Wednesday, July 29, 2015

On preaching....

In 2008, after a dozen or so years in youth ministry, I chose to move into a solo pastorate, and then into what would probably be called a senior pastorate. I believe it is what God called me to do, in large part because I believe that I am called to preach.

I don't know why I feel called to preach. I think I have teaching gifts to be exercised in the church. I struggle with doubts, though, about whether I am really all that good at what I do, and whether God is continuing to call me into this kind of ministry. But, I try and be faithful to the call, and people seem to respond with feedback that tells me that my preaching is making its way into their hearts and lives.

Having said that, I have been thinking a lot lately about my preaching methods and habits. I have found that each time I am in a different community, it is important that I learn to alter how I communicate to each group. Belgrade Community Church wanted to be inspired to live the Christian life with enthusiasm, and so they preferred a more conversational approach from me--even though that was neither of my senior pastor's styles. In Colorado Springs, people wanted to connect with the heart and head, so the preacher was challenged to be open enough to vulnerable (but not too vulnerable), but also handle the word with intellectual rigor and clarity. Fowler wanted to hear the Word, plain and simple. Fowlerites liked it when you got excited, and responded when you challenged them from the pulpit, but most of all, they just wanted to hear a clear gospel message. Here in Hot Springs, this church at this time is hungry for sound, understandable teaching on basic Christian living. Many of the folks in church seem to respond well to sermon outlines, with blanks to fill in. They like sermon series' on relevant issues and basic discipleship. Last year I did an "Under Construction" theme. The summer before that a "Together in Christ" series highlighting the important issues related to life together (like forgiveness for example). This year I have preached through the Fruit of the Spirit. Even though attendance has not been as strong this summer, I feel like the 9 week series has been my best two months of preaching since arriving at United Churches.

Having said that, I focus my work in the contemporary service in the evening doing more of what I did in Fowler. In Fowler, I preached through Bible books in a sequential fashion, thus drawing messages from Scripture and applying them to life. This has the function of teaching the Word the way it was presented, and educating the parishoners on Bible content while inspiring them to connect with God and live their life based upon the Word. There are times, however, where it can come across like more "bible-study" and less "preaching".

Now, both my seminary training and some of my members, especially those from traditions other than my own in this multi-denominational church, really value use of the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) in worship. (The RCL is a selection of 4 texts chosen by an ecumenical ground of mainline leaders that rotates through selected texts every three years with a Psalm Reading, and Old Testament reading, a Gospel reading, and an Epistle Reading. The order the texts around the seasons of the church year, and tying together themes from Biblical literature in each section of Scripture.)There have been times when I have been able to tie a theme to the RCL, and work that together pretty well. But the RCL often is neither sequential in its study of specific parts of Scripture, nor easily able to work into a "thematic unit" that really works for those "teacher types" in my congregation.

Now that I am nearing Fall, and coming to the place of sermon planning, I am at a crossroads. Our church has structures our lay leadership around an RCL preaching schedule and methodology. I don't mind the RCL a lot of the time. And, I believe the practice of the church year (Advent to Pentecost especially) is an important spiritual rhythym that the RCL honors and assists with. But, more and more, I wonder if my preaching gifts and the church's learning style's are ripe for a change in our adherence to the RCL for most of the year.

So I wonder, can I move in a more independent direction full-time without upsetting key leaders in my congregation. How important is the RCL to the congregations identity and self-understanding of what worship should be like for them? Should I continue to seek out series material, or is that pushing me away from "preaching the whole counsel of God?"

Just things I am thinking about. The reader's comments are always appreciated, as is the banter back and forth that will follow.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Book Review of Spirit of God ed. by Barbeau and Jones

Spirit of God: Christian Renewal in the Community of Faith

Spirit of God: Christian Renewal in the Community of Faith
ed. by Jeffrey w. Barbeau and Beth Felker Jones
ISBN 978-0-8308-2464-9
IVP Academic
Reviewed by Clint Walker

Spirit of God: Christian Renewal in the Community of Faith is a wonderful monograph about the theology of the Holy Spirit in the community of faith. In this text, the development of the theology of the Holy Spirit across a number of traditions as well as a number of epochs in Christian history are discussed (I found the discussion of the Wesley brothers' doctrines of the Holy Spirit fascinating).

