Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Coalesce Lava Lamp Ministry

I am not a word smith.  A friend of mine who helps me write better blogs reminds me often, less is more.  In other words, my writing is too wordy and too long. Authors and poets have a great gift for using just the right combination of words to create powerful images.  And they do so with very few words.  The trick is using words powerful enough to convey large concepts.

I like words that can do that.  Words like; love, redemption, restoration, forgiveness, and Red Sox.  Each word carries with it weight and meaning, history and hope.  I came across a couple words recently that I am working on making into a concept for ministry.

Coalesce and disperse.

Coalesce means to come together to form one group or mass or to unite for a common end.  Disperse means to spread out over a wide area.  I like this idea for ministry.  The body of Christ comes together for a time to do a specific task with Christ, we serve, then we disperse to coalesce elsewhere and continue the work of Christ.

I like to use the image of a lava lamp for this.  Lava lamps work through the Archimedes principle.  Basically lava lamps are made with water and wax (lava).  Both have very similar densities, but the wax is more dense.  As a rule it should always sink.  However, when heated by the lamp or coil at the bottom, the wax's molecules speed up and become less dense and become more buoyant and float to the top of the lamp.  Once there it cools and sinks again.  The cycle repeats itself over and over.

What does this have to do with coalesce and disperse?  Everything!

Basically I think that the church should behave like the wax in a lava lamp.  The lava breaks, floats, comes back together, and spins around based on its response to temperature.   I think the church should do the same when it comes to how it approaches ministry.  It should respond to the guiding of the Holy Spirit and go where ever it leads.  

The book of Acts is full of this type of Spirit like response.  In Acts 1 the believers gather in a house praying when the Holy Spirit shows up and emboldens everyone to speak in new languages with boldness.  In Acts 4 after Peter and John are released from prison they gather with the body to share their story, they pray and the Holy Spirit shows up to the point the house is shaken.  In Acts 6 church conflict arrives when Hellenistic widows needs are not being met.  They body assembles works out a solution by appointing seven people to care for their needs.  In Acts 10 Peter is praying on a rooftop when he enters a trance and is told to eat all sorts of unclean animals. This vision leads him to share the story of Jesus with the Roman Centurion Cornelius.

All acts of the Spirit.  The people coalesce, are embolden by the Spirit, serve, then disperse (willingly and unwillingly because of persecution).  The participants and bystanders don't always like or understand what the Spirit is doing.  People accused Peter of being drunk, the Apostles are arrested,, Stephen is martyred, a council is summoned  in Jerusalem to discuss the presence of Gentiles entering the faith, Peter himself has issues with dietary laws and Gentile believers, and Paul goes on to argue against circumcision a mark of the covenant.  But there was always room for the Spirit and the people responded.

Much like the lava lamp, some went this way and some went that way.  At times Paul was off by himself, one small lava ball, other times he was surrounded by a community, a large glob in the middle of the lamp. Some times they moved quickly like rising lava wax, other times they moved slowly like the sinking glob cooling off to hear once again what the Spirit is up to.  We need to respond in kind.  Go where the Spirit leads us.  Sometimes working a large group together.  Sometimes off in a small group.  Sometimes breaking off one blob to join another.  All in response to the leading of the Spirit.

Too long ministry has been measured in long term success, where ministries were measured on sustainability, repeat-ability, and marketability.  Nothing in Acts happens happens the same way twice.  Some things lasted a long time, others for a brief moment.  We need not measure the success of our ministry efforts by the previously listed concepts for success.  Instead we must be willing to create short term, less expensive, more communal efforts.  For too long we have created ministries that have less to do with following the Holy Spirit and more to do with maintaining institutions.  Ministries that have little to do with the teachings of Christ and more to do with the models of business and marketing.  Ministries that have nothing to do with the Kingdom of God and everything to do with our  personal comforts and preferences.  

My hope is that the church of the future is more flexible and fluid like the wax in the lava lamp.  That we the body, respond to leading of the Spirit.  That we are heated and cooled on the teachings of Christ.  That we coalesce and disperse within the Kingdom of God.

Monday, October 14, 2013

How almost 2 months has gone by

I have not posted anything since August.  It is now October.  I could give you all the usual excuses of time, writers block, and just a lack of interest.  But truth be told, I have been writing and speaking, I just have been writing and speaking elsewhere.  I have written for my regions newsletter, written for a magazine, and written for a website.  I have spoken at conventions of all sizes on many topics from Missional Church to Christian Pastoral Ethics.  Now the busiest two months of recent memory are over, here a few links that might be of interest to catch up on my recent activity.

  • Our Religious Pantheon from August 6 gained some traction here and was picked up by ethicsdaily.com  I was really surprised and thank them for sharing the content.
  • I was asked to write about a book that changed my faith by the High Calling.org  True to my nature I could not nail it down to a single book.  So I chose a series of books from NT Wright.  Other than Eugene Peterson no author has had as much influence on my faith journey.  I encourage you to check out the article.
  • I wrote an article for Christian Citizen Magazine.  It is American Baptist Home Mission Societies official magazine for American Baptists.  The magazine article was due first of October and will be published I believe at the first of 2014.  The article is a about Missional Church Learning Experiences that our ABC Churches in Nebraska experienced and how young adults engaged in this process.
  • Check out our Regions Vimeo page to see sermons from our Region Convention September 20-22, 2013.  Some really good messages there.
  • Finally, if you have any interest at all you can check out our Regions Facebook page to see the many events, conventions, and conferences I have either planned or spoken at of late.  You will also find links to much smaller little articles I have written for my region.  These articles are not without context so I hesitate to just upload them to my blog since they are usually region specific.  But I do get encouraging messages from pastors and church members saying they enjoyed a little thought.   So I will start sharing those articles more often here.
I will once again hit the road this week to celebrate a pastoral instillation and Missional Training event. I am excited to see what God continues to do in ABC NE and in my own personal journey as I continue to be Shaped by the Story.  

