Tuesday, May 15, 2012

"Church Without Fences" Afterword

(My afterword for Bread co-pastor Terry Austin's new book, "Church Without Fences," to be released soon.)

When I first heard Glenn Hinson, who wrote the forward for this book, say thirty years ago in a seminary lecture, “Christ has a Center but has no circumference,” a new imagination was planted within me.  My entire lifetime of ministry has been an attempt to incarnate this center of Christ for the mission of the church. 

I think I speak for most Christian ministers in saying that the substance of their work is the establishment of this center.  But, the corollary to the establishment of this center is the disestablishment of the circumference:   the boundary that the church constructs in order to preserve and sustain its institutional character.  An institution always requires—frankly, demands-- the assertion of control and the consolidation of power.  The more and longer that control is asserted and that power is consolidated, the more distant this circumference gets from the original center it was designed to protect.

This construction/de-construction dynamic has been at work throughout the history of the church, and continues to shape the Christian churches today, including the one described at length in Terry Austin’s lively book. 

On the one hand, the location and establishment of Christ as the center of the community requires a construction.  The construction of this center is accomplished with the Teachings of Jesus, (particularly the Sermon on the Mount and the parables), the declarative and charismatic energy of the Apostles after the resurrection (principally recorded in Acts), and the vision of an inclusive community of love implemented by Paul and later interpreted and outlined in his letters.  Preaching, teaching, studying, and enacting these remarkable narratives will establish this creative Center of Christ.  Just try it and see what happens.

But, on the other hand, the announcement of this vision and the telling of these stories and the implementation of this agenda always requires-- no, again, demands-- a concomitant disestablishment of the circumference that the institutional church has drawn in order to sustain and preserve itself.  This circumference is made up of doctrines, offices, programs, buildings, procedures—in general, things that are not to be found in the apostolic, ancient writings listed above—and must be dismantled in order to make room for the construction of the center.   But, as any honest institutional minister can attest, the dominant activity of the institutional churches surrounds the circumference—not the center.  We pastors have been co-opted by and consumed with the managerial and administrative tasks of local church ministry, and are generally exhausted by it.   As Terry pointedly observes, we were called to this work out of the center, and for the center, but it’s the circumference that gets most of our attention. 

It just isn’t possible to establish the center and the circumference in equal measures of energy.  One tends to displace the other.  Any minister who has enthusiastically attempted the construction of a center will readily testify that work on that project has been as fulfilling as the de-construction of the circumference has been frustrating.  The center of Christ and his love is simply too inclusive and imaginative to sustain much energy for the circumference, which pales in comparison.  If you don’t think this is true just ask somebody who does not go to church why he or she does not attend.  They will not say it’s because Jesus isn’t interesting or compelling.  Again, just try it and see what happens. 

This tension between the center and the circumference in the life of the church is, of course, not new.  It has marked the history of the Christian movement from the start, and can clearly be found in the letters of Paul.  It characterized the break of the Way from the synagogue life in the first century, the occupation of all those pagan Greek temples by the worshiping community after Constantine (why else does every First Church have Corinthian columns?), the formation of the monastic order (somebody had to pray and make good wine), the protesting and reforming of the church in the 16th century, and the rise of denominationalism, particularly in America.  All of this history is fraught with both spiritual failure and spiritual success, and whatever happens in your church will be also.

But, now that you have read this book, ask yourself these questions:  What am I protecting and preserving in my church?  Where do I spend most of my time and energy in church?  Who holds the congregational decision-making power and influence?  What is their color?  Gender?  Economic class?  Which of Jesus’ parables challenges and touches me most?  How is my church enacting those parables?  What happened to Peter at Pentecost?  What did he say?  Is my church saying that?  Living that?  How we answer these questions determines how the establishment of the center is progressing in our faith communities.     
For anyone who cares to observe it—and that includes most pastors and lay leaders (note Terry’s analysis of that curious term)—we are definitely in a season when something old is passing away, giving rise to what Phyllis Tickle calls a “great emergence” of something new.  For those of us who have a high ecclesiology—fancy language for a deep belief in the church as the Body of Christ—we believe that what is unfolding is less “new” than “renewed.” 