This book is a treasure trove for the discerning reader. Do you wonder how Orthodox spirituality and Catholic spirituality developed different traditions, and how their theology of the Holy Spirit contributed to that? Have you wondered how the Reformed and the Wesleyan tradition approached the spiritual life differently? Have you thought about how a person could learn from a liturgical approach to Christian spirituality, as well as a Pentecostal understanding of the spirit at the same time? This book will guide you into a spirituality with stronger intellectual underpinnings, while at the same time helping you to grow deeper in your journey with God through the power of the Holy Spirit. I highly recommend it!

Book Review of The Master Musician by John Michael Talbot

The Master Musician: Meditations on Jesus
by John Michael Talbot
ISBN 978-0-8308-3697
IVP Books

When I was growing up, John Michael Talbot was a CCM artist. Of Methodist background I believe. Then, at some point, he converted to Catholicism. He has since went on to continue developing music, albeit with a little lower profile, and to develop a community called the Brothers and Sisters of Charity. In recent years, he has been using his gifts in communication to write books that challenge people to understand the spiritual journey in a thoughtful, contemplative, and yet contemporary way.

Talbot's latest book (which is reworked from an older version of the same text) is entitled The Master Musician: Meditations on Jesus. The book is a simple description of one's journey with Christ in three phases, guided by the metaphor of musicianship. Talbot says in the introduction:
"This work is divided into three main sections: God's grace, our human response, and life in the church. The first is liked unto the crafting of a fine guitar by a Master Musician. The  second, unto learning how to play under the Master's instruction. The third, unto learning how to play with others in the symphony orchestra or band."
I found this book educational, thought-provoking and spiritually nourishing. I learned a lot about the development of musicians, and how that process parallels the spiritual birth and growth of individuals. Particularly intriguing in this sequence to me was the movement from a "personal" relationship with Jesus, which is essential, to a relationship with God within the context of a community, and how the later step is the next step in spiritual maturity. This left a lot for me to consider in leading others to faith and to maturity in Christ as a pastor.

I recommend this book for people who are charged with helping believers grow, and especially for musicians and music teams which will be challenged in unique ways to help their teams grow in their faith.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Its gonna be alright--reflections on the Supreme Court's decision legalizing gay marriage

It was about two years ago when I was sitting with a group of ladies I lead Bible Study with on Wednesday morning. Several of our  ladies expressed concern about the liberal gains on the issue of gay marriage through the legal system. Fueled by the anxiety from their favorite news channel and political activists doing direct mail campaigns, the concern showed on their faces and could be heard in the elevated pitch of their voices.

My response was something like this, "Like it or not, this issue is not going to go away. As a matter of fact, it will not be long before homosexuals can marry in all 50 states. We as a church need to spend less time dreading the inevitable, and more time figuring out how we will respond to the world we live in."

As a Christian who believes that the Bible is my authority for faith and life, I believe that homosexual behavior is sin. There are times, when I am in a place of deep compassion for my LGBT friends and acquaintances that I struggle to understand why God's Word teaches so clearly on this matter. Once in a while I wish Scripture said something different because I think it would make things a lot easier. But God is God. I owe my allegiance to Him. I trust him, and I trust the Scripture as his authoritative Word. It is not my place to judge homosexual persons (or yours), to treat their sin as any more "dirty" and evil than any other sin, or to pretend like my struggles are any less profound. As both a believer and a church leader, though, it is my job to stand where Scripture stands on morality, and no amount of hermeneutical-hoop jumping can convince me that the Bible says anything other than behavior in the LGBT spectrum is contrary to faithful Biblical teaching.

The truth is, there are a lot of behaviors that are legal that are contrary to Biblical teaching. You can get drunk without going to jail. You can charge usurious interest rates, and be within the law. A person can solicit a prostitute in a legal brothel in Nevada. People shack up, commit adultery, gossip and cuss out folks, others let the hungry starve, and still others covet their neighbors oxen and asses. Just because something is legal, my friend Randy Rasmussen reminded me a few weeks ago, doesn't mean that it is right.

Just because we as believers cannot dictate ethics to our society through the legal system does not mean that we are at a disadvantage as a church, or that the rapture must be coming in the very near future, or even that we should be angry, concerned, or fighting for our rights more vigorously. There is no need to be anxious. God is on the throne. He is still our God. We now have an even clearer understanding of a truth we may have forgot. The United States is not God's chosen nation. We are not a theocracy. We don't obey the laws to worship the state. We are subject to civil governments in order to be good witnesses and so that we can live at peace with others.

