Tag: Church

On Liturgy and Its Value: An Interview with Dr. Matthew Emerson

On Liturgy and Its Value: An Interview with Dr. Matthew Emerson

As a pastor, I’m constantly thinking about worship. It is my vocation, after all, to lead people to God, and this is something I take very seriously. God is the object of worship – he is the focus, the aim, the center of it all. Part of my job, then, is to protect the sanctity of this “center.” That is to say, my responsibility as a shepherd is to make sure I am leading God’s people to God alone. But in order to do this, I have discovered that I have to give prayerful attention to the way of worship.

I have come to discover that all worship, like life itself, is liturgical. That is to say, our souls are formed and shaped by repeated patterns of actions, habits, and customs – and these are always directed toward objects of our love and devotion (on this, see Jamie Smith). For example, one might argue that our modern culture – with its repeated bombardment of advertisements about the latest product – has formed and shaped us into a very materialistic culture, a culture that is devoted to seeking the next best thing (say, the latest iPhone). We are a consumeristic people, often obsessed with wealth and “stuff,” because we (myself included) have allowed ourselves to be caught up into culture’s captivating flow. Thus, we are shaped and formed to think certain ways, to believe certain things about reality and about ourselves. To be sure, we are often profoundly shaped by the prevailing cultural habits and customs. Jamie Smith has argued, for example, that our culture has its own liturgy – a liturgy that has, among other things, power and wealth as its focus, aim, and center. Indeed, certain segments of our culture, like the church, want to make people into worshippers – a people whose devotion, though, is to something other than God. But as Smith often observes, the culture does a better job of making worshippers than the church. The reason is because the culture sees what many in the church often fail to see, namely, things like the formative power of repetition for changing people’s thoughts and behaviors.

All of this has led me to prayerfully re-think the ways of worship in our own church. Though I still have much more to learn, I am convinced that the church must do a better job in seeing the value of thoughtful liturgy if it wants to successfully train people to be worshippers of God. I believe the corporate worship gathering on Sunday morning provides fertile ground for such training and discipleship. For it is there where we can recite the Lord’s Prayer and thereby train our children about what it means to petition God for our “daily bread.” It is there where we can, together, rise for the Gospel reading, likewise teaching those younger in the faith what it means to respect the presence of the King. When we repeatedly pass the peace of Christ, every Sunday, we are all – together – teaching and proclaiming Gospel. And if we let it, such repeated actions will, over time, shape and form us into a people that God desires – not least into a Gospel-proclaiming, missional people. 

In the course of things, I have had the delightful opportunity to get to know Dr. Matthew Emerson, the Dickinson Chair of Religion and Associate Professor of Religion at Oklahoma Baptist UniversityHe also serves as one of the Executive Directors at the Center for Baptist Renewal (CBR), an organization that helps local congregations come to see the value of Christian tradition and its related practices for worship. I highly recommend the work of CBR to you as a resource for future study. To shed some more light on the subject of liturgy and worship, Dr. Emerson was kind enough to field some questions. I pray that you find the conversation edifying.

Note: My words are in bold; Dr. Emerson’s answers follow.

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Dr. Emerson, many people might be unfamiliar with the word “liturgy.” What exactly is liturgy and a liturgical form of worship?

The word “liturgy” comes from a Greek word, litourgos, which just means “the work of the people.” The “work” referenced is the act of worship, specifically the priestly activities in the Old Testament related to the Tabernacle and Temple. Because for most of church history worship has contained the same basic elements acted out in essentially the same way, it has also come to refer to the repeated practices of churches in their worship services.

Is it true that, in some sense, all church worship services are liturgical?

Since “liturgy” as a generic term just refers to the repeated practices in a worship service, yes, every church has a liturgy. It may not contain elements from what we would call “liturgical churches” like responsive readings, singing the doxology, and the like, but it does typically contain repeated practices. Take an average Baptist church, for example – usually there is a call to worship, followed by (announcements and then) a greeting, three songs, offering and special music, reading the sermon passage, the sermon, and an invitation coupled with a final song. We could break that down into two basic categories – Song and Sermon. Other churches may vary from this, but the point is that most churches include the same elements in their worship service every week, and usually in the same order. This means that every church has a liturgy, a set of repeated practices ordered in the same way that shapes its people.

There is a tendency among some evangelicals to object to liturgical forms of worship on the grounds that liturgy is too repetitive, rote, and cold. Shouldn’t worship be lively and free? What spiritual advantages are there to be gained by having repetition in worship?

I think the easiest analogy here regarding the importance of repetition is to think about habits. At least for me, I remember in my childhood the idea of good habits and bad habits being reinforced by a variety of people – parents, pastors, scout leaders, teachers, etc. Our culture, along with most other cultures, implicitly acknowledges the value of repeated practices. We understand the value of exercising regularly, of repeating the same routines in our workplace, of using prayer calendars or devotional guides, of having a daily quiet time. And we also have habits that we may not even be aware of – maybe you visit the same coffee shop every day, or maybe you drive the same way to work, or maybe you call a friend or family member on the same day of the week. The point is, we repeat all kinds of things, and we recognize that some of those repetitive actions are good (exercise, prayer) while some of them may be bad (unhealthy eating habits or lifestyle choices, for example).

