Talking About the Gospel in a Pluralist Society

When faced with expressions of values that clash with biblical perspectives, Christians often resort to either “fight or flight” in response.  They either say nothing and miss an opportunity for a significant conversation, or they challenge the value. Fortunately, there is another way to engage people in conversation that is both rewarding and enjoyable, leaving all partners with their dignity intact and with a desire for further discussion.  Evangelism as dialogue, as opposed to proclamation, is proposed as a culturally sensitive approach through which people can converse about the values and beliefs that shape their lives. This perspective follows the principles of Significant Conversations: Evangelism that resonates with our Canadian context.

>>View the entire article here

The Unique Dynamics of Church Boards

On Saturday, November 7, 63 leaders from 7 Fellowship Baptist churches met for training at the Best Practices for Church Boards workshop. Even though we have been providing this training since 2005, the latest workshop was unique. We are constantly seeking to improve the value of the training, and through careful evaluation and surveys, we decided to reshape the teaching portion of the workshop around two distinct elements.

The first was to create a distinct list of capacities, or competencies, that define the unique responsibility that Church Boards must develop. The fact is that the responsibility of a church board is different than that of other non-profit boards on a number of levels, not the least of which is that a church board is responsible for a Spiritual body as well as a human organization. Identifying the unique list of Church Board competencies helps target training objectives.

The second element was intended to help churches discover the unique dynamics that belong to their specific church culture. It’s a matter of context for leadership. In the past, some churches have felt that the board training didn’t apply to their specific situation. To some degree, they were right, and the fact is that there is probably no single variable that affects congregational life and leadership responsibility as size. As Tim Keller writes, “size has enormous impact on how a church functions. There is a “size culture” that profoundly affects how decisions are made, how relationships flow, how effectiveness is evaluated, and how ministers, staff, and governing leaders relate.”

To help get a perspective on the relationship between church size and leadership demands, I developed a chart of four basic sizes of Church: Small (50-150), large-Small (200-350), small-Large (400-650), and Large (800-1,200). With each, the chart identified four general and unique characteristics related to: 1) The type of leadership structure (collective board, working/administrative board, traditional structural board, and a policy board); 2) The role of the Board; 3) The role of a Lead Pastor; 4) The role of a Staff or Ministry Team.

As the Church leaders matched the reality of their church size with their existing roles, they found that having a context helped them discover better ways to approach their work. Some of the comments from the day: Did we achieve clarity? Yes and we hope for a better chemistry and unity among board members … Our leadership team has needed to have a good discussion about our roles and clarifying who we are and what we are all about … the most beneficial thing from this workshop was defining the equally significant and complementary role of the board and the pastor … it has moved us forward.

While there is more work to be done and more applications to be made on the subject of size and an appropriate model of leadership relationships, there was one point that emerged from the discussion that transcended the presentation.

In an after-meeting discussion, one seasoned Board veteran made the comment: I’ve seen Church Boards with bad organizational models still work quite well. And, I’ve also seen Church Boards with great models stumble badly. When I asked him what made the difference, there was no hesitation in the answer: Spirit! Heart! A common Passion!

What a delightful discovery. A number of years ago, Jeffery Sonnenfeld wrote an article in the Harvard Business Journal, “What Makes a Great Board Great.” His conclusion was an echo of the same answer: “What distinguishes exemplary boards is that they are robust effective social systems.” Let me express it in simpler terms: they are people who work well together, who trust one another, who empower each other, and who need each other.

Let me suggest that there are a number of elements that can be found in the Spirit of a Great Church Board:

  1. A common Spiritual passion for their shared mission: They see their work together as a higher calling, and their relationship as a band of disciples centered by a common commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. They are more attuned to serving Him than they are to promoting a personal agenda. They seem to embody Romans 12:4-5 where they are determined to relate as a Body and not a Business. This perspective is reflected toward a sense of purpose: that their service on a Church Board is a critical spiritual ministry … and reflected toward their relationship with each other: that they need each other to fulfill that ministry.
  2. A tangible agreement to obey and support their shared role: While they tend to be very careful in evaluating their effectiveness and sensitive to “doing things better,” they are deeply committed to honoring their shared commitments and are obedient to the boundaries of their role. And, with their obedience, they are able to express their respect for one another.
  3. A climate of trust and candor: This is one of the five elements related by Sonnenfeld’s study of exemplary boards, and one that relates to the spirit of honesty and confidentiality that defines the integrity of Godly service. Great church boards are able to share difficult information and challenge each other with respect. They are able to, as Sonnenfeld writes, “be strong enough to withstand clashing viewpoints.” Their relationships could be described as “Iron sharpening Iron” and often their ability to disagree serves to provide creative solutions.

There are certainly more elements to be found, and I’ve begun to collect them as I’ve been examining and asking Church Boards to describe their healthiest dynamics. It’s an important task, done with the realization that if a Church Board is to truly fulfill it’s calling, it must go beyond attention to the details of direction and governance and the boundaries of an organizational chart. It must go to the heart of a unique bond of fellowship crafted by the Spirit of God.

Children’s Ministry

1191196_67173144Do you believe in the body of Christ? Somewhat of a ridiculous question to ask those who fully believe in Scripture and the teachings of 1 Corinthians 12. But if the saying ‘we practice what we preach’ is true, then where are all the children? In your ‘body of Christ’ – your congregation – where are all the children? Are they part of the body? Or are they a dismembered limb?

These are challenging questions, and to some, simply offensive, but they need to be asked. I worked in Children’s Ministry for 6 years before the children of my church were part of the ‘main body.’ Too many children had never seen communion or baptism, had never heard a missionary report or a pastoral prayer, had never seen their parents give in tithing, knew not their parents’ songs of worship … in short, ‘adult’ church had no meaning, no context, and no place for them.

Did we believe in the body of Christ? Could be debated.

Scottie May TeachingAt the TRANSFORM: Children’s Ministry Conference, we were posed with a variety of questions such as those above, challenging us to give honest answers. Compelling us to admit that though we believe in theory, our practice is not what we preach.

Dr. Scottie May, Assistant Professor of Christian Formation and Ministry at Wheaton College, and a long time participant in Children’s Ministry, brought us to the foundation of what we do. This was not a ‘cookie cutter conference’ where we took home a program and attempted to implement a program for 250 children with the 25 that attend. This was a challenge for each Children’s Pastor to consider children in light of the Scriptures; to consider their church’s and their leadership’s view of the child; to consider their programming and whether it left a child worshipping the one true God or mesmerized by their Nickelodeon set-up. As one participant wrote, the most beneficial aspect was “being challenged to think … not given too many answers, just more questions.” And as another wrote, “She [Scottie] really pushed people to think outside the norm and I thought that was great.”

Sessions at the Children's Ministry ConferenceBreakout sessions brought more depth and insight to Scottie’s teachings.  She began by stating, “I am not a speaker. I am a teacher and I’m here to teach. So let’s get started!”  Children’s pastors were given tools for practicing the spiritual disciplines with children; given scripture and helps for running a Bible-saturated ministry; and given tips from the ‘Little Blue Church’ on how to build a strong and healthy relationship with their local public school. Our eyes were opened to the needs of ‘special needs’ children and their families, and how the church can support them. Our hearts were drawn to sharing God’s story with hurting and abused children. And this is just a sampling.

So where did we (over 50 churches) go from there? Back to church. We went back to our ministries considering, contemplating and wondering why we do what we do. We were given the tools to biblically and philosophically consider our ministry and its purpose and spiritual effectiveness. We were encouraged to dialogue with church leadership to reconsider their perspective on children. In short, we left transformed.

Now some did not go directly back to church. Eleven of us continued our learning in the class, Transformational Teaching in Children’s Ministry, offered by Northwest Baptist Seminary and ACTS Seminaries. We had the privilege of diving even further into the elements and theory of teaching and learning, into the perspectives on children’s ministry, into curriculum development and assessment, into ministry to special needs children and finally into ministry to pre-teen children. The specialists who taught each component brought much wisdom and knowledge and reaffirmed what others had already taught.

And now we continue our learning. In January Northwest/ACTS will offer the class Biblical Philosophy of Children’s Ministry which will delve into a holistic understanding of Children’s Ministry. It will provide context for contemporary ministry, by looking into the history of Christian Education and the Sunday School movement. It will provide a biblical basis for writing objectives, goals and purpose statements for Children’s Ministry. It will teach Children’s Pastors how to write a Philosophy for Children’s Ministry, develop a Ministry Plan, and intricately assess a Children’s Ministry program. The professor, Melodie Bissell (MDV), brings wisdom, knowledge, passion and over 30 years of experience in Children’s Ministry to share with the students.

For more information on Children’s Ministry courses, and the Executive Certificate in Children’s Ministry of which these are a part, go to: www.nbseminary.com/academic-resources/certificates

“Deep Church”

Deep Church

On my website, preaching.org I posted the following review about Jim Belcher’s new book, Deep Church.  Click on the link below to read it in its entirety.

If you are anything like me, you have found yourself whip-sawed in recent years between the traditional and emerging churches. My recent comments on the Piper/Wright debate are a case in point. As much as I appreciate John Piper’s emphasis upon the legal aspects of the atonement, I find myself compelled by Wright’s concern for the broader implications of justification. As I read these conversations, I get the sense that the various parties are somehow “talking past each other,” as if they were speaking different languages.

For that reason, I was instantly drawn to Jim Belcher’s objective in his new book, Deep Church. Belcher, who has been something of an “insider” to the conversation over many years, is searching for a “third way beyond emerging and traditional.” Utilizing a phrase he found in C.S. Lewis, Belcher describes this third way as “Deep Church,” a way of doing and being church that draws on both sides of the continuum. The result, one hopes, is a church that avoids the excesses of the combatants, while embracing what is good in both.


>>View the entire article here





2009-10-17 Board Summary

Northwest Baptist Seminary

Summary of the Board of Governor’s Meeting

October 17, 2009


Every two years the Board at their October meeting gathers for a two day retreat, that incorporates their business meeting. They defined their theme this year as “learning how to develop leaders collaboratively – a ten year perspective.” So much of what the Seminary does is networked with other entities, such as our Fellowship Ministry Centre, our Seminary partners in ACTS, local churches, other Fellowship Regions, Trinity Western University, etc. The list is growing as networking and collaboration become a way of ministry. So the Board wanted an opportunity to reflect more critically and deeply about the way Northwest should develop such networks for the advancement of its mission. Presenters included David Horita, Laurie Kennedy, Mike Mawhorter, Ken Radant (ACTS Principal/Dean), and various Northwest people. The Board continues to make time to listen to our key stakeholders.

The Board’s Succession Committee presented a series of recommendations to guide the Board in the search for and appointment of a new President, beginning August 1, 2011. The Search Committee will be Larry Nelson (Board Chair), Merv Loewen (Board member), Dale Beckman (Board Member), David Horita (FEBBC/Y Regional Director), Northwest Faculty member. This process will be initiated over the coming months.

During the past two years the Board has reviewed the Northwest Bylaws. A revised set of bylaws was approved for recommendation to the April 2010, FEBBC/Y Convention. These revisions bring the Northwest Bylaws into conformity to the revised FEBBC/Y Bylaws.

At their June meeting the Board approved a revised set of Ends Policies, defining the results that the Board expects Northwest will achieve and holding the President responsible for their achievement. This has meant a revision of the strategic plan, which was tabled for the Board’s review. The Board will discuss the strategic plan again at their March 2010 meeting.

The ACTS 2008-2009 Fiscal Year ended April 30. The Board reviewed the ACTS Audited Statements and approved their acceptance, pending approval by the ACTS Joint Governance Committee. As well the Board approved support of recommendations to deal with the accumulated ACTS deficit.

The Northwest Fiscal Year coincides with calendar year. At the October meeting the Board approved basic parameters for the President to use in establishing the 2010 budget and also authorizing use of investment income to support operations, financial aid and special projects.

Northwest is grateful for the various grants it has received from the Foundation for Fellowship Baptist Ministries. The Board approved the 2009 grant application. The Board also approved the establishment of a Doctor of Ministry in Leadership and Worldview Studies (Korean Language) to be done with Trinity Western University, subject to the University’s approval. The program is slated to begin July 2010. Further, the Board supported the administration’s decision to apply for membership in the Association of Theological Schools.

Dr. Rapske’s application of sabbatical in 2010 was supported by the Board.

The Senate approved the new Certificate in Children’s Ministry and the Certificate in Pastoral Formation and Leadership Studies (Korean Language), designed to assist the leadership development of our Korean churches.

If you have questions about any of these items please feel free to contact myself or the Board chair, Larry Nelson, or one of the current Board Members. You will find their names on the Northwest website.

Sincerely,
Larry Perkins, Ph.D.
President.

Navigating Uncertainty

Recently a report came across my desk urging leaders to “master the discipline of uncertainty.” Since they cannot predict the future, leaders must “adopt, adapt, and build” new capabilities to navigate uncertainty.  Sounds severely challenging! But it is no different when it comes to equipping ministry leaders.

Diverse changes occurring in the evangelical church world, cultural swings abroad in society, and drastic adjustments in world economies generate significant uncertainties. Discerning godly direction and staying in step with the Spirit within this dense matrix requires courage, continuous learning, tenacity, and humbleness – deep, persistent listening for God’s voice.

. . . leadership is essential to the development of healthy churches

What I experience as a Seminary President I am sure you are experiencing in your world as well. I know our students sense it keenly and wonder how they will ever manage to step into God’s calling with confidence. Every day they are learning to master the discipline of uncertainty. Hopefully they see it modeled in their ministry and faculty mentors. As one student said, “I’m finally able to respond to a 30-year call to ministry. It’s intimidating, but I’m glad to have a seminary that understands what I’m doing and is committed to helping me.”

I am encouraged that our Northwest enrolment has increased 13%, to 67 students, of which 34 are part of Fellowship Baptist congregations. Northwest is the second largest seminary in the ACTS consortium. Some of these students are enrolled in the new Worship and the Arts Certificate or the Korean language Certificate in Pastoral Formation and Leadership Studies. Our new Children’s Ministry Leadership Training program begins in a few weeks built around a major conference for Children’s Ministry Leaders.

We continue to adopt, adapt and build new leadership training capacity. Be assured that  your investment in Northwest continues to generate Kingdom results. Our mission is to equip effective ministry leaders and the demand for good leaders continues to outstrip our ability to recruit and train them. We thank God for the measure of progress He is helping us achieve. Your prayers remain an instrumental part of our ministry.

But growth also brings some new challenges and one of these is financial. Through the first part of this fiscal year (January – August) our giving has remained on track. Thank you for your faithfulness. We now approach the last few months of 2009 and to accomplish the various leadership projects initiated we will require approximately $60,000. We are trusting God to meet this need through your support. Whether it is $100 or $5,000, each gift will be important. Please remember that  equities can also be gifted to Northwest.

Along with your investment in our current ministry, perhaps you would also consider a planned gift through your estate, so that the ministry of Northwest might grow with greater impact in the future.

You will find information about these various options here on our website. However, we would be pleased to help you directly, if that is more convenient (604-888-7592).

Remember, leadership is essential to the development of healthy churches.


With thanks,

Larry Perkins, Ph.D.

President

Measurements for Faithfulness and Accountability

Over the last two months, we have been conducting a thorough review of our training program for Church Boards (better known as Best Practices for Church Boards). For four years, over 50 Churches and over 300 church leaders have participated in our Board training initiatives. Throughout the experience, we have learned more and more about the unique dynamics of Church leadership. This has led us to elevate the training to higher levels. Beginning this Fall at the November 7th Best Practices for Church Boards Basic Workshop we intend to present a comprehensive schedule of Workshops that will address a distinct checklist of Church Board competencies. The Fall workshop will address several of those competencies as it has in the past. But, our intention is to present a cycle of Basic workshops that will engage the full Church Board leadership experience. More on that to come …

But, for now, one of the key issues that emerged in our study is that Church Board leaders often struggle to define their key responsibility. In their book, Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards, Richard Chait, William Ryan and Barbara Taylor identify three functions or types of Board governance. The “bedrock” task of a Board, given within Type 1 (Fiduciary mode) is to “ensure that nonprofit organizations are faithful to mission, and accountable for performance…” (p. 7).

To “ensure” faithfulness and accountability calls for a board to be able to measure strategic goals. On the surface, many Church Boards struggle to know how to measure the goals, but there is a deeper issue at stake: to know what goals are to be measured.

In an article entitled Monitoring Your Organization’s Performance: The Dash Board Instrument (Board Matters, Article No. 20, www.governance.com.au), Tom Holland says that Boards must identify the information that they need staff to give them on a regular basis so that they can adequately monitor and evaluate the success of the organizational mission. However, Boards are often frustrated with a myriad of distractions: data overload, inappropriate levels of detail in information, information with an administrative rather than missional perspective … unproductive information which lacks strategic relevance.

Holland continues by presenting the concept of a Dashboard as an analogy of an instrument that a Board creates to monitor the critical measurements that gauge the healthy progress of the core and essential mission at hand. To build an effective “Dashboard” however, the Board must have a clear idea of what constitutes critical measures.

In order to do that, Boards must develop one of the most vital skills they can exercise as a group: the ability to ask strategic questions. There is an old axiom that a person is to be judged by their questions rather than their answers. In his eNewsletter, Leadership Wired, (Questions That Sustain Your Leadership) John Maxwell writes, the willingness to ask questions coupled with the discipline to seek out answers separates leaders from followers … influencers question assumptions, inquire about the environment around them, and probe into the future … they have an insatiable appetite to learn, and they convert their knowledge to action at light speed.

For Church Boards, there are a number of questions that must be asked:

1. What are the top priorities of our mission as a congregation? What is it that God has for us to do?

2. What key aspects of our ministry do we want to monitor that will make a difference in people’s lives and advance the kingdom of God?

3. What are the best ways to display the outcome of our ministry efforts?

4. What will we do with the reports we receive? How will we celebrate the fruit or address the deficiencies of our ministry?

I would imagine that the answers to the first two questions are the most important and deserve the careful and prayerful reflection of Church Leaders. The Great Commission that defines the strategic purpose of the Church is focused on people rather than programs. We are to “make disciples” which means that our task is measured in terms of human life rather than organizational structure. And, the benchmarks of a successful ministry are identified best by naming names and gathering testimonies.

In his book, Missional Renaissance, Reggie McNeal provides an illustration of the sort of measurements that reflect a people, rather than a program, development culture. Some of the items he sets behind the dashboard as a gauge for ministry include (adapted from his list):

  • Number of people reporting improved marriages over time
  • Number of people reporting improved family life over time
  • Number of people engaged in strengths identification and development
  • Number of people who have identified a sense of God’s calling and have created and are following a life development plan
  • Number of people serving other people in some venue
  • Number of people practicing intentional blessing strategies for those around them
  • Number of people being mentored
  • Number of people serving as mentors
  • Number of people able to articulate life mission .. core values
  • Number of people reporting improvements in spiritual life over time
  • Number of people growing in financial giving to kingdom causes
  • Number of people pursuing job skill … ministry skill development
  • Number of people reporting addiction recovery progress

The list Church Boards construct must reflect their church’s mission and vision and be appropriate to both. The consequences of the exercise will determine the measurements within the strategic questions bringing insurance of mission faithfulness and performance accountability. As McNeal writes: to pull this off requires a retooling, a reallocation of every resource the church and church leaders employ … prayer, people (both leaders and ministry constituents), time, finances, facilities and technology. But, once retooled, the Board fulfills its calling to be focused and engaged in the greatest venture of all.


Continuing Education At Its Best

The end of summer encourages us to reflect on the ‘harvest’ that our work in these past months is producing. I do know that 250 pastors, lay people and emerging leaders were involved in various courses and other leadership development opportunities from May to August. This included the Smarter Families Canada workshops.

I think for me one of the most significant offerings was the Addictions and Recovery Ministry Conference we 2009-06-addiction-banner-02co-sponsored June 26-27. Sixty-five people registered and enjoyed two days of high-powered interaction with medical and ministry experts from Canada and the United States. The Liver and Intestinal Research Centre directed by Dr. Frank Anderson provided both financial support and organization leadership.

As I participated in the sessions, the presentations by Dr. Paul Earley, Medical Director at Talbot Recovery Campus, Atlanta, Georgia, gave me a whole new perspective on human addictions. From his twenty years of experience in treating addictive diseases and providing therapy to assist in recovery, he spoke with compassion, realism, and immense professional credibility. When he revealed that 6-7% of people in our society have a genetic disposition that makes them vulnerable to addictive behaviour, it astonished me. As he demonstrated how critical family history is in the development of addictive behaviour, the role of parents in breaking the chain of addiction emerged as a critical element.

One of his colleagues, Woody Roberts, is involved in the spiritual dimension of treatment and recovery. This might surprise you, but both Dr. Earley and Dr. Roberts asserted several times that addictions and recovery are at root a spiritual matter. Without acknowledged dependence upon God, the chances of an addict recovering from this behaviour are rather slim.

About 8% of Canadians wrestle with some kind of addiction – alcohol, drugs, gambling, work, pornography, food, videogames, etc. So within a congregation of 200 people, 10 to 20 of them are probably wrestling with addictive behaviours of some sort. Individuals from all socio-economic sectors are affected.

By offering this conference we assisted pastoral leaders, chaplains, counselors, medical practitioners to understand the nature of addiction, its spiritual dimensions, and the challenge of persistent recovery. This is continuing education at its best.

Already plans are underway to offer a second conference. But we realize that conferences, as helpful as they may be do not provide a sustaining training model. So we are exploring ways and means of offering focused workshops in specific aspects of recovery ministry so that ministry leaders can discern creative ways to initiate these kinds of important spiritual services in their churches and local communities. We desire to impact our society with the Gospel in this way.

Your financial support is helping to implement initiatives like this, ones that make a practical and significant difference. Thank you for your commitment to sustain and increase Northwest’s ministry.

I am sure you are wondering how we are doing financially at this point in our fiscal year (December is our year-end). God is faithful. Our investments continue to generate the income we require for our operating budget. Our gift income is at the same level it was a year ago at this time. During these last four months (September to December) we will require $65,000 in financial gifts from supporters to meet our budget. This is the same amount we raised during this period in 2008. If you can assist, please let me know.

There is another important way that you can invest in our ministry for the long term and that is through an estate gift. As you plan the disposition of your assets, perhaps you would include in those instructions a gift of 2-5% for Northwest. Normally such gifts are placed in our endowment, with the income supporting our annual budget. This is one of the most important investments you could make for Kingdom impact.

Thank you for your prayers. I trust you will enjoy all of God’s wonderful blessing in this Fall season. It will be very busy for us as we engage a new academic year.

The Conundrum of prayer

Recently a friend sent me a link to a blog skeptical of the power of prayer. Some key comments taken from the blog are as follows:

cell-phoneSurely the divines can explain what distinguishes the moments when prayers do save someone from those when they don’t.   Is it the targets of prayers that are distinguishable, or the people doing the praying?  Perhaps someone could keep tabs and analyse the results, in the spirit of scientific inquiry.  Or does God just have priorities wildly different from ours?  But who can possibly imagine a reason why God wouldn’t respond to prayers to save an officer’s life, but would respond to the petitions that we are regularly told have produced a divine affirmative—to get someone out of debt, say, or to cure someone of illness?

I take it that believers do not ascribe such inconsistent results to capriciousness on God’s part, but rather to their own limited capacities to understand God’s ways:  “Thy Will be done.”  But why continue directing any psychic energy to a being so lacking in sympathetic correspondence to human needs and values.  It will not do to say: “God does respond to our prayers, but in ways that we cannot fathom.”  Saving a child from cancer and letting a child die from cancer cannot both be a sympathetic response to prayer; if we had wanted a stricken child to die in order to secure an earlier entry to heaven, we would have said so.  And if premature death from cancer is such a boon, why doesn’t a loving God provide it to one and all?

It is humans who work with passion and commitment every day to try to save their fellows (and a range of other creatures) from suffering and sorrow.  Emergency room medicine is constantly evolving to try to ensure that gun shot victims and people crushed by cars survive.  Doctors and hospital staff work frantically throughout the night to try to revive a failing heart or a shattered brain.  They do so out of love and compassion, while God, who could restart an exhausted heart in an instant, demurs.  The only source of love on earth is human empathy.  Transferring our own admirable traits onto a constructed deity just obscures the real human condition: we are all we have, but that is saying a lot.1

Is God "lacking in sympathetic correspondence to human needs and values"?

These are valid (and common) questions considering the assumptions the author of the blog is making about prayer. However, I believe that her primary assumption is mistaken.  She writes as if the purpose of prayer is to instigate God’s action in our affairs.  Even as a call to 911 stimulates the paramedics into predictable action, so our prayers should result in God acting according to our perceived needs.  Because the act of prayer has uncertain results, God must lack “sympathetic correspondence to human needs and values.”

The assumption being made is that our life and relationships here on this earth are the supreme purpose of existence.  Therefore, any Absolute being who is good would automatically, let alone requiring petitions, respond in order to fulfill that purpose.  But from the Christian perspective, that assumption is incorrect.  The supreme purpose of existence is our relationship to God.  God is reality in the same way that God is love.  Our life here is intended to be an expression of that reality as we work it out in the midst of the dangers and brokenness of this material world.  Even as nature is an expression of God (his artwork), but is not God himself, so our lives on this earth are an expression of reality, but there is something (someone) behind all that we experience which gives meaning to our existence. That ultimate reality is encountered as we live in harmony with God.  Jesus said, “People do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4).

The pain, the danger, the beauty, the development, and the uncertainty of life all play a role in providing the environment in which we can discover what truly makes life worthwhile.  This is eternal (full, whole, perfect, fulfilled) life, to know God and Jesus Christ, the one he has sent (Jn 17:3).

Prayer … is a cry to the father in order to put all things into his hands

Prayer, then, is not a desperate attempt to save someone’s life (like a paramedic), or a tool to fix something broken (like CPR), rather it is a cry to the father in order to put all things into his hands. Prayer coordinates and harmonizes our immediate experience and struggle with the Ultimate Reality in the hope and expectation that he is the source of love who will make all things right, even if our desires of the moment are not met. What we ultimately say when we pray is “I trust you,” and what God ultimately says in his response is “trust me, I love you.”  Whether, like Jesus, we pray for salvation in the garden and wind up on the cross (Luke 22:42), or we are frightened in the boat and cry out, “save me!” resulting in immediate calm (Luke 8:22-24), the point in both cases is the trust in what – or rather, whom – is ultimately true and real.  The story never ends until it ends in God and if Jesus spoke the truth, then he is the God of life, not death (Luke 20:38). 

There are two possibilities for ultimate reality: everything ends in darkness and death or everything ends in light and life.  If the former is true, there is no point in prayer.  If the latter is true, then prayer is the best response possible to any situation.

The author also writes that “the only source of love on earth is human empathy.”  Not so. Human empathy is an essential expression of love, but its source lies elsewhere.  We love because we have first been loved (1 Jn 4:19).  We love because we have been given capacity to express and live out love (1 Jn 4:11).  We love because we have been made for love.  We love because we have been created in the image of love (Gen 1:26,27).  We are “icons” of God, who is love.  That is the source.  The choice is not between a “constructed deity” or limiting love to a human invention.  That is a false dichotomy.  The reality is even better than we imagine: a God who loves us, not to a pain free and grief absent life, but to himself.

    ____________________

  • 1 Mac Donald, Heather. The Conundrum of Prayer. posted June 5th, 2009 at http://secularright.org/wordpress/?p=2102. Accessed July 4, 2009.

 

It’s About the Weights…Not the Mirrors

I have a membership at our local community fitness center near where we live. The community center is a very popular place, being centrally located and right next to one of the larger highschools in our city.

I’ve been going there for a number of years now. My object, beyond general health and fitness, is to keep the “big guy” away. I remember the big guy from the “before” pictures I have of myself. He is the couch potato, seriously overweight and unfit version that used to be me a number of years ago. I don’t want to go back there ever again. It’s a battle and in that battle I have to be committed.

The fitness center is a good facility, with free weights, benches and mats, and a wide assortment of exercise machines of various types and sizes. You can give virtually every muscle in your body from head to toe a great workout.

Like virtually all other such facilities, along one entire wall of our community fitness center there is a large bank of floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The purpose of the mirrors, as I understand them, is to monitor yourself so that you maintain a safe and proper exercise posture and technique.

Its quite a study to watch what actually happens in the fitness center.  Over the years it’s occurred to me that, while most folks come for vigorous and serious exercise, a rather significant minority actually goes to the fitness center as much or more so to admire themselves in the mirrors as they do to lift the weights! In a few cases, the narcisistic grooming and posing are so evident that it’s truly off-putting. But, then, I guess we’re all guilty of it from time to time.

The matter of the weights and the mirrors reminds me of what Paul writes to the Philippians. Paul tells them about the sustained energy and commitment he exerts to gain Christ and be found in him, to know the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings so that he might attain to the resurrection from the dead. But then, so that no one will mistake what he is saying, Paul clearly and forcefully declares that he has not yet arrived (Philippians 3:12-14).

In fact, Paul advises that “all of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.” (Philippians 3:15) We are not there yet. We are not finished works spiritually in this life. We are all of us still in desparate need of a saviour. To say or give the impression that one has crossed the finish line; to cherish self-congratulatory notions that one is a “good catch” for the kingdom, is actually a deflection from the finish line rather than a crossing of it.

Paul says, the Christian life is about pressing on. It’s all about the weights and not the mirrors.

What Motivates Suicide Bombers

Terrorism as “lashing out”

In one section of a popular book on globalization, The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman explores the impact of globalization on the Arab-Muslim world and how this relates to the rise of Muslim based terrorism.

[Arab-Muslim] youth, particularly those living in Europe, can and do look around and see that the Arab-Muslim world, in too many cases, has fallen behind the rest of the planet. It is not living as prosperously or democratically as other civilizations. How can that be? these young Arabs and Muslims must ask themselves. If we have the superior faith, and if our faith is all encompassing of religion, politics, and economics, why are others living so much better?

This is a source of real cognitive dissonance for many Arab-Muslim youth – the sort of dissonance, and loss of self-esteem, that sparks rage, and leads some of them to join violent groups and lash out at the world.1

To read further on Mark’s response to this analysis as well as a proposal to address this dissonance and rage, see the full article in Cross-Cultural Impact

How Do You Handle the Word of God?

Ed Stetzer has published an excellent research-based article on the ways that preachers use the Bible: How Do You Handle the Word of God. Lifeway research looked at 450 online sermons in order to discern the place of Scripture in contemporary preaching.

Some findings…

“Half of pastors traveled verse-by-verse through a passage, and almost half organized their sermons around a theme. Almost one out of five pastors named and explained a Greek word in their sermon. More than half explained verses by using other verses in the Bible.”

“In fact, 41 percent explained at least one church or theological word during their sermon. Another 21 percent avoided such words altogether. This means more than half of the preachers we studied either avoided or at least explained some of the church or theological words they used. While this is notable, it still means that one out of three preachers are not speaking in the vernacular of their audience—at least if the uninitiated or unchurched are in attendance.”

“Half of these preachers focused their preaching around one block of scripture text, moving verse-by-verse through the passage. … Another 46 percent of preachers focused their preaching around a main theme, question, or topic using multiple Scriptures to support it. …Finally, the other 4 percent organized their message around one main biblical character using multiple Scriptures to support the theme.”

“The preachers we surveyed had a definite preference for the New Testament. Nearly three quarters (71 percent) of the main biblical texts were found in the New Testament. More than a third (37 percent) of the sermons came from the New Testament letters alone. A quarter came from the Gospels.”

“When preachers flipped through their New Testament looking for a passage to preach upon, they didn’t flip far. Matthew was the most preached-upon and the most referenced book in the entire Bible. Genesis was the most preached-upon Old Testament book. Luke, John, Acts of the Apostles, and Romans—all from the New Testament—were the other most likely biblical books for preachers to use as a main text.”

While these statistics are interesting, Stetzer’s analysis is important. “How we handle the Word of God matters,” he says. “As preachers, we have a limited time with our audience every week. The question is, how will we use that time? Will we handle the Word of God in a way that demonstrates its authority in our lives and over the lives of our listeners?”

The Parable of the Talents — How can it be applied today?

A colleague who works with Christian entrepeneurs asked me recently whether Jesus’ Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25) offers any principles to guide Christians in business? This is a wonderfully provocative question.

1. I am strong believer in first seeking to interpret Jesus’ parables in the context of the presumed first century audience and his ministry goals. In terms of Matthew 25:14-30 the audience is Jesus’ disciples during the Last Supper. These are Jewish men who are embedded in first century, Jewish religious understanding. In terms of Jesus’ ministry goals, this is his final major discourse or cluster of teachings to his disciples in Matthew’s Gospel. In my view he foretells God’s judgment against Israel for rejecting the Messiah (i.e. the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70), the way history will unfold and how this affects his new "messianic assembly", and the return of the Messiah at the end of the age. Jesus told this parable and the prior one about the Ten Virgins to explain the warnings to his disciples at the end of chapter 24, namely keep watch, be ready, serve well – because the Messiah will hold you accountable, but you do not know when he returns so be ready. Probably the last thing on Jesus’ mind at that moment was to provide principles for operating a business.

2. The situation in real life that the parable describes probably occurred fairly regularly given what we know about estate management in first century Roman Palestine. Wealthy owners often left the management of their estates in the hands of overseers. Because there were no banks as we know them today, the wealthy had to use other means to secure their property. In this parable we see one means, i.e. the division of wealth among trusted clients/servants who are expected to employ these resources to enhance the owner’s wealth and position. If the managers perform well, the master will ensure that they participate in the gains. If they do not do well, he will punish them for poor, lazy or illegal activity.

Jesus does not validate or criticize this means of doing business, he merely used it as the platform through which to express a principle of kingdom living. So I think we have to be careful not to extrapolate from the story of the parable any principles that would support a particular economic or business theory or construct.

3. The point Jesus makes is found in vv. 28-30 — the returning Messiah will hold his followers accountable for how they managed the resources (i.e. their time, abilities, wealth, knowledge, etc.) that he gave them to carry forward his mission. In some sense God will reward those who honour him and work carefully and profitably, taking risks in order to expand the influence of God’s rule. How and in what way God helps such people increase these "talents" is left unexplained. Further, how God in the heavenly sphere defines the rewards He gives is a matter for speculation. Such people will share their "master’s happiness" (v.23). Those who dishonour God by refusing to take risks to enlarge his rule are regarded as unworthy and have no share in God’s future. This is similar, in my view, to Jesus’ statement in Matthew 7:21-23. People in that context knew what God required but decided to ignore Him. So He ignores them and will not allow them to participate in his glorious future.

So, what does this parable have to say about business or entrepreneurial activity? For general business operations, I would say nothing specific. From the point of view of a Christian who discerns that the best way for him or her to fulfill God’s calling in Christ is through marketplace ministry (however, that is defined), then I think the key point would be – use the gifts and abilities God has given to extend God’s rule in every sphere your life touches, including the world of business, even if this requires considerable risk. But I think that this applies equally to the Christian who is a stay-at-home mom, the Christian university student, or the believer who is incapacitated and can’t participate in the marketplace.

When Children’s stories go wrong

keysI was witness to an amazing children’s illustration one Sunday that went hilariously wrong.  The woman was trying to make the point through the use of keys that the only key into heaven was Jesus.  She dangled her keys and asked what they allowed her to get into.  One child said “house” and another said “car.”  The program seemed to be running smoothly with the children all on board.  Then she tried to make the shift to the spiritual lesson asking, “How do we get into heaven?”  There was a short pause as the children pondered this.  Then the hand of a small boy shot up and he confidently announced the obvious, “We have to die!”

