IVP - Online Pulpit - Culture Archives

March 5, 2013

Don't Be a Hero: Rethinking Impact

by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson

Many years ago I was involved with an organization that had the grand mission of tackling the world’s biggest problems.

The leader of the organization—I’ll call him Bill—had a Rolodex full of contact information for top leaders around the world in government, business, civil society, religion, arts, entertainment. He had built his connections on the strength of his charisma and his genuine desire to do good in a world plagued with problems. Everyone who met him came away with the impression of a charming, sincere leader—a not-for-profit hero who was doing great things.

Bill was great in a public setting, where he could communicate his vision with grand, heartfelt rhetoric. When you got a little closer, however, cracks in this world-saving image started to appear. Out of view from anyone he needed to impress, Bill flew into rages at small obstacles. He stalked through the office wearing an invisible bubble of cold anger, chewing out junior staff for minor mistakes or differences in opinions. He grew abusive toward an executive who’d come on board to help stabilize the chaos he created. This poisonous environment led to rapid staff turnover and terrible morale.

In sum, the disconnect between Bill’s vision for the world and the way he treated those around him had huge consequences for the very effort he was called to lead.

Bill is an extreme example, but I frequently come across this personality type: men and women whose good intentions and grand ambitions blind them to the terrible ways they interact with real human beings. Such leaders may love a concept—peace, community, flourishing and so on—but don’t seem to like people very much.

Granted, we’re all a lot easier to love in the abstract than we are face-to-face. But leaders who like causes more than those the causes serve often wind up sitting in the rubble of their ambitions and relationships—left alone with a great vision for what the world could look like if God would just call and ask for their help.

My intimate familiarity with the siren song of ambition is what makes me so concerned about much of the talk I hear in Christian circles today. Everywhere I go, it seems that people are talking about saving or changing the world. The message to individuals is that we should be leaders—heroes—who can make an impact.

But impact is value neutral. It’s a concept based on degree of influence rather than quality. If I make an impact on something, all I’ve done is hit it really hard—with no guarantee that it’s better for the collision.

This “impact culture” is dangerous on many levels.

  • It can make us inadequately self-critical about our work because we know it’s “all for Jesus and the kingdom.”
  • It can stifle personal discipleship, when the quest to do great things in Jesus’ name comes at the cost of becoming less and less like him.
  • A church culture that exalts heroes and grand accomplishments can discourage many people who may not feel like their gifts are significant enough to offer.

We should remember that God does not need our big plans. Instead, he calls us to become little Christs. So perhaps we would do well to pump the brakes of ambition, to slow down a bit while we discern whether we are moving in the right direction. After all, if we are headed the wrong way, it would be much better to be moving slowly.

Excerpted and adapted from The World Is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good.

twsOP.jpgTyler Wigg-Stevenson is the founder and director of the Two Futures Project, a movement of Christians for nuclear threat reduction and the global abolition of nuclear weapons. He also serves as chairman of the Global Task Force on Nuclear Weapons for the World Evangelical Alliance.

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 10:02 AM

November 6, 2012

Identity in a Missional God

by Ross Hastings

For many in the church I suppose the concept of the West needing to be reevangelized may come as a bit of a surprise. This is especially true if they are part of a megachurch or if they live in some of the last bastions of Christendom in, say, the southern parts of the United States. In these sections of the church, where nominalism often pervades, the preaching of the gospel to the church is still needed. The paper-thin influence of Christianity in a once “Christian” Denmark led Søren Kierkegaard to ask how exactly are we to become Christian, especially when “one is a Christian of a sort?” (The Practice of Christianity).

For most cities in most Western countries, however, Christendom is long gone, and missional theologians like Lesslie Newbigin, David Bosch and Darrel Guder have in the late twentieth century sought to make Western churches aware that they are in a missional situation, even more so than in the so-called Third World, which now comprises 70 percent of the world’s Christians. But, and this is crucial for those who think missional is a passing fad or flavor of the month, these authors remind the church of what has always been true.

The church, any church—mainline or evangelical, liturgical or spontaneous, high church or low church, Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant—all churches that are in the missional Christ, that are indwelt by the missional Spirit and that worship the missional Father, who sent the Son and the Spirit, are missional, whether they know it or not. It is a matter of their identity in the God who is missional. These authors have been at pains to show that the church, when seen in light of the doctrine of God, is missional.

The missional movement was built on the resurgence of the doctrine of the Trinity. And properly understood, missional churches will not therefore be activistic or shallow, but will live into their union with the missional God in order to live out his mission. They will be deep churches. It is this dynamic that I have sought to present and defend in my book, Missional God, Missional Church.

The message of the missional identity and orientation of the church in light of its union with the missional God is profoundly relevant to evangelical churches, not just mainline churches. The evangelical church in the West is not very deep! In fact it is in cultural captivity that in many ways keeps it from being both evangelistic and missional. Furthermore, many evangelical traditions and churches need to be convinced that mission is more than evangelism (though never less than that) by means of a biblically and theologically sound paradigm.

