Category Archives: Reflections

God Saves by Grace

I was questioned recently about my assertion in a Sunday morning class that “God always saves by grace.” This statement troubles some people because they have heard that the only way for Israelites to be saved was by obeying the whole Law. However, the door into a covenant relationship with God (salvation) for a Jew is not the Law but circumcision. I paraphrased in the class John Ziesler who summarizes what all current Pauline scholarship now affirms, “However, there is no authority in Jewish texts that taught God’s approval was to be earned, nor that salvation was by human merit. Salvation is always divine grace and well understood in Jesus’ day even by the Pharisees.”[1]

To support my view, I asked the class a few weeks back to recall when we studied Deuteronomy. One of the key passages in that study was,

Deut 30:11 Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 14 No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. (NRSV)

Deuteronomy teaches that the Law was doable. And more importantly in this conservation is that the Law was given to people already saved. The Law was not an entrance requirement but a guide (an articulation of a way of life) given to people already in God’s family (already in covenant relationship with God). One of the hallmark texts articulating the doctrine of salvation for Israelites is,

Exodus 19:3 And Moses went up unto God, and the Lord called unto him out of the mountain, saying, Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel; Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel. (KJV)

Salvation is prior to commandment. In essence Exodus 19 teaches, “Because you are saved, you obey.” The Ten Commandments in the next chapter begin the same way. Prior to any of the commandments, there is a statement of grace. Rescue by God precedes commandment.

Exodus 20:1 And God spake all these words, saying, I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

After the statement of grace, the Ten Commandments are given. Exodus 20:3 “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

Paul knows these doctrines when he writes Galatians. He not only accepts these doctrinal understandings, he also affirms them. How is a person saved? Paul insists you are saved by faith. He reminds his readers that Abraham was saved by faith (Gen 12) prior to circumcision (Gen 17).

So, what is the issue in Galatians?

  1. The Jewish Missionaries taught, “To be saved as a Gentile, you are going to have to become a Jew. In order to enter into a covenant relationship with God, you are going to need circumcision. In order to control your flesh, you are going to have to submit to the Law. In order to stay in a relationship with God, you need to follow Jewish customs including food laws and special days.” Paul summarizes their teachings with the catchphrase “works of the Law” or “Law.” Paul does not oppose the Law for Jewish Christians. Paul opposes the idea that Gentile Christians must first submit to the Law before the cross has value.
  2. Paul taught, “You are saved by the faithfulness of Jesus who died on the cross for you.” Re-read Gal 1:1-4 and Paul’s summary of the Gospel. Once you are saved by God, love is the fulfillment of the Law. Once you are saved by God, the Spirit helps us control the flesh. In order to stay in a relationship with God, you must keep in step with the Spirit.

[1] John Ziesler, The Epistle to the Galatians (London: Epworth Press, 1992), xv.

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Timely Quote

While preparing for my sermon I read the following.

Today people are fundamentally consumers: they want what they want when they want it, even in the church. If they do not like what is happening or what they hear, they leave and start shopping for a better deal. Meanwhile, the pressure is constantly on preachers to increase attendance, to raise the budget, to grow a church–to do whatever it takes to improve market share. Be nice; be funny; make promises; do not offend. There is an inordinate desire for approval, for applause, for appreciation on the part of pastors today. To Paul’s queston, “Am I seeking human approval, … am I trying to please people?” (Gal 1.10), many preachers today would have to answer, in all honesty, yes. When preachers are captive to public opinion, when churches too easily become purveyors of gospel gimmicks, offering the religious goods and services people want, what is sacrificed is the ability to be a slave of Christ in service to his unchanging gospel.

–Heidi Husted Armstrong

“Galatians 1:1-12,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, pg. 90.

I am not planning to use the quote in my sermon because it does not fit the congregational context. I’m the visiting preacher and the church spends most of its energies reaching out to the local deaf community and African refugees. Yet the quote resonates with other voices I am hearing lately. For example, Chris Seidman at the Branch Church was a guest lecturer in my class on practical theology. I asked him to talk about his ministerial identity and relate how it connects to practice. He spoke about Jesus’ baptism and how Jesus began his own ministry after the word from heaven, “This is my son whom I am well pleased.” Chris spoke about how ministry springs forth from the blessing and grace of God and not from the approval of people. The examples he gave convicted us all.

I am part of a team that facilitates healthy matches between churches and ministers. It is satisfying work. Yet there are times when both parties would do well to commit themselves to the ability to be a slave of Christ in service to his unchanging gospel. The church might actually get smaller if such matters were practiced. As Fred Craddock often noted, It is not bad preachers that people will not listen to; it may just be very good ones.

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Teaching Preaching

Recently on the GST Blog site, I posted the following note about Teaching Preaching.

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God’s Glorious Ministries

A few years ago, my family and I were traveling in the southeast on vacation. Late Saturday night, a storm covered the entire area with a sheet of ice. Power lines and branches lay scattered throughout the region. Nevertheless, being proud Hoosiers who knew no fear of snow, we went to church. We arrived with six other brave souls. The song leader knew the situation. He traversed two hymns, a prayer, communion, and announcements in ten minutes. Even then, our eyes watered from the fumes of a kerosene heater. After the invitation song was announced, a guest speaker began his 45-minute dissertation. His subject was … can you guess? Of course, “church attendance.” What is more relevant to those who braved the harsh elements in order to attend? These are moments that define the phrase, “preaching to the choir.” And these are the moments that cause us to laugh because they are sad and too typical. Sometimes church is discouraging. Sometimes we all lose heart. Sometimes we just want to quit. Where is the glory?

