Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Baptists Revisited

A couple of days ago, I posted a link to one of our local Baptist churches (here's the previous post). I wrote about how this was the natural end result of discipleship that focuses on intellectual assent to a list of doctrines and external conformity to an accepted set of behaviors.

I've been thinking about this a little more since then, and I want to take a moment to defend the hardline Baptists. In one sense, they are at least honest about what they're doing. They tell you right up front which beliefs you have to hold in order to be part of the group and they're not shy about telling you which behaviors you need to change in order to be accepted at their church. So as soon as you walk in the door, it's clear what is required of you in order to gain admission to the community.

We do the same thing (with different required sets of behaviors and beliefs) at most of our churches, except we tell people after the fact. We invite people to follow Jesus, then sometime after they decide to follow Jesus, we start laying out our extra expectations and all of the ways that their lives must change from here on out. Jeff commented about "salvation by grace/sanctification by works", which is the generally underhanded/sneaky/devious way that we suck people in and then nail them with the rules afterwards.

So if anyone from Minnesota Valley Baptist Church reads this blog, accept my apologies for being down on you for simply being up front with the things that we keep hidden.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

The pros and cons of the open mic

One of the things that we do every week at church is have an open mic time where everyone has an opportunity to share what's been going on in their lives...prayer requests, stories, things God has been teaching them, etc. This allows us to better become the kind of community that loves and cares for each other and helps us get to know one another in far deeper ways. For those pastors who like to keep tight control over what happens at church, this is a nightmare.

Sometimes it's fantastic...like last week when a woman shared about a custody hearing that she was going to be having that week. As she burst into tears, the church came alongside and prayed with her.

Sometimes it's hilarious...like this morning, when our resident dyed black hair tattooed rock star board member told a story about a church he had attended the week before with his grandparents where the pastor did "the 'ballsiest' thing I've ever seen". This was followed by a group discussion about whether "ballsy" was appropriate language for church.

Occasionally it's scary...like when God tells somebody to say something that he hasn't really told anyone else. Anytime a sentence starts with, "God told me to tell you...", it pretty much doesn't matter how it ends, I'm going to be ticked. This is not in any way denying the appropriate use of prophetic gifts, but just the attitude behind it. This kind of thing has only happened once or twice in five years.

Overall there are far more fantastic stories than scary ones. I really look forward to that time every week. It's the best time for the church to really be the church in community with one another.

One of those days

In our church experience, we've often found that the days where everything goes wrong are the days that people encounter Jesus most powerfully. This morning was one of those days. It started with a call at 7:00 from Tom, who was scheduled to lead worship. At least I think it was Tom. He had no voice at all and was feeling absolutely miserable and couldn't lead the music. That wasn't really a problem. I wasn't preaching today, so I jumped in to lead. But when you're picking music at 8:00 for a practice that starts at 8:15, things are going to be a little hectic. So hectic, in fact that I printed the exact same things on each side of the bulletins. Yet no matter how frazzled things seem, when we invite Jesus to come and meet with us, he does.

A bunch of my coffee shop friends came to church today and really enjoyed it. I think they'll be back next week. My brother's coworker visited for the first time and he said that he'd be back next week. It seems like people can tell when you're not just playing church, but actually wanting to meet Jesus and become more like him. I think normal people are attracted to that, even those that don't yet know him.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

This is what I'm talking about

As I've been spending time figuring out what discipleship looks like in today's culture, one common theme that I've kept coming across is the fact that discipleship is not an external list of behaviors and intellectual assent to a set of beliefs. To see the natural outcome of discipleship that focuses on these things, check out the website for one of our local churches. This is a great example of focusing on the wrong things.

