Grace and Effort

I don’t do anything halfway. So when I was a Lutheran (sometimes ecclesially, sometimes theologically, sometimes both) as a young man, I was really Lutheran. Probably more Lutheran than Luther. So, probably not really Lutheran, actually.

What that means, of course, is that I didn’t like good works. Or trying hard. Or any sort of effort at all. It was an attractive spirituality, because I’ve never been attracted to workaholism. The Protestant Ethic missed me.

By the time I encountered Dallas Willard in my early thirties, I had changed enough to be ready to hear what is, in my estimation, the best line in all his writings:

Grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning.

I both hated and loved this. I hated it because it meant that I couldn’t be the champion of spiritual sloth in order to elevate grace. I loved it because I finally sensed the liberty to try.

Not to try to impress God, but to “make it my aim to please him” (2 Cor 5:9).

Not to try to impress others, but to “work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col 3:23).

The notion that keeping a list and checking tasks off of it is a form of works righteousness? Yeah, I couldn’t fail people any longer under the cover of grace.

The notion that the meaning of life was to receive grace and live a passive existence rather than trying to glorifying God through the exercise a certain amount of holy ambition? I couldn’t fool myself in that respect any longer either.

Jean-Luc Marion, in reflecting on a long career as a Christian and a philosopher, articulates what a lifelong application of Willard’s dictum looks like. Tolle, lege:

At several points, indisputably, I had the impression of being taken from the herd and put where I did not even know one could go. In those moments, I did not realize projects or ambitions coming from myself, but I received what happened to me. Often, my life as a whole seems to me like some of the years when I trained as a runner:

During long and exhausting training sessions, one suffers enough to know oneself to be the one who makes the effort, but, once one is in form, on the day of competition, in the sun of spring or the overhead light of an autumn evening, when suddenly a state of grace causes one to accomplish the impossible (a victory, a personal record), one wonders who has done all that, or, rather, I wonder whether I have done it or even whether this has happened to me.

From there stems this strange feeling that has never left me, of living with someone bearing (in all the senses of the word) my name, who does things without warning me and whom I had to accompany. At times I would almost have preferred that he leave me alone, but I have always lived with someone who is stronger than me and whom I follow. Yes, and I cannot do otherwise. I hope so, all the way to the end.

As someone who is pushing toward a 500-mile running goal for the year, with one month left to go, I resonate deeply. I have no idea how my joints are holding up under my heavy frame, how the Pop Tarts I had for breakfast are converted into energy for my run after work (or even if it works that way), and I don’t know how I haven’t tripped and broken half the bones in my body by now.

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But I definitely feel as though it has been me running those 445 miles. I’ve had to decide on 128 different occasions in 2017 to get off my couch and go for a run. I’ve exerted more sheer will power in the past 11 months than at any time in my life.

It kind of feels like a cliché when you hear someone say “by God’s grace I was able to _______ [win the gold metal; finish an ultra-marathon; win the spelling bee; publish 20 books].” But it’s no cliché. We put ourselves to a task, and open ourselves to the ‘haunting’ of God’s gracious presence. And often, good things happen. Things we can celebrate—whether feats of strength or increases of moral fortitude.

It was hard work. And it’s all of grace.

Grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning.

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10 Things to Love About Luther

Luther Slide.001He wasn’t perfect. He said nasty things to a lot of people. And while he at first held great hope that European Jewry would be swept up into the evangelical movement of the Reformation, he later uttered a lot of bigoted things against Jews.

I still love Luther. And here are my Top 10 Reasons to Love Martin Luther on the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation:

10. Luther believed that God didn’t need him to reform the church.

I believe Luther, despite his bull-in-a-china-shop temperament, honestly didn’t want to split the church. And I have no reason to doubt his sincerity when he says:

“I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing.  And then, while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip [Melanchthon] and my Amsdorf [Nicholaus von], the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing. The Word did it all.”

9. In fact, Luther believed that God didn’t need him at all.

I am in a phase in which I am beginning to greatly appreciate the monastic traditions, especially those of the first few centuries. Luther was a monk, too. But by the time he was leading the Reformation, he didn’t have a lot of great things to say about monasticism. He felt that cloistered monks and nuns made two mistakes: thinking too much of their service to God, and thinking almost nothing of their neighbor. So Luther said:

“Who needs my good works? God doesn’t need my good works. But my neighbor does.”