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Our New Religious Pantheon

I like the ancient Greek stories of their pantheon of gods.  Their stories are always less god like and usually way to human with problems of lust, envy, jealousy, and revenge.  They can be tricked, lied to, and make deals.  They are fickle at best and even in their most glorious moments act in ways that are selfishly motivated. They really serve better as cautionary tales rather than models to follow. But just the same humans made temples, paid homage, and sacrificed for these gods.  They believed the pantheon of hundreds of gods with their intertwining stories literally made the world go round, were the source for the seasons, rains, and crops. Over time the stories grew bigger and more complicated, the gods themselves matured over time.  For a great summary of ancient Greek pantheon read "Mythology" edited by Edith Hamilton.

These myths shaped the lore of the near east for a centuries.  Myths have always been part of cultures.  Egypt, Rome, Babylon, Persia, Europe, Asia, and Africa all have have myths for creation, floods, seasons, and people of noble character.

America being only a couple hundred years old and a mixture of hundreds of cultures does not have ancient mythical stories.  Instead we have created a pantheon of gods and goddesses with their own special powers and temples.   Our pantheon of gods are usually built around real people who did impressive things.  In the political spectrum there are our early presidents and so called "founding fathers."  Their holy city is Washington D.C. and the temple is the Capital Building or the White House.  And their annual feasts come around during the election seasons.  In the entertainment pantheon are our movie stars and musical icons.  Their holy cities include Hollywood, L.A., and New York.  Their temples are movie sets, concert venues, and celebrated theaters.  Their feast days occur nearly daily with award banquets, premier days, and contests where viewers get to elect the next god into the pantheon. Our pantheon of warriors are not in fact
warriors at all but athletes who conquer their foes on the playing field rather than the battle field (a much preferred alternative to the gladiator arena or attack on Troy I think).   Their temples are stadiums and their feast days include Super Bowls, World Series, and the Final Four.  I could add to the pantheon military heroes, wealthy tycoons, even spiritual leaders, and a host of others. Sometimes these gods are able to cross from one realm into another much like when the Greek gods moved between Athens, heaven, earth, and the underworld.  Athletes become entertainers, entertainers become politicians, and politicians become wealthy tycoons.

With the recent biogenesis clinic problems that MLB is facing in suspending twelve players for 50 games and one of their most notable warriors Alex Rodriguez through 2014, we are reminded much like the Greek pantheon, our gods are all too human.  Celebrities, politicians, athletes, entertainers, and others we hold up as our heroes fall from grace on a regular basis, some even end up as convicted criminals.  We watch their larger than life dramatic stories much like the Greeks listened to the pantheon of old. We scrutinize their actions and celebrate the consequences to their actions as though they are fictional people without real feelings, damaged hearts, and wounded families. It serves as our entertainment and as our worship.

The one big difference between the Greeks and us, I believe, is that the average Greek probably didn't believe they could become a god. True enough some humans married gods or had half-god half human children.  But for the most part this was not the norm.  But these humans never became gods or were ever worshiped themselves. We on the other hand are encouraged to believe that with just the right break we will join the pantheon someday.  We can move from worshipers to the worshiped.  We can become a god.

I like sports (Go Red Sox!).  I watch movies and television.  I read books.  I stay mostly current on the political arena and local news.  But I am afraid we as Americans worship these things.  And worse still, we are training our children that through hard work and focus they can become gods. That they will be professional athletes, musicians, or the next governor. That is why the biggest church in many states is their state university football stadium (it certainly is in my state) or pro baseball teams cathedral.   That is why the final ten minutes of local news is always about what...local sports and coaches. That is why high school coaches can demand teenage student athletes practice, lift weights, and sacrifice their entire summers for a fall sport.  That is why we drive our kids from soccer, to band, to baseball, to dance, to whatever else because we may not admit it, but we really believe these kids will go pro and become a god.  To move from the worshiper to the worshiped.  If we don't believe they will go pro we certainly believe they can at least say they participated in the games the gods play so we can yell at them on the TV and in their stadiums and shout how they could do it better or coach it better if only given a shot.

I don't know if this pantheon of athletes, entertainers, and other gods is a primary part of why we have a hard time seeing the Kingdom of God as Jesus taught it.  It certainly serves as a barrier.  Our worship of anything other than God is an idol.  But to believe we are not worshiping these things is to lie to ourselves.  We need to step back and call a spade, a spade on this one as Americans, especially if we believe that Jesus is Lord.  We may not have mythical heroes of ancient tradition, but we certainly have a growing pantheon full of temples and gods all across this country.  None of them are Christ.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Difference a Couple Years Makes

I have been to two national ABC USA gatherings since becoming American Baptist.  We gather every two years and up until this year it was simply called the Biennial.  Fun Fact: In the early days when American Baptists and Southern Baptists were simply Baptists we met every three years in Philadelphia and it was aptly named the Triennial. 

Anyway, two years ago we met in Puerto Rico and if that is your first ever Biennial it was a good way to start.  During that event I was an Associate Pastor in a church.  I only got to go to the Biennial because a friend and I auditioned to play music during an evening "cafe lounge" event.  Prior to this event I had met parts of our ABC family at other functions, meetings, and events, but never had I been to a Biennial that brought us all together at once.  It was amazing.  Puerto Rico is beautiful, the Baptist Community there were amazing hosts, and the worship was powerful.   In Puerto Rico I didn't have much responsibility, I even (dare I write it), skipped portions of the event for Old San Juan and the beach.  When not playing hooky I mostly just stared in awe like a calf looking at a new gate, at all the lights, colors, music, break out sessions, voting times, and the leadership who seemed larger than life.  I would point to my friend who was with me and say..."Look that's so and so and they lead this thing or that church." As though they were super human or super spiritual. I would feel honored when I was introduced to them and realize they were just people too! Or I would watch the worship and listen to speakers on the stage and think, "Wow, they had a really great message.  I could never do that. I am not charismatic enough.  I am not a pulpit rock star."

Fast forward two years.  The Biennial is now called the Mission Summit and we met in Overland Park, KS.  No beaches here but Central Region was also a great host.  We changed our structure in Puerto Rico.  This year we focused not on break out sessions but on Mission Summit Conversations that allowed us to address issues facing our local churches and regions.  In Puerto Rico I was an Associate Pastor of a local church, at Mission Summit in Overland Park I am the Associate Executive Minister of Nebraska, a region within ABC USA.  In Puerto Rico I didn't know many people within the larger ABC USA family.  In Overland Park, it felt like a true family reunion.  Everywhere I went, I saw somebody I knew from all across ABC USA.  I saw friends and colleagues from New York, Oregon, California, Kansas, the Dakotas, Ohio, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Nebraska, Michigan, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and others.  It was amazing.

