Monthly Archives: October 2013

A Vision of Greatness in the Tradition of Bonhoeffer, Berry, and Jesus

People with blind agendas for greatness aren’t interested in truth, doing the right thing, or people for that matter.  You can’t dialogue with them because they don’t want to hear anything that they perceive will stand in the way of their agenda, even if it’s true or if it’s about doing what is right for people.

To me, that means a person cannot be truly great if they are primarily interested in greatness.  The person interested in greatness ends up lacking something essential for being truly human.  They will see only their goal and their own vision.  Nothing and no one else will matter.  Everything in the world around them they will see as an exploitable resource to be utilized, used up, and discarded when its usefulness is exhausted.  This includes the people around them.  To them, people are tools and assets.  To them people are essentially things.  They have no inherent value within themselves because their value is only measured in their usefulness to the agenda.

At the root of that kind of vision is greed, ambition, abuse, and exploitation.  It is power, destruction, rape, and death disguised in euphemisms like “entrepreneurship, vision, and growth.”  It is the desire not to be like God, but to become a god and to do that quickly.  It is cancer, not life.  And because, to them, even scripture is a toolbox of rationalizations to be manipulated and wielded, they will often baptize their ideal as a mission from God and excuse its destructiveness as the regrettable cost of “doing business.”

And, in the end, when their vision fails, it will fail because they forgot (or never knew) that the only visions which are sustainable are those which are selfless, humble, and peaceful.  It will be because they did not care for the world and the people around them—but they desired to create their own world.  They desired to achieve…to acquire…to attain…to expand…to increase.  They will see their failure as a failure of resources and assets.  They will blame it on “lack of vision” in their neighbor and will assume that the resentment within those they’ve hurt is an inherent character flaw or a refusal to cooperate.  They will ignore that their process was riddled with lies, deceptions, and half-truths.   In the end they will destroy everything around them and will even run themselves into the ground in pursuit of their agenda because they did not love themselves any more than they loved their neighbors or their world.

A person has to be interested in truth, mercy, and compassion if they are to be truly great.   A person has to realize that the world has been given to us by God not to be used on our path to becoming gods but to be cared for as images of God.  That person has to realize that godly growth is slow and symbiotic.  They have to see that the image of God within his created world is not concerned with profit margins, and acquisitions, but with healthy natural growth that comes from creatures living within the means of their environment, giving as much as they take, and seeking enough rather than more.  Godly growth requires care, patience, mercy, and love.  It requires God.

That person will have to realize that God is a God of self-sacrifice who would rather die for his creation than use it up.  That person would never desire to cause his brother or sister harm—and, therefore, could never take advantage of his neighbor.  He will have to realize that God’s vision is revealed in the gospel of his son who “Though being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped but made himself nothing, taking the nature of a servant.  And being human, became obedient to death—even death on a cross.”  He must see that “that is why God raised him up to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.”

He will have to remember the words of Jesus, words like, “Whoever among you wishes to be great, must become a servant.”  And, “whoever would enter my kingdom, must become like a child.”

He will have to remember that Jesus taught that those who desire to save their lives will lose them and those who are willing to lose them will save them.  He will remember that it is the last who are first in the kingdom and will find himself unable to run to the front or promote himself.  He will wish to align his vision with God and not align God to his own vision.

He will find himself less and less impressed with the shiny, sparkly, and grandiose accomplishments of the world.  He will not covet larger barns and kingdoms.  He will find himself far more impressed with smaller things—mustard-seed things.  He will take joy in the things God takes joy in: peace, compassion, truth, and love.  He will slow down and smell flowers.  He will ask questions.  He will consider answers.  He will exercise caution.  He will seek justice.  He will practice mercy.  He will be more often satisfied with what he has.  He will desire to give and to include.

And what is ironic is that it is only when he learns to love his neighbor that he can love himself.  It is when he becomes like Christ that he will become truly great.

