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C.S. Lewis ‘claimed by everyone’

By Jeff Brumley

C.S. Lewis did it during his lifetime and he’s continued to do it in the 50 years since his death on Nov. 22, 1963: inspire Christians from theologically diverse traditions through his theological and fictional work.

Box sets of his theological bestsellers, including Mere Christianity, and his fictional works continue to adorn bookstore shelves and have moved into the e-book realm — and they continue to draw praise from Christians who do not worship or even socialize together.

Cooperative Baptist Kevin Glenn and Southern Baptist Steven Owensby are perfect examples of that.

Glenn, the pastor of Memorial Baptist Church in Columbia, Mo., calls himself “a Lewis addict” who admires the late Anglican for promoting the commonalities between Christians.

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“Baptists love him just as much as Anglicans because he embodied what it means to keep the essentials front and center,” Glenn said.

Owensby, meanwhile, said he continues to read those writings of Lewis’ that lend themselves to apologetics and promoting Christianity over other religions.

“I would recommend him to other Christians, especially some of his writings about why to believe and the greatness of belief,” said Owensby, pastor of Enoree First Baptist Church in South Carolina.

Lewis’ works have continued to enjoy popularity, mostly in America. Historically his draw was among Anglicans, Catholics and some mainline Christians.

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But that changed more recently, syndicated religion columnist Terry Mattingly said.

“The evangelical world grabbed him with a vengeance in the ’70s,” he said. Once “the evangelical industrial complex claims him as one of their own, at that point he’s officially linked to everybody.”

But opinions differ about how Lewis won over such disparate audiences, why his books continue to sell and if that trend will continue among Millennials and religiously unafilliated Americans.

‘You can read into it’

Brett Younger argues that Lewis’ fiction writing enabled him to penetrate such a wide Christian audience with his more serious theological work.

Many were introduced to Lewis through his “Chronicles of Narnia” fantasy series, said Younger, associate professor of preaching at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology.

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“You can read into it” according to pre-conceived beliefs, Younger said of the seven-book series.

“So when a very conservative Christian reads The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, it’s about substitutionary atonement,” he said of the first book in the series, which was made into a 2005 film.

“When a more liberal Christian reads The Last Battle, it’s about universalism and there is no room for anything else,” he said.

‘Fundamentalists have attacked him’

Lewis’ imaginary writing influenced his theological arguments which in turn gave the latter an unusual accessibility for non-academics, said Ralph Wood, professor of theology and literature at Baylor University.

“Lewis wrote with a kind of clarity and candor and eloquence and directness that is unavailable” among theological thinkers of his own time and even today, Wood said.

RalphWoodmugBAYLOR Being a popular writer didn’t mean Lewis was churning out lightweight fare, he added.

“He was very widely read — from the ancients to the moderns.”

But that sometimes earned him criticism. Lewis’ research into ancient forms of Christianity drew him to the Eastern Orthodox concept of “theosis.”

“Theosis is the doctrine that the whole purpose of the Christian life is to be enfolded in the life of God,” he said, “that we are meant to participate in the divine nature.”

That was a turn off to some Christian readers, as was his view of Scripture as instructional and doctrinal — not literal.

“Fundamentalists have attacked him on biblical inerrancy,” Wood said.

‘Wrestling with faith’

Owensby acknowledged that he and other conservative Christians do not embrace all of Lewis’ ideas — in particular what he calls Lewis’ unclear teachings about the nature of salvation.

“There are places where he writes and you would think he’s right in line with what I believe, and there’s also places where he contradicts the convictions I have,” Owensby said.

Lewis is on target enough of the time to continue reading him, Owensby added. “He gave very good reasons for us to trust and believe in Christianity over and against any other world [religious] system.”

For Glenn the reasons to keep reading and teaching Lewis are markedly different, and begin with the author’s ability to translate difficult theological concepts into language accessible to most readers.

Lewis also models how to struggle with doubt and anger toward God in the face of deep personal loss.

