Friday, May 30, 2008

I am Baptist (and so can you!)

Stephen Colbert has made quite a name for himself satirizing conservative pundit Bill O'Reilly of Fox News. Therefore, it was only fitting that he keep with the tradition of conservative commentators and write a book outlining his proposed cures for what ails America. His book I Am America (and so can You!) is his published "solution." I have not read his book completely through, but the title cleverly captured the laughingly predictable titles that don most conservative works. As a result, I decided to play off it a little.

A t-shirt available from LarkNews.com reads, "Jesus loves you. But then again, he loves everybody." Satire is really starting to have a place of prominence in the evangelical corpus of expression. This is fitting because of the seriousness with which people take old labels and cliches that don't hold the same meaning anymore. Terms such as conservative, liberal, traditional, classical, modern, simple, sophisticated or even Christian are getting redefined in our society. In some ways, we need to keep up with the new definitions. In other ways, however, we need to resist those re-definitions. There is a historic understanding of what it means to be "Christian" (faith in Christ and adherence to the ancient creeds) that cannot be allowed to be re-defined. However, other areas require that we update along with the culture. For example, I can't resist the culture's re-definition of the term "gay" and expect to communicate clearly.

In like manner, other church labels have come to carry a variety of meanings based on the conversational context. For example, the question may arise, "is your church a 'Spirit-filled' church?" One might answer in the affirmative because we rely so heavily on the Spirit for everything we do in life, particularly in our efforts to obey and honor Jesus Christ by participating in the great commission. "Yes we are," you reply, not realizing that you've just communicated to the questioner that your church speaks in unknown languages regularly, heals spinal meningitis during Sunday morning services and get random direct messages from God. You might not have wanted to say all that, but you effectively did by not getting more clarification from the questioner.

In the same way, someone may ask me, "are you (or are we) a baptist church?" When I can't answer with a simple "yes" or "no," I am not being evasive. More clarification is needed for the question.

Woodcreek Bible Church is indeed affiliated with the Baptist Missionary Association for purposes of maintaining a connection to global missionary efforts. This has been the commitment of our church from its inception, and this connection will continue to be pursued so long as doctrine and missiological philosophies for both of us (the BMA and WBC) are congruent. I suspect such agreement will likely be enjoyed for a long time.

In addition, there is such a thing a "baptist theology." To say that one's theology is "baptistic" is very specific. It tends to be committed to biblical inerrancy, church autonomy, dispensational eschatology and reformed views of humanity and salvation. In this way the "baptist" label has a degree of accuracy too.

However, there has also arisen a cultural understanding of the term "baptist" that carries some baggage. Images of white shirts, dark ties, sweaty foreheads, huge pulpits, old choirs, King James bibles and prayers, big hair, moral majorities, Christian coalitions, multiple chins, stately organs and "alter calls" can flood the mind of someone who hears the code word "baptist." By adopting the label then, without any clarification, you've given them an inaccurate view of your church body. To the question if you're baptist, "yes and no" would be an accurate answer until clarifying definitions could be agreed upon. It requires a conversation. It just flat out cannot be answered quickly.

"Are you (we) a baptist church," someone may ask. "That depends on what you mean," is the responsible answer. In theology? Yes. In affiliation? That too. In cultural expression? Most emphatically not!

So the pat answers really do deserve a little (try a lot) satire now and then. They convey so little meaning by themselves that it is as clarifying to say, "Sure, I'm a baptist, and so can you."

Thursday, May 29, 2008

How to Dress when Preaching

For some time now I've been meditating on my quirk of wearing business-casual dress when preaching on Sunday mornings. Why do I do this? Where does this habit come from? What am I trying to say by dressing more formally than almost all of those attending my church Sunday morning?

Lex Orandi...

What am I teaching my people about church, worship, ministry and about Christ by what I wear Sunday morning?

