Category Archives: Ministry

Vision Sunday

Vision Sunday

This post is a summary of Sunday’s message at Wyoming Park Bible Fellowship, given as we look forward to our next year of ministry.

In today’s parlance, when we speak of a “vision”, especially of an organization, we mean, specifically, a vision for the future. In this post, however, I’m not only concerned with imagining our future, but with understanding our past and present as well. Our task as a church depends first and foremost on what God has done for in the past and what he will do for us in the future. Between these two poles – our justification already won through the gospel and our glorification promised by the gospel – lies our work in the present, our response to the gospel, Christ working in us.

In the Old Testament God often encouraged Israel by reminding them of His past deeds, His future promise, and His present commands. He rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt. He promised to bring them into the Promised Land. Their present response to His past work and their future hope? Be strong and courageous and obey His word.

In the New Testament we see something similar. God has saved us through Jesus’ death and resurrection (past). He promises us eternal life with Him (future) – and in the shorter term that he will transform us more into the people he desires us to be. Our proper response? Be strong and courageous and obey His word.

The first two elements of this formula – past and future – are the gospel, that Jesus died for our sins, that He rose again, and that He will return to make all things new. The third – the present – is our response to the gospel.

The call to our church is to receive the gospel and respond to the gospel.

Receive

The gospel is first something which we must receive.

We were once far from God, but we have been “brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph 2:13). His sacrificial death on the cross destroyed the wall of hostility built up by our sin (Eph 2:14-15). In demolishing that wall he has formed those who believed into one body, the church, and has reconciled that one body to Himself (Eph 2:15-16). We as a church stand now as a people who have access to the Creator and Preserver of the universe, the Father, through the Spirit (Eph 2:18).

We receive this gospel through faith. We do not bring ourselves near. We do not reconcile ourselves to God. We do not barge into his presence. We are brought in by God Himself. We are saved by grace.

Respond

Having received this gospel, we respond.

This response is what it means to be a follower – a disciple – of Jesus. To the extent that our response as a church – what we value, how we think, what we do – is faithful to God, we will be “successful” as a church. By “successful” we mean “found faithful in his sight.” So what is a faithful response to the gospel?

This list is not definitive, but we believe it encompasses the major aspects of discipleship: we respond in worship, in fellowship, in growing knowledge (cognitive and applied) of His Word, and in mission.

Worship: Like the leper who returned to Jesus after he had been healed to bow down and worship him, we, having been healed from a disease worse than leprosy, lay down our lives to him. Worship is a whole life posture. But it is experienced and given in the act of praise – singing and declaring out loud the goodness of God. This is why we gather on Sunday mornings not, first of all, for our benefit, but to declare the praises of Him who saved us.

Fellowship: There is a spiritual unity within the body of Christ that exists whether we participate in it our not. Yet Paul sees this spiritual unity as calling us to a practical unity. The body is built up only insofar as “each part does its work.” Achieving spiritual maturity is something we do alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ. To respond to the gospel is to love the family of believers. To love the family of believers is to know and respond to their needs – physical, spiritual, emotional.

Knowing God’s Word: We need more than mere knowledge. Knowledge without love puffs up. It gives us a dangerous self-confidence. But we do need to be transformed by the renewing of our mind and that renewing of the mind comes through consistent meditation on the Word of God. By the Spirit of God, the word planted in us grows and bears fruit. That fruit is virtue informed by the likeness of Christ: his love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Mission: Our mission is to make disciples and we do that by “letting our light shine” before the world in the hopes that the world will see it and glorify God. In the context of Jesus’ teaching that light is our good deeds; our acts of service and love. But, when Jesus sent out his disciples he sent them out not only with good deeds, but with a message: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” We bear that same mission – acts of love combined with the proclamation of God’s love. His kingdom is near and accessible by faith through the works of Jesus.

If we do these things well, we will be well on our way toward a faithful response to the gospel:

If in our worship we become continually aware of the presence of God, if in our fellowship we encourage and build each other up,
if in our application of the Word we grow into the image of Christ, if in our works of service we demonstrate Christ’s love to our neighbors, then we cannot help but become the light of the world and fulfill our purpose as a church

Having these broad principles in mind, how do we, Wyoming Park Bible Fellowship, properly respond to the gospel? How do we do these things at 2260 Porter St in the year 2018?

