Thursday, December 29, 2005

Philip Jenkins Interview on the Next Christendom

In a previous post I mentioned my appreciation of the work of Philip Jenkins. Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University. Jenkins is the author of a number of books, and previously I enjoyed his Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History (Oxford University Press, 2000), and most recently I read his book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2000) for my History of Christian Missions class at Salt Lake Theological Seminary.

Jenkins’ work in The Next Christendom raises serious questions for the church in the West, particularly in the areas of missiology, contextual theologizing, and the issue of syncretism. I contacted Dr. Jenkins and he graciously made time to provide brief answers to a few questions.

Morehead’s Musings: In the book The Next Christendom, you describe the shift in Christianity from the Northern to Southern Hemisphere, and then describe an expression of Christianity in the South that emphasizes visions, dreams, healings, ecstatic experiences and the like, a form of Christianity that has much more in common with a biblical worldview than a Western one influenced by the Enlightenment and modernity. Has the growth and forms of the Southern Church been recognized much in the North, and if so or when it does, how do you think it will be received?

Philip Jenkins: Briefly, we see things not as they are, we see things as we are – that is, people tend to see what happens in the global south to the extent that it meets our desires and expectations. Liberals see what they like in the south, conservatives as well, and both wonder how to use these trends for their own purposes. I would argue though that both sides are going to be disappointed. Yes, southern churches often are "fundamentalist" in their approaches to scripture. Yet readings that appear intellectually reactionary do not prevent the same believers from engaging in social activism. In many instances, biblical texts provide not only a justification for such activism, but a command. Deliverance in the charismatic sense can easily be linked to political or social liberation, and the two words are of course close cognates. The biblical enthusiasm we so often encounter in the global south is often embraced by exactly those groups ordinarily portrayed as the victims of reactionary religion, particularly women. Instead of fundamentalism denying or defying modernity, the Bible supplies a tool to cope with modernity, to allow the move from traditional societies, and to assist the most marginalized members of society. The message – the south will define itself in its own terms.

MM: In your book you state that the charge will likely be made with increasing frequency that “many Southern churches are syncretistic, they represent a thinly disguised paganism, and all in all they make for a ‘very superstitious kind of Christianity,’ even ‘post-Christianity’” (p. 121). How would you see popular evangelicalism responding to Southern Christianity?

Jenkins: Evangelicals in the north are so grateful to see the Christian expansion in the south that most are tolerant of slight deviations. But anyway, I would stress that the charges of syncretism are really overblown. When you ask Africans, say, where they get all these strange ideas about exorcism, dreams, etc., they point immediately to the book of Acts, rather than to ancient survivals of paganism, and they are quite right to do so.

MM: How will Christendom in the North respond to new theologies that will develop in the South?

Jenkins: I quote Joel Carpenter, “Christian theology eventually reflects the most compelling issues from the front lines of mission, so we can expect that Christian theology will be dominated by these issues rising from the global south.” He also notes how, facing the challenges of secularism, post-modernity, and changing concepts of gender, Euro-American academic theology still focuses “on European thinkers and post-Enlightenment intellectual issues. Western theologians, liberal and conservative, have been addressing the faith to an age of doubt and secularity, and to the competing salvific claims of secular ideologies.” Global south Christians, in contrast, do not live in an age of doubt, but must instead deal with competing claims to faith. Their views are shaped by interaction with their different neighbors, and the very different issues they raise: Muslims and traditional religionists in Africa and Asia, not to mention members of the great Asian religions. Accordingly, “the new Christianity will push theologians to address the faith to poverty and social injustice; to political violence, corruption, and the meltdown of law and order; and to Christianity’s witness amidst religious plurality. They will be dealing with the need of Christian communities to make sense of God’s self-revelation to their pre-Christian ancestors.”

And this is a process that has often happened in the past, not least when Christianity spread into medieval Western Europe. To take one critical example, modern western interpretations of the atonement (both Catholic and Protestant) can be traced to the writings of Saint Anselm around 1100. For Anselm, human sins were like grievous offenses committed against a great lord, debts that required a ransom or restitution of great price, in the form of the death of God’s son. Though Eastern Orthodox theologians rejected this theory as over-legalistic, it made excellent sense to a western society deeply sensitive to questions of honor, fealty, seigniorial rights, and acknowledging the proper claims of lordship. The lord became a feudal lord. European Christians reinterpreted the faith through their own concepts of social and gender relations, and then imagined that their culturally specific synthesis was the only correct version of Christian truth.

