Category Archives: Blog Posts

Interview with the New Dean, Dr. David Smith

Ken: No doubt this was a hard decision to make. You love Kingswood, its faculty, and students. You are good friends with new President, Steve Lennox, and no doubt were excited about starting on his new journey with him. Why do you feel the Lord is leading you to make this change in your life’s ministry at this time?

David Smith: Ken, thanks for giving me the opportunity to walk you thru the decision from my perspective. First, this was such difficult decision since I have a job at Kingswood University that I love and I work with people who I deeply respect. Moreover, President Mark Gorveatte has given the faculty here at Kingswood freedom to (re)create and (re)vision the curriculum for the 21st century. This is not restricted to the classes we teach but also to the entire delivery system. We have tried to create a transformational environment where we harmoniously partner with the Holy Spirit to fashion men and women in the Imago Dei. I like to think we have accomplished something innovative and unique.

Second, I have the utmost respect for our new president, Dr. Steve Lennox. Ken, you know that when you first approached me about this position of academic dean, I said, “no.” The simple reason was this: above all else, I love this man and desire for Dr. Lennox’s success at Kingswood University. Moreover, I long for Kingswood to be known as THE go-to place for ministry preparation in North America. I want nothing to adversely affect this goal.

Third, with that in mind, why move now? A position like dean at Wesley Seminary does not comes along every day. But more so, the opportunity at this juncture in the Seminary’s creation story is really a once-in-a-lifetime event. Ken, years ago there were several of us that “dreamed” of a holistic Seminary experience that would shape “practicing pastors” in a manner which would not only transform them but their churches and local communities. You, Dr. Schmidt, and the faculty and staff at Wesley have created just such a place at Wesley Seminary. Now, you and Wayne have invited me to partner in the next phase of the Seminary adventure; moving from “creation” to “sustainability.” Let’s buckle-up.
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Ken:  You were at IWU and are now returning, what new insights would you say you are bringing back from your experience at Kingswood?

David Smith:  When it comes to curriculum–Two words immediately come to mind; integrated and holistic. First, and Wesley Seminary stands firm on this value; the best teaching and deepest learning takes place in an integrated life-experience. Most seminaries have historically taught classes within specific disciplines: Bible, Theology, Church History and practical ministry classes. But no one in the real world lives in that kind of silo-mentality. We must “live, move and have our being” as whole persons. My question has always been “why not model teaching the way we live life?” Thus, output from one class serves as input to another. If you are taking a Bible class on the Gospels, an exegesis assignment on Mark or John will become the sermon topic for a Homiletics class. We need not double up assignments thinking that will give us better outcomes. Theological education should mirror life!

My second take away from Kingswood flows directly out of the idea of integration but this new nuance is found in the word holistic. Every area of life becomes a classroom experience. Not merely a room with four walls and some flashy technology. Rooms are great, but there is more to theological education than the exchange of content in a assigned classroom (brick-and-mortar or virtual). Moreover, AFTER seminary, will our learning and growing still take place or must you reconvene with a ministry expert to explore fresh truths? Thus, at Kingswood we have tried to create “classrooms without walls.” Every institution says this. We celebrate it! Hallways, cafeteria, chapel, coffee-time, eating in professors’ homes are just as integral to learning process as the traditional classroom. Learning takes place in all arenas of life.

When it comes to holistic theological education; that implies more than the cognitive realm. Kingswood is not just about making her students smarter but about shaping their heads, hearts, and hands all at the same time. This is just as true for Wesley Seminary. Since everyone one must be serving in ministry while in Seminary; the best learning laboratory is no longer found in the classroom or a library cubicle but the most-favored place for learning is actually in the local church. Personally, in my mind, the shaping of a person’s soul is just as important (if not more so) than the fashioning of their cognitive domain. Listen to what I just read by Dallas Willard this morning when asked what is the primary role of a pastor in the transformation of his/her local church, “You must arrange your life so that you are experiencing deep commitment, joy, and confidence in your everyday life with God.” Willard is stressing (as do all the other spiritual formation guru’s; Eugene Peterson, James Bryan Smith, Richard Foster) that pastoral ministry is less about what you know and what you do; but more flows directly out of who you are! We must be about shaping the WHOLE person to facilitate true Kingdom outcomes.
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Ken:  Some might argue that Wesley Seminary is entering a second phase in his existence. The planting and founding stage is over. As you look forward, what is your vision for Wesley Seminary as its incoming academic Dean?

David Smith:  I am unapologetically a collaborative-leader. It would certainly be possible for me to give you a list of ideas that are close to my heart; many of which I have shared with Dr. Schmidt during the interview process over the last month. I shared them with him so he would know where my passions lay and what causes my heart to beat faster. But if I was to put them into a 1,2,3 step plan for Wesley Seminary during the next 18 months and hand them over at our next Wesley Seminary faculty meeting; I would set the tone as a patriarchal dean. Instead, I desire to get to know the faculty and staff…and to discover their passions for Wesley. Next, to examine the current trajectory and to put into place any needed systems to sustain (and even escalate) the unprecedented growth patterns for the first 6 years.

