Pax Romana & Our Violent Peace

Pax Romana & Our Violent Peace
On Sunday, I had a chance to hear a powerful message by my pastor, Dr. Dennis R. Edwards. In our 3rd Advent message, on the topic of PEACE, Pastor Dennis made a reference to the way in which the Roman Empire boasted about its peace (Pax Romana). In his reference, he challenged this false idea of peace, in large part because it was maintained by violently squelching any one who disturbed or dared to challenge it. This was especially true for the folks stuck at the bottom of society.  Crucifixion was one of many torturous methods of control utilized by the Roman Empire, and this was the end that Jesus met.

The image that I most often think of when it comes to the Roman Empire is called the Appian Way, where it’s believed that more than 6,000 slaves were crucified after a revolt in 73 B.C.  It is said that they were left to hang, suffer, and die along the roadside as a statement to the rest of the empire. Their bodies lined the Appian Way for more than 130 miles. Yes, 130 miles.

 
appian
 
Fast forward to today.  One could argue, as many have, that America is an empire in the truest sense of the term. Depending on your station in life, that may or may not be a bad thing. Political viewpoints aside, I pose this question: How should a follower of Jesus view an empire?
 
As you’re deciding, take a look at the photo below. It visualizes a weird juxtaposition from #Ferguson.
 
Fegurson - Pax Romana
 
 The brightly lit sign reads, “Season’s Greetings,” and it is especially well contrasted against the jet black skies and black riot gear of the Ferguson Police. Oh, the irony! Deeper than just the image, can anyone see the correlation between the violent peace of Pax Romana and the vicious nature of the American system of law & order?
  •  If the Roman Empire’s tactics are now seen as barbaric, why are so many Christians ok with what’s happening right before our eyes?
  • If Jesus was victimized by the Roman Empire, where do we see Jesus in today’s system of law & order?
  • Would Jesus take a place of privilege today or would he suffer with and on behalf of those who suffer at the hands of the system?
 Think about it…
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#GospelChallenge, Part 3

#GospelChallenge, Part 3

Over my last two posts, I’ve described what I see as a huge obstacle to discipleship in urban areas. That obstacle is racial strife.

In the first post of this series, I described racial strife as a past and present struggle which makes it very difficult for people of different ethnic and “ racial” backgrounds to connect, develop trust, and grow together. I contended that the gospel message often runs into a wall because the Church in America refuses to confront its racist legacy. In the second post of this series, I described the image problem that the Church has and challenged us to begin to re-imagine what it means to be “the people of God” in urban areas.

In this third & final post of this series, I’ll share a bit of my story, highlighting the road that has brought me to this place of understanding.  Finally, I will offer up some practical insight from my experiences that may prove helpful as we journey forward together.

Check it out and share your thoughts…


While I love the city and my ministry here, I am first and foremost a country boy.  I grew up in a small community in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. My family was a part of a small church there, maxing out at about 100 people on Sundays like Easter and Christmas. We had a “larger than life” pastor and no other staff. I have very fond memories of our pastor placing the youth of the church on the front row for Bible study and teaching us the Scriptures there, alongside the adults. It was there, in my childhood, that I developed a love for the Scriptures and a love for the Church. Even while I struggled with my faith during my college years, that love persevered.

My wife and I moved to Minneapolis in 2005 and after a year, I took a position as a youth pastor at a large Baptist church on the Northside of the city.  North Minneapolis was often described as the stereotypical urban area:

    • high crime (often violent crime), high rate of family breakdown, high in nearly all the societal negatives
    • low-income, low property values, low performing schools, etc.

Even so, or perhaps because of those things, North Minneapolis was the community that I felt called to. I wanted to serve that community faithfully. I cared deeply for the people, and my heart broke over and over again to see the plight of the people there, especially, young black and brown children.  Despite its reputation, I knew that God was at work there, and I wanted to be a part of what God was doing!

In January of 2007, after serving that church for 3 months, I entered a master’s program at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, MN.  It was a truly  transformational time!  A few questions were my constant companions throughout seminary, as I served and studied:

    1. What does it look like for a disciple-making church to take root and flourish in an urban area, specifically North Minneapolis?
    2. How does racial strife and segregated churches contribute to what we see happening in these communities?

I wrestled with these questions for 4 long years.  Even today, I’m wrestling with these kinds of questions.  After graduating from Bethel Seminary in 2011, I took a position at a large, urban, intentionally multiethnic church in the same community. I moved out of a sense of calling but also because my wrestling with these kinds of questions had grown more intense.  Today, I’m a part of the pastoral team at that church, and I’m still wrestling with similar questions.

