Though it’s only May, it actually feels like spring has been here for a while as it decided to make an early appearance in Denver this year. While the warm beautiful weather is always welcome, we were sad to see winter come to an early end since it cut short an already poor ski season. Oh well, hopefully we’ll have better snow next year! Despite the lack of snow sports, the Redden family has had no lack of activity to keep us busy. Read more
New Denver Church is part of the Ecclesia network of churches, and this week I’m here in Washington DC for our annual national gathering. Here’s the focus of this year’s gathering from the website:
Our focus this year is on how our churches can function as centers of reconciliation, where we learn through the power of the Spirit to live as one reconciled family of God across racial, economic, and generational lines.
I’ll share my notes from the conference, but my standard disclaimer applies – these were the thoughts that captured my attention but may or may not make sense taken out of context. If you have questions feel free to leave a comment or contact me.
New Denver Church is part of the Ecclesia network of churches, and this week I’m here in Washington DC for our annual national gathering. Here’s the focus of this year’s gathering from the website:
Our focus this year is on how our churches can function as centers of reconciliation, where we learn through the power of the Spirit to live as one reconciled family of God across racial, economic, and generational lines. Read more
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock or shun absolutely all sports news, then you’ve probably heard of Jeremy Lin by now. The New York Knicks point guard has come out of nowhere to take the sports world by storm. Lin was an undrafted free agent coming out of Harvard, and after being picked up by Golden State he played sparingly and was eventually dropped. He landed briefly in Houston before being cut again. He was then picked up by the Knicks but sat at the end of the bench until injuries to superstars Carmelo Anthony and Arare Stoudamire forced him into action. He made the most of his opportunity, scoring more points in his first five starts than anyone in NBA history.
Now I have to admit, I hate the NBA. Ever since the league went from being a team game that highlighted great rivalries between cities to promoting individual players and often glorifying thugs who happened to be good at basketball, I lost interest (somewhere back in the ’90s). But Jeremy Lin quickly caught my interest, not only because he is an incredible Cinderella story, but also because of his outspoken Christian faith. The inevitable comparisons were made to Tim Tebow, but it quickly became apparent that Jeremy Lin is his own person and represents a different perspective on Christianity.
This became apparent to me after reading Michael Luo’s great piece in the NY Times, ‘Lin’s Appeal: Faith, Pride and Points.’ The article is Luo’s intensely personal reflection on how Lin’s success is about so much more than basketball. Luo was the first to open my eyes to how Lin is beautifully representing his faith in a way that is true to his culture and heritage. His success has made Lin the very public face for a vibrant but often overlooked segment of American Christianity, and Keith Bradsher’s piece in the NY Times pointed out, he’s also making waves in China where Christians are still persecuted for their faith.
Then this week I read a great post by Carl Park over on the Gospel Coalition’s blog where he builds on Luo’s reflections on why Asian American Christians are connecting to Lin differently than they have to Tebow. Park does a great job of pointing out that the experience of being an Asian-American Christian is quite different from that of Anglo-American Christians, though that experience is not as widely known. The controversies of the Anglo-American church have not been their controversies. They aren’t experiencing the decline of the broader American church but are actually experiencing vibrant growth. The Asian-American church has an important voice in the conversation about Christianity in America that has been largely unheard. Park’s hope is that Lin-sanity is changing that:
Linsanity, for Asian Americans, is only partly about basketball. More significantly, it’s about that outside experience being recognized by others and, even further, evolving into inclusion. Can what happened to Lin in the NBA happen to him and other Asian American Christians in the broader American church? Can it encourage Asian American Christians to give more of their gifts and leadership to the community—and Community—at large? It sounds grandiose, insane. But, as we’ve seen the last two weeks, insanity happens.
After living in central Asia and eastern Europe for an extended period of time and traveling regularly throughout my life to serve churches around the world, you’d think I would be more consciously aware of the importance of learning about faith from other cultures. But it’s so easy to become ethno-centric – to spend time primarily with people who look and think similarly to you. It’s easy to only hear the loudest voices and assume they represent the whole picture of what God is doing in the American church. But Jeremy Lin has reminded me that even though we share the same citizenship – both on earth and in heaven – we have very different experiences of life and faith. There is much to learn from those who are different from me, but it is easy to forget that. Thanks for the reminder Jeremy Lin.
