A Modest Plea for Coaches to Stay Pastors

When God called me to be a pastor I resolved I would never view the pastorate as a career ladder to be climbed.

Growing up I had seen and heard people talk about how some youth pastor had now become an associate pastor, with the implication being that someday he would be a senior pastor.  Or the similar idea was to move from a smaller to a larger church, and the really successful would become mega-church pastors, or at least staff pastors at a mega-church.

But with many in my generation of a pastors and ministers (I’m 36), dissatisfied with the church growth movement and its lack of growing mature disciples, I didn’t want to think of pastoral success in terms of butts (in seats), bucks, and buildings. I wanted to think in terms of faithfulness and longevity wherever God called me to serve.

And so I, like many others, had given up on worldly dreams of influence and success, and settled into a “long obedience in the same direction.

Or have we?

While it is true that in the circles I’ve been part of there is little ambition to be a mega-church pastor, I’ve begun to see something that might be analogous: the desire to be a church consultant/coach.

Over the last 10 years I have seen an increasing trend of those who talk about and then implement a “side business” of church consulting and coaching.  I saw this initially with those connected to mainline churches (probably because they have an established infrastructure for such things), but now more so within evangelical circles.

Certainly there are a variety of reasons one would become a coach: because you were asked, because you feel you have something to offer, you need a little extra income.

But I think there is also a more subtle ambition at work here.  It is sometimes expresses in words like “I feel God is calling me to lead leaders…” “I think God is calling me to greater influence…to influence the influencers…” “I want to pastor the pastors…”.  I have heard these and similar sentiments as justifications for becoming a church coach, which often entails an exiting of local pastoral ministry.

The trouble is, this is exactly how mega-church pastors talk about leading their churches, and how they justify the conferences they speak at.  Have we really come so far from climbing the pastoral “career ladder” when we sound like those whom we criticize for building their own kingdoms under the banner of building God’s church?

Read the rest of this post over at Scot McKnight’s “Jesus Creed“.

The Forgotten Lesson of Bonhoeffer, and the American Church

I am worried about the rising popularity of Bonhoeffer in the United States.

Very worried.

I’m worried not because of his theology, or his political views, or his activism.

I’m worried because so many people are interested in him…so many different people.

Some people laud him for his non-violent pacifism, and other for his violent attempt at activism. Some laud him for his commitment to community, and others for his religion-less Christianity. Some laud him for his non-metaphysical theology, and others for his pastoral care. Some laud him from the far left, and others from the far right.

When this happens we have to dig deeper and ask, “Is there something we are missing here?”

The Forgotten Lesson of Bonhoeffer

We often think of Bonhoeffer as a hero of the church, but I think of him more as a cautionary tale.

The forgotten lesson of Bonhoeffer is not that we should all strive to be more like him, but that we should strive to be a church that wouldn’t need him!

article_images-3_8_Pastors_Does_the_American_Flag_Belong_in_Your_Church_766070041I worry that people will either look for the next Bonheoffer or try to be the next Bonhoeffer in some heroic protest, rather than entering the more humble protests of daily life. I worry that people will think that large gestures of protest are the way to change the world, rather than entering on the difficult daily path of ordinary resistance.

You see, Bonhoeffer had to be Bonhoeffer because the national church in Germany failed to be the church at all.

This is the forgotten lesson of Bonhoeffer: The Church in Germany had failed!

Headed toward Failure?

So I’m worried that everyone interested in Bonheoffer might not be learning the real lesson: that we in America might be the type of church that, in a time of crisis, will capitulate to preserving the American Dream rather than living as a Kingdom Reality.

During this 4th of July weekend, are we Christians in America more American than Christian? How would we know? Does that distinction even makes sense? And if it doesn’t, then I worry that we have turned to Bonhoeffer into an inspirational story rather than a cautionary tale.

Let us not make Bonhoeffer merely into a Christian Celebrity…

Telling the Story: The Eucharistic Prayer

eucharist1
Last month, at the Ecclesia National Gathering, I had the privilege and honor to preside over communion for the whole group. I led through the time as we usually do here at Life on the Vine, but many people not from a more liturgical background asked about the prayer leading into the Table.  Many commented on how they really “liked how I re-told the story of salvation” leading into communion.

