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

 What Makes the Difference?     (by Jon Shuler​​)

What makes one congregation a place where the new life of faith springs up regularly, and frequently outside the Sunday services, and another a place where it happens all too rarely, if at all? The most accurate answer is a twofold one: the truth of the scriptures is preached boldly and faithfully, and a disciple-making culture is owned and lived by those in leadership and the community. That body will grow and flourish.

A congregation of faithful Jesus followers can not exist without what the apostle calls preaching “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (I Cor 2:2)  Elsewhere he calls this: “the whole counsel of God.” (Acts 20:27) And that is, of course, the counsel of the Lord Jesus. His life, his death and resurrection, his teaching, and his example. Nothing can substitute for it, if the work of the kingdom is to be done. Nothing else can take its place, if the work is to last for all eternity. If men and women are not hearing the pure word of God they will not become the church for which Christ died. But preaching is not enough.

The second essential is the presence of a vibrant community of disciple-making people. There will never be a gracious and spontaneous expansion of the church without this. If people must be brought to a central building to hear one man preach or teach, when that is the principle (or only) way the gospel is heard, what God intends will not occur in any fulness. Unbelievers will rarely be added to the fellowship of believers by inviting them to the worship service. But to meet with someone, or a small group of someones, in a small welcoming environment, will regularly become the gateway to salvation.

This is so because the gospel must usually first be “seen and heard” among people like ourselves. And it must be experienced in real life. Sunday church is not real life for unbelievers. Ordained leaders are not, usually, perceived as like them at all. What occurs on Sunday is, for most unbelievers, only religious behavior. It does not touch them. It may be real for the believers who are present, but gathered worship alone will never spread the kingdom of God. In fact, very few believers will ever grow strong in their faith without other places where they experience the presence and power of God. Almost always that will be when they are among those who they trust and admire.

Yet this is not what most North American congregational leadership encourages, is it? We encourage people to attend things, especially the things we plan. We want them to listen to what we say and teach, and then go and do what we say they should do. We want them to understand our unique “Way.”

Recently I looked at five books recommended by a new rector to his people for Lent. It was exactly what would have been the focus of his study in theological graduate school, and they were all good books, by learned and serious scholars. Yet most are likely to go over the heads of all but a handful of his parishioners who are already, or soon to be, new liturgical snobs. And they will add them to their bookshelves, and eagerly wait for the next recommendation.There is the difference between life and death.

Next Week: Dying Diocese

 Two or Three     (by Jon Shuler​​)

The simplest unit of the church of Jesus Christ is one believer gathered with another, intentionally, and explicitly meeting in Jesus’ name (cf Mt 18:20). Our Lord absolutely promises to be present whenever that occurs. How can any right thinking believer doubt him? If two are united in Christ they form the most elementary building block of the church that Jesus is building. This is why the marriage of two believers, to form a new Christian family, is so central to the life of the gospel being truly revealed in the local church. Holy Matrimony is the basic unit of the church, the basic “two.” Without marriages in which mutual encouragement to follow Jesus is occurring, what hope is there for the church to be a disciple-making community?

Sadly, any careful assessment of the marriages in a local church, in the West at least, reveals that far too few couples are living as disciple-making examples of the church (in miniature) of Christ Jesus. How can this be addressed? My experience is that it requires the reintroduction, to the men of the church, of the basic pattern of one discipling another. If the men of the church begin to understand and practice disciple-making with other men, it is only a matter of time until it effects their marriages. And when their marriages are renewed in the gospel, their children will be blessed. Soon the local church will follow, and in time the whole community surrounding will be changed.

According to the Lord, two is a sufficient number for his presence to be assured, but he does add “or three.” Some men may be comfortable meeting as a ” two,” but many more will prefer a “three.” Understanding the difference may be as simple as deciding if someone is an extrovert or an introvert, but in any case the road to healthy church life, in the gospel of Jesus, depends on men discovering how to disciple one another, and their families. Where to begin? Two or three men, meeting in Jesus name, is enough. But there needs to be at least one who understands the journey.

All of human experience attests that the life of any organism or organization will not rise above the leadership. If men are to learn to disciple one another, they must be led by a man who is also on the same journey. In a congregational setting that must be the pastoral leader. Disciple-making is not a program that can be delegated. It is a way of life for every follower of Jesus. It cannot be preached into existence, nor taught with words only. It must be lived. And lived in the fullness of God’s word and his Spirit. A leader reading this who wants it to be true must decide to make it true for himself.

Finding another man who is already on the journey as a disciple-making disciple is the first step after that prayerful decision. He must be found, and he must be godly. He may be near or far, but he must be found. Best is someone near, whose life you can witness, whose discipling patterns you can evaluate, whose integrity you can prove. Modern technology makes it possible to do this virtually, and God will honor that if all else fails. But what matters is the beginning. Find someone to disciple you, to walk with you.

Next Week: What Makes the Difference?

 Why Am I Afraid?     (by Jon Shuler​​)

It has been my experience that most of those who are active in the life of the church, in our time, are afraid to have serious spiritual conversations with other people. Why is that so?

Last week we talked about the central calling of all Christians to follow Christ, and the ordinariness of our responsibility to help others do the same. Indeed to not want to help others is perhaps a sign that we are not yet fully followers ourselves. It looks so simple in the life of Jesus and his apostles. “Come and see,” Jesus said. And then, “follow me.” Some did and some did not. It was undoubtedly ordinary Christian behavior, for many centuries, for Christians to do the same as their Lord. How did we let it become so difficult? What are we afraid of?

