Sunday, May 31, 2009

What is the "high-point of your week?"

At Calvary Memorial Church this morning the preacher, Dr. Todd Wilson, asked a question. I was visiting because friends were dedicating their baby. He began a series on Titus called: Becoming Zealous for Good Works, emphasizing in Titus 1:1-4 how preaching is God's primary means by which he creates a people who are zealous for good works. Following the text closely he said about preaching:
Its REASON lies in God's revelation. By his preached word God re-reveals himself;
Its CONTENT concerns Scripture with Christ central to its exposition;
Its PURPOSE - is to increase knowledge of the truth and faith that leads to godliness.

But at one point he asked us: "What is the high point of your week?" He suggested different Saturday activities with friends and family that we might choose as high points. But, in sharp contrast (and as you might expect) he said: "My prayer is that your high point is to come together and listen to God's word in preaching." Sermons = high point.

That deserves a reality check! I think for preachers themselves it's often true, because they are working towards that high point - it fills the horizon. But when preachers sit in the congregation I wonder whether they make matching spiritual investment to hear others? And what about average sermon listeners? Is there high expectation? I know it ought to be true. Yet, often I suspect it's not. Sometimes it's because they have never thought of it as a possible high point, or they have been disappointed by past experiences. Or they just don't think about the need to prepare themselves for something potentially so special. (If you have low expectations it's likely to fulfill them!) Or, there isn't any awareness of how properly to respond anyway. Or...or.... Anyway, the question made me think. What about you?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Window onto Wonder

A friend of mine is into astronomy. Occasionally he breaks into my pedestrian reading/writing/teaching world with the most amazing pictures he took the previous night. A couple of days ago he sent me two images of Messier objects ,(I don't understand what that means!), numbered M51 and M3. One is a galaxy called the whirlpool galaxy and the other a globular cluster. They contrast remarkably with each other by shape, amazing colors and depth. They are extraordinary, viewed from his own telescope.

It's a great reminder when you have your nose down in work to remember how we belong within a wonderful creation to a glorious Creator. Just seeing those pictures throws open a window onto wonder. The cosmic scale blows your mind, and so does God's coming close to us in Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Community Formation (3)

After posting (I ) the church as God's "building", I wanted to bring alongside the challenge of (II)the MISSIONAL CHURCH. With inevitable oversimplification, Craig Van Gelder usefully contrasts the corporate church with the missional church – the doing church or the being church.[i] He bases his distinction on the ways that these two churches view their own purpose. On one hand , the corporate church, embedded in the European version of Constantinian Christendom, understands itself to exist “as an organization to accomplish something , normally on behalf of God in the world.” On the face of it , a doing church sounds attractive. Wouldn’t we prefer to belong to a doing church rather than a non-doing church!

However , on the other hand , because of convergence in missiological circles around a mission theology related to the Missio Dei and the Kingdom of God , the missional church’s self understanding is: “that it is created by the Spirit as a called and sent community to participate fully in God’s mission in the world.”[ii] Instead of the doing church (a corporate model) that focuses on projects and programs emphasizing human vision and energy, the being church (a missional model) sees the world as the horizon. Its parameters depend less on themselves and more on God’s redemptive reign in Christ and empowering by the Holy Spirit. A new people is being formed who join in God’s triune mission. Worshippers belong together, as a city on a hill (Matt. 5:14), as light centripetally gathered into public worship, though with characteristics that when centrifugally distributed impact the world like salt (Matt 5:13).

The missional church seeks to emphasize the formation of a missionary community that lives in contrast with the world. It takes 1 Pet. 2: 9-12 seriously that a holy nation will live differently in the eyes of those around “conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles so that…they may see your honorable deeds.” Of course, modernity’s individualistic creed mocks such a possibility. Rather, it sponsors the corporate church , encouraging pious consumerism – as members choose which church to “attend” according to how it meets personal needs. Rampant individualism allows attendees in self-satisfaction to walk away from responsibility to brothers, sisters and neighbors. Its leaders are more concerned about adding numbers rather than building community - “more impressed by a church of 4000 people who have no clue about God’s character and expectations than by a church of 100 deeply committed saints.” [iii]

I see this missional model resonating with the biblical picture of God building his people, and it stresses the need for developing missional practices that enable people to be formed together. Do you see connections?

