And the Church went away, grieved


By Joe LaGuardia

In Mark 10, a rich young man asked Jesus how to possess eternal life.  Jesus told him to follow through on the Ten Commandments.   The man was religious and had a routine.  He served God and made charitable contributions to society.  “But there is one thing you lack,” Jesus told him, “Sell all you have…”

The lesson is filled with irony.  A rich man had lack, and the lack was the willingness to part with all of the things that got in God’s way.  Being religious was not enough.  Doing good works was not enough.  The man was so busy consuming things that he thought eternal life was just another commodity to own.  But eternal life is not a product; it is a gift to receive with an open and expectant heart.

The man did not understand Jesus’ command.  How did he lack something?  He owned everything–and the Bible says that he walked away from Jesus “grieved.”  He failed to understand something St. Augustine learned long ago, that sometimes, “Our hands are so full of things, there is nowhere for God to put new blessings.”

I studied this portion of scripture at the same time that I have been reflecting on the role of grief in the lives of churches.  This idea of church grief came out of a pastor’s retreat I attended in late September.  Bill Wilson, director of the Center for Healthy Churches and facilitator of said retreat, mentioned that there was a consultant working with churches that emphasized grief in the lives of congregations.  Pastors new to a congregation or pastors exiting one need to know how grief shapes community.

The notion is very simple: Churches grieve during transitions (both clergy transitions as well as ministerial ones), and churches do not instinctively know how to handle grief.  There is little conversation about what hurts, and grief comes in the form of lament: Why do we not have the same amount of people in the pews as when the church was in the “Golden Age”?  Why has the church lost so much cultural influence in society?  Why are we losing entire generations–“Where are all of the young people?”  These are questions born out of grief, not out of intentional strategic outreach.

They are symptomatic; but as all grief turns out to be, they can lead to greater opportunities rather than hindrances.  Grief can be life-giving or a burden; it is all based on how we respond to it–and most churches do not respond appropriately.

Ministers who miss these emotional cues are ill-prepared to help churches transition into new, life-giving seasons of ministry and missions.  Churches that get stuck on the past forget what God calls them to be in the future.  Congregations turn insular, power struggles erupt, and conflict damages outreach.

“There is one thing you lack…” is not only a call for individuals, it is a challenge for churches to let go of the things that no longer work or sustain growth.  Our congregations are so filled with baggage and programs of yesteryear there is no room–and no vision–for God to give the new blessings that propel churches into a new era of ministry.

Ministry is not going to look the same as it did decades ago.  The church must now work from the margins of society, not the center of it; and it must advocate for an outward-focused mission that joins others on the margins rather than cozying up with people and politicians who wield power from the center.  Centralized power exploits, discriminates, and sustains status quos at the expense of justice and liberation.  The church stumbles when it forgets its place; it is not rich, and it lacks that posture of open hands and hearts in which we look to God for our strength.

We have become the church of Laodicea, not Philadelphia.  We think we are rich, and we have pushed Jesus out of our churches because we are too full of our own pride.  But Jesus stands at the door and knocks.  Hope is not lost yet.

Pastors have to play two roles in the church these days: one is the role of visionary prophet who dreams new dreams and casts new visions.  The other is to be a grief counselor that helps put old ways of doing things to rest, to purge us of baggage that takes too much attention or that fills time and hands.  It is as Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).  Pastors must facilitate life and death.  The only other alternative is to remain stagnate, to walk in perpetual grief.

 

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Where have the Charismatics Gone?

charismaBy Joe LaGuardia

In the spirit of Paula Cole, I’ve been asking, “Where have all the charismatics gone?”  Its been some twenty years since I found myself at a revival service, praying over a friend who had been “slain in the spirit.”

These days, I’m not so sure I have any close ties in that religious world where speaking in tongues, shouting, healings, and exhilarating praise was ubiquitous.

For those who are not up on their charismatic (or, sometimes called, “Renewal Movement”) parlance, being “slain in the spirit” is a physical act of surrendering to God–literally, falling on the ground–in a state of worship.  Like other manifestations of the spirit, it is an outward reaction to an emotional response.  Its something for which Pentecostals are known.

Unbeknownst to many of my friends, my home church in South Florida is a charismatic congregation.  We praised God with abandon, made for a multicultural community that valued “prophecy” and tongues, and danced in the aisles.

I was more subdued–always was a quiet guy (“Sorry, Mr. President, I don’t dance.”)–but I knew of the methods and means of revival, well-versed in the gifts of the Spirit as outlined in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and attended my share of retreats.

Charles Finney: A Face only a Mother can Love...

Charles Finney: A Face only a Mother can Love…

I even read several works by Charles Finney for the fun of it.

That was a long time ago.  I can only guess how the charismatic movement is fairing these days.  The only evidence of its presence that I have seen in Georgia of late has been in  the prosperity gospel movement and in some megachurches.

Some denominations, like the Four-Square church and Vineyard Churches, are still carrying on the work of revival and renewal–but they are few and far between.

Furthermore, many charismatic leaders, aspiring to find a sustainable relationship with the academy, became scholars and seminary professors.  Whether it evolved into the megachurch or the ivory tower, this kind of organization is often a spirit-stifling institutionalization that makes the gifts of the Spirit mere products to consume rather than experiences to cherish.

Also, the charismatic movement has not been without controversy and its critics. Pastor David Yonggi Cho of one of the largest charismatic churches in the world, South Korea’s Yoida Full Gospel Church, was sentenced last year for embezzling millions of dollars.

In Southern Baptist life, all things charismatic  is approached with contempt.   At one time, missionaries were not allowed to speak in tongues or “private prayer languages.”  Only recently did the Convention reverse the policy in light of a broadening constituency that struggles to balance diversity and dogma.

