Earlier this week the focus of Christian Twitter's outrage shifted away from Beth Moore (at least for a few days) to a small church outside the Twin Cities. The St. Paul Pioneer Press ran an article with the headline "Cottage Grove church to usher out gray-haired members in effort to attract more young parishioners." In case you missed all the hoopla, in essence a declining church announced it would shut down and re-launch with an emphasis on new music and a younger pastor. Many who were at the meeting when it was announced felt it was an attempt to push out the older members, and they pointed to a memo as part of the relaunch plan. Sarah Bailey with the Washington Post offers some additional help in seeing the intent of both the main campus and the regional conference to try to establish a vibrant and thriving church in the area.
Whatever is going on in Cottage Grove, there are two realities that we have to acknowledge:
1. Failing to change is a path to death for any church
2. Every church has a life cycle, and none are guaranteed forever
The situation at Cottage Grove is one not unfamiliar to many churches around the country, regardless of denomination. It's easy to pick on the UMC as a test case of the decline of mainline denominations, but even in our very conservative SBC tribe, churches are facing the same issues Cottage Grove is. The finances are a wreck, attendance is dwindling, and they sit in a facility they can no longer use, afford to maintain, or downsize.
One of the things the article exposed in the big picture is the perception that churches practice, directly or indirectly, an exclusion of older members in the name of change. The stereotype is that older attenders are in the way of change, and rather than work with them the answer is to work around them. Can I say there's a theological term for that? Idiotic.
It's idiotic because the church is a Body. Paul's language of the church in 1 Corinthians is that it's a Body with many parts. Not everyone is an eye, nor is everyone a foot. Implied in that is that we aren't all alike in the church. We're made of a wonderful cross-section or tapestry of the community around us. Normally our communities aren't monolithic. They're made of old and young, middle class and struggling, white and minority, blue collar and professional. In some cases and in some communities, the makeup of the church will be more homogenous, but it ought not be exclusively homogenous. Churches on a college campus will likely be mostly 20 somethings, but that church also needs gray hair. Churches in retirement areas will likely be mostly over 70, but that church needs young families as well.
It's idiotic because the church is a Family. Our family gatherings are the bringing together of 3-4 generations. Our parents can still remember separate water fountains, the moon landing, and the fascination with the microwave. Their parents can remember ration stamps and the Depression. Our kids have never known a time without Netflix. And then there's us Xennials who grew up with payphones and now have everything about our lives in our pocket. Families are like that. Families are spread out. And they come together under one common thing, the table. The church does the same, but the table is the Lord's Supper. When we take the Lord's Supper we're participating in a family gathering, where everyone comes together. It's a beautiful picture.
It's idiotic because the church is an Outpost. We're citizens of another Kingdom, strangers and aliens in this one. It's not our home, we're residents of this world but our passports are from heaven. So the church is the outpost, or embassy, of our home Kingdom. When we exclude or push away people who don't "fit" what we're aiming for, we're telling them they're not welcome on their home soil. None of us would want to be turned away at the US Embassy if we were visiting another country. It's the same with the church. We are the outpost of safe refuge, where we can gather with one another for encouragement, fellowship, fuel, and to be sent back out on mission.
At times we are wise and effective to target specific points of outreach or programmatic ministry. I love that churches have senior adult ministries and ways to reach out to those who are in that group. I love churches with student ministries to reach into communities and places that senior adults can't be (Ms. Ethel can't be in your algebra class). I even love churches that have a special night dedicated to engage college students and young adults. But those aren't in place of the gathered church in worship. Our aim as pastors must be to lead our churches forward, together.
How have you seen your church move forward together?
*Hat tip to 9Marks and Jonathan Leeman's book Church Membership for the Body, Family, Embassy imagery
For pastors, it doesn't take long to realize our time is going to be spent on a lot of things. We'll be in meetings, we'll be in meetings to talk about future meetings, we'll visit people in their homes or in the hospital, we'll spend time in counseling and soul care, we'll disciple people, lead staff, unclog a toilet or two, and have more meetings. But the highest task of a pastor is preaching.
