Missions Musings 17: Reaching the churched


Good-News-Art-F1-600x300Many of us who live and work in foreign contexts are working with the churched.

When I say churched I am speaking about those people who have been enculturated within a society where the institutional church looms large.

In such contexts the Church’s function is often to dispense salvation.  The church is the one-stop-shop that’s attended twice per year to get what is needed for eternity.  More often than not the churched know of God in a vague abstract sense.  They know about Jesus and his death in as much detail as you or I know about Joan of Arc and her death.  Yep, we’ve seen the movie:)

How does one reach these people?  That is, how does one communicate the life-giving truth of the gospel to those who have not heard it yet?  Here are a few things that have become a part of the way that I do it:

1.  Know their theology

If we do not know what they believe how can we with good conscience rip them away from the church through which they think they are being saved?  We need to be very diligent in understanding what they believe and why so that we can be sure that our actions and message is not in fact dividing the body of Christ.

What should we get to know?  Understand the role of their church in salvation.  Get know what they mean by salvation.  Clearly understand  the place of the sacraments and the role they play in salvation.  Work out what authority they attribute to the Bible and also to tradition.  These points in particular are crucial.

2.  Understand their theological language

This is distinct though closely related to the first point.  Just because you hear the same words being used does not mean that you are talking about the same thing.   So for example, when an Eastern Orthodox believer states that they are saved by faith, we protestants should on face value heartily agree.  Yet if someone was to probe a little deeper the disparity between what the EO christian believes and what a protestant believes becomes apparent.  Ask questions to understand what they mean when they use theological terms.

3.  Use common points of agreement for discussion and study.

It’s a no-brainer, but rarely done.  What normally happens is that we jump to the differences, like icons, candles, papal authority, etc.  Engaging with commonality was Paul’s method at the Areopagus that day in Acts 17.  This is a good starting point because there is often commonality to be found in the person and work of Jesus.  Well, great!  Why don’t we start with Jesus.

Avoid the contentious issues and begin with Jesus.  In Colossians this is how Paul worked.  The church is struggling because fine-sounding arguments have permeate the church which has displaced the gospel.  What does he do?  He doesn’t tackle the apparent error head on until he has prepared the foundation.  Paul firstly explains who Jesus is and then he goes on to explain the gospel.  Only then does he get stuck into the issue at hand.

4.  Don’t treat them like a non-Christian

This is an interesting point that taps into our need to be sensitive.  The churched consider themsleves to be Christians, and they often assume to know everything (don’t we all!) that they need to know.  Therefore to come at them with all the answers and the ‘truth’ is a fast track to causing offense and shutting down any opportunities for good discussion.  Be careful with how they perceive your take on their Christianity.

5.  Use the Bible

Once again it sounds like a no-brainer, but so often the Bible is often sidelined in favour of topical and spaghetti style discussions.  Get the Bible out and establish what the Bible has to say about the common points of interest.  Avoid saying things like, ‘God said…’  and ‘The Bible says…’ and ‘Jesus said….  Unhelpful!  Demonstrate the authority of the Bible in your own faith by using it properly in discussion, taking into account the context of the passage and its place in the Bible’s big picture.  Use the Bible to deal with the issues, but also model its importance and how to use it.

5.  Be open to learning from them

In my study of Eastern Orthodoxy over the past 4 years I have come to appreciate some of their theology.  Let’s give credit where it is due.  Let’s show humility by genuinely wanting to understand what they believe.  It is poor form indeed to merely want to reach them without giving them the opportunity to convince you of their ideas and beliefs.  If we ourselves are seeking the truth then there is no need to be scared of genuinely weighing up what they will present.

6.  Don’t discount the idea that the churched might be in our own (protestant) churches

Don’t assume the gospel, teach it.

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Jesus’ Patchwork Kindness


blingJesus didn’t really mean it.

Is it true that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said in Mark 10:17 when he told the rich young ruler to sell everything he had and give it to the poor?

How do we play this text away to justify that Jesus didn’t really mean it?

Most often we use the ol’ Jesus was really talking about the man’s heart.  However, it should concern us not a little that Jesus did not say, ‘Have an attitude of the heart that demonstrates that you would sell all your possessions and give them to the poor and come and follow me.’  This is not in the text.

question_markBut let’s ponder this line of reasoning for a minute.  If we truly had the attitude that we would sell it all, what would the circumstance be where we would put that commitment into action?  Hmmm…

I’m pretty sure that whatever circumstance we might insert here actually exists, which presents a bit of problem.  By our own reasoned standard, who of us has the proposed attitude of the heart that is willing to actually sell all we have and give it to the poor when the occasion arrives?

