January 2011


One of the privileges of my role with Wesley Seminary is to connect regularly with denominational leaders.  While Wesley Seminary at IWU is officially part of one denomination (The Wesleyan Church) and over a third of our students are Wesleyan pastors, we serve students from over 25 other denominations as well.

I’m afraid the more cynical are quick to characterize denominations as dinosaurs facing extinction, and denominational leaders as bureaucrats with their own personal agendas to promote and protect.  Now my recent experience may be wonderfully atypical, but I have found denominations and their leaders to be sincerely interested in helping pastors and local churches be more missionally effective.  They are not dying, though they face very real challenges.  If they are drifting (and we know how rarely drift takes us in the right direction) they are intentionally making efforts to address the drift.

Let’s take my denomination, The Wesleyan Church, as an example.  Recently a couple of thousand pastors and spouses met in Jacksonville, FL for “The Gathering.”  I was impressed that so many came with a fervency and expectancy to meet with God.  Hallway conversations were not preoccupied with political posturing but encouragement to fulfill our calling to God’s family and God’s work.

Our denominational leaders took a decidedly behind-the-scenes role, and when they did speak it was to communicate the results of their “listening tour” involving over 2000 pastors and their own prayerful commitment to sense God’s leading for the future of The Wesleyan Church.  They avoided “happy talk” in presenting our current reality while being appropriately optimistic about current bright spots of ministry.  And they cast a bold and specific vision for the next few years with a convicting invitation for us to be involved.  It was clear that they viewed the local church as the front lines and the denomination’s role to support and equip.

Following The Gathering our Seminary faculty was invited to dinner with Dr. Jo Anne Lyon, the Chair of the Board of General Superintendents for The Wesleyan Church.  It was a wide-ranging, free-flowing conversation…we all felt the freedom to fully and honestly participate.  Yet there was also a clear sense of direction of priorities that had arisen out of the time spent listening to pastors, and more importantly, the time spent listening to God.

The following list is illustrative (not exhaustive) of some of the focal points of our discussion about how our Seminary could join with the denomination in supporting pastors and local churches for Kingdom advancement.  They are from my scribbled notes and not something officially published.  Here is a sampler…

…Create a way for pastors to affordably access a life-long learning process that will nourish the spirit and develop the skills necessary for effective, sustainable ministry.

…Contribute to the development of diverse (gender, ethnicity and age) local congregations that effectively reach their communities and reflect heaven (Revelation 7:9)

…Assist churches in determining whether they are “healthy” and how they might build vitality for greater connection with and contribution to their communities.

…Respond to the reality that the church is increasingly global, and the growth of the church internationally has created a tremendous need for national leaders and contextualized education.

…Fuel the development of church plants, especially in the great urban areas of our nation.

While this discussion was specifically related to The Wesleyan Church, the list strikes me as representative of the challenges and opportunities faced by most denominations.

I left that dinner thankful for denominational leaders such as Jo Anne Lyon.  I also left thankful that I serve with a faculty of outstanding scholars who have a tremendous heart for and commitment to the local church.  One example of the way our faculty is seeking to act on their desire to serve the church is the recent Resource Section created on our website (http://seminary.indwes.edu/Resources/) full of free downloads available to all who seek to strengthen local churches.

When denominations (and Seminaries) lose sight of the fact they serve local churches for Kingdom purposes, the result is a drift that leads to a slow death.  When they partner to empower local churches and their leaders, the opportunity for enduring and increasing fruitfulness is enhanced.

A few years ago, when I was serving as the Lead Pastor of a local church, I experienced a strange compulsion. This compulsion surfaced just after the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which you and I celebrated last week. Along with many admirers of King, I have a deep appreciation for the power and profundity of his Dream Speech. Influenced by his words, I wrote out a dream for the local church I was leading at the time and called it Our Dream Church.

King, great preacher that he was, knew that words have the power to convey a compelling vision that dives deep into the human soul and stays lodged there. Carefully crafted, prayerfully wrought words have the potential to change hearts, develop communities, and transform the world. This is why we preach the Gospel.

I shared the Our Dream Church speech below in a sermon to my local church several years ago. God, I believe, used these plain old ordinary words to tear down and rebuild our values so that they aligned more with the kingdom of God than the kingdom of the world. In time, this dream became a reality in the life of our church.

While you may not resonate with Our Dream Church, I implore you to invite God to give you His dream for the church you serve and/or the life you live. I pray that as you head into a new year of life and ministry, God’s dream would crystallize in your heart. I pray also that you would have the audacity to put His dream to words and share it with your congregation, family, and friends, no matter how ridiculously far from reality those words may seem.

