Searching for the church—Part 1

In my previous post (15 Reasons why I came back to the Church) I focused on the reasons for coming back to the church. Today I will turn my attention to the searching aspect of coming back. First, let me distinguish between the Church, consisting of all believers in Jesus Christ, as presented in the New Testament, also referred to as the Church Catholic [does not refer to the Roman Catholic Church=RCC] and the church as the local visible manifestation of that Church.

The Church in its essence is invisible. No one can look into another person’s heart and determine whether that person is a Christian or not. Yet there is a unity among all Christians, as Jesus expresses it ( “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one;” John 17:20).

The church is visible and gives our “flesh and blood” look at those who believe in Jesus Christ. But even here we cannot identify those who truly believe. As Jesus says there are weeds among the wheat.

Faith and Faith

Early on it became helpful to distinguish between two uses of the word faith.

  1. Faith which believes: This refers to the belief/faith/trust that God creates in the person (John 3:5; Romans 10:17, etc.). You might hear the expression “personal faith,” but that is really redundant, because faith which believes can only be personal.
  2. Faith which is believed: This refers to the content of the faith which believes, and often identified with the definite article, “the faith.” The outward expression of the content the faith is critical, because if the “faith which believes” is based on wrong content, then there is great danger in losing the “faith which believes.” Here are two examples of this use in the New Testament:

Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith (1 Cor. 16:13)

until we all attain to the unity of the faith (Eph. 4:13)

So, what difference does it make to know the difference between “faith” and “the faith” when searching for a church? In my experience in church leadership over the past 35 years, much of it as a pastor, I have found most people use #1 as the criteria, and seldom if ever pay attention to #2. That is, the person will state, “I believe in Jesus” (with many assumptions behind that statement) and tries to find a church that reinforces the “personal faith.” Carl Braaten aptly observed: “that mode of thinking George Lindbeck calls ‘experiential expressivism.’ Individuals and groups vent their own religious experience and call it theology” (First Things 61 [March 1996]).

For someone who approaches the search this way, it is not unusual to find that person shifting from Methodist to Baptist to Presbyterian to Evangelical to non-denominational, searching for a local church that “feels comfortable.” These tags are of little or no consequence in the search, because “it is what I believe in my heart that counts.” Note this is not a judgment but rather an observation.

The Search changes direction

What happens if we include that second aspect, the content of faith, “the faith”? Now I have to begin to examine what is the content of my faith? What do I believe about God? Who is this Jesus? What does the Trinity (three in one) mean? What do I believe about justification, sanctification, baptism, Lord’s Supper, etc.? If these questions come up, then we search Scriptures. But how many of us are experts in that? Is it necessary to be an expert? The key is beginning to read the Word, but more than just a quick devotional plunge every now and then. (I recommend reading entire books in roughly this order: Ephesians, Mark, 1 John, Luke, Romans, Matthew, 1 Peter, John, Philippians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, etc.)

As I examine these topics and come to some decision about the content of my faith based on my study of Scripture, now I begin to examine what that local church, or congregation, publicly teaches. If I come to one conclusion about baptism, what happens if that congregation teaches differently? Is this a church where I can in good conscience worship? Where do I draw the line on all these essential teachings?

This is not a new problem. Christians have faced this challenge from the very first. So what becomes the standard for me and the church to determine what is “the faith”? Obviously, we will say the “Bible.” For the first Christians, prior to the formal collection of the New Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) was the basis. In Acts 17:11 we read: “and every day they carefully examined the Scriptures to see if what Paul said was true.”

As time went on, challenges to the Biblical teaching arose, and the Church responded with statements of faith based on the Scriptures. Those statements of faith, known as “Creeds” (“creed” comes from credo = “I believe”) became summary statements of the content of what is believed. We have creedal statements even in the New Testament:

No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor. 12:3)

By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness:
He who was revealed in the flesh,
Was vindicated in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Proclaimed among the nations,
Believed on in the world,
Taken up in glory.  (1 Tim. 3:16)

Notice that Paul even writes “by common confession.” So Paul acknowledges how important it is to share in the content of “the faith.”

Also, notice that in this search of Scripture, we discover that this is never a “one issue” or “one doctrine” kind of litmus test of a church (or myself). If I disagree with what the church teaches about baptism, that will affect what it teaches on sin, salvation, God and humans in relationship, etc. In fact, every critical doctrine ultimately affects the teaching about justification by grace through faith.

Where does this lead?

At this point, our search leads us to consider what a church publicly teaches or confesses. A statement of “the faith” is critical. Every church has a creed of some kind. I remember serving as pastor in a smaller community, in which there was a church, specifically identified as “anti-creedal” claiming “we believe what the Bible teaches, so we don’t need a creed.” One newsletter had the very large headline, “We are Anti-creedal!” The rest of the page consisted of 20+ statements of faith, i.e. a creed!

As you study the Bible, it helps to examine the two major creeds, Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed to see what they teach. The Apostles Creed developed over a period of centuries but has been seen original as a baptismal creed. The Nicene Creed resulted from the Council of Nicea in AD 325 as they met the challenge of those who taught the Jesus was somehow a “lesser God.”

