Sunday, September 09, 2007

Time for What is Important

For the first time I attended the Dads-N-Lads retreat at Nebraska Youth Camp. It was a lot of fun and good, clean, quality time to spend with the boys. It dawned on my just how limited my time is with my boys. The oldest will be graduating from High School soon, and the others will not be far behind him. They asked me last year to take them, but I was "too busy." For the life of me, I cannot remember what was so all-fired important that I couldn't take my boys to a father-son retreat. There are a lot of things that seem "important" now, but who is going to care a year from now? On the other hand, we will remember this weekend for a lifetime. There were several firsts for us, such as paintball.

"As Iron Sharpens Iron." That was the theme. Fathers sharpen sons, and yes, sons can even sharpen fathers. So much personal, emotional, and spiritual growth comes through raising sons. No wonder the Psalmist writes concerning sons, "Blessed is he who has a quiver full of them."

Nothing can take the place of "quantity time" together. I have heard people say, "Even though we can't have quantity time together, we still have quality time together and that is what counts." That seems to be a bunch of hogwash. When I go rent a go cart in go cart races with my boys, we want as much time as possible. If all we get is 10 seconds of "quality" racing time, we feel like we have been ripped off. We want the full 15 minutes of race time. Why would it be any different with time spent together with the ones you care about?

The passage from Deuteronomy six about passing your faith on to your kids assumes both quality and quantity time:

"These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up" (Dt 6:6-7).

This tells me that I need to be a prevailing presence in the lives of my boys. Isn't my Heavenly Father a prevailing presence in my own life? I do not think that He gets so busy that he doesn't have time for me. There are so many other things he could attend to that are larger than I am. Yet he blesses me every day with His nearness. God Almighty, my Father. What a model for me to follow! There are many big, important things I could do. Perhaps the biggest is the smallest -- like my three boys.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Preacher's Book Club - Raising the Level of Conversation

A couple of months ago, one of my brethren in the congregation where I currently serve noted that I had a lot of insight that comes from the graduate classes I periodically take and the books that I read. While not everyone can take graduate classes in ministry or theology, anyone can make the time to read a good book. He suggested that I start a reading group or book club so more in the congregation can digest the wisdom, insights, and experience of authors who distill it into a book to share with others who do not have the privilege of physically being with them.

What a marvelous idea! It occurs to me that leaders, ministers, preachers, and people who do a lot of reading could turn their reading into a more effective ministry by reading a book alongside others and processing it together. That is one of the components involved in several of the graduate classes that I have taken.

Having never been a part of a reading group or book club of this nature, I did a little investigating on how to put together a reading group and what would be involved. I found that many reading groups focus on fictional literary works rather than non-fiction or theology, but I finally found some help in how to organize. It is not all that complicated.

Then it dawned on me that the Internet could cast the net wider. Incorporating things such as email or a blog would enable those who lived in other parts of the country to participate in a discussion online.
Since I already had a web site, it would be easy to add a "Preacher's Book Club" section and start a blog. I obtained a new sub domain at: for the Preacher's Book club and am now looking forward to raising the level of conversation not only among members of the congregation where I currently serve, but also of other people around the country.

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Theological and Practical Reality of Christian Fellowship

I have been doing some reflection about the nature of Christian fellowship and implications regarding occasions when brethren do not get along, act in an immature way, offend each other, or are self-centered.

Theological Foundation

The theological reality, according to Ephesians 2, is that God has formed the church with each of us as an integral part. Each of us are an important part of the body. Each of us are living stones in God's house. Ephesians 4 stresses that we are "one" body and therefore need to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Thus, our relationship to God is tied to our relationship with each other. That is why Paul makes the point in 1 Corinthians 12 that no parts of the body can say to other parts, "I have no need of you (1 Cor 12:21)," or "Since I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body (1 Cor 12:15)." Regardless of how anyone sees themselves, by God's design, they are a part of the body. Therefore, when we feed, clothe, visit in prison, and care for the "least of these brothers of mine (Matt 25:40)," we are doing it for Christ because they are a part of the body of Christ. This is why Jesus instructs us to go and be right with our brother before coming to worship God (Mt 5:23-24).

Based on this theological truth, Jesus instructs us to reconcile with our brother if he sins against us (Mt 18:15)[1]. If he doesn't listen, you involve a brother or two, and eventually the whole church. If there is no change, then fellowship is to be withdrawn. What this demonstrates is that fellowship between brethren is tied to fellowship with God. Fellowship severed from your faithful brother is severed fellowship from God and vice versa. You cannot be right with God and wrong with your brother, and you cannot be wrong with God and right with your brother.

Practical Implications

What then, are the practical implications of all of this when brethren are angry with each other, when they distance themselves, when they back bite, offend, or leave the family in a huff? It is tempting to sometimes say "good riddance," especially when the one who leaves is a factious brother. In that case, there should have been discipline exercised in order to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. That is why Paul urged the Roman Christians to reject a factious man after a first and second warning.

As I reflect on this, I remember brethren in the congregation where I grew up quoting passages of scripture in support of getting rid of people they didn't like (such as 1 Cor 11:19 stating that there MUST be divisions in the church), to passages to bash the church for not doing more to keep the sheep from being scattered (such as Mt 5:23-24 - saying this was only a one way responsibility, a brother goes to another if that brother has something against him, but when it is the other way around, going to the brother is not required). As I look back, I realize they were proof-texting and disregarding the overall theological picture of what fellowship was about in the interest of their own agenda. I too, have been tempted to do the same thing. It is too easy to ignore problems in fellowship because it is not always a pleasant thing to deal with.

The fact that fellowship between God, my brother, and myself are intertwined means that there is a mutual responsibility. God gave of himself sacrificially to provide the means for fellowship, but he does not force us to come to him. Coming to him is our responsibility. In the same manner, there is a mutual responsibility we have toward one another. We should give of ourselves to each other sacrificially in the interest of preserving the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. But like God, we cannot force our brother to do so. That is our own personal responsibility. In other words, there is a mutuality of responsibility in maintaining, strengthening, and preserving Christian fellowship. The numerous "one-another" passages demonstrate this mutual responsibility. It is not a one-way street.

Our practice should reflect our theology. Our connection to each other is based on the redeeming work of God and his acceptance of us into his kingdom. It is not based on whether we "like" what is going on the church. Nor is it based on 100% agreement on every detail of doctrine, but on God's acceptance (Rom 14:1-6). If God accepts someone, then naturally we are to accept them as well (Rom 15:7), or we will find ourselves putting a filter in place God has not.

