Identity and Relational Idolatry

In Luke 3, Jesus is baptized, and God calls out from the heavens and declares that Jesus is “my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased (Luke 3:22).” This is the point in Jesus’s life that God gives him his identity. Now Jesus knows who he is. It’s a good thing too, as Jesus is about to go out into the desert and be tempted by Satan to live beneath his true identity as the Son of God. In Luke 4:1-13 we see Satan tempt Jesus over a period of 40 days as Jesus endures the pain and struggle of a fast. Of course, Jesus emerges the victor from this intense, formative experience. 

I have always read these two stories from the life of Jesus like they were intricately connected. Jesus needed to be affirmed by receiving his true identity from God and then he was led out into the desert to be tested. The desert was a crucible experience for Jesus in which he proved that he was ready to begin his ministry. The rest of his life then is about the ministry that God had called him to. But there is another story that is intricately connected to these which also shows a powerful temptation for Jesus to live beneath his true identity as the Son of God.   

In Luke 4:16-30, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth. He goes to the synagogue, reads from Isaiah, and proclaims his Messiahship. This sends the good people of Nazareth into an uproar. Several clear points of temptation for Jesus to deny his true identity then arise. First, the people respond by asking aloud, “isn’t this Joseph’s son (Luke 4:22)?” I wonder if the people who asked this question didn’t already know the answer. My strong suspicion is that they were just questioning Jesus’s claim that he was the Messiah. They were trying to bring him back down to earth by reminding him that he is simply the son of a man, like everyone else in the room. Here we see the temptation for Jesus to question his identity. Second, the negative reaction of the crowd likely put pressure on Jesus to take his words back or apologize for causing an uproar. To apologize though would have been a denial of the truth of what God had said about him at his baptism. Finally, the crowd meant to throw Jesus off a cliff (Luke 4:29). Clearly, at this point Jesus can see all that he stands to lose: his deep connection to a people and a place. This represents a last opportunity for Jesus to take back his words and placate the crowd.

How does Jesus do in the face of this test? He never takes back his words, or apologizes, or shrinks back in fear. He stays true to his identity as the Son of God. Like a man who knows exactly who he is and is completely surrendered to God, Jesus walks right through the crowd that means to hurt him and goes on his way (Luke 4:30). I wonder if the people weren’t so overwhelmed by Jesus’s apparent invulnerability that they felt powerless to stop him. Now he is ready to begin his ministry.

The name that I would give to the main, overarching sin that Jesus was tempted with that day in Nazareth is relational idolatry. This is the sin of caring more about what other people think than you care about what God thinks. Psychologists and counselors often use the term codependence to describe unhealthy relationships with others in which your well-being, feelings, and emotions depend on what others think about you. Codependence and its definition definitely work in describing some of what is happening here in Nazareth. Jesus was never a codependent, but the people sure wanted him to be. But the term codependence lacks the spiritual element that relational idolatry has. I believe that what’s at stake here is an opportunity for Jesus to replace God on his throne. 

Another way of defining relational idolatry is when you, in your heart and mind,  remove God from his throne and replace him with someone else. It might seem ridiculous to think that Jesus was tempted to do this, but I believe he was. Consider that Jesus knew most of the people at the synagogue that day and he knew them well. These are good people and they are people that Jesus cares about. As Nazareth was a small village, you can bet that some of Jesus’s family and friends were in attendance that day. That is one of the insidious elements of this sin, is that it usually involves people that you love, are close to, and naturally care about.

I really connect with the story of Jesus being rejected in Nazareth more than I connect with the temptation in the desert. There is so much about the temptation in the desert that is supernatural. The 40 day fast and Satan interacting directly with Jesus, and the fantastic offer to of authority over all of the kingdoms of the world are all things that I have not experienced. But, being tempted to apologize for my faith or soften my convictions so that family and friends would accept me are things that I have often faced.

The countermeasure to the sin of relational idolatry is to root our identity in Christ. Through Jesus, we have been adopted into God’s family and we have been declared sons and daughters of God (Eph 1:5). When we build our lives on our identity as God’s sons and daughters, we can endure the temptation and loss that we are faced with in this world. Our relationship with God is the only unchanging and eternal relational arrangement that we will ever have in our existence. There is no greater guarantee than that God is our loving Father and we are his children. From this relationship our whole identity can be securely formed and there never has to be any question of whether some other person or relationship can replace it. 

Jesus’s identity as the Son of God is what carried him through his ministry. He would butt heads with his family, fail to obtain the approval of the religious authorities, and be abandoned by his closest friends. Yet he never wavered in his commitment to God. He loved all people, especially his friends and family. But none of them ever took the place of God. He was the Son of God, no matter what the cost, and that is why he is still the Son of God today.

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Blake Burchfield is a Mission Alive church planter in western South Dakota. Blake and his wife Katie run Peace Initiative, a non-profit organization dedicated to serving the Lakota people. They are passionate about Native Americans experiencing the peace and freedom that comes from following Jesus. Blake and Katie have four children, Micah, Rose, Lauren, and Kaelyn.   

 

Patience and the Expansion of Our Imaginations for Mission

I first heard about Mission Alive as it was beginning to form in 2004 and 2005 when helping plant the first church. My wife and I were blessed to have breakfast with Gailyn Van Rheenen and his wife, Becky, at a restaurant in Memphis. Little did I know then how much I didn’t know about church planting in North America or the way that my life would be involved with Mission Alive and even church planting.

