Friday, December 13, 2013

Requiem for Advent

Last year, as I posted a picture of my children on Facebook with the caption "getting ready for Christmas" I received comment post from my cousin Luise in Germany that said "Happy Advent." Hmmm, "Happy Advent, I like sound of that" I mused. "Whatever happened to Advent?" I wondered. Then the very same day I read an article by theologian Diane Butler-Bass called "The War on Advent," which makes the case for recovering the practice in our communities. Well, I hate to break it to Dr. Butler-Bass, but the war is over and it is a total rout (at least in the US). Advent is dead; wounded by a blow from the left as secularists stamped out the ancient and deeper meanings of the season as incompatible with modern political correctness. Right after this, it was maimed by the right waging the nihilistic "War on Christmas," whose rules of combat require the litmus test of saying "Merry Christmas" continually starting at 12:00 AM on the Friday after Thanksgivng. Finally it was finished off by the retailers, who once knocking it down pushed Christmas' border all the way to Labor Day. What was once 12 days is now four months. So Advent is dead. Its passing mourned only by a few liturgy professors and their seminarian acolytes. Too bad, because if you do not grasp Advent, you do not understand what Christmas truly is at all.

Luke 1:45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

God's Word of promise is more wonderful than any of us can imagine. It is the fuel which allows us not only to endure times of trial, but lets us breathe in every moment and realize that life is a gift. Advent is a time to rest in the promises of God. As we quickly learn in life, expectation is often more fun than fulfillment. The people of Israel look back continually as its most meaning time to when they were wandering in the wilderness and the land was only a "promised" one. Advent likewise, is a time to take delight in expectation. In the Bible, faith is always commended during a time of expectation, whether it is Abraham setting out into the wilderness in search of a homeland, or a young mother Mary receiving affirmation from her cousin at what must have been a confusing time. Faith thrives in an atmosphere of expectation. It is where it lives and breathes. It is why these times are so happy.

Advent should be happy (it is not Lent!) as it is focused on God. The sad thing is so many in my community are not happy at all. Their faces show the strain of the rush to get everything done, so perhaps Advent can be grace for you. You don't have to fulfill everyone's wish, or even your own, you can focus on God, and rest in a promise, stop worrying and be happy! The pressure to eradicate Advent comes from those both secular and religious who are just incapable of doing this. These are the folks who will not wait for the time to be fulfilled. They may even believe that it is thier responsibility to make the world right so God can come. Their actions say if things are prepared the right way than it will be all hunky dory. This is actually a pretty inclusive group including some end-time Christians, communists, environmental zealots, and most prevalent this particular time of the year home decorators trying to create "the perfect Christmas."

Galatians 4:4-5 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.

When the Protestant Reformation began it tried to recover the faith reflected in the writings of the Gospels, Paul and the early church of the classical period. It began with a simple premise, the actions of God come first. So it is God who fulfills. The twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich called this "the Protestant principle". So Advent is deeply evangelical, it is nothing more or less than being expectant of the promises of God in Jesus Christ. While this may be a requiem, it is not a lament. I am a Christian, I know that resurrection exists. Every time someone expectantly looks for God to do something in her or his life, there you will find Advent. It will be ever eternal as it is a time of taking delight in the gift of faith, and it is certainly a time to be happy.

Happy Advent!!!!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Function or Mission?

What's your Function? 

 If someone asked you what is the function of your ministry, how would you answer? Is it to bring new members to your church? Is it to instruct the next generation in the faith? Is it to make sure the people in your congregation are cared for? Is it to make sure that the corporation (yes, legally most congregations are corporations) continues to be financially viable?

What's your Mission? 

Now what if someone asked instead what is your mission, how would your answer be different? I would hope that one would not merely search the files and old newsletters to pull out the mission statement ratified by the church council in the 1970’s, but give a ready answer about what his or her church feels called to do. The question I would like to explore is is there a difference between function and mission? Some of the corollary questions are: is there tension between the two ideas? Do we at time confuse them? What do you think? Let me know in the comments section.

