Monday, June 15, 2009

saying grace

That previous post prompted an observation that I had meant to post last month - but forgot. When I was in Thailand a couple of Cambodian pastors at the seminar really wanted to go out for ice cream. A bit of a novelty for them.

So we did.

We took the ice cream cones and sat down at a table ... and then they bowed their heads, closed their eyes and 'said grace'. I've never done that just for ice cream before!

Two reflections linger from this incident for me.

(a) The impulse to be thankful was just below the surface. And I guess when you do not have a lot, you are thankful for a little.

(b) The willingness to live a different life in the public world. When I go out to eat with someone - almost always - if I don't take the initiative then 'saying grace' won't happen at all. Why? "It is a meaningless ritual that has no biblical warrant anyway." (blah, blah, blah).

I wonder if there is a deeper issue going on here. Are we not in an era where we are looking to diminish the differences between us and the world around us as we live the mission life? The overheated desire to be relevant often comes from this impulse. It is a common assumption lingering behind the philosophies of both mega-church and emerging church. 'Minimise the difference so that people feel at home.' Of course - to a point this is true ... but it ain't no doctrine to die for.

As I read the New Testament I sense the call on the people of God is far more to maximise the differences between them and the world around them, but to do it with grace, with integrity, with quietness, with courage and in a way that intrigues people. It is not about being stupid or weird - but it is about there being a seamless consistency between our private and public worlds.

And as I heard an Indonesian leader say in a presentation two days ago on 'nominalism' ... "The church tends to look like the world so that the world is not attracted to the church".

So I am committed to 'saying grace' in public places. Always have. Always will. It is a simple and quiet part of an overall missional strategy where I ask God to help me live an an integrated life with integrity, a distinctive life with distinction.

nice chatting


Sunday, June 14, 2009

cheque books, property and god

I am sitting in the departure lounge at Hong Kong airport reflecting on the privilege that is mine over these days.

I've just had two days of listening to East Asian Christian leaders advise Langham's international staff team on our work with them. [The bishop who habitually and quietly wipes the tables after each meal will stay with me]. Now I am off to the Solomon Islands where pastors will gather for a four day preaching seminar. After that it is off to a South Asian country for more of the same. I'm sure a whole bunch of contrasts are ahead of me...

The Chinese world. Melanesia. The Islamic world. WOW.

All in a few days.
There is so much to learn from what God is doing elsewhere.

My mind goes back to the conversation a friend of mine recently had with a Christian leader visiting NZ. It was this person's first trip outside their country. They are from a country known all around the world for it's oppression and cruelty. It is often in the headlines. A place where it is very tough to be a Christian.

My friend asked, "What are your impressions of Christians in NZ?" Being a guest in our country this person would not comment. It would be improper. My friend kept pressing and pressing... I think he knew that first impressions are usually the biggest blindspot-exposers of all. If only he could draw an honest comment, it had the possibility of being a prophetic one.

Finally this guest in our country relented.

"Here in NZ Christians depend on their cheque books and their property. In my country we depend on God."


nice chatting


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

cancer and marriage

This year of 2009 has had some sad and unique features for me. I do not remember a year when I have known so many people struggling with cancer nor a year when I have known so many marriages under stress to the point of breaking apart.

On the cancer front, my wife Barby attended the funeral of her 40yr old work colleague yesterday. That has been one person of about a dozen. Younger and older. Near and far. It is hard to hold them all in my heart - but that is what I am trying to do. But cancer is a consequence of living in a fallen world stained by sin and evil and it should not seem so strange to us. But it does and it will. I find my mind traveling in two directions.

Firstly, as someone who has experienced much less suffering than many, I try to steel my mind with the right patterns of thinking about suffering. For example, will I be able to ask 'how?' much more than 'why?' if I am afflicted? 'How can I suffer well?', not 'why is this suffering happening to me?' is the appropriate question to ask. Maybe I will be able to do so. Maybe I won't.