For most of my years serving as a vocational minister, I have worked with established congregations in the role of the preaching minister/pastor. However, between serving with churches, I helped a friend who was planting a church in the Denver Metro area. That was in 2010. Now 2022 is almost here and I am working with a young minister who, after having completed a ministry apprenticeship with the Newark Church of Christ, is attending seminary and seeking to plant a church in southeastern New Jersey. In twelve years since then and now, I’ve learned a little more, my theological awareness and leadership abilities are more developed, which hopefully makes me a better mentor and coach.

I share all this in response to a picture of a tweet from David E. Fitch quoting from Alan Kreider about the transformative life of the early church, which you can see in the picture. The quote comes from Kreider’s book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, 2016 and is found on page 73. If you’ve not read this book, I highly recommend you do so. Fitch, in his tweet, categorized this quote as “CHURCH PLANTING 101” and rightfully so but ten years ago I would not have understood why this is such important wisdom for those planting new churches, campus missions, etc.

Frankly speaking as a critique of my younger self, I didn’t have the imagination for any kind of church planting beyond the Field of Dreams model. That is, my understanding was that when planting a church, developing a seeker-friendly worship gathering would begin to draw in enough people that the new church could become self-sustaining within a few years. So without dumbing down Christian doctrine or compromising the gospel, I thought that engaging worship and preaching would yield to a thriving church and thought so because that approach has worked in the past. However, I don’t have the time to explain every reason but I now believe this was a rather myopic vision of church planting.

The cultural landscape of North America is so rapidly changing. It’s nearly twenty-two years since Eddie Gibbs pointed out how the church growth movement had yet to reverse the decline we see taking place among Christianity (Church Next, p. 18). Yet the downward trend of Christianity in North America continues. Although the reasons for such decline vary, one implication is the challenge of launching new churches and campus missions who mission is to reach communities of people who don’t “go to church” and don’t have any reason to do so. In many of these communities, there are challenging issues that need to be addressed if people are to hear the gospel as good news rather than just more noise to tune out.

My point is that while some new churches or campus ministries may still experience significant numerical growth over a short period of time, I anticipate that growth for most new communities of disciples will happen slowly. So to expect a new church to be completely self-sustaining and able to fully financially support any ministry staff within a couple of years is likely unrealistic. Both established churches as a collective body and individual Christians should be prepared to help support the planters for more than just a few years but those planting may also need to consider bi-vocational as an option.

The implication I am describing will require patience on both the part of the planters as well as the churches who send and support the planters. Besides, if we are going to do the mission work of planting churches and campus ministries that have a lasting impact, then the focus needs to shift from numerical growth to maturative growth. That is a focus on making disciples and cultivating communities whose theological praxes reflect their formation in the way of Christ. Kreider describes the early church as having a “theology of patience” which understood that when their habits were healthy, their churches would grow (p. 74). Launching new churches and campus missions in North America will require a theology of patience of us too.

I wish that I would have had the theological imagination to understand this back in 2005 and 2010. I didn’t and though I can’t change the past, I can gladly see new possibilities for the future. As I do, my hope is that I might help us all expand our imaginations for the challenges we face today.

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K. Rex ButtsD.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE. He holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.

What God Can Do: That Challenges Facing the Church in North America

I’ve begun reading through the new book by Mark Lau Branson and Alan J. Roxburgh, Leadership, God’s Agency, and Disruptions: Confronting Modernity’s Wager, Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2021. Having read other books by both authors and having had Roxburgh as a Professor for a doctoral seminar, I value what both have to say. Their book comes at a critical time in history for many churches and so as I read, I have thoughts ruminating through my head about churches across North America.

By all accounts and metrics, churches are struggling across North America. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made the struggles more apparent and more difficult. Furthermore, there isn’t any quick-fix solution that is going to reverse the course. So I neither want to play the game of heaping blame and shame on churches nor do I want to pretend I have the definitive way forward all figured out.

Let me point out that there are a number of factors that have helped create the current malaise and not all are within the control of churches. The age of secularization we are living among began taking shape long before most current churches even came into existence and so a renewed participation in the mission of God will require more than just a tweak here or there. Similarly, it is delusional to believe the idea that we can just wipe the slate clean and start over.

I say this in response to some of the sentiments I read on social media from time to time, that always seem hyper-critical of what churches are doing while suggesting a simplistic solution.

“If churches will just get rid of Sunday worship and get into the neighborhood…” “If churches would just recapture the simplicity of the early church…” “If churches would just be less building-centric…”Blah, blah, blah…

Yes, churches can focus on Sunday too much and forget the neighborhood, and sometimes churches make things more complex than necessary or get too wrapped up in their building. However, such suggestions are full of assumptions and sometimes such assumptions are so far removed from the contextual reality of most churches that they are useless. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m well aware of the problems that can hinder a church’s participation in the mission of God. However, it’s easy to see the problems but it’s very short-sighted to see only the problems. There are plenty of churches of all sizes and social locations still faithfully serving King Jesus. The ministry of these churches may not be sexy enough to make a big splash but their impact on people’s lives is still significant. If you doubt me, I’ll start by telling you about a man from Liberia who came to the US and, having been baptized two months ago, is already teaching an online Bible class to about 30 other Liberians living throughout North America. And I’ve got more stories.

That said, there are real challenges facing many churches that leave us wondering what can be done. Well, I’m not sure and I have yet to find in the scriptures any explicit instructions on how to plant innovative churches or how to lead a church towards missional renewal. However, when it comes to the scriptures, I call to mind the fact that the only instruction Jesus gave to his disciples after his resurrection was essentially to wait. The disciples wanted to know when Jesus would restore the kingdom of God and Jesus responded by telling them about receiving power from the promised Holy Spirit.

