Why Should Churches Connect?

I was speaking with a church planter just the other day at the local Starbucks.  He was telling me that they started their ministry with a network in the Chicago area.  And now, after 3 1/2 years they were “independent.”  In fact, over the next few minutes, he used the words independent, or non-denominational at least six times.  I wondered why that was such a badge of honor, but it was for him.  Being non-denominational has become a cultural catch phrase.  I think it means, “don’t worry, we aren’t part of one of those offensive and dead denominations of yesteryear.  We are fresh, we are new, we have the freedom to do whatever the Spirit tells us.”
This independence is nothing new.  A form of it is a distinctive that baptists have held dear for centuries.  We’ve called it “the autonomy of the local church.”  It’s even in our doctrinal statements.  It comes from a rejection of state churches and hierarchical denominations that have, in the past, exerted great authority over the life of the local congregation.  Here are a few of the underlying convictions of church autonomy:
  1. Each local congregation is a biblical expression of the church.
  2. Each local congregation is led, ultimately, by Christ as its head.
  3. Each local congregation has, by the Spirit and the Word, the responsibility and opportunity to follow the leadership of Christ.  Because of this, it should not be under the control of a hierarchical system, which we would call a denomination.
The fact is, while baptists have this hallmark, we’re not so unique anymore.  Most, evangelical, non-mainline churches operate this way to one degree or another.  Bible Churches, Evangelical Free, and all other non-denominational congregations have this as their practice.
While I still believe in this as a worthy principle of self-governance, we’ve done the body of Christ and the world a disservice in the way we’ve practiced it.  By insisting that because of autonomy, we infer that a church has no responsibility to the greater body, we are deny the corporate application of a key principle of the Christian life.
And that key principle is “mutual submission.”  Remember what Paul said?  “…understand what the will of the Lord is… submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ (Eph. 5:17,21).”  The question is, does this have application beyond individual believers?  I think it does and we see it worked out in the pages of the New Testament.  We see congregations and leaders working to strengthen the witness of other local congregations.  They prayed for one another, supported one another and held one another accountable.  They raised up and sent out leaders together.  They supported the greater mission of the church together.  They dealt with issues of theology and missiology together.
Mutual submission is reasonable because we hold to “one head” of the church, who is Christ.  We’ve often told couples, love in marriage is like a triangle.  If you each draw nearer to Christ, the one at the top of the triangle, you will be drawn closer to one another.  If that principle is true in marriage, it should be true within congregations and it should be true between congregations.  If we have one head and we are living in response to his leadership, we should be drawn into a relationship of mutual love and mutual submission.
On a personal and corporate level, mutual submission is demonstrated in the Scriptures.  How can we begin developing mutual submission on a congregation to congregation level?
  1. Mutual submission begins with mutual care.  We won’t submit to one another if we don’t care for one another. We must build relational connections between pastors, leaders and people.  We can and should pray for one another and our witness of Christ.  We should reach out to one another practically with tangible support in times of crisis or need.
  2. Mutual submission develops from a mutual purpose.  We won’t submit to one another until we share Christ’s purpose, to “seek and save that which is lost.”  We may be called to express that mission differently in our context, but we must believe that we share one mission, not many, for the glory of Christ.
  3. Mutual submission expects mutual accountability.  We must develop connections of accountability.  The truth is, the integrity of the Baptist pastor matters to the Presbyterian church down the street.  Why? Because it affects the common mission of the gospel in that community.  A downfall damages the work of Christ, which we all share.  Leaders of churches need accountability beyond themselves.  They need a clear picture that they are part of the larger work of Christ in the world.
  4. Mutual submission enjoys mutual strength and effectiveness.  When we live in mutual submission between congregations, we find support when we are weak.  We also find a stronger witness to the world, for the authenticity of our message.  The words of Christ become true on a corporate level; “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34-35).”
  5. Mutual submission gets messy and takes effort.  There will be rubs and disagreements.  It means at times we will have to put aside personal agendas for the sake of the other.  When done well, that too, reminds the local body that it is part of something bigger that God is doing on earth.
God works through the local congregation.  And that local congregation is the expression of Christ’s Body on this earth.  But that one local body is not the only expression.  Each and every congregation is an expression of the one Christ, one mission, and one people belonging to God through faith in Jesus Christ.  And if we expect our people to submit to one another, then even our congregations must learn to submit, in love, to the grander purpose of the church.
Every congregation needs to decide how they can enter into this kind of relationship with other congregations, but no church should neglect the decision and try to go it alone.  Just as we aren’t called to live as Christians with complete independence, so our congregations need a web of connection with the greater work of the Kingdom of God.  And that connection should involve the attitude and practice of mutual submission.
Your connection might be to a local group of churches in your community, or it may be to one of the new networks of churches, or it may be to a denomination or conference.  Whoever, or wherever, we should connect and be part of the broader picture.  When done well, our churches, the greater work of the Kingdom of God, and our witness to the world will be better for it.
I’m grateful to be part of a conference of churches called the North American Baptist Conference.  It is through this kind of voluntary association that local congregations can find new joy and strength available for Kingdom work.  In this connection we have opportunity to fully live out the mission of the church, with mutual love and accountability, for the glory of God.
If you’re in our region (Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, or Iowa) and want to explore connecting, check out our website at www.nab-umr.org