MM: Will we recognize and accept our changing global and historical role and come alongside our Southern brothers and sisters in exploration and development of new theologies, or will we attempt to impose Western theologies and uncritically label new efforts as heresies?

Jenkins: I can answer that easily: yes, yes and yes!

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

From Can Openers to Strategy: A Few Words to the Frustrated

Scott, a friend of mine in California, posted a comment in response to my previous post on subversive can openers that revealed his growing frustration in coming to grips with missional church concepts. It is difficult to determine emotions and perspective through the apparent "tone" of a blog comment or email, so I gave my friend a call to clarify. He has been reading books and looking at websites that I have recommended on American culture, the shift to postmodernity and post-Christendom, and missional church. While these have been helpful in deconstructing his previous paradigm, it has thus far provided little by way of reconstructing a missional church paradigm. As a result of my conversation with Scott, I'd like to provide a few thoughts that might be of help to Scott and others with similar struggles.

First, the intent of my blog is to raise thought provoking, and perhaps troubling questions from a missiological perspective. Thus, I hope to facilitate a paradigm shift away from contemporary approaches to church, as well as ministry to new religions and alternative spiritualities, and toward approaches informed by the insights gained from cross-cultural missions. This means that the posts on this blog will raise more questions than they provide answers. This will be frustrating for many in that our Western heritage is more comfortable with answers and a black and white world than with troubling questions and shades of grey. But the emphasis on subversive questions and paradigm deconstruction should not lead the reader to conclude that I am content to be merely a naysayer, or that no positive answers are available that can be used to construct a missional strategy. As N. T. Wright says frequently in his new book on Paul, "more on this anon."

Second, I am more inclined at this stage to raise questions and provide criticisms as an aid to paradigm deconstruction than I am to provide a clear cut alternative and "strategy," at least where missional church is concerned. (My colleagues and I have put forward some initial thoughts and examples of mission to new religions in our book Encountering New Religious Movements.) There is a strategic reason for this. Unless someone abandons an old paradigm, in this case the Christendom attractional church model, for a new paradigm, a missional church model, then considerations of a new strategy will be interpreted within the old framework and not understood on its own terms within the new framework. I have seen this happen quite a bit, unfortunately, and when it does the response is usually along the lines of "Oh, we're already doing that so we must be missional," to "We've tried that already and it didn't work," or more likely "Why would we do something like that?". Our tendency is to try to fit new ideas and experiences into our previous understandings. I am arguing for a paradigm shift, and unless the reader has begun to recognize the inadequancy of the Christendom paradigm, and the viability of a missional paradigm, then little discussion of strategy will be of value. A paradigm shift must already be underway that then serves as the foundation for appropriate strategy.

Third, American evangelicals are extremely pragmatic. That is, we have great difficulty with "theory," and we want to cut almost immediately to questions of strategy. But we need to recognize the intimate connection between solid theory and strategy. Unless appropriate research and contemplation has taken place on multiple levels (theologically, culturally, and missiologically) then what results is an inappropriate diagnosis of the "problem," followed by an inappropriate solution in terms of strategy. This results in the investment of large amounts of time, finances, and effort to formulating a solution that misses the problem almost entirely.

Fourth, sometimes missiological terminology misses the mark and does not communicate well with evangelicals who are not used to thinking in such terms and concepts (unfortunately). Perhaps it will be helpful to consider biblical concepts. Jesus spoke of the necessity of putting new wine in fresh wineskins (Mat. 9:17). By this in his context he meant that his kingdom message of the gospel was something unexpected according to Jewish expectation, and this required a new container or vehicle for communication of the kingdom message. The early church then engaged in a process of wineskin creation through a process of communicating and incarnating the gospel for the Jews and Gentiles through missiological engagement. If we take Jesus' illustration into our own time, the new wine of the kingdom message of the gospel must continually be put into new or fresh wineskins so that both the freshness and radicality of the gospel is preserved, and so that the message speaks meaningfully within different cultural contexts, whether in Southeast Asia, or the neighborhoods of Sacramento, California. The church has served as a wineskin for American cultures in the past, but traditional, contemporary, and seeker forms of the wineskins are increasingly irrelevant to various subcultures as they are all variations on a Christendom attractional model rather than missional approaches. The church in the twenty-first century needs the flexibility and openness to create new missional wineskins that will look very different from previous Christendom forms.

