Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Church Hunt: “Where Can I Find Community?”

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Since arriving in St. Louis, Jenny, the kids, and I have been spending time worshipping in a variety of different churches.  While we’re holding off getting involved in a church until we know where I will be stationed for my Field Education, we have approached this process as if we were looking for a church to join as newcomers to the area.  We’ve tried to be anonymous and just see what it is like being a random family entering a new church for the first time.  It has been an eye-opening experience.  In the coming weeks I’m going to be posting about some of these visits, but before I do that I wanted to take a couple of posts to talk about how to select a church and what to look for.

As I was cleaning out some of my files the other day I ran across a handout that I used to give to my graduating seniors when I worked in college ministry.  It is entitled “Getting Involved in a Local Church”.  As I was reading through it I realized that it has a lot of really good advice.  It was adapted by one of my former supervisors from the book Following Jesus in the “Real World” by Rich Lamb.  It poses a series of questions that every person should ask when evaluating a church along with some comments.

In his opening comments he writes the following:

Just because God may be at work in a particular church doesn’t necessarily imply you should join it.  Many factors contribute to preferences in church selection; obviously it would be foolish to talk about preferential factors.  It would be like saying, “You should only eat chocolate chip ice cream.”  But some aspects of a church are not like eating chocolate chip ice cream – they are more like bread and butter, or meat and potatoes (or for some people, sprouts and tofu).  They are essential for a healthy diet, not simply dessert after a meal.  It is helpful to ask some probing questions.

The first evaluative question he poses is:  “Where can I find community?”  Here is what he has to say:

Though essential, finding satisfying community in the context of church can be difficult.  Do community-forming structures exist?  Church small group structures vary, but usually at least offer the hope (and desire) for community.  Obviously, small groups that meet only once per month or every other Sunday evening for one hour will not be conducive to the kind of community we are hoping to find in a church.  In fact, this may be a good indicator that the church doesn’t really value community.  On the other hand, a church may not offer deep and developed community but may have the ingredients present for community to grow.  If you and a couple of friends were to take initiative and bring together a group of people or join a struggling but hopeful small group, then the right conditions for community may come together.

 

My advice:  Take initiative with people (invite them over or go out with them).  Be prepared to learn from many different kinds of people.

What I like about the advice given here is that it takes the search for community out of the consumer mindset that we often had by challenging us to ask the question:  “How can I help strengthen or even build community within an existing church?”  Oftentimes it is easy to slip into a consumer mindset:  one in which we expect community to come to us or just meet our needs.  But what is interesting here is how he is challenging us to think in terms of building community and taking initiative with others.

So what about you?  How well does your church do in fostering community?  In what ways can you help build or strengthen community?

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Marriage: What’s the Point?

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This post is one half of two posts that Jenny and I are writing on the nature of marriage. You can read the other half by visiting Jenny’s blog: http://morethansuburban.blogspot.com

“The LORD God said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone.  I will make a helper suitable for him.”
~Genesis 2:18

“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
~Genesis 1:27

Recently Jenny and I were blessed and privileged to attend the wedding of two of our friends.  As we sat there watching them make their vows to God and one another we couldn’t help but think back on our own wedding and the five years of marriage that we have enjoyed since.  But what stood out to both of us, more than anything, was how incredibly God-centered their ceremony was.

Over the past five years Jenny and I have attended more weddings than we can count.  However, very few of them were so focused on the Gospel as this one was.  Sure, they cited Scriptures like Ephesians 5 and 1 Corinthians 13 in order to highlight the commitment that they were making to one another.  But even then, these passages were drawn upon to highlight the couple and their vows.  Not so for our friends.  In their ceremony it was clear that marriage wasn’t really about the two them.  It was about God.  And everything from their Scripture readings to the songs they chose to the prayers they prayed was focused on the story of salvation and how a Christian marriage is meant to highlight and celebrate the gift of grace that we have through Christ.

It was a beautiful and powerful ceremony.  And it got us thinking:  How do we define marriage?  Is it a promise of faithfulness between two lovers?  Is it a lifetime commitment; a covenant?  Is it a social contract, complete with benefits and obligations?  Is it a right?  A privilege?  What does it mean to be married?  In recent years these are questions and positions that people in our society have debated and fought over.  And while a marriage may be a promise, a commitment, a social contract, for the Christian marriage is something far more.  A marriage is ultimately meant to bring glory to God.  But what does that mean?  That is what this post is about.