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Mustard Seed Project

A long time ago I started working on a “book.”  But, like all of my book ideas, real life kept me from pursuing it very far.  So, along with my Resurrection project (which I think is invisible to most people) , I thought I’d post some of the material I was working on (which will, most likely, not make a dent).  This was to be my introduction:

Why I’m Writing this Book…

When I first started I thought I’d write this book for ministers.  A book about the church, I was thinking, ought to be read by people who are preaching to, teaching, and leading the church.  And if some ministers want to read it, I supposed I’ll consider that a good thing.  However, I’ve discovered that most ministers begin their ministry with an idea already in mind about what they think they’re there to do.  They have a theology in mind as well as a set of goals.  As the ideals for the church this book will promote may or may not be in line with those goals, I’m assuming that another audience is more appropriate.

A friend of mine who read an early draft of the introduction for this book said to me, “rather than make it a book for ministers, why not make it a book for people who have to listen to them?”  So, that’s what I want this to be: a book of theology about the church for people who have to listen to and follow preachers who have agendas which may or may not be in line with the goals of Jesus Christ.

You should know that I’m a minister.  I’m also a college teacher of theology.  So I’ve read quite a few books.  But, I’m not the kind of minister who reads books about how to do ministry.  And I’m not the kind of minister most ministers who read books about ministry want to emulate.  I don’t have a mega-church and, to be honest, I’m not in the market for one.  In fact, I’m really only a part-time minister of a small church which has no bigger aspirations than to just figure out what it means to be Jesus followers and what kind of kingdom work our little band of followers can do, if anything.

What kind of minister am I?  Well, I’m not the kind of minister I’m most familiar with.  I’m a broken minister.  I’m a divorced and remarried, 40’s, diabetic, mistake-making father of two with a screwed-up past and an uncertain future.  I don’t say it for pity.  The truth is I don’t think it’s pitiful.  I think it’s normal.  It’s real.  I say it because I’m rejecting the kind of image that preachers are supposed to have: the “got-it-together” guy with all the answers.  I’m just a broken kind of guy who thinks Jesus has all the answers, even if I don’t understand many of them.

Something else.  I’m not a salesman.  No slicked back hair and bazillion-dollar suit.   I make no promises that applying the principles in this book is going to make your life the “best experience it can be” or whatever else Joel is peddling these days.  Quite the opposite really.  As I tell my Biblical Interpretation students, “what I’m getting ready to tell you will most likely make you miserable for the rest of your life.”  I’m convinced that Matthew chapter 10 is Jesus’ model for what a successful ministry experience should be like.  That or John 17.

And I’m not a seeker-sensitive preacher.  No khakis and polo shirt with our church’s spiffy consultant-designed logo neatly embroidered on the breast.  No weekend seminars on how to start and grow a successful church. In fact, I’ve only ever been “professionally consulted” once.  And I so disliked what the guy told me that I swore off the practice forever.  I’ll be honest, I really disliked the guy, too.  He told us we would never be a successful church eating together every Sunday.  He said we have to think bigger, flashier, more impressive.  But I knew that if our church can’t eat together, we can’t be the church we are.  Forget that.  And he said that no northern preacher can be successful in the south.  He might be right about that.  Isaiah struggled with that, too.  My answer?  Who wants to be “successful?”  I want to preach the gospel.  No more consulting for me, thanks.  I’m not interested in any program that guarantees a big church.  I don’t want 5 year and 10 year growth plans, building goals, or technology budgets.  See Matthew 10 again.  Seriously, put the book down and go read it.  Then, if you’ve decided to keep doing church work, come back.  If not, look how much heartache I’ve saved you!

I’m not John the Baptist either, though I like him way better than those guys.  He’s one of my favorite people of all time, really.  And I really aspire to be like him in some ways.  The only thing that gives me pause me is I’m pretty sure I don’t want to have my head chopped off (though it’s been suggested).