One of the reasons Scott posted his comment on the blog rather than in a private email to me was because he wanted to involve the blogging community in missional church strategy formation. I will continue to share thoughts, insights, and suggestions (as well as questions!) on this and other topics, but my hope is that the missional blogging community will contribute as well.

Seeing Ourselves as Others See Us Once More

Over the last couple of days I received some interesting comments from folks about previous blog postings. One comment came from an anonymous Latter-day Saint who was sharing his perspective on evangelical responses to LDS temple openings. He pointed me to a blog that provides an LDS perspective on the issue, and it is worth reading. The title is "Evangelicals Are Spiteful, Intolerant Bigots." That should get the reader's attention. I encourage my fellow evangelicals to read the article with a healthy dose of self-criticism and reflection. Regardless of whether this is how you see yourself as you pass out tracts and hold up signs at LDS temple openings, Manti, General Conference, and other events, this is how the LDS people see you. There are some important lessons in this, if we can see ourselves as others see us.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Subversive Can Openers

Jesus was a subversive. I don’t mean any disrespect with this comment; I simply want to put Jesus back into his historical and theological context within Israel’s prophetic history. As a subversive, he knew that one of the best ways in which to teach controversial things was to ask subversive questions, often to the frustration of his critics.

I believe there is a place in the twenty-first century church in the West for subversive questions (not to mention the gadflies who raise such questions). I remember coming across one such question while I read Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch’s The Shaping of Things to Come (Hendrick/Strand, 2004). It was a combination of an "Aha" and a "Hmm" moment for me. The question goes like this: “Is a can opener a can opener if it can’t open cans?”, (p. 193). Let’s think about this question in two different contexts. The first context is the average kitchen. I’ve had a lot of bad experiences with can openers, whether manual or electronic, inexpensive or expensive. After a very short time (and sometimes fresh from the store) the can opener malfunctions and can't open cans. For whatever reason, it cannot accomplish the function for which it was designed. If a can opener cannot open cans then it isn’t a can opener. Instead, it becomes a paperweight that merely looks like a can opener.

That question may not seem subversive, but let's consider the second context in which to consider the question, only with a slight modification to the question itself. “Is the church still a church if it doesn’t function like a church anymore?” I recognize that with the question phrased this way the reader may become a bit defensive and reply, “Well, of course my church is still a church. It functions as one. We have fine buildings, programs, worship services, music, and members. It’s still functioning as a church.” If this is your line of thinking, let's reconsider whether that really is a biblical and historical function of a church.

A review of the story of the early church found in Acts, as well as a historical analysis of the first three centuries of the church reveals that it was not an institution. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, the early church flourished and grew exponentially throughout the ancient world prior to Constantine and Christendom, from a few hundred believers to several million, growing at a rate of forty percent per decade according to some sociological analysis by Rodney Stark. The early church had no buildings, no paid clergy, no programs (not even for families and children!), and no agreed upon canon of Scripture, and yet it flourished because it was a dynamic people movement focused on Jesus and the Spirit, with the missio Dei at the heart of its identity and function. We could provide other examples of this as well throughout church history, with the underground Christian movement in China or the phenomenal church growth in the Southern hemisphere providing other illustrations.

If the purpose of the early church was to function not as an institution, but instead as a dynamic, missional, Jesus-people movement, we have to ask ourselves how this compares to how we “do church” in America and the West. How closely do we resemble the forms and purposes of the early church, or rather do we resemble institutional and business forms of organization? Have we transformed the culture, or has the culture transformed us, and so much so that now we take our present forms of church for the way things have always been and should always be?

Back to our subversive questions that we began with: Is a can opener that can no longer open cans still a can opener? Can churches that no longer function as churches still be considered churches even if they look like what we’ve become accustomed to associating with churches? These questions aren't threatening so long as we're talking about kitchen devices, but they are unsettling when applied to the church. Perhaps Jesus needs to be as subversive of the status quo in our churches as he is beyond its doors.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Non-Missional Contextualization or Attempts at Non-Missional Relevancy?

