Tag Archives: Bible

Significant Interactions in Pakistan

About two times a year I travel to Pakistan to work on the Sindhi Bible translation.  Currently we are preparing a Sindhi New Testament for the Hindu people of the Sindh along with a review of the New Testament that was translated for a Muslim audience.  A few vignettes taken from my most recent trip in February, 2010 are given below.  They help to illuminate the process of Bible translation, provide examples of the significant discussions that occur as the translation team members interact with each other, and reveal the spiritual hunger that is evident among the Sindhi people.

Clarifying the translation

While the first translation of the common Sindhi version of the New Testament is excellent for the most part, there are occasions when the translation has failed to communicate the intended meaning of the original and require correction. These miscommunications become obvious through the interactions with the translation team.  I often ask them to explain a passage to me, and their response sometimes reveals unintended meanings.

A good illustration of this is Jn 4:23 where Jesus says to the Samaritan woman: “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (ESV).  The first translation of “in Spirit and Truth” in Sindhi was quite literal, similar to the ESV.  Unfortunately, the natural meaning of this phrase in Sindhi is that true worshipers will worship with “enthusiasm / commitment and with a true (righteous) heart.”  However, the point of the passage is not to discuss the character of the worshipers, but their connection to the truth and reality of who God is.  True worshipers are those who have a spiritual orientation towards God and worship according to the truth and reality of the nature of God. That is, they will live according to his truth.  In order to communicate the right meaning in Sindhi, we translated it as “following the way of the Holy Spirit and truth (or reality).”

Spiritual Hunger

During my trip, I went to the Sindology Institute in Hyderabad to do some research for my PhD thesis.  During my time there, I had a number of invitations for significant conversations that reveal the spiritual openness and hunger of the people of the Sindh.  While riding the bus (free for anyone heading to the university), I sat beside a man who worked at the university who asked me, “What spiritual benefit is there in Christianity?” I explained that the benefit lies in the person of Christ who brings us into a familial relationship with God; we become God’s children.  In Islam the essential relationship is that of master to a servant / slave.

He further asked what constituted “spirituality” and I explained that it was found in relationships, those immeasurable aspects of life that give significance and meaning to our existence.  He gave me his view concerning the universe and how it is a creation that God provided so that people could know about him.  I agreed and took it even farther, explaining that God is an artist; creation reveals his character. I pointed out God’s comment on his work in Genesis 1, “it is good,” and the significance of “separating the light from the darkness” as an expression of God’s goodness in which there is no flaw.

This raised the question of the authenticity of Scripture.  Since his work is in computer science, he gave the example of Windows 3.1 being superceded by Windows 95, then Windows 97, etc.  He suggested that the Bible has been superceded by the Qu’ran in the same way.  I pointed out that this would only be true if God has changed in his essential nature, or if people have changed in their essential need.  If not, then the truth that God spoke in the past is true for us today as well.  The purpose of the Bible is to bring us into a relationship with God, and is as helpful to us today in that task as it was when it was written.

Significant Conversations

The Hindu Sindhi helper on our team talked about his (now deceased) Guru who encouraged people to come and follow his teaching without leaving their own religious duties.  I responded by observing that this is not permissible for those of us who are Christians because of the exclusiveness of Jesus’ claims.  Jesus is the one with whom we have made a covenant and he does not allow his followers to have religious “mistresses”.  He nodded his head and said,  “yes, that is true.”  What we have been studying in the gospels has made that obvious to him.

When translating the difficult play on words used in Jn 3:3;4 – “born again” which also means “from above” – our Hindu helper was disturbed by Nicodemus’ incredulous reply about entering his mother’s womb.  This started a discussion about reincarnation and the lack of the concept within Christianity and Islam.  The message of the gospel speaks clearly to our hope in Jesus as the way to the father, not through an eternal cycle of birth and death.  This message of Jesus as the Savior of the world comes through loud and clear in the Gospels. All are called to respond to this good news, which calls us to faith (see Jn 20:31), on a personal level, not just on the level of comparative religions.

You can read more about the Sindhi people and Bible translation here…

Gird Thy Loins With Truth – Ephesians 6:14

I’ll freely confess that I had serious hesitation about add this bit of news to the weblog. It’s not as if there isn’t enough bad news circulating around to cultivate a sense of cultural anxiety and spiritual nausea. But, just when I’ve been tempted to just turn off the news, I got the latest survey data from George Barna.

Since 1995, the Barna group has been monitoring the level of "Biblical Worldview" held by adult Americans through an exhaustive nationwide survey. When I read the results of his first survey, I was depressed. The latest results have taken my depression to a new and lower level.

Why? What’s the big deal? The reason, as Barna wrote in 2003 [Think Like Jesus, p. 56] is that "you become what you believe." Expand that axiom to a larger level, and the cultural consequences are staggering. We are becoming what we generally believe, and bit by bit, the data shows that the mind of Believers is being torqued in dangerous directions.

Consider some of the findings [you can read even more at: www.barna.org – March 9, 2009]:

The survey found that:

  • One-third of all adults (34%) believe that moral truth is absolute and unaffected by the circumstances. Slightly less than half of the born again adults (46%) believe in absolute moral truth.
  • Half of all adults firmly believe that the Bible is accurate in all the principles it teaches. That proportion includes the four-fifths of born again adults (79%) who concur.
  • Just one-quarter of adults (27%) are convinced that Satan is a real force. Even a minority of born again adults (40%) adopt that perspective.
  • Similarly, only one-quarter of adults (28%) believe that it is impossible for someone to earn their way into Heaven through good behavior. Not quite half of all born again Christians (47%) strongly reject the notion of earning salvation through their deeds.
  • A minority of American adults (40%) are persuaded that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life while He was on earth. Slightly less than two-thirds of the born again segment (62%) strongly believes that He was sinless.
  • Seven out of ten adults (70%) say that God is the all-powerful, all-knowing creator of the universe who still rules it today. That includes the 93% of born again adults who hold that conviction.

Differences among Demographic Segments

The research data showed that one pattern emerged loud and clear: young adults rarely possess a biblical worldview. The current study found that less than one-half of one percent of adults in the Mosaic generation – i.e., those aged 18 to 23 – have a biblical worldview, compared to about one out of every nine older adults.

The challenge facing an authentic, unapologetic, Biblical, Christlike ministry is immense, and imperative. The Gospel is more than a private affection. It is, in Jesus’ words, light and salt. And, I have to believe that it is the only reliable element standing in the way of "the complete demise of our culture, the loss of meaning and purpose in life, and the rejection of all that God holds dear and significant. [Think Like Jesus, p. 57] So, I take those thoughts to heart, and "gird my loins."

The Anatomy of Atheistic Slogans

I’m sure some have heard the slogans about to appear on city buses, from Montreal to Vancouver, many times before in their lives. Two of them run as follows; "There’s probably No God", or "There is no God so Stop Worrying". O really? Is this the best that atheistic societies can come up with? Why not use the more forceful and certainly more interesting "God is Dead!" slogan on Frederic Nietzsche. You cannot help but feel for these folk as they attempt to come to grips with their minority status in the realm of ideas today. As for "worrying" what God might mean for our lives, this slogan completely misses the mark. Even avid theists stopped worrying about what God means for them long ago. One might call these people ‘theoretical theists but practical atheists’. They populate the pews of nearly every church in the land, including the most conservative of Evangelical churches. We theologians call this condition the late modern religious malaise. Our lives in the west have been so comfortable and self-sustaining over the last 60 plus years that one only need nod in the direction of the divine, now and then. The rest of the time God can be forgotten. If our times have any distinguishing feature it is not atheism or theism but, as the Germans say, Gottesgewissenheit, or ‘God-forgetfulness.’There is no God poster

We might have seen something of a return to concern about our relation to the divine in the current circumstances, perhaps even a substantial increase in such since 9/11, but by and large the last half of the 20th, and the dawn of the 21st, century in the west was hardly marked by a theistically induced angst, given the socio-economic situation. If there is an overwhelming slogan for what is really going on it would be "God is forgotten" or "forget God and live as you please". This was the condition of Israel as stated at the end of the book of Judges in the Hebrew Bible where it says "everyone did as he saw fit." (Jdg. 21:25) We in the west have not viewed God as a serious threat to our existence since the rumbling guns of WW I & II faded away in the 1950’s.

While we are perhaps headed for another round of questioning our existence in relation to the divine in the not to distant future, we are hardly there yet. A lot more has to happen before the tenuousness of our existence is so forced on our horizon that we are driven to a re-examination of our lives in relation to the possibility of the existence of the divine. The fact is the softness with which these slogans are putting the question may well engender a new and fresh round of clear, unmitigated theism. Perhaps a better slogan might be "Shush! God is Asleep" or "Please Don’t Wake God." Atheists would have better success in furthering their agenda if they promoted this practical atheism then raising the specter of theoretical atheism, which is sure to be met by an equally ardent theism, especially from the serious followers of God in the so-called "monotheistic faiths." C’mon you can do better than that can’t you. Perhaps the problem is the reverse for atheists that it is for theists. Perhaps they have become so accustomed to living life without God that they secretly miss fighting with God and are now bucking for a fresh brew-ha-ha with the divine, and God’s supporters. One cannot help thinking though that their slogans are just as insipid as the practical atheism of the theists. Picture a big yawn from the current writer at this point, and do wake me up when this is over.

As for the slogan "There’s Probably No God", this is said with all the gusto of a politician, testing the waters to see if he/she should venture the "full Monty" and say outright, "there is no God". Perhaps they are awaiting the polling data on this slogan. This slogan will only invite the opposite sentiment, "perhaps there is a God" in the mind of the reader of such a slogan? What then? How should we live even if God is only ever confined to the realm of probability, either way? Perhaps this is the secret angst that sits at the heart of the late modern religious malaise? We cannot seem to break the spell of Kantanian agnosticism. All of our reasoning either for or against leaves us both wanting more and less of the divine? In fact, the slogan really does point to the real struggle the atheists are having. Since their reason militates against the affirmation of God, but does not permit them absolute proof, they are always suspended in (dis)-belief. They exist in a kind of intellectual "no-mans-land" (with due respect to "women" here). The best they can hope for is that we will be reaffirmed in out late modern religious malaise and continue to forget about God. But again they are begging the question when they put it out there is such a public way. What happens if the net result of their advertising issues in a re-affirmation of strong theism in the land generally. How will they spend the next several years in their discussion groups? What ever will they do with the rest of their advertising money? How will they come to grips with the money they wasted? Here’s a slogan for you theists out there, "There Are No Real Atheists so Stop Worrying." I know I already have. God will be God in the Freedom that is God’s to be God and not a wit of whit from theists or atheist will change that! So good night and sleep tight!

Top Ten Countdown of Cultural Lessons (3-4)

Jarrod Haas is a student in the Cross-cultural Leadership Training Program, CLTP @ Northwest, working towards an undergrad level diploma in preparation for cross-cultural ministry among Asians. [singlepic=163,320,240,,right] CLTP is a one year, mentored, experienced based program that prepares the student for Master’s level seminary studies as well as equips them for ministry either internationally or in Canada. He is currently on a short-term missions trip in Korea to complete his year of studies.

This series of blogs are sections taken from one of his papers (edited with permission) entitled 10 Lessons in Crossing Culture. These ten points outline the major cross-cultural lessons that Jarrod has learned through the CLTP program, which, along with his academic studies, included involvement with International Students Ministries Canada, Gateway and a local Korean Church.

4. The Gospel must be contextualized

Just as the messenger of the Gospel must be contextualized, so must the message itself

Just as the messenger of the Gospel must be contextualized, so must the message itself. Dan Gibson observes that while sin is the central problem faced in reconciliation with God, there are three general paradigms through which all world views deal with the fallout of sin: guilt/innocence, shame/honour, and fear/power.1 Gibson argues that each of these paradigms is represented in the Bible, and that the gospel, at its core, must be contextualized accordingly.2

For example, the “four spiritual laws” and “Romans Road” work well in a western “guilt/innocence” context, but do not speak to key issues faced in other cultures. Middle eastern nations are heavily based in a “honour/shame” paradigm due to the influence of Islam. In this case, the parable of the Prodigal Son becomes not a story of a guilty man restored to innocence, but of a man hopelessly trapped in shame who is restored to honour.

All three of these world views are addressed in the Bible in many places. For example, Romans 8:1 and 5:1 address guilt, Romans 8:15 and 1 John 4:18 address fear, and Leviticus 26:13 and 1 Peter 2:6 address shame.

3.  Contextualization, a path between cultural relevance and compromise, can only occur successfully as a result of complete reliance upon God.

[Jesus] often challenged the culture in ways that offended people

Jesus was incarnated into Jewish culture. However, while he adopted Jewish values and customs, he often challenged the culture in ways that offended people. The missionary must do likewise, but cannot depend on his or her own wisdom to determine when contradiction or acquiescence is appropriate. For example, it is not difficult to imagine that not many of us would, of our own volition, allow a prostitute to wash our feet with her hair in front of the local religious authorities, especially knowing the full significance of that event in its context. Similarly, how many of us, if we were able, would turn 6 vats of water into wine for a wedding? Christ stressed the importance of our reliance upon him: “apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

The whole concept of contextualization is new to me, and I have not had significant exposure to other cultural contexts. The most significant result of my studies so far has been to ensure that I learn and teach these ideas with an emphasis towards reliance upon Christ.


  • 1Müller, R. The Messenger, the Message, and the Community. 140-143.
  • 2ibid., 129-264.

Top Ten Countdown of Cultural Lessons (5-6)

Jarrod Haas is a student in the Cross-cultural Leadership Training Program, CLTP @ Northwest, working towards an undergrad level diploma in preparation for cross-cultural ministry among Asians. [singlepic=163,320,240,,right] CLTP is a one year, mentored, experienced based program that prepares the student for Master’s level seminary studies as well as equips them for ministry either internationally or in Canada. He is currently on a short-term missions trip in Korea to complete his year of studies.

This series of blogs are sections taken from one of his papers (edited with permission) entitled 10 Lessons in Crossing Culture. These ten points outline the major cross-cultural lessons that Jarrod has learned through the CLTP program, which, along with his academic studies, included involvement with International Students Ministries Canada, Gateway and a local Korean Church.

6. Failure to learn and understand a foreign culture can incapacitate the credibility of the missionary

In Islam, the Qur’an itself is considered a Holy Artifact. It is never allowed to rest directly on the ground, but must be placed on a special stand. Western Christianity, on the other hand, often downplays the significance of any object or ritual. This is usually done in order to avoid idolatry, and to place emphasis on the holiness of God. Thus for Westerners, the Bible is often perceived as ‘another book.’ We often have no trouble using the Bible in less than ‘holy’ ways such as placing it on the floor. Should Muslims observe a Christian missionary treating the word of God in our usual fashion, they could consider Christians as having no reverence toward God. The Christian would lose his or her credibility as a messenger of the Gospel.

people from cultures with a high reverence for spiritual things may perceive my prayers as irreverent

I can relate to this experience somewhat. During the semester I developed a relationship with a man from Iran. On one occasion, I offered to pray for his business, which was having trouble hiring an employee. After the prayer I realized that I often use very casual and informal language when praying, especially with those who are not Christians. While this may work in a Canadian context, people from cultures with a high reverence for spiritual things may perceive my prayers as irreverent. This could cause me to lose credibility as a messenger of God. I need to be cautious of this dynamic in cross-cultural ministry situations. Paul noted his own desire to remain credible in 1 Corinthians 19-22.

5. Be aware of the tendency towards ‘cultural imperialism.’

The tendency for missionaries (and humans in general) is to perceive their own culture as the ‘right way’ of doing things .1 There have been many examples of Western missionaries who insisted that planted churches mirror those in from the West. This imposition of Western culture makes evangelism less effective, and limits the relevance of the Gospel message. There is a bigger picture here as well. As noted by Alister E. McGrath, theologies allowed to grow “organically” in a foreign culture add creative insight to the global theological spectrum that Western theology, on its own, cannot produce.2

[There is a] need to discern the interaction between the authority of Scripture and culture

This has made me more aware of the need to discern the interaction between the authority of Scripture and culture. When teaching Biblical principles in a multi-ethnic setting (or any setting for that matter), I need to be conscious of how my own cultural lens may be affecting what I am presenting. Additionally, I will need to be sensitive of my fleshly tendency to judge other culture practices according to my culture, and not according to Scripture.


  • 1Sherwood G. Lingenfelter & Marvin K. Mayers, Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships (Michigan: Baker Academic, 2006), 22.
  • 2Alister E. McGrath, The Future of Christianity (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2002), 140-144.

Resolving Intercultural Tensions: Understanding Leadership in High and Low Power Distance Contexts

The Power Distance Contrast

Pir with disciplesIn Pakistan there is a strong tradition of "holy men" who are called Pirs. One day I had a visit from a young man who informed me that he was the Pir of his village. I was puzzled by this because he was dressed in modern clothes and did not have the religious, spiritual air one would expect from a revered holy man. He explained that in the tradition of his tribe, the honor and authority of the Pir was passed on from father to son and his father had recently passed away. For his part, he did not believe that he was able to give blessings to people, nor that his prayers were especially efficacious. In fact, when his father died and the mantle was passed on to him, he tried to refuse it. He told the people that he didn’t believe and that he didn’t want the responsibility. They replied, "It does not matter what you believe. You are the one chosen for this position and no other."

HPD = High Power Distance

Pakistan is a High Power Distance culture (HPD).  It is the role and status of the leader, rather than his or her particular character or ability that is of greatest concern. In this context a high priority is given to maintaining harmonious relationships and affirming the historical traditions and social structures. Rules of conduct are paramount, and anyone who does not function within that protocol is ostracized, no matter how reasonable or beneficial their proposals might be. In HPD cultures, it is assumed that the status quo is the way life is intended to be; the established hierarchy is ordained, competition is bad, and conformity to tradition and roles is good.

LPD = Low Power Distance

Canada, on the other hand, is a Low Power Distance culture (LPD). Titles and status mean little if the person in charge cannot fulfill their responsibilities. Harmonious relationships may be sacrificed in order to pursue a particular goal and the measurement of success is accomplishment. In LPD cultures, it is assumed that reversal of fortunes is a part of life, competition is good and no one has ordained or fated priority.

When I was doing my master’s thesis on Chronological Bible Storying among the Sindhi people on the story of the washing of the disciples’ feet (John 13), one aspect that the Sindhis who were interviewed emphasized over and over again was the importance of the disciple to always obey the teacher. They were appalled at Peter’s audacity when he refused to let Jesus wash his feet, and they found Jesus’ stern response, "You will not have any part of me," to be necessary and appropriate. HPD cultures, like Pakistan, consider the student insubordinate and rude who would question or contradict a teacher. Rote learning is the preferred method of learning as it emphasizes the teacher’s status above the student. In contrast, a teacher in a LPD culture like Canada encourages the student to challenge and question. Ideas and the stimulation of the mind are of first importance.

Due to Power Distance, leadership within a LPD context will function differently than within HPD groups. Awareness of this dynamic in interpersonal relationships along with appropriate adjustments can greatly reduce tension in multicultural churches.

Read the complete Cross-Cultural Impact Article

Images of God

I came across an interesting theory.  People act according to their conviction about the nature of God.  If God is perceived as an autocratic patriarch whose rules must be followed without question, then that is how the leaders of that group will act.  If God is viewed as a stern judge who is inflexible concerning any hint of rebellion or disobedience, that is how fathers will deal with their sons and daughters.  If God is seen as a demanding taskmaster who demands perfection, then mothers will be strict with their children.  If God is understood to be a harsh God of wrath, this justifies a severe response towards those who have broken the law (I recall a protestor’s sign in a Time magazine photo: “God hates gays”).

People act according to their conviction about the nature of God

This theory would seem to be a logical conclusion to being created in God’s image (Gen 1:26,27).  This would be true not only for Christian who are called to be perfect as God is perfect (Mt 5:48), but to other religions as well. The 9-11 attackers lived out their understanding of the nature of God.  We  all try to respond to our situation according to the way we think God would act.  The question is, what does this reveal about the nature of the God we worship?

Our Christian view of God must begin and end with Christ

If the theory is true, then it is of first importance to cultivate a correct belief about the nature of God.  But where do we start when the Bible does present God as the absolute authority, the stern judge, the demanding taskmaster and a God of wrath?  I suggest that all these descriptions must be interpreted through the perspective of God as seen in Christ.  Our Christian view of God must begin and end with Christ and all other revelation must be viewed through the New Testament perspective of God as he has been revealed as a human being.

Following this assumption, any view of God that undermines the love and justice of the heavenly Father – a love so great that it “surpasses knowledge” (Eph 3;19) – should be dismissed as a misunderstanding or a perversion of the truth.  If God, seen in Jesus, is good, loving and just above all that we can imagine, then any conception of God cannot be correct which views him in a fashion that would make him less loving, merciful, just or good than our perception of the ideal. Any view of God as loving that makes him appear less just, or any view of God as just that makes him appear less loving, needs to be rejected as false.  Our foundational view of God is Christ who gave us the image of the loving Father who makes things right (e.g., the prodigal son in Luke 15).  We must begin there and put aside any thought that takes us off track from that core belief.  If we can imagine a better, more loving or more merciful God than the god we worship, then it is time to reject the God we have created in our minds, for that is not the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.

