Thursday, September 29, 2011

godzone: nurturing the sprouts

Earlier this month I had the privilege of preaching the sermon at the John Stott Memorial Service in New Zealand. I closed my message from Jeremiah 23 by speaking of the sadness of Stott's death - but also of a deeper sadness.

The deeper sadness is that John Stott visited our country only three times and the most recent visit was in 1969. If you do the number-crunching this means it is unlikely that there are many Kiwis under 60 who have any memory of his ministry on NZ soil. That is incredibly sad...

"There will be lots of reasons for this - some excusable, some inexcusable."

The thing that impacted me is that when you look at Stott's life and what he stood for and then look at the landscape of NZ church life over the past generation or two, that absence shows up and led me to ask some questions:

"Why do we struggle to save words like ‘evangelical’ and ‘exposition’ from extinction, burdened as they are by stereotype? Where are the evangelistic missions on our campuses? What has been happening at our seminaries – is it a ‘making’ or is it a ‘marring’? Where are the crowds hanging out at Bible teaching conferences? Why does maturity not attract the same attention as mission? Why do we not confront false teaching courageously – yet graciously? Where are the home-grown biblical scholars in that ‘Bible Speaks Today’ mould? What does hearing a leader say “I am no good with names?” – say about their prayer lives?"

Then I went on to suggest that the answers are coming. There are encouragements. "The sprouts are appearing in our land, but they need nurture."

Let me give some examples.

Take 'seminaries', or theological training. There is plenty of 'making' going on - and far less 'marring' than there used to be. When you consider the current state of Carey and Laidlaw, for example, one can only conclude that the state of theological education in NZ has never been better. (NB: I have blogged on this subject recently here). There is now no reason whatsoever for a Kiwi to go overseas for their primary theological education.

Related to this, take the question about the lack of home-grown biblical scholars. New Zealand can point to historians and theologians and sociologists of an evangelical persuasion who have completed doctoral study in New Zealand. But biblical scholars? The sprouts are tender but they are coming along. I think of Martin Williams with a PhD on Salvation in 1 Peter from Otago which is to be published by Cambridge University Press (as I understand it). WOW! And there are a growing numbers of others: Dr Mark Keown comes to mind (Philippians), as does soon-to-be Dr Sarah Harris (Luke) - but I better stop before I start missing people out!

One more example of an answer to one of the questions above. Take this area of evangelistic mission on our campuses. For a generation or two the church in NZ has tended to turn its face away from our universities. There has been an inability to prioritise how "your mind matters" (as Stott put it) and that an engagement with the students and departments of the university is critical to any mission strategy. And so, with the passage of time, the secular and the pagan and the godless in our universities has become more and more intimidating and in the face of it, an evangelistic impulse or strategy has been dulled - if not dried up altogether.

But the sprouts are there! Year-by-year it is so exciting to see the Tertiary Student Christian Fellowship (TSCF) - aligned as it is with the global body (IFES) to which John Stott gave so much energy - build up some momentum. A steady trickle of conversions is now a feature of their work on campuses. Ben Carswell has been set aside as a National Outreach Coordinator. And now there is the boldness and freshness of Godzone, a rugby-themed presentation of the Gospel of Luke, complete with testimonies from leading rugby players and developed in an indigenous Kiwi format. It is so encouraging. My understanding is that something like 8000 of these were distributed in the first week of availability.

You can order your own multiple copies online for friends here - at a cost of $2 plus shipping.

nice chatting


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

redeeming short term mission

I cannot escape the clutches of the question.

Be it Islamabad or Jakarta or Delhi - or Sydney, Wellington, Bluffton (Ohio!) or Auckland. The same issue has been filling my ears and my lips. As I've watched experienced missionaries in action - Robin and Jenny, John and Rosemary, Steve and Ruth - the question has come to mind. Then as I've listened to mission society personnel and attended mission conferences and engaged with mission committees, still the question has come to mind.

What is the place of short term mission trips in the overall mission of God in the world today?

I confess to feelings of increasing skepticism. They are over-rated in terms of their long-term effectiveness. They soak up too much time and energy both for people over here and over there. They drain many a missionary budget in local churches. For those with the courage to name the inconvenient truth at the heart of it, the return on the investment is notoriously poor.

"Aren't you being a little harsh, Paul?"
Yes, most definitely I am. That is the point...

I don't doubt that short term mission trips are transformational for some people. They most certainly are - but for how many people? And what percentage of people are still transformed a decade later? I have my doubts. And while on the subject of percentages, what is the percentage of a local church's mission budget that is going on short term mission, as opposed to longer term commitments. I bet it is creeping up.

