Woe to You Who Are Rich (Luke 6:24)

February 24, 2019

[Message by Jared Randall at All Saints Church of Christ, February 17, 2019, in Nashville, Tennessee.]

Today, I want to start by listing the basic ideas that make up Darwinian thoughts about Survival of the Fittest. Don’t worry, you’ll see why later. There are three basic ideas.

  1. Domesticated plants and animals show a tremendous range of variation. That sounds right, my cats are both cats yet only one feels the need to bite my toes in the morning to make sure I’m up.
  2. A similar range of variation exists in nature among wild species. Kinda simple, elephants in India are different than Elephants in Africa. There’s variation.
  3. All living things are engaged in a struggle for existence. X2. Everything wants to survive for as long as possible, that’s obvious. And if we need the same things to survive, we’re going to have to share; and if there’s not enough to share than one of us is going to have to die, and who ever dies doesn’t get to make more mouths to feed.

That’s basically it. That’s basically what Darwin noticed that no one else at the time did. Something that any gardener here instinctively knows, that there’s a web of dependence and competition that makes sense of everything that we do.

One of my favorite parts of Richard’s book, Myths America Lives By, is the section on the Gilded Age, where social Darwinism is on full throttle. I love that section because it basically shows how people applied those three building blocks of natural selection to an entire economic system that crushed the weakest people in society and wrote it off as “only natural.” It’s only natural- this is how the world works: you eat the same food as me, I need all the food, you fend for yourself.

People like Andrew Carnegie in 1889, one of the earliest, strongest millionaires, recognized that this is how nature was set up, which means this is how God had set the system up, which meant that those who were at the top of the pile were the ones living by God’s system.

Let me read this quote, “While the law of competition may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it insures the survival of the fittest in every department. We accept and welcome, therefore, as condition to which we must accommodate ourselves, great inequality of environment and the concentration of business… in the hands of a few…” and then later “Such, in my opinion, is the true Gospel concerning Wealth, obedience to which is destined someday to solve the problem of the Rich and the Poor, and to bring “Peace on earth, among men Good Will..”

This is the game that we play- in America especially. Because there are only so many jobs. There only so many seats in the University lecture hall- only so many spots in the parking lot. There are only so many offices at the Capitol building in Washington DC.

So I got a headache today after reading Luke chapter 6 over and over noticing that no one is going to put these words across the doorways of the admissions building. No one’s going to move their family across the country because the company offered a smaller paycheck. No doctors have asked me if I have considered taking medication that would make me more sad.

I don’t know what world Jesus is living in. You know, Luke has this way of just shoving it in our faces. He just wants you to know. Reading Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, he’s kind of content to let you figure it out for yourself- but Luke just holds it up: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

Doesn’t that give you a headache? I can imagine Andrew Carnegies head popping off if someone read him that text. I can imagine my own head popping off if I could understand it. I don’t know what world Jesus is living in, but it’s one that doesn’t make any sense. I guess it’s just one where The Origin of Species hadn’t been written yet. Because now we know about how the game works.

I think that I’m realizing lately that Jesus isn’t just the best hope for the world, but he’s the only hope for the world. And it’s because he’s the one who barges in on game night, clears the table and rips up our precious little rule book. Jesus is the only one with the guts to check the soil and taste the salt. Jesus looks around and says that surely there is some river where we can plant our shrubs.

Luke points to us and he says that either the poor are blessed or Andrew Carnegie is. It can’t be both. But with that said, Paul writes the scariest thing that we’ve read today. I got a headache when I read Luke, and I got shivers when I read Paul. Because he makes it clear; we are either living in a world where Christ is raised from the dead and the poor are blessed, or we aren’t. Jesus either flipped the board and cleared the table, or we lost the game. Jesus’s death on the cross was either the new way towards new life, or it was the non-survival of the not-so-fit.

We cannot be sure which is correct. But we can trust. And blessed are those who trust in the Lord, even between the headaches and shivers. No, better yet, as Jeremiah says, blessed are those whose trust is the Lord. Blessed are the poor and the hungry and the sad, for they shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream that only the trusting can taste.


“I Will Not be Silent”

February 1, 2019

MLK Day Sermon 1/20/19
Robert A. Jackson, Jr.

At the All Saints Church of Christ, Nashville, TN

The Text

Isaiah 62:1&2 (CEB) & Luke 10:29-37 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Isaiah 62:1&2 (CEB)

For Zion’s sake I won’t keep silent,
    and for Jerusalem’s sake I won’t sit still
    until her righteousness shines out like a light,
    and her salvation blazes like a torch.
Nations will see your righteousness,
    all kings your glory.
You will be called by a new name,
    which the Lord’s own mouth will determine.

The Parable of the Samaritan

29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii,[b] gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three,do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Introduction

The following is an excerpt of Dr. King’s last speech (I’ve Been to The Mountaintop) that he gave in Memphis Tennessee on April 3, 1968.

“In the Human Right Revolution, if something isn’t done and done in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty,their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed.”

“Whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting amongst themselves.”

“But when the slaves get together, something happens. When the slaves get together,that is the beginning to getting out of slavery.”

“Let us keep the issues where they are. The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants who happen to be sanitation workers. We got to keep attention on that.That’s always the problem with a little violence.”

“All we say to America is be true to what you said on paper.”

“You know what’s beautiful to me? It’s to see all of these ministers of the gospel.It’s a marvelous picture. Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somehow, the preacher must have the kind of fire shut up in his bones and whenever an injustice is around, he must tell it. Somehow the preacher must be an Amos who said, “When God speaks who can but prophecy?” Somehow the preacher must say with Jesus,“the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me and he has anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor.”

“So often, preachers aren’t concerned about anything but themselves. And I’m always happy to see a relevant ministry. It’s alright to talk about long white robes over yonder and all of its symbolism. But ultimately, people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s alright to talk about streets flowing with milk and honey. But God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here and his children who can’t eat (3) square meals a day. It’s alright to talk about the New Jerusalem. But one day, God’s preacher must talk about the New New York, the New Atlanta, the New Philadelphia, the New Los Angeles, the New Memphis, Tennessee.”[1]

Sermon Text

Like King, I stand here today as a messenger of God who is tormented by the pain and agony that is afflicted upon the disinherited of our society. Sometimes I experience that “Nathan Moment”. Have you ever experienced a “Nathan Moment”? That’s the moment when it is revealed that you have caused some of the affliction that is experienced by the disinherited.Nevertheless, I am learning the humbling art of preaching to self before and while preaching to others.

For the sake of the Good News, I will NOT be silent!

Dr. King was a man who wrestled with his demons. And,he was also a man who was not silent about the injustices towards the disinherited. If we are honest with ourselves, we are also dealing with demons in our individual lives. I stand here today better understanding the inner conflict within us. The Apostle Paul said, when he wanted to do the right thing he didn’t. When there was something that he did not want to do, that’s exactly what he did. Our pride, arrogance, and idol worship keep us from acknowledging the humanity within our neighbors and even our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

For the sake of the Good News, I will NOT be silent!

There are plenty of times that we have taken a selfish approach to life. I got mine and you get yours the best way you can.Too many times my white brothers have made comments about pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. I believe that it was Dr. King that said what is a person to do if they do not have any bootstraps? Too many times, white sisters have spoken up about the injustices towards women who looked like them but failed to see life from the aspect of all women of color. Black brothers have failed to prophetically preach against the sin of “whiteness” and failed to empower Black Women to speak into their calling of being prophets for the Kingdom especially within the confines of the American Empire. When I say“whiteness” it probably offended someone. They will not hear the rest of the sermon become of this one term. But, why? When I say “whiteness” I am NOT talking about skin color. I am NOT talking about an ethnic group of people. However, I AM talking about the imperialistic ideals of the Empire that have infiltrated the fellowship of the believers[2]. Some Whites, Blacks, and Latinos who reside in this country have allowed“whiteness” to tell those from outside of this society that they do NOT belong. Has “whiteness” become your religion?

For the sake of the Good News, I will NOT be silent!