We should never be so quick to write brethren off, even if they are hard to get along with or we disagree with them on something. If someone is upset, there is a mandate for both of us to work through it. If someone is being hurtful, mean, or ungodly, it jeopardizes the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is a mandate to work through it. Preserving fellowship is so important, that in the case of someone who continues to be factious, fellowship is to be withdrawn. If someone is distant, there needs to at least be some sort of effort to mutually confront this problem and remedy it. If someone leaves in a huff, there is still a mandate to at least attempt to work through it. This is preserving the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. However, we cannot force them to stay or to reconcile. They will give an account of themselves to God (Rom 15:12), not of us. This is why Jesus did not spend an inordinate amount of time with the uncommitted. When people who had been following him no longer followed him, they were free to go (Jn 6:66). He asked his disciples if they were going away too. They had a choice, go or stay. This was not a time to straddle the fence.

Keeping all of this in mind, it would seem that the following considerations would help to put "feet" in the theology of fellowship:
1. Each member is to take the initiative to be connected to the body
2. There should be teaching of the theological basis of fellowship and the inherent responsibility each person has in it. It is not optional.
3. A self assessment tool should be used to assess understandings, attitudes, and practices regarding fellowship
4. Leaders and members should work to strengthen the weak links in the body
5. Leaders and members need to recognize that expressions of fellowship have a functional aspect. We are incorporated by God in the body as a body part with a function. Expressing Christian fellowship is fulfilling the function, not individually, but as a part of the body in order to carry out God's mission.
6. Leaders and members should candidly work through various scenarios involving challenges to fellowship and apply the theology of fellowship in working through solutions.
7. When one becomes a member of the congregation, an introduction to the responsibilities involved with fellowship should be part of the incorporation process. It is not optional.

This helps to get out in front of fellowship challenges and to be proactive in promoting fellowship. It is a mutual practice. It will not suffice to point a finger at other brethren and blame them for the lack of your own fellowship if you have made no effort to strengthen the bonds with your brethren. At the same time, it does not suffice to be distant simply because you may not feel an overwhelming need to have a connection with the brethren. Fellowship is not optional.

Fellowship is an integral piece in the missional purposes of God. With a healthy and vibrant fellowship, the energies of the church can be focused on mission rather than refereeing. It would be difficult if not impossible to carry out God's missional purposes with an ailing fellowship.

[1] Some manuscripts add "against you" in this verse, making it more personal.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Examine Yourselves

"Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you--unless indeed you fail the test?" (2 Cor 13:5).

"But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good" (1 Thess 5:21).

It is no secret that God wants us to examine ourselves. I remember growing up and hearing messages from the pulpit that reminded us we need to examine ourselves. Everyone nodded in agreement. I assume that most of the people that were present did just that; they examined themselves.

We live in a culture defined by among other things individualism. Due to this individualism, I, like many others in the congregation, had applied this to myself individually. I am responsible for myself, and therefore I needed to examine myself and only myself. I did not believe that there was anything more to it than this.

However, we collectively have been brought together as the body of Christ. Once we were not a people, but now we are the people of God (1 Pet 2:10). This means that we are a family, a community, and a body. Collectively, we pool our resources to carry out God's mission.

From the very beginning when God formed his people, he formed not a bunch of individuals, but a collective. As a result, there was a collective and communal responsibility among the people of God, such as the defeat of the people at Ai due to Achan's sin at Jericho (Josh 7:1-24). In our western individualism, such a thought is completely foreign to us. Yet there were also times of national examination, reflection, and repentance as well, such as the rainy day everyone came to the city square to repent in Jerusalem (Ez 10:9). Not every individual was guilty, but every individual was connected. So it appears that examining ourselves is not just an individual responsibility, but a communal one as well.

There is an example of this communal, heart-felt, authentic national repentance during the days of Hezekiah.

"They stood at their stations after their custom, according to the law of Moses the man of God; the priests sprinkled the blood which they received from the hand of the Levites. For there were many in the assembly who had not consecrated themselves; therefore, the Levites were over the slaughter of the Passover lambs for everyone who was unclean, in order to consecrate them to the LORD. For a multitude of the people, even many from Ephraim and Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulun, had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover otherwise than prescribed. For Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, 'May the good LORD pardon everyone who prepares his heart to seek God, the LORD God of his fathers, though not according to the purification rules of the sanctuary.' So the LORD heard Hezekiah and healed the people. The sons of Israel present in Jerusalem celebrated the Feast of Unleavened Bread for seven days with great joy, and the Levites and the priests praised the LORD day after day with loud instruments to the LORD. Then Hezekiah spoke encouragingly to all the Levites who showed good insight in the things of the LORD. So they ate for the appointed seven days, sacrificing peace offerings and giving thanks to the LORD God of their fathers. Then the whole assembly decided to celebrate the feast another seven days, so they celebrated the seven days with joy" (2 Chr 16-23).

What a joyful time that must have been! Honest, reflective, communal self-examination not only pleases God, but it leads to joy as well. It is a positive process.

So why is it so difficult? Rarely does a congregation reflect in communal self-reflection and examination. It is perhaps more rare than individual self-examination. Instead of true self-examination, many people in the pews seem more content to engage in Bible classes where the goal is to amass more knowledge. What about putting what knowledge to use? What about responding and acting on what comes out of Bible study? That usually does not really happen. Expectations are usually very low in the traditional Bible class. Part of the shortcoming with the typical format of Bible classes is that they remain in the realm of theory. Unlike Jesus who spent more time on practice than theory when training his disciples, Bible classes usually remain comfortably in the theory stage. Many congregations do not intentionally move beyond this.

It occurs to me that perhaps some of the reasons why people balk on communal self-examination are the same reasons people balk at individual self-examination. If there is a skeleton in the closet, issues that have not fully been dealt with, emotional scars, and things of this nature, self-examination can be painful. Even though self-examination can result not only in freedom, but also personal growth, many people prefer to stay where they are at emotionally. Is it possible that a congregation can suffer from the same things? Perhaps it is. Perhaps self-examination seems too painful and too threatening.

What makes a sound and healthy congregation is not merely that it is committed to the Bible. It is about a church that practices God's will. Jesus clearly said that not everyone who says Lord, Lord would enter the kingdom (Mt 7:21). Only those who do the will of the Father will enter the kingdom. Kingdom living is not just about believing, but about doing. Cerebral faith is no faith at all. It is useless and vain. Churches defined by cerebral faith are useless and vain as well. Ouch! Yes, self-examination can be uncomfortable. But with God's grace, we can have the grace to engage in honest reflection. The kingdom is a safe place where hurt people do not get re-hurt.

Congregational self-reflection is a much needed, God-honoring, God-mandated process. It is something that takes time, patience, honesty, humility, and especially prayer. Self-centeredness, fear, and pride get in the way of self-reflection.

