Our Reputation: We Can Rebuild!

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reprebuild

“So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”
(John 13:34 – 35)

I recently finished reading David Kinnaman’s book, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity… and Why It Matters. It is truly depressing. Kinnaman leads the Barna Group. His research leads him to some startling conclusions. He reports that in 1997 the general population in the US had a positive view of evangelical Christians – but 10 years later the general population had adopted a much more negative view of evangelical Christians. Kinnaman concludes that this is not a mere image problem for evangelicals in the US – there are substantive issues that are root causes of the shift in attitude. And the attitude has plummeted most severely among younger Americans.

What are the issues?

Well, young Americans do not like the Christian “swagger”; they believe that evangelicals “bark” and “bite” (in fact, many say they have experienced both bark and bite). US evangelicals are known more for what they are against than for what (or who) they are for. They feel that Christians are judgmental, hypocritical, arrogant, anti-homosexual, politically right-wing, separatist folks. They are suspicious that evangelicals don’t really care about people as human beings – they only see a person as a project, as someone who needs to be convinced to think properly (to have their mind changed on a host of moral topics), and as someone to “get saved”. In essence, young Americans are not really “feeling the love” in their experiences with Christians and the church.

Wow, you say, “it is a good thing that we are Canadian then!” Well, I suppose we could assume that we are a kinder, gentler bunch than our cousins in the US, but the passion behind the response to the TWU law school application highlights the genuine fear of evangelicals that exists in our country, too. Is that fear totally rational? Of course not! Is it something to be concerned about? I believe so – for two reasons. First, while the charges against evangelicals will never be entirely fair, we need to admit that there is some substance to the accusations. And second, it ought to seriously grieve us that we are not known for what Jesus said believers would be known for – love for one another (our passage above).

In the upper room Jesus talked a lot about loving Him, obeying His commands, following the Spirit, serving each other, abiding in Him, and loving each other. It ought to concern us mightily that evangelicals are known for a whole host of the wrong things.

I love our current theme, “Amplify”. It reminds us that we are Great Commission people! However, we may want to remember as well that without love… well, we are simply generating a lot of noise and activity (at least that’s what Paul seems to indicate in I Corinthians 13). Jesus reminds us that we start first with the Great Commandment. Rodney Stark, in his The Rise of Christianity, claims that the early church grew not because Christians had political power, or lots of programs, or perfectly articulated systematic theology – but because they loved and treated women, slaves, orphans, the sick and the economically vulnerable better than everyone else did. They were known for what Jesus called them to be known for. And because they looked like Jesus, and lived out the fruit of the Spirit – their gospel influence was amplified.

It is my prayer that the EFCC will become so known as an authentic Great Commandment family of believers that our Great Commission effectiveness will be amplified!

Serving with you,

Bill

Who Do You Say That I Am?

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whodo

“Who do people say that I am? …But who do you say that I am?” …If anyone is ashamed of me and my message, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he returns in his glory and in the glory of the Father and the holy angels.” (Luke 9:18-26)

We live in interesting times. I recently read that 64% of Canadians believe that the basic teachings of all religions are essentially the same. It is a tough time to believe in the uniqueness and supremacy of the Lord Jesus Christ! And yet – we do. Our motto is “In essentials unity, in non-essentials charity, in all things Jesus Christ!” Jesus is the center of who we are – we are Evangelical (gospel people) and Free.

The controversy surrounding Jesus – who He is and was – is an old one. Luke records (in chapter 9) this conversation between Jesus and His disciples regarding His identity. The crowds believe He is a dead prophet brought to life (they simply disagree over which prophet). But all prophets are kind of the same, right? Peter knows that Jesus is the Messiah. Yet Peter has a host of wrong assumptions regarding what that means. He assumes Jesus will come to take life – judge, kill, destroy Israel’s enemies – and then give good Jews like Peter the easy life. Jesus doesn’t dispute Peter’s assessment that He is the Messiah, but He does immediately tell Peter not to spread the news about that.

Jesus then assaults all of Peter’s assumptions regarding what the Messiah will do. He predicts suffering and death at the hands of the very religious leaders who should embrace Him. And yes, He speaks of His resurrection to new life. Jesus then reminds the disciples that each one must daily pick up his/her cross and follow Him. That we must give up our own plans/aspirations and embrace His plan for each of us. He reminds them that if one clings to one’s life too tightly, one will lose it.

