Tag Archives: body of Christ

Is this church still holding together?

Last week Jonny passed around an article about a well-known Dallas megachurch pastor whose church is becoming an association rather than one main church and its satellites. Tim Keller’s church did the same in New York. Apparently, talking heads wear out and the church reverts back to being more of a church than a “site” for info distribution.

Not really sure who Mr. Chandler is, but he was in a magazine.

The devolution of the megachurches made me wonder how we are doing. We’re not quite “mega,” but we are “multi.“ Five congregations are a lot. When the pastors were on retreat last week, their love was so notable, it was amazing, so five does not seem like too many. But it is a lot.  We are bucking the trend by staying unified – one church crossing the geographic boundaries of our split-up metro. But are we bucking it enough?

Eight years ago, I wrote a blog post called “What holds this church together?”  It was in response to a person who had seen a few places fall apart and wondered if we were likely to do the same. I gave an answer at one of the meetings that pre-dated “doing theology” times and someone said “Every time you talk about this, you use the words ‘relational, love, incarnational,’ but I end up not knowing a lot more.”

So I tried again. And I want to try yet again to think it all through now that we are years older, hundreds bigger, and even more diverse than we were then. So I added some new comments to the original post in red.

Most of what I think is summed up by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians:

“[Jesus] gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of [people] in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

What holds us together?

The Son of God, love, building ourselves and each other up. What Paul said.

More specifically, here are five ways we apply the scripture, with just one example each that demonstrates how we do it. (You might want to comment with some more.)

1) We assume people are not infants…

(or at least are not destined to be so). They are gifted and relevant. Jesus is in them to bring fullness and unity.

We expect our Cell Leaders to work out our agreements and follow our very general plan. We do not tell them what to do each week; they are not given a curriculum.

This is still true. But sometimes it looks like our leaders are a little tired of making it happen. We are infected with MTD (Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism) and other spiritual maladies that often undermine our radical assumptions. But we still multiply cells and they still make community and development possible in a spiritually arid climate.

2)  The pastors and other leaders are relentless about contrasting the deceitfulness of the philosophies of the age with Jesus. We know

we are a “ship of fools”

as far as the deluded world is concerned.

You may have noticed that we are not an “emerging church,” we are not “postmodern.” We tend to rail against modernism, too and a couple of weeks ago I took a swipe at Facebook and the immortality of the soul in the space of a few minutes.

I think we are still on the same boat. The older people get, however, the less inclined they are to sail on a ship of fools. Many would rather have a good school for their kids and a backyard somewhere. We are a very inclusive bunch, so we include some people who are not on board with our radical ideas right off. Sometimes there is a contest for who is steering the ship.

3) Dialogue is practiced.

Speaking the truth in love is an organizing discipline; not just a personal aspiration.

Our yearly Map-making is an extravagant exercise in taking what people say seriously and encouraging them to say it.

I think this is a strong suit. Dialogue and healthy conflict, even, are in our DNA and it is noticeable. That does not mean people don’t fight unfairly and tear relationships up, sometimes, it means that we have a lot of resilience when it comes to relating and we direct people to the proper ways to overcome what often divides other churches to shreds.

4) We think of ourselves as a body with Jesus as the head,

not a mechanism with a set of instructions for “how it works.”

The hardest thing to understand is being an organism. Right now we have planted the seeds of another congregation and we are watching to see if it will grow. We also have a congregation in Camden that is stretching out roots. We have methods, but they won’t replace Jesus causing the growth.

People still don’t understand “being an organism” right off, but I think our leaders generally do. We persist in being an odd “institution” who are quite aware that we are flawed but loving people who are in it together or we won’t have anything to be in at all. If Jesus does not build us, we have little to fall back on.

5) We assume that we will fall apart if people do not love each other,

and promote such dissolution.

Some astute historian told me that such an idea is so 70’s — well, 90’s, too. I think it is central to what Jesus is giving is. As Paul says elsewhere, “Nothing matters but faith working itself out through love.” People come to the leaders quite often with a great idea for mission (and I mean often and great). We send them back to create a mission team. If you can’t team, your idea can’t matter. Sometimes teams don’t have the devotion and want the “church” to take over their idea, we let them die.

This conviction is so painfully realistic that cell leaders are loathe to let their cell die until it just caves in. Periodically we need to sweep through our teams to see if they are alive or just a wishful thought. But I think we are still committed to be what Jesus generates and not a program with slots well-meaning people should fill.

