Shifting the center of worship from sermon to table

In anticipation of the conference we hosted a few weeks ago, “Everybody Has a Hungry Heart: Worship and the Formation of Missional Communities,” I put out a survey for those who plan and lead worship. The results were revealing in many ways.

People invest a lot of time in worship planning and take it very seriously. We’ve raised the bar in terms of the importance of thoughtful planning, which is good. But we still have a ways to go in how we conceive of worship in the first place.

In the over 50 completed surveys, one thing emerged over all other responses as a shared practice related to worship planning: it begins with and revolves around the sermon.

This is not a surprising insight, especially for those of us in free church traditions (most of the respondents) that do not begin with a fairly set liturgy buttressed by readings from the lectionary. (Although, even the few that completed the survey from more liturgical traditions built their services around the sermon).

I probably wouldn’t have questioned this much before reading Jamie Smith’s books, particularly, Desiring the Kingdom. Smith questions our view of what it means to be human, noting that since the Enlightenment, we’ve tended to think of humans as creatures driven by reason, or ideas. But, a more satisfying view from theological, philosophical, and psychological perspectives, is to see humans as desiring creatures. As the title of Smith’s latest book suggests, we are what we love. And desire is not cultivated or trained primarily by information, but by bodily practices in the world, our habits and routines, or as Smith calls them, liturgies, that hold our lives.

If Smith is right, and surely he is, then what does the fact that we plan worship around preaching say about what we think it means to be human? Do we think of humans as “brains on sticks,” to use Smith’s memorable phrase? One other survey finding might support that we do indeed suppose that formation is primarily a function of rationality. We expect very little in terms of bodily participation from those who worship. As one respondent put it, “We don’t expect our members to do anything except sing.”

Now, don’t get excited here. I’m a preacher and would like to think my sermons make a big difference in people’s lives. And I think good ideas are better than bad ideas or no ideas. Unlike some worship leaders who equate worship with singing, I think a good deal of worship goes on during preaching. No one is saying stop preaching (though occasionally sermons I hear miss two or three good places to end earlier), but we might want to be more realistic about what preaching actually accomplishes (a post about this, perhaps, in the future).

So, let’s keep the sermon and maybe even think more fully about its importance, but what if we built our service around a different telos, or “end,” than the sermon?

What if the service was built around the Lord’s Supper? And by that I mean, what if the planning and design of the service revolved around making the new social arrangements of the gospel visible? OK, let me explain a little. Surely part of the significance of the gospel is that the welcome of God cuts across ways of sorting the world by ethnicity, gender, age, class, etc. In Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. The Spirit has been poured out on all flesh which means that men and women, old and young, servants both male and female, will prophesy (to paraphrase Acts 2). All who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved, without distinction.

The table is the place where these new social realities become most prominently visible, where we welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us, for the glory of God. Admittedly, the way many of us practice communion conceals this reality. We are left to our private meditations as we take individual portions and pass the emblems down rows to faceless participants. Communion is the time, in many worship services, where we are left alone with our thoughts (brains on sticks?).

We’d have to practice communion differently to make visible the new social realities of the gospel embodied among the eschatological people of God (church). In fact, I very seriously doubt that we would have come up with the idea of passing plates down rows in the first place if the social aspects of the table of the Lord were our starting place. I am struck every time I attend a service where I am invited to get up and go to table. The visual impression made by a diverse people being welcomed around one table is striking. Often I have thought, what but the reconciling work of God could have brought these people together?

And, we’re doing things with our bodies and interacting with other bodies. We’ve moved from being worship spectators/consumers to embodying the claims of the gospel on our collective life.

To refer back to the post from two days ago, now the focus of worship is not an excellent performance, but making the diversity of the people of God visible. We would think of leadership roles in worship, not just in relation to who can do the best job (or what gender they are), but in terms of making the reconciled people of God visible.

It might change the ways we think about other parts of our worship, like singing. Consider that toward the end of Romans, Paul exhorts this Jew/Gentile challenged church to “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” He then cites passages from the Psalms that imagine all of humanity with one voice praising God. Singing in worship is not just about you getting your praise on. It’s a public act of solidarity wherein the gracious welcome of God becomes visible. The offering, the sermon, the call to worship and the sending at the end, all would be given a different significance.

I know that this kind of shift from sermon to table as the focus of planning would form a different kind of imagination for who we are and what we do in the world. It would shape our desires differently. It’s tougher to worship around the notion of the welcome of God and then exclude others in the various places we live and work. And it would protect our preachers from the temptations related to celebrity. I think we’d be less compartmentalized in our Sunday lives and our Monday-Saturday lives, less likely to distinguish between the gospel and justice, less likely to see personhood in relation to autonomy, more likely to know in our bones the significance of community. And on and on and on….

Anyway, that’s my proposal. Who’s in?

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When excellence is a guiding principle, is your worship Christian?

At a conference at a Christian University several years ago, I heard Stanley Hauerwas comment on part of the University’s mission statement that used the word “excellence.” As only Hauerwas can say it, “When excellence is in your mission statement, you’ve lost the capacity to be a Christian University.”

I remembered this comment a few weeks ago as I was reading survey responses given by those who plan and lead worship. The word “excellence” was used several times, alongside words like “seamless” and “flow,” words which require a certain competent efficiency.

