Starting well: managing expectations in ministry (issues of power)

The issue of power is fraught with difficulties in congregations. Let’s begin with the fact that we are in denial that power is actually at work in congregations. Many Christians think power is a bad word, especially at church. And certain forms or kinds of power are certainly bad and antithetical to the gospel. But power is simply the ability to accomplish things. No less a Christian thinker than Paul can even say, “the Kingdom of God is not about talk, but about power.” In fact, I think Paul might say that the real issue that distinguishes the Kingdom of God from other principalities and powers is the right understanding and use of power. For Paul, the “word of the cross” is the power of God. We might say that God’s power is cruciform, or cross shaped. Instead of thinking of power as the ability to control others or outcomes, Christian power is expressed as enduring love in patterns of mutual submission.

Configuring a congregation’s life around “enduring love in patterns of mutual submissiom” is easier said than done. This is because, I think, we value control above all else. And we feel more in control if we think someone is in charge. In my tradition, Churches of Christ, this is played out often between elders and ministers. We are elder led congregations. They can hire and fire the minister. They can state direction and veto other directions. This is their prerogative even though few of them have theological or ministerial training. Ministers, in this sytem, possess borrowed or personal authority. That is, they can accomplish things because they have been given permission from the elders, who have real authrotiy, and/or they possess the ability to get things done because they are seen as competent or personally trustworthy.

So, we have elders who have lots of official authority and relatively low training which would make them competent in their field of endeavor. And we have ministers, who have low levels of official authority, but training that would make them competant in the field of endeavor. In this environment, elders often feel inadequate and threatened by the training of the ministry staff who serve “under their authority,” and who naturally act defensively in such a circumstance. Or, they borrow forms of power and authority from their jobs where many of them are managers or executives. Here, they feel competent and are sometimes unaware of how Christian leadership should be different than GM or Intel. Ministers feel frustrated that their expertise doesn’t count for more. They are being held accountable for performance according to standards that may or may not be Christian and with limited ability to do the things that would actually make a difference. Anyone recognize this?

Look, I feel for both groups here. I have a special place in my heart for elders who carry the heavy responsibility of authority with very little practical training. And I feel for ministers whose gifts of leadership are often frustrated and underutilized. Too often the result of this arrangement is similar to my golf swing. I swing too hard, losing all my power somewhere in the air, with too little at the point of impact. 

The solution here, in my opinion, is not to flip the power differential, giving the senior pastor or minister ultimate authority. The solution, rather, is to find forms, relationships, and types of engagements that would embody “enduring love in patterns of mutual submission.” After all, the one we call “Lord” is the one who gives himself up for us.

Few ministers inherit well thought out notions of power in a new congregation. So, the candidate interview is the first place that these issues can be raised and signaled as important. So, I have two questions that might reveal the practical use of power in a congregation.

1. How do big decisions get made around here? Can you tell me about how you made the last one? How satisfied were you with the process and outcomes? Actually, a candidate might already have a pretty good idea based on selection process in which they are involved. In my experience, however, congregations tend to be more deliberate and collaborative in a minister search than they are in other decisions. 

Congregations often have stated beliefs that are contradicted by their practices that embody deeper, often unspoken beliefs or assumptions. No set of practices, in my opinion, reveal more about these deeper practices than processes of decision making. First, what constitutes a big issue? Are processes regular or ad hoc (ad hoc favoring those in positions of recognized authority)? Who has voice? Who is excluded? Are risks minimized for the sake of maintaining the status quo? Do leaders express decisions as the wisdom of the leadership or as the discernment of the leading of the Spirit among the whole people of God? All the functional elements of power are on display in decision making.

2. How does this congregation handle conflict? Can you give me examples? A lot of congregations are in denial about conflict and will tell you they have none. The results of this kind of denial are typically two-fold. The congregation lacks the kind of energy needed to make significant changes. Conflict is not necessarily bad, and transformative change rarely comes apart from it. Conflict produces energy, clarifies values, provides opportunity for greater mutual understanding and respect, etc.  Second, denial about conflict produces a slow boil around unresolved issues. A really big one might be on the horizon and might very well get attached to the hiring of a new minister. Tick, tick, tick.

Conflict denial might also be a sign of autocratis leadership that values control and can’t abide controversy. So, you want them to admit to conflict. And you want stories where conflict provided clarity, reconciliation, mutual understanding. These kinds of stories indicate patterns of leadership that trust the movement of the Spirit of God. These kinds of stories indicate that people are shown respect and feel adequately listened to, which may be signs of mutuality around enduring love. 

Conflict with less stellar results might still have been handled in responsible ways. You can’t control the responses of all involved in conflict. But it is certainly important to know what issues produced enough heat for members to have left. And it is important to ask what the congregation thinks they learned from this painful episode.

