The Doc File

The online journal of Luke Dockery

Author: Luke (page 2 of 121)

Unsettled (And Why That Is A Good Thing)

It has been just over three weeks ago that my family and I moved to begin a new youth ministry work at a different congregation in a new city. Everyone has been so friendly and welcoming, and we are so excited to be where we are. We were in a great place before, working with a great church, but ultimately, we decided to move because we became convinced that it was God’s will that we do so, and that decision has been affirmed and reaffirmed in so many ways since our move.

Having said all that, it has been challenging as well. One question I keep getting over and over is, “How are you settling in?”, and the best answer is probably that I am still very much unsettled. I knew this before, but I have come to realize just how much I am a product of routine, and virtually all of those routines have been interrupted. The familiar faces have changed, I am not sure which keys unlock which doors, and I have swapped a host of activities and trips that I could plan and lead in my sleep for others I have not experienced before and know little about.

For a person who likes to be in control, it’s all a little unsettling.

I suspect that I am not alone in this—either my desire to be in control, or my feelings of discomfort when I realize that I am not.

But what a valuable reminder this season of life is providing me! God does not ask me to construct a façade of control around myself seeking to find comfort in routine. Rather, He asks that I give up the notion of control itself, and place my trust, and indeed, my life, in His capable hands.

The heart of man plans his way,
but the LORD establishes his steps.
(Proverbs 16.9)
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”
(James 4.13-15)

It is unsettling…but I think the life that Jesus asks of His followers is supposed to be exactly that.

Preparing for Ministry in Small Churches

Several days ago, I had the opportunity to speak to a class of ministry students at Harding University who are near the completion of their degrees. While my primary task was to speak to them about youth ministry, I was also supposed to give them some practical tips for doing ministry in a congregational setting.

I offered several tips, some of which were likely more helpful than others, but some of my advice was focused on the reality that Churches of Christ represent a fellowship of small churches.

Consider some of the following information from the 2015 edition of Churches of Christ in the United States, compiled by Carl H. Royster. Of 12,303 congregations of Churches of Christ in the United States:

  • 1,932, or 15.7%, are congregations of 0-24 people
  • 3,351, or 27.2%, are congregations of 25-49 people
  • 3,556, or 28.9%, are congregations of 50-99 people
  • 2,159, or 17.5%, are congregations of 100-199 people
  • Combined, this means that roughly 89% of congregations are less than 200 people in size

The congregation where I currently serve doesn’t seem overly large to me, but at 230, it is in the top ten percent of congregations in our fellowship by size.

Again, Churches of Christ represent a fellowship of small churches. With this reality in mind, I offered a couple of suggestions to the Harding students I talked to who were about to graduate and head into ministry roles in Churches of Christ.

First, it is important to develop a diversified skill set. If you want to work in a church of Christ, and what you really, really want to do is be an adult education minister and do only that, there just aren’t that many jobs like that out there. The reality is that in smaller churches (i.e., the vast majority of churches of Christ), you have to wear a lot of hats, and you need to have a diversified skill set to be able to do that.

In my current position (and remember, we are over 200 in size, so we are larger than 9/10 churches in our fellowship), in a given week I might find myself planning a youth retreat, writing adult Bible class lessons, designing our church website, preaching, and negotiating a new contract with our copier company—and that’s not an unusual week!

Out of necessity, you have to wear a lot of different hats. You might have a specialized skill or skills that you are really good at, and that’s great, but you need to develop general skills as well.

Second, it is important to develop humility about your role. I was speaking that day to Christian college-trained ministry students, which means that in many ways, they are the upper echelon, the elite. They have spent lots of money and countless hours receiving training in biblical languages, intensive Bible study, ministerial skills, etc. Simply put, there are things that they have been trained to do that a lot of people in the congregations where they serve won’t be able to do, and it’s important that they prioritize and do those things.

But at the same time, that doesn’t mean they are too good to do less glamorous, more menial things. I cannot begin to count the number of hours I have spent straightening up chairs, taking out the trash, or putting things away in storage closets while at work. I didn’t need an M.Div to do that work, but it was still a vital part of my job. A couple of years ago, we had a major problem with the sewage line at our church building. Toilets backed up, and foul water flooded the hallway. And our preaching minister got out the mop and went to work. Ultimately, ministers are servants, and they step up to serve where it is needed; they are not too good to do the “small” things.

I am sure there are many more ideas that could be added, and again, this is coming from a guy who isn’t really at a small church. But if these lessons are true for me, how much more they must apply to even smaller congregational contexts. There are some real blessings that come with working with small churches, but it requires a certain type of minister as well.

Judging by demographic realities, many of the ministry students I spoke to will find themselves (at least at some point) working in smaller congregations. I hope what I shared with them will prove to be helpful.

The Full Tomb

Christianity is, fundamentally, about an empty tomb. Following His crucifixion, Jesus was raised from the dead, and as I have written before, this changes everything. This is the central feature of the Christian faith, and the veracity of any of Christianity’s claims depend upon this, first. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 that if Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, then our faith is worthless.