Below are a few specific goals for the next year:

Worship: Increase worship attendance. We could do this with a poor motive, to make ourselves look great, but it is nevertheless a good end to seek. Why? Because God is worthy of our worship. This increased attendance can come from two sources: (1) those who attend already, attend more regularly or (2) new attenders. Studies have shown that frequency of church attendance has dropped steadily in recent years and this is impacting church attendance numbers. This is a problem because other studies have shown that frequency of church attendance correlates to other measures of spiritual maturity.

What you can do: Come. Invite friends and family. Help make Sunday morning awesome, especially for newcomers.

Fellowship: Potlucks. You know what’s hard for new people to join? Small groups. Small groups are key to spiritual development, but they’re also awkward for a lot of people. It turns out that mid-sized groups can be a lot more conducive to socialization. Hence: potlucks. On the first Sunday of each month we’ll be holding potlucks after church along with BFG classes specifically for new attenders. The idea is to remove the awkwardness of the small groups for new people, while still providing them to take a “next step” in getting to know our church. (And eventual incorporation into Bible Fellowship Groups is still the ultimate goal). And, if there are no visitors, we still get the bonus of good food and fellowship around the table.

What you can do: Bring delicious food. Sit with someone new. Invite friends, specifically on the first week of the month.

Growing in knowledge: Helping people in individual and coordinated studies. One of the key “inputs” for spiritual growth is regular Bible reading. Yet, this remains one of those things which people struggle with the most. Our goal is to find ways to encourage and equip people to grow in that discipline.

What you can do: Recommend devotional material or practices that you find helpful.

Mission: Evaluate and (maybe) launch Safe Families for Children at WPBF. Safe Families for Children is a para-church ministry associated with Bethany Christian Services that places children in homes when there is an urgent and temporary family need. It is designed to head off the need for foster care, which is often extremely disruptive to children. We are evaluating to what extent we as a church should be involved. The extent we’re involved depends a lot on whether God is calling individuals and families in our church to participate – and whether those called are willing to respond.

What you can do: Pray about possible participation in Safe Families for Children. Let leaders know if you’re interested in helping out in some way.

Hope in the Lord

Our aim is to be faithful to God. We don’t know the end result of that faithfulness. The fruit of our labors, and the timing of that fruit, is up to God. Still, we can and should pray to see the fruit of the gospel and, even, to dream about what it might look like.

Here is what I am envisioning: Sunday morning we have a sanctuary filled with people, from every age group, from all kinds of backgrounds, some new believers, some seasoned, all worshipping God in Spirit and in truth. Our songs bring glory to God and our sermons faithfully expound the word of God and equip his people for life throughout the week.

During our BFG hour small – but expanding – groups encourage one another, pray for one another, and actively invite new people in. On potluck Sundays new attenders learn about church and stay to enjoy food and fellowship.

Throughout the week individuals put into practice the fruit of the Spirit, encouraged by regular time in the word and prayer. They function as the salt of the earth in their homes, in their leisure time, in their studies, and in their jobs. They are filled with peace and joy and love. In the times when they are alone, they act with integrity. All consider ways they can serve others, though each will have their own way of doing this. As a church, we have a team of people practicing true religion – caring for children in need – either through Safe Families, Attic After School, or by simply and organically caring for the needs we become aware of around us.

These acts of service and this palpable love shown by our congregation – combined with a willingness to share the good news of the gospel – invites others to receive and respond to the gospel, then to join us at the table, then to grow in maturity, and then to reach out in love.

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3 behaviors that have the biggest impact on spiritual growth (according to data)

I’m currently reading No Silver Bullets by Daniel Im. This is a book written primarily for pastors and church leaders, to help their ministries become more effective in making disciples.

No Silver Bullets relies heavily on research conducted by LifeWay. LifeWay’s research examined two types of data. First, they identified eight characteristics of a spiritually mature disciple. The eight characteristics were: biblical engagement, obeying God and denying self, serving God and others, sharing Christ, exercising faith, seeking God, building relationships, and living transparently. Second, they looked at around forty behaviors which they thought could contribute to those eight characteristics. Then, they measured which behaviors had an effect.

Not surprisingly, some behaviors had strong correlations to some outcomes. For instance, regularly praying for friends or family who aren’t believers was a strong predictor of whether or not someone shared their faith. Some of the correlations were surprising. For instance, there was a strong correlation between confessing your sins and sharing your faith.

