Yearly Archives: 2007

Divine Hours

There seems to have been a revival of interest in ancient forms of spiritual discipline, notably in the area of prayer. From the early Church, the day was marked by regular hours. As early as the Didache in 60 A.D. Christians were encouraged to pray with regularity – the Lord’s Prayer three times a day, the Psalter throughout the day. By the time of the Church fathers [Clement, Origen, Tertullian] the hours of the day were marked by prayer: the terce, the sext, the none …

There are websites that provide guidance through these hours, mostly from the Orthodox traditions [http://www.agpeya.org/index.html] Over this last year, as I’ve sought to elevate my own discipline of meaningful prayer, I’ve benefitted from the manuals for prayer written by Phyllis Tickle [The Divine Hours.] Written as a Trilogy: Autumn/Winter; Spring; Summer … the books are more than a matter of prayer. They are a guide for the type of worship that is woven through time and space. As she explained: Christians, wherever they practice the discipline of fixed-hour prayer frequently find themselves filled with a conscious awareness that they are handing their worship, at its final “Amen” on to other Christians in the next time zone. Like relay runners passing a lighted torch, those who do the work of fixed-hour prayer create thereby a continuous cascade of praise before the throne of God.

As Christmas approaches, there is an evening [or Compline] prayer that is ending each day. As I pray it in these few remaining days before Christmas, it seems to add more meaning: O God, you have caused the holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light; Grant that I, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven; where with You and the Holy Spirit He lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Everyday Theology

Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends
Edited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Charles A. Anderson, Michael J. Sleasman. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007. 285 pages, $29.99, paperback.

Most of our churches in the Fellowship are not missional, but communal in orientation.  That is, their primary orientation towards the community in which they are placed is inward focused, seeking to draw people into the programs of the church.  On the other hand, the primary goal of a missional church with respect to their broader context is to seek relevant and impacting involvement outside of the programs of the church.  The communal oriented church addresses the surrounding community with approval, caution or rebuke through the stance of an outsider.  The missional church seeks significant involvement with the community in order to speak as an insider.  Such a church takes a missionary stance of seeking understanding, involvement and acceptance with people outside of the church in order to speak with relevance to them.  

Most of our churches in the Fellowship are not missional, but communal in orientation

A missional stance requires skill to recognize, interpret and respond to the concerns of people who do not believe church is relevant to their lives.  Kevin J. Vanhoozer, a research professor of systematic theology at Trinity Theological Divinity School, has made an important contribution to this end through the recent book, Everyday Theology.  The book is designed to provide guidance on “how to read cultural texts and interpret trends” as the book’s subtitle states.  By “texts” Vanhoozer does not mean merely written texts, but all aspects of culture, including music, art, and architecture, that communicate a message.  By interpreting these messages correctly we gain a window onto the yearnings of the human heart. Vanhoozer provides an introductory essay explaining “the Method” for successful interpretation.  The remaining chapters, which include an analysis of Eminem’s music, the grocery checkout line and mega-church architecture, are products of his students that provide insight into how understanding culture allows us to shape the gospel message in such a way that it speaks to the people who need to hear the message of life.

Click to discover a workshop on how to make missional a part of your church’s agenda

Manly Orthodoxy

Over the last couple of years, I’ve found myself increasingly distressed by the quality of evangelical worship, or lack thereof. It’s gotten to the point where I have to discipline myself from ranting over the loss of the deep symbols of our faith, the absence of holy moments and spiritual drama, and the general illiteracy of our treasury of liturgy. It’s troubling.

But, while I seek to contain my rant, I have to share an article written by Frederica Matthewes-Green published on the internet site Beliefnet.com on November 6, 2007. It’s title: Why Orthodox Men Love Church. It was the product of a study she had conducted due to a unique phenomenon: In a time when churches of every description are faced with Vanishing Male Syndrome, men are showing up at Eastern Orthodox churches in numbers that, if not numerically impressive, are proportionately intriguing. This may be the only church which attracts and holds men in numbers equal to women … rather than quess why this is, I [contacted] several hundred Orthodox men, most of whom joined the church as adults. What do they think makes this church particularly attractive to men? There responses … may spark some ideas for leaders in other churches who are looking for ways to keep guys in the pews.

While Frederica Matthews-Green identified 7 key reasons, there was one specific spirit that emerged from the comments: Orthodoxy is serious. It is difficult. It is demanding … I am challenged in a deep way, not to “feel good about myself” but to become holy. It is rigorous, and in that rigor, I find liberation. Among the 7 reasons, I was struck by the robust dynamic created by profound worship: It’s easier for guys to express themselves in worship if there are guidelines about how it’s supposed to work … learning clear-cut physical actions that are expected to form character and understanding … learning immediately through ritual and symbolism … the regimen of discipline making one mindful of one’s relation to the Trinity, to the Church, and to everyone he meets..

There is something manly to worship. Matthew-Green reports: the men who wrote me expressed hearty dislike for what they perceive as a soft Western Jesus … a Christianity that has been feminized … presents Jesus as a friend, a lover, someone who walks with me and talks with me … This is fine rapturous imagery for [those] who need a social life … [but] lines like “reaching out for his embrace”, “wanting to touch His face” while “being overwhelmed by the power of his love” are difficult songs for one man to sing to another Man.”

One man said that worship at his … church had been “largely an emotional experience. Feelings, Tears … singing emotional songs, swaying with hands aloft. … from a Deacon, “Evangelical churches call men to be passive and nice [think Mr. Rogers]. Orthodox churches call me to be courageous and act [think BraveHeart.]

The thoughts are well worth pondering. Ideas worth consideration.

New Testament Talk: Defining “Evangelical”

Considerable discussion is occurring about the appropriate way to define an "Evangelical". John Stackhouse (Church and Faith Trends volume 1, issue 1, EFC website) proposes a definition that includes the following elements:  orthodox and orthoprax, crucicentric, biblicist, conversionist, missional, and transdenominational. There is much to commend such a definition, although personally I think it emphasizes the individual aspects of the Christian reality too much and does not express the ecclesial community that marks the Evangelical  reality. Yet, it will serve well for the purposes of historical and sociological study.It is important for us to use terms with understanding, lest we talk past one another.

But trying to define ‘Evangelical’ does raise the question as to which term we might use to most adequately describe a follower of Jesus. The term ‘Evangelical’ may well serve this purpose within intra-Christian discussion and dialogue. However, when we consider the New Testament, particularly the epistle literature, the descriptor most frequently used is "holy ones" (or "saints" as rendered in the King James Version). The focus seems to be not so much on confession of specific Gospel content (i.e. evangelical) which one affirms, but rather on a positional or relational reality (i.e. holy by virtue of position in Christ or relationship with God). In Acts the writer identifies followers of Jesus as "disciples" (e.g. Acts 6:7; 9:19). The emphasis in this term defines the learning that occurs, as a person follows a teacher or philosopher or religious savant  and is mentored in the process. Frequently the New Testament leaders will refer to fellow believers simply as "brothers" (a somewhat generic relational term). In the case of the terms disciple and brothers, again the emphasis is on position (i.e. learner) or relationship. These terms are used by Christians to describe themselves.

When followers of Jesus become sufficiently numerous to be noted, their opponents used diverse terms to describe them. These include "followers of the Way" (Acts 9:2; 24:14); "Adherents to the Christ party" (i.e. "Christianoi", Acts 11:26: 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16); and "the Nazarene sect" (Acts 24:5).

It seems to me that the term ‘Evangelical’ serves to distinguish a certain type of Christian from another kind of Christian. It’s function would be similar to terms Paul used in intra-Christian debate to describe "Judaizers", i.e. Christians who thought Gentile believers should adopt Jewish practices in order to be included within the covenant.  For this reason non-Evangelicals might find it useful to type or categorize a certain segment within Christendom. However, for those within "Evangelicalism" it cannot be a sufficient expression of who we are, because it does not identify sufficiently well our relationship to God and Christ, or our relationship with one another. Here the biblical terms in the first category, i.e. holy ones, disciples, brothers, speak more eloquently and forcefully of our identity in Christ.

Our language reveals the way we think about things. The term "Evangelical" expresses a distinctiveness from other diverse groups. It is exclusive language, in a sense. So when it is used, it separates, it makes divisions. This is sometimes necessary and in certain contexts very helpful.  Within the early church reflected in the New Testament literature,  the language chosen by those within the church to describe followers of Jesus is  positional and relational, emphasizing their oneness in Christ, loyalty to Him as Lord and Saviour, and commitment to fulfilling his mission. As followers of Jesus we may need from time to time to describe ourselves to those without as "Evangelicals" because this term defines us in certain respects. However, when talking among ourselves as followers of Jesus, we might be better served to emphasize the New Testament terms such as disciples, brothers/sisters, holy ones.  It will make us more conscious and aware of our essential relationship with one another in Christ and partnership in Kingdom progress.

Significant Conversations: Onion model of Culture

The Common hunger of Humanity
What we as human beings search for and value in life is the “meaningful” and the “good.”

With regard to the “meaningful,” we are always trying to make sense of our world. Hopelessness, which is what we seek to avoid, is the antithesis of the “meaningful” and happens when the world does not make sense. Children from dysfunctional families, for example, are more prone to be careless of themselves and others – smoking, dangerous activities, lack of respect for boundaries, etc. Their world is not making sense and much of what they do is a cry of despair of the senselessness of it all. They deliberately do what they have been warned against, partly in reaction to the pain that they experience from those aspects of society considered to be places of security and meaning. Ultimately, the lack of meaning leads to suicide, as in the case of the existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre.

the issue for evangelism is no longer (if it ever was) about finding the right delivery system

Tied to this, and which is also a matter of universal human concern, is the search for and desire to experience and center our lives on “good.” We desire and search for that which is conducive to human flourishing. This corresponds with Jesus’ view of humanity. He had pity on the crowds because they were like sheep without a shepherd. They were in need of what is good and they were seeking for it, but they were looking in the wrong places.

what all of us as human beings are seeking are matters of ultimate concern

In other words, what all of us as human beings are seeking are matters of ultimate concern, the questions of human existence: What should I do? Why are we here? What may I hope?

Implications for our post-Christian Environment
Common approaches to evangelism assume that we as Christians have the answers to these questions and look for “delivery systems” whereby these answers can be provided. Church services, evangelistic meetings, tracts, etc., are all designed with the desire to deliver the Christian message. These approaches do work for some, but, if statistics Canada is correct, not for the majority of Canadians.

Read the rest of this entry in Cross-cultural Impact #57

Seeker Becomes Self-Feeder

 
            As full disclosure, I should confess that I’ve been a fan of Willow Creek before Willow Ceek was Willow Creek. In the mid-1970’s the youth pastor of my home church in Park Ridge, Illinois was a Trinity College student named Bill Hybels. I always enjoyed coming home on holidays from Seminary just to see what was happening with Bill and the youth group at South Park Church. In the vocabulary of the ‘70’s, it was a “happening!” High School kids were showing up by the carload, each week more than the last. When I heard one of the elderly people complain, it was the first time I heard a phrase that has since become an evangelical mantra: we are just being sensitive to the seeker.
            The term “seeker-sensitive” has become so much the standard for evangelical style that I was a bit shocked to read the recent confession from Willow Creek reported by Bob Burney in the Baptist Press [November 6, 2007.] As the result of a multi-year study on the effectiveness of their philosophy of ministry, the Willow Creek leaders discovered that while they have reached large numbers of people, they have not been producing solid disciples of Jesus Christ.
            The studies, published by Cally Parkinson and Greg Hawkins in a new book entitled “Reveal: Where Are You?”  produced a remarkable confession from my friend, Bill. “We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that hey have to take responsibility to become “self-feeders.” We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their Bible between services, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.”
            It’s a remarkable moment. And I can’t help but think that we may begin to hear another term added to our vocabulary next to “seeker-sensitive” … “self-feeder.” It will be fascinating to see what that will begin to mean.

Eat This Book!

I’ve just completed Eugene Peterson’s improbably titled, Eat This Book and I cannot recommend it highly enough. This “conversation in the art of spiritual reading” both values Scripture while helping us see its accessibility. The book argues for the validity and necessity of exegesis for spiritual growth. It describes in detail the practice of Lectio Divina. In one of my favorite sections, Peterson uses his personal experience writing The Message to describe the limits and value of Bible translation for each new generation. In addition, the book offers a fascinating description of the history of the Bible’s transmission and translation.

The subjects Peterson deals with are deep, but the writing isn’t. See if the following quotations don’t stimulate your thinking and when your appetite for more…

On the use of story… We live today in a world impoverished of story; so it is not surprising that many of us have picked up the bad habit of extracting “truths” from the stories we read: we summarize “principles” that we can use in a variety of settings at our discretion; we distill a “moral” that we use as a slogan on a poster or as a motto on our desk. We are taught to do this in our schools so that we can pass examinations on novels and plays. It is no wonder that we continue this abstracting, story-mutilating practice when we read our Bibles. “Story” is not serious; “story” is for children and campfires. So we continuously convert our stories into the “serious” speech of information and motivation. We hardly notice that we have lost the form, the form that is provided to shape our lives largely and coherently. Our spirituality-shaping text is reduced to disembodied fragments of “truth” and “insight,” dismembered bones of information and motivation. (48)

On the value of exegesis…
Exegesis introduces another dimension into our relation to this text. The text as story carries us along, we are in on something larger than ourselves, we let the story take us where it will. But exegesis is focused attention, asking questions, sorting through possible meanings. Exegesis is rigorous, disciplined, intellectual work. It rarely feels “spiritual.” Men and women who are, as we say, “into” spirituality, frequently give exegesis short shrift, preferring to rely on inspiration and intuition. But the long and broad consensus in the community of God’s people has always insisted on a vigorous and meticulous exegesis: Give long and close learned attention to this text! All our masters in spirituality were and are master exegetes. There’s a lot going on here; we don’t want to miss any of it; we don’t want to sleepwalk through this text. (50)

On the challenge of utilizing language… Because we speak our language so casually, it is easy to fall into the habit of treating it casually. But language is persistently difficult to understand. We spend our early lives learning the language, and just when we think we have it mastered our spouse says, “You don’t understand thing I’m saying, do you?” We teach our children to talk, and just about the time we think they might be getting it, they quit talking to us; and when we overhear them talking to their friends, we find we can’t understand more than one out of every eight or nine words they say. A close relationship doesn’t guarantee understanding. A long affection doesn’t guarantee understanding. In fact, the closer we are to another and the more intimate our relations, the more care we must exercise to hear accurately, to understand thoroughly, to answer appropriately. (53)

On the proof-texting of Scripture… What is surprising today is how many people treat the Bible as a collection of Sibylline Oracles, verses or phrases without context or connections. This is nothing less than astonishing. The Scriptures are the revelation of a personal, relational, incarnational God to actual communities of men and women with names in history. … The practice of dividing the Bible into number chapters and verses has abetted this “sibylline complex.” it gives the impression that the Bible is a collection of thousands of self-contained sentences and phrases that can be picked out or combined arbitrarily in order to discern our fortunes or fates. But Bible verses are not fortune cookies to be broken open at random. And the Bible is not an astrological chart to be impersonally manipulated for amusement or profit. (101)

This is a book I wish I could have written. Numerous times I found myself exclaiming, “Yes, that’s exactly what I’ve been thinking.” Read it yourself and see if you don’t feel the same.

Peterson, Eugene. Eat This Book: Conversations in the Art of Spiritual Reading. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006.

WordPress for Churches

WordPress is a web authoring software package that is designed to be easy to use and free for the downloading.  The creators of the software describe WordPress as follows: "WordPress is a state-of-the-art semantic personal publishing platform with a focus on aesthetics, web standards, and usability. What a mouthful. WordPress is both free and priceless at the same time."

Both large and small websites are run on WordPress.  As I have researched the use of WordPress on the internet I have been amazed to see the number and variety of entities that use WordPress in some way.  Many use it as it comes straight out of the box (so to speak).  Others tailor and customize it to suit their particular business or corporate needs.  WordPress allows the user to be as simple as to require virtually no previous experience or to be as creative as their web programming skills allow.  One example of a large entity that uses WordPress for many of its numerous websites is Power to Change (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ Canda.  View a list of their other sites at TruthMedia).

WordPress was initially designed to be primarily a blogging platform.  However it is so flexible that it can be used in almost any capacity as a Web Content Management System running websites as complicated as a major business might need or as simple as a personal blog.

So what is so great about it for the local church?  Here is a list of things that I particularly appreciate about WordPress:

  1. WordPress  is free!  It is released under what is known as a General Public License.
  2. WordPress  is very easy to use.  Here is how the creators of the program describe what they intend it to be: "We are proud to offer you a freely distributed, standards-compliant, fast, light and free personal publishing platform, with sensible default settings and features, and an extremely customizable core." (Read more here). All of our faculty here at Northwest have become adept at using it.
  3. WordPress  has a significant community of web developers who test it, create additional features for it (called plugins), and use it themselves.
  4. There are a number of web hosting companies that provide the initial installation of WordPress automatically.  There is a page on the WordPress website listing some of them.  These hosting companies will often even assist you with your domain name if needed (for a fee, of course).
  5. WordPress comes with a default theme.  There are, however, hundreds of great themes available to choose from on the internet.  If you have some web programming experience you can create your own theme or customize the default theme.  The main Northwest website (where you are reading this) is based on a version of the default WordPress theme that I customized to suit our needs.  Larry Perkins’ and Mark Naylor’s websites are based on a slightly customized version of a theme called K2.

 So, that gives some of the features of WordPress and why I think it is a great resource for church websites.

Meeting the need for Cross-cultural expertise in our churches

  • Joy’s (1) emotional pain was evident as she related her move from her family’s mono-ethnic Chinese church to a multiethnic congregation.  She felt guilt as if she had somehow betrayed her home church.
  • Bob pastored a multi-ethnic congregation but was frustrated by his inability to recruit leadership from certain groups.
  • Jane enjoyed belonging to a church with ethnic diversity, but was disturbed by the “multi-ethnic” label as it raised the spectre of racism.  “Why don’t we just focus on our oneness in Christ?” she mused.
  • Arif enjoyed the ethnically diverse church he attended, but also often visited a mono-cultural congregation of his ethnic background because of the familiar music and worship style.  “Is it OK to belong to two churches?” he wondered.
  • Pastor Daud was upset and felt betrayed.  After a number of meetings during which all participants affirmed their desire to belong to a multi-cultural congregation, one ethnic group left to form their own church.

Our increasingly multicultural Canadian environment with all its complexity necessitates increased expertise and insight on behalf of church leaders so that they can minister effectively. Cultural competency is required to facilitate healthy relationships and build unified congregations.

  • How does a leader deal with the dynamic of valuing cultural distinctives while integrating people from various backgrounds into a church with one identity and purpose?
  • How can the inevitable tensions that arise from cultural differences be resolved in positive ways?
  • How does a church shift towards an intercultural mindset without losing its missional drive and what form does that take?

Moreover, church leadership who wish to lead their multi-ethnic church into making a relevant gospel impact need to develop the skill to recognize and utilize the strengths of cultural diversity.

  • How is the gospel to be contextualized while maintaining the constant of Christ as Lord and savior?
  • How can significant relationships be developed with communities that have different priorities, values, and history?
  • How can our churches be equipped as confident and competent witnesses to those world representatives who are our fellow Canadians?

How can significant relationships be developed with communities that have different priorities, values, and history?

There is an immense need for committed believers to be trained for effective and relevant service in ethnically diverse contexts both locally and globally.  At Fellowship International  and NBS we believe that training and preparation for the cultural and theological demands of these environments is essential.  Training for effectiveness in cross-cultural ministry needs to occur in real life, real time ministry settings.  This is why the Cross-Cultural Leadership Program (CLTP) was created: a mentored, experienced based training program for cross-cultural ministry in Canada and internationally.

Is there a need in your church for expertise in intercultural (facilitating relationships between ethnic groups) or cross-cultural (focus on reaching out to a particular ethnic group) ministry?  Is there anyone in your church who demonstrates gifting and ability in developing significant cross-cultural relationships? Northwest Baptist Seminary and Fellowship International Ministries are ready to assist in training such individuals through the innovative and flexible CLTP program.  Visit the CLTP website or contact the supervisor of the program, Mark Naylor, via the form below

 

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  • (1) The names used are fictional, but all examples are based on true situations

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Proof Positive

I seem to have hit a theme this month. My eye keeps catching the flashes of debate being generated by the modern merry band of atheists. In a recent Journal of Religion and Society,  Gregory Paul, a paleontologist, whose specialty appears to be the study of dangerous creatures [Predatory Dinosaurs of the World], decided to apply his analysis to what he identified as the greatest cause of social disintegration: religious belief.

While this theme seems to becoming a snippet of conventional wisdom for our day, I loved the critique penned by Theodore Dalrymple in the October 14, 2005 edition of the Wall Street Journal, So That’s The Reason… One line in particular stood out: …not even Mr. Paul would claim that he was more likely to be mugged in America by believers emerging from a Sunday service at a Baptist church than by drug-taking atheists emerging from a crack den … And yet, the irreligious among us continue to blame societal ills on faith while promising the social benefits of atheism [ignoring, of course, the social benefits of the gulag and concentration camps provided by the great atheistic societies of the 20th century.]

Which all brought to mind an example from the life of the Harry Ironside, a preacher from an earlier time. Gordon MacDonald put me on to his biography ordained of the Lord [E. Schuler English, Louizeaux Brothers, 1976.] A wonderful little snippet from the biography described a moment when Ironside was challenged by a leading British Atheist of the day to a public debate comparing the value of their life philosophies. Ironside agreed with one condition: that each of them “must bring two people whose lives have been powerfully changed by your message, and I will bring 50 people who have been transformed by the gospel I preach.” Within days Ironside had rounded up a list of 50 “specimens” with more requesting to give their testimony. The challenger cancelled the event. As Gordon said, it’s a 75 year old story, but I still get a kick out of it.

“Building Leaders”

Building Leaders: Blueprints for Developing Leadership at Every Level of Your Church, Aubrey Malphurs and Will Mancini: Baker Books: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2004

Building Leaders: Aubrey Malphurs and Will Mancini  (Baker Books)
This book, the second in an excellent trilogy on leadership [Being Leaders, and Leading Leaders – one of the best texts on Church Board development] addresses the question: How can a Church empower emerging leaders to follow God into expanded ministry?

It provides a Biblical blueprint for finding and developing leaders – all in the local church context. How to Grow Leaders [chapter 9], Designing the Leadership Development Process [chapter 10]  are a few of the chapters that address the profound challenge Churches have in living up to their calling to be the culture for leadership development. The guides, questions and surveys included in the text are excellent resources to help church leaders design a unique leadership development model within the realities of limited resources and budget.

Beyond the book, Aubrey Malphurs is the president of The Malphurs Group – a training and consulting organization. Their website: www.malphursgroup.com provides a number of free resources…and a free newsletter.

Feeding the Preacher

One of the problems I have observed is that some of us think we preach better than we actually do. Truthfully, most of us probably suffer from that problem. If I’m honest, I’d probably have to admit that I have a higher sense of the effectiveness of my own preaching than what the listeners might say (though they do seem to be very complimentary).

The problem shows up when I talk to people about studying preaching more. I heard it again this weekend when a denominational leader told me that his pastors would not take a course in homiletics because they wouldn’t think that they need it. If you asked their churches, he admitted, we would probably get a different answer.

In response, another friend offered this metaphor: If you’re feeding yourself, you might be able to get by with cup-a-noodles, or with Kraft Dinner. If you’re feeding your family, you might want to put a little more effort into preparation. If you are the dietitian at a major hospital, you would need to do some serious work to prepare yourself as well as your meal.

Preachers “feed” a lot more than just themselves and their families. We feed a congregation. We have to do more than just prepare a great meal. We need to prepare ourselves so that we have the knowledge and capacity to feed the multitude that gathers when we preach.

Crossing Cultures with the Bible

Three ways to understand the Bible
My wife, Karen, heard a message by a young woman with no theological training on Jer 29:11, “I know the plans I have for you….” The young woman spoke of the verse as if it was addressed to us today and talked about the plans God has for us.  Although God has revealed his will for us as human beings in his word, this was a misapplication of the verse because God was not speaking to us in this verse, he was speaking to another people in a different historical time and place; we are not part of those particular plans.

A better, and common, approach is to recognize that while the verse is a promise to people of another age, we can still ask, “What lesson can we learn from this that is applicable to us?”  That is, even though the words are not written to us, the message is still, in some less direct sense, for us.  

