In my last Blog, I raised the unpleasant, but inescapable reality that churches and church institutions can (and do) die. That immediately raises the question of what communal expression of the church we should look for that expresses Christ’s design for his church? To be honest, it can take vast array in the plethora of social and cultural contexts in which it finds itself. Let’s keep it simple and Biblical, keeping always in mind that the church is that communal expression of God’s new creation (above), it is the community of his new humanity in Christ. We see it emerging in several different but harmonious forms, but each assumes that it be small enough so that Christ’s followers can know and minister to one another.

Let me give you four, for starts:

  1. Though Jesus preached to multitudes, he chose twelve to be with him so that he could reproduce himself in them. He then commissioned to reproduce that pattern as they made disciples which disciples would become his body in the world. In human dynamics that is something of the optimum number for any kind of dynamic human community;
  2. In the aftermath of the Pentecostal visitation we find the vast infant church meeting in public to hear the apostle’s teachings, but then from house to house where the processed those teaching and where they share possessions with the more needy, ate together, and experienced a new and intimate community. So: two forms: in public and from house to house.
  3. Most of the data in the apostolic speaks of the church meeting in homes, which means they were small enough to minister to one another, and could be versatile and accountable to one another.
  4. And, finally, there are all of those one another passages in the apostolic writings that speak to our mutual ministry to and accountability to other believers in some kind of smaller configurations in diverse settings. Love one another. Bear one another burdens. Forgive one another. Reprove and rebuke one another. Be tenderhearted with one another. Let the word of Christ dwell richly among you as you teach and admonish one another … and so much more

The need for human community is built into our DNA. Followers of Christ have a way of finding one another in public and from house to house, in coffee shops and the corner pub, in larger church assemblies and in smaller communities. The calling is the same wherever. The fruits of the Holy Spirit listed in Galatians 5 are all interpersonal ministries, and make a beautiful check-list for us.

I participate in a most encouraging fellowship of about 1000 members with a stong teaching ministry – but the church leadership, wisely, encourages all its members to be part of community groups which fulfills this one another ministry, and has a staff member to oversee and resource these groups. It is a very healthy scene.

I hope this helps you. I would love your comments.


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One of the sad legacies of the ‘Christendom era’ is that large number of Christian churches that were once alive and fruitful, … but then lost their dynamic grasp of the mission and message of Christ, and so became “fruitless vines good for nothing but to be thrown in the fire and burned” (cf. John 15), or in another descriptive metaphor: “stagnant pools of ‘religious Christianity’ green grown and stagnant.” Or more sobering are the words to the seven churches in Asia Minor (Revelation 2-3), and especially the church at Sardis that had a name that it was living, but was dead.

Only two of the churches that had suffered and been purified by persecution escape the warning that their lamp could be removed from the lampstand, i.e., cease to be the true churches of Jesus. Even the ‘lukewarm’ church is offensive to the Risen Lord. The command is always to repent, to remember who they are, to deal with false doctrines, with passivity, with troublesome teachers, … and to reclaim their true mission and message.

Here, these two millennia later, what with the church being a global phenomenon, and with many ever-present challenges and corrupting cultural influences, these villages of this global tribe of God’s people are still confronted with the compromises, the drift into forgetfulness, the passivity with some institutional form, … and indifferent to the fact that they have become fruitless vines, and no longer a vital part of God’s design in his New Creation in and through Christ.

Living churches are those whose participants are all indwelt by Jesus Christ through his Spirit. They are “the dwelling-place of God by the Spirit” and so are the demonstration of Jesus’ passion to seek and save the lost, to be the “sweet aroma of Christ unto God” as they live out their daily roles as visible New Creation people. There is no place for passive church membership in this calling. It is the role and responsibility of church leadership to see that every participant in the community is equipped to be part of this ministry.

So, when a church becomes a community where one can be a spectator and not a part of the mission, that church is essentially dead. It’s time to sign the death certificate, mourn, sell the assets and give the money to those who are faithfully incarnating Jesus Christ: his mission and his message.