Regarding worship, there are two things to be said. First, the benefit of repeating good practices – i.e. good habits – doesn’t stop at the church door. Repetition is still beneficial in worship, and for the same reasons as it is outside of worship. Repetition of good habits in worship by those who have faith in Christ is like repetition of an exercise routine – it builds spiritual muscle, so to speak; it maintains a healthy heart, from a spiritual perspective; and it produces spiritual endurance. (Of course, none of that happens apart from faith in Christ, because it is Christ who works by his Spirit through these practices to form us.) The second thing to be said about repetition in worship and whether or not it becomes cold and lifeless is that we repeat all kinds of things in worship each week. As I mentioned earlier, most churches have a fairly stable order of worship, even if we don’t call it liturgy. We sing, pray, and hear the preaching of the Word. And when we look at each of these elements, I’d guess that, if I visited any church on any given Sunday, the songs they sing have been sung at least once in the past month, the preacher probably repeats any number of phrases, points, or themes, and the prayers sound fairly similar. Repetition in and of itself does not produce lifelessness. Faithlessness produces lifelessness. That is not to say that any particular person will always “feel” engaged in any particular worship practice. I don’t always “feel” good going to the gym or while I’m at the gym or when I get home from the gym. But I do know that repeating those practices is for my good. I also know that, in worship, singing, praying, and listening are for my good and that the Holy Spirit is working through them for those who have faith to produce holiness.

When I was a young elementary student, the entire class had a ritual of sorts where we would, in unison, stand and then publicly proclaim our pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States. We did this regularly, repetitively, daily. Why are we quick to accept cultural liturgies like this one while being reluctant to embrace Christian liturgy?

I haven’t quite figured out the answer to this question, although I think it’s a good one. Maybe in our rejection of churchly liturgies the state has filled the gap, so to speak. We avoid repetition, liturgy, and the like in our churches, and so our government, along with sports (think about the patriotic elements leading up to games) has stepped in to fill that role. Another possible answer, given by Jamie Smith, is that our habits are both the evidence and producers what we love. And so there may be something to be said about what we love more – America or Jesus. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this is always the answer, but it’s an idea worth considering. I think more prominent in people’s minds when they reject repeated worship practices is the idea that liturgy is too cold, too Roman Catholic, too inhibitive for evangelism and church growth. Those are also objections worth considering, but I think we’d have to do that with more time and space.

You are one of the executive directors for The Center for Baptist Renewal. Can you tell us a little bit about your organization and what its mission and aim is?

About Us – CBR (centerforbaptistrenewal.com) is a group of conservative, evangelical Baptists committed to a retrieval of the Great Tradition of the historic church for the renewal of Baptist faith and practice. The work of CBR is grounded in an affirmation of the supremacy of Scripture and a commitment to Baptist convictions as articulated in historic Baptist confessions. While we hope CBR will edify all kinds of Baptists, the CBR Staff find the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 to be an appropriate confession upon which to base our own work.

Mission – The mission of CBR is to equip leaders to appropriate perspectives and practices of the historic church within the context of their local congregations for the sake of renewing Baptist faith and practice.

Vision – We envision Baptist churches in which:

  1. Scripture is held in high regard as the inerrant written revelation of God in Christ and regarded as the final authority for faith and practice;
  2. The wider Christian Church is approached in a spirit of unity while maintaining a convictionally Baptist identity;
  3. Historic creeds of the church are used as catechetical resources for the edification of members and recited regularly as part of the gathered worship of the church;
  4. The preaching of the Word of God and the celebration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the central acts of corporate worship; and
  5. Worship, spiritual formation, and witness are shaped by Scripture and informed by the rich traditions of the church.

Goals –

  1. Build awareness among Baptist church leaders of the value and relevance of the traditions of the historic church.
  2. Provide leaders with resources and tools necessary to implement elements of the Christian tradition in their churches in ways that are meaningful and edifying.
  3. Encourage leaders by fostering relationships in which mutual learning, mentorship, and collaboration can take place.

What books and resources would you recommend to those who are interested in learning more about the value of liturgy?

The first place I’d go is Jamie Smith’s You Are What You Love. I’d also check out Mike Cosper’s Rhythms of Grace.

Thank you, Dr. Emerson, for taking time to answer these questions.

 

Eugene Peterson on the Making of the Modern Pastor (and Congregation)

Eugene Peterson on the Making of the Modern Pastor (and Congregation)

I have been reading through Eugene Peterson’s book, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987). It is a tremendous read, one that I highly recommend to all who find themselves ministering in the church. Peterson is a provocative writer, someone who is able to point out with precision some of the idols that often accompany the way American evangelicals (not least pastors) approach the subject of “doing church.”

Subversively, Peterson has the unique ability to diagnose some of the misdirected, specifically the fad-centered, ways in which the American church lives and moves and has its being. He is a sharp (though never ungracious) critic of how infatuated American evangelicals have become with things such as crowd size, exciting worship experiences, fat budgets, busyness – all things which, when elevated as the main thing, serve to undermine the pastoral vocation and, not least, Christian worship itself. By calling into question some of the idols that have come to define the modern American evangelical church, Eugene Peterson remains a blessed gift. 