Having said all of that, I think we are sometimes so quick to emphasize the empty tomb that we fail to truly appreciate that there was a time—even if it was a relatively brief time—when the tomb wasn’t empty. It was occupied. It contained the beaten, battered body of Jesus, and the shattered hopes and dreams of His followers.

We like to rush from the crucifixion to the resurrection, and I guess that makes sense, because the in-between time wasn’t easy. For those who had left all they had to follow Jesus, a Jesus in the tomb meant that they had backed the wrong horse; they had gambled everything and lost. The One who they thought was the long-awaited Messiah was just another in a long line of failures.

We live in an in-between time, too, and it isn’t easy, either.

The resurrection of Jesus is the first-fruits of our own, and points ahead to a time when sin, Satan, and death will be defeated, and every tear will be wiped from our eyes. But in the present, many of us mourn beside tombs that are as full as the tomb of Jesus was prior to His vacating it. Many of us stumble through our days, staggering under the weight of shattered hopes and dreams.

Just as Sunday came for the disciples of Jesus, and Jesus Himself was vindicated as the risen Savior when it did, so, we, too, await the coming of a Someday when our faith will become sight, and all of God’s faithful will rise as Jesus did.

But until then, it is worth reflecting on the fact that there are many full tombs, that evil maintains a foothold in our world, and that we weep with those who weep.

Resurrection is coming, but you have to wade through the in-between time first.

Book Review: “Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery”

I recently finished reading Amazing GraceEric Metaxas’s biography of William Wilberforce and his work to end the slave trade. A former New York Times bestseller, this was a book that I had looked forward to reading for quite a while because I enjoyed the Amazing Grace film so much when I watched it a decade ago or so. Unfortunately, this joins a very short list of books that I find to be inferior to films based upon them (The Last of the Mohicans is probably the best example of this).

There were a few things about the book that bothered me:

  • I found much of Metaxas’s prose to be cumbersome. He tends to use flowery language and also makes random asides that seemed out of place in a biography, and cluttered up his paragraphs.
  • Amazing Grace read less like a biography, and more like a hagiography, where Metaxas’s obvious admiration for Wilberforce led him to be less than objective in his evaluation of him (and also resulted in some of the flowery language that I complained about above).
  • Metaxas, who is a politically conservative evangelical, has been criticized for idealizing the characters about whom he writes and making them look very much like himself theologically and politically. This criticism was especially strong after his biography about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but I felt that I could catch glimpses of this in his discussion of Wilberforce’s faith, and especially in Metaxas’s caricatured portrayal of the religious faith of Wilberforce’s day. Though to be fair, having been exposed to this particular criticism of Metaxas’s writing, I was probably looking for it.

Having said that, there are some really good things about this book, and the primary one is that it helps to make accessible the life story of a remarkable man who, driven by his devout faith, worked to bring about profound changes in British society that rippled across the world. Wilberforce is famous for his fight against the slave trade, but was also very involved in the quest to reform British society and to improve British policy in India.

I’ll close by sharing some of my favorite quotations from the book, with brief commentary. In trying to explain that the legacy of Wilberforce is greater than the simple abolition of the slave trade, Metaxas writes:

To fathom the magnitude of what Wilberforce did we have to see that the “disease” he vanquished forever was actually neither the slave trade nor slavery. Slavery still exists in the world today, in such measure as we can hardly fathom. What Wilberforce vanquished was something even worse than slavery, something that was much more fundamental and can hardly be seen from where we stand today: he vanquished the very mind-set that made slavery acceptable and allowed it to survive and thrive for millennia. He destroyed an entire way of seeing the world, one that had held sway from the beginning of history, and he replaced it with another way of seeing the world. Included in the old way of seeing things was the idea that the evil of slavery was good. Wilberforce murdered that old way of seeing things, and so the idea that slavery was good died along with it. Even though slavery continues to exist here and there, the idea that it is good is dead. The idea that it is inextricably intertwined with human civilization, and part of the way things are supposed to be, and economically necessary and morally defensible, is gone. Because the entire mind-set that supported it is gone.

(Amazing Grace, xv)

Wilberforce grew up religious but basically fell away in his late teens and early twenties before experiencing a significant revival and deepening of his faith. When that took place, he was tempted to back away from politics (he was already a member of Parliament at the time), because he thought it to be an improper place for a person of strong religious conviction. His good friend William Pitt, the Prime Minister, did not want to see his friend check out of politics, and suggested that his newfound faith could find much to do in the world of politics:

Surely the principles as well as the practice of Christianity are simple, and lead not to meditation only but to action.

(Amazing Grace, 58)

Ultimately, this advice would prove influential for Wilberforce, who remained in politics and used his platform and influence to do kingdom work and bring about a profound change in the lives of millions.

