Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Episcopal Address

Yesterday's episcopal address from Bishop Huie was the best I've ever heard. It began (and ended) with a multimedia component based on Acts 2 and Pentecost. Nice to see a bishop who can use technology.

Here's a brief summary of what she had to say.
This Annual Conference meeting is "An occasion with the potential for Pentecost," with the Holy Spirit bringing a fresh vision, a renewed sense of and commitment to mission, and a new urgency for making disciples.

We're living in at the threshhold of unprecedented challenges and opportunities. Worldwide there is an unparalleled hunger for God, and within the church and our communities a new readiness to hear the essential truths of the Christian message.

There are 7.3 million people living within the bounds of the TAC. Our average worship attendance, however, is only 109,000. Obviously there are plenty of peopel left to reach [even assuming a bunch of the rest are baptists, etc.].

It is time for a bold new step into God's future.

Part 1 - Current Reality
Her comments are based on visiting 573 charges in the TAC. She saw both strong and fragile congregations. An example from a fragile congregation: She asked, "What are you doing to make disciples?" Answer: "We think we're ok the way we are."

Many congregations are just hanging on; many are in transitional communities and have little or no connection to the new people around the church.

20% of TAC congregations have fewer than 20 in worship.

40-50% of congregations are struggling. Their ministry and mission have been reduced to caring for members, maintaining the facilities, and paying the bills. In the eyes of these churches the pastor's job is to take care of those who pay the bills - NOT to equip the saints for ministry.

Troubling discoveries:

  • She could travel all day without hearing any churches mention worhsip as a strength of their congregation.
  • Frequently laity are unable to speak the language of the faith.
Big picture:

  • TAC membership is up over the past 5 years. This shows our past strength.
  • Over that same period worship attendance is down. This shows our current strength.
  • Professions of faith, baptisms, etc., are also down.
  • 1/4 of the population within the bounds of the TAC are Hispanic; only 1% of TAC is Hispanic.

Her conclusion: We're only functioning at a fraction of the capacity God has given us. We lack a clear and compelling vision.

We need to discover how to build Vibrant, Healthy, and Fruitful congregations. This is God's desire for the TAC.

Part 2 - Five Key elements from Jesus' Model of Discipleship
Leadership is at the heart of each.

A. Radical Hospitality
B. Passionate Worship - dynamic & life changing
C. Faith-forming relationships and experiences - need to add small groups that produce relationships that will mature people's faith.
D. Risktaking Ministry and Service - We make Disciples for the transformation of the world
E. Extravagant Generosity

There is no quick insitutional fix.

We need to stop making excuses for pastors and churches who aren't contributing to the mission of making disciples.

No longer acceptable:

  • Having no confirmation classes
  • No professions of faith in a year
  • Flat or declining worship attendance in a community where the population is growing
Part 3 - Vision

Our mission is clear - Making Disciples of Jesus Christ

Every congregation needs to be vibrant, faithful, fruitful and reproducing. We need to act boldly, leaving baggage behind. We need to increase expectations and accountabilities. Obviously this means CHANGE.

4 essential areas of action:

  1. New Church starts - we need to start churches where unreached people are. This means not only in new subdivisions and developments, but in housing projects, trailer parks and the like. We need to start 10 new congregations each year for the next decade within the TAC. This will require current strong congregations to give birth to new congregations. Pastoral leadership is the most important factor.
  2. Revitalizing existing congregations - We need to do some heavy duty training; we need to be open to new models and ways of doing things.
  3. Focus on Youth and Young Adults - in 2006 the Millenial Generation comes of age. Aged 12-17, they will peak at 26 million, more than the Baby Boom generation.
  4. Recruitment, trainign and retention of effective leadership. We need leaders who are spirit filled, bold, and visionary. This is an issue of being formed in the image of Jesus for the sake of the world. Churches have a right to expect pastors who are deeply connected to Jesus and who live as bold leaders. Leaders - especially young leaders (our current average age for pastors is 57) - need to recruited, trained, and retained.

We need to work on resourcing the vision. This will require:
Realigning existing funds [today the cabinet brought forth a resolution that their salaries would be frozen for the next year]
Need to align action and resources with the vision
Realizing this vision will only be accomplished through faith in God.

UPDATE: The text of the address has now been added to the Conference Website.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Texas Annual Conference - Clergy Session

Bishop Huie opened the clergy session by talking about the three purposes of Annual Conference:
  1. Revival
  2. Building community
  3. Business
This is the first session of the TAC she's led so we're still figuring out her style. I'm happy so far.

Next up is the Confessing Movement luncheon. Billy Abraham is the speaker this year and I'll post a summary of his comments later on.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Annual Conference

Texas Annual Conference begins Sunday evening in The Woodlands. It's our
first year with Bishop Huie. We already know something will be
different. Instead of business all the time, we'll be having workshops
on Tuesday afternoon. I even heard that the consent calendar would be
treated as a consent calender. Sounds good to me.

Self-Examination Time

I just ran across the site of Dr. Malcolm Webber. It looks like he puts out a monthly "Leadership Letter," available free. In this latest letter he contrasts Servant Leaders and Abusive Leaders. Take a look at what he says and see how you measure up. Here's my own self assessment.
Servant Qualities:
  • Secure in Christ. I preach this over and over - and try to model it myself. I've seen many clues that suggest Webber is right to see this as foundational. Most of the staff conflict I've seen in churches is rooted in insecurity.
  • Is considerate and concerned for others. For the most part my heart is in the right place here, but I need to work harder at paying attention to what's going on around me. My wife is much better at this than I am.
  • Studies the stress that others are under to help alleviate it if possible. I work on this, especially with my staff. I've noticed it can be quite tiring.
  • Willing to discuss his decisions and the reasons for them, unless circumstances do not allow. Being a rationalist (An INTP if that means anything to you), I highly value convincing people.
  • Tries to work with the initially uncooperative, seeing their positive potential. I may do this too much. SInce I'm assigned to be pastor of all the people, I may sometime empower people who need to be dis-empowered.
  • Trusting toward people; thinks the best. I'm somehwta on the edge here. I'm predisposed to trust people - I really like trusting them. But many times I've found that people don't come through.
  • Communicates freely and openly. I work at this, trying to hold nothing back.
  • Responds to problems with prayer and investigation. This is my general approach, though sometimes when they start stacking up I respond instead with worry.
  • Responds to failure by taking personal responsibility. This is tough, but I've seen it pay many dividends.
  • Knows he must earn the support of his followers. I know this, but need to work harder at actually doing it. Building a supportive coalition is hard and long term work.
  • Welcomes appropriate accountability. I try to ask for feed back regularly.

Truthing In Love

Tod Bolsinger at It Takes a Church writes about "Speaking the Truth in Love" in the context of a relativistic culture. Many value maintaining an open mind over finding truth - the "joy is in the journey, not the arriving" I hear. Evidently these folks either never travel with children ("Are we there yet?") or don't care for the child's point of view. During my first semester of college we read John Ciardi's praise of confusion over conviction. My take on it then was that he had a mighty strong conviction that one shouldn't have convictions. For that my professor called me a sophist. Being an ignorant freshman at the time, I didn't know how to respond - I knew I'd been rebuked, but didn't have any ready arguments.

