Relevant Christian Celebrates 6 Years!

Relevant Christian posted it’s first post on February 26th, 2007 entitled Rebel, or Progressive Thinker?, and at today’s count, have had over 316 posts, well over 261,000 visitors, and 1,890 published comments.

The purpose behind Relevant Christian was born out of a growing uneasiness about the state of Christianity, and a desire to start people thinking, or maybe even start a conversation. While it was not our purposeful intention to be controversial, we have at times, definitely succeeded in being so.

Our most popular post to date, “What Does the Bible Say About Tattoos?”, has been viewed 115,910 times, and was written by a very good friend and pastor Timmy Gibson.

We have had the pleasure of having some great contributors to Relevant Christian, and I would like to say thank you to those who have contributed (no pun intended) to the success of Relevant Christian.

Timmy Gibson
Joe Martino
Bill Reichart
Dave Anderson
Chris Elrod
Justin Heibert
Joel Johnson
Tracey Eldridge
Heather
Shane Anderson
Stephen McDonald

…oh yeah….Me and one or two others that I may have neglected to mention…and of course those that have written guest posts from time to time….Thank You!

It has been an exciting journey…so far!

Who is my neighbor?

 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

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The point that Jesus is trying to emphasize is a widening concept of the term neighbor. In an overly religious setting the walls of ‘neighbor’ were defined very strictly. Jesus steps in to say that anyone in need, no matter what differences you have, is a neighbor in need of God’s grace and your concern.

And this thought has called, encouraged and sent Christian missionaries around the world for hundreds of years. We have concluded (rightly) that anyone in need is our neighbor. We have taken Jesus’ message to heart.

But in our zeal to fulfill this call we have forgotten something that is hugely important to Jesus: our actual neighbors.

Picture your house, apartment or living quarters. Make a grid like a tic-tac-toe board and put yourself in the center.

If each section of the grid were a neighbors house, could you list the eight closest people that live next to you? What else do you know about them? Can you list everyone in the house? Are they more than casual acquaintances; would you actually consider them friends?

The times I’ve done this have shown that less than 50% of people can name a majority of people around them and very few can name all eight. The speaker this last weekend shared similar results.

In our Christian passion to share our faith with the whole world we have forgotten those that live immediately around us. We have become blinded by going to all the world that we have forgotten the immediacy of those around that need to hear about Jesus.

This is one reason I push missional theology. It forces us to wrestle with the way we think of “Christian missions.” The job isn’t always ‘to go’ to exotic places and eat different food. Sometimes Christ’s call is to stay and be with those he has put around us. It’s to know about Bill and Brenda. Have them into your home and be more than fence sharers, be real neighbors. Love them into the Kingdom.

Confessions of a Frustrated (Christian) Preacher, pt 5

Confessions of a Frustrated (Christian) Preacher, pt 5 (1 of 2)

“In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me. I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of this boast. Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make use of my rights in preaching it” (1 Corinthians 9:7-18).

“ ‘I’ve had it with the church. I think that I should go back to school and become a psychotherapist.’

“That’s what a lot of disillusioned clergy do. They still want to help people, but they can’t seem to do it within the church.” (Charles Irish, Back to the Upper Room, 9)

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My second full-time, paid ministry position began when I was 27 and ended when I was 29 and 5 months. I was too young. Someone told me that, a respected person, when I was at a weekend retreat. Ah, sure. Who at the age of 27 wants to be told, let alone admit, that they are too young for something? Many professional athletes are in their prime at 27, it shouldn’t be any different for a paid preacher. I confess that I was not fully prepared for the level of politics that has to be played in a local congregation and in that sense I was too young. I was naive, easily manipulated, impulsive, defensive, and stubborn. There was yet to be developed in me the spirit of faith, the sustenance of grace, and the humility of defenselessness. Those things are developed in the crucible of turmoil.

I have said, on more than one occasion, that paid ministry is a different animal altogether. The local paid preacher, at least in my own denomination, carries a great deal of responsibility—far more than is biblically mandated or professionally reasonable. If the preacher is part of a multi-person staff, that responsibility is lessened; if he is solo, it is heightened. In all of the churches I have served, I have been solo with no other paid staff. (Please don’t misinterpret me here: I assure you this is not a complaint, just reality.) This means, ultimately, that the bulk of the work falls on the paid preacher’s shoulders. I was young enough to expect the church to work and encouraged the church to be an ‘every member ministry’. Every member ministry is a myth of epic proportions. The American way is easier: Let’s just pay someone to do it.

The paid preacher is chained, literally, to the expectations of those who write his job description and sign his paycheck. He is only relatively free to pursue his gifts and passions. He is on-call 24/7 and is paid for 40. Again, there is no whining here, just brutal facts. The sad truth is that in my experience paid ministry is neither ‘paid’ nor ‘ministry.’ It is something akin to indentured servitude or serfdom if he lives in a parsonage. I don’t think that is an exaggeration. There is the unwritten rule that the preacher can be bothered at any time, for any reason, and by any person. His home phone is published under the words ‘parsonage’ unless he owns his own house.

