Monday, January 30, 2006

Centripetal or Centrifugal?: Radio Control Cars, Israel & the Church

I am currently reading Mission in the Old Testament: Israel as a Light to the Nations (Baker, 2000) by Walter Kaiser, along with many other books for seminary and ministry. I have found his discussion of the missio Dei at the heart of Israel's call, as a responsibility and not merely national privilege, to be helpful in understanding the Old Testament foundation for New Testament missions and the Great Commission. One of the more interesting areas Kaiser touches on is the debate over whether Israel's call to the nations was centripetal or centrifugal. That is, was Israel to serve in a passive role that was inward-moving toward the center, toward Israel and Zion by Gentile "seekers," or was Israel's call to be centrifugal, outward-going from the center to the nations of the world? While many argue for a centripetal role for Israel, Kasier argues briefly but strongly for a centrifugal role (through biblical passages such as Psalm 67, 96 and 117, not to mention the Jonah) , and I believe correctly so. Israel was called and sent in outward moving fashion by Yahweh, and a centripetal response to the nations became one of her many sins.

I see much the same thing in our American churches. While we may still have a strong sense of outward-going missions overseas, we are largely centripetal, inward-moving and attractional in the way we "do church" in America. How many times has the reader been encouraged to simply invite someone to church as a leading form of "evangelism?"

In their excellent book, The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church (Hendrickson/Strand, 2004), Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch contrast centripetal and centrifugal, or attractional and missional forms of church that desire to reach a group of radio control car enthusiasts.

"Next to the field was an asphalted area where a group of model-car enthusiasts had set up a track and were using remote controls to race their cars against one another's. The constant buzz of the miniature motors caught our attention and we wandered over to watch what they were doing. We soon realized we had encountered a lost suburban tribe. Everyone looked the same. They all wore tight black jeans and checkered flannel shirts. They wore baseball caps with car manufacturers' logos on them. They had parked their cars - virtually all drove pickups - beside the track, and their wives or girlfriends sat in one of the truckbeds talking and laughing loudly. It was a tribe in every sense of the word - dress code, language, culture, and customs. We learned that once a month on a Sunday morning they met to race each other, to discuss the latest designs in model cars, and to drink and laugh and build community.

"If the nearby church decided that this suburban tribe needed to hear about the saving work of Christ, how would they reach them? The attractional church would hold special services for model-car racers. It would design an excellent flyer explaining that Jesus loves model-car enthusiasts, and they would place one under the windshield wipers of each pickup. It would try to find a recently converted model-car enthusiast and have him share his testimony one Sunday morning. The attractional church would seek to do anything it could to draw the car racing fraternity into its church building. This might even work if you're dealing with a localized community with some geographic proximity to the church's building. But a car club is probably a citywide community, and its members probably drive great distances to come to its monthly meetings. They are not drawn together by some geographic proximity, but by a commonly held interest. And to complicate matters further, they meet on Sunday mornings!

"The attractional church is stuck! Even though it has a close-knit community of people (likely non-churchgoers) right outside its door, it has no mechanism for sharing Christ with them. Since they (the car club members) are not likely to turn up at the church service one Sunday (doesn't the attractional church love stories of people miraculously turning up at the church service searching for meaning and purpose!), the only way to share Christ's love with them must be to go to them. It would be a decidedly incarnational choice if a few members of a local church, so moved by compassion for the car enthusiasts right across the road, chose to buy a model car and join the club! This would be the kind of thinking and acting we're talking about. If the spirit of our missionary God were to sweep through such a church, we don't doubt that the church itself might buy a few model cars and commission some of its members to miss the morning service so they can fully enter into the community of the car club. By racing cars and repairing cars, they could earn the right of relationship to share their thoughts on life and their love for Jesus. This is the incarnational church in action. If a few car racers came into relationship with Christ, they should not be encouraged to leave the club and join the church. Rather, a home church could be established, and the brand-new Christian car enthusiasts could worship God in the context of their tribal identity." (p.