Although I may have grown up in a church where preachers wore suits (suits being the only accepted ministerial attire - both clergy collars and jeans were considered equally indicative of liberalism), I've long sense grown willing to evaluate the practices I grew up with. I've examined the doctrine of my youth and found it to be faithful to orthodox Christianity. On the other hand, I've examined many practices of my youth and found them needing development.

Among the practices needing evaluation and contemporary development are how formally ministry is approached. Some practices deserve formal reverence: preaching and worship demand good theological reflection, architecture and maintenance deserves excellence, etc. On the other hand, some practices need to lighten up so as to be more accessible to people. Consider how we've gotten away from the large battleship style pulpits, stained glass and ornate furnishings. Practicality and comfort are finding an appropriate place in missional churches seeking to remove unwarranted barriers to people's experience of the Church.

We come now to how the preacher dresses...

The philosophy behind the suits was one of reverence for the function and solemn duty of preaching, but also extended to the other duties of the pastor as well. "If the president was coming over to your house," went the argument, "wouldn't you dress your best." No baptist pastor of my church growing up would have ever dared to admit that this argument is inherited from the medieval Roman Catholic assumption that Jesus Christ is indeed showing up in your church this morning, in bodily form, as the elements of the Eucharist are sanctified through the prayer of consecration. If you though that Jesus was coming to your church each Sunday, you would design cathedrals to house such an encounter and don robes to consecrate yourself. The baptist pastor who uses such an argument would do well to remember where that reasoning took the medieval Church.

Nevertheless, that is my heritage: the fundamentalist mindset that thinks reverence needs to be expressed in dressing up for Sunday morning; at least dressing up more than I usually do. From the very beginning of coming to Woodcreek Bible Church, I was encouraged to relax and "let my hair down" (clearly a metaphor since my hair is always too short to let down). The entire congregation dresses very comfortably, choosing to prioritize regular attire over artificial formality. What's been my problem?

Part of it is perpetuated at my school (Dallas Theological Seminary). It maintains a dress code for students that (though I still honor it) represents somewhat of a disconnect with church trends calling for less formality. DTS requires business-casual attire when on campus attending classes. Therefore, I've continued that conditioning into my church, wearing slacks and colored shirts on Sunday mornings.

This is a sort of hypocrisy. I'm really saying with this practice that I'm one way on Sunday morning, but another the rest of the time. Should my respect for the solemn church service really be taken that far? Would it really kill me to dress on Sunday morning how I do the rest of the week? When does respect veer into duplicity? Instead of slacks, could I still achieve the desired reverence if my jeans simply had no holes?

Lex Orandi...

Far from being a concession to culture, what if my wearing of jeans and non-offensive t-shirts actually taught my people more about the incarnational nature of ministry than I teach them right now? Could dressing down instead of "dressing up" actually help my church more firmly grasp the missio Dei and become the missional church we should be? Could dressing down accomplish more of what I want to model for people in my congregation that I have to this point? Could dressing down teach my church more about the mission of the Church than dressing up has done?

Oh my word! I find this very scary, and challenging to some of my long held comfort zones.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Worship with The Table

Lex Orandi, lex credendi...

That concept is now burned into my brain. There's no getting away from it. Everywhere I turn in church or ministry life I'm confronted with the truth of it. The order/manner/rule of worship determines the order/manner/rule of belief. I've suspected this before now, but did not know that it had been articulated so faithfully throughout the history of the church. I see how we worship in church and I am sobered by the pastoral responsibility to comes to terms with this; to purposefully plan worship that will most likely develop the desired belief in our people.

Much of modern worship, by contrast is not heavily reflective on this principle. Therefore, often worship is arranged in such a manner that acts contrary to the desired results of mature believers growing in community, worshiping in unity. Because modern worship is so often deficient in this, elements of ancient worship must be investigated to offer the necessary depth to contemporary services. This is not to say that "chant" somehow needs to make a comeback. Liturgy of the ancient church, however, can prove quite informative for the conscientious worship leader seeking to help a contemporary congregation "shake hands" with the saints of old.