Mission is more than obedience to the Great Commission, and it is not the saving of disembodied souls out of creation but participation with God in the redeeming of whole persons to become fully alive in creation. It is obedience (or vocation) within obedience to the Great Commandment to love God and neighbor, and it is obedience within obedience to the cultural mandate of Genesis 1-2.

It must therefore include seeking justice and shalom for our neighbor. It must be holistic, and at its heart it pursues shalom in all areas of human life—vocation, marriage and family life, and culture making. As Chris Wright has so convincingly demonstrated in his Mission of God, mission must be understood not only in light of the self-revelation of God in the gospel, it is the very heart of the grand narrative of the whole Bible. It is theologically and biblically primal!

The church is the new humanity in Christ, the last Adam, and as such participates in God’s work in the world, and as gathered and scattered community it must show signs and be the messenger of the kingdom of God that is to come in its fullness at the consummation of creation. While not seeking political hegemony, it must be engaged as salt and light and in advocacy of reconciliation in the world. It does not merely become a deep community in which persons are formed by communal practices, crucial though that is for today’s often ill-formed and fragmented Christians. It will be a hospitable and engaged community, deep and wide!

Being formed in the way of Christ is to be missional!

hastingsOP.jpgRoss Hastings is associate professor of pastoral theology at Regent College. Hastings holds two Ph.Ds, one in chemistry from Queen’s University in Kingston Ontario, and the other in theology from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 10:32 AM

August 8, 2012

Five Environments Needed to Create Missional Culture

by JR Woodward

Christ calls us to make disciples, yet too often our churches are filled with consumers of religious goods and services instead of Christlike disciples living in the world for the sake of the world in the way of Christ.

One of the most overlooked elements to making missional disciples is recognizing how the culture of our congregation shapes us. It either pulls us down toward our base instincts or lifts us up to our redemptive potential. We create culture and culture in turn recreates us.

Creating a missional culture develops a current within the congregation that enables people to catch the wind of the Holy Spirit and live missional lives. So what are the different environments necessary to create a missional culture?

A learning environment allows people to inhabit the sacred text. A learning environment moves past monologue to dialogue and praxis. Praxis takes place when thought, action and reflection operate in a cyclical fashion. We demonstrate we have learned when we are better able to live faithfully to God’s story. A learning environment can be cultivated as people allow God’s future to reshape how we live in the present and as we avail ourselves to various sacred assemblies for mutual learning.

A healing environment allows people to work through their past hurts and move toward a sense of wholeness and holiness in the context of community. A healing environment is developed when people sense an atmosphere of acceptance, where they understand that others are for them, no matter what they do. We are told to accept one another, just as Christ has accepted us (Rom 15:7). Being “for people” also means desiring God’s best for their lives. A healing environment can be cultivated as people find true friendships where they can be open and vulnerable.

A welcoming environment reflects that we understand that our God is a welcoming God. From the call of Abraham to John’s vision of people from every tribe, tongue and nation gathering to worship the living God, we see God’s welcoming heart. We cultivate a welcoming environment by following Christ in extending the table of fellowship to those whom society has marginalized by being witnesses of his great love. When we practice the art of hospitality, we give God room to work in people’s heart.

A liberating environment helps the congregation experience liberation from personal and social sins by forming Spirit-transforming communities. A liberating environment encourages people to overcome addictions, grow in personal holiness, speak truth to power and live in the power of the Spirit. A liberating environment is formed by connecting to our liberating God, the God of the exodus, the God of the cross, the God of the resurrection and the God of Pentecost, and by practicing the presence of God through the Spirit. For where the Spirit of God is, there is freedom.

Finally, if we desire to create missional culture, we need to cultivate a thriving environment, where a strong discipleship ethos is developed and the multiplication of disciples, ministries and churches take place. This happens as people understanding their sense of calling and live it out. This will take place as people work out their mentoring matrix, finding experienced mentors, peer mentors inside and outside of their organization and mentor others.

Each of these environments are linked to the five equippers in Ephesians 4, where Paul links the spiritual maturity of the church to the five kinds of equippers operating in the church: apostles (thriving environment), prophets (liberating environment), evangelists (welcoming environment), pastors (healing environment) and teachers (learning environment).

woodwardOP.jpgJR Woodward is the author of Creating a Missional Culture, and cofounder of Kairos LA and the Ecclesia Network. You can find a free cultural assessment on his website, www.jrwoodward.net.

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 11:13 AM

April 24, 2012

Letter 4: A Particular People in a Particular Place

In our final letter, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove finds our culture pulling us apart. Digital connections make it more and more simple to separate and yet stay together, albeit virtually. In his letter he calls the church of North America to stability. He hopes that a strong commitment to those who are right around us will reveal to us a more complete gospel.

The letter, I’m afraid, is a dying art in our culture. It has long been faster and easier to call a friend than to write them. To the extent that our communication is simply about the transfer of information, the text message is now preferable. This new form frees us from the cumbersome conventions of grammar and greetings and questions like “How are you doing?” which can only slow us down.

