A Call For More Black Voices Among Emerging Leaders

My entire life, I have identified as someone who does things “by the book.” I’ve always craved knowledge. Seriously, there were no adults or facilitators present for many of my learning processes. I taught myself how to count by twos, partially how to read, and even sections of algebra in high school. Sometimes to a fault, I take pride in following the book.

I cannot count how many papers I have written with every sentence completed with at least one citation. These excessive citations are partly because I’m afraid of plagiarism. At the same time, I want to credit the original creator of an idea. I would participate in panels, and my statements would usually begin by “Brené Brown wrote…” “Claud Anderson said…” or “Kelly Brown Douglass believed…” I’ve found that there is tremendous value in those who can easily read, process, and regurgitate information. 

About one year ago, I realized that one voice was constantly missing. One voice was silenced. This one voice was silenced out of fear of rejection, critique, insecurity, and feelings of inadequacy. The voice that was missing was mine. The worst part, I silenced myself.

I remember the first time I heard that my voice didn’t matter. I carried those words with me from sixth grade until I was a 26-year-old doctoral student. Seeds of empowerment, courage, authenticity, and prophetic engagement were planted along the way. Finally, in January 2021, I had to own it. I had to own my voice that God had been developing quietly for years.

It’s important to note that I was already a preacher, church planter, pastor, published researcher, student, and teacher at this point. These are all things that required my voice. I always provided a voice, but I never offered my voice. The things that silenced my voice then still exist, like fear of rejection or feeling under-qualified. Honestly, it is still a complicated and ongoing process. 

Amid all of these feelings, I simultaneously promised my younger self and my future self. I vowed to speak anyway. My voice is present in conversation with all the people I have quoted for years. Whether writing or speaking, I bring my entire self, including my voice, to the assignment. 

I cannot speak to everything, but I can speak well to some things. Even when people, institutions, or even my inner critic tries to silence me, I embrace my ability to do all things through Christ, and I speak. I speak the truth- my truth, truths of those around me, and ultimately, God’s truth. I speak love in rooms filled with hate or fear. I speak faith to communities dying spiritually, and they may be unaware. I use a variety of sources from scripture to pop culture to music to get these messages across to God’s children across a variety of audiences. 

I will list a few topics to which I recognize I am anointed to speak. Literally, God calls and favors me to talk to and from these areas, and I pray that this list will inspire you to use your God-given voice too.

  1. I can speak to the context of a 27-year old Black man raised in the southern states of America. This qualifies me to use my voice, housed in my Black, God-given body, to speak to and alongside issues of racism and racial reconciliation. I cannot speak to the Black experience for all Black people as a monolith; however, I can speak to my experience individually and communally as a Black man.
  2. I can speak to the context of a man who is a product of women who have lead and loved despite experiencing deep pains such as domestic violence, rape, molestation, or sexism. This qualifies me to speak to areas where the church has been silent, but even more importantly, it allows me to create room for women or men who have experienced this to speak, be heard, feel validated, experience love, and minister to these areas in the community.
  3. I can speak to the context of being a third-generation preacher’s kid who has seen his father and grandfather sacrifice everything for the church to accomplish their commitment to God, even when the local church is not as faithful in return. This allows me to speak from my experiential knowledge that not all heroes wear capes, and God can reward you in due time far beyond what man can offer. 
  4. I can speak to the context of daily being flawed and imperfect myself. This qualifies me to speak to being in a long line of people, presently and historically, used by God to accomplish work far beyond the capacity, qualifications, and imagination of ourselves.
  5. I can speak to the context of being a millennial in the church, in which many of us have more reasons to leave the church than we have to stay in the church. After multiple attempts to bridge the gap in current church systems, this has allowed me to discern my calling to plant a church that targets those the church has typically overlooked or undervalued. 
  6. I can speak to the context of feeling like an outcast in my field with no standard qualifications. As it stands, I would not qualify to apply for the majority of the churches in my faith traditions today due to not being married and only being 27. This qualifies me to speak alongside marginalized and overlooked communities from a place of empathy and understanding. Side note, if this is you, do not worry. Neither Paul nor Jesus would qualify to preach or pastor there either. I do not claim to be either, but it is really good company!
  7. I can speak to the context of wanting to do anything other than ministry. Still, God found a way to navigate my desires from sports, fundraising, justice and health to casting a more holistic vision for God’s church. This qualifies me to speak to God using all of our experiences intentionally for God’s purpose, which I believe God wants to do in your life as well. 
  8. I can speak to the context of an activist who at one point wanted to do social justice work and did not know where to start. This qualifies me to speak to those needing the grace to begin their journeys, and it propels me to constantly search for words and actions that embody the politics of Jesus that was murdered for creating countercultural communities of faith and love in resistance to the empirical norms.

