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Nurturing a Healthy Church Culture – Part 2

Nurturing a Healthy Church Culture – Part 2

To read Part 1 of this blog click here. What follows is a further explanation of our staff culture, taken directly from our new staff orientation materials, Cultural Habits: A Staff Devotional for Christ Community. 

 

We Expect God

 

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” 

Matthew 28:18-20

We have been called to take part in a seemingly impossible mission. In the face of satanic opposition, human rebellion, addiction, injustice of so many varieties, everyday human limitations and even our own enduring doubts, Jesus says “Go and make disciples.”

What hope do we have that we might actually be able to carry out this mission? The only reason Jesus gives that this is not an utterly hopeless mission is that the Almighty Son of God is here with us. He who is trustworthy has promised His presence.

And not just sometimes. Always. I love the word always. It leaves no room for exceptions. He’s always there watching over us, going before us, and guarding behind us.

Since God is always with us, then as we stack chairs or order print materials,He’s there. When we meet with that struggling couple, teenager, or coworker, He’s there. He’s working, mending, revealing, and moving. When we are organizing volunteers, He’s there. When we are preparing sermons, lessons, meeting agendas, or orientation material, He’s there. Whenever __________ feels hopeless or insurmountable, He’s there.

Always.

But do we expect Him? When is the last time you expected God to intervene?

 “He answered your prayer!”

It was early on in my pastoral role, and I had just met a guy who had been on the job hunt for about nine months. Over coffee, he shared his frustrations of emailing company after company and gaining little to no traction. I did what I could. I listened, and we prayed.

A couple of days went by, and on a Thursday morning, I spent some time in prayer for his job prospects. Transparently, there are times that I wrestle with whether my prayers matter at all. But I promised this gentleman that I would pray. So I did. And I texted him not long after that I was indeed praying for him. Then came his text response, “He answered your prayer! I got the job.”

 

I wasn’t expecting that. Really, it’s painful to admit, but I wasn’t expecting God. And years later, that gentleman is still working in the same place and still attending Christ Community. He’s reminded me often of that day, the day God surprised us both. And we’ll never forget it.

At Christ Community, we want to be a place where we aren’t surprised by God, but a place that expects God. A place that prays with anticipation. A place that works at our various responsibilities and callings, knowing He is watching over us and intimately engaged with us. A place that takes bold steps of faith, not because of how great we are, but because of how great our God is.

So whatever position you hold at Christ Community, let’s anticipate our God who is with us to do the impossible through us. Indeed, let us expect God.

However, we can’t just muscle up this sort of expectant perspective. It must be trained by the Spirit. Here are two helpful steps to cultivate this kind of expectation:

Hear God. Ask God to speak to you in His Word daily. If we come to God’s word asking for God to speak to us, and we experience His Spirit meeting us there, it trains us that God does indeed engage us right where we are.

Remember. Journal, write down, store, and share the stories of God’s intervention. Whether it’s an answer to a prayer request or a clear moment when God went before you in your work, write it down in a notebook or even on a random piece of paper and then keep it in a place for regular review. But don’t stop there. Share with one of your colleagues at Christ Community what God has done. Seeing the surprise on other’s faces will encourage both of your hearts.

We long to be a church expecting God. He’s here,

We believe, God help us in our unbelief.

 

We Stay Yoked

 

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30

I never tire of meditating on the paradox of the yoke.

On the one hand, the image of the yoke is one of work. Plowing a field in the heat of summer, side by side with a master. The yoke brings with it the expectation that my life should produce the fruit of the one to whom I am yoked. We all come to work wanting to produce, to accomplish, to serve the mission of Jesus.

On the other hand, before Jesus ever asks anything of us—to serve Him, His Church, His mission—He offers us rest. Gentleness. A burden that is light.

How can both be true?!? Or, in the words of Frederick Dale Bruner:

 

A yoke is a work instrument. Thus when Jesus offers a yoke he offers what we might think tired workers need last. They need a mattress or vacation, not a yoke. …But Jesus realizes the most restful gift he can give to the tired is a new way to carry life, a fresh way to bear responsibilities.

