Well Nurtured?   (by Jon Shuler​​)

All who study the development of human beings know that the days after birth are the most critical ones if that child is to grow up into its full potential. The voracious way that a healthy baby takes in information, sights, sounds, tactile stimuli, smells, and tastes, will never be equalled again. A small child has the capacity to learn and grow in the first few years that can never be duplicated. Remedial assistance can be given later, but some things will never be as easily learned, or mastered, as they were in the beginning. Indeed some things will be forever beyond their grasp. The same is true for those who come to a living faith. They are new creatures by the Spirit, and what they learn, or do not learn, in that first season will shape them for the rest of their lives.

The criticality of this insight is hard to overemphasize. The Christian who is not well nurtured after spiritual new birth, is as handicapped as a child who is neglected in its first years. What results is a truncated version of a disciple. A person who does have a true faith, but who is devoid of the full understanding and experience that can make them strong in Christ. They do not possess the essential insights and practical habits  that make it possible. They do not know how to hear the Lord’s voice, and to obey his commands.  They come to church faithfully, perhaps, but they are gradually choked by the cares and concerns of this life. They are fruitless. A follower who does not know how to help make another follower. A believer who has only a shadow of the full life the Lord intends for them.

How can this state of affairs be remediated? There must be a confession in the household of God. Leaders have not “equipped the people of God for ministry.” (Eph 4:12) And that, the apostle goes on to explain, means a life that actually “builds up the body of Christ.” It does not mean being sent to seminary, but rather discovering how God has made them and calls them, each in their own uniqueness. If the leaders who have been trained theologically do not understand this, and do not know how to convey it, the newborns will suffer, and the church will suffer. All the ordained must repent.

Can the things that a newly converted man must learn to grow strong be listed? Many have tried, and some of the lists are helpful. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews gives one such list. (Heb 6:1-3) What is not stated there, however, is probably the most important, that is how to abide in the word of Jesus. If this is understood and practiced what does the Lord promise? “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31,32) Here is the foundation of a disciple who has been nurtured to grow into the life God has for them. He will help “build up the body.”

Jesus explicitly teaches two more truths, that “loving one another as I have loved you” is the mark by which “all men will know” that a person is his disciple. (John 13:34,35) To fail to learn this, yet to grow up to be part of the organized church, is a tragedy. Similar is that final word of the Lord which defines a disciple: “You will bear much fruit and prove to be my disciples.” (John 15:7,8) The one who has learned these three is well nurtured.

Next Week: Effectively Equipped?

Solidly Converted   (by Jon Shuler​​)

Until a man is solidly converted, he is incapable of being the disciple Jesus asks him to be. He can be a good man, even very exemplary in the eyes of others, but he will not be the disciple that the Lord calls for. He may have been welcomed lovingly into the family of the church, he may have heard the gospel, liturgically and aurally, for much of his life, but he will not be the disciple Christ calls for. “You must be born again,” said the Lord of all life. (3:16) When a man is solidly converted he is born again, he is a new creature, he is born from above. Now serious discipleship begins. He will follow the Lord Jesus.

Coming to this conviction was a long journey for me. The language of the church that I heard growing up left in me the notion that because I was baptized as a child I was regenerate. Theological education in my own tradition reinforced that notion. So too did some church history, and the theology of much of the historic church. But I gradually could not deny the reality, in my own life and others, that sacramental baptism did not make a man regenerate. If it did, the church would be a very different community. If it did, the overwhelming evidence before my eyes would be other than it is.

A man who is converted wants to be different. He wants to be set free from everything that holds him back from making God first in his life. He desires to be guided by the Word of God, and especially, and singularly, he is devoted to Jesus Christ and his word. Less than this, and a man is either in rebellion against God’s wonderful provision in his life, or he has failed to be converted. Conversion means change. Not just the adoption of ideas, nor the practice of an external religious code or tradition, but the gradual transformation of his daily life.