What am I?  I’m, I think, first and foremost a theologian.  I think the primary goal of any preacher should be to articulate a meaningful, thoughtful, interesting and biblical practical theology for your people.  If your preacher is not giving your church a life-changing theology that applies the life and teaching of Jesus that challenges them to be different from this world, then your preacher is not doing the job.  He’s wasting your time, and everyone else’s, in fact.  I don’t care how big that church is.

See, some preachers actually think, “People don’t want or need theology.  They need a quick, entertaining message.  They need easy, shallow bullet-points with lots of up-beat positive illustrations.  They want clever and simple, neat and tidy, light and easy.”  Ready?  Bull.

Let me tell you something.  I began preaching at my church six years ago.  I went in with a bachelor’s degree in Biblical Research and a master’s in theology.  I went in to do theology.  And theology I did.  You know what I discovered?  These people were starving to death.  They’ve had enough entertainment and quick easy answers and three-point sermons and dead-dog stories to last them seven lifetimes.  They were tired of every single sermon being on how to get to heaven.  They were tired of alter calls and manipulation.  They were tired of technology.  They were tired of sermons on textual criticism, trying to prove that the Bible is trustworthy.  They were tired of fads.  They were tired of concert-class worship music.  They were tired of traditional.  They were tired of seeker-sensitive.  They didn’t know they were tired of all those things, but they knew they were tired of something.  They were tired of junk food.  They were tired of milk.  They wanted meat.

I’m the kind of preacher who breaks all the rules.  I preached through the book of Matthew for three and a half years.  I tell other preachers this and they look at me quizzically.  And when I started preaching through Matthew, you know what my people discovered?  When we started reading Jesus theologically, they discovered—MUCH TO THEIR DELIGHT—that Jesus wasn’t boring after all.  He may bother us, a LOT.  He may challenge everything we hold dear.  He may tell us things we’re not sure we can do.  He may sound like a lunatic sometimes.  He may even be a lunatic.  But he’s not boring.  Ever.  We may be a small church.  We may not have a rock-star worship leader.  We may not have Nickelodeon quality children’s games and video production.  We may not even have a very good preacher.  But we’re not bored.  Jesus is not boring if you read what he’s actually saying.

The reason we hear such an emphasis on making Jesus relevant is that the church actually thinks he’s boring.  Your minister or ministers may actually think that.  The ideas they have about salvation and about his message are boring, so they think he is.  Their idols are flashy and powerful and interesting.  Jesus is not as flashy as those idols.  So, Jesus is boring.

But, think about it.  How on this earth is it that a guy who’s been talked about for two millennia needs us to figure out how to make him “relevant?”  My goodness.  He was never relevant.  That’s what makes him so freaking interesting.  LISTEN: the goal of our preaching is not to figure out how to make Jesus seem relevant to materialistic, self-centered, violent, greedy people.  The goal of our preaching is to convince people that their worldly values are irrelevant to the kingdom.  And the reason no one is doing that is because it’s the absolute worst way to grow a church.

The truth is this book is a product of reflections our church has done on our own identity in the kingdom as I’ve preached through the book of Matthew.  It is the result of an ongoing theological interpretation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  It really boils down to the fact that the real reason the church seems so irrelevant to culture, or so legalistic, or so shallow sometimes is that Christians have not begun to grasp the fullness of Jesus’ ideas about what salvation is.  With a shallow idea of what salvation is, the church itself is ill-equipped to be what it is supposed to be.  We believe at our church that effective ecclesiology (your theology of the church) must begin with a proper soteriology (your theology of salvation).  Unless we know what “saved” is, we really can’t know what “church” is—or why we should even do or have “church.”  The question for us is, “What does ‘church’ have to do with Jesus’ preaching of the ‘Kingdom?’”