G.K. Chesterton wrote,
"The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid." (Autobiography. Collected Works Vol. 16, p. 212)
which seems reasonable to me. (I think of the motorcyclist cruising down the road with his mouth hanging open. Though in small pieces, he might get more solidity than he bargains for.) Openmindedness is purposive behavior, not merely default behavior. We are openminded because we recognize it as essential for finding truth, not because we think there is no truth.

Paul's description of the mature Christian's action, usually translated as "Speaking the truth in love," is constructed differently in Greek. English lacks a verb form of truth - which Paul uses here, the literal translation might be "Truthing in love." Surely then speech is a component of this act, but is that all there is to it? Paul is talking about more than simply stating facts; he doing more than telling us to be tactful (what we often take to be the way to be loving). Instead, our whole lifestyle - words, attitudes, desires, actions, character - are to correspond to the Truth (Jesus himself) to an increasing degree, while at the same time this correspondence seeks to produce a similar correspondence in the world around us. Because truth for the Christian is first of all a person - Jesus - this "Truthing in love" is relational rather than merely epistemological. Or can we say it is relational before it is epistemological, and that its epistemological utility is dependent upon its relational reality?

How does this work in a church setting?

First, it is my job as preacher & teacher to introduce people to the true story of God that finds its climax in Jesus so that they can become willing participants in that story as it continues. When we find our place in that Story, i.e., integrate our story into the Story, we are conformed to the image of Jesus ("truthed") and become increasingly capable of "truthing in love" ourselves.

Second, I spend much time in my preaching and teaching on the reality of loving God with our minds. As I've read John Wesley's sermons over the years I've noticed that he regularly sets out both the positive and the negative - what he's saying and what he's not saying. Given the multiple contexts in which we live, and the multiple contestants when it comes to truth, achieving understanding is hard work. I try to lead my people through that work. At the same time, I suggest that there are few "knock down" arguments that will absolutely prove a point. Plenty of evidence, but not absolute proof. There is always still room for faith. God seems not to be one to compel us - even for our own good.

Finally, I encourage my people to argue with me. I know (a) I am not always right, and (b) I will not be here forever. Additionally, as I think of people who will be heading off to college, I want them to have the skills and attitude to be able to argue when they get there. If I - or anyone else - am teaching something wrong, they need to be able to discern what is happening and do something about it the right way - to "truth in love."

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Wild Animals

As I've driven the roads of East Texas over the years, I've seen a variety of wildlife. Foxes, deer, skunks, and armadillos are the most common. I've known coyotes lived in the area but I didn't see my first one in the wild until last month. Today I saw an even rarer creature, one that isn't supposed to be living in this part of the state - an ocelot. That's my guess, anyway. It was clearly a cat - but at least 3 times as big as a house cat. It's fur was patterned like ocelots I've seen in zoos. It crossed the road in front of me on Hwy 155 just north of I-20, so I wasn't able to stick around and watch it.

Seth Godin speaks again - more on Lying

Seth Godin is using his blog to market his book, dangling little teasers out there hoping we will buy it. In this post he discusses the placebo effect, the power of believing alone to effect healing and numerous other benefits on the believer. Marketers aim to produce this kind of effect by telling stories and creating environments so that consumers will buy their products, or, moving beyond the literal marketplace, so that what they are doing might be more effective. Godin says:

It would be surprising to meet a monk or a talmudic scholar or a minister who would say, “yes, we burn the incense or turn down the lights or ring these bells or light these candles as a way of creating a room where people are more likely to believe in their prayers,” but of course that’s exactly what they’re doing. (and you know what? there's nothing wrong with that.)....

We don’t like to admit that we tell stories, that we’re in the placebo business. Instead, we tell ourselves about features and benefits as a way to rationalize our desire to help our customers by allowing them to lie to themselves.

The design of your blog or your package or your outfit is nothing but an affect designed to create the placebo effect. The sound Dasani water makes when you open the bottle is more of the same. It’s all storytelling. It’s all lies.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

If Godin is saying that communicators need to pay attention to their audiences enter their worlds to learn how to best help those audiences hear and understand their messages, then his points are truisms of ancient vintage. That's what rhetoric is all about. As Christian communicators we spend to little effort helping our people get the message.

But is rhetoric - lying - all there is? What is the alternative to lying/marketing/storytelling? The bare facts of the matter? Again, as in my previous post on Godin's book, I confess I have not read his book, only his commentary in his blog. Assuming he is representing his book fairly (though incompletely), it looks like he is at the end of modernity. One the one hand, we have bare facts - reality - the truth. On the other hand we have stories - lies - things that grab our attention. Is there a meeting place, an overlap, between stories and truth - or only a harsh dichotomy? His view sounds like the elimination not merely of meta-narratives but all narratives from moral consideration.

In the Bible's story, we see the true story of Creation, Israel, Jesus and the church - the story of goodness, sin, faithfulness and redemption. My job as a disciple maker is not to manipulate people into buying Jesus - or having an experience. My job is to tell the story - which is a complex kind of telling, part word, part action, part simply being - being faithful to the story as it actually is and extending the love of God (as narrated in the story) to those around me. There is no reduction to will, desire, or power.

This is why I think the UM advertising campaign, "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors," is deceptive. First, when people in our culture hear that we're open in each of these areas, they naturally take it in an absolute sense. "Jesus? Yeah, he's a great guy. Buddha? Oh, he was a wise one. Don't care for religious stuff? Well, We can understand where you're coming from. Different strokes for different folks. We're openminded, you know."

Marketing of this sort (slogans) doesn't really deal with stories but with implied stories. (How much of a story can one tell in 6 words?) The UM marketer may be thinking about the Christian story - a story rooted in God's creation of people made in His image, people for whom Jesus died. Most of the audience isn't. They're thinking: "I want to be happy. I want to be in control of my life. I don't want anyone to tell me I'm wrong (about anything)." Not much of a story, this modern American story of happiness and consumption, but 6 words fit in just fine. Only when we use more words - and actions - can we begin to tell the story of Jesus adequately.

Are things heating up for Africa University?

Gateway Pundit has some horror stories out of Zimbabwe. The stories of Mugabe's thuggery have been increasing over the past few years, but I hear nothing about how the collapse of that country is affecting the University. It can't be good.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Wesleyans, Evangelicals & Liberals

In a recent Christianity Today interview with Ken Collins, a professor of theology at Asbury Theological Seminary, we read the following:
[CT] But isn't this a question of who the dialogue partner is? For the champions of inerrancy, certainly the dialogue partners were modernist theologians who were undermining the authority of Scripture. But at the same time within their own community, do they not expect the Word to speak sacramentally, just as Wesleyans do?