The difference in these approaches is clear, and I believe the centrifugal, missional and incarnational approach is the one that reflects the calling of God, both to Israel and to the church. If we have any desires to see a repeat of the amazing estimated 40-percent-a-decade growth rate that the early church experienced during the first three centuries before Constantine (The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark [HarperSanFrancisco, 1997]), then the church in the West and America must recapture the centrality of the missio Dei, and its centrifugal nature applied to people groups and subcultures in recognition of the importance of missions through social networks within their subcultures.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Santeria and Miguel A. De La Torre

Evangelicals tend to neglect a great number of religious groups in their understanding and analysis of America's religious diversity. This is especially true of those in countercult ministry. Years ago Keith Tolbert wrote an interesting document titled the "ARC Cult Literature Index-1987, Module 4." For me the most interesting part of this document was the section that analyzed Christian "cult-monitoring" literature. After surveying the literature, Tolbert wrote:
"In ratio to the entire analytical literature body, Mormonism constitutes 54.59%, Jehovah's Witnesses make up 14.75%, the New Age is 9.34% and cults, in general, comprise 4.1%. However, together these four categories comprise an overwhelming 82.79%! The remaining 31 categories combined as a mere 17.21% of the total analytical literature. It is interesting to note that not one article on Islam or Judaism appeared in all of this literature in 1987. In fact, they become conspicuous by their absence."
Tolbert went on to speculate as to why a handful of groups receive such a high concentration of treatment by the countercult. He felt that "one major reason for the article disparity is the perceived danger of these groups" (emphasis in original). I agree with Tolbert's reasoning, and although this document was written in the late 1980s, and no doubt some expansion of focus has taken place, I would conjecture that there still exists a large disparity between religious groups that receive analysis by the countercult, and that the perception of threat to the church and orthodoxy are the (perhaps unconscious) factors.

One of the religions that receives little treatment is Santeria. I was looking through various issues of Books & Culture recently and came across an advertisement for a book on the topic titled Santeria (Eerdmans, 2004) by Miguel A. De La Torre. I found an interview with De La Torre by the book's publisher, and was pleased with the author's treatment of the topic. He brings an approach that seeks to understand the religion on its own terms without imposing EuroAmerican cultural or evangelical doctrinal perspectives. De La Torre also notes that while American Christians tend to view Santeria as a "demonic cult," the religion plays an important part in maintaining a sense of identityfor the oppressed and marginalized who are threatened by the mainstream religious culture.

I was not only impressed with De La Torre's approach to Santeria, but a review of his website reveals an interesting body of work on cross-cultural theologizing and mission, religion and popular culture, and other areas of interest. Dr. De La Torre is associate professor at Iliff School of Theology in Denver. I hope to secure his book, and I'd recommend it to anyone interested in Santeria as well as those interested in a sound scholarly and Christian approach to a growing religious movement often ignored by evangelicals.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

EMNR Annual Conference: Any Shifts in Perspectives?

In the past I served on the board of Evangelical Ministries to New Religions (EMNR), a membership organization for evangelicals involved in countercult ministry. For two years I served as president, and during my involvement with the organization I presented two papers that attempted to move the organization into healthy critical self-reflection in order to engage other disciplines in their understanding of new religions, most notably that of missiology. Unfortunately, these papers and my subsequent efforts generated more heat than light for some on the board, and their membership, so I resigned in an effort to develop my missional paradigm apart from the organization.

In February they will be holding their annual conference, and I recently reviewed their website conference information and developed some musings over plenary session and workshop titles.

The conference title is "A Clash of Cultures: Missionaries in the Marketplace of Religions." The mention and inclusion of the terms "cultures" and "missionaries" reflects an increasing use of intercultural and missional terminology in EMNR, however slight. The question remains to what extent these concepts are engaged independently of the apologetic heresy refutation paradigm.

The following conference sessions caught my eye. I will provide the titles and a few comments.

"Formal Education (Academics) Vs Hands-on-Experience (the Trenches): Which Approach and Form of Training is a Better Biblical Model for Apologetics and Evangelism?" by Craig Hawkins

Given my interests in seeing an increased interaction with academics on the topic of new religions, this title is of interest. Unfortunately, the title appears to be raising a false dichotomy: why can't academic training compliment ministry "in the trenches?" Indeed, the two should be pursued together, not pitted one against the other. Perhaps Mr. Hawkins will explore this option and avoid the dichotomy that appears in the title.

"Cults and Missions in the 21st Century" by Paul Carden

A few years ago when I heard that Paul was doing work on new religions and missions I was intrigued and pleased as this connection was an interest of mine. Unfortunately, in my engagement with his materials in the past on this topic, he has noted the cross-cultural savvy of some new religions on international mission fields, and has called for apologetic engagement by evangelicals in these contexts, but has not considered or developed the application of cross-cultural missions and contextualization in world missions contexts. Perhaps both aspects will be presented in this plenary session.