In this book, Terry Austin not only contributes to the growing conversation about why this building up and breaking down must be done in order for the promise of Christ to be fulfilled, but also gives practical pastoral counsel, drawing from a lifetime of church service, about how it is being done in one concrete community of Christ called Bread in Fort Worth, Texas.  I have the pleasure of watching this pastor at work, and know he puts his money where his mouth is.  It is of great benefit and enrichment to me to have Terry as a colleague and co-pastor at Bread.  He is an engaging conversation partner and authentic shepherd, and am fortunate to receive his great spirit.  

Don’t be afraid to try some of the things Terry describes here, and be sure not to take yourself too seriously.  Do them with the self-deprecating humility and humor that Terry reveals here.  There should be much “clowning” in Christian ministry, and when you have a colorful circle of misfits, seekers and refugees like Bread does, it isn’t hard to laugh.

"Church Without Fences" Foreword

(My co-pastor Terry Austin has just written a marvelous reflection of the theology behind Bread, our new faith community here in Fort Worth.  The book is called "Church Without Fences" and will be out soon.  My dear friend and spiritual teacher, Glenn Hinson, graciously wrote this foreword:)

Alfred Loisy, a great Roman Catholic New Testament scholar, once said, “Jesus preached the Kingdom of God, and the Church was the result.”  He meant that Jesus didn’t envision a vast hierarchical structure spread throughout the world.  None of us can say what he intended with reference to church.  From his disciples to our own day we who believe have tried to figure out how best to bring to expression in our times and circumstances what he, still living among us, wants.  Bread Fellowship, founded in Fort Worth, Texas, by Charlie Johnson and Terry Austin is one of the most remarkable creative efforts to do what Jesus wanted that I have seen or studied in church history.

Bread Fellowship is clearly an alternative way of being church.  They have no aspirations to become a mega-church or even what sociologist Wade Clark Roof has called meta-church, a church with traditional structures.  Rather, they center everything on Jesus and decline to delineate a circumference.  They are a church without walls, inclusive rather than exclusive.  Such an approach, of course, suggests that they, like the Apostle Paul, have confidence that God, the Living Christ, will do something we humans can’t do, namely, transform lives.  Although both Johnson and Austin have experienced successful ministries in large traditional congregations, they here serve in modest ways as facilitators of this fellowship, whose center is Jesus Christ.

“Bread” reminds me of the meals Jesus met with his disciples to eat.  The “last” supper was not the only meal they ate together.  Breaking bread together facilitated fellowship.  Notice in the Gospels how often Jesus ate with people; that bonded him to them.  And I think that must happen in Bread Fellowship, where they meet on Sunday evenings and, as a rule, observe the Lord’s Supper together.  It happens that this kind of approach is reaching a group of people somewhat turned off by churches that define themselves in terms of circumference rather than by the center, Jesus. 

A very important element in the modus operandi of Bread Fellowship is hospitality.  Like Jesus himself, it is non-judgmental.  Censoriousness all too easily creeps into church life, just as it pervades our whole culture.  The consequence is partisanship and bitter battles, both 
public and private.   But here is a church in which the keynote is: “You are accepted.”  Bread Fellowship sounds amazingly like early Christian communities before very much organization took over and people started clamoring to run things according to their rules.

What about the future of a creative community like this?  It won’t supplant mega-churches, meta-churches, and a vast array of other church organizations and institutions in America any more than early Christian “house churches” displaced the state cultus or the oriental religions in the Roman Empire.  All of them continued for centuries.  But Bread Fellowship is discharging a mission in Fort Worth the other churches aren’t and can’t do.  It functions much like those early Christian communities that met in homes or wherever they could find a place, even in the catacombs under the city.  So long as they keep Christ at the center and fellowship with him and with one another as the focus, they will have something to offer the world, the world doesn’t already have more of than it needs.
By the way, this is an engaging and readable book.  You will find not only a good picture of Bread Fellowship but also an open and honest introduction to Terry Austin.  I have not met Terry personally, but I feel after reading his book that I know him.  I have known Charlie Johnson from many years ago, when he took classes and came often to talk in my office at Southern Seminary.  I vouch for anything he undertakes in ministry.