Words have power. Words shape lives. Words change communities. Words transform the world. This is why so many of us dare to share God’s dream through the words of a Sunday sermon. Here are some of the words God used to shape me and the church I once led:

Our Dream Church

We have a dream of a church that sees a human being not based upon the level of that person’s income or education but based upon their value in the eyes of God,

…A church that is unashamedly committed to Christ and because of that commitment is radically dedicated to loving all kinds of people with all kinds of issues in all kinds of ways,

…A church that is not consumed by petty deliberations about the color of the sanctuary carpet because she is too consumed by the mission of love Christ has called us to live,

…A church that sees overwhelming needs in our community and world and instead of turning away in fear and defeat runs right toward the needs by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, and caring for the sick, the addicted, and the depressed,

…A church that helps seekers become servants of Christ, a church that is led not by perfect people but by people perfectly submitted to the Holy Spirit and guided by the Holy Book,

We have a dream of a church that is not content to simply share a pew together but who are open to share life together, a church full of people who refuse to hold grudges because they’re too quick to forgive, who refuse to gossip because they’re too busy extending grace, who refuse to judge because they’re too busy loving,

…A church where people can worship by clapping their hands, stomping their feet, and raising their hands or being still, bowing their heads, and closing their mouths, a church that sees true religious devotion not as mere ritual but as love for the orphan and the widow, the successful and the struggling, the friend and the enemy,

A church who measures the level of their success not by how many people show up on Sunday but by how many people are living out Christ’s mission on Monday,

We have a dream of a church that refuses to put limits on what God can do because she has the fearless, reckless audacity to believe that God has the power to do absolutely anything!

 By Lenny Luchetti

Another MA in Leadership cohort launched today.  Welcome to all our new students to the seminary!

Today we commemorate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.  MLK was a great hero, and for many reasons. He was an inspiring preacher, an effective social activist, a national healer and reconciler, a critical prophet, and ultimately a martyr.  However, I want to mention an additional aspect of his legacy that is too often forgotten or ignored: Martin Luther King as Christian theologian.  The claim I want to make today is that MLK models at least part of what it means to be a Christian theologian.

It is uncontroversial to assert that MLK was a Christian pastor and preacher, and so drew on biblical themes and traditional Christian language to make his great public  appeals for civil rights.  But people both within and without the church don’t always take him serious as a Christian thinker, with whose ideas we must reckon.  In fact, all our talk of MLK as inspiring preacher, activist, and martyr often functions to domesticate and tame him, to turn him into a hero whom we emulate and imitate, but do not really heed. But Dr. King challenges the way we think and speak the gospel.  This challenge is a theological challenge, and not merely an ethical or pragmatic one.  It concerns the very meaning of the gospel message!

What was that challenge?  Well, there’s much that could be said.  But let me mention two brief things that I learned from Dr. King about the practice of Christian theology.  The first is that the gospel cannot be relegated to the private sphere.  The privatizing of the gospel is a central phenomenon of modern culture, perceived as necessity both for the safety of democracy and for the survival of the church.  Politics doesn’t belong in church.  Christianity concerns the soul.  Politics and religion don’t mix.  Americans both within and without the church repeat these mantras, although we apply these rules selectively in order to block the politics and/or religions that we don’t like.

The work of MLK, both in deed and in word, challenges these assumptions.  Our safe distinctions between public and private do not stand in the face of gross injustice.  The Christian gospel does speak to the concrete realities of our time, not only in our private “spiritual” lives but in the public “political” realm.  To say that Christianity only concerns the soul is to give our bodies over to the state — which is not so bad for those who are running the state, but a disastrous reduction of the gospel for those who are under the thumb of state and society.  I learned these lessons in a palpable way from Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which appealed explicitly to the Christian doctrine of natural law in defense of civil disobedience.  For King, the Christian gospel spoke directly to the sociopolitical realm.  And so to heed his voice today requires that we let go of our safe reduction of the gospel to the private sphere.

The second lesson I learned from MLK is that theology emerges out of the practices of the people of God. When MLK penned the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he was not composing a treatise on the justifiability of civil disobedience.  That is not to say it is not an erudite defense; after all, MLK did receive a PhD in systematic theology from Boston University.  But what makes the Letter a classic is that it articulates the reasons and aims of actual social practices.  To me, that is what theology is all about.

The theologian’s task — and it is a task laid upon all church leaders — is to articulate why Christians do what they do.  The whole Christian community is called to minister.  The ordained minister is called to articulate, both to the church and to the world, the meaning and significance of this common ministry.  And if the first thing I learned from Dr. King is right, then the ministry of the Christian community includes not only so-called cure of souls but also speaking and acting prophetically in the sociopolitical sphere.  Christian theologians should articulate the reasons not only for prayer, preaching, small groups, baptisms, etc., but also for giving, voting, debating, marching, etc.  Since theology emerges out of the practices of the people of God, theologians of all kinds must participate in these activities, just like Dr. King did.  But then again, since theology emerges out of the practices of the people of God, theology starves if these practices are themselves not taking place.  So heeding this second lesson (which concerns the nature of theological work) depends on heeding the first lesson (which concerns the nature of the gospel itself).  It is my prayer that as we commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. day, we would not only remember and celebrate his great actions, but also heed his theological challenge.