“He wrestled with the dark side of faith, the things that we question,” Glenn said. “He’s kind of the champion of wrestling with our faith and coming out stronger on the other side.”

‘Nobody has picked up the baton’

It’s precisely that real, gritty side of Lewis that most appeals to younger people, including those who make up the rising population of “nones” in America, said Christian author and blogger Sarah Cunningham.

In fact, the biggest obstacle to Lewis’ continued popularity among Millennials and other young people is that they aren’t reading books as much as blogs and other online journals.

But Lewis’ advancement of “an intuitive Christianity” and his aversion to denominationalism is just the kind of message that resonates with younger generations, said Cunningham, author of children’s literature and The Well-Balanced World Changer.

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“I don’t think a lot of ‘nones’ are anti-religion or anti-faith, they just don’t want to be connected to a specific sect or group,” she said.

Mattingly, who is the founder and editor of GetReligion.org, said there is no one else on the horizon, dead or alive, who is positioned to assume a near-universal appeal for Christians.

“Who’s going to take this man’s place?” Mattingly said. “Nobody has picked up the baton from him in the name of orthodox Christianity.”




Confessions of a conflicted feminist

By Aimee Yeager

Be independent. Go after your career. Don’t get married before 30. If you do marry, don’t let him think you want to be pregnant and barefoot in the kitchen. Fight for non-sexist language to describe humanity and the Divine.

These are just a few of the ground rules for a “feminist.” As a self-proclaimed feminist, I fight hard for universal language. I am pursuing my calling with passion. I fight for other women to have the same opportunities.

I am not, however, a typical feminist. I find myself defending my life choices to those who think I’m not feminist enough and to those in the anti-feminist camp.

In college, I competed in pageants through the Miss America Organization. Through my participation in this program, the single largest source of educational scholarships for women in the world, I practiced interviewing skills, and promoted advocacy, voting and community service.

I gained self-confidence, the ability to speak publicly and coping skills for overcoming fears and anxieties. Best of all, I met other smart, talented and service-oriented women. I don’t tell anyone that I walked on a stage in a bikini and heels. That is taboo for a feminist.

Following graduation, I moved to Macon to work for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia. During my time with CBF/GA, I began to discern my call to ministry. I moved to Atlanta to pursue my master of divinity at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology. I prepared for my future as a single, female minister.

Then I met a man. I got married before 30, and it doesn’t stop there. I started getting baby fever. I began dreaming of part-time jobs, housekeeping and SUVs. By now you’re probably thinking, “Clearly, this woman is no feminist.” Yet, I am not alone in these desires. There are feminists who want families. But the worst confession is yet to come.

I am a child of the Baptist controversy over women in ministry. I witnessed hearts breaking. I know the bitter sting of tears from a child of the church betrayed.

I am going to seminary and pursuing my calling on the shoulders of men and women who fought for me to have the opportunity to follow God’s calling for my life. I do not take that lightly. I recognize that I hold that torch for the 5-year-old future female minister sitting on the pew. I am her role model.

That is why I am conflicted about this next confession — the geographic location of my future ministry will be determined by my husband’s appointment through the United Methodist Church.

I am lucky to have a husband who supports me and encourages me to do things that I don’t even think I am capable of. I have a husband who wants me to dream big and succeed in ministry. I have a husband who wants me to serve as I am led to serve. But, in the spirit of confession, I only want to serve part-time because, when the time comes, I want to be home with our children. His job will take priority.

I struggle with this. I wrestle with the idea that I am setting female ministers back 50 years by following the direction of my husband’s calling from town to town. I was called to ministry before I met him. Am I abandoning my zeal for ministry if I allow his call to have priority in determining our location?

In my young naiveté, I said to so many women: “Don’t follow a man around. Follow your dreams.” Isn’t that what a feminist does? Yet, here I am, sacrificing for love — choosing to follow where God is leading my husband because I believe in him, I love him and I want security for my future family.