I remembered Hauerwas’ words again today when I read an article published by The Christian Post that reported on a church in Oregon that bans fat people from serving on the praise team, for, among other reasons, their tendency to interrupt the “flow of anointing” between members of the team. I kid you not. These guidelines, which included many things, were posted on their website until it began attracting negative attention.

Our outrage over this (I hope you’re outraged, but I’m worried that some of you might be thinking, “it’s wrong, but they have a point”) gets at Hauerwas’ point. Their concern over appearance was in part related to the public statement they wanted to make with guests. “You only get one chance to make a good first impression,” the statement read. Fat people need not apply. I wonder about old people, or people with disabilities, or physical deformities. Could a person in a wheel chair even make it onto the worship “stage?”

Richard Beck tells of being invited to share from his book, Unclean, with the ministry staff of a very well-known megachurch. He visited their worship before he met with them, and they asked him about his impressions of their worship. He responded that there was no death visible. They were certainly not expecting this response, and asked him to explain. Everyone who led in their very polished worship experience, he explained, was young and pleasant in appearance. Death denial. They were shocked that this was the case, perhaps an indication that all of this works on us at a very subconscious level.

These kinds of worship experiences certainly do leave a first impression. We’re about the appearance of wholeness and vitality. We’re hoping you find us attractive and enjoy your time with us. We’d never do anything intentionally to offend you or put you off. And for an hour on Sunday, you too can live in this world of appearances. Excellence. And here’s the thing. Excellence is exclusionary.

So, what would a Christian first impression be? Wouldn’t it have to be a little scandalous? Wouldn’t it have to give an impression of gracious inclusion, that all are welcome here just as they are? Wouldn’t it have to publicly exhibit the fact that our world is not perfect and you don’t have to be either? Wouldn’t we have to exhibit in some way our brokenness? Wouldn’t it have to demonstrate that the people our society would hide or overlook have a vital and visible place here?

I attended a church in Durham, NC, recently that gave just this kind of impression. The worship band was diverse, as were all who led publicly. Young and old, black and white and hispanic, male and female. The entire service was done in both English and Spanish, even though there didn’t appear to be many “Spanish as first language” people present. At one point in the service, they opened it up for anyone to speak around a prompt that had emerged from the sermon. Talk about a “flow” killer. The first speaker was a young man with down syndrome dressed in a suit and tie. Earlier in the service, he had walked in front of the praise band to get to his seat while doing some version of the funky chicken. At this point in the service, he enthusiastically took the mic and said some things that sounded sufficiently churchy, even if they weren’t fully coherent. The church applauded when he finished. I bet there aren’t that many public places he can go and hold the microphone and speak and be so warmly affirmed. And I bet there aren’t many places where the members of this church work that would appreciate or encourage this kind of thing. That’s Christian worship.

I could give several other examples of how that congregation gave a first impression of inclusion. I wondered if I were that church’s pastor, if I would’ve been cool with all that, particularly of giving the mic to anybody. I recently visited one of my former congregations and was stunned when a particularly challenging member of the congregation led a prayer. To my shame, I knew that would never have happened when I was there. What value was I protecting by resisting that level on inclusion? Probably something to do with excellence or efficiency.

My friend, Erik, who is on our grad program and lives his life in a wheelchair, is very kind to gently point out ways that I haven’t fully thought about the experience of people like him. At our conference a little over a week ago, Jaime Clark-Soles talked of her experience in imagining church from the perspective of people with disabilities. She says she’ll never see church the same way again. I know that parents of “special-needs” children often give up on going to church because its moving too fast for them to participate. They often feel disruptive and left out. Shouldn’t their inclusion be a test of the gospel in worship?

I can hear some of you hissing. You’ll never reach people that way. Agreed. Some you won’t. Some won’t think that this kind of public display represents much good news. It will be too embarrassing, too many smells and sights and sounds. But some will. The poor, the lame, the blind, the crippled. Let the reader understand.


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The Patient Practice of Sail Making

A little excerpt from the book I’m trying to finish on Luke’s view of the church.

The movement and power of the Holy Spirit explains the practices and shape of the church in Acts. This statement bears some emphasis. In my tradition, structure and practices were constitutive of the church. We were the church because we had the right polity and the right practices of worship. When this is your view of the church, you have little need for the Holy Spirit. Consequently, our congregations are not built for discernment. We prize control and mastery, rather than surprise and pliability. If the church is a boat, we are building oars to propel the boat under our own power, rather than sails to receive the empowering wind of the Holy Spirit. My sense is that most congregations are building oars (or engines!) rather than sails. Put plainly, many congregations are built for taking initiative rather than receiving power. So, what would it take to put them in the business of sail making? Or, how would a community be structured to make it’s posture more receptive?

Jesus’ instruction to his followers is to wait. In our world, we earn no cultural cred for waiting. Waiting sounds to us like a waste of time. It makes us think of the DMV or the long lines of an amusement park. Waiting is non-productive, and we feel valuable only when we are producing or consuming. Waiting is slow and we value fast. Congregations, too often, double down on this cultural value. Instead of slowing the pace, we pile on, equating membership in a church with program involvement. “We don’t want you to simplify your life or slow you down,” we tell our parishioners, “we want to provide you with spiritual fuel so that you can navigate your hurried life better.”