One of the ways the ancient Church can help the contemporary Church find her way back to significant worship is by means of the Table; specifically The Lord's Table (also called The Lord's Supper, Communion or the Eucharist). The ministry of the Table was a key component of the ancient Church which followed the ministry of the Word ("preaching"). Anyone could be present to hear the Word, but only believers received in the Christian community could remain for the ministry of the Table. The Table was only for those believers who had been fully trained as "catechumens" and baptized, and were not under church disciple for which they needed to refrain from the Table for a time. After the ministry of the Word, all but those who should partake of the Table were dismissed. The remaining worshipers recited the Nicene Creed, then took of the Lord's Supper together.

How unifying! How instructive! How meaningful!

The ministry of the Table was that engaging aspect of worship that required more active participation than simply listening to a sermon. It looked back in time ("Do this in remembrance of Me"). It looked within the community ("you (plural) eat"; "you (plural) drink"; and "you (plural) proclaim"). The Table also looks forward ("you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes"). The Table comes pre-packaged with so many aspects of Christian worship (a historic confession, a present means of unity, a future hope) that modern evangelical churches have avoided its importance to their peril. I'm so thankful to have been called to pastor a church that already comes to The Table each month. The church I grew up in only held it quarterly, and even then during the Sunday evening service.

Our church comes to the Lord's Table the first Sunday of the month during our Sunday morning service. I'm so grateful that this is their practice already. Woodcreek Bible Church is already poised to enjoy the Table as part of her worship in a way more significant than the tradition I grew up in. Praise to the Lord for having arranged these circumstances in advance. This coming Sunday is our next time to approach the Table and share the common union (communion) of worshiping in this way. It's a worship form enjoying 2,000 years of expressing the Christian heart, and we have a chance to be a new generation having its meaning mature us too.

Lex Orandi, lex credendi.

Summer Heat

It's starting to get hotter. Oh my. Texas can become quite the sauna in the summer time. Since moving here in 2003 I've discovered that the heat is quite thorough, and there are few avenues for getting away from it. The hermit lifestyle is not an option; not if one desires to get anything done, run errands or go see people. Therefore, no options remain except to drink a lot of fluids and become content that you simply will always be a sweaty mess.

The relief I feel that comes from riding a motorcycle is diminished when stopped at a light. In addition, I'm reluctant to dress down to be more comfortable. Riding has enough dangers without shedding protective layers. I'll see how long I last with that philosophy.

There's another manner in which the summer is "heating up" though. It involves the opportunities to have a ministerial impact on the local community with Hot Rod parades in Royse City, July 4th events or the Fate City council. In addition, our church is developing new strategies for connecting with our surrounding neighbors that will hopefully morph into chances to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Yes, Texas can be hot in the summer: physically, that can be uncomfortable; however, spiritually, that can be very exciting.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Getting Ready for Indy!

Of all the compliments I've received at DTS for some special presentation, class or article, none have come close to the elation I once experienced after a fellow student shouted to me when walking away, "See you later, Dr. Jones." My heart leaped 8 levels from that remark. That happens when I was president of the Archaeology Research Group for Dallas Theological Seminary. Later (last fall) I even co-taught a class on Archaeology at the DTS Center for Biblical Studies. It was a dream come true. You see, Indiana Jones was my earliest childhood hero. Oh sure I liked the typical cartoon heroes (a.k.a. The Superfriends), but no live-action hero had yet struck my fancy before age 12 when I went to see "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

He was a smart professor that taught students in one life, but then traveled to exotic locations, found ancient and mysterious artifacts, and pretty much saved the world in the other life. It was the ultimate fantasy for a young boy developing into a serious nerd. I knew that archaeology was among the dryer of subjects one could pursue, making the Indy-adventurer persona even more unsuspected from his peers. I used to imagine that I could easily be that nerd who knew his subject, taught by day, and navigated untold adventures on the side.

