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.

A Legion of Quiet Heroes

Pastor’s Study, FBC Valley Mills

There is a passage from the Bible that came to mind this week while I worked around my place, trying to survive the winter storm. It is found in 1 Thessalonians 4:9-11. This is what it says:

Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

Paul begins with an affirmation, commending the Thessalonians for their acts of love. But he adds an exhortation: lead a quiet life.

A quite life differs from a private or reclusive life. After all, Paul says that living a quiet life, minding one’s own business and working with one’s hands, can result in Christians gaining the respect of outsiders. Self-reliance can result from this kind of life, but not necessarily withdrawal or isolation. Paul writes that the quiet life in Christ can be part of daily life, a life marked by love, peace, and productivity.

I suspect that for many of us, a “quiet life” hasn’t been a goal. We want applause, acclaim, success, fame. Or we want to party, and all the corresponding pleasures. Or we want power, maybe so we can mind the business of others and tell them what to do.

A quiet life isn’t an obvious choice for us, not in our culture, not in this age. We know, at the deepest level, that we were made for a life of meaning and significance. And we think the only way to satisfy that drive is to live loudly. We think we need to draw attention to ourselves in order to be significant.

But once you know that the lives we lead are known and noticed by God, we do not need to live loudly. We already have meaning. We already are significant. We already have the attention of the only being who, in the end, matters. We’re significant because we’re made in the divine image. We’re significant because we’ve been redeemed by Christ. We have meaning because we were made to live according to God’s purposes, for God’s glory. We’re freed to be faithful, to live the life that God has called us to live before God alone, even as our life brings us into contact with others both inside and outside of the community of faith.

We could use a legion of quiet heroes, people who commit themselves to serving God and loving others, who don’t concerning themselves with the thoughts and opinions of others, and who wholeheartedly devote themselves to the good work that is theirs alone to do.

Congregations would be blessed by pastors who understood their vocation as one of quiet service, prayer, and ministry of the Word, rather than as a vehicle for influence, notoriety, or fame.

Communities would be blessed if followers of Christ conducted their work (in the marketplace and at home) in a quiet manner, confident that God not only sees the work but the heart of the worker and honors those who seek to please the Lord.

Christ followers would be motivated to pursue excellence in all things and inspired to do all things to the glory of God. They would quit worrying so much about what other people think. There’s freedom in living before an audience of One.

The days ahead, and the years for that matter, hold countless opportunities to do quiet work as part of a quiet life in service to a God who sees and who sends us into the world to bless others, all for the eternal glory of the kingdom of God.

Awaiting a Winter Storm

There is a “historic winter storm” headed our way. We’ve kept an eye on the weather.

The yard is already frozen. We picked up groceries this morning. There was black ice on the roads. We fueled our vehicle while we were out and parked at our neighbors’ place on return. They have a flat driveway; ours is a hill.

Molly and the kids stockpiled firewood in the garage. While at the public library on Friday, Molly checked out DVDs and library books to keep us occupied. We covered our outdoor faucets and pulled out our extra hats, gloves, and coats. We’ve closed the blinds and pulled the curtains in an attempt to keep the cold out and the heat in.

Before today it was already cold. Winter weather moved into our area on Thursday, complicating matters for the region. I moved my class online and decided to cancel this weekend’s spiritual formation retreat. Public schools opened on delay. Area colleges and universities began cancelling classes early on Thursday afternoon. Thankfully, road conditions for most were passable during school pick up hours. In Midway, I gathered our school superintendent took heat. Some residents disagreed strongly with the decision to have school.

I feel for the guy. If you decide to have school and weather conditions worsen to an unanticipated degree, you are held at fault for insufficient clairvoyance. If you cancel school and the weather turns out fine, parents are upset their plans for the day were disrupted. And if you call off school and the weather is as bad or worse than expected, you don’t get any credit for making the right call. “Any dummy could’ve made that decision,” it is reasoned.

Yesterday evening Molly and I began looking at the extended forecast, wondering aloud if we’d have church on Sunday. Current projections call for snow early on Sunday morning, but yesterday it appeared as though precipitation would begin Sunday afternoon. Sidewalks and steps outside the church building were already slick on Thursday. We did not have salt on hand. We could put down kitty litter, but the amount of work that could be done to prepare the facility would be limited. One slip and someone could break a hip. Or multiple someones. That’s just at the building. If road conditions are bad, well, accidents could happen on the way.