When my children speak about the God of their father, I hope they [speak about] a caring, merciful and just heavenly Father

I find this meditation helpful because I need to look carefully at myself and think about what my actions are saying about the God I worship. When I act harshly and justify it in my mind, that justification stems from what I imagine God to be like.  But if that image of God does not fit with the merciful, self-giving God who suffered on the cross so that we can live, then that is idolatry.  When my children speak about the God of their father, I hope they do not speak about an autocratic patriarch, a stern judge or a demanding taskmaster, but a caring, merciful and just heavenly Father.

Core Basics for Church Boards

In November of 2005 we held our very first Best Practices for Church Boards workshop. At the time, it seemed to be the right thing to do and the right way to do it. Two years later, what seemed to be right has proven to be monumental. As of November, 2007 we have conducted 5 workshops throughout British Columbia – from the Lower Mainland, to Vancouver Island and into the Interior both in Vernon and Cranbrook. On March 8, 2008 we will return to Vancouver Island for the second time.

During the course of the two years, 30 Churches have sent their leadership teams – both Pastoral Staff and Board members. That represents close to one-third of the leadership of the British Columbia and Yukon Fellowship of churches. From those 30 churches, 240 Church Leaders have been registered as participants. The event in March will add to that number. In order to serve the leadership teams, 13 leaders have been trained and employed as facilitators to provide guidance to train effective Church governing leaders.

It has been a work in progress. After the first workshop, it became evident that more needed to be done. Both the interest and needs of Church Boards demanded a greater response than the Basic workshop could provide. This demand has generated a number of training instruments. Two [presented later in this Quarterly newsletter] have provided special training, first for the personal development and training of a Board member. Best Practices for Church Boards: Personal Edition has been published as a training tool under the title: Now That I’m A Board Member … a five-session course that includes both video instruction and workbook exercises.  Even though it was only introduced in the Fall of 2007, 12 Churches have purchased it and are using it in a number of creative ways.

The second additional instrument, or Edition, of Best Practices for Church Boards has been the Advanced Edition. Each June, a specific issue has been targeted for training. In 2007, 5 Church Board teams met for a one-day workshop led by Dr. David Horita for training in The Board’s Role in Strategic Planning and Vision Development. As advertised, the Advanced Edition workshop on June 23, 2008 will feature Dr. Guy Saffold’s training on the role of the Church in making good decisions. [see below.]

Beyond the formal “Editions” of Best Practices for Church Boards, churches have begun to request Coaching assistance to address a whole array of congregational health issues. This has opened the opportunity for the Ministry Centre, the Northwest Centre for Leadership Development, and Northwest Baptist Seminary to focus resources that would elevate the health of local of congregations through consultation and coaching.

With each development, we have learned a number of lessons and confirmed a number of principles. A few of the lessons learned:

  1. Church boards at large have a desperate need for training: At first, I thought that the interest shown by the Fellowship Baptist Churches was unique, something that was felt only by a few congregations. The fact is, the need for training is almost epidemic. As the Best Practices for Church Boards has expanded, interest has increased beyond the boundaries of the Fellowship. Each of our ACTS denominational partners – and more – have been watching us carefully with a high degree of interest. As I talk with the regional directors, it is evident that their church governing bodies are in serious need of the same sort of training. One of the key discoveries that we’ve made is that very few church board leaders are specifically trained for their role and responsibility, and are left to rely on either previous experience or vague intuition to guide them through their work.
  2. The training of a Church Board is unique: There is a growing body of resource agencies that teach “board governance.” The growth of such agencies underlines the general need for such training. Such groups as the Banff Institute for Board Governance, the United Way and their Board governance training, and the Canadian Council of Christian Charities have created wonderful ways to train boards for non-profit, charitable organizations. But, one of the things that they have discovered is that while the Church is technically a non-profit, charitable organization – it is a unique species with a distinct character that possesses its own exclusive application.
  3. Church boards need to see their work as a critical spiritual ministry: One of the standard questions that I ask of Board members is “what is your spiritual ministry in the local church?” More often than not, the answers omit the role of Board governance. They will point to “teaching a Bible Study”, “part of the worship team.” When I say, “but, aren’t you a Board member? Isn’t that a ministry?” they will often respond something to the effect that “no, it’s a necessary evil, someone has to do it.”  

Such a response has reconfirmed two key principles that undergird our passion to elevate the quality of a Church Board. I continue to make this a challenge as Church Board Leaders consider their own level of performance. Two Principles:

  1. Membership on a Church Board is a profoundly Spiritual Ministry: Leadership is listed among the differing gifts of grace listed in Romans 12 [verse 8] as a governing function. The definition of the term applies to practical administration, the type required of Church Board members. The spirit of the challenge is that of diligence [earnest, eager, careful.] …If it is leadership, let him govern diligently.
  2. The Church Board is the Prime Community of the Local Congregation: When Paul outlines the qualities of oversight leaders in the Pastoral Epistles, it is significant to note that he points to character rather than ability, and the type of character that is assessed through community and ultimately builds community. I can’t help but read that and extrapolate a principle: that Board members form the definitive community of a church. The quality of their interaction and the integrity of their relationship has direct bearing on the health of the congregation. This principle can be measured by two corollary statements: 1. If a Church Board is unable to generate a Biblical sense of community – it will be extremely difficult to expect a congregation to enjoy a healthy sense of community; 2. By the same token, if a Church Board is able to generate a sense of Biblical community – the church stands a great chance of building a healthy sense of community throughout its fellowship.

The Church Board, the governing body, has a significant role. And, every possible opportunity to elevate the quality of service is well worth the investment.

Chronological Bible Storying

My friend and mentor, Grant Lovejoy, sent me a link this morning to the new website for Chronological Bible Storying. The website offers the methodology, research, and reports from the field into this powerful way of preaching to oral and indigenous cultures.

According to the website, "Chronological Bible Storying (CBS) is the process of encountering God by telling the stories of the Bible. In CBS we tell Bible stories without interruption or comment and we tell them in the order that they happened in time. Afterward we discuss each story and its significance for our lives. Each story builds on those that came before; as a result, the overarching message of the Bible becomes clear and we discover our own place in God’s story."

The oral nature of communication within many of the people groups of the world is a major motivator for those championing CBS. "Though literacy has developed and spread its reach around the globe, a majority of the world’s people still live day to day by the spoken word, by orality. Some people live by oral communication out of necessity; their language may not have a written form or they may not have acquired literacy in school."

When people live primarily by means of orality, memory becomes a major feature in everyday life. People in oral cultures prefer the familiar and are slow to accept new information, especially when it does not come in a memorable format. Chronological Bible Storying is a way of communicating the truths of Scripture in a format that is both memorable and familiar to the recipients.

The good news is that this format is an effective way of training locals to communicate the gospel. The opportunity for the spread of the gospel is exponential. In a report from South Asia, for example, training in CBS is multiplying its impact. A missionary reports, "The 48 men who have now finished their first year of training say that they are formally training another 553 storytellers. Of these, 439 have 10-15 men and women each to whom they are telling the stories.  So every story we teach is perhaps being taught to 5,000 people immediately–most of whom are not yet believers. You can imagine the potential for God’s Word to work in these thousands of lives!"

Other helpful websites on this theme include oralbible.com and wycliffe.org. Chronological Bible Storying is an initiative of the International Mission Board.

User Friendly Bibles: When Titles Mislead

section headings … can be misleading

I like section headings in Bible translation.  They are not part of the original text, but added by the translation team to assist the reader in three ways: “1. to help those already familiar with the Bible to find a passage they know; 2. to help those unfamiliar with the Bible to assimilate the text; 3. to help every reader by breaking up what could otherwise be forbiddingly large slabs of print.” (1) But there are times when the insertion of section headings into a passage of scripture can be misleading.  Even when the title itself may be accurate in its identification of the passage, the focus of the message may be distorted. (2) Furthermore the placement of some titles can actually undermine the structural unity and continuity of thought because the presence of the section heading communicates to the reader that the passage before the break is, in some way, disconnected from the passage under the heading and therefore is a “stand alone” passage with a unique message.

the section headings actually disguised, rather than illuminated the overall meaning of the passage

During my trip to Pakistan for Bible translation at the end of 2007, I was involved with a small team of translators and helpers who were reviewing a translation of the New Testament in the Sindhi language.  In our study of the Sermon on the Mount we found a number of places where section headings actually detracted from the flow of the passage and obscured the meaning….


Read the rest of this entry in Cross Cultural Impact # 58

A Challenge for 2008

I would like to present you with a tough but exciting challenge for 2008 . . . but let me back up a little! 

This past two months I have been somewhat restricted in my activities because of a ruptured achilles tendon.  After 4 weeks in a fiberglass cast and now another almost 4 weeks in a cast boot I am still using crutches to get around and spending much of my time with my foot propped up on a pile of cushions.  At first it was a bit of an adventure to have family and colleagues helping me with such basic things as opening doors or carrying a cup of coffee.  But the adventure aspect wore off quickly and I found myself in a complaining mode.  I didn’t complain to God openly but in my heart there were the sulky "why" questions – you know what I mean! 

I tell you this for two reasons.  First, because I have been so restricted I have found myself with much free time on my hands with only a few options available for filling those hours.  So I have been taking some of my own advice (found here) and have spent considerable time reading and re-reading the book of Hebrews – aloud.  Secondly, the personal result of that exercise has been for me to come to view my torn achilles as a blessing and not a curse.  For the past few weeks I have been soaking in the wonder of who Jesus is and what he has done for me (for us).  Normally I find I can fill my hours with so many good things that I rarely take the time to meditate on the Word in any more than a passing attempt.  Lately I have been "allowed" all the time I need and that has been a blessing.

So back to the challenge for 2008!  I would like to encourage you to carve out the time and space necessary and read the book of Hebrews 12 times this year – once a month – and read it aloud.  The ideal would be to read it in its entirety in one sitting but if you cannot do that break it into two or three chunks and read it that way.  Here is what I would encourage you to do:

  • Make 2008 a year of coming to know Jesus better.  Many years ago when I was a young student at Prairie Bible Institute a visiting speaker, Dr. J. Sidlow Baxter, encouraged us to read the Gospels "pictographically" – in other words with the express purpose of seeing Jesus as the gospelers pictured him.  That is the challenge I pass on to you – read Hebrews pictographically – with a view to seeing Jesus anew.  The writer to the Hebrews himself speaks of Jesus in this way.  In 2:9 he writes, "But we see Jesus…"   In 3:1 he enjoins his readers to "…fix your thoughts on Jesus…" and in 12:2 he exhorts, "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith…"  Jesus is the centrepiece of Hebrews.  My prayer for you is that you will come to see him afresh this coming year – that you will rejoice in the wonder of who your Savior is, what he has accomplished for you and who you are because of him.
  • Take your time – don’t hurry.  Allow the writer’s passion for Jesus to permeate your soul.
  • Read expressively.  Try to read Hebrews the way the writer intended it to be read.  At first you may not find reading aloud the most comfortable thing to do – but try it – I believe you will like it!
  • Notice how Hebrews weaves a wonderful tapestry of descriptions of Jesus’ person and work, exhortations to live fully in what Jesus has provided, cautions that we not take lightly this marvelous salvation and examples of others – both faith-filled and faith-less.
  • Don’t give up!  This is not an easy challenge – but you will find it very worthwhile!

As the year progresses share with me and other readers of this blog  what you have seen.  Feel free to add  comments to this post.  Return here throughout the year and encourage and be encouraged – that is what the writer of Hebrews tells us to do.

But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. (3:13)

…let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (10:25)

I will place a 2008 Challenge link in the sidebar (under Special Topics) so that you can return here easily.  May God richly bless you this year and may you daily rejoice in the wonder of this Hebrews benediction:

May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Seeker Becomes Self-Feeder

            As full disclosure, I should confess that I’ve been a fan of Willow Creek before Willow Ceek was Willow Creek. In the mid-1970’s the youth pastor of my home church in Park Ridge, Illinois was a Trinity College student named Bill Hybels. I always enjoyed coming home on holidays from Seminary just to see what was happening with Bill and the youth group at South Park Church. In the vocabulary of the ‘70’s, it was a “happening!” High School kids were showing up by the carload, each week more than the last. When I heard one of the elderly people complain, it was the first time I heard a phrase that has since become an evangelical mantra: we are just being sensitive to the seeker.
            The term “seeker-sensitive” has become so much the standard for evangelical style that I was a bit shocked to read the recent confession from Willow Creek reported by Bob Burney in the Baptist Press [November 6, 2007.] As the result of a multi-year study on the effectiveness of their philosophy of ministry, the Willow Creek leaders discovered that while they have reached large numbers of people, they have not been producing solid disciples of Jesus Christ.
            The studies, published by Cally Parkinson and Greg Hawkins in a new book entitled “Reveal: Where Are You?”  produced a remarkable confession from my friend, Bill. “We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that hey have to take responsibility to become “self-feeders.” We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their Bible between services, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.”
            It’s a remarkable moment. And I can’t help but think that we may begin to hear another term added to our vocabulary next to “seeker-sensitive” … “self-feeder.” It will be fascinating to see what that will begin to mean.

Eat This Book!

I’ve just completed Eugene Peterson’s improbably titled, Eat This Book and I cannot recommend it highly enough. This “conversation in the art of spiritual reading” both values Scripture while helping us see its accessibility. The book argues for the validity and necessity of exegesis for spiritual growth. It describes in detail the practice of Lectio Divina. In one of my favorite sections, Peterson uses his personal experience writing The Message to describe the limits and value of Bible translation for each new generation. In addition, the book offers a fascinating description of the history of the Bible’s transmission and translation.

The subjects Peterson deals with are deep, but the writing isn’t. See if the following quotations don’t stimulate your thinking and when your appetite for more…

On the use of story… We live today in a world impoverished of story; so it is not surprising that many of us have picked up the bad habit of extracting “truths” from the stories we read: we summarize “principles” that we can use in a variety of settings at our discretion; we distill a “moral” that we use as a slogan on a poster or as a motto on our desk. We are taught to do this in our schools so that we can pass examinations on novels and plays. It is no wonder that we continue this abstracting, story-mutilating practice when we read our Bibles. “Story” is not serious; “story” is for children and campfires. So we continuously convert our stories into the “serious” speech of information and motivation. We hardly notice that we have lost the form, the form that is provided to shape our lives largely and coherently. Our spirituality-shaping text is reduced to disembodied fragments of “truth” and “insight,” dismembered bones of information and motivation. (48)

On the value of exegesis…
Exegesis introduces another dimension into our relation to this text. The text as story carries us along, we are in on something larger than ourselves, we let the story take us where it will. But exegesis is focused attention, asking questions, sorting through possible meanings. Exegesis is rigorous, disciplined, intellectual work. It rarely feels “spiritual.” Men and women who are, as we say, “into” spirituality, frequently give exegesis short shrift, preferring to rely on inspiration and intuition. But the long and broad consensus in the community of God’s people has always insisted on a vigorous and meticulous exegesis: Give long and close learned attention to this text! All our masters in spirituality were and are master exegetes. There’s a lot going on here; we don’t want to miss any of it; we don’t want to sleepwalk through this text. (50)

On the challenge of utilizing language… Because we speak our language so casually, it is easy to fall into the habit of treating it casually. But language is persistently difficult to understand. We spend our early lives learning the language, and just when we think we have it mastered our spouse says, “You don’t understand thing I’m saying, do you?” We teach our children to talk, and just about the time we think they might be getting it, they quit talking to us; and when we overhear them talking to their friends, we find we can’t understand more than one out of every eight or nine words they say. A close relationship doesn’t guarantee understanding. A long affection doesn’t guarantee understanding. In fact, the closer we are to another and the more intimate our relations, the more care we must exercise to hear accurately, to understand thoroughly, to answer appropriately. (53)

On the proof-texting of Scripture… What is surprising today is how many people treat the Bible as a collection of Sibylline Oracles, verses or phrases without context or connections. This is nothing less than astonishing. The Scriptures are the revelation of a personal, relational, incarnational God to actual communities of men and women with names in history. … The practice of dividing the Bible into number chapters and verses has abetted this “sibylline complex.” it gives the impression that the Bible is a collection of thousands of self-contained sentences and phrases that can be picked out or combined arbitrarily in order to discern our fortunes or fates. But Bible verses are not fortune cookies to be broken open at random. And the Bible is not an astrological chart to be impersonally manipulated for amusement or profit. (101)

This is a book I wish I could have written. Numerous times I found myself exclaiming, “Yes, that’s exactly what I’ve been thinking.” Read it yourself and see if you don’t feel the same.

Peterson, Eugene. Eat This Book: Conversations in the Art of Spiritual Reading. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006.

Crossing Cultures with the Bible

Three ways to understand the Bible
My wife, Karen, heard a message by a young woman with no theological training on Jer 29:11, “I know the plans I have for you….” The young woman spoke of the verse as if it was addressed to us today and talked about the plans God has for us.  Although God has revealed his will for us as human beings in his word, this was a misapplication of the verse because God was not speaking to us in this verse, he was speaking to another people in a different historical time and place; we are not part of those particular plans.

A better, and common, approach is to recognize that while the verse is a promise to people of another age, we can still ask, “What lesson can we learn from this that is applicable to us?”  That is, even though the words are not written to us, the message is still, in some less direct sense, for us.  

A third approach which is my primary concern in reading the Bible cross-culturally is to examine this interaction of God with his people in order to discover his character and his heart.  This perspective recognizes that the passage provides a revelation of the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ and asks, “What can I learn from this to know him better?  How can I shape my thoughts, speech and action to fit with the image that emerges from God’s revelation of himself?”

there is something grander in the Bible than chapter and verse application to the way we live: it is the vision, the revelation of God himself

The Bible as revelation of the nature of God
The latter approach is based on the conviction that there is something grander in the Bible than chapter and verse application to the way we live: it is the vision, the revelation of God himself.  The primary purpose of the written word is not to give us instructions on how to live, but to be a witness to the Living Word who in turn reveals to us the nature and heart of God.  It is within that broader perspective of discovering God that we become shaped into the image of Christ and respond in worship.

Read the rest of this entry in Cross-cultural Impact #56

Scratching the Surface of Non-Belief

In the last few months, I have encountered a number of people who seem “taken” by the current campaign to promote the message of atheism. Such books as God is Not Great, and The God Delusion seem to suggest that there is something solid to the life and belief of the unbelievers. Which is why I was intrigued by the recent findings of George Barna.

The June update of the Barna Report dealt with the impact of the current promotional campaign being waged by Atheists. It was, in part, research for a new book by David Kinnaman entitled unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity. On the surface, the issue seems to be formidable to anyone in ministry. But, digging a bit deeper into the data, I was encouraged by the opportunities we have to address people who appear uncomfortable with un-belief. Consider the following, from the Barna research [www.barna.org]:

But atheists and agnostics shouldn’t be too surprised that we would be confused about the issue. After all, this demographic group, which comprises 8% of the U.S. adult population, certainly acts in peculiar ways for religious skeptics. According to surveys conducted by The Barna Group:

  • 1 out of every 2 atheists and agnostics say that every person has a soul
  • 1 out of every 2 atheists and agnostics believes that Heaven and Hell exist
  • 1 out of every 2 atheists and agnostics believes that there is life after death.
  • 1 out of every 3 atheists and agnostics talks about faith-related matters during a typical week. 
  • 1 out of every 3 atheists and agnostics prayed to God, in past 7 days
  • 1 out of every 3 atheists and agnostics want ‘creationism” taught in the public schools
  • 1 out of every 8 atheists and agnostics believe that accepting Jesus Christ as savior probably makes life after death possible.
  • 1 out of every 10 atheists and agnostics believes that absolute moral truth exist
  • 1 out of every 12 atheists and agnostics read from the Bible, other than while at church, in past 7 days
  • 1 out of every 25 atheists and agnostics attended a church service, other than a special event such as a wedding or funeral, in past 7 days

If an atheist reads the bible, goes to church, believes in the existence of the soul, heaven, hell, life after death, teaching creationism, absolute morals, and prayer, are they considered a “heretic” by their fellow non-believers?

I would take it one step further: would they be considered a “lost sheep” looking for a way home?

Preaching with Variety

_Preaching with Variety: How to Re-create the Dynamics of Biblical Genres_. By Jeffrey D. Arthurs. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2007, 978-0-8254-2019-1, 238 pp., $15.99, paperback.

Several years ago I embarked upon a project. Having been given a short interim preaching opportunity at a nearby church, I decided to choose a different biblical genre for every sermon text. I wondered what might happen if I gave as much attention to the form of the text as I did to its content. The series turned out to be a wonderful exploration of the biblical terrain, but it would have gone a lot better if I had been able to read Jeff Arthurs’ book.