And, be assured there are those communities that are contagious in their passion for Christ and his mission. One has only to look carefully at the church’s history to see this taking place again and again. Can churches die? You bet they can. But vital new churches are also being born in unique settings, inhabited by vital believers in Christ, and where the word of Christ dwells richly among them as they teach and admonish one another. (Colossians 3:15-16).

Stay tuned. Plus, I love your responses. May the peace of Christ be with you.

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In my last blog, I appropriated some findings of cultural anthropologists and defined the church a vast global tribe. These same anthropologists explain that what makes tribes cohere is that they come together around: a common narrative and a common set of rituals. The church from its inception out of the life, death, resurrection of Jesus, his teachings as recorded by his apostles (holy scriptures) has always had a common narrative, and with baptism and the Lord’s supper/Eucharist always had common rituals. This is prominently affirmed in the early Apostle’ Creed: “I believe in the holy catholic church … and the communion of the saints,” i.e. in one global tribe that is the fruit of our mutual belief in one God our Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, and the energizing work of the Holy Spirit.

All that said, looking at the church in the world today can be confusing, what with its multiple expressions, squabbles, theological, liturgical traditions, forms of incarnation—and yet somehow it is all based on a common narrative and with the common rituals (baptism and the Eucharist). It is an incredible story of that first century church launching out into a hostile Roman Empire in which it was hated and persecuted, and yet engaging in its common mission to make “this gospel of the kingdom proclaimed to every ethnic group in the world.

Two millennia have transpired since that beginning. Against all odds the church moved out into the world, east and west, with power creating colonies/villages of those who embraced Jesus Christ by faith. With minimal communication, it adapted itself to the language and cultural norms of those different cultures and created villages/communities around the reality that it was the community of God’s New Creation in Christ—and it often looked different in its expressions from one era, or one culture, to another. So today we are sometimes bewildered, say, by the Eastern and Russian Orthodox traditions in the east, by the Coptic Church in North Africa, and by Roman Catholicism in the west, … and by the whole plethora if Protestant tribes founded by the teachings of gifted leaders (Martin Luther, John Calvin, Menno Simmons, etc.). Add into the mix the influence of those within the Roman Catholic Church who engaged in the mission as missionary orders (Benedict, Francis, the Jesuits, etc.).

Stir into this history that the colonial empires of the West, took their own expression of this global tribe with them as part of their goal of imposing their patterns on the colonies they established, q.e.d., the conquistadores took Roman Catholicism to Latin America as part of their colonizing project.

Now, to shift gears a bit. The church is not tame. It, in obedience to its Lord and his teachings, is a radical new force for justice and righteousness, for dealing with poverty, against all forms of social injustice and torture. For this it has suffered. The church, as the tribe of God’s global design, will not be caged or discouraged by other forces. Case in point, when the church in China (established largely by British missionaries) became the target of Communist domination after the cultural revolution, it went ‘underground’ in secretive meetings and meeting places, … and in that hostile context (even in concentration camps) has, ostensibly, become the largest Christian church in the world.

There endless illustrations of how this global tribe (which began in Jerusalem, meeting in public and from house) has coped with persecution, change and challenges, and continues to do so. Public assemblies, or small community groups meeting to hold one another accountable to the word of Christ. A global tribe manifest innumerable forms, around a common narrative and common rituals. “The gates of hell” will never prevail against it. Be encouraged.

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BLOG 9.11.19.


Everything is changing, and changing fast. The digital culture has been a culture transforming force, so that the nature of work and the workplace, the way we do education, … everything is changing irresistibly … except, maybe much of the church. Here in the city of Atlanta, where I live is a good metaphor for that change. It is the former southeastern distribution center for Sears-Roebuck when Sears was the merchandising giant in North American, what with its mail order service so vital for a society with so many small towns and rural communities. When Sears built its southeastern distribution center here, it was the largest building in the southeastern United States. You could but anything, even do-it-yourself houses, at Sears.