Of Preachers, Politics and Taxi Drivers

The year was 1984.  I was in my 2nd year at Moody Bible Institute.  I was on one of my dreaded taxi cab rides back from O’Hare.  Those rides were times of high anxiety.  I didn’t know the city well and it seems the cars should have been taken out of service 10 years before.  And while most drivers had little time to be chatty, this evening as I rode, I had a driver that seemed willing to talk.
I was headed to MBI, so it wasn’t long and the conversation drifted over to spiritual things.  I shared my faith in Christ and time was running short.  I knew in just a few weeks, Dr. Jerry Falwell would be speaking at the school.  I seem to remember that it was a Founder’s Week session.  Feeling confident that my driver friend would hear a clear presentation of the gospel, I invited him.  I told him I would wait for him at the back of Torrey Grey auditorium.
That night, not knowing, but praying and hoping he would show, I waited.  As the time got closer and my anxiety level was surging, he walked haltingly, hesitantly, through the door.
I greeted him, surprised that my prayers had been answered.  I stammered a few words out and we made our way to the balcony.  We found two seats and as the music started, I wondered if that night, this driver would become my brother in Christ.  Finally, Dr. Falwell got up to speak.  He gave some introductory comments.  He talked about things that were happening in our culture.
And then he proffered the advice, “I won’t tell you how to vote, but vote for the Reagan of your choice.”  My heart sank.
I didn’t have the courage to look directly at my invited guest.  In those days my peripheral vision was a little more acute.  I saw him slump into his seat.  I saw his arms fold in front of him.  The sermon of this political gospel continued as the crowd laughed and clapped in agreement.
As the last song was sung, my driver, my new friend and potential brother, slipped out without saying a word.  I’m sure he felt tricked.  I felt betrayed.  It was the old bait and switch.  Promise gospel and give them politics.  Promise eternity and give them temporary solutions.  Promise love and give conditions for acceptance.  And I was an unwitting partner in the scheme.
I learned a lesson that day.  It’s one I have to remind myself of often.  We have one message – it’s the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Nothing else will matter.  On days when my opinions start to take center stage, I need to remember my taxi driver friend.
This morning, the Lord brought my friend to mind as I read:
“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one- to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isa. 53:6).”
“Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and  he shall bear their iniquities (Isa. 53:11).”
I hope that man at some point heard the gospel of grace and became my brother through faith in Our Savior.  If I get to see him in heaven, I’ll ask him to forgive me for making it harder than it had to be.  And there will probably be others I’ll need to talk to.  Because there have been many times when the gospel has not been my first and loudest message.
What things do you hear Christians saying that make it harder to hear the gospel of grace?

Who’s Carrying Whom?


Sometimes we Christians talk about God like he is a burden to be carried.  We list the things we “have to do for God.”  We have to go to church on Sunday, or we should tithe, or we need to pray.  We can’t just go do what we want to do.  Life as a believer sounds hard and very unattractive.

