Monday, June 26, 2006

Evangelical-LDS Dialogue: If We Don't Continue What's the Alternative?

Dialogue is taking place between evangelicals and Latter-day Saints in a number of venues. Scholars from these religious communities have been gathering on an annual basis for a number of years, Greg Johnson and Bob Millet have engaged in many public dialogues, Biola University and Azusa Pacific University students have been dialoguing with students from Brigham Young University, and of course informal dialogues continue among individual evangelicals and Mormons. While individual dialogues take place in our neighborhoods and workplaces they don't seem to raise much concern. But the more formal dialogues mentioned above are viewed with suspicion and fear by members of both communities. Concerns and distrust have been expressed from both camps, so much so that these dialogues remain a fragile process, threatened to the point of extinction with the application of appropriate pressures from either side. But I'd like to suggest that these dialogues need to continue, hopefully expanded, and provide a few reasons why.

First, let me point out that I am advocating responsible dialogue, that which clearly articulates the views of both religious communities without compromise, but which is also done in ways which are respectful and civil. Critics of the dialogue process are concerned about the appropriate cautions and safeguards being built into this process, and this is a helpful reminder that dialogue can be reduced to forms that ignore the very real differences between evangelicals and Latter-day Saints. None of my colleagues support such a problematic form of dialogue, and hopefully this will help alleviate some of the fears out there.

Second, I'd like to see these dialogues expanded. I believe the venues mentioned above are important and should continue, but beyond these I'd like to see entire evangelical church congregations and LDS wards get together. These would not be done with theological agendas for proselytizing, but as social gatherings that bring together people who mutually reflect the image of God and who need to spend more time talking to each other rather than merely about each other. Perspectives on matters of faith would naturally arise during these gatherings, but they would not be focal point for the interactions. I can testify to the value of such efforts. My involvement with my LDS neighbors at neighborhood barbecues has resulted in a number of rewarding experiences for all of us. They have built relationships based upon understanding and trust that at times has included the respectful discussion of spiritual things. What if these small gatherings were expanded beyond individual neighbors meeting here and there and which involved whole churches and wards?

My wife and I recently had the opportunity to watch the wonderful LDS film Baptists at Our Barbecue. The film did a wonderful job at presenting a comical look at the fears (sometimes bordering on paranoia) that both Mormons and evangelicals feel living in close proximity. But it also portrayed the courage that a few people had to put together a community event that brought these two subcultures together. Perhaps what these filmmakers envisioned in entertainment can become reality through the courageous efforts of like-minded evangelicals and Mormons.

Third, I recognize that real fear exists among representatives of both communities, and we certainly shouldn't gloss over the risks involved in interreligious and intercultural engagement, but we should not let the challenges overshadow the opportunities and the benefits. While both religious communities might be fearful of such prospects in terms of potential loss of members to "the other side," the reality is that interreligious dialogue results in a loss of ignorance and fear, and a strenghtening of committment to one's own faith rather than large scale faith defections. It would appear that there is more to be gained than to be lost in dialogical exhanges between our faith communities.

Fourth and finally, should our dialogues discontinue, or should they be stopped by those concerned about this process, what is the alternative? Will we return to the options of the past in terms of ignoring each other, or perhaps more commonly, will we resume our attacks on each other? We have been lobbing doctrinal and worldview handgrenades at each other through the course of our overlapping histories, and I wonder how anxious we are to continue this process. It seems that we either find a way to work together through the challenges and difficulties of the dialogical process in various venues or we return to the ways of the past that really didn't benefit either community.

The world is growing increasingly smaller, and it is more and more common for people of diverse religious backgrounds to live and work in close proximity to each other. Our continued dialogue in spite of our concerns and fears provides us with a helpful tool that makes our world and our neighborhoods better places to live. I urge members of both religious communities, evangelicals and Mormons alike, to pursue the path of dialogue with the resulting fruits of understanding, trust, and relationships, rather than the path of silence with its fruits of ignorance, stereotypes, and distrust.

Photo source credits: and

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Emerging Church and Critical Issues: Part 4

Following is the fourth and final from "Baptists and the Emerging Church: some critical issues," by Simeon Payne and Philip Johnson from Mosaic. Copyright Mosaic, Payne & Johnson.

Critical Crosscurrents
The EC is correct in its assessment that the western Church will be institutionally finished within the next generation unless some major changes take place. However we believe that EC thinkers need to become more critically discerning about our era. EC writers tend to uncritically lump all of modernity together, and do not properly describe postmodernity. What Christians think postmodernity is, and what it actually is, are sometimes two very different things.

