Monday, December 27, 2010

MORALITY AND JUSTICE

  Recently the U.S. Congress voted to repeal the policy known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which the Clinton Administration had settled on as a compromise to allow homosexuals to serve in the military without being open about their sexual behavior or inclinations.  There were many Conservatives opposed to that policy when it was first established since it opened the door to homosexuals serving in the military without being asked about their sexual orientation.  The policy did allow homosexuals to serve but its' enforcement continued to lead to the expulsion of known homosexuals, some of whom openly admitted their orientation and did so for the political motive of changing the policy.  There didn't seem to be much acknowledgement, let alone celebration, of the fact that the DA/DT gave homosexuals the opportunity to serve their country honorably as long as they were able to control their behavior and did not openly advocate their life-style.
    As a former Army Chaplain I have known that there were homosexuals serving in the military and I in fact was gratified that our nation and our military did allow them to serve under certain conditions, namely that it was something held as their private life or struggle but would not openly be condoned.  I take the position that some folks that would be referred to as "Gay" are conflicted about their desires, that they haven't figured themselves out yet, but that they can be effective soldiers if their behavior does not corrupt themselves or others.  I remember the late Dr. Robert Rayburn, CH (COL), US ARMY speaking about this subject when I was in seminary.  He encouraged us to treat people with compassion and that Chaplains had an obligation to do so.  At the time I was surprised he took such a loving and humane view of it, but I have tried to follow his admonition in my service as a Chaplain.
    I have experienced female soldiers coming to me and telling me that they felt pressured by lesbians in the unit, and that due to the fraternization between ranks it was becoming coercive and threatening.  My challenge to them of course was to make an official complaint, to use the Chain of Command, but they were fearful to do so.  I did inform the Commander of this dynamic in his unit, though he didn't seem to be too bothered by it.
    Here of course is where the military, and our entire society, needs to understand the impact of morality on issues of justice.  Our society seems to continually be moving to the divorce of these two things from each other, that morality is a private issue and that it is unjust to prohibit or contain certain moral practices.  In fact Justice is being redefined so as to permit individuals to follow their own private sense of morality and that Government should have little or nothing to do with it.  In a culture that no longer has a consensus of moral absolutes it is extremely difficult for that culture (our culture here in the United States) to establish a line of morality and hold to it.  Justice becomes equated with morality and Justice is defined as the right to live as I please and not have anyone hurt me or deprive me of the freedom to do and live as I please.
    It is my contention that Justice and Morality are inseparable but yet distinct.  There is a morality inherent in the concept of Justice, there is real justice to others in living a truly moral life in society, and there is resultant injustice in a life-style of immorality.
    Having stated this I realize that there are many instances of "moral" people, religious people, self-righteous people in fact, who created a system of injustice and maintained it while being otherwise "honest, law abiding, decent" folks.  They were in fact immoral by allowing the enslavement, disenfranchisement, and discrimination against people of color in this country.  Racial attitudes of superiority were in fact issues of pride, selfishness, fear, meanness, and a despising of the image of God in fellow human beings and led to murder, man stealing, rape, exploitation,etc.  The immorality displayed by otherwise so called "decent" folks gave the lie to their claim of morality.  Nazis did the same thing in running concentration camps.  They showed up to work on time, did an "honest" days work by not shirking their duty, didn't steal from the prison offices, etc. all while they were murdering millions.
    To those people in their daily interactions there was a "semblance" of moral living which made their lives comfortable and predictable.  Stealing from each other was wrong, even while washing off the blood from their boots due to what had just happened down at the slave block or the gas chamber.  I believe it was the moral consensus that moved the North to fight for the abolition of slavery (and make no historical mistake in assuming that there would have been a Civil War in America without the spirit and drive of the Abolitionists).  It was the moral consensus in England in the face of Ghandi's resistance to British tyranny in India that moved them to finally give way to the cry of that nation for independence.  I believe it was the moral consensus of America that gave way to the moral superiority of a non-violent demand for civil and voting rights from people of color, especially in the South.  Without that moral consensus Ghandi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have gone the way of  those (unknown but to God) justice advocates in the Soviet Union, Communist China, North Korea and Nazi Germany.  I also believe that the moral consensus that worked for the good of justice in those instances was an inherited Biblical sense of Justice, and one that particularly came from the  perspective of the Protestant Reformation.
    We are approaching an equal hypocrisy though from a different angle.  Without a Biblical consensus of morality in a culture it will become more and more difficult for that culture to actually define or defend justice while it in fact begins to deny justice to those who maintain resistance to immoral acts.  In short, evil will be called good and good will be called evil.  Without a commitment to true justice arising from a moral consensus then injustice can be explained away, redefined, and even defended as necessary.  This has been done illogically yet nonetheless extensively by exploitative oppressive powers and governments.
    Our challenge is always to champion both of the things that help us to truly love our neighbors as ourselves, and that is being moral and being just.  Many people in our nation who in fact live fairly moral lives have surrendered the high ground of conscience to those who play the justice card when it comes to sexual orientation.  This erosion has led to a tidal wave of changing laws which leads to the silencing of those who prophetically warn of the consequences to our children, our marriages, our military, our health, our culture, and our freedoms of speech and religion.  Tolerance and acceptance has in fact led to coercion, casting a blind eye to cabals and groups of homosexuals advancing each other (in government, the military, business, education, and entertainment) and getting revenge against their critics.  Why should any of our children be mocked and ridiculed in a classroom if they believe that homosexuality is an immoral behavioral choice but their teacher now teaches a section of curriculum that labels our child's belief as hate speech (declaring good evil and evil good)?
    Let me state plainly that I believe that homosexual behavior is immoral.  That it should be proscribed behavior, especially in the military.  That all homosexuals should be treated with common courtesy and respect, even sympathy, and called to repentance and forgiveness in Jesus Christ.  I believe that if our nation could agree that this behavior is immoral (once again) we would have no need to advocate a change to the constitution defining marriage as possible only between a biological male and a biological female.  I am afraid however that we will have to fight this descent into the legitimization of immorality by just such an amendment.
    My hope at the present, and my fervent plea for the military is for Commanders to be very pro-active in discipline against any form of sexual harassment, coercion, promiscuity, or political and career game playing due to sexual orientation issues.  Unless our Commander and Chief and highest ranking officers make this standard policy some units are going to become nasty places of intrigue and in-fighting, and that is already bad  enough in our military bureaucracy.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Kingdom and the Middle Class