The woman was disconcerted at this morbid turn of events, but it was too late. The children’s minds were fixated on this barrier to getting to heaven and how it should be overcome.  Another boy’s hand went up and the woman quickly turned to him, “Yes, how can we get to heaven?”  He said in a rather solemn tone, “God has to call us.”  The woman looked a little desperately at the other children and the boy repeated it a little more loudly since he hadn’t received the affirmation expected, “God has to call us to heaven!”  She tried to rephrase her question, “What do we have to do to get to heaven?”  The kids stared at her, their minds whirling at this twist to the question.  She tried to help them out, “We need to trust in J-J-J…” Her hope of salvaging the lesson were raised by a girl who waved her hand, but then immediately dashed when the girl said, “Well, if we were to stop eating and got weaker and weaker, then we could die and go to heaven.”

The woman finally talked about “accepting Jesus into our hearts,” but I’m sure that the children left confident that the boy’s first comment about having to die was the point of the lesson.  But maybe that was a healthier perspective than leaving them with the impression that the primary point of Jesus’ work is to provide a free ticket to an eternal Disneyland.

God’s Purposes in Crisis

The English word ‘crisis’ has its origins in a Greek noun meaning “exercise judgment.” A crisis requires a person to discern very carefully a just response to current or emerging circumstances. Usually it defined the activity of judges in a legal setting, evaluating the behaviour of people and holding them accountable. Times of crisis require us to evaluate what we have been doing and discern its continued viability and validity.

Two years ago Northwest and its partnering seminaries in the Associated Canadian Theological Schools initiated a strategic planning process. It was time to review our collaborative ministry. Enrolments were decreasing and financial pressures were increasing. The Consortium had been operating for eighteen years. We needed to re-examine our collective vision. We were well into that strategic planning process, discerning some new directions, when the current world economic crisis developed (summer 2008).

Dr. Kenton AndersonI am pleased to share that one of the new initiatives that our strategic planning discerned, largely through the creative insight of our Dean, Dr. Kent Anderson, is now operational and beginning to generate significant attention. I believe it represents a paradigm shift in the way seminaries provide ministry leadership training.

We call the initiative The Centre for Ministry Excellence (CME). It is a joint venture of Trinity Western University and the Consortium. Essentially it enables Christian agencies who provide a wide variety of equipping opportunities (such as worship leadership training, children’s ministry development, camp leadership development, etc.) to link with Northwest, ACTS and Trinity to accredit this training. Through this collaborative networking the Christian agency is able to offer accredited learning opportunities and the Seminary is able to extend its ministry with very low risk.

One of the opportunities presented in this is Worship Leadership Training offered by Dr. Kelly Ballard of Beyond Worship, a worship consulting agency based in Oregon. As Dr. Anderson says, “By collaborating with Beyond Worship, we are able to bring the best worship leadership resources possible to our churches, without sacrificing academic credibility. Kelly Ballard works with many of the top worship educators in North America and we are immeasurably enriched by being able to partner with this network.”

Dr. Paul EarlyAnother great learning forum will happen June 26-27, 2009. One of the leading addictions counselors in North America, Dr. Paul Earley, will be participating in our Addictions and Recovery MinistriesConference. The LAIR Medical Centre, directed by Dr. Frank Anderson, is co-sponsoring this conference with Northwest. Our desire is to highlight the issue of addictions and ways that the transforming power of Jesus can break their power.

The current crisis is stimulating us to redefine the way ministry leadership training can be offered and accessed across North America and even in other regions of the world. Your investment in Northwest enables us to carry forward this vision for equipping ministry leaders in a truly global manner. The Kingdom implications are significant.

Our 2009 financial goal for supporting such initiatives as CME is $100,000. Currently we have received 17% towards achieving this target. It is normal for us to be at this level in our fund-raising efforts at this point in the year. I am noticing that our supporters, while giving faithfully, are not able to give as much as in previous years. Thank you for your sacrificial help. Please pray that God will provide for our needs.

God uses crisis to enhance his glory and accomplish his purposes.

The Pre-Service

I recently had the privilege of preaching and teaching at The Meeting Place, an innovative Fellowship Baptist church in Nanaimo, BC. Putting together worship at this church is a logistical challenge given that they gather several hundred people over multiple services in a rented movie theatre. If church isn’t done by noon, they will be over-run by people looking for the latest Will Ferrell or Ben Stiller movie. Running services at a place like this requires a lot of volunteer labor.

At 8:15 in the morning, the large team of volunteers has already been at work for some time, setting up equipment, configuring sound and video, and rehearsing music. At that point, lead pastor Dave Koot gathers the whole team for a brief pre-service. They talk through service details, confirm critical pieces, and then Dave offers a kind of mini-sermon, after which the people spend some time in prayer.

I was impressed, first by the commitment and enthusiasm of these volunteers, and second, by the impact of the brief pre-sermon. This opportunity allowed the pastor to prep the people for the specific objectives and goals of this service. The team was then better able to participate in the service in pursuit of the goals for the actual service and sermon. I think that something like this could be replicated to good effect in other churches.

Kudos to the folks at TMP for their commitment to serving Christ,  for their innovation and example, and for their unflinching dedication to seeing lost people come to faith in Jesus.

Green Shoots

Green shoots” is the lingo economists and business gurus are using to describe the signs of economic recovery, at least what they hope are the signs. I have no expertise to discern whether these green shoots are weeds or wheat, I have to leave that to others more competent or perhaps more daring than I.

Jesus stressed the importance of being able to read the spiritual signs that mark our times. Consider Luke 23:31 “For if men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” or Luke 21:29-30 “When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the Kingdom of God is near.” His teachings suggest that God does broadcast his intentions in advance – green shoots. The question for us is this – do we discern them?

Recently I watched a documentary entitled Revealed: Hip 2B Holy on Global TV that documented the resurging interest among Canadian younger adults in the Gospel message. Kevin Newman Global National anchor, who hosts and also co-wrote and co-produced the documentary, says: “They seem to be in the middle of a significant rebranding exercise for conservative Protestant faith and are making significant inroads among curious young Canadians.” Are these “green shoots” indicating a significant shift in attitudes towards the Gospel? Perhaps.

God’s “green shoots” meaningful in our Seminary context include:

  • people responding to God’s call to train for ministry leadership
  • people willing to invest in developing leaders by supporting the Seminary
  • people dedicating their lives and their gifts to teaching and mentoring emerging leaders
  • people engaging vigorously the challenges of planting churches or moving churches to greater health and Kingdom enterprise
  • people moving to other parts of the world to translate the Bible or engage the hard work of developing new ministry leaders in national church networks.

By God’s grace there are many “green shoots”, emerging and continuing ministry leaders. They tell us God’s harvest is ready and He invites us to reap with Him.

One “green shoot” that is making an impact for Christ is Erika Lui. She graduated in 2000 with the Master of Theological Studies in Counselling. She recently connected with me and noted her work with S.U.C.C.E.S.S. in the Family and Youth Services division. Her story could be multiplied in the experience of many other alumni.

God continues to develop his Kingdom plan and his Spirit energetically works among his people. Discerning the “green shoots” and helping them grow and mature is part of our Seminary work. Thank you for your helping us fulfill this important work. At this point in our fiscal year your support is particularly required.


“God will not let me into Heaven”

Continue the Conversation

conversationThis past week I had a discussion with a couple of fellow believers who had had a significant conversation with an elderly person who was in the last days of his life.  They were talking to him of the grace and forgiveness offered by God.  His response was, “I have cheated and lied.  I have not treated people properly.  God will not let me into heaven.”  They did not know how to respond.

What would your response be?  How would you carry on this conversation?

I will give a possible response from my perspective at the end of the article, but at this point I would like to propose that people in our churches are having significant conversations like this in many different forums (hospitals, schools, work, playing sports) and with a variety of people (friends, family, acquaintances).  What we require is support from other believers to discover how to continue the conversation.

Significant Conversations

Significant Conversations is designed to help believers as we talk with the people in our lives about the important issues of life. Coaching for churches encourages the development of a culture of prayer and mutual support that further strengthens the impact of significant conversations in our lives.  The purpose statement for coaching Significant Conversations is to equip groups of “champions” in local churches for the role of initiating, supporting and encouraging other believers as they engage those outside the church in significant conversations.  This includes:

To read the rest of the article visit <a href="http://impact losartan dosage.nbseminary.com/75-%E2%80%9Cgod-will-not-let-me-into-heaven%E2%80%9D/”>Cross-Cultural Impact

 

Jimmy Long: The Leadership Jump

Jimmy Long. The Leadership Jump. Building Partnerships Between Existing and Emerging Christian Leaders (Downers Grove, ILL: InterVarsity Press, 2009). 205 pages.

Writing from his experience as a leader and leadership developer for many years within InterVarsity, Jimmy Long passionately argues that existing and emerging Christian leaders need one another in order to guide the church through the present cultural chaos into an uncertain future. In his view serious differences in leadership style and savvy follow the modernist and postmodernist fault line. Fearing debilitating “leadership wars” in the church, similar to the worship wars, he urges both kinds of Christian leaders to collaborate, rather than contend.

Long places the burden for change squarely on the shoulders of the existing leaders. Their current leadership style characterized by the principles of control, command, and celebrity (145) must change. Rather, they must learn how to give away power, to lead through relationships, and to recognize the expertise, gifts and insights that emerging leaders possess. For their part emerging leaders need to exercise patience, value the experience that existing leaders possess, and choose to work collaboratively without a critical spirit.

He uses position and role as fundamental categories around which to arrange his argument. The essential leadership shifts he sees occurring are summarized on page 42. For example, existing leaders who operate on the basis of positional authority will have to alter their perspective, because for emerging leaders authority is something earned, independent of any position. Further the mantra that leaders cannot show weakness should be turned on its head because emerging leaders value authenticity and vulnerability, rather than a pretense of perfection. A leader’s role in the 21st century context will be to walk with the team on a journey of exploration, rather than to know both the goal and how to arrive at that destination.

Evangelical leaders must, in Long’s view, find forums within which to nurture significant conversation between existing and emerging leaders in order to avert “leadership wars” and potential destabilization of many churches and Christian agencies. Existing leaders who function using a hierarchical leadership model will frustrate and eventually lose gifted emerging leaders. Long urges existing leaders to adopt a team leadership approach that encourages shared responsibility, unleashes the creativity potential in emerging leaders, and permits the opportunity to take risks. Let’s admit, he says, that we do not know what church ministry is going to look like in the future and commit to learning together what it may become.

Long’s analysis of the difference between existing and emerging church leadership styles displays considerable reflection and expertise garnered from developing emerging leaders over many years. Different perspectives on leadership do exist and if we fail to recognize them and deal with them, our ability to lead will be compromised, the church will suffer, and emerging leaders will be stifled, if not discouraged from pursuing their ministry leadership. “Both existing and emerging leaders feel alone and uncertain of what the future holds. Both sets of leaders need each other to overcome their fears and ease their uncertainty about the future” (33). Existing leaders might feel somewhat stereotyped by Long’s descriptions, but his perspective still has value.

In responding to Long’s proposal I will consider two of Long’s presuppositions and two of his prescriptions. First the presuppositions.

  1. Long believes that Church leaders in the modernist period erred by borrowing too heavily from business models in order to define both the leadership position and role in the church.  “Like the corporate world, the modern church has emphasized a corporate culture where the goals are clear, the mission is clear and there is not a lot of fluff….This type of leadership model from the Western corporate world tends to induce compliance from its members, not foster commitment or creativity” (50). This model of leadership no longer is aligned with postmodernist culture and its values, in Long’s view.

    When he describes the leadership paradigm that should replace this “corporate” understanding of leadership, however, he defaults once more to the world of business to find solutions. Again and again he quotes from articles or studies about emerging leaders in the business world published in the Harvard Business Review or Business News or the Academy of Management Executive. I am not critical of him doing this because we have much to learn about leadership through such publications. It is ironic, however, that he seems to depend upon the corporate world as it now exists in postmodernism to define the emerging leader’s position and role, even in the church. There is no suspicion that such sources today may be just as tainted and misguided for defining emerging leadership positions and roles in the church as they were twenty years ago when the church was enamored with the corporate leader model.

    In my view we must constantly be evaluating the degree to which the leadership perspectives, principles and practices occurring in the corporate world are helpful for determining church leadership praxis. Leadership is a cultural phenomenon and as culture changes so will our leadership perceptions and practices.

  1. Long’s second presupposition is that we can discern Jesus’ leadership model and that Jesus’ model supports the emerging leaders’ perspectives on the position and role of church leaders. I agree that we must examine Jesus’ teachings and actions to inform our understanding of church leadership. After all, the church is his idea, not ours. He is the head, not us. So rightly Long seeks to ground his prescriptions for a new leadership paradigm in the person of Jesus. Almost every chapter has some reference to Jesus.

    There is a problem, however. Long is not the only one who turns to Jesus to discern the most appropriate leadership principles. Hybels and Maxwell, to name two noted leadership gurus, would also claim to ground their understandings of leadership, as different as they may be from Long’s perceptions, in Jesus.

    What kind of exegesis allows us to bend the life and teachings of Jesus to serve and promote such diverse leadership models? Were the twelve apostles really functioning as a “ministry team” in any meaningful sense? What about Jesus’ statements where he defines himself as master and teacher and his disciples as his followers and learners? His followers are to wear his yoke, not one of their own devising. Did Jesus lack a vision? Was his vision not dominant? Is it really the case that “for Jesus, who was on the team was more important than where they were going”? Jesus seems to be very focused, at least according to Luke 9:51 where “Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” Where does he invite his disciples to help him cast the vision? In what sense did Jesus lead in weakness? Jesus does say in John 13:3 that “the Father had put all things under his [Jesus’] power.” We must acknowledge some mystery here in the way Jesus integrates washing his disciples’ feet with this power. The Gospel narratives present a Jesus who is very much in charge, submissive to God’s will, embracing the cross in fulfillment of his mission, but triumphing over his enemies. He is an authoritative leader. So in what sense is he weak and vulnerable?  
    We might extend this discussion to how Moses or Paul or other people in Scripture become illustrations for various models of leadership. It seems to me that too often we play fast and loose with the biblical narrative in these matters and must exercise considerably more exegetical discipline before claiming Jesus or some other biblical personality as an example of our particular leadership model.
    On a minor note Long’s exegesis of Luke 10:27 (page 110) in support of relational leadership, i.e. leadership in community, is suspect. Long proposes that the second great commandment “love your neighbour as yourself” is plural in formation, meaning “people are to love as a community.” However, this is not the case. Both pronominal forms in this command are singular, not plural. His exegesis is unsustainable in this instance.

    Earlier (page 108) he suggests that Jesus’ commission in Acts 1:8 incorporates “a plural word for ‘you’” and “Jesus meant, ‘You will be my witnesses in community [author’s italics]’.” It may be that the context of Acts leads to this exegetical conclusion. However, there is nothing in the use of the second person plural pronoun that necessarily means this command should be fulfilled in a communal manner. The plural pronoun will not carry that freight all on its own.

Long offers several prescriptions as possible solutions to these incipient “leadership wars.” The first is that leadership must be exercised in a team context. Biblically the metaphor of the body, in his view, serves to support the need for diverse individuals to contribute to the leadership, based upon expertise and giftedness (although I wonder whether this leadership application of the metaphor was in Paul’s mind). The function of the team leader is to enable the team to fulfill its communal leadership responsibility. Again, there is good practical wisdom that Long offers to help leaders understand this. However, what I missed in all of these discussions is any guidance about the need for accountability and how it works in such structures. I think I noted two occasions where the word “accountability” occurs in his book. Existing leaders are urged to let emerging leaders have space to risk and fail. Such experiences are important for developing leadership competence. Accountability, however, still has to be present. Without accountability leadership runs the serious danger of becoming dictatorial, self-serving, and manipulative. Emerging and existing leaders both must learn how to lead with accountability.

The second prescription that Long proposes is that existing leaders must let emerging leaders pursue their dreams and not be controlling. Again, Long’s idea has merit. Good leaders give space for those on their team to discover creative solutions to current and emerging problems. But Long does not seem to recognize that existing leaders also have dreams and are working hard to implement them. It seems that emerging leaders want control to implement their dreams and existing leaders want control to implement their dreams. When dreams clash, how do you arbitrate? Not every new idea is a good idea; not every idea will move the ministry towards mission fulfillment; not every idea is prudent; not every idea is timely. Part of leadership competency is ability to discern which ideas really have legs. This is not so much an issue of control, as an issue of deep wisdom, the kind of wisdom that James discusses in his letter (3:13-18).

Long sounds a necessary caution as the Evangelical church seeks to discern how leadership should be exercised in these times. If leadership is essentially a cultural phenomenon, then we do need to discern the scriptural principles that will help the church evaluate which elements of leadership practiced in our culture are compatible with Kingdom values. If church health is inevitably tied to good ministry leadership, then we have to understand how to provide such leadership within the faith community so that Jesus’ Kingdom mandates are being fulfilled in culturally relevant ways. Diverse views about ways of leading probably have always marked leadership transitions from one generation to another. Let’s recognize this reality and have the spiritual maturity to deal with it in ways that are good for the church.

The Necessity of Words

I was pleased to see a piece by St. Francis biographer, Mark Galli on Francis’ famous dictum that we "preach the gospel: if necessary use words." This sentence is often used to suggest that the gospel can be preached without recourse to language. For the most part, this is a misunderstanding of Francis who was the kind of hellfire and brimstone preacher that would shock most of us today.

Galli writes, "’Preach the gospel; use words if necessary’ goes hand in hand with a postmodern assumption that words are finally empty of meaning. It subtly denigrates the high value that the prophets and Jesus and Paul put on preaching. Of course we want our actions to match our words as much as possible. But the gospel is a message, news about an event and a person upon which the history of the planet turns. As blogger Justin Taylor recently put it, the Good News can no more be communicated by deeds than can the nightly news."

While I’m strongly in support of actions that prove our preaching, the fact is, it is always necessary to use words.

 

Christian Freedom

A friend recently gave me a copy of Steve Brown’s book A Scandalous Freedom. The Radical Nature of the Gospel. Maybe he thought my life was confined by too many ‘don’ts’ and wanted me to discover afresh the gift of freedom in Christ. 

Brown’s thesis is quite basic — Christians in North America have lost the true sense of Gospel freedom that they possess. Instead, Christianity has become another religious system, using rules and other pressures to provoke its followers to moral living and good deeds. In succombing to this less than Gospel understanding of  Jesus’ message, believers remain "afraid, guilty and bound." Legalism, wrong teaching, abusive leadership, false expectations all conspire to rob believers of their freedom.  "There is so much more to being a Christian than obeying rules, doing religious things, and being ‘nice’."

With considerable wit, insight into ‘churchianity’, personal transparency, pastoral care, and theological acuity, Brown challenges us to be free. His goal is to help Christians recapture true Christian freedom and  become the potent Kingdom force that God intended them to be, living with joy, courage, and peace. They will know God’s love, God’s grace, and God’s forgiveness and it is deeply liberating.

Brown’s objective is admirable and in many instances needed. It is important to grasp and build into our lives the wonderful liberty that Jesus has purchased for us. Conversely, we have to reject pretense, tradition for the sake of tradition, the paralysis generated by fear, and attempts by some Christians to control. However, I have my reservations about Brown’s presentation.

1. Paul revels in the freedom Jesus provides from sin’s power and the burden of generating our own righteousness. Brown rightly emphasizes this. In Galatians 3 to 5 Paul describes the astonishing transformation — believers are no longer under the power of the Law, the curse of sin, the weak and beggarly cosmic powers. But just as much as he celebrates this significant liberation, he emphasizes that God’s invitation to live in his freedom means "walking in the Spirit," "keeping in step with the Spirit," and recognizing that "I no longer live, but Messiah lives in me." The freedom we have in Christ is not autonomy; it is a freedom to be one of the Messiah’s "Kingdom of Priests", the Messiah who is our Lord. As Paul says in Romans 6:22 that we "have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God." I did not perceive this side of the biblical freedom equation in Brown’s presentation.

2.   Paul also emphasizes that our freedom is exercised in the context of Christian community. Brown places significant emphasis on the believer as individual, but does not seem to balance this with the biblical reality of believer as part of the body of Christ. As a believer I am not free to be me without restraint. The three great commandments — love God, love neighbour, and make disciples — sets each believer in a new relational network that shapes the nature of Christian freedom. God has not purchased through the Cross my freedom so that I can sin and harm Christ’s body, bring disrepute to the Gospel, and advance Satan’s cause. Of course, Christians sin and God still loves us. In his extensive discussion on the boundaries of Christian freedom, Paul concludes "Everything is permissible—but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible — but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others" (1 Corinthians 10:23-24). For Paul the best way is the way of love and this gets worked out in the community of faith primarily. Jesus warned us about causing one disciple to sin. For him this was an important issue.

3.   Christians are to be and do good. Whether you read 1 Peter or Titus (or the Sermon on the Mount), one of the outcomes of Kingdom living is goodness — expressed in our being and our actions. We do not manufacture this ourselves, but are dependent upon the Holy Spirit for its production (note the imagery Paul used about the "fruit of the Spirit"). However, we also have responsibility, as Jesus put it, "to seek first the Kingdom and its righteousness" (Matthew 6:33). Peter said that Jesus sacrificed himself "so that having died to sins we might live for righteousness" (1 Peter 2:24). Brown is right to point out that this should result in a "holier than thou" attitude or a self-righteous, judgmental spirit. Doing good flows out of the love the Spirit gives us for others. Being good arises from the Spirit’s consist guidance and empowerment to resist evil.

There is both spiritual freedom and spiritual discipline in Christ. While believers no longer live under the authority of the law’s tutelage, they are indeed "slaves of Christ."  As a Christian I am born again into God’s family, but He is the Father and as Peter reminds us the "one who judges with impartiality." Peter urges us "as obedient children…to be holy in all that you do" 

More could be said, but space does not allow it. By all means read Brown’s book. However, I do not think his presentation provides an adequate, nuanced biblical understanding of our freedom in Christ"(1 Peter 1:14).

The Pastor’s Role as Spiritual Coach:

See also the  follow-up article: Pastor’s Role as Spiritual Coach II

Helping people trade their lives for significance

Our home church is searching for a senior pastor.  My wife is on the search committee and so we have been discussing the type of pastor we would like to see come and serve in our church.  Our preferences seem to be at odds with some of the accepted and assumed pastoral roles.

Since my church experience has been primarily with the Fellowship, my perspective has developed out of that environment. As I understand the usual practice, formulating the vision and direction of the church is considered to be the responsibility of the church leadership, primarily the pastor. Many hours are spent in meetings talking and praying for God’s leading as they develop a vision that is then presented to the church. Some discussion and minor adjustments are made, a vote is taken and the vision is adopted.

Unfortunately, a positive vote does not necessarily result in commitment to the vision.  A “yes” vote can mean one of four things:

  • Unspoken Dissention (I don’t like it, but I don’t want to be a wet blanket or be viewed as divisive)
  • Permission (not my thing, but go ahead.)
  • Encouragement (I like that, but I can’t be involved) OR
  • Commitment (Count me in, I want to be part)

leadership-developed-vision1The hope of the leadership is that a “yes” vote indicates commitment to a new direction. But I have seen many times when the actual result is frustration, with the pastor trying to convince people to believe and participate in the adopted vision. A key concern is “will enough people support this new vision?”  The pastor has to create “buy-in” so that they will get involved – often with a plea that it will take minimal commitment (“only a couple of hours a week”). Many people will still participate even though the projects do not fit with their vision.  They are willing to cooperate, but the lack of ownership can be detrimental to their sense of connection to the church.  In this paradigm, a church is identified by its overarching vision.

The concept of “church” and the pastor’s role that Karen and I prefer is somewhat different. The pastor and leadership do not develop, create or control the vision.  Instead, they facilitate and network the visions (plural) of the believers.  Based on a conviction that the Holy Spirit indwells and guides each believer, the pastor’s role is not to cast an overarching vision, but to help people integrate their lives with their Christian faith, while guiding them to meaningful engagement in Kingdom service.  The leadership, and primarily the pastor, encourages and facilitates each believer’s desire for service, significance and expression of Christian faith according to the believer’s personal vision.  This requires an ability to relate to people in significant ways in order to discover where God has given them a passion and conviction.  This could be connected to their business or their favorite form of recreation.  It could arise from a concern for their family or from a desire to make a difference in the lives of those less fortunate.  But it is their vision.

member-developed-visionsThe role of the pastor in this scenario is to cultivate such visions and coordinate their efforts with other people and organizations.  The pastor networks believers who have a common vision and passion and acts as a spiritual coach guiding them to explore how their Christian faith can be intentionally lived out.  The leaders’ key concern is then “how can I help people fulfill their vision?” In this paradigm, the church is identified through the relationships people develop as they minister to others.

According to this view, the essence and vision of the church community is the establishment of each believer in their God-ordained role as intentional Christ followers in all of their day-to-day relationships. The pastor facilitates, coordinates, networks, guides and teaches from a biblical perspective to ensure all believers have the connections and support they need to fulfill their purpose as God’s people.  The pastor initiates, challenges and supports believers to discover and pursue the opportunities God has given them to serve and to fulfill the call of Jesus in their lives.  The pastor’s orientation towards the congregation is to ensure that people feel connected, cared for and that their contribution to the kingdom is valued. Recognition and support for each person’s ministry goals together with the collaboration of others will lead to fulfillment of the congregation as well as significant engagement with the community.

“If you want people’s hearts, they need to know what they are exchanging their lives for.”1 The kind of pastor Karen and I would like to see in our church is one who guides people as they exchange their lives for what is significant to God’s mission.  Rather than being satisfied that people are cooperating with a leadership driven vision, the pastor acts as a midwife to the Holy Spirit’s promptings in the lives of believers and helps bring to reality their vision and passion as the people of God.
_________

1 Rusaw R. & Swanson E. 2004. The Externally Focused Church. Loveland: Group. P. 179.

 

Saving a World that Doesn’t Want Saving

This past weekend, Rita and I went to see The Soloist (2009), a movie starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. It is the chronicle of a true story of friendship between LA Times columnist Steve Lopez and street musician Nathaniel Anthony Ayers. The movie is an adaptation of Lopez’ book entitled: The Soloist: A Lost Dream, An Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music.

A Lost Dream

Lopez is transfixed at his first meeting with Ayers in the park at Pershing Square as he listens to the latter playing a violin with only two strings. As the story unfolds, we learn that Ayers had been an immensely talented child prodigy. His talent and determination eventually opened the way for him to study at the famed Juilliard music school in New York. But why was Nathaniel Ayers now living rough on the streets of L.A., all his worldly possessions loaded into a shopping cart, playing a two stringed violin in the park and in the 2nd street tunnel near Hill Street?

Ayers dropped out of Juilliard in his second year because of schizophrenia. In following decades, he experienced the harsh consequences of this disease in severe social dislocation and impoverishment. He battled his mental illness–sometimes with medication, but mostly not–finding consolation and a measure of personal peace in making music on the streets.

An Unlikely Friendship

For Lopez, the combination of Ayers’ brilliant talent and his homelessness and poverty are an absolute contradiction and an offense to what is right. At first, Nathaniel Ayers is a story to be told to the readers of Lopez’ column. But it strikes a chord. Many want to help Ayers, including Lopez himself. A cello is donated for Ayers to play; Lopez arranges to get Ayers an apartment; he presses to get Ayers connected with members of the L.A. music community; and he even explores the possibility of forcing Ayers into a mental health facility so that he can receive medical and psychiatric help. Every effort and attempt by Lopez is frustrated by Ayers, however. Sometimes spectacularly so!

At one point in the movie, Lopez sits on the sofa in his ex-wife and fellow-journalist’s apartment. He laments his consistent failure as protector of his family during the earthquake, committed husband, and helper to Nathaniel Ayers and others like him on the streets of L.A.  Through tears of frustration he declares, "I resign! I resign! I resign!" His ex-wife replies that he is not a savior. Lopez couldn’t stop the earthquake and he can’t save Los Angeles or even Nathaniel Anthony Ayers. But he can be a friend.

The movie is a thoughtful piece and is bound to cause many, and especially Christians, to reflect upon the soaring joys and deep sorrows of human compassion and friendship. Its exploration of the boundary between genuine help and oppressive control and coercion in the actions of Lopez is wise and sensitive.

…and the Redemptive Power of Music?

Which brings me to the movie’s canvas of several avenues of redemption. How does one save people who don’t want to be saved?

Redemption is decidedly not to be found on offer in the hostility and heavy-handedness of the police , in the promises of slickly-portrayed politicians, nor in earlier bullying forms of Lopez’ activism the moviegoer is told.  The character of the director of the Lamp Community in L.A. offers a sensitive counterpoint as he counsels a frustrated Lopez at several points. The consistent advice in every conversation is helpfulness that is intensely personal and practical, respectful, and filled with patience and genuine friendship.

Over and over again, the moviegoer is encouraged to find "redemption" in the music. It leaves Lopez dumbstruck and awed, it soothes and relieves the troubled Ayers, and it deeply affects moviegoers. I would be the first to suggest that the music offers a kind of transport–but redemption? What happens when the music stops, as it always does?

The movie turns a disappointingly jaundiced and hostile eye toward the church in the cliched, objectionable religiosity of one musician character from whom Lopez seeks help. There are certainly places to look in justification of that shot–lamentable examples of empty, shallow, and generally inadequate Christian response to crushing physical, psychological and spiritual need.

Sadly, moviegoers will be tempted to write off the genuine article on the basis of a facile generalization.

In fact, it is Jesus with whom Lopez, in this writer’s opinion, seems most closely to want to identify, though the movie does not trace a connection. It was he who, "while we were yet sinners, … died for us." (Romans 5:8). Jesus is the astonishing demonstration of God’s love because, while desperately needed, he was unwanted; while offered without sham or hypocrisy, he was unforced; and while possessed of a quiet self-assurance and the power of majesty, he astonished the world by engaging in a "buy  back" that was appallingly costly to him. 

Those who have been thoroughly captivated and transformed by that love can be found. And they furnish in their own selfless love and practical helpfulness a foretaste of redemption in present experience which is the respectful context for gospel conversation. It is also a powerful witness to the hope of redemption’s ultimate realization in God’s Son.

A Sense of Expectation

Here’s a quote from my book, Choosing to Preach, pages 250-51…

"We just don’t expect much from God when set to preaching. Many preachers believe that God will speak through his Word but that it will happen in some muted sense. We don’t expect our skin to tingle. We don’t imagine that the hair on the backs of our necks will be raised like Isaiah’s was when he met God in the temple. Perhaps our sense of God is too hypothetical. We have preached too many sermons in which nothing seemed to happen. We no longer anticipate God’s powerful presence. We don’t expect the ground to move or the doorposts to shake."

"This is to our shame. Preachers are far too tentative far too often in our expectation of God and in our expectation that people will actually respond. Ideas are floated and propositions are posited without our ever describing a specific expected result. Or if a result of the sermon is described, it is suggested as a hypothetical possibility of what could happen someday if we ever found ourselves in the situation described by the sermon – one day, maybe, perhaps… It is always about what we will do at some other time – at work or at school – when faced with the problem or the opportunity that the preacher has in mind. It is always about some other time and some other place."

"I keep thinking that if God were truly present, we ought to expect more and see more in the act of the sermon itself. Do we really believe that this sermon could change things? Do we really believe that God is present and will work powerfully even in the moment of the sermon? If we did, we might be a little more aggressive."

"We could afford to be more aggressive in our preaching. Not in a threatening way. Listeners don’t want their preacher to get in their faces and pound on the pulpit. That’s been done, and not so effectively. But listeners do want to be challenged. Listeners love the idea that something critical could happen here and now as we listen to the Word and put it into practice. Could we gain a greater vision for the preaching event? Could we push a little harder and be a little more pointed in directing our objectives?"

Does the Ending Matter? Mark 16

After Mark 16:8 the New International Version adds the bracketed statement "The most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20." But then they print some additional material (vv. 9-20). What are readers to do? Should they ignore what follows and consider Mark 16:8 as the ending of this Gospel? Should they pay some attention to vv. 9-20 but not really regard them as part of the Bible, an interesting but non-scriptural accretion? And have the NIV editors really described the textual evidence regarding these verses appropriately? What’s a pastor to do who’s preaching Mark’s Gospel? How do you explain what all this is about? Tricky stuff!

There is no question that this Gospel’s ending is a textual challenge. But so are other parts of the Bible (e.g. the ending of Romans, the double text in Acts, etc.). We have to deal with the data honestly and carefully.

1. The earliest evidence we have for the ending of Mark’s Gospel comes from the latter half of the second century. In the writings of Justin Martyr and Irenaeus there seems to be allusion and quotation from Mark 16:9-20, suggesting that their copies of this Gospel included the longer ending. It also seems that Justin’s protégé, Tatian, knew the longer ending when he created his Gospel Synopsis (Diatessaron) in this same period. Whether these early church pastor-scholars knew of a short form of Mark’s Gospel cannot be determined. So the earliest references to Mark seem to know a form of this Gospel that ends with 16:20.

2. It is true that two notable and valuable codices dating to the 4th century (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus) do not have the longer ending in their current form. It is their evidence primarily that leads the NIV and other modern translations to make the kinds of statements they do after Mark 16:8. However, this is not the whole story.

First, in the case of Vaticanus, the scribe at the end of Mark’s Gospel leaves a column and half empty, beginning Luke’s Gospel on a fresh page. Although the scribes who wrote Vaticanus left gaps at the end of other books, these gaps correspond to the end of sections (i.e. Nehemiah (2 Esdras) and Psalms; Tobit and Hosea). Two scribes produced Vaticanus and these breaks correlate to the division of their labours or the division between the Old and New Testaments (i.e. Daniel and Matthew). However, in the case of Mark’s Gospel, the gap at the end does not correlate to such a division. One scribe copied the New Testament materials in Vaticanus. This gap between Mark and Luke does suggest that the scribe knew something was missing and perhaps left space for it to be added. Although the scribe did not mark this textual alteration in his usual manner, leaving a gap in the text seems to have been the signal that something was omitted.

In the case of Sinaiticus, it is interesting to note that precisely where Mark ends, the pages in the original manuscript has been replaced with different pages produced by another scribe. This scribe is one of those that produced Vaticanus (but not the one that produced the New Testament section of Vaticanus). H.J.M.Milne and T.C.Skeat in their publication Scribes and Correctors of the Codex Sinaiticus  (1938) hypothesize that this replacement occurred because the original scribe "must have duplicated a long passage in the course of writing [Luke]" (p.10).  While they argue against the original scribe’s inclusion of Mark 16:9-20 (because in their view this ending cannot fit in the space available), they still have to conjecture that the original scribe made a massive textual error of some sort that had to be remedied. I would conclude that we cannot tell what ending for Mark Sinaiticus may have had originally. To postulate some massive corruption at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel that has no basis in the textual history of Luke’s Gospel rather then attribute this folio change to known difficulties with the ending of Mark’s Gospel seems odd.

3. Some argue on the basis of language usage that 16:9-20 is by a different hand or that 16:8 forms a very dramatic and suitable ending to the Gospel. There are some linguistic and lexical differences between Mark 1-16:8 and 16:9-20. However, we have to be careful not to exaggerate them. Further whether 16:8 is an appropriate ending depends on how one understands the narrative purpose of the writer. For example, if this Gospel story, which emphasizes discipleship, ends with all Jesus’ followers abandoning him and paralyzed by fear, what hope does this give subsequent believers that they will succeed where others failed? 

