A Community of Trust

By: Rev. Craig Shepperd

In the 2000 comedy hit, Meet the Parents, Greg Focker (Ben Stiller’s character) meets his future in-laws for the first time. Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro) wants to make sure Greg is worthy of his daughter. Jack lays out several tests for Greg to pass to insure he is capable of being inside the family circle of trust. For many, church life seems to be a struggle of finding one’s place in the circle of trust. Often what is experienced is the most “overpromised and underdelivered” aspect of church: community.

So, how do we formulate a community of trust? This will not be an exhaustive offering by any stretch of the imagination. However, let me offer steps to guide our journey in community.

Warmth: “Warm is the new cool.”[1] People want to know they are more than invited, and they are more than just a number. They want a safe place to belong to. Warm relationship trumps programming. One pastor in the Growing Young research admitted, “We can hire and buy cool, but we can’t hire or fake warmth.”[2] I would urge churches to consider warmth as not only a part of their welcoming team, coffee in the lobby, or the free gift they offer to first time guests. Moreover, it is the ongoing hospitality and openness provided to allow others time and space to be included and discover how they belong. For warmth to truly occur, adoption into the body has to occur.

Time: Most of us have committed to one day a week for less than two hours and called that “church”. If we would actually look at the habits of churchgoers, we would find even the best parishioners only attend on average of two to three times a month. That is not a lot of time to build trust. Trust requires presence. Community, communion, and comraderie along with spiritual transformation take place incrementally over time with others. We cannot sidestep the process of getting to know others and allowing others to get to know us.

Vulnerability: Ruth Haley Barton states, “In community, others become agents of God’s troubling grace for our further growth and transformation, and we become the same for them; as each part functions properly, it promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love[3] (Ephesians 4:15-16). For this to occur there has to be vulnerability present. Vulnerability is the giving of you to the other, and at the same time receiving the other for who they are. Psychologist Brenee Brown states, “Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.[4] Vulnerability is hard work, and it does not happen over night. Yet, I am convinced most of us want a place where we feel safe to expose who we truly are, and the weight we carry. The Church as a Community of trust ought to be THE place for this difficult work to occur. “If you have no honesty, you have no intimacy. If you have no intimacy, you have no community.[5] Community starts with our willingness to be honest with who we truly are in the light of Jesus Christ. When we risk this adventure, intimacy and community follow in time.

Treasure: We must learn to value the journey of those who we are in community with. We find our treasure first in Christ, and second through the community he has placed us in. Every person has something to offer us if we will pay attention to how God is using them. “It seems that one of the main reasons we are confused about community is that we make it primarily about us—our experiences and feelings, our natural affinities, our life situation, what we think we want or need…”[6]

Story: We offer our own story told with grace and truth, humility and authenticity. We discover then in community that God is intersecting our story with His story. We learn over time God is taking our story and He is grafting it into His story, which also happens to be the story of the Church. “The more stories—shaped and framed by the biblical story—the church provides, the more opportunities people have to ‘story’—frame and reframe—their experiences of God in more nuanced ways.”[7] Proclaiming the biblical story equips folks with the language to interpret and share their experiences of God. We must share story.

Experience: We are relational creatures. The pandemic has reminded us even the biggest introvert among us needs some social interaction occasionally. Thus, we formulate trust not only through the stories we share, but the experiences that shape those stories. The more shared experiences we create the more intimacy is developed.

Questions: Transforming community continues to unfold and deepen among us as we ask good questions and learn how to stand still and wait with one another in the midst of shattered hopes and dreams and the great unfixables of life.”[8] We often feel it is our Christian duty to fix things or offer advice. This may or may not be helpful. We too quickly forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Over time we learn we are not just listening for the other’s sake, but we are also listening to the voice of God. The art of questioning and listening must come full circle. One of the primary functions of transforming community is to be a community of discernment “in which we assist one another in noticing and eliminating the obstacles to such seeing.”[9]

Servanthood: In an unbelievable act of humility, hospitality, and service we see Jesus in John 13 wash the feet of his disciples. It was the role of a servant, and the master is willing to take it on in order that we as his students may know this is the posture we are to embody. Trust becomes easier when we serve one another.