Another critical problem is that leading EC writers have largely ignored the tremendous influence of consumer religions and failed to make the essential linkages between postmodernity, New Age and DIY spiritualities. We find this omission particularly odd since EC writers are emphatic that they are on the cutting-edge in missional outreach in postmodernity. Here we urge all Christians to become far savvier in their critical understanding of society.

Ultimately, this involves reversing the great twentieth century uneasiness that evangelicals have had regarding Christ being for, against, above, or critically with culture - and also addressing the evangelical uneasiness with natural theology and critical interaction with secular academics. We have to find and develop a middle position between blind acceptance of culture on one extreme, and pure escapism on the other.

We commend the EC for its creativity, but we caution against romanticising parts of church history. We also would like to encourage the EC to move way beyond a focus on chic worship, and to do what its Church Growth parents were unable to do: focus on living as a missional Church every day, not just Sunday.

We also need critical reflections about psychological issues relating to faith development. Just as churches need to honestly articulate their theological convictions and how this connects with some key questions of identity, we also encourage churches to critically reflect on what sort of psychological zone they operate in, and realistically to whom they are capable of ministering.

We have already said that it is dishonest to lump all EC together. Yes, there are some faddish aspects that one can detect in the "soft end" of EC. However, it is unfruitful to dwell on the trivial particularly since this does not represent the whole picture. Similarly, it is not good enough for some naysayers to suggest that anything associated with the tag of "Emerging" is heretical, or that the true test of evangelical orthodoxy is whether you oppose EC. A polarising of views into opposing camps will lead to unnecessary alienation and sideline the need for serious reflective dialogue. The burden remains on critics to go beyond finding theological faults, and if in the final analysis EC is proven to have lost its moorings altogether, critics must construct a viable alternative model.

Evangelical pastors also need a reality check. It is easy to overlook that some of today‚s most admired leaders in the Church Growth networks pursue entrepreneurial models and franchise products designed to cure your congregation‚s declining numbers. If the EC is accused of reflecting the consumerist spirit, the same could also be said of many churches. So before yanking the speck out of the EC eyes, it may first of all be necessary to pluck the logs out of our own.

So what will become of the EC? In the first instance the EC has to face a historic and sociological reality that no religious movement can remain leaderless or without structure indefinitely. For its own good the EC now needs a degree of structure, otherwise it has no positive future.

It also has to plot what it wants to be its lasting legacy. There are two options. The first is that the EC follows the same social dynamics of the civil rights or women's movements. It functions by agitating for rapid changes in existing churches. If through their missional experiments the EC can create new model congregations that effectively reach inside postmodernity, and in positive dialogue help to reshape opinions for existing churches, then mainstream Protestantism could successfully absorb their insights and examples and chart a new positive course for the postmodern era. Then, once the EC had achieved its objectives, it could plateau and subside as a movement.

The other option is for the EC to intentionally form new congregations that would develop into yet more denominations, ultimately exacerbating the Protestant decline. If this new strand were unable to develop a mature, theologically orthodox foundation, it also runs a real risk of creating heresy or theologically becoming a cult. For this reason we strongly urge both the EC and the existing Church to proactively communicate so that this fragmentation can be avoided.

Our preferred option is that the EC will remain within existing denominational structures. Our strong plea is that generous, and intentional, space be made for the EC to be a welcomed part of our Baptist family. If this is not done it will simply and dangerously fragment evangelical Christianity further, and accelerate the decline of western Christianity. If the existing Baptist churches can cultivate the grace to dialogue and to mutually grow together with the EC, then God will surely bless that generous spirit.

May we close with a positive comment? We believe Baptists are well placed to positively gain from the EC. Our independent spirit, non-institutional leanings, congregational government, Spirit-led fluidity, and our radical Anabaptist heritage all offer positive bridges to build upon. The question is, will we positively engage with the EC and have we the courageous vision to see that this needs to be done? We strongly encourage NSW Baptists to actively engage those in our midst who resonate with the ideals and longings of the EC.

Simeon Payne ( is the Baptist Chaplain at UWS, and Philip Johnson ( is an adjunct lecturer at Morling College and independent scholar. Both are members and writers in the Lausanne Committee subgroup ( that is looking at Alternative Spirituality in the West.

Emerging Church and Critical Issues: Part 3

Following is the third installment from "Baptists and the Emerging Church: some critical issues," by Simeon Payne and Philip Johnson from Mosaic. Copyright Mosaic, Payne & Johnson.