Much of contemporary church life does not appear glorious. Preachers and teachers disappoint us. Infighting, sectarianism, meanness, and selfishness become our identifying marks. Sometimes the mire is public for all to see. The indecent exposure of the volunteer at the youth retreat is broadcast by the local news. The man who converted my father committed adultery with an elder’s spouse. The deacon curses in the foyer at the nursery attendant for being late. But mostly, the bitterness and bickering of folk are hidden corrosives that gnaw and bedevil. Insinuations and whispers occur in the corner more often than Twitter. Sometimes we just want to quit. Where is the glory?

At ACU, I hear story after story of churches picking apart young ministers who leave school with such high hope and confidence only to return with disappointment and despair. The church appears to be just one of many human institutions filled with the gunk humans are prone to display. I remember one congregation where a group of men decided to build a play set for the kids. Fathers, carpenters, handymen, and a preacher came together on a Saturday to start the project. Also on the scene was a “Systems” engineer. He started measuring every board so that five screws could be evenly spaced before attaching. Every board was stamped with the five spots of a dice. He stopped anyone who missed the mark. Next, he demonstrated how to use a router so that every edge would be rounded and freed from splinters. He made a measuring stick to ensure the proper depth of the ground cover. And as the morning unfolded, he successfully took over the administration of the entire project. By noon, only three helpers remained. On the next Saturday, he was the only worker. Church can be discouraging. Such disappointments undermine our own confidence that God is at work in the context of the church. It is enough to cause us all to lose heart. Even the mundane and the boring are better than what is seemingly our lot. Where is the glory?

If only we could see the kind of glory that is described in the “mountaintop” experience of Sinai! Now Moses had a glorious ministry (Exod. 34:29-35). Imagine the scene where the ministry is so glorious that the minister’s face glows with God’s presence. Images of Charlton Heston fill our minds. Wow! What a ministry? Moses leads his people from bondage to freedom. Moses gives his people Torah, a way to walk in the paths of God. Who would want to be compared to Moses? If only Paul’s ministry had glory like Moses’.

And Paul agrees (2 Cor. 3:7-18). He states that the old covenant “came in glory.” Paul knows the misgivings of some about his local ministry. And that is when Paul changes the conversation. The Israelites could not even bare to look at Moses’ face (3:7). The central issue with Moses’ shinning face was not its glow, but its fade. Moses’ glory was passing. The central focus of 3:7-11 is not the denial of the glory of the law, but the comparison of the Sinai covenant with Paul’s own ministry of the new covenant. Indeed, Paul refers to the two covenants as two ministries. Moses’ ministry was glorious. But Paul says he knows about an even greater glory, a glory that will not pass away.

Despite the appearances, Paul’s ministry is even more glorious than that of Moses. Moses veiled his face to hide its fading glory. He placed a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from seeing the end of the glory. As Paul changes the conversation from Moses’ glorious ministry, he does not set himself up as the point of comparison but speaks instead about the local church at Corinth. Paul allows the church to shine with an unveiled face as evidence of God’s glorious ministry. “We all” refers, not only to Paul himself, but to all who have “turned to the Lord.”  This community of faith, as Paul’s letter of recommendation (3:2) beholds the glory of the Lord (cf. Exod 16:7, 10), just as Moses did. However, unlike Israel, the Christian community beholds the glory of the Lord “with unveiled faces.” As we turn to the Lord we are “being transformed into the image from one degree of glory to another.”   Despite the appearances of ineffectiveness, the testimony to our ministry is the transformation of the church into God’s divine image. By the message of the cross, we are transformed into the image of Christ. It is the church that stands as God’s letter of recommendation, the fact that you have believed, you have responded, you have become people of God.

Despite the appearances, we have seen God’s glorious ministries in the face of Jesus Christ. We see transformation taking place wherever we see a cup of water given in his name, a people who sacrifice themselves for the poor, a people who care for the bereaved, and a people who show hospitality to a stranger. God’s glorious ministry is an effective practice when God’s ministers partner with God to apply theology in all its forms in contemporary contexts in order to transform the community of God into the image of Jesus. God’s glorious ministry is seen at a church of all places when the people actively practice theology as a way of life for the sake of the world.

I don’t know your stories. Nonetheless, let me venture to guess. If your church conducted an evening service with an open microphone where various congregants were asked to come and share stories of times when they experienced the loving face of Jesus shinning in the face of one of their brothers and sisters, then all in attendance would behold the glory of the Lord. The Effective Practice of Ministry shares several stories of glorious ministries. This book is a microphone for storytellers of God’s kingdom to share what God is doing among other faithful people. Elders are appointed in God honoring ways. Leaders are trained to serve with integrity and grace. Teachers are prepared to open new eyes of faith. Parents are formed to raise their children in the Lord. Strangers are welcomed with the peace of Christ. And pew sitters are prepared to hear the Gospel with new ears. Whenever we see people abandoning themselves for the sake of others, we see the transformation of lives from one degree of glory to another (3:18). Because of God’s glory, we do not lose heart (2 Cor 4:1-6). Because its God’s glory, we plunge in with both feet and eyes wide open. And that’s the call of the gospel.

From the Introduction to The Effective Practice of Ministry, forthcoming, June 2013.