Again, see whether the creeds themselves teach what the Bible teaches. When I teach adult instruction class, I give this handout of the Apostles Creed for them to see that the creed is not “something added to the Bible” but is a summary of what the Bible teaches.

The Next Step

Finding a church that confesses “the faith” that matches the Bible is not an easier or simple path. If a doctrine of the church is obviously contrary to the Bible, then move on, this is not a place for you to grow in “the faith,” let alone concern for “your faith.” But take your time. As your grow in your understanding of the Bible, you will discover your understanding of “the faith” will reflect more and more what the Church has confessed as “the faith.” And as you do, you will find a church which does as well.

This is an important aspect of your faith, but it is also an exciting time as your learn more about who God is, what God has done, and how God relates to people. We belong to that extended train of believers throughout history, the Church. The wisdom of those who have gone before us is valuable for us as we study, reflect, pray, and learn.

… especially for men in the church

A silent plague, no, the silent plague in the church is so ingrained in churches that we don’t recognize, or we shut our eyes and ears to it, so that we don’t have to deal with it. But as people of God we have to deal with it. This post is just to set the stage for looking at this destructive force in our midst, destructive in our homes and families, but even in our church life together.

This past Sunday, we talked about the issue of abuse in our Adult Bible Class. The focus of that was our challenge as disciples of Jesus Christ and how we can act in mission in such a critical area. That provides a backdrop for this post.

The Hidden Nature of the Plague

This post is directed to conservative Christians, and specifically conservative Lutherans, and even more finely tuned: pastors, male leaders, and males in congregations. As a pastor in The AALC, this hits close to home, so close that I have been blind to it at times. But we have to get this in the open; as Christians we don’t have the option to be silent.

What is the plague? Abuse, physical, emotional, and spiritual. It is a sad reality that 95% of all physical abuse is done by a male against a female, most often within the same household. This leaves scars that last a lifetime. Identity, relationships, expectations, all are affected by abuse. Add in alcohol, drugs, pornography, etc., and the problems multiply.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Abuse comes in many forms beyond the actual abuse. Do we listen to what a woman says in conversation? Do we pick up signs of abuse? How about pastors, do we compound the abuse when we urge a wife to remain in a home while abuse is occurring, telling her “she has a responsibility in the marriage”? Do we listen to her undercurrent of fear, uncertainty, shame, guilt? Have we caused her even more fear, doubt, and lack of hope?

These are tough questions—they need to be! We cannot sugar coat this plague. Yes, the victim of abuse suffers from each of these problems. By our indifference or insistence on “being faithful and not moving out” we have added to the abuse, silently. Note, this is not to counsel divorce… far from it. But it is to point out that abuse, especially physical abuse has to be stopped, immediately… before any helpful pastoral care can enter into the situation.

So what can we do?

Let’s begin with Scripture. In Psalm 68:5, we read:

Father of the fatherless and protector of widows
is God in his holy habitation.

God himself sets the tone for us with this passage. Further study indicates that throughout the Old Testament and New Testament, especially in Luke’s Gospel, God is concerned about widows and orphans. I suggest that the woman/child who is being abused is in a spiritual state of being a widow or an orphan, only worse because they do not have a voice. Don’t believe that? Spend a little time with someone who does counseling for abused women and children; you will soon discover how on target such an assessment is. If this is a high priority of God’s compassion, then it has to be our high priority as men, as husbands, as fathers, as grandfathers. Right now I am writing to those who are not abusing, but seem to be “ordinary guys” with their own families.

Emily Cook, wife to an LCMS pastor, a mother of six little chilren, has blogged on many important topics—often bringing in critical statements in the midst of incidental aspects of life. Recently she posted about watching her children play in the first snowfall of the year. Then when she mentions her oldest daughter (at the time, 8 years old), and she writes:

a picture daddy loves… and I remind myself to tell him to tell her that, because she is getting to that age when it is so good for a little girl to be told by her daddy that she is lovely.

What a wonderful starting point for each man to begin a change in perception and attitudes! To realize how much influence we all have in the lives of our children (and our wives)—it is huge! A simple expression of gratitude and acknowledgement from a father can shape this young girl for the rest of her life. Don’t overlook the everyday life we live: God places us in our vocations as husbands, fathers, grandfathers, uncles for his specific purposes, living out the new life in Christ.

How are we doing in what we say to our wives and children, grandchildren? Does our speech reflect what Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:29?

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

Yes, we can take a first step right here. But let’s not stop there. How about when we are in meetings in churches? How about when we are in a “guys only” session in the parking lot. Are we showing our real (sinful) colors? Or is the Spirit at work there, too, directing our speech?

What if I have failed?

As I look back over my life in various vocations as husband, father, grandfather, I realize how far I have fallen short—so many times. Perhaps you are there, too. It might be easy to say, “What can I change after so much water has gone under the bridge?” First, God’s mercy is such that when we confess our sins of omission as well as commission, we receive God’s forgiveness for the sake of Jesus Christ. Life begins anew—Paul wrote, “Whoever is a believer in Christ is a new creation. The old way of living has disappeared. A new way of living has come into existence” (2 Cor. 5:17 GW).