Being a collaborative-leader often means change takes place at a slower pace. But at the same time, its final outcome is not merely a decision but to enjoy the journey with the ones whom you are traveling. Moreover, the journey is like the offer Gandalf gives to Frodo, “I’m looking for someone to share in an adventure.” The great delight for me is that when the adventure is over, its not just a wonderful time of creative energy but that we have been fashioned in a unified whole who have a shared vision and unified ownership. I love being employed (and called) in the Kingdom.

But if it might help…let me share two truths about myself that might reveal a few directions I just might be leaning…

I am a Pastor-Teacher. I tell President Mark Gorveatte regularly, I am a pastor masquerading as a dean. I can do administration but heart is with and for the local church. Paper shuffling and I are not best friends; unless it leads to the goal of forming the faculty/staff into persons-on-mission-together or shaping the Imago Dei in others. And the older I get the more I affirm this; teams work so much better than individual super-stars. That is why I love Wesley Seminary; for here we celebrate “foot-washing pastors” not intellectual giants in the front of a classroom.

I am a Bridge-builder. I long for the Academy as a whole to serve rather than be served. We have for too long seen the “ivory tower” as the pinnacle and purveyor of the knowledge of Christ. Yet the call of Scripture summarized by Paul in the Ephesian prayer, “For this reason I kneel before the Father…that you may grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge” (3:18-19). Thus, the Academic world disconnected from the local church is disembodied truth; for love, according to the Apostle Paul surpasses our thinking capacities. And the local church isolated from both the Academy and the global Kingdom will and certainly has at times atrophied into its current less-than-effective state (at least in the North American context). Thus, I long to spend time connecting the local church, the Academy, and the world into its purposeful reality, so God can once again declare His creation-fiat, “It is good.” This, in my heart, means we must be driven by His Spirit to be Kingdom minded-creation honoring-ethnically inclusive-local church oriented followers. Kingdom success can be defined in so many ways, but for me, it’s how well we play together and enter into the Perichoretic dance with the Triune God. This I want to be involved in on both the vision-casting level but also as an active participant.
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Ken:  What else would you like to say to those who are excitedly watching you make this transition?

David Smith: In early spring, all Wesleyan pastors are asked if this will be a year of transition for them. I was asked by a number of pastors to help them “traverse” this thought-process with them. I penned this blog post to help others in their process. Little did I know that the Lord was preparing Angie and me to think deeply over the people and the place where we would be serving in the years ahead.

Five years ago, the Lord did not lead us AWAY from Indiana Wesleyan but rather called us TO Kingswood. His voice was clear and undeniable. Not obeying was never an option. We have treasured every day we have spent here in Atlantic Canada– breath-taking landscapes, delicious seafood, and so many beautiful relationships of all ages that have shaped the way we love the Lord and serve others. I have been given countless opportunities to serve the church like never before. For this I am eternally grateful. Nevertheless, the move to Canada was hard because of the distance we placed between family and life-long friends. Angie and I both have aging parents whom we are not serving well and grandchildren who we are watching grow up on Skype.

Everything I Learned about Church I Learned from the Drive-In Theater (Kwasi Kena)

In 1989, Robert Fulghum wrote the book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. The book is a series of two to three page essays. Each one presents a reflection on some unique learning experience Fulghum had in life. His book opens with a poem like creed that proclaims that all one needs to learn about living a good life one already knows or should have learned in kindergarten. In related fashion, I wonder if we can learn much about church behavior from the rise and fall of drive-in theaters.

In 1955, The Reformed Church of America gave The Reverend Robert Schuller and his wife Arvella a $500 grant to start a ministry in California. In a quirky entrepreneurial move, the Schullers chose to launch their ministry in a drive-in theater. An early ad expressed what the ministry appealed to in potential visitors: “The Orange Church meets in the Orange Drive-In Theater where even the handicapped, hard of hearing, aged and infirm can see and hear the entire service without leaving their family car” (Garber, 2012).

The idea of a drive-in church appealed to a combination of privacy and public spectacle. People could worship in the private space provided by their enclosed cars, while simultaneously joining other private worshippers in a public space. Worshippers came, watched and drove home without having to leave their cars or interact with people in the “congregation” or the surrounding community.