Below is a quote from his book (Working the Angles, pp. 7-8). I think he hits on a problem here that, sadly, pervades much of how ministers (and congregations) understand the way to “do church” and the way to be a “successful” minister with a “successful” ministry. 

He writes:

“For a long time I have been convinced that I could take a person with a high school education, give him or her a six-month trade school training, and provide a pastor who would be satisfactory to any discriminating American congregation. The curriculum would consist of four courses. Course I: Creative Plagiarism. I would put you in touch with a wide range of excellent and inspirational talks, show you how to alter them just enough to obscure their origins, and get you a reputation for wit and wisdom. Course II: Voice Control for Prayer and Counseling. We would develop your own distinct style of Holy Joe intonation, acquiring the skill in resonance and modulation that conveys an unmistakable aura of sanctity. Course III: Efficient Office Management. There is nothing parishioners admire more in their pastors than the capacity to run a tight ship administratively. If we return all telephone calls within twenty-four hours, answer all letters within a week, distributing enough carbons to key people so that they know we are on top of things, and have just the right amount of clutter on our desks – not too much or we appear inefficient, not too little or we appear underemployed – we quickly get the reputation for efficiency that is far more important than anything we actually do. Course IV: Image Projection. Here we would master the half-dozen well-known and easily implemented devices that create the impression that we are terrifically busy and widely sought after for counsel by influential people in the community. A one-week refresher course each year would introduce new phrases that would convince our parishioners that we are bold innovators on the cutting edge of the megatrends and at the same time solidly rooted in all the traditional values of our sainted ancestors.

(I have been laughing for several years over this trade school training for pastors with which I plan to make my fortune. Recently, though, the joke has backfired on me. I keep seeing advertisements for institutes and workshops all over the country that invite pastors to sign up for this exact curriculum. The advertised course offerings are not quite as honestly labeled as mine, but the content appears to be identical – a curriculum that trains pastors to satisfy the current consumer tastes in religion. I’m not laughing anymore.)

Eucharistō, 1

Eucharistō, 1

We take Communion regularly and often at our church. The question that always (and rightfully) comes up is the question of “meaningfulness”–will it lose its “meaning” if we take it too often? I’ll answer that in two ways:

(1) My short answer: I don’t know. Maybe.

(2) My longer (better) answer:

I can only answer this question from the perspective of my own experience. How meaningful is Communion for our particular church family? Truth be told: Communion is regularly meaningful for us as often as our belief “Christ crucified” is meaningful to us. (Read that sentence a couple of times.)

Central to our faith is Jesus’ sacrifice for us. Our church is a bunch of sinners–the most depraved person in our church happens to be the pastor. And so for a mixed bag of recovering transgressors–fallen and depraved as we are–we still strive regularly and often to bind ourselves together; we come together weekly as a holy community in unity, always thankful and dependent on Jesus’ grace. Therefore, as those who have been redeemed, we are simply not in a position to de-emphasize “Christ crucified.” There’s really no way around it–we are too impoverished without him. It’s a sacred (indeed, precious) truth. And so with this mentality in place, it’s terribly hard for Communion to lose its meaning. Why? Because we see it as a eucharistic meal, i.e., a meal of “thanksgiving.” A Christian’s gratitude is like a deep ocean that can, if unleashed, drown out any sense of meaninglessness. Thus the words “meaningless communion” are oxymoronic. It is a phrase which ought to be seen as, well, meaningless.

Of course, though, we will struggle in the battle for “meaningfulness.” In fact, we do.

Perhaps the following will be helpful:

We take offering at our church every Sunday–often and regularly. It loses its intended meaning for us from time to time, as we forget that this act of giving is to be a worshipful act. I have personally given money to the church, for example, all the while forgetting that this should be a meaningful act of worship and not some mere formal “add-on” to the service. But instead of scrapping our time of “tithes and offering,” we use it as an opportunity to remind ourselves that it is in fact about worship. Instead of doing away with this opportunity for worship altogether, we disciple our way through it. Likewise, we sing every Sunday–often and regularly. We are led by a great, Spirit-led minister, as well as by other talented, worshipful musicians and singers. And yet, there are times when even I, the pastor, struggle to sing these beautiful songs as worship. Sometimes I find myself just moving my mouth–how shameful! But I continue to fight for meaningfulness in both my giving and singing. Instead of doing away with these opportunities altogether, I’m extremely grateful we keep doing them–often and regularly each and every Sunday. When I am weak, the reoccurring, weekly holy worship of Jesus draws me back in. When the temptation comes for these things to “lose meaning,” I don’t run; I enter the fight. I refocus. I repent and re-engage. The battle for meaningfulness is a worthy fight. Let us go and learn what this means: When marriage (a holy union) loses its sense of meaningfulness, the last thing you need to do is discard it altogether; it’s better to fight for meaningfulness in your holy union than do away with it. It’s a worthy fight. Stay married; stay singing; keep giving. Indeed, perseverance is nourishment to the soul. (He who has ears to hear, let him hear).

