Monthly Archives: April 2009

Strange condition for Church membership

A friend of ours was chatting about his experience attending membership classes at his church.  He mentioned that one part of the statement of faith requires members to affirm that the Genesis story is not to “be accepted allegorically or figuratively.”  He did not have a problem with this, but I find it an odd condition for church membership on a number of levels.  There are, of course, historical reasons for this restriction in the interest of protecting the integrity of the Bible as God’s infallible revelation.  However, because the statement of faith does make it clear that the Bible is God’s infallible word, it seems unhelpful and problematic to demand a particular hermeneutic for a specific passage of Scripture.

To accept these claims about Genesis, the new believer would need to be acquainted with the historical struggle for the integrity of the Bible, as well as an understanding of literary genres.  I suspect that the average believer, let alone a new Christian, does not understand the different genres used in the Bible.  It seems misplaced to demand that people affirm that a passage of Scripture belongs to a particular genre.  The important issue of the integrity of God’s revelation has been obscured by peripheral and unnecessary demands concerning genre.

In his stimulating book, Inspiration and Incarnation, Peter Enns claims that the controversy between theological liberals and conservatives is based on a false dichotomy.  The liberal believes that the first chapters of Genesis do not match modern standards for historical writing and, therefore, are not inspired.  The conservative believes the Bible is God’s inspired word and, therefore, those chapters must live up to modern standards for historical writing.  Enns’ suggestion is that the conservative assumption of inspiration is the correct one, but he questions the assumption of both liberals and conservatives that the genre of modern historical writing should be the standard by which the Bible is viewed. Instead, the Bible needs to be read according to the cultural context within which it was written (p. 49).

Determining the genre of the first chapters of Genesis requires a high level of hermeneutical and exegetical expertise. It is puzzling to me why a church would put such demands on a new Christian seeking baptism and church membership.  I do think that a confession of faith is needed for membership, but it should focus on the essentials while allowing for ignorance about peripheral issues.

I am not asking that the Pandora’s box of revising official statements of faith be opened.  Instead, I would encourage discernment about the use of those statements when dealing with new believers.  I wonder if the reluctance of some to take on church membership is, in part, due to peripheral issues that they do not have the expertise to understand.  If people have become excited about following Jesus, a requirement that they subscribe to one side or another in ongoing controversies could act as a (figurative and allegorical) bucket of cold water on their faith.

 

Pandemics, Patient Zero and a Theological Reflection

 

Pandemic?

Media coverage of the Swine Flu epidemic is about as extensive as fear of catching the disease, though cases worldwide are relatively few at this point and only beginning to present themselves. The media features images of pigs, shots of the Mexican military handing out surgical masks, empty streets, sports stadiums, and restaurants, and hospital emergency rooms filled with long lines of anxious citizens.

Meanwhile, newscasters press upon guest medical experts questions like, "Will this flu burn itself out with relatively few casualties, or will it become another 1918?" "How many might be likely to die worldwide?" "Who’s at greatest risk?" "Should people be traveling abroad?" and "What precautions can one take to keep from becoming a victim?"

In the meantime, reports continue to roll in on the latest numbers of sick and dead in Mexico City and notices of the disease’s spread to various other countries throughout the world.

The virus holds potential to affect us all because its new, so no one’s immune. The world has grown very small through travel and the disease’s progress has outrun most attempts to contain it. It is also personal to me because my elderly mom, brother and sister-in-law are in Mexico just now. They headed off  before the news had broken clearly, hoping to have a relaxing and uneventful holiday.

If the outbreak becomes a pandemic, it won’t be the first. There have been notable pandemics in 1918, 1968 and 1975. Estimates suggest that the 1918 pandemic claimed between 20 and 50 million lives worldwide. 

This is all very unsettling.

Patient Zero

In the past day or so, there has been increasing media talk about "patient zero." Patient zero is the very first documented case of the disease. That person is of great interest to epidemiological investigation as a possible means to discovering the origin of the disease, mapping its spread and pursuing means to its eradication.

