Saturday, June 28, 2008

Curing Our Edifice Complex

The opinions are still coming in but if I’m any judge, this week’s Backyard Bible Camp was an overwhelming success -- and, I hope, a model for how we do outreach at Open Door. Even when we have our own facility, the goal should be to get out of it as often as possible and into the community. The Bible Camp did just that. Big kudos to everyone involved!

The fact is, many people outside the Church are intimidated by our facilities. They see them only from the outside. What’s going on inside is left largely to their imaginations, which are colored by popular culture and its generally negative, even hostile, attitude toward organized religion of any stripe. The only sure way to show them who we are and what we are about, our Father’s business, is to get outside the walls.

I’m not knocking facilities as such. They’re tools and if they are used to successfully advance the Kingdom, then great. But if we’re not careful, they can encourage over time a kind of mental retreat from the world outside. A circle-the-wagons mentality has become common across our brotherhood today. We raise our physical edifice, retreat behind its comforting walls and then wait for the world, if it’s interested, to come to us. The mindset often goes with -- and reinforces -- this fractious zeal for defending our turf and traditions that for some brothers has come to trump all other considerations, including the Great Commission.

Let’s work hard so that our Open Door serves not only as an invitation to the world, but as an ever-present reminder of our own charge to go forth boldly into it.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Kings Who Would Be Boys

“I will make boys their officials. Mere children will govern them.” -- Isa. 3:4

I wanted to draw your attention to this easily overlooked passage from this week’s Daily Bible reading. What God, through the prophet Isaiah, describes here is clearly an inversion of the proper order of things. Part of God’s punishment for his people’s continuing disobedience, it seems, was to give them, in essence, the leadership they deserved.

“Mere children will govern them..." Sound familiar?

We live in an age where boys rule. Whether it’s in our adolescent-driven, "gimme-gimme" consumer culture or our appalling lack of mature and principled leadership in the public square, we are a childish people.

It hasn’t been this way throughout our history. I’m reading David McCullough’s stirring biography of second president John Adams. The book and the HBO miniseries based on it are both marvelous on many levels and I wholeheartedly recommend them. As I read, I find myself comparing the leaders of that era with those of more recent ones and the differences are glaring.

One difference -- and it’s perhaps the central difference from which all others spring -- is this: The leaders of Adams’ day had a firm sense of the proper order of things. And at the top of that order was a sovereign God, a supreme judge to whom everyone would ultimately answer for how they used the gifts he’d given them, whether standing up for the true, the good and the just or in pursuing their own selfish ends. Even those, like Thomas Jefferson, who had unorthodox ideas about the creator, still acknowledged Him and ordered their lives accordingly.

Not to romanticize the past. These were flawed men who regularly failed to live up to their principles and often disagreed fiercely with each other. But their principles -- and the fact those principles were grounded in a transcendent moral order -- showed in their leadership.

We live in an age ruled by childish fantasies, one where extending adolescence indefinitely is for many the chief goal in life. Our leaders, with some exceptions, reflect this. Whether that’s God’s direct punishment or the natural byproduct of decades of bad choices or both, I don’t know. But I think we can be sure of one thing. Like the people of Judah and Israel, we are getting the leadership we deserve.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Peace! Be Still.

It’s raining again. Thunder, lighting, wind, wet, duck-and-cover - that’s Oklahoma rain! I just cleaned up a tree in our backyard the last storm twisted off the trunk. But the loss of our tree is nothing compared to what many are facing in the Midwest.

Entire cities are flooding. Families are losing their homes. And with each disaster, the economy retaliates with even higher prices for everything. Many are wondering how they will survive this season.

Here is what James says:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1:2-4).

Truthfully, these words are little comfort in the middle of a storm unless you’re a spiritual giant. Who sees joy in suffering when they are suffering? Even Jesus prayed for his cup to pass if it were possible! So, where is the comfort? Where is the pure joy? Keep reading…

If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind (James 1:5-6).

The two great questions in the storm are “Why” and “How.” Why is this happening, and how are we going to get through it. James says, God promises to answer both if we’ll but seek him with faith.

Often, what we lack is the conviction that God is always with us, and that He is still in control. Our immaturity is our self-reliance. The blessing of the storm is the opportunity to deepen our dependence on God.

Now if you are in Iowa, you may well ask, “What’s God going to do? I’ve lost my house, all my possessions and I don’t have a roof over my head. What can he possibly do?” My only answer is, I don’t know…but he does. And, this is the faith to which we are called.