As I read Isaiah 46 this morning something important hit me.

1 Bel bows down; Nebo stoops; their idols are on beasts and livestock;

these things you carry are borne as burdens on weary beasts.

2 They stoop; they bow down together;

they cannot save the burden, but themselves go into captivity.

Idols have to be carried, but God…

3 Listen tome, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel,

who have been borne by me from before your birth, carried you from the womb;

4 even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you.

I have made , and I will bear;

I will carry and will save.

… but God carries!

God is the one who carries us.  My God is not a burden.  The things I do for God and with God, I am freed to do because He is carrying me.  He has carried me from my mother’s womb.  He will carry me as my  hairs turn gray.  He will carry and save me.

Find joy in being carried by the God who needs no one to carry Him.  If you recognize that He’s carried you, take time to enjoy the ride and give him thanks.

Hey, Christmas! Not So Fast! – Making Christmas Last


Some years, Christmas just doesn’t feel like Christmas.  There are a lot of reasons for that.  It might be that the people we usually celebrate with aren’t present.  Family events have kept you from the usual preparation.  Or, it might be as simple as the absence of snow!  Whatever the reason, it seems the holiday is going to come and go, without making it’s impact on us.

It’s okay. Take a breath. Christmas isn’t over on December 25th.  In fact, for most of Christian history, December 25th is when Christmas celebrations began.  The famous song, the 12 Days of Christmas, remind us of this.  The 12 days of Christmas begin December 25th and go through January 5th, which leads to a celebration on January 6th, called Epiphany.  Epiphany is the celebration of the arrival of the Magi (Wisemen).  

Here’s an idea about how to keep Christmas going – not the hectic, frantic, wearisome part – but the meaningful, celebratory, lasting part! Take each day of the 12 days of Christmas and reflect on different aspects of the coming of Christ and his lasting joy.   Below is a daily calendar that will guide you in getting the most out of Christmas!

December 25th – We celebrate on the wonder of the incarnation.
Read:  Luke 2:1-7
Pray:  Pray with a grateful heart for the truth of Christ’s coming to transform your life.
Do:  Sing a carol that celebrates Christ’s coming.  Have one conversation with someone, either in person, or phone, or text, about what Christ’s coming has meant to you this year.

December 26th – We reflect on the needy around us.
Read:  Isaiah 42:1-9
Pray:  Pray for the needy Christ came to save.  Ask God for a heart to see the needs of others that He came to meet.
Do:  Give something away today, that will help others in need (time, food, resources).  Set aside some money to give to the “Benevolent, or Deacons” fund at church this Sunday.

December 27th – We praise God for the revealing Himself as Trinity.
Read:  Matthew 3:13-17; 2 Corinthians 13:14
Pray:  Ask God to help you know Him as Father who loves you, as the Son who redeemed you and prays for you, as the Spirit who empowers and directs you.
Do:  Write a letter to God, specifically the member of the Trinity you least relate to. What do you need to say?

December 28th – We thank God for the Gospels which share the gospel of Christ.
Read: John 20:30-31; 21:24-25
Pray:  Pray for a life that proclaims the gospel of Christ and lives out the grace and truth of Christ.
Do:  Spend time making a list of 3 people God has put into your life to influence toward Christ.  Pray for them.  Think of one simple act of grace you could do for each one in the next week.

December 29th – We remember the Law given by God to remind us of our need.
Read: Galatians 3:23-29
Pray:  Admit to God, the perfection of His law and our inability to do what is required by his righteousness.  Praise Him for meeting us in our need and leading us to new life.
Do:  Think about one tradition, rule, or law you might be depending on to give you favor with God. Make a change in the way you do it.

December 30th – We rejoice that our Savior is Creator God.
Read:  Genesis 1; Colossians 1:15-17
Pray:  Pray for the creation – including people – that God loves.  Pray for the desire of creation to one day experience the redemption and restoration to be complete.
Do: Take a walk and notice creation around you, reflecting on what it reveals to you about God.

