Tag Archives: Cross

Christian Freedom

A friend recently gave me a copy of Steve Brown’s book A Scandalous Freedom. The Radical Nature of the Gospel. Maybe he thought my life was confined by too many ‘don’ts’ and wanted me to discover afresh the gift of freedom in Christ. 

Brown’s thesis is quite basic — Christians in North America have lost the true sense of Gospel freedom that they possess. Instead, Christianity has become another religious system, using rules and other pressures to provoke its followers to moral living and good deeds. In succombing to this less than Gospel understanding of  Jesus’ message, believers remain "afraid, guilty and bound." Legalism, wrong teaching, abusive leadership, false expectations all conspire to rob believers of their freedom.  "There is so much more to being a Christian than obeying rules, doing religious things, and being ‘nice’."

With considerable wit, insight into ‘churchianity’, personal transparency, pastoral care, and theological acuity, Brown challenges us to be free. His goal is to help Christians recapture true Christian freedom and  become the potent Kingdom force that God intended them to be, living with joy, courage, and peace. They will know God’s love, God’s grace, and God’s forgiveness and it is deeply liberating.

Brown’s objective is admirable and in many instances needed. It is important to grasp and build into our lives the wonderful liberty that Jesus has purchased for us. Conversely, we have to reject pretense, tradition for the sake of tradition, the paralysis generated by fear, and attempts by some Christians to control. However, I have my reservations about Brown’s presentation.

1. Paul revels in the freedom Jesus provides from sin’s power and the burden of generating our own righteousness. Brown rightly emphasizes this. In Galatians 3 to 5 Paul describes the astonishing transformation — believers are no longer under the power of the Law, the curse of sin, the weak and beggarly cosmic powers. But just as much as he celebrates this significant liberation, he emphasizes that God’s invitation to live in his freedom means "walking in the Spirit," "keeping in step with the Spirit," and recognizing that "I no longer live, but Messiah lives in me." The freedom we have in Christ is not autonomy; it is a freedom to be one of the Messiah’s "Kingdom of Priests", the Messiah who is our Lord. As Paul says in Romans 6:22 that we "have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God." I did not perceive this side of the biblical freedom equation in Brown’s presentation.

2.   Paul also emphasizes that our freedom is exercised in the context of Christian community. Brown places significant emphasis on the believer as individual, but does not seem to balance this with the biblical reality of believer as part of the body of Christ. As a believer I am not free to be me without restraint. The three great commandments — love God, love neighbour, and make disciples — sets each believer in a new relational network that shapes the nature of Christian freedom. God has not purchased through the Cross my freedom so that I can sin and harm Christ’s body, bring disrepute to the Gospel, and advance Satan’s cause. Of course, Christians sin and God still loves us. In his extensive discussion on the boundaries of Christian freedom, Paul concludes "Everything is permissible—but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible — but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others" (1 Corinthians 10:23-24). For Paul the best way is the way of love and this gets worked out in the community of faith primarily. Jesus warned us about causing one disciple to sin. For him this was an important issue.

3.   Christians are to be and do good. Whether you read 1 Peter or Titus (or the Sermon on the Mount), one of the outcomes of Kingdom living is goodness — expressed in our being and our actions. We do not manufacture this ourselves, but are dependent upon the Holy Spirit for its production (note the imagery Paul used about the "fruit of the Spirit"). However, we also have responsibility, as Jesus put it, "to seek first the Kingdom and its righteousness" (Matthew 6:33). Peter said that Jesus sacrificed himself "so that having died to sins we might live for righteousness" (1 Peter 2:24). Brown is right to point out that this should result in a "holier than thou" attitude or a self-righteous, judgmental spirit. Doing good flows out of the love the Spirit gives us for others. Being good arises from the Spirit’s consist guidance and empowerment to resist evil.

There is both spiritual freedom and spiritual discipline in Christ. While believers no longer live under the authority of the law’s tutelage, they are indeed "slaves of Christ."  As a Christian I am born again into God’s family, but He is the Father and as Peter reminds us the "one who judges with impartiality." Peter urges us "as obedient children…to be holy in all that you do" 

More could be said, but space does not allow it. By all means read Brown’s book. However, I do not think his presentation provides an adequate, nuanced biblical understanding of our freedom in Christ"(1 Peter 1:14).

Back of the Napkin

One of the secret skills employed by just about every minister I know is the ability to scribble. For years I thought that I was the only one who had doodled my way through more conversations than I can remember. All I need is a booth in a restaurant, a napkin and pen, an interesting conversation and the magic begins. Some have said that virtually all artwork begins as a scribble [which may be why people keep finding pieces of art from Picasso or Rembrandt to sell at auction.] My guess is that there is an equal body of ministry that began with a squiggle.

Over the years, I’ve drawn pictures to communicate everything from the message of the Gospel to the structure of ministry relationships. In each case, it has been proof that a picture is worth a thousand words. And, over the years I’ve discovered that I am not alone. Almost every pastor I’ve met has their own portfolio of profound doodles.

So, you can imagine my joy when I discovered the book by Dan Roam, The Back of the Napkin [Penguin, New York: 2008.] There has been a lot of pressure over the last few years for Pastors to elevate their quality of presentation. It’s a way of catching up with the advancement of technical, automated multi-media which has created a demand for what one writer calls: "multi-dimensional, geospatially-grounded visualizations with time lines and cross-cutting cultural dimensions." And, that’s just what’s expected from Power Point!

As I opened The Back of the Napkin, I was thrilled to find that Dan Roam had made the simple science of the scribble an art form. With simple exercises, he makes it easy for even the most inept to draw a picture that would – as advertised by the subtitle: solve problems and sell ideas. As I’ve been working through the exercises, it’s hit me – it’s going to change the way I make presentations at large, and that’s a good thing! Interested? You can check it out for yourself: www.digitalroam.com – or – www.thebackofthenapkin.com.

God’s mission: Emmanuel

Emmanuel is my favorite Christmas word, partly because it is also a missions word.  God is a missionary God and provides us with the greatest expression of missions in and through the Christmas event.  The reason why the shepherds could accept the angel’s invitation was because God had come to earth: “Let us go and see” (Lu 2:15).  The reason why Jesus could say, “Come to me everyone who is tired and burdened” (Mt 11:28) was because he was living in the same world with the same demands, discouragements, obstacles and opposition that we face.  The reason why the apostles were so confident in their faith was because they had seen “the Life” with their eyes and touched it with their hands (1 Jn 1:1-2).  Missions (pl) is our part in God’s mission to redeem the world.  Jesus was sent into the world as the greatest act of that mission.  Our participation in God’s mission happens when we play a role through the ongoing sending of the Spirit: either by going ourselves or by becoming the means for sending others.

Emmanuel, God with us

Emmanuel, God with us, is the proclamation of the missionary God. God speaks the eternal Word and it becomes a baby lying in a manger, a man on a mission, a sacrifice on a cross, the resurrected savior, the ascended Lord.  But the proclamation of Emmanuel does not end at the ascension.   Emmanuel does not become “God no longer with us.”  Jesus said, “I will be with you always” (Mt 28:20) and this is not just a comforting metaphor or a pretentious sentiment, but a living reality.  The act of Emmanuel continues with the explosion of words and languages at Pentecost – the Spirit of Christ beginning to blast the message of Emmanuel out to the four corners of the earth.  It is not the principles and instructions of Christianity that are the essence (as good as they are for living well), but it is the presence of the living Christ impacting lives around the world – Emmanuel, God with us. Words are weak and limited, but the experience of the living Word continues on, and it is our faith in Emmanuel that drives us to be part of that movement, the mission to cross barriers, to face obstacles and to show love for the sake of Emmanuel. The God who came to earth continues to be with us, Emmanuel.

Top Ten Countdown of Cultural Lessons (1-2)

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.

2. In order to successfully plug in to a culture, I must spend time to get to know people

bridging a culture is the depth of relationships with people in that culture

This seems obvious. However, I have learned that the deception surrounding this issue can be subtle. Although I spent time around people at the Korean church, I needed to expend more prayer, energy, and intention being with people. My time at this church has connected me more solidly with the principle that success at bridging a culture is the depth of relationships with people in that culture. This means not just spending time doing church ministry together, but spending time together doing other things as well. Lingenfelter states:

We cannot hold office hours for the people to whom Christ has called us to minister. We must adjust our time schedules, meeting them whenever they have need and turning to our own tasks only after we have completed our ministry to them…1

One important key here, I believe, is the discipline it takes to get the work done efficiently and at the times God gives. Thus I have been convicted of the importance of time management. Disciplined time management ensures that the windows needed to spend time with people are available and stress-free. In addition to this, prayer combined with focused intent to build relationships provides the means to dig into culture and become a part of it. I think Paul was quite familiar with all of this. He wrote to the Thessalonians (2:8,11-12):

We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us…we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God…

and he also said to the Ephesians (5:14-15): “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.”

1. The most important lessons in cross-cultural ministry are still the most basic lessons.

While knowledge regarding contextualization, cultural practices, and language acquisition skills is essential, the real heart of cross-cultural ministry remains the same in any situation. I would argue that there are 3 interrelated values that form this core. First, we are called to walk by the Spirit, and not by the flesh (Galatians 5:16-26). This overcoming of sin and Satan in our lives is fundamental to the effective witness of the Gospel (1 Corinthians 9:27). Overcoming sin is also essential to the second value: our capacity to love and serve others. Third, as we love and serve others and overcome sin, our obedience to God proceeds towards fullness.

the foundation of missions: Christian unity

Philippians 2:1-8 reveals that this fullness of obedience to Christ characterizes our unity. In turn, Christ emphasized unity is essential to our mission in John 17:21: “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” and also in John 13:35: “by this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Together, these principles of victory over sin, love and submission to each other, and submission to Christ form the foundation of missions: Christian unity. I do not recall encountering teaching that integrated the concepts of missions in this way.2 It was in the absence of emphasis on the connectedness of these topics this semester that prompted me to think about how basic Scriptural teaching impacts the missionary endeavour. This has been very beneficial to me, because I believe that I can now better integrate these concepts with the other missions theology and concepts I am learning.

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  • 1Lingenfelter & Mayers, Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships 88.
  • 2However see A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. Darrell L. Guder, ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998 and Van Gelder, C. The Essence of the Church. Grand Rapids: Baker Press, 2001

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.

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  • 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.

Top Ten Countdown of Cultural Lessons (7-8)

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.

8. Becoming engaged in a foreign culture requires a balance of sensitivity and boldness

Engaging a foreign culture requires courage

Engaging a foreign culture requires courage. Only one who is willing to take risks and try uncomfortable new things will effectively engage a culture. Cowardice results in missed opportunities. However, boldness needs to be balanced with sensitivity. A lack of humility and sensitivity will result in the offense of the other culture and create obstacles to building relationships. I have erred in both extremes. For example, I found myself in appointed to a position of leadership over some of the other young adult leaders after only a short time. I feel that some of my actions and attitudes in this position were too bold. From this experience, I have learned that it is very important to go into such situations humbly and with a servant heart. It takes time and sensitivity to gain the respect of others, especially if I am ‘stepping on their turf.’