Marriage in Creation

You see, in the beginning, when God first created humanity, He said that it was not good for man to be alone.  And so he created woman.  Scripture tells us that, when the man saw the woman, he said:

“This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman for she was taken out of man.”  That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.

(Genesis 2:23-24)

And so man and woman were created for relationship with each other.  But that is not all.  For Scripture tells us something else.  It says that:

God created making in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

(Genesis 1:27)

What we see in these two verses is something truly profound.  What Scripture tells us is that, in marriage, God brings these two halves of the human race, male and female, into a dynamic relationship which reflects His image in a way that neither of them could have done apart.  They move from being two individuals into one.  And in this dynamic union they reflect the image of God; the one being who is simultaneously a unity and a community.  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit existing eternally as one.  The same and yet distinct – different and yet one – a Christian marriage between a man and woman points us to the character and nature of the Triune God.  Christian marriage was meant to reflect this beautiful and loving relationship within the God-head and so bring Him glory.  This is why it tells us that, in the beginning:

Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.

(Genesis 2:25)

Safe and affirming, beautiful and loving, marriage was a gift given by a loving God to the creatures made in His image.  And when a man and a woman live out this calling to harmonious and dynamic unity, they give glory to the God in whose image they are made.

Marriage Torn Apart

Sadly, this was not to last.  We read that, in an effort to live their own way and define their own lives, men and women both have rebelled against God.  They put themselves on the pedestal of their lives and, in so doing, broke not only their relationship with God, but their relationships with each other (see Genesis 3). And since that time marriages have been marked by strife and division.  What was once meant to reflect the loving nature of our God is now marked by infidelity, jealousy, mistrust, heartache, and unmet expectations.  We see it everyday.  I doubt there is any one of us who has not, in some way, been touched by a marriage torn asunder.  Whether we saw it in our parents, witnessed it in the lives of our friends, or experienced it personally in our own relationships, divorce is an all too common occurrence.

But even in marriages that have not ended in divorce, the strife and pain of Sin are all too present.  There have been countless times in our five short years of marriage that Jenny and I have found ourselves angry with one another and at odds because of selfishness, stubbornness, and petty frustrations.  Marriage is not easy.  It is hard and, at times, painful.  I think it is safe to say that marriage is no longer what God intended it to be.

Marriage and Salvation

So can marriage, broken and marred as it is, still glorify God?  By the grace of God, yes, it can and it does.  One of the things that I find interesting in the writings of the New Testament is how marriage is talked about and where marriage imagery comes up.  It is worth noting that Jesus uses marriage and the wedding feast to talk about the kingdom of God (see Matthew 22, Matthew 25, Luke 12:35-37).  But what is even more striking is how, in foretelling the return of Christ, the Bible speaks of it in marriage terms.  It reads:

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.  I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look!  God’s dwelling is now among the people, and he will dwell with them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  ‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”

(Revelation 21:1-5)

What we see in these passages is that God’s redemption of mankind is likened to a marriage ceremony, one in which He is seeking out his wayward bride and lovingly restoring the relationship that has been broken (see Hosea 2:14-23).  The final picture of redemption is the wedding feast, a celebration of the reunion between Creator and created, between God and His beloved people.

And the apostle Paul tells us that it is this seeking and reconciling work of God that is now to be reflected in human marriages as well.  In writing to the church at Ephesus, he talks about marriage in the following terms:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.  In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies.  He who loves his wife loves himself.  After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church – for we are members of his body.  “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”  This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church.  However, each one of you also much love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

(Ephesians 5:25-33)

Paul tells us that Christian marriages are ultimately intended to point to the saving work and immeasurable grace of God in Jesus Christ.  That these marriages, even in their shortcomings, are to be places of repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration.  In doing so, they bear witness to the grace of God in Christ.

Again, I can’t help but reflect on the past five years of marriage with Jenny.  For all of our shortcomings and struggles, there has always been grace and love extended.  Though we may fight and snipe at each other, we also know when to say we are sorry and ask for forgiveness.  Likewise we learn to extend grace and bear with one another in love.  We do this not because we have a stronger marriage than others, but because we know, each and every day, that we are sinners saved by grace; cherished by God even when we are at our most unloveable.  And we pray that our marriage, more and more, reflects the power of the saving work that Christ has done in our lives.  Furthermore, it gives us hope and points us forward to that day when the wedding will be consummated and the kingdom brought into its fullness at the great wedding feast of Christ.

