Into Great Silence

I’ll confess to enjoying good movie, especially ones that evoke a sense of meaning. So, when ChristianityTodayMovies came out with their top 10 Critic’s choice movies of 2007, I was intrigued by #10 on the list: Into Great Silence. Once I read the review [http://www.christianitytoday.com/movies/commentaries/quiettime.html] I knew that I had to see the movie.
In 1984, the German documentarist, Philip Groning, sought permission to film life at the monastery of Grande Chartreuse near Grenoble in the French Alps. The monastery is of the Carthusian order, the most ascetic – and silent – of all monastic orders. It’s no surprise that having written his request in 1984 it took 16 years before he received a reply allowing him [and only him – no film crew, no artificial lighting – just him and a camera] to record life with the monks for 6 months. The product is a film, 162 minutes long, composed of silent prayers, simple tasks, tender rituals, and a rare excursion. [My favorite is of the monks – both young and old – enjoying a rare day of conversation and fellowship while sledding down a hillside of snow on their robes. Who knew that men, so silent, could whoop it up like children.]
Unlike any movie I’ve ever seen, at first I couldn’t detect a plot. There were no car chases, and sometimes the only action in the span of five minutes was the occasional movement of lips or flutter of an eyelash as a monk was bowed in prayer. Just watching the film was a conviction that I was witnessing a discipline of spirit totally foreign to my experience. In one frame, a blind monk simply sits in prayer. At first, it appeared to be a still shot. But, in the background, through a window, you could see the clouds sweeping past the mountain peaks in time-lapse photography. The artistry of the moment continues to haunt me as a vision of something utterly eternal [prayer] circled by the currents of time and space.
It’s a movie of impressions, and while I thought that it was without a plot, I’ve since discovered that the plot is in fact much more profound even as it was so much more subtle. I have found myself revisiting the scenes frequently, unlike any other movie, intrigued as I reflect on a dimension of life and soul that challenge me. As Brandon Fibbs wrote in his review: You are aware, while watching, of just how much you have and just how much you lack; of the omnipresence of the divine in the most mundane of activities; of the pervasive majesty of the natural world utterly squelched by our urban lives; of the inspiration these men arouse. To watch this film is to be humbled. To watch this film is to be in awe. Into Great Silence is a transformative theatrical experience, a spiritual encounter, an exercise in contemplation and introspection, a profound meditation on what it means to give oneself totally and completely, reserving nothing, to God.
Twice in the last week, I have had quiet and tender conversations with very dear friends. Both have been struck by illnesses that have forced them into stillness. Both have lived accomplished lives and freely express their addiction to business as well as busyness. But, now, both are coming to terms with stillness. One, unable to move without aid, the other unable to sustain much energy. Both struggle with finding meaning in their day. And, yet, there is a way where God makes His presence known. It is not easy. Just watching a movie left me exhausted after two hours. I struggle to imagine what it would be like to live a sustained [and enforced] life of stillness. It’s a discipline, but one with a reward for those willing to learn.

The perception of a loving church depends on where you stand

In the book UnChristian (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), which deals with research from the Barna group, David Kinnaman refers to a survey which asked the participants to agree or disagree with the statement, “Christian churches accept and love people unconditionally, regardless of how people look or what they do” (p. 185). 20% of non church goers (outsiders) agreed strongly, just over 40 % of church goers agreed strongly, but 76% of pastors strongly agreed that this statement described Christian churches.

The discrepancy is intriguing. Do the pastors have a good sense of reality based on personal experience, or is this an expression of their desire for this statement to be true? Have the outsiders been biased by unfair reports, or have they had negative experiences that contradict the statement?

I suspect that part of the discrepancy has to do with the difference between standing inside looking out verses standing outside and looking in. For example, I have a love / hate relationship with hospitals. I think they are wonderful but I am happiest if I don’t have to be inside one. When visiting I feel quite out of place and uncertain about what I am permitted to do and am always relieved to leave. On the other hand, my daughter, Becky, has just completed her nurse’s training. She enjoys the environment, loves to be busy and experiences significance as she helps the patients. The hospital is the same, it is our separate and distinct relationships with and experience of the hospital that is different. It is a matter of perspective.

those of us who are church goers need to learn to speak another language of love

This illustration may parallel the contrasting perspectives between pastors and the outsiders described by Kinnaman. What looks like love to the pastors is seen through another lens by the outsiders and experienced as uncomfortable, judgmental or cold. Most likely the relationships and environment of church speak differently to outsiders. Perhaps their language of love is different from what is normally expressed in church. If this is so, then those of us who are church goers need to learn to speak another language of love, one that is understood by those outside of the church.

This missional stance – becoming like others, as opposed to inviting others to become like us – has even greater urgency when relating cross-culturally. What is considered comfortable, familiar and accepting varies from culture to culture. Cross-cultural experiences tend to be stressful due to the many unfamiliar cues which bombard the person who is not used to the setting, cues that need to be interpreted. In that context even expressions intended to communicate love and acceptance can be misunderstood or judged negatively. On the other hand, when God’s people learn how to make people from another culture feel comfortable and accepted by speaking that people group’s language of love, rather than waiting for others to conform to the church’s way of relating, then the experience of the outsider will correspond to the perspective of the insider.

Alumni: Jim (2006) and Janet (2006) Visbeek

Jim and Janet Visbeek graduated from Northwest/ACTS in April 2006. They both earned the MA in Christian Studies, but Janet’s focus was in Chaplaincy. Dawne, one of their daughters, also graduated in April 2005 with the Master of Counseling degree. Jim is the Managing Director of Cedar Springs Retreat Centre, Sumas, Washington. They have three married children – Dawne, Aaron and Renee.Jim and Janet Visbeek

Jim, what led you and Janet to attend Seminary?

I was managing a large regional electrical and automation distributor in Bellingham, Washington. Every summer, Janet and I with our family attend conferences at Cannon Beach, Oregon. In 2002 the speaker challenged the audience to get off the curb and into the parade with respect to Christian life and ministry. God used that time to speak to me and encouraged me to start thinking about getting more involved in Christian service in some way. Without my knowledge Janet felt the same urging.

That same summer our daughter Dawne graduated from Moody Bible Institute in Counseling. She wanted to take a graduate program in counseling and applied to ACTS. When we shared what we thought God was urging us to do, she told us about ACTS and encouraged us to consider applying to seminary. So we decided to check it out.

We had not set vocational goals, but wanted to be obedient to God’s leading, unsure of how it all would turn out. So we applied to the MA in Christian Studies and were accepted. We wanted to be ready for whatever God might have us do.

Jim, you have been an entrepreneur for most of your adult life. How did you find the fit between your business experience and preparing in seminary for potential ministry leadership? What adjustments were necessary?

Yes, the adjustments were immense. I had to maintain my business throughout my seminary studies in order to support my family. Janet has a passion for Christian history and so she took to the studies naturally. For me, the move from the business context to the graduate classroom required greater energy and transformation. It required a different way of thinking – and writing papers!

Time management became critical. The first semester we both took four courses – we soon discovered that was a plateful! Yet, God enabled us to get through, but we moderated the pace during the ensuing semesters.

In some areas of study I found the relationship between business and ministry leadership quite similar. For example, in business I had to deal with a lot of conflict resolution and in seminary one of my courses dealt with conflict resolution and my internship that same semester involved me in conflict resolution work within a Christian agency. What I discovered was that the spiritual dimensions of conflict resolution in ministry contexts shaped the process and dynamics quite differently from my business experience.

We did the entire program part-time and through it all God marvelously enabled us to balance business, family, church, and seminary. The challenges were great, but God’s grace was sufficient. All five of our family were in college or grad school at the same time, so when we were all together, we would all compare our various studies.

Janet, what led you into chaplaincy?

When I began seminary, I had no inkling that I would select the chaplaincy option. My natural interests were in history and theology. I loved those subjects. In one of my Christian Leadership Development courses, my mentor happened to be a volunteer community support officer for the local 911 call centre. For one of my assignments I shadowed him in this work and discovered that I could minister in situations of personal trauma and death. So I followed this lead and found God opening up a whole new world of ministry opportunity. It was transforming for me.

