Service Schedule

Sundays 

Traditional Service 8:00 am

Sunday School 9:15 am (adult and children's options available)

Contemporary Blend 10:30 am (child care available)

Junior Church (K-5th Grade) 10:30 am

BYM Sr (8th thru 12th grade) resumes in January - 6:00 pm

 

Wednesdays

Choir Practice 6:30 pm

Prayer Meeting 7:30 pm

Kidz Klub (age 4 thru 4th grade)  resumes in January - 6:30 pm

BYM Jr (5th thru 8th grade)  resumes in January - 6:30 pm

Men's and Ladies' Bible Studies  resumes in January - 6:30 pm

Directions

We are located at 155 Reedsville Road, Schuylkill Haven, PA 17972

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If you need to contact us, please call our office at (570) 739-2241. For office hours, click here.

Wet Cement Theology

 A blog from Jeff Byerly at Bethesda EC Church

The world doesn't need another know-it-all theologian. My goal is simply to search the Scriptures, analyze current theological dicussions, respond to the events of the global, national, and local communities in which I live, and share my life incarnationally in order to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God. As I do this please realize that I am wrong from time-to-time and more often than I think. :-) I am also naturally skeptical and often doubt convictions that are held tightly by many others. I invite you to dialogue with me in this same spirit--to explore how Jesus intersects with our world and to keep our sanity as we view this world from his kingdom perspective. 

I'm baaa-aa-aack!

Posted by Jeff Byerly on Friday, July 1, 2016 @ 11:27 AM

Today a new adventure begins for me as the newly appointed Ministerial Development Associate for the Evangelical Congregational Church. In this newly created position, I will oversee the process that helps applicants for pastoral and non-pastoral ministry reach their full potential toward maturity and/or ordination. In preparation for this, I have just completed twenty-five years of ministry, and have served for over ten years on the National Conference Relations Committee, which has prepared me to understand the nuances of the credentialing process. I would never have believed this was my path in my younger days.

As I begin this new adventure, I thought that I would resurrect my blog journal, Wet Cement Theology. I am currently on vacation on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. This week, I have been reading The Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis (1943) and Resident Aliens by Hauerwas and Willimon (1989). I am finding much to love from these books. As I have been reading Resident Aliens, I have found a kindred spirit that has shaped much of our ministry at Bethesda Church over the past 16-1/2 years -- Healing Community. I found chapters 3 & 4 particularly affirming. In them, Hauerwas and Willimon describe the church as a colony -- not in a physical sense, but in a relational sense: "The church exists today as resident aliens, an adventurous colony in a society of unbelief. As a society of unbelief, Western culture is devoid of a sense of journey, of adventure, because it lacks belief in much more than the cultivation of an ever-shrinking horizon of self-preservation and self-expression. ... Therefore, to speak of the church as a colony is to speak of the colony not as a place, a fortified position, be it theological or geographical. The colony is a people on the move, like Jesus’ first disciples, breathlessly trying to keep up with Jesus. It is an adventure with many unknowns, internal arguments over which turn to take in the road, conversations along the way, visits to strange places, introductions and farewells, and much looking back and taking stock."

I found beautiful reflections as they described the church's focus for redemptive community within her walls that does more than denounce the external societal evils, but rather provides hope and support within the colony of church life.  Yes, this is healing community! As I think of the young couples preparing to give birth to newborns in the coming months, most of them will be first-time parents. We, as a congregation, will provide for, nurture, support, and defend these little ones, for we are a community founded on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And so we will baptize these blessed ones into the greater blessing of the Church.

I have also enjoyed their emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount as the central focus of community life -- I had come to this realization about a decade ago, and every time I revisit the text in Matthew 5-7 I am reminded that Jesus reveals the results of life in the kingdom, which is a reflection of God’s own dealings with us. Over the next weeks and months I hope to reflect on this life found in the colony called church.

Blessings to one and all. Now back to sun, sand, and waves!

She is right!!!!

Posted by Jeff Byerly on Thursday, September 4, 2014 @ 12:58 PM
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mACbV4xweHE

I believe the problem with Ray Comfort, Todd Friel, Kirk Cameron, and the weakness of the sin management gospel is that they do more harm than good.

First, I find it interesting that this group calls their program, The Way of the Master. The point of their training declares that this is the method that Jesus used, and should be the only method that we should use also. In fact, they will point out that the relational evangelism thing is a crock. Is this true? Let’s examine this.

In Jesus’ teachings, did he first set up a proposition that all the people out there were not good, lawbreakers, enemies to God, haters of God, and that God was angry with them? Never! First, he was in a setting that was uniformly Jewish, and the majority of people were asking questions about getting closer to God, because they sensed exclusion from the religious teachers. These teachers were telling the people, what? They were not good enough to enter the kingdom of God. (That actually sounds disturbingly familiar.) Jesus confronts them that this is not his way. In fact, when Jesus spoke of judgment, it was most often and obviously directed toward these teachers.

Even when sin was exposed with a woman at the well, Jesus does not hone in there and say, “Now, we can get started. You see it’s all about your sin.” No instead, he says, “It’s about living water! It’s about worship from the heart!” When the teachers of the law brought before him a woman caught in adultery, he exposed their own sinfulness, made them put down their stones, and told the woman that he did not condemn her either. “Go, and sin no more.” A rich young ruler asked him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus simply responds, “Obey the commands.” The rich young ruler confesses that he has done this. Jesus did not respond, “Oh no, you haven’t. In fact you’ve broken them all.” Instead, he states, “You lack one thing.” The rich young ruler had an idol that was interfering with his pursuit of the kingdom.

I bring this up, because this is the way of the master! Jesus always started with an understanding that the person standing before him was created in God’s image, for God’s glory, and their identity was not defined by the sin in their lives, but by the potential glory God had created them to achieve. Go back and read those three stories I just mentioned from that framework. Jesus was interested in the relational person, not just a “soul.”

I do not see that approach from the Way of the Master group. They say they want to help people get saved by pointing out the flames coming through the trap door under people’s feet. I’m just not sure that their message ever gets people to realize that they are created in God’s image for God’s glory. Instead they teach that people need to realize that God is angry with them over their sinful state, and that he will only forgive them if they repent!

Footnote: Repentance is an interesting word that literally means: “Change your thinking.” I believe that there are several occasions where guilt should accompany our acts of repentance. However, I’m not so sure that every use of the word repent actually means that you must grasp hold of your own guilt to make a change in thinking. For instance, I change my thinking often times, when I find a better way to do or understand something. My challenge to the reader is to substitute the word “repent” (which carries a heavily weighted meaning of guilt), and simply use “change your thinking.” Maybe some of our own sin management issues will become clearer to us.

So Jesus’ thing was in a Jewish context, and not in the real, pagan world in which we live. In fact we live in a world more like Paul’s Athens, than the hallowed Jerusalem. Interestingly, in the video that was posted, Friel says that Jesus, Paul, the apostles and prophets were open air preachers. So, what was their message? It certainly had to be, “God is angry with you sinners, because you break his law!”

The book of Acts records several of the early church’s run-ins, with the host culture of Judaism and also with the surrounding pagan culture. Peter preaches at Pentecost and then to the Sanhedrin. His message was not sin management, but turn to Jesus, our King. Peter preached the whole story of Jesus’ healings, the cross and resurrection to Cornelius. Paul became a threat to the Gentile world, not because he was stirring up people to consider their own sinfulness, but because slave girls were no longer demon-possessed, silversmiths lost income over idol depreciation, and he was preaching the Cross, but even more so … the Resurrection!

In fact, in the intellectual world of Athens, Paul uses several features to help them understand the Gospel, which strongly focused on the resurrection. First he notes that they are religious, not sinful. Interesting start. Then he points to a temple to an idol – something he would not dare do in the synagogue. He explains to them a God with whom they were unfamiliar. He doesn’t start his explanation with sin, but with … creation! Then he does another unthinkable thing, he quotes from their poets – not Scripture! Not his favorite hymn or Gospel song. He uses their poet/singer/artist/creative genius—yeah, he said something like, “As Lady Gaga sings ….” I just do not see how open air preaching could read Paul’s method, and use a gospel of sin management to replicate it. The Paul in Athens story is in Acts 17.

Lastly, the ultimate error of the sin management gospel is that it short-circuits God’s Story by starting at Genesis 3 and ending at Revelation 20. As we saw with Paul, the Gospel starts with creation and the inclusion of people created in God’s image, and appeals that God wants in on their lives, because he is not angry, but seeking their lives in order to glorify him.

Their short-sighted view of the gospel mainly originated in the 20th century from a systematic, modernistic, canned approach to place the gospel into a teaching about four spiritual laws. Although the four spiritual laws worked successfully for many years and were built on Bible verses that when put together told a version of the gospel that has some elements of the whole story, it, however, is very incomplete!

A major concern is their lack of consideration for their audience. They assume that everyone they are speaking to is God’s enemy due to their own very poor exegesis from the Bible. Therefore, they just blast the whole population with the “canned” approach without regard for what that person actually needs. Very sad, indeed. The Good News is that this young lady gets it!

The Way of the Master group also takes the work of the Holy Spirit for granted with phrases like, “If we don’t tell them and they get hit by a bus, it’s our fault.” Really, God’s Spirit was depending that heavily on you, and he got it wrong, because he picked the wrong messenger. Or perhaps, the Holy Spirit didn’t see that bus coming. Too bad for Bob. The fault in their view is that they have never trusted that the whole process is the Holy Spirit’s work from start to finish – rather than theirs!

As for the argument about using various approaches that range between judgment and grace: For me, judgment begins with the household of God! It was for the Pharisees that Jesus kept his sharpest remarks—Woe to you, white-washed tombs, and children of the devil were words directed only at them. He seemed softer and gentler the further away from religious people he got, which tells me that we (inside the church) should know better about grace and how to communicate it, especially to those far away from God. We dare not set ourselves up as executioners of a dutiful religiosity, or we will face God's judgment.

Personally, I am not only about coffee shops, comfort, and speaking soft, kind words. On the contrary, I seek to build friendships that enable me to earn the privilege to confront, challenge, and defend a position. I do not disagree with anyone using convicting words led by the Holy Spirit with people, as long as they have earned that right. When they have not earned the right, they have actually done harm to God’s mission, driving people away. I believe that theirs is not the work of the Holy Spirit, but rather a man-centered approach using the Bible to attempt to solve our sin issues.

In conclusion, my point is simple: Stop calling everyone out there God’s enemy. Some are; most are not—they simply doubt, or may be wounded. Jesus, Peter, and Paul used various methods that centered on their audiences and were often deeply relational. They knew their audience and used appropriate words and methods. Open air does not typically consider any of these approaches—In fact, The Way of the Master group tells us that relational evangelism does not work! So I think the girl in the video post was right. Friel could not see the error of his own ways due to his own hubris and zealousness.

Father, forgive us, your church, for misreading people and driving them further from your gracious love.

Tim Seiger said...

Posted on Thursday, September 4, 2014 @ 2:00 PM -
Amen and Amen. Bad story passed off as Good News and smug confidence that "my work is done, I have been faithful."

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JOIN THE REVOLUTION

Posted by Jeff Byerly on Friday, March 21, 2014 @ 2:08 PM

Jesus was a revolutionary and his words were words of revolt toward the philosophies and ambitions of the world. Jesus says: “Repent for the kingdom of God has come near!” In this case as always, repent simply means change your thinking, (literally change-thinking from the Greek). This was called Good News!

Jesus walked into a setting that was charged with expectation, and at the same disappointment. Isaiah had explained that a king like David was coming, and the people, and the land, and the all that is in the world would take note and respond with delight! Or else be defeated and swallowed up! The tension that existed was heightened by the fact that people believed Isaiah and hoped beyond hope for a king to vanquish their enemies, while at the same time living in despair, crying out, “How long must we wait?” This is the cultural tension that existed as Jesus walked among the villages of Galilee, and eventually the region of Judea.

So there was a sense of revolt in the air—it permeated the culture. Even the Romans could not get over the difficulty they had breaking the Jewish region under their rule. The people living there resisted to abandon their hope—the hope for a new established kingdom.

The revolutionary Jesus came and spoke words that described the image of a new God-ordained kingdom into his setting. Change your thinking! Because it’s coming! It’s around the corner! Isaiah’s vision will be established shortly. But what does that mean? What dreams came to light to Jesus’ hearers when he talked about the kingdom?

Among other things, kingdoms primarily consist of kings, land, and citizens. Kingdom is therefore about a society—with a ruler, with sacred space, and participants who enjoy it. No wonder Herod, as well as the religious leaders, shook in their boots over John the Baptist’s announcements, and the following throng that pursued Jesus throughout the region.

When Jesus announced the Good News of a coming kingdom, he was really concerned with society. People who were poor or oppressed or enslaved or overlooked would have remembered the vision of Isaiah and changed their thinking to consider the grand reversal of everything for which their world stood. The kingdom would not primarily be about our own personal spiritual struggles or victories regarding sin. It would be about obeying the king in the sacred space wherever his people come together. Now, let me be honest; that requires a lot of change on a personal level; however, it isn’t molded in isolation, but rather exposed in light of getting along within our communities.

As a result, the church takes on the partial and imperfect manifestation of God’s kingdom rule on earth. Our local expressions of church become the opportunity for kingdom to be established in our neighborhoods. I must say, God help us! I just can’t say that I’ve seen this well done yet. Many of us are casting the vision, but when I think of what church has been and still exists as today, we need to really change our thinking!

Jesus has summoned his disciples to bless the world—to capture Isaiah’s vision—to live as citizens of his kingdom—to live beyond a focus upon our own personal spirituality—to change our thoughts from me to us, and to an us that includes them too—to advance this change of thinking throughout the world. Jesus calls us to this kingdom.

Will you change your thinking? Join the revolution!

What are you doing with your one life?