The apostles clearly knew this. They had all grown up under the Law. Many of them were extraordinarily devoted to it, so much so that they turned and followed the rabbi from Nazareth. They wanted to know what he was teaching, they wanted to understand his way of life, they became his followers, but they were not yet converted. Conversion, the heart transformation that would set them forever on the journey home to God, was awaiting “the promise of the Father.” (Acts 1:4) This is not to disparage their journey before that day came, it is simply to state boldly that they were not yet converted.

Saul of Tarsus came to understand this well. He dared to imagine himself more faithful than many of his peers (Gal 1:14) until the day when the Son of God was revealed to him in power. From then he had only one desire, “to press on” to the “call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3:14)

Near the end of his journey as a disciple on this earth he tried to explain this to the Christians in Rome, when he described to them that “a man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly.” (Rom 2:28) External rites, even if commanded by God, do not make a man what God wants him to be. It is only when, by grace, his inner man is touched, that he can begin that life. It has to be a heart change. He must be solidly converted.

Next Week: Well Nurtured?

Truly Gospeled?   (by Jon Shuler​​)

When a man tells you he belongs to such and such a church, does it follow that he has been truly gospeled? If he says: “I grew up at St Swithin in the Swamp,” does it follow that he has been truly gospeled? When he comes occasionally to church, but will help with a practical task if asked, has he been truly gospeled? If he tells you God became important to him at college, but doesn’t go to church anywhere, does it follow? The answer is, of course, no. He almost certainly has no real grasp of the inner truth of the gospel of Christ, in such a way that it has changed him from the inside out.  But how can we tell?

If we let the New Testament be our guide, we can tell. A man will be able to talk about Jesus without shame or embarrassment. A man will have a testimony of how the Lord is working in his life now. A man will belong to a community of faithful followers. A man will be struggling to let God be at the center of his work life, his marriage, and his alone time. That man has heard the gospel, in the sense that Jesus means. That is he has been changed by it, and it is changing him still, and he anticipates what God has yet to complete in him. Most of all, that man is trying to learn to “abide” in the word of Jesus.

When understood this way, most honest church leaders will confess that these things are not widely true in their congregation. They will be able to name a few men, but they will not be able to include a majority of the men, or perhaps even a tenth of them. Men come to church. Men are on various boards and committees, men help with specific tasks from time to time, but they are not following Jesus is this way. Why? They have not been truly gospeled. But how can that be?

The Word of God, in crystal clarity, has not been preached in such a way that they have understood it. The call of Christ Jesus to be his follower, and to learn to be a faithful disciple sharing in the spread of the kingdom of God, has not reached the innermost part of these men’s being. They may have head knowledge, but they do not have baptized hearts. They may have had an emotional reaction to a preached sermon at a conference or large gathering of men, but they are not heart baptized. They may have become “works” Christians, but they are not heart baptized.

If this is so, why do church leaders go on doing the same things day after day, week after week, expecting different results? As Alcoholics Anonymous taught long ago, to do the same thing expecting different results is a definition of insanity. As I have often written here, such leaders “have the perfect system for the results they are getting.”

What would someone do if the above rings true? What would I recommend? I would go to the Psalms: “Be still and know that I am God.” (Ps 46:10) Get alone with God and pray. Get alone and read over the elementary, yet central, teachings of the Lord in the Sermon on the Mount. Ask for God to show you how to lead so that those who follow are truly gospeled. Beg God to guide you afresh.

Next Week: Solidly Converted?

Surely Not Us!   (by Jon Shuler​​)

One of the finest priests I know said to me recently that there is a widespread tendency among us to reject the stones that the Lord is giving us with which to build. He was commenting, I think profoundly, on the relationship of Psalm 118 to the present moment in Christian History. His suggestion was that the gifts the Lord brings to the body of Christ in any generation, most especially the people, are to be welcomed and built into the fabric of the Household of God. To reject what God sends, he asserted, was to put the leadership of the church in direct opposition to Almighty God, and such behavior has horrific consequences. I wanted to say: “Surely not us,” but I could not.