My dear friend was in wonder that we do not fall apart. Now that I have sketched out why we don’t, so am I. Jesus must be behind it. On a human level, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

And we keep on going. In the past year we started an new congregation, installed new pastors, started the Good Business Oversight Team, who are starting two new businesses, mobilized because black lives matter, advocated for immigrants and solar energy, and that is just getting started. I think Jesus is our Head and the body is building itself up in love as each part does its work.

2014 #4 — Marriage in the new creation

**Circle of Hope upgrades their teaching all the time, so this post is old now, in some ways. The new work is even better!** Here is the link to the latest.

For the next few weeks, Thursday is TOP TEN of 2014 day. This is the #4 most read post of 2014. Last June I tried to keep our conversation about sexuality going by publishing a variation on the theme of our statement we made after our lively “Doing Theology” session in the spring.

All year we have been trying to get out of the congress-type polarization of the Church’s dialogue about sexual expression and get into the grace of staying focused on everyone’s redemption. I think we are doing a good job. The pastors came up with a statement on marriage in March and taught it to the cell leaders. I think it is a good summary of where we have come so far. This post is based on that statement. What follows are three big points about marriage and sexuality and some basic ideas that might help apply them.

We need to keep the love chapter where it belongs

The apostle Paul places his famous “love chapter” in the middle of his teaching about how the Holy Spirit is making the body of Christ out of the Lord’s followers (1 Corinthians 12-14). He does not place it after his chapter on marriage (1 Corinthians 7), which he could have easily done. The placement is important to note. Paul fully respects marriage as part of the order built into creation, but it is not equally important in the new creation.

In Christ, we are all bigger than the traditions that used to make up our identities. For instance, when Paul is talking to the church in Galatia about their temptation to follow the Jewish law he says, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” and “what counts is the new creation” (Galatians 5:6, 6:15).

When we are talking about the new traditions people are making and legislating about marriage and sexuality in our era, it is important to remember that what counts is the new creation. How I relate to everyone who is finding their way: relationally, sexually and otherwise, is based on this kind of thought: “From now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:16-17).

There is more to you than your marriage or lack of one

Making families is great, but the ultimate in family comes from relating as brothers and sisters in Christ and respecting God as our true parent. That is a reality that takes the work of our Savior and the power of the Spirit to experience.

Jesus affirms the oldest teachings in the scripture about marriage (Matthew 19:5-6). Elsewhere in the New Testament we are taught that marriage is to be honored by all; all the Bible writers assume they are talking about a relationship between a man and a woman, lifelong and exclusive. At the same time, marriage is not considered the ultimate expression of love and commitment; love and commitment come from Jesus and are most fully realized in the body of Christ.  Within that inspired and diverse body, composed of everyone who can name Jesus as Lord, “there are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.  There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.” Every Jesus-follower is honorable and must be honored because each is given “the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:5-7).

Our relationships with God through Jesus Christ are what define us. Our ultimate identity is not about how we are married or how we have sex, just like it is not about where we live or any other labels the world may slap on us.

The Church has slapped some labels on people, too.

Circle of Hope’s way of responding to our era’s new approaches to sexual expression has been based on the spirit of the preceding teaching from the Bible. At the same time, we know that the church has rarely been a safe place, historically, for sexual nonconformity. Many people have been oppressed and injured. One of the reasons people are deserting the church in vast numbers these days is not just because the members of the church do not live in the Spirit or do not express new creation life, it is because the church is even more oppressive than the world!

Because of this reality, we have tried to be even more careful to welcome every person as they are, no matter where they are on their journey, and have been committed to walk with them as they discover the fullness of what God has for them. We don’t do this just because people won’t like us if we don’t; we do it because Jesus is doing the same thing with us! Especially in regard to how people experience marriage, we don’t need that to be a big issue when we first meet someone. After all, we think that the best place to find fullness as one’s true self is as an honored member of the body of Christ, not in a sexual relationship, married or otherwise. So we try to keep our focus where the focus should be.

Some people might prefer a detailed policy statement

Our approach requires a great deal of love and personal commitment, not just careful adjudication or implementation of regulations. As Jesus-followers we need to love real, complex people with an unfolding future, not just organize identities as if we were the Social Security Administration. We want to have faith that requires our best — and loving people as they are will require our best. Being personally gracious and hospitable takes a lot of time and patience, but the  commitment it takes to work out our love in the ways we are directed is worth it.

Here are some basic applications of the scripture that answer questions people have about what we are talking about:

What about the pressure to choose a sexual identity? Sexual arousal is a characteristic of a person, not their identity. How we respond to our arousal and the feelings themselves tend to be fluid and are subject to the same temptations and maturation as are all our ways. Jesus is Lord of all our feelings and ways. We seek to honor each person as they experience their feelings and find their way along their unique journey as a member of the body of Christ.

