Monday, March 31, 2008

"I AM" or "I WILL BE"

I remember talking to a Christian from another country. He commented about how different many of us American Christians are than the brethren were from back home. He talked about how "dead" many of us were and how "dead" many of our churches were. At first, I thought he was referring to the mood in our worship services, which tend to be pretty formal compared to what he was used to. Their worship is less structured and has more spontaneity, and has a lot more singing, reading, and praying. But this isn't what he was talking about. He said it looked like most of us in worship did not want to be there and were in fact bored out of our minds. It appeared we were going through a ritual, fulfilling a duty, and were not really there because we wanted to be together and together thank God, worship God, and pray to God. I took a little offense at this at first. This is a matter of difference in culture. Besides, how could he possibly know what was in the hearts of worshippers. After I got past being offended, I began to consider what he was saying. Could it be true? Do I want to be there? Am I really focused on thanking, honoring and praising God or merely fulfilling an obligation? Am I struck by the wonder, grace, majesty, and holiness of God when coming together with my brethren for worship? Is there a sense that we are, in a manner of speaking, on "holy ground" when God invites us into His presence in worship?

I have had conversations with people who believe that we are too casual and laid back. We do not act as though worship is a particularly holy time in the way we start and begin, in trying to quiet down the chatter so we can worship, in writing notes back and forth in worship, and so on. I know there are those who came from a high church background where even the physical structure of the building was constructed in such a way that this was to be a holy place and a holy time when coming together. The colors, the stained glass, the use of precious metals all communicated something of the holiness and highest worth of God. Do we need to contract our worship space in such a way that it reflects a little more of the purpose of this space and its use and think of it as a "sanctuary?" To be sure, it sure would communicate something of the majesty and the holiness of God.

On the other hand, I have had conversations with people that believe we are too formal, cold, and even lifeless. From an outsider's perspective, it looks as though we are bored and apathetic. It is not just that we don't say Amen much, that we don't raise our hands or kneel when praying, or that we don't clap our hands. It is the fact that it seems we do next to nothing. We might sing, but only in a whisper if we sing at all. We don't sing out loud. It is subdued, it appears, not because we are in the presence of the holy, but because we are just not excited or overjoyed to be there. The "feeling" in the room is dead. I took offense at this as well. This is not a concert, a pep-rally, or anything like that. It is worship and needs to be dignified and honoring to God. Once again, after I got over being offended, I had to ask myself is there any truth in this? To be sure, worship need not be so stuffy, formal, and ritualistic that we squeeze the meaning out of it. Isn't shouting to the Lord, making a joyful noise, raising open and undefiled hands toward Heaven, reading to God and ready to receive his blessings, or even an "Amen", aren't these appropriate responses from the heart? After all, David leaped about with all his might before the Lord during that special occasion when God's Ark was coming to the city. I don't think I would dance in a linen ephod in a worship service, but surely when God has done something special in my life, singing with joy or an "Amen" would be appropriate. I remember in a worship period with a bunch of teens, we all gathered together on the floor to sing. Some sat, others were on their knees, and a couple at one point even reached toward the heavens as we sang a particular song.

As I reflect on this, I ask myself, do we really need to make the worship space more ornate an holy looking in order to inspire the sense of majesty, holiness and awe? Then I remember God telling the Israelites about how to build their altars. Not with cut stones, but with uncut stones. In other words, a pile of rocks. Wouldn't that be embarrassing in light of some of the ornate pagan temples and high places that had existed at that time? Why did God tell them to do this? Perhaps it was to keep the focus on God and not on the work of men's hands, which could lead to idolatry. Holiness is not about gold, wood, or stone and what you can fashion it into.

Later in Israelite history, many Israelites began to treat the temple like an idol, thinking if they performed the right rituals and incantations that they would be invincible because it was the Temple of Yahweh. They had not circumcised their hearts, therefore worship was either a duty or merely a means to try and be manipulative and satisfy their selfish desires through their worship.

