Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Thursday, December 25, 2008
Not too long ago I was living in a large Southeast Asian city. There I had a chance to get to know "Supri" (name is changed to protect his privacy). Supri was a small time furniture carpenter with a very inconsistent customer base. We were new to the city and needed some furniture crafted. After looking at some photographs of his work, we decided to order some basic furniture pieces. In the midst of the negotiations, Supri asked for money in advance to help pay for his tools. It was confusing to me that a carpenter was lacking the tools required for his trade. But it had been a while since his previous order of furniture and he had to sell his tools to feed his family. As a result, each time he secures an infrequent furniture order, he has to start at square one, thus raising the cost of his products. This inconsistency was detrimental to his business and ultimately the welfare of his family.
In like manner, when a rural clinic in a back corner of a developing nation receives inconsistent funding, then it cannot serve the community from one year to the next. In the first year a sparkly brand new clinic is built with a fresh burst of donor aid. The new medical equipment gleams and fully salaried medical doctors and staff enthusiastically seek to bring medical attention where it is desperately needed. And when funding fails the next year, the doctors leave, nursing staff is laid off, regular maintenance suffers, and necessary medical supplies are not in stock. Even more detrimental is that the bright hopeful vision of this clinic dwindles into despair. Standards of medical care drop severely which impairs the ability to offer adequate medical services. In the off chance that there is a rise in donor aid in the third year and some of that money is allocated for the clinic, it must pretty much start from scratch all over again. Only this time it is a lot harder, doctors don't want to return to that clinic. Administrators of the money don't want to buy expensive medical equipment only to watch rust when the donor aid begins to ebb again.
A recent article in Foreign Policy, "Development's Great Depression", reports that a recent study has shown that aid to developing nations has been extremely volatile. These fluctuations often follow the increasingly frequent stock market panics or simply donor's emotional whims. According to this article, the moodiest donors are the Americans. The result of these donor mood swings is that the inconsistent aid hurts local developing economies more than helps.
How is this overcome? An obvious point is that we need to continue giving even in the midst of financial stresses. But there is another problem that I would like to mention. There is a tendency with development agencies to do big money projects with short time frames. This serves two purposes: 1) big projects sound really impressive in their websites, news releases, and promotional material; 2) being finished with these big project and ready to move on to new big projects calls for new donations. In other words, much of what most development agencies do has more to do with their own institutional advancement than true development. True development would tackle the health needs of that rural community very differently, but it means the agency would need to be willing commit to a long-term plan with steady funding. Donors need to learn more about what is involved in seeing a community develop to the point that it can overcome problems on its own and they take ownership for continued development in the future. Development agencies talk a good game. They talk a lot about working with local communities, developing sustainability, and making long-term change, but rarely are these organizations actually committed to the slow process involved in true development.
Yes, donor fickleness can impact development. But if development agencies were committed to true development, we might actually see some communities, even nations, climb out of their "developing" status.
Sunday, December 21, 2008
I came across some interesting thoughts on the early church's view of war and violence. Of particular note is the change in theological conviction coincided with the perception of Christian government.
"For the first three centuries no Christian writing which has survived to our time condoned Christian participation in war. Some Christians held that for them all blood shed, whether as soldiers or as executioners, was unlawful." (Latourette, A History of Christianity Vol. 1, 242)
Early church advocates for a pacifistic policy
- Hippolytus (prominent in Rome)- a Christian soldier must refuse to kill, even under command from superiors.
- Tertullian- being a Christian and member of an army puts the person under two masters, which cannot be permitted. He also argued that even in peace time a soldier is asked to inflict punishment on people which is a type of revenge which is not permissible. "He said that in disarming Peter Christ ungirded every soldier." (Latourette, A History of Christianity Vol. 1, 243)
- Origen- Prominent Roman accused Christians of making the Empire weak due to their pacifistic convictions. Origen argued if all were to become Christians that would influence the barbarians to become Christians. And that Christians love, labor, and prayers did more for the Empire than the military. (Latourette, A History of Christianity Vol. 1, 243)
Transition to just war theory- ca 4th century
- When the Emperors were Christian this changed the scene on war ethics. If the Emperor was acting on behalf of the church, then it was conceivable that war in pursuit of justice could be justified.
- Ambrose and Augustine were proponents of this theory- "Augustine elaborated the theoretical basis for a just war. He held that wickedness must be restrained, by force if necessary, and that the sword of the magistrate is divinely commissioned. Not all wars are just. To be just, so Augustine said, a war must be waged under the authority of the prince, it must have as its object the punishment of injustice and the restoration of peace, and it must be fought without vindictiveness and without unnecessary violence…. Yet without the authority of the prince, Augustine taught, the civilian must not use force to defend even his own life." (Latourette, A History of Christianity Vol. 1, 244)
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Monday, December 15, 2008
“Once their resolve was galvanized by the resurrection experience, the apostles and the sympathizers of Jesus went about their business of testifying to the Messiah in his glorified power, and they did this with unbounded confidence.” (Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message, 10)
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
offending the Bible-believing, religious people of his day. However, in
the main, our churches today do not have this effect. The kind of
outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches,
even our most avant-garde ones. We tend to draw conservative,
buttoned-down, moralistic people. The licentious and liberated or the
broken and marginal avoid church. That can only mean one thing. If the
preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not
have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be
declaring the same message that Jesus did.” (Tim Keller, The Prodigal God)
Thanks to William T. Chaney Jr. for posting this quote in his blog.
Saturday, November 22, 2008
Monday, November 17, 2008
Sunday, November 16, 2008
In my previous post I argued that followers of Jesus have done a poor job of communicating their perspective on issues in the public square. At the end I submitted that Jesus was our common starting point as we articulate our worldview in the public square. The historicity of the life of Jesus is widely acknowledged by scholars. There are detailed accounts of his life written by either his companions or those that extensively interviewed his companions in the Bible. In addition, there are other non-Christian accounts from the time period that attest to Jesus' life. Any responsible historian would acknowledge that there was a man named Jesus.
People from a diverse array of worldviews readily acknowledge respect for Jesus and even quote from him regularly. Unfortunately, however, most people's knowledge of Jesus is limited to some nifty out-of-context quote or perhaps a story or two. These little quips are often used to justify whatever people want to justify, Christians and non-Christians alike. Statements like "judge not lest you be judged," "blessed are the peacemakers," or "the kingdom of God is within you." When taken in isolation, these statements are used as a buttress for any viewpoint.
We are further shaken when we go to a bookstore and see row after row of books about Jesus that try to persuade the reader that Jesus' message was not what Christians say it is. The Jesus Seminar has assembled so-called historians from around the country and reduced Jesus' life and teachings to a few spiritually ambiguous adages. They have written lots of books with provocative titles and appear on PBS documentaries sounding authoritative. The reality is that their project of discovering the real historical Jesus has been academically irresponsible and a farce. Liberal and conservative scholars alike have discredited the Jesus Seminar and their proliferation of propaganda as bad history. Publishers publish their books and bookstores stock them because trashy tabloids sell. If you are looking for some worthwhile books that refute The Jesus Seminar, John Shelby Spong and others here are a few great ones:
- The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels by Luke Timothy Johnson
- Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels by Darrell L. Bock
- The Resurrection of the Son of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, Vol. 3) by N. T. Wright
The authors listed above come from various backgrounds and are respected as scholars.