Furthermore, while the state has "ordained" marriages that I do not recognize as biblical, it has done a great service to the cause of justice by allowing persons in same-sex relationships the same civil rights as persons who have covenanted together in more traditional marriage. Just because a person does not approve of same-sex marriage as a sacramental act of the church does not mean that that same person cannot celebrate the fact that same-sex couples can now have the property rights, taxation rights, and rights relating to health care as those who are in marriage covenants that conform to the biblical standards.

God designed the church from the beginning to be a counter-cultural movement. To have a set of standards and values for those that covenanted with them that was contrary to the world around them. We have an opportunity as God's people to stand apart. To shine like light in the darkness. To engage persons who live in all sorts of different ways that leave them in bondage to sin, and share with them a different way--namely the way of Jesus. We don't have to scream or fight for our rights. We can simply stand apart as God's holy people. This is something that we have always been called to do.

Is the Primal Church the best church?

Image result for early church fathers

Lately I have been reading through the book Spirit of God: Christian Renewal in the Community of Faith (edited by Barbeau and Jones). As I have been reading through some of the analysis of the Patristic theologians, I began to ponder, "What if the early church is not necessarily the ideal church?"

Maybe the Holy Spirit has a unique way of working throughout history to help the community of believers grow in their faith in certain ways throughout the centuries. Certainly, there are ways that believers throughout different epochs of history, including our own, have drifted away from the true message of the Gospel and true practice of the faith. But, is the early church really our role model of what the church should be about? It seems to me they got a lot of things right, but they had a lot of struggles in their time, perhaps as many as we have today. Why do churches make such a strong appeal to say that they are the most like the first church, and therefore their expression of the faith is the most valid?

Just a thought.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Best Time of the Day

What is the best time of your day? What part of the the day are you most "on"? When is that time when you are the most thoughtful, productive, and in the best place emotionally and spiritually? In the old days I might have said that would be from about 10pm to 2am. I would settle in from a day of work and running around, grab a bag of Doritos and a Slurpee or a Mountain Dew, and start plugging away. This is the time when I could write the best, and it was also the time when I was most creative.

Now, a few years later, after having kids and while I am still struggling through some trying times in our life together as a family, I am left to ponder, what is the best, most productive time of the day. I am not sure I can answer that. In the early morning it takes we awhile to get up and get going. I can still get some good stuff done in those late hours, but most of the time I am too tired to do much after I get the kids to bed. 

If hard pressed to say when I can get my best work and thinking done, I would say right now it is somewhere between 10am and 2pm.

What is your best time of the day? And how has it changed over the years?

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Book Review of A Second Shot of Coffee With Jesus by David Wilkie

A Second Shot of Coffee with Jesus
by David Wilkie
ISBN 978-0-8308-3693-2
IVP Books
Reviewed by Clint Walker

For a few years I was a devoted follower of Coffee with Jesus on Facebook. Then, the first book came out, my friend list increased on Facebook, and I did not see much from my Radio Free Babylon feed. So, when I got A Second Shot of Coffee with Jesus I was excited to see what the latest Word was from the witty and somewhat offbeat comic strip.

I was pleasantly surprised that the strip maintained its high quality, and yet at the same time Coffee with Jesus seemed to grow up a little bit as well. In my opinion, the early version of the messaging of Wilkie tending to lean heavily on pointing out some of hypocrisy and ideosyncracies of the contemporary Christian church. The strip certainly continues this theme from time to time, but it has developed depth and breathe that I did not anticipate. Wilkie has continued to be humorous, but has also mixed in some general cultural criticism and some pretty thoughtful messages about God's grace and love. Also, some thought provoking insights about spiritual warfare. I have enjoyed this book thoroughly.

For those who enjoyed the first book, this "second shot" eschews thematic messaging for volume of comic strips. Some of them have appeared online, but there are others that were saved specifically for this book.