Again, you may want to add your own characteristics that lead to a trusting community. I think we are probably just getting started. If we truly want to be a Church where we are a community we have to build trust. It is hard work. We are a messy people, but we serve a trustworthy God who is shaping us in His image. May we become the people God has called us to be.

 

[1] Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, Brad Griffin. Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker), 2016. 163.

[2] Powell, Mulder, Griffin. 168.

[3] Ruth Haley Barton. Life Together in Christ: Experience Transformation in Community. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP), 2014. 13.

[4] Brenee Brown. “The Best Brenee Brown Quotes on Vulnerability, love, and Belonging.”

https://bookriot.com/2018/04/16/brene-brown-quotes/  April 16, 2018. (Last accessed on April 21, 2020.)

[5] Scott Cormode. Lecture at Growing Young Cohort Summit. Feb. 14, 2020.

[6] Barton. 21.

[7] Brandon K. McKoy. Youth Ministry from the Outside In: How Relationships and Stories Shape Identity. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP), 2013. 28.

[8] Barton. 55.

[9] Barton 141.

Road to Reawakening

By: Rev. Craig Shepperd

In my previous post I presented the church-going habits of multiple generations. I also proposed the possibility that, for some, perhaps their lack of attendance is less a statement of their faith, and more of a statement about an overall discontentment of “doing church.” As suggested before, these days of the pandemic have provided a great opportunity to think creatively, to be present beyond the walls of the building, and push beyond maintaining the church machine. God will not waste this moment in time, and the Church holds the potential to be the beneficiary of the Spirit’s infusing, dynamic creativity. That is if the Church is willing to think beyond what it has always been.

What might this road to reawakening look like? William McLoughlin gives us some insight into this journey as he maps the movements of spiritual renewal in American history. For us to take this seriously we must think about our current cultural context where we are less and less religious, church has a diminished voice and role in society, there is a prevalence of nominal Christians or “state Christians,” matched with a growing lack of absolute truth, an increase in individualism, etc. Let’s take a peek at the map:

  • During a crisis of legitimacy individuals cannot honestly sustain the common set of religious understandings by which they believe they should act. People wonder if they are the only ones who see the problems and experience the frustrations of the old ways. Thus, they begin to question conventional doctrines, practices, and their sense of identity.
  • People then experience cultural distortion, during which they conclude that their problems are not the result of personal failing, but rather “instructional malfunction” as they seek ways to change these structures or reject them.
  • Significant individuals or communities then begin to articulate a new vision, new understandings of human nature, God, spiritual practices, ethical commitments, and hope for the new future. New possibilities begin to coalesce that make more sense in the light of new experiences than did the old ones.
  • As a new vision unfolds, small groups of people who understand the necessity for change begin to follow a new path; they experiment, create, and innovate with religious, political, economic, and family structures in a search for a new way of life. They develop new practices to give life meaning and make the world different. They embody the new vision and invite others to do so as well.
  • Instructional transformation occurs when the innovators manage to “win over that large group of undecided folks” who finally “see the relevance” of the new path and embrace new practices. When the undecideds flip, institutional change can finally take place.[1]

The movement of God is no exact science. That is obviously below God’s nature. However, McLoughlin does give us some contextual clues that help us navigate ministry in this day and age. For the Church to move past its slumber it must see the world as it is, and not as it once was. “Conventional, comforting, Christianity has failed. It does not work.”[2] This is not about reclaiming yesteryear. This is about the Church having the courage to live into her identity as God’s instrument for the world. These could be some of the greatest days the Church has ever known as we are armed with strength for today and a bright hope for tomorrow. “What will make a difference in the future is awakening to a faith that fully communicates God’s love—a love that transforms how we believe, what we do, and who we are in the world.”[3]

[1] William McLoughlin. Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press)), 1978. 12.