In 2013, author and pastor John MacArthur led a “Strange Fire” conference in which he openly attacked  Pentecostals and Catholics, calling the charismatic movement heretical and misleading.

Aside from these issues, churches in the charismatic tradition are actually the fastest growing churches in the world.  To answer my own question, the movement has not diminished, but has been outsourced.

In the global South, Pentecostalism is growing at an exponential rate, claiming the allegiance of over 25% of Christians worldwide.  I may not know any charismatics these days, but its influence across denominational and theological spectrums is undeniable.

Why have I been out of charismatic circles for so long?  Well, just as the charismatic movement has evolved, I have evolved too.

This is not to discredit my charismatic upbringing; quite the opposite: I am grateful for it because I am able to traverse Baptist life as an ordained minister with an intuitive eye on where the Spirit might be leading Christ’s Church.

For the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a break-off denomination from the more conservative Southern Baptist Convention (and the network I call home), this charismatic leaning may possibly afford a greater inclusive spirit to diversity, globalization, and pluralism that now defines many churches and neighborhoods.

I am not the only one with a charismatic background in the CBF, and my upbringing has benefited Trinity in continuing a strong foundation for missions, worship, and ministry that fits the eclectic and often-times multicultural milieu in which many churches now find themselves.

Although we have given up much ground to the prosperity gospel movement or an institutionalized consumerist Christian subculture, we who still cherish the Renewal Movement are better for it.

Report from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly

CBF Commissioning Service/Dallas 2015-Courtesy CBF

CBF Commissioning Service/Dallas 2015-Courtesy CBF

By Matt Sapp

Julie and I along with several other members of our congregation spent three days last week in Dallas for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) General Assembly. If you’re not sure what CBF is, Heritage was founded as a CBF church, meaning that we — and many other churches across the nation — pool our resources through CBF to support missions and ministry around the world.

The meeting, as always, was uplifting and hopeful, so I came away from the Assembly as I usually do, encouraged by the progress and energy of the Fellowship.  So let me share some of those good feelings with you.

Here are three observations from this year’s assembly that give me hope for our future together:

The Fellowship is moving forward.  We’ve upped our game in the last several years, and there’s no reason to think that trend won’t continue.  A most noticeable difference is in our public image. For a few years our branding was clearly dated, and we fell behind the curve in our graphic design and live production capabilities.

This year at the General Assembly our live production work was flawless. The lighting and sound worked perfectly. Our video production (both live and recorded pieces) was top notch. In short, we looked like we knew what we were doing.

More importantly, the new color scheme and logo were showcased in fantastic ways, giving new energy and attractiveness to our printed materials, video segments, and online presence.

This might sound superficial, but image matters.  It matters a lot.  We live in a world that won’t look beyond our dated facade to hear our message.  If we believe we have a message worth sharing, what we look like and how we share that message matters.  A 2015 image is a REQUIREMENT to reach a 2015 audience, and the CBF nailed it this year.

Second, we’ve almost completely transitioned from our founding generation to a new generation of leadership. That in and of itself isn’t a good thing.  It’s just true.  Next year we’ll celebrate 25 years of CBF, and the Fellowship is going to miss the active, every day leadership of people who could say, “I was there from day one.”

We’ll miss their leadership for a number of reasons.  We’ll miss them for their courage, their conviction, and their moral clarity.  We’ll miss their personal history with theological controversy.  They understand the stakes of denominational leadership in ways that those who weren’t there never will.  And we’ll miss their integrity—integrity proved by the willingness to stand on principle even when the costs were high.

Our founding generation understands what’s required organizationally and spiritually to create something new on a national scale.  Think about it: They created seminaries, missions infrastructures, publishing houses and Sunday School literature, youth and children’s programs, state agencies and organizational partnerships.  And they did it all from scratch—or nearly scratch.

Even more, they led churches — big churches and small churches, urban churches and rural churches, progressive churches and conservative churches — to let go of past affiliations in favor of a new dream. Did I mention their courage?

But the good news is that there’s another generation behind them. Not an “up and coming” generation anymore, but a generation that is leading right now.  And there’s a third generation of leaders behind them!

The test of any dream is whether it can survive beyond the lives of those who birthed it.  The good news — the GREAT news — is that CBF will.  That’s not new news, but it is good news, and it was re-affirmed for me at this year’s meeting.

Finally, there are A LOT of creative people doing creative things to grow the Kingdom of God who are proud to be a part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.   That makes me proud to be a part of CBF, too.  As part of the Fellowship, we partner with creative and talented missionaries and church planters and chaplains; with leading theologians and ethicists and creative thinkers; with gifted artists and musicians; with inspiring preachers and teachers; and with dedicated deacons and choir directors and Sunday School teachers.

We partner with leaders who start new churches and renew old ones, with some who find new ways to proclaim the gospel in well-tilled soil, and others who blaze new trails to share Jesus with people who have never heard that name before.

Through CBF we support people who are dreaming new dreams, trying new things for Christ, and finding new ways to put their faith into action.  The collective newness of what they’re doing, the creativity they bring to their tasks, and the risk-taking involved in stepping into the unknown bring much needed energy to our fellowship.

As the world around us changes and as churches change, CBF Christians are finding more ways to use their talents for their churches and God’s kingdom — as writers, photographers, graphic designers, video producers and technology gurus — and as pastors, worship leaders, scholars and missionaries who are willing to re-imagine the church for the 21st century.

We are excited about much and proud to be a Fellowship church. We should never overlook the enormity of our accomplishments or the hope of our futures together.  There’s never been a better time to be a CBF church than now.

This article first appeared on the Heritage Baptist Fellowship blog.  Used with permission.