 We cannot solve such difficult questions in the short scope of a blog. My point is simply this — let us be careful to state the evidence clearly so that biblical readers can make a truely informed decision. The cryptic statement by the NIV editors after Mark 16:8 fails in my opinion to serve the readers adequately. The ending of Mark’s Gospel is too important and needs more careful consideration.

Strange condition for Church membership

A friend of ours was chatting about his experience attending membership classes at his church.  He mentioned that one part of the statement of faith requires members to affirm that the Genesis story is not to “be accepted allegorically or figuratively.”  He did not have a problem with this, but I find it an odd condition for church membership on a number of levels.  There are, of course, historical reasons for this restriction in the interest of protecting the integrity of the Bible as God’s infallible revelation.  However, because the statement of faith does make it clear that the Bible is God’s infallible word, it seems unhelpful and problematic to demand a particular hermeneutic for a specific passage of Scripture.

To accept these claims about Genesis, the new believer would need to be acquainted with the historical struggle for the integrity of the Bible, as well as an understanding of literary genres.  I suspect that the average believer, let alone a new Christian, does not understand the different genres used in the Bible.  It seems misplaced to demand that people affirm that a passage of Scripture belongs to a particular genre.  The important issue of the integrity of God’s revelation has been obscured by peripheral and unnecessary demands concerning genre.

In his stimulating book, Inspiration and Incarnation, Peter Enns claims that the controversy between theological liberals and conservatives is based on a false dichotomy.  The liberal believes that the first chapters of Genesis do not match modern standards for historical writing and, therefore, are not inspired.  The conservative believes the Bible is God’s inspired word and, therefore, those chapters must live up to modern standards for historical writing.  Enns’ suggestion is that the conservative assumption of inspiration is the correct one, but he questions the assumption of both liberals and conservatives that the genre of modern historical writing should be the standard by which the Bible is viewed. Instead, the Bible needs to be read according to the cultural context within which it was written (p. 49).

Determining the genre of the first chapters of Genesis requires a high level of hermeneutical and exegetical expertise. It is puzzling to me why a church would put such demands on a new Christian seeking baptism and church membership.  I do think that a confession of faith is needed for membership, but it should focus on the essentials while allowing for ignorance about peripheral issues.

I am not asking that the Pandora’s box of revising official statements of faith be opened.  Instead, I would encourage discernment about the use of those statements when dealing with new believers.  I wonder if the reluctance of some to take on church membership is, in part, due to peripheral issues that they do not have the expertise to understand.  If people have become excited about following Jesus, a requirement that they subscribe to one side or another in ongoing controversies could act as a (figurative and allegorical) bucket of cold water on their faith.

 

Pandemics, Patient Zero and a Theological Reflection

 

Pandemic?

Media coverage of the Swine Flu epidemic is about as extensive as fear of catching the disease, though cases worldwide are relatively few at this point and only beginning to present themselves. The media features images of pigs, shots of the Mexican military handing out surgical masks, empty streets, sports stadiums, and restaurants, and hospital emergency rooms filled with long lines of anxious citizens.

Meanwhile, newscasters press upon guest medical experts questions like, "Will this flu burn itself out with relatively few casualties, or will it become another 1918?" "How many might be likely to die worldwide?" "Who’s at greatest risk?" "Should people be traveling abroad?" and "What precautions can one take to keep from becoming a victim?"

In the meantime, reports continue to roll in on the latest numbers of sick and dead in Mexico City and notices of the disease’s spread to various other countries throughout the world.

The virus holds potential to affect us all because its new, so no one’s immune. The world has grown very small through travel and the disease’s progress has outrun most attempts to contain it. It is also personal to me because my elderly mom, brother and sister-in-law are in Mexico just now. They headed off  before the news had broken clearly, hoping to have a relaxing and uneventful holiday.

If the outbreak becomes a pandemic, it won’t be the first. There have been notable pandemics in 1918, 1968 and 1975. Estimates suggest that the 1918 pandemic claimed between 20 and 50 million lives worldwide. 

This is all very unsettling.

Patient Zero

In the past day or so, there has been increasing media talk about "patient zero." Patient zero is the very first documented case of the disease. That person is of great interest to epidemiological investigation as a possible means to discovering the origin of the disease, mapping its spread and pursuing means to its eradication.

Sometimes there is great controversy and infamy attached to patient zero. Mary Mallon is a celebrated instance. She was an apparently healthy carrier of the disease typhoid fever. Many people were infected by her and she had to be quarantined to stop her spreading the deadly  disease. Dubbed "Typhoid Mary," she came to epitomize the carrier or transmitter of anything undesirable, harmful or catastrophic.

In the case of Mexican Swine flu, "patient zero" may be a little boy named Edgar in a small town called La Gloria. He and his family live near large pig farming operations. He had the disease in March.

A Cure?

The development of a vaccination looks to be weeks or even months away. So the world, it seems, is bound to live for the foreseeable future in an attitude of maximum uncertainty and anxiety.

The drug Tamiflu may be helpful at mitigating symptoms, but it is uncertain whether this is just with milder variations of the flu. The Mexican version of the virus may be more robust and so less responsive. A further problem is that a course of this medication costs about $200. It is out of reach to many millions of people the world over.

With about 3,000 official reported cases in Mexico so far,  and some 150 fatalities, the counsel to "Wash your hands" seems a rather meager stratagem.

 A Theological Reflection

I’d be a fool to assert specifically why this has all happened, beyond the general physical and theological observation that the world is broken and dangerous and we occupy our place in it dangerously and brokenly. But there will, no doubt, be those who confidently nominate themselves God’s spokespersons on this whole affair, declaring in most specific terms that Mexico City committed this or that sin and that is why people are getting sick and dying.

I’m neither a prophet nor an apostle. And I’m certainly not God.

Moreover, I’m cautioned by Jesus himself who ruled out the question of moral cause and effect in the specific circumstance when his own disciples asked it about a man born blind (John 9:1-7). Jesus declared the man’s tragic circumstance the opportunity for a demonstration of the miraculous, healing power of God in his life. 

I do, however, see the present worldwide threat as a powerful illustration–an extended metaphor, as it were–of the human predicament of sin before a holy God.

At Romans 5:12-21, Paul identifies Adam as "patient zero." He writes, "sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men…" (v. 12) In this case, patient zero was fully culpable and universally infectious. His single action of rebellious independence from God was, has been, and will continue to be the physical and spiritual death of us all. No amount of human hand-washing or isolation is able to contain or neutralize the virulent contagion. The gates are down; the borders have been breached.

Paul continues that there is only one cure for the human predicament … and it was costly.

He writes, "if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!" (v. 15) As powerful and universally damaging as the "infection" of sin brought into the world by Adam was, God provided through his son Jesus a more powerful and effective "cure." His provision in the death of his son on a Roman cross for our sin is decisively effective and universally available to faith. 

The world desperately needs the cure. It should seize the cure. And it should celebrate the cure.

 

The “Vision” Quest

The pastor read what the church leadership expert wrote — the leader casts the vision! The elders were expecting him to come forward with "the vision". What would they think about his ability to lead if he couldn’t deliver? The weight of this expectation seemed to crush him. Where was he to find "the vision" for his congregation? What process could he follow to insure that he would find the right one at just the right time? What would happen if the vision he articulated turned out to be the wrong one? Where in the Bible could he find instructions about "casting the vision?" Did Paul discuss this or Peter or James or one of the Gospel writers? Of course, Jesus could do it, but he’s God!

How would you advise this pastor? Should he attempt a forty day fast and anticipate in that process that God would reveal the vision for that church? Or maybe he should have a conversation with every ministry leader in his church and seek to distil from their input a vision, a kind of congregational, visional, collage. Perhaps spending several nights in prayer would bring some clarity. Or maybe he could visit the websites of the ten most successfull churches in his area, discover their visions and plagiarize. Possibly the best strategy is to do nothing, hoping that in some serendipitous moment the vision will just come. Probably church leaders have used some or all of the above as means to "cast the vision" for their church. And undoubtedly some of these methods (apart from the plagiarism bit) might be of some help.

Vision-casting is more than an individual activity. There must be a testing of a potential vision’s validity among the faith community’s leaders. They will undoubtedly offer some significant refinements that will improve it. In the process they will come to own it too.

I think vision-casting represents the interaction of the faith community’s history, biblical reflection, wise listening to key leaders,  analysis of the larger community, prayerful search for God’s direction, careful discernment of potential resources, and a humble, sober sense of the leader’s abilities.

  • The vision will have some continuity with the faith community’s story.
  • Centering it within a biblical narrative gives confidence that it reflects biblical values and has coherence with God’s activity — the Great Commandments and the Great Commission.
  • Discerning what other ministry leaders in the congregation have learned about the church’s potential enables you to locate some key boundaries for the vision.
  • The realities of the surrounding community — demographics, needs, aspirations — generates a sense of coherence between the church’s vision and the community’s situation.
  • Vision-casting ultimately must be a spiritual exercise, accomplished in dependence upon God.
  • Take stock of the human, financial and physical resources that might be available to accomplish the vision.
  • Since God has called you to this position of pastoral leadership, you can have confidence that somehow your spiritual gifting will fit the vision, otherwise perhaps your leadership would be better applied in another context.

The outcome should be a simple, understandable, comprehensive statement that defines what this church has the potential to accomplish within this community over the next decade, with God’s help.

Vision-casting is more than an individual activity. There must be a testing of a potential vision’s validity among the faith community’s leaders. They will undoubtedly offer some significant refinements that will improve it. In the process they will come to own it too.

 Discerning the vision for a congregation will be the result of many conversations — with God, with Scripture, with people, with the larger community, with yourself.  It will answer the question — by God’s help we believe that in (___) years through this congregation __________. Some might say that this is merely a statement of desired outcome. My response would be — and is that not vision, a careful discernment of God’s desired future for this congregation? 

Doctrine that Dances

I don’t hear a great deal of doctrinal preaching these days. I hear a lot of pragmatic preaching, a lot of exegetical preaching, a lot of narrative preaching, but not so much preaching that intends to explicate the great doctrines of the Scripture for the edification of the hearers. Perhaps this has something to do with a corresponding ebb in the interest of systematic theological studies in favor of the more emergent-friendly biblical theology movement. Or perhaps it is because not enough of us know how to handle doctrine in a sermon the way that Robert Smith does.

Smith, professor of Christian preaching at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University is the author of Doctrine that Dances: Bringing Doctrinal Preaching and Teaching to Life. As one who has come from a background that discouraged dancing in the church, I find Smith’s choreographical metaphor to be both illuminating and refreshing. It is probably even biblical. Smith notes the presence of the Greek word "epichoregias" in Philippians 1:19. In this text the Holy Spirit "choreographs" events so that they turn out for Paul’s deliverance. Would not we love for the Spirit to work similarly through our preaching of the doctrines of God’s Word?

Of course, one could wonder whether Smith is talking specifically about good doctrinal preaching, or just good preaching in general. His definition of doctrinal preaching is "the escorting of the hearers into the presence of God for the purpose of transformation." I think that this offers an excellent definition of every kind of preaching, which begs the question whether every kind of preaching ought to be doctrinal, at least to some degree. Throughout my reading of the book I found myself saying, he’s not just describing good doctrinal preaching, he’s just describing good preaching! What I am suggesting is that this book cannot be dismissed as limited to a particular brand of preaching.

That said, the world could use a lot more preaching that was intentional about communicating doctrine. In our attempts to accommodate the listener, we sometimes give the truth something less than what its due. People don’t know enough theology and while I’d love to think that we are addressing this problem through the seminaries, I know that most of this needs to happen in the church. Much of it will need to happen through our preaching. I agree with Smith, that if preachers could awaken a new love for the truth of the Bible, that would be a good thing. "Christians are experiencing spiritual immaturity and spiritual death. One of the reasons for this is that worshippers are being served sermonic snacks instead of the doctrinal meat of the Word of God. if doctrine is presented with joy and accuracy, the hearers will not only stand it, they will crave more of it (6)."

Smith does well to remind us, that such preaching must be both "cranial and cardiological (8)." It must speak both to the listener’s heart as well as its head. Doctrinal preaching need not be boring. Doctrinal preaching, like all preaching, must learn to dance.

The use of the word "escort" in Smith’s definition is not by accident. Smith makes much of two rather provocative metaphors, the "exegetical escort" and the "doxological dancer." Smith admits the sexual overtones of his language (76), but claims to find biblical warrant for their use in texts such as Galatians 3:24. I must say, however, that paidagogos speaks more of the language of the classroom (tutoring and training) than it does of one who ushers or escort. In other words, I think Smith might be guilty of a rather ironic exegetical slip.

That said, I have little difficulty with the concept. "The eschatological escort," Smith writes, "is one who ushers hearers into the presence of God for the purpose of transformation. Once the exegetical escort has ushered hearers into the presence of God and given them the Word, the escort’s job is over. The escort leaves them in the throne room of God and lets God transform them (75)."

This is an important idea. I have used a similar image – that of a ‘host’. No one ought to come to hear me preach. I’m simply hosting an opportunity for my listeners to meet and hear from God. Of course the word "host" would damage the alliterative appeal of Smith’s concept.

The question Smith would like to ask is whether we preachers know how to dance. Though I’m loathe to admit it, my family and I have taken to watching So You Think You Can Dance? every now and again. I have been surprised by my reaction to this television competition. I’ve been impressed by the combination of athleticism and artistry that these dancers are able to exhibit. Many times I have found myself moved to tears, not only by the beauty they portray but also by the message that a particular piece is sometimes able to convey. I have thought that I would love for my preaching to produce a similar kind of impact.

I, like Smith, would love to think that my preaching – even my specifically doctrinal preaching – could somehow actually dance!

Life Transforming Study of God’s Word

For over thirty years I have had the privilege annually to teach in depth some portion of God’s word. This semester my focus was the Gospel of Matthew. What a challenge to lead emerging ministry leaders to engage these vital, authoritative words of Jesus, our Saviour and Lord. And to do this in a way that is obedient to Jesus’ instruction – “you have one Teacher, the Christ” (Matthew 23:10) – adds to the heavy sense of responsibility.

Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ encounter with a man determined to secure for himself eternal life (Matthew 19:16-30). Jesus requires a different obedience – not to the Old Testament Law, but to himself. He will have “treasure in heaven” (21) only if he follows Jesus with full commitment. Jesus requires him to sell his property and give it away, probably because his wealth was too much of an idol for him. The man leaves, filled with sadness “because he had great wealth” (22). The cost Jesus required seemed to outweigh the potential benefits.

One of my students decided to preach on this text at Union Gospel Mission. Our reflection on it in class had stimulated in him some fresh ideas that God’s Spirit was urging him to share. So he did and through this means six people decided that evening to accept Jesus as their Saviour.

I share this to illustrate how powerful the close, detailed study of God’s word can be for effective ministry – even resulting in the salvation of many people.

Sometimes I hear people criticizing seminaries as being too academic or too much of an ‘ivory tower’ and I am sure those complaints have some justification. But there are just as many stories that students tell revealing how life-transforming studying God’s word or theology or church history or missions has been for them, especially the interactions with other students and the faculty. God works within seminary walls too in order to advance his Kingdom in dynamic ways.

In a few days (April 18) Northwest and its partners in ACTS will be graduating about 65 students in eight different degree and diploma programs. Denominational leaders, senior pastors, church planters, Bible translators, counselors, youth pastors, chaplains – all start a new chapter of their ministry life, better trained and hopefully more passionate to serve Jesus. This will mark the conclusion to our 68th year of ministry leadership training. To the Glory of God.

Thank you for your continued prayers and gifts that enable our ministry to flourish and to advance of God’s Kingdom significantly. Your stewardship in this ministry matters.

What’s Sunday For?

The resurrection of Jesus inaugurated one of the most remarkable changes in human religious observance – Sunday became the day of the week for Christian worship. Up to that point in history, Sunday was just another day in the week, a day for work, commerce, and , if you were wealthy enough, pleasure. But Christians made Sunday “the Lord’s Day,” determined to celebrate the Messiah’s resurrection and humanities’ salvation. And this happens first in the Jewish context – something even more astonishing given its commitments to Sabbath and the seventh day of the week.

Naming Sunday “the Lord’s Day” connects it with the “day of the Lord”, an expression found frequently in the Old Testament. The “day of the Lord” marked Yahweh’s incursion into history for salvation or judgment. The resurrection of Jesus Messiah and his ascension demonstrated God’s new action to re-create his people. Sunday, the day of Jesus’ resurrection, is a constant reminder of God’s gracious intervention in Christ, a celebration of our new hope in Christ, and an affirmation of our expectation the Christ will return for the final “Day of the Lord.”

When Christians gathered on Sunday, they made a statement about their identity and the nature of their Messianic community. Jesus is Lord, our Lord! We are his people, his church! We are the demonstration plot of God’s Kingdom rule – chosen race, priestly kingdom, holy nation, God’s special people!

But Sunday also marks a fundamental change in the way Christians understand their lives. By making their affirmations about Jesus and their relationship to him on the “first day of the week,” Christians declare that this is the foundation for all of the ensuing days of the week. Sunday sets the stage for the entire week to become the opportunity to worship God and exalt Jesus in all that they do – in the household, in the marketplace, in the civic community. Sunday is not the end of the week, it is the beginning.

Further, by celebrating on this day, Christians declare that God’s Sabbath rest now envelopes their whole lives. Every day is Sabbath because salvation is secure in Christ, God’s Spirit is resident within, and their whole lives become a continual sacrifice to God. All of life is worship. Jesus offered “rest for our souls” and as the author of Hebrews explains, we have entered into our rest in Christ (Hebrew 4).

When believers understand this significant shift created by the resurrection of Jesus, it sets life within an entirely new frame of reference. Monday to Saturday become the setting for our “ministries,” i.e. the opportunity to be Kingdom agents for God in the workplace, our families and our communities. Sunday’s equip us and remind us of our fundamental allegiance to God and the great Kingdom project He has invited us to participate in.

What’s your Sunday for?

Washing the Feet of Betrayers, Deniers and Runaways

The foot washing scene is peculiar to John’s Gospel (chapter 13). Scholars tell us that it was a common practice to wash one’s feet before reclining at table for a meal. Normally, the host would provide guests with basins of water and towels and they would wash their own feet. Rabbinic teaching stipulated that masters could not require their Jewish slaves to wash other people’s feet, although a Gentile slave could be required to do so. Foot washing was something wives did for their husbands and children for their parents out of respect. And disciples would do for their teachers almost anything a slave would do except deal with their feet, which was considered too demeaning for a free person.

But when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he turned the world of social convention upside down to symbolize the full extent of his love for them and to give them a breathtaking example of how they were to love and serve one another.

What strikes me in this passage is everything this passage tells me Jesus knew ahead of time as he washed the disciples’ feet. Such knowledge would have prevented many a disciple from actually doing what Jesus did.

THE COST OF LOVING DID NOT STOP HIM

First, the known cost of loving didn’t stop him. "Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father." (John 13:1). The means of Jesus’ "home going" was an excruciating death on a cross. Where others would avoid the pain and suffering and the cost of loving another, thinking more of themselves, Jesus gave. He knew ahead of time that he would be a suffering and dying messiah. The cross was the expression of his determination to love "to the fullest extent" and "to the very end."

AWARENESS OF HIS IDENTITY DID NOT STOP HIM

The next thing John tells us that Jesus knew was that "the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God." (John 13:3).

Standing and authority are often the biggest road blocks to service. Who we are and what we have relative to others are exemptions from serving because it is beneath our station to serve "downward." There must be a pecking order, we claim.

The fact of a pecking order may be true for chickens, but it shouldn’t be for the saints.

Paul puts the point poetically when he writes at Philippians 2:6-8 that Jesus, "being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness." Indeed, his self humbling–symbolized at John 13 by washing others’ feet–was massive. The son of God died on a cross for humanity!

DISAPPOINTMENT DID NOT STOP HIM

The final thing John tells us Jesus knew ahead of time was "who was going to betray him…." (John 13:11) The devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus, John says. 

For most folks it would be exceedingly difficult to find it in their heart to be generous in the face of a deep hurt or betrayal from the one they were pledged to love. After all, if it didn’t actually justify retaliation, couldn’t we claim an exemption from serving another? FOOT WASHING

What did Jesus do? John says Jesus washed all the disciples’ feet–even Judas’! Within hours of the meal, Judas had carried out his betrayal of Jesus to the authorities. But so too, within hours, Peter had denied Jesus several times! And within hours, all the rest of the twelve had run away!

Not only were the disciples, to a man, merely human and not divine like Jesus, but each one in turn had shown themselves less than faithful and entirely unworthy. Yet, Jesus loved them, one and all, to the uttermost.

He washed the feet of the betrayer, the denier and the runaways.

WE LOVE BECAUSE…

What would have stopped others from serving and loving did not stop Jesus. He knew the supreme cost that love would call from him. He knew exactly who he was, but he stooped, nevertheless, to the level of humanity and died in their place on a Roman cross. And he loved against the shocks of human ignorance, ingratitude and hostility.

That kind of love is the pattern we are to imitate. Jesus advised, "now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you." (John 13:14, 15)

That kind of love is the proof of our discipleship. "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (John 13:45)

That kind of love is traceable to its source and therefore a powerful witness to the great Lover of our souls and the Example extraordinaire: "We love because he first loved us." (1 John 4:19)

Gird Thy Loins With Truth – Ephesians 6:14

I’ll freely confess that I had serious hesitation about add this bit of news to the weblog. It’s not as if there isn’t enough bad news circulating around to cultivate a sense of cultural anxiety and spiritual nausea. But, just when I’ve been tempted to just turn off the news, I got the latest survey data from George Barna.

Since 1995, the Barna group has been monitoring the level of "Biblical Worldview" held by adult Americans through an exhaustive nationwide survey. When I read the results of his first survey, I was depressed. The latest results have taken my depression to a new and lower level.

Why? What’s the big deal? The reason, as Barna wrote in 2003 [Think Like Jesus, p. 56] is that "you become what you believe." Expand that axiom to a larger level, and the cultural consequences are staggering. We are becoming what we generally believe, and bit by bit, the data shows that the mind of Believers is being torqued in dangerous directions.

Consider some of the findings [you can read even more at: www.barna.org – March 9, 2009]:

The survey found that:

  • One-third of all adults (34%) believe that moral truth is absolute and unaffected by the circumstances. Slightly less than half of the born again adults (46%) believe in absolute moral truth.
  • Half of all adults firmly believe that the Bible is accurate in all the principles it teaches. That proportion includes the four-fifths of born again adults (79%) who concur.
  • Just one-quarter of adults (27%) are convinced that Satan is a real force. Even a minority of born again adults (40%) adopt that perspective.
  • Similarly, only one-quarter of adults (28%) believe that it is impossible for someone to earn their way into Heaven through good behavior. Not quite half of all born again Christians (47%) strongly reject the notion of earning salvation through their deeds.
  • A minority of American adults (40%) are persuaded that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life while He was on earth. Slightly less than two-thirds of the born again segment (62%) strongly believes that He was sinless.
  • Seven out of ten adults (70%) say that God is the all-powerful, all-knowing creator of the universe who still rules it today. That includes the 93% of born again adults who hold that conviction.

Differences among Demographic Segments

The research data showed that one pattern emerged loud and clear: young adults rarely possess a biblical worldview. The current study found that less than one-half of one percent of adults in the Mosaic generation – i.e., those aged 18 to 23 – have a biblical worldview, compared to about one out of every nine older adults.

The challenge facing an authentic, unapologetic, Biblical, Christlike ministry is immense, and imperative. The Gospel is more than a private affection. It is, in Jesus’ words, light and salt. And, I have to believe that it is the only reliable element standing in the way of "the complete demise of our culture, the loss of meaning and purpose in life, and the rejection of all that God holds dear and significant. [Think Like Jesus, p. 57] So, I take those thoughts to heart, and "gird my loins."

Grateful for God’s Protection

The following story, incredible as it sounds, is true. I share it as testimony to the protecting power of God and the tremendous benefit of belonging to a community of God’s people.

Last Friday my wife and I received a disturbing midnight telephone call from our 18-year old son who is temporarily working in London, England. Kirk was in his bed late at night watching a movie on his computer when three masked men broke into his apartment and began to threaten both him and his room-mate. These were serious Eastern European "mafia" type criminals looking to take captive someone named Kevin, presumably a previous tenant of the apartment.

Kirk and his friend had only been in the apartment for about two weeks and had no idea who or what these men were talking about. It took some time for the intruders to realize that the person they were looking for was not in the apartment. At that point the intruders became angry and decided to turn things into a robbery. My son and his friend were bound, gagged, and held in separate rooms while the thieves ransacked the apartment, destroying the carpeting, the furniture, and taking with them everything of value. At one point, they held a knife to Kirk’s throat, demanding the PIN numbers for his bank cards. Eventually, after afflicting a full hour of terror, the intruders left. Kirk was able to work himself and his room-mate free before quickly summoning the police.

After returning from several hours at the police station, Kirk called us on a neighbor’s borrowed computer. Unfortunately, the call was dropped and he was unable to re-establish a connection. All we knew, here in Canada, was a basic summary of the incident and the knowledge that he was physically unharmed. We spent the rest of the night trying to re-establish contact.

We first tried calling the London police but we could not find a number that would allow an overseas connection. We tried the local police here in the hope that they might have a way of connecting us. They suggested calling the Canadian Foreign Affairs department in Ottawa. We did, but given that it was the weekend, they were only willing to take a report. We tried to find Kirk’s employer, but as he works for a very large franchised company, we were unable to find him by that means.

A few hours hours later, my wife noticed a pen from Hillsong, the church that Kirk has been involved with while in London. "We could call the church," she said. We did and were immediately assured that the church knew about the incident and had been actively involved in supporting the boys. Within ten minutes we were talking to our son. Where the government and the police couldn’t help us, it was the church that was able to give us the help that we needed.

Of course the church helped in many further ways. Kirk was given some emergency financial assistance. Church members have helped with the apartment clean-up and restoration. Kirk was able to indefinitely borrow a computer from one church member and a phone from another, making communication possible again. For all this, we are truly grateful to the good people at Hillsong London. The community of God’s people are a tremendous resource in a crisis.

Most of all, we are grateful to God for the courage and the protection that he has given to our son. Kirk is doing reasonably well. He has been able to sleep. He tells us that God gave him the ability to remain calm as he was praying throughout the ordeal. "I always knew that God was with me," he said, "and that I was going to make it through."

I can’t tell you how gratifying it is as a parent, to see one’s son responding with maturity and wisdom in the most trying of experiences. Under severe pressure his faith held up and God proved himself faithful. Praise be to his name.

I want to thank all of you who have been aware of these circumstances and who have been praying. We are grateful to God for all of you.
 

Leading Without Blinders

Churches grow and diminish; educational institutions thrive and then fade; missions burn fervently and then stagnate; denominations ebb and flow. People express considerable curiosity about the factors that cause human institutions to flourish for a time, but then, it seems inevitably, begin to falter or at least lose their initial momentum.

E.Gibbons wrote The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, seeking to isolate the key element that led to the disintegration and collapse of that Empire whose power for centuries seemed immutable. In our time we have observed the disintegration of the Soviet domination and people speculate whether the leadership of the United States similarly has peaked. Will the 21st Century be China’s Century?

These issues also apply to religious institutions. Will the Willowcreek Movement, when Bill Hybels retires, retain its vigour? What happens to the influence of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association when Dr. Graham passes away? What happens to a thriving church plant when the initial church planter moves on? Or what about the church that has surged in growth to 500 or a 1000 through the leadership of a really competent, godly pastoral leader — and that leader, for whatever reason, no longer is present? WIll it sustain its vision and momentum?

Within the ACTS Consortium of which Northwest Baptist Seminary is a member we have been pursuing a course of renewed vision. Several leadership changes have happened.Membership in the consortium is changing. Educating ministry leaders is experiencing serious, deep change. Economic challenges limit our choices for renewal. The energizing times a decade ago, when every year saw growth, have been replaced with a pattern of enrolment decline and budget retrenchment. Twenty years into our collaborative vision, we are working hard to discern the way forward to renewed vision and vigour.

If prayer, effort, energy, and creative thinking have anything to do with it, then ACTS and its member seminaries will experience a resurgence. We have examined carefully what has caused our loss of momentum. Collectively we have gathered our best wisdom internally and externally to discern what our future pathway must be. Plans are being implemented to initiate these new ideas. We are ready to risk, ready to move forward, ready to try again, because we care about the mission God has given to us and we desire to serve God and his church.

To get to this position has required us to adopt an attitude of institutional humility. Admitting that we may not have got some things right or acknowledging that what once worked well, no longer is effective — these are hard things. Being willing to listen to other voices than our own and take seriously the wisdom they offer requires gracious submission to God’s Spirit. We have to trust new leadership and after careful deliberation take new risks. We have to fashion new clay vessels within which to carry the valued goods of ministry leadership training.

I think for me the most significant lesson I have learned as a leader throught these past several years is that we started the process for ACTS’ renewal too late. We failed to re-invigorate our collaborative work soon enough. We failed to see some of the warning signs and respond with sufficient vigour and energy to deal with them.

Hindsight is always wiser. However, if we do not learn from our experience, then we probably will repeat the same mistakes. I think this is the burden of leadership — to keep learning from our experience and innovating for the future, while energetically maintaining effective mission and ministry in the present. Incompetence in any one of these three will result in significant damage to the ministry you lead. Paying attention to one more than the others can also jeopardize achieving outcomes.

Are churches ready for Significant Conversations?

I have done the introductory workshop for Significant Conversations (a grassroots approach to evangelism) in a number of churches during the past year, with far greater interest and response than anticipated.  The workshop was initially designed for church boards so that they could evaluate the approach and decide whether or not to present the concept to the congregation.  Three churches in a row were so comfortable with the idea that the workshop was opened up to anyone interested.

At the first church we set up three tables expecting 3-4 extra people besides the board members: over 25 showed up.  The second church phoned three days before the meeting, “We heard that [the first] church opened up the meeting to the whole congregation.  Can we do that as well?”  Once again, we set up one row of tables, expecting maybe 10 other people who would be interested, and for a second time, over 25 came including some young people who interacted with the material reflecting their own conversations with friends at school.

Some people learn and take corrective measures.  The rest of us ignore the obvious.  At the third church, anyone who was interested in Significant Conversations was invited to remain after the morning service for lunch and the workshop. We ran short of pizza and had to rearrange the tables and chairs to accommodate the 30+ people – nearly half the congregation – who came and interacted with the grassroots evangelism concepts.

Why this interest?

Why this interest?  It may be that believers are anxious to find a way to interact on a deeper and more significant level with their friends, colleagues and relatives.  I suspect that people want to know how to talk to the people in their lives about important issues.  Although I cannot speak definitively, here are some reasons for the unexpected interest that resonate with me.

1) It is difficult in Canada to talk about spiritual things.  Religion and faith are taboo subjects.  A fellow believer involved in Significant Conversations made friends with his neighbor.  The neighbor laid down conditions for the relationship: “No discussions about religion or politics.”  After a year of interaction, the neighbor is only now showing signs that he would like to compromise on that rule.

2) The spiritual environment has changed over the last few decades.  In previous years a question such as “Do you believe in God?” would be met with a straightforward response, “yes” or “no.”  Now the answers are far more complicated, “Which god?”  “I have a spirit-force to help me,” “God is in us all,” “All paths are God’s paths.” Believers want help to navigate the complex worldviews they are confronted with.

3) People feel alone.  There has been an unspoken expectation in churches that once a person leaves the four walls of the church, they are on their own.  But many want the prayer, support and guidance of other believers.  They feel daunted by the thoughtful questions they face and want to be equipped to respond in ways that will continue the conversation and reveal the hope that we have in Christ.

4) We live in a multicultural environment.  The ethnic mix of the surrounding neighborhood is changing, while the ethnic makeup of the church tends to remain constant.  People are unfamiliar with the cross-cultural dynamics of outreach and would like guidance.

Interested? Check out the Significant Conversations webpage or contact Mark via the form below.
 

Contact Mark Naylor

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Stray Cats and Tax Collectors

 Andrea was frantic. Freddie, her beloved cat, was lost! That may not have been Freddie’s sense of things, but that’s the way Andrea saw it.  They’d adopted the black cat from the Humane Society animal shelter. They searched for Freddie in all the usual places–and the not so usual ones–around the house, in the yard and throughout the neighbourhood. Everyone knew Freddie to see him, but there was no Freddie to be seen!

It took some time to find Freddie; in fact, three years!

Freddie was picked up as a stray and returned to the animal shelter where personnel, as part of the processing, discovered that Freddie had had a microchip  implanted under his skin at the time Andrea’s family first adopted him and took him home. The shelter was able to contact Andrea’s family, who’d moved in the meantime, to let them know that Freddie had been found.

After three years, Freddie and Andrea were finally reunited!

In the nineteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus gives us his expressed mission statement: "For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost." (Luke 19:10) There is a strong emphasis in Luke on "lost and found" things and persons (see especially Luke 15). But Jesus’ mission statement occurs in the context of a controversial dinner engagement in Jericho.

The "stray cat," in this case, was a chief tax collector named Zacchaeus. 

One might have thought that Jesus would not have had time for a man so roundly hated in the community for the extortionate way he earned his living and how badly this hurt people. Zacchaeus was a religious write-off, unworthy of Jesus’ time and attention as far as the community was concerned.

The fact that Jesus went to Zacchaeus’ house raised tension in the community toward Jesus himself. "What’s Jesus doing, hanging around with the obviously-wicked?" people thought. "At the very least, it shows a very poor sense of judgment."

 

ZACCHAEUS–A DIVINE POSSESSION LOST

The challenge in the community’s "othering" of Zacchaeus was that it ignored a very important reality. One that the Christian community needs to reckon with too  when thinking about and relating to the lost.

Zacchaeus the stray was lost, but he still belonged to God!

The signs of that possession in the text are plain to see. First, there is Zacchaeus’ name; it’s a variant of the name "Zachariah" which means "the righteous one." Zacchaeus had been born under the covenant of God and raised by a Jewish family to see himself as part of the people of God and God’s possession.  His name suggests a parental hope for his highest and most godly aspiration. Second, he showed the sign of being God’s possession by his intense curiosity about Jesus. Luke relates, "he wanted to see who Jesus was." Perhaps Jesus’ reputation as a "friend of tax collectors and sinners" had created the interest.

These were all divine "microchips" embedded beneath Zacchaeus’ lost exterior. They’re like the divine "microchips" of possession embedded in Zacchaeus-types all around us.

Sadly, Christians over-frequently forget that the lost also belong to God–whether they acknowledge it or not!Stray Cat

As far away as he was from God, the signs of divine ownership on Zacchaeus were there to be seen–if one cared to look! Like the lost sheep of the shepherd, the lost coin of the woman, and the lost son of the father, Zacchaeus was still a treasured possession, but out of the hand of God. Zacchaeus had lost his way through involvement in the Roman taxation system, buying contracts to collect taxes and then sweating, gouging and cheating his fellow Jews to make a huge profit. There was no room for faith, fellowship or friendship in any of this enterprise. He’d traded them all away for the love of money.

Zacchaeus was lost to God. He had no comfort. But something was drawing him and someone was drawing near to him.

 

JESUS–SEEKING AND SAVING

Jesus’ mission from God was to "seek and to save what was lost." Jesus has made it our mission too (Matthew 28:18-20).