Posted by Jeff Byerly on Friday, March 14, 2014 @ 2:44 PM

If you could do anything, what would you do? There are lots of various ways to answer that question, but only a few that really would provide a viable answer that would matter. The caution that we need to observe is that although many possibilities are open for us to consider, but not all are viable. We are all limited in certain arenas of life. For instance, I probably could not create a Fortune 500 company and run it. I have limitations … whether it be startup costs, ideas, age, certain skills, education, or a rich uncle. So I’ll set that option aside for now.

However, if you are anything like me, you occasionally do dream about possibilities. And you ask the big kinds of questions: Where is my life heading? How did I get to where I am? What should I be doing with my life? Yeah, that one! What should I be doing with my life? If you’re like most people, you have ended up sort of wherever you’re at, and haven’t really thought much about it. You have followed a bunch of choices; some with multiple options; others where the decision seems to have been made for you.

So here you are, doing what you’re doing, and living where you’re living. So, the if-you-could-do-anything-what-would-you-do question rarely gets explored. However, you probably entertain several dreams throughout your lifetime, but you are paralyzed into thinking that you have to let them go. Dreams are fun to entertain (for a while), but then the more serious thoughts of life crowd in to snap us back into the real world. Sadly, many dreams die on the imagination vine.

Let me just say the obvious: You have one life to live! And you might as well make it worthwhile. Even aside from being a pastor, I’ve come to realize that the greatest satisfaction comes from following the imagination that Jesus reveals about life. It’s all in his classic teaching called the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew, chapters 5-7).

Amazingly enough, we dream because God made us to dream. And Jesus has a vision for your life that keeps filtering through in your dreams. Now, before you quit your job, sell your house, and buy a motor home to tour the American frontier, let me just say that God’s dream involves following Jesus into new frontiers of your life. Don’t do anything too rash!

Jesus wants more than to be accepted into your life, and to come along for the ride while you make choice after choice and end up wherever it is you’ve ended up. Rather, he wants you to trust him enough to surrender this one life to him. He actually may have a better navigation plan than the cut-and-paste, piecemeal life that you are staring at right now. Think about it.

He’s not offering a religion, or a church life experience, or an intellectual faith. It’s bigger than finding the right spouse, the right friends, the right job, the right political party, or the right clothes. It’s bringing your life into harmony with the right Person … the One who created it – the same One who gives you those dreams that make sense and would be perfect for you.

Jesus calls us into this dream by painting the picture of a kingdom. Many have mistaken these words for future glory in heaven, but his stories reveal a dream for how to live in this world now. Check out that Sermon on the Mount! It’s a series of pictures that Jesus wants for your life! So what are you going to do with your one life?

THE WAY OF THE MASTER

Posted by Jeff Byerly on Friday, February 28, 2014 @ 5:20 PM

 

I have been looking at a few examples of Jesus’ conversations. As I have been demonstrating, Jesus worked differently with each person he met. So far, the woman at the well needed living water and a religious leader needed to start over. In each case, Jesus listens, reveals truth, and sometimes explores more questions. Today we will look at yet two more different encounters.

A rich young man asks Jesus a question about what he must do to inherit eternal life. That question is familiar to those of us from the twentieth century church, but the answer may appear to be confusing. First, Jesus answers the pupil’s question with a review of the Law. He doesn’t say the Law is not sufficient. The young man immediately responds with something like, “I have kept all the Thou shalt nots! I’ve known them since youth and continue to walk within the boundaries of the Law.”

Jesus then confronts the young man with how one could be so wealthy and keep the Law. So Jesus asks him to sell his possessions and give them to the poor. Then he could follow Jesus without any difficulty. In so doing Jesus shifts the man’s thoughts from what he shouldn’t be doing to what he should be doing. Of course, many of us remember that the man was disappointed that it would cost him so much. And so he left in despair.

We all know the damages from clinging to worldly wealth and not releasing it to be used for God’s kingdom. However, I am not sure why Jesus would answer a question about eternal life without mentioning God’s love, sin, his sacrifice, and the man’s faith needing to rest in Jesus himself. He refers to the Law and then the man’s own wealth to let the man know what he must do to inherit eternal life.

Jesus was looking for a life change from the man. Let’s compare this story with another from Luke’s gospel in the next chapter.

Once when Jesus visited Jericho, he walked through town and stopped under a sycamore tree, where a short-statured man had climbed up to see him pass by. Jesus notices him, and asks to stay at his home. Of course, many of you remember that the town thought Jesus had made a mistake – having picked someone of negative character; for Zacchaeus was a traitor to the state of Israel, working for the Romans as a tax collector, and using his position to take advantage of others. That was the reputation of tax collectors, and Zacc was no different apparently.

Zacchaeus was excited to welcome the traveling rabbi. We don’t know the conversation that took place. We do know that Zacc promises to change his ways. He was going to give away half of his possessions to the poor right off the top, and then add to that the damages from cheating the residents of the town. Luke doesn’t offer a reason for such a change. He just states that Zacc changes his outlook based on Jesus’ visit.

Luke doesn’t tell us that Zacc understood his sin, or that he was going to attend the synagogue, or that he was aware that Jesus was God’s Son who would die for his sins. He just says that Zacc changes his outlook on life, and does what Jesus told the rich young man to do. He gives his wealth away. He changes his outcome and the outcomes of others.

Jesus says quite adamantly, “Salvation has come to this house! Zacc is among the house of Abraham! He’s in! He gets it!” Who knows what other sins Zacc had to defeat, or what demons he suffered under. It wasn’t just his wealth that was out of line with God, but it was enough of a heart-change for Jesus.

This makes me seriously wonder about canned approaches to sharing the Gospel. First, I think we gloss over the real obstacles to someone following Jesus (see discussion above); secondly, we limit the gospel to a sin management transaction; and probably most importantly, we make the person a project rather than getting to know the person and their needs before offering them a spiritual offer to their real life issues.

Here’s to our opportunities to listen and share in many conversations.

 

THE WAY OF THE MASTER

Posted by Jeff Byerly on Friday, February 14, 2014 @ 5:35 PM

I’m continuing to look at the way Jesus conversed with people in gentle, but firm encounters. As you may recall, my point has been simply to understand that there was no prescribed way of the master, but rather varied encounters of listening, exposure, and more questions to explore. Such was the case with a second example from John’s gospel.

CASE #2: Nicodemus

Unlike the woman at the well, Nicodemus was a very religious man—in fact, a leader of the ruling council in Jerusalem. His political party of the Pharisees strongly opposed Jesus, but Nicodemus was sensitive to Jesus’ teaching and his demonstration of miracles. He believed Jesus to be sent from God. Yet, in their encounter, Jesus felt compelled to expand Nicodemus’ limited ideas about the spiritual life.

Jesus starts his discussion with Nicodemus with the statement that no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again. Yes, this statement is the hallmark phrase of the Evangelical movement in America—Are you born again? Now let’s note once more that Nicodemus is a religious leader who is supposed to know the ways of God. Let’s also note that we don’t find Jesus using this phrase anywhere else in the gospels. It’s unique to this story. I think that we need to seriously consider why Jesus would talk about this concept uniquely and solely with Nicodemus.

I think that Jesus wanted Nicodemus (a religious leader) to realize that the way of the kingdom was radically different than the way that the world operated … and, in fact, much different than the system of the ruling council in Jerusalem. As we could note in hindsight, we know the way of the kingdom was much different than anything present in their world at the time. Jesus simply says to Nicodemus, “Nick, in order for you to see what the kingdom is about … and what I am about … you’ll need to start over (be born again). You will need to be born from above, and be given eyes to see into the spiritual world in order to pull back the curtains of the façade of this world. You must really start over! You must trust the Spirit! And be born again … born from above.”

Now, I would venture that Jesus spoke this solely and uniquely to Nicodemus (and not in any of the other encounters), because he was working with someone who truly needed to deconstruct his view of God and his religious system. Nicodemus really needed to start over!

I sensed the words, “You must be born again,” had great appeal during Christendom (in 20th century America), because the context was saturated with a Judeo-Christian religious subculture. During that time, the phrase was used with some success, but eventually became attached to dogmatic faith and pushed people further away from God. I wonder if “being born again” isn’t lost on our audience today, because we were not faithful in understanding Jesus’ context and often used the phrase inappropriately. In fact, I wonder if it may not already carry enough “damaged misunderstandings” that it should be given some rest, or used strictly when dealing with someone who must deconstruct a religious view and essentially start over. I think I would much rather use the phrase, “You must start over … you can’t get to God following that path. You’ll have to go back and start over.” Isn’t that essentially what Jesus meant?

Atop the roof (the place where people hung out in the evening), Jesus feels the cool evening breeze and says: “The wind blows where it wishes and we can only see and hear its effects. So it is with the Spirit.” Essentially Nicodemus questions what it all means, “How can this be?”

We don’t know if there was more said than what gets recorded in the rest of that passage. It seems in John’s (and the Spirit’s) estimation that was the significant portion of all that was said. It seems that Nicodemus left without a clearer vision of Jesus or the kingdom. I would conjecture that Nicodemus left with even more burning questions that needed answers. For him, the deal was not sealed with the “born again” conversation. And Jesus seems okay with that.

Personally, I think that Nicodemus drew even closer. He was intrigued and followed more intently to discover for himself who Jesus was and what his kingdom was about ... and what it meant to start over. We don’t know where his transfer from darkness to light took place, but isn’t that the role of the Spirit as he draws us all out of darkness. He is like a wind blowing through our lives, he will produce results and we will simply see and hear him working. So we will just need to listen carefully, expose glimpses of the kingdom wherever we go, and allow the Spirit to do his mysterious work.

Steve Svenson said...

Posted on Friday, February 14, 2014 @ 8:13 PM -
I can only imagine being raised and educated the way Nicodemus was, so deeply steeped in the theology of the day. He had a lifetime of learning to un-learn. It might have actually been easier if he could be litteraly reborn and start over as you suggest. But it doesn't seem like he was opposed to a different view. I would have to believe that he and most people would have been thrilled to get out from underneath of that yoke of religion they were under. Even though he was a leader in the religion, he was obvioysly smart enough to pick up what Jesus was putting down. So what does it take for anyone to get to the point where they are ready to repent or "change their mind"? Is that only the work of the Holy Spirit?

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THE WAY OF THE MASTER

Posted by Jeff Byerly on Friday, January 24, 2014 @ 2:28 PM

I was recently in a meeting that had a spirited conversation regarding some aspects of evangelism. What entailed evangelism? What was necessary? Is there always a consistent direction toward a necessary conclusion? Does the same method work for every encounter? Does it involve always closing the deal, or not?

I am always intrigued by those who point to one method to help others come to follow Jesus. Where does that come from? I think we, as Christians, became pragmatically involved with simple methods to train people to help our friends and neighbors understand the bottom line. These methods were derived in the early-mid 1900s to answer the burning question, “How do I get to heaven?” During this time, many people were asking that question. So we boiled it down to a simple presentation that was designed to work for every individual in every occasion. However, today I contend that we do not live in a one-size-fits-all kind of culture. However, many people continue to believe that the Good News can hit the mark ithrough one simple pre-manufactured package.

My title is in fact the title of one such curriculum for evangelism. One of which I am not too fond.  In fact, I hope to use this title to show that the way of the Master is not contained in a formula or a confrontational method. His way is in fact a variety of gentle, but firm methods of encounter which involve listening, exposure, and more questions to explore. This means that Jesus used context and situations and culture while helping someone to discover the reality of his kingdom.

 CASE #1: The Woman at the Well

Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman in the middle of the day by a well. People in this climate generally draw water at cooler times of the day -- in the morning or evening. But here comes a woman who avoids the rest of her people, because she lives a life of shame. So she arrives when no one can gossip about her at the well.

Jesus engages her with a request and moves on to dialogue about his identity … as One who provides fresh, active water from a flowing fountain. Jesus then asks her to summon her husband … to instruct him (in this culture, a married woman learned under the leadership of her husband). She answers that she is currently without a husband. In fact, she has had many and currently lives with a man to whom she is not married. That should end the conversation, for any rabbi and it would also take most evangelicals into a well-mined territory of sin to explore. But not Jesus. He stays the course. Her exposed sin is not the target of his conversation. It is merely part of the context.

The woman is captured … she concludes that Jesus must be a prophet. They continue with a discussion about worship until Jesus’ disciples arrive. Not once in the conversation does Jesus seem to be interested in driving home a pre-determined conclusion. He simply engages her, and draws her curiosity to the point that she must tell others. This woman goes back to town to gather all the people to come hear Jesus.

In this first story, Jesus does not seem to be pre-occupied with how he is going to get this woman to heaven. He does something even greater. He engages her and invites her into a quest, from which she had previously been excluded. Here’s the question that every evangelist wants to ask: "Is she saved?" I don’t think that’s the purpose of Jesus’ encounter. I think we need to ask: Why not?

Jesus wasn’t trying to save people as much as he was inviting them into his kingdom. In this case, I think the woman got it. She was ready to follow Jesus. She was previously far away -- maybe even the person furthest away from that village. So why her? Jesus knew she longed for something better than this life was dealing out. She longed for a fresh, clean, new life – living water. After that day, I venture to belive that she set her foot each day to pursue a new life … to follow the One whom she had met by the well. She certainly would come up short, but she had the vision burning in her heart. I think that shows her embrace of new life (salvation, of the redemptive variety). She would find living water.

So in the coming weeks, I want to look at several other encounters like this one. But be assured of this: There is not another encounter like this one described. It is unique, and so is the way of the Master.

YOU HAVE HEARD IT SAID ... (PART 7)

Posted by Jeff Byerly on Friday, January 3, 2014 @ 2:27 PM

THE KINGDOM

You have heard it said that the kingdom is about going to heaven when you die, because this world is not your home and you are just a-passing through … but I say to you that the kingdom is about the expanding reign of Jesus as king over people who live for him in this world, until his reign is established over all and in all.