"Nietzsche, the Death of God, and the Emerging Church Movement" by Bill Honsberger

Several workshops address the emerging church movement, apparently an increasing concern to the countercult community. One of particular interest is referenced above, which notes the influence of Nietzsche on postmodern thought. I fear that such a discussion might be a bit simplistic and engage in guilt by association. First, Nietzsche has been an influential thinker among various postmodern academics, but this must be distinguished from the post-modernism (notice the hyphen) found on a practical level among people in the West. Second, the emerging church is a complex movement that must be understood in its various manifestations, some more problematic than others (a point missed by Don Carson in his book on the topic). Third, simply because the emerging church is experimenting with church community and forms to post-modern subcultures does not mean that they necessarily share post-modern concepts of epistemology and morality that are of concern to evangelicals. Perhaps this session will avoid these problems and provide a balanced assessment.

"Apologetics and Evangelism with Goddess Worshipper, Neopagans, Wiccans and Witches" by Craig Hawkins

I interacted very briefly with Mr. Hawkins through email exchanges and recommended several sources, including the Paganism and Wicca issue of Sacred Tribes Journal. Perhaps his apologetic approach will incorporate the insights of contextual missiology and the efforts of my colleagues in developing promising models of incarnational engagement with these communities.

"Mormons and the Vanishing God-was-once-a-man Doctrine" by Joel Groat

I appreciate the apologetic work of Joel Groat and Luke Wilson of the Institute for Religious Research. In my view they represent a more balanced segment of the countercult community. This title makes me wonder about the direction in which the seminar will take. If there is recognition of the "vanishing" notion of deification within Mormonism, will this be seen as a positive step that should be nurtured and encouraged through cordial dialogue and exploration, as well as through missional engagement with LDS culture, or will it be seen as something more sinister, perhaps masking an allegedly devious intent to deceive evangelicals? Perhaps this seminar will attempt to find middle ground by noting a shift in LDS theology, particularly among rank and file Mormons, and also note that for effective communication some LDS may downplay the significance of this teaching.

After I left the countercult community, I engaged one of the regular members of EMNR in dialogue over a missional approach to new religions. I will never forget the response I got as my perplexed dialogue partner asked, "How will a winsome, missional approach help me keep the forces of darkness at bay?" I found that answer insightful, revealing what I think is at the heart of many self-perceptions in the countercult. Do they conceive of themselves as loving ambassadors of Christ communicating a message of reconciliation through loving service and speech? Or are they twenty-first century crusaders engaged in a holy war against forces of darkness? I wonder which self-conception the upcoming EMNR conference will reinforce. I pray and hope for the former.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

If They Don't Understand, Talk Louder: The Missing Double Hermeneutic

English speaker: "Excuse me. Can you tell me where the train station is? "

Spanish speaker: (Confused.) "Que?"

English speaker: (Speaking more slowly and loudly in an attempt to communicate across the language barrier.) "CAN YOU TELL ME WHERE THE TRAIN STATION IS?"

We've all seen television programs or movies where an English speaking person encounters someone who does not speak the language. After the English speaking person utters a few words and receives a blank look indicating their is no understanding, followed by what appear to be a few words of query in their own language, the English speaking person responds by talking much louder, and more slowly. The English speaking person recognizes that the other person does not understand the language, and no effective communication is taking place, but the assumption is that everyone should understand English, and if we simply keep repeating the same language with a different emphasis that the respondent will understand the message.

When we see an incident like this portrayed in television or the movies we laugh. We recognize that if two people speak different languages then the answer is not for the English speaker to shout a foreign language. We understand this, but the same thing is taking place in our evangelistic attepts with adherents of new religions, and in our churches across America.

In the first instance, when someone attempts to proclaim Christian doctrinal orthodoxy to an adherent from a new religion, and this does not resonate with them because this does not communicate within their spiritual frame of reference, and the evangelical continues on this track by proclaiming even more doctrines and Bible verses, this is the equivalent of shouting English at a Spanish speaker.

In my second example, when our churches construct new buildings and add new programs, or engage in church plants in various communities, and the well-meaning churches continue to send a Christendom culture message that is understood Christians but not understood (or ignored or disdained) by people in the community, this too is an example of shouting English more loudly to a non-English speaking person in the hopes of effective communication.