[2] Diana Butler Bass. Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. (New York, NY: Harper One), 2012. 36.

[3] Bass 37.

Non Present

By: Rev. Craig Shepperd

The current younger generations take a lot of flack concerning their lack of church attendance. I would agree to some degree it is concerning, but I think it is also a bit unfair. Here are two reasons why:

  1. Church attendance or even a lack thereof, does not ensure spiritual health. Diana Butler Bass has spent significant time studying decades of American Christian practices and outcomes. In her book, Christianity After Religion, she states, “American behavior continues its inconsistent failure to match self-reported (church attendance) [1]
  2. As a pastor of primarily an older congregation, I have come to discover these age groups are gone about as much as they are present.

They are mobile. They have grandchildren. They have business ventures. They have timeshares. They are also quick to ask, “Where are the younger generations?”

What do we mean by this question? May I propose that perhaps what we are asking is, “Who is going to run all the programs and pay the bills when we are gone?”

I am not sure this completely means when they pass away, but when they take a vacation, or they leave for the summer.  I have observed this occurring in the life of my own church and others. What is missed is not whether or not we will have a substitute Sunday school teacher, but the depth of community life. The absence that comes through relationships of accountability, and the engagement in one another’s lives has a deep impact on church life, as well as the development of community. Without a presence how are we to reenact the incarnation of Jesus as His body?

I speculate younger generations are asking a different question: “How can genuine, Christian community occur that makes a difference in my life, the life of my family, and for the sake of the world?” People vote in a variety of ways. Sometimes they vote with voice, but more often folks vote with their time and money. Perhaps their lack of presence reveals an overall discontent with the status quo. This is often interpreted as disrespect, rejection, apathy, or even laziness. However, I propose the discontent may be occurring because the status quo is not working anymore. At least it is not working as well as it did for those who grew up in it.

Discontent is the beginning of change. As we are currently navigating “doing” church differently through the COVID-19 Pandemic, as a pastor I wonder if some of the ways we are discovering will become the new norm.  Will creativity and desire for true Sabbath foster a move away from maintaining a church calendar full of programs and entertainment? While I would argue the church has a great opportunity to re-imagine its place and purpose, there is a potential for further detachment. However, in these moments we must reevaluate the discontentment we experience. Bass claims,

Only by noticing what is wrong, seeing the system and structures that do not foster health and happiness, can we ever make things different. If people were satisfied, there would be no reason to reach for more, no motivation for creativity and innovation. Discontent is one short step from the longing for a better life, a better society, and a better world; and longing is another short step from doing something about what is wrong. People are longing for new structures that resonate with and respond to their day-to-day experience, giving them a sense of participation and voice and a real stake in the future.[2]

Now, this sounds scary. Some of us immediately fear what we will lose. However, as has been well-documented, there is an actual desire to return to something quite old.[3]This something new,” Wilfred Cantwell Smith suggests, “is faith, the profoundly personal response to the terror and splendor and living concern for God.”[4] Instead of departure, it is a Great Returning to ancient understanding of the human quest for the divine and true community. “Reclaiming a faith where belief is not quite the same thing as an answer, where behavior is not following a list of dos and don’ts, and where belonging to Christian community is less like joining an exclusive club and more of a relationship with God and others.”[5] Every generation is invited to experience God—to return to the basic questions of believing, behaving, and belonging—and explore each anew with an open heart. So, what might this look like?

Let’s begin by re-imagining the practices of our faith: prayer, scripture reading, service, contemplation, worship, etc. “Practices shape us to be better, wiser, more gracious people now, even as these very practices anticipate in our lives and communities the reality of God’s kingdom that has entered into the world and will one day be experienced in its fullness.”[6] These practices are not merely spiritual practices we do, but a way of being that enlivens and awakens us to the work of God in the world. Bass states, “Practices are the connective tissue between what is, what can be, and will be.”