In the meantime, Christian marriage stands as a testimony to the ongoing work of God in the world as he pursues his beloved bride.  Just as it was intended to bring God glory by bearing His image perfectly in the beginning, so it now glorifies God as Savior and Redeemer in a broken world.  Whether in good times or bad, marriage is meant to give God praise.  That is the purpose of Christian marriage.

And so, we say congratulations to our friends, we pray for the marriages in our lives, and we long for and look forward to the day when we will see the Bridegroom face-to-face at His wedding table.  Praise be to God for the gift of marriage.  Amen.

For some thoughts on Christian discipleship and marriage, check out the other half of this reflection by visiting Jenny’s blog:  morethansuburban.blogspot.com

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Snapshots: Our Recent Adventures

Below are some visual snapshots of our recent adventures in St. Louis.

Snapshot: How We Start Our Day

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Nick’s Mug                                                 Jenny’s Mug

ENOUGH SAID

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Religiously Diverse, Spiritually Hungry

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” Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”
~Mark 1:38 (NIV)

“The Gospel is good news – a message to be proclaimed, a truth to be taught, a word to be spoken, and a story to be told.”
~Tim Chester & Steve Timmis, Total Church

In past posts I’ve given everyone a snapshot of the historical, social, and architectural backdrop of our new town, but I have yet to give everyone a spiritual snapshot.  If I had to sum it up in one phrase it would be this:  “Religiously Diverse, Spiritually Hungry”.  When walking around University City and the Forest Park area it is not uncommon to stand in lines at the DMV with Muslims, check out library books next to Orthodox Jews, play at the park with Unitarians, or get an impromptu visit from the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Furthermore, downtown U-City is host to a Scientology center, an Orthodox Synagogue, and a plethora of churches.  We live in a cosmopolitan town and that is reflected not only in the nationalities and ethnicities present, but also in the religious communities represented.

Now, some of my readers will say, “What a minute!  The Chicago suburbs are like that too!”  And I would say, “Yes, but with one key difference.”  What is the difference?  People here want to talk about it.  Their religious and philosophical identities are worn on their sleeves.  There is a willingness to share their spiritual stories with complete strangers and listen to the other person’s perspective.

While my this is purely anecdotal, my sense was that the Chicago suburbs are marked more by an air of hyper-civility which proclaims, “To each his own.”  Very little open dialogue around faith (or non-faith) happens and, when it does, it is often strained and awkward.  Not here.  Talking about personal backgrounds and engaging each other in conversation about faith, family, and life in general just seems to happen.  Furthermore, in each of these conversations I see a deep hunger to explore spiritual truth.

Have I mentioned that I love this city?

But there is more to this story.  As I’ve found myself getting into these kinds of conversations with my neighbors, I have noticed something else within myself.  These conversations are matched by a growing curiosity and love for those around me as well as a deepening desire to share my own faith.  While I could write this off as simply a function of a new and more open environment, I think there is more to it than that.  Over the past several weeks I’ve been spending a lot of time in Scripture and prayer.  As I have, I’ve had a growing desire to get to know the people around me, hear their stories, and share where my own life and faith intersect.

Oftentimes we think of evangelism as something that we have to work ourselves up to.  We build up all of this stress and anticipation and, when there seems to be an opening to share the Gospel, we spit it out, awkwardly change the subject, breathe a sigh of relief and hope to God that we won’t have to do that again for another couple of months.

However, my experience over the years has taught me that evangelism, at its very best, is born out of the overflow of a deep connection with God.  This relationship naturally ends up spilling over into our relationships with others as we begin to see them as God sees them and love them as he loves them.  When this happens evangelism takes place naturally.  We begin to share the Gospel not out of guilt, obligation, or with any desire to win an argument, but because we genuinely love those around us.

When we do so, we begin to reflect the priorities and passions of Jesus.  If we read the gospels carefully, what we see, over and over again, is that Jesus had a deep desire for people to know the truth about him and his Father.  At one point he even tells his disciples that the primary reason that he has come is to preach the gospel (see Mark 1:38).  Yes Jesus performs miracles.  Yes he preaches about justice and morality.  Yes he forgives and heals.  But in each of these he matches his actions with words of truth which point the people back to him and to the life that he offers them.  Our lives are meant to reflect this same passion.