My personal thoughts as a pastor:

(1) When Jesus speaks, I desire to listen. Even when his words disturb (perhaps even subvert) my preconceived sensibilities and assumptions and beliefs, I want to listen. Even when his words confront my unholy thoughts and preconceived ways of “doing church,” I want to allow him to be Lord of the church… even when it hurts (recall: holiness is a battle).

And so, he speaks to me:

As a pastor, I am told to be attentive to the needs of the church. God’s people need nourishment and life (John 6:53-58); the church needs participation in Christ (1 Cor 10:16 – what a confrontational little text!). As a pastor, I don’t want to starve the sheep; I’m called to help feed them (John 21:17).

(2) There is nothing more satisfying to me than when the people come forward, one by one, to the front of the sanctuary to be fed during Holy Communion. It is there where I get to be used by God at the Table to serve and wait on his people; this is my holy work. There is nothing more enriching than when I get to tell each of them individually as they receive the elements, saying, “This is the body of Christ for you.”

It is at this time when God’s people get to, I pray, meaningfully experience God. During such meaningful times, Holy Communion is always:

Participatory, yet individual. Spiritual, yet tangible. Body, yet bread. Blood, yet wine. Heaven, yet earth. It is here when pagan dualism breaks down–when the bread is broken and the cup is poured and the saints partake.

I love these Holy moments. Words cannot describe the happiness I have when I get to see the saints “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8).

Christ is a wonderful gift–available to all who would have him. And so I ask the following question with all of its intended (and yet ever-biblical) ambiguity:

“Are you in communion with the Body of Christ?”

In Defense of the Mundane and Monotonous

In Defense of the Mundane and Monotonous

My typical response to the monotony of life–that is, to the humdrum, seemingly-insignificant, mundane, day-in and day-out routines that so often bore me (and perhaps all of us) to bits–has been to disregard it as anything good, just, or holy. When a person lives in a field that is sprinkled with the less-than-desirable blooms of regularity and monotony, the grass always appears greener on the other side. Find something more exciting, more entertaining, we think, something that has the lure of a deeper and more flashy spirituality. Much of American spirituality is indeed built upon the enticement of change and spontaneity. And, oftentimes, these are incorporated into the church and its services and, from there, labeled and understood by the church as “holy.” It is true that, for much of us worshipping from within Western church culture, we have come to view monotony as “unspiritual” and have, as a result, traded it out for spontaneity as the only “spiritual” alternative.

But, in defense of what I might term holy monotony, let me demur a bit in what follows.

I have kids.

Three of them. And because of these three blessings, our house is full of happiness–it is a cradle of fun, excitement, laughs, astronauts, princesses, baby dolls, lightsabers, as well as, to be sure, the regular flow of tears and fears (from both kids and parents alike).

Ray Romano was correct when he said that having children is a lot like living in a frat house: nobody sleeps, everything’s broken, and there’s a lot of throwing up. His point, I think, is so humorous because it can be universally validated by parents everywhere. He hits on something all parents experience, namely, the messiness of parenting. And it is a monotonous messiness: We are constantly finding toys and trinkets in the couch–along with candy, gum, and other sticky (messy) stuff. When kids are young, there is no let up. Monotony. But it is a holy monotony. Every loving parent will readily tell you that, despite the (constant) chaos and the (regular) hardships that come with parenting, they would not trade it for anything else. Give them the world, and they would throw it back. We parents love our kids. We parents love our work. Few would put it exactly this way, but every parent would agree with its basic sentiment: parenting, even with the monotony and mundane nature of the work itself, is nonetheless holy work.

In the course of learning what it means to raise kids, as well as becoming the parent I want to be (as opposed to, at times, being the parent I actually am!), I have learned much about the significant role prayer plays in the process. As a result, I have come to develop a habit, one that I carry out without fail, every night before I go to bed. Each night, once the kids are fast asleep, I walk into their room, give them a brief passing gaze and then bow my head to pray. The prayers vary, though they are always built upon one thing: gratitude to God. I pray with a sincere thankfulness for the gift they are. I am undeserving, and I know it. Yet God is scandalously giving, and I will know that too. I pray without fail. Regularly. Monotonously. Their bedroom, littered with dolls and lightsabers, is holy ground for me. With the same reverence and regularity as the high priest who would do his holy work in the Holy of Holies, I do my holy work–every night, in the same way, around the same time, in an ever-sacred monotonous sort of way.

All of this has taught me something special about the reality of worshipful monotony–both individually as a Christian and corporately as a member of the Body of Christ, not least as a shepherd of a local congregation.

Let me speak as a pastor, then.

There is a tendency to divide churches as being either “liturgical” or “non-liturgical.”  These are helpful descriptions, I suppose. Some churches are less-inclined to follow a set and established and traditioned pattern of worship than others. For some within the so-called “free church movement” (speaking quite broadly and generally), liturgy is not adhered to all that much. It is, after all, considered to be too mechanical and formulaic, and hence, unspiritual. Such churches value spontaneity over and against regularity. And those who worship from within this tradition do so at times from the mindset that to diverge from a spontaneous-centered pattern of worship is to somehow “quench the Spirit.” I often hear that, “If we do things too regularly in our services, then those things (communion, for instance) will lose value and meaning; we must never cement ourselves, then, into a regular pattern worship–we must avoid such unspiritual, liturgical structures.”

