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.

A New Genre: Reality from fantasy


pretendI was sitting in the James Cook University library each morning before class reading the newspapers, waiting for it to happen.  I unfortunately remember having that feeling of ‘Ooo, I can’t wait.’

Each day it got closer and closer.

It was inevitable.  It was a no-brainer.  They had them and they were a threat to not only their regional neighbours but also to every country in the world.

The photos were presented to convince me.  They did.  They were as clear as day.  It was all true.  Well, that was how it read anyway.

History has shown us that Saddam did not have the dreaded weapons of mass destruction or WMD’s, which in hindsight sounds more like a gaming acronym rather that a real life military threat.  In truth, the whole premise for the war has been shown to be as fanciful as the most realistic World of Warcraft scenario!

Eyes closed.

From the fanciful beginnings emerged a reality.  Shock and Awe was the descriptor given to the initial pounding of Bagdad, and it would be fair to say that ten years on the world is in shock and awe at what happened back in March of 2003.

It was the most tremendous ride, but it had an all too familiar ending.  We all know that feeling when you wake up baffled after the gritty realness of the dream.  It’s thrilling, until you wake up and realise it was, yep, just a dream.  It wasn’t true.  The reality is that this dreamtime ‘reality’ is composed of images, chemical surges and the odd bit of life-half-truth that takes on the form of real life.

A lie?  No, it is real.  It is a real dream

But how stupid is the person who wakes up and continues on as though their dream was reality and that real life was impacted by the make-believe?

Eyes opened.

Duped.

And like any sick practical joke the pranksters swagger off and the poor ol’ fool is left to clean themselves up – the humiliation of defeat, the grotty slimed face, lying on the floor wondering why those guys joined in and why everyone else just sat around and watched it happen.

Now the fantasy turned reality is starting to be retold.

Last night I was watching the RT News channel and I watched a small documentary on the dramatic rise in incidences in birth defects in Fallujah, Iraq.  The pictures were horrendous!  The hospital administrator who was documenting the incidences linked the defects to the phosphorous bombs that were dropped by the US.

Then today, I saw a letter written by a US servicemen who posted a scathing online letter regarding the fanciful dream.  He states:

“You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans – my fellow veterans – whose future you stole.”

The ‘you’ in the letter is referring to the then president of the United States, George W Bush.

So what do you do with the most powerful man in the world who at best made a mistake, or at worst lied in order to begin a war that ended up killing up to 190 000 people, 70% of who were civilians?

No fantasy of mine every had that costly a reality, but then again, I was never a Prime Minister or President.

Today we see the roles reversing.  We read about the fantasies of the North Koreans and how they are targeting the US nation on the basis of these realities.  Would we agree that the basis for their war waging is preposterous?  Of course, but we should slow a little to also acknowledge that their idea is no more preposterous than the one that we were all sold some ten years ago.

And so we return to the poor ol’ Iraqis.

A fitting end would be to finish where we started – pretending.  Let’s pretend that it is over and nothing ever happened.

X/Y-GENS & colour theory


red1Well, it’s election time again in Australia.

The PM has called an election for the 14th of September.  Yep, don’t even bother thinking about it until we start talking about the Eagles and the last weekend in September.  It’s ages away!

Despite the small aeon between now and then we are presented with a dilemma that’s not going away nor becoming simpler to resolve.

Who do you vote for?

As a Christian who do you vote for?

Should being a Christian make a difference?

blueI have a theory.

I have an increasing feeling that my generation (and the one below me) is not so set on where their political allegiances lie when compared with our parents.  Perhaps, 10/15 years ago when we started to vote we followed in line with our parents – this was the norm, but how things have changed.

You’re not a farmer, so you don’t vote National.  You don’t have dreadlocks so you don’t vote Green.  You’re not a sparky, so you don’t vote Labor.  And you’re not a businessman, so you don’t vote Liberal.

BUT…

greenYou care about the environment, you care about dealing with the asylum seeker situation carefully, humanly and lovingly, you care that the needy are provided for, you care that Australia’s future is secured with wise financial management, you care about the continuous development of our great nation’s infrastructure, you care about maintaining your own ethical prerogatives, and you care about how much tax you pay, you care about the situation in the Middle East, and you probably care about some other quirky thing too.

Ok, so which colour do you choose – Blue, Red or Green?