Sometimes there is great controversy and infamy attached to patient zero. Mary Mallon is a celebrated instance. She was an apparently healthy carrier of the disease typhoid fever. Many people were infected by her and she had to be quarantined to stop her spreading the deadly  disease. Dubbed "Typhoid Mary," she came to epitomize the carrier or transmitter of anything undesirable, harmful or catastrophic.

In the case of Mexican Swine flu, "patient zero" may be a little boy named Edgar in a small town called La Gloria. He and his family live near large pig farming operations. He had the disease in March.

A Cure?

The development of a vaccination looks to be weeks or even months away. So the world, it seems, is bound to live for the foreseeable future in an attitude of maximum uncertainty and anxiety.

The drug Tamiflu may be helpful at mitigating symptoms, but it is uncertain whether this is just with milder variations of the flu. The Mexican version of the virus may be more robust and so less responsive. A further problem is that a course of this medication costs about $200. It is out of reach to many millions of people the world over.

With about 3,000 official reported cases in Mexico so far,  and some 150 fatalities, the counsel to "Wash your hands" seems a rather meager stratagem.

 A Theological Reflection

I’d be a fool to assert specifically why this has all happened, beyond the general physical and theological observation that the world is broken and dangerous and we occupy our place in it dangerously and brokenly. But there will, no doubt, be those who confidently nominate themselves God’s spokespersons on this whole affair, declaring in most specific terms that Mexico City committed this or that sin and that is why people are getting sick and dying.

I’m neither a prophet nor an apostle. And I’m certainly not God.

Moreover, I’m cautioned by Jesus himself who ruled out the question of moral cause and effect in the specific circumstance when his own disciples asked it about a man born blind (John 9:1-7). Jesus declared the man’s tragic circumstance the opportunity for a demonstration of the miraculous, healing power of God in his life. 

I do, however, see the present worldwide threat as a powerful illustration–an extended metaphor, as it were–of the human predicament of sin before a holy God.

At Romans 5:12-21, Paul identifies Adam as "patient zero." He writes, "sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men…" (v. 12) In this case, patient zero was fully culpable and universally infectious. His single action of rebellious independence from God was, has been, and will continue to be the physical and spiritual death of us all. No amount of human hand-washing or isolation is able to contain or neutralize the virulent contagion. The gates are down; the borders have been breached.

Paul continues that there is only one cure for the human predicament … and it was costly.

He writes, "if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!" (v. 15) As powerful and universally damaging as the "infection" of sin brought into the world by Adam was, God provided through his son Jesus a more powerful and effective "cure." His provision in the death of his son on a Roman cross for our sin is decisively effective and universally available to faith. 

The world desperately needs the cure. It should seize the cure. And it should celebrate the cure.

 

The “Vision” Quest

The pastor read what the church leadership expert wrote — the leader casts the vision! The elders were expecting him to come forward with "the vision". What would they think about his ability to lead if he couldn’t deliver? The weight of this expectation seemed to crush him. Where was he to find "the vision" for his congregation? What process could he follow to insure that he would find the right one at just the right time? What would happen if the vision he articulated turned out to be the wrong one? Where in the Bible could he find instructions about "casting the vision?" Did Paul discuss this or Peter or James or one of the Gospel writers? Of course, Jesus could do it, but he’s God!

How would you advise this pastor? Should he attempt a forty day fast and anticipate in that process that God would reveal the vision for that church? Or maybe he should have a conversation with every ministry leader in his church and seek to distil from their input a vision, a kind of congregational, visional, collage. Perhaps spending several nights in prayer would bring some clarity. Or maybe he could visit the websites of the ten most successfull churches in his area, discover their visions and plagiarize. Possibly the best strategy is to do nothing, hoping that in some serendipitous moment the vision will just come. Probably church leaders have used some or all of the above as means to "cast the vision" for their church. And undoubtedly some of these methods (apart from the plagiarism bit) might be of some help.