Part of Wilberforce’s work in his opposition to slavery was educating the British population of the horrors that slaves faced, about which many were genuinely and totally ignorant (slave traders commonly argued that slaves were happy or at least better off in captivity, and many people naively believed it). Wilberforce investigated the living conditions of slaves and knew better, and widely disseminated the information. In a parliamentary debate, Wilberforce explained his motivation for seeking abolition:

…When we think of eternity, and of the future consequences of all human conduct, what is here in this life which should make any man contradict the principles of his own conscience, the principles of justice, the laws of religion, and of God?

Sir, the nature and all the circumstances of this Trade are now laid open to us. We can no longer plead ignorance, we cannot evade it, it is now an object placed before us, we cannot pass it. We may spurn it, we may kick it out of our way, but we cannot turn aside so as to avoid seeing it.

(Amazing Grace, 136)

Metaxas portrays the Britain of Wilberforce’s early years as one which claimed to a form of Christian civil religion, but that it was a watered-down faith that brought little to no leavening influence on the nation as a whole. Wilberforce, who spent a long career as a respected and powerful MP who was famous for his faith and his political stances based upon his faith, was instrumental in changing the religious environment of his day:

When Wilberforce entered Paliament, there were only three MPs who would have identified themselves as seriously Christian, but half a century later there were closer to two hundred. Politics had come to be thought of as a noble calling. There would always be self-seekers—and few individuals could be entirely free of selfish motivation—but the idea that politicians should be free of that motivation and work for the good of society was something new, and Wilberforce’s influence in introducing it is hard to avoid.

(Amazing Grace, 234)

If you are a believer, William Wilberforce—a man of devout faith whose faith and love of neighbor prompted him to act in unpopular ways for the good of others—is a man you need to know well. Amazing Grace is a book with some flaws, but it does a great job of helping the reader to do that—getting to know a man who spent his life working to make God’s kingdom come and His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

A New Chapter

Yesterday was one of the most challenging days of my life, as I announced that I would be leaving the Farmington Church of Christ, my home and family for the last 13 years, to beginning working with a new congregation at the end of May/beginning of June.

Here was the statement that I read:

In June, Caroline and the kids and I will be moving to Searcy, Arkansas, where I have accepted the role of Youth In Family Minister at the Cloverdale Church of Christ. This is not a decision that we have made lightly, but over the last 18 months and with a great deal of prayer, Caroline and I have become increasingly convinced that this is God’s will for our lives.

Working with the church at Cloverdale will also make it possible for me to teach some youth ministry courses at Harding on occasion, and will also give me the opportunity to work year-round in training college students who are interested in going into youth ministry. This position would also put us close to Kinsley’s neurologist in Little Rock, and would be a great financial blessing for our family as well.

As excited as we are about this opportunity, we are equally sad about the notion of leaving Northwest Arkansas, and especially, our Farmington family. That word—family—is frequently thrown around when discussing church, but I do not use it lightly. Over the last 13 years, you all really have become our family. You celebrated our marriage and the birth of our children; you have wept with us during difficult times, rejoiced with us during happy times, and have supported us throughout. Words fail me to describe the love we have for this family of God’s people, and the sadness we feel at moving.

I have been blessed to work with two preachers while I have been at Farmington, and they have both been great friends to me and have taught me much. Mike is one of the finest ministers I have ever known, the most generous person I have ever met, and I will greatly miss working side by side with him. I know that he will continue to be a wonderful blessing to the congregation here.

I have been blessed to work alongside great elders in my time here. They have always been supportive of me, and I have always felt valued and trusted. They have always valued the young people of our congregation, and have made hard decisions at times (like hiring me in the first place!) to make sure that our young people were taken care of. I know they will continue to do that moving forward.

There are so many others who I would like to mention by name, but I won’t, in fear of overlooking someone. The reality is that this room is filled with people who have blessed our lives, and I thank you for it.

Last, but certainly not least, I want to say how blessed I have been to work with dozens and dozens of teens of the Farmington church over the last 13 years. It is such an honor to be invited alongside our young people and develop close ties with them. One of the greatest joys of my life has been to watch them grow up, marry, have children, serve as deacons and Bible class teachers, and remain devoted to their faith in Jesus. To all of my former students and my current ones, I love you, I will always be cheering for you, and nothing will make me prouder than your continued faithfulness in God’s kingdom.

I spend my life trying to teach teenagers that the most important thing in life is to figure out God’s will for your life and then to do that thing. For Caroline and I, that’s what this is about. If we aren’t willing to step out in faith to do God’s will in our own lives, then I have no business telling others what they need to do.

Of course, we’re not moving just yet, and the next three months will be busy as we seek to make healthy transitions for the future of the church here at Farmington. And even after we’re gone, you won’t really be rid of us, because you visit your family—and that’s what you are to us.

Thank you.

Everyone was very loving and supportive, but it was a very challenging and emotional day.

Over the next couple of months, one of my primary tasks is being involved in the process of finding the man who will replace me as the Associate Minister at Farmington. Toward that end, if you (or someone you know) might be interested in the role, you can find a full job description (with contact information) here.

Amidst all the sadness, Caroline and I look forward to the next chapter in our lives with a lot of excitement, and trust that God will be with us on this adventure, as He always has been in the past.

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