So I want to explain a little bit of the Eucharistic Prayer (of “Great Thanksgiving”) that I used.

The History

The idea of the Eucharistic prayer (and remember, “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving” which indicate that Communion or the Lord’s Table is meant to be a celebration of God’s great gift in Christ, not merely a somber remembrance), the idea is that as Jesus said “Do this in remembrance of me” that the this didn’t just mean the taking of the cup and bread, but the whole process of giving thanks to God during the mealtime prayer.

Following Deut. 8: 10 (“When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.”), at every meal a devout Jew would thank God the creator for the gift of land which was a promise of the covenant.  They would affirm God as the creator of all things who has covenanted especially with Israel by giving the land, and the fruits of this land now eaten come from the promises of God and therefore call for thanksgiving.  But now for Christians, in Christ, the Creator God has covenanted with all people and the entire world becomes the land of blessing.

Do “to this in remembrance of me” is to pray a prayer similar to Jesus’ when he prayed over the cup and the bread during the Last Supper, a prayer assumed by all those familiar with Jewish practice and not mentioned in the Gospel texts for that reason (although the very early Didache indicates such a prayer).

This prayer of thanksgiving to God becomes the first part of the “Eucharistic Prayer”, with the second part being the words of institution (action of the Son) and the third part being the epiclesis (action of the Spirit), making this prayer Trinitarian in structure.

The Structure

So basically there are three parts corresponding to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

743px-Schnorr_von_Carolsfeld_Bibel_in_Bildern_1860_001
“God the Father” by Julius Schnorr (Woodcut,1860)

Part One: Thanks to the Father

The prayer begins with thanking/praising the Father for all of creation.  But creation is corrupted, but because God hasn’t abandoned creation, we thank the Father for the promise of salvation.  This can take many forms from the promise in the garden, to the calling of Abraham, the people of Israel, etc.  But whatever is said this first section ends with thanking God for sending the Son (Gal. 4:4 “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law”).

This is where “telling the story of salvation” comes in, and depending on the liturgical calendar and the sermon you can emphasize different elements.  See the Book of Common Worship, beginning on page 126 for several different types of prayer to inspire you.

As a way of tying together the cosmic and eternal significance of such a salvation in Christ, this section is often concluded with the Sanctus from Is. 6:3 (Rev. 4:8): “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

Example (I usually do this extemporaneously):
From Book of Common Worship, Prayer D

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.
It is indeed right, our duty and highest joy,
that we should at all times and in all places
give thanks to you, O holy Lord,

Father almighty, everlasting God.
You created the heavens and the earth
and all that is in them.
You made us in your own image;
and in countless ways you show us your mercy.

We praise you for Jesus Christ,
who was tempted in every way we are, yet without sin,
and who, having overcome temptation,
is able to help us in our times of trial,
and to give us strength to take up the cross and follow him

Therefore with angels and archangels
and the whole company of heaven,
we worship and adore your glorious name,
praising you forevermore:

 Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.

"Last Supper" by Jacopo Robusti
“Last Supper” by Jacopo Robusti

Part Two: Thanks to the Son

The second part focuses on the words of Jesus in commanding us to repeat his Last Supper, and is often called the words of institution.  The purpose is to remind us that this is what Jesus commanded us to do.  For many traditions it is these words that make Communion be Communion, the Eucharist a Eucharist.

It must be remember that these words are still part of the prayer (we are not just teach the congregation about what we are doing).  We are still thanking the Father for the gift of the Son and for the Son’s sacrifice.

Example (I usually do this word for word, as best I can):
From Book of Common Worship, Prayer D

We give you thanks that the Lord Jesus,
on the night before he died,
took bread,
and after giving thanks to you,
he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying:
Take, eat.
This is my body, given for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.
In the same way he took the cup, saying:
This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood,
shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.
Whenever you drink it,
do this in remembrance of me.