Last week we looked at a welcome that is really not a welcome, at least as that is revealed to us in the life of our Lord. What do I mean? It was the established leadership of the religious community in his day that drew his greatest rebuke. In the name of God they were keeping out many of those whom God loves and calls. “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations, but you have made it a den of robbers.” (Mk 11:17) Is contemporary Anglicanism guilty of the same thing?

This past January the parish I am serving as an Interim submitted its Annual Report. The list of those considered to be members was over twice the number confirmed, and  three times the number who came regularly to worship on the Lord’s Day. Comparing these numbers to the pre-Covid era revealed very similar percentages. Asking after any of these missing names produced generally a single response. They have just slipped away and no one knows why. Each time I heard this answer, I winced.

Now who should be ensuring that anyone who comes to the household of the church, or grows up in her midst, is properly discipled into the life of the Lord? Is it not the leadership? And who should be responsible for knowing who is not feeling welcome, even after they have been a part of the life of the parish, even for a short time? Is it not the leadership? And who should be responsible for seeing that the lives of all members are themselves welcoming to the stranger? Is it not the leadership? Is it not the rectors?

The idea that the ordained are the principle welcomers to the church is a flawed idea. But that they are responsible for the welcome of the saints is not. Fundamentally, true gospel welcome is to be found in the lives of all the people of God. Followers of Jesus are to be the welcoming door to living faith. It is not a specialized calling of a few, but the universal calling of the baptized believer. His or her life is either a witness to the Lord Jesus or it is not, and if it is it is always a welcoming witness.

A pressing need in the current crisis in the church is to understand why she has become odious to so many. This was never true of Jesus, at least among the poor and weak, nor among the broken and searching. How can it be that our churches are full of people who have never welcomed a new believer into their lives and their Lords? Are the leaders teaching that? More importantly, are they modeling that for all to imitate?

Next Week: Truly Gospeled?

Rethinking Our Welcome   (by Jon Shuler​​)

For most of my ministry, whenever I drove into a new town, anywhere in America, I would see this sign: “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.” For many years I thought it was true. I grew up in the church, and whenever I visited a strange parish I always felt at home and generally was spoken to courteously. Gradually I discovered that what the sign really meant was; “If you fit our culture you are welcome.” It took me longer than I am proud to say to realize how unwelcoming that unspoken message really is. Because I fit in, I thought others would feel the same.

The sea change in my experience came once I decided that seeking the kingdom of God was way more important than being a good churchman. When I began to put following Jesus, and his clear teaching, first in my life, the sense of welcome began to disappear very quickly, at least among most leaders. I am sure I need not tell you how putting the apostle Paul’s teaching in the center of my life worked out for me.

From 1998 I relocated my ordained leadership to the global Anglican Communion, and it was not long before I experienced the same thing as had been true in the Episcopal Church. There were those Anglican Provinces that welcomed a follower of Jesus, in the clear light of the Holy Scriptures, and those that did not. But again and again I came to see that the culture was the much more dominant determiner of welcome. If I accepted all the existing Anglican patterns and behaviors of the province I was welcome, and if I questioned them I was generally not. It mattered little if my questions appealed to the teaching of Jesus and his apostles as revealed in the Scriptures, for what seemed to matter almost always was the “Anglican Way” as practiced in that place.

This life long experience, in the missionary fields God has called me to, has been revealed to me again and again in North America, even among those who have separated since 2003 in order to uphold orthodoxy. An older, and to my mind heretical, church was left behind, but the culture of modern Anglicanism came right along into the new denomination. There is an outward show of welcome, but the deeper reality is this: You fit in if you accept our culture, both theologically and socially.

The problem is not so much theology, as the ever more unintelligible nature of some Anglican traditions. Things that seem perfectly normal to long term church people are increasingly alien to the emerging, and ever more dominant, culture of North America. Things that bespeak Christ Jesus to an older generation are simply mystifying to a newer one.

Last week a fine Christian man, raised among us, said to me: “Jon, to the majority of Americans under 50 denominational Christianity is toxic.” He did not have to include the new Anglicans for me to know he believed that to be true of us as well.

