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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A Miracle: Jesus Survived Crucifixion


I watched a documentary last night about how the resurrection did not happen.

Whenever I watch these documentaries, I must admit, the content and presenters elicit a wide range of responses in me.  At some point I often doubt my own beliefs.  I often laugh at the stupidity of some of their hypotheses and accompanying statements.  I get angry when some things are deliberately twisted to secure a point.  And finally, I am encouraged as I come out the other end after I have dealt with the points that they have offered.

Last night they made two points that appear on the surface quite reasonable and even convincing.

Jesus the faker…

Firstly, they claimed that Jesus did not die on the cross.  One university professor cited events in chapter 15 in Mark’s Gospel to question the validity of the resurrection claim in chapter 16.  We read in 15:44 that, ‘Pilate was surprised to hear that he (Jesus) was already dead.’  After all it was only 3 hours after the crucifixion, which was half the time it normally took for someone to die by this ancient execution method, especially since he did not have his legs broken!

That Pilate was surprised that he was dead hints at the fact that Jesus was not in fact dead, but was alive.  This gives rise to a further defence.

For Jesus to get off the cross alive there needed to be some kind of collaboration between the disciples who knew that Jesus was still alive and the centurion in charge of the operation.  Indeed this is what we are told that we find.  In 15:43 we see that a wealthy man called Joseph of Arimathea who, at the request of the disciples one assumes, approaches Pilate.  Of course the disciples were mere fisherman, etc., who did not have the standing to carry out such a request.  After the request by Joseph for Jesus’ ‘dead’ body we read about Pilate’s surprise.  Pilate, in verse 44, then follows due process: ‘Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died’.  Is it a surprise to find out that the centurion in verse 45 takes the perspective of the disciples and Joseph by confirming that Jesus was indeed dead?

But how can we prove that the centurion was in cahoots with the disciples and therefore with Jesus?  It just so happens that this same centurion in 15:39 betrayed his allegiance when he proclaimed that ‘Surely this man (Jesus) was the Son of God!’

So there we have it.  The independent inquirer is Pilate who is surprised that Jesus is dead so soon.  We have the disciples who are working through a rich man to secure the not yet dead body of Jesus with the help of the converted centurion.

The film makers’ conclusion was that Jesus was taken down from the cross while he was unconscious but alive.

But why did the film makers not engage with the story that preceded Jesus’ crucifixion?  Why, even though they admit that the gospels are the greatest source of information about Jesus, do they not engage with the other gospel accounts of Jesus’ death?  Maybe because there is much information in those books that run contrary to their plotline?

Why does the fact that Jesus was brutally whipped and beaten (repeatedly on the head we read in Matthew) not come into play?

Why is the fact left out that the centurion was not alone but was with others who also agreed that he was dead?

They conveniently leave out John’s report that the legs of those crucified that day were due to be broken to speed up their deaths, but when they arrived at Jesus he was already dead.  His legs did not need to be broken.  The centurions (plural) do not leave it to chance, and so they speared Jesus’ side producing a flow of ‘water and blood’, which we are told is what happens after death.

They are happy to employ the Gospel of John to inform us that the legs of Jesus were not broken which supports their view that Jesus could not of had a quick death, but they are not so forthcoming with the surrounding information that speaks of the numerous centurions present to validate the that Jesus was dead, not to mention the spearing of Jesus’ side.

Why is much of this information left our of the picture?  Maybe, Jesus was dead on the cross.  Maybe the centurion did see Jesus die and the supernatural events that happened in that moment.  Maybe Joseph was rich and had Pilate’s ear.  Maybe they took the dead body away and put it in a tomb.  These maybes are not an elaborate scheme, but rather simple.  They don’t reek of a master plan, nor a covert operation.  That a man died is much more feasible.

Jesus did his job.  Pilate and the centurions did their job.  Jesus’ friends did their job.  That was how the first century worked.

Jesus on the run…

The fact that Jesus was alive presents a problem.  This was the basis for the second claim, that Jesus disappeared to either the south of France (not a bad idea if you ask me!) or the Central Asia.  They are right in saying that if Jesus did survive the crucifixion then he would have been a wanted man, after all, he was a traitor and blasphemer who had been sentenced to death.

The film makers betray their own ignorance and agenda in this argument.