**Image from Flickr user nikk_la, used under Creative Commons license .
Over the last three days I ran across three articles by three different authors (Mike Breen, Skye Jethani, and Rachel Held Evans), all exploring a common phenomenon – celebrity pastors. I have to admit that I laugh a little bit even typing those words. They just seem so antithetical sitting there next to each other. Rock stars are celebrities. Movie stars are celebrities. Professional athletes are celebrities. But can pastors really be celebrities?
noun ( pl. celebrities )
a famous person. the state of being well known.
Sure, pastors it seems definitely can become well-known. Jethani points out in his article, “Before Osteen, Warren, and Driscoll, there were Moody, Spurgeon, and Whitefield. Celebrity pastors are not new.” But in the technology-driven age we live in, there are more pastors who have celebrity status than ever before. So is there a problem with pastors being celebrities? Maybe.
Breen is quick to point out in his post “Obituary for the American Church” (an exploration of what he believes are the three primary sins of the American church today – celebrity, consumerism, and competition…I’m sure it’s coincidence that they are all “C” words) that Jesus himself would fit the definition of celebrity. He was a well-known figure, even in his own time. But throughout the gospels we see Jesus playing this strange dance with his followers and with his growing celebrity. When the crowds got too large he simply slipped away to be alone. Or just when it seemed his movement was reaching a tipping point and the masses were flocking to him, he would share something incredibly difficult and people would leave. Nowhere is this more evident than in John 6. The chapter begins with Jesus feeding 5000 miraculously and then following it up by walking on water. He had some serious momentum going. So what does he do with it? Jesus tells them that he is the bread of life, and the only way to have the life he offers is to eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:53-58). The crowd’s response, “On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”…”From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” (John 6:60,66).
Breen makes the point in his article that Jesus was famous, because he was doing significant things. There is an enormous difference between being famous and being significant. Jesus’ goal was to be faithful to the work the Father had given him, even if that compromised his celebrity. He said the hard things that needed to be said, regardless of the consequences. Faithfulness was his measure of success. My question is – do pastors who achieve celebrity in large churches and leadership conferences today have that same commitment? Some do, but I think it’s a question every pastor has to ask themselves, myself included.
What concerns me most about the rise of the celebrity pastor is what Skye Jethani points out in his article, “The Evangelical Industrial Complex & the Rise of Celebrity Pastors.” Jethani points out that the flame of celebrity is fueled systematically by what he calls the “evangelical industrial complex.” This is the complex “Christian” market that sells books, small group resources, preaching resources, DVDs, CDs, and a myriad of other products based on the teachings of high-profile pastors of large churches. Jethani reveals the rather obvious tactic that if content publishers can latch onto a pastor at a large church, they have a sort of guaranteed market in that pastor’s congregation. I believe his insights are as insightful as they are disturbing. Celebrity is inflated by a system whose primary goal is to make money. So the loudest voices – the ones heard onstage at leadership conferences and who get the book deals with the most marketing – aren’t necessarily the most significant, insightful or faithful, just those who can reach the largest market.
So what is our response to all this? Good question. It is a complicated issue with disturbing implications, and I’m not sure there is an easy answer to how we respond. But for those of us who endeavor to lead God’s church, I think the question Mike Breen poses is a good one to ponder. So I’ll leave you with that:
In what ways are your decisions made by a subtle undercurrent of ambition and a hope for celebrity?
At a recent New Denver Church staff meeting we were discussing the Outside magazine article by Bill Gifford about Lance Armstrong and his LiveStrong foundation. It’s an excellent article, and I’d recommend you click the link and at least skim it before reading this post. If you don’t have time, here’s the teaser from the beginning of the article:
It’s Not About the Lab Rats
If Lance Armstrong went to jail and Livestrong went away, that would be a huge setback in our war against cancer, right? Not exactly, because the famous nonprofit donates almost nothing to scientific research. BILL GIFFORD looks at where the money goes and finds a mix of fine ideas, millions of dollars aimed at “awareness,” and a few very blurry lines.
The article raised an interesting question that we discussed as a staff: Does contributing to awareness about a need or cause make you feel like you’re helping without actually helping? The article raises disturbing questions of whether we really know where our money goes when we contribute to organizations. Gifford makes the point that most people who buy the little yellow “LiveStrong” bracelets believe that by doing so they are contributing to cancer research and helping to fight cancer. The truth is that none of that money goes to research. While the value of the LiveStrong programs that the money is used for is debatable, the point is that whether or not buying one of those little yellow bracelets actually helps in the fight against cancer is questionable. Yet everyone who has bought one or contributed to LiveStrong did so, because they thought they were helping the cause. And after they had done so they felt like they had helped. So did giving in this way effectively anesthetize them from feeling the need to continue contributing to this need?