Secondly, is there anything that encourages and strengthens my faith more than watching people and walking with people who suffer well? I doubt it. The joy which seems to emerge? The hope? The endurance? The confidence? The other-centeredness? It is so often faith's finest hour. The very things that drive the unbeliever further away from God are the very things which cause the believer to lean harder on God. It is as odd as it is remarkable.

On the marriage front, I fear that within Christian circles there is a lot of fuzzy thinking which leads to a lot of fussy behaviour. Let me explain.

The thinking is fuzzy. The attitudes of Christians towards things like beauty and love, intimacy and sex, self and commitment... It has become confused. We are no different from anyone else on these subjects. But gee - when the ratio of time spent in racy novels, TV serials, the lyrics of songs, and movies compared with the time spent in the Word of God so often reaches 100:1 for many followers of Jesus, is it really that surprising? What else can we expect? Afterall we become what we soak in.

This fuzzy thinking leads on to fussy behaviour.

On the one hand there are Christians who are too fussy about the wrong things. Someone's appearance. Someone's income. Someone's personality. And the list goes on ... these silly irrelevancies actually prevent quality Christian marriages taking place.

On the other hand there are Christians who are not fussy enough about the right things. Someone's character. Someone's consecration. Someone's purpose ("Love does not consist in gazing at each other - sorry, Twilight fans! - but in looking outward together in the same direction").

I've done a few pre-marriage sessions in my time. Nowhere do couples need to be de-programmed more than in the area of intimacy. The 100:1 error tends to have them convinced that sex initiates and sustains intimacy. It doesn't. The best and most enduring intimacy comes as it is nurtured first as a social, intellectual, spiritual, and emotional closeness able to be experienced by those who are celibate too - remember?! Then for those who marry - mutually exclusive and permanent in its intention - sex is a celebration of that intimacy in the way God designed.

Our world disciples us to be self-absorbed - "people are pickled in themselves" (Bono). Well - maybe too many Christian marriages are pickled. They need a dose of "let us get lost in something bigger than ourselves", allowing their marriage to become missional as they offer it to Jesus as well.

nice chatting


Monday, June 01, 2009

mission: inspiration, concern, hope

It remains the most helpful mission concept I have encountered in the past twenty years.

"WOW - that's a big call, Paul."
But it is true ... and it is so simple.

Devised by the late Harold Turner (the Kiwi Newbigin), the suggestion is that for mission to be effective (under God's gracious hand, of course) it needs to advance at three levels in a concerted manner.

Level One focuses on the individual-personal, incorporating spoken evangelism with acts of compassionate service. Words and deeds by individuals.

Level Two focuses on the public-social world with communities as the centerpiece. The community we know as the church - the distinctive, alternative, and attractive people of God - building bridges and walking across them into the wider community. This is where home and workplace are honoured. This is where social and economic systems are challenged. This is where the Kingdom of God becomes visible.

Level Three focuses on the deeper-cultural world. If society is a tree, the concern here is for the roots. If society is a boat, the concern here is for the tide. Level Three recognises that it is the invisible which tends to be influential. It agrees with CS Lewis in asserting that "the critical ideas in society are not the ones being argued, but the ones being assumed." This is mission to worldview or, as Turner expressed it, this is "deep mission".

[Let's acknowledge that each Level is present in the mission strategy of Jesus and the apostles. Level One is everywhere! Level Two is seen explicitly in Acts 2 & 4 and implicitly in every New Testament letter. And Level Three? Well, the parables - just for starters - tend to operate at this level.]

So what about an assessment of mission in New Zealand in 2009? Three words come to mind.
Inspiration. Concern. Hope.

The inspiration comes from what is happening at Level Two. Over the past two decades I have had the privilege of being in dozens of local churches. I have loved it. I will miss it. Generally speaking, the mission focus in NZ has been about local churches creating places of belonging for their own people and then, from that base, multiplying the ministries which reach into the community. I'll always remember the day I heard that Spreydon Baptist had 56(?) community ministries. It was inspiring.

