Friday, October 30, 2015

Ecclesia semper reformanda: What We Should Learn from the Protestant Reformation

Tomorrow night I will gather my kids--two of which will be dressed as a gymnast and Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens---and visit a downtown area near our central Maryland home on the only night of the year in which it is culturally appropriate to allow your kids to beg strangers for unhealthy food.  For most in our culture, October 31 is merely that: a fun holiday that consists of costumes, candy, and haunted hay rides.

But for the church, October 31 marks a major turning point in our history, and provides lessons to us today.  498 years ago tomorrow night, a German monk gathered his parchment, a hammer and a nail, and ignited a movement that would spread like wildfire throughout Europe

The story begins in Medieval Rome.  The doctrinal integrity of the medevial Church was at a breaking point.  Cultural syncretism over the centuries had all but led to a complete loss of ecclesiological identity, which by the 1500s was also accompanied by rampant immorality throughout the Empire, enabled by the church.  Every kind of moral evil, from the visiting of prostitutes by priests to the fleecing of the poor and marginalized, was taking place in the "holy city."

Into this context, in the year 1500, walks an unwitting German monk named Martin Luther.  For most of his life, this young man had longed to see Rome; the fountainhead from which he believed his faith flowed.  But what he saw when he arrived shocked him to the core.  His stomach was turned by the sexual immorality he witnessed.  But Luther was more offended by the way the poor and marginalized were treated by those who claimed to be the representatives of Jesus on earth.  The system of indulgences that had been set up by the church to raise money for St. Peter's Basilica created an environment where the rich could sin as much as they wanted, while the poor not only lived in poverty, but also under the constant threat of eternal damnation. The young monk so enraptured with thoughts of visiting the holy city would later be quoted as saying "if there is a hell, Rome is built over it!"

Shaken to the core, Luther would ponder his experiences in Rome for the next seven years.  But by 1507, the escalation of the abuse of the indulgences, and the extension of these abuses into more remote areas outside Rome by Tetzel's preaching would compel Martin Luther to face the corruption head on.  And face it he did, through a document that you and I now know as the 95 theses--nailed to the door of a Wittenburg castle 498 years ago tomorrow.  Though initially written to reform the Roman church from within, Luther would eventually come to learn that the immorality and abuse he was witnessing was enabled by twisted theology that held the edicts of the church as a greater authority than the commands of the Lord of the church.  Medevial Rome was preaching a counterfeit Gospel, and it was time for the true church to separate herself and rise from the ashes.  The Protestant Reformation had begun.

For those who would soon be called "Lutherans," this reformation culminated in the Augsburg Confession (1530).  For other groups who joined Luther's followers in the break from medieval Catholicism, subsequent confessions of faith would be written--each of which would proclaim themselves as the "true church" over against the Catholicism out of which they had just emerged.   The fires of the Protestant Gospel spread throughout Europe, and established itself within two generations on the complementary foundations of the priesthood of all believers and open access by all people to the Scriptures, which at this time were being translated into the various lingua franca employed around the world.

The Gospel had been recovered, and it was time to move forward.  Unfortunately, the Reformers maintained their posture of critique, and the horrific result is mourned to this day by Baptists who know their history well--as it was our theological ancestors who would bear the brunt of their persecution.  What motivated these continued inquisitions depends on which historian you talk to, but the use of political tactics--and force--to silence dissent were commonplace throughout this period of history, and included the execution of those who held different views.

The big idea is this:  by the end of the Reformation period, the church had recovered the heart of the Gospel, but instead of seeking to spread that Gospel across the world, they maintained a posture of critique, suspicion, and paranoia that at times crossed the line into violence.  As a result, Protestants would ultimately--and legitimately--be accused of violating Jesus' "prime directive," as the Catholic theologian Erasmus suggested to Luther that these new Protestants couldn't possibly be the true church, because they had no missionaries.