Mark 10:25 says, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." (NIV)  I would not want us to miss the the challenge of this verse because we consider ourselves "middle class" and not "rich."  I would say our wealth and power as middle class Americans would put us solidly in the group Jesus was speaking about.
   Can wealthy people go to heaven, can they get into the Kingdom?  Our American Evangelicalism casualizes this teaching of Jesus by immediately referring to verse 27 where it says, "With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God." (NIV)   So we tell folks if you just believe in Jesus you will be saved, and that salvation is for everyone, and salvation is a miracle of God's saving grace.  So, no problem, rich people can indeed be brought into the Kingdom.  What goes unsaid is the implication that they can keep their money too.  This implied we do completely away with the sting and the radical edge of this passage of Scripture.
    It is just this dismissal of the radical sayings of Jesus that causes folk to miss the Kingdom.  The Kingdom is about radical choices, ultimate commitments, giving away all we have, leaving all we have, taking persecution, being last so others can be first.  It is the proof of whether we have chosen to follow Jesus or not.
   I am not at all speaking of a salvation by works, but one of a real and genuine faith that counts the cost and is willing to pay it.  Without real faith we cannot be saved, and without a faith that is lived out in very practical ways one can question whether or not someone really has it.  How can we preach the Kingdom without calling people to real Kingdom choices?
    Before someone accuses me of universalizing the call of Jesus to this rich man as applicable to all wealthy people let me say I do not know if Jesus is calling on you, the reader, to sell everything you have and give it to the poor.  I am saying Jesus does universalize the dilemma of the rich.  He says it is hard for them to enter the Kingdom.  I would say it is hard for all of us to make choices that cost us everything, or seem to cost us everything, or that will demand real sacrifice.  I would universalize that issue of choice, which is really the issue of idols.  Will we follow Jesus and trust Jesus to take care of us, or do we want to follow Jesus with our material suitcases so as to make sure we can live in the style to which we have grown accustomed?
    Among American Christians I see this struggle over radical choices played out most when it comes to our children.  We can't take them into the inner city, we can't take them to the mission field, because we are responsible for their safety and happiness.  We can't expect them to be happy in a cross cultural church with kids from the hood when they can find so much more happiness in a full service mega church that provides all their needs. Shouldn't we let our children decide what church our family should be in based on their feelings of security and expressions of where they are comfortable?  My short answer is, "nope."  What middle class child wouldn't want to be in an environment where everything is provided, not threatening, and caters to his or her self-indulgence?
    One of the interesting things to me is to see missionaries shelter their children in American schools wherein their kids spend most of their "cultural" experience as tourists in buses that pass by the masses, get tightly wrapped around their own families, and begin to see missionary service as a family business and not as a risky and sacrificial choice.  What I see most often is the creation of an Evangelical elite, in the name of helping our children to grasp a "Christian World and Life View."  The view from here is that it looks like the same old status quo and not too radically Christian at all.
     I thank the Lord for the four children the Lord gave us, one adopted and three by birth, all of them Covenant children and all of them ours.  I love them, want the best for them, want them to be smart and well educated, want them to have every door opened for them if possible.  I don't want any harm to come to them.  I really would like them to have every material opportunity and not to be poor or have to suffer.  If the truth be told I want the same for myself.  Our struggle as a family, as parents, as children is that we are sinners and we love our idols.  These choices are as hard for us as anyone.  At the same time I want my children to be the kind of folks of whom the world is not worthy.  I want them to be radical, completely committed, awe inspiring spiritual people who follow Jesus in all that they do.  I want them to shake and shape the world for the glory of Christ.
    I would like to be that kind of person too.  Can these two desires work together, are they mutually opposing?  My take from the teaching of Jesus is that they are mutually exclusive if we cannot hold our stuff, our possessions, and even our families, with loose hands.  Wouldn't it be great to live so for Jesus, so focused on him and his kingdom that you didn't care about worldly stuff, but he kept making you rich anyway?   I think that is the way it ought to happen, that if money is what Jesus wants you to have he forces it on you.
    All the stuff about generous giving, stewardship, managing our money in a Biblical way is fine if we don't come to the conclusion that the kingdom is about us being out of debt, having great investments, and leaving lots of stuff for our children when we die.  I believe in every Scriptural principal, but I don't want my faith disguised or distorted as American entrepreneurial and pragmatic genius.  It can become just another congregation of materialism in the Prosperity Gospel Denomination.  It is the obedience that comes from faith that we seek.
    We are not preaching the kingdom, or living it, if we mask the hard choices for ourselves, our children, and our churches.  Mark 10:29ff. "I tell you the truth," Jesus replied, "no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields-and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and the last first."

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Farmer's Tale in City Streets.

Today I was trying to outline our strategy for ministry to a young man I am hoping will come on our staff to be a community evangelist.  We spoke together of the challenge of reaching children and seeing how excited they are when someone enters their life and loves on them.  We remembered children who were so bright eyed in coming to Bible clubs, Sunday School, tutoring, summer camp.  Then we spoke about what seems to happen in middle school and when kids reach puberty.
    Of all the many children we first met, of all the children we have shared Jesus with and included in our ministry and programs, so many of them have wandered away as they entered the teen years.  Boys making girls pregnant, producing more girls and boys.  The good news is there have been a few that have hung on, followed Jesus, and given back to the Lord.  The tragedy is that most have not.   We spoke of the challenge of how over the lifetime of our ministry we have seen the inner city community go from a culture that had a church tradition (at least somewhere in the extended family) to the current culture where we now see grandparents who themselves did not grow up in church, with that repeated in their children and their grandchildren.  We encounter African American kids with absolutely no experience of church, and that is something that has radically changed in the South.
    :Unfortunately I also spoke today to a grandmother who did grow up in our church, (I have known her since she was a girl herself) whose daughter has been making babies by different men, and whose lifestyle forced the State to take away her children.  This neglectful mother did grow up in our church, but the culture and drugs of the inner city seems to have won, for now.  When I say "for now" I imply that the story is not finished yet, because we have seen that to be true as well.  We have seen kids we invested in, loved on, pursued and prayed for but who then seemed to disappear come back, sometimes years later.  The seed of the Word finally took root, and they came home, to the Lord Jesus and to church.  This reality gives us hope, that the Word does not return to God empty, that the Word is on a mission and it will accomplish its' mission.
    What this says to me is that evangelism to urban children must be pursued, no matter how tough it is to continue it as they grow up.  No matter how many obstacles get thrown our way by dysfunctional lifestyles, we must take the Gospel to the poor.  It may not bear fruit right away, and the fruit might seem to fall off and away before we have a chance to pick it, but if the seed takes root, and if God has made their heart good soil it is going to bear fruit, maybe to a hundred fold.
   There will be no fruit if no seed is sown, that is simply the way it works.  If we don't give up we shall reap.  Even if we have to go out weeping, if we bear precious seed, we are going to bring back big bunches of the harvest.  So the battle rages not just in the hearts of  the children, or their parents, but in mine as well.  It is like the farmer listening to the birds who steal the seed, to the insects that devour the plants, to the drought and sun that burns them.  They all say, "stop wasting your time, it is hopeless, we will destroy all you sow."  And I almost believe them, until I see a face I knew once as a little kid, now grown, now singing, now serving, now lifting holy hands to Jesus.  That face may have gone through all kinds of pain, all kinds of trial, even failure, but there was something planted deep in their heart that has maybe only now grown fruit.  And as I sit watching the harvest, even at what I would call a banquet table of those who speak my name and say, "I remember when you came and got me, I remember when you took me here and there, I remember when you told me..."   I forget the words of the birds, the bugs, or the heat.  I'm too busy eating, feasting, on what has grown.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Why Urban Ministry?

  Today I had lunch with someone who was trying to get to know me and he asked me, "why urban ministry?"  I wasn't quite sure how to answer the question.  I don't think I had any choice really, but someone not knowing me or my background might assume that I did.  I know some great men and women of God who did not come from the city, or the inner city, but have been called to it and are being greatly used by God.  I can't pretend that my particular background makes me effective, or that it has somehow resulted in a unique holiness that would allow me to be powerfully used by the Spirit.  I believe God gives gifts the way he wants them, not that God goes looking for people with gifts and hopes they will respond to his call.  I believe he gave me a set of gifts and in his mercy gave me a set of experiences, and training, to prepare me for what I do.  I believe that without holiness and faith and a real of work of the Spirit nothing significant gets done, unless God is going to do something in spite of what we are.  If you think of me pray for that, for holiness and to be used by the Spirit of God.
    Urban ministry of course is my life.  It is how I came to Jesus in the projects of Newark, NJ.  I hold that as a unique present from God, as well as being raised in a single parent home.  These are my credentials, "street cred" if you will.  As I tried to answer the question I began to feel passion rise within me, as I told him we all have to own what is happening in our cities, in my city.  This is my despair, that as Americans, as Christians, we don't own it.  That certain zip codes of our city (Chattanooga) have some of the highest rates of violence in the country, that we have a high unwed pregnancy rate, high infant mortality, high obesity and diabetes.  That after all these years of ministry in Chattanooga (over forty) we still have the same intractable problems in some of the same neighborhoods.  And we don't own it, as if we can hide in our homes and neighborhoods and pretend these are not my problems, this is not my city, this is not my country.  At this point I could no longer speak because I realized I was about to burst into tears and I just stared at the wall for a few minutes.
    It was a surprise to me as I didn't see it coming.  I didn't know just reciting these things would move me, hurt me so.  And I was glad it did and I am unashamed to feel it.  I am ashamed I have done so little and seem to be so ineffective.  Then I see faces in my mind, of those who are coming to church, those who are serving Jesus here, those who are given work, and food, and education, and Jesus.  Then I am glad again, until the next time when I think where we have not come, where some still are, what still remains undone.
   It was a good conversation because we were working on another organization to help the poor, the sick, the ones in need.  I wish we would all cry a little bit, and do a damn bit more.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Theological Reflections on the NCF Core Values Statements

Why I believe it is important for us to talk about the Gospel as “the Gospel of the Kingdom”

As you read through the Core Value Statements we have proposed from NCF St Louis, you may be asking yourself why the phrase “gospel of the kingdom” and kingdom terminology is repeated so often. The simple answer is that this is the terminology Jesus and the Apostles use to describe the Gospel, and there is a critical reason for their use of this language. I believe at our point in church history, we need to re-discover and re-focus on the kingdom in our proclamation of the good news.