Preaching is both our most visible and our most central in the life of the church. Preaching is more than biblical instruction for knowledge, it's training for living, an encouragement to the downcast, a way of helping people develop a biblical worldview, and a painting of God's immeasurable glory.
Every week, we're expected to stand up, open a Bible, and have something to say. Nothing will discredit a pastor except moral failure like one who has nothing to say on a Sunday. It comes around every 7 days. Unless your worship services change the schedule, it will be at the same time. It's inevitable, even on Daylight Savings, Sunday is coming. It's like a clock in our head that starts the moment the last person (usually the pastor) pulls out of the parking lot.
That's why I wrote FAQ: Six Questions to Ask Before Sunday. It's a primer for pastors, a guide for helping us to think about how to move from Sunday to Sunday with a message to share with God's people. One of the best things for me in writing was getting to share it with and get a foreword from, as I've known him since high school, Brother Tim. Dr. Beougher was the first example of a preacher in my life, and his impact is still something I am grateful for.
Those six questions are:
1. How do I pick a text?
2. What does the text mean?
3. How is the text changing me?
4. Who is my audience?
5. Where is the Gospel?
6. Why does it matter?
It's available as a paperback and on Kindle. Hopefully this short work helps us to preach more faithfully for God's glory in the church!
As kids we all learned the nursery rhyme about the church, the steeple, and the people. It's a way for us to see the church as a structure with a familiar style (open doors, a building, the image of a steeple, and a classic architecture). Even if a church meets in a warehouse, movie theater, a back porch, or in a sprawling suburban campus, there's still imprinted in our minds a form of the church and its familiar shape.
So it's with keeping that familiar imagery in mind I want to think about what it means for the church to live out the two greatest commandments, to love God and to love neighbor. That, in essence, is the summary of the Law according to Jesus. And because we are still under an obligation of obedience even in Christ, we recognize that our duty, our response, our worship of Jesus is expressed through faithfully living out what He has called us to. Love God. Love Neighbor.
Yesterday was the first in a series through the Seven Churches of Revelation and what we can take from them. The first was Ephesus, the church that had a loveless orthodoxy. They had all the right answers, held to all the correct doctrine, and did all the right things, but the charge against them from Jesus was that they had forgotten/abandoned the love they had at first (or their first love - it's a bit of a sticky interpretive issue). As I chewed on that, I kept coming back around to some undeniable assumptions about the local church:
1) There is a foundation of Truth - We don't get to redefine things, God has spoken and has declared what is good and right and true. This canon has been meticulously and faithfully preserved in the Scripture. We know about God, ourselves, and how we are to live and relate to Him.
2) Truth overflows into a twofold expression of Love and Action - The truth of Scripture about God is that He is not distant, removed, or callous. He is near, loving, and merciful. He is generous. He is good. And because of His initiative and affections and actions towards us, we love Him. And not only do we love Him but we also serve Him. A deficient view of Truth can lead people away from Love and Action because a deficient view of Truth fails to see God as He truly is.
3) The church is, has been, and will continue to be God's Plan A - The vehicle of redemption and transformation of not just individuals but culture and the world will always be the local church. God loves the Church. Jesus calls it His Bride. And each and every local church is an outpost and embassy of God's Kingdom to reach its community and the world. The vehicle is not a denomination, missions agency, or community ministry.
Which brings us to the model below.
At the top of the building is the steeple, where everything comes together. In this, the steeple is the vertical and horizontal axes of love that God commands of us: love for God and love for Neighbor. Our vertical relationship with God is to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. It's more than feelings. It captures our thoughts, it drives our actions, it stirs our souls. It changes us. All of us. From within and outside. Likewise, not as a secondary but more as a 1A, is the other of the Greatest Commandments: love your neighbor as yourself. A church founded on Truth, supported by Love and Service as the outflow of Truth, will live out not only the vertical of our relationship with God but also the horizontal in how we love our Neighbor.