Update: September 26, 2013 

Some helpful Distinctions:

In seeing some of the responses so far I have come up with these ways to help distinguish between mission and function.

1. Focus: Mission is outwardly focused on God and those God calls us to serve. Function is internally focused on the self or organization.

2. Purpose: Mission is concerned with tending to the relationships with those involved, God first and then those who God calls us to be in mission with. Function is concerned with the output. How good are the sermons the pastor writes, how many meals delivered by the soup kitchen etc. So function is accomplishment based while mission is concerned with the health of relationships and their interactions.

3. Scope: Mission is always open to new information, in fact helpful mission strategies are always look for new information to help see where God is leading. When thinking about function the scope is always limited to the task at hand so new information can even be harmful at times.

4. Nature: Mission is at its core an entire way of life. It relies on a holistic attitude to bring all areas on one's life into focus to follow God's call. Function is a component of this, but just a part. In the end our functions must serve the mission we have partnered with God to carry out. It is when we elevate our function to the level of the overall mission that our confusion comes.

By praying regularly and coming back to the cross through remembering our connection to it in our baptism, we can help remember our identity and focus our various functions on the overarching call to God's mission for our world. By staying grounded in God's Word contained in the bible we can help put the pieces our our lives together.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Where's My Hardware Store?

A few weeks back my six year old son hung on the coat hooks next to the front door in our vestibule. He pulled the entire rack out of the wall. I told him he had help fix it and pay for the materials necessary to do the job, which amounted to a small container of joint compound to fill in the holes where the moly-bolts were. He got his allowance money and we drove to downtown Springfield to buy our supplies at our local hardware store. We parked our car in the back of the store and went to the door and saw that is was locked. We looked in the windows and all the stock was gone, and got in the car and drove to the massive Home Depot in Vauxhall. I know this is not the first hardware store to close in recent years, but this affected me deeply because something I relied on to be there was now gone.

I like going to the small store and knowing the proprietor. The people in Home Depot are usually pleasant and I do not usually have any complaints with the service or products, yet the anonymity and the scale are intimidating when all I need is something small to do a quick job. The economy these days has made the small scale hardware store a thing of the past, unless a store has niche it is doomed.

I began to obsess "is our congregation like that hardware store?" Have the economies of scale and the expectations of people in our our area that the church will provide high quality program with minimal commitment conspired to doom the midsize congregation to oblivion. Statistics seem to be leading in this direction. Large congregations are chugging along, many small congregations do wonderful ministry by using their intimacy as a strength. The midsize church seems to be most at risk. The small congregation seems to be analogous to the home based business and the large to the big box store or prominent franchise. Where does that leave the rest of us.

We Are Not a Store 

The hope that I cling to is that the community I serve is not a store, but as Eugene Peterson writes a “community of sinners gathered week after week… the Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them." (Working the Angles p.2) Our task is not to be a purveyor of goods, services, or an experience, but to simply bring people together with God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer shakes us out of our stupor and fear with these explosive words, which open his masterpiece The Cost of Discipleship: “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjack’s wears.” If we are to be Biblically faithful (rather than market driven successful) we need to call people into a relationship with God and their fellow sinners to join in this movement, which is dedicated to following our savior Jesus Christ. This means we understand that we are part of a wider family than our congregation and hopefully realizing that we are not in competition with the other expressions of Christianity in our vicinity.

We Still Need a Niche 

Yet we still need to recognize that how the people of our communities engage the world matters. In a recent Alban Institute post, Peter Coutts blogs here “We live in a fully democratized, consumer-oriented society in which people believe they have the autonomous power to make choices, including within the realm of religious belief, practice, and participation.” So we have to use the tools of Law and Gospel to reveal the truth of God’s Word to the people we serve. The law is that every human choice whether to shop at the hardware store or home depot, or to go to the mid-size church in town or mega-church by the highway is bound by our innate sinfulness. The grace of God reveals that God makes himself available to be freely chosen. As Christian leaders we are called to help people make the right choice, the choice of Jesus, the choice of life. Hopefully if we really do it right, those who walk with Jesus will realize it really was not a choice at all.