The anecdotal evidence for hurried congregations seems overwhelming. Congregations are veritable beehives of activity, to the point that the program life of the congregation becomes the proverbial tail wagging the dog. The infrastructure needs of a program driven church are enormous and require constant feeding. Recruiting staffing for various programs, especially for children and youth, is never ending. Even a small congregation will list dozens of ministries on their websites, hoping to impress would-be members that they can meet their needs the way larger congregations can.

Those who plan and organize worship will tell you that worship is on the clock every week and that the one thing it cannot be is boring. As a result, “dead time,” or silence, is almost never intentional, but a mistake, the result of poor planning. I recently had a pastor tell me that they stopped processing to the Lord’s Supper table, opting instead to pass the emblems down the aisles, because it took too long for everyone to move to tables. “There are only a few things,” he said, “for which we are willing to lengthen a service.” Apparently the sacrament of the Eucharist is not one of them. I seldom attend a congregation that invites its members during worship into contemplative space, slow space, attentive space.

When I consult with congregational leaders, I try to impress upon them the importance of practices of attentiveness so that they can lead the congregation in discerning the leading of the Holy Spirit. They often claim that this seems like weak leadership. It seems indecisive and takes way too much time. Members reinforce this perception, urging leaders to state a direction, any direction, and lead. To them, the one thing leadership cannot include is waiting. Activity, busyness, urgency. These communicate purpose and direction. It’s oar building.

I’ve mentioned the word “attentiveness” several times now. The cost of a frenetic life is a loss of attentiveness. Philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Charles Taylor have taught me to think of the importance of attentiveness in relation to our being in the world. All of us function in in the world in relation to a shared imagination, what Taylor calls a “social imaginary.” In other words, our life in the world comes with shared assumptions that are necessary for us to navigate life. We can’t rethink these assumptions as we participate in the world. We have to assume that driving on the right side of the road is a shared value (in most places), or that the proper place to join a line is at the end, and that being a Cubs fan inevitably involves disappointment. In small ways and great ways, in ways articulated and tacit, we assume a shared world. And the faster the world goes, the more things we have to assume. This map, or social imaginary, is the world as it appears to us, not necessarily the world as it actually is. By necessity, as we hurry through our world, we lose our ability to attend to things, to let things appear to us on their own terms. We lose the capacity for surprise and reflection. We’re imposing a world instead of receiving a world.

I’m convinced that all spiritual practices worth their salt in some way slow us down. They don’t just interrupt our regular routines, they invite us into a slower way of being in the world so that we might be more attentive, and through attentiveness to discern more clearly the leading of God’s Spirit. They put us, not in a posture of grasping or acquiring, but of receiving or waiting.

So, waiting for power from on high is more than a detail specific to Acts 1 (i.e., in this instance, wait for power from on high). Rather, waiting is a posture necessary for receiving and participating in the powerful movement of the Holy Spirit. And leaders in contemporary congregations face an uphill battle in convincing themselves and others that waiting is a powerful action. It is, however, the necessary posture for all the observations that will be made in following chapters. Being drawn together into the life of the Holy Spirit is impossible apart from waiting. It does take more time initially than organizational cultures that value speed and efficiency, but over time the patient practices related to waiting create a powerful ecology that bears enduring fruit. These practices eventually become a powerful way of life.

Let me repeat the contrast I’m drawing here. The contrast is not between slow and fast, though sometimes waiting can seem slow. The contrast is between God’s initiative and the church’s, between building oars or sails. If our desire is to create a posture in our congregation and its members of attentiveness to the Holy Spirit, then practices related to waiting constitute the fastest path toward that end.


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Tell a Story, Change the World

I’ve said in this space many times that information is a fairly weak instigator for change. We don’t change much, generally speaking, just because we receive new information. We tend to absorb new information into the frameworks we already have in place. And these frameworks are related to stories we’ve learned to tell about ourselves and our world.

So, deep-down-big-change requires at least two things. First, significant change requires new experiences that disrupt business as usual. Second, new narratives have to be told that take the disruption as the starting place for a new account of things. And this is where we are failing.

I think we have a lot of experimenting going on. Congregations are trying new things all over the place. But the potential these experiments hold for deep culture change is largely dissipated because we lack sufficient reflection that would ultimately lead to story-telling. We tend to reflect on new experiences around one question: did this work? To which I want to ask, work according to what framework? In other words, the question “did it work” tends to be answered from our current frameworks of understanding, thus robbing us of the ability to provide a new account of things. Reflection around different questions–my favorites are “what are we learning” and “what surprised us”–lead to new narratives.

But I am convinced that we are also in need of story-tellers. Not everyone can make narrative sense out of the confusion of new experiences. So, when we find story-tellers with this capacity, we have to encourage them.

So, with regard to missional innovation, the moment we are in is not an information moment. While gains can still be made by connecting the mission of God to Trinitarian theology or good eschatology, the biggest catalyst for transformation will be the sharing of stories. And I’ve been trying to encourage the story-tellers. And I’ve found a few good ones. I’ve been reading Bruce Logue’s reflections for awhile now. Bruce is launched into a deep and meaningful learning curve. He’s re-learning ministry in the new, trying, and exciting environment of a new kind of Christian community. You can find his stories here.

If you have stories, and I’m also very interested in stories within existing congregations, let me know where you’re telling them. We need to hear them. Tell a story, change the world.

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Blessed are those who believe without seeing

Wouldn’t you kill for a paragraph or two in the NT on what should happen in the worship assembly? Maybe we could put to death some of our worship wars. Alas, no NT writer ever weighed in on the appropriate style of music or whether sermons should be topical or textual. In fact, I think much of the NT assumes views of worship carried over from the temple and synagogue, practices developed over time and modeled most clearly in the Psalms.