The missing element in both of this examples is the double hermeneutic. That is, evangelicals tend to emphasize the need for a sound hermeneutic or interpretation of Scripture, but we do a poor job or put no effort at interpreting the culture and subcultures in which we minister. Unless Christians in America recognize the vital importance of a sound hermeneutic of both Scripture and culture then we will continue to our church language at a culture that looks at us and shakes their head in misunderstanding. It's time to recognize and pratice a double hermeneutic.

Bolger on "Marks of a Missional Church"

I've spoken of Fuller missiologist Ryan Bolger in previous posts. He recently posted something interesting on his blog that I am copying below. He addresses the marks of a missional church. This post will be of interest to those churches who think they are already in some sense missional, and to those wondering what that might entail.

Marks of a Missional Church

Eddie Gibbs and I were interviewed (on video) for an upcoming workshop "Living Missionally" in Ventura, CA on January 21, hosted by Reggie McNeal. Here are the prep questions that were asked (and a partial summary of my answers):

1. What are the marks of churches (people) who live missionally?
They no longer see the church service as the primary connecting point with those outside the community. Connecting with those outside happens within the culture, by insiders to that culture who express the gospel through how they live.

2. What is it that keeps a church (people) from thinking missionally?
We have been raised with the idea that much of our life and our responsibilities as Christians are reflected in the weekly church service. It is how we think as Christians in Western cultures where 'going to church' has been an essential part of being a Western citizen. Our context has changed, Christendom is crumbling, but the shift to missional living is a huge shift for Western Christians. It might take the Western church fifty to a hundred years to make the shift, and many won't make the journey. In contrast, those Christians outside the west, who have never lived within 'Christendom', do not think of the church service as the connecting point. They have no illusions that those they are serving would be remotely interested in a church service. Instead, they embody the gospel through serving, both in deeds and words. This is a big, big, shift, and it scares a lot of people.

3. When people (church) suddenly "get it", what does that mean? ... and what do you think brings the revelation?
Christian leaders are burned out. They spend an inordinate amount of hours just keeping the machine running, both in mainline and seeker/purpose driven/gen-x churches. They know no other way to do ministry, and if running the machine isn't it, then what is? When these Christians discover a more organic way of serving God, of emulating Jesus, it gives them hope. They do not need to leave the faith to find integrity or rest. Granted, this shakes up their world, and their future is anything but smooth. But they find a passion again, like a first love, and it sustains them for the tough road ahead...

4. What is/are the hardest obstacle(s) for people/church to overcome in order to being living missionally?
Early in the 21st century, the American church is trained to consume, to be recipients of ministry, to go to church to 'get needs met'. It is how we are formed in the culture, and the church does not train us to be any different. To be active, to be a producer in the faith community, to share the burden, are the birth pangs in the formation of a missional community. Facilitating this type of transformation is one of the most important tasks of leaders today...

5. What is/are the most exciting examples of a people/church who is/are living missionally?
In my book with Eddie Gibbs, I share many, many stories that reveal what missional living in the postmodern West looks like...I couldn't be more excited about these people or their journeys...

6. What was it that drew you into seeking what you found? ... what did you find?
Like many of the people I interviewed, I was on a journey. Was there a way that I could express my faith in my world that would have some integrity? That would look like Jesus? That wouldn't make Christians look unnecessarily weird? As I began to spend time with these leaders and these communities, I found hope. They were asking the same questions! They became my teachers -- and more importantly, my friends...

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Matteo Ricci: 21st Century Missions Lessons from a 16th Century Jesuit

Matteo Ricci is one of the more fascinating figures from the history of Christian missions. Ricci, a Jesuit missionary to China, was the first missionary granted residency in the country after the previous missionary efforts of the Nestorians and previous Roman Catholics were destroyed in the fourteenth century. He continues to serve as a fine example of respect for culture, as well as the contextualization of the gospel and culturally relevant apologetics, and yet he is a figure that is largely unknown in evangelical circles.

Ricci was born October 6, 1552 in Macerata, Italy (interestingly the same year in which Francis Xavier died on China’s doorstep in Shangchuan Island). Ricci engaged in classic studies, and later studied law in Rome for two years. In 1571 he entered the Society of Jesus at the Roman College (now called the Gregorian University in Rome), with a program of studies that included philosophical and theological aspects, as well as mathematics, cosmology, and astronomy. The Jesuit emphasis on education would later be of great benefit to Ricci’s missionary work.