A church and its staff should embody a culture that is both hard-working and at rest. Both productive and content in our callings. Longing, yet restful souls. 

The way we do that is by staying yoked to Jesus. We recognize that before Jesus ever asks anything of us, He offers us rest. For our physical bodies. For our spiritual lives. We believe Jesus wants us to experience the fullness of life, physical health, spiritual vitality, and emotional health. We do not work for a church, we work on ourselves—yoked to Jesus. A Jesus who does not load on us burdens of unrealistic expectations, demand that we are everywhere, with everyone, at every time. No, Jesus just wants us yoked to Him.

To experience this rest, we must enter His yoke. We do not just wait and hope for Jesus’ promise of rest. We enter His yoke by following the same practices that marked His life. We practice the Sabbath (take a day each week away from our work). We take time to get to a quiet place to pray. We remember that our physical bodies are a part of our spirituality. We fast and celebrate, rest and exercise. These spiritual disciplines give us the framework of the “…new way to carry life…” We practice the disciplines as the way to enter the easy yoke of Jesus, so that we can thrive as whole people as we serve the church and care for our families and friends.

Then, from that place of soul restfulness, we go to serve His church, with Him, alongside Him, for Him, secure in His kindness towards us.

How restful are you in your work? How light is your burden when you put your hand to the plow to go to work? How peaceful is your soul in the midst of your work?

Do not forget. Jesus does not burden you with unrealistic expectations. His burden is light. His yoke is mercy. Forgiveness. Grace. Peace. That is why His yoke is easy and His burden is light.

 

We take the mission seriously, not ourselves

 

Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. 

1 Peter 5:5-7 

I honestly can’t think of a more miserable person on Christ Community’s team than the person who can’t laugh at themselves. And I’m not talking about a little smirk and chuckle. I mean a full-on belly laugh, tears down your face, laughing at yourself in a meeting kind of thing. Maybe this is weird to say, but it is one of my favorite things about serving with this church.

We don’t do this because we are being silly. It is our constant reminder that while we work hard on our God-given corporate mission and take that mission seriously, we never take ourselves too seriously. It is truly a way we “humble ourselves,” as Peter put it, before an all-powerful and good God who doesn’t need us to accomplish anything, but lovingly invites and empowers us anyway. We do it because we are confident that while we are deeply loved and cherished by God, by His people, and by one another, we are replaceable. Humans come and go. The mission of God stays the same. This should not strike us as belittling or discouraging. It is a profoundly humbling and freeing truth we cling to! 

Of course, a humble view of ourselves isn’t the only way we practice this habit. We work hard to make things better, seeking out honest, but loving, feedback, because we aren’t striving for our glory or reputation. We want the mission to thrive for His glory! We only say “me” and “my” when we are owning our mistakes or failures. We only say “we” and “our” when we celebrate our good ideas and successes. We do our best, together, to follow God’s lead as He has revealed it in His Word, never projecting our visions or goals onto Him for our own agenda. No job, task, problem, or person, is “too small” or “too big” for our attention. We take our basin and towel and serve as Jesus taught us.

We aren’t perfect at any of this, mind you, so that is why we need to be able to laugh at ourselves. But with God’s help, this is part of the culture we try to build. We have a wonderful, awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping, mission from God. It is of utmost and eternal importance.That mission is as serious as serious gets! But we want to be humble enough to know that sometimes God does His best work despite our weakness, our frailty, our sin, and our half-baked ideas. That fact brings a smile to my face. How about you?

 

We remember names

 

“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” 

Isaiah 43:1

Remembering names is not simply about knowledge, but love. I might remember where you live, when you graduated from high school, what your greatest childhood fear was, and how allergic you are to tree nuts. But none of that will have any real impact on you if I can’t remember your name. A person’s name carries great importance. Names aren’t just utilitarian titles that help us categorize one another in our memories. Names convey a sense of worth, value, and identity. That is why remembering names is a keystone habit that we believe cultivates a culture of compassion, empathy, and grace.

