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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Atheist Church


The Sunday AssemblyWhat would church be like without God?

Now we know.  Check it out here.

In Islington there is a church service for atheists.  In a stroke of pure irony, they hold their meeting in an unused church.

The service is taken by a comedian called Sanderson Jones.  They sing songs, take up money for the running of the service, and they even have a time of silence.  To round it all out, there appears to be a segment where Sanderson teaches about the atheists’ position.

One wonders why?

evangelOne attendee said that she was coming to sing and to listen to something positive.  The clip shows them singing one of Queen’s hits.  ‘After all the church does not own Sunday mornings’, one lady said.

True.

Sanderson stated that he’s not taking the mickey out of church, but rather, ‘trying to build upon it.’

Interesting.

Of most interest to me were the intentions of the movement, yes movement.  The goals of the atheist church are chillingly familiar to those of any suburban Christian church or Islamic mosque.  ‘If the idea spreads’, they wish to create another Sunday service and then they want to expand into other cities.

We find ourselves in interesting times when organised religion is simultaneously rejected and embraced.

Rahner and some post-inquiry reflection


karlThe spare time in my last few months has been consumed by Karl Rahner and his not so tidy theology.

What in his theology was I convinced of?  Well, to be frank, very little.  This is not to say that I was not changed by my learning – I certainly was.  One of the things that I admire about the man was his diligence to his individual spirituality.

He sat quietly.  He thought.  He prayed.  He pondered for days on end. The result was a deep and rich spirituality.  Something to be admired, I think.

In terms of his theology, I think his work is overly anthropologically centred, which leads necessarily to, I think,  a number of problems most notably pluralism and universalism.  Supporting these outcomes is Rahner’s Christology, which prefers Jesus as modelling actualised humanity over Jesus as God atoning for humanity’s sin.  What need is there for Jesus?  Well, Jesus is helpful to know, but not essential for salvation.

Muhammad_Jesus_BuddhaOne element of Rahner’s work that interested me was his ‘pre-theological’ use of philosophy.  Philosophy was his means of positioning the human conceptually for the notion of God in history.  Granted, what made the human look to God (the supernatural existential) is certainly not down my alley, but the notion that we engage with philosophical thinking prior to entertaining the option of God in history describes, somewhat, the seeking process.

I think of my friend who became a believer.  He inquired about life and meaning by using categories available to him.  Who am I?  What am I doing here?  What is the purpose of life?  He decided to look for answers in the only place he could – his own created world.  One option available to him (that we had the privilege of presenting) was God in history, Jesus, whom he decided in the end was the answer to his inquiry.

Was this not Paul’s method of operation on the Areopagus in Acts 17?

Areopagus6Paul engaged his audience with discussion about the worship of the gods.  Once he was within their framework he could operate from within it pointing towards the need for an uncreated God, i.e., his God, the one who was not created, but who could be found within history in the form of a man who was validated as such by coming back from the dead.

I like this idea of being able to speak the language of inquiry to those inquiring and using that language to show that the questions point to, or desire to be fulfilled by, God within history.

Can this be done without succumbing to a similarly anthropologically characterised quest for fulfilment, void of God’s prompting and regenerating acts?  The emphasis here is that human reason and inquiry can reveal God in history as the answer, so perhaps the answer to the question is, maybe not.

It is worth a thought though.

 

Missions Musings 15: Sneaky sneaky


Colonialism is a swearword.

Why?

Well, look what Mr Dictionary.com has to say…

co·lo·ni·al·ism

   [kuh-loh-nee-uh-liz-uhm]  

Noun

1.  the control or governing influence of a nation over a dependent country, territory, or people.
2.  the system or policy by which a nation maintains or advocates such control or influence.
3.  the state or condition of being colonial.
4.  an idea, custom, or practice peculiar to a colony.

The concept of colonialism is often coupled (rightly or wrongly) with the historical Christian ideas of mission or being a missionary.  I think it is fair to say that colonialism is an unwanted and unhelpful concept in the realm of christian missions.