What about the other end of the spectrum. Should we try and whip all the worshippers up into an excited frenzy so it can be more upbeat and outsiders will see that our faith is indeed real and we are happy to be there? This can be just as artificial. In fact, if it is artificial, outsiders will see it for what it is. How tragic it is when outsiders can see artificial worship for what it is and insiders do not! I have been in worship services that were frenzied like this. It seemed forced, orchestrated, and phony. On the other hand, I have also been to worship services that were very upbeat, but were not forced, orchestrated or phony. I have been to more formal worship services in buildings that were made with the utmost care, artistry, and dignity, including sculpted trim, stained glass, and things of this nature. Yet the worship services were lifeless and dead. On the other hand, I have been to other worship services in the same type of structure that was beautiful, dignified, full of awe, majesty, and life. I walked away as a believer declaring, "surely God is among you."

What was the difference? It surely wasn't about orchestrating a frenzy. Nor was it merely about creating an aesthetically majestic and awe-inspiring space. It had more to do with the people. You can tell when they love God and truly believe that he is the living God and not just some character in a book. It is clearly evident when you are among a group of people who are theists rather than deists, who believe that God has been and is still working out his plan and reject the idea that God has merely wound up the clock and leaves us on our own.

I am reminded of Exodus 15, the very first act of worship by Israel. It came as a "response" to God's mighty act of salvation from bondage. They sang a song declaring Yahweh as a mighty warrior who rescued them from the clutches of Pharaoh. This worship was meaningful, heartfelt, and moving.

True worship does not begin with us. It doesn't begin with, "what shall we do?' or "how shall we worship?" It begins with God himself. Worship is response to God. If worship does not begin with God, then it will either be dead or orchestrated.

Isn't it appropriate to begin worship with a declaration or reminder of who God is and what he does? Many of the Psalms give us the language, words, and images to call to mind what God does for his people and what kind of God he is. No matter how bad things get, no matter how much enemies persecute, no matter how much it seems the world no longer needs God, God is still on his throne and is still God. He is our shepherd; we are the sheep of his pasture. When we come before his throne, remembering who our God is and who we are, we kneel, we pray, we give thanks, we praise, we worship. Pride diminishes. Humility with joy increases. Fear shrinks. Strength and courage expands. We are reminded that God is with us and all is well.

In Exodus 3, God tells Moses, "I am who I am." In Hebrew, it is "ehyeh asher ehyeh." This could also be translated, "I will be who I will be." The exact same word in the exact same form is used earlier in the chapter when God tells Moses "I will be (ehyeh) with you." The difference is huge. God is not merely telling Moses that he exists, but that he will be who he will be…for them. God will be the Lord of Hosts, Deliverer, Warrior, Provider, etc… God is not a mere watcher, but is the living God who is active in his creation. He came and tabernacled in the midst of Israel and dwelt symbolically enthroned above the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant. He tabernacled among us as Jesus, our savior and deliverer. Jesus sent the Spirit when he departed, and we as God's people have become God's temple. Since we are God's "mobile" temple, you could say in a sense that God still tabernacles in us. Our Lord is with us to the end of the age. If we believe that, then our natural response is to worship him. If we do not believe that, worship may be a little more difficult. I suppose that what you "actually" you believe about God and what he is like will affect how you worship.

I do not merely see God as "I AM" (that here merely exists 'out there' some place far away), but as "I WILL BE" (God will be for us and with us as our rock, our salvation, our strength, provider, our song, etc.). He is not just our God, he is our "Father." Doesn't that just want to make you sing a song, to give thanks, to worship?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Center of our Faith

My wife and I recently attended a theology lab for church planters. Even though it was geared for church planters, it was pertinent to anyone involved in any kind of ministry. This theology lab was a good time to re-focus and rejuvenate. My wife and I got a clearer picture of how God is leading us in our ministry. In order for this to happen, we needed to refocus on the center of what Christianity is all about. If we are not centered properly, then peripheral things often can take center stage and crowd out what is supposed to be at the center. Good theology is like a rudder than guides not only church planting ministries, but all of ministry.

What is it all about? There was a time in my early Christian life when I would have said it was all about salvation. The end goal was to be saved. The first person that I had the opportunity to bring to Christ was scared to death of Hell. He did not want to go there. Who does? I certainly did not want to go there. So we sat down together and went over the steps to salvation and the things he needed to do and believe in order to stay out of hell. When we were through, he was eager to do it all as soon as possible. He didn't want to take a chance that if he didn't do it right away, he might not get a change and therefore go to Hell. So, I called up the preacher who opened the building for us so that we could get him into the water. That was the goal, to get as many people in the water as possible so that they can be saved. I have come to realize that salvation is not the end all be all. It is not the ultimate goal. It is a means to the goal.