There are several important aspects of Ricci's work worthy of considerartion. The first was Ricci’s patience. He recognized that a successful mission would not happen overnight, and he was content to measure success as a process, and a slow one over a long period of time as well. Ricci recognized that a proper foundation had to be laid, and he was willing to invest the time and effort in appropriate ways in which to see a foundation set and appropriate work built upon it.

Ricci was also willing to devise an approach that was appropriate to the given cultural circumstances. After contrasting his understanding of Chinese culture with his previous experience working among Indian children in India, Ricci recognized that a different approach needed to be utilized. This was because of the highly literate nature of Chinese society compared to India, and the great number of religions that were present. Ricci recognized that China was not a blank slate, and that various cultural influences, including Chinese philosophy and religion, along with their view of cultural superiority, would all have to be considered in formulating an appropriate missions approach.

Another aspect of Ricci’s foundation was his focus on quality rather than quantity in terms of disciples. He set high standards for candidates receiving baptism, and did the same with discipleship as well. This approach caused problems initially, such as with Ricci’s insistence that one Buddhist official leave his concubines prior to baptism. As a result, one of the official’s spurned concubines engaged in a public protest of her treatment, even to the point of threatening suicide, but Ricci was unmoved. The woman did not follow through on her threats, and eventually, the official’s entire family became Christians.

Another foundational aspect of Ricci’s approach was an emphasis on strong interpersonal relationships:
Ricci believed in friendship as a chief virtue in itself, as well as the starting point for a successful presentation of the gospel. He learned the basic manners of Chinese high culture, and was careful not to offend his critics. When he disagreed, he did so in the most generous spirit possible. By contrast, the account of Gandhi, who recalls from his childhood how he could not endure some Christian missionaries who “used to stand in a corner near the high school and hold forth a Bible, pouring abuse on Hindus and their gods,” should make us think twice about the spirit of Incarnational ministry.
A final foundational aspect of Ricci’s ministry was his desire to understand Chinese culture and the people within it as thoroughly as possible before he began sharing the gospel message. Those who have analyzed Ricci’s methodology have characterized it as a “person-centered, dialogical apologetic” and missional approach, one that sought to present the gospel to the Chinese through their culture in light of their beliefs, literature, and history. Ricci wanted to so immerse himself in Chinese culture that he could literally put himself in their thought world, and with this perspective he would be better prepared to communicate the gospel in culturally relevant ways.

Ricci’s accommodation principle on rites for ancestors was hotly disputed after his death. In 1651 a Roman Catholic official was sent to China by Rome to investigate the Jesuit practices influenced by Ricci in connection to the Chinese rites. Although Ricci’s acceptance of the ancestral rites for Chinese converts was supported by Decree in 1656, and later affirmed once again by the Jesuits in 1669, internal conflict within the Jesuit order and others within the Roman Catholic Church led to continued controversy. The Franciscans and Dominicans who entered China after Ricci’s death fueled an inter-order rivalry, and the controversy was not resolved until 1937. This incident is a somber reminder of not only the problems caused to missions by conflict of a political nature within a missionary community itself, but also that such matters are also fueled by disagreements over the relationship between theology and culture in the area of contextualization as well. It seems that current disputes over contextualization practices are not new and have historical precedents.

Three positive aspects stand out in Ricci's approach as most noteworthy:

1. Respect for and understanding of culture. As discussed above, Ricci had a great respect for Chinese culture, and he sought to understand it as thoroughly as possible before engaging it in proclamational form as a missionary. We would do well to emulate him here. The disciplines of sociology, religious studies, and missiology teach the careful student to develop an emic or insiders perspective on a culture and to strive to understand a culture as a member of that culture would understand it. Only then is it permissible to step outside this frame of reference in order to view it from the etic or outsiders perspective. In this writer’s opinion, in general evangelicals in ministry to new religions in the West spend precious little time developing a careful, sympathetic, empathetic, and respectful understanding of these spiritual and religious cultures. As one writer commented on this aspect of his work, “It has been over 400 years since Ricci set foot in China. One of his endearing legacies for the Evangelicals today is the lesson on missionary’s attitude of patience and respect for the other culture, expressed in attentiveness and learning.”

2. Emphasis on relationships. As noted earlier, Ricci valued relationships, and worked hard at developing them, even going so far as to write a book on the topic. This resulted in the establishment of several key relationships that served Ricci’s mission among the literati well.

