Monday, February 25, 2008

Can urban and suburban churches work together?

I recently heard a preacher from Detroit deliver an exciting sermon about how suburban and urban churches can work together in ministry. I can tell that the other pastors in the room were excited at the prospect. Most of them were suburban pastors.

The excitement carried into a special breakout session for senior pastors only but I could tell by the nature of the questions asked that there was more interest in what was happening in Detroit than there was in what could happen in our own community. Some pastors had taken an important first step but the road to cooperation is long and winding and full of potholes.

This summer a church from North Carolina will send a team of 100 summer missionaries into my urban neighborhood to work in our various ministries to the poor. At the same time most of the suburban churches near my neighborhood will be sending mission teams all over the world. Why is it easy for some churches to go to the outermost parts of the world and yet ignore their own Jerusalem and Samaria?

The fault could be in the urban pastors of small churches. They often distrust the motives of larger churches and fear they will lose control of their ministries, so they are not inclined to ask for help. Maybe it’s the suburban churches. Working with a church across the county is not much and adventure vacation. In most cases it is a lack of communication and risk aversion that keeps churches apart.

While the conversation has just begun for some churches in my community, many others have been partnering to work with other churches for some time. The Teen Moms program that meets at First Baptist Church in Waukegan has been a partnership of urban and suburban churches for more than 20 years. The relatively new BAM House ministry for recovering addicts is, also, a partnership of churches. From Sharefest to adopt-a-school to Love INC, churches in my community are working together for the sake of the gospel. This has been a part of ministry in Lake County, IL for the past 15 years I have lived and worked here.

Not all churches will participate. We have to accept that and move on. There are issues of trust, a desire to avoid contact with Christians who believe differently about some issues, or prejudices that are difficult to overcome. The urgency of the gospel does not allow us to wait for everyone to be in agreement before we act.

I rejoice in the ministry partners that God has granted First Baptist Church. Some are near others are far. They represent a broad range of theological beliefs but all agree in the need to work together to reach our community for Jesus. What a beautiful witness oneness can be.

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. John 17:20-23 (NIV)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Oneness is our Witness

I heard Dr. William Shaw preach on the theme of Christian unity at the New Baptist Covenant Celebration in Atlanta. Over 16,000 Baptists from all over North America representing 20 million people from every race and region gathered to set aside some of our differences and celebrate our commonalities. He told us that relationship building is a major step towards working together.

I was at another meeting this weekend that repeated the same theme on a smaller scale. Pastor’s from the eastern half of Lake County, IL gathered for a retreat. The agenda was strengthening relationships. Not every pastor was there but the one’s that came represented a diversity that is uncommon in ministerial groups. The diversity was not only racial but also in the size of the churches and the types of communities that they served. A variety of political and theological views were also represented.

Although I tend to prefer action over words, I am gaining a new appreciation for the need to build a strong foundation of camaraderie. Friendship cannot be rushed and genuine accord cannot be faked. The world outside the church (and many of those inside) don’t understand some of the theological arguments that divide our churches. They don’t care about historical decisions that created splinter movements. They see division and often view as hypocrisy.

Churches working shoulder to shoulder in a community balance out the negative stories that can dominate the news. Jesus gave us the secret to differentiate His true followers from the pretenders and posers. The language of hate can be overcome with the language of love.

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:34-35 (NIV)

Friday, February 15, 2008

Let us not give up meeting together

“Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Hebrews 10:25 NIV

A recent op-ed in USA Today noted the fact that many of the rich and powerful who profess to be Christians do not attend church. A five year study of 100 politicians, wealthy businessmen, entertainers and athletes all known for their great faith found that 60% are not active in their church. They all have good excuses that are not too different from your friends and neighbors who rarely show up at church but are full of religious opinions.

These athletes and superstars will come to your church for between $10,000 and $40,000 plus expenses. They will give their testimonies and inspire you with their larger than life faith. I wonder if Jesus would have been impressed by such celebrity?

I find it curious that Reagan and G.W. Bush would profess deep faith yet not be part of a worshipping community. Clinton and Carter made time for church. Putting politics aside for a moment, wouldn’t we expect a person who professes faith to go to church somewhere?

I have known several people who profess deep faith but refuse to become part of a church family. They drift along some of the megachurches or just stay home and criticize the church. For many of them the issue is pride. They want to be Christians on their own terms and will not be held accountable.

If some of these lone ranger believers were to commit to a local church family both the celebrity and the local congregation would be blessed. The biblical model for Christianity is the local congregation as idealized in Acts 2 and in the less exemplary Corinthian church. The church is not perfect but it is blessed by God.

Ministries who chase after celebrities and CEOs for membership on boards and as speakers at fundraising events ought to heed the warning in James 2 about paying undue attention to the wealthy.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Everyone can celebrate Lent

Lent is not just for Catholics anymore. You don't need to be from a liturgical tradition or even high church to celebrate Lent. In the Christian tradition Lent, the 40 days that precede Easter, is a time set aside for spiritual growth, inner reflection, and service to others.

Many Christians see Lent as a time for sacrifice. No meat. No chocolate. No TV. No cigarettes. You get the drift. Lent can be so much more than that. It is a time for spiritual reawakening. It is a time to reconcile with God. Even as the earth prepares for spring's rebirth, we prepare to celebrate the greatest gift of all, the resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

There are some ways we can celebrate Lent to bring spiritual growth:
• Improve your focus on God. Stop doing the things that keep you from God. Is it TV? Parties? Overspending? Or something else? Eliminate or cut back and spend that time productively.
• Forgive somebody. An ancient tradition in the church was that, during Lent, those who had been ostracized for notorious sins were welcomed back into the fold.
• Pray. Ask God every day during Lent to tell you what he wants you to do.
• Attend worship. If you have fallen out of the habit of going to church, start back up. You're still welcome. No need to wait for Easter.
• Give stuff away. Go through your closet and pass along some things you no longer use.
• Read the Bible. Start with the Gospel of Mark. Read it all the way through or just a few passages a day.
• Join a small group Bible study or start one with your friends and/or neighbors. You could even start one during lunchtime at work.
• Visit someone at a nursing home. It could be a friend or relative or you can call and ask if they have an adopt-a-grandparent program.
• Volunteer for PADS or at a local food pantry.
• Do a kind deed for a neighbor, friend, coworker or relative.