We are called to be witnesses. Period.

Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash

By Joe LaGuardia

In Acts 1:8, Jesus unequivocally identified the role his disciples play in the world: “You will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth.”  But ask any Christian to bear witness (first-hand!) of an experience of God, and you will likely get a blank stare.  Some will recall a conversion experience. Others may solicit a generic answer.  Many have experiences, profound experiences, but do not know how to explain it.

There seems to be a scarcity of witnessing going on these days.  I’m not talking about street-corner evangelism, but of giving testimonies that attract people to Christ.

I’m not sure what the problem is: Do we not experience God anymore, or is it that we do not know how to put our experiences into words in a way that captivates the mind, touches the heart, inspires a sense of purpose, and communicates God’s power in our life (see Acts 1:8 again)?

Pastors decry a lack of biblical literacy in our churches.  What about spiritual literacy?   Spiritual literacy that can define–specifically–the movement of the Holy Spirit on and in our lives.

Historically, people learned how to witness by hearing personal testimonies of others, by exchanging lengthy letters that communicated the spiritual ebb and flow of life, by reading literature that excited the senses and provided new ways of speaking about–and seeing–God.

In a world of Tweets and Facebook posts, we no longer know how to wield the English language for this purpose.  Our faith has become quite rote and boring, really–and who wants to follow a boring faith?  Instead of witnessing in ever creative ways, we complain, bicker, and bemoan.

Last month, I watched two interviews of sorts that inspired my thinking on this:  The first was with the late Mr. Rogers.  In a video that went viral, Fred Rogers argued for the need for public broadcasting funding before a Senate committee hearing.  In his testimony, he discussed the importance of early childhood education.

Mr. Rogers’ words were not explicitly Christian, but they were powerful and bore witness to his amazing ability to wield the language he certainly gained from his training as a Presbyterian minister.  He spoke simply, but movingly.

The second interview was between the Reverend William Barber II and Trevor Noah on The Daily Show.  Barber argued that Christian ethics is not only needed in pushing back against secular politics, but necessary in being a foundation for the type of moral fortitude that combats exploitation and bigotry in all its guises.  “The language we use,” he said of our contemporary religious and political conversations, “is too puny.”

Mr. Noah asked why Barber’s participation in politics was appropriate, and the pastor gave a remarkable testimony of how the church shaped community through the ages.  You may disagree with Barber’s theology, but you would be hard-pressed to argue against the force of his prophetic delivery.  (Notice, by the way, that Barber states, “Remember when I shared with you about the Bible when we were backstage..?”  He testifies on camera and off.)

Watching these two interviews reveal what is needed to revive the art of bearing witness, witnessing that taps into the power and authority of the Jesus about whom we speak.

For one, we need to speak well.  Our testimonies of Christ– our experience of the Risen Savior and the values for which he stood (and stands)– must break through the shallow platitudes of Tweets, posts, and social media banter.

We need to learn how to speak well by wielding and fashioning adequate narratives, by arguing persuasively and speaking substantively about the Gospel.  This cannot be done from our tribes, from the right or the left–it must be done as wisdom couched in the person and character and intentions of Jesus Christ who stands above our political and ideological labels.

A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.
Like cold water to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country (Prov. 25:11-12, 25).

Speaking well ought to bewilder, captivate, compel, and convict.  After all, we follow a Lord who mustered language in the form of parables to show people what God’s Kingdom looked like.  Jesus never lectured or taught dusty doctrines of yesteryear.  He never offered trite opinions.  Rather, he restored and reconciled and rebuked with compassion, peace, and unyielding intimacy that stemmed from unity with God (“I and my father are one…”).

Second, we must speak accurately.  In a society that fails to agree on facts, Christ’s Church must value accuracy in our presentation of the Gospel, of the justice tied up in God’s reign, and in our understanding of salvation history.

An example might suffice:  Some like to argue that our nation is founded on a Christian heritage, and that is true.  Yet, how people talk about that history–as if our nation is but a large church–is often inaccurate.  Yes, our nation’s founding documents are imbued with certain Christian principles, but we must be accurate when we also bear witness that God detests travesties of our past, such as slavery, racism or genocide of indigenous and minority populations.

Our ideological and tribal rhetoric suffers from inaccurate portrayals of God’s work in the world, bad theology, and partisan positions that have become the very fake news we loathe.

Last, we must speak what is true.  This is different than accuracy.  You cannot begin to speak with truth if you are not accurate with the facts.  If you play loose with the details, then your entire testimony will fail you–you will be a false witness, and your testimony will likely be bad news instead of the Good News Jesus intended the Gospel to be.

There are many people–Christians, pastors, church leaders–who are not bearing witness to a true vision of who God is, what the church is about, and how the Kingdom of God erupts, disrupts, and usurps in our midst.  This has taken a toll on the church.  If you don’t believe me, just look at all the empty pews across America on any given Sunday morning.

Speaking what is true about God means testifying about Jesus’ vision for justice, restoration and reconciliation in the world, most poignantly outlined in Jesus’s explicit mission in Luke 4:18-19, a vision that promises liberation to those who are oppressed and exploited.

