Whereas Real Love Happens in the Middle of the Storms

Last weekend, I had the privilege of a fun evening with a family in our church, where we took advantage of their new Karaoke Channel on Uverse. Unfortunately, my “privilege” was everyone else’s pain. I definitely have a chorus voice

My old friend and I turned back to a song from that oh-so-classic 80s group, New Edition (feel free to pause your reading for a laugh). Yes, we selected the timeless classic, “Can You Stand the Rain?” Please forgive the excessive 80s references here and take note of these lyrics:

Sunny days,

Everybody loves them,

But tell me baby,

Can you stand the rain?

Okay, so it’s a cheesy 80s pop/r&b song. And it’s a lot more Bobby Brown than U2 (if you don’t know who Bobby Brown is, then you may be too young to read blogs. And if you don’t know U2, get to Google ASAP). In spite of my inability to find a musical point of reference beyond 1989, those lyrics struck a strange theological chord in me.

Churches thrive on telling people what a loving group of people they are. Quite often, this might be true…IF things are going well. What happens when the storms come and it’s pouring down rain? How much do we love one another when the challenges of being a 21st Century church are pouring onto our hearts and minds?

Is our love strong enough to move us when we are called to love others as we love ourselves?

If you walk into most churches on a Sunday, you will encounter people who love one another. Oh, they may not love YOU right away (at least not until you fill out a visitor card), but they will exchange conversation and prayers and hugs and Christian concern. Our family attends a church where an outpouring of love is obvious.

But how much do we love others when we get down to the hard work of making decisions and discerning what the Lord wants us to do, and the very hard work of being Christian?

It’s very easy to talk the language of faith, love, unity and diversity. What happens when we are called to put those values into practice tells the truth about who we are and how real our love is, both for Christ and one another.

Faithfulness is simple when it only demands a couple of hours of our Sunday. As long as we don’t change the music too much and the preacher keeps us ahead of the Methodists at the buffet, we can keep that loving, caring atmosphere. We can love everybody, as long as most everybody looks like we do.

What happens when He says, “Pick up your cross and follow me?” Or give up our earthly wealth? Or wash the feet of others? And yes, Jesus commands all of that in the Bible, so take it up with him if it’s a problem.

FAITHFUL OBEDIENCE is a calling that pierces our heart. Can we–WILL we–continue to love even as we are called to be and do more in Christ?

Here’s the thing: Christians all over this country are facing crucial decisions about the future of the church. We are learning that Christianity is dirty and messy and difficult. The future of church demands the hard work of discipleship.

We are called to decide if we’re willing to put in the hard work of being disciples. And the only guaranteed “Return on Investment” is that things are going to look very different from the church we once knew.

We are now dealing with the fact that we cannot sustain our big, beautiful church buildings, much less utilize them to further the Kingdom of God. We can’t drive from our safe, suburban sanctuaries down to the inner city to get a dose of diversity, or wait until our summer mission trip to encounter people of color or the struggle of poverty.

Diversity is now sitting on our doorstep, and joining us in the pews. We are being called to engage with people who are not like us, and loving them just as we love one another in Christ.

We can choose to close our hearts and close our doors, protecting our particular brand of love just for those that we select. Or we can realize that Christianity was never supposed to be easy or white or managed or controlled. We can let Christ lead us to love even when the path He shows us is littered with challenges.

Please do not take this as some arrogant, self-righteous rant. There are days when I am chomping at the bit to race towards this new kind of Christianity. Then there are days when I encounter people and problems that make me say, “Really? This again?” I have plenty of times when I long to simply preach and teach and visit and love on people without the challenge of letting Christ radically change my heart.

 But those days are gone. The true test of our love for one another is our willingness to seek the way of the Lord and the leadership of the Spirit beyond ourselves. ANY church that will do this has a chance to continue a legacy of faithful ministry. If we close our doors and our hearts, the Holy Spirit will move past us.

There is one singular hope for the church in the midst of this identity crisis. You know what it is before I even say it, and it may even come across as a corny cliché. But the unity of spirit is only possible with a singular focus on the Living Christ.

We are being called to decide if we love the Lord enough to love one another as we are called to abandon our personal comfort zone of what church is supposed to be. And we must ask ourselves: If we can only love when there is no challenge, is it really Christ’s love that brought us together in the first place?

The true test of our faith is the ability to keep our heart focused and unified in Christ even when the waters are the roughest. Or, in the cheesy words of New Edition: Can we stand the rain?

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Whereas an Educated Pastor Is not a “Dangerous” Thing

It has become the new fad in various Christian circles to declare that seminary/divinity school is a waste of time. I even follow a guy on Twitter who runs a podcast and blog called Seminary Dropout (@beardonbike). It’s definitively not an anti-seminary website, but it’s also no accident that it’s a catchy title and hash tag in this era of Christianity.