I believe there is a place for our modern concept of ministry and I believe there are some people who are made for it. It and they are called, collectively, The Church, The Body of Christ, The Congregation. The worker, yes, is worth his wage, but I have grown to believe more and more that our modern model for paid ministry is downright unbiblical and unnecessary when the Church functions according to the biblical descriptions and prescriptions. The Bible describes the church as a place where everyone is gifted by God (e.g., 1 Corinthians 12) to accomplish the work He has prepared in advance for us to do (cf. Ephesians).

The problem, as I see it, is that congregations end up believing they have paid for services—therefore, they do not have to do anything but show up on Sundays—that is, admittedly, a terribly vague generalization and not true in all cases. “It” is the preacher’s job. And if it is done properly, the paid preacher will spend the majority of his time planning, administrating, attending meetings, taking phone calls, or visiting the parishioners in their houses among other things. Most preachers will not be lost in their study of the Scripture or hunkering down in the prayer closet. Yet this doesn’t seem to jive with what Scripture says. Consider Acts 6 where we can clearly see that the responsibilities of the church have clear lines of delineation:

“In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.

“This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.”

In the absence of apostles dedicated to the preaching and praying, I believe that some are specifically called to such ministry. As Paul wrote in Ephesians Jesus himself apportioned such gifts (such people!): “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…” Some people are specifically called and gifted for ‘pastoral’ (visitation) ministry; others are not. Some are specifically called to preaching ministry; most are not. Since very few churches are willing (or able) to pay someone simply for their involvement in the Word and Prayer, the line gets blurred and ‘paid’ preachers become hirelings to do all the work that those gifted in the congregation should do—a truly every member ministry. Instead of all of us taking care of one another, it is the ‘pastor’s’ job.
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I think there is a better way to do church, a better way to be church—a better way to be a minister of Christ. I also believe that this is precisely the place where my disillusionment with the church and with ‘paid ministry’ comes into the picture. I know it is not the same for every single preacher on the planet. I know my experience is and is not unique. I know that making one person, effectively, the CEO/Pastor/Preacher/Planner/Etc., is the American way to do things. I know there is not a biblical prohibition against paid ministry per se. (Although I don’t know that the modern version is what the apostles had in mind.)

But what I have experienced has led me to a place where I can no longer do ministry precisely because of the paycheck that comes along with it. The paycheck hasn’t freed me for ministry, it has shackled me to the expectations of others and it has prevented the full expenditure of whatever gifts and passions I might have (and probably stagnated my congregation since I seem unable to motivate them at any level). In other words, it has limited ministry. What’s better? Preaching to a few people on Sunday mornings, once per week, for about 30 minutes and hoping that the church building will be the primary place for ‘salt and light’ type of evangelism, and being beholden to the whims of the paycheck? Or being out and about among the ‘lost’ all day, every day, doing good deeds, influencing people directly who are without Christ, preaching as we go, wherever we go, wherever we are led, and being free to do ministry out of love and not obligation?

This is the struggle I have been having for a number of years now and it has come to a head in my current ministry. The frustration is born out of the problems I noted above and out of the desire to be free to serve Christ in a more meaningful way because I love and not because I am obligated.
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“How can they fathom that half the world is too poor to feed its kids when their church just spent two years raising money to build an addition to their building? They gather, they sing, they hear a talk from the pastor, and then they get back in the car with their parent and they go home; the garage door opens up, the car goes in, and the garage door goes down. This is the revolution? This is what Jesus had in mind?” (Rob Bell and Don Golden, Jesus Wants to Save Christians, 138)

I don’t believe it is. Christ has called us to something more as ministers of his Gospel.

Confessions of a Frustrated (Christian) Preacher, pt 2

Confessions of a Frustrated (Christian) Preacher, pt 2

“So Christ himself gave the…evangelists, pastors, and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…”—Paul, to the Ephesian Church, 4:11-12

“Preachers must be willing to risk conflict, resistance, and rejection by the church in order to be faithful to the church’s peculiar vocation: joyful subservience to the Word. Preachers are to serve the Word, not be acquiescent to the congregation. In a day when pastoral care for and caring about the needs of the congregation has virtually overwhelmed much of Christian ministry, Barth reminds us that the best and most loving service that we clergy can render to our people is utter subservience to the Word.” (William Willimon, Conversations with Barth on Preaching, 245)

In this installment of my exercise in exorcising of pastoral demons, I’d like to share a little of the journey I have taken to get from there to here.

It’s not a little like A Hobbit’s Tale. I was minding my own business, working, newly married and quite ready to progress on doing nothing for the rest of my life and I was interrupted by a knock on the door. Probably not a literal knock, but no less audible. It was my own fault for answering.

Three or four months later I was at college. I don’t know why I was drawn to the Christian College as opposed to, say, a more useful and secular version of higher education institutes. Don’t get me wrong: Christian college was a wonderful place to spend four years with my wife and to learn to dislike music majors and professors, but practically speaking, the degree I spent a lot of money to earn is worthless (unless the good grades are parlayed into a Master’s degree or higher). Outside of a local congregation within the highly regulated world of Restoration Movement churches (where having the right name means a great deal) there’s not much use for the highly coveted Bachelor’s of Religious Education with majors in Theology and Bible Teaching. Seriously.