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God’s Incarnational Ministry

“In the beginning God…” Genesis assumes God. God does not have to be introduced. God is the primary character. And God acts. God creates, blesses, gives laws, judges, grieves, saves, elects, promises, makes covenants, provides counsel, protects, confers responsibility to humans, and holds them accountable, all before Abraham shows up on the scene. Genesis is all about God. The Bible begins with a testimony to the universal activity of God. And God is the hero of every story.

Before time began, God existed in community. The mysterious doctrine of the Trinity confesses God’s oneness as a relational and communal being. Fellowship in love within God’s being describes God’s existence prior to any word about the world. “In the beginning God…”

In God’s loving fellowship, God desired to create a place where God would extend fellowship to God-like beings. In the first chapter in the book about God, the word for “God” is used 32 times; “God said” 8 times; “God saw” 7 times. God ordered chaos and filled emptiness. God is God and freely brings into being that which is not God. The created depend on the Creator God for their existence and continuing life. The male and female together created in God’s image are both given authority to govern creation (1:26-31). God’s creative activity not only brought the world into being, but also effectively engaged in the lives of people long before Israel came into being.

However, not long into the story about God, people broke relationship with God. The story begins in loving fellowship, but the plotline of God’s story unfolds by God acting in the world in order to restore God’s relationship with creation and especially with humanity. God’s redemptive purposes are universal. And though people sin, they remain God’s good creation, created in the divine image (5:1-2, 9:6). God’s love for humanity carries the story forward in dramatic, often tragic, ways. For instance, God begins showing up in the story less and less. With each patriarch, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, God’s words and God’s actions are more reticent. God steps back from human history so people can step forward. Skip your rock across the pages of God’s story in the Hebrew Scriptures and God’s grand appearances slowly fade into the background. At times, it feels like a drought. As the story of God unfolds, smaller and smaller audiences witness God’s attendance. And repeatedly Israel is stunned by God’s silence. The Psalmist cries out more than once, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Ps 13:1). And in some stories, the drought stuns us. God is not even mentioned in the story of Esther. During the Babylonian period of captivity, God only reveals God’s Self in a vision to an odd fellow living in a refugee camp. And the people waited and longed for God to show up again. While Israel is asked to “Behold God” (Isa. 40:5, 9-10) during Second Temple Judaism, the people lost sight of God’s promised restoration. Even though God was present (Hag. 1:13, 2:4), the people could not see. And after Malachi, drought lasted around 400 years.

That drought is why John’s words are so stunning. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1-4, 14).

God became flesh. God was made visible and audible in the person of Jesus. The incarnation changes everything. God in Jesus was now made known fully in ways never before seen or experienced. As Paul says, “He is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15a); And again he says, “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col 2:9). Or as the Hebrew writer says, “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Heb 1:3). The relationship between the divine and the human is transformed. Humans now can see, hear, and know God in ways never before possible. God did not stay distant or transcendent, remote or isolated; rather in Jesus, God chose to live with humanity in the midst of human weakness, confusion, and pain. To become flesh is to know joy, pain, suffering, and loss. It is to love, grieve, and someday die. Jesus lived among God’s people, and they saw his glory. The glory Moses beheld on the mountain and Ezekiel saw at the Kebar fully dwelt in Jesus. And God’s glory set up tent in their midst. God ended the drought and tabernacled with people in context. The glory of Jesus’ ministry exemplified his effective practice. Good news was preached to the poor, release to the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, and liberation to the oppressed (Luke 4:18). By faith and through sacrament, God continues to inhabit God’s people and minister through them in glorious ways today. The climactic denouement is the greatest story ever told. God recreates relationship with humanity by becoming human, dying, and rising back to life. Eternal loving fellowship closes the revelation of God’s story.

Excerpt from the Preface of The Effective Practice of Ministry, forthcoming, June 2013.

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Advice to New Pastors

I recently read a blog entry posted by Jason Goroncy “William H. Willimon: Advice for New Pastors.” The link for the post is here.

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The Function of Sermons

I am currently writing a text A Turn towards the Listener. The following is an excerpt from the section entitled, “Changing the Function of the Function.”

In homiletics, the terms “aim,” “purpose,” and “function” are often been used to describe what the preacher intends the sermon “to do.” Preachers intend that sermons accomplish certain ends; realize particular consequences. Preachers intend to persuade hearers to become and consequently to act. The most oft used definition of a function statement comes from Tom Long, Witness of Preaching. Quoting David Kelsey: “Part of what it means to call a text ‘Christian scripture,’ is that it functions to shape persons’ identities so decisively as to transform them … when it is used in the context of the common life of Christian community.”[1] Advocating that biblical texts say things that do things, and the sermon is to say and do those things too. Content and intention are bound together (focus and function), and no expression of proclamation is complete without them. Long writes, “A function statement is a description of what the preacher hopes the sermon will create or cause to happen for the hearers. Sermons make demands upon the hearers, which is another way of saying that they provoke change in the hearers. … The function statement names the hoped-for change.” [2] Function statements raise the question of how the preacher’s words will be taken up, acted on, or become embedded in the practices of the congregation.

For a pragmatic sermon, let me propose that all function statements only use behavioral or affective verbs. I’m not against cognitive acts. Let’s assume that what we are doing makes sense. We are using clear and meaningful language. Let’s assume that our words communicate content in clear and logical ways that increase congregational understanding. Let’s assume that our words will “remind,” “clarify,” “teach,” “analyze,” “enlighten,” “illuminate,” “investigate,” “examine,” and a host of other words that are appropriate for thinking people. And for Peirce, understanding a concept is the same as belief that will lead to practice. After the congregation understands, then what? Select a strong verb that reflects the answer to the question, “So what?”