First, I think it stands to reason simply, that in order to have a kingdom, one must first have a king. A kingdom must also entail a region of “land” (or sacred space) over which the king rules, and as well citizens who love and serve the king. All of these things put together speak about a society under the rule and authority under one ruler.

Now let’s examine how Jesus described the kingdom. “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand (or has come near).” Jesus proclaimed the good news of the kingdom, encouraged people to seek first the kingdom, and to understand its secrets. He defined how to enter, who was in and out, who was greatest and who was least in the kingdom. He compared the kingdom to a field of plantings, mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure, a pearl, a net, a great feast, the settling of accounts, and vineyard workers. He bestowed its keys upon his followers, said that he would drink the cup anew with them in the kingdom, and prayed for the kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. During the period between his resurrection and ascension, Jesus taught his disciples about the kingdom, and then commissioned them to be faithful witnesses from their starting point to the ends of the earth. And although often imperfect, Jesus spoke about the Church as the manifestation of his kingdom rule – the embodiment of life in Jesus as King!

Life gets completely sucked out of this vision of Christ’s kingdom when we introduce it as simply our inner experience of personal spirituality. We lose many aspect of our citizenship when we introduce the “personal” pursuit. We can become the main object of the kingdom. Let me illustrate: This can be seen when I say that I receive Jesus “in my heart” as my own personal Savior. If we are correct about this statement, we would mean that I am setting up God’s kingdom rule over my own rule (the throne of my heart). However, I wonder if many people don’t actually live as if they simply carry Jesus with them as a co-pilot (they’ve adopted his principles into their lives). They run their own lives (with some helpful spiritual disciplines and beliefs), and have him available when they need to get out of a jam. Jesus is more of a talisman than a ruler.

And if Jesus is our ruler, then we are citizens, and the call to our citizenship is to love God (with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength), and others as ourselves—the kingdom mandate. This requires us to live in community (with God and others), and deflates our attempts to reduce the kingdom to our own personal spirituality. Kingdom is living under a King, and within a society governed by the kingdom mandate, where we all devote our lives to Jesus and his kingdom vision.

Life that revolves around our own personal spirituality is not the kingdom that Jesus announced or describes above. If it is about me and my personal growth with God (without society), then that is not kingdom. I do not have to sacrifice much (if anything) to that vision – I live with a talisman Jesus rather than following and submitting to the King Jesus.

If you follow the King Jesus and his vision, you are his disciples and citizens of the kingdom (here and now)!

YOU HAVE HEARD IT SAID ... (PART 6)

Posted by Jeff Byerly on Friday, December 27, 2013 @ 3:14 PM

THE MINISTRY

You have heard it said that ministry is the important work that pastors do. It involves preaching to the congregation, visiting the sick, and organizing the sacred events of the church … but I say to you that ministry is the work of the body in community under the influence and direction of the Holy Spirit.

I remember in seminary discussing the Ephesians 4:11-13 passage and the need for us pastors to equip our churches to become mature. This is the verse that changed how many of us viewed ministry: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” However, we focused primarily on how pastors were to equip the body, but we sort of ignored the other roles in the APEPT (Apostle-Prophet-Evangelist-Pastor-Teacher) model.

I am convinced that we need to rediscover the five-fold ministry of the church. And I am saddened that I still have to talk about ministry in terms of the clergy-laity divide. For I see plenty of examples “out there” where the body still regards the pastor as someone special who is here to serve the body, and where my colleagues’ conversations revolve around this same traditional model. If we are to take the message of Ephesians 4:11-13, (and verses 14-15 too), then we must learn to redevelop the APE (Apostle-Prophet-Evangelist) roles of the APEPT model described above.

What we have been handed from Christendom (the church-centered society of the past) is the removal of the apostolic impulse of the gospel. Ministry, during this time, was divided into “us and them” models. Ministry to “us” was primary that we are the chosen, inside the walls of safety of the church. Ministry to “them” was secondary, that is, we are to change those dangerous people outside of the walls so that they can come inside. This looked like an infrequent raiding party sent out from the castle. We would drop the drawbridge, ride out through the towns and villages, gather as many as possible, and then ride back quickly to the castle with those who were worthy, and pull up the drawbridge. That, my friends, was evangelism in the Christendom model. Once inside, the pastor would care for the needs of the castle inhabitants.

However, true ministry involves the entire body. It moves way beyond the pastoral role. It involves leaders who are apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic, pastoral, and rabbinic. It involves the body engaging people every day (not just during evangelistic crusades). It involves the body under the direction of the Holy Spirit creating a culture that looks like the kingdom. This features hospitality, transformative experiences, communication, koinonia (fellowship), worship, and gathered witness. (I’m sure I missed many other features). It is organically infused by the Holy Spirit within the life of the body. It is the culture that the church experiences. It is in essence, “beautiful” ministry. It can and will become messy. It is not easy, but it is always beautiful!

It is simply a culture of kingdom lived in and throughout the community of people God calls to his body. It is not controlled by the pastor or other leaders. It is led by the Spirit through the APEPT model. Recently I heard Alan Hirsch explain that the American Church cannot hope to achieve maturity without this APEPT model. His point was simple: If you start with a call to unity in the church (Ephesians 4:1-6), and want to develop maturity as found in Ephesians 4:13-18, then the church cannot bypass Ephesians 4:11-12 –equipping through APEPT. It is that simple.

I would lastly say that this model must remove the castle walls. If I may say, this former model represents a ministry of hard boundaries and a soft core—a ministry that defines better how to distinguish people on the outside, but very little to define who we are on the inside. Today, we must work to replace this model with softer edges, and a firm core. Within this model, we spend less time defining who is in and out, and focus on what it means for everyone to be in. People may not like the soft edges, because now they can’t tell if someone is in and out. But this is really for God to determine anyway.

If we focus on the core, which I’ll call the ministry of discipleship, we can help everyone who will come within sight or sound of the community. The ministry (of discipleship) draws us all one step closer to the core. It is no longer about counting heads on Sunday morning. It is not about Sunday School or small groups. It is released through the body – one on one, two by two, or in groups. It is the life pulse of the Spirit released upon unsuspecting by-standers, who sense the ministry of the body in life-producing ways. That is ministry!

We do some of this in the church today, but we keep it from unleashing. We relegate it to the pastors to make it happen. We keep the boundaries rigid, and we keep the core very soft. If we can see ministry as happening through the body internally and externally (without the jargon of inside and outside language), then we can allow the Spirit to move in our midst and beyond.

And next week will be the last installment of the “You Have Heard It Said” with a focus on kingdom ...

YOU HAVE HEARD IT SAID ... (PART 5)

Posted by Jeff Byerly on Friday, December 20, 2013 @ 2:40 PM

THE CHURCH

You have heard it said that church is a place to go with events that are designed to incorporate your family and others into a worshipful setting with programs designed to educate your children toward spiritual maturity … but I say that the church is a community of people gathered around the Story of the Gospel, and empowered by the Holy Spirit in order to join with God on his mission to the world.

God’s kingdom happens when people are empowered by God’s Spirit to undertake kingdom work in the shape of community. It never happens without God’s preemptive guidance, but always involves a yieldedness to the Spirit, and as a result draws in together the people who will submit to the kingdom dream of Jesus.

I would venture that this is a far different approach than the average American family undertakes when selecting an expression of church. I hear it often, “We’re church shopping.” I want to sarcastically reply, “We are running a ½ tithing end-of-the-year sale with a coupon. Do you have one?” It’s as if our programs need to be better than the 30 churches in our area, or they’ll take their “we can get it bigger and better elsewhere” mentality elsewhere. As a result, our churches become competitors … we all know who is winning and losing these struggles. Meanwhile, we struggle in isolated frustration without lifting a finger to help each other – we cling to our pride of exclusiveness.

The real problem is that the Christian culture is thoroughly confused … the church that was handed to our generation had allowed a large vacuum to surround its existence. In that vacuum, televangelists exploited the public for money, the mega-churches gathered people from their neighborhood’s struggling churches into a spread-thin version of sit-in-the-pew Christianity, and the conservatives excluded every group that they did not want sitting next to them in their pews. The church was pretty aimless … and I, myself, couldn’t see it for what it really was.

What if church was simply people living and celebrating God’s redemptive kingdom together. I think that the church is made up of people who are like me and not like me, and people that I like and I don’t like. Some days I wish I could get rid of the difficult people, but then I quickly realize that after each purge, I will end up with a smaller group until I am eventually left with only myself. So the reality is that there will be people that I don’t like and people who aren’t going to care much for me either. How we work through those difficulties says a lot about what we think the church is!

The next big piece is the realization that the body is committed to transformation of others inside and outside the body – Again, it’s not about having the best outreach programs, Vacation Bible School, or teaching ministry. It’s about all people aspiring to live better … that no one is above being held accountable, or beyond being questioned. Call it being vulnerable and authentic. Call it everyone on journey together toward wholeness, maturity, and unity. This means we get to celebrate the work of God’s Spirit often within our midst over every major and minor victory in people’s lives. This body understands that we are not all at the same place in our journeys, but that we can celebrate God’s Spirit at work everywhere He reveals transformation. And no one gets left behind.

This involves the investment of lives into one another. This cannot be done through a weekly worship service or through a program, or by completing a workbook. It is only accomplished in community developed over the course of time in proximity to others. It produces support, challenge, decision, hope, endurance, and every flavor of outcome from life in community. It is people being committed to one another.

Yes, I've been dropping the big “C” word … “commitment.” However, I am not talking about being committed to the program, to the church’s financial viability, or a certain doctrine. I am talking about a discipleship where people are committed to live life together—to walk together, love together, grow together, and serve together. But the problem is that people wander in and out of churches looking for “consumption.” What they will get out of it. They shop for church.

However, the Church is where the kingdom is lived now … I hope you understand and stay committed to it. God, please help us all.

Next week … You have heard it said that ministry is …

 

YOU HAVE HEARD IT SAID .... (PART 4)

Posted by Jeff Byerly on Friday, December 13, 2013 @ 2:15 PM

DISCIPLESHIP:

You have heard it said that discipleship is having a specific quiet time, and visiting a small group where you read Scripture, pray, and hold one another accountable … but I tell you that discipleship is following Jesus and living sacrificially for his kingdom everywhere, and yes, this may manifest itself in Scriptural and prayerful exercises in community and in your own private devotions.

When discussing discipleship, it is easy to be drawn into a conversation strictly about the spiritual disciplines that help a believer to mature in Christ. These disciplines are very helpful ways for every Christian to participate in their private study or in gatherings with members of the body. I, myself, am grateful for an early stage of personal study where I memorized many key passages of Scripture, which helped me to navigate the books of the Bible. Today, I am building on several years of studying the genres and nuances of the biblical authors, and seeing the compelling Story that emerges as I view God’s written revelation as a whole. I have received a firm foundation that directs my life decisions and helps me to communicate God’s gracious love.

Yet, I cannot help to think that more was involved in my growth than a mechanical study of God’s Word. In fact, some aspects of my becoming a disciple probably remained dormant due to periods of intense study, where I sought personal growth instead of exploring opportunities to help someone in need, and probably said, “Go in peace, keep warm and be well fed.” I know now that this is not discipleship.

I would never dissuade someone from reading more of the Bible, but sometimes I must ask, “What more do you really need to know to be a disciple?” In other words, I think that most Christians know enough of the Bible to be effective disciples already … it’s not more knowledge that they need, but rather they need to seize the opportunities to live as disciples. This whole idea makes me question, “What is it that we think a disciple is?”

When I watch Jesus working with the Twelve, I don’t see him investing great amounts of time pushing them into a study of the Torah or the Prophets. However, I cannot deny that Jesus, himself, spoke from a vast knowledge of the Old Testament. Yet his approach was not to train his disciples in the written texts, (that was the Pharisaical approach), but rather he moved them into seeing a bigger vision of life.

I am strongly convinced that Christ’s disciples carry a “perspective” to see things uniquely from others. I would say that we possess lenses through which the world transforms into a reality that is beyond our tangible, harsh reality of existence. I do something similar every time that I try to read small print. I reach into my pocket, pull out my “readers” and place them over the ridge of my nose. What is blurry confusion is transformed into clear, precise instruction.

Within this view, the Bible does not become something for me to study, accumulate knowledge, and spew out, but it becomes a way of adjusting the distortions that I see in life into reality. It becomes a perspective, by which to live. It transforms the world around me. I can see the needs of others. I can see the injustices that work evil in the world. It moves me to reach out my hand to help. It enables me to feel the power of God’s view to change things that otherwise I would simply walk past. I move past my limited tendencies, and trust by faith in a bigger vision for living. I change my attitudes, speech, and behaviors to reflect a picture of Christ’s whole kingdom reality. I am transformed into … a disciple!

Don’t stop reading the Bible. Don’t stop praying. Don’t stop meeting with accountable, Christian friends. Don’t stop daily reflections in study. But I would simply ask you, “What is new? What are you seeing? Who is God bringing into your life’s intersections? How are you being changed for the kingdom? How are you learning to be a disciple?”

Next week: You have heard it said that church is ...

YOU HAVE HEARD IT SAID ... (PART 3)

Posted by Jeff Byerly on Friday, December 6, 2013 @ 3:50 PM

You have heard it said that evangelism is verbally persuading people to accept Jesus as their personal Savior, and we better hurry up and do it fast, because all kinds of people will go to Hell is we don’t, and it will be our fault … but I tell you that evangelism involves living under God’s kingdom rule in such a way that declares in all sorts of ways God’s great Story among ourselves and to others, and as a result people are granted opportunities to choose to also live within the same redemptive purposes, in which we participate, but never orchestrated or contrived on our own.

