Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Debating the Reformability of Islam

If you’ve ever wondered about the “reformability” of Islam, Andy McCarthy and Mansoor Ijaz are debating over at Opinion Duel. McCarthy is taking the “no” position and Ijaz, an American Muslim, is taking the affirmative. Well, it’s sort of affirmative. Well, maybe not. Ijaz’s perspective – not surprising for a Muslim – is that Islam has no need of reform. What we need, he says, is not a better Islam but better Muslims.

McCarthy continually returns to the problem texts in the Koran (being a charitable fellow, he is staying away from the Hadith) – the ones that command killing and subjecting infidels. How, he asks, can a completely literal religion like Islam relativize these texts?

Evidently there are some within Islam – folks like bin Laden – who think relativizing these texts is exactly the problem. Instead of relegating these passages to the initial conditions of Islam (as Ijaz – and likely many other Muslims – suggests), he and his friends would like to make them current reality. In spite of dueling for several rounds, they don’t seem to be making much headway.

The question McCarthy might want to ask (not knowing him, I can’t speak for him), is something like: “What reasons, internal to Islam, might we offer bin Laden and crew to show them that their interpretation of Islam is wrong? In a similar way, what reasons, again internal to Islam, might be offered to show that your peaceful Islam is the correct interpretation?”

McCarthy is a Christian, and while rather well educated about Islam remains an outsider. By asking about reasons internal to Islam, he can put himself in a place to see how Muslims reason with each other. If the issue remains framed as a debate, McCarthy would win the debate if Ijaz fails to find some reasons internal to Islam to defeat the Wahhabist interpretation of bin Laden. Ijaz can win two ways. He can win weakly if he offers some reasons internal to Islam that are truly internal to Islam – that is, not hijacked from western modernism or liberalism – yet too weak or inconsequential to actually convince or refute bin Laden, et al.. Of course it’s possible bin Laden is a perverse fellow who refuses to be convinced by good reasons, so this would count as a win even if the position doesn’t win out in the long run. He can win strongly is he can offer some reasons under the same conditions that actually do convince bin Laden and his co-religionists. Obviously such a strong victory would go beyond the bounds of the current debate.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Learning from North Point - Summary to date

Here are the posts thus far in my series, Learning from North Point:

Part 1 – Introduction
Part 2 – Mission Station vs. Church
Part 3 - Environments
Part 4 – “Using Means”
Part 5 – Clarify the Win
Part 6 – Think Steps, Not Programs
Part 7 – Narrow the Focus

I have at four more “practices of effective ministry” to comment on, and may through in some more material. If any of you have been “learning from North Point,” please share what you’ve learned.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Learning From North Point, part 7

The third of North Point Community Church’s Seven Practices of Effective Ministry is “Narrow the Focus.” After we “Clarify the Win” – that is, after we identify that which we are trying to do so that we know that we have done it when we have done it, and begun to ‘Think Steps, Not Programs,” that is, after we identify the processes involved in achieving our desired telos, we will find ourselves with some pruning to do.

In previous posts in this thread, I have noted that North Point’s ministry strategy is highly teleological. They have an end in mind for their people. This complex end is described in their literature as, “Intimacy with God, Community with Insiders, and Influence with Outsiders.” They way I’ve talked about this in my own ministry context, is in terms of crossing three lines. The first line we cross as Christians is our commitment to God. When we cross this line, we become recipients of God’s grace through Jesus. This is the line some churches call “getting saved.” Though this is definitely a line worth crossing, it is not the stopping place. When they speak of this stage as “Intimacy with God,” North Point is clearly including more than a mere salvation experience, that punctiliar event that so many preachers urge us to walk the aisle for. “Intimacy” is much more than just being forgiven. It hints at an ongoing relationship of increasing depth, the kind the Psalmist alludes to in Psalm 25:14, “The LORD confides in those who fear him; he makes his covenant known to them.”