I had also thought at one point that the ultimate goal was to go to Heaven. Salvation was the means by which we could go to Heaven. It was comforting to know that after we die, that existence doesn't just end. There is so much more awaiting for us after we die. Death for the saved person is merely a transition, a graduation into eternity. We move many places throughout life and live in many places. But the final home will be in Heaven. What is Heaven? Some think of mansions over the hilltop. Others think of streets paved with gold. Some think of a glorious, beautiful garden. The Bible describes a time when the tree of life is restored, and there will be no more death or sickness. I used to think of Heaven as a calm, peaceful place where there was lots of light and everyone wore robes. It was a nice thought, but I have also come to realize that Heaven is still not the ultimate goal. If I understand Heaven merely as a "place" to go to, then I have missed the whole point.

All of life, all of Christianity, all my faith, and my ministry stems and is centered not in salvation, not in Heaven, but in God. The end all be all is fellowship with our creator, our God, our Father. This is the core, or the center of all Christian theology. That may sound strange because I used to like to do theology by "list." I suppose that is a product of my Western, scientific culture in which I love that likes to categorize, describe, and list things. So I wound up with the five points of salvation, or the three points of the Lord's supper, the five acts of worship, the four characteristics of the Holy Spirit and such.

One of the drawbacks in doing theology "lists" is that we tend to make everything on the list of equal importance. There are some things that are more central than others, and then there are some things that are peripheral things. Sometimes doing doctrinal studies by "lists," obscures this fact. Another drawback is it tends to be reductionistic. God didn't reveal himself through lists. The majority of the Bible is narrative, history, or story, which cannot be reduced to lists. These reveal who God is, what he is like, and what the implications for us are.

So, a better way to think of theology is that it has a core, and everything radiates from that core. This is especially necessary when you run into situations that the Bible doesn't directly address. This is necessary when you run into cultural challenges to the way we have always done things. How are we to do ministry? How are we to serve? How are we to "do church?"

As the world changes and challenges our mode of operation, what should we do? There are typically two reactions. One is to get defensive, take an adversarial stance, retreat into a spiritual bunker and protect our traditions. Anyone that deviates from these traditions is suspect at best, or labeled a heretic at worst. Change is a bad word. This is traditionalism.

The other reaction is to look at all of our practices, identify what no longer works, and to adopt practices that work. On the surface, there are those that have tried this and have appeared to be successful. Some famous mega-churches have grown out of this. They have identified what "works," and have done it. This is pragmatism.

Neither one of these is a theologically sound reaction. If we are not theologically grounded, then we slide into a default mode, whether it is traditionalism or pragmatism. Leaders in many of the pragmatic churches have found that they have grown a mile wide and an inch deep. The traditionalist churches are often an inch wide and an inch deep. Neither have much depth to them. For one type of church, the center is tradition. For the other, the center is the ABC's of church - "attendance, buildings, cash." These are just a couple of example of the default mode you can slide into if you are not theologically grounded.

So, what lies at the center and what radiates from it? Go back to the very beginning. What do you have? In the beginning God. It all starts with God. Who is God? What is God? God is not whoever you want him to be. For thousands of years people have tried to make their gods in the image of whatever they wanted, but that is not God.

Let's go back to the beginning. Genesis is such an important document. It introduces us to who God is, what He is like. It introduces us to ourselves, what we are and what we are like. In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the earth. God's Spirit, God's "breath" was hovering above the waters. The "breath" of God is what gives true life. So, God created man in his own image and breathed into him the breath of life. He did this with no other creature. God walked with man in the garden that he prepared for him. Everything was in perfect harmony. There was harmony in the creation. There was harmony between man and God. There was harmony between man and creation. Man had dominion over all the creation and was the keeper of the garden. He could eat from any tree, except one. If they ate of that one, they would die. But they could eat from any of the others. It was all very good. The God who is good created something very good.

One day man came across a serpent. The serpent pointed to the tree that God had told them not to eat. He told them that God had lied. They wouldn't "die" if they ate of the tree. He told them that they would become like God, they would know the difference between good and evil, they would be smarter.

Imagine what might have gone on in the minds of Adam and Eve. Wow! Could it be? Is there more to life than this garden? Is God withholding something from me? I could become greater than I am? I could become more independent. I could become….well, I am not sure, but I sure wouldn't have to be so reliant on God….. But God said not to, that I would die. Maybe the serpent is right…..

