SpiritFarmer


Quick Take Review: The Next Evangelicalism
June 8, 2009, 8:13 pm
Filed under: books, Christendom, culture, dissertation, emerging church, missiology, Seattle, theology

Last week I got a chance to sit down with a book that’s been getting a bit of buzz in the circles I run in.  It’s called The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church From Western Cultural Captivity, by Soong-Chan Rah.  I believe it’s a very important book, and one that I hope will find its way onto many seminary course readings lists – and not just in specialty classes like “Multi-cultural Worship.”  Rah has some good words to share, but they will be put to best use in a broad marketplace.

The book is an uncomfortable read, especially for a white midle class USAmerican dude.  I have attempted to sensitize myself and the people I have influence with to issues of race, power, and control, but I know I’ve fallen well short of ideal.  There’s still a lot more to be done in my own heart, as well as in the church at large.

I strongly recommend this book.  The way it approaches the issues of racism in the church in USAmerica are helpful and prophetic.  The chapter on race is a good primer, and the chapter on how the emerging church is perpetuating most of evangelicalisms same old problems is a stinging rebuke to a bunch of people who have been a bit smug about having rescued the Western church from all of its ills.

With that said, I do have a few points of critique.  First, I’m not sure the book delivers on the title – I get that Rah is riffing on Philip Jenkins’ genius work in The Next Christendom, but unlike Jenkins, Rah doesn’t spend his primary content on describing the new form that’s coming to replace the old.  I got a very helpful picture of yet another broken aspect of the previous, broken evangelicalism, but less of a vision of what the new way forward looks like.  There are some good examples, including one here in Seattle that I can personally vouch for, but I wanted more.

Second, I don’t know how excited I can really get about the dawning of a new “ism.”  Frankly, I’m not looking for the next evangelicalism – which may have more to do with my continuing flashbacks from the last one, but another ism sounds like another opportunitiy to institutionalize forms of thought that might work right now, but will be rendered obsolete by future generations.

Third, and I admit that this is entirely selfish, but this book came out about 9 months too late.  As I was writing and editing my doctoral dissertation, I knew full well that the day would come that I had just put my biggest, hardest writing project to bed, and I’d wake up one morning to find a new book/article that would have taken my work to the next level and made it really shine.  This is that book.  No hard feelings, though, Dr. Rah.  I’ll get over it.  I’ll take the opportunity to borrow your ideas the next time around.  Congratulations, though – this is a reall solid piece of work, and one that I hope will be influential in the near future.

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What if we started over?

Last week, in an effort to fool myself into thinking that I’m a tech geek (even though I know zero coding languages, don’t know most of the fancy acronyms, and don’t use the tools I have access to very elegantly), I watched the 80 minute video from Google’s I/O Conference, in which they rolled out their latest brainchild, Wave.  The video demonstrates some pretty cool stuff that will be game changing – like integrating e-mail, instant messaging, blogging, Twitter, wikis, collaborative projects, and entertainment.  If you’d like, you can watch it here.

The video stimulated a lot of questions and thoughts in me, particularly about the implications of these technologies, and how they will be used (both well and poorly) by Christians.  But the statement from the video I keep going back to actually happens very early on (at about 5:00 or so).  The lead developer, who is doing the demonstration, is introducing the mentality behind Wave, and says something like this (very paraphrased):

E-mail is by far the most popular form of communication on the internet today.  That’s very interesting, because e-mail is more than four decades old.  With some relatively minor changes, it still functions in much the same way it always has.  But we decided to ask the question, “What if we were to invent e-mail from scratch today?”

In other words, they want to reimagine communication with today’s tools, rather than continually tweaking yesterday’s templates all the time.  The answers they came up with are very cool – at multiple points in the demonstration, the developers in the audience get all giddy and cheer wildly.  Congratulations Google.  I’ll leave it to others to determine whether they truly reinvented e-mail or not.  Whatever the case, they did succeed in integrating today’s tools and rules, and they certainly got a buzz going among a very important constituency.

I think the reason their question of inventing e-mail from scratch stuck out to me is that it’s very similar to a phrase I’ve heard more times than I could count from pastors and church planters – “What would we get if we just stripped down all of our Christian traditions, and went back to the way the early church did things?”  Tons of books and articles have been written, and a lot of “new” models have been offered up.  But I’m left wondering whether that question doesn’t miss the point a bit.  The fact is, Google didn’t go back 40 years and try to rebuild stuff as though nothing had changed.  No, they used the current technologies available to them to try to accomplish some breakthroughs in electronic communication.