In Puerto Rico, I was overwhelmed by the lights and music and leadership.  In Overland Park, I was still moved by the shear enormity of the size of our convention center and the 2,400 people present.  The difference this time is that I was a region staff member and a leader. I had the opportunity to facilitate one of our Mission Summit Conversations on next generation leadership.  I went to every meal I could that was hosted by our many societies and partners.  Oh and remember how I felt I could never stand on a stage like the one in Puerto Rico?  I was invited to share a 7 minute testimony about the work the Spirit is doing in our Nebraska Region during the Sunday morning worship.  I stole 3 minutes, (sorry Brad Berguland) and shared for 10 minutes the amazing things God is doing in our region.  I am still not a pulpit rock star, but I think I learned nobody who goes up there to speak is.  One of our callings as pastors is simply to share what God is doing, and sometimes that means we get to speak in front of a few thousand people in a convention center and sometimes it means we get to share in front of ten senior citizens at an ABWM lunch in a church basement.

I had a great time in Overland Park and the Mission Summit.  Several things changed in my life between Puerto Rico and Mission Summit.  I changed ministry settings, I moved across a state,  I met lots of new people, I got invited to a couple national meetings, I bought my first home, and I have grown as a minister and person.  Thanks be to God for the past weekend and the past two years. I can't wait to see how Gods Spirit moves during the next two years in me, my family, ABC Nebraska, and ABC USA.  As our closing speaker Matt Stutervant shared, "the wind [spirit] is only beginning to blow."

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Ottawa Mission Day 3-4

Day 3:
Nebraska Mission Team continues to work with North Baptist Church, Ottawa University, and the community of Ottawa.  For the last few days our team has been split into two working groups.  The first team finished up a project at the Buffalo Ridge Retreat Center mentioned in my last post.  The completed the framing of the play equipment and now all that needs done is putting on the swings and slides and other toys themselves.  Team two continued to work with NBC and their VBS program.

It has been so much fun watching our team engage the children of NBC and the surrounding community.  The kids are so energetic! They have had great attitudes and have really been learning their Bible points and Scripture verses.  My team is made up of 6 girls ages 7-10!  We were given the mascot of a goat...every team has an animal mascot and a number.  Ours is a goat and we are #3
, we even have a coat of arms, which fits into the middle ages theme of knights, kings, and princess.  So we decided we needed a nickname.  First we came up with Team Trinity because of our number three, but we settled on the Gorgeous Goats!  These girls have been a lot of fun to be around.  They really are learning lots and are very interested in meeting my children!  I have been especially blessed by the presence of a girl we will call Mary (not her real name) who has down syndrome.  She is so much fun and loves playing games and learning the bible stories.  So ask me about Mary when I get home so I can tell you all about how amazing she is. The other group leaders from Nebraska are also having lots of fun with their groups.

Scraping old paint
We finished the afternoon by gathering our whole team together to paint a home of a long time North Baptist member.  Darleen used to be the host of mothers day out when Robin and Kathy were students at Ottawa!  She still has the birthdays in her cradle role book of their two youngest children!  Her home was in major need of some TLC so the team spent the afternoon scraping and painting and doing basic yard maintenance.

Fredrickson Chapel Ottawa Universtity

We ended this day by meeting with some representatives of Ottawa University.  They provided us with a very nice meal.  OU is an ABC USA Christian liberal arts university with about 600 students on campus but almost 7,000 total in their other campuses and online program.  They have 31 degree programs that fall under three categories of the School of Art and Science, Angell Snyder School of Business, and Education.  They have a beautiful campus with great dorms.  They are building a new Library with a generous donation from Nebraska ABC members from Kearney.

Day 4:
Singing at the Cross
Our team divided into two teams again.  Team one continued with VBS.  It was the salvation presentation day!  Lots of kids already knew the gospel story but it was cool to see them engage the story.  In the Bible adventure where they act out the stories, they had an empty tomb even.  It was pretty cool.  The songs continue to be a great celebration moment and teaching moment.

Team two went back out to Darleens to finish painting her house.  It looks amazing now.  it is a white house with black trim.  It looks very nice.  Darleen is very grateful for our being there to help.

ABC NE Team with home owner Darleen

Monday, June 17, 2013

Ottawa Mission Day 1 and 2

American Baptists from Nebraska and Kansas teamed up this week to share the love Christ with one another and the community in and around Ottawa Kansas.  Fourteen short term missionaries from Nebraska will spend a few days in Ottawa helping the community of North Baptist Church minister to Ottawa.  They are also helping them serve ministries that North Baptist is affiliated with like His Way Ministries Buffalo Ridge Hospitatlity and Retreat Center and a local Christian school.

ABC/NE first serves as an extra set of hands to the church as they put on a Vacation Bible School for their neighborhood.   Kids from all over the north Ottawa area have been attending the first few days of VBS.  The ABC/NE crew has served as station leader assistants and crew leaders taking kids from station to station. 

In the afternoons we have been participating in hands on projects.  Today we spent time at two locations aside from the church.  Some of our team went to Christian school to help with summer maintenance and cleaning.  After lunch our entire crew gathered at Buffalo Ridge.   Buffalo Ridge is a retreat center for clergy, missionaries, and others in ministry.  Founded in 1977 in San Francisco California, it was relocated to Kansas in 1992.  This isolated and beautiful site offers great facilities and great views.  It is a place for ministers and missionaries to find spiritual renewal, teach Christians how to share their faith, provide counseling and practical help for those in need, and compliment the work of churches.   It was our honor to serve Buffalo Ridge by doing general cleaning, gardening, building a playground, and reading other equipment for future building projects.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Prodigal Christianity Application

I have broken my promise.  I have failed to write a weekly post regarding "Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier"  I apologize to both anyone who actually reads this blog as well as the authors David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw who invited me to do so.  Like anyone who does not do what they promise I am full of excuses related to time constraints,that hardly seem like a get out of jail free card since we are all busy.