E. Glenn Hinson, Louisville, KY

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Dual Charge

Yesterday was a very special day for Jana and me.

In the Sabbath morning we accepted the call as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Desdemona, Texas, our little ranching community 90 miles southwest of Fort Worth.

In the Sabbath evening, we held the first worship celebration of Bread Fellowship, our new community of faith in Fort Worth.

We feel led to lend our pastoral energies to both of these Christian communities.

When my interim pastorate ended with the First Baptist Church of Brownwood in June, the folks in Desdemona invited me to preach. They had experienced numerous challenges in recent years. Attendance has dwindled to 8 worshippers. Discussions centered on closing the doors of this historic Texas church.

We have preached all summer, except for prior Sabbath commitments in other places, and have witnessed the power of the Word of God to convene—and reconvene— a community of faith, hope, and love. We have experienced lively and meaningful Sabbath services, with more and more worshippers week by week, to the happy point that the saints at Desdemona see new life and possibility in their fellowship again.

We are privileged to serve our own neighborhood church where our ranch is located and where Jana’s grandparents invested their lives.

In the Sabbath evening yesterday we had the first worship celebration of our exciting new ministry in Fort Worth called Bread Fellowship. We have been meeting in two small group Bible studies for the past year, and have a core group of 40 or so. Nothing fancy, just sitting in folding chairs arranged in a circle with the Lord's Table in the center.

Our sense of the Spirit's leadership is to focus on the Museum District/Montgomery Plaza area of our city, just west of downtown Fort Worth. We presently meet in the community room of the Monticello Apartments at the corner of North Bailey and White Settlement, but, with yesterday’s gathering, we have already run out of space. We are reaching out mainly to young adults who, for one reason or another, have an ambiguous relationship with the institutional church. (I always smile when I write this line, because we too will likely be institutional enough very soon!) We have no plans to own property or a building.

We are trying to keep this ministry highly inclusive, interactive, informal and intimate, building Christian community around Scripture, prayer, fellowship, and hands-on mission involvement. We have a two word mission statement: Eat. Feed.

I have joined two other fine ministers, Terry Austin and Paul Hood-Patterson, in a pastoral team. There will be others joining this pastoral circle; we are open to God-called ministers who feel led to build a ministry of radical inclusiveness and love.

Let me take a minute to ask you brothers and sisters a big favor:

If you have friends or family members who live in Fort Worth and who do not have a church home, and you feel comfortable providing us their names and contact information, we would be privileged to extend the invitation and friendship of Christ to these friends. You can find us on Facebook and Twitter.

Your prayers are the best gifts. Thank you for lifting us up to the Light of God's love and grace! And, do send us those contacts, as the Spirit leads.

So, Jana and I are now circuit-riding Sabbath preachers, glad and grateful to proclaim our Lord’s great good news in these two fascinating congregational contexts.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Calling As Sign of the Kingdom

Today was a significant day in the little piece of God’s garden I’ve been given to hoe in as three churches I have served staked claim on two of its fine young ministers.

33 year old Ryon Price was called unanimously as the fifth Senior Pastor of the Second Baptist Church of Lubbock and 21 year old Ben Harrison was licensed unanimously to the ministry of the Gospel by the First Baptist Church of Brownwood.

In my spirit, it is no coincidence that the Body of Christ affirmed these two young ministers on the same Sabbath day.

When Lubbock native Ryon Price was a student at Texas Tech University, he began a conversation with me, Hardy Clemons, and others about what it means to be a pastor. That conversation grew into an authentic claim by God on Ryon’s life for pastoral ministry. He has given evidence of that call by his graduation Magna Cum Laude from Duke Divinity School in 2004, and his pastoral ministry in churches in North Carolina and Vermont from 2003 to the present.