When “we” go back to reinvent church, we go back to Acts and Paul’s epistles to try to distill the simplest expressions of what the first century sisters and brothers did.  We try to rebuild church in very simple forms again, with as few changes as possible to the original systems.  We don’t take our contexts into account nearly enough – for example, we don’t consider that Rome’s big technology was its system of roads, whereas our superhighways are virtual and global and information driven.

I’d like to suggest that this way of approaching things is broken for at least two reasons: First, as we can see from the cranky tones of some of Paul’s writing, the early church wasn’t exactly getting it right all the time.  So when we try so hard to emulate the early church, we’re pursing a broken system.  This may be one of the consequences of letting the inerrancy mentality control so much of our attention – “If it’s in the Bible, it’s got to be literally true, and therefore, should be replicated as closely as possible.”  But if that’s what we’re doing, the very best we can hope for is to build a form of church that gives people the opportunity to be greedy, gossipy, sexually immoral, and power hungry.  (Hmmmm, if that’s our standard of measure, maybe we’ve gotten closer to the first century church than we had thought!)

Second, we’re not being honest about what we’re trying to do.  We’re not even trying very hard to go all the way back.  We take a vast amount of theological, historical, and cultural baggage with us when we look back.  Even people who read authors like N.T. Wright in order to understand the first century Palestinian context stop too short.  When I hear people saying they want to do church the way the early church did it, they don’t really mean they intend to strip down their evangelical systematic theology, their Western wealth and (white) power, their Protestant Reformation, their Christendom power, their Augustinian conceptions . . . they just want the pragmatics of meeting in peoples’ houses and sharing possessions and giving money away to those in need.  The idealism is commendable in some ways, but it’s mostly just that – idealism, and an artificial idealism at that.*

I would like to suggest that if we really want to get back to basics in the way we embody the bride of Christ, we do so more honestly.  When Pentecost took place, and the church was both born and unleashed in a series of radical events, they were creating something truly new, without a template.  They had a religious memory and heritage, which they honored in many ways, but they also knew the rules had changed.  We, too, have a religious memory and heritage – some of which can rightly be honored.  But if we’re going to do/be church the way they did it back then, we’ve got to be creative enough and courageous enough to know when to break the rules of our day, and take some risks.  In our fear of abandoning “orthodoxy,” I think the vast majority of us lack the courage to break those rules.  We’re so beholden to our denominations, our subculture, our seminaries, and (once again) our power that we chicken out.

So what do you think?  Am I wrong that most of us haven’t tried very hard to go all the way back?  Am I unfair in my assessments?  This post if fairly off the cuff (though it’s taken me quite a long time to write it).  Please tell me if you disagree – I’d like to tease out my own thinking on this some more, so I’m not looking for a fight.

*I’ve not read Frank Viola’s Pagan Christianity, but from what I understand, he deals with a lot of the stuff that’s been layered onto “church” over the years.  I also understand that he’s squarely on the idealistic side.  If I’m wrong on this, please let me know – I just felt the need to note that I’m not trying to either plagiarize him or take cheap shots at him.



Dissertate this! pt. 3
April 1, 2009, 12:27 pm
Filed under: Christendom, culture, dissertation, Global South, globalization, missiology

O.k., so I’ve mentioned the fact that there are major movements of growth in Christianity around the world – well, except for the Western world, where Christianity is in a bit of decline lately.  I’ve mentioned that these movements are taking place at a time in which globalization is changing everything.  One interesting thing to note as a backdrop to these discussions is the fact that globalization and Christianity have gone hand in hand for hundreds of years by now.

Back in pre-Reformation Christianity, when the Church of Christendom ruled the day, explorers set sail to find new trade routes and new lands in which to trade.  They typically went with the blessing (and/or military backing) of their homeland.  When they encountered new people groups, they developed “trade partnerships” with swords and spears in hand.  They colonized these places and subdued them through physical force and intimidation.  Another of the tools of empire used to subdue people was the Christian religion.  Conversions took place at high levels, and the religious systems of Christianity were brought in.