I engaged in a quick reflection of “I can speak to the context of ___________. This qualifies me to speak to ___________.” I encourage you to write down a few of these contexts and qualifications to discern areas where God may want to use your voice. This is not to say that the book is no longer important. For example, I read and study the Bible daily. Books are, however, no longer idolized to the point that they are a stumbling block to using the gifts that God has given both of us- our voices, our lives, and our testimony. So, speak! If you do not say it, who will? 

_________________________

Russell Andrew Pointer, Jr., serves as the church planter, lead servant, and pastor of Reformation Church Nashville (@reformnash). Russell is an alumnus of Morehouse College, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and Vanderbilt Divinity School. He is currently a second-year Doctor of Ministry student at Boston University School of Theology researching the intersection between racism, cooperative economics, and group empowerment to re-imagine a kingdom economy.

When Everything’s On Fire: A Review of Brian Zahnd’s Book

Unless you have just emerged from a long hibernation, you know that we are living in some interesting times. Much of the world has faced a difficult challenge with the Covid-19 pandemic and all the repercussions that have followed. At the same time, there is a lot of reckoning taking place as evangelical Christianity faces scrutiny in regards to some highly publicized church scandals, Trump politics, and a past that includes racism, misogynism, and other problems that undermine their witness to the gospel. 

In response to this reckoning, there is a growing number of evangelicals saying that enough is enough. Some of them are shedding their conservative understanding of the Christian faith for a progressive expression, while others are renouncing their Christian faith altogether. This is a process called deconstruction, which I am sympathetic toward but also concerned with pastorally. Is it possible to deconstruct an evangelical Christian faith and eventually discover a reconstructed faith that is neither conservative nor liberal but still within the historical stream of orthodox Christian faith? 

I believe so and so does pastor Brian Zahnd. This is the reason for his latest book When Everything’s on Fire: Faith Forged from the Ashes, which was published in late 2021 by InterVarsity Press. The book is currently available in both Kindle and hardback format, with the latter for a cost of $15.44. Brian Zahnd, for those who do not already know, is both a pastor and author. He has served in ministry for over thirty years, serving as the Lead Pastor for Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri. 

The book is 183 pages and is divided into two sections with a prelude, followed by eleven chapters, and then a conclusion. Although Zahnd is quite capable of intellectual engagement with various theologians and philosophers, the book is very easy to read. Drawing on thoughts from people such as Frederick Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoevsky, John Chrysostom, and Paul Ricoeur, Zahnd engages scripture and Christian tradition. Writing as both a pastor and theologian, Zahnd describes what he believes is the essence of the Christian faith while disentangling that from the empiricism of modernity that evangelical Christianity has been embedded within. 

Understanding the way modernity shaped evangelicalism is important because that has impacted the way the Bible is read and regarded as the foundation of faith. Zahnd rightfully critiques this by returning to scripture to show that Jesus, and not the Bible, is the foundation of the Christian faith. “Christianity,” says Zahnd, “is not a series of proofs; it is the confession based on the revelation that Jesus Christ is Lord” (p. 91). The foundation of the Christian faith is God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ which is known to us first through the witness of the church (tradition) who passes along a collection of canonical writings we know as The Bible. So we begin with Jesus rather than the Bible, or as Zahnd says, “First Jesus, then church, and finally the Bible” (p. 97).

Of course, both Jesus and the Bible are indispensable to the formation of our Christian faith, which is why Zahnd believes that mysticism and a mystical reading of scripture are necessary. For those unfamiliar, this might sound suspicious but mysticism is about seeking God. Thus Zahnd says, “We too can be mystics who encounter God, follow God, wrestle with God, speak to and for God, compose prayers, open new doors, heart the divine heartbeat, proclaim the gospel, and, most importantly, give flesh to the Word of God in our own lives” (p. 130). Then in reading the Bible as a mystic, we are seeking a “second naiveté” (a term coined by Paul Ricoeur) that allows the Bible to be heard in new ways as we enter the narrative of scripture.