Vision-casting is more than an individual activity. There must be a testing of a potential vision’s validity among the faith community’s leaders. They will undoubtedly offer some significant refinements that will improve it. In the process they will come to own it too.

I think vision-casting represents the interaction of the faith community’s history, biblical reflection, wise listening to key leaders,  analysis of the larger community, prayerful search for God’s direction, careful discernment of potential resources, and a humble, sober sense of the leader’s abilities.

  • The vision will have some continuity with the faith community’s story.
  • Centering it within a biblical narrative gives confidence that it reflects biblical values and has coherence with God’s activity — the Great Commandments and the Great Commission.
  • Discerning what other ministry leaders in the congregation have learned about the church’s potential enables you to locate some key boundaries for the vision.
  • The realities of the surrounding community — demographics, needs, aspirations — generates a sense of coherence between the church’s vision and the community’s situation.
  • Vision-casting ultimately must be a spiritual exercise, accomplished in dependence upon God.
  • Take stock of the human, financial and physical resources that might be available to accomplish the vision.
  • Since God has called you to this position of pastoral leadership, you can have confidence that somehow your spiritual gifting will fit the vision, otherwise perhaps your leadership would be better applied in another context.

The outcome should be a simple, understandable, comprehensive statement that defines what this church has the potential to accomplish within this community over the next decade, with God’s help.

Vision-casting is more than an individual activity. There must be a testing of a potential vision’s validity among the faith community’s leaders. They will undoubtedly offer some significant refinements that will improve it. In the process they will come to own it too.

 Discerning the vision for a congregation will be the result of many conversations — with God, with Scripture, with people, with the larger community, with yourself.  It will answer the question — by God’s help we believe that in (___) years through this congregation __________. Some might say that this is merely a statement of desired outcome. My response would be — and is that not vision, a careful discernment of God’s desired future for this congregation? 

Doctrine that Dances

I don’t hear a great deal of doctrinal preaching these days. I hear a lot of pragmatic preaching, a lot of exegetical preaching, a lot of narrative preaching, but not so much preaching that intends to explicate the great doctrines of the Scripture for the edification of the hearers. Perhaps this has something to do with a corresponding ebb in the interest of systematic theological studies in favor of the more emergent-friendly biblical theology movement. Or perhaps it is because not enough of us know how to handle doctrine in a sermon the way that Robert Smith does.

Smith, professor of Christian preaching at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University is the author of Doctrine that Dances: Bringing Doctrinal Preaching and Teaching to Life. As one who has come from a background that discouraged dancing in the church, I find Smith’s choreographical metaphor to be both illuminating and refreshing. It is probably even biblical. Smith notes the presence of the Greek word "epichoregias" in Philippians 1:19. In this text the Holy Spirit "choreographs" events so that they turn out for Paul’s deliverance. Would not we love for the Spirit to work similarly through our preaching of the doctrines of God’s Word?

Of course, one could wonder whether Smith is talking specifically about good doctrinal preaching, or just good preaching in general. His definition of doctrinal preaching is "the escorting of the hearers into the presence of God for the purpose of transformation." I think that this offers an excellent definition of every kind of preaching, which begs the question whether every kind of preaching ought to be doctrinal, at least to some degree. Throughout my reading of the book I found myself saying, he’s not just describing good doctrinal preaching, he’s just describing good preaching! What I am suggesting is that this book cannot be dismissed as limited to a particular brand of preaching.

That said, the world could use a lot more preaching that was intentional about communicating doctrine. In our attempts to accommodate the listener, we sometimes give the truth something less than what its due. People don’t know enough theology and while I’d love to think that we are addressing this problem through the seminaries, I know that most of this needs to happen in the church. Much of it will need to happen through our preaching. I agree with Smith, that if preachers could awaken a new love for the truth of the Bible, that would be a good thing. "Christians are experiencing spiritual immaturity and spiritual death. One of the reasons for this is that worshippers are being served sermonic snacks instead of the doctrinal meat of the Word of God. if doctrine is presented with joy and accuracy, the hearers will not only stand it, they will crave more of it (6)."

