Jesus is the best thing I’ve ever come across.

Jesus is the best thing I’ve ever come across.

He’s perfect. Not just in a moral sense (though he is and his purity is a theological necessity) but he’s the perfect mix of awe-inspiring strength and tear-jerking mercy. He always demands justice while maintaining a posture of unmerited kindness. He puts the arrogant in their place and yet gently coxes the outcasts out of hiding. He is unflappable in the face of overwhelming opposition; he naps in the face of hurricanes.

He’s the most interesting man in the world.

He is unlike anything we have ever seen and yet is accessible, relatable. He’s intensely serious yet relaxed, unhurried. He has every right to be judgmental, dismissive and distant and yet moves into our neighborhood, lives in obscurity, voluntarily submits himself to fabricated accusations, corrupt proceedings and excruciating torture – as a ransom for those who don’t deserve it.

He had no personal agenda, never once did he make a calculated effort to advance his career. He assumed the role of a servant, even though he was the anointed king.

Jesus is the literal, historical incarnation of the best parts of every fictional hero ever written.

He’s Robin Hood.  He’s Luke Skywalker. He’s Superman.

Except he’s real.

What kind of hero dies for the villains?

But even more than that, he’s MLK without the sexual impropriety, He’s Lincoln without the political calculus. He’s the better version of Jonah, Moses, David…

He’s Adam 2.0.

He is the prototype that every politician, CEO, parent, coach, doctor should aspire to.

I love him. I want to be just like him. I want to be on his team and walk next to him every day.

I can’t believe the good news that I am functionally, spiritually, legally connected to him. My Union with Christ is a mystery and a blessing to profound too comprehend.

If the Houston Astros planted a church...

I have been a Houston Astros fan my entire life – a birthright handed down to me by my father, who, as a brand-new Texas resident, not knowing a soul in the entire state, would drive around his new city with only the Astros radio broadcast as company. As a family, we have endured decades of futility and disappointment but, last October, we experienced one glorious season as World Champions! We have wandered with the ‘Stros through the wilderness and have finally emerged in the promised land!

2014 was about as bad as it had ever been - the Astros were in the middle of 3 consecutive, 100-loss seasons – widely regarded as the laughing stock of Major League Baseball. That was the context of the now famous prediction that was made on the June 30, 2014 cover of Sports Illustrated - the historically pathetic Houston Astros would win the 2017 World Series, just three seasons away. I still have a copy of that magazine. I devoured that article – curious to see if this was a tongue-in-cheek jab at my team or a bold sports prophecy.

What I learned (and what was fleshed out in greater detail in a book called “Astroball,” published after the World Series) had led to the author’s confidence to make such an outrageous claim, was the Astros organization’s commitment to looking at baseball through a completely new lens.

More than any other sport, baseball has the largest (and loudest) base of purists and traditionalists. This segment believes the game has a certain pace, a certain history and a certain system of values that sets it apart from other sports and therefore, should be revered and left untainted. This attitude (combined with the economic realities of small market teams, salary caps, luxury taxes, etc.) has led to an environment where innovation is not a driving force.

As a result, the Astros, as a part of the larger baseball culture, were steeped in these values, suspicious of change and largely fine with operating inside the status quo. This also meant however, that little to no progress toward winning was being made.

There were, however, a handful of baseball revolutionaries – reformers, who were challenging this system. This crusade is well documented in the book “Moneyball” – which catalogues the history of the sabermetric movement through the eyes of the Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane. The Astros were one of the first teams to take the principles of Moneyball and implement them throughout the entire organization.

The Astros’ shift in philosophy began with the admission that the old-school wing or the traditionalists inside the organization had a limited or at least a heavily biased view of how to win baseball games and therefore managed pitch counts, evaluated talent and drafted players with limited or biased metrics in mind.  Because their values were short-sided, their measurements were skewed. The Astros had the presence of mind to take a step back and say, “this is how it’s always been done but is there a different way – an alternative value system that will go unnoticed by other teams and give us a competitive advantage?

This is where my worlds began to collide as a diehard Astros fan and as a church planter in the South. What if, in the same way, that the baseball purist misses the value of a player with a less-than-ideal size, but walks regularly and steals bases – could the religious establishment miss the value in neighborhood based missional communities or bi-vocational pastors or a non-revenue-producing college ministry?

Has the Church developed blind spots because of tenure or fatigue or tradition? Has this led to flawed metrics of success or a misdiagnosis of the culture? What if the Church had become too intimate with partisan politics or too comfortable with middle-class sensibilities to notice that the values (and therefore the measurements) of the kingdom of heaven should be overtly different than the status quo of the surrounding culture?

The metaphors for Jesus’s kingdom in the New Testament suggest that the reality of normative gospel growth is small, slow and incremental and yet our worship environments are built to be large, flashy and professional. Jesus, our founder took the posture of a foot-washing servant while our leaders are promoted as celebrity gurus. The early church grew among the messy margins of society while we continually value strategic platforms and cold pragmatism. We verbally assent to the doctrine “of priesthood of all believers” and yet structure our churches so only professional clergy can meaningfully participate. We claim to value missional sending and yet all of our measurements of success revolve around seating capacity. The Bible clearly upholds ethnic harmony as a kingdom value and yet the Church remains as segregated as any other social institution.

The Church is supposed to be a counter-culture, an alternative city within the city and yet we measure success the same way that any Fortune 500 company would understand. How can this be? Is this vicious hypocrisy or sloppy inconsistency? To quote Billy Beane, “It's hard not to be romantic about baseball. This kind of thing, it's fun for the fans. It sells tickets and hot dogs. Doesn't mean anything...”

