As Jesus followers we are called into the Kingdom Life. This blog will help us converse and learn what that means. It will contain thoughts on Scripture, Sermon Reflection, Leadership Training and interesting reads. -Pastor Jeff

Monday, November 5, 2018

Putting on New Skin

Missional Leadership is about “molting.” Allow me to explain. Too often our ability to effectively engage others, build relationships, and participate in God’s redemptive purposes in new communities is diminished because we are still walking around in old skin. It is the skin of our past experiences, our previous communities, our preconceived ideas. We step into a new space running every new experience through an old set of lenses. Missional Leadership requires the recognition of those limitations and the capacity to faithfully molt that old skin, and put on the new skin of the places in which the Lord plants us.

Seth Major had some old skin. Growing up in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, attending Olivet Nazarene University, and pastoring in a few different communities around Chicago, Seth, originally intending to plant a church in New Lennox, felt the tug of God to step into a new city that he’d never lived, Peoria, Illinois, and join God in his redemptive influence in and throughout that city. But he had to molt. He couldn’t arrive in a new city with an old vision. He couldn’t embrace new people, assessing them through old lenses. He had to put on new skin.

This became the passion of Seth Major. Immediately, he and his wife Tai sought to make Peoria their city. They immediately moved into the community and worked to build relationships. Tai became a teacher at a school in one of the underserved portions of the community. Seth began to spend time with indigenous leaders, soaking up every bit of information or wisdom that they would share. He committed himself to seeking the good of the city and not merely fulfilling his vision. He shared meals, ate local, walked the streets, networked, and committed to partnerships. The Kingdom vision was big enough for Seth that he hasn’t been concerned about the ways others would impact his vision. He continually lays his vision on the altar, asking for a share in God’s purposes.

Throughout this last year, that has landed him in the North Valley of Peoria, partnering with a team of missional leaders to establish a faith community that would be sensitive to the organic needs of that community. Reachway Church exists to foster transformation throughout a community by partnering with their neighbors and other organizations that seek the good of the city.

However, in the recent weeks, as Seth has continued to pull on that new skin, another door for missional leadership began to emerge. One of the key partnerships Seth has engaged is the Dream Center in Peoria. Dream Center Peoria is a remarkable organization that has for nearly two decades sought to engage the issues surrounding homelessness, poverty, and at risk children. Throughout this partnership, Seth has found a team of kindred spirits with whom he could walk with and seek the good of the city. Recently his new skin has come with a new title.

Seth has recently been named the chaplain of Dream Center Peoria, providing spiritual support to both their neighbors and the staff. But wait, how is that going to help him grow his church? That’s not the point. This isn’t about church growth, but the fulfillment of God’s redemptive vision for an entire city. His willingness to step into a community and put on its skin has led him to stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the most vulnerable in the city.

Director of Dream Center Peoria, Andy King states, ““Over the last year, we watched this young, passionate and enthusiastic church planter come alongside Dream Center Peoria and serve under someone else’s vision for the City. That spoke volumes to us. For an organization that has been reaching the heart of the City for 16 years or more, we long for local pastors like Seth, who get it! Its a kingdom thing. As we were looking at raising the spiritual pastoral care level for all the people at Dream Center, Seth was the first person I thought of as his heart and passion is firstly for people to know who Jesus is in this City."

Molting has allowed Seth to gain favor in a city at a rate that rarely happens. His humility in laying aside his dreams, his passion for pursuing God’s vision, and his willingness to lock arms with anyone and everyone that has the passion to #lovepeoria, gives credible witness to missional leadership. It’s a reminder that our inability to engage those to whom God sends us is often less about them and more about still wearing old skin. Molt and be missional. Congrats Seth!

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

When the Church Loses Its Way

As I’ve been following the recent developments regarding immigration in the United States and the varied responses from both those inside and outside the faith of Christianity, I’m left asking a familiar question, “Why is it so easy for the church to lose its way.”  This question isn’t tied to or rooted in a particular party ideology or political platform, instead it’s rooted in a pastoral angst, whereby, those that give confession to following Jesus often fail to wrestle with deeply meaningful issues in a way that bears witness to a counter-cultural presence. 

As followers of Christ, our presence in this world ought to be one of light, life, justice, hope, and redemption. We are to bear witness to God’s Counter-Cultural Kingdom of God. We are to think, speak, and act in ways that forces the broader world to reckon with its public, political, and prideful (often idolatrously violent or manipulative) postures. 

We are to be different.

In following our public discourse as a church, I’ve discovered what I believe to be four elements that threaten our capacity to bear alternative, faithful witness. This isn’t an exhaustive list nor do I believe I’ve “figured out a solution.”  However, I believe that awareness can illicit conviction which prompts confession, giving space and hope to transformation. 