Comparing EC and New Age
Now there are quite a few parallels between the dynamics of New Age and EC. Like New Age, the EC has (so far) produced an informal leaderless movement of individuals who positively celebrate postmodernity. The EC perceives itself as responding to postmodern culture with the gospel. However, it is also clear sociologically that the EC has arisen from both Protestantism and postmodernity. It manifests a strong spirit of individuality that is common to both. EC adherents mix-and-match things across all Christian traditions, just as New Agers freely combine practices from many religions. As New Agers reject modernity for its rationalism, so too the EC claims that the churches have elevated the intellect at the expense of a practical spirituality. They point to the heavy emphasis on text-based forms of communication in church, and contrast it with the way most people now communicate in audio-visual computerised formats. Just as New Agers wanted to reinvent a spiritual society, the EC should be commended for wanting to create new forms of church that are missional and spiritually relational.

The EC also reflects evangelicalism‚s free spirited attitude. Sociologically, Protestantism's strength has been the decentralised market spirit but it has been too uncritical in recognising how closely allied this is with the spirit of the times. In this era of late-capitalism, there is simultaneously a fragmentation of all social structures and very rapid globalisation of ideas. Seen in this light, the seemingly radical independence of the EC and its highly non-structured nature is really no surprise as it is taking Protestantism to its natural conclusion.

There is a "soft end" where some people call themselves EC because they identify with pop trends in clothes, music and gadgets. They seem to imagine that holding a service using candles, light liturgy and a Celtic labyrinth makes one EC. Others superficially mix and match Christian sources without reflecting on their original theological contexts. Again, just as New Agers romanticised the pre-Christian past, so we have observed some of those in the EC romanticising about the Celtic church and projecting back onto it an ideal kind of church they wish existed today. This "soft end" is very prone to faddishness and is very easy for critics to dismiss.

However, at the opposite end of the spectrum there are some very creative and clever people who are serious about being missional in postmodernity. From the "hard core" EC networks, the church is being offered encouraging words about new urban experiments in missions. In light of their missional experiences, they are posing important questions about postmodernity, faith, and worship, which need to be openly and honestly discussed throughout evangelical churches. Even if EC did not exist, the issues they have raised would still have to be faced.

There is another dimension to the EC that demands our reflection. Alan Jamieson, a Baptist minister from New Zealand, has identified many "post-Church" groups in his country and ours. These are not groups of heretics, back-sliders or immature Christians. The opposite is the case. These groups consist of people who have grown through and beyond Evangelical, Charismatic and Pentecostal groups. He uses the psychological paradigm of Fowler's Stages of Faith, arguing that some Christians psychologically move beyond the rigid, inflexible and constraining format that many churches offer. Many of these people have found a home in the loose connection of the EC. It is critical that the reader understands that what distinguishes these groups from the established or mainline Churches is not theology or function, but their perspective on structure and sociological understanding of what their Church is about.

We wish to add one more element to Jamieson's work. With our own ministry to people within Alternative Spirituality, we have witnessed a number who have come to a saving relationship with Christ, but have floundered to find a church that can accept, understand or augment their journey. Although they are new to Christianity, their psychological faith zone is beyond that which the bulk of churches operate. These people have tended to gravitate towards the EC.

Tomorrow: Critical Crosscurrents - Part 4

Emerging Church and Critical Issues: Part 2

Following is the second installment from "Baptists and the Emerging Church: some critical issues," by Simeon Payne and Philip Johnson from Mosaic. Copyright Mosaic, Payne & Johnson.

Social Change and New Spiritualities
Let's get our bearings straight about societal changes. Firstly, sociologists argue that we live in the age of "he self". Life in the dotcom, 24/7 world is shaped with expectations about work, leisure and relationships that leaves little space for enduring commitments to communal or institutional activities like church. There is little trust in public or corporate entities and decreasing notions of the "common good".

Increasingly many now feel that modern institutions have failed us, and so you have to look inside yourself for truth and values. Over the past twenty years, religion has gone from being a corporate experience to being primarily focused in the individual. It has gone from focusing on doctrine to being focused on what you do. The individual goes within to discover meaning. The shift is from the passive acceptance of what a pastor declares is truth, to do-it-yourself (DIY) spirituality. It is less concerned with reading a sacred text, and much more about experiencing things. It celebrates the self in popular culture but critiques modernity‚s sceptical denial of spirituality.

Sociologists use the term consumer religions when describing the way people now approach spiritual matters. People now shop for spirituality in the same way they would look for a new car or pair of shoes. The emphasis is no longer on product loyalty, nor the empirical facts about the product itself. The emphasis is on how it feels to me at the time. It is the consumer who defines truth ˆ not the retailer. Gone is the era of the authoritative religious leader. It is the consumer who sets the agenda.