“The form of a text is not simply the husk surrounding the seed;” Arthurs says, “it is the way the authors manage their relationship with their readers (201).” People come from a variety of backgrounds bringing with them an array of preferred learning styles. The biblical writers not only appreciated this fact, but they modeled it, sharing truth by means of an abundance of literary styles. Our preaching should do no less.

This is inarguable. I have long wondered why, in the attempt to exposit faithfully the biblical text, we have felt it necessary to distill the content from the form. It is as if, to use Arthur’s metaphor, the textual form was mere chaff to be blown off as worthless. Sure, we have utilized the form for its interpretive value as a means of getting to the core truth of the text. Yet, should not those of us committed to exposition be just as concerned with the manner of communication used by the biblical text as we are with the content of it’s communication? Would not the attempt to replicate the form of the text in the form of our preaching be even more faithful to the intent of exposition?

Jeff Arthurs thinks so. His book is more than just an argument for a fully “formed” preaching of God’s word. In the tradition of Sidney Greidanus and Thomas Long, the book leads the reader through an exploration of various textual forms, offering guidance and advice to aid in the preaching of those forms. The book, then, serves as more than just a good and helpful read. It is a reference work that can be consulted whenever we move to preach from a different part of the Bible. I, for one, expect to consult it regularly as I move from proverb to epistle to psalm.

The great thing about genre-enriched preaching is that it doesn’t just represent a more faithful approach to exposition. It also makes for more interesting preaching for the listener. Preachers who feel they may be going a little stale will benefit from this reading, perhaps leading to a more holistic and integrated approach to their task.

Arthurs writes well, as one might expect given his subject. He also doesn’t overstate his case. One of his opening “9.5 Theses” is that “some things are more important than the topic of this book (15).” The preacher’s “ethos” or character is more important, as is the “telos” or theological objective of the sermon. This kind of humility plays well to the reader confronted with the many textbooks on preaching that are currently in print.

_Jeff Arthurs, is associate professor of preaching and communication, and dean of the chapel at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary._

It’s NOT about the Information

I am slow. I have come to the realization – at least a full decade after more perceptive and observant thinkers – that we are no longer in the information age; we are in the networking age.  Facebook is not about information, but about connecting. Due to the ease of access and overwhelming quantity of knowledge, information is no longer a priority nor a valued commodity per se.  What is valued is the networking with others that directs us to the quality and relevance of knowledge that is required to fulfill our goals.  An obsession with gaining personal knowledge about a particular subject in this age is self-defeating because as individuals we cannot absorb, process or evaluate all the available information.  On the other hand, gaining skills to evaluate and use knowledge in relevant ways is important.  Moreover, the ability to connect synergistically with those who have different skill sets exponentially increases the ability to apply knowledge to tasks and problems considered significant.

With respect to seminaries, Dr. Edmund Gibbs was probably accurate in a statement made during the NBS “Between Gospel and Culture” conference held on the TWU campus in March, 2007: seminaries should not sell knowledge or information, but give it away freely.  The cost will be in the mentoring relationships and guidance to apply the right knowledge in the right situation.

What is required is the teaching of Old Testament and New Testament RELEVANCE to the lives of the believers

The implication of this shift for missions is quite profound.  A common approach in missions has been to teach a “survey of the Old Testament” or a “survey of the New Testament” to new believers. As an attempt to increase the quantity of biblical knowledge, it does little to build up the body of Christ.  The amount of knowledge available is beyond the ability of any one person to access, let alone absorb and utilize. Moreover, the knowledge gained from such courses is generally easily accessible when needed. What is required is the teaching of Old Testament and New Testament relevance to the lives of the believers. It is insufficient and misguided for missionaries to provide general Bible teaching as if any and all biblical information is equally worthwhile. Rather, a primary concern must be to work out the relevance of God’s revelation within that particular cultural setting.  This requires the development of a network of people with a variety of skill sets rather than a one way dispensing of knowledge from the teacher.

As an example of the importance of networking in missions, consider Bible translation.  The task is too vast and complex to be trusted to one person.  However, by utilizing the skills of a variety of people – translators whose mother tongue capability allows them to communicate the message coherently and fluently, scholars who are able to consider the accuracy of meaning, consultants whose experience leads them to ask penetrating questions – the final product has a level of quality and significance that would not otherwise be possible.  

Disillusioned with the Sunday meeting expression of church

The following is a response from my wife, Karen, to a couple of recent blogs found on this site:

In his Oct 17 blog "The Foundation for Hearing God," Loren Warkentin wrote:

We Christians have become acculturated to this [fast-paced] style of living and I believe it has affected our spiritual lives. We are easily bored. If a “worship service” doesn’t entertain us sufficiently we move elsewhere. Long sermons and church services tire us. But maybe more deadly is the effect this lifestyle has on our personal, devotional relationship with God – it has become fragmented, stretched thin, missing even – and so we look for a fix. We still want to hear from Him, but….

YES! We desperately want to hear from Him!! But maybe the problem is not our expectation but the "worship service."

I don’t believe most Christians go to a church service looking to be entertained. We go seeking God. My great desire is to be engaged – my mind, heart, will and spirit – but when it comes to church services, I have all but given up. Most often I come home from a service knowing that I have (yet again) missed God.

My great desire is to be engaged – my mind, heart, will and spirit

Music moves me so if the "worship team" is decent and the songs are good (by that I mean there is some substance and content to the lyrics), then I can worship.

But the vast majority of sermons I hear do not engage me. I recently attended a friend’s very charismatic church. I am not a charismatic by theology, preference, experience, desire, personality or history, but if I lived in that town, that’s the church I would go to.

the vast majority of sermons I hear do not engage me

Why? Because I met God there. It was clear that the leaders were communicating their heart and more importantly, God’s heart. The sermons (I heard 3 over the weekend) came out of their lives and what God was teaching them, not from a commentary.

I find that in sermons the grand themes in the Bible are often reduced to the bottom line "be nice" and so much of what I hear is the "same, old, same, old." I love the "old, old story," don’t get me wrong. But the way it is presented is like eating dusty, stale crackers.

I have met numerous people who no longer attend church, not because they aren’t entertained, but because they miss God when they go.  Initially they think the problem is with them, that somehow their expectations are out of line. Some of them keep going out of habit, others keep attending because they have kids and others just give up (I have talked to all of the above).

I have so many questions but have no place to ask them

Although evangelicals say we base our lives and beliefs on the Bible, there is little Bible reading. At one service I attended the preacher read 1.5 verses and then told us that even though the verses meant something different, he would still use those verses to preach on his chosen subject. At such services I look around at the people and think – Do they really find these words a life giving message? or is coming to church a habit and good way to see friends?

I have so many questions but have no place to ask them. Most of them start with "yes, I see what you’re saying…but what about this? and this? and this?” Does the preacher not have the same questions? If he (most are men) doesn’t, why not? Am I that off the charts? Do the people around me not have similar questions?

In Kent Anderson’s Oct 19 blog, "Apologetic Preaching," he writes in reference to J.P. Moreland:

People, he said, need more than just to hear what the Bible says and how to apply it, because people don’t actually believe the Bible very strongly. People today are looking for passion and some sense that the preacher knows what she or he is talking about. Pastors need to be brokers of knowledge just like doctors.

[The problem with church services is not] the lack of entertainment, but the lack of substance

I believe that passion comes not just from knowing God, but from knowing God this past week; from working through doubts, questions, injustices and opportunities. I don’t think we need to develop a database of God’s miraculous interventions (Moreland’s suggestion as reported in Kent’s blog) because most people don’t live life like that. But we do want to know how to meet God in our ordinary, every day life.

Church services are a prime opportunity to bring people into God’s presence so they can hear from Him. At least the vast majority of resources are geared towards constructing and maintaining very expensive buildings so there can be a corporate gathering. But when that doesn’t happen the discouragement can lead to disillusionment. It is not about the lack of entertainment, but the lack of substance.

maybe church is just (mediocre) entertainment and isn’t meant to be a place where life and the gospel come together

 Coincidentally, I am reading about the Veritas Forum, a movement in universities that faces the hard questions of life in the light of who Jesus is. Experts in many different fields offer expertise to students who can respond and interact. Their messages do not reduce the gospel to a trite "be nice," but honestly grapple with the relevance of God’s revelation in the context of a secularized worldview.

I find the Sunday meeting expression of church to be very unsatisfying because it is one dimensional. Much time and effort is put into this one expression and yet it falls short of what it could be: a gathering of people who need and want to meet with God, who have come to worship and to be in God’s presence. Yet week after week some of us leave so frustrated. Eventually we learn that maybe church is just (mediocre) entertainment and isn’t meant to be a place where life and the gospel come together.


The REAL Examination

It’s that time of the semester once again. The Registrar’s office has asked each professor to indicate whether they are requiring an examination that needs to be scheduled into the examination week for their courses. The schedule is out and professors and students are all now aware of when each examination will need to be sat.

By and large, most of our students do a good to great job in writing their exams. Sometimes, there is a feeling of uncertainty about their answer to this or that question, but generally, there is a sense of satisfaction and relief as they leave the examination hall. They studied hard, retaining much. And during the exam, what was committed to memory was laid out in answers to questions or synthesized and made the basis of responses to cases presented for analysis. With the completion of the examination, they have done their part in the course and all that awaits is the professor’s grading of the work and the formal posting of the student’s final mark for the course.

It is not a new thought, but it occurred to me that most of our exams are not the real examination. Indeed, the real exam is taken when the knowledge is put into practice for the benefit of those who will be served or helped. The real examination occurs after the exam for the course. In the knowledge of that truth, I’ve taken to adding a little note at the bottom of each examination sheet following my Christmas wish to the student. In the hermeneutics exam sheet, for example, it reads, "Remember, the real examination for this course takes place every time you open your Bible to translate, study, preach, teach and counsel." 

 The principle holds not only in the academy, but also in the church and in life generally for the Christian. The real test of what we’ve heard in the sermon, or the Bible study class, or the home group is not that we were in attendance, or even whether we can replicate the content flawlessly. It is, rather, what we’ll do with what we’ve heard. The test is action.

Using the image of building, Jesus taught that hearing his words only and hearing them so as to do them are the difference between the foolish and the wise respectively (Matthew 7:24-27). The book of James puts it even more succinctly, "Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says." (James 1:22)

Apologetic Preaching

J. P. Moreland of Talbot Seminary was the keynote speaker at this year’s meetings of the Evangelical Homiletics Society. He took the opportunity to offer a proposal for “apologetic preaching.” While such an approach is not new, Moreland seemed to suggest that apologetics could and should take a much higher place in our thinking about preaching in this highly-secularized period.

This is, he said, the most divided time in American history since the civil war. On the secular side are the media, the universities, and the entertainment industry. On the the other side (according to USA Today) the leaders are the evangelical churches. It scarcely seems a fair fight.

It is out of this millieu, Moreland says, that the current evangelical church has been formed. We have, he said, felt forced to retreat to a largely privatized faith. We have conceived of our beliefs as matters of faith and not of knowledge, thus ceding the realm of knowledge to the scientists. It is the doctors and scientists who are the keepers of empirical knowledge. Truth is no longer adequate. It is knowledge of truth that reigns supreme. Because preachers trade in truths that can’t be known, we have been marginalized to the realm of private belief.

Moreland offered Oprah as an example. She can wax eloquent about theology without any expertise, he said, because she understands that there is no hard knowledge available this kind of truth. She tells people that they can pray in any manner that they want and to any God whom they might see as helpful. Of course, she wouldn’t dream of offering such counsel with respect to something like smallpox, because we have hard scientific knowledge about smallpox. We know that you cannot vaccinate yourself effectively with coffee or with chocolate. When it comes to faith, however, we think that no such conviction is possible and so we relegate it to the realm of individual discernment and desire.

This, Moreland suggests, is unnecessary and ultimately untenable. The Bible, he says, is a source of hard knowledge. Paul, for example, spoke about the power of thinking rightly (Phil. 4:8,9) long before Sigmund Freud ever thought it was a good idea. We need, he said, to build faith in listeners by preaching such that they increase their confidence in the ability to know things about God and about eternity based on the teachings of the Scriptures.

Belief, he said, is a “degreed property,” which is to say that belief happens whenever we are between 51 and 100% certain of the truth of a thing. Belief is like ‘cloudiness’. A dog is a dog is a dog. But cloudiness can exist to a greater or lesser degree. The same is true with beliefs. I believe in my own existence, more strongly than I believe in the existence of God, he said, though the two are very close. The task of the preacher, then, is to bump people up so that they believe the right things and that they hold them more strongly than they previously did. As preachers, we ought to assume that people don’t believe the things they believe with a great deal of strength and that it is our task to help them believe more strongly.

People, he said, need more than just to hear what the Bible says and how to apply it, because people don’t actually believe the Bible very strongly. People today are looking for passion and some sense that the preacher knows what she or he is talking about. Pastors need to be brokers of knowledge just like doctors.

Thus, he said, we need to be developing two skills in preachers: (1) to develop a habit of reading worldview in culture, and (2) to communicate what the Bible has to say on public issues – to show, that the Bible is an intelligent book written by thoughtful people. Specifically, and more controversially, he suggested that we develop a database of experiences of God breaking into the world, like undeniable instances of God speaking in the world, miraculous circumstances, healings, and even encounters with angels and demons.

Personally, I found myself challenged and interested in Moreland’s ideas about working deliberately to build faith in the people who listen to my preaching. I even found myself appreciating the idea that I should catalog the instances in my own experience where God has made himself evident.

That being said, I think that perhaps Moreland underplayed the nature of faith in preaching and in the life of those we speak to. My sense is that we need to integrate both faith and reason such that our experience of God’s working finds its place alongside a reasoned appreciation of the truths that Scripture teaches. I once suggested that this is akin to aligning the two gospel songs, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so”, and “you ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.

Further, while I appreciate that the Bible is a source of knowledge, I think it also fair to say that as human subjects, our ability to know truth is limited by our finitude and fallenness. We are dependent, then, on God to reveal truth to us by his Spirit. I don’t despair that this overly privatizes my access to faith, because I believe that God is active by his Spirit, throughout the world, to build faith in the people he is reaching. It encourages me that he often uses preachers in that task.

The Foundation for Hearing God

There is, today, a proliferation of articles, books and speakers discussing the topic of “hearing God”.  Several well known evangelical preachers and leaders have weighed in with their contributions. I did a web search on the words “hearing God” and was fascinated by what came up. Page after page listing web sites, books, articles and other links all with some sort of answer to the questions, “Can I hear God?” “Does God speak today?” “If He is speaking today, how does He speak?”, “How do I recognize His voice?”, “How do I discern divine guidance?”

Our society pressures us to live speedy lives. We find all sorts of things to occupy us. Good things or useless things – they all clamor for our time.

I have been researching these questions for my Bible Study/Care Group. The initial study of several popular books and articles caused me to wonder what the stimulus was behind this wave of interest in the topic.  What is driving this quest?  There seems to be a renewed hunger to hear from God. That can be a good thing or it can indicate a problem.   My research has drawn me to ask the question “Is there something lacking in our postmodern, western, evangelical culture? Is there a scarcity of “hearing from God"?  We, as Bible believing Christians, know that God has spoken (Hebrews 1:1,2) so why are we not hearing? Are we not listening? Are we listening to the wrong words? Are there too many other voices?

As I have reflected on these questions and the current buzz about “hearing God” one fact stands clear. God designed us for relationship – relationship, in the first instance,  with Him.  Thus the desire to hear from Him.

Healthy, fulfilling relationships require time and effort to develop. Knowing God, knowing His mind, His ways, His character, His purposes all require spending uninterrupted, quality time with Him – through the Scriptures – as He has already revealed Himself to us.  When we do not take sufficient time to develop that kind of intimacy we are left with a relational void. My read on the current culture-wide hunger to hear from God is that it stems, in part, from a hurried, stunted, shortchanged relationship with Him. The relationship we have begun to experience with our Saviour has informed our spiritual senses that there is more. But here is the rub, that “more” requires more of us.

Our society pressures us to live speedy lives. We find all sorts of things to occupy us. Good things or useless things – they all clamor for our time. We flit from one new experience to the next. We drive through life so fast we have to get our food at drive-through windows. We learn early the value our society places on “multitasking”. The media knows that our individual attention spans are short so we are bombarded with fast-paced “clips”. 

We Christians have become acculturated to this style of living and I believe it has affected our spiritual lives. We are easily bored. If a “worship service” doesn’t entertain us sufficiently we move elsewhere. Long sermons and church services tire us. But maybe more deadly is the effect this lifestyle has on our personal, devotional relationship with God – it has become fragmented, stretched thin, missing even – and so we look for a fix. We still want to hear from Him, but…

As Christians, living in the context of this society, we are just not geared to slowing down and taking the time to build our personal relationship with God. Even the literature that I found on “learning to hear from God” often promoted a certain number of “steps to be followed” in the process, which points again to our cultural need to organize, to be efficient, to “not waste time”. But how do you organize a relationship, a friendship?

Carve out for your self sufficient space in your life to take the time to listen to what God has already said in His written Word.

Are you grappling with these questions? Are you yearning to hear God’s voice? Allow me to recommend something – a practice that I believe will develop in you and me the essential foundation for hearing from God.  This is a time-tested practice based on both biblical teaching and biblical example. It is not a difficult practice but in our culture it can be very challenging.

Carve out for your self sufficient space in your life to take the time to listen to what God has already said in His written Word – the Old and New Testaments.  Make it a priority practice in your life to set aside a significant portion of time each week to spend a leisurely, relationship-developing season with God. Find a location where no one will interrupt and you will not bother anyone. Take your Bible and begin to read out loud (the reason for this is to avoid rushing through your reading). Read in a translation that is designed to be read aloud – where you will not be stumbling over awkward sentence structure. Read an extended passage – a whole book or several (Colossians, Ephesians, Hebrews, a Gospel, several Psalms etc).  Read with understanding and emphasis. Meditate as you read. Be free to pause frequently and ponder what you have read. Read with observing eyes and mind. Read with a questing heart. Read in faith but don’t be afraid to ask questions. 

As you read, allow your heart to be lifted to your Heavenly Father in praise and adoration.  Allow the Spirit of God to illumine His Word to your heart. Shut out the hurry and worry of the pressure cooker lives we live and take the time to grow your relationship with Him.

Guard this time! Don’t allow sermon or Bible lesson preparation encroach upon it. This is holy ground – just between you and God.  This is relationship time.

A few years ago I began to study and memorize Psalm 119. I was intrigued by the great value the psalmist placed on God’s Word. He refers to his delight in it at least 9 times. I took special note of the exclamations and declarations the psalmist makes in response to his delight in God’s Word. “I will obey…I will not neglect…I will meditate…I have set my heart on…I will never forget…I have put my hope in…I stand in awe…they are the joy of my heart.” May this be our response to our practice of meeting God in His already revealed truth – the Scriptures. Then we will truly hear.

Some additional thoughts:

  1. If it seems difficult at first – don’t flit to the next popular book or website – persevere! Don’t be afraid to tell Him what you are struggling with – this is a relationship.
  2. Commit Scripture to memory. If you are just beginning – start with a familiar passage – something you may have memorized in the past. Do not try to take on too much at once – but once you start, be consistent – don’t quit!
  3. This is not primarily a time to bring petitions to God – but He does want to hear from you, so don’t rush back into the fast lane without pausing to speak with Him in prayer.
  4. If you would like to meditate on a passage of Scripture that speaks to this practice that I am recommending go to Psalm 119 and spend some time in it.

The Wonder of Sulfa and Penicillin – or Salt and Light

On my way to work this morning the radio station to which I was listening had an announcement regarding some of the up-coming fall TV shows. I found myself reacting to the announcer’s casual monologue. What he was describing was entertainment comprised of watching godless and adulterous relationships, of watching actors and actresses portraying a society whose values consisted of lust, deceit, betrayal, violence, murder and virtually any other godless form of lifestyle. The radio announcer described the opening scenes of a new season of one popular TV serial as "dark and twisted"! Hmmm…, just what I was needing to build me up in my faith and my daily walk with God.

I wonder if Jesus might have used the analogy of sulfa and penicillin!

I turned the radio off and was musing about the role of the Christian in society. Here we are, God’s holy people, living squarely in the middle of this culture of ours with its sordid view of entertainment. We are in it but not to be “of it”. God has kept us here for a reason. Jesus told us we are to be salt and light. As we interact with our culture, what does that look like?

It is the prerogative of the Gospel to transcend culture – to transform culture! We are to be culture influencers! It seems to me, however, that we also need to be very careful that the opposite does not happen – that our culture does not exert a godless influence on us through the “entertainment” that it serves up.