Decision making and conflict resolution are two signficant places where the congregation’s deepest values are put into practice. It is good to know going in if they have Christian practices. As I tell my ministry students, it is better to have no ministry job than to have a bad one.

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Starting well. Observations on establishing ministry expectations

I think one of the most difficult things about full-time ministry is establishing and maintaining realistic ministry expectations. I think there are two primary reasons for this: First, few really no what a ministry job entails. I’ve been asked more times than I can count, “besides writing your sermon, what do you do during the week?” People just don’t know. Fair enough. Ministry is not like most other jobs. Second, and connected to the first, most ministers work without on-site supervision, most without colleagues who observe their day-to-day routine. Without concrete knowledge of what a minister does day-to-day, members are left to fill in the blanks. As a result, they have high and diverse expectations with little realistic information. 

This is a recipe for disaster. And, making things worse, other congregational leaders (elders, boards, etc) tend to be poor at helping to set realistic expectations for church members. Ministers have to take responsibility themselves for setting and maintaining these expectations, and this begins with the job interview.

As important as it is for the congregation to get a solid picture of a ministry candidate, it is equally, even more, important for the ministry candidate to interview the congregation well. The questions the candidate brings go a long way to discovering the work environment she might be stepping into. More, however, good questions are the first way a prospective minister can begin to set ministry expectations. So, I’ve developed a list of the questions I would ask if I were interviewing for a position. In this post, I’ll deal with the first two, the rest to follow.

1. Do you have a detailed, written job description for this position? I would not take a job where one doesn’t exist. In my experience consulting with congregations, most ministers work without one. One of the unfortunate results of working without a description is that everyone in the congregation becomes your boss. You are subject to the whims of every member who have wildly different ideas about what your job should be. A written, detailed job description gives the minister a set of boundaries that are defensible. Some things are your job, some things aren’t. You report to some people and not to others. Beyond the defensive benefit of a job description, however, a good one helps a minister make choices about how to spend her time most effectively. It is easy to get overcome with the diverse demands of a ministry position. A good job description might allow a minister to make choices, might provide a basis for saying yes and no to things.

Job descriptions should be thought of as living documents. They seldom are perfect at rendering the fit between the actual job and the gifts and capacities of the minister. I recommend a re-working of the job description at the one year mark, and at least every other year after that.

2. Do you have a regular process of evaluating congregational leaders? Obviously, this question is related to the first. It benefits neither the congregation, nor the minister to have a job description if there is not a regular way to evaluate leadership. Again, most congregations do not have a well-thought out evaluation process for leadership. Where evaluations are conducted, they are often poorly done and unfair. 

At one congregation I served, my first evaluation was a list of open-ended questions that had only a slight connection to my job description. Because most members had little knowledge of what I did during the week, they could only answer questions on the basis of what they knew of me publicly. Fortunately, most members were pleased with my preaching, and so gave me good evaluations across the board. One member, however, was very critical of me. She found me unfriendly and accused me of caring only for my friends. This became my performance evaluation. Keep up the good preaching, but learn to be friendlier and don’t care only for your friends. Now, this woman might have been right, especially about the unfriendly part, though I felt the characterizations were unfair and said more about her than me. The point is, these complaints were not evaluated before they became a part of my review. The process was poor and unfair.

I know its often no fun being evaluated. But regular, fair evaluations are the minister’s friend. They provide a benchmark in writing that can be appealed to when the system gets anxious about performance. And they provide the opportunity for mapping conrete steps for the minister to improve, hopefully avoiding trouble down the road. In fact, in a new position I would ask to be evaluated at the three month, six month, and one year marks. This would not only identify potential problems early, but might also establish a perception that the minister is open to suggestions for improvement.

Notice, that the question is phrased “process of evaluating congregational leaders.” I think its fair to ask if other leaders are subject to some kind of review. You want to work in a system of accountability, even mutual accoutability.

Now all of this assumes that congregations have their act together. And most don’t. In many cases, the minister will have to advocate for her own care. If the answer to the first question is “no,” then I would request that one be written before the next phase of the process. And if they fail to produce one, I would provide samples from other congregations and one you have written as a starting place for coming to agreement on one before you begin your job.

I’ve talked about why a minister should want a job description, but other leaders benefit as well when there are good job descriptions in place. In Churches of Christ, my tradition, congregations are elder-led. This means they are functionally the customer service department for members. Complainers go to them with their reports of dissatisfaction, and they are often left with little to say except, “give us some time, we’ll do better.” But a good job description and a regular evaluation process provides at least the possibility that a different response could be given. “Minister A has a job description that is regularly evaluated. She is doing what we have asked her to do. She can’t do everything and answer to everyone. Maybe the rest of us need to take more responsibility for helping this congregation become what God has called us to be and to do.” (This is my fantasy elder).