Affective and behavioral functions go beyond feelings and reactions and become a way of being for people. Let’s use active verbs like “affirm,” “exhort,” “warn,” “challenge,” “encourage,” “delight,” “inspire,” “support,” “promote,” “hearten,” “stir,” “motivate,” “arouse,” “provoke,” “aggravate,” and a host of other words that prompt the hoped for change in people’s lives. Only then does the message have “meaning” in a peircian sense. Subsequently, the function of sermons will be judged by their transformative effect “over time” in the life cycle of a church.

People can have bad habits that they sustain for a surprisingly long time. These habits are funded by “inadequate definitions, misleading theories, and other bad interpretations.”[3] Since bad habits die hard, our function statements must activate intentional and concrete practices. If our aim is to “fix” belief so that people are prepared to act, then our functions must be effective and affective from the outset and our teaching must become proclamation.

[1] In: Thomas Long, The Witness of Preaching (Westminster John Knox, 1989), 106.

[2] Ibid., 108-109.

[3] Lyne, 87.



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Growing Up with Ordained Habits

The Eucharist in an Unarticulated World

Mikhail Bakhtin’s understanding of dialogism and heteroglossia implies that all discourse communities are located in historical situations that involve complex interactions. To address what teenagers within Churches of Christ believe about the Eucharist, there exists the need to return to the naked immediacy of experience as it is felt within the utmost particularity of a specific life. Subsequently, an ethnographic journey of what teens believe and practice about the Lord’s Supper will involve other conversation partners. Seeing and participating in a weekly observance of communion gives these teens access to a larger conversation. For teens to experience “deed” (in Bakhtin’s system), they will need to mediate between their lived experiences of the Lord’s Supper and their reasoned representation of the act. The question this research asks is: are teens able to account or give meaning to the act of participating in weekly Communion? Or as Bakhtin says, “For as much as I have experienced and understood in art, I must answer with my life, so that what I have experienced and understood in art does not remain without effect in life” (Art and Answerability, 56). Can these teens “answer with their life” in the context of the act of the Eucharist?

In the book, Soul Searching, author and researcher Christian Smith wrote a detailed analysis of his findings from the National Study of Youth and Religion. In it he wrote:

In our in-depth interviews with U.S. teenagers, we also found the vast majority of them to be incredibly inarticulate about their faith, their religious beliefs and practices, and its meaning or place in their lives. We found very few teens from any religious background who are able to articulate well their religious beliefs and explain how those beliefs connect to the rest of their lives.[1]

Within any denominational setting, teens enter an ongoing conversation about the Eucharist. Churches of Christ have a deep commitment to a weekly observance of the ordinance. The following articulation of the Eucharist is summarized from Dr. Everett Ferguson’s The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today.[2] Ferguson begins the discussion of the Lord’s Supper in a subsection entitled “Activities of the Assembly,” located in chapter 4, “The Church and Her High Priest: Worship and Assembly.”[3] Ferguson is indebted to Scripture as his primary source for authority. He describes the Lord’s Supper as the central act of the weekly assemblies of the early church that occurred on the first day of the week. “The Lord’s Supper is expressive of the central realities of the Christian faith and of what the church is about” (250). He subsequently describes the Lord’s Supper under the headings of biblical words and descriptors.

  1. Thanksgiving or eucharist is the term used to express thanksgiving for salvation the congregation uses to address God.
  2. Lord’s Supper describes the meal Jesus hosts in his honor. The giving of the bread and wine is a symbol of the gift of salvation. Jesus gives the meal on behalf of the people. Lord’s Supper is the most common expression used by Ferguson.
  3. Communion or koinonia points to the sharing congregants have in Christ’s sacrifice and its benefits. Participants are identifying with his life and death. Bread and wine are tokens of Jesus’ pledge of continual fellowship with his people. The breaking of the bread signifies the sharing of the meal together indicating the congregation’s unity and mutual sharing.
  4. Memorial or anamnesis indicates a commemoration. Remembrance brings to mind the Passover Feast’s function in the minds of Jewish celebrants. The remembrance is greater than mere recalling of past events but locates by faith each person who celebrates in the act as a participant in the ongoing event. “Thus, instead of simply calling the past to mind, the past was brought into the present and its benefits made operative” (252). The memorial is thus a re-enactment or “the action portrayed and shared in the reality being enacted. In the same way, Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper enacted the giving of himself soon to occur” (253). In other words, “By repeating the actions of Jesus in breaking the bread and distributing the cup, believers participate in what he did; by the symbolism, they bring those past events into the present and make them living reality” (253). Additionally, the memorial functions by anticipating the messianic banquet by proclaiming a future event. Prolepticly, the memorial brings the future event into the present through joyful expectation.
  5. Covenant Meal connects the Lord’s Supper with the new covenant that is based on the forgiveness of sins. The Lord’s Supper is an act of renewing one’s covenant allegiance to the lordship of Jesus.
  6. Sacrifice is seen through the congregation’s prayers and thanksgivings as acceptable “thank offerings.” The Lord’s Supper reminds believers of the realities of the resurrection as a promise of the power of a sacrificial life. The church shares in the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice, but also offers its own self-sacrifice to God.
  7. Sacrament or mystery are words often associated with the Lord’s Supper in other traditions but are loosely tied to the event in the Bible. In broad ways, the words do connect with what is happening but Ferguson is reticent to incorporate a mystical experience in the proceedings.