Furthermore, we learn spiritual practices in community. This is where practices take root in order for this way of being to shape our day-to-day living. For Christians, spiritual community – a living, renewed church – begins with being in Christ. It is out of this relationship that we can be and are with one another bound by love. “This sort of belonging insists that the community must be a dynamic, ongoing love, a passionate romance between the divine and the mundane that seduces us into an intimate relationship with God, our neighbors, and our own deepest self.”[7]

I suggest we, the Church, may be guilty of social distancing way before the Center of Disease Control (CDC) mandated it. In a multitude of ways, we have been a non-present band marching to the beat of our own drum for some time. For us to re-imagine what the future looks like, perhaps the ultimate answer to believing, behaving (I prefer becoming), and belonging is found in the incarnated God who chooses to take on flesh, move into the neighborhood, and take up residence among us.[8] How might we do that? This is the question, and the hard work we must give ourselves to. Otherwise, we will continue to settle for the non-present, disengaged, and disconnected way of being, all the while calling it “church.”

[1] Diana Butler Bass. Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. (New York, NY: Harper One), 2012. 53.

[2] Bass. 84 and 85.

[3] Books like Growing Young, Almost Christian, and countless articles reveal upcoming generations’ desire to connect with social justice, the creeds, liturgy, and other mediums of worship of the historical church.

[4] Wilfred Cantwell Smith. The Meaning and End of Religion. (New York, NY: Macmillan),1962. 191.

[5] Bass. 99.

[6] Ibid. 159.

[7] Ibid. 196.

[8] John 1:14, The Message.

The Believers’ Buffet

By: Rev. Craig Shepperd

In my previous article, I reflected on the church being minimized to our own individualistic pursuits. This “Church of Claus” approach interferes with the hope that worship becomes an audience of one (God), thus ultimately stunting our spiritual growth. Today, I want to continue down this same path. There is quite a bit of our culture that has slithered its way into the church that actually poses a threat not just to the church but the very gospel as well.

These days of Pandemic have not only presented unique challenges, they have also brought forth great opportunities. As a Pastor, I have enjoyed the adventure of trying new things. I have enjoyed not being tied to a building or maintaining the status quo. It is as if the Spirit has been loosened, and the stranglehold of tradition is relinquishing its death grip. Furthermore, it has been exciting for believers to recall the joy of being together, and for us to be reminded of our own hunger and thirsting for the Lord.

What I do not look forward to when we gather again is a reverting back to a worship that is driven by consumerism. It is steeped in our culture. We are gatherers of information. We are constantly in search for the next big adventure. We are hoarders of stuff and experiences. This includes the “worship experience”. I cannot tell you the amount of anonymous cards, letters, emails, and on occasion an actual visit designed to critique the music, to complain about too much lighting, or to complain about not enough lighting. The sound is too loud, the sound is not loud enough. We spend too much money on others. We do not spend enough on others. We are not big enough. The church is too big. I don’t like the youth pastor.  And the list just keeps going.

It is exhausting. As a pastor, I must confess…there is no way to win with consumers. It begins to suck the air (the spirit) right out of the church. What was intended to assist believers in belonging, believing, and becoming like Christ has been diminished to a privatized faith rather than a lifelong apprenticeship undertaken in the context of Christian community.

“Consumption is a system of meaning.”[1] We define our identity and construct meaning for our lives through the brands we consume. Unfortunately, church has been diminished to a label. “Shopping occupies a role in society that once belonged to religion—the power to give meaning and construct identity.”[2] Furthermore, we approach church as if we are scrolling through Amazon or lingering at a buffet. How can this place feed me? How might I obtain the most consistent Jesus high? “A core characteristic of consumerism is freedom of choice.”[3] In the US we not only enjoy choice, we flaunt it. There is always a tension between choice and commitment, between comfort and community.

