SONY DSC

In praise of ritual & tradition

Can I take a minute or two to defend ritual and tradition? It’s true that this might seem a bit odd for me. I have spent my life in an Evangelical stream that is anything but high church. In my world I have heard, more often than not, Matthew 6:7 used as a prooftext for avoiding any sort of ritualistic traditions in the church. Further, for those who know me, you may know I’ve generally been glad to adopt new behaviors, and have been very comfortable in pretty modern expressions of worship. Some of you may even be chuckling under your breath as you read this. 😉 I am increasingly convinced, though, that those of us who may have been guilty of badmouthing ritual and tradition are missing the rich value of both, and are truthfully a bit hypocritical without realizing it. It may be that our resistance to ritual and tradition is wrapped up in the rather common refrain from many church leaders that religion is a bad thing which is rather unfortunate opinion when you consider that religion is a biblical word. If God thought it important, maybe we ought to do the same? But I digress.

With all this in mind, why ought ritual and tradition matter to us?

1. Every church practices ritual and tradition.
It’s interesting to me how quick we are to diminish ritual and tradition without acknowledging our own rituals and traditions. There is no religious experience, across the globe, that has existed for any length of time that is void of ritual and tradition. Whether it’s something as simple as the time the church gathers, or something more significant like an element of the service or the order of the service, every church has its rituals and traditions. Even the most modern of churches, working hard to reflect contemporary trends and consistently embracing creative new ways to communicate the gospels are full of behaviors that are consistent week-in and week-out. Let’s begin any discourse about this topic with a little honesty to acknowledge that we all have our rituals and traditions.

2. Ritual and tradition are the foundations of some of life’s richest experiences.
Every night I come home and we gather together as a family to pray. We pray for some very specific items each night, including the use of a prayer guide that my wife put together for us featuring every Christmas card anyone sends us. Every day we pray for the family or person reflected on the next Christmas card. Finally, after we do all of that, my girls each come to me and give me a hug, and then kiss me, and then they head off to bed. It’s a ritual that we have been engaging in for years now. It’s also one of the richest moments of my day. What’s more, that little ritual makes my time with my daughters full of meaning in ways that I couldn’t experience apart from it. Our worship experiences are no different. We each have rituals and traditions. Sadly, in many cases, our rituals and traditions have lost their meaning, and in those cases the experiences are not rich and meaningful, but I think that’s a leadership issue, not a ritual issue. More on that in a moment. Let’s not dismiss all ritual and tradition simply because some of us have failed to pass down the meaning behind them, leading them to lose meaning and influence.

So how do we acknowledge the importance and value of ritual and tradition, while not allowing it to lose meaning and value?

1. Be aware of our own ritual and tradition.
This is incredibly simple, but so important. Look through your own worship experience. Spend some time in examination, and then own up to your traditions. Acknowledge them. Communicate their existence to your faith community. Don’t practice unintentional hypocrisy by derisively dismissing tradition, while you practice unacknowledged tradition of your own.

2. Use ritual and tradition to convey meaning.
Once you have recognized your tradition, carefully explain why you practice it, the theology behind it, and how it intersects and influences your worship experiences. Help the people you lead to recognize the value of repeated experiences. It seems odd that we would ever want to argue for less of a good thing, instead of more. If your church practices something that’s an important part of worship, celebrate it, don’t dismiss it.

Remember, ritual and tradition generally aren’t the problem, meaningless ritual and traditions are. Further, meaningless ritual and tradition are almost never a ritual and tradition problem. Meaningless ritual and tradition are almost always a leadership problem. Ritual and tradition almost always begins as a meaningful element in our worship gatherings. They become meaningless because we let them become so. Leaders are responsible for teaching why we do what we do. If you have ritual or tradition in your gatherings that are meaningless, it’s quite possibly your own fault (or the fault of your church’s leadership as a whole). Fix it by leading well.

3. Eliminate ritual and tradition that are void of meaning.
The final element is pretty simple, really. If you have meaningless ritual and tradition, and you cannot lead the church to understand why it is you practice that element, than get rid of it. Meaningless ritual and tradition works against genuine worship by stripping the worship experience of rich theological truth. Do not allow that to happen under your watch as a leader. Either breath new life into old ritual and tradition by teaching and leading well, or eliminate it. There really is not another good option.

*Photo courtesy of FreeImages.com and was taken by Anita Berghoef.

1076967_94588268

Happy Birthday Tracy!

Today Tracy celebrates her birthday. She’s 35 today (and yes, she gave me permission to post her age), and I couldn’t be more amazed at who she is and what God has done in her life. My wife is the definition of a Proverbs 31 woman. I am so in love with her. I know that I am not alone in appreciating Tracy, though. There are man of you who also know how amazing she is. With that said, I would love to invite you to celebrate Tracy’s birthday with us.

