Tag Archives: Church

Jeff Blair’s “Cultivating a Culture of Wisdom in the Local Church”: A Response

by Thomas Marberry

At the recent Theological Symposium held on the campus of Randall University in Moore, Oklahoma, Dr. Jeff Blair presented a paper entitled Creating a Culture of Wisdom in the Local Church. This essay was based on his recently-completed D.Min. thesis at Northern Seminary.

Blair begins his analysis by pointing out that many aspects of American culture, including our churches, have become decidedly youth-oriented. Contemporary culture favors new over old, innovation over tradition, revolution over preservation, and zeal over wisdom. Church programs are generally designed to appeal to specific age groups. Children and young people are seldom involved with adults in church programs; many churches even have separate worship services for children and youth. The net result is that church members of different age groups seldom worship together or participate in the same activities.

In this paper, Blair suggests that churches should reconsider this modern youth-oriented approach ministry. He suggests a return to a more biblically-based model which he labels “a culture of wisdom.” In a wisdom culture, the basic values are stability, order, continuity, productivity, and maturity. Much of the material in this essay is drawn from the exegesis of Scriptural passages such as Genesis 1-2, Proverbs 1-9, Matthew 11-13, 1 Corinthians 1-4, Colossians 1, and James. Blair argues that a different approach would provide more opportunities for younger people to spend time with and learn from older members of the congregation. They would do more things together.

Some of the ideas presented in this paper may be difficult for church leaders to hear, but they should be carefully examined and evaluated. Church programs that have been established for several years (including youth programs) should not be radically changed simply for the sake of change. Changes must be developed and implemented wisely and with the support of the congregation. Church leaders need to keep in mind that change does no good unless it puts the church in a better position to share the gospel with its community.

There are several aspects of Blair’s work that make it useful for churches. First and foremost, this essay presents a careful analysis of key Scripture passages that must guide and control the implementation of a program of wisdom. Second, this essay provides information that will assist a church to develop and implement a program of wisdom. Changes should not be made haphazardly; the church needs to develop a workable plan and strategy to implement a program of wisdom.

Third, this essay helps the modern reader to realize how much we can learn from the past. We cannot go back and live in the world of Biblical times, but there are many insights that are of eternal value. Fourth, this analysis stresses the importance of maturity. It emphasizes that the younger members of a congregation can learn much from their parents, grandparents, and the older members of the church.  Fifth, the wisdom model outlined in this essay promotes family solidarity. It suggests that families should worship together, learn together, and serve God together.

This is a paper that should be carefully read and studied by Free Will Baptists. We should always be open to ideas that can help us to minister more effectively in the modern world. A return to the wisdom practices of the Biblical world may help us to do that. There is, however, a word of caution that should be sounded: A culture of wisdom cannot be implemented quickly and easily in a local church; it will require time, effort, planning, and much prayer.

 

Phillip Jensen on Apologetics & Evangelism

by J. Matthew Pinson

Recently I listened to a podcast by Phillip Jensen, the evangelical Anglican pastor from Sydney, Australia. Despite the obvious doctrinal differences between Free Will Baptists and Reformed Anglicans, Jensen and the Matthias Media folks down in Sydney are interesting people to watch. They demonstrate what it means to have aggressive, growing, evangelistic churches in the highly urban, post-Christian setting of Sydney. Yet at the same time they show how to do this by relying on the sufficiency of Scripture and not giving in to gimmicks and depending on attractional, market-driven, or seeker-driven approaches to get churches to grow.

Continue reading Phillip Jensen on Apologetics & Evangelism

Pastoral Theology and Change: Part 3

by Jackson Watts

Change is inherent to the nature of salvation; repentance itself implies real spiritual change. So it should be no surprise that the congregational life of saved persons also must undergo certain changes in its ministry sometimes in order to better foster growth, discipleship, worship, or evangelism. The challenge is to discern the right degree and type of trellises to support the vines, to use Marshall and Payne’s metaphor.[1]

So far we have established two important truisms concerning church change. First, change is often very difficult, frustrating, and sometimes elusive. It can lead to confusion, conflict, and unwanted departures of leaders and/or members. At its worst, it fractures a church, hindering its witness in the community.

Nevertheless, we’ve also established that not all change is the same. Change has many different faces, requiring different levels of reflection and effort to implement. Implicit in this is a conviction that I think most leaders share: Change doesn’t have to be a problem. It can be a healthy, exciting opportunity despite the challenges that come with it. Understanding the different types of change is an important first step for pastors and churches to work through transitions in a way which strengthens Christ’s church.