Once we feel comfortable with the historicity of Jesus and the accounts of his life and teachings found in the Bible, we then must resolve to decide what we want to do with those facts. N.T. Wright makes a very compelling case for the veracity of Jesus' resurrection. As I read the historical record, the resurrection of Jesus is an act so significant that it shapes how I think and feel. It gives significance to his life and teachings. This significance is magnified by the invitation by Jesus to join in his death and resurrection. Our views and ethics ought to be primarily informed by this. We need to be so familiar with Jesus life and teachings that we can articulate our responses to the issues of today. When so many around the world consider Jesus to be a wise teacher, prophet, or mystic, then it only makes sense for them to hear more about Jesus. But not in the way we are used to talking about Jesus, which usually involves very little of Jesus' story and a lot of culturally-distant religious terminology. We need introduce people to the incredible teachings, stories and events and then maybe some of those oft-used quotes above might find grander meaning and the world might see transformation.
Sunday, November 9, 2008
This political season has successfully stoked the flames of many hot potato issues in our society like abortion, war, and even the definition of marriage. In the midst of the firestorm of debates—official ones between candidates and unofficial ones in blogs and facebook and other communication mediums—it is disturbing to see such shallow thinking and hollow zingers displayed proudly by those on all sides of the debate. I realize that a witty zinger or a clever sound bite is often a tactical PR move, but too often what I see happening is just plain bad thinking and communication. Even more unfortunate is that people seem so proud of their asinine arguments. It pains me to see those representing Christ display such ill-thought-through statements.
The reality is that society has changed a lot over the years. The ground-lying assumptions about the world are not the same as they once were. There was a time when most people assumed there was a God. The views of God may have varied some, but there was an assumption that God existed and so did heaven and hell. Most recognized the authority of God and that the Bible conveyed God's message to people. These words from George Washington reveal the extent of the pervasiveness of this worldview: "It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible. Do not ever let anyone claim to be a true American patriot if they ever attempt to separate Religion from politics."
These are NOT the working assumptions of people today. Even those that consider themselves to be Christians, may not have these cosmological assumptions. Thus we make a mistake when we presume the existence of God, heaven, and hell in our arguments. It is further futile to build an argument from the Bible without first reaching common ground about some degree of truthfulness of the Bible. In the New Testament when we see Paul speaking to a Jewish audience, he makes frequent reference to the Jewish scriptures. But when Paul's audience is primarily from a non-Jewish background, then he seeks to establish other common ground.
When we engage in conversations in the public square over these issues, we need to articulate our positions and convictions in ways that challenge those that don't share our worldview assumptions to consider our perspective. Whenever we ignore the context of those with whom we debate, we usually end up talking past each other. And a more subtle thing happens to us. We become less sure of our own worldview. When we are able to communicate to those around us the reasons we have taken the ethical stands we have, then it is a sign that we are more sure of those ethical stands. I would submit to you that the historical life of Christ is a starting point with which we can communicate to others. But I will develop this idea in another post.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Christian community…is not primarily about togetherness. It is about the way of Jesus Christ with those whom he calls to himself. It is about disciplining our wants and needs in congruence with a true story, which gives us the resources to lead truthful lives. In living out the story together, togetherness happens, but only as a by-product of the main project of trying to be faithful to Jesus. (Hauerwas and Willimon as quoted in Hiebert and Meneses, Incarnational Ministry, 347)
Monday, October 27, 2008
I'm a big proponent of our responsibility to care for creation and appreciate the recent attention to the biblical soundness of such a posture. We definitely need resources that help us have a renewed understanding for our God-given responsibility to be stewards of creation, but I'm not sure that marketing a biodegradable copy of God's Word is the way to do this.
First of all, the whole concept of the specialty Bible is troubling. One of the earlier ones was the Men's Devotional Bible. This was basically a Bible with thirty one-page devotions laced throughout the pages. And then came Men's Devotional Bible II, which was the same thing with thirty new devotions. Seriously, does someone need to by another copy of the Bible just to get thirty more devotions? It reeks of marketing ploy. Now every kind of niche Bible seems to exist. People end up with a bunch of copies of the Bible that collect dust in someone's basement (not very ecofriendly). The other problem is that people can be distracted from the powerful and timeless of Scripture for some trendy theme or current favorite preacher.
In the case of the Green Bible, it can easily be misunderstood that care for creation is the primary theme in the Bible. Even the words of Christ are not in red in this version. It is overselling one theme among many and has the dangerous power to skew the broader narrative.
Why not simply produce a book that highlights the many verses and stories that highlight God's concern for his creation? This could be a valuable aid to our study of Scripture without potentially blurring other powerful themes in the Holy Writ.
When I was in graduate school my friend Matthew and I had this goofy idea to create a list of rare and impressive words. The goal was to see who could incorporate these words the most in our research papers. It made the writing of some tedious papers a little more fun when we could slide "tergiversate" into a sentence. Now the challenge has been made for all of us to participate in comeback of some seldom used and underappreciated words.
A recent article in Time Magazine alerted me to the potential extinction of some fabulous words. This niddering campaign to exuviate the dictionary of some fabulous words is oppugnant and olid. That some of these words are passed their expiration date is apodeictic, but there are some that have a nitid quality. At the risk of sounding like an old Oxbridge English Don, I hate to see our English vocabulary become fubsy and…well…just dumbed-down. Is it worth trying to salvage some of these words or is this abstergent necessary.
Friday, October 24, 2008
We got into the taxi and told the driver where we wanted to go. He said, "Good, I need to go that direction anyway." He noticed that my wife was pregnant and said that his wife had just had a baby. His wife had to have an emergency c-section delivery. The problem is that this poor family did not budget for a c-section or for expensive hospital bills. The hospital has kept his baby until he could pull together the money to pay the hospital bills, adding some each day for caring for the baby. This man was obviously distraught but it sounded like he finally borrowed enough money to bring his baby home.
We have heard other instances where the family could not pay for the hospital bills and put the baby up for adoption in exchange for paying for the bills. There are a lot of families for whom things have gotten tight financially that have sent on of their children to a local orphanage to be raised.
On the news we are inundated with clips of Angelina Jolie and Madonna adopting children from developing nations. One gets the sense that these two believe that we can simply adopt the world's poorest children in order to lift the world out of poverty.
I am not saying that we should not adopt those that are truly orphaned. Scripture is clear when it urges us to care for orphans. But we need to be very cautious that we are not assisting in a terrible exploitation of the world's poor. There are so many parents that have no idea what happened to their children because they were essentially forced to sell them. My concern is that the influence of Angelina and Madonna will train our focus on Band-Aid solutions rather than looking at the root causes of poverty.
Monday, October 6, 2008
Friday, September 26, 2008
Monday, September 15, 2008
Thanks to Tech.Samaritan for directing me to this article.
Saturday, September 6, 2008
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
What do you think of this quote? How do we preserve the gospel? Is "preserve" even the right word?