So, man ate the fruit. Then came the guilt, the shame. They knew what they had done. Like that serpent said, they really "knew." They had become "smarter," and now they wanted to go hide. Then they heard God walking in the garden. Any other time, they might have run to him like children run to their father when he comes home. Instead, they went the other way. They hid from him. They could hear God calling, "where are you?" Adam, Even, where are you?

Why does God call? Because God is a relational God. The Bible tells us that God is our Father. The Bible tells us that Jesus is God. The Bible also seems to say that the Spirit is God. Bible tells us that God is three in one…one God, three "persons." This is what the word, "trinity" refers to. God is eternally three in one. What this means is that He was already a God of fellowship, a God of love, a relational God even before he created us. He did not NEED us to be relational. He is inherently relational within himself. He didn't create or redeem us because he so needed us, but because he chose to love us. So, God calls to man.

The serpent was wrong…and he was right. They did not die, at least not in the way many think of death. They went on "living," but it wasn't really "life." They suffered the worst kind of death, the death that comes from alienation from God. Instead of harmony, love, peace, security, fellowship, beauty, and all of the things that comes from the very character of God, there was something they never could have quite grasped…until now. Now there is alienation, pride, hate, war, violence, murder, anger, deceit, and other things which are the exact opposite of God. This result of being alienated from God disrupted the beautiful, relational harmony of God's creation.

But the story doesn't end there. God promised to destroy the power of sin and re-unite mankind to himself. God continues to "call" to man. He called to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Israel, and he calls us. Why? Because God is inherently a relational God.

This really hit home with us at the theology lab. We hit the major mega-themes of the Christian faith. We spent some time trying to identify the core. Stacey and I identified it as our God who is a relational God. This is the core. The makes the Bible a book about relationship. This is why the greatest command is love. This is why the Bible tells us that God is Love. God is a relational God and we see that throughout the Bible. Everything radiates from this and identifies those core, non-negotiable aspects of Christian theology.

Our personal reflection put relational God at the foundation, and scripture as connected to it all, since we would not know much without scripture. From there is Jesus who is God, the incarnation which demonstrates God's relationality, his death and resurrection, atonement and sin. There is baptism with is intimately tied to atonement. These are right next to the core. Jesus said, "unless you believe I am, you will die in your sins," in John 8:24.

There is humanity, made in the image of God. Because we are all made in God's image, all human beings are worthy of the inherent dignity and worth that comes from God. This is why Jesus says that when we serve others, we are serving him.

As humans, we carry the breath of God. All life comes from the breath of God. In the beginning, the breath of God brought life, beauty, and harmony. Sin disrupted that life, but God breathes new life into us. He has given us his spirit, new breath. The flesh profits nothing, but the Spirit, the breath of God is what gives life. What does this mean? All around we see the worse kind of death, the death that came as a result of Adam's sin. We see the hatred, pride, fear, shame, murders, etc. Where do people find the breath of God? We are a temple of the breath of God, a temple of his Spirit. Life….true life exudes from us as we reflect the very life of God in love, peace, mercy, kindness, and goodness. The breath of God, his Spirit, sanctifies us and transforms us. The Spirit renews us and is restoring the image of God in us. The spirit restores harmony, unity, and beauty.

Jesus came to reconcile. He came to restore what was lost. He is God in the flesh. God, because he is relational, came from Heaven to earth. He came alongside us. He became one of us. He experienced our hurts, our temptations, our human nature. He became weak, he poured himself out, he became vulnerable. He had to live by faith as a human. He had to trust that when he was put to death, that God would not abandon him to Hades and would raise him from the dead. I can hardly get my mind around it! God. Crucified as a common criminal. Died. Buried. Forgiveness. Love. Resurrection. Life. Because of the forgivness Jesus offers, we now have the ability to forgive anything no matter how heinous. We have the ability for reconciliation, for unity, for renewed life in him. Jesus died, rose, and gives the Spirit.