To be sure, no period of Christian history proves that sometimes, Jesus' followers are Jesus' biggest problem so much as the Reformation period.  Two corollary messages rise from these events:

1. Truth is Immortal.  What Luther eventually discovered in those days leading up to the assembly at Augsburg is that a counterfeit message produces counterfeit disciples.  While maintaining what would be considered historically essential to orthodoxy (Belief in a Trinitarian Godhead, the deity of Jesus, and the necessity of salvation through His death and resurrection), the medieval church had hidden the Gospel behind centuries of syncretized tradition which, by the 16th century, was of great benefit to Rome's ecclesial institutions, but counterproductive to the spread of Jesus' message globally.  In short, the Gospel was not preached with clarity, nor was it applied consistently to Catholic followers.  The result was an immoral, greedy, self-centered church that sought the advance of its influence through power, and the intimidation of the marginalized.  Ideas, as the late Francis Schaefer was fond of saying, have consequences.

By the time of the Augsburg Confession, Martin Luther had come to realize that the dastardly and oppressive actions of the church were the natural result of the bastardized "Gospel" being proclaimed by the 16th century Roman Church.  If October 31, 1517 reminds us of nothing else, it should remind us that actions flow from our true beliefs.

Want to live a lie?  Then simply start believing and proclaiming lies, and you are well on your way.  On this day, the church is well-served by remembering that Truth, as revealed ultimately in Jesus Christ as He is revealed in Scripture alone, is the starting point for any true church.  Without it, even those who claim to follow Jesus will devolve into a 16th century Catholic-style oppression, or a Word of Faith style materialism, or an emergent-style relativism.  Our Gospel determines not only what we say, but how we live.  We'd better be sure we have the right one!

2. Truth Has a Purpose.  Truth is supposed to be spread, not "guarded" to the point that we spend more time arguing about its content than we do spreading its hope.  Protestant Christians of every tribe need to remember that not everything in our DNA is healthy.  More particularly, we need to remember that while our ancestors--including Luther whom we all hold in common--rightly began this movement with a strong critique of Roman Catholicism, a recovered Gospel does no good if we merely maintain a posture of critique and as a result continue to fight over minutiae.  Erasmus was right: no church can truly be the church without a missionary impetus that seeks to make Jesus more widely known.  Furthermore, a clear understanding of sola gratia means that we will not approach non-Christians with the presumption that we are the sole monopolizers of God's message.  Instead, we are what D.T. Niles once claimed: beggars sharing enthusiastically with other beggars where we have found bread.

It would take a separate post--or perhaps more than one--to point out the flaws of Martin Luther, because he had plenty of them.  But on days like today, I'm thankful for the legacy God gave us through Luther's fiery ministry--Scripture in the language of the people, the priesthood of all believers, and the non-negotiable element of saving faith--that it comes by faith alone in a crucified, resurrected Savior.  We too, are imperfect people, prone to wander from our intended missional path onto side-roads of dissension that keep us from the more effective spread of Jesus' message.  As we reflect on the historic significance of this day and the theological axioms we've been given through it, perhaps we should ask ourselves the following questions:

sola scriptura: Have you drank deeply lately of the very Word of God, which has now been available in your language for many centuries?

sola fide Have you shared your ultimate hope in Jesus with others?  When was the last time this took place?

sola gratia Have you approached non-Christians, not as an autonomous knower who is better than they, but instead as a trophy of the grace of God?

sola Christo Have you shared with others the identity of Jesus with clarity, and without so much of the western cultural baggage that weights-down His image?

soli Deo gloria Have you given God the glory for how he has worked through imperfect people throughout history, and for how He has worked through you?

Such questions honor the spirit of the Protestant cry expressed 400 years later by Karl Barth; Ecclesia semper reformanda.  The church, always reforming.  May our Lord continue to reform us, and by doing so empower us for the global work to which He has called us.

Monday, October 26, 2015

On Meetings that Should have been Emails: How to Avoid Time Wasters

"I survived another meeting that should have been an email."

One day, I'm going to market T-shirts with this message on the front.  Something tells me they will sell!

When you are in ministry, the requests for meetings seem endless, and I've known too many pastors over the years who feel as though they spent the prime years of their lives attending meetings that accomplished little or nothing.  Time management is a huge issue for today's pastor, and nothing wastes time like an unnecessary meeting--whether that meeting is with an individual, or a group.