Since you both were attending seminary together, how did this enrich the experience?

First, we are grateful for the spousal discount that reduced the overall costs substantially. Second, we discovered that our study patterns were quite different, but complementary. The papers we wrote when we took the same courses were very different. However, we could work through questions and issues together. Third, because our learning styles are quite different, we discerned different things in the courses.

After finishing Seminary, how did God lead you into your current roles?

When we graduated, we were still uncertain about the specific ministry situation that God might have for us. Initially we considered various opportunities for pastoral ministry. However, none of these seemed to be the right fit. Several months after graduation God directed us to the position of managing director at Cedar Springs Retreat Centre. As we interviewed for the role, prayed about it and considered our gifting and experience, this role seemed to provide a wonderful opportunity to blend business experience with pastoral ministry. We began serving in this role in Summer 2007. The longer we serve in this position the more it seems that this is what God was preparing us for many years ago.

Janet has the opportunity to work with staff, praying and encouraging them. She is a staff cheerleader, giving people hope. As well, she volunteers three or four twenty-four hour shifts each month as the support officer for the 911 emergency system in our area. This enables her to offer spiritual guidance for people in difficult, often life-threatening situations.

You are now leaders in the Cedar Springs ministry. Tell us about your vision for this ministry.

Cedar Springs desires to nurture Christian character and enrich the church by offering a peaceful, natural environment for adult discipleship. We want to fulfill this mission. And so we hope to expand our ability, for example, to help pastors who need a quiet space for restoration and recovery. Perhaps God will enable us to provide some programs that will strengthen marriages or help with parenting issues. Maybe we could offer some workshops on organizational leadership. We are also able to help fill in on Sundays for pastors in the area that need a break in pulpit supply. We are open to God’s direction here. We know there will be rich possibilities.

As you reflect back on your seminary experience in the context of the Cedar Springs ministry, can you discern general or specific ways in which your education through Northwest/ACTS has assisted you in pursuing God’s call?

In my (Jim) case Seminary enabled me to discern what ministry was all about. I had opportunities in my internship to teach, participate in conflict resolution, plan and initiate ministry projects, preach, etc. As I worked in my business, I would be reflecting on how means and methods of ministry were similar to but different from the business world. It also taught me not to be so judgmental. I do not know everything and I must listen to the views of other believers. When I reflect upon the way God led me in business and through seminary, I can see that He has equipped me in special ways to fill my current ministry position at Cedar Springs.

For me (Janet) Seminary opened up the world of chaplaincy. I probably knew it existed before Seminary, but I had no idea that God had gifted me for this ministry. The need to look at culture compassionately was impressed upon me. People are lost; the products of our culture constantly give voice to the pain of this lostness. There is a lot of hurt being expressed and God gave me through the Seminary the heart and skills to respond to these hurts through chaplaincy. As God transformed me through the Seminary experience, even my children noticed the difference.

Many people think that Seminary education only relates to people who are thinking of becoming pastors or missionaries. Obviously, this is not how God has led you, yet He has given you a very significant ministry. Do you think seminary education has relevance for Christians whose calling lies outside these traditional areas of vocational service?

We did not know how God would use us when we began our Seminary training. What we did know was that it was time to get started and to begin our preparation for whatever God had in mind. Seminary became for us the place to acquire understanding, skills, and spiritual depth so that we could serve wherever God would place us. We had to get up off the curb and into the parade and Seminary provided the best way for us to achieve that.

It has been transformational. I (Jim) remember reading the book Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper. He challenged me as I was in my late forties to consider seriously what I was going to do with the last twenty years of my life. I was not satisfied with the status quo and this message energized me to seek God’s direction. Today I am filled with a sense of wonder that God has given us this opportunity at Cedar Springs. We would not be in this role today, unless we had taken those first steps several years ago.

Seminary can be a significant place to discern more clearly how God is directing your path and to be equipped to serve Him as clarity is received.

Recent Events and Celebrations at [email protected]

Student – Faculty Luncheons

Some of the more enjoyable moments in the semester are when faculty and students take time out of their busy schedules and sit down for a lunch together.  We did three of those lunches this semester and at each one we have had a great time of fellowship, camaraderie and food.

Each time we meet like this, one of our faculty members gives a brief "chat" on something related to his ongoing pursuit of study in his discipline.  This week Brian Rapske shared a little of his personal academic journey – particularly as it related to the research and writing he has done. 

ACTS Seminaries Spring Banquet

The annual ACTS Spring Banquet is always a memorable event.  Last night was no different.  The venue at Newlands Golf and Country Club always sets a great mood for celebration.

The Northwest President’s Birthday

Here in the office at Northwest we are always on the lookout for something to celebrate. 

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On Tuesday we had a very memorable celebration as a number of faculty and staff took Larry Perkins (our president) out for lunch to celebrate his 60th birthday.

The Prayer That Never Fails…

In February I wrote a posting about the book series Home To Harmony by Philip Gulley. My suspicion is that just about every pastor I know has enough material to write their own series of stories. A theological version of All Creatures Great and Small, if you will. While few of us pastors who will actually sit down and do the hard work of writing “memoirs” whether fictionalized or not, there are a few out there that have written stories that bring ministry to life.
One well-meaning friend sniffed at my suggestion that “as much could be learned about pastoral theology by reading such books as by reading a Systematic theology.” It was as if human tales were too base or crass for the elevated vocation of the pastorate. I begged to differ. If anything, my experience is that it’s in the simple corners of life where theology comes alive. It’s where I’ve learned my most enduring lessons of what there is about God that is true, and there is about the Gospel that endures.
It’s with that thought that I add another series of stories for the record. For many, the name is so familiar: The Mitford Years and The Father Tim novels  by Jan Karon [http://www.mitfordbooks.com/] Once again, the stories are drawn from a small town, this time in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The pastor, an Episcopalian [Anglican for Canadians] priest named Father Tim lives out a ministry among a “crazy quilt of saints and sinners – lovable eccentrics all.” It’s a faith that is simple, daily, gentle and routine. His life isn’t driven by growth statistics. Instead, it’s the sum of an abundance of subtle mysteries and tender miracles.
Throughout the stories, there is a reference made to “the prayer that never fails.” It seems that whenever Father Tim or someone close is facing an insurmountable situation, the phrase is used. In her book Out To Canaan, I finally found out what that prayer was. The only prayer that never fails? Thy will be done… Simple words, yet utterly profound. And, today, Maundy Thursday – a date on the liturgical calendar largely lost to too many – there’s an echo, not just of the Lord’s Prayer which we should all be praying … but the Lord as He prayed with His own unique introduction: nevertheless, not my will … but Thine be done.

Cross-cultural ministry classic

The Christ of the Indian Road by E. Stanley Jones, 1925. Abington Press

E. Stanley Jones was a highly influential missionary who worked in India during the time of Gandhi.  The principles for cross-cultural ministry presented in this classic are as valid today and in any context as they were when this book was written.  His understanding of contextual theology is profound as he seeks for an Indian interpretation of Jesus.  His confidence in the supremacy of Christ is evident in his practice of conducting round table dialogues in which each participant explains how their particular faith has impacted their lives spiritually. Consider this following excerpt concerning the transforming power of Christ:

There is no real danger lest Jesus be lost among the many in all this, that it may end up in his being put in the Pantheon of Hinduism.  Greece and Rome tried that and the pantheons amid which he was placed are gone – Jesus lives on.  He is dynamic, disruptive, explosive like the soft tiny rootlets that rend the monuments of man’s pride.  Like the rootlets he quietly and unobtrusively goes down into the crannies of men’s thinking, and lo, old forms and customs are broken up.  Absorb him?  You may as well talk about the moist earth in springtime absorbing the seed!  The seed absorbs it, for it is life.  Jesus is Life.  He will take care of himself.

‘Give us Jesus,’ said a Hindu to me, ‘just Jesus.  Do not be afraid that we will make a human Jesus out of him, for his divinity will shine out of its own accord.’ (pp 167-168)

Helping CHURCHES do MISSIONS better

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“Thank you for the great workshop.  Our missions focus is struggling and we found it to be so helpful and encouraging. The questions and exercises were well thought out and gave us good direction, as well as the prayer focus throughout.  We found it time well spent as it enabled us to focus well right there.  We have a good plan, I think, to get the ball rolling in the right direction.”