"The great theologians of each generation have realized that merely
repeating particular formulations inherited from previous generations
would serve only to preserve the gospel by petrifying it. Fear can
easily drive us to treat our theological propositions as fossils,
unearthed from a privileged period in church history and placed in an
ecclesiastical museum, quarantined from the polluted air of cultural
anxiety that might contribute to its deterioration." F. LeRon Shults, Reforming the Doctrine of God, 201
Andrew Jones has written a response to the first two chapters of Carl Raschke's latest book, GloboChrist: The Great Commission Takes a Postmodern Turn. Here is a snippet of Jone's response:
"Carl’s contribution here is to equate being postmodern with being
global. Whatever postmodernism was, or however it has been received,
over the last few decades, it is about “globalization” in this 21st
century in which we live and more and have our being and, unlike a mere
philosophical theory, we cannot avoid it. This fact brings
postmodernism back into play for those of us that thought we could move
I am often frustrated by the very superficial, naive view of postmodernism that pervades the Evangelical church. It is too often viewed as a campaign initiated by a few bumptious, atheistic, curmudgeon-ish, university professors that are out to hate on truth. I don't deny that there are these types, but that is not what postmodernism is about. More rightly understood it is a sweeping global phenomenon where worldviews are undergoing a paradigm shift. It is less due to some person's influence than due to the changing realities of the world and our reactions to it. Globalization, urbanization, and technology proliferation have changed the globe and cultures are changing as a result. In the west we are NOT transitioning from a Christian worldview to an anti-Christian one. We are, instead, transitioning from a modernist worldview to postmodern worldviews (the plural is intentional). Any worldview is deeply troubled by our tainted perspectives and agendas (one effect of sin). And yet the good news can be translated and embraced by those in any worldview. Of course those that really emerse themselves in the good news begin to exhibit a transformed worldview. But even then, this transformed worldview will be shaped by the background worldview.
I have posted remarks like this before and so I apologize for the repitition. It is one those issues that periodically makes me emotional. Postmodernism is here and is impacting people's worldviews. We need to spend less time attacking postmodernism and more time exhibiting and communicating the good news of Jesus in ways that people living in this emerging worldview can understand.
Sunday, August 24, 2008
I have been slowly plodding through Lewis Mumford’s classic work The City in History. I was reflecting on this tendency described by Mumford below:
“Thus both the physical form and the institutional life of the city, from the very beginning of the urban implosion, were shaped in no small measure by the irrational and magical purposes of war. From this source sprang the elaborate system of fortifications, with walls, ramparts, towers, canals, ditches, that continued to characterize the chief historic cities, apart from certain special cases—as during the Pax Romana—down to the eighteenth century. The physical structure of the city, in turn, perpetuated the animus, the isolation and self-assertion, that favoured the new institution.” (Mumford, The City in History, 58)
Since the trend began to change in the eighteenth/nineteenth century, I was pondering on the current trend. My undeveloped thought is that the cities are still fortified, but not physically or militarily, rather economically. Cities still operate with hierarchies and classes except that now lineage and coat of arms mean little. Networking and resumes signal pedigree.
“Throughout the greater part of history, enslavement, forced labour, and destruction have accompanied—and penalized—the growth of urban civilization.” (Mumford, The City in History, 56)
The industrial age transformed the traditional practices of slavery to economic slavery. It seems that economics has become the primary determinant of a society.
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
I was reading an excerpt from an address of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to a congregation where I came across these words:
“We all know that Christ has, in effect, been eliminated from our lives. Of course, we build him a temple, but we live in our own houses. Christ has become a matter of the church or, rather, of the churchliness of a group, not a matter of life.” (Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer…, 43)Every once in a while I find myself in a conversation about the value or need for sacred spaces (usually meaning church buildings). I’m not generally a big fan of church buildings and the building programs and financial indebtedness that it creates. But I think Bonhoeffer hits on one of the more subtle yet more tragic consequences of separate spaces for religious/spiritual activities. Our devotion to Jesus morphs into event-oriented, geographically-specific religious activities. It is no wonder that most Christians have very little daily connection to Christ and his call to take up the cross and follow him. We have compartmentalized Jesus by literally building physical structures for Him. Until our lives and homes become sacred spaces, we will continue to live duplicitously.
Monday, July 28, 2008
Alan Hirsch offers some good thoughts regarding the importance of church structure without getting bogged down by institutionalization on his blog The Forgotten Ways.
- Is a shift from "organizational survival" to a "movement ethos" feasible?
- How do we transition to a movement ethos?
- How do we generate a movement ethos among the majority of those who call on the name of Jesus?
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Working in the field of community development I have seen many development agencies attempt to make social changes superficially. For example one organization in the area I work has attempted to change gender roles in the local culture through the use of posters. Often it is a nice sounding project that makes donors happy, but does very little to impact the community. I have been reading Change Across Cultures: A Narrative Approach to Social Transformation by Bruce Bradshaw and wanted to share a little bit from it.
Bradshaw wrestles with this very problem of development agencies defaulting to the quick fix to make changes in a community. He brings a deep, anthropologically informed of cultures and worldviews in to inform the values that drive cultural practices. In the introduction to the book, he describes the ethnic conflict in Albania and explains how mired it is in the worldview of the people. Our quick fix solutions to these types of issues leave the worldview unaddressed and thus the conflicts continue. Bradshaw posits:
"Sustainable cultural change requires the transformation of the values that permeate the cultural narratives, which are the stories of the social structures that comprise the communities in which people live." (Bradshaw, Change Across Cultures, 12)
My reaction when I read the introduction was that he presents the problem beautifully but have no idea how he will offer some workable options to address the deeper issues in societies across the world.
Sunday, July 13, 2008
Sunday, June 22, 2008
As is commonly the case will all buzz words, the word “missional” is being used diversely. This proliferation of definitions, while inevitable, has created a lot of confusion and diminished the force of the word. It is for this reason that this post is part of a synchroblog attempting to recapture the force of the word missional.
In a recent blog post a young man wrote excitedly about the contrast between churches that were “attractional” and “missional”. His ruminations led him to the conclusion that the “services” at his church should be missional. His heart was in the right place but his distinction between the terms was clearly off-base (at least according to my understanding of the term). This led me to consider the various voices espousing the notion of a missional church. Significant books and reports have focused on this term as the locus for their ecclesiology. Anglicans, American mainliners, and Southern Baptists are all keen to use this term (perhaps a rare time for these disparate groups to use the same terminology).
Part of the confusion is the word is deeply grounded in theology and robust with practical implications at once. It might serve us best by beginning with the theological underpinnings of the term. To be missional is to imitate the mission of God (missio Dei). This notion of the mission of God can best be understood as God’s purposeful and sending nature. The late missiologist, David Bosch, put it succinctly: “Missio Dei [God’s mission] enunciates the good news that God is a God-for-people.” (Bosch, Transforming Mission, 10) Christopher Wright offers a grand exploration of the intensely missional nature of God in The Mission of God:
“The Old Testament tells its story as the story or, rather, as a part of that ultimate and universal story that will ultimately embrace the whole of creation, time, and humanity within its scope. In other words, in reading these texts we are invited to embrace a metanarrative, a grand narrative…. It is the story that stretches from Genesis to Revelation, not merely as a good yarn or even as a classic of epic literature, but fundamentally as a rendering of reality—as account of the universe we inhabit and of the new creation we are destined for.” (Christopher Wright, The Mission of God, 56)
We are invited into this metanarrative to partake in God’s purposes. In other words, we are to be driven by the missional essence of God to be missional in the same way as God. As image-bearing created beings of a missional God, we are carrying the missional DNA of God. The ultimate expression of the mission of God was in the incarnation of Jesus. In the incarnation was a radical, sacrificial sending out of God. It is a posture of self-emptying (kenosis) as we see in Philippians 2. In light of this, how do we respond to Jesus words in John 20:21: “As the Father sent me, so send I you”? The missional essence of God is the core foundation of our missionality.