The institutions that claim to be of the Christ that want to truly make a difference must open their pocketbooks and their wallets. They must get out of their air conditioned and well insulated buildings. They must genuinely show up in the communities that are needing help. Don’t get me wrong,money is important to this conversation. It was important to further Jesus’ ministry. He had some financial donors. But, if we read closely, we see that his donors did not sit behind in their air-conditioned buildings. It seems that many of us want to go out of the country to do mission work. We will live in uncomfortable situations to do the work of God. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with this work. However, I am saying that there is work to do at home. We debate over whether or not to build border walls, but when was the last time that someone who did not look like us get invited to cross to the inside of the walls of our houses to share a meal, coffee, or a conversation? We argue about the elephant and the donkey but fail to remember that these are two sides to the Empire’s politics. The politics of the Kingdom transcend both of them. Too many of us have fallen prey to idol worship because we have allowed the Empire to determine how we view humanity versus allowing the Christ to be the example to follow. When people are struggling to feed their families and pay their bills because the Empire decides to through a temper tantrum, do we just shrug our shoulders because of our hatred towards those whose politics do not match ours? Are we seeking to justify our apathetic response to the suffering of others? Who is my neighbor?

For the sake of the Good News, I will NOT be silent!  

Dr. King was encouraged by the number of ministers that were in the audience during his speech. My pain is always the lack of preachers that are in attendance when matters of justice are being discussed.It has happened to me at church and school. Too often, the preachers in our faith tradition are either absent or silent. There will be plenty of events to get involved in matters of justice on tonight and tomorrow. But, how many of our preachers will show up? I have had several conversations over the years with preachers, both male and female, about us living out and teaching the people of God about the things that mattered to Jesus in Luke 4. I have asked them, “Are you willing to die for the cause of Christ”? Maybe, I should reframe the question. “What are you willing to give up to answer the calling that God has upon your life”? Will your sociopolitical ideologies allow you to continue to verbally and ideologically oppress, your black, brown, LGBT sisters and brothers? Will you continue to allow your socioeconomic status to cause you to overlook the poor of all races and nations? Will you continue to allow the traditions of your denominational tribes restrict you from living out the gospel? Will continue you allow those “in charge” to hold a paycheck over your head instead of attempting to be true to the Mission of God? Will you allow your patriarchal and misogynistic thinking to silence women and continue to add victims to the #MeToo and the #ChurchToo movements? Will you allow the idol worship of the “whiteness” in your life to control your thinking of who is or is not desiring of the Love of God? Will you continue to allow the cognitive dissonance and willful ignorance of your cultural upbringing to overshadow who the Spirit of God wants you to become? I believe that Dr. King was correct in his assessment that the preacher is more concerned about himself or herself that he or she is with others. However, I would conclude that the American Christian is more concerned about himself or herself than for others who do not look like him or her. He or she has replaced empowered empathy with anemic sympathy. He or she will acknowledge other followers of Jesus as fellow believers but will NOT acknowledge them as sisters and brothers. This negligence makes it easier to mistreat and overlook a sister or brother in Christ. 

For the sake of the Good News, I will NOT be silent!  

The justice of the Bible is not a social secular movement. This is a Jesus movement. It is not the theoretical and lackadaisical teachings of “whiteness”. It is the gospel in action. We have to be honest with ourselves that we all have some sort of evil and sin in our lives. But the question becomes… Have we allowed them to overtake us? Has it become our God?

For the sake of the Good News, I will NOT be silent!  

Now that we have dealt with the individual, lets deal with the community. The American Church is living in sin. It needs to repent of its idolatry and its adultery. It has taught the world to hate, it has taught the world to segregate, it has replaced the Apostles with politicians, it has replaced the Spirit with guns, it has replaced Jesus with Presidents, it has replaced God with the Supreme Court. The Bible has become a Weapon of Mass Destruction. Just like the Rich Young Ruler, it refuses to acknowledge the dignity of the disinherited by referring to them as “illegals”,“aliens”, or “those people”. It has silenced victims in order to protect the power structure. It practices a theology that is Anti-Christ when it tells disinherited people HOW to feel instead of asking them HOW they feel or instead of asking to see WHY they feel the way the feel. It seeks to be understood instead of seeking to understand. It has played the harlot with the Empire. The American Church needs to reclaim the mission of the ecclesia. It needs a rebirth. It needs to rededicate itself to Jesus.

For the sake of the Good News, I will NOT be silent!  

Who is my neighbor?

Remember these words of Dr. King…

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

“The time is always right to do what is right.”

“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?”[3]

For the sake of the Good News, I will NOT be silent!  


[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” (lecture, Mason Temple, Memphis, TN, April 3, 1968), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ixfwGLxRJU8.

[2]Willie James Jennings, “Can “White” People Be Saved: Reflections on Missions and Whiteness” (lecture, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA, February 24, 2018),  https://youtu.be/SRLjWZxL1lE

[3] I have italicized and putDr. King’s words in quotations in an attempt to fully give him credit.


When Jubilee Sounds Like a Threat (Luke 4:14-21)

January 28, 2019

[This sermon was preached by Kaitlin Hardy Shetler at the gathering of the All Saints Church of Christ in Nashville, TN, on January 27, 2019.]

When I was a little older than my daughter, Hannah, I used to go to my mom and dad,begging them to tell me a story. And it couldn’t be just any story—it had to be me-centric. “Talk about the Kaitie, Talk about the Kaitie!” We laugh about it because that’s just such a toddler thing, right? Your world is so small.Everything is centered on you and your needs. I was told yesterday that the kinetic sand in our sand table was for me to “look at, mama, not play with”because it was not mine. I was invited to the table to play, but when I started, I was not welcome. Ideally, over time, we learn that sand is for sharing and the world is big and needs outside our own exist and other stories are important even if they don’t include us. Ideally.

This lesson of a “bigger-than-you” world and learning the patience to hear stories that don’t include you is harder the closer in proximity one is to power or privilege. For toddlers, the response may include tantruming or pouting, but for adults, the response often becomes violent. The older one is, the more de-centering work challenges one’s safety, status, and self-concept. Violence,then, is just an emphatic rejection of wanting to do that work. It’s a lazy and entitled response to a call for empathy. I’m setting us up to understand this before even diving into the passage, because I think it is vital for us to put ourselves in the Nazarene’s shoes. Especially the shoes of the local religious leaders.

The gospel writer sets this up so perfectly.

“When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up.”

In verses 14 and 15, Jesus is a star. He is the standout, the wunderkind, the prodigy, the MVP. He was teaching in their synagogues and everyone praised him. There’s most likely a lot of hometown pride that bubbled to the surface when people heard Jesus was coming to the Nazareth synagogue. I can see Jesus sitting in the synagogue, surrounded by the men who he grew up around. Older men, his father’s age, and their sons, possibly childhood friends of Jesus.Maybe there was a mixture of pride, maybe some jealousy. He stands up, and they hand him the scroll. I’m not sure what they anticipated he read, but Jesus unrolls it, and looks for something. For all we know, this could have taken thirty seconds or five minutes, but I would bet the anticipation was thick.

He finds what he is looking for, looks up, and says the following:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. Listen to this:  The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.  He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

There’s so much to unpack here—I don’t think we can cover it sufficiently. This divine mic drop was basically God’s thesis statement for sending Jesus to humanity. He takes two passages in Isaiah, combines them, and uses them as a declaration of ministry and purpose: “Today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”Jesus’s first hometown sermon is a decidingly political one: in it he declares dominion over the sacred and secular. And this IS Good News.

For the poor, the prisoner, the oppressed, this is FINALLY God saying, “I’m here! It’s happening! Your Jubilee Year is finally come, all your debts are paid, you are free!” For the marginalized, Jesus is not only giving a word of hope and promise, but a word of finality. He’s here, y’all. Our troubles are no longer unheard and unseen.

With this word, Jesus basically confronts two institutions: the religious and the political. The Year of the Lord’s Favor Isaiah referred to was also called the Jubilee Year, and it was the responsibility of the government to enact and recognize it. Obviously, by the time Jesus came along, Rome was in charge, and “Jubilee” seemed more like a folk tale than a reality. It is a very pointed criticism that Jesus lobs at the political structures of his day when he chooses this particular passage. “Yeah, I’m here because you can’t do it.” And this Is Good News.