I enjoyed reading this book and believe it has much to offer Christianity in North America. And this is especially so in helping us move beyond the challenges of deconstruction. As one who deconstructed from a conservative-fundamentalist faith, a process that was initiated through the existential crisis that followed the death of my oldest son, I identify with the concerns of this book. Like Zahnd, I see problems with the conservative-evangelical understanding of Christian faith but I also see problems with the opposite, the reactionary progressive understanding of Christian faith. So I appreciate Zahnd wisely saying, 

When people from a conservative tradition begin to question some tenants [sic] of theological conservatism, they often find a way forward through a more progressive theology. But it should not be assumed that a progressive move is in every case the way forward. It’s important to understand that progressive fundamentalism is just as false and destructive as conservative fundamentalism. We seek to discover God as revealed in Christ, not in an ism, be it conservative or progressive. (p. 56).

He’s right. In discovering God, we follow Jesus Christ regardless of whether doing so appears to be conservative or progressive in the eyes of others.

One slight nuance I would make has to do with the way Zahnd describes his view of scripture. He says, 

I don’t have a low view of scripture; I have a high view of Christ. I hold the Scriptures as authoritative in informing and shaping the Christian faith. …I faithfully affirm the Bible as authoritative in the Christian faith, but the Bible is now where we begin—the Bible is not self-authenticating. (p. 96).

I agree with Zahnd. He does hold a high view of scripture and this should be easily apparent to anyone who listens to his sermons or reads his books. Also, with Zahnd, I believe that the Bible is authoritative in informing and shaping our faith as Christians. That’s the reason we have scripture (2 Tim 3:16-17) but I believe we should retain the phrase “inspired by God” in our description of the Bible. I believe that Zahnd regards scripture as inspired by God but I’m mentioning this because I wish he would have explicitly said so. 

Like Zahnd, I understand that scripture is given to us by the church, who decided which writings should be included in our canon of scripture that we call the Bible. But I also believe that God was providentially at work guiding the authors of scripture to say what was necessary for the formation of our faith as well as providentially at work in the canonization process (and I’m sure Zahnd believes this too). This is what makes scripture inspired by God and that’s important because when we read the Bible, we are reading God’s word to us. Hence, the response of the assembly after the reading of scripture, “The word of the Lord.”

Needless to say though, if you’re looking for an enjoyable and invigorating read, go by this book. If you’re asking yourself how do Christians move beyond deconstruction, add Zahnd’s book to your library and consider what he has to say as you read.

_____________________

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.

Leaving Ministry for Mission

According to the Harvard Business Review article, “Who Is Driving the Great Resignation?” 4 million people quit their job in July of 2021.  That was down from a peak in April 2021.  The age group with the greatest increase in resignations was the 30–45-year-olds.  Employers all over the U.S. are watching this phenomenon and asking, “Why?”

On November 22, 2021, David Kinnaman and Carey Nieuwhof conducted a bonus episode of ChurchPulse Weekly titled, “Are Pastors Burning Out?”  They revealed the results of a recent study by Barna Group conducted in October of 2021 showing that 38% of pastors have seriously considered quitting full-time ministry in the past 12 months.  Even more shocking is that Barna had conducted the same study in January of 2021 and found that 29% were seriously considering quitting.  That means between January and October of last year, the rate of pastors considering leaving ministry accelerated significantly.  Furthermore, roughly 1/3 of pastors considering quitting have approximately 20 years of ministry experience.

We find ourselves asking the same question employers are asking as they face the Great Resignation: “Why?”  What drives a well-trained minister with years of experience to leave the relative security of established church ministry?  The experience level of at least a third of them would indicate that it is not because they are naïve about ministry.  

In January of 2021, Mission Alive church planter and pastor of Storyline Christian Community in Dallas, Texas, Dr. Charles Kiser and I conducted a study of 13 Mission Alive church planters.  Among the many compelling and helpful insights our study revealed, we learned that in January of 2021, their average age was 44.7 years old.  Contrary to common beliefs that church planters are wild-eyed, impetuous upstarts with no regard for the historic gospel, Mission Alive church planters tend to be seasoned ministry veterans who fervently desire to see God’s Kingdom arrive in visible and tangible forms.  Our study also revealed that while their age when they started varied widely from 23 years old to 45 years old (with some Mission Alive church planters not consulted for the study starting in their 50s and low 60s), the average age of the Mission Alive church planters who participated in the study when they started their church planting ministry was 36.5 years old—hardly newbies at church ministry.  It bears noting that the average age of Mission Alive church planters and the approximate age of 1/3 of pastors leaving traditional church ministry correlate closely.