As I prepare for a seminar on the topic ‘Is is possible to have faith?’ (for a Bulgarian primarily secular audience) I’ve been reading a bit of Dietrich Bonheoffer.  It is impossible to not be challenged by the guy, especially when you get hold of chapter 2 in The Cost of Discipleship where he breaks down our rationalising and relativising of the said text.

He takes the last clause of the text (come and follow me) as serious as the selling everything clause.  Jesus is demanding a life of commitment, not merely commitment.

I think the way that we render this text has implications on the way that we help the poor.  We’re not obligated to sell all we have to help the poor and so we live this out.  We don’t sell what we have to help the poor.

imagesInstead our lives become patchwork gifts.

We find a cause here or there to contribute to out of our excess and in so doing we fail to engage with Jesus’ point – die to self and follow me.

We give cups of water when we a) manage to find a spare cup b) have some spare water lying around c) have some spare time to hand it over and c) find a spark of motivation to do it.

This means that our lives are not characterised by a) sacrificing our own wants for others’ needs and b) giving to the poor and needy, let alone c) following Christ.

Maybe Jesus means what he says.

If you want get a hold of this personally, head on over to www.thecriticalgap.org and get on board.  Or like The Critical Gap facebook group here

Damned Suicide


suicide-pictureRecently in Bulgaria a man died.

His death is interesting because it was a political statement.  His death has achieved what the man set out to do when he set himself on fire.  He wanted to draw attention primarily to the plight of the Bulgarian masses that are suffering under corrupt and incompetent governance.

This act of self-immolation was an anti-government protest.

Interestingly, the government and the Orthodox church (though I cannot confirm this) have paid tribute to this man.  The state has even sanctioned a national day of mourning for the man.

He is a hero!

This event has led to a number of interesting discussions around the traps, some of which have demonstrated a lack of clarity on the issues by confusing the denunciation of such political maneuvers with the topic of suicide and its consequences. As communicators of biblical truth, pastors need to be careful with their influence.

Hell-maze-mapRegarding the topic of suicide, a number of pastors here in Bulgaria have told me that suicide is a sin that condemns one to hell.  I find this interesting for a number of reasons, not least because the Bible is obviously the source for their perspective.

However, when we look at the Bible regarding suicide we find that the Bible is conspicuously quiet on the subject.  Where then does this thinking come from?

It seems to me to be a response to dealing with murder, more specifically, self-murder.  But this does not explain how one can conclude that suicide is a sin that warrants eternal damnation.

Who committed suicide in the Bible.  There are a few, but let’s mention only 4:

1.  The most famous is probably Judas, who, after betraying Jesus for some silver coins went and hung himself.  Matthew 27:5 states:  ‘So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.’

2.  We might mention Sampson.  In judges 16:30 ‘Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines!” Then he pushed with all his might, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it.’

999-2543. Then there was Saul and his armour-bearer.  1 Samuel 31:3-5 is pretty clear:  ‘Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and run me through, or these uncircumcised fellows will come and run me through and abuse me.”   But his armor-bearer was terrified and would not do it; so Saul took his own sword and fell on it. When the armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he too fell on his sword and died with him.’

4.  Have you heard of Abimelech.  In Judges 9:54 we read: ‘Immediately he called to the young man who carried his armor and said to him, “Draw your sword and kill me, so people will not say about me, ‘A woman killed him.’” So the young man thrust him through, and he died.’

So there certainly is suicide in the Bible, but the question is this: how does the Bible view suicide?

quWell, we don’t know to be frank.  However, in each of these instances the suicide reflects the disgrace and defeat that they find themselves in, except Sampson’s, which might be construed as martyrdom rather than suicide (there is room for debate here!).

We can say that suicide is deemed as a sin and unfavourable because life is not for humanity to take (even if it is our own).  One pastor was keen to point out the clear commandment not to kill in Exodus 20:13.

With this pastor we must agree that suicide is sin.  But this is hardly ever the point of contention.

The question on everyone’s lips is, ‘Will they go to heaven?’

And to this question we respond as the Bible does.  Quietly!

There are no grounds to claim that suicide leads to eternal separation from God, unless ones believes that one is saved not by God’s mercy and grace but by virtue of one’s deeds.

