Emerge and Restore

Exploring faith, God, and church in the 21st century...

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Location: Kansas, United States

Saturday, July 02, 2005


I've been studying theology of community lately and in conjunction have been spending lots of time personally in the Word recently, trying to mold, cajole, chisel and otherwise re-make my heart into that of a true minister. But I've also tried to read in order to grow intellectually, so I dove into N.T. Wright's The Challenge of Jesus. And I hit a snag. I've heard a lot of great stuff about this book, but the first third of it failed to rock my world. Suddenly, out of nowhere came a paragraph that nearly caused me to immediately resign from my job and go apply at Burger King (the only other thing I'm qualified to do, I think). This may not sound like a big deal to you, in fact this may sound like delirious ramblings...but I dropped the book and spent the rest of the day deep in thought.

Here goes: Wright makes a statement to the effect of: "People will put up with all kinds of theological weirdness...but start messing with their symbols, and watch out." He argues that the 1st-century Jewish system of religion was more about maintaining cultural and national identity through symbols of religion rather than being about a vibrant, life-changing, culture-impacting faith through relationship with the Creator. Those symbols were familiar things like Sabbath, Torah, the temple, feasts, purity rituals, etc. These things were meant to be beautiful expressions of faith that served to connect God’s people with God himself. But by the first century they had become less…they had become symbols of God’s people-in-waiting, waiting for the coming of their “Messiah” who would overthrow their Roman oppressors and restore them to their rightful place as world super-powers and rulers over the heathens who had exploited them for so long. So those once-holy means of connecting with God had been turned into symbols…symbols of pride, symbols of greed, symbols of coveting earthly power. Jesus came not to desecrate those holy things, but to tear down their earthly understanding of them. And that’s why he died…not because he offended some Jewish legalists with his grace and mercy…but because he attacked their mistaken symbols of faith, and they felt that their entire identity as Jews was under attack. They saw Jesus as someone who was trying to take away what they thought made them Jewish (when their obedience to and love for him should have been their identity)…they thought he would make them less Jewish.

And therein we learn the risk of messing with peoples’ symbols of faith. And yet I feel very strongly that the church has deified our symbols nearly as much as the ancient Jews did. I think it’s why we struggle so mightily for change, but change almost always caused strife and discord, and usually broken fellowship.

And that is why I’m tempted to give up…at least give up my striving within the established (i.e. “institutional”) church. You see, I’ve always struggled somewhat as a minister…I’ve never quite fit in. I’m usually labeled as something of a “progressive” or “liberal” voice (which one you use depends on whether you like me or not). But the thing is, it’s not because of my theology. I’m really pretty mainstream, not too out there, not too threatening. Scripture is incredibly important to me, as is the church. The reason I don’t fit in is my methodology. I don’t care for church buildings, pulpits, potlucks, administrative tasks, obligatory worship, or consumer spirituality (to make a VERY abbreviated list). Most of the ways of “doing” church that I see everyday and have seen for years I feel are inappropriate and counter-productive. If I was in charge of a faith community, things would look RADICALLY different. Yet those things I would change without a second thought are symbols to most people within the established church. Many people would literally feel less Christian without a church building to store their faith in. When I challenge people to do things differently, I’m challenging their methodology, not theology, yet it still often angers them. They’ve become attached to symbols…not Jesus.

And so I feel doomed to be an oddball, a thorn in the side of people who just want to keep things the same. I guess I had envisioned a time when ministry would be comfortable and I could lead happy, satisfied, spiritual people in reaching out to the community…but that illusion has been shattered. I see now that if I continue working for established churches, it will likely involve constant discomfort, tension, and disagreement, because I feel called to challenge those symbols…but maybe that is my calling…not comfort.


Blogger jayme said...

Does that mean that discomfort gets to be my calling too? :) Wel...I think you are brilliant...and I think God has called you. And you aren't a thorn in MY side...and I think I'm grateful to have you helping me see Jesus differently. Just remember...you think I'd make a good jew...so be gentle with me. I love you.

2:34 PM  
Blogger Matt P said...

I really think thorns are necessary.....for awhile I wasn't sure about your teaching but I can honestly say a year later that I am 1000 percent closer to God than I was when you got here (you too Jayme)......I don't even know if I really knew what it meant to be a Christ follower (not that I have a total grasp on it now)....I spent way too much time following rituals and I thank you for getting me to think relationally...I really hope that you will find a place (and to be honest I really hope Emporia is it) that you can minister to....you are in my prayers.