When I mentioned this struggle to one of my professors, he spoke these wise words: “Aimee, your call is not to a specific place or a specific institution. Your call is a calling out of gifts. You can use these gifts to the glory of God in a wide variety of settings.”

His words hit home and helped me find a peace of mind in my decision to be a mom, wife and minister — a woman who is following her call, husband and future family. I am slowly accepting that I can fight for women’s rights and follow my husband’s appointments at the same time.

So I will drive my SUV around the town where my husband and I are serving. I will continue to wear my “This is What a Preacher Looks Like” T-shirt with pride. I am beginning to accept there is no conflict, just confession.




White preaching professor, black preaching students

By Brett Younger

Brett: Our student body is 48 percent African-American and 13 of the 15 faculty members are white. Have you wondered if this is a good place for an African-American minister?

Dihanne: What really shocked me was the first time I went to chapel. I thought, “Oh no! I can’t do this. They’re singing hymns out of a hymnal. Nobody’s saying ‘Amen!’ Nobody’s shouting, ‘Hallelujah!’” I made myself go and ended up embracing a new way to worship God. It’s just different.

Brett: Are you glad you are at a racially diverse seminary?

brett white blackGeorge: I wouldn’t have it any other way, because that’s the real world. You have to learn how to deal with people that are different from you, and you might as well learn that here.

Joshua: My breakthrough came in preaching. Now I feel comfortable saying, “It doesn’t matter who’s out there. I can reach them with the word of God.” That’s when I said, “McAfee was not a mistake.”

Brett: What do you wish African-American churches knew about seminary?

Joshua: That it’s not the devil. That you can go to a multi-cultural seminary and not lose your African-Americanness.

George: My church is concerned that you’re going to lose what they’ve taught you. They’re afraid that the professors are going to teach you what to believe and not just how to better interpret the word of God.

Dihanne: My pastor encourages us to go to seminary. She wants all of her ministers to be trained theologically: “When you go to seminary you don’t want to lose your mind. Don’t let them beat the Spirit out of you, but at the same time, education broadens your horizons and opens you up to read the word.”

Brett: Are African-American churches requiring seminary in a way they wouldn’t have 20 years ago?

George: It’s becoming, and I hate to use this word, competitive. Every church looks at other churches: “This preacher has letters behind his name. We need to get somebody like that so that we can attract the younger generation.”

Joshua: You are not able to preach “Jesus wept” and whoop the rest of the time. They want meat in the sermon. They want to know, “What does this say and mean?” The bar has been raised. You are going to have to go dip in the pool that is seminary.

Dihanne: Some of the older saints don’t believe that you’ve preached until you’ve whooped! It’s almost as if you could say “I went down to the corner store” and a few people would shout ‘Hallelujah!’” The younger people don’t want to hear the whooping and hollering. They are searching for something deeper.

Joshua: For young preachers coming up, you’ve got to do it all. I’m a whooper, but I give you everything. I give you all the exegetical stuff you want and then for my people, mama and them, I bring you the cross.

Dihanne: At the end of it, you have to have the celebration moment or you didn’t “preach.”

Brett: How do white professors misunderstand black preaching?

George: I think they confuse our emotions with showing off. They don’t understand the hurt and the pain that the members are bringing. You have to preach to their pain. We expect a preacher to understand what we’re going through. I’ve got to be emotional to let them know that I hear them.

Joshua: But I think it goes deeper. It comes from an inherited point of view, from slavery. We identify with the children of Israel. We say, “God did it for them. God will do it for us.” When Barack Obama became president, the old people wanted to celebrate every single Sunday, because you’ve got something to shout about now. You don’t sit in the back, and at the counter nobody’s throwing hot coffee in your face. When they think about all that, it makes them shout and run and holler and whoop a little bit. They expect it every Sunday.

Dihanne: When we say praise God in a black church, we’re not looking for silent meditation. We expect exuberant praise, because we understand the oppression we have overcome.

Brett: So how would it go if I preached at your church?

George: I would get a lot of questions afterwards.