Finally, Ferguson lists four attitudes or spiritual exercises that believers practice during their engagement with the Lord’s Supper. Primarily, these exercises relate to mental processes that lead to communal actions. The attitudes are self-examination, confession, reconciliation, rededication, and joy.

Ferguson too comes from a dialogic place in his understanding of the Lord’s Supper. To contextualize Ferguson as a representative articulation of the Eucharist within Churches of Christ, I “cross-checked” his understanding with the entry “Lord’s Supper” in the Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement.[4] The essay substantiated Ferguson’s understanding while also supplementing it with details of the historical development of the doctrine within the larger tradition from which Churches of Christ emerged. The authors highlighted the emphasis on “every first day of the week” and the centrality of the event. Developmentally, they spoke of a consensus that centered on the centrality of both preaching and the Lord’s Supper, unfermented juice, multiple cups, communion meditations, and open communion. While practices may vary from place to place, the social location of the participants in my ethnographic research all adhere to these activities. However, the entry also detailed the lack of consensus about how people understand the Lord’s Supper. While early pioneers of the movement emphasized the memorial or “emblematic” nature of the Supper, a more sacramental or mystical understanding was also present among some leaders.

Ferguson represents this tension by acknowledging the function of anamnesis in detail, but also by his reticence to use the terminology of sacrament or mystery. Ferguson notes how Christians celebrate the presence of Christ as the celebrant and host of the meal, but avoids using mystical language. Ferguson elaborated on his understanding of what Churches of Christ believe about the Lord’s Supper by noting that memorial has been the predominant view in most churches and he emphasized anamnesis and other aspects in order to “broaden the perspective.”[5] A predominate view of memorial, but not as anamnesis, indicates a wholly rational approach to the event. Ferguson desires to broaden the perspective because of his personal convictions. He states, “As to my personal view, I believe that the eating of the bread and drinking the cup is the occasion when Christ and the Spirit impart spiritual nourishment to the believer, somewhat comparable to the way baptism is the appointed time when God acts to forgive sins.”[6]

In my experience, the unspoken difference between memorial and a more sacramental view pervades the pews. While an observer would notice little difference in the outward activities or practices of churches, the significance of the Supper’s theological import as either memorial or sacrament is unarticulated. Communion meditations may comment on these fundamental tenets of faith, but may unknowingly contradict one another from week to week. Most members, and especially teens, do not formally process these meditations as mediation between their acts and their accounts of their acts (Bakhtin: accounts + acts = “deeds”). Furthermore, my experience as a third generation member of Churches of Christ would contradict what these resources have claimed to be normative. While I do see the Supper as a central part of our liturgical practice today, I was not raised to think such. I was raised to see a “flat” view of all the liturgical practices, one not being more important than any other. Subsequently, I think many congregations hold to the notion that preaching, reading Scripture, collecting money, singing a cappella, praying, and taking the Lord’s Supper are of equal importance.

Research protocol: Various graduate student researchers will ask baptized teens who regularly attend Churches of Christ assemblies the following:

  1. Beginning: Note their age and gender. Thank them for agreeing to participate in this project and assure them that their responses will be confidential. Ask, “May I have permission to record this interview?” “What is your first name?” “How long ago was it when you were baptized?”
  2. Ask and record the following: “Reflect for me about your experiences taking communion.” If their answer is short, ask the following prompts: “Tell me about your first experience taking communion.” “Tell me about what your most recent experience taking communion.”
  3. Thank them for their help with this project.

Data Analysis:

  • Recordings will be transcribed.
  • The transcribed notes will be coded according to the themes that emerge.
  • The themes will be analyzed to see convergence and divergence intertextually, intratextually, and from the larger discourse reflected by Ferguson.
  • Silences in the teen’s discourse will be highlighted through a comparison with the larger discourse reflected by Ferguson.

Paper outline:

  1. Introduction: Statement of the question for investigation.
  2. A description of a discourse analysis based upon a Bakhtinian hermeneutical lens.
  3. The articulation of the Eucharist in Churches of Christ informed by tradition and text.
  4. Ethnographic data collected from baptized teens who are members of Churches of Christ.
  5. A Bakhtinian analysis of the discourse using the themes from part three, slippage, and silence. [A critical correlation of text, tradition, and experience.]
  6. Conclusion.


[1] Christian Smith, Soul Searching (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) 131.

[2] Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996) 250-257. Dr. Ferguson is a renowned church historian and professor emeritus of Abilene Christian University. The following summary of the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper believed by Churches of Christ was “member checked” and edited by Dr. Douglas Foster, professor of Church History at Abilene Christian University, and by Dr. Ferguson.

[3] Ferguson, when giving feedback about my summary of his work states, “You capitalize Supper, but I follow the NRSV in leaving it lower case. That immediately expresses a different understanding. Lord’s supper is not only the term I used most but also the term most used in churches of Christ.” Note that he also does not capitalize “churches” when referring to Churches of Christ seeing the former as a description rather than a name. Private communication, February 25, 2012.

[4] Paul M. Blowers and Byron C. Lambert, “The Lord’s Supper,” in Douglas A. Foster, Paul M. Blowers, Anthony L. Dunnavant, and D. Newell Williams (eds.), Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004): 489-496.