In the 1980s, I received a knock at my apartment in Phoenixville, PA. I opened the door to find two men, who had a couple of questions for me to answer for their survey. The younger of the two asked me, “If you were to die tonight, would you know where you would spend eternity?” Without hesitation, I answered, “Of course!” I had recently been delivered from a strong drug and alcohol addictive lifestyle through the dramatic work of God’s Spirit in my life at the time of my conversion. Then, he continued, “How do you know, and what would you say in order to enter heaven?” I thought it was a trick question, so I thought about two seconds, and basically answered, “I have faith in Jesus Christ.” They looked at each other surprised. I don’t know maybe they didn’t encounter many acceptable answers, or maybe I was their first victim, or maybe they weren’t sure themselves what they were trying to accomplish. Then the questioner said, “Thank you.” They both turned to the stairway to walk upstairs to their next encounter.

You know, I think about that encounter from time to time. I did have things I personally wrestled with in my life, for which I needed help. I also knew of a young single mom in an apartment nearby that was struggling. Conversely, most of my neighbors were elderly (and so I was occasionally reminded to keep my stereo turned down), but they had specific needs too. I remember frequently sitting and talking at one of the picnic tables with Earl who would try to lure the squirrels to sit at his feet while he cracked peanuts for them. Strange example, I know.

But Earl and I would talk about life, and family, and church, and faith, and how we are doing, and neighbors (in positive ways), and squirrels (in positive ways, too). I don’t know if Earl had an encounter with the two men and their visit. But really it wouldn’t have mattered much, would it? I don’t think they were interested in Earl or me. I could tell by the way they scooted on their way from my door after my answers. So what did they accomplish? Did they get to tell their version of the Good News to anyone? To someone that they had never met? To people who were hurting and needed a good meal or assistance with their child?

This brings me to my points.

First, the Good News is not under our control to accomplish. The two evangelists came and left and probably reported back to their church some stats, like: seven doors, five people answered, four people based salvation on works, and two accepted the Good News when they heard it from us. If they had zero, they would probably wonder what they were doing wrong, because Bob was getting five-for-five on every one of his zealous endeavor.s But that couldn’t be because Bob could sell used cars to anyone that set foot on his lot. This approach really negates the influence of the Holy Spirit … and how the Spirit works in ways before the Gospel penetrates any individual, community, society, or nation.

Sadly, undue pressure is applied by over-zealous preachers who have tried to convince their members that people end up in Hell, because they are not confrontational enough with them. If they cared, they would make sure their loved one would not go to Hell. I'm all for bringing the Gospel out of silence, but this work is really God's work and I participate with him in living the truth, confronting evil, and sharing the reason for the hope that is within me, not only to individuals, but within groups, and communities, and societies.

Secondly, the Good News goes forth from person to person! I think this is the point the two men missed by a long shot. They came and left. I gave them a satisfactory answer, I suppose. But then I didn’t need anything else in their estimation. I could have gotten lucky with my answer, but they didn’t know. They never were really interested in me, or my neighbors, or Earl who fed the squirrels. They had an agenda … in their minds, God’s agenda, but in reality, an empty non-hopeful message that didn’t really care about the people or the Good News, really, but rather just getting people to heaven. What was missing? Something that was never missing with Jesus … relationship! Not superficial relationship, but loving relationship. Some could call the actions of the two men loving, but not by Jesus’ standards.

Lastly, the Good News is not just about spending eternity with God … please, see my last two posts. It is not rooted in propositions that I need to mentally accept. The Good News is something to be lived … as a counter-influence to the destructive ways of the world or our limited societal structures. It is revolutionary … and when simply packaged as answers to questions, it becomes, well … irrelevant. It is really theory and not transformative. That’s a big problem!

Next week: You have heard it said that discipleship is …

YOU HAVE HEARD IT SAID ... (PART 2)

Posted by Jeff Byerly on Friday, November 22, 2013 @ 3:49 PM

SALVATION:

You have heard it said that salvation means that you must receive Jesus Christ as your Savior to receive eternal life and avoid the punishment of Hell, but I tell you that salvation is finding the victory over the power of sin through Jesus, who has destroyed death’s power and has conquered evil in all its forms. And that you can live in freedom through the power of the Spirit within the community of atonement called the church!

Dallas Willard calls that gospel which focuses solely on eternal life, the gospel of sin management—a gospel that is defined by who is in or out based on the definition of salvation from sin’s punishment. Scot McKnight says that we have created a “salvation culture” that focuses on measuring people on the basis of whether they can witness to an experience of salvation—the Soterian Gospel. They contend that there is a plan of salvation – this usually consists of four propositions from the Bible that create a step-by-step understanding to realize one’s sinful condition, his need for salvation, and the way to get eternal life forever.

Ironically, when I looked down at my feet about an hour ago at my seat in the local coffee shop I frequent, I saw a tract that was entitled “One Minute after Death.”

Wow! Talk about an example of the Soterian Gospel – talk about a short cut that takes from today to the moment of one minute after death. In this view, all that matters is the eternal. Yes, I realize that eternity is a long time. Yes, I realize that my current reality is a drop in the bucket of eternal bliss. However, it seems strange to me that I am taken from this reality to consider another reality, as if they are separate – that there is no discussion about what salvation looks like for my life now. Within this method, there is a considerable disconnect that separates my reality today from the reality of eternity.

This was not the case with the New Testament writers. In fact, it may seem odd to some that none of the Gospel writers spent much ink describing Jesus proclaiming a message of eternal hope. In fact, I can only think (off the top of my head) of a handful of times where Jesus was responded to a few situations where others asked him about eternal life. In fact, most of Jesus’ sharing of the Good News had to deal with the person’s current life and participation in the bigger kingdom of God currently unfolding before them.

The problem with the Soterian gospel is that it isn’t discipleship or justice or obedience – it bypasses all of that stuff for a “get-right-for-eternity” salvation. I get a ticket for Paradise – sorry, but Eddie Money can give you two of those. In this view, we do not have to consider how to live as God’s people at all. We simply can believe that we are saved for eternity by embracing a few concepts that flow out of the bigger gospel. It’s more than Good Friday … it actually involves the whole divine instinct of God’s Son to join in human life through the line of David, and live life among us, and defeat the attempts of temptation thrust at him, to take evil upon himself on the cross, and defeat it through a powerful resurrection from the dead.

This Story brings to completion the Story that had begun in the Old Testament. It doesn’t short-circuit our current life into a view of “eternity only” thinking. It communicates salvation in the here and now and in the community of church experience. It is your Story and my Story only as we invest into this Story and live as recipients of its transforming grace. This is salvation ….

Next week: You have heard it said that evangelism is …

Tim Seiger said...

Posted on Friday, November 22, 2013 @ 7:13 PM -
Eddie Money? Really? You went there...LOL. Good stuff Jeff.

jeff said...

Posted on Friday, November 22, 2013 @ 5:41 PM -
Yes Eddie Money! Just shows how my mind works ... and just how difficult it is to stay focused. Sorry it's lke the dogs in the movie Up ... squirrel? !?!

Tim Seiger said...

Posted on Friday, November 22, 2013 @ 5:01 PM -
Eddie Money? Really? You went there...LOL. Good stuff Jeff.

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YOU HAVE HEARD IT SAID ... (PART 1)

Posted by Jeff Byerly on Friday, November 8, 2013 @ 4:13 PM

Some years ago, I was sitting at a lunch with two good friends, where we were talking about things that we are learning and how to help others to understand them—primarily in regard to the missional movement. We conceived of placing these ideas into a form that would help to communicate the new depths that we were discovering. Later, we were affirmed in our pursuit by a seminary professor (Dr. Ken Miller), who was contemplating these same concepts and was considering writing a book about how church, mission, and ministry were defined from this perspective. (I also refer the reader to Scott McKnight’s book, King Jesus Gospel, for further study on the topic.)

Since that time, our denomination’s Futures Initiative Team (of which I am a part) has formed some of these concepts into a document that helps to clarify a more comprehensive definition for the church—an ecclesiology document, for those familiar with it. However recently, we have been experiencing some misunderstanding toward the document, mainly, in my estimation, due to the unfamiliarity of certain terms and definitions that we had used to help others understand the church, and also based on what they may actually think is missing from the document (but is probably found within these misunderstood terms.)

It was during this earlier time, that my friend, Kirk, wrote a short instructive piece based on the way that Jesus helped his hearers redefine some misunderstood terms from the Old Testament (see Matthew 5:21-48). So I want to simply borrow Kirk’s rhetorical device (which he borrowed from Jesus) to develop a series of writings over the next few weeks to help some out there to delve a little deeper into the riches of this perspective. We are not rewriting church doctrine; we believe the same theological concepts as before, but we see them from a new perspective that is motivational (and could be the catalyst) for another great awakening within our culture.

Lastly, from this new perspective, some ways in which we have formerly communicated and defined the gospel are just not sufficient and are actually not very helpful to people seeking a better understanding of God and his work in the world.

Here we go.

 PART 1: THE GOSPEL

You have heard it said that the gospel is the plan of salvation, where Jesus died for your sins and you can go to heaven by accepting him, but I tell you that the gospel is the whole good news of Jesus—who is the Son of the true and living God, entering into human relationship through a marvelous incarnation, living a perfect life, dying on the cross for the salvation of mankind, and rising victoriously from the dead, and ascending into heaven to resume his complete rule. Through this incarnational manifestation, Jesus has destroyed death’s power and has conquered evil in all its forms. Just as Jesus has announced the coming of God’s kingdom and its movement toward completion, everyone is invited to join God in a redemptive and renewed life and community whereby the kingdom is lived today. And within this framework, sins are forgiven through Christ’s atonement and a renewed eternal life for all of creation is promised.

Some of you may actually be saying, “What’s the big difference?” I believe the first concept as well as the second concept. It’s amazing to some of us how often we hear that. However, I will sit in a meeting or a spiritual event with someone who claims to believe both, and then hear them boil the whole Gospel down to a question about where someone will spend eternity; it usually sounds like this, “Do you want to know how to get to heaven when you die?” That’s the first version gospel. That is NOT the second version gospel!

In the former version, the listener is not involved in any understanding of Jesus, except that Jesus was born to die (the only thing that matters) for me. The listener is not invited to participate in God’s kingdom by living a transformed life now, but rather to live in earth’s evil domain until he is taken away to God’s glorious heaven. It’s all about getting to the other side of death in order to live without any context of what God wants to do now. This focus is not helpful, because it removes the believer from joining God to make any impact in the world today.

How did we get here? I think that the Enlightenment reshaped the Gospel for a new world that had emerged with new abilities. The big questions about life were reduced to easily transferable, mass-producible presentations. The big question became: How can I get to heaven? The solution became four universal spiritual laws. People were even told that they could call upon Jesus at the point of death to receive forgiveness for their sins and enter into heaven despite living like a devil all their lives. Something just does not seem fair about that approach. Yet this conclusion can exist without much challenge within the framework of the first view—if the big question is getting to heaven. But is it?

Let me help to give you a glimpse into the beauty of this Gospel: Jesus had existed in a communal relation with the Father and Spirit when he stepped into our space-time reality of fallenness to do battle with the forces of evil and provide liberation to all the created order. He was born of the virgin and undertook the image of God (of the first man—Adam), redefining it, defeating the temptations that the first man could not (Luke 4:1-13), and lived out the perfect human life (a glimpse of how we will live one day), and fulfilled Isaiah’s vision of the Messiah—a healer and liberator (Luke 4:14-21). He did all this before he died on the cross for the sins of the world—yes, an important element of the whole redemptive plan of God. When a person acquires this vision for life that Jesus promised, his life is transformed, his sins are forgiven, and he is a new creation with a new vision for living. I didn’t even mention heaven yet …

You see, I want to pursue this vision now! That’s the difference. I don’t want to wait until the eleventh hour to receive this. That’s a huge difference in perspective! This perspective changes how I live; how I speak; how I view life; how I communicate good news to others; how I preach; how I love in my relationships. I get to participate in it now!

You can have this vision too. Otherwise, you will have to wait until you die to get to heaven and find out what you had been missing all along.

Next week: You have heard it said that salvation is …

 

Kirby Keller said...

Posted on Friday, November 8, 2013 @ 8:07 PM -
I commend you for a thoughtful, provocative piece that resonates in my heart. This new perspective your write about might seem like subtle semantics to some, but as you stated, the difference is very significant in following Jesus. Refreshing to read a perspective that the early church understood very well. I encourage you to continue writing, preaching, and teaching this Gospel that could provide a much needed corrective in evangelical thinking today. Blessings. Keep writing!

Chelly M said...

Posted on Friday, November 8, 2013 @ 6:39 PM -
nicely written, thx for sharing. kinda goes along with our small group study of James.

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MEASURING SUCCESS: WHAT STATS CAN’T TELL YOU

Posted by Jeff Byerly on Friday, October 18, 2013 @ 3:03 PM

I was recently in a conversation with some friends that referenced a blog from one of my favorite places to visit – the site of David Fitch, Reclaiming the Mission. As my friend, Brian read from a comment section under the post here: http://www.reclaimingthemission.com/?p=4090, I was reminded of the mistake that many in our churches make, and, I think, that we all find difficult to discern – that of measuring success.

Here are the comments from JR Rozko that sparked these thoughts: “Not at all the same as mega-church (read: communities guided by Christendom-shaped, American Protestant sensibilities). Here, the guiding metrics, by and large, are sheer numerical growth, hands raised/decisions counted, and territorial expansion. I would venture to say that “success” under the ecclesiological paradigm Dave is advocating here can never be quantified – it can only be narrated. This is the logical implication of abandoning a pragmatic framework (what “works”) in favor of a theological one (what is faithful). Faithfulness can’t be counted, it has to be discerned and this requires the presence of a community that is close enough to understand the narrative being told.”

