Saturday, May 28, 2011

all god's people said 'ouch'

As a creative communicator Rob Bell is without peer. What he does with nooma - seeing the spiritually significant in the utterly ordinary - is reminscent of CS Lewis in Mere Christianity. Superb! But I have yet to finish any of his books. Sadly, I get a bit bored as they wander too much for me and the content does not hold me. I guess this is a concession to two things: my age and my context. [NB: I am off to Indonesia and Pakistan later today and those worlds might respond better to 'Justice Wins' (which I realise Bell believes, by the way!)]
But this post is about exploring biblically - maybe in a sermon series, if you are a pastor - a way to engage the important issues which Rob Bell raises and which are capturing the imagination of so many people. Last week I stumbled back into a chapter from Kevin deYoung & Ted Kluck, Why We're Not Emergent (Moody, 2008) which I have reviewed previously here. While the title is a mistake in my opinion, the epilogue is brilliant.
It is called "Listening to All the Churches of Revelation (239-253)" and suggests that here is a framework in which to engage the 'emerging church' - but also, I am suggesting, the issues raised by Rob Bell in his latest book. These guys assert that "the problems in these seven churches are the root problems in all churches (239)" - and off they go, one by one:

EPHESUS: your loveless, fundamentalist church - orthodox, moral, hardworking - to whom Jesus says, "Love".
SMYRNA: your persecuted church - afflicted, slandered, impoverished, but spiritually rich - to whom Jesus says, "Be faithful".
PERGAMUM: your ungrounded, youth-movement church - faithful, passionate witnesses, but compromised with the world - to whom Jesus says, "Discern".
THYATIRA: your warm-hearted, liberal church - loving, but overtolerant, undervaluing doctrinal fidelity and moral purity - to whom Jesus says, "Think".
SARDIS: your flashy and successful, but shallow, megachurch - a great reputation, but spiritually dead - to whom Jesus says, "Wake Up".
PHILADELPHIA: your small, storefront, weak and unimpressive church - struggling, but strong - to whom Jesus says, "Press on".
LAODECIA: your ritzy, influential church in the rich part of town - filled with affluence and apathy - to whom Jesus says, "Be earnest".

OK - so a little bit of cute preachers' licence going on here - but what is the point they are making? "We can all see our besetting sins mirrored here, even if we can see the sins of our neighbour church more easily ... we must pay attention to what Jesus says to ALL seven churches (241)."

And while their eyes are trained on the emerging church (NB: this is the reason behind their selection of three churches from the seven on which to focus), I do wonder aloud if there is some relevance here for the discussion around Love Wins: afterall "there are just as many undiscerning, overtolerant Pergamums and Thyatiras as there are loveless Ephesuses (241)."

Maybe the strength - and weakness - of Love Wins is that its eye remains trained solely on Ephesus?

Here is a bit more:
With Ephesus:
"Jesus commended them for two virtues scarcely mentioned (today): intolerance (of false teaching) and hatred (of immortality). For all the talk about the supremely inclusive kingdom of God, it should not escape our notice that Ephesus was not praised for their inclusion, but for their exclusion (242)... the people cared about being right, but they no longer cared for each other (243) ... We may think right, live right, and do right, but if we do it off in a corner, shining our lights at one another to probe our brother's sins instead of pointing our lights into the world, we will, as a church, grow dim, and eventually our light will be extinguished (244)" - which is literally what happened in the city of Ephesus!

With Pergamum:
"Ephesus was under-engaged with the culture; Pergamum over-identified with the culture ... Undiscerning tolerance was Pergamum's crippling defect. Their indifference to religious and moral deviancy was not a sign of their great relevance to the culture ... it was a blight on their otherwise passionate, faithful witness (245) ... Pergamum reminds us of what can happen to young people who aren't taught well or to youth movements that lack grounding in the Scriptures. People get converted, sometimes dramatically, and they live vibrant, courageous, evangelistic Christian lives, but they are also confused, undiscerning, and antinomian, thinking the gospel and grace make moral law unnecessary (246)."

With Thyatira:
Thyatira possessed the deeds that the Ephesians had and the love that the Ephesians lacked ... Its people loved, served, believed, and endured ... The big problem at Thyatira was tolerance. They tolerated false teaching and immoral behaviour ... I imagine Thyatira as a church with lots of community programs, a concern for social justice issues, a desire to be inclusive. But somewhere along the line warm-heartedness overtook clear-mindedness ... they love what Jesus loves but do not hate what Jesus hates (247)."

And all God's people said, "OUCH?!"