By contrast, we have developed a whole use of terminology around the proclamation of the Gospel that has slowly moved so far away from kingdom language that many pastors and preachers of the Word struggle to know what Jesus even meant by that phrase. In its place, we have ended up to often with a gospel that fits our agenda and understanding of what the good news is, and it is part of the reason we have churches that are not committed to reconciliation and justice. This is not to say that our current proclamation of the Gospel is all wrong. Any time we preach Christ, whether from pure motives or even from selfish ambition (Phil 1:17), and I would argue by extension, whether theologically well informed or not, Christ is preached and God is committed to saving any who turn to him. But somewhere in the process if people are not discipled into a better understanding of Christ and the message of the Gospel, the church can limp along with greatly impaired vision and understanding and even become susceptible to practicing horrendous injustice. This is precisely the reason we could have what appeared to be widespread revival in Rwanda in the 1980’s followed by genocide in 1994, where members of the same church were killing their neighbors in the very church buildings where they used to worship.

As evangelical and reformed churches we can quickly respond and conclude that these obviously were not true believers; that they did not understand the true gospel. Okay. But are we willing to look at the history of racism and the cultural values of personal wealth and prosperity in our own denominations and churches and make the same assessment? If lack of concern for the poor and the status quo acceptance of institutional and practical racism and division permeate the life of the American evangelical/reformed church, is it possible we could be open to the same charge as our Rwandan brothers of having missed some critical aspects of the Gospel in our own preaching?

So what is it that is so crucial about announcing the Gospel as “the Gospel of the kingdom” (Paul’s shorthand- “the gospel” Rom 1:16) instead of simply saying something like, “Jesus loves you, invites you to receive his forgiveness and gives you the gift of eternal life with him in heaven”? Who could argue with any of these statements? Of course, if they are properly understood, there is nothing wrong with any of them. The problem is that this way of presenting the Gospel leaves out foundational, crucial information about the nature of the gospel and in turn leaves the message open to being redirected to a self-centered, self-serving idea. When we announce the gospel as the good news of the kingdom, and invite men and women into that kingdom through faith in Christ, the very message itself moves us away from a perspective of God being centered on us and our purposes, to us being called to redirect (repent of) our thinking and become centered on God and his kingdom.

One way to describe the difference is to ask this question: Is the message of the Gospel primarily that we receive Christ as Savior, receive the forgiveness of our sins and get to go to heaven? Or is the message of the Gospel that God has loved this world and determined to redeem it by establishing his eternal, righteous kingdom and that through faith in Christ as the Risen Lord we are individually called to become members of his kingdom community, through repentance and faith, where the ultimate restoration of all things through the unfolding of God’s righteousness in this world has already begun?

If we are not careful, the first way of describing the gospel essentially makes the good news centered on “me” and the call to pursue the kingdom is an add-on that I may or may not be interested in responding to or, worst case scenario, gets redefined as something that simply enhances my cultural values. The calling and content of the “kingdom” can simplistically become increasing the number of souls that are saved. If the Gospel is fundamentally about me, then everything about the Christian life can easily slip into being measured by my concerns- my job, my family, my passions and desires for life (my cultural values)- and God’s faithfulness, in turn, can be measured by how well he is providing for me in each of those areas. But if the Gospel is essentially about the kingdom - the establishment of God’s glory and righteousness over the earth (Hab 2:14) which has begun in full measure with the coming of Jesus the Messiah and through him the defeat of sin and death because of the nature of his death and resurrection; His Lordship over the nations implemented by the anointing of the Spirit upon his people from among all those nations, who is given to establish justice on the earth and give decisions for the poor and broken of the earth through the church, his body (Isa 11, 61, Lk 4, Acts 2, 4, Col 1, Eph 2:10, 4:1-16); and that the culmination of this kingdom will come when he returns and all the kingdoms of the earth become the kingdom of Christ and of God (1 Cor 15) and the new heavens and the new earth, the home of righteousness, are established for eternity (2 Pet 3:13); and then, that the invitation of the gospel is actually meant to be a response to the announcement of this good news and a turning to Christ as the only Messiah and Savior who can deliver us from our own sin and brokenness as well as the sin and brokenness of the world around us, through free forgiveness and the promise of the Spirit to put our lives in line with the purposes of his kingdom (Isa 61)- well then, everything changes.

The gospel is truly good news, not simply because I get to live forever in heaven, but because all the corruption, injustice and destructiveness of death that permeates the nations and the creation itself and even my own life, has been struck a death blow; and in its place God has begun the restoration of all things in Christ. Our whole lives-our heart, soul, mind and body as well as all our relationships and all our resources- are now finally given their ultimate focus and purpose and by the power of the Spirit we can live out this righteousness, restoration and reconciliation of God’s kingdom now, and fully embrace God’s kingdom agenda which includes the reconciliation of men from all nations and cultures to God and one another and then calls us together to especially focus on justice for the poor (Isa 61, Luke 4, 6), the orphan, the widow, the abused and the outcast. This calling, which is the one true calling of all God’s people, regardless of their personal vocation, is worth giving everything to and in fact, gladly costs us everything (Mt 13:45, 46). It will even cost us entering into the sufferings of Christ because the very nations we want to see redeemed are only set free from their own injustice by experiencing love and forgiveness in response to their evil (Lk 6:27-36). But all of this learning to embrace and endure injustice and even death in order to make the love of God known (Phil 3:10) will increasingly be seen as light and only very momentary troubles in comparison to the glory of the new heavens and the new earth that are ours in Christ Jesus (2 Cor 4:16-18). This is the difference between preaching the gospel of the kingdom and preaching a gospel “for me” that easily gets perverted to some form or other of self-centeredness.

So then, the issues of kingdom (Mt 2), righteousness (justice, mercy and humility- Mt 5:1-12; Luke 4:18-19), the Spirit’s power (Mt 12:28) and the practical meaning of the Lordship of Jesus Christ over the nations (Acts 2:34-36), as well as his fulfillment of God’s Covenant promises to Abraham (Gal 3:29), Moses (Heb 3:1-6)and David (Luke 1:31-33), all go hand-in-hand and all are all summarized in the announcement of this “gospel of the kingdom.” When we acknowledge Christ as Lord, we acknowledge his agenda over our lives and it is an agenda that includes reconciliation and justice at its very core.

Barry

Response to Question re:justification and reconciliation

Gladly. The fundamental issue in approaching these texts (in Romans and Galatians) is rooted in understanding the grid through which we are reading them. If we are starting with an unspoken assumption that every text in Scripture, including the texts about justification, are fundamentally addressing the issue of our personal salvation relationship with God only, we are going to read, interpret and apply them in that light. Especially in American evangelical and even reformed circles in the last 25 years, but dating back to the late 1800’s in the ministries of Charles Spurgeon and D. L. Moody and carried on by Billy Graham and others through the 20th century, there has been a focus on personal salvation in such an individualistic and narrow way that it has become almost impossible for many folks to see anything other than this personal-salvation-only issue around justification. The blinders are firmly in place because of countless repetitions and affirmations that this is the only focus of these passages, and folks only see what they see.

If, however, the texts are taken with a larger biblical and covenantal framework in mind and are actually addressing more than that single issue (which I believe the texts themselves support) than we are going to see and interpret these passages in a richer and fuller way. So the question is this: when Paul is addressing these letters to the Roman and Galatian churches and explaining to them in a deeper way the full measure of God’s salvation purposes in this world, is the reconciliation of the nations to one another (expressed as Jew and gentile reconciliation because the Jews were, and still are, the ethnic group through whom God initiated his reconciliation of the world work), as full, equal members of the family of Abraham, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, a central part of understanding the fullness of the gospel proclamation? I believe (along with many others) the answer to that is yes, wonderfully absolutely, and that this issue of reconciliation (to one another as equal members of the family of God) is even at the heart of the discussion of justification in the book of Galatians.

So I will begin with the Galatians 3:6-9 passage: “3:6 Consider Abraham: "He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness." 7 Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. 8 The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: "All nations will be blessed through you." 9 So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.”