Still the requests come, and the calendar is often filled with "standing meetings."  So how do you know when to make yourself available, and when to just say "no"?

What follows are some ways to recognize the various "time-wasters" who will want your attention, and a few principles for making necessary meetings more efficient.

In my experience, there are three predominant types of time wasters:

The Clueless:  These tend to be the most innocent of the bunch, mostly because they never seem able to nail down a specific purpose for wanting your attention.  "I need to have a meeting with you," is their very simple and typical approach.  When you ask them what they want to address, the best they can usually come up with is something general.  "Oh, I just want to talk with you about what's happening in my life/marriage/ministry."  Usually, its less specific than this, which means when you finally meet, you will likely talk about nothing substantive.

While you may think yourself compassionate for enabling their ambiguity, the reality is that by granting said meeting, you are feeding the myth that your mere presence and casual conversation will actually accomplish something for this person.

Be forewarned:  Once you start to draw tighter lines around when you grant a meeting, the clueless will be offended.  Usually, this is due to their perception that you are there to "be their friend." Truth is, I have many friends who also happen to be either co-workers, or co-laborers in our churches.  But I'm not paid for my friendship.  I'm paid to lead, and this same principle is true regardless of your field of employment.  Don't fall prey to the clueless time-waster.  Instead, keep on course with what you are called to do.  And in the process, you might help them more than you or they realize--mostly by helping them get a clue.

The Unmotivated:  I've had many coaching relationships over the years.  Most I look back on with fondness and thankfulness.  But a few I simply look back on in frustration, because they did not use my time wisely.

I remember one young man who would ask to meet with me every couple of weeks.  We mapped out a "life plan" for his twenties that included the completion of his wedding plans with his fiance, eliminating his student loan debt, buying a home, and securing a church family for he and his new bride.  A year later, he had accomplished precisely none of this, yet still wanted to meet with me to "talk about the plan."

Unmotivated people are in many ways like Bob Wiley from the movie "What About Bob?"  As portrayed by Bill Murray, Wiley was an agoraphobic and hypochondriac who never left his home--except to see his therapist!  For Bob Wiley, the therapist visit WAS the end game!  He never intended to improve his own life or get better.  As a result, he brought his therapists down with him.

Don't let the guy from "What About Bob" steal your time.  If there is no forward progress, stop taking meetings with them!

The Anthropocentric:  For most of human history we believed that we lived in a "geocentric" universe, where the Earth was at the center, and everything revolved around it.  Then the 17th century came along and with it, the Copernican revolution.  Because of our observations of space, we now know that we live in a "heliocentric" solar system, with the Sun at the center, and the Earth being merely one of nine planets that revolve around it.

The universe is a big place, and the earth now has more than 7 billion people on it.  And occasionally, you will meet someone in your work or ministry who thinks all those people revolve around them--including you!  This is the anthropocentric time-waster.

This is the caustic, self-centered individual who expects you to drop whatever you are doing whenever he or she calls.  My work load includes roughly 150 emails daily (those are just the ones that make it past my staff, who get hundreds more!), many, many phone conversations, and a professional calendar that tends to stay booked solid at least two weeks out.  If I abandon the routine that allows me to address all of this simply because of the demands of one person, I'm not being fair to others in our network.

This is the person who doesn't blink when you tell them "I'm unavailable at that time."  Its the person who responds to your list of availability with an "alternate" choice you haven't given them.

Anthropocentric time-wasters get you off track, and off mission, primarily by their constant demands for you to compromise your schedule, and constantly react to others as opposed to being intentional about moving forward and doing your job.  Don't let these people hijack your life.

I'm sure there are other categories of time-wasters that could be given here, but the three above broadly describe the various kinds of people you will encounter who can get you off track.  Once you have identified them, how do you deal with them?

Principle 1:  Written confirmation of meetings and their purpose.  Don't ever, ever set a meeting with someone without confirming what it is you hope to accomplish.  Agree together on the agenda and goals, and do it in writing!

Principle 2: Expectations as to meeting outcomes. This is simple mutual accountability.  At the end of every staff meeting, those who work for me take away assignments, and so does their boss!  We all walk away knowing there is an expectation on each of us that those assignments will be completed before our next meeting.  

