Mission Statement, Core Values, Blah Blah Blah.

Maybe you're tired of hearing about mission statements and core values.

I've been there too.

Many churches spend a great deal of time identifying, refining, explaining, and promoting core values only to have them drift into the background as the organization moves on to more-pressing matters.

This has happened at Intown in the past.

And, some of us have a been part of a business or a church that has maybe talked too-incessantly about it's mission statement while the customers and congregants grow frustrated with the organization aspiring to rather grandiose goals while not effectively fulfilling its core functions.

I don't know if we've ever talked "incessantly" about our mission statement at Intown, but we've certainly experienced times where our rhetoric exceeds our core competencies. 

I would like to see Intown continue to grow more and more effective in fulfilling the core essentials of a healthy church, things like: spiritual formation, assimilation, pastoral care, gospel-centered preaching, etc. while at the same time continuing to pursue a mission that is particularly-necessary in Portland and which we feel uniquely-gifted to pursue.  

We do in fact have a mission statement, which doesn't simply reside on our website, sadly-forgotten, but one that does help to determine our everyday choices as a church.

We revisited this mission statement in a series of sermons last summer and fall as we prepared to make a denominational move. In these sermons we tried to argue that in making a move to the RCA we were trying to stay true to and being guided by our mission statement.

In other words, our denomination transition wasn't arbitrary or guided by convenience but we determined that we were in an ecclesial context where we were unable to fully embody our mission statement and we made a decision together to honor our local ministry commitments above denominational loyalty and continuity. 

This was a circumstance in which having a mission statement, clearly-defined and substantially-understood by congregation enabled us to make a difficult but very consequential decision. 

So, over the next few days I plan on posting a short summary of each of the significant words in our mission statement, that we are, "A community seeking to embody the historic Christian gospel in the city of Portland." 

This will be particularly important for the leaders as we continue to chart out our calling in these new denominational circumstances, but it should also be helpful for visitors as they seek to learn more about "what makes us tick", as well as for the member/attendee seeking to live our our common mission in their everyday life.

So, check back regularly... 
   

 

Prayers of the People / May 7th

Heavenly Father, we come to you feeling both confident and humble.  We are confident in you because you have qualified us in your Son Jesus.  You have pursued our hearts, you have poured out your love, you have done for us in Jesus what we could not do for ourselves.  You have named us as your children, without any merit on our part.   So, therefore, we approach you with humility in the realization that our lives are not our own.  Though we are confident in our eternal security, and confident in our abilities and gifts, we remain humble knowing that the work you have qualified us for, and called us to, is Your work and not our own.  Give us clarity and assurance as we work in your kingdom each day.

Loving and steadfast God, you have abided with us through all the seasons of our lives, including those times when we have turned away from you. We praise you for the enormous sacrifice of love you gave through Jesus Christ who revealed that perfect love casts out fear.

Be with us now when we face our own trials and fears. Let them not be so overpowering that we succumb to their force. Give us the strength to withstand the pressure, and courage to face boldly those times when our faith is tested. When we are confronted by those seeking our counsel, give us your guidance. When we are challenged by those needing our support, give us your strength and courage. Help us be in solidarity with others long enough for them to trust us, so together we can both learn about and work for Christ’s liberating truth.

Give us patience to sit with the lonely. Open our arms to those who seek comfort. Free our tongues from stammering or remaining mute when a word of encouragement or truth is needed.

We pray for peace in our world. We lament and grieve when we hear the news of what’s going on across the world. Bring justice to those who cause, or are affected by, physical and emotional suffering; break its vicious cycle, we pray, that all may live in safety, peace, and hope. Comfort those who are grieving and live in fear, and protect the police and military personnel as they seek to protect others.  We pray for the leaders of all nations to be used as instruments of your freedom, justice, and peace.

Father, we pray for Intown Church.  Guide us and strengthen us by your Spirit, as we seek your kingdom within this body and in our communities.  We praise you for the many ways you are at work:  for our pastor, staff, and leaders in laying out the vision and mission of our church, and for the many ways you are carrying out your work in our body:  we praise you for those who are encouraging each other in times of personal turmoil, for the times of intercessory prayer for each other, for those who are tangibly serving the downtrodden, the homeless, and the refugees.  For the ways in which our corporate worship softens our hearts, and strengthens us in the trials we face.  We look forward to what you have in store for Intown Church, and we pray for unity as you have called to live together as one body.

Throughout history, we take comfort in seeing how you have accompanied your people. We ask that your Spirit so move among us now as we seek to serve others.  Let us be motivated by your grace, that we truly value others above ourselves in one like-minded spirit. Amen.

Consistor-what?

In our transition to the RCA, Intown is using new and unfamiliar language to describe the levels of church leadership. These levels have all previously existed in our church; we're just now calling them something different. 

For example, we're no longer a "Presbyterian" church even though in our new denomination we still operate within and relate to local, regional, and national entities. 

We should put  regional in quotes because while the RCA is divided by regions, like in the PCA, in the RCA our "region" is non-geographic. We are part of the City Classis, which is a national governing body made up of churches in similar urban and college town settings as Intown is.

But, what is a classis? A classis is similar to a presbytery in our old nomenclature, while a consistory is similar to a session.

In Presbyterian circles you have the local Session, the regional Presbytery, and the national General Assembly while in Reformed churches you have the local Consistory, the regional Classis, and the national General Synod. 

"Consistory" still sounds weird to me, but only because I'm not used to it. If I hadn't been a presbyterian for 25 years then "presbytery" and "session" would probably sound weird. 

One more clarification: in presbyterian circles the local "session", at least in a PCA context is made up of only the pastors and elders and these are subdivided into "teaching" and "ruling" elders. They are more or less considered to be one office with different roles: "teaching" and "ruling." This is called the "two-office" view where there are two kinds of elders occupying one office, along with deacons in church leadership. 

In the RCA we practice a "three office" view where there are pastors, elders, and deacons. These three offices make up the "consistory" - the local church leadership. Each has different but somewhat overlapping responsibilities and in our new context it is not required that these office holders be male-only.  