[KC] That's an important insight. German higher criticism hasn't been the dialogue partner for the Wesleyan community in the same way it has been for the Reformed community.

We have different paradigms, but I think we get to the same place.

I think I understand what Collins is getting at, but this is not a good way to put it. First, the reason the "Wesleyan community" hasn't had "German higher criticism" as a dialogue partner in the same way as the Reformed community is that for the most part the Wesleyans - at least as far as United Methodists go, have simply capitulated, retreating into pietism, moralism, institutionalism, or atheism. Though I'd like to avoid a theory of inerrancy based on foundationalist epistemology, I'd also like to avoid the exuberant errancy of so much of the old Methodist approach to scripture.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Revenge of the Sith, part 2

In today's Dallas Morning News critics Philip Wuntch & Chris Vognar are talking about the commercial appeal of Star Wars and bemoaning the talk about breaking money records. Vognar complains that such a focus "is a cancer for serious moviegoing." Why should moviegoing be serious at all? It's only a movie! I'd thought it was only the people who "stood" in line for weeks in advance who had too much time (and money?) on their hands. Now I think the critics do also.

Back to the movie itself. A couple more observations:
1. While fighting and revolution are going on in Coruscant, the capital of the Republic, guess what the populace is doing? As far as we can tell, they're oblivious to the whole thing. The skies are full of constant traffic all the time, before, during, and after. We see no effect whatsoever on the broader culture of the Republic. Do they even have a culture? Do they have books, tv, movies, radio, news organizations? We know the people of Naboo wear fancy clothes. Is that it?
2. Do they have an education system? The Jedi educational system is the only one we see, and that only in glimpses. The Jedi seem to specialize in training for using power - but do they tell stories? Do they have a historical sense? This is one of the weaknesses of the Harry Potter world also. The magical world there is all about learning how to be powerful. Hermione takes some history courses, and a few study Muggles. But where are the humanities? Where do Jedi (and Hogwartians) learn to be human? But no - who needs to be human when power is everything? (Or are humans merely an arbitrary, ever shifting bundle of conflicting willings?)For the Sith, power is for oneself; for the Jedi, power is to do good; in the Harry Potter universe good & evil wizards seek power over each other. Is power all there is? I'm sure the reduction of everything to power was part of the reason for the total societal decay evident in Revenge of the Sith.
3. In the Jedi attachment to detachment and the Sith attachment to power, abstractions rule. Problem is, abstractions don't work over the long haul. Making abstractions is a powerful intellectual tool. But abstractions are idealizations of reality, not reality itself. As followers of Jesus we don't follow an abstraction (however much some might want to reduce Christianity to a set of basic principles) - we follow Jesus, a person.

Update: Mark Byron has a good discussion also.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Revenge of the Sith

Just back from seeing the movie (actually, just back from seeing the movie, putting kids to bed, trying to fix my email, fixing my email, then fixing what I messed up when I tried fixing my email). I've seen a few reviews that loved it and several that hated it. I recognize the acting wasn't the best, but I enjoyed it anyway.

Considering it the context of the Star Wars Universe as a whole, here are a few observations:
1. Both the Sith and the Jedi are absolutists - and pay the price for their absolutism. The Sith are absolutists about power: they'll do anything to get it and keep it. The Jedi are more complex, but absolutists nonetheless. The Jedi are absolutists when it comes to attachment. Attachment is bad. Attachment leads to loss, suffering, fear, etc. Thus the Jedi have to quench all their desires and emotions (and fail miserably). Anakin's desire to be a good Jedi - and to do good - causes the conflict between his love for Padme and his Jedi ideals. Deception is the only answer. The Jedi are so attached to their form of democracy - the Senate led by the Chancellor, that they become generals in the war effort, corrupting their Jedi-ness. I think the best word for both the Sith and the Jedi is - "Get a life!" Going beyond the movies into the literature, Luke Skywalker truly brings balance to the force by not deny attachment - he marries and has a son.

2. Everyone believes too strongly in DESTINY. "It's your DESTINY," everyone is always telling Anakin. because he thinks destiny is written in stone - he believes his visions to be inevitable, ignoring the role he plays in making them real.

That's enough for tonight. I may have more to say tomorrow.

How to Win and Influence Youth for Christ

My mission – and the mission I challenge my church to – is to make disciples who become disciple-makers. Jesus is calling people of all ages to follow him. Here are some ideas from Christian Smith’s recent book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, that will help do a better job reaching youth. Smith’s studies confirm that our hiring someone to focus on youth ministry is positively correlated with reaching youth. But they also confirm the common-sense judgment that the ministry is too big for one person alone.

  1. Recognize that many of the common assumption about teenagers (such as: they’re rebellious, troublesome, not interested in God) are mistaken.
  2. The best way to get more youth involved and serious about their faith is to get their parents more involved. Contrary to common expectations, parents have the greatest influence over teenagers.
  3. Don’t be shy about teaching teenagers. Give them solid content to learn.
  4. Find ways to help youth articulate their faith. They will need regular example of adults around them who will articulate the content of the faith and its connection with ordinary life. Put them in situation where they not only hear the faith put into words, but in where they can practice doing so themselves.
  5. Encourage more relationships between youth and adults in the congregation. They will profit from more connections with more adults. They need to see the faith active in your life and that you are open to them.
  6. Practicing the faith is like practicing a sport or a musical instrument: it is an activity that with diligent work and discipline, will be highly beneficial and rewarding.
  7. Although there are secular reasons to be a committed Christian (better health, more friendships, etc.), do not reduce following Jesus to such an instrumentalist view.
  8. Stop thinking of teenagers as beings from another planet. Get to know them.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Lying for Fun and Profit

I first ran across Seth Godin while reading Fast Company a few years ago. His new book is just out and the title alone has provoked me: All Marketers Are Liars. Back in 1988 George Barna wrote Marketing the Church. People responded in two ways. (1) This is horrible. How can we take a secular concept like marketing and apply it to the church? It's sacrilege! (2) Wow! We really need to help people connect with Jesus and his people. We can use the same kinds of communication tools the world uses to get people to buy stuff. It's just like the Israelite's plundering the Egyptians when they escaped from slavery!

Barna's book was far form the first in the church growth genre, but it was one of the most influential, and established Barna as a Wise Person in the church. He has since written many more books and published many more studies.

But what about Godin's title (I've read the title, not the book, so I can talk about it)?

I've seen many indications that large and successful churches have adopted an instrumentalist view of the Gospel. By this I mean something like, "If you accept Jesus (as your personal Savior), join the church, go through X, Y, and Z programs, then you will be healthy and successful in life. Your marriage will be great, your kids will turn out ok, you will be a good and productive citizen." Sounds good, doesn't it? I confess that want to be healthy and successful. I want to have a great marriage and kids who turn out ok. I want to be a good and productive citizen. But then I read the rest of the Bible.

