Saturday, December 29, 2007

Quote of the Week

"This year, or this month, or, more likely, this very day, we have failed to practise ourselves the kind of behaviour we expect from other people."

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Monday, December 24, 2007

What is Christmas All About?

Leading theologian, Linus explains to Charlie Brown what Christmas is all about.

Yesterday's message by our senior pastor, Mark Mullery was entitled "Why Did God Become Man?"

It was a rich message but the one point stood out to me -

It's possible to "put Christ back into Christmas" (my words, not his) but still miss the point of Christmas. Christmas is ultimately about Calvary.

Yes, Christmas is about the incarnation...but the incarnation was for a purpose - bringing sinful men and women to a holy God. We love the manger scene but it's a prelude to the glory of the cross.

How would you answer Charlie Brown? What is Christmas all about?

Friday, December 21, 2007

John Newton

Our most recent Quote of the Week featured a quote from John Newton. Today marks the 200th anniversary of Newton's passing.

In his day, John Newton was unusually used of God in profound ways. He was a trusted counselor to William Wilberforce in his fight for the abolition of slavery and collaborated with renown poet, William Cowper. However, he is best known as the author of the most beloved hymn of all time - Amazing Grace.

Here are a couple of facts about Amazing Grace that you may not be aware of -

- The original title for the hymn was Faith's Review and Expectation

- The verse..."Thro' many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home."
...was inspired by 1 Chronicles 17:16 which reads - "And David the king came and sat before the LORD, and said, 'Who am I, O LORD God, and what is mine house, that you have brought me hitherto?"

- Newton did not write the last verse of the final version of the hymn as it is typically featured today. The verse beginning with "When we've been there ten thousand years...." was added to a version of Amazing Grace by Harriet Beecher Stowe in her novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and is attributed to John P. Rees.

The Desiring God blog also marked the day with a short post on John Newton.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Quote of the Week

"If I ever reach heaven, I expect to find three wonders there: First, to meet some I had not thought to see there; second, to miss some I had thought to meet there; and third, the greatest wonder of all, to find myself there!"

John Newton , (July 24, 1725 – Dec 21, 1807)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Bill Hybels on Ministry Leadership

Bill Hybels of Willow Creek fame, makes the case that ministry leadership is more difficult than leading in the business world. The article starts with Hybels recalling a conversation with a business executive who arrogantly trivializes the challenge of leading a church. (Unfortunately, when business leaders think of the church as just another organization or enterprise, they expose their own folly.)

However, Hybels goes on to make the case that church or ministry leadership is more complex and challenging than leading in the business world. He offers the following four reasons to make his case. Let me state the obvious - I'm nowhere the equal of Hybels in the arena of leadership and I've had relatively little experience leading in ministry. However, there are elements of his words that really misses the mark - my comments and rebuttal in [ ] below.

1. Every life requires a custom mold. Essentially, he's making the case that church leadership is about people and it's very difficult to lead people without "leverage".

"...Napoleon, de Gaulle, Eisenhower, MacArthur, Patton. They were all the great military leaders....but I've wondered, What would it be like for some of those leaders to have to work it out with deacons before they charged up a hill? ...How would the whole military system work if you took away the leadership leverage of the court-martial? Anyone could build a church with leverage like that!"

[I wish that Hybels had a more realistic view about how effective business really run. They don't operate that differently from the church leadership scenario he speaks of. Yes, the CEO is the one "in charge" but in most organizations, effective leadership still involves leading by influence, building consensus and casting a compelling vision. And, no, we don't have the threat of court martial either. ]

2. The church is voluntary.

"But in the final analysis, we have little or no leverage, no real power over anybody we lead...To mobilize an utterly volunteer organization requires the highest kind of leadership. We cannot compel people; we must call them."
[Yes, but sustained leadership in any arena isn't about compelling people, it's about calling and engaging them]

3. The church is utterly altruistic

"When leading a business, you can hire a bright, energetic, young employee and say, "...Here's your salary, your perks, your car...If you work hard, in five or eight years we're going to make you a partner...And when we sell this place in fifteen or twenty years, we're all going to walk away wealthy...Are you interested? But as church leaders, what do we tell prospective church members? "You're a depraved, degenerate sinner who's in trouble for all eternity unless you get squared away with Christ."...Oh, yeah, you get no parking place, no reserved seats, no special privileges, no voting rights, no vacation or retirement program. You serve till you die. But trust us: God's going to make it right in eternity."

