Archive for ‘Ecclesiology’

01/11/2017

Helping Without Hurting

 

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert with Katie Casselberry, Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence: A Practical Guide to Walking with Low-Income People (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2015), 154 pages.

 

Whether your ministry setting is urban, suburban, or rural, you’ll inevitably encounter people stuck in poverty. How does your church lovingly engage with those who, for a variety of reasons, have little to no income and approach the church for help? Ignoring the issue and being an insulated middle-class clique is easy, but it’s not an option for those who profess to believe in the gospel of grace. At the same time, throwing money at people is really a way to keep them at a distance and therefore to only love ourselves.

 

A NEW BOOK

 

Several years ago, I read what’s since become a modern classic on poverty intervention: When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Afterward, I thought, “I wish our church could do more to truly help those in financial need among us.” I also realized, however, that this was not my primary calling as a pastor (cf. Acts 6:1–7). I simply started praying that God might raise up the right people in our body who could take some of the ideas found in When Helping Hurts and run with them.

 

Recently, God has answered those prayers. We now have a small team of church members working through how we can genuinely love our brothers, sisters, and neighbors who find themselves in poverty. And thankfully, Corbett and Fikkert have written a short follow-up book that functions as the perfect guide for any church seeking to implement a wise approach to what has been called benevolence, diaconal work, mercy ministry, or compassion ministry. The book is titled Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence: A Practical Guide to Walking with Low-Income People.

 

WHAT IS POVERTY?

 

The authors begin with a theological definition of poverty that includes more than just material need. We’re all poor in the sense that we have experienced brokenness in our relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation. The ultimate hope of salvation is only found in the reconciling work of Christ. Sanctification is a messy, life-long process for all believers as we are restored to God’s design for us as image-bearers. Framing the issue this way prevents poverty alleviation from becoming a prideful attempt at “playing god.” The materially poor and the materially non-poor are both broken and need each other.

 

When poverty is defined exclusively as a lack of money, then we try to fix it with handouts, which ends up doing spiritual damage to everyone involved. Think of churches that give away hundreds of backpacks to impoverished school kids while taking pictures for their newsletter. This is not helping anyone in the long-term. We need to move away from paternalistic practices that promote dependency and demean objects of “charity” and instead encourage empowering relationships that aim for long-term, positive change.

 

Therefore, it is important to distinguish relief from rehabilitation and development. Relief is “stopping the bleeding.” There are times when people need immediate material assistance in the face of a crisis. However, Corbett and Fikkert demonstrate that “one of the most common and detrimental mistakes that North American churches make in their benevolence work is using a relief approach when the situation calls for development.” Development means doing things with others, not to them or for them—and it fits very nicely with discipleship.  Any serious engagement with those in poverty will require entering into relationships that address the root causes and not just the symptoms.

 

SUMMARY

 

There are many avenues and arenas for engaging the issue of poverty, and certainly not every local church is required or recommended to have a formal, structured benevolence program.  But for those who decide to go this route, this book will walk you through all the steps to get started.

 

First, the book will help you create a Benevolence Philosophy and Policies document that your church can unify around. Corbett and Fikkert provide a list of 19 questions that need to be answered in such a document and they comment on each one.

 

Then they offer detailed guidance on how to create an Intake Form. The authors suggest most people approaching the church for financial assistance should work through this form with a member of the benevolence team.

 

Next, the book explains the essential elements of an Action Plan. Here the key is making sure the person in poverty is put in the driver’s seat and those from the benevolence team are seen as allies or champions in an asset-based, participatory process.

 

The book also provides creative ideas and links to online tools. There are helpful suggestions for recruiting and training volunteers for a benevolence ministry, creating a Community Resource Directory so you know what social services are already available around you, and coordinating this ministry with other aspects of the church.

 

A great strength of the book is that it assumes a healthy ecclesiology. The “ordinary ministry” of the church—preaching, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, accountability, discipline, prayer—is not undermined but explicitly encouraged and honored throughout. The gospel is clearly defined and the need for it to be verbalized in benevolence work is underscored. Sin and the need for personal responsibility never gets minimized, yet there is helpful awareness-raising information on contributing external factors like trauma and institutional racism. Poverty is complex and thus requires addressing individual behaviors, abusive or exploitive people, oppressive systems, and demonic forces.

