Archive for May, 2010

Assigned Seating

by   |  05.20.10  |  Church, Hospitality, Ministry, Mission of God, Society, Worship

The other day I was reading the Didascalia Apostolorum (DA), like people do on a bright May morning. Chapter 12.4 has an instruction for bishops in the worship service:

If, after you are seated, some other man or woman should arrive who is honored in the world, whether from the same region or another congregation, you should not leave off your ministry of the word—whether you are speaking it or hearing it or reading it—in order to show them to a place. Instead, remain as you are and do not interrupt the word.

For those who may not know, DA is an anonymous manual of church order, written largely in the 3rd century. Originally composed in Greek, it survives today mainly in Syriac. Though not especially well studied yet, DA gives us fascinating glimpses into early church life before Constantine’s time.

In this passage, DA counsels church leaders not to do what would come naturally. In the ancient world, when people of worldly dignity show up, it would be normal to drop what you are doing and receive them amidst the pomp and circumstance that fits their status. Not to do so would be rude and politically unwise, since surviving and thriving in that society depended so much on playing long-established games of patronage and preferment. From a worldly perspective, one would expect that the ranking “dignitary” of the congregation, the bishop, would be quick to court the favor of local luminaries and visiting VIPs by privileging their position in the church assembly. In public gatherings, the seating chart was a primary way of making and reinforcing a person’s significance in society. But here DA encourages the bishop to recognize that attending to the word is more important than attending to worldly status—and that in the eyes of God a minister of the Gospel outranks those whom society would privilege on account of wealth and power. Like it or not, any bigwig who walked in expecting special treatment would get hit squarely with a different set of values than he or she was accustomed to outside the church.

Later in the chapter (12.6), DA gives bishops further advice about seating arrangements:

But if a poor man or woman should arrive, whether from the same region or another congregation, especially if they are elderly, and if they have no place, then you, bishop, should act for them from your heart, even if it means sitting on the ground yourself. There should be no respect of persons with you, but you should please God through your ministry.

The arrangements are deliciously ironic: When big-shots show up, yanking the minister’s chain to receive attention and trying to impose their privileged status on the congregation, ignore them. But when someone arrives whom the world would naturally place last, someone poor or feeble and insignificant, quickly move to find them a place—even the place of highest honor, the bishop’s own seat! By subverting the toxic norms of a sick society, the minister’s seating chart becomes a pointer to the Kingdom.

Not everything in DA would naturally be to the liking of the contemporary minister, but here we have a worthy teacher. Following Jesus’ lead in Luke 14:7–11, DA instructs ministers to embody the gospel in ways that will foster the world of God’s new creation.

Is there a need to rearrange some of the seating charts in your context?

Dr. Jeff Childers
Carmichael-Walling Chair of NT and Early Christianity
ACU Graduate School of Theology
Abilene, TX 79699

The Demographic Crisis in Church and How to Fix It

by   |  05.19.10  |  Uncategorized

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

An important feature of life in most established churches in America today is the graying of the flock.  Increasingly, the average age of participants in church is rising, with the age of leadership rising faster still.  No friend of the church can regard such a trend as anything less than concerning.  In places, the gap between the old and the young is alarming and growing.  What can be done about it?

To answer that question, we must begin by asking what is causing it.  In part, the answer is that American society as a whole is getting older.  Life expectancies continue to rise for many parts of the population.  Centenarians mark the fasting growing segment of the country.  Birth rates continue to fall for the majority Caucasian population.  Birth rates for married people, whom churches are more likely to serve than others, are falling faster than for unmarried persons.  Hence the demographic trend will to some extent move against us no matter what we do.