Every activity, program, and physical item needs to be evaluated in light of God's mission and how it serves that mission. We should not be afraid of where it may take us. God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love and self-discipline (2 Tim 1:7). So if self-evaluation suggests that a program, tradition, or practice no longer meets God's mission, commitment and allegiance to God dictates it be discarded without fear. Change is not a bad word. Self-reflection and examination go along with change. One of the key words that New Testament writers use is metanoia. It is usually translated "repentance," but it means change or retraction.

God calls us to examine ourselves as a people. Therefore we need not fear where that will take us.

Monday, May 21, 2007

A Renewed Gospel

Jesus came to "save" people. It seems quite natural to understand this as saving us "from" our sins. Everyone is lost and doomed to spend eternity in Hell, therefore Jesus came to "save" us by dying on the cross for our sins. I had heard this for so long that anything else seemed unnatural. What more could there be than this?

I have recently discovered something interesting. The language that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John use for Jesus healing is not always therapeuo or iaomai. These two words both mean to "heal" or to "cure." Often times, the Gospels will use these words to refer to the healings that Jesus performed. However, the Gospels also use the word, sozo, "to save," for the healings and miracles of Christ. (Mt 9:21-22; Mk 3:4; Mk 5:23, 28, 34; 6:56; 10:52; Lk 6:9; 7:50; 8:36, 48, 50; 17:19; 18:42; Jn 11:12; Acts 4:9; 14:9)! Some English Bibles render this verb "made whole, made well, healed," or something like that, which obscures that this is the same word, "save." Here are some examples:

"… for she was saying to herself, 'If I only touch His garment, I will get well.' But Jesus turning and seeing her said, 'Daughter, take courage; your faith has made you well (Greek: from sozo, 'saved you').' At once the woman was made well" (Mk 9:21-22).

"And answering him, Jesus said, 'What do you want Me to do for you?' And the blind man said to Him, 'Rabboni, I want to regain my sight!' And Jesus said to him, 'Go; your faith has made you well (Greek: from sozo, 'saved you').' Immediately he regained his sight and began following Him on the road" (Mk 10:51-52).

"When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they ran away and reported it in the city and out in the country. The people went out to see what had happened; and they came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting down at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind; and they became frightened. Those who had seen it reported to them how the man who was demon-possessed had been made well (Greek: from sozo, 'been saved')" (Lk 8:34-36).

The passage could have said "you are healed," using one of the Greek words for healing or cure, rather than a word that means, "to save." This suggests that saving someone from sin or physical ailment was part of the same package. There was no tension between the two. Jesus did not come merely to deal with what will happen to us after we die. He was not merely interested in our souls as a disembodied entity separate from our bodies. He was interested in us as a whole person.

The way Jesus conducts his ministry from the very beginning seems to bear this out. When Jesus first announces that the Kingdom was near in both Matthew and Mark, he begins an assault on evil, sickness, demon oppression, religious oppression, and everything related to sin and oppression.

In Matthew, Jesus begins his ministry preaching that the Kingdom of Heaven was near and began preaching the Gospel, or "good news" of the Kingdom (Mt 4:17). Then he calls his first disciples and begins an all out assault on oppression from sickness, disease, and demonization (Mt 4:23-25). He continued his assault, even attacking religious oppression at the hands of people such as the Pharisees. One thing that often goes unnoticed in this passage is that his ministry also included gentiles.

Mark follows the same pattern. Jesus begins by announcing that the Kingdom of God was near and that people must repent and believe the Gospel, or "good news (Mk 1:14-15)." For the next several chapters, he begins an assault on the oppressive strongholds by healing the sick, casting out demons, and befriending tax collectors and sinners, people whom the religious elite saw as unfit for the kingdom.

In Luke's account Jesus begins his ministry with a quotation from Isaiah 61.

"And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written, THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED, TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD" (Lk 4:16-19).

Jesus begins to do this after he leaves the synagogue that day. He engages in ministries of compassion by healing and befriending hurting and broken people. He brought freedom, dignity, hope, and joy to those who had been oppressed and downcast.

He was anointed not only to announce the good news to the poor, but also to free the captives and the oppressed, which he begins to do after leaving the synagogue that day. Jesus preaches the "Good News of the Kingdom" with ministries of compassion, healing the sick and the demonized, feeding hungry people, touching the outcasts, and getting involved in the lives of the marginalized. The purposes of his miracles appear to be much more than merely confirming his message. He could have done wondrous feats, such as making the temple disappear and reappear, but he didn't. He was demonstrating what the Good News of the Reign of God was all about. God was bringing wholeness to broken people. His holistic ministry incorporated a fractured people into a beautiful patchwork that he called the body of Christ. Jesus establishes a group of disparate people that are fiercely devoted to each other out of their devotion to God. This is why some pagans made comments about the church such as, "see how the love each other" or "there is not a beggar among them" or "they along know the right way to live." This is a testimony to the healing, compassionate, holistic ministry of Christ.

This ministry does not end with Jesus. He commissions the 12, and latter 70 to do what he had been demonstrating. In Luke 9, Jesus commissions the twelve to go out with healing ministries, proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Later, in Luke 10, he commissions seventy people to go out and do the same. The central message was the Kingdom of God. It is in the kingdom where there are no beggars. It is in the kingdom where there is healing. It is in the kingdom where wholeness can be found. In the end, Jesus sends out his disciples into the entire world to do as he has done (Mt 28:19-20), to engage people with the Gospel (Mark 16:15), which will involve ministries of compassion. Of course, the model for how this is to be done is found in ministry as Jesus demonstrated it. Jesus was training his disciples and leaving us a model to follow. This is why he says, "As the father has sent me, so also I send you (Jn 20:21). Jesus is our model.

This demonstrates that there is a clear social dimension to the Gospel. In years past, the term "Social Gospel" has received criticism from evangelicals. Some of the criticism of is warranted, especially in the cases where social concern is not rooted in the character and mission of God. However, this does not mean that God is not socially conscious. It does not mean that God is not concerned about the poor, the outcasts, the marginalized, and the oppressed. Jesus confronted oppressive powers and principalities not with a worldly revolution of power and coercion, but with a revolution of the heart. An apt image as to how Christianity confronts the world is the image of leaven (Mt 13:33). Jesus said the Kingdom of Heaven is like leaven. It is hidden in the dough and works from the inside out. As kingdom people, are to be engaged so that we can be that leavening influence.