Change through Reform

The second type of change is innovation. While innovation is usually associated with a new invention, it doesn’t have to be something entirely new. Don’t think of it like the invention of electricity or the telephone. Innovation is more like going from the first light bulb to LED lighting. Light itself wasn’t invented. Rather, a better means to produce and diffuse light was. Moving from a landline phone to a cell phone would be an innovation within the field of electronic communication. Innovation then, as I am describing it, is the reformation of some aspect of the church’s life.

We know about “reformation” due to the tumultuous period known as the Protestant Reformation. Some would argue that the very nature of the faith was altered, or even recovered. But consider what remained: Churches, priests/pastors, the Lord’s Supper, belief in the Triune God, and other core aspects of Christianity.

Without question, much changed with both church teaching and practice! But I use this illustration to show that Christianity as a religion about Jesus Christ didn’t end or begin. However, significant innovations occurred that were thought of as reforms, returning the church to a pre-existing form (historians can debate the best terminology to be used).

Innovation is arguably the most common form of change, and thus most likely to be attempted. Changes within an existing church culture happen organically, in fact. Sometimes background checks on children’s ministry volunteers must be performed to satisfy the expectations of the church’s insurance company. It is a change, but largely accepted as unavoidable. People resign from ministries, and new people step into those leadership roles. Most members accept and understand that these changes happen, even if they don’t prefer them.

However, innovation happens whenever background checks lead to expectations of special training for children’s helpers. Innovation is when the church changes financial disclosure practices under a new treasurer, or when a new youth pastor stops taking students to a particular camp each year and instead goes to a different one. Financial stewardship and student ministry didn’t end. It isn’t a simple matter of addition or subtraction. Yet these ministries have been reformed in some way. To put it another way, the form (structure) of a ministry (substance) has been altered.

Tweaking or Tampering?  

Innovation and reformation are themselves contested terms. Depending on who you’re speaking to, these words summon different reactions. To Silicon Valley investors, innovation has an appealing ring to it. To those struggling to set up their voicemail, it doesn’t sound so good. Similarly, our Catholic friends may have something of a bitter taste in their mouths toward ‘reformation.’ To those with shelves full of Banner of Truth books, it just as well be ‘Gospel’!

This range of responses is also seen in the local church. Saying one is going to “tweak something” seems harmless enough. To others, it is heartless tampering designed to take control. Reform, in other words, doesn’t necessarily signal improvement, even if that is the goal. Healthy reform have growth in faithfulness as its ultimate aim, but it requires more than good intentions.

Thankfully, whenever leaders successfully improve an existing aspect of the ministry through some innovation, members usually appreciate it. In fact, it is quite rewarding whenever skeptics or even critical members become some of the most vocal supporters of a change once it has happened. The challenge is patiently waiting and praying for that reaction.

Naturally, leaders and lay members alike recognize that there is not just a range of feelings about changing certain features of the ministry. There is also a spectrum when it comes to the scope of the change. A church may have preaching in its worship service each week. But if in a week’s time, the pulpit has been replaced with a new one and the pastor has lost his necktie, this will likely be considered a significant innovation (fairly or unfairly!).

As a general rule, the degree of reflection, prayer, planning, communication, and implementation is proportionate to the extent of the reforms about to occur.[2] Bigger changes equal more preparation, in essence.

Innovation is not entirely unlike incorporation (change type #1). However, pastors usually learn that innovation and reform is most often easier to implement than actually introducing something new. With innovation, churches at least have the concept, structures, or other “raw materials” already in place. Being prepared to accept reforms then becomes the critical issue.

Leadership Insight

Why innovate? It has often been said that change for change-sake isn’t very healthy. People say this because they generally need to see a need for improvement in order to embrace change.

Ultimately, innovation is grounded in the conviction that God is calling his people to a deeper level of faithfulness. If the culture of a church is permeated by beliefs such as, “We are perfect,” “We are fine,” or “Everything is going well,” then any form of change will prove nearly impossible. However, whenever there is a growing sense that the church is imperfect or ineffective—as a whole, or in several areas—there is a greater openness for reform.

How does this awareness of imperfection or ineffectiveness occur? The primary means by which the church increases in awareness of the need for reform is 1) Preaching/teaching the doctrines of sin and sanctification, and 2) Regular observation and evaluation of the church’s ministry effectiveness.