The factors causing pastors to leave their ministry, especially after 20 years of ministry experience, are beyond the scope of this article and no doubt vary widely.  Yet, we in Mission Alive often hear pastors’ frustrations about toxic leadership, inflexible congregations and a lack of vision—to name a very few.  Some of these pastors reach out to Mission Alive to explore the possibility of starting new, innovative churches.  When they do, we frequently hear their desire to return to the vision and passion that got them into ministry in the first place.  We hear their heart’s desire to genuinely engage people who don’t fit into typical churches, those whose lives don’t match with the local congregation’s, those asking hard questions, and those who have been hurt by previous churches.  We hear their passion for God’s Mission and their desire to connect with the many others in their community who love God and want to connect to Jesus but can’t find a church where they are fully welcome.

According to the same Harvard Business Review article mentioned above, the two industries hit hardest by the Great Resignation are the tech industry and the healthcare industry.  Both industries have “experienced extreme increase in demand due to the pandemic, likely leading to increased workloads and burnout.”  The past two years of COVID-19 have created additional burdens for those in ministry as well.  The pandemic has forced ministers to become experts at internet communications.  At the same time, COVID-19 has caused a sharp increase in illnesses and deaths, forcing ministers to deal with much higher demands for pastoral care.  On top of all of this, ministers are dealing with an unprecedented polarization in their congregation rooted in how congregants respond to COVID-19, social unrest and the political climate.

If you have resigned from ministry in the past few years (or know someone who has), whether the resignation was out of frustration, exhaustion, burnout or self-preservation, God may still have a place for you in his greater Mission.  While you may need a rest, you may discover your calling has not disappeared.  In fact, as a seasoned pastor/preacher, you may discover your vision is clearer than ever.  Consider this article your personal invitation to explore with Mission Alive whether you are called to reinvest in God’s Mission and develop some new, innovative ways of ministering.  Consider that your best days of ministry may be ahead of you.  

Whether you are 30 or 60 years old, God may have a place for you in his Mission!  Do not be too quick to dismiss the mission of church planting.  There are many ways to start new churches and many roles you could play.  If your heart still burns to see people come to Christ and grow in Him, contact Mission Alive.  We’d love to chat with you about your calling.  Whether you contact Mission Alive or not, we honor your service and want to remind you that nothing you do in the name of Jesus is done in vain.

You can reach us at contact@missionalive.org.

_________________________

Tod Vogt, serves as the Executive Director of Mission Alive in Dallas, TX. Prior to working as Mission Alive’s Executive Director, he served as our Director of Equipping. Tod joined the Mission Alive team in 2007 after several years in local church ministry.  Tod began his full-time ministry as a church planting missionary among the Fon people of Benin, West Africa.

Let’s Normalize Character: A Lesson from Mars Hill

Welcome to 2022. I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and the new year is off to a wonderful start for you. Even with all the challenges that many people faced in 2021, it still seems like the year went by rather fast.

While traveling, I was able to finish the Christianity Today podcast series called The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. The series explores how this once multi-campus megachurch, led by Pastor Mark Driscoll, came to its demise in 2014 when by 2013 the church was averaging roughly 12,000 people attending one of the weekly worship gatherings.

Of course, the short answer to explain the implosion of Mars Hill Church is toxic leadership. Through sound clips, interviews, and other reporting, the podcast cites numerous examples of abusive and authoritarian leadership on the part of Mark Driscoll that stemmed from a demeanor of arrogance and egotism that resisted any accountability. The story of Mars Hill Church gives an entirely new meaning to that time when Driscoll said, “There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus, and by God’s grace, it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done.” I don’t take any delight in the Mars Hill Church story but it’s a story that’s played out in different ways among many other churches and that’s why we must talk about what happened.

Sadly, Driscoll’s words came true. It’s a consequence of toxic leadership. There are many factors that contribute to a toxic leadership culture but one problem that I see time and time again is the elevation of charisma without character. In general, this is a problem throughout Christianity in America. If a person has a lot of charisma and seems to exemplify the ideals, they are elevated in status. What is needed is an elevation of character.

By character, I have in mind a Christ-formed character, since Christ is our Lord and the one we are to follow. Such a Christ-formed character is absolutely necessary for cultivating healthy Christian leadership. For me, the point of trajectory in cultivating a Christ-formed leadership comes from a story involving Jesus and his disciples.

In Luke 22 Jesus hears his disciples arguing amongst themselves about who is the greatest. When Jesus hears their discussion, he sort of hints how the disciples sound like the Gentile rulers who like to be the large-and-in-charge rulers over others. In response to such a demeanor, Jesus says in v. 26-27, “…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.”