Here are four of the ways the church loses its way…
Punditry:  We live in a culture fascinated by loud, obnoxious, divisive, seemingly larger than life personalities.  Most of these personalities have built an extensive and sprawling spin zone, where information and news are often filtered through a particular perspective, warped and twisted to pander to mass appeal (a particular mass appeal depending on one’s political stances). These pundits:
·         Privilege voices that reaffirm their stances.
·         Sensationalize every element of a story, preying upon ignorant fears.
·         Presume the historical ignorance of their listeners and followers, shrouding current events in novelty without investigating historical precedent. 
·         Suggest “fairness” in reportage, all the while intentionally spinning the information, moving followers in a predetermined direction.
·         Play the martyr, suggesting that those that disagree with them are evil persecutors of the truth.
When followers of Jesus unthinkingly give credence, support, and authorization to those voices, we contribute to the chaos of a “post-truth” culture where “alternative facts” and “exploitive tactics” set the agenda for public discourse.  We must challenge these voices by staying informed and prayerfully testing all spirits. DISCERNMENT and WISDOM couldn’t be any more important in today’s culture.

Pragmatism: We are pragmatists. This is a philosophically loaded word, but for the purposes of this article, I will suggest that pragmatism asks only “what works” and “what is beneficial to me (or my niche group)” in this particular moment. Pragmatism is absolutely disconnected from any overarching (and especially transcendent) framework that might serve as a filter through which to run our decisions.  We act in the moment for the purpose of the moment. For a pragmatist, might often makes right. Our ability to act is authority enough to do so, when the action is immediately beneficial to those with the power to act.  All decisions are ad hoc and disconnected to a broader and more reflective framework. 

As followers of Christ, pragmatism isn’t an option.  We are rooted in an extended tradition that forces us to reckon not only with “what works and what could we do in the moment,” but instead asks, “In light of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the announcement of the Kingdom, how should we be in this world?”  Our decisions impact the evidence of our confession. Followers of Christ play the long game of God’s redemptive reign and make decisions consistent with that long game. Expedience based on pragmatism often fails to recognize the injustices, prejudices, and violent tendencies often implicit in urgency and power.

Populism: Also a loaded word in our culture, I believe populism as I will define it in this article contributes to the corruption of the church. Populism is often defined as concern for the interests of the ordinary person. This alone isn’t a bad thing.  We ought to be concerned with the “ordinary,” refusing to create systems that privilege wealth, intellectual elitism, or status.  However, populism is a concept in today’s culture often corrupted by identity politics.  The “ordinary” are those with whom I belong and my perceived placement on the margins.  We divide ourselves up into marginalized groups based on race, political/moral categories, economic class, or ethnic difference (leading often to a nationalism that creates a supremacy over and above others.)  This populism can lead to a “mob effect” in which voices of dissent are quickly mobbed by public ridicule, social media shaming, and the threats of violence. Voices of dissent are enemies and thereby threats to the well-being of the masses (defined arbitrarily). 

As followers of Christ, we have forgotten that “identity politics” just doesn’t work.  Paul speaks against this in Galatians 3:26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 

For those that follow Christ, we’ve entered into a new humanity no longer bound to politics of difference, but bound by mutuality, respect, and love that extends beyond my narrow grouping.  This passion moves beyond the limits of the baptized community into the broader humanity.  Paul also writes in 2 Corinthians 5: 16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin[b] for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Polarization: This is the final element I want to suggest is problematic for the church.  We start with the assumption that we are naturally at odds with one another, poised every day for the defensive.  Punditry that plays on our fears, naturally divides us into groupings making conversation nearly impossible.  We are told there are only and ever two sides and it is incumbent upon you to pick a side, plant a flag, and defend your ground. Failure to do this is irresponsible and naïve.  Participation in polarization creates an edge of anger, malice, sarcasm and ultimately leaves us prepared for verbal and physical violence. In a culture where conversations at work, in the home, or on social media feel like playground skirmishes, we are now living in the post-traumatic edginess that is always looking over our shoulder for the next fight.

As followers of Christ, we believe in the shalom of God.  The peace of God, not as a failure to act or an absence of conflict, but as the proactive posture of the people of God that refuse to jump headlong into divisiveness, must be our priority.  This does not mean we don’t act when necessary or cast our lots in divisive situations. It means that we refuse to constantly see and suppose one another as enemies.  It’s a refusal to attribute evil and enemy willy-nilly based only on disagreement.  When standing on divisive issues, it stands vulnerable, sacrificially, with the hopes of redemption, reconciliation, and restoration for all as the priority and hope.  It doesn’t seek to win as much as it does to bear witness to the Kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven. 