He challenges the pursuit of all this world offers by revealing that one can gain everything in this world and lose your soul. He reminds us that if we are ashamed of Him and His message, then He will be ashamed of us when He comes in glory. This was sobering stuff for the disciples and it should be for us too. We celebrate re-birth – new life as believers. Yet doing so requires us to also embrace death.

Death to self, to this world, to acceptance by people who are offended by our Lord and His message. Even when we speak the truth in love, when we represent Jesus gently and respectfully to others, we will face rejection. Peter remembered this conversation. In 1 Peter 3:15, he reminded us to first set apart Jesus as Lord and then to always be ready to give an account for the hope that is in us – with gentleness and respect.

So this spring we celebrate re-birth. Yet we do so by embracing death. May we not be ashamed of our Lord but once again believe with Paul that the gospel is the power of God for salvation!

Serving with you, Bill

Humility and the EFCC

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humility

Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example. And when the Great Shepherd appears, you will receive a crown of never-ending glory and honor. In the same way, you younger men must accept the authority of the elders. And all of you, serve each other in humility, for “God opposes the proud but favors the humble.” So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honor. Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you. (I Peter 5:3-7, NLT)

Well, Happy New Year! Another New Year is upon us! In November I had the privilege of officiating Pastor Dan Byrne’s (Ottawa Chinese Bible Church) ordination service. In preparation, I looked at the handful of classic “ordination service” Bible passages and settled on I Peter 5 as the basis for my message. I have quoted a portion of the passage above – and Peter has once again challenged me regarding my attitude as a minister of Christ, and reaffirmed my love for serving in the EFCC. We speak much about power and authority today, some decrying the abuse of the two, others lamenting the demonization of any leader who seeks to lay a claim to either one. I do not want to deny that all of us – leaders or not – possess various types of power and authority. The reminder to me is that Jesus has mandated a very unique and counter-cultural posture for His children when we use that power and authority to carry out His Kingdom work.

In the first half of the passage you can almost feel Peter thinking back to Jesus’ urgent challenge, His call for Peter (recorded by John, in John 21) to feed and care for the sheep. Peter feels the weight of this call on his life, and he reminds those who have authority to care for the sheep to do so willingly, with servant hearts and with humility, not lording it over the sheep. You have to know that Peter was remembering Jesus’ words regarding the proper “foot washing posture” that Jesus had taught them (John 13). There is a way that leaders behave in the world, but Jesus needed to remind His disciples that it must not be so “among you”. In His Kingdom those that serve are the greatest, while those who demand to be served, to be honoured – well, they are not the greatest. Peter reminds us that there is an appropriate time to expect to be honoured – and that time is not now. It is only once we have humbled ourselves under the mighty hand of God.

We live in a self-serve world. Christ calls us to serve each other. I have always felt at home in the EFCC because we don’t laud leaders; we flinch when someone overly highlights a “family hero”. I like that about us. Yes, sometimes in our total acceptance of local and individual autonomy, we miss Peter’s reminder about younger men “accepting the authority of the elders”. But overall I like the fact that we don’t go seeking glory and honour as ministers in His Kingdom and we really value humble leaders/servants. The one part of this passage that served as an unnerving reminder was Peter’s attaching “casting all your cares on Him” to humbling ourselves “under the mighty hand of God”. Because as much as we like to keep a humble, low profile as leaders in the EFCC, we do still like “to handle” things on our own. And sometimes that is burdensome – and leads to cares, worries and anxiety. The word “give” (or “casting” in the King James) here is a participle – it modifies the command to “humble yourselves”. Peter is saying that if we worry, we are proud. When we really humble ourselves under God’s mighty hand, we trust and cast our cares on the One who really has the power and authority to take care of things. When I worry about things, no matter how self-deprecating I may be, I am assuming that my power and my authority are sufficient to “handle it”. And that friends, is pride. And pride… well, God seems opposed to the proud.

So this year, I am praying that we in the EFCC can enter the year with Peter’s posture. I don’t know what God (or our enemy) has in store for us this year, but I suspect that if we want to see our God show up supernaturally, then we are going to need to proceed with humility. May we see His power, authority and glory this year – and claim our honour at the appropriate time.

