Thursday, April 2, 2015

Flowers, Cakes and Pastors.

Dear Pastor,

Contrary to what you may have been told, you are not a peddler of religio-cultural goods and services. No matter how the forces of western "Christendom" have historically conspired to define your vocation for you in terms that our culture at large can more easily understand, you are not a "service provider". You are not just another cog in the free market economy, offering to bring spiritual value and eloquence to social events for a reasonable fee. No. No matter what job description you may have been sold, that is not what you are. Whether you have arrived at this misunderstanding by inertia, inattention, or intent is no matter. The mantle you bear supersedes your misconceptions about it.

Yours is not to champion polite spirituality, or to "baptize" societal machinations into transcendence. You are a herald of the Gospel of Christ; a witness to the resurrection! You are an under-shepherd of Jesus; guardian and guide of the saints! You are not a service provider; you are a steward of sacrament and of souls!

The Florist: "I make it pretty."
The Baker: "I make it tasty."
The Pastor: "I make it legal and meaningful."

This is not the ground on which to take your stand, because these grounds are not yours to claim. Here, you can only ever be polite guest or malicious trespasser. All your angst and bluster about "religious freedom" will fall on dead ears in this place; the market is not obligated to heed your authority. They will reject your voice, and rightly so: you cannot spend your lifetime allowing the culture to define your vocation, and then suddenly take offense when the culture tells you what to do. So long as you accept the mantle of "service provider" - peddler and pimp of 'spiritual' value - you will remain servant to the market and the rules that govern it, and the market will be within its rights to make sure you play fairly.

I know how you fear being swallowed and undone by a culture that does not understand or value your call. That danger is real, and you are right to fear it. But, the answer will not be found in fighting more earnestly for a parcel of borrowed sovereignty within the economy of the market. Rather, your voice and vocational freedom can only be found in re-appropriating the truth that your call has been issued to you from within another economy, altogether. You are not a florist, or a baker. You are not an event-venue manager. You are a pastor; under-shepherd of Jesus, steward of sacrament and souls. Endeavor to understand this, and you will be set free to stop fighting the wrong fight, and to start having the right conversation.


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

"Common Roots", part VI : Freedom

This newly-born church community that we call “The Commons”, here in Rochester, NH is blessed to be the adopted child of a global family of faith known as the Evangelical Covenant Church. For the reason that, for most of our launch team partners this journey of church planting has constituted a running introduction to the mere existence of the ECC - never mind vision, values and so on - my hope is to offer this short series of articles as a primer on the essential history and distinctives of the Covenant as our denominational and spiritual “home”. These articles will be framed around the six central “Covenant Affirmations” of the ECC, with a focus upon the historical forces that led to their articulation. May God bless and establish this new work, that as we grow in our awareness of where and how the Spirit of God has moved in and through our past, we might also grow in clarity and conviction regarding our future!

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Part VI: “We affirm the reality of freedom in Christ.” 
The Apostle Paul wrote, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). This freedom is a gift of God in Christ, and it manifests itself in a right relationship with God and others… We in the Covenant Church seek to focus on what unites us as followers of Christ, rather than on what divides us.” 

As a reformation movement birthed out of historic dissent, having faced strong legal and institutional forces of resistance at the hands of state Lutheranism - of pietistic heritage and birthed upon the soil of the newly-launched “American experiment” in democratic freedom -  it ought not surprise that the Evangelical Covenant Church has from the very beginning held freedom of reasonable dissent as a central value. While it is never helpful to be simply defined by what we are not, the struggles of our past indelibly shape the values of our present.

I have deeply appreciated the historic ability of the ECC to keep the “main thing” the main thing; pressing back against the natural tendency of secondary and tertiary issues to become ultimate and defining issues. Rather than crafting a rigidly and microscopically defined “bounded set” paradigm to govern corporate life and collegiality, “Covenant Freedom” allows us to fix our working convictions upon our shared center in Christ, guided by common affirmations, and then set one another free to navigate the intricacies, nuances and inevitable conflicts of our shared journey in and towards Christ in a spirit of grace and apart from fear.