This passage has wonderful, undeniable, personal application for each of us to understand that our own standing before God is based solely on the finished work of Christ- even as Abraham’s was- but I don’t believe that is actually the primary reason the book of Galatians was written, or what this particular passage is primarily addressing. It seems clear to me now the main reason Paul wrote to the Galatian church was because there were Jewish agitators who were trying to exclude some of the Gentiles from full fellowship in the church community unless they followed certain ceremonial practices of the Law (most notably, circumcision Gal 1:6,7 3:10ff, 5:2-6) as the external proof that they really were “children of Abraham” ( one of Paul’s phrases, based on the Covenant with Abraham - Gen 12, 15, 17- to describe being part of God’s kingdom-salvation community), and that apart from keeping those elements of the Law, they were to be excluded from the fellowship. They were not truly part of the reconciled people of God, particularly with the Jews, the first ethnic group singled out as the people of God, unless they demonstrated their commitment to keep the Law through these important ceremonies.

Paul’s answer to this perversion of the Gospel- and it seems clear the whole letter needs to be read with this issue in mind- is that we are in fact a part of the reconciled community of God’s people only and specifically by faith in Christ, who removed the curse of the Law for us (Gal 3:12-14) because none of us could ever be justified and accepted into the family of God (reconciled to one another as accepted members of God’s family) apart from faith in Christ and by the grace of God.

Paul recalls his confrontation with Peter around this very issue to add weight to his argument (Gal 2:11ff.). The very first mention of the term “justification” is used in 2:16, not as a reference to our standing before God, but as a reference to our standing within the community of God’s people. Peter had been separating himself from the gentile believers by refusing to eat with them. Paul’s argument with Peter is that this action was a clear denial of the implication of the Gospel- 2:14, which he goes on to explain and define more specifically as a clear denial of justification – 2:15ff.

So what do “justification” and the “declaration of right standing” by faith in Christ refer to? Inseparably, our standing before God and our standing with one another. They go hand in hand in the doctrine of justification. As Paul tell us in Ephesians 2, reconciliation with one another was purchased by Christ's death on the cross and is an accomplished fact- we are reconciled, Eph 2:14-18. We are set right with each other, by Christ's work. Our experience and fleshing out of this unity is as much a dynamic process as our personal reconciliation to God is, but we are not called to practice reconciliation as an implication of the gospel: we are called to pursue unity and reconciliation because it is an accomplished part of Christ's redemptive work.

When Paul moves the argument along in Gal 3, he is making a further appeal to his statement in 2:15,16 “we…know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.” His “consider Abraham” statement in 3:6 is not meant to be an attempt to use Abraham as an example of how individuals get right with God, but as a call for a thoughtful reflection that this issue of becoming an accepted part of the community of God’s people, even for Abraham, was only based on faith, and that all who have that faith are blessed along with him, to now be a part of God’s people. This is stated in full force in 3:26-29 – “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
Before I go on to the Romans passage, let me point out that the implications of this are enormous for the church. If we cannot talk about justification without talking about being “set right” with, and reconciled to one another in a context of practical covenant community and care….. wellll…. we have a lot of repenting to do.
The Romans 4:13-17 passage (and the whole surrounding context) is saying the same thing as the Gal 3:6-9, 26-29 passages. Paul’s argument in Romans 4 – growing out of the unfolding of his initial statements in 1:5,6 “Through him and for his name's sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. 6 And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,” is all about the fact that in the Gospel, and in the righteousness of God that is being displayed to the world in Christ, now, through faith in Christ, the nations are brought into this reconciled, covenant community relationship with God and one another. The promise to Abraham - “I will make you into a great nation” (12:2); “count the stars..so shall your offspring be” (15:5); “you will be the father of many nations” (17:4) – is now being realized in Christ, and through faith in him, you too are a part of this community of God’s people: reconciled to God and reconciled to each other as part of the family of God.
I could go on from there, but I think you can get the gist of the argument. Let me shout it from the mountain tops: none of this is meant to undermine all the things we already teach in Sonship or about the nature of God’s grace for us personally or the truths about justification in our relationship/standing with God. It does, however, expand and enrich all that.

Friday, November 19, 2010

It Depends Where You Start

  I recently had a conversation with someone who said his pastor thinks justice and mercy are downstream of the main elements of the preaching of the Gospel.  My thought was that it depends where "upstream" is and what you think is at the heart of the Gospel.  I think most pastors assume that mercy ministry is an add on, that what we need to do is preach the Gospel in the understanding of the Reformed Faith, and then as we gather disciples and train them they will mature into Christians who begin to practice mercy and do justice.
   What is interesting to me of course is how seldom that works out to be true.  How seldom does it seem that believers really mature into merciful people and those who practice justice (I'm not saying they aren't nice people or pious in many ways).  It seems to me that our problem in the Evangelical middle class world is that we keep getting more Bible study while we live to maintain the status quo in our lifestyles.  Where is the radical explosion of faith?  Yes, there are some who catch it, but it doesn't seem to be "mainstream."  What is upstream ought to be what is Biblically mainstream and how can anyone claim to be Biblically mainstream and preaching the "whole counsel of God" if they are not proclaiming the character of God, that of justice and mercy, and his love for the poor and his making the poor his target for the Gospel, and the glory of reconciliation between God and man and people to people and exhorting them to do that which pleases God (and he has shown us what that is), but to love mercy, act justly and to walk humbly with their God?  I'm just asking here.
   I don't think the Gospel is just a salvation formula so we can get people saved, I believe it is a rebirth into a new life committed to the Kingdom and Lordship of God in all areas of life and that as his character overwhelms us we begin to be more like him.  As long as these things are considered downstream, so our Gospel will be anemic, hah, even watered down.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

SUGGESTED ORGANIZATIONAL PLAN FOR NEW CITY NETWORK

New City Network Organizational Plan
I.  NCN Executive Committee
  A.  Made up of Team Leaders of subordinate teams (see II).
  B.  Three main areas of decision/work
        1.  Goals
        2.  Cooperative Projects
        3.  Liaison with other agencies or bodies
  C.  Review of Network/Officer/Team Effectiveness
  D.  Creation of Officers for Execution, Recording, Accounting (Director, Secretary, Treasurer)

II.  Teams
  A.  Association
        1.  Meetings  2.  Communication  3.  Participation Investment
  B.  Articulation
        1.  Criteria for church qualification  2.  Criteria for Church Planter qualification
  C.  Assessment
        1.  Church Planters  2.  Sites  3.  Strategy
  D.  Advancement
        1.  Gathering and giving resources/grants   2.  Leverage strategies
  E.  Assistance
         1.  Site visits  2.  Coaching  3.  Mentoring  4.  Advice  5.  Trouble Shooting

   I would like to suggest that every member church have someone on one of these teams.  Each of us have certain strengths that we can add to the effort.  One of the points of discussion will be "participation investment."   This is simply the question of how much each of us will contribute.  Will this be a percentage or a lump sum, or whatever each chooses to give?  For us to be really effective I would encourage each congregation to think of setting aside ten percent of their budget for church planting.  That doesn't mean they have to give the network that much, but should work toward that goal in their own Presbytery, multi-site, or in our network cumulatively.
    The Executive Team will have to decide if they can afford an employee to help drive this work.  The Exec Team can also help guide the network in cooperative efforts of training or common efforts, especially in overseas mission teams and church planting, or community development.

   Your comments are especially needed to help us frame things.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Leadership/ Vision Casting and Vision Discipline