Here are some questions with which I wrestle:

1. Are we allowing our “personal culture” to be influenced daily by the transforming power of the Gospel? Do we vigorously clear away from our lives anything that would restrict that process? What safeguards have we put in place to ensure that this happens? With such a pervasive godlessness in our culture’s entertainment how do we keep ourselves from being influenced? Do we divorce ourselves completely from radio, TV, movies and the like? If not, where do we draw the line at what we allow ourselves to watch – to be entertained by? There are definite dangers – how do we recognize them? For example, can our entertainment so accustom our ears to the kind of speech that the Bible defines as “corrupt, foolish or coarse” (Eph. 4:29 & 5:3,4) that we become desensitized to it? That is only one of the many areas where moral desensitization can set in. Are there areas in our “comfortableness” with the culture of our society where we have been blinded by it? 

2. Are we allowing the Gospel’s transforming power to flow through us to the culture around us? In all the spheres where we have relationships with people, what positive, godly effect does our being there have on those around us? Is there a measure of intentionality about it? Do we ever stop and contemplate how we are influencing others? Last night at the badminton club I am part of one of the guys was casually throwing around some rather offensive language. I wrestled with how to respond? What did salt and light look like in this situation?

3. How important is all of this to us? Is it a priority in our lives?

God used that transformation as a means to explain another transformation that God wanted to work in their lives – the Gospel.

I remember as a child watching a marvelous transformational metaphor take place. My parents were missionaries in a very remote village on the island of Kalimantan, Indonesia. The people among whom we were living were plagued with a bizarre condition called Yaws or tropical ulcers. These putrid, infected lesions were both debilitating and disfiguring. It is also extremely contagious. When my parents first arrived in the village a large percentage of the local population was affected by this condition. Parts of arms, legs, hands and faces were eaten away. To this day I can still smell it.  It was horrific. 

With minimal medical experience and limited resources my parents began to treat the villagers. These people had never been exposed to sulfa drugs or penicillin and within weeks of initial treatment those dreadful sores completely dried up and healed. It was nothing short of miraculous. God used that transformation as a means for my dad and mom to explain to the villagers another transformation that God wanted to work in their lives – the Gospel. 

To me that is a picture of what we as Christians are to be in the society and culture in which we have been placed?  What miracles might we witness as we allow the Gospel to be radiated through our lives to our culture and the people of our culture?   I wonder if Jesus might have used the analogy of sulfa and penicillin!

Don’t Discuss, DO

For the past couple of years I have been leading a Bible study on the theme “touching the robe of Christ.”  This was adopted as a paradigm for the desire to break past misleading interpretations, religious terminology and church traditions and trappings in order to connect with God through Christ, to experience the reality of the Spirit’s power.  As part of the approach towards this, we read through the first six chapters of Mark as if we had never read them before and never heard of Jesus.  We tried for a fresh look at Jesus, who he claimed to be and what he taught.  Through that exercise we gained a number of valuable and enlightening insights.

To begin the fall session, we reviewed our progress.  Are we closer to “touching the robe of Christ”? Have we experienced this?  The answer was unequivocally, “no.”  Some were still puzzled about what that experience would “feel” like, while one person stated, “I think I have touched the robe, but nothing happened.”

Jesus taught us to LIVE the life, not just DISCUSS the life

I came away from the Bible study uncertain of the next step.  However, on the way to a pastors’ breakfast with the pastor of our church, Jared White, we discussed the Bible study and he suggested that perhaps “doing” was the element we were missing. We had been neglecting the reality that the text is given to us for the purpose of FOLLOWING, not discussion. Jesus taught us to LIVE the life, not just DISCUSS the life. So it is no surprise that we had not been able to “grasp the robe,” or in grasping had not experienced any “bells and whistles.”  What Jesus calls us to is obedience, to do what he commands. If we do not, then all discussion is like chasing smoke.  It is like trying to analyze love without living and experiencing love.  It is only by following and obeying that we are transformed into Christ’s image: into the wholeness and perfection, the harmony with God, the fulfillment of what our Father intended in our creation and sees in our potential.

So the question I will be raising in our study is no longer “how can we touch the robe,” for that is now within our grasp. Rather, with the robe in sight, the call is to follow. Will we act upon its implication and thus experience the robe through obedience to his commands?

Translation Theology

No, this is not an attack on any Bible translation. But it is a serious question — how do our translations of the Bible  influence the forming of our Christian worldview? We believe that God intended his Word to be translated into every language. Yet as we make the transition from Greek or Hebrew text to English or some other language, meaning is modified, often in subtle ways and without intention. The trust that Bible translators carry is immense, to say the least.

Does it make a difference whether we call John "the baptizer" or "the immerser" (Mark 1:4)? After all, the term "baptize" is a transliteration of the Greek, not a translation. And what has been the effect of using "Christ" (Mark 1:1) to render the Greek word for Messiah, i.e. anointed one? Or what image is created in our minds when we read the Jesus "preached the word"  (Mark 2:2)to the crowds gathered at his house in Capernaum? Was it a three pointer? Topical or expository? Or one wonders why the New International Version (NIV) translates euaggelion as "gospel" in Mark 1:1 and then "good news" in Mark 1:14-15, and then reverts to "gospel" in all the other occurrences in Mark until Mark 16:15 when suddenly it is "good news" again. What contextual factors would lead to such variance? Does this kind of alternation affect how we understand God’s Word and influence the theology that we formulate?

In Mark 2:15-17 the word hamartoloi is translated "sinners". It is placed in quotation marks in verses 15-16, but not in verse 17. In the Markan text "sinners" is differentiated from tax-collectors in 2:15-16. But when we hear the word, our grid tends to be formed by the Pauline understanding, i.e. "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God." But obviously this is not the kind of "sinner" that the Greek text of Mark 2:15-16 is  describing. But then in 2:17 we suddenly find the word "sinner" used in Jesus’ response, but without any quotation marks around it.  Presumably the contrast in his words between "righteous" and "sinner" changes the nuance of the term in the mind of the translator, from describing a social category, to describing a spiritual category.  When we come to the story of Jesus’ betrayal in Mark 14:41, Jesus says that "the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners." The NIV does not place any quotation marks around the word "sinners" in this context. But what did Jesus mean by using this term in 14:41? Is he placing his betrayers in the social category defined by the scribes in Mark 2:15-16 or is he defining them as "sinners", i.e. sinful human beings?

Examples could be multiplied and while the NIV is used as an example here, all translations struggle with this problem. But these instances beg the question about the way these renderings, read by millions of people and liturgically intoned countless times in the hearing of the faithful, shape or perhaps mis-shape the theology of the average believer.

I do not raise this question to create doubt about the trustworthiness of good Bible translations. Rather, I draw attention to this reality — our theology does get shaped by how we read these translations, whether we like it or not. Frequent reference to the Greek or Hebrew text becomes more important, not less, as the number, type and quality of English Bible translations continues to multiply. Preachers and teachers have a significant responsibility to make sure they "divide the Word of God rightly." Perhaps competence in New Testament Greek or biblical Hebrew is becoming more important, not less, so that ministry leaders guide and form God’s people as diligently as possible. If we take short cuts here, what might be the unintended consequences?

The love of the Father

Over the years of my Christian life I have often grappled with the questions, "How can I have a relationship with someone I cannot see, hear or touch?  What kind of a relationship is it if one party is limited by being bound to this humanity?"  I know, and have preached on the theologically correct answers to these questions.  I recall J. Sidlow Baxter preaching a series of messages back during my bible college days where he encouraged us to read the Gospels photographically and see Jesus as the Gospel writers portray Him – a practice I have often undertaken over the 30 or so years since. As I have read through John’s Gospel I have taken careful note of Jesus words in 14:7 "If you have known me, you will also know my Father. From now on you know him and have seen him."  As I have grown in the Christian disciplines and pursued my walk with God I have learned to hear from his Word and rejoice in intimate fellowship with Him.  But there still arise those moments when ‘feelings’ and faith seem to be on opposite sides of the experience pendulum.

This past summer I read a book that had a profound impact on my perception of my relationship with God. The book is The Shack by William P. Young.  It is a powerful story of a father’s overwhelming grief in the face of horrific tragedy and how God turns that grief into an opportunity to get to know the Heavenly Father.  It is difficult to classify this book. Is it fiction?  Eugene Peterson’s comment on the book cover seems to imply that it is allegory.  As I read it, I couldn’t help but try to get into the author’s mind and ask, "what motivated this book?" Is it autobiographical?  What ever the genre the impact on me was telling. As I was reading it on the plane I kept looking around to see if anyone was noticing my tears.  I wept out of sheer joy as my perspective of what God desired in relationship was deepened.  I wept out of a profound sense of being humbled by the Father’s passionate love.  I wept out of a refreshed intense longing to know Jesus more. I wept as the Spirit took that story and breathed into my soul a new understanding of His desire to draw me closer.

The Shack  is a book I would recommend to every Christian. You will be drawn into a fresh understanding at God’s ineffable love for his children and the kind of relationship we were intended to have with Him.

The Word Must Be Heard

We have a new lead pastor at our church (Parkland Fellowship) and we couldn’t be happier. Yesterday, Brian Stewart offered us a dramatic recitation of the entire book of Philippians, from memory! I had memorized the book of Philippians some years ago, but I had never had the courage (or the wisdom) to offer it in public. My mistake.

Open Bible Brian’s presentation was masterful. He began, early in the service, with a brief setup to the book, helping us appreciate its broad themes. Later in the service he actually recited the book. He was dressed in ordinary casual clothing. His only prop was a heavy chain. His presentation was deeply felt, communicating with conviction, enthusiasm, and sensitivity. Like an actor, he made the ideas in the Scripture come alive for everyone present. It is Brian’s intention to preach through the entire book over the next several weeks and so this was to serve as a kind of introduction, but we found it to be so much more than that. It was as if Paul himself had brought the sermon to us on this Sunday.

I have often thought that sometimes we as preachers get in the way of God’s Word. If we really believe that the Scriptures are the very words of God, then we ought to be able to just read them to the congregation and let the Spirit of God do his thing. Yesterday’s presentation confirmed that line of thinking for me.

I still believe that the preaching of the Word helps people hear the Word, but I guess I’m reflecting on the fact that in so much of our preaching the Bible isn’t heard much at all. We may reflect on the occasional verse or put it on the powerpoint screen, but do we give people time to soak in the Scriptures? Could we let the Scriptures speak for themselves before we get to commenting?

For years now, I’ve made it my practice to read the text in full before getting into the sermon. I like the idea that the people hear the Word itself before I get to messing it up with my stories and ideas. I remember one Sunday many years ago when I was dealing with a particularly long passage, trying to decide whether or not there was time to read the whole thing. I was a little concerned whether people would want to hang with me for such a long time, but in the end decided to go ahead and read it all. After the service, a woman thanked me profusely for taking to time to read the passage. “I’ve always appreciated that about you,” she said. “You’ve always been willing to take the time for us to actually hear the Word of God.” I have taken her comments to heart. I’ve learned that when the Scripture is read well, it has its impact.

The Word of God must not only be talked about. The Word must be heard.

Ministrytalk: Spiritual Formation — is it all good?

Great interest now focuses upon fostering spiritual formation within all segments of Christianity. In its best forms, Christian spiritual formation uses various exercises and disciplines to form us to be like Christ, in thought, word and deed. Jesus himself taught his followers to pray, to resist evil, to love, to serve, to pursue righteousness, to study God’s word, to think as God thinks. But are all the exercises proposed today to assist Christian spiritual formation equally helpful and aligned with Christian values and understanding?

…the encouragement from the biblical examples is to be "meditating on God’s word day and night", as the basis for contemplative prayer. The outcome sought is the deep intimacy of knowing God as we reflect intensely upon his person displayed through his incredible actions.

In the first decades of the Christian movement some believers were convinced that being circumcised and obeying the Old Testament ‘law’ was the most appropriate pattern for stimulating spiritual growth. Yet Paul had to disabuse such believers of this idea, arguing that for non-Jews, circumcision as a spiritual exercise was actually harmful. Jesus criticized the Jewish religious leaders for requiring a Sabbath practice that inhibited spiritual formation. Paul warns believers at Corinth about the spiritual damage caused by participating thoughtlessly in the Lord’s Supper. It is not just an improper spiritual exercise that can cause problems, but the attitude our hearts have as we participate in it.

One of the spiritual exercises currently encouraged is called "contemplative prayer." Major prayers recorded in the Bible tend to be rehearsals of what God has done, meditations on the acts of God and their implications, which in turn give an encouragement for the petitioner to ask, trust and quietly wait for God’s response. I cannot locate any occasion in the Bible where God’s people are instructed to engage in prayer by empyting their minds and waiting for some thought, some image, some message to come. Rather, the encouragement from the biblical examples is to be "meditating on God’s word day and night", as the basis for contemplative prayer. The outcome sought is the deep intimacy of knowing God as we reflect intensely upon his person displayed through his incredible actions.

We need to distinguish carefully this Christian form of contemplative prayer from the use of contemplative prayer in other religious traditions. The constant repetition of a single phrase (a mantra) or the effort to focus the mind on nothing, or the attempt to open oneself up to spiritual forces — none of this is spiritual formation as defined or exemplified in Scripture.  In helping believers to form good spiritual habits, pastors and spiritual mentors, like an exercise coach, must be careful to provide the best advice, lest  the  person be harmed. The practices of Christian spirituality must be crafted in alignment with biblical principles, no matter what historical or contemporary Christian mystics might suggest. We also have to be careful about the spiritual practices some urge us to borrow from other religious traditions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam. And even from within the very broad stream of Christian tradition, we have to examine carefully the theological basis that spiritual practitioners may offer to justify certain spiritual formation exercises.

Just like the wrong form of physical exercise can damage severely muscle, tendons, and joints, so too blithely embracing all and sundry forms of human religious practice will result in soul harm. Satan can use spiritual formation exercises to mislead and deceive a believer, just as he can use anything else — even the form of an angel.

A Call for a Complementary view of Bible Versions

As a missionary involved in Bible translation for the past 18 years, I was disappointed with the tone of the article “‘Packer’s Bible’ now bestseller” appearing in the BC Christian News, August 2007 Vol 27 #8 < http://www.canadianchristianity.com/bc/bccn/0807/01bible>. During the course of celebrating the growth in sales of the English Standard Verson (ESV) – a welcome addition to a number of excellent formal translations such as the NRSV and the NASB – disparaging and unhelpful remarks were made against other translations and translation philosophies (such as the “meaning based” philosophy that lies behind those invaluable translations that provide the spiritually hungry reader with “what was meant”). 

This unfortunate perspective was carried on in a sidebar entitled “’Dueling’ Translations” in which three Bible verses were presented from a variety of Bible versions. This negative and combative attitude not only confuses the average Christian and creates unnecessary divisions over minor issues, but it undermines the benefits we can gain from the multitude of translations available to us. 

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God’s Economy

Have you ever been bemused by God’s way of doing things?  I have, and in the end have stood in awe of His timing, patience, grace and goodness.

A number of years ago (in another world) I taught at a Bible college deep in the jungles of Kalimantan (formerly known as Borneo).  For several years I had a student who was a source of great consternation to me.  It seemed that no matter what subject I had him for he just could not "get it"!  His academic situation came up repeatedly in our faculty meetings but no one had the heart to say, "Sorry, he just isn’t making it – let him go!"  So from year to year we granted him a provisional pass to the next level of study and every year we wondered.  But he kept pressing on.  Everyone loved him.  His gentleness, humility and transparency captivated all who knew him.

I was responsible for student accounts at the time and one day he came to my office to ask for some money from his account.  I had just reviewed the books and his account was more than empty, so I asked him, "On what basis are you asking me this?" (literal translation).  He pulled himself up straight and declared, "On the basis of the grace of God!"  I could hardly contain myself and found some extra funds that we had for just such an occasion – grace funds!  Total dependence on the grace of God seemed to be the theme of his life.

In his fourth and final year I was assigned to be his practicum supervisor and evaluator.  He was pastoring a church in a nearby village and I went with him several Sundays to evaluate.  I had taught him homiletics but his sermons bore no resemblance to anything we had studied.  I was seriously considering recommending to the school that he was not cut out for the ministry.  However, after the services I went with him as he walked from home to home in that village, praying for people, encouraging them to be strong in their faith, counselling, advising and loving – and the people loved him in return.  The church in that village had never been so healthy and vigorous.  We graduated him that year (with no little sense of misgiving) and that was the last I saw of him for 14 years as my wife and I were denied extensions to our visas and returned to Canada that summer.  In the intervening years we have often wondered.

I had the privilege this summer of returning to Kalimantan and visiting in this same young man’s home and witnessing the amazing grace of God.  He is married with three children.  He and his wife are involved together in a marvelous cross-cultural ministry.  As we spoke I learned that he has already planted a church amongst a very difficult people group. He has turned that church over to another man to continue the pastoral work and is now in the process of building a second work which involves not just a church plant but also a Christian school as well – again, in the midst of a most difficult ethnic group. It defies human explanation.

Oh, the wonderful grace of Jesus!  God’s economy is one of utter grace.

Appreciating the beauty of God

At the beginning of August Karen and I visited the Bridal Veil waterfall outside of Hope. At the foot of the falls there is a fenced off area for observers with a large “CAUTION” sign warning people to keep back and enjoy the falls from a distance. The falls are beautiful – almost mesmerizing – as they continually change while remaining the same and cover the observers with a fine, fresh smelling mist. We noted and complied with the sign and the fence, but we just as quickly dismissed them from our minds as our attention was held captive by the rush of water.

This experience became a metaphor in an ongoing discussion Karen and I have concerning the Bible, the place of the local church and our experience of God’s presence through our daily lives. The Bible and the local church are like the sign and fence. The waterfall is the reality of God’s presence in our lives. We read God’s word and we connect with other believers in our spiritual journey towards conformity to Christ. But the significant issue is our connection to God is our daily lives. Knowledge and instruction, however important, are but “dealers in second hand goods” if we are not enveloped with the wonder of living in God’s presence. The signs and the fence are there in order to ensure a positive experience of the waterfall. We mustn’t get so caught up in studying the wording of the sign or considering the structure of the fence that we neglect the beauty for which they were constructed.

Global Warming and the Ability to Know

I’m a global warming skeptic. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t care about the environment. As a child of God I understand my responsibility as a steward of creation and I take it seriously. It’s just that I’m not sure I can believe all of the hype surrounding climate change.

This morning, for instance, I read that the so-called NASA “hockey stick” graph that showed stable temperatures for 1,000 years followed by dramatic increases in temperature in the last half of the twentieth century was based on a faulty calculation. This graph has been used prominently by the UN and nearly every major environmental lobby group to prove that there has been dramatic climate change in recent years. (Read the report in the The National Post.)

As it turns out, it’s not true. Last week, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies corrected an error in its data based on analysis done by Canadian researcher Steve McIntyre. This correction has resulted in significant changes to the data that has supported much of the rhetoric around global warming.

The data now indicates that the hottest year since 1880 was 1934 and not 1998 (which is just second hottest) as previously reported. 1921 is the third hottest year. Four of the 10 hottest years were in the 1930s and only three in the last decade. The 15 hottest years since 1880 are spread over seven decades. Eight occurred before atmospheric carbon dioxide began its recent rise; seven occurred afterwards. This is hardly the stuff of impending disaster.

Of course none of this eliminates our need to handle God’s creation with care. Clearly, we humans can do a lot of damage to our world, and in many ways do. Further, it may be that other studies or changes in the future will modify our perspective. What it does do, however, is raise the level of skepticism about the science that is so often reported in our media.

This is a matter of postmodern epistemology. What do we know in this world and how do we know it? For secular moderns, science is the only sure footing for knowledge about life in the world. But what we are discovering is that science is incredibly complex and difficult both to understand and to communicate. The reporting of science is inevitably biased by the personal, political, and sometimes even theological perspectives of the ones reporting the ‘facts’. The truth is, the universe (and the God who created it) is much bigger than our ability to understand so that even our best scientific discoveries must be couched in the language of theory and hypothesis. We just don’t know anywhere near as much as we would like to think that we do. Sub-atomic research yields the “uncertainty principles” of quantum mechanics. Deep space research only multiplies the number of questions. Hey, we can’t even measure temperatures on our own planet correctly.

Which is why I am so deeply dependent upon God’s self-revelation. What I know about God and about his will and plan for the world he created I know because he revealed it to me through his Word. Granted, I take this by faith, but then most science is taken by faith as well – faith in the rules of logic and the laws of physics. Such things don’t always allow for certainty, given the limits and the bias’ we bring as humans.

I don’t trust everything I hear or read unless I hear it from God or read it in the Bible. Beyond that, I listen to the scientists and the secular prophets with patience, with humility, and with a healthy skepticism.

Someone asked Martin Luther what he would do if he knew for certain that Christ would return that day. “I would plant a tree,” he said, offering wisdom of both theological and environmentally proportions. I myself planted two trees on my property last week. I love to watch God make things grow, and if things do eventually get warmer, then I will appreciate the shade.

