Archives For Congregational Development

Jesus Before Christmas

Rebekah Simon-Peter —  December 14, 2017 — 1 Comment

Christmas wasn’t always part of the Christian experience.  There’s no record that Jesus or his disciples or the early church celebrated Hanukkah candle on wooden backgroundChristmas at all. In fact, the first Christmas or Christ Mass wasn’t celebrated until the 4th century.  It’s likely Jesus wasn’t even born in the winter.  Rather, it’s thought that December 25 was chosen as a day to celebrate his birth because it coincided with a pre-existing pagan festival. That would make it easy for non-Christians to add a new layer of meaning to their old celebrations. That happens in the history of religion.

The interesting thing though is that December 25 wasn’t just the date of a pagan festival. It also coincides, in a way, with a festival that Jesus did actually celebrate.

Like Jews of his time, Jesus celebrated the Feast of Dedication which occurs on the 25th of Kislev, a month in the Jewish calendar that most closely approximates December.  “At that time,” the Gospel according to John relates, “the Feast of Dedication took place in Jerusalem; it was winter. Jesus was walking in the Temple in the portico of Solomon. Tell us,” the Jews said, “if you are the Messiah.”  Their comments were fitting, for the Feast of Dedication marked the last time a deliverer had arisen to save them from oppression.   It was past time for another; the Roman experience was a cruel one indeed.

The Feast of Dedication commemorates the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its utter desecration at the brutal hands of Antiochus Epiphanes about 170 years BC. Today, that feast is known by its Hebrew name, Chanukah. Although Chanukah only gets a line or two in the New Testament, it actually plays a huge role in the birth of Jesus.

To explain, we have to go back in history over three hundred years before the birth of Christ.  Alexander the Great ruled the ancient world around the Eastern Mediterranean. After conquering the Persian Empire, Greek culture, or Hellenism, spread like wildfire. The Jews living in Israel quickly found themselves surrounded by it and then almost swallowed up by it. Hellenism was to the ancient world what Western culture is to the modern world. Just as you can find a McDonald’s in just about every corner of the world, not to mention American pop music, blue jeans, TV re-runs, Western style Christianity, and the English language, so in that day, you could find Greek culture, religion, and language permeating every other culture of the world. Needless to say, it wasn’t all good, especially for those in the minority, like the Jews.  It put their whole distinctive way of life at risk.

After Alexander died, his empire eventually fell into the hands of one Antiochus IV Epiphanes.  Epiphanes means “face of God,” but a more apt description was the moniker the Jews gave him: “Epimanes” or “crazy man.”  He was the Hitler of the intertestamental period.  Like Hitler, he was obsessed with wiping out the Jewish people.  He began with the slaughter of the citizens of Jerusalem and the desecration of the Temple.  Alfred Edersheim explains what happened in his book, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah:

“All sacrifices, the service of the Temple, and the observance of the Sabbath and of feast days were prohibited; the Temple at Jerusalem was dedicated to Jupiter Olympus (a Greek god); the Torah was searched for and destroyed; the Jews forced to take part in heathen rites; in short, every insult was heaped on the religion of the Jews, and its every trace was to be swept away.”

Bottom line:  Antiochus was bent on genocide. The final straw was the slaughter of a pig on the sacrificial altar in the Temple. Definitely not kosher. This occurred on the 25th of Kislev, the month that generally corresponds to our December.

A Jewish deliverer rose up whose name was Mattathias. Even though they were outnumbered and overpowered, under his leadership the Jewish people began a campaign of guerilla warfare against Antiochus and his Syrian armies to reclaim the Temple.  Mattathias died fighting, but his five sons carried on, including one whose name you might know: Judah Maccabee. He led the fighting till the Temple could be purified and its services restored.

Exactly three years after its desecration, the Temple was rededicated.  This also took place on the 25th of Kislev, about 165 years before the nativity of Christ.  If Antiochus had carried out his plan, there would have been no Mary, no Joseph, and no Jesus.  There would have been no Messiah of Israel, no Savior of the World.  Bottom line:  without Chanukah, there would be no Christmas. Jesus owed his life to Chanukah. In a sense, we owe our faith to it.

In the midst of this Advent Season, let us remember the minor Jewish holiday that celebrates freedom of religion and which makes possible the major Christian one.  Let’s do like Jesus did and re-dedicate ourselves to freedom of religious expression, and to the freedom to dedicate ourselves to God.

Adapted from “Christmas through Jewish Eyes”, by Rebekah Simon-Peter.