When we realize that God doesn’t need us, it takes off all kinds of unnecessary pressure to be awesome for God, and releases us to let God be awesome by the Spirit at work through us. We are chosen and privileged to get to have God attract glory through our loving service to our neighbor.

8. Luther was a monk, and married a nun.

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Sorry, but that’s just awesome.

Better, she was 16 years younger than him! He married when he was 40 and Katarina Von Bora was 24.

Luther wrote that some people are called to a life of celibacy in singleness, and most to marriage–but that both were holy callings. The Medieval church had ranked celibacy over marriage and said that monks and nuns were the real servants of God, while everyone else was mired in the world and couldn’t really serve God fully. 

Luther was like, um … no.

He said, reflecting on his own potential to remain celibate: “I am neither wood nor stone.”

Thankfully, once he deconstructed the medieval notion that God needed monks and nuns at all, and that they certainly weren’t more holy than married people, his honesty about not being a block of wood or a stone, sexually-speaking, made some monks and nuns wonder about their own vocations.

The rule had been that once you made a vow of celibacy, you could never go back. You had to be celibate for life. Luther recognized that there could be seasons of life. God might call you to celibacy in one season, and then to marriage. And perhaps again–after a spouse’s death–to celibacy once again.

Nowadays the world values singleness (sans celibacy) as the “best”. Meanwhile, the church seems to value marriage and disparage singleness, as though singles were lacking something.

Luther’s teaching–and his bold action!–are instructive for us. There are seasons when God calls us to chastity, and in which we may be given God-glorifying and (especially) neighbor-serving work to do and the freedom from spousal constraints to do that work. And there are seasons when God calls us to serve a spouse and maybe some kids as our “first neighbors.”

Luther helps us think clearly about singleness and marriage. And he certainly catches our attention when he marries a nun!

7. Luther was a jerk, but at least he knew it.

It’s at this point that we’re going to need to visit the Luther “insult generator.” I’ll wait. 

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Look, there are plenty of times that Luther’s jerkiness was uncalled for, when it harmed the neighbors he was meant to serve. Plenty of times when his proneness to ad hominem attacks showed that he had an insecurity that wasn’t in concord with the gospel itself.

At the same time, Luther was no fan of himself. Listen to his advice:

“So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!’”

Being honest about how disappointed we are in ourselves is not in itself humility. It won’t in itself turn us from those who curse to those who bless. But it’s the essential first step.

6. Even though I’m nicer than Luther, Luther’s prayer life dwarfs mine.

Luther famously said:

“I have so much to do today that I’m going to need to spend three hours in prayer in order to be able to get it all done.”

What a jerk.

Time wasn’t the ruler of Luther. He had lots to do, but he was not busy like we’re busy. And that allowed him to say something annoying like the above.

But Luther also thought of prayer like breathing. He wanted to pray without ceasing in that way: for the need for God to flow out of him at every moment, so that he was in a constant spirit of prayer. And to me, this is even more convicting. After all, I can think of the last time that I sat down and prayed. But I can’t think of the last time that I moved through a day with prayer breathing out of me all the day long.

5. Luther’s message was not complex, or easy. It was–like most true things–simple and hard.

Legend has it that a member of Luther’s church came up to him and asked, “Why do you preach the gospel to us week after week?” Luther reportedly responded, “because week after week you forget it.”

This message is simple, though it’s hard. 

Luther’s message was basically: “You cannot do nothing at all to make God love you, to earn his favor, to merit your salvation. You do not justify yourself. God justifies you by applying to your record the perfect life of Jesus. You can’t suffer enough to atone for your sins. God atones for your sins by applying to you the suffering of Jesus—the very proof that God loves you.”

At first we feel liberated by this news and say “Amen.” But then we proceed to think, act, and feel as though we must impress God with our good deeds rather than allow our service to our neighbor to be energized by God’s love for us. And so we have to hear it again.

The gospel that Luther recovered is not complex or easy. It’s simple and hard. 

4. Luther talked about farts. A Lot.

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Even with the Headmaster gone, the only quote I found that I could share with my colleagues in staff devotions on this topic was this one:

“Almost every night when I wake up the devil is there and wants to dispute with me. I have come to this conclusion: When argument doesn’t help, I instantly chase him away with a fart.”

It’s good to know that a world-changing theologian not only talked about farts around his kids and his congregation, but frequently talked about farts in his voluminous published theological writings.