With that being said I would like to instead shift gears completely.  Instead of reviewing the content itself I will share simple outline and how I applied this book into my ministry over the past month and I hope to do so in the future. 

I have now read Prodigal Christianity twice.  Even though Fitch and Holsclaw break down their concepts into helpful chapters based on signposts I find the book to be essentially three sections.  Signposts 1-3 are the theological and religious sociological background chapters necessary to start their discussion.  These chapters discuss Post-Christendom, Missio Dei, and the Incarnation of Christ into our world and how we live into these realities.  Section two includes signposts 4-7 which puts these foundation thoughts into focus by showing how they play out in our own personal witness, how we read scripture, what is the Gospel and how do we share it, and how the Church is the gathered body of Christ with seven purposes (Holsclaws favorite chapter).  Chapters 8-10 discuss how to apply all this new teaching into three specific areas of relationships (sexual identity, Fitches favorite chapter), justice and cultural diversity.

My very favorite section is section 2.  It seems the most helpful to my current ministry setting in the Midwest. I work with churches across an entire state and the chapter on Church is extremely helpful.  Like any book you can pull this one chapter out and use it, however, the preceding chapters are necessary to gain its full impact, especially chapters 3-6.  The chapter on Church discusses seven practices that are required to be the Kingdom present in a community.  Communion is foundational for these authors.  It is the purpose of gathering as Church and it tells the Gospel message.  Second proclaiming the whole Gospel, not just a message of salvation is important.  See Scott McKnight's "King Jesus Gospel" for more on this concept.  They practice reconciliation with one another and teach those who visit their church to exercise it as well.  The church should be "with" the people on the fringes.  The church should be "with" children.  This is powerful. I wish there was more than just a paragraph or two on each of these.  They emphasize the five fold ministry of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, and teacher.  To learn more about this see J.R. Woodwards "Creating a Missional Culture."  They practice the Kingdom prayer (Lords Prayer) because it "opens space for the Kingdom to break in as Christ enters in power, presence, and healing."

This book has put language to ministry concepts I have been working with and towards for several years now.  It is comforting to know someone is able to synthesize and give meaning to various concepts floating around in the "Missioal Church" concept.  I have used this book already in ministry.  It has helped me be able to give language to churches looking to participate in missional church concepts.  It has also helped me organize a "Missional Immersion" process for young adults for the state I work with.  This book has motivated me to keep on pursuing the Missional God into my neighborhood and into the churches I serve.  

I hope you check this book out at some point.  My apologies again for not producing the 5 week study I promised but hopefully this quick summary is useful to others and motivates you to read and apply these concepts.

David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw Bio's:
"Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier" by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw.  David Fitch is a copastor and founder of Life on the Vine Christian Community in Chicago.  He serves as the B.R. Lidner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary.  He has authored six other books as well including "The End of Evangelicalism?" and "The Great Giveaway"  He has a strong web presence as a contributor to websites and blogs regularly at his own siteReclaiming the Mission.  Geoff Holsclaw is also copastor ofLife on the Vine Christian Community in Chicago and also serves as an adjunct professor at Northern Seminary.  Geoff also serves as the Midwest Coordinator for the Eccelsia Network and is regularly seen on the web as well including his blog For Time Being.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Prodigal Christianity pt.1

This is part one of a five part series where we will be in dialogue with the book "Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier" by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw. Where they are able Fitch and Holsclaw will contribute to this conversation as well.  This post discusses the first two "Signposts" of the missional frontier.

Signpost One: Post-Christendom

Many have observed that we have ventured into a new reality socially.  We no longer view our world the same way our forebears did.  This "new" view affects every aspect of how we engage our culture, money, friendships, communities, education, entertainment, social media, etc.  The term for this new world view has often been called post-modern.  This post modern mindset Fitch and Holsclaw argue has been confronted two ways.  First with a very Enlightenment era apologetics style.  This argument is based on a need to argue from an absolute truth point of view, because post modernism is believed to be too abstract and pluralistic.  In order for people to believe the gospel they first point out truths of scripture and get people to think a certain way.  The second way is through Emergent arguments of revisionism.   In other words the Gospel is true but we have viewed it the wrong way since we first allowed Greek philosophy to enter the Church, we must get back to a more Hebrew mindset that the early Christians had.

Those two models are not prodigal enough for Fitch and Holsclaw.  Instead they observe that we live in a time of post-Christendom.  A time when the church is no longer the center of culture, society, money, and everything else. This former Christendom era ruled the western world from the middle ages through the most recent past. They observe three "post" issues that Christ lived into that we can faithfully live into our post-Christendom world.  The first is post-attractional.  We have moved beyond the time when the church can create a site and expect people to come to it.  Jesus lived post-attractionally by not having a single location where he had crowds come to him. In fact Jesus was always moving people away from physical structures and social ties.  Secondly, we live in a post-positional world.  The church and pastor is not seen as position of authority in any matter, if anything the church and clergy are viewed with suspicion.  Christ came humbly to earth not as a conquering authority but as a humble servant.  We too must engage our communities as humble servants.  Finally, we are post-universal.  In other words we no long have a universal language when we speak about God, Church, Christ, and other matters of faith.  When I mention God or Christ I might have a very specific perspective the person I am speaking with does not.  We might but using the same words but have different meanings.  So in order to understand our culture and the people we are engaging we have to meet them where they are and listen to their stories and understand their contexts.  Jesus did this by spending time with Jews and Gentiles, Tax collectors and prostitutes, soldiers and children.    We cannot answer questions about Christ if we do not know the questions being asked.

There is so many great thoughts in this chapter.  For the sake of brevity I will track one thought.  I agree we are beyond setting up a nice facility, putting up good media, and having the best worship band in town.  But this post-attractional seemed tied to the idea that Jesus moved around and would not allow his disciples to "set up shop" and capitalize on good ministry moments.  I am a firm believer that all ministry is local.  I am a strong supporter of the local church. I am sure Fitch and Holsclaw would agree since they both copastor a local church.  My questions is what is the balance between being post attractional and a local church?  How do we move forward and engage our neighborhoods without setting up shop and putting down roots?  How do we pull away from physical and social structures yet all the while continue to use our local shops, partner with local groups, and engage our neighbors who aren't moving anytime soon?  My favorite quote form the chapter is, "The Word became local, not universal; concrete no abstract...the Word does not come to us as data to a hand held device, but as a hand holding a hand."  How do we remain local yet not be bound by physical boundaries?

