Monday, January 30, 2012

Christianal


I want to share with you an incredible opportunity I had this past week. On Tuesday I was honored to be asked to be a conference preacher for the Princeton Theological Seminary Youth Forum in Santa Barbara, California. Previous luminary speakers at this event have included the great theologian/ethicist, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the more recent spokesman for poverty and global justice issues, Shane Claiborne. How I got invited to present at this conference is beyond me, however, I was of course honored to be asked.

The title of my talk was; "Being a Christianal Church." And the main theme I presented was a single word which has been the hallmark of our entire ministry at Highlands Church, and a concept which I believe has profound implications for successful youth ministry. That word is;

Christianal

Christianalism = "A church where the language of the outsider becomes the language of the inside of the church." If you have never encountered this term, don't worry, you aren't behind the times, we at Highlands invented the word. However, the more the term gets employed and used, the more excited I become about it's potential.

What is Christianalism? Well, if you are a follower of the most recent trends in Christian outreach and evangelism you know that the most popular current word and totem of church health is "Missional." Missionalism is, of course, a very successful movement which was started by Alan Roxburgh ("Missional, Meeting God in the Neighborhood"), and more recently the Biblical scholar and pastoral leadership expert, Reggie McNeil, and it suggests that what churches need to do is to see themselves less as centers of worship, centers of church, centers of God for the community, but instead to leave the church walls behind and to see what God is doing "out there." In the words of Alan Roxburgh in a recent video interview on Church Next, "missionalism is riding the waves that God creates in the community, rather than always striving to attract people to the church." Missionalism flies happily in the face of 2,000 years of Christian history and doctrine which has generally seen the church as the bastion, the nucleus, the center of all things God. In other words, "they must come to us, if they want what we have...God."

Highlands Church was almost completely "missional" when it began 7 years ago. I hosted weekly Bible studies in pizza restaurants, we had NFL flag football camps instead of Vacation Bible School classes, we had movie's under the stars in public parks, our Sunday morning worship met in a movie theater. We were a living, breathing example of a missional church. Interestingly, what we experienced was that there was something ineffably missing from the church experience. What we saw was that there were two churches emerging at Highlands Church. Their was the "the missional Highlands", and "the churchy Highlands."

But then, about 4 years ago, we asked ourselves a strategic question. What if we take "missionalism" one step further? What if instead of simply meeting God in the neighborhood, in the words of Roxburgh, we instead had the neighborhood come to us? But not just the neighborhood, what if the neighborhood all came with all of who they were? What if they came with all their "stuff?" What we asked ourselves was; "What if the language of the outsider becomes the language of the insider? What if the language of the outside (when I say language I mean that term broadly, ie: what if all the ways that people relate, speak, dialogue, recreate, communicate), becomes the language of the inside. What if, (gulp...) we become a little bit like them, so that they might become a little bit like Christ. And that, my friends is;

Christianalism

Obviously, there are a lot of nuances and important facets of Christianalism. If you are a Christianal church, you must be very, very clear about what your essentials are (what things you won't change for outsiders). For us, that has been a focus on the centrality of Christ, the authority of scripture, an adherence to the Reformed tradition (sovereignty of God), and a regular self-checking mechanism of, "did that work, was that effective?" Also, being a "Christianal" church doesn't mean you have to get a fog machine and have a laser show in church (although, in certain settings it might). Christianalism for a traditional church might simply mean adopting some of the linguistic nuances of the outsider. For example, instead of saying, "Let us worship God" to start worship, you might say, "Let's worship God." Simple, but oh so important!

And, as I said to the Princeton Youth Forum; "Christianalism" is not for every church. However, it has been a key to our ability to be used by the Holy Spirit to change lives at Highlands Church. It has been a key to hundreds of adult baptisms, and countless little "metanoya's" (repentances, turning towards God). And we believe that Christianalism can be a transformative agent for churches everywhere, within a larger conversation about change and an epoch of transformation and reformation by the Holy Spirit.