However, there are additional challenges that churches face.  First, the improvement of health care has meant that the retired now enjoy long periods of health, both physical and mental.  They may be able to lead at a more advanced age than in the past.  They may hold onto power longer and with fewer checks and balances.  Second, neighborhoods are increasingly segregated, not only by income, but by age.  The retirement community has become a major force in the shaping of life in this country.  Many of us encounter persons of a generation other than our own only in the context of family or work, rarely in social settings, and increasingly rarely in church.  Third, the major technological gaps between generations (which are increasing) means that persons of different ages speak different languages and have very different understandings of what is “normal.”  Fourth, the information explosion that has accompanied technological changes and the increased interconnectedness of the younger generations have meant that their understandings of what is “proper,” “appropriate,” or even “moral” may be a significant variance from what their parents or grandparents think.  Far more ideas, beliefs, and practices are in play today than was true even 25 years ago.  Without deliberate structures and practices for overcoming these tensions, the continuing separation of the generations in church will be inevitable.

How do we fix this problem?  Let me make a few suggestions.

  1. We need to name the problem and to recognize that good intentions are not enough.  All of us want a loving cross-generational community.  We want to honor our parents and love our children.  But we seem unable to bridge some gaps strictly through good will.
  2. We need concrete practices that put people of different ages together in periods of mutual learning and service.  People learn by doing.  Practice may not make perfect, but it does make better.
  3. We need to read the Bible together.  Careful, prayerful, thoughtful, and open learning together about God’s will for the human race will make a difference in how we do things.  The odd silence of the Bible in the church needs to be broken.
  4. We need to address some specific issues about theology and practice openly and lovingly.  For example, we need to ask about the roles of men and women in the church.  We need to address issues of justice in our community.  The culture of silence, cultivated to avoid division, actually exacerbates division.  We do not have the luxury of imagining that by doing nothing we can avoid offending someone.  Many young people leave because there are too many taboo subjects.
  5. We need to understand what makes each other tick better.  Younger people of my acquaintance are deeply interested in following the risen Christ.  They are not interested in maintaining church structures that they did not build.  Surely these impulses are valuable and right.  They are deeply rooted in the Stone-Campbell tradition, as well.  Conversely, many of our older brothers and sisters are keenly sensitive to the need for continuity so as to practice care for the elderly (who are often poor) and for children.  They have learned the value of long-term commitments to important things.  We need both perspectives to avoid one-sided lives.
  6. We need to encourage, train, empower, and support younger leaders, whether they hold church “offices” or not.  We cannot keep people in a state of extended adolescence until they are 50 and then expect them magically to lead.
  7. Long-term Christians must cease being easily offended.  We need to call each other to better and more generous approaches to disagreement.  No one who has been a Christian for more than twenty years gets to be the “weaker brother.”
  8. Younger Christians do need to learn and recognize that they do not know all there is to know about the Christian life.  If we believe in lifelong learning, then we must believe that it is possible to learn new things quite late in life – we should value such learnings.
  9. We need to address issues of race and class.  We have grown very comfortable with a situation that is, in fact, deeply immoral.  The church of all places should be the setting in which we work hard to bridge the walls that divide us.  Lily-white churches drive off younger people who believe that the gospel is for all.

Some of these suggestions involve long-range changes that will require sound leadership and a lot of hard work.   But there are some things we can do now that would benefit us.

  1. Plan cross-generational activities a few times a year.  Identify champions, planners, and participants for such events.  One could be about worship, one about service, and one about story-sharing, for example.
  2. Initiate a congregational appreciative inquiry.  Let me explain.  Appreciative inquiry is a method of study in which a researcher asks a few simple questions of persons so as to elicit their stories.  Questions might be things such as “tell me how you became a Christian,” or “where do you see God working in your congregation,” or “if you could say one thing to the people younger (or older) than you, what would it be?”  The results can be shared.  Churches that have done this sort of thing have found it transformative.
  3. Name the challenges facing the congregation and explain why they are challenges.  Bring the members on board as problem solvers rather than passive observers or obstructionists.  An open church is a successful church.
  4. Cultivate prayer.  Move prayer out of the side rooms and odd times of the congregation’s life into its center.  Teach people how to pray.  Model contemplative and intercessory prayer for them.

