Monthly Archives: November 2011

Marva Dawn on How Power Corrupts Ministry

I’ve been thinking lately about cruciform ministry and the constant struggle against idolatries that our hearts generate regarding Christian community.  The subtle temptations to power and the lure of manipulative techniques are constants.  Marva Dawn writes brilliantly about this in her book, Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God

This rest of this post is from her chapter on how churches act like fallen cosmic powers:

Why do conversations at the dinner tables of pastors’ conferences seem to focus more on comparisons (competition?) with other churches than on creating justice for the poor?

I wonder if the very prominent concern about survival in churches is a sign of their fallenness.  As Bill Stringfellow pointed out, “The principalities have great resilience . . . [they adapt their] means of dominating human beings to the sole morality which governs all demonic powers so long as they exist—survival.”  Both the concern for “church growth” and the concern for survival (which sometimes are the same thing) lead to many of the tactics of fallen powers, such as competition, the overwhelming pressures on church leaders to be successful, reduction of the gospel for the sake of marketing, and so forth.

Furthermore, what happens to church leaders who act out of their power or out of the pressures of power instead of out of the weakness that receives God’s tabernacling?  Speaking of secular leaders, Stringfellow writes,

In truth, the conspicuous moral fact about our generals, our industrialists, our scientists, our commercial and political leaders is that they are the most obvious and pathetic prisoners in American society.  There is unleashed among the principalities in this society a ruthless, self-proliferating, all-consuming institutional process which assaults, dispirits, defeats, and destroys human life even among, and primarily among, those persons in positions of institutional leadership.  They are left with titles but without effectual authority; with the trappings of power, but without command over the institutions they head; in nominal command, but bereft of dominion.  These same principalities, as has been mentioned, threaten and defy and enslave human beings of other status in diverse ways, but the most poignant victim of the demonic in America today is the so-called leader.

Isn’t that an apt description of the way many pastors feel today?  Just this morning I was engaged in conversation with a counselor who is working with a pastor enslaved by the need to keep up a wicked pace in order that the congregation he serves can continue “growing.”  Is a parish growing well if the pastor himself is too frantically busy to care for his own spiritual nurturing?

Bill Wylie Kellerman shows us the reason power makes victims of its wielders by looking to the biblical account of Jesus and the temptations.  He observes that

The insidiousness of the temptations lies in the integrity of how and who.  Power and person are the topic.  The one crouched ready to gobble up the other.  Power may consume, corrupt, inflate, distort, dissipate, or simply deaden the person.  The Confuser’s scheme is for Jesus to forget who he is by getting lost in how he’ll work, so that the One who is the beginning and end will get swallowed up in the means.

It seems more and more widely recognized that each of the temptations is to power: the first is to economic power, the second is to military/political power, and the third is to religious power.  In all, we’re granted a concise and compact exchange on issues at once very concrete to the life of Jesus and pertinent to our own.  Remember that at the conclusion of the encounter the tempter doesn’t slink off into oblivion forever defeated; he withdraws “until an opportune time.”  Such times present themselves repeatedly to Jesus and his followers.

Our times seem to be opportune for great temptations; consequently, my main purpose in this chapter is to rouse us to greater vigilance.

** Marva J. Dawn, Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), pp. 75-76.

A Wealth of Wisdom from David Brooks

David Brooks has a fascinating project going.  He’s asked people over 70 to send him brief reports on their lives to this point.

What he’s received amounts to a collection of wisdom, a wealth of reflections that become lessons in life for the rest of us.  These are fascinating, inspiring, heartbreaking, and seriously instructive. 

He’s written two columns so far on what he’s received.  Here is his first column, and this is his second.

Receiving the Church as a Gift

One of the biggest lessons many of us learned in our missional church plant was the necessity of receiving the church as a gift.  We all had our dreams, plans, and ambitions about the shape the church was to take.  We found that our community couldn’t bear the weight of our various demands.  We were crushing this precious, beautiful, and weak community and hurting each other with our grand plans and big dreams.