In the process, Sally Morgenthaler notes,

We are not producing real worshippers in this country. Rather we are producing a generation of spectators, religious onlookers lacking, in many cases, any memory of a true encounter with God, deprived of both the tangible sense of God’s presence and the supernatural relationship their inmost spirit craves.[4]

We must learn again what it means to be still and know that He is God.[5] We must settle into the presence of His Spirit in order that God might shape us into the people He desires us to be. We do not have to go chasing after the wind. “The dilemma posed by consumerism is not the endless manufacturing of desires, but the temptation to settle for desires below what we are created for.”[6] What we were created for is relationship, connection, community. God is still speaking. He is still on the move. If we are open to Him, He can use anything to draw us close to Him. May we choose to pursue Him, and may we do it together.

It is together, in community, that we discover how to live into the looming unknown of the future. We remind one another that God’s faithfulness is found in His love for us, not in what we can consume. We begin to realize God’s call takes us beyond our own desires in order that we might meet the needs of the world. We are the body of believers—men, women, and children filled with God’s Spirit, living in communion with Him, one another, and the world. “It is a spiritual and relational entity. And this church is critical to the advancement of God’s mission in the world and an essential component of our spiritual formation.”[7]

We are more than our desires, and our lives are not sustained by fulfilling them. The Christian’s greatest desire, like Jesus’, ought to be to know Him and live in His love. “Not my will, but yours, be done.”[8]

Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and you labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live.[9]

 

[1] Naomi Klein. No Logo. (New York: Macmillan), 2000. 21.

[2] Skye Jethani. The Divine Commodity: 53.

[3] Jethani. 126.

[4] Sally Morgenthaler. Exploring the Worship Spectrum. ed Paul A. Basden. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 2004. 104.

[5] Psalm 46:10.

[6] Jethani. 114.

[7] Jethani. 102.

[8] Matthew 26:39

[9] Isaiah 55:1-3

The Church of Claus

By: Rev. Craig Shepperd

Often the Christian life is approached as if it is an individual pursuit. There is very little thought given as to how the body of believers might enhance one’s spiritual well-being. Furthermore, the Church (like God) has been demoted in the life of the Christian, functioning as some institutional Santa Claus. It’s as if the average Christian believer has concluded: The church should not be too close, but never out of reach just in case we need to make a request. For many, church is merely Santa’s little elves making dreams come true. We, as pastors have failed to instruct our people regarding how church shapes us into the people God desires us to be. The Church has spiritual value in allowing us to live like Christ every day.

“Spiritual maturity is not complicated or mysterious; it simply is neglected.”[1] The interesting thing about the Pandemic is; it has provided us time that we supposedly did not have. There were meetings to attend, band concerts, ball games, practices, and the list goes on. Our faith has been something we try to fit in as opportunity presents itself, or a means to simply present our wish list to the Lord on Sundays.

Sociologist Christian Smith has invested years studying the religious habits in the U.S. He has coined a term that comes across very academic but has an unbelievable amount of practical implications pertaining to spiritual maturity. This term is “Moral Therapeutic Deism.” He concludes that American Christianity has diluted scriptural teaching to that reality. I will not completely cover what Smith means, but let me highlight the implications:

  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  • Just be good.[2]

Smith and others maintain that this is not spiritual maturity. More importantly, neither does scripture. God desires us to move on from milk and the life of a Christian infant. God desires for us to bite into solid food and bear the Fruit of the Spirit.[3] In order to move away from an individualistic approach to God and church, Thomas Bergler suggests three things we must do together so we can grow in Christ:

  1. We need to embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ as good news of spiritual transformation.
  2. We need to be captured by a vision of spiritual maturity that is desirable, attainable, and has clear content.
  3. We need to understand the process of growth to maturity so we can actively participate in it.[4]

To accept the gospel requires more than simply being good and creating a list for God and the church when we need intervention. The gospel calls us to die to self in order that we might truly live. This is something that often gets in the way of our agenda, so we simply do not choose it. We settle for less.

