Thursday, April 20, 2006

A place where everybody knows your name

I have been engaged in a dialog with some folks on a blog that I have been frequenting lately. It is a blog that is primarily focused on folks like me who either, were or, are a part of the Church of the Nazarene. What began as a conversation around Stephen the Martyr and his activities that led to his death included an observation that these activities were not necessarily authorized by the early church. That developed into a discussion around the roles and authorities in the local church. Many have very strong opinions on that. I know that I certainly do!

What also developed out of that dialog was an idea or two about what it is like to serve in some ministry capacity in a local church. And further, whether or not that ministry is fulfilling on various levels. There were some clergy vs. laity battle lines drawn. I participated in that discussion vigorously. (Perhaps too vigorously at times.)

Several things can be noted from that discourse. Consider the following:

Many times neither side understands the stresses and issues that each other faces in their daily lives. Many times pastors, who have come right out of college and into seminary and then into the pastorate really don't know what it is like to work in an environment that is unfulfilling to say the least. They do not have a recent experience or understanding of what it is like to punch a time clock.

And equally, many times laymen do not understand the stresses involved in trying to grow a church and lead a group of volunteers. Again, I am not indicting pastors or laymen here. I am only pointing out there is often not a common basis of experience on which to operate. My hat is off to all those bi-vocational pastors out there who work right along side of us laymen and who also carry the load of leading a small church. Those guys may very well have a special reward in Heaven some day. At least I hope they do!

The discussion among the 6 or 8 of us participating indicated that sometimes there was not a mutual respect and acknowledgment of each others Spiritual Gifts. That led one church to create a policy directing the pastor to recognize the fact that the lay people in his church had gifts and graces also. And that sometimes the Holy Spirit prompts the most unlikely people with new ideas or directions and it is up to us (the church) and the clergy to be open to at least consider these ideas and not immediately shoot them down as irrelevant.

This brought out a posting that quoted the passage in the NT where Jesus Christ gave authority to bind in heaven what was bound on Earth.

Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Matthew 18:18 RSV

One of the folks participating pointed us to an article regarding the concept of binding and loosing.

In that article, the author uses John Wesley's small groups to help see how this might work in a living context. He developed it around the last of the four questions that were asked of each of the twelve members of the “class meeting.” Those questions were the following:

  1. What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?
  2. What temptations have you met with?
  3. How were you delivered?
  4. What have you thought, said or done of which you doubt whether it be sin or not?

Look at that last question. “What have you thought, said or done of which you doubt whether it be sin or not?”

Wow! What a question! How can you ask that of a total stranger? The answer is, you can't. You must have a fairly intimate relationship and investment into each other's lives before you can ask that kind of question and receive a meaningful answer in return.

This lead me to an observation at least, if not a conclusion about the local church.

My opinion, and it is only an opinion, is that the local church that we were all referring to should be the smallest and most basic element possible. Some may call them cells or small groups. John Wesley certainly seemed to agree with that and he called them “Class Meetings”. In fact he put a great deal of emphasis on that small group. There were specifics actions and accountability in that small group structure as demonstrated by the four questions that were asked in turn of each member of the class meeting as noted above.

However, all of this goes counter to our culture that tells us that bigger is better. Culture tells us that we need to be a big church to really meet the needs of a lost and dieing world. We need auditoriums to seat thousands and thousands. We need snow machines in Houston, TX at Christmas time so that kids can play in the snow at church.

Really? Is that what we need?

Please pardon the secular illustration, but do you remember the theme song from the sit-com "Cheers"? It went something like this:

Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.

Wouldn't you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go.
Where everybody knows your name,
and they're always glad you came.

You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same.

You wanna be where everybody knows
Your name.

You wanna go where people know,
people are all the same,
You wanna go where everybody knows
your name.

Again, my apologies for the distinctly non-Christian illustration from that sit-com. But I think it is illustrative in many ways of what many folks are looking for today from a church. They want that kind of camaraderie that you saw on “Cheers”. They want to know people like that and be known by them. They want someone to pour my heart out to when they are hurting. They want someone to laugh with them. They want to celebrate together the successes that each encounters.

That is certainly what I am looking for! That's the kind of place I would want to bring my friends to visit.

My only response to that kind of an illustration of the local church is to ask when the church, as a whole, grew the most throughout history? It was while it was being persecuted and meeting in catacombs underground. (By the way, I have been to the catacombs in Rome and the acoustics in there would rival any modern grand cathedral that you can imagine!) They were dark and dank and not exactly the most inviting place to be.

So what was it? What caused the growth? It happened long before there were praise choruses and PowerPoint. It happened without a multi-purpose gymnasium.

That thread certainly sparked a great deal of response. Albeit by a relatively small few. But hopefully those who were observing are being challenged in their own hearts and minds also.

Is there anyone else out there other than me who wants to walk in to their church and have folks warmly yell, "Norm!"?

Saturday, April 15, 2006

It's Still the Cross

FFH sings a song entitled, "It's Still the Cross".