All For Now,
GB


Monday, January 23, 2012

ECO is Exciting


I just returned from a conference called "The Fellowship", in Orlando, Florida, where 2,000+ Evangelical Presbyterians gathered for the purpose of determining the next steps for our wing of our struggling denomination - the PC (USA). Honestly, since I attended the previous meeting of this group in Minnesota, and found that conference a slight bit more pugnacious (Think Ali and Frazier...) than I would have liked, I was not looking forward to my trip. However, I can say that I found this conference very refreshing, and have come home replenished and dare I say renewed.

The main purpose of the meeting was to lay out the ground work for a new denominational structure, to be linked in some ways to the PC (USA), called ECO. ECO is short for the Evangelical Covenantal Order. Stop, I know what you're thinking. ECO sounds like the name of a marsupial from an Amazonian rain forest. So, let's leave the name aside for a moment, since the full acronym you will surely find even more distasteful - ECOOP; The Evangelical Covanental Order of Presbyterians. Can anyone say, dot com? But, I can honestly say that at first glance, at least for me;

ECO is Exciting!

ECO is exciting for a lot of reasons. First, I have always wanted to be a part of something new in the world of religion. The search for newness is why I went into New Church Devleopment and started Highlands Church. Of course, not everything that is new is positive. As the Middle Eastern Scholar Ken Bailey once said, "If it's new it's not true, if it's true it's not new." However, newness can often be a sign of God's replenishing, refreshing power. The book of Jeremiah says, "See, I am doing a NEW thing. Now it springs up. Do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert, and streams in the wasteland." (Is. 43:19). If there was ever a time for a way in the current desert of denominational quagmire, that time was now.

Second, I really respect the leadership of ECO. John Ortberg gave the launching sermon of this new denomination in Orlando, and, in my opinion, struck the perfect balance of intelligent vision and doctrinal depth, "I want to be a part of a denomination that likes to read great books...and also believes in a place called hell." He said it better than the way I just did, and a viewing of John's sermon is worth the time (here is the weblink to the sermon; http://www.fellowship-pres.org/). One of the perceived problems I have found with PC (USA) is it's consistent aversion to any sort of concrete doctrinal theology. And on the flip side, one of the perceived problems I have found with the EPC (Evangelical Presbyterian Church), is it's sometime lack of thoughtfulness and engagement about the world in which we live. ECO seems to be a middle of the road option, a via media, between these two polar extremes.

It of course remains to be seen what the full manifestation of ECO might look like. It also is uncertain how things will begin to pan out for the PC (USA). However, for the time being, I can honestly say that;

ECO is Exciting!

All For Now,
GB

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Sun Shines on Tim Tebow and Tom Brady


I am sorry, but I can't resist. The matchup this past weekend between Tim Tebow, the self-appointed boy-prophet of the Denver Broncos football team, and Tom Brady, long time play-boy quarterback of the New England Patriots, is too tantalizing to pass up. Commenting on this matchup is especially interesting this weekend since the Broncos lost to the Patriots in a very lopsided, near rout, in a game whose score was 45-10.

Also, every other religious figure in the country has thus far weighed in on Tim Tebow and his faith, and his demonstrative expression of that faith, in every single press conference available to him. The list of religious commentators of Tim Tebow, at this point, includes, among others, Pat Robertson, Joel Ostein, Rick Warren, Joyce Meyers and John Hagee. So, here is my own take on Tim Tebow, be it ever so much less elevated than my other colleagues in ministry:

The Sun Shines on both Tim Tebow and Tom Brady

I have, like everyone of good conscience, enjoyed a few aspects of Tim Tebow's national religious attention, but struggled with many more of them. First, the good things about it all. In a world of NFL superstars, where football players often make more money in one year than some third world countries gross in annual GDP, Tim Tebow has been a refreshing voice and face. It requires a kind of deep courage to stand against the flash bulbs of fame and fortune, and smile week in and week out, whether winning or losing, and declare one's faith in God. Well done, Tim! The attention that Tim has given to "family's in need" has been admirable. Tim Tebow, whether he continues in his football career or not after this season, will go down as a kind of modern day Eric Liddell (famed sprinter from the movie Chariots of Fire) - athlete/Christian. Every time Tim; "ran, he felt the Lord's pleasure."