Fair evaluation processes are also likely to be something the minister has to take responsibility for. There is no HR department at church and volunteer leaders are sometimes ill-equipped and lack motivation for this kind of work. Again, I would want some examples of what other congregations do to provide fair and timely evaluations. And I would suggest two broad guidelines. First, the evaluation should be tied to the job description. Second, members should only be asked to evaluate those parts of the job about which they could make a reasonable judgment. 

One final piece of advice about receiving evaluations. Be as specific as possible about things you are asked to work on. Often evaluations remain vague and general in nature. Improve your sermons (usually shorten them, which on the whole is not bad advice), improve relations with other staff, manage your time better, etc. Ask for specifics. How are we going to measure improvement? What are reasonable outcomes? What specific steps can I take? When will we check progress or re-evaluate? Again, the minister likely will have to take the initiative and make specific suggestions. “Here are the three things I’ve decided to work on to improve my preaching. Here’s what I’m hoping to accomplish. I’ve sent samples of my sermons to David Fleer for input. Can you help me in these ways… Does this sound reasonable? Can we check in again in three months?”

None of these things will absolutely protect you in the managing expectations department. You may still find detractors with unfair expectations who wield a lot of personal power in the congregation who can make your life miserable. But at least you will have done what you can, taken responsibility for your own work, and invited the congregation into a collaborative and mutually beneficial relationship. On the upside, the process of coming up with a job description and fair evaluation process may clarify congregational values and model ways of treating one another with respect, with mercy and justice.

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A different kind of kingdom, a different kind of power

I’ve been away from the blog for awhile because I’ve been working diligently on what I hope will be a book on Acts and ministry. I’m finding I have lots of material, but am struggling with “voice.” I want the book to be for the kinds of people that I imagine as readers of my blog. So, I thought I’d put a sample here, an intrduction to my reflections on Acts 1, to see if I can get an indication that I’m hitting what I’m aiming for. Feedback is welcome.

Acts depicts the rise of the early church as a theological achievement. That is, the church arose from the experience and testimony that God has shown Jesus of Nazareth to be both Messiah and Lord by raising him from the dead. Put another way, the church in Acts is not the result of the organizational genius of the apostles or the predictable outcome of a strategic plan complete with five year goals and measurable outcomes. Rather, the church is the community swept into the wildly unpredictable experience of trusting that the risen and living Jesus is present to them through the power of the Holy Spirit. 

This fundamental theological reality shows that the church belongs to a different kind of reign under a different kind of power than the one offered by Caesar, or any subsequent empire. Strategic plans, after all, benefit those who can manage outcomes, who hold social power and make policy. A kingdom, however, consisting of the poor, the common, and the lowly makes its way in the world only by the surprising and disruptive activity of the Holy Spirit. And this is the story of Acts. The movement of the first Christians from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth comes through unlikely characters and surprising circumstances. All of this happens in spite of the best efforts of “rulers,” both Jewish and Gentile, to suppress what is happening. It is a story that is only explainable by the movement of the Spirit of the risen Lord.

It is open to question whether or not congregations in North America are explainable by the same theological achievement. Those Christians living in the American stories of progress and exceptionalism, have been hardwired to think of the world as something that bends to their efforts, as something manageable and manipulable. I fear that in this very way, the spirit of this age has conditioned the way congregations and their leaders have thought about ministry. As a former full-time congregational minister for over seventeen years, I confess to having been given over to the strategic. My energies and imagination in ministry were dominated by thoughts of “what would work” to extend the institutional health of the congregation that paid me to do this very thing. In spite of my theological training and commitments, which I took very seriously, in practice I was consumed more with strategic plans and congregational organization than discerning and being drawn into the life of the Holy Spirit. I had friends in ministry who took their theological commitments less seriously, opting instead for “leadership,” defined as stating a vision, setting goals and managing outcomes. Whether I or they, this is what we believed and this is what we practiced.

There are many telling us that the church in North America is being moved more to the cultural margins. Our experience confirms their observations. We no longer build churches across from city hall, signaling our influence in the public life of our towns and cities. Instead, we cater to the private needs of inidivdual religious consumers in the suburbs. We can no longer assume that our neighbors are Presbyterians, or Catholics, or Baptists, or Methodists. They are just as likely to be Muslim, Budhist, or “nones.” Perhaps most telling is that our congregations’ battle for the hearts, minds, and attendance of our own members, often results in a loss when pitted against a youth sports culture that no longer considers Sunday mornings to be sacrosanct. The end result of this marginalization is that the world bends less to our efforts and we are less in a position to set policy and make rules that would allow us to shape the world according to our purposes. I often get knowing glances from congregational leaders when I suggest that thay are doing everything they know to do, better than they’ve ever done it before, but with diminishing impact. In light of this, perhaps Luke’s story of the church in Acts offers us a fresh alternative, a chance to once again live as the power-filled powerless in the free bounty of the Holy Spirit.