Quite a mouthful, but I love how Rozko simply states that “‘success’ under [this] paradigm … can never be quantified – it can only be narrated.” This tension has become the sore point of many conversations that lead to questions like, “When are we going to see the numbers?” Or, “When are we going to see people in our church?” As if that is the end result.

I would contend that we in the American Church of the last century (probably much longer—I’m not that old) have continually shifted the biblical focus from narrative to statistics. Let’s make no mistake about it. Statistical analysis was probably there when all of us entered the church. It’s the result of a modernistic culture steeped in figures and accounting in order to measure our increasing productivity during the industrial revolution. It was just subtly transferred into the church. And it’s become our primary way to measure how we’re doing!

In his book, The Missional Renaissance: Changing the Scorecard for the Church, Reggie McNeal encourages his readers to change the measures for our faithfulness and vitality from attendance, budgets, and programs, and instead to focus our attention on changed lives, community service, and spiritual impact, moving from measuring how we are “doing church” to how we are blessing our communities.

I will tell you that some people cannot see the difference. They will actually say, “Yes, we want to bless our communities so that we can fill our churches, and then we won’t have money shortfalls, and we can increase the budget, and count more heads inside our building.” This subtle shift lands us into the old paradigm – making the end result about butts in the pews and bucks in the plate again. The end result should be that our church is a blessing to the community. Let’s simply measure how well we do that, without any expectation in return. I know; that’s just not the American way.

Another friend of mine (yes, I have many friends) continually reminds me that we must correctly frame the church within God’s mission. Missiologist Michael Frost says, “God does not have a mission for his church, as much as he has a church for his mission.” This simple understanding properly frames the previous discussion about what we truly believe about the church.

In other words: Does the church exist to participate in God’s kingdom mission, or is the end of our missionary endeavors so that we can populate the church? Just like a telescope, it makes a big difference from which end of the argument you look. One end reduces God’s kingdom to what happens to produce more numbers inside our church buildings/contexts. The other expands God’s kingdom to endeavors that are not typically counted as church activities outside and beyond the church.

The latter model helps our people to realize that they are “sent” into the world, to be light in their communities—at their kids’ soccer games, at the restaurants they frequent, at work, at school, at the local supermarket, and with the cashier at their local coffee shop. Being sent can take on the simple context of coaching your daughter’s soccer team, checking in on an elderly neighbor, or praying for a colleague’s terminally ill family member. It just adds the realization that you represent God’s light in this context. No tracts are needed; no special skills in making invitations—just exposure to God’s grace in their lives, and a readiness to share your story when you are asked to explain your faithfulness to God’s kingdom.

Some of those things I just can’t quantify with numbers, I can only narrate with stories. These kinds of stories become expressions that tell a bigger story of what’s actually happening in the setting of our local churches—that’s light. I’d rather have 12 people living on mission than 3,000 doing the good “church” thing. Stats just don’t always tell the true story.

Chelly M said...

Posted on Saturday, October 19, 2013 @ 6:17 PM -
love this statement: Missiologist Michael Frost says, “God does not have a mission for his church, as much as he has a church for his mission.” I also like Steve's comparison using an apple grove. Thanks for posting/sharing

Steve Svenson said...

Posted on Saturday, October 19, 2013 @ 9:18 AM -
I believe that my mission, our mission is no great mystery. It is to do our Father's will and to glorify God. We are either doing our job or we are not. The outcomes of each are both obvious and unavoidable. Jesus used many parables to help people understand stuff and something just occurred to me. If I am told to plant some apple trees, to water, to fertilize, to protect them. And I'm told that if I do this I will get loads of apples from just a few trees, but instead I choose to plant 100 trees, (you know, figuring I'll get way more apples right?) which now limits my ability and resources to water, feed, protect any more than a few of my trees, and not doing a great job with them either. So now I have an orchard full of trees. Passing by you might say "wow, look at that big old apple orchard" But if you look closer you would see that half of the trees are sick or dying. Some of the trees have fruit on them, but not many are worth eating. So much for MY ideas. Is it really that hard to just follow directions? Is it really that so far-fetched an idea to just do as we are told and to stand back and watch as God does what he has promised he would do? And then to give HIM the glory instead of patting ourselves on the back!

Tim Seiger said...

Posted on Friday, October 18, 2013 @ 4:25 PM -
Amen and Amen. The push back continues to be that faithfulness vs. numbers is simply an excuse for "failed" or "failing" ministry. But this blog expands a bit on what you are saying here and why that analysis of numbers being a reflection of success is inadequate http://karinakreminski.blogspot.com.au/?m=1. Thanks Jeff.

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OFF THE GRID … THE AMERICAN CHURCH (PART IV)

Posted by Jeff Byerly on Friday, September 27, 2013 @ 3:08 PM

I told you last week how some members of our team in India had trouble finding diet soda. I don’t drink diet soda, so I had no trouble finding my favorite sugary drinks. However, we couldn’t find most of the luxuries to which we were accustomed. I was able to find fresh pineapples and bananas a few steps from our hotel, but I never did find oranges or mangos. Nonetheless, we were limited to what we could obtain, yet the main street was truly a thoroughfare of products and services that would meet the needs of the many villagers of Churchandpur. But no Walmart! There wasn’t one store that had it all.

DISTORTION #4: CHURCH AS WALMART

I think I can almost remember a time in the US when there were plenty of mom-and-pop stores and a few large department stores. But no Walmart! The rise of Walmart and the other big box stores consisted of the ability to sell a variety of products together and provide better prices through wholesaling. If you ran a mom-and-pop store, you decried the arrival of Walmart. Shoppers would now rather travel to the large spacious parking lot on the edge of town than walk a few blocks to get to your centrally located specialty store. Your number of clientele has declined and now you must consider whether your store is viable anymore. Or does that sound more like the competition between our churches today?

THE ILLUSTRATION: In this distortion, the church is viewed by many as an all-in-one commodity of religious goods and services. Churches become markets for consumers who come shopping for spirituality—as many say who come to our church doors, “We’re church shopping!” It’s a cultural phenomenon. People will gather around a young attractive eloquent speaker with a state-of-the-art sound system, plenty of room for people to spectate, vibrant ministries for the kids, and the best musicians in the area. If you can gather all of these, you can fulfill the American dream of Churchianity (a term coined by Reggie McNeal).

The truth is that the consumer-driven church has been around for a while (we call them mega-churches), but it has never become as distasteful as it has become in the last several decades. I am not so much concerned with the idea of a large assembly, as I am about accountability and discipleship. These are issues those of us in smaller churches must evaluate as well. The problem that I see is that the comfort of the large church provides a place for the weak to hide out in droves. (If you belong to a mega-church and this is not an issue, then please share your intentional disciple-making model with other mega-churches please.)

The saddest part of the distortion is when people who remain faithful to their dwindling, local expression of church believe that they are doing something wrong, because the mega-church on their side of town keeps growing. Eugene Peterson (The Message) was interviewed recently about pastoring. Here is what he said, “The one thing I think is at the root of a lot of pastors’ restlessness and dissatisfaction is impatience. They think if they get the right system, the right programs, the right place, the right location, the right demographics, it’ll be a snap. And for some people it is: if you’re a good actor, if you have a big smile, if you are an extrovert. In some ways, a religious crowd is the easiest crowd to gather in the world. Our country’s full of examples of that. But for most, pastoring is a very ordinary way to live. And it is difficult in many ways because your time is not your own, for the most part, and the whole culture is against you. In this consumer culture, people grow up determining what they want to do by what they can consume. And the Christian gospel is just quite the opposite of that. And people don’t know that. And pastors don’t know that when they start out. We’ve got a whole culture that is programmed to please people, telling them what they want.  And if you do that, you might end up with a big church, but you won’t be a pastor.” To read the fuill article, please go here:  http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2013/09/27/eugene-peterson-on-pastoring/ (Thanks, Tim Seiger).

THE LESSON: When church focuses on “easy-access” Christianity then we may lose reality for the experience of a delivery system that adapts the Gospel for my tastes. One’s spirituality is nothing more than going to the best meal in town … that’s why so many complain when … wait for it … “they haven’t been fed.” To be a real church (and real pastor), your goal should be to wean babies off of your milky sermons, so that they would feed themselves. That doesn’t happen in the worship service. That happens best in the company of an intentional disciple-making community.

THE BIGGER PROBLEM: We do not understand disciple-making. We have raised a generation (actually a few generations now) of spectators. Church is an event … a one-hour event … an event designed for worshipping God. Yet we want to know what’s in it for me. Since when does worship meet my criteria?

We can idly check out at the door as we check in by punching the time clock of God’s check-off list. We then walk out to the mysteries of the world, the confusion of the media, and the endless search for meaning through it all. And then we wonder why the church looks like the world.

 THE BIGGER SOLUTION: We need to develop intentional disciple-making groups that can help people delve into God’s Word, develop their relationship with God through prayer, and find accountability to live as they say they want to. And then they can go and simply engage others with this beautiful loving lifestyle – an ordinary life, by the way.

Could it be that God does not provide it all for us so that we may find our true hope in him?

OFF THE GRID … THE AMERICAN CHURCH (PART III)

Posted by Jeff Byerly on Friday, September 13, 2013 @ 2:37 PM

When we got to Churachandpur in India, one of our team members couldn’t find any vendors selling diet coke. One of the other observant members of the team said, “Well look, do they look like they need diet soda?” The truth was that none of them were overweight, nor was anyone looking malnourished. The other thing we quickly noted was that they appeared content to live in what appeared to us as squalor. Everyone agreed they looked extremely content to live the way they did. And then I remarked, “Does it seem like anyone here suffers from depression or serious anxiety?” I cannot say I know that answer for certain, but I found it a worthwhile question to ponder given our observations of their nature and habits. They had needs, but they were not expecting anyone to solve them for them.

DISTORTION #3: CHURCH AS PHARMACY

THE ILLUSTRATION: In this distortion, the church is viewed by many as a quick fix solution to their problems. Church is the place to bring your family so that we can fix your smart mouthed kids. It’s where the alcoholic and drug abuser can find help to change their lives. Although this can be true, it often takes serious work on the part of the participant for healing to which many are not ready to commit. Yet for many in our culture, the church is viewed as a means to provide band aid solutions or prescribe over the counter pills to solve their issues.

I am not saying that the church does not provide healing … in fact, this is our moniker at Bethesda – a healing community. What I am trying to say is that we live in a culture that wants quick solutions to life’s problems. Many people in serious debt get threatened with eviction almost every month. The sad news is that we receive several calls for assistance each month from people who don’t even know us. They are desperate! It’s amazing how bold some people are in asking or demanding help. “You are a church … this is your job to help us, right?”

We honestly attempt to learn of every situation and the precipitating causes in order to help them, but much of what we offer involves long term solutions, tough medicine, along with immediate help. The problem is that the short-term help is often enough to remove the sense of dread, and they often ditch the long-term solutions. We recently received a call from someone we helped a year ago. When asked if they did anything to solve their problems from the recommendations we gave them last year, they had done nothing. They literally expected money from heaven, whether from the church, government, the lottery, or others.

THE LESSON: When the focus of church becomes the “quick fix,” then we are not helping to solve any ills of the world. I have been part of churches in the past that offer prayer as the only solution to cure the person’s ills … that if people would just be more committed to God, God would take care of them. The leaders would continually be drug into the same hard-luck situations over and over. I remember seeing the same people lined up after services at the altar railings crying the same song over and over. They were trapped in their own dilemma and kept in bondage by their inability to move forward. In faith, they were simply expecting God to do something for them.

THE BIGGER PROBLEM: We do not understand sacrifice. We have a culture that listens to TV evangelists promise them blessings once they commit to follow God, as if we can get something for nothing. Wait a minute! That’s exactly what I did not see in India. No one seemed to expect something for nothing. In fact expectations in India varied greatly from our American ideals. I cannot tell you how often I felt embarrassed by our American impatience and demanding behaviors. We were poor examples of being sacrificial servants. Honestly, it was hard to live as examples to them – they outmeasured us in humility and servitude. Not that it was a contest, but we were really light years off course.

I doubt that we really understand “sacrifice,” – no matter what we say. I know that I’m not very sacrificial. I have wants, expectations, and even demands. I live this way every day without much thought. Think about your own lives.

THE BIGGER SOLUTION: We need to stop dispensing pills and band aids for people, and call the church in general to live beyond the self-centered standards and demands of our society. I cannot stress enough how seemingly irrelevant the church can become if we continue to get sucked into this sociological façade.

We still need to offer help to homeless people, alcoholics, depressed people, distressed families, and people pulled under by every other societal illness. But the cure isn’t usually found in a quick handout. It takes sacrificial living to actually help some people move past their hurts and find healing from God – long-lasting healing. This is needed on both sides ... for them and for us.

I’ll admit. I am not necessarily equipped or ready for this task. It is a glaring weakness for me. But I’m trying to learn new patterns for living the “take up your cross” lifestyle.

Next week, I will examine “The Church As Walmart.”

M Miller said...

Posted on Friday, September 20, 2013 @ 10:15 PM -
I had no idea that the church receives calls askg for help. how sad. does the saying "you don't buy them milk, but you give them a cow" apply to this post? You are right, I no nothing about sacrifice. yes, we sacrifice during our time on our missions trips, but during those times, the blessings out number the sacrifice. And then we arrive home to our warm beds and hot showers. (not to mention shoes, clean water, and buses with AC)

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OFF THE GRID … THE AMERICAN CHURCH (PART II)

Posted by Jeff Byerly on Friday, September 6, 2013 @ 2:58 PM

As I said last week, I have been discovering some significant issues with our American cultural expectations about how we do church. My recent trip to India continued to reveal some distasteful elements about simple American cultural expectations.

