Tag Archives: Institution

Membership and Motivation

“We will not neglect the house of our God.”
Nehemiah 10:39 (NIV)

I had been serving as the pastor of a small church for about a year when I got a call asking for my presence at an emergency meeting of the church Elders. That’s never a comforting sign.

I arrived at the meeting to find that there was one major issue on the agenda: Me. Specifically, one of the Elders expressed grave concern that was not an official member of the church.

Big trouble.

“Um, you all called me to be your pastor. Doesn’t that, kinda by default, make me a member?”

Nope.

“So, what do I have to do to become a member?”

Write a letter requesting I be granted membership status, then present it to the congregation for a vote.

“Um…Okay.”

I happy to report that the vote was overwhelming in favor of me, the church’s Pastor, becoming a member.

Whew!” [cue: Wiping sweat from brow.]

What’s both funny and ironic is that the “membership” issue has arisen in almost every church I’ve attended and served. I admit that I am a bit of a maverick after having experiences like the one I’ve just related. It is a piece of the institution of church that is obviously very important to certain individuals. I take issue with it, however. Every church institution I’ve ever attended has had a large number of people who jumped through the institutional hoops to become official “members,” but they never come or participate in any way. No one ever complains or has a problem with this. Meanwhile, if I actively participate with my consistent attendance, service, and offerings but don’t jump through the institutional hoops to get a piece of paper telling me that I’m “in,” then certain people get their undies in a bunch.

Thank you for letting me vent.

In today’s chapter, Nehemiah records what amounts to a legal document that records the commitment of the exiles to follow the Law of Moses and to provide prescribed offerings that would be necessary for the carrying out of the sacrificial system of the Temple. This was no small thing. The sacrificial system established through Moses was an intricate, even burdensome, system of sacrifices that required a large population’s offerings to keep it moving as laid out. Their legal contract was signed and sealed. It is obvious that Nehemiah felt it important to make the people’s obedience to the sacrificial system legally binding.

Here’s what I find fascinating as I mull things over in the quiet. The sacrificial system had been in place for roughly a thousand years. Time and time again it fell apart and became given over to various forms of religious and political corruption. That was part of Nehemiah’s “recounting” in yesterday’s chapter. So, Governor Nehemiah decides to try a legally binding agreement to try and keep people in line.

It didn’t work.

Some 400 years later when Jesus arrives on the scene the Temple system had become a corrupt, powerful money-making racket run by Godfather-esque high priests bent on lining their pockets and controlling the system. That’s why Jesus went postal on the Temple’s currency exchange marketplace not just once, but twice. It’s why he brutally denounced and called out the priests and teachers of the law for their corruption (read Matthew 23).

It’s also why Jesus time and time again taught the masses by starting with “You have heard it said…” then “But, I say….” The crux of Jesus’ message was that God’s concern was not about rule keeping and legally binding adherence to prescribed religious practices. God’s concern was for a change of heart that motivates real, tangible change in the way we love, live, give, and relate to others.

As a follower of Jesus, that’s where I want to follow. I want to invest my time, energy, and resources through my local gathering of Jesus followers because the love of Christ compels me, not because I have a piece of paper telling me I’m a “member” of an institution subject to the responsibilities thereof.

For the record, I am an official member of my local church out of loving deference to my brothers and sisters who find such things important. But, that’s not why I serve, give, and support. My motivation for doing my part is a matter of the heart.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Trials, Gold, and Dross

So the Israelites who had returned from the exile ate it, together with all who had separated themselves from the unclean practices of their Gentile neighbors in order to seek the Lord, the God of Israel.
Ezra 6:21 (NIV)

On Sunday, after I gave the message among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers, Wendy and I were having our normal lunch date together. Wendy had given the message the previous Sunday. She shared the story of her journey through infertility. This past Sunday I spoke about secrets and my own experience with secrets that kept me spiritually imprisoned.

There was a common theme in our messages. We both slogged our way through long stretches of trial and difficulty, and we both experienced previously unknown depths of joy and freedom at the other end of our respective valleys.

