The Doc File

The online journal of Luke Dockery

Category: Ministry (page 1 of 12)

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 Story of the Bible

Beginning in September 2017, our Sunday morning adult Bible classes at Farmington began an 18-month journey through Scripture called The Story of the Bible. This biblical survey is based on videos from The Bible Project, and in addition to providing background information on each biblical book, it also discusses key themes of each book and offers points of application for our lives today.

This was a major undertaking for us, and is actually part of the reason that I didn’t get to write as much here at The Doc File as I wanted to over the last couple of years—it took hours and hours to write and edit lessons for this project.

We finished this series this past week at Farmington, and I am pleased to offer both the Old and New Testament books for free download on the Resources page. The Story of the Bible is all about digging into Scripture in order to better see how it is a unified story that points us to Jesus and the redemption of creation; I hope it is beneficial to you!

Reading in 2018

It’s that time of year again, when people talk about their reading from the previous year and the best books they read. As someone who (a) tries to thoughtfully reflect on things and (b) obsessively keeps lists of things, I always enjoy reading lists from other people and sharing my own.

Here is my own list from 2018:

  1. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K. Rowling
  2. Beneath a Scarlet Sky, by Mark Sullivan
  3. Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, by N.T. Wright
  4. Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings, edited by John Dillenberger*
  5. The Marburg Colloquy, edited by Hermann Sasse
  6. The Knowledge of God the Creator (from Institutes of the Christian Religion), by John Calvin
  7. The Necessity of Reforming the Church, by John Calvin
  8. The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, translated by Anthony Mottola*
  9. The Racovian Catechism*
  10. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by J.K. Rowling
  11. The Reasonableness of Christianity, by John Locke
  12. A Discourse of Miracles, by John Locke
  13. Proposals to Correct Conditions in the Church in Pia Desideria, by Philip Jacob Spener
  14. Decision Points, by George W. Bush
  15. Divorce, by John R.W. Stott
  16. Afro-American Religious History: A Documentary Witness, edited by Milton C. Sernett*
  17. Woman in the Pulpit, by Frances Willard*
  18. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by J.K. Rowling
  19. Jesus: A Study of the Life of Christ, by Shane Robinson
  20. The Five Books of Moses & The Former Prophets, by Bibliotheca
  21. The Making of George Washington, by William H. Wilbur
  22. Creating a Lead Small Culture: Make Your Church a Place Where Kids Belong, by Reggie Joiner, Kristen Ivy, and Elle Campbell
  23. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling
  24. The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible, by Michael S. Heiser
  25. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling
  26. The Story of Christianity, Volume 2: The Reformation to the Present Day, by Justo L. Gonzalez
  27. The Faith of the Presidents, by Anne Schraff
  28. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien
  29. The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia, by Tim Tzouliadis
  30. The Latter Prophets, by Bibliotheca
  31. Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America, by Michael Wear
  32. Havana Bay, by Martin Cruz Smith
  33. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
  34. Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee
  35. A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology, by J. Richard Middleton
  36. The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace: God’s Antidotes for Division within the Churches of Christ, by Jay Guin
  37. Montmorency: Thief, Liar, Gentleman?, by Eleanor Updale
  38. The Perilous Road, by William O. Steele
  39. History and Background of the Institutional Controversy, by Steve Wolfgang
  40. Crispin: the Cross of Lead, by Avi
  41. The Ghost Hollow Mystery, by Page Carter
  42. Letters To The Church, by Francis Chan
  43. The Writings, by Bibliotheca
  44. Significant Others: Understanding Our Non-Christian Neighbors, by Monte Cox
  45. Alexander Campbell, Apostle of Truth, by William Blake
  46. The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place, by Andy Crouch
  47. The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis
  48. How To Be A Perfect Christian: Your Comprehensive Guide To Flawless Spiritual Living, by The Babylon Bee
  49. Priceless, by Jeremy Myers
  50. The Apocrypha, by Bibliotheca
  51. The New Testament, by Bibliotheca
  52. A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard
  53. Discovering Our Roots: The Ancestry of Churches of Christ, by C. Leonard Allen and Richard T. Hughes
  54. Traces of the Kingdom, by Keith Sisman

A few observations before I talk about my favorite books of the year:

  • My reading total increased from 52 books in 2017 to 54 books in 2017. And this included a couple of very large volumes of 650-800 pages. I see other people who read 100 books or more a year, but at this stage of my life, it seems that somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 is my limit.
  • I enjoyed my reading in 2018 more than in 2017.
  • There were two big disappointments in my reading this past year. The first was the Bibliotheca series, which I used to do my daily Bible reading in 2018. There was a lot of fanfare about this translation when it came out, and indeed, it has many admirable qualities: an elegant typeface, beautiful binding, and a page layout that should lend itself to readability. However, the translation itself was wooden and awkward, and I simply did not enjoy it at all. Also, Traces of the Kingdom was a book that I had looked forward to for a few years, but I really struggled with it. Although the author puts you in touch with some extraordinarily rare primary sources that are hundreds of years old, the writing is poor, and much of the logic and argumentation is stretched. It was a disappointment.

My favorite books from 2018.

