Editor's Note: Rob Bell, 41, the founding pastor of Mars Hill church in western Michigan, bid adieu to his congregation in a 5,000-word epistle about grace and peace, which he preached on Dec. 18 to thousands in the converted strip mall that has housed the "Jesus community" for a decade. He said, in part:
"this church, this place, this community, was once simply a
hunch. a dream. a vision. a picture in the mind of a new kind of church for the new world we find ourselves in. a church that was fearless in confronting the injustices and systems of oppression that lurk around every corner and at the very same time deeply committed to the personal, intimate experience of following Jesus, of experiencing the joy and peace that transcends space and time. a church that found the stale, old categories of liberal and conservative boring and irrelevant because we'd experienced resurrection, which includes and affirms anything and everything that brings liberating, new life wherever it's found irrespective of whatever labels and categories it's been given because of an abiding conviction that the
a church where the main thing was actually the main thing."
Because this week -- months after the Arab Spring, and after weeks of the growing Wall Street Occupation -- well, in this climate of discontent and dissent as we all begin to wake from our consumer induced coma to see how multi-national corporations control so much more than we can imagine, in a season when tyrants are being over thrown, I simply could not preach a sermon in which I say that God is like an angry murderous slave owning king. Maybe there is a way of finding good news in that but I just couldn't do it.
In his column last week, Sojourners chief Jim Wallis talked about his frustration with the perennial misuse of the word "evangelical" by various media to describe folks and ideas that, in his view, and that of many of us who self-describe as evangelicals, don't bear any resemblance to what we understand that term to actually mean.
Below is a compilation of recent media reports where the word "evangelical" is invoked. When you read these, evangelical brothers and sisters, do you recognize yourself in how the word is used and defined? Or does it ring false to you and your understanding of what "evangelical" really and truly means?
Not every Christian who shares my concern for the poor has the same view on policy or politics. But, here is a prejudice I am not going to back away from.
To be a follower of Christ is to be biased for the poor.
In life, we all have our biases. Some of them are natural tendencies or inclinations and others are habituated. Our culture tells us to be biased -- in a deferential sense -- towards those who can pay us back or who can look out for us in return. Society tells us to get in with the strong and the powerful because they will give us strength and power in return.
Jesus teaches something very different.
Could my mission really be confined to seeking the best for the children to whom I gave birth? Or, as a Christian, should I define "family" more broadly? I'd see images of women and children suffering around the world, and those puzzling verses returned to my mind. Maybe, instead of obsessing over the happiness of my babies, I should stick my head out of the window, so to speak, look around, and ask, "Who is my family?"
It didn't feel right to simply shrug my shoulders and blithely accept my good fortune as compared to that of people born into extreme poverty. I'd buy my kids their new school clothes and shoes and then think of mothers who did not have the resources to provide their children with even one meal a day. I'd wonder: what's the connection between us? Does the fact that $10 malaria nets in African countries save whole families have anything to do with my family buying a new flat-screen TV? Should it? Is there any connection between me, a suburban, middle class mom, and women around the world?
Earlier this summer I attended a church service where the pastor, a man struggling with what appears to be his final bout with cancer, preached about the hope that Jesus promises to those who trust in him. After describing the returning Jesus brandishing a sword and dripping with the blood of all our vanquished enemies, he invited the audience to share what they saw as the hope that this Jesus promises. The responses ranged from no cancer, to no pain, to no worries about paying the bills, to the promise of an upgraded body -- all of course in heaven someday after we die. The congregation was encouraged to find contentment in the present from the possibility of realizing these promises someday. Our souls are what matter; the body just has to endure until our souls reach heaven. No mention of help with how to pay this month's rent or what it means for a cancer-ridden body to be the temple of the Holy Spirit, just the spiritual promise that someday all will be well.
Rev. Steve Stone was just trying to be a good neighbor.