Big-time sociologist, Robert Wuthnow, estimates that 1.6 million Americans go on “mission trips” each year, with churches spending at least $2.4 billion per year on such trips. Many of these trips conclude with time in a resort - in fact, one resort in the Bahamas reported that they had 1 “short-term missionary” for every 15 residents...

Here is how I would set the (financial) priorities of a local church, or family, wanting to be committed to the mission of God in the world.

Priority #1
Identify people, partnering with long-standing mission organisations, who are willing to learn the language of those to whom God is sending them. That is what opens up the highway into peoples' hearts. That is what proves that 'your people will become my people'. Learn their language. That is what sets the platform for something strategic.

Those people mentioned above - Robin and Jenny, John and Rosemary, Steve and Ruth - all fit into this category. I wish I could take the time to tell you what I've seen in their lives in recent weeks. In Jakarta I eavesdropped on a kinda reunion evening for all the 'alumni' touched by a missionary couple who gave their lives to the people and the country. People flooded into the huge room. Dozens of them. From all sorts of senior positions in the life of the nation. Oh yes, this is always Priority #1. Every single one of God's people need to be involved in supporting people like this - and it should be uppermost in the minds of mission committee priorities.

Priority #2
The church in the majority world is growing in numbers and maturity. Leaders are emerging. It is no longer cost-effective to wrap up all our money in our own people and send them over there. You can get a better missional bang for your buck by diversifying your investment. Today it is hugely strategic - if nowhere near as 'sexy' as short term mission trips (!) - to be supporting established and proven initiatives in these countries.

For example, accredited theological colleges and credible indigenous mission agencies head the list. The seed for this post was borne when I attended the foundational meeting of the Indian Evangelical Mission (NZ) Trust earlier this month. I don't tend to be on Boards anymore, but when invited to join this one, I jumped at it. IEM is the most respected missionary-sending agency within India, sending hundreds of missionaries cross-culturally - and probably able to send 10 people for what it costs us to send 1 person. As Obama expressed it the other day, "do the math".

Priority #3
Then there is that mission mentality of us going 'over there' to give them what they need and long for. Here mission flows one way in what is a hangover from the colonial era. It is no longer good enough! An investment in two-way partnership is needed somewhere in the mission budget. There is a lot that we need and do not long for enough which our friends in the majority world can prod and provoke in us. We need them. Start with attitudes to wealth and resources, sacrifice and suffering.

The work of Tony in a SE Asian country comes to mind. Plenty of resources have flowed from here to there over the years. It has made a massive difference. But a whole lot of prodding and provoking, among other things, has flowed from there to here as well as leaders have visited and ministered in our churches. It is a partnership.

Priority #4
Again, this is a little different than the norm. With the growth in expertise in many parts of the majority world, there is a contribution to be made at a 'consultant' level. The servant-hearted facilitator. The person with a specialised skill or expertise who can visit for a short period to upskill national leaders. This is short-term and non-residential, but when appropriately organised it can be effective.

I have a brother who is a high-powered surgeon and he does a bit of this. I work with a guy called Paul who is an Old Testament specialist. He is based in a college in Asia for six months of the year and then the balance of the year he is on the loose, free-lancing in all kinds of places around Asia. A staggering potential for influence without taking over the work from national leaders. In the shrinking global village it makes so much sense - and it ain't very costly!

Priority #5
With these four priorities established in the life of a local church - and a family - then I think we can turn our minds and hearts and wallets towards short term mission trips in an effort to redeem them.

But some changes need to be made as we do so. The trips need to be fewer in frequency. The trips need to have less people on them. The trips need to be for longer periods of time. The trips need to be less mobile, more willing to remain in one place. And the objective is simple - it must lead on to lifelong transformation in the way life and family and career and church is viewed.

Participants need to be 'scarred for life'. I confess that my kids have showed the way for me here. One went and remained in Kolkata for seven months. Another did something similar in Kampala, but for fifteen months. Another spent nine months in Liberia...

It is about staying long enough to learn people's names, have people become your friends, and then remain in your heart for forever - as well as sitting on your shoulder, as it were, bothering you with every single decision which you make. Surely, if a short term mission trip does not lead to this outcome then it remains unredeemed and questions need to be asked.

nice chatting


Saturday, September 10, 2011


An old hymn has been getting under my skin and taking over my heart. I have no knowledge of ever hearing it before, until it was part of a medley of recordings of my Dad singing that was played at the beginning of his funeral service.

[NB: You can hear just three of the four verses (naughty, naughty!) being sung right at the very beginning of the link to the service here -].

