Graduation and Commencement

Graduation and Commencement

This is the time of year for graduation ceremonies. In recent days, families of high school and higher education graduates have celebrated the “moving of the tassel.” Churches often join in these celebrations to mark this significant passage in a person’s life. Woven into this cultural season of commencement ceremonies is Pentecost Sunday, the day earlier this week when Christians celebrate the birth of the church and the powerful manifestation of the Holy Spirit on the first believers. Maybe the convergence of these academic and sacred seasons will have some lessons for healthy churches today. The words that we use are interesting. Do you know the meaning of them? “Graduation” is from the Latin gradus, meaning “grade.” A graduate is one who “has completed a course of study.” This person is one who has made the grade and moves on to the next level. The word graduation signals completion, accomplishment, and achievement. In addition to the word “graduation” we also use the word “commencement.” To “commence” means “to initiate,” “to start,” or “to begin.” Graduation marks an ending – commencement marks a beginning . . . and yet we use both words to describe the same event. The story of the events at Pentecost is a story of graduation and commencement. GRADUATION: A SEASON IS COMPLETED Pentecost represented graduation for the followers of Jesus. A season was coming to an end – completion was being marked. The season began about three years earlier. Jesus called to himself twelve men to be a special class. He was their rabbi, or teacher. Others were in the larger group that followed along....
Is There More Than One Theologian in Your Church?

Is There More Than One Theologian in Your Church?

A few years ago, as I welcomed a first-time visitor to our worship service, he said to me abruptly, “I am looking for a church where the preacher preaches the Bible and doesn’t talk about theology and all of that kind of stuff.”  I knew then I was in trouble because I don’t believe you can preach the Bible or talk about God without talking about “theology and all of that kind of stuff.” As a Baptist who believes in the priesthood of every believer, I think that every pastor and every Christian should be a theologian in the truest sense of the word.  I propose that our churches will be healthier if our people are equipped to be good theologians. What is theology anyway?  Is it a discipline for sophisticated concepts and complicated descriptions of God?  Not at all.  Theology is a good word.  My esteemed theology professor in seminary, Dr. Fisher Humphreys, offered a simple yet practical definition of theology to his students: “Theology is thinking about God.”  And Dr. Humphreys continued that, “Everyone who thinks about God is doing theology.” There are many other definitions of theology.  Dictionaries generally define theology as the study of God.  Theologians Grentz and Olson say that “theology may be defined as the intellectual reflection on the act, content, and implications of Christian faith.” Dr. Dale Moody, long-time professor of theology at Southern Seminary, often described Christian theology as “an effort to think coherently about the basic beliefs that create a community of faith around the person of Jesus Christ.” Of course, there are different branches of theology such as systematic...
The Best Reason to Write Your Own Curriculum

The Best Reason to Write Your Own Curriculum

How do you know when to write your own Sunday School curriculum? As plans get made for this fall and bible study materials get ordered, the conversation will bubble up again for some churches about writing their own materials.  Whether the impetus for change is one of budgets or frustration with content, the desire to do your own thing can be a tempting one. For almost seven years my congregation, First Baptist Wilmington NC, produced their own adult Sunday School materials.  During that time over 700 individuals contributed a weekly lesson or a daily devotion.  It was an impactful, rewarding and labor intensive endeavor.  And while such an undertaking is not for every church, there is, I believe, one great reason why you may want to consider this avenue of ministry. Inviting members of your congregation into a process of writing curriculum and devotional material is an amazing discipleship opportunity. Relevance The world is changing every time we turn around today.  The flexibility of being able to write curriculum that addresses important events as they unfold allows more intentionality in seeing and responding to our world through the lens of faith.  Likewise, if there is a particular issue or topic that bubbles up in the life of your congregation that needs directed and widespread discussion, you can design a lesson series around it. Spiritual Practices Spiritual practices do not always come naturally to many people yet they are essential to discern and to respond to God’s voice.  They take, well… practice.  We can help folks to understand and not be intimidated by spiritual disciplines by including them as a corporate activity in the teaching guide or as an individual exercise in the student lesson, when it is appropriate to the text. Encouraging One Another When individuals are asked to write material that will be used to build up the body of Christ, it affirms in them that they have something unique and important to offer the Church.  It’s a tangible reminder that...
A Myth that Needs to Die