This was one of several positive comments received from the participants of the Best Practice for Church Missions Workshops held in Victoria (March 1) and on the TWU campus, Langley (March 8).  While organized and sponsored by Fellowship International Ministries and Northwest Baptist Seminary for our FEBBC/Y churches, the facilitators who participated were from Outreach Canada, Center for World Missions BC, YWAM, Fellowship International Ministries as well as others who represented a wealth of missions experience.  Each of the 13 church groups that participated was provided with a facilitator who guided them through the exercises designed to stimulate conversation and lead to consensus and direction for church missions teams.

One of the facilitators comments:

“These workshops … have exceeded my expectations.  Not that I had low expectations but the level of relational building, prayer, and planning was very good from what I saw.  My time with [the church] leaders was very significant … and some real progress was made. I felt honored to help them through the process.

The number of people that came from the churches was also very significant.  To have 5-10 people from the same church (including pastoral staff) together at the table for 7 hours discussing Global Mission is truly remarkable.”

This one day basic workshop for doing missions in churches focuses on vision, strategy and planning.  Five one hour sessions encourage each group to discuss and shape their missions team in the following areas:

  • Clarifying the ROLE of the missions committee and determining priorities
  • Assessing the HEALTH of the missions in the church
  • Identifying people resources according to GIFTING
  • Setting strategic GOALS
  • PLANNING and assigning tasks

Read about this workshop with more comments from participants

For information concerning further opportunities to participate in this workshop contact Mark via the form below

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Squeezed into a Mold

The Christian life is filled with delightful "coincidences"–confluences of life events with Scripture that give an unmistakable impression of the active oversight of God.

Conformity to the world is as deeply and extensively damaging as  transformation by the renewing of our minds is deeply and extensively beneficial and God-honouring.

This past week I had an email interchange with my pastor. He was preaching on Romans 12:2 which declares, "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approved what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will." The question was whether conformity to the world is merely an outward shallow act and transformation is inward. That’s what a few of the older commentaries say.

We discovered through the conversation and the resources we looked at together that "Paul is not merely concerned that believers will outwardly conform to this age. He is worried that their adaptation to this world will shape them in every dimension of their lives." (T. Schreiner, Romans [Baker], p. 646f.) Conformity to the world is as deeply and extensively damaging as  transformation by the renewing of our minds is deeply and extensively beneficial and God-honouring.

This really strikes at the lie we too frequently tell ourselves that we are only "shadowing" the world’s tastes and behaviours and that it won’t affect us "deep down" because we’re Christians and that’s not "where we really live." So, the distinction is a false one and we’re only getting ourselves into profound spiritual trouble by entertaining the negative when we should be rejecting it in favour of the alternative embrace of "transformation."

As circumstance would have it, I learned first hand that being squeezed into a mold is not just external or superficial.

Brian in a plaster moldThat same week, my daughter asked me to model for her for a major art show she is preparing. It consisted in adopting a pose and staying still while she applied plaster of paris to me to create a full body mold. The event was memorable! I donned track shorts and an old t-shirt and she put me into a prone position on the tile floor. By the way, she asked, had I gone to the bathroom? Once the plaster was applied, I wouldn’t be able to move for as long as an hour or so.

Being squeezed into a mold is definitely not superficial. As I lay on tile floor and the plaster was applied, I began to feel the increasing weight and pressure on every place that was covered. Soon, as the plaster began to harden, it was not the weight alone but an increasing constriction of movement that began to intrude. I was entombed!

My daughter warned me that as the plaster began to harden it would heat up a bit. A bit! Not only did it heat up, but my daughter began to move around my encased and gradually hardening cocoon applying further heat with a hair dryer to hasten the hardening!

As the mold hardened around me, I became completely constricted. Muscles and joints don’t do very well when completely immobilized. I started to cramp.

I was immensely relieved to be removed out of the mold after the required hardening time. What an ordeal! Weight, heat, constriction, immobility … and pain!

Pastor, I can now tell you from a very personal experience, being pressed into a mold does go deep deep down.  It’s far from a superficial thing. I’ll choose transformation!

Home to Harmony

One of my greater joys comes from time shared with my “A-Team” which I affectionately call the tiny band of brothers and sisters in our CLD Affinity Group. The group has grown over the years to several dozen, each called by God into a wide array of ministry in the church. They study hard. The course material is intense and demanding. But, I guess that my job is make it real. After all, ministry is much more than the formulas taught in books. The reality is that theories dissolve into the fabric of human life.

The subject of study this semester is Power, Change, and Conflict. To be honest, I am impressed with the material that the students are expected to read. But, if it were up to me, I’d add a few books to the list. And, I’d probably start with one – Home to Harmony by Philip Gulley.

Philip is a simple, Quaker pastor in Danville, Indiana – gifted with the grace of story. He has written what has become a series of books about a simple, Quaker pastor in the fictional village of Harmony, Indiana. Some have likened his stories to James Harriott’s All Creatures Great and Small or Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegon tales. will probably never be compared to Lyle Schaller or John Maxwell or any other authority in Leadership studies – but, it’s evident, he knows the life of pastoral leadership with an intimacy that befits ministry.

His stories include an array of characters all too familiar to too many pastors: petty “dictators” like Dale Hinshaw, congregational “queens” like Fern Hampton, wizened saints like Miriam Hodge. There are theories that help discern the dynamics of power, change and conflict – but somehow finding them come alive in a story makes it so much more human. And, I have to believe that when pastoral ministry is seen in humanity, it becomes much more divine.

So, for just a moment, allow me the heresy of suggesting that you set aside Barth’s Theology, or Maxwell’s Leadership or even Anderson’s Preaching [forgive me!] for just a moment – and read what happens when people become church, and pastors become people. For a sample, give it a try: http://www.beliefnet.com/story/151/story_15151_1.html

Northwest Alumni Connections Magazine – 2008

Update: April15, 2008

It is here!  The 2008 Northwest Alumni Connections magazine is off the press!  If you have not received one by the end of April and would like one see the order form below.

__________________________________________________________________

Dear Fellow Alumni,

For each of the past 4 years connecting with Northwest Alumni and publishing the Northwest Alumni Connections magazine has been a great highlight for me.  Hearing from fellow Alumni has reminded me again and again why I do what I do.

We are poised to publish the 2008 edition of the magazine – NAC 2008 – and I want to hear from you.  You can email me at [email protected] or you can use this form to send me an update on yourself, your family and what God has called you to participate in for His kingdom’s sake.  Because I want to fit in as many alumni as I can, please keep your write-up concise. I can only use between 140 and 180 words each.

I would also like you to send me a color digital photo of your self (and your family).  If you are using this internet submission form then you will need to also send me an e-mail with the photo attached to it (my address is above).  Here are some things to keep in mind for the photo:

  • Make sure it is a color photo – since the magazine is in color.
  • Make sure the photo has good lighting and isn’t out of focus.
  • Be sure that faces fill the main part of the photo.  I like scenery shots but that is not what this magazine is about.
  • Please be sure to identify everyone in the photo. 
  • The photo must be of a high resolution – so unless the photo is over 1 megabyte in size don’t compress it when you e-mail it (sometimes email programs like Microsoft Outlook will ask before you attach a photo).  If the "print size" is a 4"X6" or a 5"X7" at 300dpi that will give me lots to work with.

Please make sure that your mailing information is correct so that I can send your copy as soon as it is off the press.  The target date for that is the beginning of April.  You can use the form below to update your information.

I am looking forward to hearing from you.  Thank you for your participation. 

Blessings,

Loren Warkentin

PRIVACY OF INFORMATION: Northwest understands your concern that your information be protected. Read our privacy policy.