Jesus said some odd things that don't fit with the Happy Life gospel. He said, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me." This idea of following Jesus in to suffering forms a subtext of the rest of the New Testament. The picture of the Christian life seen there is a life that doesn't fit well with the Good Life as proclaimed by the world power of the day (Rome). Have we come so far now that the Christian life fits well with the Good Life as proclaimed by the power of the day (Hollywood? Madison Avenue? K Street? etc.)? I have my doubts.

Is the instrumentalist approach wrong? Is it simply a bait and switch marketing strategy? Not exactly. When we follow Jesus, when we submit to him and live as he taught us, continually formed and informed by the Holy Spirit who lives within us, we find that we are living in accordance with the way we were made. In simple english, yes, there are benefits to being a Christian and a member of the church. But - when we reduce the benefits and reasons for being a Christian and a member of the church to those readily understood by outsiders, i.e., what the Bible calls the ways of the world, then we are missing out on an essential dimension of what God is trying to do.

So how do we market the church - invite people? Can I tell them we have the nicest people in town? We certainly have plenty of nice people, but we also have people who are bitter, immature, unforgiving, self-centered and narrow-minded. Can I tell them we have the best programs? We certainly have some good ministry happening, but since we have a limited budget and only a couple of part time staff people and constantly need more volunteers, I'm sure they can find flashier ones elsewhere. Can I tell them we have the best preacher? I work hard at it, but I don't have any delusions that I'm the best.

When I invite people I don't lift up any of these as the main reason people should consider us. What I do instead is point to the story of what God has done, is doing and will do. I tell them that God has invited us to join him in that activity. I then invite them to join us as we join God.

Does it work? Are the hordes flocking in? Not yet. But at least I think I'm telling the truth.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Pursuing Quality

I heard yesterday that 75% of the freshman class at the local high school failed the Math TAKS test. At this stage it doesn't mean they have to repeat the grade, but it's still pretty serious. Throughout the district the highest passing percentage was in third grade - still with a large percentage of failures. What are parents in a school district like this to do?

Some are moving. Our district is racially and ethnically mixed, probably 20% African American, 30-40% Hispanic, the rest anglo. We have a couple of smaller districts nearby - out in the country - that some parents are trying to move their kids to. From from the area may be moving as White Flight. Others are just looking for a higher performing district for their kids. We only have one shot at our kid's educations, so I understand wanting to offer them the best. If TAKS performance keeps up this way, the state laws will kick in and offer kids transfer to other schools (assuming those schools will actually take them). **

I'm uneasy with the transfer idea.
1. What about the kids that are left behind? I want my kids in a safe and effective learning environment. But as a Christian I'm not just responsible for my own kids - God calls us to be a blessing to other people around us. If professional educators are right about the importance of parental involvement - and commentators like Bill Cosby are right about parental culture - then what happens to a school when the active, involved parents all transfer out? Will others in the community step and take responsibility for the kids who are left?
2. I'm also sensitive because of the close analogy to my professional situation. The church I pastor is struggling. We are on the edge financially. We have a good ways to go to activating all our members for ministry, and involved in some form of accountable discipleship. Our ministries with Children & Youth are growing, but the growing edge is with children from outside the church, many from lower income households. Some of the parents are in and out of jail. I can see how it would be easy for some families to reason, "This church just isn't where I want it to be for my family. So we'll move over to one of the larger churches that has it more together." I don't want them to do that. We've made progress in the past few years - and whether we continue to progress depends on sticking with it over the long haul. I can't help but think this may be true about the school district also.

To what degree can we stay within the needy educational/church system? Part of my calling is to take something that is not what it could/should be and make it more. I don't know what I'd do with myself if I had to pastor a perfect church. So I will continue to work to make the church what God wants it to be - and to improve the schools.

** I like the idea of transfer and multiple options in education. Unfortunately, I don't know how it will work well in small towns and rural areas.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Pastoral Appointments in the UMC

In response to Donald Haynes' recent proposal in the United Methodist Reporter, a useful discussion has ensued over at WesleyBlog. In one of the comments David writes of the challenges facing the current system:
Third, congregations (in general) have a live and grwoing distrust of authority at all levels -conference, district, pastor, and-dare I say -God. This is partly the fruit of postmodernism and partly the result of fuzzy denominational leadership on key issues over recent decades. We are reaping what has been sewn.
In my experience, part of the distrust (and relativism) is due to a combination of short pastoral tenure and a lack of theological discipline (leadership) in the denomination. When we have a system encompassing so many theologies, congregations will often face radical changes in theology & basic ministry philosophy every couple of years. It's easy to imagine these congregations getting to the point where they don't pay much heed to anything a pastor says: they know that whatever they hear now, the next guy will say something different.

Friday, May 13, 2005

If this, then that... part 2

In part one, I suggested that Biblical wisdom is parasitic on the narrative of who God is and what God has done and is doing. I suggested that many of the church growth maxims can be best understood as abstractions from the life of a particular church, and that as abstractions they neglect the context of their original location and are thus less useful (and universal) than we are often led to believe.

What about the preaching of wisdom that I also mentioned yesterday - the proliferation of "How to" messages that seek to be relevant to "ordinary life"? Surely, from a biblical point of view, we need wisdom. Though more prevelant in the OT than the NT (where James is the closest we get to wisdom literature), we see plenty of what we today call "application" material, direct admonitions of how to live a good and godly life.

But is that enough?

If my hypothesis that wisdom is parasitic on narrative is correct, then preaching and teaching must pay plenty of attention to the narrative as well, or else the wisdom will lose its moorings and become free floating. Of course, I am presupposing a particular view of the nature of the Christian faith and life at this point. I am assuming that Christianity is not primarily about how I can get saved and go to heaven when I die. It's not primarily about how I can be a nice or moral person. It's not primarily about how I can be self-fulfilled. It's not primarily about how I can speak truth to power and change the structures of society for the better. Although each of these aspects can be found in scripture and the Christian tradition, it seems that the more encompassing idea is that we become willing participants in what God is doing in history.

The story of Abraham is a good place to begin. Bob Sjogren (in Unveiled at Last) sums up God's two-fold promise to Abraham as (1) I will bless you; (2) I will make you a blessing to all people. Given this promises and its echoes throughout scripture (Ex. 19:3-5; 1 Peter 2:9-10), it looks like one way to understand the meta-narrative (Big Story) of scripture is as God's work to claim a people who are his very own (an eternal love relationship with God - and each other) for the sake of the redemption of humanity and all creation.

(If you've done the Experiencing God study by Henry Blackaby, you may hear some echoes of his "Seven Realities" in what I've said. I think his is a good way to express some of these points.)

So as we preach and teach the narrative - the true and actual story of God's ongoing activity in history - we invite people to become willing participants (actors) within it. Because of who God is, because of what God is up to, because of where we now stand in the story (plot) line, come actions and ways of living move the story forward (bring pleasure to God, advance Kingdom goals) and are counted as wise. Because God's story-line is rooted in Creation, some actions and ways of relating work well and others don't. Preaching and teaching that builds bridges between the story and "ordinary life" intentionally points both directions to keep the connection from being severed.