Some of you may be aware that we are in the process of adopting a child. We have invested pretty heavily to make it happen, and yet we cannot proceed any further without help from people like you. In honor of Tracy’s 35th birthday, we would like to invite at least 35 people to partner with us in our adoption journey by donating at least $35 this week. This would honor Tracy on her birthday, and also really help us raise some more money that we need for the next step in the adoption process. Some of you may remember that we did a similar exercise for my birthday last October. During that celebration we were able to raise enough to cover the cost of our dossier, which is completed and now in Africa. We are currently waiting for the government to match us with a child. As soon as that happens we have to pay $11,000, and your help as we celebrate Tracy’s birthday will get us a bit further down the road to having that money covered.

Thankfully we have partnered with a great organization called AdoptTogether to help us raise money, so anything you donate will be tax deductible. That makes it a win/win, right? 😉

If you want to donate, you can click on [this link] and go directly to our AdoptTogether Fundraising Page.

If you want to give by check, you can do that too by mailing a check to the address below. Please make sure to indicate that it’s for “The Fries Family” on both the envelope and the memo line when you send the check:

AdoptTogether
251 W Central Ave.
#278
Springboro, OH 45066

Also, would you take a minute and share this with your social media accounts? We need all the exposure we can get!

Finally, if you would be willing to sign up as a prayer partner with us, we would love to hear from you. You can sign up using the form below.

Thank you so much for considering this. We are genuinely grateful for your partnership!

1437643_30856054

When Gnostics go to church

This was originally posted at Gospel Centered Discipleship.

Gnosticism was at the heart of much of the New Testament writers’ objections. At its root, Gnosticism argued that the material world was bad, and the spiritual world, or realm, was good. The majority of Gnostics, then, practiced a mix of asceticism and even philanthropy as they tried to divest themselves of material goods in an attempt to pursue knowledge through the spiritual world. The New Testament writers wrote in detail about the danger of Gnosticism, and we consistently affirm their objections, but when it comes to the underlying theology in Gnostic thought, I wonder if the church isn’t guilty of embracing its premise?

Since I was a small child, I have been taught that our time here on earth was limited. All of history points to the return of Jesus Christ when he would call his children home to his eternal kingdom. Earth, then, is a temporary holding place—a place for us to live in such a way so we honor God, but a temporary home, none-the-less. Popular songs have been written for decades now celebrating this truth. The chorus of the old Southern Gospel song, “The Old Gospel Ship” seems to embrace that philosophy.

I’m a gonna take a trip
In the good old gospel ship
I’m goin’ far beyond the sky
I’m a gonna shout and sing
Until all the Heavens ring
When I bid this old world goodbye

I’m not trying to pick on music and musicians, but the church has been celebrating both the badness of this world and the goodness of some other, better, world for a long time now. We like the spiritual world off in the distance, and we diminish, or even discredit, this world – this physical world. Fundamentally, though, when I look at scripture I see a couple of things pointing to this being a thoroughly Gnostic—and thoroughly non-Christian—approach.

First, any theology viewing this world as bad and abandoned by God, conflicts with Scripture’s testimony that the world was created before the existence of sin. God declared of his created world, “It is good.” The created world is God’s good plan intended for our good and his glory. When we dismiss this world as temporary, we do violence to the biblical text. Scripture teaches God’s plan involved this good creation from the beginning.

Secondly, viewing the world as inherently bad and soon to be destroyed or abandoned is to ignore Romans 8 and its thoughts about God’s future plans for his creation.

Romans 8:19-21, For the creation eagerly waits with anticipation for God’s sons to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to futility—not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it—in the hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of corruption into the glorious freedom of God’s children.

Note creation itself is groaning for Christ’s return because it will be set free into the same kind of freedom that God’s children will experience. The point of the text is God moves toward the resurrection/restoration of his creation, in the same way he moves towards the resurrection/restoration of his children. When we treat this world as if it’s temporary we treat it in a way God himself doesn’t treat it.

I hear one primary objection to this. Some might say that scripture indicates God will “burn up” the earth, as some translations describe it (see 2 Peter 3:10). However, seeing this text in context, we understand this burning not as destructive, but cleansing. 2 Peter 3:6 tells us that this burning was foreshadowed in the flood of Noah, so indicates God’s use of fire to purify his creation—ultimately leading to its resurrection/restoration.

In light of all this, what are we to make of it, and why does it matter?