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Images of God

I came across an interesting theory.  People act according to their conviction about the nature of God.  If God is perceived as an autocratic patriarch whose rules must be followed without question, then that is how the leaders of that group will act.  If God is viewed as a stern judge who is inflexible concerning any hint of rebellion or disobedience, that is how fathers will deal with their sons and daughters.  If God is seen as a demanding taskmaster who demands perfection, then mothers will be strict with their children.  If God is understood to be a harsh God of wrath, this justifies a severe response towards those who have broken the law (I recall a protestor’s sign in a Time magazine photo: “God hates gays”).

People act according to their conviction about the nature of God

This theory would seem to be a logical conclusion to being created in God’s image (Gen 1:26,27).  This would be true not only for Christian who are called to be perfect as God is perfect (Mt 5:48), but to other religions as well. The 9-11 attackers lived out their understanding of the nature of God.  We  all try to respond to our situation according to the way we think God would act.  The question is, what does this reveal about the nature of the God we worship?

Our Christian view of God must begin and end with Christ

If the theory is true, then it is of first importance to cultivate a correct belief about the nature of God.  But where do we start when the Bible does present God as the absolute authority, the stern judge, the demanding taskmaster and a God of wrath?  I suggest that all these descriptions must be interpreted through the perspective of God as seen in Christ.  Our Christian view of God must begin and end with Christ and all other revelation must be viewed through the New Testament perspective of God as he has been revealed as a human being.

Following this assumption, any view of God that undermines the love and justice of the heavenly Father – a love so great that it “surpasses knowledge” (Eph 3;19) – should be dismissed as a misunderstanding or a perversion of the truth.  If God, seen in Jesus, is good, loving and just above all that we can imagine, then any conception of God cannot be correct which views him in a fashion that would make him less loving, merciful, just or good than our perception of the ideal. Any view of God as loving that makes him appear less just, or any view of God as just that makes him appear less loving, needs to be rejected as false.  Our foundational view of God is Christ who gave us the image of the loving Father who makes things right (e.g., the prodigal son in Luke 15).  We must begin there and put aside any thought that takes us off track from that core belief.  If we can imagine a better, more loving or more merciful God than the god we worship, then it is time to reject the God we have created in our minds, for that is not the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.

When my children speak about the God of their father, I hope they [speak about] a caring, merciful and just heavenly Father

I find this meditation helpful because I need to look carefully at myself and think about what my actions are saying about the God I worship. When I act harshly and justify it in my mind, that justification stems from what I imagine God to be like.  But if that image of God does not fit with the merciful, self-giving God who suffered on the cross so that we can live, then that is idolatry.  When my children speak about the God of their father, I hope they do not speak about an autocratic patriarch, a stern judge or a demanding taskmaster, but a caring, merciful and just heavenly Father.

Top Ten Reasons Why You Should Read Theology #3

Reason #3.

Philosophy Needs Theology

Why do we need theology when we already have philosophy? Precisely the reason we need theology! Theology, at a minimum, is a constant reminder to human wisdom that a transcendent judgment stands over all human attempts to arrive at God through pure human sapentia alone. God’s wisdom stands over against human wisdom. The real basis of human wisdom as such must be found in God’s own self-revelation. Thus theology must be the real ground of all love of wisdom.

Dollars and Sense

You can’t get away from it. Everyone’s talking about profits and losses.

The global economy is moving into a deep recession–perhaps even a depression–some say. Others are just as convinced that the markets are moving through a period of "turbulent correction" trying to find "a bottom" from which they will eventually "power upward" again to new highs. Gold bugs are counseling flight from the markets, prophesying an "end of the world" economy and advising a haven in the yellow metal which they predict will reach $3,000 per ounce shortly. Value investment counselors say, "Hold tight. Don’t panic. It looks very bad, but keeping a steady grip will eventually see profitability return to your holdings." The anxious are bailing out of plummeting stocks while their steely opposites are salivating on the sidelines waiting to pick up the ripe economic plums from the panicked.

It’s all very personal too.

Young homeowners are wondering how they’ll be able to manage their mortgage payments. Their jobs are just not that secure in this climate and perhaps they shouldn’t have gotten into the skyrocketing real estate market despite the confidence of their agents and the ready availability of credit. The drop in real estate prices, foreclosure news and bankruptcy statistics only increase their sense of dread. Seniors are deeply frightened by the fact that the whipsawing markets are wreaking havoc upon their retirement nest eggs and threatening to overturn their careful financial plans. How will they survive?

If there is a single truth in all of the above, it is that uncertain economic times intensify the great drivers of greed and fear.

Obviously, believers shouldn’t be ignorant of the dollars and cents realities that are a needful part of wise living. But Christian generosity should not become a casualty either.

Jesus told a difficult parable about a rich man who accused his manager of wasting the money entrusted to him. The manager was called to give an account of his dealings before he was let go. Here was a financial crisis. The manager reasoned that he was too weak for heavy manual labor and too ashamed to beg. He hatched a plan. In the little time that he still had oversight of the rich man’s possessions, he would show great generosity by a significant write down of each of the rich man’s debtors’ accounts. The manager apparently reasoned that the rich man would not peel back the write downs because they made him look very good. But, more importantly, the action would favorably dispose the rich man’s debtors to the manager so that they would show him kind hospitality when he lost his job.

Jesus shocks the hearer by his initial analysis, "The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings." (Luke 16:8-9)

Obviously, Jesus is not commending the falsifying of books or engaging in illegal behavior. What he is interested in doing is rooting certain truths deeply into our consciousness about a God-honoring attitude toward things: First, we cannot hold onto them–the things we hold are not permanent possessions but a transient entrustment from God. It’s obvious that "you can’t take it with you," but how easily we forget! Second, we should be generous in the face of others’ needs. Such acts of generosity redound to the credit of God’s good name whose managers we are.  That kind of behavior is a powerful witness and may be God’s means to open people’s eyes. Third, God is watching to see if we’ve encarnated the first and the second truths. If so, that’s the demonstration that we’re serving Him and not just slaves to stuff.

WordPress Plugins

WordPress is a great CMS (Content Management System) platform for a church website and web design as it is extremely flexible and very easy to use.  Part of this flexibility comes from WordPress’ ability to take advantage of the programming skills of people from around the world who have designed various small add-on applications for WordPress called plugins. There are many hundreds of plugins to be found in the WordPress Plugins Database. A web search for specific plugins will open a long list of possibilities. If you need a particular functionality on your website the chances are that someone has already designed a plugin for it. There are also sites which list the top plugins (here are a couple – Top 50 and Usefull WordPress Plugins )

I have spent considerable numbers of hours researching the net and searching for just the right plugins for the Northwest site. The following is a list of some of my favorites and a short description of their function.

  1. The WordPress Automatic Upgrade plugin.
    WordPress is continually being improved both for functionality and security.  This plugin allows the webmaster of a WordPress powered web to easily update to newer versions of WordPress, automatically taking care of backing up the site first and then updating the WordPress code.  This plugin makes the webmaster’s life a whole lot easier.
  2. The Author Image plugin.
    On a website like the Northwest site where we have multiple contributors and authors – it is a valuable feature to have the author’s photo automatically linked to their article or blog.  This plugin facilitates that.
  3. The word processing plugin "Deans FCKEditor".
    The word processing editor that comes packaged with WordPress is a somewhat "bare-bones" editor.  This plugin expands the functionality of the editor so that it acts much like a normal word processor.
  4. The Event Calendar plugin.
    Northwest always has some sort of up-coming event.  This plugin help to keep track of those events via the WordPress web interface.  Adding a new event can be done by any of the regular contributors to the Northwest site by adding an Event Calendar activated post.
  5. The FormBuilder plugin.
    Forms through which people can respond to you (i.e. ask questions, submit prayer requests, comment on items on the site etc.) are a normal part of creating a website.  Forms need to be secure and able to filter out junk and spam.  This plugin allows one to create any number of forms on a site and have them all share the same security features.  This plugin rates special mention as it is designed and maintained by my son who is a web programmer with Power to Change.
  6. The Google Site Map Generator plugin.
    This plugin creates a sitemap for your website and informs search engines of any changes or additions.
  7. The NextGen Image Gallery plugin.
    Putting images on the web in an orderly fashion can be an onerous task and if you want them to be displayed in fancy ways requires knowledge of web scripting languages.  This plugin takes care of the details and allows you to add galleries and albums of photos to your web.  The header on the Northwest site is powered by this plugin.
  8. The Role Manager plugin.
    The Northwest website has a number of people who use the site to post their articles and edit their information on the static pages.  User levels of permission are designed into WordPress and this plugin gives the webmaster greater flexibility in assigning those permissions.
  9. The Simply Exclude plugin.
    Sometimes it is desirable to keep a particular category of posts (articles) from appearing on the front page of the website.  Yet they need to be accessible some other way.  This plugin allows one to designate categories to be excluded from the front page.
  10. The Themed Login plugin.
    The default WordPress login page is very plain and merely displays the WordPress logo.  This plugin allows one to use one’s theme as the login page.  If you click on the login link you can see what it looks like.
  11. The Search Pages plugin
    WordPress uses both ‘Pages’ and ‘Posts’.  Pages are static while ‘Posts’ are the blog part of the site.  WordPress search function only searches posts. This plugin allows one to search both posts and pages.

