Category: Missional Church

Podcast: The Unknown God

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Last Sunday I preached from Acts 17:22-31, which is the story of Paul’s visit to Athens and his sermon at the Areopagus. In many ways, just as Paul faced a different world in Athens, we are living in a different world than the Church has ever encountered before. Paul adapted his approach and message to meet the Athenian philosophers and pundits where they were, but he effectively communicated the Gospel as well. Here’s the audio from last Sunday:

Why We Still Need (Some) Monocultural Churches

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Immigrant children at Ellis Island. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Multicultural churches are all the rage these days. Conferences are packed with pastors learning how to start multicultural churches, or how to turn the churches they pastor into one. That long-overdue trend is welcomed because God is the God of diversity. In light of God’s call to reconciliation, churches ought to reflect the diversity of their neighborhoods.

But, we still need monocultural churches, particularly among newly-arrived immigrant populations. Here are six reasons why.

1. Monocultural churches can provide a safe haven for minorities within a dominant majority culture. After the Civil War ended in 1865, emancipated African Americans left their former white masters’ churches to form black congregations. The rich history of the American black church is one not only of worship, but as the hub of the African American community. For minority populations, especially newly-arrived immigrant populations, monocultural churches can provide this same safe haven today.

2. Monocultural churches allow for minority perspectives to develop and be heard. On a national scale, American Christianity was shocked into reality with the publication of Dr. Soong-Chan Rah’s book, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. The subtitle should have been Freeing the Church from White Cultural Captivity, because Professor Rah writes compellingly of the “white captivity of the church.” Dr. Rah’s advocacy for other voices — voices of minorities — to be heard and respected could be realized if white churches and leaders recognize and listen to the voices from Korean, Laotian, West African, African American, and other churches whose members are in the minority in American cultural life.

3. Monocultural churches can provide a connection to home, customs, language, ritual and power structures that generations of immigrants wish to retain. The myth of the American melting pot has been debunked as Americans of all ethnicities have attempted to connect with their ancestral roots. For those in the minority, the identity fostered by language, dress, ritual, and customs is difficult to retain, but important to remember.

4. Monocultural churches can become points of transition, assisting newcomers to America as they navigate their new culture. When I traveled in China, I was always interested in talking to Americans who had lived and worked in China to find out what restaurants they frequented, where they shopped, and how they learned the Chinese language. The same need exists in new immigrants to this country. Those from their own countries can help new immigrants negotiate the meaning and pace of American life.

5. Monocultural churches help resist the marginalization of minority groups. The danger any minority faces is not only being assimilated into their new culture, but being absorbed and marginalized by it. Monocultural churches, like the black church, have given rise to a unique expression of the Christian faith, and established a unique place for its people in American church life. White churches and denominations must reject outreach to minority populations because they are the answer to white church or denominational decline.

6. Finally, monocultural churches do not confirm the notorious church growth teaching called the “homogeneous unit principle.” Church growth studies advocated that because people (usually white) found it easier to be with people like them, it followed that homogeneous churches would grow more quickly and easily. However, monocultural churches are not excluders, but incubators that allow potentially fragile populations to establish themselves, grow, develop a unique witness, and thrive in the rich diversity of American church life.

Of course, none of these reasons is intended to sanction prejudice, discrimination, or exclusion in any church. In the Book of Acts, the church in Jerusalem cared for its Jewish widows and its Greek widows as well.

However, before you jump on the bandwagon of exclusive multiculturalism, remember that historically monocultural churches like German Lutherans, English Baptists, Scottish Presbyterian, British Anglican, and others established themselves in colonial America. These monocultural churches became incubators for those who came to these shores seeking freedom, which included the freedom to add their past to a new American future.

A New Subtitle: Churches as Communities of Reconciliation

The new subtitle of this blog is Churches as Communities of Reconciliation. Let me unpack this phrase one element at a time.

Let’s start with churches. This blog began with a focus on small congregations, but over the past seven years’ of writing, I have come to the conclusion that size is the least significant factor in church vitality. Rather, a church’s sense of mission — missional consciousness, to use the jargon — is a better gauge of church vitality than size. Churches with a clear sense of purpose, whether large or small, thrive and are vibrant members of their communities. And, just to be clear, my confidence is in churches, not other organizations, to embody and exhibit the Kingdom of God as a contrast society in contemporary culture. Those churches can be traditional, seeker-sensitive, neo-monastic, denominational, or any of the other flavors that churches come in today. The form is less important than the way in which local congregations live out their calling to be salt and light to their communities and the world.