So, from now on when we print "Consistory Meeting" in the bulletin you will know what this means. This is what we formerly called our "Session" meeting, though we have included the deacons in this meeting for quite some time now. And, as always, these meetings are open to you! We'd love to hear your feedback and questions, or if you'd simply like to come and observe consider yourself invited. 

Just email me at brian@intownchurch.com to find out when we are meeting to to let us know you are coming. 

Denominational Transition Update

Last year, after much discussion and prayer we decided to leave our former denomination - the Presbyterian Church in America for theological, exegetical, and cultural reasons and begin the process of affiliating with the Reformed Church in America. 

After months of investigation and conversation with leaders in the RCA, we found them to be committed to the motto: In essentials unity, in nonessentials diversity, and in all things charity. Like Intown, they were highly committed to unity but not uniformity. 

In every interaction we encountered an orientation toward dialogue rather than debate, and a high commitment to the gospel and core essentials of Christianity while allowing flexibility and nuance in matters that are less central. 

They vetted us too, seeking to determine whether we would be a good fit relationally, missionally, and culturally. We never felt however that we were trying to pass a theological exam but instead they sought to learn our story, make sure our leaders were healthy, and hear about our vision and values in order to determine whether they cohered with theirs. At every turn we felt warmly embraced and begin to believe that Intown could best be Intown in an RCA context.   

So after months of vetting: us of them, and them of us, Ben Poundstone (Intown elder) and I traveled to Long Beach last month and Intown was wholeheartedly received into full communion as an RCA church.

We are incredibly delighted to not only be a part of the RCA but connected with the City Classis which will serve as our immediate relational and governing context. You can read more about the these two related entities and our ecclesial structure using the website links above.  

 

An Ash Wednesday Reflection

Ash Wednesday has been celebrated at least since the 10th Century to mark the beginning of the season of Lent.

Though this specific ceremony isn’t described in scripture, what it represents is wholeheartedly biblical.

As you come forward and have ashes spread on your forehead you’ll walk back with an absurd looking smudge approximating a cross. 

And, as we all do this, we form a strange looking community of people who seem to have left home without checking the mirror first: we have food in our teeth, a big grease stain on our shirt, and our fly down!

(Not that any of these examples come from personal experience!) 

It's like we've left the house forgetting we have an image to uphold, impressions to make, a reputation to construct.

Ash Wednesday reminds us of all the things that we try to keep hidden: our frailty, our human fragility, our mortality.

The ashes are a stark reminder of who we actually are: we are mortal and we are not gods. We will not live forever and many of our dreams will die with us. 

Many of us spend most of our lives trying to deny this reality, but Ash Wednesday is a time when we consciously remind ourselves of the truth: from dust we came and to dust we shall return

But Ash Wednesday is not only about reminding ourselves about the fact that we are human. It is also about owning the fact that we are sinners

In the ancient world, ashes placed on your head was a way of saying, I am busted. I am guilty. 

So tonight, as we stand around and look at each other with these odd black smudges on our foreheads, we are saying to God and to each other, “I don’t have it all together. I’m not the person I want to be. I have tried to construct life according to my own wishes and for my own benefit. I am in short: a sinner.” 

But, mustn't stop there, because this isn’t just an exercise in authenticity

Ash Wednesday is also a time of hope. The ashes are placed on our foreheads in the shape of the cross because we have a hope that goes beyond our humanity and sins. This cross is a reminder that because of Jesus our mortality and our sins aren’t the final word about us. 

The ashes both acknowledge, and mock death, saying, “death, you are real, but where is your sting?”

There is a stronger reality at work in our lives - the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Through Jesus’ work on our behalf, God has actually won the battle over our sins and has even defeated death itself. 

So as you come forward, come in acknowledgment of death, and penitence over your sin, but remember that you are marching toward Easter!  

Prayer: God our Father, you create us from the dust of the earth, grant that these ashes may be for us a sign of our penitence and a symbol of our mortality; for it is by your grace alone that we receive eternal life in Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

Talk about this in your groups...

A good friend, who's also a parishioner texted me this week and asked, "what was that you said you wanted us to discuss in our Community Groups? I nodded off." 

Hahaha! I love the honesty. So, here it is:

What would it be like to be a part of a church where: 

  • people aren’t cut off and cut down because of their failures
  • people who are struggling don’t feel the need to hide but believe that church is the best place to get the help they need. 
  • someone isn’t forever labeled by their sin pattern but are allowed to move on?

What would your groups look like if you practiced deciding in favor of love? What would Intown look like? How can we intentionally practice this?

On Being a Pastor With Political Views, pt. 2

Last June I wrote Part One of this blog post intending to follow-up quickly with parts two and three. I did come up with a snappy title, "An Elephant and a Donkey Walk Into Church..., funny right? But, I wrote part two over and over and simply couldn’t find the right tone.

What I had begun wrestling with in Part One was the tension that I felt between my life as an individual human being with political views and passions while occupying a professional role where my personal views are scrutinized and used to assess whether Intown is a church to belong to. 

As our political climate has grown even more divisive in the last 7 months and the role of Christian witness in the public square even more hotly contested, another tension, or maybe I would say an “occupational hazard” has presented itself - how do I utilize the prophetic voice of a pastor, calling our little church to care about issues of social justice and compassion toward the 'least of these' when these very issues are being disputed in a partisan manner and both sides are using these disputes to mobilize their base??

First a confession: as a student of history (at least in my own mind!) one of the most disturbing historical themes to me is the conspicuous absence of the white Protestant church from some of the most important human rights issues in the American experiment. (Think: slavery, the Vietnam War, and the Civil Rights movement to name a few.) So, I confess that I have a certain anxiety as a white pastor of a largely white church of continuing to “do church” as we’ve always done in the midst of one of the most profound sociological upheavals in a generation. 

Motivated by this perhaps-disputable historical analysis, I have been unusually-active as well as less-guarded on social media in the last year and have shared things and aligned myself with co-belligerents online in a way that may have compromised, or at least distracted me from the very local nature of my job.  