The church at Ephesus was one that was marked by a commitment to Truth but without the same commitment to Love. Jesus' warning to them was to repent and return, to recapture that love, or else their lamp stand would be removed. Removing the lamp stand would mean taking the source of their light away, Jesus Himself. It would become a "church" where Jesus wasn't. Those same words apply to us at Emmanuel or wherever you're reading this. If we aren't committed to the expression of Truth through Love and Service, thereby fulfilling the two Greatest Commandments, we shouldn't be surprised when Jesus moves out.
It was nice to be back home after traveling for almost 2 weeks for the annual "Christmas in Kentucky" tour. The kids got spoiled from Santa and the grandparents (we counted 4 Christmases total) and we got to spend time with our families, including my new niece!
Yesterday we spent time in Philippians 3 and I couldn't escape the phrase from Paul "forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead." Out of that came four particular ways for us as a church to strain forward.
1. A commitment to regular time in the Word - A few years ago a massive study group was formed to understand the back door in the SBC, where we would see thousands baptized but our numbers shrink. The realization was that it wasn't an evangelism issue a discipleship. Out of that group came the observation that regular Bible engagement was the top way to grow. Our regular time in the Word is nourishment to our soul, and we would be hard pressed to grow spiritually apart from a steady diet of what God has said to us. For Emmanuel, my prayer is that we would be a church who feasts on the Word, and doesn't settle for getting one meal a week. How you define regular is up for grabs. It can be daily or 3-5 times a week, and it can be a short or long reading. The point is to be regularly in the Word.
2. A commitment to finding where God is working now - In 1985 Bruce Springsteen had a hit with the song Glory Days, where he sings about people whose best days were long behind them and they still lived in that moment. Churches fall victim to that when they fail to see where God is at work now. They do things the way they always had, and get frustrated that the results aren't the same. Our message doesn't change, but the means do. And it's up to us to find out where God is working and join him there (thanks Blackaby for that one in Experiencing God). History is invaluable as a testimony of past faithfulness, but idolizing the past can lead to both resentment and a distraction from mission. My prayer for Emmanuel is that we'd see where God is working around us, we'd see the neighbors He has given, and we'd love our community.
3. A commitment to engaging people who don't know Christ - One of the snares that churches and Christians can fall into is what Emma Green in the Atlantic calls "cultural secession." In essence, rather than engage the culture, the Church and Christians withdraws from culture and creates its own, self-sustaining community. In the Atlantic article, it talks about the pros and cons of a very conservative sect of Catholicism and its impact on the surrounding community (including the "townies" who aren't part of the SSPX majority). When Churches and Christians engage in cultural secession, we're withdrawing from the very people we have been placed alongside for. We have been given our neighbors, coworkers, friends, gym members, and the guy who walks his dog every morning by your house for a reason: to be salt and light. As the Church moves into a cultural minority, it's imperative for us to be intentional about our witness and mission. For Emmanuel, my prayer is that we'd each find our "One" to pray for and share Jesus with.
4. A commitment to be an agent of unity in the Church - In this passage, I saw an implicit connection between maturity and unity. Maturity lends itself towards living out Colossians 3:13 to bear and forgive. In any church, uniformity is dangerous. We're made to be different. We're uniquely gifted, called, experienced, and come from a variety of backgrounds. Unlike any other institution, the Church brings together people from all walks of life for an eternal purpose. A baseball game will bring together thousands of diverse people together, but their purpose is to cheer on the home team. For the church, our diversity is a way of engaging the nations and our neighbors. That's why unity is so important. Unity keeps a church going in the same direction, focused on mission, clear on vision, and freed from divisions or cliques or drama. My prayer is that Emmanuel would be a church that continues to stay together as we reach out.
Fair warning, this will be a slightly irrational fan post.