In another case, I was not bold enough to follow up on a ministry opportunity. One woman asked, in the first week I was at the church, if I would come to her house for dinner and encourage her kids towards Christ. I hesitated to follow this up, because it seemed like such an unusual request. Several weeks later, the spirit convicted me that I should respond. I did, and the results were fruitful. However, I did miss some opportunity to speak into the women’s son’s lives because of my delay.

A balance of sensitivity and boldness is found throughout the New Testament. Both Jesus and Paul, for example, strongly challenged those around them, but were also very sensitive to personal needs and cultural practice. Paul both engaged Athenian culture and challenged them to repentance in Acts 17. Christ said in Matt 10:16: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

7. Raising support for missions is much more than asking for money.

Missionary work requires that the missionary raise financial support. However, I am learning both through personal fund raising experiences, and through my readings, that this process involves much more than just obtaining money. The “Raising and Keeping Ministry Partners” module at Gateway, as well as the “Teamwork and Partnership for World Mission”1 course with Mark Orr have been instrumental in this learning process in several ways.

First, in addition to raising financial support, I have learned it is also important to raise prayer support.

Second, those who become engaged financially or prayerfully in the mission become partners of the ministry. These people do not just provide for the ‘needy’ missionary, but also gain an opportunity to serve the body (3 John 1:8; Phil 4:18), develop their stewardship character (Mark 12:41-44; Matt 6:2-4), worship God (Phil 4:18), and receive blessings from God (Phil 4:17; Matt 6:4). They also (hopefully) become more aware of the greater work that God is doing in the church body to fulfill the great commission through prayer letters, prayer, or hearing teaching about missions theology from the support raiser.

the missionary comes to know God as provider

Lastly, the process of support raising provides an opportunity for the missionary to grow in faith. Through trust in God, the missionary comes to know God as provider as support emerges through providential circumstances (Matt 6:25-34).

Though my fund raising process went reasonably well this time, next time I hope to speak more about the emphasis of missions partnering. I have also learned that fund raising requires much prayer. The process of getting the money from donor to agency can be arduous at times and needs to be covered in prayer.

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  • 1Lausanne Committee for World Evangelisation, “Funding for Evangelism and Mission,” Lausanne Occasional Paper No. 56 (2004), under “Lausanne committee for World Evangelisation – Lausanne Documents,” http://www.lausanne.org/documents/2004forum/LOP56_IG27.pdf (accessed March 3, 2008).

Top Ten Countdown of Cultural Lessons (9-10)

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.

10. Be aware of creating dependencies

In the “Overseas Life Issues” module at Gateway, a story of a church planting project was recounted. The story occurred in a developing country that had little resources. The church building constructed there by outsiders was far more advanced than locals could do using their own resources. Later, it became apparent that the locals were not building any of their own churches. The missionaries realized that this was because the locals felt that their ability to build church buildings was inadequate. The locals believed that the missionaries had constructed an “ideal” church. They felt powerless to meet that standard, since they lacked the resources and supplies necessary. Unable to function on their own, the locals became dependent upon the missionaries.

help in a way that does not create dependent relationships

This concept may find Biblical support from Acts 3:1-10. Peter and John did not give the crippled man money as per his request, but healed him in a way that would allow him to leave his life of dependency.

This has relevance for my local international student ministry. We want to meet the felt needs of students, but we must be careful in how we do so. International students can sensitive about receiving too much support, especially if they belong to a shame/honour based culture. Though these international students are in a position of need because of their newness to our culture, lack of transportation etc., our ministry needs to be very conscious to help in a way that does not create dependent relationships, make students feel ‘needy,’ or otherwise hinder the true spiritual impact that is required.

9. Different cultures have strengths and weaknesses in their expressions of church.

these strengths come from the Korean culture

When I first attended a Korean church I found that it had two strengths over churches that I have been a member of. The first was their hospitality and sense of community. Each Sunday I attend 3 services: a morning service for leadership, a late morning service for the English speaking Koreans, and an afternoon service for young adults. Each of these services is separated by a fellowship time where everyone gathers in the cafeteria. Brunch and Lunch are served. Hospitality was shown as well–several people made efforts to welcome me. The second thing that attracted me to the church was the sheer volume of people involved in serving the church. The number of pastoral staff, Sunday school teachers, worship team members, choir members, kitchen staff, and others is leagues beyond what I remember seeing in my own home churches. Both hospitality and service to the church community seem to be core values, and as far as I can see, these strengths come from the Korean culture.

What appears on the outside as servant hearted idealism is not without is flaws, however. Several young people I talked reported that people are appointed in leadership who are not ready to be in teaching or leadership positions. Additionally, some of the younger leaders seem to be overworked, or very close to it. While member involvement seems to be a strength in the Korean church, there are areas for growth here as well.

Personally, this has opened my eyes to the importance of engaging a different cross cultural context to see different perspectives of church expression. This helps me both to understand my personal church expression, as well as to see ways in which it can improve. I think John S. Leonard made a good point: “[the church in between cultures] would see sin where monocultural churches do not and call for repentance. It could just be the church that is capable of leading God’s people into whatever the future might be.”1

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  • 1 John S. Leonard. “The Church in Between Cultures: Rethinking the Church in the Light of the Globalization of Immigration,” EMQ Vol 40 No. 1 (Jan 2004): 70.

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

The perception of a loving church depends on where you stand

In the book UnChristian (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), which deals with research from the Barna group, David Kinnaman refers to a survey which asked the participants to agree or disagree with the statement, “Christian churches accept and love people unconditionally, regardless of how people look or what they do” (p. 185). 20% of non church goers (outsiders) agreed strongly, just over 40 % of church goers agreed strongly, but 76% of pastors strongly agreed that this statement described Christian churches.

The discrepancy is intriguing. Do the pastors have a good sense of reality based on personal experience, or is this an expression of their desire for this statement to be true? Have the outsiders been biased by unfair reports, or have they had negative experiences that contradict the statement?

I suspect that part of the discrepancy has to do with the difference between standing inside looking out verses standing outside and looking in. For example, I have a love / hate relationship with hospitals. I think they are wonderful but I am happiest if I don’t have to be inside one. When visiting I feel quite out of place and uncertain about what I am permitted to do and am always relieved to leave. On the other hand, my daughter, Becky, has just completed her nurse’s training. She enjoys the environment, loves to be busy and experiences significance as she helps the patients. The hospital is the same, it is our separate and distinct relationships with and experience of the hospital that is different. It is a matter of perspective.

those of us who are church goers need to learn to speak another language of love

This illustration may parallel the contrasting perspectives between pastors and the outsiders described by Kinnaman. What looks like love to the pastors is seen through another lens by the outsiders and experienced as uncomfortable, judgmental or cold. Most likely the relationships and environment of church speak differently to outsiders. Perhaps their language of love is different from what is normally expressed in church. If this is so, then those of us who are church goers need to learn to speak another language of love, one that is understood by those outside of the church.

This missional stance – becoming like others, as opposed to inviting others to become like us – has even greater urgency when relating cross-culturally. What is considered comfortable, familiar and accepting varies from culture to culture. Cross-cultural experiences tend to be stressful due to the many unfamiliar cues which bombard the person who is not used to the setting, cues that need to be interpreted. In that context even expressions intended to communicate love and acceptance can be misunderstood or judged negatively. On the other hand, when God’s people learn how to make people from another culture feel comfortable and accepted by speaking that people group’s language of love, rather than waiting for others to conform to the church’s way of relating, then the experience of the outsider will correspond to the perspective of the insider.

Cross-cultural ministry classic

The Christ of the Indian Road by E. Stanley Jones, 1925. Abington Press

E. Stanley Jones was a highly influential missionary who worked in India during the time of Gandhi.  The principles for cross-cultural ministry presented in this classic are as valid today and in any context as they were when this book was written.  His understanding of contextual theology is profound as he seeks for an Indian interpretation of Jesus.  His confidence in the supremacy of Christ is evident in his practice of conducting round table dialogues in which each participant explains how their particular faith has impacted their lives spiritually. Consider this following excerpt concerning the transforming power of Christ:

There is no real danger lest Jesus be lost among the many in all this, that it may end up in his being put in the Pantheon of Hinduism.  Greece and Rome tried that and the pantheons amid which he was placed are gone – Jesus lives on.  He is dynamic, disruptive, explosive like the soft tiny rootlets that rend the monuments of man’s pride.  Like the rootlets he quietly and unobtrusively goes down into the crannies of men’s thinking, and lo, old forms and customs are broken up.  Absorb him?  You may as well talk about the moist earth in springtime absorbing the seed!  The seed absorbs it, for it is life.  Jesus is Life.  He will take care of himself.

‘Give us Jesus,’ said a Hindu to me, ‘just Jesus.  Do not be afraid that we will make a human Jesus out of him, for his divinity will shine out of its own accord.’ (pp 167-168)

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.

Uneasy with Evangelism

It feels impolite and invasive to challenge someone on a personal level

I am uncomfortable with direct methods of evangelism that early on present the hearer with an invitation to accept Christ as Lord and Savior.  Part of my unease has to do with my Canadian upbringing.  It feels impolite and invasive to challenge someone on a personal level in our cultural context. While my attitude cannot be used as an excuse not to give people the opportunity to become followers of Christ – and many people have become believers because of the “forwardness” of faithful disciples – nonetheless other approaches may be more conducive to certain segments of the Canadian population.  Much evangelism training encourages people to becoming bold in calling others to commitment, but perhaps the assumption of an early and direct gospel invitation behind such methods needs to be questioned.

One missiological concern is that while cultural norms do not pre-empt the Great Commission, they need to be taken into account so that the stumbling block of the gospel remains the cross, and not methodologies that may push people away, rather than attract them to salvation in Christ.  The currently running Mr. Sub commercial of the two young “missionaries” presenting their message to a young woman at her home is amusing, but also includes a certain “cringe factor” as I listen to the canned approach.

 A further concern is that the majority of evangelical approaches with their early presentation of a gospel challenge are geared towards those ready to make a faith profession.  While appropriate for some people – as we hear from stories about responses to such programs – to others it feels like manipulation or a proposal given outside of the context of relationship.  For these people such an approach may work as an inoculation against the gospel, indicating that a less direct approach could be more effective in the long run.

However, the main reason I feel uncomfortable with direct methods of evangelism is that an early call to faith can undermine the significance of the commitment.  A commitment to Christ is analogous to that of marriage (cf. Paul’s admonition to husbands in Eph 5:25-33).  I have made two life long vows: one to my wife, and one to my Lord.  What we are seeking from people in evangelism is a commitment to Christ on a level with the commitment a person makes to their life partner.  If a call to salvation in Christ can be considered on the level of a proposal to a future spouse, then one has to make that presentation when the time is right and in a way that validates the importance of the decision (cf. Jesus’ caution to “count the cost” in Lu 14:25-30).