Joshua: At your conclusion they would ask, “Is that it?” but they would be very nice to you and talk about you once you left.

George: I don’t believe that just anyone can come in and preach to black people. You may be able to perform on American Idol, but that does not mean you are going to make it at the Apollo.

Dihanne: I think you would do well at our church. Some of the members would appreciate getting out in time for lunch.

Brett: I might do better than you think.

George: We’ll help you.

Brett: What might I hear if it was going well?

George: Amen!

Dihanne: Come on with it!

Brett: And if it isn’t going well?

Dihanne: Silence.

George: It’s terrible if nobody says anything.

Brett: What’s a bad move for a white preacher in an African-American church?

George: Acting black.

Joshua: We can tell it’s not you hollering at the top of your lungs. Just be yourself.

George: It’s like a white comedian trying to tell black jokes. Don’t mention Michael Jackson.

Brett: That sounds like good advice.




McAfee professor takes Atlanta pastorate

By Bob Allen

A Mercer University administrator who transferred from Macon, Ga., to Atlanta to recruit the first entering class when McAfee School of Theology opened in 1996, is new pastor at the city’s Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church.

Dock-HollingsworthDock Hollingsworth, who has taught leadership and supervised ministry at McAfee since 2007, begins Sept. 22 at the 159-year-old congregation identified with both Southern Baptists and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. He served as interim pastor of the high-profile congregation located in Atlanta’s Buckhead district for 15 months after previous pastor David Sapp retired in April 2012.

Hollingsworth also has served as McAfee’s assistant dean and as executive director of The Center for Teaching Churches, a program to support graduates as they transition into ministry established with a Lilly Endowment grant. He worked a combined 18 years at Mercer’s Macon campus and in Atlanta, where he openned the admissions office for the CBF-partner James and Carolyn McAfee School of Theology established in 1994 with a $10 million gift from a fortune earned in the health care management business.

Hollingsworth graduated from Mercer before receiving his M.Div. degree from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctor of ministry degree at McAfee in 2008. Before working at Mercer he served in churches in North Carolina and Georgia.

“Second-Ponce has a long history of missions and leadership in Christian life in Atlanta,” John Kerr, senior pastor search committee chair, said in a press release. “I feel Dr. Hollingsworth is the right person to lead us into the next chapter of this history.”

Hollingsworth, who has served as interim pastor of numerous churches over the years, said he thought Second-Ponce would be just one more. “I fully thought I would retire at McAfee, but the energy and possibility of this place has captured my imagination, and by God’s grace it would not let me go,” he said.

Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church formed in a 1932 merger of Ponce de Leon Avenue Baptist Church, constituted in 1904, and Second Baptist Church, established in 1854. Both congregations got their starts as missions of First Baptist Church, which was launched in the then-tiny railroad town of Atlanta in 1848 and is now a multi-site mega-church led by former Southern Baptist Convention President Charles Stanley.




Moderates seek exit from ‘messy middle’

By Jeff Brumley

Many are convinced that beyond addressing material and spiritual needs, moderate Baptist churches must become more vocal advocates for “the least of these” in society.

Some are forming congregational programs, while institutions like the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship are studying initiatives to help churches find their prophetic voices as Millennials moving into leadership voice dissatisfaction with congregations that remain silent on the burning social issues of the day.

In Texas, Alan Bean recently launched the Common Peace Community, a congregational initiative he hopes will inspire Baptist and other churches to move out of what he calls the “messy middle.”

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“In my usage, the ‘messy middle’ refers to churches characterized by ideological pluralism that resolve the potential confusion by simply ignoring every issue that might spark disagreement within the body,” said Bean, executive director of Friends of Justice, a Texas-based nonprofit that advocates for victims of the justice system.

Bean said he got the term from a recent Baylor University study, which used it to describe evangelicals ambivalent about opposition to same-sex marriage. He saw it also apt for moderate and progressive churches reluctant to be advocates for social-justice causes.