The way for us who have more limits on our people and resources to begin to live out this calling is to help the communities we serve find their niche or place. This usually means leading people to prayerfully discern where their gifts lie, communities can then specialize according to the gifts of the Holy Spirit given to them. One community will allow people to see the grace of God through excellent and passionate traditional music, another will demonstrate it by serving the poor, another through good preaching, another through education, still another through support groups for people in critical phases of life, and even some that just provide a well rounded spiritual home. So yes my hardware store is gone, but our church still lives, breathes and moves to bring God’s love to our world.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Humility is for Losers!

Unappreciated Humility 

A recent study by the most respected Christian church social science researcher George Barna asked practicing Christians what qualities do they think are essential for Christian leaders to have.(you can find the article here) I was surprised to find out that humility was only mentioned by 7 percent of the respondents.

You would think that the church whose head humiliated himself to the point of going to the cross for our sins would look upon humility more favorably and value it more highly as a quality for Christian leaders than we apparently do. But alas, it seems that no one values humility anymore. We value things like assertiveness, independence, strength, and power. It beguiles me how so many can miss the importance of this central quality of Christian leadership. To be sure integrity scored highly, but I do not know how one can have integrity without being humble. For younger people authenticity seems to be highly valued, but how can one be truly authentic if one is not humble first?

Humility Defined 

According to the survey, the definition of humility is a willingness to give credit to others. This makes its lack of respect by those who attend evangelical and mainline churches even more surprising. How can one be truly Christian leader if one does not give credit to God and others? Humility according to this definition is the central characteristic to help us live out the great commandment to love God with one's heart, soul and mind and to love one's neighbor as oneself.

Perhaps the decline being witnessed in Christian communities across the board has something to do with the lack of appreciation of the concept of humility. If one pays attention to the various contemporary media outlets, one will see whether one is liberal, or conservative, hip or intellectual, that self promotion is the current modus operandi of our culture. There is apparently no such thing as bad publicity. To give credit to others according to a common worldly understanding is to throw away a valuable resource. Why do it if I do not get the credit? Asks the world.

Biblical Humility

However by living this way and ignoring the contributions of God and others in our relentless search for credit, we damage the relationships necessary for us to live a life of peace and wholeness as God intended. The Biblical definition of humility has a different nuance than that we have seen so far. We can see the Biblical view of humility in Peter's words "Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time." 1 Peter 5:6 (NRSV) To humble oneself is to allow God to work within you. If one does not live humbly one therefore does not live for or with God.

Perhaps when Christians ignore humility we are really just revealing our attitude of wanting to go it alone. In the end, if we go it alone all the time our lives will be less full than they could be. We see this wisdom written in Ecclesiastes " Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help." Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 (NRSV) Humility is essential to facilitate community and build relationships.

The Humble One 

This is the exact reason why God sent his Son Jesus in humble fashion; he wanted to create a community of people in relationship to him. God does not want us to go it alone. Paul wrote the Christians in Philippi "he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross." Philippians 2:8 (NRSV) I gave this posting a provocative title because this is how the world views the humble these days. However there is often truth in satire, Jesus himself reminded us that world will always view the humble as those who lose, but that when one loses that which is temporary one gains the eternal. "For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." Matthew 16:25 (NRSV)

In the Bible sometimes losing is winning, especially when one is giving up that which keeps him or her removed from The Lord of Heaven and Earth. In the eyes of his Roman executioners the humble Jesus was a loser because he did not challenge their political dominance. Yet this same empire would itself be conquered by the followers of Jesus who used humility to defeat injustice and evil. To be humble is to appreciate life as it actually is. So consider the humble, you may just see the stuff of life in them.

Keep the Faith,

Pastor Knecht

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Left or Right Mission Strategies?

Confrontation or Accommodation? 