Part Three: Petition to/for the Holy Spirit

"Pentecost" R. De Cramer
“Pentecost” R. De Cramer

The last part is a petition to the Father that the Holy Spirit would come for otherwise all is in vain.  It is the work of the Spirit to that makes us into the Body of Christ. Without the Spirit we would not have life.  It is prayed that the Holy Spirit would take the bread and the cup and make them into the Body and Blood of Christ so that we (the Church) would be make into the Body of Christ.

Sometimes it is thought that the main purpose of the Holy Spirit is to miraculously change the bread and wine.  But really, the whole point is that WE would be change!

Example (usually word for word):
From Book of Common Worship, Prayer D

Merciful God,
by your Holy Spirit bless and make holy
both us and these your gifts of bread and wine,
that the bread we break
may be a communion in the body of Christ,
and the cup we bless may
be a communion in the blood of Christ.

Now, I have left stuff out (the Acclamation and other parts), but this is roughly what we do at Life on the Vine and why we do it.

Summary

So basically we give thanks for the gift of God three times:

We thank the Father for the Son.
We thank the Son for his sacrifice.
We thank the Father for the gift of the Spirit.

In the first we thank the Father for the historical body of Christ.
In the second we thank the Son for the gift of his sacramental body of Christ.
In the third we thank the Holy Spirit for the gift of the ecclesial body Christ.

The Death of Leadership: Christ and Co-Leadship

 

In these postmodern times we are used to hearing of the death of the author, the death of the text, and even the death of the book (unless you have a Kindle).  Well, today, it is the death of leadership, for Christ our leader is the Crucified One, and what servant is greater that his master?  But many have not heard of this death.  It has been drowned out by the plethora of leadership books, even Christian leadership books, and I’m sure many of us, and myself included, have read them.  But while these leadership books, and conferences, and seminars tell of many helpful things, but they do not know of the Crucified Christ.  And this makes all the difference.  They lack a leadership that lives through the cross.  According to the pattern of the Crucified Christ I believe missional leadership must nurture new structures, new processes, and new people who will lead through living and dying in Christ.

Philippians Hymn

Few turn to the hymn of Philippians 2 as a leadership model, so hopefully we are on the verge of something indeed.  Here we find a pattern, or model of Christian leadership and community.  It is the narrative of Christ, of the incarnation, of the gospel.  And if leaders do not practice it, then the community will not follow it, and then the lost will not see it, and they will not get it even when they hear it.

Philippians 2:5-11

5 In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had:

6 Who, although being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a human being, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! 9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest placeand gave him the name that is above every name,10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,in heaven and on earth and under the earth,11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

There is a three part pattern to this passage.  It is the pattern of althoughdid not—but. Although Christ has the very status, or being, of God, he did not take advantage of his status and use it selfishly.  But rather humbled himself in his incarnation (“being made in human likeness”) and crucifixion (“by becoming obedient to death–even death on a cross”).  And the result is that God works, God exalts, God saves in Christ.  This hymn to Christ reveals the pattern of our lives, the pattern by which we related with one another.  It is the pattern by which we learn the death of leadership.

Indeed, the apostle Paul who uses this hymn to exhort the Philippians to Christ-likeness.  But Paul did not leave them without an example, but rather understood and practiced his own apostolic ministry according to this same narrative pattern.  In 1 Corinthians 9 Paul speaks about the rights of an apostle to receive funds for their ministries.  But Paul did not exercise this right, but worked to pay his own way.  And he also claims that while he has the right of freedom in all things, he does not exercise this right selfishly, but rather became a slave of all for the sake of the gospel.  What does that sound like?  It sounds exactly like Christ in the Philippians Hymn.  And even within the very contentious issue of slavery Paul did not lay down the apostolic hammer on Philemon so that he would release Onesimus.  But instead he acted in love toward Philemon, seeking his consent on the matter.  This, then, is the death of leadership that Paul points us toward when he speaks of Christ, a cruciform leadership that lays down it rights and its status in love and becomes a servant to all.

At Life on the Vine

Because of this pattern in Christ I believe missional leadership must nurture new structures, new processes, and new people who will lead according to Christ’s example.  At Life on the Vine we try to live this out.