There is something powerful that happens when you are talking to a stranger at the park about the weather and then you finally get to a point where you exchange names. Just as a child enters the world and is given a name because she has worth, there is something about learning a person’s name that causes their worth to be birthed within your mind and heart at that very moment.

At Christ Community, we value the habit of remembering names because we believe it is a catalyst for creating a caring family. We live in an increasingly impersonal world where we are known less and less and where we know others less and less. The church may very well be one of the last institutions and communities where people can truly be known, seen, heard, and loved in very personal and dignifying ways. And it all starts with remembering names.

This habit is not just the irreducible minimum of love. It can be an ignition switch that begins the good work of seeing and treating people with the God-given dignity they possess as image-bearers. It is the launching pad of hospitality and vulnerability. It is a small yet profound way of telling someone you care for them and you see them in the beauty of their humanity, despite their brokenness.

So let’s make every effort to learn and remember the names of our co-workers. Let’s see those we work alongside as people to be known and loved before we see them as anything else. Maybe that means reorienting the relational category of our staff team to be more like family. What if we treated each other like cousins, not just co-workers? But don’t stop there. As we think about Sunday mornings, try to implement practices and tools to remember the names of people you meet at church. Put this habit into practice everywhere you interact with humans. Keep a note on your phone with the names of people you meet in your neighborhood, the gym, your kid’s school, your archery class, wherever. Personalize the people and places where there is so much impersonal interaction. Remember the name of your server at a restaurant. Refer to the customer service rep on the phone by his name. Learn the name of your mail carrier. Odds are his mother didn’t name him Buckaroo.

When we remember names and make it a central part of who we are as a church, we will not only find ourselves growing in love toward others, but if done well and with great intentionality, it will be reciprocal and cyclical. Love begets love. And when we love people by name we find ourselves emulating the very God who has shared His name with us and has called us by name.

 

We are better together

 

The Lord God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden to work it and watch over it…. Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.”

Genesis 2:15, 18 CSB 

You were never meant to work alone.

Is that the first thing that comes to your mind when you read Genesis 2:18? It was not the first thing that came to my mind for much of my life. I thought about humans needing community. I thought about the reality that Adam, by himself, couldn’t fill the land with other humans.

But when you read verse 18 in the context of verse 15, you see first and foremost that what the first human is incapable of doing alone is the WORK of working and watching over the garden.

The triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who is Relationship and Community from all eternity, did not design you to work alone. In the beauty and mystery of the tri-unity of God, all three persons of the Trinity participate in the work of creation, redemption, and new creation. As creatures made in the image of this triune God, we are designed to work together.

Whether designing graphics, meeting with students, editing copy, writing sermons, recruiting volunteers, fixing broken toilets, or fixing broken spreadsheets, you and I were never meant to work alone. We are better together. That isn’t just a platitude. It is an inescapable, unavoidable truth woven into the very fabric of reality.

Being better together looks like valuing teamwork and collaboration even when it feels like it is slowing us down— and it will almost always feel like it is slowing us down— because usually it is. But we believe the result will be better. Why? Because we all bring different perspectives, gifts, experiences, insights, and backgrounds. We are impoverished as an organization when we neglect or diminish the ethnic and gender diversity God has created —for His glory and our good. We were never meant to work alone.

Being better together looks like choosing trust rather than suspicion when there is a gap in the facts. We work from a foundation of trust. When something goes wrong, when our expectations aren’t met, we choose to believe the best about our co-workers rather than the worst. Why? Because suspicion divides and isolates us, and we were never meant to work alone.

Being better together doesn’t mean that we never need time for deep, focused work as individuals. Far from it! In fact, that sort of work is vital to meaningful collaboration. But it means that even those times of deep, focused, individual work are in the service of what we are doing together.

Being better together means we’d rather go down with the ship together than escape on a lifeboat by ourselves. Why? Because we aren’t just committed to the mission or progress or efficiency or getting things done, we are committed to each other.

And we were never meant to work alone. 