3. Luther was a practical theologian.

I grew up on Luther’s Small Catechism. Answers in the catechism about a point of doctrine are followed up with another question: What does this mean? And every answer to that follow-up question started with “We should fear, love, and trust God so that we …”

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In other words, Luther recognized that the gospel finds its home in our hearts, in our affections, in our emotions, in our countenances, in our dispositions: not just in our brains, but in the most human and touchy-feely parts of who we are as people.

This or that biblical truth is true, and it means that we should fear God, love God, trust God. In other words, every truth from the Bible calls for an “amen” not just in our thoughts, not just in our words, but in our feels.

Any truth that’s worth believing belongs in your gut, Luther catechizes us: you must let it shape your fears, loves, and trust in ways that make you more human and thus more like Jesus at the core of your being.

2. Luther suffered physically, mentally, and spiritually, but savored and treasured the simple, good gifts of God.

One of the reasons Luther talked about farts and in general had such a potty mouth is because he spent so much time on the potty. He suffered his whole life from constipation. How bad was his case? Well, in 2004, German archeologists discovered the toilet on which Luther wrote the 95 theses. 95. Great find!

But he also suffered spiritual slumps and depression both before and after his discovery of the gospel. Knowing the gospel, and even believing it, doesn’t necessarily cure spiritual slumps. Neither does it automatically cure depression. We can grow in our fear, love, and trust of God even while we are in a dark night of the soul.

But despite all these ailments, Luther was known as a jolly fellow who loved simple things: a good pair of shoes sold at a fair price; a good stein of beer with a few buddies; a good carafe of Corsican wine; a good laugh; a good meal.

Luther was a model receiver of God’s good and simple gifts. He knew that they were from his loving Heavenly Father, who loves to give good gifts—both simple and profound—to his children. And he was thankful for the gifts and for the neighbors that worked hard and skillfully to bring them into being.

1. Luther shows us that, when all is said and done, it’s all about Jesus.

Let’s end with this prayer of Luther’s, meditating on how astounding it is to be called a brother of Jesus.

O gracious God, I am fully aware that I am unworthy. I deserve to be a brother of Satan and not of Christ. But Christ, your dear Son died and rose for me. I am his brother. He earnestly desires that I should believe in him, without doubt and fear.I need no longer regard myself as unworthy and full of sin. For this I love and thank him from my heart. Praise be to the faithful Savior, for he is so gracious and merciful as are you and the Holy Spirit in eternity. Amen.

Thickening the Sermon’s Plot

I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s delightful book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. If you are interested in writing short stories, novels, or even memoirs–in other words, any writing that is less expositional and more dependent on character and plot–you really need to get this book. It will demystify the writing process, while still leaving lots of room for you as a writer to lean into the real mystery: people’s lives, folks’ souls.
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I happened to get to Lamott’s section on plot the other day when I should have been writing my sermon. I decided to try and redeem my procrastinated time by trying out Lamott’s counsel for developing a good plot in the writing of my sermon.

Lamott shares a trick she learned from one Alice Adams on plot-making. It follows an ABDCE pattern. Action, background, development, climax, ending. 

You begin with action that is compelling enough to draw us in, make us want to know more. Background is where you let us see and know who these people are, how they’ve come to be together, and what was going on before the opening of the story. Then you develop these people, so that we learn what they care most about. The plot–the drama, the actions, the tension–will grow out of that. You move them along until everything comes together in the climax, after which things are different for the main characters, different in some real way. And then there is the ending: what is our sense of who these people are now, what are they left with, what happened, and what did it mean?

My experiment in sermon-plotting

I was assigned Exodus 5:22-6:12, the story of Moses confronting God for failing to deliver Israel from slavery under Pharaoh, and how God responded. Here’s how I ‘plotted’ my sermon:

Action: Easy. Moses actually says what so many of us are thinking lots of times. “God, are you on our side, or have you teamed up with our enemies?” How will God respond to this accusation? What will God do? Incinerate him? Turn his staff into a serpent and have the serpent bite him? But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. That’s enough action to pull us all into the story.

Background: What’s the history of Moses’s relationship with God up to this point? It’s had its highs: being saved from an infanticidal Pharaoh, getting a Harvard education, enjoying Egyptian courtly privilege. It’s also had its troughs: being exiled into Midian and demoted to a lowly shepherd, almost being struck down by God along the roadside for not having circumcised his son. We’re rehearsing the twists and turns of this relationship that have brought us to the current action and dialogue. The action was at first introduced as raw action. Now, each bit of background shows how the present action is freighted with significance, and shows how the stakes are higher than we would have assumed with the action alone.

