The Communion Cup Slam Dunk

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A couple of weeks ago our congregation celebrated World Communion Sunday, and like many other congregations, each person received what I’ll call a “personalized wafer/grape juice combo pack” upon entering the sanctuary.

After we received the elements together as a congregation late in the order of service, I was amused when I caught sight of a young boy, maybe around eleven or twelve years old, make his way to the nearest trash can at the rear of the worship space, take a final swig of his juice, and windmill slam the container into the bottom of the can. Two points. And with authority.

I also found it funny to observe another boy, maybe around six, double-fisting his communion cups, gulping down the juice representing the blood of Christ first from his left hand, then from his right. This is the Lord’s table, where an abundance is found.

Pastors and the Writing Task

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Writing is a skill that comes in handy in every discipline, every trade, every endeavor of life. Why? Because writing crystallizes thought. Most of us avoid writing, not because writing is hard (though it can be), but because writing requires us to order our thoughts. As William Zinsser observed, “The hard part isn’t the writing; the hard part is the thinking.”

I wasn’t very good at writing when I began, which means I wasn’t very good at thinking. I had not yet begun to work out the ideas that were swirling in my mind. In middle school and high school my parents had to help me complete more than one research paper. I was overwhelmed by large assignments. I struggled to develop a thesis. I had a hard time establishing structure. My attention flagged. I was easily discouraged. I was plagued by self doubt.

Things changed when I discovered that writing was a way I could share ideas. I could write to connect with friends. Chat rooms and email and bulletin board forums were settings for exchange. I shared a thought and others responded. Some of those thoughts were dumb or rude or ill considered. Many were underdeveloped, immature. Maybe something I wrote was occasionally bright or touching or radiant. My early writings could be juvenile. Of course! I was a teenager. I like to think I’ve grown since then, but old habits die hard.

I eventually discovered blogging. I had a friend who worked for a media company that was starting a magazine. I asked to contribute. I learned that a denominational publisher accepted devotional pieces. I submitted, was accepted, and I was given a small check for my efforts. I wrote devotional guides for larger curriculum bundles. I like seeing my stuff in print.

I found other reasons to write. As a church leader, I wrote pastoral letters and developed curriculum. I wrote discussion questions. I put together leadership training guides and wrote job descriptions. I wrote proposals for committees. I wrote memos. I wrote sermons. I wrote more emails. I wrote hand written, short notes. I used writing to reach out, to communicate, to build a bridge between minds, to coordinate, to lead.

As time has gone on I have become more and more convinced that writing is a skill that is useful in every field, for every person. But I have also become more and more convinced that it is a vital skill for ministry leaders, for pastors.

Why? Because a well written sentence reflects a well ordered mind. Ideas, when they are clearly expressed, are more easily grasped. Christian people claim their convictions are true. If they are true, they are true regardless of how well they are articulated. But if they are articulated poorly or opaquely, they will not be accepted. If arguments are made poorly, they will fail. If reasons are not compelling, they will not persuade. If invitations are not clear, they will not be heeded. If warnings do not pierce, they will not be considered. If good news does not penetrate the heart, hearts will not yield.

The best way to learn how to write is to write. The best way to learn to construct arguments is to put pencil to paper. The best way to compose a sermon is sentence by sentence, line by line, bathed in prayer. By God’s grace, there will be clarity on the page, and clarity in the mind of the reader.

That, finally, may be the key to good Christian writing. The technical aspects by necessity should be mastered; one must use the language well. But there is a divine dimension, an illuminating presence, the in-breaking of the holy, the gift of grace, going between writer and reader, allowing for transmission, communication, and transformation, new ways of seeing, perceiving, and being.

We make our offerings. God does with them what he wills.

The Intellectually Influential Clergy

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The footprint of Trumpism in American Christianity, particularly among those we clumsily and vaguely characterize as “Evangelical,” is large and persistent. It is powered in part by genuine political disagreement, in part by cultural anxiety, and in part by a large and rapacious commercial apparatus that converts Americans’ fears into fortunes 30 pieces of silver at a time. (This makes more sense if you think of cable news, political radio, and social media as in effect one complex and recursive system of self-moronization.) And it grows in its opportunistic way because American Christians still, after all these years, have not quite figured out how to engage with politics without either drifting into some unholy compound of state-idolatry and theocracy or degrading the church to the position of just another special-interest group among many, a half-assed Chamber of Commerce for the faithful — God’s little lobbyists. Because they have been convinced that we live in especially critical times and that the other side is irredeemably evil and on the verge — always and forever on the verge — of achieving irresistible power, they are all too eager to subordinate eternal concerns to short-term political mandates, proclaiming themselves practical and hard-headed men of worldly experience.