 Nurturing a Healthy Church Culture – Part 1

 Nurturing a Healthy Church Culture – Part 1

My heart breaks with story after story of church meltdowns. As a follower of Jesus and an active churchgoer, it makes me sad and angry, embarrassed and even ashamed. As a pastor it humbles me, and if I’m honest, it scares me. The weight of such stewardship in the light of so many failures feels almost crushing. 

There are too many stories of churches, pastors, and church leaders who make terrible mistakes with sex, money, or power. Too many examples of those who burn out, walk away, or despair. The fallout and pain to congregation members and the damage done to Jesus’ reputation is almost too much to bear. We know His bride, the church, can be anything but beautiful at times, and every institution has to reckon with its own sinfulness. But how do we learn from the failures?

Christ Community is NOT a perfect church. We are nowhere near immune to the disease of sin that can so easily infect any group of people. Nor would we ever want to sit on our high horses wagging our fingers at those who have very clearly messed up. We also don’t want to be guilty of those same mistakes or arrogantly believe it could never happen to us.

We want to be different. 

This is not a statement of pride but rather an earnest prayer that God would protect us and that He would continue to show us tangible ways to foster that protection within our church culture. 

These things include appropriate checks and balances between staff, elders, and congregation. It includes our clear reporting structure, system of annual 360 reviews, and built-in accountability and camaraderie as a multisite church. We could and should talk about our annual financial audit or our partnership with the outside institution Red Flag Reporting. All of it matters and all of it helps.

But none of it is ultimately effective unless there is a healthy institutional culture.

There is no set of systems, policies, handbooks, or bylaws that matter as much as a healthy culture. I’m not minimizing those other things—they are important and we spend a lot of time sharpening those areas. But none of those things will ultimately succeed in the midst of an unhealthy culture or unhealthy staff. So we spend a lot of time thinking about culture.

In fact, a few years ago we began a quest to identify the healthy aspects of Christ Community’s staff culture, not so we could pat ourselves on the back, but rather so that we could do whatever we can to preserve the good parts, and abandon the bad. We wanted to identify the things that are really hard to name—the hidden, often unseen realities, that make us tick. The things that are true now that we always want to be true, and become even more so in the future. The kind of stuff we want every staff person, in any place in the organization, as well our elders, congregant leaders, and volunteers to whole-heartedly embrace. What follows is a summary of years of work and countless conversations throughout every level of our organization.

We call them our cultural habits. 

They describe the kinds of people we try to hire and recruit. They are the things that we work really hard to reinforce and celebrate through our all staff gatherings, new staff orientations, and ongoing reviews. 

In fact, what follows is the content taken directly from some of our new staff orientation materials. That means these words were not written for you, although we hope and pray they help foster a healthy ecosystem that deeply enriches you and your experience of this church family. 

We hope that by sharing these things with you it will increase your confidence in your church, even while acknowledging that we often fail to live up to these ideals. We hope that by giving you this window into our inner-workings as an organization, you see this as an invitation to join us in reinforcing a healthy culture, and as an opportunity to keep us accountable whenever we fall short.

This blog is part 1 of 2. Part 1 is an overview of why we believe this is so important and Part 2 consists of further reflection on our cultural habits. Thank you for taking the time to read, and thank you for taking the time to nurture a healthy culture with us.

Cultural Habits: A Staff Devotional for Christ Community

 

I love Christ Community. I have loved this church as a congregation member and as a pastor, and while she is far from perfect, there is something beautiful here worth cultivating. I think of her a bit like a tree.

In Jeremiah 17:7-8 we read: “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.” What an incredible picture of God’s people—we want that to be true of us too!

As long as I can remember, I have been amazed by trees. And when I find a good one—one that stands out—I can’t help but notice its beauty, wonder about its history, and its strength. I recognize it wasn’t created in an instant and want to preserve it and somehow increase its beauty.

Like a tree, Christ Community is years in the making, and we all now play an important part in sustaining her. While she belongs to God, and only He can make her grow, it is our privilege to cultivate her as best we can.

What follows is our attempt at a “gardening” manual, meant to provide a snapshot into the inner workings of our church, how all the various parts fit together, and the important role each of us plays. To get to the core of it, we have summarized this into these questions about Christ Community that must be answered: Why, What, How, and Who.