As I grew older, I understood that Indy was a fictional character, and that archaeology isn't really like that. However, the influence already occurred. "Adventure is in the heart," I have been fond of saying. For me Indiana Jones became a type of adventurous "spirit" that can be found in anyone. Even those who study subjects more "dry" than archaeology can attest to finding excitement where the research takes them. In like manner, I have been less intimidated than many I encounter to step out and attempt new pursuits. Sure it can seem like a dangerous road, but that's where the adventure happens.

Because of my childhood influence from Indy, I even began studying archaeology; and was shocked to discover that I truly enjoy it. I'm curious about the excavation process, and what the findings can teach us about cultures of the past. I absolutely love how artifactual studies give the human details to moments in history. Archaeology is also helpful for preaching and teaching from the Bible (see "Pulpit and Spade"). I love archaeology. My enjoyment in studying it has long sense matured beyond my childhood enjoyment of Indiana Jones, but it's sure fun to think back now to dressing up as Indy when going to see the film at the theater. The irony is that I've never fulfilled the childhood fantasy to the point of actually purchasing an official Indy hat replica, or the rest of the costume. Perhaps sometime soon.

Now a fourth movie is out - "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." Reviewers seem to be split. When my family and I go see it on Saturday, my expectations are not for it to be better than the previous films. But one thing I do hope is that it will do something similar for my kids that it did for me: portray a very human hero that inspires the adventurer within, and the thinker within who has a day job the rest of the time.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Worship reflections

There's nothing like seminary that can ruin a perfectly good church service.

I've used this saying before to connote how some severe reflection in a seminary "laboratory" on church practices can leave one ever critical of church habits. Sure it is healthy to critique what we do in the church, but vigilant care must be taken not to become so critical that church loses its appeal. For many seminarians, it's probably been years since they last were moved by a particularly convicting sermon or challenged by a biblical text. Analysis can be a drug to which seminary encourages addiction. It's a road fraught with dangers to one's own soul.

Having said that, though, I have to admit that I'm being challenged to reflect on our worship practices in a new way. Not just the practices of my church body (Woodcreek Bible Church), but the practices of the church context we're in here in north America. WBC is affiliated with the Baptist Missionary Association, but we have not sought to inherit any church practice from them. Instead we've taken our queues mostly from popular evangelicalism in the free-church vein. We're not non-denominational, but we operate like we are.

What this means is that we've not sought to inherit any particular worship practices from a denominational heritage. There's nothing wrong with that; it's just that one then has to be much more purposeful about what practices you adopt. Tradition doesn't have much of a place because there's not a tradition to inherit. For this reason, everything requires sober thought and meditation. There's nothing to which you can "punt" to tradition as a guide. This can be both freeing as well as anxiety laden. Questions arise that are not easily answered, such as:

To what extent should popular culture guide worship elements? To what extent should Church history guide worship elements? How can a balance be struck between the "meaningful" and the "liturgical" in an experience driven society? To what extent should worship be user-friendly to the un-churched? To what extent is it designed for veteran believers?

I'm not sure how to answer these questions as yet. I know that worship should be characterized by elements not duplicatible with an iPod. It should be pursued with excellence. It should be true to the church's confession of faith. It should contribute to the church's disciple-growing process. What will that look like for us?

Friday, May 16, 2008

Liturgy Mania

In the class I'm taking right now, a great deal of discussion (spawned by thought-proboking lectures) is taking place regarding the place for liturgy in church worship. After all, prior the rise and proliferation of church music in the 1800's, churches primarily worshiped according to a pattern. The reason for this pattern of worship (or liturgy - that remained surprisingly consistent for 16oo years of church history) was because that churchmen knew the priniciple of lex orandi, lex credendi ("the rule of worship determines the order of belief"). This principle shows that it is the way in which people worship, not merely the preaching they hear, that determines how they believe. Therefore, if church leaders wanted the belief of their people to remain consistent, the worship had to remain consistent. Hence a consistent liturgy.