 

The last chapter offers test cases to help the reader see what this approach would look like in different scenarios when people approach the church for money. Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, but biblical wisdom and dependence on the Holy Spirit’s guidance is required. Corbett and Fikkert want us to be informed but not paralyzed. They give great advice: start small, start fast, and succeed!

 

CONCLUSION

 

Our church is located in a gentrifying center-city neighborhood that is anchored by a university and has an abundance of expensive lofts, condos, and townhomes populated by professionals. And yet, immediately surrounding our building there are government subsidized housing projects that are not going anywhere. We want to be a church for everyone here—a compelling community that primarily has Christ in common, not socio-economic class. For this to happen, we felt we needed a benevolence ministry that is biblical and informed by best practices. This little book will be an indispensable resource for us and I am sure many other churches.

 

https://9marks.org/review/book-review-helping-without-hurting-in-church-benevolence-by-steve-corbett-and-brian-fikkert/

12/15/2016

Is Church Membership Necessary?

My good friends Q and Sergei have started a podcast that is usually worth your time.  In this episode they invited me on to join their discussion of church membership.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/q7t2q-646bc2-pb?vjs=1&auto=0&from=share

https://thezeppelinlounge.podbean.com/e/make-the-church-great-again-1478737496/?token=2c2890a0e7a0dc1d208fb09bc73f3b02

11/28/2016

The Institutional Church and Politics

There’s a lack of clear thinking among Christians and even pastors about the church’s role, especially as it relates to social issues.

In a very helpful chapter in Christless Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008) Michael Horton walks through recent examples of liberal and conservative church bodies weighing in on specifics of public policy – “everything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to farm policy;” immigration, NAFTA, economic issues, global warming, etc…  Then he writes:

Since any number of secular NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) currently exist to lobby for precisely the same policies, why do churches believe it is within their area of expertise, much less their official mandate, to offer pronouncements in God’s name on these issues?  Why not allow their members to pursue the general human calling to public justice through these common grace institutions alongside non-Christians?  Why must denominations commit their entire membership to very specific policies while often leaving matters of doctrine and worship more ambiguous and open-ended?

Surely the abolition of the slave trade was a noble work, yet it is interesting that in Britain it was not the church as an institution that abolished it but Christians who had been shaped by the church’s ministry and held public office in the state….

I often wonder how American history might have turned out differently if the churches in the South had disciplined members who held slaves.  In other words, if the churches had simply followed their own mandate of preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, and exercising discipline and care for the well-being of their flock.  Would not the institution have lost its moral credibility even outside of the church?  Both Northern and Southern churches had reduced slavery merely to a political issue when they should have done what only churches can do: proclaim God’s judgment upon the kidnapping and forced labor of fellow human beings and excommunicate members who refused to repent of the practice.  At the same time, church members could have exercised their moral conscience in deciding for themselves how best to abolish the institution in courts and legislatures.

….

The church as an institution appointed by Christ has a narrow mandate with global significance.  Individual Christians, however, have as many mandates as they do callings: as parents, children, extended relatives, neighbors, coworkers, and so on.  In addition to loving and serving each other in the fellowship of saints, believers are enjoined ‘to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one’ (1 Thess. 4:11-12).  It may not sound as grand as creating a global trading policy or ushering in the kingdom by driving out the ‘Romans’ (whether Democrats or Republicans) in the next election, but it is the proper kind of discipleship for this phase of Christ’s rule: the kingdom of grace, which only at Christ’s return will be a kingdom of glory.

So getting the church to mind its own business and get its own house in order is not a call to passivity in the face of injustice, unrighteousness, and oppression.  Especially when dominant churches have succumbed to civil religion, their repentance has enormous significance in the wider society.  Even where it does not have that kind of effect, however, the church’s repentance is always God’s call.  Christians can always have a broader impact in their callings than the church as an institution with its restricted mandate.  Even so, a church that fully exercises its commission is a potent source of genuine transformation, forming a new society within the secular city that is nevertheless completely distinct from it (214-16).