Matt Stone of Eclectic Itchings and I have had some interesting exchanges as a result of Alan Hirsch’s recent trip to the U.S. to discuss missional church concepts. In particular, we have discussed the implications (or what should be the implications) of Christology and missiology for formation of ecclesiology. In a recent email, Matt made me aware of a post at Radical Congruency on this topic. They quoted from a letter from Forge (Hirsch’s organization) which touched on the relationship between Christology, missiology and ecclesiology. The letter included a statement that is relevant for consideration to both traditional and contemporary churches, as well as emerging churches:

We believe it is precisely this non-missional contextualising that is frustrating efforts to find a new way of being church in the new landscapes of the West and is the focus of the anxiety of the evangelical conservatives such as Carson.
I’ve been thinking about this quote, and particularly the phrase “non-missional contextualizing.” It is important to consider how missiology defines “contextualization.” The following quote from the dictionary at is representative of missiological definitions:
Contextualization: (1) "the efforts of formulating, presenting and practicing the Christian faith in such a way that is relevant to the cultural context of the target group in terms of conceptualization, expression and application; yet maintaining theological coherence, biblical integrity and theoretical consistency" (Wan 1999, 13)
I would like to draw the readers attention not only to the specifics of this definition, but also to the assumptions upon which it is based, namely, that contextualization is usually a purposeful process that takes places within the broader framework of an attempt to be missional. If this is the case, I wonder whether it makes any sense to speak of “non-missional contextualizing.”

I think I understand what Forge tried to say. Various churches in the West have tried to reach various segments of a rapidly shifting culture by adjusting their services and programs in order to attract people into the church building and community in order to engage the gospel. Forge may be saying that this is a form of non-missional contextualizing, in that it is attempting to present “church” in a context more relevant to the groups a church seeks to reach.

The same might be said of aspects of the emerging church. Their incorporation of certain elements in worship that are appealing to postmoderns, for example, might be considered non-missional contextualizing if such efforts are divorced from incarnational efforts within the culture.

If my understanding is correct, I wonder whether this assessment by Forge is slightly off the mark. I agree that a lack of missional perspective is at the heart of the failure of the Western church to engage the culture, and that this is non-missional, but I don’t know that efforts by traditional and contemporary churches, and some emerging churches, have been contextual, unless one can accidentally swerve into contextual methodology. As the definition provided above seems to assume, contextualization presumes a missional perspective and foundation, and perhaps the efforts of traditional, contemporary, and some emerging churches might more accurately be described as attempts at “non-missional relevancy” rather than contextualization.

At any rate, Forge’s overall assessment is correct in that Western culture is at a place that puts it far beyond anything that mere modifications to church services, programs, and new buildings can address.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Fundamentalist Christian Critics of Narnia: Continued Adventures in Missing the Point

In a previous post on the current Harry Potter film I noted the renewed chorus of evangelical voices raising criticism over the film's alleged "occultic" elements, and I raised the question as to whether evangelicals would likewise raise criticism over the The Chronicles of Narnia film. With the premiere of the Narnia film it didn't take long for criticims in the form of pixels to surface.

I recently came across an op-ed piece in the titled "'Narnia' naysayers," that comments on criticism of Narnia and Lewis, not only from the Far Left, but the Far Right as well. The author, Catherine Seipp, points to criticisms from Christian fundamentalists such as Steve Van Natten's website Balaam's Ass (of all things), who indicts not only C. S. Lewis as a closet Pagan and esotericist, but also his companion Inklings as well.

The article also points to similar criticisms raised by other fundamentalists or evangelicals (depending upon your definition and classification) such as Jeff Zakula of Keepers of the Faith, and John Robbins of the Trinity Foundation (who also raises the question of whether Lewis went to heaven, a question he answers in the negative).

One of the interesting things about these critiques is that the arguments against Lewis are many of the same arguments that evangelicals have used against J. K. Rowling and Potter. This raises two thoughts for me. First, I am reminded, once again, of Lewis' statement on the interpretation of literature, namely, that elements found within a story find their meaning as the author defines them within the fictional story, even when elements are drawn from the real world. This would, of course, include elements taken from Pagan mythology. Despite their definition in the real world, they too take their meaning within the story. Second, I am struck that the fundamentalist critics mentioned above are more consistent than their evangelical counterparts. Assuming their criticisms are valid, shouldn't Lewis and Tolkien be in the crosshairs just as readily as Rowling?

I hope we can take away from all this that we have been poor students of literature and film, and that we continue to do a poor job of engaging popular culture. We're really just preaching to the choir, and engaging in a lot of hand wringing given the church's shift to the margins of cultural influence. But regardless of whether it's a fundamentalist or evangelical critique, I think both camps are partners on the same adventure in missing the point.

Romney Presidential Bid and "Mormon Problem?"

Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney recently announced that he will not seek re-election. As a result, there has been a lot of speculation as to whether Romney will run for president. Much of the discussion has focused around Romney's alleged "Mormon problem," that is, how a conservative Republican candidate, who is also Mormon, will be received by evangelicals and the Religious Right. A recent article in The American Spectator summarized this concern by stating:
In short, much of this thoroughly Christian country has a thing against the Mormon faith. As NR's John Miller reminded readers in his Romney profile earlier this year, a 1999 Gallup poll found that while only 6 percent of Americans refuse to vote for a Jew and 4 percent a Catholic, 17 percent rule out Mormons on their ballots.
The article concludes:
Forget about the press's old maxim, "Does it play well in Peoria?" This doesn't play well in Colorado Springs or in your local church. If there's any doubt, look at the 2004 National Day of Prayer, when Mormons asked to offer a prayer. Shirley Dobson, wife of Focus on the Family's Dr. James Dobson, said no. These aren't small matters, especially to evangelical Christians. The press will report them as soon they take Romney seriously. The country may not openly discuss the Mormon faith when it considers Romney's candidacy, but you can bet they'll be whispering about it. And it will play a role.
It's anybody's guess at this point how this will all play out, assuming Romney does in fact decide to make a run for the Republication nomination. But my guess is that evangelicals will likely opppose Romney given his Mormon faith, an opposition informed by evangelical countercult portraits, rather than take his faiths into consideration in light of broader political and strategic considerations connected to a conservative Republican candidate. This one will be interesting.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Barbecues, Culture & American Churches: Clues to the Need of the Hour

I am especially looking forward to one of my seminary courses next semester. It is an intensive, with a number of textbooks. One is titled Why Do Men Barbecue? (Harvard University Press, 2003). No, Salt Lake Seminary is not incorporating culinary classes in their coursework. The book is part of a class on "Cross-Cultural Hermeneutics," or the interpretation of cultures. The course is part of the intercultural studies program. It raises the question of barbecuing for American males as part of a cultural practice we take for granted.

Consider other cultural questions the book raises on the back cover. "Why do American children sleep alone? Why do Western women cling to their youth, while young wives in India look forward to being middle-aged?" By reflecting on these questions, and the very different answers to them provided by those in different cultures, we come to recognize the importance of culture to how we view the world and live within it.

Now consider the importance of cultural considerations to church, ministry and missions in America and the West. Why do we "do church" in much the same way regardless of what communities or sub-cultures the church ministers among? Why are church services, regardless of whether it is traditional or contemporary, largely "cookie cutter" replications of basic themes? Why aren't ecclesiological forms subject to differing cultural expressions?

It is now imperative for us to understand culture and cross-cultural considerations, not only for American missionaries serving overseas, but especially for pastors, seminary students preparing for the pastorate, and missionaries working in both the American and broader Western cultural contexts. In their book Emerging Churches (Baker Academic, 2005), Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger touch on why understanding culture is so important (and these considerations are important regardless of your view on the emerging church). Here are a few of their ideas:

1. Because the West Is in the Midst of Huge Cultural Shifts. Cultures always experience change and shifts, but the speed and size of our cultural shifts in the West in recent years has been especially significant. The place of the church has shifted from the center to the margins in terms of its influence and how it is perceived in Western culture. As Gibbs and Bolger write, "To pastor missionally, church leaders must understand the cultural changes that have occurred outside its doors. For the church to be able to situate itself in culture, an understanding of these social processes must be pursued." (Emphasis in original.)

2. Because the Church Is in Decline. The Bible belt and the megachurch phenomenon of Willow Creek and Saddleback notwithstanding, the decline of the church in the U.S. is well documented. While regular church attendance is higher in the U.S. than Australia or the U.K., the reported weekly church attendance in the U.S. of 40 percent may be inflated, and the actual number may be 15 to 20 percent. Sobering statistics also indicate that within 20-25 years some 60 percent of American churches, traditional and contemporary, will close their doors.

3. Because Boomers Are the Last Generation That Is Happy with Modern Churches. New generations are increasingly following patterns of life, thought, and spirituality that are at odds with even the best contemporary churches and services. Modern churches with contemporary music and great programs are perceived as institutions that are irrelevant to or stifle a contemporary spiritual quest. Well-intentioned churches are making modifications to church services, programs, and buildings in order to attract a group of people that are no longer there.