Martin Luther and the reformers wrote the ecclesial version of Moneyball 500 years ago, perhaps it’s time for the Church in the South to be like the Astros and actually implement these things and stop worrying about tickets and hot dogs.

Go ‘Stros.

 

The Resistance

I was speaking recently with another minister in our city, lamenting the fact that so much of Southern Christianity is shallow at best and counterfeit at worst. Christianity in the South is largely viewed as an accessory to be added to a life already filled with accessories aimed at cultivating an aura of wealth and propriety (to be fair, all people from all cultures chase these idols but it is a uniquely Southern instinct - in our secular age - do this with church life instead of jettisoning it altogether).

Perhaps it is because Christianity has held a place of prominence and prestige for so long in the South, that the gospel has become domesticated from its offensive roots. So much of the church’s messaging is now targeted toward comfort and safety (despite living in one of the most luxurious and secure times and places in the world). The Church, in large part, has become therapy for stressed out, white suburbanites where social and political ideologies are massaged and not challenged. In a real sense, the church has presented spiritual reality as a portfolio to be managed rather than a war to fight. And therein lies the real danger, most Christians are living in a way that is incongruent with not only their true identity (in Christ) but the urgent reality of spiritual warfare.

During World War II, Vichy France was the headquarters of the displaced French government after Paris was occupied by the Third Reich. Vichy came to represent the legally recognized administration of France while in actuality, the Vichy government were de facto Nazi collaborators who assisted in advancing Hitler’s agenda. What politically and militarily happened in France in the 1940s has spiritually happened in the South – nominal Christianity has capitulated to the enemy (materialism, white nationalism, systemic injustice, secularization, etc.) and now promotes that agenda rather than the kingdom of heaven.

If the “front lines” of missionary activity are pioneer efforts into unreached contexts, then perhaps ministry in the American Bible Belt is more akin to a civilian resistance during enemy occupation. In the same way that the French Resistance or the “Maquis” laid the ground work for the eventual Allied advancement - not only by fighting the enemy but providing hope that there is a different way to live - so should the church.

Rather than existing as the spiritual chaplain for the cultural status quo, what if the church postured herself as the resistance movement? What if the church was the counterculture that refused to give in to the dominate force of the day? What if there were communities that didn’t surrender to the Left and didn’t capitulate to the Right - that simultaneously stood up for the underprivileged and maintained historic orthodoxy?

This is a much more difficult way of doing church, and it’s hard to consistently swim against the current, but one day The Liberator will come. Until then may we fight the good fight and remain faithful to the end.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



                   

 

 

 

Our Southern, Christian Heritage

It is easy to be disoriented by the South. Underneath the charm of sweet tea and bow ties, sear sucker onesies and SEC tailgates lies a devastated region. At its foundation, Southern culture was designed to accrue wealth for Christians – with a work force that was considered to be sub-human. This stunningly efficient economic strategy was able to flourish because of a predominate worldview that normalized and then institutionalized Christian hypocrisy. To a large degree, the church in the South either directly promoted or passively allowed the creation of a society that required (at minimum):

·      The systematic abduction of African people.

·      The enslavement of those people into an uncompensated labor force.

·      The political will to secede from the United States in order to maintain control of this economic model.

·      The human and material resources dedicated towards the violent overthrow the United States government.

This was apparently done with enough cultural consent that the general public saw no inconsistency with Biblical doctrine or ethics.

The ripple effects of this theological compromise on the current spiritual landscape of the South cannot be overstated. Obviously, tremendous strides have been made - both socially and legislatively to correct many of the evils born out of this theological perversion and there are notable examples of prophetic resistance, but the fact remains that the South’s original sin of slavery (and the theological foundation that justified it) set into motion the perfect storm of white supremacy and nominal Christianity.

This paradigm is responsible for the current church dynamic that largely identifies as a white, middle-class, conservative voting bloc, rather than the multi-ethnic missionary movement described in Ephesians or the eschatological reality revealed in Revelation. To be clear, every church in the South is not inherently racist or theologically compromised, but it must be noted that the “Christian” heritage of the Bible Belt carries significant barriers to or at least a great deal of confusion about the gospel of Jesus.

In order to be a faithful witness of the gospel and develop disciples that actually embody what Jesus stood for, we must be aware of these specific cultural blind spots:

·      the legitimization of nominal Christianity

·      the normalization of mono-ethnic communities

·      the ignorance of or apathy towards social justice

·      the separation of doctrine from its ethical implications

As we work to plant new churches and established churches refine their ministries so that the South can be saturated with the gospel - we must directly confront these areas or the same worldview that justified slavery will come for us too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anchor # 10 - House Churches

The 10 Anchors of Union Church are theological convictions and philosophies of ministry that we are tied to in order to remain faithful to our core values of Gospel, Community and Mission. These Anchors inform everything from our partnerships and budget to our church government and Sunday liturgy. We believe that a strong commitment to these Anchors will create a culture that will bring God glory and us joy.

Anchor # 10   - House Churches

We are committed to a missional community (house church) model and rhythms. One of the largest impediments to holistic discipleship is the cultural misunderstanding of church as a weekly event to attend rather than a missional family to belong to. The former sees Jesus as simply one aspect of life that can be catered to the particular preferences of the individual. The latter sees Jesus as Lord of all – Monday through Saturday, where preferences are set aside for the health of the group.