The bad boy culture is alive and well. We see it in real life: prominent men who sexually harass women and get away with it; home grown Young Boys In Playing In Parkterrorists who blow up buildings; shooters and mass murderers who kill with impunity. We see it on the silver screen: anti-heroes abound, armed with superpowers, deadly weapons and ill intent. Sometimes the heroes that take them down are almost indistinguishable from the anti-heroes.

I used to think: “What is wrong with those men?” Thinking of my grounded, compassionate, spiritual husband, I would breathe a sigh of relief: “Boy, am I glad I got a good one.” Implied in my thought process was that, like an invisible cancer, something was mysteriously wrong with those particular individuals.

Turns out it’s not that simple. We may all play a role in creating the bad boy culture. And, like any culture we’ve had a part in making, we can have a hand in re-making it, too. That’s especially true for the church.

What’s at the root of the bad boy culture? Niobe Way, a developmental psychologist at New York University, believes that the problem is the way boys are raised. She writes about it in her book, Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection.

“We essentially raise boys in a culture that asks them to disconnect from their core humanity,” Way said in a recent radio interview, “which is their desire for relationships and all sorts of things the boys articulate that they want.” She goes on to say that the larger culture reinforces that disconnect by looking askance at boys that are too emotional and relational. We give them the message that they are not real men.

Our societal expectations then lead to a culture “that accepts lonely and aggressive boys, and ultimately puts them in positions of power.” These lonely and aggressive boys not only commit sexual assault, but all kinds of violence. Most telling was this insight of hers: “We look at mass violence and we’re all writing articles about mass violence. Then we have a rapist and we’re all writing articles about rape. The we have an article about police violence and we’re focused on police violence, without understanding there’s a common root across these problems. If you raise boys to go against their nature, some of them will grow up and act crazy.”

So, what are we to do about these boys who grow up and act crazy? In the church, there is much we can do. We are an intergenerational intersection of spirituality and morality, belief and meaning. We regularly interpret both ancient wisdom and contemporary culture in order to derive enduring meaning. Ours is a perfect location to address and re-make the kind of culture we raise boys, and girls, in.

Here are some things we in the church can do.

  1. Turn up the volume. Right now, we are in the phase of naming and seeing the bad boy culture. So, turn up the volume. If girls and women, (as well as boys and men) have been violated, encourage them to give voice to their experiences. It takes courage, strength, and self-respect to speak truth to power in the bad boy culture. Especially if the males in question are in positions of personal or professional power.
  2. Involve men proactively. Women are often victims of the bad boy culture. But men have a large say in it. So, involve men proactively. Challenge men to call each other out. It’s one thing for women to say what happened to them. It’s another thing altogether for men to say no to male behavior that threatens the common good. Men, draw attention to it before it escalates.
  3. Befriend lonely and aggressive boys. Men especially, take these guys under your wing, reach out to them, and help them find a place of meaning in the larger society. In my community, there is a popular program run by a local church called Pop in the Shop where older men mentor at risk youth in the art of car repair.
  4. Re-interpret God gone rogue. Look afresh at passages from the Bible that seem to reinforce or uphold a bad boy culture. Bring a new interpretive lens to texts like these, especially when they relate to God going rogue: God deciding to drown all of creation in a flood, or wiping out the Tower of Babel, or condoning killing off other tribes, or proclaiming exile on his people. Be sure to distinguish the historical and religious context of the story, instead of preaching as if ancient societal norms and ours were exactly the same. The same goes for dealing with apocalyptic passages in the New Testament. Remember your hermeneutics classes, as well as the ins and outs of historical, literary and textual criticism. Not sure how? Consult modern and post-modern commentaries for help with this.

There are no easy answers here. But Niobe Way’s insights can point us in a direction worth exploring.

The conversation about who and what women can be has changed dramatically over the years. For the better. We have so many options about how we work, play, love, marry, live and lead. We can be stay at home moms, or president of the United States. We can sit on the Supreme Court bench or preach from the pulpit. We can marry or be single, we can have kids or not, we can work or not. We can even choose to be sex objects if we like.

The time has come to expand the conversation for boys and men. It’s time to open up new options for friendship and relatedness, for caring and connection, for meaning and masculinity. And we can do it without shaming or looking askance at boys who choose non-traditional ways of expressing their masculinity.

After all, Jesus had 12 close male friends. He didn’t go it alone. Our boys shouldn’t have to either.