A third approach which is my primary concern in reading the Bible cross-culturally is to examine this interaction of God with his people in order to discover his character and his heart.  This perspective recognizes that the passage provides a revelation of the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ and asks, “What can I learn from this to know him better?  How can I shape my thoughts, speech and action to fit with the image that emerges from God’s revelation of himself?”

there is something grander in the Bible than chapter and verse application to the way we live: it is the vision, the revelation of God himself

The Bible as revelation of the nature of God
The latter approach is based on the conviction that there is something grander in the Bible than chapter and verse application to the way we live: it is the vision, the revelation of God himself.  The primary purpose of the written word is not to give us instructions on how to live, but to be a witness to the Living Word who in turn reveals to us the nature and heart of God.  It is within that broader perspective of discovering God that we become shaped into the image of Christ and respond in worship.

Read the rest of this entry in Cross-cultural Impact #56

Scratching the Surface of Non-Belief

In the last few months, I have encountered a number of people who seem “taken” by the current campaign to promote the message of atheism. Such books as God is Not Great, and The God Delusion seem to suggest that there is something solid to the life and belief of the unbelievers. Which is why I was intrigued by the recent findings of George Barna.

The June update of the Barna Report dealt with the impact of the current promotional campaign being waged by Atheists. It was, in part, research for a new book by David Kinnaman entitled unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity. On the surface, the issue seems to be formidable to anyone in ministry. But, digging a bit deeper into the data, I was encouraged by the opportunities we have to address people who appear uncomfortable with un-belief. Consider the following, from the Barna research [www.barna.org]:

But atheists and agnostics shouldn’t be too surprised that we would be confused about the issue. After all, this demographic group, which comprises 8% of the U.S. adult population, certainly acts in peculiar ways for religious skeptics. According to surveys conducted by The Barna Group:

  • 1 out of every 2 atheists and agnostics say that every person has a soul
  • 1 out of every 2 atheists and agnostics believes that Heaven and Hell exist
  • 1 out of every 2 atheists and agnostics believes that there is life after death.
  • 1 out of every 3 atheists and agnostics talks about faith-related matters during a typical week. 
  • 1 out of every 3 atheists and agnostics prayed to God, in past 7 days
  • 1 out of every 3 atheists and agnostics want ‘creationism” taught in the public schools
  • 1 out of every 8 atheists and agnostics believe that accepting Jesus Christ as savior probably makes life after death possible.
  • 1 out of every 10 atheists and agnostics believes that absolute moral truth exist
  • 1 out of every 12 atheists and agnostics read from the Bible, other than while at church, in past 7 days
  • 1 out of every 25 atheists and agnostics attended a church service, other than a special event such as a wedding or funeral, in past 7 days

If an atheist reads the bible, goes to church, believes in the existence of the soul, heaven, hell, life after death, teaching creationism, absolute morals, and prayer, are they considered a “heretic” by their fellow non-believers?

I would take it one step further: would they be considered a “lost sheep” looking for a way home?

Everyone’s Talking to the Gun; Who’s Talking to the Hand?

The news in our city about gang wars and violence is deeply disturbing.

Over the past several weeks news articles and reports have been featured regarding a particularly gruesome targeted gang hit on six individuals at a high rise apartment complex. Four of the individuals were young men deeply involved in the drug trade and well known to both the police and our court system; the other two victims were entirely unconnected with these men; they were men whose only mistake was to have been near and to have seen the assailants, and so they were murdered with the rest. One of those innocents was Ed Schellenberg, a good Christian man who was on site doing fireplace maintenance.

In the last week, I awoke to news of another targeted gangland killing  on one of the city’s major streets. Two men were shot dead in their vehicle. This is no more than a couple of blocks from where my two daughters live.

That makes 19 gang-related murders in our city this year.

Responses to this violence have been varied. The police forces of the greater Vancouver region have banded together to form a "Violence Suppression Team" with patrols in local hangouts to surveille and harass known gang members. Op ed pieces in the media are cynical, calling for such things as a revamp of a court system that many claim is entirely lax in its punishment of such offenders, or the government legalization and control of the very drug trade from which the gangs have enriched themselves and over which they’re fighting. The solutions on offer are varied; some touch to mere suppression of the offending behavior, others seek to address systemic issues.

I’ve heard virtually no exploration or address of the deeper human dynamics of all this beyond the mere pronouncements of an offended sense of morality. And where is the involvement that engages for personal transformation?

Everyone is talking to the gun, but no one seems to be talking to the hand.

Where is the voice of the church in all this? I really don’t think I’ve heard it yet. Far from being irrelevant, it is desperately needed.

 

Preaching with Variety

_Preaching with Variety: How to Re-create the Dynamics of Biblical Genres_. By Jeffrey D. Arthurs. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2007, 978-0-8254-2019-1, 238 pp., $15.99, paperback.

Several years ago I embarked upon a project. Having been given a short interim preaching opportunity at a nearby church, I decided to choose a different biblical genre for every sermon text. I wondered what might happen if I gave as much attention to the form of the text as I did to its content. The series turned out to be a wonderful exploration of the biblical terrain, but it would have gone a lot better if I had been able to read Jeff Arthurs’ book.

“The form of a text is not simply the husk surrounding the seed;” Arthurs says, “it is the way the authors manage their relationship with their readers (201).” People come from a variety of backgrounds bringing with them an array of preferred learning styles. The biblical writers not only appreciated this fact, but they modeled it, sharing truth by means of an abundance of literary styles. Our preaching should do no less.

This is inarguable. I have long wondered why, in the attempt to exposit faithfully the biblical text, we have felt it necessary to distill the content from the form. It is as if, to use Arthur’s metaphor, the textual form was mere chaff to be blown off as worthless. Sure, we have utilized the form for its interpretive value as a means of getting to the core truth of the text. Yet, should not those of us committed to exposition be just as concerned with the manner of communication used by the biblical text as we are with the content of it’s communication? Would not the attempt to replicate the form of the text in the form of our preaching be even more faithful to the intent of exposition?

Jeff Arthurs thinks so. His book is more than just an argument for a fully “formed” preaching of God’s word. In the tradition of Sidney Greidanus and Thomas Long, the book leads the reader through an exploration of various textual forms, offering guidance and advice to aid in the preaching of those forms. The book, then, serves as more than just a good and helpful read. It is a reference work that can be consulted whenever we move to preach from a different part of the Bible. I, for one, expect to consult it regularly as I move from proverb to epistle to psalm.

The great thing about genre-enriched preaching is that it doesn’t just represent a more faithful approach to exposition. It also makes for more interesting preaching for the listener. Preachers who feel they may be going a little stale will benefit from this reading, perhaps leading to a more holistic and integrated approach to their task.

Arthurs writes well, as one might expect given his subject. He also doesn’t overstate his case. One of his opening “9.5 Theses” is that “some things are more important than the topic of this book (15).” The preacher’s “ethos” or character is more important, as is the “telos” or theological objective of the sermon. This kind of humility plays well to the reader confronted with the many textbooks on preaching that are currently in print.

_Jeff Arthurs, is associate professor of preaching and communication, and dean of the chapel at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary._

Church Web 101

…where does one start when planning a church website?

Today I am launching a series of articles for churches on the topic of church websites. Have you grappled with how to start, develop and maintain a good church website? Have you learned some great secrets that you would be willing to share? I hope to add a number of articles in the future that will provide resources that specifically address the needs of churches in relation to their use of the internet. I may not write all the articles but rather will try to develop a network of people, web-links and other resources that can provide the kind of help needed – particularly  for churches.

In this article I am starting with some fundamentals. In order to have a website you need three basic pieces of the internet and website puzzle.

1. The first piece you need is to own the "domain name" that you will use for your website. The domain name is the address that you type into your internet browser that takes you to a particular website.  The domain name that Northwest owns and uses is nbseminary.com. When you type www.nbseminary.com into the address bar of your internet browser it opens to the Northwest website for you to browse. So an example of a domain name for you might be www.yourchurchname.com.

A domain name is purchased from a domain name registrar and is paid for (usually) on an annual basis. Domain names cost anywhere from $8.75 per year to $34.99 per year depending on the registrar and what they offer beside the domain name registration. On the more expensive end of the range would be a company like www.networksolutions.com and on the cheaper end would be a company like www.mydomain.com – with many in between and a few cheaper and a few more expensive.

You need a "place" to locate your website so that it can be accessed from the internet any time of day or night – a web host.

2. The second piece of the puzzle that you need is a "place" to locate your website so that it can be accessed from the internet any time of day or night. This "place" is usually provided by a web hosting company. For a monthly fee these companies will "host" your website on their web server computers and make sure that your website is both secure and always accessible from the internet. Hosting fees can range from as low as several dollars a month to several dozens of dollars a month – again depending on the services provided. Most church web sites do not need anything more than a basic or basic to mid-range hosting plan.

3. The third piece of the puzzle that you need for your church website is the development of the website itself – i.e. the computer files that hold all the information you want to present about your church. For the basic website these files can be understood in two broad categories. There will be the actual web pages themselves – i.e. what you are reading right now, and there will be the graphic elements of the site. That includes the overall site design, photos, video clips etc. Site designs usually incorporate a top section called a header that identifies who this site is about, the body of the site which holds the information, and finally there usually is a bottom part – called a footer where one might place a copyright notice, some links to important sections of the website and so on. 

– What should a church put on their website?
– Who is going to be responsible for the website?
– What sort of time commitment might be required by a website?

One other element the site will need is some sort of mechanism to navigate from one page to another. Links that do this navigation are often found either in a menu bar across the top of the site or on the side of the site in what is called a sidebar.

I will write more about each of these pieces of the puzzle in future articles. Here are some other questions I would like to address in future articles. Where does one start when thinking about a website? What does one need to create a website? Can just anyone do this or is purely the realm of the specialists – the geeks? What makes a good church website? Is there special software that I need? Are there people who can help me?

I am sure you have your own questions. Why don’t you add a comment to this page? Do you have a particular question that we could address in a future article? Do you have some special solutions your church has discovered? Write and let me know.

It’s NOT about the Information

I am slow. I have come to the realization – at least a full decade after more perceptive and observant thinkers – that we are no longer in the information age; we are in the networking age.  Facebook is not about information, but about connecting. Due to the ease of access and overwhelming quantity of knowledge, information is no longer a priority nor a valued commodity per se.  What is valued is the networking with others that directs us to the quality and relevance of knowledge that is required to fulfill our goals.  An obsession with gaining personal knowledge about a particular subject in this age is self-defeating because as individuals we cannot absorb, process or evaluate all the available information.  On the other hand, gaining skills to evaluate and use knowledge in relevant ways is important.  Moreover, the ability to connect synergistically with those who have different skill sets exponentially increases the ability to apply knowledge to tasks and problems considered significant.

With respect to seminaries, Dr. Edmund Gibbs was probably accurate in a statement made during the NBS “Between Gospel and Culture” conference held on the TWU campus in March, 2007: seminaries should not sell knowledge or information, but give it away freely.  The cost will be in the mentoring relationships and guidance to apply the right knowledge in the right situation.

What is required is the teaching of Old Testament and New Testament RELEVANCE to the lives of the believers

The implication of this shift for missions is quite profound.  A common approach in missions has been to teach a “survey of the Old Testament” or a “survey of the New Testament” to new believers. As an attempt to increase the quantity of biblical knowledge, it does little to build up the body of Christ.  The amount of knowledge available is beyond the ability of any one person to access, let alone absorb and utilize. Moreover, the knowledge gained from such courses is generally easily accessible when needed. What is required is the teaching of Old Testament and New Testament relevance to the lives of the believers. It is insufficient and misguided for missionaries to provide general Bible teaching as if any and all biblical information is equally worthwhile. Rather, a primary concern must be to work out the relevance of God’s revelation within that particular cultural setting.  This requires the development of a network of people with a variety of skill sets rather than a one way dispensing of knowledge from the teacher.

As an example of the importance of networking in missions, consider Bible translation.  The task is too vast and complex to be trusted to one person.  However, by utilizing the skills of a variety of people – translators whose mother tongue capability allows them to communicate the message coherently and fluently, scholars who are able to consider the accuracy of meaning, consultants whose experience leads them to ask penetrating questions – the final product has a level of quality and significance that would not otherwise be possible.  

Does The Universe Have A Purpose?

In the last year, Athiests have hit the best-seller book list with such titles as The God Delusion [Richard Dawkins], God is Not Great [Christopher Hitchens], and Letters to a Christian Nation [Sam Harris]. I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but it seems as if there is a coordinated assault on the concept of God being carried forward, not by fringe eccentrics like Madelyn Murray O’Hair – but by academic and scientific elites. In September, I read a report of … a recent forum sponsored by the Science Network at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, the tone of intolerance reached such a peak that anthropologist Melvin J. Konner commented: "The viewpoints have run the gamut from A to B. Should we bash religion with a crowbar or only with a baseball bat?"

With that in mind, I was intrigued by a project of the John Templeton Foundation, a series of conversations about the “Big Questions” conducted among leading scientists and scholars worldwide. The first “Big Question” that appeared on October 25, 2007 was “Does the Universe Have a Purpose?” Fascinating reading! Of the first 12 who responded, only two said“No” – Peter Atkins, an Oxford professor and Christian de Duve, a Nobel Prize winning biochemist. The majority said “Yes” while a number responded with “perhaps, not sure, I hope so…” The reasons given by each are thought-provoking and well worth reading: www.templeton.org/questions/purpose

Musings on the Night of All Hallows’ Eve

Tonight is Halloween.

The weather reports in our area give a 60% chance for rain this evening. Visibility will be worse than usual. I expect that we’ll all need to drive home especially carefully in the darkness tonight. Children, normally safe at home after dark, will be costumed and out tonight; more mindful of the prospects of a sack full of goodies than of looking both ways before crossing the street.

We’ve been warned not to allow our children to simply tuck into those goodies; first, check the treats for tampering–needles, razor blades, poisons and such. We’ve also been advised to keep our pets inside and in a room as far away from the doorbell as possible tonight. The noise of constant activity at the door is frightening to them, and youthful inspirations with fireworks have not infrequently led to the terrorizing or maiming of pets.

Costumes will run from the cutest to the most goulish and macabre. The range of revelers will run from infants dressed and carried from house to house by parents all the way to youth and adults, some of whom will themselves need to be carried home tonight.

Police and fire departments will be on higher alert; a few more doctors may be on call and hospital emergency rooms may see an increase in patient traffic.

What is all this edgy celebration about? The night was first celebrated as a high moment in the season of harvest in pagan Gaelic culture, a time of potentially dangerous penetration of the world of the dead into that of the living. Its symbolic expressions and activities represented human machinations to avoid, or at least control, what threatened. The Romans applied their own overlay of harvest celebration and preventative magic and ritualism. Later communities and cultures added their own elements. The Christian celebration of All Hallows’ Eve or All Saints Day on November 1, has done little more than lend its name to the night.

Halloween was not at first conceived as safe; nor is it entirely so today. Its "celebrations" in antiquity were nothing more than the expression of a cyclical reminder of slavery to beggarly forces and principles without permanent remedy; modernity’s continued witless mimicking amounts to the bravado of an uncertain whistling at gathered darkness.

I should think that the preferred recourse of wiser souls, over all the rest of those other souls who celebrate, is a sheltered sleep and anticipation of the breaking dawn and its light. It works practically; it works theologically too!

Karen’s Sermon Art

Yesterday my wife participated in our pastor’s sermon by illustrating his sermon with a simultaneous sermon painting. What’s that, you ask? Let me try to explain.

Brian Stewart was preaching from Philippians 2:15 about how we are to shine as lights for Christ in the places we’re located. He had a lot to say about light and darkness. For example, most of the service took place in a semi-darkened worship center. As the sermon came to a close, people were invited to light candles, signifying their commitment to live as lights for Christ. The sanctuary brightened noticeably as people came forward to express their commitment.

The whole time Karen was painting at the front of the church. The canvas began as a flat black surface with the outline of a closed door, the handle barely visible, a hint of light coming through the bottom of the door. Karen began painting as the worship team began to lead in singing and she continued through the sermon time, concluding the piece at the end of the service. As she painted, she deliberately moved around the piece, allowing the image to emerge bit by bit.

The image she offered showed a young girl opening her bedroom door so that the light from the hallway began to flood the darkness of her room. You could imagine the comfort of a loving mother or father on the other side of the door. It was fascinating to watch how the door opened as the painting progressed, literally leading the viewer from darkness to light.

This was no small challenge for Karen. She has always believed that her art should communicate something meaningful. She wanted to support the preaching of the sermon and not distract from it, but she also wanted to avoid overly obvious or kitschy images in favor of something that would be interesting and evocative. In this case, she didn’t have the luxury of presenting a finished product, but had to ‘perform’ the art in the presence of the congregation. Wishing to use this as an advantage she tried to bring a sense of motion to the piece, having the door open as she painted, the light growing and spreading as the service progressed.

All this in 45 minutes!

I am proud of my wife and I’m proud of our church. I was thrilled to see Karen have the opportunity to express the gift that God had given her in support of the preaching of God’s word. I think it would be a good thing if other churches could be this open to finding creative ways for people to express their gifting for the glory of God and for the spread of the gospel.

Disillusioned with the Sunday meeting expression of church

The following is a response from my wife, Karen, to a couple of recent blogs found on this site:

In his Oct 17 blog "The Foundation for Hearing God," Loren Warkentin wrote:

We Christians have become acculturated to this [fast-paced] style of living and I believe it has affected our spiritual lives. We are easily bored. If a “worship service” doesn’t entertain us sufficiently we move elsewhere. Long sermons and church services tire us. But maybe more deadly is the effect this lifestyle has on our personal, devotional relationship with God – it has become fragmented, stretched thin, missing even – and so we look for a fix. We still want to hear from Him, but….

YES! We desperately want to hear from Him!! But maybe the problem is not our expectation but the "worship service."

I don’t believe most Christians go to a church service looking to be entertained. We go seeking God. My great desire is to be engaged – my mind, heart, will and spirit – but when it comes to church services, I have all but given up. Most often I come home from a service knowing that I have (yet again) missed God.

My great desire is to be engaged – my mind, heart, will and spirit

Music moves me so if the "worship team" is decent and the songs are good (by that I mean there is some substance and content to the lyrics), then I can worship.

But the vast majority of sermons I hear do not engage me. I recently attended a friend’s very charismatic church. I am not a charismatic by theology, preference, experience, desire, personality or history, but if I lived in that town, that’s the church I would go to.

the vast majority of sermons I hear do not engage me

Why? Because I met God there. It was clear that the leaders were communicating their heart and more importantly, God’s heart. The sermons (I heard 3 over the weekend) came out of their lives and what God was teaching them, not from a commentary.

I find that in sermons the grand themes in the Bible are often reduced to the bottom line "be nice" and so much of what I hear is the "same, old, same, old." I love the "old, old story," don’t get me wrong. But the way it is presented is like eating dusty, stale crackers.

I have met numerous people who no longer attend church, not because they aren’t entertained, but because they miss God when they go.  Initially they think the problem is with them, that somehow their expectations are out of line. Some of them keep going out of habit, others keep attending because they have kids and others just give up (I have talked to all of the above).

I have so many questions but have no place to ask them

Although evangelicals say we base our lives and beliefs on the Bible, there is little Bible reading. At one service I attended the preacher read 1.5 verses and then told us that even though the verses meant something different, he would still use those verses to preach on his chosen subject. At such services I look around at the people and think – Do they really find these words a life giving message? or is coming to church a habit and good way to see friends?

I have so many questions but have no place to ask them. Most of them start with "yes, I see what you’re saying…but what about this? and this? and this?” Does the preacher not have the same questions? If he (most are men) doesn’t, why not? Am I that off the charts? Do the people around me not have similar questions?

In Kent Anderson’s Oct 19 blog, "Apologetic Preaching," he writes in reference to J.P. Moreland:

People, he said, need more than just to hear what the Bible says and how to apply it, because people don’t actually believe the Bible very strongly. People today are looking for passion and some sense that the preacher knows what she or he is talking about. Pastors need to be brokers of knowledge just like doctors.

[The problem with church services is not] the lack of entertainment, but the lack of substance

I believe that passion comes not just from knowing God, but from knowing God this past week; from working through doubts, questions, injustices and opportunities. I don’t think we need to develop a database of God’s miraculous interventions (Moreland’s suggestion as reported in Kent’s blog) because most people don’t live life like that. But we do want to know how to meet God in our ordinary, every day life.

Church services are a prime opportunity to bring people into God’s presence so they can hear from Him. At least the vast majority of resources are geared towards constructing and maintaining very expensive buildings so there can be a corporate gathering. But when that doesn’t happen the discouragement can lead to disillusionment. It is not about the lack of entertainment, but the lack of substance.

maybe church is just (mediocre) entertainment and isn’t meant to be a place where life and the gospel come together

 Coincidentally, I am reading about the Veritas Forum, a movement in universities that faces the hard questions of life in the light of who Jesus is. Experts in many different fields offer expertise to students who can respond and interact. Their messages do not reduce the gospel to a trite "be nice," but honestly grapple with the relevance of God’s revelation in the context of a secularized worldview.

I find the Sunday meeting expression of church to be very unsatisfying because it is one dimensional. Much time and effort is put into this one expression and yet it falls short of what it could be: a gathering of people who need and want to meet with God, who have come to worship and to be in God’s presence. Yet week after week some of us leave so frustrated. Eventually we learn that maybe church is just (mediocre) entertainment and isn’t meant to be a place where life and the gospel come together.

 

Church Health Assessment

Quick note, helpful tool: Check out the resources of Leadership Transformations, Inc. Actually, go directly to their ministry resource outlet entitled HealthyChurch.net [just add the www. before the title, and you’re there.]

One of the things that I’ve discovered in the last two years is that most churches wait until a crisis to assess the health of their fellowship, and then struggle to find a way to do it well. Outreach Canada has addressed the issue well with their Vision Renewal process and the Ministry Fitness Check. I’ve also discovered that most healthy churches derive momentum from consistently assessing their health, and making it a standard practice to measure their progress. If you were to put it in physical terms, they put their Body through an annual [or at least “predictable”] physical.

HealthyChurch.Net has produced a helpful tool: Church Health Assessment Tool [also known as CHAT] that is well-worth your inspection. Some may find it to be a bit pricey, but, then again, as the commercial says, some things are priceless, and CHAT may prove to be that for you.

The REAL Examination

It’s that time of the semester once again. The Registrar’s office has asked each professor to indicate whether they are requiring an examination that needs to be scheduled into the examination week for their courses. The schedule is out and professors and students are all now aware of when each examination will need to be sat.

By and large, most of our students do a good to great job in writing their exams. Sometimes, there is a feeling of uncertainty about their answer to this or that question, but generally, there is a sense of satisfaction and relief as they leave the examination hall. They studied hard, retaining much. And during the exam, what was committed to memory was laid out in answers to questions or synthesized and made the basis of responses to cases presented for analysis. With the completion of the examination, they have done their part in the course and all that awaits is the professor’s grading of the work and the formal posting of the student’s final mark for the course.

It is not a new thought, but it occurred to me that most of our exams are not the real examination. Indeed, the real exam is taken when the knowledge is put into practice for the benefit of those who will be served or helped. The real examination occurs after the exam for the course. In the knowledge of that truth, I’ve taken to adding a little note at the bottom of each examination sheet following my Christmas wish to the student. In the hermeneutics exam sheet, for example, it reads, "Remember, the real examination for this course takes place every time you open your Bible to translate, study, preach, teach and counsel." 

 The principle holds not only in the academy, but also in the church and in life generally for the Christian. The real test of what we’ve heard in the sermon, or the Bible study class, or the home group is not that we were in attendance, or even whether we can replicate the content flawlessly. It is, rather, what we’ll do with what we’ve heard. The test is action.

Using the image of building, Jesus taught that hearing his words only and hearing them so as to do them are the difference between the foolish and the wise respectively (Matthew 7:24-27). The book of James puts it even more succinctly, "Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says." (James 1:22)

Apologetic Preaching

J. P. Moreland of Talbot Seminary was the keynote speaker at this year’s meetings of the Evangelical Homiletics Society. He took the opportunity to offer a proposal for “apologetic preaching.” While such an approach is not new, Moreland seemed to suggest that apologetics could and should take a much higher place in our thinking about preaching in this highly-secularized period.

This is, he said, the most divided time in American history since the civil war. On the secular side are the media, the universities, and the entertainment industry. On the the other side (according to USA Today) the leaders are the evangelical churches. It scarcely seems a fair fight.

It is out of this millieu, Moreland says, that the current evangelical church has been formed. We have, he said, felt forced to retreat to a largely privatized faith. We have conceived of our beliefs as matters of faith and not of knowledge, thus ceding the realm of knowledge to the scientists. It is the doctors and scientists who are the keepers of empirical knowledge. Truth is no longer adequate. It is knowledge of truth that reigns supreme. Because preachers trade in truths that can’t be known, we have been marginalized to the realm of private belief.

Moreland offered Oprah as an example. She can wax eloquent about theology without any expertise, he said, because she understands that there is no hard knowledge available this kind of truth. She tells people that they can pray in any manner that they want and to any God whom they might see as helpful. Of course, she wouldn’t dream of offering such counsel with respect to something like smallpox, because we have hard scientific knowledge about smallpox. We know that you cannot vaccinate yourself effectively with coffee or with chocolate. When it comes to faith, however, we think that no such conviction is possible and so we relegate it to the realm of individual discernment and desire.

This, Moreland suggests, is unnecessary and ultimately untenable. The Bible, he says, is a source of hard knowledge. Paul, for example, spoke about the power of thinking rightly (Phil. 4:8,9) long before Sigmund Freud ever thought it was a good idea. We need, he said, to build faith in listeners by preaching such that they increase their confidence in the ability to know things about God and about eternity based on the teachings of the Scriptures.

Belief, he said, is a “degreed property,” which is to say that belief happens whenever we are between 51 and 100% certain of the truth of a thing. Belief is like ‘cloudiness’. A dog is a dog is a dog. But cloudiness can exist to a greater or lesser degree. The same is true with beliefs. I believe in my own existence, more strongly than I believe in the existence of God, he said, though the two are very close. The task of the preacher, then, is to bump people up so that they believe the right things and that they hold them more strongly than they previously did. As preachers, we ought to assume that people don’t believe the things they believe with a great deal of strength and that it is our task to help them believe more strongly.

People, he said, need more than just to hear what the Bible says and how to apply it, because people don’t actually believe the Bible very strongly. People today are looking for passion and some sense that the preacher knows what she or he is talking about. Pastors need to be brokers of knowledge just like doctors.

Thus, he said, we need to be developing two skills in preachers: (1) to develop a habit of reading worldview in culture, and (2) to communicate what the Bible has to say on public issues – to show, that the Bible is an intelligent book written by thoughtful people. Specifically, and more controversially, he suggested that we develop a database of experiences of God breaking into the world, like undeniable instances of God speaking in the world, miraculous circumstances, healings, and even encounters with angels and demons.

Personally, I found myself challenged and interested in Moreland’s ideas about working deliberately to build faith in the people who listen to my preaching. I even found myself appreciating the idea that I should catalog the instances in my own experience where God has made himself evident.

That being said, I think that perhaps Moreland underplayed the nature of faith in preaching and in the life of those we speak to. My sense is that we need to integrate both faith and reason such that our experience of God’s working finds its place alongside a reasoned appreciation of the truths that Scripture teaches. I once suggested that this is akin to aligning the two gospel songs, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so”, and “you ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.

Further, while I appreciate that the Bible is a source of knowledge, I think it also fair to say that as human subjects, our ability to know truth is limited by our finitude and fallenness. We are dependent, then, on God to reveal truth to us by his Spirit. I don’t despair that this overly privatizes my access to faith, because I believe that God is active by his Spirit, throughout the world, to build faith in the people he is reaching. It encourages me that he often uses preachers in that task.

Churchtalk: Responding to the Breakdown of Tolerance

In a recent issue of Mcleans a lead article raised the alarm that our Canadian commitment to multiculturalism may be eroding. The key question that Canadians are debating is this:  what reasonable accommodations should Canadians make to cultural and religious minorities? Where should the limits be drawn? The writer claimed that many in Canada are "utterly conflicted" on this question. Recently violent responses to religious and cultural minorities have occurred in various regions of Canada.

If as followers of Jesus all we can muster is tolerance for those who hold different values and dress differently, then we have not understood Jesus’ teaching.

Many suggest that the answer to these conflicts lies in transforming Canada into a purely secular society. If we accomplish this, we will enthrone tolerance. Apparently religious values or ethnic values cause intolerance. This sounds to me like the argument used in the past that the rape victim was somehow responsible for being raped! If these religious and cultural minorities just stopped being different, then we could tolerate them. A retreat to secular values, however, will not solve the problem, because even within secularism there are many diverse values vying for priority. Where in the world do we find a secular society that is free from intolerance?

Maybe the growing reaction against multiculturalism and intolerance towards religious and ethnic minorities in our Canadian society is presenting Evangelical Christians with a new opportunity to demonstrate the love of Jesus and show another and better way to live.

For Christians tolerance is an insufficient response to human differences. Jesus challenged his followers to "love your enemies" and to "pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:44). Tolerance is not good enough for kingdom people. If as followers of Jesus all we can muster is tolerance for those who hold different values and dress differently, then we have not understood Jesus’ teaching.  Paul struggled with this issue and declared that in the Messiah Jesus no cultural or economic distinctions count (Galatians 3:28). Paul claims that God is "no respecter of persons", i.e. he does not play favourites. God loves "the world" and expects His people to do the same. Maybe the growing reaction against multiculturalism and intolerance towards religious and ethnic minorities in our Canadian society is presenting Evangelical Christians with a new opportunity to demonstrate the love of Jesus and show another and better way to live. God’s Kingdom embraces people from all cultures and in our church communities, as we are empowered by God’s Spirit, we can truly "love one another."

Evangelical Christians should note, however, that they are a religious minority in Canada. This means that sooner or later their Christian values will conflict with generally accepted Canadian values. When this happens, the government or courts will judge what ‘reasonable accommodation’ should be in specific cases. Perhaps we already see this happening in the issue of same-sex marriage. How should we respond when our values are regarded as ‘unreasonable’ and accommodation to them will violate Canadian values? Each situation will require great wisdom. However, we should not be surprised that such things happen, because we are different. Jesus has made us new and together we form his "holy nation".

The Foundation for Hearing God

There is, today, a proliferation of articles, books and speakers discussing the topic of “hearing God”.  Several well known evangelical preachers and leaders have weighed in with their contributions. I did a web search on the words “hearing God” and was fascinated by what came up. Page after page listing web sites, books, articles and other links all with some sort of answer to the questions, “Can I hear God?” “Does God speak today?” “If He is speaking today, how does He speak?”, “How do I recognize His voice?”, “How do I discern divine guidance?”

Our society pressures us to live speedy lives. We find all sorts of things to occupy us. Good things or useless things – they all clamor for our time.

I have been researching these questions for my Bible Study/Care Group. The initial study of several popular books and articles caused me to wonder what the stimulus was behind this wave of interest in the topic.  What is driving this quest?  There seems to be a renewed hunger to hear from God. That can be a good thing or it can indicate a problem.   My research has drawn me to ask the question “Is there something lacking in our postmodern, western, evangelical culture? Is there a scarcity of “hearing from God"?  We, as Bible believing Christians, know that God has spoken (Hebrews 1:1,2) so why are we not hearing? Are we not listening? Are we listening to the wrong words? Are there too many other voices?

As I have reflected on these questions and the current buzz about “hearing God” one fact stands clear. God designed us for relationship – relationship, in the first instance,  with Him.  Thus the desire to hear from Him.

Healthy, fulfilling relationships require time and effort to develop. Knowing God, knowing His mind, His ways, His character, His purposes all require spending uninterrupted, quality time with Him – through the Scriptures – as He has already revealed Himself to us.  When we do not take sufficient time to develop that kind of intimacy we are left with a relational void. My read on the current culture-wide hunger to hear from God is that it stems, in part, from a hurried, stunted, shortchanged relationship with Him. The relationship we have begun to experience with our Saviour has informed our spiritual senses that there is more. But here is the rub, that “more” requires more of us.

Our society pressures us to live speedy lives. We find all sorts of things to occupy us. Good things or useless things – they all clamor for our time. We flit from one new experience to the next. We drive through life so fast we have to get our food at drive-through windows. We learn early the value our society places on “multitasking”. The media knows that our individual attention spans are short so we are bombarded with fast-paced “clips”. 

We Christians have become acculturated to this style of living and I believe it has affected our spiritual lives. We are easily bored. If a “worship service” doesn’t entertain us sufficiently we move elsewhere. Long sermons and church services tire us. But maybe more deadly is the effect this lifestyle has on our personal, devotional relationship with God – it has become fragmented, stretched thin, missing even – and so we look for a fix. We still want to hear from Him, but…

As Christians, living in the context of this society, we are just not geared to slowing down and taking the time to build our personal relationship with God. Even the literature that I found on “learning to hear from God” often promoted a certain number of “steps to be followed” in the process, which points again to our cultural need to organize, to be efficient, to “not waste time”. But how do you organize a relationship, a friendship?

Carve out for your self sufficient space in your life to take the time to listen to what God has already said in His written Word.

Are you grappling with these questions? Are you yearning to hear God’s voice? Allow me to recommend something – a practice that I believe will develop in you and me the essential foundation for hearing from God.  This is a time-tested practice based on both biblical teaching and biblical example. It is not a difficult practice but in our culture it can be very challenging.

Carve out for your self sufficient space in your life to take the time to listen to what God has already said in His written Word – the Old and New Testaments.  Make it a priority practice in your life to set aside a significant portion of time each week to spend a leisurely, relationship-developing season with God. Find a location where no one will interrupt and you will not bother anyone. Take your Bible and begin to read out loud (the reason for this is to avoid rushing through your reading). Read in a translation that is designed to be read aloud – where you will not be stumbling over awkward sentence structure. Read an extended passage – a whole book or several (Colossians, Ephesians, Hebrews, a Gospel, several Psalms etc).  Read with understanding and emphasis. Meditate as you read. Be free to pause frequently and ponder what you have read. Read with observing eyes and mind. Read with a questing heart. Read in faith but don’t be afraid to ask questions. 

As you read, allow your heart to be lifted to your Heavenly Father in praise and adoration.  Allow the Spirit of God to illumine His Word to your heart. Shut out the hurry and worry of the pressure cooker lives we live and take the time to grow your relationship with Him.

Guard this time! Don’t allow sermon or Bible lesson preparation encroach upon it. This is holy ground – just between you and God.  This is relationship time.

A few years ago I began to study and memorize Psalm 119. I was intrigued by the great value the psalmist placed on God’s Word. He refers to his delight in it at least 9 times. I took special note of the exclamations and declarations the psalmist makes in response to his delight in God’s Word. “I will obey…I will not neglect…I will meditate…I have set my heart on…I will never forget…I have put my hope in…I stand in awe…they are the joy of my heart.” May this be our response to our practice of meeting God in His already revealed truth – the Scriptures. Then we will truly hear.

Some additional thoughts:

  1. If it seems difficult at first – don’t flit to the next popular book or website – persevere! Don’t be afraid to tell Him what you are struggling with – this is a relationship.
  2. Commit Scripture to memory. If you are just beginning – start with a familiar passage – something you may have memorized in the past. Do not try to take on too much at once – but once you start, be consistent – don’t quit!
  3. This is not primarily a time to bring petitions to God – but He does want to hear from you, so don’t rush back into the fast lane without pausing to speak with Him in prayer.
  4. If you would like to meditate on a passage of Scripture that speaks to this practice that I am recommending go to Psalm 119 and spend some time in it.

Becoming a Sewage pipe Christian

During the time we lived in Larkana, Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto became prime minister of Pakistan. Since Larkana was her family home town, there were some obvious perks.  One of the most obvious was the construction of several fountains at key intersections.  Each fountain had a plaque proclaiming the name of the patron who had funded the project.  At the same time, the sewage system in Larkana was obviously insufficient for the population and in many places, nonexistent. In terms of improving people’s lives and preventing disease, a sewage system was logically a far more practical choice, but that did not seem to be a major concern.

Karen and I would often comment on a probable reason for this priority: To have one’s name on a fountain was an expression of honor, but there was no equivalent avenue for self-glorification in improving a sewage system.  Who wants their name attached to sewage pipe?  


As Christians our perspective needs to be very different.  We are followers of a savior who chose the “sewage pipe” way to serve, rather than the self-glorification of “fountain” construction.  He sacrificed for what we need – redemption from the sewage of our lives – which resulted in the shame of the cross rather than the glory of the throne that the disciples were hoping for.  Sometimes ministry feels like constructing sewage pipes without anyone praising our efforts.  But that may be a good indication that we are following Christ.  The world strives to put their name on the “fountains,” servants of Christ work on the sewers.

At the present time, the fountains in Larkana do not have any water flowing in them and they have become receptacles for garbage.  I think there may be a lesson in that as well.

Team Blog

Just as I was scratching my head, thinking of what to share as a blog an enewsletter arrived with a feature article entitled ‘The Death of Blogs” [Ted Olson, Christianity Today.] While it sounded like an obituary, I found the comments worth passing on:

… As weblogs proliferated earlier this decade, Andy Warhol’s famous aphorism was modified to read “in the future, everyone will be famous to 15 people.” Thanks to widespread bog burnout, everyone will be famous to 15 people for 15 minutes. Tech researcher Gartner, Inc. reported earlier this year that 200 million people have given up blogging, more than twice as many as are active … given the average lifespan of a blogger and the current growth rate of blogs, Gartner says blogging has probably peaked.”

My first reaction was to set this blog aside and move on to other things. But, as I read further, I changed my mind. Blogs have proved valuable for two reasons: 1. they provide quality insight and resourceful conversation, and 2. they appear with frequency. Remove either factor, and blogs die. With that in mind, Ted Olson revealed a secret: the secret of the top God blogs is that they’re team efforts.” Which is what you get by reading this – and may be the secret for any Church that seeks to keep the Blog alive.

Demographic information from the 2006 Canadian Census

Our NBS board recently received a copy of demographic information based on the 2006 Canadian Census. The results are no less interesting for the fact that they are predictable. Some key areas of interest…

-over 5.8 million Canadian taxfilers donated a record $7.9 billion to charities that provide offical tax receipts – almost 1% more donors, and 13.8% more in total donations compared with 2004.

-about 34% of Canadians said they did volunteer work in 2003.

-the number of same-sex couples surged 32.6% between 2001 and 2006, five times the pace of opposite-sex couples (+5.9%)

-the number of one-person households increased 11.8%, more than twice as fast as the 5.3% increase for the total population in private households.

-43.5% of the 4 million young adults aged 20-29 live in the parental home. Twenty years ago, 32.1% of young adults lived with their parents.

-for the first time, the census enumerated more unmarried people aged 15 and over than legally married people. In 2006, more than one-half (51.5%) of the adult population were unmarried, compared with 49.9% five years earlier.

-25.6 million people live in a family household, representing 87% of the population.

-though Canadians are now more likely to start their conjugal life through a common-law relationship, most couples (84%) are married.

-blended families account for 12% of all couples with children in 2001, compared with 10% in 1995.

-Canada’s visible minority population is growing faster than its total population: 25% growth from 1996-2001 versus 4% growth in the general population. By 2017, about 20% of Canada’s population could be visible minorities.

MinistryTalk: “Resourcing the Vision”

According to Robert Quinn in Deep Change a legitimate vision must exceed perceived resources.  If our vision fits neatly within our current resources it is merely a plan, not a vision. Planning is important, but it will not result in "deep change", according to Quinn. Only vision enables an organization to discern a future that moves it from current destruction dilemmas into new, fruitful spaces.

Sounds good! But can our vision outstrip the potential resources? I think we have to say yes. Visions are energizing, captivating, motivating, but they can also be too big for an organization to sustain. In such cases those involved in the enterprise can become discouraged, fatigued, and frustrated because their vision is beyond their reach. How do we measure whether our organization has the capacity to achieve its preferred vision?

    1. Develop clear strategies that demonstrate in a step-by-step fashion how the vision can be achieved. If you cannot conceptualize this in ways that make sense to you and others, then the vision is idealistic but has little chance of being achieved.

   2.  Consult with others who have adopted challenging visions and seen them achieved. Take advantage of their wisdom and experience to gauge whether your vision has similar potential.

   3.  Discern whether there is a deep, independently confirmed consensus within the organization that the preferred vision is the way to proceed. Sometimes leaders have great vision, but no one else in the organization has come to a similar view of the potential. While there may be occasions where such a ‘prophetic’ insight occurs, within church contexts we would believe that the Spirit will confirm the vision’s potential through various voices.

   4.  Ultimately, a church’s decision to embrace and pursue a vision is a matter of faith and trust in God, as well as personal integrity. If the status quo is not enabling the church to achieve its mission, then Christian integrity requires us to step out and grow forward. We will not see every step of the way clearly, but will believe that God will provide wisdom and resources when necessary.

 When we reflect on Paul’s vision to take the Gospel to non-Jewish people, we quickly discern that his vision was astounding, but he was not quite sure how this would work out. He initiated some missionary journeys without knowing where specifically he would be going. He trusted God to guide him on the way and He did, because he was faithful to the vision. At times he did not know where he would find the resources to continue, yet often we discover churches or individuals sending resources to assist at just the right time. Paul helps us discern the fine line between faith, vision, and presumption.

No alpha, beta or RC1 releases – a reason for Thanksgiving!

Warning!!
"if you don’t know what an alpha release is, don’t use this software!!"

I love the concept of free web software – a web application that has been designed by someone out there in cyberland who has put it up on the net to be downloaded and used freely (donations always appreciated). It is in this context that I have chuckled in the past couple of days as I have been searching for some very specific plugins (small web applications) for WordPress (the web software on which this site runs). In the process I have come across several websites that describe their particular plugin as an "alpha release" – with the following warning- "if you don’t know what an alpha release is, don’t use this software!!" Warning heeded!!

It is common for web software programmers to release a version of the software they are developing to the public – a version that is not fully tested or does not have complete functionality – in order to give the internet community an opportunity get a sneak preview or even to help in the debugging of the program. In this way users will often help with suggestions as to what additional functionality might be added to the software in order to make it a useful tool. These releases are labeled "alpha" or "beta" versions and if the software is deemed to be almost complete, "release candidate 1 or 2" (RC1, etc.). I have occasionally experimented with web software that was still in the "beta" stage.

Sometimes, however, it is frustrating when I am looking at a piece of software that is advertised to do just what I want it to do – but it is still "beta"! Do I dare use it on my "precious" website? Can I trust it? Other times it is quite annoying when software touted as the ultimate answer for a particular need does not live up to its promise. But that is the world of software offered on the web and those are the risks you take when you use a "beta" version.

Today is Canadian Thanksgiving Day and I was reflecting on what I had to be thankful about and thinking about some of the experiences I have had with "beta releases" it occurred to me that when Jesus provided the "Ultimate Answer" to mankind’s deepest need he provided the only and final release, free and absolutely complete!

Jesus…prepared for every contingency, every possibility, every condition and every era. He did not take any shortcuts or half measures and did not leave any functionality out.

When Jesus provided salvation for us He prepared for every contingency, every possibility, every condition and every era. He did not take any shortcuts or half measures and did not leave any functionality out. He did not forget anything or ignore anything. He knew every need we would ever possibly have and provided for them all. When He died on the Cross to save mankind from sin he did not take a trial and error approach – he went all the way and did it perfectly – first time! His "plan" for us has never needed debugging, security updates, patches or fixes. It is perfect, there will never be any other versions or releases – and it is free for the receiving! In fact donations are not even possible and to attempt payment nullifies the "plan".

So, to recap! The salvation Jesus has provided is absolutely perfect, absolutely complete, absolutely efficacious, absolutely trustworthy and absolutely free. Now that is something for which I can be very thankful – and so can you!.

In the realm of web software I will continue to experiment with the occasional "beta" release. In the spiritual realm, however, I have settled on Jesus’ perfect "plan"- His provision for eternal salvation.

Significant Conversations

Five aspects of evangelism common to our churches that need to change if we are to make a gospel impact in our communities:

a.    The individualistic nature of evangelism.  People commonly view Sunday worship as their expression of church, while the rest of the week is lived without church involvement. For example, I have seen written over the exit in some churches: “You are entering the mission field.”  While the focus on missions is laudable, the understanding for many is that while we are in the building we are part of a congregation, but when we leave, we are on our own!  The common assumption is that those who “do evangelism” with their acquaintances, do it by themselves.  This perception is inadvertently advanced by the testimony of those who are gifted evangelists because the interaction is often presented as a private affair.  But this approach ignores the great potential for developing a support network with other believers.

b.    Defining ministry as church based activity. The ministries of the church are usually understood as the activities that are on the ledger (teacher, usher, maintenance, etc.), and the personal spiritual interaction that people have in their every day relationships are not viewed as church ministry. This perspective needs to be reversed.  Each person’s primary church ministry should be the way they reflect Christ in their daily lives, while the tasks associated with church programs are support ministries.

Each person’s primary church ministry should be the way they reflect Christ in their daily lives

c.    Evangelism as the task of the church.  At one level this is true, but the emphasis often results in downplaying the reality that it is God who has a mission to the world and it is his Spirit that changes hearts.  Salvation does not depend on our ability to convict and convince.  Rather we need to discover what God is up to in people’s lives and have a conversation. We look for where God is working and explore the significance of that spiritual interest with them.

d.    The guilt aspect. In light of people on their way to hell, we feel enormous pressure to give people a gospel message – like medical staff in the emergency room.  However, in my experience this perspective actually works against the effectiveness of motivating people to the task.  We need to trust that God will do what is right with each individual and not put more responsibility for a person’s eternal destiny on ourselves than is warranted by Scripture.  A more appealing and less intimidating paradigm is the view that we are on a spiritual journey and want to walk with others who are also on a journey.

e.    The program approach to evangelism. Very often the plea is “bring your friends to church or to our evangelistic outreach” with the implication that “the expert” is best equipped to tell the gospel.  However, any one who is a true follower of Christ has a gospel message inside them that their friends are more than likely willing to hear and which would make a greater impact.  In the long run, a more productive focus will be to develop a support network so that believers can explore the spiritual joys and challenges of engaging the significant people in their lives.

I would like to suggest a simple grassroots approach to evangelism that relieves the pressure on believers to “present a gospel message” and replaces that with a freedom to enjoy significant conversations with people. This approach creates a conversational space where there are no winners or losers, just people who are able to express what is significant to them.  For the true believer, this is opportunity for Jesus to shine. 

The SISI system is designed to mitigate the weaknesses noted above.

Download the SISI brochure in which the process is explained together with important assumptions and / or contact me at via the form below. 

You are also invited to read the CCI article entitled “Why I don’t do ‘Evangelism’” which chronicles my own spiritual journey in coming to this position of seeking significant conversations.

 

Contact Mark Naylor

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Middle Adults – Use Them or Lose Them

I posted a note back in July with a bit of a warning – that the Middle-Adult ministry today is not the same as it was 30 years ago, and that if the church doesn’t address the aging Boomer generation, it is missing a huge opportunity [July 5, 2007: Here They Come.] I don’t know if it’s the fact that my birthday has arrived and I am smack dab in the middle of that generation – or it it’s because more research is being published – but I find that my warning is being confirmed.

In a number of studies published by the Leadership Network [www.leadnet.org] top innovations in Older Adult Ministry are being reported. While the standard understanding has been that Youth are the prime target for church ministries, and Youth ministry is the second or third hire on a church staff, the facts are that people “over 65 now outnumber teenagers nearly two to one.” The “graying of society” is now understood as a social revolution. Yet, very few churches have targeted ministries for middle to older adults.

While the focus on youth has been driven by the idea that youth are the most apt to be receptive to the gospel, churches that are targeting Middle-adults are finding that there is even greater spiritual interest and receptivity among the “grey” generation. In fact, people over 50 are living longer and want to make a difference in the second half of their lives. The name “boomer” is being replaced with a new title: “the finisher generation” as the middle-adults have every intention to finish well.

In reporting on this phenomenon, Dr. Amy Hanson, one of the researchers for Leadership Network just published an article with a title that sounds the warning once again: Prime Timers: Older Adults Moving Outside Churches To Serve. On the other hand, Churches who recognize the age explosion are creating strategic, innovative ministries that are well worth attention. I would strongly recommend Amy Hansen’s whole report: Churches Responding to the Age Wave: Top Innovations In Older Adult Ministry … downloaded for free from the Leadership Network resource webpage: www.leadnet.org/resources.asp.

A Father’s Baptism

This past Sunday I had the opportunity to preach at Albion Church. The fellowship–an energetic, young congregation of some 70-80 believers–meets in the local community hall on the north bank of the Fraser River. Their pastor who invited me to preach is Dan Ost. My decision to say yes was a ‘no brainer.’

Dan’s emailed invitation was more of a 911 call. I quote: "I received a call last night from my 76 year old father who just became a Christian a little over a year ago–he’s over-the-top excited about his new found faith and is going to be baptized next Sunday…and I don’t want to miss it! So, …I’m looking for a last minute preacher who could fill in here at Albion…."

Who wouldn’t want to be at his own dad’s baptism? 76 years old! That number alone tells me a story. It tells me that the greatest length of the life pathway for Dan’s dad has been filled with incomprehension and not a little resistance to Jesus. Every pathway has measures of those elements. That Dan has been a Christian far longer than his dad I’m sure means that he was both concerned and hopeful for his dad’s eventual conversion to Christ. I don’t doubt that Dan’s daily prayers to God gave good time to ask for a transformed mind for his dad so that he could understand that the good news about a new life in Jesus was good news for him. There have probably been many conversations between father and son regarding what it means to be a Christian in terms of costs and blessings. I’m sure Dan had to balance the urgency to insistently tell with respect for his dad and realization that if anything happened, it would ultimately be God’s doing and in God’s time.

Well, God came through–big time!

It makes me wonder, though. If we imagined everyone we know who needs to hear the good news about salvation in Jesus’ name as a beloved father, mother, or child, would we be more consciously prayerful for their salvation, more available to relate to them, more respectfully insistent in raising the matter about Jesus, and more patient and persistent out of a great hopefulness and confidence to see God come through?

Dan had the joy of seeing his father in his late years come to a whole new life through faith in Jesus and be baptized this past Sunday. It should make us all want to pursue that joy as well.

The Crossing Tender

I heard Jeff Arthurs from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary read this little parable at an Evangelical Homiletics Society gathering many years ago. Afterwards I asked him for a copy so that I could share it with my classes. It was published in 1919 by William Eleazar Barton, otherwise known as “Safed the Sage”. The piece has been edited.

Now there is a railway that runneth through the town where I live, and there are gates that are pulled down when a train goeth by. And one day when I would have crossed the tracks, the gates went down, so that I stopped. And I spake unto the man who keepeth the crossing, and I said, “lovest thou thy job?”

And he said, “I count myself lucky to have this job, for I am neither young nor strong; nevertheless mine is a hard job.”

And I said, “wherefore should thy job be hard?”

And he said, “because I save people’s lives and they curse me.”

“They come down the street breaking the speed limit, and honking for me to lift the gates; or if they be on foot they duck under. And when I warn them not to cross the tracks lest they die, they act as if I were their enemy.”

And I took him by the hand, and I said, “Thou art my brother, and my job is like unto thine.”

And he said, “Art thou not a minister?”

And I answered, “I am a crossing-tender. Where thou seest yonder spire, I tend a crossing; and i say unto the wicked, go not in thine evil way, lest thou die, but they continue to go as they did before. And I say unto the heedless, duck not under the gate, lest evil befall thee; but they duck as they were wont to do.”

My job is like unto the crossing-tenders for my job has the same trials. Nevertheless, his is a good job, and so is mine. And every now and then we keep people on the right side of the gate.

So I considered this, and I resolved to do it as well as I could.

The Wonder of Sulfa and Penicillin – or Salt and Light

On my way to work this morning the radio station to which I was listening had an announcement regarding some of the up-coming fall TV shows. I found myself reacting to the announcer’s casual monologue. What he was describing was entertainment comprised of watching godless and adulterous relationships, of watching actors and actresses portraying a society whose values consisted of lust, deceit, betrayal, violence, murder and virtually any other godless form of lifestyle. The radio announcer described the opening scenes of a new season of one popular TV serial as "dark and twisted"! Hmmm…, just what I was needing to build me up in my faith and my daily walk with God.

I wonder if Jesus might have used the analogy of sulfa and penicillin!

I turned the radio off and was musing about the role of the Christian in society. Here we are, God’s holy people, living squarely in the middle of this culture of ours with its sordid view of entertainment. We are in it but not to be “of it”. God has kept us here for a reason. Jesus told us we are to be salt and light. As we interact with our culture, what does that look like?

It is the prerogative of the Gospel to transcend culture – to transform culture! We are to be culture influencers! It seems to me, however, that we also need to be very careful that the opposite does not happen – that our culture does not exert a godless influence on us through the “entertainment” that it serves up.

Here are some questions with which I wrestle:

1. Are we allowing our “personal culture” to be influenced daily by the transforming power of the Gospel? Do we vigorously clear away from our lives anything that would restrict that process? What safeguards have we put in place to ensure that this happens? With such a pervasive godlessness in our culture’s entertainment how do we keep ourselves from being influenced? Do we divorce ourselves completely from radio, TV, movies and the like? If not, where do we draw the line at what we allow ourselves to watch – to be entertained by? There are definite dangers – how do we recognize them? For example, can our entertainment so accustom our ears to the kind of speech that the Bible defines as “corrupt, foolish or coarse” (Eph. 4:29 & 5:3,4) that we become desensitized to it? That is only one of the many areas where moral desensitization can set in. Are there areas in our “comfortableness” with the culture of our society where we have been blinded by it? 

2. Are we allowing the Gospel’s transforming power to flow through us to the culture around us? In all the spheres where we have relationships with people, what positive, godly effect does our being there have on those around us? Is there a measure of intentionality about it? Do we ever stop and contemplate how we are influencing others? Last night at the badminton club I am part of one of the guys was casually throwing around some rather offensive language. I wrestled with how to respond? What did salt and light look like in this situation?

3. How important is all of this to us? Is it a priority in our lives?

God used that transformation as a means to explain another transformation that God wanted to work in their lives – the Gospel.

I remember as a child watching a marvelous transformational metaphor take place. My parents were missionaries in a very remote village on the island of Kalimantan, Indonesia. The people among whom we were living were plagued with a bizarre condition called Yaws or tropical ulcers. These putrid, infected lesions were both debilitating and disfiguring. It is also extremely contagious. When my parents first arrived in the village a large percentage of the local population was affected by this condition. Parts of arms, legs, hands and faces were eaten away. To this day I can still smell it.  It was horrific. 

With minimal medical experience and limited resources my parents began to treat the villagers. These people had never been exposed to sulfa drugs or penicillin and within weeks of initial treatment those dreadful sores completely dried up and healed. It was nothing short of miraculous. God used that transformation as a means for my dad and mom to explain to the villagers another transformation that God wanted to work in their lives – the Gospel. 

To me that is a picture of what we as Christians are to be in the society and culture in which we have been placed?  What miracles might we witness as we allow the Gospel to be radiated through our lives to our culture and the people of our culture?   I wonder if Jesus might have used the analogy of sulfa and penicillin!

Don’t Discuss, DO

For the past couple of years I have been leading a Bible study on the theme “touching the robe of Christ.”  This was adopted as a paradigm for the desire to break past misleading interpretations, religious terminology and church traditions and trappings in order to connect with God through Christ, to experience the reality of the Spirit’s power.  As part of the approach towards this, we read through the first six chapters of Mark as if we had never read them before and never heard of Jesus.  We tried for a fresh look at Jesus, who he claimed to be and what he taught.  Through that exercise we gained a number of valuable and enlightening insights.

To begin the fall session, we reviewed our progress.  Are we closer to “touching the robe of Christ”? Have we experienced this?  The answer was unequivocally, “no.”  Some were still puzzled about what that experience would “feel” like, while one person stated, “I think I have touched the robe, but nothing happened.”

Jesus taught us to LIVE the life, not just DISCUSS the life

I came away from the Bible study uncertain of the next step.  However, on the way to a pastors’ breakfast with the pastor of our church, Jared White, we discussed the Bible study and he suggested that perhaps “doing” was the element we were missing. We had been neglecting the reality that the text is given to us for the purpose of FOLLOWING, not discussion. Jesus taught us to LIVE the life, not just DISCUSS the life. So it is no surprise that we had not been able to “grasp the robe,” or in grasping had not experienced any “bells and whistles.”  What Jesus calls us to is obedience, to do what he commands. If we do not, then all discussion is like chasing smoke.  It is like trying to analyze love without living and experiencing love.  It is only by following and obeying that we are transformed into Christ’s image: into the wholeness and perfection, the harmony with God, the fulfillment of what our Father intended in our creation and sees in our potential.

So the question I will be raising in our study is no longer “how can we touch the robe,” for that is now within our grasp. Rather, with the robe in sight, the call is to follow. Will we act upon its implication and thus experience the robe through obedience to his commands?

The Wages of Service

Christianity Today International publishes the result of an annual survey on church salaries. This year’s copy of The 2008 Compensation Handbook for Church Staff has not yet been published, but a few of the results have been reported – as surprises. Senior editor, Kevin Miller, has posted an article in Leadership online entitled 3 Surprises on What Pastors Get Paid. For good or ill, I found two of the surprises to be of interest:

Surprise 1: If you want to earn more, change denominations. Without getting into the details, while Presbyterian Senior Pastors receive the highest average salary, Baptist Senior Pastors average next to last on the salary scale. On the other hand, Baptist Youth Pastors earn near the top, while Presbyterian Youth Pastors are near the bottom. It’s an interesting hint about mission and priorities.

Surprise 3: That additional degree is probably worth it. The issue of whether or not further education is of value to ministry is debatable, at least among the Baptist Churches I know. I don’t know how appropriate it is to add dollars to that debate, but there is some indication that on this side of heaven and from a financial standpoint that education is worth it. As the report reads: roughly stated, moving from a bachelor’s degree to a master’s degree boosts income from 10 to 20 percent, and getting your doctorate [adds] 15 percent more on top of that … Wondering whether to finish your master’s or doctorate? Even in pastoral ministry, from a financial standpoint, the answer is yes.”

For more information click here.

Top Ten Reasons Why You Should Read Theology #4

Reason #4.

Simply put, neither science nor philosophy can supply all the answers to some of life’s most perplexing questions. Where did we come from? Why are we here? and whither are we going? Where they draw a blank on these questions theology comes in with solid answers that give hope and explain an otherwise inexplicable universe. To be sure these answers do not always coincide with scientific answers, but where science and philosophy are silent, theology can and does speak. Don’t you want more than just “we don’t know?” For more see John Polkinghorn’s book, Belief in God in an Age of Science.

Searching for a Home Church

My daughters, who’ve recently left home and struck out on their own, are searching for a home church. Sunday they tried out a young congregation meeting at a local movie theater. When we asked them, they described what had gone on that morning during the service. It was great! Earlier in their search they’d found and worshiped with a young, energetic congregation in an old church building that is undergoing a significant physical refit to accommodate all the exciting ministries and growth.

There’s a quite apparent vibrancy and a great excitement in those churches to be God’s communities where they are and to serve the non-Christian community needs which are apparent. We know the churches to have a firm grip upon the faith passed down through the ages and they are both quite passionate about members incarnating the truths of Scripture. There is a positive sense of the congregations’ selves and a fearless sense of mission in them which is refreshing.

How can parents be anything but encouraged when the search turns to such options?

The girls are both keenly aware that there is no such thing as a perfect church–at least not this side of eternity.  But we’re encouraged that they have engaged the search out of a realization of the critical value of being in community.  Paul Tournier wrote, "There are two things we cannot do alone; one is to be married and the other is be a Christian."

Dynamic Range

Having heard hundreds of students preach in my various classes, I’ve discovered that there is a limit to a person’s “dynamic range.” Like a musician that can sing over multiple octaves, some preachers are capable of hitting the high notes as well as the low notes, speaking loudly and confidently at one point of the sermon and softly and sensitively at another. Others, however, bring a narrower range. Their highs are not as high and their lows not quite so low.

Ideally, I would want all of my students to be able to expand their range. Professional singers always work to broaden the range of their voices and their emotional capacities. Preachers ought to also.

However, it seems obvious that there is a limit to what any of us are going to be able to reach. We are all limited by our personalities. Some of my students are soft-spoken by nature and will never be able to reach the boisterous levels achieved by some of the other more extroverted students.

This is not to say that a limited range necessarily makes for poorer preaching. I would suggest, however, that each of us ought to be working to explore the outer edges of our range. We need to vary our emotional tone. The changes can be subtle, but listeners need to sense some modulation in our voice and in our emotional intensity.

However wide your range, you ought to explore every note of it.

Translation Theology

No, this is not an attack on any Bible translation. But it is a serious question — how do our translations of the Bible  influence the forming of our Christian worldview? We believe that God intended his Word to be translated into every language. Yet as we make the transition from Greek or Hebrew text to English or some other language, meaning is modified, often in subtle ways and without intention. The trust that Bible translators carry is immense, to say the least.

Does it make a difference whether we call John "the baptizer" or "the immerser" (Mark 1:4)? After all, the term "baptize" is a transliteration of the Greek, not a translation. And what has been the effect of using "Christ" (Mark 1:1) to render the Greek word for Messiah, i.e. anointed one? Or what image is created in our minds when we read the Jesus "preached the word"  (Mark 2:2)to the crowds gathered at his house in Capernaum? Was it a three pointer? Topical or expository? Or one wonders why the New International Version (NIV) translates euaggelion as "gospel" in Mark 1:1 and then "good news" in Mark 1:14-15, and then reverts to "gospel" in all the other occurrences in Mark until Mark 16:15 when suddenly it is "good news" again. What contextual factors would lead to such variance? Does this kind of alternation affect how we understand God’s Word and influence the theology that we formulate?

In Mark 2:15-17 the word hamartoloi is translated "sinners". It is placed in quotation marks in verses 15-16, but not in verse 17. In the Markan text "sinners" is differentiated from tax-collectors in 2:15-16. But when we hear the word, our grid tends to be formed by the Pauline understanding, i.e. "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God." But obviously this is not the kind of "sinner" that the Greek text of Mark 2:15-16 is  describing. But then in 2:17 we suddenly find the word "sinner" used in Jesus’ response, but without any quotation marks around it.  Presumably the contrast in his words between "righteous" and "sinner" changes the nuance of the term in the mind of the translator, from describing a social category, to describing a spiritual category.  When we come to the story of Jesus’ betrayal in Mark 14:41, Jesus says that "the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners." The NIV does not place any quotation marks around the word "sinners" in this context. But what did Jesus mean by using this term in 14:41? Is he placing his betrayers in the social category defined by the scribes in Mark 2:15-16 or is he defining them as "sinners", i.e. sinful human beings?

Examples could be multiplied and while the NIV is used as an example here, all translations struggle with this problem. But these instances beg the question about the way these renderings, read by millions of people and liturgically intoned countless times in the hearing of the faithful, shape or perhaps mis-shape the theology of the average believer.

I do not raise this question to create doubt about the trustworthiness of good Bible translations. Rather, I draw attention to this reality — our theology does get shaped by how we read these translations, whether we like it or not. Frequent reference to the Greek or Hebrew text becomes more important, not less, as the number, type and quality of English Bible translations continues to multiply. Preachers and teachers have a significant responsibility to make sure they "divide the Word of God rightly." Perhaps competence in New Testament Greek or biblical Hebrew is becoming more important, not less, so that ministry leaders guide and form God’s people as diligently as possible. If we take short cuts here, what might be the unintended consequences?

The love of the Father

Over the years of my Christian life I have often grappled with the questions, "How can I have a relationship with someone I cannot see, hear or touch?  What kind of a relationship is it if one party is limited by being bound to this humanity?"  I know, and have preached on the theologically correct answers to these questions.  I recall J. Sidlow Baxter preaching a series of messages back during my bible college days where he encouraged us to read the Gospels photographically and see Jesus as the Gospel writers portray Him – a practice I have often undertaken over the 30 or so years since. As I have read through John’s Gospel I have taken careful note of Jesus words in 14:7 "If you have known me, you will also know my Father. From now on you know him and have seen him."  As I have grown in the Christian disciplines and pursued my walk with God I have learned to hear from his Word and rejoice in intimate fellowship with Him.  But there still arise those moments when ‘feelings’ and faith seem to be on opposite sides of the experience pendulum.

This past summer I read a book that had a profound impact on my perception of my relationship with God. The book is The Shack by William P. Young.  It is a powerful story of a father’s overwhelming grief in the face of horrific tragedy and how God turns that grief into an opportunity to get to know the Heavenly Father.  It is difficult to classify this book. Is it fiction?  Eugene Peterson’s comment on the book cover seems to imply that it is allegory.  As I read it, I couldn’t help but try to get into the author’s mind and ask, "what motivated this book?" Is it autobiographical?  What ever the genre the impact on me was telling. As I was reading it on the plane I kept looking around to see if anyone was noticing my tears.  I wept out of sheer joy as my perspective of what God desired in relationship was deepened.  I wept out of a profound sense of being humbled by the Father’s passionate love.  I wept out of a refreshed intense longing to know Jesus more. I wept as the Spirit took that story and breathed into my soul a new understanding of His desire to draw me closer.

The Shack  is a book I would recommend to every Christian. You will be drawn into a fresh understanding at God’s ineffable love for his children and the kind of relationship we were intended to have with Him.

Moving from STM to Career

I received a good question from Missions Catalyst e-Magazine.  Shane Bennett writes,

So, how have you seen short-termers transformed into long-termers? I’m thinking of good examples in which sharp people end up in significant, well-fitting roles. I’m imagining non-manipulative methods in which people are invited to recognize their gifts, are provided with proper stepping stones to long-term commitment, and are shepherded into a successful cross-cultural career.

This is an excellent question and one that a lot of missions agencies (including Fellowship International Ministries) have discussed often.  If you have any ideas or experience in this, please let me know.  Do you know someone who went from short term missions to career missions?  If so, how did that transition occur?  Can we discover a pattern or a means for greater impact that would encourage people towards a long term investment in international ministry?  If you have any ideas, drop me a line via the form below.

One concern that I have is that the strong cultural emphasis on individualism in our churches mitigates against the possibility of a communal decision to appoint someone to missions.  We have personal decisions, a personal walk with Christ, personal devotions and a personal calling to ministry.  When pastors decide to move on they make a personal decision and then involve the church in the process.  All major decisions are personal, and while professional advice is often sought, communal involvement in personal decision making (job, spouse, education, etc.) is unusual.  I am not opposed to this system; it is a reflection of our cultural orientation and comfort zone because, as Canadians, we are quite reserved about having direct involvement in those aspects of other people’s lives considered "personal".
 
However, the downside of this is the reticence we have to provide others with direction and insight for a calling into cross-cultural ministry.  As churches we give general invitations, but rarely identify individuals as capable of international service and challenge them in that direction.  Perhaps this lack of input in people’s lives keeps them unaware of their potential to serve God in missions.  The general sense in that anyone can go on a STM trip, but in our context it feels presumptuous to take the initiative in proposing a career in missions for someone else.

Do you agree with this assessment or are there other, more important factors?

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We’re Not Okay, But That’s Okay

The work we’ve been working with Church Boards over the last year has created a number of opportunities to expand our ability to help raise the levels of congregational health on a more personal level. To do that well, I have been getting trained in various Church Coaching systems. Along the way, one of my greatest joys has been developing a partnership with my friend, Cam Taylor – an associate with Outreach Canada. We share the legacy of pastoral ministry. In the September edition of his Connections Newsletter, he offered a review of the book The Toxic Congregation by G. Lloyd Rediger.
 
His review outlined four different categories of congregations in need of care, each with their own stories. It’s like reading a medical casebook of symptoms … and potential cures.
 
I have to admit that reading about toxic congregations depresses me. With all the time and effort that is spent trying to find a cure for congregational ailments, I begin to despair at the thought that Church Health may ever be achieved. In sharing my angst with a friend, the thought hit me. Maybe we’re looking at this from the wrong angle. Maybe, just possibly, the natural condition of the church is that ILL is normal. Oh, not that it is acceptable, but that it should be expected.
 
After all, the human condition, no matter how fit a person may be at any given time, is prone to illness. I am reminded of the insight shared by my friend, Dr. Robert Webber, as he enjoyed a brief moment of remission from the cancer that killed him. He learned to add to his daily prayer a word of thanksgiving for “the healing of today.” We often assume that healing is permanent, and that health is expected standard of normal. The fact is, each day has its own set of troubles and none of us are immune from brokenness or the need to live in steady dependence on the God who loves us and keeps giving Himself for us.
 
If we have to live our lives that way, it stands to reason that we should be willing to share our fellowship that way as well. Somehow, I take comfort in that perspective. It eases the mind as I get back to work, serving this fragile and sometimes cracked crucible called the church.
 
For more information regarding the Leadership Network – and to access Cam’s review on Toxic churches: http://en.outreach.ca/WhatWeDo/Networks/tabid/1069/Default.aspx

9/11 and Being Remembered

Yesterday was the sixth anniversary of 9/11.  Many media pieces featured some aspect or other of the tragedy. Some were retrospectives of the event itself. Others covered planned commemorations. I watched one that discussed the engineering implications of 9/11 for high rise building safety.

Among them, two reports in particular struck me.  One was a radio report that memorial service attendance near the site of the World Trade Center this year was only 3,500; down by 1,000 from last year. The other was a news piece by a reporter who asked people on the street what 9/11 was. I was appalled at how many didn’t have a clue what 9/11 was. One person actually asked, "Wasn’t that when we invaded Iraq?"

Perhaps the noblest human motive in remembering the departed is the wish to keep them alive after a fashion, to confer upon them a kind of life beyond the grave in memory. But as massively nightmarish and horrible as 9/11 was, and as much as a nation pledged itself in the days following to cherish the nearly 3,000 dead, it is clear that memory is fading.  Human beings are miserably bad saviors that way.

Who can keep us from being forgotten; from becoming meaningless names and dates chiseled in weathering stone, statistics in a register, or even less? I have no faith in strangers or even my own family to keep me thus. And even if they could do it, where’s the joy or satisfaction in it for them or for me?

If there is salvation in being remembered, who’s able to commit us to the fullest memory so that it is meaningful to the rememberer and the remembered and so that the memory creates more than a sense of loss and deep pain? Can anyone remember us in this way?

I recall the evangelist Luke’s account of two men who hung on crosses within earshot of one another. Both were destined to die that day–one justly for crimes he admitted he had committed; the other innocently, yet without complaint. The former was a criminal sorry to God for what he’d done; the latter was God’s own son.

As life slipped away from both, a remarkable conversation occurred. The guilty man asked the innocent one, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."  The innocent one replied, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."

That’s how I want to be remembered. That’s who I want to be remembered by.

The Word Must Be Heard

We have a new lead pastor at our church (Parkland Fellowship) and we couldn’t be happier. Yesterday, Brian Stewart offered us a dramatic recitation of the entire book of Philippians, from memory! I had memorized the book of Philippians some years ago, but I had never had the courage (or the wisdom) to offer it in public. My mistake.

Open Bible Brian’s presentation was masterful. He began, early in the service, with a brief setup to the book, helping us appreciate its broad themes. Later in the service he actually recited the book. He was dressed in ordinary casual clothing. His only prop was a heavy chain. His presentation was deeply felt, communicating with conviction, enthusiasm, and sensitivity. Like an actor, he made the ideas in the Scripture come alive for everyone present. It is Brian’s intention to preach through the entire book over the next several weeks and so this was to serve as a kind of introduction, but we found it to be so much more than that. It was as if Paul himself had brought the sermon to us on this Sunday.

I have often thought that sometimes we as preachers get in the way of God’s Word. If we really believe that the Scriptures are the very words of God, then we ought to be able to just read them to the congregation and let the Spirit of God do his thing. Yesterday’s presentation confirmed that line of thinking for me.

I still believe that the preaching of the Word helps people hear the Word, but I guess I’m reflecting on the fact that in so much of our preaching the Bible isn’t heard much at all. We may reflect on the occasional verse or put it on the powerpoint screen, but do we give people time to soak in the Scriptures? Could we let the Scriptures speak for themselves before we get to commenting?

For years now, I’ve made it my practice to read the text in full before getting into the sermon. I like the idea that the people hear the Word itself before I get to messing it up with my stories and ideas. I remember one Sunday many years ago when I was dealing with a particularly long passage, trying to decide whether or not there was time to read the whole thing. I was a little concerned whether people would want to hang with me for such a long time, but in the end decided to go ahead and read it all. After the service, a woman thanked me profusely for taking to time to read the passage. “I’ve always appreciated that about you,” she said. “You’ve always been willing to take the time for us to actually hear the Word of God.” I have taken her comments to heart. I’ve learned that when the Scripture is read well, it has its impact.

The Word of God must not only be talked about. The Word must be heard.

Alumni: Todd (1999) and Karen Chapman

Todd Chapman, pastor of Auguston Neighbourhood Church in Abbotsford, BC., is a graduate of Northwest Baptist Seminary at ACTS (Master of Religious Education 1999). He and Karen have three children: Delaney, Macaulay and Theo.

Todd, in a life filled with many significant choices, perhaps the biggest is the determination to be a follower of Jesus. Tell me a bit about that choice.

I was raised in a godly home and grew up with a strong sense of being part of a church community. I became a Christian at age six and was baptized on Thanksgiving Sunday when I turned eight. It’s a fabulous thing to come to faith and to grow up in this kind of environment. But there is a whole other world beyond the shelter of such an upbringing, where personal choices have to be made and this can be tough.

Tell me a bit more.

Well, being a Christian parent, I can appreciate much more the way I was raised and I’m trying to model this with my own kids. When I was in my mid teens, my folks entrusted me to God’s care in the task of making certain choices. They stood by me in the process, watching as I made my choices—some good and some not so good—and there were great times of interaction. I deeply respect my parents for giving me the freedom to grow in this way. The choices we often have to make are not always black or white; right or wrong. God will sometimes say, "There was a better choice to be made. But Todd, I am with you and I love you." That’s what my parents modeled to me.

I learned to trust God and prove his reality. Choices were also a way of showing me where my heart was. This was an early schooling to prepare me in the weightier choices that I would eventually make—like whom I would marry and what calling or profession I would choose.

Your choice to study at Northwest Baptist Seminary was a pretty momentous one. How did it occur?

That’s an interesting one. I was doing my fourth year of studies at Trinity Western University moving toward a teaching degree when I sensed that I needed to do a check on the direction of my life. I asked God for time away from my studies to reflect. This meant getting a job in fairly short order. My sense that God was with me in this process was immediate. The next day, I was approached by someone who asked me if I would be available to work up in Powell River at a fishing lodge. It was during this five month period of time that God helped me to an increasing conviction on many important life decisions, including going to seminary.

When you make a choice to follow God, you actually commit yourself to engage a whole sequence of choices. My first day at seminary was the day after the birth of our first daughter, Delany. She arrived 6 weeks early. I remember thinking, "I’m starting seminary. My wife Karen is now mom to a premature newborn and can’t work at her job as an ER nurse and we have to live with our parents. Finances are going to be low and expenses high. God is going to have to put this together." I had to renew my trust in him all along the way, and God came through.

I wouldn’t describe myself as a ‘formal education’ kind of guy. But the choice to trust God in this new venture energized me. The studies were a challenge. But there was also an amazing joy and sense of fulfillment in pursuing the choice; my grades were never better! I got the formal education. I was also positively affected by the professors who respected me and encouraged and challenged me to grow in my relationship with Christ. Through seminary there were numerous opportunities for experiential application of God’s truth—especially in the internship I did at North Valley Baptist. I was faced with opportunities to try new things and to trust God further. What I’m saying is that the big choice to prepare for ministry was followed by a whole sequence of choices to live and learn and trust God.

Todd, your ministry at Smithers Baptist Church was not a short one as first pastorates sometimes are.

No. In fact, we served there for seven years. Smithers was a big change for us. I had been interested in taking an associate position after seminary. God’s open door to me was a senior pastoral one. The choice to go to Smithers in October of 1999 had to be filled with trust in God’s provision. The move carried implications for Karen’s nursing career. It meant moving away from extended family and we would miss them greatly. It meant moving to a church community with a young family to a church with few young families. By the way, in Smithers they have real winter; that was another change!

Over and over again, though, God proved his goodness as we chose to follow him. I was a pretty young and inexperienced senior pastor—only twenty-five years old. But the church was amazingly flexible, giving room for me to grow and to try new things. Then there were those defining moments of assurance: an amazing sense of restfulness and confidence that God gave to us as we entered our second year of ministry in Smithers; the day that one of the elders came up to me and told me, "Todd, you’re my pastor and I’m going to follow"; and when my father-in-law took me aside to tell me, "You and Karen are meant to serve this church."

We are called to stand by God-honoring choices. But the great joy is that God also stands by us when we take them!

You’ve been at Auguston Neighbourhood Church for just over a year now. Tell me about the transition to this new opportunity to serve God and the choices it’s entailed.

Well, it is absolutely fundamental to choose a course of action for the right reasons. That’s especially important when it’s a choice to answer a call to a new church. Karen and I always affirmed to God that we would continue in our choice to serve Smithers until he indicated otherwise. The process of being approached by Auguston, interacting with the search committee and then moving through a more intensive exploration process was God’s means of providing us the information and encouragement we needed. I remember wondering how long it would take to sell our house in Smithers. The ‘for sale’ sign went up without our knowledge by a friend in Smithers. A lady came to the door asking to view the house the day we got home from the Auguston interview, and three weeks later the house was sold. Getting into our house in Abbotsford was as remarkable a sign of God’s provision and assurance.

Coming to Auguston required real choices; calling for us to trust in God’s continuing help. There are some very significant cultural differences between the communities at Smithers and Auguston and the churches. God expects me to serve faithfully, but he also expects me to serve in different ways. I can hear him saying to me in all of this, "I will provide. You’ll have what you need. In fact, all you need is me; trust me." We miss our friends in Smithers. One of the big changes for me is to have my office at home. It calls for discipline in carving out focused time for study and preparation. There is always more for which to trust God and in which he proves himself faithful.

I wonder, as you’ve reflected on choices and changes, is there a passage of Scripture that you’ve found particularly helpful?

One passage that I’ve found particularly helpful is 1 Corinthians 1:26-31. Paul invites the Corinthians to reflect on what they were when God called them. Not many were wise, influential, or of noble birth by human standards. But, he continues, God chose those who were foolish and lowly by earthly standards to achieve his marvelous ends. This passage reminds me of three things: who I am; who God is; and what he can do through you. You can have absolute confidence in God through the challenge of choices. That’s how life should be lived.

Ministrytalk: Spiritual Formation — is it all good?

Great interest now focuses upon fostering spiritual formation within all segments of Christianity. In its best forms, Christian spiritual formation uses various exercises and disciplines to form us to be like Christ, in thought, word and deed. Jesus himself taught his followers to pray, to resist evil, to love, to serve, to pursue righteousness, to study God’s word, to think as God thinks. But are all the exercises proposed today to assist Christian spiritual formation equally helpful and aligned with Christian values and understanding?

…the encouragement from the biblical examples is to be "meditating on God’s word day and night", as the basis for contemplative prayer. The outcome sought is the deep intimacy of knowing God as we reflect intensely upon his person displayed through his incredible actions.

In the first decades of the Christian movement some believers were convinced that being circumcised and obeying the Old Testament ‘law’ was the most appropriate pattern for stimulating spiritual growth. Yet Paul had to disabuse such believers of this idea, arguing that for non-Jews, circumcision as a spiritual exercise was actually harmful. Jesus criticized the Jewish religious leaders for requiring a Sabbath practice that inhibited spiritual formation. Paul warns believers at Corinth about the spiritual damage caused by participating thoughtlessly in the Lord’s Supper. It is not just an improper spiritual exercise that can cause problems, but the attitude our hearts have as we participate in it.

One of the spiritual exercises currently encouraged is called "contemplative prayer." Major prayers recorded in the Bible tend to be rehearsals of what God has done, meditations on the acts of God and their implications, which in turn give an encouragement for the petitioner to ask, trust and quietly wait for God’s response. I cannot locate any occasion in the Bible where God’s people are instructed to engage in prayer by empyting their minds and waiting for some thought, some image, some message to come. Rather, the encouragement from the biblical examples is to be "meditating on God’s word day and night", as the basis for contemplative prayer. The outcome sought is the deep intimacy of knowing God as we reflect intensely upon his person displayed through his incredible actions.

We need to distinguish carefully this Christian form of contemplative prayer from the use of contemplative prayer in other religious traditions. The constant repetition of a single phrase (a mantra) or the effort to focus the mind on nothing, or the attempt to open oneself up to spiritual forces — none of this is spiritual formation as defined or exemplified in Scripture.  In helping believers to form good spiritual habits, pastors and spiritual mentors, like an exercise coach, must be careful to provide the best advice, lest  the  person be harmed. The practices of Christian spirituality must be crafted in alignment with biblical principles, no matter what historical or contemporary Christian mystics might suggest. We also have to be careful about the spiritual practices some urge us to borrow from other religious traditions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam. And even from within the very broad stream of Christian tradition, we have to examine carefully the theological basis that spiritual practitioners may offer to justify certain spiritual formation exercises.

Just like the wrong form of physical exercise can damage severely muscle, tendons, and joints, so too blithely embracing all and sundry forms of human religious practice will result in soul harm. Satan can use spiritual formation exercises to mislead and deceive a believer, just as he can use anything else — even the form of an angel.

Search all of Northwest Online Resources

We have added a new search routine to our site so that all of our online resources can be searched from a single search. It is a Google Custom Search and it will search our NBSeminary.com (main site) plus Dr. Larry Perkins’ Internet Moments With God’s Word plus Mark Naylor’s Cross-cultural Impact for the 21st Century plus Dr. Lyle Schrag’s Leadership site.  This search utility is to be found on our main menu under Resources >> Search ALL Northwest Online Resources.

As we have been adding online resources regularly it has become necessary for us to be able to do this sort of a search in order to maximize our resources and get the greatest possible value out of them.

I trust that you will find our online resources to be a valuable source of information on various topics.  Have you checked out our "Category Index" (which is something like a subject index)?  You will find this also under the Resources >> View Archived Daily Posts by Category on the menu above.

A Call for a Complementary view of Bible Versions

As a missionary involved in Bible translation for the past 18 years, I was disappointed with the tone of the article “‘Packer’s Bible’ now bestseller” appearing in the BC Christian News, August 2007 Vol 27 #8 < http://www.canadianchristianity.com/bc/bccn/0807/01bible>. During the course of celebrating the growth in sales of the English Standard Verson (ESV) – a welcome addition to a number of excellent formal translations such as the NRSV and the NASB – disparaging and unhelpful remarks were made against other translations and translation philosophies (such as the “meaning based” philosophy that lies behind those invaluable translations that provide the spiritually hungry reader with “what was meant”). 

This unfortunate perspective was carried on in a sidebar entitled “’Dueling’ Translations” in which three Bible verses were presented from a variety of Bible versions. This negative and combative attitude not only confuses the average Christian and creates unnecessary divisions over minor issues, but it undermines the benefits we can gain from the multitude of translations available to us. 

Continue reading

Denominational Relevance

I might as well admit it, I am a fan of George Bullard. I am consistently stimulated by his writings. In fact, it’s been suggested that since I frequently post thoughts from his journal or blog that I should just post his link on my regularly scheduled posting on this blog and have done with it.

Well, George has done it again. This time it’s in a video form. A 7 minute .wpm file was posted on his journal promising a list of 20 things that Denominations must do to thrive in the 21st century. I scribbled furiously as I listened [wishing he had printed up the list]  But, watching it  did add punch to the presentation.

As I reviewed the list, a number of his points connected and confirmed some of the initiatives that I have been worked to provide. Point 1: denominations must see their primary role as servicing their churches; Point 10: denominations must help “perfecting congregations” [congregations that are faithful, healthy, and earnestly cycling through their future] to reach their next level; Point 15 denominations must find a way to make peace with the parachurch world; Point 16: denominations must find ways to become resource brokers for their churches.

Over the last Spring and Summer, my involvement with the Church Development Commission and Best Practices for Church Boards has created an interesting initiative. Because individual congregations have asked for help, and because the Fellowship Baptist churches have become familiar with Outreach Canada’s Ministry Fitness Check – I went ahead and took the training to become a coach for the Outreach Canada Vision Renewal process. One of the things that struck me in the training was the distance that exists between the denominations and an agency like Outreach Canada. That led me to take up a challenge: to find a way for a denomination, like the Fellowship, to broker a valuable tool like Vision Renewal with the fellowship churches. There is a bond that we share that can only be strengthened through partnership. It’s an interesting experiment, and it’s nice to see that if I get all the ingredients to mix well and not explode … we will have provided something substantial for our shared future.
So – go see the video! http://www.bullardjournal.org/ Can Denominations Thrive in the 21st Century? Download george.wmv
 

In Praise of Process

As I’ve been working with church boards over the last year, I’ve noticed how many churches sense the need to refresh their vision, strategy, and mission. They struggle with finding the right structure for their leadership to perform their ministry effectively. They wrestle with finding a simple focus that would galvanize their fellowship. As they grapple with this issue, some have questions as to whether or not strategic planning is a Biblical concept.

In order to address the question, I have studied the Scriptures and collected a number of studies on the subject [Christianity Today has a wonderful article in it’s archives: Is Strategic Planning Biblical? By Mark Marshall] and have come to the conclusion that not only is strategic planning Biblical, it’s a mandate. It’s also hard work. Why? Because it is the product of a process.

Process is defined as “a series of actions directed toward a specific aim.” It consumes time, it demands thought, it requires conversation and it involves viewpoints. It is hard work, and because it is hard work is too often devalued. We want answers, and want them now. We want solutions, and not discussions. I’ve become increasingly aware of the need to promote process as a Biblical value, even more than I have had to endorse planning. The simple statement is that strategic planning is a Biblical concept, and careful process is God’s chosen method.

It’s a principle that I’ve had to endorse when a pastor wants to launch an initiative without having communicated with leaders, or consulted with others. It’s a principle that I’ve had to raise when a church wants to draft a set of ministry goals without having surveyed their people or their community. It’s become such a recurring theme that I’ve come to the conclusion that if you want to be a successful pastor – you must be process-oriented, and if you want to have a healthy church – it must be process-friendly.

In his Journal, George Bullard [www.bullardjournal.blogs] asked the question: Just How Important is Process? He begins with a series of questions: In making a decision in a congregation, how important is the process used? On a scale of one to ten with ten being high, how high would you rate the importance of process? How high th e importance of outcome or decision? How high the importance of impact or application of the decision?

He then applies the question to any number of congregational scenarios: the calling of a new pastor, the construction of a new building, the initiation of a new worship service, the launching of a ministry, the statement of a doctrinal stance, the management of a disciplinary issue. None of these are solved by quick solutions or handy edicts. To the contrary. When leaders exercise wisdom by mapping out a deliberate process and follow it with diligent care, not only is God able to guide them to a solution – He is able to build a more mature community.

Bullard draws the conclusion from the scenarios [I add my own bold-font for emphasis]: In many decision-making situations in congregations, process is at least as important as the decision to be made and its resulting actions. Process is not everything, but it is significant. Process is not more important than core values, although healthy process may be a core value. Process is important enough to make sure that even when people ultimately disagree, everyone has been treated as a person of worth created in the Image of God to live and love … Healthy process builds the capacity of a congregation to handle the really tough challenges of life and ministry in community.

He ends with a question that I find myself asking more and more with each church leader I meet: Just how important is process in your congregation? The response answers so many questions.

Keeping up with internet news and blogs!!

Do you want to be able to read only the most currently published material on your favorite news sites and blogs – all organized in one place – and be notified when new material is posted?  An RSS reader will do that for you. 

Many of the web sites, whose most current information you would like to read, actually publish their current information (posts, news etc.) through an RSS feed. What you need to gather that information is the reader – an RSS reader.

There are a number of products that will do this – here are three options. 

  1. If you use Microsoft Windows Internet Explorer 7 there is an RSS reader built right into the Favorites Center.
  2. If you use FireFox there are free add-on RSS readers you can install.  One such add-on reader can be found at https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/424.
  3. If you have a Google account, Google has a free RSS reader. Read about it at http://www.google.com/help/reader/help.html.

The Northwest website provides an RRS feed so that you can keep up with the latest postings by our people. Just open your RSS reader now and sign up.

MinistryTalk: “Leading From the Second Chair”

In their book Leading from the Second Chair Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson have provided an excellent discussion of the challenges and opportunities people in associate ministry leadership roles face on a daily basis. Their goal is to help such individuals thrive and discern good, creative ways to cope with tensions that inevitably define this role. They express their thesis in these terms:

"Being in the second chair is the ultimate leadership paradox. It is the paradox of being a leader and a subordinate, having a deep role and a wide one, and being content with the present while continuing to dream about the future." (page xiii)

Each of the three major sections in the book considers the implications of one of these paradoxes. As well, at the end of each section they also include a word to the lead pastor, intending to help such individuals understand more clearly how to help the second chair flourish in his or her role.

They forcefully address the issue of learning to work productively within the limitations of the role. For example, they stress the importance of keeping the lead pastor informed, lest a hint of insubordination emerge and disrupt the ministry of the church. The priority of the church’s ministry over and above individual wants and desires gets due attention. They also urge second chair leaders to take full advantage of the learning opportunities they have in such roles. And then, they deal frankly with the question of future ministry leadership roles. A second chair leader must learn to give 100% in the current role, even while he or she may be waiting on God’s timing for an opportunity to be a lead pastor.

Two questions were raised as I considered their ideas. First, I am not convinced that the paradoxes they proposed and described are unique to second chair leaders. It seems to me that lead pastors or ‘first chair leaders’ have to struggle equally with these three paradoxes. In some senses the role of lead pastor is more restricted than that of the second chair. Greater responsibility requires greater commitment to serving others. Perhaps that is why second chair leaders need to learn how to thrive in the midst of these paradoxes, if they are going to fill the role of lead pastor.

Second, the authors use the example of Joseph to provide biblical foundation for their advice to second chair leaders. But does Joseph really function in this capacity? He undoubtedly served as a subordinate leader in some periods of his life, particularly when he was the slave in Potiphar’s house. However, when he was the first minister of Egypt under Pharoah, he had all the authority of Pharoah and was not a second chair leader. Perhaps a more pertinent example might be someone such as Timothy or Mark in relation to Paul or Joshua in his relationship to Moses.

However, these are relatively minor issues perhaps. If you are looking for a resource that might strengthen the understanding of the dynamics involved in team ministry and provide opportunity for candid discussion about relationships and roles in such contexts, Bonem and Patterson’s book would be a provocative tool to use.

Theology and photography

It was while Karen and I were visiting the Bridal Veil waterfall outside of Hope that we discovered that we had neglected to bring our camera. For some people I know, this would have been reason to travel the 5 hours back home to get it. However, we have always been apathetic (or just pathetic) photographers and so we shrugged and continued on with the important issue of experiencing the beauty of the falls. We tend to have a skeptical attitude towards cameras. They never seem to capture the beauty and fullness of the experience. The result is only a narrow window, a moment, that was so much more at the time, but now is reduced to a flash of color. It remains a true picture, but a picture that is so much less than the reality of the experience.

This is a metaphor for theology. Theology is a human attempt to describe, systematize and analyze the vast reality of God as he has revealed himself and relates to the world. However true and accurate the description, it will always fall short of the reality, even as a photo fails to capture the fullness that exists in the drama of our lives. Theological descriptions are good, even as photos are good. But they are no substitute to living the moment and experiencing the overwhelming beauty that gives us life.

Stickies!

I might as well admit it. I hate sticky notes. Those little slips of paper with just enough glue on them to stick to your fingers really annoy me. And yet, I might as well admit it, I am addicted to lists! I live by the list and, more often than not, die by the list. I create a list for the work that I must do annually which becomes the source for the list of things that I must do quarterly … which quickly becomes the list of things I must do each week … which grows into the list of the things I must do in a day. I know that there is counseling available for people like me, but since that’s not on my list of things to do, it ain’t going to happen.

So, for what it’s worth, I’d like to share a great little resource that has helped me overcome my annoyance with the paper slips. It’s a free, and I mean free, software item created by an Englishman, Tom Revell, called Stickies. In essence, it creates electronic post-it notes on your computer. Simple and easy, with one click of the mouse, I can create a note as a reminder, or as a memo, or – according to my addiction – a list. Quick and easy, I can even synchronize the list with my pda or email it to others. As a quick way to capture thoughts before I forget them, with one click of the mouse, I can jot things down and keep going.

I know that this blog area is meant to delve into the depths of theological understanding and Biblical wisdom, but for today, I’ll make this an offering as a practical theologian. It’s coming up to Labor Day and the practical beginning of the church year. As a pastor, it’s “game on!” If I were to offer anything that might provide aid and comfort in the rush of urgent events, I would gently suggest a simple little thing like this: Stickies! Use them, before you lose your mind… www.zhornsoftware.co.uk/stickies/.

God’s Economy

Have you ever been bemused by God’s way of doing things?  I have, and in the end have stood in awe of His timing, patience, grace and goodness.

A number of years ago (in another world) I taught at a Bible college deep in the jungles of Kalimantan (formerly known as Borneo).  For several years I had a student who was a source of great consternation to me.  It seemed that no matter what subject I had him for he just could not "get it"!  His academic situation came up repeatedly in our faculty meetings but no one had the heart to say, "Sorry, he just isn’t making it – let him go!"  So from year to year we granted him a provisional pass to the next level of study and every year we wondered.  But he kept pressing on.  Everyone loved him.  His gentleness, humility and transparency captivated all who knew him.

I was responsible for student accounts at the time and one day he came to my office to ask for some money from his account.  I had just reviewed the books and his account was more than empty, so I asked him, "On what basis are you asking me this?" (literal translation).  He pulled himself up straight and declared, "On the basis of the grace of God!"  I could hardly contain myself and found some extra funds that we had for just such an occasion – grace funds!  Total dependence on the grace of God seemed to be the theme of his life.

In his fourth and final year I was assigned to be his practicum supervisor and evaluator.  He was pastoring a church in a nearby village and I went with him several Sundays to evaluate.  I had taught him homiletics but his sermons bore no resemblance to anything we had studied.  I was seriously considering recommending to the school that he was not cut out for the ministry.  However, after the services I went with him as he walked from home to home in that village, praying for people, encouraging them to be strong in their faith, counselling, advising and loving – and the people loved him in return.  The church in that village had never been so healthy and vigorous.  We graduated him that year (with no little sense of misgiving) and that was the last I saw of him for 14 years as my wife and I were denied extensions to our visas and returned to Canada that summer.  In the intervening years we have often wondered.

I had the privilege this summer of returning to Kalimantan and visiting in this same young man’s home and witnessing the amazing grace of God.  He is married with three children.  He and his wife are involved together in a marvelous cross-cultural ministry.  As we spoke I learned that he has already planted a church amongst a very difficult people group. He has turned that church over to another man to continue the pastoral work and is now in the process of building a second work which involves not just a church plant but also a Christian school as well – again, in the midst of a most difficult ethnic group. It defies human explanation.

Oh, the wonderful grace of Jesus!  God’s economy is one of utter grace.

Tuned to Hear the Master’s Voice

Have you seen March of the Penguins? It’s an amazing movie! One of the most remarkable scenes is when the Emperor penguins are all clustered together for warmth in stormy, sub-zero Antarctic weather. Many are trying to hatch their young, keeping them delicately balanced and nestled on the tops of their feet.

Without food, the nesting parents will perish, so one parent must go away a great distance to get food for itself and its partner.  When it returns to the colony, the challenge is to find its mate amongst the thousands of other penguins. 

How do they do it? It’s cold. The darkness and driving snow kills all visibility. And there is a constant shifting of penguins from the outside where it’s coldest into the center of the colony. Worst of all, the penguins all look the same!

But they still find their mates! How do they manage?

The answer, scientists say, is voice recognition. The penguin partners have tuned their hearing to recognize the distinctive and unique sound of their mate’s call. in short, they tune and they listen!

This reminds me of the challenge Samuel faced in recognizing the Lord’s voice in the sanctuary at Shilo (1 Samuel 3). Much was conspiring against Samuel recognizing the voice: the Lord’s voice was rare in those days and Samuel was deeply habituated to answer to Eli so that he at first mistook the voice.  Yet, the Lord insistently called him. Eli picked up on what was happening and instructed the young boy that when next he heard the voice, he should reply, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening." (v. 9) He did and this began a remarkable prophetic ministry.

This leaves me with a number of questions: Whose voice am I listening for? Is it the preacher’s; is it the radio teacher’s; is it the Sunday School teacher’s; or is it ultimately the Lord’s voice? What is the level of my voice recognition?

 

Fundamentalist Atheists

I read a particularly intelligent response  to Richard Dawkins’ fundamentalist atheism in my morning newspaper. Margaret Somerville is becoming as a critic of Dawkins, partly because she doesn’t seem to be coming from a Christian perspective. As founding director of the Center for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University (Montreal) she brings a credible academic pedigree and a reasoned voice to the debate. While I think that an avowed Christian voice could say a little more, I think that her approach is telling.

Somerville makes a number of points, including the charge that Dawkins "confuses religion and the use of religion." Just as science can be used for good or for evil, so can religion. "Dawkins," she writes, "looks only at the evil uses of religion – never the good it effects – and only the good uses of science – never the harm it does."

"Dawkins basic presumption," she says, "is that there is no God and, therefore, that those who believe there is must prove it. The equally valid basic presumption is that there is a God and those who don’t believe that must prove it. Because neither basic presumption can be proved or disproved, both are tenable and, therefore, both must be accommodated in a secular society."

"We should stop automatically associating having liberal secular values with being open minded and having conservative religious values with being closed minded – liberal people can be very closed minded and conservative people open minded." On this point, Somerville has personal experience. She has been roundly criticized for her position on same sex marriage, suggesting that such marriage ought to be curtailed on the grounds that "compromises the right for all children to be raised by both genders and to know their biological parents".

These points have been obvious to many of us, but it is nice to read them being put by someone in her position.

Appreciating the beauty of God

At the beginning of August Karen and I visited the Bridal Veil waterfall outside of Hope. At the foot of the falls there is a fenced off area for observers with a large “CAUTION” sign warning people to keep back and enjoy the falls from a distance. The falls are beautiful – almost mesmerizing – as they continually change while remaining the same and cover the observers with a fine, fresh smelling mist. We noted and complied with the sign and the fence, but we just as quickly dismissed them from our minds as our attention was held captive by the rush of water.

This experience became a metaphor in an ongoing discussion Karen and I have concerning the Bible, the place of the local church and our experience of God’s presence through our daily lives. The Bible and the local church are like the sign and fence. The waterfall is the reality of God’s presence in our lives. We read God’s word and we connect with other believers in our spiritual journey towards conformity to Christ. But the significant issue is our connection to God is our daily lives. Knowledge and instruction, however important, are but “dealers in second hand goods” if we are not enveloped with the wonder of living in God’s presence. The signs and the fence are there in order to ensure a positive experience of the waterfall. We mustn’t get so caught up in studying the wording of the sign or considering the structure of the fence that we neglect the beauty for which they were constructed.

Something You Have GOT To See

It’s one thing to study how to put together a great powerpoint slide presentation. It’s something else to see a great presentation. I’ve discovered that I learn best by seeing the best. And now, there is a site – and community – where I can study. It’s called Slideshare: www.slideshare.net. They have great examples of all sorts of presentations from National Geographic pictures to SWOT analyses. Most are worth watching just for the images. While the presentations come from all over the world, there are quite a few from the Christian side of things, examples of work done for ministry. Some of my favorite include: Death by Powerpoint, Meet Henry, Best Wife Ever, Skills for Presenters, Dieu, and my very favorite: Best Photo Cnn 2004. It’s worth a look just for the lesson.

http://www.slideshare.net/contests/contest-details

Global Warming and the Ability to Know

I’m a global warming skeptic. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t care about the environment. As a child of God I understand my responsibility as a steward of creation and I take it seriously. It’s just that I’m not sure I can believe all of the hype surrounding climate change.

This morning, for instance, I read that the so-called NASA “hockey stick” graph that showed stable temperatures for 1,000 years followed by dramatic increases in temperature in the last half of the twentieth century was based on a faulty calculation. This graph has been used prominently by the UN and nearly every major environmental lobby group to prove that there has been dramatic climate change in recent years. (Read the report in the The National Post.)

As it turns out, it’s not true. Last week, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies corrected an error in its data based on analysis done by Canadian researcher Steve McIntyre. This correction has resulted in significant changes to the data that has supported much of the rhetoric around global warming.

The data now indicates that the hottest year since 1880 was 1934 and not 1998 (which is just second hottest) as previously reported. 1921 is the third hottest year. Four of the 10 hottest years were in the 1930s and only three in the last decade. The 15 hottest years since 1880 are spread over seven decades. Eight occurred before atmospheric carbon dioxide began its recent rise; seven occurred afterwards. This is hardly the stuff of impending disaster.

Of course none of this eliminates our need to handle God’s creation with care. Clearly, we humans can do a lot of damage to our world, and in many ways do. Further, it may be that other studies or changes in the future will modify our perspective. What it does do, however, is raise the level of skepticism about the science that is so often reported in our media.

This is a matter of postmodern epistemology. What do we know in this world and how do we know it? For secular moderns, science is the only sure footing for knowledge about life in the world. But what we are discovering is that science is incredibly complex and difficult both to understand and to communicate. The reporting of science is inevitably biased by the personal, political, and sometimes even theological perspectives of the ones reporting the ‘facts’. The truth is, the universe (and the God who created it) is much bigger than our ability to understand so that even our best scientific discoveries must be couched in the language of theory and hypothesis. We just don’t know anywhere near as much as we would like to think that we do. Sub-atomic research yields the “uncertainty principles” of quantum mechanics. Deep space research only multiplies the number of questions. Hey, we can’t even measure temperatures on our own planet correctly.

Which is why I am so deeply dependent upon God’s self-revelation. What I know about God and about his will and plan for the world he created I know because he revealed it to me through his Word. Granted, I take this by faith, but then most science is taken by faith as well – faith in the rules of logic and the laws of physics. Such things don’t always allow for certainty, given the limits and the bias’ we bring as humans.

I don’t trust everything I hear or read unless I hear it from God or read it in the Bible. Beyond that, I listen to the scientists and the secular prophets with patience, with humility, and with a healthy skepticism.

Someone asked Martin Luther what he would do if he knew for certain that Christ would return that day. “I would plant a tree,” he said, offering wisdom of both theological and environmentally proportions. I myself planted two trees on my property last week. I love to watch God make things grow, and if things do eventually get warmer, then I will appreciate the shade.

Patriarchy and Understanding the Bible

 “That’s just NOT right!” exclaimed a woman in a Bible study I was conducting. The object of her disapproval was Naomi’s instructions for Ruth to approach Boaz while he was sleeping (see Ruth 3). She was correct in that she recognized the inappropriateness of such an action within our society. She was incorrect because she failed to recognize the cultural values of the Hebrew context (particularly patriarchy) during the time of the “judges”, which validated Ruth’s approach to Boaz.

The Bible is God’s revelation of his will to humanity given within a cultural context that is very different from our situation today. Although the Bible remains God’s revelation of his will for us, it was originally written to people whose language, culture and worldview greatly contrasts with ours. Thus, the more the values, beliefs and situation of the original audience are understood by today’s reader, the better the meaning of the divine message can be comprehended. Similarly, the more we comprehend our own culture and society, the better equipped we are to understand how the biblical revelation can be expressed and applied in our context.

The implications of this reality are profound for the Bible translator and the cross-cultural worker as well as for all those who want to understand the relevance of God’s word for them. We cannot understand and appreciate the way the Bible relates to us without first recognizing that God spoke his message to people both through and because of their situation. To the degree our modern context is similar to the context of original audience, the original message will have direct relevance for us. However, differences between the ancient and modern cultures require us to adopt a two step process of interpretation.

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The Marks of an Unspiritual Leader

In those days Israel had no king. Each man did what he considered to be right.
Judges 21:44

Eli the priest of God at Shiloh was the default leader of Israel at the opening of the book of 1 Samuel.  He was elderly and his two sons, Hophni and Phinnehas, performed the regular priestly duties at the Tent of Meeting.  The second chapter of 1 Samuel records that those two sons were evil, ruthless, dissolute, immoral and godless men. How is it that they were allowed to continue to "minister before the Lord"?  The answer is found in the fact that their father was a leader with a profound lack of spiritual understanding.  He was not a spiritual man.  It seems to me that the culture of the day that we find mentioned at the end of the book of Judges has seriously affected this leader of his people and clouded his spiritual understanding.  As I read the account I find the following indicators.

1. Spiritual insensitivity

With Hannah – Eli assumed she was drunk (1:14).  Maybe it is a statement on Eli’s spiritual expectations that his natural reaction to Hannah’s weeping before the Lord in the tabernacle was to accuse her of drunkenness. Why would he jump to that conclusion unless his ability at spiritual discernment  was severely dulled.

With Samuel – it took three attempts to wake Eli to the fact that God was calling the young boy (3:1-9)

2. Spiritual inattention

With his sons – Eli disregarded their wickedness (2:22).  Despite one feeble rebuke recorded in 2:22-25 the condemnation was leveled at him by an unknown messenger from God that he was honoring his sons above God.  He had lost sight of spiritual priorities.

With God – God’s visitations to his people were rare and His word was rarely heard in those days (3:1).  It would seem that the reason for the scarcity of God’s revelation was because Eli, the priest, was not listening to God.  He was not spiritually inclined to seek for the voice of God and so it became silent.

3. Spiritual ignorance

The ‘man of God’ who came to Eli and warned him of God’s impending judgment had to remind Eli of God’s calling and anointing on the priestly lineage (2:27,28).  It is quite an indictment that the man of God levels at Eli.  The rhetorical questions, "Did I not…" imply that Eli has either forgotten or is totally ignorant of God’s dealing with Israel and particularly God’s appointment of the priestly line.

4. Spiritual imprudence

In the account of Eli’s death it is recorded that he was old and very fat (4:18).  When the man of God rebuked Eli he condemned him because he had made himself fat off the illicit spoils provided by his sons (2:29).  Gluttony blurred Eli’s capacity to think and act as a spiritual leader should.

5. Spiritual indifference

When told of God’s judgment he shrugged it off almost fatalistically (3:18).  His response, "He is the Lord, let him do what seems good to him" stands in stark contrast to David’s casting himself on God’s mercy after being rebuked by the prophet Nathan.  Once again this points to a lack of a true understanding of God’s nature and God’s dealings with people.

It seems to me that the story of Eli should make every Christian (and particularly those in leadership) take a long hard look at their own spirituality.  Are there areas of our lives where the culture of the day has dimmed our spiritual vision or dulled our sensitivity?  What do our lives demonstrate as to the quality of our spirituality.  Do we need to wake up and take stock?

Empower or Delegate?

Among the daily eJournals and newsletters that I value, the one from Easum-Bandy associates provides consistently thought-provoking reflections. The most recent included an article by Bill Tenny-Brittian under the title Developing Leaders Under Your Nose.  His led with a daring first point: Build your leadership base by at least 400%. I’m glad that I kept reading before my cynicism kicked in. His point confirmed something I’ve sensed. The language of leadership that I was familiar with 30 years ago was peppered with the term delegate. That language has changed dramatically in the last decade to the term empower. It may be one of those instinctive signals that I pick up, but as I visit churches I’ve noticed that those who are in distress seem to use the word delegate a lot, while those who are growing in their health seem to revolve around the word empower. Tenny-Brittian’s article adds a few helpful explanations that confirm my suspicions. Interested: read more at http://easumbandy.com/index.php?id=2465.

Of Collapsed Bridges and Bad Theology

Minneapolis Bridge Collapse

Yesterday, August 1st at 6:05 pm, an extended section of the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota suddenly collapsed, sending dozens of vehicles, together with their drivers and passengers, plunging into the Mississippi River.  The images yesterday were of emergency personnel and citizens on the scene scrambling amid the tons of twisted metal and broken concrete to rescue survivors.

Today, the images and commentary in the news are different.  Various local, state and federal officials are appearing on camera to pledge material support and vowing to find answers to the engineering and administrative questions.  Anguished family members are being interviewed as they wait for word on loved ones who did not return home last night and have not called.  Reporters’ commentary has shifted from rescue to talk of safe recovery of bodies and there is a general dread that the victim count–remarkably low to this point–is poised to rise.

Invariably, amid the words and images of the media, a few sound bites will be given over to theological reflection. Much of the theology will be, at best, unhelpful and some of it will be downright bad.

Some pundits will challenge God’s greatness–where was He when the bridge went down, claiming the innocents? They will accuse God of either sleeping on the job or not really being in charge.  Others will challenge God’s goodness, concluding from the collapse and a superabundance of other tragedies the world over that such a malignant world must be overseen by an equally malignant God. Yet others will risk accusations of callous heartlessness by exploring the dangerous territory of particular human deserving. Far too many, sadly, will simply dismiss the God question as antiquated, naive and irrelevant.

Jesus was pressed by contemporaries in his day for a theological sound bite in a similar situation (Luke 13:1-9). His response was interesting.  He questioned neither the goodness nor the greatness of God. These were givens. While He forcefully resisted the notion of being able to assign greater or lesser guilt to individuals on the basis of what happened to them, he was equally adamant that there are no innocents on the road, notwithstanding human assessments. Everyone is a sinner, he asserted.

What was Jesus’ advice? The structure will eventually collapse for everyone and particular collapses are a warning of the breathtaking shortness of human life. Smooth crossings presently are a divine grace against our deserving.  Therefore, we should take them as our opportunity to humbly draw close to God and honour him through a generous, well-lived life.

 

The Problem with Preaching

Mike Mawhorter sent me a link to this article by David Allis which I found to be one of the more helpful of the current critiques of preaching: CLICK HERE

My response is that much of what he says is truthful. Preaching, for instance, is expensive. Preachers often can’t be trusted. At the same time, I think that what is actually being critiqued is not that we preach, but that we preach monologically in the traditional sense.

I still believe that the monologue works in most settings – especially larger ones. If it didn’t, I can’t imagine so many would keep coming to listen. At the same time, the traditional sermon does not represent all that preaching can or ought to be. What we do in care groups or in classrooms can still be considered preaching if the goal is to understand the word of God and to persuade others of its truth.

I was a little troubled by Allis’ suggestion that biblical preaching was entirely for the evangelization of the non-believer. Clearly, the New Testament encourages the instruction and training of believers as well. To try to distinguish between preaching and teaching for the purpose of dumping on the traditional sermon is not helpful, in my view. The distinction between the two is little more than a differentiation in form.

Mark 1:1 — The Beginning of the Gospel or the Norm for the Gospel or both?

Eugene Boring in his new commentary on Mark’s Gospel published in the New Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006) proposes that the first word in Mark’s Gospel (archÄ“) signifies both beginning or origin, and norm, which he proposes should be translated as "the norm for the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ" (32). There are at least two problems with this proposal.

First, it would be unusual for one word to carry two separate and distinct significances in the same context. Would this not comprise a  hermeneutical fallacy, unless something in the text would signal that a double meaning was intended by the writer? Surely one has to choose one or the other, but not propose that both equally are valid and were intended by the author.

Second, there is the question whether the term archÄ“ means "norm" or "yardstick" in the New Testament, and especially in Mark’s Gospel. The term does signify ruler, in the sense of an authority figure in the New Testament and Boring does reference such usage. However, there is no clear example in the New Testament where this word conveys the sense of norm or yardstick. In fact, I think one would be hard pressed to find examples of this usage in Greek literature outside of the New Testament. It can signify ‘first principle’ in philosophical and cosmological discussion, but even here the sense of ‘norm’ would be rather unusual.

Certainly within the Markan narrative (10:6; 13:8,19) this term carries the meaning of ‘beginning’ with reference to creation or to the starting point of persecution. As well, the analogies we find in the Greek Old Testament (e.g. Hosea 1:2 "the beginning of the word of the Lord to Hosea") would suggest that the sense of ‘beginning’ or ‘origin’ defines Mark’s intended meaning in 1:1 — "The beginning/origin of the gospel of Jesus Messiah Son of God…."

It may well be that Mark intends to compose "a narrative that both communicates the message from and about Jesus and provides the norm for the continuation of the proclamation in the mission of the church", but I do not think he can base such a conclusion on the use of archē in Mark 1:1. That must be argued on other grounds.

 

“Led to the Lord”

Every now and again I hear the phrase “how many people have you led to the Lord?” The meaning of this evangelical lingo is “how many people have committed their lives to Christ under your guidance as you have explained the gospel message?” Although my desire is for people to commit their lives to Christ, this question makes me quite uncomfortable for a few reasons.

First, the implication is that bringing a person to such a commitment to Christ is in our control. The message seems to be that if we only approached people with enough skill, boldness and a clear witness many would become Christians. But, “the only thing that counts in ministry is the one thing that is impossible for us – to change peoples hearts.” It is the Spirit that convicts of sin and turns people to Christ.

Second, if we have not been involved in such experiences, this suggests we have not been faithful to our call as followers of Christ. The result is that many Christians who have not been privileged in this way feel envy towards those who can relate such experiences and they view themselves as less than worthy followers of Christ. Feelings of joy over the news that someone has come to Christ are mitigated by a struggle with guilt.

Third, it reduces other aspects of Christian ministry to secondary status. The “ideal Christian” is the one that “leads many people to Christ” so that they commit their lives to Christ. This perception contradicts the complementary description of believers as parts of a body working together to bring glory to God. A spiritual hierarchy based on a person’s success in “leading people to Christ” is lacking in Scripture.

However, rather than deleting the phrase from our vocabulary, I would suggest changing its meaning to “being an influence in another person’s life so that the beauty of Jesus and his kingdom has been revealed to them.” This is something we have been called to and have been given the freedom and power to do: “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:16 TNIV). Therefore, even if people refuse to pursue the way of Christ, they have been given a taste of what could be. A young woman was relating to me the devastation and hurt that occurred through the divorce of her parents. During the course of the conversation I said, “That is why God hates divorce. He has created us for love, commitment and security in relationship. When there is betrayal of that ideal, the brokenness and anguish affects the heart of God.” Did she become a follower of Christ? Not yet. But she saw a little bit of the light of a loving father. Perhaps this a better meaning of “leading someone to the Lord,” because we can all do this on daily basis whether through word or deed, and let Jesus have the glory that comes when people commit their lives to him.

A Father’s Contribution to the Development of a Great Leader

As the dark years of Israel’s history, recounted for us in the book of Judges, draw to a close and we see the transition of national identity from cowering fugitives into a great kingdom – a remarkable leader is used by God to bring Israel back to Himself.  That leader is the prophet and judge of Israel, Samuel.  Given the cultural, social and religious milieu at the time of his birth and early childhood it is even more remarkable that he became the man that he did.  In a previous article we looked at the influence of Samuel’s mother, Hannah, on her son’s development into a highly respected leader.  It was her faith, prayer, nurture, perseverance, integrity and care that deeply influenced this little boy and encouraged him to become the man he did.

But there is another person who, I believe, also had a profound influence on Samuel’s growing up years.  That person is his father Elkanah.  Here is what I observe about this man from 1 Samuel 1-3.

1. He was an ordinary man, husband, father in the context of his society and culture. But he was also a man who stood tall above the cultural anarchy and religious apathy of the day. (c.f. Judges 21:25)

2. He was not a national or religious figure. He was not a tribal head or clan elder but he was an upstanding leader in his own home and family. (1 Samuel 1-3)

3. He, personally, was a faithful, God-fearing, deeply religious man as evidenced by his regular pilgrimages to the tabernacle in Shiloh to offer up sacrifices to the Lord (1:3).

4. He did not keep his religion to himself but faithfully led his family in the worship of the One True God – encouraging their individual participation.  It is noteworthy that the writer of 1 Samuel took the time to detail how Elkanah gave portions to each member of his family – adults and children.  He was doing his best to ensure that his family knew God and followed in His ways (1:4).

5. In his conversation with Hannah in 1:8 we get the sense that he is a devoted, loving and tender husband.  This one factor alone would be significant in Samuel’s healthy emotional and social development.

6. Elkanah fully supported Hannah in the fulfillment of her commitment to the Lord regarding Samuel (1:23).  Penninah, the rival, aside – one gets the sense of a family unit that are in one in heart to follow God.

In an age of religious turmoil, waywardness and spiritual ignorance, Elkanah stands tall as a godly man, loving husband and competent father.  Samuel, his son, could not have been anything other than indelibly influenced by his father’s example.

Dads! The challenge is there for us.  Let’s never underestimate the power of the example of a godly, faithful and committed father to influence the next generation.  Some will even go on to become great leaders.

 

The “Ministry Leadership Team” – the Best Model?

George Cladis, Leading the Team-Based Church. San Fransisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1999. vii-xv, 1-189.

According to Cladis the best of kind of leadership model for the North American church in this postmodern era is the ministry leadership team. He begins by grounding his model in Trinitarian theology. Then he defines seven specific characteristics, based on his understanding of the Trinity, that such a team should cultivate and exhibit, discerning along the way connections between these characteristics and the contours of postmodernism. Effective ministry teams will be covenanting, visionary, culture-creating, collaborative, trusting, empowering, and learning. In the second section of his book Cladis treats each of these elements in detail, providing examples of their effectiveness and importance to the success of a ministry team leadership model.

When I saw that his first chapter would establish a theological foundation for ministry leadership teams in the way the Trinity operates, I was eager engage his ideas. He makes reference to Rublev’s Icon of the Holy Trinity, with the three persons pictured as sitting, perhaps on thrones, around a central table. Intense, intimate, but calm discussion seems to be occurring among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Cladis correctly discerns that Rublev was expressing the concept of perichoresis, the interpenetration of the persons of the Trinity. Continue reading

Summer Reading

One of the pleasant perks that comes from living close to the ocean is that I am able to grab my beach chair and a book and read while listening to the gentle sounds of wind and waves. My reading this summer has ranged from real-life adventure [The Long Walk, Slavomir Rawicz; Carrying the Fire, Michael Collins] to historical novels [The Religion, an epic story along the lines of the battle of Thermopile of the last battle of the crusades waged on the island of Malta between the Ottoman hoard and a small band of Knights of St. John, by Tim Willocks.] Tucked away in my list of summer reading is one book that has captured my imagination: The Forms and Orders of Western Liturgy from the Tenth to the Eighteenth Century, by John Harper.

I’ll admit, from the sound of the title, this book does not sound like beach-reading. But, it has been so refreshing to rediscover what one writer has called the missing jewel of the church … Worship. After sitting through an endless stream of services composed of two sets of worship choruses [three choruses a piece], a somewhat thoughtless prayer [we thank you, God, for being God], sprinkled with an abundance of announcements followed by an offering, topped by a sermon, it’s been stimulating to encounter the rich tapestry of treasures that belong to worship.

Consider a few of the following quotes:

“The praise of the Almighty was for Christians the highest and most important of human activities, deserving the best of their energy, artistic endeavor, and wealth. The rich heritage…reflects this.” 

“Medieval liturgy was not only highly sophisticated; it was often the principal pursuit of communities of men or women whose whole lives [often from childhood] were dominated by daily worship.”

“But, the communities of clerks, priests, monks and nuns who animated these rich resources are gone. Gone too are the aesthetic, spiritual and theological backgrounds and the social framework that supported these communities.”

Each line begs for reflection. I’m just a bit unsure how far such reflection will go.

I was sharing some of my thoughts with a few dear friends who dismissed the subject with a quick “well, that liturgy stuff is dry and meaningless, just dead ritual.”

As I read more of the way worship can be expressed, I can’t help but form a mental picture of the quality of the banquet God has spread before us. Carefully prepared expressions of gourmet artistry, deep symbols, shared voices, rich textures of holy things. It’s hard to imagine that we would reject them all in favor of peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches and consider ourselves nourished.

Around Our Table

Our house has been a-hum with guests most of this month. But as busy as we’ve been, the joy has been greater. Sitting around the crowded dinner table laden with good things this week, I’ve been reminded of how many times in the past my family and I have been the beneficiaries of God’s great kindnesses through the generous hospitality of Christian acquaintances and friends. One never loses in the act of hospitality. The act is always overwhelmed by returning gains—personal, relational and spiritual.Dinner Table

 What binds us to these guests around our table is a golden thread that stretches back to the years 1987 through 1992, when our family lived in Aberdeen, Scotland while I pursued a PhD. 

 Maureen and her son Joel are at our table. She and her husband Mark were among our first friends in Scotland. They opened their hearts and their home to us when we were Christian strangers just newly arrived, helping us in many ways to settle in to an unfamiliar environment. We were overwhelmed.  Joel was only 3 or 4 years old then; he’s 24 now and looks remarkably like his dad, who passed away just this year. Joanna’s at our table too. She and our daughters became best of friends in those five golden years as did our respective families. The Atlantic has been crossed several times to maintain the connection. As I listen to her news of mom and dad and sisters, I recall wonderful memories made during our five years in Scotland. Peter is at our table and so is his friend Andy. Peter’s uncle Philip was the teaching elder in the small Christian fellowship where we worshipped. They love the Lord Jesus and both are pursuing meaningful professions and expressing their Christian commitment in them. 

 Hospitality, it seems, has always been a peculiar distinctive and calling of the people of God. The Old Testament patriarchs set food before strangers on divinely ordained missions. In Luke’s Gospel, two disciples prevailed upon a fellow traveler to stay with them and share a meal on the road to Emmaus, discovering later that they had given hospitality to their risen Lord. In the Book of Acts early Christians were known for signs and wonders, but also for breaking bread from house to house. And believers continued to be challenged in the book of Hebrews to inexhaustible kindness in hospitality, lest they miss the potential of entertaining angels unawares. 

 The saints are sitting around our table. It’s been a wonderful summer thus far!

Research on Second Career Pastors

Here is a link to some fascinating new research on the increased incidence of second-career pastoral leadership, particularly in conservative protestant denominations. It appears that pastors are starting older and that they usually have had a career before they come into ministry. In general, I find this trend encouraging. Pastors with real life experience ought to do a better job of relating to the people that they preach to and serve. Check out the numbers and graphs at Pulpit and Pew.

Who is the Happiest Canadian?

Macleans magazine did their annual ‘happiness’ poll of Canadians on our national holiday. While some aspects of Canadian life generate stress and disappointment, the trend continues to show that Canadians, by an overwhelming majority are happy — in fact may be one of the happiest people living on this planet. Of course, the degree of happiness felt is related to feeling good about oneself, feeling loved, having a satisfying job, and having a reasonable income. Tune into a phonein radio show or read a community paper  and you may wonder about the accuracy of these results! We may be happy, but our ability to complain has achieved the level of an art form!

What seems astonishing is the discovery that "there is no statistically significant difference in happiness levels between atheists and those who have a religion." Yet there is an exception: "The survey’s small sample of evangelical Christians found a 100 per cent satisfaction level with their relationships." A similar score was noted among Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, and Bhuddists. Perhaps the depth of happiness reported is related to the degree of religious commitment or the confidence such believers have in God.

What the Macleans article does not do is to define ‘happiness’. So we are left wondering what Canadians are really saying when they respond to this survey. Are we happy because there is no military conflict within our borders and social institutions continue to function with a modicum of reliability? Is happiness a function of financial security? Are we happy because we have food to eat, a reasonable place to live, and some degree of self worth? If Canadians are so happy, why do we find so many of our fellow citizens addicted to drugs, living in alcoholic stupor, getting divorced as frequently as they get married, mired in debt,  and generally disappointed with life?

Jesus warned people to measure happiness correctly. First, we must consider the eternal scale. If we define happiness merely in terms of this life and its situation, then we will be wildly misled. Jesus told the story of the rich farmer whose harvests made him incredibly wealthy. Preoccupied with plans to build new barns and expand his operation, he neglected eternal realities — death that would separate him from all of these material things and require him to give an account to God for his living. We have to measure happiness in terms of our eternal destiny.

Second, Jesus taught that happiness means receiving God’s approval. We only discover blessedness when we are reconciled with God and belong to his family. Jesus told the story of the wise person who listened to his words and obeyed them, in contrast to the foolish person who disregarded him. The wise person was compared to the housing contractor who built his house on a rock foundation. The foolish person was like the builder who constructed his house on the sandbar in the creek bed. When the winter rains came, the swollen waters of the creek destroyed the house of the foolish person, but these storms could not dislodge the wise person’s house. God’s approval rests on those who follow Jesus.

Third, Jesus showed us by his own life that true happiness is to be found in serving others — giving ourselves so that others might be helped. There may be ‘pain in the offering’, but we know as well the blessing of God. Paul speaks about this in 1 Corinthians 13. If we have all the wealth in the world, if we are the most generous people in the world, if have all the knowledge and wisdom in the world, but lack God’s love in our lives, we are nothing.

If we use the measurements for happiness the Jesus taught and Paul expressed, then I think we would find the survey results drastically changed.

Shaping the Message

One of the primary responsibilities of the cross-cultural Christian worker is to discover how God’s revelation of himself in both the written word (the Bible) and the living Word (Jesus) resonates with the cultural group with whom she or he is developing a relationship. In our ministry among the Sindhi people, we discovered that both the message and the method needed to be formed and expressed by relevant cultural images and values in order to provide a spiritual impact. Consider these examples:

Honor for one’s teacher is a very important value for the Sindhi people. Part of the reason rote learning is the preferred method in schools is because honor is expressed through unquestioning acceptance and trust of the teacher. This contrasts with the heavy dependence upon rational thinking found in western education. As a result, an important aspect of the person of Jesus Christ for the Sindhi people is that of teacher. During the washing of the disciples’ feet, Peter at first refuses to have his feet washed (Jn 13:8). The Sindhi reader is quite offended by this and views his refusal as an act of disloyalty. In the Sindhi mind a student obeys the teacher without question even if it is a matter of honor. If the student is unable to trust the teacher, then he or she should not be a disciple.

Tied to this value is the interesting observation that Sindhi believers do not require an “assurance of salvation,” a common lesson in discipleship manuals for new believers. The need for this is because many western believers seem plagued with doubt and at times wonder if they are saved. However, the Sindhi believer does not contemplate such a question. They have made a commitment to their Teacher Jesus, and any doubt or questioning would be considered an act of dishonor to him.

In the Sindhi context as well, baptism becomes the primary act of commitment through which one pledges his or her life to Christ. While individual prayers and expressions of faith play a role in the development of the believer, it is this public act of commitment and submission to the Teacher – an acted out prayer – that expresses the point of full allegiance. Through this act they gain a new identity as a disciple of Jesus bound together with other committed followers. Individual faith thus finds its expression and fulfillment in a communal context.

The Canadian context is increasingly a mosaic of many cultures. The variety of values and perspectives requires cross-cultural workers to discover the heart language of the people they are working with in order to shape both the method and message of Jesus Christ in a way that will resonate with the worldview of those people.

Samuel, a Mother’s Contribution to a Great Leader

Recommended reading: 1 Samuel 1-8

I am intrigued with the rise of Samuel’s leadership as described in the first few chapters of 1 Samuel.  After the years of Israel’s spiritual, moral and national decline as described in the book of Judges the years of Samuel’s leadership stand sturdy and tall.  Under his faithful and godly guidance Israel regains her faith in God as well as her sense of nationhood under God.  Samuel was a giant among leaders. What fascinates me are the people surrounding him during his growing up years. 

What contributed to his development as a leader? What about the people surrounding him? In his earliest years there is his mother, Hannah; there is Hannah’s rival Peninah (with all her children) and there is his father, Elkanah.  Later, as he begins his tenure as the understudy for the temple there is Eli, the priest and default leader of the day along with his two evil sons Hophni and Phinehas.  Then there were the Israelite worshipers who came to the tent of meeting there in Shiloh to offer sacrifices and worship the One True God.  What influence did these people have on young Samuel?  What did they contribute to the development of this great leader to be?

Hannah is the first influence in his life.  Imagine with me young Samuel growing up under Hannah’s godly care.  I get the sense from the conversation between Hannah and Elkanah in 1:21-23 that Hannah intended to pour herself into her little boy during the years that she had him and before she was to give him into the Lord’s service.  It is likely that from his earliest recall he would hear the stories of Hannah’s sorrow and ultimate blessing.  Hannah probably retold many times how God answered her prayers.  I am sure Samuel was also quite aware from early on of his mother’s promise to God.  My guess is that Hannah had a great deal to do with Samuel’s growing up with a deep sense of awe of God and His goodness. 

Samuel probably could see early on the contrast between his mother and that other woman, Peninah.  The gentleness contrasted with the sneering, the selfelessness contrasted with the pettyness…  Even though we are not given many details, I doubt that Peninah’s character changed much with the birth of Samuel and the contrast must have been instructive to him.  His mother’s character and godliness were great influences in his life.

Hannah was a woman of prayer.  She understood prayer as communing with God.  When Eli questioned her in the tabernacle, Hannah described her prayer as "Pouring out my soul to the Lord" (1:15).  I believe Samuel’s deep and close relationship with God began here on Hannah’s knees. Hannah’s prayer in chapter 2, recorded for all succeeding ages, gives us a little glimpse of this woman’s considerable understanding of God and his ways.  I believe it can be safely infered that she did not stint in communicating these truths to her young son.

Commentators vary on how old Samuel might have been when he was presented to the Lord at the temple.  But short time or long, Hannah was probably the most influential person in the development of this leader. 

Put yourself into the picture of the yearly pilgrimages from Ramah to Shiloh.  Imagine with me the excitement preceeding the event.  Samuel in Shiloh waiting impatiently for the day to come when his mother and family would arrive.  Hannah in Ramah, lovingly putting the finishing touches on the garment she made for her little man every year.  There is a faraway look in her eye, a tiny smile tugs at the corners of her mouth.  She will see her little boy soon. "How tall will he be by now"? 

It is what the text does not tell us that intrigues me.  Was Hannah’s heart lifted to God daily on behalf of this little man?  Did she ever worry?  Did doubts ever creep in? – "Did I do the right thing?"  "Did I really have to give him to God for all of his life?" Did intense longing for her first-born ever cloud her eyes with tears?

What influence do you and I have in the lives of the youngsters around us? What do they see in us?  Are we praying for the children in our sphere of influence?  Are we contributing to the development of tomorrow’s godly leaders?  Allow me to encourage us to take another look at the influence of this godly woman on an entire nation through her influence on her son and let’s ask God how we can be used of Him in similar ways.

Note: The topic for the fall ACTS Seminaries Pastors’ & Mentors’ Day is "Children Matter"

Gentle Summer Thought

Okay, trivia fans, here’s a question. How many steps can a sparrow take in a minute? It’s summertime and as I was lounging in the shade of my deck, thinking of what I could post on this web space, I found myself watching a flock of sparrows bouncing around the yard. And I began to count. How many steps can a sparrow take in a minute? My scientific poll came to an average of 80 to 100.

Is there a point to this? I’m just repeating a study referred to by Jesus in Matthew 10:29 when He said: Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of you Father.”

Some people assume that the sparrow’s “fall” refers to it’s death which, as far as I know, happens only once. But [and here my learned colleagues may correct my understanding of Greek vocabulary] the word used by Jesus may also mean to take a step with a foot, or hop. As it applies to sparrows, I believe that “hop” would be the proper use. And, if that was what Jesus meant, then it strikes me that God has His work cut out as He keeps track of every single hop of every little sparrow. They are studies in perpetual motion, hot-footing it to a primitive beat. And God cares for each step.

But, you may ask, what does He care about? My guess is that the answer has something to do with what makes sparrows hop. As I watched my little friends, I discovered several reasons: 1. fear – those little guys are on constant red-alert, 2. need – those little guys are on a constant hunt for food, 3. weakness – they may have the right stuff to soar in the air, but they struggle when it comes to ground transportation.

Is God just keeping count of their steps? As I lazed in the summer sun, it dawned on me that it’s His will to sense their fears, needs and weaknesses – and whatever else keeps them hopping. And even more. Jesus continued, don’t be afraid, you are worth more than many sparrows.

What a comforting thought. Another reminder that God really does love us, enough to embrace everything that keeps us on our toes: fears, needs, weaknesses and so much more. A gentle thought to take into the day.

Missional Leadership: Does this Emperor have Clothes?

The missional church movement calls the church to rediscover its kingdom identity and purpose as the people of God. Now we hear that churches will require a new kind of leadership – missional leadership – to guide their re-development as missional congregations. Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk in The Missional Leader. Equipping Your Church to Reach a Changing World articulate how current ministry leaders can become missional leaders and be equipped to lead churches in the transition from current modes of being church, to the missional mode – “a community of God’s people who live into the imagination that they are, by very nature, God’s missionary people living as a demonstration of what God plans to do in and for all of creation in Jesus Christ”(xv).

What kind of leader will this transition take? Does it require a new kind of leader? Roxburgh and Romanuk argue that it does and that old patterns of ministry leadership no longer serve. Consider their comparison and contrast between ‘pastoral’ and ‘missional’ models of leadership (12-13).

As I reflected on their materials, I wondered how different such missional leadership really is?

In the first part of their book they offer good advice and perspective about the new postmodern cultural context in which many congregations now function. The changes are real and in many cases dramatic and if congregations do not pay attention to these changes and seriously inquire how to be authentic, hospitable people of God in this new reality, then they will become missionally irrelevant. But these issues of contextualization, cultural exegesis, and biblically-faithful community surely have surfaced as key issues in congregational life again and again. They form the very stuff of being God’s people. During the past twenty years these issues have formed core elements in ministry leadership development.

Do we need to give continual attention to the matter of contextualization and incarnational Christian living? Of course, but it will be led by ministry leaders who possess both pastoral and missional abilities. Roxburgh and Romanuk rightly call ministry leaders to re-engage this task with fervour, understanding, imagination and a sense of hope.

They correctly caution ministry leaders against borrowing unthinkingly leadership practices espoused in the corporate world. They have concerns, for instance, that common strategic planning processes may be too linear, too structured and too top-down, If applied in a straightforward way within the congregational context these processes may violate the community context and prevent significant vision and meaningful change from emerging. These are salutary cautions.

Roxburgh and Romanuk, however, borrow freely from the work of sociologists and psychologists, but rarely do they offer any theological critique of the ideas they use.

For example, they use ideas from Steven Johnson’s publication Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software. As well Surfing the Edge of Chaos by Richard Pascale, Mark Millemann and Linda Gioja is cited to support the idea that congregations, if given opportunity, have the capacity to discern a new future, one not “already determined by a leader.” Yet they do not show how these ideas are coordinate with the patterns which developed in the first generation church and witnessed in the New Testament. Was there a major response to new critical issues in the New Testament church that did not receive some direction from key ministry leaders?

The second part of their book addresses the missional leader specifically. Again, they offer good, sound advice. Ministry leaders need to “model patterns and habits of life” as an effective means of providing leadership for the congregation, rather than depending on organizational restructuring or new forms of polity(115).  But again, does one have to choose between these two or will there be situations where both are important and necessary? The authors believe that the complex sociological contexts in which congregations live requires leaders who “know the basic principles of leading people, forming effective staff, developing teams, or communicating processes”(117). I would agree, but ask what is new about this? Developing these skills has formed part of the standard curriculum for ministry leaders for the last decade or two.

On the one hand Roxburgh and Romanuk argue that ministry leaders do not help the church by creating change processes or measure quantitative growth (120). Rather, ministry leaders must give their attention to the formation of the people of God and through this, change will emerge and perhaps growth as well. They must focus on forming “alternative communities of the kingdom shaped by theological and biblical narrative”(123). On the other hand, if the goal is missional transformation of the congregation, then change must occur and some process of change must be followed. The methods employed to secure change may be different, but some process of change will be embraced.  According to Roxburgh and Romanuk the missional leader prepares the stage or perhaps even takes specific steps to iniatiate such change, even if through quiet, dialogical means.

They have a chapter devoted to “The Character of a Missional Leader”(125-141). Again, what is emphasized is helpful. They urge ministry leaders to foster credible and authentic character, which exhibits four personal qualities: “maturity, conflict management, personal courage, and trustworthiness and trusting”(127). I would question whether conflict management is a ‘personal quality’ rather than a competency, but ministry leaders certainly need these qualities. Again I ask what is new here? Paul seems to me to mention these very things in his list of qualifications for ministry leaders in 1 Timothy 3.

So is missional leadership really a different form of leadership or the wise application of well-known ministry leadership competencies to help congregations deal both with change and transition? Roxburgh and Romanuk emphasize the importance of ministry leaders enabling congregations to discern their identity as kingdom communities and develop processes for missional engagegment that are coherent with this reality. Time, dialogue, and attention to spiritual formation are significant elements. I wonder whether their model works best with rather small congregations, given the dialogical and intimate nature of the process.

In the end I am not convinced that missional leadership, as they define it, is essentially different from good, pastoral leadership that has led congregations historically through periods of significant social change and enabled these communities to develop new ways of being church.

Blinded by Familiarity

Beatrix PotterLast night our family had a dinner and DVD night at home.  After a delicious taco salad, we settled in to watch Miss Potter, about the famed children’s author Beatrix Potter who gave the world Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-duck and a host of other characters and their various adventures.  A significant sub-theme in the movie was the struggle that Beatrix’s parents had in coming to terms with the reality that their daughter was not just a published author, but a very famous one at that. They only came to see their daughter in a new light rather late. That’s parents for you. But, then, that seems to be all of us! We tend to be blinded by assumed familiarity.

Notwithstanding angels, signs and prophecies (Matt. 1; Luke 1—2), Jesus’ parents had great trouble coming to terms with their eldest. It was the same with the neighbors— “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers? they asked. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” (Matt. 13:54-56)

The movie reminded me that when a parent allows him or herself to be blinded by assumed familiarity, it can steal the joy of celebrating a child’s achievements. It can pose a threat to the health—or even the survival—of a parent-child relationship.

How much more costly the risks in being blinded by an assumed familiarity with the Galilean preacher, the Son of God and only Savior of the world?

Roast Preacher

Preachers need to have thick skin. Whenever a person gets up in front of a crowd to speak, people are going to evaluate what they have to say – which may be a mild way of describing the kind of scrutiny under which a preacher is placed. Roast Preacher is the most common dish served for Sunday dinner.

Of course if our skin is too thick, we run the risk of not caring for our listeners. Our sermons will come off sounding hard and uncaring. I remember my mother telling me about a conversation she had with a friend when I had just mentioned my interest in getting involved in ministry. "Does he have a soft heart," she asked. "Yes, he does," said my Mother. "Then I’m glad – but at the same time, I’m sorry," my mother’s friend responded.

That’s it exactly. We won’t be any good to our people if our skin is too tough, but if we can’t stand up to the scrutiny we are going to fall apart and be little good to anyone.

The key, of course, is to be deeply grounded in God’s love. When we understand how much God loves us, we will be less susceptible to the pain that people cause. Further, understanding that what we do as preachers is the exercise of God’s love helps to shield us from personal criticism. We preach because God loves. If people don’t like it, they can take it up with God.

It should be added that sometimes people’s criticisms are on the mark. A good preacher will listen for what can be learned from the the things that people say about our preaching. It’s just that we don’t have to take the mean-spirited comments and own them. God loves us and that’s enough. In the freedom his love brings we are able to pursue excellence in our calling so that people hear God’s word and his kingdom is established.

Commitment vs Decision

A number of years ago after delivering a sermon I was rebuked by a young woman. It would be nice to say that this was a unique occurrence, but unfortunately, such is not the case. I had made some disparaging remarks about the "Four Spiritual Laws," a tract that provides a four step understanding of the gospel message. She had been introduced to the gospel through one of those tracts and it was significant to her spiritual history.

I was duly chastened and learned that the sermon is not the place for such insensitivity and I praise God for people with the courage to approach and correct me when I fall short. Nonetheless, even though evangelism programs and tracts have played a role in the salvation of many people, I am still disturbed by the reduction of the good news of Jesus to a few well rehearsed lines no matter how well crafted.

Becoming a follower of Christ is not a "decision," like deciding to buy a house. Rather it is a commitment, like getting married. It is a momentous covenantal step when one vows a lifetime commitment to Jesus as Lord. It involves a "burning of bridges": all other ultimate commitments are now off limits, even as in my marriage to Karen, all other women became off limits in terms of intimate personal relationships.

In our western culture, the vows of marriage come as the culmination of a number of decisions that have shaped the relationship to the point of declaration before God and community of the permanent and sole choice for a life partner. Similarly, children in their formative years, or a person newly introduced to the gospel can make decisions in the development of their love for Jesus. But the covenantal commitment made before God and community that is required of a follower of Christ (the point of baptism as I understand it), is so profound and life shaping, that it should not be made prematurely, even as a marriage should not be entered into without an understanding of and commitment to the consequences. A booklet on the "Four laws of marriage," can be very helpful in introducing a couple to the significance of marriage, but it would be inadvisable to move directly from the presentation of such a booklet to a wedding proposal.

Godliness, Again!

I am curious about Paul’s usage of the word ‘godliness’ (eusebia) in his letter to Titus on several counts.  The first is that Paul makes it clear throughout the letter that the pursuit of godliness is a normal practice in the life of the believer.  In the very first sentence he writes:

From Paul,a slave of God and apostle of Jesus Christ, to further the faith of God’s chosen ones and the knowledge of the truth that is in keeping with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the ages began.  (NET Bible)

Second, each passage in this letter that deals with the core teaching on salvation (i.e. that salvation is provided freely by God’s grace and mercy and not because of any of our doing) inevitably concludes with an exhortation to godliness being expressed through good works (2:11-14; 3:4-8).  Godliness, then, is the outworking of the inner work of salvation and it is expressed in good works.  The entire letter seems dedicated to describing what godliness must look like in the lives of God’s people.  That ‘look’ is linked to living righteously, "denying ungodliness", and doing good works.

Third, Paul exhorts Titus to challenge all of his listeners to lives of godliness.  The challenge is thrown out to church leaders (elders and overseers), to men and women, to husbands and wives, to young and old, to slaves and freemen – godliness is for all.

Here They Come…

In the February edition of the Leadership Connections newsletter, I recorded the results of some research that I’ve been doing on emerging leaders: [When Emerging Leaders go BOOM! http://leadership.nbseminary.com/ncld_011.htm – check it out.]

Twice this week, the issue has come up as both the Seminary – and our Churches are beginning to witness this phenomenon. So, for what it’s worth, I’ll repeat the details in part … with one distinct conclusion: if the Boomers don’t’ find meaningful expression in their church – they will go elsewhere…

“Over the last three years as I’ve been seeking to create instruments to empower home-grown leaders, I’ve noticed that the greatest personal interest being shown comes from people of a certain age. Let me share an example: ‘I am an engineer, 50 years old, chair of our church board … my wife and I have been praying about our future plans to devote ourselves to full-time ministry in the next 5 years.’ 

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to discover a cultural phenomenon that is creating a huge impact in the church – the Baby-Boomer generation in transition. … While Boomers have been sometimes branded as the most selfish generation, there is evidence that as they age they are proving to be much different. A study from the Corporation for National and Community Service in 2005 revealed that Boomers are not only more active in volunteer participation, but fully expect to extend their volunteer commitments to more mature – even career – levels. This surge is being felt in a number of arenas. It has created an impact in the world of missions. In late 2005, Wycliffe Bible Translators built a volunteer mobilization center in Orlando, Florida in an attempt to keep up with their largest sector of missionary growth. Since the year 2000, Wycliffe has experienced an average of 40% annual increase in the number of “Boomer Missionaries.” Martin Huyett, Wycliffe’s vice-president for volunteer services explained, “these people have a certain amount of freedom and control … they want to do something significant, not just write checks.” …

One organization, The Finisher’s Project, was founded by Nelson Malwitz as a way to match Boomers with the growing list of ministry opportunities provided by Mission agencies. Currently, the Finisher’s Project is working with 100 organizations, has placed over 1,000 people in full-time missions, has 1,000 people in process, and has an additional 1,200 people expressing their intention to make a transition in the next 2 years.

Todd Johnson of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity said, “Most mission agencies are trying to work with this trend … that 20 years ago was unwelcome.” … As I reflect on the growing body of statistics generated by the explosion of the Boomer generation, I find myself almost overwhelmed by the sheer number of implications. Apart from the fact that many of them are intensely personal [since I, too, am a Boomer] each seem to have a consequence for the future of the church.

Let me share one quick discoveries:The Boomers are ready – use them or lose them: Jim Hughes of the Abilene Christian University writes, “many churches look to younger people to fill significant roles, leaving older adults to trivial tasks.” Many Boomer post-retirement plans are being built around significance, mission, and impact. With their proven record of life-skills and initiative, if their Church won’t match their intentions in a serious fashion, they will find other avenues to influence their world.”

Interested in more: check out www.finishers.org/ and www.finisherscanada.ca/

Alistair McGrath and the New Atheism

Here are a few notes taken from a lecture I heard by Alistair McGrath at the International Congress on Preaching in April. The address, titled “Preaching Truth in the Shadow of the Idol of Science” was directed at the recent writings of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, and Christopher Hitchens, all of whom seem to be angry that Christianity and religion in general has not gone away.

McGrath dispenses with the idea that belief in God is simply delusional along the lines of believing in Santa Claus. How many people start believing in Santa at the age of 50 or 60, he asked? What about all the believing intellectuals? It’s just not true that science leads to unbelief. C.S. Lewis said, “I believe in God the way I believe in the Sun, for not only do I see the sun, but by the sun I see everything else.

