August 2011

Reflections from a Christian Conference

This week I have been attending a church leadership conference on discipleship in Atlanta with several others from Bridgewood. As always with conferences, the content is what motivates you to attend but invariably it is the personal connections that you make with people that most indelibly impact your life. At least that has been true for me this time around.

It always encourages me to meet the young leaders, both men and women, whom God is raising up. It seems to me this generation of leadership possesses a level of focus and passion that is disarming in their pursuit of bringing the gospel to the places that God is sending them. I’ve met several young couples who have moved into inner city neighborhoods with the express purpose of identifying wholeheartedly with them in order to befriend them and reach them for Christ.

We did some discipleship role playing in small groups yesterday and I was with two of these young men. It was a great learning experience and I am convinced that I took much more away from their wisdom and ways in the discipling process than they did from me. The most impacting thing for me however was their confession that their generation of leaders is crying for “gray hairs” to walk along side them and be mentors. One of the guys told me that in his city he knows of numerous young pastors looking men just like me to relate to. I looked in the mirror last night before I went to bed thinking they must have mistaken my sun bleached blond hair for gray but I was encouraged by their comment none the less.

The other thing about connecting with people at conferences is the opportunity to hear stories of God’s amazing intervention in people’s lives. Last night there was a reception at the host pastor’s home which provided another more intimate setting to visit with people. I met a pastor from Haiti, Jean Claude, who also has sun bleached blonde hair like myself. He told his incredible story of survival from the horrendous January 2010, Haitian earthquake. He had just pulled up in his car between a large hotel and its parking ramp in downtown Port au Prince when the earthquake hit. The floors of those buildings along with nearly every other building collapsed like stacks of pancakes but he was mercifully spared.

His concern turned to church where his wife and nearly one hundred children were located. Again, God spared them all. When that multistory building was shaken miraculously the bottom two floors only collapsed half way leaving space for everyone to escape unharmed.

I asked him about his home. Again he had an intriguing story to tell. When he began building his home in the early 1980s he first consulted a geologist. The geologist advised him not build where he originally was considering because it was on the earthquake fault line that runs through Port au Prince. Unfortunately all the major government buildings in town were constructed on that fault line and perished in the quake. He also advised Jean to lay his foundation on bed rock. Jean did just as he advised. He found a safer location, dug down ten feet to bedrock and constructed a foundation wall that was over three feet thick. When the earthquake hit, his house was the only one standing in his entire neighborhood

My Ideal Church Service

When you meet together, one will sing, another will teach, another will tell some special revelation God has given, one will speak in tongues, and another will interpret what is said. But everything that is done must strengthen all of you. 1 Corinthians14:26 (NLT)

Seasoned church attenders can hold their own with any other Monday morning quarterback when it comes to critiquing how the worship, preaching and other special teams did. People who have attended church for any length of time know what they like and don’t like about church services. The problem is most pastors, like coaches, don’t listen to church talk radio where their loyal fans vent their frustrations and dispense their advice – so things seldom change.

The church services in the traditional, the liturgical and even the evangelical church worlds are basically all the same and have not changed for centuries. They follow a predictable order and format. Corporate participation is limited to the recitation of prescribed song lyrics, scripture texts and/or prayers. Individual expressions are assigned to trained and rehearsed worship leaders, service leaders and pastors, who typically are clergy professionals. Fellowship, before or after the service, and the 7th inning greeting are the only really unscripted parts of the gathering.

The game plan for most church services goes like this. They open with worship, have announcements, take an offering accompanied by special music, preach a message and close with prayer and/or a benediction. Communion and other special elements are inserted typically between worship and the message, as the particular week or season of the year require. Some churches alter that order and the time allotted for each, but basically that is the typical weekend service across America and the world.

As a pastor, veteran of thousands of church services and secret listener to church talk radio I have given much thought to this predicament.

At the crux of the problem are two challenges. First, how do we make room in our services for the unscripted, unpredictable leading of the Holy Spirit? And secondly, how do we make our services more participatory and give greater expression to the priesthood of every believer.

Being civil in an uncivil world

“You’re an idiot and you talk too slow!” the talk radio host blurted out as he hung up on the caller. He hadn’t even let the guy on the phone finish his question, a reasonable question, before refusing to consider it, insult the man and move on to his next caller, someone the screener now made sure agreed with the political views of the show host. I do not listen often to talk radio, particularly political talk radio, except to monitor from time to time what the hot topics of the day are.

That exchange, which I heard recently, epitomized for me the polarization in our nation right now, not only politically, but also ethically and religiously.

That divisive and acrimonious spirit is demonstrated by an incivility and a refusal to dialogue constructively or offer any real effort at resolving our differences. Sadly, the state of civil discourse in our land has fallen on hard times. We have political parties who cannot work together to solve our budget issues. We have lock-outs and walk-outs, firings and hirings based on political persuasions, and protests and litmus tests for those who don’t agree with us.