One more important point: Because we Christians are actors in God's story-line, we are connected with each other. At least during my lifetime, I haven't seen much use of the term "wisdom" - in its place I see talk of "common sense." Common sense - sensus communis - is literally the "sense of the community," the shared vision of the good life and how to live it. Since we in America have adopted the procedural Republic (see Michael Sandel, Democracy and its Discontents) as our polity, we have excluded any substantive and shared notion of the good. Instead, the good life is seen as each of us minding our own business, making a profit, and buying (consuming) stuff. If the church is to be an effective player in God's story line, we will have to recover a communal sense of identity (i.e., move beyond the Gas Station Model of Christianity) so that we can see wisdom in context of the one Narrative (Story) and our own lives (narratively understood).

Thursday, May 12, 2005

UM Bishops Plan on Discipleship

The Bishops have just finished their meeting. They are focusing on making disciples. Sounds good to me. Even better, they say:
The bishops will develop a teaching plan for the church, and measurable goals will be provided for encouraging local congregations in making disciples, Ough said. The plan will cover a common language for the focus, helping people understand what is meant by terms such as “Christian disciple” and “transformation,” and what it means “when we say there’s a uniquely Wesleyan process for forming disciples,” he explained.
They're finally paying attention to developing a shared vision, and (apparently) no longer assuming using a common phrase - like "Christian Disciple" - is univocal. This is HUGE progress. I just hope it's not too late.

Eating at School

If you're a parent in America today, you probably experience stress from a multitude of sources. Disciplining children (teaching them both what to do and what not to do) is difficult. Relating to your kids when they're not talking to you can drive you crazy. The expectations put on us by all the experts seem only possible for the wealthy (or families with many relatives with free time near by). School lunches may be easy for some, but of late even they are becoming more stressful.

Have you ever eaten lunch in a school cafeteria? The article linked to above talks about the trash generated, but the main thing I notice is how much perfectly good food the kids throw away. Why? For one, schools and parents are pressured to give kids healthy food - but much of it the kids won't eat. I remember a cafeteria that served a black bean & corn salad. Here in East Texas some adults would eat that - but a kid? I didn't see a single kid that ate it. But the school can mark a healthy serving down on its chart.

And then they are the kids that are just plain picky. They'll only eat a few things, and then soon tire of even those items. We have one like that and feel guilty for feeding her so little. But we know that if she doesn't like, into the trash can it goes.

Some of the kids in Hammond Elementary in Laurel, MD proudly take their uneaten food home for leftovers. But is it then eaten at home, or just thrown in a different garbage pail? How long until the health department steps in a tells them they have to throw it away since it's been out of refrigeration/heat for so long?

I can only think of a partial solution. First, work the kids physically before the lunch hour. Get them moving - and tired and hungry. Second, give them less food (but allow them more if they ask for it). Perhaps it'd be worth a try.

If this, then that...

Pioneer sociologist of religion Max Weber wrote about the routinization of charisma in religious groups. A movement would start, led by a charismatic figure. Once the charismatic figure either passed beyond charisma or left the scene, the movement needed to find a way to keep going without the high energy provided by the charisma. The primary way this was done was by establishing routines and procedures to approximate the same results achieved by charisma. Routinization was a form of rationalization, an attempt to understand the charismatic moment, break it down into its constituent parts, and make it transferable to other times and places.

Routinizing charisma is an application of technological thinking: If I do X, Y will happen. If I want Y to happen, then I will commit myself to doing X. The presupposition underlying this way of thinking is that result/state Y is simple enough to be clearly influenced by my doing X, that producing result/state Y is within my power. Current church growth and leadership theories depend on this kind of reasoning. Consider a couple examples.

  1. In only a few years Adam Hamilton has led the Church of the Resurrection to become one of the largest and most dynamic churches in United Methodism. He has done an impressive job of not merely attracting people from other churches, but winning people who did not previously attend any church. As with many who are successful in their field of endeavor, Hamilton has started writing books telling the rest of how to do what he did. In Leading Beyond the Church Walls: Developing Congregations with a Heart for the Unchurched, Hamilton describes what he did. Though full of many good ideas, I see two main factors behind his success. (1) He was the right person in the right place at the right time; (2) He worked, really, really hard. As to (1), we pastors can't do much about that. As to (2), we can choose to put in the 60-80 hours a week it looks like Hamilton did. Aside from questions of health, is this technique, or is this just work?
  2. Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life is sweeping the nation. Churches of all denominations are using it in 40 Days of Purpose campaigns. In the campaign training material, leaders are admonished over and over again (paraphrased): "Think exponentially. If you're thinking (tempted?) to start 5 small groups, do 50 instead. Doing the campaign will raise your attendance, your professions of faith, and your membership. Just look how well it works at Saddleback church!" I'm not one of those who thinks Rick Warren is the devil incarnate or that The Purpose Driven Life is an evil book. I think that for the most part it is quite good and useful - though I can tell it is written by a Southern Baptist with Calvinist leanings (no surprise whatever). But again, how much of their success is due to (1) Right person, right place, right time; and (2) Working really, really hard? As to (1), There is nearly infinitely more growth capacity in Southern California than in my town of 4500. As to (2), I know that Warren, like Hamilton at COR, has worked really hard.
The theories of routinization I see at work in Hamilton and Warren (and numerous others) have some weaknesses.

First, in a general sense, they abstract from particular settings to provide principles for universal life. This is completely natural. We do it all the time. It's called learning from experience. We only have to run into so many particular brick walls to learn that it's not a pleasant experience. But people and human organization are more complex than brick walls. While we find many commonalities, we also find many differences.

Second, both Hamilton and Warren are church planters. They have been central definers of the church DNA since the beginning. Every church I've pastored, however, has the added complexity of a history - of multiple pastors and lay leaders. When you have a new pastor coming every 2-5 years for 150 years, each with a different emphasis, each with a different vision for ministry, it's not too surprising that our people are either relativists (regarding ministry theories) or fighters ("my way is the right way!").

Third, and following closely on the heels of my first two observations, the kind of fruit/health/growth people like Hamilton and Warren talk about takes time. Warren didn't start at ground zero, do a 40 Days campaign and end up with 25,000 people. Warren is right that the Bible depicts significant things happening in 40 day periods. It also shows significant things happening in 40 year periods.

A final observation, still rooted in their tendency to abstract: I think Hamilton, Warren et al., sell themselves short (in an attempt to sell their ideas). From what I've seen, most of these leaders are dedicated servants of God who are filled with the Holy Spirit, called to a particular ministry - and blessed in visible ways. In other words, God was necessary - and so was their obedience.