Development: Development is the part of the plot that sets the stage for the big climax. In Marylynne Robinson’s Gilead this is where we feel the feel the tension in the room when Jack and Rev. Ames say 10 words with their lips and 100 more words with their tone, body language, and with all the words that aren’t said. In Exodus 5-6, this is where I want the congregation to feel the sting of Moses’s words as he accuses God (who had promised to deliver Israel) and Pharaoh (who regularly threw Hebrew infant boys into the Nile to drown) of being on the same team. It’s here that I pull my “exegetical goodies” into the story–but only those exegetical goodies which actually help tell the story. Nothing will slow the story down like a bunch of parsed Hebrew verbs at this point.

Climax: Where is the confrontation between a God who is not going to change and a character who therefore must change in one way or another? When you’ve identified this point, you’ve found your climax. What remains is to make the climax of the story the climax of your sermon. In this case, everything hinges on how God reacts to Moses’s accusation. So my climax focused on how Yahweh did not incinerate Moses, but instead reiterated his promises to him, with two particular details:

  1. Yahweh underscored the intimacy with which Moses had come to know him, based on the fact that God had revealed his personal name to Moses, though not to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
  2. Yahweh told Moses that for generations to come, Israel would constantly recall the deliverance that was about to happen–that these wild events would become Israel’s national origin story.

Ending: Here’s where you make sure to have Jesus be the real hero of each Old Testament story. The reality is that we’ve all been where Moses is from time to time: convinced that we’d answered the call of God to obediently follow his lead into some difficult task, only to begin to wonder if God had sadistically sent us on a fool’s errand. But from the cross onward, we know at least 2 things that Moses himself wouldn’t even come to know:

  1. God isn’t just God (his title). His ‘first name’ is Jesus, and this Jesus has drawn far nearer to us than Yahweh did to Moses. We have a God who invites us to call him by a personal name–a name which means what that same Jesus did: “God saves.”
  2. Jesus was sent on a ‘fool’s errand’ to fight a losing battle at the hands of sin, death, hell, Satan, Judas, the Pharisees, Sadducees, the crowds, Pilate, and the Romans. But in walking the plank like this, he saved us, and by rising again, he raised us. No matter what happens on the apparent ‘fools errands’ we seem to find ourselves on in obedience to Jesus, we can know, only because of the the cross and resurrection, that our labor in the service of Jesus is not in vain.

Let’s thicken our plots

The preaching of Old Testament narratives, in my opinion, doesn’t just lend itself to story-shaped sermons; it almost requires it. If anything, we should be taking the so-called expositional and doctrinal parts of Scripture and thinking about how to bring the impact of the text to our audience through the conventions of good storytelling. But what we’re prone to do is strip mine ready-made biblical stories, full of dramatic intrigue, for doctrines and principles. This is one of these instances in which Dorothy Sayers’s criticism of churchmen rings sadly true: Christianity is often boring through no fault of Christianity itself.

Remember, the point of preaching is not to teach doctrines. The point of preaching is to confront us with Jesus in such a way that we, like the characters after the climax of a dramatic story, are changed in a lasting way. If we’re aiming to reach a spiritual climax by preaching, why not make a plot out of our sermons?

Don’t Close Your Heart

The biggest surprise for me in church planting, by far, has been this:

Hell-storming Expectations

I thought that our little church would be storming the gates of hell like boy David against Big Bad Goliath. I thought we would be spending the majority of our energies and imaginations discerning how we would make a unique contribution to the flourishing of our city, and then acting on those conclusions. I assumed that what would keep me up at night would be my burden for helping my people get a burden for their neighbors and their spiritual and holistic needs.

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Mundane Realities

I never expected that the things that would keep me up at night were the deep needs and burdens of the ordinary Christians within our congregation. I didn’t anticipate that so much of my energy and imagination, and that of my co-planter, would be deployed in the service of helping our people navigate tough seasons in marriage, parenting, and vocation.

I feel dumb for this.

And I never expected that one of the hardest things for me to do with the ordinary Christians in my congregation would be to diligently keep my heart open to them. I wrote a while back about the necessity of having thick skin and a soft heart. Paul describes it in a similar way. He says to the Corinthian church that at the very same time he is grieved and perplexed by them, and yet his heart is open to them.