A commitment to Christ is analogous to that of marriage

In our culture the validity and impact of a marriage proposal is dependent upon a pre-existing close personal relationship; the relationship does not occur because of the proposal but is an important step in the development of the relationship.  The courting relationship could last years, the proposal, one evening.  Furthermore, a proposal made too early in the relationship could destroy it.  In the same way, perhaps we need to think in terms of helping people develop a relationship with Christ before commitment. If we do not help people understand how Jesus is relevant to life, alleviate their misunderstandings, work through their hurts, etc., a proposal to commitment could be misrepresented as a call to religious conformity and control rather than a relationship of joy and release.

help people develop a relationship with Christ BEFORE commitment

My intention is not to disparage direct means of evangelism.  There are many people who have come to Christ because of such an approach.  At the same time, there are others in our lives resistant to the gospel who need time and patience to work through their perspectives of Jesus and how the meaning to life is found in him.  Rather than calling them to commitment, our role is to walk with them in their spiritual journey until their attraction to Jesus matures, so much so that a proposal is not only fitting, but unavoidable.

Does this thinking make sense to you?  If so, consider the merits of the SISI system with its focus on learning how to engage others in significant conversations that will bring them into contact with the Kingdom of God.

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

Significant Conversations: Onion model of Culture

The Common hunger of Humanity
What we as human beings search for and value in life is the “meaningful” and the “good.”

With regard to the “meaningful,” we are always trying to make sense of our world. Hopelessness, which is what we seek to avoid, is the antithesis of the “meaningful” and happens when the world does not make sense. Children from dysfunctional families, for example, are more prone to be careless of themselves and others – smoking, dangerous activities, lack of respect for boundaries, etc. Their world is not making sense and much of what they do is a cry of despair of the senselessness of it all. They deliberately do what they have been warned against, partly in reaction to the pain that they experience from those aspects of society considered to be places of security and meaning. Ultimately, the lack of meaning leads to suicide, as in the case of the existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre.

the issue for evangelism is no longer (if it ever was) about finding the right delivery system

Tied to this, and which is also a matter of universal human concern, is the search for and desire to experience and center our lives on “good.” We desire and search for that which is conducive to human flourishing. This corresponds with Jesus’ view of humanity. He had pity on the crowds because they were like sheep without a shepherd. They were in need of what is good and they were seeking for it, but they were looking in the wrong places.

what all of us as human beings are seeking are matters of ultimate concern

In other words, what all of us as human beings are seeking are matters of ultimate concern, the questions of human existence: What should I do? Why are we here? What may I hope?

Implications for our post-Christian Environment
Common approaches to evangelism assume that we as Christians have the answers to these questions and look for “delivery systems” whereby these answers can be provided. Church services, evangelistic meetings, tracts, etc., are all designed with the desire to deliver the Christian message. These approaches do work for some, but, if statistics Canada is correct, not for the majority of Canadians.

Read the rest of this entry in Cross-cultural Impact #57

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.

Meeting the need for Cross-cultural expertise in our churches

  • Joy’s (1) emotional pain was evident as she related her move from her family’s mono-ethnic Chinese church to a multiethnic congregation.  She felt guilt as if she had somehow betrayed her home church.
  • Bob pastored a multi-ethnic congregation but was frustrated by his inability to recruit leadership from certain groups.
  • Jane enjoyed belonging to a church with ethnic diversity, but was disturbed by the “multi-ethnic” label as it raised the spectre of racism.  “Why don’t we just focus on our oneness in Christ?” she mused.
  • Arif enjoyed the ethnically diverse church he attended, but also often visited a mono-cultural congregation of his ethnic background because of the familiar music and worship style.  “Is it OK to belong to two churches?” he wondered.
  • Pastor Daud was upset and felt betrayed.  After a number of meetings during which all participants affirmed their desire to belong to a multi-cultural congregation, one ethnic group left to form their own church.

Our increasingly multicultural Canadian environment with all its complexity necessitates increased expertise and insight on behalf of church leaders so that they can minister effectively. Cultural competency is required to facilitate healthy relationships and build unified congregations.

  • How does a leader deal with the dynamic of valuing cultural distinctives while integrating people from various backgrounds into a church with one identity and purpose?
  • How can the inevitable tensions that arise from cultural differences be resolved in positive ways?
  • How does a church shift towards an intercultural mindset without losing its missional drive and what form does that take?

Moreover, church leadership who wish to lead their multi-ethnic church into making a relevant gospel impact need to develop the skill to recognize and utilize the strengths of cultural diversity.

  • How is the gospel to be contextualized while maintaining the constant of Christ as Lord and savior?
  • How can significant relationships be developed with communities that have different priorities, values, and history?
  • How can our churches be equipped as confident and competent witnesses to those world representatives who are our fellow Canadians?

How can significant relationships be developed with communities that have different priorities, values, and history?

There is an immense need for committed believers to be trained for effective and relevant service in ethnically diverse contexts both locally and globally.  At Fellowship International Ministries and NBS we believe that training and preparation for the cultural and theological demands of these environments is essential.  Training for effectiveness in cross-cultural ministry needs to occur in real life, real time ministry settings.  This is why the Cross-Cultural Leadership Program (CLTP) was created: a mentored, experienced based training program for cross-cultural ministry in Canada and internationally.

Is there a need in your church for expertise in intercultural (facilitating relationships between ethnic groups) or cross-cultural (focus on reaching out to a particular ethnic group) ministry?  Is there anyone in your church who demonstrates gifting and ability in developing significant cross-cultural relationships? Northwest Baptist Seminary and Fellowship International Ministries are ready to assist in training such individuals through the innovative and flexible CLTP program.  Visit the CLTP website or contact the supervisor of the program, Mark Naylor, via the form below


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  • (1) The names used are fictional, but all examples are based on true situations

Contact Mark Naylor

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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

Church Web 101

…where does one start when planning a church website?

Today I am launching a series of articles for churches on the topic of church websites. Have you grappled with how to start, develop and maintain a good church website? Have you learned some great secrets that you would be willing to share? I hope to add a number of articles in the future that will provide resources that specifically address the needs of churches in relation to their use of the internet. I may not write all the articles but rather will try to develop a network of people, web-links and other resources that can provide the kind of help needed – particularly  for churches.

In this article I am starting with some fundamentals. In order to have a website you need three basic pieces of the internet and website puzzle.

1. The first piece you need is to own the "domain name" that you will use for your website. The domain name is the address that you type into your internet browser that takes you to a particular website.  The domain name that Northwest owns and uses is nbseminary.com. When you type www.nbseminary.com into the address bar of your internet browser it opens to the Northwest website for you to browse. So an example of a domain name for you might be www.yourchurchname.com.

A domain name is purchased from a domain name registrar and is paid for (usually) on an annual basis. Domain names cost anywhere from $8.75 per year to $34.99 per year depending on the registrar and what they offer beside the domain name registration. On the more expensive end of the range would be a company like www.networksolutions.com and on the cheaper end would be a company like www.mydomain.com – with many in between and a few cheaper and a few more expensive.

You need a "place" to locate your website so that it can be accessed from the internet any time of day or night – a web host.

2. The second piece of the puzzle that you need is a "place" to locate your website so that it can be accessed from the internet any time of day or night. This "place" is usually provided by a web hosting company. For a monthly fee these companies will "host" your website on their web server computers and make sure that your website is both secure and always accessible from the internet. Hosting fees can range from as low as several dollars a month to several dozens of dollars a month – again depending on the services provided. Most church web sites do not need anything more than a basic or basic to mid-range hosting plan.

3. The third piece of the puzzle that you need for your church website is the development of the website itself – i.e. the computer files that hold all the information you want to present about your church. For the basic website these files can be understood in two broad categories. There will be the actual web pages themselves – i.e. what you are reading right now, and there will be the graphic elements of the site. That includes the overall site design, photos, video clips etc. Site designs usually incorporate a top section called a header that identifies who this site is about, the body of the site which holds the information, and finally there usually is a bottom part – called a footer where one might place a copyright notice, some links to important sections of the website and so on. 

– What should a church put on their website?
– Who is going to be responsible for the website?
– What sort of time commitment might be required by a website?

One other element the site will need is some sort of mechanism to navigate from one page to another. Links that do this navigation are often found either in a menu bar across the top of the site or on the side of the site in what is called a sidebar.

I will write more about each of these pieces of the puzzle in future articles. Here are some other questions I would like to address in future articles. Where does one start when thinking about a website? What does one need to create a website? Can just anyone do this or is purely the realm of the specialists – the geeks? What makes a good church website? Is there special software that I need? Are there people who can help me?

I am sure you have your own questions. Why don’t you add a comment to this page? Do you have a particular question that we could address in a future article? Do you have some special solutions your church has discovered? Write and let me know.

Musings on the Night of All Hallows’ Eve

Tonight is Halloween.

The weather reports in our area give a 60% chance for rain this evening. Visibility will be worse than usual. I expect that we’ll all need to drive home especially carefully in the darkness tonight. Children, normally safe at home after dark, will be costumed and out tonight; more mindful of the prospects of a sack full of goodies than of looking both ways before crossing the street.

We’ve been warned not to allow our children to simply tuck into those goodies; first, check the treats for tampering–needles, razor blades, poisons and such. We’ve also been advised to keep our pets inside and in a room as far away from the doorbell as possible tonight. The noise of constant activity at the door is frightening to them, and youthful inspirations with fireworks have not infrequently led to the terrorizing or maiming of pets.

Costumes will run from the cutest to the most goulish and macabre. The range of revelers will run from infants dressed and carried from house to house by parents all the way to youth and adults, some of whom will themselves need to be carried home tonight.

Police and fire departments will be on higher alert; a few more doctors may be on call and hospital emergency rooms may see an increase in patient traffic.

What is all this edgy celebration about? The night was first celebrated as a high moment in the season of harvest in pagan Gaelic culture, a time of potentially dangerous penetration of the world of the dead into that of the living. Its symbolic expressions and activities represented human machinations to avoid, or at least control, what threatened. The Romans applied their own overlay of harvest celebration and preventative magic and ritualism. Later communities and cultures added their own elements. The Christian celebration of All Hallows’ Eve or All Saints Day on November 1, has done little more than lend its name to the night.

Halloween was not at first conceived as safe; nor is it entirely so today. Its "celebrations" in antiquity were nothing more than the expression of a cyclical reminder of slavery to beggarly forces and principles without permanent remedy; modernity’s continued witless mimicking amounts to the bravado of an uncertain whistling at gathered darkness.

I should think that the preferred recourse of wiser souls, over all the rest of those other souls who celebrate, is a sheltered sleep and anticipation of the breaking dawn and its light. It works practically; it works theologically too!

Becoming a Sewage pipe Christian

During the time we lived in Larkana, Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto became prime minister of Pakistan. Since Larkana was her family home town, there were some obvious perks.  One of the most obvious was the construction of several fountains at key intersections.  Each fountain had a plaque proclaiming the name of the patron who had funded the project.  At the same time, the sewage system in Larkana was obviously insufficient for the population and in many places, nonexistent. In terms of improving people’s lives and preventing disease, a sewage system was logically a far more practical choice, but that did not seem to be a major concern.