As we dined and debriefed, we discussed a few of the things that some religious people cling to as if of vital importance. Things such as church membership and adherence to a particular denominational institution. For the two of us, such trappings hold very little importance. To a certain extent, I realized that our journeys and struggles through hard spiritual terrain had refined our perspectives on what it means to be followers of Jesus. Membership certificates and institutional inclusion are of very little importance to us compared to the more tangible daily realities of our own personal, daily spiritual trek among our community of Jesus’ followers.

In today’s chapter, the returned exiles complete their construction of the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. There is a very small distinction in today’s chapter that is easily lost on a casual reader. The returned exiles are referred to as “Israelites.” When Jerusalem was besieged and the exile began, they were the nation of Judah. For hundreds of years prior to the exile, the tribes of Israel were separated in a bloody civil war. “Israel” was the northern kingdom. “Judah” was the southern kingdom. Now, upon return from their exile and the restoration of the Temple, they were simply “Israelites” along with Gentiles, like Ruth, who had chosen to follow their faith.

I couldn’t help but think that the experience of exile over 70 years changed some things for those who went through it. Old conflicts and prejudices fell by the wayside. Those who returned had a renewed understanding of what was truly important and what things simply didn’t matter all that much in the eternal perspective. That’s what exilic experiences and the spiritual struggle through valleys of pain, grief, and trouble will do for a person. It refines things. I’m reminded of Peter’s words to fellow believers scattered across the Roman Empire experiencing dreadful persecution:

May the thought of this cause you to jump for joy, even though lately you’ve had to put up with the grief of many trials. But these only reveal the sterling core of your faith, which is far more valuable than gold that perishes, for even gold is refined by fire. Your authentic faith will result in even more praise, glory, and honor when Jesus the Anointed One is revealed.
1 Peter 1:6-7 (TPT)

In the process of refining metal, which Peter uses as a metaphor, the gold remains while the “dross” (literally “scum on molten metal”) is removed as useless and worthless.

In the quiet this morning I find myself pondering those things that my trials have refined and revealed to be the gold of eternal importance and those things that my trials have revealed to be worthless scum in the grand scheme of things.

Rediscovering the Organism

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
1 Corinthians 12:27 (NIV)

I remember getting the call. There was an emergency meeting of the church elders. I was a young man and had been serving as pastor of a rural church for over a year. As I made my way to the church office for the hastily called meeting I wondered what on earth the problem was.

As it turned out, the problem was me. Apparently, I had not officially gone through the prescribed bureaucratic hoops required to become a member of the church when I was hired. One of the elders had their undies in a bunch because I’d never become a member. I sort of figured that if the congregation hired me, I was kind of automatically grandfathered in. Oh, no. How could I be serving as Pastor of the organization if I wasn’t a member of said organization? We have an existential crisis on our hands, people!!

I did my best not to laugh. At the next congregational meeting I submitted my name for membership, the congregation approved, and that little bit of silliness was put to rest.

The sad thing is that I’ve encountered similar kinds of silliness in the institutional church wherever my journey has taken me. Looking back over my journey, I’m struck at how different the institutional paradigm of “church” that I grew up with compares to the word picture of “the body of Christ” that Paul gives to the believers in Corinth in today’s chapter.

The word picture of the “Body” is a living organism made up of all believers. The church I grew up in was an organization made up of just those who chose to go through membership class, go through interviews with the elders, and accepted the “right hand of fellowship” along with a nice certificate (perfect for framing) during a Sunday morning meeting. In Paul’s word picture, every believer has a spiritual gift and has a significant part to play in contributing to the work of the Body of Christ as a whole. The church I grew up in had a few appointed “ministers” approved by the organization to do ministry. The vast majority of us were little more than spectators and financial support. Paul’s word picture of the Body is inclusive and includes all believers regardless of age, gender, social status, or ethnic background. The church I grew up in was exclusive to those who had a certificate of membership, which is why the elder in my earlier story was horrified by the notion that I was serving as their pastor but hadn’t jumped through the bureaucratic hoops of the organization to get mine.

To be sure, even in Paul’s day the church was struggling to provide some kind of organizational framework for a movement that had gone from just over 100 people to tens of thousands of people in just a few years. Nevertheless, when the organism of the Body of Christ that Paul describes in today’s chapter became an organization and then a political, social, and religious institution of the Roman Empire a couple of hundred years later, I believe something was lost.