The other week I watched a Facebook discussion unfold on the concept of mission and those who carry out Christian mission.  At one point in the discussion one person made the comment that a person who works a secular job has greater possibilities for evangelism than missionaries because they were surrounded by non-believers in the workplace.  In fact he used the analogy that a worker in a secular environment could be a light in a dark place – as opposed to, I assume, a missionary who cannot or has a limited capacity to be a light in a dark place because of their lack of contact with non-believers.

It was also interesting to me that the emphasis of the observation and subsequent inference was based on a missionary’s capacity to evangelise.

Fascinating!

What might we make of this comment?

Perhaps, his experience has been that missionaries work in churches doing church stuff.

Or… in his experience, missionaries do humanitarian stuff and so are not involved with either believers or non-believers at any length which inhibits the development of any real relationships and therefore any capacity for evangelism.

Or…he doesn’t have a clue what missionaries do.

Or…missionaries are working more with believers than non-believers because they are living up to the modern missiological trend of training nationals to do the work.  If they are not seen to be in the secular market place it is because they have trained or are training nationals to be there instead – to do the work for themselves.

I’m not going to speculate as to what he actually meant by his comments about missionaries and their work, but there is a curious departure that I want look at.

While thinking about these possibilities, which I’m sure are not exhausted here, I started to delve a little deeper into the last one.  Could it be true that many missionaries cannot be seen engaging with non-believers because they are busy training locals to go out and do it alone?  In many ways this idea appears to be a keeper.  It is culturally appropriate.  With this missiological trend the missionary is not imposing foreign ideas and methods on any given culture.  It’s all about empowering locals.  It’s all about raising up leaders.  It’s all about developing a national heart for evangelism.  Hard to disagree with, really.

But I could not avoid observing the sneaky sneaky covert operation at work –  a modern sneaky version of colonialism is alive and well in many ways.

Some might argue that Christianity is a western construct that has been used to establish a power base to control the masses.  We could, for example, begin with Constantine and trace the abuse of Christianity as a power tool through to the present.  So, any idea that someone today would go to any context to perpetuate Christian ideology could fall into the colonial basket as they seek to extend the literal rule of Christianity.  Well, if this is how one views Christianity then a ‘missionary’ is a colonialist.

But let’s be honest.   If one were to dig a little deeper into a context where this missiological trend is effectively being put to work, that is, the training of leaders, helping nationals to engage with the content of Christianity, etc, then how can we say that this is not in some sense colonial.  The same is being perpetuated but by different people – nationals!   What is happening is this: nationals are being trained to not only take on certain ideas, concepts, structures, and methods, but also being trained to perpetuate them.  To put it crudely, the nationals are doing what those with colonial motives cannot do without being colonial.  They are developing the colonial rule for the colonialists.  The Gospel and the methods of perpetuating it are going with the intent that others will take it on too.

It reminds me of documentaries that I’ve seen when the CIA, for example, goes into a given country to effect change through training and equipping according to the US  agenda.  It is sneaky sneaky.  Governments support national leaders in foreign countries to get them into power so that they will serve their own political interests.  We call these countries puppet states.  The puppeteer manages to extend their own reign without taking them over.

It is high time that cross-cultural mission had a discussion about the ethical merits of such a method.

But let’s be really honest and this is where it really hits the road.  The Gospel is unapologetically colonial.  The Gospel is about a kingdom that is in the business of extending its own rule throughout the world.  It does not care about national boundaries, language or culture.  The implications of the Gospel not only look colonial but are colonial.  It expects lifestyle change where it does not align appropriately.  Furthermore, it expects that those who submit to this rule will go on to proclaim the Gospel.

In what sense is the Gospel of Jesus not colonial?