Just because pastors and key laity are called leaders doesn’t mean we are practicing effective leadership. Take me, for example. By theIliff grad (2) time I graduated from the Iliff School of Theology in 1998, I had an M.Div. and an M.A.R with a healthy cumulative GPA of about 3.75. I had studied Hebrew, Greek, Old Testament, New Testament, theology, church history, preaching, worship, and Christian education. I learned how to read and interpret the scriptures, lead prayer, organize a bible study, serve communion, baptize babies, visit the sick, bury the dead, counsel the distressed, call meetings, administer the life of the church, and under duress, consult the Book of Discipline.

I was prepared to manage the church, but not to truly lead the church.

What’s the difference? A manager helps an organization survive. A leader innovates so it thrives. A manager dots the i’s and crosses the t’s. A leader generates a brand new vocabulary. A manager makes sure everything is in order. A leader envisions a brand new order. Managers tend to people and processes. Leaders build up new people and craft new processes. If managing is sufficient when things are going well, leadership is crucial when things are not going well.

What I learned in seminary was sufficient for when things are going well. But we all know that things haven’t been going well. At the same time that I was honing and expanding my skills, there was a larger dynamic at play: a culture of decline in the church. Not just my church—but the denomination as a whole, mainline Christianity as a whole. Since the early 70s, we have seen a significant loss of membership, attendance, giving and influence. At the same time, we’ve seen a concurrent rise in the ranks of church alumni, the spiritual but not religious.

I pastored local churches for more than 11 years. By the time I left, I was frustrated and burned out—even with all the love and good ministry that had transpired. What happened to the grand calling I had? Why was the church in decline even though I put everything I had into it?   In the 11 years since then, I’ve immersed myself in mastering the principles and practices of effective leadership in the church. Here’s what I’ve discovered including 5 confessions of my own.

1.  Leaders may be born, but even more than that, they are formed. Some of us naturally possess a personality style that others equate with “leader.” We get things done. We have an air of confidence. We connect with people. As important as those qualities are, though, they are not enough to constitute effective leadership. An effective leader doesn’t do it all herself. She also knows how to empower others to get things done. Jesus intentionally authorized and empowered those around him to do what he did. That’s why his movement is still alive while the things I began in the local church most likely are not. I didn’t fully understand how to turn things over. Church leaders, it doesn’t matter if you’re a born leader or not. We can learn those skills. In fact, we must if we are to fulfill our callings.

2.  Effective leaders have high emotional intelligence. Self-awareness, empathy, motivation, social skill and self-regulation are five commonly accepted attributes of EQ. Jesus had all these qualities in spades. He knew himself. He had empathy for others. He understood what motivated others, and had the skill to move people in the direction he wanted to go. Finally, he knew how to regulate his own actions, motivations and fears to accomplish higher ends. The Gospel stories of his interactions with friend and foe alike illustrate his EQ.

While I had self-awareness and empathy, I wasn’t always clear on what motivated others, or how to move everyone in the direction I sensed God was calling us to. That means my ability to self-regulate was limited.   I did what I knew how to do—persuade, cajole, inspire, push—trying harder and harder. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. I didn’t know sometimes people need facts and figures rather than emotion and inspiration. I didn’t know sometimes people need advance notice to figure things out and get on board.

Doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results is one definition of insanity. It’s a prescription for burnout, too.

3.  Church leaders can’t save the church, and shouldn’t try. Decline is bigger than we are. Instead of our sole focus being on boosting giving, attendance, and baptisms, we need a focus that is larger than ourselves. That means keeping one eye on our current constituency and another on the needs and possibilities in the communities around us. If we attend to those things well, the church will likely thrive too.

Jesus had his eye on the Kingdom of God which required a complete re-focusing of spiritual and religious energies. Out of this vision emerged not only the creation of a brand new movement now called Christianity, but a stronger, re-invented Judaism as well.

I took decline personally. I figured the answer was to do more, demand more, spend more time, take less vacations. That didn’t work; it’s a recipe for burnout. Decline is overcome with a bigger vision and a change in consciousness, not more effort.

4. Leadership development for leaders is not an oxymoron or a redundancy. Most of us get 3-9 semester hours of leadership development in seminary or course of study. The rest of it comes from intentional continuing education. That’s how I became a leadership developer. I wanted to upgrade the conversation church leaders devolve into about leading and the church. Instead of slogging alone through years of nagging self-doubt, disempowerment and victimhood—like I had—I wanted to create a new conversation. So I developed what I learned into a useable, accessible format for others.