Secondly, this is an era of mix and match spirituality. In the spiritual supermarket, you can access a never-ending array of experiences or beliefs. Because there is little "product" loyalty, one is free to sample whatever they might desire; and very often this mix-and-match process removes things from their original context. What matters is what "works" for you. This has led to consumer fads about crystals, angels and the Cabala. There is also a tendency to romanticise the past and to project back into it what the seeker is looking for today. One can take a bit from the east, a bit from the pre-Christian pagan past and top it all off with a bit of indigenous spirituality. As DIY spirituality is consumer driven it is an eclectic leaderless social phenomena.

Within these alternate spiritualities, we have discerned a broad spectrum of positions. There is a distinct "soft end" of the spectrum, which is very consumerist and faddish and pandered to with chic books and trinkets. But there is also a distinct "hard core" - those who are very savvy about the consumerist nature of spirituality and in fact despise its commercialisation. The hard core yearn for depth and integrity to their spirituality.

Tomorrow: Part 3 - Comparing EC and New Age

The Emerging Church: Some Critical Issues

My friends and colleagues, Simeon Payne and Philip Johnson in Australia, recently wrote an article for Mosaic Vol. 8, No. 2 (Winter 2006), a publication for Baptist churches in that country. The article is titled "Baptists and the Emerging Church: some critical issues." I am reproducing this article in installments in order to share their thinking in the hopes of facilitating dialogue between leaders in the emerging church and other forms of church in the West. The article is copyrighted by Payne, Johnson and Mosaic. A copy of this article is available in PDF file by request.

Mosaic article: Part 1

Through the establishment of the Emerging Church socio-spiritual dynamics and New Age spirituality are being mirrored sociologically. What role does the Emerging Church play in our Baptist Churches?

Are there any Christians out there who have not come across material, or had a conversation with someone about the Emerging Church? If you browse the Internet and Christian bookshops, the Emerging Church (EC) is the "in" topic. Subscribers to the EC seem more at home in postmodern culture than they do inside traditional churches. They sense a huge gap between a church in serious decline and postmodern culture, and feel strongly that there must be other legitimate ways of worshipping, expressing faith and relating to the community.

Passionate polemics, either for or against the EC, are now very common. In some circles, sympathy for or against the movement is held up as a new mark of Christian or evangelical orthodoxy. Yet the EC is very diverse, and a big mistake is to over-generalise about the movement and lump all EC sympathisers together. This discussion is neither a defence of nor a polemic against the EC. We are not debating their theology, which Don Carson and others have already done. Here we reserve our judgement on the fairness and accuracy of these critics.

We belong to a missional network that centres on reaching seekers in new religions, New Age and Alternative Spiritualities. We have learned a lot about society and missions, and therefore feel we have something fresh to say in this debate. Instead of focusing on the EC theologically, here we are looking at it from the social sciences. Using this approach, we believe we have uncovered a new set of critical issues that have largely been excluded from the conversations generated by the EC.

This is our thesis: the socio-spiritual dynamics that surfaced in mainstream society in the 1980s with New Age spirituality are now being mirrored sociologically inside the church through EC. Please note we are not saying that the EC teaches New Age doctrines or that it is New Age in disguise. The EC and New Age are theologically poles apart. The parallels we draw concern their social phenomena: What New Age was for secular society, the EC is to Protestantism. Both the EC and New Age have arisen as reactions to very broad societal changes and cultural influences. Nothing occurs in a vacuum, and the EC is very much a product of, and not just a response, to broader societal changes. If we can compare the two movements sociologically, there is much to be learned.

Tomorrow: Part 2 - Social Change and the New Spiritualities

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Dialogue and Hand Grenades: Observations from the Majority World

I recently picked up a couple of books by Majority World theologians in order to compliment my theological studies from a Western perspective. One of the books is Vinay Samuel & Chris Sugden (eds), Sharing Jesus In the Two Thirds World (Eerdmans, 1983). This book came out of a meeting of twenty-five theologians from Africa, Asia, and Latin America who met in Bangkok in 1982 to discuss emerging Christologies from the Two Thirds World. Although the book is over twenty years old, it contains a number of gems for Western theologians and missiologists.

One interesting chapter by Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden provides an Indian evangelical perspective on religious dialogue. This chapter laments that in the 1980s "evangelicals are still in the same place as mission thinking was fifty years ago" in terms of dialogue with other religions as an important part of the evangelical agena. This blogger wonders whether we have come much further since that time, at least with respect to new religions in America and the West.

