Appealing to the Artistic in the Apostolic

My last post dealt with apostles and the apostolic and the extremes and misunderstood notions prevalent within the church. Freedom and grace, not fear and control are the necessities needed in apostolic work. The great misunderstanding is that the apostolic work will yield similar results regardless of place or culture. That’s the fear and control talking. When a gospel of radical grace and freedom takes root in a community, the results will look differently depending on the context. Granted the expression of that discipleship community will be (hopefully) an expression of Christ, how that church expresses Christ will be manifold.

The apostolic writers in the New Testament used a variety of metaphors to express the church in her growth. The notions of a temple being built, a family coming together, the functioning of the Body of Christ, among others provides a plethora of ways the church is expressed in the world. Variety and uniqueness should be in the very DNA of every local church. This is why I would appeal to those with apostolic callings to be artistic in the work they do.

In Eph. 2.10, it states we are God’s workmanship, the handiwork of the eternal craftsman. The church is a work of that Jesus builds through the Spirit. This is the poema of God. The lyrical poetry crafted before creation that finds expression in the earth through the church. The context and culture a church finds herself in will offer different canvases and different media to express the reality of Jesus Christ. Some canvases may be small, others large. The media may be oils, acrylics, watercolor or collage. Some may very well be sculptures or even a dramatic work or poetry incarnate. Whatever creative raw materials are found in a given area, Jesus Christ will build His church through the Spirit, the finger of God.

The out working of such expressions of Christ in the world should challenge, stretch and transform us. If we find ourselves only agreeing with the art, the artistic expression is not doing the work of unveiling truth and beauty but merely becoming something petty but pretty. Something ‘pretty/petty’ is nothing more than a sanitized version of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Sugar coated works of art belie the unrestrained passion the God of creation has for His Bride. Why should we as followers of Christ settle for something less? Why should we stifle or even kill the arts and artists?

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Apostles and the Apostolic

The meaning of the person as an apostle strikes either a new understanding of church leadership or something that died off nearly 2000 years ago. On one hand, some charismatic churches embrace the notion of the apostle as a much needed restoration within the Body of Christ. How this is defined and worked out in these churches is for another discussion. On the other hand, other churches (often those that hold to the cessation of certain spiritual gifts) scoff at the idea that apostles could come back to play a particular and needed role in the church. Both of these views express extremes in the Body of Christ yet I believe a middle path can be found between the two perspectives.

The apostle is defined often as one sent forth (with certain orders), a messenger or a delegate. If you consider the life of Paul, he was sent forth with the Gospel as a representative of Jesus Christ. Now for those who think the apostolic lifestyle is full of signs, wonders and massive conversions, please think again and reread 2 Cor. 11.23-28. Paul along with other apostles knew suffering which few ‘apostles’ here in America would know. The pattern that Paul roughly followed was this: bring the message of Jesus Christ (Jews first then Gentiles), gather together disciples, teach them for a period of time, i.e., lay a foundation, leave. How many bearing the ‘apostle’ title would dare do such a thing? Sadly, many have missed the main point that Christ is the head of the church and not some apostle.

Some of those that have missed the point seek to establish a new hierarchy with apostles at top then trickling down with prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, of course with the apostle having the greatest authority. I find it exceedingly ironic that those coming from a Free Church background would embrace such an idea. This again sets up an authority structure that the Free Church sought to abandon as seen in Roman Catholicism. This also flies in the face of Paul’s example. He gave the disciples in the churches the freedom to discover how to meet, how to organize and who, if anyone, would be a leader. Eph 2.20 speaks of apostles and prophets as foundational in the church. If foundational, they would occupy the lowest place in the church by providing support for building up and being of service to all in Christ. Such a person is difficult to find these days…

While speaking of someone as an apostle these days might seem pretentious, misguided or downright silly, the need for apostolic people is a great need in the church today. This is a call that takes the great commission in Matt. 28 as applicable to all disciples. (Others may argue that this only applies to apostles.) Whether the application of ‘Going into all the world…’ is for all disciples or only for those called as apostles is open for debate. The greater need is for all disciples to love God and love neighbor. This fleshing out before others the love of God by loving neighbors could provide an apostolic flavor that many churches lack though they seek to attract people through branding and spectacle.

My gut tells me the era of self-preservation in the church is coming to an end. The end may result in some kicking and screaming, but the embrace of the cross will lead to the emergence of new life in some unexpected places. These places that emerge to express the new creation in Christ may look radically different than what we expect. Where would Jesus, Peter, John, Paul and Timothy hang out today? Who would they try to reach? What would those discipleship communities look like? If we are honest, I think the answers might surprise us.