I’m chastened by the famous statement of former Speaker of the House Tip O-Neill who used to say, “all politics is local”, and with few exceptions, a church’s ministry is quintessentially and irreducibly-local. 

So, while I have at times spoken far too loudly into the national conversation with an overly-generous assessment of the importance and influence of my own voice, I haven’t led our church as effectively as I should have at addressing the injustice and human suffering in our local community while at the same time potentially isolating people in the congregation who aren’t overly-invested in the outcomes of national politics but who could be energized to care for the “lost and the least” in their neighborhood. 

So, I want to apologize to those in our congregation who have felt concerned about how extroverted my political views have become, as well as to those who have been energized by this. Intown’s vision includes being an intentionally-heterogeneous community where people of all cultural backgrounds and political convictions are not only welcomed but are taught how to love one another and pursue Jesus and his mission - together. This is a very unusual and challenging vision, but I do think it’s worth it, perhaps more than ever. 

This is going to take a lot of self-conscious patience from ALL of us! And, now that I’ve shared with you some of what I’m wrestling with and some of the ways that I need to change, here’s what I need from you:

  • For those of you who have ever thought “my political or social views don’t feel affirmed here”, please don’t leave. Whenever people address something lacking in a church and then leave because of it, it makes it more true! We do ministry in one of the "bluest" cities in the nation, so it seems likely to me that if we are reaching city people they are generally going to lean more "progressive" or Democratic. If that's not your political bent, I encourage you to have the courage to stick around and enter into conversation about what it means to be a faithful Christian in the public square as this will create the space for mutual learning and the ministry of the church will be more effective because of your presence. Another of Intown’s commitments is that Jesus and his gospel is far more foundational and substantial and important than any of our political differences, so as you enter into relationship with others who may not only sit in the other pew but on “the other side of the aisle” remember that your starting point is your mutual commitment to the gospel rather than who you or they voted for. And, please give me space to talk about justice, poverty, income inequality, homelessness, care for the refugee, and the like as manifestly-Christian issues and ones that if we cease to talk about and agitate for we cease to be a church that deserves to exist.
  • If, alternatively, you’re someone thinks, "finally, a pastor who shares my political views” please don’t allow this to be a centerpiece of your engagement at Intown. I’ve heard this sentiment, and believe me, I like to be that pastor! My formative years in ministry were spent at a culturally-conservative, affluent, mostly white, and very very Republican church in the South. I loved this church a lot but it was so homogenous that discovering there were pastors and Christian voices who loved Jesus and didn’t necessarily vote Republican was quite empowering for me even though at the time I had recently worked for a Republican US Congressman and was deeply embedded in the conservative cause. Katie and I are still friends with many people from this season of life, some of them can’t fathom our wanting to live in a "blue state”, while others find my social media presence gives them “permission” to question the status quo in their context - often the uncritical conflation of Christianity and Republicanism. But, I’m not their pastor, I’m yours and we need to remember that neither party, and no individual politician has the corner on the market of biblical faithfulness.

My dream is for Intown to be a counter-cultural community. In the political realm this would mean us being a community that resists the instinct to become an echo-chamber where one political perspective is expected and enabled. And for individuals it will mean that we don't leave our political views at the door but that we don't let them define us or our relationship with others. This presupposes having actual face-to-face conversations rather than debating one another on our Facebook pages.

This is hard! But, we can do it, together! 

 

 

 

A Christmas Prayer

Father, what an incredible morning. We don’t think it could get better than this – the music, babies . . . you’ve captured our imaginations. Here with our eyes closed we see angels and shepherds.

Angels... 

Angels on risers, quietly jostling for position, listening to whispered instructions – a little nervous with anticipation

The choir director with pitch-pipe saying: 

“Tonight I’ve chosen a selection from Handel’s Messiah – key of D, I’ve written a little variation on the theme, we’ll begin with the narrator, then a small jazz ensemble, and then the full choir.”

Angels gathered in white tuxedos and flowing gowns, hair brushed, faces shining, hiding behind the starry curtain of the universe ready to belt out a few hallelujahs in perfect harmony.

Tonight the universe will ring with His praise...

Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!

For the lord God omnipotent reigneth, hallelujah, hallelujah!

How long we wonder did they practice? A millennium? Two? How long did it take the narrator to memorize the lines: 

“Don’t be afraid, today, in that little town over there, in a cattle trough, is a baby, born for you a savior who is the anointed of God.” 

How long did the angels prepare? Standing rank upon rank, in breathless anticipation of this one moment only to discover when the curtains of the universe were drawn back an audience of eight speechless . . .frozen shepherds. 

King of kings forever and ever hallelujah hallelujah

Lord we want to be your messengers. Grant us humility to sing the good news of Jesus Christ to the few, the marginalized. Grant us courage to raise our voices in the dark and lonely places.  Grant us patience to wait for your time. Give us wisdom to yield to your call, to do as you ask, even when we do not fully understand either what we are doing or the message itself.

And Lord of lords forever and ever, hallelujah, hallelujah!

And then there were the Shepherds...clothes smelling of sheep and sweat and smoky campfires.

Calloused hands, but not rough, smoothed with years of stroking sheep’s wool.  Arms strong with lifting lambs. 

Men and boys, clear-headed, no-nonsense, brave, strong . . . and ignored.  Common people – lower than common – pushed so far to the margins they were practically invisible.

Asleep in a field of sacrificial lambs on the outskirts of an insignificant backwater town of Judea in an insignificant corner of the world.  

They came to see this baby Jesus, to hold him. They came to deliver a shepherd’s blessing to the sacrificial lamb. To cradle eternity in their arms. To look with ignorant awe into the face of the creator and sustainer of the universe. They came to bless and be blessed. 

Luke tells us they went back to the fields rejoicing and waking the neighborhood like a bunch of drunken sailors . . . .

Going back to their sheep, we imagine one turning to another in their revelry – “. . . you know I can’t get that tune out of my head ‘hallelujah, hallelujah,  hallelujah . . .’”

A light broke into that dark world so long ago where political insanity, social stigma, economic injustice, and religious perversion reigned. Remind us afresh that it has not been dimmed. 

For the lord God omnipotent reigneth,
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!