This reminds me of Mr. Rogers’ insistence, for example, that children need communities that provide hope and trust, or Rev. Barber’s citation of Luke 4 in his protest against voter suppression laws and political malpractice.

Jesus told us to be Great Commission people, people who attract (not repel or appall) others to Christ by bearing witness to our first-hand relationship and restoration in Christ.  His call in the earliest chapters of Acts still applies today; but it will require some prayer and work to reclaim our long history of being the kind of wordsmiths worthy of the Gospel we are to promote.

We must speak well.  We must speak accurately.  And we must speak what is true.

4 Easy Ways to Support Your Church Staff

By Joe LaGuardia

In the mid-1990s, G. Lloyd Rediger published Clergy Killers, which argued that some churches are so destructive and dysfunctional that they have actually persuaded some staff to give up ministry altogether.   Churches not adept in conflict management or basic communication skills run the risk of abusing staff or, in the least, draining staff energy to the point of burn-out.

Sometimes this happens when congregations wield power over staff with little risk to the parishioners’ own well-being.  Unlike employers who have shareholders and CEOs to answer to, parishioners try to call the shots aggressively or passive-aggressively without having to risk their own financial or personal resources.  It is an unfair advantage that congregations have over the staff they employ.

Many churches, however, are wonderful congregations to call home.  Many treat staff fairly, have appropriate policies that protect all parties involved, and are intentional in building healthy communities that minimize dysfunction and distrust.  How to do that?  I’m glad you asked.  Here are four easy ways to support your staff at church:

Understand the job.  Jobs at church–from administrator or accompanist to pastor or pastoral counselor–are not the same as jobs in the secular world.  Every staff position in a church is designed to achieve specific goals while creating a sacred space for people to meet Christ while on campus.

Consider the average job–a mechanic, say.  What if you were a mechanic, and someone “dropped in” on you to chat with you about a concern every five minutes?  You would not be a productive mechanic.  Dropping in on staff at a church, however, is a regular part of our jobs.  We make time for it because we know that ministry takes place most often in the interruptions of life rather than in the daily routines.  A mechanic’s time is valuable, and problems can be handled in specific ways.  Church staff is no different!

Understanding the job also means knowing what it takes to do a particular job.  For instance, a pastor may “hide” in her office for ten hours a week and some parishioners may feel slighted, but how else might a pastor preach a great sermon if she does not have time to prepare and write one?  Do not use your own experiences to tell a staff person how to do his or her job.

Build trust.  Church leaders learn that building trust with a congregation is the first step in effective ministry.  Trust is the catalyst for growth and the linchpin for getting things done for the Kingdom of God.

Trust must be earned, and trust goes both ways!  Parishioners must behave and communicate in a way that builds trust with staff–to be people of their word, to keep confidences, to pray for staff.

Trust comes by being interested in staff personally.  You don’t have to be a staff member’s best friend, but why not ask how his child is doing in school or about any new movies he has watched lately?  Talk about something other than church, and listen intently.  Be concerned.  It builds trust, and when you have an issue, your ability to handle it with staff will go much more smoothly if your previous interactions were positive, personal ones.

Think like an employer.  For all practical purposes, congregations employ staff.  That means that the staff at a church–even the senior pastor–does not have a traditional employer that can help negotiate the rigors of the job.  If you were to think like an employer, what would change about how you treat your staff?  Let me give a few suggestions:

Employers lean on policies to protect employees.  For church staff, that means encouraging staff to take their vacations, find time to spend with family, but also be held accountable for punctuality, professionalism, and preparedness in their job.

Employers work with employees to maximize strengths and curb weaknesses.  Church staff is no different–members have strengths and weaknesses that define who they are and how they work.  Do not micromanage staff, but work with each one in order to encourage professional development by having room for people to be who they are in all of their idiosyncrasies.  Church staff are real people, not caricatures that fit your predisposed expectations.

Church staff are real people, not caricatures that fit your predisposed expectations.

Employers celebrate employees.  Form a staff support team that handles all of the special holidays and birthdays of your church’s staff.  Shower the church administrator when its Administrator Appreciation Week, for instance.  Collect a few gift cards, balloons, and cupcakes when a staff member has a birthday.  Write cards of encouragement and let your staff know that you are praying for them.  It makes a difference!

Stay invested.  The worst thing that can happen is that a parishioner goes to another church when that parishioner does not get her way.  If you have an issue with a staff member, deal with it directly, immediately, and honestly; but, be prepared for the response.  If you want a specific outcome to a problem, help the staff member address it, but know that you may not always get your way!

In fact, the church does not revolve around you, your expectations, or your personal preferences.  But you are a part of the discerning community that makes the church a part of the Body of Christ.  Discern and pray with staff as things arise, don’t be antagonistic or petty.  Be patient and have an openness of heart.  You and your staff are on the same team, there is no room for hostility or animosity.

At the end of the day, church is supposed to be a source of joy and comfort, of fulfilling the Great Commission and of ministry not misery.  If something is not going well, it is usually not because God is not present or the Spirit is not at work.  It is likely because we have done something to railroad the human relationships that keep the wheels of the church going in a forward, harmonious and productive direction.  I hope that these four tips will make a difference!