This is not to say the NT has nothing to say about worship, it’s just that what is said is embedded in narratives or assumed in theological arguments. So, what is said about worship is fairly indirect and must be teased out theologically. Since we have no NT manual for worship, we have to think about what we do in relation to the God who is the subject of our worship and what it means to live in praiseworthy ways in the world God created.

There is, however, one direct statement about worship in the NT that is both deserving of our attention and frustratingly vague in its application. When Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, she poses a question about worship to him. “Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” She tries to pull Jesus into a worship war to deflect his queries into her personal life.

Jesus responds, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

Well, that’s clear. We must worship in spirit and truth. My hunch is that the various worship traditions represented by contemporary Christianity all think they are in compliance with this statement, but have very different views about what it means. Some place the stress on the word “spirit,” others on the word “truth.” All would agree that something huge is at stake in the phrase “spirit and truth.”


Jamie was born in Michigan, just a few miles from RC, but hadn’t been here since she was 3. I was excited that she came to visit recently with her mom. She can’t wait for Streaming.

I’m not sure I’m the one to shed a lot of light on this text. Fortunately, we have Jamie Clark-Soles coming to Streaming to help us think about worship in relation to the Gospel of John. Jamie is a Johannine scholar from Perkins School of Theology at SMU. She is also very concerned with the renewal of the church in North America in our post-Christendom context. My first instinct in encountering Jesus’ statement to the woman at the well is to say it needs to be answered first in relation to the world imagined by the Gospel of John. So, I’m anxious for Jamie to help us explore the contours of John’s gospel with this question in mind.

Here, I will offer only one suggestion. In John, both seeing and hearing play a role in creating belief. Seeing creates initial belief, but hearing is necessary for deeper belief. In a crucial text near the end of the gospel, Thomas believes because he has seen the resurrected Jesus and touched his wounds. Jesus does not rebuke Thomas for his need to see, but offers a blessing that indicates the priority of hearing: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

I’ve often thought that much of what passes for worship renewal these days runs along the rails of seeing. We want the experience of worship to be immediate, to produce in the moment. The one thing, then, that we can’t be is boring. We are constantly giving people something to “see.” Hearing is a much more patient endeavor, requiring the capacity to be still, to be attentive, to be reflective. Perhaps I’m wrong about this, but I think it’s worth asking if our worship aims too much at the more superficial level of seeing, not enough at the deepening capacity of hearing.

Come to Streaming and help us extent this important conversation.

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Worship Planning: what are we aiming at?

I am often struck by how much thought goes into planning worship these days. Back in the day, worship planning often meant the song leader picking out songs on the front row right before worship (with enough time to slide the song numbers in the board at the front, next to the attendance and giving board). These were usually the song leader’s favorites. There was seldom thought given to themes or how the service might flow or build. In Churches of Christ, we thought of worship differently then. We were satisfying “acts of worship,” not so much curating an experience for worshippers. Though informal, we had set prayers and liturgical pieces (“guide, guard, and direct us,” “help us to take this in a manner worthy,” “separate and apart from the Lord’s Supper,” “we lay aside in store”). These stock phrases reminded us that worship was satisfying a list or approved practices of worship.

Surely, the thought that goes into worship planning now is an upgrade over the “guide, guard, and direct us” days.

I’ve put out a worship planning survey in advance of our Streaming conference, Oct 6-8, featuring Jaimie Smith from Calvin College. Our theme is, “Everybody has a Hungry Heart: Worship and the formation of missional communities,” a theme which allows us to consider the relationship between worship and the formation of communities. (I’ve gotten good response, but hope to add more in the next few weeks). The surveys to this point bear out my observation that a considerable amount of effort goes into the planning of worship in most places.

I have other observations from the surveys that deserve further attention. First, the planning process is very sermon-centric. This is particularly true among “free churches” that don’t rely on lectionary readings, but even in more “liturgical” churches, many choices are not made until after the sermon’s direction has been set. Most planners talked about the sermon as setting a “theme” for the worship. And in my own worship planning days, this was certainly how things went.

I was struck several years ago by a comment from Luke Timothy Johnson related to his being asked to speak in chapel at Candler School of Theology. Johnson was taken aback by the suggestion that there would be a “theme,” supplied by his message, that would become the strategic focus of worship planning. This seemed to him to be manipulative and presumptuous. This approach to worship planning sought to manufacture a certain experience in the worship participants, primarily an affective response of some sort (inspired, moved, etc). It was presumptuous of those leading worship to assume we know what best outcome there might be for worship and worshippers and that somehow we can manage God’s work in worship.

Those provocative words have troubled me ever since, and I think he’s on to something. At the very least, every preacher and worship planner knows very well the experience that what was planned or hoped for was not what came to fruition, and often what was not anticipated was better. Still, I think thoughtful planning is better than not, though I would begin now with the lectionary and the time we occupy on a liturgical calendar, not the sermon theme for the day. But I think Johnson’s critique might occasion other important questions.