In our dark world, make us good receivers of the Gospel as well as givers. We want to abandon ourselves, our lives, our ambitions, our sophistication. We want to be like shepherds who respond to the absurdity of your call to embrace something we do not fully understand. We want to be like shepherds who in the moment of their own transformation refuse to be silent. Overwhelm us with Great Joy – in our families, in our work.

Today in this room we sit, afraid to open our eyes for fear the vision will be lost. And yet,  still somehow we cannot get the song out of our heads, 

Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah...Amen.

 

By Richard White for Intown Sunday Service / Dec. 18th, 2016

Historic but Generous Orthodoxy

Intown recently made a move from the Presbyterian Church in America to the Reformed Church in America. What does this mean for Intown theologically? 

One of the things that attracted me, and later Intown's leaders to the RCA was their commitment to historic but generous orthodoxy. They practice a deep rootedness in and commitment to the Bible but allow space (within reason) for pastors, elders, and members to wrestle with difficult scriptural issues without fear of immediate censure and without an unnecessarily-narrow set of predetermined conclusions. 

Of course there ARE certain predetermined conclusions that can’t and shouldn’t be negotiated. Intown has been, is presently, and will continue to be committed to the gospel of grace, justification by grace through faith, the divinity and humanity of Jesus, the bodily resurrection and return of Jesus, the Trinity, God as creator, the Bible as our final authority and guide for life, and a HOST of other things!

But, we felt more and more uncomfortable in a context where opposition to women’s ordination was functionally equivalent to the creedal matters above. And, as a PCA pastor I was expected to oppose a host of things that I felt the Bible was unclear or ambivalent about:

- Evolution. I was an ordained minister in the PCA for over a decade before I came to realize that our denomination had definitively ruled that theistic evolution was not a position that a minister could adopt, that is, unless you're Tim Keller...he gets a pass. I am delighted to be in a place where I don't have to deny the overwhelming scientific consensus in order to keep my ministerial credentials. 

- Adam and Eve as our genetic parents: The scientific consensus that humanity did not descend from a single pair of human beings in recent history is enormous. And this consensus is bolstered by the work of numerous Christian scientists such as Francis Collins. While conceding the fact that this point creates some theological difficulties, such as how does sin enter the human race if the human race does not share common parents, I don't think that conceding the point means that we need to throw out our Bibles. It's okay to be in process and to not have everything nailed down with perfect clarity. We can allow science to guide us in reading our Bibles more accurately. Maybe Adam and Eve are our spiritual parents but not our genetic ones, and even Evangelical luminaries such as John Stott have wrestled with this.  

- Historical Criticism is BAD. I'm not so sure. Of course there are practitioners whose theology has little resemblance to historic Christianity, but this doesn't mean that the entire historical criticism project needs to be jettisoned. Perhaps like the findings of modern science, the findings of form, source, and historical criticism can help us read our Bibles better and keep us from continually retreating into old apologetic paradigms that have ceased to be helpful. Many of the theologians and exegetes that we would consider "liberal" are men and women trying to wrestle with the text as we have it (not as we would want it to be) and trying to find Jesus in the Bible despite the challenges of a corrupted text, contradictory passages, and the theological diversity that even many evangelicals acknowledge.

This last point is pretty important and we will discuss it further in the next blog post.     

 

Intown: PCA to RCA

Intown Church was planted about 15 years ago as a gospel-centered church "in the city for the city." The founding pastor was a member of the Presbyterian Church in America and thus the church was affiliated with that denomination.

But, most members and attendees from those early days didn't see their fundamental loyalty to a denomination but to a local mission.

As Intown's third pastor, that's how I've thought about our church's ministry as well.

Denominational affiliation is an important aspect of a church's identity but we should never feel so beholden to our denomination that we would allow it to take precedent over local ministry concerns. So, the elders and I have been willing to ask from time to time whether or not our affiliation with the PCA continues to be the best context for us to most effectively reach the city of Portland with the gospel. 

After extended conversation with the members and regulars of Intown we determined that it is time for Intown to make a move to a different denominational context. Over the next few weeks, we'll be communicating on this blog some of what lead us to this decision and what it means for us now.  

First of all, perhaps most importantly, Intown will continue to be Intown. Very little will change in the day to day operations, or operating theology. In making this move we are not changing to become something else, but believe we are affiliating with a denomination that allows us to be who we already are.

Because Christians are so accustomed to defining themselves by their denominational affiliation and all that comes along with that designation, when a church to moves to another denomination it feels like a radical change. We believe it is not.

Denominations aren’t in the Bible, but are an unfortunate accommodation to human sin. While re-affiliating isn’t something to be done lightly, it’s not representative of a change of fundamental theology or mission.  

At the same time, Intown has been a PCA church from it’s founding, and because we believe that the PCA continues to be committed to the mission of Jesus, we don’t have any interest in disparaging either the continued ministry of the denomination or of anyone who feels a sense of loyalty to the PCA.   

Accordingly, Intown is moving TO something rather than AWAY.

While we've felt hindered in local ministry by our affiliation with the PCA, we don’t want to spend any more time than is absolutely necessary itemizing the negative components that we feel are a part of the PCA’s culture. 

Instead, we want to lay out a positive vision for Intown doing ministry in a denominational context that allows us to creatively-engage our decidedly non-Christian neighbors.

So, in the coming weeks I will lay out some of the principles that have led us to move away from our original denomination and into a new one.  

Reformed and Always Reforming

Intown is a church that exists during the decline and fall of Christendom in the West and is witness to the rapid decline of individual denominations and churches. As a church in that context, we live in the tension between being historically orthodox and open to reform, rooted in tradition while realizing that the church must change or die.  

Christians are normally expected to choose sides and to see Reformed and Reforming as polarities rather than tensions. But in reality, the danger for a church is being committed to one or the other instead of both. 

There is the Reformed danger of conservation for conservation’s sake. While being "conservative" is a posture toward scripture and theology which can be helpful, this is different from conservat-ISM. Like liberal-ISM, conservatism can become an ideology that stands above Scripture. When conservat-ISM sets in, a church or denomination exists for itself and is oriented around the goal of preservation rather than proclamation. It almost always becomes ingrown and self-serving, unable to speak into new situations, deal with new challenges, or engage its neighbors in a healthy dialogue about Jesus. 