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The Gift of the Evangelist

The evangel is the announcement of good news.  For the Christian, the evangel is Jesus Christ. Some will say the gospel is justification by faith through grace. Others will say it is certain verses from the book of Romans. Another will say it is the 4 spiritual laws. More will say it is repentance, belief and saying  a certain prayer. These things are good but the reality of the person of Jesus Christ eclipses them all. The problem is these things make the gospel a something and not the person of Jesus Christ.

Mass evangelism – Many an evangelical is familiar with this. Fill a stadium, theater or church building, bring in a great preacher and have a time of decision. The problem is getting people to the event.

Salesman evangelism – This is the method for sharing the things of the gospel in a manner much like a (used car) salesman. The trick is to make the sale by getting the decision. Atheists, agnostics and other religious practitioners are the hard sale, i.e. brush up on your apologetics. The problem is the reduction of Jesus to a commodity.

Rude evangelism – This is similar to above but ignores the qualities of love expressed in 1 Cor. 13, e.g. patient, kind, not boasting, not rude and so on. This is similar to the cold call and we know how we love telemarketers. Why anyone thought this as an effective way to share Christ is beyond me even though I was guilty of this in my younger days. The greater problem is you ignore the love of God. The lesser problem is you look like a jerk. That often causes problems for the rest of us.

Alternatives:

Bar/coffee shop evangelism – Show up regularly to a bar or coffee shop, develop relationships, share your life (which is rooted in God’s life) with others. This takes the love of God into account by showing up and loving others. You don’t force the door open for the gospel but present the gospel in the midst of your life.

Relational/friendship evangelism – Develop friendships with those outside of the flock and provide a safe place to discuss the problems of life. We can express the love of God in friendship by being there and saying, ‘I enjoy the time we spend together and you are important to me.’ Making time for others gets the focus off ourselves, which is something all us Christians need.

Servant evangelism – Serving the poor or those in need with no other motivation than to love the least of these. You come along side of them in their time of need and share in their suffering. This reflects the quote, ‘Preach the gospel always, and if necessary, use words.’

The future of evangelism will take seriously the notion of going into the world. This reflects Bonhoeffer’s view for the future of Christianity: Pray and help those with the problems of this age and enter into their suffering. Can you think of other examples that reflect such an approach to sharing the gospel? How can we share the good news of Christ in the midst of a postmodern culture?

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Teachers in Church Life

Next up is the role of teacher in the church; how this works out traditionally and possibilities in an emerging/organic context. Teaching is oft associated with transmitting knowledge, from teacher to student via facts, figures and later evaluation (read here, testing). The teaching that occurs from kindergarten to high school and on is of this sort. Granted the higher one goes in education, the more one has to show and defend independent thought and research. Yet teaching in the church is more than just passing along knowledge but also the passing on of wisdom. Wisdom is that richness of life experience that has put the knowledge to work by discerning the why and how. I like to think of it as knowledge tried by fire.

The church passes along her wisdom in a variety of ways. Need we look further than Sunday School? Growing up in a Southern Baptist Church, Sunday School was the morning preface to the worship service. Bible stories were taught to the children, (often sanitized for safety reasons) while teens and adults ventured deeper into the text. Application and theology come together though not at an academic level.

The teaching for those called to ministry takes a different turn. The place of Bible schools, Christian colleges and seminaries is a ministerial rite of passage for many churches and denominations. Considering the disciples in the 1st Century, not all were as educated as Paul. Yet most denominations require an M.Div for ordination. Is this necessary for those called to ministry? What of the many called in developing countries who neither have the education nor the finances to pursue such education? This may be an oversight that Western churches need to rethink. Above all else if the academic work has no traction in the real world of practice why continue on such a path? Must we preserve the ivory towers?

Teaching in an emerging/organic context might look a bit different. First, the teaching will be practical, modeled and illustrated in the life of the one teaching. Next, the teaching may not even look like ‘traditional’ teaching but more like a conversation. Openness and participation are common requisites in such a faith community. Third, teaching can be more inviting for those on the fringes of the flock. Having an open time of discussion regarding scripture, doctrine or theology over coffee, beer or cigars could reach people who would never darken the door of a church house. The leadership expressed in the work of a teacher is that of influence and friendship along with the shaping of the concepts, ideas and language of the faith community.

Whether academic or fiercely practical, the teaching of the church should reflect the head of the church, Jesus Christ. Teachers likewise should reflect the character and style of the Rabbi Jesus. Above all else is the need for utter dependence on the Holy Spirit in teaching. That Spirit leads us to all truth, the fullness of Christ.

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Going Underground

A few years ago I wrote the following as an introduction to my final paper for a graduate seminar on Metaphor in/and Theology. I was trying to paint a picture of “religionless Christianity” as Bonhoeffer put it. I’m now putting my money where my mouth is. I’m going to spend this summer in an organic house church environment. What happens after the summer is anyone’s guess.