Next Week: Surely Not Us!

Easter Renewal?  (by Jon Shuler​​)

For those in the service of the Lord, through his church, the days after Easter are a time of challenge. So much goes into the preparation for the Feast of the Resurrection that the energy level of a clergyman can be very low for the next few days. Not infrequently this is raised as an issue by his wife and family, since he was frequently absent before Easter, and – though now physically present – is often not truly emotionally available to them after. Learning to balance the just demands of the church and the family is a continuing problem for most ordained leaders. By the next full week after Easter most of us have recovered, however, and we resume our normal rhythms. But should we?

My many years of ministry have taught me that my habits often take me into behavior that I wish to change. Not just serious sins of commission and omission, but the little things that rob my time and keep me from being effective and productive. It is the latter that is on my mind as I consider the season after Easter. Is the allocation of my time and energy really accomplishing what the Lord Jesus wants, or is it just keeping the machine of the parish running smoothly?

Recently I was interviewing a prospective new member, and he posed a challenging question: “Do you know how many new Christians are in your parish after last years’s effort?” It led to a very interesting theological discussion. My point to him was that only God knows who was truly born again of the Spirit of God (cf John 3:8), but his question had great merit. Is the work we are doing bringing forth the fruit that the Lord Jesus desires? How would we know?

In the beautiful farewell dinner that the Lord had with his closest disciples he gave them an explicit answer to my question. He told them that they should bear much fruit, and so prove to be his disciples. That was to be the outcome of their lives and ministries. Much fruit. So is there a way for us to measure that?

A careful study of the teaching of Jesus, and the whole of the apostolic testimony, gives a strong affirmative. The fruit that God desires is seen only in a life that “hears the word of God and obeys it.” Can a parish priest measure that in his congregation? I think he can.

My journey has taught me to teach a seven step process for becoming a fruit bearing disciple. A person must be welcomed, gospeled, converted, nurtured, equipped, deployed, and multiplied – if they are to be an effective and productive fruit bearer for the Lord Jesus and the kingdom of God.

What if this Easter season we all measured our flock in the light of those categories? And then we ensured that our efforts, and of those who share leadership with us, was designed to move people through those steps? Would that lead, by God’s grace, to a renewal of gospel life where we live?

Next Week: Rethinking Our Welcome

A Pebble in a Pond  (by Jon Shuler​​)

  What can one lone servant do to make a difference for the kingdom? This question has often been mine through the years of my ministry. The answer, it seems to me, is he must throw his whole life at the feet of the Lord. I have come to liken it to throwing a pebble in a still pond. It is only a small pebble, thrown with what strength a man possesses, but it starts a ripple that will reach the very edge of the pond. So it is with a life given to Christ Jesus, and dedicated to live in spirit and in truth according to his teaching.

The first steps are usually somewhat amiss. If a man is young when called his zeal almost always lacks wisdom. Typically he has a prideful heart, and imagines himself to be the answer to unaddressed problems he has seen in the church. He is rarely aware of the difference between his fleshly enthusiasm and the Spirit of the Lord. But if he begins to “preach and teach Jesus Christ and him crucified” the ripples will begin to spread out from his ministry. He may see very little external evidence, but the work of God will be released.

With certainty, days will come when this man thinks he has run in vain. But it will not be so. If he has done his best, repented when he has fallen, and returned – again and again – to first principles as illuminated by the Word of God, the work will continue to spread. The kingdom of God will spread. And if he is truly blessed, he will occasionally see the fruit of his labor. Sometimes it will astound him.

A faithful brother told this story recently. An email came to him from someone he last saw thirty-seven years ago, and he did not even remember them. He had no recollection of their face, their name, or their story. Yet the letter was from an ordained servant of Jesus who attributed their journey to a beginning under his preaching. The letter humbled him and put him on his knees. A ripple in a pond.