07/10/2016

What I Said Before the Prayer Time During our Service Today

My family and I were gone all this last week on vacation, trying to be cut off from the world, but it was impossible not to hear about the latest flare up of the disease of racial injustice that plagues our society.  It was a uniquely eventful week.  And so I wanted to take some time to briefly address this and give some guidance on how we should respond.

What can we do?  Facebook posts can only do so much.  We must do more.  But we can’t change Dallas or Baton Rouge or Falcon Heights or our whole nation.  So what can we do?

We can pray.  And that is what we are about to do together in just a moment.  We can go to the only One who can ultimately help.  And he hears us.

In our prayers we can lament, grieve to God, pour out our sadness, mourn.  Beg him to move.

And in our prayers we can repent.  If we have hatred and unrighteous anger, we can confess that.  If we don’t care, we can confess our apathy, confess our lack of love for the Other and ask God to change us.  We can ask for forgiveness for ways that we have been complicit in the problem through sins of commission and/or omission, and ask God to give us the right heart.

And then in addition to praying, we can think biblically about these matters.  We must work hard to get the right biblical categories in our minds for how to approach matters of race and institutional sin.  We can’t let the world define our terms and shape our hearts and set our agendas, but the Word.

The Bible tells us that we all have different callings in the world.

Some of you may be called to contribute to the righting of wrongs through political or legal action – organizing, policy making, lobbying…

Some of you may be called to law enforcement in some way.  We’ve had a member of our church become a cop and we need more good cops who truly serve and protect.

Some of you may be called to educational reform.  We’ve had members working in CPS, which is a less than cushy school district, in order to seek the welfare of a city ravaged by racial inequalities.

Some of you may be called to economic investment.  We need more real jobs in neighborhoods that are racially segregated.  We need more felon-friendly jobs, so people have a way out.  This requires entrepreneurial risk and creative thinking from those who have capital.

There are tons of different ways to address the systemic and complicated issues that we’ve been reminded of again this week.  Some of you are called to do something about the problem in some of these ways.

But let me remind you what all of us are without a doubt called to do.  Every Christian is called to give him or herself to the local church.  That is the most important thing we can do in response to these events.  Government is not where our hope finally lies.  Education, the economy… God can work through those institutions in a general way, but the clearest location of God’s special, redeeming work in the world is the church.  Here is where God is reconciling people to himself and to each other for ever.  The church is a foretaste and preview of the coming New Creation where every tribe, language, and nation is gathered around the throne of God.

As we drove back into our neighborhood last night, after spending a week in parts of the country that are by and large oblivious to these sad realities, I was reminded of how exciting it is to be the church here in the UIC Area, with such diversity yet disparity.  What a place to do the long-term work of preaching the gospel and making disciples and living sacrificially for others.  It’s all right here within a few blocks of where we sit right now.  It’s all right here.  Let’s not miss it.

So with all the national news swirling that highlights the problems, let’s recommit ourselves to this specific church and our mission to this neighborhood.  What can we do?  Let’s be the church, be the people of God assembled under the Word of God, demonstrating to the world the supernatural power of the gospel to make enemies of God adopted sons and daughters of God and true brothers and sisters to each other through the cross.  Let’s help this body continue to reflect God’s kaleidoscopic kingdom.  Let’s dig in deeper to each other’s lives, loving one another deeply from the heart and seeking to bring our neighbors in on that.  We can, and must, all do at least this.

04/18/2016

Some Should Go, Some Should Stay

Mark Dever’s recent little booklet entitled, Understanding the Great Commission, succinctly and successfully makes the case that the Great Commission is fulfilled by and results in CHURCHES.  It’s not an individual mandate to make individual converts.

But here is the section that stood out most to me (p. 53):

Just because a move might be costly doesn’t mean you should not go.  It has been costly for most of the saints who obeyed Jesus’ command to go.  And unless you live in Jerusalem, praise God that someone paid that cost and took the gospel to your nation and your city and your house so that you believe!

Is the point of this chapter to say that some of you should leave your churches?  Kind of.  Some should go to help struggling churches.  Some should plant new ones.  Some should go overseas.  And some should stay.

