A few weeks ago at a congregational meeting I encouraged my people to look for ways to become more “incarnational” in our community. I made this invitation based on John 1:14: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” (TM) This is a popular message today, as it should be. For far too long the North American church has remained insular and often ineffective in terms of outreach. We should always be looking for new ways to reach out! But I was reminded recently from Canadian theologian, David Guretzki, that although it is right and good to become more intentional in our outreach, there is only one incarnation, and “it ain’t us.” Accordingly, he’s cautious about using the language of incarnation when it comes to talking about outreach. Perhaps this is just semantics. But I can see his point. Although we are called to go and make disciples (Matt. 28:16-20), there is only one incarnation. This occurred when the “Creator God, in some mind-boggling way, does not remain eternally isolated from his creation (as the god of Plato and Aristotle does), but joins the created order really and permanently in the person of Jesus Christ. Incarnation tells us the kind of God we worship even more than the kind of people we should be.” (“The Mystery of the Incarnation,” in Faith Today [Nov./Dec. 2017], 33-35) Guretzki calls the incarnation the “paramount teaching of the Christian Faith.” Accordingly, it is a doctrine that we should consider with awe. Oh the mystery of God becoming flesh for us—so that he could die for us! So, as much as we’re called to reach out and enfold people for Jesus, let us also take some time this Christmas season to wonder at the mystery of the incarnation. And may that wonder lead us to worship the God who put on flesh for us, so that we may be moved to tell others about him. I pray that you all have a blessed Christmas season!
This week I have the privilege of attending a seminar called, “Ministry to and with Millennials.” This seminar is hosted by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship based out of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI. Today was the first day, and so I thought I’d share some of my learning, especially as they relate to the church. The question we asked and discussed was: Who are the Millennials? … They are the students born between 1980 and 2000. They are a technological generation. They are motivated by what they perceive as “good.” Some believe that they are leaving the church in droves, but today we learned that the Millennials who were raised in the church usually remain in the church, although they may drop out for a bit during the college years. Therefore, as leaders in the church we were encouraged to reach out to them – those in the church and those outside the church. We were also encouraged to mentor them, as Millennials, having grown up in an “instant society,” with the Internet at the fingertips, can sometimes be impatient when it comes to spiritual growth or change in the church. In terms of work, Millennials prefer a flexible environment and the promise of advancement. They tend to blur the lines of work and life, which can be good in terms of integrating life and work, but a potential hindrance in terms of taking regular Sabbath. Finally, we learned that Millennials are cause-driven and action based. Accordingly, they are big on social justice and they prefer an embodied (lived out) faith… This is a summary of what I learned today about ministry to and with Millennials… What do you think? Would you add anything?
In my last blog post in this series, we talked about the Sermon, which is God’s Word proclaimed to the people. Every good sermon preaches the gospel—the good news of how God has saved us from our sin and misery through the shed blood of Christ. Having heard the gospel, now we illustrate it and take it in, as it were, through the Lord’s Supper. Also called Holy Communion, this sacrament means many things. It nourishes us spiritually for the Christian life. It unifies us as a body of Christ, the church. It assures us that we share in Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross. Communion is more than just about remembering Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is a sign and seal of what Jesus has done for us on the cross. So that as we eat the bread and wine, we are assured that Jesus died for us too, and that our sins are truly forgiven. As the writers of the Heidelberg Catechism say, “As surely as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup given to me, so surely his blood was offered and broken for me and his blood poured out for me on the cross.” So we receive an assurance of our salvation through this sacred meal. Perhaps that is more than enough. But I like how Professor Jamie Smith describes this meal as having “supper with the King” (Desiring the Kingdom [Baker Academic], 197). It is a reminder that one day we will eat another meal with the risen and reigning Lord: the wedding feast of the Lamb. As Jesus says to the disciples at his Last Supper with them: “For I tell you that I will not eat again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 22:16) How blessed we are that God uses the basic stuff of earth—bread and wine—to assures us of the gospel and nourish us unto salvation. How blessed we are to have a King that invites us to eat with him at his table, where we are formed spiritually for his kingdom service, and assured that we belong to him. So let us lift up our hearts to the Lord through the sacrament of Communion.