But what does it take to "seek"? It takes time for one thing. Jesus was certainly spending time on Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was one important reason why Jesus was in Jericho. Whether it was divine insight, good planning, or something else, he was why Jesus looked into the sycamore-fig tree (vv. 4 and 5: Zaachaeus wanted to see Jesus, but probably not be seen), called the tax collector by name, told him to climb down, and invited himself over for a meal.

Jesus’ intensity and initiative with Zacchaeus was unashamed, purposeful, and persistent.

Obviously, more than hospitality took place between verses 6 and 8 in the narrative. Like the meal with another tax collector named Levi (Luke 5:27-32), there would have been spirited conversation, and in that context there would indeed have been intense and very direct positive engagement from Jesus on the subject of who Zacchaeus ultimately belonged to and was resisting–that he needed to return.

Seeking not only called for Jesus to be daring and creative; he also had to have thick skin. Religious types criticized Jesus for "hanging out with the wicked;" consorting with spiritual losers. But he was unphased by the disapproval. Jesus knew his mission. He couldn’t seek and save the lost if he only hung out with the "holy." 

The logic seems pretty clear; but, sadly, modern day disciples somehow just don’t get it.

 

WHAT DOES "SAVED" LOOK LIKE?

It’s pretty easy to know when you’ve found something or someone physically. But what does a "found" or "saved" person look like spiritually? While people who are saved become orientated more closely to God and his people and have a growing interest in "spiritual" things, it may be that the answer to the question is a whole lot simpler and less generic than we oftentimes make it.

Perhaps the answer to the first question comes when we’ve answered a second question: "In what way(s) is that person lost?" If there is a significant change in that expression of lostness, we can have a measure of confidence that that person has been "saved."

Consider Zaacheus. He was lost in the area of money. He’d sold his soul for it and sold out his faith and community for it. The acquisition of loads of cash was his passion; it was his god. That’s a big one for people today.

What does "found" and "saved" look like? It’s when there is a transformation of Zacchaeus in the area that most profoundly expresses his lostness.

When Zacchaeus openly and publicly confessed that he had formerly been a lover of money above everything else and that he had put that all aside, it was clear something absolutely profound had occurred in him. Where before he had been a grasping hoarder, now he was a man of charity. The rabbis indicated that if one gave away as much as 20% of their possessions, this was "righteous." Zacchaeus declared that he would give away half of all he owned! Zacchaeus had formerly been a man with a seared conscience when it came to cheating others by his office; now he declared that he would repay those he had cheated plus significant damages (v. 8; cf. Leviticus 6:1-5; Exodus 22:1; 2 Samuel 12:6). In the area where Zacchaeus was most lost, that was the area where there was a demonstration that he had been found.

Zacchaeus was saved right to the very bottom of his wallet!

Jesus knew it and he declared as much: "Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham." (v. 9)

 

A FEW QUESTIONS

Lost. What indications are there in the people you know and want to share the gospel with that they bear the stamp of God’s ownership on them? Have you ever told them this? How have they become lost? You’ll need to be quite sensitive to observe and listen. Make this a matter of prayer asking for spiritual sensitivity to "read" people for their lostness.

Seeking. Do you and your church show the pattern of Jesus in aggressive, clear, straightforward, sharp-eyed, daring, tough-skinned and persistent seeking? Do you hang out with the lost?

Found. As you share the good news about God’s love, are you looking to see friends and acquaintances "found" in the particular areas in which they have shown themselves to be lost?

The Church Transformed

One of the names I have come to trust and respect when it comes to understanding Church dynamics is George Bullard. For years, I have benefited from his analysis of everything from denominational renewal to congregational development. In an age where people seem eager to dismiss the Church, it is refreshing to find a man of wisdom and faith treating the Body of Christ with care. One of the early Church Fathers laid out a profound principle that seems somewhat lost in this generation: "No one can have God as Father who does not have the Church as Mother" (St Cyprian of Carthage) It seems as if George Bullard has made it a mission to keep the divine family intact.

Over the last few years, I have referred often to the extensive studies conducted by Bullard through the Columbia Partnership. Since the studies are frequently financed by grants and foundations, the results made available to a wide audience. During the Fall of 2008, has recently produced some interesting discoveries: Enduring Principles of Congregational Transformation.

Bullard introduced the issue by saying: Congregational Transformation, by various names, has been a focus for North American churches since the 1950’s. Over more than 50 various approaches and principles for transformation have been offered by numerous individuals and organizations. Some of these approaches and principles are enduring. Others are not.

I bear witness to the truth of this assessment. Due to a number of factors (not the least of which is the success of our Best Practices for Church Boards workshops) we have engaged in a growing interaction with Churches that are engaged in vision renewal and strategic reformation. TheFEBBC/Y Ministry Centre has initiated consultations to help congregations through the process, and I’ve researched and been trained in at least 5 of the 50 numbered by Bullard.

In light of all of that, Bullard’s Columbia Partnership conducted a survey to put the principles to test. They began with a catalog of 21 enduring principles in terms of perceived validity, strength, importance, and enduring nature. Things like: Continual transformation rather than one-time transformation, being both spiritual and strategic, balancing a focus between past and future, Kingdom growth rather than Church growth, vision plus intentionality.

"This research is confirming some very important principles, and also informing us where principles we believe are very important for the transformation of congregations have not yet caught on," wrote George Bullard.

The preliminary results of the survey are beginning to make their way into the public record, and I would commend them as food for thought. Persons interested in a summary of the complete preliminary results and a PowerPoint presentation that contains a presentation of the results may send a request to [email protected].

At the risk of sounding like the shopping channel: But WAIT, there’s MORE! The survey is still open, and I would encourage pastors and church leaders to weigh in with their results to provide a more robust and full picture that would benefit us all. You can access the survey at:
http://bullardjournal.blogs.com/bullardjournal/2009/02/what-is-and-is-not-congregational-transformation.html

Oh, and while you are there, I would encourage you to visit the home page for even more resources and even sign up for the free newsletter.

Will Video Venues Kill Preaching as We Know It?

Will video venues eventually mean the death of preaching? This is the provocative idea argued by Bob Hyatt on his bob.blog.

Hyatt cites Shane Hipps in his book Flickering Pixels, who suggests that “every medium when pushed to an extreme, will reverse on itself, revealing unintended consequences.” The car, for example, eased our mobility, but too many cars results in injury, death, and environmental damage. The internet speeds communications and reduces ignorance, but too much information leads to greater confusion. “Surveillance cameras, when there are too many that see too far, reverse into an invasion of privacy,” says Hipps.

“In other words,” Hyatt writes, “what was originally meant to make us go fast now slows us down, what was meant to make us smart now increases our ignorance and what was meant to make us feel safe now makes us feel exposed.” The rule, he says, is that “technology, taken too far, creates the opposite of what it was intended to create.”

Hyatt applies this theory to preaching. Microphones were intended to increase our range. Tapes, television, podcasts, and vodcasts all serve to continue to extend the reach of our preaching. The problem, he says, is that now through technology we’re not only recording the sermon, but we’re broadcasting it so that the preaching gift of one person not only has the “ability to reach the back row, but the next town, state, continent.” “And we’re not just talking about Spurgeon publishing his sermons,” he continues, “or Schuller putting his on TV or Driscoll putting his on iTunes… Now we’re talking about not just influencing local preachers by making the ‘best’ communicator’s sermons available… we’re talking about replacing those local teaching elders.” The technology, he says, is reversing on itself.

Hyatt envisions a soon future where every city will have, among others, the Driscoll franchise, the Andy Stanley franchise, and perhaps two or three of each. “Sure, smaller churches will still exist, but in fewer and fewer numbers as dying churches are replaced not by vibrant church plants full of people forced to build a community from the ground up and so learn all the lessons along the way, but by video venue franchises – prepackaged church-in-a-box. And I’m telling you – there will be fewer and fewer men and women (most certainly fewer women) who ever learn to preach, who ever get the experience of working with others to discern what God is saying to their local body through Spirit and Word and prayerfully struggle through how they can creatively communicate that as well over the course of weeks, months and years of life together.”

“We’re talking about the death of preaching in evangelicalism by all but a small handful of Celebrity Communicators who have little knowledge about those they teach from such far distances.”

Of course, we’ve heard this kind of thing before. People have been announcing the end of preaching for as long as can remember. I suspect that the video venue phenomenon will continue and increase in influence, but I’m suspicious of this movement’s ability to completely overtake the church. As a friend of mine put it, you are I on an average day are better than the video preachers on their best day.

I don’t doubt the effect of large screen preaching by specially gifted communicators. These days, we all know the power of the big screen. What I am thinking about, however, is the pastoral nature of preaching. Whether or not we listen once a week to the celebrity preacher, we will still need someone in our midst who knows us and who walks with us.

Besides, preaching happens throughout the church, in multiple venues and many different ways, practiced by a variety of people. To say that preaching is dying, is frankly, laughable. Of course, if we only see preaching as the privilege of a single person, set apart for this special purpose, then we might as well begin connecting to the satellites and enlarging the screen size in our sanctuaries.

Preaching will never be the privilege of only just a handful. Preaching is the task of all of us. May it live long and prosper.

Prompted

I had a unique and unexpected experience the other day.  I was having a breakfast meeting in a restaurant with the chair of a missions committee.  When we had finished the meal, I asked the waitress for the bill and she replied, “That has already been taken care of.  That couple over there has paid for your breakfast.”  We were stunned and wondered if we knew them (or they us!), but when we went over to thank them, they were strangers.

“Do you mind if I ask why you did this?” I ventured.  The woman replied, “I felt that this was something I should do.  God bless you!”

“Are you Christians?” I asked.  “Yes,” she responded with a smile.  We exchanged contact information and promised to pray for each other.

As I later meditated on this experience, I was moved both by the expression of God’s love I had experienced, and also by the willingness of these people to make sacrifices at the prompting of the Spirit.  Too often I dismiss such promptings as fanciful, when I should be more attuned to the way God’s Spirit is at work.  The following day I wrote them this email:

I would like to express again my appreciation for your willingness to follow the Spirit’s promptings in your life.  Your action has done far more for me than provide breakfast!  I have felt affirmed and blessed by God through this.  The fact that God would use you to speak such a message of encouragement to me has been both challenging and comforting.   Not only is it exciting to meet people such as yourselves who are living out the reality of listening to the Spirit of God, but to have God care for me in that way through you has reaffirmed the belief that God is a loving father who brings people and instances into our lives that are in reality his hand of mercy and grace. 

Your faithfulness in this has also challenged me to be more sensitive to the Spirit’s promptings in my life.  I have a friend who listens to the Spirit when he is having conversations with others and is often prompted to say things to others for reasons of which he is unaware.  Often people will come back and thank him for letting God use him to speak into their lives.

It is all God’s mission, we are along for the ride.

 

 

Ministry Assessment Process

Human beings have been creating simple maps before they knew how to write. The oldest maps in the world pre-date the third millennium before Christ. Our desire to locate ourselves and find our destination seems to be as old as human creation itself. And this cartographic creativity is not limited to one group of human beings. Various ancient cultures created their own maps.

Locating ourselves in terms of God’s purposes requires a different kind of map. This April as part of our annual Fellowship Convention and Leadership Conference Northwest is introducing the Ministry Assessment Process (M.A.P.). This is a collaborative initiative under the auspices of the Fellowship Centre for Leadership Development, with initial funding provided by a grant from the Baptist Foundation.

Dr. Lyle SchragM.A.P. offers individuals in our churches the opportunity to explore deeply God’s calling and direction for ministry. We have invited pastors to recommend individuals and be willing to mentor them as they begin this journey of exploration. At the end of the process our goal is for each participant to understand God’s calling in life and to have designed an equipping pathway to move intentionally in that direction.

If our Fellowship of churches is to be healthy and achieving its vision, we know that many more, godly, effective ministry leaders must be discerned, mentored and equipped. The M.A.P. initiative represents another means by which Northwest seeks to serve effectively as a primary leadership development agency within the Western Regions of our Fellowship. Our intent is to re-ignite within our churches a keener awareness of God’s calling into ministry.

I am also pleased to report that The Journey, our Centre for Graduate Ministry Leadership Training in Edmonton, has completed its second cycle of courses this February. Dr. Kent Anderson was one of the teachers, offering a course in preaching. The third series of courses will be offered in May, 2009.

Planning, implementing and sustaining ministry leadership training initiatives requires significant personnel and financial resources. These are intensive Kingdom training activities, deserving the very best resources we can provide. Your continued investment in Northwest Baptist Seminary ensures their success. The long term health of our churches and other Kingdom ministries depends upon it.

Thank you for your consistent prayer and financial support for our ministry.

The Canada/US Border and the Borderless Gospel

Today, President Obama crossed the 49th parallel for his first official foreign visit…to Canada.

News reports, media conversation, and general talk around the water cooler here in Canada is all very hopeful that things get off to a smooth start between Obama and Harper, that the conversation will be amicable and positive and that these two men and their respective administrations will be able to work together to our countries’ mutual benefit on issues like the economy and security.

I wonder if President Obama had problems crossing the border?

I remember just a few years ago how much easier it used to be crossing the border. Now, we all sluff along through airport security gates without our shoes, belts, or coins in our pockets, holding onto our trousers while our bags are scanned for "threatening objects." Vehicles are more closely scrutinized and their license plates photographed, occupants are more intensively questioned by customs agents, passports and other documents are more closely examined.  And its happening on both sides of the border.

That marvelous 3,000 mile long undefended border of ancient fame and boast has grown remote.  It’s been replaced by something much thicker, less porous, taking much longer and being much harder to cross.

The other day I saw on the news that the first unmanned US drone has begun to fly along the US/Canada border. The promise is that there will soon be more of them overhead. I wonder when they’ll be equipped with weapons, in addition to the awesome array of sophisticated surveillance equipment?

While I can understand some of this, post-9/11, there is a certain irony to it for those of us living in the Pacific Northwest.

At the White Rock/Bellingham border crossing point there’s a park and in that park is a peace arch. It declares that the US and Canada are "Children of a Common Mother." While it says we’re family, it certainly doesn’t feel that way anymore. Last time I visited my brother, I don’t recall being interrogated, frisked or x-rayed–that’s just not the family thing to do … although it is polite to remove your shoes as you cross the threshold.

In this kind of a climate, where the walls are going up throughout the world, the spiritual witness of a peaceable borderlessness in the church can be quite powerful.

Paul instructed the Ephesians, many of whom were Gentiles by birth, that the costly work of Christ was all about their inclusion, citizenship, and enfranchisement to the blessings of God along with believing Jews. Jesus’ crucifixion, Paul declared,

"made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit." (Ephesians 2:14-18)

How penetrable is the threshold of your church to the newly-converted? Is it like the Canada/US border is becoming or is it more like the Christian community of Christ’s re-creation?

 

 

Let’s Get the Application Right!

I just spent some time working through Haddon Robinson’s excellent article, The Heresy of Application with a group of students. Robinson contends that there is more heresy preached in application than through exegesis. It is when we try to concretize the listener’s response to God’s Word that we often get in trouble. In our attempt to help people with practical aspects of their life experience, we sometimes credit God with things he never actually said.

Does the Bible promise that if we raise our children as Christians, that they will always life faithfully for Christ? Does the Word of God promise that husbands and wives who submit to each other will never experience disharmony in their marriages? Well, no, despite the fact that these things are often preached that way.

There are several kinds of implications that can arise from the texts we preach, Robinson says. “For example, a necessary implication of “You shall not commit adultery” is you cannot have a sexual relationship with a person who is not your spouse. A probable implication is you ought to be very careful of strong bonding friendships with a person who is not your spouse. A possible implication is you ought not travel regularly to conventions or other places with a person who is not your spouse. An improbable conclusion is you should not at any time have lunch with someone who is not your spouse. An impossible implication is you ought not have dinner with another couple because you are at the same table with a person who is not your spouse. Too often preachers give to a possible implication all the authority of a necessary implication, which is at the level of obedience. Only with necessary implications can you preach, ‘Thus saith the Lord.’”

Those of us who care about honoring God by getting the text right, will also want to make sure that we get the application right as well.

A Brief Note on Gunaikes in 1 Timothy 3:11 – Deacons or Wives?

In response to one of my blogs someone asked how we are to understand the role of the women mentioned in 1 Timothy 3:11. Are they to be included among the diakonoi, i.e. deacons, or were they the wives of male diakonoi. In other words, did women serve in an official capacity as diakonoi (deacons) in the early church?

Responding to such a question requires more space than a blog provides. However, the query directly asked whether Charles Ryrie’s statement that Paul could have used “diakonos with the feminine article or diakonissa would probably have come to his mind” (Charles Ryrie, The Role of Women in the Church (Chicago: Moody Press, 1958), 91), if he had intended to state that women were serving as diakonoi, was supported by the evidence.
Howard Marshall in The Pastoral Epistles (London: T. & T. Clark, 1999), 493 notes that “no feminine form of diakonos existed to serve as a technical designation.” William Mounce, Pastoral Epistles (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000), 202 says that “the feminine form of the word diakonos (diakonissa) had not yet been created.”So diakonissa was not a option for Paul at this time. By far the majority of uses documented come much later than the New Testament period. The major Classical Greek Lexicon compiled by Liddell and Scott list one example found in an inscription, but it offers no proposed dating for this inscription. So I think that Marshall and Mounce are right in saying that a feminine form diakonissa did not exist when Paul was writing 1Timothy and so Ryrie is wrong in this part of his argument.
Paul could have written hai diakonoi, using the feminine form of the Greek article to signal that he was referring to female deacons. Herbert Smyth, Greek Grammar (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956), 46) states that “many nouns denoting persons are either masculine or feminine.” He cites the noun pais as an example. With the masculine article it means ‘boy’, but with the feminine article it means ‘girl’. Diakonos has the same characteristic.
If Paul is referring to female deacons, he seems to have chosen a different strategy. In this section where he is discussing the general character of diakonoi, he includes a section that refers to the general character of female deacons, but refers to them simply as gunaikes. He then completes his discussion by mentioning some specific behaviour that should characterize male deacons. We might question why Paul does not discuss all aspects of male deacons first and then talk about “the women” deacons, but Paul is the writer. We can only speculate why he chose to write it in this order.
As Ryrie points out, Phoebe, in Romans 16:1 is described as diakonon t?s ekkl?sias, i.e. deacon/servant of the church which is in Cenchrea. In this context Paul is quite comfortable using the noun diakonos to describe her. 
Certainly the term diakonos can be applied to a woman (e.g. Phoebe), but whether in such a case it has a technical or general sense remains debated. That Paul connects Phoebe in this role with a specific church might argue for more of a technical, official sense. How such officials functioned in the early church and whether male and female diakonoi exercised the same roles is unclear. We have to work very hard lest we read back our 21st century assumptions as to what women can and cannot do in the church, into the first century emerging Christian house churches as described in the New Testament.

 

 

The Anatomy of Atheistic Slogans

I’m sure some have heard the slogans about to appear on city buses, from Montreal to Vancouver, many times before in their lives. Two of them run as follows; "There’s probably No God", or "There is no God so Stop Worrying". O really? Is this the best that atheistic societies can come up with? Why not use the more forceful and certainly more interesting "God is Dead!" slogan on Frederic Nietzsche. You cannot help but feel for these folk as they attempt to come to grips with their minority status in the realm of ideas today. As for "worrying" what God might mean for our lives, this slogan completely misses the mark. Even avid theists stopped worrying about what God means for them long ago. One might call these people ‘theoretical theists but practical atheists’. They populate the pews of nearly every church in the land, including the most conservative of Evangelical churches. We theologians call this condition the late modern religious malaise. Our lives in the west have been so comfortable and self-sustaining over the last 60 plus years that one only need nod in the direction of the divine, now and then. The rest of the time God can be forgotten. If our times have any distinguishing feature it is not atheism or theism but, as the Germans say, Gottesgewissenheit, or ‘God-forgetfulness.’There is no God poster

We might have seen something of a return to concern about our relation to the divine in the current circumstances, perhaps even a substantial increase in such since 9/11, but by and large the last half of the 20th, and the dawn of the 21st, century in the west was hardly marked by a theistically induced angst, given the socio-economic situation. If there is an overwhelming slogan for what is really going on it would be "God is forgotten" or "forget God and live as you please". This was the condition of Israel as stated at the end of the book of Judges in the Hebrew Bible where it says "everyone did as he saw fit." (Jdg. 21:25) We in the west have not viewed God as a serious threat to our existence since the rumbling guns of WW I & II faded away in the 1950’s.

While we are perhaps headed for another round of questioning our existence in relation to the divine in the not to distant future, we are hardly there yet. A lot more has to happen before the tenuousness of our existence is so forced on our horizon that we are driven to a re-examination of our lives in relation to the possibility of the existence of the divine. The fact is the softness with which these slogans are putting the question may well engender a new and fresh round of clear, unmitigated theism. Perhaps a better slogan might be "Shush! God is Asleep" or "Please Don’t Wake God." Atheists would have better success in furthering their agenda if they promoted this practical atheism then raising the specter of theoretical atheism, which is sure to be met by an equally ardent theism, especially from the serious followers of God in the so-called "monotheistic faiths." C’mon you can do better than that can’t you. Perhaps the problem is the reverse for atheists that it is for theists. Perhaps they have become so accustomed to living life without God that they secretly miss fighting with God and are now bucking for a fresh brew-ha-ha with the divine, and God’s supporters. One cannot help thinking though that their slogans are just as insipid as the practical atheism of the theists. Picture a big yawn from the current writer at this point, and do wake me up when this is over.

As for the slogan "There’s Probably No God", this is said with all the gusto of a politician, testing the waters to see if he/she should venture the "full Monty" and say outright, "there is no God". Perhaps they are awaiting the polling data on this slogan. This slogan will only invite the opposite sentiment, "perhaps there is a God" in the mind of the reader of such a slogan? What then? How should we live even if God is only ever confined to the realm of probability, either way? Perhaps this is the secret angst that sits at the heart of the late modern religious malaise? We cannot seem to break the spell of Kantanian agnosticism. All of our reasoning either for or against leaves us both wanting more and less of the divine? In fact, the slogan really does point to the real struggle the atheists are having. Since their reason militates against the affirmation of God, but does not permit them absolute proof, they are always suspended in (dis)-belief. They exist in a kind of intellectual "no-mans-land" (with due respect to "women" here). The best they can hope for is that we will be reaffirmed in out late modern religious malaise and continue to forget about God. But again they are begging the question when they put it out there is such a public way. What happens if the net result of their advertising issues in a re-affirmation of strong theism in the land generally. How will they spend the next several years in their discussion groups? What ever will they do with the rest of their advertising money? How will they come to grips with the money they wasted? Here’s a slogan for you theists out there, "There Are No Real Atheists so Stop Worrying." I know I already have. God will be God in the Freedom that is God’s to be God and not a wit of whit from theists or atheist will change that! So good night and sleep tight!

“There is probably no God”

This is GREAT! A Canada-wide evangelism campaign organized and funded by atheist and humanist societies.  Atheist and humanist societies in Canada are following a similar move in England to post slogans on the sides of buses and in other locations, one of which reads, “There is probably no God.  Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

Perhaps you are not as excited about this as I am, as it is obviously intended to be an anti-religious campaign.  But consider the reality: perhaps the greatest stumbling block in our efforts to speak with people on a spiritual level concerning Jesus is the Canadian taboo about discussing religion.  Faith is a “private” matter.  To break down this barrier and engage people about the gospel is very difficult. How do we bridge the gap and initiate a significant conversation without being invasive? Well, good news! God has orchestrated a campaign, free of charge, to break through the barrier.

Please do not be offended at the slogan.  God isn’t threatened by it.  Instead, take advantage of the opportunity to ask people what they think of it.  They may give you opportunity to do the same.  I read about a Christian bus driver in England who refused to drive a bus with that slogan on the side, and the company is accommodating him.  He is following his conscience, and it is good that his position is being respected.   However, can you imagine the opportunity?  I think I would enjoy taking a poll with the people coming on the bus: “Do you agree or disagree with the slogan?”  I think that could start some great conversations.

having the issue raised publicly provides us the opportunity to speak

Think about the stimulating and helpful questions that arise from the slogan: “Is there less worry without God, or only less hope?”  “Can we truly enjoy life if there is no purpose or meaning to it?” “What kind of God do these people think probably doesn’t exist?” “If God doesn’t exist, do love and morals exist?”  We don’t need to have clever answers to these questions, but having the issue raised publicly by others provides us the opportunity to speak of our hope in a God of love who has revealed himself in Jesus.

This situation brings to mind a number of Bible verses. “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen 50:20 TNIV) and “In the LORD’s hand the king’s heart is a stream of water that he channels toward all who please him” (Prov 21:1 TNIV). Take advantage and enjoy your conversations.

Get your church involved in Significant Conversations. Contact me for details using the form below.

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If Your Right Hand Offends You…

Jesus uses extreme images in teaching how we should live the Christian life. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount at Matthew 5:27-30, he taught this:

"You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lusfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away.  It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell."

Jesus’ point is decidedly not to recommend acts of naive self harm, as though gouging out an eye or cutting off a hand will keep our minds from impure thoughts. Rather, by these shocking images of harm he is helping us to see that we need a righteousness in the area of marital faithfulness that surpasses that of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. He is interested in his disciples’ outer life to be sure. But he is also just as keen to address the inner life because that is the root from which the fruit of behavior comes.

It strikes me that the images Jesus uses are intended to compel us to ask ourselves whether we, in response to his teaching and with the help of God’s Holy Spirit, are consciously and seriously engaged in strategies for self preservation in how we relate to our spouses and think about those who are not. What do we allow and forbid ourselves and how does this affect our actions and our thought life. Are we living with a conscious and serious intent?Aron Ralston

The story of Aron Ralston is a shockingly powerful modern illustration of the dynamics that stand back of Jesus’ teaching.

Ralston is the young climber who became trapped in a three foot wide section of the Blue John Canyon in Canyonlands National Park in Utah when an 800 pound boulder shifted, pinning him by his forearm. After four long days his water ran out. On the sixth day he knew that he would die in the canyon. Help had still not come. So, he committed himself to an extreme resort that, when the story got out, shocked the world and made him an instant celebrity.

Ralston cut off his own arm.

Applying a tourniquet just below his elbow, he did the deed with his own knife. No anesthetic; no going back. He then rappelled sixty feet to the canyon floor and hiked out some seven miles before a rescue helicopter spotted him and rushed him to a medical center.

At a press conference, when he was asked what it felt like to cut off his own arm, reporters were shocked by his reply.

He said, "My self-amputation was a beautiful experience because it gave me my life back." (my emphasis added).

Ralston’s action, like Jesus’ images, was not about self harm. Rather, it was about self preservation.

Discerning God’s Plans

His Mighty Power at Work in Us” (Eph. 3:20)

We are almost two months into our new fiscal year. The strategic plan I presented to the Board for 2009 gradually is unfolding, but the energy required to move our desired projects from idea, through planning, to implementation and then evaluation and redesign is immense.

With God it is different. He speaks and the universe is created. No gap exists between his thought and the actualization of his thought. He has no limits to his ideas, his power, and his presence. His ideas may have stages, but their implementation happens effortlessly. He feels no weariness or doubts. With God, second-guessing never occurs. He sees the end from the beginning. Resources are never lacking. His will does get done “on earth” and “in heaven.” Not so with us.

God tells us in his word that unless our plans are in step with his they ultimately will fail. We believe that God can turn our failures into his successes because He is God. However, the opposite is not true – we cannot bend God’s plans to serve our personal agendas.

I think the greatest challenge believers have, particularly believers in positions of leadership, is to discern God’s plans and seek to align the mission and vision of their ministry as much as possible with God’s agenda. This is easier said than done. Even when we seek to gather God’s wisdom through a group of mature Christian leaders, like a board of governors, it is an act of faith to expect we can and will discern God’s direction.

One of these “acts of faith” embedded in our 2009 strategic plan focuses upon training Children’s Ministry leaders. In the past few years God has generated among Evangelical churches a new vision for children’s ministry, but finding effective, competent leaders for such ministries has proven to be challenging. God has put the desire within our collective hearts at Northwest to try and respond to this leadership deficit. Despite numerous discussions, the way forward has not been clear. However, thanks be to God, we can see a program for training Children’s Ministry Leaders potentially in place and implemented by September, 2009. Perhaps God is signaling to us that it is time for us to walk in step with Him in this initiative.

We know that such training will contribute to the health of Christ’s church, the salvation and discipling of many children, and the accomplishment of God’s Kingdom plans.

Please pray with me that God will help us faithfully initiate this program – another small, but significant step in Kingdom building. Your investments in Northwest form part of this divine planning and enabling.

When we live and serve “under God’s mighty hand” we know “his power is at work in us” (Eph. 3:20).

Back of the Napkin

One of the secret skills employed by just about every minister I know is the ability to scribble. For years I thought that I was the only one who had doodled my way through more conversations than I can remember. All I need is a booth in a restaurant, a napkin and pen, an interesting conversation and the magic begins. Some have said that virtually all artwork begins as a scribble [which may be why people keep finding pieces of art from Picasso or Rembrandt to sell at auction.] My guess is that there is an equal body of ministry that began with a squiggle.

Over the years, I’ve drawn pictures to communicate everything from the message of the Gospel to the structure of ministry relationships. In each case, it has been proof that a picture is worth a thousand words. And, over the years I’ve discovered that I am not alone. Almost every pastor I’ve met has their own portfolio of profound doodles.

So, you can imagine my joy when I discovered the book by Dan Roam, The Back of the Napkin [Penguin, New York: 2008.] There has been a lot of pressure over the last few years for Pastors to elevate their quality of presentation. It’s a way of catching up with the advancement of technical, automated multi-media which has created a demand for what one writer calls: "multi-dimensional, geospatially-grounded visualizations with time lines and cross-cutting cultural dimensions." And, that’s just what’s expected from Power Point!

As I opened The Back of the Napkin, I was thrilled to find that Dan Roam had made the simple science of the scribble an art form. With simple exercises, he makes it easy for even the most inept to draw a picture that would – as advertised by the subtitle: solve problems and sell ideas. As I’ve been working through the exercises, it’s hit me – it’s going to change the way I make presentations at large, and that’s a good thing! Interested? You can check it out for yourself: www.digitalroam.com – or – www.thebackofthenapkin.com.

How Women Hear the Sermon

I have long written and taught about the value of investing sermon time developing “the problem.” By that I have meant that preachers ought to utilize “the listener’s voice” to identify with the hearer’s struggle to embrace the big idea of the sermon. We can’t always be telling people what they ought to know, believe, and do. We ought to spend some of our time appreciating the struggle that such things involve. Doing this doesn’t undermine our preaching – it deepens it.

What I hadn’t thought enough about is how such an approach might be received by the more than half of the congregation that is female. According to Pam MacRae, in The Moody Handbook on Preaching, women are particularly interested in this use of their own voice in preaching. There may, in fact, be a gender difference on this point. Given that most preachers are male, this aspect of the sermon might be even more important than I had thought. Let me quote MacRae at some length…

“Women typically have deep emotional waters and want to be understood. In the classic scenario, a woman wants to talk about a problem she is facing with her husband, only to get his quick response telling her how she should fix it. Her frustration and irritation shoots through the roof. She wanted him to listen to her and understand how she was feeling. He thought the best way to be helpful was to tell her how to fix it.”

“Generally, it is enough for her to feel heard and understood, which is of great value to her. She may eventually want help, but what she really wants is to feel validated in her experience, and then perhaps hear something soothing and comforting.

“Tannen notes that men are sometimes confused by the various ways women use conversation to be intimate with others. One of these ways she calls ‘troubles talk.’ She says, ‘For women, talking about troubles is the essence of connection. I tell you my troubles, you tell me your troubles, and we’re close. Men, however, hear troubles talk as a request for advice, so they respond with a solution.’”

“Conversations with the pastor give a woman information about the level of understanding he has for women in general. Does he offer quick solutions, answers or comments? Or, does he really listen to her? When a man offers an off-the-cuff solution, a woman may feel he is trying to diminish or dismiss her problem. He is communicating that he does not get her. This does not build trust and can profoundly affect how a woman hears the pastor in the pulpit.”

Church — An Adaptable Community

Church communities live with the tension between operating current ministries with excellence and the need to keep adapting those ministries to meet and survive future challenges. For forty years I have observed this tension play out as ministry trends come and go and churches struggle to find their bearings in the midst of this change. Discerning leaders help churches weather these challenges well, but sometimes leaders fail to recognize what is happening and churches slowly die or break apart.

I discovered recently that of the original Forbes 100 companies identified in 1917 only 13 have remained as independent entities. But among these only General Electric has performed with excellence relative to its peers. This is a very sobering statistic. The churches that now are identified as Fellowship Baptists emerged as a distinctive group in British Columbia in 1927. There were 16 churches in that original group, as best as I can determine. Of those churches perhaps half still continue to minister in some form. Perhaps one or two continue to do so with excellence. Of course this is a rough estimate, but it does serve to indicate that churches struggle both to minister effectively today and also to figure out how to adapt to tomorrow.

Three essential dynamics probably contribute to this situation. First, a strong focus on good execution of ministry plans often limits the ability of a church to adapt. The leadership concentrates upon and is committed to working the plan, and in the process they unwittingly become resistant to necessary adaptive change. The church needs to learn how to be ambidexterous, executing current plans well, but constantly innovating. It is tough to be do both well. The result is that some churches sustain good ministry for a certain time, but then begin to diminish because they fail to innovate. In the business world (recognizing that there are significant differences) some studies show that less that 1% of companies are able to maintain top performance over a fifty year period. My experience would suggest that this is probably similar in the case of churches.

A second dynamic is that churches tend to work with a bias towards overoptimism. We invest heavily in developing and executing current plans, with the result that we come to believe that they will always deliver the results we desire. Change becomes less urgent because we believe that the current plan will accomplish everything necessary. And so we become ‘set in our ways’ of ministry. Our models of ministry become rigid and we resist adaptation. Inertia exercises immense influence, often to our detriment.

The third dynamic relates to “complexity catastrophe.” The longer an organization exists and the larger it gets, the more complex it becomes. Various segments of the organization become interdependent. To change one aspect means changing the others and so conficts emerge. Positive change becomes more and more difficult to implement. Gridlock occurs and at some point, whether because of some external change or internal conflict, catastrophe envelopes the organization. Perhaps we see this being played out with entities such as General Motors today. Now most churches are not large. However, our communities, once they grow beyond two hundred people and are working with multiple staff, do become complex. As size and complexity increase, we spend more energy enabling the organization to operate well and this in turn limits our ability to adapt.

To respond to these challenges, church leaders should consider ways to reduce hierarchy, empower people to act, and stimulate diversity, in other words to build the church’s capacity to be responsive by the way it works as a community. Some leaders believe that the only way to get things done is to operate with a hierarchical structure. However, it is quite possible to work with shared purpose, high levels of trust, and impressive productivity within flat organizational relationships. High accountability is possible with low oversight. Empowering people to lead and act motivates them to achieve beyond expectations, but this does not mean accountability is diminished or absent. Perhaps we need to believe that “good ideas can come from anywhere,” not just from the lead pastor or the ministry staff.

Where in your church community are you enabling and encouraging the creation of ministry experiments that enable you to evaluate growth opportunities? We need to be willing to fail in small experiments so that we learn how to succeed in the big things. I know that Revelation 2-3 tell us that churches grow or fail for various reasons and that foundational to it all is the spiritual condition of the people. However, spirituality includes a wisdom to discern how to adapt and keep our ministries vital and responsive to changing conditions.