Hence, this book will begin with a reflective critique—a critique of the shallow ways we often see church done and why those ways don’t seem to produce people who are truly engaged with the world in the same way that Jesus was.  Please understand that this is not a “sour grapes” book—I don’t have anything against mega-churches.  Some of my favorite preachers and writers are doing ministry in churches which could be described that way.  That said, some of the “mega-churches,” “seeker-sensitive” churches, and “church-growth models” we’ve observed in our community have caused us to question what we wanted to be as a church.  Some of the practices and methods we’ve seen them use and that many smaller churches feel such pressure to use (and that we’ve tried ourselves) have stood in stark contrast to the kinds of things that Jesus does and talks about in the gospels.  Flashy technology, concerts, dynamic productions and political agendas may or may not have a place in the Kingdom Jesus expounds.  We want to ask if they do.  In so asking, this book will use terms like “traditionalism,” “product” or “corporate business model,” and “church-growth” model.  These models and emphases seem to make sense to people impressed by the grandeur and scope they perceive the world to be offering.  They’re shiny and attractive.  They appear strong and powerful.  They often look to us just like the idols we so worship in the world.  Our question will be, “How do we challenge the idolatry of our culture if we’re building an empire on it?”

Our claim will be that Jesus’ ideas about the kingdom look smaller and less significant.  Jesus taught that the kingdom is like a mustard-seed.  It’s small and insignificant. But the way it grows, it takes over the whole garden.  His is a mustard-seed kingdom.  We take that to mean that the things Jesus does and the way he does ministry don’t look impressive at all to people who are impressed by wealth, religious rigmarole, or political power.  Dying on a cross doesn’t seem to be an effective way of getting ahead, starting a religion, or beginning a revolution.  But, his mustard-seed tactics are really the means by which he changed the world forever—and they are the means by which his church STILL must change the world.  Does the church that claims to follow Jesus resemble that kind of mustard-seed Kingdom?  How can it again?

After our critique, we’ll take a look at the gospel itself.  What is salvation?  Is it merely about having our guilt erased in some divine exchange so as to secure a better final destination?  Or does it have more to do with the brokenness of the world we live in, and the Kingdom as the solution to that brokenness?  This most-important section of the book will outline our church’s understanding of the terms “sin,” “fallenness,” and even “salvation.”  What are the real problems in the world?  How does Jesus resolve those problems in his life, teaching, death, and resurrection?  And how do we, his followers, live out that mustard-seed, cross-bearing solution to the real problems in anticipation of our own resurrection?

Finally, this is a book will attempt to present another way of doing church—one which my church has concluded is closer to Jesus’ ideas about what the church is supposed to be.  It’s a mustard-seed church.  It will close with some examples of mustard-seed life that the people in my church have taught me as they’ve lived it out in their own lives.

What kind of reader will find this book helpful?  It might be easier to define who won’t.  If you’re unwilling to reflect on your own church, your own tradition, or your own theology I can guarantee you won’t find it helpful.   If you begin with an attitude of defensiveness, like many of those who I am friends with who go to the very churches I will critique have often displayed,[1] you will likely find reading this to be just an exercise in frustration.

The reader who gains from this book is the reflective reader; the reader who is willing to ask some questions about church and do some digging.  It’s the reader who is convinced that Jesus is right, always, and that often we get him wrong who will find anything in this book helpful.  I don’t expect that every church will be able, or willing, to do some of the radical things we’ve done.  And we haven’t done anything anywhere near as radical as some others.  But I’m hoping…hoping to challenge the idolatry we sometimes buy into.  I’m hoping to demonstrate that the church is supposed to be something different than it is.  I’m hoping that your church begins to obsess over what it means to be the kingdom like our church has.  I’m hoping that you and your church catch a passion for Jesus which can really change your life.  I’m hoping that what I say causes you to think harder about your church.

I’m hoping to call you to do something smaller…something mustard-seed.


[1] Here I want to insert the echoes of “Yes we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on technology and millions on facilities and, yes, one wonders if it’s at all necessary—but we also support a missionary family in Timbuktuzistantinople…”.

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