It seems clear from the surveys at this point that the worship planners are typically aiming at the interior of the individual worshipper, whether that be a rational or emotional aim. One of the strengths of Jaimie Smith’s work is his critique of a modern anthropology, namely that humans are self-possessing, autonomous individuals, and that the interior life counts above all else. It’s pretty easy to make this argument from our worship practices. Increasingly, our worship spaces are theaters for the head and heart, stages, video screens and sound monitors replacing the table, or even the pulpit, as the symbol of worship. I am not opposed to these things in general (though would someone put a table somewhere visible in the worship space), but offer them as evidence that the aim of worship is often the interior of the individual. If you can’t imagine a different aim than that, then this underscores my point.

Other things could be the aim of worship. For instance, the making visible of a redemptive, reconciling community might be the aim, in which case, theater seating and a big stage would be a poor venue. Or we might imagine that the aim of worship might be bringing God’s concern for the world more into focus. Often, we are encouraged to leave the world behind when we come to worship, reinforced somewhat subliminally by the lack of art or plants or windows in our sanctuaries. Mark Noll once suggested changing a lyric in the song, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus,” from “the things of this world will grow strangely dim” to “the things of this world will become strangely clear.” Our hymnody, architecture, suburban locations, etc, all seem to communicate that the church is a sanctuary from the world, not an outpost for the Kingdom of God.

Let me be quick to say here that our worship does things we do not intend and that there are important ways that community and belonging to the world are fostered by what we do in worship. And God certainly cares about the interior of the individual. But our aim matters, and, at the very least, we should be aware of how our aim(s) are shaping communities of faith.

I hope we can talk about this some at Streaming in October. Hope you’ll come.

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Worship and the formation of missional communities

While barrels of ink have been used to explore all things missional, very little of it has been used to talk about the relationship of missional communities and worship. I think the primary reasons are two-fold. First, many people still think of missional only as things done outside the four walls of the church. “We’re out their doing missional things,” is an ill-informed comment I often hear. Worship, then is one thing, missional something else. Second, worship has been so over-identified with the experience of church that missional true-believers shy away from it in favor of themes more immediately associated with the social realities of the Kingdom of God. As Craig Van Gelder has aptly stated the problem, “in North America, worship has replaced Christianity” (or something to that effect). So, if you’re in the business of rescuing Christianity from worship, then you don’t write as much about worship.

But there are huge gains to be made by thinking worship and mission together. To this end, our ministry conference this year is taking as its theme, “Everybody has a hungry heart: worship and the formation of missional communities.” And we’ve invited the absolute best presenter for the subject, Jaimie Smith of Calvin College.

16478344637_9ce25a995c_kSmith’s books, Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom, along with his new book, You are What You Love, make the case that humans are not brains on sticks, primarily driven by reason, but are desiring creatures, driven by what we love. And we learn to love through our bodily practices. Smith makes several applications around these basic themes, the most significant being that we learn to desire the Kingdom of God through the bodily practices of worship. Our desires are formed through liturgy, the repetitive, embodied practices of worship.

This is good theology, it seems to me, but I was curious if my psychology friends like Richard Beck thought this was good psychology as well. From what they’ve told me, pretty good psychology as well.

So, if Smith is on to something here, then two questions pose themselves: 1) Why have our worship liturgies not done a better job shaping the next generation of Christians? Or, are other cultural liturgies more powerful and pervasive than the ones being offered in congregations? 2) Why don’t our current liturgies produce missional communities? Or, if “missional” represents a deep cultural shift within congregations, and if worship is a key to such deep formational shifts, then what must worship become to embody missional community?

These are the questions we will be pursuing this October 6-8 at Rochester College. Joining Jamie on the program will be Gospel of John scholar Jamie Clark-Soles (Perkins, SMU), Randy Harris and Richard Beck (ACU) and Naomi Walters (Rochester College).

Jamie suggested our conference title, “Everybody has a hungry heart,” which is of course an excuse to feature the Springsteen catalog at the conference. We have some special plans along these lines for opening night of the conference,




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God’s peace, Jesus’ death,and the unmasking of the myth of redepmtive violence

This is a long post, but a little taste of what I’ve been working on instead of blogging. It’s a hard word for us, but I think a necessary one–a saving, hope-filled one. I am following, in part, the work of Mark Heim in his important book, Saved from Sacrifice.

In the church of my boyhood, the story of Pentecost was very important. It was the birth of the church, after all, and we were all about restoring the New Testament church. But not every part of Acts 2 was equally important to us. Tongues and signs and wonders belonged, we supposed, to the apostolic age and had ceased. So, we didn’t emphasize the opening verses when we talked about Acts 2. All of us, however, had verse 38 memorized. “Repent and be baptized…,” and some other stuff. For us, Acts 2 was important because it gave us an important description of how people were saved. While Acts 2:38 is a dramatic part of Peter’s sermon, I have come to believe that placing our focus here has obscured for us the central drama of the text.    For us, as for many Protestants, the animating question of the New Testament was “how does an individual sinner receive forgiveness of sins and secure a home in heaven?” If this is the animating question of the New Testament, then Acts 2:38 might very well be the central focus of the Pentecost narrative. But what if the animating question is different than the question of personal forgiveness and a heavenly home? For instance, what if the central question of the New Testament is closer to what Jesus focused on with his disciples in the days following his resurrection: the Kingdom of God. A question that places the Kingdom of God at the center of the New Testament story might sound something like this: “How is God at work in history to bring all of creation back under his gracious and righteous rule?” Or, we might put it in other terms that Luke uses, “How is God at work to establish his peace, or shalom, in all creation?” This is a very different question than the one about personal forgiveness and heaven. 

