Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Evangelism: One on One

I had the opportunity to spend a Sunday morning with the Falling Spring Presbyterian Church. Brad Hill, their full time youth minister, was the preacher for the day. He preached an excellent sermon about the importance of paying deep, spiritual and emotional attention to one person at a time. Too often in the church we are overly concerned with efficiency and attracting large numbers of people to our carefully planned programs, that we forget the gift of the one, individual person who may be standing in front of us. This sermon was a nice interpretation of the parable of the lost sheep. The word that really spoke to me was the short conclusion to Brad’s sermon in which he defined a clear and precise method of doing personal evangelism.

This may be the most clear and beautiful expression of the task of personal evangelism that I have ever heard. It is simple in its clarity but very sophisticated in its understanding of the dynamics of personal evangelism. So here it is: my retelling of Brad Hill’s formula for personal evangelism

Imagine yourself one-on-one in a spiritual conversation with a friend or neighbor. It is a friendly, cordial conversation and you sense a real opportunity to share the good news of Jesus Christ with this friend, and, moreover, you sense that your friend is really open to hearing a new word about Christian faith and Jesus Christ. What do you do? How do you act? What do you say?

Be Silent: Before you rush to express a bunch of words, take a moment to be silent within yourself. Try to move beyond a concern with your own thoughts, feelings and words and open yourself to what God is doing and saying in the moment. Be still and be silent within yourself in order to open your heart and mind to the work of God’s Holy Spirit.

Stand on Holy Ground: If you are feeling that this time with your friend is a special moment in which you may be able to talk about Jesus, realize that this place is holy ground. This special, spiritual openness that you and your friend are sharing is, in itself, a gift from God. This place or moment when you may be able to share deep spiritual conversation is a place itself created and given to you by God. Like Moses taking off his shoes before the burning bush, recognize the gift of holy ground. How do you act when you are standing on holy ground?

Be the Gospel: Before you can talk about the Gospel or share any words about the Gospel you must be committed to being the Gospel. Of course, we are always growing and maturing in our spiritual commitment, but we need to live authentic lives in Christ which truly struggle with the calling toward Christian discipleship and obedience. Only if we are being the Gospel will we be in a place to truly speak a word about the Gospel.

Invite with Words: And the moment arrives when you truly sense a desire to share a spiritual word about Christ with your friend. What should you say? Invite your friend to join you in wanting to learn more about Jesus by gathering regularly, preferably weekly, to read together one of the New Testament Gospels. We do not need to be Bible scholars or prepared to communicate sophisticated theological doctrines. Rather we need to be willing and prepared to invite our friends to join us on a journey toward Jesus. The words you share need not be brilliant or sophisticated; they need to be invitational. Invite your friend to join you on the fabulous journey of Christian faithfulness.

Throw better parties: This short scheme of personal evangelism could end at this point. But Brad added a marvelous final point, “Throw better parties.” This was his way of saying that we in the church need to have more fun. Too often there is an austere coldness about our faith. Too often we do not fully grasp or communicate the profound joy which we have as believers. ‘Throw better parties’ means that we need to have fun in Christ, with Christ and with one another in the church.

Imagine what a church we would become if we each practiced, in serious and committed ways, these patterns of personal evangelism one person at a time; one lost sheep at a time. May it be so in Christ.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Form of Government task force

Although it is still too early to be certain, nonetheless, it is quite possible that the report of the Form of Government task force will be one of the most important topics to be decided by next year’s (2008) General Assembly. This task force was created by the 2006 General Assembly for the purpose of proposing viable revisions to our Form of Government. The Form of Government is, of course, that large part of our Book of Order (indicated by the letter “G”) which defines much of the polity of our Presbyterian Church. Our Book of Order also includes the Rules of Discipline (marked by the letter “D”) and the Directory for Worship (marked by the letter “W”). You may find the webpage of the Form of Government task force at http://www.pcusa.org/formofgovernment/.

The task force has now drafted a full revision of Chapters one through four of our Book of Order. These are foundational, theologically oriented chapters which claim and articulate many of the sacred aspects of Presbyterian belief and practice. The proposed revision of chapters one through four maintains this foundational quality, and reiterates many of our cherished, political ideals. But the revision is reorganized and written in fresh, direct new prose.

The task force’s proposed, new opening chapters of the Form of Government are titled Foundations of Presbyterian Polity and is available for review at: http://www.pcusa.org/formofgovernment/pdfs/foundations-of-polity.pdf.