So I'm starting to get a pretty good feel for what discipleship isn't. But I'm still sorting out how to be a follower of Jesus without accidentally slipping into some kind of legalism, anti-nomianism, or hypocrisy. It's so much easier just to make a list of rules to follow or to just throw out rules all together because Jesus loves me so much that he can't wait to forgive me again and again. Allowing Jesus to actually transform my heart and my character takes a lot more work, but I think that the end result will be far more rewarding.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Back Home

It's been great to be gone for a few days, and our retreat was a lot of fun, but it's also great to be back home and settling into normal life again. The retreat was great, particularly the time spent with other pastors and wives. When we first started going to these things, my wife and I were the youngest people there by 5 years or more. But things have changed over the last few years and now we were actually able to spend time with other people our age who are facing similar struggles and triumphs. It's always great to know that you're not alone and the issues that you face are the same ones that your friends face. The thing that I liked best was that there wasn't much posing. The people we spent time with were willing to admit when things were hard and actually have real conversations about it. The only person that asked "How many people are at YOUR church?" was an older guy who didn't really mean it the way it sounded. This afternoon the kids will be back and reality starts again...so no more sleeping!

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Ahh, sleep

Yesterday, my wife and I dropped off our two kids (3 1/2 and 10 months) with Grandpa and Grandma. We're going on a retreat with other pastors and wives from our area, which should be pretty fun. We had kind of forgotten what was like to be childless. I don't remember the last time I slept all the way through the night without being woken up at 5:00 by small children jumping into our bed. And we get FOUR NIGHTS of sleep!!!

On the flip side, we really love our kids a lot . Leaving them for five days, while fun, is also kind of sad. Jaron says so many hilarious things every day. And Lily's huge smile melts our hearts every time. Life will certainly be less eventful without them.

This brings to my mind the idea of contentment. Why is it that when we have the kids, we're desperately looking forward to an opportunity to be without them? And when we don't have the kids, why can't we wait to have them back? What would it be like to be content in all things, no matter what the life situation? What would it be like to simply live life today for today, instead of constantly looking ahead to something different or better? It seems that the lack of contentment is at the root of so much of the sadness in our world. The Sunday School answer says that Jesus will make you content, but that doesn't seem to work for most people most of the time. What are we missing? Why can't we experience satisfaction and contentment in all things?

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Hurting God

Eph 4:30 And do not bring sorrow to God'’s Holy Spirit by the way you live. Remember, he is the one who has identified you as his own, guaranteeing that you will be saved on the day of redemption. (NLT)
This passage is dropped right in the middle of Paul's urgent plea to stop lying and stealing, and to get rid of attitudes of bitterness, rage and anger. What struck me as I read it is that God's perspective on those attitudes and actions is not anger, but sorrow. He grieves when I stray from his desires for me.

Have you ever thought about what it means that God grieves, that God experiences sorrow and sadness when we sin? It means, for one thing, that God is not cold and unfeeling, untouched by us. It means that he's not the angry God waiting to smite me. It also means that what we do actually affects God. He experiences emotions, both joy and sorrow. It means that a relationship with God can actually be a relationship, a real relationship where both sides can hurt the other; a real relationship where there are misunderstandings and mistakes that cause real pain.

Why is it that I could choose to change attitudes and behaviors in order to not hurt my wife or my kids or my friends (or even perfect strangers), but the thought of becoming someone different because I don't want to hurt Jesus never crosses my mind? Shouldn't Jesus be the one person that, above all, I don't want to hurt? I mean, I've already caused him such pain and sorrow. Do I really want to do any more to hurt him?

This perspective changes how I view repentance as well. I'm no longer simply repenting for breaking God's seemingly arbitrarily instituted rules. Certainly there is a need to repent of what was done. But maybe even more than the specific things that I've done, I'm repenting for the pain and sorrow that I've caused the one to whom I've supposedly dedicated my life.

Additionally, forgiveness is a little different. It's bigger. When God forgives me, he's not just forgiving those actions that I have done. He is able to move beyond his pain and sorrow and grief to extend his offer of grace and mercy and love. It's not some kind of stoic transaction: I say I'm sorry, he forgives me. He is really hurt, and yet even through that pain he is always willing to forgive. This just makes the whole picture of redemption even more beautiful.