Patriarchy and Understanding the Bible

 “That’s just NOT right!” exclaimed a woman in a Bible study I was conducting. The object of her disapproval was Naomi’s instructions for Ruth to approach Boaz while he was sleeping (see Ruth 3). She was correct in that she recognized the inappropriateness of such an action within our society. She was incorrect because she failed to recognize the cultural values of the Hebrew context (particularly patriarchy) during the time of the “judges”, which validated Ruth’s approach to Boaz.

The Bible is God’s revelation of his will to humanity given within a cultural context that is very different from our situation today. Although the Bible remains God’s revelation of his will for us, it was originally written to people whose language, culture and worldview greatly contrasts with ours. Thus, the more the values, beliefs and situation of the original audience are understood by today’s reader, the better the meaning of the divine message can be comprehended. Similarly, the more we comprehend our own culture and society, the better equipped we are to understand how the biblical revelation can be expressed and applied in our context.

The implications of this reality are profound for the Bible translator and the cross-cultural worker as well as for all those who want to understand the relevance of God’s word for them. We cannot understand and appreciate the way the Bible relates to us without first recognizing that God spoke his message to people both through and because of their situation. To the degree our modern context is similar to the context of original audience, the original message will have direct relevance for us. However, differences between the ancient and modern cultures require us to adopt a two step process of interpretation.

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The Marks of an Unspiritual Leader

In those days Israel had no king. Each man did what he considered to be right.
Judges 21:44

Eli the priest of God at Shiloh was the default leader of Israel at the opening of the book of 1 Samuel.  He was elderly and his two sons, Hophni and Phinnehas, performed the regular priestly duties at the Tent of Meeting.  The second chapter of 1 Samuel records that those two sons were evil, ruthless, dissolute, immoral and godless men. How is it that they were allowed to continue to "minister before the Lord"?  The answer is found in the fact that their father was a leader with a profound lack of spiritual understanding.  He was not a spiritual man.  It seems to me that the culture of the day that we find mentioned at the end of the book of Judges has seriously affected this leader of his people and clouded his spiritual understanding.  As I read the account I find the following indicators.

1. Spiritual insensitivity

With Hannah – Eli assumed she was drunk (1:14).  Maybe it is a statement on Eli’s spiritual expectations that his natural reaction to Hannah’s weeping before the Lord in the tabernacle was to accuse her of drunkenness. Why would he jump to that conclusion unless his ability at spiritual discernment  was severely dulled.

With Samuel – it took three attempts to wake Eli to the fact that God was calling the young boy (3:1-9)

2. Spiritual inattention

With his sons – Eli disregarded their wickedness (2:22).  Despite one feeble rebuke recorded in 2:22-25 the condemnation was leveled at him by an unknown messenger from God that he was honoring his sons above God.  He had lost sight of spiritual priorities.

With God – God’s visitations to his people were rare and His word was rarely heard in those days (3:1).  It would seem that the reason for the scarcity of God’s revelation was because Eli, the priest, was not listening to God.  He was not spiritually inclined to seek for the voice of God and so it became silent.

3. Spiritual ignorance

The ‘man of God’ who came to Eli and warned him of God’s impending judgment had to remind Eli of God’s calling and anointing on the priestly lineage (2:27,28).  It is quite an indictment that the man of God levels at Eli.  The rhetorical questions, "Did I not…" imply that Eli has either forgotten or is totally ignorant of God’s dealing with Israel and particularly God’s appointment of the priestly line.

4. Spiritual imprudence

In the account of Eli’s death it is recorded that he was old and very fat (4:18).  When the man of God rebuked Eli he condemned him because he had made himself fat off the illicit spoils provided by his sons (2:29).  Gluttony blurred Eli’s capacity to think and act as a spiritual leader should.

5. Spiritual indifference

When told of God’s judgment he shrugged it off almost fatalistically (3:18).  His response, "He is the Lord, let him do what seems good to him" stands in stark contrast to David’s casting himself on God’s mercy after being rebuked by the prophet Nathan.  Once again this points to a lack of a true understanding of God’s nature and God’s dealings with people.

It seems to me that the story of Eli should make every Christian (and particularly those in leadership) take a long hard look at their own spirituality.  Are there areas of our lives where the culture of the day has dimmed our spiritual vision or dulled our sensitivity?  What do our lives demonstrate as to the quality of our spirituality.  Do we need to wake up and take stock?

A Father’s Contribution to the Development of a Great Leader

As the dark years of Israel’s history, recounted for us in the book of Judges, draw to a close and we see the transition of national identity from cowering fugitives into a great kingdom – a remarkable leader is used by God to bring Israel back to Himself.  That leader is the prophet and judge of Israel, Samuel.  Given the cultural, social and religious milieu at the time of his birth and early childhood it is even more remarkable that he became the man that he did.  In a previous article we looked at the influence of Samuel’s mother, Hannah, on her son’s development into a highly respected leader.  It was her faith, prayer, nurture, perseverance, integrity and care that deeply influenced this little boy and encouraged him to become the man he did.

But there is another person who, I believe, also had a profound influence on Samuel’s growing up years.  That person is his father Elkanah.  Here is what I observe about this man from 1 Samuel 1-3.

1. He was an ordinary man, husband, father in the context of his society and culture. But he was also a man who stood tall above the cultural anarchy and religious apathy of the day. (c.f. Judges 21:25)

2. He was not a national or religious figure. He was not a tribal head or clan elder but he was an upstanding leader in his own home and family. (1 Samuel 1-3)

3. He, personally, was a faithful, God-fearing, deeply religious man as evidenced by his regular pilgrimages to the tabernacle in Shiloh to offer up sacrifices to the Lord (1:3).

4. He did not keep his religion to himself but faithfully led his family in the worship of the One True God – encouraging their individual participation.  It is noteworthy that the writer of 1 Samuel took the time to detail how Elkanah gave portions to each member of his family – adults and children.  He was doing his best to ensure that his family knew God and followed in His ways (1:4).

5. In his conversation with Hannah in 1:8 we get the sense that he is a devoted, loving and tender husband.  This one factor alone would be significant in Samuel’s healthy emotional and social development.

6. Elkanah fully supported Hannah in the fulfillment of her commitment to the Lord regarding Samuel (1:23).  Penninah, the rival, aside – one gets the sense of a family unit that are in one in heart to follow God.

In an age of religious turmoil, waywardness and spiritual ignorance, Elkanah stands tall as a godly man, loving husband and competent father.  Samuel, his son, could not have been anything other than indelibly influenced by his father’s example.

Dads! The challenge is there for us.  Let’s never underestimate the power of the example of a godly, faithful and committed father to influence the next generation.  Some will even go on to become great leaders.


Shaping the Message

One of the primary responsibilities of the cross-cultural Christian worker is to discover how God’s revelation of himself in both the written word (the Bible) and the living Word (Jesus) resonates with the cultural group with whom she or he is developing a relationship. In our ministry among the Sindhi people, we discovered that both the message and the method needed to be formed and expressed by relevant cultural images and values in order to provide a spiritual impact. Consider these examples:

Honor for one’s teacher is a very important value for the Sindhi people. Part of the reason rote learning is the preferred method in schools is because honor is expressed through unquestioning acceptance and trust of the teacher. This contrasts with the heavy dependence upon rational thinking found in western education. As a result, an important aspect of the person of Jesus Christ for the Sindhi people is that of teacher. During the washing of the disciples’ feet, Peter at first refuses to have his feet washed (Jn 13:8). The Sindhi reader is quite offended by this and views his refusal as an act of disloyalty. In the Sindhi mind a student obeys the teacher without question even if it is a matter of honor. If the student is unable to trust the teacher, then he or she should not be a disciple.

Tied to this value is the interesting observation that Sindhi believers do not require an “assurance of salvation,” a common lesson in discipleship manuals for new believers. The need for this is because many western believers seem plagued with doubt and at times wonder if they are saved. However, the Sindhi believer does not contemplate such a question. They have made a commitment to their Teacher Jesus, and any doubt or questioning would be considered an act of dishonor to him.

In the Sindhi context as well, baptism becomes the primary act of commitment through which one pledges his or her life to Christ. While individual prayers and expressions of faith play a role in the development of the believer, it is this public act of commitment and submission to the Teacher – an acted out prayer – that expresses the point of full allegiance. Through this act they gain a new identity as a disciple of Jesus bound together with other committed followers. Individual faith thus finds its expression and fulfillment in a communal context.

The Canadian context is increasingly a mosaic of many cultures. The variety of values and perspectives requires cross-cultural workers to discover the heart language of the people they are working with in order to shape both the method and message of Jesus Christ in a way that will resonate with the worldview of those people.

Samuel, a Mother’s Contribution to a Great Leader

Recommended reading: 1 Samuel 1-8

I am intrigued with the rise of Samuel’s leadership as described in the first few chapters of 1 Samuel.  After the years of Israel’s spiritual, moral and national decline as described in the book of Judges the years of Samuel’s leadership stand sturdy and tall.  Under his faithful and godly guidance Israel regains her faith in God as well as her sense of nationhood under God.  Samuel was a giant among leaders. What fascinates me are the people surrounding him during his growing up years. 

What contributed to his development as a leader? What about the people surrounding him? In his earliest years there is his mother, Hannah; there is Hannah’s rival Peninah (with all her children) and there is his father, Elkanah.  Later, as he begins his tenure as the understudy for the temple there is Eli, the priest and default leader of the day along with his two evil sons Hophni and Phinehas.  Then there were the Israelite worshipers who came to the tent of meeting there in Shiloh to offer sacrifices and worship the One True God.  What influence did these people have on young Samuel?  What did they contribute to the development of this great leader to be?

Hannah is the first influence in his life.  Imagine with me young Samuel growing up under Hannah’s godly care.  I get the sense from the conversation between Hannah and Elkanah in 1:21-23 that Hannah intended to pour herself into her little boy during the years that she had him and before she was to give him into the Lord’s service.  It is likely that from his earliest recall he would hear the stories of Hannah’s sorrow and ultimate blessing.  Hannah probably retold many times how God answered her prayers.  I am sure Samuel was also quite aware from early on of his mother’s promise to God.  My guess is that Hannah had a great deal to do with Samuel’s growing up with a deep sense of awe of God and His goodness. 

Samuel probably could see early on the contrast between his mother and that other woman, Peninah.  The gentleness contrasted with the sneering, the selfelessness contrasted with the pettyness…  Even though we are not given many details, I doubt that Peninah’s character changed much with the birth of Samuel and the contrast must have been instructive to him.  His mother’s character and godliness were great influences in his life.

Hannah was a woman of prayer.  She understood prayer as communing with God.  When Eli questioned her in the tabernacle, Hannah described her prayer as "Pouring out my soul to the Lord" (1:15).  I believe Samuel’s deep and close relationship with God began here on Hannah’s knees. Hannah’s prayer in chapter 2, recorded for all succeeding ages, gives us a little glimpse of this woman’s considerable understanding of God and his ways.  I believe it can be safely infered that she did not stint in communicating these truths to her young son.

Commentators vary on how old Samuel might have been when he was presented to the Lord at the temple.  But short time or long, Hannah was probably the most influential person in the development of this leader. 

Put yourself into the picture of the yearly pilgrimages from Ramah to Shiloh.  Imagine with me the excitement preceeding the event.  Samuel in Shiloh waiting impatiently for the day to come when his mother and family would arrive.  Hannah in Ramah, lovingly putting the finishing touches on the garment she made for her little man every year.  There is a faraway look in her eye, a tiny smile tugs at the corners of her mouth.  She will see her little boy soon. "How tall will he be by now"? 

It is what the text does not tell us that intrigues me.  Was Hannah’s heart lifted to God daily on behalf of this little man?  Did she ever worry?  Did doubts ever creep in? – "Did I do the right thing?"  "Did I really have to give him to God for all of his life?" Did intense longing for her first-born ever cloud her eyes with tears?

What influence do you and I have in the lives of the youngsters around us? What do they see in us?  Are we praying for the children in our sphere of influence?  Are we contributing to the development of tomorrow’s godly leaders?  Allow me to encourage us to take another look at the influence of this godly woman on an entire nation through her influence on her son and let’s ask God how we can be used of Him in similar ways.

Note: The topic for the fall ACTS Seminaries Pastors’ & Mentors’ Day is "Children Matter"

Godliness, Again!

I am curious about Paul’s usage of the word ‘godliness’ (eusebia) in his letter to Titus on several counts.  The first is that Paul makes it clear throughout the letter that the pursuit of godliness is a normal practice in the life of the believer.  In the very first sentence he writes:

From Paul,a slave of God and apostle of Jesus Christ, to further the faith of God’s chosen ones and the knowledge of the truth that is in keeping with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the ages began.  (NET Bible)

Second, each passage in this letter that deals with the core teaching on salvation (i.e. that salvation is provided freely by God’s grace and mercy and not because of any of our doing) inevitably concludes with an exhortation to godliness being expressed through good works (2:11-14; 3:4-8).  Godliness, then, is the outworking of the inner work of salvation and it is expressed in good works.  The entire letter seems dedicated to describing what godliness must look like in the lives of God’s people.  That ‘look’ is linked to living righteously, "denying ungodliness", and doing good works.

Third, Paul exhorts Titus to challenge all of his listeners to lives of godliness.  The challenge is thrown out to church leaders (elders and overseers), to men and women, to husbands and wives, to young and old, to slaves and freemen – godliness is for all.

Here They Come…

In the February edition of the Leadership Connections newsletter, I recorded the results of some research that I’ve been doing on emerging leaders: [When Emerging Leaders go BOOM! http://leadership.nbseminary.com/ncld_011.htm – check it out.]

Twice this week, the issue has come up as both the Seminary – and our Churches are beginning to witness this phenomenon. So, for what it’s worth, I’ll repeat the details in part … with one distinct conclusion: if the Boomers don’t’ find meaningful expression in their church – they will go elsewhere…

“Over the last three years as I’ve been seeking to create instruments to empower home-grown leaders, I’ve noticed that the greatest personal interest being shown comes from people of a certain age. Let me share an example: ‘I am an engineer, 50 years old, chair of our church board … my wife and I have been praying about our future plans to devote ourselves to full-time ministry in the next 5 years.’ 

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to discover a cultural phenomenon that is creating a huge impact in the church – the Baby-Boomer generation in transition. … While Boomers have been sometimes branded as the most selfish generation, there is evidence that as they age they are proving to be much different. A study from the Corporation for National and Community Service in 2005 revealed that Boomers are not only more active in volunteer participation, but fully expect to extend their volunteer commitments to more mature – even career – levels. This surge is being felt in a number of arenas. It has created an impact in the world of missions. In late 2005, Wycliffe Bible Translators built a volunteer mobilization center in Orlando, Florida in an attempt to keep up with their largest sector of missionary growth. Since the year 2000, Wycliffe has experienced an average of 40% annual increase in the number of “Boomer Missionaries.” Martin Huyett, Wycliffe’s vice-president for volunteer services explained, “these people have a certain amount of freedom and control … they want to do something significant, not just write checks.” …

One organization, The Finisher’s Project, was founded by Nelson Malwitz as a way to match Boomers with the growing list of ministry opportunities provided by Mission agencies. Currently, the Finisher’s Project is working with 100 organizations, has placed over 1,000 people in full-time missions, has 1,000 people in process, and has an additional 1,200 people expressing their intention to make a transition in the next 2 years.

Todd Johnson of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity said, “Most mission agencies are trying to work with this trend … that 20 years ago was unwelcome.” … As I reflect on the growing body of statistics generated by the explosion of the Boomer generation, I find myself almost overwhelmed by the sheer number of implications. Apart from the fact that many of them are intensely personal [since I, too, am a Boomer] each seem to have a consequence for the future of the church.

Let me share one quick discoveries:The Boomers are ready – use them or lose them: Jim Hughes of the Abilene Christian University writes, “many churches look to younger people to fill significant roles, leaving older adults to trivial tasks.” Many Boomer post-retirement plans are being built around significance, mission, and impact. With their proven record of life-skills and initiative, if their Church won’t match their intentions in a serious fashion, they will find other avenues to influence their world.”

Interested in more: check out www.finishers.org/ and www.finisherscanada.ca/

Relational Spaces

In The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small Groups (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), Joseph R. Myers challenges evangelicals to think creatively about how people belong. He utilizes the work done by Edward Hall explaining that there are four “spaces” or levels of connecting in which people relate and commit: Public, Social, Personal and Intimate. He makes the observation that churches largely function on the “public” and “intimate” levels with the goal of involving all attendees in the “intimate” space of small groups. He then suggests a different approach in which the church legitimizes relationships in all four spaces without attempting to move people to spaces where they are uncomfortable.

If I understand Myers correctly, in public spaces we interact indirectly with and through others. For example, a worship service, a Bible study or the crowd watching a sports event would be a public space. In such contexts we deal with other people indirectly centered on a common interest. In this space there is little vulnerability.

In social spaces we relate our stories to others and hear their stories. This is a sharing of history, experiences and relationships that does not require privacy. Such sharing is an invitation into someone else’s life at a limited and comfortable level of vulnerability.

In personal spaces we share our private hopes and dreams to a few special people. This involves a partnership or commitment towards togetherness and connection. Communication is deeper than merely verbal. Acceptance of others occurs in spite of knowledge of personal shortcomings, which implies a deeper level of vulnerability.

In our intimate spaces we connect deeply and openly. We are “naked and not ashamed”. More than simply physical nearness, this includes vulnerability to the point that betrayal would result in lasting wounds.

This concept of four spaces is a good tool for evaluating relationships in cross-cultural ministry as well. All four spaces are present in other cultures, but they will have different emphases and boundaries. I have never met the wife of one my friends in Pakistan, even though we have known each other for several years and I have been to his house several times. We have a relationship at a social level, and we are both comfortable with the limitations this implies. For the church planter, the relational boundaries people set need to be respected, rather than overcome. The goal becomes one of encouraging spiritual development within the level of relationship where people feel comfortable, rather than moving them on to another “space.”

What is Godliness?

A friend e-mailed me a response to my June 18 article on the topic, "Godliness in Everyday Shoe Leather." After describing the lives of Christian friends, family and acquaintances, with some of the accompanying struggles and issues that Christians can and do face, the following was the observation made and the question posed in the e-mail: "These are real life examples of people whose lives are about knowing and following God. But the standards, choices and activities may not fit the criteria for godliness….or do they? What is godliness?" Although Scripture does not state a cut and dried definition of godliness per se it does hold up the example toward which our pursuit of godliness is to be directed. That example is Jesus. In his writing on godliness the apostle Peter writes of becoming "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). Is that an impossible standard for us? In our own strength and abilities, yes! Should we adjust the standard so that it is attainable? No! God has prepared all the resources we need. Here is what Peter writes:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. (2 Peter 1:3-7)1

The Scriptures, then, with the portrait they paint of Jesus must always be our standard when we ask "What is godliness?" But I wonder if the biblical concept of godliness is not so much about living up to a particular set of criteria as it is about pressing on in the pursuit of becoming more and more like Jesus. It is more of a process to be struggled through, with victories to be won, cherished and celebrated together, than it is to "have a product", so to speak, to be held up for scrutiny and comparison. It is true that Jesus told us that we are to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48). That is an absolute standard. But Paul made it very clear that in his own journey of faith he had not yet attained but was still in process (Philippians 3). He wrote of pressing on, with a calling ringing in his ears and a shimmering goal beckoning ahead! Interestingly, the Scriptures do describe what godliness is not. Peter, in the passage above, describes the contrast as, ""having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire." The contrast between ‘fleeing’ and ‘pursuing’ to which Paul exhorts Timothy give a good sense of what things war against our pursuit of godliness (1 Timothy 6:11). In his exhortation to Titus, Paul writes:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works (Titus 2:11-14).1

In several passages (Ephesians 4 and 5; Galatians 5) Paul contrasts the old life of the flesh with the new life in the Spirit giving us a clear picture of what godliness is, and isn’t. However, as my friend’s e-mail pointed out each of us has his or her own story of how godliness is being pursued in our individual lives. One Christian might marvel at another’s "Christian experience" and long to taste similar victories. Another might look around at other Christians and wonder why they are struggling so with something that has long been conquered in his or her life. Another might wonder why there seems to be no evidence of victory or even struggle in the life of a particular Christian or group of Christians with some practice deemed to be "ungodly". A danger I see in all of this is that when we look around at others we take our eyes off of our ultimate standard – Jesus. So, in my life, I have viewed the pursuit of godliness, not so much as trying to live up to a set of carefully detailed criteria but rather nurturing a deep passion to grow in Christ-likeness (in grace, mercy, love, joy, forgiveness, peace, contentment etc.) and to help others to grow similarly. Recognizing that I come with my own "unique" set of weaknesses and challenges I take Paul’s example to heart and keep pressing on, watching for those around me who I might be able to encourage along the way. Practically, then, what does it mean to become more like Jesus? Scripture tells us that Jesus "gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works" (Titus 2:14). Here some basics:

  • Jesus was absolutely committed to doing the Father’s will. His life was marked by obedience. That is a good starting point for the pursuit of godliness – obedience to the revealed will of God. The corollary there is that obedience requires knowledge – which leads us to the importance of diligent study of His Word (we cannot obey if we are unfamiliar with His desires).
  • Jesus was completely dependent upon the Spirit’s enabling. He spent much time in prayer. As I read the stories of godly men and women of the past and of today prayerfulness is a recurring theme.
  • Jesus loved others. He reached out to the outcasts of society — the unloved and forsaken and gave them hope. We will grow in godliness as we grow in loving one another. Jesus commanded this of his followers and said that they would be known as his followers by this very characteristic.
  • Jesus proclaimed the Good News wherever He went. He has commanded us to do the same.