But it has to start in the most foundational of places:  a growing, thriving relationship with God.  As we begin to taste and see that the LORD is good, we begin to naturally see the spiritual hunger and curiosity in those around us and respond with the words of grace:  the words of the Gospel.  That is what it means to be an evangelist.  That is what it looks like to bear the good news.

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A Time Apart

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“The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught.  Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not have a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.'”
~Mark 6:30-31

With the busyness of moving winding down and a month still before the start of the Fall quarter, I’ve been spending more and more time reflecting on this current season of life.  When I first learned, back in April, that I was being let go from my position at Trinity my mind immediately flooded with questions:  “Why would God call me to this church only to call me away after a year?  What will my next steps be?  What does this mean for my future in ministry?”  It was a time of turmoil, confusion, heartache, and deep soul searching.

The weeks that followed were filled with a lot of conversations and discernment.  That process ultimately led me to St. Louis and Concordia Seminary.  At first this was a decision that was made, admittedly, with a bit of frustration.  In many ways I’ve approached this season of full-time graduate work as just another hoop to jump through.  I have felt called to pastoral ministry for a long time, been actively involved in vocational ministry for 7 years, and had already been working toward my M.Div when this change was made.  Concordia seemed like just another barrier to overcome.

However, as I’ve reflected on where we have landed I have increasingly had a sense of peace about where we are.  The truth is that taking a break from vocational ministry may actually be healthier for me in the long run.  Here’s why.

When I first started working in vocational ministry several people warned me about the dangers of attrition.  Attrition is what happens when, suddenly, all of those things that were so refreshing and nourishing as a church member begin to lose their luster and your own spiritual life begins to diminish.  You begin to notice it as you’re sitting in worship services. Rather than just soaking it all in, you find that you’re analyzing the sermons, evaluating the theology behind the songs and hymns, and taking note of the overall flow of the service.  It creeps into the small groups that you lead as you begin to focus more on group dynamics, facilitating discussion, next steps, follow-up, solid application, and fielding questions rather than discovering Scripture for the pure joy of it.

Attrition is what many people who are called to vocational ministry encounter once they begin their work.  It happens when doing ministry becomes separated from your own spiritual growth as a leader.  Attrition is what takes place when your personal times of Scripture study are replaced by sermon prep, when worship becomes nothing more than something to arrange for the weekend, and when prayer is squeezed out by hectic schedules and ministry demands.  Slowly but surely the work of God becomes more about the work and less about God.  And, for too many of us, myself included, attrition creeps up on us without even realizing it.

With this calm between the end of my ministry position at Trinity and the start of seminary, I’m beginning to see just what a toll attrition has had on me.  In the empty hours of the day I’ve begun to realize how much I’ve missed reading Scripture for the sheer pleasure of it, attending worship just to be with fellow believers and receive the gift of worship, and just talking with God in prayer.  Furthermore, I’ve seen the negative effects as well:  a shorter temper, greater impatience, and a spirit of discontent.  After 7 years of ministry, I think it is safe to say that I’m a little more burnt out than I thought.

Which is why these past several days have been so nourishing.  I’ve been spending time reading through the gospel of John and, as I’ve walked with Jesus through these pages, several passages have struck a chord.

“Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst.  Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
~John 4:14

“You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life.  These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
~John 5:39-40

“Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.  Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
~John 6:26-27

Over and over again Jesus has been issuing an invitation to me; an invitation to come, rest, and be fed by him.  I think this is the reason why, after abundant times of ministry, he would beckon his disciples to come away with him and be restored (Mark 6:30-31).  Too often it is easy for leaders in ministry to focus so much on what needs to be done that they forget that, first and foremost, they are called to be fed, nurtured, and formed by Christ.  It is from the overflow of that relationship that all other ministry comes.

As I wait for the school year to start, I think Jesus has been using these crucial weeks to reframe my understanding of who I am and what it means to be called into pastoral ministry.  Before I am bombarded by readings, papers, quizzes and exams, Jesus is taking this time to remind me that all of this study, all of this preparation, is nothing if done without Him at the center.  This is a time to rest, to be fed, and to grow in my walk with Jesus.  Anything else is just the overflow.

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