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

Don’t fool yourself


lutherThe dissertation that I’ve just started writing is on stuff about Martin Luther.

So I’ve begun reading through Luther’s works.  Where did I start?  Where else but where it all began, his Ninety-Five Theses.

Now, just in case you are not au fait with this piece of writing, it is legend!

Firstly, Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses was not written in ’95 in whatever century you might like to choose.  It has come to been known as such because it contains 95 points or theses (plural of thesis) 🙂

lutherThe second thing to know is that Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses is not a great protestant declaration, but rather an anti-16th-century-Catholic-abuse declaration. The full title of the writing is called, The Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.  In short, Luther was railing against the Catholic practice of selling indulgences so that God would do away with one’s temporal punishment for sins already forgiven.

Let’s say this era wasn’t the high point of the Catholic Church.

The point of this post however is thesis number 92:

92.  Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, ‘Peace, peace,’ and there is no peace!

I am reminded of Colossians 1 where we read about Paul speaking about how the gospel was bearing fruit in the lives of the Colossian believers since the day they first heard it from the great man Epaphras (1:6-7).  The Colossians were not promised fruit but deprived of the seed that produced it, not at all!  The gospel was given and fruit was produced.

appleTo demonstrate that they have not been deprived of the fruit producing agent Paul continues to tell them the gospel.  Having just stated the gospel, Paul states emphatically in 1:23, ‘This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant’.

Luther is calling the Catholic money machine out on this one and saying that they promised the world, but delivered an atlas.  They promise so much through the indulgences and the like, but in fact did nothing more than empty their pockets.

They promised peace, but they received nothing.

Would we dare do the same?  Offer something that the cross does not give?  Or perhaps worse, offer what the cross gives, but neglect to communicate the cross?

How dare Christians offer peace through the cross (95th thesis) and instead provide shackles, hostility and burden.  How dare we offer salvation but teach law and condemnation in the name of eliciting personal change.

carrotHow dare teachers of the good news dangle the carrot of gospel blessing in people’s faces and never hand over the very substance of that good news.

Luther says, ‘Away with them!’

It might not be the 16th century and we might not be Catholic, but we can abuse, subjugate, and withhold blessing from the church just as well by withholding the gospel and thus its fruit from the church if it is not explicitly communicated.

Let’s not pretend or assume to teach the gospel, let’s teach it.  If you not teaching the content of the gospel then you are not teaching the gospel:

I Corinthians 15:1-8

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.

This is the gospel that bears fruit.

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.

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.

 

Book Review: Hearing Her Voice – A Case for Women Giving Sermons. By John Dickson.


hearHearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons.  By John Dickson.  Zondervan, 2012. $4.22 (On Kindle here).

The main theme of John Dickson’s latest ebook is the way that modern notions are projected onto first century biblical concepts.  In 1 Timothy 2:12 Paul states, ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man;she must be quiet.’  Dickson argues that the modern semantic range of the word ‘teach’ (didasko) covers far more than how Paul used the word in the first century.  When the word teach is understood as an apostolic role, the modern semantic range of the words preach, teach and the like, are brought into question, thus opening the door for women to engage in preaching.

The target audience for this ebook is mixed.  While he states that it is not an academic book, he seeks to engage not only ministers, church leaders, and laypeople, but also his colleagues, which ones assumes are academics.  Dickson’s stated intention is to help the reader (re)assess the biblical grounds for allowing or prohibiting women in the pulpit.  The book is persuasive, but there is room for further dialogue on the raised issues, which can be aided by the provided discussion questions at the end of the book.  This section is a great resource for exploring Dickson’s thoughts in a group setting.

To begin with, Dickson outlines that there are many speaking/teaching type roles in the Bible, but only one that women are prohibited from engaging in, and that is the role of teaching (1 Tim. 2:12).  He explains that there are differences between the roles of exhorting, prophesying, evangelizing, reading and teaching.  Dickson grants that there is overlap between these roles, but he is keen to show that any overlap should not negate any apparent distinction.   A helpful clarification is that these speaking roles have a similar content but different function.  In this first chapter, Dickson demonstrates that at the very least women should be able to engage in a number of speaking (‘teaching’) roles that involve biblical content in mixed gender settings because these roles, especially the role of exhortation, most closely resembles the modern day sermon.