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15:28 compliant: spaces for the storytellers

Let me remind you what I’m doing here in my recent blog posts. I’m taking Acts 15:28 as a decisive clue for Luke’s understanding of the church. That is, the phrase, “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” says something definitive about what it means to be the church. So, what are the elements that make moments like these possible?

One of the remarkable things about Acts is how many stories are told by the characters. Peter tells stories. Paul and Barnabas tell stories. Stephen tells stories. All in an overall story about the Spirit leading the church to the ends of the earth.

I’m fascinated by Peter’s story telling in particular. The events that lead to his meeting with Cornelius in Acts 10 also lead directly to the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15. What’s fascinating is how Peter’s understanding of what God is up to grows with each telling of this story.

You remember how it begins for Peter. He receives the exact same vision three times while in a trance, in which a sheet with unclean animals comes down from heaven accompanied by a voice imploring him to “rise, kill, and eat.” Peter, however, protests because he’s a good church boy and keeps the food laws religiously. The voice from heaven persists, clarifying the moment, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Yet, despite this interpretative clue, “Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision he had seen.”

Following the vision he receives the messengers sent from Cornelius, who inform Peter of Cornelius’ visitation from an angel who brings instruction to send for Peter. The next day Peter returns with them to meet Cornelius. By the time he arrives at Cornelius’ house, he is no longer puzzled about the meaning of the dream. He flatly declares, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” The vision Peter received is about food, or unclean animals. And while the voice from heaven gives a hint that this might be bigger than just food, Peter’s declaration makes the expanded meaning clear. No person is unclean. The story has received added clarity in the retelling.

In chapter 11, Peter is compelled to relate the story again to his Jewish brothers in Jerusalem. In the retelling, the meaning of the story is again expanded. Now Peter relates the story of Cornelius’ conversion to the story of Pentecost in Acts 2. The Spirit fell on the Gentiles at Cornelius’ house the way it did on Jews on Pentecost. We might say now, call no one unclean upon whom the Spirit has fallen. It was, after all, Peter himself in Acts 2 who suggests that the Pentecost event is a fulfillment of the word of God spoken by the prophet Joel, “In the last days…I will pour my Spirit out on all flesh.” In Acts 11, he connects the two stories.

Luke’s account of all of this is fascinating to me. In each re-telling, the significance of the story for those telling it, and hearing it, grows. Part of this has to do with the adding of new events, for example, the angel’s appearance to Cornelius and the Spirit falling upon the Gentiles. But it’s not just new information that gets assimilated into the telling of the story. It is also older stories that take on new meaning in light of the retelling of the more current story. And it takes multiple persons to provide the full meaning of the story. Peter’s confusion related to the vision is surely cleared up by in part by the visit of Cornelius’ servants and by Cornelius’ own account of things. The full meaning of the story is held by a community, not just an individual. No single person holds the entire meaning. It takes multiple storytellers.

This kind of telling and re-telling is essential to a 15:28 moment. And if my premise is right, then this kind of storytelling is also crucial to the church’s identity. That is, the church is not simply an organization with formal characteristics or marks, but it is a story-formed, story-performing community. The church lives in its Acts birthright when it bears testimony (a good Lukan work) to the movement of a living God through the stories it tells and performs.

This narrative understanding of the church, that the church is a story-formed, story-performing people, isn’t surprising given the fact that we express meaning primarily in narrative ways. We are constantly picking and choosing details from our life and placing them into a meaningful plot. And part of the way we pick and choose is by what others notice in our stories, or how others put little threads together in ways that we might otherwise miss. This telling and retelling is inescapably communal.

I’ve seen this dynamic at work in some pretty important ways in my work with congregations. I am a consultant for the Partnership for Missional Church (PMC), which works with clusters of congregations over a three year period. During this process, we have “cluster gatherings” where “process leaders” gather for reporting and training. Our consistent practice on the opening night of a cluster gathering is to tell stories. Each congregation decides on a story to tell the others from the work they’ve done since the last cluster gathering. We do it in a round-robin style where the storyteller stays put and the congregations rotate around to all the storytellers. So, a storyteller might tell the same story five or six times in an evening. At the end of each telling, those who are listening can make comments or ask questions.