In an effort to dismantle that paradigm we want to be intentional with our language – we don’t “go to church,” we “go to the worship gathering,” for example. If our basic theology defines the church as a “gospel community on mission” then small groups of 10-25 people constitute a church as well (on a micro-level). We see this “house church” language used multiple times in the New Testament (Philemon 1:2, Acts 2:46, 1 Cor. 16:19, Col. 4:15). Our vision for Union Church is not to only be a weekly assembly of believers but rather a network of house churches, strategically scattered around Auburn and Opelika and the AU campus, missionally investing in neighborhoods, apartment complexes and schools in specific ways so that every person in Auburn and Opelika has a daily encounter with Jesus in word and deed.

Under the banner of holistic discipleship, we want the house churches to be more than an additional midweek meeting. We want these micro churches to Eat, Listen, Story, Bless, Celebrate and Recreate alongside one another as well as the unbelievers in their contexts. These missional rhythms will both stretch and encourage the believers and consistently display the gospel to those in their circles of influence. Within each house church there are gender specific groups of three called “fight clubs.” Fight clubs act as small discipleship groups that help fight against sin and fight for joy by pushing one another to embrace depth and consistency in our identities as Gospel Learners, Family Members and Kingdom Ambassadors.

 

Anchor # 9 - College Ministry and Church Planting

The 10 Anchors of Union Church are theological convictions and philosophies of ministry that we are tied to in order to remain faithful to our core values of Gospel, Community and Mission. These Anchors inform everything from our partnerships and budget to our church government and Sunday liturgy. We believe that a strong commitment to these Anchors will create a culture that will bring God glory and us joy.

Anchor # 9   - College Ministry and Church Planting

We are committed to strategic college ministry and church planting. Locally, Auburn University is a mission field unto itself. Of the 90,000+ people in the Auburn/Opelika area, 30% are students (27,000) in a very unique season of life, which requires a very unique missionary strategy. We want to faithfully engage this people group that occupies such a prominent yet temporary place in our city.

Regionally, the current generation of students will one day occupy positions of leadership and influence in Alabama, the South and beyond. A large percentage of students will move to pursue careers in Houston, Atlanta, Nashville and Birmingham after graduation. If our goal is to completely saturate our region with the gospel and make the South reflect more of the Kingdom, then college towns become strategic sending centers. What is absorbed and valued in college towns like Auburn, Tuscaloosa, Oxford and Starkville will eventually be taught and practiced in places like New Orleans, Jackson, Orlando and Huntsville. We want the college ministry of Union Church to essentially be the developmental “minor league” system that prepares students to make disciples and plant churches in their future, professional contexts. We want to take this same approach with international students and global church planting. The nations have come to Auburn and we want to particularly invest in them – especially those who come from predominately non-Christian or even restricted-access countries where church planting is illegal.

While we want to see hundreds of churches planted in the regional hub cities that many, if not most of our students will eventually live in, we particularly want to invest in church planting in other college towns across the country. Not only do we feel that college towns are uniquely positioned to have a “downstream” impact on the culture at large but because of the peculiar rhythms of college towns (highly transient population, lower income streams, liberal bent of academia, seasonal attendance, etc.) they require specialized approaches that are different from urban and suburban churches.

 

Anchor # 8 - Prayer Meeting

The 10 Anchors of Union Church are theological convictions and philosophies of ministry that we are tied to in order to remain faithful to our core values of Gospel, Community and Mission. These Anchors inform everything from our partnerships and budget to our church government and Sunday liturgy. We believe that a strong commitment to these Anchors will create a culture that will bring God glory and us joy.

Anchor # 8   - Prayer Meeting

We are committed to regular corporate praying. Every church at least theoretically is committed to prayer, but we want to be systematically organized to be praying – with the same amount of time, energy and resources put toward prayer as the Sunday worship gathering and the scattering of the house churches. A weekly, corporate prayer meeting will be the centerpiece – the engine – of Union Church. As Spurgeon once said, “The condition of the church may be very accurately gauged by its prayer meetings. So is the prayer meeting a grace-ometer, and from it we may judge of the amount of divine working among a people. If God be near a church, it must pray. And if He be not there, one of the first tokens of His absence will be a slothfulness in prayer!”

The effectiveness of Union Church will be proportional to our investment in prayer. The talent of the leaders, the commitment of the members, and the size of the budget are all insufficient to accomplish what lies before us; the racial reconciliation in the South, the death of religious consumerism, and spiritual revival on college campuses can only be accomplished through the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus, Himself taught us, some spiritual breakthroughs can only be accomplished through prayer (Mark 9:29). The New Testament describes God’s power as almost an involuntary reaction to faith (Luke 8:46), so as a church we need to regularly stop working in our areas of ministry and intentionally spend time placing our faith in Him. Our regular prayer meetings will serve as a corporate posture of dependence and faith in the One who can accomplish more that we could ever manufacture through human effort. This will be our collective effort to “abide” in Christ, “apart from whom, we can do nothing” (John 15:5). We are not only committed to the weekly prayer meeting as a built-in rhythm but we are also committed to making prayer a high priority within the Sunday gathering, individual house churches and leadership meetings.

Anchor # 7 - Racial Reconciliation

The 10 Anchors of Union Church are theological convictions and philosophies of ministry that we are tied to in order to remain faithful to our core values of Gospel, Community and Mission. These Anchors inform everything from our partnerships and budget to our church government and Sunday liturgy. We believe that a strong commitment to these Anchors will create a culture that will bring God glory and us joy.