These questions are connected, but the priority given to one over the other makes a significant difference. For instance, favoring the second question–the shalom question–draws our eye more to what God is doing than what humans are doing, and this is always an upgrade, theologically speaking. In turn, this shift emphasizes God’s agency in the world, how it is that God establishes peace in ways that differ from human efforts to establish peace. Or how would God establish his reign in ways that differ from Herod or Pilate or Caesar or even Caiphas? It is only within this larger question of the establishment of God’s reign, or shalom, that individuals find their lives in line with God’s life. We might think here of the critique of the prophets, like Amos, who criticize the solemn assemblies of Israel’s worship while the demands of justice are overlooked. Or we might think of Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees who are religiously observant, but neglect the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy. 

I think of a multi-campus church not far from me that just announced an impressive capital campaign of several million dollars to make their campuses more appealing to prospective members. All of their campuses are in upscale communities, this in an area that features ravaged communities like Detroit, Pontiac, and Flint. Why not plant congregations of God’s people who are called to serve the world in communities like these? Their rationale is related to the first question. They are reaching more people with the gospel, which for them is related primarily to personal salvation. I wonder if their church planting strategy might change if the the question about God’s shalom had priority. So, the shift in questions is significant.

    But what difference would this shift mean for our reading of Acts 2? I would suggest that it changes the way we read Peter’s sermon in significant ways. For instance, I think the question about God’s kingdom places verses 32-33 at the high point of Peter’s sermon, not verse 38: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear.” In a very succinct way, Peter explains the experience of Pentecost in trinitarian language around the theme of the Kingdom of God. The Father has raised Jesus from the dead and exalted to him to a position of authority at his right hand. In doing so, the Father has made Jesus, Israel’s messiah, Lord–the one who reigns. And Jesus has received from the Father, the “promise of the Holy Spirit,” the effective agent and source of power for God’s reign to be embodied in human communities. Moreover, the dramatic events of verses 1-4 are the result of Jesus having poured out the Spirit whom he received from the Father. Father, Son, and Spirit are working toward the establishment of the Kingdom of God.

    Peter’s sermon, then, is about what God has accomplished related to establishing his effective rule through Jesus, and now through the giving of the Holy Spirit. Everything in the sermon revolves around this theme. The odd experiences of the sound of a violent wind along with the appearance of tongues of fire and subsequent astonishment that comes from every person gathered hearing what is being said in their own native language are a fulfillment of what was spoken by the prophet Joel. “In the last days,” the Holy Spirit will to be poured out on all flesh, and your sons and daughters will prophesy. The pouring out of the Spirit is a sign that the last days have come, that the glorious day of the Lord is near, the day when God’s ultimate reign will be established, and salvation will be available to all who call on the name of the Lord. The rest of Peter’s sermon demonstrate that what the crowd now sees and hears is the result of what God has accomplished through Jesus of Nazareth. This one was “attested to you by God through mighty deeds of power, signs and wonders that God accomplished through him in your presence.” He was handed over “by you” to be killed by those outside the law, but God raised him up, confirming him as both Lord and Messiah. This is the thrust of the sermon.

    The sermon is about our second question (God’s shalom), and not our first (the salvation of an individual). The audience is cut to the heart because they have found themselves on the wrong side of history. They are culpable in the death of the one to whom God attested through “deeds of power, signs and wonders,” having even handed Israel’s messiah to be killed by those outside the law. Not only that, but the one they killed is alive and ruling, seated at the right hand of the Father.

    To fully appreciate this moment, I want to focus on Jesus’ own understanding of his death in the gospel of Luke. Jesus consistently aligns his pending death with the previous deaths of God’s prophets. At a strategic moment in Luke’s gospel, after having already predicted his death on two occasions, Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem” (9:51). A few chapters later he offers a lament over Jerusalem: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (13:34).This lament over Jerusalem matches woes delivered to the Pharisees in 11:37-52. At the conclusion of a string of woes, Jesus implicates them in the killing of God’s prophets from “Abel to Zechariah.”
Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs. Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation. 11:47-52.
In setting his face to Jerusalem, Jesus is clearly aligning his death with the “blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world,” for which “this generation”” will be held responsible. The judgement against “this generation” finds an echo in Peter’s sermon in Acts 2. After calling the crowd to repentance and baptism, “he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying,’Save yourselves from this corrupt generation'” (Acts 2:40). Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection in Luke clearly has something to do with this identification with the righteous who have suffered unjustly throughout history. The salvation offered by Jesus in Luke might very well cover road rage or impure thoughts or cheating on an exam, but it is specifically offered in Acts 2 to those who find themselves on the complicity side of killing God’s prophets, reaching a culmination in the unjust killing of Jesus. But how does Jesus’ death in this circumstance offer salvation?

    As a kid, if we had a really good song leader that Sunday (I worship in an acapella tradition), we might go for it and sing “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” And in the literal sense, we were not there. But when we sang, “sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble,” I knew there must be some way that I was there and was complicit. I think something similar is going on here. The people in Acts 2 did not participate in the killing of Jesus the way that Pilate or Herod or the High Priest did, or even in the way Judas did when he betrayed Jesus or Peter when he denied him. It’s not personal guilt that Jesus is concerned about in Luke 11 or that Peter is in Acts 2. The problem is much bigger than personal guilt. The problem is the way the world works. The problem is that God keeps sending prophets and the world as it is arranged keeps killing them.