And, truth is, however much we complain about being too busy, most of us don’t really want to slow down. I have a Facebook page, and on that page there is a notice that I prefer to communicate via letter. Still, I write twenty electronic messages for every real letter. After all, I can stay in touch with a lot more people that way.

But this desire to stay in touch with more and more people is in tension, I’m afraid, with my vocation to be part of a community that witnesses to God’s quite personal form of communication. That is to say, while hyperconnectivity around interesting ideas might well serve to sell more books, I am increasingly doubtful that our preferred modes of communication have the capacity to convey the good and true Word which was made flesh in Jesus Christ.

When God wanted to proclaim good news to all the peoples of the earth, he struck up a conversation with a guy named Abraham and told a joke that made Sarah laugh before it made her pregnant. If we are to be about the proclamation of that news in our own time, a medium as personal and conversational as the letter might be the only way.

Read Jonathan’s entire letter here.

Learn more about Letters to a Future Church here.

lettersOP.jpgWith open letters from Andy Crouch, Ron Sider, Shane Claiborne and more, Letters to a Future Church paints a portrait of the world as we have it and the mission we have in it. You may find your calling in this book; you may even find your own voice.

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 9:52 AM

April 12, 2012

Letter 3: Bigger Banquet Tables

Rachel Held Evans, author of Evolving in Monkey Town (Zondervan, 2010) and renowned blogger, writes her letter to the North American church with a single message: Feeding people is not enough.

According to the statistics, we are a people of relative prosperity and relative generosity. We control most of the world’s wealth and we give much of it away. Though we struggle with materialism, we value charity. While we want to make the world more just, we don’t always know how to start.

But are we people of the kingdom?

That is the question at the heart of this crisis, and as we struggle together to answer it, I am convinced that we don’t need bigger buildings or fancier sound equipment, better pastors or more parishioners, newer ministries or deeper pockets. What we need are bigger banquet tables.

Jesus loved banquets. He performed his first miracle at a wedding reception in Canaan, turning jars of tepid water into the finest of red wines. He spent so much time feasting in the homes of sinners that the religious wrote him off as a glutton.

When the five thousand were hungry, he served them fish and bread. When the time of his death drew near, he ate dinner with his closest friends. After Peter had denied him three times, he offered redemption over breakfast. It’s as if Jesus knew his message would mean more to us if we could taste and smell it. How fitting that in his absence we remember him by eating together.

I suspect that Jesus used all this delicious imagery because he knew that there is a difference between feeding people and dining with people.

Feeding people means keeping the hungry at arm’s length. It means sending checks now and then, making thanksgiving baskets once a year, preaching about justice, and launching new ministries—all while sitting comfortably at the head of a tiny table, dropping scraps of our abundance to the floor.

Americans are good at feeding people.

But dining with people is an entirely different matter. Dining together means sitting next to one another and brushing arms, passing the bread basket and sharing the artichoke dip. It means double-dipping and spilling drinks, laughing together and crying together, exchanging stories, ideas, recipes and dreams. According to Jesus it means leaving the seat at the head of the table ceremoniously empty so that all are guests of honor and all are hosts. Dining together isn’t charity; it’s friendship.

Read Rachel’s entire letter here.

Get involved and write your own letter here.

lettersOP.jpgWith open letters from Andy Crouch, Ron Sider, Shane Claiborne and more, Letters to a Future Church paints a portrait of the world as we have it and the mission we have in it. You may find your calling in this book; you may even find your own voice.

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 9:16 AM

April 3, 2012

Letter 2: The Gospel of the Bible

Tim Challies, pastor of Grace Community Church in Toronto, loves what he sees so far. He is proud to proclaim his part in the church. But he has a growing concern that we are losing touch with the most important thing: the gospel.

Dear Church,

I love you. I’m proud to be part of you. I look around at all the church is accomplishing in the world, all the ways it is living out its mandate, and my heart is just full of joy, full of pride. I see what so many of you are doing, how you are living, and I want to let the whole world know, yes, I’m on their team! They’re on mine!

But Church, I’ve been asked to write you a letter. And in this letter I want to challenge you on one thing, one fundamental thing that seems like it may be in danger of getting lost or getting kicked aside. In the middle of all we do, we may just be losing sight of the heart of it all.

Church—the Bible tells us we are brothers and sisters—we’ve got to get the gospel right. The true gospel. The real gospel. The gospel of the Bible, the one that stands at the very heart of the Christian faith, the one on which the church stands or falls. There are all kinds of gospels floating around out there, all kinds of gospels competing with one another. And amid all of these gospels, we need to discover, or rediscover, or cling to and proclaim the real one, the true one, the only one that fully and finally matters. The only one that saves. We have got to get the gospel right.

I want the church to be excited about new kinds of church community. But not unless we’ve got the gospel right. I want the church to be serving the poor, to be standing with the widow and orphan, to be living in a radically different way. But how can we really serve anyone else until we’ve got this one thing right?

So what is the gospel? What is this good news that gets Christians so excited? What does the Bible call us to believe, to embrace, to take into all the world? That’s what I want to share with you now.