Any thoughts?

This page contains resources for pastoral ministry.  Check it out!

http://seminary.indwes.edu/Resources/

The new cohorts in the MDIV program began their pilgrimage today on campus.  It looks like we will have an online cohort going into Missional Church this Spring with about 17 students, while 4 new students will join the cohort taking Leadership onsite on Thursdays this Spring.  You can see Dr. Smith, president of the university, giving a great devotional to kick off the class, which Dr. Lenny Luchetti is teaching.  Thanks to the Lord for His continued grace to us!

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Who among us has not made a New Year’s resolution at some time in their life?  If we are serious Christ-imitators, there are many things we want to change or improve about ourselves.  And, most of our churches have plenty of room for improvement as well, if we are to truly be Christ’s incarnational body on earth.

But change is hard, whether individual or institutional.  One website suggests that 80% of all New Year’s resolutions die by January 31.  And, if the resolution involves physical fitness (exercise, losing weight, etc.), 90% fail by January 15.[i]

This year, let me suggest that rather than resolving to change something old, work at seeing something old… new.  Rather than change what you’re doing, see what you’re doing in a new way.

Isadore Sharp, founder of the highly successful Four Seasons hotel chain, was recently asked about the reason behind his success.  His response?  “Learn how to see things that other people don’t see.”[ii]

Scripture speaks frequently about having eyes, but not seeing what is near to us; ears but not hearing what is next to us.[iii] I suggest that the reason most students are enrolled at Wesley Seminary is to learn how to see things that others do not see.  And, it is happening!  Students are learning how to see new possibilities for effective ministry in the churches they will serve or start.  Students are learning how to see better ways to meet people’s needs in Christ’s name.  They are learning how to see the Great Commission fulfilled in their community.  And these student-travelers are learning how to help others see what God wants those others to see.

As we begin a new year together, I would like to share with you a story.  It’s a true story set high in the Colorado mountains.  It reminds me of the importance of keeping our eyes open to seeing new opportunities in old situations—seeing what others do not see…

“GOLD! GOLD!” were the shouts echoing through the hills near the town of Leadville, Colorado during the 1860’s.  The country was in the midst of the gold rush, and men by the thousands searched for their fortunes in the bottom of their panning tins.  But sixteen years later the ruins of Leadville told of a boomtown gone bust.  In the nearby “California Gulch” (named after the gold dreams of the 49ers out west), only remnants of abandoned cabins and sluice boxes remained.  A few die-hard prospectors could still be found rewashing the gulch gravel for pocket money.

The California Gulch had a nasty reputation among the veteran prospectors.  “It’s that black sand!” they complained.  “It gums up the riffles in sluice boxes.  It fills panning holes we dug the day before.  It stains and ruins clothes.”  The black sand seemed to cover every gold nugget with grime and grit, and make mockery of any attempt to find one’s fortune.  While prospectors came to Leadville in great numbers, they soon left discouraged, cursing the black sand, and moving on in search of easier streams to riches.

Into the remnants of the abandoned mines and sluice boxes of the California Gulch came two mining men, William H. Stevens and Alvinus B. Wood.  Convinced there was still gold beneath the surface, they began buying up old claims.  Initial gold finds heightened their efforts and expectations.  But soon they, too, encountered the problems of the earlier prospectors.  The black sand forced delays and hampered progress until it appeared the entire project would fall victim to the wretched grit.

One day Stevens decided to send a sample of “that black stuff” to the East Coast for analysis.  To their surprise, the men found the black sand was lead carbonate …  loaded with silver!

Stevens and Wood staked lode claims throughout the California Gulch and opened the Rock Mine, the first producing silver mine in the district.  They became fabulously rich in a matter of years!

The black sand …  which miners and prospectors had cursed as an abominable intrusion in the pursuit of their golden dreams, contained wealth that would have made them rich beyond their wildest imaginations!  The sandy California Gulch yielded a pittance in gold… but a fortune in silver.

All around you are opportunities hidden in the “black sand.”  They are opportunities others have not seen.  Some of those opportunities are people in your church.  Some are people in your community.  Some are ideas.  As you think about this coming year, remember this true story of the possibilities around you… if you have eyes to see.  Jesus told us to see the fields that are white unto harvest!  To see what Christ sees…what Christ wants us to see… and what Christ wants us to help others to see.


[iii] See: Deut. 29:2-4, Isa. 6:9, Isa. 43:8, Jer. 5:21, Ezek. 12:2, Matt. 13:13-15, Mark 4:12, Mark 8:17, Luke 8:10, John 12:37-41, Acts 9:7, Acts 28:25-27, Rom. 11:8-19, Rev. 3:18.