I’ve observed along my life journey that the church institutions of my childhood are dying. The old mainline denominations have fractured and faded. People are increasingly embittered by the systemic sins of a global religious institution and its leaders who refuse to deal honestly and forthrightly with the issues. When I grew up, a politician was required to be a member of an acceptable religious organization or institution in order to be considered a good candidate. I find it fascinating that a leading politician recently stated that membership in a legacy religious organization is a sign of prejudice and hate speech, disqualifying a person from serving in a government position.

Oh my. The times, they are a changin’.

And, in the quiet this morning I’m thinking that maybe it’s a good thing. History leads me to believe that the Jesus movement is always more effective when it is persecuted and less effective when it is in power. Perhaps we’ll learn how to become an organism once again. You’re welcome to join me. I won’t even ask you to show me a certificate of membership.

Vocation and Ministry

Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living?
1 Corinthians 9:6 (NIV)

Work has been a little crazy for me in recent weeks. I’m in the midst of my 25th year with our company and completing my first year at the helm, leading the operation. Year-end means wrapping up current year business for clients, writing and managing proposals for the coming year, Board meetings, year-end financials, and all of the administrative work that comes with all of it. Beyond that there is the vision casting and strategic planning for where I hope to lead the company in the year(s) ahead.

When I was hired back in 1994 I left 6 years of working in full-time pastoral and para-church ministry. At the time, my mother was a bit disappointed in my vocational change. For several years she would occasionally ask “Are you ever going to go back into the ministry?” My response was always, “I never left ministry.” She would roll her eyes and say, “I know. But, you know what I mean.

What she meant was that “ministry” means working full-time for a church; That “real ministry” is a higher spiritual status reserved for those employed in an institutional church organization. I have found this to be a very common belief, especially in previous generations. I still, on occasion, have someone approach me after I teach on a Sunday morning and ask, “Why aren’t you in ministry?” Once again, I always respond with, “I am in ministry.” I always would like to add: “And, so are you!”

I love an appreciate the incredibly gifted and driven full-time staff members of our local church community. The operation couldn’t function without them, and because of them it functions remarkably well. Because of them, the operation accomplishes abundantly more than most of our community’s members even realize. I’m quite certain, however,  that even they would agree with me that “ministry” is not confined to those individuals on the organization’s payroll.

I find it a dangerous notion to place a label of “ministry” on those in full-time employment by a church or non-profit para-church ministry. The implication is that any believer who is not in one of those two vocational silos is not in ministry. This means that those of us not in full-time church or ministry employment are not in ministry (and comfortably off the hook from having to think about all that it might otherwise mean).

This is, however, contrary to the entire paradigm that God’s Message teaches. Every believer is a part of the body of Christ. Every believer is spiritually gifted by Holy Spirit regardless of age, gender, background, education, or training. Why? Because every believer is part of the ministry of the Body of Christ. We, all who believe, are His hands, feet, eyes, ears, and mouth. There are no exemptions or exceptions. I find this to be a radically different paradigm than what the institutional church has taught and exemplified for centuries. I believe it’s time to rediscover the fullness of meaning in the “priesthood of all believers.” We’re far overdue to rediscover the inherent ministry of every vocation.

I couldn’t help but read today’s chapter in context of yesterday’s chapter, in which Paul urged the Corinthian believers to surrender their right (to eat food sacrificed to idols) in order to lovingly honor fellow believers who think differently. In today’s chapter, Paul explains how he has done the very thing he’s urging them to do. He had a right to be married, to travel with a wife, to receive a full-time income for his preaching and service to the church just like all of the other apostles were doing. Paul, however, chose not to be married. Wherever he was living in the moment he chose to work at his family trade (making and repairing tents) to provide his own income. I can guarantee you that Paul leveraged his day-job of tent making and manual labor into opportunities to meet strangers, build relationships, have conversations, be an example, and extend the reach of his ministry. Tent making wasn’t separate from Paul’s ministry. It was a central and crucial part of it.

This morning I’m thankful for an amazing company I’ve had the privilege of serving for 25 years. I’m thankful for a host of relationships with colleagues, clients, and coworkers that I’d never have had were it not for my vocation. I’m grateful for the honor and privilege to lead and serve in both business and among my local community of Jesus’ followers. This morning in the quiet I find my spirit echoing Paul’s sentiment to the believers in Corinth:

What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel.