Now I'm going to practice a little abstraction. When we consider the methodological literature of the church growth movement - and the methodological content of much of the preaching in their churches ("How to have a godly/happy family," "Twenty Steps to Peace with God," "Seven Principles for Healthy Relationships" - you've seen them, I'm sure), I understand what I'm seeing to be instances akin to the Wisdom Literature (think Proverbs) in the Bible. As many have observed (C.S. Lewis in the Abolition of Man is one example), much of this wisdom appears similar to that found in other religious and philosophical traditions. What makes the biblical tradition of wisdom different? Biblical wisdom (at its best) is parasitic on on the narrative of God's action. Such and such actions are wise precisely because of who God is, who we are in relation to God, and where we now stand in relation to God's continuing action. Once we see this relation to the narrative - in both its universal and local aspects - we can make sense of some of the conflicts we see in Scriptural wisdom. "Answer a fool according to his folly; Don't answer a fool according to his folly." Knowing the abstract principles of wisdom is very good; but what does Proverbs say about the beginning of wisdom? It lies in the fear of the Lord - a healthy ongoing relationship with God. I believe it works the same way with church leadership. Many of the books and principles out there are good (some are just a way for the authors to earn a living), but the starting place is an ongoing healthy relationship with God.

A Christian answer to Weber: Routinization may be useful, but we can't do without the Charisma (which happens to be drawn from the Greek word for "grace.")

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

'Nuff Said

The NFL needs to get over the mandatory marketing of coach's clothing and permit Nolan to wear a suit if he so chooses.

What do Boomers want?

One of my first clues that I am not a Baby Boomer was that I like music on a pipe organ. Sometime during my first couple of years in ministry I went to a workshop on “Reaching Baby Boomers” where I learned that they identify organ music with ballparks and funeral parlors. The conclusion to which the workshop leaders jumped, then, was that a church that wants to reach baby boomers needs music that is not played by an organist.

I grew up in churches with organs. All through college I sang in the chapel choir which was usually accompanied by the organ. According to the experts I was the right age to be a Boomer, but according to the experts I didn’t like organ music.

It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I began to understand the problem. The leaders of the workshop had set up the wrong categories for understanding the preferences of “people my age.” It took Pat Boone and Little Richard to help me understand the real problem with reaching Boomers, and, for that matter, anyone who is unchurched.

In the 1950’s Pat Boone sold more records than any other artist or group. Yes, he even sold more than Elvis. Boone’s success can be attributed to the fact that he did cover versions of other people’s songs; and the songs he covered where by black musicians. In the 1950’s very few white folk would buy music performed by black musicians, but would buy it if it was performed by a white person.

So, in the early 90’s, at a youth ministry seminar, I saw video clips of Pat Boone performing one of his biggest sellers, “Tooty Fruity.” Immediately following his version, I saw a video clip of Little Richard, the author of the song, performing the same song.

Now, I didn’t grow up in the racially tense and divided time of the 1950’s, but I immediately asked myself, “Why would anyone want to listen to Pat Boone when they could hear this from Little Richard?” There was life in the song when its author sung it; for Boone it seemed to be simply words.

The problem Baby Boomers have (if any) with pipe organs was not the instrument, but that many of them had grown up in churches where it was played with no life or feeling. Many learned to associate the sound of a pipe organ with cold, passionless worship, or “going through the motions of church.”

Are we doing better than going through the motions of church?

Organized Deists

Back during the 17th and 18th centuries there was a movement among certain intellectuals that posited an underlying religion (one might say "philosophy") that underlay all other religions. In fact, this underlying religion was the true religion, uncorrupted by priestcraft and myth. Some of these thinkers advocated a position known as deism. Well, it looks like the deists are back. The new United Deist Church sets forth the following creed:
I freely believe in God as being discovered through nature and reason, rejecting revealed religion and its authority over humanity. I believe that all humans are equal. Further, as God has not shown favor for one people over another and has given us all that we need, that we should follow God's example and give to others as we can."
It looks like this religion is mostly about the humans who practice it - they are rational, moral people who can figure out everything they need to know about god. In saying next to nothing about god (except that god "has given us all that we need"), this looks like Auguste Comte's religion of humanity - and like much contemporary Christian belief. The deist preacher - like many Chrostian preachers of today - would have no trouble proclaiming that God loves people, meaning something like, "God's main goal for your life is to be happy and successful. Think positive. Be a nice person. Be reasonable." I wish the deists were the only ones who preached this.

Man, we have a lot of work to do.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Courting Accuracy - a response

As one who tries to pay attention to my words and the words of speakers around me, I live with quite a bit of frustration. I find that people often take me to be saying something I'm not. Though this is likely partly due to my need for greater clarity of speech, it also appears to be that most of us come into conversations with preconceived notions of what can or will be said. When we then hear something that doesn't fit our schema, we interpret it so it does. If you need an example you need go no farther than political discourse where we fit everything into the liberal/conservative dichotomy.

Although my court experience is less than yours, I remain leery of lawyers' precision. It may just be TV lawyers, but it often looks like they craft their questions so they will get the answer they want, whether said answer is truthful or gives an accurate picture of the situation. Since I find many questions I'm asked to be inadequate, I find myself frequently answering questions with questions. (Sometimes I don't. Last night at dinner my son asked if I'd put taco seasoning in the meat we were eating. I answered, "Sort of," and answer completely inadequate by my wife's standards. She really likes it when I read the mind of the questioner and figure out what information they want and answer that UNASKED question. But I'm a horrible mind reader. In this case I thought my son was asking if there was taco seasoning in the meat. There was, but I had only bought the seasoning for someone else to add to the meat, so my agency in seasoning the meat was indirect. So I couldn't admit to doing it and feel I was being entirely honest.)

As for Christian speech - yes we are extremely careless, making unfounded assumptions about the meaning and use of words. In our effort to help people use their words aright, I don't want to be like the (TV?) lawyers who simply aim to get a particular answer out of a person. I know I'm an idealist, but I think we need to develop the discipline to take time with our language so that words, meanings and usages (which all overlap) can adequately refer to the reality of the Christian faith AND adequately express our convictions about that faith an live out our relationship (conversation) with God. When we use our words, we are doing something different than the witness on the stand - we have a different kind of intentionality toward them. They are OUR words. They are, in a sense, an extension of us.

In a courtroom drama - whether Perry Mason-like or something more mundane - we find ourselves part of a story. My guess is that we'd rather be elsewhere, and that the court story is peripheral to our lives (and our life-story). If we are the plaintiff, we may be trying to get our wya in the world; if the defendant, we may be trying to keep someone else from having their way with us; if only a witness, member of the jury, etc., we may have no stake in the story at all. As Christians we inhabit a different story, one that our own life story is only a small segment of. It is a story in which we do not seek to have our will done, but the will of God (as it is done in heaven). In our speech then, we speak not only within the context of the current and local conversation, but always also as part of the larger context of God's story of Creation and Redemption. Paying attention to our words, then, is of great import.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Courting accuracy

I spent today observing the proceedings in a court of law. I have been a fan of almost every "lawyer show" television has produced, and this was like none of them. No one would watch a reality show that merely followed a normal case through trial.