For us, leadership at the highest level is structured as a co-pastorate.  There is no ‘senior’ or ‘lead’ pastor where the buck finally stops, where the decisions are finally made, where final authority resides.  While our community was planted by one person, David Fitch, he very quickly brought me on as a co-pastor.  And then later we brought on a third co-pastor to balance out the giftings among us.  Now Fitch is preparing to relocate and I serve alongside my wife and Ty Grigg.

We did this in order to spread out the ministry, offer opportunities for younger leaders to grow, but most importantly, as a structured model of shared leadership.  As co-pastors we had to practice the pattern of althoughdid not—but.  Although we were called as pastors and therefore elevated by a certain authority, we did not, we could not practice unilateral power, but mutually submitted to one another as we lead the community.  This was embedded in our pastoral structure because Christ-like leadership is not merely servant leadership.  Rather we have given up having a ‘lead’ anything at all by creating an alternative structure.

In addition to having a structure of co-leadership, we practice various processes of communal discernment that hand leadership to the entire community, or parts of the community.  For example, according to the same pattern, although all the pastors were in complete agreement regarding how we should move forward concern the issue of women in church leadership, and we had the authority to make a decision, we did not lead from position and privilege.  But instead we submitted to a year long process where different members of the community presented biblical perspectives on the issue, culminating in a 2-month long council to discern the issue.  In another case, an issue with someone on our shepherd board, the pastors were again in complete agreement in how to proceed, but the person involved was not receiving things particularly well.  So we brought the whole issue to our shepherd for their discernment, trusting that Christ would lead through this process and that all involved would both be formed into Christ-like character and that the issue would be resolved not through the imposition of a position, but through the constant relational work of the Spirit opened by practicing the death of leadership.

Personally

And while these types of processes are bolstered by a structure of co-leadership, it really comes down to practicing the death of leadership on a personal level.  This is living without having to justify yourself, without having to constantly defend yourself to others.  It means not needing everyone to always understand you.  In the midst of arguments it means just sticking to the issues without getting personal or taking things personally.  It involves actively creating spaces for other to flourish while not receiving any credit and minimal appreciation.  It means giving over tasks and responsibilities that you really enjoy to someone else so they can grow.  It means submitting to others in the little things even when you have a sense they are wrong, and then only forcing issues when it is essential for the group to move forward.  In all these ways following Christ through the death of leadership entails overcoming personal insecurity and immaturity, so that one can rest in the work of Christ in the community rather than seeking to manage and control everything that is going on.

Now, you might be thinking that every Christian leader should exhibit these characteristics, the characteristics of the fruit of the Spirit, no matter the structure of leadership.  Of course!  But it is much easier to hide immaturity and insecurity, to mask a lack of the Spirit’s work in your life in a hierarchical leadership structure which does not demand processes of communal discernment.  When someone knows exactly who is their superior and who is under them, then they know exactly how to get whatever “ego” fix they need, whether it is seeking approval or asserting authority, perhaps even masking it as a servant leader.  It is for these reasons that missional leadership, under the sign of the Cross, must nurture new structures, new processes, and new people who live, lead, and die, laying down their rights and status in love and becoming a servants to all.

Missional Leadership

So, then, how is the death of leadership also missional leadership?

First, the structure of co-leadership, the processes of communal discernment, and the practice of personal cruciformity are all ways of saying the same thing, namely, that this community is marked by the gospel, by Christ-likeness.  As I said before, if leaders do not it, then the community will not do it, and then the lost will not see it, and they will not get it even when they hear it.

Second, communities marked by the death of leadership will always be marked by brokenness growing into life.  When you lead this way it is impossible to put leaders on a pedestal, which opens the door for everyone to lead out of brokenness and into life.  When everyone is emptying themselves as Christ did, it has the strange effect of raising everyone up as they are deployed in creative expressions of the gospel.

Let’s Fly a Kite

This kind of leadership is certainly not from the top-down as in a hierarchy, nor is it merely from the bottom up, as some form of leaderless organization, nor is it a leading from the front as those who have gone before, as some missional books describe it.  But it is leading from below while running forward, as if one were trying to fly a kite when there is just not enough wind.  You are down on the ground, down below, yet moving forward, hoping for the church to rise up on the breath of the Spirit, roaring high.  And people don’t watch the person holding the string, they watch the kite in its glory, rising to new life and love, and at the center of its frame it bears the sign of the cross.