To be a good steward of time, you can't just know what you want to get done during the meeting.  You must also know what actions are expected to be generated as a result of the meeting.

Principle 3:  Refusal of subsequent meetings until prior commitments have been met.  Don't let Bob Wiley get away with coming to you over and over again while he accomplishes nothing.  If after a limited number of times together, it appears the other party is intentionally spinning their wheels, turn them loose in the ditch!  Just because they have no desire to get out of it doesn't mean you must be stuck there with them.

This doesn't mean that you don't leave the door open for them to come back.  But it does mean you are putting expectations on them BEFORE they can come back.  Several times in response to requesting a meeting I have asked "Have you accomplished X and Y since we last met?"  If the answer is no, then my response is simple.  "Well, once you get that accomplished, give my office a call and I'll be glad to meet with you about the next steps."

Principle 4:  Don't let it get to you.  Ever been pulled over by a police officer?  I have, and I don't remember a single time when that officer threw himself across the hood of my car in a fit of emotion, or yelled at me, or abused me in any way simply because I was breaking the speed limit.  In every situation, he calmly walked up to my window with his ticket book opened, and asked for my drivers license.

Why?  Because in those situations, the officer had the authority and power.  And when you have authority and power, you don't need to spend your emotions.

Developing a habit to saying "no" to time-wasters so you can say "yes" more often to the organization as a whole will inevitably tick some people off.  They will be annoyed with you.  Some will get upset with you.  In those moments when the nasty emails come accusing you of "not thinking I'm important," don't give in to the guilt trip.  And a sure-fire way to know if you have given in to guilt is if you allow your emotions to get the better of you.

You have the authority over the time God has given you to manage on this earth.  You cannot cede that to people who are demanding, and you don't have to get angry or otherwise emotional with them.  Just be the officer with the ticket book.  Don't be afraid to calmly say "I'm unavailable"  or "we can't meet until you have......" or "we need to clarify our purpose for getting together."

I work primarily with pastors, and though I love them, pastors are the worst at allowing others to hijack the time God has given them.  Of course there are emergencies, and when those emergencies happen, you respond to your people with the pastoral care and concern that they need.  But you also need to know how to define "emergency."  Many pastors have no clue, and as a result, fall prey to the time-wasters, who subsequently restrain them from serving the entire church well.  Your church does not revolve around the most demanding congregants.  It revolves around Jesus.  Make sure you behave accordingly, and you will model Christ-centered time management for your people.

What about you?  Who are the "time-wasters" in your professional life that you have to watch out for, and how are you ensuring that you aren't allowing them to divert your attention and turn you into a time-waster too?

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Pastors as Peacemakers: Why You Should Join Me at the Spreading Peace Convocation

With Ayatollah Ahmad Iravani in 2013
"Bless those who persecute you.  Bless and do not curse them.  Rejoice with those who rejoice.  Weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another.  Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.  Never be wise in your own sight.  Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.  If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all."  -Romans 12:14-18, ESV

We evangelicals in the west are a bi-polar bunch.  We declare God's love for the whole world while simultaneously acting as though certain parts of the world--or certain peoples in that world--are exempt.  We recite the beatitudes as we throw unquestioned support behind war.  And when it comes to missions, we are all too happy to reach people just like us over here--and pay someone else to deal with the people we don't like over there.  Alan Hirsch sadly reports that 80% of the churches in North America are after the same 20% of the American population--that part of the population that has already been largely reached!

What I'm seeing in the world that is emerging are the actions of a God who is ready for us to actually obey Him!

Inexpensive travel, available technology and historically unprecedented global migration patterns mean that everyone now lives everywhere!  As a result, nearly every major city in North America is now an active experiment in how radically diverse worldviews and lifestyles can coexist in the same small space.  Globally, that means the prospect for increased tensions is higher.  Locally, that means the best way to alleviate those tensions is to get to know your neighbor--whoever they are!

This is precisely why I was honored to be invited to be part of the Spreading Peace Convocation this weekend, and why I'm taking a large number of our Network pastors with me.  Its because peace doesn't happen naturally.  It must be made.  And I believe faith leaders should be the catalysts for ensuring that our society doesn't devolve into unnecessary conflict.