The Hard Work of Heart Work

In fact, he says that even though it is their unbecoming words, attitudes, and actions that have grieved and perplexed him (and messed up the life of the church), the barrier to a renewed relationship between he and them comes from closedness-of-heart. And not his heart. Theirs.

We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide open. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. In return … widen your hearts also. … Make room in your hearts for us. … I do not say this to condemn you, for I said before that you are in our hearts, to die together and to live together. (2 Cor 6 and 7)

I’ve talked with veterans in ministry who have dealt with way more Corinthianesque garbage than I have. Some of them are burnt out. They have disengaged from ministry because they no longer want to have open hearts with difficult people. This saddens me, and should not be so. If you want a congregation with hearts wide open to one another, you, as the pastor, as the planter, have to persevere in open-heartedness.

As a pastor, as a church planter–heck, as a plain old Christian–you need to make sure that whatever barrier there might be between reconciliation with other people is always in the closedness of their hearts, not yours.

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Be Vulnerable. And Prepare to Have it Thrown Back at You.

I’m working on my promised posts about how I believe a Sabbath / Neighborhood / Vocation ecclesiology can and should give evangelicalism’s Donald Millers no need to quit going to church. Truthfully, it’s been challenging to think through why exactly I believe what I believe on this issue. Hence, the delay.

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In the mean time, another standard church planting proverb.

I remember in seminary and during my several pastoral internships, I received a particular challenge and an accompanying caution.

The challenge

The challenge was not to set myself up as the unreachable paragon of spiritual maturity in my congregation. People needed to hear, in my preaching, teaching, counseling, and family, that I knew I was a sinner. That I had abiding idolatries that needed to be pulled from my heart’s embrace. That I was prepared to be the Lead Repenter. That I was in the same spiritual battle for holiness by grace that they were engaged in.

I believed what my professors and pastors said concerning this challenge. I committed myself to struggling for holiness by grace in the context of my community, just as I called others to do. I exhorted people to holiness by grace in my preaching and teaching, all the while sitting under my own preaching (and, thankfully, that of others in our community), and often made my own struggles plain to my congregation. I believe, fundamentally, that a pastor’s first identity is that of a plain, ordinary Christian. And I believe that emphasizing this helps people in their pursuit of holiness by grace.

The caution

In the very next breath, however, my profs and mentors would caution me. “Andy, whatever you say to people about your own struggles and sins, your own propensities to idolatry and your own inadequacies, these very things will be used against you. You can guarantee it.”

Really? People are that big of jerks? Yessir. And of course I’m one of those jerk-people myself at times.

And, in fact, this is just what has happened. 95% of my self-effacing references to my own hang-ups and inadequacies are at least somewhat effectual in enabling people to think more honestly about their own, and about the gracious Savior that is intent upon making us holy. But 5% of my disclosures are being gathered as intelligence data against me, and will be thrown back upon in a moment of fury.

Just recently, I suggested to someone that they could stand to imitate me in one respect: I have learned, relatively speaking, to bridle my tongue. The person had been setting forests ablaze with their torch of a tongue. I pointed out that I have a lot of relationships with people, many of which have been intact for a number of years, and that I’ve had much sweetness, a fair amount of authenticity, and very few fallings out. And that the individual, on the other hand, had burned bridge after bridge.

This individual replied that the only reason I have intact relationships is because I’m a people pleaser. I had fireproofed my relational bridges not because of growth in grace, but because my relational bridges were lacquered in idolatry.

This person must have been reading my blog or something.

The counsel

What did my profs and mentors say? They said to be vulnerable. They said to expect your vulnerability to be used against you. What else?

They told me to do it anyway. It’s worth it.

In fact, one of my mentors told me that the people who are most angry at their pastor, who use his shortcomings against him, are often the people who are in a spiritual jam. They are often the ones who are uncomfortable with the God of grace who seems to be an inescapable, claustrophobic presence surrounding them. They are those who take out their frustration with Jesus on someone other than Jesus. And so they are those whose outbursts and condemnations you cannot take personally, because it’s not about you; it’s about Jesus. Unlike the people half asleep during the sermon and half asleep through most of their spiritual lives, these people are miserable.