   Someone once said to me, "You are tenaciously cross-cultural."  At the time I don't think they meant it as a compliment.  They wanted New City to stop being so distinctive so that we could possibly merge with another congregation.  Sometimes I read about folks who started churches or movements and from their first day they had a plan, they had a vision of what their church would be like, who they would reach.  I confess New City has been a lot more messy than that.  We have arrived at where we are through a process of trial and error, mistakes, and blessings "in spite of..." while we became more and more self conscious of what we had become.
    This is not to say that we didn't have ideals, theology, and some understanding of what was needed.  We simply didn't approach the issue of planting a church among the poor and to model racial reconciliation with the dream of growing large and re-duplicating.  Maybe our faith was too small, maybe we were too naive, and maybe we thought would always be small and going against the grain.
   Recently I went to a conference on multi-ethnic churches and found myself among church planters who from their beginnings wanted to build a mega-church.  They consciously rejected the model of reconciliation as being one that dealt with the poor.  None of these men knew me or had any idea of how long we have been at this kind of ministry.  Yet, they wanted to model racial reconciliation.  They are learning many of the lessons we have learned over the years although they quickly write books as if they are the first ones to realize these things.  I confess I was a little put off with the smell of success and I admit some of this is my own pettiness.
   We didn't know the culture would catch up with us and that we would in some kind of way become popular as a model.  Our congregations now profit from what is called "cultural congruence."   This undoubtedly has drawn people to us who would in no way have affiliated with this kind of work in the sixties.  Institutional and social racism was so recent and still powerful.  It was not popular, it was not a cultural point of credibility that you had ethnic friends or actually socialized with people of another race.
    One of the things that is constantly with me is the realization that race, culture, and class still affect so many of our choices and I see this affecting families in my church.  I see it in the decision points of their lives as they raise their families in a cross cultural church.  To this day some of their choices, especially from our white families,  impact me afresh with feelings of rejection, and I am tempted still to dismay, frustration, and tinges of bitterness.  I hear them make justifications of their choices in leaving the church, in leaving the youth group, in judging the children's ministry.  Middle class people are determined to live a middle class life-style, and one usually sees it in the choices they make for their own children.    So it is popular to be culturally relevant but what is controlling is to be culturally comfortable.
    It would be easy to drift in our vision.  It would be all too easy to follow the desires of the mass of folks who begin to attend and join but don't ever seem to get the price that must be paid for all of us to be in one congregation together.  This is where leadership plays a role in casting the vision and holding the ship on course, to not deviate from the vision.  Vision discipline is a constant struggle in a cross cultural church and the pastor has to train his leaders in it, to make sure the staff get it, to keep the musicians and worship team on point, to think about it in every public image of the church; I mean in how we worship, where the church has its' focus, and what staff we hire.
    One of the temptations that arises is when the cross-cultural aspect becomes overwhelmed with the multi-cultural.  This is a blessing and a challenge, especially when reconciliation is being pursued with "primary alienated" groups.  What I mean is that in Chattanooga we deal primarily with the racism, racial history, and hostility between black and white people.  How can we then include Latinos into this kind of process as they immigrate into the city and we begin to reach them for Jesus?  How can we minister to them, and love them, and respect their culture without neglecting our primary challenge of reconciliation?
    This is not to say that there aren't issue between Americans and immigrants, legal and illegal.  Yet, one of the worst things is for white Americans to "drop" the issue of reconciliation with African Americans and pursue other ethnic relationships, and allow immigrants to feel that the racial history of America will not affect them.  When an immigrant comes to America they merge into all of our history and they cannot be allowed to step outside of it, and this for their own sake and the sake of those who might resent them for just that attitude.  No doubt these things are hard, but this is why we have pastors and we have to figure it out and keep our folks on task so we can accomplish the mission.
    If we are truly calling people to give themselves away, to God and to others, then this is a challenge all of our folks can be included in.  As they pick up that challenge reconciliation is actualized. True reconciliation in Christ is only possible in a willingness to surrender our own rights, our own demands of justice, our own demands of cultural preference and by becoming a servant to others who are different, while receiving a reciprocal spirit and attitude from those who were formerly alienated. If it is not reciprocal it becomes simple assimilation and that is not reconciliation.  It will take wisdom, sensitivity, and articulation from good leadership.  Oh yes, it will take a miracle from God as well.

Core Values Statements

While Randy is writing some great overall articles addressing the different core values we hold to as New City, I thought I would put some things out there in the form of Core Value Statements. These "we believe" statements come from our core values classes that we teach at NCF St Louis. They are not (at all) intended to be the final statements of this group- just a starting point for our consideration. Basically, I will post these core value statements we at NCF St Louis have already affirmed around several topics: 1) The centrality of the Gospel of the kingdom- the establishment of the righteousness/justice of God as a gift through faith in Christ; 2) The centrality of Reconciliation in the message of the Gospel of the kingdom; 3) The Nature and Focus of the Kingdom: for the poor, through a demonstration of justice, mercy and humility; 4) The Practical Expression of Humility in the Kingdom- embracing a humle heart and humble circumstances; 5) The need for and nature of Team Ministry in a context of reconciliation; 6) The Certainty of God's Covenantal promises to fulfill the expansion of the kingdom



I will also put out some theological background articles for each of these areas. In order to get started I thought I would just throw out some of the "we believe" statements arounfd the first two issues (gospel and reconciliation) for folks to ponder and then add articles along the way. Lead us and be merciful to us Lord Jesus!- Barry

The Centrality of the Gospel

We believe the Gospel, the good news of the establishment of God’s eternal kingdom through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is itself God’s power for salvation and the unleashing of his righteousness and love in our lives as his people, and through us by the power of the Holy Spirit to the hurting and broken world; first for the Jew and then for all the nations (Matt 4:23; Rom 1:1-5, 16-17; 8:1-4).

We believe people from every ethnic and social group are invited to receive this salvation and entrance into God’s kingdom as a gift through faith in Jesus the Messiah as the Risen Lord (Rom 10:9,10, Eph 2:8-10, Col 1:13) which involves turning from reliance upon anything else (1 Thess 1:9,10; Phil 3:7-11) and trusting only in Jesus Christ and his atoning death for salvation.

We believe this Gospel comes to us in an ongoing context and relationship of grace (Rom 5:1-2, 20-21; Eph 2:8-10; I Jn 1:9,10), in which Jesus has come to progressively set us free from the power of sin and death and free to become the righteousness of God in this world (2 Cor 5:21, Rom 8:1-4).

We believe this Gospel of grace gives us the freedom to deal honestly with the character of our own sin nature as Christians and the depth and devastation of sin in the world around us (Rom 7; Eph 2:1-10; 1 Jn 1:5-2:2) without fear, because it is our identity with Christ and the righteousness we have in Him as a gift that gives us the ultimate confidence or our standing before God and our hope for the restoration of all things (Rom 5:12-19, 8:18-39).

We believe the Gospel of the kingdom includes a calling to see God’s rule and reign advance in this world (Isa 9:7, 11:1-9, 42:1-4; Psalm 2, Heb 1:1-14) by the present manifestation of God’s kingdom justice, righteousness and redemption (Gen 12:1-3; Mt 28:18-20; Luke 4:18-18; Mt 6:9-13; Col 1:10-14; Rom 5:1-5), through the church (Eph 1:22, 23), the body of Christ, whose members equally share all the privileges and responsibilities of being sons and daughters of God (Gal 3:26-29; 4:4-6).

We believe the Gospel gives us a certainty of hope that we will inherit this eternal kingdom when Jesus returns and all other kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God (1 Cor 15:20-28), because Jesus of Nazareth has been vindicated as the Messiah of God through the resurrection (Acts 2:32-36; Rom 1:1-6, 8:18-25; 2 Pet 3:10-13).

We believe the Gospel alone gives us the confidence to ask for the promise of the Spirit, who will empower us for the outworking of God’s kingdom in this world through an intimate relationship with the Father and the Son (Luke 3:16; 11:12; John 16:5-15; Acts 2:1-4, 16-21, Gal 5:1-6).

Reconciliation: the Center of the Center of the Gospel of the Kingdom

We believe that Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection was reconciling us both to God and to one another (Isaiah 49:6, 56:3-7; John 10:11-16; Romans 5:1,2; Gal 3:6-9; Ephesians 2:14-18; I Peter 1:3-5, 2:9-10), and even reconciling the universe back to himself (Col 1:19-20). We believe that justification (the declaration of God putting us in a righteous standing) applies equally to our relationship with God and our relationships with one another (Rom 4:13-17; Gal 3:6-9)

We believe God’s commitment to bring reconciliation among the nations is a central part of the Covenant from Abraham forward (Genesis 12:1-3; 17:12-13; Exodus 12:48-49;
2 Samuel 7:11-13; Psalm 72:1-14; Isa 19:23-25, 55:5) and the climactic work of Christ in reconciling all things to himself needs to be understood as God’s covenantal faithfulness to fulfill this foundational promise (Eph 1:9,10; Col 1:19,20).


We believe the only thing required for full, complete status and membership in the community of God’s people is faith in Christ (Eph 2:19-22), and that all who believe have a new creation identity in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:16-17) that is more defining than ethnicity, gender or social status (Galatians 3:26-29), and that all who believe also have an anointing of the Spirit that gives vision and essential gifting to every member of the body (Acts 2, 1 Cor 12, Rom 12).

We believe this status and gift of reconciliation must be intentionally pursued by the people of God (Phil 2:1,2; 1 Cor 11:17-33; Ephesians 4:1-6; I John 4:7-12) in order to come to a full, healthy expression. On the contrary, it is most often neglected and set aside without intentional commitment (Acts 11:1-3; Galatians 2:11-21). We believe the resulting expression of unity as we work out our reconciliation is the greatest testimony to the world that Jesus has come and accomplished salvation (John 17:20-23).