In his classic book, With Justice for All, John Perkins took a stance opposite that of drive-in church culture. Perkins, a native of Mississippi, did what many blacks did during segregation. He noted the three choices before him: 1) Stay, accept the system and become dehumanized; 2) go to jail or get killed; or 3) leave for the big city (Perkins, 2007, p. 16). Perkins chose the latter and moved to California where “he made it”. There, Perkins got a good job, earned a good living, and purchased a house where his wife Vera Mae and his children could live a happy comfortable life. But, as Janet O. Hagberg points out in Real Power, what Perkins acquired is what Hagberg refers to as power by achievement. In this stage you acquire the types of status symbols that presume success: a good job, a nice car, a fine home, a comfortable style of living. She goes on to note, however, that real power begins to surface when we acknowledge the call on our lives. When we recognize that we live not just to accumulate external symbols of success, but rather respond to the inner urges of God’s Spirit.

Ironically, in the midst of this season of comfort, Perkins got converted to Christianity and became a diligent disciple. Then Perkins sensed God’s call to return to segregated Mississippi; a place where he had no job, no opportunities, and no home to call his own. It was there that Perkins learned to live among the people he was called to serve; to feel what they felt and see life through their eyes. After years of living among the people, overcoming their astonishment at his return at great cost to himself and his family, the people began to trust him. He entered into solidarity; and from that space of trust Perkins and the people in the community together determined when, where and how they could become partners in helping to build each other up and develop the community for Christ.

In the 1980s there were over 2,400 drive-in theaters; now, there are less than 350. Times have changed. The technology in the movie industry changed from 35mm film to digital and the expense of updating drive-in theater projection equipment is cost prohibitive. Times have changed. The ethnic demographics in the United States is more varied than it ever has been in the history of this nation. Chances are great that the neighborhoods surrounding church edifices built in the mid to late 1900s have changed drastically. Drive-in congregations remain a reality. The question becomes whether or not drive-in congregants are willing to relinquish preferences for privacy and minimal interaction with members of the community surrounding the church.

References

Garber, M. (2012) “Real faith: How the drive-in movie theater helped create the megachurch. The startup origins of the Crystal Cathedral”. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/06/reel-faith-how-the-drive-in-movie-theater-helped-create-the-megachurch/258248/

Hagberg, J. O. (2012). Real power: Stages of personal power in organizations (Third Edition). (Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing Company).

Perkins, J. (2007). With justice for all A strategy for community development (Revised & Updated). (Ventura, CA: Regal Books).

 

 

Tactical Tips for the Guest Speaker

If you’re a pastor, chances are someone at some point will invite you to be a guest speaker at their church or special event.  Guest speaking occasions can provide some of the most significant opportunities for ministry impact. The guest speaking adventure is also laden with some dangerous dynamics. These guest speaker survival tips can help you navigate the challenges.

Explore the Context: There have been a few times when I was invited to preach in a context that I knew absolutely nothing about. Maybe that has happened to you. The person who invited you was in her 20s, so you planned a message for 20 somethings. When you arrived to speak at the event, you discovered that the large majority of people in the preaching context are in their 60s and 70s. None of your pop culture illustrations and quotes are going to connect with this crowd. You might as well chuck the Lady Gaga quote and Avengers movie illustration. If we take the time to explore the context, total disconnects like this one wouldn’t happen.

Nowadays, when I am invited to speak in a new context, I ask the person inviting me to complete a Ministry Request Form. On the form I request the following information: Describe the culture of the group with five adjectives. What is the demographic make-up of the group in terms of ethnicity, generation, socio-economics, education, and spiritual maturity? What is the purpose of the event? How many people will attend the event? What is the appropriate attire for the event? The response to these inquiries provides a sketch of the group and shapes the content and delivery of my message.

When I receive the completed Ministry Request Form I pass it on to members of my prayer team. They not only pray for my speaking events, but help me to discern which invitations to accept.

Respect the Context: If someone invites you to speak at their event, then they want you to be you. You should show up at the event as your authentic self. After all, they want you to speak. But, without losing the essence of who you are as a person and a preacher, you should respect the context enough to adapt to it. I’ve seen too many speakers shoot themselves in the foot by disrespecting the context. They dress incongruently with the group. They use language that offends the group. Their message goes 20 minutes past the group’s listening capacity. It’s one thing to explore the context, it’s another to respectfully adjust to it. The needs of the listener must trump our personal preferences. We call this empathy and it is effective when genuine.

When the speaker disrespects the group she has been invited to address, the listeners can’t help but ear-muff the message. They’ll stop listening to what you have to say when they feel disregarded. If the group is going to be impacted by what God gave you to share, they will need to sense that you “get” and respect who they are.

Thank Your Host:  I’m often so eager to jump into my message that I forget to thank my host for cutting me loose in his people. About 5 minutes into my message I realize, as I make eye contact with the host, that I forgot to express thanks for the invitation and hospitality he extended to me. At this point, it’s too late. It wouldn’t be wise for me to say, “I interrupt this message with the following public service announcement- I want to thank your so and so for inviting me here today.”

Remember that while it’s important to thank the host, don’t overdo it, especially if you’re on a tight time budget. Make your comments brief and to the point. But please try to offer something a bit more creative and personal than the typical “thanks so much for having me.” Come on. You can do better than that.