Then there are articles like this one, that tell us it’s “dangerous” to require a pastor to have a seminary education (or experience, or a certain marital status).

Let us leave the last two alone for now, and focus a little on the first requirement.

Why is it suddenly a bad thing to expect someone to be educated to do their job?

Okay, I confess: I WENT TO SEMINARY! And I confess again:  I LOVED it, thought it was great, and had a terrific experience. I still talk to friends from my class and professors from good old Pittsburgh Theological.

(Before anyone else can say it: Yes, it’s a Presbyterian (USA) seminary, and some would call it liberal and I really don’t care what you think. They gave me a full ride).

The growing anti-seminary, anti-education trend in Christian circles is an extremely troubling one. Perhaps it is my own sense of bias, or a great desire to justify three years of my life that I cannot get back. Or, perhaps I think that there is nothing wrong with a pastor/minister preparing for his/her vocation.

By the same token, perhaps others feel the need to justify their choice NOT to attend seminary; or perhaps they want people to be drawn to their particular brand of Christian higher education.

Whatever the logic of either side of the argument, there is no need to insult anyone for their position on this issue.

I certainly would not say that it’s “dangerous” for a church, that knows their circumstances and environment, to establish requirements for being pastor. Shouldn’t this decision be left to individual congregations? Doesn’t the church and/or its advisors understand their reasoning better than someone reading the classifieds?

No, seminary is not required for someone to do ministry (I have several friends in ministry that never attended). But there is certainly nothing empirically “dangerous” about a church asking their pastor to be well-educated.

The problem begins with a fundamental misunderstanding of what seminary is supposed to do. People seem to think that ministers should come out of seminary knowing how to be a pastor. In fact, some pastors come out of seminary thinking that they know how to be a pastor! What they need to think is, “Hey, now I’m ready to learn how to be a pastor!”

When people discover this little caveat, they sometimes take it to the next…um…”logical” step. The argument often goes something like this: “You can’t learn to be a pastor by going to school, so seminary is useless!”

And that is 100% legitimate. Education, for the most part, isn’t intended to make you good at something the minute you graduate. It is intended to prepare you to begin a journey of getting good at something.

I don’t think that going to medical school makes you a brain surgeon, but I’m not going to let someone cut open my skull unless they have a medical degree. You don’t need a degree to work in auto repair. But before I put my money down for you to work on my car, I want some assurance that you have some kind of training in your craft.

You absolutely cannot learn to be a minister in school, but you can learn a lot that will help you to become a better minister. The knowledge base, discipline, and relationships that you amass in seminary are certainly not bad things and can prove to be valuable tools.

Jesus DID spend 30 years of life preparing for a 3-year, whirlwind ministry, and He spent much of those three years teaching and training 12 guys to take the ball and run with it after His departure.

There is no doubt that seminary–like the church–needs a massive overhaul, and some of that is already happening. Even traditional seminaries and divinity schools are looking for creative ways to “fast-track” individuals who are called to ministry. I am all in favor of anything that reduces the amount of student loan debt for people in this country, particularly for pastors.

Changing the system does not mean eliminating it altogether, and it certainly doesn’t mean insulting those who choose to value the discipline. Christian higher education certainly needs to modernize, adapt, and lower the cost of the process; but they need to do so without devaluing the process.

Seminary trains you to be a minister much in the same way church trains you to be a Christian. It provides you the teaching, tools, knowledge and support to do what you need to do; but, the only way to ultimately learn is to go out and put it into practice.

But, in doing so, I hope that I don’t demand that my impression of the requirements for ministry are the only requirements that matter. There are plenty of opportunities to serve without a divinity degree, and that service is equally valuable to the Kingdom of God.

At the same time, I fear that we are coming to a place where we belittle those who want to further their education as well as those who expect their minister to do so. And we have no right to do either.

While it is essential to recognize that all are called, in various ways, to serve the Lord, criticism of a church for having certain expectations borders on being divisive and judgmental. Perhaps those who do not value seminary education can trust that God may still work through churches that do, and vice versa.

While I certainly fall on the “pro-seminary” side of this, I hope that I do not diminish those who feel the opposite way.

Expectations for ministers may vary from church to church, or ministry to ministry. Calling out others because their expectations are different is much more dangerous than the expectations themselves.

 

Why We Ordain (Even for Women)

We are going to make history this Sunday at Augusta Heights Church in Greenville, SC. For the first time in the 63-year history of the church, we will celebrate the ordination of a woman, Debbie Roper, to the gospel ministry.

Debbie’s official title at Augusta Heights is Minister to Children and Families, but her real job is Minister to Anything and Everything that Anyone Needs. With such a clear calling, it is a “no-brainer” at the church to ordain her to the tasks that she is already doing. There was never a question issued–at least not publicly–about whether or not this was the right thing to do. Never a question about how could we ordain a woman.