It’s understandable why some congregations — especially those burned in the Southern Baptist upheaval — want to avoid anything that smacks of conflict or politics, said Bean, a member at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas.

“I think pastors have dealt with that by simply not addressing these issues,” he said. “Faith becomes largely about being nice, being kind to people or even serving people who are vulnerable — giving them meals and shelter and clothing — but not asking how did they get this way.”

Action increasingly important

In July, the Public Religion Research Institute released a survey showing that progressives are the fastest-growing segment in American faith, while conservative and moderate movements are headed for declines. While moderate groups make up the largest grouping at 38 percent, they aren’t growing. Conservatives are clearly declining from 28 percent and progressives are at 19 percent and growing quickly, thanks in part to the rise of the Millennials.

Christian leaders, like emergent church leader Brian McLaren, say the survey shows moderate Christians can no longer sit and expect Millennials and others to come to them. “This is not a choice between the religious right and the old religious left,” McLaren told ABPnews for a story published in July. “The ability to mobilize people for economic action will become more and more important.”

McLaren’s observations and the recent polling data have gotten the attention of leaders at CBF, said Suzii Paynter, the Fellowship’s executive coordinator.

Paynter acknowleged that some CBF churches need to become the action-oriented organizations that Millennials and the future demand, but moving in that direction requires a sense of calling for work on society’s most pressing concerns. Paynter said CBF is examining initiatives to help churches discern what forms of advocacy and action their existing callings could have in store for them.

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“An issue within a church must come from the heart and mission of the church,” she said. “It’s not about how to be politically active but how to be true to an issue without becoming too political.”

Paynter said she avoids terminology describing such churches as being in the “middle,” because the issue isn’t linear. Movements like the Fellowship, she said, are not trying to avoid being conservative on one hand and liberal on the other, but rather seeking to find “a strong Christology and moving beyond the traditional lines to a gospel calling.”

‘Larger Christian conversation’

Other Baptist institutions are looking to move beyond those lines, too — and sometimes in unexpected places.

McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta sent Barrett Owen to the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina. The annual gathering of mostly progressive Christians featured workshops on topics such immigration, racism and ecology. Baptists had some of the strongest representation at the four-day event held near Asheville, N.C.

The roughly 2,000 who attended Wild Goose represent a population of Christian activists and thinkers who envision a church capable of being prophetic in society, said Owen, associate director of admissions at McAfee. “That is exactly what McAfee is looking for in a student,” said Owen, who also is the pastor of National Heights Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Ga. “We want McAfee to be part of the larger Christian conversation.”

Churches that ignore the signs of change will undoubtedly, sooner or later, begin to feel the pressure, said Curtis Freeman, research professor of theology and Baptist studies at Duke University.

curtisFreemanMUGFreeman said leaders of congregations on the right and left usually enjoy full support for being outspoken positions on controversial issues, but that’s not the case in churches where there are mixed ideological and theological perspectives.

“Trying to be in that middle ground is always a very difficult place because it requires all sorts of coalitions and compromises,” he said.

Freeman said it’s a position moderate Baptist and other churches and institutions struggle with, and the only true solution will come from leaders.

“We need great Christian leaders to stand up and call us to deeper principles that are beyond ideology and beyond politics,” he said. “I think we are in a vacuum on that.”




Conference marks 200 years of missions

By Bob Allen

A three-day conference in November will celebrate 200 years of Baptist missions and explore the lasting impact of Ann and Adoniram Judson, the first U.S. Baptist missionaries to serve on foreign soil.

“The Judsons: Celebrating 200 Years of Baptist Missions, Learning from the Past and Looking to the Future,” is scheduled Nov. 14-16 on Mercer University’s Atlanta campus. Sponsors include McAfee School of Theology, the American Baptist Historical Society, the Baptist History and Heritage Society, Baptist Women in Ministry and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Adoniram-Judson 1Plenary speakers include Bill Leonard, professor of Baptist studies and church history at Wake Forest University Divinity School; Rob Nash, associate dean and professor of missions and world religions at McAfee School of Theology; Graham Walker, professor of theology and philosophy at McAfee; and Molly T. Marshall, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kan.