I’m gonna say that we haven’t answered this question well enough.  In an attempt to rub out our colonial past modern mission efforts have tried to de-colonialise by opting for a covert CIA style operation, but this, as I showed very briefly, is at best dubious and at worst deceptive.  An honest portrayal of the Gospel proclaims the reign of Jesus over every part of everyone’s life including every aspect of any given culture that one finds themself in.

Why is it that we are happy to run this line of argument in our own cultures but when it comes to others we hesitate and create elaborate schemes to infiltrate them so as to propagate that same message?

More discussion and honesty is needed.

Missions Musings 14 – Re-imagining mission investment


My friend Paul, or Paulie as many of you know him, often tells me that he is going to suffer for the Gospel in the Cayman Islands.

It’s an interesting picture: Paul, chilling with a Bible in one hand and a pino colada in the other, soaking up the rays, calling out, ‘Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!’ in between sips.

It raises two related issues (perhaps even more with that imagery, but we won’t venture there;).

Firstly, bang for buck drives how we do most things these days.  It describes the economy of life.  For every dollar, minute, bit of care, tear, drop of sweat, answer, essay, holiday, patience, handshake, flirt, and whatever… that Joe gives, Joe asks the question – what will I get back?

The great question of our day is: Is the return worth the cost?

This is not just about the investment portfolio, and the retirement fund, but also about relationships, employment, career and car purchasing.  It’s about light bulbs, dishwashing detergent, brands of toilet paper, up-sizing or not, airfares and…

Mission!

Do we get bang for our buck in the missions that we support?

It’s an interesting conversation because it’s a tricky one.  We know that Gospel proclamation is essential, and we know that there is often a financial cost involved, but where does the bang fit in?  We want to be good stewards of the resources that God has given and so we should want to be savvy with the way that we allocate funds, but how ruthless a steward should we be?

Let me give you an example.  Over at the TGC site they just posted on the state of atheism in East Germany.  Have a read of the data:

Surveys show that in the eastern part of Germany, more than 71% of those under 28 years old say they have never believed in the existence of God. That’s nearly as many as in the 38-47 group, of which 72.6% are non-believers. Approximately 46% of all East Germans surveyed described themselves as atheists, compared to 4.9% of West Germans.

There is clearly plenty of need here, perhaps greater spiritual need than in other classical mission destinations, but who is going to fork out massive amounts of money to see the Gospel proclaimed there, when for the same amount of money you could pay the salaries of dozens and dozens of pastors in the western highlands of Papua New Guinea?

If you’re all about bang for buck then don’t give to people serving in Europe!

And here comes the related issue: Whose going to say to prospective supporting churches, ‘I’m going to Berlin, Paris or Vienna to proclaim the Gospel?’  Now that’s a tough gig!

When my wife and I were looking into cross-cultural mission about 10 years ago we scanned the globe looking and praying for direction as to where God would lead us.  In the following 8 years we trekked to Papua New Guinea, Niger (West Africa), Yemen (Middle East), and the Ukraine (Easter Europe) amount others, checking out these locations as possible places for future service.

On our last trip in 2008 we went to Bulgaria (South Eastern Europe) and then to Greece. I distinctly remember talking with Katie on the way home on the plane about what it would be like to tell our family, friends and church that we were heading to Greece.  We seriously had an issue justifying it, in the sense that it’s not an impoverished nation, it’s decked out with tropical living, the food is good, and it’s a stone’s throw from Western Europe for sweet holidaying.

How could we say that we were suffering for the Gospel in such a place?

Even though we didn’t end up in Greece (for different reasons), we felt the pain of dealing with the issue of wanting to serve in a location that did not fit the typical mission picture.  I was well aware of the nature of the average church’s response to this kind of location because it was only 3 years earlier that a couple came through our church looking for support to head to Greece!  I am ashamed as I reflect back on my response all those years ago to their pitch to the church, ‘Gosh, suffering for the Gospel in Greece.  Tough gig!’

I saw Greece as a waste of money, money more wisely spent elsewhere.  There was no bang for buck and the location didn’t fit my picture of mission.