Everyone is amazed at his words and speaks well of him. But he doesn’t stop there.

See,it’s interesting to note that if you read ahead, the religious men in the synagogue don’t get mad because he says that he’s there for the poor and the oppressed. They get mad because he says that the poor and oppressed aren’t them. They are happy to hear of his healing until his healing heals those on the outside. They get so mad, in fact, they try to kill him. When the story shifts from centering them, to centering others, their violence overtakes their goodwill. They would rather kill the Messiah than join in the work with him.

And it’s not like Jesus is someone who withholds healing from those who need it. The fact that he chooses to reveal his mission in this way and then say later,“by the way, this isn’t about you,” tells me that he knew this community needed to be reminded of what it’s all about.

I titled this sermon, “When Jubilee Sounds like a Threat” because in 2019 America, I wonder how we would respond to the brown Nazareth preacher claiming freedom for the oppressed? I wonder if, depending on our social location and proximity to power and privilege, would it lead us to feelings of violence or feelings of joy?

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to

Proclaim good news to those with poisoned water in Flint, Michigan,

He has sent me to proclaim freedom to Cyntoia Brown,

And recovery of land to indigenous people,

To set the undocumented immigrant children at the border free,

To proclaim health and healing to any sick person, regardless of ability to pay.”

Are we the local Nazarene religious leaders, so believing that we are entitled to Jesus and his words that any call to lift up the oppressed and marginalized is threatening? How can we tell if we are about to throw God off a cliff because we can’t handle the focus being off of us and on the systematically disadvantaged?

Does Jubilee sound like a threat or does it sound like Good News? What is our litmus test for whether we have perpetually centered our stories OR welcomed a bigger world and a bigger God who challenges us to look to the oppressed and marginalized for signs of His salvation work?

Church, we are being called into something great. We are can either proclaim Good News and do Good Work, or violently reject the God of the Outcasts. It starts with listening to stories in which we are not the subject and it ends in participating in the Great Narrative that rightly centers the oppressed.

May we be ever aware of our power and privilege, and learn to live empathetic, justice-seeking lives.


Millennials and Churches

March 5, 2018

This is a guest post by Jeff Wischkaemper, who holds a Ph.D. electrical engineering, and he lives in Knoxville, TN, where he attends a relatively new church plant that is affiliated with Christian Churches/Churches of Christ.

**********

It’s been six years since my wife and I left the Churches of Christ. Shortly after we left, I wrote extensively about some of the reasons for our departure, and some of the problems I thought Churches of Christ faced moving forward. In a recent discussion with John Mark on the topic of what churches (of Christ) can do to navigate multigenerational contexts – specifically those where Boomers are in charge and millennials make up an increasing number of congregants – I had the opportunity to revisit those posts and reflect on how I see connecting with millennials in a somewhat different faith community.

A note before I begin: Jeremy Marshall’s post here is absolutely worth reading. Because he’s already covered a lot of things I would want to say, I’d encourage you to reflect on his thoughts before reading this. Instead of rehashing everything he covered, I’ll try to supplement what he wrote with a few thoughts of my own.

First, a bit about myself by way of introduction: I was born in 1980, a member of the “micro-generation” that straddles Gen X and the Millennials. I spent 12 years earning both undergraduate and graduate degrees at a state university with a large campus ministry, and actively participated in leadership during that time. During my time in college, I overlapped with friends ranging from the college class of 1996 to the college class of 2013. And yes, I do see a significant shift in the social, political, and religious attitudes of people who are just a few years older than me compared to the people who are just a few years younger than me.

Why do they not want what we wanted?

Because the initial question was addressed specifically to congregations with Boomer leaderships, I’ll start with a pretty bold declaration of what I think the problem (still) is not, namely worship styles. I spent a lot of time beating a dead horse on this when we left, but loud, flashy instrumental music will not help you retain millennials.

My sense is that church leaderships have a tendency to look at worship styles as a solution to millennials leaving the church for a couple of reasons. First, they remember the time when they were young adults who thought worship was bland and stale. For Boomers, creating a dynamic worship experience was a major priority, and to be perfectly fair, a lot of the changes they made were both welcome and needed. But believing millennials are primarily interested in instrumental music is, in a very real sense, Boomers projecting their own desires for increasingly dynamic worship onto millennials, rather than an actual groundswell of desire from millennials themselves.

The more practical reason I think leaderships often gravitate to changes in worship style is that these changes are relatively easy to implement. Most changes to the way we do worship are straightforward, so long as the political will and capital exists. Worship services are something we plan and can exert some measure of control over. Consider the relative difficulty between 1) changing your worship service to include “newer” songs or 2) creating a broad culture of hospitality at your church. The first is a matter of planning and execution. The second requires a new imagination about your church’s identity. It’s easier to preach a sermon about kindness than it is to be kind.

Unfortunately, many of the changes I see as necessary for engaging millennials are changes of the second type. They are changes that aren’t easily controlled or executed, take a long time, and require a lot of introspection both from leadership and laity. To be frank, they are changes many of our churches simply aren’t equipped to make.

Keeping millennials in church requires more than turning down the lights and turning up the volume. Millennials are not adolescents who need to be placated with highly stimulating environments – and ironically, treating them that way tends to push them away, rather than drawing them in.

Three challenges

Difficulty connecting with changing demographics

If you grew up in a Church of Christ, attended a Christian college/university, were married when you were 19-21, and had your first child when you were 22-23 (or at least 3 of those things are true), there is a good chance that you feel accepted and at home in a Church of Christ. Churches know what to do with you. You’re likely to have a group of peers in most congregations you attend. There will be people in most life stages whose experience is/was more or less like yours, and the programs of a typical Church of Christ are oriented around being attractive and enriching to people like you. You are, we might say, on the fast track for eldership.

If you are in the 18-40 age range and you don’t fit this template, though, most churches really don’t have a good idea of what to do with you, other than try to get you “back on track.” If you happen to be single, for instance, most singles ministries – where they exist at all – are structured to be dating factories (because obviously singles’ primary goal in life should be to get married). Most adult classes for married couples under 50 in Churches of Christ tend to be oriented around parenting (because obviously all married couples should have children). And we haven’t even started to discuss a lack of awareness of single mothers, or people recovering from a divorce, or any number of other groups that traditionally haven’t been on our radar.

The challenge going forward is that demographic trends are moving away from the traditional template: 1) people are not getting married until later in life 2) married couples tend to be waiting longer to have children and 3) couples, even within churches experience divorce at higher rates than in the past. In spite of these trends, churches continue – overtly and covertly – to message that if you aren’t happily married by 25 with one kid in the nursery and another on the way, there is probably something wrong with you that needs to be fixed.

Ironically, a survey of Church of Christ members isn’t likely to pick up on this. Most churches would self-report as inviting and welcoming for young people, and church leaderships often cite the abundance of young families in their churches, along with the overcrowding of nurseries and children’s classes as evidence that everything is just dandy. And from the inside, this makes sense. People who “fit” this narrow profile and know the secret handshakes find Churches of Christ to be welcoming, friendly places with people who are warm, caring and understanding.

But people who are even a little bit away from an expected template often feel so unwelcomed and unvalued that they leave before they are noticed at all. The result is that many Churches of Christ have become culturally homogeneous, and increasingly unable to understand, care for, or even notice people whose lives aren’t on a similar trajectory.

“Gospel” as “sin management”

The traditional story most churches have told for several generations goes like this (forgive the huge oversimplification): “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But God, in the person of Jesus Christ, died so that our sins might be forgiven, and we might be able to live in heaven with God after we die.” The goal of churches, then, is to help people transition in status from “sinner” to “saved,” and then to help “saved people” manage their sin problem until they can go to heaven. (We would never say this so crassly, of course, but I think that’s a fair characterization of how many churches operationalize their purpose and mission.)

Now, there’s a sense in which that story may be “true,” but it’s a story that presents a solution to a singular problem that an increasing percentage of the population isn’t convinced they have. It’s a story that’s only “good news” if you can first convince people they are sinners in the hand of an angry God. Not surprisingly, the first move in the standard church playbook is to convince individuals of their personal guilt before a righteous and judgmental God – an approach which turns out to not work very well with people who didn’t grow up as nominal Christians.