Sometimes it seems the world's unraveling around us
We fear it all may one day come undone
We can't forget the One who came before us
To forgive the past and bring hope for what's to come

When it all comes crashing down
The cross still stands alone
And on this our faith is built
And our courage is made strong

When the world falls apart
And you fear for your heart
There's a tower of peace
It's still the cross

When it all comes crashing down
The cross still stands alone
And on this my faith is built
And my courage is made strong

Though the world may not confess
You and Your holiness
One day still stands alone
And on this my faith is built
And my courage is made strong

Though the world may not confess
You and Your holiness
One day all will see
You in all Your majesty
And the cross will stand alone
As the place where You made known
Your love for all mankind
Til then in it we'll hide.
Words and Music by Jeromy Deibler, Scott Williamson, Donna Smith

Somehow this seems appropriate for this Easter season. No matter what the world tells us, it's still the cross that provides redemption through accepting Salvation in Jesus Christ. It's still the cross that we must run to for refuge. It's still the cross that stands as a reminder of what Jesus did for you and for me.

Though the world may not confess
You and Your holiness
One day all will see
You in all Your majesty
And the cross will stand alone
As the place where You made known
Your love for all mankind
Til then in it we'll hide.

In light of all of this, how should we then live?

Hebrews 10:26 and 27 says, "For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire which will consume the adversaries."

Let's look to the Cross this Easter season and anticipate our risen Lord.

He is Risen
He is risen indeed!

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Holiness Manifesto - Is There a Crisis in the Church?

It seems that there is a lot of renewed interest in the blogosphere these days around the "Holiness Manifesto." In case you are not familiar with it, it was one of the outcomes of the Wesleyan Holiness Study Project (WHSP). The third and final meeting of the group of pastors, denominational leaders and scholars from the United States and Canada was recently held and out of that meeting came the latest version of the Holiness Manifesto. I encourage all who profess a Holiness doctrine to read it and see what, if anything, speaks to you from its pages.

In short, it talks about:

  • The Crisis We Face - There has never been a time in greater need of a compelling articulation of the message of holiness. We are not even keeping pace with the biological growth rate in North America. The power and zeal of churches has been drained by the incessant search for a better method, a more effective fad, a newer and bigger program to yield growth. In the process of trying to find the magic method for growing healthy vibrant churches, our people have become largely ineffective and fallen prey to a generic Christianity that results in congregations that are indistinguishable from the culture around them.

  • The Message We Have - God is holy and calls us to be a holy people. God wants us to be, think, speak, and act in the world in a Christ-like manner. We invite all to embrace God's call to:
    • be filled with all the fullness of God in Jesus Christ -- Holy Spirit-endowed co-workers for the reign of God;
    • live lives that are devout, pure, and reconciled, thereby being Jesus Christ's agents of transformation in the world;
    • live as a faithful covenant people, building accountable community, growing up into Jesus Christ, embodying the spirit of God'’s law in holy love;
    • exercise for the common good an effective array of ministries and callings, according to the diversity of the gifts of the Holy Spirit;
    • practice compassionate ministries, solidarity with the poor, advocacy for equality, justice, reconciliation, and peace; and
    • care for the earth, God'’s gift in trust to us, working in faith, hope, and confidence for the healing and care of all creation.
  • The Action We Take -May this call impel us to rise to this biblical vision of Christian mission:
    • Preach the transforming message of holiness;
    • Teach the principles of Christ-like love and forgiveness;
    • Embody lives that reflect Jesus Christ;
    • Lead in engaging with the cultures of the world; and
    • Partner with others to multiply its effect for the reconciliation of all things.
So, I ask the questions:

Is the message contained in the Holiness Manifesto on target?
Is it too little too late?
Is the message of Holiness being diluted in order to make the church more palatable to the world?
Is there a role for me to play in spreading the message of Holiness?

I believe that much of the message of the Holiness Manifesto is completely on target. I am currently engaged in a dialog on another blog that is largely populated by folks who come out of the same denominational and theological construct that I do. And the debate is raging fast and furiously over there. Many of us know some of the folks who made up the WHSP and we are passionate about Holiness as a defining characteristic of our church.

This area of dialog has most often been the exclusive territory of the clergy. I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard a pastor say that the church is a lay driven movement. Unfortunately that is usually followed by a call to come work this Saturday to repaint the nursery or mow the lawn.

It is an all too rare thing that a pastor will engage a layman in a quality dialog around the issue of holiness. Now maybe that is because not enough of us laymen have been interested in Holiness. Nevertheless that is a shame because Holiness is both somewhat academic and experiential.

Hopefully it is not so academic that only a few can understand it. The last time we had that in church history a guy vandalized the front door of a church with a hammer, nails and pieces of paper and started a reformation!

Now many of us are frustrated by the programmatic approach that many of our churches take to ministry. And, sometimes, it doesn't even seem like ministry. It seems more like entertainment. Whoever has the "best" Sunday morning entertainment gets the biggest crowds. And bigger crowds beget bigger crowds. And church leaders are often counting the size of the crowd and sending off a report to the denominational headquarters and pat themselves on the back and declare:

"We are a great church."
"Just look at the size of our sanctuary."
"Did you see all the special effects and fog machines we used in worship today?"

And then I hear the voice of Jesus saying...
"And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me."
The message of Holiness is a message of the cross. It is a message of death. Death to sin and its power over my life.

That message is not necessarily a message that can be easily packaged and tied up with a bow. It doesn't really lend itself to PowerPoint slides during announcements on Sunday morning. It is not our nature or culture to run to the foot of the cross.

But if that message rings within your heart, then there is nothing more beautiful and precious.

Let the redeemed of the Lord say so!