A Slap up the side of the head

Every now and again (more often than I would like) I need a slap up the side of the head when I lose perspective on what Jesus values in ministry.  I often look for efficiency and cleverness to accomplish a task when only humility, time and a receptive spirit suffice. A book by J.B. Phillips provided this corrective for me recently through a quote from Adventures in Solitude, in which the author reflected on months of illness:

As I thought during those long days, it seemed to me that the hospital cherishes a spirit, or an attitude, that the Church sadly lacks. I felt in it a respect for the human body and for human life beyond that in the Church, as it stands today, for the spirit of man.

The hospital diagnoses before it prescribes; the Church prescribes before it diagnoses. The physician stands humble before the human body, studies it, doubts about it, wonders at it; labours to fit his remedies to the exact disease. Is there in any church an equivalent humility in the presence of the spirit of man? Is the priest willing to inquire and doubt and wonder? Does he know before he tries to cure? Must the Church cultivate certainty lest knowledge turn and rend it?

Whether or not this is an accurate assessment of the author’s church is not mine to judge.  However, it does apply to my ministry.  One of the hardest, and yet most important, lessons I was taught (and still need to keep learning!) from my missions experience is the danger of speaking a message before properly discerning the question.  The answer I provide may be accurate, biblical and significant, but it is inappropriate when the context of the question is not fully appreciated.

If I do not listen carefully to the context and concern that stimulated the question, my answer, even if it consists of a clear and logical gospel presentation, will miss the mark.  When I am overly focused on the message I want to present, the result is an unfortunate lack of spiritual sensitivity to the person with whom I am relating; I fail to “read” or attend to their concerns and background.  On the other hand, when there is suitable sensitivity to the other’s perspective, coupled with an appreciation for the relevance of the issue being addressed, then God’s message can be presented in a way that resonates with the hearer by bringing healing to their hurt, forgiveness to their guilt, cleansing to their shame, and peace to their fear.

Such an impact cannot happen until I learn to stand humbly and patiently before their spirit to listen and diagnose. The process of Significant Conversations is my attempt to apply this lesson of sensitivity to the concerns of those people who enrich my life but have not yet come to Christ.

___________

(quote: David Grayson quoted in Phillips J. B. and Duncan D. 365 Meditations by J. B. Phillips for this Day. Word Books, Publisher Waco, Texas, 1975. P. 120)

The Pastor’s Voice

Even though the article is dated, I was impressed once again by a study conducted by Easum-Bandy Associates. In 2007, Bill Easum reported that the one key factor in growing healthy churches was: a pastor who has one-on-one conversations with non-Christians that leads to their conversion to Christ. The article, entitled How to Grow a Small Church [http://easumbandy.com/index.php?id=2463] drew on an extensive study funded by the Lilly Foundation. It confirmed a very simple and obvious principle: The more focused the pastor is on evangelism the larger the church becomes.

This probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. Most people assume that a Pastor possesses unique qualities of training, education, knowledge, and giftedness that automatically translate into successful evangelism. To be honest, I have to think that there is much more to the issue. Two things come to mind. First, a pastor who is fluent in evangelism has learned how to speak about Spiritual things with as normal and pleasant a voice as any other topic of interest. The one-on-one conversations are not sermons delivered with power, but delightful “chats” with meaning.

The second factor is related to the first. The pastor’s “voice” has the ability to become contagious. It’s been my experience that over time a congregation reflects the language that they hear from a pastor, whether it’s in how they pray or in how they explain the Gospel. It may be anecdotal, but I have to think that the voice of a pastor is multiplied through the congregation into the community.
That’s a good principle to keep in mind. As Bill concluded his report, he made it a reminder: the higher the priority you place on evangelism and make personal time for it, the larger your small church will grow. [For more helpful thoughts, you might want to check out: http://easumbandy.com/resources/faqs/u/unchurched/ways_to_connect/]

Obama’s Oratory

Whether or not you supported Barack Obama in the recent American election, or are pleased by the result, you have to appreciate him for his oratorical skill. Nurtured in the African-American preaching tradition, Obama inspires with his sweeping rhetoric. The man is a truly effective public speaker. Some might argue that he hasn’t yet come up with anything to rival, "I have a dream…" or "Ask not what your country can do for you…" but it’s early. Often it is the circumstances that give rise to the greatness of an oratorical moment and he is sure to face his moments before long. The president-elect knows how to turn a phrase.

Those of us who are interested in preaching and biblical communication ought to watch closely what he is doing, not just because of the homiletical heritage of his speaking, but because we can learn something from him. Philip Collins, former speech-writer for Tony Blair is quoted in the BBC saying, "His style of delivery is basically churchy, it’s religious: the way he slides down some words and hits others – the intonation, the emphasis, the pauses and the silences," he explains.

In my book, Choosing to Preach, I described excellent preaching as akin to singing. Obama practices this as well as anyone. Collins continues, "He is close to singing, just as preaching is close to singing. All writing is a rhythm of kinds and he brings it out, hits the tune. It’s about the tune, not the lyrics, with Obama." Of course, preaching ought to be more about the "lyrics" than the "tune", but that is not to discredit the tune or the feel that our sermon form produces. Yesterday, a man commented that he appreciated the cadence of my preaching. He said that he liked the way it felt,  and appreciated the movement and flow of the sermon. While this was not my primary concern in preaching, it is something that can help.

Listening to Obama, I was struck by how effective rhetoric still moves people. The refrain, "Yes we can," was as powerful for its ring as for its content. A word well spoken can still bring a tear, charge a crowd, spark a movement. Such things can happen in our pulpits as well.

To read the whole BBC article referenced above, click on Obama: Oratory and Originality by Stephanie Holmes.
 

Defining Success

“Success” is one of those wonderful contemporary words that everyone bends to their own service. We use it to judge others and when it is convenient, we grab hold of it to bolster our own sense of worth and accomplishment. Within Northwest our Board recently has chosen the Carver Policy Governance model to organize and discipline their work. Basic to this model are three questions that the Board in exercising its leadership must continually ask about the Seminary – what outcomes, for whose benefit, at what cost? As it answers these questions, it seeks to define whether the Seminary is being successful in achieving its mission and vision.

As President, I am always wondering about our “success”. Are we developing enough good ministry leaders, are we doing it with excellence, are we making a difference in and for the Kingdom, are we investing our resources in the right way so that we are accomplishing our ends? What makes this so challenging is that my success as President is constantly dependent on the success of others. The Board holds me accountable for the success of the Seminary, but I am always delegating to others the means by which that success must occur. Of course, I am not entirely without recourse to facilitate this success.

Our success as a Seminary depends upon people – board members, faculty, staff, supporters, students, networked leaders. When each person achieves success in their personal lives and in their Seminary roles, then the Seminary succeeds. What I thank God for is the high degree of success that people in these various roles consistently achieve.

  • board members speak with Spirit-led discernment;
  • faculty teach and publish with incredible competence;
  • staff work with deep commitment to quality and mission;
  • students develop in ways we never imagined;
  • supporters in their stewardship contribute beyond our expectations;
  • leaders in our larger networks demonstrate godly, creative leadership that enables our Seminary to flourish.

But for each of these individuals to contribute to Northwest’s success, God must be involved too. Our Christian understanding persuades us that God generates any success that Northwest may enjoy through his very personal, individual work to create success in the life of each individual within our community.  As President I have to put a lot of faith in the people around me, but especially in God Himself. I am only able to guide Northwest to success as all of these various people, assisted by God, are themselves successful. To be President is to be in a wonderful place of grateful, daily dependence.

Was 2008 a successful year for Northwest?

  • We directly impacted 22 churches through Best Practice Workshops for Church Boards and Church Mission Committees.
  • We worked with 70 different students within Northwest and another 300 students in the larger ACTS community.
  • We provided financial aid to 49 different students.
  • We placed about 8 new ministry leaders in our churches.
  • We essentially balanced our budget.
  • Our faculty submitted, read or published 10 articles/papers, prepared two book-length manuscripts, advised and examined theses, taught, consulted, and preached in many churches, and provided mentoring for our students.
  • We redeveloped our relationship with the Fellowship Ministry Centre, creating the Fellowship Leadership Development Centre, led by Dr. Schrag.
  • We implemented The Journey: A Graduate Christian Leadership Development Centre located in Edmonton.
  • The Board adopted the Carver Policy Governance model.

I am sure there are many other advances I could mention. These lead me to conclude that we were successful.

The success of one year, however, does not guarantee the success of a new year. So Northwest’s work begins a fresh cycle in January, as we pray, plan and work together to forge another successful year in Northwest’s significant history of ministry among our churches. I look forward to discerning the hand of God in this success and how He will incorporate your life and service into this success.

For those of you located in the Langley area, I have extended an invitation to join with us February 13, 2009 and consider “The State of the Seminary.” You should be receiving that in the mail shortly, and I trust you will be able to join us. If you live outside of this area, but will be visiting during that period, please let me know so that we can include in this evening of celebration and prayer.

Bible Translation: the unforgivable sin

I was chatting with a friend of mine who works as a robotics engineer and I began to express my passion for Bible translation.  In fact, I got a little over-excited and exclaimed, “I have the best job in the world!”  He looked at me sideways and said, “I thought I had that job.”  Well, OK. Being a robotics engineer sounds pretty cool, too. 

Having recently come back from Pakistan after another month of translation, let me share with you one of the gems that I picked up along the way.  One of the joys of translation is the discipline it demands to understand what the passage means.  The act of representing the meaning of the original text in the forms of a different language does not permit the translator to “blip” over the phrases that don’t seem to make sense.  It is that search for the sense of the author’s original communication that provides those “aha!” moments, as the meaning of some apparently obscure or difficult passages is clarified.

For example, in Mt 12:30-32 Jesus speaks of the “unforgivable sin.” The context of this verse is the previous account of Jesus’ releasing a man from the bondage of demon possession.  The response of the Pharisees is not one of praising God – a reaction reflected in comments of the common people – but rather an attempt at political “spin” to disparage the miracle: “He is doing this by the power of Beelzebul, the king of the demons!” (Mt 12:24).

Amazed at such a blatant attempt to twist truth into falsehood, Jesus responds with the quote about the “unforgivable sin,” that is, “blasphemy against the Spirit will never be forgiven,” (vs 31). Essentially he is saying to the Pharisees, “You are hopeless! When you see God in action bringing salvation and healing in people’s lives and call it the work of Satan, then there is no possibility for you to take part in that salvation.  Any other sin can be forgiven, for the recognition and acceptance of the Holy Spirit’s working means that you are open to God’s rule, and that you have a desire for him; repentance and turning to life is possible.  But without that initial and sincere orientation to God, there cannot be repentance and salvation.  A denial of what God is doing because of adherence to religious norms is a blindness for which there is no cure.”

That is, the “unforgivable sin” is not a reference to a solitary act, as if there is one thing a person can do which dooms them forever, despite any change or repentance on their part.  Rather, it is an ongoing attitude of denial of the Spirit or essence of God’s work in bringing restoration and healing, a rejection of God’s action in making things right.

it is important to understand the context and point of Jesus’ teaching in order not to miscommunicate

When translating verse 31, it is important to understand the context and point of Jesus’ teaching in order not to miscommunicate.  That is, the translator must not only choose the appropriate words, but must also use a grammatical form within the target language that provides the reader with an equivalent understanding.  For example, when Jesus says, “blasphemy against the Spirit will never be forgiven,” (vs 31), the reader needs to make the connection between the Pharisees’ denial of the work of God described in the previous verses and the “blasphemy” referred to.  It is also important to make it obvious to the reader that Jesus is not speaking against one solitary act, but against an attitude of disregard for the action of God in bringing healing and salvation.  Taking care to communicate clearly in Bible translation prevents the spiritual harm that can occur through misunderstandings caused by an unclear translation.

And that was just one verse.  We completed most of Matthew’s gospel during that month of translation!

See also Sindhi Bible Translation

The Beauty of the Word

As we near Christmas, I wanted to use this opportunity to pass on a gift given me by a very dear student. During our last class session in November, the students were presenting the product of their final project paper on a selected topic for the Introduction to the Bible. One of the students, Benjamin Van Meter, had done a study on the authorship of the book of Ecclesiastes. Along with his study [which was actually quite a wonderful piece of work] he presented a picture that captured my imagination.

Using a free internet tool called Wordle, he had entered the text of the book of Ecclesiastes. The magic of Wordle created a mesmerizing piece of artwork. The only way I can describe it is to use Wordle’s own description: Wordle is a toy for generating “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes. The images you create with Wordle are yours to use however you like. You can print them out, or save them to the Wordle gallery to share with your friend.

“Word clouds” – you have to see them to appreciate the sight as certain words stand out, capturing the essence of a message. In a demonstration of the “Wordle toy”, Benjamin made another map after the class, this one taking the text of the young man’s hymn of love in the Song of Solomon.  Adding a little artistry with colors and fonts, the final picture became a delightful gift for his wife, Jessica, as the words seemed to punctuate a delightful expression of Love.

Song of Solomon in a Wordle

Let me offer a recommendation. During the Christmas time, you might want to play with the toy and enter the text of the Christmas story just to see the beauty of the Word Made Flesh! I would love to see the result!  Merry Christmas!

The Moving of Heaven and Earth

 As Luke tells the Christmas story, in the hills surrounding Bethlehem, shepherds were awakened to wondrous angelic news of a Savior born to them. He was their Messiah and Lord. And the sign of this great arrangement to the shepherds’ eternal advantage was that they would find their Savior in the most humble of circumstances–swaddled in cloths and lying in a Bethlehem manger.

Luke continues that, if the heavenly announcement was not enough of a shock to them, the next thing the shepherds saw and heard was a great company of the heavenly host raising a chorus of praise: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests." (Luke 2:14)

God’s Good News through the Chaos

The Son of God, who was Savior and Lord was leaving his home to come to earth. And at the same time, the whole world was having to leave home to go to their places of origin to be counted.  Augustus Caesar was responsible for the chaos.

But it wasn’t beyond God’s marvelous arrangement and there was no surprise. All this only served to get a young peasant couple named Joseph and Mary relocated from Nazareth–a four day journey of about 70 miles–to Bethlehem, in order that Mary could deliver God’s own Son in accordance with the scriptures.

 It was the moving of heaven and earth to prepare for the arrival of the Savior.

Glory to God in the Highest

When I was young, I used to think that when the angels sang, "glory to God in the highest," the words "in the highest" meant at the top of their heavenly voices. While I’m sure that the volume was impressive, the song was not about volume but location.

"Glory to God in the highest heavens." they sang. It was not just praise anywhere; it was praise to God in the very place where he dwelt and from where His beloved Son had just left. 

That strikes me as somehow very important. When a beloved son leaves home to strike out on his own, there’s usually a good measure of parental hopefulness, but not a little melancholy and a whole lot of missing that occurs.

Not so in heaven.

Luke says that heaven was filled with joyful praise because of what the Son of God had left to do. He was on a mission from His heavenly Father. God was reaching down to earth in the most personal, intimate and understandable way he could. He didn’t have to, but He did nonetheless out of compassion, generosity and love for us all.

…and on Earth Peace to Men on Whom His Favor Rests

In the coming of Jesus, God himself was making the arrangements to establish peace between Himself and people who were, by and large, hostile toward him. It was going to be incredibly costly. But that cost was undertaken.

At Christmas time many folks think about "peace on earth" in terms of ‘giving it the old college try’ yet again.  They hope to work up pleasant feelings and lift the level of civility just a little because of the season. In fact, peace on earth has nothing to do with us manufacturing warm and generous feelings so that we can feel a bit more peaceful in ourselves. And it doesn’t really work anyway.

What Luke’s talking about is the earthly consequence where God’s Son is received and embraced for who He is. The angel praise is all about God’s disposition and not ours. Jesus embodies God’s action in making peace. Jesus represents God’s forceful intention to offer salvation against what people deserve and sometimes event want.

Christmas is all about God.

The Embodiment of the Holy Passion of Deity

There’s no uncertainty in the angels’ song, no doubt, no question but that Jesus’ coming represents God’s best for you and me. When Jesus arrived, he was the embodiment of the holy passion of deity and the full intensity of pure love.

Jesus embodied the favor of God’s peace to men. There is no other peace like it on earth … because it didn’t come from here. And heaven continues to ring with praise for that sending. Give God the glory; embrace His Savior.

Have a blessed Christmas!

God’s mission: Emmanuel

Emmanuel is my favorite Christmas word, partly because it is also a missions word.  God is a missionary God and provides us with the greatest expression of missions in and through the Christmas event.  The reason why the shepherds could accept the angel’s invitation was because God had come to earth: “Let us go and see” (Lu 2:15).  The reason why Jesus could say, “Come to me everyone who is tired and burdened” (Mt 11:28) was because he was living in the same world with the same demands, discouragements, obstacles and opposition that we face.  The reason why the apostles were so confident in their faith was because they had seen “the Life” with their eyes and touched it with their hands (1 Jn 1:1-2).  Missions (pl) is our part in God’s mission to redeem the world.  Jesus was sent into the world as the greatest act of that mission.  Our participation in God’s mission happens when we play a role through the ongoing sending of the Spirit: either by going ourselves or by becoming the means for sending others.

Emmanuel, God with us

Emmanuel, God with us, is the proclamation of the missionary God. God speaks the eternal Word and it becomes a baby lying in a manger, a man on a mission, a sacrifice on a cross, the resurrected savior, the ascended Lord.  But the proclamation of Emmanuel does not end at the ascension.   Emmanuel does not become “God no longer with us.”  Jesus said, “I will be with you always” (Mt 28:20) and this is not just a comforting metaphor or a pretentious sentiment, but a living reality.  The act of Emmanuel continues with the explosion of words and languages at Pentecost – the Spirit of Christ beginning to blast the message of Emmanuel out to the four corners of the earth.  It is not the principles and instructions of Christianity that are the essence (as good as they are for living well), but it is the presence of the living Christ impacting lives around the world – Emmanuel, God with us. Words are weak and limited, but the experience of the living Word continues on, and it is our faith in Emmanuel that drives us to be part of that movement, the mission to cross barriers, to face obstacles and to show love for the sake of Emmanuel. The God who came to earth continues to be with us, Emmanuel.

Glad to Let the Bible Speak

When I finished preaching yesterday, I was encouraged by the normal comments from people who had appreciated what I had to say. I was a little surprised then, when one woman rather breezily said, “Thanks for the sermon, though I disagreed with you.”

“Oh,” I asked, “what did you disagree with?”

It turns out that she had a problem with my primary point from 1 Peter 2:21-25, that Christians must follow the example of Christ by loving the people who hurt us instead of defending ourselves, even at great personal cost. Clearly, this woman had been hurt and she felt that in order to protect herself, it was not possible to extend grace to the one who had caused her pain. Indeed, she felt that it was wrong for the church to extend grace when that grace came at the expense of support for the victim – her, in this case. “Grace is for God to give,” she said, “it isn’t possible and it isn’t good for me to try and do God’s job.”

First, of all, I wanted her to know that I was sorry for her pain. I also wanted to affirm that a church must offer both grace and truth. In our attempts to give mercy, we must also be sure to not make excuses for sin or deny the truth. But having sympathized with her, it was important that I not back down from my message, but find a way to lovingly re-affirm the truth as I found it in the Scriptures.

The passage was clear, though the message was difficult. I encouraged her to take some time to go back and read the passage carefully and to let the Holy Spirit speak. I reminded her that the truths of Scripture might be hard, but that they always resulted in something good. Further, I tried to help her see that until she could find a way to forgive the one who hurt her, she would never know real freedom in her heart. Forgiveness, I admitted, is risky. People take advantage. They did it with Jesus and we shouldn’t be surprised if it happens with us. But if we can learn to live like Jesus, following the example he gave us to walk “in his steps,” we will grow into the kind of people that God intended us to be.

It was a lengthy, emotional conversation, but by the end of it, the woman seemed to appreciative the dialogue. Personally, I relished the opportunity to engage a conversation of such depth and importance. This is what preaching should always lead to if we’re listening honestly. The Bible is hard on us and it doesn’t hurt to admit it.

Reflecting on the experience later, I realized that I had experienced again the importance of expository preaching. When you let the Bible speak, you don’t have to worry when people disagree. I was able to help the woman see that whether or not she agreed with me was irrelevant. The question was whether or not she was willing to listen to God and to obey what she had heard.

The text was clear and I was glad to let it speak…and let it stand.

Using Templates in your WordPress Theme

So, you think that you want to use WordPress to run your church website and you have heard that in WordPress you can customize your website’s theme through the use of templates.  But what ever are templates?

To explain this it is helpful to understand how WordPress works in the background when someone visits your website.  First off WordPress makes a determination as to what it is that each visitor is looking for.  For example, "Has the visitor requested the home page?  Has the visitor requested a particular item (i.e. a specific page or post, a category, an author, a tag etc.)?  Has the visitor done a search and is asking for the results?  Once this is determined WordPress then fetches that information from the database and and displays it based on the WordPress "theme" that you are using. In order to display all the bits of information that make up a typical web page WordPress gathers the information through a series components called "templates" and ties them together into a comprehensive whole.1

Each of these templates will likely handle only the information for a particular section of a web page or a particular type of content to be displayed. These web page sections might be the top of the page, commonly known as the header, the middle section which carries all the "blog" or "page" information, commonly known as the body, or the bottom of the page which might have copyright information or links to contact you etc., commonly known as the footer. Each of these sections might have other sections within them. For example the body section might have a right and left sidebar, the header might have a navigation system for the entire site. These are all likely generated through the use of templates. Each template is (usually) a separate file within the structure of the theme. For example a particular theme might have a header template file (header.php) and a footer template file (footer.php) and a sidebar template file (sidebar.php ) and a comment file (comment.php) a loop file (theloop.php) file and so on.2 Larger components (template files) might incorporate several of the smaller templates in a single file. This would be the case with a category template file (category.php) or an author template file (author.php).

There are several primary components (files) that make up a theme.  You can view a graphical representation of how these files are targeted when someone comes to your site.  I find this very helpful when designing a theme and deciding how I want the flow of information to progress on the website:

  • index.php – this is the ultimate default file that WordPress loads.  If no other component file fits what the visitor is asking for – this file displays.
  • home.php – this is the first file that WordPress looks for when the visitor makes that first inquiry or when he clicks on your "Home" link.
  • archive.php – this is the default file that WordPress loads when some older content is requested.
  • page.php – this is the file that WordPress loads when an individual "page" is requested.
  • single.php – this is the file that WordPress loads when an individual "post" is requested.
  • 404.php – this is the file that WordPress loads when the content that the visitor is requesting cannot be located in the database.
  • various other specialty template files for specific uses – i.e. targeting an individual category using category.php or an individual author using author.php etc.  You can find more information on templates here.

Each of these primary components (files) incorporate the various template files within them to draw the information from the database and present it on the page.  So a typical "home.php" file will incorporate a call to the header.php file, the WordPress loop, the sidebar.php file and the footer.php file.  It will display the resulting information and style it using the CSS file that is also a part of every theme.  All of these files can be shaped the way you want them to meet the needs of your particular theme.  If you are new to WordPress take a look at the default themes that comes packaged with WordPress and familiarize yourself with the way these various files are laid out.  They can be found under "wp-content >themes".

WordPress has several built-in functions – get_header() - get_footer() - get_sidebar() – that will load the more common templates.  Custom templates3 can be included in the code by using the php "include" function – i.e. <?php include (TEMPLATEPATH . '/my_custom_footer.php'); ?>.

When designing a church website these are helpful factors to keep in mind.

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  • 1WordPress comes with a couple of default themes for you to choose from but there are thousands of others out there on the web for you to choose from should you so desire. The theme takes this dynamically generated content and displays it in the manner that you want it to.  Click here if you would like to read more on WordPress themes.
  • 2I intend to discuss the loop in another article.
  • 3I might write more on custom templates in another article.

Christian or Christ follower?

When Muslims come to Christ they often suffer a cultural and religious identity crisis.

I recently spoke to a Muslim background believer on the phone.  He told me of his struggles to live as a Christian within a Muslim setting.  His extended family has many Muslim religious leaders and there has been much opposition.  He recently registered his oldest son in elementary school and wrote down his religion as “Christian.”  The teacher was shocked and refused to allow the word “Christian” beside his obviously Muslim family name.  However, after some discussion he persuaded the teacher to comply.

Contrast this with a discussion I had with a believer who had become a follower of Christ during the time we lived as a family in Pakistan.  He came to me somewhat disturbed and, after the appropriate amount of preliminary chat and the customary cup of tea, he asked, “Do I have to call myself ‘Christian’?” 
I asked him, “What is a Christian?” 
He replied, “They are a certain caste of people in Pakistan who sweep the streets, eat pork and sell liquor.” 
I said, “Oh.  That doesn’t describe you very well.  What do you consider yourself?” 
“I consider myself to be a follower of Jesus.” 
“OK,” I replied, “Call yourself that, but be sure that you do live like Jesus.”

Which approach is the right one?  As a cultural outsider, it is not my place to judge.  Instead I see my role as encouraging both these men to live faithfully to the form of discipleship they believe God is calling them to.

culturally Muslim while openly claiming Jesus as Lord

At the same time, there is a controversial movement of believers within the Islamic context who are remaining culturally Muslim while openly claiming Jesus as Lord.  Consider these excerpts from an essay entitled “Transformation versus Rupture” by someone who calls himself a Muslim follower of Christ (from Chandler, Paul Gordon. Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road: exploring a new path between two faiths. Plymouth Cowley Pub. 2007, pp 116-117):

In my life I have pitifully seen the wretched destinies – in the cultural sense – of Muslims who have become Christians. They sometimes personified the concept of total alienation because they seemed to have undergone a process of eradication from their [indigenous] cultural soil. Eradication! Detraditionalisation! Deculturation! Deracination! The whole thing entailed a renunciation of one’s culture and traditions.

I have always wondered if it was really necessary to renounce one’s own Islamic culture to deserve Christ’s message. A renunciation, which in cultural terms means auto-destruction…. Culture is built into the heart of the heart. That is why a person who renounces his culture is doomed to remain till the end of his days suffering a terrible crisis of identity.

… if in Islam as a religion (i.e. a set of religious beliefs) difference of opinion is possible, Islam as a culture has a powerful impact which is impossible to rid oneself of. Thus in terms of culture, a Muslim remains a Muslim despite himself because he has been built as such.

This is why it is a bad approach to try to transmit Christ’s message to a Muslim by undermining lslam. (i.e. trying to efface the halo from above the great representative figures of Islamic culture.)… It is also a bad approach to make him feel that the mosque, which is a powerful spiritual and cultural space, is a negative and adversary place. It is also a house of God where if he likes he can experience his new relation with Jesus. It is also better to not make him feel that fasting during Ramadan alienates him from Christ’s message, but that he can give Ramadan fasting a new spiritual orientation through Christ.

It is also better not to ask him to affect a rupture with his spiritual verbal discourse. Let him in his prayers keep the name that Jesus is given in Islam, because that is the name dear and familiar and dose to him: and so with the other Biblical names. Let him keep the basic prayer formulas common in Islamic praying discourse. This will make him feel at home in his new relation with Jesus.

The main objective … is to experience conversion as a transformation … rather than rupture. [end quote]

This is not a sentiment that every Muslim background believer holds to, but it does represent the internal spiritual and cultural struggle that followers of Christ face within an Islamic context.

See also: Missions and Other religions, Is Allah God? and How are we to think about God in Islam?

Septuagint Studies and Evangelicalism – Using the Bible Paul Used

The study of the Septuagint in Canada during this past century has occurred primarily in the graduate departments of selected Universities, primarily the University of Toronto. The same reality marks the majority of Septuagint Studies that occur in the United States, Great Britain and Europe. Few, if any Evangelical Seminaries have considered Septuagint Studies sufficiently significant to provide scarce resources for its support. Yet, strangely in the case of the University of Toronto Ph.D. in Septuagint Program, many of the participants were Evangelicals.

Is there a compelling case to be made for Septuagint Studies in Canada to find a home in an Evangelical Seminary or Divinity School? In Canada the major scholars in Septuagint Studies were at the University of Toronto, but they have retired and there do not seem to be plans to replace them. Is it possible this gap to be filled by an Evangelical Seminary or Graduate School of Theology? If so, what should Septuagint Studies look like in such a context for it to contribute meaningfully to the mission achievement of such an institution?

Historically Septuagint Studies at the University of Toronto focused primarily upon textual, historical, linguistic and hermeneutical issues. Cognate disciplines of Hebrew language and literature, Hellenistic history, secondary translation languages (Syriac, Coptic, Latin, Armenian, etc.) have also been associated with such studies as necessary competencies.

When we consider locating Septuagint Studies in the context of an Evangelical Seminary or Divinity School, what would Septuagint Studies look like? If its focus should change, would it still legitimately be considered by the academy as Septuagint Studies? What shifts could or should occur in Septuagint Studies so that it reflects the particular values or educational outcomes that characterize an Evangelical Seminary or Divinity School? Educational programs are developed and implemented because of mission compatibility and a sense that the time is right for such educational processes. How then might Septuagint Studies be conceived in an Evangelical Seminary environment so that a compelling case can be made that such studies are necessary and timely?

What is "Septuagint Studies"? It comprises the cluster of disciplines, competencies, and cognate materials that enable us to understand the origins, transmission, development, usage and influence (both Jewish and Christian) of the pre-Christian Greek translation of the Old Testament (probably located in Ptolemaic Alexandria and initiated around 280 B.C.) and its revisions, as well as its relation to other, later Greek translations of the Old Testament (i.e. Aquila, Symmachus, Theodotion, etc.). The Septuagint represents the first major translation project of a religious text in human history. As sacred text it served the needs of the Greek-speaking Jewish Diaspora in the three centuries prior to Jesus and concurrently with him. As the Christian church emerged from within Judaism, its expansion very early in its history into the Greco-Roman world required the use of the Septuagint as the sacred text to support its message. As the Christian church developed its own sacred text, we find these writings modeling and incorporating materials from the Septuagint and being combined with this Greek form of the Jewish Canon. This Greek translation of the Old Testament was linked with the emerging New Testament to form the Bible used by the Church during the first several centuries of its history and formed the basis for secondary translations used to support significant missionary ventures (Old Latin, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, some Syriac materials, etc.). Because the first segments of this Greek translation seem to arise at the beginning of the third century B.C., it forms a unique witness to the state of Hebrew Scriptures at that period and the hermeneutical principles and interpretation of those scriptures by Jews in Alexandria. For this reason it plays a significant role in understanding the textual development of the Hebrew Old Testament.

The role of the Septuagint for the historical development of Jewish and Christian sacred texts remains significant. Evangelicals have a serious interest in understanding all aspects of biblical text development, transmission and interpretation because of their faith commitments related to the authority and use of biblical materials to inform spiritual life. We are a people of ‘the book’. It is in our interests to understand, include and nurture within our research, teaching, and ecclesial life a deep appreciation for the Septuagint. The issues such study raises continue to challenge the Evangelical world. As well such study will bring greater opportunity for understanding other streams within the broader Christian tradition, namely the Orthodox tradition because significant parts of this tradition continue to use the Septuagint as their Scripture in liturgy and spiritual life.

  • For Septuagint Studies that are conducted within an Evangelical Seminary to retain the respect of the academy, certain knowledge and skills must be taught and developed. Since such Studies are textually based, but deal with translation literature, there is need for the textual domain to remain a central part of Septuagint Studies.
    1. This is advantageous for the Evangelical Seminary because of its commitment to Scripture as established canonical text. For those committed to the authority of Scripture insuring that such Scripture are correctly transmitted, translated and interpreted remains a central value.
    2. Septuagint Studies bridge the Old and New Testaments and in the Evangelical Seminary both Testaments are esteemed. As well their respective influence and relationship is a critical question. Because canonical issues are surfacing in new ways and the boundaries of the sacred text within Christian circles are debated, the influence of Septuagint upon Christian practice and thought remains critical.
    3. The principles of textual criticism used within the setting of Septuagint Studies in most instances are the same as those used within New Testament Studies. As students hone such skills in Septuagint Studies, they are easily transferred to the textual issues of New Testament Studies.
    4. Hermeneutics has occupied a central place in theological and biblical studies for over a century. The discussion shows no sign of diminishing. Septuagint Studies raise central hermeneutical questions. For example, as the New Testament references Old Testament materials through the Septuagint, what does this mean hermeneutically? If the hermeneutics employed in the New Testament reflect Jewish practices and the Septuagint is a Jewish document reflecting the translation and interpretation of Jewish sacred text, then we have much to learn from Septuagint Studies that can inform New Testament hermeneutics, particularly the Jewish aspects of New Testament hermeneutics.

In these ways the traditional aspects of Septuagint Studies can inform and significantly assist biblical studies within the Evangelical Seminary or Divinity School.

  • The Second Temple Period of Judaism holds great significance for understanding Christian origins. This period when the Old Testament materials were achieving their final form and Judaism was emerging under the shadow of the Persian, Greek, and Roman Empires forms the context for life in first century Palestine. The Septuagint comprises one of our major sources for understanding Jewish thought during this period, particularly in the Egyptian Diaspora. The occurrence of Septuagint and other Greek materials among the Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrates that this translation was used in Palestine. By the time Jesus was born, Palestine had experienced Hellenistic culture for over three hundred years and Roman supremacy had rule for half a century.
  • The Evangelical Seminary’s primary mission is to develop good ministry leaders. Broadly conceived, such training will engage in some way the questions raised in section 1. But what other elements of Septuagint Studies would support such a mission?
    1. The vast majority of Evangelical Christians access their sacred scriptures through translation. This is different from Islam. Christian ministers have to know how to affirm the authority of God’s Word as it occurs in a translated form. The Septuagint represents the first great experiment in biblical translation. Fundamental principles relating to translation and translation process are raised through its study. We have the opportunity to discern how difficult texts are construed, what strategies are followed to insure consistency, what freedom the translators possessed and what limits they had, how the translation was received, how it was revised, etc. As English translations proliferate, ministry leaders need to understand the theological implications of such work and Septuagint Studies provide an excellent case study.
    2. The majority of preaching today in Evangelical Circles arises from the New Testament. A significant part of this sacred text includes material quoted from the Septuagint. Key passages in Romans, Galatians, 2 Corinthians, the Synoptics and Acts, Hebrews, 1 Peter, James, just to cite a few, are replete with such quotations. In some cases these Septuagint quotes represent an understanding of the Hebrew text that is quite different from the Hebrew text that we have received. Ministers need to know how to deal with such issues so that the coherence of the canon can be understood.
    3. Worship practices continue to change and develop in Evangelical churches and good ministry leaders will need to understand how liturgy has developed historically. The Septuagint was the Bible of the early church and so significantly shaped the worship practices of the church. As churches explore the ancient-modern worship paradigm, connecting with worship roots that originate in the second and third century church, Septuagint materials become important.
    4. The early church fathers, particularly the Greek-speaking fathers, used the Septuagint as their Bible. Their commentaries, homilies, and letters quote it freely and it forms the foundation for their exposition and direction in matters of faith and practice. As we understand this part of the Church’s life more deeply, we will have a richer context for nurturing the spiritual life of our churches today.
  • Good ministry leaders within the Evangelical Church tradition are characterized by theological astuteness. Critical to this competence are highly developed exegetical skills. These include expertise in the biblical languages and awareness of the way language works.
    1. The issues of semantics, discourse analysis, and rhetorical usage are significant components in New Testament exegesis. Because there is significant overlap in the vocabulary of the New Testament and the Septuagint there are natural linkages between Septuagint Studies and New Testament exegesis.
    2. Various aspects of Septuagint style may also have influenced the form of New Testament materials. The narrative style of Mark and Luke 1-2, the hymns in Luke 1-2, and the vocabulary used in Revelation reflect Septuagint influence. Discerning the meaning of such terms and their possible religious nuance is an important issue.
    3. The Septuagint represents one of the largest bodies of Hellenistic Greek and so for the New Testament provides a significant resource in understanding language.
  • Contextualization remains a current issue. The Septuagint represents a major attempt to contextualize Jewish religious thought. It predates the time of Jesus and so helps us understand some of the ways in which Judaism responded to the pressures of Hellenism through the translation process. Since the majority of the Septuagint seems to be a product of the Diaspora, and Alexandria in particular (Letter To Aristeas), it will reveal various ways in which the Jewish community sought to relate their Jewish faith to their Hellenistic environment.
  • The Bible that Peter, Paul, Luke, Mark, and John1 used primarily was the Septuagint. The more we are familiar with its phrasings, lexica, and interpretive processes, the better we will appreciate and understand their teaching.