But this restoration work is not finished. God's kingdom is near, it is here, but it is also still to come. Jesus said the world is like a field with both wheat and tares mixed together. God has already established his kingdom alongside the kingdom of this world. The kingdom of God overlaps this world. It is a parallel community of justice, peace, and mercy. It is a kingdom of light and salt. It is a kingdom where our whole lives become worship and service to God. God places us alongside the world for a redemptive purpose. As people experience the breath of God, the Spirit of God, true Life of God in us in our love for each other, then the world will know Christ.

The time is coming, when the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever. God will once again walk in the presence of man as in the beginning. That is the goal, fellowship with God.

Since God is inherently relational, that means our relationship with God is not grounded on some "legal" requirement. You see it in Abraham, in Israel, in Job, and in Christ. God cannot be appeased or paid off. That is not who he is. The basis of our relationship with God is the love of God. This is why Jesus became flesh. This is why he went to the cross. This is why he prayed for his enemies.

The strength of this type of theological reflection is that it allows us to allow the "weightier matters" to have weight. Theology by lists have a tendency to treat everything of equal importance. There are things that are close to the core and are non-negotiable items. They stem from the core character of God. These have a strong bearing on the direction and nature of our ministries. These are the values that shape our direction. The chart above visually expresses our theological framework for ministry. I am just now beginning to reflect on how the affects our attitudes and how we are to relate to God, to each other, and to the world. The greatest command is love. It is about love. If you strip this away, if this is not the center or the core, it all tumbles down. It is foundational.

There is so much more that can be said, but this in a nutshell describes where we are. We are seeing this as sort of a new beginning in our ministry. I think all ministry training should begin and end with this type of theological rudder, but it typically does not. There is sort of a default mode even in many of our ministry training schools that needs to be evaluated in light of good, sound, biblical theology.

We are thankful to God for what he is showing us. We are not sure how that will take shape, but we are excited about it.

I have recently felt a certain restlessness, and a certain inadequacy, a longing, but wasn't sure what it was. This theology lab along with other recent classes and workshops have been instrumental in putting some better perspective on myself, on the kingdom, and on ministry. So, we are renewing our commitment to God not to merely slide into a default mode with our faith. It is about relationship, first and foremost with God, and also with others. This includes ALL who are made in the image of God. I need to connect with God, with my brethren and with those who have not yet entered into the Kingdom. This means being more relational. Not only is there reading and praying, but also sharing and encouragement. There is togetherness, joy, and fun! Yes, fun! We need to learn to enjoy the fellowship and togetherness that comes from our relational God.

As the Kingdom, we are living alongside the world for a reason. Jesus didn't bring the kingdom near the world so it can be isolated, but so it could be a kingdom of life. As a temple of the Spirit, we have the breath of God, we have life. I have come to realize that I am most energized when leading people into the Kingdom. So, I am looking to discern how God will accomplish this through us.

This is an exciting sense of new renewal and beginning. I realize that we are always learning, always being formed, and therefore always need to be as clay in the hands of the master.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Rites of Passage

After discussions in church planting workshops, readings associated with it, and further discussion with others with a passion for discipleship and church planting, I have been spending some time in reflection and prayer on the idea of "rites of passage" in our walk with God. So, here are some more of my rambling thoughts on all of this.

In many societies, there are time honored rites of passage. Whether it is a Jewish Bar-Mitzvah or a Graduation Ceremony, they mark important transitions in a person's life. They give order and stability to the process of personal growth.

I find it interesting that the early church had such rites of passage. The most obvious rite of passage is Christian baptism. This is not merely a human tradition, but one that begins in the ministry of Christ. The meaning of baptism was transformed by the atoning work of Christ on the cross and his resurrection. The association of baptism with Christ's atoning work as what made it "Christian" baptism."

In the book of Acts, most of the converts came from Jewish backgrounds. They already had a history and background with Yahweh, the God of Israel. Many were familiar with biblical ethics, worship, and lifestyle. When they accepted the Christian message, they were converted quickly, usually being baptized on the same day. They typically did not need instruction on morality, ethics, worship, and things of this nature. They needed instruction on the Messiah who has fulfilled, or made full the Torah of Yahweh.

After the destruction of the temple, the church quickly became gentile in flavor as the "Jewishness" of the church began to wear off. In fact, the Jewish liturgy after the fall of Jerusalem changed in such a way that it became impossible to remain both a Jew and Christian. With the addition of a prayer that basically pronounced a curse on Christians, Christians could not longer participate in Jewish worship. Even though gentiles had been flooding into the church, the church still was in touch with its Jewish roots until this time.