As a consultant, I eavesdrop on the stories. Here’s the thing. They get better as the night goes on. The storyteller gets better with each rehearsal. But it’s more than just better communication. The storyteller is interpreting the story anew every time she tells it. The very effort to bring the experience to words clarifies its meaning. And the questions and comments made by others also pushes and shapes the story in certain ways. Things that others noticed now become a part of the story. It’s significance grows and becomes clearer with each retelling.

I think this dynamic is typical of the work of the Holy Spirit. From the initial experience that gives rise to a story, through its telling and retelling in community, the Spirit of God often moves to bring a meaningful testimony to the work of God.

So, congregations hoping for 15:28 moments must leave space for this kind of activity. It may take the whole church to tell the story of how the Spirit is leading. It will surely take the the creation of space dedicated to the telling of stories.

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Is your worship renewal pagan follow-up

I thought yesterday’s post was a little one-off kind of post, published on a Saturday when no one reads blogs. But the post struck a nerve, both positive and negative. I’m fine with people disagreeing with my blog, especially respectfully, but I want to be understood. Some negative comments in particular didn’t seem to locate the critique I was making in the way I intended. I’m sure this was due to my lack of clarity, so I’d like to take another shot at being understood.

First, I didn’t say that any particular worship practice was wrong. I wondered at the end of the article whether how we plan worship might change if we connected silence to the living presence of God in the world. But I offered those as questions, not prescriptions. To focus on specific worship practices obscures my point.

I am very concerned that we are lacking in capacity to be attentive to God, which requires slowing down, absolutely requires it. It requires being still among other things. Absolutely requires it. I think it requires simplicity, which in turn produces a singleness of vision. Absolutely requires it. Silence is not simply a metaphor, as one comment suggested. It’s an actual practice, as are lifting hands and bending knees and singing and praying (which I’m in favor of).

Our world pulls us in exactly the opposite directions. Our lives are frenetic. And, again, to quote my friend, Randy Harris, “if you’re too busy, God didn’t get you there.” We are constantly being bombarded with things demanding our attention, one after another, producing a cultural attention deficit disorder. We have a hard time being still, and our lives are anything but simple. As I argued in previous posts, Matthew Crawford, in his book, The World Beyond Your Head, has brilliantly laid out the case for why we lack the ability to be attentive to anything, much less God, and calls for the preservation of “attentional commons,” public spaces that refuse to be filled with noise or unending ads. I am arguing that churches could be such spaces, but not as we are currently configured.

We don’t slow people down. The biggest sin a worship service could commit is boredom, which places certain kind of performance pressures on those who plan and lead worship. We’re on the clock, members needing to get on to the next thing. And as I said in the previous blog, we are seldom called to silence or stillness. I am of the opinion that this is a deep spiritual challenge that is deserving of our attention.

So, this is my critique. We might be feeding cultural appetites that make it tough to attend to God by offering more of the same in our worship assemblies. So, if you want to disagree with me, you’re welcome to, I may very well be wrong. But I would simply suggest you make this issue of attentiveness the focus of our disagreement.

On a less germane (to my argument) point. Some of you accused me of poor exegesis, particularly in my use of the Amos text. And if by exegesis you mean a historical-critical reading of Scripture, then you might be right. I certainly didn’t study it all out before I used the texts. But let’s check my work a bit.

I don’t see how you could say that Randy’s reading of Habakkuk, which I was following, is wrong. You might disagree with his application of the text, but clearly idols are being contrasted with the living God, precisely at the level of being able to address worshipers. Because God is not a dumb idol, because he can address the world, the appropriate posture is silence. I would go so far as to say that this should be the predominate gesture or posture of worship. It measures the distance between us and God, that God is God and we are not. It says that life works best when we wait for a word from God. You get the point.

But let’s look at Amos. I’ll admit that I wanted a text that contrasted the noise of our assemblies with silence, and Amos was the closest text in memory. I thought about whether or not I should use it, and decided that it was precisely because of its allusive power that I should. A few readers objected to its use, saying that this was a totally unfair comparison, one saying that Amos had in mind people who had abandoned God, which is not what is going on in our assemblies.

Ok, maybe a bridge too far, but…maybe not. I think we could all agree that Amos is concerned with practices of injustice in which the rich are complicit, and that they are papering them over with displays of piety. Would you agree with that reading? Now, Amos can see this clearly. Can those whom he is critiquing?

I doubt they would say that they had abandoned God. They are, after all, praying, fasting, offering sacrifices, worshiping God. Are they deliberately mocking God? If not, what belief would allow them to hold these things together? They might very well be explaining their circumstances as God’s favor related to their piety or to their status as God’s chosen people. These practices of piety, then, function as a hedge against the prophetic voice that they shout down. Amos, needless to say, sees this all very differently than they do.