Karen and I would often comment on a probable reason for this priority: To have one’s name on a fountain was an expression of honor, but there was no equivalent avenue for self-glorification in improving a sewage system.  Who wants their name attached to sewage pipe?  


As Christians our perspective needs to be very different.  We are followers of a savior who chose the “sewage pipe” way to serve, rather than the self-glorification of “fountain” construction.  He sacrificed for what we need – redemption from the sewage of our lives – which resulted in the shame of the cross rather than the glory of the throne that the disciples were hoping for.  Sometimes ministry feels like constructing sewage pipes without anyone praising our efforts.  But that may be a good indication that we are following Christ.  The world strives to put their name on the “fountains,” servants of Christ work on the sewers.

At the present time, the fountains in Larkana do not have any water flowing in them and they have become receptacles for garbage.  I think there may be a lesson in that as well.

No alpha, beta or RC1 releases – a reason for Thanksgiving!

Warning!!
"if you don’t know what an alpha release is, don’t use this software!!"

I love the concept of free web software – a web application that has been designed by someone out there in cyberland who has put it up on the net to be downloaded and used freely (donations always appreciated). It is in this context that I have chuckled in the past couple of days as I have been searching for some very specific plugins (small web applications) for WordPress (the web software on which this site runs). In the process I have come across several websites that describe their particular plugin as an "alpha release" – with the following warning- "if you don’t know what an alpha release is, don’t use this software!!" Warning heeded!!

It is common for web software programmers to release a version of the software they are developing to the public – a version that is not fully tested or does not have complete functionality – in order to give the internet community an opportunity get a sneak preview or even to help in the debugging of the program. In this way users will often help with suggestions as to what additional functionality might be added to the software in order to make it a useful tool. These releases are labeled "alpha" or "beta" versions and if the software is deemed to be almost complete, "release candidate 1 or 2" (RC1, etc.). I have occasionally experimented with web software that was still in the "beta" stage.

Sometimes, however, it is frustrating when I am looking at a piece of software that is advertised to do just what I want it to do – but it is still "beta"! Do I dare use it on my "precious" website? Can I trust it? Other times it is quite annoying when software touted as the ultimate answer for a particular need does not live up to its promise. But that is the world of software offered on the web and those are the risks you take when you use a "beta" version.

Today is Canadian Thanksgiving Day and I was reflecting on what I had to be thankful about and thinking about some of the experiences I have had with "beta releases" it occurred to me that when Jesus provided the "Ultimate Answer" to mankind’s deepest need he provided the only and final release, free and absolutely complete!

Jesus…prepared for every contingency, every possibility, every condition and every era. He did not take any shortcuts or half measures and did not leave any functionality out.

When Jesus provided salvation for us He prepared for every contingency, every possibility, every condition and every era. He did not take any shortcuts or half measures and did not leave any functionality out. He did not forget anything or ignore anything. He knew every need we would ever possibly have and provided for them all. When He died on the Cross to save mankind from sin he did not take a trial and error approach – he went all the way and did it perfectly – first time! His "plan" for us has never needed debugging, security updates, patches or fixes. It is perfect, there will never be any other versions or releases – and it is free for the receiving! In fact donations are not even possible and to attempt payment nullifies the "plan".

So, to recap! The salvation Jesus has provided is absolutely perfect, absolutely complete, absolutely efficacious, absolutely trustworthy and absolutely free. Now that is something for which I can be very thankful – and so can you!.

In the realm of web software I will continue to experiment with the occasional "beta" release. In the spiritual realm, however, I have settled on Jesus’ perfect "plan"- His provision for eternal salvation.

The Crossing Tender

I heard Jeff Arthurs from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary read this little parable at an Evangelical Homiletics Society gathering many years ago. Afterwards I asked him for a copy so that I could share it with my classes. It was published in 1919 by William Eleazar Barton, otherwise known as “Safed the Sage”. The piece has been edited.

Now there is a railway that runneth through the town where I live, and there are gates that are pulled down when a train goeth by. And one day when I would have crossed the tracks, the gates went down, so that I stopped. And I spake unto the man who keepeth the crossing, and I said, “lovest thou thy job?”

And he said, “I count myself lucky to have this job, for I am neither young nor strong; nevertheless mine is a hard job.”

And I said, “wherefore should thy job be hard?”

And he said, “because I save people’s lives and they curse me.”

“They come down the street breaking the speed limit, and honking for me to lift the gates; or if they be on foot they duck under. And when I warn them not to cross the tracks lest they die, they act as if I were their enemy.”

And I took him by the hand, and I said, “Thou art my brother, and my job is like unto thine.”

And he said, “Art thou not a minister?”

And I answered, “I am a crossing-tender. Where thou seest yonder spire, I tend a crossing; and i say unto the wicked, go not in thine evil way, lest thou die, but they continue to go as they did before. And I say unto the heedless, duck not under the gate, lest evil befall thee; but they duck as they were wont to do.”

My job is like unto the crossing-tenders for my job has the same trials. Nevertheless, his is a good job, and so is mine. And every now and then we keep people on the right side of the gate.

So I considered this, and I resolved to do it as well as I could.

Moving from STM to Career

I received a good question from Missions Catalyst e-Magazine.  Shane Bennett writes,

So, how have you seen short-termers transformed into long-termers? I’m thinking of good examples in which sharp people end up in significant, well-fitting roles. I’m imagining non-manipulative methods in which people are invited to recognize their gifts, are provided with proper stepping stones to long-term commitment, and are shepherded into a successful cross-cultural career.

This is an excellent question and one that a lot of missions agencies (including Fellowship International Ministries) have discussed often.  If you have any ideas or experience in this, please let me know.  Do you know someone who went from short term missions to career missions?  If so, how did that transition occur?  Can we discover a pattern or a means for greater impact that would encourage people towards a long term investment in international ministry?  If you have any ideas, drop me a line via the form below.

One concern that I have is that the strong cultural emphasis on individualism in our churches mitigates against the possibility of a communal decision to appoint someone to missions.  We have personal decisions, a personal walk with Christ, personal devotions and a personal calling to ministry.  When pastors decide to move on they make a personal decision and then involve the church in the process.  All major decisions are personal, and while professional advice is often sought, communal involvement in personal decision making (job, spouse, education, etc.) is unusual.  I am not opposed to this system; it is a reflection of our cultural orientation and comfort zone because, as Canadians, we are quite reserved about having direct involvement in those aspects of other people’s lives considered "personal".
 
However, the downside of this is the reticence we have to provide others with direction and insight for a calling into cross-cultural ministry.  As churches we give general invitations, but rarely identify individuals as capable of international service and challenge them in that direction.  Perhaps this lack of input in people’s lives keeps them unaware of their potential to serve God in missions.  The general sense in that anyone can go on a STM trip, but in our context it feels presumptuous to take the initiative in proposing a career in missions for someone else.

Do you agree with this assessment or are there other, more important factors?

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9/11 and Being Remembered

Yesterday was the sixth anniversary of 9/11.  Many media pieces featured some aspect or other of the tragedy. Some were retrospectives of the event itself. Others covered planned commemorations. I watched one that discussed the engineering implications of 9/11 for high rise building safety.

Among them, two reports in particular struck me.  One was a radio report that memorial service attendance near the site of the World Trade Center this year was only 3,500; down by 1,000 from last year. The other was a news piece by a reporter who asked people on the street what 9/11 was. I was appalled at how many didn’t have a clue what 9/11 was. One person actually asked, "Wasn’t that when we invaded Iraq?"

Perhaps the noblest human motive in remembering the departed is the wish to keep them alive after a fashion, to confer upon them a kind of life beyond the grave in memory. But as massively nightmarish and horrible as 9/11 was, and as much as a nation pledged itself in the days following to cherish the nearly 3,000 dead, it is clear that memory is fading.  Human beings are miserably bad saviors that way.

Who can keep us from being forgotten; from becoming meaningless names and dates chiseled in weathering stone, statistics in a register, or even less? I have no faith in strangers or even my own family to keep me thus. And even if they could do it, where’s the joy or satisfaction in it for them or for me?

If there is salvation in being remembered, who’s able to commit us to the fullest memory so that it is meaningful to the rememberer and the remembered and so that the memory creates more than a sense of loss and deep pain? Can anyone remember us in this way?

I recall the evangelist Luke’s account of two men who hung on crosses within earshot of one another. Both were destined to die that day–one justly for crimes he admitted he had committed; the other innocently, yet without complaint. The former was a criminal sorry to God for what he’d done; the latter was God’s own son.

As life slipped away from both, a remarkable conversation occurred. The guilty man asked the innocent one, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."  The innocent one replied, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."

That’s how I want to be remembered. That’s who I want to be remembered by.

Search all of Northwest Online Resources

We have added a new search routine to our site so that all of our online resources can be searched from a single search. It is a Google Custom Search and it will search our NBSeminary.com (main site) plus Dr. Larry Perkins’ Internet Moments With God’s Word plus Mark Naylor’s Cross-cultural Impact for the 21st Century plus Dr. Lyle Schrag’s Leadership site.  This search utility is to be found on our main menu under Resources >> Search ALL Northwest Online Resources.

As we have been adding online resources regularly it has become necessary for us to be able to do this sort of a search in order to maximize our resources and get the greatest possible value out of them.

I trust that you will find our online resources to be a valuable source of information on various topics.  Have you checked out our "Category Index" (which is something like a subject index)?  You will find this also under the Resources >> View Archived Daily Posts by Category on the menu above.

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.

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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Of Collapsed Bridges and Bad Theology

Minneapolis Bridge Collapse

Yesterday, August 1st at 6:05 pm, an extended section of the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota suddenly collapsed, sending dozens of vehicles, together with their drivers and passengers, plunging into the Mississippi River.  The images yesterday were of emergency personnel and citizens on the scene scrambling amid the tons of twisted metal and broken concrete to rescue survivors.

Today, the images and commentary in the news are different.  Various local, state and federal officials are appearing on camera to pledge material support and vowing to find answers to the engineering and administrative questions.  Anguished family members are being interviewed as they wait for word on loved ones who did not return home last night and have not called.  Reporters’ commentary has shifted from rescue to talk of safe recovery of bodies and there is a general dread that the victim count–remarkably low to this point–is poised to rise.

Invariably, amid the words and images of the media, a few sound bites will be given over to theological reflection. Much of the theology will be, at best, unhelpful and some of it will be downright bad.

Some pundits will challenge God’s greatness–where was He when the bridge went down, claiming the innocents? They will accuse God of either sleeping on the job or not really being in charge.  Others will challenge God’s goodness, concluding from the collapse and a superabundance of other tragedies the world over that such a malignant world must be overseen by an equally malignant God. Yet others will risk accusations of callous heartlessness by exploring the dangerous territory of particular human deserving. Far too many, sadly, will simply dismiss the God question as antiquated, naive and irrelevant.