Anchor # 7  - Racial Reconciliation

We are committed to the racial reconciliation of the family. Salvation can only be achieved through belief in the gospel and any attempt to earn salvation through social justice or minority advocacy campaigns (instead of the gospel) will always fall short. However, given the violent history, systemic biases and political climate of the South, we believe that racial reconciliation is both an urgent implication of the gospel in our specific context as well as a normative pattern found in Scripture. The multiethnic church was Paul’s primary means of gospel advancement in the New Testament – intentionally designed to minimize (not eliminate) the ethnic identity of Jew and Gentile and maximize the new identity of being united with Christ (Gal.3:28).

We also believe that the church should be a prophetic voice within the culture – the lead advocate for justice and defender of the powerless (Isaiah 1:17). The church should also be a forerunner of the Kingdom of Heaven which currently exists as a theologically united yet ethnically diverse community (Rev. 7:9-10). We are signatories to the Charlottesville Declaration – a document calling the church to occupy its rightful place a prophetic institution that condemns both racial superiority and racial apathy.

While every church has a biblical mandate to pursue reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:17-19), not every community’s barriers to unity exist along racial lines. However, in praying for God’s will to be done in Auburn/Opelika as it is in Heaven, we feel that racial reconciliation must be a top priority and specific ministry of Union Church.

Anchor # 6 - Covenant Membership

The 10 Anchors of Union Church are theological convictions and philosophies of ministry that we are tied to in order to remain faithful to our core values of Gospel, Community and Mission. These Anchors inform everything from our partnerships and budget to our church government and Sunday liturgy. We believe that a strong commitment to these Anchors will create a culture that will bring God glory and us joy.

Anchor # 6  - Covenant Membership

We are committed to covenant membership as a logistical method of organizing as a family. While we are spiritually connected to the universal Church, there must be particular distinctions made at the local level around theological interpretations, pastoral oversight, discipleship metrics and social expectations in order to fulfill the responsibilities of the local body of Christ. For both leaders (who must one day give an account for those they shepherd) and members (who have a responsibility to care for one another), covenant membership provides clear expectations concerning theological unity, pastoral involvement, financial giving and missional responsibilities.

Covenant membership at Union Church is simply the relational framework where holistic discipleship takes place. It is a commitment to be discipled and make disciples inside the environments, structures, and rhythms of this local body so that the church can be held accountable to externally live out what is internally believed.

 

 

Anchor # 5 - Function as Family

The 10 Anchors of Union Church are theological convictions and philosophies of ministry that we are tied to in order to remain faithful to our core values of Gospel, Community and Mission. These Anchors inform everything from our partnerships and budget to our church government and Sunday liturgy. We believe that a strong commitment to these Anchors will create a culture that will bring God glory and us joy.

Anchor # 5 - Function as Family

We are committed to functionally organizing and operating as a local family. The church is like a bride (Eph. 5:25-27), like a body (1 Cor. 12:12), even like a temple (1 Cor. 3:16), but she is not like a family, she is a family (John 1:12). More specific than a generic community and more intimate than a nation-state, the family is the Bible’s overarching metaphor for the people of God, capturing both the doctrine of spiritual adoption (Rom. 8:14-17) as well as the practical aspects of discipleship and pastoral care. Therefore, the family is not a token analogy but the primary organizing principle of our ecclesiology.

Before there is any biblical example of human community we see the holy Trinity eternally existing as a spiritual family – Father, Son, and Spirit. It is this Trinitarian God that created the world and deemed it “very good” (Gen. 1:31). And it was people, male and female, not an individual person, that reflects this divine community’s image as earth’s crowning achievement (Gen. 1:27).  God ordains this family to be intentionally set apart (by laws and rituals) and gives them the responsibility of both caring for one another (Lev. 19:9-18) and blessing the whole world (Gen. 12:2) in order to fulfill the original mandate - to fill the earth and cultivate it (Gen. 1:28).

The Apostles use the family to articulate the New Testament church’s foundational theology, structure and objectives. Both Peter and Paul use familial (1 Peter 2:13-3:9, Titus 2:2-10) and marital (Eph. 5:22-33) language to establish normative expectations for interpersonal relationships within the Church. James’ primary understanding of the church’s mission is to extend the internal care within the family to those outside of it – claiming the very essence of the Christian religion is to care for those who do not have access to the benefits of family life (James 1:27). This family dynamic is so important to Paul, that his primary qualifications for senior church leadership include having the temperament and reputation of being a good father (1 Tim. 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9). Elders/pastors, therefore, function as local dads – leading, feeding, caring for and protecting the family of God, who then train and deputize mature sons and daughters (as deacons) to lead various ministries of the church.

The Old Testament law and the New Testament logic states that if God is our collective Father, then individual Christians, by definition, are brothers and sisters, who have an obligation to love one another (John 13:35). This love not only serves as an apologetic witness to those outside the family but also accurately reflects the Father’s care for His children.

Our church is organized to take this dynamic seriously. This is reflected in how we assess and train leaders, the size and capacity of our small groups, our membership process and the role of the Sunday worship gathering. 

Anchor # 4 - Gospel-Centered Equipping

The 10 Anchors of Union Church are theological convictions and philosophies of ministry that we are tied to in order to remain faithful to our core values of Gospel, Community and Mission. These Anchors inform everything from our partnerships and budget to our church government and Sunday liturgy. We believe that a strong commitment to these Anchors will create a culture that will bring God glory and us joy.