Exalt Jesus: Although we must respect the context, we are called to proclaim Christ not entertain people. Our speaking should exalt Christ in a winsome manner. But, at the end of the sermon’s day, listeners should come away more impressed with Christ than with the speaker. If the host asks you not to mention the name of Jesus in your message, say at an inter-faith event, and you just can’t comply, be up front with your host. But, if your host doesn’t make such a request, proclaim Christ with love, respect and absolute gusto!

I was invited to the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives Session at the Capitol Building in Harrisburg to offer an opening prayer. I’m a Christian minister, so the content of my prayer was Christ-focused. No one asked me not to pray in the name of Jesus and I didn’t ask permission. I assumed that’s what they expected since I’m a Christian minister. I didn’t use my prayer to beat up on other religions. I didn’t pray, “and, God, we know that all Muslims and Hindus are going to hell” or anything like that. That would betray my rule about respecting the context. But, make no mistake, Jesus was the central point of my prayer. I thanked the Father for sending Christ the Son to be the ultimate public servant. One of the people who worked at the State Capitol Building said to me, “it was so good to hear a prayer from a Christian minister that mentioned Jesus.” I know, novel, right?

Discussion

Now it’s your turn to share some wisdom with our readers. What tips for the guest speaker would you add to my list? Which of my tips do you want to challenge or confirm?

Your Church Needs Two New Side-Doors Next Year (Charles Arn)

The front doors of many churches today are closing. “Front doors” is a term that describes how most newcomers first come in contact with a church—as visitors to worship or to some other special event.  It is out of this visitor pool that churches have traditionally identified prospective new members.  However, in the past 20 years both the total number of church visitors has been declining, as well as the percentage of visitors to total attendance in most churches.

If you want to see your church survive, let alone thrive, I suggest that you build some new “side-doors” that will create new ways to connect with people in your community.

What is a “side-door”?  Here is a definition:

Side-door: A church-sponsored program, group, or activity in which a non-member/non-Christian can become comfortably involved and develop meaningful relationships with people in the church.

A side-door provides a place where church members and non-members develop friendships around something important they share in common. And such friendships are an important key that describes the most important means by which people come to Christ and the church.  (See The Silver Bullet for Disciple-Making.)

Here are just a few examples of actual side-doors that churches have created where members and non-members are developing friendships around common interests. There are side-doors in churches for people who:

• ride motorcycles • have children in the military • own RVs • are recent widowers • are newlyweds • enjoy reading books • are unemployed • suffer from chronic pain • have husbands in jail • are nominal Jews • have spouses who are not believers • are fishermen • are single mothers • want to get in better physical condition • wish to help homeless families • play softball • are interested in end-times • have a bed-ridden parent • are raising grandchildren • are moms with teenage daughters • need help managing their finances • enjoy scrap-booking • are children in blended families • have children with a learning disability • are married to men who travel frequently • enjoy radio controlled airplanes • are pregnant • are affected by homosexuality • struggle with chemical dependency • are empty-nesters • enjoy camping • are divorced with no children • have a family member diagnosed with cancer • are single dads • enjoy SCUBA diving • are hearing-impaired …and that’s just a start!

About 10% of the churches in the United States are side-door churches in which “…most of the new people who connect with the church made first contact through a ministry other than the worship service.”[1] We also know that approximately 14% of churches in the U.S. are experiencing growth in the worship attendance. While I have not tried to correlate these two numbers, it would not be surprising to find a strong relationship between “side-door churches” and “growing churches”.  Rev. Craig Williford, recalling his experience in leading two growing churches, says: “Our weekend services were very vital. But the side door ministries produced more evangelism and brought far more new people into our church.”[2]

What You Can Do About It

How can your church begin creating side doors—new groups, new classes, new activities where members and non-members can build friendships?  Here are some guidelines for starting new side-doors:

1.  Find the Passion. Everyone in your church cares deeply about something; sometimes it’s a number of things. Such passion generally falls into one of two categories: “Recreational” or “Developmental”. The first relates to how people like to spend their free time. Topics may range from baking apple pies to studying zoology. The second category, Developmental, relates to major life issues. Topics usually center around: health, finances, relationships, or employment.

2.  Hold an “exploratory” meeting. Invite three or more people who share the same passion to a brainstorming session to discuss the idea of your church starting a new ministry for people who —– [the area of passion]. Include an announcement in the church bulletin inviting interested worshippers to the meeting. Explain that participants in the meeting are not being asked to get involved in the project, just to share their ideas and brainstorm possibilities for a new ministry. Gather the group, perhaps over a meal, and explore the possibilities of your church starting such a ministry. Explain that one of the primary purposes of the new ministry is to build friendships with non-members through connecting around a common interest. Let the meeting take its course, and see what kind of interest is generated. If there is any enthusiasm, take the next step:

3.  Research other churches. Chances are good that there are churches that have already developed a creative ministry in the area you are considering. If the brainstorming group is interested and willing, ask individuals to go online and search out any other churches that might have a ministry for people with that particular interest. Then compare notes with others who have done similar research.