[5] Ferguson, private communication, February 25, 2012. Doug Foster emphasized the difference between a rational understanding of memorial versus a more nuanced or sacramental view by stating that Ferguson’s explanation of memorial by using the word anamnesis is an ‘”ideal” statement of remembrance that would not be present in the understanding of many people in the pews of Churches of Christ.” Doug Foster, private communication, February 26, 2012.

[6] Ibid.

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We Gather Together

Assemblies that move us to a more profound alleluia!

Everyone has assemblies. Even non-religious people have assemblies. The Moose Club on 5th Avenue has assemblies. Football lovers have assemblies. Art guilds have assemblies. Assemblies define who we are. We choose which assemblies are primary for us.

Christians have assemblies. God has gathered us together to be God’s people. As God’s people, we gather each week in joyful assembly.

You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words, so that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken…But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the first born, whose names are written heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood … Therefore, … let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:18-24, 28-29).

Christians have always followed a pattern in their worship. Though there were variations in local custom, the usual worship service included reading of scriptures, preaching, several kinds of prayers, singing, and the Lord’s Supper. Worship is a time for praise and adoration, confession and restitution, commemoration and offering response. Within these contexts, Scripture speaks little about the formal aspects of the assembly leaving us the freedom to decide for ourselves.

Worship Intentions

Worship is three dimensional. Worship has a vertical relationship with the Father. Worship is an encounter with God. Worship renewal only comes when we know who God is. During worship we know and experience the presence of God. Worship enables us to experience God’s transcendence and intimacy. We honor, bless, and praise the Lord. Here, worship is a celebration and a memorial. Worship is our response to God’s saving activity in Jesus Christ. We worship a present and a living God. Where there is no passion for God there is no power in worship. Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ (Col 2:16-17). Rituals, sacrifices, and ceremonies are replaced by Christ. The ultimate worship given to God was offered by Christ in his self-giving on the cross. Our worship is this same sacrificial existence living in us (Rom 12:1). Worship is a participation with Christ’s sufferings, death, resurrection, and ascension. When the death, burial, and resurrection becomes reality in each of our lives as a present and ongoing part of our existence, then we truly worship. Worship through Christ is an encounter with God.

Although often neglected, worship also has an evangelistic dimension.

So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!” (1 Cor 14:23-25).

Orderly worship is evangelistic. Let us expect the power of the Word to change lives. Allow the presence of God to manifest itself through us to others. People will respond by meeting Jesus through our worship.

Furthermore, worship has a horizontal dimension as we relate to one another. We come together as lonely people of faith, united in an assembly where we give each other a reaffirming message of who we are as opposed to who we are not. We gather together to encourage each other.

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. . . .Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. . . . Be filled with the Spirit speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your hear to the Lord. . . . v 3 for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort…v 5 so that the church may be edified…v 12 excel in gifts that build up the church…v 17 the other one is not edified…v 19 in the church…words to instruct others…v 26 All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church…v 31 so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged…v 33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace…v 40 But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way (Heb 10:19-25; Col 3:16; Eph 5:19; 1 Cor 14:3, 5, 17, 19, 26, 31, 33, 40].

Worship Planning

Services that are vital, relevant, and exciting are: (1) Carefully planned. Even the most informal and spontaneous services have order even if it is unwritten and unstated. Even if you attended a loosly organized gathering but were to say the wrong thing or act the wrong way, most would know you are out of place. Formlessness in a worship community destroys community. (2) The persons who lead vital worship assemblies have learned to work together effectively as a team. (3) Services that are vital speak the language of the congregation. They have ownership of what takes place.

Some want change for change sake. Some want change because of their own personal growth walk with God. Some want change reacting against bad past experiences. Some want change too quickly. Some don’t want change at all. Change takes careful planning. What took twenty-five years in developing will not be abandoned in one year. Observe where people are now. Not only understand what they do but why they do it. Most people don’t resist the introduction of a new song because they’re sticks in the mud. They resist it because it doesn’t speak their “heart language.” If we want to introduce a responsive reading of a Psalm, plan that introduction in such a way that the congregation can worship. If you are considering change, ask these questions: “Does this change deepen reverence in worship? Does this change help focus us on the presence of the living God? Will this change enhance mutual edification?

Liturgy: the work of the people. Liturgy is the work of the people, of the congregation as their unified response to God. As autonomous churches, we must decide for ourselves, using spiritual discernment, as to what is best for our local situations. Some congregations may choose a formal style; while others informal. There’s no ideal model of Christian order of worship which we must discover and to which we must return. Rather, it is up to each generation to do what the apostolic church did: apply the mystery of Christ to today’s situation. We need discernment in what Scriptures teach about worship. We need discernment about what it means to worship. I believe part of that discernment will lead us to incorporate worship rituals and practices into our assemblies. Whether we use the term or not, we all have liturgy and we all need liturgy.

Worship Rituals

It has been stated that rituals in a family are vital in developing healthy families. Rituals are important not so much for whatever is actually said or done, but for the results they yield—the sense of “we-ness” that grows out of shared experience, and the feeling of “rightness” that comes from its repetition. More than anything, the ritual is a symbol of how family members feel about one another.

From: “Rituals are Family Keepsakes That Live In Your Heart.” Jay Schvaneldt, Sociologist at Utah State University. McCalls, Dec. 1981.

  1. Rituals reinforce family closeness.
  2. Rituals enhance a family’s sense of stability and emotional security.
  3. For the young children, bedtime rituals are a source of comfort and reassurance.
  4. Rituals put a special stamp on family milestones.
  5. Rituals forge a link between generations.
  6. Rituals are a way of maintaining family values.
  7. Rituals set forth appropriate behavior for special occasions.