5. The culture of decline cannot produce a culture of renewal. Because we church leaders—locally and nationally—are used to operating in a culture of decline, our thinking is unconsciously limited by that. We’re more used to scarcity than abundance. It’s easier to tick off reasons why we can’t rather than reasons why we can. Effective leadership development is grounded in a different kind of culture. Creating a culture of renewal requires a focus on Jesus’ own empowerment of us and the structures he employed to cultivate it. That includes high expectations, life-giving accountability, miracle-making, acknowledgement and celebration.

I confess that I didn’t know any of this when I graduated seminary, or when I pastored three churches. I knew what didn’t work. But I couldn’t quite figure out what would work. That took lots of trial and error. In the 11 years since leaving local church ministry, fellow travelers have joined me on the journey and discovered their own path to effective leadership.

If you would like to learn how to step into greater leadership by becoming an emotionally intelligent, Jesus-empowered, visionary leader who can create a culture of renewal, let’s talk! Email me at, call me at (307) 320-6779, or check out my website:

The apostles embarked on an intense program of training, education and discipleship before they were set loose to do what Jesus did. Chief authorized word artamong their acquired attributes as apostles was divine authority.

When I was ordained, I knelt down before Bishop Mary Ann Swenson. She laid her hands upon me, and said words I’ll never forget: “Take thou authority.” It didn’t take more than a year as a pastor before I realized that I hadn’t taken enough. As the years ticked by, I grew in my own sense of inner authority, but I also bumped up against circumstances, people and situations that called out my worst: people pleasing, fear of offending, and wanting to be liked. Self-doubt plagued me. Yet, Bishop Swenson’s words percolated in my soul: “Take thou authority.”

Like the apostles of old, we church leaders cannot function without appropriate authority. So why is it that we have de-authorized ourselves?

Over the years, I have gone back to the Source for more and more authority. This hasn’t been authority wielded over others as much as authority over my own inner storms, lack of faith, self-doubt, and negative self-talk. As a result, I have been able to speak, lead, decide, delegate, and envision with more authority. Miracles have ensued.

Miracles and authority go together. Mark’s Gospel tells us that “Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed 12—designating them apostles—that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.” Later, “Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he sent them out two by two and gave them authority over evil spirits…They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.”

What empowered these miracles? First, Jesus has equipped and empowered them, fully expecting them to do what he does: teach, preach and heal in the name of the Kingdom.  But there’s something else going on here. Their faith has grown to the point where they can effectively cast out demons, heal the sick, and shake dust off their feet when they are not welcome. Can you imagine the kind of authority they wielded over their own lack of faith, self-doubt, bad attitudes, feelings, and wavering sense of purpose and calling? Together with their calling by Jesus, I believe that’s what is at the source of the miraculous.

As the disciples-turned-apostles in our ministry settings, now it is our turn.   Over and over again in the scriptures, Jesus is clear that he wants us to have authority: authority to ask, claim, declare, preach, interpret, teach, set free, and forgive sins.   If it’s true that “the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins,” then perhaps to be Christ-like is to claim our own authority.

When I came into the church, some 25 years ago, it seems like Jesus was the answer to every question. That’s bad theology. It’s certainly not the answer Jesus himself gave to every question. Instead, he generally pointed people to God, or to the realm of the Kingdom, to their own inner authority. You want to walk on water, Peter? Come on out.   You want to make sure these people are fed, friend? You feed them. I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the point. Jesus constantly authorized the people around him to act. Yet, in the church, we’ve de-authorized ourselves. We feel we have little say over the culture, the people, the future of the church, or even the role we play in it. We are plagued with low self-esteem, high stress, and negative self-talk. We have let circumstances dictate our authority rather than Jesus himself.

While some of those dynamics are the function of a declining church, they are also part of the cause of decline.   Many of us have lost our voice, our way, and our inner sense of authority. Yet, Jesus himself, let alone the Bishop, insists: Take thou authority!

You realize what this means, don’t you? We have agency, power, authority, autonomy, ability, and capacity that we did not know we had. We are co-creators with God, in the dance of leadership together. It all comes down to faith: “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Matthew 21:21-22)

As you grow in apostleship, be sure to take thou authority. Then take some more. You’ll need it. Not only that, the Kingdom is depending on it.


“Do you think I’m an apostle?” It was an unusual come-on line from a would-be suitor. As a single female pastor, though, I got used to Faith Hope Ideology Believe Trust Conceptfielding all kinds of weird questions on dates. But I wasn’t sure how to answer this one. Even so, his question has stuck with me throughout the years; it was the first time I had heard a regular person apply the word apostle to themselves.

The word apostle seems to be reserved for the select few, or as alter egos for the disciples. Its usage begs the question: What’s the difference between an apostle and a disciple? And is the word apostle even still to be used?