This is a particularly acute institutional problem for Evangelicals, because they do not have the Catholic Church’s history of wielding real political power, and — perhaps more importantly — because they do not have its hierarchy. The Catholic Church discovered many centuries ago that if an organization is going to cultivate princely power, then it had better have some princes. The pope can meet any head of state — including heads of officially atheist states — as a peer, and in most cases something more than that. Lesser princes of the church have sufficient status and prestige (purely secular qualities but necessary ones) and, in some cases, enough plain political clout to meet any legislator and most heads of state eye-to-eye. But without a hierarchy of that sort, American Evangelical leaders most often come to wide influence only as political pundits or operatives (Mike Huckabee, Ralph Reed), or as a familiar species of self-help guru (Joel Osteen, T. D. Jakes). A very few, such as Tim Keller, achieve some intellectual influence as clergymen, but that is a bit of a high-wire act: Almost invariably, they end up politically neutered by a too-scrupulous bipartisanship or else are spiritually evacuated by factionalism and the unclean hurly-burly of democratic action in the real world.

Kevin D. Williamson, National Review, “God’s Little Lobbyists

Williamson’s critique of evangelicalism is interesting, but wrong. Yes, Catholics have had political power, and yes, Catholics have a hierarchy. More importantly, the Catholic Church is an institution and a corresponding tradition. It has the advantage of a priestly class that can focus its efforts on intellectual work. Catholicism has resources devoted to intellectual life. Evangelicalism, overwhelmingly, does not.

Stanley Hauerwas once relayed a quote by James William McClendon concerning the intellectual tradition of baptists that has hung with me through the years. McClendon authored a three volume systematic theology. Systematic theologies have rarely been produced by baptists. Asked why this was the case, McClendon noted that baptists, throughout their history, have been a mostly poor, marginalized, and persecuted minority among Christian movements. To produce something as complex as a systematic theology, one must have the leisure, resources, and time to dedicate one’s research and writing toward that end. Baptists, mostly, have not been afforded such a luxury.

That said, I have often remarked to friends that one of the most underdeveloped areas of theological reflection among American Christians is with regard to political theology. I have also lamented the fact that we have not done a better job of calling out the called among us with intellectual gifts and encouraged those individuals–both male and female–to use those gifts for the edification of the church. There are many reasons for this–complacency, anti-intellectualism, and even idolatry.

The church does have opportunities, even today, to further develop its intellectual capacities. The first setting is the sermon. Ministers do often preach them every weekend, and it is within the sermon that not only the Scriptures can be exposited and the gospel announced, but some serious thinking can be offered about the times we live in and the challenges we face today. Pastors, to preach these kinds of sermons, must read and study, and have the support of a congregation who will encourage them to do so–and to share with them the other burdens and responsibilities of the ministry, in order to meet the needs of the congregation as a whole.

As Williamson phrased things, I do not think the goal of the clergy should be intellectual influence per se, but rather to reflect the mind of Christ to the world, to articulate the truths of Christianity with clarity, to be “scribes of the kingdom” bringing forth treasures old and new, and to offer reasons for the faith Christians profess, knowing that disagreement and opposition will come. If minds are changed and influence results, praise be to God, for these changes will, in the end, be a display of the gift of grace.

Institutions: Around Them, or Through Them?

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Looking for ways to make a difference, younger Americans therefore tend to think in terms not of channeling their ambitions through institutions but rather of going around them. Because our politics has always rewarded those who can successfully claim the mantle of the outsider–now even more than usual–the temptation to approach our institutions antagonistically, or to avoid them altogether, has grown very strong. When we look for solutions, we tend to look not to institutions but to individuals, movements, ideals, or maverick outsiders.

Maybe what we resist most is the idea that we would need to be formed by institutions at all. The liberal idea of freedom, which has often been at the core of our political imagination, is rooted in the premise that the choosing individual is the foundation of our social order. Liberating that person–whether from oppression, necessity, coercion, or constraint–has frequently been understood to be the foremost purpose of our politics. Our parties have argued about how to do it and about what kind of liberation the individual most desires or requires. But they have agreed, at least implicitly, that once properly liberated, that person could be free.