These are just 10 plugins.  There are many-many more.  There are e-commerce powered plugins which would allow you to add a "shopping cart" to your site.  There are mailing plugins which would allow you to manage users in a mailing list.  The list of possibilities is virtually endless.

Installing and using these plugins is as simple as uploading the plugin folder to the correct spot in your WordPress powered website and then activating it.  Usually each plugin comes with complete instructions as to how to use it.

If you are using WordPress for your church website – let me know – send me a link to your site.  Share what techniques you have learned or what hasn’t worked for you.

If you are interested in this topic don’t forget to read the other articles that I have written on church websites.

 

 

More Prayer

When I had once mentioned that I collected prayers, a friend quickly sent me a copy of the Prayer of Jabez, a book written by Bruce Wilkinson in 2000 based on a prayer found in I Chronicles 4:9-10: And Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, “Oh that you would bless me indeed and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep from evil that I may not cause pain.” So, God granted him what he requested.

On the surface, the prayer seemed innocent enough. But, I found the instructions that came in the book a bit troubling. It was a word of challenge that Wilkinson gave: I challenge you to make the Jabez prayer for blessing part of the daily fabric of your life. To do that, I encourage you to follow unwaveringly the plan outlined here for the next thirty days. By the end of that time, you’ll be noticing significant changes in your life, and the prayer will be on its way to becoming a treasured, lifelong habit.

The book became a bestseller, number one on the New York Times non-fiction list, selling over nine million copies. I suppose what troubled me wasn’t the matter of prayer, but the practice it inspired. I quickly became aware of many friends who took it to heart – fully expecting prosperity to break out in all corners of their life. I’m not convinced that the prayer, itself, carried the promise of affluence or success. But for many, that became the aspiration.

Which was why I was attracted to a brief article, written in Christianity Today by Adam Hamilton, a pastor in Leawood, Kansas. As a church-planter, he discovered that church leaders needed to be focused not on themselves and their own personal success, but on the Will of God and the purpose of Christ. As he wrote: Some have found in the Prayer of Jabez a foundation upon which to build their lives. For me and our church family, it is one of John Wesley’s prayers that has shaped us – heart and soul … a prayer often called the “Wesleyan Covenant.”

While I’ve added the Prayer of Jabez to my list of prayers, the Wesleyan Covenant has become a guide in prayer toward to the essence of what it means for me to be a man of God:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low by thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
Thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it. Amen.

John Wesley

Umar and Marvi

The story of Umar and Marvi is a legend of the Sindhi people that expresses a fundamental tribal value of the Sindhi people.  A young, beautiful teenage girl (Marvi) is kidnapped from her tribe by a young prince (Umar) who is enamoured by her and wants to make her his wife.  She is taken to his palace where he, his mother and his sisters promise her wealth, honor, and happiness, if she will marry the prince.  Instead she refuses to deny her loyalty to her tribal values and to the man to whom she was pledged as a little girl. Despite all the joys the world can offer, she refuses even to the extent of pushing away all the delectable food they offer. In the end, relatives of Marvi come searching and Umar gives her up, submitting at last to her wish and unbending will.  She arrives home faithful to the end, but in such a weakened state that she dies.

A western twist on the story would have Marvi and Umar eventually fall in love to demonstrate that romantic love conquers all and is stronger than traditional values. Individual rights, happiness and freedom is a message with strong appeal in the west. But in the Sindhi context nothing is more important than loyalty and conformity to community values.  It is not the individual life of Marvi that counts (she dies in the end), but her willingness to sacrifice all to maintain the traditional values and concerns of her people. The call to loyalty goes beyond individual needs and Marvi becomes the ultimate role model for all Sindhi girls to emulate.

the parable of Marvi … can reveal to the Sindhi people the meaning of Jesus’ life

A “missionary” for equality and individual rights will despise this story as a message that prevents the Sindhi people from embracing “enlightened” western values.  A missionary for the kingdom of God, however, recognizes that such stories can provide bridges for the gospel.  This does not occur through a power struggle to overcome or replace the Sindhi values presented, but by recognizing that the values portrayed have at their heart an eternal truth recognized by the Sindhi that can be enhanced and given fresh meaning through the story of Jesus.

In Jesus’ temptation (Luke 4), the devil offers him many good things: sustenance that gives life, power that convinces the world, control over the earth to make things right.  But the price is to abandon God’s will.  In the end, Jesus’ choice to reject the good things offered and follow God’s will costs him his life.  To hold fast to that which is right and true and eternal in the face of the attractive choices of this world is one understanding of the parable of Marvi that can reveal to the Sindhi people the meaning of Jesus’ life.

In the story of Umar and Marvi, she is praised but mourned by her people.  However, for Jesus, God could not let such an expression of loyalty and love see decay (Acts 2:31) – the Messiah lives!  Moreover the invitation to life given through Christ extends to the Sindhi people – a people who already appreciate the value of such a sacrifice.

Core Basics for Church Boards

In November of 2005 we held our very first Best Practices for Church Boards workshop. At the time, it seemed to be the right thing to do and the right way to do it. Two years later, what seemed to be right has proven to be monumental. As of November, 2007 we have conducted 5 workshops throughout British Columbia – from the Lower Mainland, to Vancouver Island and into the Interior both in Vernon and Cranbrook. On March 8, 2008 we will return to Vancouver Island for the second time.

During the course of the two years, 30 Churches have sent their leadership teams – both Pastoral Staff and Board members. That represents close to one-third of the leadership of the British Columbia and Yukon Fellowship of churches. From those 30 churches, 240 Church Leaders have been registered as participants. The event in March will add to that number. In order to serve the leadership teams, 13 leaders have been trained and employed as facilitators to provide guidance to train effective Church governing leaders.

It has been a work in progress. After the first workshop, it became evident that more needed to be done. Both the interest and needs of Church Boards demanded a greater response than the Basic workshop could provide. This demand has generated a number of training instruments. Two [presented later in this Quarterly newsletter] have provided special training, first for the personal development and training of a Board member. Best Practices for Church Boards: Personal Edition has been published as a training tool under the title: Now That I’m A Board Member … a five-session course that includes both video instruction and workbook exercises.  Even though it was only introduced in the Fall of 2007, 12 Churches have purchased it and are using it in a number of creative ways.

The second additional instrument, or Edition, of Best Practices for Church Boards has been the Advanced Edition. Each June, a specific issue has been targeted for training. In 2007, 5 Church Board teams met for a one-day workshop led by Dr. David Horita for training in The Board’s Role in Strategic Planning and Vision Development. As advertised, the Advanced Edition workshop on June 23, 2008 will feature Dr. Guy Saffold’s training on the role of the Church in making good decisions. [see below.]

Beyond the formal “Editions” of Best Practices for Church Boards, churches have begun to request Coaching assistance to address a whole array of congregational health issues. This has opened the opportunity for the Ministry Centre, the Northwest Centre for Leadership Development, and Northwest Baptist Seminary to focus resources that would elevate the health of local of congregations through consultation and coaching.