Read the rest of Tim’s letter here.

Get involved and write your own letter here.

lettersOP.jpgWith open letters from Andy Crouch, Ron Sider, Shane Claiborne and more, Letters to a Future Church paints a portrait of the world as we have it and the mission we have in it. You may find your calling in this book; you may even find your own voice.

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 9:53 AM

March 23, 2012

Letter 1: The Ideologizing of the Church

In his letter David Fitch makes a plea for us to expose our ideology, our “false consciousness” of identifying ourselves by who we are against. He suggests that we should abandon the cycle of the ideological church by “going local.”

Unfortunately, the church in North America is now defined more by what we are against than who we are or what we are for. This kind of ideology happens all the time in our churches. We notice it when someone says “Oh that church is the Bible-preaching church—they believe in the Bible,” implying the others don’t. Or “We’re the church that believes in community.” The others somehow don’t. “That church? They’re the gay church and that one is the church that is anti-gay. We’re the church that plants gardens and loves the environment,” and “Oh, by the way you’re the church of the SUVs.” On and on it goes as our churches get identified by what we are against.

We get caught up in perverse enjoyments like “I am glad we’re not them!” or “See, I told you we were right!” In the process we get distracted from the fact that things haven’t really changed at all, that our lives are caught up in gamesmanship, not the work of God’s salvation in our own lives and his work (missio Dei) to save the world. This cycle of ideologization works against the church. It is short-lived and it breeds an antagonistic relation to the world. In the process we become a hostile people incapable of being the church of Jesus Christ in mission.

And so today, this week and in the months that lie ahead, we must join together as Christians to break this cycle of ideological church. I suggest we can do this by “going local.” We can resist the ideologizing of the church by refocusing our attention on our local contexts. In going local, we inherently refuse to organize around what we are against and instead intentionally gather to participate in God’s mission in our neighborhoods, our streets, among the peoples that we live our daily lives with. Here we gather not around ideas extracted from actual practice in life that we then turn into ideological banners, but around the participation in the bounteous new life God has given us in Jesus Christ and his mission.

We participate in his reign, the kingdom, by actually practicing the reconciliation, new creation, justice and righteousness God is doing and made possible in Jesus Christ. Here we become a people of the gospel again. It is only by doing this that God breaks the cycle of ideological church.

Read David’s entire letter here.

Get involved and write your own letter here.

lettersOP.jpgWith open letters from Andy Crouch, Ron Sider, Shane Claiborne and more, Letters to a Future Church paints a portrait of the world as we have it and the mission we have in it. You may find your calling in this book; you may even find your own voice.

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 8:51 AM

March 16, 2012

Letters to a Future Church

An introduction from Chris Lewis

I first met Steve, Nathan and Darryl at Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto. We became fast friends and ended up spending a lot of time together; whether studying for exams, hanging out, playing for the school volleyball team or serving together on the student council.

After a year or two of friendship we suddenly realized that we had almost the same experience growing up in church, which is to say that we were learning things in school that we hadn’t while growing up in the church. Like any keen, young, white evangelicals, we decided to start an organization, which we called Epiphaneia (the Greek word for epiphany), and began to plan what became a series of annual events meant to challenge the church. We wanted the church to consider some of the ideas we were learning in school. Things like justice and the kingdom of God and sharing.

However, after a few years of planning those events we felt we’d grown a bit stale. We needed something different to get excited about. After a few hours of conversation the idea came to us—what if, in the tradition of Revelation, we had people write their own letter to the church in North America? We would organize an event called Eighth Letter around this concept and put the question to everyone: In fifteen minutes or less, what is your most pressing message to the church?

Once we launched the initial campaign we had letters rolling in daily. We received submissions from all over the continent, and felt honored to be listening to people’s pleas for the church and catching a glimpse of their joy and their pain.

We took some of the best letters and invited those authors to share at our event. We also invited some more well-known authors to share alongside of these people. The event was filled with remarkable ideas about who we are as the church and what we hope the church will become.

The highlights for me were watching two friends share their own thoughts at Eighth Letter. Janell Anema’s painful journey inside the church seemed to be redeemed before my eyes as it became clear that her story was our story. A standing ovation was the only appropriate response. The second highlight came from a masterful piece of music-as-letter by a lifelong friend whose journey with the church has been a vocational dream at best and vitriolic nightmare at worst. If nothing else were to have come of Eighth Letter, those two moments alone made all the work worthwhile.

Eighth Letter was the event we were waiting to create. With the reading of each passing letter it became increasingly evident that we were eavesdropping on weighted prayers, on the personal hopes and fears that we collectively shared about the church we all care about.

lettersOP.jpgAnd now, just over a year and a half later, Eighth Letter has become Letters to a Future Church. I’m excited to begin the process of releasing these letters to a wider audience, a venture that begin here at the Online Pulpit, where the next few weeks will feature content from some of the letters.

Chris Lewis is cofounder of the Epiphaneia Network, a movement in Canada to equip and inspire Jesus followers in kingdom ministry. They have organized a variety of influential gatherings of thought leaders and ministry activists, including the Evolving Church Conference and the Eighth Letter Conference.