The authors discuss the attitude of disinterest and non-participation in dialogue, and suggest a number of reasons for it. One of the major reasons they cite is fear of syncretism. They write:
The evangelical approach to other religions has been to view them as systems which are pagan, heathen, and closed to the activity of God in history. They are anti-Christian systems which have no signs of redemption in them. Only the people in them are redeemable. The system iteself is not redeemable. Therefore the approach is to confront the systems by hurling gospel grenades over the boundary walls in a process designed to raze the religious system to the ground. While this siege is in progress, the attacking forces rescue what inmates they can, clean them up, baptize them, and then use them as front line troops in the siege operations.
Although these theologians are writing from their Two Thirds World perspective, the same types things could be said about evangelical approaches to other religions in the so-called First World. I have been criticized in certain circles for referring to certain evangelical approaches to new religions as a form of worldview annihilation, but it's difficult to read comments like these without recognizing the legitimacy of such statements. We lob our apologetic and doctrinal hand grenades over worldview boundary walls and wait for the explosion and hope will bring down the system, at least for the individual adherent. We then take the occasional convert, plop them into our evangelical subculture, create new warriors for the faith and place them on the frontlines of apologetic warfare. If Two Thirds World theologians recognize the inappropriateness of this in their contexts, can we recognize it in ours? Perhaps it's time to reassess the lobbing of hand grenades, and to reconsider the appropriateness of dialogue and other missional strategies.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Reflections on McLaren's The Secret Message of Jesus

I recently finished is Brian McLaren's most recent book, The Secret Message of Jesus (Word Publishing Group, 2006). Many evangelicals are familiar with McLaren, the prolific and at times controversial author, who is also an influential figure in the North American emerging church movement. After reading the book I pass along my initial reflections.

Whether by accident or design, this volume was released at a time that coincided with the media hype surrounding the release of The Da Vinci Code film. The provocative title and thesis promise to connect with a post-Christendom audience that hungers for alternative and provocative twists on the Jesus story.

McLaren acknowledges a number of scholars and theologians who have been influential in this thought, particularly that reflected in this volume, with the influence of N. T. Wright standing out most significantly in the author's thinking about a "secret message of Jesus." McLaren clearly points out that he is not articulating a neo-Gnostic Jesus, nor a Jesus of various exotic alternative spiritualities, but instead, a Jesus that even traditional Christians might have misunderstood. McLaren wonders whether there might be something fresh and revolutionary in our understanding of Jesus, something hidden, almost secret, even to evangelicals who are casually dismissed by increasing numbers of people with the skepticism that is attached to "organized religion."

There is much to appreciate in this book. McLaren has an entertaining writing style that engages the reader. While some have complained that he raises more questions than he provides answers, I find this approach engaging in that it encourages reflective thought on the part of the reader rather than spoon feeding of the author's ideas. In addition, it is apparent that McLaren has found a fresh understanding of Jesus through interaction with first century Second Temple Judaism. This understanding can be liberating and invigorating to those who have encountered traditional representations found in various expressions of Christianity in America.

In addition to many positives, there is room for appropriate criticism as well.

First, I wondered who the intended audience was that McLaren had in mind. In the Introduction he writes, "I'm especially hopeful that this book will be helpful to people who consider themselves spiritual but not religious, or interested in Jesus but not Christianity" (xii). I appreciate McLaren's desire to write a book that seeks not only to provide a fresh voice to those in the church, but also to move beyond preaching to the choir to engage a post-Christian, post-modern culture. This book takes a few helpful steps in this direction in painting an alternative portrait of Jesus that moves beyond traditional Christian representations and vocabularly, but McLaren has a way to go in the process of contextualization. McLaren rightly presents Jesus' kingdom message as part of the broader biblical narrative, yet he does so in language and concepts that still resonate more to those with Christian sympathies than to the ear of the post-modern. I am sympathetic to McLaren's shortfallings here: The task of contextualization is a difficult one in cross-cultural communication. Increased engagement with the missions community and reflection on cross-cultural missiology will likely provide McLaren with additional tools to improve upon similar efforts in the future.

Second, McLaren includes a helpful endnote in chapter 1 that refers to "productive and needed interreligious reflection," that includes citations of the Dalai Lama's The Good Heart (Wisdom, 1998) and Thich Nhat Hahn's Living Buddha, Living Christ (Riverhead, 1997). With the religious pluralism of the West, and the increasing popularly of various forms of Buddhism and other religions and spiritualities, it would have been helpful had McLaren made interreligious reflection an essential part of this book's discussion as the author applied the ramifications of the secret message of Jesus to various faiths in America's neighborhoods.