Anchor # 4 - Gospel-Centered Equipping

We are committed to developing the particular skill sets of the saints for the advancement of the Kingdom rather than capitalizing on the free labor of generic Christian volunteers for the growth of our local church. The primary role of church leadership is not necessarily to do ministry but to equip the saints to do ministry (Eph. 4:11-14). By definition, the church “body” is made up of multiple parts (apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, teachers), and when each part is developed to maturity it produces a multi-faceted ministry that more closely resembles Jesus’s perfect ministry. Because of this, we will prioritize leadership development, ministry coaching, and pastoral oversight to create a community where "the priesthood of the believer" is functionally embodied.

In our culture, Christian busyness flows out of either a wrong understanding of salvation (we believe we are saved by our works) or an overemphasis on quantitative production. Ministry cannot be measured solely by productivity. Our goals are both width (more people reached, more care given) and depth (greater spiritual maturity, greater gospel fluency). This means “success” is measured by organic, small, ordinary and slow growth not large, famous and fast production (as our culture would have us believe). Physical projects and behavior modification are easier to quantify but miss the holistic tone of gospel-centered ministry, which requires supernatural intervention, time and reflection. This type of work is difficult and requires special training that is unique from other lines of work.

We do not believe generic disciples can be made through cookie cutter programs. We want to encourage and equip the unique gifts within the body to serve in unique contexts. We are committed to using the church to grow people not using people to grow the church.

Anchor # 3 - Union with Christ

The 10 Anchors of Union Church are theological convictions and philosophies of ministry that we are tied to in order to remain faithful to our core values of Gospel, Community and Mission. These Anchors inform everything from our partnerships and budget to our church government and Sunday liturgy. We believe that a strong commitment to these Anchors will create a culture that will bring God glory and us joy.

Anchor # 3 - Union with Christ

We are committed to emphasizing Union with Christ as the fullest description of the gospel. In our Bible Belt context, “gospel” is, in many ways, religious white noise – a term that is so generic and overused that it carries unnecessary connotations. We do not want to abandon this biblical language but as missionaries, we need to clarify our terms in order to be both biblically accurate and contextually appropriate.

Union with Christ is the New Testament’s primary description of the gospel. Salvation is not simply a theological event, it is the reality of being permanently and exclusively attached to the Savior, thereby receiving the rights, privileges, and benefits of the true Son of God. This idea is so massive that it necessitates multiple images and metaphors to tease out. There are over 200 references to and expressions of Union with Christ in the New Testament, representing the centerpiece of Christian theology. This phrase captures our “oneness” with Jesus – our relationship in, with and through Him. The depth of this union can be viewed from two directions: our identity in Christ and Christ’s presence in us.

Our Identity in Christ: Without Christ, our default identity is found in Adam, our forefather and representative head. His original sin triggered a curse that infected his entire lineage. This curse affects every area of our lives, tainting even our noblest attempts at righteousness and making them unacceptable before a holy God, leaving us condemned and in need of a savior outside of Adam’s line. Because of Jesus’ virgin birth, His origin remains unaffected by the curse and His perfect obedience fulfills all the requirements placed on humanity. Therefore, he is a pure representative head as well as an acceptable sacrificial substitute. In the same way that Adam’s family (humanity) was made unrighteous by their attachment to his failure, Jesus’ family (the Church) is made righteous by their attachment to His perfection. As believers, our primary identity now is found “in Christ.” His achievement is now ours, His victory is credited to us, His status as a beloved son is transferred to us. This is our justification – the root of our salvation (Rom. 6:23, Rom. 8:1, 1 Cor. 1:2, Eph. 2:5, Col. 3:1).

Christ’s Presence in Us: Not only are we saved because we are found in Him but He is intimately connected to us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Our permanent connection to Christ produces the foundation of our salvation while His active presence in us produces the fruit of our salvation. His Spirit guides, directs, convicts, rebukes and comforts the believer into a deeper understanding of our identity which leads into a deeper obedience and loyalty. This is our sanctification – the fruit of our salvation (1 Cor. 3:16, 2 Cor. 6:16, Ezk. 36:27, 2 Tim. 1:14, Rom. 8:11).

To the degree that we understand our union with Christ - that our attachment to Him protects us from God's judgment - we realize that we are no longer attached to our sin, freeing us from guilt, shame, and humiliation. When we come to realize that we are credited with his obedience and clothed in his righteousness - we are no longer associated with our accomplishments, freeing us from pride, comparison, and jealousy. Union with Christ is the explanation for how believers can, with full integrity, walk in peace, joy, contentment, humility, generosity, and sacrifice. We already have everything we need. We are free to give instead of take, create instead of consume, serve instead of being served. 

 

Anchor # 2 - Authority of Scripture

The 10 Anchors of Union Church are theological convictions and philosophies of ministry that we are tied to in order to remain faithful to our core values of Gospel, Community and Mission. These Anchors inform everything from our partnerships and budget to our church government and Sunday liturgy. We believe that a strong commitment to these Anchors will create a culture that will bring God glory and us joy.

Anchor # 2 - Authority of Scripture

We are committed to using the Bible as our highest authority. The Bible is the “supreme court” for all matters of faith and conduct. “We affirm the divine inspiration, truthfulness, and authority of both Old and New Testament Scriptures in their entirety as the only written word of God, without error in all that it affirms, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice. We also affirm the power of God’s word to accomplish His purpose of salvation. The message of the Bible is addressed to all mankind. For God’s revelation in Christ and in Scripture is unchangeable. Through it, the Holy Spirit still speaks today. He illumines the minds of God’s people in every culture to perceive its truth freshly through their own eyes and thus discloses to the whole church ever more of the many-colored wisdom of God…” (The Lausanne Covenant, Article Two, 1974).