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 8:41 AM

March 2, 2012

The Age-Old Myth, Part 3

If churches wish to embrace the profound truth that God is primarily concerned with what each person is relationally and seek to honor the wisdom of the elders in their midst, what kind of practical changes will the congregation and larger community see?

Encouragement in a healthy lifestyle. Christian teaching maintains that the Holy Spirit truly inhabits the believer, including the body, which is why Paul calls the body the temple of the Holy Spirit. The church can and should be a place of education on healthy lifestyles—that, for example, it is never too late to quit smoking or lose weight. Churches do not often partner with or participate in health-related initiatives, but doing so can being a dual benefit: taking the church out into the community as a caring entity and increasing the health of its members.

A heart for those (of any age) with disabilities. While it is appropriate to strive for “successful aging”—that is, a lifestyle that keeps our bodies and minds sharp for the tasks God has given us—to have failed to age healthfully is not to have failed at being human or fulfilling our calling from God. After all, lifestyle choices rarely contribute to physical and mental health challenges that affect many young people: autism, many cancers, traumatic brain injury, and degenerative diseases. Such ministries often draw in families whose beloved children face such challenges and they teach church members to see the inherent value in each person. Those whose faculties have been compromised by Alzheimers or dementia can be seen in a new light as well.

Support of caregivers. My instinct tells me that churches are already a major source of informal support for adult children, based upon the number of prayers I have heard offered in small groups and church services for people in this situation. But most churches have not drawn upon the many community resources and support opportunities offered in the larger community, nor have they considered the stress of caring for adult parents a need for which their community could use faith-based support and encouragement.

Intragenerational relationships. The paradigm of age-graded Sunday school does great disservice to the development of intragenerational relationships. Likewise, church-related small groups tend to develop by life-stage boundaries. While some intragenerational sharing is healthy and supportive, often the younger members suffer the lack of perspective on their particular struggles. When church leadership encourages the formation of small groups (or life/connect groups) that transcend generational boundaries, they place older members in a position to be able to share their wisdom and experience but also to be loved and cared for by members whose skills can benefit them—for example, younger persons who will help an older church member set up and learn to use their email so they can communicate with their grandchildren.

Capturing the stories of our elders. When a church prioritizes inter-generational relationships, members naturally develop an interest in the unique life stories of their elders. Gifted—or even average—writers can be of invaluable service to families by recording memorable moments in the lives of various older church members. My uncle, a gifted and creative pastor, wrote numerous stories and poems for my grandparents about their childhood, courtship, and experiences in World War II. As a child I was mildly curious about this pastime and enjoyed the stories well enough, but the other day I stumbled on one of them tucked away in a children’s book my daughter had picked up. I had forgotten so much, and was incredibly thankful to have stories of these people I loved, people my daughter will never remember but whose legacy she can continue through hearing their stories.

I fear that many churches fail to take on such ministries because they don’t see an immediate “gospel impact” in them—where are the conversions and baptisms? But talking on such ministries sends a lived theology into the community: God cares for, and therefore we care for, individuals of all ages. God’s word gives a vision for the aging populations in our churches and communities, therefore we follow God even in this.

varnerOP.jpgEmily Varner worked extensively with A Vision for the Aging Church as a freelance editor and publicist for IVP Academic. Her business, AcademicPS, focuses on ministry books and academic texts from Christian publishers. She and her husband doug have a six-year old daughter and are also foster parents to a baby girl.

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 12:23 PM

November 11, 2011

The Lectionary: Giving the Narrative of Scripture Another Chance

By Todd Hunter

Having a sister and brother that are both almost a decade older than me, I’ve been hearing, since the 1960s, about the New Age. Of course I also heard a lot of hand-wringing preaching against it in the 70s and 80s. More recently, I’ve been hearing the related notion that “I am spiritual but not religious”.

I am not angry with these movements. I am actually glad to see that the spiritual side of humanity still gets some airtime in our culture. These movements, for all their errors when viewed against orthodox Christianity, have kept alive the notion that a purely secular worldview does not make sense of reality and is not fulfilling.

For all the energy and spiritual promise attached to these two sister movements, I think we could all easily recognize that there does not seem to be a tidal wave of goodness, a revival of righteousness or resurgence of morals happening in any sector of human living—including the church.

Why might this be the case? I don’t think it’s because the people creating designer religions are insincere. I don’t believe it is because they don’t work at their chosen approach to spirituality. I believe transformation is not happening for one crucial reason: these movements have, for the most part, cut them selves off from the text, the story, the only revelation that has the power to pull into alignment all the various aspects of our lives.

Seeking spiritually without the Bible leaves us like a musician without a score, an actor without a plot or lines of dialogue, like an athlete with no lines on the field to confirm what is inbounds or out. The Scriptures are the primary source material for spiritual formation in the way of Jesus. Our sacred text shows us what such formation looks like and the wider story in which it occurs—for instance, that God is main character, not us. This one insight would be enough to completely rearrange the thinking of the “spiritual but not religious” crowd.