This is most evident in the global relationship between Christians and Muslims.  Ignorance, distrust, and paranoia on both sides of this discussion have led to persecution, bigotry, and hatred of the worst kind.  A member of the Christian minority is persecuted or killed for his faith in Afghanistan.  Word quickly reaches American shores, and the result is bigotry and broad-brushing against muslims, which in turn increases violence overseas.  What happens here directly affects what happens there, which in turn affects what happens here.  This is a vicious cycle of violence, hatred and distrust that can only be stopped by faith leaders.

Thursday and Friday of this week, I will be part of the first ever national meeting between Evangelical pastors and Muslim imams who will stand together and say "enough!"  The meeting will culminate on Friday morning at the National Cathedral, when participants can sign a pledge to defend global religious freedom.

If you are a pastor, you should join us.  You won't have to compromise your faith in the least to be part of something like this.  In fact, this event may help you model for your people what it looks like to live out your faith in a multi-faith world.  We aren't coming together to pretend our differences don't exist.  (though I suspect the accusation of "promoting Chrislam" will be leveled by a few watch bloggers!)  The truth is that we all hold to very strong conviction.  I don't know of a single imam who will be in attendance who thinks I can get to heaven as long as I worship Jesus as God.  Conversely, there won't be a single evangelical pastor there who believes their Muslim friends can get to heaven unless they start worshipping Him as God!

This isn't a meeting to minimize differences.  Its a meeting where we commit not to kill each other over those differences!  We have an historic opportunity to clear up misunderstandings, alleviate stereotypes about each other, and commit together to a lasting peace.  That will require Muslim leaders in Muslim-majority nations committing to the protection of the religious minorities among them--including our Christian brothers and sisters.  It will also require Christian leaders here committing to stand against ignorance, stereotyping, and bigotry toward our Muslim neighbors--respecting religious freedom for all.

My friend Bob Roberts, who is coordinating this meeting, says it best:  The best way for a pastor to foster global peace in our time is to build a relationship with an imam!  Thursday night at the First Baptist Church of Glenarden, and Friday at the National Cathedral in Washington, you will have that opportunity.  Join us!

Monday, October 05, 2015

The Forest, the Trees, and the Future of Global Engagement

I do not envy David Platt.  At all.

One year into his tenure as the President of my denomination's global missions entity, the International Mission Board, Platt announced that fiscal realities would necessitate the "early retirement" of between 600 and 800 missions personnel.  For many years now, it seems the IMB has been draining reserves and selling global properties in order to maintain and build upon its efforts.  Yet in spite of significant increases in its Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and other streams of revenue, the Board was unable to close the gap, and is now in the process of offering Voluntary Retirement Incentives (VRIs) to missionaries over 50 who have served for a determined number of years.

It is always heartbreaking when fiscal realities mean you have to tell someone called by God to a mission vocation that you can no longer support their work.  Many of these folks who labor in the name of Jesus around the world are personal friends of mine, and over the past few weeks I've received multiple calls from IMB missionaries who may be, or have already been affected by these realities.

In the midst of these difficulties, its easy to play the role of armchair quarterback, and a number of Southern Baptists have been happy to fill that role--with many criticizing Platt and seeking to place the blame on him (though no one who looks honestly at the long history of this problem can do so), and others offering any number of other options to try and keep these faithful individuals on the field as well as IMB's payroll.  A few have also been quick to charge Southern Baptists with being "cheap."  Just give more money to Lottie and this issue can be solved!

Often, an institution's greatest strength also ends up being its greatest weakness, and I think its fair to say this is the case with the primary way my denomination has executed global missions for the last 150 years.  Every methodology will eventually reach a ceiling, and when it does, the temptation is to sit astride a stationary bike, and think if you just "peddle harder" you will get somewhere.  That's where we are where global engagement is concerned.  And to a large extent, this is because the world in which our delivery systems came into being no longer exists!