Of course people have to stay for any given congregation to remain a congregation.  Every church needs consistency in leadership, discipling, and long-term friendships.  In fact, staying in our culture is often the countercultural thing to do, especially among the younger generation.  With all the career or educational transitions that characterize modern urban life, the radical thing to do for some will be to stay in one place for decades.

Whatever you do, don’t make such decisions rashly.  And don’t make such decisions in isolation, but make them in prayer and conversation with your friends who know you well, and with at least one elder who knows you.

12/03/2015

Wisdom from Wendell

I’m reading of collection of interviews that Wendell Berry has given over the years.  They are another quality addition to his body of work that includes novels, essays, and poetry.  There’s much to highlight, but this section was particularly profound:

Plowboy: …it takes a conscious effort to reinstate the ceremony and ritual in our lives.  Many intentional communities are trying to generate this kind of awareness and stability…

Berry: But I’m much more interested in the results of accidental communities that have formed by fate and fortune and circumstance.  The intentional community seems to me a rather escapist idea, sort of a new version of the white citizen’s council.  I thought that’s what we were trying to get away from.  I think the idea that you can have an intentional community is about as misleading as saying you can have an intentional life.  If you’re going to have a decent and stable community, you’ve got to produce the cultural and social forms by which to deal with the unexpected and the undesirable.  The intentional community idea assumes that when you say love your neighbor as yourself, you have some kind of right to go out and pick your neighbor.  I think that the ideal of loving your neighbor has to take on the possibility that he may be somebody you’re going to have great difficulty loving or liking or even tolerating.

Plowboy: In your writing you emphasize that the inhabitants of a region thrive on the daily interchange between old and young… yet many of these new communities are made up primarily of young people.

Berry: Yes, and that’s one of the worst possible kinds of segregation.  This is probably the first generation not to have a history.  They have their own immediate history but not one that comes from having older people around them.  They’re coming up to adult life without the awareness that anyone has ever gone through their experiences before, much less learned anything from them.  But I know people who as children had their grandparents’ memories in their memories, so that in a sense, as young people they had old minds.  They had a kind of seasoning.

From Morris Allen Grubbs, ed., Conversations with Wendell Berry (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007), 10.

10/22/2015

Is It Baptist To Be Multi-Site?

You are probably familiar with the term “multi-site” by now. Maybe your church has already gone to the model, or is considering it. Very simply put, multi-site refers to the concept of one church that meets in multiple locations. Twenty-five years ago, there were fewer than 25 such multi-site churches in North America. Today there are over 5,000! It is a relatively recent phenomenon, yet an increasingly popular strategy for reaching more people with the gospel.

Opening up another campus allows for growth that is usually quicker and more cost-effective than building bigger or sending people out to start something new. It is in many ways simpler and more streamlined. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but can keep the same name, logo, website, 501(c)3 status, support staff, etc. Resources can be shared more readily. You can be more certain that your own “DNA” is being replicated.

I understand the appeal and practical benefits. There are many Baptists whom I respect that have gladly joined the multi-site movement, motivated by a genuine desire to penetrate lostness. But I’ve always had a lingering doubt about whether this method is entirely consistent with our Baptist principles, particularly that of local church autonomy.

Now you may be wondering why I don’t pose the question as, “Is it biblical to be multi-site?” It is because I don’t have space to make a full argument from Scripture. I am assuming that we are all Baptists here. And I am assuming that we are Baptists because we believe it is biblical. We are solidly convinced the Bible teaches that baptism is to be administered to believers only. And we believe that “a New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers” (The Baptist Faith & Message 2000, Article VI). Our views about credobaptism and congregational ecclesiology are the principal reasons why we are Baptist, and not Methodist or Presbyterian.

But while they may remain firm on the practice of baptism, Baptist practitioners of the multi-site model appear willing to compromise the autonomy of the local assembly. Each distinct location is not allowed the responsibility to receive and dismiss its own pastors and members. There is limited leeway given to determine the best programs and strategies for evangelism and discipleship. In many ways, the satellite congregations are bound by the decisions coming out of central headquarters.