Yuval Levin, A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream

I feel these tensions, having been formed within them. I value institutions. I value individualism. I’m skeptical of institutions. I’m aware of their failures. Early in my ministry I was drawn more toward movements and mavericks, those seeking to reform or to build something new.

But as the years have gone on, I’ve become more skeptical of radical individualism. It can pull us away from community, history, or tradition. I’m wary of those who build their own cult of personality.

In A Time to Build, Yuval Levin makes the case for our institutions. Levin argues that we should recommit to them, highlighting the positive ways they can be formative. He’s right. They can be. As a child of a stable family, relatively healthy churches, and a vibrant university community, I’ve seen the positive effects institutions can have.

But as an observer of unhealthy institutions, I’ve also seen how difficult it can be to reform a decaying institution from within. There are moments when it is easier, better, healthier, and more generative to leave an institution and blaze a new path, begin a new movement, or chart a new course. A new church, college, university, or other association might be just the thing to renew an existing institutional form. Older institutions see it is okay to try new things, make certain changes, or launch new initiatives. Those who go around institutions and who begin to build new organizations are like a research and development division.

These breaks can be messy. Knowledge can get lost, overshadowed, or put aside. But new expressions of existing institutions can, at times, not only serve to bring forth new life in a new place with new people, but it can inspire older institutions to break free of their ruts and enact needed reforms.

I agree with Levin. We need more people to commit to our existing institutions, to be formed by them, and to make their mark through them. But I’m not discounting the fact that some will need to go around our institutions for the good of us all. We need mavericks, too, who help us not only see how we’re getting it wrong, but where we’re getting it right.

The Less Anxious Presence

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The leader’s main job, through his or her way of being in the congregation, is to create an emotional atmosphere in which greater calmness exists–to be a less anxious presence. “Knowing everything” is not necessary to be a healthy, competent leader. When you can be a less anxious presence, there is often enough experience and wisdom in the group for the group itself to figure out its own solutions to the challenges it faces. When a leader cannot contribute to this kind of atmosphere, the thinking process in the group are short-circuited, and people become more anxious and more emotionally reactive and make poorer decisions.

Ronald W. Richardson, Creating a Healthier Church, p.173

Try it. Take the emotional temperature, then do what you can to drop it a few degrees by being less anxious than the people around you. You can start by saying, “We can figure this out.” Then, define the problem, weigh your options, and seek input on the best way forward. Finally, get to work.

Critical Distance

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Derek Rishmawy writes:

If you’ve spent much time discussing any ethical issue of great import, you know there are times when it’s appropriate to ask someone, “What if it was your kid? Would you still take this position? Or hold it this way?” as a way of personalizing and putting flesh on the dilemma under discussion. Nevertheless, there are corresponding moments where you need to ask, “Okay, what if it wasn’t your kid? Would you still look at it this way?” as a way of prodding folks to recognize the way their own personal commitments might be obscuring and biasing their view of the objective issues at hand. Which is to say, both personalization and abstraction, or depersonalization, have their place in the reasoning process.

He’s right. There are times when it is helpful to think about an issue up close. There are also times when it is helpful to examine a question only after stepping back. It is also helpful to remember that our judgment can be affected by being too close or too far away from a given problem.

When debating any important question, think about where you’re standing. Try to take stock of the problem from various angles and vantage points. Subjectivity is part of every evaluation you make. You’re an element in the equation, so make that a factor.

But a measure of objectivity can be established. Work toward that goal. After taking various perspectives into account, measure the whole by a clear set of criteria, and make a call. Offer a conviction. Take a position. Make an argument for it, humbly, and charitably, and as persuasively as you can.

Addressing Your Tribe, and Addressing Everyone Else

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Back on March 16, 2021 in his newsletter The Tuesday, Kevin Williamson of National Review made the observation that among conservative political activists and commentators, there are two fundamental audiences: conservatives and everyone else. Most of the well known pundits address their tribe principally and primarily. After all, that is where the money is most easily made, the clicks most easily obtained, the views most easily secured.