These days there are hundreds, probably thousands, of organizations that claim to be working for the common good by addressing the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of our world. The question is, how much of that work is engaging those needs through action and how many are just raising awareness? And at what point does contributing to awareness about an issue make us feel like we’re helping when we really aren’t? Where has our awareness anesthetized us from actively engaging? This conversation helped reinforce our desire at New Denver to develop strong relationships with the people and organizations with whom we partner to contribute to the common good of our community, our city, our country, and the world. We need to make good choices about where we invest our time and resources and ensure that we aren’t just raising awareness about issues but also actively engaging the issues. Awareness is a good thing – a necessary step before engagement. But it’s not the final step.
To close this post I’ll throw out some deeper and more personal questions that this raised for me, and I’ll come back in a later post (more likely a series of posts) to address them. Has the way we’ve presented Jesus and the gospel effectively anesthetized people from discipleship (the process of actively following him with their lives)? By focusing on gathering large crowds to church on Sunday and teaching about Jesus have we raised awareness about him and given people the feeling that they’re following him when they really aren’t? Have we truncated the full message of the gospel into the plan of salvation (read Scot McKnight’s book King Jesus Gospel to understand what I mean by that) and called people to a decision instead of discipleship? Has doing so given them the impression that their journey of faith is complete when in fact they have only taken a first critical step?
Awareness is an important and necessary first step, but it cannot be our last step.
I spent yesterday at the Downing House as a guest of the Spiritual Formation Alliance for a one-day event with pastors Mike Lueken and Kent Carlson from Oak Hills Church in Folsom, CA. Mike and Kent co-authored the book Renovation of the Church. The book is an excellent account of their journey growing a large seeker-oriented church and then concluding that they had misunderstood the full meaning of the gospel and Christ’s call to make disciples. This conclusion led them to make radical changes at their church which had radical outcomes. The book is an excellent account of their journey, and they state that the book marks the end of a decade of transition at their church. The book is full of humility, honest confessions, and helpful insights from their story. It doesn’t offer easy solutions or step-by-step solutions, just the wisdom gained through the journey. The event was a presentation of their story but also meant to be a dialogue between Kent and Mike and pastors in Denver also seeking an emphasis on spiritual formation in their churches. Read more
Recently I got an email from a good friend who left Denver and our New Denver Church community to relocate to Atlanta. He emailed to let us know that he and his new wife were getting settled in Atlanta and had begun looking for a church home. This friend knew that I worked on staff at North Point Community Church so he quickly mentioned that they had already been attending Buckhead Church and were looking to get connected in a group there in the short term. But he indicated that he was hoping to find a church that more closely resembled New Denver and asked if I had any suggestions. I immediately clicked reply and started to list the churches that I recommended. The problem was, I couldn’t think of any.
As I sat there thinking I was stunned to realized that after living in Atlanta for twelve years and doing ministry there for over seven years of that time, I knew very little about churches in the Atlanta area outside of the church I worked for and its associated campuses. Oh, I could recall some big churches I knew of and had even listened to a few radio broadcasts or watched some messages on local TV. But I didn’t know any pastors or churches well enough to make any recommendations to my friend.
This struck me as especially odd, because our experience in Denver has been so vastly different. Thinking back on our first three years in Denver, one of the things I am most grateful for are the good friendships I have made with pastors around the city of Denver. Maybe our experience has been so different because we’re a church plant and went looking for anyone and everyone who could teach us about our new city when we first arrived. Maybe our experience has been different because when we went to them, the pastors of Denver welcomed us with open arms without a hint of territorialism or competitive spirit. Maybe it’s different, because in a city as spiritually apathetic as Denver, there’s no need to be territorial. Like-minded church leaders who desire to reach those who don’t know God realize there’s more than enough work for all of us. Maybe it’s different here simply because we made the time and put the effort into making connections.