What about the increasing experience of living together as sexual partners before marriage? Generally, sexual expression should happen within a relationship founded in a marriage covenant. Couples who cohabit as sexual partners without a public commitment should consider themselves married. Likewise, if they break up, they should consider themselves divorced. The rights the nation gives or withholds regarding marriage and other relationships are superseded by our life in faith as part of the new creation.

What about same sex attraction? Jesus followers who have same sex attraction are no less honorable than anyone else. They are going to work out their sexuality in a variety of ways, as they are convicted and gifted.

  • Some will choose celibacy and struggle alongside Jesus and Paul.
  • Some will choose to have a committed relationship that can be a faithful response to their desire.
  • Some will marry a person of the complementary gender and not express their other attractions, as all married couples are called to do.
  • Some may struggle with what to do and others may cause struggles with what they do.

There does not need to be one approach to marriage and sexual expression that supposedly meets the needs and aspirations of all people. The key to unity in diversity is the work of grace that enables disparate people to manifest the Spirit for the common good.  We all experience brokenness, sin and loneliness in our loves; so we will bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2). What counts is the new creation.

Marriage in the New Creation

**Circle of Hope upgrades their teaching all the time, so this post is old now, in some ways. The new work is even better!** Here is the link to the latest.

All year we have been trying to get out of the congress-type polarization of the Church’s dialogue about sexual expression and get into the grace of staying focused on everyone’s redemption. I think we are doing a good job. The pastors came up with a statement on marriage in March and taught it to the cell leaders. I think it is a good summary of where we have come so far. This post is based on that statement. What follows are three big points about marriage and sexuality and some basic ideas that might help apply them.

love never fails, marriage includedWe need to keep the love chapter where it belongs

The apostle Paul places his famous “love chapter” in the middle of his teaching about how the Holy Spirit is making the body of Christ out of the Lord’s followers (1 Corinthians 12-14). He does not place it after his chapter on marriage (1 Corinthians 7), which he could have easily done. The placement is important to note. Paul fully respects marriage as part of the order built into creation, but it is not equally important in the new creation.

In Christ, we are all bigger than the traditions that used to make up our identities. For instance, when Paul is talking to the church in Galatia about their temptation to follow the Jewish law he says, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” and “what counts is the new creation” (Galatians 5:6, 6:15).

Continue reading Marriage in the New Creation

It's a new creation, vato.

I think it was probably in the room last night when we were together for worship. But I could not see it too well. There were not a lot of fist pumps with “Yes! I feel that sting. I know I have been poisoned. But Death, you have no power over me!” Lent kind of teases out that kind of reaction, but it can be a long tease for some of us. It might take even longer for people to start dancing around the room shouting, “Yes! I feel oppressed! I understand how the law has been keeping me down. But Jesus, you have freed me!” But it is all there in the Bible; Jesus-lovers trying to woo people into newness: The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:56).

I think it might be easier to feel guilty for sin and just keep trying to fulfill the latest or oldest law. Being controlled so often feels like we are in control.

his rules are being challenged
his rules are being challenged

One of the reasons I try to emulate the Apostle Paul is that he is so out of control when it comes to the usual domination systems and he is so moved by the Holy Spirit. Thus, I am getting a lot from my little video parable full of seekers, vato. Even when Paul is abused, shipwrecked or in prison, he doesn’t forget that Jesus just recreated him and that his eternal destiny is just around the corner from the latest mess. The diaper, the deadline, the demand, or the disaster do not derail his delight. He does not create a law so he never has to experience trouble; he lives by a law that turns trouble into life. His wonderful insight results in some great teaching that has been an antidote to the poison of sin and an alternative to the graceless oppression of law for centuries.

Continue reading It's a new creation, vato.

Attachment issues in the church: People move away sometimes.

People do this. They ask: Why did you move out of town? my neighborhood? our shared apartment with five people in two bedrooms? They get a look on their face and a tone in the voice that implies — shouldn’t you be apologizing?

When I went back to Riverside, CA, this past summer, which I left in 1991, people were still talking about me leaving. When my friend from Riverside came our way to visit this summer, she took me aside and asked, “Why did you leave?” Paul had a similar experience when he left Ephesus, I think. People were crying on the beach (Acts 20). Even if you leave town because you are a Christian, because you think God wants you to do it, people cry and wonder if you should do it. We are important.

But for some people it is, “For crying out loud! You’re leaving?!” Some might even get huffy or pouty if someone seems to be leaving for less than holy reasons. “You don’t love South Philly? You don’t love me? What about what we were together? What about what we were doing together? The community garden! Brunch at Sabrina’s!” We are a community in mission and each player makes a difference.