Last week we explored the question: Is your church culture set up for apostle-making?   I argued that “sometimes we think only church planters can be apostles. Or that it requires a special call. I disagree. If we follow Jesus’ model, apostleship is a natural next step in discipleship. It’s how followers become leaders. It’s how Jesus’ ministry gets carried out.”

This week, I want to dig into the key differences between discipleship and apostleship, and reveal to you the secret faith of apostles. Then I’ll suggest two steps you can take to grow in your apostleship.

Disciples and Apostles

The word disciple comes from the Latin discipulus, meaning scholar. A disciple is the student of a particular teacher. A disciple’s primary focus is the teacher and mastering his or her teachings, so that they can follow their path. (The word derech in the Hebrew, means path or way). John the Baptist had disciples, the Pharisees had disciples, and Jesus had disciples. (See Luke 5:33).   Of all three, we know the most about Jesus’ disciples: they traveled extensively with Jesus to learn, absorb, and soak up all they could about his life and ethos.

While a disciple is a student, an apostle is an altogether different animal. The word apostle derives from the Greek apostolos, meaning envoy. If disciples are followers, apostles are agents. The first are somewhat passive while the latter are active, even proactive.   Apostles are sent out as commissioned agents to act on behalf of another person.

The first 12 apostles functioned as both disciples and apostles. “And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons.” (Mark 3:13-15) The 12 first learned from Jesus, then were sent out in his name. They were followed by many others who were also sent out in his name including Barnabas, Paul, and Junia.

Jesus first sent the 12 out, and later the 70, to heal the sick, cast out demons, and preach the Kingdom. In other words, to do exactly what he did. Jesus ultimately said they could do even greater things than he, which they also accomplished. The book of Acts tells how the apostles oversaw the rapid multiplication of the church, with thousands upon thousands becoming believers.

How is it that these one-time followers of Jesus were able to duplicate the very miracles we usually associate exclusively with Jesus? This question leads us straight to the biggest difference between disciples and apostles. I assert that disciples have faith in Jesus while apostles have the faith of Jesus. Otherwise, there’s no way that apostles could do what Jesus did. Apostles must make a qualitative leap in faith. Let’s look at these differences in faith.

Faith in Jesus   Faith in Jesus means trusting in his power, his love, his teachings, and his saving grace. This is the kind of faith we commonly teach in church—in songs and hymns, sermons and Bible studies, and children’s messages and youth curriculum. It is the focus of our teaching on salvation.

Faith of Jesus  Having the faith of Jesus takes things to a whole new level. It means trusting in what Jesus trusted in. It means abiding in a deep knowing that you are one with God and one with the Holy Spirit; it means cultivating an unwavering trust in your life purpose; it means entertaining a rock-solid knowledge that all things are possible; it means living with an ever-ready expectancy of miracles. Most of all, it means living in constant communion with, and surrender to, God. In other words, having the faith of Jesus means operating in an elevated state of consciousness in which there is no separation between humanity and divinity, between us and God. This kind of faith is hinted at in church, but is often not emphasized, even though it is a big part of Jesus’ teachings (see for instance John 15). It is the secret faith of apostles. Is it any wonder that apostleship is so little known?

Growing as an Apostle

With this in mind, you may be ready to grow as an apostle. If you are, here are two suggested steps to take:

  1. Ask Jesus to show you the kind of faith he had.   Listen quietly and expectantly for an answer. Then do what he tells you to do.
  2. Pray the prayer of the apostles: “Lord, increase our faith.” (Luke 17:5). Then, listen for his answer. Just as he encouraged the 12, don’t be surprised if he directs you into action. Here are things you can do right away: stop doubting God, and stop doubting yourself. Doubt in God limits God’s capacities to do wonders in your life. Self-doubt limits your capacities to follow God’s instructions. Either way, both kinds of doubt interrupt momentum and obstruct miracles.

Remember my would-be suitor and his question? After he asked me about apostleship, I had to question my own level of faith. After all, he was a mailman and I was a pastor. Where in the heck was my trust in God?   I prayed my own version of the apostle’s prayer when he eventually asked me the big question on bended knee. God showed me the right answer; I said yes.

Next week, we’ll look at the 5 A’s of biblical apostleship. In the meantime, if you are interested in maximizing your leadership culture, check out my latest workshop: From Discipleship to Apostleship.

Article adapted from the forthcoming book, “Dream Like Jesus,” by Rebekah Simon-Peter.   All rights reserved.