The reasoning goes something like this.  If I commit suicide then my last act was rebellion against God; a total abandonment of God as saviour and healer; and a demonstration of my poverty of faith.  Suicide shows that I have no faith.

loveFor the protestant evangelical Christian this thinking is incongruous with our tradition (and the Bible of course).  One is saved not by virtue of one’s own deeds, whether good or bad, but by virtue of God’s love demonstrated in Christ’s deed – his obedient death.

To say that one is condemned on the basis of one’s final deed relegates salvation to a work of the flesh.  God help us all if this were the case.

No, we contend that we are saved by grace through faith, which is a gift from God, so that we have nothing to boast about.  Suicide as a sin does not fall beyond the scope of God’s love and mercy.

His death is enough.  This is the good news that gives us all hope.

Missions Musings 16: The controlling legacy


bulsagaWe’ve inherited a legacy.

My mum always said, ‘If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it at all.’   I try to operate by that principle with my blog posting.  Ok, I revise it a little.  It goes more like this: ‘If you don’t have something to be appropriately critical, insightful or encouraging to say, then don’t say it at all.’

Hence my lack of Missions Musings in the past 6 months.  Yes, life has been that ordinary.  But here I am for number 16 to break a few missiology rules, be a little politically incorrect and probably succumb to some form of colonial indiscretion.

Here it goes:

If I was to summarise my time in Bulgaria with one word I would choose the word ‘control’.

When I reflect on my time growing up in Australia I was blessed with the freedom to do what I want, when I want and how I want.  I’m sure that I annoyed my parents, teachers, Bible college professors and the like no end.  I could choose what I would study at university.  I could choose if I wanted to get a job or not.  I had complete control – or so I felt.

I sound like a spoiled brat!

Whatever I may have been I rarely felt as though I was fighting the system to be able to live my life.

Since arriving in Bulgaria we have felt as though we have been doing nothing but fighting the system.  We have felt like a piece of property, or a possession.  We were a resource to be used as the owner felt.  We were not our own.  Whether is was government, church denominations, individual churches, other organizational bodies, and sometimes even friends, we were at their mercy and under their control… well, so they thought.

Why was this, and was this necessarily a bad thing?

I’ve thought a fair bit about this issue because of the pervading reach of it.  My conclusions are not conclusions per se, but thoughts about how this cultural phenomena might be comprehended by a foreigner trying to make it long-term in this country.

brotherFirstly, communism is the elephant in the room.  Control was how the communist rulers perpetuated ideology, and perhaps more importantly its own rule.  If you wanted to head to Sofia for the weekend you would have to report to the police when you left your village and report to the police when you arrived in Sofia.  You could not pack up and move villages or cities easily for work, etc.   If you were a teacher you would holiday with the other teachers.  The engineers with the engineers, and so on, and so on.  The family was dismembered and subjected to the control of the state.

It is clear that this method of operation is still a major part of the DNA of the government structures and voices within it, the non-govenment structures, and also the church.

I’ve observed that the release of control to others in nearly non-existent.  It is closely guarded.  Micro-managing is the natural tendency.  Dissenting voices are not welcome and quickly shut down.  There is next to no leadership development and handover.

As you could therefore imagine, our feeling of being controlled is a fairly normal thing.  A day in the life of 7.2 million Bulgarians.  Our experience is not an exception.  We are just another stat in the fat part of the bell curb experiencing the same thing as everybody else.  It is culture clash.  We are resources to be controlled.  We are a resource that is available for the leaders to use when they see fit.  If you don’t fit then you get thrown out.  It’s really that simple.

Secondly, the culture of control, especially within churches, was in part set up and perpetuated by the workers that have gone ahead of us.  That is, we’ve inherited a legacy of missions that was characterised by control.

Let me explain.  I believe that all cultures should be viewed through the lens of the Bible and critiqued appropriately.  After the changes (late 80’s), it was imperative that the church was lensgiven the skills to evaluate how they have been impacted by communism.  They needed to be able to evaluate themselves in light of the gospel.  They needed to become something from the start that was characterised by biblical principles rather than something that was characterised by assumed communist ones.  Once the changes had happen and the tsunami of ‘missionaries’ flooded in, it was their duty to set up proper working relationships with whatever existing churches there were and the ones that subsequently sprung up.  It appears that these missionaries set up autocratic church structures and relationships, and served within them as such.

Our experience has been that there is a general tendency for churches to treat ‘missionaries’ (forgive the use of the horrible term!) as a commodity.  When I look at the recent past this is not an uncommon story for most workers.  They’ve been subjected to church/denomination control in no uncertain terms.  If they haven’t performed as they ‘should have’ then they were given the royal boot.  This treatment seems to me to be the mere out working of a certain mission legacy that was implemented by the post-fall workers, perpetuated by certain missiological practices since, that is now turning around and biting us newbies on the behind!