When Ben Harrison was boy growing up in Trinity Baptist Church in San Antonio, he listened to the preaching of his pastors with uncanny understanding and attentiveness. He comes by his call naturally as his father, Steve Harrison, is a gifted lay Bible teacher at Trinity, and his grandmother is an ordained Episcopal priest. As one of his professors at Howard Payne University told me recently about him, “This young man doesn’t just study. He seeks and questions.”

Two years ago, I and others recommended Ryon to Second B as senior minister for that special congregation, explaining to the search team that he possessed an affinity for pastoral proclamation and ministry far beyond his age and experience. Both he and the church conducted themselves in the discernment process with patience and prudence, waiting for the Spirit to disclose a sense of divine will and purpose at the right moment. That moment came today in what numerous friends said was a Spirit-filled service as Ryon preached in view of a call and the congregation joyously confirmed that call.

Ben joined the First Baptist Church of Brownwood shortly after I began my interim ministry here last July. At that time, we began meeting on Sunday afternoons for conversation about the life and work of a pastor. This evening, Ben preached a masterful sermon—only his second preaching event ever and his very first in a Sabbath service-- from John 4 about a marginalized Samaritan woman touched by the love of Christ. Afterwards, the First Baptist Brownwood congregation spoke their response to Ben, a moving celebration of hope and promise in a precocious young servant of Christ. At the benediction, we all encompassed Ben in a circle of love, our hands outstretched and resting on him in affirmation. The venerated pastor Dr. Robert Smith led us in a prayer of dedication, the oldest minister in the congregation voicing our—and God’s-- blessing to the youngest.

In this remarkable season of change for the churches of Christ, and the accompanying stress and upheaval of that change, it is a great goodness to witness the age-old Spirit’s call on Ryon and Ben for service to the Church. Why would two bright young adults, and countless others like them, submit themselves for that peculiar, nerve-wracking service unless a Power beyond themselves so radically compelled them that they could no more resist that call than resist breath itself?

It is no less than a sign of the Kingdom of God for me.

My cup is full tonight.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Baptist Confusion

My friends on the Baylor University Board of Regents are urging patient understanding from our Texas Baptist family concerning the appointment of Kenneth Starr as president of the university.

The call to reason and patience-- two clear Scriptural virtues-- is timely for those of us who are confused and dismayed by this appointment. Because we all, as St. Paul reminds us, “see through a glass darkly,” we must be open to perspectives different from our own, and possibilities other than those we can imagine.

But, given the consistent hijacking of Baptist soul freedom by the forces of conformity over the past 30 years, it seems to me that skepticism is the reasonable response to this decision.

The Baylor Board of Regents has been politicized and polarized. It has hired an individual who symbolizes that political polarization.

Kenneth Starr was born into the Church of Christ. He presently holds membership at a non-denominational church in Virginia—sea to shining sea away from his present home in California. Reports are that he will join a Baptist church upon relocating to Waco.

Texas Baptists are unfailingly polite, but we must sacrifice a dab of decorum to get Judge Starr's views candidly and publically established now on the following questions:

1.) Do you affirm for Baylor professors full freedom to pursue truth according to the leadership of God's Spirit?

2.) Do you endorse the complete equality of women under God to perform God's work in the world?

3.) Why should Texas Baptists continue collecting God's tithes and offerings for Baylor University? (The current annual $3 million from the Baptist General Convention of Texas is a pittance for Baylor, but would be pivotal for any number of other cooperative Texas Baptist missions and ministries.)

4.) Do you believe in separation of church and state?

5.) How will you appropriate your views on Christian citizenship in a way that honors both the republican and democratic (both lower case) visions for our national life, and strenuously upholds the historic Baptist conviction for religious liberty?