So I’m simply here to reiterate what my teachers have said: Stay vulnerable. Know that it’ll be thrown back in your face. Don’t take it personally.

What’s at stake

What’s at stake here is not your self-esteem or your career or your emotional equilibrium. You probably are a people-pleaser on some level, even if it’s not to the degree that I am. But it’s not about you and it’s not about me. It’s about Jesus. It’s about the culture of gospel-drenchedness you’re hoping to cultivate. It’s about the unabashed pursuit of holiness-by-grace and the culture of loving challenge that must develop in order to provide the right environment for that pursuit. It’s about abiding in and with and under Christ Jesus. Yes, it’s about Jesus.

So don’t lose heart. Make yourself the bond-slave of your people for Jesus’ sake. Work on your idol of people-pleaserness, and trust that Jesus is more determined to get rid of it than even you are. But don’t quit being vulnerable, and don’t take it personally when that vulnerability is turned into condemnation by a few. Pray for these people: they’re miserable and their hearts are going to be restless until they find their rest in Jesus.

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Resist Romantic Worship

Is Sunday worship more of an expression of our love for God, or an expression of God’s love for us?

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Back in my grumpier days, I would have said, unequivocally, “GOD’S LOVE FOR US! IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU, DUMMY!” The need to love God was something that once made me feel so insecure and pathetic that I quickly covered it up with the declaration that God didn’t need my love: I needed his. And I would have insisted that public, corporate worship was not the time to tell Jesus how we love him (because we probably didn’t, very much). These days I’m actually thrilled and challenged and stirred by the suggestion that we should love God, and do so vigorously.

I’ve flip-flopped, then, right? Worship is self-expression?

Nope. I think public worship is still supposed to be about God gathering us so that we can receive his love, rather than us gathering the three persons of the Godhead so that they can receive our love.

Zachary Hoag said yesterday:

“After journeying for a while with an older congregation I’ve realized that a lot of church planting is theologized emotional immaturity.”

Church plants tend to be romantic environments. We violently overthrow the passive, static, boring worship practices of the churches that put us to sleep when we were back in youth group. Now we’re going to really express ourselves. Raw emotion. Passion. Love toward God. Loud and proud.

Why am I not super excited about this? Because of the Trinity.

Huh?

Look at it this way: Michael Reeves writes that

“While the Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father, there is a very definite shape to their relationship. Overall, the Father is the lover, the Son is the beloved. The Bible is awash with talk of the Father’s love for the Son, but while the Son clearly does love the Father, hardly anything is said about it.” (Delighting in the Trinity.)

What the New Testament does speak much about, Reeves continues, is the Father sending directing the Son to loving action. This doesn’t work in the reverse: “The Son never sends or directs the Father.”

If the Holy Bible is primarily concerned with the Father’s love for the Son, and the Father’s sending the Son of his love on a loving mission to us, while remaining relatively silent about the Son’s love for the Father, then perhaps it’s okay if our corporate worship remains fairly thin on our passion for God, and rather thick on God’s passion for us.

And not just his passion for us, but his passion to send and direct us to love the world as he and his Son did, and do.

In other words, it turns out that corporate worship—even in a church plant, where we want to be passionate and engaged—might still be best thought of as a gathering of quiet, waiting, receptive, submissive, surprised, overwhelmed, emboldened, freshly-graced, and freshly-sent people. We can respond to his love with some vocal expressions of our own love, as Jesus sometimes is found doing in the Gospels. But if the Bible is comfortable revealing to us a Father who is the fountain of blessing and life and love and mission, which eternally cascade from his loving heart to the Son, then we can be comfortable having the Fount of Every Blessing cascade upon us, his gathered people, with his life, love, and mission—without becoming preoccupied with our pursuit of self-expression.

It turns out that to follow Jesus, our Worship Leader, means that in corporate worship, one of the best ways we can express to God our love for him is by reveling in his love for us, and by readying ourselves to do everything he sends and directs us to do. To take this posture, our church plants will need to carefully resist Romantic worship.

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Grow In Grace, Obviously

I just observed the 5th anniversary of my ordination. Five years ago, I was 28, and was reading Andrew Bonar’s short biography of Robert Murray M’Cheyne. M’Cheyne was a Scottish pastor who died at the age of 29, but who in his short ministry had grown so much in grace that he bore much fruit. 

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Thinking about M’Cheyne’s early death made me feel like I was a goober, a phony. And I certainly was (and am). “Impostor Syndrome” (as Seth Godin has called it) is real because, in fact, we are all impostors in some profound sense.