Why don’t you share a few thoughts on this website? In what ways have you been following Jesus? What "good works" do Christians today need to be focusing on? Has someone encouraged you in your walk of faith – challenged you to keep pressing on? My wife and I were discussing this article and she was quick to point out that mine was not the last word on the topic of godliness. So, let’s continue the conversation and as I enjoined us in my first article on this topic, let’s continue to encourage one another to keep pressing on. Here are some conversational threads that I see in the Scripture passages mentioned above.

Our pursuit of godliness involves determined effort (2 Peter 1:5)
Our pursuit of godliness requires strict training (1 Tim. 4:7)
Our pursuit of godliness entails a renunciation of ungodliness (Titus 2:12)
Our pursuit of godliness will be characterized by/produce a zeal for good works (Titus 2:14)
Our pursuit of godliness has been resourced richly (2 Peter 1:3,4)
Our pursuit of godliness has an ultimate goal in view (Titus 2:13 and many other passages)

Feel free to log in and register and respond to this article via this website. A poem I wrote back during high school days seems appropriate here:

With patience I shall run the race,
I’ll lay aside each heavy weight,
No falt’ring step, no change in pace,
I’ll not stray from the course called ‘straight’!
My goal? Toward the mark I press!
The mark? The prize of God in Christ!
The prize? All else shall count for less
When winning Him, I’m found in Christ.


  • 1Scriptures quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. ESV Text Edition: 2007 (emphases mine).

Gunproofing the Church

I hadn’t been the Senior Pastor of the Bethany Baptist Church for more than a few weeks when I got a telephone call that put a chill down my spine. At first impressions, it seemed to be the sort of random call that inner-city pastors will get from disturbed people. The caller was rambling, vaguely threatening, somewhat apologetic, but definitely disturbing. When I mentioned the call to my secretary and heard her explanation, the call took on a deeper and darker dimension.

Several years previously, a very disturbed young man had begun to stalk a young lady who had become a Christian and part of the fellowship at Bethany. For whatever reasons that defy sanity, one Sunday afternoon he entered the church, found a room where the young lady was meeting with a Bible study fellowship, and shot her to death. Before he was subdued, he wounded a few others.

The secretary showed me the bullet holes in the room that served as a reminder of the attack. For several years around the anniversary of that day, I would receive a call from the young man. He was incarcerated in a mental health facility. He escaped from the facility several times. Each time I would receive a call from the facility as a “duty-to-warn”, and each time he was apprehended within blocks of the church.

In light of the shootings in public places in recent years, this experience continues to trouble me. The Church is an open and trusting environment. But, it is also not immune to tragedy. And that is probably why an article caught my attention this week: Shooter in the Church.

The article, written by a lieutenant from the San Diego Police department, recommends: four steps you can take to reduce risk “and possibly save lives” at your church. The steps include: 1. Work with the local police, 2. Create a survey of your facility for police, 3. Create a lockdown policy, and 4. Prevent an incident. Each of the steps are explained in detail, and are well-worth your attention. You can access the article at: http://www.christianitytoday.com/bcl/areas/leadership/articles/070606.html

Read Lyle’s Northwest Centre for Leadership Development newsletters

Different ways of belonging

GroupMy wife, Karen, and I belong to a Bible study connected with our church with participants who are extremely diverse in their Christian faith. One person saw God as a finite being who came into existence at the Big Bang. Another refers to himself as a “lapsed Catholic” who views God as an impersonal force. A third comes from an atheistic background, but with the conviction that there is a spiritual reality that we need to connect to. Of those with an evangelical faith, some have a modernist mindset (“Start with the historical facts and build your life on that”), while others have a post-modern perspective (“I do not have the capacity to be certain. I will believe and trust”). What we have in common is an admiration for Jesus and the hope that he can guide us into a significant and life giving connection with God.

. . . how can we function within this fluid dynamic to build significant relationships that bring people closer to Christ?

This Spring one of the participants – the “lapsed Catholic” – presented us with the challenge to read the first 6 chapters of Mark as if we had never read them before and did not know about Jesus. We would then share what we understood and experienced with each other. This has led to significant, enlightening and, at times, not altogether comfortable, observations about Jesus. The one with the atheistic background at one point exclaimed that Jesus appeared to be an “arrogant and crazy prophet”! This, however, in the minds of some of us, represented progress past the rather stifling view of Christ as a moral teacher. I present this small group as an example of how people “belong” in our Canadian context. Although some of the group are not qualified to be “members” of the church, all the participants see their connection to the church as significant. None of them are seeking to change their commitment to the church, yet all are involved in developing their understanding and commitment to Christ within one expression of the church. In our Canadian society people are very comfortable to belong to a church with differing levels of commitment (from dedicated member to casual participant) and within a variety of expressions (small groups, worship services or special programs) chosen to meet their current felt needs. With my missionary mindset of exploring ways to make the gospel relevant to specific contexts, I find this intriguing and educational. Rather than motivating people to pledge a long-term commitment to a particular ideal of membership, how can we function within this fluid dynamic to build significant relationships that bring people closer to Christ? In such a context, boundaries and definitions of who is “in” and who is “out” become less important than the direction people are moving in.

Read more of Mark’s articles at Cross-Cultural Impact in the 21st Century

Finding the Right Fit

I’ll begin this issue with a confession. It’s been three months since the last issue of the Leadership Connections. The silence is not due to idleness. In fact, it is just the opposite. Over the last three years, as I’ve labored hard to discover how to effectively direct the resources of Leadership Development, I’ve initiated several critical ventures. These ventures have matured to the point where they have given birth to solid products, and over the last few months their delivery has required my full attention.

One of the initiatives, The Best Practices for Church Boards, has proven to be quite fertile in creating further instruments to help strengthen healthy churches. As we’ve opened conversations with Church Boards, I’ve become aware of a number of significant shared issues. A survey of Churches that had attended the Basic Edition of Church Boards revealed that the number one issue that they faced was Vision Development and Strategic Planning. This issue became the focus for our first Advanced Edition of Best Practices for Church Boards and has produced a workshop that will be held later this month.

Running a close second to Vision Renewal and Strategic Planning was the issue of organizational structure: how to find the right structure for a healthy church governance. That struggle is faced by many churches.

There is no guarantee that if a Church finds just the right constitutional structure that it will have an effective ministry. But, having the wrong structure can almost certainly inhibit the ability of a congregation to serve and grow. Sometimes a church outgrows its structure and sometimes a structure outgrows a church. In either case, there are moments where it becomes evident to Church leaders that they are no longer configured in a way to handle to matters of ministry. It’s time for an administrative tune-up.

Gordon MacDonald, wrote of his personal experience with this moment in Leadership Journal [When The Wineskins Start To Rip, January, 1984.] While the Bible doesn’t prescribe a template for a standard Church Constitution and By-law structure, it does illustrate the dilemma. This is revealed in Acts 6 in the words “in those days, when the number of disciples was increasing, there arose a murmuring in the church.” Murmuring…interesting word related to an administrative breakdown. The complaints of the congregation expressed the sort of  friction and irritation that requires the discovery a new organizational system, one that would free people to concentrate on the mission of ministry.

In the course of research for the Best Practices for Church Boards, I have developed a catalog of different governance models. As the United Way of Canada has looked at non-profit agencies, they have identified 4 different types of Board structures: Policy Board, Policy Governance Board, Working/Administrative Board, and Collective Board [www.boarddevelopment.org] An article published by Banff Executive Leadership, Inc. [The Challenge to Govern Well] identifies five different models: Structural [Traditional], Policy [Carver], Outcome [Cortex], Process [Consensus], and Competency [Skill/Practice] Models.

A lot of attention has been given to the Carver – or Policy – model as a clearly defined system, and many churches are finding that – given a few adaptations – the Carver model is quite helpful. But, at the same time, I am finding that many churches – particularly smaller churches – require a different model. They are finding, as Gary McIntosh says, that one size doesn’t fit all. The problem is, it’s hard for them to find a system that fits.

Gary’s book [One Size Doesn’t Fit All, Revell, 1999] is one of the standard texts that we give to the churches that attend Best Practices for Church Boards. His argument is that the size of a congregation creates it’s own unique environmental demands. McIntosh identifies three sizes of congregations: Small [15 – 200], Medium [201 – 400] and Large [400+] Others, like Bob Gilliam [of T-Net International], have identified more distinct size categories [25-45; 75-110; 150-225, 400-450; 700-750; 1000-1200] that represent various levels of congregational character. In essence, being a Church of 700 is much different than being a Church of 225. The dynamics at each level possess their own requirements and a structure that works at one level is not appropriate for another.  In addition, the structure of a congregation is a significant factor that will determine whether or not a church both thrives at it’s level – and/or proceeds to the next. The challenge is to find a structure that would easily flex and adapt to the needs and conditions of growth patterns and leadership styles. Finding the right structure is critical in promoting healthy relationships, effective service and a mandate for mission.

The response that I am getting from the Best Practices for Church Boards churches has led me to expand my study on Church structure and Board models. Over the next year, I would like to create an instrument that would help guide churches to find a Board structure that would fit their needs.

To do that, I need your help. Here are some things I would like to know:

  1. What size is your congregation?
  2. How is the Church structured? Does the structure work well? If you were to change anything about it, what would it be and why would you change it?
  3. Who sets the direction for the congregation? How are decisions made?
  4. Who determines the use of the congregation’s resources?
  5. What is the Pastor’s role? What is the role of staff? How do they relate to Boards and leaders?

These are just a few of the questions that I’d like to know. You may have more. In fact, you may wish to send me a copy of  your church constitution with some sort of commentary: what do you like about it? How does it serve the needs of ministry? What would you like to change in it? Why?

It’s a critical issue, and we are in a position to help each other. I’ll look forward to hearing from you

The First Major Translation Project in History –
the Challenge of Cultural Change

It was the beginning of the third century before Christ. Alexander the Great had died and his empire divided among four generals. Greek language and culture swept through the lands of the Eastern Mediterranean, including Palestine. Large numbers of Jewish people were relocating to the emerging metropolis of Alexandria in Egypt. Caught up in all of this change and ferment Jewish people living in Egypt adopted the Greek language and were losing their ability to read and understand Hebrew, the language in which their sacred scriptures were written. Alexandria was an intellectual centre, containing one of the great libraries in antiquity. The king of Egypt at that time desired to include every major writing in this collection. When he heard about the Hebrew scriptures, he wanted a copy (at least this is how the story emerges in later writers) and mandated the librarian to have a translation made and placed in his collection.

Probably the convergence of various factors stimulated the first major translation project in human history – the translation of the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) from Hebrew into Greek. The impact of this project still affects us today because the names we use to describe these books in our Bibles reflect the Greek names, not the Hebrew names.

This translation project has had influence far beyond the imagination of those who initiated it and actually did it. For example, this translation or later revisions of it was used by the New Testament writers as the biblical text they tended to quote in their letters and Gospels. As the Apostles led the church to implement the Great Commission beyond the borders of Palestine, they used the Greek translation of the Old Testament as their primary scriptures. When Paul talks to Timothy about the scriptures he has known “from infancy” (2 Timothy 3:15), he is probably referring to the Greek translation of the Old Testament because Timothy was a product of the Jewish dispersion in Asia Minor.

When Christians today find themselves living in new cultural situations, translation of the scriptures into the language of that culture becomes a primary means, if not a necessity, for establishing a living church.

One of the more significant decisions made by the translators was the selection of the word LORD to translate God’s proper name Yahweh (Jehovah). In the New Testament Jesus is also described by this same term, i.e. the Lord Jesus Christ. On several occasions where the New Testament writer is quoting from an Old Testament text that describes Yahweh’s (the LORD’s) activity, the context makes it clear that the “Lord Jesus Christ” is in fact being identified as Yahweh. Paul’s message in Romans 10:9-13 blends references from Isaiah 28:16 and Joel 2:32 with the confession that “Jesus is Lord.” However, the “LORD” in Isaiah 28 and Joel 2 is Yahweh, but the “Lord” in Romans 10 is Jesus. The implications for the deity of Jesus are considerable.

When Christians today find themselves living in new cultural situations, translation of the scriptures into the language of that culture becomes a primary means, if not a necessity, for establishing a living church. The initiative taken three centuries before Jesus came continues to serve as a model for contemporary Bible translation. The issues those Jewish translators encountered remain the same issues modern Christians face as they seek to contextualize the Gospel without changing it.

The Septuagint Institute at ACTS Seminaries (Septuagint is the technical name given to the Greek Translation of the Old Testament) seeks to enable research into this translation and its continuing influence within the Christian world today.

Smart, Healthy and Disciplined

We are in the midst of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Because the Vancouver Canucks have won the right to participate, our city is appropriately excited. What the fans hope for is a team that is ‘smart, healthy, and disciplined,’ presuming that this formula will bring them success. Of course, flashes of brilliant hockey finesse also will go a long way to securing victory.Jim Brown uses these same words – smart, healthy, disciplined – to describe a board that operates creatively and with excellence.1 He seeks to help corporate and non-profit boards develop the disciplines that enable them to be great. Many church board members are reading Brown’s book and with benefit. Yet, because he is not writing specifically for the spiritual context of a Christian church, we have to consider carefully how to evaluate his advice from a Christian point of view. I am aware that at the conclusion to his book, Brown “gives thanks to God, who gives meaning and purpose to all [my] life. Everything I am and do is dedicated to you.”2 The Imperfect Board MemberSo when we apply these terms “smart, healthy, disciplined” to define the way a church board should operate, what should they mean? Churches expect their leadership teams similarly to function with wisdom, spiritual maturity and good practices. They have given to their boards a significant trust. The word ‘smart’ combines wisdom, creativity, cleverness and savvy. A smart church board understands the spiritual struggle in which the faith community operates. It is not business as usual because we face a strong and clever enemy who seeks to destroy God’s work in and among us. This board hears the words of Jesus that we must be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” when evaluating issues and dealing with community relations. Christian ‘smarts’ will include the ability to see things from God’s perspective – evaluating on the basis of divine values and goals as revealed in the Bible. The missional sense of being engaged with God in “heralding the Good News of the Kingdom to all the nations” will dominate and guide our thinking. A healthy church board will demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit in its internal relationships its treatment of employees. The values of agape-love, humbleness, respect and integrity will envelope the board’s operations. Health will show itself in the care the board takes to develop careful policies that will result in good spiritual care for the congregation, prayerful support and care for the pastoral leadership, and the advancement of the church’s mission. Good minutes, good agendas, good orientation, good chairing all serve to support excellence and enable the board to be healthy. Within Scripture the term ‘discipline’ relates to discipleship – following Jesus in obedient living and being accountable to Him as Lord and Saviour. A church board that is disciplined will keep on task, will expect each member to use the Spirit’s giftedness to advance the vision, and will pursue the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Thus it will work diligently, consult carefully, engage prayerfully, and educate itself deeply. Within the spiritual setting of God’s kingdom, it is the Spirit that enables believers to live and work in a smart, healthy, disciplined way. These things are God’s gifts to us, if we ask for them and sincerely walk together as boards according to the Spirit’s cadence and for the advancement of the church’s mission.


  • 1. Jim Brown, The Imperfect Board Member (San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006):xv-xvii.
  • 2. Ibid., 201.

Top Ten Reasons Why You Should Read Theology – #9

Reason #9.

You need theology because, lets face it, we all talk about God at some point in time. Wouldn’t you want to speak about God intelligently, with at least a basic idea of who, and what we are talking about? We are all theologians of sorts, why not be an informed one? Even atheists need some knowledge of theology or their arguments make no sense, (not that they ever do fully make sense). But then again, “only a fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God'”. On the other hand, if we have no knowledge of our theological tradition we could end up saying other things just as foolish. Other than the indispensible Bible, you could start with a very good book like Alister McGrath’s Introduction to Theology.

Easter Surprise!

While I love Christmas and Easter, over the years as a pastor I found it an annual challenge to find something fresh to add to my preaching. I would thrill at any new insight that would add a new voice to the message. One year the Pastor of the College Church in Wheaton Illinois, Kent Hughes, introduced me to a familiar passage with an added twist. At his advice, I turned to Matthew 27 and attempted to relive the scene of Pilate’s final judgment from a prison cell on death row with a convicted felon named Barabbas. In verses 16 and 17, it was apparent that Barabbas was living on a bubble. His crimes deserved death, but his name was up for the annual pardon. It takes a bit of imagination, but it’s easy to picture him listening intently to the sounds of the crowd through the bars of his prison window. It would have been almost impossible for him to hear Pilate give the crowd a choice in verse 21. But it would have been impossible for him not to hear the crowd roar out his name: Barabbas! That got his attention. From that point, the only voice he could hear would have been the crowd as it continued to shout out: Crucify Him (verse 22), Crucify Him! (verse 23) Let his blood be on us and on our children! (verse 25.)

"But, I thought I was the one to die?! Isn’t that what the crowd wanted? Isn’t that what my verdict says? Isn’t that what I deserve?"

He had heard all he needed to hear. His life was at an end. It was judgment day. The sound of the crowd would have been in his heart as he heard the guards open the door to his cell. Forget a pardon, it was time to die. Except there was a voice he hadn’t heard. The one that said, “release Barabbas, crucify Jesus [verse 26.]” You can imagine the mental confusion: But, I thought I was the one to die?! Isn’t that what the crowd wanted? Isn’t that what my verdict says? Isn’t that what I deserve? All of that was true, except for one thing. Somehow, by a divine plan, Jesus intervened. The Bible says of Jesus, “He was pierced for our transgressions…crushed for our iniquities…the Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:5,6)” Somehow, I have to think that Barabbas was the first human to fully appreciate the sheer intensity of that fact. And, somehow, I’d like to think that what he discovered would give me, give all of us, even greater reason to give thanks!

Read Lyle’s Northwest Centre for Leadership Development newsletters

The Evangelical Emergent Condition

I have been teaching a series called “Principles of our Faith” lately at one of our local Fellowship churches and one of the questions people keep asking me is; “what do you think of the concept ‘emerging church’”? My answer is always the same. The emerging church, like Postmodernity, is a condition, only confined to the evangelical church. It marks its self by its lack of clarity, its lack of direction and its lack of theological depth, all because evangelicals have forgotten their Bibles, lost their historical identity and jettisoned their doctrinal roots. The reactions are predictable. Denial. But I have yet to be proven wrong. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

The Tomb of Jesus – Empty or Still Occupied?

Has all the hype surrounding the "documentary" film The Lost Tomb of Jesus caught you off guard? The film’s website proclaims, “An incredible archaeological discovery in Israel changes history and shocks the world.” Well, what about it? The website contains a "proviso" stating that they are not disputing the resurrection of Jesus. The film makers claim, “Even if Jesus were moved from one tomb to another, this does not negate the possibility that he was resurrected from the second tomb” and then add in relation to the ascension: “If Jesus’ mortal remains have indeed been found, this would contradict only the idea of a physical ascension. However, it says nothing against the possibility of a spiritual one nor does it dispute the idea of the Ascension.” The fact remains that, if it is true that Jesus’ bones are contained in an ossuary somewhere in present day Jerusalem, then Peter’s statement in Acts 2:22-24* "Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him." (emphasis added); and Paul’s declaration in Acts 13:34 "… God raised him from the dead, never to decay…", are nothing but empty lies! If, in fact, Jesus did not rise from the dead, victorious over sin and the curse, death and the grave, then in Paul’s words, we have believed in vain! But have we? What does the New Testament record tell us? Here is what Paul wrote to the church in the city of Corinth – countering the claims of some, who even in that day were disputing the possibility of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-25 – headings and emphasis added).