Another story came to my attention recently, also remarkable. A young thirteen year old boy, from a troubled family, volunteered to work in the tech booth. He heard the gospel preached week by week. He graduated High School and joined the Marines. His interior life got completely out of control, and in desperation he yielded it to the Lord Jesus and was gloriously converted. He eventually returned to the man who trained him in the tech booth and asked to be discipled. After several more years he determined to give his life as a missionary of the gospel and moved across the country to train for overseas service with the man who was preaching when he was thirteen. Fourteen years later, a ripple in a pond.

God is not waiting for his servants to be perfect, but he is calling all of them to be faithful to what they have learned from him. The central issue is never learning more, it is faithfulness to what has been revealed. And it is never faithfulness to men, their doctrines or traditions, it is faithfulness to the word of Jesus.

Next Week: Easter Renewal?

Deciding to Change Course     (by Jon Shuler​​)

Observing the life of the organized church during the time of Covid has not been encouraging to me. I have seen so many evidences of retreat from true faith, that I have had to battle a temptation to despair. Fortunately, one of my mentors taught me long ago that “to despair is a sin for a Christian.” Still I have been tempted by the enemy of my soul.

In the midst of my struggles, which started long before the pandemic, I resolved that I would give what remained of my life to trying to make a difference for the kingdom of God. I would seek to build up that which could never be shaken. I would let the authority of the Holy Scriptures again be ascendant in my life and ministry, rather than the customs and traditions of men. I would redefine my ministry practice around clear responsibilities that are given to leaders by Jesus Christ, not by the culture of my denomination. According to my reckoning I began this thirty-three years ago. And I have sought companions for the journey. Then Covid arrived.

Perhaps I should have seen it coming, but I was not prepared for the shallow nature of the faith of many of those I knew best. I was not prepared for the spirit of fear that swept, not only the world, but my church family. I was unprepared for the way some of the leaders of the church seemed to bow to the secular authorities. I had greatly overestimated the faith of many life long church attenders. On some days it seemed to me that the ark of the church I love, and in which I have served for a lifetime, was sinking. But then I would come to my senses. The true church belongs to the Lord Jesus, not to any earthly organization, and the gates of hell can not prevail against it. And then my bishop called. Would I help a congregation in distress? Yes, of course.

Within days I realized that this was a gift from God. It had been eight years since I last served the parish. He was again giving me the opportunity to work for the biblical reform of the church in a troubled congregation. I could do my best to lead in a direction that would make a difference, at least for some. I could “preach and teach Jesus Christ and him crucified’ and leave the rest to the Lord. I could be myself. I could help one people discover how to be more faithful in the 21st century. Together we could come to terms with the changing culture around us, and stand fast for the eternal truth of Jesus.

I would like to write that everything is different, but it is not. Deciding to chart a new course is one thing, really altering a lifetime of patterns is another. I still love the words of Thomas Cranmer. I still long to kneel to receive communion from the common cup. I want reverence to characterize the gathered people of God. I want to sing hymns that reinforce deep biblical faith. I want a sense of the Holy Spirit’s presence to pervade the sacred space of the building as the bread is broken. I want children to be in awe of the presence of the God the adults are worshipping, until they meet him too. Yet I know that much of what I love, my tradition, is not speaking to the generations coming behind me. Nevertheless, I have decide to change course.

Next Week: A Pebble in a Pond

Gospel and Culture     (by Jon Shuler​​)

A war has broken out in the nations that once once defined Christendom, and the battle is between the gospel of Jesus Christ and the ascendant power of radical secularism. While most faithful Christians were sleeping, the very underpinnings of their life and culture were being degraded and undermined. Nations whose whole history was determined by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, have become hostile to his followers. Most true believers are now well aware of this truth, but the hour is dreadfully late. Many of the battles have been lost, and it is possible the war may soon end. Any overt support for the truths of the gospel is ending. The crisis began long ago.