The scariest thing about my observations today is that I think I understand what was going on and why it took so long and seemed to move so slowly. Unlike almost everywhere else in our society, what one says and how one says it in court actually matters.

I was impressed by the quest for precision of word choice and clarity of meaning on the part of the attorneys. If a question was not answered with the correct words, the question was repeated.

The church, on the other hand, seems increasingly content to let anyone use any word to meany anything he or she wants it to mean. For instance, I have had people tell me that because people use the same word, "god" to refer to a supreme being, they must, therefore, be referring to the same supreme being.

Likewise, some people who call themselves Christian are content with a Jesus who was not born of a virgin and was not raised from the dead. Other Christians understand that their faith is dependent upon those historical events.

Thus, sadly, in the context of church, the words "god" and "Christian" have no specific or particular meaning.

At least lawyers will spend hours taking meticulous care to say what they mean.

It would be refreshing if the church could learn to do the same thing.

Commanding God?

When you read the Psalms attributed to David you see a picture of a deep relationship with God. While we preachers often talk about loving and obeying God, David's relationship goes so far as to approach complete openness. David openly shares his joy, frustration, anger, bitterness and confusion with God. He holds nothign back.

In Psalm 25, David does something unusual - or so it appears: he gives God commands. He orders God (that is the grammatical form anyway):
  • Show me your ways
  • Teach me your paths
  • Guide me in your truth
  • Remember not the sins of my youth
  • Forgive my iniquity
  • Turn to me
  • Free me from my anguish
  • Look upon my affliction
  • Guard my life
Considering the garmmatical form alone, we might think David is being pretty bossy with the Creator of the universe. But notice the content of the commands. They all deal with relational themes. David is confessing his need for God, and through the form of these commands, asking God for help.
The final command of the Psalm shifts the focus dramatically. In each of the previous verses, Davd's request is for himself. In v. 22 David's plea encompasses all the people: "Redeem Israel, O God, from all their troubles." In other words, "You know where I stand, Lord. You know my need for you. You know I cannot make it - even for a short time, even in easy circumstances - without you. And these people you've entrusted to me, Lord? They're in exactly the same boat. Apply my request to them also. As you redeem me, redeem them also."

Thursday, May 05, 2005

May I convert you?

Last night at Bible Study, I told the 15 or so in attendance that one of my goals on Wednesday nights is to convert them. No, I didn’t mean I think they are unbelievers in need of salvation. What I want to convert them to is seeing and understanding the gospel and the scriptures the way I do.

Does that seem arrogant? I don’t think so. Let me explain.

One’s understanding of the gospel and of scripture influence all of one’s life. Some may say it is the other way around; I contend that in such a case it merely means that one has a weak understanding of the Gospel. For a Christian, the gospel, and hence scripture, is the most fundamental point of reference. Since this is where we start as Christians, it is important for us to be as clear as possible about the meaning of the gospel and our understanding of scripture.

This is exactly why I am out to convert you. I have worked hard to understand the gospel and the various ways it influences my life and the way I see and understand the world around me. I continue to do so. I hope and pray you do, also. In fact, I hope you feel strongly enough about your relationship with God and how you understand the gospel that you will try to convert me. I have no doubt there are areas in my life that could benefit from such conversion.

Our understanding of things religious is not unlike positions we take on other matters. For example, if I am satisfied and happy with my Dell computer, I will more than likely share that someone who might be computer shopping. I won’t despise them or end a friendship with them if they buy a Compaq. If I am very satisfied with my Dell, however, I will do what I can to convince others, to convert them. If someone needs a computer for the same things for which I use mine, and I am pleased with my Dell, then so would they be. The same would be true of a make of car, appliance, or clothing line.

Is not our relationship with God even more significant than what computer we use or what label is on our clothing? Do you feel strongly enough about your relationship with God to recommend the same to someone else?

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Overcoming Consumerism

I first ran into William T. Cavanaugh's work a few years ago with his article of revisionist history in Modern Theology ("A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House"). I've just finished reading his Theopolitical Imagination (the first chapter of which is a revision/representation of that article from Modern Theology). I'll comment more on the book later.

Today I came across a piece he wrote for Sojourners on Consumerism (free registration required). He notes:
What marks consumerism as something new is its tendency to reduce everything, both the material and the spiritual, to a commodity able to be exchanged. Things that no other culture ever thought could be bought and sold—water, genetic codes, names (Tostitos Fiesta Bowl), human blood, the rights to emit pollutants into the air—are now routinely offered on the market. The recent story of the Nebraska man who auctioned off advertising space on his forehead is only the latest example of the commodification of everything. This story is not so much a lesson about greed—his forehead was apparently not big enough to garner bids for more than a few hundred dollars—as a statement about the extent to which we are able to become detached from even those things, like our foreheads, to which we are most obviously attached. We stand back from our bodies, faiths, vocations. Our very identity is something to be tried on, chosen, bought, sold, and discarded at will.
I recognize the temptations of consumerism in my own life as well as its prevalence in society. Everything is conceived as belonging to someone, and thus sellable (remember the story a few years ago about a couple Australian guys who copyrighted every possible phone tone?) I'm sure I know what the solution is. Cavanuagh offers both a dose of Marxism - "Worker ownership of the means of production" - Christian theology. The latter he expresses thusly:
The Christian task in a consumer society, then, is to create economic spaces that underscore our spiritual and physical connection to creation and to each other. We must strive to demystify commodities by being informed about where they come from, who makes them, and under what conditions. We should support products, such as fair-trade coffee, that pull back the veil from the production process and offer a sustainable life to their producers. We should attempt to create local, face-to-face economies, where consumers and producers know each other well enough that their interests tend to merge. My parish’s connection to a local cooperative of family farms (www.wholefarmcoop.com) is a hopeful example.
As far as implementing this in America, I don't see any easy way to do it - for ordinary people anyway. If you live in the urbs or the suburbs you can find places like this. If you have a high enough income you can do the research and buy the more expensive stuff you know all about.
I guess my difference with Cavanaugh (besides the fact that I know less about the subject), is that I fail to see the complete evil of capitalism, understanding it more as one currently available economic system, not inherently worse or better than other systems. From what I see, however, it does seem to be the most effective system for large scale populations. Maybe I'll learn differently as I advance my economic education.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Whose Truth? How Free?

Context is everything. In the context of a tennis game, “love” means something very different than in the context of Valentine’s Day. When and how words and phrases are used directly and significantly affects meaning.

One of the phrases most commonly used out of context is “the truth shall make you free.” It is etched in stone on buildings of universities and courthouses. It is cited as though a quest for truth is all that is needed for freedom.

These words are attributed to Jesus in John 8. Let’s look at the context for this great philosophical saying. This statement is not even a sentence in the scripture, but a clause. The whole sentence says: “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (verse 32) Now, when a sentence begins with a word like “then,” it does so to refer to a prior thought or statement. In this case, verse 31, immediately before the “then,” has Jesus saying, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

What a difference the context makes! Instead of some abstract, freeform quest for truth, what Jesus is saying that if one wants to find truth one must do some very specific things. For truth that will set one free, one must hold to Jesus’ teachings.