Notice how much Jeremy in his article talks about story (spoiler alert: I’m going to talk about it below too). Think about how the same series of events and characters can be transformed by what Hayden White calls different modes of emplotment. For example, consider how differently the narrative of the French Revolution can look when written alternatively as a romance, a comedy, a tragedy, and a satire.

The story of God – told primarily as a tale of how to be forgiven and go to heaven after you die – isn’t an epic that captures the hearts and minds of many millennials. That’s not to say they aren’t interested in the story of God; far from it. But we need to take a step back and consider the mode of emplotment we bring to the text and ask ourselves whether a different approach to storytelling might resonate more in today’s world.

Justice, equality, hospitality

Justice, equality, and hospitality are words that Christians ought to have no problems with. And yet, if you ask non-Christians, the church is the last place they expect to find these virtues lived out. In an increasingly pluralistic society, faith communities are judged not by their benefits to insiders, but by how they act toward their non-adherents – those who do not believe.

How does your church (and its members) act toward immigrants (documented and undocumented)? How does your church (and its members) act toward members of the LGBTQ+ community? How does your church (and its members) act toward people of other faiths, (e.g. Muslims, Sikhs)?

Unfortunately, if we take an honest look, I think we will all find that our actions and intentions as Christians fall well short of the challenging words of Jesus: “Whatever you did for the least of these, you did it for me.”

In the wake of World War II, European philosophers and theologians struggled to understand what had gone so horribly wrong with ethics and morality that millions of “good Christian people” in Germany – in a church that was in many ways more theologically articulate than the American church has ever been – could have been quietly complicit in the deaths of millions of their fellow human beings. One French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas – who survived the Holocaust only because he was protected as a prisoner of war – tried to reground ethical discussions not on an abstract notion of human rights or contractual political arrangements, but on our obligations to the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.

I don’t believe churches are at the point, yet, where we have been forced to undertake the same reckoning with regard to our complicity in the suffering of others. But we should be aware that even now, we are judged by a watching world on how we respond to the least of these. To the extent that our religion functions as a way to preserve and extend our cultural power at the expense of outsiders, particularly the marginalized and oppressed, we are weighed in the scales and found wanting.

Three ways we can do better…

If you change your story, you change your life

Alasdair MacIntyre, in his prophetic work After Virtue (1981) said this: “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question, ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” Millennials don’t need another self-help book. They know how to listen to TED talks. But they are a generation whose apparent life trajectory is not optimistic; they will likely be the first generation in America to not enjoy a standard of living greater than their parents.

What they want, desperately, is to be part of a community with a story of hope – and we have a story that speaks to that desperation. Scripture tells of a story that says, “God is doing something amazing in the world! God wants to repair all of the brokenness you see around us and set things right again! You have the opportunity to join in a community that is partnering with God to bring about justice and peace and restoration and wholeness?” It’s story that says my identity is not wrapped up in how much I earn, in what my job title is, or in how much I consume; that it doesn’t depend on my gender or race or economic status. Instead, the story of God promises that my identity is grounded in the reality that I am created by God, and that God wants me to be part of something bigger than myself. That’s a story people want to be a part of!

The recently deceased Yale theologian George Lindbeck argued that in a pluralistic age persuasion involving fundamental beliefs and ultimate concerns is not simply a matter of dispensing information but is, rather, an invitation to participate in an alternative story. Part of the reason millennials are so turned off from many churches is that the story most churches tell by their lived existence is basically indistinguishable from the story told by the world. At most churches, “being a good Christian” doesn’t look all that different from a vaguely spiritualized version of “living the American Dream.”

If the “good news” your church preaches is, in the words of one Christian author, “primarily information about how to go to heaven after you die, with a large footnote about increasing your personal happiness and success in God, with a small footnote about character development, with a smaller footnote about spiritual experience, with an almost illegible footnote about social/global transformation,” you are going to have a very difficult time retaining people under 40. You can be hip, cool, and high-quality in your programming while at the same time offering an incoherent and disconnected story. It’s the spiritual equivalent of a Michael Bay movie; possibly entertaining, lots of explosions, action and special effects, but very little substance.

Millennials are looking for a story. The story of God is an epic that has the capacity to animate their lives. But we need to learn to tell that story in a way that connects with their passions and desires, anxieties and fears.

Embracing women

To quote Sojourner Truth, “I have heard the Bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well, if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again.”

Let me pose a hypothetical to you. I know someone who is an expert in couple’s therapy. Literally wrote the book on helping couples get past an affair. They lead seminars all over the world about how to have a better marriage, how to communicate better as a couple, about how to forgive those who’ve wronged you. They’re a past-president of the Division of Couples and Family Therapy at the American Psychological Association. And they are a person of deep faith. And for the cost of gas, I could probably get them to spend a morning strengthening the marriages and relationships of anyone in your church who wanted to come.

How in the world could you say no to something like that?

You could (and many of our churches would) say no, because that person is a woman.

The recent, attention-grabbing Nashville Statement included the following sentence in Article 3: “We deny that the divinely ordained differences between male and female render them unequal in dignity or worth.” One of my female friends replied, “You wouldn’t have to explicitly deny that females are unequal in dignity and worth if it weren’t implied by the entire history of [your organization].”

I know that for this audience, addressing this issue is poking a bear, and I know there are a lot of complementarians who will push back against me on this, but as a husband, brother, and friend of dozens of highly educated women let me make this abundantly clear: when you argue that women aren’t “less than men,” but that they “just have different roles (like teaching children’s classes and baking casseroles and sending sympathy cards),” these women would reply in a similar way to my friend above – you wouldn’t have to assert that women aren’t less than men if it weren’t implied by the rest of your doctrine and practice. 

I want to say that again: you wouldn’t have to assert that women are not less than men if it weren’t implied by the rest of your doctrine and practice.

My wife and I will never attend another church that doesn’t respect her talents and gifts, and the talents and gifts of other women, and doesn’t give women the opportunity to use the talents God has given them in settings where men are present. And we’re far from alone. In my small group, there are two women with Ph.D.’s (one of them a New Testament professor) and one medical doctor. Each of them grew up in small, conservative churches where their talents were dismissed and devalued, or worse still appropriated by boys who passed the girls’ work off as their own. Each of them has a story of hurt and resentment that is not only a barrier between them and most Christian communities, but sometimes a barrier between them and Christ.

You can jump up and down on any verses you like, but I will tell you that the lived experience of an increasing number of women suggests that the way complementarian theology is enacted is frequently damaging, not only spiritually, but on a deeply personal level. If you ignore that pain, or worse still perpetuate it, you will find an increasing number of millennial couples who will be unwilling to listen to you about anything else.

Our churches have to find ways of recognizing, valuing and listening to the talents of all members of God’s family. Spiritual wisdom, teaching Christ, and congregational leadership are not the sole domain of humans with a Y chromosome. Or at least they shouldn’t be.

Stop trying to be relevant. Start thinking about formation.

Too many churches get caught up in a never-ending quest to be “relevant.” If you want to connect with people under 40, think instead about how your church changes the people who are in it. Klyne Snodgrass writes: “[W]hen people asked Jesus ‘What do I have to do?’ he asked in return, ‘What kind of person are you?’ The answer to the second question answers the first.”

Stories are identity-forming. They are how we organize the world around us. Again – if you change your story, you change your life.

MacIntyre’s phrase for people who live without a grounding story is “anxious, unscripted stutterers.” Because of a long series of choices I don’t have space to go into, many churches have lost their organizing story, leading many of their members to become anxious, unscripted stutterers.

Imagine if you asked your church the following three questions:

1) Who do you/we believe God is?
2) What do you/we believe God is up to in the world?
3) If God is doing something in the world, what should your/our response be to that?