 

The Why of Christ Community

 

Christ Community exists because we believe the local church as God designed it is the hope of the world. This big WHY is built upon our five Core Values:

Cross: We believe the finished work of Christ on the cross makes it possible to enter the life we were designed to live.

Yoke: We believe we become the people God designed us to be when we are in the yoke of Christ.

Bible: We believe the Bible reveals God’s design for all of life.

Church: We believe the primary context in which we are to experience the life God designed is the local church.

City: We believe we are designed to give ourselves away in our neighborhoods, city, and world.

 

The What of Christ Community

 

In order to bring hope to our world, Christ Community has a mission that has been with us from the beginning.
We desire to be a caring family of multiplying disciples, influencing our community and world for Jesus Christ.

This statement can be summarized with these key multiplyings:

Multiplying Churches | Multiplying Disciples | Multiplying Leaders

 

The How of Christ Community

 

At Christ Community we believe this mission can be accomplished by equipping our congregation to apply our core values to their “Monday” (everyday) lives. These applied values make up what we call the “marks” of a disciple. We believe a growing disciple of Jesus: 

  1. Takes up their CROSS
  2. Puts on the YOKE
  3. Builds their life on the BIBLE
  4. Loves the CHURCH

Seeks the good of the CITY by

  1. Giving themselves away
  2. Sharing the gospel in word and deed
  3. Working diligently for the flourishing of all

 

The Who of Christ Community

 

At Christ Community we couldn’t accomplish our WHY, WHAT, or HOW without our WHO: our staff, volunteers, and congregation members. More important than any strategy are the cultural habits our people embody that fuel this mission. We summarize them like this:

We expect God. We stay yoked.

We take the mission seriously, not ourselves.

We remember names.

We are better together.

We are so convinced of the importance of healthy staff culture that we want to unpack what these five statements mean to us. None of us embody these perfectly, and we all fail at each of them from time to time, but these are the habits that have shaped us over the decades. These are the habits we strive to cultivate.

Go back to the metaphor of the tree. If Christ Community is a tree, these cultural habits—the WHO of Christ Community—are the conditions that enable this tree to flourish. Only God can make her grow, but these are the seasons, the soil, the sunshine, the amount of rain and nutrients that have led to health, beauty, and fruitfulness over the years. Our cultural habits are often the secret ingredients to our flourishing.

These habits are so important to us that we believe they are absolutely necessary for every staff member in every role. They are not optional. We can’t pick four out of five or start working on some of them later. All five are essential to flourishing at Christ Community —for the church to flourish and for the staff team to flourish.


As a result, we want to recruit and serve alongside people who embrace them. We want to train, coach, and equip ourselves to grow in them. We want to celebrate successes and provide accountability as we learn to embrace them more and more.

In short, we want to cultivate this tree, and that takes each of us.

We’ll take a closer look at each of these cultural habits in Part 2 of this blog. 

 

Life Up in Smoke

Life Up in Smoke

“I think everyone should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.” 


I have found myself returning often to this quote by actor Jim Carrey. It’s one of those sentiments that is really easy to nod along to, but hard for most of us “normal” people to believe. 

If you are like me, you would not say this aloud to anyone, even yourself. But there is something you want from life that you are sure, if you had it, would be the answer: more money, more time, good health, more confidence, better friends, less depression, prettier looks, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, that promotion, this car…on and on that list could go. But if the story of our lives were a simple fill in the blank, we probably all know how we would complete the sentence: “If I only had _______, then I would finally be happy.”

But paradoxically, many of those who have been lucky enough to achieve their dreams like Jim Carrey, look back to the rest of us and shake their heads. It didn’t work. They are just as broken, insecure, and unhappy as they have ever been, and in some cases, even more so.    

Carrey isn’t the first person to make this observation. In fact, thousands of years ago, the author of Ecclesiastes wrote the now famous words about the human pursuit of happiness: “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” He knew it didn’t work, either. 