Jesus was pressed by contemporaries in his day for a theological sound bite in a similar situation (Luke 13:1-9). His response was interesting.  He questioned neither the goodness nor the greatness of God. These were givens. While He forcefully resisted the notion of being able to assign greater or lesser guilt to individuals on the basis of what happened to them, he was equally adamant that there are no innocents on the road, notwithstanding human assessments. Everyone is a sinner, he asserted.

What was Jesus’ advice? The structure will eventually collapse for everyone and particular collapses are a warning of the breathtaking shortness of human life. Smooth crossings presently are a divine grace against our deserving.  Therefore, we should take them as our opportunity to humbly draw close to God and honour him through a generous, well-lived life.

 

Around Our Table

Our house has been a-hum with guests most of this month. But as busy as we’ve been, the joy has been greater. Sitting around the crowded dinner table laden with good things this week, I’ve been reminded of how many times in the past my family and I have been the beneficiaries of God’s great kindnesses through the generous hospitality of Christian acquaintances and friends. One never loses in the act of hospitality. The act is always overwhelmed by returning gains—personal, relational and spiritual.Dinner Table

 What binds us to these guests around our table is a golden thread that stretches back to the years 1987 through 1992, when our family lived in Aberdeen, Scotland while I pursued a PhD. 

 Maureen and her son Joel are at our table. She and her husband Mark were among our first friends in Scotland. They opened their hearts and their home to us when we were Christian strangers just newly arrived, helping us in many ways to settle in to an unfamiliar environment. We were overwhelmed.  Joel was only 3 or 4 years old then; he’s 24 now and looks remarkably like his dad, who passed away just this year. Joanna’s at our table too. She and our daughters became best of friends in those five golden years as did our respective families. The Atlantic has been crossed several times to maintain the connection. As I listen to her news of mom and dad and sisters, I recall wonderful memories made during our five years in Scotland. Peter is at our table and so is his friend Andy. Peter’s uncle Philip was the teaching elder in the small Christian fellowship where we worshipped. They love the Lord Jesus and both are pursuing meaningful professions and expressing their Christian commitment in them. 

 Hospitality, it seems, has always been a peculiar distinctive and calling of the people of God. The Old Testament patriarchs set food before strangers on divinely ordained missions. In Luke’s Gospel, two disciples prevailed upon a fellow traveler to stay with them and share a meal on the road to Emmaus, discovering later that they had given hospitality to their risen Lord. In the Book of Acts early Christians were known for signs and wonders, but also for breaking bread from house to house. And believers continued to be challenged in the book of Hebrews to inexhaustible kindness in hospitality, lest they miss the potential of entertaining angels unawares. 

 The saints are sitting around our table. It’s been a wonderful summer thus far!

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.

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).

Cultural Ways of Belonging

What is the appropriate relationship of a Christian to a local church? How should followers of Christ “belong”? This is an important consideration when ministering cross-culturally, because cultural forms shape the way people understand “belonging”. For example, a helpful, if somewhat simplistic, diagram is provided to demonstrate three levels of relationships in which people experience belonging: Community, Family and Individual. Some cultures, such as most western cultures, give great emphasis to individual relationships. A person is encouraged to develop numerous relationships in a variety of contexts (family, school, sports, church, work, etc.), with the hub of these relationships based on the individual.Community Some cultures, such as many Asian cultures, find their primary identity within the family. Thus all relationships are made with a primary concern for the impact on the family. Marriages are arranged, and jobs are provided through family connections. Other cultures, such as small tribal groups, have a strong community focus. In one African tribal group, when children reach their adolescent years, they are separated from their families. The boys then grow and mature within one house while girls live in another. Thus deep relationships are forged that influence all other decisions in life. Such cultural dynamics shape the way that people will seek to belong in a church setting. In the Asian context where we were involved in church planting, the current church planting goal is to define church life within the household setting, rather than impose a model that encourages individualistic decisions to attend particular meetings or commit to certain relationships. However, this family model would most likely be inappropriate for a Canadian setting in which the individual is responsible for their own network of significant relationships, some of which occur within a single church context, but many are outside of the church. The successful church planter must evaluate and work with the significant relationship networks of his or her community in order to understand how Christian community can be expressed in that context.

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

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

Reverse Flow . . .

Over the last four years I’ve been focused on the phenomenon of ’emerging leaders’. It is trend in which the Church is growing future leaders from within. In 2004, the statistics being kept by Church Central under the direction of Thom Rainer revealed the growth of this trend: 1997  4% of people in ministry were ’emerging leaders'; 2003, the number had doubled to 8%, and the projection was that by 2010, over 30% of people in ministry would be second-third-or fourth career people.Thom Rainer has since moved from Church Central to become the president of Lifeway [the former Southern Baptist Sunday School foundation] and the co-author of Simple Church [the book he wrote with Eric Geiger that I have been recommending all year.] The new director of Church Central, Tom Harper, has picked up on the emerging leader research and has just published a new book entitled Career Crossover. According to his research, 44% of senior pastors today came from the marketplace.

While putting the research together can become rather confusing, it is becoming evident that there is a convergence taking place that deserves notice and attention. The Baby-Boomer generation is entering the realm of retirement with ministry in mind. The ‘Twixter’ generation is delaying a commitment to a career until later life. And, now, it appears that the flow of people taking ministry into the marketplace is cycling into a new direction.

As Harper writes, since almost 400,000 U.S. Church leaders have workplace experience, chances are that thousands more are hearing the call. It’s not a surprise that the subtitle of his book Career Crossover is Leaving the Marketplace for Ministry. It’s happening in increased numbers. And, the flow is not just toward conventional ministry. Emerging Leaders who are seeking to adjust a career from the Marketplace into Ministry are not necessarily concerned about becoming Senior Pastors as the numbers may indicate. The fact is they carry with them a burden that is producing any number of creative and innovative ministries into the world. My concern is that the Church would find a way to empower these people and serve as a platform to connect their ministries to the larger impact of a congregation. It was partly because of that concern that I developed the course Heart for Ministry and it’s a confirmation of that concern that I am taking a long, hard look at Career Crossover. I’d invite you to do the same. For further information: www.churchcentral.com

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How do people belong?

How do people belong? This is an important issue in missions, particularly for a church planting mission such as Fellowship International Ministries: What does it mean to belong to a church? There are many different ways to express and value belonging, and these vary from culture to culture. A college student from Azerbaijan informed me recently that “Canadians are very friendly, but they don’t want to be friends!” In other words, the level of belonging and the expressions of that belonging she was used to in her own culture, were very different in Canada. She expected friendliness to lead to a more intimate relationship, but quickly realized that she was imposing on boundaries they wanted to maintain.

While in Pakistan my wife, Karen, and I had similar experiences. Our concept of ‘friendship’ was different from the expectations in Pakistan. To be invited into a home as a couple to sit with both men and women indicates a level of ongoing commitment that we, as Canadians, reserve for our immediate families!

So what about church relationships? When planting a church, what is the expectation of commitment? One person may view the community in terms of family loyalty, while another may see this particular interaction with other believers as only one avenue of relationships among many, without the need for deeper commitment. Some may consider the church activities as central to their Christian development. Others may be content to participate at one level (e.g., attendance at worship, small group, worship team), while finding fulfillment for other needs (e.g., teaching, guidance, fellowship) in venues outside of one local church.

Should church planters seek to bring all people to a particular level of commitment that fits with one cultural model of church, or should they adjust their expectations to the realities of the connections that people prefer for themselves? If the goal is to help people develop their commitment to Christ within the level of commitment and relationships that they believe are important, then what will Christian community look like?

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

Thank You Father for a Grandson!

Last week I held my grandson in my arms for the first time. My heart was lifted up to my heavenly Father in adoration and praise as I gazed down on that tiny, frail, absolutely dependent, but intricately and beautifully formed bit of humanity. I could not help but ponder the fact that in this small child was another reminder of how the Eternal God gave us His ultimate revelation of Himself. This was how Jesus came. What incredible humility, what awesome condescension, what amazing love – that He, the creator and sustainer of all should have taken on this humanity, this utter dependence. My mind struggled with the incomprehensibility of the truths ascribed to Him in the accolade of Colossians 1:15-20.

And He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created by Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. [NASB]

Did He, the One who holds all things together, constrain Himself to the confines of the likes of this newborn infant, who was so totally dependent on my capability to hold him safely? I gazed down at my grandson and watched as his miniature hands and feet flailed and his tiny fingers grasped my thumb reflexively but with no ability to do anything other than to convey the sense of utter helplessness. What wonder is wrapped up in the mystery of the incarnation! Did Jesus come like this? Only a mighty, loving and gracious God could have planned this!

Holding that babe in my arms and pondering the next few words of that glorious hymn from the pen of the Apostle Paul created strong stirrings of adoration and thanksgiving in my heart.

He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything. For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven. [NASB]

Thank you Eternal Father for sending your Son, Jesus. Thank you Loving Father for sending this little grandson! Through him you have reminded me of your awesome love and compassion – of your audacious plan for our redemption.

It’s Not About Bob – It’s all About God

Several weeks ago, I used my assigned blog entry to muse over the death of my mentor and friend, Robert Webber. The way he prepared for death has taught me a lesson on how to prepare for life with an addition to my daily prayer: thank you, Lord, for the healing of yesterday, and I ask your healing power for today.

. . . as someone who has written a multitude of pages and taught innumerable students about worship, Bob insisted that his service focus on the great saving acts of God.

This week, I received a note from one the editors at Christianity Today, David Neff, who participated in Dr. Webber’s funeral. I’ll let his note speak for itself:

Last night I attended (and played the organ for) Bob Webber’s memorial service. The memorial service was wonderful in many ways, but I want to point to one thing in particular. It wasn’t about Bob.

Well, yes, it was about Bob, it couldn’t help being about Bob, but as someone who has written a multitude of pages and taught innumerable students about worship, Bob insisted that his service focus on the great saving acts of God.

Here is part of what he wrote for the worship leaflet:

As a Christian I have always believed in Christ as the Victor over sin and death. I believe that Christ was the Second Adam, sent to this earth as God Incarnate, suffered death, was buried and rose from the dead to restore the entire creation. I believe that it is God who narrates the entire world and creation, from start to finish. Consequently I have no fear of death although I do fear the process.

Today, there are literally hundreds of different styles one can follow … for a funeral. However, historic Christian funerals were always about God. I … truly want [my own funeral] to be about God who created this world, defeated Satan at the cross and rose victorious over death and the grave.

Today we begin with several eulogies, then when those are done, the real funeral begins and it’s all about God. I want my funeral to be a testimony to the God who raises us from hopelessness and blesses us with new life in Him. …

And that is the way it was last night. As a large crowd of mourners packed into Christ Church of Oak Brook, we heard the eulogies first, and then we focused on God, remembering Christ’s death and resurrection and looking forward to the marriage supper of the Lamb.

This is the way it should be, because there is no greater comfort than the gospel. Too often funerals play down the reality of death with sentimental poetry such as these lines from Shelley: he is not dead, he doth not sleep -/ He hath awakened from the dream of life. We don’t need romanticism, but redemption, especially at funerals.