Gibbs and Bolger provide a number of other considerations, but these are the most noteworthy for the point I'm trying to make. As Gibbs and Bolger state, "There is now a growing realization that churches in the West face a missional challenge, one that is increasingly cross-cultural in nature" (p. 16). As a result, "Churches in the United Kingdom and the United States seriously underestimate the need for cross-cultural training for those in their respective congregations. Consequently, churches misread the culture, thereby undermining the church's overall mission" (p. 15).

The cultural distance is so great between church sub-cultures and the sub-cultures of surrounding communities that no amount of modification to existing attractional forms of Christendom model churches will do. The need of the hour is cultural understanding and relevancy that will hopefully result in a transformation of attractional congregations into missional communities that are Jesus and Kingdom based. Cultural studies and missiology thus provide a diagnosis and remedy for the ill's of the Western church.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

South Park, Scientology, Evangelicals & Ridicule of New Religions

Comedy Central’s South Park is known for its less than reverent satire where no group is safe from the comedic probe. But the program recently pushed the envelope even further with an episode that unloaded both barrels at Scientology and Tom Cruise. The episode, titled “Trapped in the Closet,” lampooned high level Scientology teachings, and questioned the sexual orientation of Tom Cruise, a vocal Scientology advocate. The boldness of the producers in the satirical attack on Scientology and Cruise is curious, and perhaps foolhardy. Mr. Cruise has successfully sued tabloids which questioned his sexual orientation, and the Church of Scientology is well-known for an aggressive use of litigation against its critics. The legal hassles that may follow in the wake of this episode hardly seem worth the few chuckles that may have come forth in connection with this episode.

This is not the first time South Park has lampooned religion. Christianity provides frequent fodder, and other new religions have come into the producers’ crosshairs. An episode that aired in 1993 titled “All About the Mormons,” pulled no punches in its treatment of this popular American religion. Most Mormons would have found the episode offensive, if they were aware of it, of course. No doubt South Park is not part of the normal viewing habits for devout LDS.

Sadly, a few evangelicals found the episode funny, and even went so far as to recommend it to fellow countercult apologists. This led to an interesting paper by Douglas Cowan, professor of Sociology and Religious Studies, who is is in transition to a new teaching position at Renison College/University of Waterloo in Canada. The paper is titled “Episode 712: South Park, Ridicule, and the Cultural Construction of Religious Rivalry,” and it is published in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. The journal is must reading for those interested in the intersection between these two disciplines. The article is worth reading for those evangelicals who want to explore the issue of ridicule as it relates to perceived religious rivals in American culture.

We seem to forget how reasonable a religion seems to its adherents, yet how unbelievable it seems to outsiders. After all, ancient Christianity was a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, no matter how sensible it seems to modern evangelicals. And we also forget that to post-Christendom peoples of the West, Christianity's proclamation of an incarnating and resurrected God seems as outlandish a claim as those of the ill-fated Heaven's Gate UFO religion. In my view, it's one thing for members of a religious group to engage in self-deprecating humor, but it's quite another for us to relish and commend the ridicule of religious others.

Born-Again Mormons & Shawn McCraney

Yesterday afternoon I enjoyed lunch with Shawn McCraney from southern California. I had heard of Shawn’s self-published book (through Alathea Press), from Craig Hazen last summer in California. I recently heard of him again through Greg Johnson. Shawn is about to complete graduate studies in connection with Calvary Chapel, and will likely pursue his ministry in connection with Calvary Chapel in Huntington Beach. Shawn is a former Latter-day Saint, and he has a book and ministry titled Born-Again Mormon. I am still becoming familiar with the specifics of his book, but two of the main emphases are “to introduce Latter-day Saints to the God-given gift of spiritual rebirth through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” He also hopes to assist Mormons who experience spiritual rebirth to continue to share this faith perspective within the culture of the Latter-day Saints to the extent that it is permitted to exist within local wards.

Shawn’s book is endorsed by a number of people, Latter-day Saints and evangelicals, including Chuck Smith, founder of the Calvary Chapel movement, who is recommending the book and its approach to Calvary Chapels nationwide. My hope is that will resonate with Chuck’s new openness to alternative approaches to Latter-Day Saint culture, and that perhaps it can be coupled with Bridges and dialogical approaches as well.