My guess is that regardless of whether your church is “conservative” or “progressive,” your members would have a difficult time answering those questions without resorting to “Sunday school” answers (e.g. “God is love!”). These questions are a good baseline for understanding the direction that your church is headed, and the direction your members are being formed. James K.A. Smith has written extensively about how all of us are constantly being formed. It’s worth asking in the context of this question, “What is the direction of formation in most Churches of Christ?” Or, as I asked myself when we were in the process of leaving, “If I take the values and beliefs of this church to be my own, what kind of person am I going to be in 5 or 10 years?” Ultimately I didn’t leave because of personal disagreements, ineffective leadership, or vapid teaching (though those things were all present). I left because when I took a hard look in the mirror, I didn’t like the person being formed by the values of that church.

Wrapping up

I was listening to an interview with the CEO of a tech startup a couple of weeks ago, and he made a very interesting statement: “You get the investors you deserve. … If you’re trying to attract investors by going around saying, ‘We’re going to blow it up on every street corner!’ then you’re going to get investors who have those expectations of you. On the other hand, if you say, ‘We’re trying to build something that’s going to survive for the long haul,’ you’ll get investors who are more patient and willing to let you take time to do things right.”

My general observation is that many times, churches get the members they deserve. If your church is trying to attract people based on your flashy worship service, it shouldn’t surprise you when you lose members to a flashier worship service. If you’re trying to attract people because you have good preaching or children’s programs, it shouldn’t surprise you when those people jump to the next church that comes along and “out churches” you. But if you’re building for the long haul – and if you’re really taking the time to create a community around an identity-forming story, a story that changes the world – then you have the potential to not just weather the storm, but thrive within it.


The Segregation of Black and White Churches of Christ in the Postbellum South

February 26, 2018

S. W. Womack (1850?-1920), father-in-law to Marshall Keeble and a leader in the African American Church in Nashville (particularly the Jackson Street Church of Christ, which he helped plant in 1896).

When A. B. Lipscomb, who was the managing editor of the Gospel Advocate at the time, asked Womack whether he would help put together a special issue of the Advocate “for the colored people,” he agreed and hoped “it would help to correct the attitude that now exists in some places toward blacks.”

Womack continued: “I think a more friendly attitude by the white people toward us would help [in the present, JMH]. I will never forget the grand privilege that the white church of Christ at Lynchburg, Tenn., gave the colored people during their first protracted meeting just after the Civil War, in 1865, held by Brethren Brents, Lee, and Trimble. We were invited to attend and seats were found for us. In this meeting I heard my first gospel sermon and a lasting impression was made on my heart. A short time after that, in the fall of 1866, I was baptized by a white preacher, old Brother T. J. Shaw–‘the man with the old Book in his head,’ the people called him. We were allowed to meet and worship with them for a number of years. In partaking of the Lord’s Supper, we were all waited on just alike; the wine and bread were not brought to us at the same time it is brought to us in some of the churches that I meet with for worship now. The attitude of the white people of that church toward the colored people was then, and is now, a great uplift to me” (GA, 1915, 1326).

At the conclusion of his article, he wrote: “Only a few of the whites have much or any confidence in the black man, and so many have none; and the blacks seem to stand that way toward the whites. I am proud to say, however, that it is not that way with the writer. When I begin with the year 1865 and think of such men as Dr. Brents, Lee, Trimble, T. J. Shaw, Darnell, Dixon, Bolding, Barrett, Fanning, the Sewells, the Lipscombs, and many others, who, in holding their meetings, would ask for room and seats for the colored people, and, after preaching would come around and shake our hands, I am made to feel very grateful. These things were a great help to me; and what has been helpful to me will be helpful to others also, if put into practice. I hope you will not only write and say many good things, but do as those good old men did—show your faith by your works” (p. 1327).

In other words, something happened between 1866 and 1915. Apparently, churches were more segregated, and there was more animosity toward African Americans.

American history helps us a bit here—the reconstruction South and the Jim Crow South dramatically shaped the story of black and white churches in the South.

In 1874, Daniel Watkins, an African American from Nashville, TN, asked David Lipscomb to publish his request for the use of “meeting-houses” so that he might teach Christianity to “the more destitute of my people as are willing to hear and receive the truth” (GA, 1874, 281). Unfortunately, to the dismay of Lipscomb, “white brethren in some places refused the use of their houses at times when unoccupied by themselves.” “We do not hesitate to say,” Lipscomb added, “that such a foolish and unchristian prejudice should be vigorously and eagerly trampled under foot, and all persons who are driven from the church because the house is used by the humblest of God’s creatures, in teaching and learning the Christian religion would bless the church by leaving it” (GA, 1874. 282). Further, “If the houses are too fine for this, they are entirely too fine for Christian purposes” (GA, 1874, 283).

Later that year, on October 9, a “consultation meeting” was held by disciples in Murfreesboro, TN, which included one African American named Daniel Watkins, who was commended as a preacher and church planter, among the thirty or so participants.

On the morning of October 12, the “ordination” committee proposed this resolution: “Resolved, that we recommend to our colored brethren who have membership with whites, whenever practicable to withdraw themselves and form congregations of their own, believing that by so doing they will advance the cause of Christ among themselves, and when it not practicable so to do, that they receive the attention of their various congregations” (GA, 1874, 1017-8, to which Michael Strickland alerted me).

There is no indication that the resolution was adopted, but the resolution itself reflects a movement among white churches to encourage segregation.

David Lipscomb, who was present at the consultation, took exception to the segregationist resolution. “The resolution in reference to colored brethren forming separate congregations we believe plainly contrary to the teachings of the Scriptures. The Jews and Gentiles had as strong antipathies as the whites and blacks. They were never recommended to form distinct organizations. The course we believe to be hurtful to both races and destructive to the Spirit of Christ” (GA 1874, 1020).

When, in 1878, David Lipscomb heard about an African American who was refused membership in a white church, he wrote this: “Nothing is more clearly taught in the Bible than that Christ came into the world to break down middle walls, family prejudices, natural animosities, race antipathics, and to unite the different kindreds, tongues and tribes into one undivided and indivisible brotherhood. The race prejudices in the days of the Savior and of the apostles were just as strong as they are to-day…We believe it is sinful to have two congregations in the community for persons of separate and distinct races now. The race prejudice would cause trouble in the churches we know. It did this in apostolic days. Not once did the apostles suggest that they should form separate congregations for the different races. But they always admonished them to unity, forbearance, love and brotherhood in Christ Jesus. We believe it sinful to do otherwise now..For the whites to reject the negro is to make the whites self-righteous, self-sufficient, exclusive and unchristian in spirit…[Those who resist the participation of African Americans in white congregations] show a total unfitness for membership in the church of God. A church that will tolerate the persistent exhibition of such a spirit certainly forfeits its claims to be a church of God…Our treatment of the negro at best is that of criminal indifference and neglect. To discourage and repel him, when, despite that cruel neglect on our part he seeks membership in the church of God, is an outrage that ought not for a moment to be tolerated.”.” (GA, 1878, 120-1).

While Lipscomb opposed segregated congregations, he also had a paternalistic and assimilationist attitude toward African Americans in those congregations. He thought, given their proclivities to “over-much religiousness or superstition” created obstacles to their “knowing the truth,” and it was “a misfortune” that “the colored population ever attempted separate religious organizations or separate worshiping assemblies,” which he regarded as “unscriptural” despite the “difficulties” that “might have arisen in their worshiping together” (GA, 1874, 281). Indeed, “the negroes needed the care, the counsel, the oversight, the instruction of their white brethren” (GA, 1874, 282). Since “in the providence of God they were freed,” it is a Christian “ambition and desire to encourage, instruct, and elevate them” (GA, 1874, 283).

In other words, even Lipscomb—who was beloved by many African Americans in Nashville and in other places—was shaped by the assimilationist and paternalistic racism of his time (see Kendi’s history Stamped from the Beginning). That is quite a somber warning for all of us, especially if we claim there is not a racist bone in our bodies.

Lipscomb, nevertheless, has harsh words for the whites who encouraged separate congregations. It seems to suggest that northern whites encouraged and promoted this tactic as part of their agenda during Reconstruction, and then this was continued during the Jim Crow era. “The whites who came into the country to use the blacks for selfish ends, encouraged the forming of separate churches that through these organizations they might control the blacks. The white members of the churches of this country, when themselves not guilty of a narrow and unworthy prejudice against church association with the colored members, gave way to a cowardly fear of the prejudices of others.”