There’s a whole lot more here than an insight on how to design a meaningful funeral. Once again, the preparation for death has stimulated thoughts on how to prepare for life. I’ve taken that one simple turn of phrase We don’t need romanticism, but redemption to heart. It’s a convicting exercise, especially as I participate in Sunday morning worship [we really don’t need romanticism as much as we need redemption], or as I prepare a Sunday morning sermon [I really shouldn’t aim for romanticism as much as I should redemption], or as I mentor students [they really don’t need romanticism as much as they do redemption.] In essence, it’s NOT about me, it’s not about us, it’s not even about Bob. It’s all about God.

Read Lyle’s Northwest Centre for Leadership Development newsletters

Musings on belonging

Is it just me or has the concept of “belonging” to a church become more fluid lately? I remember growing up in a churched context and it was very obvious who was “in” and who was “out”. Membership was an important concept and there was a sense that unless a person became a “member,” their relationship with God and other believers was not as it should be. Each local church, even if its building was located across the street from another similar church, encouraged a deep level of commitment to their particular communal expression of “church”. Of course, I grew up in a church planter’s home, so that understanding may not reflect the perspective of the average person in the pew.

…it seems that belonging for evangelical believers today has more to do with significant connections with other Christians, than with a commitment or loyalty to one specific expression of Christian community.

However, today, unless it is only my own perception, that view seems to have morphed into a more flexible and complex understanding of belonging. Perhaps it is partly due to the western emphasis on individual rights and responsibilities. Perhaps there is greater tolerance of diverse theological views. Perhaps the perceived need of “a church experience” has changed. Perhaps it is due to the many opportunities that people have to belong to a variety of expressions of Christian community through the radio, TV, small groups, “parachurch” organizations, missions teams, concerts, etc. Whatever the reason, or combination of reasons, it seems that belonging for evangelical believers today has more to do with significant connections with other Christians, than with a commitment or loyalty to one specific expression of Christian community.

As someone who has a missionary mindset, I seek to understand and conform to cultural trends in order to present faith in Christ in a relevant way. Such a change (if I am correct) is neither to be rejected nor unquestioningly embraced. Instead, the question is, what does relevant and impacting Christian community look like in such an environment?

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

The Promise of Matthew 24:14
(en holēi tēi oikoumenēi = in all the Roman Empire)

In his final segment of extended teaching to his disciples in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus outlined their mission beyond the cross and urges them to be faithful to the end. In response to his prophesy that the temple and Jerusalem would be destroyed, his disciples asked “When will these things be and what will be the sign of your coming and end of the age?” (24:3). What follows in the remainder of Matthew 24-25 is Jesus’ response to their questions.Matthew 24:14 in some sense contains the answer to their second question about “the end of the age” as Jesus declares “and then the end will come.” Until the kingdom mission is completed, i.e. “this Gospel of the kingdom shall be proclaimed …for a witness to all the ethnesin (nations? or people groups? or Gentiles?)”, the end will not come. Jesus assures his followers that the forces of evil cannot derail or cut short God’s program. Until all the diverse, non-Jewish1 peoples observe the Gospel proclaimed, the end will not occur. Of course, we strive to discern what this proclaiming activity entails and because of this prophesy some urge the church forward in the Great Commission program as a means of hastening the return of the Lord Jesus. However, Jesus probably was not placing in human hands a mechanism to bring about the second coming. In this context Matthew uses the term oikomenos to represent another limitation that Jesus provides in this answer. The Gospel will be proclaimed “en holÄ“i tÄ“i oikoumenÄ“i”, usually translated “in the whole world”. This is the only place in Matthew’s Gospel where this word occurs. Mark does not record it in the parallel passage (Mark 13:10). Even though Luke uses this term eight times in Luke-Acts, he does not use it in the parallel passage (Luke 21:13). So Matthew seems to use this expression for some emphasis within Jesus’ teaching. Before we explore this question, however, we should note that apart from its occurrence in Luke-Acts, this term also is used in Revelation (3:10; 12:9; 16:14), Hebrew (1:6; 2:5) and in a quote from the Old Testament (Psalm 19:5) by Paul in Romans (10:18). It generally refers to the ‘inhabited world’. For example, in Luke 4:5 Satan shows Jesus “all the kingdoms of the inhabited world (tÄ“s oikoumenÄ“s).” In Athens Paul proclaimed that God had appointed a day when He would “judge the inhabited world (tÄ“n oikoumenÄ“n)” (Acts 17:31). In Revelation 3:10 John reports that he saw in his vision Jesus promising the church in Philadelphia that he would preserve them “from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole inhabited world (epi tÄ“s oikoumenÄ“s holÄ“s).” It can also have a more limited sense and refer to the Roman Empire. We probably find this sense in Luke 2:1 where the writer reports Caesar’s command that “a census should be taken of the entire Roman world (pasan tÄ“n oikoumenÄ“n).” Perhaps this is also the sense in Acts 24:5 where Paul is accused of being a troublemaker, “stirring up riots among the Jews all over the Roman world (tois kata tÄ“n oikoumenÄ“n).” When we come to Matthew 24:14, we have to ask whether Jesus meant that the Gospel would be proclaimed “in all the Roman world” or “in all the inhabited world.” Jesus also said in this verse that this Gospel would be “for a witness to all the Gentiles.” . . > . . > . . >

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  • 1. There remains a Jewish mission, but normally in Matthew’s Gospel the term ethnÄ“ refers to Gentiles.

Defining the role of a church missions team

Just what is a church missions team expected to do? Because of the way church missions has developed in recent years this question has become increasingly important for those who desire to be effective mission mobilizers. In some churches the missions committee’s primary role consists of passing on the prayer letters of missionaries to the congregation. However, other church missions teams are playing a far more complex and influential role. This is evident in the “Design your Impact” workshops1, in which the role of the missions team is presented as shaping and overseeing the overall missions purpose and strategy of the church, both locally and globally. In addition, the rise of short term missions can make the duties of missions teams quite demanding, often requiring the services of a full time missions pastor.

… the role of the missions team and the parameters within which it is called to function must be clearly defined. Unfulfilled expectations and a lack of clarity concerning the vision and responsibilities of the missions team quickly undermines its effectiveness.

During my interviews with pastors and key missions committee personnel for the purpose of discovering ways church missions can be improved, one pastor shared the parameters that he uses to define the role of the missions team within his church: The missions team is responsible to facilitate all outreach partnerships outside of the local church’s programs. In this perspective short term mission teams or local evangelistic efforts – intra-cultural or cross-cultural – are not the responsibility of the missions committee. Instead, their role is to monitor and facilitate the partnerships of the church with those missionaries and other workers who have a primary responsibility to another organization (such as a missions agency). Whether or not this is the position taken by a church is of secondary concern. What is obvious is that the role of the missions team and the parameters within which it is called to function must be clearly defined. Unfulfilled expectations and a lack of clarity concerning the vision and responsibilities of the missions team quickly undermines its effectiveness. Coming this fall a “Best Practices for Church Missions” workshop will be offered to assist church missions committees as they define their role and purpose within the broader vision of the church. Let me know if you are interested. Have you discovered some creative ways to highlight missions in your church? Send those ideas to me via the form below so that they can be shared with other churches. Visit the Best Practices for Church Missions webpage and evaluate your church’s missions team.

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Missions and the Heart of a Dad

I said goodbye to my baby girl this week. Becky and I, along with a number of other friends and relatives saw her off from the Seattle airport in the wee hours of Monday morning as she and her team of 7 began their missions odyssey to Thailand. She is only 23 and from this dad’s perspective “far too young” to have committed herself to a three-year stint involving a year of language study and two years of church related ministry in the Golden Triangle area of Northern Thailand.

Ever since she returned from that first journey to Thailand we knew this day was coming. We had seen it in her eyes, heard it in virtually every conversation. My daughter had lost her heart to her God and to the people of Thailand – and we were delighted. But that did not change the things that were happening to my heart on Monday.

The drive home from the airport was a blur. Fortunately my friend Jon had been tasked with the responsibility of keeping me awake so that I would get us home safely – at which he did a superb job. After an all-too-short sleep, morning came, and with it an odd mixture of thoughts and emotions. I found myself thinking that she was just in the other room. I would walk into the kitchen and half expect to still see her sitting cross-legged on the floor next to the fire place working on her computer or reading a book. When the front door would open my ears half expected to hear her cheery “Hi! I’m home!” It’s not as though she had never been away from home before. At 19 she did a year in Europe and at 21 she spent 9 months in Thailand. But somehow this was different. She had made a specific commitment of time to serve as a “full-time missionary”. Ever since she returned from that first journey to Thailand we knew this day was coming. We had seen it in her eyes, heard it in virtually every conversation. My daughter had lost her heart to her God and to the people of Thailand – and we were delighted. But that did not change the things that were happening to my heart on Monday. In the intervening year, since she had returned from Thailand, we enjoyed a delightful time of getting to know our youngest as she lived at home while preparing herself for this adventure. The three of us shared many delightful evenings together and both Becky and I felt that we got to know our daughter in a whole new way. We took in movies together. We enjoyed meals together along with many cups of coffee. We debriefed the joys and struggles of our days together. We teased each other and grew in love and respect for one another. Now she was gone and a corner of my heart was gone too – I believe it followed her to Thailand. There is another emotion in my heart – deep gratitude to my Heavenly Father. I remember a time when Becky and I wondered and worried what would ever become of our willful youngest child. But God, in His boundless mercy, got hold of that will (and of her heart) and she surrendered her life to Him. Now she was on an adventure with Him – following her Lord where ever He might lead. So we celebrated her departure. There were no regrets. At some point last week we all had a chuckle together as we realized that we probably would not shed any tears at the airport – that is just not how we do it in our family. We might shed them later, privately! But even those tears are not tears of grief over missed opportunities or unfinished business or unforgiven grievances. We were able to see her off with no regrets! We are just plain and simply going to miss her. As I pondered these conflicting emotions in my heart I paused to ask, “I wonder what happened in the heart of the Father when he sent His Son on the ultimate missions trip?” Is it in any way possible for me as a human dad to comprehend the heart of the Heavenly Father? I took a few moments to considered the depths that lie behind the statement “For God so loved that he gave …” (John 3:16) This experience has made me appreciate Galatians 4:4 a little more. “In the fullness of time, God sent his Son …” There is an unfathomable vastness to those simple words. The Eternal Son, who throughout that eternity had never left the Father’s side (John 1:18), was now stepping into time and space and into the human experience to undertake the greatest missionary adventure of all as He “…came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10) It is comforting to know that my daughter is following in His footsteps.

Visit my daughter’s blog and read of her adventure with Jesus

Sports as a metaphor for culture.