So, what would be a legitimate analogy? Well, you would need wealthy believers living in the midst of economic injustice that they are at least ignoring, and in which they are likely complicit, but are papering that over with impressive performances in worship, which in turn allows them to ignore prophetic voices.

Well, that clearly doesn’t apply to us. Yeah, you’re probably right. After all, in our country, poverty is a matter of choice. I heard a Christian candidate for president say that just the other day. It’s simply a matter of how hard you work. Poverty in America, at its roots, is a moral problem. The poor must lack the will, the effort, the industriousness, to lift themselves out of poverty.

I wonder if Amos would see it the same way. Anyway, that would be my exegesis of Amos. I’ll let you decide whether or not it has any bearing.

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Are your congregation’s efforts at worship renewal pagan?

Last weekend, Randy Harris, from Abilene Christian University, spent a day with our new missional leadership cohort at Rochester College, helping them to write a shared rule of life. Randy’s the guy to do this work, and we get so much more than rule of life help. He says things every 30 seconds or so which challenges us to more and deeper.

For instance, he was talking about being attentive to God and how important the contemplative life is to that end. Along the way he noticed a text from Habakkuk 2 in which idols are compared with the living God. The thing about an idol is that it doesn’t speak or do anything. You have to supply all the energy. In contrast, Habbakkuk says, “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (Hab 2:20). We keep still because God is active. Randy then said something to the effect that most efforts at worship renewal appear to him to be more pagan than Christian. We’re working up a performance because we’re not sure God is doing anything. Too harsh?

I don’t remember the last time I sang the song, “The Lord is in his Holy Temple,” in worship. But here’s the thing I remember about that song. It has a four beat measure of silence toward the end in which no one sings. I never encountered a song leader who treated that measure as anything more than a brief pause. We were never silent for four beats. We couldn’t endure it. It was too awkward. Which is totally ironic, given the intent of Habakkuk 2 and the parallel intent of the songwriter.

The fact that we never seem to sing this song anymore and, could never be silent when we did, seems to me to be a parable of sorts that might indicate Randy is on to something.

Most congregations I attend have no space for reflection, no moments when we are invited to be still or silent. When there is silence, it is typically because someone has missed their cue to lead a prayer or read a Scripture, etc. And everyone fidgets in these moments, embarrassed at the lack of performance. We cannot abide silence. I cringe to think that our assemblies might be closer to Amos 5, “Take away from me the noise of your songs,” than Habakkuk 2, “Let all the earth keep silence before him.”

In fact, this might be an important way the church learns to serve the world. My wife, Donna, and I were talking about this and she noted how even when we are asked to observe a moment of silence in the wake of a tragedy at a public event like a ballgame, those moments used to be much longer than the brief pauses we now observe. A few posts ago, I noticed that silence is now a luxury commodity to be sold, for instance in the premium flyer lounges at airports, or with apps that allow you to avoid pop-up ads for a small fee. We are trained not to be attentive, not to be still, not to be silent.

This is an instance of the larger cultural environment, constantly bombarding us with information, influencing the way we worship. It should be the other way around. The way we worship should prepare us to live a life not given to us by the principalities and powers of the age. And that life should be attentive, because our God is no dumb idol.

So, what if our Sunday worship took Habakkuk’s distinction as the starting place for worship planning? What if silence was a prime indicator of belief in a living God? What if worship was intended to form us for greater attentiveness in the world? Would we sing less? (In my experience, we could sing less and still be singing a lot). Would we have fewer powerpoint slides? Would we have more moments for reflection? Would our sermons be less performance oriented? Would worship be a space for slowing down? I think these are things worth thinking about.

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15:28 compliant: got some prayer?

Churches pray. I know they do. But sometimes I feel like they pray as a congregation the way some families pray at mealtime. They’ve got the perfunctory prayers down. They pray when they’re expected to, so that prayer is one of many activities the church does. But, it’s not a way of life. They’re not known for prayer like they’re known for their singing or for their youth programs.

I have no doubt, however, that Luke sees prayer as the church’s way of life, not just one among a number of activities. In Acts, the church does what Jesus does in the gospel of Luke. When Jesus is baptized, only Luke tells us that Jesus is praying when the Spirit descends on him. Only Luke tells us that Jesus is praying when he chooses the twelve. Only Luke tells us that Jesus is praying when he is transfigured. These examples could be multiplied. Clearly, Luke wants us to associate prayer with Jesus. It’s not something he does. It’s his way of life.