Earlier this month, Louisville football coach Scott Satterfield was named ACC Coach of the Year. It's been one of the feel good stories of the year, and a breath of life for all Louisville fans after the last few years. For those of you wondering, Louisville has looked at football the way the rest of the SEC (except Kentucky) does at basketball. When they're good, cool. When they're not, meh. When they're really bad, the sky is falling. And last year, they were really bad. They finished 2-10, lost their last 9 and should have lost their two wins, and didn't have a pulse after October. Dare I say it, they quit.
So two years removed from a Heisman winner and an outside chance at the playoffs, Louisville was rated the worst major conference team in the country, and had to make the difficult and expensive decision to dismiss the coaching staff (all of this on the heels of the basketball program's collapse and its insane financial cost). To top it off, the guy everyone thought would take the job declined. The second choice, from Appalachian State, was announced December 4, 2018.
During spring and summer practices, it was hard to know what was going to happen. There had been an exodus of transfers and the talent pool was already thin to begin with. But then, bit by bit, things got out that said an entirely different culture was being created. Coaches took time to get to the know players, they had pool parties and cookouts at the Satterfield's house, the athletic department as a whole began to support one another (unheard of if you're familiar with Louisville history), and the word "fun" was being used to describe the atmosphere.
The season wasn't perfect. They got blitzed a few times, they gave away a couple wins, and the end was a bitter loss to Kentucky. But they won 7 games, beat a ranked team on the road, and finished second in their division. After watching a listless team last year, it was a breath of fresh air to see that they may have been outmatched talent wise, they weren't going to lose because they quit trying.
The video above is a perfect picture of what culture can do. I took some screen shots to highlight.
Bad culture leads to bad body language leads to bad habits which leads to a vicious cycle. Look at their faces. This is from the introductory meeting. They don't care. They just had a terrible season and now they're getting coach talk from another guy in a suit. Does he care? Is he going to use them to get paid? Will he bail on them when things get hard or another job calls? Most of all, can we trust him? Bad culture starts with bad leadership. When we lead poorly and don't build a healthy culture, it leads to a vicious cycle of despair and discouragement.
Bad culture becomes the focus, not the big picture. In any environment, if it's not healthy that becomes the focus, not the big picture. It could be griping at the water cooler in an office, a business meeting in a church that descends to chaos, a staff meeting where nothing gets done, or an activity calendar that tries to plug holes on the Titanic. Again, look at this picture. The face says it all. There's not a focus on getting better, on wins, on goals. It's all been about the dysfunction.
Good culture can overcome a lack of talent though. The previous coaching staff led to a number of players leaving the team and transferring. So when Satterfield arrived there were some good players, but not enough of them. Playing against big teams would be tough, especially in the second half. But this season wasn't about competing for a championship, it wasn't even a Year 1. It was Year 0, a rebuild from the ground up. That's why the foundation needed to be laid, one of a healthy culture. The recruits, talent, points, and wins would come later.
Good culture generates momentum by celebrating accomplishments. If we want to lead our churches forward and build a healthy culture, we have to celebrate the good things that happen. Meet budget? Celebrate! Have families come to VBS? Celebrate! Pay off debt? Celebrate! Someone got baptized? Celebrate! Louisville's first win came against Eastern Kentucky, far from a powerhouse. But they celebrated. Why? So they could know what it felt like to win again. Churches who don't celebrate shouldn't be surprised that there's not a good culture.
Good culture deals with setbacks without drama. One of the coolest things about this season was that they didn't lose consecutive games. The tradeoff was they didn't really win many in a row, but this season was never about wins. It was about building. Setbacks will happen. In a church you'll have losses, deaths, people moving away, plans fall through, and events will flop. Bad cultures look to point blame. Good cultures look at setbacks as learning opportunities, deal honestly with what happened, and keep their eyes on the big picture.