Their departure had already been delayed by years because they could not get the support that they needed to leave.  Any increase in support from our church certainly (and unfortunately!) didn’t come from me.

What was their problem: They chose a place where you don’t get bang for buck!

So how does a prospective missionary avoid such a pitfall?  It’s really really easy.  Firstly, choose a destination that is at least a little worse off than the financial support catchment area.  Ideally, you want to find a place where the average Joe or Jane does not holiday.  Orphans are always a winner, as are donkeys and carts.  Secondly, make sure that the currency in the chosen destination is as weak as water so that any support that does come in goes a long long way.

Forgive my sarcasm.

We need to re-imagine what bang for buck looks when we are talking about funding cross-cultural mission in the year 2012.  The areas of increasing need for the Gospel are those areas of the world that are expensive to live in.  Often, these places are where you go for holiday, where you are over charged for transport and food, and where money doesn’t go very far at all.

The harvest in plentiful… even in those places where you don’t get bang for buck.

Everything in light of Me: Reviewing Chester and Timmis’ evangelistic overview


I like to read what the movers and shakers are coming out with.

Recently, I came across an evangelistic program that has been put out by The Crowded House crew (not to be confused with the band!).  It is written by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis.  You can check it out for yourself here.  It’s called, ‘The World We All Want’.  This review is based upon the schema that can be found in the link above.

There are many of these kinds of schemas out there that help us to explain the salvation story clearly.  Part of the genius of these things is their capacity to simplify what is complex.  They manage to capture large swaths of information in a few pictures and words.  I wondered what variation of the theme this one would offer.

Interestingly, it doesn’t follow the general pattern of creation, fall, Jesus, and restoration.  It begins with a startling presumption, that God has promised the world that we all want.  Wow, that’s brave.  Essentially the authors presume that the human desire is for one kind of world, which aligns with God’s overarching plan for the world.  The world that we all want is not surprisingly found in Revelations 21:1-5.  The world we all want is one where there is no crying, mourning, pain and death.

Next, Jesus shows us the world we all want.  He calms the storm, heals the sick, raises the dead, and has control over evil.  This display of authority demonstrates that Jesus has the power to bring the world that we all want to fruition.

Finally…as in, at last, we arrive at sin.  We have spoiled God’s good world – the world we all want.  We are enemies with God.  There is hope, as God promises someone who will defeat Satan.

Now that the doctrine of sin has been introduced, the authors bring in Abraham and the promises given to him, that through him, we can be friends with God again.  A new world is promised.

Following the promise is the law – the means by which humanity would create the world that they want.  But humanity fails.  The law was supposed to bring blessing, freedom and rest, but because we sucked at it, it brings condemnation instead.  Hope still remains as God promises to put it all right.

Enter Jesus and his death and resurrection.  Jesus dies and comes to life taking our punishment so that we can enjoy God’s world – the world, I suppose, we all want.

Exit Jesus – for now.  Jesus returns to heaven and begins to create the world we all want.  At this point in the schema, the authors show that an invitation has been extended to all who want to be a part of this new world.  The schema is wrapped up with one final comment:

We become part of God’s people through faith and repentance. When we become part of God’s people we are forgiven for our rebellion. What was promise to Abraham is for us. Instead of being God’s enemies we can know God and we can look forward to God’s new world – the world we all want.

I have to say that I’m somewhat disappointed with this ‘evangelistic Bible overview’ even though I fully agree with most of the components.

Where does it go wrong?  The title, in two ways.

Firstly, the title and the first part of the schema make a large assumption that we all want the same kind of world.  That’s news to me.  Two things.  Firstly, if the world agreed on what kind of world we all wanted then surely there wouldn’t be so much mayhem in the world as we work towards that end, right?  Secondly, this statement also assumes that we want a world where God is on the throne.