Imagine a world in which the church buildings, cathedrals, mega-churches and other structures used for Christian gatherings are no longer, or at least less often, the places they once were.  Now these buildings are museums, community centers, homeless shelters, theaters and so on.  The people that once filled these buildings gather there much less frequently if at all.  What now occurs are smaller gatherings in homes, coffee shops and bars that are unique expressions of the Body of Christ in each particular city, culture and nation; expressions of faith that seek to express and work out what it means to follow Jesus in their specific contexts.  Large numbers of Christians have left the traditional practices and structures of going to church for the option of being the church, taking seriously the metaphors of being salt and light.   Large portions of the Christian community have intentionally gone underground, not because of persecution, but for the purpose of pursuing and modeling Jesus Christ through a cruciform life.  This cross-shaped life calls for a discipline unrivaled by some mystics but also a giving of oneself in love to share in the suffering of others.  This desire to commune with God leads to a love of the world on all levels.  An ever-expanding network of simple, flexible, mobile fellowships, with no central headquarters, that seeks to be the parable of Jesus Christ for others in the world.

Could this be a possible future for the church in America? in other parts of the world? Is the era of the mega-church over? I’m interested in your thoughts.

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Easter and the Newness of Each Day

Easter Sunday is here and with it the Easter egg hunts, chocolate bunnies and baskets filled with sugary treats. Yet even in the midst of the sugar high most children will be under, a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ will occur worldwide. This one day the global church remembers the raising from the dead of the crucified Christ. The celebrations will take many forms from the solemn ritual of the Mass in Catholic churches to the exuberant worship in Pentecostal churches. Others will wake early to worship as the sun rises on a new day. Nevertheless, why limit the celebration to just one day?

This is not to downplay the importance of Easter. The point for Christians is everyday can be a celebration by remembering resurrection daily. Within the Evangelical tradition, the greatest symbol of death and resurrection is baptism. Usually, this is a matter of full immersion or a dunking as some refer to it. Going under the water represents death and coming up from the water represents resurrection. Carried further, the death is that of one’s old life, broken and disconnected from God and the resurrection is the newness of life as a new creation.

The symbolism of death and resurrection reveals itself in another place that is more mundane but the figurative parallels remain. That symbol is the simple act of sleeping and waking. Sleep represents death and waking resurrection. Various places in scripture mention those who are dead as sleeping. Therefore, with our sleep at night, we shadow the reality of death. With our waking, we embrace the resurrected reality of a new day and new possibilities.

The difficulty of remembering the death and resurrection of Christ in this way is its happening everyday. The daily occurrence of it leads to a taking for granted of this mundane aspect of life. Developing such remembrance on a daily basis will take time like any habit. Pick a few days or a week to start. Meditate on the cross of Christ before sleeping and consider the resurrected Christ upon waking. Over time, every day can become a celebration of Easter.

Grace and peace,

JWR

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Question(s)

In the course of one’s life, you eventually will face the questions regarding life’s meaning. Why am I here? What is my life about? Does my life have meaning or is it all absurd? Is there a God? If so, what difference will it make in my life? If not, how shall I live my life? Granted with each person the depth and extent of one’s grappling with those questions will vary. In the life of a Christian, these questions take on a different meaning.

Many people turn to philosophy to answer the big questions of life. Philosophy at its root is the love (or friendship) with wisdom. Much of the work done seeks to justify claims regarding truth and knowledge. The disciplines of metaphysics and epistemology take on and reflect scientific methods to establish what is real and knowable. Although this is the common approach to analytic philosophy, other methods, like those available in Continental philosophy favor phenomenology and dialectic. In the end, both streams of philosophical thought can only go so far in answering the questions.

Theology on the other hand, seeks to get rather specific regarding the questions of life. While seeking to explain faith and belief in God, the theologian attempts to provide clarity and depth to the God question. Granted the answers given often reflect the church and traditions s/he is speaking from, Scripture and dogma also play a part often as the source of authority. To a certain extent, theology is partial and provisional. We do not have all the answers

In the midst of all the philosophy and theology, many are raising questions about church, faith, doctrine and so on. The emergent church poses some of the questions to get the conversation started. This is in part a response to communicate an ancient faith to the contemporary context. Philosophy of religion also plays a part, although diminishing in some circles, to examine the concepts within religion. The encouraging thing with both is that they seek to provide a place for: questions to be asked, doctrines to be reexamined, and concepts to be analyzed. This is a place for open conversation, respectfulness and even transformation.

Jesus Christ provides in his life, death and resurrection of a different set of questions. Instead of us asking the questions, we are the ones facing the question. It is the, “Who do you say that I am?” that was posed to the disciples. The question, “Will you follow me?” faces disciples both then and now. Therefore, we are the ones called into question. How do we answer? How do we follow? These questions are life changing. It is not for us to try to answer definitively, rather it is a matter of submitting to the One asking the question.

Grace and peace,

JWR

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