Pamela Smoot, assistant professor of Africana Studies at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill., is scheduled to give a plenary address on the Judsons and women’s issues in Burma, now officially known as Myanmar.

Breakout session leaders include Suzii Paynter, executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship; Duane and Marcia Binkley, field personnel jointly appointed by CBF and American Baptist Churches USA; and Virginia Holmstrom, executive director of American Baptist Women’s Ministries.

Adoniram Judson and his wife of seven days, Ann Hasseltine Judson, set sail for India Feb. 19, 1812, as Congregationalist missionaries. While doing translation work during the four-month voyage, Judson became convinced immersion was the mode of baptism in the Bible and decided to become a Baptist.

Ann-JudsonDenied entry into India, the couple eventually settled in Burma, where their work prompted formation of the first nationwide U.S. Baptist denomination in 1814. Today, Baptists number 43 million worldwide with 33 million of those in the United States.

Conference speakers will provide historical perspective on the contributions of the Judsons and other early missionaries and their work in education, women’s work and congregational involvement in missions. Workshops led by mission practitioners will focus on missional engagement in Baptist congregations today.

Friday evening, Nov. 15, is set aside for a worship service led by Burmese Baptists at First Baptist Church in Tucker, Ga. The service, open to the public, features preaching by Saw Ler Htoo, executive secretary of the Karen Baptist Convention, USA, and American Baptist Home Mission Societies missionary.

Registration for the conference is $85 per person and $130 for a couple. McAfee students can attend for free. The registration deadline is Nov. 1 and can be done online at the McAfee website.




They shoot preachers, don’t they?

In his book Don’t Shoot, criminologist David Kennedy identifies a disconnect between a criminal justice system built on the notion of personal responsibility and the fact that gang bangers think and behave as members of a group. You can’t reduce gun violence by ratcheting up the penalties for individuals, Kennedy believes, you have to deal with entire neighborhoods at once.

Kennedy’s insight came to mind last week when I read Brent Younger’s post about “Preaching peace in a timid church”. A few years ago, Younger moved from Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth to teach preaching at the McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta.

At the 2012 William Self Preaching Lectures at the McAfee School of Theology, “Preaching Peace in a Crumbling Empire,” Brian McLaren argued that the Bible is a call to speak God’s word of peace to an empire built on power.

“We preach the peace of one who was crucified, so we cannot preach power that crucifies,” McLaren said. “We preach a way of love and service, so we cannot preach conquest and domination.”

McLaren’s words in the chapel were challenging and inspiring. The words in the hall — not so much. Popular opinion seems to be that peace belongs in lectures, but not in sermons:

“That peace stuff wouldn’t fly at my church.”

“Now we know why McLaren isn’t a pastor anymore.”

“His last church must have been in Switzerland.”

“If I preach on peace, war will break out in the next deacons’ meeting.”

“I’ll preach against the war when McLaren agrees to pay my kid’s college tuition.”

In Jesus’ day prophets were run out of town, thrown off a cliff or stoned in the middle of the village. Now we dismiss prophets in the conversations between lectures.

The fear of social consequences largely determines what is said and remains unsaid in the pulpits of Christendom. It isn’t just street punks who engage in group-think, it’s everybody.

It wasn’t as if the preachers who shrugged of Brian McLaren’s call to preach non-violence disagreed with the message. The message couldn’t be considered on its own merits. In my experience, most preachers are so fearful of congregational disapproval that they subconsciously filter out potentially subversive thoughts. The idea that we refuse to pass on the teaching of Jesus because it might negatively affect the arc of your precious career is too embarrassing for conscious reflection. We can only handle so much cognitive dissonance.

If the deacons might not like an idea, we can’t allow ourselves to hear it. And this is particularly true if the idea comes from the lips of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. No one wants to say no to the Son of God.