Whether we put our hope in wealth, pleasure, youth, workplace success, or even things like human justice and vindication, Ecclesiastes forces us to acknowledge, again and again, that we will ultimately be let down. At some point, we will find our lives up in smoke with no answers and nowhere to turn. And even if along the way we get the life we always wanted, we will find it wasn’t enough. 

But hidden in this bracing book, there is something, if we are open to it, that can lead to real satisfaction on the other side of our disappointments. We hope you will join us this spring as we start our sermon series on this amazing book of Ecclesiastes. It won’t always be easy, but there is wisdom on the other side. See you Sunday! 

Who Is Curt Thompson?

Who Is Curt Thompson?

“Who is Dallas Willard?” Those were the words expressed to me by a church member more than twenty years ago after I had announced with great enthusiasm that Dallas Willard had agreed to come to Christ Community for a weekend conference. However, I did understand the question being raised by a thoughtful congregant because Dr. Willard had yet to become a common name in most Christian circles.

I had read a good deal of Dallas Willard’s early writings on spiritual formation. I had also spent time with Dallas and sat under his teaching in a doctoral course. I was struck by his remarkable insight and the great importance of his teaching on spiritual formation and the spiritual disciplines. I knew that Dallas Willard getting on a plane and coming to Kansas City to teach our congregation was a great gift. Those who would eventually meet and learn from Dallas Willard would also recognize what an extraordinary gift he was to our church family.

I have had several thoughtful members of Christ Community ask a similar question regarding Curt Thompson’s visit with us. “Who is Curt Thompson?” Curt Thompson is not yet a household name in Christian circles, but I believe his insightful voice in the area of spiritual formation and interpersonal neurobiology is really important. For the last several years, I have found his writings on spiritual formation, attachment theory and interpersonal neurobiology to be extraordinary for disciples of Jesus who in the power of the Holy Spirit seek greater wholeness and Christlikeness of life.

Liz and I have had the joy of spending time with Curt and have found him to be a devoted apprentice of Jesus. As a practicing psychiatrist, Curt exhibits a deep heart of empathy and authenticity that is warm, welcoming and engaging. In God’s kindness and good providence, Curt is coming to Kansas City in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic when mental health experts are telling us of the greater need to pay attention to the mental health of those we love as well as our own.

God created us as integral relational beings, and our flourishing in community encompasses our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being.

Our church family is truly being given a remarkable opportunity for growth and flourishing as apprentices of Jesus. If you have not yet signed up for our evening with Curt Thompson on Thursday, October 14, go register as seating will be limited. You can also watch the event on our livestream. Don’t miss this opportunity to hear from such an important voice in our time, and please pray for our time together. I hope to see you in person or online October 14!

 

Demystifying the Holy Spirit

Demystifying the Holy Spirit

In a Bible study discussing our sermon series on the Holy Spirit, the facilitator asked the group if anyone had ever experienced the Spirit. After a long silence, a few people confessed that they never had any “crazy” encounters with the Spirit. This was met with murmurs of agreement from the rest of the group. This struck me because many of these people faithfully follow Jesus and are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. As a result, they are experiencing Him daily, whether they can identify it or not.

I don’t blame them for having nothing to say, because so often in Christian culture we assume encountering the Spirit must look a certain way. We intuitively think it must be dramatic and extreme, like tongues of fire, miraculous healings, or the audible voice of God.

Many followers of Jesus, myself included, know that the Holy Spirit lives within us and yet struggle to concretely identify what that looks like and miss out on the formation that occurs when we cooperate with Him. There is a need for Christians to demystify the Holy Spirit.

You may recoil at that statement. Shouldn’t we recognize God as mysterious and admit we will never fully understand him? Yes, of course. And yet, ironically, the impulse to view the Spirit’s work as ethereal and mysterious leads us to put His work in a box, missing out on what He is doing in our lives on a regular basis. We become like Elijah on Mount Horeb, expecting God’s presence to be something sensational, like a great wind, earthquake, or fire, when it is really a gentle voice (1 Kings 19:11-13). This is what I appreciated about our sermon series. It is important to expand our categories for what the Spirit does in our lives, and give concrete examples of them, so we can recognize what He is doing in us.