But after World War II, all that began to change radically. Shopping malls began to develop and Sears joined the parade to build retail stores in the malls. The mail-order dimension of the firm began to fade from the scene. Then, more recently, malls also proved not to be a key to successful businesses. Finally, Sears has virtually ceased to exist. But more than that, Amazon emerged into the retail scene. It is so convenient to be able to go on-line and buy almost anything. That was the death-knell to many businesses.

Still, there stands the humongous old Sears building. There were several tries about what to do with it. More recently it has become the focus of activity for the community of urban professionals in the neighborhood and city, with a couple of floors of boutiques, eateries, then offices and residences, and a rooftop exercise center. It is quite a lively scene, but most of the young adult generation don’t even remember Sears-Roebuck.

Feed in the emergence of a digital culture, then the post-Christian culture in which Sundays are no longer a day reserved for church activities, and in which the institutional church is a diminishing influence. Churches that adamantly cling to their glory days in the past and try to retrieve them, are battling a cultural ‘white-water’ for which there are no patterns and no way to succeed. Still, too many assume that to upgrade their traditional sanctuaries, or call a new pastor, or have some new activity or musical style will solve the problem. They want the church of the Sears-Roebuck era, but that is a vain hope.

Allow me to take a step back, and retrieve a dimension familiar to cultural anthropologists. People have always come together in some tribal formation, some ethnic, cultural, common interest, or survival. A tribe is a community of people with a common narrative and common rituals. The church was birthed out of the tribe of Israel. It was called out by Jesus Christ, and built upon his life and teachings as recorded by his apostles. That was its common narrative. He gave it two common rituals: baptism and the eucharist (some expressions of the tribe added more), and it was energized and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Its earlies creed, the Apostles’ Creed, states the reality of the tribe, which within a few centuries became global: “I believe in the holy catholic church, and the communion of the saints.”

This is to say that the church in all of its various expressions is a global tribe, and has integrity and life, not by its sanctuaries, or its professionals, but by its faithfulness to its common narrative and its common rituals—its common message and its common mission. The tribe is formed as the communal expression of God’s new creation. And, strange as it may sound, it might be its most faithful expression when it has no sanctuaries and no professional clergy, but a tribal community formed into the image of Christ as they minister to one another.

Sound strange? The tribe needs to become incarnate in the present changing world, not in the ‘Sears-Roebuck culture’ of the past. Stay tuned.


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Blog 9.8.19. Maybe we need to unlearn the church.

[A word of explanation o my readers: I have been silent for these past several weeks due to some complications with my blogging platform being out-of-date. That problem is now resolved due to  the efforts of my skillful friend. So, we’re back on schedule.]

A major voice in the field of education says that educators need to get education out of the production-line mentality, … and into the digital age in which our children are growing up, in which they are engaged from an early age in computer games which make their minds agile, inquisitive and innovative. She uses the idea of unlearning the whole process of educating the current generation. This is not a new thought, but a tough one to realize. The Christendom era solidly established the church as an institution with clergy, it produced denominational hierarchies, and supportive agencies, … and hardly seemed to notice moved into a post-Christian era in which the Christian faith was a diminishing factor, … never seemed able to ‘un-think’ its assumptions, and so cruised along in a systemic ecclesiastical darkness.

The prophetic force that blew the whistle on this was the influence of Lesslie Newbigin, who wanted to redefine the church as a missional community of God’s new creation people. But even those who were captivated by Newbigin’s thesis, and who gathered together in ‘think-tanks’ to process this and its implications, were not able to un-think their captivity to Christendom forms. I know. I was part of those think-tanks. I used to remind them that when denominations and congregations were formed as custodial, and clergy dependent, …to suddenly foist upon them the notion that every baptized person was responsible for the church’s mission, and to be engaged in its confrontation as the children of the Light with the cultural darkness, and ‘all hell would break loose.’

The norm for membership in Christendom-custodial communities was to be arm-chair participants in congenial church institutions. The very suggestion that we need to unlearn the church as a place where one satisfied one’s need for religious input and companionship, …and to consciously see it as a dynamic community of God’s new humanity in Christ, and in which I/we are all involved in being equipped for just such  radical new Kingdom of God living, … in which we are interacting/group-sourcing and engaging with each other and with the Spirit of God in a whole array of different forms and places, … doesn’t come easily, alas!

