Sunday, April 30, 2006

Cornerstone Festival 2006: Attend if you can!

It will be my pleasure to participate in my fourth Cornerstone Festival this July 4-8 in Bushnell, IL. This year I am privileged to present seminars in two tracks, including Cornerstone You and the Imaginarium. Both sets of presentations look at differing issues from the perspective of intercultural studies. My series in the Cornerstone You venue looks cross-culturally at the rage directed at the West by the Majority World:

“The West and the Rest: Where Does Their Rage Come From?”
Americans scratch their heads at the constant protests and expressions of hatred against our country around the world. In reality, our lack of cultural appreciation and perspective causes us to misunderstand other cultures and their rage, but also to misunderstand the Scriptures and the Christian faith.

This year’s Imaginarium will be looking at various Day of the Dead celebrations in differing cultural contexts, and analyzing it from differing cultural expressions. My contribution to this fascinating topic is the following seminar series:

"Incarnation Means Becoming Human: Body, Soul & Imagination"
Image, myth, symbol and ceremony are the bread and butter of the Imaginarium, a fare people respond to as if they'd been starved. Often, they have been - by a Modern culture that prizes abstraction over incarnation. Missionaries worry about syncretism - mixing with non-Christian cultural forms - but have rarely scrutinized Modernity's conquest of the faith. Yet recent developments in missiology parallel the Imaginarium's journey in seeking a more sophisticated approach to culture. This seminar surveys those overlapping trails, and serves as the theoretical counterpart to our evening series: "Death Takes a Holiday: Celebrations of All Saints, Souls, & Bodies."

I am really looking forward to the perspective I will contribute to these topics and many of the other seminars as well. This may be the best overall year for the Imaginarium yet.

Most intriguing is a seminar series by Gretchen Passantino Coburn. I was fortunate to meet Gretchen, and her late husband Bob, during a previous Cornerstone event. We developed a relationship that continues to this day. During the course of our discussions I discovered a similar perspective on many issues of theology, apologetics, and missional approaches. Gretchen will also be speaking in the same venues as I am, and one of her sessions in Cornerstone You will be a joint Q&A between the two of us. Gretchen’s series in this venue captures the direction she has been moving in her thinking over the last few years:

“Why Doesn't Apologetics Work?”
Even seasoned apologists like Gretchen Passantino Coburn agree that most people adopt false beliefs and join aberrant groups for reasons other than intellectual, yet a wide spectrum of Christian leaders continue to focus on education and knowledge as the keys to right belief and practice. How do we resolve this paradox?

I know that Gretchen has been rethinking apologetics, theology, and mission in recent years. It will be interesting to hear her presentations and to see where her thinking is at the present time. Perhaps this veteran apologist and past co-worker with the late Walter Martin has moved to the incarnational mission side of the coin alongside this blogger.

If you can attend this year's C'Stone Fest, I wholeheartedly recommend it. And if you attend one of my seminars stop on by and say "hello."

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Diverse Faiths in our Neighborhoods: What Does the Lord Require of Us?

In a Yahoo discussion group Amos Yong of Regent College stimulated my thinking about an aspect of the encounter between evangelicals and adherents of other religions. He touched on implications from Jesus’ teachings from the parable of the Good Samaritan, as well Matt. 25 where Jesus states that how we respond to those in need reflect our reception (or denial) of him. Yong wondered how our treatment of the “religious other” might also be included in this passage of Scripture.

I found this perspective of great interest. Evangelicals spend a lot of time considering the soteriological destiny of those in other religions, defining orthodoxy in relation to heresy, and formulating evangelistic and mission strategies in this regard. But we spend little time reflecting on what God is doing in the Christian as they interact with those of other faiths. We are rightly concerned about a number of issues in the interfaith encounter, but we may be neglecting one of the most important issues in the process.

