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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Unity and World Communion Sunday

By Matt Sapp

The first Sunday in October is World Communion Sunday.  So this Sunday at Central Baptist Church, we’ll celebrate the Lord’s Supper in worship as thousands of churches and millions of Christians all over the globe do the same.

Over the years, I’ve developed a growing appreciation for the shared experience that will connect Christians all over the world. On World Communion Sunday, we remember that there is much more that unites us than divides us.

Much more Unites Us as Human Beings

In the Lord’s Supper, we share in the physical presence of God in the world—and reminded that the “word made flesh” took on human form! All human beings are made in the very image of God. There are no differences among us—no differences of faith or location or nationality or race or culture or creed—that are greater than the unity we find in our common Creator and our common likeness to God.

One of the great miracles of the Lord’s Supper is the power it has to exert a unifying influence even beyond our Christian faith.

Much More Unites Us as Global Christians

It’s easy to focus on the things that divide us: Theological differences expressed across denominations. Cultural differences expressed across continents. Language barriers. Some Christians, like in the United States, exert a dominant influence in their culture. Others forge their faiths as persecuted minorities. Many, as in post-Christian Europe, practice their faith in a sea of shoulder-shrugging indifference.

But all Christians everywhere celebrate communion. All Christians in every setting profess Jesus as Lord and Savior. This Sunday, as we participate in the shared practice of communion, we remember that.

Much More Unites Us as American Christians

The closer we get to home, the easier it is to find fault with our neighbor. It isn’t always easy to be a faithful Christian in America today, and the largest challenge to our faith comes from within. No secular agenda or threat from a competing faith does nearly as much to threaten Christianity in America as do the divisions we sow among ourselves.

But on World Communion Sunday, Baptist Christians and Methodist Christians and Progressive Christians and Conservative Christians and Fundamentalist Christians and Liberal Christians and Black Christians and White Christians and Asian Christians and Hispanic Christians and Christians from big cities and Christians from small towns and Christians from traditional Churches and Christians from contemporary churches and young Christians and old Christians will approach God’s table together to remember that the one thing we can agree on is the only thing that matters.

Christ’s instruction at the table, “Do this in remembrance of me,” means something. How often do we forget Christ in our disagreements?

Much More Unites Us as Local Church Members

Rarely do serious doctrinal issues divide us from those who sit next to us in the pew. More often, it’s petty grievances, long-held grudges, and remembered slights that wedge their way in between those closest to us. It’s the invitation not reciprocated. It’s the disagreement over the table decorations from six Thanksgivings ago. It’s the difference that bubbled up in finance committee or the errant comment during Sunday School that caught you the wrong way.

How small, though, do those differences become when we eat the bread and share the cup together? The Lord’s Supper reminds us that we are one in mission and purpose; one in our need for forgiveness and redemption; and one in the gift and blessing of salvation.

I can’t think of anything that our individual churches, our national faith communities, or our world need more than a sense of shared purpose and mutual goodwill. And I can’t think of anywhere more unifying than the communion table.

So find a church this Sunday that’s planning to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and go to it.

If you’re in Newnan, I’d love to see you at Central.

Happy World Communion Sunday.

Hymnody and Liturgy, the undercurrents of Christ’s Church

By Joe LaGuardia
Did you know that the pulpit in the sanctuary of First Baptist Church of Vero Beach is not the original pulpit?  That pulpit is in storage.  When I first came to First Baptist, the “powers that be” gave me a choice between three pulpits: the one in the sanctuary, the original one, and the one my predecessor used in the contemporary service, a plexiglass podium-style pulpit.
I got a good look at the original pulpit, and I was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the thing.  Built in 1962, it is three-times as wide as the current one, and a bit higher.  I joke that I can’t see over it; and, if I were to use it, I’d feel like I was lording over the congregation.  It is regal, however, and communicates the majesty of our church’s legacy and the architecture.
The plexiglass pulpit is in our Family Life Center, and we use it for Bible studies and other events.  It communicates a teaching-style of preaching.  That would not work for me (in the sanctuary, that is), and it is too informal for my own preaching style.
The one they had in the sanctuary–the one we currently use–is just right!  It is heavy enough to communicate the weight of the authority of scripture and of our preaching heritage, but it is light enough to move off the stage when we have special events.  It matches the rest of the sanctuary, and I can easily move around it when I preach and want to “connect” with the congregation.  It is an easy pulpit to stand in and to stand beside.  I can see over it, too.  That helps.
The Old-Fashioned Hymn Sing we hosted at church last Sunday reminded me, however, that with all of the pulpits and preachers that pass through churches over the years, it is liturgy–the worship of the people and the hymnody–that sustains churches over the years.  Preaching styles and pulpits come and go, but the Word of the Lord  grounds us, worship unites us, and the Lord strengthens and provides for us.
Singing the hymns last Sunday allowed this feeling of continuity to rise in my heart.  For all that makes us unique and diverse, it is our worship that makes us one Body in Christ.  And for that I am grateful, and for that I can celebrate and know that this God whom we serve has lifted us up and has carried us “through the ages” (Isaiah 63:9).
We don’t sing to be nostalgic, we sing to bring glory and honor to God’s name.  We don’t sing because it makes us feel good (though that happens!), but to declare the mighty works of the Lord and to praise Jesus for being our Lord and Savior.