But, there were three behaviors which had the biggest impact on the eight indicators of spiritual maturity, and they had an impact on all of the indicators. In other words, these three behaviors don’t just help you grow in one area, but in all areas.

As a pastor, they’re not all the surprising to me. But they are often neglected. Here they are.

Reading the Bible: We’re not talking about in depth Bible study here, we’re just talking about regularly opening up your Bible and reading it. This behavior helps people grow not only in Bible engagement, but in serving God, denying self, building relationships, and all the other indicators of mature discipleship.

Attending church worship services: The more people attended worship services, the more they grew spiritually. It’s pretty simple, really. It makes sense. And yet, regular attendance is waning, even among the committed. Don’t neglect it.

Attending a small group (Bible study, Sunday school class, etc.): Those who engaged with smaller groups of believers didn’t just grow in building relationships, but, again, in each of the key indicators.

Are you serious about growing in your faith? We can’t manufacture growth – it’s the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. But, we can be faithful and wise. The fact that these behaviors correlated to spiritual growth makes sense. They’re biblically mandated behaviors. We’re called to meditate on God’s Word, to not forsake the fellowship of unbelievers, and to practically find ways to love brothers and sisters in Christ. It should be no surprise that in doing those things which Christ commands, we will grow closer to Christ Himself.

Book Recommendation
No Silver Bullets: Five Small Shifts that will Transform Your Ministry

Book Review: Youth Ministry in the 21st Century: Five Views

youthminMy first thought when I saw the title of this book: “I didn’t even know there were five distinct views, what could they possibly be?” Here they are, in a nutshell:

The Gospel Advancing View by Greg Stier: This view focuses on evangelism, on saving the lost. Stier believes that discipleship happens when the mission (the Great Commission, the “Cause”) is at the forefront.

The Reformed View by Brian Cosby: This view attempts to apply consistently Reformed beliefs and practices to Youth Ministry. This includes an emphasis on faithfulness instead of “success” and a emphasis on the “means of grace”: the Word, prayer, and sacraments, as the primary drivers for youth ministry.

The Adoption View by Chap Clark: Clark believes that we have erred and become too individualistic in our view of discipleship and need to focus, instead, on building up the body of Christ. This view emphasizes the need for churches to “adopt” children into “family” of God by including them more deeply within the broader church.

The Ecclesial View by Fernando Arzola: Like the Adoption view, the Ecclesial view focuses on the Church. Where the adoption view emphasizes the local church congregation, the ecclesial view focuses on the “one, holy, catholic, apostolic” church. It emphasizes connecting youth with the historic church.

The D6 View by Ron Hunter: “D6” stands for Deuteronomy 6. This view argues that it’s God’s design that parents should play the primary role in discipling their children and that the church’s job is to lay the theological foundation, equip the parents for their work, and come along side the parents in a supporting role. The D6 model also emphasizes having and integrated approach to children, youth, young adult, and family ministry where ministry leaders work towards a common goal.

Analysis: In my initial estimation, the Adoption view and the D6 view made the strongest case for being the overarching philosophy for youth ministry. The others are important to keep in mind as well, though, and could provide necessary correctives when things get out of balance.

I’m curious, which of these types of youth groups did you grow up with? What worked and what didn’t?

E, S, V, P

First, let me just say that in the past 36 hours I have come up with some of my best political one-liners ever. They were funny. But they were probably also unnecessarily divisive. I also wrote half a blog post dealing on parts of what is currently happening in Cleveland. And yet, I practiced self-control and didn’t post any of it on FB and I deleted my post. I think I deserve a prize. Mint chocolate chip ice cream sounds pretty good…

Today’s post is quite different in nature, and it is particularly geared toward preachers.

I attended a training today at my engineering job. At the start of the training session we had an ice-breaker. Each person was instructed to state their name and whether they were an E, S, V, or P. “E”s are explorers, they are people who are very interested in the content of the class. “S”s are shoppers, they are interested in some of the material. They are looking for one or two takeaways. “V”s are vacationers, they aren’t really interested in the class but it got them out of their routine and they have no better place to be. Finally, “P”s are prisoners, they are in the class against their will – their manager made them come.

On any given Sunday, there is a mix of ESVPs in your congregation. This might be helpful to recognize.