First, in light of God’s work to restore this world, we would do well to treat it as if it’s not just our temporary home. God is working to resurrect not only his people, but all of his created order. Secret agents that sneak into a country, accomplish their mission, and then get snatched up by a black helicopter to take them home makes for a great action movie, but for a bad gospel story. Let’s embrace the world around us as part of God’s good plan for his people.

Second, our behavior in this world, in this life, should model and foreshadow God’s work of ultimate resurrection/restoration. As current residents of the kingdom of God, whose allegiance lies with King Jesus, we are called to live now as we will live then—when his kingdom has been fully culminated. We are called to work in such a way so we model his work of restoration. This is why, for instance, creation care is a deeply biblical concept.

Finally, let’s be cautious of embracing any theology that encourages us to escape the world, rather than embrace it, love it, and work to see God’s order restored in and among it. As God reminded the Jewish exiles in Babylon in Jeremiah 29, our call is seek the good of our culture, not to isolate ourselves from it, or try to escape what’s around us. Instead, let’s recognize God has placed us here, in this place and at this time, to declare and display his gospel, working to bring his blessing—his shalom—to the places we call home, modeling in this time and place the ultimate restoration he will fully bring about in the day of his return.

friends

3 Ways to Be a Friend of Sinners

This article was originally posted at the LifeWay Church Leaders blog.

The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ – Luke 7:34

Jesus was a friend of sinners. This is clearly established throughout the gospels. Jesus was among them, in relationship with them, respected by them and evidently they enjoyed his company enough that they continued to seek him out. In all of this Jesus didn’t sacrifice the content of his character or the clarity of his gospel message. Yet, it seems as though many of us in the church today find this oddly challenging – and some even argue that it’s not possible for strong believers to be in these kinds of consistent social settings, and even authentic friendships, with non-believers. So, which is it? Well, given the priority of scripture, and specifically the life of Jesus, I would prefer to come down on the side of being a friend of sinners. How do we do that, though, in a way that is faithful to his word, and honors God all the while? Consider these principles, and weigh your own life against them.

1. Integrate, don’t isolate.

Jesus was not just a friend of sinners; he was regularly among them. Don’t miss the importance of this. Place matters. I think we often forget how insular our lives can be as Christ-followers in 21st century America. As believers we have lives built around our churches. In many ways this is healthy. Gospel-fueled community is a necessary element to our sanctification. There is a problem, however, when the entirety of our community is other believers.

In the church we have grown adept at the creation of a quasi-Christian sub-culture. We have changed to definition of “counter-cultural” from a robust, biblically faithful definition to mean Christian t-shirts, Christian music and Christian sports leagues. We even offer Christian business directories because, I can only assume, we believe Christian plumbers are more effective at unclogging toilets than those who do not believe. The upshot of all this Christian sub-culture is that we can live our entire lives without ever actually relating to non-believers, and we do all this thinking that we are somehow honoring God.

This complete isolation from the culture at large doesn’t reflect Jesus’ behavior, nor the rest of scripture. Across the spectrum of God’s word we see a pattern of integrating into the culture, while both displaying and declaring the gospel message and so offering a counter-cultural message in the midst of the culture. As residents of the kingdom of God, we find ourselves living now as we will live then, when God’s kingdom is fully consummated. This kingdom living foreshadows God’s coming kingdom and exists as a kind of gospel apologetic among non-believers.

2. Be a friend to sinners, not just friendly to sinners.

I think it’s important to note that Jesus was not just friendly to those who did not believe. More than that, he was a friend to them. He was often invited to be at their parties, he was regularly engaged in friendly, yet curiosity-driven conversation. Too often we miss the importance of genuinely loving, and befriending, those who do not share our beliefs.

When we befriend only those who believe like we do, we communicate (often non-verbally) that only believers have value. We diminish the image of God that is present in every person – regardless of belief, and we set ourselves up as somehow morally superior to those who disagree with us. Each of these responses is an example of an anti-gospel at work in our hearts. We must be cautious to not just be friendly when we are around non-believers, and make sure that we are, in fact, offering genuine and authentic friendship to them.

3. Be a friend and share the gospel.

Finally, it is imperative that our friendships with non-believers be real, authentic friendships and not simply a means to an end. I cannot count the number of times I was told to be friends with non-believers so that I can share the gospel with them. This is a tragic categorical mistake. Rather than befriending non-believers so that we can share the gospel with them, I would suggest that we befriend non-believers and share the gospel with them. The phraseology is pretty similar, but the distinction is enormous.