With each development, we have learned a number of lessons and confirmed a number of principles. A few of the lessons learned:

  1. Church boards at large have a desperate need for training: At first, I thought that the interest shown by the Fellowship Baptist Churches was unique, something that was felt only by a few congregations. The fact is, the need for training is almost epidemic. As the Best Practices for Church Boards has expanded, interest has increased beyond the boundaries of the Fellowship. Each of our ACTS denominational partners – and more – have been watching us carefully with a high degree of interest. As I talk with the regional directors, it is evident that their church governing bodies are in serious need of the same sort of training. One of the key discoveries that we’ve made is that very few church board leaders are specifically trained for their role and responsibility, and are left to rely on either previous experience or vague intuition to guide them through their work.
  2. The training of a Church Board is unique: There is a growing body of resource agencies that teach “board governance.” The growth of such agencies underlines the general need for such training. Such groups as the Banff Institute for Board Governance, the United Way and their Board governance training, and the Canadian Council of Christian Charities have created wonderful ways to train boards for non-profit, charitable organizations. But, one of the things that they have discovered is that while the Church is technically a non-profit, charitable organization – it is a unique species with a distinct character that possesses its own exclusive application.
  3. Church boards need to see their work as a critical spiritual ministry: One of the standard questions that I ask of Board members is “what is your spiritual ministry in the local church?” More often than not, the answers omit the role of Board governance. They will point to “teaching a Bible Study”, “part of the worship team.” When I say, “but, aren’t you a Board member? Isn’t that a ministry?” they will often respond something to the effect that “no, it’s a necessary evil, someone has to do it.”  

Such a response has reconfirmed two key principles that undergird our passion to elevate the quality of a Church Board. I continue to make this a challenge as Church Board Leaders consider their own level of performance. Two Principles:

  1. Membership on a Church Board is a profoundly Spiritual Ministry: Leadership is listed among the differing gifts of grace listed in Romans 12 [verse 8] as a governing function. The definition of the term applies to practical administration, the type required of Church Board members. The spirit of the challenge is that of diligence [earnest, eager, careful.] …If it is leadership, let him govern diligently.
  2. The Church Board is the Prime Community of the Local Congregation: When Paul outlines the qualities of oversight leaders in the Pastoral Epistles, it is significant to note that he points to character rather than ability, and the type of character that is assessed through community and ultimately builds community. I can’t help but read that and extrapolate a principle: that Board members form the definitive community of a church. The quality of their interaction and the integrity of their relationship has direct bearing on the health of the congregation. This principle can be measured by two corollary statements: 1. If a Church Board is unable to generate a Biblical sense of community – it will be extremely difficult to expect a congregation to enjoy a healthy sense of community; 2. By the same token, if a Church Board is able to generate a sense of Biblical community – the church stands a great chance of building a healthy sense of community throughout its fellowship.

The Church Board, the governing body, has a significant role. And, every possible opportunity to elevate the quality of service is well worth the investment.

Chronological Bible Storying

My friend and mentor, Grant Lovejoy, sent me a link this morning to the new website for Chronological Bible Storying. The website offers the methodology, research, and reports from the field into this powerful way of preaching to oral and indigenous cultures.

According to the website, "Chronological Bible Storying (CBS) is the process of encountering God by telling the stories of the Bible. In CBS we tell Bible stories without interruption or comment and we tell them in the order that they happened in time. Afterward we discuss each story and its significance for our lives. Each story builds on those that came before; as a result, the overarching message of the Bible becomes clear and we discover our own place in God’s story."

The oral nature of communication within many of the people groups of the world is a major motivator for those championing CBS. "Though literacy has developed and spread its reach around the globe, a majority of the world’s people still live day to day by the spoken word, by orality. Some people live by oral communication out of necessity; their language may not have a written form or they may not have acquired literacy in school."

When people live primarily by means of orality, memory becomes a major feature in everyday life. People in oral cultures prefer the familiar and are slow to accept new information, especially when it does not come in a memorable format. Chronological Bible Storying is a way of communicating the truths of Scripture in a format that is both memorable and familiar to the recipients.

The good news is that this format is an effective way of training locals to communicate the gospel. The opportunity for the spread of the gospel is exponential. In a report from South Asia, for example, training in CBS is multiplying its impact. A missionary reports, "The 48 men who have now finished their first year of training say that they are formally training another 553 storytellers. Of these, 439 have 10-15 men and women each to whom they are telling the stories.  So every story we teach is perhaps being taught to 5,000 people immediately–most of whom are not yet believers. You can imagine the potential for God’s Word to work in these thousands of lives!"

Other helpful websites on this theme include oralbible.com and wycliffe.org. Chronological Bible Storying is an initiative of the International Mission Board.

Snowflake Prayer

I was intrigued by a comment that I overheard some time ago to the effect that “prior to the age of Sunday School, the most influential instrument used to instruct Christians was Worship.” It was through the liturgy of worship that people learned theology – as they recited the Apostle’s Creed or Nicene Creed from week to week. It was through the liturgy of worship that people learned to read and make sense of the Scripture as it was read, week to week. And, it was through the liturgy of worship that people learned the language of prayer as together they prayed prayers of confession and shared litany’s of request and thanksgiving.

In recent years, as I’ve sensed a decline in Sunday School for adult education, I suspect that we have returned to the place where the burden of instruction is to be found in worship. And that troubles me, especially when it comes to prayer. Too often the prayers I’ve experienced in evangelical worship have not reflected careful thought, nor have they drawn out the voice of God’s people – which only makes me value the treasury of prayer that I’ve been collecting over the years.

Years ago, I began to collect what I discovered to be significant prayers. A significant prayer being one crafted with care, able to give voice to the depth of heart, and one that stimulates even greater expression of prayer as it is prayed again and again and again.

Some of the prayers are quite simple. One that I’ve included in my cycle of daily devotion I discovered in an old tattered used book simply titled Pray by Charles Francis Whiston. It was called the “snowflake” prayer, a title just odd enough to capture my imagination. As Whiston explained, an isolated snowflake melts quickly. But, when joined by other snowflakes over time, a snowflake becomes a glacier – able to carve channels through the hardest rock. It was a way to describe the discipline of prayer, especially commending the practice of using the outline of one prayer as a template for each day. The outline of this prayer has, over time, gained a glacial weight in my life. And, for that reason, I find my self commending it to anyone who wants it. It’s my adaptation:

Gracious Heavenly Father, in obedience to Your claim on my life, I surrender myself to You this day. All that I am, all that I have, to be wholly and unconditionally to You and for Your using. Take me away from myself, and my sinful preoccupation with self, and use me as You will, when You will, and with whom You will. Take away by loving force all that I will not give to You. And help me to know that having been crucified with Christ, I no longer live but that He lives in me, so that the life I love today, I would live by faith in the One who loved me and gave Himself for me. This I pray in His name, and for His sake. Amen

We’re Rich?

This Sunday marked the second installment in a four part series that our pastor is preaching through entitled "LO$T." The dollar sign in the title is purposeful. The series is all about the dangers of becoming lost as a result of things and the pursuit of them.

He began with a question, "Why do you have more than you need?" There were a few snickers in the congregation. Many were thinking, "If the pastor only knew how tight things are in our house with finances, he’d know how ludicrous the question is."

What followed was a shock to us all.

The pastor informed us that 92% of the people in the world don’t own a car. Many in our church have one, some two or three cars in the family, and a few have more than that. 

He continued that a billion people don’t have access to clean water. We not only have drinkable water from the tap, we make it more pure by filtering it. We bathe in drinkable water and sprinkle it on our lawns and go to community centers and other facilities to play in it. 

800 million people won’t eat today and 300 million of them are kids. I have a weight problem. All talk of metabolism aside, its because I eat too much. I’m not alone by a long shot.

"The bottom billion plus people in the world live on less than $1 a day." our pastor said.  He then took us for a quick visit to www.globalrichlist.com. You can put your annual wage into a box to get an automatic calculation of what percentile of the population you fall within and how many people have a wage below yours in the world.  An annual wage of $37,500 puts you in the top 5% of the richest people in the world. What we call a low wage and "poverty line" earnings, when scaled this way, is very sobering.