Going to church is a habit. Hebrews 10:25 exhorts those addressed to not neglect meeting together. The early Christ-followers began gathering on Sunday, rather than Saturday, in remembrance and celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. It was a subtle move, theologically reasoned and practically executed. There is a connection between sabbath keeping and Sunday worship, but it takes work to get there.

In Acts 20:7 we see Paul meeting with the Christian community on the first day of the week, which would have been Sunday by the Jewish calendar. Worship of God with the fellowship of faith is a wise practice, prescribed in the Bible. But when, and how often, and toward what end is up to each local Christian community. With that said, Sunday isn’t a bad idea at all, carrying with it a historical resonance of that first Sunday, where, by Christian reckoning, all of human history hinged and then changed. Resurrection Sunday marks the first day of the new creation.

As I think back over the last two decades of life, the circles I’ve run in have talked a lot about the church. A common refrain has been that the church is not a building. Church is also not an event. The church is a people. The Greek word is ekklesia, or “called out ones.” In the first century this term carried a political connotation. An ekklesia could form the moment everyone was called from their houses into the town square to hear a message, have a debate, or make a public decision. The term still holds that meaning, but it has taken on new shades. The Christian community remains a political body, with an allegiance to Jesus as king, and a way of life that should be distinctive from that commonly practiced among those with allegiance to the kingdoms of this world.

But the church is also a mystical body. It is bound together “in Christ,” sharing in the same Spirit. Ephesians 4:1-32 describes this reality, carrying with it the implication that the church is still the church whether assembled or sent, gathered or scattered. Ephesians 4:4-6 says, “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”

One way or another, we’re bound. This binding transcends time and space. We are “surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses” whether we are in the building, or not. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get together. Ephesians 4, again, points us in the right direction. God has given the church “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers can do their work a little easier when we meet together. And if you consider the witness of the New Testament more broadly, the “one another” commands that are given to the church presume a community.

But tomorrow, the course eventually chosen by our church leaders was to remain scattered due to the winter storm. I don’t think it is right to say worship is cancelled, or even that worship is online, even if the order, or service, is facilitated, communicated, and broadcast on the web. Worship takes place wherever the people of God find themselves and, bound together in and by the Spirit, is collectively offered to God as individuals lift their hearts and attribute worth to the One Who is Worthy of All Glory and Honor and Power Forever and Ever.

There is more going on in the spiritual realm, more than we often contemplate, and certainly more than we perceive. It has always been so, but we, as modern people, have had our perceptions dulled to these realities. Perhaps we should humbly ask God to teach us anew, to help us discover and experience the fullness of communion with God and the communion that exists among the saints.

I’m looking forward to the coming days, because I love my family, we are well supplied, there is a fire in the hearth and I have plenty of work to do that can be done remotely, assuming we keep power. I know it is not so for everyone. As the cold has descended, my mind has drifted toward the words of the BCP‘s first rite for Daily Evening Prayer:

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or
weep this night, and give thine angels charge over those who
sleep.  Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless
the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the
joyous; and all for thy love’s sake.

I’ll confess that these words also provide the framework for a book I’ve been reading [affiliate link]. But they connect to the present circumstance. This morning, we prayed for our area shelters, as well as for friends who serve in shelters in other cities.

The storm is coming. We may not gather tomorrow. Nevertheless, offer praise. Worship the Lord. Remember the saints. Anticipate the next gathering, and then savor it when it occurs. Rejoice when meeting resumes–and be there. Frozen conditions may keep us out of the building. But they do not severe the ties of the body of Christ.

The Best Listeners Are the Best

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Jeff Tweedy, in How to Write One Song, writes, “In my opinion, it’s more important to be a good listener than to be a good musician. In fact, I wouldn’t separate the two. I think the best musicians are the best listeners.”

This is also true of spiritual directors, pastors, preachers, parents, plumbers, principals, psychologists, poets, presidents, programmers, police officers, pharmacists, physicians–anyone, really.

If you want to be great at something, start by opening your ears, softening your heart, and paying attention.