There is value in sameness. Each of the family members will feel welcome and comfortable as they are invited to participate. Renewal does not come by innovation alone or change for change sake. Any over emphasis on mechanics or the externals of worship will leave the gathering of saints malnourished. Renewal comes by enriching what we do with an awareness of the presence of God (which requires innovation at times).

Ritual (patterned, purposeful, predictable, public behavior) is an integral part of all public worship. Even if we changed everything tomorrow, we will create new patterns, rituals, and traditions. Human beings in groups will do things in prescribed patterned ways. We need traditions in order to exist as community. It is a hectic and ever changing world out there. We need someplace that is stable. A gathering of people who will remind us who we are and tell us the stories of our faith again and again. The assembly must provide safe boundaries from the world where the people of God have freedom for growth. A place where the church can be the church and not look like the world. Liturgy helps form that Christian identity. Liturgy creates a world for the Christian. During the gathering of the people of God we can see with eyes of faith the realities of God.

Worship Organization

Planning includes what we do this week to get ready for next Sunday. No one will accept an unorganized sermon or an unprepared preacher. We do not appreciate the song leader thumbing through the index to select the next hymn. Whether it be the sermon, communion comments, songs, or prayers, those involved with the worship leadership on any given Sunday should prepare themselves. Primarily, in their own personal walk with God so that when they lead in worship they worship themselves. Then, and only then, should attention be given to the mechanics of worship.

We all do some planning. We have a set order of worship that we usually follow every week. Maybe we have a deacon in charge of worship assignments—who does what and when. The preacher usually selects the text to be read and sermon to preach. The song leader usually selects songs ahead of time. I believe, that greater attention should be given to the coordinating of all our aspects of worship into a unified whole. That way if the sermon is from John 1, the prayers and songs all work together for the glory of God. Our assemblies move us to a more profound alleluia.

Planning also involves long-term direction setting. We desire to grow and be transform into the image of God. Leadership should intentionally plan a dynamic future for the congregation to enter into the presence of God each week. This involves assigning specific responsibilities for the ongoing planning, coordination, and evaluation of the services. It involves educating the congregation to what worship is. It involves planning time and space that complements your congregation’s personality and understanding of worship.

I see planning like watching a movie rather than looking at slides. Worship needs movement. Worship ought not be disjointed. Hymns of praise move toward memorial as the scene shifts to the Lord’s Table. Mood and the tone of the service is planned as well as theme. From the Call to Worship to the Benediction, the service is a unified whole. Our assemblies move us to a more profound alleluia.

We should also plan variety. Variety is necessary for relevance. Due to the diversity in the body, what is needed most for edifying assemblies is acceptance of one another. Variety meets different people’s differing needs and personal preferences. And when we experience a worship style that does not conform to our preferences, then we know we are serving the others who do fancy that style. Next week, the shoe will be on the other foot, as they say. Variety is worthless without authenticity. Therefore, it requires intentional planning to maintain the balance of variety, relevance, and ritual.

Now let me contradict myself. We need to plan in our assemblies intentional spontaneous moments. We need to keep the paradox in tension. These times of spontaneous worship can be planned with excellence. For example, a time for prayer requests. We need to be open to the Spirit’s leading. Expect the sudden inbreak of the eternal God. If worship can be compared to a theatrical performance, then the entire congregation is in the cast while God sits in the audience. Yet, for me, God’s presence is more than that. God is actively participating with me. One way this happens is recognizing that Jesus functions as the host during the service of the table. I want to remain open to being surprised by God in unexpected moments. Even if the songs are dragging, the reading stuttered, and the sermon read word for word from a manuscript, by the power of God the community can still know the sweet presence of God. The awareness of the holy and the intimacy we have with God is beyond the reach of mechanics.


Harry owned a store for most of his life. He went out to lunch every day with the other “boys” downtown in New York. They sat at the same table and they had the same waiter. At twelve o’clock sharp, the waiter knew that they would arrive and knew what to bring them. Every day the same jokes were passed back and forth. “Harry, you’re losing more hair.” “It’s okay, Joe, you’re putting on weight.” And so on. Well, the years went by, the restaurant was bought out by somebody new. The waiter died. The table was shoved into a corner and another table was put in next to it, so that the new management could make more money. In and out: that was the new policy. Harry and the boys stopped going. In fact, one of the boys already had died. And even Harry, now in his late sixties, decided that business was harder than ever and maybe he would retire.

Even now you can visit my friend Harry, but he sits at home all day. If you visit him, he will usher you into his study with its old worn chair where Harry likes to read at night, and a little desk where he keeps the books. On the desk you will see Harry’s most prized possession: an ash tray. Now Harry doesn’t smoke. And so you may ask him, as I ask him, “Harry, why the ash tray?” To this, Harry smiles and says, “Well, you see, the happiest moments of my life were spent in a little restaurant near work. And when we had to leave and the old gang departed, I thought, well, I’ll just take an ash tray home with me to remember those days. And when I feel sad, I come in here and I just look at the ash tray and remember the boys.” —Lawrence A. Hoffman

We will know we have succeeded in our assembly when the Harrys, Joes, and Sallys—all the people who make up the group which we are a part, no longer have ash trays from restaurants on their desks, but have tattered pages from a Bible instead. And they shall say of their lives, “I’ve worked and I’ve played. I’ve been around. But my most meaningful moments were spent in fellowship with the saints.” May it be God’s will that we succeed in this holy task.