I once thought this way, too. But then I heard a pastor (a Baptist at that!) say one time, “The Spirit can be just as much in the planning as he can be in the spontaneity.” With those words, I was awakened to a fresh understanding of worship. Could non-spontaneous and patterned worship be holy? I definitely think so.

I have come to believe that there are at least two problems with the idea that a regular, liturgical pattern of worship is bad. First, every church has a liturgy. I always chuckle when I hear non-liturgical believers bemoan and deride their liturgical brothers and sisters. After all, and ironically, even non-liturgical churches themselves have a regular pattern of spontaneous worship. Theirs is simply a liturgy of irregularity. It is not that they do not have a liturgy; they do. It is just that they have not yet come to recognize it.

Moreover, in my days of looking down on those who would, say, choose to pray pre-written prayers (as opposed to the more “spiritual” act of spontaneously making it up on the spot), I now, looking back, discover my past self to have been in a bit of hypocrisy: for even I, when asked to pray publicly over a meal, would mutter the same exact phrases and words each time. How many times, over and over again, have we heard our non-liturgical Christian brothers and sisters pray prayers like, “Father, bless this food to our body, and our body to your service. Amen.” If you ask them to pray over the next meal the next day, the prayer will usually take the same form. 

In similar ways, even in the free churches, liturgy exists (however unnoticed). To say nothing in regard to their sincerity, even those more independent spirits who bemoan and eschew patterned and tradition-based worship cannot escape the fact that they, too, have their own preferred pattern of worship and are likewise part of a tradition. Even if their tradition is a tradition-less one, they are still part of a continuous fabric of effective-history–what the Germans call Wirkungsgeschichte. One’s history and tradition are operative and effective in how one goes about life, interpretation, and even worship patterns. In the end, much grace needs to be extended to all worshippers in various Christian traditions without the boast of having supposedly risen above being in a tradition. A person can no more ignore the fact of their embeddedness within a tradition than one can separate being wet from wetness.

Second, the argument against liturgy as being “non-spiritual” because it becomes too regular assumes, at its core, that all monotony is necessarily unholy. Prayer times with my kids have taught me differently. My own pattern of worship at home is built upon the opposite assumption. That is to say, I believe that the regular, monotonous, and seemingly “mundane” repetition of the same prayers each night for my children give witness to the fact that, truly, there is nothing unspiritual about routine and, by extension, liturgy itself. Just because liturgy and monotony can be (and has been) abused in the past does not mean it is inherently bad in the present. I look forward to my monotonous prayers each night, for they are holy prayers to God on behalf of my kids. Holy prayers. Holy monotony. 

So what does all of this mean? I am barely in my thirties, and yet the longer I live, and the longer I (as a pastor) guide people to recognize the grace of God operating in their everyday lives, the more I have come to realize that true spirituality is not about evading the monotonous character of life, the mundane nature of living, or the humdrum patterns of parenting, working, or worshipping. We cannot escape liturgy, for it is who we are. It is better, I think, to embrace and worship in the mundane than it is to attempt to escape it. It might be wise to look at the ancients on this one. For in our modern world where life takes place in such rapid, ever-changing fashion–in a time when speed is considered a virtue, spontaneity a spiritual idol, and the mundane holy work of parenting robbed of its inherent holy status–it might be relevant to recall the ancient poets, especially when they speak of how God remains “the same” and how his “years have no end” (Psalm 102:27). 

They remind us that God is the constant in an unconstant world, that he is the Unchanging One in a world so obsessed with the next best thing. God is the steady (monotonous!) Rock of Ages. The poets’ words might prove to be a needed shock to a world full of unsteady people who have lost their ability to perceive the holiness of their mundane and monotonous work.

Perhaps our individual and corporate worship patterns could stand to be re-shaped to better, and more accurately, reflect God’s own unchanging, constant, and steady character? 

Holy Communion: A Plea for Congregational and Ecumenical Unity

Holy Communion: A Plea for Congregational and Ecumenical Unity

Before I begin discussing the importance of Christian unity and our call to work toward it, let me be clear by saying first that I think it is dangerous to pursue unity at all costs. There are, to be sure, things worth dividing over. Think, for example, of Paul’s remarks to the church at Corinth concerning immorality (1 Cor. 5) and likewise his message to the Galatians over the issue of adding “works of the law” to their faith in Christ (Gal.1:8). For Christians, truth is important, and the church must hold fast to conviction. The fact is that there is such a thing as heresy, and we cannot afford to compromise what is essential to Christianity. Therefore, in extreme cases, division might very well be healthy. In other words, we do not pursue unity at all costs.