The perseverance to which James calls us is not simply to strain to endure or survive the trial itself, but rather to relentlessly decide to trust God again and again and again, no matter what is happening around us.

Lasting comfort is not found in the easing of the storm, but in the presence of the One who commands the storm. Joy is not in the trial, but in the facing of the trial with the One who cannot be concurred.

When all to Jesus we have surrendered, the feelings of being blown and tossed about cease, and we find we lack nothing, because He who is over all, through all and in all has commanded, “Peace, be still.”

Monday, June 16, 2008

Be Shepherds of God's Flock (Part III)

One can see the Divine wisdom behind the model for church leadership if one steps back and takes in the full picture. Paul addresses the various functions in the early church in Ephesians 4. During this miraculously gifted age, the Lord equipped some to be "...apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up..."

The term "pastor" is synonymous with "overseer" and both terms refer to the office of the plurality of shepherds who are to pastor or oversee the flock (1 Tim. 3; Tit. 1). The evangelist is to "preach the word" (2 Tim. 4:2), and it requires great study, preparation and courage to speak God's oracles to a disobedient world. Both of these offices were created to prepare God's people to serve the community and become a close knit family -- the body of Christ in a broken and corrupt world.

Unfortunately, the most alarming tendency that I've seen in the Lord's church- and it has been exhibited to some degree in nearly every congregation that I've spent time with - is the evolution of the eldership to a man-made model. Many of today's elderships bear little resemblance to the divine pattern for leadership in the kingdom. The model that congregations seem to have adopted has been one more akin to the business world's "corporate" model of governance - a "board of directors" who meet from time to time, review budgets, attend to personnel actions, and issue decrees.

Are these elders "bad" men? Not at all. But they are often bound up in a failed model that is patterned after the business world. Even those men who are qualified and gifted as elders, and desire to shepherd according to God's plan, often find themselves restricted by a "corporate" model that fails to provide servant leadership to the congregation. The results of this leadership model is that our people are NOT prepared for works of service, and do NOT act as a family of God in the community.

I learned more about the elders from an elder's wife than I have from any elders that I've been around. Over a three year period, I watched as she single-handedly continued to serve the congregation with hospitality, love, teaching, sharing and faithfulness after her husband had passed away. I have no doubt that this couple understood exactly the role of an elder. It was apparent in their children, too. Both of their children and their spouses actively served in their congregations and were just as hospitable in serving and teaching.

As a restoration church, we must strive to fix this failed leadership model, but I fear it won't happen within the context of congregations that have become so "institutionalized" that they cannot effectively change. As we consider men for our shepherds, we have much to think about. Are these men exhibiting shepherding behavior right now? Are their wives true, spiritual partners in their hospitality, teaching and example?

At the Open Door Church, we have a wonderful opportunity to restore the Lord's perfect leadership plan for the congregation. That leadership plan includes assigning the right responsibilities and authority to evangelists, shepherds, and deacons as we move this work forward. It means realizing that these offices work as an interdependent team, not as a hierarchical governing structure. Restoring God's plan means recognizing the contributions of our great women and insuring that their roles accurately reflect the New Testament pattern. It means moving away from a "corporate" leadership model that has plagued many of our sister congregations.

Most of all it means being courageous. Join us at the Open Door church of Christ. We have a place for you.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Be Shepherds of God's Flock (Part II)

The shepherd of yesteryear -- almost unknown in industrialized, western nations -- was an important part of a community. Because sheep were valuable for a number of reasons (clothing, food, and even milk & cheese) it was the shepherd's duty to keep the flock healthy and safe. Moreover, the shepherd was a doctor, leader, an encourager, a servant and a guard to his flock.

Shepherds moved the sheep from field to field to ensure that they always had adequate food, water and safety. The shepherd usually worked with other shepherds in teams to oversee large flocks, and some would go ahead of the flock to prepare fields while others moved the flock along, while still others may have cleaned up behind the flock.

The work of the shepherd involved intimate knowledge of each sheep. There was an emotional attachment to each member of the flock because of their innocence and relative defenselessness. The sheep would often want to cuddle with the shepherd in quiet moments or at night while sleeping. Shepherds had to diagnose health problems and work to treat them proactively. They were not well paid for this work, so they had to truly love the animals and care for their well-being more than any compensation that might come from this vocation.