The Good News of the Kingdom is proclaimed not merely by profession, but by practice. It is to do as Jesus did, and get involved. It is to walk as he walked, and be willing to get our hands dirty. It is to act as he acted, and be willing to take risks. Jesus does not call us to something "safe." He made in clear in Luke 10 that we are sent as sheep in the midst of wolves. But the image of the slain lamb that rose from the dead and was exalted in Revelation 4-5 gives us strength, because in God's kingdom, sheep are stronger than the wolves and are victorious.

As Jesus was engaged, so to the church, the Body of Christ must be engaged as leaven with ministries of compassion, proclaiming the Gospel both in words and in practice, which gives credibility to our message.

From the wall of the Children’s Home in Calcutta of the Missionaries of Charity,
the Order of Mother Teresa

People are unreasonable, illogical and self-centred

Love them anyway

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives

Do good anyway

If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies

Succeed anyway

The good you do will be forgotten tomorrow

Do good anyway

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable

Be honest and frank anyway

What you spent years building may be destroyed overnight

Build anyway

People really need help but may attack you if you help them

Help people anyway

Give the world the best you have
and you’ll get kicked in the teeth
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

On Principalities and the Spirit of the Age: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Caring Ministries

"In our day and time it is the language of the market that governs the way of the world in Paul's sense of that term. The vocabulary of commerce and the syntax of consumption not only distort our relationship with God and thus with each other, they also miscast the church in the role of retail vendor, trading in spiritual goods and services. Thus the market conforms the member's of Christ's body to its ways precisely at the point where the risen Lord summons them to be transformed." [1]

As I read and ponder this quotation, I am reminded just how subtle culture is. Unless we are on the outside looking into our culture, values and assumptions of the culture will usually go unnoticed. I used to be disturbed by some of the language I used to read in evangelism material and in church growth literature of the 1980's. I had trouble articulating why it bothered me so much, it didn't seem quite right. Terms such as "marketing" the church or "closing the study" or finding "prospects" to have an evangelistic Bible study with all sounded too similar to what salesmen who came to my door did. It had a sales and business feel to it. What could be wrong with that? I remember hearing preachers say we need to learn from the business world. Many businessmen built successful organizations and there is much we can learn from this.

I agree that there are things we can learn from outsiders. However, it can become a problem when kingdom people who are not of this realm uncritically adopt methods and ways of doing things their cultural context. The fundamental problem lies in the values, assumptions, and worldview that underlie the structures and activities that exist in the culture.

The underlying values and assumptions in our culture are connected to individualism and consumerism.

Americans are often called "consumers." We no longer consume to live, but live to consume. Our culture seems to accept this as the way things are without questioning it.

Individualism assumes that people are basically autonomous. The focus in life is on self-actualization or personal fulfillment. Therefore, people will look for ways to improve their lives, raise their self-esteem, and find some sort of meaning in life. This should result in happiness and fulfillment.

On the surface, there seems to be nothing really wrong with any of this. However, it is very self-centered. It seems that individualism and consumerism can have a tendency to turn everything into a commodity, even human relationships and God!

Since the Kingdom of God is not of this realm, then it seems that kingdom people would cease to be kingdom people if they buy into individualism and consumerism. Rather than seeing themselves as part of God's church and inherently as agents of God's mission to engage the world selflessly, Christians may see the church as a place to "meet their needs, whether it is esteem needs, physical needs, or self-actualization. The church becomes the vendor and the people become the consumers. The church becomes an institution to attract people to their products and services, and the people become a means to build the organization.

If this is the paradigm, it is any wonder that many people cannot find happiness even in church? Some "shop around" for churches, until they find the one that suits their needs. A particular church may have better social activities. It might have a better children's program. It may have better singing, or more interesting preaching. And the list goes on and on. As consumers, some church members begin to look to other sources that provide similar services for them to consume. Sometimes it may be a civic organization, a club, or something else. As a vendor, the church works to satisfy its customers. It tries to compete with other churches or organizations. The church as a vendor has a hard time competing in the market with other organizations that provide better entertainment, a wider array of social activities, and greater expertise at what they do.

Is it any wonder that the Church Growth phase is now shriveling? Fuller Theological Seminary, once known for its education in Church Growth principles, has recognized many of the shortcomings in the Church Growth movement and has been transitioning to what people are calling a "Missional" model. Many folks like those at Fuller have recognized the weaknesses of the Church Growth model in our changing culture. The success stories associated with the Church Growth model obscured some of its theological shortcomings that stemmed from a blending of some of the underlying assumptions of the times with Christian faith. But that is another story.

I reflect on all of this as a reminder of the pitfalls of engaging the people around us. We want to meet their needs in the way Christ did, not in the way our consumerist culture does. Our mission is not to vend spiritual goods and services, but to engage the hurting and the broken with the holistic good news of Christ, and invite them into the Reign of God. We do not invite them to become customers or consumers, but to be formed into the image of Christ. It is not really about self-actualization. In fact, the whole concept of self-actualization is a fallacy. Theologically, there is only "God-Actualization," if you can call it that. God-Actualization comes not from individualism, but from communion. It doesn't come from consuming, but from giving. It comes from transformation into the image of Christ and participating in his mission from the same motive and heart as God.

I think that if I understand this, then I will be able to do what I can for the sake of the mission of Christ, for the kingdom without worrying about if it benefits my particular congregations directly. I will not be disheartened when I expend energies and resources to help people and there appears to be little "success." I can be free from high-pressure tactics of evangelism and love people in the way Christ did. I can recognize that being socially conscious and being faithful to the Gospel of the kingdom go hand in hand. Perhaps we would eventually be able to shed the opinion by outsiders that all we are interested is "getting me into your church," and that like God, we are interested in them personally. I believe that understanding God's heart and how it is in conflict with the spirit of the age, I can be free to love authentically and have a credible witness.


[1] James V. Brownson and others, StormFront: The Good News of God, The Gospel and Our Culture Series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 29.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Church and Culture

Note: This might be unsettling, so before you read on, please understand this is part of my journey of faith, and you many not see or understand the spirit of our age and its affect on us in the same way I do. I am so thankful that God is a gracious God and does not require perfect understanding, but faithfulness. I love my Lord, and I love the church that he love so much that he died for. This is not meant to be conclusive, but I share it here to spark introspection and discussion about what is happening among us.

Nearly all sociologists agree that the Western world is in the midst of a huge cultural shift that began over four decades ago. Just as there was a huge cultural shift two hundred years ago with the enlightenment which in part fueled many revival movements, six hundred years ago with the Renaissance which in part fueled the reformation, and sixteen hundred years ago with the Constantinian system which gave rise to "Christendom," so we are now undergoing another shift. No one quite knows what the next shift will look like in years to come.