What is it that keeps us from coming to the table with mutual respect to seek answers together as to what divides us? There are no ready, all inclusive answers to that question. In part however, it is that we have categorized those who disagree with us as the enemy. When someone is the “enemy” we hesitate to have civil discourse with them lest we appear to be compromising our convictions, acknowledging our weakness or surrendering to their point of view. And so we fall into the trap of doing what author G.K. Chesterton termed setting up “false devils” by labeling as evil those who disagree with us, thereby dismissing anything they have to say. Therefore, if they are an “idiot” why spend any time talking to them?

When I took logic in college I was warned about the ad hominem fallacy. In general that debate tactic is an attempt to negate the truth of a person’s claim by pointing out a negative characteristic in the person advocating it. For instance, if a person talks or sounds funny, we choose not to listen because we don’t like the way they are saying it – e.g. they “talk too slow. ”

The “false devil” characterization like setting up a false god, invariably leads us astray. We cut ourselves off from hearing and seeing what God may want to reveal to us about them or through them.

Entertaining Angels Without Knowing It

Most of us do not think much about angels, much less look for their presence in our lives. But that does not mean that they are not looking for us and actively engaged in helping us. Contrary to some caricatures, they are not rosy cherubs floating on clouds carrying harps. They are servants of God, indued with His power and authority and sent to earth to serve His people and His purposes.

Although in some cases they appear as angels, frequently they take on human form. In the Bible we read of the appearances in person of majestic angels like Gabriel. (Luke 1) Those kind of angelic visitations are unmistakable and awe inspiring. Modern day accounts from those whom have had the privilege of seeing angels in person confirm this. But most of the time angels travel incognito and unless the Lord reveals their identity to us we are unaware of their identity. God clues us in to this in the book of Hebrews. We are told that some strangers who come into our lives may actually be angels. (Hebrews 13:2) Imagine having an encounter with an angel and not realizing it until afterward. There were people in the Bible, likeLot, who had that experience. He met two men in the public square, offered them shelter for the night and they turned out to be two angels sent by God to rescue him and his family before the destruction ofSodom.

Last week was a flurry of activity for my wife and I and our extended family. We all were involved to some degree in preparing for the big Saturday departure of our daughter Annie for a two year teaching commitment in Turkey. Such partings are always fraught with emotion, last “good” good-byes and prayers for protection.

Our other two daughters, Sarah and Carrie, took Annie out for a farewell luncheon on Thursday. All three have traveled extensively. Over lunch, as they compared travel notes, they discovered each of them had an angel story to tell. All three of them shared how a stranger had come into their lives, at a critical time of need in their travels.

The box pew mentality

Last Friday I spent a day in Boston sightseeing with relatives. Our major focus was what is called the Freedom Trail with sites that trace the history of American Independence and the start of the Revolutionary War. The trail begins at Boston Common and ends atBunker Hill and is actually marked by a red brick line set right in the sidewalk pavement. Along the way a person can visit places where the Boston Massacre and Boston Tea Party took place, Faneuil Hall, Paul Revere’s House, Old North Church and Old Ironsides.

For me, the most fascinating stop on the tour was the Old North Church. Old North which is formally called Christ Church in Boston was built as an Anglican Church in 1723 and is the oldest standing church inBoston. From its steeple on the night of April 18, 1775, the “one if by land, two if by sea” warning signal was given of the march of the British towardLexington andConcord. Paul Revere made his historic midnight ride to alert the minutemen and the next morning the “shot heard ‘round the world” signaled the start of the Revolutionary War.

Old North ChurchWhat really struck me were the pews. They are box pews, which were common in colonial New England. Box pews basically segment the church into compartments defined by five foot high walls and are large enough to accommodate an entire family with benches along two of the walls.

Church seating often reveals much about the nature and quality of the worship experience that is expected. How seats are arranged is deeply influenced by the desired level of formality or informality of the liturgy and architectural restrictions in seating a large group of people so that they can see and hear a speaker. In recent years we have come to recognize the limitations of traditional seating arrangements when it comes to encouraging relationship building and fellowship. That is why, with our rows of pews or chairs, we often joke about fellowshipping the back of one another’s necks and talk about the necessity of participating in small group gatherings beyond the confines of the Sunday morning worship experience.

In researching the history and purpose of the box pew I found it to be a prophetic foreshadowing and caricature of our present day Sunday church service. It is theorized that the pew walls resulted from the fact that early churches were not heated and the walls minimized drafts serving to keep the occupants relatively warm in winter. Families typically would sit together. Members of the congregation had to purchase their pews and pay a yearly rental to maintain them. Different pews had different prices depending upon their location. Those on the center aisle and near the front fetched a higher price. It entitled the owner exclusive use of that pew and in some churches the pew boxes were even furnished and decorated to their owner’s tastes.

Where families sat indicated their social status and so

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