Third, related to the above, McLaren states that he's "not talking about something silly....I don't want to insult anybody, so I won't mention anything specific, but you know what I mean: I'm not talking about Jesus being in league with aliens from the planet Zorcon-3 or anything like that" (xii). I appreciate McLaren's desires for legitimacy with a provocative thesis, but in our post-modern environment many times it is the Christian story of an incarnating and resurrecting God that attacts reactions of incredulity, not the so-called alternative spiritualities that evangelicals dismiss as "silly." We live and minister in a different cultural environment than in the past, and we might remember that in a post-modern, post-Christian environment with many looking at Christianity as "been there, done that," Christianity may be no more credible than aliens from Zorcon-3.

Fourth, McLaren references missiologist Lamin Sanneh, but it would have been nice to see the author interact with the insights of cross-cultural missiology, both in a holistic theology of Jesus and his message (incorporating the wisdom of the West and Majority World), and how the missio Dei plays a central part in that Kingdom message.

I enjoyed this latest effort by McLaren and hope that he continues his journey, while inviting readers to participate in this journey with him. Perhaps evangelicals involved in missiology, religious studies, and cultural studies can walk the path with McLaren and through dialogue along the way we can improve on both our understanding of Jesus and in the ways in which we share his message in the West.

Unveiling the Truth About Islam?

Not long ago I made a post that was critical of comments made by Al Mohler and other evangelicals on their representation of Islam. The current online edition of Christianity Today magazine features an interesting article that compliments some of my earlier comments.

The article is written by Warren Larson, director of the Zwemer Center for Muslim Studies at Columbia International University, Columbia, South Carolina. It states that, unsurprisingly, "evangelical attitudes toward Islam have hardened since the attacks [of 9/11], positing that Islam is an essentially violent religion." It is easy to understand the reasons behind the negative perceptions of Islam by American evangelicals, not only in light of 9/11, but also with the steadily rising death toll of American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. But we must remember that Christians are members of two nations, with citizenship in America and the Kingdom of God. As Christians, we have a responsibility to accurately understand and fairly represent other religions, including those American evangelicals find distasteful.

Larson notes that evangelicals have produced a plethora of books on Islam but he states that, "unfortunately, too many of these evangelical polemics are historically inaccurate, theologically misinformed, and missiologically misguided. Apparently, a lot of us simply dislike Muslims (usually without knowing any)." Larson provides a suggested remedy to this situation:
When we critique Islam, we need to be fair and accurate. Those of us who make Muslim-Christian comparisons must do so from a position of informed engagement, as those who have worked with Muslims. When we review historical tensions between the two faiths, we must apply rigorous historical analysis. When we write about Islam, we must remember that love is the greatest apologetic.
Larson's article provides examples of what he labels as some of the worst evangelical treatments of Islam, as well as examples of those that do a better job. Larson is not only concernd with "unveiling" or "exposing" Islamic history and teachings in contrast with Christianity, but also with missional sensitivity and love. Evangelicals writing books and educating fellow evangelicals might take note of not only Larson's call for fairness in research and representation, but also his approach incorporating missional sensitivity. This is crucial in that ultimately the Muslim world will move beyond terrorism not through bombs and diplomacy, but through the grace of Christ:
...we Christians must discuss irreconcilable differences with Muslims, but we should also recognize similarities, bridges, and common themes. There is a place for "unveiling" Islam, provided we do it with sensitivity, understanding, and careful research.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Religious Others as "Satanic" and the Paranoid Worldview

I was intrigued last semester by some of my Old Testament professor's thinking on Satan in the Old Testament, and by extension, the topics of the demonic and the principalities and powers in the New Testament. One of the books he recommended to explore this topic was Nigel Wright's The Satan Syndrome: Putting the Power of Darkness In Its Place (Acadamie Books, 1990). I recently finished the book and found an interesting quote in chapter 9, under the subheading "The identity of the enemy:"

Here we need to return to what we have described elsewhere as the 'paranoid worldview'. All of us, under pressure, will resort to paranoid attitudes. We will identify our enemies and blame them for our misfortune. So we will gain a degree of personal relief because we feel we have bottomed the situation. Paranoia pushes the blame on to another and enables us to feel relatively blameless. It is a psychological defence mechanism which helps us preserve an inner sense of being in the right. When spiritual warfare leads to our becoming paranoid about individuals, or groups of individuals we need to be wary. Paranoia and love cannot coexist. In naming the power of Islam, or witchcraft, or spiritualism as 'satanic', it becomes difficult to view those who are involved in these activities in any other way than as enemies. It erects a barrier between them and us which becomes difficult to cross, since fear and love do not easily dwell together. In denoting any of the structures of society as demonic we need to guard that we do not 'demonise' those who are involved in them. In the first chapter we referred to the witchcraft crazes of former generations, a horrible example of this tendency.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Missing Criteria of Methodology: Rethinking Why We Do What We Do

Few parents have not experienced the frustration that comes with the following parent-child exchange:

Parent: Why did you do what you just did?
Child: I don't know.
Parent: That's not a good reason. Why did you do it?
Child: I don't know. I saw someone else do it.