Whatever the reason, I am grateful for our experience here. I’m not just grateful for what New Denver Church is doing but for what is happening in this city through the combined efforts of the Church of Denver – the Body of Christ, living and active, advancing the kingdom of God. I’m grateful for our friends who pastor churches here in Denver and for the friends we have who are part of their congregations. Great churches here in the city like Denver Community Church, TNL, Bloom, Fellowship Denver, Adullam, and many more around the metro area (I probably shouldn’t have started listing…too many more to type…I’m sure I’ll be hearing from the guys I left out…apologies!). We regularly send people who don’t feel like they fit at New Denver to these other churches in town, and they do likewise for us. I’m grateful for this bigger vision. I’m grateful that I get to be a small part of a much bigger story.
My only regret is that I didn’t do ministry like this sooner. I regret that there’s not a list of pastors in the Atlanta area (outside the North Point network) that I pray for. That I cheer for. That I consider friends. If you are in ministry and you are reading this post, ask yourself this question:
Who are the pastors or ministry leaders in my city who I consider friends?
I know we’re all busy, and I know there is more to do in your church/ministry every day than you have time to do. This is not something that will ever be urgent. But I believe it is vitally important. So make the time. I don’t think it’s something you’ll regret.
**Images from Flickr user Ali Smiles, used under Creative Commons license
In my last post I explored Jesus’ call to follow him – to live life as he did, connected to the Father by him, the Son, and through the Spirit, calling others to do the same. In this post I’d like to share some thoughts on what I think it means to try and do that in the context of everyday life.
When I look back on my life and journey of faith thus far, it is divided into two parts. In the first half, faith for me was mostly about a decision. The decision was to accept that Jesus’ death on the cross and his subsequent resurrection accomplished something for me. It was about deciding that I believed who Jesus claimed to be and that his sacrifice accomplished something on my behalf that I could not accomplish for myself. I was accepted, loved, and redeemed by God based on what Jesus did. The problem is that for too long, this is where faith ended for me. What I didn’t realize for many years was that the decision I made was a first step not a final step.
When my two boys first learned to walk, they both had a similar experience. Both stood and took faltering first steps before deciding that crawling was way more familiar and comfortable to them. Walking was scary, uneasy and unpredictable. They couldn’t get very far crawling, but they also couldn’t fall down. Crawling was safe and predictable. But you can’t really grow and mature as a human being and insist on continuing to crawl.
In his letter to the church in Galatia, Paul addresses a somewhat similar situation. Having taken their first steps of faith, some were actually going back to crawling:
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.
Paul sees these new followers of Jesus who have taken their first steps of freedom. They have made a decision to believe in Jesus and to follow him. But Paul also sees that these followers want to stop and rest after taking their first few steps of faith. But he pushes them to keep moving forward:
So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
So Paul has now contrasted two different ways of life – “indulging the flesh” and “walking by the Spirit.“ Paul goes on in Galatians 5:19-26 to explain more what each of these ways of life look like. To continue my metaphor, indulging the flesh is about continuing to crawl in your familiar habits and ways even after you’ve taken your first steps of faith into a new way of life. Walking by the Spirit, in contrast, is the awkward stumbling-forward process of learning to walk, in the way of Jesus.
But the question still remains – how do you do this? Unfortunately I can’t give you the process or formula (did you read the title of this series?!). What I can give you are the words of Jesus. These words have been immensely helpful for me on many occasions:
Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
While there are no formulas, Jesus does give us a process that is helpful in understanding how we can continue taking steps forward, learning to walk in step with the Spirit:
- Ask – God invites us to come to him with our cares, concerns and questions. So take him up on it. Go to God in prayer, ask him for wisdom, for guidance, for strength, for courage, for support. We ask, he gives.
- Seek – This is an invitation to action. Seek people who can guide you in the process. Seek books and resources that provide insight and wisdom. Seek truth, beauty, and justice, knowing that these come from God.
- Knock – Try things, and be willing to fail. The invitation to follow where Jesus leads is an invitation to learn from him. This will not be a perfect process. You will stumble. You will fall. But you never learn if you never try.
I can’t give you a formula or tell you what your journey of walking with God will look like. But I can tell you that God is found by those who seek him, and there is more joy and life in stumbling forward, learning to walk, than there is in going back to crawling. Who knows, we might even move beyond walking one day and actually get the chance to run. That’s something to look forward to.
**Photo from Flickr user cc511, used under Commercial Commons license
This week I had the opportunity to attend a conference presented by friends at 3D Ministries here in Denver. It was a great week of learning but also a great opportunity to connect with other men and women from Denver, the front range, and around the country who contribute to God’s work in the world through the local church. I have attended many conferences like this over the years an met more than my share of pastors and church leaders. This week I realized they all had a common thread. Read more