3 Reasons why the Christian Calendar is Meaningful for today’s Church

By Joe LaGuardia

Our church, First Baptist of Vero, is hosting a short-term study on the Christian calendar during the season of Lent.  Although the sacred calendar has always been a part of First Baptist’s 101-year history, the church has often made an effort to educate the congregation on the importance and meaning of the Christian year.

Much of this work has come under the 20-year tenure of the Reverend Dr. Michael Carter, our music minister, who received a doctorate under the leadership of Robert Webber, a name church liturgists associate with the Christian calendar and ancient-future worship.

When I interviewed with First Baptist over a year ago, I was delighted that Dr. Carter was the resident theologian on liturgy.  I fell in love with the Christian calendar while attending a Presbyterian church in high school and Palm Beach Atlantic University, a Baptist college out of the Charleston tradition–a tradition that champions both biblical scholarship and orderly, liturgical worship.

On the heals of Ash Wednesday and while sitting under Dr. Carter’s teachings this past Sunday as he began his study on the Christian calendar, I remembered all of the reasons why I–and the churches I have belonged to and have known–cherish the sacred year.

First, the Christian Calendar reminds me that my faith in and with Christ is not all about me.  I grew up in a northern evangelical church that promoted a simple, but strong Protestant faith devoid of anything “ritualistic.”  We celebrated Christmas and Easter, but outside of that we tried to live by the adage that our Christian witness was more about a relationship with Christ rather than religion.

But something was missing in my Christian upbringing.  By the time we moved to South Florida when I was a boy, we were so “spiritual but not religious,” that it turned out that we were neither spiritual nor religious.  In fact, my tradition was so devoid of any ritual, my only memories of spiritual experiences were limited to attending Miami Dolphins football games and that one time I walked down the aisle to make a decision for Christ at First Baptist Church of Perrine.

When I started attending New Covenant Presbyterian Church during high school and, later, PBA, I experienced all of the nuances of the Christian year.  It did not come off as ritualistic, but a way of bolstering my relationship with Christ.  I felt that I was part of something larger than myself, part of a movement–the Christian faith–that stretched two millennia into the past and connected me to the larger story of God.

As Dr. Carter stated last Sunday, “The Christian year is about sacred time that tells of God’s story, about fusing our story with God’s story, and about making the Christ event the center of that story.”

I had a strong faith from my upbringing, but now I had the skeleton to hang–and to build–some serious Christian muscles in my walk with Christ.

Second, the Christian Calendar sustains me during seasons of spiritual drought.  We all have seasons in our walk with Jesus.  Sometimes we are on fire; other times, we feel distant from God, as if we are only stepping into each day with little connection to God.  That is natural; there is a rhythm to our faith that often mimics the four seasons of the very creation of which we are a part.

It is during those times of drought and “winter” of my soul that I come to rely on the Christian year.  The rhythm of sacred time gives me the bearings and the strength to keep walking, keep at it, to hang in there.  It encourages me to keep going because, though “sorrow may last for the night, joy cometh in the morning.”

It’s like brushing teeth.  We brush our teeth because its more than a routine, it keeps us healthy and keeps cavities away.  So too the Christian calendar is good for the soul; it keeps our hearts focused on God even when God seems far from us.

I found this out the hard way after my father died tragically as a result of gun violence.  After his death, I could not pray.  I could not focus.  I did not return to the pulpit for over a month.

The liturgy–specifically the hymnody, doxology, and congregational singing–was the only thing that got me through that time of grief and heartache.  If Jesus was hard to find in the midst of tragedy, I certainly found him in the midst of song–of hearing the congregation sing, and in following those notes sprawled across that trusty Baptist hymnal.

Third, the Christian Calendar teaches us good theology. At best, theology in the contemporary church is piecemeal, the sum of a thousand topical lessons and sermons that often fail to communicate the entirety of scripture.  I have heard this first hand–a 45-minute sermon in which the pastor presents a topic or thesis, and then strings together a barrage of scriptures as if those scriptures stood independently from the context of their respective books and of the scriptural canon as a whole.

The church year walks us through the entire Bible–starting with creation, the fall of humanity, climaxing with the birth, life, death, and resurrection in Christ; and culminating with the hope of the Second Coming of Christ.  It does not stumble from Christmas to Easter and to the next topical sermon; rather, the story of Christ stands central as we learn to be born again with him, pick up our own crosses, follow Jesus into baptismal waters, through hardship of Lent and finally the joy of the empty tomb on Easter Sunday.

Dr. Carter quoted Robert Webber as stating, “The life, death, and resurrection of Christ stands at the center of time.”  This is not an event divorced from the rest of God’s story, but entangled with the whole of scripture.

I am far from idealistic.  I will continue to visit with churches and Christians who have no place in their life for the Christian year.  That is okay; people walk with Christ on their own terms.  But for me and my family, being intimately bound with a story much larger than the “LaGuardia” story brings liberation, healing, a sense of purpose, and theology that corrects and rebukes and reproves.

It is sacred, and that is something to behold.