It is important that in today’s culture that the church once again embrace its counter cultural identity as the people of God, refusing to wear that identity in arrogance, but as reconciling servant to the world. We must learn to speak, act, converse, and love in ways that bears witness to difference, that bears witness to the Kingdom of God.  Lord help us on our way as the “People of the Way.”

Thursday, February 22, 2018

10 Questions to Ask for a Spiritual Pulse Check:

1.) Am I lingering in the Lord?
If Jesus is the source and wellspring of all that is good, meaningful, and faithful, am I attending to Him well so that He might tend well to my life?  Do I linger, giving him space to speak, lead, convict, love and encourage?  Do I treat my time with Him as an obligation to get through?

2.) Have I found ways to justify my time away from the spring of living water...or replaced it with a distraction?
In John 4, Jesus suggests that He is the Living Water that brings life. Sometimes we wander from the spring of living water, thinking we can do well in the land without it. We give ourselves permission, making up excuses, “I’m too busy.” (etc.)  Have I grown distracted with gaming, social media, and binge-watching, contributing to my time away from grace?

3.) Do I give the Spirit of God space to bridle my tongue keeping me from unkind, unwise, uncaring, and unfaithful words?
Am I rash, abrasive, and ill-tempered with my words? Do I demean, condescend, react unprayerfully, spread gossip, or speak maliciously? Faithfulness in attending to regular rhythms of spiritual formation ensures that when we speak, we’ve done so first giving space to the Spirit to bridle our often unruly tongue.

4.) Do the words I speak and the ways in which I speak them reflect to the Biblical call toward gentleness, peace-making, being full of grace and seasoned with salt?
Out of the mouth flows the thoughts of the heart. A heart surrendered will reflect the Scriptural truth that our words carry power and often create our environments. What type of environment am I creating?

5.) Am I currently prone to breaches in integrity because of exhaustion, frustration, bitterness, or spiritual lethargy?
In the end, all we have is our integrity. I believe that with all my heart. No matter what we’ve accomplished, if that is not consistent with the way in which we’ve faithfully lived our lives, our accomplishments will be overshadowed by our lack of character. There are many sabotage artists to our integrity. Our practices of spiritual formation ensure that we guard against such breaches.

6.) Am I currently harboring the seeds of sin and systematically shutting out voices that might call me, in love, on that sin?
Once we’ve become lax in our spiritual formation, we begin to harbor sin deep in our hearts. We begin to quiet the voice of God, listening instead to the selfish desires of our heart that often speak loudly. Having moved away from the living water, we systematically attempt to remove ourselves from situations in which those that splash around in the living water hang out. We don’t want their voices speaking into our self-justifying actions.

7.) What assumed failure on God’s part has given me reason to take back control of my life and forge my own path?
When we feel let down by God, we often tell ourselves we can do a better job. Without an intimacy of trust in the midst of difficult situations, we will take charge. Those tendencies for control will lead us down paths of self-determination and toward a hardness of heart.

8.) Have I chosen a path of least resistance when faithfulness might have demanded that I stay in the fray and work hard to prevail in this challenge?
When I begin looking for the easy way out, I tend to find that as an alert to my spiritual bankruptcy. The world invites us to live a life on a “path of least resistance.” “It should be easy.” We are told. However, a life shaped by grace and strengthened by God stands in the fray and works in conjunction with the Spirit of God to prevail in the challenges we face.

9.) Am I prone to believe that everyone around me needs to change?
When spiritual formation takes a back seat in our lives, we become increasingly self-deceptive.  We begin to tell ourselves that we are in the right and everyone else is in the wrong. We tell ourselves that if everyone else changes, all would be well. Self-deception is often the set up for our own undoing.  Humble confession, fostered in a spirit of prayer, trusts God to reveal to us our place in our conflict and chaos.

10.) Have I replaced my cross with my banner?
The journey of Jesus is one of sacrifice and self-giving holy love. It is a life lived, giving itself away for the sake of others, on behalf of the Kingdom of God.  It’s the way of the cross.  However, inattention to our spiritual formation will mean we lay down our cross and pick up our selfish banners, making life about me, mine, and getting what I deserve. When I pick up my banner, I’ve stopped following Jesus. 

How’s your pulse?

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Wake Up Call: Women in Ministry and Why I’m Still Part of the Problem

Let me just start off by saying, “I’ve got no problem with women in ministry!”

Resolutely and definitively.

I have no theological qualms with women serving in any role within the leadership of the church. I belong to a denomination that since its founding has ordained women. I am thankful that my tradition affirms the gifts and graces of preaching, shepherding, and leadership without gender distinction. Throughout my ministry, I’ve been surrounded by gifted women preachers and leaders. At the church that I currently serve, we welcome without hesitation the prophetic/pastoral voices of women from the pulpit.  I’ve no problem with women in ministry.

And I thought that was enough…which is why I’m STILL a part of the problem.