Signpost two: Missio Dei

In his recent book, "What We Talk About When We Talk About God" Rob Bell makes the very valid point from Signpost 1 and 2 that our language is no longer universal.  When we speak about God or prayer or Church or Jesus with others we might not be actually talking about the same things even though we are using the same words. Bell has always done a marvelous job to reveal the massiveness of the God of the Universe and how he is centered around love and relationship and is pulling us forward.  That future is amazing and beautiful and centered around a large biblical narrative from Gen1-Rev22.  Signpost two Missio Dei begins by pointing this out as well. We must get back to a place where we remember that God not only created the world but also invaded it in Christ.  And beyond that God remains actively involved in the world through the Holy Spirit.  The Trinity is not aloof or selectively involved, but rather on Mission or Missio Dei (Mission of God).  This story is unique.  Too often when those who come from a background where God is distant, they tend to move toward a place where God is everywhere.  But there is a big difference between God being everywhere and God being involved in the world.  If God is everywhere then God is nowhere.  But if God has purpose and is working in the world, then now you have a Christian story to live into.  This process requires discernment to see God's illuminating work that is informed by knowing the distinct and unique story of the Trinity working in the world.

The Scriptural moment this Trinity event takes place is represented in Marks account of Jesus' baptism.  God rends open the heavens and declares, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." and then the Spirit descends like a dove.  Father, Son, Spirit all present in a moment.  And at this moment heaven and earth are forever no longer divided.  A new work has begun in Jesus and is sustained by the Spirit.  For Matthew and Luke the story goes back to the David and Abraham and for John it begins "in the beginning."  This is God's mission, always from the beginning God involved and God breaking in.  "This is the defining characteristic of God: God always going, coming, sending in mission...Sending and being sent is fundamental to who God is and what God does." pg 27.  Our task becomes becoming aware of what God is already doing and participate.

This chapter and Signpost is very encouraging to me.  I often preach and teach our churches that we don't bring God into our communities, God is already there, ahead of us, waiting for us to be involved in what God is already doing.  The trick is praying for God to open our eyes, minds, and hearts to be able to notice where God is present and how it fits into his larger Missio Dei.  This is far more encouraging than navigating with signs or north star.  Instead we journey WITH God as he moves forward in the story.

David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw Bio's:
This is part one of a five part series where we will be in a dialogue with "
Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier" by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw.  David Fitch is a copastor and founder of Life on the Vine Christian Community in Chicago.  He serves as the B.R. Lidner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary.  He has authored six other books as well including "The End of Evangelicalism?" and "The Great Giveaway"  He has a strong web presence as a contributor to websites and blogs regularly at his own siteReclaiming the Mission.  Geoff Holsclaw is also copastor ofLife on the Vine Christian Community in Chicago and also serves as an adjunct professor at Northern Seminary.  Geoff also serves as the Midwest Coordinator for the Eccelsia Network and is regularly seen on the web as well including his blog For Time Being.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Prodigal Christianity: Introduction

For the next five weeks we will be in a dialogue with "Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier" by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw.  We will dialogue with the book and the authors themselves. David Fitch is a copastor and founder of Life on the Vine Christian Community in Chicago.  He serves as the B.R. Lidner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary.  He has authored six other books as well including "The End of Evangelicalism?" and "The Great Giveaway"  He has a strong web presence as a contributor to websites and blogs regularly at his own site Reclaiming the Mission.  Geoff Holsclaw is also copastor of Life on the Vine Christian Community in Chicago and also serves as an adjunct professor at Northern Seminary.  Geoff also serves as the Midwest Coordinator for the Eccelsia Network and is regularly seen on the web as well including his blog For Time Being.

David Fitch
"Prodigal Christianity" is a helpful guide on how to approach North American Christianity in our current age. Both authors have experienced the "Emergent Church" first hand.  I have also been a student of Emergent concepts the past few years. Consuming books and blogs by authors such as Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, Rob Bell, and Dan Kimbal.  Like myself, they have found these authors very helpful in deconstructing many of the problems with the modern American Church.  However, once the theology and practices have been deconstructed the "re-construction" concepts have been found wanting in some ways.  Prodigal Christianity helps to "re-construct" the North American faith journey in a deep, theologically sound, and practically helpful way.  David Fitch describes the book this way"It speaks into the discontent of all those who have exhausted conservative, liberal, and even emergent ways of being Christian and are looking for a new way forward. It offers building blocks for missional theology and practice that moves Christians into a gospel-centered way of life for our culture and our time."

Geoff Holsclaw
They do this by tracking the parable of the Prodigal Son and offering like Karl Barth did, that God himself, in Christ is the one who goes into the far country to bring back all that were lost.  "This way of living is radical and generous and yet particularly defined as the way of God.  This journey will break down the boundaries around the postmodern, post-Christian, sexually broken, relationally scarred, estranged, wandering, and marginalized peoples or our day.  It is a journey that takes us to the frontiers of God's mission.  To be Christian is to learn to be prodigal." (xxvi introduction)

Each week I will look at two of the ten signposts found in "Prodigal Christianity."  Each blog post will appear on Friday of each week.  The dates for the conversations will be:
1. Post Christendom and Misseo Dei: May 26th
2. Incarnation and Witness June 2nd
3. Scripture and Gospel June 9th
4. Church and Prodigal Relationships June 16th
5. Prodigal Justice and Prodigal Openness June 23rd

And here is the very best part.  Authors David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw will also engage in these conversations by adding their comments along the way!  I hope you will follow along the next five Fridays.  Use the comment sections to engage in conversation with the book and the authors.  Blessings.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Mirror Image