The first of these is accomplished from the pulpit, the podium, the Sunday School classroom, and numerous other venues where believers intentionally meet for instruction. By learning that we are sinners as well as saints, they will be better able to connect the dots between their hearts and the ministry structures around them. In other words, if Christians still sometimes sin in thought, word, or deed—including inside the church—then this means that sometimes our ministries need sanctifying, so to speak.

Furthermore, the laws of physics tell us that things wear out: people, programs, buildings, etc. Sometimes a fresh coat of paint, new carpet, new chairs, and other tools are unavoidable if we are paying attention to this decaying world. Understanding the extent of the Fall helps us to see that every manmade thing won’t last.

When we take into account both the fallenness of our own natures, as well as the world itself, we know innovation will occasionally be needed as we address the flaws in our ministries. Naturally, this always begins with the heart, mind, and soul. But is an error to overlook the body, and thus the church’s material life. We are embodied souls who worship in places (e.g. buildings), in well-ordered ways (e.g. worship service times, order of services), with carefully-designed tools (e.g. curriculum). These trellises serve the vine best whenever innovation and reform is occasionally undertaken.

The second way to create a church culture that thinks in terms of improvement is to regularly inform members of the patterns of growth and decline of spiritual vitality over time. Church attendance is a valuable metric, but a very limited by itself. Church leaders must find biblical and practical means of observing, recording, and reporting how God is at work in the congregation. Some of these are easier to measure than others, but by developing multiple means of assessment of the church as a whole, and then specific areas of ministry, the congregation will be better positioned to understand what potential reforms may be needed.[3]

As a rule, this will be much more effective than saying, “We need to mix things up,” or “The church down the street is doing this, so let’s try it, too.” Members who are growing in maturity are doing so because they understand sin and sanctification, and they care deeply about the unfolding life of the church. It works it reverse as well: members being taught about sin and sanctification and who are helped to better see the ministry for what it is will grow in maturity. Such members become advocates of and partners in reform, not opponents.

_______________________________

[1] Cf. Colin Marshall & Tony Payne’s The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mindset that Changes Everything. See a brief summary of their proposal here.

[2] This is why my illustration about the Protestant Reformation is intentional. Some would argue that we see the whole gamut of changes in this event: incorporation, innovation, and interruption (see forthcoming Part 4). This illustrates another facet of my argument, which is that once you begin ‘innovating’ or generally changing many things, at some point you begin having several different types of change all at once, which is more apt to lead to conflict than multiple changes of a single type in a single area of ministry.

[3] The concerns about the proper use of numbers or data are well-expressed in Kevin Hester’s recent post.

Pastoral Theology and Change: Part 2

by Jackson Watts

What’s in a change? We never truly know until we enter into the crucible which is change.

As I explained in my previous post, church leaders (especially pastors) face numerous challenges in the course of leading God’s flock. Among them is the difficult task of helping implement change. This change operates both on the level of personal spiritual sanctification, as well as the structural aspects of the church’s congregational life which are intended to foster spiritual renewal and progress. We might say that changes in the organism (individual believers’ lives) are inextricably connected to organizational changes (the programs, policies, and procedures of the church’s ministry).

Pastors, especially by virtue of their role as overseers or bishops (episkopoi), must wisely work together with other leaders and mature members to discern which changes will best accomplish the church’s mission.

However, many of us intuitively know that not all change is the same, though some may tend to associate all change with discomfort and hurt feelings. Part of why this is so often the case is because there has been a failure to consider the nature of specific changes. In other words, church change isn’t a monolithic category.

I would suggest that there are at least three main forms of change a church can experience. Each is difficult in its own way, but each is also sometimes necessary. Here we will consider the first of these three unique types of change.

What’s New?

The first type of change is when something new is introduced to the church’s life—what I call “incorporation.” This is the resourcing of the church’s ministry because a new practice or custom, artifact or object, or value or belief is introduced to improve or strengthen the church.[1] Sometimes the newness is associated with a pastor’s particular background or experience elsewhere, or perhaps an emerging trend among associated churches. The perception is that the pastor is “bringing this newness” or that all the other churches are doing this now. Regardless of the source, usually a pastor or group of leaders presents the idea, hoping to persuade members of its value, and then implement it as smoothly as possible.