But we are kidding ourselves if we think effective mission is about this alone...

The concern comes from what is not happening at Level One. Where have all the evangelists gone? Have we allowed society to intimidate them into silence? Or have churches fumbled the gospel? How often have I heard people who should know better describe mission as something that can be word-less? How often have I been with church groups who seem content with their community ministries remaining as social service agencies and not much more? It starts there - but does it end there?! Why is there so often this reluctance to say a little word for Jesus - surely people expect that to happen in a church ministry?

Depending on your church's flavour there are effective programmes out there to assist with evangelism: Alpha, Two Ways to Live, Christianity Explored ... but where are the evangelists? The compelling grace-filled, truth-filled speakers who can direct conversations to the claims of Christ embedded in the biblical gospel ... and who can live with the consequences - probably more rejection than acceptance?

The hope comes from what is starting to happen at Level Three. While deeply committed to Level One & Two, God's particular call on my life has been to Level Three. And it is my conviction that Level Three is best advanced through a commitment to biblical preaching, to theological training, and to tertiary mission. On each of these fronts I find fresh hope pulsing through my veins:

recovering biblical preaching
I remain unconvinced that we have a heritage of biblical preaching in NZ. But the Towards a Kiwi-made Preaching forum in April demonstrated that something is happening in the church in NZ. The numbers from around the country who showed up, the vibrant buoyancy in the day, the mixing of veterans with a whole wave of younger people, the sheer indigeneity of it ... 'deep mission' is fuelled by biblical preaching and there seems to be a growing awareness of this fact.
[NB - 'Kiwi-made Preaching' will have an ongoing regionalised life in New Zealand. Things are simmering for a few months as we assess the next steps - and as we build the database of people who are interested. Please email me at if that means you!]

renewing theological education
Like with biblical preaching, an evangelical* brand of degree-level theological education (particularly through our denominational colleges) is hardly what we are known for in NZ. The reputation is of a faith-destroying training, not a faith-deepening one. A whole layer of leaders in the church have a deeply ingrained suspicion of the value of theological training. Who can blame them? The degree-level evangelical option with its capacity to fuel 'deep mission' is less than 20 years old. Numerous countries in the Majority World had this option long before we did. Most English-speaking countries have had it for decades, even centuries ... but now look carefully at what is happening at Carey, at Laidlaw, and at Otago. I wrest my case. The cause of transformative theological training in NZ has never been better.

redeeming tertiary mission
The church in NZ has tended to scorn academia as impractical at best and irrelevant at worst. Too often our young people go there and lose their faith. Too often our academics go there and hide their faith. There has been so little engagement and so the universities keep winning the battle of ideas and go on to shape the nation in the next generation. We are such a heart-y and hand-y people, rather than a head-y one - and it shows! Shame on us. I am stunned by how often I hear Kiwi Christians downplay the significance of knowledge, understanding, the head, the mind... What Bible are these people reading? Because, as Harold Turner used to say, "ideas have legs" and "the most practical thing the church can do is to sit down and have a good think". But we'd really rather sing than think, we'd really rather find simple solutions than ask hard questions, and we'd really rather keep faith a warm private affair than a rugged public one. No wonder we are stuggling!

This is why I believe in Tertiary Students Christian Fellowship (TSCF - the NZ arm of the global InterVarsity work) - mired as it has been in a recession. Listen - it is impossible for mission in NZ to be effective without a strong campus presence which ensures that the worldviews of students are converted by 'deep mission' during their molten years. That the Christian dollar flows so readily to other NZ ministries and overlooks this one is an enduring mystery to me. But TSCF is bouncing back. Nowhere is this more evident than in this initiative known as Catalyst . It is just what the (mission) doctor ordered.

Inspiration. Concern. Hope
All three levels. All at once - in concert.
This is what we need.

nice chatting


* by 'evangelical' I mean an approach that is based on the Bible as the authoritative text and focused on the Christ revealed in its pages. It is possible to honour both Christ and the Bible!