A couple of weeks ago I ran into one of my fellow pastors at the local hospital, where I was visiting someone. When I asked him how he was doing, he said, “I’m praying for a miracle!” When I asked what he meant, he said that his church was having some financial struggles. They had a large bill to pay and they lacked the funds. So, he was praying for a miracle. I responded by saying the miracle was coming: the resurrection of our Lord! In saying that I wasn’t minimizing their financial struggle. We should pray for such things and trust the Lord to provide. But the fact is that the resurrection of our Lord is a great miracle that gives us significant hope. So that we can endure with perseverance the challenges we face in life, be they financial or otherwise. Every year we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord. As we should. As this is the climax of our Christian Year and life. N. T. Wright calls the resurrection of Jesus, and our future resurrection, as a surprising hope that demands a response. As he writes in his book, Surprised by Hope (Harper One 2008): “Jesus is raised, so God’s new creation has begun—and we, as his followers, have a job to do! Jesus is raised, so we must act as his heralds, announcing his lordship to the entire world, making his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven!” (p. 56) During the season of Easter (all 50 days!) we are invited to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord as we worship, feast and play together. But we’re also invited to tell others this good news. And I suggest the best way to do that today is through personal testimony. Telling your faith story to others. As you develop relationships with them. Have a blessed Easter season!
Last week I had the privilege of meeting with my “company of pastors” (a number of Christian Reformed pastors in this area). As usual, it was good to talk about what is going on in our lives over a pizza meal. We also read an article in preparation for our meetings. This time it was one on singleness in the church. Through this article we explored various perspectives on singleness, which led to a discussion on how to enfold single people in the church more effectively. I was left with one major application: extend hospitality. Not just to singles, but to all people. I wonder how we can grow in our ministry of hospitality as a church but also as a people. We claim to be a hospitable church. But what does that hospitality look like, and how can we increase it? And what exactly is hospitality? I’m currently reading a book by Henri Nouwen called, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (Doubleday, 1975). According to Nouwen, the second movement of the spiritual life is from hostility to hospitality. As he explores this movement, he does a good job defining hospitality: “Hospitality . . . means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them a space where change can take place.” (p. 71) I like this definition of hospitality. Perhaps it is a helpful measure for us as we reflect on our lives. Are we hospitable? Do we seek to extend hospitality to others (including singles)? And what does that hospitality look like? . . . May our hospitable God empower us to extend hospitality to each other, to this community, and to the world. For Jesus’s sake.
The last time we reflected on worship, we talked about the Prayer for Illumination. As you may recall, we pray this prayer as we prepare to hear God’s Word read and proclaimed. Then comes the Sermon/Message. So, what is going on in this part of the worship service? Having worshiped the Lord in song and prayer, we are ready to hear God speak to us through his word, which the sermon attempts to do. This is an amazing reality, when you stop to think about it. We worship a God who speaks to his people. The question is: are we listening? The sermon is a prime time to hear God speak through his ancient word. This points to one of the significant challenges of preaching: How can an ancient text speak to a modern people? As the late Pastor John Stott explains: to build a “bridge” between the ancient and modern world through the preaching of the Word is the goal of the preacher. (See Stott’s book, Between Two Worlds.) But it is a challenging one! As Rev. Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. writes, “The weekly assignment to preach the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ is daunting. Maybe half a million preachers got up to preach this past Sunday, and would like us to appreciate the hill they climbed.” (Reading for Preaching, 65) Fair enough. Preaching is a challenging task. But what is the preacher trying to accomplish? As Rev. Plantinga also says, “The preacher’s job is not just to repeat a text, but also to outfit it for the hearing of a congregation. The preacher not only does in other words what the text does. He also says in other words what it says, dressing it up or down, shaping and coloring and amplifying it in such a way that when people hear the preached text they hear God’s word to them.” (p. 3) So, this is a summary of what happens during the preaching of the word. Now we are all invited to listen to the word proclaimed on Sunday morning, so we can get God’s story into our hearts, and live it out the rest of the week. Amen?
I just read an article in the latest Faith Today magazine that was very interesting. (See the January/February issue, pp. 32-35.) It talked about the Canadian church being in exile. At one time, the church of Canada held a prominent place in Canadian culture. Many people belonged to a local church, and the church extended considerable influence in the community. But according to Lee Beach, those days are largely over. Now we are a minority in Canada. So, how should we respond? Some have chosen to isolate themselves from the larger culture. They have decided that it would be best to protect themselves and their children from the “evils” of the world. I suppose their intent is to be a city on a hill like Jesus talked about in Matthew 5. And there is some validity to this view. But others have chosen to try and engage the culture in meaningful ways, all the while seeking to remain holy and set apart, which I believe is a more fruitful approach. Actually, when you think about it, we are sort of going back to the early church era in terms of being a minority group in a large pagan (secular) world. So, we would do well to remember how the early church responded in this time and place. What did they do? They gathered regularly for prayer and worship. They carefully studied God’s Word and received the Sacraments. They gave generously to those in need. (See Acts 2.) And the church grew and extended considerable influence in the world. Yes, the Canadian church may be in exile, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make a difference in this world as we love God and our neighbors with all of our hearts. So, let us not hide in fear in these challenging times. Instead, let us consider ways that we can extend hospitality to our community and world, so they will receive the love of Christ that they so desperately need.