As I continue to consider the importance of this issue I was fortunate recently to come across an organization called Faith to Faith in the United Kingdom. An Internet search turned up this Christian consultancy which addresses the issue raised above as it also attempts to formulate a balanced Christian perspective in light of religious pluralism in the U.K., an approach similar to that of my own Neighboring Faiths Project in the U.S.

Faith to Faith was directed in the past by Ida Glaser, who is now senior teaching and research fellow for the Edinburgh Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies. She is the author of a wonderful book I am now reading (one of several!) titled The Bible and Other Faiths: Christian Responsibility in a World of Religions (IVP, 2005). The book is part of a series on Christian Doctrine in Global Perspective, with John Stott serving as the Consulting Editor. This book is extremely helpful in that it not only provides a global perspective on the question of religious pluralism, but also moves beyond traditional Christian approaches to the topic in order for Christians to reflect on what the Lord requires of us in the interreligious encounter. A brief excerpt from the first chapter provides a hint of the treat this book provides:
In August 2001 I led a seminar for teachers from theological colleges in Uganda. We were thinking about how and why they taught Islam. The key question, I suggested to them, is “How should we as Christians live in relation to Muslims? What does God want of us?” We looked at the Sermon on the Mount, at the great commandment of Matthew 22:39 and at the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20. Then we read Micah 6:8: “He has showed you, O human being, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (author’s translation).

Then I asked, “How are we getting along? Are we living like that in relation to Muslims? What stops us?”

The answers came immediately: “Muslims say that Jesus is not the Son of God. They criticize the Bible. They won’t let us preach. They are setting up lots of new mosques. They want to take over our town. They are persecuting Christians in Sudan. They won’t eat our food. They are trying to marry our daughters …”

I repeated what they had said, and they got the point. Even if all those things are true, is there anything in Muslims that Christians can blame for their own lack of obedience to God? Nothing in Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, atheist or even other Christians can stop us from doing what God requires. Only what is in us can do that.
Glasser’s book brings a helpful perspective for Christians living amidst America’s increasing religious diversity and who are concerned not only with sharing the faith across religious cultures, but also with the process of transformation through the Spirit that comes with our yielding to a life of service and love for those from the world’s religions (and new religions) that we live with in our neighborhoods.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Sacramento, California Trip Summary and Words of Clarification

My family and I are nearing the completion of our trip to Sacramento in the northern California area. Tomorrow is the last day as we have a few more meetings, luncheons, and time with friends.

The ministry experiences here have been encouraging. I presented Bridges to a combined group from two churches, RiverCity Calvary Chapel of South Sacramento, and LifeSong of Elk Grove. The presentation was well received, and several people expressed appreciation for a missional and relational approach to understanding Mormonism and sharing the gospel with Mormon friends.

This trip to California also included meetings with large churches in the greater Sacramento area. Several of them are considering hosting a Bridges presentation, along with the new Grounded program for teens developed by Salt Lake Theological Seminary. We are well on our way to developing an alternative evangelical approach to the LDS temple opening this summer.

In addition, I was able to touch bases with supporting churches, including First Baptist Church of Elk Grove, and Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church, where I gave a summary of our Utah ministry at the monthly missions potluck. We are thankful for the partnerships with these churches and many of their members who's prayers and financial support literally make our ministry possible.

During this visit I also had an opportunity to meet with a ministry colleague who shared concerns about the missional direction that I have taken. Similar concerns were shared with colleagues of mine in Utah while I was away. I'd like to use the opportunity presented by these concerns to clarify issues and provide further food for thought.

1. Missional paradigm. My colleague shared his concerns that the missional paradigm I am involved in was too academic, it could not be understood, and that he was against it. Several thoughts come to mind in response to this concern.

First, what is the missional model to new religions that I and colleagues from around the world are presenting? Very simply, we are suggesting that the cross-cultural missions approaches that are articulated in the New Testament, and continue into the history of Christian missions overseas, should be applied to the new religious movements in the U.S. and the West. This means viewing Mormonism, for example, as a culture rather than as a "cult," and engaging this culture holistically, drawing not only upon apologetic argument, but also cross-cultural missions.