What is culture? There is a current debate (National Post, March 2-, 2007) about whether fashion should be classified as culture, with implications for government funding. Canada has policies promoting “multiculturalism.” I have read books and heard sermons concerning the need for Christians to remain separate from “the prevailing culture.” These diverse nuances of the term have resulted in confusion concerning the meaning of “culture” for the cross-cultural minister of the gospel. From an anthropological perspective, which is the primary way the term is used in missiology, culture refers to the relationship that the members of a particular ethnic group have with their environment and each other. This includes all aspects of life that provide meaning for that people group such as legends, laws, priorities, structures (material, organizational or conceptual), customs and artifacts. Worldview, on the other hand, refers to the conceptual framework or beliefs about reality from which cultural items gain their significance. There are universals common to all cultures (although there is no agreed upon list of these universals), but it is the differences between cultures that provide cultural identity and are the cause of much perplexity and conflict between people groups. This is the reason why the politically correct program of multiculturalism in Canada is so difficult. As a philosophy of accommodation so that cultures can co-exist while maintaining their separate identities, multiculturalism is predicated upon an assumption that there are sufficient agreed upon commonalities for such a project to succeed. However, not only are there disagreements about the identification of these commonalities, but even when they are identified at a theoretical level, the practical outworking of these values is elusive. For example, western “universals” such as “free speech,” “equal rights,” and the “rule of law” are understood and prioritized in fundamentally different ways in other parts of the world. As a humorous illustration of how cultures conceptualize reality in different ways, consider the following imaginary sports analogy: The country is Canada. The city, Hockeytown – a city in which only one sport, hockey, has ever been played. It is the only sport that has ever been imagined by the residents. To them hockey is not just one of many sports, but is what defines sport. Bobb Yorr has just returned from a visit to another city in which he was introduced to the sport of Tennis. Grett Ski has never been out of his city and so, for him, “sports” is defined by ice rinks, hockey sticks and hockey nets.

  • Grett: Hey, Bobb, long time no see! What have you been up to?
  • Bobb: I’ve just got back and I’ve discovered another sport.
  • Grett: Another sport? What do you mean – another way to play hockey?
  • Bobb: Um, well it’s a sport like hockey is a sport, but totally different.
  • Grett: How can it be like hockey and totally different. That doesn’t make sense. Do the teams line up differently or something?
  • Bobb: Well there are only 2 players.
  • Grett: What! Only two players on the whole team? How do they take shifts?
  • Bobb: No, only two people in the game, one player on each team and they play the whole game.
  • Grett: No way! Who do they pass to? …………………

Read the rest of the article at Cross-Cultural Impact in the 21st Century

Reflections from Rome

It has been interesting for me to think about spiritual formation from a different perspective spending these days in Rome. I suppose that when I arrived here I was prepared for the Coliseum, the Forum and all the vestiges of Imperial Rome. I was less prepared for the influence of the Roman Catholic experience. It has been interesting to ride buses and walk the streets in close proximity with nuns, monks, and priests. Yesterday, my wife and I entered at least eight different cathedrals, all stunning in their beauty and complexity. Today we walked down Catherine of Sienna street. A few impressions… St. PetersOn Saturday we managed to get tickets (free – but nonetheless rare) for the Pascal Vigil which is a three-hour service beginning at 10pm. This was pre-resurrection worship in anticipation of what would happen the following morning. We sat a few dozen feet from the alter inside the vast St. Peter’s Basilica, the very seat of Roman Pontifical power, and just a few dozen feet from the Pope himself. Once we were able to get past the stunning beauty and scale of our surroundings, we were able to settle in and try to understand what was happening. Given that about 90% of the proceedings were either in Latin or Italian, this was difficult. Still, we were able to sense something of the wonder that Catholics bring to the experience of celebrating the death and resurrection of our Lord. I remembered how just a few days earlier, I had led communion in a small evangelical Baptist church in Hope, BC. It seemed worlds apart. While I loved the sincerity and meaning of that small protestant service, I found myself feeling that our celebration was a little weak in comparison to all the drama we experienced at St. Peter’s. Karen and I did not go forward to receive the mass, perhaps in solidarity with our free church reformation protestant forebears who would have been aghast that we were there at all. I’ve got some huge issues with the Catholic church. The veneration of Mary, prayers for the dead, and the general misuse of money and power so in evidence throughout this city, leave me cold. Still, these people love Jesus. This afternoon we looked at paintings by Raphael and Caravaggio, not to mention Michelangelo’s magnificent ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. I want to tell you that it was as much a worship experience as a tourist experience for me. Yesterday, we visited the catacombs and thought about the tremendous faith practiced by the early Roman Christians. We visited the prison where Peter and Paul were incarcerated and stood inside a cell that may very well have been their own. I was deeply moved to think about how our faith is not some mythological story about gods that never actually lived. Our faith is rooted in real history and it has changed the world. Scala SantaIn the afternoon we stumbled across a chapel in the Lateran section of town where was housed the Scala Sancta. Tradition holds that these were the actual stairs that Jesus used when he climbed to meet with Pilate to be judged. The stairs were said to have been brought to Rome by Constantine’s mother, Helena. While this cannot be proved, the possibility is plausible as these were real people and real places. Whether or not the stairs really were as reputed, I was moved by the devotion of people who climb the stairs one by one on their knees. The sides of the staircase are adorned with frescoes (mural paintings) depicting the passion of Christ. I watched these people kneeling on each step individually to think about the pictures and to offer prayer to God. Say what you will about the possibility of their superstition, but rightly directed I could see how this could be a powerful worship experience. I guess I was too Baptist to participate, but I did pause to thank my God for his sacrifice for me. On Easter Sunday morning we stood in St. Peter’s square (it’s actually round) with at least 100,000 of our closest friends. The Pope’s sermon (what we could gather of it) spoke about resurrection and hope. He denounced terrorism and the war in the middle east. I’ll never be a Roman Catholic, but standing in that place filled with hopeful people, seeing people wave their flags from every corner of the world (including more than a few Canadian flags), I thought about the old Sunday school song we used to sing… "Red and yellow, black and white. All are precious in his sight."

Mobilization – the new Assimilation…

I have always found the thoughts and writings of George Bullard to stimulate my thinking. Not long ago, I came across a phrase from his online journal [http://bullardjournal.blogs.com/bullardjournal]. In reporting on a workshop at the Lake Hickory Learning Community on Sustaining Pastoral Excellence, Bullard described a phrase used by Alex McManus that “mobilization is the new assimilation.” I love a good turn of phrase. Mobilization is the new assimilation… As Bullard caught the phrase, his understanding was that mobilizing people in the work of the kingdom of God…is the best way to assimilate them into the body life of a local congregation.

When the new “unchurched Harry” comes to church, they want to be involved in something with someone….If anything,… [to] get a measure of the quality of people’s lives through actual experience … are these people authentic, are they real, do they believe what they say, and how do they really feel about me…?

Bullard’s interpretation of the phrase took me back to a conversation that I had with one of my dear friends who is part of the leadership structure at the Willowcreek Community Church. According to him, there has been a huge shift in their approach to non-believers. The “Seeker” of the ‘80’s and ‘90’s” described as “unchurched Harry” valued anonymity, and Willowcreek honored that value by creating a safe space around those people who were “coming to God, but weren’t aware of it quite yet.” According to my friend, things have undergone a remarkable change in the last 7 years. “Seekers” no longer value anonymity as much as they now demand participation. When the new “unchurched Harry” comes to church, they want to be involved in something with someone – not so much for the long term, but in a limited fashion. My friend told me that it’s more than just a matter of finding a community and finally gaining a sense of belonging. If anything, this new demand is being made so that the Seeker can get a measure of the quality of people’s lives through actual experience … are these people authentic, are they real, do they believe what they say, and how do they really feel about me as a trusted partner? As a result, Willowcreek has had to shift their approach to the Seeker from anonymity to partnership and have discovered that mobilization is the new assimilation. It’s not been easy. They have to find appropriate ways to include the seeker into the action. They can’t very well make a seeker a Sunday-school teacher … but they are finding valuable roles for seekers to do 2 things: 1. make an impact with the seeker’s service [even if it’s helping with the parking lot managers] and 2. provide an authentic opportunity for the believers to communicate faith and create community. As I travel in our Fellowship, I find myself thinking – that would be both a challenge and an opportunity for our congregations … to think about how to make Mobilization a matter of Assimilation.

Keeping Missions from becoming a number in the budget

People committed to supporting cross-cultural missions, whether locally or globally, recognize the essential role of missionaries who have dedicated years to learn the culture and language of a particular people group. It is through their expertise that bridges for the gospel are discovered and churches planted. However, missions mobilizers serving in churches are often frustrated and discouraged at the overwhelming task of keeping people interested and committed to the support of missionaries over the long haul. There are so many legitimate activities and alternative ministries that staying the course with one family whose ministry requires slow and steady progress, rather than glamorous leaps, is difficult. Support sometimes becomes reduced to a budget item that is “rubber-stamped” each year.

As a result people no longer give to the church generally and think about their financial commitment to missions once a year. Instead, a focus on missions giving is highlighted weekly along with giving towards the church’s general needs.

One church in our Fellowship has developed a creative approach to the support of their missionaries that, even though only a small adjustment, has helped provide a stronger focus for missions in the church. Each year they designate part of their budget to the support of their missionaries, as is common practice for most of our churches. However, funds from the general offering cannot be applied to this commitment. Only those funds designated “missions” are used to fulfill this responsibility. As a result people no longer give to the church generally and think about their financial commitment to missions once a year. Instead, a focus on missions giving is highlighted weekly along with giving towards the church’s general needs. Secondly, the deacon in charge of missions is responsible to keep the church informed of their commitment and when giving has fallen short, he or she reminds the church of the importance of these ministries and the role the church plays in advancing God’s mission. Furthermore, when giving exceeds the budgeted commitment, and this is not uncommon, they are able to apply these extra funds to special projects such as the Fellowship International Ministries 2007 “Blessing the Nations” project. Have you discovered some creative ways to highlight missions in your church? Send those ideas to me via the form below so that they can be shared with other churches. Visit the Best Practices for Church Missions webpage and evaluate your church’s missions team. We are working on a workshop to support churches as they seek to join in God’s mission both locally and around the world. Information on this will be posted on the Best Practices for Church Missions webpage as it comes available.

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

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So, What’s Different?

OK. It’s Monday, the day after the Easter weekend. So, what’s different? I attended two services—one on Good Friday at which a number of churches attended and one on Sunday in my home church. Regular church-goers like me and C & Es—Christmas and Easter only types—were reminded of the events of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The sermons we heard took different tacks as they crisscrossed various texts. I heard a couple of good ones—one from a youthful preacher and another from a man who’s been in the ministry for over fifty years. As the sails of their sermons each caught gusts of relevance, I was thrilled at the sudden quickening.

“True understanding builds a life on what is heard.”

But, what’s different?

 

When Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, he concluded by telling people that true understanding was not merely attaining to a personal intellectual “click” point. Rather, true understanding builds a life on what is heard; its hearing and doing. Jesus likened it to a man wisely building a house on a solid place so that it would withstand storms (Matt. 7:24). I heard the preachers. They were helpful. But did I really get it? How will that part of the world I touch be different because I’m building upon what I heard this past weekend? What’s going to be different?