We believe this reconciliation must take place in a context of covenantal justice, mercy and humility towards one another and particularly the poor – especially the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant/refugee (Deuteronomy 14:28, 29, 15:1-18; Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-35; I Cor 1:27-31; James 1:27; 2:1-10; I John 3:16-20).

We believe that practical reconciliation across ethnic and socio-economic divisions is non-negotiable and absolutely necessary for the church of Christ to be a healthy reflection of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-27), and is necessary for the church to fulfill all God has called her to be as the light of the world (Eph 1:22,23; 2:19-22).

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

What's Grace Got To Do With It?

    Everything; grace has everything to do with it.  New City churches ought to be places where grace just drips from the amplifiers, from the offering baskets, from the pulpit, from the folding chairs or whatever we sit on.  How can there be reconciliation between people without grace working in our hearts to open us up to forgiveness, to deliver us from fear and shame, from giving us confidence before God?
   To understand grace I think one has to ask themselves what kind of a Christian they are or how they understand the Gospel.   I hesitate to ask what "level" someone is in their understanding because the whole idea of grace delivers us from measurements of ourselves against ourselves or others.  Grace starts with ground zero, and in a sense never elevates us above that.  We are always on the ground before God, always zero, always and absolutely in need of his mercy.  We just have to get that idea because without it we are not "grounded" but trying to move up and achieve, for God, for ourselves, over and against others.
    Without an understanding of grace we can't afford to be at ground zero, we can't afford for the sake of our own ego or self esteem to be left in such a place.  It is too painful and we feel like we are being stepped on.  We have to fight for ourselves, for our own validation.  We have to listen to poems and essays and music that tell us we are worth something, to believe in ourselves, that there is a King in us.  At the same time we just can't shake the shame of our failures, and that they happen over and over again.
   This is the concept of indwelling sin, or total depravity, or being really messed up.  If  your theology has no grace in it then you have to become a positivist or else you should go blow your brains out, because the comfort level of living with yourself is just too much to bear.  So, either deny the sinful reality, lie to yourself about how much better you are getting, or admit that there is no good reason for God to like you but that he does.  No, I mean it, he really, really does like you.  He pursues you, touches the disease of your leprosy, kisses you, dies for you, washes you, adopts you, holds on to you, fights for you, and never ever lets you go.
But he doesn't love phonies, liars, pretenders in their pretense.  He demands the naked truth, that I am much worse that I ever want to admit.  Yeah, but in that admission I find this out, he loves more than I could ever hope or imagine.
   This is grace, and it is a power from God and it is a truth from God that also has power.  Wow, I can be used.  I am included.  God ain't going nowhere.  This truth allows us to accept ourselves and other nasty broken people, beyond our normal ability to accept them or include them in our lives.  It enables us to keep forgiving ourselves and others.  It is not a credit card for sin, it is not a line of credit to do evil because we think it will get us more grace.  Real grace crushes the heart so it becomes desperate for more of Jesus, and has no comfort with a life still lived in sin.  But real grace will have nothing to do with legalism or depending on rules to help us be better Christians.  This one of the things that makes New City churches cool, it is a place of honesty, of acceptance, or welcome for broken people, for preachers who are themselves not only slightly disheveled but almost shoveled over.  Reconciliation is possible, mercy is possible from the community of the saints, justice can be sought for in hope because grace is real.  Grace happens!  Hallelujah!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Reconciliation As An Export?

    At the New City Summit we discussed as a group the idea of planting cross cultural and reconciliation model churches in other countries.  What do we have to offer to other countries, how could our model be good for them?  I suppose the question would first be, is there any enmity anywhere but in the U.S.?  Is there any racism, tribalism, or ethno-centrism that has resulted in alienation, hatred, and violence?  I suppose we could just ask, is there life on earth?
    We are not pretending we have a franchise to sell, or that we have worked things out so well in our own congregations that we are now experts at reconciliation.  We would be very foolish to continue an attitude of arrogance in missions.  We can only offer the years of experience, our own struggle, or own sincere and broken attempts to live out the Gospel, and indeed even our mistakes and failures for others to learn from.  We also come to other countries as learners, hearing their pain, and rejoicing in their victories.
    We have seen the blessing of God in the creation of New City Nairobi, and we have been excited in the work of the Lord among refugees and immigrants especially in St.Louis, MO.  Several  pastors of national groups want to go back to their own country and plant this kind of church.  Is it possible?  Can tribes and ethnicities that have hated each other, and tried to kill each other, ever come to peace and actually worship together?   If God is in it no man can stop it.  We do think this is a powerful model for countries all over the world.
   Not only that but so many churches and pastoral leaders in other countries have swallowed some bad stuff from American missions and religious opportunists.  All the way from legalism, to prosperity Gospel, and leaving out justice and mercy.  Can we believe that Christianity actually changed traditionalists and diverted them from taking care of their own widows and orphans in their communities?  It seems that way, that churches around the world pick up the same bad habits (of American churches) of existing only for the Sunday service, or the enlargement of the building, or the care of the pastor.  I know there were traditions that abandoned orphans and widows without any help from an American style Christianity, but isn't it time to get the holistic Biblical message out to the world, and challenge everyone to effectively care for their own poor and give them tools to do that?
    I can't say that we planned on this.  It seems counter-intuitive for those who have been involved in the struggle for racial reconciliation and justice here in America to care about the hostility between groups in other countries.  Why should we spend time, energy, and resources to care for the poor elsewhere when we are trying to be a prophetic voice about poverty and need here in our own country? 
    Let me tick off a few quick answers:  Jesus tells us (excuse me, but did you see the name Jesus?) we are to make disciples of all the nations, one of the best things that can happen to an American poor person is to see utter poverty in another country, people in other countries who have risked their lives to love each other in Christ across ethnic lines just might have something to teach us, the model of Christians joining together to help their poor and develop them with the resources they have also has things to teach us, and to inspire us.  We no longer want "foreign" missions to be the antithesis of home missions, the demographics of world immigration and migration are too dynamic in this generation for us to maintain the old models.  We have a fantastic opportunity to organically plant the church in all kinds of places, and to tell you the truth God seems to have been doing this without asking us to come up with the goals and a plan on how to do it before he started moving.
    For too long we have seen white churches in America be smug behind a large missions budget in which they sent out missionaries to nations where there were dark skinned people but had no love for those kind of people in their own city.   For too long we have seen African American churches be smug behind their anger at the history of racism and not realize there were people worse off then themselves who desperately needed the witness of African Americans around the world, a people historically prepared to have a powerful moral story anywhere they might go.
    Multi-ethnic teams of reconciled folks are a powerful witness anywhere and everywhere.  As the Lord brings nationals of other countries to us here in the U.S., and they rejoice in our kind of congregations, and ask us for help in their own country we will seek to do that through the network.  The network can build and design teams from our various congregations and send them to help where they are invited or develop a relationship.   Through disaster response, through longer term development, through encouragement of poor churches helping even poorer people we can show the love of Jesus around the world.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Some practical issues in creating this network