The opposite danger, liberal-ISM, is change for change’s sake, a denial of rootedness that also stands apart from and often above Scripture. In this posture, everything is up for grabs and the Church fails to be salt and light. 

These two “isms” can both obscure God’s word and hinder the mission of the church.

In Matthew 15 we see the Pharisees, the ultimate conservatives, seek Jesus out in order to confront him about the fact that his disciples are breaking the tradition of hand-washing before a meal. This religious practice of ritualistic washing had been developed over hundreds of years before Jesus came and was intended to honor God and demonstrate their seriousness about Scripture. Jesus was denying that this tradition had scriptural warrant but to the Pharisees, he was being unacceptably liberal. However Jesus was being “liberal” in a sense that is very unfamiliar to us. He’s actually trying to protect the Bible from traditions that have obscured its meaning. The conservatives were vigorously conserving a tradition not the Bible itself.  

So, Jesus accuses these Bible defenders of being Bible breakers! 

In the ancient world, caring for one’s parents was an irrevocable duty. The Pharisees were getting around that duty by devoting their money and property to God, sort of putting it in escrow in such a way that if their parents ever needed it they could say, “that money is devoted to God.” They guarded their ritual purity in hand-washing while violating one of the most fundamental commands of all Scripture – the care for one’s neighbor (In this case, their closest neighbor - their parents). Their religious practices were detailed, exacting, demanding…and according to Jesus: fraudulent. (see: Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook) 

It takes a reformer, a radical, to call them on it. Jesus is committed to the deeper truth of what the tradition was meant to point to – a heart that is devoted to God and to neighbor. In Matthew 15:10-11, “Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” The source of real uncleanness is to be found not in the food that passes through the body but in those qualities which lodge in the heart. 

Jesus does not attack tradition or ritual as such but the severing of practice from its essence.  

So, how is Intown to be Reformed and Reforming? Reformed is a tradition within Christianity that finds its most significant theological linkage to the Reformation’s emphasis on: the authority of the Bible, the sovereignty and holiness of God, the priesthood of all believers, salvation by the radical grace of God, and the extravagant welcome of all sinners. We steadfastly believe all of these things (and a lot more!) 

We are also reforming because we realize we’ve been witness to a Copernican revolution of societal change. Suddenly the Church finds itself doing ministry in an ethnically-diverse, multi-national, egalitarian, pluralistic, post-modern society where the Bible is often viewed as a regressive relic. If these challenges were just external we could plug our ears, keep doing what we’ve always done and hope our children won't be corrupted. But difficult questions, born out of this new context are coming from within the church too. 

Committed Christians are asking, “What do I do with a Bible that condemns my closest friend who is gay but appears to be just fine with slavery? What do I do when I read historical accounts in the Bible that seem to be contradictory or mythical? What about evolutionary biology and modern astronomy which seem to undermine the history and cosmology of the Bible? How do I reconcile the images of a God who seems alternatively enraged with his people and eternally loving? Can I worship a God who commands his people to exterminate entire races of people?!"  

It’s not just the outside world asking these questions to challenge the biblical worldview but also our brothers and sisters in the pew who are trying desperately to hold onto faith despite no longer being satisfied by traditional apologetics. How do we answer these questions in a way that captures the imagination of the skeptics in and outside the church? 

Diarmaid MacCulloch, who wrote what is probably the definitive history of the Reformation says, “Self-styled traditionalists often forget that the nature of tradition is not that of humanly-manufactured mechanical or architectural structure with a constant outline and form, but rather that of a plant, pulsing with life and continually changing shape while keeping the same ultimate identity.” 

This is a beautiful image of the Church, not conservative re-entrenchment, resistant to change and afraid of theological enlargement, nor is it a liberal demolition of the entire system where one’s individual religious wishes are made paramount. 

Instead, the church is a plant that is flowering and growing but can’t, and shouldn’t, escape its own DNA.

One scholar put it this way, “When Reformation stops, Deformation sets in.” While we believe that the Scriptural canon is closed (there is no new revelation to be added) Scripture itself is a living document, pulsing with the life of the Spirit. Not only did the Holy Spirit inspire the writers of the Bible itself but he continues to inspire interpreters to wrestle with the meaning of the text in ever-changing contexts, just as he did during the time of the Reformation and the early church. The church must learn to continue to honor tradition and the interpretive shoulders we stand upon, while also appropriating the historical, revolutionary, living truths of the gospel for new circumstances. 

In contrast to much of the contemporary church that is known more for “always reacting" instead of “always reforming”, can Intown be a church that is actively exegeting the surrounding culture while seeking to creatively bring the gospel to our friends and neighbors, rather than just reacting to and opposing cultural change?

We can't simply reassert the thinking and theologizing that "worked" in a former age or in another part of the world. There is no “golden age” of the Church, and no system of theology that isn’t occasional and time-bound.  We do not honor the difficult, sometimes innovative work of interpreters and theologians who have come before us by simply cutting and pasting their conclusions into our context without a fresh exegesis of the Bible itself. We are Reformed, but also Reforming!

The gospel of Jesus Christ challenged the conservatives whose theology had become self-referential and self-perpetuating and had forgotten that proper theology is always missional. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had used their theology to wall themselves off from the messiness of life and from those who most needed the gospel’s life-giving essence. But, the gospel constantly challenged, and continues to challenge our liberal instincts because it claims Jesus as THE king of world and the one true pathway to God. 

As we wrap up our series on the ABC’s of Intown, this concept of Reformed and Reforming has sort of played in the background of most of the sermons. As we consider, “what now?” our mission must include a tenacious commitment to the universal truth of the gospel while simultaneously seeking to allow this truth to transform and reform everything about us - even our theology. 

A Prayer by Hannah Wachter / Sunday 9-4-16

Lord,

Thank you for this day.