Not Me...
"But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.  For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like."  James 1:22-24 NRSV
I have read this passage many times.  But the last two times I have come across it in my personal reading times I have been struck to the core.  Everyday I look in the mirror multiple times.  Most bathrooms have mirrors so I catch a glimpse of myself there, stores have mirrors for security and our vanity, windows miraculously offer reflections, and my car has at least three mirrors. I know I have a scar on my forehead, a freckle in the middle of my nose, my eyebrows are full, my smile is crooked favoring the left side, I have a red spot under my left eye which is dark brown, and I am pretty sure I need a hair cut.
I remember who I am between mirror visits.  I check back often to ensure I am looking my best. When I am in a store and I walk past a long mirror I can't help but look.  When something is out of place it is easy to spot and correct.  I am also confident the next time I look at the mirror I will still be me not someone else.
I think that is what we are supposed to do with scripture.  We are to stare into the pool of the "perfect law" do two things, 1. Gain our identity from it and 2. remember who we are once we walk away from the text.  We are to be "Shaped by the Story." said another way, we are to be what Scripture says we are.  Not just do what the bible says, but in fact BE what the Scripture says, believe it and live it, not forgetting who we are between visits.   We are sons and daughters of the Creator, made in his image, we are image bearers.  We are loved and in response to love others and God.  We are being restored and redeemed and called to restore and redeem.  We are the body, the church, where Christ is head and with that comes the call to be community.  We are chosen, a holy nation, a royal priesthood.  We are who God says we are and we are very good.  We are guests at the banquet table of God along with everyone else.  

We should check back often, adjust what is out of place, and continue to live out our Scripture shaped identities.  This is not about living out 5 spiritual laws, acting out 3 steps to a better marriage, business, or friendships, or having some sort of vague guidelines for a "holy life. Rather we are to live into who God has created us to BE.  To exist and coexist with God and with others as God intended.  We are to look into that "perfect law" and gain our identity and not forget it between visits.  That is why we have to check back often, realign, and carry on as part of the Kingdom of God.

That is my prayer this week.  To better understand who I am in Christ and to not forget it when I am not actively looking at the mirror of Scripture, but to instead absorb it into my very soul and claim it as my identity.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

It has been here all along

Last week I discovered I lived two miles from a lake!  It is called the Glenn Cunningham Reservoir and it is actually a pretty good sized lake for our area.  We found it by accident.  On our way home from Walmart I looked to my wife and asked, "I wonder what is down that road?"  So we turned left instead of going straight like normal.  We discovered three baseball fields, a garden store, an RV construction plant, and signs for a neighborhood named after a Lake Cunningham.  Our imaginations immediately asked, "Where is Lake Cunningham?  I didn't know there was a lake around here." 

So we broke out Google maps on our phones...well she did it on her phone because I was driving. Anyway we found the lake.  It was nice.  It has lots of RV space, you can rent boats, there is even a trail to walk around it, though I imagine it would take some time.  My first response upon seeing it was, "I can't believe this was here all this time."  There are no signs.  And we had a major drought last year and it was really hot, how nice would it have been to go to the lake?

I think our churches at times are a lot like this lake.  It is a wonderful, refreshing, and fun place to be.  But there are no signs in the community that the church is there.  They are amazing places of worship but have a hard time sharing that beauty with others.  I am not talking about literal signs.  Many churches have more publicity than is necessary to try and attract people into their worship services.  I am talking about presence.  Are there signs that you are present in your community? Do others know you exist based on ministry to and with the community?  Or perhaps like this lake it is for a select group of people who already know where it is...
What I like most about the missional church concept is that presence matters.  We are encouraged to go and be with people where they are.  The missional church often say's something to the effect "Join God in what he is doing."  In other words you get to participate in God's Living Kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven.  But like this lake we sometimes hide the Kingdom of God or demand that others know the rules on how to get there.  My hope is that we teach ourselves and our churches how to better share the lake with all.  I hope we realize that the Kingdom of God is in our midst and has been all along, just like the lake.  But hey sometimes we just get lucky and stumble across it because we turned left instead of going straight.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Here's Your Sign

My parents used to tell me that first impressions matter.  So my mom always kept a very clean house in the chance someone came to visit or if I or my sister brought a friend home unexpectedly from school.  My dad always keep the cars clean and the yard mowed.  We always had clean clothes and reasonable times between haircuts.  Probably not much different from your family.

Organizations also present "first impressions" with their buildings, employees who welcome, or the cleanliness of the facility.  The front door might be one of the most important features of these organizations.  Here are a few front doors I have come across in midwest stores recently.

Clearly this is an unwelcoming sign.  This is posted on a sliding door into a business. This store is a large chain and is located in the upper middle class section of town with low crime.  Nothing about this sign says to me I am welcome to shop there.  I have never seen a sign like this on any other business, that does not mean do not exist but I have never noticed one.  I just found it to be a weird notice and felt it to be unnecessarily hostile.

This sign is to a dance studio.  It clearly is sending a message to those who enter what is the most important thing to the owner.  Not the hours of operation, the types of classes offered, or genre of dance, but rather all who enter here must be paid up before they can dance.  I appreciate that they need their tuition to make budget, if this is the first impression one receives they might not want to go back.

These signs are a sort of analogy of churches.  Our churches often put up intentional or unintentional signs up with our actions.  Perhaps they act like the fist sign.  Your life will be scrutinized here.  We will judge you and use a filter process to decide if you are like us.  We will examine every aspect of your life until we are satisfied you look, sound, and act like we think you should.  If you do not agree to these terms you are free to leave the facility.  Now this is of course an exaggeration...I hope.  But we all know groups who unite around the concept of what they are against in order to gain their identity. We also know at times Christians can be unnecessarily harsh to outsiders and even to one another in the auspices of orthodoxy.

The second sign speaks to what is most important to a church. Some feel the church speaks of money to often.  The economy is poor and non-profits all around are suffering.  People don't give excess money to non-profits and churches when they don't have any or are afraid.  But this sign doesn't have to only represent financial needs.  Have you ever been to a church that seems to only focus on one or a few issues?  It could be sex, marriage, family values, abortion, inerrancy,  gay rights, poverty, politics, or anything else positive or negative.  The point is they have so narrowed the scope of the gospel that their message becomes a one trick pony...and it us usually an ugly pony.

Lets try one more sign...
This is a welcoming place. It has the clearly marked sign open, the door is open, and the hours are clearly marked.  What you cannot see is the variety of plant life that greet you from the parking lot to the door letting you know that this place holds a variety of plants, trees, flowers, porch/deck furniture, and other yard DYI things.  But what you see outside is only a small taste of what is on the inside.  A vast complex full of a variety of gardening elements.  The staff is friendly and knowledgeable. 