Serving with you,

Bill

Christmas Imagination

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christmasimagination
ExDirWell, another Christmas approaches! If you are like me you are nowhere close to having the requisite gifts purchased and wrapped, things we normally attribute to “being ready for the season”! While I may be unprepared in that sense of things, I am probably much more prepared in other ways. This year I have tried to engage in a little “Christmas Imagination” – to try to understand just a little bit how the events of that first Christmas would have been interpreted by those who first experienced them. The classic Advent “prophecy” text is Isaiah 9:1-7. It parallels well Zechariah’s praise poem in Luke 1:68-79. Both present the coming Messiah as the Redeemer and Saviour. However, it is two other concepts arising out of these passages that I have been struck by: Light and Lord.

I think it is hard for those of us who have not lived under an autocratic, oppressive regime to imagine how dark it was for people who experienced God’s visitation to our little blue ball. Israel had suffered under the oppression of a succession of enemies for over 700 years – Assyrians, then Babylonians, then Persians, then Greeks, and finally, the Romans. Few of us have lived under the reality that our wife or our daughters may be raped, or taken from us; that our sons could be conscripted into a foreign army; our land, our property taken; or our very lives snuffed out. It is difficult for us to imagine a world in which our hard work is not nearly sufficient to help us “get ahead” economically, where financial “self-sufficiency” is an unattainable dream for the vast majority of the population. Add to all this that the Jewish people had not heard from God for over 400 years! That is the world that Jesus – the light of hope – was born into.

We believe we live in a dark world today – and we do. Our enemy has blinded the eyes of this world to truth; he promotes slavery and oppression in new, creative, but no less insidious ways. The consequences of the Fall live on – for many, Christmas is the most difficult time of the year because of broken relationships, diseased bodies, lost loved ones, guilt, regret, poverty, loneliness… and those in Zechariah’s day lived with these effects of the Fall on top of the political and social evils of their day! In the midst of this Zechariah declares that the light of hope is “breaking upon us” (Luke 1:78), and Isaiah declares that “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light” (9:1). Into this, God shows up – naked and vulnerable. He emptied himself (Philippians 2) and entered the cold halls of time and space. He illuminated the darkness, “tabernacled” among us, and the darkness/world rejected Him (John 1). He lived, died and called His people to live as light in the midst of a “dark and perverse generation” (Philippians 2:17-18).

I have been reminded this Christmas that Jesus did not hate the darkness nor did He despair because of it. He viewed those in darkness as victims of the enemy and He loved them. And never do you get the idea that Jesus was remotely overpowered by the darkness – no, the darker the world, the brighter was His light. So often, our response to the darkness in our world is fear, despair or hate.
This year I dug up an old quote – it goes like this:

“Light illuminates the darkness. If there is darkness the blame should be attached where it belongs; not to the world that is dark, but to the church that is failing to provide the light.” (Leonard Sweet)

Jesus was the light that “broke upon” this world. We are the people He left to continue to shine – yes, in a dark, wicked and perverse generation. Yet our call is not to despair about the darkness, nor to hate it. We are simply to be different – because our Christmas Saviour is also our Lord. He is King of a different kind of kingdom. I recently heard Bruxy Cavey (of the Meeting House in Oakville, Ontario) say that the gospel in three words is — “Jesus is Lord”. Not Saviour, Lord. Why? Because when we sell Jesus solely as Saviour, we then spend loads of our time trying to sell the fact that He calls us to be a different kind of people and to live with different values and morals from the rest of the culture (and that isn’t going so well for us!). When you present Him as Lord (as in fact, Isaiah and Zechariah present Him), then you accept Him as a Lord who destroys our sin and our self-sufficiency and calls me as a citizen of His Kingdom to a new set of values, to hear His spirit and obey. Those who “hear and obey” are better light in darkness than those who simply added a cheap “term life insurance” to their life portfolio and continued to value self-sufficiency and autonomy as their highest goal.