When I prepare to preach I tend to “categorize” my audience and try to gear my preaching to a broad based of listeners. The broadest category is “believers” and “unbelievers.” I try to include a call to believers and a call to unbelievers. In other words, I try to both disciple and evangelize.

I also think through people in different life stages. How would a student understand and apply this message? How would a retiree? How would someone who is feeling sad about a recent loss? Etc.

I think I will add ESVP to my lens as well. How would this look?

Explorers: Explorers in a church setting are those people who come eager to learn. They love the Bible. Even if they can’t directly apply the message to their lives, as long as you faithfully expound the Word of God, they will stay tuned. These are the easiest to preach to. A seeker, even if not a Christian, could also be an explorer. They may still be interested in the message even if they don’t (yet) agree. I’m not sure you really have to do anything extra for the explorers, but it’s good to acknowledge that some people are eager to learn Scripture. If nothing else, this should encourage the preacher.

Shoppers: Some people are not really that interested in the whole service. Some might particularly like the music, or the social aspect, or perhaps they are looking for one or two “take home” points from the sermon. You have to work a little harder for their attention. Maybe they’re not interested in the “big idea” of the sermon because it’s not what they’re shopping for. We still, if we’re going to be faithful to the text, will want to draw them in. Here’s where a good “tension creating” intro can go a long way.

Vacationers: These are people who are really just apathetic. They aren’t hostile. Church is just another thing which breaks the routine. They don’t really have a better place to be – or the cost of getting to that other place is too high. I think the goal here is to awaken their passions and to do that by passionately proclaiming the gospel.

Prisoners: Prisoners are people who don’t want to be there. They were dragged by a spouse or a parent or were pressured by a friend. They are hostile. According to preaching books I have read the best ways to communicate with those who are hostile are with humor and story (two of my weakest preaching abilities).

Perhaps it might just be good to acknowledge that we have a mix of people in the audience. It’s not all explorers, it’s not all shoppers, it’s not all vacations, it’s not all prisoners. Assuming everyone is an explorer will grant you permission to be boring. Assuming everyone is a shopper will cause you to just focus on the “takeaways” without getting to the meat. Assuming everyone is a vacationer might make you force in passion where it doesn’t come naturally, or assume everyone’s problem is that they are “lukewarm.” Assuming everyone is a prisoner will likely either make you hostile and angry or overly deferential.

Sometimes I address a particular group: “perhaps you are here and you have never placed your trust in Jesus” or “perhaps you are here and you are really struggling with a loss right now…” Maybe I could do the same with ESVP… “perhaps you are here and you feel like a prisoner, you really don’t want to be here…” That acknowledges those “prisoners” where they are at and allows you to address them directly. “Yes, that is me, what’s he going to say?”

Preacher or congregants, what do you think, is this helpful?

Confession of a Politically Engaged Pastor

Confession: I want to influence your* vote, but not for the reason or with the method you’re probably thinking of.

Here’s my dilemma: On the one hand I want to stay as far away from politics as possible. Politics are divisive. They usually separate instead of unite. That last thing I would want to do is divide the church on political lines, to alienate fellow believers or push away those who are seeking. I want to reach Bernie supporters, Hillary supporters, Trump supports, Kasich supports, Libertarians, #NeverTrumpers, and people of every other political stripe. I never want to unnecessarily offend and that’s often where political speech goes.

Second, so much of political thought is based on human wisdom and does not have the same weight as “thus saith the Lord.” As good or bad as some economic or political theories are, it’s just hard to defend many of them from Scripture. Since I’m a pastor in the business of proclaiming the Word of God above all else, I don’t want my political opinions to get entangled with what is more Scripturally certain.

Third, I don’t want to get distracted from the gospel. It’s Jesus that will transform the world and he does it through his life, death, and resurrection. That’s the message of life and hope. I don’t want anything to get in the way of that message.

On the other hand, while the gospel is not politics, the gospel does have political implications. Those who follow Jesus commit to following him in every area of their lives, and politics are not an exception. Voting, or choosing not to vote, is not morally neutral behavior or one based solely on personal preferences or opinions. Many political issues are based on human wisdom but others are questions in regards to what is good, and right, and just. Political engagement is a way that Christians can honor God and love neighbor, or it can be a way we dishonor God and neglect our neighbor.