We needed to give the community freedom to be what it was.  We needed to learn to receive one another as wonderful gifts from God, and to receive the church as a gift from God.

Many people report dissatisfying church experiences.  I wonder where the fault lies.  There are, after all, only disappointing churches filled with underwhelming and broken people.  Churches will never live up to our pristine ideals—our big visions for what the church should be for us.

It just might be our task to learn how the church is a beautiful and infinitely satisfying gift to us.  Friendships flourish when we receive others; when we explore and enjoy the richness of one another rather than when we make demands.  Good marriages work that way, too.

Now, there are lots of things to be said about the church, but I’ve found that one of the secrets to my being happy with the church is identifying my own expectations and plans and being prepared to name them as destructive idolatries.  It’s my task to find out how the church is a gift to me.

In his classic work, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer discusses the clash between our imagined ideal church experience and the actual church communities we encounter.  He absolutely nails it.

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and try to realize it.

By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.

The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community, the better for both. A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse. Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more that the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial (emphasis added).

He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together.

Big thanks to my friend, Kyle Bos, for alerting me to this passage.  Cited from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1954), pp. 14-15.

An Advent Homily

* Given at Midtown Christian Community, December 2, 2006


Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

 Zechariah 14:4-9
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-31
Psalm 50:1-6

It is Advent season, and this is the first Saturday of Advent, the time of year when we begin to look forward with ever-increasing anticipation to the latest in a string of “must-have” gifts.  Some years ago it was “Tickle Me Elmo,” and adults were beating each other silly in order to demonstrate for their children how to participate faithfully in lustful and reckless consumerism.  Our collective discipleship in the global economy mandates such behaviors though it’s a bit of a downer that the kid won’t give a rip about the item after New Years.  This year, from what Jake and Riley tell me, the “must have” toy is the Playstation Wii or the Playstation 3—whatever it’s called.

Of course, we all know it’s not that Advent season.  But keeping our heads on straight takes serious discernment.  It takes an intentional effort to be alert to how our culture works on us and exerts its will on us.  It takes everything we’ve got to avoid being caught up in this alternative Advent season, and to participate fully in the real Advent season, rehearsing the excitement of creation itself as we together await the celebration of the arrival of the Son of God.

That’s why we’re happy at Midtown to follow the church calendar.  This is an intentional thing we can do to name the seasons of life in Christian terms, instead of being content with the seasons of life being named in terms that are supplied to us by the world, or by the mall. 

In the normal course of our lives throughout the week, we practice a “liturgy of the world,” utilizing other modes of speech to name reality, relationships, and the passing of time.  When we gather together as church, we spend time practicing specifically Christian speech, reading Scripture, issuing blessings in the name of Jesus instead of in the name of Ohio State or the Pittsburgh Steelers, or the Gap or Macy’s, Toys ‘r’ Us, Sony Playstation, or whatever else we might be talking about. 

And as church we eat a meal together thinking about how wonderful Jesus is, instead of thinking about how amazing McDonald’s is, or Wendy’s, City BBQ, or Chipotle.

So, our time together as church is an exercise in living in the world in other terms, in Christian terms.  Here, we’re no longer professors and students, rich and poor, people from Springfield, Yellow Springs, or Cedarville.  We’re brothers and sisters in Christ, each being loved by Jesus and empowered by the Spirit to love and serve each other and this neighborhood for the glory of the name of Jesus Christ.  We’re practicing the true nature of reality, and we do it for a very important reason—so that we might gain discernment for going back out and living truthfully and faithfully in the world.

Jesus calls on us in Luke 21 to be alert to what season it is, to pay attention to the signs all around us of what is really going on in reality. 

This text raises for us a question: What is going on in the world?  What is God doing in the world and what does he want us to do?

The great problem in the world is that creation is trapped in sin, both the creation itself and humanity that inhabits creation.  Humanity is functioning within creation wrongly, using the creation in destructive ways. 