My only criticism of the book has to do more with my age. The print seems awfully small in this book (with the strips), and it takes some effort for me to read that print at times. Nevertheless, it will sit out on my desk, and eventually my coffee table, should I ever get one.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Book Review of Spiritual Equipping for Mission by Ryan Shaw

Spiritual Equipping for Mission: Thriving as God's Message Bearers
by Ryan Shaw
IVP Books
Reviewed by Clint Walker

I recently went to a wonderful retreat led by a missionary serving my denomination in Mexico. He began to share about how he had been serving tirelessly on the mission field, and encountered a good measure of success in his ministry there. Yet, at the same time, he felt he was spread more and more thin in his ministry. He was doing and going for the Lord, and yet he felt less connected to the practices and disciplines that brought him strength and spiritual health in his missionary journey. The retreat leader spoke about how God led him to a place of spiritual renewal in his ministry, and how he has been called to help other ministers and missionaries grow deeper in their spiritual journeys as well.

Ryan Shaw in his book Spiritual Equipping for Mission has similar concerns to my new friend. As a leader of a student missionary movement, he sees that many people on the mission field need equipping to grow deeper in their faith if they are going to have sustainable journeys as message bearers of Jesus and if they are going to form disciples instead of simply making converts. This book is focused on helping cross-cultural ministry servants, but it could be equally helpful for gospel message bearers in local churches in the United States.

Shaw chooses to use the term "message-bearers" to refer to missionaries. He discovered that the term "missionary" has a top-down, negative, and colonial connotation. So the term message bearer is used for those in cross-cultural ministry in this book. This terminology has the added benefit of being more holistic. It speaks of a missionary as one who comes and lives and embodies the kind of life that Christ offers by what they say but also by how they live. It speaks in terms of identity instead of task. I think this is brilliant.

Most of the book details each of the 10 spiritual disciplines of cross-cultural message bearers. These include:

  • Being saturated in the powerful presence of God
  • Embracing humility
  • Hungering and thirsting for God
  • Being clothed in God's Word
  • Discerning God's Guidance and Revelation
  • Pursuing a Lifestyle of Prayer
  • Cooperating with God's twofold purpose
  • Understanding the Times and Seasons of God
  • Persevering with Steadfastness and Stability
  • Pursuing a Focused Life
This will be a great guide, not just for international missionaries, but for each believer on a mission to bear the message of Christ to the world.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Book Review of Busyness: Finding God in the Whirlwind by Juanita Ryan

Busyness: Finding God in the Whirlwind
by Juanita Ryan
ISBN 978-0-8308-3107
IVP Connect (Lifeguide Bible Studies)
Reviewed by Clint Walker

Ever felt like you are so busy that it is difficult to discern and sense the presence of God in the middle of the whirlwind of activity and conflicting expectations? Juanita Ryan has too, and she has developed a Bible Study for people and groups of people that struggle with finding God in the midst of a hectic life.

While I might council many people living in the middle of a whirlwind that they need to ruthlessly eliminate hurry from their life, as Dallas Willard once advised someone he was mentoring, I do think Ms. Ryan presents to the church a valuable resource. She speaks to people in the midst of their busyness, and challenges them to set priorities, rest, and choose joy and service over bitterness and being self-serving. Since so many people feel so very busy in our world, this might be a good place to start to connect with people and begin to challenge them to bring Christ-centered practices in the midst of their personal chaos and find refreshment and healing.

A great new resource for small groups from IVP!

Book Review of Feasting on the Word: Guide to Children's Sermons by David L. Bartlett and Carol Bartlett

Feasting on the Word: Guide to Children's Sermons
by David Bartlett and Carol Bartlett
ISBN 978-0-664-23614-8
WJK Books
Reviewed by Clint Walker

Much of the Feasting on the Word resources feature highly practical worship resources for mainline churches. While focused on a practical matter of worship, the particular resource is more of a training manual on how to develop and present children's messages in church services. At the end of the text, there are a few dozen children's message manuscripts.

As one reads through this thoughtful book, one is challenged to think through a number of questions that the author's present in training their readers to work through the service. Some of those questions included are:

  • Should the person doing the children's message focus on the lectionary texts?
  • How do we develop intergenerational connections during worship?
  • What is the role of story in relationship to the children's message?
  • What issues and stories are appropriate for a children's message and what ones are not?
  • How should developmental concerns influence how you present children's messages?
  • How do you craft an effective children's message?
I enjoyed this book and its challenging the church to create better children's sermons. Yet, at the same time I know that what is here will be too heady and conceptual for many folks who deliver children's messages. This is not a book that will give you a quick fix for grabbing a children's message just before church on Sunday morning, but it will help pastor's craft children's messages with theological integrity and meaningful teaching for youngsters. All in all, a great book to have on my shelf!