Most of you know that these things are not that simple in the larger world of Christianity.

First off, some have even questioned whether or not ordination continues to be a valid form of religious practice in the Christian church. Some would argue that the practice of ordaining is designed to put certain people above others, and to create a culture of authority of the ordained over the non-ordained.

What we are doing this Sunday is an ORDINATION, not a coronation.

In Baptist life in the south, ordination is strictly a local church matter. For our particular local church, ordination is not about prestige or power or authority. It’s not about creating a hierarchy within the church. It is not about deciding who God likes better or considers more important. It is not about pre-screening people to find out if they are educated enough, theologically pure (whatever that means), or worthy to hold authority. And most of all, it is not about playing church politics with people’s lives.

For us, the purpose of ordination is as simple as Acts 6:1-7:  It is the setting aside of a person for a special purpose or ministry to which they and the church feel that they are called. We believe that it is still important to acknowledge such a calling and to have a special time of recognition, prayer and blessing for that calling. And this Sunday, we honor the calling of Debra Perkins Roper as she continues to respond to the call of ministry that she answered many years ago.

We live in a neck of the woods that largely opposes the ordination of women, particularly those being ordained to the Gospel ministry. The Southern Baptist Convention has long discouraged women in any kind of pastoral ministry, although Augusta Heights has never held to such a position.

Judging from the raised eyebrows that I receive (as well as one irate phone call from someone I don’t even know) when I tell people who we are ordaining, this remains a hot-button issue. Why on earth would Augusta Heights, or any other church, ordain women when the Bible “forbids” it?

The short and simple answer is that we don’t believe the Holy Spirit of God refuses to call people to ministry because of which bathroom they use, or how they use it. The long answer is we are skeptical about putting limits on God that God does not claim for himself. The final answer is that we are seeking to celebrate the calling to ministry of a follower of Christ (who happens to be a female), and asking others to do the same.

I am skeptical that anyone can prove that God “forbids” the ordination of women in scripture. They could surely prove that men were predominantly  selected to the ministry in first century middle eastern culture. It’s pretty clear that Paul had some issues in dealing with women in the church. And it’s very clear that the writers of the New Testament were not exactly ready to completely upset every aspect of the present social order, including the ones that identified women as subservient to men.

Yet, we seem to conveniently neglect the times that Paul puts women on equal footing with men (Galatians 3:28); or names them as equals in the work of the gospel (Philippians 4:2-3); or identifies a woman as a deacon (Romans 16). And we surely forget that, on the Day of Resurrection, the women were the only ones around to witness the actual event, while the guys were hiding.

I understand that some churches and Christians interpret the scriptures in different ways, and respect the decision of others to not ordain women. But I don’t agree with that interpretation, and neither does Augusta Heights.

Beyond that, it is naive to say that this is a “non-essential issue” to churches or Gospel ministry. How can we call it non-essential when half of the church is eliminated from God’s calling? How can we pretend that it’s unimportant to tell God who he can or cannot call to ministry?

I’ve heard it too many times from too many people: God “won’t” call a woman to the ministry. God “doesn’t” call women to ministry because Gog did not “make” women for ministry. And the crème de la crème, God “can’t” call a woman to the ministry.

That’s a pretty extreme limitation to put on God. The only limits on God are those that are self-imposed, and I do not find any compelling argument that God eternally denies the call to ministry to all women. I would argue that we should use extreme caution in telling someone that we call Almighty, Creator, Redeemer, and Deliverer what won’t/isn’t/can’t be done.

Our belief is that God, revealed in Jesus Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit, can call anyone at any time to a special designation of a life in ministry of the Gospel. Let there be no doubt that we are ALL ordained, all called to ministry in various capacities. But it is still our privilege as church to acknowledge when such a calling grows into a specific, unique life event.

This is really what we are doing on Sunday, by recognizing the unique calling on the life of one special lady. We are more than happy to announce that YES, we believe women can be called and ordained; and are thrilled to be a part of such an ordination. Whether or not you agree with us, we invite you to rejoice with us and pray for Debbie Roper as she celebrates her calling.

It is time for us to recognize that it is not our place to determine who God can or cannot call to ministry.

One in the Grave, the Other on a Banana Peel – Part 2

Isn’t it amazing how we make things so hard that should really be so simple?

You hear a lot of talk these days about how “messed up” the church is. No doubt, the church is struggling in many ways, and that includes the ever-so-cliched “mega churches” out there.

(Psssst – here’s a secret. They have problems, too. They may not show it, but I know for a fact that they do).

But maybe the problem isn’t just the churches. Maybe it’s us. Maybe it’s our perceptions of what a “good” church is or is supposed to be. Maybe our view of church is more messed up than the churches themselves.