I am glad to have met Shawn, and I am glad to work with someone else who is taking a different approach to incarnating within the culture of the Latter-day Saints.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Narnia Premiere and Evangelical-LDS Relationships

Last night my wife and I had the opportunity to attend the premiere of the new film The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The screening we attended was held at The Gateway Theater in downtown Salt Lake City through an idea birthed over lunch during the summer. Greg Johnson, Robert Millet, and I had lunch earlier this year and discussed the mutual appreciation evangelicals and Latter-day Saints have for the work of C. S. Lewis. We thought it would be worthwhile to host a screening of the movie, and to make free tickets available to evangelicals who invited LDS, and LDS who invited evangelicals. I wrote up a conversation guide that was distributed after the screening. The intent of this event was to find a mutually enjoyable experience between evangelicals and LDS that can then serve as part of ongoing discussions and relationships between members of these two faith communities. The event was well attended, the film was great, and we hope that dialogue over the spirituality of Lewis will continue in Utah and beyond.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Culture, Missions & Countercult Aberrations

Jim Beverley recently gave a presentation at the Evangelical Theological Society on the ongoing activities involving the LDS Church, Ravi Zacharias speaking in Salt Lake City, Robert Millet, and LDS-evangelical dialogue. A summary of his presentation was provided at The A-Team Blog. The summary of Dr. Beverley's presentation, and the comments posted after it, are worth a read.

I posted some comments and had a brief exchange with one of the administrators of the blog. I'd like to clarify a couple of things upon further reflection. First, in one section I stated that, "I agree that traditional apologetic approaches and the emerging missional and scholarly apologetic paradigm need to co-exist and dialogue effectively somehow." To clarify, a scholarly apologetic, along the lines of The New Mormon Challenge book, is already in conversation and coordination with dialogical and missional approaches. The difficulty has arisen between those of us who are missionally and relationally oriented, and traditional countercult apologetic models. Communication and understanding among these camps is where the difficulty is found.

Second, one comment by the blog administrator mentioned his efforts at incorporating cultural awareness in his efforts at the Manti Miracle Pageant, for example. I want to clarify my views on this in that I do not believe such attempts reflect a missions approach to Mormonism. For one, an evangelical evangelistic presence at such a sacred event is missiologically inappropriate in that it is needlessly counter-cultural (and counter-productive). And for another, I do not believe that countercult personalities possess the tools or training to exegete a culture, nor do they apply the insights of cross-cultural missions in their efforts. To my thinking, this cultural and missiological deficiency means that even the best intentioned countercult apologetic and "outreach" is an aberration away from a robust biblical and missiological approach. While this assessment might be a bitter pill to swallow, I believe it is a fair assessment.

As opposition to this critique formulates in the mind of the reader (depending upon your perspective), consider that those of us utilizing a missions approach are merely applying the insights of the history of Christian missions, and cross-cultural missiology on the international mission field, to the specific cultural contexts of new religions in the West. With this comes the natural critique of those approaches that deviate from this model. How can this be fairly opposed if one truly believes in missions?

Holiday Slogans & Memorial Crosses: Christian Symbolism & Vestiges of Dying Christendom

You don't have to watch the news very long to see stories of debate in communities around the U.S. concerning whether it is appropriate for stores (and their television commercials) to use the tag line "Merry Christmas," or whether it's more appropriate to say "Happy Holidays." I've seen a number of stories critical of stores that do not mention Christmas, and I've heard a number of evangelicals complaining about its increasing secularization.

A seemingly unrelated story involves events here in Utah. An atheist group wants the Utah Highway Patrol and the Department of Transportation to remove crosses put up honoring officers killed in the line of duty. Last night's local news featured an interview with two atheists involved in the dispute, and a man who is fighting them on the issue. Presumably he is an evangelical since LDS culture does not embrace the cross as part of its religious symbolism. This story has captured the attention of the state of Utah, and the country, and has even been picked up internationally.

While these stories may not seem related, I believe they are symptomatic of shifts in American culture. As institutional Christianity has moved to the margins of cultural influence in America and the West, the symbolism of Christmas and crosses no longer carry positive messages. Indeed, for growing numbers of Americans, the cross is a symbol of an oppressive institution that is no longer viable in the contemporary world. And as religious pluralism continues to develop in this country, Christmas loses its religious moorings, and is increasingly celebrated along more neutral holiday lines.