The main obstacle with this type of change is that the newness in question seems like an unwanted intrusion on a church’s existing life. For members who aren’t in the habit of self-examination, there is usually an implicit assumption that everything is already fine. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” epitomizes this sentiment. Therefore, the default position is to reject anything new on this basis without further reflection.

Any number of other sensibilities can be attached to this reticence toward change. Members may be fearful of how something they deeply value may be negatively impacted by the intrusion of the new. New programs, practices or tools have a tendency to displace older programs, practices or tools that may be deeply cherished.

Another common reason towards resisting the new is that many churches have had a checkered history when it comes to implementing new things. More than likely, the frustrated pastor is unaware that some of the congregational resistance to change has been conditioned to be that way by prior, unsuccessful changes. If crossing Jordan posed its difficulties for the Israelites after they had the Red Sea crossing in their rearview mirror, then it’s no surprise that sometimes church members—especially those desiring peace—don’t want to retread old ground whenever things weren’t successful before.

In this way, our experiences tend to be hermeneutical in nature. If a church leader has had success with a particular change in a previous ministry situation, it conditions him to think that it could go well and work smoothly in other contexts equally well. Likewise, if people have had unpleasant experiences with various forms of “newness,” this will shape their perception and expectations concerning the impending change.

Expectations and Ends

An equally problematic pattern with incorporation can be when churches want to adopt anything and everything new simply because it is new. In this, the church reveals its captivity to the myth that whatever is new is inherently good, and whatever is old is inherently bad. Another aspect of this is the belief that this new thing will deliver to the church something needed or sought after, whether converts, improved finances, or any number of other positive things. In this respect, the modern notion of ‘technique’ (especially in its commercialized American form) is simply applied to ministry. If the right technique is applied, then this will engender the desired result.

Many people will recognize that the first reaction above by some lay members is problematic in that it out-of-hand rejects anything without careful spiritual reflection. But the second mindset is also problematic because it also lacks a certain level of essential biblical evaluation. Rejecting something new for the wrong reasons is, in the long run, just as detrimental as promoting or accepting something new for the wrong reasons.

Pastors must work diligently to make a reasoned case, from Scriptural principles, for why certain new additions to the church’s life should be pursued. Additionally, they must develop an understanding of the context into which such new changes are being proposed. This will not only help them gauge the reactions they will receive, but the likelihood of success even if the changes are adopted.

A second thing they must do is closely evaluate which problem they are trying to solve, or area of ministry they are trying to improve by such a change. What is the end, in other words, of this effort? What are we realistically expecting to happen as a result of this change? Will the evaluation of the change’s effectiveness continue even after its adoption? How, if at all, will the church tweak the change or even reverse course if things are not successful?

These questions demand more time, attention, and reflection than we sometimes want to give, even if we are well-intentioned throughout the process. But they are the reasonable extensions of any case for incorporating something new into an existing church ministry.

Leadership Insight

We must come to appreciate the unique ministry setting in which God has placed us. Certainly the principles of Scripture are truthful, valid, and beneficial in any place where God’s people are. Yet these can never be hastily abandoned in the name of cultural relevance, or even in a misplaced desire to give the illusion that the church is making progress simply because they are doing something new and different.

There are also no doubt trans-cultural principles that shape pastoral ministry in any context. However, one of these principles is, in fact, that all ministry is local! This means that the pastor must be an anthropologist and historian, in addition to being a theologian. They must be students of the people they are called to love and serve. They must explore the history which has shaped the church throughout the years, making it the unique congregation that it is. The church’s history itself is constituted not by random events that simply happened to the church; its history is the sum total of the decisions (good and bad), gifts, victories, defeats, and dreams of the people. An awareness of such history will facilitate pastors in all types of change, especially with incorporation.

_____________________________

[1] More on these three ‘traditions’ will be shared in a later post.

Missions and the Trinity

by Kevin Hester

Missiology is not my strong suit. It hasn’t been a part of my theological training except by extension. My appreciation for missions has largely come from the clear commands of Scripture and some of the basic principles of ecclesiology. I also think missionaries have such cool stories. I still remember the awe and admiration I had for the missionaries who visited my church during my childhood. They seemed to live such a vibrant Christianity in exotic contexts.

These stories aren’t just part of my childhood experience. As a historical theologian who works primarily in the late classical and early medieval period of the Church, I have run across important missional events that are dotted throughout this period. St. Patrick lived out his Christian mission in Ireland. St. Columba followed his call and worked to establish Christianity among the Picts in what is now Scotland. St. Gregory commissioned missionaries to England and Spain in the late 6th century to evangelize the new barbarians and to battle heresy. In the early 13th century, St. Francis of Assisi tied his new monastic endeavor to preaching and missions, going himself to attempt evangelistic efforts with the Sultan of Egypt.