    At the climax of the scenes related to Jesus’ trial, Luke makes it clear that his killing is a group effort. “Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people,” he reports. This is bigger than the decision of an evil person or group of people. The momentum that leads to Jesus’ death sentence feels more like a social contagion. This is underlined by Pilate’s repeated findings of Jesus’ innocence. Four times, including three in this climactic scene, Pilate finds “no grounds for sentencing him to death” (23:). But the crowd is unmoved by Pilate’s finding and shouts over him, “Crucify him!” They prefer that Pilate release Barabbas, a convicted insurrectionist and murderer. Trading Jesus for Barabbas makes no sense from a public safety standpoint. The crucifixion of Jesus is not about justice, but unmasks a deeper motivation to maintain social control and cohesion. Though Pilate finds nothing in Jesus to sentence him to death, he gives in to the crowd’s desire to crucify him, conceivably to avoid the social unrest that might come if he refused. More, Luke reports that one result of the series of interrogations that Jesus faces is “(t)hat same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies” (23:12). Herod, Pilate, the chief priests, and the people all find a place of unity in the violent death of Jesus. The killing of Jesus has kept, and even made, the peace.

    The thing about belonging to a way of being in the world that keeps the peace through violence is that the victims need to stay dead. Jesus knew this. His woes against the Pharisees and lawyers seem to indicate this. He compares the Pharisees “to unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it” (11:44). While the image requires interpretation, Jesus seems to be saying that their surface observance of the law obscures the neglect of deeper matters related to justice. Their piety, in this case, covers death. The image is more explicitly tied to the killing of prophets in Jesus’ condemnation of the lawyers. The lawyers build tombs for the prophets who their ancestors killed. This might be interpreted in two ways. One reading is to say that by building the tombs, they approve of the activity of their ancestors. I think the implication of Jesus’ words, however, runs deeper. They are honoring these who were unjustly killed, blunting the offense of the violence, burying it, literally. They are using the deaths of the prophets as propaganda for the very system that killed them.

    The inconvenient matter in the killing of Jesus is that he didn’t stay dead. The amazing scene of Acts 2:1-4 is explained by Peter as the result of God having raised this Jesus from the dead. Not only that, but this one who was raised from the dead wasn’t just any prophet, but Israel’s messiah. And not only have they killed the one they long expected and hoped for, but this Jesus is the very Lord who now reigns over the Kingdom of God and who will judge the living and dead. Peter ends the sermon with the worst words possible, “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). Oops.

    They were cut to the heart, is the way Luke describes their reaction. I might have said they felt nauseous, got weak in the knees, lost bowel control. They have found themselves serving the wrong kingdom. It’s not what they thought they were doing. They are, after all, Luke tells us, “devout Jews from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:). Jesus knew this as well, praying from the cross, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing” (Luke 23:34). But having found themselves on the wrong side of the appearing of God’s kingdom, they might likely have expected divine condemnation or retribution. “Brothers, what shall we do?” might better be understood, “Brothers, is there anything we can do?”

    Perhaps Luke has prepared us to interpret their question this way given Jesus’ parable of the “wicked tenants” in Luke 20:9-16. In this parable, the owner of a vineyard leaves it in the care of tenants. When the owner sends slaves to collect the proceeds from the vineyard, the tenants beat the slaves, refusing to pay. Desperate, the owner sends his son. Surely, they will respect the son. But they kill the son, hoping the vineyard will be theirs. “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them?” Jesus asks. “He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” God, in this case the owner of the vineyard, has repeatedly sent prophets, and now even his son, and the tenants keep violently oppressing them, even killing the son, deluded into thinking this act might even secure for them an inheritance. It would not be hard for those in the crowd to see themselves as the wicked tenants and expect that God might destroy them and give their inheritance to someone else. In fact, in a world ordered by retributive violence, this is exactly what should be done. 

Truth be told, some in Luke’s story might have expected God’s vengeance on the Gentiles who have ruled over them and oppressed them. At John the Baptist’s birth, Zechariah sings of God’s deliverance “from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” (Luke 1:71, also 1:74). That this deliverance might take the form of vengeance could very well be the expectation of the hometown crowd who hears Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Luke 4. There, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61, a text which proclaims Jubilee for Israel, namely “the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus does not read the entire text of Isaiah 61, however, leaving out “and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn” (Is 61:2). Israel’s comfort here depends in part on being avenged by God for their treatment at the hands of their oppressors. The audience in Luke 4 is favorably inclined toward Jesus, until he reminds them of God’s good treatment of Gentiles in the days of both Elijah and Elisha, perhaps indicating that his omission of the last few lines of Is 61:1-2 was no oversight. God’s salvation for Israel will not come with retributive violence for Israel’s oppressors. God will not oppress others for the sake of their comfort. God’s peace will come another way.

Neither will God’s vengeance come for the crowd in Acts 2. “Repent and be baptized, for the forgiveness of your sins and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” is Peter’s word of grace. Of all the remarkable things that happens at Pentecost, Peter’s offer of the Holy Spirit for those who handed Jesus over to death might very well be the most remarkable. They have not forfeited their right to be a part of a different way of making peace. “For the promise is for you,” Peter continues, “and for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:38-39). 