The second logical step – though it is frequently the first temporally – is the commitment to a particular group of people. This is commonly called – and trivialized as – church membership. God is after more than our eternal destiny. God in concerned about our current locale. As we read in Ephesians 2, God’s goal is to break down the barriers between peoples (paradigmatically, those between Jews and Gentiles, by extension, whatever other barriers we find in our social worlds). As followers of Jesus, we find that it is our relationship with Him that defines our identity – not our race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, political affiliation, etc. In line with his aims since the call of Abraham, God has been working to call together a people who are his very own, his peculiar people. Within the common life of this people, the world can glimpse God’s reality, holiness, justice and mercy. Our commitment at this stage is always to a particular group of people – warts and all – not just to an idea of the church, or some theoretical, invisible entity.

The third commitment, which I usually call a commitment to joining God’s mission, North Point terms “Influence with outsiders.” In New Testament terms, we all start as outsiders. While one entered Israel by birth, the New Israel, the church, is composed of adopted, not natural children. God’s goal for us is more than spending eternity with him in heaven – or growing in intimacy with him here and now. God’s goal for us is more than joining a church – or growing in community with a particular set of fellow believers. God’s goal also includes incorporating us into his mission of drawing others in, of influencing others toward faith in Jesus.

North Point assumes that God’s mission includes taking people somewhere – at his point the picture become recursive as it reflects back on itself, much like Jesus’ command to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you,” includes the teaching of obedience to that very command.

Because we fulfill God’s mission in the context of commitment to a particular group of people, we usually find that group immersed in their own history, whether a very short history, like NPCC, or a much longer history like Pittsburg FUMC. There is no escaping this history. Our choice is about what role this history plays in our ministry.

Perhaps the most common role for a history, particularly a ministry history, is to set the agenda for current activity. What we did in the past is what we do today. Do we need to know what to do next? All we need do is look at what we’ve done in the past. This is the arena in which we say things like “We’ve always done it this way,” or, “We’ve never done it that way before.” The advantage of this method is that we always know what to do. The disadvantage is that over time, there is a tendency for a disconnect to develop between what we do and why we do it. Once upon a time, churches had Sunday evening services. In the early 20th century these functioned as “seeker services,” less formal and more evangelistic events where non-Christians could come and hear the Gospel in a way that connected more with their needs and culture. After a generation or two, however, the function of the Sunday evening service changed. Now it was the “old timey service” – the service where we sang the songs of our childhood and remembered the good old days when the churches were full.

North Point’s third ministry practice, Narrow the Focus, comes into play at exactly this point. Once we have identified what we’re trying to do and the steps to make that happen in the lives of people, we will find many activities that have no connection to our mission, things we do simply because we’ve always done them. Narrow the Focus is thus a method of deciding what not to do. Narrow the Focus is not a claim that these activities are bad: they might be very good. The principle simply claims that insofar as they don’t contribute to the mission of the church, it is ok to stop doing them.

One example offered in the text is Vacation Bible School. NPCC doesn’t do VBS. Some of us – who inhabit churches where VBS is a cornerstone of summer activity – are shocked by the idea. How can a church that claims to be evangelistic fail to do VBS? VBS is our evangelism strategy – it’s how we reach the kids of the neighborhood. Or do we? The NPCC folks are not against VBS and no one hearing or reading their presentation should think that’s what they’re advocating. What they’ve pioneered is another way to reach children, a way that draws in their parents. Their method – Kidstuf – works throughout the whole school year, not just for a week in the summer. So instead of being committed to a program – VBS – NPCC has identified a telos, children growing in intimacy with God, community with insiders and influence with outsiders – and developed a step that works better in their setting with their audience.

Narrowing the Focus is one of the hardest practices for traditional, established churches, so many of which have their glory days in the past. We humans need emotional support. We thrive on good vibes. In a church that is not only not winning many to Christ, but also failing to win its own children or keep its members when they join, it can be very comforting to center on a set of activities that make us feel like we’re doing ok. Because our very existence is so often threatened, we hang on to ineffective strategies, structures and programs, long after we’ve forgotten their original purpose or they have ceased to be effective in fulfilling that purpose.