The more concerning aspects of the Tebow attention have been the assumptions that the world has made about Christianity in general. After watching Tim Tebow's ham handed, south pawed throw, in the final minutes of a game last week, I heard one observer say, "Well, maybe there really is something about this God." The difficulty is that what we believe as Christ followers, in the Reformed tradition at least, is that; "God makes his sun to shine on the righteous and the unrighteous, and God sends His rain on the righteous and the unrighteous." (Matt: 5:43-48). Realizing that Tim Tebow and Tom Brady have become archetypes of good and evil, and that, of course, both men have the capacity for both good and evil (aka: Tim Tebow is both righteous and unrighteous, just like all of us, and that Tom Brady is both righteous and unrighteous, just like all of us), we might be prone to rephrase Jesus' dictum in this way;

"God makes the sun to shine on Tim Tebow and Tom Brady, and God makes his rain to fall on Tim Tebow and Tom Brady."

In other words, the evidence of God's grace and light and truth and provision and favor are not always born out in the appearances of the lives of God's followers. When the Apostle Paul was nearly killed by his followers in Lystra and Derbe, it did not appear that God was with him. When Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for her faith, there was nobody around shouting, "Well, maybe there really is something about this God." Most of the time, when God acts on our behalf, most of the rest of the world would not interpret those actions as a sign of God's providence. This is not to say that God does not notice or appreciate our righteousness, but rather that the way God bestows His approval and appreciation of that righteousness is not always in the context of a "win."

Very often, actually, I have found that God bestows his approval and love and grace in me through one of my losses. Like Paul, God has begun to make me, "more perfect through my weaknesses."

The deeper and more intriguing question, I suspect for our friend Tim Tebow will be how God loves Tim even when he does not win. The more probing point will be how God works in Tim's life even when his season comes to an abrupt end, on a cold grid-iron in the bosom of New England. Personally, I will pray that this next season of faith for Tebow will be as rich as the last.

All for Now,
GB

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Kingdom Bustin'


In exactly one week I will be flying to Orlando, Florida to meet with a group called The Fellowship to discuss the dissolution/reformation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) as we know it [FYI, Highlands Church is currently a New Church Development member of the PC USA]. Gathering with me at this meeting will be thousands of other pastors and church leaders who are, on their face, upset about recent changes regarding ordination standards for church leaders as well as being disgruntled about a new form of government (NFOG) that has just been put in place. Beneath the surface of this group's displeasure lies a much deeper feeling of general dislocation from the heart of the Presbyterian denomination and it's power mechanisms. The underlying issue is really more about a sense of not being on the same page as the leadership of the denomination. As one recent church articulated it, "We haven't left them, they have left us."

On the one hand, this meeting seems like it might be one of the most depressing gatherings I have been to in a long time. The concept of the Presbyterian Church dissolving, a place where my family has moored it's proverbial ministerial canoes for the past four generations, seems very sad. On the other hand, one of the things I have learned in my eleven years of ordained ministry is that wherever there is division, wherever there is dissolution, wherever there is the evidence if "bustin' things up", there is often the presence of God. I have come to call it;

Kingdom Bustin'

Last week I preached a message based on Barnabas and Paul's call to an early Christian refugee camp called Antioch. Barnabas and Paul would teach at Antioch for about a year, but then, an incredible thing happened, God "busted up" that call. Paul and Barnabas left Antioch to bring the gospel to the cities of the Mediterranean Ocean, the world as they knew it. Paul and Barnabas' mission trip was extremely successful, and people from many different cultures and countries were brought to Christ. But then another incredible thing happened, God "busted up" the relationship between Paul and Barnabas. While we will never know exactly what happened, we know that Paul and Barnabas parted ways - in the words of Luke who wrote Acts, "They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company." (Acts 15:39). Luke may have called it a disagreement, but I think know what really was going on. It was an example of;

Kingdom Bustin'

Perhaps God wanted Paul to form up with Silas and take another missionary journey. Perhaps God wanted Paul and Silas to go to Cyprus.