This is a remarkable story. We often think of the violent death of Jesus as something required by God in order to forgive. Seen this way, violence can be redemptive, a way to make peace. But Luke gives us a different picture. The innocent death of Jesus and his subsequent resurrection pulls back the curtain on the myth of redemptive violence. Jesus stands with all the prophets unjustly killed, their deaths hidden or forgotten, or worse, commemorated in a way that serves the interests of the very system that put them to death. Jesus would deliver us from this way of making peace, in part by showing it for what it is, injustice. More, as Lord of the alternative way of the Kingdom of God, he offers us the power to live in a different kind of peace through the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. The crowd at Pentecost, and we ourselves, are called to be liberated from “this corrupt generation,” to repent and receive God’s offer of peace–forgiveness for our complicity in this way of making the world and the reception of God’s Holy Spirit. Salvation is not just the forgiveness of personal sins, but the offer to belong to a different kind of kingdom.

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Love as the way of knowing

Paul says this great thing in the opening verses of Philippians. His prayer for them is “that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best…” This is not the way I’ve thought about things. It’s teaching, or information, that overflows more and more in knowledge and understanding so that I can determine what is best. This is not what Paul thinks. It’s not that teaching is unimportant. He does a lot of teaching in his letters, obviously. But Christian understanding abounds in relation to love. 

Now, it’s not surprising that I would have learned to see information as the key to insight and understanding. I’m a cultural heir of a religious tradition that has prized the rational. If we “think it,” we’ve done it. We’ve valued sound doctrine and gospel meetings and preaching and teaching. We like to figure things out. And this is not bad, and I’m particularly thankful for the tradition of strong preaching we have in Churches of Christ. But we haven’t been known much for love. Sadly, we may have a lot of facts, but not know very much.

I’m currently re-reading Jamie Smith’s books, Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom. Smith wouldn’t be surprised with the emphasis in Churches of Christ on right thinking. We are, after all, heirs of the Enlightenment, and what Smith calls a Cartesian anthropology. By Cartesian anthropology (marking the influence of the philosopher Rene Descartes), he means that we understand what it means to be human in relation to the life of the mind. Our actions proceed from our conscious thought, or the way our minds order the world. Smith suggests instead that we are driven by desire. We behave according to what we desire, or love–what we worship. And desire is formed, not primarily through information, but through habits and practices–the way we live in the world.

Smith’s voice is not alone. (I would also point readers to the work of Esther Meek, Longing to Know and Loving to Know). In fact, he is following the insights of neuroscience that correspond to notions of philosophers in the phenomenological tradition (Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, among others). Much of our understanding is pre-cognitive and comes to us through bodily participation in the world. We develop practical knowledge, or know-how, by attending with others (including creation) to our world with care.

This matches Paul’s statement in Phil 1 that Christian insight and understanding comes from love, a way of being in the world that is attuned to the other. In fact, this is what transforms our thinking. As we live putting the interest of others ahead of our own, we learn to perceive the world differently. Or as he puts it in Romans 12, the secret to a renewed mind is offering ourselves as a living sacrifice, and we do that through practices: eg, associating with the lowly, offering hospitality to strangers, blessing those who curse you, rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep. This is how we “prove what is the will of God, what is good, acceptable, and perfect,” or as Paul puts it in Philippians 1, determining “what is best.”

Christian understanding, then, depends on empathy. We do not come to Christian understanding by marshaling arguments into a fortress of impregnable doctrine. This way of knowing is an attempt to be self-possessing, to secure ourselves by being right. Efforts at self-possessing, which I think Paul might call “the way of the flesh,” reduce our capacity for empathy for those who do not dwell with us in our citadel of belief. Sound familiar? Our knowledge cannot abound, in these instances. It can only defend its perimeters and congratulate its possessors. As Paul says, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

In contrast, the purest path to Christian understanding is through the loving of enemies. As Jesus says, there is no credit for loving your friends. Anyone can pull that off. The real trick is blessing those who curse you, praying for those who persecute you, acting kindly toward those who hate you. Paul goes so far as to say that the love with which Christ loved us while we were enemies to God, is the very love Christ pours into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. 

This kind of love calls us beyond ourselves. To love this way, we cannot be content to dwell within our self-possessing walls of certainty. In the way of love given by the Holy Spirit, others become, not threats to our boudaries of understanding, but doors through which love may abound with greater insight. Wisdom deepens. Insight is broadened. Know-how is enhanced. We learn to perceive the world differently, to see it the way God might see it. 

Let me be clear here. The knowledge that abounds through love is knowledge of God. We may or may not know our enemy better. Even if we know our enemy better, they may still be our enemy, though mutual understanding is the surest way to peace. But God becomes known to us through love. God is most clearly present to us and to others when we practice the love of Christ. There are all kinds of reasons for this, but the biggest might be the way we learn to respond to our vunerabilities, not with fear, but with trust. Vulnerable love can only proceed in trust–not the trust of the other, but trust in God–which opens space for knowing God. Fear reduces the space for knowing. Trust widens it.

Maybe you’re skeptical. Maybe the principalities and powers of this world have convinced you otherwise. Maybe you see Christian love as impractical, a sucker’s bet, in a world where no one else lives this way. I get it. I too sometimes despair. So, find one place today to love this way and see if there isn’t a little abounding in understanding. Begin to forgive someone who has wronged you. Choose to be hospitable in a situation in which you are usually closed. Weep with someone who is weeping. See if the God of Jesus Christ show up and love abounds in knowledge and full insight.

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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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