Whenever I find myself stuck in an implicit view of God, I find it helpful to listen to believers from a different time and place to see what my cultural blinders are concealing from me. The great reformer Martin Luther, though best known for expounding justification by grace alone, had a robust theology of the Spirit with applications that are surprisingly concrete for contemporary Christians.

Two helpful contributions Luther makes are designating the Spirit a special role in sanctification (the process of becoming holy) and illuminating how this primarily happens through Christian community.

First, Luther’s shorthand for explaining the Holy Spirit is “the spirit who makes us holy.” The Spirit takes the objective work of salvation that Christ accomplished for us on the cross in dying for our sins, and makes it a subjectively real experience for us. He does this by killing the flesh over time, that is, our corrupt human nature, and instilling a proper love for God in us. Luther says the flesh wants what benefits itself and avoids what is harmful. It enjoys and uses other people, things, and even God for its own benefit and the Spirit wants God for His own sake, which is the proper response. Luther adds that the Spirit works to reassure us we belong to God because of His grace, not our performance, so that we are not striving toward holiness out of fear. Any desire you have to do what is right, live the way God designed you to live, work for the best of another person without thinking about what you will get in return, is evidence of the Spirit working inside you, since these are not natural responses of human nature.

Second, for Luther this sanctification of the Spirit occurs in a caring community; the local church. So often contemporary Christians instinctually view their sanctification as a primarily personal journey. However, God does not make us holy in isolation but rather uses other Spirit-filled believers to produce Christlikeness in us. As someone who grew up in church, I have often heard Christian leaders quip, “it’s the Spirit’s job to convict, not mine,” while referencing John 16:8. However, Luther sees this verse referring not only to an internal guilt conscience, but also to Christians who, by the power of the Spirit, help other believers recognize where they might be going astray. Of course this must be done in a posture of grace and gentleness, with love and tact.

The internal holiness and the virtues the Spirit produces in us have a multiplying effect on other believers. For Luther, the fruits of the Spirit are not only vertical, but also horizontal by spurring other believers to do the same. Just like fruit contains seeds to produce other fruit-bearing trees, Luther views the Spirit’s work of renewing one believer as a tool used to develop holiness in another. Encountering Spirit-inspired gentleness in another person can lead us to grow similarly.

Luther picks up on how, in the structure of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, the doctrines of the Church directly follow the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, meaning they are closely related. For Luther, the Church is the place and means of a believer’s sanctification because of the activity of the Spirit. He bemoans the enthusiasts of his day who became fanatical about the Spirit but left the church. They cut themselves off from the “bridge, the path, the way, the ladder” and all the other normal means He uses to affect the inner renewal of a believer. In looking for the spectacular and transcendent, many ignore the routine activities of the Spirit. Over time, these seemingly mundane practices of worship, preaching, prayers, communion, and Christian fellowship become supernatural catalysts for growth in holiness through the Spirit’s working.

If you are a follower of Jesus, you have this Spirit living inside you. Each day, whether you explicitly identify it or not, you are experiencing His work of making you holy. Each time you desire to act out of genuine love for another, this is God’s Spirit working inside you. Every time a still, small voice reminds you of God’s love for you when you might feel like a failure, you are hearing the Spirit’s voice. Whenever another believer encourages you to display Jesus better, you are experiencing the Spirit indwelling them. Every Sunday when you are comforted and challenged by God’s Word preached, it is the Spirit enabling that to occur for you. Even as we leave this sermon series behind, let us look for the concrete ways the Spirit shows up in our lives and cooperate with how He is working.

 

Additional Reading:

Luther, Martin. A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians : Based on Lectures Delivered at the University of Wittenberg, in the Year 1531. Translated by Philip Watson. Westwood, NJ: F.H. Revell, 1953.

Lectures on Romans. Translated by Wilhelm Pauck. The Library of Christian Classics. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961.