Of all the causes, the erosion of confident faith in the Holy Scriptures as the Word of God is the most significant. The rise of “liberal Christianity” was not recognized for what it was: a different religion that was not Christian at all. Step by step it undermined the revealed will of God. For several decades this “not Christian” religion took more and more people captive. Some of the outward forms of Christian Faith remained, and much of its external culture, but the inner heart was gone. Liberal Christianity infiltrated the world of the church, the academy, and the courts. The next step was to begin to exclude the faith of Christians from the schools, then the universities, then from the entertainment industry, then from the marketplace. Few followers of Christ Jesus stood against the stream, and many of those who did were not supported by the majority of their own church family. The desire to not seem strange, to not be excluded, to not be thought ignorant – these and similar concerns led many believers to practice their faith in relative silence. Concern for local church matters may have attracted their best efforts, but few recognized in time that the very ground of the culture of America was shifting. True Christians were becoming, indeed now are, outsiders. Soon, if not yet, we will be outcasts.

As these trends were gaining momentum, some denominational families sought to turn back the tide by entering into internal reform. Usually this led to inter-nicene battles that caused division and ended in separation, as each side argued over what was to most define them. Rarely have any of those efforts, on either side, been led by people who dared to look at the deepest issues. They have been battles over church culture. There has been a consistent refusal to face at least three much more critical questions. How much of the culture of the organized church, in the 21st century, is actually the culture of the kingdom? How much is the organized church truly encouraging fidelity to Jesus Christ and his teaching? How effective for the spread of the kingdom of God are the traditional structures that are still being widely maintained?

Study the budget of any denominational jurisdiction, and you will see what is valued. Overwhelmingly what is upheld are the traditions of men, the culture of the organization. The truth of our Lord’s teaching could not be more plain. We value that which we put our treasure toward. We uphold our traditions while we say we are committed to the gospel.

Next Week: Deciding to Change Course

 Dying Diocese     (by Jon Shuler​​)

The church of Jesus Christ is not a geographical thing, it is a people. Further, it is a people gathered around their Lord, filled with awesome wonder and joy that he has come to them in mercy and truth. They are gathered to worship him, to hear his word, and to pray for themselves and the needs of others. They are gathered to do what Jesus said do, in worship, and when they leave and are scattered to the world. There is only one way to experience this church, and that is to assemble with others to meet the Lord. That is the church.

The church came to be defined principally, however, by lines on a map. Gradually spiritual authority over a geographical region was assigned to a single leader, believed to be a successor to the apostles. After many centuries, that territory came to be called a diocese and that man a bishop. For some centuries the bishop still functioned as the principal spiritual leader of a flourishing local community, but gradually he was separated from that ancient responsibility. In time he became a diocesan bishop, cut off from the heart of the ordinary life of God’s people. He became a privileged ruler.

The Anglican spiritual reform that accompanied the American Revolution sought to redress this, and instituted the restoration of a more primitive form of episcopacy, with bishops as leaders of parishes. But that reform has not survived. Today Anglican polity is diocesan, and the average diocese is in numerical and spiritual decline. Why?

Many factors are contributing to this state of affairs, but none more than the confusion about the most basic unit of the church. It is not, and can never be, a diocese. Any one who examines the available evidence will soon see what I mean. A territory is not the church revealed in the New Testament.

Let us look at one such diocese, reputed to be an orthodox one, which has recently gone through the traumatic resignation of its bishop. Soon a new one will be chosen, and almost certainly he will imagine the diocese is “his diocese.” He is very likely to do what his predecessors have done while all around him the diocese is dying. He will continue the current behavior of a “diocesan bishop” and yet expect a different result.

What do I mean by this? I mean he will find that many of the parishes are either in decline or very unstable. Some have an average age that is frighteningly out of alignment with the place where they are planted. Very few are financially strong, and several could close down any day. Many of the clergy are depressed and lonely. Some clergy marriages are in tatters. Conversions are few and far between. Yet he will probably keep doing exactly what his predecessor did. He will make parish visitations, he will place clergy, he will attend innumerable committee meetings, he will handle – as discretely as possible – the inevitable scandals, he will write letters to the diocese and publish his schedule, he will give much time to provincial affairs. He will lead occasional clergy retreats. He will probably hire more staff. He will maintain the traditions of men.

Next Week: Gospel and Culture