A wonderfully provocative voice on this is Howard Snyder, who a generation ago, wrote the book The Problem of Wineskins, in which he mischievously proposed that if you want to know how healthy your church is, then sell your church building! (I reminded him, in a conversation, that you could get killed for suggesting that to a congregation, who tend to be idolatrous about church buildings.)

Of course, such new humanity communities need to have form and mutual agreement as to mission, but only as there is a common determination to incarnate our New Creation lives in fulfilling Christ’s mission in the realities of this present post-Christian culture as Christ’s Spirit-inhabited people collaborating to obey in the mission he has given—no arm too weak, or life too insignificant to be equipped and engaged in this missional community.

“As the Father has sent me, even so do I send you.”


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There’s a frightening dimension to the social-political scene we’re going to be watching in the forthcoming months before the presidential election in 2020. You’ll find it in Matthew 25:31ff. It is the acid-test of who will be embraced in love by the Son of Man (Jesus), and who will be rejected and consigned to destruction at his coming again. It’s not the kind of Bible passage that you walk through lightly. But given what the political debates are going to be dealing with in the coming days, it’s hard to escape that the cosmic battle (which includes political values) includes the just and compassionate care of the helpless persons on our doorsteps. Note:

“Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. (now note the criteria) “For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you visited me. I was in prison (detention camps?) and you came to me. … As you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.”

Now, back up and lay that list alongside what you are reading about the controversial issues that are being debated in the corridors of power and in the presidential and congressional debates that have to do with human need: health care for all, raised minimum wage, compassionate response to immigrants and refugees, care of God’s creation, environment, global warming, the huge number of those in prison for minor crimes, racism, gun control and violence, issues of justice, humanitarian response to the helpless poor on our doorstep, etc. Such difficult and costly solutions should absolutely be discussed in our Christian communities, as well as in political debates. (Pandering to the wealthy at such national is part of this complex issue).

Face it: from this Biblical text the cost of ignoring these issues, and these helpless people, is hazardous, i.e., you did it unto the least of these, … or you did it not unto the lease of these. These are personal, communal, as well as political issues. To whom our votes go, and what the platforms and policies of our government implements are for us a matter of either “Come you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you, …” or: “and these will go away into eternal punishment”

Those of you who read these blogs are among the wealthiest people on earth comparatively. Our personal and communal support for the politicians, and church communities, and humanitarian organizations who are seeking to bring justice, provision, and practical love to this huge number of people at least gives us some means to provide for “the least of these.” The sobering reality is that we cannot be neutral or detached from “the least of these.”

[I always appreciate your responses. Let me hear from you.]

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If I seem to my readers a bit ‘hung up’ on my obsession with the integrity of the church, …it is because over my long career as a pastor I have had to confront the fuzziness of the understanding of church participantS as to how they defined the church, and what it had to do with the message and mission of Jesus Christ. This question grew on me as I would be interviewed on numerous occasionsby pulpit nominating committees from significant congregations. I had, early on, been fruitfully engaged in putting together, what had formerly been a rather moribund church scene, into a very vibrant congregation, and that word had gotten out so that congregations looking for a pastor frequently had my name on their list.

Congregations, also, usually select some of their more gifted members to serve on their pastoral search (I’m a Presbyterian, and this is part of our church order, which is different than other traditions). That being so, the committee members who met with me were usually pretty keen intellectually. Here’s my point: I would initially ask them what the purpose of their church was? Seems like a logical starting point. I particularly remember one such meeting was a commithee from a church was in a small town which was the  home of a well-known liberal arts college. The person with whom I initially engaged was a physician in that small town. “What is the purpose of your church?” was my question of him.  He chuckled, and asked why I had asked. I could only respond with the obvious answer that I had some pretty strong convictions about what the purpose of Christ’s church was to be, and that it was critical that I and a church be on the same wave length.