We find ourselves in a context that is experiencing significant social change. Hyper individuality, shifting cultural norms, and subjective morality dominate our post-Christian landscape. In many ways, this is the perfect recipe for creating gods in our own image - that love what we love and hate what we hate. We hold up the Scriptures as authoritative and submit to them because we recognize that God is outside of time and space and His wisdom spans far beyond what "seems right" in our eyes. If we give ourselves the freedom pick and choose only what we like out of the Bible then in reality, we do not worship and trust God, we worship and trust ourselves. We are committed to holding up Jesus as both savior and lord and a high view of the Bible keeps us from re-fashioning him in our image.

 

Anchor # 1 - Holistic Discipleship

The 10 Anchors of Union Church are theological convictions and philosophies of ministry that we are tied to in order to remain faithful to our core values of Gospel, Community and Mission. These Anchors inform everything from our partnerships and budget to our church government and Sunday liturgy. We believe that a strong commitment to these Anchors will create a culture that will bring God glory and us joy.

Anchor # 1 - Holistic Discipleship

We are committed to holistic discipleship – a method of training that assumes the total and integrated surrender of every single area of life to Jesus’s kingship. When Jesus speaks of obedience, he defines it as loving God with all of your heart, soul, strength and mind (Luke 10:27). When he speaks of discipleship, he says disciples should be totally immersed into the ministry and identity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). Paul echoes this idea in 1 Thess. 5:23-24.

The implication is that obedience to Christ is total and holistic – with no category of life unaffected by His lordship. Therefore, discipleship cannot only be intellectual by digesting doctrine alone. It cannot be privately sustained, but must be lived out in healthy community; and it cannot be activist – only interested in progress and production, unattached to orthodox motivations. Holistic discipleship engages the "head, heart and hands," specifically through a steady diet of Gospel, Community and Mission. This approach ultimately leads to the development of the foundational Christian identities of Gospel Learners, Family Members and Kingdom Ambassadors.

We are commissioned to make disciples in the name of the Son; making us thoughtful Learners of what the Son accomplished for us on the cross (the gospel). We pursue gospel fluency (maturity) through a lifelong devotion to and study of the Scriptures in an effort to love the Lord with all our mind. (Col. 1:9-10, Josh. 1:8, Deut. 6:4-15)

We are commissioned to make disciples in the name of the Father; making us a diverse Family of adopted sons and daughters – brothers and sisters, committed to loving each other inside a safe and nurturing community where we are free to love the Lord with all of our heart and soul. (2 Tim. 5:1-2, Eph. 2:19, Gal. 3:26)

We are commissioned to make disciples in the name of the Spirit; intentionally sent out into the world as Ambassadors of the Kingdom, acting as servant-missionaries, verbally declaring but also physically demonstrating and the gospel with our hands. (Matt. 28:18-20, 2 Cor 5:18-21.)

We believe that when the head is reoriented around the gospel, the heart is cared for by the family and the hands serve in mission, we more closely resemble who Jesus created us to be.

Status Quo

Someone asked me the other day what kind of people I was looking to recruit to make up the core team of Union Church. I was a little embarrassed that I didn’t have a specific demographic or population segment in mind. I said something generic, like “we’ll take anybody…” (which isn’t untrue, I guess). Several days later, that question has festered and I’ve thought more about it than I care to admit.

If I had to answer that question over again, this is what I’d say: I want people who are discontent with the Church being the chaplain for the status quo.

Now, what I am NOT saying is that I’m looking for anyone in the Auburn/Opelika area who has beef with an existing church. As a pastor - but mostly as the son of a pastor – I have zero interest in disgruntled church folk who complain, bounce, repeat. Those guys are the worst. I’m also NOT suggesting that any church planted prior to 2018 is part of the problem.

But the reality of our situation is pretty bleak. There are zero studies that suggest Christianity in America is trending anywhere but down. The status quo is unacceptable – in terms of both quantity and quality. We are planting 4000 new churches every year but we’re also shutting down 3700 right behind them. So, either we have a volume problem, a method problem, or both.

The established church as she is currently constructed isn’t enough – even if she was theologically orthodox, socially engaged and fabulously resourced (spoiler alert: she’s not). There are simply not enough healthy churches to keep pace with the population growth, much less a rapidly changing spiritual landscape.

One of my favorite missiologists is fond of saying that the church is perfectly organized to achieve exactly what she is currently achieving. Meaning, if you’re cool with the mass exodus of college students from the faith, rampant misogyny and sexual misconduct of male leadership, doctrinal infidelity and widespread institutional racism, then yeah, we’re doing fine. But if you think the Church can be more than that we need to A. repent (looking at us Southern Baptists), B. plant new churches, and C. plant new kinds of churches.

It’s time for new mindsets, new wineskins that are still pliable and haven’t assumed definite shape yet (Mark 2:22). It’s time for Christians to remember that our Lord wasn’t meek and mild but was considered a threat to the status quo (Mark 3:6). It’s time for churches to wake up (Eph. 5:14) and see that this is no time for business as usual and start taking justice as seriously as our public relations.

So, I don’t need social justice warriors, I don’t need Facebook trolls. I’m looking for people whose hearts break for what Jesus’ heart breaks for. I need people who have the courage to swim upstream and yet at the end of the day, can still muster the strength to be gentle, patient and faithful.