[i] Craig Van Gelder , “From Corporate Church to Missional Church: The Challenge Facing Congregations Today.” Review and Expositor Vol 101 , 3 , 425-449
[ii] Ibid. , 426.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Community Formation (2)

I need (urgently) to bring together a number of issues: I A biblical picture of building; II missional theology; III worship; IV the role of preachers. Maybe there will be more, but my next posts will tackle each of these.

I A biblical picture
Probably the most popular New Testament church metaphor is “body” (Rom..12; 1 Cor. 12, Eph 4.) Its picture of organic life, integrating every part into the whole, speaks volumes of how every member, each with their own gifts, belongs within one body. Further, it resonates with theological truth that the church is “the body of Christ”, growing up into Christ its head (Eph. 4:15). Warm, personal and visual, its imagery immediately connects. However, for all its great strengths, it inevitably identifies contrasts between believers with their gifts. This emphasis is understandable, for example in the divided Corinthian church. The body’s stress on unity in diversity, on mutual health or disease depending on how each part belongs together, powerfully addresses spiritual superiority in the Corinthian church. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you’…On the contrary those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Cor. 12:21, 22). Believers must not allow their different gifts to separate them.

Another metaphor identifies other aspects of the need for unity in Christ. The picture of the church as God’s building has especial significance for community formation, and the work of worshipful preachers. Found in Eph. 2:19-22, 4:12-19, 1 Peter 2:9-12, the idea of believers being built up together is evocative in several ways.

First, it emphasizes the likeness of believers – like “living stones” (1 Pet. 2:9). Some may contrast in size and color, but no big deal is made out of differences. Rather than emphasize different functions, this building metaphor expresses how they all have the same function. To be built up on top of each other in God’s construction work. Here the vision of the church envisages a solid structure in which each believer belongs with others to make a coherent design possible.

Second, it gives prominence to God the Designer in a graphic way. Great architects have powerful sway. Palladio’s 500th anniversary was widely celebrated in 2008 celebrating the Italian architect because he is credited with having had the greatest single influence on Western architecture since his birth. Jesus’ promise to Peter: “and on this rock I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18) grounds God’s building of church community as integral to Christ’s ministry, with cosmic repercussions. It is designed to reveal the “manifold wisdom of God…to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms (Eph. 3:10).

Third, it stresses structural unity. Jesus is described as the “chief cornerstone” – “in him the whole building is joined together” (Eph 2:20). Most commentators see this stone as foundational. Interestingly, a technical building term is used for “joined together”- synarmologoumene is found only in Eph. 2:20 and 4.16. Its meaning “embraces the complicated process of masonry by which stones are fitted together.” Here is no haphazard arrangement but a skilful, complex building work around the cornerstone in order for the whole to have solid structure and do justice to the architect’s design.

Fourth, it emphasizes God as Builder. He is at work in every part, for this building is ‘in him” and “becomes a dwelling in which he lives by his Spirit (Eph 2:22) Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all involved in the building. Excellence of construction matters to the triune God.

Fifth, this building is a work in progress – “the whole building rises” (present tense Eph 2:21). As a massive project it continues to develop with contemporary ‘living stones”

Sixth, it calls for obedience and willingness by members of the church to be those “living stones” in his buildings plans. Committed to God’s design, dependent on his direction and strength for continued usefulness, the must be tightly fitted together, upholding each other, bearing structural stress. This need for togetherness is emphasized twice on Eph. 2:19, 20. For building work it is foundational and echoes with God’s passion evident throughout the New Testament for unity and peace among God’s people.

Seventh, it needs intentional leadership. Though Eph. 4: 12 describes the “body of Christ” its use of building language is important as the role of preacher/leaders is emphasized. Elsewhere I have urged the role of preacher as leader because of the transformational nature of the preached word (in 360degree Leadership). Proclaiming God's vision and will for hispeople necessarily involves them in leading. And for God's building project this means enabling intentional community formation. The list of early leaders: apostles, prophets, evangelists and teachers are all communicators of God's word. The outcome is "to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up (verse 12). Later in verse 16 the technical word for joining masonry blocks re-emerges - "held together"(synarmologoumene). Not only must they be encouragers of living stones fitted together, keeping the community vision alive, but they must fight every present dangers of disunity and conflict with diligence and prayer.