Thank you for your abundant goodness. Throughout our time of worship this morning please be present with us and open our hearts to receive you and all that you are. We come with distractions, discouragements, and joys this morning, but help us to lay that all aside to truly hear from you. 

Thank you for children confessing their faith and proclaiming their dedication and faithfulness to you. May Samantha--and the many other children of this congregation--choose you every day with all of their hearts for the rest of their lives. May there never be a day where they do not know, recognize, and communicate with you as their Lord and savior. Be with them as they return to school. Educate them and build them up, but most of all, allow them to be bright lights to their friends. Use our children to draw other children close to you. Use those of us as parents to be lights to other parents that we come in contact with. Father; may we all be like little children: with an innocent, unassuming, and trustworthy faith that believes beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are who you say you are: you are I AM, the God of loving-kindness, the God of covenant love. Thank you that you are the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Like children, may we lean into that with a quiet peace and confidence. 

And Lord, and thank you so much for Brian, our beloved pastor and friend. Thank you for this sermon series he's been teaching through these past few months. Protect him and his precious family. lord, as we come together as a body of believers, help us all to grasp the mission of Intown, your local body, here in Portland. Help us all to feel a sense of calling to this city, help us all to be a people on our knees, listening for your voice and ready to serve you. Guide our church as we go through this sermon series; give us a a clear sense of direction. Make it clear what our next steps ought to be as a body of believers, as your children who really desire what you desire: that none In this life should perish without knowing you. 

Holy Spirit, minister to our session - Ben, Scott, and Brian. Empower them; comfort them; guide them; lead them. Thank you for Matt, Jillian, and Maria - all of Intown's staff. Sit close to them in all of their comings and goings as they seek to serve this body. And remind us, as congregants, to love them well. Thank you for their sacrifice, the time they give to edify this congregation. 

Father, help us to all desire you above all else; what can be better than sweet communion w you? Help us all to be bolder in our faith! Unashamed to claim you in all the circles of life that we inhabit. Open our eyes and ears, Lord, to really have a sense of mission — as individuals and a body. Help us to be rooted and grounded in your love that it may inspire all that we do. 

Lord, bless and keep Intown church. Make your face shine on each person here. Please show your grace to us. Turn your countenance towards us and give us your peace.

In your most holy name we pray, Jesus. Amen. 

A Prayer by Rachel Ebbers

LORD, in the days of old, you gathered your people in the desert. It was there that they questioned you, they learned to depend on you for their every need, and they learned to praise you. 

As your church, we come before you this morning as your people Israel did. We also live in a desert amidst the unbelief of others, and our perfect view of you is clouded by our own sinfulness.   

But we praise you: our lack of resources demands that we totally depend on you. We praise you: you were Israel’s sustenance, you met her physical and spiritual needs and we trust you to meet ours. We praise you: you authored perfect justice, you invented wisdom, and you are love, shown to us in Jesus Christ.

There are those of us who rejoice freely today, feeling whole and bright in spirit, and there are those of us here who come before you broken-spirited, contrite, and needy. We remember, LORD, that you do not despise a broken heart, that you love the poor and needy.  Comfort and sustain those of us who are wanting, who have been bruised and discouraged by poverty, misunderstanding, abuse, fear, mental illness, and disappointment. Show those of us who rejoice how to care for those who grieve, who struggle with unbelief, and who are deeply disappointed in themselves or in their circumstances.

There are those in this world who live righteously and fairly, and we praise you for their leadership. But we cry out to you: we live in a world where injustice often prevails. We tremble at the corruption of many of our country’s leaders. It warps our hope for justice.  And we confess that we ourselves are unjust: we create unfair opinions of those we don’t understand, we shut our ears to the cries of the poor. We remember that you are the God of peace. We pray that you would raise new leaders in our country and the world who value the wellbeing of people over the hoarding of money or power. Likewise, make us a more just and honest church.

We live in a world of hatred. When we gather together every Sunday, something new and terrifying has disrupted our world. We pray for the families of those whose plane crashed in the Mediterranean. We pray for those who have lost those they love to terrorist acts. We pray for those who languish in prison and are innocent. We pray for refugees from Syria who struggle to find food, who cry out for justice, who have become invisible. We remember you are LORD, and you are love. As your people, fill us to overflowing with your compassion, and may this compassion move us to action. 

We live in a world of mixed messages. We remember, LORD, that you created wisdom, that out of your mouth came understanding. Protect our church from misunderstanding and division. We pray that you would use our Sunday worship, our home groups, our bible studies, our coffee club, our pint night, to be locations where we encourage each other, become one in mind and thought, and share everything we have.  

In your name we pray, AMEN.

Would You Like to Learn to Pray?

Anyone can pray, but learning to pray well can take a lifetime. 

You may not realize this but one of the ways that Intown seeks to teach people to pray is through our "Prayers of the People." Each week members of our congregation stand up to lead us in both scripted and extemporaneous prayers. While praying together as a community is a long-standing tradition in the church, and biblically-commanded, you may not have thought before of using these prayers to enrich your personal prayer time. 

So, we're going to begin posting the extemporaneous prayers of those who lead us in prayer on Sunday mornings. Along with the scripted prayers which are printed in your bulletin, I would advise you taking these prayers into your personal prayer time and using them either as a script, and outline, or just a guide. 

I hope that these will enrich your prayer life. Here is a prayer from two weeks ago from Mr. Pete Sommerfeld: 

Lord, as we begin this morning, may we be struck afresh, and possibly in new ways, as we contemplate who it is we address as we pray.  May we be shaken from the grip of our distractions, knowing that we have the ear of the God who created the universe.  One who is all powerful, all knowing and all loving.  May we be awed and humbled, knowing you are a God who is more interested in hearing from us, than we are in speaking to You.  May our confidence and trust grow as we reflect on the fact that you are a God who does not only listen, but who responds to our prayers, who stands ready to calm our fears, comfort our hearts, and wisely and compassionately address our needs.

At the same time, on this day when many of us remember and celebrate our earthly fathers, may we also contemplate the fact that as we pray we are addressing One who is also our Heavenly Father.  One who loves us, who is the head of our family, the church.  One who wants only the best for us, who longs to see us thrive, to live out life as you designed it, and to bring honor to the family name.  With that in mind, we ask ourselves, what – as our father – would you like to hear from your children?