Missions has been a part of the Christian church from the beginning. The Church blossomed from the work of the apostles and early Christian believers to “go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every nation.” This story is clearly presented in the book of Acts. We see there the same types of exciting stories that were so attractive to my 13-year-old budding masculine sensibilities. But when you turn to church history you quickly see that the explosion of church growth came not from what we call “missions,” but from “normal” Christian people living out their faith in their communities. (This is the basic thesis of Michael Green in his Evangelism in the Early Church, a book I would highly recommend.)

The more I have lived and learned, I have come to understand that mission work isn’t always exotic. I have befriended enough missionaries now to understand that they struggle with life’s everyday concerns just like I do. They work jobs, cook meals, tend to sick children, and go about the business of life in ways not dissimilar from all of us. They certainly have challenges that most of us don’t face when it comes to language and cultural issues, but mostly they work to live out their Christianity in their day-to-day interactions with people.

Missions is organic and basic to the Christian life. The professionalization of missions, much like the professionalization of ministry, has left most of us viewing it as a specific calling for specific people in specific places of the world. This does happen, but it is the exception rather than the norm. Missions at its most basic level is what we call Christian living. The call to all of us is to live out the love of Christ in all our relationships.

This emphasis on relationship can be seen in the history of the word “mission”. As David Bosch points out in his Transforming Mission, the term “mission” wasn’t used to describe evangelism until the Jesuit evangelistic enterprises of the 16th and 17th centuries. Instead, the term mission “was used exclusively with reference to the doctrine of the Trinity, that is, of the sending of the Son by the Father and of the Holy Spirit by the Father and the Son” (1). Historically then (and theologically), mission is based in the ontological nature of God and God’s desire to establish (or reestablish) a relationship with his creation.

All my life I have heard mission conference speakers and missiologists work to develop elaborate philosophies and methodologies. Many of these were built on social or ethical concerns. Others took a theological tack focusing on the relationship of general revelation and soteriology. I have even heard injunctions to mission based in eschatology. I really felt for them. I have so longed to hear a missionary sermon that wasn’t based on Matthew 28 or Acts 1. What else, after all, is there to talk about? Jesus said to do it, so I guess we have to.

This is why I was so refreshed to recently read Timothy Tennent’s Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-First Century. In this work, Tennent grounds missions not in a command alone, but in the nature of God. Suddenly, it clicked for me. Mission is who God is and “all theology is fundamentally missional because biblical theology reveals God as a missionary God.” (60)

In the divine economy of the transcendent Trinity, the Father sends the Son. In the immanent Trinity’s activity in human history Jesus sends the Church. He sends us to do what he did. He sends us to live and to love. He sends us to show the Father to the world. That is mission. It isn’t tied to a specific call or a specific place. Missions is for all of us. God the Father invites us into His work by being what He is creating (or recreating) us to be. The internal relations of the member of the Trinity serve as the model for the relationships we are called to have with God and with one another.

When we fail to base our concept of mission in who God is we miss the basic outline of Scripture. We commit that all-to-human of errors and make missions about us and what we can or “have” to do. When we do this, “the role of the Church as the body of Christ, the redeemed community in the world, and the ongoing reflection of the Trinity in the world is largely lost. We see ourselves as commissioned to tell the story, but we don’t see ourselves as intrinsically part of the story. However, the Church must do more than tell the gospel; we must embody it.” (63)

The missio Dei as expressed in the Trinity is about relationships. God, as a personal being, reveals Himself to a people He created for Himself. He calls all of us to tell His story and by telling His story to tell our own. He calls us to live lives of holiness and love; lives more in tune with the coming eschatological future than the present. The Father invites us into His mission. The Son revealed the Father and gave Himself for us. The Spirit calls us into service and empowers us to fulfill it through the activity of the Holy Spirit. Much like the incarnation was meant to give us a clearer picture of the Father, the sending of the Church serves to clarify the meaning and the purpose of the incarnation.

None of this means that God does not call some people to proclaim the gospel in exotic places. What it does mean is that each of us is a part of God’s worldwide missionary enterprise. God’s method is based in Trinitarian relationships. God tells His story and He does it through our relationships. It looks like we all have a story to tell.