Lastly, good culture has fun. One of the things I've tried to tell our staff is that we will always take our work seriously. We're working for God with an eternal mission. It's a big deal, and we shouldn't be flippant about it. But we won't take ourselves seriously. No one looks forward to a bad culture where no one has fun. You've probably been in a job or two like that. It's miserable. But a good culture has fun, and enjoys being together. We're part of God's team, and we should enjoy that.
There's really no playbook for how to deal with something like this. Hopefully you're not as fortunate as I was and you never have something like that happen. But chances are you'll have something just as wacky happen during a worship service or in the parking lot or in your email. If you're in ministry long enough, something will happen and you'll wonder where the cameras are. It could be a conspiracy theorist, a fringe eschatology theory, someone who had a dream or vision, the opening of a pyramid scam, a political candidate push, or some other inflammatory issue.
So what do you do when something crazy happens?
1. Keep or Document Everything - I know the first instinct when you get a crazy email is to get it in the trash as fast as you can, but you need to hang on to everything that comes to you. And if it's not written, document everything. You're not trying to put together anything ulterior, but you need to keep track of what happens just in case. Keep a folder in your email, or a file in your desk. Whatever you do, make sure you can find what all happened so you can relay it if that need arises. If it never does, then it becomes a nice memento!
2. Laugh, and Cry - I wish I could say the prophet stuff was something I could laugh about at any moment. But there were hours, even days, where it ate at me to the core. As much as I wanted to avoid it, my inbox kept getting hit with bomb after bomb. And when the prophet used my kids' names in one of their messages, I got really nervous. So as many times as I'd roll my eyes, laugh, and forward the email to my wife or some friends to tell them that I'd been called a false teacher, fake Christian, instrument of Satan, or whatever charge got lobbied to get a giggle, I'd be sitting in my office with a lump in my throat. The range of emotions are perfectly normal, and part of the process. So don't be afraid to laugh, or to cry.
3. Don't Go Alone - I'm so thankful that when the prophet was getting really problematic, I wasn't by myself. Of course Carrie was supportive through it, but for my sanity and the protection of the church, I pulled in some other trusted people who needed to know what was going on and could be called on in case the prophet disrupted a service. Whatever situation you're going through, whatever crazy thing is happening to you, don't try to do it alone. You can't. We need each other. We need friends to carry burdens with us. And we need friends we can send a crazy email or unsigned letter to so they can share your pain.
4. Pray - It goes without saying that prayer is more important than keeping records or passing on information to others. Our struggle isn't against flesh and blood, but a spiritual one. And spiritual struggles require spiritual strength. That's where we need to be in prayer, seeking direction, asking for wisdom, and walking in the Spirit's footsteps in front of us. Whatever crazy kind of situation you're going through, it's not too small or too silly or too inconsequential or too big for God to deal with.
5. Limit Engagement - This is a hindsight lesson for me. After the prophet finally left and went to another church (God bless that next pastor), it was a good time to sit back and reflect. The moment where it went beyond what it should have was when I chose to engage beyond a cursory and obligatory message acknowledging that I got the message. I should have stopped there. I shouldn't have replied beyond that, and definitely shouldn't have tried to make any kind of rational discussion. As my father in law has said, you can't convince crazy. Whatever unusual situation you find yourself in, less is always better. Say less. Reply less. Don't reply to their tweet. If we feed trolls, they keep coming back for more.
In the comments, tell your crazy ministry story! What was a weird situation, email, or issue you had to face where you realized there was no playbook to help? What did you do?
Now that I have your attention, the title is total clickbait. You should know me by now!
More than I dread the constant bombardment of ads for the latest toys that my kids go nuts about is the constant bombardment of outrage over a war that doesn't exist. You know what I'm talking about. It shows up every year when Starbucks releases their new red cup, or when the checkout lady at Target wishes you "Happy Holidays." Or when President Trump claimed to have rescued Christmas a couple years ago like a Santa Hero Savior.