This metaphor raises many evocative aspects of community formation, doesn't it?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Community Formation (1)

This week I heard that I have been selected to give a paper at the Evangelical Homiletics Society in October 2009. The Conference Theme is: "Promoting Community through Preaching."

So, erratically (!), through these next few weeks I want to sketch out my paper called: "Exploring the architecture of community formation." It may sound odd to use the word "architecture." In fact, it runs slap into the dire danger of people describing church entirely by architecture. "I go to the church on the corner of Main Street and Fourth Street - you'll know it? It's stone, with a tower." No, the church is never the building.

But I want to use the metaphor of building for good reasons:
First, it's biblical. Building is one of the most powerful metaphors for the church in the New Testament.
Second, it's structual and visual. An architect designs a building to fulfil a purpose - to move off a blueprint into solid construction.
Third, it requires building skills, energy and the right materials to develop.
Fourth, it's a work still in progress. As a massive project it is inclusive and continues to grow.
Fifth, it speaks loud and clear of community formation.

Notice I begin my title: Exploring! Look out for future blogs!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mother's Day - 29 years on

In church this morning we were reminded of debts we owe as children to our mothers. My mother died 29 years ago from an accident falling downstairs on the day after Christmas. Only 57 years old, she was bright, (in intellect and personality), loving, encouraging, supportive and creative. And much more! But two things particularly struck me as I sat in church. About her spiritual gifts to me. As a deeply spiritual woman she had devotional depths, yet a down-to-earthness filled with life and humor. Two spiritual gifts stand out:

TIME - on countless long walks with the dog she would patiently, sensitively, let me open up on where my life might go. I never appreciated just how much time she was giving me, nor the powerful spiritual dimension of these hours. I can still hear her voice asking about what I thought God was calling me to be, and what gifts I thought I might have. I recall really wanting to share with her. And her quietness (for 95% of the time), and her insights. "You know, Michael," she once said, "I can see you one day teaching young people preparing for ministry." Really?

COURAGE - of course mothers can speak directly to us (like noone else!) when they are concerned. But, for my mother, the key issue was how closely I was walking with Jesus Christ. What were the qualities of my private relationship with Him? On one notable occasion, when she stayed with us during my first couple of years in the ministry, she chided me about my apparent lack of quiet time with God. She rightly perceived my busyness for God was in danger of burying my core relationship with Him. It takes spiritual courage in a love that notices important things to challenge others like that.

This Mother's Day I give thanks for my mom who gave me spiritual gifts of time and who challenged me (like noone else!)

Friday, May 8, 2009

Worship repercussions (9) - Divided Churches

Another big issue that emerged from recent blogs concerns:

Leslie really made me think (Worship Conflict, April 2): "Division can't be cured by putting everyone in the same room and singing the same songs.....unity and community have to be about something much deeper - share values, purpose and mission." He suggested that different worship styles based on stylistic options could be compensated by shared ministry and small groups. He welcomed diversity of multi-congregations and multi- small groups as long as they share the same mission.

Here is a bigger issue than worship styles. Churches sometimes have divided services because of building size. I know of churches which have outgrown their building but have two or three identical services at different times on Sunday (or even Saturday evening). So the division isn't caused by music! Yet, the question about what keeps such multi-congregations unified is complex. Leslie suggests shared values, small groups and mission hold people together.

However, sometimes (more often?) it's the Senior Pastor, or the Worship Team, or lively programs integrating different age groups. In fact, the different congregations do seem to act as different churches. Meaningful relationships can only occur in smaller groups, but how often do these intentionally connect people who come at 9.00am with those at 10.30 am?

Somehow it seems of different order when churches divide not because of building size, but by decisions within the congregation to separate, whether because of music or anything else. Yes, people may be able to "relax" and "worship more easily" - and, indeed, the church can grow. But cannot the diversity of God's people ever be present by the mutual sharing of every part of the act of worship? Is not being the body of Christ so important that it dominates all else, including music choices?

I know this subject of divided congregations raises much more than this. But I still feel(as someone who loves music) that music has been allowed to become too important!