So my prayer is that this Christmas we can better imagine how dark and hopeless the world was when the Messiah invaded it – and how powerful a light and Lord the little baby in Bethlehem is. May He rule our lives as light and Lord so that we may provide the light to break through even the darkest parts of our world this coming year!
Serving with you,

Bill

Resilient Ministry

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resilientministry
Al Thiessen (pastor at Journey Church in Winnipeg and Professor at Providence Theological Seminary) recently recommended two books to me: one of them was Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us about Surviving and Thriving. Bob Burns, Tasha Chapman and Donald Guthrie share what they have learned as they have led “Pastors Summits” over the years. The five themes they uncover are good reminders for all of us who follow Christ, especially those of us who serve His church. Please allow me to share them with you!

The first theme is spiritual formation. Am I so busy doing life and ministry that I am no longer abiding in Christ? The authors remind us that long term fruitfulness in ministry results from a life overflowing with thanksgiving – from a vibrant life in God. When we serve out of our spiritual dryness, we are apt to lose perspective like Elijah did in I Kings 20. Cynicism, bitterness, hopelessness and a host of other issues leading to “burnout” then set in!

The second theme is self-care. We are beings with physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual needs. Statistics indicate that we do not take care of ourselves in ministry. In fact, a higher proportion of pastors are overweight than the general populace. We also engage in less exercise, do not take as much time to enjoy hobbies, etc. Why? Well, we are busy! And being busy is synonymous with being faithful, right? Wrong. It may be more akin to “ministry idolatry”. We run flat out to serve the church – but you can only run flat out so long before you collapse. An even darker side to this idolatry is highlighted in one pastor’s confession. He was watching an episode of Oprah and the woman being interviewed stated “I want to be an actress”. Oprah replied, “No you don’t. You want to be a star. Being an actress is only a means to becoming a star”. When this pastor heard this he realized that he didn’t really like being a pastor – he was being a pastor mostly as a means to becoming a star. Finding identity and activities outside the church are critical for those of us who want to serve the church well.

The third theme is Emotional and Cultural Intelligence. Do we really understand our own emotions and the emotions of others? Do we think our own perception of issues is the only “right one”? And do I really understand the differing cultures in my church, community and country? We are faced with generational, ethnic, and regional realities that ought to remind us that much of what we assume to be “true” is more culturally determined than it is based on the Bible.

The fourth theme is marriage and family. Not surprisingly, the authors found that many “ministry marriages” were characterized by emotional distance between spouses, a sense of abandonment and a lack of any sort of intimacy. Ministry demands can push us to give our family the “cold leftovers” of our lives. However, doesn’t God desire that my spouse (and family) is my ministry partner and the primary part of the flock that I am called to love and serve? Perhaps this is why Paul seems to indicate that what my spouse and family think of me (and whether they are following Him) is an important factor in choosing elders.

The fifth and final theme is leadership and management. Yes, I know, the Bible doesn’t talk about being a “leader”, it talks about being a “follower” or “disciple”. However, the Bible also doesn’t expressly use the term “trinity”, but that doesn’t mean we don’t believe that the “Trinity” not only exists, but acts and relates to each member of the godhead and world in very real ways! We are all followers, but we also end up leading, and the authors highlight two helpful areas: leadership poetry and leadership plumbing. The poetry part is all the “soft skills” stuff – relating to other leaders, building core values and vision consensus, building team environments where everyone can be heard and I get over my desire to always “get my way” and be the “hero”. The plumbing part is the administration and shepherding side of things that some of us grudgingly do, but resent! Yes, others should organize ministry and shepherd people, but like it or not, we pastors are called to shepherd, encourage, counsel, and speak truth into lives – and we can’t do it all from behind the pulpit. Leadership plumbing is sometimes messy and inconvenient, but if we don’t do it, even bigger messes result!

These five themes are areas that we as followers of Christ, His ministers, need to attend to. If we don’t, our ability to be resilient – to survive and thrive in ministry is severely endangered. And none of us wants to be one of those negative statistics we hear about: ministers leaving the ministry, crumbling ministry marriages, pastors “run out of town” because of conflict… Well, you know the statistics. I highly recommend this book. Right now I am taking my Cold FX religiously – so I don’t get the nasty flu that is going around. The medicine works after you get the flu, too – but why not avoid the pain? I commend this book to you as good medicine to your soul!

Serving with you,

Bill