By 1915, times had changed. Womack noted that “only a few of the whites have much or any confidence in the black man, and so many have none.” African Americans now worshiped in congregations segregated by the attitudes that formed by the Jim Crow south.

There were, of course, segregated churches before the Civil War, including Nashville where the first African American congregation in Nashville was planted in 1859. But these increased throughout the lifetime of David Lipscomb and S. W. Womack and much to their disappointment. The influence of Reconstruction and Jim Crow shaped how churches segregated themselves into white and black.

We are still dealing with the effects of that history today.

May God have mercy!


Millennials and the Oregon Trail Generation: Suggestions for Doing and Being Church with Them

February 8, 2018

This is a guest post by Jeremy Marshall who is the Minister of the Word at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA. He is married to Megan. He holds a B.A. in Bible and M.A. in New Testament Studies from Freed-Hardeman University, Henderson, TN. He enjoys exploring the intersections between biblical theology and popular culture, especially music and film.

I commend these suggestions for your consideration, and they are open for discussion rather than prescription.

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In recent years there’s been ample discussion and debate about how churches can reach and retain Millennials—those born from about 1984 through about 2001. A neglected micro-generation in these discussions is the so-called “Oregon Trail Generation,” or Xennials, those born roughly between 1977 and 1983—a cohort of which I am a member, and which I believe has significant gifts and a helpful outlook that can be very useful to the church moving forward. Many in both of these cohorts have fled their churches in recent years. But now some of those who’ve left are considering a return to some sort of church. Below are fourteen observations for doing ministry and life with and among Millennials and Xennials, many of who could rightly be classified as “Nones” and “Dones” when it comes to church experience.

1) You can’t assume they know “basic” Bible stuff. Even some of them who’ve been “in church” their whole lives. You may meet who grew up in church who don’t know Noah from Moses, or the story of Elijah and the ravens, or that Hebrews is a book in the New Testament. Don’t look down on them for this. And never put down their previous church experience, deficient as it seems to you. Something about Jesus has captured their imagination, and we ought to celebrate that.

2) Number 1) is actually a blessing. First off, it means they may be coming to us with less baggage, in terms of old denominational and hermeneutical squabbles. But it also means God is blessing us with an opportunity to tell our story afresh–to tell God’s story afresh. Isn’t that awesome? This permits us to be simply who the church was always meant to be: a people with a wondrous story to tell. A story as old as the heavens and the earth, and which will echo in the new heavens and earth.

3) If you’re blessed enough to have God guide these contingencies into your congregation, know that they do want to hear a story that makes sense to them; that makes sense of their lives and their world. They’re longing to be part of a larger story in a world that has forgotten the stories that make us truly human. I’d suggest you get a copy of Richard Adams’ Watership Down. Read it. Meditate on it. Internalize it. These Xennials and Millennials, these Nones and Dones, are rabbits looking for a safe and supportive warren to build their lives in.

4) It’s really time to brush up on the best of historical theology, because the questions these folks will bring to you have already been answered well by faithful saints of old. some titles I’d suggest up front include: Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Soul and the Resurrection; the Anabaptist martyr stories in The Martyrs Mirror; Augustine, Luther, and Calvin on the Psalms; Jonathan Edwards on Religious Affections; Alexander Campbell’s The Christian System; and the Unspoken Sermons of George MacDonald. You’ll be pleasantly surprised to find them incredibly relevant, and you’ll probably learn a few things, too. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Remember observation 3), above: they want to be part of an ongoing story, a long-standing conversation about things that really matter.

5) Related to all of the above: I’m finding that they don’t like topical sermons full of proof-texts. They don’t want or need scattershot preaching. But they do want to be led into a story by a tour guide whom they can perceive as a peer. Not as an “authority” telling them “what to do.” Detailed eschatological timelines (complete with maps) and waxing didactic and pedantic over the intricacies of the psallo argument will tend to turn off folks from these cohorts.

6) Related to 5): Why don’t they tend to appreciate topical sermons? Because they’re smart enough to know how easy it is to manipulate the text to favor a preconceived idea. These young people–especially the ones who might come with church baggage–have been trained well in the hermeneutics of suspicion. Proof texts just don’t work on many of them. Thank the Lord!

7) Related to all of the above: I’m not saying to be an exclusively “expository” preacher, either. But I am strongly suggesting preaching textual sermons. Gently guide them into the old, old story. Make helpful observations along the way. And maybe give them one application to take home with them based on the story. And then let the story and the Spirit do their work.

8) Related to all of the above, but especially 1). This might be especially a paradigm-shift for those of us in Churches of Christ, though I’m thankful to observe this practice has been waning the past couple of decades. “Turn in your Bibles to …” used 20, 30, 50 times in your sermon will not work anymore, because you can’t even assume they know where Genesis or Esther or 2 Thessalonians is. It really wasn’t a great strategy to begin with. Probably we should thank the Lord for this: it means God has given us a generation that renders moot the strange idea that the more you quote from the Bible, the more “biblical” a sermon is. It’s not “biblical” when you’re ripping many of those passages out of context; ignoring whole swaths of scripture because they don’t fit your “pattern”; and overloading people to the point that they can’t be noble Bereans who search the scriptures to see if these things be so. Why should they have to look up 40+ scriptures and make sure you were preaching them correctly?

9) Preach the whole Bible, even the weird parts. Even especially the weird parts. I recommend using a lectionary–at least for a season. And deliberately preaching the unfamiliar passages. (I prefer Luther Seminary’s Narrative Lectionary, but the Revised Common Lectionary is also great for preaching all the Bible. Both also get the church back into the discipline of the public reading of scripture having an essential role in the church’s worship.)

10) Put the scriptures in their place. They’re supposed to lead to Jesus (through the nudges of the Spirit), who shows us the Father. Make sure you say that out loud from time to time, if for no other reason than to keep yourself honest.

11) They neither want nor need propositions, a checklist, or a list of demands. They need a story to live by, and they need a supportive community to live it with. They may ask difficult questions about this story, and you may be tempted to just “tell them what to do.” Please resist that temptation. (I’m preaching to myself first, because I’m wired to be a “fixer.”) They will come to you (or someone else in the congregation) with the questions provided they experience the church as a safe place to explore, with safe people to explore with. Be that safe place. Be those safe people.

12) The church will need to provide a more casual, family-like environment for these folks. However, that doesn’t mean circle up the wagons and be all insular. Should the church be a “haven in a heartless world”? You bet! But we also must be open to the world. Sometimes there’s a very fine line between a church that feels like family, and cult. Don’t be culty. (Hint: sectarian is culty.)

13) Because of student loans and the general gutting of the middle and working classes, the Millennials and Xennials will probably not be able to contribute nearly as much financially as previous generations. This is a reality we’ll all need to accept. I’m going to be rather blunt: This is the new normal. Deal with it. But here’s the upshot: These cohorts are also generous with their time and talents and whatever possessions they have provided you send them on a compelling mission. The church of the 21st century will need to be lithe, streamlined, efficient, supple, pliant, and not program-heavy. So give them a compelling vision. Equip them. And crowd-source the dickens out of your ministries. Tips: be simple. Collaborate with other churches, ministries, non-profits, and even local government to do good. Focus on people, not programs. Be situational. Focus more on one-time or ongoing, simple, contextual, local opportunities for ministry that make sense for your church and arise organically.

14) Above all, resist the temptation to present the Bible as a source for “life-hacks.” We’re finding out now that most “life-hacks” don’t actually make your life better or easier, and can actually cause harm. Real life is messy and complicated; and so is scripture, sometimes. When I say resist the temptation to Bible-based life-hacks, resist trying to craft one-size-fits-all “solutions” from the scriptures. Resist theological platitudes. For every Matt. 7.14 (“the gate that leads to life is narrow and the road difficult”); there’s also a Psalm 119.45 (“I will walk around in wide-open spaces, because I have pursued your precepts”). Is the way narrow and difficult; or is it wide-open spaces? According to scripture, the answer is somewhere between, “Yes”; and, “It depends.” Tension is life-affirming.

