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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Damned Suicide


suicide-pictureRecently in Bulgaria a man died.

His death is interesting because it was a political statement.  His death has achieved what the man set out to do when he set himself on fire.  He wanted to draw attention primarily to the plight of the Bulgarian masses that are suffering under corrupt and incompetent governance.

This act of self-immolation was an anti-government protest.

Interestingly, the government and the Orthodox church (though I cannot confirm this) have paid tribute to this man.  The state has even sanctioned a national day of mourning for the man.

He is a hero!

This event has led to a number of interesting discussions around the traps, some of which have demonstrated a lack of clarity on the issues by confusing the denunciation of such political maneuvers with the topic of suicide and its consequences. As communicators of biblical truth, pastors need to be careful with their influence.

Hell-maze-mapRegarding the topic of suicide, a number of pastors here in Bulgaria have told me that suicide is a sin that condemns one to hell.  I find this interesting for a number of reasons, not least because the Bible is obviously the source for their perspective.

However, when we look at the Bible regarding suicide we find that the Bible is conspicuously quiet on the subject.  Where then does this thinking come from?

It seems to me to be a response to dealing with murder, more specifically, self-murder.  But this does not explain how one can conclude that suicide is a sin that warrants eternal damnation.

Who committed suicide in the Bible.  There are a few, but let’s mention only 4:

1.  The most famous is probably Judas, who, after betraying Jesus for some silver coins went and hung himself.  Matthew 27:5 states:  ‘So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.’

2.  We might mention Sampson.  In judges 16:30 ‘Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines!” Then he pushed with all his might, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it.’

999-2543. Then there was Saul and his armour-bearer.  1 Samuel 31:3-5 is pretty clear:  ‘Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and run me through, or these uncircumcised fellows will come and run me through and abuse me.”   But his armor-bearer was terrified and would not do it; so Saul took his own sword and fell on it. When the armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he too fell on his sword and died with him.’

4.  Have you heard of Abimelech.  In Judges 9:54 we read: ‘Immediately he called to the young man who carried his armor and said to him, “Draw your sword and kill me, so people will not say about me, ‘A woman killed him.’” So the young man thrust him through, and he died.’

So there certainly is suicide in the Bible, but the question is this: how does the Bible view suicide?

quWell, we don’t know to be frank.  However, in each of these instances the suicide reflects the disgrace and defeat that they find themselves in, except Sampson’s, which might be construed as martyrdom rather than suicide (there is room for debate here!).

We can say that suicide is deemed as a sin and unfavourable because life is not for humanity to take (even if it is our own).  One pastor was keen to point out the clear commandment not to kill in Exodus 20:13.

With this pastor we must agree that suicide is sin.  But this is hardly ever the point of contention.

The question on everyone’s lips is, ‘Will they go to heaven?’

And to this question we respond as the Bible does.  Quietly!

There are no grounds to claim that suicide leads to eternal separation from God, unless ones believes that one is saved not by God’s mercy and grace but by virtue of one’s deeds.

The reasoning goes something like this.  If I commit suicide then my last act was rebellion against God; a total abandonment of God as saviour and healer; and a demonstration of my poverty of faith.  Suicide shows that I have no faith.

loveFor the protestant evangelical Christian this thinking is incongruous with our tradition (and the Bible of course).  One is saved not by virtue of one’s own deeds, whether good or bad, but by virtue of God’s love demonstrated in Christ’s deed – his obedient death.

To say that one is condemned on the basis of one’s final deed relegates salvation to a work of the flesh.  God help us all if this were the case.

No, we contend that we are saved by grace through faith, which is a gift from God, so that we have nothing to boast about.  Suicide as a sin does not fall beyond the scope of God’s love and mercy.

His death is enough.  This is the good news that gives us all hope.

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.

0 Days to Christmas…


Budni_Vecher-620x465Tonight we had the boys from the Learning Center Borovtsi over for Christmas Eve.  In Bulgarian it is called Budni Vecher (Бъдни вечер).  This is the normally a big family occasion.

It’s been a full half day.

Before we began dinner we had a little time to talk about Christmas.  Of course we talked about Jesus’ birth, but we tried to move the discussion of the birth narrative to the Biblical meta-narrative, that is, how Jesus fits into the bigger picture.

This has been my theme for my ‘X Days to Christmas…’ blog posts.   Christmas is not just about the incarnation of Jesus.  It is about God acting decisively in history to save his people from their sins.

For this reason I created a video for the men to watch.  The theme that I try to capture is purpose in confusion.  This is a theme that they know well.

The video is called ‘Unnamed soundsculpture’ and it was created by Daniel Franke.  You can see the original and/or download it here at Vimeo.  I placed biblical text over the top of the film.

The text recounts the big picture that unfolds in the Bible: Creation, fall, redemption, re-creation.

The arrival of Jesus in history is momentous because in the Jesus God brings hope to the hopeless, purpose to the purposeless, and order to chaos.

Jesus is good news.  Merry Christmas!

5 Days to Christmas… Thanks for nothing!


burgasEach week Katie and I drive out to Burgas on the Black Sea.

From where we live in north-west Bulgaria it takes about 6 hours.  We normally leave on Wednesday. We arrive in Burgas at about 2 in the pm and spend an hour with Svetlana and Mimi. The next day (Thursday) we spend another hour with the little lovelies before we get back in the car to drive home again.

Needless to say we get through a fair number of albums on the ol’ iPod.

funOne of my more recent purchases (not illegal downloads!) is by the band Fun.  I really like their punchy sound, lots of base and Queen-esque flavour.

What have they got to do with Christmas?

One of the songs that they sing is full of theology and accurate theology for that matter.  In the song called One Foot we hear these words repeated :

But I will die for my own sins thanks a lot
We’ll raise up ourselves thanks for nothing at all,
So up off the ground up for fathers who are nothing but dust now

Let me quote from another book called the Bible.  In Matthew 1:21 we read:

She [Mary] will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.

The link between the quotes is, well, fascinating.  In the Fun lyrics he’s claiming that he will die for his own sins even though in the Bible this person called Jesus is going to die for his sins.

The question is this: why would someone die for his own sins if Jesus is willing and has in fact died for them already?

Hmmm…

The writer of the song has his theology right.  Yes, according to the Bible you will die for your sins because we read that the penalty for sin is death.  But this penalty may be paid by the someone else – Jesus.  This is the heart of Christmas and it has been the heart of my Christmas posts.

Jesus came to Earth not merely to be God on earth, but God on the cross.

8 Days to Christmas… put that tree up!


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

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

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

This is what I found.

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

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

Did somebody say gospel?

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

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

If only they knew.

12 Days to Christmas…


There are twelve days until Christmas.  Here is a lovely video that comes out of New Zealand – St. Paul’s, Auckland.  Make sure that you watch the credits too:)

My favourite bit is when Mary says, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to have the son of God!’ and when one of the three kings (the youngest) drops his prezzie as he approaches Jeephus (sic) in the trough.

Anyway, enjoy this lovely little Kiwi take on what we read in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.