Yet we say no to Jesus on a daily basis. At least we would if we allowed the sheer radicality of his teaching to reach our ears.

Which bring me back to David Kennedy’s response to street gangs and gun violence. You can’t solve the problem one punk at a time; you’ve got to work with entire neighborhoods. Or, applied to church culture, you can’t solve the problem by ensuring that seminary students take courses in ethics; we’ve got to work with whole congregations.

The preachers who dismissed Brian McLaren’s prophetic exhortation with snide comments about job security weren’t tilting at windmills. Preachers live in the line of fire. Too much Jesus stuff can be bad for your career. Seminary student are sometimes exposed to honest to God Jesus stuff before being called to conventional congregations. The newly-minted preacher preaches the Sermon on the Mount as if Jesus was really serious. Fearing that the preacher is on the verge of sparking a culture war in the congregation, the deacons grow restive. The preacher survives eighteen months of escalating conflict over apparently trivial matters, then resigns in confusion. Some leave the ministry; some adapt. The folks Brett Younger encountered after McLaren’s lecture had adapted.

If this is a church culture problem, we can’t just demand that preachers grow a pair. Every healthy congregation is blessed with a contingent of potential prophets who would seek first the kingdom if they knew how to get started, but bland sermons and abstract Sunday school lessons give them little to work with.

Bland sermons are a strategic response to the realities of church culture. Bland sermons may be entertaining, humorous and practical, but they don’t invite us to look at the world through the eyes of the poor and ask why. Bland sermons don’t say “Blessed are the poor”; they explain why, all appearances to the contrary, Jesus wasn’t really talking about actual poverty.

If we are serious about finding Jesus in the eyes of the poor, we must confront our fears together. The conversation must transcend the painfully familiar, right vs. left, culture war script. This isn’t about politics, it’s about the Lordship of Christ and the Kingdom of God.

Friends of Justice, the faith-based non-profit I direct, is building a Common Peace Community around the pivotal aspiration of the Christian life: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Common Peace Community events gather people of faith around Scripture and fellowship, to empower them as agents of change. We change gradually and by degrees. We change together. If you would like to learn more, I’d be happy to visit with you.




Preaching peace in a timid church

When ministers are afraid to speak prophetically about peace they fail to be a voice for the Prince of Peace.


At the 2012 William Self Preaching Lectures at the McAfee School of Theology, “Preaching Peace in a Crumbling Empire,” Brian McLaren argued that the Bible is a call to speak God’s word of peace to an empire built on power.

“We preach the peace of one who was crucified, so we cannot preach power that crucifies,” McLaren said. “We preach a way of love and service, so we cannot preach conquest and domination.”

McLaren’s words in the chapel were challenging and inspiring. The words in the hall — not so much. Popular opinion seems to be that peace belongs in lectures, but not in sermons:

“That peace stuff wouldn’t fly at my church.”

“Now we know why McLaren isn’t a pastor anymore.”

“His last church must have been in Switzerland.”

“If I preach on peace, war will break out in the next deacons’ meeting.”

“I’ll preach against the war when McLaren agrees to pay my kid’s college tuition.”

In Jesus’ day prophets were run out of town, thrown off a cliff or stoned in the middle of the village. Now we dismiss prophets in the conversations between lectures.

When did peace become a peripheral issue? How can ministers read the Gospels and think peace is an optional topic? When Jesus preached, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he included preachers. Would the one who commanded us to “love our enemies” think we do enough to stop killing our enemies?

The church has become reticent to preach on war and peace. During the Vietnam War preachers like Martin Luther King Jr. and William Sloane Coffin were well known for speaking prophetically against the war. Why weren’t there similarly well-known prophetic voices during the war in Iraq? If Christians never hear a sermon on peacemaking will they assume that faith has nothing to do with the most important issues of our day? Will they get the impression that God has no concern about the war in Afghanistan?

Ministers are not exempt from preaching peace because it will be uncomfortable, the finance committee will not be happy or the inbox will fill up on Monday morning. The United States has amassed the most formidable weapons systems the world has seen.