It was like a whole new thought to him, and he responded that their committee had never even discussed that. It was a pleasant conversation, but he returned to his small town and I never heard from them again.

Another occasion, some years later was a conversation with several members of a venerable old church institution in a northern city, which had in its membership many of the most influential citizens of that city. They had always had eloquent preachers, who also entertained them at a mid-week business men’s luncheon. Some of their respected previous pastors had directed them to me. They came, unannounced, to meet with me while I was on vacation. They were young professional men and good natured.

Again, I asked them what the purpose of that vast church institution was in the mission of God. Again, they seemed nonplussed at the question. It was obvious that they primarily wanted to secure a pastor who could continue what previous pastors had done and ensure a viable church institution in the midst of that city in which they could all receive the custodial pastoral services without themselves being transformed into the salt and light people of God’s new humanity in Christ. I let them know that I wasn’t what they were looking for.

That was one more episode that scored in my mind that every church community, and every one of its members have a clear sense of how that community is dynamically equipping its members to be the incarnation of God’s new creation 24/7. That pulpit search committee went home and I never heard from them again. They ultimately called a pastor who was quite eloquent in the pulpit, but not as one who equipped all its members for fruitful discipleship in their daily engagement as leaders in that city.

I want to pursue this in the weeks ahead. Jesus calls his people into communities in which all are ministering agents in his mission of making all things new. Stay tuned …




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I was having a conversation with a good friend a few days ago about the integrity and viability of a venerable old church institution, which conversation raised the question: How do you know if a church is a true church, or not? This is a question that has perplexed thoughtful followers of Christ since the beginning, and with many proposed solutions and manifestations. My sense is that you really can’t look at particular local church expressions and try to give them some kind of exam, but that you need to go all the way back and look at the design of God for his new creation, and then begin to search for his design and purpose for the community that incarnates that new creation—to look at his ultimate plan for particular communities of is new humanity in Christ is and how that unfolds.

On one hand, it is a temptation to look for perfection, or to be unduly critical. On the other hand, it is easy to overlook the fact that the church is a human community, and to remember that a significant part of the New Testament is written to confront the particular shortcomings, or human realities of those first century churches. And, yes, there is evidence there that a church can cease to be a church if you look at those letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor reported in chapters 2 and 3 of last book of the Bible in which a church’s lamp can be removed from the lampstand of God’s purpose for his church in the world.

From the fracturing of the original community/family in Genesis 3, you pick up that God has a vision of that day when “the seed of a woman will bruise the serpent’s head,” i.e., that God has an eschatological design to reconcile the world to himself, and to create a human community of reconciliation that would relate to himself and to each other in love, as well as to be that community that incarnated his new creation/kingdom and his will in the midst of the brokenness of this earthly scene. He would do this by calling men and women to himself through his son, and recreating them in knowledge, in new creation behavior, and in intimacy with himself in a community of disciples.

Skip down the centuries and you observe a shift of focus from a community of disciples ministering to one another in love, … to focus on a sacred place, and to a class of sacred persons (clergy) both of which subverted the church from its integrity as “the dwelling-place of God by the Holy Spirit” in a community of God’s new humanity in Christ, in which every follower is equipped to minister, and in which ever place they met was where Christ was present by his Spirit.

Such an understanding of the raison d’etre of the church is how one discerns that integrity and viability of the church. And whenever a particular church community dilutes this raison d’etre, or displaces it, or forgets it, to that degree the church reverts to a merely human community in which it becomes simply a religious expression of the chaos of this broken world. It may have a lovely social life, and inspiring meetings, … but if every participant is not passionate about the mission and message of Jesus Christ to make all things new, … to that degree it fails in its reason for being. … (to be continued).

[I would cherish getting your feedback from your own engagement with the church, and your recommendation of these blogs to friends who might benefit from them. Thanks!]

