Thursday, February 25, 2010

Finding New Church Models

If you're involved in ministry, particularly in mainline denominations, you should read this article. As a non-denominational, evangelical guy, I'm beginning to see the writing on the wall that was etched onto the edifices of the mainline churches fifty years ago. The reality is that our current models of Church are unsustainable. Large, professional staffs with massive administrative and bureaucratic support will become an unbearable burden to congregations.

Thanks to the rising general level of education and now the wide dissemination of knowledge over the internet, the average person is becoming more and more free to live without the guidance of social and professional ‘betters’. For the very large majority of people around the world, that kind of empowering freedom is what progress is all about.

People don't look to the pastor as the expert anymore. They know just as much, and often times much, much more, than the church leaders about any given subject. A seminary degree, while important, doesn't carry the same weight as it used to. You can't just preach anymore, you have to dialogue. You can't come down from the mountain like Moses and dictate your vision to the masses. The masses are people, and they each have their own ideas about how things ought to go. You have to listen and ask questions and seek input. When the boomers are gone, they'll take the top-down, expert-led model of church leadership with them. The chickens of the Reformation are coming home to roost. I just hope they still come to church.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Gospel 2.0

In my last post, I claimed that, for Jesus and other faithful Jews of his day, the gospel could be summed up in the simple phrase YHWH is King. I called this Gospel 1.0. But it's only version 1.0 because Jesus came and, through his life, death, resurrection and ascension, provided a subtle but crucial nuance to the gospel.

When Jesus came preaching through Galilee he announced, over and over again, that the kingdom of God was now upon Israel. In fact, Luke records his first public teaching as the reading of a kingdom-passage from Isaiah. After reading this passage, Jesus sat down and simply said, "Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." In other words, Jesus was saying that the kingdom of God was breaking upon you through me. YHWH is becoming King (truly, fully, and over against all the other gods of all the other nations that had oppressed Israel) in and through the life and ministry of Jesus. (This is a summary of what N.T. Wright writes in, among other places, The Challenge of Jesus.)

So Jesus is essentially walking around ancient Israel saying, believe the gospel that YHWH is King, and watch it happen through me. The funny thing is that Jesus was probably not the first to say this (there were plenty of other would-be Messiahs in his day). But Jesus is the only one who could back it up, not by defeating Rome, but by defeating sickness, demonic powers, and in several instances even death itself.

Ultimately, of course, Jesus defeated his own death. His resurrection was the decisive victory over Israel's (and all of humanity's) true enemy--Satan, ruling through sin and death. His ascension was not so much spiritual space travel as it was the act of the true cosmic king taking his rightful place on the singular throne over all creation. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, the Father put everything under the authority of the Son. In other words, Jesus is King.

This is the Gospel 2.0--the good news as Christians understand it. Jesus is King (or, if you prefer, Lord). Because of the obedience of the Son, the Father placed him on the throne and put him over all things (except for himself, of course). The kingdom of God, then, is ruled and mediated by Jesus. It is his kingdom. YHwH is King because of what his son did; and because the Son did what he did, the Father made him king. That's the Gospel 2.0--Jesus is King.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Gospel 1.0

On Thursday I was hanging out with a friend and he asked me, "What is the gospel?" He had gotten into some conversations that had confused him on the basics of our faith. I understand. I've been there. As I've been reflecting on that and some other confusing conversations of my own, I started thinking about the gospel, what it is now, and where the whole concept came from. This is going to be the first of two posts: The second post will be on what the gospel is, and this post will discuss what the gospel was.

What I mean by "what the gospel was" is simply what Jesus (and other Torah-observant Jews of his time) thought of when he said the word gospel. Mark records the opening lines of Jesus' ministry: The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the gospel! So what did he mean by this?

He couldn't have meant, of course, that I have died for your sins and risen again on the third day because he hadn't done that yet. So there must have been a gospel before the gospel--a gospel 1.0. And in order to find that, we must turn to the pages of Jesus' scriptures, the Old Testament.

Perhaps the best place to start is in Isaiah, and as instructive a passage as any comes from chapter 52.
How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
"Your God reigns!"
So what is the good news? It's not the peace or the salvation--those are what flow out of the reality that lies behind the good news. The good news is simply that the God of Zion, YHWH, reigns. (Of course, I'm skipping over A LOT of stuff. But since this is a blog and not a dissertation, I'll allow it. If you want to read more on this, I highly recommend N.T. Wright's The New Testament and the People of God and Jesus and the Victory of God.) In other words, the gospel as Jesus understood it at the beginning of his ministry, was YHWH is King.