A Myth that Needs to Die

Every church has a few persistent traditions and myths that just will not die. Some are unique to a particular church, like these that I’ve encountered: “Our youth group only goes on retreats to Happy Valley Camp. All other options are inferior.” “We only do Habitat projects one week a year and always in another state. Never locally.” “We remain seated on the second hymn. Always.” “The pastor stands at the left front door after worship. No exceptions.”  “The choir ALWAYS sings the benediction.” Other myths are widespread and widely held: “Only visits from the pastor count when I’m in the hospital.” “Only young pastors can attract young families.” “Old churches cannot thrive.” “A changing neighborhood is a problem, not an opportunity.” “My favorite style of music is best and all others are inferior.” “What I read on Facebook is more trustworthy than what my pastor says.”  “We will be fine as long as a small handful of ministers and lay persons take seriously the work and mission of the church. The rest of us can coast.” That last one is seldom spoken, but has taken root and runs deep in the psyche of most churches. One of my persistent messages to congregations is that the day of only a handful of people doing the work of the church is over. If your church is to survive and thrive in the coming years, all of those who claim the name of Christ will need to from the ranks of those “being served” to those “serving”.I recently heard a fine sermon from the familiar text in Matthew 5 in which...

The Surrender Principle

I’ve always been struck by the phrase from Luke 9: 51, 53 which describes Jesus as “turning his face toward Jerusalem”. It implies a resoluteness of intent and a high degree of commitment to a divine agenda. Nothing is going to dissuade him from his divine appointment. Verse 53 implies that people did not receive him because they could tell that he was determined to go to Jerusalem.   To “turn one’s face” toward something is to give yourself to it without reservation. It is to lock in on a goal or a behavior or a habit and refuse to waver from that commitment.   I recently had a healthy discussion with a group of church leaders gathered to talk about the future of their church and the church at large. One of their deep and abiding concerns was the decline in commitment they sensed in their church members and throughout culture.   The pastor described how often it seemed that the things of God, and especially the activities of the local church, took a back seat to a multitude of other commitments. Every minister can recount a litany of conversations with parishioners who opt out of congregational commitments for reasons that seem exceptionally flimsy. Athletic practices, games, concerts, geometry projects, sunny weather, dance recitals, and about anything else all seem to rank ahead of commitments to one’s local congregation.   When we analyzed the issue, we had to admit that shallow commitment is not only true in congregational life. Everyone agreed it is pervasive in our culture. Commitment seems to be a lost art.   The pastor noted...

The Rise of Church Discipline

Have you noticed our tendency to try and control others with rules? We started with Ten Commandments. That led to Jewish scholars noting that the Torah actually contains 613 commandments, which can be divided into 365 “negative commandments”, and 248 “positive commandments”. Not content to stop there, those scholars went on to delineate further on those commandments, explaining them and broadening them and eventually writing the Mishnah, an extensive collection of rules and guidelines. Not content to stop there, those same scholars expanded the Mishnah into volume after volume of intricate and tedious rules and laws called the Talmud. These massive works are filled with rigorous and complicated guides to every aspect of living. Jesus came into a religious society dominated by the rule of the Law proclaiming the radical notion that HE was the fulfillment of the law.  Conflict was inevitable. Whether it was “harvesting” grain on the Sabbath or touching a leper or engaging a Samaritan, he soon became known as a repeat rule-breaker. Remember his disdain for the law-obsessed in Matthew 23:25-26?  “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.  You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.”   Jesus claimed it was the interior of a person that was the place where the work of God’s Spirit begins. He repeatedly invited his followers and hearers to resist the temptation to settle for rule-keeping when what he wanted was life-transformation. Across the years, the church has...