This work must occur in community. Ephesians 4 instructs us to “become mature together so that together you can more and more accurately reflect the perfect image of Christ.” We devote our self to more than a one-time gift. We give ourselves to a process of sanctification by which God is making us morally and spiritually pure. The spirit’s work of sanctification is the maturation process we need in order to grow in love for God and neighbor. “The ultimate goal of this process is perfect conformity to the image of Christ who is the perfect image of God. Thus, for Christians, holiness is a current status, an ongoing process, and an ultimate goal.”[5]

Perhaps people lack robust Christian identities because the Church of Claus that we have bought into offers only a stripped-down version of Christianity that no longer poses a viable alternative to imposter spiritualities like Moral Therapeutic Deism. We have toyed around with American individualism and national identity to the point that we have confused Christianity with self-preservation, which is the very opposite of Jesus’ own witness, and the antithesis of his call to his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him.

“By contrast, the God portrayed in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures asks not just for commitment, but for our very lives.”[6] This will never be the case if we settle to use God and the church as something purely to fulfill our personal requests. God desires more of us personally, and He desires more for the Church. God desires His best for us. This best can only occur when we give ourselves to growing in Christ.

 

[1] Thomas Bergler. From Here to Maturity: Overcoming the Juvenilization of American Christianity. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 2014. XIII.

[2] Christian Smith. And Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. (New York, NY: Oxford), 2005. 162-164.

[3] 1 Corinthians 3:1-2; Hebrews 5:11-13; and Galatians 5:22-23.

[4] Bergler. 27.

[5] Bergler. 47.

[6] Kenda Creasy Dean. Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church. (New York, NY: Oxford), 2010. 37.

The Church in Chaos

Rev. Craig Shepperd

Abstract: This essay looks at who the Church is to be in the midst of suffering, brokenness, and chaos.

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:36-37).

In the midst of chaos, we either push people away or we run towards them. Jesus demonstrates God’s desire to run toward chaos and suffering through his incarnation.[1] Where there are chaos and brokenness, Jesus takes on flesh and makes his dwelling among us.[2] He chooses to become our neighbor in our brokenness. Thus, it becomes the call of the Church to respond in likeness to the suffering, brokenness, and chaos in our world.

Yet, in order for us to respond in neighborly kinds of ways (justice, love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness) we have to be willing to identify with the hurting and broken. If this pandemic has done anything it has brought us closer to a level playing field. We are all in need of a neighbor. Thus, the call of the Church is to function as a microcosm of God’s Kingdom. It is precisely the Kingdom of God that provides a space where people join together as brothers and sisters.[3] For the church to embrace her calling she must allow herself to enter into solidarity with those experiencing brokenness and chaos. When we choose compassion, we see beyond ourselves so that we might live as a city on a hill. The Church is to be a city that lives in the light of another wisdom, as a sign of God’s coming kingdom.[4] This type of living sees no need to hoard personal hygiene products. This type of living does not give in to the idea of scarcity. The Church moves into the neighborhood and exemplifies neighbor-love as Jesus loved us. For us to accomplish such a task may I be so bold as to invite us into some neighborly practices that the world is in desperate need of in this particular season.

Compassion: a willingness to enter into the hurt and brokenness of another.

Reconciliation: we often think about the work of God in us making our relationship with him right. This would be true. However, let us also not forget God’s desire for us to be reconciled with one another. May God help us to live in right relationship with all of humanity.

Generosity: we may give of our resources and ourselves as freely as God has given to us.

Grace/Mercy: chaos often causes people to speak and act in ways that are out of character (or maybe in character). Can we be a place that allows others to express their hurt and confusion without needing to right the wrong done to us or settling the score?

Lament: “is to come alongside those who grieve, to sit with them in the silence and to recognize there that in God’s interconnected creation, their pain is our pain.”[5]

This is obviously not an exhaustive list. What would you add to it?