On the other hand, if worship forms are all over the map, so will be the belief among Christians. A correlation can drawn between the American abandonment of liturgy and the ensuing splintering in the church of North American since the countries founding. Liturgical elements also contribute to a deep faith that appreciates the most profound truths in Christian orthodoxy. The case for liturgy has been so strongly made in class that the free-church traditions appear somewhat shallow.

Nevertheless, I pastor a free-church with a Baptist affiliation. Most of my people have baptist heritages. This is not an environment conducive to liturgical forms. Perhaps some elements of the ancient liturgy can be enjoyed in a manner that will enhance the worship experience of my church. We can try some baby steps. A little of this..a little of that. Before you know it, we may also enjoy worship that transcends current market trends.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Stars win game four!

I got home from leading a Bible study at church last night just in time to witness the 3rd period of game four. The Stars were playing so well. They played like they did in the first two rounds, and with desperation. I was so pround of them. Marty Turco was excellent as the goal keeper, but it looked like he was getting the long absent help from his defense as well. Mike Modano scored the game-winning goal. When the clock ran down at the end of the 3rd period, sealed the Stars game victory with a score of 3-1, Naomi and I lept up out of the couch and jumped up and down. Now game 5 is necessary.

Can the Stars battle back in win the next 3 games in a row to take the series? It's unlikely. The odds are stacked against them pretty steep. Such a comeback has only occurred twice before in NHL histroy. However, they DID win one game. If they can win one game against the Red Wings, they can win more. I'm not going to store my jersey away for the summer just yet.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Most Difficult Task

"You've got to be kidding me!" That's what I keep exclaiming to myself in the mirror. When it comes to church worship (how a church expresses adoration, devotion, allegiance, loyalty and submission to God through its various forms through music, communion, art, etc.), I keep coming back to the "incarnational paradigm" of ministry given to us when Jesus Christ took on flesh and became "God with us." As a result, he is not only our Savior and Lord, but our model of ministry as well. However, the incarnational approach is the most difficult task as it relates to some functions of the church. Few areas feel this more than in the area of a church's worship expressions.

If a church pursues the incarnational approach, it feels the simultaneous mandates to both (1) express the holiness of God in how he calls his church to be a peculiar and separate people, and (2) express the relevance of God in how he took on human flesh, culture and language in the person of Jesus Christ. Most church seems to pursue one of these over the other. They strive to be either predominantly rooted to the great traditions of the church, or predominantly relevant to the current times; to express the holiness God calls his people to, or the "earthiness" his people are called to; to be either more "in the world," or more "not of the world." Maintaining the tension of the two is definitely the most difficult task.

Is it even possible? Or is it foolhardy to continuously attempt it? Or is it more that such an seemingly impossible task is exactly what the church is called to?

Monday, May 5, 2008

Baptism service and significance

Sunday night, much earlier than the hockey game, Woodcreek Bible Church held our first baptism service in quite a while. It was the first one held since I've been the pastor. What a fun event!

We had the privilege of baptizing 6 people yesterday. 5 of those were younger children who were baptized by their fathers. We have a church tradition that children should be baptized by their dads if the dad is a Christian. One of our participants was an adult who came to faith in Christ this last February. It was very, very exciting to hold this event. There are truly only two ordinances that have enjoyed an unbroken line of observance in the Church since the time of Christ and his Apostles, those being: The Lord's Supper (or Communion) and Believer's Baptism.

The significance of both of these observances is so universally acknowledged in Christian traditions, that the debate remains ongoing regarding the exact efficacy of these events in people's spiritual development. On the one hand, the Roman Catholic view would assert the importance of these events are to be seen as no less than contributory to one's eternal salvation. On the other end, because these ceremonies should not be viewed as contributing to one's eternal salvation, some hold them as holding little value at all. To what extent does God use ceremony to develop spiritual depth, substance, growth and maturity in believers in Jesus Christ?