 What if our church families looked more like this last image?  What if we were more inviting and welcoming? What would it look like if we could find the balance between being welcoming to all and strong in our Christian identity?  What if we found a way to interpret and discern what God is doing in the world?  The staff in the garden center don't just grow plants in a bucket.  They are capable of listening to your home garden needs and demonstrate how to move their nursery plants into your real back yard garden.  They have figured out the balance between safe building and real world application because they live in both places.   They understand the Missional balance of sending and being sent.  Just like Christ who was sent and in turns sends us. God is at work in each of our lives (gardens) we simply need to be aware of his presence and celebrate.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Don't call me a Christian says Mumford

I have become a big Mumford and Sons fan.  Before you cast me into some "band-wagon" "fair-weather" pop culture music participant, I must say I first listened to Mumford about two and half years ago and wore out their first album "Sigh No More" long before they were ever on American radio.  Their lyrics are powerful, their music is catchy, and their live performances are some of the best around.  I actually first saw them on a  live TV performance before I ever knew much about them.  I was inspired by the passion of performance and the fact the lead singer Marcus played a kick drum, while playing guitar, and singing at the same time.

Anyway, their lyrics are full of religious overtones.  Here is a quote from Huff Religion of a quote in Rolling Stone Magazine.  I actually encourage you to read both articles they are very cool.
During an interview last month, the Rolling Stone reporter, Brian Hiatt, asked Mumford whether he "still consider(s) himself a Christian."
Mumford gave the following answer:
"I don't really like that word. It comes with so much baggage. So, no, I wouldn't call myself a Christian. I think the word just conjures up all these religious images that I don't really like. I have my personal views about the person of Jesus and who he was. ... I've kind of separated myself from the culture of Christianity."
His spiritual journey is a "work in progress," Mumford said, adding that he's never doubted the existence of God and that his parents are unbothered by his ambivalence toward the Christian label.

According to the Huff Religion article others have gone on to cast Marcus and the band in general in either a wishy washy denier of a strong religious faith or a "spiritual but not religious" crowd.   But I don't get that vibe.

I nearly always prefer people to say they are Christian.  I am a Christian and clergy to boot.  But that puts a lot of people off.  For me it has strained relationships with family members, friends, and strangers I meet.  It is always a little awkward at first when I am sitting on an airplane or getting a hair cut and having someone ask, "So what do you do?"  Because "what I do" is in fact "who I am." So when I say, I'm a minister, or I work with all the denominational churches in a region, I mostly just get blank stares.  They don't know what to say or do to that response.  And as much as I sometimes want to shy away from the conversation I usually cannot because Christ won't let me back out.  I am initially shy not because I am ashamed of my faith or the gospel but because I don't want to have a weird conversation and be silently judged by the person I am speaking with.  The other reason is because much like Marcus my spiritual journey is a "work in progress."  And I don't want to state a belief or explain a behavior only to be led another direction later in my faith walk or perhaps share something unorthodox by mistake.

In the last year alone I have had dozens small chats with strangers in airports, trains, and even a few restaurants.  Once they learn I am a Christian and clergy they respond in two ways. First if they are Christian they want to tell me all the things we have in common and assume we interpret the faith in identical ways.  This is often true but sometimes it is not.  It makes me grateful the Christian tent is a large one that can hold all sorts of people and perspectives.  Or people respond a second way, they want to tell me all the things wrong with the church, why they have never been or won't go back, that we need to stop trying to be involved in politics, and how judgmental Christians are.  And usually they are right.  They accurately point out the worst parts of us.  Many of these anti-church people, I have discovered  really just need someone to listen to them rant for a while.   They need for someone from "inside" the circle hear them out.  Once you do that they are willing to listen you explain there is no circle, no insider-outsider division, and that Christ is willing to welcome all to his banquet table, even them just as they are.

Mumfords lyrics clearly demonstrate someone who wrestles with his faith more than most self identified Christians.  He uses biblical imagery that rivals that of Johns Gospel. He might not self identify as a Christian but he certainly believes in resurrection (see Roll Away Your Stone), redemption (see Lover of the Light), forgiveness (see Awake my Soul, Broken Crown, I Will Wait),  a new heaven and new earth (see After the Storm), and genuine love (see Blank White Page, Lion Man, Lovers Eyes).  Sure he uses the F word sometimes but I think it speaks to his honest passion and frustration with his humanity and need of healing.

Perhaps he is more Christian than he gives himself credit for.  Perhaps he just doesn't want to have awkward conversations with reporters.  Perhaps like the Huff Religion article states, he "falls between Dorothy Day's famous "Don't call me a saint -- I don't want to be dismissed so easily," and Soren Kierkegaard's, "Once you label me you negate me."

So take them or leave them for their music.  But don't deny their journey or yours.  We are all works in progress.  My prayer is that you are willing to simply get on the path.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

What is a "none"

Perhaps you have heard one of these phrases.

  • The rise of the "nones"
  • The growing number of "nones"
  • American religious "none"
What exactly is a "none?"

Robert Putnam in his book, "American Grace" would describe a "none" as anyone who does not hold an official religious affiliation.  In other words, "nones" are individuals who do not allow themselves to be identified as a member of any particular religious group be it Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or any other group.  They certainly would not classify themselves as part of any sort of subgroup or denomination either.  It is believed that about 1 in 5 American or 20% and 1/3 of all people under 30 are "nones."  This represents the highest numbers in this category since polling began.  According to PEW research
In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).
So there are about 33 million Americans who do not hold any sort of religious affiliation.  But does that mean they hold no spiritual beliefs?  A resounding NO according to a PBS joint report with PEW Research Forum on Religion and Public life among the "nones."
Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day. In addition, most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.
So if these self classified unaffiliated or "nones" believe that churches benefit society, pray regularly, and believe in God why do they not exercise their beliefs by joining a community of believers?  The answer is what Robert Putnam says again in his book, "American Grace" is a backlash.  His research indicates that non affiliation for many is a direct response to what many view is the unhealthy relationship between the "religious right" and the Republican party that began in the 1970s and was at its zenith in the 1980s and 1990s but still holds influence today even though it is dwindling.  Said another way the mixing of the religious institution with politics is unpalatable to many people, especially those under the age of 30.  A second element would be the evangelical emphasis on three specific issues, sex before marriage, homosexuality, and abortion.  Many of the "nones" do not agree with the stances and the resulting political policies that go with these issues.