The challenge for us comes with the last verse of the passage. Given this picture of Jesus' forgiveness and grace through his pain...
Eph 4:32 Be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. (NLT)

Friday, January 20, 2006

You Be The Pastor 2

Since the last You Be The Pastor post received so much commenting attention, we're going to play again. This one didn't really happen, but I can imagine that it could and it really gets to the heart of my desire to figure out how to better be a disciple and lead others into genuine discipleship. Here we go:

A lady came to a pastor who had been emphasizing discipleship and said, "I just want to be a Christian. I don't want to be a disciple. I like my life the way it is. I believe that Jesus died for my sins, and I will be with him when I die. Why do I have to be a disciple?" (question courtesy of Dallas Willard)

You be the pastor...how do you respond?

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Compassionate Conservatism?

I'm a bit of a talk radio junkie. This morning I was flipping back and forth between NPR, a conservative political talk station, and a sports talk station. At one point, I paused on the conservative station and was immediately horrified. The talk show host (Bill Bennett) had earlier made mention of the missile attack of the "dinner party" in Pakistan where our troops killed a number of Al Qaeda operatives as well as a reported 18 civilians.

Somehow the question came up of dinner music that would have been appropriate to play at this party. People began calling in with suggested songs like, "Great Balls of Fire", "Another One Bites the Dust" and other similarly themed songs celebrating the deaths of these men and women. There was this giddy, celebratory atmosphere that simply disgusted me.

Now, I'm not some crazy liberal and I understand that we need to do militarily what we need to do, particularly in Afghanistan and along the Pakistani border, but where is the common decency that says that any loss of human life is an unspeakable tragedy? Even if the Al Qaeda operatives "deserved it", there were still innocent civilians whose lives were ended as a result of our military action. This is not something to be joyously celebrated. This is something that should be seriously contemplated as part of the sad reality of the world today.

Particularly as a Christian, I think the response should be vastly different than that which I heard on the radio. If Christians believe that those without Christ will exist forever in hell, then those who were killed in this attack not only had lives cut short, but also now have no chance at repentance and salvation. As Christians, this should be cause for great sadness, not silly radio games.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

More Thoughts on Discipleship

I'm still reading a lot of Dallas Willard (it's pretty heavy stuff...must be taken slowly in small doses) during my study on what discipleship should be about . Here's a lengthy quote that challenges churches and pastors to rethink their priorities when it comes to discipleship.
A fundamental mistake of the conservative side of the American church today, and most of the Western church, is that it takes as its basic goal to get as many people as possible ready to die and go to heaven. It aims to get people into heaven rather than to get heaven into people...[this] creates groups of people who may be ready to die, but are clearly not ready to live. They rarely can get along with one another, much less those 'outside'...They have found ways of being 'Christian' without being 'Christlike'.

As a result, they actually fall far short of getting as many people as possible ready to die, because the lives of the 'converted' testify against the reality of 'the life that is life indeed'...When we are counting up results we also need to keep in mind the multitudes of people (surrounded by churches) who will not be in heaven because they have never, to their knowledge, seen the reality of Christ in a living human being.
Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

New Blog

Just a quick note to welcome my wife into the world of blogging. She's a fount of wisdom. Check it out at lorimagstadt.blogspot.com.

Counting Conversations

In one of Brian McLaren's books (I think More Ready Than You Realize, but I don't remember for sure) he talks about the evangelical church's obsession with counting conversions. He says that it's far more productive, if you must count something, to count conversations. Conversion is a process that takes a lot of time, energy, and relationship. To expect that we're going to see instant conversion is usually unlikely.

I just had a great example of this. I spend a lot of time working in coffee shops, mainly because I'm always looking to build relationships with people who don't know Jesus. I've had countless opportunities as a result, but it takes time. Today I was talking to a couple of my coffee shop friends that I've gotten to know over the last four years or so. It's pretty incredible to see how often spiritual topics come up. Today, Dave (who grew up Baptist but who married a Catholic) was reflecting on the fact that his kids hate going to church, how they don't get anything out of it and that he doesn't either, but he remembers how he could feel God's presence at church when he went as a kid. He's craving it again. So I invited him to come check out our church, and I think that he might actually do it one of these Sundays. But in the meantime, I can talk to him about how he can energize his spiritual life and what he can do to help his kids develop a relationship with Jesus. And maybe in a year or two or three, these guys will all be passionate followers of Jesus.