   This blog was begun to give a forum to discuss the concept and means by which we can create a New City Network.  This network is to help us, as a group, to plant more churches, and to mutually encourage and support each other in being effective in ministry and witness.  In order to be a network we have to have an agreement as to what the network is to accomplish, how churches can enter and leave it, what criteria we have for allowing admission or barring such, how we can assist each other in being more effective in ministry and witness.  We must then look at the very practical areas of funding it, communication and decision making, when and how to meet, and leadership.
    We must also make it clear to ourselves and others how we relate to our denomination and if other congregations not in the Presbyterian Church in America can be a part of us.
    Let me make a few comments about our relationship to the P.C.A.
    Each Teaching Elder of the P.C.A. is a member of his Presbytery, that is where our discipline rests and the body which issues our credentials.  This network will not interfere with that.  We wish to cooperate with those Presbyteries in which our churches exist or those who would like us to help them plant such a church in their geographic area.  We know that our churches will of necessity need the resources of their home Presbytery to  be planted.  Our network can bring a certain amount of expertise and experience to the church planting process, and we are need of the expertise of others.  This network will support the credentialing process of the Presbyteries while advocating as many alternative routes as are viable and acceptable so as to give more men a legitimate training and preparation for the Gospel ministry.  The network may be able to identify certain schools, techniques, or programs that are especially effective in preparing men for the ministry and we may even be able to develop such a program ourselves if necessary.  We will of course be looking for that training which is most theologically, culturally, and spiritually sound while at the same time being practically applicable and has the most potential for effective ministry practice.
    We expect our pastors to be loving to their brothers in the denomination, not outsiders or resistant to Presbyterian polity.  If our polity is Biblical why wouldn't we want our network members to practice it?  In fact we have learned that if we are going to ask our brothers to support and include us we must learn the system well, and use it to the best spiritual and practical advantage.  Most pastors I know share a certain amount of cynicism for church courts, polity, and procedure.   This is normal because most of us like to do the things which are most immediately applicable to our calling.  Some others obviously revel in such things because that is the place in which they find their identity and where they spend their time.  It is a means (and I think only a means) to an end, just as the council of Acts 15 was a means to continue the effective ministry to the Gentiles.  It was not an end in itself, but it was very necessary.
    Some in our denomination are suspicious of networks, multi-site churches, and even of church planting and evangelism (at least they spend a lot of time criticizing the methods of others while not doing much themselves,  it seems to me).  Some of their fears are helpful to us so we know how to avoid giving legitimacy to their accusations.
    All Elders are bishops in that we must be overseers of the flock in the care of souls.  We are not seeking to create hierarchical Bishops by having good leadership in networks or multi-site churches.  Church history of course is fraught with cautionary tales of church organization that becomes abusive of authority, heretical, and oppressive to the true faith.  Yet God did not cancel out the spiritual gift of leadership due to its' abuse.  The idea that an educated clergy would protect us from heresy has not panned out, the idea that a certain kind of polity would keep us from authoritarian overreaching or straying into liberalism has not panned out.  Systems seem helpful but all human systems are subject to not only human error but sinful human manipulation.  What's that you say, "sin is the problem?"   Yes, and that is our constant struggle personally and corporately.
   So, we don't accept the idea that any particular method is necessarily dangerous to our faith, they are at once all dangerous and/or innocuous and simply a method.  It always takes vigilance, it takes humility and accountability or else we all slide into what is easiest for ourselves.
    The New City Network has exhibited that we believe in leadership development.  We train our people to be leaders, we call them to it, and we spread it out.  We have mostly been spared from any one person trying to control everything.  As the founding pastor in Chattanooga I can say that those who have gone out from us, or started independently, have done so many wonderful things and we are always learning from them.  We have not sought to control them but only to encourage them when and where we could.  We have sometimes purposefully not tried to take credit for any of their achievements yet we will not deny them as our friends and brothers.
    This network will not be under Mission to North America or Mission to the World, but we certainly hope to cooperate with them here in the United States and in other countries when we plant churches there.  We hope and expect that they will help us in identifying, training, assessing, vetting, and supporting church planters because this helps them fulfill their mission and ours.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Who is in, and where are we going?

    We recognize that the Lord is moving in many places, in many congregations.  We recognize that long before New City became a church there were folks committed to justice and mercy, committed to a church that was truly welcoming of people of different races, ethnicities, and languages.  I grew up in a church that found itself becoming multi-ethnic and transitioned to be cross cultural.  In the beginning of that church (Calvary Gospel Church of Newark, New Jersey), they were driven by a passion to be soul winners, to be evangelistic.  They rejected an abandonment mentality found in many Evangelical churches in their city and instead of leaving the city they sought to win the people of the city, no matter what their color or culture.  They did soul winning with a presumption that theirs was the correct Christian culture, they assumed that new disciples would assimilate to their worship and to the practices of the church which had brought them the Gospel.  Frankly it could be said that they disdained what they saw in the traditional African American church, as well as disdaining what they saw in most white main line denominations.  They eventually had to come to terms with historical and traditional racial and ethnic culture.
    We recognize that apart from us, from those who are in some way connected to the history of New City Fellowship, that many Christians have been bothered by the segregation of American churches and by the neglect of the poor in our country and around the world.  The reason for this of course is that we are not the only ones who have the Bible.  God's concern for the afflicted, the poor, the widow and orphan are clearly there for all to read.  Many believers through all ages have taken up the challenge and vision to be a City set on a hill that produces good works.  Hallelujah, and may their tribe increase.
    We must be humble in our understanding of ourselves in the light of history, in the light of how large the Kingdom of God is, and how God has used many people in different kinds of ways to accomplish his will.  However, we must sadly still observe that far too many of our churches in the United States are self absorbed, self indulgent, and self satisfied.  We have earned a reputation of building churches that are all about ourselves; not about our neighborhoods, not about the culture (except to oppose it), nor about society.
    We are faced with a monumental missionary challenge in the United States and one reason it is monumental  is the speed by which it is growing.  We are gaining population, we are losing churches, and we are not replacing those churches fast enough to keep up with the population growth.  Not only that but the demographics of change for our country are increasingly multi-ethnic and non-Anglo.  Much of this growth is by immigration and by the birth rate of minorities.   Some of these folks are increasingly from countries that are decidedly non or anti Christian.  The present churches we have are overwhelmingly mono-ethnic and mono-cultural.  The general population of Christians we have are trendy and shift according to programs, charisma of the leadership, need a sense of security and safety and struggle with the challenge of real commitment and loyalty to institutions.  In short they are shallow and that in almost every part; theologically, culturally, and in character.
    I think the New City type of churches we are, and want to propagate, are uniquely equipped to meet this missionary challenge.  In order to do that we will need to unite in some practical fashion to encourage, fund, and plant such churches.  Most of our churches are overwhelmed with meeting the needs of the poor around us, while trying to build in terms of staff, facilities, and programming.  It is a real step of sacrifice, (based on need, the call of Christ, and vision) to reach out singly or together to plant new churches.  That is not new for the people of God and we must not shirk the challenge because it is difficult or overwhelming.
    Our churches are known for several things though they vary in intensity and style from congregation to congregation.  They are committed to the city, to the poor, to being not only multi-ethnic but cross cultural, to preaching and living in the power of the Gospel and a grace enabled life, and to culturally relevant and joyful worship.  They are committed to the development of ethnic and indigenous leadership and to outreach.  We hope they will also be committed to missions that propagate more of such churches in cities all over the world.
    These churches are committed to a theology of reconciliation that is preached through and by the power of the cross, but is also a necessary by-product of taking the Gospel to the poor and by crossing ethnic and cultural lines.  We understand that there are those who agree with us about the Gospel containing this theology of reconciliation but who do nothing to actualize it.  We realize that there are those who attempt reconciliation without such a theology and have become cultural colonizers rather than true servants of the Gospel as Paul practiced and described in I Corinthians 9: 19-23.
    Our churches reject the idea that churches are legitimate in targeting a certain demographic while stepping over people who are different racially and culturally that live right next to them.  If Jesus was commissioned to preach the Gospel to the poor what elevated us to the middle and upper classes?  The so called Homogeneous Unit Principle is actually a Homogeneous Unit Observation.  It is sociological but became a method resulting in an excuse for segregation.  Am I being too harsh here?
    This does not mean that our churches fail to make a cultural choice in how they worship for that would be impossible.  We are humans who live in culture, who speak in language, who respond in emotion to what grips our identity.  It is just that we pursue the culture of the separated population.  We seek to become like them, not demand that they culturally become part of us.  This obviously takes a conscious attitude of servant-hood or sacrifice but leads to an enrichment of life and an expansion of community.
    Knowing that tribalism, ethnic cleansing, racial hatred, and division are rampant around the world we seek to plant our churches where the witness to the unifying, healing, love of Christ can be demonstrated.  We want to increase the number of joyful worshiping communities that exhibit a spiritual Body and living stones that are being built together.  We know that this exhibition is a miracle where God takes broken and hurting people who have legitimate reasons for hatred toward the people group represented by people worshiping next to them in the same building or place, and has them forgive each other, share with each other, listen to each other, and be willing to die for each other.
    These are the kind of churches we seek to have be part of this network.  These are the kind of churches we want to plant.
  