As the pastor brought the message to a conclusion, he invited us to reconsider the question with which he began. His answer to us was this, "The reason we have more than we need is so we can share with those who are in need."

So we are rich beyond the rest of the world’s wildest dreams and imaginations.

Luke 19:1-10 does make it clear that people can be lost when it comes to accumulating stuff. Getting saved, this passage teaches, should reach right down to the depths of my bank book and not just my soul. It was a great sermon: What does "saved" look like for me?

Church Talk: Discerning New Ministry Leaders

In 2007 Amal Henein and Francoise Morissette published Made in Canada Leadership. Wisdom from the Nation’s Best and Brightest on Leadership Practice and Development. They argue that "in each of us rests the potential for leadership, but the response and measure depend on us….We are all called to lead"(58). They discovered that parental influence and leadership identity are linked. Parents can model what leadership looks like — making it visible for their children.

They also discovered the some "have a passion and disposition for leadership early on", but in contrast some individuals "stumble upon leadership by accident"(61).  Those who enter leadership by accident tend to be reluctant participants,  but, motivated by a desire to serve, they step forward, often when things are in crisis and no one else is willing to do it. The innate leader, however, instinctually grasps leadership opportunities. Over time both kinds of experience result in effective leadership.

What I found surprising is that two thirds of current leaders placed themselves in the accidental category and only one third in the innate group.

I think their results have significant implications for our understanding of ministry leadership development in the church. Every believer is called by God to exercise influence for the Gospel, i.e. to be a leader. The Holy Spirit within us empowers us to grasp and accomplish this leadership. Some will exercise leadership in the church as pastors or missionaries or youth directors. Others will express a quieter leadership, mentoring others one on one, parenting their families, leading a small group, being responsible for maintaining good facilities — there are countless ways.

What we need to grasp is that ‘accidental leaders’ must learn "to see themselves as leaders through others’ eyes first"(64). Someone else has to awaken them to their potential and encourage them to try. "For accidentals the challenge is to turn leadership on"(67). If this dynamic is operative within the church setting, then ministry leaders need to understand this reality. If we only respond to innate leaders, those with a surging creativity to express leadership, then we run the risk of ignoring 66% of the potential, gifted leaders that God has placed within the body of Christ, the accidental leaders.

How then do we create the right conditions so that the majority of people who fit the accidental leader category will have the opportunity to respond to God’s calling in their lives? Plainly we have to help them discern their leadership potential, be encouraged to step out and test their ability, and be there to support them in their first tentative steps. We have to help them "see themselves as leaders."

I would suggest that we have a huge untapped resource of potential leadership capacity in our churches because we are quite unaware of the accidental/innate leadership distinction. What could you do within your sphere of ministry leadership to help accidental leaders emerge and discover their potential?

Uneasy with Evangelism

It feels impolite and invasive to challenge someone on a personal level

I am uncomfortable with direct methods of evangelism that early on present the hearer with an invitation to accept Christ as Lord and Savior.  Part of my unease has to do with my Canadian upbringing.  It feels impolite and invasive to challenge someone on a personal level in our cultural context. While my attitude cannot be used as an excuse not to give people the opportunity to become followers of Christ – and many people have become believers because of the “forwardness” of faithful disciples – nonetheless other approaches may be more conducive to certain segments of the Canadian population.  Much evangelism training encourages people to becoming bold in calling others to commitment, but perhaps the assumption of an early and direct gospel invitation behind such methods needs to be questioned.

One missiological concern is that while cultural norms do not pre-empt the Great Commission, they need to be taken into account so that the stumbling block of the gospel remains the cross, and not methodologies that may push people away, rather than attract them to salvation in Christ.  The currently running Mr. Sub commercial of the two young “missionaries” presenting their message to a young woman at her home is amusing, but also includes a certain “cringe factor” as I listen to the canned approach.

 A further concern is that the majority of evangelical approaches with their early presentation of a gospel challenge are geared towards those ready to make a faith profession.  While appropriate for some people – as we hear from stories about responses to such programs – to others it feels like manipulation or a proposal given outside of the context of relationship.  For these people such an approach may work as an inoculation against the gospel, indicating that a less direct approach could be more effective in the long run.

However, the main reason I feel uncomfortable with direct methods of evangelism is that an early call to faith can undermine the significance of the commitment.  A commitment to Christ is analogous to that of marriage (cf. Paul’s admonition to husbands in Eph 5:25-33).  I have made two life long vows: one to my wife, and one to my Lord.  What we are seeking from people in evangelism is a commitment to Christ on a level with the commitment a person makes to their life partner.  If a call to salvation in Christ can be considered on the level of a proposal to a future spouse, then one has to make that presentation when the time is right and in a way that validates the importance of the decision (cf. Jesus’ caution to “count the cost” in Lu 14:25-30).

A commitment to Christ is analogous to that of marriage

In our culture the validity and impact of a marriage proposal is dependent upon a pre-existing close personal relationship; the relationship does not occur because of the proposal but is an important step in the development of the relationship.  The courting relationship could last years, the proposal, one evening.  Furthermore, a proposal made too early in the relationship could destroy it.  In the same way, perhaps we need to think in terms of helping people develop a relationship with Christ before commitment. If we do not help people understand how Jesus is relevant to life, alleviate their misunderstandings, work through their hurts, etc., a proposal to commitment could be misrepresented as a call to religious conformity and control rather than a relationship of joy and release.

help people develop a relationship with Christ BEFORE commitment

My intention is not to disparage direct means of evangelism.  There are many people who have come to Christ because of such an approach.  At the same time, there are others in our lives resistant to the gospel who need time and patience to work through their perspectives of Jesus and how the meaning to life is found in him.  Rather than calling them to commitment, our role is to walk with them in their spiritual journey until their attraction to Jesus matures, so much so that a proposal is not only fitting, but unavoidable.

Does this thinking make sense to you?  If so, consider the merits of the SISI system with its focus on learning how to engage others in significant conversations that will bring them into contact with the Kingdom of God.

User Friendly Bibles: When Titles Mislead

section headings … can be misleading

I like section headings in Bible translation.  They are not part of the original text, but added by the translation team to assist the reader in three ways: “1. to help those already familiar with the Bible to find a passage they know; 2. to help those unfamiliar with the Bible to assimilate the text; 3. to help every reader by breaking up what could otherwise be forbiddingly large slabs of print.” (1) But there are times when the insertion of section headings into a passage of scripture can be misleading.  Even when the title itself may be accurate in its identification of the passage, the focus of the message may be distorted. (2) Furthermore the placement of some titles can actually undermine the structural unity and continuity of thought because the presence of the section heading communicates to the reader that the passage before the break is, in some way, disconnected from the passage under the heading and therefore is a “stand alone” passage with a unique message.

the section headings actually disguised, rather than illuminated the overall meaning of the passage

During my trip to Pakistan for Bible translation at the end of 2007, I was involved with a small team of translators and helpers who were reviewing a translation of the New Testament in the Sindhi language.  In our study of the Sermon on the Mount we found a number of places where section headings actually detracted from the flow of the passage and obscured the meaning….

 

Read the rest of this entry in Cross Cultural Impact # 58

A Challenge for 2008

I would like to present you with a tough but exciting challenge for 2008 . . . but let me back up a little! 

This past two months I have been somewhat restricted in my activities because of a ruptured achilles tendon.  After 4 weeks in a fiberglass cast and now another almost 4 weeks in a cast boot I am still using crutches to get around and spending much of my time with my foot propped up on a pile of cushions.  At first it was a bit of an adventure to have family and colleagues helping me with such basic things as opening doors or carrying a cup of coffee.  But the adventure aspect wore off quickly and I found myself in a complaining mode.  I didn’t complain to God openly but in my heart there were the sulky "why" questions – you know what I mean! 

I tell you this for two reasons.  First, because I have been so restricted I have found myself with much free time on my hands with only a few options available for filling those hours.  So I have been taking some of my own advice (found here) and have spent considerable time reading and re-reading the book of Hebrews – aloud.  Secondly, the personal result of that exercise has been for me to come to view my torn achilles as a blessing and not a curse.  For the past few weeks I have been soaking in the wonder of who Jesus is and what he has done for me (for us).  Normally I find I can fill my hours with so many good things that I rarely take the time to meditate on the Word in any more than a passing attempt.  Lately I have been "allowed" all the time I need and that has been a blessing.

