Tag Archives: The Word

“Churches Change the World” ~ But How?


Churches change the world” is the theme for the Pentecost Offering of my denomination this year. This is the special offering that is directed to the support of new church development, and that’s an easy ministry for most of us to support.  Who doesn’t believe that churches are supposed to be spiritually and morally transformative. The only real question, it seems to me, is how?  How does the church actually go about changing the world?

The promotional materials for my denomination’s special offering for new church development this year names the importance of the church speaking to the world about her own faith’s values and convictions as one of the ways that the church goes about changing the world. In fact, this is how being “prophetic” is generally, if not singularly, understood by us “Disciples” these days.  We want to speak our truth to its power.  And so we have gotten pretty good at passing resolutions, and making public statements, and marching for social justice.  And while I certainly don’t discount the necessity or efficacy of the church’s public witness, it seems to me, that an equally important way for the church to go about trying to change the world is by the church speaking its truth to the church!  In fact I would argue that I would argue that this should probably come first.

Michael Horton, the Reformed theologian, has criticized the American Church’s historic failure to condemn slavery before and during the Civil War. And he is very clear that the “the racisms that still haunt our society” — “the New Jim Crow, broken window policing, and discrimination in every way imaginable” (Derrick Holmes) — are all the poisonous fruit from the tree of this historic moral and spiritual failure by the American church.  And at the heart of this failure, he argues, was not just the church’s refusal to speak out clearly against slavery to the State, it was also the result of the church’s refusal to speak out clearly against slavery to the church!  The evil of slavery persisted, he argues, not because the church wouldn’t address it publicly as a political matter, but rather because the church wouldn’t address it with its own members as a faith matter.   He notes, “the church itself was segregated – often more so than society at large.” And he wonders about how this might have been different had the church preached “the whole counsel of God, including his wrath against the sin of slavery” to its own membership?  What would have happened had the church spoken prophetically to the church?

Wouldn’t the members (of that church) been shaped by God’s Word and Spirit to oppose such a horrific evil?   And wouldn’t they do so not only in their extended families but in their towns and cities?  Wouldn’t they carry their convictions to the voting booth as loyal citizens?  Some would even do so as judges, legislators, and generals.  What if the church that nurtured R. L. Dabney (a major American theologian of that era) had denounced slavery with one voice, with all of the spiritual authority in heaven behind it?  Would he have become a notorious defender of racist religion as he preached, wrote, and served as chief of staff to Stonewall Jackson? (https://www.whitehorseinn.org/2013/09/two-kingdoms-and-slavery/)

It’s easy to think that the prophetic work of the church is what happens in the streets on days of protest, but I find that most of the prophetic work that I do as a local church pastor happens in the pews when I preach and preside at the Lord’s Table on Sunday mornings, and in the classrooms where I teach the Faith, and at the dinner tables and in the coffee shops where I talk about our beliefs and their consequences with people who are just trying to be faithful.

In a recent contribution to the “Rhetoric, Race and Religion Blog” at the “Patheos” Website (4/30/17), Derrick Holmes said that after he had participated in a public demonstration against social injustice at a city council meeting, another participant, grateful for his presence there, wanted to know why there weren’t other ministers with him?  And the clear implication was that if a minister wasn’t in the streets with them protesting or at a rally making a public statement, then he or she wasn’t really doing anything “prophetic” for the cause (http://www.patheos.com).

“Where are the pastors?” that essay asked, and my initial response was that where they really need to be is in their churches doing the slow steady work of the moral formation and the spiritual transformation of the people who are entrusted to their care. In my experience there is nothing more “prophetic” than the church preaching the message of God’s inclusive love in Jesus Christ, and then inviting “whosoever” would come to the Table of Remembrance of God’s sacrificial act of redemption and reconciliation in Christ each week  A church that is being consistently and consciously shaped by the Gospel’s word of God’s welcome and the sign of His saving inclusion will be a church that unhesitatingly speaks to the world about the worth of all people and that unambiguously speaks against the sins of prejudice and discrimination.

I understand that the single most transformative thing that I can do as a pastor is to get the people who are in my spiritual care to “to see what the Scripture says” about the big social and moral questions of the day with which we are wrestling, as Scott Cormode of Fuller Theological Seminary puts it  (https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/one-basic-idea-get-people-see-scripture-says/). He says that for those of us with a high view of Scripture, the task is not to tell our people what we think, but to help them see how the Bible thinks. He explains –

I think it is easier to preach on uncomfortable topics in an evangelical congregation than it is in other kinds of churches. In a liberal congregation, everyone is entitled to an opinion and the preacher’s is just one voice among many. But in a conservative church, we have agreed on a standard. We all appeal to Scripture. In the evangelical churches I have known, we have all agreed that we should change our behavior to conform to Scripture. We may argue about what the Bible means (and, boy, can we argue), but we all come with a common commitment to obeying the voice of God as conveyed in Scripture.