Women in the Bible

One of the most helpful scholars I've seen writing on subject of women in the bible is Ben Witherington. (By "helpful" I don't mean those folks who say something like, "The bible says mean stuff about women. I don't like that it says mean stuff about women. Let's toss out those texts - or the whole thing.") In the past Witherington wrote Women in the Ministry of Jesus, Women and the Genesis of Christianity, and Women in the Earliest Churches. Now in the process of writing a commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, he advances his way of dealing with I Timothy 2:8-15, one of the classic difficult texts.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

What's the difference?

I spent seven hours today at the hospital with a family from my church. I just got home, and can report that all went well.

A few of us went to a late lunch while the family waited on the next doctor's visit. As one enters the cafeteria area, the first thing one sees is the large, centrally located Krispy Kreme case. Which made me wonder:

What's the difference, say, between a hospital cafeteria having a Krispy Kreme dispenser and a church having a bar?

Methodist Army of Davids?

United Methodism operates as a top-down organization. Initiatives are supposed to flow out of places like New York, Nashville and the Council of Bishops. This is what “connectionalism” is often taken to mean. Initiatives flowing the other direction – from the local congregations, are often taken to be expressions of the heresy of “congregationalism.” Even renewal groups in the UMC – like the Confessing Movement – tend to assume top-down leadership. In each case, the commitment to top-down leadership seems to presuppose:
  • The greatest competence in each case is to be found in the official leaders

  • The common purpose of the organization is either not truly common, or not broadly shared enough to shape the actions of the participants

  • People at the lower levels in the organization cannot be trusted until they prove they are qualified to serve at higher levels

Instapundit Glenn Reynolds has a book due out in just over a week. His Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths, seems to offer a model of organizational leadership and change that might provide an alternative for United Methodists. [Note: I have not read the book, merely read a few reviews and Mr. Reynolds’s comments.] This alternative would presuppose:
  • United Methodists share a common understanding of the purpose and mission of the church.

  • All United Methodists have an essential contribution to make to the mission of the church – and this contribution is more than just giving money and doing what they’re told to do

  • The top-heavy leadership can be pared down with saved money used elsewhere.

In the midst of change United Methodism will need to decide the main locus of it’s “unitedness.” In the recent past, “unitedness” has been found in our Methods and Structures, while during this period we have had a laissez-faire approach to doctrine. The problem with this approach is that while we know what we’re supposed to do, we don’t know – or agree upon why. The longer we go with non-agreement on why we do something, the more the whats will fall by the wayside. Perhaps those of us interested in shifting the model – locating “unitedness” in doctrine and freedom in method, will find the “Army of Davids” model useful.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

"Moderates" in "Religion"

Mansoor Ijaz, an American-born Muslim from a Pakistani family writes about the failures of some of his fellow Muslims in the LA Times. He mentions two "truths," one directed at Muslims, one at the West.
The first truth is that most Muslim ideologues are hypocrites. What has Osama bin Laden done for the victims of the 2004 tsunami or the shattered families who lost everything in the Pakistani earthquake last year? He did not build one school, offer one loaf of bread or pay for one vaccination. And yet he, not the devout Muslim doctors from California and Iowa who repair broken limbs and lives in the snowy peaks of Kashmir, speaks the loudest for what Muslims allegedly stand for. He has succeeded in presenting himself as the defender of Islam's poor, and the Western media has taken his jihadist message all the way to the bank.

The hypocrisy only starts there. Muslims and Arabs have done pitifully little to help improve the capacity of the Palestinian people to be good neighbors to their Israeli brethren. Take the money spent by any Middle Eastern royal family at a London hotel or Geneva resort during one month and you could build enough schools and medical clinics to take care of 1,000 Palestinian children for a year. Yet rather than educate and feed Palestinian and Muslim children so they may learn to settle differences through dialogue and debate, instead of by throwing rocks and wearing bombs, the Muslim "haves" put on a few telethons to raise paltry sums for the "have nots" to alleviate the guilt over their palatial gilded cages.

It sounds to me like this Muslim has goals for the Middle East that would be worthwhile to all the inhabitants. The main thing I'd like to comment on is the second truth.
The second truth — one that the West needs to come to grips with — is that there is no such human persona as a "moderate Muslim." You either believe in the oneness of God or you don't. You either believe in the teachings of his prophet or you don't. You either learn those teachings and apply them to the circumstances of life in the country you have chosen to live in, or you shouldn't live there.

