands involvement from anyone who participates (like Christ), gets to matters of the heart quickly (like Christ), and believes in everybody (like Christ).

Simply said, I’m trying to transition this church into one that has a system that invites people to sit down over a coke and talk.

Our current system invites people to sit down, alright. “Sit down” in a big room with pews and listen to a preacher. “Sit down” in some smaller rooms and listen to a teacher. In some of the rooms, the teacher might even invite you to talk for a moment. Shoot, they may even hand out those cokes! But the likelihood that our current system will connect with you and talk…really talk… about your feelings of unworthiness, or fatherlessness, or fear of disappointing others, or in your faith struggle, or of your being “adrift” are quite slight, and would require a whole lot of initiative on your part.

Now…the message in the system we currently use is good. Jesus Christ has come to give us life, life to the full. Forgiveness is yours. Love is real. God is accessible. Purpose is available. Death is defeated. But the system being used to deliver that unchanging message needs to be changed.

I wish I could say that our current system was bad. Transitioning into a new, better system would be so much easier if our current system was just plain bad. But it’s not. It does some good. And further, in the past, when it was operating within the culture it was designed for, it has done some incredible good… including for some of the people who are currently within it. As a result, some have deep affection not just for Christ and his message, but for the system that was used to deliver them to Christ. This makes altering it very, very difficult. It’s human nature, really, not villainous. Just like we hang on to old high school letter jackets that don’t fit anymore because of the good that we associate with it, we hang on to our old church systems that don’t fit anymore because of the Good that we associate with it.

But the emails and the phone calls and the friends of friends of friends who are looking for life keep coming in. I will pass approximately 20-30 churches on the way to meet this guy over a coke, all of whom deliver the same message that I will deliver, but through systems that don’t work for him.

If we would just interpret the culture we live in as diligently as we attempt to interpret holy scripture, I believe we would find that he represents an ever-increasing number of our nation.

God help us.

My Love-Hate Relationship with Systems

17 February 2010

“If we remain tightly enclosed within our system, it becomes an idol; but if we reject any system, we drown in the ocean of undefined chaos.” – Your Truly, adapted from a quote by Father Dumitru Staniloae

“Every creator (including ours, the Creator of everything) painfully experiences the chasm between his inner vision and its ultimate expression.  That’s what keeps art alive.” – Isaac Bashevis Singer

“If you are not producing the results you want, you need to realize that you are producing exactly what your system is designed to produce.” – Andy Stanley

“I have a dream.” – Martin Luther King

I have a dream, too.

I have a dream of a world where every single person in it is being lovingly and powerfully invited into life-giving, life-saving relationships. No one should be alone. No one should be without love. No one should be without God.

I’m striving to work out that dream in my little corner of the world by transitioning a very loving church who has the same dream out of a semi-decent system into a more productive and effective one.

What I’m doing here with my elders and this great group of people reminds me of what Jethro was doing with Moses and another great group of people. Let me add a couple of quotes here:

“What you are doing is not good.” – Jethro, to Moses, in Exodus 18, on the system he was using to lead the people of God

“Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you.” – Jethro, to Moses, before he suggested an entirely new system for leading the people of God

First let me say that what the group of Christians that I run with in Amarillo does is good. They love God and love each other with all of their hearts. They serve each other at the drop of a hat. They are thinkers, they are “feelers”, and they are doers. When issues are brought to their attention, someone mobilizes a few to do something productive and good about it. They love Jesus as the single most important obsession of their lives. They pray to connect with God, and they pray to move God on behalf of others. They count prayer as one of the best tools they have to serve people, but don’t hide behind it in order to justify non-involvement with those people. The number of meals being cooked by people here for others outside their own family would astound you. The number of kids and orphans and widows that will eat a meal today or have a place to sleep tonight in places like Zimbabwe and the Ukraine and the Philippines because of this group would humble you. The number of people all over Europe, Africa, South America and in prisons throughout the U.S. that will be guided towards Christ through the mail next week because of a rag-tag band of disciples who are right now in the office next to mine is mind boggling. The number of people in this city who have been and are currently surrounded by loving, caring, “I’ll-take-the-shirt-off-my-back” relational support is amazing.

What the group of Christians that I run with in Amarillo does is so good.

And contrary to what Jethro said, what Moses was doing in Exodus 18 was good, too. When Jethro questioned him about his activity, Moses explained that  “the people come to me to seek God’s will.” He showed Jethro the deep needs and conflicts and dilemma’s of the people, and how he spent his days pointing them to God, problem-solving, and peace-making.

That’s good, right? Of course it is.

Then why, pray tell, did Jethro say it wasn’t?

It was not what Moses was doing, but how he was doing it that Jethro was critiquing. See, Jethro was a “systems-thinker”. A seer, if you will. He could see beyond the good work being done, to the system being utilized to do it, and he saw that while the mission was good and right, the system was not. It left too many people frustrated and it left the leadership (Moses) burned out and tired. Keep it up, and either Moses would have quit on the people or the people would have quit on Moses.

So…wise Jethro offered a new system for Moses to try.

He said, “select capable men from all the people — men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain — and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied.”

This describes the conversation that the leadership at Southwest is having right now. We are attempting to become “systems-thinkers”. Seers, if you will. Like Moses, we have a mission that is good (to “make disciples of Christ through relationships”), but we are delivering that mission through an old system.

Mind you, we are doing it with some success, and it is exciting to see the fruit. It is, indeed, good.

But the “spirit of Jethro” has come upon us saying to us as a leadership what it said of Moses’ leadership, “What you are doing is not good.” And it’s not being critical of our mission, or trying to call all the good that is happening, bad. It’s trying to get us to look deeper…at our delivery system…and see if we can’t potentially deliver our mission better.

This has powerful applications in all areas of my life. My marriage, my work, my disciplines, my parenting…so many of the problems aren’t really the problems. It is the system that is underneath it.

I love systems because they will produce exactly what they are designed to produce. I hate systems because they can become a trap, and lure people into a stubborn commitment to them, making systems-work the hardest work in the world.

But it is the work of anyone who wants to change the world. And I do.