Where Is Hope

For me, a benefit of believing in Jesus Christ is that I have hope. Hope is truly an interesting word. Much like the word love, hope has such a varied number of meanings depending on the context in which it is used. I can hope that the Hawkeyes will win their football game. Right now, rain is something I hope for in the area in which I live. I have hope that I will stay healthy and active for many years into the future. I am confident in the hope of Jesus’ promises. Each example is a different understanding of hope since the focus of that hope changes.

Having hope does not mean there are not times of discouragement, disappointment, and a level of despair. A person who has hope does not experience any fewer hardships in life than one who lacks hope. The difference is that a person who leans upon hope responds to the hardships much differently.

I recall a situation during my ministry when I was called to the emergency room of a hospital. A person in the community had been found hanging by a belt in his garage. Upon arriving at a local hospital, the medical staff attempted to revive the man but were not successful and pronounced him dead. The partner refused to leave the body so the staff requested I talk with him and convince him to leave in order for them to finish preparing the body to be transported. After much conversation, I was able to get the partner to leave the room. In talking with him and the family of the victim, I quickly realized that the issue which was causing problems was they lacked hope. This became clear again after the funeral service which they asked me to officiate. They would not leave the room where we had the service because they were convinced that this would be the last time any of them would ever see the dead man again. They had no hope in Jesus Christ, no hope in the resurrection, and no hope in life beyond death.

Hope is not always an easy thing to maintain. There are times in which I need others to remind me of the reason to hope. I need to hear words of reassurance. I need prompted by the Spirit to read passages of Scripture which speaks of the hope found in Jesus Christ. Rereading the promises which Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles set before us is a great way for me to replenish hope in my life.

Faith and hope are strongly linked. Being able to hope in the promises of God requires having faith in God. A person must believe that what we read in Scripture regarding the love and the sustaining presence of the Lord is true. This requires us to have faith in not a physical reality but in a spiritual truth. This faith is the source of our hope.

Looking around the events in our world today, or even specific times in our own lives, it can become easy to lose touch with hope. Life can have some very depressing realities. Difficulties can mount and appear insurmountable. Messages which we often hear can lead a person to despair, grief, and a sense of abandonment. For some, this all piles upon each other to lead the individual in believing that there is no hope. Yet, let me declare to you that there is always hope. This hope is not sustainable in trusting of any human or human institution. This unfailing hope can only be found in Jesus, the Christ.

Hope in the Lord. It has never failed me yet.

A New Era

A reality which is not easy for most churches to accept is that we now live in a time referred to as post-Christendom. What this means is that the elevated status which the Christian church experienced previously is no longer true today. Anyone who is actively involved in a church realizes that there are fewer people who attend worship services, even fewer people who attend activities sponsored by the church, and extremely fewer people who participate in any form of Christian education classes than in the 1950s in the United States. There are many factors which has led to the movement past Christendom but this is a reality which needs to be accepted.

If this is the reality which we now face in the Western Christian church, what are we to do about it? My first response is to realize that well planned programming and an outstanding marketing campaign are no longer the answers. The general approach of the church when it was on top of the societal spectrum was all we have to do is get them in the door then we will be able to add them as members. This could not be any farther from the truth these days. I have watched churches (and attempted myself) to provide the best programming options for people. I have seen very hard work put into getting the name of a church before as many people as possible. Yet, over and over this produced limited, if any, measurable results.

What the church needs to realize is that the priority of getting people in the pews is a futile goal. Instead, the church needs to move out of the building and to the locations where the people are located. This will require the church to operate in a completely different manner than the way we have conducted ourselves in the past. The training that our church leaders have received, and in many cases still are receiving, will provide limited assistance as we move into this new era. There remains value in our church leaders learning the academic information so they can assist people when they are searching for their own answers. However, there now needs to be a component regarding how to seek out people where they live, work, and play. Training must be done to teach our leaders ways to minister outside the building and to lead other members of the fellowship to do the same.

My perception is that we are being required to the model of ministry which was common during Jesus’ time and a model which the church has adopted at various times throughout history. Jesus clearly went where the people were to minister to them and to share the message from God. He would be found in pastures, on hillsides, along lakes, in market places, and in the temples and synagogues. He would spend his time taking care of the physical and spiritual needs of the people. Then he would share the message of God using images which the people in the particular location understood. There was not a specific location which was set aside for worship, practical ministry, or education. A specific day or time was not set up for any of this to take place.

