The practical problem of evil

Apparently it never occurred to the early Christians to question their belief in God or even God’s goodness because they were unjustly suffering for their beliefs. Rather, their faith gave them direction in the face of persecution and general misfortune. Suffering was not a metaphysical problem needing a solution but a practical challenge requiring a response.

— Stanley Hauerwas, Naming the Silences

The key to effectiveness in today’s mission field

The models of organizational success that dominated the twentieth century have their roots in the industrial revolution and, simply put, the world has changed. The pursuit of “efficiency” — getting the most with the least investment of energy, time, or money — was once a laudable goal, but being effective in today’s world is less a question of optimizing for a known (and relatively stable) set of variables than responsiveness to a constantly shifting environment. Adaptability, no efficiency, must become our central competency.

The quote above comes from Team of Teams, a book about the lessons learned about effective organization by the United States special forces during the war with Al Qaeda in Iraq. It is not a book about war, but a book about how organizations can be effective in the fast-changing environment of the 21st century.

I’m not sure exactly how to take the lessons in the book — which I am still reading — and apply them to the church, but I’m convinced we have a lot to learn. An argument can be made that Methodism endured and expanded in the 18th and 19th century because its organization was uniquely fitted to carry its theology into the world.

It is hard to argue that our current organization is well fitted to our environment.

I hope to share more thoughts as I read this book. I’m curious, though, about the contrast raised in the quote above.

Do you think adaptability is the key to effectiveness for the United Methodist Church today?

Can you think of ways we might foster such adaptability?

A good book on doubt

My blogging friend Talbot Davis sent me a copy of his new book, The Shadow of a Doubt, recently. In honor of a regular feature on his blog, I’d like to share my Top Five Things I Like About This Book.

5. It engages an important pastoral topic in a faithful way. The book is based on a sermon series Davis preached at Good Shepherd Church on the topic of doubt. This is an important topic, but one I’ve heard handled in unproductive ways in the past. Davis acknowledges doubt — including his own — without praising it. In five sermons, he tackles important questions about doubt and makes relevant connections to people’s lives.

4. It displays Davis’ skill as a preacher. The book chapters are edited versions of Davis’ sermons, which makes this a bit of a sermon anthology for preachers such as myself who are still mastering their craft. Davis is a big fan of Andy Stanley’s one-point preaching style. If you’ve ever read Stanley’s book on preaching and wanted to see how such sermons look in actual practice, this book is a great resource. It also demonstrates Davis’ wonderful use of language and deep engagement with the biblical texts. Which brings me to ….

3. It is biblical. Each chapter takes a close look at a key text. This is not a book collecting what secular authorities say about the topic of doubt. It is a book that brings our questions to the Bible and lets the Bible shape our answers.

2. It would be perfect for a small group. Each sermon is followed by well-crafted questions designed to promote small-group conversation, devotional activities, a prayer, and some scripture readings for the week ahead. This would be an easy and interesting five-week small-group curriculum.

1. My copy is autographed. I’m sure if you asked, you could get an autograph, too. I understand Davis will be signing books at the upcoming New Room Conference.

I recommend the book, especially as a resource for small group ministry. At 112 pages and $9.99, it is well worth the price.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I was provided with a free (autographed) copy of the book and asked to write about it. I was only too happy to do that for a pastor who has a vital ministry in the United Methodist Church.

Pilmore or Asbury?

When Francis Asbury arrived in America, he was distressed by the state of Methodism in the northern colonies. Joseph Pilmore and Richard Boardman – who Wesley had sent before – had confined their ministries to the urban centers of Philadelphia and New York and let Methodist discipline slacken.

In his biography of Asbury, John Wigger describes Pilmore as worried by the spectre of sectarian religion and reluctant to close the door to anyone. Asbury, on the contrary, thought that Methodist discipline about class meetings and love feasts were crucial to the spiritual work of Methodism. Only a disciplined society could foster the spiritual atmosphere necessary to nurture growth. Only in a love feast where all had proven their desire for higher spiritual gifts could true sharing and unburdening of hearts take place. When everyone was let in, the function of the feast was destroyed.

Pilmore looked over a church whose pews had been emptied by Asbury’s insistence on discipline and lamented the loss. Asbury said he would rather have a small but truly Methodist gathering than a large but undisciplined one.

Are we more like Pilmore or Asbury today?

(This post was original published in 2009. Question still seems relevant to me.)


It is the Presbyterian who speaks to me

Two contemporary books define between them nearly all the tensions I feel in pastoral ministry.

The first is Eugene Peterson’s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. The second is Adam Hamilton’s Selling Swimsuits in the Arctic.

Hamilton is an extroverted and visionary mega-church pastor who in his book tells the story about how selling shoes taught him a lot about what it takes to be a good pastor. Peterson is a Presbyterian church planter, best known for his biblical paraphrase The Message, who recoils at the idea of a church having anything in common with a shoe store.

By temperament, I am much more inclined toward Peterson. He once told his congregational leaders that what he most wanted to do among them was pray, study Scripture and the world, get to know them, and lead them in worship. He wanted to stop all the projects and work of running a church. He also tells the story about the denominational official who told him to respond to a decline in worship attendance by launching a new building program. Americans, the official told him, only respond to projects. Peterson said he left the meeting knowing he was not going to take that advice, but not knowing what to do.

I understand that feeling.

Hamilton, in contrast, is energetic and extremely skillful at casting visions and getting things done. He understands how to communicate and is brilliant at organization. His church has without any doubt had a huge impact on its community and the entire United Methodist denomination. I’m not sure if Hamilton ever had a talk with his congregational leadership about the things that he most wants to do among them, but I have no doubt that he has a list of items that would be quite persuasive as an outline of what a church pastor should do.

I admire Hamilton, but I know I am not him nor will be any time soon. And yet, I still feel the tug of his example. It is duplicated by so many pastors who bring a set of practical gifts for helping other people encounter Jesus and grow in their faith. They are people of action and vision. They get things done. It feels like the United Methodist Church needs people who get things done.

As many people who know me will testify, getting things done is not one of my defining traits. I worry that makes me a poor fit for the needs of the church right now, but at my age I am not likely to become a different person than I am.

And so my copy of Five Smooth Stones is dog-eared and underlined heavily. My copy of Selling Swimsuits is in a box with my other books. It is from Peterson’s book that I find the most encouragement. I don’t think that is because Hamilton is wrong, but he simply is not very much in tune with my gifts and faults. Thank God for pastors like Hamilton. Thank God for pastors like Peterson.

A guaranteed way to fail your theology final

I’ve been rereading Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ. It was an important book in the formation of John Wesley’s faith, and therefore important to the development of our Methodist way.

This goes out to all my friends in seminary writing doctrine and theology finals.

What avail is it to man to reason about the high, secret mysteries of the Trinity if he lack humility and so displeases the Trinity? Truly, it avails nothing. Deeply inquisitive reasoning does not make a man holy or righteous, but a good life makes him beloved by God. I would rather feel compunction in my heart for my sins than merely know the definition of compunction. If you know all the books of the Bible merely by rote and all the sayings of the philosophers by heart, what will it profit you without grace and charity? All that is in the world is vanity except to love God and to serve Him only. This is the most noble and the most excellent wisdom that can be in any creature: by despising the world to draw daily nearer and nearer to the kingdom of heaven.