Second, our missional paradigm has been developed academically, and our book, Encountering New Religious Movements (Kregel Academic & Professional, 2004), was designed as a textbook for Christian university students, Bible college students, missiologists, and other Christian scholars, but this does not mean the book should be dismissed by those who do not feel they are academically inclined. We hope to develop these ideas for the "lay" Christian reader in the near future, but I would encourage those who are tempted to dismiss the articulation of our missional thesis in the academy not to return to the anti-intellectualism that marks Christian fundamentalism.

Third, if someone cannot understand our missional paradigm then it cannot be dismissed as inappropriate. Recall the maxim of the necessity to be able to say "I understand" before you can say "I disagree." If countercult personalities do not understand the cross-cultural missions paradigm we are articulating then they have a responsibility to ask questions and to seek clarification and understanding before leveling criticism.

Fourth, we might consider the possibility that the reason why the missional paradigm has been reacted to so negatively by many in the countercult is not because the the thesis has not merit, but because it involves a paradigm shift. Shifting from heresy contrast and refutation to cross-cultural missions is not easy, and the heresy refutation filter for countercultists likely results in a skewed interpretation of the missional paradigm.

2. Critique of countercult philosophy and methodology. My colleague also shared his concerns about my critique of countercult theory and praxis. He feels that it is inappropriate to state that a given methodology is problematic and should not be engaged in, even when it comes to the "street preachers" in Utah. Two thoughts come to mind in response to this concern.

First, the cross-cultural missions paradigm to new religions contains within it an implicit critique of countercult approaches. While my vocal critique of the countercult paradigm has no doubt added fuel to the fire for those who disagree with me, eventually the deep differences between the two approaches would have been evident and would have to be dealt with.

Second, why can't criticism be leveled against different paradigms in the free marketplace of ideas, including the arena of ministry? Theologians and missiologists routinely engage each other and critique each other's work and few cry "foul" in these contexts. I also find it curious that a few countercult critics have recently refused to label even the most extreme street preachers in Utah as inappropriate and out of bounds, and yet these same critics feel comfortable leveling criticism against those of us developing a missional model. It seems that those of us who are arguing for a missional model that takes culture and Scripture seriously are more problematic for the countercult than those who hold up derogatory signs and wipe their buttocks with Mormon temple undergarments.

I would ask the critics of the missional model to give this approach a fair consideration. If you don't understand something, ask one of the proponents and we'll do our best to help you understand. Also keep in mind that our thesis was presented in a book that won a Christianity Today Book of the Year Award in the category of missions/global affairs, and the book and its ideas have been favorably reviewed by missiological journals in the U.S. and the U.K. Other academic periodicals have begun to consider the thesis as well, and in the recent issue of Bibliotheca Sacra our book was favorably reviewed. Beyond this, our paradigm has received the support of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, and leading theologians and missiologists as well. There is something credible and exciting here.

But at the end of the day it may be that representatives of our conflicting paradigms must part company. Recall Paul's parting of the ways with Barnabas. One of the great challenges for Christians has always been balancing our diversity with our unity. As the granddaddy of the countercult used to say, let's try to exercise the maturity necessary to "agree to disagree agreeably" even as we wish each other godspeed and pursue our differing pathways.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Off Next Week to California

My family and I leave tomorrow (Friday) for northern California and the Sacramento area. I will be presenting the Bridges training program to the combined churches of RiverCity Calvary Chapel and LifeSong Church. I will also be speaking on the challenge of Western culture and misisonal church to the college group of Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church Sunday night, and return Tuesday evening to update the church on my missions work in Utah at their monthly missions potluck. Beyond that I will be touching bases with various supporters, both individuals and churches, and I will be touching bases with key churches in order to pursue an Evangelical-LDS dialogue and Bridges training as an alternative to the distribution of literature during the opening of the LDS temple this summer in Rancho Cordova.