I don’t want to influence your vote because I care about political power or political results. Political power can be good when used for justice but it can also seduce and corrupt. Political results are in the hands of the sovereign God. No, I care how you vote** because I am charged with the duty of discipleship (and not only in my role as a pastor, all Christians are called to be disciple-makers.) I care about how you vote because of the Judgment Seat of Christ where we will all be called to make account for our actions, whether good or bad, and how we act or fail to act politically comes under that same judgment.

Here’s my other dilemma: How then do I go about giving instruction on such matters? There are a couple of things I’m not comfortable doing – endorsing a candidate or using a position of influence to speak about matters of purely human wisdom. I’m not comfortable with this course of action for a few reasons, but the main reason is that it only gets at the surface off what is really going on. I see politics as a “lagging indicator.” Politics is always a few years behind culture. And culture comes out of a broad world view. For Christians, our worldview should be shaped by knowledge of Scripture, plus a desire to love God and love neighbor. This is the root. My aim in discipleship is to first discern the root issues and then to address them through Scripture. The benefit of this is that it not only eventually percolates back up to a political symptom (Lord willing) but that, more importantly, it’s essential to disciple-making in the first place, even if it never has any political impact.

This is part of the reason why I’ve written the blog posts that I have. I want you to know that abortion is an injustice against the weak and powerless and is an offense to the image of God. I want you to know that racism is a problem and that the body of Christ has a role to play in national healing. I want you to know that we need to examine our anger and look for constructive solutions. I want you to know that God cares for the aliens and strangers, even while that leads to uncertain political conclusions. I want you to know that political idolatry can lead to fear, hatred, and a compromised conscience. I also want you to know that not voting is an option, if the alternative is a vote between two evils. My aim is to focus on the gospel and the whole counsel of God and simply allow them to have the political consequences they might naturally have.

I really have no idea how I’m doing in this. It’s quite possible that I’m being too vague, that I lack courage, or that I am too concerned that I might offend. If so, I apologize. Or it’s possible I’m being too vocal, lifting issues higher than they should be and causing a distraction for some. If so, again, I apologize. I’ve swung wildly throughout my life. When I was a teenager I was convinced that pastors should be vocal political activists and that those who didn’t, failed to because of a lack of conviction. Later, I took the opposite position, coming to the conclusion that pastors should avoid political discussions at all costs. This election cycle has pulled me back to somewhere in the middle. Please pray with me as I try to navigate this rocky terrain.

* Note 1: “You/your” is specifically directed towards followers of Jesus. If you’re reading this and you are not a believer in, or follower of Jesus, this post probably doesn’t apply to you. It is pastoral in nature, not really generally political.

** Note 2: I don’t mean to say that there is a one-to-one relationship between proper discipleship and the “right” candidate. Followers of Jesus will disagree on some things politically, but that doesn’t mean they’re somehow “less than” if they happen to disagree with me. I expect a certain amount of healthy political diversity within the body. But, I do believe that biblical ethics and values do put certain limits on who we could vote for and maintain a clear conscience. There are certain candidates or laws which I would counsel Christians not to vote for and feel pretty certain about my conclusions.

Healing the wounds of racism through Jesus and His Church: Notes from the Church Ministries Conference

Last weekend I attended the annual Church Ministries Conference and Calvary Baptist Church in Grand Rapids. One of the workshops I attended was called “Healing the wounds of racism through Jesus and His Church.” Here are the notes that I took:

The Problem

Our culture is divided by race. This division is fueled by a politicization of racial issues. There are people on the Left and on the Right that profit from this exploiting this tension and from perpetuating false narratives that feed their followers already entrenched views of the world. The result is that divisions along racial and political lines only deepen. We begin to view race through a political lens and, in doing so, adopt all the false narratives from those who profit off of the anger that is stirred up.

The church should be well situated to bring peace and reconciliation to this issue but is itself divided by race. Sunday mornings are still one of the most segregated times of the week. We are not immune from the cultural and political divide facing our nation. We are also more likely to view racial issues through the lens of politics rather than through the lens of the reconciling gospel of Jesus Christ.

Definitions: Racism and White Privilege

These were the definitions provided by the presenters:

Racism (older definition): A belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race: racial prejudice or discrimination.

Racism (newer definition): Ethnic prejudice plus Power.