Septuagint Studies within the setting of an Evangelical Seminary or Divinity School will build upon the base of textual and historical competency, but use this as a means to explore the salient issues of:

  • Canonical studies
  • Translation – its hermeneutical and theological implications
  • Contextualization issues
  • Jewish-Christian relations
  • Significance and use of Old Testament materials in the New Testament
  • Liturgical history
  • Historical theology – first three centuries of early church thought and its development
  • Understanding the Old Testament as it was interpreted in the three centuries prior to Jesus – setting the scene for Jesus’ ministry
  • Understanding the Bible of Paul and Peter, i.e. the Early Church, and how this enables us to discern the meaning of their respective letters.
  • Understanding Eastern Orthodoxy as part of the Christian tradition, because it continues to use the Septuagint as its Scriptures, regarding it as inspired.

A Seminary or Divinity school setting encourages these inter-disciplinary aspects of Septuagint Studies to be explored and developed in ways that they could not be in a secular University setting. This enrichment of the task and agenda that defines Septuagint Studies would be a significant contribution to Septuagint Studies and the ministry of the Church.

In terms of timing we suggest that Septuagint Studies in Canada are at a crossroads. We are losing the most significant Canadian Centre for Septuagint Studies. Those scholars that have been instrumental in developing Septuagint Studies are eager to see their work continue in Canada. They have offered their libraries to the TWU/ACTS context to support Septuagint Studies if we were to commit to establish a Septuagint Studies graduate program and Institute. Further, there is a vacuum regarding Septuagint Studies in Canada that we can fill and do so in creative and innovative ways.

In the context of the SGS and GSTS of Trinity Western University we have four faculty who have Ph.D. level expertise in Septuagint Studies. This resource represents a unique clustering that exceeds even the level of support that the University of Toronto had to resource their Ph.D. in Septuagint Studies. We are well-positioned in this regard to be the Canadian Centre for Septuagint Studies.

There is another factor of timing that is significant. Through the work of many scholars the project to establish an edited text of the Septuagint is nearing completion. The only major segments of the Greek Old Testament that still lack such texts are Joshua through Chronicles and Psalms through Ecclesiastes. Work is progressing on some of this. So we are at a point in Septuagint Studies when the agenda can shift its focus to consider more intently the impact of this translation on the Jewish and Christian religious communities, as well as the emergence of the Septuagint as a literary artifact.

When we ask the question what Septuagint Studies contributes specifically to our understanding and advancement of the Believers’ Churches and their missions, the responses are complex. As with many aspects found within the curriculum we have designed to develop good ministry leaders within this part of the Evangelical spectrum, the connections emerge primarily because this tradition fits within the general stream of Christian orthodoxy. What Septuagint Studies contribute to our understanding of Jewish-Christian relations, the interpretation of sacred text, and the history of the emerging Church, it also contributes to the Believers’ Churches lodged within general Christian orthodoxy. The better we understand these elements, presumably the better we will understand the nature of the church, its mission, and its message.

Specifically, as we consider the recently revised statement of the Seven Believers’ Church principles that form the theological basis for the ACTS Consortium, Septuagint Studies relates primarily to:

Principle # 5 Belief in a high view of Scripture….the Holy Scriptures alone are fully authoritative and fully trustworthy as the very Word of God written. In Scripture God has given the Church a sufficient guide and final authority for all Christian teaching and practice.

In the Consortium agreement this gets translated into a statement of purpose that includes:

    • to uphold the Bible, as originally written, as the inerrant, infallible Word of God and to produce graduates thoroughly knowledgeable in the Word and competent in understanding, expounding, applying and communicating it.

As we have sought to outline in the paper, Septuagint Studies contribute substantially to achieving this part of our stated purpose. We seek to discern what Scriptures as originally written say and Septuagint Studies play an integral role in discerning this. Further if graduates are to be thoroughly knowledgeable in the Word, then some awareness and understanding of Septuagint Studies, particularly the dynamics of translation and its impact on interpretation must be part of this understanding. Finally, we emphasize the ability to understand and expound it (i.e. the Bible), as desired competencies and this requires some awareness of the Septuagint, particularly in terms of the New Testament implications.

There is a second area of purpose that Septuagint Studies will assist, namely:

    • to prepare ministry leaders and indeed the whole people of God to understand and address competently the Canadian and global cultural mosaics and to have a transforming impact on them through the Gospel.

As we have tried to express in this paper, Septuagint Studies in essence is a study in religious contextualization. The cultural diversity of the Hellenistic era in which Jewish and Christian people lived required careful and thoughtful response to relationship of their religious beliefs to the dominate cultures of their day. These issues remain for the church a significant challenge and Septuagint Studies provide many good examples of strategies employed to deal with such questions.

Finally, a specific purpose for the Consortium is:

    • to produce leaders….who are able to work cooperatively with fellow believers in other denominations to the glory of God and the building of the church of Jesus Christ.

The Believers’ Church tradition has not had much experience in relating to Eastern Orthodox traditions. However, with the increased movement of peoples around the world and the entry of much of Eastern Europe into the European Union, we will have to understand these traditions more adequately. Since their religious traditions build upon the Septuagint, the more we understand this part of our Christian heritage, the better we will be able to appreciate and understand the specific concerns of Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

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  • 1To what extent Jesus had access to and used Septuagint materials is a vexed question.

Church Transformation

There has been a lot of talk about Church Transformations in the past decade. In the 1990’s I was intrigued by a denominational development. Quite a few resources had been invested by one particular denomination toward Church Planting. While there was a level of success in the planting of churches, a question was raised “what about resurrecting dying churches?” In light of the heavy statistics that indicate the high percentage of churches that were in decline, an effort was made to design a process to transform distressed churches. Using techniques similar to church planting, it was discovered that if done right, transforming a dying church was far more economical than planting new churches, and while attention was still given to church planting, there was a renewed commitment made by the denomination to stimulate new growth and vitality in churches that had been at risk of abandonment.

Over the last 10 years, there have been a lot of lessons learned about Church Transformation. A lot of studies have been written and books published by experts on the subject. They all arouse a limited sense of interest, but last week I came across a study that intrigued me. Over the last Fall, one of my personal heroes – George Bullard [of the Columbia Partnership] has been conducting research on The enduring principles of congregational transformation. Rather than telling church leaders how to do transformation, he asked for church leaders to tell him how they are doing it. In this delightful bit of role reversal, over 700 church leaders have weighed in on an online research survey. Listing 21 “enduring principles” of church transformation, a list of top seven principles emerged: Continual Transformation Rather Than One-Time Transformation: Going Forward Rather Than Going Back, People Before Programs, Being Both Spiritual and Strategic, Future Rather Than Past, Kingdom Growth Rather Than Church Growth, Vision Plus Intentionality.

Each one were identified due to their perceived validity, strength, importance, and their enduring nature. At the same time, the results of the survey identify the bottom seven principles … ie. Those that proved to be of less importance for a church to experience transformation.

The results of the survey are free for the asking, and well worth the reflections: Persons interested in a summary of the complete preliminary results and a PowerPoint presentation that contains a presentation of the results may send a request to [email protected]. Ask for: Enduring Principles Of Congregational Transformation Report.

Note: the results of the survey are intended to stimulate review, evaluation and dialogue. Bullard has made it a practice to gather church leaders into discovery groups that work out the implications of important principles. It’s an activity that I value … and intend to emulate.

Discerning Emerging Leaders

In his book, From Followers to Leaders [Churchsmart Resources, 2008], Bob Logan referred to an extensive survey of churches who were asked the question: “What is your greatest need as a church?” There was no surprise that the number one answer was “leadership development.” Over the last three years, as I’ve gone through training in a number of Church consultancy processes, I’ve had the opportunity to meet any number of Church Consultants, all of whom have affirmed the finding: “Every church where I have facilitated has expressed the need for more leaders and more mature leaders.” Yet, as Logan writes, “most pastors and churches don’t yet have a clear path for developing leaders within their own congregations … [they] muddle through, patching together a plan as they go.”

Looking at the leadership development efforts in the local church, I’m often reminded of a delightful phrase coined by Eugene Peterson in a Leadership Journal article, Haphazardardly Intent. As churches muddle along, there is a vestige of leadership development that pops up from time to time accompanied by the happy surprise that a leader has emerged.

Aubrey Malphurs [Building Leaders, Baker Books, 2004] suggested a clarification that would begin to erase the “haphazard” from the  ”intention” to develop leaders. His solution was to define leadership development as “the intentional process of helping established and emerging leaders at every level of ministry to assess and develop their Christian character and to acquire, reinforce, and refine their ministry knowledge and skills.” There’s a lot to unpack in that definition, but one point does stand out:

Leadership Development has to be seen in light of discipleship growth and maturity. When Leadership Development is viewed as a unique endeavor reserved for a select core of elite “chiefs” it becomes an appendix to congregational life, somewhat distant and disconnected. In Ephesians 4, the Apostle Paul doesn’t leave much room for such a distinction as he focuses the unified impact of apostles and prophets and evangelists and pastors and teachers on one task: to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ v. 12.13]  Seeing this in holistic terms, and treating leadership development as a normal expression of the momentum in discipleship, probably shouldn’t come as any great surprise. But, it does require a different perspective where churches don’t begin their search for leaders until they’ve begun their process of raising disciples. It’s all a matter of intention and all part of a continuum.

In a study that continues to serve as a reference for me, Journey to Jesus, Robert Webber outlined the practice of the Ancient church as a deliberate and intentional process. Drawing specifically from The Apostolic Tradition [Hippolytus, 215 A.D.] Webber described four phases of spiritual growth and development: 1. a time for Christian inquiry – the seeker period; 2. A time of instruction, when the converting person was known as a hearer; 3. An intense period of spiritual preparation …; and 4. A time … for the new Christian to be incorporated into the full life of the church. The early church clearly identified four distinct steps of spiritual growth: Conversion, Spiritual Discipline, Spiritual Formation, and Vocational Formation. Each step of the Journey, as Webber called it, defined the mission and message of the church. And, each step connected critical elements of character and spirit in a dynamic flow that was recognized and celebrated by whole congregations.

I suppose, then, that it’s no surprise to find similar patterns on leadership development being applied to the church in the 21st century. In their book, From Followers to Leaders, Robert Logan and Tara Miller recast the journey by using the term “path”: the path of leadership development: The path of faith [becoming a follower of Christ], the path of serving, growing and praying [Spiritual formation.] Before the last path [the path of multiplying: investing in others] are two paths where congregations seem to begin to get “muddled.”

The first, the path of developing, identifies emerging leaders [not to be confused by the term “emergent leaders”!] Emerging leaders are people who begin to take on new challenges and expanded roles of influence in ministry. According to Logan and Miller, as these people “come into their own” on the second path, the path of leading, where they find themselves in need of support and guidance. They need wisdom to “discover their gifts and call, and developing competence in ministry” in order to go on and lead groups and teams of others. The big question facing the “muddled” church is how to aid emerging leaders to discern their fitness for a future in ministry.

Answering that question alone can be a daunting challenge for a congregation. Fortunately, there are a number of agents available to aid churches. Books are being written and programs are being developed. There is an announcement in this newsletter of an exciting initiative being offered for the first time this Spring for the emerging leaders of the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in the British Columbia and the Yukon: The Ministry Assessment Process for Emerging Leaders.

There are many and good materials available, but the burden of leadership development remains a matter of mission for the local church. And, for the local church, several critical questions need to be addressed for success:

  1. Is there a distinct understanding that their fellowship is the culture that God has chosen to raise up leaders?
  2. Is there a clear sense of process given to each stage of spiritual growth? Is it communicated in such a way that everyone knows this to be their shared journey in faith? And does the fellowship celebrate with those who are making progress down the path in a meaningful way?
  3. Are the proper resources attached to each phase of spiritual development?

Do church leaders have a way to identify people as they move through the stages so that they can provide proper encouragement and support?

Coaching for Significant Conversations

The following comments are actually a repeat of a blog presented over a year ago.  Since that time, the relevance of Significant Conversations in facilitating the change needed to make a kingdom difference has begun to be noticed.  The Center for Intercultural Leadership Development is now offering coaching to FEBCC churches in the areas of evangelism and missions.  Contact Mark via the form below for further information.

Five aspects of evangelism that need to change if we are going to make a kingdom impact.

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also Significant Conversations: Onion model of Culture

Contact Mark Naylor

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“Be careful; your nose is growing!”

"Be careful; your nose is growing!" The inspiration for this warning is the Disney movie Pinocchio. In the story, when the little wooden boy told a lie, his nose would grow longer. 

When we’re very young, our attempts at deception are rather artless and obvious. I recall, at the age of five, being asked by the emergency physician how I had managed to break my ankle. I didn’t want to tell him that I’d jumped off of a flight of stairs; my dad had brought me to the hospital and I was afraid to tell the truth. So I explained, "I ran so hard that my leg just broke!"

Actually, it’s not just the disposition of children.  People, generally, are not especially good truth tellers. In fact, the only thing that changes over time is the sophistication and subtlety with which the truth is "massaged" to avoid punishment and confrontation, or to avoid the pain of punishment or discipline. It is amazingly common how regularly we disappoint one another by dealing in untruths.

It was no different in Jesus’ day–and Jesus was concerned that his disciples would know that they were to live well above the level of conventional notions of honor and righteousness. In fact, Jesus encouraged that those who would enter the kingdom would have such a character as to possess surpassing righteousness in the area of truth-telling (Matt. 5:20).

So what does surpassing righteousness in Christian truth-telling sound like?

Righteousness admits the need to help others’ doubts

The first thing Jesus said was you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ (Matt. 5:33) Jesus’ words are not a quote, but they’re an excellent summary of a number of passages from the OT. Oaths were an accepted part of Jewish life in the OT and NT periods. Moreover, even God, wanting to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, … confirmed it with an oath (Heb. 6:17)

God’s intention was not that everything that was said needed to be augmented by oaths. Rather, he permitted oaths to comfort people because their confidence was so often and so easily shaken by  untruths.  Oaths were meant to be a comfort to doubt.

But righteousness is not just about verbal formulas

The comfort of oaths for the doubtful, however, came in Jesus’ day to be shrunk and twisted to such an extent by people that there developed a distinction between oaths that were binding and oaths that were breakable. This was no more than a license to lie and deceive.

Jesus’ response is very clear. This is not the way of disciples who are subjects of the heavenly kingdom.

Surpassing righteousness need no oaths

Jesus says, Do not swear at all…. (Matt. 5:34) Righteousness and honesty do not require oaths for emphasis.

The next thing that Jesus says is a reminder that we are always before a watchful God and this calls for truthfulness at all times. The forms of oaths are irrelevant. Look at how he explains. Mishnah Shebuoth allowed that swearing by heaven and earth were not binding. Jesus said,  Do not swear … either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool…. (Matt. 5:34) To swear by the domain of God untruthfully is to slight him. Jesus continued, Do not swear … by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. (Matt. 5:35)  The Jewish Tosephta Nedarim allowed that if you vowed by Jerusalem it was not binding but if you vowed toward Jerusalem it was. Jesus said, "Nonsense! No matter what your direction or orientation to Jerusalem, you are involving God in your oath and so taking his name lightly.

You could not avoid involving God even if you simply swore by your head!

Jesus said, And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. (Matt. 5:36) His point was that even this involved God because we do not have ultimate control over even the smallest things of our lives. The little hairs on my head are not listening to me–some of them are changing colour; some are growing in strange and exciting ways; others are moving to abandon me permanently!

Jesus simply says, "Don’t!"

Surpassing righteousness is unadorned and keeps its word

If it is righteousness to be serious about oaths; it’s surpassing righteousness when all speech deals in the unvarnished truth.

Jesus said, Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (Matt. 5:37) He’s for reality and truthfulness in the whole range of daily conversations. How can we claim to follow the Son who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6) if we deal in untruths? Surpassing righteousness keeps its word.

Jesus’ teaching opens up many areas for application. We should be more careful in our speech: not exaggerating, or using hyperbole, or superlatives to be dishonest, deceive, or emptily flatter people. We shouldn’t slant our stories or pad our resumes. We should keep our promises and our appointments. We should be rock solid in reliable speech to our spouses, our children, our neighbours, our boss, the judge, the government, and above all to God himself.

Surpassing righteousness in the follower of Jesus is demonstrated, among other ways, in unadorned, sturdy speech that has the ring and character of truth and reliability…just like the words of Jesus.

After all, that is the new nature of the subjects of the kingdom of heaven who are the children of the Great King. Truth-telling shows that we bear the family likeness!

Keeping Your Mission On Track

So much is happening in our world these days that I find it hard to keep track of it all. Significant changes are happening in the leadership of the United States. The business and financial worlds continue to experience turmoil. Leadership among our seminary partners in ACTS is changing, as well as leadership within the ACTS Consortium. Discerning the implications of these things for our personal lives, as well as our church communities, families or businesses becomes challenging.

Keeping Northwest’s mission on track when times are turbulent and chaotic, when the future seems less clear than it did six months ago, requires wisdom, courage, and significant intentionality. I am sure you experience the same constraints as you are re-calibrating your own personal budgets, travel plans, business ventures, or investment strategies. My faith in Jesus Christ and confidence that God’s Spirit is with me, however, gives me assurance to press forward. In spite of the changes in the world around me, Jesus’ word remains central – “seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). That remains the main thing.

When I translate all of this into the context of my leadership within Northwest, it requires me to ask once again this question – why does Northwest exist and what difference is it making for God in our world? Discerning the answers to these questions enables me as President to find joy in my calling and keep focused, patiently persistent, and significantly encouraged.

The more turbulent our times become, Northwest’s work to equip effective Kingdom leaders gains importance. Churches need passionate, competent, caring, godly leaders.

  • Brian Reagh, a recent graduate began his work as lead pastor at Ruth Morton Baptist Church at the end of October.
  • Tim Durksen, having finished his youth pastoral training program began as Youth Pastor at Sardis Baptist Church in September.
  • Robin Martens is the associate pastor of Discipleship at Campbell River Baptist Church.
  • Brian Pankratz is planting a new church in Burnaby.
  • Three Fellowship Baptist Church boards participated in the Best Practices for Church Boards Workshop at the beginning of November, discerning ways to lead more excellently within their churches.
  • Current Fellowship pastors (and those from other denominations) participated in a week-long Doctor of Ministry course entitled “Spiritual Leadership in the New Testament”, deepening their own understanding of Kingdom leadership.
  • Current students, like David Yeo at Northwest Langley Baptist, or Rob Schweyer at Maple Ridge Baptist, or Paul Truman at Fellowship Baptist in Kimberly, are deeply engaged in pastoral ministries within their churches.

Are we making a difference? Absolutely! New leader by new leader, one by one, our current students and graduates bring the Gospel of Jesus and the powerful presence of God’s Spirit into their communities.

Are these leaders enough? Absolutely not! We must press forward. The work of God’s Kingdom isn’t finished. So we must keep on task. Jesus is holding us accountable. His body needs more trained leaders than ever before.

Your involvement in this work becomes more critical, not less. We know that the message of Jesus changes lives and restores relationship with God. As the Spirit of Jesus takes up residence in people, radical transformation occurs. Your prayers for us, your financial gifts, your wise counsel, your encouragement of those in training – all of this keeps us focused and persistently achieving Northwest’s mission – equipping effective Kingdom leaders. What investment carries greater opportunity for Kingdom advancement?

Thank you for your encouragement. I know that each of you in your own situations is being challenged by the financial chaos. Yet God’s continues to provide for our needs.

There are many different ways that you can help me lead Northwest:

  • Help us connect with people in your church whom you believe have the gifts and calling for ministry leadership.
  • Provide legacy gifts to sustain Northwest’s mission – real estate, bequest by will, making Northwest the owner and beneficiary of a life insurance policy, gifting securities (stocks or bonds), gifts-in-kind. You benefit through the tax receipt, God’s Kingdom benefits as resources are applied to developing Kingdom leaders.
  • Let me know that you are praying for us.

This is my joy and my challenge these days. Thank you for standing with me.


Teaching at The Journey Centre

Some of you may have heard about "The Journey Centre," our new initiative in graduate theological education in Edmonton.

I just returned from a few days of teaching at The Journey, where I was teaching my basic homiletics as a modular course. This time we got together to do the theoretical and theological work. In February we will get together again so that we can listen to each other preach and help each other with the necessary critique.

Already, the course has been of help. One of my students emailed me the following…

Thank you for the time you spent with us, in spite of your cold, in class in Edmonton.  It proved a great blessing!

First, I spent 8 hours on Saturday revamping my entire sermon (notice I did not say message) for taglines and imagery (and a lot more) for Sunday morning.  [That’s not the blessing!]

I found the “imagery times” to be occasions to step away from the pulpit and not use notes.   Plus the taglines helped me remember the message!

Second, praying the message was very meaningful personally.  It was like making my heart ready.

Third, here is a note slipped to me following the sermon:

“Thank you.  I am 52 yrs old and the presentation you shared today was the most powerful expression I have ever experienced upon my heart.  Deep within my heart.  Thank you for being a vessel – that God flows out of.  Thank you.  Thank you for the truth of your heart to be imparted in this way.”

This is the kind of "just-in-time" training that we hope to be able to provide in Edmonton. Let’s pray that many more students are able to experience this kind of benefit.

Understanding Pages and Posts in WordPress

WordPress is an amazing platform for churches to use for their websites.  A strategic feature in the power and versatility of WordPress is the distinction that is made between WordPress Posts and WordPress Pages.  Understanding this distinction is a vital key to unlocking the potential of using WordPress as a content management system.

When I first started with WordPress I grappled with a considerable amount of confusion as to the usage of Pages versus Posts .  How was I supposed to use these two similar yet different creatures in the world of blogging and CMS application.  In this article I would like to help us better understand what pages and posts do and the distinction between them.  Click between the tabs below to view a description of Pages and Posts and some explanation of what their individual strengths are for designing a church website.

[tab:Posts]

Posts in WordPress

Posts are the meat n’ potatoes of a typical blog.  Posts are where a person writes the regular series of  "articles", "devotionals", "book reviews", "opinion or advice columns" and so on.  There are so many potential uses for Posts that I will not even try to enumerate more than the few I listed above.  Their value is in their versatility.  They can be sorted, tagged, categorized, searched and dated.  They can be cataloged by author, by date, by category and by tag.  They can be published publicly or privately (with password protection).  An example of this versatility can be found on the Northwest home page in the right-hand side bar under Special Topics.  Several of those links will open a compilation of all the Posts by a particular author that have been designated a specific category.  Church Website Dialogue 101 is one of them.

Posts are dynamic so they can be used in many creative ways to present regularly changing information or a continually growing body of information.  Normally Posts are displayed with the most currently published material appearing first.  This gives Posts their "freshness" and "interest value".  Posts are what users follow via RSS feeds and news readers.

One distinctive of Posts is that their content can eventually become dated.  For example, in this article (which is a Post) the elements I have listed for Posts and Pages will likely change as WordPress evolves and grows.  There will probably be new features and capabilities added in future releases – making some of what I am writing eventually become dated.  This is not as likely to happen with the content typically entered into Pages.

Read this discussion of posts on the WordPress website http://codex.wordpress.org/Writing_Posts

[tab:Post Elements]

Post Elements in WordPress

A WordPress Post has these components or elements.  I find this list helpful when trying to conceptualize how to design a CMS site using WordPress. The highlighted items are the distinct elements of WordPress Posts.

  1. Title
  2. Post content (body of the page)
  3. Tags
  4. Categories
  5. Password protection
  6. Exerpt
  7. Trackbacks
  8. Posts will allow comments
  9. Post Author
  10. Post revisions
  11. Post status Private or Public
  12. Publish date
  13. Permalink (slug)

[tab:Pages]

Pages in WordPress

Pages in WordPress are the equivalent of static html pages on a static site – with the exception that they are dynamically generated from the database.  Pages hold information that is constant.  They are for site content such as information pages, history pages, personnel pages, product information pages, ministry description pages and so on.  In WordPress Pages are the substance of a content management site as they can be identified in a menu type of hierarchy.  WordPress Pages can have sub-pages and sub-pages under sub-pages.  This gives great power and flexibility in designing the structure of a website.

One of the more powerful CMS capabilities in WordPress is that one can design individual and distinct templates for Pages.  This can give a website the potential of a new look and feel with each Page that is viewed.  One specific Page and all of its sub-pages can have their own template and create the visual sense of being in a new section of the site or even an entirely different site.  For a CMS this is a valuable capability.

Because Pages are "static" they can be used for navigation.  Pages can be assigned a numerical order within their page level which gives the web programmer the ability to create very sophisticated navigational systems.  WordPress has a template tag [a special WordPress function – wp_list_pages()] designed to display a list of all the page URLs.  The tag has a number of  "arguments" to give it great flexibility.  The drop-down menu on the Northwest web-site is dynamically generated using that single WordPress template tag with a few specific arguments.  That way new Pages can be added very quickly and if they meet the criteria set by the arguments of the template tag they automatically appear in the drop-down menu.

In order to better understand how Pages and Page Templates work in WordPress go to this article on the WordPress website – http://codex.wordpress.org/Pages.

Another feature of Pages and their Page Templates is that certain pages can be designed to be viewable by members only.  In a future article I will address this strategic use of the Users feature built into WordPress

[tab:Page Elements]

Page Elements in WordPress

A WordPress page has these components or elements.  I find this list helpful when trying to conceptualize how to design a Content Management Site (CMS) such as a church website using WordPress.  The highlighted items are the distinct elements of WordPress Pages.

  1. Title
  2. Page content (body of the page)
  3. Tags
  4. Custom fields
  5. Comments and Pings
  6. Password protection
  7. Page Parent (can have sub-pages as well)
  8. Page Template
  9. Page Order (i.e. 0, 1, 2 …20, 21 etc.  This is very helpful for arranging how page links will appear in a menu.)
  10. Page Author
  11. Page revisions
  12. Page status Private or Public
  13. Publish date
  14. Permalink (slug)
  15. Pages can be listed with a Template Tag

[tab:END]


I trust this little description will be helpful for all of us who are trying to use WordPress for more than just a blog.  There is lots of information on the WordPress Codex site.  But maybe this condensation will fill a need.

A Noah in every family

world's largest wooden ship, Al-Hashemi-IIIn the Cross-Cultural Impact article, Confessions of a Failed Church Planter, I related the following story of an incident during our ministry in Pakistan:

Nathaniel (not his real name) told me one day of his favorite chapters in the Bible.  Most of them were the expected ones (Ps 23, Rom 8, 1 Cor 13, etc.), but then he said Genesis 7.  I was a little taken aback as I recalled that this was the chapter in which God destroys the entire world and I asked him why such a chapter would be so important to him.  He replied, “Just as God chose Noah to save his family, God has chosen me to save mine.” On the basis of this, rather than challenging him to be involved in a “church plant”, I encouraged him to focus on being an active and intentional believer within his family.  Thus he is fulfilling a mandate that he believes is from God.

His efforts are all within a given societal structure (family) and as a result the conflict of authority and control which occurred in the church plant I attempted are nonexistent.  Relationships are established on social grounds, not on the basis of a common faith, and within this context biblical teaching is given the opportunity to influence the members of the family.  Moreover because the family unit is ongoing, so is the influence of the gospel.  Such a model is also reproducible when the patriarchal heads of the family are targeted.  As a result of Nathaniel’s efforts a number of family members have come to Christ and worship services are a regular occurrence within the family context.

the story of Noah has become a metaphor or motif for the spread of the gospel among the Sindhi people

Recently, I had opportunity to remind Nathaniel of the incident of the “favorite chapters.”  He laughed and said he remembered.  He then went on to say that the story of Noah has become a metaphor or motif for the spread of the gospel among the Sindhi people.  Rather than trying to form congregations with those who have become believers, the focus is on discipling believers in cohorts so that they can be equipped and challenged to bring Christ as Lord within their extended families.  In the words of Nathaniel, “We want a Noah in every family, someone who will build a boat so that the whole family can be saved.”

Investing for Lasting Returns

Two days ago, Northwest Baptist Seminary participated in an annual fund raising banquet with its ACTS seminaries partners. Doners, staff and faculty were present. The program was encouraging; the student testimonies particularly inspiring.

At one point one of our students–Lenora Klassen–was asked why she would recommend that folks financially support the work of the seminary.

I was particularly struck by her response.

Lenora replied, "I don’t know if anyone has been following the economy or activity in the world stock markets lately but there is virtually no place in that arena where a person can get a good return on investment."

She continued, "If you’re looking for a place to invest that generates incredibly strong and lasting returns, there’s no better place than to invest in training highly motivated people who will serve God in proclaiming the good news about His son the Lord Jesus in an amazingly broad range of ways."

Well said on the financial analysis, Lenora!

I’m not an economist, but you don’t really need to be one to see that there has been a lot of economic trouble in the world of late. Markets have plunged, bank credit is frozen, and panic reigns. In the past fifteen months, there have been over 2 trillion dollars’ worth of debt-related losses. Most nations have incurred great debt in floating ‘rescue plans;’ a few nations look to have gone bankrupt. We’ve heard about how the woes of Wall Street were going to begin to affect Main Street. This week the local press where I live featured stories about several large building projects that have stopped due to the debt losses and bankruptcy of lending institutions across the border. Construction workers were being let go from the sites. The media are featuring more and more people who have invested deeply and lost everything. One US pundit quipped that 401 K retirement plans are now just 01 K plans.

Lenora was also right in her spiritual assessment because it positively counseled those gathered at the banquet against the common tendency in tough times for people to experience a "generosity freeze."

Jesus taught, Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)

Obviously, supporting a Seminary in its training of quality individuals for various gospel ministries is one place to make a good long term ‘safe’ investment. We should never be neglectful of that!  But there are also many other ways as well–ways that engage need in all of its desperate expressions and overwhelm the needy with generous goodness that makes them ask, "Why are you doing this?" The answer, of course, is "For the love of God and His Son."

So, we’ve been reminded once again that there are choices to be made. Jesus boiled the options down to a single choice: Who will we serve, God or Money? (Matthew 6:24)

Church Videography

In the last two decades, technology has opened opportunities that Churches have embraced with interesting results. In 1999, one of the pastors at the Sherwood Baptist Church of Albany, Georgia realized that their sound room had become a media room. Looking at the cameras and sound equipment, he realized that cost was no longer a hindrance to creating professional productions. That led to the production of a movie in 2003: Flywheel. The goal of the movie was to express the Gospel in a compelling fashion.

And, churches have been taking the initiative in using their resources to create graphic messages. Sherwood Baptist Church went on to make the movie Facing the Giants [2006] and Fireproof [2008.] At last count, it was estimated that over 1,200 members of the congregation have participated in the productions [http://www.christianitytoday.com/tc/2008/005/1.14.html]

It was with this example in mind that I was fascinated last week to read about the Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles. In Christianity Today, Brett McCracken wrote “No More Cheesy, Churchy Videos” [http://www.christianitytoday.com/movies/news/badd.html] He began his article saying, “It wasn’t so long ago that some churches frowned upon their members even going to see movies, let alone participate in making them. But as new media and video forms have increasingly become ubiquitous and acceptable tools in worship services, that’s all changed. Today, it’s common to see a film clip or video illustration on Sunday mornings, and more and more churches have video ministries that are creating original productions.”

But, not all churches do it well – which is where Bel Air Presbyterian Church stands out. I suppose it’s no surprise that a church with a significant population of “elite, audition-based actors, writers, directors and other film/media practitioners” would be the ones to set a higher standard and provide a quality model. Their ministry carries the delightful title: BADD [Bel Air Drama Department] but their productions are anything but bad. Most of their videos are available on YouTube, about 80% of them comedy, and all of them related to relevant ministry.

I’d add my recommendation to Brett McCracken as he writes, ”BADD is neither the first nor the biggest church film ministry, but it is a good case study in what a film ministry might look like in an era of rapidly changing media.”  In fact, I’d say it’s a great case study worth the look http://www.belairdrama.com/.

The Candidating Sermon

Many of us know the stress and pressure that comes with the candidating process. We want to put our best foot forward, but we do not want to make such a good impression that we are never able to live up to it in the future. I remember hearing an older pastor years ago saying that we should avoid preaching our “Royal George Sermon” when auditioning for a church. I’m not sure what King George had to do with it, but we all have those sure-fire, can’t miss sermons that are certain to put us in the best possible light. It is tempting to default to such sermons when the footing isn’t sure.

For that reason Scott Gibson’s advice, that we preach our “best average sermon” seems wise. Scott’s comment can be found in his excellent article, Preaching the Candidating Sermon, the preaching.org feature article for October. “What is a best average sermon,” Gibson asks? “It is a sermon that captures who you are as a preacher, your personality; and also demonstrates your competence in handling the Word, delivered with skill.”

In other words, preach well, without resorting to any special measures, homiletic pyrotechnics, or features that you won’t be able to live up to. “Remember,” Gibson counsels, “you are not trying to preach your “barn burner” sermon. A candidating sermon is not the sole measure of your preaching ability. You want to give the listeners your best average sermon to demonstrate to them what you are able to do week by week.”

Preaching a candidating sermon can make a person feel like they are back in homiletics class. It feels like people are listening to the preacher more than they are listening to God. No matter what we say, people are thinking about our delivery, more than about the message. They are watching us closely, making decisions about what they are hearing. Their judgment has more to do with whether they would want to listen to us on a weekly basis than it has to do with their own response to the message that we came to bring. It is what it is. We can’t really change it, though we’re best not to dwell on this reality obsessively. The best thing we could do is the same thing that we ought to do whenever we stand to preach. We turn people’s focus to the Word of God and seek to help them to hear his voice.

WordPress is growing up

WordPress gets continually easier to use as a CMS (Content Management System) which is good news for churches who want an easy to use platform for their internet presence.  Yesterday I upgraded the Northwest website to the latest version (WordPress 2.6.2) and the upgrade went very smoothly.  With the size and complexity of our site I was expecting the upgrade to cause a number of serious headaches.  I was pleasantly surprised. There is a video clip prepared by the people at WordPress detailing some of the new features in WordPress. The clip can be accessed here, but it does not work well in Internet Explorer – use Firefox instead.

The following are some of the features that I like in the current version of WordPress (2.6.2).

1. In general the management interface for WordPress is much cleaner and easier to use. The layout is more intelligible, the design is cleaner and the colors are more aesthetically pleasing with lots of white space.