The theological debate uses many terms that, while not having a place in regular preaching, are helpful for the conversation. Two labels used for the dominant schools of thought (or strains of Christian tradition) are: sacramentalism and memorialism. Defining these two terms appropriately requires volumes of theological tomes to expound. However, I'll attempt to summarize the two in the following manner.

Sacramentalists would assert that a measure of either justifying or sanctifying grace is mediated to the believer as they partake of the "sacraments" (called ordinances above) by faith. One is either moved along toward salvation, or moved along in their sanctification by obeying the Lord's command to engage the sacraments, tangibly experiencing God-ordained ceremony intend to be a vehicle of grace to them. This is likely an oversimplification of the sacramentalists' view, and they would doubtlessly be able to make a better argument for their view that in can.

Memorialists, however, would assert that ceremony, while beneficial to the Christian experience, should not enjoy the status of a "vehicle" of grace. Great dangers lurk in the religious alleys waiting to prey upon those who trust in ceremony over above direct relationship with Jesus Christ. Ceremonies such as baptism and communion are to "memorialize" the significant spiritual blessings wrought on the believer by faith. They are a teaching tool that helps the believer further appreciate, through object illustrations, the invisible grace given freely by the Spirit for which there could never be an adequate material vehicle.

I am not a sacramentalist. I am a memorialist. However, I often lament how little memorialists seek to mine the ordinances of their "memorial" and reflective value. It's as though many memorialists are thus simply so as not to be sacramentalists who require adherence to uniform liturgy forms and disallowing the "fly by the seat of our pants" inventing-the-church-as-we-go mentality. This is tragic. There are far better reasons to be a memorialist than simply being able to assert with integrity, "I'm not Roman Catholic." For this reason, I wish there was a mediating position between the extremes. My episcopal friend tries to console me claiming that I should find the Anglican view attractive. I don't. Instead, I find that I try to be fully and honestly a memorialist, seeking to have Christian ceremony express its full memorial value; for it is of great value to the developing believer to remember and reflect on the undeserved goodness of God. In the meantime, those observing my passion to see the Christian ordinances express their "full memorial value," who also understand my theological position, will have to keep asserting to other onlookers: "Pastor Ott is NOT Roman Catholic. No, really, I mean it. He's Not Roman Catholic."

Such is how meaningful I found, and continue to find, events like our baptism service and party this last Sunday evening.

Stars advance to 3rd round!

Oh my word! 4 overtimes? That's crazy! I was up so late watching this nerve wracking game. Finally, during a powerplay in the 4th overtime, Brenden Morrow was able to divert Stephan Robida's pass into the net. I was glad that was over, ending the marathon game but also finishing out this series. Now that that Stars have successfully won the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs, I'm content. Frankly, I don't expect them to beat the Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference Finals. The Red Wings have been so good all year, dominating the Stars during most of their games during the regular season. I suspect I'll cheer each goal that the Stars score as though it were a game winner. Dallas and Detroit is very much a "David and Goliath" match-up. As the Stars ad goes, I'd like to "Believe," but right now I'm just elated that they got this far.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Light the Fire

Today at Woodcreek Bible Church we had our "Light the Fire" BBQ event. It was a social event, but also a work day as well. We lit a large brush pile on fire that had been an eye-sore for our property. Now it's a circle of ash in the grass.

The event was a real blessing for a couple of reasons:

1. A great deal of work was accomplished both inside and outside the church building. The brush pile was burned up, landscape maintenance occurred and construction advanced inside as well. It was a very productive time.

2. A great deal of play was accomplished also. "Ultimate Frisbee" was played on the lawn, while some of us amateur golfers took turns trying to make balls land near a post across the main ditch. It was a picture of the kind of joy and fun that can be pursued in the future, but inviting more of the community whenever we do it.

All in all, I was very pleased with the time we all spent together today. The brush pile burn was a catalyst for all sorts of other blessings to happen. Amazing how God works those things out. What fun!