The strength of the older definition is that it describes racism on personal terms. Racism is an issue of the heart. The problem is that it doesn’t address the “systematic” nature of racism.

The strength of the newer definition is that is gets at the systematic/power dynamics involved in racism though it might excuse the wrong heart attitude of the “weak.” This newer definition does not mean that minority groups could not exhibit racism. “Power” can come from different sources. It could come from political power, economic power, or physical violence, none of which are necessarily exclusive to a “majority” group.

Systematic/structural racism is often something ignored particularly by White America. This has something to do with our highly individualistic view of sin.  We tend to view sin only at the individual level. But sin can become entrenched in culture in a way that is more than a mere heart problem. Abortion is an example of systematic sin. It has become embedded in our culture as something acceptable and is protected by a series of laws and court rulings. Those who defend it have a whole new language which serves to gloss over the reality of what it really is.

In some places racism still exists at this structural and systematic level. The presenter described two different police forces to illustrate the role of power in racism. In both police forces about 1% of the police officers were actively discriminatory. In city A those “bad apples” were disciplined by those in power. In city B those police officers were protected by those in power. That power dynamic made the minority residents of city B feel the effects of racism far more acutely since those officers who harassed them were able to continue to do so without impunity.

We need to understand the dynamics between people and systems as it relates to the totality of the Fall. Racism is a condition that exists within a person. People inhabit “systems” (politics, business, religious organization, etc.). Those people affect systems and systems, in turn, affect people.

All this brings me to the next definition: White Privilege

“White Privilege” is one of those loaded terms. It means different things to different people and it carries a lot of baggage. Here is the definition provided at the workshop:

“White privilege is a measureable thing. It’s far too easy to dismiss the perceived experiences of a person of color so studies have demonstrated that it is an objective, measureable reality as much as it is a subjective reality. Numerous examples abound. A white man at a used car dealer will be offered a price that is an average of $200 lower than the black man who checked it out earlier that morning. White children aged 12-17 are more likely to use and sell drugs than black children 12-17, yet black children are about twice as likely to be prosecuted for it. When identical resumes are sent to business with the only difference being one has a stereotypically white sounding name and the other has a stereotypically black sounding name, the white resume is far more likely to get a call back than the black sounding name…”

White privilege doesn’t mean that “a white man was hired because he was white.” It doesn’t mean that all white people are privileged. There are many factors that cross racial bounds (class, family structure, education, etc.) that give or take privilege. Nor (in the view of the presenters) is white privilege a problem. The problem is that people of color are not given the same privileges, statistically speaking.

Solution

The presenters provided three steps for healing the wounds of racism:

Admit that there is a problem. For whites this means admitting systematic and cultural racism as well as personal fears. For minorities this means being aware that anger, misplaced blame (not every issue is a racial issue), and self-doubt need to be addressed.

Submit to God and to one another. For whites this means actively listening and empowering minorities. For minorities this means demonstrating love, forgiveness, and patience with whites who find this hard to understand.

Commit to building bridges across racial boundaries. This means building relationships, being sensitive to one another, recognizing our interdependence, sacrificing preferences for the sake of the other, and embracing the God-given ministry of reconciliation.

The Power of the Gospel

All of this is possible through the power of the gospel. In Christ God has formed one new body of people, the Church. He has made those who were previously enemies into friends through the cross. He has broken down the dividing wall. I pray that the church will be willing to see racial issues through this theological lens, and not just adopt the lens of whatever political party they are affiliated with.

Church as an “emergent system”

In my previous post I offered a slight critique to the center set model of church, observing that while it is helpful it is ultimately incomplete in describing certain aspects of church life. In this post I would like to propose my own[1] model: the church as an “emergent system.”

(Aside: While sharing the word “emergent” with the so-called “emergent” church movement, this post has nothing to do with that movement.)

In The Social Animal David Brooks discusses a dizzying array of topics, including poverty. In describing poverty he uses the terminology of “emergence,” describing it as an “emergent system.”

Emergence is the philosophical opposite of reductionism. Reductionism tries to understand an entire system by pulling apart and understanding its individual parts. The idea is that we can understand something complex by understanding all the components that make it up. Reductionism is, of course, a hugely important way of understand the world.

Emergence, on the other hand, looks at systems as a whole, as a system as something that is more than just the sum of its parts. An emergent system is made up of more than just individual parts, but also the dynamic interaction between those parts. An emergent system is irreducible to its components and, in fact, will have characteristics that its individual components do not have.