This isn’t meant to be read as an exhaustive or systematic checklist. It isn’t Fourteen Simple Steps to Reaching Millennials. These are suggestions and starting points, based on my own experience as a minister; as a member of one of these generational cohorts; and dozens of hours of conversations with people of these generational cohorts, both within and without the church. To put these into practice may take considerable work, sacrifice, and a willingness to examine our churches and make changes. But I’d also add, I believe it’s worth it. Because I don’t intend these fourteen observations just as a gimmick to reach and retain a certain generation. I believe many of these are simply best practices for a healthy, functioning church.


Transforming Encounter: Baptism, Lord’s Supper, and Assembly

November 6, 2017

On October 28, 2017, the Central Church of Christ in Amarillo, Texas, hosted me for a morning of study.  I introduced their Sunday curriculum entitled “Transforming Encounter: Baptism, Lord’s Supper, and Assembly.”

The lesson outlines for the series are available here: Transforming Encounter Amarillo 2017.

My audio introductions to the lessons are available:  Audio Session 1, Audio Session 2, Audio Session 3, and Audio Session 4.

 


I’m Confident You Will Do More Than I Ask (Philemon 21-22)

November 2, 2017

Paul has set a high bar for Philemon.

Given Philemon’s social world, Paul’s requests are astounding. As Philemon’s slave, Onesimus has neither social status nor civil rights. Onesimus cannot sit at the same table with his master. He cannot marry whom he chooses, and he has no real options other than what Philemon decides.

As this letter is read in the context of Philemon’s house church, there is enormous cultural (even political) pressure on Philemon to conform to conventional Roman social norms. His neighbors are watching. His peers, in and outside of his small Christian community, live in a social world that cannot imagine any sort of equality between masters and slaves. Their relationship is asymmetrical. The master literally holds all the cards, and any chink in that armor has the potential to tear apart Rome’s social fabric and economic power. The memory of Spartacus still looms large in the first century A.D.

Nevertheless Paul’s requests assume a different kind of community where slaves are equals before God; where both slave and free are heirs of God’s promise to Abraham (Galatians 3:28-29). Paul himself places enormous pressure on Philemon from within the Christian community to (1) regard Onesimus as a fellow-member of the family of God, a brother, (2) welcome him just as Philemon would welcome Paul, (3) charge any debt to Paul, and (4) refresh Paul’s ministry by receiving Onesimus in peace. What Paul asks is extraordinary in the social world in which Philemon lives as the head of a household. This is a high bar for Philemon given the several levels and intersecting realities at work here: (a) Philemon’s Roman world; (b) Philemon’s own household; and (c) Philemon’s house church. This is a complicated situation.

We might say Paul is manipulative, but Paul’s intent is to apply this brotherly pressure without apostolic demand. How else might Paul persuade Philemon without commanding him? It seems to me Paul does this rather well.

We might say Paul is passive-aggressive, but Paul is overt in his requests and rationale. Paul intends to influence Philemon; he is active rather than passive.

Yet, Paul thinks this is a matter of Philemon’s “obedience.” What is the nature of “obedience” here? One might suggest Paul is demanding Philemon to obey his requests and make good on Paul’s expectations, but this runs counter to the kind of response Paul wants to nurture and cultivate in Philemon’s life. Paul does not use his apostolic authority to compel Philemon’s “obedience.” I don’t think Paul wants Philemon to obey his apostolic authority.

On the contrary, it seems to me, Paul wants Philemon to live out the story he confesses to believe. In other words, the “obedience” Paul envisions is Philemon’s embodiment of the Christian narrative in this situation. Does Philemon truly believe the story he confesses? Is he willing as a master to serve the slave, even to become a slave in the eyes of his social world, including his public, household, and church realities? Is he willing to be Jesus to Onesimus?

Throughout the letter, Paul has assumed a cruciform narrative, that is, a kenotic Jesus who suffers for the other and empties oneself for the other. Throughout the letter, Paul has assumed a familial reality between people who live together in this new community. Throughout the letter, Paul has assumed a common partnership for the sake of the gospel rather than social rank or rights. Throughout the letter, Paul has assumed a Christocentric life in which both slave and free participate as family, as members of God’s household.

Obedience means Philemon will receive Onesimus as first and primarily a member of God’s household rather than his own household. This is how, in the first century world, the gospel transforms slave/free relationships within the Christian community. Within God’s household both slave and free sit at the same table; there is no distinction as they are both heirs of the Abrahamic promise.

I also think Paul believes this relationship—as family within God’s household—will transform how slave and free interact within the social household. In the ancient world, the household included the immediate family and also slaves, workers, and extended family. It was, in many ways, a small village that was supported by the head of the house.

What are the implications for the Roman household when shared by members of God’s household?

For whatever reason (and we imagine some below), Paul did not demand or necessarily envision the manumission of slaves in a Roman household shared by members of God’s household. He certainly thought it should transform how masters treat their slaves (e.g., Colossians 4:1) since those masters are part of God’s household (they themselves also have a master). At the very least, Paul believed their Christian commitments demanded fair and equitable treatment of their slaves, and this treatment was not simply a higher standard than the Roman social world but the standard of Christ’s own cruciform life.

While it is possible Paul hoped that Philemon would free Onesimus (which how N. T. Wright reads the “more” in Philemon 20), it seems more likely that the “more” is Paul’s desire for Onesimus to share the burdens of ministry with him during his imprisonment (and perhaps beyond). Paul hopes for “more” in that he hopes Philemon will send Onesimus back to Paul.

But why doesn’t Paul ask (even demand) Philemon free Onesimus? We might wish he had done that explicitly and forcefully. As modern readers, we would certainly be more comfortable with that, and we are disturbed it is lacking in this letter as well as other Pauline letters (as well as the whole New Testament).

Why is not Onesimus’s freedom, then, the main thing? Justice would seem to demand that. I wonder what Paul would say to our question.

Perhaps it was not an option. The social world did not permit a movement whose fundamental impulse resulted in freedom for slaves. But the social world did not permit a movement whose fundamental impulse confessed a Lord who was not Caesar or subverted Caesar. Christians did the latter but not the former. Why?

I wonder if the rationale might be something like this. To confess Jesus as Lord is the fundamental orienting commitment of the Jesus movement. It is essential and necessary to its existence; it is the primary confession. There is no movement without it.

Paul intended, it seems to me, for this confession to function as a leaven in the lump of his social world. First, and primarily, it must transform how the house church functions: the poor and rich, the slave and free, male and female eat at the same table there. There can be no compromise on this point. The heart of the gospel is at stake if table fellowship within the Christian community is interrupted by such distinctions.

Secondly, Paul intended to, as a matter of process and progress for the gospel (confession of Jesus as Lord), transform the social world of the household within Roman society. There Paul regulates behavior and motives, and there he also plants seeds that will transform the household so that it no longer conforms to Roman social expectations but to gospel ones.

Third, we might guess—but there is nothing certain here—Paul hoped for the transformation of society as well through the gospel’s witness. Perhaps Paul thought the whole world would be made new through the gospel, but there is also a Pauline realism that recognizes the world lies in evil and will not bend to the gospel easily or quickly. Ultimately, however long the world continued, God would transform and redeem the world through God’s own act. Perhaps, then, Paul had no concrete expectation that the world would be rid of slavery though the gospel embodied this hope in the Messiah who liberates slaves. The one who was free became a slave so that the one who was enslaved might be free—that is the gospel (Philippians 2:5-8).

Perhaps Paul does not demand Philemon free Onesimus because Paul begins at the level of personal reconciliation within Philemon’s house church. This is his primary objective so that Philemon and Onesimus live together as reconciled brothers in the church and eat at the same table of the Lord.

Perhaps this will also lead to the transformation of Philemon’s own household itself where slave and free share life together in love and mutual respect, even if does not entail—given the social context—Onesimus’s freedom. That witness would glorify God and serve the mission of Jesus. Perhaps it will lead to “more”….maybe even Onesimus’s freedom and the freedom of other slaves in Philemon’s household. We don’t know.

What we do see is Paul’s desire for a reconciled community in Christ, and we know Paul hopes this reconciled community will, one day, include the whole world. There, we might imagine, the full justice of the kingdom of God would emerge and the kingdom would realize the honor due to all God’s imagers.