Why do we do the things the way we do? More specifically, why do we engage in ministry in the ways in which we do? Do we ever stop and step back mentally in an effort to reflect critically on these things? And how might we do so?

Last July I attended the Mormon Miracle Pageant in Manti, Utah. Even now evangelicals are preparing for this year’s pageant, just as they are for the latest LDS temple set to begin its open house later this summer in Sacramento, California. Sadly, the results will be the same: evangelicals will feel as if they have defended the faith and evangelized the LDS, while LDS will have experienced a mixture of amusement, apathy, and anger at these evangelical efforts. I have raised significant questions about the missiological and cultural appropriateness of the evangelical presence and efforts at such venues in light of cultural symbolism as it relates to temples and pageants. None of these questions have been answered by evangelicals engaged in “outreach” at these venues. Evangelicals are largely content to continue with long-held strategies at these and other venues, but might we stop and think about why we engage in the methods that we do?

As a result of my experience at Manti I wrote an article on the topic and I will post some excerpts from it for reflection here. While my primary consideration is for ministry among alternative spiritualities in the West, the following discussion also has application for other ministry contexts for the local church, including traditional, contemporary, seeker and emerging church. As I have thought about why we do what we do in ministry strategy I came up with the following list:

1. Because we think it’s biblical.
2. We have different personality types.
3. We can point to historical precedent.
4. We received our methods as a tradition and inheritance.
5. In LDS venues, we use approaches to “shock” Mormons out of their indoctrination.
6. We are subconsciously defending our theological and personal boundaries.

And while we may not like the sounds of this one especially, I wonder whether their might be another reason:

7. We use methods that give us a high profile in “enemy territory” that provides good photo opportunities and stories for our individual and ministry fundraising activities.

My purpose with this post is not to debate the validity of each of these reasons for mission strategy (and believe it or not, it is not to anger those in ministry to alternative spiritualties either), but rather to help us reflect on more a more meaningful criteria for ministry strategy. In my discussions with those in ministry to alternative spiritualities it seems as if one or more of the above mentioned reasons provide a motivation for ministry, but I have yet to encounter individuals or ministries with a well thought out and defined criteria of methodology. I’d like to suggest one for consideration. As I wrote in my Manti article:

But why should an evangelical in ministry to Mormons (or any other new religion) in Utah (or any other region) utilize one methodology or strategy over another? What criteria might be available that can be used to assess the appropriateness of strategy? To answer this question we turn to the discipline of missiology and consider the missional helix as a tool for defining ministry strategy.

Missiologist Gailyn Van Rheenen describes a spiral, or a helix, that exemplifies a process of effective ministry formation. He calls this spiral the missional helix: "The missional helix is a spiral because the missionary returns time and time again to reflect theologically, culturally, historically, and strategically in order to develop ministry models appropriate to the local context. Theology, social understandings, history of missions, and strategy all work together and interpenetrate each other. The helix is comprised of four strands of theological reflection, cultural analysis, historical perspective, and strategy of ministry within the missions environment." As Van Rheenen applies the insights of the helix to strategy formation he notes that missions practitioners should never merely ask “Does a given strategy work?” Rather, says Van Rheenen, “A question that better reflects the Missional Helix Model is: ‘Does this model of praxis reflect the purposes of God within this historical, cultural context?’”

Van Rheenen urges the missions practitioner to constantly return to reflect upon each of the elements of the missional helix as complimentary and interpenetrating ways of forming appropriate ministry strategy and praxis. He concludes his discussion by stating that the missional helix,"provides the Christian practitioner with a model of decision-making that is both intentional and instinctive. In other words, the missionary or minister should seek theological understandings, cultural analysis, historical perspective, and strategy formation in the process of developing patterns for ministry."

As evangelicals prepare to engage in ministry in the ways they have long engaged in it with little thought on why, missiology and the Missional Helix provides us with the tools for developing a sound criteria of methodology. It just might change the way we do ministry.

Newbigin and International Conference on Western Missions

Ryan Bolger's blog has a current post in response to an invitation he received to speak at an International Think Tank on Mission to Western Culture, sponsored by Allelon, and to be held June 25-29 in Idaho.