Two years ago, the pastor of Heartsong Church in Cordova, Tennessee, on the outskirts of Memphis, learned that a local mosque had bought property right across the street from the church. So he decided some Southern hospitality was in order.
A few days later, a sign appeared in front of the church. "Heartsong Church welcomes Memphis Islamic Center to the neighborhood," it read.
That small act of kindness was the start of an unlikely friendship between the two congregations, one that made headlines around the world. Members of the mosque and church have shared meals together, worked at a homeless shelter, and become friends over the past two years. When Stone learned that his Muslim friends needed a place to pray for Ramadan because their building wasn't ready, he opened up the doors of the church and let them hold Ramadan prayers there.
The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, 'Here I am, for you called me.' Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9Therefore Eli said to Samuel, 'Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening." (1 Samuel 3.8-9)
I am in a profession where the term "call" is used frequently. When used as a verb, "call" is about feeling that tug between you and God toward something that at first may not seem practical, desirable, or even expected. When used as a noun, "call" can be synonymous to a job, occupation, ministry, or church -- hence the term "seeking a call."
For me, "seeking a call" simply means trying to figure out what to do next. And lately this task has felt like an impossible mission. I have always admired -- or if I'm to be honest, jealous of -- those that seem to have a clear sense of their calling. Take my husband for example, he feels very called to be a pastor. Although there are times when he struggles with the type of church or ministry he feels called to serve, he has certainty that his call is that of a pastor. I wish that was the case for me. I have always felt called to a place, such as seminary or my current congregation, but I have never felt confirmation or an affinity to my call as a pastor. This may not make sense or may seem odd, but welcome to my life.
I have always loved the story of Samuel being called.
Mark O. Hatfield's political witness shaped a whole generation of students, teachers, pastors, and social activists in the evangelical community and beyond. The voice of Christians today who plead for social justice and peaceful alternatives to war would not have emerged with its strength and clarity in the 1970s without his leadership. His death underscores the vacuum of such spiritually rooted voices uncompromising in their commitments to peace and justice within the cacophony political rhetoric today.
One of my life's greatest privileges and joys was to work as an assistant to Senator Mark O. Hatfield for nearly a decade, from 1968 to 1977. I saw first-hand what courageous leadership, combined with unswerving compassion and civility, looked like within the political life of that turbulent and formative era. Those experiences are shared in my book, Unexpected Destinations (Eerdmans).
The markets are watching, the Republicans are watching, the Democrats are watching, the media are watching, the pollsters and pundits are watching. The public is watching and is disgusted with Washington, D.C.
When it comes to the bitter and ultra-partisan battles over the budget, the deficit, and the fast-approaching deadline for America defaulting on its financial commitments, the whole nation and even the world is watching.
But God is watching too.
He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches." He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened."
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
--Excerpts from Matthew 13
It's been a rough weekend. Watching the devastation that the combination of mental illness and fundamentalism brought to the people of Norway. Watching what the combination of drug addiction and fame brought to a talented singer, who, like so many who went before her, is now dead at the age of 27. Something they don't tell you when you get clean and sober is that if, by the grace of God, you manage to stay that way -- you get a much better life -- but year after year you also watch people you love die of the same disease. So yesterday when I heard that Amy Winehouse had been found dead in her home, it brought me back to nine years ago when my dear friend PJ was also found dead in his home.
You don't need a ton of proof to know that more and more churches are struggling to survive. It seems churches that are in this predicament have one of two options: revive or die. There are a lot of books, seminars, and workshops given on how to go about reviving a church. However, there is not one cookie cutter, full-proof, and effective strategy in reviving a church. Having said that, it doesn't mean that it is impossible. There are many examples of struggling churches that have successfully revived the congregation, increased the health of the church, and expanded their ministry.
Don't get me wrong -- I love sitting behind my computer here at Sojourners, or proofreading a stack of magazine-pages-to-be, fresh from Art Director Ed Spivey's printer. But sometimes there's no substitute for being on the scene, live and in person.