When I began to give church another chance, one of the most cherished gifts given to me was the weekly reading of God’s story: Old Testament, a psalm, an epistle and a Gospel. Reading the Bible with the lectionary tells the whole story, the main plot lines of the Bible.

This was a big deal to me. I think it would be to others too if they could experience it. Here’s why: hearing the Bible as the overarching story that was supposed to make sense of the little story of my life broke the power of spirituality that was becoming too self-referential. Without the Bible all our spiritual work is about us. With the Bible it becomes about God, about others—and us only within that context.

The Bible has a special quality to it. It is alive and powerful. It reads us as much as we read it. It is not merely understandable. It is livable. Approaching the Bible in a read-to-be-lived manner, we find the source material missing from so many contemporary spiritualities. We find the only story with the authority, clout and ability to remake our heart, tame our unruly will, heal our misshapen soul, educate our mistaken mind and then place us into our various roles in society as spiritual in the Way of Jesus.

hunterOP.jpgBishop Todd D. Hunter (D.Min., George Fox University) leads Churches for the Sake of Others, a church-planting initiative of the Anglican Mission in the Americas. He is also a teacher, writer and consultant for his ministry, Society for Kingdom Living, which helps pastors and lay leaders reach a generation that has been disenfranchised from the church. He is the author of Giving Church Another Chance, The Accidental Anglican and Christianity Beyond Belief.

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 9:07 AM

July 19, 2011

On Being Practitioner Guides

by Mark Scandrette

practicingOP.jpgI wrote Practicing the Way of Jesus to address the gap so many of us feel between how we want to live and how we actually live as followers of Christ. As leaders and teachers we long to see people experience the freedom and vibrancy of life in the kingdom of God, and we wrestle with how to best help them become well-formed disciples.

I think one of our temptations is to think that we can lead people to become well-formed disciples by merely teaching about the vision of the kingdom or preaching the need for embodied spiritual disciplines. But you and I cannot lead people to a place we’ve never been ourselves. In the documents of the early church, a leader was someone who “spoke the word of God” and modeled a “way of life” (Hebrews 13:7). In a community of practice, the credibility of a leader is dependent on their lived experience in practicing the commands of Jesus. I’m convinced that to really guide people in the Way of Jesus, we must become the message we proclaim.

It was deeply revealing for me to recognize that my knowledge of the Bible, my experience as a pastor and even my seminary education did so little to prepare me to lead others to do the things that Jesus did and taught. In the reality of the kingdom our credibility doesn’t come from how well we perform publicly but from our lived experiences practicing and teaching the Way. Good leaders are committed learners. We can commit ourselves to being humble students who dare to follow the instructions of the Rabbi in the details of our own lives—by taking on practices that help us become people who live without worry, fear, lust or greed and walk in the forgiveness, power and love that our master promises.

To become leaders of practice we may need to renegotiate our contract of leadership— from service provider to practitioner guide. We can begin to see ourselves not just as hosts, caregivers or communicators, but also as initiators and coaches who invite people into shared acts of obedience. This implies a shift in expectation from “giving people what they want” to inviting them to trust us as master apprentices who will challenge, train and guide in a manner similar to someone teaching you how to cook or drive or plan a sport—less like a college lecture-hall professor and more like a karate dojo sensei.

Not everyone is ready to participate in shared experiments and practices, and people should be free to self-select into this dynamic. My friend Alex leads a medium-sized suburban church. When he first recognized the power of practice for spiritual formation, his first impulse was to try to get the entire congregation to buy in. He taught about the reality of God’s kingdom on Sunday mornings and challenged the whole congregation to do specific experiments he came up with. Most people either ignored his attempts or were frustrated by trying to act alone. Eventually Alex changed his approach.

First, he invited a few trusted friends into a shared experiment. Then he invited the congregation to sign up for a short-term small group called Praxis, which would explore shared practices. As people from the Praxis group began sharing stories of life change, the idea spread throughout the whole congregation. A good place to begin is to simply ask, “What is one thing we can each commit to do, as an experiment, between now and the next time we meet to practice the way of Jesus?”

scandretteOP.jpgMark A. Scandrette is the founding director of ReImagine, a spiritual formation center based in San Francisco. He has extensive experience providing leadership in churches and community-based organizations and has been a minister, writer and spiritual teacher for twenty years.

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 11:16 AM

July 8, 2011

Practical Theology Diversified

The communities in which our churches reside are becoming more diverse every day. Not just new families or young people, but more ethnicities, different languages and unique cultures. Mark Branson and Juan Martinez, authors of Churches, Cultures and Leadership, believe the Holy Spirit has called the church to embrace this new diversity, not just with community projects or special services, but as a practical theology of shared life:

“Moses left Egypt with a ‘mixed crowd,’ and the earliest followers of Jesus learned that the Holy Spirit was leading them to cross cultural borders. The scriptural narratives are loaded with references to the strangeness of strangers and the discomforts of participating in God’s love for the world. This book is about that strangeness, those discomforts. It is about God’s call on the church to love our neighbors, and we acknowledge that such love is a matter of grace and of work.