Is it any wonder that Peter and Jesus draw from the work of the shepherds of their day in describing the men who are to oversee the people of God? Peter's admonition to perform the work out of love for God and man rather than money (1 Pet. 3:3) and Jesus' use of terms such as "thieves, robbers...hirelings..." to describe imposters (John 10:8, 12), leaves no doubt that God wants men who are fully committed to the lives of the flock to serve in this capacity.

Truly, understanding the work of a shepherd sheds great light on the work of the men that we call the eldership. I've often wondered why we call these men elders (a term that refers to age), rather than shepherds (which is descriptive of their work). Thankfully, many congregations are moving to a more prominent use of the term "shepherd" in describing these men because of its rich meaning. The intimacy, the frequent communication, and the selfless service that men appointed to these positions are supposed to exhibit is more aptly bound up in the term shepherd. Jesus described himself as the "good shepherd" (John 10:14), and "I know my sheep and my sheep know me..."

Truly, the work of a shepherd/elder is crucial to the congregation.  The question is not whether or not God has structured His church to be successful, but whether or not we are living out the inspired model in our congregations.

Monday, June 9, 2008

One Another

Love one another. (1 Peter 1:22)

Encourage one another. (1 Thessalonians 5:11)

Bear one another's burdens. (Galatians 6:2)

Be devoted to one another. (Romans 12:10a)

Honor one another. (Romans 12:10b)

Be kind and compassionate to one another. (Ephesians 4:32)

Forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. (Colossians 3:13)

Live in harmony with one another. (1 Peter 3:8)

If we're not careful, we might get the idea that the primary mission of Jesus was to create loving relationships; to teach his followers the value of "one another." Well... Actually, that is exactly what Christ intended:

"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus..." (Philippians 2:3-5)

I have often wondered if I am serving God according to His will. Now I think I can know the answer: Am I serving others? Looking to their interests as well as my own? Considering them better than myself?

Do I value "one another"?

Be Shepherds of God's Flock (Part I)

That each congregation of people in the Kingdom of Christ should be overseen by a group of men often referred to as "elders" is readily acknowledged by those with a restoration mindset. According to Paul, Titus was to "appoint" elders in every city (Tit. 1:5) using the Holy Spirit provided guidance given to him. Numerous epistles were written to the "elders and "saints" of the church in a city. While that guidance was miraculous in the first century, it has been set forth on the pages of inspiration by Paul for our benefit today (Tit. 1:6-9; 1 Tim. 3:1-7). When we prayerfully and Scripturally appoint elders today, the Holy Spirit is just as involved in the selection process as He was in the first century.

Having lived from coast to coast and worshiped in dozens of congregations, it is safe to say that our methods of appointing elders to these positions of sobering responsibility needs some work. Nevertheless, in this blog I want to focus on what elders should DO after they have been appointed to their work.

By far the most instructive passages in the New Testament regarding the work of elders are found in John 10, 1 Peter 5 and Acts 20. All refer to the work of elders as that of shepherding the community of God over which they have been placed by having reflected an image of the divine "picture" painted by the Scriptures -- both in qualifications and overall attitude and demeanor. In John 10, Jesus portrays Himself as the ultimate shepherd, and in 1 Pet 5:4, Peter refers to Him as the "Chief Shepherd." What better picture of a shepherd than the living example of Christ could we have?

The picture Paul paints in Acts 20 while in conversation with the Ephesian eldership is one of men who are wholeheartedly devoted to the truth, and who will protect the flock with their lives. Indeed, Jesus said: "...the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10:11). It is understandable that Paul would focus his attention on this aspect of the shepherd's work, since the biggest threat to his ministry was that of the Judiazing teachers who were perverting the gospel (Gal. 1:7). Protecting the flock from false doctrine is an important function of a congregation's shepherds. Indeed it is saving them from soul-threatening wolves (Acts 20:29). However, defense against false doctrine is not the ONLY function of shepherds. Indeed, to focus on this aspect of shepherding without fulfilling all of the other numerous functions of a shepherd would be like defending a group of people from one threat while neglecting them as they perish from starvation or other maladies.

A more well-rounded picture is painted by Peter in his first general epistle. Peter's description includes servant leadership, humility, being a living example, demonstrating loving care, and having an eagerness for the work itself (1 Pet. 5:1-4).

Make no mistake -- shepherding the flock is work!