Brooks offers some examples of emergent systems. Hurricanes are made up of the relatively benign components of water and wind which come together under just the right conditions to form a system of incredible force. A story has an emotional force that is irreducible to the sum of its words. An ant colony is incredibly organized and complex, even though no single ant can direct, comprehend, or even see the whole system.

One more component of emergent systems is worth noting. When a system of interactions has been firmly established (the system is “in place”) that system has a strong downward force on the individuals within the system. This is evident when we think of culture as an emergent system. Cultures are made up of people, ideas, rules, etc. but they are irreducible to just the parts. They are also characterized by the dynamic interaction between those parts. Additionally, culture has a strong downward force on the individuals which inhabit the culture. It impacts what we wear, what we eat, what we value, and what stories we tell.

I think it is helpful to think of church (both Big C and little c) as an emergent system. For many years I was accustomed to thinking of the church as merely the collection of individual Christians but the more that I have studied the New Testament the more I have begun to see Church as a think in and of itself.

Consider some of the major biblical images of church. The church is a body. A body is an emergent system. It is more than the sum of its parts (despite what Planned Parenthood would have you believe). A body is animated when there is interaction between the individual members of that body, when the arm works with the hand. The church is a building. A building is irreducible to the sum of its materials. It becomes useful when the parts work together in a particular design. The church is a family. Brooks observes that marriage counselors will sometimes say that there are always three patients in the counseling session – the husband, the wife, and the marriage itself. The same is true for a family. The family is more than a collection of people, but the interactions, roles, rules, and culture of that particular collection and the family has a strong downward force in shaping its individual members.

A church, in other words, is as much characterized by the interaction of its members as it is by the relative strength and weakness of its individual members. I think this is why there are so many “one another” commands given in Scripture. Love one another. Bear with one another. Serve one another. Be of the same mind. Forgive one another. Etc. All of these commands describe interactions between members of the community that will, over time, form patterns of interaction, and thus a virtuous emergent system – a Christ-like church culture. This church culture will then have a downward force on its individual members.

When seen in a positive way we will see that a loving church (a church characterized by loving interactions) will produce loving members. A forgiving church, forgiving members. A mature church, mature members. A church where members think of ways to spur one another on to righteousness, a holy church.

In the negative we will see that a bitter church will produce bitter members. A legalistic church, legalistic members. A faithless church, faithless members. I think this is why so many people, even strong Christians, can be ruined in a toxic church environment. A house where the foundations are crumbling will not be helped by a solid roof. A body that has cancer will not be helped, at least not in the long run, by a strong arm. Indeed, the arm itself will grow weak and eventually die as it is destroyed by the disease spreading throughout the rest of the body.

As a preacher, I need to think through this. Discipleship is more than just knowledge acquisition. It comes, at least in large degree, from a community. When I preach I need to think not just of what individual response I am hoping the sermon produces, but what sort of church culture the sermon would produce. In my short time as a pastor I have observed that a Christ-like church culture does a lot more for long-term spiritual formation than does a rousing sermon. Sermons are important, obviously, but often they are important in the way they reinforce the virtuous processes of the emergent system that is the church.

Non-preachers should take note as well. If you want to grow in relation to Christ you need more than just more individual Bible reading (though the importance of that should not be discounted). You need to be part of a church.

This Sunday some relative newcomers to our church mentioned that they really appreciated the “spirit” of the church. They didn’t commend the music or the preaching or the programs, but the spirit of the church. I can think of few things I would rather have them compliment. Certainly of the things we do as a church the “spirit” of the church, by which I understood them to mean the culture, values, beliefs and interactions of our church, all the things that make our church more than just a collection of individuals, will have some of the strongest downward force of the spiritual growth of our members.

I’m certainly not convince this particular model – the church as an emergent system – is all encompassing. One big difference arises Brooks’ description of the emergent system and the emergent system that is the church, the presence of Christ. The body has a head – Jesus. The building has a presence – the Spirit. The family has a leader – Christ. And it is really this presence of God, which makes the whole system life-giving and entirely unique.

[1] I don’t mean “my own” to say that my thoughts are original, only that I haven’t seen the ideas described in the blog post linked in this way before. Basically everything in this blog is derivative, and intentionally so.