Secondly, I’m interested in churches which are practicing reconciliation. The Apostle Paul wrote, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation…” (2 Corinthians 5:18 NIV). I’m convinced that the Bible is the story of God’s reconciling love beginning in the Garden of Eden and concluding with the New Heaven and New Earth in Revelation 21-22. The reconciling love of God finds its highest expression in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul continues the theme of reconciliation in 2 Corinthians 5:19: “that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”

Down through the ages, Christian churches, evangelical churches in particular, have emphasized reconciliation between God and humankind. However, there exists also the unmistakable idea that we cannot be reconciled to God — we cannot say we love God — without being reconciled to one another. Theologians have called these the cruciform (meaning “cross-shaped”) aspects of reconciliation. We are “vertically” reconciled to God, while being “horizontally” reconciled to those around us, even our enemies. If God has given us the ministry of reconciliation — and I believe along with Paul that God has — then reconciliation should be the signature ministry of churches.

I wrote my DMin dissertation at Fuller on the subject of The Reconciling Community: The Missional Mending of Spiritual and Social Relationships Through Local Church Ministry. In my research and writing, I explored not only the theological and theoretical aspects of reconciliation, but the practical, applied aspects as well. Of course, I wasn’t the first to come to this awareness, and I discovered that scores of churches in the US (and, other places), are actively practicing reconciliation in their communities.

Finally, to put it all together, I am focusing on the result that churches practicing reconciliation are building peace communities. In reconciliation studies, much of the literature is theoretical. Authors focus on the theology of reconciliation, the multi-disciplinary nature of reconciliation, and stories of reconciliation in places like South Africa and Rwanda. However, I found very few resources that could describe what a ministry of reconciliation looked like on the ground in real life. To that end, I synthesized the best of the theoretical research to develop a list of criteria for what reconciliation looks like. I’ll list those in a later post, but my point is that for churches to be able to engage in a ministry of reconciliation, we have to know what one looks like, and what result we seek as agents of reconciliation.

The goal of churches which practice reconciliation is, in my opinion, to build peace communities. I don’t mean peaceful communities, although they certainly would be. Peace communities are those neighborhoods and areas included in a local church’s ministry influence, that have been transformed in measurable ways by the practice of reconciliation.

When Jesus sent out the 70 (or 72) disciples, among other things he instructed them in the practice of peace: “ “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’  If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you.” (Luke 10:5-6 NIV). We have neglected this idea of speaking peace, finding the person of peace, and “staying in one place” to bring about transformation of an entire community. That’s what peace communities are — communities that have been transformed by the shalom of God into places where Kingdom ethics are lived out, hurts are healed, relationships are restored, and God’s children live in harmony. If that sounds like an improbably fantasy we must remind ourselves that Jesus said some pretty improbable things.

In future blog posts, I’ll tell the stories of churches that are practicing reconciliation and building peace communities in their own neighborhoods. I’ll also present resources, books, seminars, and organizations that can be helpful in your church’s quest to become a reconciling community. I’m convinced this is the church of the future — engaged, vital, and transformative — and I hope you’ll continue the journey with me.

My Dissertation Arrives

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Two bound copies of my dissertation arrived today. The title is The Reconciling Community: The Missional Mending of Spiritual and Social Relationships Through Local Church Ministry.

I lived with writing this for almost two years, so it is very gratifying to see it done, bound, and approved. Still waiting for my DMin degree to be posted and for my diploma to arrive.

The next project is converting the academic research into a more accessible form for publication. Two years to publication probably. Sisyphus redux.

The Pastor as Artisan

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Over the centuries of church history, various metaphors have been used to describe the role of God’s chosen leaders. Some metaphors have lodged permanently in our collective consciousness, while others have not passed the test of time. I suggest that there is one more metaphor for the pastor’s role that might be a welcome addition to the others — the pastor as artisan.

Perhaps the oldest metaphor used to describe the pastoral leader is that of shepherd. The second metaphor used in the New Testament for church leaders is overseer. Both of those metaphors are enduring and widely used today.

Another metaphor that emerged in the early centuries of the church was that of pastor as the “physician of souls.” Sin was viewed as a disease and pastoral care was seen as the “cure of souls” with the priest as the administrator of that cure.

As the church growth movement took root in the 1980s, the popular metaphor of pastor as CEO was drawn from the corporate world. Successful churches, church growth advocates argued, concentrated authority in the pastor as CEO because this was the most effective means toward church growth. However, in retrospect the metaphor of pastor as CEO and the church growth movement have both proven to be inadequate for the complex task of shaping and leading twenty-first century congregations.

Of course, there are other pastoral metaphors in use as well. The popular triad of pastor as prophet, priest, and poet brings together several facets of pastoral ministry. From the sports world, the idea of the pastor as coach plays off popular sports imagery with the pastor as team strategist, and church staff and members as team players who execute the game plan.