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I watched a demonstration of this proverb with fascination on Tuesday at the congressional hearing with special counsel Robert Mueller. The congressional panel tried desperately to get Mueller to “give full-vent to his spirit” … but he did not succumb. Mueller is a man of high principle, who is obviously offended by the president’s actions, lack of ethics, and general demeanor, but he would not take their bate. He, and his colleagues had fulfilled their purpose in doing a significant investigation, … and now the ball was in congress’s court.

In this highly contentious political atmosphere where it is almost routine for the president and for political opponents to “lash out” at those who oppose them, … here sat a wise and gifted figure who could have provided some very self-serving examples of the failures of this presidency, i.e., he could have given “full vent to his spirit”, gotten it off of his chest, and gone off to a quiet retirement. Ah! but Mr. Mueller is no fool. He and his colleagues had fulfilled their appointed purpose, and so all that the congressional inquisitors could get out of him was a yes/no answer as to his opinion of the president’s culpability in the overall investigation.

The congressional panel had before them the massive report that the special investigator’s team had prepared, and they now had sitting before them a wise gentleman, with no intention of “giving full vent to his spirit.” One does wonder what Robert Mueller’s inner thoughts are after sorting through all the evidence. Still, he had given the congress a responsibility that they could not avoid by getting him to give vent to his spirit.

These next months in this country are going to create a political atmosphere in which it is going to be a constant temptation to give full vent to our spirits, and so with the candidates for office. It will be a good discipline to remember the wholesome example we watched on Tuesday. Are there political and ethical misdemeanors committed by politicians? Of course—by the best of them.

I, for one, am grateful for the model of a wise public figure, who knows how to hold back what is not essential to the discussion. And, … I’m thankful afresh for the wisdom of the Proverbs.

[If these Blogs are provocative to you, let me hear from you, … and pass the word along to your friends. Thanks.]

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Just maybe too many of us identify ourselves as followers of Christ a bit mindlessly? Maybe we join Christian communities and make Christian profession without realizing that it might just cost us our reputations, or lives. Jesus was quite candid when he told his audience that unless a person forsook all that he had, he could not be his disciple. Jesus never sugar-coated the cost of being his disciple. The apostle put discipleship and baptism in terms of dying to a former way of life and rising to a radical way of new life in which our whole lives were given to him as instruments of righteousness.

Ah! But it gets more interesting. The apostle Peter explained to his listeners that they would always be outsiders, i.e., “aliens and exiles”, those who march to a different drummer, … they were a “holy nation” which doesn’t ever, really fit in, or conform to the power structures of this age. But keep going: our roots in the calling of Israel all those centuries ago make it plain that God’s people (our Old testament ancestors) are called to incarnate his own character: “What does the Lord require of thee, O man, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) Or, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness (what is right) like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24).

Even when the Israelites were captives in a pagan empire, God told them to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord in its behalf …” (Jeremiah 29:7). Those of us who identify ourselves as followers of Christ, do in fact have a nationality in one of the numerous nations of the world, and a responsibility to be God’s agents of light in what is often a context of darkness and inhumane power structures. But, primarily, we are part of God’s holy nation which is composed of those out of “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9).

The world in which we live, and the nation in which we are currently citizens, is one blighted and torn by all kinds of distressing expressions of violence, prejudice, inhumanity, hate-mongering, and expressions of destructive talk and behavior. Yet, in the midst of all of these nations, in the vast number of refugees who have no national home any longer, in nations that are under oppressive regimes, … God has his holy nation (often tiny, and persecuted) which is bound together with those of us in other nations as children of the light. But, … it can be costly. Discipleship is not cheap, but it has consequences of blessing wherever it is faithfully lived out.

These are troublesome days for us nationally and internationally. Yet it is in this context of darkness, what with so much deception, corruption, and unrighteousness, that we are called to b salt and light. It has always been such for God’s new creation people. We simply need to remember, and embrace more deeply, what being Christ’s disciples requires of us, and how we are to express the Light, today, and where we are It requires a death to all that is of the dominion of darkness, and a daily embracing our role as instruments of righteousness, i.e., the incarnation of God’s new humanity, his international community of disciples.

May grace and peace abound to you in this calling.


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