In chapter two Dickson seeks to answer the question ‘what is teaching?’  It is argued that in 1 Timothy 2, Paul is not referring to a general conception of teaching but teaching that is authoritative, which he further clarifies using ‘historical realities and biblical text’.  ‘Teaching for Paul means preserving and laying down the fixed traditions of and about Jesus as handed on by the apostles.’  By drawing on the historical reality of the early church’s need for an oral tradition to preserve the core truths, Dickson mounts the case that teaching, in the narrow 1 Timothy 2 sense, is comprised of, and is the communication of, the new covenant truth prior to the advent of the Bible.  The biblical defense is made up of two phrase structures.  The first is similar to that which we read in 2 Timothy 1:13: ‘Follow the sound words you have heard from me.’ (2 Tim. 1:13).  The second phrase is found throughout the Pastoral Epistles: ‘trustworthy word’ (pistos logos) (1 Tim. 1:15, 3:1, 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:11 Titus 3:8).  It is thus argued that the notion of teaching is thus a specific role with specific content.

Dickson concludes that the role of preserving the truth is different to the other speaking/teaching roles, which in essence expound the content of the oral tradition.  The concept of teaching in 1 Timothy 2 is referring to the preeminent role of safeguarding, preserving and delivering the content of Jesus’ person and work both orally and later in text.  This, according to Dickson’s argument, is what women are prohibited from engaging in.

In the last two chapters, Dickson’s main thesis comes together as he differentiates between exposition and teaching.  Exposition is explaining what the teachers have preserved.  That is, exposition is the explanation and application of the content (teaching) that has been safeguarded by teachers through oral tradition (and later through text) to the life of the church by men and women.  Dickson explodes the assumption that expounding is equivalent to teaching, though not without a measure of nuanced discussion regarding certain content and function overlap.  An interesting supporting text that Dickson draws on is 2 Timothy 3:16, which states that Scripture is useful (ophelimos) for teaching (didaskalia).  In other words, Scripture (the Old Testament) supports, but is not equivalent to, the apostolic task of laying down the apostolic tradition.

Dickson addresses the obvious critique that someone who is expounding the preserved teaching is in fact preserving and passing on the very content that Dickson has solely ascribed to the apostolic teaching role.  He counters this by explaining that this notion of preserving the teaching is secondary.  The person expounding the preserved truths is not preserving the teaching in the primary apostolic sense.  Such expositors are wholly accountable to the apostolic tradition, whereas the apostolic teachers and the tradition that they preserve is not accountable to anyone in any such way.  In other words, the preservation has been completed and is final.  What is left is the communication of these truths and the application of them to the body of Christ.  For this Paul uses the terms exposition, prophesy, evangelism, etc., all of which women are not prohibited from engaging in.

The argument put forward by Dickson is simple – if teaching is understood in the narrow sense to be the preservation of the apostolic truth, then the command that women cannot teach in 1 Timothy 2 prohibits women from the narrow sense of teaching only, that is, preserving the apostolic tradition.  This allows women to engage with other forms of communicating biblical content to mixed groups.

Dickson’s argument is a compelling reminder to check the glasses that we use when we read the biblical text.  His argument is well rehearsed and buttressed with thorough biblical grounding, historical context and sound logic.  One aspect of the book that needs extra attention and debate, however, is the notion that one who today teaches the apostolic truth is not a teacher (in the narrow sense) but only secondarily so.  It might be argued that while the modern expositor is not the original preserver of the new covenant truth, there is still the requirement to faithfully pass on the truth as it was handed down to them.  Does the famous 2 Timothy 2:2 passage challenge the primary versus secondary distinction that Dickson draws with regard to those that preserve apostolic truth?  What is the difference between the role of Paul, Timothy and the early church fathers, and the preacher in the pulpit today in maintaining the apostolic truth?  Are the roles today of teacher in the narrow sense (even if secondary) and expositor necessarily conflated?  If so, what impact would this have on the discussion of women teaching from the pulpit?

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.