Of course, conservative Christians find this alarming, and the idea of substituting "Happy holidays!" for a cheery "Merry Christmas!" is especially difficult to swallow. Some are even calling for boycotts of stores that do not use the traditional Christmas slogan in its advertising and in greetings to shoppers as they enter retail stores to spend their holiday dollars. But perhaps both the traditional Christmas greeting and memorial crosses are merely vestiges of a dying Christendom, sympomatic of the new Christian marginalization in culture. Something significant happened and the church didn't notice until the symbols were challenged.

I find the Christmas hoopla especially ironic. Christmas as Christians conceive of it is a celebration of the incarnation of God in the world. God pitched his tent among us in order to redeem Israel and the nations through Jesus Christ. While the incarnation is pivotal to a Christian understanding of Christmas, might it be that American culture is moving away from this specific understanding because of the failures of the church to incarnate the gospel and to live missionally among the cultures of the country? It seems strange to complain and wring our hands when the world does not celebrate God's incarnation perhaps precisely because we have not reflected that incarnation in our lives. Who's fault is it?

Monday, December 05, 2005

Reflections on Missional Church Gathering in Denver

I just returned from the missional church gathering sponsored by Missio in Denver. Missio is a group working in Colorado and the Intermountain West that is attempting to plant new churches, and help "re-missionalize" existing traditional and contemporary churches in missional ways. That is, they are working to reapply the heart of Scriptures and Christianity, the missio Dei, or a truly missional sense of being that is at the heart of Christianity, and which is reflected in cross-cultural missions, in order to transform churches for missional engagement in twenty-first century America. One of the ways that Missio does this is through their ZerOrientation training that helps existing churches recognize and come to grips with the cultural shift of the West toward postmodernism, the decline of Christendom culture, and how churches must respond missionally.

Alan Hirsch was an important part of this gathering. Alan and Michael Frost co-authored The Shaping of Things to Come (Hendrickson/Strand, 2004), and they work with the Forge missions network in Australia. I was fortunate to meet with Alan during a short-term missions trip to Australia in 2004. I was impressed with his insights and vision, and it was good to spend some time with him in connection with this gathering.

Alan gave a presentation to a diverse group of about seventy people last Friday night. Much of the subject matter for his presentation is found in his book, and from ideas he has developed for his forthcoming book The Forgotten Ways (September 2006), which echoed back to our meeting in Australia in 2004. I jotted down a few highlights:

1. Social data in the West indicates that large numbers of people are interested in God, Jesus and spirituality (variously defined), but they are not interested in the church. In fact, the church is strongly denounced as a place where vibrant, contemporary spirituality is not to be found. Put in business terms, this means that we continue to have a good "product" (Jesus), but a bad delivery system (the church).

2. The situation in Australia is worse than that in the U.S. Australia has a different history and no sense of having been a "Christian nation," so the urgency of our situation has not been felt yet to the extent it has in Australia. Even so, statistics indicate that tweny years from now, 60-70% of evangelical churches will close their doors, whether traditional or contemporary. (The jury is still out on the extent to which emerging churches are truly missional and indigenous expressions that will survive this coming reality.)

Alan then discussed elements of a missional DNA. He provided the early church and the church in China as examples and case studies of phenomenal church growth and multiplication in spite of intense persecution, no formal church buildings, no paid clergy class, and no completed canon of Scriptures (elements we assume must be present for churches in the modern context). What did the early church and the church in China share in common as factors that account for their success? In Alan's presentation the following three items stuck out for me:

1. Jesus-based movements. They both include an emphasis on Jesus at the center of their existence and efforts as opposed to an emphasis on buildings, programs, or even the Scriptures. While the story of Jesus is an essential aspect of this centering, this is distinguished from an emphasis on the Scriptures per se.

2. Missional incarnational impulse. The emphasis of both of these Jesus-centered movements was a focus on the mission Dei within the cultures in which they moved. This outward focus and activity was incarnated within individual subcultures in indigenously appropriate expressions.

3. Organic systems. Rather than static organizations, these movements were more like organic systems and movements. This and other factors indicates that both the traditional and contemporary church models and forms in the West are aberrations of a biblical, missional model and approach.

I was also able to spend a good amount of time with Dr. Curt Watke of the Intercutural Institute for Contextual Ministry. I continue to be impressed with his depth of knowledge, awareness of the missional "needs of the hour," and his ability to provide specific data and strategy for missions endeavors in the West.

This was a wonderful trip with lots of good networking, nurturing of existing and creation of new relationships, and opportunities for the future. May the new revolution of the missional movement in the West continue through these and other leaders.