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” – Acts 1:8

So after Jesus ascended into heaven, the disciples returned to Jerusalem to wait for the reception of the Holy Spirit. But as they did so, they were “constantly devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14, NRSV).

If this passage offers us any answer to what can be done about the challenges we face in North America, it’s that we should look first to what God can do rather than what we can do. I can’t speak for Canadians but beginning with ourselves as a solution is very American and evidence of how much modernism has formed our thinking. The strength of the church for living as participants in the mission of God comes from the Spirit of God, the same power who raised Christ from the dead. That’s why prayer matters.

By praying, we acknowledge our dependence upon God with faith in what God can do. When praying, we become receptive to what God is doing and is calling us to do as his missional partners. As Alan Mark Lau Branson and Alan J. Roxburgh remind us, “God is the initiator, prayer is a practice that places us in a listening posture, and those who are faithful in prayer will begin to improvise based on what have heard” (Leadership, God’s Agency, and Disruptions, p. 25). So instead of asking what can we do regarding the challenges of our day, ask what God can do. Ask God, in prayer, what he can do and ask him to do it.

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K. Rex ButtsD.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE. He holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.

Polluted Water: The Conjoining of Partisan Politics and Christianity

By K. Rex Butts

“Don’t touch politics with a ten-foot pole” was the advice I once was told as a young minister. That seemed like wise advice at the time but apparently, it was advice only for ministers and not for other Christians, which may have contributed to the morass evangelical Christianity finds itself in today. Now I’ve learned, sometimes the hard way, to stay away from partisan politics but I do believe that Jesus is Lord, a claim that is very political and my interest is with the Kingdom of God. But I am concerned that too much of Christianity in America is being formed by partisan politics rather than the good news of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God.

This article in The Atlantic by Peter Wehner, The Evangelical Church is Breaking Apart, has received a lot of attention. Wehner describes the partisan political climate of America and the impact it is having among evangelical churches. You don’t have to agree with every little thing said in the article to know the negative impact of partisan politics on Christianity. If you’re a pastor, in a new church plant or established church, you’ll likely find that the article describes what you’ve seen taking place and may even have concerns for in your own church.

There are two quotes from the article I want to share. First, James Ernest is quoted as saying, “What we’re seeing is massive discipleship failure caused by massive catechesis failure.”

That we have a problem with discipleship among Christianity in America is not a new revelation. For the last twenty years, the missional church movement has renewed the focus on discipleship and there are numerous books, articles, and blogs that have contributed to this conversation. Here at Mission Alive, we recognize the importance of making disciples. One thing we have learned about making disciples is that it requires more than just the traditional preaching/teaching. In other words, the formation of disciples requires more than just didactic instruction and I agree. Yet, if the failure of discipleship is, even in part, a catechesis failure then we must give more attention to the importance of preaching/teaching.

A second quote in the article comes from Alan Jacobs, who says, “People come to believe what they are most thoroughly and intensively catechized to believe, and that catechesis comes not from the churches but from the media they consume, or rather the media that consume them. The churches have barely better than a snowball’s chance in hell of shaping most people’s lives.”

My own observations suspect what Jacobs sees. It appears that there are plenty of Christians who mass consume social-critic commentators on podcasts, YouTube, etc… and cable news on both the right and left because that’s all they seem to talk about. If this phenomenon hasn’t already reached the level of idolatry, then it’s on the verge of doing so as many people seem to regard these commentators as having the knowledge and wisdom for life. And of the many consequences, one may be that the Bible and Christian faith is now being filtered through the views of these commentators rather than through the indwelling Spirit who makes Christ known to every believer.

I have nothing against news, listening to podcasts and YouTube videos. But there’s a big difference between listening to people whose aim (telos) is the good news of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God versus someone whose aim identifies with the American left or right.

What can we do as church leaders? What concerns you most when you think of the way that partisan politics is shaping the Christian landscape in America? How has partisan politics impacted your ministry context and how are you responding?

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with powerthrough his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rootedand established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

~ Ephesians 3:14-21

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K. Rex ButtsD.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE. He holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.

The Transformation of Shame: Attending to the North American Honor/Shame Context

By Chris Flanders

My assigned topic for this blog was the presence of honor and shame dynamics among various subcultures in the US and how the church needs to be aware of those dynamics if they want to be effective. But I’m going to change that up just a bit by making a bold claim- if you are ministering, particularly church planting, among any population in North America today, attention to honor and shame dynamics is essential. I want to argue this is so for two reasons- so we can be faithful to the gospel and so we can be effective in our contemporary contexts.

By honor I mean an expression of approval, based on a positive evaluation of some standard of excellence (the standard of excellence used to evaluate something as honorable can be almost anything- athletic, academic, moral, physical appearance, etc.). This can be both public and private (self-esteem and one’s personal sense of honor). One often feels pride (“I’m so proud of my son for all he has accomplished”) as the proper emotional response to honor. 

Shame is the negative emotional experience that comes from being defective or failing to live up to a certain standard. It is about falling short. Face is that social phenomenon that occurs when we project any kind of social identity into our communication, which results in the possibility of us having that identity confirmed (honored, accepted, affirmed) or rejected (dissed, embarrassed, humiliated, shamed). 

Guilt has two dimensions. First, guilt can be simply a synonym for culpability. In this sense, to be guilty means one has done something, whether they are aware or feel any personal responsibility. Second, guilt can be the negative emotional response to a personal experience of wrongdoing. It is possible to be guilty without feeling guilty.