President Starr needs to host an all-day meeting ASAP-- as in next week, at the latest-- of all Texas Baptist preachers to hash out these questions and get his views on the record. And, I don't mean one of those perfunctory "get to know the new president" coffees in a church fellowship hall somewhere.

It is widely reported that Kenneth Starr is a decent, kind man; my own experience of sharing a table with him years ago confirms this. Precisely because of this decency, he needs to get before the Texas Baptist family-- his new family-- in honest disclosure of his heart. Christian accountability demands it.

Baylor isn't "Christian" just because it says so. Even the demons give such verbal assent. Baylor is Christian because it does the very things Jesus did, those odd, wonderful, peculiar, distinctive things that build the new rule of God.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Grace Abounds

Last Monday evening around 9:00 p.m., after a good and full day of pastoral ministry in Brownwood, I was stopped by an officer of the Texas Department of Public Safety.

I had just finished delivering the greeting and invocation for the 300 or so folks gathered at our church for the annual Brownwood High School Football Banquet, and was making my way home to our ranch in Desdemona.

It had been a good day of numerous meaningful visits, conversations, and prayers with the people in our fellowship. On such days, pastors sometimes slip into a reverie of reflection and thanksgiving about the goodness of our lives together in Christ, the friendship that connects us in Christian community, and the high purpose that is ours in building the Kingdom of God.

Such a trance of gratitude must have made the foot heavier on the accelerator. On Highway 16 north of Comanche, as I approached the Sabanna River, a southbound DPS officer stopped me. He clocked me exceeding the speed limit, flashed his lights, and turned around to ticket me.

My sweet hour of prayer became a frantic plea.

It was pitch dark, and the officer approached my car carefully on the passenger side, asked for my license, insurance, and registration, and sternly inquired as to where I had been and what I had been up to.

Shamelessly pulling the “pastor card,” I stammered something about Brownwood, First Baptist Church, and ministry.

Immediately, his entire demeanor softened. His face brightened. He began talking casually about the fine folks he knew in Brownwood, his own faith, and the spiritual importance of church in his life.

He handed my license back to me and started asking me about mutual friends and acquaintances. Far fewer than the theoretical “six degrees” separate folks in our part of Texas, so we had numerous relationships in common. Finally, he tipped his hat, admonished me to slow down and be careful on the way home. Then a theology: “Reverend, the Lord needs you.”

He extended his hand through the window to me, and introduced himself.

“I’m Officer Grace.”

My roadside conversations with law enforcement officers have not always ended so happily. Nor do I think ministers are entitled to any special consideration when it comes to traffic infractions. My friends have given me endless grief about my absurdly good fortune. One took a little exegetical liberty with Hebrews 4.16: “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace in our time of speed.”

But, on a dark night, on a lonely stretch of highway, in the face of my own violation, I encountered Grace. And I made it home.

Monday, January 18, 2010


When Martin Luther King, Jr. became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church of Montgomery, Alabama, just up the road a hundred or so miles from my hometown of Monroeville, he was 25 years old and right out of graduate school. He was blessed to be called to that prestigious, middle class congregation right across the street from the statehouse of the Alabama capitol. He had absolutely no intention of getting involved in racial justice and equality. His only goal was to revitalize and grow the church. In fact, his predecessor in the pastoral office at Dexter Avenue was regarded as something of a hothead, a firebrand, and the good folks at Dexter did not want to repeat that kind of pastoral tenure. So, they called an erudite, groomed, well-educated, scholarly young minister right out of his doctoral program at Boston University.

The next year, as Providence would have it, the Montgomery Bus Boycott began. A godly Christian woman named Rosa Parks was arrested because she refused to move to the back of the bus where African-Americans were forced to sit. King was placed on the committee to look into the matter, but still steadfastly refused to take a leadership role.

On a fateful night in December of 1955, the elder pastors of the community came to Dr. King before the worship service that evening and commissioned him to speak to the congregation gathered there. He demurred. He thought he was too young, too inexperienced, too green and untried. He wanted one of the other ministers to take a leadership role. But those wise older pastors gathered around the young man and blessed and anointed him to lead the movement. He took to the sacred desk that night, and delivered a sermon that would mobilize the church of Jesus Christ and transform a nation.