4.  Describe what such a ministry could look like in five years. Assess the enthusiasm of the group in taking the next step to explore a new ministry. Don’t expect 100% success in all exploratory gatherings. If there aren’t at least three people with the desire to help start a new ministry, put the idea on the back burner. You’re looking for a spark of enthusiasm that might catch hold of a group of dreamers in your church.

5. Form a “Ministry Planning Team” with at least three people who are willing to help build a new ministry (side-door) in your church.  Develop a timeline with dates and events for the next year. Agree that in six months the activities will be evaluated as to whether there is a possible future for this new ministry idea. And discuss how the church can be most supportive in this new initiative.

There is, of course, much involved in creating a fully-functioning side-door ministry. But most growing churches today have at least one side door that grew out of the passion of members, and has become an entry-path to life in Christ and that church.  Why not try it and see what happens.  You might be pleasantly surprised…

(For a more information and a planning guide for building side doors, see the book Side Door published by Wesley Publishing House, 2013.)

[1] Gary McIntosh. Beyond the First Visit. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006, p. 22.

[2] Denver Seminary Magazine: Fall 2004 Sep 15, 2004 Emergent Dialogue.

In Defense of “Religion” (Brannon Hancock)

At some point – I know not when – religion became a dirty word. And this attitude doesn’t just come from critics outside the church. I’ve heard many Christians make this distinction as well: “It’s not about religion; it’s about relationship.” Or “I’m spiritual, but not religious” – religion often serving as a cipher for rituals, moral codes, spiritual disciplines, and the like.

A couple years ago, this attitude was brought to its clearest – or at least loudest – articulation by Jefferson Bethke in his spoken-word video “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus.” The video had 1.2 million hits within its first 24 hours online (that’s an average of 14 views per second); 11 million hits the first week; and has been viewed nearly 30 million times in the three years since it was uploaded. (That’s off-the-charts virality, especially for a piece of Christian pop culture.) Continue reading

What’s the point? (Colleen Derr)

In one of my classes we are reading through Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, a classic on the spiritual disciplines. A student in the class shared with me that she found the first two sections, inward and outward disciplines, a drudgery and was overwhelmed at how foreign some of the disciplines were to her – things like meditation and solitude. She said that the idea of practicing those disciplines was horrifying because she is an action-oriented busy person who loves being around people, but the corporate disciplines – she was all over those!

The reality is the list of disciplines can be overwhelming. Even the title “spiritual disciplines” sounds like something to avoid. Foster’s work is compelling and his suggestion that the disciplines put us in the path of God’s grace is lovely but what exactly is the role of the spiritual disciplines in our spiritual formation? What is their purpose? What is the point? We know that the disciplines help us to grow, but how? Three things to consider:

#1 The spiritual disciplines help us to WAIT.
I always thought that spiritual formation began with obedience –God moves with grace and we respond in obedience – but perhaps there is something that comes before obedience.

What if, in our desire to be obedient we fill our lives with busyness (good things but busy things) that create chaos and a buzz that actually get in the way of hearing, knowing, seeing, and sensing what we are supposed to be obedient to? Is it possible to become so engaged in “doing good” that we miss His intended best? Perhaps the spiritual disciplines can help us learn how to wait – to be still – so that we can hear His voice.

I hate to wait; even when I have nowhere to go I don’t like to wait. Statistics suggest that we spend six months of our lives waiting in line and five months complaining – I’m convinced that the two are directly related!

Ortberg wrote in his wonderful book The Life You’ve Always Wanted: “People nowadays take time far more seriously than eternity” and calls hurry a sickness. He suggests we’ve all bought the line by the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland:
“Now here, you see it, it takes all the running you can do to stay in the same place. If you want to go somewhere else, you have to run twice as fast.”

In our desire to grow – to experience spiritual formation – we “run twice as fast” and find ourselves exhausted when what we need to do is to stop and learn how to wait!

#2 They help us see in the dark.

The spiritual disciplines can help us lose our sight so we can truly see! We spend our lives (spiritual lives) looking for the light so we can find the path – the path to holiness, to growth, to God. But perhaps the place where we find God is not in the light but in the dark?

Gregory of Nyssa saw Moses’s cloud as a cipher for the spiritual life. Think about Moses’s encounter with God. Moses’ vision began with light (a burning bush). As Moses’s relationship with God grew, God spoke to him in a cloud, and eventually he was able to see God in the dark!