Where is the disconnect? For some, they miss this foundation of God being missional in nature. It is not just some program from a church. It should characterize the core essence of the church. In getting to the more practical side of it, simply trying to be “missional” by having a missional service misses the point of being the people of the intensely missional God. As the Father sent Jesus, so we are being sent. Our posture should then be that of being sent. The church needs to be going with the desire to love the missional God and love his people. This is a radical departure from a focus on ourselves or on our own church. This is noticeably different from churches building their own kingdoms and trying to attract people to it.
A missional ecclesiology posits the church should be sacrificially representing Jesus in the world. Comfort, prestige, and pride should be abandoned to see Jesus communities established in the most troubled, dark locations of the globe. Nothing short of this kind of going is what it means to represent the missional God. It is for this reason that tweaking a Sunday morning service to be “missional” is still not grasping what it means to be missional.Check out what all of the others are saying about the word "missional":
Cobus Van Wyngaard
Friday, June 13, 2008
Returning to Alan Hirsch’s The Forgotten Ways, here is a short but challenging quote.
“So at the heart of all great movements is a recovery of a simple Christology.” (Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 85)
My question: What is elemental to a simple Christology?
Saturday, June 7, 2008
In his book The Forgotten Ways, Alan Hirsch makes this statement:
“So we have now reached the vexing situation that the prevailing expression of church (Christendom) has become a major stumbling block to the spread of Christianity in the West.” (Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 63)
My question: Do you think the prevailing expression of church has become a major stumbling block to the spread of the good news?
Monday, June 2, 2008
In the last few decades, society has become much more culture-conscious. This primarily due to enormous increase in travel technology and telecommunications. We are now much more aware of different cultures through our own experiences and media. This awareness has urged discussions on how we, as Jesus-followers, should relate to culture. H. Richard Niebuhr wrote a landmark book, Christ and Culture, where he provides five different ways that people believe Christ relates to culture. Since this book was published there have been thousands of discussions in Sunday Schools classes, colleges, dorm rooms, seminaries, and over the dinner table on the typology Niebuhr sets out for us. In the last few years there have been several books that used Niebuhr's book as a launching pad to discuss this very crucial topic. Scot McKnight's blog had a good discussion on which approach to culture was the best one. Here are the five approaches:
Christ against culture,
Christ of culture,
Christ above culture,
Christ and culture in paradox, and
Christ transforming culture.
I want your input. Is this a good way to approach the issue of how we relate to culture? What are some alternative ways of better discerning how we as Jesus-followers should interface with culture?
Thursday, May 29, 2008
"…for the church to retain a vibrancy about its faith, it must 'adapt and survive.'" (Brewin, Signs of Emergence, 19)
I just read Signs of Emergence: A Vision for Church That Is Organic/Neworked/Decentralized/Bottom-up/Communal/Flexible/Always Evolving by English school teacher Kester Brewin. This books has the "Emergent Village" imprimatur on it and is highly endorsed well-known names in the various streams of the Emerging/Emergent conversation/movement. Brewin's writing style is smart and reflective without getting bogged down in scholarship or floating away with charming anecdotal stories.
Change is an unavoidable absolute, urges Brewin, and the church must respond through adapting, maturing, and evolving. There are a couple of overarching themes that Brewin uses to make his various points along the way. In resisting the term "revolution" for its proclivity towards violence and disruptive change, the author leans on the word "evolution" to describe the appropriate response of the church (my thoughts on that later). The other rubric used to move the book along is the idea that a person's life, the road to mature belief goes through different stages. This is drawn from Stages of Faith: Psychology of Human Development by James Fowler. Fowler seeks to map out the journey to a healthy mature faith through six stages. Brewin picks up on this psychological work and applies it sociologically to the church developing in maturity through history. In essence, he posits that the church has long been in a stage of naïve belief (synthetic conventional) marked by conformity. Brewin responds to this saying that it is high time to progress through stage four (Fowler: individuative reflective stage) and move on to stage five (conjunctive).
Brewin uses the posture of evolution (the concept not the biological theory) through the rubric of these stages to implore his readers to rethink/reimagine the church. Brewin then explores Jesus' movement through advent, incarnation and emergence as paradigmatic for the church. He then challenges the church to rethink its essence and structure in light of the model Jesus provided and in our ever-changing (evolving) context.
Many of the emphases introduced by Brewin are great and ones that I along with many others have been calling for, such as many of those things listed in the subtitle of the book. But I struggle more with the twin foundation of evolution and plodding through stages of faith. Brewin juxtaposes the concepts of revolution and evolution. Revolution is normally accompanied by violence and presupposes that a massive change in structure will make the reparations necessary in a society. This I can agree with. Brewin goes on to make a good argument for the exigency of continued incremental change. The way he chooses to capture that is by using the word evolution. I struggle with the word choice on this—and, no it is not simply a matter of semantics—because evolution communicates much more than simply incremental change. This is not about the creation/evolution debate really. My education has been more informed by the social sciences. Anthropology and sociology once assumed that societies evolved in their culture, religion, and social structure to become complex, pluralistic civilizations. More often than not this meant that societies would eventually grow-up to be like western civilization (enlightenment thinking at its zenith). It has since then been realized that this kind of evolutionary thinking was enormously ethnocentric as it made us the goal of all societies. The wars, violence, and abuses in western civilization in the last century have revealed that we had not actually become quite the noble society as we thought. To summarize my thoughts, evolution connotes a notion of unaided progress that does not reflect the extent of brokenness of humanity. An added thought is the idea of the survival of the fittest goes against the primary themes of kingdom of God that Jesus taught and exemplified.
An alternative word that captures the Jesus-like posture is "regeneration." Thom Wolf has described this as a "spiritual revamping" as it honestly wrestles with the intrinsicness of our brokenness (Wolf, "How is Society Changed?: Five Motifs of Social Change"). This word comes closer to describing our posture although I might tweak the definition a little. I believe the revamping must be holistic. Even though it starts with a spiritual reorientation, it must impact every corner and crevice of life.
Brewin also builds heavily on the notion of progressing through the stages of faith. While Fowler's work is insightful and offers loads of discussion material for college kids going through the fourth stage, individuative reflective, it remains psychological observation. I'm reticent to use a psychological matrix to discern the future of the people of God. For example, Brewin implies that passing through the "dark night of the soul" is a prerequisite to mature spirituality. While it can be observed that faith can grow deeper during times of hardship, we are encouraged to enter the kingdom lie a child would (Mark 10:15; Luke 18:17).