As the church increasingly became more gentile and less Jewish, more and more people were coming who had no Jewish background. Their world-view was either pantheistic or henotheistic. Their ethics, morality, and worship were awash with pagan ideals. Conversion to Christianity was not merely a simple matter of accepting Jesus as the Messiah because gentiles had little point of reference for this concept. The term Messiah, or "Christos" in Greek did not resonate with pagan Gentiles at all because it was solidly a Jewish concept. For the pagan, to be "anointed" meant nothing more than to be medicated with some sort of oil or ointment.

It was perhaps for these types of reasons that the situation in the second century was different. Quick baptisms were not longer the case. In fact, it was not unusual for there to be a considerable instructional period before catechumens were admitted for baptism. The four stages in this period included Seeker, Hearer, Kneeler, and Faithful. There was a rite of passage that marked the end of one stage on the beginning of the next that included such things as the rite of welcome, or ultimately the rite of baptism and communion when people officially became a member of the body. It is interesting that in the early church, the hearers were separated from the faithful at some point in their worship. The hearers received instruction pertinent to their stage in the journey while the faithful received communion.

I will not go into great detail, because the details of theses practices were pertinent and relevant to their particular time, which is far removed from us today. However, I am wondering if the baby was not thrown out with the bathwater. The Protestant movement slowly distanced itself from the medieval church, rejecting many practices that were either neutral or even beneficial. Then came American Christianity which fractured into many, many religious groups, each distancing themselves from each other. Our own "Restoration" movement, as we typically call it now, began as a unity movement, but also has given that up in favor of distancing itself from anything that looks or feels like practices that exist in other religious groups. In effect, the faith, life, and practice of the church became reduced to the lowest common denominator. Anything not expressly commanded in scripture is rejected, especially if it is a practice found in other religious groups.

I have to wonder, do we honestly believe that something is bad simply because it exists in some other religious group? Is something that is neutral in itself to be rejected simply because some other religious group has it? What about something that is a positive practice that exists elsewhere? Should we turn away from it simply because it looks like something someone else does? Shouldn't our faith and practice be rooted in good, sound, biblical theology rather than reactionary theology? I think most of us would agree with this…on the intellectual level. However, I have seen the emotional reactions to practices which is "like what those (insert the name of the religious group) do." Our emotional reactions tend to overshadow our intellectual ones. So even though we say that there is nothing wrong with certain practices that may be found in other religious groups, our actions say otherwise. We treat some practices and those who do them as though they were wrought of Satan.

We need to realize that some practices in various religious groups pre-dates those religious groups. Some practices go back to the 2nd century church, and perhaps even to the first century church, which is prior to many of the deviations that degenerated into the problems, abuses, and heresies in medieval Christianity. If we get past some of the baggage associated with some of these practices, we may be able to re-claim the baby and still leave out the bathwater.

I am thinking specifically about the practice of formal instruction in preparation for Christian baptism. Many that still practice this today call it "Catechism." The word itself came from a Greek word, katachizein, which means to teach or instruct orally. Even though there were some variations from area to area, the overall instructional practice of the pre-Nicene church was pretty much standard. There was extensive and fairly standardized teaching that included intense discipleship training for all believers as a prerequisite for baptism . One could not straddle the fence and still be considered faithful. The process of instruction had definite, identifiable stages with definite rites of passages going from one stage to the next.

To most older evangelicals, this seems archaic, a step back to what we have tried to get away from. It smacks of authoritarian Christianity. What many do not realize is that this is older than they think. This did not originate with the medieval Catholic church. It goes back to the early church fathers in the first three centuries of the church. This practice of instruction is likely a major contributing factor to the ability of the church, though marginalized, illegal, and persecuted, to not only be able to survive, but to also inundate the Roman empire in such a short amount of time. This is probably why the church was able to stay pure in the midst of so much defilement. This would have been a major factor in the church remaining holy. The church didn't become flooded with pagan ideas until after the legalization of Christianity and the outlaw of all other religions, which made virtually everyone in the empire a "Christian." The culture paganized the church and the church Christianized the culture. The two became indistinguishable. This was such a far cry from the biblical perspective that affirms that Christ's kingdom is not of this world, that we are aliens, that our citizenship is in Heaven, that familial relationships have to do with faith rather than genetics or nationality. The church became married to the powers, authorities, and principalities that were supposed to have been hostile to it. With the paganization of the church also came the "worldly Christian," which is the Christian who worships, prays, performs various Christian rituals, but whose way of thinking, interactions, attitudes, and affections are still of this world. No wonder it became "respectable" in the world's eyes to become a Christian. But from the beginning, it was not this way.