Barbara Brown Taylor in Learning to Walk in the Dark poses the question: “How do we illumine the night without turning on the lights?” She tells the story of an experience she had at “Dialogue in the Dark” – an interactive experience where sighted people maneuver through a typical every day life blind. In the end she was exhausted, frustrated, and humbled by her lack of ability: “But I was also aware of how blindness had split the distance between me and all these other people. Touching was inevitable; apologies were redundant. We were not embarrassed to be dependent on each other.”
Blindness split the distance between me and others
The darkness removed boundaries, limitations, assumptions, and preconceived notions – the dark helped her “see” what mattered.

There is a light that can illumine the night without turning on the lights…the spiritual disciplines help us experience this light as we learn to “use our senses to experience what is real”…as we learn to see in and embrace the dark. What Dionysius called “the unapproachable light in which God dwells”.

“Though you have not seen him, you love him;
and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him
and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy”
(I Peter 1:8) Continue reading

Culture and Christ: 3 Lessons (Bob Whitesel)

Lesson 1:

Carefully investigate and examine elements of a culture. Since modern culture is constantly adjusting and metamorphosing, the task of translating the Good News without surrendering its truth or disfiguring it is paramount and ongoing. This arduous task begins with thorough and careful examination of a culture. Anthropologist Paul Hiebert described culture as, “an integrated system of learned patterns of behavior, ideas and products characteristic of a society.”(1) Scrutiny of such an elaborate system is not for an immature Christian, since it requires investigating and evaluating a culture without being tainted by its more sordid elements.

However, a failure by Christian communicators to sufficiently investigate modern culture can make us look irrelevant. In an earlier book I interviewed Larry Osborne, pastor of North Coast Church in Vista, California. Larry told me the phenomenal growth of the church was in part because he regularly studies modern culture by perusing secular business, entertainment, and lifestyle magazines. “If I don’t understand the business world, when a businessperson talks to me about his or her world, its like were using two different dictionaries.”(2) The use of disparate dictionaries can also dilute an exchange of ideas with the young culture.

Therefore stay current with today’s youth culture by cautiously scrutinizing their books, music, movies, music videos, computer games, web-sites, web-blogs, etc.. While the truths of the Good News must never be sacrificed nor altered, connecting and contrasting it with today’s youth culture can make it more comprehensible.

Lesson 2

Discriminate and sift elements of a culture. There is a tension between Christ and culture that must be examined. Richard Niebuhr in his classic treatise Christ and Culture suggested that there are several ways to look at Christ’s interaction with culture.(3)

One is “Christ against culture” a view embraced by the early church father Tertullian. In this view culture is seen as evil, thus requiring Christians to withdraw and insulate themselves, resulting in a monastic response. Charles Kraft exposes three fallacies in this view, demonstrating it is not in keeping Paul’s view that “nothing is unclean of itself” (Romans 14:14).(4)

Another view Niebuhr called “Christ Above Culture” which he divided into sub-categories.(5)  “Christ Above Culture in Synthesis” was held by Thomas Aquinas and views Jesus as the restorer of institutions of true society. This view believes that Christianity will one day totally transform culture, perhaps into a millennial peace. In another sub-category, “Christ Above Culture in Paradox,” Christ is seen above but in such tension with culture that a messy, muddled relationship results. Martin Luther grappled with this perspective, as did modern writer Mike Yaconelli who called this “messy spirituality.”(6)

However, a more valid sub-category may be “Christ Above but Transformer of Culture.” Embraced by Augustine, John Calvin, and John Wesley this view sees culture as corrupt but convertible.(7)  Kraft built upon this his position called “Christ above but working through culture,” explaining that “God chooses the cultural milieu in which humans are immersed as the arena of his interaction with people.”(8) Eddie Gibbs further elaborates that “such an approach represents a deliberate self-limiting on the part of God in order to speak in understandable terms and with perceived relevance on the part of the hearer. He acts redemptively with regard to culture, which includes judgment on some elements, but also affirmation in other areas, and a transformation of the whole.”(9)

If the “Christ above but working through culture” truly defines the tension and nexus between Christ and culture, then the job of the Christian communicator becomes challenging if not precarious. Therefore, our strategy must not conclude simply with step 1, investigating and examining culture, but also must continue through step 2, sifting and judging its elements. Here the prudent communicator must make qualitative judgments based upon Scripture, ethics, personal belief and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Lesson 3

Reject or affirm elements of culture. The end result of this examination or sifting, must be a rejection of elements in conflict with Christ, but also an affirmation of those elements that are not so. I found that leaders of the organic church usually sift carefully through the movies, television shows, music, games, online resources and literature of young people. And they routinely explain in their sermons how God judges some aspects of postmodern culture, accepts other elements such as an emphasis on helping the needy, and has as a goal the transformation of the whole.(10)

The Christian communicator wishing to make the Good News relevant today must carefully examine the media barrage engulfing young people, understand its messages, while at the same time sifting elements that are opposed to Christ and identifying touchstones that can make connections with unchurched peopled. Freeway’s use of comedic film clips to underscore or juxtaposition God’s Word and contemporary culture has helped this organic congregation connect the Good News to unchurched young people.