Faithful to the Gospel

Recent writings have highlighted the significant role that issues of honor and shame play in Scripture. These include Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes, Defending Shame: Its Formative Power in Paul’s Letters, Honor, Shame, and the Gospel: Reframing Our Message and Ministry, and The Hope of Glory: Honor Discourse and New Testament Interpretation. These have helped us see how much Western biblical interpretation has misunderstood and sometimes even ignored these important ancient categories of honor, shame, and face. Any reader of scripture would know that there is much more “said in the Bible about shame and honor than there is about guilt and innocence” (Chan, 2014, 83).*

Indeed, the prevalence of the notion of shame is even greater than the actual occurrences of the term shame as many biblical terms and stories carry strong shame connotations. For example, the Greek term elengcheo, which we often translate as “convict” or “show someone their guilt” actually means to make someone aware of their fault or failure through shame (see my recent article “Bringing Shame upon an Honored Missiological Paradigm: A Study of Conviction and Elenctics”). Even human sin, which many from the Western world simply assume relates to God’s law and guiltiness, is related to shame. The first reaction to sin when it entered human history was the embarrassment of nakedness, hiding, and scapegoating, all typical reactions of shame (Gen 3:6-13). Paul frames sin in terms of failing to live up to the standards of God’s honor (Rom 3:23). That is, our sin has left humankind in a state of shame before God’s incomparable honor (glory). The good news of course is that through Jesus we will never be put to shame (Rom 10:11). Like the younger son of Luke 15, the shame we deserve because of our shameful treatment of our Father and his good gifts has been erased because we have been (undeservedly!) re-honored by divine goodness.

Effective in our Contemporary Contexts

Nearly all anthropologists, social psychologists, philosophers, political theorists, and missiologists now accept that experiences of honor, shame, and face are fundamental to all human cultures, and not just those we might label “honor cultures” or “shame cultures” (Flanders, 2019, 145-65). These experiences differ across cultures and in the culturally diverse ways these dynamics get expressed in language, social values, and rituals, but all remain integral parts of all human cultures.

Yet, even the most casual cultural observer cannot miss the growing prevalence of overt public shame issues in contemporary Western cultures. Former Christianity Today executive editor Andy Crouch notes in his powerful article The Return of Shame how shame is growing as a dynamic of popular culture, aided by the power of social media and the internet. He summarizes: “From online bullying to twitter [sic] takedowns, shame is becoming a dominant force in the west.” 

This phenomenon has fueled a massive surge of writings addressing the impact of shame on affective disorders and relationships (think, for example, of the tremendous popularity of the work of Brené Brown who writes about how to address toxic shame). In parts of the world that have for centuries been thought of as decidedly non-honor or non-shame cultures, many acknowledge an increasing relevance of these issues. As Crouch notes, “Some of the most powerful artifacts of contemporary culture—especially youth culture—are preoccupied with the dynamics of fame and shame.

Several examples illustrate this shame “comeback”. One is the new phenomenon of doxing or doxxing. This is when people publicly reveal private personal information about an individual or organization, often through social media or the internet. Doxing can be a drive-by prank on most anyone who draws attention. But more often its targets are singled out for humiliation.” This is particularly present among those who are accused of some wrong but for whom it is perceived there is little accountability or justice. So, for example, the doxing of certain Catholic priests when some Catholic bishops released names lists of priests who were “credibly accused of abuse

Such can be serious business and have profound effects. Take the case of Andrew Dodson, who marched in a far right-wing rally and was doxed. He was eventually fired from his job and died soon after, some suggest by suicide. This type of public shaming can result in “brutal harassment campaigns, threats, ‘swatting,’ loss of employment, even, at its most extreme, death” (The Ethics of Doxing and the Politics of Public Shaming ).

THE ETHICS OF DOXING AND THE POLITICS OF PUBLIC SHAMING

The use of Twitter to praise and shame is also a growing tool for public motivator and effective punishment. Former President Donald Trump as a communicator was highly effective in his use of social media to praise and blame, to honor and shame. Trump even uses shame-laden language to reference his recent ban from these forms of social media- “Trump slams Facebook, Twitter and Google as ‘disgrace and embarrassment’ to US”.

There is also a renewed and increasing use of public shaming as a form of punishment, either reducing other forms of punishment (e.g., jail time) or even substituting for those punishments. 

Other contemporary forms of degradation ceremonies or shaming rituals include the perp walk, which involves the humiliation of the suspects and victory congratulations to law enforcement (Boudana, 2014, 55-57). For many other powerful examples of this in contemporary American culture, see the recent book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The rise of social media and other forms of online communication have without a doubt made public forms of shaming more prominent and potentially more motivating.

But here is a critical point and why this conversation is critical for today’s church -planter or evangelist. The solution to guilt is forgiveness, pardon, or absolution. The solution to shame, however, is not forgiveness. The solution to shame is a transformation of the shamed self, often including a status change from one that was shameful to one that is honorable.**

This is why people often report understanding that they know they are forgiven but still feel bad. This is the classic condition of a self that is still living in some type of shame state. Forgiveness is important but it alone cannot solve the shamed self. If more contemporary North Americans are living with shame issues, the traditional modes of forgiveness, often framed in highly legal terms, may not be able to deal effectively with issues of personal struggle, discipleship, and evangelism.

What to do?

Since effective gospel work always pays attention to the culture of those to whom the message is being communicated (we often call this contextualization), I suggest digging into these resources to address effectively the honor, shame, and face issues in contemporary North America:

Missio Dei Journal (recent issue on honor and shame issues. In particular, read my introduction). Honorshame.com (the best single place to go for free honor-shame resources). See also Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures and Honor, Shame, and the Gospel.