Smith does well to remind us, that such preaching must be both "cranial and cardiological (8)." It must speak both to the listener’s heart as well as its head. Doctrinal preaching need not be boring. Doctrinal preaching, like all preaching, must learn to dance.

The use of the word "escort" in Smith’s definition is not by accident. Smith makes much of two rather provocative metaphors, the "exegetical escort" and the "doxological dancer." Smith admits the sexual overtones of his language (76), but claims to find biblical warrant for their use in texts such as Galatians 3:24. I must say, however, that paidagogos speaks more of the language of the classroom (tutoring and training) than it does of one who ushers or escort. In other words, I think Smith might be guilty of a rather ironic exegetical slip.

That said, I have little difficulty with the concept. "The eschatological escort," Smith writes, "is one who ushers hearers into the presence of God for the purpose of transformation. Once the exegetical escort has ushered hearers into the presence of God and given them the Word, the escort’s job is over. The escort leaves them in the throne room of God and lets God transform them (75)."

This is an important idea. I have used a similar image – that of a ‘host’. No one ought to come to hear me preach. I’m simply hosting an opportunity for my listeners to meet and hear from God. Of course the word "host" would damage the alliterative appeal of Smith’s concept.

The question Smith would like to ask is whether we preachers know how to dance. Though I’m loathe to admit it, my family and I have taken to watching So You Think You Can Dance? every now and again. I have been surprised by my reaction to this television competition. I’ve been impressed by the combination of athleticism and artistry that these dancers are able to exhibit. Many times I have found myself moved to tears, not only by the beauty they portray but also by the message that a particular piece is sometimes able to convey. I have thought that I would love for my preaching to produce a similar kind of impact.

I, like Smith, would love to think that my preaching – even my specifically doctrinal preaching – could somehow actually dance!

Life Transforming Study of God’s Word

For over thirty years I have had the privilege annually to teach in depth some portion of God’s word. This semester my focus was the Gospel of Matthew. What a challenge to lead emerging ministry leaders to engage these vital, authoritative words of Jesus, our Saviour and Lord. And to do this in a way that is obedient to Jesus’ instruction – “you have one Teacher, the Christ” (Matthew 23:10) – adds to the heavy sense of responsibility.

Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ encounter with a man determined to secure for himself eternal life (Matthew 19:16-30). Jesus requires a different obedience – not to the Old Testament Law, but to himself. He will have “treasure in heaven” (21) only if he follows Jesus with full commitment. Jesus requires him to sell his property and give it away, probably because his wealth was too much of an idol for him. The man leaves, filled with sadness “because he had great wealth” (22). The cost Jesus required seemed to outweigh the potential benefits.

One of my students decided to preach on this text at Union Gospel Mission. Our reflection on it in class had stimulated in him some fresh ideas that God’s Spirit was urging him to share. So he did and through this means six people decided that evening to accept Jesus as their Saviour.

I share this to illustrate how powerful the close, detailed study of God’s word can be for effective ministry – even resulting in the salvation of many people.

Sometimes I hear people criticizing seminaries as being too academic or too much of an ‘ivory tower’ and I am sure those complaints have some justification. But there are just as many stories that students tell revealing how life-transforming studying God’s word or theology or church history or missions has been for them, especially the interactions with other students and the faculty. God works within seminary walls too in order to advance his Kingdom in dynamic ways.

In a few days (April 18) Northwest and its partners in ACTS will be graduating about 65 students in eight different degree and diploma programs. Denominational leaders, senior pastors, church planters, Bible translators, counselors, youth pastors, chaplains – all start a new chapter of their ministry life, better trained and hopefully more passionate to serve Jesus. This will mark the conclusion to our 68th year of ministry leadership training. To the Glory of God.

Thank you for your continued prayers and gifts that enable our ministry to flourish and to advance of God’s Kingdom significantly. Your stewardship in this ministry matters.