The interesting thing is that these shifts enable us to look with a more critical eye with the strengths and weaknesses of the previous paradigms and cultural assumptions. While Christians in the west are still affected by the Christendom and Reformation paradigms, the most recent Enlightenment paradigms has had the most profound effect. In fact, it was the enlightenment paradigm that produced the greatest amount of division among churches in the United States. This was far from the intent of many of the religious leaders of the 18th and 19th centuries. The goal was unity of the Christian church. The enlightenment led to a thought in the west that there was a scientific methodological solution to everything. We only had to investigate and test all the available data to improve the human condition. There was a very positive feeling in the air that gave the West a feeling of destiny and progress. This affected the church deeply. The same scientific mindset was applied to Christianity. Since scientific truth was deemed to be objective and true, what was needed was a scientific study of the scriptures to produce an objective truth to which all Christians could subscribe to, thereby producing unity. The Bible became more of an object to be analyzed and dissected. If rational logic and science produced advances in other disciplines, it was thought that the same would apply in Biblical studies. Not only would enlightenment ways of thinking with its rational thought, logic, and scientific outlook improve the human condition, it promised to improve the religious condition as well. The assumption that humans were capable of much led to little need for the power of the Spirit or of grace. The inherent sinfulness of man and the need for grace and faith that dominated reformation thought melted away in the enlightenment years. Many Christians believed that their effort to improve the human condition and religious condition was going to usher in the millennial reign of God. Many today call this "post-millennialism," which dominated most religious movements, including churches of Christ. This belief was heavily affected, like so many others, by the spirit of the age. Due to the civil war and two world wars, we don't hear much about post-millennialism any more. It has given way to the more pessimistic pre-millennialism, which believes things will get worse rather than better, as post-millennial thought did.

In part, the project failed. Instead of unity, more division resulted. Various religious groups used the same scientific, objective mindset in approaching the scriptures and believed they found a blueprint for true Christianity and for the church. Some codified them in the form of creedal statements and "confessions of faith," others merely propagated them in journals, which many people regarded as almost authoritative. There arose a certain dogmatism among many religious groups. They arrived at their "truth" using commonly accepted methods, yet not everyone arrived at the same conclusions. The result was that many churches began to emphasize aspects of them that were different than everyone else. In other words, they defined themselves in terms of other churches whom they deemed as incorrect, or even apostate. Their focus was on their distinctiveness in relation to other churches rather than in relation to the Bible or of the world at large. In all of this, there was not a big push for missions or evangelism. The revivals of this period were in part a reaction to all of this. The church began more and more fragmented. Using the same framework, how could so many come up with various conclusions?

This highlights some of the shortcomings of human reason, rationality, and the scientific method. Perhaps this is not the way God intended for us to read the Bible. Perhaps the word is supposed to analyze and dissect us rather than the other way around. Perhaps we need to read and meditate rather than merely scrutinize and analyze. Is it up to us to find the key or method in order to understand the Bible? Is it only by our intelligence and enlightened minds that we can apply the "correct" hermeneutic and interpretive principles or have the message of the Bible shut out to us? It is interesting that indigenous cross-cultural churches that have not been indoctrinated with western Christianity do not treat the Bible the same way many westerners do.

All of this can understandably and rightly be very unsettling. This is talking about seeing things in a much different way than we are accustomed to. But this is nothing new. Remember how people reacted when they heard the contention that the universe does not revolve around the earth, but that the earth revolves around the sun? Or how people reacted with the contention that the world was round and not flat? The list can go on and on. Some of the same dynamic is at work. Our paradigm is shifting. As a result, the way we read scripture, how we apply it, and the way that will look is also changing. Many are beginning to realize that the message is not an impersonal blueprint, but the message is a person, Jesus Christ. God didn't endeavor merely to give more scripture, but to produce a human model in Christ. He himself IS the message.

Wouldn't this destroy the church? Will it to lead to further fragmentation and division? Not if we understand the nature of Christian unity. Unity is not based on 100% agreement on all points of doctrine (Rom 14). In fact, you can have different convictions on some things and still be unified according to what Paul says in Romans 14. Paul never emphasizes who is right and who is wrong in Romans 14 because that was not his purpose. His purpose was to unite the church in the love of Christ. In fact, Paul explicitly states that when a person is true to his convictions to the Lord, the Lord accepts him, and we have no right to condemn him who the Lord has accepted. We need to understand that unity is first and foremost the work of God (Eph 2). It is God who unites us all together in Christ. We need to strive to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4). If unity is first and foremost the work of God, then that means we do not create it, we preserve it. Indeed, Paul does not say to "create" unity, but to "preserve" unity.

This is not an easy task. A look at the problem the church had from the very beginning with the Jewish Gentile problem demonstrates this is no easy task. One solution might have been the creation of Gentile churches apart from Jewish churches. Two "denominations" if you will. This was unacceptable to Paul. Even though they had different convictions, if they divided, they would not reflect the body of Christ. We serve one God, not two Gods, a God of the gentiles and a God of the Jews. We had to be one. In fact, Paul emphasizes the oneness of God and therefore the oneness of the body and our faith in Ephesians four. Only one people of God. Is it possible to have people in the one body with different convictions? Paul certainly believed so. Paul explicitly says that the principle underlying the preservation of unity in Romans 14 is love.

What does this mean? It does not mean we dispense with Christ, his atoning work on the cross, or his resurrection. That is anathema and the spirit of the Anti-Christ. It does mean that we need to proceed with love, humility and grace. If we reject someone whom God has accepted because they have differing convictions about certain things, then we are wrong. Jesus was more condemning of the Pharisees and their attitudes than any other people. Many official religious groups have their own traditions of men that they tout as authoritative in a similar way that Pharisees did. It is easy to point a finger at everyone else in this regard, but when you point a finger at someone else, you have three others that are pointing right back at you.

Once again, humility, love, and grace is what we needs to characterize us. If we have this, I believe that we can be much more effective in carrying out the mission of Christ. Instead of focusing on our "distinctiveness" in relation to other churches, we can focus on the mission that Christ has left us with. We can truly begin to walk in his shoes and take his challenges to us seriously. As Jesus left heaven and went to where those in need were, we can leave our distinctive church buildings and go to where the hurting, poor, and oppressed are and invite them into the freedom, peace, and joy found in Christ. We can be a people of peace and joy and love. We can be the city set on a hill. We can engage in what Christ was most passionate about, which were ministries of compassion, which brought good news to the poor, downcast, and the oppressed.

Perhaps the more authentic expression of the Christian faith has more to do with practice than profession.

It is not my intent to be dogmatic about any of this, but merely to attempt to be honest about looking at myself and the tradition in which I was raised. I love Christ, and I love the church that he died for. I am in the process of recommitting myself to the Reign of God and am re-learning what it means to take the challenges and example of Christ seriously and with grace.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Biblical Faithfulness

One of the distinctive traits of Churches of Christ has been its commitment to Biblical faithfulness. This is why we send our men to ministry training schools that have an emphasis on studying the text of the Bible.