Of course, the challenge of genuine freedom is that definition will always remain, in some respects, elusive. Elusive because our freedom is always understood contextually and relationally; the boundaries of freedom defined in and by each conflict or tension which emerges along the way. In a very basic sense, the trouble is that we cannot escape the sheer subjectivity of conviction, shared or otherwise. As a people “of the Book”, we want to hold the centrality of Scripture as a key border-marker of our freedom, and rightly so. Any journey towards “freedom” which involves the jettisoning or downplaying of scriptural authority over our corporate life must be rejected out-of-hand. But the objective authority of scripture is an authority delivered to us through the subjective lens of interpretation. And what are we to do when well-meaning interpreters arrive at different convictions in such a manner and to such a degree that the bonds of unity suffer tension to the point of breaking? It is here that we are faced with the reality that we cannot escape the ongoing, prayerful - and at times agonizing - task of defining what we mean by “Covenant Freedom” in light of these new tensions and challenges. May the Lord have mercy upon us, burdened as we are with freedom!

"Common Roots", part V : The Holy Spirit

This newly-born church community that we call “The Commons”, here in Rochester, NH is blessed to be the adopted child of a global family of faith known as the Evangelical Covenant Church. For the reason that, for most of our launch team partners this journey of church planting has constituted a running introduction to the mere existence of the ECC - never mind vision, values and so on - my hope is to offer this short series of articles as a primer on the essential history and distinctives of the Covenant as our denominational and spiritual “home”. These articles will be framed around the six central “Covenant Affirmations” of the ECC, with a focus upon the historical forces that led to their articulation. May God bless and establish this new work, that as we grow in our awareness of where and how the Spirit of God has moved in and through our past, we might also grow in clarity and conviction regarding our future!

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Part V: “We affirm a conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit.” 
We believe it is the Holy Spirit who instills in our hearts a desire to turn to Christ, and who assures us that Christ dwells within us. It is the Holy Spirit who enables our obedience to Christ and conforms us to his image, and it is the Spirit in us that enables us to continue Christ’s mission in the world. The Holy Spirit gives spiritual gifts to us as individuals and binds us together as Christ’s body.” 

Psalm 127:1 says, “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.” Never has the truth of this verse been driven home for me than it has on this journey of church planting, and it is a truth that our Covenant forebears understood deeply, as well. This understanding is well articulated, here:

The Covenant understanding of the Holy Spirit, rooted in the New Testament, is further informed by the Reformation idea that word and Spirit are inseparable. It is the Spirit of God that enlivens the preaching of the gospel within the community of faith and grants efficacy to the sacraments participated in by the community of faith. The Covenant also draws upon its Pietist heritage for understanding the Holy Spirit. We believe it is the work of the Holy Spirit to instill in the human heart a desire to turn to Christ. We believe it is the work of the Holy Spirit to assure believers that Christ dwells within them. We believe that the Holy Spirit, in concert with our obedience, conforms us to the image of Christ (Romans 8:28-29). 

The early Covenanters in Sweden were linked by a common awareness of the grace of God in their lives. They spoke of the Holy Spirit communicating this warm sense of God’s grace to each one individually and directing them to a common devotion to God in Christ through the reading of the Bible and frequent meetings for the purpose of mutual encouragement and edification. They perceived the Holy Spirit leading them corporately to common mission and purpose. 
The early Covenanters in North America were conscious of the presence and purpose of God through the activity of the Holy Spirit among them. They were certain the Holy Spirit was at work in their churches and particularly in leading them to form the Swedish Evangelical Mission Covenant denomination. At the organizational meeting of the Covenant, C.A. Bj√∂rk spoke to the effect that an organizational meeting can never produce unity; God’s people become one, he said, through the leading of the Holy Spirit.” ( Covenant Affirmations Booklet )

Without the working of the Holy Spirit, the pietist revivals of the 17th-18th centuries could have never succeeded in so transforming the very landscape of Christendom - as well as the outside world - in the manner that they did. WITH the working of the Holy Spirit in their midst and over those many years, there was simply no hope in stopping it, no matter how much resistance those winds of change and mission may have faced! This is the truth and hope that we cling to: that, inasmuch as the struggles we face as a church remain profoundly beyond our ability to overcome, so too the power of God at work in, around and through us remains eternally greater than we have the ability to comprehend. Thanks be to God!

"Common Roots", part IV : The Church

This newly-born church community that we call “The Commons”, here in Rochester, NH is blessed to be the adopted child of a global family of faith known as the Evangelical Covenant Church. For the reason that, for most of our launch team partners this journey of church planting has constituted a running introduction to the mere existence of the ECC - never mind vision, values and so on - my hope is to offer this short series of articles as a primer on the essential history and distinctives of the Covenant as our denominational and spiritual “home”. These articles will be framed around the six central “Covenant Affirmations” of the ECC, with a focus upon the historical forces that led to their articulation. May God bless and establish this new work, that as we grow in our awareness of where and how the Spirit of God has moved in and through our past, we might also grow in clarity and conviction regarding our future!