For instance, as I would arrive at each church service, a hollow sounding drum would steadily beat as ten or so people would begin to sing. A song leader would steadily shout out the next line—nothing glorious and no fanfare. Eventually over the next thirty minutes the church would fill up. I mean standing room only. Where did everyone come from? The villages didn’t look that large. But in each case, I bet nearly everyone in each town was packed into those buildings. The first church I sat in had unfinished walls, no windows, and it looked like it was ready for demolition. Yet the people poured in to worship. Something bigger was there than their simple lives—something bigger than the speaker, the music, and the building.

DISTORTION #2: CHURCH AS MOVIE THEATRE

THE ILLUSTRATION: In this distortion, the church is viewed by many as a place to be entertained. People become spectators and do not see church as something beyond the event of music and message combined together in order to speak to one’s own soul. People buy tickets for the matinee and they applaud (or critique) the platform players—the better the skills, the bigger the draw. The more people, the more the leadership applauds the event. More money is focused on the event and the event becomes the entire central focus of the church.

THE LESSON: When the focus of church becomes the “event,” then everything resembling New Testament Christianity fades behind the skills of a great orator and the high-tech effects for sight and sound. We as Americans can become so fixated upon the exaltation of feelings or the depths of thought that are experienced within a compacted segment of one or two hours within our weekly lives. Each weekly event can be critiqued similar to sharing thoughts about the latest movie release at the theatre. The success of a movie is ultimately graded upon the number of butts in the seats, and bucks deposited in the cash drawers of local theaters. We can be guilty of doing the same with the weekly worship service.

I do not decry the abilities of people who can preach, play an instrument, or sing well. We, as speakers, should do our best to be developing our skills. However, when the talk about how good a church is focuses upon the performances of these individuals, it reveals a serious problem. This is not “take up your cross and follow me”, sacrificial, Christ-centered worship that serves the world in Christ’s name. It basically serves only our own creature comforts and passions.

THE BIGGER PROBLEM: We have allowed our spiritual lives to become superficial. Growth in the church is seen as a numerical product of putting butts in the seats and keeping them captivated. The measure of people’s spiritual growth is overshadowed by the larger focus on how many people attended the worship service or the concert, or how many came to Christ through the evangelistic campaign. For some, spirituality is measured by attraction to an event—nothing more. In this model of church, leaders become skilled at “rat race” Christianity. They create the best events to draw the largest crowds. Their places are packed, but they may have simply gathered a crowd—nothing more.

I remember listening to comments from someone about a church that sponsored a rodeo. The church’s name was everywhere. As the story was told, it seemed that the purpose of the rodeo was designed to make sure that people were going to heaven when they die, and then to scoop them up and place them into their church programs. The event was deemed a success because hundreds (or maybe even over a thousand) had come to Christ through the event and the church was working hard to filter these folks into their programs. I don’t know the conclusion to the story, but I doubt the level of kingdom impact was nothing more than the soreness of a few cowboys the following day. Okay, I jest here, but I don't think the impact of this event was that huge.

THE BIGGER SOLUTION: We need to stop the fixation on event-based figures. We need to examine what is underneath the euphoria of following the herd, having our ears tickled, and achieving spiritual highs week in and week out. That’s all a lot of time and effort around something that has little lasting kingdom value. I’m not that impressed when people change their life course at a rodeo event … because I’m pretty sure they know little more about God or the people with whom they now worship. I believe that the key to lasting kingdom value in the church is strongly rooted through relationship-based discipleship. We must attempt to move people from being spectators at an event to becoming participants in the community of faith.

Church should not be viewed as an entertaining event at a church building, but rather a connective relationship between God and his people. Church permeates the real events of life. For instance, I just spent some time with a couple at the hospital as we celebrated the birth of their first son. It was one of the biggest days of their lives EVER, and I had the privilege to join with them in their connection with God and pray his blessing upon their family life. Don’t try to tell me that the preaching and music at any church was better than that event this week. That was an encounter with the Divine, and it was celebrated as such. You just can’t beat how God reveals himself in our lives week in and week out.

Next week, I will examine “The Church As Pharmacy.”

Al Giles said...

Posted on Friday, September 6, 2013 @ 5:46 PM -
Really, really appreciate these thoughts Jeff! I am so steeped in this cultural understanding of church, and am just now beginning to disentangle from it. It's hard!! Thanks for the challenge!!

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LESSONS FROM BEING OFF THE GRID … THE AMERICAN CHURCH (PART I)

Posted by Jeff Byerly on Friday, August 23, 2013 @ 2:42 PM

Hello again. Sorry for the lapse in time as I was in the mysterious and bizarre land called India. All in all, the trip provided me with enough familiarity to keep me safe and healthy (especially food-wise). However, India provides so many unforgettable stimuli to every sense that only compares to Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole. Even the strange aromas call into question whether you will ever recover. Those who have traveled to India know of what I speak.

While in India, I was grateful to a wonderful host and guide named Lalrosiem. His personal nature and understandings of our Western ways made for a pleasant experience. His humble, gentle, and relaxed spirit helped us Americans to adjust and connect within the divergent culture of Northeast India. While in India, I had a few opportunities to teach at the seminary in Churachandpur and speak at five different local churches. Knowing this in advance, I had time to draft messages that would hopefully be relevant for Indian people listening to an American. I chose to deliver messages about the four marks of the church – the 1) one, 2) holy, 3) catholic, and 4) apostolic church as portrayed in the First Council of Constantinople in 381 AD.

As I prepared (or retooled these previous) messages, I used a common illustration about four distortions of the American church. My hope was that these images and the overall messages connected with the listeners through the translation of an interpreter. I can, however, express that I was also learning much in the course of my stay in India about American culture and the church – things I knew, but that became exaggerated because of my fresh setting. Here is the first new lesson of four overall lessons.

DISTORTION #1: CHURCH AS GAS STATION

THE ILLUSTRATION: In this distortion, I explained how the church was viewed by many as a filing station. People drive their cars day after day, until Sunday rolls around. Then they pull in for a spiritual fill up. Then off they go running their lives throughout the week until their gas tanks approach empty and they are eventually running on the fumes from the previous week. They pull in for another fill up.

THE LESSON: We as Americans view God and our connection with him as a superficial relationship to the point where God and his Spirit become commodities – products for our consumption. We as individuals become the larger part of the equation. Our need for gratification drives us to get more fuel. We are the center of our own little universe and we are very consumption-driven. We believe that we have a very visible control over the events of our lives. We make choices and carry them out with great ease. Nothing comes as challenging, allowing us to place God into the background of life.

THE BIGGER PROBLEM: We have compartmentalized our lives. God and spirituality is viewed as a resource that is obtained weekly Sunday after Sunday. Many diminish their connection to God into a one-hour worship service. They can whoop it up. They can feel energized. They leave clinging to hope, feeling fueled for the week to come. It is a good feeling, and it does provide energy for life, but …

Many of these lives can be defined by a simple pie chart … carving it into composite sections drawn from 168 hours/week – 1/3 for sleep, another 1/4 for work, and other fractioned sections for eating, recreation, relaxation, household duties, family time, traveling, shopping, etc. No matter the divisions, if you carve a section for God time, (no matter what percentage), then you have limited his influence in your life. God isn’t a fueling station – he is the God of the Universe and the Lord of your life. You better allow his influence into every compartment: work, travel, family, eating, recreation, even sleep – good and healthy rest is part of God economy for your life.

THE BIGGER SOLUTION: We need to view God in every facet of life. Romans 12:1 says: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” Paul reminds us that worship is a sacrificed life that is set apart for God and pleasing to him. That includes my whole life – whenever I sit, walk, lie down or wake up (see Deuteronomy 6:7). My life is a testament to God’s goodness 24/7. My activities become God’s activities for he is with me in them. My life becomes an expression of forgiveness (past), gratitude (present), and hope (future).

Church is no longer a refueling station for connection with my God. Life is not compartmentalized. God is constantly fueling my life. My life is holistically an expression of worship to him. Yes, I can experience the ups and downs of life, but I don’t have to wait to be refueled – I am immediately refreshed knowing that he is now in whatever I am facing. It is him that I desire, not the “full” feeling of some event.

Next week, I will examine “The Church As Movie Theatre.”

BITTERSWEET REFLECTIONS

Posted by Jeff Byerly on Friday, July 26, 2013 @ 3:15 PM

This past Monday, I had the opportunity and privilege to listen to Leonard Sweet at Evangelical Seminary. He was witty and humorous as usual, but the message he gave us was not a pleasant one for Protestants—we are losing ground, while others are advancing around the world. He revealed how we have been handed, and still embrace a lot of junk from the Enlightenment. After stating that the printing press was the most anti-social invention of all time, he goes on to help us understand that books brought a separation of influence between the learner and the community. For the first time, the presenter was no longer necessary to be in the room for information to be passed along. Book learners were adopting ideas into their lives from outside the community. This helped to launch the concepts of Enlightenment individualism, which became rugged individualism, then radical individualism, narcissism, and finally solipsism, exemplified by Charlie Sheen.

He continued to help us unpack the need for changes in our identity, communication, and “work” within this culture. I think these are important topics, so I will provide some links for more information from Lisa Delay’s blog: http://lisadelay.com/blog/2013/07/25/the-tyranny-of-the-left-brain-thoughts-from-len-sweet/ and http://lisadelay.com/blog/2013/07/27/power-of-image-play-and-identity-thoughts-from-len-sweet/?preview=1&_ppp=d65be6a240.

During the lecture, I sat at a table of friends and would unpack some of the topics with them and with our bishop during the breaks. I went home wondering what in the world we are trying to accomplish as Protestant evangelicals. I reflected on earlier musings I had learned from Jim Ehrman, an associate from Yale, who taught some of us about postmodern thought and unveiled similar revelations that were in Sweet’s lecture. The next day I got a Facebook message from a good friend that revealed a similar angst that these sessions usually create in me. He wondered what I and another were going to do with what we learned.

I shared a few take-aways with them, but then the discussion transitioned toward a deeper focus (at least for me) that looked at how to conduct ministry in this generation. So let me ask you, “What in the world are we building?” Or perhaps, “What is your church trying to accomplish and doing as a result?”

Here is my serious reply to this question: I've been resigned for some time that a major renewal that will be lasting is not happening in our generation. I believe that we are more like Moses (wandering with God's people in the desert) and laboring to hold space for the next generation of Joshuas to take the Promised Land. So ultimately, I will die on Mt. Pisgah without entering the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 34:1-5).

I do believe that God is doing something in our midst though—it is not the prevalent story for which I had hoped. But let me ask you, “What was the prevalent story of the Israelites before they took Jericho?” It was two-fold—they were God’s chosen, given an inheritance in the Promised Land. But that was not their reality—they had just spent over forty years as nomads with no home, as wanderers bumping into colonies of people all around God’s intended destination for them. I sense in a metaphorical way, American Christians are in a land wandering, without a prevalent identity. (One of Sweet’s points was to develop our identity.)

However, when the Israelites realized they actually were God's people, and embraced it as their renewed identity, Jericho falls! So I'm looking for Joshuas in this culture. I am investing everything I have into them—vision, wisdom, courage, and patient endurance. As I embrace this, my role in discipleship becomes clearer. I am not teaching Bible verses for the sake of knowing the Scriptures. I am clustering together remnants in my communities that will carry the mission forward, and I am supporting them with all the fortitude I can muster, because I want them to grasp hold of it! For this next generation will rise and take the land!

So my job is not to advance the kingdom by building the big dynamic church with the ultimate worship experience. This is really chaff in comparison to God’s desire for our land. Once the “success” model of doing church hits the wall, these pockets of kingdom remnant followers will be emerging to lead the Protestant/Evangelical church toward the Promised Land. My job is to hold space. This is not passive work. It involves exploration of possibilities, pushing the envelope/boundaries of what defines the church, and staking off new territory for others to play for the King! Holding this space allows new entrepreneurial and apostolic imaginations to take root. It isn’t pretty work—but it is rewarding when you know the goal.

As for me (and probably you too), we will learn what it truly means to die to Christ. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live …” (Galatians 2:20). We will die on Mt. Pisgah. But then again, it never was our game plan to build something that God himself was not doing. Maybe that depresses some of you, but for me, I follow One who laid down his life, his reputation, and his all for the world.

Essentially, this was the task for Moses too. After all he had done for God’s people, he would never enter God’s Promised Land, but instead would develop his servant Joshua (Deuteronomy 31:1-8). That’s our work today. Find a few Joshuas in your midst and pour the essentials of discipleship into them and stop trying to build some “religious” empire on earth—it’ll only turn to chaff before your very eyes.

I don't have it all figured out, and I am often a poor example of this daily exercise. Nor have I laid down my life enough, but it does now define my work—holding space for the remnant—which clarifies my identity and work within God’s economy for the future.

Tim Seiger said...

Posted on Friday, July 26, 2013 @ 3:55 PM -
True, too true. Exciting to know our role and depressing at the same time. Hang in there, you are not alone :).

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ONE OF MY FAVORITE MOVIES

Posted by Jeff Byerly on Friday, July 12, 2013 @ 3:14 PM

I’m going to keep it light this week with a review of one of my favorite movies—definitely top ten on my list, but a bit off-beat. It’s a strange movie with mixed reviews about its sentimental, well-intentioned storyline. Perhaps the criticism is warranted. But because the story revolves around a 1960s folksy small-town, and its religious life, I just can’t resist commenting on the characters’ reactions to the quirky, peculiar central character and the religious and sociological angst the entire town has toward him. The movie is filled with several witty one-liners that point out the town’s staid religiosity. The movie of which I speak is Simon Birch.

What? You’ve never heard of it. Well, if you love a sentimental, well-intentioned storyline, I think it’s definitely worth your time. Even if you don’t, you may want to watch it. I’ll do my best to give some worthwhile highlights.