As I consider my own experience, I am challenged by a deficiency that I have both witnessed and been a part of. When I was younger, I remember sitting in countless Bible classes learning what was in various books of the Bible. I also remember studying various doctrines of the Bible in various classes. Often the emphasis was on what made us different than other churches. Most of these had to do with worship practices, baptism, and the institutional structure of the church. Eventually, this became how we identified ourselves as being "faithful."

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the "consumerism" of our culture may have been a contributing factor toward this. There were churches all over town with whom we were competing with. With all the choices in the religious marketplace, which one should a person go to? Every aspect of life in our modern culture presents an array of choices. As a result, the producers of these goods "market" their product. Many churches inadvertently followed the same mindset. Every church had a bit of a competitive marketing involved in its outreach. They all emphasized different things, but we emphasized that we were the purest and trust church of all without all the denominational baggage. We didn't have all the "additives." We were "organic," so-to-speak. "Choose us, we are closest to the original first century church." Were we really, or did we fall short of the full picture of what the church is to be like? Were we truly free of "additives" as we claimed to be, or were there other "additives" there that we were not aware of? I have to wonder, if there were no "competition" in the church market, how would we have identified ourselves then? We certainly would not have emphasized out distinctiveness in the same way.

After re-reading the Gospels, I am convinced that the most important aspects of what the Church of our Lord is supposed to look like was missing. In the studies of the doctrine of the church, I remember very little references to the Gospels, except for Peter's confession and Jesus' response when he said "I will build MY church" in Matthew 16:18. This emphasis came from a desire to identify ourselves as distinct from denominations. This is "Christ's" church, not Luther's church, Wesley's church, etc. I remember a few years ago hearing a preacher say that no one wants to preach Matthew 16:18 any more. As the sermon progressed, it became clear that what he was talking about was more of the same distinctive marks that we have emphasized in the past. However, there is so much more in the Gospels about the church than this. In fact, I am beginning to understand that the heart of what the church is supposed to look like comes from the Gospel writers. The instructions from Jesus in the Gospels were not intended to be individualistic, but communal. The individualism that characterizes our culture usually causes us to apply Jesus' instructions on the individual level but miss the significant of the communal level. As God's people, we are to be a kingdom of priests, a light to the nations, a city set on a hill. That can only happen on a communal level. The message of Christ began and ended with the Reign of God as its central motif, and the Reign of God consists of a "community" of believers that collectively demonstrate the Reign of God as a kingdom of priests.

What are the marks of the Reign of God? That is a different question than "How are we distinct from denominations?" The Sermon on the Mount is a good place to start on identifying the marks of the Reign of God. . In fact, the very first Beatitude identifies the Reign of God as consisting of those who are poor in spirit.

Jesus said there that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Keep in mind that the Greek, nomos, "law" is the translation for the Hebrew word, torah. Torah does not merely mean law, as in a code, but means "instruction." In fact, the verb form of the word, torah, means "to instruct." So when God handed down his Torah in Exodus, he was instructing the people on how to live under his reign. As a "kingdom" of priests under God's reign (Ex 19:1-6), they were to embody God's ideal as a light to the nations. However, Israel failed dismally. They thought like and acted like the kingdoms around them.

Jesus came to fulfill Torah, not abolish it. In other words, Jesus is the embodiment of the ideal subject under the reign of God. When God first established his reign in Israel, Israel failed to demonstrate the ideal. So Jesus came to demonstrate what the reign of God looks like. I challenge you to read through it carefully and list the identifying marks of the Reign of God, especially the last couple of sections of the sermon.

Here is the irony. People like that preacher that said we don't like to preach Matthew 16:18 are themselves probably missing what it is all about. The Church of "Christ" is more than institutional structures. The Reign of God is more than Cappella singing. It is about following in Christ's footsteps in every way. Do we really follow in his footsteps in every way?

Here is where the challenge came. We "knew" a lot of scripture. However, Jesus puts the emphasis in the Sermon on the Mount not just on "knowing," but on doing. Many people are on the broad way that leads to destruction. Not everyone who says Lord Lord will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Those who listen and do the words of the sermon are like a wise man who builds his house on a solid foundation. For those who read and know but do not do….well, does the Reign of God really exist there?

As important as Bible study is, the purpose is not merely to accumulate academic knowledge, but to lean "how to" think, act, and live under God's reign. Knowing AND doing ALL of God's word…that is biblical faithfulness.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The State of the American Church (part 2 of 2)

In the first part of this piece, I gave my reflections on some of the factors that I believe contribute toward the general decline of the Lord's Church. These included:

1) A misunderstanding of what our calling is to be as a church.
2) Misunderstanding of our relationship to Culture, which is changing.
3) A misunderstanding of what our message should be.
4) A weak spirituality.

The point of this was not merely to be critical of our culture or of the Lord's Church as has become fashionable in recent years. Instead, the purpose of this essay is to assist in moving believers toward a more faithful vision of the Lord's mission in today's time.

Deeper Than Method

I have not explicitly mentioned "methods" in any of my reflections here. It seems that a methodological solution may be more a product of our culture than of Biblical reflection. In the modern Western Mindset, there is the thought that there is a scientific methodological solution to every problem. I would not be surprised to find that many disciplines might have been affected by this mindset. In Psychology, that is probably where the "behavior modification" theory came from. In the 1980's, I think one strand of the Church Growth Movement was fueled partly by the same mindset. The thought seemed to be that if the church is not growing, then we need to adjust our methodology in order to fix the problem. Some churches become more market driven, as though they were the dispenser of religious goods and the members were the consumers. Overall, the Church Growth Movement did not deliver what it promised. I think we learned a lot from the Church Growth Movement, one of which is that the solutions go much deeper than method. Part of the problem may have been we have identified the wrong thing as the problem. Dwindling numbers are not the problem. They are the symptom of a deeper problem. The solution has more to do with our sense of God-given identity, who we are, and what we are called to do. The changes in our culture along with dwindling numbers have forced us to re-examine these questions. A cultivation of a deeper spirituality, which helps us to discover God's answers to these questions, is a step in the right direction.

Over all, I believe that when the church is faithful to its calling to be a sent people, and that when it has the correct emphasis in its message and practice, that the mission of God will be carried out. What is encouraging to me is that I am beginning to see more and more people grapple with these sorts of issues with a commitment to be faithful to the mission of God.