Anyway, that’s who we’re looking for.

Interest Meeting

The very first Union Church event is officially on the calendar. We will host an interest meeting in our home to pitch the vision of our church on May 30. Over the last year we have developed relationships with about two dozen Auburn/Opelika residents who have expressed some level of interest in partnering with our church plant.

Technically, this is the second official Union Church event. Almost a year ago to the day (May 31, 2017) I was invited to participate in a community wide prayer meeting in Opelika, representing Union Church as we prayed for new works to begin across Lee County.  Just under a year later – here we are – with towers of still-packed boxes in our garage and a partially furnished living room. However unsettled as we sometimes feel, we are still overwhelmed that the Lord provided this opportunity and this house – and it continually serves as a reminder of his provision and answer to those early prayers.

As we head into this initial interest meeting I’m reminded that God uses small things to advance the Kingdom.

“He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches…” Matt 13:31-32

Because when I catalog Union Church’s assets it’s hard to imagine us making much of an impact here:

-       1 partially furnished house

-       1 partially completed website

-       1 partially funded budget

-       28 potentially interested contacts

But then I read passages like this:

“And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing over them. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. And they all ate and were satisfied…”  Luke 9:16-17

Specifically, for this meeting and broadly for our church’s entire ministry, our prayer is that God would use our small, slow, ordinary resources and supernaturally multiply them to feed people in this city.

 

 

 

Pray For Laborers

“And he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” – Luke 10:2

This verse seems to suggest that the Lord is eager to produce spiritual fruit but somehow limits or slows its growth to match the availability of workers and the authenticity of our prayers. This is not a precise formula that activates a genie from the lamp, but there is some type of mysterious participation that God is waiting for before He acts. John 15: 5 goes even further by saying, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

Several years ago, a friend told me that I needed to be as intentional and aggressive in raising prayer support as I was in raising financial support. That has stuck with me (more accurately, haunted me) – given the absolute necessity of raising money for our family and church – that if there was to be any hope of spiritual fruit – prayer must be our primary tool, not a secondary accessory to talent, resources and connections.

If our church succeeds it will be because a small group of people prayed for God to move. I can guarantee that the lead pastor does not have the talent, resources and connections to pull this off. To his credit, however, he’s smart enough to realize this and is trying to get people to join him in prayer.

To that end, Cara Jane and I have begun setting the alarms on our phones for 10:02, in reference to Luke 10:2. So twice a day we are reminded to pray that God would raise up a team to join us in planting Union Church. Specifically, we’re asking the Lord to provide 12 people from Huntsville to be sent out with us as well as 12 people already on the ground in Auburn who would begin laying the ground work before we arrive.

If God would be gracious enough to put this team of missionaries together, the first thing we’ll do as an official Union Church team, will be to launch a prayer meeting. Missional communities, preaching, finding a building, all that is important, but it comes later.

Please join us in praying that God would burden 24 people for the Auburn/Opelika area, that we would be united in the vision and mission of Union Church and that God would bring healing and reconciliation to a stagnate culture. Who knows what 24 people abiding in Jesus, praying for a harvest could accomplish?

Nazis and College Towns

There is always that one pundit on cable news who will inevitably draw comparisons between the policies of whatever party he/she doesn’t like… and the Nazis. As if the Third Reich is the inevitable trajectory of anyone who disagrees with him/her. This historical hyperbole can be drowned out and dismissed easily enough but the recent events in Charlottesville, VA has knocked our country on its heels – because this isn’t dramatic rhetoric anymore, these are actual, swastika waving Nazis! We’re reeling, not only because innocent people are being killed but because we seem to be experiencing (or probably more accurately re-experiencing) a cultural moment where multiple environmental factors are colliding together to allow Alt Right/White Supremacist/Neo Nazi violence to occur… right in front of our eyes!

I believe this perfect storm is made up of at least five elements: 

  • There seems to be a traumatic realization that racism is not a historical problem that America has already legislatively solved but, in fact, is a brutally present reality that is alive and well. This seems to have annoyed the Right and confused the Left.
  • There seems to be a political climate that openly encourages polarization, extremism and fear mongering, thus discouraging any form of cooperation and compromise.
  • There seems to be a digital climate and a cultural attention span that prefers soundbites and headlines in 140 characters or less – making reasonable, thoughtful, nuanced debate virtually impossible.
  • There seems to be an administration (I’m trying to be as charitable as I can) that won an election, in large part, due to the support of disgruntled, white voters. Therefore, this administration is, at best, slow, vague and mild in addressing the concerns of minorities – in an effort to maintain that original bloc of support.
  • There seems to be a significant portion of the American church, for whom political power and stability is simply a higher priority than racial reconciliation and social justice. We’ve seen this movie before (Israel in the time of the prophet Amos, Pharisees in the time of Pontius Pilate, German Lutherans in the 1930s, American Evangelicals in the 1960s…). Rather than being the prophetic advocate she is called to be, the Church has once again looked for comfort in political parties and court nominees rather than the character of our sovereign God…

This is the reality that we live in. The American church, as she is presently built, for better or worse, led us here, and Dr. King already warned us about it…

“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice… I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other Southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious-education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: ‘What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?” (Excerpt from A Letter from a Birmingham Jail)

The Evangelical Left has compromised theologically to appease the broader culture and the Evangelical Right has compromised politically to hold on to whatever structural power is left. Either way, the unbelieving world sees absolutely nothing unique about the way we live and we’ve sold out our minority brothers and sisters in the process.