Now I hear the voices telling me of the other colours: mauve, teal, oh, and don’t forget spew, but the bottom line here is that these primary colours (and the secondary ones for that matter) don’t capture our concerns, not even a small portion of them.

greyWhat we are after is achromatic – that middle point on the colour wheel where all the colours converge to create a neutral grey.  A political party that doesn’t focus on one colour or the other, but every colour, shade, and hue in between.

That’s what we want!

I’ve got no answers, just colour theory.

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:)

Mrs Christ, is that you?


Was Jesus married?

That question is beside the point at the moment.  The big question is, will the Harvard Theological Review publish Prof. Karen King’s article on the recent discovery of a Coptic papyrus fragment that apparently speaks of Jesus’ wife.

The evangelical world rejoiced when a bunch of Coptic gurus brought the ship down.  They deemed it a fake, not least because it demonstrated dependence on the Gospel of Thomas.  The response was swift.  The Harvard Theological Review decided not to publish King’s article.

End of story…

…until Harvard Divinity School spokesman Jonathan Beasley told us that the article has not been rejected.

Check it out for yourself here.  Here is the rationale:

“Dr. King’s `marriage fragment’ paper, which Harvard Theological Review is planning to publish in its January, 2013, edition – if testing of the ink and other aspects of the fragment are completed in time – will include her responses to the vigorous and appropriate academic debate engendered by discovery of the fragment, as well as her report on the ink analysis, and further examination of the fragment.”

End of story…

I think not.

But to be frank, I’m not sure if the story ever started.  We must, however, follow due process and allow the academy to follow the due process of scrutiny and investigation.

Liberalism, nihilism and the meaning of meaningless


‘Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless!  Everything is meaningless.’  The liberal would have to agree with the wise king’s words.

What is at the heart of liberty, says another wise man called Justice Anthony Kenny, but ‘the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.’

Liberalism, with its grandiose views of self-empowerment, freedom, inalienable rights, neutrality and the power of the will, has demonstrated with unparalleled linguistic flatulence that the individual human with his/her copious stores of wisdom has the last word when it comes to meaning, meaning, that meaning means, potentially, whatever you want.

Is it a pity that liberalism is being blindsided by the freight train called nihilism?  Granted, this picture understood in the present tense is surely antiquated.  The catastrophic collision has occurred and the disaster zone has been taped off.  Now we trawl through the wreckage looking for anything that might resemble something that could be of use.  We are like the soldier in the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan who picks up his blown off arm.  We pick up something that once gave value, something that once served us, but now this something is nothing but a dismembered piece of grammar lying is a semantic graveyard.

I call their bluff.

In their moment of weakness they employ these dismembered grammars, and attribute meaning in a traditional sense.  They revert back to tried and true notions of language, conception, and, dare I say it, truth, without calling it truth, of course!

Ah, bifurcation they say.  Clearly, split-personality disorders are not the substance of the psychiatrist’s list alone.  Shall I construct or deconstruct, that is the question.  The call is for something more moderate.  More nuanced.  More balanced.  There is a call for sensibility, a middle ground that annihilates nihilation, a haven wherein some measure of meaning can be safe-guarded.  But how can this be?  Meaning is mine to make!

The train, however, has arrived, and this train does not allow the liberal to have his or her cake and eat it too.  It is quite the quandary.  The liberal wants to set me free without sentencing me to a life of meaningless.  The liberal wants to release me from the state without plunging the world into a morass of ego fuelled self-fulfillment.  The liberal wants to ignite purpose without granting that there is some such thing called purpose that contains meaning.  The liberal wants to grant me a moral prerogative without any care to instruct me as to how I should ground that prerogative.

The liberal defines tolerance as a social quality of equality.  Equally true, if true could be construed as such for the time being, tolerance is a social quality that presupposes that everything is truth.  We all know, however, that if every thing is true then nothing is true.  Tolerance renders truth meaningless, unless of course we’ve defined tolerance wrongly.  That presents its own semantic dilemma, doesn’t it?

It appears that we are back where we began.

Liberal ideology is a snake that has turned on itself, twisting, binding, constricting.  Life ebbs.  Expiration is all there is.  It grasps at its own meaningless meaning to gain some traction, but because this meaningless meaning means nothing, there is little to latch onto.

The irony of liberalism is that it does offer meaning, it is just that the meaning it offers is meaningless.