Question: Why have we been subject to such a culture of control?

Answer: Bulgaria’s communist past and mission legacy.

I’m not so sure that I’ve nailed this, but I think that I am getting close.  I’d really appreciate my Bulgarian friends to give some input into this.  Being on the inside you would have a much different perspective than me, which I am really interested to hear.

 

0 Days to Christmas…


Budni_Vecher-620x465Tonight we had the boys from the Learning Center Borovtsi over for Christmas Eve.  In Bulgarian it is called Budni Vecher (Бъдни вечер).  This is the normally a big family occasion.

It’s been a full half day.

Before we began dinner we had a little time to talk about Christmas.  Of course we talked about Jesus’ birth, but we tried to move the discussion of the birth narrative to the Biblical meta-narrative, that is, how Jesus fits into the bigger picture.

This has been my theme for my ‘X Days to Christmas…’ blog posts.   Christmas is not just about the incarnation of Jesus.  It is about God acting decisively in history to save his people from their sins.

For this reason I created a video for the men to watch.  The theme that I try to capture is purpose in confusion.  This is a theme that they know well.

The video is called ‘Unnamed soundsculpture’ and it was created by Daniel Franke.  You can see the original and/or download it here at Vimeo.  I placed biblical text over the top of the film.

The text recounts the big picture that unfolds in the Bible: Creation, fall, redemption, re-creation.

The arrival of Jesus in history is momentous because in the Jesus God brings hope to the hopeless, purpose to the purposeless, and order to chaos.

Jesus is good news.  Merry Christmas!

5 Days to Christmas… Thanks for nothing!


burgasEach week Katie and I drive out to Burgas on the Black Sea.

From where we live in north-west Bulgaria it takes about 6 hours.  We normally leave on Wednesday. We arrive in Burgas at about 2 in the pm and spend an hour with Svetlana and Mimi. The next day (Thursday) we spend another hour with the little lovelies before we get back in the car to drive home again.

Needless to say we get through a fair number of albums on the ol’ iPod.

funOne of my more recent purchases (not illegal downloads!) is by the band Fun.  I really like their punchy sound, lots of base and Queen-esque flavour.

What have they got to do with Christmas?

One of the songs that they sing is full of theology and accurate theology for that matter.  In the song called One Foot we hear these words repeated :

But I will die for my own sins thanks a lot
We’ll raise up ourselves thanks for nothing at all,
So up off the ground up for fathers who are nothing but dust now

Let me quote from another book called the Bible.  In Matthew 1:21 we read:

She [Mary] will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.

The link between the quotes is, well, fascinating.  In the Fun lyrics he’s claiming that he will die for his own sins even though in the Bible this person called Jesus is going to die for his sins.

The question is this: why would someone die for his own sins if Jesus is willing and has in fact died for them already?

Hmmm…

The writer of the song has his theology right.  Yes, according to the Bible you will die for your sins because we read that the penalty for sin is death.  But this penalty may be paid by the someone else – Jesus.  This is the heart of Christmas and it has been the heart of my Christmas posts.

Jesus came to Earth not merely to be God on earth, but God on the cross.

Racism: The Christian Way


Racism, in my mind, is one of the most grotesque distortions of the Gospel that we can find in the modern church.

Ok, so that was a pretty strong statement to start a post for a Saturday afternoon, but this one’s been brewing for some time.  Racism in the church is something that must be denounced in the strongest terms because it not only contradicts the content of the Gospel, but also undermines the impact of the gospel in the areas where racism and the Gospel coexist.

Firstly, racism is a form of self-centredness.  

Racism speaks more about the racist person and their needs and desires rather than about the person or group being marginalised by the racist.  The concept of racism relies upon a basic principle that can be observed everyday in a school playground, which for our purposes we will call the I’m Normal Your Not principle

It goes like this: Johnny calls Timmy fat and Timmy cries.  The issue here is that Johnny has constructed a norm that of course he himself fits into and which Timmy does not (no pun intended).

Normality is the issue.  What is normal and who fits that definition?  And who decides what is normal and who fits into it?

The problem lies within the view that to be normal is to be normal, which is just not the case.  In other words, as soon as any given individual slips from the realm of normal-ness they become not normal, which is code for being deficient or sub-human in some measure.  The dynamic between Johnny and Timmy is clear.  Once Timmy slips from the realm of normal because of his weight problem Johnny continues to exist in his normal state.  Due to Timmy’s slip, Johnny by default becomes superior.