Human beings are valuable to God in that they reflect the imago Dei. Relationships are an important aspect of what it means to reflect the divine image, and they should b sought in and of themselves as one image bearer seeks to interact with another as a valid activity in and of itself. Beyond this, relationships are also valuable to a missional way of being in discipleship. While an inappropriate emphasis on relationships can be problematic for the missionary, such as when the relationship does not serve as a vehicle to communicate the gospel, relationships must be understood as a vital aspect of the missionary venture. Missions in America is still recovering from its modernist tendencies toward impersonal forms of evangelism, whether by mass crusades or direct mailings and the like, and a rediscovery of the significance of relationships for missions must be a high priority, particularly for missions to new religious subcultures.

3. Contextualization. Ricci drew upon his extensive respect and knowledge of Chinese culture to communicate the gospel in various ways that would speak meaningfully within the cultural context of the Chinese literati. Although some critics have accused Ricci and later Jesuits of creating a “Christian-Confucian syncretism,” and even labeling Jesuit missions in China as “trickery, deception and expedience,” this is an unfair indictment of largely sound missiological efforts. The Jesuits were often pioneering in their appreciation of cultures, and it was the desire of Ricci and the Jesuits for an indigenous Christianity to take root that would survive over time.

Ricci’s example in contextualization points the way forward for the next generation of Christian mission in America and the West.

Anime, Spiritual Seekers, & Cultural Consumption

My Australian friend and colleague, Philip Johnson, recently made me aware of an article that touches on an aspect of the interrelationship between religion and culture in the area of Japanese animation, known as anime. I have not seen the article yet, but hope to track it down in the near future. I had an opportunity to do some research for a series of presentations at Cornerstone Festival a couple of years ago on anime as an influence on gaming cards such as Yu-Gi-Oh!, and I have been interested in the religious influences from Japanese culture on anime, and its cross-cultural signficance.

Jin Kyu Park, "Creating My Own Cultural and Spiritual Bubble": Case of Cultural Consumption by Spiritual Seeker Anime Fans, Culture and Religion, Vol. 6, no. 3 (November 2005): 393-413.

"The distinctive quality of Japanese animation (anime) in its descriptions of religious and spiritual realms - integrating symbols, themes, doctrines, and mythologies from various religious traditions - is a cultural manifestation of the new integrative spirituality. This article demonstrates how important the religious aspect of anime is in explaining why younger generations in the USA, who are characterized as a spiritual seekers, become a loyal fan of the cultural aspects. Anime seems to provide them with a cultural resource out of which they create their own cultural and spiritual practices, which is, they claim, not provided by the US mainstream culture. This article argues that since the religious aspect of anime is one of the most disctinctive qualities in distinguishing itself from US pop culture, it would contribute to the generally accepted 'cultural difference' account in explaining the cross-cultural popularity of anime."

A version of this paper, presented at The Intercultural Communications Association in 2003 is available for review on the web.

Monday, January 09, 2006

The Western Church in Exile? Encounters on the Edge

As I reflect on Israel in Exile in the Old Testament, and Jesus' stern rebuke of certain Christian churches in Revelation, I have often wondered about the implications of such things for the Western church in the twenty-first century. Is it possible that the church in the West is, in some sense, in Exile, or at least under some kind of judgment of God? I'd like to put forward this idea at the risk of being dismissed as a modern day Chicken Little or questionable would be prophet standing on a street corner warning of impending doom. If Israel was judged and sent into Exile for failing to be a light to the nations (and with it the attendant idolatry and other sins), and Jesus rebuked lukewarm churches in the first century, why should our generation be excluded from the possibility of judgment for our failures to be missional in the Western world? Before you quickly dismiss such a possibility, consider some interesting quotes from a publication produced by an organization out of the U.K.