In Acts, the church is gathered for prayer when the Spirit descends with tongues of fire at Pentecost. The summary of life post-Pentecost at the end of Acts 2 emphasizes the church’s devotion to the prayers, and in Acts 3 we find Peter and John going up to the temple “at the hour of prayer” (3:1). When people are appointed to a task, there is prayer. When people escape prison, there is prayer. The early believers are a community of prayer.

This one is hard for me, personally. I’m not a great pray-er. Part of it relates to my conflicted views about God’s agency in the world, principally prayer designed to get things or have life break my way, though I believe God invites the concerns of our hearts. I think, however, that prayer is less a way of tracking outcomes and more a way of being mindful of God in any and all circumstances. A prayerful person is a less anxious person. A prayerful person is more apt to be patient, less likely to take matters into their own hands.

So, I am convinced that prayerfulness is necessary for a life attentive to God. And I am convinced that prayer as a way of being still before God and listening is more important than prayer that simply piles up requests. The great prayer-ers I know are good at this. And I am convinced that a congregation should be characterized by more than just its public, perfunctory prayers. Prayer should be its way of life.

I guess I would say that a congregation that has prayer as a way of life does more than pray together as occasion arises (illness, big decisions, crisis or opportunity), but prays as a way of being attentive to the leading of God.

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15:28 compliant: considering the testimony of boundary transgressors

One of the implications of the Spirit being poured out on all flesh is that The Spirit’s influence won’t be limited to people you hang out with. And Acts isn’t the story it is without people who transgress the perceived boundaries of the group. There border crossings may very well be instigated by the Holy Spirit.

The big example here is Peter and Cornelius. Peter, staying at Simon the tanner’s house (we’re already in iffy territory), has a vision in which he is told to kill and eat food considered unclean. But Peter is a good church kid and refuses the offer of a little guilt-free bacon. But the Spirit has bigger ideas than Peter and has been working on the Gentile, Cornelius, to send for Peter. Peter provides lodging for them and then travels to stay with Cornelius and enjoy his hospitality, all border crossings. And the Holy Spirit shows up.

As Peter returns to Jerusalem, he is encountered by the boundary police. They care little for a report about the Spirit, or speaking in tongues, or baptism. They want to know if Peter ate with Gentiles. Peter’s story about his time with Cornelius ends up becoming a major part of the reasoning of the church to accept the Gentiles as Gentiles.

My favorite story of boundary transgression comes after the persecution breaks out after the stoning of Stephen. This sends some believers “as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, but they spoke only to Jews.” Except for these guys from Cyprus and Cyrene. They didn’t get the memo. They were low level operatives. They thought “Go, Ye, means Go-im.” (Give it a minute). And so they preached to the Hellenists, and low and behold the Spirit was with them and they became obedient to the gospel. And in Antioch these Gentiles began worshipping with Jews, and Luke tells us this is the first place the early believers were called Christians.

And the boundary police send Barnabas to Antioch to make sure everything is kosher. And later, Christian Pharisees travel to Antioch to insist Gentile believers receive circumcision, the dispute that became the immediate occasion for the Jerusalem conference. The Spirit drew early believers beyond the recognized boundaries of the faithful and drew the church to the moment where a decision had to be made, to the “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” moment.

Apart from disruptions, apart from surprises or things that don’t fit into our framework of understanding, there is simply no need to discern anything, to make sense of anything. All that work has been done and boundaries suitably erected. The status quo rules. This is why I teach my ministry students that one of their evaluative questions should always be, “what was surprising?” This may be a disruption caused by the Spirit that leads to fresh discernment.

This will also require that congregations find ways to value their boundary crossers, people who may feel more comfortable with non-church people than with the Saints, who make the faithful develop a little purity rash, the voices of dissent.

Holy Spirit, Come!

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15:28 compliance: the Spirit poured out on all flesh.

Here’s the question I’m pushing. What environment would have to exist for there to be an Acts 15:28 moment, “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” Let me first say that this is not an environment created by human actors. It is an environment created when the church’s life is tuned to pursuing the leading of the Holy Spirit. It is less that the church builds a cage for the Holy Spirit, and more that the Spirit pulls us into a certain kind of life through our attentiveness.

As I said in my last post, I have several of these. But let’s begin where all good Church of Christ folk do, with Pentecost. But let’s look way ahead of 2:38 and hear Peter’s explanation for the commotion that has grabbed everyone’s attention: the falling of the Spirit on those gathered with fiery tongues that allows what is said to be heard in the language of each one gathered there. This is not, Peter makes clear, a little hair of the dog. Too early for that. This is, instead, the promised pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh. On all flesh. Young and old, male and female, and as Acts will make clear, Jew and Gentile.