One thing that I'm not doing is spending time with them just to turn them into Christians. My motivation is that these are guys that I care about and I want them to know Jesus. But if my motivation for being their friend was to lead them to Jesus, then I wouldn't be a friend. I'd be a salesman. It's pretty clear to me that, at least with the people I hang out with, apart from a relationship with me or other followers of Jesus, there will be no relationship with Jesus.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Jesus Creed

This is a great statement of what Jesus is like. Sometimes I think we make discipleship a little more complicated than it needs to be. This is a nice reminder of the centrality of Jesus to all of life and faith. I read this in church this morning and people were weeping.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Ignoring Jesus

I think this will be a regular feature on this blog. Jesus says a lot of things that I like to ignore (or explain away, theologize to meaninglessness, or otherwise refuse to allow to change my life in any way). Here's today's installment.

"You have heard that the law of Moses says, 'If an eye is injured, injure the eye of the person who did it. If a tooth gets knocked out, knock out the tooth of the person who did it.' But I say, don't resist an evil person! If you are slapped on the right cheek, turn the other, too. If you are ordered to court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don‚’t turn away from those who want to borrow."

Jesus of Nazareth, Matthew 5:38-42 (NLT)

Friday, January 13, 2006

You Be The Pastor

I need your help to play a new blog game called "You Be the Pastor". Here's how we play. I give you a "hypothetical" situation and you tell me how you, as the pastor, would respond. Prizes will be awarded (jewels in your crown and all that). Ready to play? Here we go...

One of my coffee shop friends (when your office is a coffee shop, you have lots of coffee shop friends) sat down at my desk (coffee-stained table) and told me about a situation she was facing at her church. My friend "Jenny" (not her real name), a 20-something girl with a deep and vibrant faith in Jesus had been spending time with a non-Christian boy and was finding herself potentially interested in dating him. She told her Christian friends from church about this and was shocked and horrified that they tore into her for 20 minutes, quoting Scripture at her, acting as if she was on a slippery slope to the fires of hell. Then they asked if they could pray for her and were saddened when she said no.

This has caused Jenny to ask a lot of other questions about what it means to love people like Jesus loves them, and what is the church supposed to be about, and why are Christians so mean, and IS it okay for me to date a non-Christian boy?

Here's where the fun starts...You Be The Pastor: What do you say? Please click on "comments" below and let me know what you would do.

Emergent Cohort

Last night I found myself in a pub in St. Paul with the Twin Cities Emergent Cohort. This is a group of young adults who are asking questions about the way we think about our faith and theology, but even more, about the practical aspects of ministry in a postmodern culture. It is exciting to be able to toss around ideas and suggestions and encourage one another on our faith journeys. Next month, we'll be talking about sin. Here's some questions that I'm tossing around:
  • In the "hierarchy of sins" that we've established, do we have the right sins at the top of the list?
  • Is our definition of sin big enough...shouldn't we talk about the sins of our culture that lead to poverty, homelessness, race issues, and a whole host of other social sins?
  • What does personal holiness look like in a postmodern context, where many of the former definitions no longer apply (particularly dealing with our list of external behaviors that we must stop or start if we're REALLY holy).
If you're interested in joining the conversation, we'll be meeting on the second Thursday of every month. Check out the twin cities emergent website here (it's under construction...).

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Stalling, Stalling, Stalling...

It's 10:16 PM, the kids are asleep, my wife is headed off to bed, and I'm supposed to start studying Greek...and I have no desire whatsoever. So instead I'm going to blog. This is a perfect example of how a spiritual discipline can easily turn into something else. Blogging (journaling) as a discipline has now become blogging as a stall tactic. I wonder how often my other spiritual disciplines become something that they weren't intended to be. Prayer, Bible reading, worship, fasting, and almost anything else can be wonderful spiritual experiences or a useless waste of time depending on your perspective and motivation. And since I've just undermined the legitimacy of this entire post, it's off to Greek (another useless waste of time, but that's a different post!)