Our other texts refer to the rhythms of day and night, along with the seasons of the year.  We are filling “night” and “day” with evil and destructive deeds, destroying ourselves and others.  According to the Psalm, we’re not being human very well, using our body parts—our tongues and our mouths—to speak evil and to tell lies, instead of using the parts of our bodies to lift up the name of God and to bless others.

In response to this, God makes the promise to enter creation himself to set it right, resulting in a radical re-ordering of creation.  This is depicted in Zechariah by the Lord coming down to an actual physical place—the Mount of Olives.  Creation reacts violently, with the mountain splitting in two, creating a massive new valley.  Further, there will be a total transformation of creation, so that there is no longer “day” and “night,” neither cold nor frost, but continuous light, with living waters flowing out from Jerusalem. 

The city of God, inhabited by the people of God, will no longer be a source of news about conflict, suicide bombings, buses and cars blowing up, and raids on settlements.  The city of God will now be a source of life and blessing and nourishment for the whole world.  Creation will be transformed so that it gives life and so that everyone will know that this is indeed God’s world and that God is a God of love, peace, goodness, and truth.

But what are we to do in response to this?  How do we participate in God’s mission to renew creation?

It’s fascinating how these texts give us some help in answering this question, and they do so with specific reference to creation.  So, we could ask the question this way: If God is remaking creation itself, restoring “day” and “night” and seasons of the year, how should we fill out creation so that we can demonstrate or make obvious the fact that God is actually in the process of re-taking and reclaiming his world?

Look at how Paul answers this question.  In 1 Thessalonians, Paul tells us what he does with “night” and “day.”  He spends his night and day in service to others, longing that they may be restored to actual bodily presence and mutual enjoyment of one another.  “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.”

Note also that Paul sees his life as a fulfillment of God’s promise to make the people of God a blessing to others.  Just as God is now going to make Jerusalem a place of refreshment to the earth and to the nations, so Paul and his ministry partners “abound” in love for his readers, overflowing with the love and blessing of God for others.  And they are praying that the Thessalonians would also “abound” in love for one another.  This is language that recalls the flourishing of the earth.  God had originally created the world to be a place of blessing and refreshment.  In Christ, God is setting the world right, so the people of God in Christ must play this role.

This is the same impulse that runs through the song that is sung at this time of year:

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,

It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining.

Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

 We must fill our days and nights with being a blessing to others in the name of Jesus.  When we do this, the promise in Zechariah will be fulfilled—that promise that God is coming to reclaim and redeem his world, so that it will be made plain that “the Lord is king over all the earth; on that day the Lord will be one and his name one.”

 In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Advent Season Begins Tomorrow

Tomorrow is the first Sunday of Advent, the season on the Christian calendar that climaxes at Christmas.  What does the word “Advent” mean?  It means “something’s coming,” “something’s about to arrive.”

We call it “Advent season” because the Christian church takes this time of the year to intentionally do what all of creation is doing.  Creation is enslaved, held captive.  Sin and Death hold the world in their grip, and we all feel it.  Life hurts.  We get depressed.  Our bodies break down, or they just break.  People hurt us, reject us, people hurt themselves.  Families fall apart.

In this condition, what is creation doing?  It is waiting.  It is expecting.  A long time ago the people of God were waiting for their redeemer, the one who was promised, who would come and deliver God’s people from oppression and captivity.  God sent Jesus into the world to provide salvation, to make God’s initial move to redeem the world.  So we celebrate Christmas.

But we celebrate not only the singular day that commemorates the arrival of the Son of God, we participate in the entire Advent season, since we still find ourselves in a posture of waiting.  We are waiting for the return of Jesus to come and save, to redeem us from oppression and save us from our brokenness and sin.  We are waiting for God to come back and fix the world finally and forever.

Cruciformity & Christian Leadership, Pt. 4

Cruciform leaders do not view people as the means to achieve other goals.  The people to whom we minister are the goal.  The whole point of Jesus-shaped leadership is to take the initiative to see that God’s grace and love arrive into the lives of others.