Still, I went and I did well. I accomplished a lot in college and I am proud of that. Sadly, no one seems to have recognized it but me. Magna Cum Laude is nothing to scoff at especially when it was earned while failing at two youth ministries, having a child, going through 6 months of chemotherapy and 6 weeks of radiation with my wife, totaling a car, going through a 20+ day stay in the hospital with my wife, and wondering day after day where money would come from to buy food. (And my GPA would have been higher if not for the music department screwing me on two grades.)

Renee and I went on through four years and at the end I got a nice piece of paper and a shiny yellow ribbon (called a graduation stole), a pat on the back, a bill from the library for fines, and a truck loaded with stuff.
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I went there with hardly a plan. I know I should have had a plan, but I really didn’t have anyone guiding me even if I had this strange feeling that I should live in Michigan, go to a Bible College, and do something once I had the degree. Do what? I didn’t know. After the first year I was convinced that I was going to be a missionary and go to Vietnam to do so. (At the time I was helping a pastor friend who was working with Vietnamese refugees in Lansing.) I remember one time going to a missions dinner and hearing a missionary speaker talk about the great need for missionaries in the world. I went up to him after that speech ready to sign-up and go. His counsel deflated my enthusiasm. He said that I should stay in school and finish my degree. That was the best thing I could do, he said, that I needed to be prepared when I went out on the field.

2 years later I graduated with a degree in theology. 1 month later I was serving a small family church (literally) in West Virginia. Not quite my idea of ministry, but who was I to question the Lord’s leading? My wife was a little bolder to question my decision making and my choice to move to West Virginia (I may as well have gone to Vietnam.) I didn’t listen. All I wanted to do was preach. That’s what I was called to do. Preach. I needed to get on with it.

We went. We suffered. We failed. We left. And for nearly a year I was out of the paid ministry.
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I cannot even begin to tell you how horrifying it was to endure that year and a half of ministry. I was totally unprepared. There is a major, major difference between having a degree in theology, graduating Magna Cum Laude, and thinking that that necessarily qualifies one to be The minister of a local church. One ‘Introduction to Ministries’ and two classes in Homiletics does not prepare one for local church ministry. And in no way qualifies one for ministry in West Virginia.

During that year off I worked as a restaurant manager and I worked as a simple laborer at a plant my dad ran. The restaurant was fun but the hours were long and the pay sucked. The labor job was dirty, filthy dirty, but I saw my dad every day and I liked busting my ass for him. We also went back to church at my home church, the church that had ordained me into ministry. There we began to teach the youth a little, I taught an adult Bible school class, and I was involved in a major Easter production that involved some acting and singing. I was starting to get the itch again.

Then one day I heard about a local church that needed a preacher. I called. The preacher was still there and I was not a little embarrassed (he was leaving, but was still packing his office). But he was gracious and told me about another church, ‘just across the river,’ in West Virginia that needed a preacher. I called. I did some pulpit supply for them. And about two months later or so (I forget the exact timing) I was hired on as their full time paid Senior minister.

A nice, new, big parsonage. A bigger congregation with more resources and ambition. A significant salary increase over my restaurant job. Close to home so my parents and in-laws could see the children. What a dream job! Finally. All of this was mine. Finally, I can put those good grades to work and grow a mega-church which we were all, in Church Growth 101, led to believe was what God wanted from us as ministers, and which, many preachers along the way, assured us would happen with the right techniques in place.

After all, on field trip day in Church Growth class, these were the only sorts of churches we visited. We didn’t go to small rinky-dink, struggling, single-staff churches in the middle of cornfields. We went to thriving, metropolitan, multi-staff churches in Detroit and elsewhere. There, nicely dressed ministers who had it all together waxed eloquent about how God had blessed them with so much and had blessed their ministries and what nice buildings God had given and how they were expanding this and doing that. (Which was always, it seemed to me, nice ways of saying, “Look what I did!”)

My second ministry in West Virginia was two and a half years of pure, absolute, from the deepest, darkest, nastiest places of the pit, chaotic Hell.

If my education did nothing to prepare me for my first paid position, it did less to prepare me for my second.
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The thing is, I have no doubts that I am called to preach. What I do have doubts about is that I am called to preach in a paid local way. There are some, indeed many, who are called to such things and have the temperament to do so. What I am learning, some 15 years after my graduation and nearly 18 since my ordination, is that I am not one of them.

There’s another side to these various ministries that I will tell you about in part 4 of this series. But first, there is part 3. In my next installment of this series, I’ll tell you a little about the two and a half years of pure hell I enjoyed at my second full-time paid position and I’ll also tell you what led to my current position (the one I still own).

“It’s a dangerous business going out your front door.” (Bilbo Baggins)

Indeed.

Things or People Referenced in this post:

JRR Tolkien
William Willimon
Great Lakes Christian College