That said, I fear that if we are not careful as Christians, we will not give proper weight to the important role unity must play in the life of the church as well. I fear that we Protestants, who have protest running through our veins, might be tempted to forget that, in addition to being called to contend for the Faith (Jude 1:3) even to the point of division if necessary, are also called to foster and work toward visible unity among others who reside in the Faith. This includes working toward unity not just within our local congregations (a very important component to our calling), but also with those of other orthodox Christian traditions.

It is in Jesus’ priestly prayer in John 17 where we see most clearly why unity is important. Jesus prays,

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:20-23 NIV)

Jesus’ prayer here reveals his desire for his people: unity. Oneness with both God and each other is his will. Why is unity important? It is important for the church because of a watching world. When unity exists in the church, among the people of God, then, says Jesus, “the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me (v.23).” The clear point here is that there is a missional consequence to having (or lacking) visible unity.

One of the most powerful ways to bear witness, that is, to proclaim Good News, to the world is to bear the marks of Christian unity. As I said above, the world is watching. They watch how we act and how we interact; they listen when we talk with, and when we balk against, one another. The fundamental question, therefore, that we need to be asking as Christians is not, Are we representing Christ to the world?, but rather, How are we representing Christ to the world? To be sure, we are always putting Christ on public display. The question, then, is, Are we bringing glory or disdain to him as we display him?

As we eavesdrop on Jesus’ conversation with the Father, perhaps we could afford to do a good checkup on ourselves: How committed are we to local, congregational unity? Are we actively engaged in seeking oneness in our congregations, or are we sacrificing our brothers and sisters on the altar of self-absorption? Are we even committed to a local body of believers? Likewise, we must also ask, How committed are we to true, ecumenical unity? Do we see ourselves, our particular tribe and denomination, as part of a larger body of believers, or do we arrogantly shut our ears to meaningful dialogue and communion with others who worship in other Christian traditions? A self-checkup begins, I think, by evaluating our prayer life. Are we prayerfully making war against the principalities and rulers of this present age that are working to ensure a spirit of disunity in both the local and catholic Body of Christ?

In light of the rugged individualism, as well as the lust for personal autonomy, that so permeates much of evangelical culture in the West, it is necessary that we pay close attention to Jesus’ prayer above. When Jesus says, “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” (vv. 20-21), the Lord’s heart could not be more clear: the church is called, indeed commissioned, to be just as unified with each other as Jesus is to the Father. His heart is “that [the church] may be one as we are one(v.22). A question, I think, which ought to be considered is, Can this be said of today’s church? It seems that the contemporary church has advocated for too long a sort of “Christian” reductionism. That is to say, in much of what is considered Protestantism, a person’s Christian identity has been reduced down to nothing but one’s personal relationship with Christ. The Christian Faith, it seems, to many Evangelicals in particular is nothing more than a one-on-one relationship with Jesus Christ. To be sure, an individual relationship with Jesus is important, but what about a relationship with the church? Much of Evangelicalism, in what I consider to be a betrayal of historic Protestantism itself, has unfortunately emphasized the former to the demise of the latter. We have, in other words, driven an unscriptural wedge between “having a relationship with Jesus” and “having a relationship with the church.” For many American Protestants, for example, church is not essential. In our consumer-driven culture, church has become an optional choice. “I don’t have to go to church to be a Christian,” many say to me. My response to this, not least as a pastor, is simple: I wonder whether a branch can have any life without being attached to a vine?

I wonder, too, if church-less Christianity is even scriptural. As it has been said many times over, the New Testament knows of no lone-ranger, church-less Christian (except, of course, in those cases where a believer is put outside the church in an act of discipline; see 1 Cor. 5). And even in Jesus’ high priestly prayer, notice again what is said: “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in meso that they may be brought to complete unity” (vv.22-23). It is fairly evident, I think, that the Lord himself sees a Christian’s unity with other Christians as part and parcel with what it means to be united to him and, through him, with the Father. That is, a person would be hard-pressed to say they can have a viable relationship with Jesus without, at the same time, expressing that in unity with the church. A person, it seems, cannot effectively have one without the other. It must be said, then, that even though rugged individualism and self-consumed autonomy finds welcome space in much of today’s evangelical culture, one must confess that it finds no warrant in Christian Scripture.

It is important for Christians–for me, you, and believers everywhere–to work toward, and pray for, Christian unity. This includes attaching and committing ourselves to a band of believers in  our local area. But Christian unity does not happen magically when we join a group. The real work happens, rather, when we live and pray and cry and laugh and mourn and lament together. These opportunities happen in the various seasons of life, seasons which, through their coming and going in the passing of time, become real only in a long journey together. Thus, Christian unity can only be fostered through time(s) with one another. In other words, we will need to commit to the church for the long-haul. And the same must be said on the ecumenical front. We will not always agree with one another on every secondary issue, and I am not even suggesting that we should, but the Lord’s prayer is that everyone within the world-wide Holy Communion would welcome and receive one another just as he himself has already received us, namely, with much grace and patience.

Let us pray and work, therefore, toward our Lord’s vision. Amen.

You Aren’t Called To Do Everything: Say “No” to Busy

“But when he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction” (2 Chr. 26:16).