So, as these trade routes and colonies got the ball of globalization rolling at a new level, Christianity spread.  The way I’ve described things here paints a fairly negative, cynical picture of things, but this spread of Christianity certainly wasn’t all bad.  While many conversions took place at the wrong end of a weapon, many genuine conversions took place as well.  Further, most of the missionaries that came to the new lands, did so with good motives – to help people, to serve them, to bring spiritual awakening.  True, they also brought their own culturally-bound notions of “civilization” and “development” and “orthodoxy,” but they can’t easily be broadbrushed solely as tools of empire.  I believe that God used globalization and many sacrificial servants to spread the story and mission of Jesus throughout the world.  Christianity has brought many many benefits to the places it has been carried.  It hasn’t been done perfectly, for certain . . . but we’ve gotten a whole bunch of things wrong in the “homelands” of Christianity as well.

Missionary movements have blessed the Church – and not just the Church in the missionary destinations, either.  They blessed the Church “back home” as well, through telling stories, through calling people to humility, generosity, and openness.  They’ve told the story of Jesus being received more fully and gratefully by the “foreign pagans” than by the innoculated pew-sitters in the home of Christianity.  They’ve noticed things about “our” culture that fall short of full gospel embodiment – things they had to step out of our culture for a while in order to notice for themselves.  Two such giants that come to mind are Lesslie Newbigin and Roland Allen.  These guys have written prophetically and need to be more widely read.

Next time, maybe I’ll talk a little bit about some of their observations and begin moving toward a scriptural backdrop that I developed.



The Church You Didn’t Know About
March 18, 2009, 5:37 pm
Filed under: blogging, Christendom, dissertation, Global South, missiology, school, theology

I’m not sure exactly how to go about this, but this post represents my first attempt at blogging about my dissertation.  I can’t say how many posts I’ll use to write about this, or how frequently I will do so.  I’ll start with some general framing words, though.

When I began the process of research and writing, I was intrigued by the possible implications of some of the writings done by a Penn State University professor, Philip Jenkins.  I had recently read his book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity.  In it, he gives a lot of data that proves a surprising fact: there are currently more Christians in the non-Western world than there are in the West, which has always been considered as the home of Christianity.  The past few decades have witnessed an explosion in the number of Christians in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.  All of this has taken place at the same time as we have seen a steady decline in church as we know it in the West.

I seriously doubt that I was alone in being surprised at the shift taking place in global Christianity – most USAmerican Christians would never guess that to be the case.  Once I took that reality in, I had some immediate questions about power.  We in the West are very accustomed to being in control – we have the money, we have the political influence, we have the biggest guns, we have the white skin, we have the theology, we have the authority.  But if we’re not even a majority of the world’s Christian population, should this really be the case?  How is Western power being used when it comes to theology, social justice, missionary practice, etc.?  I was particularly interested in listening to the theological reflections of Christian brothers and sisters from the global South – is it possible that rather than being forced to blindly accept theology developed in Rome, Geneva, London, New York, Nashville, Dallas, Springfield, or Southern California, perhaps they should be practicing theologies that they’ve developed in their own cultural contexts?  Further, is it possible that “they” should actually be teaching “us” about some things they’ve learned?

So those were some of the questions I began this research journey with.  Many of the answers I found were quite exciting to me.  But I haven’t finished setting the stage quite yet.  The next time I post on this, I’ll talk briefly about the context that brings “us” and “them” together.



It’s Sunday, so I guess I won’t be (fill in the blank)
March 1, 2009, 9:17 am
Filed under: Christendom, culture, media, spiritual formation

According to a research study published in an online article in New Scientist, conservatives would appear to be hypocrites when it comes to practicing what they preach (HT: boingboing).  <pause to allow readers to overcome their shock>  The study has to do with online pornography consumption, and finds that states that are the biggest consumers tend to be more conservative and more religious.  8 of the 10 states that consumed the most went for John McCain in last November’s election.  How people voted doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but here’s something that does:

Church-goers bought less online porn on Sundays – a 1% increase in a postal code’s religious attendance was associated with a 0.1% drop in subscriptions that day. However, expenditures on other days of the week brought them in line with the rest of the country, Edelman finds.

Did you get that?  Church folks consume as much porn as everyone else . . . but they do it all with one less day per week.  Further,

Residents of 27 states that passed laws banning gay marriages boasted 11% more porn subscribers than states that don’t explicitly restrict gay marriage.

There are a number of different directions I could take with this.  The most prominent things that come to my mind, though, are the question of whether churches are really being effective at life transformation, and the fact that moral/religious conservatives lack the high ground to be dictating to others what should or should not be allowed.  Regular readers of this blog can probably figure out where I’d go with those two things, so I’ll save it (anyone who doesn’t know, but cares anyway can feel free to drop off a comment, and I’ll explain myself a little more).