The first answer I would give is this: the church has greatly confused the central work of her corporate life. The vast majority of her efforts and resources are not going to the primary work of sharing the gospel until conversion, and then to the adequate nurture of those who are born again of the Spirit of God. Organizational participation has taken the place of heart change. Ask a true unbeliever to a church service, especially if they come once, and few ask another. The experience can be embarrassingly painful, and often ends the relationship with the outsider. Equating church attendance with beginning to follow Jesus is a grave mistake.

Further, my experience over a lifetime is that we (the church and her clergy) have also taught people that they do not know enough to be true Christians. Leaders model complex behaviors and teach complex theological opinions that confound many of those in the body of Christ. Keeping church traditions, almost all man made, are given priority over gospel living. Faithful worshippers, some who have attended over a lifetime, think that they do not know enough to help someone else. Or they think that to ask someone to come along with them to learn to be a follower of Jesus requires some supernatural calling along with superior knowledge.

Third, the ordinary churchman has no experience of direct, life on life discipleship. He or she has never seen it nor experienced it. To meet regularly with a few others, all who are seriously trying to understand how to live the Christian life, is not what they have learned. They have no natural, ordinary, path or pattern to invite someone to walk along with them. They are thus embarrassed or afraid. Sometimes both. Fundamentally the problem is this: they have not been discipled. They may indeed be deeply committed in an interior and personal way, but they do not know how to help another.

Is there any way to break free from this reality? I believe the Lord stands ready to give the Holy Spirit to anyone who desires that freedom. Pray and ask God to guide you to someone who knows what “make disciples” really means. And then ask someone else to join you. Two or three people is enough. What are we afraid of?

Next Week: Two or Three

The Simplest Steps      (by Jon Shuler​​)

Who has not heard the saying; “Keep it simple stupid?” The acronym KISS has become one known to most of us. But is it true for a disciple of Jesus who wants to help others become followers?

Some years ago I was doing my best to draw another man into the Anglican missionary world that I inhabited. He was a leader of men, and a disciple-maker, but had grown up and been formed in another tradition. We were clearly called to much the same work, and their was a strong pull in both our hearts causing us to consider joining forces. But it did not happen. I set him a challenge he could not fulfill. He could not in good conscience become an Anglican.

I will always remember the day. He said to me: “I had to take a course on the Koran in graduate school, and I found it easier to understand Islam than the complexity of modern “Anglicanism.” My heart sank, and we eventually parted ways. At the time I could not understand what had happened. He was a very bright man, and certainly capable of learning anything he set his mind to. And he has served the Lord faithfully all his life, I have no doubt. But when he tried to understand our Anglican ways, he believed they were taking him away from the simple work Jesus had given him – to make disciples.

Many years have gone by, and today I realize I asked him to embrace what is clearly not the simple truth of gospel ministry. I asked him to embrace, unconsciously, two thousand years of church tradition, and he had already given his life to serving only Jesus. For him, the path I was on seemed a diversion from the clear and simple focus of the Final Command. I now believe he was right.

The Lord of the Church, which is his body, the community of faithful followers, gave very clear first steps to all who would hear his voice. ‘Come to me. Follow me. Learn from me. Keep my word. Obey my commands. Go where I direct you. Do what I tell you. Worship only me.’

Most reading this post will understand that those simple directions eventually require all that is within a man to be conformed to Christ. Body, mind, soul, and strength. Most know that it will be all embracing, and will require great effort, stamina, and mental focus. Depending on the particularity of an individuals call it may even involve great scholastic learning, in order that they rightly convey “the whole counsel of God.” But learning to be a disciple begins with the simplest of steps. If they are learned and lived, the life of a follower will be used of God to change others. There will be more disciples when they die than there were when they began to follow. Only God will know how many more, but there will be more.They will not just bear fruit, they will “bear much fruit.” If you were to sit down tomorrow with another person at a coffee shop, could you help them to begin to be a follower of Jesus? A true disciple?

Next Week: Why Am I Afraid?

Our Lord’s First Year      (by Jon Shuler​​)

When the Lord Jesus Christ began his public ministry, did he do anything we cannot do? I want to ask my readers to answer that question for themselves, and apply it to their ministry. What did Jesus do?

I am asking you to also come with me to the record that John the Apostle has left us. I want to assume that you share with me a confident trust in the truth of the scriptures, and that you believe that what John wrote is exactly what happened. After all, he was there.

We see in the first chapter of the Gospel of John that our Lord called together a small band of men from the first day of his public ministry. Five men became his followers in the first few days. He gave them a clear invitation, and they accepted. They would follow him. They would get to know him, they would learn from him, they would be given their assignments by him. They would become his disciples from the very first moment they agreed to follow him. Becoming a disciple of Jesus is about “becoming” not “arriving.”

They did not understand everything he was about to say or do, but they were now in close proximity to the one they would come to call Lord. They were truly following him. They watched him, they listened to him, they questioned him, and they began to receive his teaching. The more time they spent with him the more they realized the consequences of following him. Eventually they gave up their own lives to serve only him, which really meant that they gave themselves wholly to the God and Father of their Lord. They modeled for all who would come after what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

Now ask yourself: “is that what I am doing with my life?” Are you on that same journey as the first five, or not? When the Lord Jesus left them and returned to the Father, they began to imitate what Jesus had modeled. Are you modeling that same behavior? It has essentially only two steps: I am discipled by someone who is following Jesus, and I begin to disciple others who hear the call to follow him.

Now it is critical to note that the essential heart of both steps is relational. Jesus does not hand out a workbook. He does not establish a program for them to complete. He does not herd them into a classroom. He calls them to live alongside him. They are to share his life and thus to be changed, day by day, by observing what it means to be wholly given to God.

And when the right time comes, they are to do the same with others. They begin to become disciple-makers. They imitate our Lord’s first year.

Next Week: The Simplest Steps