Excerpted with permission from Inside the Organic Church: Learning from 12 Emerging Congregations (Abingdon Press).

Endnotes

  1. Paul Hiebert, Cultural Anthropology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1983), p. 25.
  2. Bob Whitesel, Growth By Accident, Death By Planning, op. cit., p. 26.
  3. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1951). A second view is beyond the scope of our discussion. Labeled by Niebuhr “Christ of culture,” it was embraced by early Gnostic heretics. They interpreted Christ through cultural trends, rejecting any claims of Christ that conflicted with their culture. Counter to this, Isaiah 55:8 reminds us that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, or our ways his ways.
  4. Charles H. Kraft, Christianity in Culture, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1979), pp. 105-106.
  5. Kraft, ibid., pp. 108-115 sees five subdivisions of the “Christ Above Culture” position. However, for this discussion only three are required. The reader seeking more exhaustive insights will benefit from a careful exploration of Kraft’s work.
  6. Mike Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2002). Yaconelli’s viewpoint has been popular among postmodern Christians, And, before his untimely death, Yaconelli was in demand as a lecturer. Young people often saw in his perspective one more in keeping with their untidy journey towards discipleship. To understand the angst and anxiety many young people sense today between their Christian understanding and their vacillating demeanor, see Yaconelli’s insightful volume.
  7. Charles H. Kraft, Christianity in Culture, p. 113.
  8. Ibid., p. 114.
  9. Eddie Gibbs, I Believe in Church Growth, (Grand Rapids, Mich,: Eerdmans, 1981), p. 92.
  10. In my travels through the organic church, I found it’s leaders usually approached the rejection or affirmation of cultural elements in a circumspect and serious manner. Whether it was the “discothèque clubbers” of England who had to decide at what point youthful fashions became lewd, or the film clips that Freeway employed to illustrate a point; young organic leaders typically see the rejection of base elements of culture as not only required, but judicious.

Being Missional to Immigrants (Zach Szmara)

As a pastor, this week is one of my favorite weeks of the year.  It is a week that seems to end in confusion, defeat, and despair but on Sunday I have the joy of proclaiming hope, restoration, transformation, life, and a future.  This message means even more to me recently as I’ve had the amazing privilege of sitting on the front row and witnessing a resurrection miracle over the past three years.

It was three years ago, the week after Easter, when my family reluctantly came to Logansport, Indiana.  We were excited about other ministry possibilities, but felt compelled to give this declining church at least 2 weeks of our time before we moved on to exciting other places and left the church in Logansport for someone else to take care of it until it closed its doors.

I wanted to move on because I honestly love Jerusalem, Judea, and the far parts of the world, but I don’t care much for Samaria.  Logansport, Indiana was a small city that had gone through a rapid change from being a Jerusalem of middle-class, Anglo, English-speaking, conservative Midwesterners to a city in which almost 1 in 3 who lived in Logansport were from an immigrant home.  A school system that had less than 20 students out of 4500 learning English a decade ago, now has 1758 students learning English because their heart language spoken at home is a language other than English.  The community was changing, but its residents and its churches were unprepared for the dynamics of that change.

On the second (and what I thought was last) Sunday I preached in Logansport, an immigrant family asked us to come to dinner with them.  During that meal, Samaria became more than a place to avoid as Samaria now had faces and stories.  We decided after that meal that we were home – that we would stop avoiding and bypassing Samaria, but we would actually set up residence in Samaria.

In Samaria, I learned that God called me, as He calls all His followers, to Biblical hospitality.  The Greek word used throughout the New Testament for hospitality is philoxenos, which literally means, “love” (philo) “immigrants” (xenos).  As we began loving, learning from, serving, and worshiping alongside immigrants, I found out that one of the major felt needs that immigrants face is the confusing labyrinth of the current immigration system.  Many immigrants find themselves lost amidst the countless rumors swirling around immigration and others have given their whole life savings to fraudulent individuals (called “notarios”) that actually are detrimental to their process.

The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) of the United States government has a provision to allow a representative to legally guide someone through the complex and confusing immigration system.  After receiving the necessary training and experience, our application was approved and The Bridge Community Church in Logansport became the very first Immigrant Connection legal site in The Wesleyan Church and one of the first local church-based sites in the nation.

Opening an Immigrant Connection site has sparked transformation on countless levels.  In one year’s time we have helped close to 300 different individuals from over 22 nations spanning North and South America, Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Pacific.  We have reunited families who had not seen each other for decades.  We have helped young people receive DACA and become eligible to go to college for the first time.  We have been instruments of redemption to victims of violent crimes and helped them find a hope and a future and a way forward.  We have helped make crooked paths straight and brought truth into situations wrought with rumors and lies.