But look again at the statistics many "nones" pray, most feel that churches benefit society, and most believe in God.  In other words to use a consumerism term, there is a vast market of people out there who though are currently unaffiliated are not opposed to participating in religious activity or more specifically a local church.  The question is what sort of church?

The answer is one of these adaptive challenges that has no clear answer at the moment but is slowly coming into focus.  It will require some religious entrepreneur energy from our churches and leadership.  But that is nothing new to American culture or my denomination in particular.  People tend to join churches that teach or preach well and have a welcoming worship element.  They stay because of community elements such as small groups, Sunday school, friendships that develop etc.  The things that need to be emphasized for the "nones" to join and then stay have to do with social justice elements, sense of genuine community, creation care, and individual development.

Now all of this far more complicated than simply defining a few key elements.  "Nones" are not universally homogeneous.  Who is more likely to be self described as unaffiliated depends on a myriad of factors including race, economic standing, religious background, parental religious beliefs, personal experience within or without religion, and a few others.  But the 10,000 foot view does allow us to see that even though this demographic is growing, most are not atheist or agnostic  most still believe in God, and most would probably welcome a religious identity if that identity was not attached to a perceived negative such as the issues previously mentioned.  

The unaffiliated, especially the 1/3 under 30 want to be for things not against things.  They want to separate religion from political influence, but not from personal belief and action.  They like to blend traditional religious symbolism with modern technology and images.  In other words don't remove the stained glass just yet, perhaps adding to it with modern elements would be better. Many growing churches that have young adults in them are experts at mixing the ancient with the modern.  An emphasis on missional living is important.  This allows members to live into their beliefs more than simply agree to a set of doctrines that may or may not impact their everyday lives. This is one of the major differences between the current generation and previous ones.  Doctrine is much lower on the priority list than right action which would be at the top right next to community.  Probably one of the key things is to move away from issues of sex, abortion, and homosexuality.  This is a major non-starter with "nones."  These concepts and the words connected to them are the switch that immediately turns them off.

I hope this helps us all understand the concepts of the "none" a little more.  For more information read "American Grace" and "Christianity after Religion" by Dianna Butler Bass or look into these links

Nones on the Rise by PEW Forum
An article from 4 years ago before the term "nones" was popularized describes the pessimism and hope of many nones and church members alike by Rev. Larry Harvey

Monday, February 25, 2013

A Fondness for the Church

I have been reading the New Testament differently than usual in 2013.  I have chosen to read it in chronological order.  By this I mean I am reading it in the order the books were most likely written based on date from earliest to latest.  The idea behind this reading pattern is to gain a better understanding of what was the most significant theological and community beliefs the early church had.

There is no firm way to know the exact order of the books written.  There are a few that easier to date than others.  1 Thessalonians is agreed by most scholars as being the oldest letter in the New Testament written in the 50's.  This along with Galatians, 1-2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, and Romans make up the universally accepted seven letters of Paul all written in the 50's. Some place James as first because it is believed to be written by Jesus' brother but most academics place it as late as the 80's and don't believe James the brother of Jesus was the actual author.  It is also widely agreed that Mark is the earliest Gospel written some time in the 70's and Matthew and Luke used Mark as a resource to write their own Gospels in the late 70's or 80's.  John and Revelation were written even later probably in the 90's. The disputed Pauline books such as Jude, Hebrews, 1-2 Timothy, and Titus may have also been written in this time or later.  The newest book or last written was probably 2 Peter written well after 100.

I share this not to get into debates over chronology or the importance of dating the letters and verifying actual authors verses disciples of authors or people writing in the name of "famous" disciples/Apostles to ensure their letters would be read and shared among the early churches. I write to share what I have gained as a follower of Christ by reading in this manner.

I first began this process because I wanted to examine what was the most important thing to the early church.  It is easy to see the evolution of Pauline theology and what mattered to the recipients of the letters.  Early on in letters to the Thessalonians, Galatians, and Corinthians Paul is trying to help these young Christian communities with mixed Jewish and Gentile populations navigate the implications of their belief that Jesus was resurrected from the dead, is the fulfillment of OT prophecy, is the Son of God, and will return again someday.  He also spent a great deal of energy helping to live in community with one another, Jew and Gentile, based on these beliefs.  What was most important to them seems to be the ability to live together.  To be able to be Jew and Gentile together.  The second most important thing seemed to be what was most necessary for belief.  In other words it was theological in nature, right belief and right practice.

This is not only helpful to me as a minister but I find myself identifying with Paul in a way.  As a middle judicatory my first responsibility lies to the churches I serve.  My goal is to help them be the most healthy churches possible. If I am to take the above seriously this means I am to focus first on community.  I am to help the people of God in the local church be community together and to live in community with their neighbors.  Second I am to guide them theologically.  Everything we do from gathering on Sundays, to going on a mission trip needs to be rooted in Biblical teachings.  We are to reflect upon those teachings to help guide us in whatever choices we make from hiring a pastor to deciding what curriculum to use.

As I read Paul's letters I can feel his passion for the churches he was writing.  He often speaks of how much he loves the churches.  He shares memories of his times there.  He calls the people by name and sends them greetings from others by name.  I see how he spent years getting to know these people.  I can see how they trusted him to answer their questions.  This is my passion as a judicatory as well.  I care about our churches in our region.  I care about all the churches in our denomination, but I have a special calling to theses specific churches at this specific time.  I hope like Paul that I can promote community shaped by theological understanding for the reason we are gathered together for worship in the first place.

As I write this out and think about the churches in my care I know many that are looking for pastors, struggling with conflict, concerned about their finances, anxious about the future of ministry, and worried about their buildings.  Even so, I don't feel stress or fear or anxiety.  Instead like Paul, "I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of [them]..."  I am grateful for this ministry and the opportunity to come alongside each of these churches and together become imitators of the resurrected Jesus Christ.