This is all to say that Brewin develops his ideas of the emergence of the church on a less than stellar foundation. Yet, he offers some rich material in the midst of his work. Here are some of notable things:
- Incarnation- Brewin posits that we, both individually and as the church, must undergo the Incarnational process in the pattern of Jesus.
"As we wonder how the church could change…I am going to suggest that, like God, we must be born again. That we must re-emerge. That there will be no revolution, only evolution. That what will be in the future body of Christ must be what Christ was: the embryonic cooperation of divinity and humanity." (Brewin, Signs of Emergence, 67)
As cultures and societies continue to change we must continue in the process of facilitating new birth. This, once again, is imagery that is more suited to regeneration than evolution.
- New organization/structures- Culture is not static. The structures and organizations of society have undergone inestimable change. "Yet our models of church have not kept up with this radical change." (Brewin, Signs of Emergence, 74)
- Decentralization- Bewin draws from theories of complexity in grappling with how to be church in an increasingly urban and complex society. He uses examples of ants, brains, and cities in helping understand decentralized structures that operate beautifully. These examples are fascinating, but I do wish he had drawn more from the Scriptures.
- Urban reality- "Urbanization has marched on at huge speed over the last centuries, but our theology has not." (Brewin, Signs of Emergence, 122)
- Gift- Lewis Hyde's book The Gift shapes Brewin's commentary on the commoditizing of the church. The church should reframe its approach to the world as offering a gift and not operate in economic terms.
Overall, the book was interesting and provides a good challenge to explore practicing the Way of Jesus in some fresh ways. I believe the author uses some unhelpful rubrics for developing his ideas, but some of his ideas are good. The added bonus is that I learned how ants operate, which I had long been curious about.
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Kristen Scharold has written a well-articulated piece in First Things, "The Emerging Church and its Critics." She tenders a review of the much discussed Why We're Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck and uses that as a departure point to reflect on her own critique of the emergent church. She does a good job of communicating her critiques without name-calling or heresy-hunting. Her primary charge (as I understood it) was that the emergent church lacked conviction. This lack of conviction has propelled an overreliance clever writing, attractive events and artsy worship. She echoes DeYoung and Kluck in stating that the emergent folks are doing with postmodernism what the mainline churches did with modernism.
She makes some good points in this regard. Much of the buzz surrounding the emergent church has been eyebrow-raising book titles, conferences/parties in the Bahamas, and a savvy use of technology. The theological articulations tend to be trying so hard to unbox (or deconstruct) Evangelical theology that it has not actually theologized (if that makes sense). What I am trying to say is that too often the position taken is: don't take a position (of course, there are many exceptions to this). The emergent church is warm and friendly and likeable, but is it positioning itself to introduce the radical transformation of the kingdom in all corners of the earth?
Having said that, I think there is an irritating tendency to hear all things emergent and emerging through the megaphones of only a few voices. This is unfortunate. The range of expression and conviction in the emergent church is stunning. I have been very frustrated by some writers/bloggers/speakers and encouraged and challenged by others. Scharold describes Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian as understanding "that it is important to contextualize doctrine but that you cannot change doctrine." That is true in one sense, but it is superficial understanding of doctrine and culture. The reality of who God is and what he has done and promises still to do is fact, and a fact to be celebrated jubilantly. But our expressions of this fact in a specific language, recited in a certain order, referencing chosen verses all take place in the midst of contexts so thoroughly tainted that what we call doctrine cannot be considered the final product. Western articulations of doctrine are something to be read, studied and cherished, but also critiqued. Doctrinal statements and confessions are incomplete. An example of an area of undeveloped theology in the west is a theological/biblical grasp on the spirit world. Paul Hiebert, Charles Kraft and many others have been attempting to alert the west to these realities seen so easily by followers of Jesus in Asia, Africa, and South America.
Sometimes we think of theology like a candy bar with peanuts and caramel. And all we need to do is change the wrapper it is in. Maybe we change language on the wrapper for the country it is or change the design to suite the culture or the generation. But it turns out that another culture thinks nougat is imperative to the candy bar and that there were too many peanuts in the one from the west. We need to go back to Scripture and soak up all that is stated and work out the articulation of Scripture's contents in our communities. We need to be challenged by other communities that also read the Scriptures and follow Jesus and mutually challenge each other to see our blind spots. There is a tension in all of this. There are some that want to change the wrapper on the candy bar with just peanuts and caramel and there are others that want to say that whatever you want in your candy bar is just fine. The analogy breaks down at this point (as most do) before I start talking about an uber cosmic candy bar. The point is that we must approach our traditional articulations of theology/doctrine humbly recognizing that we need to perpetually return to Scripture, the way of Jesus, and the indwelling of his Spirit.
Monday, May 26, 2008
Andrew Jones has provided a couple of links to articles on the strategic value of organizing in small communities on his fabulous Tall Skinny Kiwi blog. These articles are not really saying anything new, Jones himself had blogged on it a while back and articles in mainstream media were already surfacing in the early 2000's (e.g. Laurie Goodstein, "Seach for the Right Church Ends at Home,"
New York Times). In the Huffington Post article, the number of those that have experienced a house church is 70 million. That is an extraordinary number and it is telling. The trend is growing and might not be too far from becoming mainstream. And then we have to be careful. It is the mainstreaming of something that changes its character.
- Focus on the form- There will be a subtle temptation to become more focused on the house church structure than on the allowing the structure to foster a community of growing Jesus-followers. The form is being mimicked by business and political strategists, which have very different bottom lines. We will need to ensure that we are characterized by our Jesusness and not our external forms or structures.
- Cool and easy- Whenever the church or a movement within the church becomes the accepted norm, it becomes attractive to the casual Christian. The true good news of Jesus demands a followship that is anything but casual. House church, simple churches, small faith communities will need to work very hard to maintain the radical intensity of a community committed to the way of Jesus.
- Comfortable- House churches can become comfortable, sedentary, and even institutional just like any other church or organized group of humans. There will arise a need for house churches and networks to establish themselves with longevity. The need for this feeling of something more lasting is understandable but antithetical to the need for the continued self-emptying of the church. The church must be willing to constantly go and make disciples, which may cost that expression of the local house church in process. The going of the church is painful and uncertain, but essential.
Don't get me wrong. I love churching in a small, simple, reproducible manner. I love bringing the church into our homes and our homes into the church. But if we really want to change the world, we must remain centered on Jesus and learn from the pitfalls of the past.
Thursday, May 22, 2008
This post is a return back to our discussion on Alan Hirsch’s book, The Forgotten Ways. Hirsch is promoting a radical change in mindset that fosters free-flowing movements. The observation is made that new movements tend start on the banished fringes of the church establishment:
“As we shall see, vital movements arise always in the context of rejection by the predominant institutions (e.g., Wesley and Booth), But because vigorous movements of mission almost always create movements of renewal, in the end they do go on to produce renewal in the life of the broader church (e.g., Pentecostalism).” (Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 56)
I am very thankful that God has raised up these people throughout history that have been influential in catalyzing a return to the radical way of Jesus. Hirsch notes that while these new movements start off as a rejected entity by the established church, they end up sparking new life and renewal in the wider church. My struggle is that even while this is a good thing in many respects, the original movement ends up becoming just another calcified institution in the diverse collection that make up the worldwide church of Jesus. In other words, with each new movement there is a new denomination (sometimes more than one, Methodists, Wesleyans, Nazarenes, etc.). Therefore, in fostering new movements, we are thereby fostering new denominations, thus further fracturing/splintering/schisming the church.