I'm pulling away from my usual writing on church leadership issues to focus on the family. Your family. My family. I want us to ask a simple, but really difficult question: Is my family warring against Christmas?
I don't care if you say Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas. Working retail all through college & seminary, we were instructed to say Happy Holidays to reflect the diverse customer base. And yes we did get fussed at for not saying Christmas, and it was always fun to reply back that I was a conservative Southern Baptist seminary student. Good times. But what I do care about, and what I want you and your family to think about this Christmas isn't what you say, but what you do.
The "war on Christmas" comes largely from the fact we live in a culture of outrage. We find something we're offended by, fire off a few tweets, an echo chamber builds up around us, and the next thing we know we're coming up with Naughty & Nice lists of places based on what they say, or Kirk Cameron makes a movie where he's the hero who saves Christmas. We don't stop to think about our outrage, if it's founded, helpful, or even necessary.
It's a phenomenon growing in the church, largely because of the cultural standing shifting. We're seeing the church and a christian prism largely diminishing from its moral and societal influence. Like Niebuhr discussed, we have different options of how Christ engages Culture. In some cases, it's accommodating. In others, it's syncretistic. For some, it's combative. For others it's redemptive.
Our families can be a part of the redemptive work of Christ at Christmas. And it doesn't come from t-shirts or hats or billboards or demanding. Jesus talked about us being salt and light in Matthew 5. We're salt when we make our communities and neighborhoods better for being there, and we're light when we're showing the way to safety. It's hard to be salt & light when you're outraged at your lost neighbors.
So Christian family, here's some ways you can fight the "war on Christmas"
1. Give away in addition to spending. The average adult in America spent $633 on buying gifts at Christmas. What if part of our Christmas budget went instead of buying stuff that will end up in a yard sale next year towards getting the Gospel to the nations?
2. Focus on the Gift, not the gifts. The gifts are fun to buy, and it's even more fun to give them to our loved ones. As parents we love watching our kids receive gifts more than we like getting our own. But sometimes we can get so focused on finding the perfect gift that we overlook that God has given us the greatest Gift of all.
3. Find a way to bless. All those extra toys and stuff you got from Christmases past, why not donate them? The server working Christmas Eve when you're traveling, why not give an insanely generous tip? The food drive happening in your community, why not spend a little extra on your next grocery trip to donate? The widow without any family around, why not invite her for Christmas dinner?
4. Love your neighbor. We weren't given qualifiers, escape clauses, or a checklist when Jesus told us the second greatest commandment was to love our neighbor. We love our neighbor. Period. Our neighbors aren't just those with whom we share a fence. It's the people we come in contact with in our lives. Do we love them during Christmas? Or do we get annoyed with them? Do we love them when they say Happy Holidays or have a different view of Santa than we do?
5. Tell about Jesus. It goes without saying, you can't spell Christmas without Christ. That's not something we turn into a slogan, or worse into a club to beat into people's heads. It's a reminder that the whole point of everything we do, what we give, what we sing, what we read, what we think about during Christmas is about the Immanuel, Jesus. We remember that He was born to save, that Christmas is incomplete without Easter. And that when the shepherds declared that they had good news of great joy, that it was indeed for all people.
How does your family keep Christ as center? What traditions do you have? Share in the comments!
The aftermath was surreal. Players involved were suspended a total of 146 games, losing almost $11 million in salary. Five fans were charged with assault, and two were banned from ever attending another Pistons game. It dominated the news cycle and opened up discussions of safety, security, and what happens when very large and physically dominant people are confronted by Average Joes during a game.
One of the more interesting discussions since then has come as Stephen Jackson has given interviews about the game and the brawl. His point was that for years players have to deal with verbal abuse from fans who have too much to drink and get rowdy, getting called racial slurs, being told they stink, and hearing things about their families that are cruel to hear. For Stacks, he comments that "every athlete who's ever wanted to punch a fan can live through me." Artest and Jackson went into the stands in response to fans throwing beer cups onto the court at the players, which prompted the response.