So, an environment of attentiveness to the Spirit begins with this Spirit given reality. The Spirit is not the province of some and not others. The Spirit is not just with leaders or with men or with prophets. The Spirit is poured out on all flesh. And the promise of the gospel is similarly for you, for your children, for all who are far off, all who the Lord God calls to him. So, when baptism is offered to the crowd in 2:38, it comes with the promise of the Holy Spirit. All are empowered and ordained for participation in God’s mission.

I think this core conviction of Luke’s understanding of the church is reflected in two very important texts. The first is Acts 6, the choosing of the seven to serve the Hellenistic widows. The second, the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15 when the decision about the mission to the Gentiles is determined. These two stories have several features in common. Both feature decisions that bear upon the spreading of the mission of God. Both involve food. Both involve issues related to Hebrew/Hellenist, Jew/Gentile.

Notably, both occur with the whole assembly gathered. And the decisions reached pleased the whole group. This is what it looks like to make the big decisions when you take seriously the belief that the “Spirit is poured out on all flesh.”

Functionally speaking, I don’t think most congregations organize themselves or make decisions in ways that demonstrate such a conviction. Put another way, I seriously doubt that you can have an “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to US” moment without an “us” that includes all those who have received the Spirit.

Well, that would be chaos, you say. That’s what leadership is for, to make the big decisions and ask us to follow them. I agree that taking this seriously will slow you down and make you less efficient, especially at first. And I’m not suggesting that everything be subjected to congregation wide discernment or that everything be put to a vote. After all, in Acts 15, James, on behalf of the elders and apostles, announces the decision. But what he announces there is not the result of a study done by the elders or staff. What he announces is the shared sense of what the Spirit is up to given all the stories that have bubbled up from “below.”

I recently heard about a meeting between two groups of elders occasioned by one group’s concern that the other was allowing congregational discussion on a controversial topic. The concerned elder group had already come to a conclusion on the matter and didn’t see the value in stirring matters up. “That’s the difference between our way of being elders,” said one of the elders from the other congregation. “You discern for your people. We discern with our people.” Ah, the Spirit poured out on all flesh.

Everything else we will notice in Acts proceeds from this basic conviction. Got some 15:28?

Come, Holy Spirit.

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Why you should come to Streaming, Oct 8-10

Baptized with Fire: The Holy Spirit and Missional Communities

Jerry Taylor will be preaching from Ezekiel 37, the valley of dry bones, and if that doesn’t give you goose bumps of anticipation, then you don’t know either Jerry Taylor or Ezekiel 37 well enough. AND, we will have an African-American church choir lead in that period of worship. Can’t wait.

And while we’re talking preaching, I can’t wait to hear Mallory Wyckoff preach on the groaning of the Spirit and of all creation from Romans 8 in our closing worship. I’ve had Mallory as a student in the Lipscomb DMin program and she is top shelf.

And while we’re mentioning women from Nashville, Claire Frederick Davidson will be doing a “VH1 Storytellers” type presentation, featuring songs written by women in the Tennessee Women’s Prison. Claire’s an accomplished performer and budding theologian who has participated in a project with other Nashville songwriters to bring the words of these women to music. Can’t wait.

And we’ll have other storytelling as well. In Ted-talk format, presenters will be sharing stories of the Holy Spirit, both from their ministry context and from history. Stories from charismatic-Anglican, Disciples of Christ, Churches of Christ, inner city Chicago and Detroit will be told alongside Acts 2, the Montanists, Cane Ridge, Azusa St, the Civil Rights movement, etc. I can’t wait.

I can’t wait, and I haven’t even talked yet about our main presenters.

If you don’t know Amos Yong’s work, you should. He’s a serious theologian and a serious pentecostal, and those things haven’t always gone together. He’s doing so many important things by making pneumatology (teaching/experience related to the Holy Spirit) the centerpiece of contemporary theology. One by one, he finds a new way forward where theology has been at an impasse. And he takes current philosophical and historical perspectives seriously, avoiding the charge of anti-intellectualism so often associated with pentecostal life. Can’t wait.

And it will be so great to sit at Leonard Allen’s feet again. Here’s a Church of Christ guy who brings deep experiences of the Spirit together with searching theology. I find Leonard an enthralling presenter and know you will too. Can’t wait.

There are a few theological adjustments that are absolutely necessary if the word missional is going to mean anything more than churches doing more outreach. One adjustment is related to eschatology and the coming Kingdom of God. The other is the move toward a more participatory understanding of God as Triune. And for both, the Holy Spirit is front and center.

Put more directly, there is no participation in the mission of God apart from the empowering of the Holy Spirit.

If you’re planning to come, registration before September 1 gives you a discount.

If you’re planning to come, share this post with your friends.

If you’d like to come, share this post with your friends.

Holy Spirit, come.

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