My reading of Philippians is based on Micheal Gorman’s Inhabiting the Cruciform God.
This is my contribution to the Despised One’s Synchro Blog on “Leadership, Celebrity, and Power”.

Discernment: A Lamb Among Wolves

Declarations vs. Discussions?

Most people either want declarations from on high, or endless discussions from within.  Few desire to make real discernments leading forward.

Tony Jones totally misses the issue of discernment when he criticized Fitch about Rob Bell’s lack of accountability (see Fitch’s prompt).  Jones immediately takes this to mean “moral accountability” regarding marital fidelity, as if Fitch were talking about emotional support vs. church discipline.   

wolf-in-sheeps-clothing

 But the accountability I believe Fitch is talking about is much deeper than some sort of moral accountability or doctrinal control.  Accountability requires relationships, deep mutually reciprocal relationships of openness and trust.  It is within accountable relationship that we can discern the Spirit at work within the people of the Word (Jesus, not the Bible!).

(This picture is exactly not what I’m talking about! Heresy hunts are the opposite of communities of discernent. I.e. we should always assume we are all the wolves, but Jesus the Lamb is leading us anyway).

For those of you reading it, discernment is the Non-Signpost of every Signpost within Prodigal Christianity, something I’m afraid many will miss when reading the book.  Our entire Western culture works against authentic Kingdom discernment by those united in Christ and filled by the Spirit.

Control vs. Freedom?

Often issues like these (gay marriage, evolution, women’s ordination) quickly degenerate into either ecclesial control or the freedom of independence.  The unfortunate story of Pete Enns makes this clear, and the independence of Rob Bells does also.  Ecclesial controllers issue declarations from on high, whether as an individual pastor or some committee.  Independent individuals offer their opinions for an endless discussion, usually with the assumption that everyone is also an isolated individual protected with and by their own opinions.

People usually frame the idea as if the church were a totalitarian regime allowing for no opposing opinions, suppressing the freedom of the press.  Independent individuals, i.e. like Rob Bell, are the freelance journalists and are the only ones speaking the truth.  On the one hand is either identity politics of sub-cultural control. On the other is a suppose freedom of expression beyond all constraints.  Neither escapes the logic of modernity seeking a foundation (whether in ideas or individuals).  This is where people like Jones always fault the church.  They say that people like Bell can only speak their minds, can only speak the truth, once they have left the suffocating control of backwards ecclesial control.

Discerning is not Controlling

I’m not saying that church abuse doesn’t happen, just that the solution is not total independence from local church bodies, but a transformation of local church to be able to discern God’s Kingdom rather than either merely declare or discuss.  As the saying goes, the opposite of co-dependence is not independence, but inter-dependence.

Only discernment within a community truly opens us up to what God is doing because 1) we open ourselves to being wrong 2) by opening up ourselves to Scripture, 3) the Work of the Spirit, and 4) the People of the Spirit.  This is perfectly exemplified in Acts 15 (which I will discuss in my next post).

The problem is hardly anyone actually risks enough to gather together and do this, or trust enough, or has faith enough to do this.  “Really? I’m going to trust someone that has hurt me so that we can discern something together?” “Really, I as the pastor, have to slow down and talk with people?” “Really, I going to discern something with someone who doesn’t have the theology degree that I have?” “Really, I have to trust that God is at work, and that while others need to change, I might have to change also?” “Really, you want me to die to myself to discern God’s Kingdom in this situation?”

Yes, that is exactly it.  And we do this because Jesus showed us how, and makes it possible through the giving of his Spirit.

Communal discernment of this sort is not covert play toward control. This is not passive-aggressive control, disguised as conversation. This is community in the Kingdom guided by the Spirit.

Making Peace with the Bridge, for Now.