In a world looking for hope and full of fear, may the Church answer the call to be the non-anxious presence of Jesus in the world. May we move into the neighborhood and make the Kingdom of God known on earth as it is in heaven. This is our calling. We go to the broken places. We make our homes with the suffering. We enter into the chaos of life. If the church will do this, she will find God’s transforming work making all things new.[6]

[1] Philippians 2:6-7

[2] John 1:14

[3] David E. Fitch. Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 113.

[4] Richard B. Hays. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics. (San Francisco, CA: Harper), 337.

[5] C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison. Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 115.

[6] Revelation 21:5

 

Taken from Rev. Craig Shepperd’s website

The Already, Not Yet Band

By: Rev. Craig Shepperd

In my previous post I stated that the Church lives life in the middle of the “already but not yet.” Jesus’ ministry, death, resurrection and ascension has provoked the dawning of the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. However, we are quite aware that we do not experience the Kingdom of God in its completion as of yet. It is the role of the Church to proclaim the hope that God will bring forth ultimate possibility next to what feels like ultimate struggle.

I urge the Church to become active by seeking to participate in the action of God—by placing our actions in line with God’s actions. The Church must not only desire God’s coming future, the Church must be an embodiment of that future in the world by participating in the suffering of the world and witnessing to God’s action within the world. I am not necessarily promoting more, bigger, and better programs. At some point a structure will be required, but we should not look to the church (staff, budget, building, programs) to alleviate us from our own personal responsibility in being the Church.

So, how might we become an active force used by God?

My ministry has been greatly influenced by Isaiah 11:1-9.[1] The familiar and poetic passage begins with a stump, a terminated plant from which nothing can grow. Hope was completely lost until a sprout appeared presenting a sign of life. “The promissory oracle thus articulates the coming of a new royal figure in time to come who will positively enact all that is best in royal power, all that Davidic kings heretofore had failed to accomplish.”[2] God will breathe new life on the one to come.

This one will come with wisdom and understanding, might and justice. Unlike those kings before him, this one will insure peace and equity. He will intervene on behalf of the poor, speak for those without a voice, and lift up the most vulnerable.[3]  Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann states,

It is impossible to overstate the cruciality of this vision of justice for the coming ideal king, the importance of which is evident in a society like ours, wherein the governmental power is largely in the hands of the wealthy and powerful and is operated almost exclusively to their own advantage and benefit. Such an arrangement of public power is a complete contradiction of the biblical vision of government.[4]

In verse 6, the poet transitions into a new field of imagery as he anticipates a transformed creation. Using the animal kingdom as a metaphor, the author unveils the coming kingdom. The imagery of “lion-lamb” is familiar to us, but we have yet to grasp its importance for human policy and conduct. The poet imagines a coming time when all relationships of hostility and threat shall be overcome. When the world is governed rightly, the coming king will not only do what the world thinks to be possible, but will also do what the world thinks impossible. “The poem is about deep, radical, limitless transformation in which we—like lion, wolf, and leopard—will have no hunger for injury, no need to devour, no yearning for control, no passion for domination.”[5] Our appetites will be changed, and what we seek will be the marks of the lion-lamb way.

What does it mean to be active?

The Church must seek and live out harmony.

The Church must be willing to place herself in the shoes of others as it bares compassion.

The Church must take up the towel and basin as Jesus did in service to others, emptying herself for the sake of the world.

The Church must be an inviting host of hospitality.

The Church must hold out hope in a world desperately yearning for it.

The Church must offer accountability in order that we all might grow in Christ-likeness, which reflects the lion-lamb way.

The Church must be a place where forgiveness is practiced.

Jesus embodies all of this. He demonstrates lion-lamb living for us. Now, he invites us to live into the not yet, by the power that has already been bestowed on him, and he shares with us. Strike up the band; I feel a song coming on…

 

[1] This journey started in college under the influence of my professor Dr. Steve Green, and continued to be shaped by the pastoral philosophy of Dr. David Busic.

[2] Walter Brueggemann. 97.

[3] Isaiah 11:2-5.

[4] Brueggemann. 101.

[5] Brueggemann. 103.