When we befriend people, so that we can accomplish something, we turn them from people into projects, and we turn friendship into a sales technique. In short, we have become bait and switch salesman that use something as genuine as friendship as a means of enticing unwitting people, even if what we hope for them is the very best. What’s most awful about this technique is the deceit that undergirds it. We hold our friendship out as a carrot, but it masks our real goal of getting to something else. Even when gospel sharing is our goal, we cheapen the gospel we share – and the friendship we offer – when we engage this way.

Instead, let us recognize that every person is created in the image of God, and is therefore infinitely valuable. Let’s recognize that every person is fascinating, and has a compelling story. Let’s treat each person as God treats them – as recipients of his grace, and befriend them simply because the love of God in us compels us to love everyone, and the grace of God displayed in our lives has transformed us to a person who is intimately interested in others. As we offer genuine friendship, then, let us certainly make sure that the gospel is a part of that friendship. We share the gospel with our friends just like we share every other important part of our lives with them. In fact, we wouldn’t be good friends unless we shared with them the most important, life-changing truth we know, but let’s not cheapen it with cheap sales techniques that are cloaked in deceit.

balloons

Celebrate, Pastor.

Pastor’s, let’s be honest, as much as difficulties in the church can often trouble us, we are naturally problem-solvers. Whether it’s dissecting a biblical text, designing a discipleship strategy, helping unravel spiritual needs in a church member, or serving a family as they search for hope in the midst of grief, we like to approach and address problems. It’s among the most consistent things we do for and with the local church. With that said, I have noticed that many pastors struggle with celebration. We move from one problem to the next with little thought of relaxing and celebrating what God has done. In fact, many of us spend most of our time looking ahead at what we think God should do, rather than celebrating what he has already done. The problem with this approach is that it can burn our people out. More importantly than that, it doesn’t resonate well with the Christian experience. Christ came to give us life – abundant life. His yoke is easy. He guards our heart and our mind. He calls us to be still and know that he is God. I could go on and on. Yes God wants us to push forward. Yes, his mission must be priority. Yes this world is not perfect, and we are to advance his gospel as he heals the world. However, all of that is a means to an end, namely the end of being adopted by God, resting in his grace and enjoying life in him. When we constantly push our churches for more and more, without celebrating what God has done, we subconsciously instruct our people that life in Christ is a works-based faith, with little room for resting in him.

What should we do about it, then? In truth there is a host of things that could be done, but in short, let me encourage you to share stories of transformation from the pulpit/platform. I have done this a number of ways, and it can be as simple as bringing someone on the platform and interviewing them for 3-5 minutes about God’s work in their lives. We have found, however, that one of the best options available is to share stories through video with the church. This doesn’t have to be expensive (in fact, it can be almost free), and can be pretty simple to accomplish, and can go a long way to encouraging your church and can even be used to tell the story of God’s work to the community at large. It really can have a powerful impact. Additionally, to be clear, we didn’t come up with this. We have followed the lead of plenty of other churches who have done the same. I just want to continue to share what we have learned, and what has been helpful for us.

Find a method to record, whether it’s something as simple as your iPhone, or a more expensive option, and sit down with some folks, and ask them to share their story. We have found that a small investment ($200 or less) in a wireless microphone, and making sure that lighting is good goes a long way to making the video quality strong. In fact, I would go so far as to say that good lighting and good audio is almost more important than an expensive camera. Camera technology has advanced so much that your iPhone can record incredible videos, if you supplement it with a good microphone and good lighting. Nevertheless, edit that video down to 2-3 minutes, using some simple software, and show it in your services. Even more importantly, though, is the need to share the videos through your various social media channels. This not only helps spread the celebration throughout the week, but it gives your church a great opportunity to share with their friends and family, and many of them may be unchurched. As a pastor/church leader, I am constantly on the look-out for ways to help our people facilitate face-to-face, person-to-person advertising for our church. I would much prefer investing time and energy in that, then paying for traditional forms of advertising.

We recently completed a 4 week sermon series entitled, “I love my church.” Essentially it was a 4 week series on a theology of the church. We created a couple of these videos for every worship service, and then shared them via social media. Below is an example of one of these videos. Watch that and tell me that’s not incredibly exciting!

Another helpful idea that we use is to show stories of gospel transformation before each baptism. This allows the church to know each person being baptized a little better and it helps baptism become an even clearer testimony of faith. When we share the videos on social media, it turns that testimony into a viral statement as the one being baptized shares their story of faith with friends and family. Here’s an example of a man in our church who was powerfully changed by the gospel.

Pastor or church leader, I hope you understand that this is not that difficult, can be nearly free and yet can have a significant impact on the congregation that you help to lead. Let’s be troubleshooters, yes, but let’s also take the time to celebrate what God has done and is doing in our churches, and watch as he uses that to encourage our people and draw more people to faith in him.