But what if out of this dumpster-fire of a moment came a tribe of people that believed the gospel was good enough – and required no alterations to make it palatable for liberal ears – and was strong enough that it didn’t need the structure and systems of the conservatives? What if these people planted new churches – uncompromised by theological drift or political pressure? What if they strategically planted these churches in places like Berkley, CA, Auburn, AL and Charlottesville, VA?

The University of Virginia in Charlottesville has 20,000+ students – from all 50 states and 148 countries. Its faculty and alumni have significant influence across a number of industries all over the world, particularly in the political arena of nearby Washington D.C. What if there were dozens of churches planted there to reach that particular people group? What if there were dozens of multi-ethnic congregations where black and white believers worshipped together? What if you were a student at UVA and were forced to deal with the reality of those faith communities? Would that shatter your preconceived ideas about religion? Would that affect how Jesus plays into the way you view politics, money, sexuality, race, ethics?

Luther, in the first of the 95 Theses said, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance…” Centuries later, Karl Barth, channeling St. Augustine, said that “the church is always reforming…” The American Church should repent and reform and as far as I am concerned, the most effective way of doing that is to plant new churches in college towns… because the Nazis are already there.

Prayer

My primary position over the last several months could accurately be described as overwhelmed. There has not been one day in which I have not thought to myself that we have bitten off way more than we can chew. We are moving 800 miles and 5 states away from our friends, family, and the church we helped build from scratch. We currently have less than 50% of the money we need to make ends meet, and my wife could literally go into labor any minute with our second child.

Our objective is to plant a church that is intentionally multi-ethnic in a part of the country that literally fought a war to prevent that from happening. Our primary strategy for this church plant is to engage college students and minorities, two people groups not historically known for their financial stability. Furthermore, I am convinced that my skill set and personality are nowhere near sufficient for the task ahead. There is nothing on my resume that suggests our church plant will be wildly successful. I’m not trying to be self-deprecating – I believe I’m both qualified and called to this task – I’m simply trying to express the enormity of what is on the Bristers’ plate.

On the bright side, desperation and spiritual poverty seem to be what the Spirit is attracted to (Matthew 5:3). As J.D. Greear is fond of saying, “If dependence is the objective, then weakness is an advantage.” So, it is precisely because of my profound state of insecurity along with a deeply held theological conviction… that we need to pray like crazy.

Sam Storms points out that virtually every believer values prayer but “there is a difference between being committed to prayer and being committed to praying.” Our first year of networking, training, and fundraising in Huntsville will almost entirely be devoted to not only personal prayer, but also building a prayer network who will intercede for our fragile new work. A friend who I met during my Soma residency in Fort Worth described to me this idea of a prayer network and I have not been able to shake it. He worked for an organization that when they polled their most effective leaders, the single overlapping element of their successful ministries was their personal and corporate commitment to prayer. It wasn’t budgets of a certain size or a critical mass tipping point or even a certain personality type, it was simply a commitment to prayer and fasting.

This pattern is all over the New Testament: movements of prayer always precede movements of God. Pentecost was a result of a prayer meeting. Peter, the ultimate knucklehead of the Bible, preached for ten minutes and 3000 people got saved, all because the church prayed.

It was said that a young American pastor once traveled to England to find out the secret behind Charles Spurgeon’s megachurch in downtown London. Spurgeon assured him there was no secret, simply a commitment to prayer. So, while 10,000 people gathered in the massive assembly hall above, Spurgeon led this pastor down to the church basement where 300 people were on their faces, in prayer.

I’m an Acts 29 dude. I place a high value on the preached Word, but Union Church is not going to be started with a sermon. I’m a Soma guy. I have a high value for missional communities, but Union Church will not start with a small group. I grew up Southern Baptist. I have a high value for worship services, but Union Church will not be started with a Sunday gathering.

Union Church will start with a prayer meeting – an old school, unsexy, no-frills prayer meeting. Regardless of how the church changes and grows, the one constant, from beginning to end, will be the prayer meeting (and we’re not naming it with one of these hipster nonsense monikers like Ignite or Glow or something lame, it’s just The Prayer Meeting). One of my main roles as the lead pastor is to model and build out a culture of prayer. Prayer will be part of the gathering, the missional communities, the elder meetings, the deacon trainings, the kid’s ministry. Everything.

Calling black and white families, with generations of baggage, to worship together is too complicated. Calling religious consumers to become servant missionaries is too nuanced. Calling college students to rethink their careers is too far-fetched. The only way this works is if a lot of people spend a lot of time asking the Father to do only what He can do.

If you want to pray for us, here’s where you can start in the short-term:

  • Pray for our transition out of Norman.
  • Pray for full financial support for our year in Huntsville.
  • Pray for our house in Norman to sell and for us to find a place to live in Huntsville.
  • Pray for a smooth delivery of Ellie Jane and our transition to being a family of four.

And for the long-term:

  • Pray for Black leadership to join us in Auburn.
  • Pray for a multi-ethnic core team to develop out of Norman, Huntsville, and Auburn.
  • Pray for our strategy in reaching Auburn and Opelika.
  • Pray for early influence on the Auburn University campus.
  • Pray for a strategic gathering space and a strategic neighborhood to live.
  • Pray for a worship leader to join us.
  • Pray for financial support as we begin our work in Auburn.
  • Pray for more people to pray for the work of Union Church.