Recently I had a wake-up call.  Rachel Held Evans tweeted, “Imagine being a female professor of Hebrew & ANE literature at a seminary & knowing there are male students in your class who (because they read John Piper) consider your expertise worthless due to your gender. 😡”

I happened to see this Tweet just prior to prepping to teach undergraduates at a Christian University. This hit me like a ton of bricks. So, I had to do a little homework. Recently on the @desiringGod page, an interview was posted in which John Piper is heard saying that women should not be seminary professors. Because seminary is for ministry preparation and since only men can prepare for ministry as pastors, women wouldn’t be models for those ministers.

Can I be honest? I had to look hard because I don’t follow anything related to John Piper. About all that John Piper and I have in common theologically is that we both think Jesus is a really big deal. We’d be fairly opposite from one another on several issues, so I just don’t pay attention.

Which is part of the problem.

John Piper has a large following. 466,000 people follow his Twitter Page.  In the Christian world, that’s a big deal. Maybe not Taylor Swift big deal, but at least Brittany Spears big.  Again, he and I are opposites…I’m not a big deal at all. 

When John Piper speaks, Christians listen. And in this case, it would be easy for me as a man to dismiss his voice as irrelevant out of disagreement and move on.  However, to do so would miss the point. Women continually live in the residue of this misguided theological trajectory that continues to deny women their calling to give voice and leadership to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

John Piper is a complementarian. That tradition suggests that the roles of men and women are compliments to one another and those roles are best not confused.  Men are to lead the church.  Women are capable of any number of meaningful roles, but not church leadership.  Drawing from a few proof texts in the Scriptures (I might note my tradition is not a proof-texting tradition), women are to remain quiet in church. Their voice is negated by “biblical mandate” and their position is subordinate to men.

I’m not inclined in this post to go through the biblical witness or theological tradition to which I belong that would enable me to say, “hogwash.” I could point to passages in Joel, the theological trajectory of the book of Acts, the historic-cultural context of patriarchalism of the Ancient World, the problem of Priscilla and Aquila, the ways in which Jesus continued to validate and empower women, the visible witness of anointing when I’ve listened to preachers like Tara Smith, Nina Gunter, Tara Beth Leach, Linsy Stockham, Aeromie Dockins, Danielle Strickland, Beth Moore and been impressed by the cutting edge leadership of people like Carla Sunberg, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Katie Hayes, Rachel Held Evans, Megan Pardue, and Robbie Cansler. Oh, I guess I just did what I said I wouldn’t do.


But for me as a man to simply blow off John Piper and move on would perpetuate the problem. It fails to acknowledge the injustice of such theological traditioning that continues to suppress women under the weight of nominal biblical evidence. It does nothing to name the residue of those theological errors and leaves women walking into classrooms and stepping onto platforms wondering who has already written them off.

I used to think, “They (people like Piper) have a different theological tradition than I do.” I would choose the cowardly means of non-engagement. I would choose the easy way out, “agree to disagree.” But what happens when that with which you disagree becomes an issue of justice and a betrayal of the image of God? What happens when that which you disagree is an attempt to quench the Spirit of God by denying the voice of the Spirit through women?  What if denial of the pulpit plays into the larger cultural story of a society that continues to invalidate women through denial of equal pay, endorses misogyny, and leaves women victim to oppressive encounters with power?

This isn’t something that should be easily blown-off and passed by.  That’s too easy.  Especially for me.  I’m a 6’3, 280lb white, middle-class, protestant, college-educated, veteran, former college-football playing MALE.  I’m the one just about every system in America is designed for.  It’s too easy for me to blow things off and think they don’t matter.

You know why?  Simply because they don’t matter to me.

Well, this matters! I’ve had a wake-up call. Denial of a woman’s voice is an injustice and stands contrary to God’s imago dei. We must, those of us that believe in the equitable voice of the Spirit, call into question those that continue to perpetuate the fallacy of invalidity.  We must empower women in local leadership. We must call on the carpet those churches in our traditions that validate the right of a woman to preach but wouldn’t consider a woman for a lead pastor role because they “wouldn’t be comfortable with that.” We need to ask God to raise up more women church planters, affirming and encouraging (and financially investing) in their apostolic gifts, those who will offer alternative contexts of pastoral leadership and communal equality. 

We need to stand up and speak up. 

WHOOPS!  There I did it. Did you see that, I just projected and got all preachy?

I NEED TO DO THAT! I need to ensure it starts with me. Just because I regularly call women on staff at my church doesn’t mean I’ve adequately validated their space or listened well as they’ve negotiated the residue and outright resistance of those that would seek to tell them they aren’t worthy. I must become a vocal advocate, an empowering leader, a keen listener, and an engaged activist. I can’t blow it off.  It’s too easy and makes me part of the problem.