As I said earlier, they admit that the vast amount of information that we know about Jesus is by virtue of the four gospel – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  If then we take these accounts as explaining why Jesus was in Jerusalem in the first place why would we think that Jesus would flee Jerusalem after he survives the crucifixion?

The Gospels are very clear that Jesus walked into Jerusalem knowing that his end was nigh.  Firstly, if he knew that his end was fast approaching and that the primary antagonists were in Jerusalem, why would he go to Jerusalem?  If  he wanted to avoid being killed then any sane person would have headed in the opposite direction, or even France!

Secondly, Jesus had an opportunity to say that he was not the king of the Jews and so maybe avoid death, but he chose to engage with what he believed to be the case.  To the question, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ Jesus answered,  ‘Yes, it is as you say.’  If Jesus was trying to get out of dying then he was doing a really bad job of it.

If Jesus did survive the crucifixion why would he run?  If he didn’t run the first time why would he run a second time?  He had been defying the religious authorities for three odd years.  He was clearly not phased by the idea of standing up to them and the consequences that that would bring.

If the gospels are our best source of information about Jesus then perhaps we should engage them in a more holistic fashion.

The film makers created an amazing plot worthy of, not a religion, but a movie:  Jesus did the impossible.

He survived a flogging and crucifixion and being speared his side, he fooled Pilate and the Roman executioners with a nifty blood and water trick, was retrieved off the cross with the help of the role playing rich man and centurions, was smuggled by friends out of the tomb where he lived for three days, before being rescued (again with help of the Roman guards) and fleeing to France and Central Asia.

Sometimes the Gospels don’t sound that wacky at all:)

An Unfair Debate


Debating is a chance to win a battle, but rarely a war.

I can’t really comment on the value of the debate in times gone by, but I cannot for the life of me see how they serve much purpose in the present.  I’ve listened to my fair share of debates in recent years, mainly between Atheists and Christians, and it is becoming increasingly evident that they cannot provide the means for good hearty argument on matters of religion and faith, at least.

Why is that?

Perhaps it’s because there are few people who have the quality debating skills that we may have seen in years gone by.  What appears to be the case is that we have someone like William Lane Craig who is a great technical debater.  He clearly has strategy going into the debate, framing the discussion and the debate on his terms and according to his strengths.  He poses the arguments that need to be refuted and/or proved in order for his opponent to win.  And what I observe is that his opponents rarely engage with his challenges.  Instead, they ignore William Lane Craig’s positioning and go on their merry way talking about whatever fits their agenda.

The result is that we are seeing many reputable thinkers refusing to debate him.  And I would too!  He doesn’t necessarily beat you with his arguments, although he may well do that, but he will beat you by virtue of his technical skills.  I’m happy (hmmm…) to lose and argument, but based upon my argument and not some other disability, like, for example, technical debating skills.

The outcome of these debates is not a winner or loser, but pure fizz.   Total disconnect between the debaters and their arguments.

I can see that a debate is helpful for people who are not well versed academics.  For these people the time to prepare and formulate an argument is crucial to being taken seriously.  In this sense the debate is a healthy option.  For the big kahoonas, however, I think the debate is not an entirely productive option.

What’s the alternative?  A good argument, I reckon, with a moderator.  There are many good examples of this.  In June last year at the Oxford Museum of Natural History Richard Dawkins and John Lennox had a great discussion about the issues and they were able to engage each other’s arguments as they posed them.  They could interact, counter-claim, prove or disprove.  At the end of it all you didn’t feel as though they were shooting past each other as is often the case in William Lane Craig’s debates, for example.

Another occasion where we saw a good ol’ argument in discussion format was this year in February at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford.  Richard Dawkins, Rowan Williams, Sir Anthony Kenny took the time to discuss/argue the finer points about the origins of life and the nature of human beings.  Again, they seemed to engage with each other as they couldn’t hide behind all that the formal debating structure.

Where to from here?

Well, I have viewed a few events where they begin as a debate and conclude with a time of discussion.  I don’t see the point of that.  If the point of the occasion is to see whose ideas are more robust and thought through then let them have it out for the whole time.

It appears that the debate is fading out and is being replaced with dialogues/discussions, which is not a bad thing.  For me I just want to hear the respective thinkers explain themselves without the strictures that the debating process seems to impose.

Long live the argument!