One of the most painful experiences of my entire life was when my brother Jamie and I had to part ways at Highlands Church. For those who don't know, Jamie was a founding pastor with me at Highlands from the very beginning. While the details of our separation are better left to history and the past, and while no ongoing anger or resentment between us exists, I have wondered for a long time now, in my heart what really happened. However, time and God have have come to help me understand the situation in a different way. God might have been up to

Kingdom Bustin'

God may have wanted Jamie to go to seminary and work for a different church. God may have wanted me to rely on my own leadership strengths, for a while, and dig deeper, rather than to lean so much on Jamie for moral support.

There are, of course, many examples of separation and dissolution in life that have nothing to do with God. The separation that happens in marriages more often than not (divorce) is not God's plan for our lives. The separation that happens in countries when civil wars break out is not at the heart of God's plans. The separations that occur in Washington between political parties (gridlock) is not God authored. Not all separations/dissolutions are of God.

But many dissolutions and separations are a part of God's plan. As we contemplate the dissolution of the Presbyterian Church USA, a denomination that has existed in one form or another since the founding of this country - the PC USA founded in 1777, it could be that God is dividing up the Presbyterian Church somehow for His own unique and inexplicable purposes. It may be that we are witnessing yet another example of;

Kingdom Bustin'

All For Now,
GB



Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Let God Do Your New Year's Resolutions


I run into the same problem every year. Every year I compose a list of resolutions for myself on or around the January 1, the New Year. These resolutions are usually comprised of both lofty aspirations for my professional life as well as deeply engrained discipleship measures for my personal life (like not cussing so much, even though that's not one of them, or if it was, I couldn't tell you, because then I would have to kill you., er sumpin.) I usually feel better after writing these resolutions, as if I had actually accomplished them by the very act of writing them - did I mention that I am a "list person"? Every year this list gets composed (committed to memory, lest anyone should ever find the written record and hold my resolutions against me). But then, sometime before Easter, usually before the yard arm crosses the calendar on the beginning of Lent, the same thing always happens. I forget my lofty intentions, I lay aside my aspirational goals, I waylay my elevated aspirations, I dismiss my well intended attempts, I put aside my...New Year's Resolutions.

So, this year I am going to try something different. I'm going to let God do my New Year's Resolutions. I'm going to let God decide what resolutions I should have, I'm going to let God put my resolutions before me, I'm going to let God remind me when my resolutions get forgotten. I'm not going to do my New Year's Resolutions...God is.

And this isn't a cop out. In my thirty-nine years of living (gulp 40 is knocking at my door), I have never been able to accomplish anything of real worth on my own. The more I try to better myself, the further I get from my goal. The more I attempt to elevate my soul, the more full of pride I become. Actually, the very act of making resolutions for me can be a way of sabotaging myself before I even begin. Resolutions are usually a compilation of the things that "I" want to accomplish, rather than God.

One of my favorite scenes from C.S. Lewis' Narnia tales is when the character Eustace, from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, tries to shed the dragon scales that he has acquired over the years. Through his constant unkindness to other Eustace essentially turns into a dragon. But then, Eustace realizes that he does not want to be a dragon anymore, so he begins to scratch and claw at himself, to get the scales to come off. Eustace tries and tries and tries, but he cannot take off his scales. They are like the skin of a snake, and always grow back, after he tries to remove them. Finally Aslan, the lion and Christ figure, arrives on the scene. "You will have to let me undress you," said Aslan, "you will have to let me remove your scales." Aslan continues, "for only when I take off your scales can you really be free." Aslan pulls off Eustace's scales - one by one. It is a very painful process. Each scale hurts as it is removed. But when the scales are finally all removed, Eustace becomes a little boy again. Eustace is free!

This year I am going to let Aslan take off my dragon scales. And, I'm going to let God do my New Year's resolutions. It may be a more painful process, but in the end, I know it will be the only way to have my personal changes last.

All For Now,
GB