December 31st – We praise Christ for fulfilling the Law for us.
Read:  Matthew 5:17-20
Pray:  Give thanks for the fact that Jesus met all the Law’s requirements.
Do:  Make a list of 3 rules you hold onto that might make it hard for others to experience the grace of Christ.

January 1st – We remember the day of Christ’s circumcision and dedication.
Read: Luke 21-40
Pray:  Thank God for the parents of Jesus who saw that He grew up in the covenant of God.  Pray for parents around you who have the responsibility of leading children to Christ.
Do:  Get involved in a regular serving opportunity to families, children or youth.

January 2nd – We humbly come to Christ with our need.
Read:  Matthew 5:2-11
Pray:  Ask God in honesty and humility to help you recognize the inner hunger you have.  Pray for Christ to fulfill that longing that still may feel unmet.
Do: Recount the need that first led you to Christ.  Share it with someone today.  Think about who else might have that need now.  Pray for wisdom to know how you can share Christ in that need.

January 3rd – We renounce the presence of sin in our lives.
Read:  Mark 1:1-8;
Pray:  Thank Christ for his holiness and ask God a desire to live a holy life before Him in the world.
Do:  Write down a sin that remains prevalent in your life.  Do one thing that would make that sin harder for you to participate in: revealing it to an accountability partner, changing a behavior pattern, removing the temptation from your life.

January 4th – We receive the gift of new life in Christ for us and the world.
Read:  John 1:9-18
Pray:  Thank God you are counted as one of his children through faith.
Do:  Write a personal poem, or psalm today, that expresses Christ as the light of the world, and your light.

January 5th – We commit ourselves to a path of faithfulness.
Read:  Hebrews 11:32-40
Pray:  Thank the Spirit of God for helping saints-of-old perservere in the faith.  Pray for strength to be counted as one of the faithful.
Do:  Fast at least one meal today, to remember the call to deny ourselves and follow Christ.  Use the time for prayer, or encouraging another in their faith.

January 6th – We rejoice at the coming of the Magi, which is his revelation to the nations.  Read:  Matthew 2:1-12
Pray:  Asking God to continue making himself known to the nations.  Express your longing for Christ to be reigning King of all the nations.
Do:  Give a gift of conversation, service, time, care to someone from another “nation” than your own.

I’d love to hear some of your ideas about extending the joy of Christmas!  And please comment and share this with others who might want to have the joy of Christmas continue!

Let’s Keep It Simple: Not all gods are God; @WheatonCollege

I’ve been doing a little thinking about the whole mess at Wheaton College.  One of the professors made the theological and career-altering mistake of saying Christians and Muslims worship the same God.  It helps me to think in very simple terms.  Try this with me.
My name is Jim.  I want you to know a little about me. I am a 53 year old man.  I am a husband of Kris and I have 4 sons.  I am the son of Marvin and Betty.  I am the brother of Scott and Mark.  I like to ride motorcycles
If you’re in Starbucks one morning and you get into a conversation with the older gentleman sitting by the window.  It might come up in the conversation, that he knows “Jim.”  (After all I’m in there a lot).  Instantly you two have something in common because you both know Jim.
I don’t know why you would, but you start telling “Jim” stories.  And as you talk, he describes Jim as a “young guy in his early 30’s.”  He continues, “He has a son and a daughter.”  And “He rides a bicycle here to Starbucks every morning.”  And finally he says, “Yes, and the Jim I know is named Bob.”
One thing has become clear… he’s not talking about the same Jim!  In fact, it’s not Jim at all.  What you thought you had in common, you didn’t.
The God of Christians is the One who has revealed himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  His Word is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.  He calls Himself Yahweh.  His Son, Jesus is the Messiah, God incarnate, who redeemed the world through His death on a cross and secures new life for people through the power of resurrection.  He invites people to trust Him through faith and promises to give grace, forgiveness and life forever in return.
We can call anyone, or anything god.  We can create our own stories, or follow those that have been around for thousands of years.  Just because we call someone a god doesn’t mean He’s the God of Christianity.  Allah is not the God of Christianity.  If you know His story, as He tells it in the Bible, you know He can’t be.