Christian leaders are servants of others on behalf of God, so people are the point—not my goals, plans, vision, or ambitions.

This may be obvious, but there is a vocabulary set used among ministry leaders that very subtly perverts and corrupts our vision for cruciform ministry.

We talk about “results,” or we want our ministries to be “effective.”  We look for ministry strategies that “work.”

When we talk like this, we reveal that we are envisioning something bigger than or beyond the people to whom we minister.  We subtly become the servants of that other thing and we look at the people as the means to get there. 

This is one way that pastors’ hearts function as idol factories.

When we set our hearts on certain goals and ends, we can become very frustrated at our people when they don’t perform the way we want them to.  When we’re not seeing the results we expected, we put pressure on people, demanding more from them. 

When we do this, we are no longer delivery agents of God’s love, mercy, and transforming grace.  We begin embodying in our churches the reality of a very harsh, exacting God who demands performance and greater effectiveness.

Pastors may find themselves berating and scolding their churches.  They may lament that there are so many things the church could be doing if only the people would just “get on board.”

These are signs of worldly leadership.

There is no greater end in ministry than cultivating a flourishing community for the renewal of the people to whom and with whom we minister.

Cruciform ministry leaders are patient with people, ministering to them in love.  Cruciform leaders are careful to avoid being seduced by worldly values that fly under the banners of “efficiency,” “effectiveness,” and “results.”

Cruciform pastors must constantly check their motives, aims, and ambitions for their churches.  They must constantly put off the temptation to manipulate people so that goals may be met.

Christian ministers must resist putting pressure on people and subtly turning churches into institutions that oppress.  It takes strong leadership to cultivate flourishing communities that provide rest, relief, hope, joy, and life for people worn out and broken by the world.

Cruciform leaders remember that people are the point.  They are the end.  They are never the means.

Talking with Pastors about Commentaries

Last weekend in San Francisco Scot McKnight hosted a discussion with two pastors about commentaries.  Scot asked these pastors to speak to scholars about the realities of their sermon preparation and what they find really useful in commentaries.

They highlighted commentaries that deal with difficult textual issues in plain language and that give some helpful hints about appropriating the biblical text for a post-Christian audience.

It was a tremendously helpful discussion. 

So, I’m wondering, especially for people in ministry, but I’d love to hear from anyone and everyone: What do you find useful and most helpful about commentaries?  Think especially about commentaries like the NIV Application Commentary series–if you could sit down with one of those authors and tell them what you’d like to see in one of those volumes, what would it be?

Cruciformity & Christian Leadership, Pt. 3

Cruciform leadership constantly adjusts to God’s agenda.  This is significantly different from worldly forms of leadership, which are oriented by the leader’s agenda.

Worldly leadership is leader-determined.  It’s all about “my dream,” or “my vision for this church.”  Churches with charismatic leaders are often compelling communities for a time, but they seldom manifest cruciformity.

I remember talking with a pastor about his church.  He was looking for people who would “buy into” his vision.

We spoke some time later about his struggle with one person who didn’t fit the profile of his ministry target audience.  He was struggling to figure out how to gently move this person on to “where she belonged.”  He was caught between genuinely caring for people and his training in a corrupted style of ministry.

Churches oriented by a singular leader’s vision that require “buy in” on the part of those participating don’t manifest cruciform leadership.  They can’t afford to.  The leader’s vision is the ultimate end and people become the means to that end.

In a tragic irony, the leader is going around putting people on crosses in the name of the ministry vision.

What happens when people who don’t fit the profile find a home in that community?  They may be seen as obstacles rather than gifts.

Cruciform leadership, on the other hand, is God-oriented.  Ministry goals and ministry means are shaped by God’s program and God’s agenda.

God’s aim is to break into peoples’ lives with love and grace and blessing so that God might redeem, reclaim, restore, and save.

God’s agenda must become our agenda.

We serve on behalf of God, who sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but to seek and to save what was lost.