Johnny is normal and therefore superior.

The point however is not the normal vs not normal dynamic per se, but the deliberate orchestration of this dynamic in order to gain the superior (normal) status.  How can this be orchestrated?  Easy.  Observe those characteristics in another person that are different from you due to their race (or whatever!) and then isolate and articulate these as not normal.  The result is that you will be normal and superior to the person that is different to you.

Well, that’s how they think anyway.

We can stoop lower still.  It is not uncommon to hear professing Christians isolate a particular race with the social circumstances that the marginalised often find themselves in.  So, smelling badly, not being able to think as one educated (whatever that means) and dressing poorly is synonymous with – those that are not normal.  Not only are they a lower class of being because of their racial identity, but they feel the brunt of some Christians’ ire because they smell, speak poorly and/or dress shabbily.

This deliberate use of race and associated social characteristics are highlighted by racists out of self-interest, which flies in the face of the most basic Christian teaching.

I was told the other day by a fellow Christian friend that he was not obligated to love gypsies.  Hmmm… well, that news to me!  Was Jesus just joking around when he said, ‘Love you neighbour as yourself’?  Was Jesus just engaging in the optional extra duties when he talked with the Samaritan woman at the well?  And what do we make of his eating with the tax collectors and other rabble?  What?  That was Jesus, but that is not our responsibility?

Of course not!

That Christians would treat other Christians of a different race in such a belittling manner because they look, smell, sound different is disgusting.  Such egoism and self-centredness is far removed from the kind of interaction that Jesus teaches his followers to engage in.

Secondly, racism demonstrates a lack of understanding of the Gospel.

Of late, me and my friend Vlado have been working our way through Ephesians 2 and 3.  One of the  distinct themes that you cannot miss (well, clearly you can!) is that Jesus has broken down the race barrier between the Jews and the Gentiles.   Reconciliation (among other things) with God is made available to all through Jesus Christ.  It’s pretty clear when we read this snazzy passage:

This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.  I (Paul) became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power.Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things (Ephesians 3:6-9).

Racism is the turning back of the clock.  Racism strips the Gospel of its sheer beauty.  Racism grabs what Jesus has done away with and shoves it back into the spotlight and proclaims, ‘This is important!’  Racism builds a dividing wall of hostility (see 2:14), and implements the law with its commands and regulations (see 2:15).  There is not one in Christ but many: me, the racially superior creation, and you, the sub-par version.

The spiritual poverty of this view of the Gospel is far worse than any material poverty that some Gypsy will ever live through!

Thirdly, racism misunderstands church and eschatology.

The final eschatological (end times) scene is one of corporate worship.  Have a look at Revelations 7:9-10 at the picture that the writer creates for us.  He makes specific reference to those praising the Lamb as consisting of all sorts.  And they are together:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice...

The picture is one of corporate worship of God; a gathering of many for one purpose, which is not a phenomenon that we see only in the eschaton.  The church partially realises this future reality in the present, which the New Testament is constantly talking about.  The variables that we read about are predictable: young and old, men and women, Jew and Gentiles.  This is the composition of the church in the eschaton and in the present.

For goodness sake, the heart of Paul’s letters were often addressing the discontent and doctrinal error that was found between the Jews and Gentiles.  And how quickly do we forget Paul’s courageous rebuke of Peter for separating himself from Gentiles when eating.  Multiculturalism is not a social engineering fad of the 90’s, but a Gospel reality in the future and present!

It is not enough to merely placate this idea, to agree, to nod.  After Paul’s rebuke, Peter needed to rearrange his theology, his life, and his actions.  He needed a new understanding of race in light of the Gospel.  In our churches today many pastors agree that racism is bad, yet their churches do not reflect this commitment.  I’ve been told that some pastors chase away those of different races because the other church members feel uncomfortable and have threatened to leave.

My response to these pastors is simple: let them leave!

Please God spare us the day that our pastors (myself included) care more about keeping people in pews rather than being faithful to the Gospel and the implications of it.  The church is not a place that should engage with or perpetuate racism in any shape or form because it undermines the very foundation of the church – the Gospel.

Racism is a blight on God’s church because, if understood rightly as self-centred elitism, it is the antithesis of Jesus’ message and cross-work.  We would do well to remember Paul’s proclamation of Jesus’ humility before God his father in Philippians 2:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mindDo nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselvesnot looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.