While I don’t claim to have all of the answers, I’ve observed a number of things in both study and practice that I’d like to offer up to you,  not as an expert but as a co-laborer in Christ:

Urban churches and ministries need a more balanced view of discipleship. 

Due to the sheer nature of urban life, discipleship can quickly lose its place of priority in the urban ministry.  In urban ministry, the needs are often glaring and overwhelming.  Mission drift happens easily and effortlessly.  As a result, I’ve seen urban churches and ministries drift into one of three categories:

  1. Group One churches turn their attention and resources upward, towards purely “spiritual things.” Their strategy is to become increasingly heavenly minded as a way of dealing with the dire situations around them. These churches become experts of great choirs, prayer meetings, and pastor’s anniversaries but little else.
  2. Group Two churches turn inward in response to the conditions that exist in the community.  They become a proverbial oasis in the city, a country club in the midst of vast poverty.  What matters to these churches is what happens within the walls of the church. The people who matter most to them are the ones who call this church their home.
  3. Group Three churches make the decision to fix their attention and resources outward, focusing entirely upon meeting the social needs of the community around them. These churches move from project to project, from this drive to the next, while neglecting spiritual or communal things entirely.  These churches often have a revolving door of socially conscious people who come and go because of burnout and a lack of meaningful relationships.

I believe that each of those churches can teach us something, but that each has failed to be balanced in their view of discipleship, therefore producing one-sided believers. An unbalanced church is an ineffective church.

The folks at 3DM paint a much different picture of discipleship, one built on rhythms of:

  • Time with God (Up)
  • Time with other believers (In)
  • Time in the world on mission (Out).

I believe that urban communities would see great transformation when urban churches and ministries call them towards passionate spirituality, radical community, and missional zeal!

Racially homogenous churches & ministries are at a severe disadvantage and will struggle to overcome their own cultural preferences. 

There is a common occurrence in urban ministry that seems to be on the upswing as urban ministry becomes “the flavor of the day”.  Regularly, I witness the entrance and growth of large, well-meaning Christian ministries. They are well-resourced organizations with lots of paid staff, plush buildings, name recognition, and much more.  None of this is troubling on its own.  The inherent problem is that many, if not all of these organizations, have a staff that is 100% white in areas that are mostly non-white. Even more troubling is the fact that many of these young, white staffers come from colleges and backgrounds where they have never had to wrestle with issues of privilege and whiteness.  In many cases, they enter urban areas and do serious damage because of a lack of cultural intelligence and self-awareness.

I contend that racially homogenous churches and ministries must become a thing of the past.  I agree with the writers of United by Faith when they argue that, “The best antidote to national & evangelical struggles over racial & ethnic issues is to build multiracial congregations (organizations) whenever possible.” This point feeds into my next point.

You will not reach and disciple an increasingly multiethnic world by holding onto to mono-ethnic preferences. 

Even today, in the eyes of many people, to be a Christian is to be white.  This is not to say that to become a Christian a Black or Brown person must change their skin color, but many believe that Christian culture is largely synonymous with suburban, white culture.  In other words, too much of what we pass off as Christian, is really what is comfortable for white people.  Consider our worship styles.  Consider the milestones that we celebrate. Consider the way that we view things like time, honor, conflict, even aging.  From where do many urban churches/ministries adopt their values?

Before the gospel is able to really take root in urban areas, we need to have some open, honest conversations about how we exist as the people of God.  How much of our current existence as the people of God is tainted by Eurocentric bias? How much of what we do and believe come from cultural biases? It’s a challenging conversation, but I see the church as a worthy “crucible” where we can work out some of these issues of race, ethnicity, and other “isms” in a grace-filled way.

Us vs. Them is a self-perpetuating impasse. You need indigenous leaders in meaningful positions within your organization

I’ll say this succinctly. The greatest testimony that you can have as a ministry in an urban area is the track record of raising up indigenous leaders and handing off meaningful leadership responsibilities to them. How quickly can your organization move from a place of “us” and “them” to a place of “we?”

Finally, I remember 4 steps from Miroslav Volf’s excellent text, Exclusion and Embrace.  Volf argues that, “The church has been involved in oppression and exclusion. We have become so absorbed in our own cultures that we are blind to the evil of exclusion.” Volf offers up four steps that I feel must become second nature to all people who would be reconciled, especially in light of racial or religious strife.  He says that both the oppressor and oppressed are called by Jesus to:

  1. Repentance
  2. Forgiveness
  3. Making Space for Others
  4. Healing of Memory

These are not one and done steps.  On the contrary, I do not see us overcoming this great #GospelChallenge unless we are daily entering into this process.  Repentance. Forgiveness. Making Space for Others. Healing of Memory. Repeat!