As our Heavenly Father, like our earthly fathers, you want to know those things for which we are thankful.  At the most basic level, we are thankful that you have called us into a relationship with yourself, and that you have done everything necessary for our adoption into your family.  And, we are thankful that you have given us a new family, a new identity, a new place to belong, a new community, a new home.  An eternal home.  We are grateful that your every thought of us is for our good.  Certainly not always what we would consider good, but what you in your wisdom know to be good.  We are grateful you have given us a new and higher purpose for our lives.  That we are part of something bigger than we are that will long outlive us.  You actually allow us to have given us a share in the incredible task of seeing your kingdom come and your will being done.

As our Heavenly Father, like our earthly fathers, you also want to know all that concerns us.  And, you know there is much causing us concern.  The fractiousness in the church.  Lord, we would ask that we as a people would seek those things that unite us, rather than those that split and splinter us.  That your call on our lives would guide us to fulfilling your purposes here on earth.  That we would consider one another as more important than ourselves, and that we would live sacrificially on behalf of others.  We are also concerned by the fractiousness and acrimony in the process by which our nation is governed.  Lord we would ask that those who are in leadership, and who aspire to leadership, would seek common ground, and the common good, in the situations that can and do divide us.  May they be men and women who do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with you.  May we as citizens of this country, and of another kingdom, seek to be ministers of reconciliation pointing people to God, rather than agents of condemnation, shaming and degrading those whose lifestyles are different from our own and cause us to be uncomfortable.

But, mostly Lord, if I could still speak with my earthly father, what I would want to say more than anything is “I love you.”  And, I can only imagine that is what you would like to hear from us as well.  So, we as a congregation want to say to you “We love you.”  Sometimes selfishly, frequently inconsistently, certainly never perfectly, but as much as we are able to express at this moment in time, we love you.  And, we know that our love for You is a response to your love for us.  A love that is perfect, longsuffering, and wise.  For that reason we can now come to you confidently, trusting in your loving wisdom and power to do as you deem best in all that concerns up.  And, we come on the merit of, and in the name of, the one who will indeed be crowned with many crowns, the Lord Jesus Christ,
Amen

Continuity and Change

On Sunday I preached a sermon entitled "I'm Not Making This Up" about Intown's theological roots. If you weren't able to attend, please do go back and listen as this is a very important concept to understand. You can stream or download the sermon here. Also, I found this article very helpful on the subject of reading/studying the Bible in light of "The Great Tradition", or our theological forebears.

This week we are talking about the equally valid and equally important corollary that no one tradition can fully capture all there is to say about God; no theological system is an exact representation of the word of God. Because of human finitude all of our theological systems are provisional and open to review or reformation. 

Here's a teaser quote from Roger Olson's Book "Reformed and Always Reforming."

"Orthodoxy is not revelation itself. Orthodox doctrine is the product of human reflection on God's revelation and therefore is open to reconsideration in light of faithful and fresh readings of God's word. [It can never be] elevated to incorrigible status where it is functionally infallible and therefore equal to divine revelation itself." 

For those of you reading this in Portland, I hope to see you on Sunday! 

Matthew's Not Helping Me This Week!

Matthew the gospel writer, not Matthew Curl! He's not helping me this week! 

I knew that when I chose to do a core values series out of one book that I was limiting myself somewhat; no single book addresses all that I hoped to say about our church. 

Matthew comes pretty close but I've had a whale of a time finding a workable text for this week's sermon on the historical rootedness of Intown. The fact that we're preaching from the Bible is a start - we are deliberately rooting ourselves in the Scriptures. But, there's no passage in Matthew that directly addresses or commands the church to find their bearings in the ancient creeds and confessions. 

So, I hope you'll bear with me as this week's sermon may feel a bit more like I chose the topic and then tried to force it into a passage. Frankly, that's partly true, but I do think that the subject matter is deeply important as we continue to define who we are as a church. 

On Sunday we will begin looking at the term "Historic" in our mission statement. The first of these three sermons is entitled "I'm Not Making This Up" and will be dealing with how Intown fits into the history of Christianity and where we find our most significant theological rootage. 

On Being a Pastor With Political Views, pt. 1

If you've been around Intown for very long and you happen to be on Facebook, you have probably noticed that I often weigh in on some controversial political issues. Some of you are happy with this and have told me that my posts and comments have been helpful to you. Others have been less than enthusiastic, not necessarily because you disagree with my opinions (though that's certainly a possibility) but because you love Intown and don’t want my political commentary to create hurdles for people belonging to our church. 

I’m very sensitive to this, so let's talk:  

First, a confession: I love following politics! There is a lot that is sordid and depressing about politics but I still find this human enterprise ceaselessly interesting. In fact, I was so intrigued by the political process that I went to college and declared a political science major my freshman year. So, all the time that my parents were writing checks to Samford University, from freshmen year forward, they knew they were investing in my acquiring one of the least marketable degrees available!! (Fortunately my dad was as much of a political junkie as I was!)

For many years after college I could identify nearly all 100 senators by sight and dozens of members of congress. Oh, and I could also name the entire cabinet of whoever was in the Oval Office at the time. So, big big political nerd! I also worked for two different members of congress and hoped to make a career out of it. I even started law school, but that was the end of politics as a career (I hated law school and quit after three weeks!)

Maybe that background will help to explain why to this day I read the politics sections of "newspapers" first, just like when I was still a poly-sci major, and why of all the things that I could comment upon online, politics is almost always at the top. (Sometimes it takes a back seat to music). 

There will be a "part two" of this post coming in the next day or so, where I will discuss my guiding political principles, but for now let me share why - beyond my personal enthusiasm for the subject matter, that I'm comfortable speaking politically in a public forum.