2. Plugin management has been reorganized. Plugins in current use are visually separated from inactive ones. Plugins can be updated directly from the plugin management page (no more uploading them manually via ftp). All this gives the webmaster a much easier time managing plugins: which ones are being used, which ones are in need of updating, doing the updating etc.

More Useful Plugins for WordPress:

Here are several more plugins that I have discovered along the way that help make life easier for the church that wants to use WordPress as a full-featured CMS.

Sermon Browser: One of the features that many churches look for is the ability to place audio and video material on their website for others to access and benefit by. Sermon Browser was designed for just that. It is still in beta form but seems to be working well. Here is a link to the website of a church that is using it http://www.bethel-clydach.co.uk/index.php.

RefTagger: Our friends at Logos Bible Software have also created a plugin for WordPress that allows all Scripture references on one’s site to be linked to the full text of the passage.  Check out John 3:16 (just hover over it).  Here is a quote from their website:

RefTagger is an amazing, free new web tool that instantly makes all the Bible references on your site come alive! Bare links turn into hyperlinks to the full text of the passage at Bible.Logos.com, making it easy for your readers to access the text of Scripture with just a click. Even better, RefTagger brings the text right to your readers by generating a tooltip window that pops up instantly when they hover over the reference. You can also have RefTagger add an logos icon that is hyperlinked to the passage in Libronix—ideal if many of your readers use Logos.”

Simple:Press Forum is a full featured forum application that works as a plugin for WordPress. I have just begun using it on a personal website and it seems to be just what I have been looking for.

CQS Reloaded: This is a powerful little plugin that allows one to determine how many posts will appear at one time in a given WordPress section or category.  For example, if one wants visitors to their site to only see the current article on the home page but multiple articles on an archives page or as many as possible on a search page, this is the plugin to use.  If one has category templates designed for their website they can determine a precise number of posts for each category.

Page restrict: Suppose a website has one (or several) page that you would like only logged-in members to access. This plugin gives that kind of control.

Simple Tags: If a person is into using the new tagging feature in WordPress 2.6.2 this plugin gives a whole bunch of options and features for managing tags.  Both the Northwest website as well as Mark Naylor’s blog use this tagging feature.  See the bottom of this page.

The following two plugins are ones that I use on both Larry Perkin’s and Mark Naylor’s blogs. They are particularly useful if a visitor to the site wants to either email a copy of an article to someone or if they want to print up a hard copy for themselves.
WP-Email: Here is the read-me information.
WP-Print: Here is the read-me information.

WP-DBBackup: This is a valuable plugin for the many management tasks one might want to perform on the site’s database. This plugin, however, must be used with great care. I completely messed up one of my websites by not being careful. Here is the read-me information.

Feel free to interact witn me on this topic.  What have you found helpful for your church website?

Training with Impact!

The increasing diversity and complexity of our context has given rise to specializations in pastoral ministry.  Due to the increasing ethnic diversity in Canada a further skill set is required – pastoring in an intercultural setting.  Northwest Baptist seminary is addressing this need through the Cross-cultural Leadership Development program (CLTP), a one-year undergrad, mentored, experienced-based training program in cross-cultural ministry.  See also Why CLTP?

Jarrod Haas writes of how the CLTP experience has impacted his life:

Jarrod HaasThrough the CLTP program, my understanding of cross-cultural relationships has grown substantially…. I have come to see more clearly that the core of practical ministry occurs through relationships with others…. A new understanding of cultural dynamics has made me aware of the importance of learning to speak in the “language” of the other. Whereas before I focused almost exclusively upon acceptance and articulation of truth, I have realized that real relationships involve the contextualization of the self as a messenger, so as to develop credibility and communicate truth from a position of servantheartedness.

With this broadening of my perspective on relationships has also come several more practical insights.

experiential knowledge of other cultures is essential to building solid, lasting relationships

First, I am becoming more aware of the cultural barriers that exist when building relationships with ESL students. Students may perceive relationship with me or other Canadians as being very transitory (so that they are unwilling to involve themselves beyond a superficial level) or as a vehicle for the achievement of their English communication goals. They may also idealize white people or Western culture, or simply be uncomfortable with foreigners and cross-cultural situations. Understanding the baggage that can come into cross-cultural relationships is helpful in maintaining a sober attitude and expectations in ministry and friendships. It is also helpful to know what obstacles exist so that I can pray and seek ways of removing them.

Second, the dynamic between giving and receiving is becoming more apparent. Although we are called to be servants first and foremost, it is necessary to balance this by giving others an opportunity to serve and give back. Continually offering service to another has the effect of placing them in an inferior position. Without giving the other a chance to give in return, relationships can turn into a selfish monologue or dependency.

It is an honour to be a servant in missions for the Glory of God

Third, [E. Stanley] Jones noted that caution was required when ministering in India because of the inferiority complex that existed towards the West. Tension towards the West because of its colonialism and affluence extends to other countries as well. Simply being a white Christian carries a significant amount of baggage that the cross-cultural worker must be aware of. It is particularly important to be conscious so as not to create an attitude of superiority or arrogance. Even seemingly innocent statements of comparison between Canada and other countries can cause people to think that you believe your own country is the standard by which everyone else should live.

Fourth, I have learned that an experiential knowledge of other cultures is essential to building solid, lasting relationships. In particular, I am beginning to gain a small working knowledge of the Korean worldview and how it manifests through expressions such as of high-context indirectness and group-centeredness.

Fifth, in relation to the previous point, I intend to be more conscious of listening to and observing internationals, rather than focusing on influencing them…. Learning the relational language of the other is essential to relating effectively. Furthermore, I intend to be more mindful of differences (e.g. personality types, social status, etc.) that I perceive in relationships. My approach thus far has been to downplay or ignore the various kinds of disparities that can occur, so as to focus on acceptance of the other. That approach does have merits. However, I am discovering that it is important to keep a healthy focus on differences that do emerge because they are important for understanding how to speak and relate to the other on his or her terms, rather than my own.

Sixth, above all else, heavy reliance upon a right relationship with God, prayer, and the Spirit have proven to be the core elements of all relational processes. I have come to see, in practical terms, that no amount of experience or knowledge can supersede the level of integration and empowerment of skills that the Spirit provides while forming and nurturing relationships.

There are, of course, many aspects of relationships that are not on this list. What has been most significant, however, was growth in the understanding that the development and integration of these and other relational skills will be essential to effectiveness in all future ministry…. I am looking forwards with great anticipation to the work that God will do both in Canada and internationally. It is an honour to be a servant in missions for the Glory of God.

How to Stay One

In early September, I had the deep privilege of officiating at Scott’s and Katherine’s wedding. Scott’s my nephew. There was a bit of déjà vu in the experience for me as the very first wedding I officiated at was Scott’s dad’s and mom’s wedding.

Weddings are all about becoming one. Jesus said, "The man and the woman are no longer two, but one!" In the mysterious and wonderful way that God built into the DNA of marriage, that is just what happens. But Jesus also said, "What God has joined together, let man not separate." That phrase tells me that there’s effort required to stay one.

In a lot of ways, churches are like marriages. They’re made up of very different people united under Christ—different shapes and sizes, different personalities and dispositions, different gifts, and different hopes and dreams. But as in marriages, even the best of churches, while they have been made one by God in Christ, have to work at staying one. There are challenges to that oneness from within and from without. Against those pressures, over and over again, the Bible calls for the church—like it calls couples in marriages—to work at staying one.

One of Paul’s most beloved churches was in the town of Philippi. This church had come together in a place that was hostile to Christianity. In this climate of pressure and threat, this wonderful church had become severely distressed; its unity was beginning to unravel. So Paul gave them some great advice. That advice also works very well for marriages. Here is what he wrote:

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look out not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:1-4)

Paul indicated a number of essential principles for working at staying one.

1. Never forget who you really are!

Paul says, “Your core identity, is ‘follower of Jesus Christ;’ you are God’s person.” When a couple opens their hearts to Jesus and become His followers, God does some amazing things in them. He lavishes his riches on them just like he did on the Philippian church. They come to live in the comfort of Christ’s salvation; they are consoled by His love; they come into and presently experience unbroken fellowship with God through the powerful presence of God’s Holy Spirit; and they experience God’s amazing compassion and mercy. The long and short of it is that a couple already shares an incredible amount in common as they each share in salvation.

2. Pursue Harmony!

Paul next says, “Trusting in that greatest common denominator of a personal relationship with Jesus, pursue harmony! Being one is not without effort. And that effort begins with healthy communication that builds toward harmony. Paul says, “Be like-minded,” “have the same love,” give expression to that “oneness in spirit,” and he concludes “think the same thing.” It’s a lot like singing in a choir. Obviously there are a lot of different voices in a church choir. But when those very different voices are all on the same page musically and pursuing harmony, the result is both deeply gratifying and God-honoring. Its the same in marriage–two very different people building toward a deeply gratifying and God-honoring harmony.

3. Show Consideration!

Selfish ambition uses all its energy to roughly press ahead in personal advancement without thinking whether this helps or hurts others. Vain conceit is filled with an overblown sense of self-importance. It’s always saying, “Me first!” and “I count more than you!” These are both mortal enemies of staying one. That’s why Paul says, “do nothing” out of such unworthy motivations. Instead, he says, work at staying one by “in humility considering others better than yourselves.” There is no sense of inferiority, self-disparagement, or groveling in this. Paul says, show consideration—“look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others.”

4. Imitate the Great Example!

The final piece of advice on staying one in a marriage so that it goes the distance is this: Imitate the Great Example. Paul’s final recommendation is to model your life in marriage after the selfless example of Jesus himself. He writes,

Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion. (Philippians 2:5-11, The Message)

Becoming one is great; working at staying one is even better!

Preaching to Remember Those We Never Knew

I came across the following passage, yesterday, as I was reading Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics. The novelist is describing a memorial service for her protagonist’s private school teacher and mentor.

“Johnson went on and on, giving an equal amount of eye contact to every third of the congregation with the mechanized surety of a sprinkler system, most likely having learned this from a course, How to Give a Mesmerizing Sermon, with its concepts of Bringing Everyone In and Evoking a Feeling of Togetherness and Universal Humanity. The speech wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t at all specific to Hannah. it was teeming with She Was a Lights and She Would have Wanteds, mentioning nothing of her real life, a life that Havermayer and the rest of the administration were now all deeply afraid of, as if they’d secretly discovered asbestos in Elton House or found out Christian Gordon, St. Gallway’s Head Chef, had Hepatitis A. I could almost see the paper on the lecturn filled with (Insert Deceased’s Name Here) (see www.123eulogy.com, #8).”

Pastors all know the challenge of speaking uniquely into the lives of people at such services. This is particularly true when the deceased is not well known to us. We do a little sleuthing so as to uncover one or two anecdotes that can personalize the sermon, but if we are honest, most of us take a template approach to our sermons in such cases.

The saliency of this issue struck me with some force given that shortly before reading the afore-quoted passage, I received the real life news that my wife’s much-loved grandmother had died and that I am being asked to perform the memorial service later this week. The family wants me to perform the service because they know me, because they know I cared about my wife’s grandma, and because they know they can trust me to speak authentically about that love. I expect that it will be a meaningful service for those reasons.

All of this lead me to think about some of the many other funeral sermons I have preached for those I never knew. I did my best to tell the stories, and to personalize the event, but it always felt a little artificial. I was telling someone else’s stories and those who attended well knew that I didn’t truly know what I was talking about. They appreciated the effort I made to reflect their loved one, but given that I didn’t know the deceased, it didn’t always have the needed spark.

I’m wondering what we might be able to do about that. I do think we should still work to personalize things, as much as possible. But I also think that we should not try to speak as if we know the person we have never met. There are other ways, I think, to spark the needed authenticity. We can speak with passion, for instance, about the sense of mortality that we all feel whenever someone dies. It’s like the quote from John Donne, “don’t ask for whom the (funeral) bell tolls. It tolls for you.” I don’t need to have had a close personal relationship with someone to have an authentic response around their death.

People want to hear us talk about things that are real within us. We need to get close enough to the situation to be able to reflect an honest and helpful response. We need to let the death effect us, whether we knew the person or whether we did not. When people die, they leave a hole. As Donne said, “we are not islands unto ourselves.” The death of one diminishes the experience of us all. Sometimes we just need to let ourselves get close enough to be touched a little by that truth. Those who listen to our sermons will sense it if we do. It will help them and they will appreciate it.

Honoring Muslims

The Muslim month of fasting, Ramadan, coincides with September this year [See 30-Days prayer focus for daily online prayer items or a downloadable calendar].  Historically, much Muslim – Christian interaction has been negative and detrimental, with the Crusades being the most glaring example that impacts relationships to this day. 

However, there are those who are building bridges of honor, respect and love with Muslims. Mazhar Mallouhi’s life and teaching provide us with a powerful example of how Christians can effectively relate to Muslims in a way that reveals the love of the Savior.  Mazhar is a follower of Christ from a Muslim background whose appreciation of and love for Muslims has communicated the gospel with obvious impact.  Paul-Gordon Chandler provides the English speaking world with an introduction to the life and teaching of this Arab author through his book, Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road [Chandler, Paul Gordon. Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road: exploring a new path between two faiths. Plymouth: Cowley Pub. 2007].  In the book, Chandler explores some of the ways Mallouhi has broken down barriers between Christians and Muslims through showing honor.

breaking down barriers … by showing honor

During the time Karen and I were living in Pakistan many people would come to talk about spiritual things.  However, few religious leaders ever stopped by and I generally did not seek them out. Mazhar Mallouhi, on the other hand, has been known to seek out respected Muslim spiritual leaders in order to ask them to become his spiritual mentor! He explains to them that the Bible is his guidebook to live according to God’s will, and he then asks, "Can you please read these Scriptures in order to help me live up to them? In other words, I would like you to observe me as I live in your country and am accountable to you" (Chandler: 80). This vulnerability in asking to be watched and corrected based on interaction with the Scriptures demands humility and openness.  It also has great potential toward the development of significant relationships and spiritual conversations.

One of first people to come to Christ during our ministry in Pakistan was a young Muslim man studying at the local university.  After his baptism he went back to his home only to return and announce that his father, the spiritual leader of his village, had thrown him out.  Because I had never met his father, I was not in a position to develop a relationship with him at that stage and ease the situation.  It took two years before I finally met the man so that his concerns were eased and his stance towards his son was softened.

In contrast to this error on my part, Mazhar’s cultural sensitivity causes him to honor Muslims by first approaching the father to ask permission if someone has requested an opportunity to study the Gospels. Mazhar’s experience is that the father, and others in the family, may also want to be involved when approached in this way. Because of expressed concern for the honor of the family, the seeker is not alienated from their family, and the whole family can be introduced to the person of Christ (Chandler: 81). Muslims live in many of our Canadian communities.  An attitude of respect and honor towards the leaders may run counter to our easy going egalitarian culture, but it will serve to break down barriers and can create lasting and significant relationships.

Tighten Up On Loose Change

I’m not sure exactly why, but it seems that there has been one word repeated incessantly over the last few week: Change. Maybe it’s due to the political season. Possibly it’s due to the initiation of Fall programs. Whatever it is, and wherever it’s used, it seems to carry a sense of urgency. As the comedian, Professor Irwin Corey used to scream, “if we don’t change direction soon, we’ll end up where we’re headed. It’s with that in mind that I was intrigued by an article that I read this morning by Mark Sanborn entitled Why Organizational Change Fails [http://www.maximumimpact.com/articles/read/article_mastering_change_why_organizational_change_fails1]

The article served as a caution: There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things … Sanborn quotes Jean-Jaques Rousseau. I would tend to agree. I’ve discovered the truth of an axiom penned by Havelock Ellis: What we call “progress” is the exchange of one nuisance for another nuisance. Change is not a guarantee of success. Unless it’s done with care, it can result in disaster.

Sanborn’s article provided a good checklist of common faults, or reasons, how failure can occur. Ten reasons in all: 1. Missarts, 2. Making change an option, 3. A focus only on progress, 4. A focus only on results, 5. Not involving those expected to implement change, 6. Delegating change to outsiders, 7. No change in the reward system, 8. Leadership that doesn’t “walk the talk”, 9. Wrong size, 10. No follow-through. It’s an article worth of review. In fact, it might make a good checklist for anyone who is about to launch into a new project.

Endorsing Candidates from the Pulpit

With election fever across North America, it might be helpful for us to consider how we guide our listeners from the pulpit. Traditionally, preachers have understood that while we should feel free to speak broadly about issues that are relevant from the perspective of the Scriptures, we should draw the line at telling our listeners precisely who to vote for. Statements that are of a partisan nature have been viewed to be off limits. Not least among the reasons for this approach is the risk that overt partisanship from the pulpit poses to the tax-free status enjoyed by churches. Preachers are loathe to say anything that would put that status in jeopardy.

This may, however, be changing. According to an article in the Washington Post, the Alliance Defense Fund is recruiting several dozen pastors in the U.S. to deliberately challenge the Internal Revenue Service by making endorsements from the pulpit. The article, Ban on Political Endorsements by Pastors Targeted by Peter Slevin, suggests that the ADF is moving proactively with it’s "Pulpit Initiative" to take the matter to the IRS before the IRS takes it to the churches. According to the ADF, the prohibition stifles freedom of religious expression and inhibits a preacher’s constitutional right to speak freely from the pulpit.

So far, three dozen church leaders from more than 20 states have agreed to deliver a political sermon, naming political names. According to ADF attorney, Erik Stanley, these sermons "will be an evaluation of conditions for office in light of scripture and doctrine. They will make a specific recommendation from the pulpit about how the congregation would vote," he said. "They could oppose a candidate. They could oppose both candidates. They could endorse a candidate. They could focus on a federal, state or local election."

These folks have a point. Preachers should not feel cowed by the government as to what they say or do not say from the pulpit. Of course, that argument cuts both ways. Freedom comes with its attendant responsibilities. If we say what we want from the pulpit, we ought to be prepared to pay the consequences, which may include the need to pay taxes. We remember that Jesus said that we should render unto Ceasar what is rightfully his. Whether the IRS has a right to a piece of the action when the offering plate is passed is a matter for which I have little expertise. What I am more interested in, however, is whether partisan comments from the pulpit are a good idea regardless of the legal or financial implications.

Our citizenship is in heaven and that is where we place our primary interest as Christians and as preachers. However our challenge is to live out the interests of heaven in the context of this earth. We are literally to work out the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Among the implications of this principle is the sense that Christians ought to vote and that they ought to vote for candidates and parties that best represent the value of God’s Kingdom. At the same time, we understand that while our concern is for the Kingdom, our tools are primarily of a spiritual nature and not political. We bring the Kingdom by prayer, by preaching, and by the practice of our faith, not by use of power politics.

In general, I would support the traditional view, that preachers should be careful about naming names and picking parties from the pulpit. Pulpit partisanship risks the integrity of our preaching. I suppose there may be extreme cases, where a party or a politician embodies a perspective so abhorrent to the principles of God’s Word that a direct approach could be warranted. Such situations, however, are probably rare in this part of the world. Most candidates we have to consider offer a mixed bag of perspectives, some of which we support and some of which we would not. In the more extreme cases, the truth will be obvious to everyone without our having to put a point to it from the pulpit.

The wise approach is to tackle the issues of the day from the perspective of the Scriptures. Let the Bible speak about the matters that are before us. If we can hear the voice of God through his Word and by his Spirit we will have a clearer sense of how to vote and how to live. We may even encourage a few politicians to a greater degree of biblical faithfulness in their work.
 

Generating Hope In God

As I sit in my office, the returning and new students create a real buzz of excitement and energy around the Seminary – at least I think it’s the students and not the coffee! Seriously, new semesters always generate significant vitality – new relationships, new encounters with God, new ideas, new ministry opportunities, new hope. A new semester breathes hope that God’s Kingdom work is alive and progressing.

I think Northwest’s essential business is generating hope in God. We accomplish this by equipping kingdom leaders who possess this hope in Jesus personally and know how to share it with others to build communities of hope. So many things that destroy hope happen in our world– war, famine, evil leadership, criminal activity, deceitful relationships, and disease. The Gospel of Jesus Christ brings peace, restores goodness, destroys evil, empowers healthy relationships and eventually promises us a new, resurrected body! So I look forward to Northwest’s sixty-eighth year of hope-generating ministry.

One of the challenges I have as President is to keep Northwest, entering its sixty-eighth year of ministry, fresh and relevant. It is easy to keep doing the same things and using the same methods to equip leaders, but new times require new approaches. This new academic year we are focusing our energies:

  1. to offer more of our leadership development courses on line. This will increase accessibility, dissolving the geographical barriers that prevent many from benefiting;
  2. to revise our primary pastoral training degree so that key pastors can be involved more significantly with us to equip emerging leaders. The co-op model of education is being considered;
  3. to provide more initial ministry leadership development training in the churches.

A new initiative I personally am developing is the workshop entitled “Doing God’s Business: A Theology of Work.” This is offered Friday and Saturday, November 7-8, 2008 at the Fosmark Centre (TWU Campus). You can register for this on our website (right hand column, click on the date November 7-8).

Another significant initiative is being led by Dr. Lyle Schrag, the director of our Fellowship Leadership Centre. He will be working with our students to help them discern more clearly their calling in ministry and helping them to assess their progress towards achieving the goal. You might describe it as a ministry coaching process.

And then, related more to biblical research, we are hosting a major international conference on the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), September 18-20, 2008. A public session (Thursday evening, September 18) will be held in the Northwest Auditorium (TWU Campus), beginning at 7:30pm. There will be good music, along with several presentations related to the Septuagint Institute and its significance, as well as presentations by the general editors of the New English Translation of the Septuagint, published by Oxford University Press. I personally contributed the translation of Exodus in this volume.

I would encourage you take a look at our website and make use of the resources that are there. Dr. Schrag’s notes on church leadership, Mark Naylor’s contributions about cross-cultural ministry challenges, the frequent blogs about many aspects of Christian life, and the biblical and preaching resources are helpful.

As the summer gently shifts into the autumn season, I trust that you will be energized in your relationship with Jesus. Perhaps now is the time to take action and refresh your walk with God. Courses or workshops can be a stimulating way to engage this.


Heroic Living

 

Yesterday I was surprised by a gentle gift of grace. Several weeks ago, I had made a reference in this blog to the book by Chris Lowney (Heroic Leadership) Apparently the publishers of the book monitor the Web with care, and sent me a copy of Lowney’s latest book, Heroic Living. (At this rate, I am tempted to take every opportunity I can to name all of my favorite authors in all of my blog submissions, and watch my library grow!)
There is serendipity in the timing of this gift. The subtitle of the new book (and excuse me for mentioning it one more time: Heroic Living!) is “discover your purpose and change the world.” This comes on the eve of Labor Day, and for me Labor Day serves as more of a turning point for me than does New Year’s. Many people assume that New Year’s is the time for resolutions, a time to take stock of life and direction and investment, and a time to make necessary corrections.
For me, those sort of resolutions occur more at Labor Day. It seems that the Fall is when life at work begins anew, and I need to recalibrate my focus on purpose so that I can actually change the world. That, I gather from Chris Lowney, is what makes for Heroic Living.
When I first read in the subtitle the words “discover your purpose” I suspected something along the lines of Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Life. Instead, I found something more in line with Bob Buford’s Half-Time. (Like I said, I am tempted to list as many authors as possible from now on!)
Lowney puts forward a number of simple, core questions at the center of the process of discovery: Who am I? What am I trying to accomplish in life? How should I behave and treat other people? What values are important and fundamental, in business and family life? Why do I matter? And What makes my life meaningful? [p. 18, Heroic Living.]
I’ve just spent a great deal of time over this summer asking and answering questions that would produce a more focused work and ministry. Reading this list left me rebuked. As Lowney continued, you can understand why:
In the ancient world of, say, twenty years ago, we could skip these philosophical questions and get right to the nitty-gritty ones, such as where to work and live. But change, culture clash, scale and complexity won’t allow us to operate in that old-fashioned way any longer. Before we are bankers, priests, astronauts, or film manufacturers, (or Pastors, or Directors, or Professors …) we are human beings. So the first and most strategic question we must ask is: What does it mean to be a fulfilled, purposeful, successful human being?If we don’t tackle the question of what makes human life meaningful, we may end up becoming expert and successful in ways that we’ll discover, late in life, were not very meaningful at all. Before worrying about what we’re doing for a living, we need to figure out what we’re living for, because our “career” in the new world environment is not a job? It’s our whole lives.
Not a job … but a whole life. As I prepare for the last long weekend of the summer, those are the questions and that’s the task that really matters most.

Ministry Talk: Reflections on “The Shack”

William Young writes an interesting novel (as the title page describes this book) — and we have to remember that The Shack is a novel! According to the foreword Young is telling the story of Mackenzie Allen Phillips and his encounter with God at “the shack”, the place where Phillip’s youngest daughter was murdered. Young recounts how ‘the great sadness’ that overwhelmed Phillips after the kidnapping and death of his daughter was removed through this encounter with God.

Theology finds expression in this novelistic narrative in ways that suit the postmodern perspective. As the story unfolds, the reader is led skillfully to reconsider the very nature of God in the context of such a tragic circumstance. Young emphasizes the Trinitarian essence of God and the primary element of love that defines God’s inner relationships. Some might find his characterizations of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit somewhat unusual, but Young is not deliberately sacrilegious and always treats God with respect in this novel. His description of the human Jesus and his assertion that Jesus was totally dependent upon the Spirit (pages 99-100) for any miraculous power he displayed will raise some eyebrows. Jesus’ description of his intimacy with God and sharing of understanding and power in John’s Gospel and Matthew 11:25-26 suggest that Young’s description is somewhat inadequate. And what do we do with the Transfiguration?

Personally I think that Young’s portrayal of Jesus in the story (apart perhaps from some elements in chapter 15 entitled “A Festival of Friends”) fails to show him as the ascended and reigning Lord. Jesus is friend, companion, and saviour, eagerly wanting a relationship with each human being, but his Lordship seems strangely muted.

In my view, Young is at his best in the narrative when Phillips engages one of the members of the Godhead in conversation about a difficult theological issue. Why did God let Phillips’ daughter die in such an evil way? If we blame God for these kinds of events, are we in effect judging God?  What kind of relationship does God want to have with human beings and how does Jesus’ death on the Cross enable this restored relationship to become a reality?  How does human freedom work in connection with divine sovereignty? How does God want us to live as his saved people? What does holiness look like? The dialogues explore these theological nooks and crannies, providing helpful perspectives.

We cannot expect a book, especially a novel, to deal with every significant question or the writer’s selected questions equally well. Young’s novel is no exception. He focuses on some very critical issues. However, we are left wondering somewhat about the relationship of a Jesus follower to the local church. Is the local church too much a part of ‘religion’ to be of any significant help for someone in Phillips’ situation? This seems to be a conclusion, whether intended or not. Perhaps the central focus on relationships is the way that Young seeks to define how a believer finds sense and meaning as part of a local assembly. As well, sin and evil are certainly key components in the narrative, but we have no discussion about Satan or his role in the events described. Young makes the point that God is not responsible for evil, because human beings are independent agents. And God is able to bring good out of evil. But where is Satan in this mix?

And then there is the continuous emphasis upon emotions – not unexpected given the subject matter.

Young’s novel deserves a read, but one that is critical (in the best sense of that term) and discerning. Bad things do happen to good people and resolving this question within a Christian frame continues to require the very best of our thinking, a robust theology, and a deep relationship with God.

What will you do with the rest of your life?

Lorry Lutz, in her book, Looking Forward To The Rest Of Your Life? Embracing Midlife and Beyond,1 asks the challenging question, “What specific ministry/service do you think God expects of you in the years after retirement?” For Joe and Lourdes De Guzman, it is training church leadership in the Philippines. For Herm and Joan Braunberger it was hospitality and administration in Pakistan.

Did you ever have a dream of serving God in missions? – holding the hand of woman who has brought her sick infant into Shikarpur Christian Hospital, praying with a family who lost their home in a landslide, comforting an abused wife at the Hope center, Kazakhstan, using your administrative skills to bring some order and structure to an outreach ministry, provide tech support for a Bible correspondence school, have tea and a significant spiritual conversation with a friend who wants to learn English, being a house parent for missionary children, spending your time making a significant impact.

In today’s world the possibilities are endless and Fellowship International is assisting people from our Fellowship churches find their place of service in God’s mission to the world. In particular, those 55 and over who are facing retirement are encouraged to face the challenges of missions through the “Finishers” program.

Northwest Baptist Seminary and Fellowship International  are teaming up to sponsor a Serious Missions: “Reaching Ahead” retreat a camp Qwanoes in Feb 2009 for those 55+ who believe in the importance of missions and would like to explore the possibility of their involvement through FEBI.

View the Serious Missions website
Download the Serious Missions brochure
Download the application form

You have no idea what God is ready to do through you.

    • ____________________

 

  • 1 Lutz, L. Looking Forward To The Rest Of Your Life? Embracing Midlife and Beyond, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004.
  • 2 ibid., p. 107.
  • 3 Ibid. p. 96.

Key Board Traits

At the end of June, Board leaders from seven churches participated in the Advanced Best Practices for Church Boards workshop. Dr. Guy Saffold, the Executive Director of Ministries at Power to Change, addressed the role of a Church Board in making good and Godly decisions. The purpose of the workshop was directly connected to the fact that the governing leaders in a congregation form the core community of the church. Their ability to interact as a healthy community strongly influences the quality of the spiritual health of the entire congregation. One of the strongest tests of that ability is the capacity to make decisions as a team.

It’s one thing to make a decision alone. Leaders are often defined through their powers of discernment, vision and certainty. As I was collecting resources for the workshop, I discovered that most of the “how-to” material was directed at the individual. I suppose that most people find it easier to take an issue in hand and make a command decision all alone. Making a group decision is a whole different thing, especially as it relates to the spiritual work of the people of God.

As the result of a Lilly Endowment funded study in the mid-1990’s, Charles Olson began a ministry called Worshipful Work, and wrote the book Transforming Church Boards into Spiritual Communities [Alban, 1995.] His study explored the ways that congregations make decisions. What he discovered was that most boards were guided by a business model of executive, politically efficient and democratically guided decision-making. The deeper work of spiritual discernment was largely absent.

Olson wrote, “Consulting Scripture, waiting in silence, and corporate soul searching are not an easy way out … Efficiency-minded boards are accustomed to controlling the agenda … but Spiritual discernment is sometimes lengthy, sometimes meandering activity of determining what God wants, or from an eternal perspective, what already is.” He pointed to Romans 12:2 as the work of a Board’s decision making process: Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

Going back to the June Workshop, the comments made by the leaders on the evaluation form confirmed that it was a “good investment of time” for Church boards to learn how to unite around “vision, mission, and strategy.” The simple strategy of the “OODALoop” presented by Dr. Saffold created a template for Board leaders to make their work a worshipful, spiritual exercise (and eventually the workshop will be available in the same sort of “course” format as the Best Practices for Church Boards Personal Workshop: Now That I Am A Board Member DVD and Workbook.) But, it also became apparent that no matter what decision-making strategy a Board adopts, several fundamental traits need to dominate the relationships of the Board. Let me suggest a few:
Kingdom Vision: When it comes to teamwork, one of the most significant obstacles is the lack of a clearly defined and commonly accepted mission. Very few teams succeed as adversaries. And yet, too often Boards are divided around competitive agendas.

I love the story used by Dr. David Horita to describe an episode from his ministry where he was given an assignment from his Church Board to draft the Church vision statement. Being the clearly defined leader, he accepted the task – but on the condition that the board participate in the work as a team. He made a list of everything that the church could be, and asked the board members to identify their top choice.

It was a humbling discovery when they found that there was no common agreement in their choices. Even more humbling was the discovery of how their choices revealed their own personal agendas, what they personally needed their church to be. David asked them to repeat the exercise again, only this time with a simple addition: What did their church need to be for others?  

Adding those two words made quite a difference. Once they were able to “set themselves aside” they discovered, together, a common vision of what God had in mind for them.

Spiritual Courage: As Larry Osborne writes in his book Growing Your Church Through Training and Motivation: “The mark of a healthy board is courage. When a tough decision has to be made, people aren’t afraid to make it. They realize that’s what they’ve been called to do. In contrast, dysfunctional boards often are dominated by fear. They find it safer to say no and to maintain the status quo.”

In the Gospel of John [6:28,29] Jesus informed the disciples that the work of ministry would be a matter of Faith. What must we do to do the works God requires? Jesus answered, “the work of God is this: to believe in the one He has sent.”

Before Church board members engage in decision-making, there must a heart of courage to boldly accept the challenge of faith. Over this summer, I’ve enjoyed reading the book Heroic Leadership [by Chris Lowney, Loyola Press, 2003.] The subject of the book revolves around the 5 pillar commitments of the Society of Jesus [Jesuits], identified by Chris as the “best practices from a 450-year-old company that changed the world.” Regardless of what you may think of the Jesuits, the one critical feature was that they were utterly commited to “elicit great desires by envisioning heroic objectives” in service to Christ. As Chris writes: “[they] were driven by a restless energy, encapsulated in a simple company motto, magis … more, something more, something greater … magis inspired them to make the first European forays into Tibet, to the headwaters of the Blue Nile, and to the upper reaches of the Mississippi River … regardless of what they were doing, they were rooted in the belief that above-and-beyond performance occurred when teams and individuals aimed high.”

For Church Boards to aim high, there needs to be a predisposition to spiritual courage.

Honest Trust: And, there must be an environment of trust. One of the marks of a healthy board is that people are empowered with freedom to fulfill their ministry. It’s true that trust is a quantity that has to be earned. That’s why there has to be an element of honesty where people can learn to trust each other.

That’s another lesson identified by Larry Osborne: Every board I’ve work with has had a basic bent toward either trust or suspicion. What made the difference? In most cases it was a choice. Dysfunctional boards chose the role of watchdog, making sure no one got by with anything … on the other hand, healthy boards chose trust.”

I am sure that there are more traits that could be used to measure the fitness of church leaders to boldly follow where God is leading. But, these three are a good place to begin. Get them right, and I have to believe that the worshipful work will flourish.

Vacation Tip

It’s August, and for what it’s worth, it’s time to take a break. Call it a “vacation”, a “sabbatical”, a “leave of absence”, a “retreat” or an “escape”, now is the time to take it. It may sound silly, but I suspect that some people could appreciate some advice on what to do with the spare time.[singlepic=165,300,,,right]

A couple of years ago, I came across an article in the Chicago Tribune. John Thompson, of Yorkshire, England, decided to make the most of his holidays by staying at home and enjoying the fishing pond behind his place. Not content with just enjoying the view, he decided to actually learn how to fish. He had no idea of what would happen after his first cast. In the course of his brief summer holiday, he never caught a fish. Instead, he hauled in an inventory which included: “20 iron bed frames, a washing machine, railroad ties, porcelain ornaments, women’s clothing, handbags, shoes, somebody’s late dog, somebody’s late parakeet, somebody’s two old kitchen sinks, and somebody’s old four-door Ford Anglia with 73,000 miles on it.”

When John was asked to describe his vacation, he went on the record. “I’m not fishing anymore, and I’m not digging any deeper. God knows what I’d find. I’d have been better off just taking a long nap.”

For those who are wondering how to make the most of their vacation, there’s something to learn from this man. Have a great vacation!

Which Bible Version is Superior? 1. Two Styles

Are literal translations more accurate?

When Today’s New International Version (TNIV) was first published, I walked into our local Christian bookstore and asked the sales person, "Do you have the new TNIV?" A wary look came into his eyes and he said, "Why do you ask?" Puzzled, I replied, "Because I would like to purchase a copy." Relieved he showed me where the books were being kept. He also explained the source of his angst: some people were coming into the store and rebuking them for carrying such a "heretical" translation.