But here are the words. I had been searching for them and then my brother just produced them yesterday. The hymn is written by Ada Habershon, an influential figure in the life of DL Moody, and it is simply called 'Longings'.

I long to know Thee better, day by day,
I want to draw much closer when I pray;
To listen more intently for Thy voice,
To let the things Thou choosest, be my choice.

I long to serve Thee better, hour by hour,
Depending more entirely on Thy power;
I want to know more fully all Thy will,
To count upon each promise and be still.

I long to keep more closely at Thy side,
To worship in Thy presence and abide;
I want to rest more calmly in Thy care,
Assured that Thou will keep me safely there.

I long to find new beauties in Thy word,
To follow in the footsteps of my Lord;
And, oh, the dearest longing through Thy grace,
Is that mine eyes may see Thee face to face.

nice chatting


Friday, September 02, 2011


The Hebrew word hebel has intrigued me for years. It is the word identified most closely with Ecclesiastes.

I grew up on the KJV's 'vanity' and gradually shifted across to the NIV's 'meaningless'. In between there was time for the GNB's 'useless', the NEB's 'empty', the Living Bible's 'futile', and now the CEV's 'nonsense'.

[Hint from translators: when we cannot agree, you know that you have a fascinating word.]

Once I did some theological training I was able to wade into the scholars a bit more. Like Michael Fox's 'absurd', or Peter Kreeft's 'wild goose chase - and there is no wild goose', or Chris Grantham's 'random', or RBY Scott's 'breath', and then just this year Craig Bartholomew's 'enigmatic'.

[Warning from exegetes: this is no time for 'illegitimate totality transfer' where the entire semantic range of possible meaning is poured into one single reference.]

Is it not the most fascinating word?

At its core hebel is meant to be a metaphor. We are meant to see something, the linguistic osmosis kicks in and what we see pictures what the word means. What is to be seen with this word? Vapour. Breath (on a cold day). Mist. And maybe best of all - drum roll, please, for Eugene Peterson and The Message's 'smoke'.
And what might the essence of this metaphor convey? Maybe two things?: (i) something that is brief and fleeting; (ii) something that is empty and weightless. Like 'breath' and 'smoke' - and even like 'enigmatic', as this refers to that which cannot be grasped.

What shall we do with all this? Well, John Stott is very much on my mind and so why don't we do a little 'double listening' in his honour, reflecting a little on the World and the Word. OK?

For me a striking example of hebelisation in our world is the Reality TV phenomenon. I am no fan at all. Sorry! Right at the start of Ecclesiastes - in chapter 2 - the writer embraces something similar, a host of trivial pursuits on the way to finding significance for his life. Take a close look: laughter, wine, homes, gardens, music, money, sex, celebrity - each one a Reality TV possibility (and we could add sport, food and travel) - and his conclusion on these pursuits?
Hebel. Brief. Empty.

Think about the contemporary equivalents: Extreme Makeover (homes); American Idol (music); The Amazing Race (travel); Next Top Model (beauty); Master Chef (food); Temptation Island (sex); Project Runway (clothing); America's Toughest Jobs (work); The Apprentice (business); Biggest Loser (weight loss); Last Comic Standing (comedy) etc etc. I'll stop short of being too dismissive. But what I will argue is that if a person finds a succession of these shows to be compelling and greatly anticipated each week, then that person is probably being hebelised without realising it. Maybe something dangerously vicarious is going on in their voyeuristic enjoyment of the vacuous. They will be losing touch with the real reality so poignantly described in Ecclesiastes 4, for example, with all its human trauma and sadness.

Once the subject turns to the real reality we are directed back to the Word. I don't know if you subscribe to the view that sees value in reading the Bible 'canonically' (ie that the order of the books/chapters have some significance). Here is one time when I do. Two verses before the start of Ecclesiastes (Prov 31.30) we find beauty being described as hebel - and the response which a woman is to make is given as well: "a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised". In that one verse, two verses before Ecclesiastes, lies the message of Ecclesiastes. The response to Ecclesiastes 1.2, crammed with five references to hebel, comes in Ecclesiastes 12.13 - 'fear God'.

Fearing God is to take God seriously. Why? He is not brief. He is not weightless. He is neither like breath nor smoke. He is eternal and weighty - in fact 'glory' is the word that will do just fine , as that is what 'weighty' means. If Proverbs 31.30 carries something of Ecclesiastes in microcosm, so also does Psalm 62 where multiple references to our hebelised lives comes in the context of a God who is rock and fortress and refuge.

Jesus is also about the permanent and the weighty and the full. For me Ecclesiastes is pre-evangelism on the way to "I have come that you might have life - life in all its fulness".

nice chatting