So back to the challenge for 2008!  I would like to encourage you to carve out the time and space necessary and read the book of Hebrews 12 times this year – once a month – and read it aloud.  The ideal would be to read it in its entirety in one sitting but if you cannot do that break it into two or three chunks and read it that way.  Here is what I would encourage you to do:

  • Make 2008 a year of coming to know Jesus better.  Many years ago when I was a young student at Prairie Bible Institute a visiting speaker, Dr. J. Sidlow Baxter, encouraged us to read the Gospels "pictographically" – in other words with the express purpose of seeing Jesus as the gospelers pictured him.  That is the challenge I pass on to you – read Hebrews pictographically – with a view to seeing Jesus anew.  The writer to the Hebrews himself speaks of Jesus in this way.  In 2:9 he writes, "But we see Jesus…"   In 3:1 he enjoins his readers to "…fix your thoughts on Jesus…" and in 12:2 he exhorts, "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith…"  Jesus is the centrepiece of Hebrews.  My prayer for you is that you will come to see him afresh this coming year – that you will rejoice in the wonder of who your Savior is, what he has accomplished for you and who you are because of him.
  • Take your time – don’t hurry.  Allow the writer’s passion for Jesus to permeate your soul.
  • Read expressively.  Try to read Hebrews the way the writer intended it to be read.  At first you may not find reading aloud the most comfortable thing to do – but try it – I believe you will like it!
  • Notice how Hebrews weaves a wonderful tapestry of descriptions of Jesus’ person and work, exhortations to live fully in what Jesus has provided, cautions that we not take lightly this marvelous salvation and examples of others – both faith-filled and faith-less.
  • Don’t give up!  This is not an easy challenge – but you will find it very worthwhile!

As the year progresses share with me and other readers of this blog  what you have seen.  Feel free to add  comments to this post.  Return here throughout the year and encourage and be encouraged – that is what the writer of Hebrews tells us to do.

But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. (3:13)

…let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (10:25)

I will place a 2008 Challenge link in the sidebar (under Special Topics) so that you can return here easily.  May God richly bless you this year and may you daily rejoice in the wonder of this Hebrews benediction:

May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

God’s New Year

When God led Israel out of Egypt, he told them to change their calendars. Their year would now begin in the month when the last plague occurred, when Israel experienced Passover, and when Israel left Egypt. In Exodus 12:1 we read "This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year." In the days and months that followed Israel witnessed the miracle at the Red Sea, the provision of food and water, victory over the Amalekites, and God’s revelation of His covenant at Sinai. What a year! It was God’s new year for Israel.

As Moses led Israel in celebrating and praising God for some of these wonders, they affirmed, "In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed" (Exodus 15:13). God drew the map for Israel to follow and provided the navigational aids so they would not get lost. They might have preferred different latitude and longitude, a speedier schedule, less arduous terrain or  a safer route. Sometimes they failed to discern God’s "unfailing love" as the journey unfolded. Fear, anxiety, doubt, and anger characterized their response when their water supply was running out in wilderness, when starvation seemed imminent, and when hostile forces attacked. Instead of seeing God’s love in these circumstances, they saw a threat by God to destroy them! In Exodus 16:3 they claimed that Moses, God’s representative, has led them into this wilderness "to starve this entire assembly to death." This was only two or three weeks after their celebratory confession expressed in Exodus 15:13. God’s new year did not unfold in accordance with Israel’s expectations. Yet, at the end of the day, they have water, they have food, they are preserved from their enemies, and they met God at Sinai! Incredible challenges still faced the Israelites, but God demonstrated His complete faithfulness.

What will God’s new year, the year of 2008, hold for His people? It is beginning with rather ominous news — violence, riots, economic recession, threats of nuclear war, imminent ecological disaster, risk of pandemics, rising cost of oil. Will we experience God’s unfailing love in the midst of such dire circumstances? Will we be willing and able to discern God’s unfailing love in all that we experience? Who will explain for us how God is at work? How patient will we  be  in allowing God to set the timetable?  When  difficult things happen, how quickly will we begin to complain or  become angry with God?

After God led Israel into Canaan and as Joshua was preparing to die, he could look back on all that Israel had experienced and confess "every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed" (Joshua 23:14). We can enter God’s new year of 2008 with the same confidence. We know that God’s "goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our life" (Psalm 23:6). May His Holy Spirit enable us to perceive His goodness and rejoice in His mercy, i.e. His unfailing love. May you know and experience this kind of confidence in God in 2008.

Divine Hours

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

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

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

Everyday Theology

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

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

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

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

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

Manly Orthodoxy

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

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

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

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

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

The thoughts are well worth pondering. Ideas worth consideration.

New Testament Talk: Defining “Evangelical”

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

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

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

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

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

Significant Conversations: Onion model of Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeker Becomes Self-Feeder

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

Eat This Book!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WordPress for Churches

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meeting the need for Cross-cultural expertise in our churches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

    • _______________

 

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

Contact Mark Naylor

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Proof Positive

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

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

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

“Building Leaders”

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

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

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

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

Feeding the Preacher

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

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

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

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

Crossing Cultures with the Bible

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scratching the Surface of Non-Belief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Preaching with Variety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Church Web 101

…where does one start when planning a church website?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s NOT about the Information

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

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

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

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

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

Does The Universe Have A Purpose?

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

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

Musings on the Night of All Hallows’ Eve

Tonight is Halloween.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karen’s Sermon Art

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

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

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

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

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

All this in 45 minutes!

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

Disillusioned with the Sunday meeting expression of church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the vast majority of sermons I hear do not engage me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Church Health Assessment

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

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

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

The REAL Examination

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

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

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

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

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

Apologetic Preaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Churchtalk: Responding to the Breakdown of Tolerance

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Foundation for Hearing God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some additional thoughts:

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

Becoming a Sewage pipe Christian

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

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


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

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

Team Blog

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

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

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

Demographic information from the 2006 Canadian Census

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MinistryTalk: “Resourcing the Vision”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Significant Conversations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Middle Adults – Use Them or Lose Them

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

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

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

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

A Father’s Baptism

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

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

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

Well, God came through–big time!

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

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

The Crossing Tender

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wonder of Sulfa and Penicillin – or Salt and Light

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

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

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

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

Here are some questions with which I wrestle:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Discuss, DO

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

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

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

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

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

The Wages of Service

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

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

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

For more information click here.

Top Ten Reasons Why You Should Read Theology #4

Reason #4.

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

Searching for a Home Church

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

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

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

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

Dynamic Range

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

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

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

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

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

Translation Theology

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

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

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

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

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

The love of the Father

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

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

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

Moving from STM to Career

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

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

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

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

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

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We’re Not Okay, But That’s Okay

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

9/11 and Being Remembered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Word Must Be Heard

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alumni: Todd (1999) and Karen Chapman

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

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

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

Tell me a bit more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ministrytalk: Spiritual Formation — is it all good?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Search all of Northwest Online Resources

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

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

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

A Call for a Complementary view of Bible Versions

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

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

Continue reading

Denominational Relevance

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

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

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

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

In Praise of Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping up with internet news and blogs!!

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

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

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

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

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

MinistryTalk: “Leading From the Second Chair”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theology and photography

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

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

Stickies!

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

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

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

God’s Economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuned to Hear the Master’s Voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Fundamentalist Atheists

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

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

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

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

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

Appreciating the beauty of God

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

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

Something You Have GOT To See

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

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

Global Warming and the Ability to Know

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patriarchy and Understanding the Bible

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

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

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

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The Marks of an Unspiritual Leader

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

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

1. Spiritual insensitivity

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

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

2. Spiritual inattention

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

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

3. Spiritual ignorance

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

4. Spiritual imprudence

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

5. Spiritual indifference

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

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

Empower or Delegate?

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

Of Collapsed Bridges and Bad Theology

Minneapolis Bridge Collapse

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Problem with Preaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Led to the Lord”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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