Monthly Archives: March 2014

Being openminded

just search "open minded" and see the contrasting images that appear.

Can we hold it all in our head?  Just search “open minded” and see the contrasting images that appear.

One of the questions that I ask people in Worcester when I’m doing interviews to learn more about the city is what sort of church might interest people.  This is intentionally vague and open ended so that I do not unduly influence their answer.  The goal in asking this question is not to create a church that fits the expectations of all those I speak with (this would be impossible!) but to try and follow the example of the Jesus, the apostle Paul, and many Christians since then.  In a letter to the church in Corinth Paul writes,

To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

In this excerpt you’ll notice how Paul identifies with certain people groups while also providing qualifiers that describe the ways in which he is not a simple mirror reflecting the surrounding culture of that group.  This principle definitely makes sense if we follow the bible’s description of humanity being made in God’s likeness but corrupted by our choices.  Thus there are ways in which each of us will reflect who God is as well as ways in which we distort the image.  So when people keep saying that they are looking for a church that is open minded, here are some of the ways that I think we should both reflect and push against this answer:

Reflect:  When people say they are looking for a church that is open minded they can mean a variety of things.  At it’s most basic level people want a place where they are heard, where others truly listen and aren’t simply waiting for their chance to talk, where their questions and doubts are taken seriously, where cliches aren’t the answers, and where we resist the instinct to categorize and then dismiss.  This basic stance of treating all people with dignity and starting from a posture of humility is rooted in both creation and redemption.  God makes all of us in his image and every single person shows something of God, regardless of what they believe or how they live.  Furthermore every single person is marred by sin and becoming a Christian isn’t an immediate fix of everything that is wrong with you.  Based on the bible doctrine of creation and the fall into sin we should expectant that non-Christians will have things right that we have wrong.  So there should be respect for all and a willingness to learn from others.  Even more the church must be marked by humility because we are brought near to God by grace and are still marred by sin, not only in our actions but in our thinking as well.  For the areas in which we do have it right we will be able to confidently state these without pride or any sense of superiority because it all comes from grace.

Push Back:  On the other hand when people speak of being openminded they can also mean that it doesn’t matter what you think or believe, that all views are equal and that the only virtue is tolerance of varying opinions.  Practically this will mean that people are very willing to hear and talk about other ideas and positions without criticizing them and often without taking a firm position.  I think there are a few problems with holding up this view of open-mindedness.  First of all, no one is truly open minded.  There is a brilliant quote from G.K. Chesterton who says, “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”  Every single day we all make choices and close our minds on something.  Who is openminded about their ability to leap tall buildings or whether their lover is a complex robot masquerading as a human or the red stop light a figment of the imagination?  In the gospels you find that Jesus takes everyone, even his most bitter opponents, seriously and blithely dismiss no one – as if he were indifferent and it’s all a matter of opinion.  One of the most attractive and challenging features of Jesus’ life is the strong stance he takes on all sorts of issues.  As a church we cannot simply mirror the world around us but must, like Jesus, seek to reflect God’s unique perspective on our time.  Christianity is ultimately a revealed religion which believes that God has actually spoken to us and given our minds something solid to bite down and not remain open.

So, will our church be open minded?  Yes and no…


– G.K. Chesterton

Underneath the melting snow

12656040155_48ca538dbcWhile this picture shows a different city the same tension between the beauty of spring and ugliness underneath, plays itself out in Worcester.  As the piles of snow melt cars drive through deep puddles laced with oil, rock salt, and months of sand spread to help slipping tires.  Under the leftover snowbanks in the background a collection of cigarette buts, crumpled coffee cups, bleeding newspapers, and dog feces will emerge as the greying mounds shrink and melt.  Yet, the sun shines.  It is all worth it the moment your face feels the warmth and we wake from our slumber.

As I watch the melting snow I think of a quote from Richard Lovelace, a theologian and author who says,

Do not pray only for your spiritual renewal.  Pray for a springtime of the Spirit which will enrich the church and the world, an awakening for which all earlier renewal movements have been only rehearsals.

We pray for God’s renewing work in Worcester and strive to imagine a springtime that comes from the Holy Spirit.  I think of tulips bursting from their bulbs, the early bloom of magnolias and the fragrance of hyacinths along the walkway, but forget the litter and months detritus that will be exposed.  It is a healthy corrective to remember that our prayers for God’s work of restoration and hope always involve an opening of the infected wound, an exposure of the hidden trash underneath.  If God were to pour out his Spirit on Worcester like the warmth of springtime sun, what would be exposed?  I’m beginning to learn…  Yet I am increasingly convinced that renewal is always worth the pain of opening the poisoned wound.  The warmth of the sun, the sap in the trees and green shoots, the green shoots that God would plant, nurture, and grow…

Spring is inevitable.  Though we wonder how long the snow will last we are assured that it will melt.  The great hope of the Christian is God’s promise to set right all things and usher in the ultimate and eternal spring when all streams will run clean, all plants bud and blossom.  The certainty of this hope is seen through the scriptures and I am especially struck by the proactive role of God in Isaiah 65 in which God will beat us to the punch.  Before we even ask for the snow to melt the warmth will touch our faces – all will be well.

Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear.  The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,” says the LORD.


Photo Credit

The Topography of outreach

This image reminds of the topographical maps that I’ve used on hiking trips, where the change in elevation is clear but the nature of the terrain is mostly a mystery.  You know you’ll be trudging uphill, ambling down, or cursing along flat ground, but only get hints of what the scenery might be like.  

This Saturday we took participants in the church plant through some training on outreach and what that might look like at Grace Pres. Worcester.  Below is our topographical map, that shows the essential shape of our efforts to reach others with the good news of Jesus.  Next, we’re working together to understand the scenery – what will it look like to walk along these lines and implement specific practices at this stage of our church’s life.  

** One caveat, so much of what I’ll say I have drawn from others.  I give some specific credit to others but mostly refrain for two reasons.  .  First, I forget where I learn things.  Second, most of what I’ve learned from others has become interwoven with my own thoughts such that the best things I have to say, most likely come from someone else, even though they are recast in my words.  **

1. Cause: While the world is full of causes (feeding the poor, mentoring youth, adopting stray puppies, preserving historic architecture, etc.) the great cause is to bring glory to God.  “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever.”  (Romans 11)  God is glorified, primarily in people and he uses his church for this purpose.  The great cause of the church is to see people come to faith in Christ and be joined to his people through baptism so that their lives reflect who God intended us to be (Matthew 28:19-20).  I’ve often heart it said that outreach and mission exist because worship does not. 

2. Command: Jesus words from Matthew 28, 

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

These words reminding us of God’s great cause and his promise to be with us in this work are unmistakingly given as a command. As a church we cannot be faithful to Jesus’ vision for the church without obeying his command to participate in his cause by making disciples of all nations.  While outreach will look different with changing circumstances there will never be a time when can disregard it.  

3. Compassion: What will compel and empower us to obey God’s command?  Ultimately, it is the love of Christ. The great end of human life is to love God with all we are and our neighbors as ourselves.  Jesus not only loved God but again and again, looked on humanity in its sinful state with compassion. His compassion must fill us.  I think of the Apostle Paul’s words concerning his fellow Jews,

“I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.”

We must have an appropriate anguish and holy discontent until God works in this city and we see more of his kingdom come.  

4. Conversion: Jesus says that the goal is nothing less that spiritual rebirth, people coming from death to life. We do not merely want a singular “decision” that lacks follow through but wholehearted disciples of Christ. The indication of true conversion is a life reoriented from serving false Gods to worshiping the true and living God (1 Thes 1). Only God can bring about such change and Jesus helps us understand our by making comparison to a farmer sowing seed.  As we tell the good news of Jesus, we plant the seed but cannot control whether it will take root and grow (Matthew 13). Also like the farmer we are committed to the process of sowing, watering, and harvesting.  We must work in faith with the unique task given and remain steady until the time of harvest, trusting God for growth.  

5.  Design: In designing our evangelistic efforts there are two parallel tracks which need to exist, relationally driven and ministry driven evangelism. Relationally driven evangelism means that each member of the church is praying for their non-Christian friends, family members, and associates, looking for entry points for the truth of the gospel, and building connections so that the life of the church can be seen for those outside of it. Ministry driven evangelism means that the ministry is the initial point of contact and that from the start people know that we are Christians and are there to talk about Jesus. There are significant points of overlap between these two overarching strategies but they are distinct in where they begin and both come with strengths and weaknesses.  


Photo Credit

The things we serve – #2

Yesterday I was writing and realized I was going on too long.  So here’s the second half of the conversation on idolatry…

Three Specific Idols (I feel like these are major ones for this area)

1.  Control

-Wanting to know what will happen and make plans isn’t a bad thing in and of itself.  So, whenever we start having church serves we’ll have a printed bulletin that will lay out what we’ll be doing during church.  Visiting a church can be very unnerving and I think an order of service will help people feel more at ease.

-As a church we’ll be tempted to think we can make things happen.  When starting a church you have to have plans and strategies.  We could come up with this great approach that is well researched, well thought out, and well executed and inadvertently put our confidence in our abilities rather than God.  Instead we’re going to shoot for goals that we can only accomplish if God works and regularly remind ourselves of our complete dependence on him through a church life shaped by prayer.  On the inside of the church, from the beginning we cannot rely on ourselves and try to maintain some illusion of control.
-As Presbyterians our church is governed by elders who, after being elected by the congregation, lead the church.  People don’t get to vote on everything and have their say.  This is hard for people who want to be in control.  One of the membership vows of presbyterian churches is a willingness to follow the church’s leadership.  It is built into the system that we must trust others (ultimately God) and not grasp for influence.  