This response gets to the very character of leadership. For Jesus, leading is serving rather than ruling, requiring a demeanor of humility rather than authority. The greatest is not the one with the most authority or charisma but the one who becomes like the youngest and becomes a servant. The contrast is one of stature, ignoring whatever authority and charisma his disciples might have and assigning value to their character by saying that the best leader is the one who is humble enough to serve others. This is important because such character is too easily downplayed or even made expendable in proportion to charisma and the status that churches assign to leaders.

When it comes to Christian leadership, a person’s character is always greater than charisma. There’s nothing wrong with charisma and leaders are always going to exercise some authority in their roles but what counts and defines healthy Christian leadership is a Christ-formed character. 

So here’s an idea. Let’s normalize character. Let’s make having a Christ-formed character the norm for those who lead and who we regard as leaders. That means taking seriously that Christian leaders are to serve as Jesus served, being willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others. Jesus exercised his authority not by asserting his power over others but by giving away his power for the sake of others. That ultimately meant being crucified, suffering the humiliating death of a criminal condemned by the state. 

Laying down one’s life for the sake of others rather than dominating others, as Jesus did, is not weakness but is an embodiment of the gospel that Christian leaders are to proclaim. The notion of coalescing and consolidating power within a church in order to lead in a top-down manner is the opposite of the way in which Jesus led. Furthermore, leading from a Christ-formed character does not have any need for non-disclosure agreements because such leadership is humble enough to admit when in the wrong, practicing repentance.

So let’s normalize character, a Christ-formed character as the norm for Christian leadership.

_________________________

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.

 

This Christmas

We are two days from Christmas, a holiday meant to remind us of the birth of Jesus Christ. For four weeks now we have journeyed through Advent, anticipating the coming of the Lord. The beginning of the gospel is that the Lord does come but in this season of Advent, I am reminded that the Lord comes in humility.

Jesus is not born to an aristocratic family, rather he’s born to parents, Joseph and Mary, who must then must leave their homeland in order to protect Jesus from the murderous rage of King Herod.

The Gospel of John begins by telling us that the Word of God became flesh and made his dwelling among us, in the person of Jesus. This is the coming of the Lord. God chose to dwell among us, to live with us, and in doing so, endure all of the struggles of life that is our life. This choice took Jesus to the cross where he laid down his own life in humility so that we may receive life.

This is the real story of Christmas, the story that reimagines for us what life truly is and what it means to live with hope, peace, joy, and love.

As this Christmas comes, may this story form our lives and inspire us as a church to embody this story among our neighbors. On behalf of Mission Alive, have a Merry Christmas.

Ain’t No Justice Yet: Addressing Racism Among Church and Society

Earlier this year in April, former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin was convicted for the murder of George Floyd, who died due to Chauvin kneeling on the neck of Floyd for nearly nine minutes. More recently, Gregory and Travis McMichael as well as William Bryan were convicted for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot by his assailants as he was jogging through a neighborhood.

Sadly, there are other names and cases in recent years that could be mentioned, all reflecting the underlying issue of white racism. Although we celebrate the measures of justice reached by the state of Georgia and Minnesota, we should not think for a minute that the underlying issue of white racism is resolved. Until we address this issue true justice and reconciliation remain beyond our reach.

If you’re wondering why I am naming the issue specifically as white racism, I’ll explain. I don’t deny the fact that people of all races and ethnicities are capable of prejudice and racially discriminatory actions. However, America has never had to ratify an amendment to the Constitution and pass legislation in response to bigotry and prejudices among any people except white people.

The issue is white racism and not merely racial discrimination, though the two are related. White racism is rooted in white supremacy, the systematic policies such as slavery, Jim Crow laws, and even more recently the practice of mass incarceration which Michelle Alexander has documented in her book The New Jim Crow. Systemically, white racism was apparent when convicted murderer Susan Smith originally blamed the abduction of her children, whom she murdered, on a fictitious black man. That same goes for the miscarriage of justice that landed Walter McMillian, a black man, on Alabama’s death row from 1988 to 1993, which was chronicled in attorney Byron Stevenson’s book Just Mercy that was adapted into a film of the same name last year. Most recently though, we saw the systemic white racism not just in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery but in the inexcusable failure of law enforcement to make an arrest on the McMichaels, justifying their actions until the footage of the incident went viral which caused enough public pressure to make the arrest.