Church planters should educate themselves well in both the biblical issues of honor, shame, and face as well as the contemporary manifestations of these universal human experiences. To do so is to be biblically faithful and culturally relevant. The good news of God’s love demands new attention to honor, shame, and face!

* Guilt 145 times in the OT and 10 in the NT; shame 300 times in the OT and 45 in the NT.

**Note this is exactly what Paul says about the new person in Christ- Eph 4:20-24 and Col 1:21-22.

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Chris Flanders was born and raised in the midwest, ultimately finding himself in Minnesota. He came to ACU and did an undergraduate degree in Biblical Studies, an MA in Missions, and an MDiv. He met Cara while she was doing her graduate work at ACU in Marriage and Family Therapy. Together they moved to Thailand where they lived and served for 8 years. They have two children, Autumn and Ethan, who were both born in Thailand. Currently, Chris’ research interests are in Stone-Campbell missions history and the theology and anthropology of honor, face, and shame. He is the assistant editor of Missio Dei Journal (missiodeijournal.com) and also serves on the executive leadership team of the Honor-Shame Network. He is an avid baseball fan and pays close attention to all University of Minnesota Gophers and ACU Wildcats sports teams. He also loves to cook (especially Thai food!), listens to jazz, and run.

Church “Growth”

By Jeremy Hoover

“Angie”  was frustrated one day. She asked, “Why can’t we get more people to come to the church?”

I looked around at our event and felt pretty good about it. We had around twenty people at a children’s event. I considered it an outreach event for Love First, our fledgling faith community in Sarnia, Ontario, yet Angie, our longest-standing member, considered it a “church” event. 

As I thought about this, I realized that I was discouraged because our attendance was down from when we had tried to organize a Sunday worship service in the field on Kathleen Avenue (a neighborhood we have tried to engage with). Here I was, trying to build up numbers through outreach so we could “re-launch” something that would resemble “church,” but Angie already considered us to be the church. 

I began to ask, “When does a group of believers become a ‘church’?”

I’ve been pondering this question quite a bit lately. The answer might be obvious to you. It used to feel obvious to me. And, objectively, I guess the answer is obvious: a group of believers gathering together is, in fact, a church.

However, when I’m brutally honest with myself, I recognize that the slower pace of outreach in secular culture, along with the small number of folks who gather with Love First, is discouraging. I’ve also had to battle the perception from others that what we’re doing with Love First isn’t a “real” church because we don’t have a place to meet, don’t have an every-week Sunday gathering, and don’t have “enough” people.

Much of church planting theory still revolves around the Christendom model of gathering people for the purpose of a Sunday gathering. Whatever happens in addition to that is extra. But mission, in that paradigm, is subjugated beneath the Sunday service. The Sunday service is what counts, along with its ABCs–attendance, buildings, and cash. 

This isn’t to say that the Christendom model undervalues (or de-values) mission. Mission is still important. But mission serves the service, so to speak. The end result of mission is people being transformed into the image of Jesus, but Christendom models express this in terms of the above ABCs.

My experience in secular culture has shown me the truth of Charles Taylor’s words (in A Secular Age) that belief is one option among many, and all beliefs are contestable. Canadian culture has long since moved past and even dismissed, Christendom as a model. Many evangelical churches are seeing decline and are struggling to understand why, when the reality is that many Canadians just don’t care about the Christian faith.

I don’t mean that they are opposed to or hostile towards Christian faith. Rather, they are “apatheistic.” That is, they have apathy towards the entire concept of God (or gods). They have left it behind and have moved on. 

I see this way of thinking and being in my neighborhood and city. We moved here with high hopes of making bold changes in an impoverished community by bringing many people to Christ. What we found was a lot of apathy toward betterment and apatheism toward faith. We felt like we hit a roadblock early, and then further challenges came when late fall/winter hit and folks generally stayed indoors, and then, of course, with the entire Covid-19 scenario.

What, then, is a missionary to do? 

I was thankful when I ran across a book late last year. The book was written by Stefan Paas, a missiologist in Denmark as well as a church planter. The book, Pilgrims & Priests (see my review here), advocates for a theology of church planting in a secular culture where the church sees itself as a community of pilgrims (travelers banded together in an unfamiliar land) and priests (our purpose is to be God’s blessing to the world around us). Paas noted that, in secularism, where choices abound and following the Christian faith is simply one choice among many, the church will always be small. The church will always be a small band of believers who see themselves as priests, offering God’s blessings to the community around them.

I found this description very helpful. It helped me refocus away from discouragement that was rooted in the Christendom model of church and helped me focus on the church that we actually had. Angie had not read Paas’ book, but she reflected his message: the church is the gathered people of God who offer priestly blessings to those around them. I had been focusing on Christendom metrics while Angie was focusing on kingdom metrics.

I’m thankful for people like Angie. The life of a church planter can be filled with discouragement and disappointment. People of hope help to push me forward when I’m weary, and our small band of pilgrims and priests will continue to be a blessing in our neighborhood and city. Our church is growing, not necessarily as we add more people to it, but as we bless our neighborhood and see the kingdom of God experienced within.

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Jeremy Hoover is a missionary in southwestern Ontario. He writes a weekly email newsletter for pastors, Pastoral Care for Pastors, and has published a book, Soul-Care for Shepherds.

 

Faith Formation Among a Secular Society

Last week I was in Abilene, Texas for several days meeting with some ministers to discuss faith amongst a secular society and the implications for preaching and teaching. We were blessed to have with us both Richard Beck, a psychology professor at Abilene Christian University, and Randy Harris, who just recently retired from teaching Bible and theology classes at Abilene Christian University.