2.  Belonging
A number of years ago I had friend and mentor who would talk about the “hospitality of Jesus,” with Romans 15 in mind, “welcome one another as God in Christ welcomed you.”  When Christians talk about the church being a place where people belong, we’re usually thinking, “finally, a place where I am included and at rest.”  Rather, if we want to confront the idolatry of “belonging to something” as our source of significance we need to see how God has made us welcome through his son.  Jesus took the place of the outsider and outcast so that we could be taken in as his children.  Based in that acceptance we need to take risks to make others at home.  We need to change how we think of the church, from “this is the place where I belong and desperately cling to it” towards, “this is a place of belonging where I welcome others, even when it disturbs my sense of belonging.”  

3.  Performance

It is good to try your best with the abilities and resources that God has given.  It is corrupted when we daydream of success, are depressed without approval, and willing to sacrifice anything to avoid failure.  As a church do we need to walk this line of striving for excellence in all we do because the world around us values excellence.  If sermons are disorganized and illogical, music is off tune and sloppy, the website is twenty years out of date, or the bulletin is full of grammatical errors it will be that much easier to dismiss the church and her savior.  If on the other hand there is an absence of actually confessing our sins, a pretended holiness, an unwillingness to admit mistakes and too much pressure on those who lead to get it just right, we are living out that same idolatry of performance.  There must be a humble excellence; a desire to strive coupled with a freedom to fail.  Again, this involves wisdom and nuance.  It takes a continued engagement with the gospel which says that performance matters, Jesus is the only one who has succeeded, and we, as his broken vessels, show his beauty as the light shines out through our cracks.  

The things we serve

idolatryLast night at our home we were meeting with the group who wants to help us start the church (Grace Pres.) in Worcester.  We were talking about idolatry – the worship of something other than God and used the following statements and questions to get us thinking:

Where do I look to happiness other than God?
When life gets hard this keeps me going…
My life has meaning because…
When I daydream or my mind wanders, I most easily think about….
I most worry about…
I feel worth when I have this and am depressed when I do not…
I am willing to make sacrifices and endure pain (emotional, financial, relational etc.) for…
I am willing to break God’s commands for…

The above picture captures some of our results.  I’ll start with three broad principles that came out of this discussion.  Tomorrow I’ll write on  three prominent idols – performance, control, and belonging – and some ways our church should relate to these.

Broad Principles
1.  Wisdom & nuance:  idolatry is the corruption of a good thing by making it an ultimate thing.  For example, a sense of belonging is something healthy that each of us should experience.  Wanting to belong becomes problematic when we elevate it as THE thing we need.  Needing to belong can take us down all sorts of dark paths (acquiescing to peer pressure, covering up abuse or corruption, racism, lying etc).  While it is easy to recognize these extremes, in the moment it  can be hard to see the ways in which the good things in our lives become unhealthy and destructive.  Add to this the fact that our church is in a place where many are skeptical of organized religion.  So if we speak in broad platitudes or miss the nuances of idolatry through unwise speech we’ll simply confuse or turn off (unnecessarily) the people we are seeking to reach.  But, if we confront idolatry with wisdom and nuance I think there is a great opportunity to grow in our own understanding of what Christ has done and communicate it to others.

2.  Engaging the Gospel:  We must keep coming back to Jesus who both exposes our misdirected worship and provides the real thing.  For example, people here (and in many other places) want to be in control of life, have things go according to plan, be able to weather difficulties, and make what they want happen.  When we think about the idolatry of control and look to the scriptures, they do two things.  First they show us how little control we have over anything and pride associated with such illusions:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” James 4

But then they speak of a God who is good, strong, and wise – working all things for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose.  Jesus’ love assures us that we can trust such a God and when we feel out of control we can look to the cross and see how the most terrible, surprising events move God’s good plan forward.   In looking at idolatry we can never do so as a detached observer but as one who must also turn to the true God.  The idolatries “out there” tend to be the same ones we struggle with and so we can stand beside those we are trying to reach and look together towards Christ.

3.  Felt needs:  When you put regular unleaded fuel in a diesel engine you have problems.  It is the same with human beings.  When our lives are centered and run around something other than God, there are consequences.  Since our first parents turned from the God who made them for himself, there has been an incredible toll.  When we begin to understand the different ways that people turn from God to idols we will have a better idea of their felt needs, the ways they experience this world as broken.  Some people will “feel” a spiritual vacuum and long for the true God, but for most it will be something like loneliness, anxiety, fear, boredom, relational breakdown, aging, poverty, and countless other things.  These felt needs are avenues to connect to people, care for them, and in some way tell of what life is meant to be like when God is at the center.  As we understand the idols of our area we are better positioned to serve the community in ways that they need.

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