And so the task is to get them to engage with the Scriptures. A Christian with a high view of Scripture who doesn’t know what’s in the Scriptures – like many in the American Church were before and during the Civil War on Slavery – is a menace and a contradiction. And they’re still around today.

In the June 2017 issue of Christianity Today, Mark Galli, its Editor in Chief, wrote about the criticism that white evangelicals are receiving these days for their reported widespread anti-Muslim, anti-refugee, and anti-others-in-dire-straits public attitudes. “You would think that a people steeped in the Bible,” Mark wrote, “would find closing the door to the world’s neediest people repulsive.” But he says that the research clearly shows that white evangelicals, “more than any other religious group, say that illegal immigrants should be identified and summarily deported.” “What’s wrong with these white evangelicals?” Mark Galli asks. “Who’s teaching them these unmerciful attitudes?” he wonders.  And he thinks he’s found the answer, and it’s not the church!

All those surveys that show white evangelicals to be anti-Muslim and anti-refugee also show that those who take these positions tend to be the white evangelicals who do not go to church. When asked by pollsters if they are “born again” and find the Bible to be true and authoritative in what it teaches, they say “yes.”  But when they are asked if they actually go to church, they often say “no.”  And Mark Galli wonders if there is a connection between the “mercy-shaped vacuum within them,” and the fact that they are not hearing “Scripture read and the Word preached, and sharing in the ‘breaking of bread’ and ‘prayer’ (Acts 2:42) – together in church.”   As Mark puts it –

This has been from the beginning the divinely commanded means that enables us to grow into the full stature of Christ (Ephesians 4:13), so that we might become a people who act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

Churches change the world. But the kid of churches that change the world are the kind of churches that have first been changed themselves by the very truths that they want to speak to power, and this means that the first place where “prophetic” ministers need to be are in their churches with their people consistently and conscientiously preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, and fueling the vision of God’s coming Kingdom where His will is done on earth as it is in heaven.



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Starting with the End in Mind



It was Joseph Aldrich in his book on Life-style Evangelism (Multnomah – 1981) who first introduced me to the four crucial questions that every church has got to answer if it is going to be effective in ministry –

1. What kind of person do you want to deploy into the world?
2. What kind of church makes possible that kind of person?
3. What kind of church leadership team makes possible that kind of church?
4. What kind of pastor makes possible that kind of leadership team?

In this process it all begins with the question of our “product” – the kind of person we are trying to fashion to turn loose onto the world.  Aldrich said that he was “amazed to discover that most pastors and church leaders have given little if any thought to this question.”  Quoting James Engle, Aldrich wrote: “No one responsible for helping another to grow spiritually can proceed until they have in mind a model of the outcome of their efforts” (105).  And then he used this illustration to drive home his point: “Imagine a businessman renting a building, purchasing machinery and material, hiring employees, and then turning them loose to produce whatever they desired.  No, there has to be a product design; an idea of the intended end result.”

I thought about all this recently when I came across this list of “the five basic qualities or characteristics of discipleship” (www.mafrome.org/spirituality_mission.doc) while getting ready for a workshop on The Spirituality of Mission that I had been asked to lead.  I didn’t get a chance to use this material at that workshop, but I put it in my “stewpot” file of articles that I let slowly simmer on the backburner of my head and heart, and stir occasionally. This one has kept rising to the surface.

(1) Inhabited by the Word: the disciple is invited to welcome, listen to, meditate upon and be transformed by the Word who is Life. In this way the disciple experiences God’s loving presence and becomes a witness of the Good News.

(2) Marked by Faith: the disciple is invited to keep his faith in Jesus alive. Faith in Jesus will grow stronger by passing through various struggles and trials and the Lord Himself will become the center of the life of the disciple.

(3) Challenged by Mutual Love: the disciple is invited to show fraternal love and concern to his fellow disciples first and also to the people around. In this way the community will contribute actively to the realization of the testament of Jesus that we would “all be one… that the world may believe” (John 1:21).

(4) Ready to face the Cross: the disciple is invited to render service and freely take up the cross. In this way the disciple shares in the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection so as to bear fruit in plenty.

(5) Filled with the Spirit: the disciple is invited to be open to and be filled with the Spirit. In this way the disciple will be strengthened and inspired in proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom.

The author suggested that it is by the conscious and continuous cultivation of these 5 attributes that people are equipped to join Jesus Christ on His mission in the world, and to use the sequence and spiritual logic Aldrich’s 4 questions, the next question is how does what we do “at church” foster these 5 attributes in “our people”?

(1) What are we doing at church that helps people to be inhabited the Word?
(2) What are we doing at church that helps people to be marked by their faith in Jesus?
(3) What are we doing at church that challenges people to mutual love?
(4) What are we doing at church to help prepare people for the facing of their crosses?
(5) What are we doing at church that helps people to be filled with the Holy Spirit?