I'm afraid a lot of carryover from the Malice is happening on social media. And worse, it's happening among the Church. The Malice didn't just cross the line, it leaped over. Fans have always booed, trash talked, and tried to disrupt the visiting team. As well they should. There's a reason they're called fans, it's short for fanatics. Fanatics cheer and boo. But the line comes where it becomes ugly, uncivil, and harmful. That's where I'm afraid we are on social media.
We've crossed the line when we engage in lies - One of God's names for Himself in the Bible is Yahweh El' Emeth, God of Truth. Jesus tells us the truth will set us free. As Christians, we are brokers in truth. We're to tell the truth, to let our yes be yes, to not bear false witness, and we have a moral obligation to being honest. When we peddle lies on social media, we're slandering the name of God.
We've crossed the line when we lose our civility - Civility is the position we take where we're able to engage others in meaningful conversation, debate, and dialogue about issues. Civility is where we assume the best about each other and we, if the person is a brother or sister in Christ, do not lob hand grenades at their soul. It's easy for a fan in section 300 to scream and throw stuff because there's no threat, and the same thing happens online. We lose civility in both cases because we are functionally rejecting the other's humanity.
We've crossed the line when we major on minors - In a game, pushes and punches happen. In hockey, it's part of the culture! What makes the Malice and other situations like it (Marcus Vick stomping during the bowl game or Myles Garrett swinging his helmet) so troubling is that it takes what should be a minor and becomes a major. Minor things don't need to become major things on social media. Major things need to be major things.
We've crossed the line when we lose humility - Humility looks at the Church Universal and recognizes that none of us have a monopoly. Humility follows the example Jesus sets where we're told to consider others before ourselves. Humility in our social media engagement doesn't look like the prideful, boasting, gatekeeper mindset we so often see. Humility holds firmly to what is good, right and true, but it does so with grace. Pride asserts itself and demands to be right at all costs.
We've crossed the line when we react, not respond - The Malice was all reaction. In fact, after it all settled down one of the players involved asked his teammates "Do you think we're going to get in trouble?" They reacted. Reaction is visceral, emotional, often times unbound, and sometimes reckless. Responding is careful, measured, and thoughtful. Reaction tends to work like an accelerant, while responding can be an extinguisher. Sadly, too often on social media we react, and we become just like the trolls we roll our eyes at.
In Ephesians 4, Paul uses a word over and over again to describe the church united under Christ: One. When we engage with each other on social media, we're not fighting an enemy, we're dealing with a friend, and not just a friend but a family member. Family members don't always get along or agree with one another, but they're marked by love. And that love helps us to keep things in perspective, and to apologize when we've messed up.
Turn on the 6 o'clock news tonight with a stopwatch. Time yourself to see how long it takes before you get discouraged or anxious about the world. My guess is you won't make it to the first commercial break. If it bleeds, it leads. But it doesn't need to bleed for us to realize something is wrong. Stories of fraud, theft, murder, shootings, extortion, crime, sinkholes, and a late season tropical disturbance all can make our blood pressure rise.
The reason? Life sucks.
Thanks Dan Dewitt for that subtle and profound summary of Genesis 3. And thank you for writing the book Into the Wild to give us a theology of perseverance through a world soaked and crippled by the ripple effect of sin. That ripple effect doesn't just mean we use potty words or look off our classmate's test. It means that everything about our world is deeply and fundamentally flawed and futile. Our cars break down, our crops die, hospitals have morgues, and banks foreclose on our houses.
I think the best way to call this is a "Theology of Suck." I know that'll get me in trouble, so please be kind in the comments.
When we develop a Theology of Suck, we have to look past, present, and future.
Past - We understand the cause of our distress, both cosmic and local. We have a cosmic cause because of Adam's sin. There is, not just a physical but a genetic, imprint of sin. We can't escape it. It's also local because we can look around us at systems, family structures, and more than affect how we live in the wild.