First, it’s narrated by Jim Carey (who plays an adult named Joe Wenteworth) recalling his childhood friend, Simon Birch. The story is about two boys—Joe who is trying to discover the identity of his father, and Simon who is a quirky, miniature-sized boy, whose parents are obviously disappointed and embarrassed by his stature. The town in which the boys live is a typical, rural town in 1960s America with a small church and a staunch narrow-mindedness toward these two boys—one deformed and one a “bastard.” Simon is curious about his unique size and deformed body. He sees himself as a powerful instrument for God’s purpose. The rest of the town sees him as a deformed little boy that is nothing but a nuisance to those around him.

In the following paragraphs, I will focus on some of the more interesting quotes from the movie.

[Scene #1] Simon: I’m a miracle. I don’t need proof, I have faith. Joe: I have faith. I just need proof to back it up.

The irony throughout this entire movie is that this one little deformed boy embraced faith in a God who could do something with the lowest-looked-upon person in town. Simon didn’t need proof. He had obstacles that were greater than anyone else’s. Few could see the value in him. But he could, and he didn’t have to diminish anyone else’s value to embrace that God had created him for something significant. It’s the overall theme of the movie, and reveals how adults and even religious people can miss something so critical to the message that Jesus gave us (see Luke 19:1-10).

[Scene #2] Simon: What does coffee and donuts have to do with God? I doubt that God is interested in our church activities. If God has made the church bake sale a priority, then I’d say that we are in a lot of trouble.

During Rev. Russell’s announcement after worship, Simon is asked to give reason for his disruption. Simon sees something more than the niceties of a religious faith designed to accommodate the comforts of those inside the fold. No one expected God to do anything larger than bless the bake sale. That’s a very small pinhole view of a very big God.

[Scene #3] Rev. Russell: What do you think you’re doing sitting in a corner? Simon: Thinking about God. Rev. Russell: In a corner? Simon: Faith is not in a floor plan.

Of course, Simon had been punished, and sent to the corner. But once again, he is able to look past his circumstances to see a “bigger floor plan” than the one where he found himself, in the corner. He is right. God can be thought of in any circumstance—even Paul and Silas could sing songs in prison (Acts 16:25).

[Scene #4] Simon: Does God have a plan for us? I think that God’s made me like I am for a reason. I’m God’s instrument. Rev. Russell: It’s wonderful to have faith, but let’s not overdo it.

Even in Simon’s patience, he doubts the quest for significance. What’s amazing is that Rev. Russell couldn’t see the treasure of this boy that God had created for a divine purpose.  All he saw was deformity and mischief. He had lost sight of God, and the amazing things that God can do.

Other than Joe, Simon only has one other encourager in his life—Mrs. Wenteworth, Joe’s mom. She pretty much parents this little boy and showers him with a special compassion that is not only warm, but powerful. She does nothing overtly extraordinary, except to simply demonstrate the proper posture toward a defenseless child and defend him when necessary.

There’s a lot more to the movie. With pre-teen boys, you have the curiosities and mischiefs of early adolescence. Mrs. Wenteworth eventually meets a suitor. Joe attempts to find his father. Tragedies strike. Life is complicated.

I will not give away the conclusion of the movie. I will say the ending is natural, pulling all things together, but the truly valuable insights are revealed throughout the movie. It’s definitely a movie where you will ask, “Which character represents my life?” I hope you watch it!

Tim Seiger said...

Posted on Friday, July 12, 2013 @ 3:34 PM -
I saw that and enjoyed it. Time for another go :)

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WHY ARE WE ATTRACTED TO BIGGER?

Posted by Jeff Byerly on Friday, July 5, 2013 @ 3:24 PM

I read a post this week from David Fitch’s blog spot at Reclaiming the Mission that caught my attention. His thoughts resonate with my thoughts about the consumeristic mentality of American Christianity. In his article Why Do American Christians Prefer Big? He describes three bad cultural habits that lead to the thinking that bigger is better. Here is the entire post: http://www.reclaimingthemission.com/?p=3828.

I must confess that I once believed that God wanted me (as a pastor) to grow the church, and that if I was worth my salt as a pastor, my church would consistently increase and I would be regarded as successful only in terms of that growth. Sadly, many people have bought this definition as well, and measure their personal faith and worth in ministry on such factors. Honestly, it’s hard not too (especially as a pastor). Anytime pastors get together in new settings, one will typically ask the other, “So how big is your church?” To which we’ve all learned to grab the highest attendance or membership that we’ve recently seen and throw it out there. Or perhaps, we cushion that number a bit higher. Or we wittingly answer, “Somewhere between 3 and 4,000.” Logically that covers anything from the number 3 and the number 4,000. It sounds impressive, but really 12, 50, 100, 200, 700, or 1,534 are all between “3” and “4,000.”

So, why is that the question that we ask each other? I think it covertly, but intentionally places us in a pecking order. We get measured by our answer. Over the past 22 years, I’ve learned these lessons much too slowly. So here are some things that I’ve learned that are guiding me lately.

Size is not what matters: I think that “buildings, bodies, and bucks” are not the measure of faithful ministry. Nor is it souls saved for heaven. Nor is it anything else other than faithful obedience to God’s leading. In fact, as I’ve been thinking about this, and reading the Gospels, I see Jesus once in a while thinned the herd. In John 6, Jesus presents a difficulty for the Jews that were following him, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” This difficult saying caused many to desert Jesus. What about those lost souls? Wasn’t Jesus trying to build an enormous following and bring everyone in? Apparently not. He even turned to his disciples and asked them, “ Will you desert me too?”

I don’t purposely thin the herd, but after some time I realize that certain followers are not finding what they came to Bethesda to find. They are not “being fed,” or they are asked to do too much, or we aren’t friendly enough, or we are too pushy, or some other thing that doesn’t agree with them. They move on to greener pastures. Or they sit at home. It’s what they are seeking. That’s okay. I’ve stopped asking myself what we’ve done wrong. I’ve stopped wondering what we could have done differently. I’ve stopped trying to adapt to unrealistic expectations or attempts to be all things to all people. In a culture where we can have Cheerios®, Honey Nut Cheerios, Apple Cinnamon Cheerios, Whole Grain Cheerios, Oat Cluster Crunch Cheerios, and several more variations of this popular cereal, I realize that people are trying to find an option of faith that matches their particular tastes. God is not interested in our attempts to simply accommodate that.

God is working here: Honestly, if I didn’t see God at work in our midst, then I would probably throw in the towel. As our leadership continues to discern the kind of ministry that God desires in our community, we must commit ourselves to follow what God is already doing. Some will come and some will come and go. We have to decide whether we will trust God in a given direction or whether we will dilute God’s objectives for an attempt at gaining control over our outcomes. I think that the latter is where the American Church lives and thrives. It’s competitive out there and we can’t let that up to mere circumstances. We must feed the consumer, and therefore, use the right bait, and keep them on the line.

I love the stories I hear from people in our church body. I see God’s involvement at least weekly. Much of it goes unreported, or it circulates in smaller circles, or it is kept confidential due to levels of spiritual maturity within the body. But God is working – I have no doubts! Sometimes we grow as a result of these situations. However, other times, it doesn’t create numerical growth, but boy is God ever exciting parts of the body.

Accountability must flourish: I wonder if much of mega-church growth is not resistance to higher levels of accountability. I am not saying everyone in mega-churches is unaccountable. I am wondering if it isn’t an easier place to hide out – to check in with God, but not with people. This of course happens in churches of every size; I just think it might be easier to get lost within the larger herds. And that is counter-productive to the kingdom.

The fact is accountability is messy, because life is messy. Relationships are messy. And church should be messy. Again, I wonder if large herd gatherings don’t create an efficient, pristine environment that covers an unaddressed, ugly, soupy mess brewing underneath. Without accountability, many people’s life issues go undetected, are superficially addressed, and even the professionals are not held to appropriate standards (see the Fitch article above).

So what is the answer? I honestly don’t have a simple solution. I am not opposed to the larger gatherings. Nor do I want to deter people from moving on to greener pastures. I just want people to think about these decisions, and understand them for what they may be. I honestly doubt whether we will get past the “pecking order” mentality, or how people measure their own church body. It’s just too much a part of our American culture.

Jeff said...

Posted on Saturday, July 6, 2013 @ 8:53 AM -
Those are my comments. I love Cheerios ... the plain kind :-)

said...

Posted on Saturday, July 6, 2013 @ 12:01 AM -
wait, you didn't compose it.... I still like the fifth paragraph and the insight. :)

said...

Posted on Friday, July 5, 2013 @ 11:44 PM -
I like the fifth paragraph. Thanks for the insight. and the time taken to compose this info.

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WHAT IS THE GOSPEL, REALLY?

Posted by Jeff Byerly on Friday, June 28, 2013 @ 2:48 PM

I am still enjoying the beach :-). I am also still reading, as well as enjoying the other activities of beach life. In my reading, I have moved on to a book by John Burke, Mud and the Masterpiece. In it, Burke takes the posture of seeing people through the eyes of Jesus, and then invites the reader to join Jesus on mission in the way that his life exemplified. It is a very practical and simple approach to living as God's kingdom people.

Burke provides several stories from the four Gospels to present a clear picture of how Jesus viewed each person uniquely as a masterpiece covered in mud. As a result, he was able to look past the mud to see the beauty of each person. He did not condemn them with the Law. Rather, he drew out the person's need and gave them what they needed - the Gospel. Burke breaks these encounters into three main themes.

Here they are: The Good News about God and Life - God invites us to live an eternal kind of life that centers on learning to truly love God so he can lead us to truly love others; a restored relationship that restores relationships. The Good News about Jesus - King Jesus' life, death, and resurrection opened the way for us to know that God does not condemn us, but forgives our sins, so that we can walk into Life with his Spirit, who helps us become who he intended. The Good News about Our Part - Through Christ, God has removed every barrier between God and people except one: our pride or free will. As a result, we can humbly choose to turn and trust God to experience his forgiveness and guidance into Life by his Spirit for the kingdom is at hand.

When one observes Jesus' attitudes, words, and actions toward people in need, they can pretty much be placed into one of these categories. His words of condemnation were pretty much reserved for religious leaders, who were trying to lock up the kingdom from the people with whom Jesus hung. Could it be that we are taking on the posture of Pharisees and truncating the Gospel into a method for sin management, where Jesus only solves our sinful standing before God through his death on the cross? As they say, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Compare that with the threefold definition Burke presents above. 

So what's the big deal? Those people who pray to get to heaven through the cross are saved and have eternal life, right? Not so fast. Dallas Willard says that we enter salvation by grace. However, we are not kept without some participation. Grace is not to be treated cheaply. Or did Jesus merely die so that we can live however we want simply because we happened onto a fortunate pill that will cure our sinful standing or a magical incantation prayer that simply relieves our personal guilt?

The Gospel is so much bigger! It's about God's desire for the completion of my life to become the masterpiece he has always wanted me to be. My life takes on greater significance as I learn to turn and align my life with his. John Ortberg illustrated this in a particular teaching: whle standing in a breezy corridor and holding a wooden flute, he showed that the wind only produced sound when the flute was aligned with the wind. In the same way, we were meant to be tuned into God's life and resonate in harmony with it, as we align ourselves to it. This then creates natural witness!

I continually live my life looking for alignment with God's Spirit!  I live in the freedom of the Spirit!  I learn to humbly walk in my relationships in patterns that demonstrate Jesus' life. I align, I resonate, I produce harmony, and God's Gospel lives in and through me; that is true evangelism. No formula to learn. No unnatural, manufactured programs. Just life submitted to the King with patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control and other forms of compassionate obedience. I am a child of the king, and become an ambassador for his kingdom. 

And when lived out together in community, we just might realize what church really is!

 

Linda Scott said...

Posted on Saturday, June 29, 2013 @ 10:42 AM -
Well I know what one of my summer reads will be! Another great message Jeff!!

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Beyond the Gospel of Sin Management

Posted by Jeff Byerly on Friday, June 21, 2013 @ 7:32 PM

I enjoy the beach -- the wind, the waves, the sun! I ride the waves, bake in the sun, charter a fishing trip, and read books on theology. And now I sit and post this blog. I know that other beach goers are not typically reading theology or blogging, but that's what I like.
As I packed for this trip, I reviewed my book list. Staring at my bookshelf, I pulled down my books by Dallas Willard. I quickly added them, because I wanted to rekindle the fond explorations from these works in my thoughts this week. I began with The Divine Conspiracy.
As I read, I quickly recalled the themes of kingdom, community, and apprenticeship. If you've never read him, Dallas mentored millions into a new way of thinking about the Good News of Jesus. He was a gentle, contemplative visionary who lived as an apprentice of King Jesus, and now keeps company with him since May 8th of this year.

As I read The Divine Conspiracy this week, I want to highlight some items from his chapter on the Gospels of Sin Management. In it, he questions the significance of the bumper sticker slogan: "Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven." Although it sounds harmless, and to some inspirational, he warns that it unwittingly communicates a shallow version of the Gospel.

He likens it to a bar-code faith, where we can receive God's grace totally independent of the transformative power of Christ. In other words, it is not necessary to be a good Christian; it's all about having the correct bar-code. He continues, "Can we seriously believe that God would establish a plan for us that essentially bypasses the awesome needs of present human life and leaves human character untouched? Can we believe that the essence of Christian faith and salvation covers nothing but death and after?" And so faith is never visible, except to God's scanner. I can now die and know that my sins are forgiven because I fortunately prayed the right prayer.

Many start with the wrong proposition: "How does one get to heaven?" Willard says this is a forensic view of our condition rather than a vital reality or character. However, our salvation is really about having life in the kingdom now. The issue is whether we are alive to God or dead to him; not some arrangement for sin-remission and removal of guilt. Instead we trust Jesus in every dimension of our lives. In the Gospels we read how the Gospel is good news to the poor, meek, hungry, and humble, as the kingdom becomes available now and forever. That's what you find there; not sin management, or bar-code faith, or I'm not different, just forgiven stuff.