I would be interested in hearing how you would answer these questions.  I’m pretty sure that the future validity and vitality of the church rests on the answers that we will find.  DBS+

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Let the Word of Christ Dwell in you Richly… (1)

bookLast year I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a day of teaching with Dr. M. Robert Mulholland Jr. of Asbury Seminary.  Dr. Mulholland’s book Shaped by the Word: The Power of Scripture in Spiritual Formation (Upper Room 2001) is a defining text for me; one of the ten most important books that I have ever read.  His distinction between the “informational” use of Scripture – how it fills our heads with divine truth to be pondered – and the “formational” use of Scripture – how it fill our hearts with the spiritual power that we need for our transformation – has become one of the normative categories that I now use in how I personally approach and vocationally apply the Bible.

 In the Reformed spiritual tradition (which is our most natural spiritual habitat as Disciples) it was not uncommon for ministers to put the letters “V.D.M.” after their names.  F.F. Bruce explained these three letters – “No letters indicating academic achievement or public honor can match in dignity the letters ‘V.D.M.’ applied to the pastor’s name on some Reformed churches – ‘Verbi Divini Minister’ – ‘Servant of the Word of God.’”  And that’s all I have ever tried to be; it’s all I have ever aspired to be.  My personal mission statement concludes: “And when I am done, all I want said of me is – ‘We know God in Jesus Christ just a little bit better because he was here for a while’.”  And I understand that the only way to do this – to help people become “just a little bit better acquainted with God in Jesus Christ” – is to lead them to the Scriptures; to be a “V.D.M.”

 Recently John Piper wrote about how he as a preacher has been deliberately and necessarily “tethered” to the Word of God.  This perfectly describes my own understanding of things.

By personal calling and Scripture, I am bound to the word of God and to the preaching of what the Bible says. There are few things that burden me more or refresh me more than saying what I see in the Bible. I love to see what God says in the Bible. I love to savor it. And I love to say it.

I believe with all my heart that this is the way God has appointed for me not to waste my life. His word is true. The Bible is the only completely true book in the world. It is inspired by God. Rightly understood and followed, it will lead us to everlasting joy with him. There is no greater book or greater truth.

…In honor of tethered preaching, I would like to suggest the difference I hear between preaching tethered to the word of God and preaching that ranges free and leans toward entertainment. The difference between an entertainment-oriented preacher and a Bible-oriented preacher is the manifest connection of the preacher’s words to the Bible as what authorizes what he says.

The entertainment-oriented preacher gives the impression that he is not tethered to an authoritative book in what he says. What he says doesn’t seem to be shaped and constrained by an authority outside himself. He gives the impression that what he says has significance for reasons other than that it manifestly expresses the meaning and significance of the Bible. So he seems untethered to objective authority.

The entertainment-oriented preacher seems to be at ease talking about many things that are not drawn out of the Bible. In his message, he seems to enjoy more talking about other things than what the Bible teaches. His words seem to have a self-standing worth as interesting or fun. They are entertaining. But they don’t give the impression that this man stands as the representative of God before God’s people to deliver God’s message.

The Bible-oriented preacher, on the other hand, does see himself that way—“I am God’s representative sent to God’s people to deliver a message from God.” He knows that the only way a man can dare to assume such a position is with a trembling sense of unworthy servanthood under the authority of the Bible. He knows that the only way he can deliver God’s message to God’s people is by rooting it in and saturating it with God’s own revelation in the Bible.

The Bible-oriented preacher wants the congregation to know that his words, if they have any abiding worth, are in accord with God’s words. He wants this to be obvious to them. That is part of his humility and his authority. Therefore, he constantly tries to show the people that his ideas are coming from the Bible. He is hesitant to go too far toward points that are not demonstrable from the Bible.

His stories and illustrations are constrained and reined in by his hesitancy to lead the consciousness of his hearers away from the sense that this message is based on and expressive of what the Bible says. A sense of submission to the Bible and a sense that the Bible alone has words of true and lasting significance for our people mark the Bible-oriented preacher, but not the entertainment-oriented preacher.

People leave the preaching of the Bible-oriented preacher with a sense that the Bible is supremely authoritative and important and wonderfully good news. They feel less entertained than struck at the greatness of God and the weighty power of his word.

Paul began his letter to the Romans with the declaration that he wasn’t “ashamed of the Gospel” because it is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (1:16).   And while the Gospel and the Bible are not the same thing, it is the Bible that delivers the Gospel to us.  As that children’s hymn we’ve all sung puts it so simply: “Jesus loves me this I know (that’s the Gospel), for the Bible tells me so (that’s the delivery system).”  To get people into the Bible is to expose them to the “power” (“dunamis” is the Greek word for “power” here in this verse, and it’s also the root of our word “dynamite”)  that can change them and their worlds fundamentally and irrevocably (that’s what the word “salvation” is talking about).  An “informational” engagement with Scripture – discovering what it says and means – will have a “formational” consequence in the lives of those who “take up and read.”  I believe that nothing I do as a preacher/teacher/pastor has the potential for making a bigger and more lasting difference for people than getting them into the Word.