When it comes to organizational structure and leadership in a multi-site operation, there may be one single pastor over all the campuses, in which case you have a hierarchy. How is this different than having a bishop? Or there might be a representative group of elders overseeing all the campuses, in which case you then have a presbytery. It seems to me that while the language may be “one church in multiple locations,” what you really have is a small denomination.

There are potential dangers in any system, but with multi-site, the pull towards empire-building and a cult of personality is extremely strong. There is also a temptation to trust in a franchise brand instead of the power of the Word and Spirit.

I can see how in true revival circumstances where massive amounts of people are being converted at once, a temporary multi-site solution might be needed. But I would rather see this as church planting in slow motion.

What all this means is that the task of pastors is not just to do the work of an evangelist (2 Tim. 4:5), but also to commit what we know to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2). We must be committed to raising up leaders from within our churches who could do what we do and be released from our authority to start other churches as the need arises. Hopefully these churches would retain a similarity and organic connection, without control or formal structural unity.

A growing number of like-minded yet independent congregations freely choosing to associate and cooperate together in mission…that sounds more Baptist (and biblical) to me.

Nathan Carter is pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Chicago. This article first appeared in the Illinois Baptist. Read the latest issue online.

http://ib2news.org/2015/10/22/is-it-baptist-to-be-multi-site/

04/21/2015

Let Us Not Give Up Meeting Together (Heb. 10:25)!

Roman authorities seized Ignatius of Antioch in AD 107. They carried him to the Coliseum where soldiers fed him to wild beasts. His crime? Ignatius refused to turn his back on Christ and burn incense to the emperor. While on the journey to martyrdom he wrote several churches in the region. “Do your best,” he told the church in Ephesus, “to meet more often to give thanks and glory to God. When you meet frequently, the powers of Satan are confounded.”

HT: Aaron Menikoff http://9marks.org/review/book-review-expository-listening-by-ken-ramey/

11/18/2014

A Non-Institutional Church? Why Are We So Dumb?

Yesterday was the PLANT Chicago quarterly.  We’ve had some outstanding speakers on important topics this year.  I was really looking forward to hearing Jared Wilson speak on the exclusivity of Christ and I was not disappointed.  I’ve appreciated his clear and compelling points in writing (The Pastor’s Justification is a must read for pastors!) and now I have a taste of his humble and genuine demeanor in person.

 

Here are a couple of the great quotes Wilson gave us yesterday:

This is why most southerners go to church and most northerners do not – because they’re ‘good’ people.

To reject the church is to reject the gospel because the church is something the gospel has made.

And then going along with that last one he read a longer quote from Eugene Peterson about the institutional church:

What other church is there besides institutional? There’s nobody who doesn’t have problems with the church, because there’s sin in the church. But there’s no other place to be a Christian except the church. There’s sin in the local bank. There’s sin in the grocery stores. I really don’t understand this naive criticism of the institution. I really don’t get it.

Frederick von Hugel said the institution of the church is like the bark on the tree. There’s no life in the bark. It’s dead wood. But it protects the life of the tree within. And the tree grows and grows and grows and grows. If you take the bark off, it’s prone to disease, dehydration, death.

So, yes, the church is dead but it protects something alive. And when you try to have a church without bark, it doesn’t last long. It disappears, gets sick, and it’s prone to all kinds of disease, heresy, and narcissism.

In my writing, I hope to recover a sense of the reality of congregation — what it is. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit. Why are we always idealizing what the Holy Spirit doesn’t idealize? There’s no idealization of the church in the Bible — none. We’ve got two thousand years of history now. Why are we so dumb?

In all our desire to see a movement of rapid church planting, let us not lose sight of the fact that we’re trying to plant institutional churches, because there really is no other kind.

05/11/2014

It’s Sunday!

Make not your worldly affairs of more account than the word of God, but on the Lord’s Day leave everything and run eagerly to your church, for she is your glory. Otherwise what excuse have you, if you do not assemble on the Lord’s Day to hear the word of life and be nourished with the divine food?

Didascalia 2:59:2 (an ancient church document, composed most likely in the first part of the third century, for a community of Christian converts from paganism in the northern part of Syria)