“Our focus is on churches in the United States and how we can be faithful to God’s call on our churches in this context. We live in a culturally diverse nation—and many of our cities and neighborhoods exhibit that cultural pluralism. Ethnic diversity is evident in the media, at shopping malls and in many schools. Such diversity is less evident in our churches, but it is growing. We wish to promote more attentiveness, wisdom and faithfulness concerning intercultural life in and among churches, and between churches and their neighbors.

“We have all been shaped in a historical context of prejudice and racism. We carry the influences of our environment in our minds and hearts; too often our actions, choices and words perpetuate ethnic biases. There are many prejudices, rooted in racism, built into our institutions. We believe that God’s love for the world is definitive in Jesus’ inauguration of God’s reign, and therefore we believe that the church’s identity and agency should be characterized by reconciliation. Such reconciliation, if it is defined and empowered by the gospel, must be personal, interpersonal, cultural and structural. When persons of different cultures share life, once we get beyond music and food, the complexities increase.

“We claim that ‘paying attention’ is important and difficult. Just as a competent painter, carpenter or teacher learns, over many years, how to attend&mdsh;how to train their senses and responses to their environment and their work—church leaders need to pay attention to cultural characteristics and the work of shaping intercultural life. And that is the purpose of our writing: to help men and women in our churches to see differently and to gain the skills and competencies needed for multicultural contexts. We want to encourage church leaders to create environments that make God’s reconciling initiatives apparent in church life and in our missional engagement with neighborhoods and cities.”

CCLOP.jpgExcerpt taken from Churches, Cultures and Leadership, an interdisciplinary approach that integrates biblical and theological study with the disciplines of sociology, cultural anthropology and communications, by Mark Lau Branson and Juan F. Martinez.

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 11:00 AM

June 10, 2011

A Golden Opportunity

By Lynne Baab

Media attention to the perils of Facebook and cell phone texting has created a wonderful opportunity for people in ministry to talk, teach and write about friendship. Friendship challenges in our time involve far more than the dangers of electronic communication, the favorite media topic.

3419OP.jpgIn the interviews I conducted for my recent book, Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual Age, I heard repeatedly about three friendship challenges: mobility, busyness and the challenges of the new communication technologies. Ironically, the third challenge—the new communication technologies—has arisen in part because these new ways to communicate help address the first two challenges. When we’ve moved across the state or across the world, Facebook, Skype, instant messaging and texting helps us keep in touch with friends. And when we’re super busy, some of those same technologies help stay in touch with friends. Yet those new ways to communicate create challenges of their own.

Because electronic communication is embedded in the lives of most people today, I wish Christian leaders would talk more about how to use them responsibly and with love. Here are a few recommendations:

(1) Create opportunities to discuss the love passages in the Bible, such as 1 Corinthians 13 or Colossians 3:12-17. Ask people how they feel they are showing love, compassion and kindness using the new ways to communicate. Most people have lots to say about the way they show love on Facebook or in text messages, but they are afraid to talk about it because they hear so much negative talk about new communication technologies. Let people learn from each other about the ways love can be shown online and with cell phones.

(2) Encourage people to slow down when online or when texting, to think before posting flippant comments or to pray about a friend’s needs before leaving their status update on Facebook or before closing their text message on the phone. Love matters, and love requires time.

(3) Encourage a multiplicity of ways to communicate. Recently my husband posted on Facebook that his sister had died. The next day one of his Facebook friends showed up at the door with two big candy bars in hand. She was walking her dog, so there was no expectation that she would come in and talk, but she wanted to express her support.

Online and cell phone communication are part of daily life for most people today. Rather than telling people to turn off their electronic machines, help them grow in their ability to show love using them. In addition, encourage people to mix it up, to communicate online and through phone calls, written cards, a walk across the street or across the hall for a conversation. Sometimes the best way to show love involves switching to another mode of communication.

Friendship is one of the places where we learn Christian character. All the hype about Facebook has given us a golden opportunity to deepen our teaching about how to reflect Jesus’ love in friendships.

BaabOP.jpgLynne M. Baab’s most recent book, Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World, has received strong endorsements and reviews. Lynne is the author of numerous books, including Sabbath Keeping and Reaching Out in a Networked World. Visit her website, www.lynnebaab.com, for reviews and other information about her books. She is a Presbyterian Church (USA) minister with a Ph.D. in communication from the University of Washington, currently a lecturer in pastoral theology in Dunedin, New Zealand.

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 10:10 AM

January 1, 2010

The Church in Exile

We live in a spiritual society. Bookstore shelves are lined with books on God, angels, the afterlife and spiritual self-help from every conceivable perspective. The evidence of a growing spiritual hunger is overwhelming, but as the sales of books on spirituality increases, attendance in churches is declining. Many Americans now profess to be “spiritual but not religious”—which is not a rejection of God altogether but a rejection of the God manifested by institutional church. It is the God revealed in the lives of Christians that is so distasteful to those seeking spiritual truth. The American church has entered a cultural, moral and intellectual exile. The outside world rejects the church and its teachings because it believes the church has nothing to offer.