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Mercy is a Core Value

   One of our core values in New City type churches has to be our pursuit of the poor.  I use that phrase to show that we want poor people in our church, we don't simply want to minister to them.  The poor need so much, and I thank God for all acts of kindness to them.  But, and that is an important demarcation, the poor need to be gathered into the fellowship of the saints.  They need the Gospel, they need discipleship, they need community, they need the wonderful security of the Body of Christ.  For this reason I have a real problem with what I call "mercy tourism."  This seems to be the prevalent way young urbanites who are planting churches seem to approach the issue of ministry to the poor.  They farm out their members as volunteers with the rhetoric that they are affecting the city.  The volunteers get involved in tutoring and with various agencies who do good and some of them develop real relationships with poor folks.  If this leads to relationships that are part of that gathering that Jesus desires, by bringing people into discipling relationships, and bringing them into the Body then that is good.  However, I tend to think much of it is a tendency to make the middle class feel good about themselves and not really make an impact on poverty or the systems that create and sustain poverty.
    Obviously we need to mobilize our people into good works, but as stewards of the time of our people, as stewards of our money, as stewards of our passion and energy it seems to me that we need to focus ministry on what makes the most impact, the longest lasting effect, the most radical change for the poor.
    I am convinced that the community of saints is where poor people need to be gathered and this requires so much more than just a drop of charity, or a work project.   Believe me, I know what a bag of groceries can do for a family when they are hungry.  I have received such help from Deacons, and I praise God for that mercy.  Yet, it was just a step along the way of bringing my family into the loving and caring arms of the church.  Without the discipleship of the church we would have continued to be recipients, and God wants us to become people who work with our own hands to supply our own needs, and then to have enough to help others who are in need.
    To be a New City type church means you have to love the poor.  None of us are perfect in our methods, that is not our standard, but the intent, the effort, the practice has to be real.  How do you help your own poor members?  How do you evangelize among the poor?   How do you pursue charity and how do you pursue development?
    I think we have different models within this network of helping poor folks.  Some of us are more charity oriented, and some of us are more development models.   What is interesting to me is that from my observation development models have stronger economic impact on a community but less poor people in the worshiping community.  My hope is that all of us would develop both aspects of mercy, that our congregations would advocate and strongly use the office of Deacon in the church for the purpose of mercy and that our gifts would be mobilized to use development strategies to change the economic lives of the poor in our church and in our community.  We should not settle for models that do not evangelize the poor.  We can create housing models, medical models, job training and placement models, business creation models, education models, arts and music initiatives and still see no growth of conversions.  If that is so we are failing.  The preaching, strong preaching of the Word, and calling people to faith should go hand in glove with effective ministries of mercy.  I believe this should cause us to live in tension, and it is a tension that keeps us honest.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Creating a Micah 6:8 coalition, aka, New City Network

    During the weekend of November 4-8 several pastors and leaders of New City type churches (as this article goes along we hope to define that term) gathered for a consultation of creating a church planting network.  Strangely enough these people, dedicated to ministry among the poor, had this consultation on a cruise ship.  This was done to eliminate the possibility of escape during the discussion and give the participants a rest and break from what is often a very intensive kind of ministry life.  We hope that this was a historic gathering and we are now engaged in an open discussion of how this network will take shape.  Several of us were assigned to write our reactions, impressions, and ideas for such a network which will in turn be passed around for everyone to read and to which they can react.

   I intend this newly created blog to give me a place where my thoughts can be read and hopefully reacted to by certain individuals so we can see how the discussion develops.  There are lots of questions that need to be asked, some of which were discussed at the consultation, and more will certainly develop.  Here are a few of them:
1. What will it be called?
2. Who will lead it?
3.  How will it be financed?
4.  What defines a New City "type" church?
5.  What levels of cooperation will be needed or desirable?
6.  Who gets to determine if someone qualifies to be in the network?
7.  How will the network relate to Presbyteries and the Presbyterian Church in America denomination?
8.  What parameters of theology, ideology, and methodology will be established?
9.  Will we need to agree on all issues, on supporting only heterogeneous churches, in other words how much "only" do we need?
10.  Should we take over a pre-existing non-profit or just use the church as the "holding" company for the effort?
11.  Will this be national or international in scope?

    In our initial meeting we seemed to come to consensus that we can call this new thing the New City Network.  I kind of like the idea of calling this new thing...."The New City Network, a Micah 6:8 coalition."
Who will lead it and how it will be financed are matters for discussion as we go forward, but at this early point not decisive for continued development.  What defines our churches though is a matter for present discussion.

    Following the pattern of Micah 6:8 I believe we can extract our core values.  Our churches ought to be about Justice, Mercy, and humbly walking with God.  We understand this Old Testament passage in light of the New Testament teachings of the Gospel, of Grace, and of the Kingdom of God.  Obviously the historical reason for New City's creation was the issue of race in America combined with the Biblical imperative to make disciples of  panta ta ethne (all the nations).  The context of racism, racial segregation, racial isolation, and cultural integrity versus cultural imperialism were all very important in the creation of New City Fellowship in Chattanooga.

    We know from Micah 6:8 that God requires that we act justly, that we love mercy, and that we walk humbly with God.  This is a reflection of His character and attributes. God is a God of Justice and Mercy, it is simply who he is and to be anywhere close to him means our humiliation (in the best possible meaning of that term.)  By the way I do think the New Testament concept of being broken in our sins and needful of the cleaning blood of Jesus, of needing salvation through the merciful grace of God, of being totally spiritually dependent on the sustaining mercy and grace of God, means that we are and must be delivered from self-righteousness.  What a liberation this is in trying to live out justice and mercy, otherwise we become "cause oriented" and go around judging people who have not yet been radicalized by realizing the issues of need and injustice in the world.  We believe this is the right way to be in regard to race, justice, mercy, etc. but we must never think we are better than anyone else.  It is like everything else in Christianity, where true saints can never despise sinners because we know (and must never forget) the personal internal truth about how wretched we each truly are.

    One of the words that was discussed during the consultation was the word "reconciliation."  Where does this word fit in the preaching of the New Testament?  Is it part of justification?  Is it part of redemption?  Is it part of sanctification?  The question can be either simply semantic or one of framing it for proper theological understanding or possibly for theological division.  Part of this controversy comes in the continual debate we have with folks who ask the question, "are you saying this kind of ministry is mandatory for everyone, or is this simply a ministry "model" which we can choose to use or not depending on our gifts or calling of ministry?"

    I think one of our core values in building this kind of network is our theological opinion that reconciliation is very much part of redemption, which covers both justification and sanctification, and is not optional but mandatory on all believers.  We of course believe that justification happened through the cross and the resurrection of Christ, that it happens by faith, that it is personally applied to us in God's declaration of the righteousness of Christ imputed to us by faith, that it is in no way achieved by works but only given to us by grace.  However, to see justification as the only thing that happened at the cross is a distortion of Scripture.  Paul declares (2 Corinthians 5) that we have the message of reconciliation, that we have the ministry of reconciliation, and this means we no longer view people, especially Christ, after the flesh.  We now view people as combined in the physical body of Christ as he dies on the cross putting to death their enmity (Ephesians 2).   In short reconciliation both vertically and horizontally happened at the cross.  This is the basis by which we participate in the building of the spiritual Body of Christ, the Church.  This is the basis by which we can love each other, and forgive each other, and be one with each other.  To preach the cross as only personal justification is to preach a distorted Gospel and creates a personalized religion and not one that reflects the gathering will of Jesus, his determination to build his church as a visible community of love.

    Christ enables the answer to his high priestly prayer (that we be one) in John 17 by his work on the cross, and we actualize the answer to his prayer in the living out of love in the Body, and this especially is evidenced in the sacrificial humility of the saints when they become cultural servants in order to win other people groups to Jesus. (I Corinthians 9)

   So, under the heading of justice we very much include racial reconciliation.  By this we do not mean simply having a congregation where various ethnic groups mingle.  Racial reconciliation is needed because racism has and is happening.  Racial segregation continues in our national Christian Evangelical Sunday morning practice of worship.  This division continues to illustrate and exemplify one thing to the watching world, and that is division.  It is the one thing Jesus prays against for his followers, and when we overcome it we reveal Christ to the world.  Yet being in one building together cannot happen easily when there has been injustice and when there continues to be attitudes of superiority and demands of cultural assimilation.  Reconciliation does not mean domination, it means peace, and oneness.  We define peace here as not simply the absence of conflict, where some might simply stifle their feelings in order to get along, but that people get along with sincerity and love each other from the heart.

    For our purposes we must seek to enlist like minded church planters and practicioners who pursue racial reconcilation.  Obviously this is going to be contextual, but it must be measurable.  For someone to say, "this is a New City type church" and yet be homogeneous should and ought to be an oxymoron.   The practical application of this most likely will be in who we will financially support, and who we will feel is eligible to be part of this coalition.  We know there are geographical locations which may be homogeneous, and we know there are middle class communities that seem to have no poor people, but the question of course for us would be then, "how do you show the multi-cultural nature of the Kingdom in your place of worship, and how do you show the pursuit of Shalom and advocacy of the poor in your location?"