This conversation was really about  Recovering an Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age, which is the subtitle to Beck’s latest book Hunting Magic Eels (read my review here) but it also has to do with the monumental book by Charles Taylor called A Secular Age. Taylor’s book is a tome and I’m only halfway through the book but it is good and I highly recommend that those serving in ministry read the book. Of course, if you read my review of Beck’s book, you know that I highly recommend it too.

As a minister myself, I’m more interested in the formation of a faith that is formed by Christ. While understanding the nature of the secular age we live in is necessary, it is secondary to the formation of faith whether we are planting churches or pastoring in already established churches. So there are four other resources that I believe are worth mentioning here.

  1. Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006. Barton addresses some of the practices or disciplines that are necessary for our faith formation as followers of Jesus. What is important to remember is that we can’t transform ourselves but we can cultivate our lives towards a posture that is receptive to the transformation God desires to bring about through his Spirit. Frankly, just about any of Barton’s books are helpful for learning more about faith formation.
  2. Scot McKnight, Pastor Paul: Nurturing A Culture of Christoformity in the Church, Brazos Press, 2019. This is really required reading for anyone serving in a pastoral role, as the book addresses the particular culture the apostle Paul sought to cultivate among the churches he served. Of particular importance here is McKnight attention not just to the cruciform aspect of Jesus’s life but his entire life, death and resurrection, and ascension that is to form our faith. Hence, the term “Chrisoformity.”
  3. James K.A. Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014. In some ways, this book is sort of like a Cliff Notes to Charles Taylor’s massive book mentioned above and for that matter alone, it’s a necessary read for any Christian engagement of faith and secularism. Smith goes further though and touches on how this conversation shapes our theology and leadership.
  4. A.J. Swoboda, After Doubt: How to Question Your Faith without Losing It, Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2021. Still hot off the press, this book addresses the deconstruction of faith, which is a phase that many Christians go through. What the book offers is a way forward for the reconstruction or reformation of faith that is squarely centered on Jesus Christ but without the reductionist move that ignores the complexities of the culture we live among.

Beyond the reformation of our faith, one of the challenges that Christianity in North America faces is stepping into the future with a missional posture. In our secular society (postmodern and post-Christendom), the influence of Christians has rapidly diminished and that evokes a loss. The reactionary temptation is preservation, trying to hold on to the past as much as that is possible. Interestingly, Charles Taylor makes this observation:

“In late-sixteenth century England, there was still only forms of Christianity which could be drawn on to fill the gap. In late-nineteenth century Europe, the gamut of choices had been crucially widened. Modalities of exclusive humanism were now options. And the often reactionary stance of the Church could only help make them more plausible.” (A Secular Age, p. 444).
Such an observation is worth noting because that seems to be the script in twentieth-century America too. However, what churches must understand is that the reactionary impulse of trying to conserve the “heyday” of the status quo (traditionalism) only decreases the influence. On the flip side, it is only in returning to the gospel, as recounted within scripture and the living tradition of the Christian faith, where we find open space for cultivating new possibilities in how churches might live as an influential portrait of the new creation God is bringing about in Christ.
The path forward is, as it always has been, in Christ Jesus. As we are reminded in Ephesians 2:10, “We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus for the good works which God has already designated to make up our way of life” (New Jerusalem Bible).
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K. Rex ButtsD.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE. He holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.

One Who Serves: Christ-Formed Pastoral Leadership

“Nothing surprises me anymore but I’m still astonished at just how opposite of Jesus is the leadership of some pastors.”

That was my response and the comment I left on a post in a private Facebook group that linked to the story of yet another church implosion. Another church in which top-down authoritarian and abusive leadership has resulted in a disaster that has become an all too familiar occurrence among Christianity in America.

In this case, the story was about Grace Chapel Church in Tennesee but, as I already alluded to and as you likely know, there are many other examples. Recently, Christianity Today has produced The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcasts series which explores how the Mars Hill Bible Church, planted and led by Pastor Mark Driscoll, eventually collapsed amid conflict stemming from authoritarian and abusive leadership. It’s worth your time to listen to the podcasts because we need to hear these stories and the truth revealed in them no matter appalling.

There are many other similar church stories like these that could be mentioned, some of which are discussed in a book by Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer wrote a book called A Church Called Tov (2020). The authors are more concerned with identifying the problems and offering a solution out of this leadership morass that is confronting much of Christianity in America. If you have not read their book yet, I highly recommend you do so.

So it seems there is a big problem with leadership among Christianity in America that will only continue causing harm if not addressed. We have to ask questions about our leadership and address the root causes of toxic leadership. Here are just a few issues that come to mind…

  • What is the philosophy of Christian leadership?
  • What is/should be the organizational structure of the church?
  • How is leadership authority exercised? Who makes the decisions and how are these decisions made? How is conflict managed?
  • What protocols are in place to ensure transparency and integrity when accusations of abuse and other matters involving illegal, immoral, and/or unethical activity?
  • What is spiritual/pastoral guidance? What does discipleship look like? What is the difference between influence vs. manipulation?
  • How are leaders, including the “pastor,” accountable to others, and who has the authority to hold each leader accountable?

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list but these questions do get at what I believe are some of the underlying problems. As mentioned earlier, it astonishes me just how opposite of Jesus is the leadership practice of some pastors. So much of what passes for Christianity in America seems to have forgotten that to be a Christian means following Jesus. As McKnight and Barringer put it, “Our allegiance to Jesus Christ establishes our identity, tells us how we are to live, points us in the direction we should go, and fills us with memories and hopes” (A Church Called Tov, p.  216). So it should also be for those who serve as leaders within a church or any Christian organization.