Removing Shame Through the Cross

The prodigal son had shamed his father, shamed his family and shamed his religion. As the crowd listened to Jesus reach the climax of the story with the father running towards the son, some of the listeners – Prodigal Sonthose who had shamed their religion through compromise with the Romans, those who had shamed their families through prostitution, those who had shamed their fathers through neglect and rebellion – winced as they waited for the inevitable punishment to fall. What other action could a just, holy and righteous father take? Other listeners – the Pharisees who deeply felt the dishonor borne by father – anticipated with satisfaction the blow to fall on the son. How else could the shame be purged from the family name?

"…the father is not tainted by the impurity of the son but instead transforms the son once again into his image with a robe, shoes and a ring symbolizing an astounding renewed identity as an honored child."

In Pakistan there exists an infamous tradition of Karo Kari – black boy, black girl – the killing of the defiled daughter. A few years ago at a wedding a teenage girl was dancing and celebrating with other girls when a young man came up and grabbed her hand. She snatched her hand away, but it was too late, an uncle from the balcony had seen this exchange take place. The girl was dragged from the celebration, taken outside and stoned to death. There can be only one answer to shame: to purge it through death. In the story the father reaches the son but instead of the anticipated blow, his arms open and he draws the son into a strong, accepting embrace. The crowd is stunned as they realize what has taken place. The father has taken the shame upon his own self, he has embraced and absorbed the dishonor. As this totally unexpected story unfolds the father is not tainted by the impurity of the son but instead transforms the son once again into his image with a robe, shoes and a ring symbolizing an astounding renewed identity as an honored child. Can it be that there is redemption for shame? This is a theology of the cross for an honor – shame culture: ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole”’ (Gal 3:13 TNIV). The cross is the act of the father to those of us living in shame. “I am not worthy!” and we wait for the blow to fall, only to be surprised by the grace of the Father’s embrace. There is a deeper and more profound answer to shame. The cross of Jesus is God’s embrace of humanity, taking our shame and bringing transformation.

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

Secular – Is the word useful anymore?

Secular often is used in opposition to the idea of the sacred. The Latin word saeculum, meaning this age, is the etymological root for our English word “secular”. It tends to describe a view of things that ignores the reality of God and sees natural processes or human agency as the final cause of things, eliminating God from the equation. It also comes to define a way of thinking that lacks religious sensibility.

If we intend to define some idea as ‘non-Christian’, this may not mean it is secular, it may only mean it represents religious values that are not Christian.

As we look across our Canadian social landscape, we often hear it described as a secular wasteland, particularly if our viewpoint is Christian. But when we define it as secular, is this an accurate portrayal? Is religion in fact a dead or dying influence in our Canadian reality? I would suggest that the opposite is the case. All the surveys that I have seen about the values that Canadians hold indicate a deep sense of religious commitment defines us. The sacred, defined in different ways, influences Canadians significantly. Those that would claim to be atheist are a very small minority. The vast majority of Canadians are religious people, to some degree. The role that god(s) play personally or socially will vary, but god(s) are alive and well in Canada. If we colour our society as secular, we overlook this essential religious reality. The percentage of people who adhere to a religious understanding that is non-Christian is increasing, but this does not make them secular. SpringAs we seek to express the Kingdom reality of the Gospel personally and in our faith communities, perhaps we need to revise our perception of the Canadian who is our neighbour. The odds are that our neighbours are religious people. When we seek to share our religious beliefs, they can appreciate that we are religious. They may be curious about the religious ideas and practices we follow and why such things are important to us. We may discover that they are committed to similar values – family, integrity, value of life, etc. When we share our faith and encourage them to consider the claims of Jesus as Lord and Saviour, we are in fact asking them to abandon their current religious framework, something that is often deeply intertwined with their culture and sense of personal identity. To urge them to enter into a relationship with Jesus, i.e. become Christian, requires them to engage in a deep, significant transformation. We should not be surprised that they will need time to consider such matters and evaluate the implications of such a change very carefully. We would do the same.

The percentage of people who adhere to a religious understanding that is non-Christian is increasing, but this does not make them secular.

Perhaps there are some true secularists in the neighbourhood, but they probably are a rather rare breed. Some groups in our society have a secular agenda, seeking to erase any influence or effects that religious values may exercise in Canada. However, most Canadians and most of the groups in which they are involved endorse some kind of religious perspective. Our culture essentially is a religious fabric. We should use the term ‘secular’ then with some restraint. If we intend to define some idea as ‘non-Christian’, this may not mean it is secular, it may only mean it represents religious values that are not Christian. Helping the poor and seeking justice, for instance, are profoundly religious values. Advocating for good health care expresses a desire for quality of life and compassionate concern for those who suffer. Being good stewards of the environment honours the mandate God has given for us to exercise care for His creation.

The Difference Between Multi-Ethnic and Multi-Cultural

At a recent seminar a pastor posed the question: “What is the difference between multi-ethnic and multi-cultural?” Ethnicity primarily refers to group identity arising from a common history, kinship and language. Culture refers to the way members of a particular ethnic group relate to their environment and each other. This includes legends, laws, priorities, structures, customs and artifacts. Multi-ethnic, therefore, refers to members of a variety of ethnic groups interacting within a particular forum (such as a multi-ethnic church). Such forums require a common structure or format with which all members agree to conform in order for this multi-ethnic interaction to function successfully (e.g., for multi-ethnic churches in Canada this is generally the church practice of the dominant Canadian culture).

The hope is that churches will be able to clarify their own particular identity as they navigate the passage between multi-ethnic and multi-cultural that will result in healthy and liberating expressions of the church of Jesus Christ.

Multi-cultural, on the other hand, is much more complex, harder to envision and fraught with conflict. The concept is that members of a variety of ethnic groups interact while maintaining their distinct cultural practices and priorities. In reality, this is a paradox because while cultures are defined by their distinctiveness, community and interaction rely upon commonalities to establish unity. In order to have intercultural relationships, some accommodation must be made on one or both sides of the cultural divide. But the act of accommodation represents, to some degree, a compromise and loss of cultural values.

In my experience, most of our Fellowship churches that are multi-ethnic are not multi-cultural. These churches have embraced a number of ethnic groups within a culturally Canadian expression of church life. My article on setting an intercultural agenda for our churches in the recently published book by NBS, Being Church: Explorations in Christian Community, recounts a discussion of cultural issues with a Punjabi couple (p. 26). Although they attended a multi-ethnic local church, they expressed appreciation for the opportunity to occasionally attend a worship service with a mono-cultural Punjabi congregation some distance away. The attraction was the specifically Punjabi cultural elements such as singing the Psalms in Punjabi with traditional musical instruments. In order for them to participate in their multi-ethnic local church, they were required to relinquish much of their Punjabi heritage as it relates to church life.

Our Cross-cultural Think Tank has prepared a seminar on cultural diversity designed to help our Fellowship churches work through the cultural tensions that arise within our multi-ethnic churches. The hope is that churches will be able to clarify their own particular identity as they navigate the passage between multi-ethnic and multi-cultural that will result in healthy and liberating expressions of the church of Jesus Christ. For further information contact Mark via the form below.

 

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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

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?

Webpage reflections…

What began this morning as a casual conversation has become a reflection that I just have to put into words. The subject of Community came up as Dr. Perkins mentioned his wonder of what sort of unifying symbols we have as Canadians that express our shared identity. Even more, what sort of unifying symbols do we have as Christians that allow us to recognize each other in the Canadian community. An image immediately came to mind. Last week my son and I had a chance to see the Coyotes play the Calgary Flames in Phoenix. In the parking lot we witnessed probably the most common unifying symbol of Canadian identity as a crowd of fans – all wearing Flames jerseys – discovered each other in the parking lot. By the time we were in the stadium, it was obvious that the Canadian “community” had arrived as more and more Flames fans were attracted by the gravitational pull of the jerseys. I must confess, even though I was determined to protect my interest as a Vancouver fan to cheer for a Coyote win against the hated Flames, my son and I found ourselves drawn to the Canadian crowd behind the Calgary bench as we watched the pre-game warmup. If there were a unifying Canadian symbol, it would have to have something to do with Hockey. But what about a similar symbol for the Christian community. Again, an image came to mind. The hockey game was on Thursday. On Wednesday my son and I had tickets to see the Phoenix Suns play the Boston Celtics. Different arena, different sport … but as we bumped our way into the stadium, I noticed another symbol. There was a large number of people in the crowd with smudges on their foreheads … Ash Wednesday, don’t you know. I must confess, there was a part of me that wanted a smudge on my forehead if for any other reason to be able to sense, in the crowd, that I – too – was one "of them." I realize that it’s not very Baptist of me to say it, but there is something quite compelling about the power of ritual and deep symbol. Maybe it’s part of this yearning for a tangible sense of identity and community that has animated a revival of interest in the “new Evangelicals” as named by Robert Webber toward ritual and orthodoxy. Back to this morning. As I returned to my office, I read an article by Nathan Bierma in the Christianity Today daily newsletter, The Shape of Faith. It was a review of two books, both of them historical studies of the ancient Christian practice of the sign of the cross: The Sign of the Cross: The Gesture, the Mystery, the History by Andreas Andreopoulos, and The Sign of the Cross: Recovering the Power of the Ancient Prayer by Bert Ghezzi. Again, I confess that I was fascinated by the study. As Bierma writes, Protestants have traditionally dismissed the act as “a Catholic thing.” But, the fact is that it has roots much deeper into the early church and practice that extend beyond the Reformation. In the Small Catechism, Martin Luther prescribed the practice because of the powerful potential for physical demonstration and the remembrance of deeper meanings. As Bierma writes, the faithful can treasure the multitude of meanings behind symbols. It is something that identifies community: the sign, as an act, small it may be, expresses the impetus of crossing the threshold between thinking in theological terms and practicing the Christian life. So, I linger on the question with a sense of wonder. How do we, as Baptists, create a sense of identity not just as a human community, but as members of a heavenly family?

The Value of the Locker Room

The locker room is an essential part of the culture of sport. It is an environment charged with team bonding, encouraging speeches and correcting rebukes, practical strategizing, the repair of both cuts and wounded egos, relief from the pressure of the game, the enjoyment of physical and mental refreshment, the adjustment and sharpening of equipment. It is important for the success of the team that it be kept clean and well organized. The atmosphere can cause a team to succeed or to fail. But what happens in the locker room is not the game. Neither the players nor the coach should be satisfied with good relationships in the locker room, even though only healthy cooperation will ensure success in the game. Both players and coach have a role to play on the field and it is the quality and function of the relationships on the field that guide the coach in shaping the activity in the locker room. The team is not judged on how they relate in the locker room, but how they perform in the heat of contest. The church organization – building, services, programs – is the locker room. The people are the players. Those in leadership play the role of the coach. The occupational hazard of the leadership is to engineer a clean, well-organized, enthusiastic locker room with excellent speeches explaining the rule book – and miss out on the essential aspect of coordinating the team’s effort to bring about gospel transformation. In the final analysis, the church will be judged not on the activity in the locker room, but on how they play the game of life, in the world.

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

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.

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  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.