The Revelations 21:1-5 text from which the authors derive the world that we all want depicts God ruling on the throne.  From a Biblical perspective, we know that humanity does not want this kind of world.  They don’t want God as King.  This is the point and reason for any need for Jesus! We all don’t want the world that God originally made and promises because we want to be king. The only bit that we can agree we all want is the bit about no pain, suffering and crying etc, but that is not the heart and soul of the world that God promises:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.

God will be God and his people will be his people.  This is the very heart of the world that he promises and I can think of very few non-believers that want a world like this.  God does not promise a world that we all want!

Secondly, the title betrays the authors’ development of a schema that communicates Biblical truths in a way that it  scratches where it itches.

What we see in the title ‘The World We All Want’ (and in the content, of course) is an anthropocenric view of the Bible and the metanarrative therein.  That is, this evangelistic tool focuses on me (disguised as us!), and what I want.  One does not come to faith in Jesus because of the perks that are associated with such a move.  From the outset the carrot is dangled in front of the inquirer.  Surely, coming to faith has deeper implications than getting something that we all want.

I like the idea of starting at the end, but I think that the way that it has been worded and conceptually put together needs to be reworked to address the above-mentioned issues.

Any schema that we use to share the Gospel needs to demonstrate what humanity is in light of who God is and his desires.

I struggled with this post as I could not help but think I was being unfair.  If you have any thought please let me know:)

God and Whose Burden of Proof?


Burden of proof is everyone’s best friend, but nobody wants it.

It’s kind of like a hot potato – you’ve got to get rid of it otherwise you’ll get burned.  And so we use an awkward two-handed shovelling motion to push-throw the thing out of the vicinity.  The general idea is to make it somebody else’s problem.  Let them deal with the heat and the pain if they are not careful.

In the Merriam-Webster online dictionary we find this definition of ‘burden of proof’: the duty of proving a disputed assertion or charge.

This burden is not an optional extra that one can opt in and out of.  It is an obligation.  It is compulsory.  And it is final.  The outcome hangs on the persuasive quality of the case that is made by the one who is left holding the hot potato.

Bags not!

Why does the Christian always end up with the weighty burden of proof on their shoulders?  Why does the Christian have to somehow prove the existence of God, or that Jesus did rise from the dead, or that believing in Jesus is rational?

An easy response to these questions is that the Christian is making the assertion, but are they?  The New Atheists cannot claim that they’re just defending their ground from the marauding evangelising Christians, Muslims and JW’s.  No, they are just as evangelistic in the sense of looking to rid the world of God, or at least people’s ideas that there is a god.

It’s not fair that the burden of proof is only on the Christians’ shoulders.

Today I listened to a talk by a mate.  It was a classic university Christianity vs Atheism showdown.  I liked however that he did not get sucked into the age-old method of trying to prove God.  The angle that he took was one of re-aligning the burden of proof.  He attempted to engage every individual in the ongoing debate by making them take the responsibility for their own ideas.

Like any good Aussie, he threw the rule book out and made his own rules of engagement.  All of a sudden the hot potato is in everyone’s hands.

The question that he was posing was: Why are you still what you are, whatever you are?  Christian or Atheist, do you know what you believe and why?

I like it, a lot, because it makes us all stop and listen, first to our own coherent(?) perspective, and secondly to the opposing incoherent(?) perspective.  By using this rulebook we cannot shovel the burden of proof to the dark-side and expect them to come up with a knockdown, hole-proof argument to convince me of what I should believe.   This rulebook states that that same knockdown, hole-proof measure is now there for me to live up to.

It’s a totally different game. It levels the playing field.  It puts everybody on the back foot.

And in our own hearts we rejoice.  ‘Yes, finally, the burden of proof is on them!’

Hmmm, well, yes that’s right.  The burden of proof is on them.  They have to prove empirically, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there is no God, etc.  Tough gig!  That’s the good news with this new game plan.  The bad news is that you need to also prove empirically, beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is a God, etc.  Tough gig!

It’s a new game with new rules, and to be honest, now that you understand the rules, who wants to play?

Thought so:)