The "moderate" Muslim seems alot like some "moderate" Christians. Their beliefs tend to be more shaped by modernity than by the historic faith. Fitting in with modernity - usually that means a particular conception of naturalistic scientism and an emotivist account of morality. As a Christian who counts orthodoxy and orthopraxy as necessary and healthy for faith and life, I find that I have something in common with the "non-moderate" Muslim.

When it comes to particulars - what is it God has done, what God desires of us - we Christians and Muslims differ greatly. But we differ as Christians and Muslims, not just sharing commonalities as moderns.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Olympic Mess?

Bode Miller is really unnerving some people. I was listening to talk radio this morning, as I often do, and caught the latest version of what I've been hearing snippets of for at least a week.

Bode Miller, an apparently pre-eminent skier for the U.S. Olympic team, talked in an interview about what skiing is like when he has been smoking pot. Allegedly, he was out drinking so late the night before one of his Olympic competitions it impeded his abilities on the slopes.

The host of the talk radio show was incensed that Mr. Miller doesn't take seriously the way he is representing the United States.

In an article in the Boston Herald today, Miller claims he could walk away from the sport any time. Apparently the lust for gold and fame has come and gone.

Miller makes some good points about how we have blown the importance of sport and of athletes in our society. I agree totally.

Disenfranchisement with the status quo does not excuse his behavior. If Bode Miller didn't intend to compete at the Olympics, perhaps he should have let someone else have his spot.

Would the "next best" have quenched our nationalist thirst for gold, or would we then be condemning Bode Miller for not being dedicated to his country.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Street Names and Reconciliation

Late last year the local NAACP brought a request to the city council. They wanted the city to rename one of the major streets in town after Martin Luther King, Jr. The council seemed open to changing the name of a minor street somewhere in town, but spoke strongly against changing the major streets – Jefferson, Rusk, Mt. Pleasant, Quitman or Texas. Everyone spoke highly of Martin Luther King, Jr., but thought change was a bad idea. Business owners on theses streets spoke of the connection between their “identity” and the name of the street and the cost of replacing all their stationery and advertising. After several fractious meetings, the request was turned down.

Last month the NAACP decided to respond to the city fathers by asking all their members to do no shopping in Pittsburg – to go to the trouble of driving to neighboring cities.

As a lifelong nomad, I’ve never become strongly attached to street names. So in Pittsburg’s latest civil conflict I find myself without any strong opinions. I don’t care whether the street I live on or the streets by my place of work change name.

Our town – like some others in the country – has a neighborhood where most inhabitants are African American. Some might think, “If they want to name a street after Martin Luther King, Jr., let them change one of their streets.” That’s an entirely wrong, perspective, however. We are one town. However much we might think it from time to time, it’s not “us” and “them” – however we’d like to divvy it up.

Of course, there’s plenty of reason to not think we’re “us.” I’m a newcomer to town, so I don’t know all the details about the history of race relations. I’ve heard a story about how during integration, the law declared that the public swimming pool which had been “whites only” had to be integrated. Instead of doing that the folks in charge decided to fill it in with dirt. If the whites couldn’t swim by themselves, then no one would swim. Real smart move, wasn’t it?

If the rest of the city’s history has been anything like that, I can understand how some African American folks might be inclined to think they’re not wanted – that the city is against them.

Jesus came to tear down the wall dividing Jew & Gentile. That wall was mighty tall. It had been there a long time. Jesus tore it down. Why? Because his purpose was to join into one Body all who had faith in Him. We haven’t had that kind of reconciliation here in Pittsburg. We have lots of churches – almost all segregated. And too many are happy that way.

I’ve also noticed that most of the city’s leaders are church people. People who claim Jesus as their Lord and Savior. And yet we’re content to ignore Jesus’ wishes. I must be missing something.

What about the street? Again, I don’t think a street is a big deal. But in our case I can’t help but think that it’s a symbol of our greater love for “the way things have always been” than for Jesus and his agenda.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Help, please

Question for the cyber-world out there: What is the difference between a deist and a theist? Don't just tell me; give me sources!