I am not an “ecumenist” in the sense that it has often been used in the last century, but Scripture seems to be unequivocal on the point of unity of the church (John 17; 1 Cor 1; Eph 2; 4; Rom 12 and many more). A point that is rarely demonstrated among believers. I’m not suggesting that we sacrifice the freshness that new movements bring to the universal body, but that take the command of unity seriously. Here are some quotes that might challenge us to strive for unity:
“The time is always ripe for re-union. Divisions between Christians are a sin and a scandal, and Christians ought at all times to be making contributions toward re-union, if it is only by their prayers.” –C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, “Answers to Questions on Christianity, p. 60
“Spiritual unity and visible unity are not truly alternatives: the alternative to visible unity is visible disunity, and that is a witness against the gospel.” (Geoffrey Wainwright, from Grenz, Renewing the Center, 303)
“Unitive ecumenism…needs to be reconceived. It can no longer be thought of, as I have done most of my life, as a matter of reconciling relatively intact and structurally still-Constantinian communions from the top down. Rather, it must be thought of as reconstituting Christian community and unity from, so to speak, the bottom up.” (George Lindbeck, “Confession,” 496, quoted in Volf, After Our Likeness, 19)
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
The concept of preaching has become highly distorted manifold ways. One source of this distortion is the English rendering of the word “preach” in place of several different Greek words. “The Greek New Testament, however, contains 54 uses of eunggelizo (“evangelize”) and, by way of comparison, 61 uses of kurusso (“preach”). In current practice these are both translated synonymously as “preaching.” The English reader is not able to make a contextual analysis of the intended meaning of the term—as he always reads 115 uses of the word “preach.” (Johnston, Thomas P. “Toward Translating “Evangelize” as “Evangelize”, 93) Nate Krupp explains this occurrence:
“There are five Greek words that have all been translated into the English word ‘preach’ and all similarly mean ‘herald, publish, announce, proclaim, tell’ the Good News. All of the instances where these Greek words are found in the New Testament are in the context of announcing the Good News to the lost and are not found in the setting of the believers’ gathering. Preaching is to take place out where the lost are: door-to-door, the streets, the market place, the fields, the highways and by-ways.” (Nate Krupp, God’s Simple Plan for His Church)
If preaching is properly understood as proclamation focused on the lost, then preaching in the church body must undergo revision. As it is commonly practiced in most churches today, preaching is really a persuasive speech by one considered a professional. For some preachers this is the perfect platform for polemics. Bonheoffer observed this proclivity: "Does not our preaching contain too much of our own opinions and convictions, and too little of Jesus Christ?" (Bonheoffer, Cost of Discipleship, 36). Other preachers are content to entertain or offer pleasant possitivities to their parishioners. And others earnestly desire to communicate God’s truths to believers, but are forced into the formulaic and static medium of the sermon. Preaching among believers in the New Testament is not necessarily from a pulpit, it can be dialogical as seen by the use of dialegomai to describe Paul is in the synagogues ‘discussing’ his faith (Acts 17:2; 18:4) and among believers at Troas (Acts 20:7). In Acts 20:7 dialegomai is often translated as preaching, but that is not an accurate translation connotatively. ‘Preaching’ now connotes a monologue delivered, whereas dialegomai is more often used in the sense of conversing or discussing. Secular business author, Peter Senge notes a similar practice among the early Greeks:
“To the Greeks dia-logos meant a free-flowing of meaning through a group, allowing the group to discover insights not attainable individually. Interestingly, the practice of dialogue has been preserved in many ‘primitive’ cultures, such as that of the American Indian, but it has been almost completely lost to modern society.” (Senge, The Fifth Discipline, 10)
There is no question that Paul is teaching the gathered believers, but it is a difference between ‘speaking at them’ and ‘speaking with them’. It seems that the New Testament emphasis has more to do with teaching than preaching. Even the concept of teaching has been skewed by changes in the educational system since the industrial revolution. Wolfgang Simpson challenges us to consider the aim of teaching in the New Testament: “The goal of the teaching is not increasing knowledge, but helping people to obey and serve God and His purposes (
“We evangelical Christians tend to emphasize the importance of good teaching. This is missing the point. The essential is that people are genuinely learning and applying Scripture to their everyday lives. Statistics show that we learn far more by actively participating than by hearing alone. Scientists tell us that we remember 20% of what we hear, 50% of what we see and hear and 70% of what we hear and see and then say ourselves. In house church, we have the opportunity to involve everyone. In New Testament times, teaching was far more interactive; for instance, the word used for Paul’s lengthy teaching in Ephesus is the word ‘dialegomai’ from which we get our word ‘dialog’ (Acts 20:7). Jesus tells us that we are to teach new disciples to obey His commands.” (Church Planting Handbook, 116)
The emphases in Scripture on character formation and learning Scripture presents a significantly different image than what is commonly practiced today. This is not to say that the form of preaching that has become so pervasive today should not exist. It has a place, but it should have refocused goals for truly nurturing the believers.
How did we get to this point of place such importance on a monological sermon delivered by professional clergy? It has often been stated that the Reformation movement left a few things unreformed, among them was ecclesiology. The churches of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli inherited many structural aspects of the church from the Catholic Ch. Rigid worship, hierarchical decision-making were not challenged like views on salvation, use of the vernacular, and meaning of Holy Communion.
“Protestants, with the exception of ‘
In fact, John Calvin campaigned hard to make the sermon the central point of a church gathering (replacing Communion). While the Reformers attempted to eradicate the distinction between the clergy and laity, they also sought the preaching of right doctrine. The insurance of right doctrine demanded a preaching office (die reine Predigt), thus once again reinforcing a bifurcation of clergy and laity. “Yet, in fact, contrary to the theory of fundamental non-distinction, it encouraged the practical recognition of a secondary status of the ‘laity’ in comparison with the ministry, the breeding of an attitude of passivity in the laity as a whole, the accentuation of the significance of ‘office’ (das Amt) and its leadership.” (Kraemer, A Theology of the Laity, 66) “Its counter-effect was that the laity gradually got into and, generally speaking, accepted the position of the ‘ignorant’, the spiritually non-adult.” (Kraemer, A Theology of the Laity, 66)
Please hear me when I say that I am not against “preaching” or feel that it is wrong. I do question whether it should be our default form of discipleship. If our focus is on helping people grow in the image of JC, then our methods of discipleship must reflect that. It is my belief that to accomplish this, great levels of interaction will be necessary. Less monologue and more dialogue. Perhaps even less talking and more active ministry with discipler and disciplee side-by-side good newsing (“preaching” in your translation) a world that does not yet know Him.
Saturday, May 17, 2008
In my educational background I have taken numerous New Testament and theology classes. In doing a survey of the New Testament, I can't remember having much time left in the course for the book of Revelation. And theology, we ran out of time to deal adequately with eschatology (study of last things). Add to this the fact that I have always been a bit weirded-out by those end-times junkies who perpetually forecast the rapture any time we have more than one earthquake or there is a war in Southwest Asia (the Middle East). All of this is to say that I arrive at N. T. Wright's book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, with very unformed opinions about the subject. The book, put simply (perhaps too simply), explores our future as understood through scripture.