“On the Councils and the Church.” In The Annotated Luther: Church and Sacrament, edited by Hans J. Hillerbrand, Kirsi I. Stjerna, and Timothy J. Wengert, translated by Paul W. Robinson, Vol. 3. Minneapolis : Fortress Press, 2015.

“The Larger Catechism of Dr. Martin Luther.” In The Annotated Luther: Word and Faith, edited by Hans J. Hillerbrand, Kirsi I. Stjerna, and Timothy J. Wengert, Vol. 2. Minneapolis : Fortress Press, 2015.

Malcolm, Lois. “The Holy Spirit.” In Oxford Encyclopedia of Martin Luther, edited by Derek R. Nelson and Paul R. Hinlicky, Vol. 1. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

 

Should We Return To Normalcy?

Should We Return To Normalcy?

After having our lives so disrupted with the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are experiencing a sense of relief and joyful exhilaration in returning to a more normal life. It is great to be gathering with friends again, worshiping in person with our church family and enjoying fun vacation traveling. But should we return to pre-pandemic normalcy? While not minimizing the great pain, loss and lingering negative impacts of the pandemic, by simply returning to pre-pandemic normalcy we may miss a golden opportunity. Could the rugged pandemic terrain of testing, trials, disruption and difficulties actually be an unusual grace gift to us? 

As the Apostle James opens his inspired epistle, he frames the trials and difficulties that come into our lives as a gift. In The Message, Eugene Peterson beautifully  paraphrases James’ words. 

“Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well developed, not deficient in any way.” (James 1:2-4) 

Reflecting on the Apostle James’ words, I would like to suggest the COVID-19 pandemic has given each of us at least three amazing gifts.

First, we have been given a grace gift of needed insight into the true state of our spiritual formation. Eugene Peterson describes our faith life being forced into the open and showing its true colors. I have often said that many people (including me) have not been their best selves during the pandemic. While I believe that is a true observation, I also believe there is more we must honestly say. The pandemic crucible has not only amplified our weaknesses, it has, like a mirror, also revealed the true colors of our lack of spiritual and virtue formation. A pastor friend of mine made the comment that the pandemic had uncomfortably revealed to him his heart idols as well as his glaring lack of Christ-like character. The pandemic pried open a revealing window into our inner worlds. What grace gift of needed insight into your life have you been given? What needs greater attention in your inner world? 

Secondly, we have been given a grace gift prodding us to make needed changes in our daily lives. Eugene Peterson reminds us not to prematurely jump back into well-worn ruts of the status quo. For many of us, the pre-pandemic frenzied pace of our overly scheduled, distracted lives was detrimental to our spiritual growth, our relationships, our workplaces, our faith community and our Sabbath rest. Rather than jump immediately back into the unhealthy lifestyles many of us were living before the pandemic, how might we rearrange our priorities and carve out new rhythms that are more God-honoring, spiritually formative, relationally deepening and integrally whole? For many of us our work dynamics have significantly changed and this gives us a unique opportunity to evaluate our workplace patterns, sustainability and effectiveness. A member of our church family whose work had led him to do too much traveling said to me, Tom, I am reevaluating the whole business travel thing. I am going to use video technology more and travel less.”  What grace gift for needed change have you been given? What lifestyle changes do you need to make? 

Third, we have been given a grace gift catalyzing needed growth in our lives. In his paraphrase Eugene Peterson encourages each one of us to let the trials, testing difficulties, and disruptions of a pandemic lead us down the path of increasing growth and maturity. The pandemic has been a time of pruning and while pruning is often painful, it is purposeful. Pruning offers new growth, renewed hope and greater flourishing. Eugene Peterson paraphrases the Apostle Paul’s wise and hopeful words. 

“There is more to come. We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next.”  (Romans 5:3-4)  

What pruning needs to take place for new growth in your life? 

In many ways, the pandemic has been a gift; a gift that brings needed insight, needed change and needed growth. Instead of returning to normalcy, let’s embrace lifestyles that lead to greater relational intimacy, deeper spiritual formation, wiser work patterns and greater human flourishing. A pandemic is a terrible thing to waste.