Present - We look at what we're going through right now, and we put it in the grid of what it means for God to fulfill His word in Romans 8:28. I've got this as present and not future because we live in the middle of the wild, and we live in the throes of the wild. Our present difficulty, as Christians, is God's perfect plan of sanctification. He can, does, and will bring all things together for our good and His glory. Even when it doesn't feel like it. To that I really commend Chapter 2 and the freedom that can come from Guilt and Shame in Christ.
I'm so grateful for my Florida Baptist family. Our statewide meeting was as much a family reunion as it was a business session as it was a mission encouragement.
One thing that I cannot shake is a line shared at the Pastor's Conference on Sunday night.
You cannot reach who you hate.
That shook me. Because I realized it was true. We know what Jesus gave as the "Greatest Commandment" to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. We rightfully plant our flag on that. But we forget that Jesus didn't stop there. He continued, saying the second is like it. It's not really second. It's 1A and 1B. That second command? Love your neighbor as yourself.
We might not outwardly or explicitly say we hate some of our neighbors. But what's communicated isn't often what's said. Loving our neighbors doesn't come with a qualification. We're not given an exemption because our neighbor might be an atheist, a Muslim, gay, black, Democrat, Republican, white collar, blue collar, legal or illegal. We aren't given a qualified command. We're given a universal command. Love your neighbor.
Our churches are often a reflection of who we love. We generally tend to gather with people who are like us, because we like affinity. We like people who are like us, who think like us, who look like us, who come from similar backgrounds, who share demographic qualities. But our churches often don't reflect our communities. Whether it's ethnic, educational, or something else, the way we reach out often says we only love the neighbors who we're most comfortable with.
As pastors, it starts with us. Are we spending time with our neighbors? Are we engaging our communities to get to know those whom God has sent near us? Do we only welcome people into our church who look and smell like us? Do we flinch when we see an interracial couple visiting our services? Or when our neighbor introduces us to his husband do we hide?
Loving our neighbors isn't easy - Like I said, we love affinity. Neighbors sometimes are hard to love. They might cuss around us, or dismiss us when we invite them to church, or they might not live the same way we do. And so it's easier to dismiss, ignore, or hide. Jesus never hid from the uncomfortable. He never condoned or approved. But he never ignored. Echo chambers aren't what the church has been called to live in. The church has been called to be salt and light. And that's not easy.
Loving our neighbors is an invitation to the Gospel - I think the number one reason God allows us to have a job or to buy a house in an area or be part of the clubs and activities we are is so that we can live on mission. Mission isn't something a vocational missionary does. It's a way of life all Christians are to live out. And we do that when we love our neighbors. It's an invitation to the Gospel because we show that our faith isn't something we just say with our lips, it's something we live out with our lives. Pray for them. Pray with them. Serve them. Take them cookies! Invite them into your home. Get the kids together for play days.
Loving our neighbors we see them as Jesus does - Jesus doesn't see our neighbors in the same categories we do. He sees them as Lost or Found. There's no in between. When we see through Jesus' eyes to see the lostness around us, we shouldn't recoil in fear. We should respond like Jesus did, with compassion. Our neighbors who don't know Jesus are doing what happens when you don't love Jesus. And our ignoring or protesting or condemnation doesn't address the core issue. The core issue is that they are "sheep without a shepherd." They're lost. And they don't need us to scold them for cussing or look the other way when they walk down the street in their hijab. They need us to see them as Jesus does.
Loving our neighbors changes how we see our community - Seeing our community changes when we love our neighbors. We begin to look at where we live as an outpost of God's Kingdom, not just the neighborhood we found a good house or a good job. We begin to see the hurts in our community, and we want to know what we can do to fix them. We see the brokenness of family crisis, of economic hardship, of parenting stress, of loneliness in our senior citizens, and more. We don't see houses and cars, we see people who are in God's image and who He loves. And it makes us want to impact our communities because we're truly compelled by love.
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.