The Case: (1) Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. (2) By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. The Claim: (3) For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, (4) that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, The Evidence: (5)and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. (6) After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. (7) Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, (8)and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. The Summary: (9) For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. (10) But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them-yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. (11) Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed. The Question: (12)But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? The Stakes: (13) If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. (14) And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. (15) More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. (16) For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. (17) And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. (18) Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. (19) If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. The Fact: (20) But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. The Theology: (21) For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. (22) For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. (23) But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. (24) Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. (25) For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The apostle Paul continues in Acts 13:37 “… the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay” and in Romans 6:9-10 he declares, “For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.” Allow the import of the necessity of the bodily resurrection, ascension and imminent return of Jesus penetrate deeply into your soul. The New Testament is replete with eye-witness accounts and public declarations of the physical resurrection of Jesus. When the disciples first saw Jesus after the resurrection they wondered if he were a ghost. Jesus told them to both look at him and touch him to assure themselves that he was the flesh and blood Jesus – and if that were not enough he asked for some food to eat in their presence (Luke 24:36-43). Later when Thomas doubted, Jesus urged him to touch the very scars and believe (John 20:27). It was Jesus’ intention that his followers have full assurance that he was physically alive. Now listen to the words of the two men to the watching disciples on the morning of the Ascension, “ ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’ ” (Acts 1:11) This same physically alive Jesus has promised to return and take us to be with him (John 14) Here is the hope we have; "And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you." (Romans 8:11) Let us rejoice together with all Christians everywhere that “He is risen indeed!” *All Scripture quotations are from the NIV Bible

Do we believe or do we know?

During my last visit to Pakistan for Bible translation I was rechecking the Psalms with our main translator, GMA. A verse that warranted a correction in the translation was Psalm 135:5 that read in part, “I know that God is great.” GMA commented that this was "weak" because a statement of knowledge or information may not have significance for the writer. Because it is presented as an objective observation, it is free of subjective interest and therefore communicates some level of ambivalence on the part of the author. Because this is not the intended impact of the verse, we changed the translation to "I have faith that God is great." In Sindhi this communicates conviction, commitment and belief on the part of the author and is thus "strong." In considering the implications of the change, I was struck by the contrast between modernist western thinking and this Sindhi perspective. For the Sindhi, it is a person’s subjective commitments and the impact in her / his life that is important and provides the foundation for life’s meaning. Objective observance of facts is simply one aspect of what we do and it doesn’t touch the core of our being. Because the writer of the Psalm was bringing out his personal relationship to the truth of God’s greatness, a translation in the Sindhi context necessitates a communication of that subjective significance in order to provide the full force of the statement. To simply state it as a fact without the personal element (such as in CEV:"God is great") is to miss the impact on the author. In the west, with its rationalistic fascination with “facts,” the thinking is very different. The objective sounding "I know" implies certainty, an expression of confidence in something true outside of ourselves upon which we can ground our faith. To translate this verse as "I have faith" in a modernist context is to weaken it significantly, reducing it to a mere subjective experience that may or may not correlate with the reality "out there." So do we believe or do we know? Sometimes it depends on the context.

Jesus’ Grave — Full or Empty?

Excuse my cynicism, but we must be nearing the Easter season! There’s another sensational docudrama in the wind. It’s about Jesus and, unsurprisingly, has profoundly negative implications for the Christian faith traditionally understood. After seeding a media frenzy as prelude to the event itself, the TV faithful have been gathered from far and wide to be awed and troubled yet again by a new “gospel.” The Garden TombAs usual, the claims of the docudrama are bold; the scripting and cinematography, as slick and convincing as any CSI episode; and the basis in fact, inconsistent with both the content of first century New Testament description and the findings of scientific archaeology. This time round it’s a TV piece by the Discovery Channel called “The Lost Tomb of Christ,” directed by Simcha Jacobovici and produced by James Cameron (of movie Titanic fame). They make a sensational claim that the tomb of Jesus’ family has been discovered in the Talpiyot suburb of Jerusalem. And it’s full! The bones of the whole family are there, including those of Jesus, his wife Mary and their son Judah. DNA proves it! The Talpiyot tomb is not a new discovery. Archaologist Amos Kloner excavated the site and published his findings some 27 years ago. Moreover, Kloner and many others in the archaeological fraternity emphatically do not reach the easy conclusions of Jacobovici and Cameron. Space forbids an extended discussion of the rather compelling reasons why the Talpiyot tomb cannot be that of Jesus. But check out the response of Jodi Magness, Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to the archaeological and biblical issues . You’ll find it quite interesting! (Click here…) Magness, for her part, has focused upon the Gospels, which is quite logical. But there is even earlier canonical tradition relating to the tomb. It’s in 1 Corinthians. Written by the apostle Paul, this New Testament letter is probably older than the Gospels. It dates to around 54/5 AD, some 25 years after the Easter events. But what Paul includes in the letter about the tomb of Jesus is even older. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 is a brief and almost poetic piece of ancient Christian tradition that Paul himself had received from others. If this is what Paul received following his conversion, it dates to only a few years after the Easter events themselves. It reads thus: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles….” (NIV) Notice, “he was buried”—that means the tomb; and, “he was raised on the third day”—that means the empty tomb. The bold list of appearances of the risen Lord to various individuals and groups served confident notice to those who wished to trouble themselves, that one could conduct interviews to satisfy questions. We may agree with Jacobovici and Cameron that there is a tomb somewhere about the environs of ancient Jerusalem and in it Jesus’ lifeless body was laid; but, against Jacobovici and Cameron, Jesus’ tomb, wherever it presently is, was only briefly occupied by Jesus before his resurrection.

Taking the Heat

Recently, I preached the same sermon at two consecutive services. In between the first and second services I took some heat from an older man who suggested that “if anyone came into the service confused, I left them more confused.” I tried to offer a gentle response, hoping to clarify what may have been a misapprehension of my intent, but he wasn’t interested in a conversation. He just wanted to drop his bomb. In fact, he proved the point that I was trying to make with the sermon about the way we perpetuate the forms of spiritual life without attending to the fruit of the Spirit. For all his concern, there wasn’t much evidence of love, joy, patience… in his response to me. It’s been a long time since I’ve been hit with criticism for my preaching so directly. It just hasn’t happened to me all that often and so I don’t mind admitting that the criticism stung. Given that there was quite a bit of time between services I went for a walk in order to pray and to sort out my response. First, of course, one needs to deal with the emotional sting. Most of us like to be appreciated and it doesn’t feel good to know that we are not. Of course, I was able to balance this with the fact that multiple people had come to me offering profuse thanks for the same sermon. I remember, however, something I read in a book on Christian parenting about how every negative comment needs to be balanced by at least ten positive ones. Secondly, I needed to rehearse the sermon to see if there was any truth in the criticism. Just because the critic was angry doesn’t mean that he was wrong. In this case, however, as I went through what I had said, I concluded that I was correct in what I had said. My comments, while difficult, were warranted by the text of Scripture. The third and in this case most telling aspect was an examination of the degree to which the problem could have been avoided if I had done a better job of preaching. Here, I sensed was where I had stumbled. It’s not that the sermon was poor. It’s just that I could have done a better job of helping my critic deal with what I was saying. Not that I want to soft-peddle the struggle. Preaching the Bible leads us to say some uncomfortable things and I’m not afraid of laying it out there. At the same time, I don’t want to be unnecessarily confrontational. Where there is potential for challenge, my goal as a preacher is not just to create problems for people, but having raised the problems, find ways to help people past them. The truth is, I could have been more sensitive to the potential for difficulty and I could have done more to actually help the listener hear what God was saying. In fact, in the second service, that is exactly what I did. As a preacher, I want to own responsibility for the listener’s response. This is not to say that I can control their responses. I can’t. It is also not to say that I am accountable for their response. I’m not. Nevertheless, the more I take it upon myself to help the listener respond well to what they hear, the better my preaching is going to be and the stronger the response will be from listeners. It’s not easy, but it’s part of our job as preachers.

Mesmerized with hell

A friend of mine discovered that he was suffering from what he termed a spiritual "Stockholm syndrome", the phenomenon of kidnapped victims bonding with their captors as they look desperately for mercy or an act of kindness. In his previous evangelical faith a dark shadow of hell made my friend hungry for any indication of mercy and love from God. A believing friend was recently confronted by her son who said, "What kind of God would send people to hell just because they don’t believe in Jesus?" In a Bible study I attend one participant said that he wants to believe in a God who loves all people, but he has been brought up believing that the Bible teaches there are people God hates and who are chosen for hell. All of these perspectives are perversions of the clearest picture we have of God which is found in the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ: a Deity so determined that humanity would be redeemed to life that he suffered the indignity and pain of the cross in the person of his son rather than let us be destroyed. It is not eternal torment that is the essential truth of the universe, but the love of God. It is not hell that has the last word, but the Lord Jesus Christ who makes all things right and brings the whole universe back to God (Col 1:20). (Do not read between the lines here and label me a universalist: Jesus also taught that God does not forgive those who are unmerciful, uncaring and unrepentant ­ e.g., Matt 18 & 25). My concern is with the picture of God people are gaining from the gospel message. If our presentations of the gospel of Christ are being perceived as promoting arbitrariness, callousness and injustice on the part of God, then we are misrepresenting the salvation Christ offers. If people are hearing the love of God presented with a dark side of his satisfaction in the eternal torture of his creatures, then we are undermining the message of the cross. I am amazed at how many people exposed to evangelical messages of salvation are repulsed by the image of a God who doesn’t love the world, whose mercy is limited and who refuses to accept the meek and humble. Is there something wrong in the way we present the gospel that people fail to be confronted with the vast, unbounded grace of the Father longing to wrap his arms around the prodigal?

What’s In a Name?

A recent email from a colleague describes a decision made at his church regarding their Baptist identity. It begged a response and so I have followed this quote from the email with my own response. The email states as follows:

"We have stopped making reference to being "Baptist" for a few reasons. First, the denominational distinctives are often based on spurious biblical arguments which have nothing to do with the heart of the biblical theology. Thus, adding denominational qualifiers often disqualifies people who come from other labels. Secondly, we aspire to be a Christian, Bible based church, where people who seek to purse God under the authority of God’s Word can worship together without artificial barriers. Thirdly, our congregation at the present is made up of people from all Christian traditions like Baptists, Mennonites, Brethren, Pentecostals, Anglicans and others. We are a mosaic of Christians going well beyond Baptist distinctives. Thus, while there are many claims which make Christianity exclusive. Our name, while helping people to identify us and find us, should be as inclusive as we can make it without erecting unnecessary barriers and divisions. For accountability, and in order not to multiply the denominational fragmentation, we still remain a part of the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches of Canada."

Now, this sounds to me like another effort at, "lets return to the pure form of the church" that gave rise to "Baptists" in the first place. At some point all churches have to establish a set of doctrines, even if one of them is, ‘we have no set doctrines.’ The moment they do that they will form a new denomination, of sorts. Call it the ‘non-denominational-non-doctrinaire church of Christ’ if you will but they will have to teach their beliefs, train others in them and then ensure structures are in place to continue the process. That is essentially what a denomination is. Every church has standards of membership. What are they going to say to people who want to retain the Baptist identity? "You no longer belong!?" Labels are inevitable because it is part of human nature. So they are deluding themselves if by denying their Baptist heritage they think they will succeed in alienating less people. That’s my belief anyhow!

When Emerging Leaders Go BOOM!

Over the last three years as I’ve been seeking to create instruments to empower home-grown leaders, I’ve noticed that the greatest personal interest being shown comes from people of a certain age. Let me share an example: “I am an engineer, 50 years old, chair of our church board … my wife and I have been praying about our future plans to devote ourselves to full-time ministry in the next 5 years.”

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to discover a cultural phenomenon that is creating a huge impact in the church – the Baby-Boomer generation in transition. Over the last month, it has not been hard to collect a significant amount of research. This movement has been tracked by researchers for over a decade.  Consider a few of the details:

  • 1 baby boomer retires every 7 seconds in the US.
  • Baby Boomers [those born after WWII through early 1960’s] make up 25% of the total population of North America.
  • Baby Boomers in the US number 82 million. In 2001, the leading edge of this group turned 55.
  • Financial planners have recorded a significant shift in retirement planning indicating a significant rise in early-retirement, and active retirement.
  • Baby Boomers have the highest volunteer participation rate of any demographic group.
  • There are 12 million self-described Evangelical Christian baby boomers according to the Wall Street Journal.

The age wave is beginning to break over society with surprising impact. While Boomers have been sometimes branded as the most selfish generation, there is evidence that as they age they are proving to be much different. A study from the Corporation for National and Community Service in 2005 revealed that Boomers are not only more active in volunteer participation, but fully expect to extend their volunteer commitments to more mature – even career – levels.

This surge is being felt in a number of arenas. It has created an impact in the world of missions. In late 2005, Wycliffe Bible Translators built a volunteer mobilization center in Orlando, Florida in an attempt to keep up with their largest sector of missionary growth. Since the year 2000, Wycliffe has experienced an average of 40% annual increase in the number of “Boomer Missionaries.” Martin Huyett, Wycliffe’s vice-president for volunteer services explained, “these people have a certain amount of freedom and control … they want to do something significant, not just write checks.”

Along with Wycliffe, many mission organizations have begun to realize the value of the Boomer generation as the most healthy, well-financed, and highly educated retirement generation in history. According to Martin Huyett, “today’s 60-year-old is mature and needs far less training in living skills than his or her younger counterparts … a person in his or her 50’s and above has triumphed through their productive years and has built-in strategies for success.”

One organization, The Finisher’s Project, was founded by Nelson Malwitz as a way to match Boomers with the growing list of ministry opportunities provided by Mission agencies. Currently, the Finisher’s Project is working with 100 organizations, has placed over 1,000 people in full-time missions, has 1,000 people in process, and has an additional 1,200 people expressing their intention to make a transition in the next 2 years. Todd Johnson of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity said, “Most mission agencies are trying to work with this trend … that 20 years ago was unwelcome.”

Engaging “seniors” [according to Win Arn, Boomers prefer the title “middle adults”] in ministry may have been “unwelcome” 20 years ago. Now, they appear to be absolutely crucial to the life of the church. Jim Hughes, professor of Aging at Abilene Christian University, has questioned several conventional thoughts that may stand in the way of propelling Boomers into service. One has been the emphasis on youth ministry – with the conventional wisdom being that youth are the most open to faith commitments. Considering the level of interest in “significance studies” reflected in books like Bob Buford’s Half-Time, older adults are proving to be extremely responsive to issues of faith.

Another idea is that age, for older people, equals inertia. The reality of the Boomer generation is that there is an eagerness for change. Life passages such as retirement, the “empty nest” syndrome, are no longer viewed as debilitating. Instead, Boomers are proving to value mobility and the freedom to pursue creative options. Nelson Malwitz of the Finishers Project described this attitude: “as you hit 50, you no longer count your years from the time you were born, but you count the amount of time you have left. The BIG idea [of the Boomers] has to do with finishing well.” Backing up his comments, a survey sponsored by the Finishers Project among 600 evangelical Boomers reported that 61% are planning to retire early [as soon as possible as no later than 65] and pursue a second career. 54% said that they would consider a second career in missions. 81% expect to be able to pursue this service together with their spouse. 

As I reflect on the growing body of statistics generated by the explosion of the Boomer generation, I find myself almost overwhelmed by the sheer number of implications. Apart from the fact that many of them are intensely personal [since I, too, am a Boomer] each seem to have a consequence for the future of the church. Let me share three quick discoveries:

1. The Boomers are ready – use them or lose them: Jim Hughes of the Abilene Christian University writes, “many churches look to younger people to fill significant roles, leaving older adults to trivial tasks.” Many Boomer post-retirement plans are being built around significance, mission, and impact. With their proven record of life-skills and initiative, if their Church won’t match their intentions in a serious fashion, they will find other avenues to influence their world.

2. The Boomers are capable – adapt and enjoy: One of the things I have noticed as I’ve sought to empower emerging leaders is that very few of them have aspirations for what the church would consider conventional ministry. Very few 50 year olds are eager to become Senior Pastors. Instead, one of the reasons that they are considering a more mature level of ministry is that God has stimulated a burden in their hearts for specific ministries – some of which are unique and exceptional. Todd Johnson, of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary reports that the Boomers are more interested in being active than just giving money. They have a passion to “start NGO’s, orphanages, business centers, health clinics, all at local levels.”  Churches that strategically empower Boomers are discovering themselves suddenly engaged in ministries beyond their imagining.

3. The Boomers are passionate – put them at the nozzle: I discovered one subtle, but profound, comment that revealed the Boomer attitude. Their vocabulary reflects a difference in generational attitude. When it came to management and administration, Boomer’s parents would frequently use the word “delegate.” On the other hand, when Boomers speak of management and administration, they more frequently use the word “empower.” The difference between the two words reveals, I think, the key to mobilizing this generation in the local church. Since they already possess a history of initiative and responsibility, when it comes to initiating Boomer ministries – they should be set free to identify the target and aim the flow of ministry.

Those are just three quick, off the cuff reflections. You may have more – and I’d love to hear them. Better yet, maybe your church should hear them too.

Sources: Articles:

“Retirement: Retirees May Become Ministry Cutting Edge”, Andy Butcher, Christianity Today Online, 16 June 1997  [http://ctlibrary.com/1140]

“A Boom for Missions” John Kennedy, Christianity Today Online, February 2007 [www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/February/18.20html]

“Boomers: The New Wave of Volunteer Missionaries” Alex Coffin, Christian Newswire, 14 November 2007 [www.christiannewswire.com/new/356371502.html]

“Issue Brief: Baby Boomers and Volunteering: An Analysis of the Current Population Survey”, Corporation for National and Community Service, December, 2005 [www.nationalservice.gov]


FutureThink: How To Think Clearly In A Time Of Change, Edie Weiner and Arnold Brown, Pearson Prentice Hall, Toronto, 2006.


Finishers Project: www.finishers.org

The Leadership Body

Consider the following episode. In an effort to start a small-group ministry, one church encountered a familiar problem: identifying small group leaders. Inspired by an example, the pastor invited everyone interested in small-groups to a dessert evening. As people arrived, they were seated around tables in small groups. They were each given a very simple piece of paper: a Bible verse, followed by a few questions … and instructed to “have at it…”

After about an hour of conversation, the pastor called the room to attention. Thinking that they were going to have a chance to share their insights, everyone was surprised when the pastor said, “Now, could I ask you to please put your papers and Bibles aside. I really hope you enjoyed your study, but I invited you here this evening for a different reason. Could I now ask you to do one thing as a group. At the count of three would you please, all of you, point to the leader in your group… one, two, three…”

The results were stunning, In every circle the fingers were all pointed in the same direction. While the people began to laugh, the pastor quickly added, “Now please keep your fingers pointed at your leaders while we take down names.” That night, the leaders were revealed.

Over the last few years as I’ve focused on leadership studies, I’ve come to the conclusion that leadership isn’t so much about leaders – but about community. At last count, I have reviewed 12 different instruments used to identify leaders – “Psychometric tools” like the DISC profile, Ministry Match, Spiritual Gift Profile, MMPI-2… They all provide a measure of insight into the types of personal strengths and weaknesses that pave the developmental pathway for an emerging leader. But, according to the pattern of Spiritual leadership, I have to believe that they only reveal a narrow band of discernment.

In the Pastoral Epistles, Paul instructed Timothy and Titus to identify leaders according to character traits, and I have to believe that such traits were detected by the community. When it came time for Titus to appoint elders in Crete, my imagination pictures the scene. Titus joins the Christians of the village at their weekly meal, and then stands before them. “Brothers and Sisters, I now ask you to do one thing as a group. At the count of three, would you please, all of you, point to the person who is blameless, not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain…the one who is hospitable, who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined…who holds firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, is able to encourage others by sound doctrine and able to refute others who oppose it [Titus 1:7-9] Got that? Okay, one…two…three! All that was left to do was to take down the name of the new “overseer.”

Again, I have to think that when it comes to leadership it’s not so much about leaders…as it is about community.

Leith Anderson argues that spiritual leadership is more about “the matrix of followers.” Peter Senge expands that thought by saying that “we are coming to believe that leaders are those who “walk ahead” people who are genuinely committed to deep change in themselves and in their organizations. They lead through developing new skills, capabilities, and understandings – and they come from many places within the organization.” Combining those comments, Warren Bennis writes that “we…move into an era in which leadership is an organizational capability and not an individual characteristic that a few individuals at the top of the organization have.” [Taken from Leadership Next by Eddie Gibbs, IVP, 2005]

In essence, the discoveries turn the attention back to the church where leadership is not so much about leaders … as it is about community.

As I’ve continued studying leadership development, I’ve drawn some conclusions based on this discovery:

  1. While it may be true that a good leader can build a healthy congregation, it is almost certainly true that a healthy congregation will give birth to good leaders.
  2. While it may be true that a good leader can build a healthy congregation, it is equally true that an unhealthy congregation can damage a good leader.
  3. It is certainly true that a healthy congregation in which all members: find personal significance in intentional relationships, develop to their full spiritual potential, and are able to weave their distinct contributions into the fabric of fellowship – continually produce great leaders.

The balance of concern in leadership development rests squarely on the quality of the congregation. Over this last year, we produced the course: Heart for Ministry as the first course in an initiative to provide a process for emerging leaders to be trained toward mature ministry. Within the month, I hope to build on this initiative with an announcement of a diploma program for emerging leaders. It is momentous initiative … but will only have limited value if it isn’t coupled with initiatives that make leadership not just about the leader … but about the community. The concern expressed by Fellowship Baptist churches … by your church … concerning leaders needs to be addressed with questions about community.