Our exile is analogous to Israel’s experience of exile in the fifth century B.C. God had judged Israel because of their idolatry, injustice and ritualism—in short, they had failed to love God with all their hearts and their neighbors as themselves. By the time of Nehemiah the people of God had been living in exile for a hundred years, Jerusalem lay in ruin and the Jews bore the communal weight of guilt and shame. Israel had become a laughing stock, the object of guilt and shame. Abraham’s children, who were to be a blessing to the entire world, were scattered throughout the Persian Empire, and Nehemiah understood this exile as the consequences of Israel’s sin (Neh 1:4-11).

Christians have been exiled from the cultural, moral and intellectual center of our society. With every article detailing the moral failure of a Christian leader, new accounts of priestly impropriety, lawsuits over church property or Christians amassing fortunes in the midst of poverty, we grow increasingly irrelevant. This irrelevance is not the result of the church’s inability to keep up with contemporary musical tastes or its insistence on traditional theology. Our exile is the consequence of our failure to live out our vocation: making disciples. This vocation is more than convincing people to pray the sinner’s prayer or apply for church membership; it is the process by which we help people discover the new life made available in God’s kingdom.

Disciples of Christ are not defined primarily by what they believe but by who they are—or perhaps more correctly, whose they are. But when the outside world looks at the church, they do not see people living changed lives marked by love and holiness. They see a group of people living defeated lives of compromise, desperately trying to convince the world they have all the answers. We must accept that the only proof for the truth of the resurrection is a life changed by the grace of God.

Nehemiah was called to unite God’s people and rebuild Jerusalem’s walls, fulfilling God’s promise of restoration. So how do we begin “rebuilding the walls” of integrity and trust? It would be tempting to begin by rethinking how we structure our churches—casting a new vision for what a community of believers should be, but Nehemiah knew that the first step is repentance (Neh 1:4-12). We must confess our sin, not just our private sins but also our corporate sin. The sin of the one is the sin of all—we learn that lesson all too clearly from Achan and his family (Josh 7). This is a slap in the face of Western individuality, but it is absolutely crucial for a genuine understanding of community.

Of course, our job doesn’t end with confession; it is only the first step. We must prepare ourselves for the long journey ahead. So grab your hammer. We’ve got work to do.

Posted by Lee Cook at 9:02 AM

March 1, 2009

The iPodization of Our Culture

Being a pastor, I am deeply concerned with the church’s interaction with culture, especially as it affects evangelism. Postmodern culture is supposed to be marked by a profound urge for community. The longing community is supposed to be a determining factor as to who postmoderns are and how they relate to each other. Social scientists point to the proliferation of chat rooms and online forums as evidence of this communal longing.

iPodization

Yet, I am noticing a chink in the armor of this component of postmodernism. I am beginning to sense that people today are afraid of community. Postmodernity does not seem to foster an interest in being in community at all. There is a contemporary distancing from others that some are terming the “iPodization” of our culture.

I work out at least five days a week at the Lexington Athletic Club. iPods are ubiquitous there. Every jogger, biker, elipticalite, weight trainee—virtually everyone—has an iPod strapped to their arms and ear buds plugged into their heads. While they are exercising in the same room, they are working out in different worlds. One is grooving to Dave Brubeck. Another is headbanging with Haste the Day. Still another is praising the Lord with the Dave Crowder band. No one talks to anyone else. No one even looks at anyone else, not even a casual glance. I could get more personal interaction on a New York subway! We see the same thing at public gatherings or on the streets of any major city. People walking along, white buds stuck in their ears. They are in their own little iPod worlds. Is this what we mean by community?

Doing It My Way

When you check out at the grocery store, do you hunt for the friendliest checkout clerk, or the shortest line? Or do you go to the even “friendlier” U Scan station? That’s right. You buy the groceries and you check out yourself. U scan, U bag, and U pay. You don’t have to talk with anyone, unless some produce you bought doesn’t have the magic numbers attached. When that happens, a computer voice tells you to wait for a cashier. Who waits? I just put the produce aside. I didn’t need it anyway. (I’m not alone. I’ve watched others at the U Scan stations do the same.) What kind of community does U Scan create? I think postmoderns don’t like each other.

How about the ubiquitous ATMs. We don’t have to talk to a teller anymore. What about “Pay at the Pump”? We don’t have to interact with the gas station attendant. It’s starting to sound like solitary confinement. Hey, for some postmoderns, perhaps that’s really what they’re seeking.

In his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), Robert Putnam shows how we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends and our neighbors.

Here’s an online description of the book:

“Putnam warns that our stock of social capital—the very fabric of our connections with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities. Putnam draws on evidence [showing] that we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. We’re even bowling alone.”

So what does all of this mean for our culture? What does all of this mean for the church? These questions need to be asked and discussed. But perhaps you don’t want to talk? Then turn up your iPod!

Posted by Craig Loscalzo at 10:33 AM