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Part IV: “We affirm the Church as a fellowship of believers.” 
The church is not an institution, organization, or building. It is a grace-filled fellowship of believers who participate in the life and mission of Jesus Christ. It is a family of equals: as the New Testament teaches that within Christian community there is to be neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).”

Much has been said in the preceding articles to make sufficiently clear how this Covenant affirmation comes to us by way of our pietist heritage. Pressing back against the crippling institutionalism of 17th and 18th century state-governed Lutheranism, the Pietist reformers - from Ardnt, Spener, Franke, Zinzendorf, to all those who would follow them - labored to reclaim the identity of the Church as a living fellowship of people transformed by and following after Jesus; the whole Church called into the whole mission of Christ. The defining structural elements of the pietist revival can be summed up by the following: Conversion, Colporteurs, and Conventicles.

Regarding conversion, I refer you to Parts II and III of this series, which speak to the centrality of “new birth” to both pietist and Covenant convictions. The other two elements are also closely related to much of what has come before, but warrant further clarification.

As we have seen, it was Spener who introduced the “innovation” of household-based gatherings for devotional reading of scripture and mutual edification to the fabric of what would become 17th century pietism. What he initially referred to as his “assemblies of piety” (“small group ministry” would be a close equivalent in the modern parlance), became popularly known and replicated as “conventicles” ( meaning, roughly, “assemblies”; from the latin “conventiculum”). This was, in fact, the Pietist’s most formative - and, by the state church, most strongly resisted - development within the life of the Church. An expression of a movement of the Spirit whereby common people grow hungry for active engagement with the scriptures, for intimacy in worship and depth of Christian fellowship, the purpose of the conventicle was not to separate from the institutional church, but to bring additive value to the life of discipleship between, and as distinct from, Sunday worship. As these gatherings increased in number and influence throughout Sweden, it was the through the ministry of “Colporteurs” that the flames of revival were spread and stoked.

Colporteurs (adapted from the French, “comporteur”; lit. “to bear or peddle”) initially were simply a practical solution for the resourcing of the conventicle movement. These were voluntary lay ministers who would travel from town to town distributing Bibles and tracts of various kinds. With the gradual increase of literacy in Sweden - and among the colporteurs themselves - their influence began to increase; soon serving as lay preachers, teachers, and recognized leaders of conventicles. As time went on and the conventicle movement grew more established, in spite of significant legal resistance from the state Church of Sweden, many colporteurs would go so far as to serve communion in the context of a household fellowship; viewed as a radical and dangerous move in the eyes of the establishment.

But this remains the conviction of the Covenant church as part of the legacy of our pietist forebears: the Church is not a building, an institution, or an organization of professional, ordained clergy. The Church is the living fellowship of brothers and sisters in Christ, seeking the Lord and living in light of His Kingdom purposes. We must always expect and leave room for the movement of the Holy Spirit among “ordinary” people, or else we have simply crafted a well-managed religious institution rather than witnessing the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ.

The Commons holds a uniquely significant bond with the “conventicle” movement within our own structures of community life. While we continue to love and value “large format” corporate gatherings for preaching, worship, and the Lord’s Supper, the trouble with ONLY getting together in large groups is that it is hard to really get to know one another – and see genuine community develop – if we’re only seeing each other in a big room, full of activity and 100+ other folks, once a week. In the Bible - as well as in our pietist heritage - we see that the early Christian church was built upon house fellowships. They didn’t just run into one another for an hour once a week; they did life together! “Church” was spending time, sharing meals, sharing joys and struggles, studying scripture together and lifting one another up in prayer. “Church” was a space where friends in Christ could sit, learn and grow face to face, and not just side by side.

Additionally, good preaching and teaching is vital to the life and thriving of the local church. But perhaps even more important to our own growth toward Christian maturity is to be given the opportunity, experience and tools to open, read, interpret and apply the scriptures well for ourselves and in the context of our own lives. Our “Table” groups are neighborhood-centric communities of 15-20 folks, focused on shared meals, in-depth interaction with scripture, prayer, and on the daily, street-level expressions of church life. We’re so committed to the value of getting our whole community involved at this level that we give two whole Sundays a month to “Table” groups.