Here’s the first thing we need to understand:  The church as an individual institution has a life cycle. We assume that if a church is declining or dissolves, then it’s the fault of the church. Never mind that many forces beyond the church’s control may have contributed to the decline or dissolution. The people MUST have been unfaithful!

What a crock.

Many churches that have declined or dissolved are faithful, loving, compassionate and even willing to do what God requires of them. But perhaps it was time for something to change, for something new or different to happen. Just because something is painful does not mean that God has abandon us in it.

Keep in mind that the VAST majority of churches in this country are less than 100 members. Just because we don’t see them on television or listen to their podcast does not mean that they are not faithful.

Here’s the second thing we need to understand:  Just because a church was, or is, struggling does not mean that God is ready to put it out to pasture. Case in point is the church that I pastor, Augusta Heights Baptist.

This church was planted on Augusta Road in Greenville, South Carolina in 1950 as a ministry to the families that were affiliated with Donaldson Center Air Force Base. Just as the church was growing, building, and having an impact, the rug was snatched out from under them.

The Air Force base close around 1962. The church had nothing to do with it, and couldn’t do anything about it.

That’s about the year that a lot of people “buried” Augusta Heights. And for the last 50 years, people have had the church with one foot in the grave, the other on a banana peel.

They’re too old. The community has changed to a predominantly African-American, middle class and under community. They’re not willing to change. Their building is too big for the congregation. They don’t have enough money.

There is a laundry list of reasons why the church couldn’t or shouldn’t make it. Isn’t it funny that this describes almost every great success story?

In spite of the fact that people have been trying to toss dirt on Augusta Heights for 50 years, it’s still there. And it’s doing a lot more than just existing on “life support.” Not only is it alive, but it’s starting to kick a little bit as well.

Yes, the problems exist and will not go away anytime soon. But don’t you think that maybe it’s survived for the last 50 years because God still has a PURPOSE for it in the community?

In church “circles,” there is always talk of growth plans and “fix-it” solutions to the church. But you can’t always fix the things that are happening around you. You can’t always stop the train that is coming down the tracks. But you can learn from it and adjust to it.

Is there a better way to do that than learning to follow Jesus?

I’m drawing closer and closer to the conclusion that all the programs and conferences and “answers” that everyone has are just a lot of window-dressing and fluff to make churches what everyone else SAYS that they should be. Perhaps the real solution is found in the words that Jesus asked His disciples:

But what about you? Who do YOU say that I am?

Perhaps we need to spend less time thinking about how to “fix” the church and more time finding out who Jesus is, and whether or not we are willing to say that’s who He is. And perhaps, with the grace that Jesus offers us, that will be more than enough to help us stay healthy and do God’s will where we are.

No matter what everyone else says that we should be.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

For those of you that have not noticed, I have a pretty bad cynical/skeptical streak.  The hair on my neck stands up when “Everybody’s doing it” or “It’s the newest thing.” 

 

This streak probably explains my hesitation about “King-makers” and “Queen-makers,” particularly in the blogosphere.  Here’s how it works:  If you get mentioned in a positive way by certain bloggers, your work suddenly becomes the hottest item on the web. 

 

Or, if you get mentioned in a negative way, you find yourself at the center of a comment/blog/twitter war.  For an example of this, check out the work of Rachel Held Evans in relation to Mark Driscoll:  http://rachelheldevans.com/mark-driscoll-real-marriage.  If you want to see all the gory details, just Google Rachel Held Evans Mark Driscoll.

 

There are pages upon pages of material and commentary.

 

I agree with many of Rachel’s blogs and comments.  But she is one of the king/queen-makers.  If you get into her good graces, you are elevated to star status in the blogosphere.

 

In spite of my skepticism, I read with great interest her blog on 15 reasons why she left the church:  http://rachelheldevans.com/15-reasons-i-left-church.  She asks two questions at the end of the blog and leaves them open for comment.

 

Why did you leave the church?  Or why did you stay?  The second question is the one that I want to address.  It probably won’t get me “crowned” by Rachel Held Evans, but hopefully it will mean something to you.

 

10 Reasons Why I Stayed:

 

-I believe that there are many open-minded Christians who stay silent because they fear being “shouted down” by more vocal believers.

 

-I believe that there are congregations who value mercy over judgment.

 

-I believe there is still more good than bad in most churches.

 

-I never expected the church to be perfect in the first place (human beings have a bad habit of messing up that expectation).

 

-I believe that many believers in the Body of Christ are striving to be better.

 

-As tempting as it is, we usually make a mistake when we abandon something because we disagree with people.

 

-I believe in the power of Christ to change things (and people) for the better.

 

-I have found a church that values loving relationships above all else; and I believe that all churches can develop a similar ethic.

 

-I do not believe that all churches are the same.

 

-I believe that I have been called to continue striving to help the Body of Christ get better.

 

Why did YOU choose to stay? 

 

Or would you be willing to come back?