But there is a great deal of good that can come about by writing and speaking to everyone else. Williamson writes:

[T]he everyone else approach…is directed not at rallying one’s own partisans but at persuading people who are not already self-conscious conservatives, engaging with people as they are and with mainstream institutions. This irritates and enrages tribal conservatives, especially if you’re any good at it. I quote the New York Times fairly often, because it is one of the newspapers to which I subscribe, and I write from time to time for mainstream publications such as the Washington Post. And I hear from my fellow conservatives: “Why would you want to read the New York Times? Why would you want to write in the Washington Post?”

[ . . . ]

The answer to the silly question, of course, is that I read the New York Times because I live in the United States of America, not in the People’s Republic of Konservistan, and if you want to effect change in the United States and in the world, it matters what other people who read the New York Times and the Washington Post think. It even matters, a little bit, what the people who write for them think.

The value of this used to be obvious: William F. Buckley (who lived and worked “a long time ago,” I am informed) criticized what he called “the Playboy philosophy,” but he also wrote for Playboy. Rush Limbaugh wrote for the New York Times. (His byline was “Rush H. Limbaugh 3d.”) Ronald Reagan didn’t change the country because conservatives supported him — he changed the country because he ran a sensible conservative administration on big-tent principles and won 49 states in his reelection campaign.

Stated differently, not everyone is a partisan. Some people are not a member of either tribe. And they can be persuaded, even convinced.

The principle translates to the Christian world fairly easily. You can preach and teach and write in order to connect with your own tribe, to fortify your constituency, to secure your place in a certain ideological ecosystem. You can do this by pitting yourself against heretics and nonbelievers. The lines are drawn pretty clearly, and are easy enough to discern. I’ve seen people do this on left and right and everywhere in between.

Or, you can preach and teach and write in order to address those outside of your tribe while firmly remaining within one. To do so, you’ll need to read broadly, and listen. You’ll need to sharpen your arguments while maintaining epistemic humility. Charity will be high among the virtues. You’ll need to concede the strength of another person’s position. You’ll need to engage in nuanced, boring conversations. You’ll need to actively seek out others who are different than you; you’ll also need to strengthen bonds with those of like mind, those who can bear burdens alongside you. Those who bridge divides take arrows from all sides. Go ahead and concede that some will declare you an enemy because you refuse to deal in polemics.

Lastly, you’ll need to leave the realm of theory from time to time and get down to the level of practice. You’ll need to try out your ideas in the “real world,” and see if they actually do anything.

I think there is a lot of ground to be won by addressing people with words that match their lived experiences and then helping them see how the claims of Christianity address those experiences and then guide them in ways resulting in a life that works, not because Christianity is relevant and practical, but because it is true.

“Theologian” or Not, the Pastor Theologizes

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In 2004 I took a graduate-level seminar on Jonathan Edwards with resident Edwards’ scholar Douglas Sweeney—then professor of American Church History at Trinity Evangelical School. Sweeney pointed out that in Edwards’ day, the most important theologians of the colonies were pastors. This was largely because theologians, like poets and artists, don’t typically produce a saleable product sufficient to provide a living. Theologians (then and now) need patrons—people or institutions willing to support them in their craft. In seventeenth-century New England, patronage for theologians was provided by the local churches. Thus if one wanted to grow up and be a theologian, the only viable career choice was the pastorate. As such, the vast bulk of theology being read by the pastors-in-training at places like the Yale Divinity School or the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), was written by pastors. Young men who could not yet land a job as a “real theologian” in a local church often had to settle for teaching at the fledgling colleges—biding their time while looking for a pastoral opening.

Today’s context has shifted considerably. Local churches no longer self-consciously patronize theologians. Local churches tend to prioritize things like leadership, preaching, care, and disciple-making; hiring a theologian is often not on a church’s radar. Thus, those who desire to be theologians now set their sights on an academic post in a college or university. Young people who have not yet landed a job as a “real theologian” in the academy often settle for pastoral positions in local churches—biding their time while they scout for an academic opening. As such, the vast bulk of theology being read by today’s pastors-in-training is written by full-time academic theologians.

Gerald Hiestand, “The Challenges and Possibilities (and Continuing Need) for the Pastor Theologian

It is true that local churches no long self-consciously hire and house theologians. But pastors who lead, preach, care, and make disciples theologize nonetheless, even if they were not consciously “called” by a congregation to do such work. These pastors do theology as they lead, preach, care, and disciple; the church benefits to the degree the pastor does theology well, and suffers to the degree theology is done poorly. It goes with the gig. It’s why we want pastors who are sound theologians, whether we call them that or not.