To this wide-ranging mix of metaphors I would add one more — the pastor as artisan. At their height in the middle ages, artisans were skilled master craftsmen who produced goods that were beautiful and functional. These artisans included goldsmiths, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, weavers, tailors, shoemakers, hatters, tinsmiths, carpenters, potters, stonemasons, and so on. Master artisans took apprentices and trained them to become master craftsmen after apprenticeships lasting seven or more years. Artisans organized themselves into guilds which set standards and ensured that their particular skill and craft would endure.

There are six reasons I believe the artisan is an appropriate metaphor for pastors and their work.

1. Artisans focused on one product. They learned one trade which required them to learn how to select raw materials and how to craft those raw materials into a unique, finished product. Artisans lived in the vertical silo of their own trade. Silversmiths did not work in leather, cobblers did not make barrels, and carpenters did not branch out into stone work.

2. Artisans trained apprentices to continue their craft. Skills, insights, and trade secrets were passed from master artisan to his apprentices carefully. This hands-on training and mentoring assured the continuation of the traditions of each craft, but also allowed for advances and improvements as new tools and techniques were developed. Artisans brought on new trainees each year, assuring their workshops a continuing supply of understudies at different stages of learning.

3. Artisans were successful when their workshops produced both quality products and skilled apprentices. An artisan without an apprentice limited his future and the future of the trade in which he was engaged. Successful master artisans realized that their survival meant not only producing goods today, but continuing the trade for generations through the lives of apprentices they trained.

4. Artisans maintained important traditions while incorporating best practices as they became available. The purpose of the apprentice system was to pass on the skills and trade secrets developed over decades of skilled work techniques. These traditions became marks of pride, honor, and identification for each artisan guild. Guilds guaranteed that standards were followed, while also vetting newer practices. This process assured that the entire guild would continue to be well-thought of, and its products would be valued and purchased.

5. Artisans depended on other artisans for products they did not produce. The carriage maker, for instance, depended on the wheelwright for wheels. The wheelwright, in turn, depended on the blacksmith for the iron bands wrapped around the wooden wheel. Because artisans specialized, they depended on and supported each other’s work and products.

6. Artisans were themselves master craftsmen. While this might seem self-evident, they knew what it was like to be a novice, and then to progress to the more complex skills as their knowledge and craftsmanship developed. Master artisans knew the frustrations of apprenticeship, learned to endure the seven or more years their apprenticeship covered, and valued their training as they set up their own workshops as master artisans. There was no shortcut to becoming a master craftsman, and no absentee ownership of a skilled craft workshop. Artisans were hands-on masters, trained to train others while producing their own quality products.

In summary, the pastor as artisan is an apt metaphor and here’s why.

 Like artisans, pastors…

1. Focus on one product — proclaiming and practicing the good news of Jesus Christ.

2. Train others to do what they do, thereby ensuring continuity of Christian witness now and in the future.

3. Are most successful when they not only produce effective ministry results, but when they also work closely with others to do the same.

4. Value age-old traditions, such as doctrinal orthodoxy, while incorporating new expressions of the faith into their practice.

5. Depend on others, as members of the body of Christ, to provide those gifts they do not possess in order to function faithfully as the Church.

6. Have learned important lessons from skilled leaders who have gone before them, and have incorporated those lessons into their own mature practice of ministry.

Viewing pastors and other church leaders as artisans helps us to take a long-term approach to ministry. Apprenticeships that lasted seven years required patience, consistency, and perseverance from both master artisan and apprentice. However, by taking the long view , artisans created beautiful products and an enduring legacy. Pastors could learn from their example.

The Possibility of Church-led Reconciliation

Almost fifty years ago, a Baptist minister stood before a sea of hopeful people in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial to share the dream God had given him. On that day the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”[1]

Regrettably, Dr. King’s dream remains unrealized in many communities across America. Rather than diminishing with the gains of the civil rights movement, alienation and inequality between races and classes is more prevalent in American society today than it was in 1975.[2] Black and white, rich and poor, educated and unskilled – these represent some of the groups at odds in today’s American communities.

Martin Luther King Jr. recognized that churches have a role to play[3] in tearing down barriers and in building bridges to that vision he called “the beloved community.”