Regarding my Top 10 books for the year, here are some brief thoughts on those (presented in order of when I read them, not ranked 1-10):

  • Beneath a Scarlet Skyby Mark Sullivan: This is a novel, based on a true story, set in WWII Italy. It is a gripping tale of a teenage boy seeking to navigate the warring factions of Nazis, Mussolini’s Fascists, Allied forces, resistance fighters, partisans, and the Catholic church. It is a gripping tale and compelling read. Fans of All The Light We Cannot See will appreciate this book, which is better.
  • Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Senseby N.T. Wright: N.T. Wright is the preeminent living Christian thinker, and this is his basic presentation of the Christian faith (it has been called the Mere Christianity for modern times). In my opinion, nothing that Wright writes is truly “simple,” so, despite his intentions, I can’t say that this is the easiest read for the average Christian, but it is a great book.
  • The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bibleby Michael S. Heiser: Heiser makes the basic claim that modern believers do not read/hear the Bible in the way that ancient believers did, who believed in a robust array of spiritual beings who operate “unseen” and greatly influence the lives that we experience. This becomes the prevailing paradigm for how he interprets Scripture, and especially if you are not familiar with the biblical motif of the Divine Council, much of what he says will shock you. Ultimately, I think Heiser draws some conclusions that are not warranted, but on the whole, I think he makes a very compelling case. This book has been somewhat of a game-changer for me.
  • The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russiaby Tim Tzouliadis: During the Great Depression, thousands of down-on-their-luck Americans were lured to Stalinist Russia with the promise of work and prosperity available to all in the Communist Utopia. Within a few short years, they (along with millions of others) would be killed in the Stalinist purges and, adding to the tragedy, they were largely abandoned by the US government. Not to get too political in a brief book review, but in an era when I increasingly witness many people (especially those generally around my age or younger) pay lip service to the idea that socialism and even communism are benign or even preferable politico-economic systems, this was an important read for me. When it came to murdering people, Stalin made Hitler look like an amateur, and I don’t say that lightly.
  • A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatologyby J. Richard Middleton: Middleton argues that the Biblical text teaches that God will redeem and restore His creation and will dwell with His people for eternity on a New Heaven and New Earth. This is not some form of premillennialism, but neither is it the popular notion of the Christian hope being getting to escape from this earth and “go to heaven when we die.” This interpretation will be challenging for some, but I am convinced that this perspective is fundamentally correct, and Middleton’s treatment of it is excellent.
  • Letters To The Churchby Francis Chan: This was a convicting read for me. Chan is a Restorationist’s Restorationist, and this book basically encourages Christians to thoughtfully return to the model of the church as described in the pages of Scripture. Simply put, there are some basic ways of “doing church” that really need to be evaluated and, quite possibly, jettisoned. This book left me uneasy in a good way.
  • Significant Others: Understanding Our Non-Christian Neighbors, by Monte Cox: Dr. Cox was one of my favorite teachers at Harding, and this book is basically a written version of his “Living World Religions” class (one of my favorite classes). It is a helpful overview of various world religions, and would make an excellent resource for a Bible class.
  • The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Placeby Andy Crouch: Technolgy is increasingly present in our lives, and for all of its positive benefits, there are negative side effects as well. Crouch offers some helpful (and at times, extreme) perspective on how families should treat technology and strive to create home environments that cultivate wisdom and courage.
  • The Great Divorceby C.S. Lewis: I’m not sure that I have ever read something by Lewis that I didn’t like, but this is one of my favorites. Lewis’ allegorical take on hell is, in my opinion, both brilliant and helpful.
  • A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard: I had really not read/heard much from Dr. King before, other than his “I Have a Dream” speech or snippets of quotations from other sources, and that was a mistake, because King’s speeches evidence not only beautiful eloquence, but also profound theological insight. I plan to do additional reading from (and on) Dr. King in the future.

That was my reading for 2018. For comparison’s sake if you are interested, you can see my reading lists from previous years:

As always, I have a bunch of books lined out to read in 2019, and am already in the midst of two good ones right now.

What are some of the best books you read this past year?

*Books that I did not read in their entirety, but read significant portions of.

“Do Thy Work”

In my last post, I lamented the fact that so many Christians seem to be so unconcerned about seeking unity with other believers, despite this being something that Jesus Himself specifically prayed for.

This is something that frustrates me greatly, but to be honest, there are a lot of issues that frustrate me greatly which I face regularly as a minister:

  • Why does a particular parent seem less concerned about their child’s faith than am?
  • If Christians really believe what they claim to believe, why aren’t they more committed to Christ and His church?
  • How can people who have supposedly been following Jesus for decades be so immature and unChristian in the ways they deal with other people?
  • How can Christians get more stirred up about their political views than their faith? Related: why do so many American Christians seem to feel more loyalty toward America than Christ?
  • Why do we pick and choose which sinful behaviors we will address and condemn?

The list could go on and on; really, I just picked random problems as they occurred to me. When I focus on all of these problems and the way that they frustrate me, it can be exasperating: at times, I am tempted to throw up my hands and throw in the towel.

But then, I remember one of my favorite quotations from George MacDonald, the Scottish author, minister, and theologian:

“Heed not thy feeling; do thy work.”

In other words, the frustration I feel in response to these problems actually has no bearing on my own responsibility to do what I know that I have been called to do. I am to tend the garden in which God has planted me, take up my cross daily and follow Jesus, and seek to live out the behavior in my own life that I hope to see in the lives of others.

Jesus expresses a similar idea in John 21.18-22. He is speaking to Peter, and says:

“Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”

Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then He said to him, “Follow Me!”

Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray You?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”

Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow Me.”

Jesus tells Peter that it really wasn’t his place to worry about what happened to the other disciple (probably John); Peter’s job was to follow Jesus.

Whether in ministry, or in life in general, there are many things that may bother me greatly. I may pray about those things, study and plan ways to address the problems, strive to teach others to live in better and more godly ways, etc. But ultimately, it is not my job to fix the world’s problems or feel depressed when I’m unable to do so; my job is to follow Jesus.

As He said to Peter, Jesus says to me: “What is that to you? You must follow Me.”

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