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.

Trinity Theological College: One good reason


trinityHere is a very good reason why Trinity Theological College (Perth, Western Australia) is a great option for theological studies.

In the clip below Dr Matthew Malcolm talks about how TTC approaches the study of the New Testament.

His person blog can be located here.

And of course the Trinity Theological College website can be found here.

You’re a Tart!


burgerYou are what you eat.

Well, that was how the advertisement campaign went.  Their point was clear, if you eat healthy you’ll be healthy.  If you eat fat, guess what, you’ll be fat.  It stands to reason that if you eat tart, you are a tart:)  (I am a dad now, you know).

A little closer to reality is the idea that you are what you do.  That is, your value is inextricably bound to the role that you carry out in society.  If you are a doctor then you get treated like a doctor.  If you are a plumber then you get treated like a tradie.  If you are a cleaner then you get the cleaning treatment.

And so we’ve had this somewhat generous revolution in the past 20 years that has seen the role of mothering move from being considered as ‘just’ mothering to the full-time job of mothering.  And rightly so, I might add.

old teachers3The opposite has been cast on nurses, teachers and the police.  These once respected roles are now mud.  Ok, some will pipe up here and tell me that they are needed and are a vital part of society’s proper functioning, but that is not my point.  The kudos associated with such roles has depleted considerably over the past 20 years.

I understand this well.

I am a teacher and my wife is a doctor.  The stark reaction in the past when we were quizzed as to out occupations was deafening.  If I was the first to say (my preference), then people would respond with, ‘Oh, that’s great.  Do you enjoy it?  I could never do that.’  Then Katie would say that she is a doctor and she would be met with, ‘Oh, wow, etc, etc.’.  If Katie was to respond first, she would get the same reaction.  Then came the let down, ‘I’m a teacher.’  It was weird to say the least.

Here we are being defined by what we do.

I wonder if this attitude has crept in the church too?

Paul would turn in his grave and Jesus would shuffle on his throne to hear that such value was being derived from what one does, the role one plays, or the badge one wears.

Paul writes in Colossians 1:2,

To God’s holy people in Colossae, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ

One’s identity here is not determined by their capacity to do this or that.  They are defined by whom they indwell, that is, Christ.  By their own merit they are not holy or faithful, but because they are in Christ they are holy and faithful.

JesusIn Christ they are holy and faithful.  We have to get a grip of ‘in christ-ness’.

When reflecting upon my last post (here) and the subsequent discussion that occurred around the traps, I could not help but think that much of the reaction was due (at least in part) to connecting the role and person.

In other words, if role is synonymous with person then any kind of priority that is given to a particular role (by God?) necessarily depreciates those without it.  But this should not be the case.

I admit that doctors are more important than teachers – they are!  Keeping someone alive is much more important than anything that I can teach someone.  However, if Katie and I were to attach our respective roles to our persons then she would be more important than me.  But we all know that this is not the case, though not because I am more important than her.  Nor am I equal to Katie by some measure based on our roles.

In God’s economy, there may well be roles that are more valued than others, after all there are some gifts that should be desired because they are greater.  The possession of these roles (or not) has no bearing upon one’s value as a person (before God and therefore other believers) in the positive or negative.

If our identity is bound by our roles there is cause for hierarchy, but this is not the divine economy.

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28).

graphThere you have it again – in Christ Jesus – the great equaliser!

Instead of trying to find or create personal value in the roles that we (or others) are engaged with, and  even given by God, perhaps we should be focussing our attention on finding value in whom we dwell.

I think this ontological orientation might just free the church to engage with God’s economy even if it places greater emphasis or value on certain giftings or roles in the church.

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.

8 Days to Christmas… put that tree up!


Christmas-Tree-Nature1024-226431I never really wondered where the Christmas tree came from.  Did you?

Well, I did a bit of research and for all hullabaloo surrounding the un-Christian-ness of the humble fir tree it appears that there are grounds to the idea that there is a very Christmasy meaning to it.  Well, it seems to cut both ways.  The Christians don’t want it because it is pagan and worldly, and the White House doesn’t want it because it is to Christ-y.

You can’t help feeling a bit sorry for the ol’ tree.

This is what I found.

Back in the Middle Ages (Robin Hood era) people began decorating trees as a part of a play depicting Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden.  This is why we often see apples on Christmas trees because this was the forbidden fruit that they ate… hmmm… anyway…

birthday-christmas-creative-jesus-lights-125672The play ended with a prophecy that there would be a saviour that would make new what had been destroyed or lost because of sin.  Perhaps the Christmas tree is in fact Christ’s mass (mission) tree after all.

Did somebody say gospel?

Granted, the Christmas tree did have a pagan look to it when the Eastern Europeans decided to set the village Christmas tree on fire and dance around it.  Ok, so it’s getting a bit dodgy here, but this is only as perverted as what we have done to it by making it a present umbrella.

Who would have thought?  All around the world the grand story of the Bible: creation, fall, redemption and re-creation is being shown.

If only they knew.

9 Days to Christmas… A time to serve


ice bear fallThis morning we climbed down the steps from out first floor apartment to walk to church.

Katie’s first step outside the door nearly ended in tears (of pain for Katie and laughter for us) as she slipped and slid like a rookie roller-skater.

By the time we all got on the ice we were only able to walk (a generous description of what we were doing) 20 meters in about 15mins.  At that rate we would have missed the service, and the evening service if they had one.   So we turned around and slipped all the way home.

What to do?  Umm, hello, St. Matt’s uniChurch podcast… bring on Jeff Hunt on Mark.  If you haven’t been tuning in then give it a crack.  It’s been great.

st matsI’m up to the September sermon on Mark 9:30-10:31.  What did it have to do with Christmas?  Nothing, but much in many ways.

Jeff’s big idea was that to be great is actually to be small.

To be small is to not claim greatness as the disciples were doing in secret.  To be small is to not be like the rich young ruler who was characterised by his wealth and submission to it.   To be small is to not be like the disciples who turned the children away from Jesus in an attempt to de-clutter Jesus’ life with un-importants.

To be great is not about assumed titles of greatness, pockets full of money, position or age.

To be great is to be small, like a child, generous, submissive and humble.  To be the greatest is to be the servant of all, which Jeff pointed out is what we see in Jesus’ fatal yet not fatal cross-work.

At this time of the year we also understand Jesus’ servant nature in his incarnation.  The Apostle Paul points to this very fact in Philippians 2.  But what Paul does is fabulous.  He couches Jesus’ condescension within the scope of the purpose for his coming.

He became a servant to serve.

For this reason the Christmas story is about the cross.  Check out Paul here in Philippians 2:

Who, being in very nature 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 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.

Christmas is a time to share the great message that Jesus came to be the servant of all.