When you set aside the actual fruit that M’Cheyne bore in his young ministry, you’re still left with the fella himself. And what did that fella say, to make you feel even more like an impostor?

“The greatest need of my people is my personal holiness.”

I remember when one of our church plant’s early contributors quoted this to me. I had asked her where she stood with respect to her decision to “go on mission with our new church”. I had laid out a new model for community, for mission, for discipleship. I had cast a vision for something innovative. I had proposed the perfect blend of ancient-future worship. I had been bold in exuding “leadership”. She said, “ok, that’s nice. But the thing I need more than anything is to know that my pastor has an authentic, growing relationship with Jesus, so I can follow him as he follows Jesus.”

She hadn’t read M’Cheyne’s biography. She didn’t know who M’Cheyne was. She had just heard this one line somewhere from ‘some pastor in church history’.

Speaking of feeling awful. Speaking of Impostor Syndrome.

And yet, there it is. And who can disagree? There will be lots of people who do lots of great things, merely in the power of the flesh. There will be church planters with exquisite preaching skills, perfectly calibrated models, innovative team-building methodologies, and uncanny charisma to compel crowds to action.

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But these are not the first and most important things that disciples of Jesus need. These are not the first things that would-be lay-misisonaries need. The first and most important thing they need is your personal holiness

Paul isn’t bashful about calling Timothy to an obvious growth, discernible to anyone with their eyes open:

“Godliness is valuable in every way. … Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. … Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” – I Timothy 4

“So that all may see your progress.” As a pastor, you are looking for visible growth in God’s grace among your people. But they are also looking for it in you. We started Hill City Church two years ago this month. In those two years, is it obvious to all that I am walking more closely, more authentically, more confidently, more joyfully, more dependently, with Jesus?

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Your personal holiness: this is not just the sine qua non of a truly thriving church plant. This—the planter’s walk with Jesus, irrespective of his call to plant and pastor—is the fountainhead of all true, abiding flourishing in and through a church plant. Out of it flows all the humility and authority you must have to speak words of grace and truth, and to do acts of love and mercy, without which you may have an impressive bit of show business. But without which you will not have planted a church.

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Expect Glory

There’s a curious tension at play when my church plant gathers for Sabbath feasting.

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Photo by Sara McAllister

Double Expectation: the Congregation

Folks gather for food and fellowship with a certain lightheartedness, even nonchalance—the kind of relaxed untuckedness that is present when family reconvenes for supper after a long day of attending to their vocations. There’s most often enough food at the pot luck by the time we give thanks, but we often find ourselves not-so-fervently asking for a loaves-and-fishes miracle. Usually someone shows up right after “Amen” with a mountainous pot of stew or a geyser of a casserole.

And yet most folks also gather expecting that they’ll leave changed, especially because they expect Jesus to show up in word and in sacrament. We all love food, but we all know that what we’re really after is soul food, some of which is gotten in the first act of the breaking of bread, but the meat and potatoes of which is set forth after the pot luck is set aside like an appetizer plate.

Double Expectation: the Church Planter

The same goes for your posture and expectation as the church planter. You’ll drive yourself mad if the mood you’re trying to curate cuts against the natural rhythms and expectations of your gathered feasting community. And so you need a healthy dose of go-with-the-flow as you go into your Sunday gathering. Dare I say it? You may even need to work on your nonchalance. This is family, after all.

But at the same time, you can’t afford not to expect glory.

The story goes that a pastor complained to Charles Spurgeon that he didn’t understand why people were not giving their lives to Christ when the fellow preached the word. Spurgeon said, “You don’t expect people to be converted when you preach, do you?” The fellow sheepishly shook his head, indicated the negative. Spurgeon suggested that this was precisely the problem.

Moses had a fading-glory ministry (2 Cor 3), a ministry of death, as he brought the law to bear on hard-hearted desert sojourners. But Paul says it was still a pretty dang impressive glory. People were rather stoked, at least for short intervals, considering it was “a ministry of condemnation”.

But we’re told that our ministry of the Spirit, and of righteousness in Christ, far exceeds Moses’ ministry, not least because its glory is permanent and unfading. The effects of our ministry are the opposite of the fleeting thrills of Moses’ congregation. When we minister the gospel in word and sacrament, under the the Lord that is the Spirit, there is a cumulative effect that transforms us from one degree of glory to another, the more we behold this never-fading glory in Jesus, clothed in his gospel.