But what should it look like in our particular cultural context? How can the church faithfully carry out the mission of God? Obviously, this looks different in African churches than in North American churches. Missiologists have combined a sound theology with insights from social sciences such as cultural anthropology, which gave birth to "Missionary Anthropology." Their insights on how to contextualize the Gospel in order to establish indigenous, healthy churches that can effectively engage their own culture has proven to be a fantastic success in the last three generations. Their understanding of cross-cultural missions has enabled them to better carry out the mission of God in their culture. It seems to me that the mission of God is becoming increasingly "cross-cultural" right here in North America. Our culture is shifting from its Western Christianized roots. This means that it will take wisdom and insight to avoid doing what early missionaries did in places like Africa, which was to infuse the gospel with western culture and convert people not to just Christianity, but to "Westernize" them as well. This did not work well. Just as a tropical plant that is transplanted to a climate that it is not indigenous to will become sickly, the church in Africa was the same way when missionaries indiscriminately mixed western culture with the Gospel. Could it be that this is now an issue in North America? Is it possible that our ineffectiveness might be due in part to trying to promote withering Western ideas that are no longer "indigenous" to America? Is this why Christians are finding it increasingly difficult to share the message of God with a culture that seems to become increasingly alien to them?

I don't have all the answers, but I do believe that in our effort to be faithful to the mission of God, we are going to have to find new ways to communicate the message of God, and it will not be centered around a "building" or an "institution." What is encouraging to me is that I am now seeing this begin to take place around the country as Christians begin to think more outside the box. At this point in our history, the box of western culture will only limit our effectiveness in carrying out the mission of God. The mission of God is about going where the people are and inviting them into the Reign of God, which the Lord offers to those who truly believe, not about building an institution.

The "Reign" of God

Perhaps an answer can be found in a reexamination of what the Reign of God is supposed to look like while being aware of our cultural biases. "Reign" is a better rendering than "kingdom," because "kingdom" implies geographical and political boundaries. The original Hebrew phrase was Malkut Shemayim "Reign/Rule of Heaven," not "kingdom," which is a different Hebrew word. The English word, "kingdom" came from the Greek language, which translated this phrase using the word, basileia. This word can mean either "reign/rule" or "kingdom." Context identifies which meaning is meant in Greek. The context goes back to the Hebraic image of the "Reign of God," which transcends geographical, social, or political boundaries. Indeed, Jesus said that His reign was not of this realm (Jn 18:36). This is why Jesus said that the reign of God is "in you" (Lk 17:21).

In my experience, preachers and teachers rarely looked to the Gospels in their study of the Lord's Church, with the exception of Jesus' words, "I will build my church." This leaves out a very significant portion of the teaching concerning the Lord's church. Jesus' favorite term was the "Reign of God." It was the centerpiece of his teaching. Everything he taught flowed from that concept. The concept of the Reign of God goes all the way back to creation where God instructed mankind to "rule" the earth, which mankind failed at. Jesus, the ultimate son of man (human), and also the Son of God, inaugurated a new Reign of God, which was the fulfillment of God's promises. What does life look like under the Reign of God? What are the identifying marks of the Reign of God? You come away with a very different picture from the Gospels than some of the studies I grew up with that stressed more of the "institutional structures," such as the "plurality of elders" the "Bible as its only constitution," and things of this nature. The Reign of God is subtle yet pervasive. It is quiet yet subversive. It redefines every aspect of thinking, motivation, and actions. For example, the Sermon on the Mount is an exposition of the Reign of God. Like the instructions for kingdom life in Deuteronomy, which spells out the blessing of living under the rule of God, Jesus spells out the blessedness of living under the Reign of God for the Christian in the Sermon on the Mount. A fresh reading of the Gospels with a heart to truly participate in the Reign of God does not allow one to be a "nominal Christian."

What does the Reign of God look like? Jesus' picture of the reign of God looks very different than many of the "institutional" structures we have been passionate about in the past. What is interesting is that Jesus takes many concepts that were taken for granted and turns them on their head. Here are some examples. Jesus was crowned with glory and honor not by conquest, but through suffering. In God's reign, the nobody becomes somebody and the somebody becomes nobody. In the Reign of God, kindness is returned for insults. In the Reign of God, one gives up everything in order to become rich. One gives up his life in order to live. One receives gifts in order to give. In the Reign of God, the greatest thing is to tend to the "least of these." In the Reign of God, those who are persecuted for righteousness are the blessed ones. In the Reign of God, everyone is equal and shares alike. Their hearts, minds, and souls no longer belong to the system of the world, but belongs to the Lord and King. These are the sorts of things Jesus demonstrated as being marks of the Reign of God. Truly, the Reign of God is not of this realm.

Rather than spell it out any more than this, my humble advice is to re-read the Gospels and note the marks of the Reign of God, and compare it to the culture in which we live, and especially to our local congregation. This is an important exercise because it causes to re-evaluate everything. I once read that, "We do not know who discovered water, but we are pretty sure it wasn't a fish." We live immersed in our culture, which makes us hardly aware of it. This includes both our national culture, and even the subculture of our own congregation which has been shaped by the larger culture. Many of the subtle values of the system of this world we accept and are hardly aware of it.

Ultimately, the challenging and humbling question that should arise from all of this is this: What marks of the Reign of God do are evident in our lives? What will it take for us to be faithful to the mission of God?

Monday, February 19, 2007

The State of the American Church (part 1 of 2)

I recently read a couple of articles in the "Currents" section of the Christian Chronicle that dealt with the current condition of the Lord's Church in America. Overall the church appears to have leveled off in growth, and shows signs of declining in some places. I began to do my own reflection on state of the church, and I will share them here. This is a two part series, the first deals with what I see as challenges, the second part deals with moving in the direction of solutions.

Most congregations that I know of are declining, and the members they have are aging. Overall, it seems to me that the church is sick. I believe that this has been the case for some time, but it has only become recently apparent due to dropping numbers. From my perspective, it seems that it boils down to basically these elements.

1) A misunderstanding of what our calling is to be as a church.

Our love affair with our church buildings along with an institutional mindset contributed to the church building paradigm for Christianity. Many believe our mission and purpose is to manage the organization. Missions, outreach, evangelism, and a number of other activities take a back burner to building centered activities. Our budgets are also a reflection of this mindset. The majority goes toward maintaining the building and building related activities, and if there is not enough left over, missions and outreach get cut. Even though it is not stated this way, this practice seems to demonstrate that the building is primary and things such as missions, evangelism, outreach, etc. are optional.