Christianity has always had a tension between challenging the culture it finds itself in on the one hand or learning to adapt and live with it on the other. During my time in Taiwan I learned about this tension by witnessing the polar opposite mission strategies embraced by Roman Catholics and Protestants. In many ways the Roman Catholic church sought to make peace with the culture and translate teaching and practice to the Chinese culture. Early on Roman Catholic missionaries accommodated ancestor worship into their proclamation. Ancestor worship is the central practice of Chinese folk religion. One is called to make sacrifices for and to one's forbears. If you have seen the Disney film "Mulan" you may remember how the shrine to the ancestors played a prominent roll in the film. By adapting its doctrine of the saints Roman Catholics sought a way to proclaim the Gospel in the Chinese context. They accepted where Chinese people were at theologically and made accommodation for them. Most Roman Catholic churches in Taiwan have a set place where one can pray to and for their ancestors. For the sake of discussion I will call this a left handed mission strategy.

Protestant missionaries from the beginning adopted the opposite strategy and basically continue to to so today. While the reasons for this are more theological than missional, the result ended up being an effective mission strategy. When one becomes a Christian as part of a protestant congregation in Taiwan, one gives up ancestor worship. In fact, many churches have a ritual demolition of the family ancestral shrine and any household idols around the time one is baptized. While we in the secular west may be aghast at this level intensity, many Chinese see it as a natural outcome of one's coming to Jesus. Most protestant Christians in Chinese contexts accept this. The reason for this acceptance is fairly clear. There are many in Chinese cultures who find the system of ancestor worship to be oppressive. It's system of obligations is particularly hard on women. To realize that one's loved ones are ultimately in God's hands can have an effect of profound liberation for a person. So I will call this type of delineating a clear alternative to the culture a right handed mission strategy.

Winners and Losers 

Perhaps another way to look at this is to take a look at who are focusing our mission toward. When we embrace a left handed strategy that accommodates cultural trends, we are embracing those who are fine with the culture the way it is. In stark terms, it is mission to and for the "winners". When we take up a right handed strategy we are focusing on those beat up by the culture who want liberation from it. So a right handed strategy that presents an alternative to the culture is a a mission to and for the "losers." Now before we get on our moral high horse and either defend or justify ourselves, let's get both feet firmly planted on the ground and realize that Jesus ministered to both winners and losers. As we the lectionary texts from Luke are revealing to us this summer, Jesus sometimes used a left handed strategy and at others used a right handed one. The place for us to figure out how to proceed is prayer. We are called to discern, pray and to ask the Spirit to guide us how to minister to those God has placed before us. In the end most, churches have a mix of right handed and left handed strategies unique to their contexts.

Consumer Society 

The discussion about whether to adapt or provide an alternative to the culture we live in the North American context will eventually always come around to how do we deal with the fact of consumerism. In sociological terms "the consumer" is the chief archetype of our society. Do we accept this and find ways to mission using the language and practice of the culture, or do we reject it and seek to provide a clear liberating alternative? The most fascinating aspect of this discussion for me is the fact that the many of the prominent conservative churches in our country have adopted strategies that embrace cultural norms of consumerism. Rick Warren (Saddleback), Bill Hybles (Willow Creek) and Andy Stanley (North Point) have all presented mission models that accommodate consumerism in some way. In short, the right wingers are using left handed strategies. Conversely much that I read from liberal circles makes consumerism synonymous with a form of demonic possession. Shane Clayborne, Brian McLaren and others from the emerging church movement (along with many who write at the Alban Institute) have embraced notions of ministering to those beat up by consumerism or a right handed strategy.

Please be aware that I have simplified things for the sake of having a discussion. The reality will always be a bit murky. I have accommodated aspects of the dominant culture into my ministry at times, and at others I have sought to fight against it. The simple point of this is to ask us all to be in prayer so that we are being intentional about which strategy we embrace. The point of this intentionality is not effectiveness but love. It takes intention to truly show love, this is one of the primary aspects of the cross and resurrection. Without love, it matters not whether we use our right hand or left, because without love we are not in mission. May you be blessed in your service to Christ today.