As we think more deeply about Christian leadership, let’s ponder this teaching from Jesus found in Luke 22:24-27…

A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.

Jesus should be the point of departure for how we conceive of Christian leadership and Jesus came among us as a servant — even to the point of death on the cross. So let us follow Jesus and lead as servants. Rather than subscribing to the utilitarian ways we so often see in American society, let us lead with character. Yes, as I so often pray for, we need courage, conviction, and wisdom to lead effectively but we must also pass the duck test. If the way we lead looks like Jesus, talks like Jesus, and acts like Jesus, then we are on the right path but when it doesn’t, we need to repent.

People are watching, especially those in our churches, and they are not fooled. If we want them to follow Jesus, then our first duty as leaders is to follow Jesus ourselves. May the Spirit give us to courage, conviction, and wisdom to follow King Jesus!

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K. Rex ButtsD.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE. He holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.

Gastric Hermeneutics: A Discussion On The Eucharist

By Jonathan Massimi

I am an Anglican, but I am not a cradle Anglican. My life as a Christian began in the Pentecostal Church.  My early faith was formed in a context that emphasized a life rooted in the Word and empowered by the Holy Spirit.  Such an emphasis shaped our worship, where the music paved the way to the sermon, and the sermon, to the altar call.  The altar was the place where we met with God and He with us. It was an encounter where tears were a sacrament.

The carpeted stairs at the front of the sanctuary was where I believed one encountered God.  Through an experience at L’Arche Daybreak, that would change. At a service lead by a Jesuit priest, Christ was revealed to me, in a little bread and a sip of wine, served by a man with Downs Syndrome.  Placing this moment into a Pentecostal “liturgical framework,” I would say it was akin to an altar call experience. The difference here was, I wasn’t inviting Christ into my heart, rather, he was inviting me into His.  

Through participation in the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, God invites us into His life. Through the bread and wine, He educates our palates so that we may taste his presence in our lives and in our world. 

From the beginning, the celebration of the Eucharist was an essential part of the Church’s worship (Acts 2:42). The Acts of the Apostle also indicate that this celebration occurred on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7). Luke 24:30-31 alludes to the fact that this meal was more than a memorial observance. Rather, it was the means by which Christ became present to his followers. In addition to Christ’s presence, this intimate gathering allowed the faithful to be present to one another through fellowship, prayer, and service (Acts 2:42-47). 

For many Christians today, to break bread and to drink wine remains the central Christian act. It is considered an observance that connects the faithful to the past, present, and future. In terms of the past, it connects the Church to that little group of disciples who first celebrated it with Jesus. Looking forward, the Eucharist becomes for the Church a foretaste of God’s intended future, a time where all will be gathered for the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:6-9). In the present, the congregation is spiritually nourished, sustained, and guided by Christ’s presence, while being formed as his Body. These are perspectives on the Eucharist that have been shaped by the biblical text and the Church’s worship. I believe that to adequately understand the Eucharist, one should place it into its liturgical context. For it is through our worship that we truly come to understand what we believe. Or to put in colloquial terms, “The proof of the Eucharist is in the eating”. 

Historically, the Celebration of the Eucharist is made up of two parts: (1) The Liturgy of the Word and (2) The Liturgy of the Eucharist. For the purposes of this study, I will focus on the latter. 

Gregory Dix, in his book The Shape of the Liturgy, maintains that the Liturgy of the Eucharist conforms to the traditional fourfold shape which corresponds to the actions of Jesus at the Last Supper. These actions are Taking, Blessing, Breaking, and Giving. These movements are given liturgical expression in the Offertory, the Eucharistic Prayer, the Fraction, and the Communion respectively. This is a structure that is represented in the early Eucharistic rites and has been present in the life of the Church throughout its history (Dix, 1986, 44ff).

At the Offertory, the gifts of Bread and Wine are presented. In this act the congregation is also offering themselves up to God. The blessing of the Bread and Wine begins with a dialogue between the Celebrant and the congregation. The Celebrant then consecrates the Bread and Wine, setting them apart for God’s use. The Celebrant offers praise to God and the congregation joins by singing the Sanctus. An ancient hymn of praise is taken both from the writings of Isaiah in which he has a vision of worship in heaven and the moment of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (Isa 6:3; Matt 21:9). Then the Celebrant repeats the words that Jesus spoke at the Last Supper and prays that the Holy Spirit would be present and active in the people and in the Bread and Wine, transforming both into the Body of Christ. 

There is a diversity of views concerning what happens at the moment of Consecration. However, many would agree that the Eucharist is not simply a recalling of history. It is a Sacrament. A Sacrament can be defined as something visible and tangible in the world, in this case, Bread and Wine, through which God discloses himself. Simply put, Christ becomes present.

 One cannot pinpoint the exact moment this occurs. Rather, we must look at the entire process. When we do what Jesus did, and by using his words, he becomes associated with the Bread and Wine.  The gifts brought to the Table are transformed and given back to us as vehicles of Christ’s life and presence. There is an interesting reciprocity embedded here, in that when we give our gifts to Christ, he, in turn, gifts us with himself through the Meal. Making the Eucharist somewhat of a gift exchange. This to say, what happens at Consecration is not mere sentimentalizing about something that is in the past; it is a true re-membering, a calling back into our reality of the one eternal sacrifice of the Cross while also being a means by which the Church looks forward to the consummation of the Kingdom; where we will once again be gathered around the Table (Rev 19:6-9). 