Recently I heard a sermon in which the speaker criticized certain "meaning-based" Bible versions and promoted "literal" translations as "more the word of God." He encouraged people to consider the common language versions, which were easier to understand, as less worthy to be considered God’s word than the more "word for word" translations.

If some translations are heretical, then we should avoid them. If meaning-based translations are truly less God’s word than literal translations, then we would do well to read versions that are more accurate. But are such claims true, or do they arise from a misunderstanding of the nature of language and the translation process?

Translations are like theologies: Human attempts to express the Divine Word

Since Babel there have always been both "word for word" and "thought for thought" translations between languages. "Dynamic equivalence," "thought for thought" or "meaning-based" are new terminology to describe a translation style which has always existed. "Literal," "Word for word" or "formal" describes a separate translation style which also has always existed. For example, the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint (LXX), which was often quoted by New Testament writers, has instances of both literal and meaning-based translations. As one example among many, the Hebrew word rosh has a nuance of a literal, physical "head" as well as a more metaphorical usage of "chief authority." The LXX sometimes uses the Greek word for "head," kephale, to translate rosh, and sometimes uses other words to describe the concept of "chief authority" in non-metaphorical terms.1

Outside of Bible translation, in the modern secular world of written translation, the meaning-based style tends to be the norm for translation, rather than "word for word." The assumption is that rather than the structures and words of the original language, it is the meaning that is of interest to the reader. The role of the translator is to express the meaning of the original manuscript so that the receptor audience can engage the meaning according to the accepted usage of the receptor language. The goal is the communication of the message. However, Bible translation deals with manuscripts which are considered by those of us who are evangelicals as verbally inspired by God. The sacredness of the original writings is reflected in the desire of the translators of literal translations to reflect, as close as possible, the linguistic structures and individual words of the original.

Is the ordinary method of meaning-based translation suitable for the biblical texts, or does their nature as "God-breathed" require a different, more literal, style? In our human attempts to express the divine word, how should we proceed?

Read the complete Cross-Cultural Impact Article

Summertime Preaching

Summer offers a different pace of life for most of us and life at church is no different. Even preachers need vacation, meaning that pulpits everywhere are filled with unfamiliar faces.

In many such churches, summer relief comes from associate staff, offering an excellent opportunity for youth pastors, worship pastors, and other such leaders to have their voice heard by the congregation. Many such leaders prefer not to preach, for reasons of giftedness, but the benefits related to the congregation hearing from their staff members might be enough to outweigh any such concerns. Hearing associates preach is a good way build confidence in the ministries of these under-appreciated co-laborers. Given that many churches have only one main preaching opportunity each week, summer is a good time to be able to utilize people who would not normally have an opportunity. It may also provide opportunity for younger, emerging leaders to get an opportunity to test their gifts.

With smaller crowds in the summer it is tempting to throttle back and lower expectations, but we need to remember that the people who come are as interested in hearing from God in July as they are in January. In addition, the presence of visiting family members (many of whom don’t know the Lord) and worshipers from other locales, is further motivation for giving of our best.

It may be possible that the more relaxed approach to worship afforded by the summer could provide the preacher with opportunities to explore a wider preaching palate. Might this be a time to try a new narrative technique or to experiment with note-less preaching? You might learn some things you will want to carry over into the fall.

Summer also provides an opportunity for preachers to plan, read, and get ahead on their preparation for their preaching in the fall. Wise preachers use the time well.

So here’s to some great preaching in your church this summer, whether done by you or someone else. May many be blessed by the Word of God in these weeks to come.

Liturgy – What is it good for?

It’s my time to add to the blog and I’m going to run the risk of a personal rant on Worship. It’s a theme that continues to stir my soul, which was stirred once again when I read simple comment made by Annie Dillard [in Marva Dawn’s book Reaching Out without Dumbing Down]: “Since “we” have been doing this for 2,000 years, why can we not do it as well as a high school drama club cast can do after six weeks of rehearsing a play? Not that worship is nothing but rehearsable performance and not that a high school play is worship – though drama and liturgy do have some common roots. But people who attend services of prayer and praise, song and action, preaching and the sacraments, often have to endure mumbling and stumbling of offputting sorts. This is not how God is to be praised, and this is not what worshippers will put up with for indefinite periods of time.” Strong stuff! And yet, I keep finding myself asking the Annie Dillard question as I move through so many worship services.

Not long ago, with a group of friends, the conversation turned to worship and I mentioned my growing affinity for the deep symbols and rich voice of liturgy. The response was swift and certain, to the effect that liturgy is dry, sterile, dead, and that nothing good could come of it. Later, another friend who overheard the response sought to console me. It should be noted that this man is enrolled as a doctoral candidate in “liturgical studies.”

“Let me suggest what good comes from liturgy” he said. And then he tossed out a fascinating thought. His thesis went like this: the use of Sunday School as the primary educational vehicle of the Church is a relatively new phenomenon – dating to the early 1900’s. Up to that time, the primary means by which people learned core spiritual disciplines: the language of prayer, the theology of creed, the reading of Scripture, the spiritual journey from confession to absolution, the expression of praise … all of this and more was cultivated through Worship and the liturgy of Worship.

In recent years, it appears that the influence of Sunday School as an educational experience has diminished. Which makes me wonder what is left to be learned in our services of Worship? It’s a troubling question, but one that needs to be addressed. If a worship service was to be the only “school” for the learning of spiritual discipline for a new believer what have they learned of prayer, of belief, of the word and of the profound drama of faith that defines their life in Christ?

Leadership Next – What has to Change in Ministry Leadership?

Eddie Gibbs writes with passion and insight as he seeks to answer the question: what kind of leaders does the church in the 21st century require in order to carry forward the mission Jesus gave it? LeadershipNext. Changing Leaders in a Changing Culture assumes that the missional church perspective represents the direction that the Western Church needs to take if it desires to recover and truly incarnate Christ’s kingdom mission today. However, for the church to implement this missional theology requires a new kind of ministry leader. Gibbs presents his ideas with clarity, using numerous illustrations and wit.

The recovery of a missional theology coincides with the cultural shift from modernism to postmodernism. Church leadership as practiced within a modernist culture tends in Gibbs’ view to be controlling, practiced solo, and essentially transactional, bent on keeping the corporate church operating. Individuals under thirty-five and whose values are shaped by postmodernism aspire to serve with leaders who consider team to be the essential leadership mode, with emphasis on relationship, connecting, and empowering. This new, postmodern generation will not work with the prevailing style of leadership shaped by modernism. This is as true in the corporate world as it is in the church. As the subtitle to his book indicates, Gibbs believes that the church must develop new leaders who embrace new ways of exercising influence for Christ in a changing culture. Repeatedly he argues that “yesterday’s styles of leadership will not be adequate for the opening decades of the twenty-first century” (34).

Although his first chapter is entitled “Redefining Leadership”, Gibbs never offers his own definition of leadership. Rather, he works his way selectively through the definitions offered by others (i.e. Robert Clinton, Walter Wright, Robert Banks and Bernice Ledbetter, and James Kouzes and Barry Posner), embracing a common thread that sees leadership as the exercise of influence within a relational matrix. The ideas of Roger Greenleaf regarding servant leadership are particularly considered. This discussion occurs against the background of change that postmodernism is generating within Western culture. And this leads Gibbs to reject models of leadership that are dominating and hierarchical, based upon status and the exercise of power. Such a mode of leadership conflicts both with the scriptural warrant, in his view, as well as with the emerging postmodern culture. He considers character, charisma and competence important, but character must take first place.

The first chapter ends with a list of seven “leadership challenges” (38-45) that the church must face.

  1. Beyond preserving the inherited institutions: leading a mission-focused community of disciples;
  2. Beyond ideology-driven evangelism: leading a values-based community of disciples;
  3. Beyond dispensing information: seeking spiritual formation rooted in Scripture;
  4. Beyond the controlling hierarchy: leading empowered networks of Christ followers;
  5. Beyond the weekly gathering: building teams engaged in ongoing mission;
  6. Beyond a gospel of personal self-realization: a service-oriented faith community;
  7. Beyond the inwardly focused church: leading a society-transforming community of disciples.

Who can argue with these ideals? Undoubtedly we can find examples of faith communities that exhibit these limiting, negative behaviours. However, it is also the case that many church communities in the era of modernism were mission-focused, embraced a relational method of evangelism, pursued spiritual formation that was rooted in Scripture, etc. I wonder whether we can draw the lines as clearly as Gibbs would suggest. The way in which church leaders in the modern era responded within that cultural setting may have been exactly appropriate. After all such leaders were seeking to express the Gospel and lead the church in ways that were culturally relevant to the prevailing modernist philosophy. Gibbs is right to emphasize that the cultural shift to postmodernism means that the leadership styles and approaches that were suited to life within modernism will not be suitable for life in postmodernism. Whether he has identified correctly what needs to change is another question.

We need “different kinds of leaders” according to Gibbs (47). The transformations globally we currently experience require this. Gibbs emphasizes the chaotic conditions and suggests that they provide opportunity as well as require us to risk new ways of leading. Religious pluralism, increased complexity, information explosion, new means of communication – they all generate the need for a different kind of leadership. I wonder whether church leaders felt similar angst in the early twentieth century, with the explosion in technological development, the havoc caused by the First World War, and the economic complexities generated by The Great Depression. In the midst of these significant changes Church leaders had to learn afresh the best ways to live out the Great Commission, to make disciples, and to make decisions under pressure. In these circumstances ministry leaders had to communicate, debate and negotiate (96). People then as now wanted to be treated with dignity and respect. Relationships and trust were as integral to organizational life and nurture then, as they are now. People desired authentic community then, but perhaps defined and expressed it differently. Yes, change happens and continues to happen. This requires modes of leadership to adjust as well. However, I suspect that many of the fundamental issues remain the same; however changing cultural values create expectations for different modes and manners of response. I think Gibbs inherently knows this because he keeps using examples of leadership in Scripture to ground many of his key arguments. However, I do not think he would argue that the cultural contexts in which these leaders functioned were similar to the current postmodern situation.

I think one of Gibbs’ best chapters is devoted to the concept of team-building leadership. New emerging leaders seem to gravitate towards and work well within a team-building style of leadership. In Gibbs view this is more compatible with the postmodern cultural context. However, leading effectively through a team context requires considerable skill, particularly the ability to serve as leader and follower concurrently, as well as dealing with diversity. Gibbs suggests that the primary leader in a team context operates like a coach, nurturing the team so that it accomplishes much more together than it could as separate individuals. The impact of the sum will be much greater than that of the individual parts. Gibbs draws on the analogy of the Trinity to suggest how such a team functions harmoniously to provide ‘leadership’. He builds on Cladis’ reference to the perichoresis, the constant and lively interaction and involvement of the persons of the Trinity within their singular relationship. He mistakenly follows Cladis in thinking that perichoresis signifies dance, a sense the word does not convey. Gibbs identifies some competencies and attitudes that team leaders must possess: lead with questions, not answers; engage in dialogue, not coercion; conduct autopsies without blame; build red-flag mechanisms that turn information into information that cannot be ignored. In this he builds on the work of Jim Collins. He also refers to the concept of ‘connective leaders’ proposed by Jean Lipman-Blumen. Gibbs seeks to build a vision of “leadership next” based on these ideas. “By giving priority to team building the church can move beyond the prevailing culture of hierarchy and control to that of networking and empowerment” (120). I agree that we need to do a better job in the church to help people discern and live out their calling, that ministry teams probably create a better context in which to promote this, and that networking and empowerment are critical elements that enable this kind of community to flourish. Yet, having said this, what at the end of the day is the role of “the ministry leader” in a local church which is designed to operate under this new kind of leader? There must be some framework that empowers the leader, defines responsibility and requires accountability. We may shy away from naming this command and control, but if that ministry leader is being held accountable by a group of elders, then that ministry leader needs to exercise appropriate authority to accomplish the tasks necessary to achieve the church’s vision. In the last chapters of his book Gibbs considers leadership traits, activities, attitudes and costs. He offers good advice for any Christian leader. However, again I question to what degree any of this is new? For example, when you consider the list of leadership traits (character shaped by God, called by God, ability to contextualize, courage forged by faith, competence linked with gifting and experience, creativity, compassion, confidence (128ff)), how does this list differ from the traits a “modern” ministry leader must emulate? In terms of leadership activities is it only the young “genial mavericks” that have creative new ideas? What happens when a leader hits fifty – does all of hope of any new creative idea suddenly vanish? Acts 2 does promise through the Spirit that “your old men will dream dreams.”

Gibbs says that “clergy means ‘called’ (kleros), with the unspoken implication that the laity is not chosen or called by the Lord” (132). I would suggest that he is somewhat misleading here. kleros signifies primarily an object used in casting lots for the purpose of decision-making, or a portion or share, something assigned as a person’s allotment.1 In the Gospels and Acts it describes the casting of lots to determine which soldier would get Jesus’ garment (Matt. 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34; John 19:24) and which follower of Jesus would replace Judas as apostle (Acts 1:17-26). Peter tells Simon Magus that he has “no part or share (kleros) in this ministry” (Acts 8:21). Paul confesses that during his Damascus road vision Jesus revealed to Paul that his apostleship would give to the Gentiles “a place (kleros) among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18). The notion of ‘inheritance’ seems to be suggested by Paul’s use in Colossians 1:12. Peter used the word once in 1 Peter 5:3 to describe the “portion” of God’s people over which the elders were given spiritual direction. The cognate verb occurs once in Ephesians 1:11. In that context the concept of inheritance once again probably is most appropriate, with the sense of “obtaining or acquiring a portion or share”. It is rendered in the King James Version as “in whom we have obtained an inheritance”, but the New International Version rendered it as “in him we were also chosen,” a very different sense. It could also be rendered “in whom we have our destiny,” i.e. “in whom our lot is cast.” The English term ‘clergy’ reflects more the sense of a person who has been assigned responsibility over a kleros, a portion.2 While Gibbs general point is correct, his attempt to base his perspective on the New Testament term kleros unfortunately appears to be somewhat misguided.

His final chapter is entitled “Leadership Emergence and Development.” Here we hope to find Gibbs prescription for ministry leadership development. His key idea is that ministry leaders must be trained essentially as missionaries, people able to “operate in crosscultural settings, frequently on the margins of society” (197). He refers to a Church of England study entitled “Mission-shaped Church” which argues similarly. A strong lament about the high drop out rate from ministry of Bible College and Seminary graduates follows. However, he does not comment on the drop out rate from ministry of those trained in other methods. Perhaps it is higher. There is a hidden assumption here. Also, does crosscultural training guarantee ministry success? The return rate of missionaries would suggest not.

For all that, Gibbs’ suggestion deserves careful thought. What a missional focus as the framework for ministry leadership development should ensure is the acquisition of cognitive, spiritual-moral and practical obedience. Perhaps the use of more problem-solving learning processes, more intentional linkages with a specific ministry context, and carefully led, mentored reflection on these elements would provide more effective ministry leaders for the 21st century. One might further ask how Gibbs’ emphasis on team-based leadership would be advanced through missionary training? Is there anything inherent in missionary development that requires team-based leadership? Perhaps in the new, emerging models of crosscultural leadership development and practice that is the case, but historically it is not immediately evident.

    ____________________

  • 1F.W.Danker, ed., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature . Third Edition (BDAG) (Chicago, ILL: University of Chicago Press, 2000): 548.
  • 2See the entry under ‘cleric’ in the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Volume 1 (Oxford University Press, 1971): 491-492.

Nova – New Things

Relationships require good communication, if they are going to flourish. Over the years you have demonstrated a deep commitment to the ministry of Northwest Baptist Seminary and I count you as one of our significant ministry friends. Yet friends need to be connecting in order to keep the relationship warm and flourishing.

I am initiating NOVA, a bi-monthly, informal communiqué from the Northwest President, to deepen your relationship with the Seminary. It is my hope that this will help you to keep more informed about the progress of our mission, the challenges for which we need prayer, and the contributions of our students, faculty and alumni to Kingdom advancement. You need to know how your investments in our vision are multiplying our capacity to develop effective Kingdom leaders and grow healthy churches.

The word ‘nova’ is a Latin expression meaning “new things.” One of the new things we started this June enabled emerging Christian leaders to explore the relationship between a Christian’s spiritual life and the marketplace. Does a believer’s occupational work have any value? Do the 80,000 hours the average person spends ‘at work’ contribute to God’s mission in the world? Or is it only the 4500 hours a believer spends ‘in church’ which have eternal significance?

Northwest received a major grant to offer a series of courses and workshops around The Theology of Work. Our desire is to help average Christians see themselves as God’s kingdom agents in their places of work, as well as discern the value of their work as opportunity to exercise stewardship and to be creative, active and effective for God’s glory and human good.

You might be interested to participate in the workshop scheduled for Friday evening and Saturday, November 7-8, 2008 in Langley and again March 27-28, 2009 in Victoria. A good number of the seats in the seminar will be subsidized through the grant so cost will be minimal. You can register through our website (www.nbseminary.com) after August 1, 2008.

During this summer I am working with our new Board chair, Larry Nelson, to bring to successful conclusion the Making a Difference Campaign.  $126,000 will enable us to reach our target and resource several new and exciting leadership development projects. Please be in prayer that God will enable us to complete this campaign.

This time of year also connects us with people wondering whether God is calling them into specific ministry leadership. Perhaps you know of someone who should be moving in this direction. Would you let me know about them so that I could connect with them and share how Northwest might assist them? Who knows what the Kingdom impact might be? Give me a call or send me an email.

Thanks for taking a moment to refresh your awareness of Northwest’s influence in God’s Kingdom. And thank you for your stewardship in our ministry.


They’re All Funny!

I’ve noticed something about some of the better-known preachers of our time. They’re all funny! People like Rick Warren, Rob Bell, Andy Stanley, Erwin McManus – these guys will crack their listeners up. They know how to tell a story that is both insightful and entertaining. Listening to them is not only helpful, but it can be a pleasure.

This is a trend that seems to have taken hold. I’ve noticed that my funnier student preachers get much better peer reviews in class. I’ve even heard of preachers taking stand-up comedy courses so as to improve their delivery.

As a communicator, I understand the power of humor. But when did humor become a primary element of powerful preaching? No doubt they had their moments, but I don’t sense that there was a whole lot of humor in the preaching of Charles Spurgeon, D. L. Moody, Billy Graham, or any of the great preachers of previous generations. Even today, there are still some excellent preachers out there who never stoop to tell a joke. Still, coming to church is starting to feel like a night at the Improv.

I imagine this says something about us as a people at the beginning of a new millennium, though I’m not sure what. Are we less serious? Are we more trivial in our interests? Or are we somehow more aware of the incongruities in life? Is more humor in preaching a good or a bad thing?

I’m not ready to make any final comment on this phenomena. Clearly, people enjoy humor and I’ve been known to make use of it myself. If I can help them stay connected with the text and with the sermon by saying something funny or describing something in a witty way that’s great – just so long as the humor doesn’t get in the way of the message or trivialize it in any way. Sometimes humor brings the law of unintended consequences into play.

Humor itself is not what it used to be. The late George Carlin, famous for his “seven words that can’t be said on television,” recently won a Mark Twain award. I’ve no doubt Carlin can be funny, but Mark Twain he was not. The problem with contemporary humor is that it is often so cynical. Humor that gains a laugh by tearing something down or that comes at the expense of another human being, or group of fellow humans has no place in the preacher’s repertoire.

On the other hand, some things in life are just plain funny and if by looking at things from another perspective we can lead our listeners to laugh, this might be a good thing.

Preachers don’t preach so as to get a laugh. Laughter is not our goal. However, if humor can lift a little stress for people and draw them closer to our message, it might be just the thing we need to help our people hear.

So You Don’t Want To Go To Church Anymore

There is a book that has developed something of a cult following among frustrated pastors and bloggers who yearn to be “organic” Christians. It has a controversial title that is guaranteed to stimulate discussion: So You Don’t Want To Go To Church Anymore. Written by Jake Colsen [actually by Wayne Jacobsen and Dave Coleman who created a pseudonym out of their partnership] the book has an indy feel to it. You can download it for free from www.jakecoleman.com/Jakespreads.pdf.
As is becoming common from the emerging church template, the book written as a conversation between an ancient disciple [John] and a modern day believer [Jake] as a way to reexamine the statusquo of Church life. For some, the book is troubling … for other, it is a challenge. In essence, the church as an organization is viewed as guilty for distracting people from the true mission of Jesus. No matter what the nature of the organization – traditional church or house church – each are taken to task for obscuring true spiritual growth with the performance of religious exercises.
No matter what you think about it [and personally, I think that the criticism of Church as an organized body with rituals that create a common voice is simplistic, misguided, and in some cases prejudicial. The fact is, there was a bit more organization and common voice in both the New Testament and the early church than the “relationship based fellowship” presented in the book] … back to my thought, No Matter what reaction you have to the book, the one thing that I do appreciate is the nudge for leaders to engage in a more sincere and deliberate ministry of spiritual formation.
Just one clip from the book:
If church can be this simple, John, how do leaders fit in all of this? Don’t we need elders and pastors and apostles?”
“For what?”
“Doesn’t someone need to be in charge and organize things so people will know what to do?” Marvin was almost beside himself. I cringed inside knowing he wasn’t going to hear what he wanted.
“Why, so people can follow someone else instead of following Jesus? Don’t you see we already have a leader? The church gives Jesus first place in everything and it will refuse to let anyone else crawl up in his seat.”
“So leaders aren’t important either?”
“Not the way you’ve been taught to think of them. One can hardly conceive of body life today without an organization and a leader shaping others with their vision. Some love to lead; others desperately want to be led. This system has made God’s people so passive most can’t even imagine living without a human leader to identify with. Then we wonder why our spirituality falls so painfully short. Read through the New Testament again and you’ll find there is very little focus on anything like leadership as we’ve come to think of it today.”
“But there were elders and apostles and pastors, weren’t there?”
“There were, but they weren’t out front leading people after their personal visions, they were behind the scenes doing exactly what you have on your heart to do, Marvin—helping people to live deeply in Christ so that he can lead them! Elders won’t end up managing machinery, but equipping followers by helping them find a real relationship with the living God. That’s why he asked us to help people become his disciples and why he said that he would build his church. Let’s focus on our task and let him do his.”
And don’t think that non-traditional churches get away with much either.”
It’s a stimulating, sometimes disturbing, read … which raises some poignant questions for any leader. In reading the flurry of blog discussions about the book, one set of questions arose that made the debate worth the trouble:
When I structure things am I facilitating sincere devotion to Christ or am I steering people to perform religious exercises to meet others expectations? Will people come out of this with a greater devotion to Christ and a pure love for others, or will they be motivated by guilt or fear?

Surpassing Righteousness

Christians are called to live above the level of their culture. I’m OK with that. But living unreflectively can be as spiritually unhealthful as enthusiastically endorsing the culture.

Though I’ve had my share of childhood scraps and squabbles, I’ve never as an adult settled a dispute by resort to bloodshed. I feel good that I’m living above the call of the Sixth Commandment, “Do not murder.” and I don’t have to worry about being subject to judgment on that account. But just because I haven’t “whacked” someone, doesn’t mean that I’m in the clear.

Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount that while not committing murder is righteous, it does not equate to the surpassing righteousness which is the hallmark of the heaven-bound (Matthew 5:20). Surpassing righteousness not only will not shed blood, it won’t allow itself to become angry or express resentment to the person who offends. Jesus said, “anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of Hell.” (Matthew 5:22)

If I allow myself to become so upset that I think angry and harmful thoughts toward another (whether I know that person or not) or vent my anger by calling a person stupid, an idiot, or a fool, that is the same as murder.

How can this be? Let me illustrate.

Most of us don’t like dandelions in our lawns or gardens. We go to great lengths to dig them out so that our lawns are clear of their ragged leaves and yellow heads. But it would be a complete nonsense if we were to have such an activist attitude toward the plants and yet be unconcerned or even accommodating towards the tiny seeds from which those weeds grow. Obviously the plants are much bigger and more unsightly; but they have their origin in those tiny airborne seeds. If you are a gardener, shouldn’t you be just as concerned about the seeds as you are about the weeds?

That is exactly what Jesus is getting at. Murder is unrestrained anger. But in his instruction regarding angry thoughts and speech against others, it’s pretty clear that anger is just restrained murder. Murder is the full grown plant; anger is the seed from which it grows. Therefore, anger is just as deadly. Shouldn’t we be just as concerned about the seeds as we are about the plants?

Indeed!

Allowing ourselves to cherish vile thoughts about others when we’re frustrated by them is as wrong as doing them lethal harm. We ought not to do this. But simply refraining from wrong doing, wrong thinking, and wrong speech is largely negative. That is not the full expression of surpassing righteousness, because surpassing righteousness is at the same time positive, exerting restorative energies in relationships.

Jesus declares that surpassing righteousness, far from simply not hurting or maligning others, will be exceedingly anxious to make amends. In fact, it holds priority over worship (Matthew 5:23-24) and coming to one’s perceived rights (Matthew 5:25-26).

God’s interest for us is that we enter into his kingdom and that nothing keeps us from that joy. That calls for surpassing righteousness, which only he by the power of his own Holy Spirit can provide. Surpassing righteousness is interested in both the outside of the call not to murder and the inner dynamics of anger which it also wishes to prevent.

A great comfort that we are heaven bound followers of Jesus is that we wish people well and not ill in what we think of them and what we say to and about them. Far from being angry people, Christians are people concerned to admit when they’ve wronged someone and instant to pursue making amends.

Resolving Intercultural Tensions 4: Law’s “Mutual Invitation”

NOTE: A companion workshop to these articles is available to multi-ethnic churches that provides information, exercises and interaction to encourage the implementation of those disciplines that promote healthy intercultural relationships. Please contact Mark via the form below.

Whose rules rule?

card handIn the innovative cultural simulation game, Barnga, created by Sivasailam Thiagarajan, groups of people play a simple card game without realizing that each person has been given slightly different rules to the game. The participants are not permitted to speak to each other or to communicate by writing. It doesn’t take long before there is some banging on the table and grunts of disgust as the game does not proceed as expected. 1 Because the point of the game is the same for all, one conclusion drawn by the players is that some of the other participants are either cheating or did not properly read the rules.

HPD = High Power Distance LPD = Low Power Distance

Similarly, when people from different cultural backgrounds congregate for discussion or decision making, the overall context can be so familiar that each cultural group believes that their assumed "rules" of interaction will be followed as the norm. When the cultural groups have contrasting low power distance (LPD) versus high power distance (HPD) orientations, the result can be frustrating with the participants misattributing2 the motives of others according to their cultural perspective of what is normative behavior. When someone speaks "out of turn," they are judged as "rude" or "aggressive," rather than recognizing that some people are "playing by different rules." In the first article of this series, the concept of power distance was introduced with illustrations that showed how the contrast between high and low power distance causes tension in intercultural relationships. The second article dealt with leadership dynamics when dealing with high and low power distance cultures. As a means of resolving these tensions, the third article described the important skill of speaking each other’s "language of respect." In this final article in the series, we will explore Eric Law’s innovative method of "mutual invitation"3 as a method of developing productive interaction in order to bridge the power gap between HPD and LPD cultures. READ THE COMPLETE CROSS-CULTURAL IMPACT ARTICLE

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Graduation 2008

Graduation this year was held at South Delta Baptist Church. It was a beautiful day for a graduation and the celebration was memorable. Our graduation speaker was our own president, Dr. Larry Perkins. He summarized his address this way:

The theme ACTS has adopted this year is “Come together, Go Further.” By living consciously as part of the body of Christ, we maximize our ministry and together can do great things for God. The metaphor of the great spiritual house God is constructing (1 Peter 2:5,9) illustrates this reality. As God enables us to “come together,” we discover our priesthood and our service. Spiritual formation can only be fully accomplished within the community of Jesus – it is not a solo effort. We cannot mentor ourselves or be a family of one or be a nation of one. Only as we come together can we fulfill the mission God has given to us. As we live and work together “under God’s mighty hand,” He will enable us to do great things to advance the Kingdom. This is why ACTS came into being.

Here are a few photos from the day’s celebration:

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Are there hip replacements for limping leaders?

Leading With A LimpDan Allender has provided a provocative look at several serious aspects of ministry leadership in his book “Leading with a Limp.” He writes primarily out of his experience as the founder of Mars Hill Graduate School located near Seattle. His thesis is clear: “to the degree you face and name and deal with your failures as a leader, to that same extent you will create an environment conducive to growing and retaining productive and committed colleagues” (p.2). He then proceeds to discuss common, unhealthy responses to the challenges of leadership and urges ministry leaders to replace them with more effective responses — courage, depth, gratitude, openness and hope. The leadership challenges he identifies are crisis, complexity, betrayal, loneliness and weariness. The phrase “reluctant leader” seems to capture for him essential aspects of a healthy leadership perspective. Any ministry leader would gain considerable benefit from reading and reflecting on Allender’s ideas.

Allender helps us map the interior contours of Christian leadership, a kind of psychology of leadership, incorporating a realism about a leader’s limitations and dependence. Depravity works wondrously well even in the world of Christian leaders. The story of Jacob’s midnight wrestling match with God and his resulting disability — his limp — provides the overarching metaphor for Allender’s presentation. What struck me, however, was the silence regarding the role of the Holy Spirit in restoring, enabling, and guiding Christian leaders to walk with their limp in God-honouring ways. The result is a rather dark view of Christian leadership, lived in a hostile, dangerous and debilitating context. Periods of joy, satisfaction, thankfulness and redemptive accomplishment seem very rare or extremely intermittent. Allender is right to urge leaders to name their failures and walk with humility, but there is another side to this picture. We do lead as Christians in partnership with the Holy Spirit. Surely this awesome reality makes a difference. Does God ever provide “a hip replacement” and enable us to walk “normally”?

Allender rightly points to examples in Scripture of reluctant leaders — Moses, Jeremiah, etc. Yet, there are also many examples of people–Joseph, Joshua, Samuel, Nehemiah, Daniel, Mary, Paul– who embrace God’s calling, fearfully but willingly. . God’s entry into their lives is surprising and filled with change, but I am not sure from the information Scripture gives us that these people were reluctant leaders. We seem to have various responses to the leadership challenge in Scripture. I wonder how Peter’s encouragement for ministry leaders (1 Peter 5:1-4) fits into this idea of “reluctant leader”?

I found it hard to locate the faith community in the picture of ministry leadership that Allender presents. The community seems to be primarily a hostile place, the place where leaders are undone rather than the Kingdom context where God’s power and love triumphs. Undoubtedly Allender writes out of personal experience and many Christian leaders, unfortunately, would have to agree that churches often fail to live up to God’s ideal for his people. Yet, for every bad leadership experience, one could probably name a good church leadership experience. What Allender does help us realize is that naivete is not helpful. Faith communities can be places of devastating animosity for leaders, but they can also be contexts of wonderful support, love and encouragement. To lead with suspicion may not be the best stance. If Christ “loved the church and gave himself for it”, then some of this perspective must also guide our embrace of ministry leadership. Leadership is fundamentally relational. Ministry leaders are given a trust by the people of God to live and lead within the faith community. How does 1 Corinthians 13:4-6 get lived out in Allender’s perception of ministry leadership?

Allender begins by acknowledging that leadership is something for all of God’s people — every disciple is a leader. However, his focus quickly shifts to what he terms “formal leadership”, by which he means a specific leadership role in terms of organizational leadership in church, seminary, non-profit business, etc. Does the leadership model he presents then apply to all followers of Jesus? I think he probably would agree to this, but this is not his focus. But what difference does it make for a ministry leader to see himself as a “limping leader” serving in the midst of a host of “limping leaders”? One of his recurrent emphases is Paul’s confession that he is “the chief of sinners” and the importance for leaders to own this reality for themselves. Again, there is no argument against this reality. But here again the leader operates in a context where all, as disciples of Christ, are leaders and “chief sinners”. This is not a category exclusive to the formal leader. It is the reality in which all disciples live. Perhaps the challenge for the formal leader is to understand how to exercise Kingdom leadership as a “suffering servant” among a group of “chief sinners”.

Every believer is a flawed person. Scripture makes this clear and this is part of our daily confession. However, in Christ we also are “new creations”. This too is an exciting reality. Paul in Galatians urges Christians to “walk/live in the realm of the Spirit” and as we do this “we shall not let the fleshly nature achieve its goals” (Galatians 5:15-16) (my translations). How does this reality fit into the context of Kingdom leadership? We will never lead perfectly and there obviously are times for confession, repentance and restoration in every ministry leader’s experience. But should this be the overwhelming perspective? If a ministry leader is living in submission to the Holy Spirit daily, will the fleshly temptations towards narcissism, fear and addiction gain control? If a ministry leader repeatedly expresses sinful behaviour, does that person have the spiritual maturity to be in a formal leadership role? How do the characteristics and behaviours Paul identifies in 1 Timothy 3 for formal leadership match the paradigm of leadership that Allender proposes? I wonder whether Allender gives too much room for excusing sinful behaviours and fails to give sufficient challenge to pursue the way of the Spriit, the ways of the Kingdom — and the great potential we have to live it.

Taught by God (theodidaktoi – 1 Thessalonians 4:9)

The Psalmist declared “Since my youth, O God, you have taught me” (Psalm 71:17) and he desires that God continually would teach him to do his will (Psalm 143:10). His experience and expectation is that God does instruct him, with the result that he knows God and his ways. While this defines the Psalmist’s relationship with God, it was not true for all in Israel. The prophets yearned for the day when God would restore and rebuild Jerusalem. Sometimes the language borders on the fantastic as they consider how God, using all of his creative power and resources, will fashion Jerusalem from rubies and sapphires. Its walls and buildings will be “sparkling jewels” and “precious stones” (Isaiah 54:11-13). But even more wonderful is that those within its walls will be “taught by the Lord”.

Jeremiah takes this vision a step further. God enables him to foresee a day when God establishes a new covenant with Israel. But it is quite different from the covenant he made at Sinai. Israel did not keep that covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34). When this new covenant is implemented “they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (31:34) and no one will have to teach them this knowledge because God “writes it on their hearts” (31:33).

In a first century B.C. document called the Psalms of Solomon, a messianic figure is called “righteous king, taught by God (didaktos hÅ«po theou)” (17:32). Because of these wonderful characteristics this figure is able to restore Israel to the glory God intends. Jesus himself urged his followers to acknowledge only one instructor, the Messiah (Matthew 23:8).

It seems that Paul creates a new word in 1 Thessalonians 4:9 to celebrate the inauguration of God’s new covenant. He commends these new believers for their sincere love for one another. What is perhaps more astonishing is that he attributes this to the fact that “you yourselves are God-taught (theodidaktoi) to love one another” (4:9). There is no evidence that this word existed in Greek before Paul wrote this letter. He creates this word to mark the astonishing change that salvation in Jesus has brought to these people. It has changed fundamentally their ‘place’. When Paul visited Thessalonika, he proclaimed “the gospel of God” (2:8-9) and many in city received it as “the word of God” (2:13). The result is that these followers of Jesus now know “the will of God” because Paul and those with him gave them instructions. They know God, in contrast to “the nations” (4:5). But even more significantly God has “given his Holy Spirit to you” (4:8). All of these actions by God have generated their new status as people who are “God-taught” (theodidaktoi).

The rest of this article is published on Dr. Perkins’ Internet Moments with God’s Word blog site. View it there along with many other similar articles.