Given my travels in California I will not be posting on this blog next week. This means that those who enjoy reflecting on my posts will have to wait for a week, and my critics will have a week off as well which will allow their blood pressure and stress level to lower for a while.

I wish all my readers a wonderful Palm Sunday and Easter celebration.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Mormons as Enemies of God?: Reflections on LDS General Conference

Last Saturday and Sunday the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held its General Conference in Salt Lake City. I had the privilege of participating in Operation Loving Kindness sponsored by the ministry of Standing Together in connection with the conference on Saturday. The purpose of Operation Loving Kindness is for traditional Christians from a variety of area churches to share their love and support with Latter-day Saints as they enter and leave from their participation in General Conference. As the throngs of Mormons walked by we stood near the conference center and wished Mormons a good morning, and shared our love and support for them as individuals and as a people.

One of the fascinating aspects of participation in this event was the variety of responses from Mormons as well as the notorious "street preachers."

The response of Latter-day Saints was varied as one might expect, with some expressing an understandable hesitancy and concern over non-Mormons standing near the facility associated with General Conference. But the vast majority received us warmly and expressed their appreciation for our presence and expressions of kindness. A handful even went so far as to approach us, offer us a handshake, and thank us for our efforts and sentiments.

While the reactions of Latter-day Saints was of interest, the reaction of the street preachers was even more interesting. The handful of preachers were scattered up and down the main street that led to the conference, signs with scripture verses and derogatory slogans held high. They alternated between preaching messages of denunciation at Mormon passers by, and when LDS crowds thinned, they took aim at those of us affiliated with Standing Together, even going so far as to denounce us as heretics and unbelievers. (As an aside, the street preachers assumed they were presenting the gospel that was being rejected by heretics, when in fact no contextualized communication was taking place across the subcultures of evangelicalism and Latter-day Saints. Their sermons amounted to little more than a harangue that had no positive appeal and represented poor communication skills, even for evangelicals who might share aspects of their worldview.) During these dismissive sermons I was able to feel for just a moment some of the rejection and judgmentalism that Latter-day Saints must feel when they are the target of this aggressive form of "evangelism."

My experiences at General Conference came during a week when I also received a few emails from a critic of my blog on the topic of Mormonism. He began our brief exchange by asking whether I believed Mormons were rightly viewed as "enemies of God" which included his citation of Romans 11:25 which refers to ethnic Israel's becoming the enemy of God for the grafting in of the Gentiles into the Kingdom of God. As our exchanges continued it become increasingly evident that this person was looking for any kind of biblical justification for regarding Mormons as enemies of God, and presumably of evangelicals.

I believe the attitudes and behaviors of the street preachers and my email inquirer share a common thread, and that is a tendency to view the Mormon people (and not merely Mormonism) as an evil worthy of our denunciation and condemnation, but precious little else. While Christ surely engaged in moments of condemnation, a quick review of these instances in the New Testament reveals that he reserved such judgments for the religious leaders, not for the common people of various stripes, whether Jew or Samaritan (whom the Jews presumably thought were the enemies of God as well). Perhaps if Christ were to have made his first appearance in our time he would in like manner have given his most stern rebuke to corrupt Christian leaders while extending his mercy and invitation to the Kingdom to those some evangelicals perceive as enemies of God.

At any rate, I find it interesting that when evangelicals engage in acts of kindness and love for Mormons and engage in ways of ministry that challenge the status quo of confrontation, the attack quickly shifts to an expanded collection of targets that also includes fellow evangelicals. While there are certainly divergences of opinions and methodologies among the countercult community (to a limited degree), my experiences with both the countercult and the street preachers leads me to wonder whether they do not inhabit the same spectrum of ministry separated by degrees rather than by kind.