Willard's conclusion: We must preach the kingdom. And for those willing to enter this arena, beware. Many people want nothing more than to hear "Help us to just be forgiven; don't give us the other stuff."

DIFFICULTIES IN THE CHURCH OF DEMOCRACY

Posted by Jeff Byerly on Friday, June 14, 2013 @ 6:48 PM

As an Evangelical Congregational pastor, I live in the aftermath of a system that was designed to model fairness and provide several voices within a decision making process in order to govern the churches of our National Conference. That system is called congregationalism — a form of democracy, in which every member votes upon every decision, no matter how large or how small it may be. At first glance, it seems to be a very practical and fair way for the church to make decisions. However, I have been convinced for some time that taking a vote is not the best way to make decisions for the whole. And that this system has led us to the result of many poor choices and to the brink of ineptitude.

Recently, our National Conference registered a negative vote against a concept to re-structure our denomination. In all fairness, I’m not sure whether the proposal had a chance from the beginning. My point in this post is not to validate or invalidate the vote taken, but to evaluate the process of congregationalism. In our setting, many voices were heard – some for the better and some for the worse. As for the vote, I was hopeful, but skeptical about the outcome. As for the system, I believe it failed miserably.

This raises very formidable questions for the church. Where does authority exist in the church? How should major decisions get made? And how do we safeguard against our own ignorance, fear, selfishness, and comfort?

I believe that we may overvalue and take pride in an American system that upholds fairness for people, but extinguishes the voice of God in leading his church. When we look realistically at this system, we are expecting that God will speak to a majority (or super-majority, when such votes are asked for) of people in the same way. We believe that an objective truth exists that we can all embrace if we use our God-given faculties. In reality, we are exalting human reason (a hallmark of the Enlightenment) as the guiding force for our decisions. In other words, a good decision makes sense to the many, which sounds well and fine except it does not work well in a system where sacrificial living is not the norm. The bottom line is that we have four forces to overcome.

Ignorance: One of the major problems in a system of democracy (or congregationalism) is that we must assume that everyone has the same understanding of the problem that is before us. The reality is that some people are not familiar with the magnitude of the problem that looms before them. Others are unaware of the history of the situation. Many more are simply lazy in educating themselves about the ramifications of their choice. So their vote is cast without clarity. These people usually come forward afterwards and say something like, “If I would have known, I would have voted differently.”

Fear: The second obstacle to a good decision-making process is fear. This creeping ogre looms throughout the process looking for opportunities to pounce upon people. It raises its ugly head during discussion and debate. It sweeps in and carries off our wild imaginations to the land of “what-ifs”. The classic example is found in Numbers 13, when the explorers return from exploring the Promised Land. Ten of the twelve say something like, “It is exactly as God said it would be! But the cities are fortified and we heard rumors of giants in the land. We fear we are not capable to go in and take it.” However, Joshua and Caleb say, “We can surely take the land, for the Lord has given it to us.” The people embraced the majority report wrapped in fear, and the conclusion of the story is: They wandered in the wilderness for forty years.

Self-centeredness: Another glaring impediment to sound decisions is the idea of selfishness. During our recent decision, I heard at least one story that described a vote that was cast specifically on how it may detract from their church specifically over against the benefit for the whole group. I am sure that many others also decided to vote based on an appeal to whether it would lend to or detract from their own situation. I believe that most national elections operate this way, which reveals a problem with the whole system.

Comfort: The last one on my list of obstacles focuses on what would be easiest. We do not handle the loss of emotional attachments well. So every story about the value of something to us in the past becomes the prevailing thought for many. We can't imagine life without it. Inevitably, change becomes a four-letter word—trust me. I know it looks like six, but it’s really four, at least for my example. Ultimately, our comfortable preferences become convictions and non-negotiables in the process of decisions. We cling to what we know, even though it is on board a sinking ship.

I just think that in today’s church, these four concepts can easily derail the best ideas, in the name of fairness and equality. The question is: Is this how God desires for us to make our decisions? Can an authoritative answer be agreed upon by a majority and then embraced and lived out by the whole as part of God's desire?

Let’s see how this process would have worked out in a few situations. If Moses had taken a vote among the people after crossing the Red Sea and journeying toward the Promised Land, I think the Israelites would have returned to slavery in Egypt. We already saw the result of the exploration above – a majority vote that sent them into the wilderness for forty more years. Elijah stood by himself as one of a few faithful prophets of YHWH, while the majority served King Ahab’s desires. A vote among prophets would have declared Elijah as out of sync and incompetent. The problem is that the four factors mentioned above are just too insurmountable to overcome within the democratic process.

Throughout the New Testament, we see demonstrated and hear about roles of leadership that are administered by the laying on of hands. It is a system that depicts the mantle of authority that is bestowed upon men and women who have proven themselves as honorable and of good character. Yes, I know this system is not perfect either—there are poor leaders. However, it does place the burden upon the church to identify those whom God has called, and raised up as competent leaders of good character. These leaders learn to discern the Spirit by listening well to others. They are teachable and know how to gather good feedback from others. They know how to invest in others. They establish trust throughout the body. And they make decisions that are well-informed, courageous, for the good of the whole, and often uncomfortable. (Please note: these four qualities positively correspond to the four weaknesses of congregationalism listed above.) And that is what good leadership looks like throughout the Bible.

So are you ready to vote? All in favor?

Dale Kramer said...

Posted on Sunday, August 18, 2013 @ 5:55 PM -
I've wanted to write a response for some time...but alas between my propensity to procrastinate and the struggles of Bi-vocational ministry it hasn't happened, till now. Here goes,...on this issue of congregationalism being supported... that in itself will take a whole study on the role of church elders, how we station, and the disciplinary moves of conference leadership of to men they confronted as being too "autocratic". I'll put that subject on hold for now.
On the subject of conference lay delegates being the "cream of the crop" ...I said that a little tongue in cheek. I did find it a little odd that one year Dave Wood could vote at conference as lay delegate and the next year after having been examined by the supervisory committee and approved as a ?was it approved candidate or licentiate? he could not vote. Hmmmm after more examination He was disqualified. You say you have better qualified men..." a missionary, three people with seminary degrees, and some young entrepreneurial leaders all of whom can't commit the time that conference requires of lay delegates." Two things , First I believe if they(the better qualified men) felt called of God to fill the position( the only reason anyone should take it) then wild horses couldn't keep them away. Historical sidebar in the earliest years lay delegates were not assigned from each church only laymen that had an interest and calling to help the fledgling denomination attended conference (hence most of the conference was made made up of the ministers with some respected laymen from the various churches). Secondly be careful of choosing qualified men solely on their credentials. That is the reasoning of Samuel who would choose Saul over David(the young ruddy upstart). You can have a seminary degree and still be an infidel. (not saying any of your men are). Man looks on the outward appearance but God looks on the heart.
Finally to the heart of the matter. I'm glad you agree our system needs reformed. Congregationalism as currently practiced has harmed our churches. However you say. "I don't know how we can say the Bishop is the spiritual leader and then allow those under his direction to thwart his interpretation of God's vision..." the scripture says ..."no prophecy of scripture is of ones own interpretation." I didn't know we had given the Bishop papal powers to speak inexcathedra (?how's that spelled?) from the throne for God. I think(and I voted for the plan) one of the weakness of the plan was the disunity among the leadership. The Bishop and his lieutenants should have gone away on a retreat and locked themselves away until they heard from God and came away in agreement that xyz was God's will. Tony Evans often says if there is a mist in the pulpit there will be a fog in the pew. The Bishop is a spiritual leader overseer over the Missions Chair but He doesn't dictate to Randy what Randy must do. The Bishop is a spiritual leader to the school and the home but He doesn't dictate to them their policies. Neither should He dictate to the Conference Ministers. Historical sidebar in the early years there were appointed more then one Bishop (different ones oversaw several different annual conferences often with some overlap). The last time a Bishop tried to exercise papal powers(unwilling to be questioned in his judgement) our denomination went thru a church split. You rightly said, "In the New Testament we see demonstrated and see roles of leadership that are administered by the laying on of hands. It is a system that depicts the mantle of authority that is bestowed upon men as honorable and of good character." In our system we do that with and to the Conference Ministers. I believe Gary B, Gary K and Gordon L. are such men, honorable and of good character. I therefor have to believe that God has something better for us...we just have to find out what it is. We can't continue as we are. This has been a good discussion. Rethinking how I voted if I were to vote again I would have to vote against the motion only because the men with the mantle of authority given them were not in agreement. To me that means something either needs tweaked or a new idea must be discovered. For the King and for the Restoration...your companion in arms Dale

Jeff said...

Posted on Friday, July 12, 2013 @ 5:37 PM -
Dale, sorry it has taken so long to respond.
On your first point, I thank you for your historical insights about the advent of our form of governance. I do not disagree with any of this. It is noteworthy that for us congregationalism (a form of democracy) came from elements of distrust.
On your second point, I don't know that I would agree that we champion congregationalism at the local level. One of the aspects of the 2010 Strategic Plan that Bishop Kevin and I presented focused on developing a balance of accountability between pastors, laity, and denominational leaders that was more balanced and in alignment with biblical guidelines than the forms of democracy from which they arose.Bill Worley and Gary Brown wrote a position paper that was not communicated well to the wider body. Kevin's death left a void in carrying out many (if not all) of our 2010 objectives.
I would also challenge that we have the cream of the crop at National Conference. It is more like we have those who are available and willing. With no offense intended toward any of my own lay delegates over the past years, I have a missionary, three people with seminary degrees, and some young entrepreneurial leaders (all of which that cannot give the time that National Conference requires). In all honesty, I think I see much better responses and wiser solutions from our younger Christians at Bethesda than what I see from "mature" Christians at National Conference. Just an observation.
On your last point, I don't know how we can say the bishop is the spiritual leader and then allow those under his direction to thwart his interpretation of God's vision. I think they should provide input, but they are not the one's in the visionary role.
I do believe that structures help or hinder the culture of the church. Sociologically, (or in view of Church Health concepts), a church's culture helps to develop the structure, the structure then dictates the kinds of roles that are needed within the structure. The problem is our external culture has changed, our internal culture has taken a posture of resistance, our structure only gets tweaked occasionally, and as a result the roles feel the tension and are confusing.
I'll simply conclude that regional leaders worked well in a system when critical information was passed along through newspapers. A regional leader could travel from place to place without experiencing much variation in terms of pastoral and church need from place to place. Eventually, information sped up in a media age (TV and radio), and so did the pace of culture. The demands of leaders now had to process larger aspects of information and the information began to diversify. We began to see these positions take on stress. But we kept thinking that regional leadership was the way to go. Today, we live in a "Just In Time" world where information changes on an hour-by-hour basis. People get angry when they hit a dead zone where their iphone is not able to retrieve information. Our resource information in the church is diversified into discipleship, evangleism, leadership, church health, global ministries, and many other facets of ministry. How can one man wear all these hats and at the same time and be understanding enough with up to 60 churches that all have varying needs? So in visual terms we have a wide variety of issues, and one man to deliver them to a wide degree or varying churches. Wide-narrow-wide creates an hour glass, or a bottle neck. This structure that has been handed down to us needs a makeover. In my view, it's no wonder our churches are suffering under this model.

Dale said...

Posted on Monday, July 8, 2013 @ 4:12 PM -
This is a timely subject. One that deserves a lengthy discussion. I too believe our "democratic" system of congregationalism is holding us back. However you failed to mention the weaknesses of strong leaders and how Biblically accountability is handled. I won't get into all that now. But if I may I'd like to point out three things. One the evangelical church was not founded as a democratic organization. Through the class leaders and elders it operated much like a Presbyterian board of elders. An interesting note about the streams of influence Bishop Mike champions, 3 of the 4 come out of revival movements as God impressed and shaped the church: i.e. 1.the stream of Piety comes from the German pieitistic movement , 2. the stream of Wesleyan/ Evangelicalism comes from the Wesleyan revivals, 3. the stream of Holiness comes of course from the mid century holiness movement. NOTE OUR DEMOCRATIC FORM OF GOVERNMENT AND THE ENSUING CONGREGATIONALISM CAME OUT OF A FIGHT, A SPLIT AND A DIVISION IN OUR CHURCH. Secondly, note that our democratic form of government was instituted because of the heavy handedness of a Bishop and others in leadership. Interestingly we are moving away from the democratic process at the conference level all the while we champion congregationalism at the local level. NOTE IF WE CAN'T MAKE THE DEMOCRATIC PROCESS WORK AT THE CONFERENCE LEVEL WHERE WE ARE SUPPOSED TO HAVE THE CREAM OF THE CROP(APPROVED PASTORS AND THE MOST SPIRITUAL LAY LEADERS WE HAVE). HOW THEN ARE WE EXPECTED TO MAKE CONGREGATIONALISM WORK AT THE LOCAL LEVEL WHERE WE HAVE EVERYTHING FROM NEWBORN CHRISTIANS, TO BACKSLIDERS, TO SENIOR SAINTS ALL WITH THE SAME VOTE. Finally. Jeff I sense your frustration with the outcome of the vote. BUT DIDN'T YOU ULTIMATELY GET WHAT YOU WANTED...a system that depicts a mantle of authority that is bestowed on men who have proven themselves as of good and honorable character. In our system we have four chosen to lead the larger church(the bishop and the three conference ministers). Two of these spoke openly in opposition to the committees work and the body collectively agreed. If it were left to just those four I'm not sure we would have had any different result. I personally would have liked to see what the committee would have developed. CAVEAT THE REAL PROBLEM IN OUR CHURCHES IS NOT THE STRUCTURE OF THE NATIONAL CHURCH. Any changes at that level only buys us time to fix the real problems. Thoughts?

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To Name
To Email
Note