First of all, the gospel is inescapably political. While there isn't space for a fully-developed defense of this statement, it's clear that Jesus spoke about taxes, swords, cities, the poor, government agents, violence, sexuality, crime and punishment. He comes announcing the "Kingdom" and rides into Jerusalem as a conquering king. In other words, to follow Jesus is to pursue an embodied spirituality that seeps into every corner of life. As a pastor I want those I shepherd to see this, and to learn to live in such a way that their political views are bound to and subordinate to their Christian confession. 

The second value is built upon the first. I want to model this intentional subordination of our political convictions to our confession of "Jesus is Lord" with regards to specific policies and issues. In my experience most Christians adopt a set of political positions and then seek to baptize them with the Bible. This is backwards. The overall storyline of the Bible: creation, fall, redemption, and final consummation should be foundational to and inform our political views. As we seek to construct a coherent political philosophy (and everyone should strive to do this), we should first seek to determine what overriding values, ideals, types of people, goals, outcomes, methods seem does God seem to place high value upon. The way in which we answer these becomes our lens by which we vet candidates, political parties, legislation, etc. 

Thirdly and lastly (for now), I would hope that as you read anything I write about politics or interact with me personally that not only would my opinions have some identifiable biblical linkage (though you may find the linkage weak!) but that the manner in which I hold these opinions demonstrates Christlike love. Just as we can have "correct" theology and yet be enormous jerks, so we can maintain political opinions that appear to be biblically rooted but do so without humility or charity, devoid of seeking to learn from those with whom we disagree. Even if you might dispute my conclusions I would hope that the manner in which I interact with you personally or online would inspire civility and encourage all of us to be quick to listen and slow to speak. 

Part 2, and maybe 3 coming soon!      

A Community Seeking to Embody...

Believe it or not, this Sunday we will complete our 10th sermon in the “ABC’s of Intown” series! I hope that you have not only enjoyed this study but have found the topic stimulating and informative. 

We have so far looked at the terms: Community, Seeking, and Embody:

- Community: We are a church that is intentionally a missional community, asking how can we be a blessing to our city? how can we include the kinds of people that seem to be so close to the heart of God? how can we be a community of healing and justice and peacemaking? how can we use our work and our words to bring the delight and mercy and love of Jesus to the people in our city? To go deeper, start with Gerald Lohfink's Jesus and Community

- Seeking: There are strange, unexpected, imperfect people in Jesus’ family tree in Matthew 1. And in the Beatitudes Jesus tells us that the “holiest" of people aren’t necessarily those who possess something but lack something - they are those who’ve despaired of their own holiness, their own ability to find/achieve Righteousness, these are the people who seek grace instead, who are primed to “notice” the intrusion of God when it appears, and this is the blessedness of the Beatitudes. Blessing is found in lacking something that only Jesus can provide, it is recognizing the gift of IM-perfection. For further study, I highly recommend Richard Rohr's Breathing Underwater

- Embody: In Matthew 4 we are told of Jesus' call to his first disciples, "follow me." We understand this as a call to tangibly bring his healing presence into world wherever there is sickness, loneliness, hunger, poverty. Christianity isn't simply a new belief system but a new way of life and theology, if it is good theology will lead us into the lives of our neighbors with love and concern for their tangible needs. If you want to read further in this area I would suggest Timothy Keller's Generous Justice

This week we will investigate this idea of embodied spirituality once more as we look at the issue of "justice." I was inspired to write this sermon by Cornel West's arresting comment that, "justice is what love looks like in public." 

A Long-time Member Connects Again With Her Church

Dear Intown,

May I tell you how much I love your kids?

I love their squeals of laughter after church, when they run around chasing each other in the fellowship hall.

I love the happy baby gurgles in the silent moments of the liturgy.

I love their questions, challenging our assumptions on belief and theology and grace.

I love their colorful outfits, declaring a silent independence from parental supervision on wardrobe selections.

When you bring your children forward to be baptized, and Brian asks the congregation to verbally agree to support that child’s spiritual formation and development, I take that vow seriously.

However, if I am going to be completely truthful, I have not always appreciated your children as I do now. As a single woman in my thirties, my daily life is filled with boardrooms and suits and airports. Intown’s pews--filled with young, growing families--has not related to my life at all.

My perspective changed a little over a year ago when several tragedies hit my family. My 28-year-old cousin put her two kids down for an afternoon nap under their grandparents' care, grabbed an ice cream sandwich, and went out for a break on her new longboard. She fell off and hit her head, and a week later we watched her spirit slip away into heaven.

Shortly thereafter, I lost an uncle from a complication to a very routine surgery. Two months later, another uncle found out he had cancer nine days before he also passed away. Three months after that, I lost my 35-year-old cousin to a heart attack.

Throughout this year of unforeseen tragedy, the prayer corner at Intown has been my safe haven. Nearly every Sunday, tears filled my eyes during communion, and I found great solace in the care of your prayers.

During this difficult year, I stopped looking at myself as a 30-something single woman who did not fit into the culture of this church. Rather, I began looking at myself as a 30-something single woman who was deeply intertwined into struggles and pain of those all around me. How many of us really are the ideal parishioner? We're fathers and mothers, widows and widowers, single and married, lonely and frazzled, yet we all come together on Sunday morning and lift our voices together in the beautiful, mystifying act of worshipping a God who is redeeming and healing us. What a beautiful, humbling thing it is to be a part of such a community.

Last summer, after the fourth family death occurred in June, I decided that I would commit myself wholeheartedly to Intown for the coming school year. I would turn off any voices in my head of criticism or displacement, and completely love on the people of this congregation.

And love on you I have: bending over steaming trays of food at the Rescue Mission, meeting new people visiting us on Sunday mornings, hosting dinners and ballet exhibitions with other women, carrying your burdens in prayer, and celebrating your victories with laughter. I have learned so much about loving Christ and community.

And, beyond all of that, I have learned perhaps the most from your children. In Sunday School they forgive my ukulele skills, singing songs louder to cover my mistakes. They share their faith with each other, answering questions and then turning to ask even deeper questions. And they look at the world with a wide-eyed, faith-filled wonder that we so easily lose in day-to-day life.

To my beautiful, broken, grace-filled Intown Church, thank you for teaching me all that you have about Christ and Faith and Community. I am so grateful for you.

Brooke Snelling