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Cynical, Jaded, or Realistic?

This afternoon I got a call from a guy needing money for a hotel room for a night because the housing agency he was working with needed one more day to find a place for him and his two kids. The first thing that came to my mind as I was talking to him was, "Is this guy trying to scam me?" Now in my defense, that kind of thing is commonplace here in the metro area, but it got me thinking. I wonder if Jesus would have called the police department to find out if they knew anything about the guy. I suppose Jesus already would have known everything about the guy, like that a different church had filed a report about him 2 weeks ago and that he had spent a few days in jail because of the warrant that had been out for his arrest...but I don't think that Jesus would have automatically jumped to "scam" and would have first jumped to "love, compassion, grace, mercy." This all just shows how much my mind and my initial responses to the events of my life are still so conditioned by the world and my own sinful nature, and how far I still am from having the mind of Christ.

Interestingly, I called the guy back at the hotel and told him what I had discovered and then told him that I would need to talk with someone from the housing agency to verify his story before I could help him. He gave me the name and number and she backed it all up, so he was legitimately in need of help after all. So I arranged for the room to be paid for another night and offered to help his family move when they get the apartment situation figured out. He was really appreciative and is going to take me up on it, and hopefully we'll be able to bless the family even more as they get settled into town. Or maybe he'll bless me.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Back to school

So today marked the beginning of another semester. For those of you who don't know me, going against all good advice, reason, and rationale, I accepted the wonderful opportunity to receive a free masters degree from Bethel Seminary while still working full-time as a church planter. Say hi to my wife and kids, because you'll probably see them before I do. Actually, we've managed to keep a pretty good balance thus far (relatively speaking) . But any extra prayers tossed our direction would be much appreciated.

Class today was interesting. Today's Old Testament class was a breath of fresh air after having a ridiculously poor professor (horrible, just horrible). After OT was Greek 2. I discovered that if you don't study Greek for 4 weeks between semesters, what pitiful Greek knowledge you had attained will disappear. Maybe if I pray really hard, Jesus will bring it back.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Ecumenical Worship

This afternoon, we joined four other churches in town for an ecumenical Epiphany service billed as "The Last Noel" (yes, I had to ask the other pastors what Epiphany was). Each of the churches brought a musical group and sang some of their Christmas music. It was a really great service. It started out with the Evangelical Free church's worship team singing a bluegrassy Silent Night and then leading us in several worship songs (a nice flashback to the songs we sang growing up). Then the Catholic church's choir sang a couple of songs. One Lutheran church followed up with a bell choir that was just outstanding. Then it was our turn. I hope that we didn't scare them, but our Christmas music is songs like "Oh Praise Him" by David Crowder. We were followed by the children's choir from a different Lutheran church.

What was really fun for me was the spirit in the room. Even though everyone was coming from markedly different church worship experiences, everyone really enjoyed all of the other expressions of worship. It was great to see people from such different backgrounds all centering their worship on Jesus. It's always exciting when a community gathers to worship, and especially exciting when some of the barriers of denominations and traditions and theology can be set aside in order to focus on the more important things (Jesus, worship, community, unity, etc.) We decided to make this an annual event. I can't wait until next Epiphany.


I think one of my favorite things about being in a place and time in ministry where things have started clicking is that everything you do and say resonates with the people around you. This morning I began my next sermon series about how to be a real disciple of Jesus. I talked about moving beyond external behavior modification and teaching about proper doctrine. I talked about how we all want to experience the abundant life described in the New Testament, but none of us ever seem to really be there. Peace and joy are sorely lacking in most people's lives most of the time. But if we take the Bible seriously and believe that Jesus wasn't lying to us, then the problem has to be on our end.

All of the things that I shared resonated with the people in church this morning, particularly with several new families that excitedly told me after the service that they had been thinking about the exact things that I talked about during the last week. It's so exciting when you see people really engaging and wrestling with tough questions, especially when those questions have to do with their own spiritual formation.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Right Place at the Right Time?