That's what he meant when he walked around Israel declaring that the kingdom of God had come upon the nation. He meant that YHWH is now decisively taking his rightful place as King of all Creation. How he was doing that, and what it all meant, and what were the implications of it all is another blog (or book) for another day. But that he was doing it was apparent to Jesus. YHWH is King. That's the Gospel 1.0.

Friday, February 19, 2010


My Ash Wednesday sermon this year was on the life of Nicodemus. He was the Pharisee who came to Jesus at night in John 3. We can trace his story through John's gospel from inquiry, to defense, to silence, and finally to the bittersweet way he outs himself as a follower of Jesus.

After Jesus was crucified (it seems likely that Nicodemus was present at the events leading up to the crucifixion, and yet he did not speak up on his behalf), Nicodemus took 75 pounds of myrrh and aloe and buried him. That 75 pounds was the precise amount prescribed in the burial of kings! So Nicodemus is making a public declaration that Jesus truly was a king.

What a way to out yourself as a disciple of Christ! But Nicodemus only confessed Jesus as King after months of keeping his mouth shut in order to protect his reputation. For too long he loved his place in this world so much that he wouldn't speak up about Jesus, because to do so could cost him everything.

The challenge for us is to consider what keeps us silent about Jesus. Is it your desire for a good reputation? to keep your place in life? to maintain peace in your family? Whatever it is, I hope you'll lay it down, at least for this season of Lent. Rather than thinking about what might be lost if you open your mouth, consider what could be gained by telling others about Jesus.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Is This Worship?

In keeping with the Over the Rhine theme, watch this and ask yourself, is this a worship song? Or does the f*** word rule it out as worship?

What do you think? Is this worship? Could you worship to this song?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

God and Government

I came across this article by N.T. Wright, which is more a sermon transcript than an article, actually. Though he is talking exclusively about British Parliamentary politics, I think much of what he says is applicable to American Republicanism. But it's what he says about the interaction between God and Government that I find most fascinating.

The concept of humans bringing God’s order to the world lies at the heart of all ordering of human society, all leadership, all government. The New Testament reaffirms very strongly the essentially monotheistic vision of human powers and authorities: all of them, rulers, authorities, powers and dominions, declares St Paul, are created in, through and for the Messiah who is the Image of the invisible God.

When it comes to government, this is the theology that ought to form the framework of the Christian perspective. Governments exist for Jesus. He is, after all, the King of the Universe. This was the view that early Christians had toward Rome.

The Christians were perceived not only as giving their full allegiance to this strange character called Jesus; that was bad enough, even though they claimed they were living as good, law-abiding citizens in other ways. They were discovering that following Jesus generated and sustained a new way of living together, a new kind of communal life, which, strangely to ancient eyes, didn’t offer sacrifices to the gods, didn’t go off to ask directions from the oracles, and, though it paid Caesar’s taxes, didn’t pray to him or offer incense before his image. They weren’t normal revolutionaries; they were worse than that. And so, as the early church spread, the story of Acts was multiplied: martyrdoms on the one hand, explanations on the other, and, increasingly, a whole new view of how the world should be governed. The earliest Christians were in no position to do the governing themselves. But they, like some ancient Jews, had no hesitation in telling rulers how to do their job. The church was not simply called to be a parallel society, leaving the world to go its own wicked way. The church discovered that, out of allegiance to Jesus, it had the annoying and dangerous task of calling the world to account.

Jesus is not merely a god among many. He is the Lord of the world. And it has always been the responsibility of the Church to publicly proclaim him as Lord, and see to it that his designs for the world are accomplished. And the designs of Jesus are, as Wright puts it, setting everything to rights.

What has changed with the victory of Jesus is that we now know that the ancient Israelite dream of a world put to rights was not a mere fantasy. Jesus has launched God’s new creation, and one day the whole world will be put to rights. The task of governments in the present time, seen from the Christian point of view, is to perform within the world that waits for that eventual day such acts of judgment – the making of decisions, the drawing of lines, the setting of parameters – which will properly anticipate, even in the present time and even if the rulers in question are unaware of this God-given role, that final putting-to-rights of all things. And it is a prime task of the church to remind the rulers, whoever they are, of this vocation.

You might say that the government's job is to prepare each society for the coming of the true king of the world, Jesus Christ, by putting setting into motion that which anticipates the final setting to rights of creation. The Church's responsibility is to remind the government that this is their God-given task and their part in the coming of the kingdom of God.