“Until we address the issue of white racism, true justice and reconciliation remain beyond our reach.” Click To Tweet

The systemic culture of white racism that pervades America also means people can unknowingly be complicit without harboring any racial discrimination towards others. All we have to do is refuse to speak up like I sadly once did when I witnessed an employer discriminating against black applicants in the hiring process. Or like the different ways in which we might respond to a white man jogging through the neighborhood versus a black man. That said, with reports of Asians being targeted during the current Covid-19 pandemic, we must remember that white racism doesn’t just affect blacks and whites. Although many Asians have assimilated into the white culture of America, it only takes a virus originating in China for Asians to be singled out again in our racist culture. Likewise, it only takes a couple of high-profile crimes committed by undocumented Latinos to begin singling out immigrants and refugees.

The point is that moral outrage over the deaths of people like George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, or over the unjust disproportion of prison sentences for black people, is not enough. We must fix the deeper problem. Until we address the issue of white racism, true justice and reconciliation remain beyond our reach. Justice requires truth and until we are honest with the truth, justice will elude our cries for such.

I remember a conversation once with a pastor who was leading a church to pursue economic justice among an impoverished Hispanic community. During the conversation, he offered a simple illustration to denote an important difference between justice and mercy that has always stuck with me. He spoke about the hypothetical scene of coming upon someone drowning in a creek. Out of compassion, most people would attempt to safely pull the individual from the creek. That’s showing mercy. But imagine every day seeing another person drowning in a creek and every day showing mercy by pulling the person drowning to safety. At some point, people might decide to go up the creek and find out why people are falling into this creek. As they do, they might then be able to address the actual issue so that people will no longer fall into the creek. Addressing that issue is the pursuit of justice in that matter.

When it comes to racial matters, if there is ever to be justice, and subsequently reconciliation, then we must address the issue of white racism. Before working for justice we must be honest with the truth. As Frederich Buechner once wrote, “after the silence that is truth comes the news that is bad before it is good, the word, that is tragedy before it is a comedy because it strips us bare in order ultimately to cloth us” (Telling the Truth, 1977, 33). The only path to justice is first facing the honest truth about this culture of white racism, no matter how tragic and terrifying the truth is. Facing the truth is also an invitation to repentance on the part of the offenders, particularly white people—White Evangelical Christians included. Honesty with this culture of evil we have cultivated opens space for us to listen with humility and learn from our neighbors of color how we might help cultivate a culture of racial justice and reconciliation in America.

As followers of Jesus, this should be a welcomed endeavor. That’s because the pursuit of justice and reconciliation are the result of the gospel, the good news about Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God he proclaimed. In fact, the gospel reimagines for us a life in which we are formed for the pursuit of justice and reconciliation among other pursuits. As we follow Jesus, we learn to embody the very beliefs, values, and behaviors that make the pursuit of justice and reconciliation possible.

Now I’m not so presumptuous to know practically what practicing racial justice might entirely look like. Ideally, local churches are communities where both justice and reconciliation are practiced as part of the embodied gospel and so local churches are the catalyst. However, the difference between the ideal and reality may differ significantly. Nevertheless, we must realize that embodying the gospel among local churches is more than just worshiping together on Sundays. Overcoming racism means that believers of different races and ethnicities must learn how to serve with each other and practice hospitality with one another. That becomes possible when the beliefs, values, and behaviors we learn from following Jesus are put into practice.

“As we follow Jesus, we learn to embody the very beliefs, values, and behaviors that make the pursuit of justice and reconciliation possible.” Click To Tweet

To say this another way, it is in following Jesus that we learn how to humble ourselves, listen to each other and repent as necessary. Then we might not just worship together, sharing a pinch of matzah bread and a sip of wine. Instead, we’ll share in true communion with one another, as brothers and sisters in Christ who stand in solidarity with each other. That’s if we will let Jesus have his way.

Now, if I may, as a pastor who happens to be white, let me specifically address my fellow white Christians. In America, we have never had to worry about being denied a job because of our whiteness. We sure don’t have to worry about anyone assaulting and killing us when we are jogging through a neighborhood because of our whiteness. Why? Because we are the majority race in America and occupy most of the leadership positions in church and society. So as followers of Jesus, the burden begins with us. It’s upon us to give up that privilege by becoming humble enough to listen to our neighbors of color. Let’s take our cues from following Jesus but doing so as we listen to those who have been oppressed by racism.

Lastly, we know that the pursuit of justice is always a noble cause. But let’s be honest and not tell ourselves that murder convictions in two high-profile cases are the sum of justice. We have much more work to do and the gospel, for those with eyes and ears to see and hear, makes that work both possible and noble. 

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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.

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: The 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.