Another reality of the post-Christendom society in which we live is that what people are seeking in their faith journeys is different today than in the era before. While there is still a place for ritual and learning, people today want to focus on practically applying their faith to life. There exists a strong desire to make an impact on the world in a positive manner. Instead of an inward focus, there is an outward focus. The church has an awesome opportunity here and can emerge as a great leader in this area. First, we demonstrate it by leaving the walls of a building and immersing ourselves where people are gathering. Second, we share our love in words and actions which allows us to point to God, the source and very nature of love. Third, we make ourselves available for people to ask questions. Fourth, we show people how to apply the love of God in their daily lives and as a body of individuals who go into the world instead of a building.

The church is no longer on top. We can choose to sit in our buildings, spend hours trying to figure out how to get others to come sit in our buildings, and bemoan the fact that our buildings become emptier every year, or…. We can re-imagine how we can be the church outside of the walls. We can learn to worship, teach, care for, and fellowship with people in a variety of settings. We can learn from the model of Jesus and the itinerant leaders of our past. We can continue to be the church with a new list of priorities.

A New Role

A fabulous author, leader, and visionary, the late Phyllis Tickle, talked about a trend in the Church. She presented the idea that every approximate five hundred years, the Church would do a garage sale. What she was referring to is the idea that due to a variety of forces, the Church was made to look at itself and determine what aspects of being the Church it was going to keep and what aspects would be discarded as the Church moved forward into the future. Her viewpoint was that the Church is currently in one of those periods which started in the early 2000s or a little earlier. (To read about this more in depth read her book, The Great Emergence: How the Church is Changing and Why [2008].)

I think that her theory is very accurate. I also think that we are still in the midst of one of the Church’s “garage sales.” There is a lot of turmoil within the institutional church. We are trying to figure out what will take us into the next five hundred years in a way which will serve the people of God both within and outside of the Church. This inventory and choosing is being done by individuals and by the corporate body. I have addressed this in previous posts without referencing Tickle’s theory but definitely in the same vein as her theory.

In this post, I want to lift up the idea that there is a growing need for nontraditional ministry models. Specifically, I am thinking about the role of leaders, usually referred to as clergy, in nontraditional ministry. The traditional clergy role is one which is connected to a specific congregation, in a specific location, under a denominational title. I do not support the elimination of the traditional role as I have just described but I think it is time that the Church is open to other ways for clergy to live out a ministry role. A vital one which is overlooked as of now is one that utilizes technology.

With the increase in technology and the manner in which it connects us in new ways, I believe it is time for the Church to acknowledge a ministry role for clergy which focuses on technological connections. To date, the Church has just added to the list of duties for traditional clergy, a component which points toward involvement in social media and the internet. I have personally been one of these traditional clergy who has attempted to actively use technology in my ministry. The problem with this is that there is not enough time to adequately serve in this capacity. The amount of time and energy necessary to fulfill the traditional role of clergy as I outlined above, leaves a fair inadequate amount of time and energy to do any sort of justice to a social media ministry. In order to honestly provide ministry in this area, the Church must acknowledge it as a validated ministry with the same status as a clergy person serving in a local congregation.

One aspect of ministry which Jesus demonstrated and the Church has at times striven to live out is the idea that ministry occurs where people are at a given time. Jesus did this by walking from village to village and sitting on hillsides or by lakes. The Church has done this by sending people to new lands. I believe this is what Jesus meant when Matthew records him saying, “Go and make disciples of all nations…” The key word here is GO. Jesus intended the Church to go where the people are. Today, the people are in the cyberworld. For me, this legitimized the importance of an affirmed ministry role for clergy in this aspect of life.

Do you agree that this is a need? How might this need be part of the change happening in the Church? What other nontraditional ministry roles need to be considered?

Answer Unavailable

For me, one of the most difficult realities in life is that times exist when answers do not. As a leader in the Christian church, I have often been present with people when they experience tragedy and/or loss. I have sat beside a person when they have been given extremely bad news. I have accompanied police officers as they have had to deliver news of a death to a family. It has been my responsibility to speak to a community when horror such as what occurred on 9/11/01 happens in our nation. In each of these situations, people have looked for answers that are beyond any human’s ability to provide.