Bishop Wright is a New Testament scholar, prolific writer, and a widely sought-after speaker. There is no question that he is a gifted communicator and lucid thinker, and he brings those gifts to this book. Wright has laid some ground work in some very dense works on New Testament theology and sets up the need for this book. A key theme of Wright's is God's desire to "put the world to rights." In this book, we are able to understand a little more about what he means.
Wright begins the book by illustrating the many varieties of confusion the church has about our future or what happens when we die, heavily critiquing the Platonic notion of the physical world being nothing more than a shadow of reality. Wright builds his argument in various stages, but distilling it down, he establishes the incredible event of Jesus' resurrection from death (which he did more definitively in The Resurrection of the Son of God), his ascension, and coming reign. Then the rest of the book is essentially the worked-out theological implications of that for those declaring their allegiance to Jesus. Wright resists the only-spiritual idea of our future, and that ultimately we will be enjoying the goodness of God's creation in the transformed new earth.
This challenges the standard images we have of a soft, glowy life up in the clouds. It also challenges how we live now in light of our future. He draws heavily on 1 Corinthians, where Paul indicates that the things we do now, will have impact into the future. Wright makes his points well and communicates to a wide audience. His portrayal of our future hope is beautiful and helps make sense of some of the bizarre images we have in Scripture. If what he describes is the best way to understand Scripture, then it has enormous implications for the church and its mission (which is partly his point in writing the book).
Not everything is resolved for me. I wish Wright had a chapter or appendix addressing some of the passages that might seem contrary to the view he is offering. For example, one that is frequently brought up by those that want to continue to treat the earth as one big trash dump, is 2 Peter 3:10. Relatedly, is the new earth made new through miraculous transformation or is it a totally new planet? As I stated at the beginning, this is not an area of theology that I have reflected on very much, so I would welcome insights from y'all.
For a chapter-by-chapter description of the book with a few points of explanation and well-placed questions, see Scot McKnight's blog. I am too lazy to retrace each step Wright takes in developing his argument.
Friday, May 16, 2008
Alan Hirsch tells the story of how his church in Melbourne became the object of the spirituality customer. They became the trendy church for people from the burbs to get their urban-hipster worship on. While this touches on the deeper, more troubling issue of consumerism and spirituality, we’ll get into that discussion later. For now, I just wanted to highlight the reality of corporate worship inflation.
“We discovered that if a community member left SMRC [the church they started], for whatever reason, they found it much harder to go back to a ‘meat and potatoes’ style of church, because they had acquired a taste for ‘spice and garlic,’ so to speak. We found that a lot of the people who left just wandered around and couldn’t reconnect anywhere.” (Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 44)
This quote reminded me of a quote from early Brian McLaren:
“We are prone to guilt-tripping ourselves and others even though guilt trips take us nowhere but backward. For example, we glorify extraordinary revival experiences so as to feel like failures during ordinary times, not realizing that if last year’s extraordinary revival experience continues for more than a few weeks, it becomes the new ordinary experience. If last week’s worship was awe inspiring, this week’s must at least equal it in emotional force; otherwise, someone is sure to tell us we are backsliding and will threaten to go down the street ‘where God is really moving.’ The result in some churches is an ever-inflating hype, which might seem exciting from the outside, but from the inside is pressured, desperate, and pathetic.” (McLaren, Church on the Other Side, 105)
This is a very insightful observation. We need to be aware and honest about the hype and the emotions that come with it when involved in corporate worship.
Thursday, May 15, 2008
Okay, so the previous post never really got into the discussion on institutionalization. Well…in a way it did, but only insofar as it established the deeply institutionalized nature of the church because of its inherited Christendom mindset. Alan Hirsch articulates a danger of institutionalization on the church:
“We can observe from history that through the consolidation and centralization of power, institutions begin to claim an authority that they were not originally given and have no theological right to claim. It is at this point that the structures of ecclesia become somewhat politicized and therefore repressive of any activities that threaten the status quo inherent in it. This is institutionalism and historically it has almost always meant the effective expulsion of its more creative and disparate elements (e.g., Wesley and Booth). This is not to say that there does not appear to be some divine order (structure) given to the church. But it is to say that this order is almost always legitimized directly through the community’s corporate affirmation of calling, personal character, charismatic empowerment, and spiritual authority. It always remains personal and never moves purely to the institutional.” (Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 23n9)
This quote has two parts to it. First, Hirsch lays out a critique on the effects of institutionalization. And secondly, he introduces an alternative path for the church. We’ll begin with the effects of institutionalization. We are all familiar with institutes, and rarely consider them positively. We think of HMOs, government bureaucracy, and taxes. We also think of churches. In our quaky shift to a postmodern worldview, there is a strong anti-institutional emphasis (Cooper, “Contributing Factors in the Resurgence of Paganism in Western Society”, 12). Institutions have become symbols of power in society. We are in an age where the Congress is considered a playground for lobbyists and priests are equated with child molestation. Is it any wonder that we have some trepidation about institutions?
Consequences of Institutionalization
Some might wonder whether institutionalization is such a bad thing. It is not that institutionalism is this insidious evil that must be purged from the planet, but rather it subtly sends us messages that are contrary to the message of Jesus and scripture.
- Institutions become the focus. Working in the humanitarian relief and development sector I see clearly a tendency among the agencies intending to relieve abject poverty around the world. These organizations know that they need financial support to accomplish their tasks of relief and development. In order to acquire this financial support these organizations must sell their projects as being the best ways to help those in need. The problem is donors do not really understand the principles of sustainable development. These humanitarian agencies then begin to do projects that appeal to the donor-base in order to keep the financial support for their organization flowing. Soon there is an obsession by the humanitarian relief organization to self-promote in order to become the organization that people want to give to. Churches have easily fallen into this subtle trap of promoting the church in order to maximize their opportunities to introduce people to the way of Jesus. In order to perpetuate these opportunities staffs, buildings, high-tech equipment become necessary. But soon these things get everyone distracted on to these things. Loren Mead warns us: “We must also be aware of our temptation to expend all our resources and energy in shoring up collapsing structures, holding onto the familiar long after it has lost its possibility for new life.” (Mead, Once and Future Church, 6). It is imperative for the church to have a kingdom focus. Thus the church must be willing to die so that the kingdom might prosper.
- Institutions operate under a different paradigm- Leadership, decision-making, and productivity are all elements to institutional life that go subtly unchecked in a church context. Nasty elements of power and money slip into the mix and soon the church looks more like a government or corporation than the family of God. Even the notion of the legality of an institution in a state can lead towards a tension with kingdom values. I recently heard about one church that writing their by-laws in accordance with the wishes of the state law. In it they are required to list a president of the organization. Even though, this church disagreed with the idea of having one person listed as a leader (as opposed to a plurality of elders), the felt coerced to comply with state law as an institution.