As we work this out, we will find that speaking in a prophetic voice (for that is precisely what this is) requires moving beyond liberalism and conservatism. The role of the Church is far too great to be contained within a singular political party. This task brings us back to the cross where we find the greatest victory and the truest use of power for the sake of all mankind. In this task the cross is not only what we speak but how we speak it.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Future: Michigan Football

This is an open letter to all Michigan football fans. Did you, by any chance, catch the Big Ten bowl season this past year? I know your team wasn't involved so maybe you didn't care, but what you don't know ought to scare you.

In the Rose Bowl, Ohio State held Oregon's offense to its worst performance of the season. Do you know Oregon's offense? You should, because it looks a lot like what RichRod is trying to install at Michigan. The problem is that you probably can't expect to find guys faster and better suited for that offense than Jeremiah Masoli and LaMichael James. But Ohio State's defense held them to 260 (260!) total yards and just 12 (12!) first downs.

Here's the deal, Michigan. Oregon had probably the best offense you could hope for, and Ohio State shut them down. Do you realize what this means for the future of Michigan football? It means you're not going to beat Ohio State as long as you're running the spread offense because Ohio State has figured out how to stop the spread.

Granted, it took a couple of years, but they figured it out. They can stop it. Sure, maybe you'll get a couple of big plays here and there, but for every 20 yard pass you're going to have 2 or 3 that go for no gain or a loss. And you just can't beat OSU with those ratios.

And in case you think this only applies to The Rivalry, look at what Iowa did to Georgia Tech, or what Wisconsin did to Miami, or what Penn State did to LSU. The simple truth is that nobody plays defense like the Big Ten Conference, and the defenses in the Big Ten know how to stop your offense.

Here's the point, Michigan. We need you. Heck, I'm a born Buckeye and I need you! I need you to be good again. I want more games like in 2006, not 2008. The Big Ten needs you to be good again. You're supposed to be right there with us, competing for conference and national championships every year. But it's not going to happen as long as you're running this gimmicky offense. If you want to be good again, you need to ditch RichRod. Sure, his game works in the Big East where football players are either fast or big or strong. But in the Big Ten, our guys have strength, size, and speed. I mean, have you seen Terrelle Pryor?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Spiritual Disciplines

This weekend I start teaching a class called Spiritual Disciplines. In preparation for it, I have been reading "The Spirit of the Disciplines" by Dallas Willard. It's a classic and, along with "Celebration of Discipline" by Richard Foster, is the gold standard on the subject.

The subject of the disciplines has always been difficult for me because I have so often failed at maintaining them. I am by no means a shining example of a Christian fully engaged with the disciplines, and the thought of teaching on this subject gives me a bit of a stomach ache. Really, who am I to say word one here?

But I have sensed that God did not want me to delegate this class because I have more to learn than anyone. (In general, the teacher learns more than the students as he prepares a class.) And I have indeed learned a great deal. The book has both challenged and comforted me.

I am challenged because I see my need for the disciplines. I see now that, in order to continue to grow spiritually, I have to engage in these slow, inefficient practices. I am encouraged because I have come to understand that, though I am inconsistent in regards to prayer and devotional reading, my life is not void of the practice of the disciplines. In other words, I'm not nearly as bad a Christian as I thought I was.

If you're in Columbus, come and learn with me and a few others what it means to be formed by the disciplines of the Spirit. Sunday at 9.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Prophets

Tonight I taught probably my favorite e4 session--the one that covers the prophetical books. There's so much material in the prophets that we don't actually get into the content of the books. Instead, using the introduction of Abraham Heschel's brilliant book The Prophets, we work through the prophetic pathos and what it must have been like to be one of these people that stood between God and his people.

One of my favorite quotes from Heschel is this one:

The ultimate object and theme of his consciousness is God, of whom the prophet knows that above his judgment and above his anger stands his mercy.

In other words, yes God gets angry. Yes, he judges. But greater than that, standing behind and above it, is his mercy and lovingkindness. In the prophets, judgment and hope are two sides of the same coin. When God threatens destruction, he inevitably comes around to the promise of restoration.

He utters judgment not in the cold manner of a jurist reading a sentence, but rather in the heart-broken tones of one who has been made a cuckold of again and again. We hear him say, not "5 to 10 hard labor", but "I've loved you from the beginning! Why do you turn away from me? Don't you know those other gods are no gods at all?!"

The prophets reveal not a God of wrath but a God of love (who has a very good reason to be angry). We see not the cold, abusive father, but the jilted husband, the one who trusted over and over, only to be made sport of by his adulterous bride. What's most remarkable about the prophets is not that God judged his people and sent them away into exile, but that he sent them thousands of messengers and gave them hundreds of years to turn back to him.

And you thought this "God is love" stuff started in the New Testament...