This week, news of a senseless tragedy filled the airwaves and newspapers due to an event in my state. Less than twenty-four hours after this tragedy, another horrible act was committed in Ohio. Over thirty individuals lost their lives within a 24-hour time span because of the actions taken by two individuals. Right away people started seeking answers. The news media asked questions of law enforcement about motives and how these events took place. The politicians started discussing their theories and placing blame on others. The families of the victims, the ones who deserve answers more than anyone else, asked the question that always arises, “Why?

Over the years and my experience in seeking answers to questions like this, I have come to realize that some questions must be left unanswered. Sure, we can theorize, and we can rationalize but the reality is that the answer to Why? is not available. We can search the Bible, ancient manuscripts, history books, psychology books, and all types of writings, but the answer is not there. We can listen to civic leaders, faith leaders, law enforcement, professors, and anyone we believe to have wisdom and still there is no answer.

This lack of an answer frustrates us immensely. We are at the point of human development where we are used to taking on tough questions and with much effort finding the answers. In an age of technology and endless available information, we have convinced ourselves that no question exists which we cannot answer with Google and a little work. When we get frustrated, then we turn to blaming. We blame the cause of the tragedy, we blame our leaders, we blame ethnic backgrounds, we blame the internet, and at times we even blame the victims.

Here is a reality that may be difficult to swallow…there is no answer. No matter how much blame we throw around. No matter how much wisdom we seem to obtain. The answer to this Why? is not within our grasp.

Yet, there is still hope. The hope does not lie within our powers or abilities. The hope does not lie in the ability to “fix it.” Hope comes from only one source. This source has been known to people since ancient times. The name of the source may have changed over the years and throughout civilizations but it is the same source of hope. Some may call it Yahweh, some call it the Great Spirit, some call it Allah, and still others call it God as I do in my Christian faith. Our hope is found in God even when the answer to Why? is not obtainable.

Is This It?

Seems that not a day goes by anymore which does not contain some message about death. Recently I have heard about the deaths of individuals who I attended worship alongside. There have been deaths of celebrities. Tragic deaths such as the ones occurring in California at a garlic festival and those of hikers in Canada have made the national news. Locally, living in a large metroplex, death from accidents and violent acts of humans are daily mentioned on the television or in the newspaper. At times, it seems that death surrounds us all the time. Actually, that is more accurate than we may wish to acknowledge.

I have been thinking about how we respond to death. These thoughts have included both our societal responses and the responses we have as individuals, specifically in regard to our faith. I worry occasionally that as a society we have become so accustomed to death that we hardly even notice it anymore. Yet, I also am aware that some of our apathy towards death stems not solely from the frequency of encounter but also from our unwillingness to look at it honestly. We do not wish to affirm the reality of death because in doing so we have to face our own mortality.

Facing our mortality requires us to think about what we concern regarding the afterlife. Since there is no solid proof about the afterlife, we are afraid. For a large number of people, this fear leads us to ignore or push thoughts of death out of our thinking. We adopt an attitude of if we do not confront death, we do not have to think about death. Death seems too unknown to us and the fear is overwhelming, so we attempt to push it aside.

As a society and as individuals, we often want to hide death. One example is in how we talk about death when a person is deceased. We use phrases such as, “He has passed on,” or “She has parted.” Our avoidance of using the word death is a way to lessen the reality. By reducing the finality of death, we can evade dealing with it.

I have a much different view towards death. My view of death is very dependent upon my understanding of my faith. Through my reading of the Scriptures, the development of my beliefs, and my own experiences, I see death as a transition. There is no finality in death for me. Instead, there exists a belief that at death a person transitions from an earthly existence into a spiritual realm. Since I believe in a bodily resurrection, this does not mean that a person only exists as a spirit in this spiritual realm but that the same joining of the body and spirit which occurred during our earthly birth happens within the spiritual realm. I also believe that in this spiritual realm a person experiences the fullness of God.

Due to my understandings and beliefs in regard to death, death is not something I fear either for myself or those whom I love. Just because I do not fear death does not mean that I do not grieve when a person dies. I grieve though not because I fear what happens at the point of death and after, I grieve because I know that for a period of time I will be separated from that person. Once fear has been removed, the grief is a little easier to bear. Once fear is removed, you can talk honestly about death and the afterlife.