I believe that we are returning to our rightful place, which is out of the mainstream of this world. This was the church of the first three centuries. Contrary to what many believers think, the church is not the chaplain to society, which is the role it received as the result of its paganization. Even when the church was "officially" decoupled from government in America, the church still remained a "chaplain" to it in an unofficial sense, though this has been changing over the last forty years or so. We need to understand that the church is not the "pastor" of the community, but is the body of Christ. The church is salt and light. It is a counter cultural community of people who has aligned their allegiance to Christ and Christ alone. This is why early Christians did not take oaths of allegiance. They had already declared their allegiance when they were converted to Christ. They saw the world clearly for what it was and knew clearly what their role in the world was. There was no confusion in the first three centuries. Why? A major reason was the instruction and training they received.

Curiously, it is often the younger evangelicals that want to go back to the "old days," or to use a biblical term, the "old paths." There are some people that use the term "old paths" to refer to the way things were 50 years ago. But these younger evangelicals are thinking of the practices and faith of the apostolic church. They are thinking of faith and life in the first three centuries when the church was at its best. I ran across a term that has become popular for many evangelicals under 30 that seems to express their perspective. That term is, "ancient-future." The "ancient" faith (not the faith of the 1950's) provides the compass to face the challenges of today and the future as God would have it. Some ancient practices are being recovered, such as Christian rites of passage, intense discipleship, a greater emphasis on the holy in worship, the devotional and not just academic reading of scripture, a passion for social justice, and the idea of every Christian as a minister. Getting away from the modern paradigm for Christianity which really began with the emperor Constantine, a growing number of younger Christians are identifying their faith not with a place or building, but with Jesus himself. They are seeing the church as themselves rather than a locality. They don't strive to "go to" church, but to "be" the church.

Most sociologists and anthropologists recognize the impact of rites of passage on the growth and socialization of people in a given society. All societies have them. It is an integral part of personal growth. Even here in America, we go from Junior High School to High School. Jewish children do a Bar-Mitzvah. And there are countless others. It is what defines the end of one stage of life and the beginning of another. Even scripture recognizes that we are at "stages" in our growth. We start out as babes, we long for milk, we grow in grace and knowledge, we reproduce, etc. The early church embraced this idea and with a formal training program that involved what we would call a mentor, the elders, and the congregation (usually a house church). Christians grew strong. Whether we call the stages seeker, hearer, kneeler, and faithful, as the early church did or call it something else, it should be clear to see how this idea along with rites of passage can be immensely helpful. Whether you call it "catechism" or use some other name, it should be clear to see how this would be helpful and almost necessary.

Yes, these are man made. Yes it would be a tradition. Keep in mind, though, that traditions are not inherently bad. Most of us have family traditions that we cherish. They order life, help give it meaning, and help us to remember where we have come from and face the future with confidence. Whether we recognize it or not, our life is full of traditions. Our churches are full of traditions. We are blind to many of them as being traditions, but they are traditions none-the-less. We need to not be so afraid of "tradition" that we avoid what is needed and could be immensely helpful.

For church leaders to employ a definite program of discipleship with identifiable stages and transition points is beneficial. When they "give an account" of their ministry as shepherds, they would be able to say that this is one of the ways they ensured that the sheep were healthy and fed.

As I continue to reflect on all of this, it occurs to me that this is easier said than done, especially in a church that is already established. I have heard some people say that it is easier to start a new church than to renew an old one. It is also easier to kill a church than revive it. Is this pessimistic or realistic. If we love God and are dedicated to knowing him and carrying out his purpose, how could this be? Lord, I pray that you give me wisdom, give us all wisdom to see clearly. I am still looking forward to some further workshops in the near future, Lord I pray you bless me, my family, and my ministry through these. Help me to understand the nature of the kingdom, your purpose in it, and my place in it. Help me to be devoted to kingdom purposes, not to a "job," to a single "congregation," or to merely "getting a paycheck." Help me to capture your vision. In the name of Jesus, Amen.