And there is freedom. 

Are You Expecting?

All of this means that we, as church planters, may be as nonchalant as a grandfather coming home from work to eat with his extended family. But we had also better be, as Paul says he and his church planting cronies were, very bold. Bold because of the hope and expectation of glory.

Church planters: expect glory.

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Be Weak, and Let Jesus Be Strong

If you’ve read many of these church planting proverbs, you may have noticed that there’s a bit of a paradox that runs through the archive here.

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On the one hand, there’s all kinds of LESS.

  • Less ‘launch’
  • Less pizazz
  • Less money
  • Less clericalism

But on the other hand, there’s a good bit of MORE.

  • More attention to workflow
  • More productivity
  • More intentionality
  • More scheduling of top priorities
  • More ambition

I’ve come to believe that I must be very serious about the stewardship of my callings. I have finally begun to be habituated to certain personal disciplines and structures that I would have previously thought to be ‘legalistic’ and constraining. I have accepted the fact that faithfulness is not enough; Jesus desires, expects, and is intent upon producing fruitfulness.

How do I reconcile these newfound disciplines and drives with all of the ‘LESS’?

More important still, how do you authentically lead a gospel movement built on grace while putting constraints on your schedule and growing more ambitious? Aren’t these things irreconcilable?

I don’t believe they are.

Smart & Weak

There is a big difference between being a disorganized, immature, unproductive, unfruitful, unambitious follower of Jesus and being a weak follower of Jesus. A big difference.

Productivity seems to me to have a lot to do with being smart, rather than strong. We can be manifestly weak, humble, and dependent on Jesus at the same time as we’re working as smart as we can. We can utilize a whole menu of ‘hacks’ to boost our chances of moving from faithfulness into fruitfulness. And at the very same time, we can allow Jesus to be strong.

In my life, anyway, these two things seem to be increasingly happening simultaneously.

I am more competent and confident than I ever have been as a ‘grown up’ with a ‘real job’. I’m better able to navigate the tricky circumstances of a church plant with poise and grace than I have been in the past.

Competent & Needy

And yet I’m also more aware than ever that I’m a total weakling. I’m repenting more than I ever have before: to my wife, to my friends, to my flock, to Jesus. I’m more haunted than ever that I am quite capable of BIG sin. I’m more prone than I have ever been to tell my close friends when my life is out of whack due to my failings and sins.

Let’s be super productive. Let’s be incredibly ambitious. Let’s employ as many hacks and disciplines as necessary to make us better stewards of the gifts we’ve been given.

But let’s ask ourselves afresh: how often do we feel our mortal weakness and fly to Jesus?

Let’s be smart.

But let’s be weak, and let Jesus be strong.

Practice Sticky Gospel Neighboring

Chip and Dan Heath more or less say in Made to Stick : How do you know when and idea succeeds?

When the hearer can articulate its essence as well or even better than you can.

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How do you know when you’ve practiced effective ‘gospel neighboring’?

When your non-Christian neighbors can and do articulate something about the gospel more clearly, succinctly, concretely, and passionately than maybe even you could, because you live on their street.

What makes things compelling?

The Heaths say that ideas need to be dressed in a simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional story.

The great thing about the gospel is that it’s not an idea that needs outfitted with a simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional story. The gospel already is all those things.

This ought to make our gospel neighboring much less complicated than pitching a startup to a group of venture capitalists or crafting a closing argument to deliver before a jury. We’re not ornamenting an idea in compelling garb. We’re imitating a Person’s words of grace and truth, a Person’s deeds of love and mercy.

Less-is-more neighboring

If you’re a church planter, you probably love ideas, are careful with forms, are sensitive to presentation, and are a connoisseur of subtle ecclesiastical practices. Great. Me too.

But we’ve got to be much more than that. And more often than not, less is more. Don’t be afraid to read the Bible, ask what is so great about Jesus in the passage, and then commit to acting on one way to immediately go about imitating him.

Your care with ideas, forms, presentation, and practices probably won’t hurt your gospel neighboring. But neither will they be the thing that makes your neighbors feel as though Jesus moved onto your street.

 Why not follow @gospelneighbor on Twitter and like the Gospel Neighboring Facebook page to get news about the new Gospel Neighboring podcast? 

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