Outside of the Lines

In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
Acts 9:10 (NIV)

I’ve always had a bit of a rebellious streak in me. Working inside of large institutions typically brings it out though I don’t have a lot of examples to share because I’ve never been able to work well inside of large institutions. I’m allergic to bureaucracy. I believe God made me to work best from the outside in.

I was a few months shy of my 15th birthday when God first called me. “You will proclaim my word,” was the simple message I received. I was just naive enough, and just maverick enough not to ask questions about how. I just figured I was meant to start immediately. I delivered my first message just two months later, and within a year I was part of a team of young people traveling the state each week and speaking about Jesus wherever I was given opportunity.

As I read through the book of Acts, I’m continually struck by how the body of Christ expanded. My maverick heart immediately recognizes that it didn’t happen institutionally. In today’s chapter Jesus dramatically calls Saul, a man eager to be Jesus’ greatest enemy. Remember when Jesus said, “love your enemies and bless those who persecute you?” Yeah, Jesus did that with Saul.

Then Jesus calls on a man named Ananias. We don’t know anything about Ananias. We don’t know his background, where he came from,  or how he became a follower of Jesus. His name was quite common in that day. It’s like God choosing a guy named John Smith. Ananias was just a guy in Damascus sitting at home praying. He wasn’t one of “The Twelve.” He wasn’t in Jerusalem where the leaders of Jesus’ movement were headquartered and deciding things. Out of the blue this nobody in Damascus gets tapped by Jesus to heal the man who was His self-proclaimed worst enemy. His name only comes up one more time in the Great Story.

From a leadership perspective, I love what Jesus is doing. He isn’t confining the work of His movement to be channeled only through his chosen leader, Peter, and the other eleven proteges. Jesus is expanding the work through everyone who believes and follows. Holy Spirit is filling everyone. Spiritual gifts are being distributed to everyone; Even an unsuspecting, common man named Ananias sitting at home in Damascus praying.

Jesus isn’t creating an institution. He’s creating an organism just like He did back in the opening chapters of Genesis. He’s creating a complex living body made up of millions of individual cells each called on to do their individual part for the whole, that it may accomplish its purpose of love and salvation.

This morning I’m sitting in my hotel room getting ready to go work with a client, who happens to be a large, global corporation. Like I said, I work best from the outside in. It’s how God made me. I’m sitting here thinking about the stories of an angry man named Saul and a common man named Ananias. I love that Jesus works outside the lines. I love that He’s not a God of bureaucracy but a God of living, breathing, creative power and beauty. That’s the Jesus I know. That’s the Jesus who called to me when I was 14 and still inspires me almost 40 years later. That’s the Jesus this maverick will follow each day of this earthly life (and then into eternity).

 

Everyday People Making a Difference

Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people.
Acts 6:6 (NIV)

When I became a follower of Jesus as a young person, it so happened that my sister and a handful of other young people from our mainline Protestant church had made similar decisions. Excited about what God was doing in our lives, we had some great ideas about how we could share the good news. We thought it would be cool to do a series of meetings over a weekend with live music and to invite a good speaker that people would want to hear. So, we took our idea to the pastor and educational administrator of our church. Our idea was shot down immediately.

This was the first of many run-ins I’ve had along my journey with institutional churches. Most traditional, institutional churches have been historically hierarchical (and patriarchal, as well). Authority is given from the top-down, and power is dispensed and brokered just as it was among the temple priests and teachers of the law in Jesus’ day; Just as it is in almost any large institution. My friends and I were shot down because we were just kids, our idea was not approved by the denominational institution, and the speaker we wanted, while highly educated and capable, wasn’t credentialed in our particular denomination.

The thing I find fascinating in reading through the book of Acts is this early, dynamic explosion of faith. Thousands were choosing to follow Jesus, believe His resurrection, and give everything to what had become a “movement.” But it was different than the institutional Temple where it began. The Temple divided people. There was a section for women, a section for Gentiles (non-Jews), and a section only for priests. The followers of Jesus, however, met together. Everyone met together, ate together, and prayed together whether old, young, male, female, Jew, Gentile, slave, or priest.