We minister in the name of God, who sent Israel into exile because they were neglecting the orphan and the widow, oppressing the poor and the needy, exploiting the weak and defenseless.

God, who heard the prayer of Hannah—the marginalized wife of Elkanah.

God, who is exalted above the heavens, but who bends low to look into the face of the lowly and the neglected.

God, who puts himself on the cross for the redemption of the world.

Cruciform leaders regard people out of a healthy fear of the Lord who gave his life for those who “don’t fit the ministry profile.”  They are careful to treat people the way that God treats people. 

If we sacrifice the awkward and marginalized on the altar of our cherished “vision” for what we think our churches should become, we invite the fearsome judgment of the God who passionately loves and pursues those who don’t fit the mold, those on the margins.

Cruciform leaders go the way of the cross.  This means that their pride, ambition, and ministry goals are on crosses, too.  This is the only way to unleash resurrection power in the lives of those to whom they minister.

Cruciform leaders stay on the cross, knowing that this is the only contact they have with the life of Jesus.  And they constantly evaluate the extent to which their visions become idols that put others on crosses.

Cruciformity & Christian Leadership, Pt. 2

The Bible has much to say about leadership generally, but two specific texts contrast God’s aims for leaders of his people with corrupted forms of leadership—Mark 10:42-45 and Deut. 17:14-20.

Taking a cue from these texts, I will discuss cruciform Christian leadership by contrasting it with worldly leadership practices.  This may help us discern how perverted ambitions, hidden idolatries, and destructive practices subtly affect how leadership works in Christian communities.

I’ll begin with the following alternative descriptions:

Worldly leadership: A desire to increase in prestige, status, and influence and a willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve these things, even if it means neglecting or hurting people who do not appear to be means of one’s own personal advancement.

Jesus-shaped leadership: An unrelenting commitment to the delivery of the love and grace of God into the lives of others (or, the life of another), and taking the initiative to see to it that this happens.

I’ve drawn these up from reflection on biblical texts and my own experiences in ministry.  I’ll elaborate on these two forms of leadership as our discussion progresses.

Cruciformity & Christian Leadership

Cruciformity is essential for understanding everything about being Christian and for being satisfied in living as Christian people.  By cruciformity I mean having every aspect of our lives and church communities oriented by the cross-shaped life of Jesus.

Cruciformity is a powerful notion because it is the only way to gain access to the resurrection power of God.  When we shape our lives according to the life of Jesus, we experience his presence by the Spirit, and God floods our lives, relationships, and communities with resurrection power.

When I talk to people training for Christian leadership about cruciformity, however, I discover the assumption that it isn’t easily practiced in ministry.  Cruciformity may be for ordinary Christian people, but it won’t work in leadership situations.

I wonder if this is because our imaginations are shaped by worldly conceptions of power.  We assume that at some point cruciform leadership would fail.  It wouldn’t be up to the challenges of “real world” situations where power must be wielded over others. 

In my view, we simply haven’t given enough creative thought to how leadership in churches and Christian organizations can be shaped by the cross, generating and unleashing the life-giving power of God.

For Jesus, this isn’t negotiable.  He addresses forms of leadership in Mark 10.  The disciples are agitating for positions of privilege, power, and prestige in the Kingdom of God.  Jesus responds:

You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

Leadership in the Kingdom of God must be shaped by the life of the King, who gives himself for others.  This is contrasted directly with worldly forms of leadership, which has to do with power over others.

This form of leadership for God’s people isn’t all that new, actually.  Moses had already outlined a counter-cultural form of leadership in Deut. 17:14-20.  Israel’s king was to be radically different, having the Law read to him daily so that “his heart may not be lifted up above his countrymen” (v. 20).

Christian leadership, then, ought to be cruciform.  Christian leadership ought to be Jesus-shaped. 

Over the next week or two, I want to think through some contrasts between cruciform leadership and worldly leadership in an effort to provoke imaginations with hope in leading God’s people according to the ways of God revealed in Jesus.