So says the Jewish Chronicler about King Uzziah. An otherwise good king, Uzziah fails miserably in the end. The beginning of his story is marked by sincerity and obedience toward God. The scripture says, “And [Uzziah] did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, according all that his father Amaziah had done. He set himself to seek God in the days of Zechariah, who instructed him in the fear of God, and as long as he sought the LORD, God made him prosper” (2 Chr. 26:4-5). 

Like many, King Uzziah’s life began with, as I said above, sincerity. You get the sense from the text that he really wanted to follow God with all of his soul. And for the most part he did. The problem, however, was that his sincerity soon gave way to pride and arrogance. During his reign, he was quite successful, and his fame was said to have spread far and wide (vv.6-15). And the Chronicler was careful to note that King Uzziah’s good fortunes were the result of God’s own help (v.7). Toward the end of this otherwise good story, we read that, “his fame spread far, for he was marvelously helped, till he was strong” (v.15).

Notice those last words: “till he was strong.” God had been gracious to King Uzziah–after all, Uzziah himself began his reign with a humble posture toward God and, as a result, was able to receive goodness from God. But having experienced such great successes and even prosperity, Uzziah began to forget God’s kindness to him, focusing rather upon his own strength and might. Verse 16 says so much. “But when he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction” (v.16).

The interesting thing here is the form that Uzziah’s pride took. Here’s the rest of the passage in context:

But when he became strong, he grew proud, to his destruction. For he was unfaithful to the LORD his God and entered the temple of the LORD to burn incense on the altar of incense. But Azariah the priest went in after him, with eighty priests of the LORD who were men of valor, and they withstood the King Uzziah and said to him, “It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the LORD, but for the priests, the sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn incense. Go out of the sanctuary, for you have been unfaithful, and it will bring you no honor from the LORD God. Then Uzziah was angry. Now he had a censer in his hand to burn incense, and when he became angry with the priests, leprosy broke out on his forehead in the presence of the priest in the house of the LORD, by the altar of incense. And Azariah the chief priest and all the priests looked at him, and behold, he was leprous on his forehead. And they rushed him out quickly, and he himself hurried to go out, because the LORD had struck him. And King Uzziah was a leper to the day of his death, and being a leper lived in a separate house, for he was excluded from the house of the LORD. And Jotham his son was over the king’s household, governing the people of the land” (vv.16-21).

The scene begins with King Uzziah walking into the Temple, proceeding to burn incense before God. But the reality was that the Law did not allow for anyone other than priests to offer incense (Num 16:40). This was only reserved for Aaron’s descendants (Ex 30:1-10), not for a king. In the wisdom of God, living under the Old Covenant was a sort of de-centralized endeavor for God’s people. That is, not one person, or even one group of persons, were called to do everything. Some were called to be kings, some priests, some prophets, others farmers or whatever. But all the same, not one person was to do everything in Jewish life. After all, Israel was not to be a cult, centered upon only one celebrity leader. Yet, this is exactly where the King found himself drifting. He was a royal celebrity, after all, with fame and fortune. He began to get a big head, and as scripture says, pride comes right before a fall (Prov 16:18). King Uzziah’s own fall began with the rise of his own pride. He was so successful, so prosperous, that he began to think he could do anything. In fact, one wonders if Uzziah thought he could do everything. Perhaps that’s why he took upon himself the role of a priest. But, again, he was called to be a king, not a priest. This act was one of rebellion, plain and simple.

For those living in our 21st-century culture, I think a couple of insights and principles can be gleaned from this story. First, we need to realize that burning incense in the Temple was part of the worship service and therefore a good thing. In a sense (no pun intended), there was nothing wrong in what was done (namely, burning incense). The problem was that this particular service was not his to carry out. I think pastors, as well as every minister (whether lay or ordained) serving in the church, can be tempted to make the same mistake. If you are a minister (again, of any sort), read these words slowly: You weren’t called to do everything. You may try if you wish (as many do), but this will be to your own destruction. There is a huge temptation in our fast-paced, get-it-done-myself culture that draws ministers toward King Uzziah’s mindset–namely, the mindset that you can do everything and anything. Yes, I know. It’s hardly ever done with bad intentions or in explicit selfishness. In fact, most busy ministers are busy precisely because they don’t have bad intentions or selfishness. Rather, they busy themselves in a multitude of areas out of sincerity and compassion for others. Most busy pastors want to help as many people as they can, counsel as many people as possible, spend time preparing quality sermons, expend themselves making sure a mission trip happens, consume themselves with administrative issues or with raising funds for the next building project. It is always sincere. I am sure that King Uzziah had good motives and well-intentioned thoughts about what he was doing. It’s a good thing to do, he thought. I am after all serving God in worship, he probably mused. But worship service, even if it is driven by sincerity, can actually be destructive if not done appropriately (that’s a good word to consider). Exhaustion is a spiritual leprosy, a disease that all too often begins in the sanctuary if we aren’t careful. 