May the God of Peace grant us daily the grace to be reconciled…to God and to one another!

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#GospelChallenge, Part 2

#GospelChallenge, Part 2

In my previous post, I proposed that when it comes to discipleship in urban areas of this country, there is a major obstacle that cannot be ignored. That obstacle is racial strife, the struggle that exists in our past and our present, which makes it very difficult for people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds to connect, develop trust, and grow together. 

Check out part two of this series and please share your thoughts…


In 2013, an amazing film was released to theaters called, “12 Years A Slave.  The film was based on an autobiographical book written in 1853 by the same name. The book told the story of Solomon Northrup, a free man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1840’s New York. The film allowed audiences to catch a glimpse of the horrific conditions of slavery and this man’s struggle to regain his freedom. It was a gripping story, shining a light on the brutal system of slavery. 

Beyond what it teaches us about history, there was a huge theological thread woven throughout the film.  In the film, we saw two images of Christianity and neither of them were especially pleasing.  On one hand, we saw Christianity presented as a tool of the slave master used to coerce and keep slaves obedient to their masters.  You see the slave masters preaching to their slaves about obedience, as if that were THE central message of the scriptures.  When I think about that, I recall an often-quoted thought tossed around by some who dismiss Christianity. The saying goes, “If your faith comes with instructions of how to treat your slaves, you need a new faith.” It’s not enough to simply dismiss that as rhetoric.  The other image of Christianity that we see in the film is that of Christianity being used by the slaves as a coping mechanism to survive this ruthless system.  This is not to say that their faith was not authentic. I believe the very opposite to be true.  Even so, it’s unsettling to think that some may have come to faith, primarily, for the sake of numbing the pain of their lives.  

Here’s how this is relevant for us today: When churches engage urban communities, the question that is directed at you, either verbally or nonverbally, is: “Which Jesus are you selling me?”

  • Is it the Jesus that keeps me weak, docile, and controlled?

                                                      OR

  • Is it the Jesus that is only good enough to get me through my week? 

For far too many people in urban communities, the church is not trustworthy, on one hand, and has no real power, on the other hand. We have a #GospelChallenge!

So have I lost hope? Am I saying that we should throw in the towel and give up our efforts to reach urban communities with the transforming Gospel of Jesus Christ? 

Heck No! 

Even with these vast and far-reaching challenges facing us, there remains what Reinhold Neibuhr calls “a resounding cry, calling the Church back to her mission & purpose.”

Two things are absolutely clear to me: 

  1. We, The Church, must address our troubling past when it comes to race, culture, & ethnicity.   
  2. We, The Church, must begin to reimagine what it means to be “the people of God” in urban areas. 

I feel a clear and profound calling to help the church figure out what those two things could look like.  

In the third & final post of this series, I’ll share a bit of my story, highlighting what may have brought me to this place.  Finally, I will offer up some practical insights of how we might move towards this challenge together!   


QUESTION: When you think about iconic portrayals of the Christian faith in film, past or present, what do you recall as some of the more memorable ones? Have those portrayals shaped how you see the church at all? 

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#GospelChallenge, Part 1

#GospelChallenge, Part 1

This summer, I took part in an amazing conference hosted by CRU Inner City. It was called the Creating Options Together Conference and took place here in Minneapolis.  The aim of the conference was,  “To come together to declare God’s glory, to lift up and empower the church, and to demonstrate the power of the gospel to create options for those in poverty…fresh options that address real needs.”  It was humbling to share a stage with noted leaders like Dr. John Perkins and Dr. Carl Ellis.  It was also  incredibly meaningful to spend time hearing from new leaders (new to me) like Pastor Adam Edgerly and the brilliant Karen Ellis.  I was a speaker and presenter, but I learned much more than I could have ever imagined!

I have realized over the last few years that I have some pretty unique and varied groups of friends and colleagues.  I also realized that they often don’t interact with each other.  That means that the conversations that I have with one group of friends doesn’t always get carried over to another group of friends. It happens sometimes, but it’s not guaranteed.  Additionally, I’m hardly ever present with friend group A and friend group B at the same time.  I’m constantly looking for ways to bridge that gap. Hopefully, this blog has been and continues to become one of those ways.

To that end, in my next few blog posts, I’ll share some of my messages from the Creating Options Together Conference 2014.  I hope that it sparks a dialogue between my different groups of friends and leads to some deeper connections.