Fast-forward thirteen brief years to a rainy night in Memphis in April of 1968. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference had organized a strike of garbage collectors in Memphis to secure a decent wage. Over a thousand folks had come from all over Memphis that night of April 3 to the Mason Temple to hear King preach. The famous preacher was exhausted. His travel schedule was merciless. The pressure on him was enormous. The FBI had him under surveillance. He was constantly away from his wife and family. The nation was in turmoil. And he did not feel like preaching that evening. He felt like he had nothing to say. He was empty, uninspired. He asked his dear friend, Ralph Abernathy, to take his place at the pulpit that night, but Dr. Abernathy gently rebuked his good friend, saying, “Martin, these people didn’t walk through this storm tonight to hear me.” King then made his way to the Temple and delivered his famous “Mountaintop” sermon that is seared into our consciousness. His only request was for the pianist that night to play, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”

Jana and I had the privilege to hear this account firsthand in 2008 as we received the highest honor of my pastoral career: induction into the Martin Luther King Board of Preachers at Morehouse College in Atlanta. The Rev. Billy Kyles, one of the three men last to see Dr. King alive, was the keynote speaker on that occasion. Rev. Kyles said that the entourage gathered at the Lorraine Hotel had been invited to the Kyles’ home for supper around 6:00 that evening; Mrs. Kyles had cooked a fried chicken supper, a favorite meal for a bunch of preachers. They stepped out on the balcony, an awful shot rang out, and Jerusalem had slain another prophet.

Rev. Kyles wondered aloud with us at Morehouse that day: “Why did God place me there with Dr. King on that April 4, 1968. All these years, I’ve asked God why he had me on that balcony that day. There is nothing special about me. I wasn’t a leader in that group. I couldn’t preach powerfully like King and Abernathy. I didn’t have the personal charisma of those men.” He spoke pensively, slowly, reflectively. Then his countenance brightened. He lifted his face to us, his eyes dancing, and he declared boldly to the eruption of the entire hall at Morehouse, “I now know why I was there: Because every crucifixion has to have a witness!”

There is so much work yet to be done. The dream is not yet reality but is still deferred. On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 2010, let’s remember why God has us here.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Singing The Lord's Song

This past week I read a story about Max Fuchs, 87, of New York City. As an Army soldier in WWII, Mr. Fuchs led the first Jewish service on German soil after the rise of Hitler.

On October 9, 1944 in Aachen, Germany, as a 22 year old veteran of the Omaha Beach D-Day landing, Private First Class Fuchs served as the cantor for the open-air worship service. NBC Radio was on hand to broadcast the historic occasion to the entire world.

“I was as much scared as anyone else,” Mr. Fuchs told the New York Times in an interview. “But since I was the only one who could do it, I tried my best.”

Before the war broke out, Mr. Fuchs was studying to become a cantor in his synagogue, the equivalent of Minister of Music in our Baptist churches. But he left his studies and entered the Army when his country called. His family immigrated to the United States from Poland in 1932 when he was a 12 year old boy. Many of his family members were killed when Germany invaded his home country in 1939.

The two hymns he chose for that historic worship celebration rejoiced in the Providential care of Almighty God, and the hope for redemption in the hereafter. As the men sang them that day, there were artillery shells exploding nearby. You can hear this on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZihm6VlYjo

This story reminds me of the importance of singing the Lord’s Song.

We are privileged to live in a country where we can celebrate our faith in peace, without the threat of oppressive forces seeking to destroy our freedom.

Each Sunday as we gather for worship, we sing songs declaring our God’s great power to save and redeem.

Whether or not we have innate musical talent like Mr. Fuchs, I hope we will sing them every Sunday with the same urgent and passionate faith those soldiers sang them on that Jewish Sabbath day long ago.