After the Bread and Wine have been consecrated it is given to all baptized Christians. Those who wish to participate come forward where they receive the Host and Chalice. Once all have received, the Celebrant will lead the congregation in prayer followed by a Doxology. Strengthened by Scripture, nourished by Sacrament, and having been attuned to God’s presence at Table, the faithful are then sent out to be attentive to Christ’s presence in the world with the following words, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”  

In going through this Order of Service, I believe the Liturgy offers some important insights for the Christian life. 

The first thing the Liturgy teaches us is that worship is primarily about God. This notion finds expression in the Liturgy based on the fact that the Eucharist is the culminating act within the service. Our songs, sermons, and gifts are all taken up into our source of life, Jesus Christ, who sustains us with his presence made manifest in the Bread and Wine. In consuming these elements we also come to understand the Eucharist as a formative act.

Through our Eucharistic worship, the Church becomes the Body of Christ and is formed as a visible manifestation of the Kingdom before a watching world. Norman Wirzba expands on this notion in his book Food and Faith when he writes, 

Creatures are currently living a deficient form of life. What they need is the healing and strengthening of membership, a healing in which the church, understood as the continuation on earth of Christ’s practices or way of being, has a vital role to play. When this healing takes place, a healing that is glimpsed at the Eucharistic table in the eating that people do, relationships are transformed so that they witness to true life (Wirzba, 2011, 147).

As a witness, those who gather around the Table experience a reordering of life. Once they lived as individuals, now they are part of a Body, where there is a mutuality and reciprocity among its parts (1 Cor 12:12-27). In addition, there is a call to live a life, not marked by conflict, but by peace. This notion comes to the fore when believers exchange the Peace. That special act where the faithful are bringing into the present the peace and unity that characterizes the future Kingdom. In relation to this, the Liturgy also helps us to see the Eucharist in an eschatological light. Wirzba notes, the Eucharist is “the site where people, having consumed Jesus as their food and drink, are re-created by Christ and so taste a slice of heaven” (Wirzba, 2011, 149). A taste of the heavenly banquet. 

Finally, in receiving the Bread and Wine, Jesus Christ, we learn how to receive the other as a “gift.” As mentioned, the Eucharist contains within itself reciprocity, whereby we not only receive the other, we also give of ourselves as Christ did. Therefore, 

When Jesus broke bread and shared the cup as the giving of his own body and blood, and then asked his followers to “Do this in remembrance of me,” he instituted a new way of eating in which followers are invited to give their lives to each other, to turn themselves into food for others, and in so doing nurture and strengthen the memberships of life (Wirzba, 2011, 153-154).

Hence, in the Liturgy, we encounter a way of being for and with one another.  

In celebrating the Eucharist our lives are re-ordered as we re-member.  Our wills are shaped to desire what God desires and to love what God loves.  In participating in the Eucharist, I have come to learn that the way to God’s heart is through our stomachs. 

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Jonathan Massimi, D.Min lives in Ontario, Canada where he serves as an Anglican Priest, is a supervisor of community centers for the city of Kitchener, and community organizer. He holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL. He is married to Erika and together they have three children.

What High School Football Taught Me About Developing Leaders

By Charles Kiser

I played football in high school for the mighty Fort Worth Christian Cardinals. (Okay, so it was a tiny private school; but it was Texas football so we took it very seriously!)*

We had the same routine every week during the football season. On Monday afternoon we would suit up and crowd into the coaches’ office — this dingy, poorly lit space above the gymnasium. For the next hour, we would watch the film of the game from the past Friday. They’d play it on one of those huge rear-projection TVs that someone had donated to the school several decades before; the kind where you could only see the picture clearly if you were directly in front of it. After each play, the coaches would comment on what went well, or what didn’t go well. They’d celebrate the good plays and offer critique about the bad ones.

After that, we’d watch the film of the next opponent, and the coaches would begin to prepare us for the upcoming game. We’d hit the practice field in the afternoons for the rest of the week to revisit fundamentals, work on our game strategy, and run plays.

Then Friday would come. I always loved the anticipation in the air on Fridays. We got to play the game! We got to see how well we prepared, what we were made of, how good our team was.

When Monday arrived the next week we’d start the process all over again.

My high school football experience provides some solid principles about leadership development and discipleship. It reveals a cycle that occurs repeatedly when leaders invest in emerging leaders and help them build competency for their ministry:

3Ps

  1. Prepare. As we invest in others, we prepare them for the ministry tasks ahead of them. We teach them. We give them the best information we have on the subject. We offer them exercises to help them reflect. In my football days, this was watching the film of the next opponent and daily practice in preparation for the game.
  2. Participate. In this stage, we do the ministry task together. We play the game! How we participate together is determined by where the emerging leader is in her/his development: we might have them help us, or they might be ready for the driver seat and we take a helping role.
  3. Process. After we play the game, we pause to debrief and process how it went. We look over the game film. We discuss three questions together: 1) What went well? (Celebration); 2) What didn’t go well? (Improvement); 3) What do we want to remember to do next time? (Action).

Jesus demonstrates these stages as he teaches the disciples (prepare), invites them to minister alongside him, and also sends them out in pairs to minister (participate), and dialogues and teaches them further after their ministry experiences (process).

How have you seen these stages at work in your own development?

Which of these stages is particularly challenging for you as you develop emerging leaders?

* This post was originally published on October 26, 2015.

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Charles Kiser, D.Min serves as the pastor of Storyline Christian Community in Dallas, Texas, a church he helped plant in 2008. He holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Julie and together they have two children.