 In 1981 Leadership published an article by John Hesselink, a Reformed Theologian and Seminary President, about the power of the Word.  I have kept a copy of it in the Bible I use for preaching and teaching ever since, and will often read it again before I get to Sunday morning to preach.

 My missionary career in Japan began with less than two years of language school in Tokyo. I was then assigned to the large city of Fukuoka on the southwest island of Kyushu. My principal assignment was student evangelism, but soon I began to pick up other responsibilities.

One was the exciting but formidable task of teaching three Bible classes in the local prison, an equivalent of our state penitentiaries. I was asked to do this for a year by a veteran missionary who was about to leave on furlough. Only as I approached the first session in the fall did it begin to dawn on me that I might have bitten off more than I could chew. My predecessor had been born in Japan and knew well both the Japanese language and culture. I could barely carry on a simple conversation. I had a miniscule biblical and theological vocabulary in Japanese, and could not even give a simple testimony with any fluency. Yet I was going to conduct Bible classes in Japanese with three groups of prisoners, most of whom knew practically nothing about the gospel!

Moreover, two of these three groups were in the wing where the condemned prisoners were kept. “Condemned” means they had committed murder and were waiting for the day when a directive would come from Tokyo that they were to be executed.

Despite these well-founded fears and apprehensions, I kept going to the prison week after week. The excitement soon wore off and discouragement increased. The setting was grim: a small, dark, drab room in which eight to ten men in each group gathered, accompanied by an unsmiling armed guard who sat off in one corner.

As winter set in, the unheated rooms were even more depressing. More important, I became increasingly aware of my ineptitude in reading my meditations on Philippians, which a student assistant had translated for me. I had the feeling at times that nothing was getting through to these prisoners. The only bright spots were the singing of the men- especially in one class-and the friendliness of two men in one group. They had become Christians the previous year and exerted a wholesome influence on the others.

I never seriously considered quitting, but I began to long for the return of the senior missionary. 1 had no opportunity to get to know these men, for the guard quickly led them back to their cell blocks after each session; and all I could conclude from their expressionless faces was that I was against a stone wall.

One spring day, however, something unusual occurred. I noticed after one class two men were arguing with a guard. Suddenly he relented and I heard him say, daijobu (okay), and then three men approached me while the guard stood nearby. “Reverend Hesselink,” they began, “for several months now we have been studying God’s Word with you. You have told us that God loves even condemned prisoners like ourselves, and that Jesus died for our sins and will forgive us if we repent and believe in him. We do believe this. We also have read that we must be baptized and confess that we trust him as our Savior. Will you baptize us?”

Soon afterward the senior missionary returned; and shortly after that a number of condemned prisoners were executed-including my three brothers in Christ. My missionary friend was with them prior to their execution, and he told me they left this world with quiet assurance and the joyful anticipation of seeing their Savior face to face.

The lesson here is one we need to learn again and again. There is the temptation to believe that it is not so much the Word itself but our presentation of the Word that brings about conversion and new life in Christ. Without realizing it, we may subtly indulge in a form of an old heresy called synergism. That is, in reality we believe God’s Word and Spirit alone are not sufficient; much also depends on the effectiveness of our witness. I don’t care how high a view of the Word of God you may have; I submit that most, if not all, of us believe that for God’s Word to be effective, our competence is not unimportant.

Please don’t misunderstand. The reception of the gospel by both believers and unbelievers is greatly influenced by the credibility of the one who bears witness and the clarity of that witness. But where saving faith results, hopefully, we can conclude with Luther, “The Word did it.”

To paraphrase Zechariah 4:6, “Not by might, nor by power”-nor, I would add, by our eloquence or cleverness or charm-“but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.” We are mere servants and stewards of the mysteries of God (I Corinthians 4:1). We can plant and water, but it is ultimately God who makes possible the harvest.

 Recently I was asked by someone in a Sunday school class after leading them in a lively conversation about the meaning and relevance of the New Testament book of Revelation to the church today if I thought that I was “successful” in what I was do as a minister.  I’m pretty sure that what the person who asked the question wanted to hear was a report about my “statistical good works”“How many?”  “How much?”  “How big?”  Instead I pointed to what had just taken place, a roomful of adults gathered around an ancient text talking about what it says and why it matters, and I explained that this is what I am called to do as a “V.D.M.” – a Servant of the Word of God.”  It’s my job to help get you into the Word, because when that happens, something else happens that I want to write about next week…   DBS+


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