Yep - without a doubt, if I was a pastor I'd be planning a series on the seven churches of Revelation (again!) as a biblical way to engage the issues raised - and not raised - by Love Wins. Without returning to the Bible, there is a danger that the one who raises the problem might prove to be the only one from whom we seek the solution. Maybe Rob Bell rightly has something akin to Ephesus in his sights - but there are six other churches which should concern us equally as much. Let the full agenda of Jesus impact us as we forsake our half-truths.

"We need to catch Jesus' broader vision for the church - His vision for a church that is intolerant of error, maintains moral boundaries, promotes doctrinal integrity, stands strong in times of trial, remains vibrant in times of prosperity, believes in certain judgement and certain reward, even as it engages culture, reaches out, loves and serves. We need a church that reflects the Master's vision - one that is deeply theological, deeply ethical, deeply compassionate, and deeply doxological (248)."

nice chatting


Thursday, May 19, 2011

epuni and stoke

On Sunday afternoon I spent a few hours with Robyn of Epuni. On Thursday afternoon I spent a few hours with Paul of Stoke. With Robyn I chatted with some young adults over lunch. With Paul I went visiting the elderly in the later afternoon. Robyn was a student in my final years at Carey. Paul was a student in my first years.

Both invited me to visit them. I loved it. Both Epuni and Stoke are small churches. At times in their history both have been vulnerable churches, familiar with strife and questioning their future. Both Robyn and Paul are uncomplicated in their approach. They love and they feed and out of that context they lead. Both Robyn and Paul loved the church in the classroom - now both love the local church in the community. Both have studies, rather than offices. Both are just in their second years with a long way to go. But my hunch is that Stoke and Epuni will find themselves on a trajectory of quiet, slow and healthy growth.

It got me thinking...

I am one who believes that the local church is the hope of the world. It is Plan A and there is no Plan B. But it has to be properly defined as both a gathering community (for worship and maturing) and a scattering community (for work and missioning).

I am one who believes in the community church in the community. I don't really care for the logic about "corner store dairies being replaced by supermarkets and so little churches need to be replaced by large churches". It may make sociological sense, but it is weak theologically and biblically and that is more important to me.

I am one who believes that 100 healthy churches doubling from 50 to 100 is more strategic than 10 healthy churches doubling from 500 to 1000 - even though the mathematics may be the same. The foundation for further growth is better, the number of different communities being touched is greater - and it is more realistic and achievable (although I am happy if both are able to happen).

When I was a student and when I was a principal there was too much hope and aspiration around about the possibility of ending up in a large church. It was unlikely. It is unlikely. It will be unlikely. Far better to correct the hope and measure the aspiration more accurately and settle down for the long obedience in the same direction. Yes, I am one who believes that the training years should be devoted to shaping pastors to be rightly-convicted, effective shepherds within churches that are authentic communities with measured dreams ... but should someone show a propensity for leading the much larger (it will be the exception, rather than the rule) then that capacity is best nurtured through the mentoring and coaching of someone who has walked that walk and draws alongside.

New Zealand needs the Robyns and the Pauls. Hundreds of them.

New Zealand needs the Epunis and the Stokes. Hundreds of them.

nice chatting


Monday, May 16, 2011

tscf randoms

Any close reader of this blog will notice that I consider one of the most encouraging signs of progress in the mission of God in New Zealand today is the growing momentum within the Tertiary Students Christian Fellowship (TSCF).

I delight in being on the Board and this past weekend was the highlight for me - the annual Board Retreat. Ably chaired by Andrew Becroft (Principal Youth Court Judge), the agenda was weighted towards resourcing and provoking, rather than business and detail - just as it should be. Here is a taste:

On the Friday night, Paul Trebilco, (Vice-President, TSCF) fascinated all of us with a talk on the locus of authority and leadership in the Pastorals, 1 John, and Revelation. Each one different and each one needing to find expression today. It was a classic example of how relevant the best in academics actually is - something the church has been too slow to recognise. Along the way he made the observation that "the church in NZ is more orthodox than it was twenty years ago". Big call. The tide has turned, particularly within the mainline denominations. It struck me afresh how Paul has had no small role in this. Eleven years as Head of Theology & Religious Studies at Otago quietly building something special - 40+ PhD students, mostly Biblical Studies... and still in his early 50s with his next book about to be published by Cambridge University Press and the books in the queue full of relevance to the mission of God today.

On Saturday morning it was the turn of another TSCF Vice-President, Dr Carolyn Kelly - a relatively recent returnee to NZ after completing her doctoral studies on 'theological aesthetics' in Aberdeen. She started with this clip from Sir Ken Robinson. I had not seen it before (although it has 4+ million views on youtube!) and it is so compelling, it almost makes me want to resign all efforts to teach in this contemporary world. Then Carolyn reminded us of the need to hold Truth and Goodness and Beauty together when working with students in the Arts and Social Sciences. The failing of TSCF over the years, and much of the evangelical world, may well be the inability to remain connected to Beauty. She spoke of her own testimony as "God calling to me through things of beauty."