While doing some Internet research on this topic a year or so ago I came across an interesting thirteen part series of publications called Encounters on the Edge, published by Church Army of The Sheffield Centre, and written by George Lings. Earlier I had the privilege of connecting with Steve Hollinghurst, a member of his team who does work in the area of Paganism, the New Spirituality, and postmodern spiritualities. In an article in the series titled "Encountering Exile," he begins his reflection on the decline of the church in the U.K. and wonders which parts of Scripture might be most appropriate for understanding the decline of the church in this country. He writes:

We are not in a climate of clear spiritual hunger that positively relates that hunger to Christianity. Like it or not, being "post-Christendom" gives us a history to draw on, a burden of structures to carry and parts of a story to live down. So where in Scripture could we look?...My hypothesis is that the Exile brings me insight and perspective. From its depths, I bring out attitudes and perspectives that help me stay with hopes I entertain and to cope with fears I cannot banish. Without suggesting that there is any explicit or inherent repetition of Jewish history around the 5th Century BC, the number of echoes is uncanny. (Emphasis in original here and following.)
The echoes Lings discusses include a declining influence in culture, a long process of decay within churches, the domination of establishment values, and superficial change in response to cultural shifts. Having laid this groundwork, Lings then considers strands in the prophets during the Exile that have important echoes for us today. As I read through his development of this portion of the article I found the following quotes of interest that are scattered throughout the remainder of the article:

"Plausiblity structures" supporting Christianity have collapsed in the public arena and are only maintained in a private world; pluralism repudiates the centrality of Christian motifs and has little interest in the questions addressed by Christianity.
In discussing the change in Old Testament Jewish society as it shifted from Tabernacle to Temple, he writes:

We too have a heavy emotional dependence on, and heavy financial burden of, religious buildings and public worship, exaggerating the sense of the importance of place in guaranteeing the church's future stake in an emerging society. What might Jeremiah [7:4] say to us?


At the end of [the] Decade of Evangelism, cynics observe that the language of everything has changes to mission yet nearly everything has remained much the same.


Resources directed to preserve the existing order is the standard response of institutions in decline.
In discussing Israel's lament at being disposed from the land of promised and subjugated to foreign powers, Lings writes:

Psalm 137 laments "how shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?" Yet that very difficulty of being worshippers surrounded by a hostile and alien culture could be precisely the point.


I have heard of several dozen Alternative Worship events. These are different from youth congregations in that their age group is wider. They are keeping existing people from falling out of church, more than attracting new people.

While the situation facing the church in the U.K. is surely more dire than that in the U.S., nevertheless, the data indicates that the cultural forces of postmodernity, secularization, and pluralism that are heavily impacting the rest of the Western world are having an impact here as well. Do we have the ability to learn the lessons that the church is learning in the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand, and respond missionally, or will we continue to pursue the same course of action in the face of cultural change and expect different results? We have some time to prepare for the cultural currents sweeping our way from the rest of the Western world, but I fear that American Christians are more likely to prepare for literal tsunamis than spiritual and cultural ones.

George Ling's paper is worth a read. I'd encourage anyone to contact the Church Army to order a copy. It will serve worthwhile in reflection on the possibility of the church in Exile, in America as well as the U.K.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Church as Gay Bar: Coming to Grips with Cultural Distance

Imagine coming home one evening to find a flyer for an exciting new program for your family held in a new building in your neighborhood. You've been looking for something new to get your family involved in, and you are initially excited about the prospects. Then your eyes scan to the bottom of the flyer where you read about the organization sponsoring the program. It just happens to be the owners of a gay bar, and the program will bring you into the gay community. As a conservative evangelical, are you still interested in participating? Of course you aren't. But your lack of interest, perhaps even distaste, for participation in a program in a new building sponsored by a community you have issues with, illustrates a serious problem with the contemporary church in America and the West. A little background on where I got this illustration is in order. (For clarification, I do not believe evangelicals should view or treat homosexuals disparagingly. I cite this illustration as a means of making a point about the gap between church and culture using a community that usually brings a strong and visceral reaction from evangelicals.)

In 2004 I had an opportunity to attend an American Society of Church Growth Conference at Fuller Seminary which was looking at the topic of emerging church. For me, the most beneficial and thought provoking presentation was "The Emerging Church and Donald McGavran in Conversation," presented by Ryan Bolger, a missiologist at Fuller whom I have mentioned before. His presentation looked at Donald McGavran's experience as a missionary in India as discussed in his book Bridges of God: A Study in the Strategy of Missions (Wipf & Stock, 2005), originally published 1954. Bolger discussed McGavran's recognition of both the positive and negative aspects of Western missionary efforts in India. On the positive side, Western missionary efforts resulted in new believers, and great social works in India, such as care for the poor and hospitals. On the negative side, the cultural expressions of church, or mission stations as McGavran called them, were Western enclaves that had little to nothing to do with the surrounding culture. As a result, the cultural distance or gap between the church and the culture was immense. Unless an Indian was interested in leaving their culture and becoming reinculturated in the foreign religion of the white Westerner, the gap between church and culture would not be crossed. The church was foreign to the culture, and as a result it was unable to engage in significant spiritual reproduction.