 Keep the Faith,

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Our Role in the Culture

A recent Alban Institute post Culture Streams outlined how culture can affect the congregations we minister to.    It identified the macro culture with its large trends,  meso culture which is all about regional ways that people interact and the local (micro) community culture.   The question I would like to ask ministry leaders is what is our role in each of these areas.   In order to start a discussion I will out line a few thoughts on each.

Our Role in the Wider Culture 

I can honestly say that I have only seen a few of instances of a depiction of a clergy person in film or television that did not leave me creeped out (Rev. Book in the cult Sci-Fi series Firefly, the Vicar of Dibley from the BBC, one memorable episode about Rev. Lovejoy on the Simpsons are a few of the rare positive examples).   Most often the clergy person is set up as a straw man (or woman) to further some aspect of the plot.  They almost always lack any depth at all.  The judgmental religious nut (who is always sexually repressed),  the naive out of touch boob who has no idea of what real life is like, the goody two-shoes  helpless (usually) guy who means well, and the wooden saintly figure are some of the typical archetypes.

In addition, most of the stories in the news media that people will see and read about the clergy are overwhelmingly negative.    They usually involve one of our profession doing something criminal, stupid, or both (think Jim Baker or Jimmy Swaggart).  Factor in that less and less people are coming to church and never see what we actually do first hand, and one can see that we should no longer expect prestige or a positive reception because of what we do.  Therefore because of our wider culture trends we should have to expect to work harder at building trust, be vigilant about our boundaries, and be clear in our own understanding about what our role is.  Most of all we need to learn to be patient with those we serve to demonstrate our genuine love and concern in Christ.

We still do have some significant privileges left that should not be taken for granted. the Federal government affords us a special status in the tax code. We are often still given positive roles in public ceremonies and events, and because the overwhelming majority of people are still interested in dialoging about God I have never found opportunities to engage in faith conversations lacking.   We need to be thankful for these privileges and leverage them faithfully to help bring God's Word to our communities.

Our Role in New Jersey 

The chief reason I no longer wear a clerical collar is that I am tired of being called "Father".   As Jesus taught us our true "Abba" is in heaven.   I am only the earthy father of Beata and Paul and honestly that is all I should be.   As a Lutheran, I am called to preach the Word and administer the sacrements, to do what Eric Gritsch and Robert Jenson called "tending to the life of the Gospel."   In a regional culture where the Roman Catholic priest is the primary archetype of our calling we will always have some explaining to do  (even when we don't dress in black).  People can see how we can serve God through our ordinary lives as neighbors, parents and friends.

The other major factor I have dealt with in our area is the pace of life.   People just do not seem to have it in their DNA to slow down and let God breathe into our lives around here.  This has had all kinds of implications in my ministry over the years.   Worship service lengths are under strict (albeit informal) time covenants, prayers can be rushed through to get the the "real business" of the church, and everyone has limits on their time because they have to be somewhere else.  The pastor can then be merely viewed as one more person making a demand on their time which always seems to be running through their fingers.  However, it is precisely in this aspect of our culture where we may be able to help lead people toward a healthier way of living.    Eugene Peterson identified "prayer and spiritual direction"  as two of the three pillars of ministry (the other being tending to the Word).  We can help people slow and down take time for the simple things so they can see how God works in their lives.

Our Role in our Congregation 

I have served three congregations in New Jersey and each has had it's own distinct culture and the role of the pastor has varied greatly in each.   One expected a high degree of pastoral care and affirmation,  another revitalization and new life,  and another reconciliation and unity to bring the congregation together to move forward in mission.   I have always found that there is a tension between what I feel called to do and what the congregation culture expects.   This tension can be creative and life giving if dealt with openly through prayer and discussion.   I have grown both as a person and a minister because I have been given the opportunity to learn from those I am called to serve,  it is certainly one of the greatest blessings of ministry.   There is always lots more to discuss on this aspect and I look forward to those interactions.