3:16 PM  
Blogger James said...


Jesus told us that: "A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master. It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, and the slave like his master"

I hear your words and know that you are on the path following Jesus. He never said it would be easy in fact he warned us it would be difficult and that we should be absolutely committed to following Him before we even begin the journey.

I read the other two comments and am encouraged at a new generation of Christians who are not satisfied with going through the motions and following tradition and ritual rather are committed to becoming like Christ. Thank you all for your thoughts.

In Christ,

4:42 PM  
Blogger Kc said...

Let’s see….loving supportive wife, obvious spiritual growth in the community, supportive friends and fans, prepared by God in every way. Yeah I’d quit too. I’m big, I’m mean and I’ll kick yer butt! :-o (That intimidation is meant in the nicest way)

Seriously Preacher try to be patient, continue provoking love and the power of the symbols will fade away. Be great by serving and let the Lord take charge of His Church. You are one of the few who have a clear perspective. I think that has something to do with “light of the world” or “salt” or something like that (grin). James is dead on. You’re right on track. ;-)

5:36 PM  
Blogger CL said...

Great post Neal, I think you are saying what we are all thinking my brother! Keep plowing the tough soil. Blessings!

6:40 PM  
Blogger Joyce said...

Even "Pot Lucks"???????? Awwwww, come on!! Just kidding. I love your post. I think you have a very clear understanding of what most of us are only beginning to even think about. I am hopeful that maybe we can come there more often. We'll see.....

But hang in there. Or quit and move here and we'll do house church together! :)

8:48 PM  
Blogger Josh McVey said...

This makes me think of the excellent sermon I heard this Sunday about not practicing what we preach but practicing WHO we preach. We loose God's character somewhere along the way and we turn to symbols as the path of least resistance. Be careful thinking like this might change someone’s life.

6:32 AM  
Anonymous Brad Giddens said...

Welcome to the other side, brother. You made it. Prophets have always been assassinated and always will be. It is the nature of the business. We are exposers of sin, and people don't really care to have their sin exposed, especially the sin of worshiping created things (symbols) instead of the creator. There are wise and loving ways of weaning people away from their idols, but they must be weaned, even if it causes turmoil. Jesus did many things on the Sabbath, knowing full well it would create a ruckus. But he still did it, many times right in their face, you could say. Knowing the when, where and how must be bathed in lots of prayer. Your heart must be pure. Your eyes must be clear, no logs. Then you can stand and call people away from their comforts and to the Comforter.

Brother, it is the sick that need a physician. Don't quit. Don't seek easy ground to work. Get some tough skin and keep calling people to genuine righteousness, holiness and faith. It may be more difficult, but I guarantee it will be more satisfying in the long run.

8:56 AM  
Blogger daniel greeson said...

I completely understand Neal. Completely. my prayers go up for you. All I can say is press on brother. Press on.

9:03 AM  
Blogger Franklin Wood said...

Hey Neal,
Just remember...try not to gauge your "calling" on results! I struggle with this, too, because we are "professional" ministers...it's a paid job for us (besides being a calling, too!) So we feel we must produce.
But if you look at the prophets, sometimes they got NO results...not a single convert! And sometimes the prophets that RAN from God (Jonah) converted whole cities!
Your calling may be "to be crucified with Christ" in dragging down idols!
Hey, brother, stick in there! We need more "voices calling out" like yours! Be assured...people are listening.

10:21 AM  
Blogger jettybetty said...

If you are an oddball, then I am too.

Really, I do think you are called to ministry--and I believe God is already using you more than you may know!

Keep the faith brother!


7:27 PM  
Blogger KentF said...

Neal - thanks for your kind words over on Wade's sight regarding books. I think God has tremendous things in store for you - but the masses may likely miss it.

5:59 AM  
Blogger Keith Brenton said...

Neal, I'm catching up with my blog-reading habit after being out of town, so forgive my comment on a past post.

Consider the fact that symbols still have value. They are gifts from God as surely as the realities they represent.

I don't think your job is necessarily to chuck the symbols. Your job is to remind folks that the symbols are not the realities.

Does that make sense?

5:05 PM  

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