Anderson, Herbert, and Foley, Edward. Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals: Weaving Together the Human and the Divine. Josey-Bass, 2001.

Doran, Carol and Troeger, Thomas H. Trouble at the Table: Gathering the Tribes for Worship. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992.

Giovannetti, Bill. “Great Worship with Modest Means: What a Smaller Church Offers that’s Truly Praiseworthy.” Leadership 15 (Spring 1994): 52ff.

Hickman, Hoyt L. Planning Worship Each Week. Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1988.

Sensing, Tim. “Strange Encounters of the Lectionary Kind.” Restoration Quarterly 37 (Fourth Quarter 1995): 227-46.

_______. “Wholly Bible.” Leaven 12 (First Quarter 2004): 35-40.

Taft, Robert. “The Liturgical Year: Studies, Prospects, Reflections.” Worship 55 (January 1981): 2-22.

_______. “What Does Liturgy Do? Toward a Soteriology of Liturgical Celebration: Some Theses.” Worship 66 (May 1992): 194-211.

Troop, John R. “The Small Church: Five Considerations in Worship Management.” Worship Leader (February-March 1994): 10ff.

Willimon, William H. The Service of God: How Worship and Ethics are Related. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983.

Willimon, William H. and Wilson, Robert L. Preaching and Worship in the Small Church. Creative Leadership Series. Nashville: Abingdon, 1980.

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Christ Is Still Upon the Throne

Eusebius, Bishop of Nicomedia (341 C.E.) was the first to establish Ascension as a separate and special day. It may not always be possible to hold special services on Thursday (forty days after Easter). On this special service, we connect the resurrection to the ascension. Christ death and resurrection secured our hope for eternal life. Christ ascended to the right hand of God assured us of our future glorification. His ascension set the stage for the coming of the Spirit.

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:1-11)

Can you imagine the scene? The first followers of Jesus fully expected the messiah to come and establish God’s kingdom on earth. His arrest and execution stifled their faith. But now, the disciples witnessed resurrection. They assumed that God through Jesus would now establish God’s kingdom. But instead, they witnessed absence. Note the juxtaposition of  “I will be with you always” and he leaves. How do you live as an earnest disciple of a now-departed Lord? Imagine the look on their faces; mouths hung open, gazing into the sky.

  • You know the look; the look parents have during times of graduation. Sometimes a look of surprise, for nobody thought he could graduate. But really it is a look of the future uncertainties of an empty nest, of a child transitioning to the next stage in life. The knowledge that the future is often dangerous, confusing, unsettled. Will their feet land on a solid Rock? To believe in the resurrection is to believe in the ascension. “Jesus is still upon the throne.”
  • You know the look; the look of a patient after hearing the diagnosis. A disease announced that has a cure more costly than one family can bear alone; the dreary months ahead loom with no promise and little hope. To believe in the resurrection is to believe in the ascension. “Jesus is still upon the throne.”
  • You know the look; the look of a church that has experienced a decade of decline. Jealousies and bickering has led to several defections. The once vibrant teenage class now stands formless and void. The number of deacons to serve God’s people can be counted on one hand with fingers to spare. And we stand there gazing into the sky wonder what in the world has happened. To believe in the resurrection is to believe in the ascension. “Jesus is still upon the throne.”

Why do you stand there gazing? The Lord is exalted; the King is exalted on high. He rules today at the right of God in the heavens. And our proper response is worship and witness (Luke 24:50-53). The Bible does not deal with ascension in any fancy way. It is presented as a natural conclusion to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. After Pentecost, the first disciples accepted ascension. The disciples knew that Jesus had gone to be with them always. What does, he ascended mean? He is alive and we are his present witnesses of his ongoing work in the world. What does he ascended mean? That we, the church, go forth in the advancing of the kingdom.

Psalm 93 The LORD is king, he is robed in majesty; the LORD is robed, he is girded with strength. He has established the world; it shall never be moved; your throne is established from of old; you are from everlasting. The floods have lifted up, O LORD, the floods have lifted up their voice; the floods lift up their roaring. More majestic than the thunders of mighty waters, more majestic than the waves of the sea, majestic on high is the LORD! Your decrees are very sure; holiness befits your house, O LORD, forevermore.

Ascension day, Thursday June 2nd. What happens now? What happens between Ascension Sunday (June 5) and Pentecost Sunday (June 12)?  [Pentecost Sunday (50 days after Easter)]. The Day of the Ascension until Pentecost is a period that can be called the “between times” (passage between Christ’s earthly ministry and the empowerment and commissioning of the Church). The disciples’ actions give us a clue of resolution. Acts 1:14—All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. This interim time is one for contemplation and prayer, which are not idle forms but a practice of preparation for ministry and mission (Ora Labora—Prayer is work and work is prayer).

Adrian Nocent offers the Verona Sacramentary as a prayer that covey the themes of this day:

Rightly do we exult and rejoice on [this memorial day]. The ascension into heaven of Jesus Christ, Mediator between God and [humanity], is not an abandonment of us to our lowly state, for he exists now in the glory that he always had with you and in the nature took from us and made his own. He deigned to become [human], in order that he might make us sharers in his divinity.[1]

[1]Adrian Nocent, The Liturgical Year, translated by M. J. O’Connell (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1977) Vol. III, pp. 235-36.

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