Inevitability of Institutionalization
Another relevant thought is that institutionalization is inevitable. If we can’t stop it, then why try? This is a valid question. James Cobble observes that: “the church exists as a sociological reality subject to the same forces and laws which govern and shape the development and life of all social groups…. As a sociological reality the church reflects the political intrigue, bureaucratic development, social stratification, class conflicts, and boredom that occur in all social institutions.” (James Cobble, The Church and the Powers, 93-94) In a sense, institutionalizing is a reality.
“Institutionalization is unavoidable for an organization that wants to continue existing and growing beyond its first generation. It was precisely the formation of church leadership and organizational structures that led to the stabilization of the church.” (Gehring, House Church and Mission, 299)
The late Paul Hiebert frames it as succeeding generations inheriting something as the way things are done. (Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections…, 160) Soon this results in what Hiebert calls a loss of vision and a hardening of categories. Although I concede there is an element of inevitability, there are some helpful ways to respond or slow down the process of institutionalization.
Staving off institutionalization
- Continue to return to the biblical story and images- As has been emphasized in too many sources to site, the images for the community of Jesus in scripture are primarily organic not organizational. Body, bride, family, vine all attest to the dynamic, organic nature of the church. If the church is willing to periodically take a fresh look at these images in comparison to their current practice it could be enlightening. It might surprise some to realize that Robert’s Rules of Order was not used in the early church.
- Centered on Jesus- This is one of the chapters in Hirsch’s book, as he claims all legitimate movements are unequivocally centered on Jesus. Related to this is a conceptual framework of focusing on the center (Jesus) rather than on the boundaries (who is in and out). A better explanation deserves much more space, Paul Hiebert has an incredible chapter on this (see Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections…, 107-137).
- Resist premature institutionalization- When a new church plant begins with a budget, a building, and a payroll, it is already an institution. I have seen more than one church plant ruined by the acquisition of an old church building from a dying church. What was once a dynamic group of Jesus followers journeying together became an institution discussing issues of property maintenance, building use policies, and janitorial salary. We must be diligent in allowing things to be as simple as possible.
- Continue proceeding outward- Humans quickly fall into rhythms and habits that become fossilized. We must force ourselves to continue move where there is need. I have heard many say that their church will look at starting another one once they are established or stable. A church should never allow itself to become established, it should be characterized by sending and going, even to the point of its own terminus. We return the notion of an institution becoming its own focus. A church should always be pointing to Jesus and the kingdom.
- Foster and encourage radical new movements- This is what Hirsch refers to in the quote at the beginning of this post. We must help the Wesleys and Booths in our churches be radical followers of Jesus and lead others in doing so.
In Matthew’s Gospel we have our most explicit references to the church of any of the gospels, yet there is nothing that hints of the elaborate institutional behemoth that church would become. R.T. France, regarding Jesus’ community in Matthew, concludes:
“The structure is informal, but the sense of community is intense. And overarching it all is the consciousness of the presence of Jesus and of the forgiveness and pastoral concern of ‘your Father in heaven’.” (
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
At the heart of the Hirsch's book is the notion of overhauling our entire understanding of church and Jesus-followship from an institutional Christendom mentality to a dynamic movement that touches and transforms every community into which it flows. Right now, he argues, the church has an institutional ethos and we allow most of our activities to revolve around that ethos. He states, however: "I have come to the unnerving conclusion that God's people are more potent by far when they have little of what we would recognize as church institution in their life together." (Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 23) This is one of those statements that many people will quickly agree with but not see all of the implications of it. The reality of what Hirsch is saying is that we still have an institutional Christendom mentality. And for many Americans, Christendom and the American idea are confused. As I begin to unwrap this, I want to articulate more clearly about the notion of Christendom. I will not do justice to this subject, as it is a book-length subject. Although I have not read the book, Stuart Murray has a book on this topic, Church After Christendom. I really enjoyed another book by Murray called Church Planting: Laying Foundations.
The idea of Christendom is that of an established institution of the church that has a geopolitical involvement. Many would point to the conversion of the Emperor Constantine (313 CE) as marking the beginning of Christendom. It was during this time that the church began to build larger buildings, hierarchical power structure became more established and even worship had a resemblance to a Roman emperor processional. It also became a time when the church began to dabble more with the affairs of the state. This trend continued to the point that the church was intrinsically tied to the affairs of the state and relied on its powerful influence on the state. Michael Frost works out how this looked by the middle ages:
"Furthermore, by the end of the twelfth century, everyone in Christendom had been divided into parishes large enough to support a church and a priest but small enough to allow easy access to the parish chapel for services. Tithing became mandatory, so everyone was 'taxed' to support the parish church and its priests. It was a brilliant system for ensuring both ecclesiastical administration and pastoral care. The laity was expected to pay its tithe and attend Mass. The clergy were expected to perform sacramental rites such as baptism, marriage, funerals, and weekly Mass, as well as provide for the poor. The result of nearly two centuries of Christendom is that Christian have become used to the idea that their faith is primarily about attending meetings—worship meetings, weddings, funerals, prayer meetings, and so on. Even today, in our thoroughly post-Christendom world, when the essential work of the church in providing religious, liturgical services has become irrelevant, Christians (including many exiles) can't separate the idea of Christianity from the weekly Mass or worship service. Even those who have ceased attending church services have great difficulty imagining what it means for a group of believers to church together without picturing a liturgical meeting of some kind." (Frost, Exiles, 277)
Why does this matter? This Christendom mentality or ethos has carried forward through the Reformation until today. The late Lesslie Newbigin describes the force of Christendom (what he calls corpus Christianum) in shaping western culture and unequivocally posits that we cannot return to those days.
"…two facts are fundamental to an understanding of our present situation. One is that we are the heirs of the Christendom experiment. We who belong to the Western world live in societies that have been shaped by more than a thousand years during which the barbarous and savage tribes of Europe were brought, slowly and with many setbacks, into a community conceived as the corpus Christianum, a single society in which the whole of public and private life was to be controlled by the Christian revelation. Much of what we take for granted about normal human behavior is the fruit of that long schooling. However much we rebel against it, we are its products.
The second fact is that the corpus Christianum is no more, and we cannot go back to it. The religious wars of the seventeenth century marked the final destruction of Christendom's synthesis of church and society. From the eighteenth century onward, Europe turned away from the Christian vision of man and his world, accepted a radically different vision for its public life, and relegated the Christian vision to the status of a permitted option for the private sector." (Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks, 101-2)
In essence, Newbigin, Hirsch, Murray, and many others argue that the era of Christendom is long gone and cannot be regained but that much of the established church has not yet recognized this unalterable fact. Even harkening back to the Reformation commenced by the bold actions Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and many others, much of theology underwent a radical renewal. A fresh reading of scripture inspired a fresh articulation of our salvation and Christ's work on the cross. Yet, in terms of ecclesiology, they continued a Christendom-type ecclesiology (only without the papal authority). Today, long after the church has been relegated to the private sphere of life, the church still carries with it a mentality of enormous influence and establishment.
Hirsch is calling for the church to undergo a kenotic movement (from the Gr word kenos, devoid, empty) described of Jesus in Phil. 2. This self-emptying process allowed Jesus to identify more fully with humanity. The church, in like manner, must be willing to enter communities humbly and incarnationally. Just as Jesus encouraged his followers to take up their cross on a daily basis, so must the community of Jesus followers, the church.
(more on institutionalism to follow)