Our military spending is equal to that of the rest of the world put together. The combined military budget of Iran, North Korea, Cuba and Syria is less than 4 percent of our budget. The U.S. planned military spending in 2012 is $671 billion while China’s budget is $106 billion.

Courageous preachers speak to the cost of war, the present wars, the next war, the shedding of blood, the wasting of innocent life, the demeaning of people, the destruction of property, the poverty that results and the hatred that poisons.

When war is portrayed by politicians as the less painful option, ministers need to persistently speak the hope of peace. Killing terrorists will not defeat terrorism. Pre-emptive wars do not make us safer. Crushing a few despots perpetuates hatred. War on Islamic countries ultimately increases the number of Islamic terrorists.

If the U.S. supported a policy based more on human rights, international law and sustainable development for poor countries and less on arms transfers and military attacks, we would be safer.

Our national security must be based on more than military power. We should preach in support of diplomacy, economic development, and the protection of human rights. We should recognize that poverty and national humiliation are as dangerous to our security as any weapon. We need to return to the most effective ways America has influenced nations throughout the world, by offering a helping hand and abiding by our deepest principles.

When ministers are afraid to speak prophetically about peace they fail to be a voice for the Prince of Peace. They have ceased to be ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Christian preachers proclaim Christ’s different, better way — even when it is hard.

This article originally appeared on the ABPnews website on June 22, 2012.

 




Coaching youth ministers

I am a youth minister and have 20 years of experience.  I am passionate about youth ministry, and I have great admiration for those who minister to youth.  Consequently, I coach youth ministers.  I have a handful of clients, all of whom are in their first two years of full-time ministry.  When I engage them in conversation and I hear their stories, I regularly think to myself “ I’ve been there.”  And though part of what I do is mentor, I spend more time in coaching.  That is, I ask questions in hopes that the client can make the necessary choices to move to his or her next goal in ministry.  When appropriate, I make suggestions out of my own experiences, and regularly, I affirm these young ministers because they are doing ministry well.

Tomorrow, I am driving a total of 4 hours to meet with a coaching client.  We are at the end of a 2-year contract that was established and provided through the Center for Teaching Churches at McAfee School of Theology, in partnership with the Center for Congregational Health.  As I end this contract, I’ve come to acknowledge some important pieces of this relationship.  I have invested myself in a person in hopes that he might become the most effective minister possible in his setting.  By extension, I have invested in his youth ministry and the local church.  This “coaching gig” has become much larger than two people chatting by phone for one hour per month.  This has morphed, at least for me, into a larger investment into God’s world, and I have a new friend in ministry.

Two weeks ago, after a coaching conversation, another client “friended” me on Facebook.  When I opened his page, I noticed the status update.  It read, “I had a wonderful conversation with my ministry coach this morning. His thought-provoking questions have really helped me to see certain situations from a more healthy and productive angle.”  As people commented on his status update, he replied to one by saying, “It’s amazing how much one can gain from questions instead of answers.”  There it is, plain and simple.  I am trained to ask the questions, to provoke thought, to nudge where appropriate, and to hold accountable when asked.  Through personal experience and effective training by the Center for Congregational Health, I trust and believe I coach in such a way that reflects a healthy approach to life and ministry.

Coaching has become popular in recent years.  The business world has led the way, and now the church is catching up.  Several institutions have received grants to explore the benefits of coaching, especially for novice ministers.  I hope we can all grow in our understanding of the value of investing in these young women and men.

Coaching has become popular in recent years.  The business world has led the way, and now the church is catching up.  Several institutions have received grants to explore the benefits of coaching, especially for novice ministers.  I hope we can all grow in our understanding of the value of investing in these young women and men.

Dr. Jim Walls is the Minister with Youth at Johns Creek Baptist Church in Alpharetta, Georgia, where he has served for 11 years.  Additionally, he serves as a coach and as a consultant in youth ministry through the Center for Congregational Health, Inc.