We are influenced by our culture's view of "institution." We have similar language and practices as those who belong to an "institution." We often speak of "going to church" as one might go to a board meeting. We speak of being a "member" as one might be a member of a lodge. In theory, church membership is much more than this. But in practice, membership is primarily expressed by attending meetings in the building. Staff and leaders are managers and CEOs of the institution, everyone else are members, consumers, and attenders. The result is a nominal Christianity that for many may not be a whole lot different than membership in some other institution. In this way, the church has accepted as "normal" what can only truly be characterized as "nominal" Christianity, while it views what the Bible characterizes as "normal" Christianity as something "extraordinary."

With our institutional mindset, we have lost the biblical emphasis that the church is the body of Christ. The emphasis has typically been that we are the "one and only body." What has been missing is the biblical emphasis that the church is the body of Christ, and therefore represents Christ in the world and his mission. The church's mission is not to send people, but to be a sent people. We are his hands, feet, and mouth to carry on the mission of Christ. Christ did not come to establish church buildings, but to establish the reign of God in the hearts of people. Often our priorities are backwards. Outreach, missions, etc. should be first and foremost. Anything we construct or do should support that mission and not the other way around. If, as the body of Christ we are to be ambassadors of Christ, representing his mission, it must be more than maintaining a meeting place.

From my perspective, I see a positive trend all over the world with the Lord's church. This mindset is slowly changing. It has been painful but positive. We are reexamining many of our dearly held pre-suppositions and are slowly becoming better equipped to engage the world incarnationally as Christ did.

2) Misunderstanding of our relationship to Culture, which is changing.

As I understand it, much of our emphasis over the last 100 years has been on doctrinal purity and the "distinctiveness" of the church. That distinctiveness was usually defined in terms of how we are different than the denominations rather than how we are set apart for Christ. This seemed to work well in a culture that was saturated with Christian ideas, symbolism, and language. I am not sure that the emphasis was so much on Christ as it was that we were the one true correct church. It seems that many were winning people to the church rather than to Christ. This was a reflection of our culture's emphasis on various "institutions," which affected us in ways we didn't realize. Much of our literature printed during this time period demonstrates this emphasis. Many articles and books concerning salvation approached it in terms of an idealized and oversimplified version of church history that highlighted the divisions in Christianity and our plea for unity with a call to become a member of "the one true church," namely, our church, through baptism. The church seemed to receive more emphasis than Christ. As a result of this cultural influence, the church as an institution remained squarely at the center of evangelistic writing. This mindset with its language seemed to resonate with a Western, Christianized culture. Our "Christianized" culture held institutions in high regard and was full of denominations and sects, and we engaged it head on.

However, since the culture has become increasingly secular, many of the ways we identified ourselves culturally are now lost to the citizen who has not been "Christianized." The fact is, we do not know how to engage a culture that has become increasingly secular. We do not realize that we have been shaped by our culture and that many of our practices are an expression of our culture as much as it is an expression of our faith. We have trouble separating the two, not realizing that Christianity stands above culture and therefore is translatable to many cultures, whether it be African, South American, or our North American Culture, which is currently undergoing huge changes. Like more recent missionaries who recognize the need to import the Gospel but not Western Culture, we need to recognize that our efforts in our own back yard need to be the same. Some of what we promote and hand on to is probably a form of Western Culture that is antiquated and passing away. Western Culture is not Christianity as the Bible defines it. Some of the ideas and values of Western Culture squarely contradicts the ideas and values of the Reign/Kingdom of God. If we are coming across as "irrelevant," it may be that we are promoting an older, dying form of Western Culture more than the Reign of God. This is why I believe we need to think like missionaries in our own back yard. According to statistics, there are now more Christians in Africa then there are in North America. Africa can no longer be called the "Dark Continent" as it was 100 years ago. We are (and have always been) a mission, therefore we need to think missionally.

3) A misunderstanding of what our message should be.

Since our way of doing things and our message was shaped by our culture, we speak a language that is stranger than ever to the "Un-Christianized" person. Even when we are able to communicate it in a way that can be understood, it seems irrelevant. Indeed, it often is. I believe that this is because we have not kept a biblical emphasis. While the church is important and biblical, it is not what the early church emphasized in its preaching to those outside. As I see it, themes such as the Fulfillment of the Reign of God, the Gospel, The Return of Christ, The Holy Spirit, and a Call to Faith and Repentance were all part of the Apostolic preaching of the cross. These are not themes that we have typically emphasized. Some of these themes as the Bible portrays it are foreign to us. Our emphasis has often been to highlight what makes us different than the denominations. Whether it was baptism, Communion every first day of the week, instrumental music, denominationalism, multiple elders, etc., we emphasized those things that made us correct in comparison to the denominations. As a result, many people were won to a form rather than to a person. In a culture where a positive institutional loyalty still existed, the church appeared to thrive in numbers with this emphasis.

However, institutional loyalty no longer characterizes our culture. In fact, the general feeling in our culture now is a general distrust of institutions. In the past, the church has operated as an "institution" with all of the many of the same institutional structures and mindset, which worked well when there was a positive view of institutions. However, people do not want to be converted to an institution anymore. Indeed, God does not want anyone to be converted to an institution either! We are called to Christ, not an institution. Historically, when the "institution" was overemphasized in the church, all kinds of problems followed. There are numerous examples of this in the medieval church with all of its institutional forms.

4) A weak spirituality.

There is a mystical element to the Christian faith. That makes many of us in North America very uncomfortable even though African, Asian, and South American Christians do not have a problem with this. The reason is that we have been shaped by Western Culture along with its rationalism and empiricism. We have a tendency to reject anything that cannot be observed, tested, and explained. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the power of the word of God and things of this nature are usually de-emphasized or reinterpreted to mean nothing more than a rational exercise of our mind and will informed by a reading of the Bible. There is little mystery in the daily life of a Christian and little emphasis on the disciplines that create the right conditions for spiritual growth. For some, Bible study is not a whole lot different than reading a philosopher and becoming his "student." Much of faith is very academic in nature and a personal relationship with the Lord is little more than knowing correct doctrine. Religion is reduced to a set of rules and preaching often becomes moralizing on certain topics. There is little need for fasting. Praying is a duty rather than an expression of love and desire for God. Bible reading, if it takes place at all, is for the purpose of knowing the Bible rather than knowing God. Spirituality is where we may be the weakest of all. While we often speak of spiritual growth, we often cannot define what that means. Rather than defining spiritual growth as learning to grow in our love for God in all things, it is usually defined more in terms of the amount of Bible reading one does, the service one renders, or then number of events one attends. All of these are good, but are secondary to loving God.

This weak spirituality, I believe, lies at the foundation of the other three items I mentioned above. A weak spirituality probably leads to the difficulty for seeing the world as it really is and our assigned place in it. Without this clearer vision of our identity, we find it a very difficult challenge to know how to engage our world with the mission of Christ.