For example, compare the opening sentences of the current Book of Order with this proposed revision titled “God’s Activity”:

"The Church bears witness to the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We bear witness to this one God’s sovereign activity in the world as told in the Bible and received by faith. The Church proclaims that in the one God’s three-fold work it finds blessing and hope for itself and for the world."

For example, consider this proposed revision of our classic affirmation of the Lordship of Jesus Christ:

1.0201 The Authority of Christ
God has given to Jesus Christ all authority in heaven and on earth, not only in this age but also in the age to come. God has put all things under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and has made Christ Head of the Church, which is his body.
1.0202 Christ Calls and Equips the Church
Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission to the world, for its strength, and for its service to God. Christ is present with the Church in both Spirit and Word. Christ alone rules, teaches, calls, and uses the Church as he wills, exercising his authority by the ministry of women and men for the establishment and extension of God’s new reality.
1.0203 Christ Gives the Church Its Life
Christ gives to the Church its faith and life, its unity and mission, its officers and ordinances. Insofar as Christ’s will for the Church is set forth in Scripture, it is to be obeyed. In the worship and service of God and the government of the church, matters are to be ordered according to the Word by reason and sound judgment, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit."

For example, consider the new proposal discussing the marks of the true church under four headings: "the apostolicity of the church, the universality of the church, the holiness of the church and the unity of the church".

For example, consider this rewriting of our famous and foundational theological commitment that truth is in order to goodness:

"Truth and goodness cannot be separated, and that which is holy springs from that which is true. It is for this reason that we seek to distinguish between truth and falsehood, and for this reason also what we believe is no less important than what we do. Indeed, there is a direct and inseparable connection between faith and action, truth and duty."

The Form of Government task force is approaching this task in a very creative way. Although they have written a full revision of Book of Order chapters one through four, they are not simply recommending the revisions to the General Assembly. Instead the task force is asking the General Assembly to decide between their proposed revision of chapters one through four or simply keeping our existing chapters one through four. The General Assembly will decide. How would you vote?

This whole discussion presents us with a wonderful educational moment. We can use this question to open up conversation and learning around our foundational, theological principles. Please read again chapters one through four of our Book of Order and please read the newly proposed Foundations of Presbyterian Polity. In either the current form or in the revised form, the rich and sacred convictions of our Presbyterian Church shine forth. We have received a good and faithful heritage. Thanks be to God.

A news report on the Form of Government task force may be found in the Presbyterian Outlook (Vol. 189 No. 16; May 7, 2007; page 6).

Church Discipline

I would like in this space to bring to your attention an important, little theological essay provided to the church by our Office of Theology and Worship. Paul K. Hooker, Executive Presbyter of the Presbytery of St. Augustine, has written a short paper, Identity – Polity – Praxis: Ecclesiology and the Presbytery (Occasional Paper Series No. 2; Re-Forming Ministry; Office of Theology and Worship; Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). You may find more information about the Re-forming Ministry program, including copies of this paper in .pdf format, at http://www.pcusa.org/re-formingministry/.

How do we do church discipline? Many Presbyterians are aware that a deep commitment to moral and righteous living has always been an expectation for our church members. In our tradition this expectation has a dominant, and at times, oppressive place. Theologically, Presbyterians have always believed that we are called to live holy and righteous lives in response to the abundant grace which God has given us in Jesus Christ. But in recent years, this high concern for church discipline and moral order has fallen into the quagmire of judicial process.

Paul Hooker has precisely articulated what may be one of the truly pressing concerns in our church. How can we reclaim proper church discipline, out of our rich tradition, while avoiding the temptations of creating a punitive and vindictive judicial process out to prosecute wrongdoers? I quote here from Hooker’s paper:

“The practice of ecclesiastical discipline has come to be synonymous with judicial process. In truth, the equation of the two is at the heart of the problem. Ecclesiastical discipline actually has a quite different purpose, as the Preamble to the Rules of Discipline in the Book of Order makes clear.

The intention behind the exercise of ecclesiastical discipline is the desire to strengthen the membership of the church, to reconcile disputing parties, and to restore the peace, harmony, and concerted witness of the church. In practice in too many situations, however, the exercise of ecclesiastical discipline has led to an atmosphere of mistrust, anxiety, and apprehension in the church; hardly the sort of system likely to bring members to repentance and restoration.

If we are to be true to the vision of the church as the provisional demonstration of the new reality of God, this situation simply has to change. If it does not change, we will lose altogether the distinction between an ecclesiastical discipline motivated by the eschatological virtue of reconciliation and a secular judicial system dedicated to the adjudication of guilt and the assessment of punishment.” (Paul K. Hooker, Identity – Polity – Praxis: Ecclesiology and the Presbytery, pages 28-29).