In the institutional, hierarchical Temple, only priests and approved teachers of the law had the authority to do certain things. When the Holy Spirit pours out in and through the followers of Jesus, suddenly the “unschooled, unlearned” believers began teaching and speaking with spiritual authority. Signs and wonders began to be displayed through all believers, irregardless of education, age, gender, tribe, or social standing.

In today’s chapter, a man named Stephen is described as having performed many signs and wonders. He speaks in a synagogue and, filled with Holy Spirit, argues circles around the institutional lawyers and teachers. Stephen wasn’t one of the twelve. He wasn’t an original apostle. He was just another member of the “Body” of Christ. He was simply an every day believer, filled with Holy Spirit, ministering to people whenever, wherever he could.

Last night there was a meeting at our house with brothers and sister from among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. Those who sat around our dining room table are going to be teaching in the coming weeks. There were two pastors from our local gathering’s staff, but there was also a banker, a diesel mechanic, a corporate middle manager, and a small business owner. Everyday people, male and female, older and younger, classically educated and not, all together using the gifts of the Holy Spirit in obedience to the Greatest Commandment so the Great Commission can be fulfilled.

Jesus’ mission was never about building or protecting an institution. It was about every day people connecting with God and loving others so that anyone and everyone can make the same connection.

When Systemic Power is Threatened

When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.
Acts 4:13 (NIV)

There’s a lot of talk these days about “the swamp.” For Americans, this typically references what is perceived as the professional political class who corruptly rule from Washington D.C. oblivious to the day-to-day thoughts and concerned of the millions who carry on life outside the beltway. In the days of Jesus, Jews could easily have called the Temple in Jerusalem “the swamp.”

For Jewish people living in and around Jerusalem life revolved around the Temple. Not only was it the center of their religion, the only place where sacrifices and offerings were made, but it was also the center of political power. Life was dictated from the religious ruling class of priests and leaders in the temple who interpreted the law of Moses and told people what they could and couldn’t do. These priests, rabbis, lawyers, and scholars ruled over the people and claimed God’s authority for doing so. In reality, these guys had a great racket going. It was a system of power and corruption. They used their power to make themselves rich, lord over the common people, and consolidate their power and positions.

So it was that in today’s chapter, Peter and John’s healing of the crippled man and their bold proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection created a threat, a political threat, to the ruling religious class.

First, it threatened the priests own power and authority to have “unschooled, ordinary men” preaching so boldly. The religious leaders wanted common people thinking that only the educated and extraordinary teachers within the powerful ruling class in the Temple could speak for God.

Second, the miracle of the healing of the crippled man by such “unschooled, ordinary men” went against the narrative that God only works through the religious Temple system and its priests. They, however, had no similar miracles to point to showing that God was doing such things through them. If the common people began to think that the priests and teachers of the law were impotent it threatened their systemic stranglehold on power.

Third, the fact that Peter and John were speaking about this pesky teacher, Jesus, and proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus from the dead stirred dissension within the religious ruling class itself. Resurrection was a theological topic of hot debate. Those who believed in resurrection and those who didn’t were bitter rivals. You’ll note that it was the Sadducees (an anti-resurrection faction among the temple scholars) who had Peter and John arrested. The high priest is not going to want this miracle business to create an internal rift within the swamp.

Finally, the high priest and his cronies had to have been frustrated that this Galilean rabbi, Jesus, kept coming up. “Didn’t we execute him weeks ago? Can’t somebody figure out what they did with his body so we can be done with this?”

When you threaten a powerful system, that system will act to stamp out the threat to its power. The story of Peter and John healing the crippled man is like the pebble that starts an avalanche. This conflict is just getting started.

This morning I’m thinking about the many times in my life when I’ve watched systemic and institutional authority feel threatened and the ways that authority reacted to consolidate power and diminish or eliminate the threat. I’ve seen some doozies in families, schools, businesses, churches, and civic organizations.

In the quiet I’m mulling over my own circles of influence. In some I am the systemic authority. How do I respond to threats in a positive way, recognizing that my discomfort just might be reluctance to change in ways that would be positive for the system? In other cases, I’m an anonymous cog in a larger system with a penchant for initiating change. How can I do so in ways that are honoring to God and authority?