It may be argued that there is access to truth without going through Jesus. I do not take issue with such a point in this column. I only want to make the point here that the truth that has the power to set one free is available for any who would be a disciple of Jesus and hold to his teaching.

If you want someone else’s truth, quote someone else. If you are going to quote Jesus on truth, hold to the truth he was talking about.

Retaking of the University?

Roger Kimball rants in the New Criterion about the cuurent state of American Universities, ranging from the Ward Churchill fiasco to the transgender phenomenon sweeping even elite women's colleges. He offers much in the way of diagnosis, but other than suggesting we need to do something about tenure, I don't see much in the way of solutions offered.

I do find this interesting, however. He comments:
The chief issue is this: should our institutions of higher education be devoted primarily to the education of citizens—or should they be laboratories for social and political experimentation? Traditionally, a liberal arts education involved both character formation and learning.
Could we paraphrase this comment as, "Do universities exist to educate people or to socialize them?" It looks to me like today's university faculties are seeking to produce both "character formation and learning." What we have is some radically different notions of what kind of character ought to be formed combined with a near monopoly by one particular viewpoint. Are we surprised that when faculties have such a strong position (no real competition, piles of government & corporate money, money from parents, and students waiting to hear their wisdom) that they don't seek to socialize their students into their own world?

Perhaps one solution to this problem, then, is to find ways to introduce competition - competition over ideas - into higher education. If Baylor can carry through with its 2010 plan (even with the loss of Robert Sloan) and make it work, that will be a first small step. If other schools, in other traditions, can take similar paths, it will be for the good of us all.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Book review: Irresistible Evangelism: Natural Ways to Open Others to Jesus

Steve Sjogren has written extensively on his experiences with Servant Evangelism, a style he characterizes as “High grace, low risk.” In this book, Irresistible Evangelism, he teams up with Dave Ping and Doug Pollock to consider the broader picture of evangelism, showing how servant evangelism can fit into the total evangelistic ministry of the church.

The authors recognize that many have set out to do evangelism – from a variety of motives – but have often found their work unproductive In fact, many of the things Christians do in their attempt to evangelize lead people away from Jesus rather than toward him. They identify 7 “deadly sins” in particular:

  1. Scheming – Using slick marketing and “bait and switch” methods to bring people to Jesus
  2. Scalp Hunting – Out for numbers; highly impersonal
  3. Screaming – Self-righteously afflicting people with the gospel
  4. Selling Jesus as if He’s a Juicer – Jesus as a fix-it man for life’s every difficulty
  5. Stalking – Giving people no space; suffocating them with the blessing of your witness
  6. Sermonizing – Offering all the answers before you hear any questions
  7. Spectating – So paralyzed by fear you do nothing

If these are practices to avoid, what ought we to do? First, we ought to have a better understanding of what evangelism is. When I teach on the subject I teach that evangelism has three components: (1) What we say; (2) What we do; (3) Who we are – and each of these three components needs to be done by Christians as individuals as well as in groups. The authors say something similar. As they put it, “True evangelism is not merely proclaiming a message of good news; it is becoming a living representative of God’s heart toward people.” That is very well put. As a consequence of this understanding of evangelism, they emphasize that it is something we do not merely with designated unbelievers, but with everyone we encounter. God want to use us to help all people move closer to Him.

Once we understand evangelism as God’s action through us, what next? The authors suggest that discover each person’s “spiritual address.” They identify four levels of needs: Physical, Emotional/Relational, Directional, and Spiritual. We all have these needs, but respond differently to messages and actions addressed to each, depending on the situation. They observe that,

“we subconsciously evaluate whether what’s being communicated connects to any of our basic needs. If it doesn’t, we will choose to turn away and ignore it. If it does connect, we’ll begin to turn toward it and give it more attention. Once we begin turning toward the message and have started to understand it somewhat, the second set of choices kicks in. Based on a largely intuitive appraisal of the potential threats involved, we’ll choose either to begin to embrace or to reject the message.”
We usually only let these needs-meeting messages into our lives when we trust the messenger. Obviously, therefore, one of our primary needs as witnesses is to prove ourselves safe and trustworthy people.

Over the next several chapters Sjogren et al. address four methods to address these four kinds of needs:

  • Active Kindness (Servant Evangelism) – meets physical needs of people, showing them God’s love in a practical way. Evangelists working at this stage need to avoid an instrumentalist approach: I’ll love you if you respond to my love. Rather, true servant evangelism is done “with no strings attached;” it’s offered freely. Does Servant Evangelism “work?” We pragmatic Americans always want to know if something works; too often we decide whether something is true, good, or to be done solely on the basis of whether it works. Sjogren’s Cincinnati church provides strong evidence that Servant Evangelism is a factor in reaching people for Jesus. He says, however, that it doesn’t work quickly. A church needs to keep at it at least a year before assessing effectiveness. He has three further suggestions for using it in the church: (1) Keep it simple so more people can participate; (2) Do it regularly – treat it as an ordinary part of the Christian life; (3) Be friendly – count the relational aspects as essential to the process.
  • Active Friendship – Learning to pay attention to people and engage with them; the varieties of Friendship evangelism come in here. Take time to get into their lives and discover what matters to them. If you find that they’re sinners – with sinful desires and motivations – don’t reject them. Seek to understand them and love them where they’re at. Let friendship – loving them as Jesus would - be your main agenda item.
  • Active Wondering – Creatively looking at the message of Jesus and connecting it with people’s lives. Apologetics fits in here, and can be mistakenly standardized in a one-size-fits-all approach. The key method they advise in this part of the process is asking open-ended questions (they provide 99 sample questions) probing their understanding of life in a non-threatening, non-judgmental way.
  • Active Sharing – Helping people discover the “how to” of becoming a follower of Jesus; an essential part of evangelism, but too often the only focus of training in evangelism. In their chapter on this part of the process, they look at how the sharing process works in different kinds of relationships.

The final chapter of their book, “An Arsonist’s Guide to Evangelism,” presents 5 “fuelish” ways to “ignite ordinary church members with a passion for introducing their family, friends, neighbors, and complete strangers into life-changing relationships with Jesus Christ.” These five “fuels” include: Kindness, Fun, Generosity, Humility, and Prayer & Worship. At the same time we need to remove the “asbestos” items from the church: Fear, the idea that evangelism is something only for the experts, apathy and self-centeredness.

If you’re looking for help in developing a well-balanced approach to evangelism in your church, this book would be worth considering. (There is also a training kit available, but I haven't checked it out yet.)

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Living with bad news

Nick Kristoff of the The New York Times writes about the narcissism of the baby-boom generation (his own). My guess is that many will read this and then take a cruise to distract themselves from thinking about the consequences of their actions.