Then, as is his custom, Nigel Pollock (National Director) spread his simple strategic eye over Twelve Opportunities facing TSCF. Because he is not a home-grown Kiwi, he seems to see the New Zealand context with startling clarity. It is the old story: if you want a definition of (Kiwi) water, don't always ask a (Kiwi) fish.

Ben Carswell (Outreach Coordinator, born in the same village in Yorkshire as Samuel Marsden - go figure!) prodded us gently, but strongly, in the area of evangelism - including an update on plans for the Rugby World Cup. Over lunch I had an exchange with Nigel over the phrase which Langham uses in the UK to promote its work - "mission beyond evangelism". We agreed that the challenge here in NZ is to remind the church that there is an "evangelism beyond mission" that must not be forgotten. Again and again, I hear people assume that there can be such a thing as an 'evangelism-less mission'...

Someone spoke about the need to recover hospitality ... and how we need to progress people from coffee table to dining room table to Lord's table. I like it.

Did you know that 25% of NZ passport holders live overseas? Did you know that 38% of the people who live in Auckland were not born in NZ?

I urge anyone reading this post who knows a tertiary student to do what you can to point them towards a TSCF group. If you are a graduate yourself, consider linking with their new Catalyst programme. And if you have a 'donation dollar' and you are wondering where to direct it, my advice is probably rather obvious by now. :)

nice chatting


Wednesday, May 04, 2011

one wedding and a funeral

Will there ever be a long weekend like it again?

On the Friday we had the once-in-a-generation wedding of a royal couple. It was held in an abbey in a city and watched by millions all around the world. Lots of pomp. Lots of celebrities. Lots of photos.

Then on the Monday we had the after-a-decade funeral of a terrorist. It was held on an aircraft carrier on the sea and the same millions only became aware of it after it had all finished. No pomp. No celebrities. No photos.

The juxtaposition of these events puts my imagination in overload. I'll leave it to the eloquent to draw out the parallels and the contrasts. But of this you can be sure - the events of this weekend will still come up in conversation and in textbooks one century from now (should the Lord tarry!).

Speaking of the Lord, the reality which I can't shake off from this weekend is the way one subject that was meant to go away just keeps rearing its head. Religion.

I loved the wedding. I am still reeling from the authenticity of the Christian faith I heard expressed in that service. Did they really write that prayer themselves? Ok - Romans 12 is a suitable passage for a wedding - maybe a little more edgy than its traditional cousin, 1 Corinthians 13 - but still highly suitable. But why choose to include Romans 12.1-2 in the reading? And why have it read with such feeling and conviction. And did they really select Love Divine, All Loves Excelling? Did the whole world really hear "Let us see Thy great salvation, perfectly restored in Thee; changed from glory into glory till in heaven we take our place; till we cast our crowns before Thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise" And did the preacher really say all that stuff?
Yes, I know about state-religion but don't you think they crossed a line here? Don't you think they went just a bit too far - away from the formal and the traditional to the real and the authentic? Or am I being duped here? Maybe William was as bored as he looked during the sermon? I am thinking these thoughts and then I hear someone say them so well. Martin Bashir on BBC's Newsnight on 29/4/11 - a 99 second clip that is going viral on facebook at the moment.

And the funeral - the assassination of Osama Bin Laden? I am still thinking about it. While it is ugly, nevertheless I do understand the eruption of joy which took place in various public spaces in the USA as the news broke. While it is even more ugly, I do understand the outbreaks of patriotism. And while I applaud neither the joy nor the patriotism, it is the naivete that surprises me. Do people really think that this is in some sense a victory? Do people really think that the new 'Situation Vacant' will not receive countless applicants? A more restrained triumphalism would be wise - as would a read of this quote, wrongly ascribed to Martin Luther King (although that will make it move more quickly) that is all over facebook as well:

‎"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that" (sounds like Romans 12 at the wedding, doesn't it!?)

But let's come back to religion. I like the way President Obama goes about relating to people of other faiths. I like the way he does not demand a home-court advantage for Christianity. I like the way he tries to make space for Islam and Muslims as people of faith quite distinct from the extremists on their edge. He rightly spoke of how Bin Laden was a "mass murderer of Muslims". Watching his speech in Egypt from two years ago was a profound experience for me. And now - even in the wake of the death of the great enemy - an effort is made to respect Islam. He didn't need to do that. He really didn't. But he did. Sure some will quibble over the details - but an effort was made to be respectful as
this BBC report notes.

And so it was a weekend with one wedding and a funeral - but also two religions.

nice chatting