Like many of us, I’ve been longing for something beyond the “bridge illustration” to share the gospel (with others, and my children).  Something short, visual, clear, explaining the gospel in an appropriate way.  But of course, the more I learn and grow in the Kingdom the more difficult it is to summarize, especially when you have all these old, truncated ‘gospels’ bouncing around in your brain that you are trying to overcome (the gospel of sin management, the gospel of health and wealth, the gospel of going to heaven, etc).

But then Soren (8 years old) comes home from a church basketball camp yesterday super amped about the ‘bridge illustration.’  It’s all he can talk about.  He pulls out our white board and insists on drawing it out for us and explaining it to us (of course as a seasoned evangelical I’m filling in some of the forgotten steps and verses…).  So I had to step back and rethink my loathing for the ‘bridge illustration.’ (If you are not familiar with the ‘bridge illustration’ check it out here).

Making Peace

I guess this is something that I have know for awhile, but haven’t wanted to admit very loudly (or publicly).  The ‘bridge illustration’ really is a good presentation of the gospel, even if it is just part of the gospel.  I have seen the light come on for children and adults where they begin to understand what God has done for them in a deeper way.

And especially for children who are in the black and white stage of moral development, the ‘bridge illustration’ makes sense.  “We are over hear because of sin.  God is over there because he is perfect.  But in Jesus we can be with God again.”  It makes sense.  It is simple.  It helps them put in place a piece of their spiritual puzzle.

And it fits especially the intellectual development of children Soren’s age.  They haven’t yet reached the world of complexity and abstraction which causes the ‘bridge illustration’ to breakdown or be known as incomplete.

For Now

But the whole point is that children would grow up, and their faith along with them.  Too often we have adults who have prayed a prayer after hearing the ‘bridge illustration’ and 20 years later their faith is still at the same stage.  The problem isn’t in the ‘bridge illustration’ itself but the underlying theology of atonement which is exhausted in the illustration. Certain understandings of the gospel see the bridge not merely as an illustration, but the entire reality.  This leads to the spiritual immaturity and stunted grow of so many believers (which has led to my own discomfort with the illustration).

It is one thing to say that for “now” the bridge is a helpful and, dare I say, true explanation of the gospel.  But only for now.  Not for always.  At the beginning it is true, but faith must grow here and now, and not merely wait for heaven.  We can’t remain stuck on the level of the ‘bridge’ for our entire spiritual lives, just like Soren isn’t going to remain stuck as an 8 year old.

Bridge to the Kingdom, not merely Heaven

We for “now” I’m very pleased that Soren is excited about the bridge, that it has helped him organize some of the biblical stories and ideas that we have been brainwashing him with (ha).  But are already laying the ground work for that spiritual development.  After Soren explained about crossing the bridge in Christ and receiving eternal life (which that church of course links with ‘going to heaven’), I started to redirect from ‘going to heaven’ to ‘life in the kingdom’ here and now.  And I reminded him of the Lord’s Prayer, which we prayer everyday, and how it talks about God’s Kingdom coming to earth from heaven.  The goal is that Soren would come to know all that all those who cross the bridge in faith enter Christ’s Kingdom, which is now!

But filling that all out will come later, and through example, and prayer, day by day, year by year.  But for “now” the bridge will do.

For now.

Bake the bread; give it away.

You need to bake the bread before you give it away.  Likewise, we need to nurture the church to bless the world.  These are the basic movements of the church gathered and scattered.

So often we forget one of these steps.  For some, the moment of blessing the world is so emphasized, of going to the poor and oppressed, of transforming, of advocating, that they neglect the preparation of the bread.  In the haste to bless the world, some feel the church is expendable, secondary, and often times positively a hinderance to God’s mission in the world.  “Why are you so focused on the church when God loves the world?” they often complain.  But this overemphasis often leads to burnout, self-righteousness, and the lack of a developed maturity in Christ.

For others, the moment of nurturing the church is emphasized, the moment of discipleship, of depth of wisdom and understanding, of community and spiritual formation.  In the excitement of nurturing the church it is mission that becomes secondary, an advance step of discipleship, or something that only those with the gift of evangelism do.  Or it takes the mentality that if we build it ‘they’ will come.  But this perspective often leads to stagnation and also keeps the full maturity of Christ from being manifested in us.