Second, with that restored status, God showers us with the Holy Spirit, yes, to study and grow in Scriptures, but also to look at all of life in a new way. That is, because you have been forgiven and restored to God, the Spirit can lead you to a new relationship with your wife, daughters, sons, etc. It may be that as the Spirit works, you will become aware of sins that were hidden from you. You can now go in humility to the person you sinned against. Is it hard? Yep, been there, done that, and it is never easy. But it is critical. This is not “family” as usual, this is the beginning of a new relationship with everyone, especially your wife and children. Note, too, that how you speak to your wife will influence how your children view the vocation of wife, and the value of women and girls.

Third, you can now pray unhindered, which is critical in relationships. Peter wrote

Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.(1 Peter 3:7)

Do you see that? It is the husband who treats his wife respectfully who then can pray unhindered.

The Ministry of Encouragement

As I reflect back on the posts about liturgy, worship and brokenness, I have also tried to see ministry in that context. There is a book by Paul Moots, Becoming Barnabas: The Ministry of Encouragement (The Alban Institute, 2004) that seems to fit within this whole discussion.

 

My guess is that many of us have not thought much about the ministry of encouragement. In most of my travels and visits with congregations, this seldom is mentioned. Most often, people want “the method that will work for us.” The ministry of encouragement is not a method or quick fix for congregational problems, but is something far deeper and lasting. Moots introduces us to the Biblical concept of encouragement then offers ways that the ministry of encouragement is part and parcel of our work together. He demonstrates each aspect from the life and ministry of Barnabas, and early traveling companion of Paul. Moots offers some thought-provoking questions, and he provides some guidelines on how the ministry of encouragement can work in a partnership between pastor and congregation.

It is no secret that Western culture has made a cult of success, and that success American-style is couched in terms of size or growth or wealth or winning. The danger is that the church has accepted the larger culture’s definition by regarding success as growth in membership size and budget, rather than as faithfulness in discipleship. (p. xii)

At their best, the strengths of small, strong congregations lie in their intimacy and shared history, their sense of compassion and mission, their self-reliance and generosity. (p. xiii)

“…we are not called to make our congregations into cookie-cutter versions of Willow Creek or Ginghamsburg. What we are called to remember is that every church can and must hear Jesus’ mandate to make disciples of all nations and, by extension, to make disciples in all communities and congregations. All Christians can and must be challenged to make full use of our gifts in Christ’s service. Regardless of size or liturgy or music style, every local church that faithfully follows Christ will see signs of spiritual growth and often numerical growth as well. (p. xv)

With proper preparation and focus, every partnership between pastor and congregation should result in a challenging and fruitful ministry. (p. xv)

His chapter titles reveal his direction for congregational ministry of encouragement:

1 The Ministry of Encouragement

2 Standing with and Standing Aside: The Ministry of Partnership

3 Standing with Outsiders and Outcasts: The Ministry of Hospitality

4 Standing against Fear: The Ministry of Courage

5 Standing against Failure: The Ministry of Reconciliation

6 Authenticity in Ministry: Character and Call

7 A Ministry in Process

This book deserves a close reading and hearing in our congregations by pastors and lay leadership.

Good Week on Long Island

Long Island City
Image by jlwelsh via Flickr

I had the privilege of being on Long Island this past week, participating in preaching and teaching at Trinity Lutheran, then participating and reporting at the East Region convention. Good weather, good friends, and informative.

On Saturday I taught at Trinity Lutheran focusing on two texts. First, Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 (NAS)

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort.

So we comfort others with the same comfort which we have received from God. This opens our eyes to ministry that we may have overlooked. We examined the implications of such a changed perspective, relative to reaching out to those not in our midst. Good discussion.

Second, Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 2:2 (NAS):

The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

He notes four-generation reproduction, whether pastors specifically or disciples in a more general way. That is, our life as Christians is not “me alone,” even though our environment may scream that it is. Thus, as we grow through receiving the Word and Sacrament, we see who God has placed in our lives so that we can disciple them. In fact, it means discipling in such a way that the person will after some time (1-2 years) begin discipling someone else.

On Sunday I preached on 1 Peter 2:2-10. What is our identity in Christ? As receivers of God’s mercy, we then also are called “new born children” who crave milk (the Word) so that we grow. We also are living stones “being built together.” I noted that stones never get to choose where they belong in the building, but when placed by the master mason, the stone is fitted exactly where needed. And finally we proclaim what God has done and is doing, “the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

In the coffee and donuts (well, bagels!) time afterward, there was even an opportunity for me to put into practice what I had taught on Saturday. God’s timing is always surprising and amazing.

The Region convention was small in attendance, but good fellowship. Pastor Frank Hays, our Presiding Pastor, preached a solid and memorable sermon on “giants and grasshoppers,” based on Numbers 13. We had the privilege of hearing Rev.Dr. David Benke (President, Atlantic District, LCMS), Rev. Dr. Johnson Rethinasamy (ethnic ministries, LI, LCMS), and Chaplain Stephen Unger (Stonybrook, LI and NYC Police and FBI Chaplain). Thanks to everyone for their presence, speaking, and encouragement.