The Center for Pastor-Theologians, which Hiestand helped found, equips pastors to serve vocationally as theologians housed within the church rather than the academy. They also raise consciousness that the work of theology is inextricable from the vocation of pastor.

It is not only pastoral candidates who need such an awareness, but also congregations. We should expect our pastors to offer us sound teaching and doctrine, and to apply the truth of the Christian faith to the present historical moment. And while academics who serve the church from the university can offer us much, there is always contextual work to be done by ministers in their local body and surrounding community. The Holy Spirit is at work, not only globally, but right in your neighborhood. The pastor helps us to discern where.

After decades of societal upheaval and rising sentiment toward anti-institutionalism, I’ve wondered if a counter-culture could arise that would invest newfound trust in the church. In an atomized society, this may only be possible at the level of the local church. But perhaps regionally, or even denominationally, a shift could occur that would result in people trusting established Christian networks and their pastors as sources of truth, knowledge, wisdom, and a pathway toward human flourishing through a restored relationship with God and shared fellowship with other people.

It’s possible; more than just a dream I have. Such a movement would be a work of God. A step in that direction might be to see our pastors as theologians–and perhaps to encourage our best theologians to serve also as our pastors.

The Original Languages

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Matthew 18:15-20 says:

15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

And in Bill Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek, Craig S. Keener comments:

In some translations of Matthew 18:18, it sounds like Jesus promised his disciples that whatever they bound on earth would be bound in heaven, and whatever they loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven. In other words, they had the power to bind and to loose, and Heaven (i.e., God) would simply back up their decrees. But the matter is not quite so simple; the actions described in heaven are future perfect passives–which could be translated “will have already been bound in heaven…will have already been loosed in heaven.” In other words, the heavenly decree confirming the earthly one is based on a prior verdict.

This is the language of the law court. Jewish legal issues were normally decided in Jesus’ day by elders in the synagogue community (later by rabbis). Many Jewish people believed that the authority of Heaven stood behind the earthly judges when they decided cases based on a correct understanding of God’s law. (This process came to be called “binding and loosing.”) Jesus’ contemporaries often envisioned God’s justice in terms of a heavenly court; by obeying God’s law, the earthly court simply ratified the decrees of the heavenly court. In Matthew 18:15-20, Christians who follow the careful procedures of verses 15-17 may be assured that they will act on the authority of God’s court when they decide cases.

Just as we struggle to affirm absolutes in a relativist culture, Christians today sometimes wonder how to exercise discipline lovingly against a sinning member of the church. In this text, Jesus provides an answer: when the person refuses to turn from sin after repeated loving confrontation, the church by disciplining the person simply recognizes the spiritual reality that is already true in God’s sight.

Mounce’s Greek grammar is filled with these kinds of exegetical insights, which I’ve enjoyed reading immensely. I’ve returned to my Greek textbooks (and others) this year to re-familiarize myself with basic principles of the Greek language. I’ve even resorted to flash cards. I’m trying to expand my vocabulary. I’ve struggled with languages–and not just Greek and Hebrew. But I’ve taken Greek up again because I felt called to, and because I think it will make me a better student and teacher of the Bible.

I have a long running joke with a family member of mine about the original languages. It usually involves making light of a minister’s claim that they can tell us what the text really says, while the hoi polloi, plebes, rabble, and riffraff in the pews need “experts” to help us see more clearly what is plainly before our faces. We’re Baptists. We take issue with authority. As a Baptist minister, I know what it feels like to be taken issue with. It goes with the turf.

But as I’ve studied church history and listened to preachers, I’ve found that the Bible teachers and preachers who make the most compelling and interesting presentations of a biblical text are familiar with the biblical language, or can at least make use of the tools of translation available to us today. They know the basic rules of the grammar, and can help us see the way the words run as presented by the original authors, and as heard by the original addressees.

There are exceptions, of course. But reform movements possessing both depth and longevity have developed biblical, systematic, and practical theologies that evidence close study and exposition of Scripture as presented in the original languages.

A Story About Church Votes

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One of my friends told me about a pastor they know who asks an interesting question before members of their church vote on a decision.

They said each time the church votes on a course of action, the pastor invites everyone to observe a moment of silent prayer. Each person, in the silence, is asked to pray to God and seek God’s will for the church.

Then, the pastor asks, “If you think this course of action is God’s will for our church, please raise your hand.”

That’s a different way to conduct a business meeting.