Simply put, the International Mission Board (as well as NAMB, all 42 state Conventions including the one that currently employs me, and all 1000 Baptist Associations) is a product of the modern missions movement.  A little over 200 years ago, William Carey unknowingly launched what would in just a few years become a behemoth missionary enterprise.  In 1780, with rare exception, if you traveled more than 150 miles from the north Atlantic Ocean, you would not find a Christian.  Carey and his contemporaries changed all of that--beginning with Carey's own use of "means," and continuing along the historical timeline with Hudson Taylor's emphasis on indigneity, William Cameron Townsend's contributions to linguistics, and Donald MacGavran's emphasis on the utilization of the social sciences.  These and many others built an effective missions delivery system that was equal to the modern world in which it was birthed.  It was a delivery system that included:

-An understanding of mission as a full-time vocational calling
-a large, capitalist funding base
-Organized efforts under "missionary corporations."
-Bifurcation between "domestic" and "international" missions

Then came a host of fresh challenges that stretched a century, and tested the limits of this delivery system:

-China's boxer rebellion
-Mao's cultural revolution
-The Great Depression in the United States
-The Rise of Communism in eastern Europe and Asia
-Rising tensions between the west and the predominantly Islamic middle-east
-The "Great Recession" of 2008

Restrictions on religious freedom and activity around the world resulted in a new phrase emerging in our missions vocabulary--the "closed country."  We actually believed that entire countries were "closed" to the Gospel.  And our recent financial squeeze coupled with the resistance we feel around the world toward our mission efforts leads us to believe that unless we figure out a way to pour more money into our existing system, our best days may be behind us.  Neither are true.

So today, we who care about taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth are tempted to sit in sorrow, and mourn a day we fear is passing.  The reality is that we lament our recent financial woes for exactly the same reason we see some countries and peoples as "closed."  Its because 200 years after the start of the modern missions movement, we equate successful accomplishment of the Great Commission with the financial perpetuity and global receptivity of our delivery system. The reality is that the biggest barrier to the spread of our 2000-year-old message may very well be that 200-year-old delivery system.  From his grave, William Carey must be shaking his head.

This is why I was excited to hear that David Platt spoke of "widening the funnel" at the last meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention.  Because there is simply no way to reach the world effectively using only professional, vocationally paid missionaries.  To be sure, these men and women play an invaluable role, and will continue to do so, but if we rely exclusively--or even primarily--on full-time, vocational missionaries to get to the ends of the earth, we fail!

I don't know the extent of Platt's thinking, but my hope is that his "wide funnel" analogy exemplifies what I hope is coming.  Specifically, the IMB has to reinvent itself to become as effective after the modern mission era as it was during its prime.  Over the past five years, my denomination has rightly looked with critical eyes toward our structures at all levels--Association, state, and NAMB.  But the IMB must also come to grips with the fact that it is doing its work in a world that did not exist during either its inception or its prime years.  My hope is that this is what Platt is referring to when he talks about increasing opportunities for mission while simultaneously seeking to reign in the deficit spending that has plagued this entity for some time.

In the mean time, Southern Baptist's biggest problem might be that we just can't see the forest for the trees.  That is, we are so focused on a funding gap that keeps us from doing missions the same way we've done it for years that we aren't considering whether we should look at our mission mandate in a completely fresh way.

What will this "new way forward" look like?  I'll be the first to admit that I don't have all the answers, but four things specifically come to mind:

-Local church-led efforts that connect their neighborhoods with the globe.  No more false categories like "domestic" and "foreign."  Everyone now lives everywhere, so why do we continue to speak as though missions in North America should be executed differently than anywhere else?
-A renewed focus on the Kingdom of God and tangible ways to express it around the world
-A commitment to "go through the front door," because we have too long assumed that resistance to our modern delivery system meant a culture or people were "closed" to the Gospel
-A process to equip the entire body of Christ to engage the grid of society around the globe, not just those who preach and teach

In the next post, I'll elaborate on each of these components in an effort to envision how we can move forward together.  The plain truth is this:  many of our most effective churches are already adapting how they do mission in this new reality, and they will do so with or without our denominational entities.  But if the IMB can adapt itself in the near future to be the flywheel that helps centrifugally energize the coming mission, her best days could be ahead!