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.



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.



Inerrancy and Alcohol
May 7, 2009, 11:01 am
Filed under: culture, denomination, theology

I’ve had some conversations lately – some of which have sparked anger in me (not toward my conversation partners, but toward institutions and power brokers in them).  I assure you, dear reader, that I am not angry as I write this – just musing here.  These conversations been around the topic of alcohol and denominations.  The thoughts these conversations have produced go a little something like this:

I work for a denomination that is conservative – very conservative.  The past couple decades have witnessed a “conservative resurgence” within the denomination, which has reacted to a perceived “liberal” shift by a small handful of denominational leaders, seminary professors, and others.  The conservatives “won,” and most of the “liberals” have been driven away.  What we have now is an almost universal insistence on conservative readings of the Bible, including a stand for inerrancy.  “We” say we believe the Bible word for word, and insist on staying pure in our reading of it.

Meanwhile, my denomination has a hard-core stance against the use of alcohol as a beverage.  Our major missions agency for North America bans anyone  who has had even one drink of alcohol in the previous 12 months from applying for missionary funding.  In fact, I have known at least one case in which a person’s denominational position was threatened because he merely condoned the use of alcohol.  Now, I know that mine isn’t the only denomination that has a no-alcohol policy for its employees, or preaches a no-alcohol message from its pulpits.

But I got to thinking – it seems that the denominations and churches most likely to ban alcohol are also the denominations and churches most likely to preach biblical inerrancy.  My question is, if we’re so insistent on the word for word truth of scripture, how are we supposed to deal with verses like Provers 31:6-7:

6 Give beer to those who are perishing,
wine to those who are in anguish;

7 let them drink and forget their poverty

and remember their misery no more.

Or, how are we supposed to understand Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:18-20:

18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.”

How exactly does Jesus earn the reputation of being a “glutton and a drunkard” if alcohol is a banned substance?

Look, I understand that in many, many cases, it’s a good idea for pastors and denominational leaders and even everyday Christians to abstain from alcohol.  I work with college students, and I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to go out drinking with them.  But at what point does an absolute stand against it violate an absolute stand for inerrancy?  For this, and other reasons, Jesus himself, along with Paul, Timothy, and a number of other prominent figures in the “inerrant scripture” would be disqualified for service in several denominations.  Do we really even know what we mean when we say we’re into inerrancy?  Really?

Should we really be alarmed that Christian denominations are tanking right now? What we say we believe about scripture isn’t what we live out in our policies.  What we take the most pride in is often the stuff we are the most hypocritical about.

I’ll close with what I would hope to be a couple pretty obvious disclaimers:  First, as I mentioned, I’m not just taking my own denomination to task here – there are several others with similar stands.  Second, this blog and these words are 100% my own – I write only for myself, and don’t claim them for anyone but me, especially the denomination or the churches that are a part of it.

I would LOVE to hear some points of view on what an inerrantist position on these scipture passages would be.  Because I’ve got some depressed friends, and I’m thinking that faithfulness to scripture might require me to buy them a six pack or a bottle of Merlot.  Also, how much alcohol would you recommend I give someone in order that they would “remember their misery no more?”  That sounds like it might require a 12-pack.



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.



Global Missional Leadership

I had the pleasure of enjoying a couple of hours at the SeaTac airport this morning with Jason Clark, who had a layover between his flights from Portland to LAX (I know, the route doesn’t make sense, but since those flights made our little meetup possible, I’m not complaining).  Jason is a pastor from London, and a point-person in the Emergent UK conversation.  He’s also a graduate of the George Fox Seminary program that I’m set to finish up (tomorrow morning!!!).

We met to conspire about a brand new program that Jason is developing with George Fox – a Doctor of Ministry in Global Missional Leadership.  It is geared toward reflective theological practice within a global context.  There are a number of things that excite me about this new program.  First, it isn’t “global” in name only – in addition to the course content and readings, there are three face-to-face learning experiences, which will take place in locations in Africa, Europe, and Asia.  These will be held in partnerships with seminaries in these locations.  That is great, because we need increasing global interaction with theologians and practitioners in order to learn from each other.  Second, it is both theologically and practically oriented – often practitioners get so caught up in the day-to-day behaviors of ministry that they aren’t theologically focused; and often theologians get so caught up in the academics that they fail to express their work in practical ways.  Third, it is integrative and open source – an online learning community is already being developed, which can be utilized by GML students, and non-students alike (go check it out, and jump on board!).  Seminary education is in need of change, and this represents a significant step toward accessibility and cultural contextualization.

It looks like I’m going to have an opportunity to work with this program, which is a big deal to me.  The topic of my dissertation (which I’ll begin blogging very soon)  is a very good fit, and it represents a good “next step” for me, now that I’m done with my own school program.  I’m defnitely looking forward to seeing how things develop.



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.



An Irishman, a Puerto Rican, a Texan, and a Californian walk into a pub . . .
November 19, 2008, 11:36 am
Filed under: books, conference, emerging church, friends, Seattle, theology

Yesterday was a fun, thought-filled (thought-full?) day with friends.  Church of the Apostles hosted a couple of theology pub dialogues with Peter Rollins from Belfast, Ireland.  I got a shout this past weekend from Ryan Sharp, who was interested in coming up from Portland for it – he jumped on a train, and I picked him up from the station.  We grabbed a quick bite, went to the Fremont Abbey for the talk, then went out afterwards to the Greenlake Zoka with Eliacin for some de-brief chat.  So there you have it – an Irishman (Rollins), a Puerto Rican (Eliacin), a Texan (Ryan – though he’s not a proud Texan in the way most are), a Californian (moi), and a pub (well, sort of – they didn’t have any actual “pub fare” for the afternoon thing we went to).

1118081341 Pete Rollins is the author of How (Not) To Speak of God and The Fidelity of Betrayal.  He’s also one of the founders of the Ikon community in Belfast.  He’s also  PhD Postmodern Philosopher.  He’s also quite funny.  He also has the ability to speak at blazing speeds with that Irish accent of his.  The last three of those things often left my head spinning . . . and yet wanting more.  Oh, he also keeps himself on time by continuously referring to his cool pocket watch.

I’ve not gotten a chance to read The Fidelity of Betrayal yet, so I don’t know exactly how redundant his talk was to that book, but there were so many good sentences – things I’ll be chewing on for a while.  Here are a few gems to start.  I’ll probably come back sporadically and pop a few more on here.

– “It’s not about convincing your mind to believe given truth, it’s about convincing your ‘social self,’ where the real belief resides.”  In other words, the belief resides in the actions of the body, not in the head.

– “The real question is not whether or not God exists, but ‘What is God saying to me?'”

– “Your beloved doesn’t meet your needs.  Your beloved creates your need.  ‘I never needed you until you arrived, and then I realized that I’ve always needed you.'”