“The end is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the beloved community,” according to King. In the beloved community persons and groups are reconciled to one another by God’s “divine love in lived social relation.”[4]

The Apostle Paul affirmed the church’s mission as one of reconciliation. “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:18 NIV). While many churches understand reconciliation primarily as a “private affair between God and the individual,”[5] less emphasis has been placed on reconciliation between persons and groups within local communities.[6]

Reconciliation, according to the Ubuntu theology[7] of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is “bringing together that which is separated, alienated, ruptured, sick, or broken.”[8] Reconciliation, Tutu argues, is the ministry of the Church and the “center of our life and work as Christians.”[9]

In communities throughout the United States, there is much that needs to be reconciled. In my state, Virginia’s history boasts both the grand and glorious, and the dark and ignominious. From the colonial era through the Civil War, Virginia’s slave trade was robust. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – words penned by Virginian Thomas Jefferson – did not apply to Africans brought in chains involuntarily to the South.[10] The lingering effects of slavery, and the living descendants of slaves and slave-owners, make it impossible for those in our community to escape easily the injustices of the past.

Reconciliation has also been defined as “a journey from the past into the future, a journey from estrangement to communion, or from what was patently unjust in search of a future that is just.”[11] Given Virginia’s colonial history, its role in the Civil War, and its resistance to desegregation, reconciliation must revisit the past with honesty, and then forge a new way forward.

In December 2005, our small, historic white congregation opened its doors to host a Boys and Girls Club, the first after-school club in our county. As a result of that decision dozens of children, black and white, descended on the church fellowship hall each weekday afternoon. This was the church’s first experience hosting a racially-integrated program.

Because of the church’s involvement with the Boys and Girls Club, Chatham Baptist Church was asked to host the 2008 Martin Luther King Day celebration in Chatham. At the conclusion of the program that day, the African American pastor who moderated the meeting asked everyone in the congregation to stand, join hands, and sing “We Shall Overcome.” Before we began to sing, he looked at me as I stood at the front of the sanctuary. He said, “Pastor, people notice what you’re doing here.” His words of encouragement confirmed what I had hoped for: reconciliation was possible in our community.

Some might argue that the alienation brought about by slavery, Jim Crow laws, and segregation is a forgotten chapter in a long dead past. Douglas Massey, however, argues against that notion:

‘History aside, there are also good social scientific reasons to expect that categorical mechanisms of racial stratification will prove resistant to change. We know, for example, that once learned, cognitive structures do not simply disappear. Racial schemas honed over generations tend to persist in the minds of adults and get passed on to children in conscious and unconscious ways.”[12]

The story that is passed on to the children of any community is important. For too long the children of our nation in both the South and the North have been bequeathed the cultural legacy of prejudice and privilege, or difference and discrimination. For that to change, churches like mine must imagine and bequeath a new legacy through a ministry of reconciliation. That would be a new story for this community, and one worth passing on to future generations everywhere.


[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., I Have A Dream: Writings and Speeches That Changed The World, 104.

[2] Douglas S. Massey, Categorically Unequal: The American Stratification System, xvi.

[3] King, I Have a Dream, 95-98.

[4] Charles Marsh, The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, from the Civil Rights Movement to Today, 1-2.

[5] John W. de Gruchy, Reconciliation: Restoring Justice, 34.

[6] Ibid., 19.

[7] Michael Battle, Reconciliation: The Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu, 5.

[8] Ibid.,180.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Putnam, American Grace, Location 588.

[11] de Gruchy, Reconciliation, 28.

[12] Massey, Categorically Unequal, 52.

When Should A Church Close?

The Tennessean, the daily newspaper in Nashville, Tennessee, featured an article today on small churches and when they should close.  In the article, Short on Cash, People, Small Churches Consider Closing, reporter Bob Smietana profiles three Nashville area churches that had to face their own mortality.  Bob was kind enough to quote me in the article, and I appreciate the approach he took in writing the piece.

The article also quoted Dr. Israel Galindo, author of The Hidden Lives of Congregations, which I think is the best book any pastor can read, especially pastors of small, established churches.  Galindo helps pastors and church leaders identify what “style” their church reflects, and where their church might be in the life cycle of churches profile.  I’ve written about this book before, but it’s worth mentioning again.

The article also points out that churches have taken as much as a 40% hit financially in the economic downturn that started in 2008.  When he interviewed me for the article, Bob asked me what factors indicate that a small church might need to close.  The three factors I identified were people, money, and mission.  The loss of any one of those is like kicking one leg of a three-legged stool out from under it — without a significant balancing act, a two-legged stool isn’t going to stand very long.

So, when is it time for a church, usually a small church, to close?   When the combination of people, money, and mission no longer works.  Churches don’t exist just to exist; churches exist for the purpose of mission. When the mission is no longer viable because there are not enough people or financial resources to support it, then a small church ought to seriously consider how it might re-invent itself, or even plan its own funeral.

What do you think?  Are there other factors that suggest when a church might close its doors?  Or are people, money, and mission the big three?