You might call it a coincidence, or you might call it a divine appointment, depending on your perspective of how God works in the world around us. I wrote a few weeks ago about some of the exciting ministry opportunities we've had in some of the toughest neighborhoods in our town. Well, I think we just got another.

I was sitting at Dunn Brothers (a mostly Minnesota coffee shop chain, but WAY better than Starbucks and soon to take over the world) and at the table next to me was a meeting between the police chief and the two officers that work in the high school and middle schools. They were making plans for ramping up their community engagement with at-risk kids this summer - camps, picnics, and the like. As they finished their meeting, I went to talk with them about some of the things that we had been thinking about and found that our dreams had a lot in common. So I don't know what it looks like yet, but we are definitely going to be working together to take another step toward watching Jesus transform our community. Exciting stuff.

Still Learning

Being a disciple of Jesus matters most where it is the hardest. For some people, that means that the 8-10 hours they spend working is the most significant and important place for them to manifest the person and presence of Jesus. And this doesn't mean being the annoying Christian Guy at work who is always quoting Bible verses and inviting people to repentance. This means representing the character of Jesus in all things. For students, maybe the hardest place to live as a disciple of Jesus is at school with all of the pressures of friends, classes, etc.

For me this week, the hardest place was at home. I've found that when I get stressed, I get angry and unfortunately, home was the place that I let it out this week. My wife has been sick for the past couple of days leaving me with the responsibility of taking care of our 31/2 year old and 9 month old. They've been fairly out of control during this time, which makes it more difficult. But instead of taking joy in serving my wife and family (and isn't being a servant the highest calling of a follower of Jesus?) I have been stressed and upset about all of the work that I have to do. Instead of blessing and serving them, I have hurt them by being angry and frustrated too much of the time, thereby making everything even worse.

So the question that I'm asking myself (and that all of us should ask ourselves when taking stock of how we react during the times when being a disciple is hardest) is what needs to change in me in order to have the capacity to manifest Jesus at the hardest times? What practices, disciplines, attitudes, and perspectives do I need to invite Jesus into to in order to dramatically transform the way I naturally respond when life throws a wrench into my plans? I'll do some more reflecting and let you know later what I come up with.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Assorted thoughts from the last week

Here's a list of random thoughts/events/comments since my last post.
  1. If you're looking for a fantastic Christmas production on Christmas Sunday morning, don't attend a church plant. Our experience at holidays has been that everyone goes to their parents' houses and no one comes back in time for church. Christmas Sunday was no exception. We had a whopping 10 people in church that day (counting the 4 people in my family!) And yet we had a wonderful time of reflection, taking advantage of the expected small numbers. The opportunity for a few people who didn't know each other at all to hear stories and encourage one another was unexpectedly sweet.
  2. We spent the week after Christmas in Grinnell, Iowa visiting my parents and sister and niece. It was really nice, but a little weird. My parents just moved to Grinnell after 20+ years in a town called Osage. Somewhat surprisingly, having Christmas in a new house in a new town did not really change much. The things that I value about our time together (time with family, pinochle games, 4 foot long stockings, and homemade truffles) all were still a part of our Christmas experience. Except the stockings. This year mom bought too much stuff to fit in them so our stocking stuffers were stuffed in Target bags. Not complaining (thanks Mom!)
  3. New Year's Resolutions only work for people with an incredible amount of self-discipline, and these are the people who least need to make them.
  4. Some questions about being a disciple that I probably need to consider before preaching about it. Feel free to leave comments if you have any good answers:
    • Who teaches you? Whose disciple are you really? Honestly.
    • Can you be a Christian without being a disciple?
    • Do we really intend to do and be all of the high things we profess to believe in? Have we decided to do them? When did we decide it? And how did we implement that decision?
And a quote or two...
And if you will here stop and ask yourself why you are not as pious as the primitive Christians were, your own heart will tell you that it is neither through ignorance, nor inability, but purely because you never thoroughly intended it.
- William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life

In the last analysis, we fail to be disciples only because we do not decide to be.
- Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy