Yearly Archives: 2007

Reverse Flow . . .

Over the last four years I’ve been focused on the phenomenon of ’emerging leaders’. It is trend in which the Church is growing future leaders from within. In 2004, the statistics being kept by Church Central under the direction of Thom Rainer revealed the growth of this trend: 1997  4% of people in ministry were ’emerging leaders’; 2003, the number had doubled to 8%, and the projection was that by 2010, over 30% of people in ministry would be second-third-or fourth career people.Thom Rainer has since moved from Church Central to become the president of Lifeway [the former Southern Baptist Sunday School foundation] and the co-author of Simple Church [the book he wrote with Eric Geiger that I have been recommending all year.] The new director of Church Central, Tom Harper, has picked up on the emerging leader research and has just published a new book entitled Career Crossover. According to his research, 44% of senior pastors today came from the marketplace.

While putting the research together can become rather confusing, it is becoming evident that there is a convergence taking place that deserves notice and attention. The Baby-Boomer generation is entering the realm of retirement with ministry in mind. The ‘Twixter’ generation is delaying a commitment to a career until later life. And, now, it appears that the flow of people taking ministry into the marketplace is cycling into a new direction.

As Harper writes, since almost 400,000 U.S. Church leaders have workplace experience, chances are that thousands more are hearing the call. It’s not a surprise that the subtitle of his book Career Crossover is Leaving the Marketplace for Ministry. It’s happening in increased numbers. And, the flow is not just toward conventional ministry. Emerging Leaders who are seeking to adjust a career from the Marketplace into Ministry are not necessarily concerned about becoming Senior Pastors as the numbers may indicate. The fact is they carry with them a burden that is producing any number of creative and innovative ministries into the world. My concern is that the Church would find a way to empower these people and serve as a platform to connect their ministries to the larger impact of a congregation. It was partly because of that concern that I developed the course Heart for Ministry and it’s a confirmation of that concern that I am taking a long, hard look at Career Crossover. I’d invite you to do the same. For further information: www.churchcentral.com

Read Lyle’s Northwest Centre for Leadership Development newsletters

SEARCHING FOR THE NEW PASTOR

Our church has just emerged from a very busy weekend. Not one but two search committees have been working simultaneously through past months in pursuit of individuals to serve our church in the respective capacities of Lead Pastor and Youth Associate. The searches culminated for both committees as both the recommended candidates were invited to a process of mutual acquaintance and exploration with the church—on the same weekend!

The proclamation and modeling of the gospel are the calling and ministry of us all! The traits and patterns listed at 1 Timothy 3:1-7 are not merely prerequisites to the ministry, they also are the ministry.

Of course, there was much to explore regarding the specifics of our church and its ministry hopes and aspirations as well as the candidates’ respective histories and how they see their futures under God’s direction. There have been many questions and answers; much talking and listening; and there has been a lot of reflection and prayer.

It has been a time especially to reacquaint ourselves with the Scriptural directions regarding leaders and the leadership task.

The instructions at 1 Timothy 3:1-7 concerning those who aspire to eldership have not been far from our minds through the earlier interviews and in the culminating visits of the candidates. An elder must be “above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.”

This passage has reminded me again of two things: First, the things mentioned are actually more than a mere list of “qualifications” or “prerequisites” to the ministry. In a very real sense, they are the ministry. That’s because the gospel is both something to be proclaimed and something to be modeled by the church’s leaders. Second, while we look to find these Christian character traits and life patterns in our leaders with peculiar strength and consistency, the traits and patterns are not peculiarly leadership traits. They are, after all, Christian character traits and life patterns to which we should all aspire and grow.

We’ll see where we’ve gotten to in our “search for the new pastor” in not too many days. It’s been a great, if somewhat exhausting, weekend and I’m confident that all is safely in God’s hands. What I’ve learned again through this process is that when the ministries of the new Lead Pastor and Youth Associate begin, ours don’t stop.

The proclamation and modeling of the gospel are the calling and ministry of us all!

When Life Intrudes on Preaching

I received this message from one of my former students, Shawn Barden, last week. Shawn is pastoring a great church in Fernie, BC. His message encouraged me and I thought it might encourage you as well. Hey Kent Just wanted to share a note that might make you smile and feel encouraged. On Wednesday last week a couple in our church was involved in a devastating motorcycle accident. Resulting in a broken neck (C-1) -astoundingly not death (by the doctor’s own admission) and half a foot amputated at the accident scene as well as numerous broken bones etc. The couple are good friends of mine (Jamie was in the C’n’C group I pastored in Regina and we were accountability partners there). EmergencySuddenly I became reacquainted with the reality of living in a fallen world. All of my ministry plans for the week seemed insignificant in the light of what happened. So I spent three days going from hospital to hospital to hospital as their condition grew more serious, ending up in Calgary. So much prayer for them was labored over by many, and we saw answers, I mean jaw-dropping answers to prayer! And I felt shamefully surprised. Surprised, not because I doubt God can answer prayers, but often I doubt he’ll answer my prayers! But He can, and He does, thank you Jesus. Anyway, I rushed back from Calgary with minutes to spare before I had to lead our overnight Alpha retreat. It was so intense and good – seeing all the emotional shrapnel that results when there is a collision between real lives and Jesus. So by Saturday night I was so exhausted. I just wanted the weekend to be over. That Sunday morning, for the first time in my life, I got up to preach without having been able to prepare a sermon. And fittingly the pre-scheduled topic was on the power and work of the Holy Spirit. It was one of the most raw, authentic, powerful Sunday mornings we’ve ever had. There was this weight of presence over us. There was this sense that we weren’t hearing our voices – in song, or prayer, or preaching, we were hearing God’s voice. The thought of it right now chokes me up. I’m am so thankful, that we have a Word that is living, and a Spirit that really does teach and speak and convict and encourage the hearts of men and women. So while I am carefully preparing a sermon for this week on John 14, I feel a renewed humility at where the power of pulpit rests. We can build the alter, but He provides the fire. God bless, and I hope His work here encourages you there!

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

Finding the Right Fit

I’ll begin this issue with a confession. It’s been three months since the last issue of the Leadership Connections. The silence is not due to idleness. In fact, it is just the opposite. Over the last three years, as I’ve labored hard to discover how to effectively direct the resources of Leadership Development, I’ve initiated several critical ventures. These ventures have matured to the point where they have given birth to solid products, and over the last few months their delivery has required my full attention.

One of the initiatives, The Best Practices for Church Boards, has proven to be quite fertile in creating further instruments to help strengthen healthy churches. As we’ve opened conversations with Church Boards, I’ve become aware of a number of significant shared issues. A survey of Churches that had attended the Basic Edition of Church Boards revealed that the number one issue that they faced was Vision Development and Strategic Planning. This issue became the focus for our first Advanced Edition of Best Practices for Church Boards and has produced a workshop that will be held later this month.

Running a close second to Vision Renewal and Strategic Planning was the issue of organizational structure: how to find the right structure for a healthy church governance. That struggle is faced by many churches.

There is no guarantee that if a Church finds just the right constitutional structure that it will have an effective ministry. But, having the wrong structure can almost certainly inhibit the ability of a congregation to serve and grow. Sometimes a church outgrows its structure and sometimes a structure outgrows a church. In either case, there are moments where it becomes evident to Church leaders that they are no longer configured in a way to handle to matters of ministry. It’s time for an administrative tune-up.

Gordon MacDonald, wrote of his personal experience with this moment in Leadership Journal [When The Wineskins Start To Rip, January, 1984.] While the Bible doesn’t prescribe a template for a standard Church Constitution and By-law structure, it does illustrate the dilemma. This is revealed in Acts 6 in the words “in those days, when the number of disciples was increasing, there arose a murmuring in the church.” Murmuring…interesting word related to an administrative breakdown. The complaints of the congregation expressed the sort of  friction and irritation that requires the discovery a new organizational system, one that would free people to concentrate on the mission of ministry.

In the course of research for the Best Practices for Church Boards, I have developed a catalog of different governance models. As the United Way of Canada has looked at non-profit agencies, they have identified 4 different types of Board structures: Policy Board, Policy Governance Board, Working/Administrative Board, and Collective Board [www.boarddevelopment.org] An article published by Banff Executive Leadership, Inc. [The Challenge to Govern Well] identifies five different models: Structural [Traditional], Policy [Carver], Outcome [Cortex], Process [Consensus], and Competency [Skill/Practice] Models.

A lot of attention has been given to the Carver – or Policy – model as a clearly defined system, and many churches are finding that – given a few adaptations – the Carver model is quite helpful. But, at the same time, I am finding that many churches – particularly smaller churches – require a different model. They are finding, as Gary McIntosh says, that one size doesn’t fit all. The problem is, it’s hard for them to find a system that fits.

Gary’s book [One Size Doesn’t Fit All, Revell, 1999] is one of the standard texts that we give to the churches that attend Best Practices for Church Boards. His argument is that the size of a congregation creates it’s own unique environmental demands. McIntosh identifies three sizes of congregations: Small [15 – 200], Medium [201 – 400] and Large [400+] Others, like Bob Gilliam [of T-Net International], have identified more distinct size categories [25-45; 75-110; 150-225, 400-450; 700-750; 1000-1200] that represent various levels of congregational character. In essence, being a Church of 700 is much different than being a Church of 225. The dynamics at each level possess their own requirements and a structure that works at one level is not appropriate for another.  In addition, the structure of a congregation is a significant factor that will determine whether or not a church both thrives at it’s level – and/or proceeds to the next. The challenge is to find a structure that would easily flex and adapt to the needs and conditions of growth patterns and leadership styles. Finding the right structure is critical in promoting healthy relationships, effective service and a mandate for mission.

The response that I am getting from the Best Practices for Church Boards churches has led me to expand my study on Church structure and Board models. Over the next year, I would like to create an instrument that would help guide churches to find a Board structure that would fit their needs.

To do that, I need your help. Here are some things I would like to know:

  1. What size is your congregation?
  2. How is the Church structured? Does the structure work well? If you were to change anything about it, what would it be and why would you change it?
  3. Who sets the direction for the congregation? How are decisions made?
  4. Who determines the use of the congregation’s resources?
  5. What is the Pastor’s role? What is the role of staff? How do they relate to Boards and leaders?

These are just a few of the questions that I’d like to know. You may have more. In fact, you may wish to send me a copy of  your church constitution with some sort of commentary: what do you like about it? How does it serve the needs of ministry? What would you like to change in it? Why?

It’s a critical issue, and we are in a position to help each other. I’ll look forward to hearing from you

The First Major Translation Project in History –
the Challenge of Cultural Change

It was the beginning of the third century before Christ. Alexander the Great had died and his empire divided among four generals. Greek language and culture swept through the lands of the Eastern Mediterranean, including Palestine. Large numbers of Jewish people were relocating to the emerging metropolis of Alexandria in Egypt. Caught up in all of this change and ferment Jewish people living in Egypt adopted the Greek language and were losing their ability to read and understand Hebrew, the language in which their sacred scriptures were written. Alexandria was an intellectual centre, containing one of the great libraries in antiquity. The king of Egypt at that time desired to include every major writing in this collection. When he heard about the Hebrew scriptures, he wanted a copy (at least this is how the story emerges in later writers) and mandated the librarian to have a translation made and placed in his collection.

Probably the convergence of various factors stimulated the first major translation project in human history – the translation of the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) from Hebrew into Greek. The impact of this project still affects us today because the names we use to describe these books in our Bibles reflect the Greek names, not the Hebrew names.

This translation project has had influence far beyond the imagination of those who initiated it and actually did it. For example, this translation or later revisions of it was used by the New Testament writers as the biblical text they tended to quote in their letters and Gospels. As the Apostles led the church to implement the Great Commission beyond the borders of Palestine, they used the Greek translation of the Old Testament as their primary scriptures. When Paul talks to Timothy about the scriptures he has known “from infancy” (2 Timothy 3:15), he is probably referring to the Greek translation of the Old Testament because Timothy was a product of the Jewish dispersion in Asia Minor.

When Christians today find themselves living in new cultural situations, translation of the scriptures into the language of that culture becomes a primary means, if not a necessity, for establishing a living church.

One of the more significant decisions made by the translators was the selection of the word LORD to translate God’s proper name Yahweh (Jehovah). In the New Testament Jesus is also described by this same term, i.e. the Lord Jesus Christ. On several occasions where the New Testament writer is quoting from an Old Testament text that describes Yahweh’s (the LORD’s) activity, the context makes it clear that the “Lord Jesus Christ” is in fact being identified as Yahweh. Paul’s message in Romans 10:9-13 blends references from Isaiah 28:16 and Joel 2:32 with the confession that “Jesus is Lord.” However, the “LORD” in Isaiah 28 and Joel 2 is Yahweh, but the “Lord” in Romans 10 is Jesus. The implications for the deity of Jesus are considerable.

When Christians today find themselves living in new cultural situations, translation of the scriptures into the language of that culture becomes a primary means, if not a necessity, for establishing a living church. The initiative taken three centuries before Jesus came continues to serve as a model for contemporary Bible translation. The issues those Jewish translators encountered remain the same issues modern Christians face as they seek to contextualize the Gospel without changing it.

The Septuagint Institute at ACTS Seminaries (Septuagint is the technical name given to the Greek Translation of the Old Testament) seeks to enable research into this translation and its continuing influence within the Christian world today.

How do people belong?

How do people belong? This is an important issue in missions, particularly for a church planting mission such as Fellowship International Ministries: What does it mean to belong to a church? There are many different ways to express and value belonging, and these vary from culture to culture. A college student from Azerbaijan informed me recently that “Canadians are very friendly, but they don’t want to be friends!” In other words, the level of belonging and the expressions of that belonging she was used to in her own culture, were very different in Canada. She expected friendliness to lead to a more intimate relationship, but quickly realized that she was imposing on boundaries they wanted to maintain.

While in Pakistan my wife, Karen, and I had similar experiences. Our concept of ‘friendship’ was different from the expectations in Pakistan. To be invited into a home as a couple to sit with both men and women indicates a level of ongoing commitment that we, as Canadians, reserve for our immediate families!

So what about church relationships? When planting a church, what is the expectation of commitment? One person may view the community in terms of family loyalty, while another may see this particular interaction with other believers as only one avenue of relationships among many, without the need for deeper commitment. Some may consider the church activities as central to their Christian development. Others may be content to participate at one level (e.g., attendance at worship, small group, worship team), while finding fulfillment for other needs (e.g., teaching, guidance, fellowship) in venues outside of one local church.

Should church planters seek to bring all people to a particular level of commitment that fits with one cultural model of church, or should they adjust their expectations to the realities of the connections that people prefer for themselves? If the goal is to help people develop their commitment to Christ within the level of commitment and relationships that they believe are important, then what will Christian community look like?

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

Thank You Father for a Grandson!

Last week I held my grandson in my arms for the first time. My heart was lifted up to my heavenly Father in adoration and praise as I gazed down on that tiny, frail, absolutely dependent, but intricately and beautifully formed bit of humanity. I could not help but ponder the fact that in this small child was another reminder of how the Eternal God gave us His ultimate revelation of Himself. This was how Jesus came. What incredible humility, what awesome condescension, what amazing love – that He, the creator and sustainer of all should have taken on this humanity, this utter dependence. My mind struggled with the incomprehensibility of the truths ascribed to Him in the accolade of Colossians 1:15-20.

And He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created by Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. [NASB]

Did He, the One who holds all things together, constrain Himself to the confines of the likes of this newborn infant, who was so totally dependent on my capability to hold him safely? I gazed down at my grandson and watched as his miniature hands and feet flailed and his tiny fingers grasped my thumb reflexively but with no ability to do anything other than to convey the sense of utter helplessness. What wonder is wrapped up in the mystery of the incarnation! Did Jesus come like this? Only a mighty, loving and gracious God could have planned this!

Holding that babe in my arms and pondering the next few words of that glorious hymn from the pen of the Apostle Paul created strong stirrings of adoration and thanksgiving in my heart.

He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything. For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven. [NASB]

Thank you Eternal Father for sending your Son, Jesus. Thank you Loving Father for sending this little grandson! Through him you have reminded me of your awesome love and compassion – of your audacious plan for our redemption.

It’s Not About Bob – It’s all About God

Several weeks ago, I used my assigned blog entry to muse over the death of my mentor and friend, Robert Webber. The way he prepared for death has taught me a lesson on how to prepare for life with an addition to my daily prayer: thank you, Lord, for the healing of yesterday, and I ask your healing power for today.

. . . as someone who has written a multitude of pages and taught innumerable students about worship, Bob insisted that his service focus on the great saving acts of God.

This week, I received a note from one the editors at Christianity Today, David Neff, who participated in Dr. Webber’s funeral. I’ll let his note speak for itself:

Last night I attended (and played the organ for) Bob Webber’s memorial service. The memorial service was wonderful in many ways, but I want to point to one thing in particular. It wasn’t about Bob.

Well, yes, it was about Bob, it couldn’t help being about Bob, but as someone who has written a multitude of pages and taught innumerable students about worship, Bob insisted that his service focus on the great saving acts of God.

Here is part of what he wrote for the worship leaflet:

As a Christian I have always believed in Christ as the Victor over sin and death. I believe that Christ was the Second Adam, sent to this earth as God Incarnate, suffered death, was buried and rose from the dead to restore the entire creation. I believe that it is God who narrates the entire world and creation, from start to finish. Consequently I have no fear of death although I do fear the process.

Today, there are literally hundreds of different styles one can follow … for a funeral. However, historic Christian funerals were always about God. I … truly want [my own funeral] to be about God who created this world, defeated Satan at the cross and rose victorious over death and the grave.

Today we begin with several eulogies, then when those are done, the real funeral begins and it’s all about God. I want my funeral to be a testimony to the God who raises us from hopelessness and blesses us with new life in Him. …

And that is the way it was last night. As a large crowd of mourners packed into Christ Church of Oak Brook, we heard the eulogies first, and then we focused on God, remembering Christ’s death and resurrection and looking forward to the marriage supper of the Lamb.

This is the way it should be, because there is no greater comfort than the gospel. Too often funerals play down the reality of death with sentimental poetry such as these lines from Shelley: he is not dead, he doth not sleep -/ He hath awakened from the dream of life. We don’t need romanticism, but redemption, especially at funerals.

There’s a whole lot more here than an insight on how to design a meaningful funeral. Once again, the preparation for death has stimulated thoughts on how to prepare for life. I’ve taken that one simple turn of phrase We don’t need romanticism, but redemption to heart. It’s a convicting exercise, especially as I participate in Sunday morning worship [we really don’t need romanticism as much as we need redemption], or as I prepare a Sunday morning sermon [I really shouldn’t aim for romanticism as much as I should redemption], or as I mentor students [they really don’t need romanticism as much as they do redemption.] In essence, it’s NOT about me, it’s not about us, it’s not even about Bob. It’s all about God.

Read Lyle’s Northwest Centre for Leadership Development newsletters

Top Ten Reasons Why You Should Read Theology – #6

Reason #6.

Simply put, liturgy lives from its theology and dies for lack of it. With out a solid grounding in theology those who perform and participate in the church’s worship neither are capable of bringing the church fully into the presence of God, nor make participants fully realize the eternal weight of Glory that grounds proper liturgy. As the church, and its participants, learn and recite the church’s theology in song, creed and ordinance it gains a proper sense of the enormous proportions of its witness to the reality of God. Indeed, without theology we worship a mere phantom of our ourselves, unaware!

Tan or Burn

My wife, youngest daughter and I are nearing the end of what has been a delightfully restful holiday in Hawaii. Of course the chief reason for this holiday choice has been the consistently glorious sunshine. We’ve enjoyed it during our stay, but one does have to be very careful. That golden orb above our heads has the potential to be either a healthful friend or a hellish enemy. BeachIn moderate doses, the ultraviolet B radiation of the sun is a significant factor in our bodies’ production of vitamin D which is crucial to the formation and maintenance of healthy bones. Moreover, research has shown that people who spend some time in the sun each day have a reduced risk of certain kinds of cancers. And besides, the sun’s warmth feels so good! But it’s also the case that too much sun can burn the surface of the skin, damage the blood vessels deeper down, affect the skin’s elasticity, and, with repeated damage, alter our DNA so that there’s a risk to life from various kinds of cancer. The double-edged quality of that heat and light is how the prophet Malachi describes the great and final day that he calls “the day of the Lord” which will distinguish between the righteous and the wicked. Malachi writes that for some, that day will burn like a furnace. “All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the LORD Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them.” (Malachi 4:1) That sounds to me like the ultimate sunburn.

“There’s no sun block for that day in the sun … or none needed!”

Malachi goes on to say, however, that the same heat and light of that day will be enthusiastically welcomed by the righteous: “for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall.” (Malachi 4:2) It’s frolicking in the rays of a warming sunshine after being cooped up through a long wintry darkness. It’s an eternal holiday tan. Scripture says we’re all bound for that day in the sun. It’s the same sun for us all and the same heat. There’s no sun block for it or none needed, depending upon how that day in the sun finds you and me.

Can Preachers Have Friends in the Congregation?

I had another interesting conversation with one of our Doctor of Ministry students last week. Robert Campbell is a pastor from Corona, California and is working on the question of whether or not a pastor can have friends in the congregation.

Campbell contends that spiritual formation happens within community and that the pastor needs to be growing as much as anyone else.

Traditionalists would say not, given that a pastor can never escape the pastoral role within the life of the congregation. Playing favorites within the church can be a real problem for the overall health of a church.

But what about the pastor’s own spiritual growth? Campbell contends that spiritual formation happens within community and that the pastor needs to be growing as much as anyone else. If the pastor is not allowed to engage the community in the same way as others, then how is he or she supposed to grow?

It is a problem because the truth is a pastor can never really have the same kind of relationship with other people in the congregation because it is true that he or she can never leave behind the pastoral role. However, is this really all that different from anyone else? Everyone brings their personal identity into relationship. Gender, social standing, race, education, and a myriad of other factors all play into the way that we relate to one another. The pastoral role is just one of those factors that shape the way that people relate.

The answer that Robert and I are coming to is that yes, pastors, need to engage people as friends within the congregation so that the community can do its thing to help in the spiritual formation of the pastor alongside everyone else. At the same time, we understand that the pastor’s relationship with people is always going to be colored and shaped by the fact that she or he is in that role.

This is okay. It is to be celebrated, even. The community of God’s people is a rich tapestry of relationships as we grow together in Christ.

See Robert Campbell’s blog at The Postmodern Pop Pastor.

The Blame Game

In a recent Macleans article (April 16, 2007) Brian Bethune reviews recent writings by several atheists who “blame God for every social problem from Darfur to child abuse.” Strong voices – Hitchens, Onfray, Dawkins, Harris – argue the case for atheism afresh, claiming that religion is purely and only a human creation – toxic in all its forms. The tragic circumstances of 9/11 have generated a new, virulent attack upon all religious expression.

…religion is toxic, because religion cannot and does not deal with human sin. The result is that religion becomes merely another context in which human sinfulness manifests itself.

Christianity comes in for its share of criticism, much of it quite abusive, caustic, and contemptuous. Of course, history offers numerous examples of evil done in the name of Christianity, as well as other religions. Given their location within Western Culture, these apologists for atheism level their most virulent attacks against Christianity, particularly its American versions. Fear that religiously-committed individuals will gain political power and enforce their ideology on all and sundry seems to motivate their stridency.

What does a sincere Christian say in response to such vocal and public attacks? I think one thing that must be said repeatedly is that they conveniently forget the horrors that atheistic systems such as communism perpetrated upon those under its power. The gulags remain constant reminders of terrible abuse – all in the name of atheism. So atheism has no claim to be the answer for a productive human future. Further the claim that we should praise the French Revolution because it turned churches into hospitals is rather naïve in that it conveniently forgets the terrible injustices and murder that this revolution perpetrated, all in its attempt to be free from religion.

Religious hypocrisy still remains the fundamental stumbling-block preventing people from truly hearing the Good News about Jesus.

Further, I would suggest that followers of Jesus would tend to agree that religion is toxic, because religion cannot and does not deal with human sin. The result is that religion becomes merely another context in which human sinfulness manifests itself. Christians are not surprised by this. What humanity needs is not more religion, but rather a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. God gets blamed for a lot of things that Satan does. Probably this is a devilish stratagem.

Finally, if atheism is the best way for humans to live, where do we see this demonstrated in any human society in the world today? Many religious persons would claim that the secularists are in charge now in most Western countries, but fail to see how society has improved or is any better for it. How is the abortion of millions of children annually beneficial? How has atheism helped those trapped in addictions or sexual oppression? It seems strange that so few human beings seem to have seen the light of atheism! Is this all due to the ability of religious organizations to dupe human beings, as the atheists claim? What does this say about human ability and intelligence?

What humanity needs is not more religion, but rather a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Perhaps, however, these voices do help us see how important it is for followers of Jesus to walk carefully in the power of God’s Spirit so that God’s name does not get sullied because of our sinful actions. Religious hypocrisy still remains the fundamental stumbling-block preventing people from truly hearing the Good News about Jesus.

In Jesus we discover true freedom from chains of sinful thinking and doctrinaire foolishness of human thinking.

Musings on belonging

Is it just me or has the concept of “belonging” to a church become more fluid lately? I remember growing up in a churched context and it was very obvious who was “in” and who was “out”. Membership was an important concept and there was a sense that unless a person became a “member,” their relationship with God and other believers was not as it should be. Each local church, even if its building was located across the street from another similar church, encouraged a deep level of commitment to their particular communal expression of “church”. Of course, I grew up in a church planter’s home, so that understanding may not reflect the perspective of the average person in the pew.

…it seems that belonging for evangelical believers today has more to do with significant connections with other Christians, than with a commitment or loyalty to one specific expression of Christian community.

However, today, unless it is only my own perception, that view seems to have morphed into a more flexible and complex understanding of belonging. Perhaps it is partly due to the western emphasis on individual rights and responsibilities. Perhaps there is greater tolerance of diverse theological views. Perhaps the perceived need of “a church experience” has changed. Perhaps it is due to the many opportunities that people have to belong to a variety of expressions of Christian community through the radio, TV, small groups, “parachurch” organizations, missions teams, concerts, etc. Whatever the reason, or combination of reasons, it seems that belonging for evangelical believers today has more to do with significant connections with other Christians, than with a commitment or loyalty to one specific expression of Christian community.

As someone who has a missionary mindset, I seek to understand and conform to cultural trends in order to present faith in Christ in a relevant way. Such a change (if I am correct) is neither to be rejected nor unquestioningly embraced. Instead, the question is, what does relevant and impacting Christian community look like in such an environment?

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

The Surprise of a First-Time Grandpa

I thought I was beyond the emotion of surprises. Then on Tuesday night God surprised me yet again and enlarged my heart some more.

Thirty one years ago this past Tuesday I became a husband when I married my beloved Becky. At the time I felt that the joy and delight I experienced that day could never be surpassed. But the years have taught me that God has many delightful surprises for us and that He enlarges our capacity for love, joy and delight with each new peek around the corner of His benevolence. Thirty one wonderful anniversaries later along with the births of a son (I became a dad) and two daughters, many-many birthday parties, Christmas eves, Valentines’ days (to say nothing of innumerable hilarious mealtimes and those very special moments when my children each confessed their faith in Christ), a wedding, a very special daughter-in-law — I thought I was beyond the emotion of surprises. Then on Tuesday night God surprised me yet again and enlarged my heart some more. I became a grandpa. Little Benjamin Matthew came into the world at 7:25 in the evening of Becky’s and my thirty first wedding anniversary.On the phone my son told me that he had experienced a bit of a difficult time with tears as he held his son for the first time. I understood! Those were tears of joy and delight. I had been there before (28 years before) and so had he — our roles had been a little different, however. I can remember my holding him and being entirely captivated by his tiny form. The tears had surprised me then. Now it was my son’s turn. But emotions were stirring in this new grandpa’s heart too. God had delivered another of His delights – a grandson. Even though I knew this day was coming, I was not prepared for the sensation that came with it. For two days my phone had never been far away as I waited for the news. Now Benjamin was here and my heart was singing, and I hadn’t even met him yet.

As I ponder these experiences 1 Corinthians 2:9,10 takes on special meaning. “But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’– these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.”[ESV] Love seems to be at the centre of all of this. God’s love for us, our love in response to His and the enlarged capacity for love that He graciously grants to families. I am certain that His loving Father’s heart also delights in the birth of a human grandson. I would like to think that He even gets a little emotional. Didn’t His own dearly beloved Son look like this once? (Gal. 4:4)

I know I am not the first grandpa in the world (nor will I be the last) but this was a first for me and I am entirely delighted in the moment. Thank you Father for your great love and thank you for this grandson.

PS: I got to hold my grandson for the first time last night. What a delight!

Why I Hate Meetings

As one whose life is defined by Meetings, it’s no surprise that I found today’s headline article in Inc.com’s Daily Resource for Entrepreneurs so compelling. The title: New Study Reveals Why Meetings Are SO Unbearable. [I added the boldface to the word SO!] The article presented research gathered by Opinion Research USA meant to measure the annoying meeting behaviors that push people past the tolerance threshold at business meetings. While there weren’t any remedies presented in the article, I have to admit the findings were very interesting … and convicting: “…27% ranked disorganized, rambling meetings as their top frustration, followed by 17% who said they were annoyed by peers who interrupt and try to dominate meetings.” There were other fascinating results:“…respondents over the age of 55 considered meetings without a bathroom break a significant issue, and for respondents ages 18 to 24, serving food is a priority at meetings…” hmmm, I just happen to be 55 this year. Interesting, indeed! If anything, the study just reinforced some of the basic principles I’ve been collecting for the Best Practices for Church Boards: “if you are someone calling the meeting, organize it, control everyone during the meeting, and make sure the people there aren’t wasting their time…” Read the whole post here: http://www.inc.com/news/articles/200705/meetings.html

Top Ten Reasons Why You Should Read Theology – #7

Reason #7.

Evangelism: Properly understood and carefully learned theology enables you to be more articulate when expressing your faith. The scriptures tell us to ‘always be ready to give a reason for our faith.’ In the long run theology is precisely this; I believe Christ is my savior because… . It is critical to be clear, concise and reasonable when answering this and all the related questions that go along with it. To be sure, witnessing to Christ is more than having a set of organized beliefs. Genuine witness requires actions as well as words, and actions that are congruent with words. But words are still and will always be necessary. Why not have them ready to hand and clearly understood. Good theology equips us to do this.

Marriages That Go The Distance

Two weekends ago, I had the privilege of officiating at the wedding of my nephew Russell and his wife Danielle. They’re a great couple! I shared with them that the secret of a fulfilling marriage that goes the distance depends upon the direction in which a couple leans.In marriages that grow, a husband and wife will lean toward one another for support and encouragement through good times and bad. In marriages that become progressively more distressed and unstable, couples will lean away and apart from one another. I base this little piece of wisdom on Ecclesiastes 4:7-12.Russell and Danielle The first two verses of this passage describe a man who leans away. He has no son and no brother. He has a 24/7 commitment to get ahead. It’s a small wonder that he’s asking himself, “For whom am I toiling…and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?” Obviously couples do need to work hard nowadays; but in a marriage that goes the distance, you have to work hard together and for one another. That’s leaning in.Ecclesiastes praises the merits of leaning in at verses 9 to 12. Two are better than one he says. Togetherness brings a better profit (“a good return”), greater resilience (“If one falls down, his friend can pick him up”), mutual comfort on the road of life (“if two lie down together, they will keep warm”), and a stronger defense against external threats (“one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves”). Ecclesiastes concludes his reflection with the observation that “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” So, what’s the third strand? Some say it is the arrival of children. That makes good sense as the arrival of children will typically add both joy and a greater family strength as they grow and take their place.

In marriages that grow—whether there are good times or bad—a husband and wife will lean toward one another for support and encouragement.

Others, however, are inclined to see that third strand as a reference to God himself. Even if one can’t clinch the argument from the text, the wisdom is compelling. God designed marriage in the first place and He both witnesses and seals a marriage’s creation (Matt. 19:6). If His presence adds wisdom, guidance, purpose and a host of other graces, giving marriages a peculiar strength that those without Him do not have, then why not welcome the golden strand into the weave? As life offers all that it will, remember; “Lean in toward your spouse and not away. And never forget the third golden strand!”

Alternatives for Change

…churches are institutional in the way that they operate, because they are venues for the organization of corporate worship, outreach, and discipling among people. No matter how loose, structures eventually harden and at that point a church has to make some difficult decisions about its long-term validity and relevance.

I had a conversation over lunch with Ken Castor, one of my Doctor of Ministry students, and a pastor at Brentview Baptist Church in Calgary, Alberta. Ken is beginning work on his dissertation project, trying to think about how to stimulate new directions in an existing, traditional congregation. His frustration is that many emerging young leaders like himself have given up on the traditional church, opting instead to create fresh new expressions of church, in essence writing off these older churches as unredeemable relics of the modern world. The problem with this kind of thinking, Ken suggested, was that these emerging churches were sowing the seeds of their eventual destruction in their way of thinking from the start. No matter what we want to say, churches are institutional in the way that they operate, because they are venues for the organization of corporate worship, outreach, and discipling among people. No matter how loose, structures eventually harden and at that point a church has to make some difficult decisions about its long-term validity and relevance. Ken is looking for ways to frame a church that can reinvent itself over time. The mission of the church would never change, but the way that the vision is expressed and enacted can and ought to vary and adapt. The usual way we deal with this is to establish a new worship service targeted at young people. This approach often creates conflict as the older folks feel threatened, and the younger ones feel patronized. There is no doubt that younger people are going to be more open to change, in general terms, than older people because they have been immersed in a different kind of world than their forebears. Yet, that doesn’t mean that some young people don’t want tradition and that some older people don’t want change. Perhaps it is a mistake to view this as a generational issue. Ken and I talked about the possibility of creating opportunities for young people to contribute to the unleashing of some fresh and alternative ways of pursuing the mission of the church and then opening up those alternatives to people of every age. The challenge would be to nurture something within the traditional church that could eventually flourish and offer a relevant future for the congregation over time. If this kind of thinking could prosper in a church, then we could see a culture of adaptation that would allow for the perpetuation of mission and the stewardship of resources that a local congregation represents. It will be exciting to see how this project develops. Read Ken’s blog at kencastor.com.

The Promise of Matthew 24:14
(en holēi tēi oikoumenēi = in all the Roman Empire)

In his final segment of extended teaching to his disciples in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus outlined their mission beyond the cross and urges them to be faithful to the end. In response to his prophesy that the temple and Jerusalem would be destroyed, his disciples asked “When will these things be and what will be the sign of your coming and end of the age?” (24:3). What follows in the remainder of Matthew 24-25 is Jesus’ response to their questions.Matthew 24:14 in some sense contains the answer to their second question about “the end of the age” as Jesus declares “and then the end will come.” Until the kingdom mission is completed, i.e. “this Gospel of the kingdom shall be proclaimed …for a witness to all the ethnesin (nations? or people groups? or Gentiles?)”, the end will not come. Jesus assures his followers that the forces of evil cannot derail or cut short God’s program. Until all the diverse, non-Jewish1 peoples observe the Gospel proclaimed, the end will not occur. Of course, we strive to discern what this proclaiming activity entails and because of this prophesy some urge the church forward in the Great Commission program as a means of hastening the return of the Lord Jesus. However, Jesus probably was not placing in human hands a mechanism to bring about the second coming. In this context Matthew uses the term oikomenos to represent another limitation that Jesus provides in this answer. The Gospel will be proclaimed “en holÄ“i tÄ“i oikoumenÄ“i”, usually translated “in the whole world”. This is the only place in Matthew’s Gospel where this word occurs. Mark does not record it in the parallel passage (Mark 13:10). Even though Luke uses this term eight times in Luke-Acts, he does not use it in the parallel passage (Luke 21:13). So Matthew seems to use this expression for some emphasis within Jesus’ teaching. Before we explore this question, however, we should note that apart from its occurrence in Luke-Acts, this term also is used in Revelation (3:10; 12:9; 16:14), Hebrew (1:6; 2:5) and in a quote from the Old Testament (Psalm 19:5) by Paul in Romans (10:18). It generally refers to the ‘inhabited world’. For example, in Luke 4:5 Satan shows Jesus “all the kingdoms of the inhabited world (tÄ“s oikoumenÄ“s).” In Athens Paul proclaimed that God had appointed a day when He would “judge the inhabited world (tÄ“n oikoumenÄ“n)” (Acts 17:31). In Revelation 3:10 John reports that he saw in his vision Jesus promising the church in Philadelphia that he would preserve them “from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole inhabited world (epi tÄ“s oikoumenÄ“s holÄ“s).” It can also have a more limited sense and refer to the Roman Empire. We probably find this sense in Luke 2:1 where the writer reports Caesar’s command that “a census should be taken of the entire Roman world (pasan tÄ“n oikoumenÄ“n).” Perhaps this is also the sense in Acts 24:5 where Paul is accused of being a troublemaker, “stirring up riots among the Jews all over the Roman world (tois kata tÄ“n oikoumenÄ“n).” When we come to Matthew 24:14, we have to ask whether Jesus meant that the Gospel would be proclaimed “in all the Roman world” or “in all the inhabited world.” Jesus also said in this verse that this Gospel would be “for a witness to all the Gentiles.” . . > . . > . . >

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  • 1. There remains a Jewish mission, but normally in Matthew’s Gospel the term ethnÄ“ refers to Gentiles.

Defining the role of a church missions team

Just what is a church missions team expected to do? Because of the way church missions has developed in recent years this question has become increasingly important for those who desire to be effective mission mobilizers. In some churches the missions committee’s primary role consists of passing on the prayer letters of missionaries to the congregation. However, other church missions teams are playing a far more complex and influential role. This is evident in the “Design your Impact” workshops1, in which the role of the missions team is presented as shaping and overseeing the overall missions purpose and strategy of the church, both locally and globally. In addition, the rise of short term missions can make the duties of missions teams quite demanding, often requiring the services of a full time missions pastor.

… the role of the missions team and the parameters within which it is called to function must be clearly defined. Unfulfilled expectations and a lack of clarity concerning the vision and responsibilities of the missions team quickly undermines its effectiveness.

During my interviews with pastors and key missions committee personnel for the purpose of discovering ways church missions can be improved, one pastor shared the parameters that he uses to define the role of the missions team within his church: The missions team is responsible to facilitate all outreach partnerships outside of the local church’s programs. In this perspective short term mission teams or local evangelistic efforts – intra-cultural or cross-cultural – are not the responsibility of the missions committee. Instead, their role is to monitor and facilitate the partnerships of the church with those missionaries and other workers who have a primary responsibility to another organization (such as a missions agency). Whether or not this is the position taken by a church is of secondary concern. What is obvious is that the role of the missions team and the parameters within which it is called to function must be clearly defined. Unfulfilled expectations and a lack of clarity concerning the vision and responsibilities of the missions team quickly undermines its effectiveness. Coming this fall a “Best Practices for Church Missions” workshop will be offered to assist church missions committees as they define their role and purpose within the broader vision of the church. Let me know if you are interested. Have you discovered some creative ways to highlight missions in your church? Send those ideas to me via the form below so that they can be shared with other churches. Visit the Best Practices for Church Missions webpage and evaluate your church’s missions team.

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Missions and the Heart of a Dad

I said goodbye to my baby girl this week. Becky and I, along with a number of other friends and relatives saw her off from the Seattle airport in the wee hours of Monday morning as she and her team of 7 began their missions odyssey to Thailand. She is only 23 and from this dad’s perspective “far too young” to have committed herself to a three-year stint involving a year of language study and two years of church related ministry in the Golden Triangle area of Northern Thailand.

Ever since she returned from that first journey to Thailand we knew this day was coming. We had seen it in her eyes, heard it in virtually every conversation. My daughter had lost her heart to her God and to the people of Thailand – and we were delighted. But that did not change the things that were happening to my heart on Monday.

The drive home from the airport was a blur. Fortunately my friend Jon had been tasked with the responsibility of keeping me awake so that I would get us home safely – at which he did a superb job. After an all-too-short sleep, morning came, and with it an odd mixture of thoughts and emotions. I found myself thinking that she was just in the other room. I would walk into the kitchen and half expect to still see her sitting cross-legged on the floor next to the fire place working on her computer or reading a book. When the front door would open my ears half expected to hear her cheery “Hi! I’m home!” It’s not as though she had never been away from home before. At 19 she did a year in Europe and at 21 she spent 9 months in Thailand. But somehow this was different. She had made a specific commitment of time to serve as a “full-time missionary”. Ever since she returned from that first journey to Thailand we knew this day was coming. We had seen it in her eyes, heard it in virtually every conversation. My daughter had lost her heart to her God and to the people of Thailand – and we were delighted. But that did not change the things that were happening to my heart on Monday. In the intervening year, since she had returned from Thailand, we enjoyed a delightful time of getting to know our youngest as she lived at home while preparing herself for this adventure. The three of us shared many delightful evenings together and both Becky and I felt that we got to know our daughter in a whole new way. We took in movies together. We enjoyed meals together along with many cups of coffee. We debriefed the joys and struggles of our days together. We teased each other and grew in love and respect for one another. Now she was gone and a corner of my heart was gone too – I believe it followed her to Thailand. There is another emotion in my heart – deep gratitude to my Heavenly Father. I remember a time when Becky and I wondered and worried what would ever become of our willful youngest child. But God, in His boundless mercy, got hold of that will (and of her heart) and she surrendered her life to Him. Now she was on an adventure with Him – following her Lord where ever He might lead. So we celebrated her departure. There were no regrets. At some point last week we all had a chuckle together as we realized that we probably would not shed any tears at the airport – that is just not how we do it in our family. We might shed them later, privately! But even those tears are not tears of grief over missed opportunities or unfinished business or unforgiven grievances. We were able to see her off with no regrets! We are just plain and simply going to miss her. As I pondered these conflicting emotions in my heart I paused to ask, “I wonder what happened in the heart of the Father when he sent His Son on the ultimate missions trip?” Is it in any way possible for me as a human dad to comprehend the heart of the Heavenly Father? I took a few moments to considered the depths that lie behind the statement “For God so loved that he gave …” (John 3:16) This experience has made me appreciate Galatians 4:4 a little more. “In the fullness of time, God sent his Son …” There is an unfathomable vastness to those simple words. The Eternal Son, who throughout that eternity had never left the Father’s side (John 1:18), was now stepping into time and space and into the human experience to undertake the greatest missionary adventure of all as He “…came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10) It is comforting to know that my daughter is following in His footsteps.

Visit my daughter’s blog and read of her adventure with Jesus

Robert Webber, Rest in Peace

Two days ago, I received word that my professor and friend Robert Webber finally succumbed to his long battle with pancreatic cancer late in the evening on April 27. I mourn his death. When I was a young Christian, his classes at Wheaton College taught me to think deeply about issues of faith. As the years passed, his teaching caused me to think deeply about the expression of faith. His studies on worship have served as a rich encouragement that there remains something profound to be discovered in the deep symbols and ancient voices that have been dismissed from our services. His insight, his passion and the warmth of his friendship linger in my heart.Now his death has added to the lessons I carry. In December, I knew that he was suffering tremendously. On December 9th he was told that he had only days, maybe a few weeks to live. As he wrote in an email, he was an invalid, sleeping 16 to 18 hours a day, unable to bathe, dress, or eat without aid.

"It has occurred to both of us that if we were truly spiritually sensitive, we would have prayed that way all of our lives…" Then, remarkably, he experienced improvement. By February, he was living what he called “a practically normal life.” He attributed the improvement to answered prayer, and yet was humble enough to realize that the improvement was for “however long it lasts.” In the last note I received from him, he left a remarkable jewel of insight. Listen to his words:

So, in light of my improvement, how do you pray? I want to ask God to heal me but what if he already has. But, I’m also reluctant to be presumptuous and tell everyone I’ve been healed given the statistical downside of pancreatic cancer and the fact that we are foregoing any definite tests for now, like a MRI, CT scan or PET scan. So, here is how Joanne and I solved our dilemma. We live and pray one day at a time. We pray each day and say, “Thank you God for the healing you gave me today. Please heal me tomorrow.” It has occurred to both of us that if we were truly spiritually sensitive, we would have prayed that way all of our lives but it took the threat of imminent death to bring us to this point.

“Thank you God for the healing you gave me today … please heal me tomorrow…” A hush came over my soul the first time I read that. Ever since, that simple phrase has become an echo in my nightly prayer, and, I suppose, a spiritual discipline that has unfolded a closer discovery of God’s gentle grace. What a wonderful treasure, this final gift from a caring friend. As I mourn his passing, I am learning to pray his prayer … with an added word of thanks to God for resurrection that has brought eternal healing to such a dear man.

It’s Something Else

A number of years ago, I had the privilege of teaching a course on the Book of Acts in Seoul, South Korea. When my teaching was done, a couple of the students were charged by my hosts to show me the sites of the city in the few daylight hours that remained that day. They asked me if there was anything in particular I wanted to see. I asked to see the Yoido Full Gospel Church. The Yoido church’s claim to fame is that it is arguably the largest church in the world, with over 800,000 members.My guides showed me many sites around and outside the city until well past sunset. After that, we went to a restaurant and I was treated to an absolutely sumptuous meal. My impression was that the lateness of the evening meant that the Yoido church had been struck off the schedule of things to see. We arrived at the Yoido church sometime past 10:30 pm. My thought was, “I guess they’ll drive by the building so I can see how big it is.” We pulled into a massive parking area and made our way into the building. A prayer service was underway. One of my guides apologized that the attendance was less than usual—only about 30,000 people or so were there. I was astonished! It put me in mind of a book I read about this church and its pastor Yonggi Cho. At one point the author reflected on North American Christians’ infatuation with methods and programs as the means to church growth. He related how a group of American pastors came to Pastor Cho, asking what method he followed. Cho replied, “All kinds!” Essentially, he was disclaiming that method had led to the growth. The key was…something else. But what was it?

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you and you will be my witnesses.” (Acts 1:8) Jesus was the first to help his followers in the matter of the “something else” by which the witness to him, and the community subsequently established, would grow. He told his disciples, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). The means of the realization of Jesus’ picture of advance and growth was not human stratagems or schemes; rather, it was the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit. Methods can be quite helpful, but they will not ultimately realize a divine plan—for that to occur it takes God himself!

Appetizing Sermons

One evening my wife offered me a meal that didn’t look familiar to me. Something about the look on my face must have suggested something other than full appreciation. “What’s wrong,” she said. “It’s everything that you like.” True enough, the dish only offered ingredients that I normally enjoyed, but they were offered in a different form than what I was accustomed. Thus my caution.I’ve realized that many people look at preaching just the same. A big part of what makes a sermon appealing to us is not just the content but the form in which it is presented. There are times when we will hear a sermon that has all the elements necessary to nourish us (solid biblical exegesis, authentic human connection, etc.) but which repels us because it comes to us in a form that we don’t recognize. Speaking honestly, I would say I need to be a little more mature in how I respond to my wife’s creative cooking. She’s a great cook and I’m learning to become a little more adventuresome in my response. I’d like to see the same from listeners to our preaching.

"Junk food sermons nourish no one!"

Of course, listeners are going to do what they are going to do. A preacher asking for a different kind of response from the listeners can be a little like King Canute forbidding the tide from coming in. Nevertheless, perhaps over time we can find ways to train listeners to broaden their homiletic palate, encouraging an appreciation of a greater variety in sermon form. Key to this is the need for preachers to make sure that their preaching is, in fact, truly nourishing. I’m thinking here of healthy servings of the human story, a compelling argument, the underlying mystery, and a motivating vision (see Choosing to Preach). In sum, junk food sermons nourish no one.

Smart, Healthy and Disciplined

We are in the midst of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Because the Vancouver Canucks have won the right to participate, our city is appropriately excited. What the fans hope for is a team that is ‘smart, healthy, and disciplined,’ presuming that this formula will bring them success. Of course, flashes of brilliant hockey finesse also will go a long way to securing victory.Jim Brown uses these same words – smart, healthy, disciplined – to describe a board that operates creatively and with excellence.1 He seeks to help corporate and non-profit boards develop the disciplines that enable them to be great. Many church board members are reading Brown’s book and with benefit. Yet, because he is not writing specifically for the spiritual context of a Christian church, we have to consider carefully how to evaluate his advice from a Christian point of view. I am aware that at the conclusion to his book, Brown “gives thanks to God, who gives meaning and purpose to all [my] life. Everything I am and do is dedicated to you.”2 So when we apply these terms “smart, healthy, disciplined” to define the way a church board should operate, what should they mean? Churches expect their leadership teams similarly to function with wisdom, spiritual maturity and good practices. They have given to their boards a significant trust. The word ‘smart’ combines wisdom, creativity, cleverness and savvy. A smart church board understands the spiritual struggle in which the faith community operates. It is not business as usual because we face a strong and clever enemy who seeks to destroy God’s work in and among us. This board hears the words of Jesus that we must be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” when evaluating issues and dealing with community relations. Christian ‘smarts’ will include the ability to see things from God’s perspective – evaluating on the basis of divine values and goals as revealed in the Bible. The missional sense of being engaged with God in “heralding the Good News of the Kingdom to all the nations” will dominate and guide our thinking. A healthy church board will demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit in its internal relationships its treatment of employees. The values of agape-love, humbleness, respect and integrity will envelope the board’s operations. Health will show itself in the care the board takes to develop careful policies that will result in good spiritual care for the congregation, prayerful support and care for the pastoral leadership, and the advancement of the church’s mission. Good minutes, good agendas, good orientation, good chairing all serve to support excellence and enable the board to be healthy. Within Scripture the term ‘discipline’ relates to discipleship – following Jesus in obedient living and being accountable to Him as Lord and Saviour. A church board that is disciplined will keep on task, will expect each member to use the Spirit’s giftedness to advance the vision, and will pursue the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Thus it will work diligently, consult carefully, engage prayerfully, and educate itself deeply. Within the spiritual setting of God’s kingdom, it is the Spirit that enables believers to live and work in a smart, healthy, disciplined way. These things are God’s gifts to us, if we ask for them and sincerely walk together as boards according to the Spirit’s cadence and for the advancement of the church’s mission.

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  • 1. Jim Brown, The Imperfect Board Member (San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006):xv-xvii.
  • 2. Ibid., 201.

Sports as a metaphor for culture.

What is culture? There is a current debate (National Post, March 2-, 2007) about whether fashion should be classified as culture, with implications for government funding. Canada has policies promoting “multiculturalism.” I have read books and heard sermons concerning the need for Christians to remain separate from “the prevailing culture.” These diverse nuances of the term have resulted in confusion concerning the meaning of “culture” for the cross-cultural minister of the gospel. From an anthropological perspective, which is the primary way the term is used in missiology, culture refers to the relationship that the members of a particular ethnic group have with their environment and each other. This includes all aspects of life that provide meaning for that people group such as legends, laws, priorities, structures (material, organizational or conceptual), customs and artifacts. Worldview, on the other hand, refers to the conceptual framework or beliefs about reality from which cultural items gain their significance. There are universals common to all cultures (although there is no agreed upon list of these universals), but it is the differences between cultures that provide cultural identity and are the cause of much perplexity and conflict between people groups. This is the reason why the politically correct program of multiculturalism in Canada is so difficult. As a philosophy of accommodation so that cultures can co-exist while maintaining their separate identities, multiculturalism is predicated upon an assumption that there are sufficient agreed upon commonalities for such a project to succeed. However, not only are there disagreements about the identification of these commonalities, but even when they are identified at a theoretical level, the practical outworking of these values is elusive. For example, western “universals” such as “free speech,” “equal rights,” and the “rule of law” are understood and prioritized in fundamentally different ways in other parts of the world. As a humorous illustration of how cultures conceptualize reality in different ways, consider the following imaginary sports analogy: The country is Canada. The city, Hockeytown – a city in which only one sport, hockey, has ever been played. It is the only sport that has ever been imagined by the residents. To them hockey is not just one of many sports, but is what defines sport. Bobb Yorr has just returned from a visit to another city in which he was introduced to the sport of Tennis. Grett Ski has never been out of his city and so, for him, “sports” is defined by ice rinks, hockey sticks and hockey nets.

  • Grett: Hey, Bobb, long time no see! What have you been up to?
  • Bobb: I’ve just got back and I’ve discovered another sport.
  • Grett: Another sport? What do you mean – another way to play hockey?
  • Bobb: Um, well it’s a sport like hockey is a sport, but totally different.
  • Grett: How can it be like hockey and totally different. That doesn’t make sense. Do the teams line up differently or something?
  • Bobb: Well there are only 2 players.
  • Grett: What! Only two players on the whole team? How do they take shifts?
  • Bobb: No, only two people in the game, one player on each team and they play the whole game.
  • Grett: No way! Who do they pass to? …………………

Read the rest of the article at Cross-Cultural Impact in the 21st Century

Leadership: A Communal Experience

As I was completing the new edition of the Heart for Ministry leadership assessment course, I was tempted to revise the sessions that were focused on a definition of leadership. The conventional definitions seem to define leadership as a personal trait belonging to certain unique individuals. Recently, I’ve encountered several writers who challenge the conventional wisdom. One, in particular, is George Bullard. I constantly find his thoughts stimulating. The last blog I wrote referred to an article in his online journal [http://bullardjournal.blogs.com/] In another article in the Journal [Abandon Committees, Skip Teams, and Embrace Communities] he identified a trend that I’ve been tracking from other sources. Increasingly, I am encountering learning communities, collaborative communities … and leadership communities. While Bullard contrasts the behavior of committees, teams, and community – using 8 factors – there is an element that adds a new dimension to a definition of leadership: as a communal expression. Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard have written of Situational leadership – as the ability of a leader to manage the contribution of followers according to their commitment and competency. Leadership as a communal expression is a mirror image of the concept in that groups realign their communal relationship in order to follow the lead of whichever individual possesses the most appropriate fitness to lead through the specific issue. To do that, the community must be healthy and adaptable. And, individuals in the community must be prepared to either lead or follow with equanimity. It’s a concept that has me thinking … and one that seems to be quite relevant to the nature of congregational life. Leadership, not solely an individual aptitude – but a communal expression. Something to think about…

Top Ten Reasons Why You Should Read Theology – #8

Reason #8.

Theology has great potential as a teaching tool for the church. In fact the whole concept of systematic theology was not just about trying to describe the whole of reality in systematic terms but about the orderly catechesis of the faithful. As a teaching tool it enables you to think more clearly about the nature of the God-human relationship and make better sense of it all.

Final Words

On Monday night of this past week at the Convention of the Baptist churches of our Fellowship, an award of merit was given to pastor David and Virginia Fairbrother. They’re an amazing couple, having served sacrificially and with peculiar distinction in a number of churches over many years.

There was a particular intensity and pathos in the moment as rather extraordinary measures had to be taken to get David out of hospital to the convention site for the recognition.  He’s very seriously ill. After notice of their ministry was given, David and Virginia responded in turn. The silence of the congregation and the focus of our listening were particularly noticeable as we strained to hear every word that David had to say. It was just too important than to risk missing one of them. After the recognition, David went right back to hospital.

Reflections from Rome

It has been interesting for me to think about spiritual formation from a different perspective spending these days in Rome. I suppose that when I arrived here I was prepared for the Coliseum, the Forum and all the vestiges of Imperial Rome. I was less prepared for the influence of the Roman Catholic experience. It has been interesting to ride buses and walk the streets in close proximity with nuns, monks, and priests. Yesterday, my wife and I entered at least eight different cathedrals, all stunning in their beauty and complexity. Today we walked down Catherine of Sienna street. A few impressions… St. PetersOn Saturday we managed to get tickets (free – but nonetheless rare) for the Pascal Vigil which is a three-hour service beginning at 10pm. This was pre-resurrection worship in anticipation of what would happen the following morning. We sat a few dozen feet from the alter inside the vast St. Peter’s Basilica, the very seat of Roman Pontifical power, and just a few dozen feet from the Pope himself. Once we were able to get past the stunning beauty and scale of our surroundings, we were able to settle in and try to understand what was happening. Given that about 90% of the proceedings were either in Latin or Italian, this was difficult. Still, we were able to sense something of the wonder that Catholics bring to the experience of celebrating the death and resurrection of our Lord. I remembered how just a few days earlier, I had led communion in a small evangelical Baptist church in Hope, BC. It seemed worlds apart. While I loved the sincerity and meaning of that small protestant service, I found myself feeling that our celebration was a little weak in comparison to all the drama we experienced at St. Peter’s. Karen and I did not go forward to receive the mass, perhaps in solidarity with our free church reformation protestant forebears who would have been aghast that we were there at all. I’ve got some huge issues with the Catholic church. The veneration of Mary, prayers for the dead, and the general misuse of money and power so in evidence throughout this city, leave me cold. Still, these people love Jesus. This afternoon we looked at paintings by Raphael and Caravaggio, not to mention Michelangelo’s magnificent ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. I want to tell you that it was as much a worship experience as a tourist experience for me. Yesterday, we visited the catacombs and thought about the tremendous faith practiced by the early Roman Christians. We visited the prison where Peter and Paul were incarcerated and stood inside a cell that may very well have been their own. I was deeply moved to think about how our faith is not some mythological story about gods that never actually lived. Our faith is rooted in real history and it has changed the world. Scala SantaIn the afternoon we stumbled across a chapel in the Lateran section of town where was housed the Scala Sancta. Tradition holds that these were the actual stairs that Jesus used when he climbed to meet with Pilate to be judged. The stairs were said to have been brought to Rome by Constantine’s mother, Helena. While this cannot be proved, the possibility is plausible as these were real people and real places. Whether or not the stairs really were as reputed, I was moved by the devotion of people who climb the stairs one by one on their knees. The sides of the staircase are adorned with frescoes (mural paintings) depicting the passion of Christ. I watched these people kneeling on each step individually to think about the pictures and to offer prayer to God. Say what you will about the possibility of their superstition, but rightly directed I could see how this could be a powerful worship experience. I guess I was too Baptist to participate, but I did pause to thank my God for his sacrifice for me. On Easter Sunday morning we stood in St. Peter’s square (it’s actually round) with at least 100,000 of our closest friends. The Pope’s sermon (what we could gather of it) spoke about resurrection and hope. He denounced terrorism and the war in the middle east. I’ll never be a Roman Catholic, but standing in that place filled with hopeful people, seeing people wave their flags from every corner of the world (including more than a few Canadian flags), I thought about the old Sunday school song we used to sing… "Red and yellow, black and white. All are precious in his sight."

Earth Day 2007

Earth day 2007 has come and gone. What did you do to help preserve planet earth and its delicate ecosystems? The fervency of the rhetoric matches that of revival preachers from a bygone era. Guilt is heaped upon those who refuse to comply. “Make the culprits pay!” advocates shout. The activities of the human species, like some deadly virus or parasite, are degrading, corrupting and destroying the earth. Human beings are viewed as part of the earth system, but a part that is out of control, a rogue element that must be stopped. Earth For some the saving of planet earth is a religious quest. “Gaia” is their god and ecology their religious faith. Others support these measures out of self-interest. They like to swim in clear oceans and vacation in pristine wilderness. However, some adopt strategies to be eco-responsible because they have children and grandchildren and desire them to have access to the same wonders of nature that their generation enjoyed. Others are skeptical, seeing the vastness of the planet and wondering what all the fuss is about. After all, the earth in the view of some is billions of years old and has managed to survive countless disasters. It’s been hot and then cold and then hot again. If human beings are part of the evolutionary sequence, then their activity becomes just one more development that earth will cope with in some way. If dinosaurs became extinct in the course of evolution, then probably other species will become extinct too. So what’s the worry? Believers in Jesus seek to find a way through these debates and claims so that they are true to God and His Word, and also by their actions add to his reputation, not detract from it. For us earth day can be the opportunity:

  • to praise our Creator for the wonders of this earth and the entire universe. He made it all!
  • to evaluate our own personal and corporate stewardship of the planet and its resources. How much of its resources are being expended on our own selfish and sinful pursuits, rather than those that would help human beings live and flourish in health and peace? As part of the industrial complex, what can we do to use these resources more responsibly?
  • to express that the earth is more than a physical place, it is also a spiritual place. There is good and evil alive and well on planet earth. The ecosystem is not just biological or geological, but is also theological.
  • to express our hope that one day God will create a new heaven and a new earth in which there will be no pollution – moral or otherwise.
  • to emphasize the special role that God has given to human beings in this earth as stewards of his creation.

As the Psalmist said, “The earth is the Lord’s!” To celebrate earth day rightly, we must also celebrate its Creator, the Lord Jesus Christ. Perhaps next year you church might celebrate earth day, but in a way that honours God as Creator, and Jesus Christ as its sustainer.

Keeping missionaries and Mission Agencies Accountable

I have been spending some time interviewing pastors and key missions committee personnel to discover the areas they would like to improve in the area of missions One frustration that a number of people expressed is in knowing how and when they are to keep mission agencies and missionaries accountable. One pastor provided the following insight:

The prayer letters that missions personnel send to the churches are often very different in content to the reports that they are required to provide their mission agency. In order to monitor their missionary and be privy to important decisions being made the missions team of the church may wish to request these reports be sent to them as well.

There are, of course, confidentiality issues that need to be taken into account. However, if the missionary grants permission for the report to be passed on to the church missions team and the team does not pass on that information without permission, such difficulties can often be overcome.

The benefit of such a request is that both the missionary and the missions agency become directly responsible to the sending church. The missions team in the church is able to ensure that the missions agency is providing the support and direction required and that important issues are being dealt with. They are also able to more clearly understand the difficulties and frustrations the missionaries face which they are not free to publish in their public newsletters.

Have you discovered some creative ways to be an effective missions team in your church? Send those ideas to me via the form below so that they can be shared with other churches. Visit the Best Practices for Church Missions webpage and evaluate your church’s missions team. We are working on a workshop to support churches as they seek to join in God’s mission both locally and around the world. Information on this will be posted on the Best Practices for Church Missions webpage as it comes available.

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Mobilization – the new Assimilation…

I have always found the thoughts and writings of George Bullard to stimulate my thinking. Not long ago, I came across a phrase from his online journal [http://bullardjournal.blogs.com/bullardjournal]. In reporting on a workshop at the Lake Hickory Learning Community on Sustaining Pastoral Excellence, Bullard described a phrase used by Alex McManus that “mobilization is the new assimilation.” I love a good turn of phrase. Mobilization is the new assimilation… As Bullard caught the phrase, his understanding was that mobilizing people in the work of the kingdom of God…is the best way to assimilate them into the body life of a local congregation.

When the new “unchurched Harry” comes to church, they want to be involved in something with someone….If anything,… [to] get a measure of the quality of people’s lives through actual experience … are these people authentic, are they real, do they believe what they say, and how do they really feel about me…?

Bullard’s interpretation of the phrase took me back to a conversation that I had with one of my dear friends who is part of the leadership structure at the Willowcreek Community Church. According to him, there has been a huge shift in their approach to non-believers. The “Seeker” of the ‘80’s and ‘90’s” described as “unchurched Harry” valued anonymity, and Willowcreek honored that value by creating a safe space around those people who were “coming to God, but weren’t aware of it quite yet.” According to my friend, things have undergone a remarkable change in the last 7 years. “Seekers” no longer value anonymity as much as they now demand participation. When the new “unchurched Harry” comes to church, they want to be involved in something with someone – not so much for the long term, but in a limited fashion. My friend told me that it’s more than just a matter of finding a community and finally gaining a sense of belonging. If anything, this new demand is being made so that the Seeker can get a measure of the quality of people’s lives through actual experience … are these people authentic, are they real, do they believe what they say, and how do they really feel about me as a trusted partner? As a result, Willowcreek has had to shift their approach to the Seeker from anonymity to partnership and have discovered that mobilization is the new assimilation. It’s not been easy. They have to find appropriate ways to include the seeker into the action. They can’t very well make a seeker a Sunday-school teacher … but they are finding valuable roles for seekers to do 2 things: 1. make an impact with the seeker’s service [even if it’s helping with the parking lot managers] and 2. provide an authentic opportunity for the believers to communicate faith and create community. As I travel in our Fellowship, I find myself thinking – that would be both a challenge and an opportunity for our congregations … to think about how to make Mobilization a matter of Assimilation.

Top Ten Reasons Why You Should Read Theology – #9

Reason #9.

You need theology because, lets face it, we all talk about God at some point in time. Wouldn’t you want to speak about God intelligently, with at least a basic idea of who, and what we are talking about? We are all theologians of sorts, why not be an informed one? Even atheists need some knowledge of theology or their arguments make no sense, (not that they ever do fully make sense). But then again, “only a fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God'”. On the other hand, if we have no knowledge of our theological tradition we could end up saying other things just as foolish. Other than the indispensible Bible, you could start with a very good book like Alister McGrath’s Introduction to Theology.

Virginia Tech Reflections

It seems that it will never end.  Yesterday it was the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.  The toll so far is 34 dead, including the shooter Cho Seung-hui who committed suicide.  Last year it was the Amish Schoolhouse shootings where a gunman took the lives of 5 little girls before killing himself. Before that it was the Columbine High School shootings in Denver. There the death toll was 12 with 24 wounded and two teenage shooters dead by their own hands.  And long before that it was the University of Texas in 1966 when Charles Whiteman killed 15, including his mom and wife, and wounded 31 others before being cut down by police gunfire. We can inset to the list Taber, Concordia, Ecole Polytechnique, and Brampton as sad Canadian examples. The bloodstained litany is appalling.

 

Norris Hall at Virginia Tech

People are pressing in from every side to ask, once again, “How could this happen?” Early reports are suggesting that Cho was having girlfriend problems, but that may not be it. The other shootings threw up various motives—brain tumors, video games, Goth culture, troubled home life, post traumatic stress. The media and featured experts wrestled one another to paralysis all the while that parents and others called for the heads of various school, political and law enforcement officials for not being better prepared, for being too slow, or too fast.

The weapons of choice in the above instances were handguns, rifles, shotguns, M1 carbines etc. The shooters were younger and older; they were white and non-white; comfortable and poor. The victims were male and female; known and complete strangers.

What kind of a world do we live in?  Quite apparently, a deeply hurting world where some take their pain and magnify it by hurting and destroying others; a world without solutions for prevention; a world without recourse to do more than analyze and/or vilify the memories of killers, bury their dead and give thin comfort to the wounded and bereaved.

Today, more than usual, I’m convinced that there’s no help from within. The world only repeats itself with one horrendous shock after another. It’s clear that we cannot help or heal ourselves.

What we need is rescue deep down, healing deep down and help deep down … from outside the circle of our reality.

Reactions to the News of Jesus’ Resurrection

In the various Gospels we have complementary accounts of the resurrection of Jesus and the diverse responses that people had to this news. We tend to think that these first century people easily accepted that God had raised Jesus from the dead. However, that is not the reality, at least as we find it in the Gospels. It took repeated appearances and stern words from Jesus himself before some were ready to believe that his resurrection had happened. The implications of such an event were enormous and people wanted firm evidence that it was true before accepting that Jesus truly was Messiah. After all, a dead Messiah, in any Jewish setting, was a contradiction in terms. One of the more surprising responses is reported by Luke (24:11). Women went early on Sunday morning to complete the burial preparations for Jesus. When they arrived at the tomb they found the stone door no longer blocking the tomb’s entrance. They entered the tomb and found no body. While they were considering this, two angels appeared and announced Jesus’ resurrection, in accordance with Jesus’ own words. The women rush back to report this “to the eleven and the rest” (24:9). Luke tells us this group of women included Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the rest with them (24:10). However, to the eleven “these matters appeared before them as nonsense (lÄ“ros).” This is the only occurrence of this word in the New Testament. Why did Luke choose this word to describe the response of the eleven to the women’s witness about Jesus’ resurrection?…

Rolls-Royce Never Fails

The following story was told by Mac Brunson of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida in his sermon, The Purpose of the Passion which you can hear on the most recent Preaching Today Audio CD (#283). For more information on this audio series and for other online features check out PreachingToday.com. A man who lived in England came over to the United States to go to a resort for several months, and he wanted to bring his car – his Rolls-Royce – over. It was packaged up and shipped over so he could drive his car while he was in the United States. But, while he was here, something happened to the car. There was a mechanical failure. And so he called over to England and said: “I’ve got this problem with my car. I think this is what it is.” And Rolls-Royce told him: “That’s fine. Within 48 hours, we’ll have a mechanic with the auto parts there to fix it for you.” They put a mechanic with some car parts on a plane and flew him to the United States. He worked on the guy’s car out in the parking lot at this resort, fixed it, got on a plane, and flew back to England. The man drove his car the rest of the time. Then he packaged it back up, put it one a ship, and sent it back. He was back home for nearly a year before he discovered he had never got a bill from Rolls-Royce. So he wrote the company. He said: “This date last year I called – there was something wrong with my Rolls-Royce, and you flew a mechanic over. You fixed it, but I’ve never received a bill. If you’ll find that bill in your office, I’ll be happy to pay the bill for fixing my car.” He received a letter back from Rolls-Royce that said this: “In the files at the headquarters of Rolls-Royce, there is no accounting that anything has ever been wrong with a Rolls-Royce anywhere.” Brunson said, “Now that’s justification. When you get to heaven and Satan wants to holler and scream about all your sin, Jesus is going to look through the files, turn around and say: We don’t have a file on him here at all.”

Keeping Missions from becoming a number in the budget

People committed to supporting cross-cultural missions, whether locally or globally, recognize the essential role of missionaries who have dedicated years to learn the culture and language of a particular people group. It is through their expertise that bridges for the gospel are discovered and churches planted. However, missions mobilizers serving in churches are often frustrated and discouraged at the overwhelming task of keeping people interested and committed to the support of missionaries over the long haul. There are so many legitimate activities and alternative ministries that staying the course with one family whose ministry requires slow and steady progress, rather than glamorous leaps, is difficult. Support sometimes becomes reduced to a budget item that is “rubber-stamped” each year.

As a result people no longer give to the church generally and think about their financial commitment to missions once a year. Instead, a focus on missions giving is highlighted weekly along with giving towards the church’s general needs.

One church in our Fellowship has developed a creative approach to the support of their missionaries that, even though only a small adjustment, has helped provide a stronger focus for missions in the church. Each year they designate part of their budget to the support of their missionaries, as is common practice for most of our churches. However, funds from the general offering cannot be applied to this commitment. Only those funds designated “missions” are used to fulfill this responsibility. As a result people no longer give to the church generally and think about their financial commitment to missions once a year. Instead, a focus on missions giving is highlighted weekly along with giving towards the church’s general needs. Secondly, the deacon in charge of missions is responsible to keep the church informed of their commitment and when giving has fallen short, he or she reminds the church of the importance of these ministries and the role the church plays in advancing God’s mission. Furthermore, when giving exceeds the budgeted commitment, and this is not uncommon, they are able to apply these extra funds to special projects such as the Fellowship International Ministries 2007 “Blessing the Nations” project. Have you discovered some creative ways to highlight missions in your church? Send those ideas to me via the form below so that they can be shared with other churches. Visit the Best Practices for Church Missions webpage and evaluate your church’s missions team. We are working on a workshop to support churches as they seek to join in God’s mission both locally and around the world. Information on this will be posted on the Best Practices for Church Missions webpage as it comes available.

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

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What Makes A Christian Relevant?

I never met E. Stanley Jones, but over the years he has served as a Mentor to me. His book Song of Ascents is one that is a constant source of insight and wisdom … and perspective. Over the last couple of years it’s been hard to find perspective. Not since the Jesus people revolution of the ‘60’s have I detected a spirit of struggle among pastors and churches desperate to be “relevant.” It’s hard enough to define what it means to be “post-modern, seeker-sensitive, emergent, and missional.” It’s even harder to prove that you are all-of-the-above. And, if you aren’t? Well, to mangle a phrase from Hughie Lewis and the News, “it ain’t hip to be square.” Carrying all of this angst about being irrelevant, I turned to my Mentor and on page 132 of Song of Ascents found a truth that set me free. There, E. Stanley Jones described his first meeting with Mahatma Gandhi. As a young missionary in India, he went straight to the point, “You are, perhaps, the leading Hindu of India. Could you tell me what you think we, as Christians, should do to make Christianity more naturalized in India. Not a foreign thing … but a part of the national life…? He immediately replied: “I would suggest four things: First, that all you Christians, missionaries and all, must begin to live more like Jesus Christ. Second, that you practice your religion without adulterating it, or toning it down. Third, that you emphasize love and make it your working force, for love is central in Christianity. Fourth, that you study the non-Christian religions sympathetically to find the good in them.” “This is genius” Stanley wrote. The sheer simplicity of the idea that to be more “naturalized” or relevant to a society is to be more Christian freed him from trying to be something he wasn’t in order to simply be who he was – a Christian, and work by love. Stanley was astonished that it took the leading non-Christian of the world to give him permission. After offering a few examples to support this perspective, Jones then wrote a paragraph that I wish everyone who struggles with the search for relevance would take to heart: “People say that we must adopt the language and culture of the day to be relevant to today. That is a mistake. If the church marries itself to the spirit of the times, it will be a widow in the next generation. There is a universal language – the language of reality and the language of love. Have those two things and you’ll be understood and appreciated in any situation, anywhere, in any age. [page 133]” Tucked away in the passage is a phrase that gives balance to my heart: to be home in any given situation, be like Christ…be just what I am – a Christian – and work by love!

So, What’s Different?

OK. It’s Monday, the day after the Easter weekend. So, what’s different? I attended two services—one on Good Friday at which a number of churches attended and one on Sunday in my home church. Regular church-goers like me and C & Es—Christmas and Easter only types—were reminded of the events of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The sermons we heard took different tacks as they crisscrossed various texts. I heard a couple of good ones—one from a youthful preacher and another from a man who’s been in the ministry for over fifty years. As the sails of their sermons each caught gusts of relevance, I was thrilled at the sudden quickening.

“True understanding builds a life on what is heard.”

But, what’s different?

 

When Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, he concluded by telling people that true understanding was not merely attaining to a personal intellectual “click” point. Rather, true understanding builds a life on what is heard; its hearing and doing. Jesus likened it to a man wisely building a house on a solid place so that it would withstand storms (Matt. 7:24). I heard the preachers. They were helpful. But did I really get it? How will that part of the world I touch be different because I’m building upon what I heard this past weekend? What’s going to be different?

Visual Preaching

The other day I had the pleasure of hearing my good friend, Dr. John Auxier preach. John is Dean of Trinity Western University and an expert in marriage and family counseling. He is also a very fine preacher. His sermon was taken from John 11 and 12, focusing on the dinner party where Mary of Bethany washed the feet of Jesus. It was a wonderful sermon, well assimilated, and thoughtfully conceived. One of the striking things that John did, however, was to set up an actual table and chairs in order to be able to physically describe the circumstances of the event – who would likely have been sitting where and what it might have indicated. It was a very simple way to help us visualize the text – not complicated in its execution, but very helpful just the same. In recent days my students in class have used many such visual aids – hollow eggs, t-shirts emblazoned with various messages, a book of family history, and an antique lantern, among other things, all designed to enhance the learning experience for the listeners. I’ve been a little surprised by this given that I have not required it nor spoken a great deal to the students about it. Nevertheless, they have found these “object lessons” to be helpful in communicating their message to their audience. In my experience, the simpler these objects are, the better. They also ought to be central to the theme of the message. A physical object will be a striking element and should not be used to describe extraneous aspects of the sermon. This is a great way to take our sermons to another level. In my friend John’s case, he used the table in the second service but not in the first. In his view, the visual display greatly enhanced the impact of the sermon in that second service.

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

The Dance is Not Perichōrēsis

In several recent publications various authors have sought to support arguments related to the understanding of the Trinity by stating that the Greek noun perichōrēsis (cognate verb perichōreō) signifies dance or dancing. For example, George Cladis states that “Perichoresis means literally ‘circle dance’.”[1] Eugene Peterson concurs: “The dance is perichoresis, the Greek word for dance.”[2] In her discussion about the Trinity, Catharine LaCugna discusses various analogies “used to depict perichōrēsis.” But she finds them too limiting. Instead she suggests “this is why the image of ‘the divine dance’ has been used to translate perichōrēsis. Even if the philological warrant for this is scant, the metaphor of dance is effective. Choreography suggests the partnership of movement,…”[3]

But does perichōrēsis mean “a circle dance” and does the cognate verb mean “to dance”? The fact is that these terms have nothing to do with dancing. Liddell and Scott indicate that there are two distinct Greek verbs:

perichōreō means to go around. perichōrēsis is defined as ‘rotation’.[4]

perichoreuō means to dance around.[5] No cognate noun is listed.

So there is no warrant for suggesting that perichōrēsis has any connection with dancing in Greek Classical Literature.

Perhaps, though, it may have come to mean this and so the church fathers had this sense in mind when they applied it to the Trinity? A scan of the information revealed in Lampe’s A Patristic Greek Lexicon, however, is not encouraging:

perichōreō means “interchange” when used in reference to the two natures of Christ and “interpenetrate” when it describes the actions of the members of the Trinity. A similar range of meaning is found for the cognate noun.[6]

perichoreuō is also listed with the meaning “dance round”, but the primary references are found in Pseudo-Dionysius Aeropagita (5th century) and these uses are not related to the Trinity per se. Also, Lampe only lists three occurrences, whereas for perichōreō he lists many occurrences, both Christologically and in relation to Trinitarian discussions.

Again, we find no evidence that suggests perichōreō has anything to do with dancing.

St. John of Damascus (8th century) used perichōrēsis in his Exposition of the Orthodox Faith to describe how the members of the Trinity relate to one another. For example, he says “they are made one not so as to commingle, but so as to cleave to each other and they have their being in each other [kai tēn en allēlais perichōrēsin echousi] without any coalescence or commingling.” However in this context he makes no use of the analogy of dancing to explain this relationship. Augustus Strong indicates that “theologians have designated this intercommunion by the terms perichōrēsis, circumincessio, intercommunication, circulation, inexistentia.”[7]

What can we conclude from this? It seems that some writers have confused perichoreuō (dance round) with perichōreō (interpenetrate). Although the verbs sound similar and are spelled somewhat similarly, they have two quite different meanings. The primary lexica for Classical and Patristic Greek give no indication that perichōreō was ever used to describe the motions of dancing. Catharine LaCugna is right so far as she goes to say that “the philological warrant for this is scant.”[8] It is in fact non-existent.

If a person desires to use the metaphor of dance to describe the mutual interactions of the persons of the Trinity that might be useful and appropriate. However, one cannot justify the use of such a metaphor by trying to connect it with perichōreō. That tune will not play. Nor should one pretend that the term “choreography” in some sense relates to perichōreō. Again, there is no etymological relationship whatsoever. Perichoretic dancing is a modern invention that does not come from the meaning of the underlying Greek term or its use in the Church Fathers.

 

Larry Perkins, Ph.D.

December 8, 2006.


[1] George Cladis, Leading the Team-Based Church (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1999):4.

[2] Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eedrmans, 2005): 44-45

[3] Catharine LaCugna, God For us: The Trinity and Christian Life (San Francisco: Harper-San Francisco, 1973): 271. Peterson refers to her publication in footnote 15 of his volume and quotes from page 272 as support for his understanding.

[4] Henry G. Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966):1394

[5] Ibid., 1393.

[6] G.W.H. Lampe, editor, A Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968):1077-1078.

[7] Augustus Strong, Systematic Theology (Valley Forge, Penn.: Judson Press, 1974):333.

[8] Op. cit., 271.

Removing Shame Through the Cross

The prodigal son had shamed his father, shamed his family and shamed his religion. As the crowd listened to Jesus reach the climax of the story with the father running towards the son, some of the listeners – Prodigal Sonthose who had shamed their religion through compromise with the Romans, those who had shamed their families through prostitution, those who had shamed their fathers through neglect and rebellion – winced as they waited for the inevitable punishment to fall. What other action could a just, holy and righteous father take? Other listeners – the Pharisees who deeply felt the dishonor borne by father – anticipated with satisfaction the blow to fall on the son. How else could the shame be purged from the family name?

"…the father is not tainted by the impurity of the son but instead transforms the son once again into his image with a robe, shoes and a ring symbolizing an astounding renewed identity as an honored child."

In Pakistan there exists an infamous tradition of Karo Kari – black boy, black girl – the killing of the defiled daughter. A few years ago at a wedding a teenage girl was dancing and celebrating with other girls when a young man came up and grabbed her hand. She snatched her hand away, but it was too late, an uncle from the balcony had seen this exchange take place. The girl was dragged from the celebration, taken outside and stoned to death. There can be only one answer to shame: to purge it through death. In the story the father reaches the son but instead of the anticipated blow, his arms open and he draws the son into a strong, accepting embrace. The crowd is stunned as they realize what has taken place. The father has taken the shame upon his own self, he has embraced and absorbed the dishonor. As this totally unexpected story unfolds the father is not tainted by the impurity of the son but instead transforms the son once again into his image with a robe, shoes and a ring symbolizing an astounding renewed identity as an honored child. Can it be that there is redemption for shame? This is a theology of the cross for an honor – shame culture: ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole”’ (Gal 3:13 TNIV). The cross is the act of the father to those of us living in shame. “I am not worthy!” and we wait for the blow to fall, only to be surprised by the grace of the Father’s embrace. There is a deeper and more profound answer to shame. The cross of Jesus is God’s embrace of humanity, taking our shame and bringing transformation.

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

Easter Surprise!

While I love Christmas and Easter, over the years as a pastor I found it an annual challenge to find something fresh to add to my preaching. I would thrill at any new insight that would add a new voice to the message. One year the Pastor of the College Church in Wheaton Illinois, Kent Hughes, introduced me to a familiar passage with an added twist. At his advice, I turned to Matthew 27 and attempted to relive the scene of Pilate’s final judgment from a prison cell on death row with a convicted felon named Barabbas. In verses 16 and 17, it was apparent that Barabbas was living on a bubble. His crimes deserved death, but his name was up for the annual pardon. It takes a bit of imagination, but it’s easy to picture him listening intently to the sounds of the crowd through the bars of his prison window. It would have been almost impossible for him to hear Pilate give the crowd a choice in verse 21. But it would have been impossible for him not to hear the crowd roar out his name: Barabbas! That got his attention. From that point, the only voice he could hear would have been the crowd as it continued to shout out: Crucify Him (verse 22), Crucify Him! (verse 23) Let his blood be on us and on our children! (verse 25.)

"But, I thought I was the one to die?! Isn’t that what the crowd wanted? Isn’t that what my verdict says? Isn’t that what I deserve?"

He had heard all he needed to hear. His life was at an end. It was judgment day. The sound of the crowd would have been in his heart as he heard the guards open the door to his cell. Forget a pardon, it was time to die. Except there was a voice he hadn’t heard. The one that said, “release Barabbas, crucify Jesus [verse 26.]” You can imagine the mental confusion: But, I thought I was the one to die?! Isn’t that what the crowd wanted? Isn’t that what my verdict says? Isn’t that what I deserve? All of that was true, except for one thing. Somehow, by a divine plan, Jesus intervened. The Bible says of Jesus, “He was pierced for our transgressions…crushed for our iniquities…the Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:5,6)” Somehow, I have to think that Barabbas was the first human to fully appreciate the sheer intensity of that fact. And, somehow, I’d like to think that what he discovered would give me, give all of us, even greater reason to give thanks!

Read Lyle’s Northwest Centre for Leadership Development newsletters

The Evangelical Emergent Condition

I have been teaching a series called “Principles of our Faith” lately at one of our local Fellowship churches and one of the questions people keep asking me is; “what do you think of the concept ‘emerging church’”? My answer is always the same. The emerging church, like Postmodernity, is a condition, only confined to the evangelical church. It marks its self by its lack of clarity, its lack of direction and its lack of theological depth, all because evangelicals have forgotten their Bibles, lost their historical identity and jettisoned their doctrinal roots. The reactions are predictable. Denial. But I have yet to be proven wrong. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

Alumni: Randy (1975) and Ruth (1973) Kamp

Randy Kamp, Canadian Member of Parliament for Pitt Meadows– Maple Ridge–Mission. Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans. Randy (BTh. 1975) & Ruth (Certificate 1973) are Northwest alumni.Randy and Ruth Kamp

Randy, in the years since graduation, what kinds of ministry has God led you and Ruth to be involved in?

Ruth and I met on our first day at Northwest and got married a few years later. After I completed my Bachelor of Theology degree in 1975, we spent a year as associate pastor in Edmonton and then moved to Fort McMurray where I was employed in retailing. We returned to Northwest in 1978 where I completed a year of studies towards a Master’s degree. But then we decided to move back to Fort McMurray where we spent another three years in retail work.

In 1983 we joined Wycliffe Bible Translators and, after training, we spent two terms in the Philippines. We lived in a village situation for a while, being trained in linguistics and translation, but during our second term we lived at our northern center where I served as the regional director for teams in the northern area of the country.

In 1992 we returned to Canada and I served as associate pastor at Maple Ridge Baptist until 1996. At that point the opportunity came to get involved in the political arena, managing our MP’s constituency office. When he retired in 2004, I won the Conservative Party of Canada nomination and was then elected as the Member of Parliament for Pitt Meadows—Maple Ridge—Mission.

You have served Northwest as a Board member for many years. What motivated you to volunteer your time and energy for such a role?

I had the privilege of serving as a member of the Board for about ten or eleven years. Although we went through some challenging times, I really enjoyed my time on the Board. I made a lot of friends and found the Board to be a great support group. Several things motivated me to serve in this capacity. I grew up in a Bible-believing family and church, but when I got to Northwest I realized how much I didn’t know. It was my training at Northwest that helped me establish a firm Christian foundation. This experience led me to the conclusion that Christians needed to be well-trained to live most fruitfully and serve most effectively. So I was pleased to have the opportunity to help Northwest achieve its mission by serving on the Board.

You have served as Member of Parliament for the Pitt Meadow—Maple Ridge—Mission riding for two terms so far. How do you see your involvement as an MP in relation to your Christian commitment? What has motivated you to develop this vision for involvement in Canadian society?

It has been a real privilege to serve as an MP, but I have to admit that it was never my ambition. So it was a very difficult decision, probably the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. I enjoyed my work in the constituency office, and was also part-time interim pastor at Ruth Morton Baptist, and would have been happy to keep doing both. But when the opportunity presented itself I began to see my time in the constituency office as a kind of apprenticeship and preparation for a different kind of service. So I started down that path, leaving the outcome to God. I’m glad I did.

I believe in the doctrine of separation of church and state, but not in the separation of faith and politics. Our faith has moral and social implications and we have the obligation to express these and to influence public policy. I bring to my role as a politician a Christian worldview, but not a Christian agenda. In fact, I believe every parliamentarian looks at the issues through a lens that’s formed by his or her personal experiences and values. In my case I look at each piece of legislation through a Christian lens, applying Christian principles to the decisions I have to make. I believe that if a policy aligns with Christian principles, it will be good for Canadian society as a whole. The way I see it, God did not give us his revealed will to make life difficult or to see if we can keep the rules. Rather, He provided the framework that would help all people live productively and healthily. So Canadians benefit as we follow God’s principles.

It’s often a challenge to know how to think Christianly about the issues before us in parliament, but I’ve come to realize that one’s ability to navigate at the interface of faith and politics depends on how well-developed one’s Christian worldview is. The years I spent at Northwest have played a big part in the formation of my worldview.

Of course it’s not enough just to think Christianly, we have to act Christianly too. When I started down this path I adopted as my guide Paul’s encouragement in Philippians 4:4: “Let your gentleness be evident to all.” That’s hard in an adversarial environment, and I haven’t always succeeded, but I keep trying.

Can you suggest some specific ways in which Christians should engage our culture positively and transformatively?

I think we need to consider two areas of involvement in our society:

First, we need to be personally involved in meeting social needs. I don’t think you can read the Bible without realizing that God is interested in social justice and that He wants us to act justly and love mercy. Acting Christianly is more than just standing up for the traditional definition of marriage. There are a lot of needy people, even in our own country: people living in poverty, without clean water, without a home, suffering from AIDS, shackled by addictions, and the list goes on. I think we should all try to be personally involved in meeting a social need.

Second, I think Christians should also consider becoming well-informed about some justice or social issue that they feel strongly about and working to influence public policy. That can be done by writing letters, sharing your views with elected officials, contributing to public forums, organizing petitions, etc. I know that currently there’s a high degree of cynicism about the political process, but politicians do listen to what their constituents have to say—especially when they realize it’s in their political best interests to do so.

I am sure your life is filled with many diverse opportunities to serve. How do you maintain the balance between family, Parliament, personal development, etc.?

I am not sure that I do all the time. There are a lot of demands in both Ottawa and the riding, and of course the weekly travel between Ottawa and Maple Ridge can be pretty tiring. But Ruth and I find that this is a good time of life to be contributing in this way. Our three children are grown and married and Ruth is able to travel with me sometimes. I’m part of a weekly Bible study on Parliament Hill and participating in a worship service at Maple Ridge Baptist is an important part of my week. I think I understand my limits and know when I need to be alone and re-charge.

As you reflect upon your experience since graduation, can you discern generally or specifically ways in which your education through Northwest has assisted you in pursuing your Christian vocation?

Well, I met Ruth, the love of my life, there more than thirty-five years ago so that was important! We’ve been on this journey together. What I learned there was very important in my spiritual formation but I think whom I learned it from was just as important. Many of my professors had a profound impact on my life—although they probably didn’t know it—as they modeled what it means to be a faithful, thoughtful Christian.

How can people be in prayer for you and Ruth?

I know that many are praying for us and that means a lot to us. For us, Micah 6:8 is a powerful word from God. Keep praying that God would teach us daily what it means to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God. And pray that in the cut and thrust of the political fray that God would give me the grace to be a gentle man (Phil. 4:4). Finally, pray that I would have the wisdom to understand the issues and be able to communicate effectively so that I can be a good ambassador for Him.

Of ‘Impossible People’ and Iceburgs

Before he became a follower of Jesus, the apostle Paul was a persecutor of Christians. Scripture relates how he “began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.” (Acts 8:3) and of his “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” (Acts 9:1f.) He did not look to be a likely prospect for conversion. In fact, he seemed an “impossible case.” Image:Iceberg IlulissatAnanias thought that. When the Lord commissioned Ananias to go to see Paul, his response was shock. He rather audaciously reminded the Lord that Paul was a Christ-hater and persecutor (Acts 9:13f.)—he was an impossible case. Ananias may have been far more convinced that Paul would kill him than that he would become a follower of Jesus! What Ananias didn’t know at the time—but what we know from Acts 9:3-16—is that Paul had, a short while before, been shaken to his core by a meeting with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. Paul had had a vision in which a man named Ananias came to restore his sight. Ananias didn’t know that the Lord had some very big plans for Paul. God was ‘on the case’ long before Ananias arrived on the scene.

"Someone has said that God’s action is a lot like icebergs-9/10ths of what he’s doing is below the surface, beyond the field of human vision."

Few conversions are ‘out of the blue.’ Almost always there has been an incubation period.God is preparing unsaved people through life experiences and circumstances long before we ever arrive on the scene. In fact, he can work even through the very things we might think make our friends ‘impossible cases.’ Someone has said that God’s action is a lot like icebergs—9/10ths of what he’s doing is below the surface, beyond the field of human vision. Think of your ‘impossible’ person—God is and has already been working in their life, even though they and we may see nothing at all. That’s part of the great news of this passage—God is working and can save ‘impossible’ people. So, don’t be discouraged!

Good News About Seminary Training

I heard some good news about theological education over the weekend at the Chief Academic Officer’s Meetings of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). It seems that people are happier with seminary education than we may have thought. Barbara Wheeler of the Auburn Institute reported on data gathered from an array of comprehensive surveys over several years. It seems that the seminary experience is highly rated. Some highlights:

  • Seminary students rated the quality of their educational experience as 3.2 out of 4.0.
  • 95% of graduates said that they would encourage others to pursue ministry.
  • 4 out of 5 would encourage others to attend the same seminary that they did.
  • 4.75 out of 5 would attend the same seminary again if they had the chance.
  • 74% of seminary graduates end up in professional local church ministry. 88% end up in some form of professional ministry.

The attrition rate of Master of Divinity grads who end up in professional ministry is only 1% per year over ten years. Put another way, 90% of grads stay in ministry over 10 years. These numbers are staggering and "blow away" comparables from any other form of professional training such as law or medical school. I agree with Wheeler who said, "I don’t care what your business is, if you can deliver these kinds of results, you are doing phenomenal work." It has become common to criticize seminary as "cemetary" and to generally see it as an outdated and inefficient way of training people for ministry. The numbers say otherwise. Perhaps it’s time to stop seminary-bashing and to begin to think more creatively about how seminaries and churches can leverage this work for the benefit of people and the growth of God’s kingdom.

Secular – Is the word useful anymore?

Secular often is used in opposition to the idea of the sacred. The Latin word saeculum, meaning this age, is the etymological root for our English word “secular”. It tends to describe a view of things that ignores the reality of God and sees natural processes or human agency as the final cause of things, eliminating God from the equation. It also comes to define a way of thinking that lacks religious sensibility.

If we intend to define some idea as ‘non-Christian’, this may not mean it is secular, it may only mean it represents religious values that are not Christian.

As we look across our Canadian social landscape, we often hear it described as a secular wasteland, particularly if our viewpoint is Christian. But when we define it as secular, is this an accurate portrayal? Is religion in fact a dead or dying influence in our Canadian reality? I would suggest that the opposite is the case. All the surveys that I have seen about the values that Canadians hold indicate a deep sense of religious commitment defines us. The sacred, defined in different ways, influences Canadians significantly. Those that would claim to be atheist are a very small minority. The vast majority of Canadians are religious people, to some degree. The role that god(s) play personally or socially will vary, but god(s) are alive and well in Canada. If we colour our society as secular, we overlook this essential religious reality. The percentage of people who adhere to a religious understanding that is non-Christian is increasing, but this does not make them secular. SpringAs we seek to express the Kingdom reality of the Gospel personally and in our faith communities, perhaps we need to revise our perception of the Canadian who is our neighbour. The odds are that our neighbours are religious people. When we seek to share our religious beliefs, they can appreciate that we are religious. They may be curious about the religious ideas and practices we follow and why such things are important to us. We may discover that they are committed to similar values – family, integrity, value of life, etc. When we share our faith and encourage them to consider the claims of Jesus as Lord and Saviour, we are in fact asking them to abandon their current religious framework, something that is often deeply intertwined with their culture and sense of personal identity. To urge them to enter into a relationship with Jesus, i.e. become Christian, requires them to engage in a deep, significant transformation. We should not be surprised that they will need time to consider such matters and evaluate the implications of such a change very carefully. We would do the same.

The percentage of people who adhere to a religious understanding that is non-Christian is increasing, but this does not make them secular.

Perhaps there are some true secularists in the neighbourhood, but they probably are a rather rare breed. Some groups in our society have a secular agenda, seeking to erase any influence or effects that religious values may exercise in Canada. However, most Canadians and most of the groups in which they are involved endorse some kind of religious perspective. Our culture essentially is a religious fabric. We should use the term ‘secular’ then with some restraint. If we intend to define some idea as ‘non-Christian’, this may not mean it is secular, it may only mean it represents religious values that are not Christian. Helping the poor and seeking justice, for instance, are profoundly religious values. Advocating for good health care expresses a desire for quality of life and compassionate concern for those who suffer. Being good stewards of the environment honours the mandate God has given for us to exercise care for His creation.

The Difference Between Multi-Ethnic and Multi-Cultural

At a recent seminar a pastor posed the question: “What is the difference between multi-ethnic and multi-cultural?” Ethnicity primarily refers to group identity arising from a common history, kinship and language. Culture refers to the way members of a particular ethnic group relate to their environment and each other. This includes legends, laws, priorities, structures, customs and artifacts. Multi-ethnic, therefore, refers to members of a variety of ethnic groups interacting within a particular forum (such as a multi-ethnic church). Such forums require a common structure or format with which all members agree to conform in order for this multi-ethnic interaction to function successfully (e.g., for multi-ethnic churches in Canada this is generally the church practice of the dominant Canadian culture).

The hope is that churches will be able to clarify their own particular identity as they navigate the passage between multi-ethnic and multi-cultural that will result in healthy and liberating expressions of the church of Jesus Christ.

Multi-cultural, on the other hand, is much more complex, harder to envision and fraught with conflict. The concept is that members of a variety of ethnic groups interact while maintaining their distinct cultural practices and priorities. In reality, this is a paradox because while cultures are defined by their distinctiveness, community and interaction rely upon commonalities to establish unity. In order to have intercultural relationships, some accommodation must be made on one or both sides of the cultural divide. But the act of accommodation represents, to some degree, a compromise and loss of cultural values.

In my experience, most of our Fellowship churches that are multi-ethnic are not multi-cultural. These churches have embraced a number of ethnic groups within a culturally Canadian expression of church life. My article on setting an intercultural agenda for our churches in the recently published book by NBS, Being Church: Explorations in Christian Community, recounts a discussion of cultural issues with a Punjabi couple (p. 26). Although they attended a multi-ethnic local church, they expressed appreciation for the opportunity to occasionally attend a worship service with a mono-cultural Punjabi congregation some distance away. The attraction was the specifically Punjabi cultural elements such as singing the Psalms in Punjabi with traditional musical instruments. In order for them to participate in their multi-ethnic local church, they were required to relinquish much of their Punjabi heritage as it relates to church life.

Our Cross-cultural Think Tank has prepared a seminar on cultural diversity designed to help our Fellowship churches work through the cultural tensions that arise within our multi-ethnic churches. The hope is that churches will be able to clarify their own particular identity as they navigate the passage between multi-ethnic and multi-cultural that will result in healthy and liberating expressions of the church of Jesus Christ. For further information contact Mark via the form below.

 

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Making Health Part of a Natural Cycle…

Over the last two months, I’ve been gathering together research in preparation for the Best Practices for Church Boards: Advanced Edition workshop on the role of the Church Board in Vision Development and Strategic Planning. I’ve sorted through a number of coaching programs – from Church Central’s Church Consultancy, to Natural Church Development’s Coaching system, to Stadia’s New Church Strategies, to Outreach Canada’s Vision Renewal. [Hartford Seminary has an interesting list of consultant operations at: http://hirr.hartsem.edu/leadership/consultants.html.] telescopeOne of the things that I’ve discovered is that for the most part each system follows a similar outline: Prepare for evaluation, Evaluate, Analyze, Resolve, Act … and then Monitor a renewed Ministry Plan. When you chart out the steps, it seems so simple and direct. Yet, as I talk with the consultants who guide and coach congregations through the process, it is one of the most difficult shared tasks congregations will endure. At first, I thought that the actual work that went into building a Ministry Plan was what made it so difficult. It is a lot of work. Most of the programs estimate the cost of creating profiles, taking assessments, crafting vision statements, and creating effective communication patterns to take: an average of 6-8 months at the cost of approximately 1 month of a senior pastor’s salary. It’s hard, costly work. But the work is not the most difficult thing. One consultant revealed the greatest hurdle faced by the Church: having the courage to embrace the cold, hard facts. It’s a direct reflection of what Jim Collins defined as the third key element of Great Institutions [Good to Great]: Yes, leadership is about vision. But leadership is equally about creating a climate where the truth is heard and the brutal facts confronted … the good-to-great leaders understood this distinction, creating a culture wherein people had a tremendous opportunity to be heard and, ultimately, for the truth to be heard…to confront the brutal facts and to act on the implications [p, 74,89.] I suppose that it’s no surprise that most churches initiate the Re-Visioning process with a spirit of desperation, as a last resort. They can no longer ignore the brutal truth. And, I suppose it’s no surprise that those who work with such churches have such a sense of critical care. But, it could be different. As I continue to work with such instruments as Best Practices for Church Boards … I take great satisfaction in helping hurting congregations get healthy … but I am also resolved to help healthy churches see the process of Re-Visioning as a natural, normal, expected part of the cycle of their life.

Naïve or Sophisticated Belief?

Many people today consider the New Testament documents to be the expression of a naïve, easy believism. “After all,” they ask, “weren’t people in the first century AD quite unsophisticated and unscientific? It would have been easy to put one over on them.”

The documents actually tell quite a different story.

Jesus’ resurrection and first appearances didn’t catch all the disciples at the same time.  There were some who weren’t present and so would not necessarily have known what to make of their fellow disciples’ assertions of the resurrection of Jesus and of his bodily appearance to them.  The Gospel of John 20:24-29, for example, tells us that the disciple Thomas was one.

Notwithstanding the other disciples’ repeated and vigorous affirmations (“they kept on saying”) that they had seen the risen Lord, Thomas declared he would remain unconvinced until he himself had incontrovertible evidence. John records Thomas to have said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”

He would not content himself with hearing from others; or even seeing for himself. Thomas would believe only after both visual and full tactile confirmation. This sounds both sophisticated and scientific!

John writes that “a week later,” Thomas was with the other disciples in the meeting place.  He notes further that “though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them” and at his appearing, he declared to them “Peace be with you!” Turning to Thomas, Jesus then said, “Put your finger here; see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it into my side.” He was challenging Thomas to satisfy himself through physically probing the wounds in confirmation that he was indeed Jesus Christ, risen from the dead.  Jesus chided Thomas, “Stop doubting and believe.”

Seeing Jesus was apparently enough.  John says at v. 28 that Thomas declared, ‘My Lord and my God!’”  These are the titles of deity!

A “Cheating Culture”

A recent study conducted among undergraduate students at Canadian universities and colleges revealed that more than 50% of students surveyed admitted to “cheating on written work”. This included copying sentences from online or other sources, as well as cheating on exams. 22% of graduate students admitted to engaging in some forms of plagiarism. It is estimated that the web has led to a 5 to 10% increase in the amount of plagiarism occurring. Up to a quarter of undergraduate students falsify or fabricate lab data. Often students with high grade point averages cheat – to maintain their standing. A primary reason why students are doing this, by their own admission, is that they see leaders in business, sports and journalism, high profile cheaters, getting away with it. Sometimes cheating occurs because faculty are not teaching well or are grading in ways perceived to be unfair. Very few Canadian universities have codes of academic integrity that they require students to sign and faculty to follow. This kind of information shakes one’s faith in the educational system. How can we trust the credibility of degrees people earn if they are cheating their way to success? As critical as this concern should be, it led me to reflect on the ‘cheating culture’ that flourishes in churches. Jesus had another word for it – hypocrisy, i.e. pretending to be religiously sincere and genuine. We look around and see many people claiming to be Christian and not taking very seriously the words of Jesus. So we begin to adopt a similar kind of haphazard approach to our spirituality. Or we begin to excuse our failure to live obediently – little lies, little thefts, little jealousies, little frauds, little lusts. The cumulative effect of these little sins is terribly corrosive. The Spirit’s voice becomes less authoritative and compelling. What of the effect of this creeping hypocrisy on those outside of the Kingdom? How damaging our religious cheating becomes to the credibility of the Good News of Jesus. If we claim to love one another, but fail to demonstrate this sincerely, what good is our claim? As James says, without works, our faith is dead. A sincere and genuine love for God and others lies at the root of our Christian experience. Spiritual leaders should consider whether they are contributing to religious cheating by not making clear Jesus’ standards, or by not modeling and urging obedient discipleship. If we can reduce academic cheating through education and the use of pledges of academic integrity, surely we can take similar action to reduce religious cheating. Checking on whether religious cheating is occurring and naming it, may be one of the most effective strategies. Accountability is part of kingdom living, as Jesus tells us in Matthew 18:15-20. The regular involvement of Christians in the Lord’s Table provides a singular opportunity to recalibrate our spiritual lives.

Secret Spirituality

Lately I’ve been preaching through the Sermon on the Mount, particularly chapter six and Jesus’ requirement that the forms of spiritual formation be kept secret. When you give, he says, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. When you pray, go into the closet and lock the door. When you fast, have a shower and clean up so that no one knows what you have been up to. In short, spiritual formation is supposed to happen in secret. It is what we do with God and for God. It is not about making the right kind of impression on others. My struggle with all this has been that as a leader and as a parent I find myself wanting to set a good example. I find that I want to be seen to be spiritual so that I’m modeling patterns of spiritual formation for my children and for others around me. I want them to see my praying and giving and living out the disciplines of the faith because I want them to pick up on these same things. But it’s hard to get past what Jesus is saying. The forms of spiritual discipline are not to be displayed. It is the fruit of the Spirit that ought to be observable. Spiritual discipline is like the skeleton that supports the system on the inside, but it is not supposed to be visible from the outside. We must pray, we must give, we must be disciplined, it’s just that these are not the things that ought to show. Rather than being known as a person who does spiritual things, I want to be known as a person who displays the character of God. I want to be known as a person who displays the fruits of the spiritual life – displaying a love, joy, peace, and patience so profound that people want to know where it comes from and what it’s all about. Our spiritual practice is for God’s eyes only.

Checking assumptions about church

I have come to appreciate the fact that the writers of New Testament did not provide a definition of the church. There does not exist a transcultural form, liturgy or practice by which a church can be identified and classified. Instead we are given powerful metaphors such as the body of Christ, or the bride of Christ which prevents us from reducing the church to an agency, institution or organization. These metaphors stimulate our imagination to explore a myriad of communal expressions of the kingdom of God. Church exists through house churches, training institutions, mission agencies, orphanages as well as through traditional congregations, all living under God’s rule and revealing some aspect of what it means to be the body of Christ in this world. I found the following check-list taken from Postmodernity and the Emerging Church By Geoff Westlake in LausanneWorldPulse.com Feb 07 to be very helpful in challenging my assumptions concerning legitimate expressions of emerging and established churches:

  • Absence of singing does not equal absence of worship.
  • Absence of certain miracles does not mean they do not see God at work.
  • A focus beyond the assembly does not negate care within the assembly.
  • Absence of preaching does not equal absence of learning or of the ministry of the word.
  • Interactive learning does not equal theological shallowness.
  • Absence of traditional liturgy does not equal a piece-meal approach to God’s grand narrative.
  • Living with the people in the harvest does not equal syncretism.
  • Missiological flexibility does not equal theological looseness at the core.
  • Respect for individual autonomy does not equal individualistic formation.
  • Absence of tithing does not equal absence of stewardship.
  • Absence of external structures does not equal absence of internal structure.
  • Absence of denominational control does not equal absence of accountability.
  • Absence of big meetings does not mean the church is small.
  • Small does not equal ineffective.
  • Temporary does not equal ineffective.
  • Empowering others to initiate does not equal chaos.
  • One method or another does not equal righteousness.

Not Alone …

Over the last two years, through our Best Practices for Church Boards workshops, we have gathered together church leaders from all over the province. They’ve come from all directions: large churches – small churches, urban churches – rural churches. Last week, as we met with 5 churches in the Kootenays, I found my reflections moving beyond their differences to their commonalities: Is there anything specific that all church leaders share? Among the possible answers, there was one thing that stands out: Anxiety. All church leaders wrestle with anxiety. They worry about their church. They spend sleepless nights in agony over their church. In idle moments, they fret over their church. And, I wonder if there is a cure for their agony,. In Acts 20, the Apostle Paul delivers a charge to those who would lead that creates a perspective that serves as a cure. “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with His own blood. [Acts 20:28]” The fact is, while leaders serve the church – God owns it. While there is a unique sense of diligence that is woven into the words “my church” the fact remains that it is “His church.” While that reminder may not cure the causes of anxiety, it does create a perspective for leadership health. Church leaders are not alone! If it’s true that they worry and fret and fear over the life of a congregation – how much more does God carry the concerns in His heart. Church leaders are not alone! If it’s true that they serve and give to the point of exhaustion – how much more is God able to do for what belongs to Him. I shared this thought with one of the leaders at the Best Practices workshop. I just wanted to see if it would make a difference. The reaction was immediate. It didn’t remove his problems or solve his issues – but it did make a difference. “I’m not alone … Someone else owns this venture, and I’ll work it out with Him.”

The Tomb of Jesus – Empty or Still Occupied?

Has all the hype surrounding the "documentary" film The Lost Tomb of Jesus caught you off guard? The film’s website proclaims, “An incredible archaeological discovery in Israel changes history and shocks the world.” Well, what about it? The website contains a "proviso" stating that they are not disputing the resurrection of Jesus. The film makers claim, “Even if Jesus were moved from one tomb to another, this does not negate the possibility that he was resurrected from the second tomb” and then add in relation to the ascension: “If Jesus’ mortal remains have indeed been found, this would contradict only the idea of a physical ascension. However, it says nothing against the possibility of a spiritual one nor does it dispute the idea of the Ascension.” The fact remains that, if it is true that Jesus’ bones are contained in an ossuary somewhere in present day Jerusalem, then Peter’s statement in Acts 2:22-24* "Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him." (emphasis added); and Paul’s declaration in Acts 13:34 "… God raised him from the dead, never to decay…", are nothing but empty lies! If, in fact, Jesus did not rise from the dead, victorious over sin and the curse, death and the grave, then in Paul’s words, we have believed in vain! But have we? What does the New Testament record tell us? Here is what Paul wrote to the church in the city of Corinth – countering the claims of some, who even in that day were disputing the possibility of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-25 – headings and emphasis added).

The Case: (1) Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. (2) By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. The Claim: (3) For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, (4) that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, The Evidence: (5)and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. (6) After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. (7) Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, (8)and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. The Summary: (9) For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. (10) But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them-yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. (11) Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed. The Question: (12)But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? The Stakes: (13) If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. (14) And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. (15) More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. (16) For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. (17) And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. (18) Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. (19) If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. The Fact: (20) But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. The Theology: (21) For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. (22) For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. (23) But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. (24) Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. (25) For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The apostle Paul continues in Acts 13:37 “… the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay” and in Romans 6:9-10 he declares, “For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.” Allow the import of the necessity of the bodily resurrection, ascension and imminent return of Jesus penetrate deeply into your soul. The New Testament is replete with eye-witness accounts and public declarations of the physical resurrection of Jesus. When the disciples first saw Jesus after the resurrection they wondered if he were a ghost. Jesus told them to both look at him and touch him to assure themselves that he was the flesh and blood Jesus – and if that were not enough he asked for some food to eat in their presence (Luke 24:36-43). Later when Thomas doubted, Jesus urged him to touch the very scars and believe (John 20:27). It was Jesus’ intention that his followers have full assurance that he was physically alive. Now listen to the words of the two men to the watching disciples on the morning of the Ascension, “ ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’ ” (Acts 1:11) This same physically alive Jesus has promised to return and take us to be with him (John 14) Here is the hope we have; "And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you." (Romans 8:11) Let us rejoice together with all Christians everywhere that “He is risen indeed!” *All Scripture quotations are from the NIV Bible

Unitask Living in a Multitask Universe

Christians aspire to the kind of unitasking Christian focus of the apostle Paul when he declares, “For to me, to live is Christ….” The reality, however, is that we live in a world that shouts from every corner, “Multitask!” Life is full of commitments that urgently cry out and distractions that enticingly call out for our attention. The Corinthians could identify. The good news about Jesus had caught them up in its net as they stood in the midst of the complexities of their lives—some were married and others not; some were free and others slaves; some were wealthy and well positioned and many others were not. Now they were confronted with a great question: “How does one live a unitask life in a multitask universe?” Paul advises the Corinthians that living with consummate focus to honor Christ is called for because there is urgency. Live that way because “the time is short” (1 Cor. 7:29), he says. Paul denies that time yawns out and meanders before us without end. There is an abrupt focal point—it is the second coming of Christ. And Paul sees a kind of compression in the time between our “now” and the “then” of Christ’s return. The Christian life is lived with focus because it is lived in light of the end. Paul is also realistic about multiple demands; he admits their presence and that we do have to answer to them. But he counsels an intense resolution through those multiple demands to live life “as if not.” Paul explains it this way:

“From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them.” (1 Cor. 7:29-30)

An “as if not” life is calculatingly deliberate; it is focused to honour Christ. Where others are involved, it negotiates through to permissions and synergies that free up energies and time to honour Christ. An “as if not” life goes through the great ups and downs of human existence, but returns immediately from wild emotional gyrations to the magnetic north of honouring Christ. An “as if not” life acknowledges the requirement of things but disallows entanglements to them, preferring to see things as means to honour Christ. When Christian philanthropist Maxey Jarman reflected that he had only lost what he’d kept, but that what he’d given away was safe, he was acknowledging an “as if not” life through multiple demands (Fred Smith, “What I Learned from Maxey Jarman,” Leadership 2.1 [1981]). The “as if not” life should be energized, Paul reminds, by the sober conviction that “this world in its present form is passing away.” (1 Cor. 7:31) Live in light of the end. Live “as if not.” It makes good, God-honouring, Christian sense.

Ready to Preach

Last week I was part of the examination committee for a Doctor of Ministry dissertation written by Pastor David Acree from Lethbridge, Alberta. David’s dissertation examined the matter of the preacher’s sense of readiness to preach. I’m pleased to say that he passed the exam and will graduate this spring. The question is interesting. Every pastor knows what it’s like to not quite feel ready to preach. No doubt some of this is simply human. Sometimes we’re tired and under-motivated and there isn’t much to be done for it. But perhaps, given the spiritual nature of our task, we could build a routine that might help intentionalize the process of being ready to go into the pulpit to preach. Acree thinks there is. He counsels the preacher to pay attention to things like their personal sense of identity, their expectations for the event, and the allowance of adequate time. He deals with the expected aspects of prayer and attendance to the Spirit. He challenges preachers to care about the listeners, spending time with them and helping connect them to the Word. “When God’s preacher,” Acree says, “enters the pulpit in God’s power to deliver a message from God appropriate to the people of God, that preacher is ready to preach.” In my own preaching, I would have to say that I know when I am ready and when I am not. I’m not sure the readiness formula is all that surprising. I know what it takes to prepare a solid sermon plan and when that plan is only partially cooked. I know when I’ve rushed things and when I’ve taken the time that is necessary to engage God and to engage the message from His Word. Elsewhere I have written about “assimilation” and I think that this is essentially what we are talking about. When I feel full of the message and the sermon burns inside me I am ready to preach. What God will do with it in result is up to him.

The Tomb of Jesus???

News media have posed the question “Has film crew found the DNA of Jesus?” or “Have we discovered the tomb of Jesus?” Journalist Simcha Jacobovici and producer James Cameron recently released a documentary film claiming that they had discovered Jesus’ tomb. Is this a credible claim? The tomb they refer to was discovered in 1980, located in Talpiyot, a suburb of Jerusalem. Within it the archaeologist Amos Kloner found six ossuaries, limestone chests in which the bones of deceased persons were placed. On these ossuaries were inscriptions in Hebrew, Greek and Latin, including the names Yeshua bar Yosef, Maria, Matia (Matthew), Yose, Yehuda bar Yeshua, Mariamne or Mara. The claim is that Yeshua is Jesus, Joseph was his father, Mary refers to Jesus mother, Jesus also had a son named Judah and perhaps Mariamne was Jesus’ wife. Quite a series of claims! If we accept them, it means that the stories of Jesus’ burial in the New Testament Gospels are false! However, the data does not support the claims. First, the name “Yeshua” was very common in first century Judea. Josephus the Jewish historian refers to more than fifty different people who had this name. Second, the burial details provided in the Gospels tell a different story. Joseph of Arimathea, a pious Jew, asks Pilate for Jesus’ body so that it could be buried before Sabbath began on Friday evening at sundown. He placed the body in a rock-hewn tomb, wrapping it in a shroud and placing it in one of the niches (loculi) cut into the walls of the tomb. The entrance to the tomb was sealed with a stone. Only very wealthy people could afford a tomb of this nature. Jesus’ family was poor and Joseph of Arimathea’s actions indicate they owned no rock-hewn tomb in the vicinity of Jerusalem. Normally poorer people would be buried in an earthen grave, much as we do today. The Jewish practice was to gather the bones of deceased placed in tombs, after considerable time had passed, and place them in a ossuary, making room for other bodies to be interred. However, if the body was buried in the earth, the bones would not be dug up. So ossuaries are only associated with rock-cut tombs. According to the Gospels, when Jesus’ followers went to the tomb on Sunday morning, they found it empty. Christians believe this occurred because of the resurrection. The Jewish leadership argued that Jesus’ disciples stole the body. If they had stolen it, probably they would have buried it in an earthen grave. Either way, there would be no bones to put in an ossuary! Third, studies of the ossuaries found in Israel indicate that when a person who lived outside of Jerusalem was buried in the city, the deceased’s place of origin would be noted on the ossuary, i.e. Simon of Ptolemais (this is similar to calling Jesus “Jesus of Nazareth”). However, if the person lived in Jerusalem, then his or her ancestry would be noted, i.e. Judah son of John. In the case of the Talpiyot ossuaries, if they held the remains of Jesus’ family, one would expect that some of the people would be identified by towns outside of Jerusalem, i.e. Jesus of Nazareth. The formulae used in the inscriptions point rather to a Jerusalem family. Fourth, nowhere in any of the Gospels do we read that Jesus had a brother named Matthew. Fifth, identifying Mariamne as Mary Magdalene by interpreting the word ‘Mara’ as the Aramaic term for ‘master’ and then saying this means she was a teacher and leader, goes far beyond the data. These claims contradict the Gospel details that show conformity with known burial practices in first century Judea. Further, the claims are not consistent with what we know about the way that Jewish people buried their dead in the first century, particularly people in the poorer segments of society. Jesus rose from the dead. This ‘documentary’ film should not cast any doubt on this central feature of the Good News.

Do we believe or do we know?

During my last visit to Pakistan for Bible translation I was rechecking the Psalms with our main translator, GMA. A verse that warranted a correction in the translation was Psalm 135:5 that read in part, “I know that God is great.” GMA commented that this was "weak" because a statement of knowledge or information may not have significance for the writer. Because it is presented as an objective observation, it is free of subjective interest and therefore communicates some level of ambivalence on the part of the author. Because this is not the intended impact of the verse, we changed the translation to "I have faith that God is great." In Sindhi this communicates conviction, commitment and belief on the part of the author and is thus "strong." In considering the implications of the change, I was struck by the contrast between modernist western thinking and this Sindhi perspective. For the Sindhi, it is a person’s subjective commitments and the impact in her / his life that is important and provides the foundation for life’s meaning. Objective observance of facts is simply one aspect of what we do and it doesn’t touch the core of our being. Because the writer of the Psalm was bringing out his personal relationship to the truth of God’s greatness, a translation in the Sindhi context necessitates a communication of that subjective significance in order to provide the full force of the statement. To simply state it as a fact without the personal element (such as in CEV:"God is great") is to miss the impact on the author. In the west, with its rationalistic fascination with “facts,” the thinking is very different. The objective sounding "I know" implies certainty, an expression of confidence in something true outside of ourselves upon which we can ground our faith. To translate this verse as "I have faith" in a modernist context is to weaken it significantly, reducing it to a mere subjective experience that may or may not correlate with the reality "out there." So do we believe or do we know? Sometimes it depends on the context.

Jesus’ Grave — Full or Empty?

Excuse my cynicism, but we must be nearing the Easter season! There’s another sensational docudrama in the wind. It’s about Jesus and, unsurprisingly, has profoundly negative implications for the Christian faith traditionally understood. After seeding a media frenzy as prelude to the event itself, the TV faithful have been gathered from far and wide to be awed and troubled yet again by a new “gospel.” The Garden TombAs usual, the claims of the docudrama are bold; the scripting and cinematography, as slick and convincing as any CSI episode; and the basis in fact, inconsistent with both the content of first century New Testament description and the findings of scientific archaeology. This time round it’s a TV piece by the Discovery Channel called “The Lost Tomb of Christ,” directed by Simcha Jacobovici and produced by James Cameron (of movie Titanic fame). They make a sensational claim that the tomb of Jesus’ family has been discovered in the Talpiyot suburb of Jerusalem. And it’s full! The bones of the whole family are there, including those of Jesus, his wife Mary and their son Judah. DNA proves it! The Talpiyot tomb is not a new discovery. Archaologist Amos Kloner excavated the site and published his findings some 27 years ago. Moreover, Kloner and many others in the archaeological fraternity emphatically do not reach the easy conclusions of Jacobovici and Cameron. Space forbids an extended discussion of the rather compelling reasons why the Talpiyot tomb cannot be that of Jesus. But check out the response of Jodi Magness, Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to the archaeological and biblical issues . You’ll find it quite interesting! (Click here…) Magness, for her part, has focused upon the Gospels, which is quite logical. But there is even earlier canonical tradition relating to the tomb. It’s in 1 Corinthians. Written by the apostle Paul, this New Testament letter is probably older than the Gospels. It dates to around 54/5 AD, some 25 years after the Easter events. But what Paul includes in the letter about the tomb of Jesus is even older. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 is a brief and almost poetic piece of ancient Christian tradition that Paul himself had received from others. If this is what Paul received following his conversion, it dates to only a few years after the Easter events themselves. It reads thus: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles….” (NIV) Notice, “he was buried”—that means the tomb; and, “he was raised on the third day”—that means the empty tomb. The bold list of appearances of the risen Lord to various individuals and groups served confident notice to those who wished to trouble themselves, that one could conduct interviews to satisfy questions. We may agree with Jacobovici and Cameron that there is a tomb somewhere about the environs of ancient Jerusalem and in it Jesus’ lifeless body was laid; but, against Jacobovici and Cameron, Jesus’ tomb, wherever it presently is, was only briefly occupied by Jesus before his resurrection.

Taking the Heat

Recently, I preached the same sermon at two consecutive services. In between the first and second services I took some heat from an older man who suggested that “if anyone came into the service confused, I left them more confused.” I tried to offer a gentle response, hoping to clarify what may have been a misapprehension of my intent, but he wasn’t interested in a conversation. He just wanted to drop his bomb. In fact, he proved the point that I was trying to make with the sermon about the way we perpetuate the forms of spiritual life without attending to the fruit of the Spirit. For all his concern, there wasn’t much evidence of love, joy, patience… in his response to me. It’s been a long time since I’ve been hit with criticism for my preaching so directly. It just hasn’t happened to me all that often and so I don’t mind admitting that the criticism stung. Given that there was quite a bit of time between services I went for a walk in order to pray and to sort out my response. First, of course, one needs to deal with the emotional sting. Most of us like to be appreciated and it doesn’t feel good to know that we are not. Of course, I was able to balance this with the fact that multiple people had come to me offering profuse thanks for the same sermon. I remember, however, something I read in a book on Christian parenting about how every negative comment needs to be balanced by at least ten positive ones. Secondly, I needed to rehearse the sermon to see if there was any truth in the criticism. Just because the critic was angry doesn’t mean that he was wrong. In this case, however, as I went through what I had said, I concluded that I was correct in what I had said. My comments, while difficult, were warranted by the text of Scripture. The third and in this case most telling aspect was an examination of the degree to which the problem could have been avoided if I had done a better job of preaching. Here, I sensed was where I had stumbled. It’s not that the sermon was poor. It’s just that I could have done a better job of helping my critic deal with what I was saying. Not that I want to soft-peddle the struggle. Preaching the Bible leads us to say some uncomfortable things and I’m not afraid of laying it out there. At the same time, I don’t want to be unnecessarily confrontational. Where there is potential for challenge, my goal as a preacher is not just to create problems for people, but having raised the problems, find ways to help people past them. The truth is, I could have been more sensitive to the potential for difficulty and I could have done more to actually help the listener hear what God was saying. In fact, in the second service, that is exactly what I did. As a preacher, I want to own responsibility for the listener’s response. This is not to say that I can control their responses. I can’t. It is also not to say that I am accountable for their response. I’m not. Nevertheless, the more I take it upon myself to help the listener respond well to what they hear, the better my preaching is going to be and the stronger the response will be from listeners. It’s not easy, but it’s part of our job as preachers.

Mesmerized with hell

A friend of mine discovered that he was suffering from what he termed a spiritual "Stockholm syndrome", the phenomenon of kidnapped victims bonding with their captors as they look desperately for mercy or an act of kindness. In his previous evangelical faith a dark shadow of hell made my friend hungry for any indication of mercy and love from God. A believing friend was recently confronted by her son who said, "What kind of God would send people to hell just because they don’t believe in Jesus?" In a Bible study I attend one participant said that he wants to believe in a God who loves all people, but he has been brought up believing that the Bible teaches there are people God hates and who are chosen for hell. All of these perspectives are perversions of the clearest picture we have of God which is found in the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ: a Deity so determined that humanity would be redeemed to life that he suffered the indignity and pain of the cross in the person of his son rather than let us be destroyed. It is not eternal torment that is the essential truth of the universe, but the love of God. It is not hell that has the last word, but the Lord Jesus Christ who makes all things right and brings the whole universe back to God (Col 1:20). (Do not read between the lines here and label me a universalist: Jesus also taught that God does not forgive those who are unmerciful, uncaring and unrepentant ­ e.g., Matt 18 & 25). My concern is with the picture of God people are gaining from the gospel message. If our presentations of the gospel of Christ are being perceived as promoting arbitrariness, callousness and injustice on the part of God, then we are misrepresenting the salvation Christ offers. If people are hearing the love of God presented with a dark side of his satisfaction in the eternal torture of his creatures, then we are undermining the message of the cross. I am amazed at how many people exposed to evangelical messages of salvation are repulsed by the image of a God who doesn’t love the world, whose mercy is limited and who refuses to accept the meek and humble. Is there something wrong in the way we present the gospel that people fail to be confronted with the vast, unbounded grace of the Father longing to wrap his arms around the prodigal?

Webpage reflections…

What began this morning as a casual conversation has become a reflection that I just have to put into words. The subject of Community came up as Dr. Perkins mentioned his wonder of what sort of unifying symbols we have as Canadians that express our shared identity. Even more, what sort of unifying symbols do we have as Christians that allow us to recognize each other in the Canadian community. An image immediately came to mind. Last week my son and I had a chance to see the Coyotes play the Calgary Flames in Phoenix. In the parking lot we witnessed probably the most common unifying symbol of Canadian identity as a crowd of fans – all wearing Flames jerseys – discovered each other in the parking lot. By the time we were in the stadium, it was obvious that the Canadian “community” had arrived as more and more Flames fans were attracted by the gravitational pull of the jerseys. I must confess, even though I was determined to protect my interest as a Vancouver fan to cheer for a Coyote win against the hated Flames, my son and I found ourselves drawn to the Canadian crowd behind the Calgary bench as we watched the pre-game warmup. If there were a unifying Canadian symbol, it would have to have something to do with Hockey. But what about a similar symbol for the Christian community. Again, an image came to mind. The hockey game was on Thursday. On Wednesday my son and I had tickets to see the Phoenix Suns play the Boston Celtics. Different arena, different sport … but as we bumped our way into the stadium, I noticed another symbol. There was a large number of people in the crowd with smudges on their foreheads … Ash Wednesday, don’t you know. I must confess, there was a part of me that wanted a smudge on my forehead if for any other reason to be able to sense, in the crowd, that I – too – was one "of them." I realize that it’s not very Baptist of me to say it, but there is something quite compelling about the power of ritual and deep symbol. Maybe it’s part of this yearning for a tangible sense of identity and community that has animated a revival of interest in the “new Evangelicals” as named by Robert Webber toward ritual and orthodoxy. Back to this morning. As I returned to my office, I read an article by Nathan Bierma in the Christianity Today daily newsletter, The Shape of Faith. It was a review of two books, both of them historical studies of the ancient Christian practice of the sign of the cross: The Sign of the Cross: The Gesture, the Mystery, the History by Andreas Andreopoulos, and The Sign of the Cross: Recovering the Power of the Ancient Prayer by Bert Ghezzi. Again, I confess that I was fascinated by the study. As Bierma writes, Protestants have traditionally dismissed the act as “a Catholic thing.” But, the fact is that it has roots much deeper into the early church and practice that extend beyond the Reformation. In the Small Catechism, Martin Luther prescribed the practice because of the powerful potential for physical demonstration and the remembrance of deeper meanings. As Bierma writes, the faithful can treasure the multitude of meanings behind symbols. It is something that identifies community: the sign, as an act, small it may be, expresses the impetus of crossing the threshold between thinking in theological terms and practicing the Christian life. So, I linger on the question with a sense of wonder. How do we, as Baptists, create a sense of identity not just as a human community, but as members of a heavenly family?

Church and Culture

In a recent essay I wrote on the future of evangelical ecclesiology I came to the following conclusion regarding the need to engage the culture in a different way. “We need to “disestablish” and “disengage” ourselves today if we hope to bring anything meaningful from Evangelical ecclesiology to culture. “Until we have learned to distinguish the Gospel of the crucified one from the rhetorical values, pretensions, and pursuits of society, our churches will fail to detect, beneath the rhetoric of official optimism, the actual humanity that it is our Christian vocation to engage.” We must liberate ourselves from the conventions of cultural religion. We are not advocating an abandonment of culture, but a recognition that Christianity has a responsibility in culture, not to it. We are salt, light and yeast. We must re-discover the possibilities of ‘littleness.’”

My Non-Christian Friend is an Evangelist?!

When you next meet with your non-Christian friend, make the case to her that she’s an evangelist and ask her about her message and its effect. Whether people have great faith in Jesus Christ or none at all, everyone is “preaching” a message. When they hear the word “evangelist,” most folks think of Billy Graham. Billy’s preached the plain, unadorned gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ to over 200 million people and, through various media, to multiple millions more. But Adolf Hitler was an “evangelist” too! His message, in a book called Mein Kampf, was Aryan European supremacy and that destiny included the needful extermination of all Jews. The cost of his “evangel” was 62 million lives, including nearly 6 million Jews. Both men were evangelists; their messages and the results, however, were incredibly different!Gospel Of course, the world is full of different “evangels”—some are hateful and destructive like Hitler’s; many, many more are hardly positive or helpful because they are the result of people’s being hurt or simply self-absorbed. Your friend would probably agree that many evangelists and their messages could stand improvement at least, if not complete transformation. At Mark 5:1-20 we meet a man with a message. Possessed by demons, his “evangel” was to hurt himself and the people around him. Jesus, out of love and concern, effected a miraculous transformation of both the man (v. 15) and his message (v. 19). Put in his right mind, the man was told, “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” New man; new message! Make the case to your non-Christian friend that she, like everyone else, is an evangelist. See where it leads. Of course, she may ask you what your “evangel” is. What will you tell her?

Evangel: from the Greek euangelion – translated gospel – click for wikipedia article

Let the Fish Run

Last week I was talking to my students about the challenge of helping listeners overcome their objections to the sermon’s big idea. I likened the challenge to fishing. I’m not much of a fisherman, but I know that once you’ve got the fish on the hook, you don’t just bring the fish into the boat. You’ve got to let the fish run a little.Fisherman What I mean is that we have to create room in our sermons for the listener to struggle with what they have heard. We have to let them fight back some if we expect them to take hold of the message and truly own it. We can’t just explain our big idea and sit down thinking "I’ve made my point." We may have explained our point and the listeners may have understood it but that doesn’t mean that they are ready to give their lives for it. I love the image provided by Hemmingway in The Old Man and the Sea of the ancient fisherman who takes two full days to bring in the giant fish that he has hooked. This isn’t going to come easily. If we want our listeners to respond to the gospel, we’re going to have to fight for it. We’re going to have to struggle. The best way I know how to do this is to anticipate the things that the listener is going to have to overcome and then to use the listener’s voice in articulating these things in the space of the sermon. The listener needs to recognize her or his own voice in the sermon. The listener needs to know that the preacher is speaking as a listener and for the listeners. It is a matter of showing respect for the listener as a person with dignity who has the right to make his or her own response to God. Let the fish run. When it’s ready you’ll be able to bring it into the boat.

“I am in kindergarten and I know everything!”

“I am in kindergarten and I know everything!” exclaimed my granddaughter. It took me a moment to process this amazing declaration. I then realized what my problem had been – I never attended kindergarten and so I now understood why it took me twenty years to reach the end of my formal education. If only my parents had sent me to kindergarten! Girl and Grandpa Human beings have a wonderful, but dangerous tendency to think they know it all. How many times do we presume we know the truth and the right response, only to discover our perception was quite skewed! Leadership is sometimes defined as ‘sense-making’, but this human capacity for self-deception should create considerable caution in our attempts to help others make sense of their lives, individually and corporately, or make sense of an organization’s ministry. Jesus warned his followers that “if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness” (Matthew 6:23). While we may not be clear about everything Jesus wanted to teach through this saying, he certainly was emphasizing the human problem of distorted perception and knowing. He said the cause lies in our human constitution – our eyes are bad! Our sinful disposition and creatureliness lead to futile thinking and living in the dark (Ephesians 4:27-24). Because of near-sightedness personally I have had to wear glasses for many years. I know how bad eyes create dangerous misconceptions. But I also know that steps can be taken to correct this handicap. Jesus encourages us to believe that our eyes can be good and our “whole body” can be “full of light” (Matthew 6:22). What steps can a ministry leader take to ensure that his or her “eyes are good” and that the sense being discerned is indeed true, valid, and trustworthy? One strategy is to make sure our loyalty is fully given to God and the Lord Jesus Christ, so that we are living with integrity and not in hypocrisy. A second help comes in realizing that God’s Spirit speaks through His people and that our collective ‘vision’ may be more accurate than one individual’s perception. Third, the greater clarity we have about Kingdom principles, the more capable we will be to discern God’s direction. Fourth, God encourages us to pray for wisdom – the ability to see things through His eyes – and He promises He will give it generously. Finally, humbleness is a critical component. We must recognize and live contentedly with our limitations, relying happily on the assistance that God provides us from others in His family. Paul warns us that without love all of our knowing is useless because we “are nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). We may be right and we may be smart and we may be clever – but without love, this sacrificial desire to bring benefit into the lives of others for the sake of Jesus – these gifs and abilities produce nothing that is useful to God. True belief creates true seeing. Discernment takes time, persistence, and considerable patience.

The Value of the Locker Room

The locker room is an essential part of the culture of sport. It is an environment charged with team bonding, encouraging speeches and correcting rebukes, practical strategizing, the repair of both cuts and wounded egos, relief from the pressure of the game, the enjoyment of physical and mental refreshment, the adjustment and sharpening of equipment. It is important for the success of the team that it be kept clean and well organized. The atmosphere can cause a team to succeed or to fail. But what happens in the locker room is not the game. Neither the players nor the coach should be satisfied with good relationships in the locker room, even though only healthy cooperation will ensure success in the game. Both players and coach have a role to play on the field and it is the quality and function of the relationships on the field that guide the coach in shaping the activity in the locker room. The team is not judged on how they relate in the locker room, but how they perform in the heat of contest. The church organization – building, services, programs – is the locker room. The people are the players. Those in leadership play the role of the coach. The occupational hazard of the leadership is to engineer a clean, well-organized, enthusiastic locker room with excellent speeches explaining the rule book – and miss out on the essential aspect of coordinating the team’s effort to bring about gospel transformation. In the final analysis, the church will be judged not on the activity in the locker room, but on how they play the game of life, in the world.

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

What’s In a Name?

A recent email from a colleague describes a decision made at his church regarding their Baptist identity. It begged a response and so I have followed this quote from the email with my own response. The email states as follows:

"We have stopped making reference to being "Baptist" for a few reasons. First, the denominational distinctives are often based on spurious biblical arguments which have nothing to do with the heart of the biblical theology. Thus, adding denominational qualifiers often disqualifies people who come from other labels. Secondly, we aspire to be a Christian, Bible based church, where people who seek to purse God under the authority of God’s Word can worship together without artificial barriers. Thirdly, our congregation at the present is made up of people from all Christian traditions like Baptists, Mennonites, Brethren, Pentecostals, Anglicans and others. We are a mosaic of Christians going well beyond Baptist distinctives. Thus, while there are many claims which make Christianity exclusive. Our name, while helping people to identify us and find us, should be as inclusive as we can make it without erecting unnecessary barriers and divisions. For accountability, and in order not to multiply the denominational fragmentation, we still remain a part of the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches of Canada."

Now, this sounds to me like another effort at, "lets return to the pure form of the church" that gave rise to "Baptists" in the first place. At some point all churches have to establish a set of doctrines, even if one of them is, ‘we have no set doctrines.’ The moment they do that they will form a new denomination, of sorts. Call it the ‘non-denominational-non-doctrinaire church of Christ’ if you will but they will have to teach their beliefs, train others in them and then ensure structures are in place to continue the process. That is essentially what a denomination is. Every church has standards of membership. What are they going to say to people who want to retain the Baptist identity? "You no longer belong!?" Labels are inevitable because it is part of human nature. So they are deluding themselves if by denying their Baptist heritage they think they will succeed in alienating less people. That’s my belief anyhow!

Listening for the Tremors of Faith

I’m told that British Columbia, being part of the Pacific "ring of fire," has quite frequent earthquakes. Our province can experience as many as 30 or more quakes per month, which is pretty average. Of those quakes, five are magnitude three and only one is magnitude four. It’s a curiosity to me that I’ve only actually been aware of two or three of those quakes in my whole life. Maybe I’m not that sensitive. But there are seismologists who record every quake, determining its intensity and its focus and monitoring the many smaller aftershocks. I’m not that sensitive to the earth’s movements, but the earth’s movements are their whole job. Jesus listens for tremors of faith in people with infinitely more passion and commitment than any seismologist. When the woman plagued by a chronic bleeding problem touched Jesus’ clothes in faith as he was making his way through a jostling crowd, Jesus knew it immediately (Mark 5:24-34). The lesser motives of the crowd and their pawing were unremarkable to him. But the slight touch of faith stopped him in his tracks. He turned around to ask, "Who touched me?" …….. There was a second reason for his question. Jesus didn’t want for the woman to be an anonymous believer in him and, just as much, he didn’t want to be an anonymous Savior and helper to her. That’s why He called her openly to confess what had happened. As she did, Jesus declared, "Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering." (v. 34) In all of the pushing and shoving of the crowds on the way to Capernaum that day Jesus was listening. In all of the activities in churches round the world Sunday by Sunday and in the world everywhere, Jesus is listening. This is a great encouragement to everyone-but especially to the beleaguered, the newcomer and the quite timid who reach out to him. Faith in him will effect transformation. But he does call for an open confession. Your faith in Jesus is the most important thing!

Put Weakness in its Place

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve found myself at the center of a number of converging themes. As we’ve been preparing to meet with the churches in the Kootenays for the Best Practices for Church Boards Basic Workshop, I’ve noticed that a number of the congregations are eager to address strategic planning. At the same time, I am working to develop the Advanced edition of the Best Practices for Church Boards workshop to be held in June. The topic for that workshop was selected because of the high level of response from churches that have attended the basic workshop. I guess it’s no surprise that it, too, is focused on the role of the board in Vision Development and Strategic planning. A third stream along the same theme that captured my imagination came when I asked several church leaders what they hoped to accomplish in creating a strategic plan. Their answer was revealing: "we want to get rid of our weaknesses." That has always struck me as a good way to doom the process to a spirit of desperation. To start with a negative seems a good way to insure that things will go downhill from there. Which is why I was caught by an article that made its way through my newsletters this week. Tucked away in the Strategy and Vision resources of Building Christian Leaders is a tidy little article by Larry Osborne, "Unconventional Wisdom That Works: Doing Things Differently Can Pay Off." In it, he lists three principles to guide a healthy, intelligent planning process. At the top of the list he writes:

Ignore your weaknesses: The usual pattern for planning in churches goes something like this: size up the ministry, identify any major weaknesses, develop and implement a plan for removing them. Yet, this strategy is counterproductive: time spent worrying about weaknesses siphons away time and energy better spent on identifying and developing strengths. Instead of taking a creative and proactive approach, planning ends up defensive and reactive. The result is most often a mediocre program. Churches, like individuals, have been gifted and called to do some things uncommonly well – and other things not at all. [http://www.christianitytoday.com/bcl/areas/vision-strategy/ articles/howto-030610.html] ……..

Some may react to the thought. It may sound unrealistic. After all, we can all list our weaknesses without any problem. Our strengths, however, may been hard to recognize. Even harder to own. But, they do exist, and if we were to humbly begin to build on them, we might just be able to have enough momentum to do something positive about our weaknesses.

Pre-judging the Text

I ran into the same problem with two of my students yesterday. Both of them submitted sermon plans that required a little help. When I suggested alternate and more appropriate ways of approaching the text, they both agreed with me. The problem, they said, was that the texts and themes had been assigned to them by their Senior Pastors. It seems that these pastors had divided up their texts and assigned themes without taking their study of the text to the necessary level. In essence, they had prejudged their texts. I understand that there is value in knowing what we are going to be preaching on well in advance. The worship leaders like it. It definitely helps with marketing. Still, could I simply ask that we don’t determine what the text is saying until we actually study the text? The first step to understanding a text is to read it. I mean that we must read it with enough diligence and thought that we aren’t emerging with what we want the text to mean but what it actually means as God intends it. Is this too much to ask?

Doing it ‘the Lord’s Way’

In a post-Super Bowl comment, winning coach Tony Dungy is quoted as saying, ".more than anything else, Lovie Smith and I are not only African-American, but also Christian coaches, showing you can do it the Lord’s way." He doesn’t drink or rant and rave at his players or curse them. Such things are not necessary for good coaching. You can coach in the NFL using God’s values and still reach the top. The ability to control what you say reflects an attitude of heart, a personal discipline that is committed to goodness. Today, Northwest Baptist Seminary is launching a newly redesigned website. Our first desire is to promote thoughtful, godly discussion around key contemporary issues, seeking the Lord’s way in such matters to the best of our ability. Secondly, we want to provide useful resources that will help ministry leaders in churches and other Christian agencies fulfill their calling with excellence, doing things the Lord’s way. And thirdly, we want to demonstrate what it means to think Christianly, applying our minds to follow the Lord’s way. Doing things the Lord’s way is a discipline of learned obedience. Only when we know and understand the Lord’s way can we possibly discern its influence on and implications for our daily living. In his ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (Matthew 5-7) Jesus pressed his followers to live the Lord’s way. Wise people will listen to him, learn and respond; fools will hear, disregard him and crash. The Lord’s way begins by going through a ‘narrow gate’, the way of salvation as Jesus defined it, and follows a pressured road, but it leads to life. The Lord’s way is not popular or the way most frequently chosen. Jesus said there were few who would find it. But he also promised that if we truly seek it, God will disclose the way and enable us to find it. The Lord’s way provides ‘the salt’ and ‘the light’ that our world needs. Our prayer is that this website will be one way through which people might discern, discover and find life in the Lord’s way.

“Simple Church”

Simple Church: Returning To God’s Process for Making Disciples, Thom S. Rainer and Eric Geiger [Broadman and Holman Publishers: Nashville, Tennessee, 2006]

At the end of a fairly prominent church leadership conference, I noticed the glum expression on one pastor’s face. “Seminars like this sometimes get me down. It’s like looking under the hood of a finely tuned race-car, all the machinery humming, everything clicking on all cylinders. And then, I look at my church and have no idea where to start.”  There is something quite dispiriting about learning lessons from the seeming complexity of a healthy, hard-charging church.

With that in mind, I was thrilled this year to welcome the latest study by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger: Simple Church. The book itself is appropriate to its title. Just over 250 pages, large print, it can be read in a single one-hour sitting. The source of its research and the impact of its discoveries, however, are far from simple. They are, quite simply, profound.

The authors researched over 400 evangelical churches [admittedly, all of them in the United States – 37 states in all – and mostly Southern Baptist congregations.] The research tool they used went deeper than the methods, styles, or programs of a church. Instead, it sought to measure the underlying process that defines the congregation. The churches selected for the study fell into one of two groups: Vibrant churches – those demonstrating at least 5% growth in a three year period, and Plateaued/Declining churches – those with less than 1% growth over the same period.

The results were astonishing. With a remarkable degree of certainty, the survey results revealed: Healthy Growing congregations are – at their core – simple in the extreme. By the same token, Churches in decay are mired in complexity.

On the surface, it may seem to defy the senses. Vital churches appear to have a multitude of options and programs which, if mapped, would appear complex. But, digging deeper, the is a simple process beneath it all. Declining Churches, on the other hand, suffer from what Rainer and Geiger call: “ministry schizophrenia” which “occurs when churches and church leaders are not sure who they are” and end up trying to glue together a hybrid of programs drawn from a wide spectrum of methods and programs.

Simple Church, as defined, is “designed around a straightforward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth…[where] the leadership and the church are clear about the process [clarity] and are committed to executing it. The process flows logically [movement] and is implemented in each area of the church [alignment]. The [Simple] church abandons everything that is not in the process [focus.] (Page 67-68]

Four stages to a simple process: Clarity, Movement, Alignment, and Focus. Each serve a valuable purpose worth any church leaders study and attention, and as the book is packaged – each is presented with a guide for study.

There are several cautions to the book. “Simple” should never be confused with “Easy.” As Church leaders read through the book and study through the questions, they will quickly encounter the difficult challenge of sorting through the competition of values and visions, egos and agendas – in order to arrive at a common purpose. The road to a simple church requires selfless, prayerful commitment. But, the results are worth it.

Final Note: As an additional recommendation to read this book … Church leaders might find it helpful to experiment with the Process Design Survey used as the research tool for Simple Church. It can be accessed at www.ericgeiger.com. Upon completion of the survey, you will be able to review your personal results and evaluate the level of vitality in your own church ministry.

At the Origins of the Christian Claim – Luigi Giussani

Luigi Giussani, At the Origins of the Christian Claim Trans. V. Hewitt; Montreal & Kingston:  McGill-Queens University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-7735-1714-6 (Cloth): ISBN 0-7735-1627-1 (Paper)

In his “Religious Sense”, Luigi Giussani laid the foundations for a defense of the inherent religious impulse of the human that requires a totalizing answer to the “utmost questions” of human life and existence.  Giussani is now prepared to offer an initial answer to the question laid bare at the end of his first enterprise, namely, does the Christian God, understood as Father, provide the most reasonable solution to this human religious dilemma?  The answer lies, as the title suggests, At the Origins of the Christian Claim.

This second part of Giussani’s trilogy amounts to an investigation into how the ultimate questions of the earliest disciples were decisively answered by the totalizing message of Jesus Christ the risen Lord.  This was a conclusion at which they arrived simply because life “spurs reason to search for a solution.  Indeed reason’s very nature implies that a solution exists.” (Introduction, p. 9)  The “religious creativity of man” [sic], which is the “entire expression” of human imaginative efforts to “possess the mysterium tremendum” has left us with a “spectrum of hypothesis” regarding the “truth” of any one religion.  1)  Either we must know all religions in order to make a rational and dignified choice or; 2)  Know at least the major religions and risk the loss of any truth in minority religions.  3) Perhaps we should aim at a form of enlightenment syncretism which synthesizes the best of all religious truths or still; 4) Allow for the truthfulness of all religious on an empirical basis, requiring adherence to ones native religion only.  All of these options, which express our human imaginative attempts at grasping the divine, require us to posit a freedom on the part of the “mysterium tremendum” which transcends, interrupts and challenges our “religious imaginations”.  That is, human reason must be “confirmed by revelation”.  Reason cries out for it and launches itself toward this hypothesis, “which is so rational and so much part of our nature that, to some degree, it always emerges.” [p. 21]  This impulse toward revelation is inherent in our drive for knowledge, our need for mediators of knowledge, our experience of proximity to God, our common appeal to revelation, and our western appeal to the faith of Israel.  If there is a crime that can be leveled at this universal religious impulse, as conceived by culture today, it would be that of the claim to “exclusive truth.”  Yet, Christianity does just this.  For Giussani this is a claim that can only be justified or not, when we return to the “origins of the Christian claim.”

Considered on its own merits as a human construct, Christianity would certainly be wrong to make such a claim in the face of other religions.  If, however, we understand the Christian claim to be an expression of the “enigma” as a fact within the history of this human religious trajectory, then this fact must be regarded or examined on its own merits.  Were we to suppose that the enigma (mystery, God) became flesh then this “supposition would correspond to the need for revelation”.  To deny this would be irrational and contrary to the human religious sense.  Were this to be the case then could not Christianity prove to be “a more human synthesis, a more complete way of valuing the factors at play.” [p. 30]  Taken in this way the Christian claim is no longer an hypothesis but a problem that must be solved.  Announced as a fact of history, the Christian claim must be taken seriously as a problem to be solved, not as a “despotic irrational claim”.  It concerns a question of fact, i.e. incarnation, not opinion.

Given that Christianity, as a factual problem, has a history, the place to begin solving the problem is with an attuning to the singular event of Christianity, the Incarnation.  “The mystery chose to enter the history of man through a life story identical to that of any other man.”  As imperceptible as this divine entry into time was in terms of recorded history, nevertheless history records a certainty on the part of the disciples of having found the Messiah.  The imperceptible became perceptible as a conviction among a few which produced a “profound certainty over time.”  If one follows faithfully the “itinerary” of their conviction one comes to the certainty that this incomparably great man of power and goodness was a master to be followed in freedom as the Messiah, indeed as the forgiving one whose new ethic inaugurates a new kingdom.

So the origin of the problem as a fact of history lies not so much in the event itself as in the “perceptive experience of the earliest disciples” and their careful formulation of the primitive “Christology” or Messianism.  While the event is a mystery, almost imperceptible, the conviction is the fulfillment of humanities deepest longings, needs and questions.  It was, as such, a totalizing event.

But Giussani is not satisfied to lay all the weight of the exclusive claims of Christianity on the basis of the experience of the earliest disciples.  He takes great pains to point out that Christ himself, through a “slow pedagogy”, taught his disciples to think of him as “God”.  Jesus’ claim is simply a fact that lays bare “the basic position of the human heart – whether closed or open – to the mystery of being.” [p. 79]  As such the Christian problem is resolved in the same terms in which it presents itself:  “either we are dealing with madness or this man, who says he is God, really is God.” [p. 79]  Our free decision to penetrate this mystery “is a decision with hidden roots bound to our attitude to reality as a whole.”  It is that “supreme something” which sees Jesus as the ultimate good and worth our free commitment.

To understand this Christian claim we must be educated into “Christ’s conception of life” which is an education in “morality for understanding”.  What is at stake is the “correspondence of human existence as a whole to the form of Christ.” [p. 83]  Jesus own outlook on the value of humanity, dependence on the Divine, self existence, sin and human freedom answers the ultimate questions about these core human realities in a definitive way.  “Following Christ (faith) thus generates a characteristic existential attitude by which man walks upright and untiring towards a destination not yet reached although sure (hope).” [p. 83]  Thus, the event of the Incarnation, as mystery, is an “ethical urgency”, and an “education to the ideal”.  It was “an extra ordinary historical reality” in which Jesus moved his disciples from “awe to conviction” because the answers he gave to the questions of ultimate concern convinced them that he was the “God-man”.  The greatest task of Christianity is to announce, with the same conviction that was present “at the origins of the Christian claim”, that Jesus of Nazareth is God.  Furthermore;

“The task of the Christian is not only the greatest, but also the most tremendous in history because it is destined to provoke unreasonable reactions; yet it is supremely reasonable to face and to verify an hypothesis on its own terms, and here is precisely an event which happened in history.”

This task is the reason for the Church’s existence, from which place the message will be proclaimed and worked out in society.

Some Reflections

Once again Giussani has surprised us with his unique ability to combine profound concepts with a well illustrated and very readable style.  As with The Religious Sense, one has the feeling of not being in the classroom but rather sitting by the fire listening to the sage expound on the most important events in life with story, poem and prose.  Catholics, whether clergy or laity, should embrace this almost folksy rendition of contemporary Catholic Christianity with enthusiasm and a desire to go deeper with Giussani.  Though this work is shorter and less detailed than the previous volume, The Religious Sense, it is no less a serious call to reconsider the Incarnation as a natural, historical event that gave rise to an historical consciousness of Jesus Christ as the Son of God.  Similar treatments in the history of Christian theology from Schleiermacher to Schillebeeckx have taken many more pages and done it less justice than Giussani’s brevity.  As with the previous volume, this one will have to be reckoned with by Protestants and Catholics alike; whether scholar, clergy or lay person.  It will be intriguing to see how such a religious sense is worked out in the Church, the bearer of the historical claim to answers of ultimate concern.

A serious question remains, however.  Despite his brevity, clarity and intellectual power, Giussani has still failed to answer the question of the relationship between revelation and experience.  The Incarnation as event is almost eclipsed by the disciples experience of it.  The attempt to uncover the “religious sense” of today will always be a dubious exercise because of the gulf between our time and theirs.  Without a clear starting point in revelation as the event of the Word of God, we are left with only a surmising of how that event affected the first followers.  Their experience must be secondary to the event and not constitutive of it.  Giussani needs to be clear on this.

When Emerging Leaders Go BOOM!

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. Over the last month, it has not been hard to collect a significant amount of research. This movement has been tracked by researchers for over a decade.  Consider a few of the details:

  • 1 baby boomer retires every 7 seconds in the US.
  • Baby Boomers [those born after WWII through early 1960’s] make up 25% of the total population of North America.
  • Baby Boomers in the US number 82 million. In 2001, the leading edge of this group turned 55.
  • Financial planners have recorded a significant shift in retirement planning indicating a significant rise in early-retirement, and active retirement.
  • Baby Boomers have the highest volunteer participation rate of any demographic group.
  • There are 12 million self-described Evangelical Christian baby boomers according to the Wall Street Journal.

The age wave is beginning to break over society with surprising impact. 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.”

Along with Wycliffe, many mission organizations have begun to realize the value of the Boomer generation as the most healthy, well-financed, and highly educated retirement generation in history. According to Martin Huyett, “today’s 60-year-old is mature and needs far less training in living skills than his or her younger counterparts … a person in his or her 50’s and above has triumphed through their productive years and has built-in strategies for success.”

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.”

Engaging “seniors” [according to Win Arn, Boomers prefer the title “middle adults”] in ministry may have been “unwelcome” 20 years ago. Now, they appear to be absolutely crucial to the life of the church. Jim Hughes, professor of Aging at Abilene Christian University, has questioned several conventional thoughts that may stand in the way of propelling Boomers into service. One has been the emphasis on youth ministry – with the conventional wisdom being that youth are the most open to faith commitments. Considering the level of interest in “significance studies” reflected in books like Bob Buford’s Half-Time, older adults are proving to be extremely responsive to issues of faith.

Another idea is that age, for older people, equals inertia. The reality of the Boomer generation is that there is an eagerness for change. Life passages such as retirement, the “empty nest” syndrome, are no longer viewed as debilitating. Instead, Boomers are proving to value mobility and the freedom to pursue creative options. Nelson Malwitz of the Finishers Project described this attitude: “as you hit 50, you no longer count your years from the time you were born, but you count the amount of time you have left. The BIG idea [of the Boomers] has to do with finishing well.” Backing up his comments, a survey sponsored by the Finishers Project among 600 evangelical Boomers reported that 61% are planning to retire early [as soon as possible as no later than 65] and pursue a second career. 54% said that they would consider a second career in missions. 81% expect to be able to pursue this service together with their spouse. 

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 three quick discoveries:

1. 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.

2. The Boomers are capable – adapt and enjoy: One of the things I have noticed as I’ve sought to empower emerging leaders is that very few of them have aspirations for what the church would consider conventional ministry. Very few 50 year olds are eager to become Senior Pastors. Instead, one of the reasons that they are considering a more mature level of ministry is that God has stimulated a burden in their hearts for specific ministries – some of which are unique and exceptional. Todd Johnson, of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary reports that the Boomers are more interested in being active than just giving money. They have a passion to “start NGO’s, orphanages, business centers, health clinics, all at local levels.”  Churches that strategically empower Boomers are discovering themselves suddenly engaged in ministries beyond their imagining.

3. The Boomers are passionate – put them at the nozzle: I discovered one subtle, but profound, comment that revealed the Boomer attitude. Their vocabulary reflects a difference in generational attitude. When it came to management and administration, Boomer’s parents would frequently use the word “delegate.” On the other hand, when Boomers speak of management and administration, they more frequently use the word “empower.” The difference between the two words reveals, I think, the key to mobilizing this generation in the local church. Since they already possess a history of initiative and responsibility, when it comes to initiating Boomer ministries – they should be set free to identify the target and aim the flow of ministry.

Those are just three quick, off the cuff reflections. You may have more – and I’d love to hear them. Better yet, maybe your church should hear them too.

Sources: Articles:

“Retirement: Retirees May Become Ministry Cutting Edge”, Andy Butcher, Christianity Today Online, 16 June 1997  [http://ctlibrary.com/1140]

“A Boom for Missions” John Kennedy, Christianity Today Online, February 2007 [www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/February/18.20html]

“Boomers: The New Wave of Volunteer Missionaries” Alex Coffin, Christian Newswire, 14 November 2007 [www.christiannewswire.com/new/356371502.html]

“Issue Brief: Baby Boomers and Volunteering: An Analysis of the Current Population Survey”, Corporation for National and Community Service, December, 2005 [www.nationalservice.gov]

Books:

FutureThink: How To Think Clearly In A Time Of Change, Edie Weiner and Arnold Brown, Pearson Prentice Hall, Toronto, 2006.

Organizations:

Finishers Project: www.finishers.org