While we might recognize this problem of cultural distance in the overseas missionary context, we do not recognize it in our own Western missions context, and this is where the illustration from the gay bar is helpful. In his presentation, Bolger mentioned a comment by Steve Collins who heads up an emerging church called Grace in the U.K. Collins has said that church culture is so foreign to the way of life and spirituality of people in the U.K. that people don't visit churches as spiritual seekers any more than an evangelical would visit a gay bar. While large numbers of people are increasingly interested in spirituality in the U.K., only 5-10% attend church because the church community and forms of expression are culturally foreign to contemporary spirituality seekers. So no matter how many programs or new buildings the church may offer, the seeker will not enter the church due to the cultural distance (not to mention hostility to Christendom), just as an evangelical would not enter a gay bar due to cultural distance and differences with this community. While the situation for Christianity is generally more positive in the U.S. than the U.K., nevertheless, increasing numbers of people are likewise finding the church irrelevant to a contemporary spiritual quest.

Enough of the illustration and critique. What might we consider as an alternative? McGavran suggested that instead of mission station churches that engage in extraction evangelism, where individual converts are extracted from their culture and reinculturated in foreign forms of community and church, that we move from mission stations to people movements. That is, instead of practicing institutional church as usual in the Christendom attractional mode (including many of our church plants that clone this model) we should strive to create missional people movements that incarnate the gospel within various subcultures and express the faith in indigenous forms that draw upon the culture of the converts.

The point to remember is that our churches in America and the West are as foreign to increasing numbers of people as gay bars are to evangelicals. Missions teaches us an important lesson here that we need to consider. For further consideration of this and related ideas I highly recommend contacting the American Society of Church Growth to order a copy of Bolger's presentation on audio CD.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Gerald McDermott: "Testing the Stark Thesis"

I have been fortunate recently to establish a relationship with Gerald McDermott of Roanoke College. Dr. McDermott has written a number of interesting things in the area of a theology of religions, and I find his perspective and approach of interest, and worthy of further exploration, both for the disciplines of theology and missiology. Of particular interest to me was his book Can Evangelicals Learn From World Religions: Jesus, Revelation & Religious Traditions (IVP, 2000). He has a new book coming out titled God's Rivals: The Challenge of Other Religions in the Bible and the Early Church. I don't have the publishing information, but I have been privileged to see an advance draft, and the book contains many interesting theological gems for missiological consideration and exploration.

Dr. McDermott also brought an article he wrote to my attention titled "Testing the Stark Thesis: Is Mormonism the First New World Religion Since Islam?" The article is published in the new edition of Books & Culture. The article critiques the claim of sociologist Rodney Stark that Mormonism will become the next major world religion. McDermott begins his article with consideration of whether Mormonism constitutes a new religion, or a new religious tradition sufficiently different from traditional Christianity to warrant a separate classification. He then discusses the question of whether Mormonism constitutes a world religion, and along the way notes the difficulties in defining the concept. After offering something of a functional definition of "world religion," McDermott then discusses whether Mormonism is the first such religion to arise since Islam, and notes that several others have arisen since the seventh century, and with far more adherents, such as True Pure Land Buddhism. In this section of his argument, McDermott contrasts The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society with the LDS Church using Stark's ten marks of a major world faith, and after noting a brief parity between the groups he concludes this section by stating: "Because the Witnesses have planted communities in 88% more countries, and are not as associated theologically with America in this increasingly anti-American world, their prospects for further growth might be a little better."

McDermott then concludes his critique by considering the "translatability" of traditional Christianity in its worldwide expansion as contrasted with Mormonism. McDermott interacts with leading scholars in the area of world Christianity studies, including Andrew Walls and Lamin Sanneh, and notes that through Christianity's history it has been enormously adept at translating its core concepts within the cultural frameworks of new cultures. By contrast, McDermott notes that Mormonism suffers from many obstacles to cross-cultural translation, with the exceptions of the South Pacific and Latin America. McDermott believes that this lack of cross-cultural translatability, coupled with its lack of a formal theology, will hamper any possibilities for Mormonism to become a world religion.

This article does not appear to be available at Books & Culture electronically, but the article contains some good information that make a hard copy worth finding and reviewing.