Bolger's post comprises a summary of his contribution to the conference, reflections on the work of the late missiologist Lesslie Newbigin to the subject of Western missions. I have copied excerpts of Bolger's post (in italics) followed by a few reflections of my own.

Newbigin created a space for Western churches to analyze their relationship to Western culture.

While Newbigin and others may have contributed to a space for reflection, we might question the extent to which this reflection has been engaged. While important networks such as the Gospel and Our Culture Network have come about in part as a response to Newbigin's work, in my experience Western churches, particularly in America, have yet to recognize, let alone seriously consider the place of a missional identity and focus for the local church. It seems that within a post-Christendom culture many are still functioning with a Christendom mindset. An American Society of Church Growth conference I attended at Fuller a few years ago included speakers representing a diversity of approaches, from the megachurch to the missional, and it was apparent that ASCG had not developed its own opinions on these issues. If a major American society and conference has yet to think through these issues then I wonder to what extent local churches have adequately grappled with them.

Newbigin returned to a church held captive by the culture and its own church traditions.

This point was recently driven home in a recent conversation I had with a friend actively in volved in leadership with a large church. This church, like many in the U.S., has had difficulties in reaching young people, and with this demographic being one of the foci for the church's immediate future, they have begun to think about engagement strategies. As the church contemplates how it might connect with young people one of its initial ideas has been to visit large mega-churches for ideas, such as Saddleback and Graceland.

With all due respect to Rick Warren and Dan Kimball, this approach assumes that these churches are in fact successfully and appropriately engaging young people, and that they are engaging not only those with some kind of Christian experience, memory or sympathies, but also those with no Christian background as well. This approach also assumes that a programmatic approach used by mega-churches in their local contexts is appropriate, and if a local church can simply transplant the right program then young people will be reached.

What if the leadership in my friend's began not with church culture for answers, but began with a fresh theological consideration of the gospel, the Kingdom of God, and the centrality of missions for the local church? What if they then considered the cultures and subcultures that they want to reach? How might the church be transformed and strategies be implemented by beginning from these starting points rather than by looking at seeker church cultures?

The gospel can handle pluralism, provided the gospel is located at the center. The church, not the culture, sets the agenda, speaking from within the biblical narratives to the wider world.

While evangelicals frequently worry about the negative challenges posed by pluralism, I agree with Bolger and Newbigin that the church "can handle pluralism," particularly when we consider that Israel and the church's experience was often within pluralistic contexts. And while the church should indeed set the agenda in light of the gospel and mission, the agenda must be set through the biblical narrative in dialogue with culture, after careful exegesis of both the Scriptures and the local cultural contexts. Western evangelicals tend to exegetic Scripture and form strategy in light of Western modernist and Christendom assumptions, and only fresh exegesis in both the realms of Scripture and culture will address our challenges.

While I am hopeful that this international conference will indeed bring the much-needed insights of cross-cultural missionsto bear on the local church contexts of America and the West I am more than a little skeptical. In my experience through study of missional church and interactions with churches in America, whether in contemporary church, seeker church, or emerging church contexts, there has yet to be a solid recognition and implementation of missional church ideas.

As I read the description of the Allelon conference I wondered abut two aspects that will be crucial to the success of this event. First, the conference is thankfully international rather than American or Western focused. I wonder to what extent Third World theologians will be given a voice at this conference, and to what extent First World Christians will be humble enough to listen and engage their insights and experiences. Second, in our post-Christendom and pluralistic environment we must be sensitive not only to multi-culturalism, but also to the religiously plural nature of the West. I wonder whether this conference will address the importance and implications of religious pluralism for mission and the local church. Perhaps Allelon's website and Bolger's blog will share positive reports in these and other areas as a result of this conference.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Discourses on Emerging Church

A few colleagues of mine have been posting some interesting thoughts related to the Emerging Church, which has resulted in an interesting series of exchanges in one instance.

First, Jon Trott discussed his thoughts concerning an article at the The Ooze website (an EC electronic journal) that endorses panentheism.

Philip Johnson has discussed the need for the EC to be more culturally and theologially savvy.

And Matt Stone posted an article discussing his concerns about EC which has resulted in a spirited discussion on panentheism within some EC circles.

These posts and continuing discussions by like-minded colleagues are not meant to denigrate the EC, or to dismiss it wholesale as heresy, but rather represent attempts to come alongside EC participants in order to assist them in grapping with the theological, cultural, missional, and apologetic issues posed by postmodernity. I hope my readers will review the sources above and join the conversation and experimentation in this spirit.