But the life of gathering, of baking, of contemplation leads to the life of scattering, of blessing, of action.  To neglect one is to ruin the other.  To bake bread and not share leads to its wasting and rotting.  But to bless the world with something other than the bread of life within us is not blessing at all.

“May the Holy Spirit fire take the individual kernels of our lives and bake us together into one loaf, that we might be the sweet fragrance of the gospel and a blessing to the world.”

The Real Exposition of Scripture: The Entire Service, not just a Sermon

It is often claimed that the missional church might be loosing the high standard of expository preaching.  And often we don’t exactly help to clarify this when we rail against individualized, overly rationalistic, disembodied information dumps which masquerade as the worst of expository preaching (love ya Dave).  And when we claim that interpretation is a communal activity not reducible to a grammatical-historical method, many think we, the missional church, have given up on the Word of God.  Well…we haven’t.  In fact, we do the real expository preaching!

In our worship gathering the question is not if exposition happens, but where exactly it happens.  Someone new to our gathering, steeped in the traditions of expository preaching, commented to one of our co-pastors that while biblical exposition didn’t happen in the sermon (as classically understood), it instead happens throughout the entire service. I think this is absolutely correct.  Let me explain by walking us through last week’s worship gathering.

Our preaching text was Romans 8.1-8, 12-13, celebrating that for those in Christ there is therefore now no condemnation.  The rest of the lectionary was Isaiah 43.16-21, Psalm 126, and John 7.53 – 8.11 [the woman caught in adultery].

The Life on the Vine Liturgy (03/21/10):

  • Before the service, at 9am, we have a teaching class which lays out the basic framework of the morning text to be preached.
  • In the service, after the time of silence and invocation we sang the call to worship, Wake Up, (which we recently wrote based in the text of Roman 13), calling us to attend to the work of Christ.
  • Then comes the Scripture readings, read from the four walls of the sanctuary symbolizing that we are being surrounded by the words of God, ending with a reading from the Gospel of John and how Christ did not condemn the woman caught in adultery. .
  • Between the readings and the sermon is what we call the Liturgion (a litany and motion icon), which in this case was a guided meditation on the painting, “Christ and the Adulterous” by Jan Brueghel, focused on Christ’s non-condemning spirit.  The questions asked were: why is Jesus the lowest in the painting?  Who is at the center of the painting?  What is the significance of that?  Why is the crowd fading into darkness?  Notice that man who dropped the stone…notice that he is the second lowest.  What does his posture resemble?  Notice the shape of the woman’s hands.  What does all this tell us about Jesus?
  • Only after all this comes the sermon (which for us is only one aspect of the dual apex of the service), which we conceive as a focused time of displaying the gospel of Christ and drawing everyone into the Kingdom of God.  In the sermon there of course will be information conveyed and reference made to grammar and genre.  But the true reference of exposition is always Christ himself and his saving work towards which all our preaching must speak.  This week’s sermon focused on living in the hope that while we are guilty, in Christ we are not condemned.
  • After the sermon is a time of response through congregational prayer and two worship songs (Grace Flows Down, Wondrous Cross).
  • Then comes the second apex of our service, the Eucharist, or Communion, or the Lord’s Table, which is itself a fully participatory exposition of the non-condemning hospitality of Christ, and a fully participatory congregational response in faith and hope.
  • During this time of coming to the Table we celebrate the non-condemning love of Christ in three songs: You are My King, Kyrie Eleison (a song we wrote on Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension), and Let us Love and Sing and Wonder.
  • Finally, in the Benediction, we are sent out as the non-condemned people of God, the Body of Christ, offered for the life of the world.

Of course, reading this pails compared to experiencing it.  But for us, at Life on the Vine, exposition happens throughout the entire service, not just in the sermon.  And it is done is a fully biblical, artistic, and immersive situation.  Instead of a 30 minute exposition of the grammar, structure, and meaning of Romans 8, we have a 75 minutes exposition engaging the heart, soul, mind, and spirit, rather than just the mind.

So let it not be said that this missional church doesn’t care about biblical exposition, but rather that we care so much that we make and entire service out of it!

So, then, where does biblical exposition happen for you in your context?  Is it similar or different?