I’m not noting this stuff as a way of pointing fingers of blame.  Let me assure you, I am a Jesus-follower, who commits acts of hypocrisy all the time.  I run my mouth, and then contradict what I’ve said through the things I do.  It’s just that this makes me want to guard my heart in judging others, in taking pride in my own righteousness, in making my life accessible to people who are less than perfect.  I need grace in heaping helpings – these days more than at any other time in my life, trust me on that.

So what’s your favorite vice that you won’t indulge on Sundays?  And given that it’s Lent and all, I’m wondering how many people have secretly committed to “giving up porn” for this season.  Probably a lot (most in hopes that they won’t return to it after Easter).



What to blog about when you haven’t blogged lately
December 19, 2008, 11:13 am
Filed under: Christendom, denomination, evangelism, spiritual formation, theology, twitter

Despite the fact that my paycheck comes from a major Christian denomination, I don’t typically like to blog about them, er, “us.”  Partly because I shudder when using that word – us – because it means I’m complicit in a lot of things I detest.  Partly because it’s embarrassing.  Partly because I think it’s irrelevant to this blog – I’ve been blogging a heckuva lot longer than I’ve worked for the denom, so what’s it to them (er, us)?

Once in a while, even when I do mention the denom, I’ll do it without naming the denom.  All the same reasons as above.

Yesterday, a classmate tossed up a link on Twitter, to a news story that talked about our mutual denomination, and evangelism programs.  I literally laughed out loud at points.  Laughter was inappropriate, though, because a) it wasn’t supposed to be a funny piece, and b) I should have been grieving.

The article is about how poorly we are doing with our evangelism programs.  O.k. STOP, and re-read that last sentence there . . . I’ll wait.  Multiple items to chew on there.  First, “poorly” is an indicator of success/failure . . . which, of course, we measure . . . by number of baptisms.  Not transformation, not community impact, but baptisms. 

Next, evangelism programs.  The apostle Paul instructs Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist.”  Evangelism isn’t a program, it’s the behavior that arises out of an identity.  Programs aren’t automatically bad, but the history of evangelism programs – both in our denom and elsewhere – is that they have to be promoted.  People in our churches apparently do not do evangelism, therefore, they must be convinced to do it and then trained to do it through these programs.  We try to be clever with these programs, and give them catchy campaign names.  Like “EKG” – Empowering Kingdom Growth.  Like “What Now.”  Like “Who Cares.”  I swear to you, I’ve made none of those up – they are actual campaigns. 

If people aren’t doing evangelism according to our programs, that could indicate a few things.  For one thing, it could mean that since we’ve counted previous baptisms, not transformation, we’ve not seen true conversions take place – evangelism is  a natural behavior, driven by the Holy Spirit.  For another, people who have been converted resist these marketed programs because they inherently know they’re cheesy, ineffective, manipulative, or aimed at the wrong result.  For another thing, we’ve turned God into a commodity that needs to be sold.

If we are experiencing God and his Kingdom, Jesus, and the Spirit in a way that changes us deeply, helps us to see the world in a different way, and challenges us to live into a different reality, evangelism will happen all by itself.  Not as a result of a program or a marketing scheme.



Telling God what God should be doing – when, where, and how
September 11, 2008, 8:49 pm
Filed under: Christendom, denomination, missiology

I seem to be completely hammered busy these days – so much so that I am having a hard time coming up with my own words to blog . . . my words are being spent on other writing projects at the moment.  So in place of my words, here are some that are better anyway.  I read the following just now, and almost laughed out loud, because it very closely describes an effort by one of my denomination’s mission agencies over the past seven or eight years – tens of millions of dollars has been spent on some special targeted projects in North American cities.  They still do this stuff.  The funny thing is, Roland Allen wrote these words over 80 years ago!

Our love of organization leads us to attempt to fix the place where, and the time at which, and the men by whom, a spiritual movement is to take place. We fix the place. We choose what we call a strategic centre and plant there our buildings and our institutions. There the spiritual movements must take place if we are to be in any way the agents of it. The organization binds us to that place, and there we must stay so long as those buildings stand, and the posts remain open. The society organization demands it. Here is a station; it must be occupied: here is a post vacant; it must be filled. That is quite reasonable if we are dealing with organization for ends which we understand and the means to attain which are more or less in our power; but is a spiritual movement of that character? For spiritual work spiritual organization is necessary; but can we create a spiritual organization of spiritual forces? Only a divine intelligence can do that.

– From Roland Allen, “The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church”