[Ministry isn't about altruism, nor should it ever be. It's about gaining a reward greater than the best the world has to offer. If we miss this, we miss the heart of gospel centered service. "Serving" God is a gift, not grudging sacrifice. It is our joyful opportunity to participate in what the Eternal God is doing on this earth. No business can compete with that. Effective ministry leaders remind us of that reality as often as they can, not to manipulate us for service but because there's nothing better we can give ourselves to]

4. The church has the highest calling.

"We can no longer afford to leave people leaderless in the arena of the church...May the church be the one place where people who come out of leaderless homes and schools and jobs and athletic teams discover, maybe for the first time in their lives, the excitement of being valued, of being included, of being told that they are indispensable for the achievement of a common vision. "

[I'm not sure it's correct to view ourselves as "indispensable" to the achievement of God's work. God can use anyone. Often, it truly baffles me why he would use me...but it's my privilege to participate in His work. Should we be incredibly grateful? Certainly. Are we indispensible? I don't think so.]

Here's one more unique advantage the church has - it is the only institution that God guarantees will be there on the Last Day and throughout eternity - it will not fail, its purpose will stand. No business will last that long nor will its pinnacle be as glorious.

What do you think? Is ministry leadership really more complex as Bill Hybels says it is?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Quote of the Week

"There is more mercy in Christ than sin in us"

Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed, p 13.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Elite Evangelicals?

The November issue of Christianity Today had an interesting interview with Michael Lindsay, sociology professor at Rice University. Michael Lindsay is the author of Faith in the Halls of Power, a book about evangelicals joining the ranks of the elite and influential in American society. It is based on 360 interviews conducted with evangelical leaders in various spheres of influence. In the interview, Dr. Lindsay refers to these elite Christians as "cosmopolitan evangelicals" -

"The cosmopolitan evangelicals I write about are people who are just as committed to their faith, just as involved in mainstream evangelical life. By and large, they are very orthodox in their beliefs. Yet they rub shoulders with a much more diverse population... The majority of their working day is spent with people of different faiths or of no faith. They have reached higher levels of education... It's a very elite group,....They read Christianity Today, but they also read The New York Times. They might go to a Christian rock concert, but they also go to the symphony..."

Lindsay shares more of what he's discovered about these elite Christians and how they differ from the rest, the "populist" evangelical community -

"I would say one of the key differences is that populist evangelicals are very interested in converting the other. That's a real driving mechanism—trying to persuade others that Christianity is right. I didn't find that quite as prominent among cosmopolitan evangelicals. They were more interested in legitimacy. They wanted their faith to be seen as valid, something that smart, intelligent people could embrace, that you didn't have to check your brain at the door to accept. You've got this more intelligent, savvy, well-traveled experience that naturally shapes the cosmopolitan's faith."

Apparently, the elite evangelicals also live the best of the American dream -

A lot of the elites I interviewed are really not that different from their peers. They stay in fancy hotels, they drive nice cars; some of them own their own airplanes. They are high flyers, and they aren't necessarily living like the poor.

Yet, according to Lindsay, they don't identify with the local church -

"For many of these leaders, local church involvement is not the principal source of spiritual solidarity. Rather, it comes from being involved in small groups, often among peers. Business leaders meet with other business leaders for a prayer breakfast or a Bible study the first Tuesday of every month. Or folks in the White House get together for the White House Christian fellowship."

I know, it's hard to read this without judging our fellow evangelicals who have found a place among the elite of this world. We must resist succumbing to uncharitable judgments. Generalizations like these can be unfair - I am certain that you know many influential men and women in politics, business and academia who share a deep love and passion for God.

Yet, when I read the interview, I found little to celebrate. Influence is for naught if it magnifies our accomplishments and not the Savior. We misconstrue progress when evangelicals are more interested with their faith being "seen as valid... that smart, intelligent people could embrace" rather than proclaiming the gospel.

Their noted disengagement from local church life isn't just a benign matter of preference, it's a sign of dangerous pride. God has designed church life in order that we might serve and be served by each other, regardless of our social standing, wealth or education. It's the antidote to pride.

Here's why this article caught my attention - the sense of elite evangelicals "having arrived" in American culture is antithetical to what I read this morning in the James 1:9-11.

Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

You may not consider yourself as one of the evangelical elites, but this verse is instructive to us all. (By the way, as you're reading this blog, if you have food for the week, drive a car, take vacations and have access to healthcare, you are likely among the richest 10% of this world's population.)

James tells us that if you're lowly, you should "boast in [your] exaltation". You should rejoice at the fact that you are actually rich because you possess eternal life. You're a dead man, who has been made alive; a beggar, lavished with the riches of heaven.

However, if you're rich and influential in any way, James says that you should boast in your humiliation. You should take special care to remind yourself that all your wealth will pass away, your natural gifts will fade and your greatest earthly hopes will fail you. This verse meant to remind us that Christ is our only refuge in the day of judgment, our only treasure and the source of everlasting joy. I read these verses in James, both as gentle warning and great encouragement.

Boast in your humiliation. What a different way to think about wealth, influence and the American dream. How otherworldly.