The title of this particular talk was #GospelChallenge: Addressing Racial Strife as a Threat to Your Ministry.

Here’s Part 1 of 3…I’d love to hear your thoughts!


(July 2014 – Bethel University Underground)

Good Afternoon,

Friends, you may have noticed a social media trend over the last few months. I’m referring to something called the #GospelChallenge.  #GospelChallenge is where one person is “called out” by another and given 24 hours to record a personal video singing a gospel song. The videos were everywhere, and some of them were excellent!

Unfortunately, for every one singer with actual talent…There were 100’s upon 100’s of singers with voices that only their mothers could love…There were others with voices that were made for sign language or for a tightly sealed, soundproof shower…There were many others that gave new interpretation to the verse, “Jesus Wept!” As funny as some of these videos were and as inspiring as some the others were, I wasn’t invited here today to talk about THAT kind of gospel challenge but about another reality that we are called to be aware of and respond to IF we really desire to see the good news of Jesus Christ reach the inner city, take root, and bring about kingdom transformation.

Later this week, each of us will leave the comfort of this conference and head back into our communities, cities, and neighborhoods, and there, waiting on us, will be a troubling reality. Waiting for us in each of our cities is a challenge that is as old as this nation itself and is entrenched in the fabric of this great experiment that we call America.  I’m talking about racial strife, the struggle that exists in our past and even today, that makes it very difficult for people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds to connect, trust, and grow together. Friends, I wish that I could talk about this racial strife from a strictly historical & sociological perspective and say that this is an issue that exists strictly in society.  I wish that I could stand here and describe this as a situation where the Church is poised to step in and correct what is wrong, but the reality is that when it comes to racial strife, American society and the American church share matching scars. These are matching, ugly scars that cannot simply be ignored.

The reality is that when it comes to racial strife, the church, has “dirty hands,” and those dirty hands stand as a challenge to the Gospel.

At best, the church in America has been “impotent” when it comes to being an effective agent for healing racial strife. At its worst, the church in America has been an active accomplice, a tool, used to create and maintain racial strife and artificial racial divides. Even without looking too hard, the very people that we would seek to engage and minister to in urban communities, ESPECIALLY BLACK MEN, can see that the church has not always been a trustworthy institution.

So what exactly am  I talking about when I refer to our #GospelChallenge?

When I say that we have a #GospelChallenge, I’m saying that our history, even our present existence as the church, has become a stumbling block, an obstacle to the spread of the gospel among the lost and hurting in urban areas. I contend that we cannot simply ignore the church’s history and expect it to simply go away. Instead, I propose that must we repent of our brokenness and intentionally rededicate ourselves to the work of reconciliation. Doing so is a critical first step towards creating space for the healing of racial strife, and it must be a part of any Christ-centered strategy for seeing the Gospel reach every corner of every urban area in America.

Question: Would you agree that racial strife has been a “stumbling block” for the American Church? I’d love to hear your thoughts and explanations.  As always, feel free to disagree!

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#FatherFactor

#FatherFactor

Last year, I was contacted by a guy named Andy from the Pacific Northwest and asked if I’d be interested in contributing to a book that he was working on.  The book he described was focused on the two topics that I write/think most frequently about, faith and fatherhood.  After a quick google search, I realized that Andy was not a hacker or a serial killer, that he had an epic beard, and that this was a real book project.  Of course I had to be a part of it!

I’m happy to announce that the project is done and that on October 14, 2014, Father Factor: American Christian Men on Faith and Fatherhood is set to be released!!!

father_factor_cover

 

The Father Factor project is part of the I SPEAK FOR MYSELF book series, published in partnership with White Cloud Press.  The book explores the intersection between faith and fatherhood, which is core to who I am. The book contains forty essays by forty men all under the age of forty. We represent a wide variety of Christian faith perspectives: Methodist, Presbyterian, Quaker, Mennonite, Pentecostal, Baptist, Church of God, United Church of Christ—and a whole host of different ethnicities: Korean, Mexican, Pacific Islander, Egyptian, Chinese, African American, and Caucasian. We represent all sorts of professions – ministers, professors, a real estate agent, an actor, nonprofit leaders, stay-at-home dads, and a call center representative. We can be found in cities as far apart as Honolulu, Hawaii and Paris, France, and many all points in between. Each of us shares a compelling story about faith and fatherhood…The finished work is amazing!!!

I’d highly recommend the book for your personal library and for small group discussions.  The website is here…Take a look around and take advantage of a great discounted price between now and October 13th!

Thanks to everyone who helped bring this project into being, and I look forward to all of you engaging on some level with the book!

Grace & Peace!!!

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