In our contemporary social context, we have more opportunities (e.g., voting) and mechanisms (e.g., legislative democracy) to peacefully effect change as we embody the gospel. That was not Paul’s social world, and he could not effectively and peacefully start a social revolution that included freedom for slaves. Instead, he planted churches—missional communities—where the goals of the kingdom were embodied as a witness to the coming reign of God over all the world when all slaves would live as free human beings.

I do wonder, however, how Onesimus thought about all this. He takes a great risk in returning to Philemon’s household because he has no assurance that Philemon will act “Christianly.” I assume Onesimus volunteers to return, and he assumes the risk. As such, Onesimus himself initiates reconciliation with his own kenosis as he gives himself over to the other for the sake of reconciliation as a brother in Christ. That seems unimaginable to me, but this may be exactly the sort of way in which the gospel transforms us.

Paul does not ask for Onesimus’s freedom. He asks for something more important—reonciliation. And, at the same time, Paul believes reconcilation will transform their relationship….perhaps including, ultimately I think, freedom.

What this demands is mutual kenosis, a self-giving that surrenders to the other for the sake of the other. Paul surrenders to Philemon, Onesimus surrenders to Paul in returning, and Philemon is now called to surrender to Onesimus. In this way, the gospel works reconciliation, and reconciliation will bring transformation.


October 31, 2017 –500th Anniversary of the Reformation

October 30, 2017

The Reformation in a nutshell: We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone to the glory of God alone as taught by Scripture alone.

• Grace alone (sola gratia) means that God took initiative, supplies grace for every good work, and completes God’s work in us, and this includes a cooperative grace by which human persons partner with God in God’s mission in the world.

• Faith alone (sola fidei) means that trust in God’s work in Christ is the exclusive, orienting, and foundational root of every good work God completes in and through us, and this is expressed and given concrete form in both sacraments and life.

• Christ alone (solus Christus) means that God elected Christ as the sole ground of our salvation, and this entails that all spiritual blessings are found in Christ and only in Christ.

• To the glory of God alone (soli Deo gloria) means all things come from the Father through the Son in the Spirit and everything returns to the Father through the Son in the Spirit, and this excludes any kind of boasting except in what God does.

• Scripture alone (sola scriptura) means that the oracles of God handed down to us through the church are the sole norm for Christian faith and practice, and this Scripture is interpreted in the bosom of the church which is committed to the canon of truth, who is God revealed in Christ.

Comment:

I actually think these principles find common ground in the Great Tradition of the church, including Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Roman Catholic theology. There is a substance to each of these points that is affirmed by all three great traditions of the church–Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant. Their interpretations vary to one degree or another, but the common ground is also substantial.


Three Requests (Philemon 17-20)

October 25, 2017

Up to this point, Paul’s letter has greeted the community where Philemon serves, thanked God for Philemon’s service in that community, and described his relationship with Philemon’s slave Onesimus. Only now, in verses 17-20, does Paul get to the point. What does Paul want Philemon to do? Why is he writing him?

Paul only uses the imperative mood—typically commands or requests—four times in Philemon. Three are in this section (verses 17-20) and one in verse 22.

  • welcome him as you would me (v. 17)
  • charge that to my account (v. 18)
  • refresh my heart in Christ (v. 20)
  • prepare a guest room for me (v. 22).

This litany of requests—one on top of the other—is focused on the central reality Paul wants to emerge within Philemon’s believing community. Probably the best word for this, which itself epitomizes the central focus of the Christian Faith, is reconciliation.

As this letter is read at Philemon’s house church where Philemon’s other slaves, his family, and other believers are present along with Onesimus himself, Paul envisions this community as a reconciled one, where slave and free, Jew and Gentile, and male and female share life together as a family, the body of Christ. The question remains, however, whether Philemon will express the heart of his own faith by reconciling with Onesimus.

The three requests present in verses 17-20 build on each other. The first lays the foundation for the others.

If you consider me your partner (koinonon), welcome [Onesimus] as you would welcome me.”

Paul assumes a partnership or fellowship in the gospel. Philemon and Paul are co-workers and dear friends in the shared life of the family of God. If this communion is real—if Philemon is authentically committed to this shared life—then Paul not only requests but expects that Philemon will welcome Onesimus.

Welcome is a significant theological word. Paul uses it three times in Romans 14-15 to describe how believers should treat each other, that is, strong believers should “welcome” weaker believers (Romans 14:1, 3; 15:7). Paul roots this “welcoming” in how both God and Jesus have welcomed us into God’s own life. We welcome—or “accept”—each other because God has already welcomed us. We welcome each other because Christ has already welcomed us. We do not pursue this course out of some self-interest but “for the glory of God.”

To welcome the other, and for Philemon to welcome Onesimus, is at the heart of the gospel. If the gospel means anything, it means the Christian community must reflect God’s own welcoming, and if God has welcomed Onesimus into the family, so must Philemon. In other words, Onesimus appears in Philemon’s house church as a brother in Christ rather than as a slave. Within the Christian community, his status is family rather than slave; his status is heir rather than servant. Whatever status Onesimus bore in the social world of Roman, in the familial world of the body of Christ he is a brother.

Indeed, Paul requests Philemon to welcome Onesimus as if he were Paul himself. In other words, Onesimus status—as part of the family of God—is no longer one of a slave but a brother. And Onesimus is no second-class brother but one who should be received, as per Paul’s request, as if he were Paul himself. Paul identifies Onesimus with himself and expects that Philemon will receive and treat Onesimus like he would receive and treat Paul. This elevates Onesimus’s status—it is the status that belongs to Onesimus as a brother in Christ, a member of the body of Christ.

Moreover, “if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” With his own signature (“I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand”), Paul signs an “I owe you” over to Philemon.

Though Paul could have asked Philemon to forgive any debt since Philemon owes Paul his own life (perhaps because Paul is Philemon’s father in the faith), he does not exercise that right or privilege. Instead of seeking an equal exchange, Paul assumes whatever debt Onesimus owes Philemon. Paul forgoes his rights (what Philemon owes him) in order to assume the status of debtor to Philemon.

In this Paul embodies the gospel itself. This is a kenotic move. I allude to the word Paul uses in Philippians 2:7 to describe the move the Son makes when he becomes incarnate. Though the Son was existed in the form of God as an equal with God, he “emptied himself” when he took on the form of a human being. This “emptying” is kenosis; it is self-giving.

Paul does the same here. He “empties himself” by taking on a debt that does not belong to him. Instead of asserting his status or exercising his right, Paul embodies the gospel in this self-giving or self-emptying. In this moment Paul embodies Christ for Onesimus’s sake.

When Paul asks for Onesimus’s debt to be charged to him, Paul models the gospel in a way that calls Philemon into that same way of living. Just as Paul is willing to live kenotically, so Philemon is called to live in a self-emptying and self-giving way as well. Even though Paul is willing for Philemon to charge everyting to Paul’s account, Paul’s own self-emptying example, which is an imitation of Christ, also calls Philemon to empty himself as well.

This leads to the third request: “refresh my heart (splagchna) in Christ.” His request renews Paul’s thanksgiving where Paul expresses joy and hope for Philemon’s consistent practice of his faith as he continually “refreshed” the “hearts (splagchna) of the saints” (verse 7). Paul is grateful for Philemon’s faithful history, and Paul asks Philemon to continue his faithful walk by refreshing his own heart. Paul’s heart, we should remember, is Onesimus himself (verse 12).

In other words, refresh Onesimus! The word carries the meaning of rest, renewal, and rejuvenation. It is as if it were a new beginning or a new start. Refreshment is reconciliation.

It is difficult to imagine exactly how this might have looked on that day when this letter was read to the church at Philemon’s house. One can imagine the looks, the tension, and the anticipation.

Did Philemon welcome Onesimus as a brother within the community, or did he treat him as a slave who must honor his superior? Did they embrace as family members or did Onesimus kiss his ring?

We know Paul’s hope and expectation but we don’t know what happened. The letter is open-ended. We don’t know the rest of the story. We don’t have any postscript which says, “And Philemon…..”

What we have, however, is a narrative that challenges us as it challenged Philemon. And the question for us is what will we do? How do we receive each other?