My earnest prayer is that we can begin to move in these directions for the sake of the future.  It is not reasonable to believe that we can fix this problem through technical changes (hiring different staff members, singing different songs, or other such cosmetic changes).  We need systemic change, and we need to make such change in the most Christian ways possible.

Does the Gospel Sell Itself? (part 4)

by   |  05.04.10  |  Bible, Change, Christian, Church, Gospel, Hospitality, Identity, Ministry, Society, Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology


Does the Gospel sell itself?  That’s how I began this series of posts, and that’s how I’ll end it.  If we are on a road alongside of which are exits to narcissism, self-indulgence, and self-promotion, and the Heavenly City seems further away in our rearview mirrors, then how do we change directions?  (I’ll drop the metaphor there, if you don’t mind!)  I’ve tried to set out some of the interpersonal and intellectual challenges because to reflect theologically and to act on the basis of that reflection, we need to consider several factors.

But here’s the final one, and the decisive one.  What does God want?  Now, I know that this question is tricky and easily hijacked by various sides of any given debate.  If you want change, you point to the God of renewal, and if you don’t want change, you mention the old paths.  Both sets of languages — both descriptions of the nature of God — have biblical warrant.  Which one applies at a given moment depends on several factors, not all of which everyone will agree upon.  Moreover, Christians have a wide range of views of just how specific God intends to be.  Neo-Calvinists assume that the sovereignty of God implies a very high degree of planning of human lives, while most other Christians are content to think of God painting in the cosmic picture in broader, more impressionistic strokes.  I do not say any of this to be cynical, but simply to note that I am aware of the hazards.

Still, as a Christian, I must always ask myself what God wants.  It is not legitimate to try to escape the question, if you want to think in Christian ways.  Here are some things (not everything!) that Scripture, which I believe to be the best indication of God’s will that we have, seems to think God wants from us:

1. Let’s be passionate about the search for God.  Christians should pray a lot and with passion.  If we spent more time on our knees, we might spend less time wringing our hands or shouting.  As Paul said to the Athenians, God has given us evidence of nearness by raising Jesus from the dead.  The search is not an idle quest for an elusive goal, but the pursuit of one lover for another seeking rest together.

2.  Let’s care about the stranger.  I have long been struck by Exodus’s story of the redemption of Israel and the legal conclusions that the text draws from that experience: “you shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).  Perhaps Christians are so hostile to immigrants and other vulnerable people because we have concluded that this land really is our land, not simply a place on loan from God while we move toward our final home.  Have we forgotten that we too are strangers, that we too are redeemed people?

3. Let’s remember that we are in this together.  It is distressing to watch churches split over issues that can only be classified as trivial.  I have always found that praying for those with whom I disagree (which is quite a few people, as it happens!) or whom I found narrow and annoying and petty (also a fairly large group) changes things.  Very few Christians are so alienated from their own calling that we cannot find in them something to cherish.

4. Let’s remember that change can be both good and necessary.  Some folks I know are worried about “change agents.”  I’ve even read journals that argue that all change is to be resisted.  Of course, this is absurd.  Sometimes change is apostasy, true, and that is to be resisted.  But sometimes change is repentance, as when churches quit making one race sit in the balcony while another sat on the pews on the floor.  Sometimes change is simply maturation as when we recognize that our group does not have a monopoly on Christian commitment or understanding.  And sometimes it’s just change, relatively benign and neutral in meaning.  To fear change is to fear life.  The key is to make change rather than suffer it, and to make it with the highest Christian ideals in mind.

5. Finally, let’s remember that to be church is the greatest calling in the world.  We cannot cherish Christ without also cherishing his bride.  The church often needs correction — we are always reforming — but we also need to be loved and to love the magnificent calling we have received to be harbingers of God’s Kingdom, in which no one suffers hunger, no one is alone, no one is disrespected, and all find a place of dignity and honor at the bountiful table of the Lord.

May it always be so!  I’ll start a new series in a few days, after the Pepperdine lectures.  I hope to see you there!