Richard Dawkins says that there is a scientific explanation for the fact that many believe. But this is a loaded argument, McGrath said, because it overlooks the most natural explanation. We’re told that belief in God is a “virus of the mind.” So then, McGrath asks, are all beliefs viral or only just the ones that Dawkins doesn’t like?

McGrath suggests that the Christian gospel actually makes a lot of sense in explaining much of science. Take Psalm 19, for example. For the atheist, the heavens are depressing because of their vastness and the lack of hope that they offer. For the Christian, the beauty of nature displays the beauty of God who can be known in Christ. Dawkins says that thinking of God diminishes nature, but this is not so. We study science so as to glorify God. In other words, we need to encourage the scientists in our congregations.

“Preaching has helped me grow,” McGrath said. “Preaching is the way that God resources his church. So don’t criticize science from the pulpit. Criticize what some people are doing with science.”

Stay With the Man in the Boat

While there is a debate on about the extent of global warming, there are a few things that are sure: Storms will come and we all experience them. We may lose a few shingles off our roof. On the other hand, we may lose the whole house! This is also true in a metaphorical sense. There are health storms, economic storms, emotional storms, and relational storms—they are real and they do come. ShipwreckAs surely as we each experience physical storms, there will come a time when we will be caught up in one, another, or several storms. Our lives may be bashed and buffeted until we think that the ship of our life will sink and our faith in a God who cares will drown.

How can you survive life’s storms with faith intact and strong?

At Mark 4:35-41, Jesus and the disciples experienced a storm. As the disciples desperately rowed, Jesus was asleep on the cushion, apparently unconcerned by the threat on all of their lives. Finally, in a tone of resentment and rebuke, they woke him with the words, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” (38) Clearly, Jesus did care. Mark writes that he “rebuked the wind and said to the waves, ‘Quiet! Be still!’” (40) The storm abated instantly and there was a great calm. Then Jesus asked them, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” Their response was terror and astonishment, “Who is this?” Who indeed!

In the inevitable and threatening storms that will come, Christians may ask the question, “Don’t you care if we drown?” The answer to that question is a second question—Who is the man in the boat of your life? It is often our prejudice to take accurate measures of every dimension of the storms we are in, but to forget to reckon with the identity of the One we fancy to be carelessly sleeping in the boat of our lives. Such calculation is shortsighted. This passage encourages that we stay with the man in our boat.

SAY A WORD
Brian M. Rapske © 2005

The carpenter is sleeping so still,
As you row through the storms and the chill
He is there, he is there
And he cares, and he cares
As you row through the storms and the chill

You must stay with the man in the boat
Even though it’s just barely afloat
That is faith, its real faith
You believe, you believe
Even though it’s just barely afloat.

Say a word, sleeping man
Say a word now … or then!
Peace be still
Peace be still
Peace be still!

Relational Spaces

In The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small Groups (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), Joseph R. Myers challenges evangelicals to think creatively about how people belong. He utilizes the work done by Edward Hall explaining that there are four “spaces” or levels of connecting in which people relate and commit: Public, Social, Personal and Intimate. He makes the observation that churches largely function on the “public” and “intimate” levels with the goal of involving all attendees in the “intimate” space of small groups. He then suggests a different approach in which the church legitimizes relationships in all four spaces without attempting to move people to spaces where they are uncomfortable.

If I understand Myers correctly, in public spaces we interact indirectly with and through others. For example, a worship service, a Bible study or the crowd watching a sports event would be a public space. In such contexts we deal with other people indirectly centered on a common interest. In this space there is little vulnerability.

In social spaces we relate our stories to others and hear their stories. This is a sharing of history, experiences and relationships that does not require privacy. Such sharing is an invitation into someone else’s life at a limited and comfortable level of vulnerability.

In personal spaces we share our private hopes and dreams to a few special people. This involves a partnership or commitment towards togetherness and connection. Communication is deeper than merely verbal. Acceptance of others occurs in spite of knowledge of personal shortcomings, which implies a deeper level of vulnerability.

In our intimate spaces we connect deeply and openly. We are “naked and not ashamed”. More than simply physical nearness, this includes vulnerability to the point that betrayal would result in lasting wounds.

This concept of four spaces is a good tool for evaluating relationships in cross-cultural ministry as well. All four spaces are present in other cultures, but they will have different emphases and boundaries. I have never met the wife of one my friends in Pakistan, even though we have known each other for several years and I have been to his house several times. We have a relationship at a social level, and we are both comfortable with the limitations this implies. For the church planter, the relational boundaries people set need to be respected, rather than overcome. The goal becomes one of encouraging spiritual development within the level of relationship where people feel comfortable, rather than moving them on to another “space.”

What is Godliness?

A friend e-mailed me a response to my June 18 article on the topic, "Godliness in Everyday Shoe Leather." After describing the lives of Christian friends, family and acquaintances, with some of the accompanying struggles and issues that Christians can and do face, the following was the observation made and the question posed in the e-mail: "These are real life examples of people whose lives are about knowing and following God. But the standards, choices and activities may not fit the criteria for godliness….or do they? What is godliness?" Although Scripture does not state a cut and dried definition of godliness per se it does hold up the example toward which our pursuit of godliness is to be directed. That example is Jesus. In his writing on godliness the apostle Peter writes of becoming "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). Is that an impossible standard for us? In our own strength and abilities, yes! Should we adjust the standard so that it is attainable? No! God has prepared all the resources we need. Here is what Peter writes:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. (2 Peter 1:3-7)1

The Scriptures, then, with the portrait they paint of Jesus must always be our standard when we ask "What is godliness?" But I wonder if the biblical concept of godliness is not so much about living up to a particular set of criteria as it is about pressing on in the pursuit of becoming more and more like Jesus. It is more of a process to be struggled through, with victories to be won, cherished and celebrated together, than it is to "have a product", so to speak, to be held up for scrutiny and comparison. It is true that Jesus told us that we are to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48). That is an absolute standard. But Paul made it very clear that in his own journey of faith he had not yet attained but was still in process (Philippians 3). He wrote of pressing on, with a calling ringing in his ears and a shimmering goal beckoning ahead! Interestingly, the Scriptures do describe what godliness is not. Peter, in the passage above, describes the contrast as, ""having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire." The contrast between ‘fleeing’ and ‘pursuing’ to which Paul exhorts Timothy give a good sense of what things war against our pursuit of godliness (1 Timothy 6:11). In his exhortation to Titus, Paul writes:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works (Titus 2:11-14).1

In several passages (Ephesians 4 and 5; Galatians 5) Paul contrasts the old life of the flesh with the new life in the Spirit giving us a clear picture of what godliness is, and isn’t. However, as my friend’s e-mail pointed out each of us has his or her own story of how godliness is being pursued in our individual lives. One Christian might marvel at another’s "Christian experience" and long to taste similar victories. Another might look around at other Christians and wonder why they are struggling so with something that has long been conquered in his or her life. Another might wonder why there seems to be no evidence of victory or even struggle in the life of a particular Christian or group of Christians with some practice deemed to be "ungodly". A danger I see in all of this is that when we look around at others we take our eyes off of our ultimate standard – Jesus. So, in my life, I have viewed the pursuit of godliness, not so much as trying to live up to a set of carefully detailed criteria but rather nurturing a deep passion to grow in Christ-likeness (in grace, mercy, love, joy, forgiveness, peace, contentment etc.) and to help others to grow similarly. Recognizing that I come with my own "unique" set of weaknesses and challenges I take Paul’s example to heart and keep pressing on, watching for those around me who I might be able to encourage along the way. Practically, then, what does it mean to become more like Jesus? Scripture tells us that Jesus "gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works" (Titus 2:14). Here some basics:

  • Jesus was absolutely committed to doing the Father’s will. His life was marked by obedience. That is a good starting point for the pursuit of godliness – obedience to the revealed will of God. The corollary there is that obedience requires knowledge – which leads us to the importance of diligent study of His Word (we cannot obey if we are unfamiliar with His desires).
  • Jesus was completely dependent upon the Spirit’s enabling. He spent much time in prayer. As I read the stories of godly men and women of the past and of today prayerfulness is a recurring theme.
  • Jesus loved others. He reached out to the outcasts of society — the unloved and forsaken and gave them hope. We will grow in godliness as we grow in loving one another. Jesus commanded this of his followers and said that they would be known as his followers by this very characteristic.
  • Jesus proclaimed the Good News wherever He went. He has commanded us to do the same.

Why don’t you share a few thoughts on this website? In what ways have you been following Jesus? What "good works" do Christians today need to be focusing on? Has someone encouraged you in your walk of faith – challenged you to keep pressing on? My wife and I were discussing this article and she was quick to point out that mine was not the last word on the topic of godliness. So, let’s continue the conversation and as I enjoined us in my first article on this topic, let’s continue to encourage one another to keep pressing on. Here are some conversational threads that I see in the Scripture passages mentioned above.

Our pursuit of godliness involves determined effort (2 Peter 1:5)
Our pursuit of godliness requires strict training (1 Tim. 4:7)
Our pursuit of godliness entails a renunciation of ungodliness (Titus 2:12)
Our pursuit of godliness will be characterized by/produce a zeal for good works (Titus 2:14)
Our pursuit of godliness has been resourced richly (2 Peter 1:3,4)
Our pursuit of godliness has an ultimate goal in view (Titus 2:13 and many other passages)

Feel free to log in and register and respond to this article via this website. A poem I wrote back during high school days seems appropriate here:

With patience I shall run the race,
I’ll lay aside each heavy weight,
No falt’ring step, no change in pace,
I’ll not stray from the course called ‘straight’!
My goal? Toward the mark I press!
The mark? The prize of God in Christ!
The prize? All else shall count for less
When winning Him, I’m found in Christ.

    ____________________

  • 1Scriptures quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. ESV Text Edition: 2007 (emphases mine).

Imitating The Example

This past week, I’ve been teaching a course on the letter to the Philippians. Written by the apostle Paul out of the troubled circumstances of an imprisonment, it is addressed to one of his most beloved congregations who themselves were going through much trouble and persecution.

Do you know the good and the great embodiments of the Christian life in your church context? Look for them and, when you’ve found them, follow their pattern!

There is a very real risk of the Philippian church’s unraveling under the assault. Paul’s concern is to help them persevere in faith and unity. His strategy is to provide them with a number of life examples of how to move through trouble.

Jesus is the supreme exemplar of self-humbling for the purpose of service to others. Paul says, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 2:5) Paul can remind the Philippians that belief and suffering are both a matter of Christian calling and bid them consider his own life as both confirmation and example of that reality. (Phil 1:29-30) As he sends the Philippian helper Epaphroditus back to his home church, he encourages the church to mark the quality of Epaphroditus’ service to Paul on their behalf because he nearly died doing so. PhilippiThey should not only celebrate Epaphroditus but also honor others who are like him. (Phil. 2:29-30) These are not the only exemplars commended—there are others; positive ones to be imitated and negative ones to be avoided.

The church today has been seriously compromised by the notion that solitary Christianity is a viable option. It’s not! We need each other and particularly the consistent pattern of a great example. Paul said, in effect, “Cast your gaze about for great examples of what I’m talking about and then celebrate and emulate them.”

Do you know the good and the great embodiments of the Christian life in your church context? What are their names and for what Christian virtues are they to be admired? Look for them and when you’ve found them, follow their pattern!

Concept Cars and Pioneers

There’s a lot of talk out there about some high profile “emerging” churches. We’re hearing about “progressional dialogue” preaching, worship stations, and other innovations. The implication seems to be that these things will characterize the way we all do church in a few years.

I’m not so sure. I tend to think of these kinds of churches like the concept cars you see at auto shows. We’ll never drive those cars but some of what is in those cars will be in the cars that you and I drive in ten years time.

The trick, of course, is to figure out what of these innovations will endure. But that is what time does for us. I, for one, am grateful for the innovating pastors who are pioneering new forms of ministry on the cutting edges. But, that doesn’t mean that we all have to live there. Pioneers are always small in number. They also tend to suffer a lot. The settlers who come later benefit from the work the pioneers have done. The settlers also have a higher survival rate.

I’m not sure what church will be like for most of us in ten or twenty years, but that’s not the primary challenge for most of us just now. Our job is to offer the most compelling form of ministry for our time here and now.

That is challenge enough for most of us.

Cultural Ways of Belonging

What is the appropriate relationship of a Christian to a local church? How should followers of Christ “belong”? This is an important consideration when ministering cross-culturally, because cultural forms shape the way people understand “belonging”. For example, a helpful, if somewhat simplistic, diagram is provided to demonstrate three levels of relationships in which people experience belonging: Community, Family and Individual. Some cultures, such as most western cultures, give great emphasis to individual relationships. A person is encouraged to develop numerous relationships in a variety of contexts (family, school, sports, church, work, etc.), with the hub of these relationships based on the individual.Community Some cultures, such as many Asian cultures, find their primary identity within the family. Thus all relationships are made with a primary concern for the impact on the family. Marriages are arranged, and jobs are provided through family connections. Other cultures, such as small tribal groups, have a strong community focus. In one African tribal group, when children reach their adolescent years, they are separated from their families. The boys then grow and mature within one house while girls live in another. Thus deep relationships are forged that influence all other decisions in life. Such cultural dynamics shape the way that people will seek to belong in a church setting. In the Asian context where we were involved in church planting, the current church planting goal is to define church life within the household setting, rather than impose a model that encourages individualistic decisions to attend particular meetings or commit to certain relationships. However, this family model would most likely be inappropriate for a Canadian setting in which the individual is responsible for their own network of significant relationships, some of which occur within a single church context, but many are outside of the church. The successful church planter must evaluate and work with the significant relationship networks of his or her community in order to understand how Christian community can be expressed in that context.

Read more of Mark’s articles at Cross-Cultural Impact in the 21st Century

Godliness in Everyday Shoe Leather

For the past several weeks our care group has been studying the topic of godliness. We have looked at a number of passages of Scripture that speak to the subject. The theme question we have posed for this study has been, “What does godliness look like in everyday shoe leather?

The apostle Peter, speaking of Jesus, tells us that, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.(2 Peter 1:3-4 ESV) Peter goes on to encourage his readers, “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with [among a list of other virtues] …godliness…” Reading Peter’s words, one gets a sense of urgency in this exhortation. The pursuit of godliness is important – vital even! Later on in the same letter after describing the end of time and the coming of the Lord, Peter asks, in light of all of this “what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness…?” (2 Peter 3:11)

Over a number of weeks our group also looked at such verses as 1 Timothy 4:7 where Paul speaks of training one’s self for godliness and 1 Timothy 6:11 where Paul exhorts Timothy to “pursue…godliness”. This past week we reviewed Paul’s testimony of his personal pursuit of godliness as recorded in Philippians chapter 3. He declares in verse 12, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Both Peter and Paul expressed a passion for godliness and a purposefulness in pursuing it.

As I prepared for the study each week and reflected on personal application, and then as I listened to the discussion in the group two areas of query kept cropping up.

1. Are we really passionate about pursuing godliness and what it “looks like in every day shoe leather” in our lives personally? Or do we merely give lip service to it? Can we say like Paul does, “… one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:13-14 ESV)?

2. Do we speak enough among ourselves about godliness? Is this topic a natural part of our conversation as Christians? Do we encourage each other in godliness? Do we hold each other accountable in the pursuit of godliness?

Considering those two questions, allow me to encourage you to keep “pressing on” in the pursuit of becoming like Jesus – of pursuing godliness. Be passionate about it – this is what Jesus came, died and rose again for – to call out a godly people for His glory and honour. Then take the next step and encourage that brother or sister next to you in their pursuit of godliness.

Let’s put godliness into everyday shoe leather and walk it!

Gunproofing the Church

I hadn’t been the Senior Pastor of the Bethany Baptist Church for more than a few weeks when I got a telephone call that put a chill down my spine. At first impressions, it seemed to be the sort of random call that inner-city pastors will get from disturbed people. The caller was rambling, vaguely threatening, somewhat apologetic, but definitely disturbing. When I mentioned the call to my secretary and heard her explanation, the call took on a deeper and darker dimension.

Several years previously, a very disturbed young man had begun to stalk a young lady who had become a Christian and part of the fellowship at Bethany. For whatever reasons that defy sanity, one Sunday afternoon he entered the church, found a room where the young lady was meeting with a Bible study fellowship, and shot her to death. Before he was subdued, he wounded a few others.

The secretary showed me the bullet holes in the room that served as a reminder of the attack. For several years around the anniversary of that day, I would receive a call from the young man. He was incarcerated in a mental health facility. He escaped from the facility several times. Each time I would receive a call from the facility as a “duty-to-warn”, and each time he was apprehended within blocks of the church.

In light of the shootings in public places in recent years, this experience continues to trouble me. The Church is an open and trusting environment. But, it is also not immune to tragedy. And that is probably why an article caught my attention this week: Shooter in the Church.

The article, written by a lieutenant from the San Diego Police department, recommends: four steps you can take to reduce risk “and possibly save lives” at your church. The steps include: 1. Work with the local police, 2. Create a survey of your facility for police, 3. Create a lockdown policy, and 4. Prevent an incident. Each of the steps are explained in detail, and are well-worth your attention. You can access the article at: http://www.christianitytoday.com/bcl/areas/leadership/articles/070606.html

Read Lyle’s Northwest Centre for Leadership Development newsletters

Top Ten Reasons Why You Should Read Theology – #5

Reason #5.

The fact is, much of what remains of western culture can be traced back to the philosophical and theological roots of the early Church and its encounter with Greeco-Roman culture. To not know the theological aspect of what has been the predominant source of culture is to be only half educated in respect to it. Thus, we need to fill up the missing chunk of our education by reading theology.

CAN YOUR FAITH BE SEEN?

Two weekends back, I reflected upon our church’s process in searching for a new lead pastor and youth minister (“Searching for the New Pastor” NBS Blog). The search culminated in a very busy weekend of meetings as both candidates were interviewed and interacted with us in a variety of contexts. It was exhausting and exhilarating! On Tuesday of last week, our church membership discerned that it was indeed God’s good pleasure that we call both candidates to the respective ministries for which they had been considered. The vote was unanimous! Several days later, both candidates had responded positively, so we now have a new lead pastor and a new youth minister. Praise God! The key issue after considerations of whether these men and our church were a good “fit” in every other respect was, of course, finances. It’s going to be a stretch well beyond the status quo giving of our congregation as our new pastors come to be with us. At one point, someone during the intense but very positive three hour business meeting said, “We have had faith to believe that God will bring the servants of his choosing to our church. Now that we have them, we must show that we can believe God for the finances to bring this off.” I was fascinated by that comment. It sounded so … biblical! The call for and expression of an active and visible faith is everywhere in the Scriptures. True faith has a concrete, material dynamic to it. It’s expressed not only in words but in the fabric of flesh and blood actions. “Show me your faith without deeds,” says James, “and I will show you my faith by what I do.” (James 2:18 my italics) I’m reminded of the four men who brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus to be healed. They believed in their hearts he could do it. But this truth about them was not expressed in words. Rather, it was heard and seen in the risky business of tearing through a roof so they could lower their friend to where Jesus was. In the dusty, splintering industry of deconstruction, Mark writes, Jesus “saw their faith” (Mark 2:5). So, when we pray for a new pastor and then commit ourselves to pay for him, it’s all about faith. Faith in God must be heard and seen. It’s highly spiritual and very muscular. It’s expressed from the depths of our souls and out of the inside of our wallets.

Stolen Sermons

Thomas Long has written a tremendous piece on pulpit plagiarism that you can find here in it’s entirety: Stolen Goods. The article traces the arguments for and against using materials developed by others in the pulpit. Long comes down on the issue of honesty and integrity. He writes… Thomas LongA good test of this point is to ask, What would happen if the preacher told the truth? ‘Hey folks, it’s been a busy week and I didn’t have time to work on a sermon, and honestly, I’m not all that creative anyway. So this is a little something I found on the ‘net’.’ The fact that the air would immediately go out of the room is a reliable indicator that the tacit agreement of the sermon event has been violated. This is why plagiarists, for all their blather about God’s words being free for all, never confess their true sources and always imply that these words are coming straight from the heart. Yes, Augustine made space for preachers to memorize the words of other, more eloquent proclaimers, but note well that he added the test of truth: ‘supposing them to do it without deception.’ Perhaps even more powerfully, Long describes giving credit as more than just doing the right thing. He writes… Giving credit to others is not merely a matter of keeping our ethical noses clean; it is also a part of bearing witness to the gospel. No sermon stands alone, but instead takes its place in a ‘cloud of witnesses.’ The proclamation of the gospel does not spring forth from our cleverness or ability to generate novelty. To borrow words from others and to show that one’s sermon dips into the deep well of shared wisdom is itself part of Christian testimony, a fresh expression of Paul’s confession, ‘I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received.’ I couldn’t agree more.

Visit Kent’s site on preaching? www.preaching.org

Hearing God’s Message – Luke 2:26

In the infancy stories of Jesus recounted in Luke and Matthew God actively directs events to preserve his Son and to inform participants about the significance of these occurrences. For example twice in Matthew 2 God reveals (chrēmatizō) “by dream” his divine decree to the Magi and to Joseph. In the case of Joseph this expression parallels the employment by God of “the angel of the Lord appearing in a dream” (Matthew 1:20; 2:19) to give him instructions. In the case of the Magi, God used the special star to guide them. Luke tells us (Luke 2:26) that God “had revealed (ēn…kechrēmatismenon) to [Simeon] by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death until he should see the Lord’s Messiah.”

The verb chrēmatizō occurs 9 times in the New Testament. In broad Hellenistic usage it generally signifies to negotiate or have dealings with, often in a business setting or with reference to an official responding to a petition for help. When a deity is involved, then there are overtones of revelation, i.e. an oracle given in response to a petition. The sense of official declaration comes to be used in contexts where a person or a group is named or given a title.

The most frequent usage of chrēmatizō in the New Testament defines occasions when God issues decrees or gives direction. This is its usage in the Gospels. Josephus employs the verb similarly. For example, he tells the story of the Jewish high priest Jaddūs and his encounter with Alexander the Great. The high priest feared what Alexander might do and so asked God for direction. Josephus describes how Jaddūs fell asleep after making a sacrifice and “God spoke oracularly (echrēmatisen) to him in his sleep” and told him what action to take.[1] When Josephus retells the story of Achan’s sin (Joshua 7), he says that Joshua asked God what he should do and God responded (chēmatisantos) with clear instructions.[2] Continue reading

Different ways of belonging

GroupMy wife, Karen, and I belong to a Bible study connected with our church with participants who are extremely diverse in their Christian faith. One person saw God as a finite being who came into existence at the Big Bang. Another refers to himself as a “lapsed Catholic” who views God as an impersonal force. A third comes from an atheistic background, but with the conviction that there is a spiritual reality that we need to connect to. Of those with an evangelical faith, some have a modernist mindset (“Start with the historical facts and build your life on that”), while others have a post-modern perspective (“I do not have the capacity to be certain. I will believe and trust”). What we have in common is an admiration for Jesus and the hope that he can guide us into a significant and life giving connection with God.

. . . how can we function within this fluid dynamic to build significant relationships that bring people closer to Christ?

This Spring one of the participants – the “lapsed Catholic” – presented us with the challenge to read the first 6 chapters of Mark as if we had never read them before and did not know about Jesus. We would then share what we understood and experienced with each other. This has led to significant, enlightening and, at times, not altogether comfortable, observations about Jesus. The one with the atheistic background at one point exclaimed that Jesus appeared to be an “arrogant and crazy prophet”! This, however, in the minds of some of us, represented progress past the rather stifling view of Christ as a moral teacher. I present this small group as an example of how people “belong” in our Canadian context. Although some of the group are not qualified to be “members” of the church, all the participants see their connection to the church as significant. None of them are seeking to change their commitment to the church, yet all are involved in developing their understanding and commitment to Christ within one expression of the church. In our Canadian society people are very comfortable to belong to a church with differing levels of commitment (from dedicated member to casual participant) and within a variety of expressions (small groups, worship services or special programs) chosen to meet their current felt needs. With my missionary mindset of exploring ways to make the gospel relevant to specific contexts, I find this intriguing and educational. Rather than motivating people to pledge a long-term commitment to a particular ideal of membership, how can we function within this fluid dynamic to build significant relationships that bring people closer to Christ? In such a context, boundaries and definitions of who is “in” and who is “out” become less important than the direction people are moving in.

Read more of Mark’s articles at Cross-Cultural Impact in the 21st Century