In the next issue of Leadership Connections, I intend to present news about a new diploma program AND an instrument for Church leaders shaped by the retreat in May: Best Practices for a Church Leadership Culture.

Intentionality – The Key Ingredient

In the process of researching leadership development programs, I’ve discovered that one word keeps appearing. In Building Leaders, Aubrey Malphurs defines the term “leadership development” as the intentional process of helping established and emerging leaders at every level of ministry to assess and develop their Christian character and to acquire, reinforce, and refine their ministry knowledge and skills [p. 23].  In Leadership Baton, the creators of the Center for Church-Based Training describe an intentional process of Discipleship Training and Leadership Development [title.] In The Equipping Church, Sue Mallory talks about the equipping culture of a church as having systems that intentionally change lives [p. 51.]

Intention…Intention…Intention… It’s the critical ingredient that breathes life into ministry. It’s what takes inert programs and fills them with purpose and meaning.

When I first started as the director of the Northwest Centre for Leadership Development, a number of wise advisors warned me: Lyle, whatever you do…whatever you do…don’t fixate on program. Make sure you understand process. Don’t obsess on curriculum. Make sure you grasp the plan first and foremost. Great advice! Wise counsel!

Too often, in ministry, the pressures of the moment demand an swift, effective, and urgent response. I have to confess the tendency to look for products that work without asking the question “why.”

With the warning, my advisors provided a word of assurance: Lyle, when you understand the appropriate process that connects what God wants, how God’s people are designed and how the Fellowship Baptist systems work…then finding curriculum won’t be a problem.  It’s true. Over the years, I’ve been exposed to over 50 programs for leadership development, seen more books on leadership development than I can read, and discovered a world full of glossy courses and classes. The easy thing for anyone in church leadership would be to simply open a checkbook and start buying.

But, that just fulfills an old Chinese proverb: If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.

Intention…Intention…Intention. I can’t read the Bible without realizing how important that word is to God. He created the world by design. He created humans for a purpose. He guides lives with a will. He fills life with meaning. He conducts Himself according to Intentions…and it’s no surprise that He would expect the same from us.

I love the way Phillips translates God’s command in Ephesians 5:15: Live life with a due sense of responsibility, not as those who do not know the meaning of life…but as those who do!

Every step taken toward Spiritual Maturity has to be “on purpose. Becoming a believer is an intentional act: if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord”, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.. Romans 10:9. Forming Spiritual disciplines is an intentional process: …make disciples…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded… Matthew 28:18-20. Learning to serve demands intentions: …each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms…I Peter 4:10.

In Ephesians 4, Paul speaks of Leadership Development as process intended to prepare God’s people for works of service. It’s not hard to look at leadership development and expect it to be guided by required learning objectives and measured ministry experience. But, the fact is, that’s not where Intentions begin…it’s where they continue.

Over the next few months, I will be producing a number of initiatives from the Centre. After working with a design team representing 11 churches over the winter, I will be circulating the first template of a template for an in-church certificate in Christian Ministry: The Next Step. In April at the Convention, and then in May in a Centre-sponsored workshop, I will be initiating a leadership conversation network with church leaders. As I prepare for each initiative, I am duty-bound to focus on process first…and an intentional process at that.

I’ve discovered that the churches who provide the very best environment for leaders to grow are churches who don’t wait until it’s time to train leaders. That’s not where their intentions begin…it’s where they continue. In fact, the churches who have become the best culture to raise leaders are those who have made every step of discipleship a clearly understood path of purpose and meaning.

Turning the Chinese proverb around, they are churches who “know where they are going, and pave a road to get there!”

The Spiritual Dimensions

In the book, The Unnecessary Pastor, Gene Peterson wrote a challenging thought:

As community diminishes, the “frenzy” for leadership accelerates, but it is more often than not a leadership that destroys community by functionalizing people. The more “effective” our leaders become, the less community we get. [Unnecessary Pastor, Eerdmans, 2000,  p. 203]

Every time I read of another book on leadership, or another seminar on leadership, Peterson’s words come to mind. It does appear that when it comes to issues of leadership there is a frenzy. In a casual conversation a few weeks ago, a friend described a conversation he had with Dr. Allen Churchill, former senior pastor of the  Dominion Chalmers United Church in Ottawa. In reflecting on the state of the Evangelical movement in Canada, Dr. Churchill commented on how similar our conditions are to those of the United Church in the 1960’s. It was in the ‘60’s, that the United Church began what he called an “incidental drift.” Issues of ministry took on a mechanical nature, and there was a unique focus on Leadership as a pragmatic study. From the seminaries, down into the churches, leadership became a matter of theory and management principles and technique.

The “drift” took the definition and practice of leadership further away from the Bible. Rather than referring to the Scriptures, or relating leadership to the dynamics of faith and the community of faith, leadership was measured through the models of management and through the school of business. As Peterson describes it, it became a matter of “function.”

If we were to anchor our definition of leadership to the Scriptures, we would find – at the core – that it is a matter of character. In the Pastoral Epistles, both to Timothy and Titus, we find that the measure of a leader refers to a person whose life is oriented and shaped by Scripture and whose speech flows out of that orientation and shaping, it is more a matter of character than of skill [Unnecessary Pastor, p. 202]

Sift through the lists of qualifications in Timothy and Titus and you will have a hard time writing a job description. Paul’s orders are not to find people who are able to run programs or raise finances. His concern revolves around the quality of character and spiritual formation.

Leadership and leadership development are not unique disciplines. If anything, they are an extension of the natural process of spiritual growth. The essential elements of a mature leader are rooted deep in the foundation of a character given birth in conversion, finding a voice through spiritual discipline, and discovering expression through obedient service. And, because service is something that is done in community, it is a matter of fellowship.

Over the last year, as I gathered materials for the Heart for Ministry course, I discovered a good number of assessment tools, tests that help a person assess their fitness. Many of the tests are helpful. But, I have this growing suspicion that they fall short.

When Timothy and Titus sought to detect people with the character traits described by Paul, they didn’t have computerized tests. As far as I can tell, they didn’t require anyone to sit down and take a Spiritual Gift inventory. Instead, they circulated in the community with a sensitive heart.

It’s as if God designed the Church, the community of Faith, to be a natural detector. It was in the community that a person would grow and it was the community that would be able to detect the integrity of their growth. It was among the people of God that a person would serve and it was the people of God who would confirm that their service was empowered by God.

It’s no wonder, then, that Peterson would have tied leadership and community into an essential partnership: If we let our imaginations be trained by the Pastorals when we go to work developing leadership in the community of faith, we are not going to be looking for talented people whom we can use. We will seek nurturing souls who are trustworthy and faithful.”[Unnecessary Pastor, p. 203.]

The Church is God’s chosen environment for leadership development. Over the next few months, I will be drafting a business plan to build a process for leadership development. It can’t be done without the Church in mind. It can’t be done without a healthy community. It can’t be done with congregations who make it their business to create and cultivate leaders from within. That is our Biblical mandate.

Home Grown Ministers

In the May/June 2005 issue of the Evangelical Baptist magazine [p. 16], I wrote of the new trends in leadership development that demand attention. In it were themes that have I’ve echoed at the FEBBCY association meeting in Vernon, in conversations with pastors and leaders. The message has, for me, almost become a mantra.

Quick review: surveys reported in 1999 that 4% of people in ministry were "home-grown" ministers. By 2003, the number had doubled to 8%, and estimates [which are proving already to be low] were that by the year 2010 30% of people in ministry would have emerged into mature ministry from within the fellowship of the local congregation. The Church is proving to be God’s chosen source for a new generation of ministers.

Over time I have noticed two general responses to this news:

1. A few people find this to be a bit disturbing. Just a few. For at least 50 years the standard conduit for leadership development has been a fairly direct academic route. The path to ministry led from Secondary School graduation to Bible School/University to Seminary.directly into Ministry as a final career. While there still are good numbers of people who follow that direct path, it is in decline [the average age of students in Seminary is in the mid-30’s.] This decline disturbs some people who possess a number of fears including a question over the survival of precious institutions [like Bible Schools.] The fact is, these institutions are working hard to refocus their efforts to target an older, church-based audience.

2. Most people celebrate the news with the comment that "it sounds so Biblical." After all, the Church has, from the beginning, been the environment where leaders have emerged into mature ministry. The assumption was made in the book of Ephesians that a spirit-led fellowship would "prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up and we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ [4:12-13]"  In the Pastoral Epistles, Timothy and Titus were directed to identify leaders from within congregations and empower them into mature ministry. When most people hear about the trend of "home-grown" leaders, they see a return to a Biblical pattern.

One pastor added a further reflection. He shared his reflections on how people like John Maxwell have identified the pastorate as a "toxic profession" in light of what appears to be growing numbers of conflicts between pastors and churches. One of the reasons he identified was that the conventional route to ministry created distance between pastors and churches. Churches sent emerging leaders away to get trained, and then imported other leaders in to serve. "No wonder there’s a disconnect," he said. Good point.

My reaction to this is mixed. On one hand, I am thrilled to see the "leadership culture" of the local church strengthened. It is a sign of health, and an indication that Ministry is a natural expression of the whole process of Spiritual development. People are growing into ministry, and God is guiding them all the way.

On the other hand, I am concerned that we may cut the development process short. Home-grown leaders are moving into mature ministry, and they are being discovered primarily because of their ability to run programs well. But, being a mature minister is more than being a good mechanic.

I continue to find Paul’s orders to Titus to be a challenge. In Titus 1:5, Titus was ordered to appoint elders to lead the churches in Crete. Nowhere in those orders do I find: "an elder must be one who can run a good program, an elder must be one who preaches a powerful sermon, an elder must be one who can chair an efficient board meeting." The criterion given Titus go deeper. The qualifications of a mature minister are largely a matter of character.

Not long ago, I was reviewing a list of competencies that would guide the training of a mature minister. It caused me to think of the distinctive marks I’ve seen in those who have influenced my life, those who have lived lives of profound impact in ministry. Three phrases began to form in my mind. They were people possessed of: a greatness of soul, a depth of perspective, and a breadth of wisdom.

They were also people who were also able to perform with excellence. But the weight of their character went far beyond the programs they ran. And, I suppose the focus of training that we would design for the "home-grown ministers" would have to center on these profound dimensions of inner character.

During this next year, I hope to galvanize a plan for churches to design a program of development for their emerging leaders. I’ve already discovered that some people discount some of the offerings available from academic institutions as irrelevant. Fields of study like Theology or Spiritual Formation pale in comparison to what are viewed as practical "how-to" courses. While such courses appear irrelevant, they demand reflection – and produce such things as "greatness of soul."


I would appreciate your response. As I seek to catalog the competencies that would go into Leadership Development, what would you identify? As you have been engaged in ministry, what are the resources of character you have had to draw on? As you have learned dependence on God, what competencies has the Holy Spirit brought to life in you? As you think of those who God has used in profound ministry – what is it that allowed them to serve so well?

New trends in leadership development

In September 2001, the Alban Institute issued a special report identifying three major crises facing the North American church. Two of the three related directly to leadership development. A key finding confirmed the experience of most denominations; there is "a shortage of clergy to meet current congregational demands."[1] In essence, the attrition rate among the current pastoral leaders either matched or exceeded the replenishment rate. At the same time, the church is facing a period of growth where the need for mature ministers is expanding. In February 2005, Debra Fieguth reported in Christianity Today the results of three national polls conducted by Focus on the Family, Time Canada, and the Vanier Institute. For the first time in decades, weekly church attendance had risen in Canada, up 25% from the year 2000.[2]It is easy to identify a mounting challenge. While the numbers for the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Canada are difficult to calculate, in May 2003 it was estimated that 600 new, trained ministry leaders would be needed within a decade.[3] Over the next 10 years we need to see hundreds of newly trained pastors, church planters, missionaries, chaplains, evangelists, youth pastors, children’s ministers, theologians and Bible teachers emerge in our midst.

New generation takes a new career path.

We need to ask, "What is God’s chosen source for a new generation of ministers?" In the past, young people often moved into ministry as they would other vocations. After graduating from secondary school, they entered Bible school or university, and then proceeded to seminary to prepare for ministry. While such a flow continues, it is no longer the path followed by the majority of the current generation. In January 2005, Time Magazine reported on a phenomenon affecting the entire marketplace.[4] To a large extent, young people do not expect to settle on a career path until their 30’s. Social scientists call them "Twixters." They keep their options open, expect to experience a variety of careers, and delay making permanent commitments to family, career and ministry. Unsurprisingly, the average age of a seminarian across Canada is in the mid-30’s.

Once again, the big question is: "Where will God draw out a new generation of leaders and ministers to meet the needs of the harvest?"

The "homegrown" factor.

In 1999, Thom Rainer and the members of his research team at Church Central discovered a fascinating development.[5] In researching over 4,000 churches in North America, they uncovered a movement they entitled "homegrown ministers." At the time, it was only a "blip" on the radar, but a growing one. In 1999, 4% of people in ministry were "homegrown." In other words, churches were finding full-time ministry staff from their own membership. Within three years the proportion of "homegrown ministers" had doubled to 8%. God was doing something surprising. In 2003, researchers projected that by the year 2010, over 30% of people in ministry would be "homegrown." This figure has already proven to be a low estimate. In October 2004, Tom Harper, the publisher of Church Central, reported that 38% of all church and Christian non-profit leaders have come into their ministry as a second, third, or fourth career. We can draw some significant conclusions from this new trend. First, ministry is an expression of spiritual development and maturity. As people grow in faith, they learn the joy of service and ministry. The principle found in Matthew 25 in the parable of the talents is expressed. The Master reviews the investments made by his servants and promotes some of the good and faithful ones to positions of greater responsibility. A second conclusion is that God has designed the church to be the culture for developing leaders. People are brought to faith within the church and that is where they learn spiritual disciplines, discover their God-given purpose in life, and develop skills for ministry. A church that identifies itself as God’s chosen culture to develop leaders unites all of these into a meaningful process. People expect to grow, and it’s no surprise that when they do, God is able to tap a few on the shoulder with the invitation to "take it to a new level." A third conclusion is that those responsible for leadership development need to direct their attention to the church. It’s not unusual to hear pastors report conversations like this one: Pastor, I need your advice. I’ve got a reasonably successful career, and spend a lot of time at work, I find that I am living for the two hours a week when I am leading a Bible study.I can’t seem to shake this feeling that God wants me to kick it up a notch. What should I do? The efforts of the Northwest Centre for Leadership Development, and the FLTA need to focus on the answer to that question. What should a person do when God’s call them? The tools that are being developed, "Reproducing Spiritual Leaders, Heart for Ministry – a 12-session assessment study for pastors to serve as mentors with emerging leaders" are critical to the future of the church.


  1. Wind, James P. and Gilbert Rendle, An Alban Institute Special Report: The Leadership Situation Facing American Congregations. September 2001 – available via download Duke University’s publication Pulpit and Pew, a journal devoted to research on Pastoral Leadership: www.pulpitandpew.duke.edu/links.html.
  2. Fieguth, Debra. "Finally, Church Growth in Canada", Christianity Today Daily Newsletter, 1 February 2005.
  3. Northwest Baptist Seminary FAQ, edition 3, 23 May 2003.
  4. Grossman, Lev. "Grow Up? Not So Fast." Time Magazine, 24 January 2005.
  5. Rainer, Thom. "Ten Predictions for the Church by 2010", Church Health Today enewsletter, Church Central, 10 January 2003.

Key principles that God uses to get our attention

God’s Calling – Next Step. Identifying key principles that God uses to get our attention.

In the Bible, the term "call" does not simply describe God’s invitation for an elite few who might enter full-time ministry. In the last issue of Leadership Connection, ALL BELIEVERS were identified as "called people." Calling describes the way God expresses His will for Human lives: Believers are "called" to salvation – because it is God’s desire "that anyone perish, but everyone come to repentance" [II Peter 3:9]. When God expresses His will, you could say that the "voice" He uses issues a "Call." For whatever reason, whether it’s His will for people to find Him in salvation, grow in discipleship, or serve in ministry, when people respond to His call they do it is an act of faith, belief, and obedience. In essence, they become "bodies in motion." Each step they take in obedience creates a sense of momentum that God is able to direct and lead their lives.

That’s an important principle for believer’s to grasp. Not only because it extends the dignity of "calling" to all believers, but because it activates God’s presence into every corner of a believer’s life. It is this sense of Calling that makes all the difference in a believer’s life.

Not too long ago, I read what appeared to be a remarkable insightful assessment of North American Christianity written by the Swiss Theologian, Philip Schaff: [it is] more Petrine than Johannean; more like busy Martha than like the pensive Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus. It expands more in breadth than in depth. It is often carried on like a secular business, and in a mechanical or utilitarian spirit. It lacks the beautiful enamel of deep fervor and heartiness, the true mysticism, an appreciation of history and the church; it wants the substratum of a profound and spiritual theology; and under the mask of orthodoxy it not infrequently conceals, without intending or knowing it, the tendency to abstract intellectualism and superficial rationalism. This is especially evident in the doctrine of the church and of the Sacraments, and in the meagerness of the worship … (wherein) nothing is left but preaching, free prayer, and singing.

Would it surprise anyone that Dr. Schaff wrote this assessment in 1854? In a century and a half, it doesn’t appear that much has changed. If anything, the spirit of "mechanical utilitarianism" [I  love the richness of that phrase] has become the hallmark of Church life and ministry. We don’t lack for an abundance of business or busyness in our fellowship. What we lack is a thorough sense of "calling" that enlivens every moment of life, including the moments invested in Kingdom service. Without the profound sense of God’s presence – of God’s involvement in every corner of life, ministry can become just another job, a sterile responsibility.and occupational drudgery.

That’s not the heritage God intended for His people. The most powerful voices of the Reformation, Calvin and Martin Luther rightfully identified the Biblical teaching that included ordinary work, ordinary life, as a matter of  spiritual "Calling." In 1520, Martin Luther put forth the case in The Babylonian Captivity – that the farmer in the field, or the farmer’s wife in the farmhouse, if they are doing their work by faith for the glory of God, are fulfilling as high and holy a calling as the pastor in the pulpit. The whole of life, lived in obedience to God’s will, becomes a matter of dignity and honor.

In his wonderful book The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life, Os Guinness writes If there is no Caller, there are no callings, only work. I have to think that every believer has the responsibility to recognize God’s interest in every corner of life. To deny His ability to "make the call" in simple things is a tragic mistake. It mutes His ability to speak in strategic ways at crucial moments.

We have the choice to make a critical decision with our life. We can choose to live ordinary lives doing ordinary things in ordinary ways without any extraordinary sense of purpose. Or, we can choose to invest time, talent, and treasure in obedience to God’s will and direction, no matter how simple it may seem, knowing that even the most simple investment welcomes the God who Speaks, who Calls, who Directs.

There is a word for the first choice, the ordinary option. It’s a life as Occupation. For too many, that’s about all there. Occupy, occupy a spot, a place, for a period of time. God intends so much more for all His people. For those who deliberately make the first choice, there is another, a treasured word that describes each moment of their day. Vocation. Whether it is washing dishes or composing sermons, their labor possesses the dignity that comes from purpose and meaning. It is an expression of obedience, it is Vocation.

Vocation is rooted in the Latin word vocare, [rooted in the Latin word vox – voice] which is exactly the same word call, which has an Anglo-Saxon root. If we were to be painstaking in our theology, the word Vocare would appear on the list of God’s attributes as one of His imminent qualities. He is a Calling God, one who speaks with clarity. When He speaks with a Vox and we respond with obedience, we discover Vocation, a life of divine presence and personal purpose and.

When it comes to discerning God’s Call, the most obvious questions tend to measure a sensitivity to God’s Work and Ministry needs: Is this a work God wants me to do? Is it a work that I am able to do? In reality, there are a deeper set of questions that measure that assess the quality of the human heart: Have I become a person able to find God present in all areas of life? Have I been faithful in even little things? What areas of my life have been reserved for God and His purpose? How could the rest of my life been lived to His service? Do I rely on His resources for only certain actions, or have I learned to depend on Him for it all? If I were to look in the quiet corners of life, do I sense the presence of God? What lessons has He taught me in those corners?

In an earlier generation, Brother Lawrence learned the nature and value of such discipline. His book, The Practice of the Presence of God, he refused to discriminate between the chores of life and the labor of ministry. He was determined to find the presence of God whether he was working in his kitchen or worshipping in his church. He had a simple daily prayer that opened a whole new realm of understanding, Lord of all pots and pans and things.make me a saint by getting meals and washing up the plates.

It’s a curious thing to think that God would "make a saint" using simple chores. And, yet, that’s where the important lessons of ministry are learned.and discerned. Are you capable of faithfulness? Do you live in reliance upon God? Are you humble at heart? Are you able to serve? Are you willing to move according to His leading? [Next issue: 8 Heart-felt lessons that Measure God’s greater call.]