Second, you must know yourself and your gifts. If you take an honest assessment of how God has gifted (and hence, called) you to serve, then you will know where you can be most effective, as well as know where you are most limited. King Uzziah failed to do this. In his mind, he was gifted in everything and limited to nothing. He was too proud, and the Bible describes his actions as “unfaithful” (v.18). King Uzziah, by dabbling into what was only reserved by Law for priests, became unfaithful not just to the Law, but also to his own calling as King. This is interesting because when those who minister in today’s world begin to take on more than they are called to do (or more than they are gifted to do), they are really being unfaithful. This is ironic because, often, our busyness in the church is seen by others as tremendous faithfulness; pastoral busyness is seen as a spiritual feat to be imitated. But busyness is not rooted in faithfulness; it is an offshoot of pride. But this type of pride is unique, perhaps of the worst sort. After all, it does not look like pride; as we say, it looks like faithfulness. It is therefore the most deceptive sort of pride, and because of this, it is the most destructive. We cannot be too careful here. What looks faithful and good and pleasing to the eye can often prove to be quite deadly. Busyness is the turf of serpents.

Our culture is all about the product and therefore idolizes productivity. As a result, I reckon, we have adopted an unhealthy mindset that multi-tasking is the great virtue. In the West–not least in the western church–doing much is good, and more of that is better. The overpowering American concept of “pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps” has permeated every area of our lives–even, yes, church life. This was, in a sense, King Uzziah’s own problem and downfall. The serpent whispers quite convincingly, “burn the incense yourself.” By way of analogy, this proves to be our own peril–by burning another person’s incense, we end up burning out. Exhaustion really is spiritual leprosy. Like King Uzziah, you will be forced out of the truly effective life and driven to a house of regret and, often, loneliness. We were meant for Eden, but we’ve settled for a lonely and dry wilderness. Again, the turf of serpents. 

Saying “no” to busyness is a dangerous proposition. Our fast-paced culture will call you lazy, after all. The spirit that rules our times, like a cruel slavemaster, pushes and pushes us to constantly work, stretching ourselves to areas we have no business being busy in (read that slowly). But we have to respond with a resounding “No!” The cultural spirit, hating that word, will label you a glutton. But that’s okay; you are in good company. If the life of Jesus ever taught us anything, then we will surely know that it is better to be denounced by the culture (and religious people who have been inoculated with it) than to be denounced by God; better to be unfaithful to cultural norms than biblical ones. It’s tempting to always jump around, dabbling in this church program or exhausting oneself in that ministry. It looks good to appear busy and active and part of the action. But as Eugene Peterson says, “The pastoral itch to be ‘where the action is’ should be resisted.”

Yes.

The fact is, you are not called to do everything, mainly because you can’t. You will end up being unfaithful to the ministry you are called to if you spend so much time operating outside your own giftedness. So, don’t do that. Don’t operate outside your spiritual gifts. Find your ministry, the one that is energizing, not exhausting. Find your passion and don’t get distracted from it (no matter how lucrative it sounds). Find your gifts–your spiritual tools–and use them. But just remember, if your particular tools are hammers and nails, then that probably means you aren’t called to a life of painting (and so, don’t try to spend your life painting). Like every construction site, the church is being built up, and we need different people doing different things in order to grow effectively and in unity (Eph 4:11-16). An unhealthy busyness is simply distracting to our being effective in the church.

Therefore, say no to busy distractions and yes to your calling.

Indeed, say no to busy distractions so that you can say yes to your calling.

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This was an article I shared with our Pastoral Leadership Team at my church. If you found it helpful, please feel free to share it with your church’s leaders as well. 

A Greek Word You Need to Know: κοινωνία

I hope that our series of posts on Greek words has been helpful to you. I also hope it has whet your appetite for the New Testament’s original language. The goal, once more, is not to be exhaustive with these posts, but simple and concise. The hope is that you will use these as springboards for further study.

In this post, we will look at the word κοινωνία.

1. κοινωνία – koinonia. You pronounce it “koi-nō-nee-ah.” The second “o” is a long “o,” as in the word “hope.” The word means: fellowship, participation, contribution. The word, too, connotes the idea of a “give-and-take relationship,” a communion of people.

2κοινωνία is found in various places. For example, in describing the early church, Acts 2:42 says, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship (κοινωνία), to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (ESV). Other places include: Rom 15:26; 1 Cor 1:9, 10:16; Gal 2:9; Phil 1:5.

3. Why should you know this word? Because it’s a fairly multi-dimensional word (at least that’s how I see it.) For instance, I think it’s safe to say that κοινωνία implies more than just a gathering of various people into one place; it’s more than just a gaggle. Rather, it conveys the image of a group of people who are meeting for the benefit of one another. Christians have the great privilege of gathering together every week—we call this time “Sunday worship.” A great question for each of us to ask ourselves is, When we gather together is it for the purpose of anything other than κοινωνία? That is, do we go to church just to go to church, or do we go so that we can benefit and encourage one another? Is your presence in church more of a cantankerous presence or is it a glorious service to others? The New Testament calls you to the latter, to κοινωνία. So, next time you go to church, keep in mind that you are there not just to receive and, as we say, “be fed.” (Make no mistake, you should expect to receive and find spiritual nourishment.) But you are also there to participate in giving and sharing love.