The Bible talks about moving

This seems like kind of a “light” question for the Bible to talk about it so much. But it does.

  • Paul says: I am with you even when absent: “For my part, even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit” (1 Cor 5: 4, see Colossians 2:5, too).
  • Paul also says — I long to be with you to share my life.  I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong. (Romans 1:11-13, see also 2 Cor. 10:10-11).

Present is better than absent. We are not pictures on Facebook, we are people. It does matter when we are physically together. We gain strength and comfort from the presence of others. Paul knows he can’t be who he is or give what he has unless he shows up. What we build together and give to each other really is irreplaceable.

We always have to talk about how spirit and body go together. We are both. We are spirit. We are spiritual beings longing to connect in love. We are also body. We are physical beings who cannot be every place at all times and need to be present to fully connect.

Be careful about how people attach. It’s complex.

I think some people might rely more on being physically present to connect. They need the physical. If you leave town, or maybe even the room, they might get anxious. I study attachment theory quite a bit these days. These kind of people might be like one type of baby Mary Ainsworth identified when she was testing to see what would happen if a baby’s mother left her one-year-old in a “strange situation.” A majority of children she studied had some concern about being left by their mothers, but they were secure, they explored, they were basically happy because they trusted that mom would come back and needs would be met.  About a fifth of the babies were anxious. Apparently, they experienced their mother as sometimes sensitive and sometimes neglectful. They were upset until she got back because they weren’t sure she was coming back! It might be the same if you up and leave town, a good number of people will be upset. You are just one more unreliable person! Some people might be really hanging on to your presence and getting some needs met. It is a loss for them.

One the other hand, I think some people might rely on spirit, maybe too much. They are kind of out there floating and are not attached securely. For about 20% of the Ainsworth’s crawlers, when mom left they were distant and disengaged. They just sat there and didn’t explore and would not connect emotionally. They had a subconscious idea that their needs would not be met. It made them avoid attachment altogether! It might be the same when you leave town. Some people might not say anything because they can’t really bear to feel more needs not being met. Maybe they never got close to you in the first place because they didn’t want to be left alone.

The marriage covenant causes similar issues to surface. Some marriages have a lot of problems from the very beginning because as soon as the intimacy begins, the attachment issues become evident. A person who has always trusted that his needs would be met, might be very insensitive to a person who never could trust her needs to be met. If you have a person who is avoidant and doesn’t instinctively attach connected to a person who is anxious, and so always wants to get closer and get reassured, that can take a long time to figure out.

In the church our covenant often works out in just the same way. That is why many people would not want to make one. They don’t expect it to be anything but trouble and disappointment. We get people connected in our cells and for some people that is a real stretch because they are allowing themselves to trust and to work on loving people, which includes becoming attached in a family-like way. Secure people are fine for the most part — it doesn’t take too much to convince them that there is enough love to go around. But for about half the population, it can be very trying to multiply and experience people separating into another cell. Then the whole congregation multiplies! And then you move away! Maybe they can’t really complain about God and the church but they can complain about you leaving town.

It is OK to have a problem with how love feels. Community doesn’t always feel good, but if we have any life in the Spirit at all, we will be patient with one another as we figure these things out. And even if we don’t seem to be figuring them out too well, we will still be patient.

Get securely attached to God and other things sort out

In soul-health terms, the goal is to be your true self. On the one hand that means being able to say, “I am who I am,” and feel like you are OK with that. You are free. You are yourself in Christ. At the same time it means you can be intimate. You are part of a “we” and able to say, “We are who we are.” You can choose to connect and choose to leave.

I think it is good for lovers of people to understand the processes by which we connect, or don’t. If someone is upset because you are leaving they may have several reasons that seem good to them, and they may have reasons that seem good to God. It makes sense to deal with them all and not just cut them off and move on with your life. They may be clingy because they are insecure. If you need to go, go. But they may object to being devalued because you did not connect. You may not be able to retrofit the relationship, but you might want to note the reality. You think you didn’t make a difference, and you did.

I hope their biggest reason for feeling loss when you leave is not just a personal feeling or a revisiting of an old grief, like the time their mom left them with Mary Ainsworth and they were an experiment! I hope they just longed to be knit together in love.

One last thought from Paul that shows his conviction that being one in Christ is central to be ing one’s true self:

“My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united (knit together) in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ,  in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:2-3).

When a part of the body it lost, it is a loss. Because when we are knit together, eternity is opened up in significant ways.

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