Our church family has quadrupled in size from the time we decided to launch an Immigrant Connection site.  This growth has been across cultural, ethnic, and linguistic lines with multiple cultures worshiping together in both English and Spanish every Sunday.  Even more, the spiritual growth that has occurred is remarkable as Anglos, who believed the worst of immigrants their whole lives, and immigrants, who believed the worst of Anglos their whole lives, now share life together in small groups and call each other friends and family.

The transformation has overflowed into our community and we are living what it looks like to bring God’s Kingdom to our city as a voice for the marginalized, advocates for the disenfranchised, and leaders in bringing education, empowerment, and reconciliation.  Our school system regularly invites us to share with faculty, students, and parents.  Recently we were asked to form and lead a countywide diversity task force.  When city leaders, organizational leaders, and business leaders think about how they would like the future to look, they think of The Bridge.  Each day I am amazed by all that Jesus is doing in us and through us because we answered His call to love immigrants.

I am so excited that Immigrant Connection of The Wesleyan Church is partnering with Wesley Seminary and World Relief to support a class on church-based immigrant ministry held at the seminary in Marion, Indiana and also here at The Bridge Community Church in Logansport, Indiana. This course provides understanding of the immigration system in the United States in preparation for taking the exam for BIA recognition and approval. It also provides the Biblical and theological foundations for Christian engagement with issues of immigration.

I would encourage you, whether you are a Wesley Seminary student, pastor, or just an active member of a local church that has a heart for immigrants, to consider engaging in this class to learn the tools that make it possible to see lives transformed in your community and get a front row seat as to what resurrection and new life looks like.  The need is great and it exists in almost every area of the United States, from large urban areas to suburbs to small towns like Logansport.

May you lean in to what Jesus is calling you to do in your community.  May you choose to go to Samaria rather than bypass it or turn a blind eye to it.  May you enter into the despair, defeat, and confusion that exists and be an instrument of truth, hope, transformation, and resurrection!

Revisionist Ritual (Safiyah Fosua)

Times are a-changing!  From where I sit, the greater challenge in worship is not the change itself, but rather the rationale for change and the theology of emerging forms.  We do not contextualize worship for the sake of making ourselves appear more attractive to seekers, but change is needed when the old ways of saying, doing, singing, or communicating no longer convey the message to new (or existing) ears.

A time of liturgical renewal
We are living through several major shifts in worship.  One obvious shift has been the huge change in the music and worship styles of weekly worship.  Another, less obvious shift is in how and when we use liturgy and ritual forms.  Some regard liturgy as fragments of historical faith, transmitted to us alongside the Bible that we are obliged to use dutifully.  Others regard liturgy as dated artifacts of the faith of saints past to be abandoned.  Exceptions would include several songs that have attained universality, and certain service music – like the doxology – that, for some have become synonymous with Christian culture.

How could such a large body of tried and true liturgy fail to connect with twenty-first-century worshippers? Most frequently cited: “those people do not sound like us.”  And, there is some truth to this.  We no longer think, speak, write or sing in iambic pentameter. Vocabulary is shrinking in one area and expanding in another.  But, I would like to suggest that this is just the tip of the iceberg.  Perhaps we experience this disconnect with older liturgy because liturgy is often written from both theological perspective and social location.  So, while we might resonate with the universal theological needs of human nature found in centuries’-old liturgies, we are still left with the glaring spiritual needs created by a culture characterized by individuality, leisure time, affluenza, and other postmodern concerns.   My suggestion:  don’t just throw out the old!  Why not write new liturgy or rewrite existing rituals that are also mindful of the spiritual needs attendant to our present social location?

New rituals for new times
For more than a decade, notables like Dan Kimball, Sally Morgenthaler, Marsha McFee, Brad Berglund, Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Enuma Okoro and others have been experimenting with new forms of liturgy, presented in recognizable and understandable forms that function to assist congregational approaches to God in corporate settings.  Hundreds of congregations have adopted this “new liturgy” for weekly worship.  Hundreds of pastors have found value in writing their own liturgy.

This is why I assign students in WSHP600 the task of writing a wedding liturgy without the benefit of their denominational handbooks, commercial publications or other assists. This requires that the student understand the function of the wedding ceremony in order to supply understandable forms — language, symbolic actions and gestures — that convey meaning and accomplish the task. The results have been encouraging.

One area of contextualization that I had always hoped students would examine is the traditional practice of giving away the bride.  To me, that portion of the traditional ceremony has always felt as irrelevant as an arranged marriage or the bride price.  Over the years I have seen students have both parents give the bride away, make provisions for a male relative in the absence of a father or father figure, or have the bride and groom walk down the aisle together.  This semester, however, I was delighted and surprised by a number of students who decided that both the bride and the groom should be given away, publicly, by their families, citing Matthew 19:4-6 (NRSV):

4 He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

What an excellent redemption of traditional liturgy!  In one new gesture accompanied by pastoral instruction and scripture, these emerging theologians have managed to reframe the traditional ritual of giving away the bride, by nuancing it toward leaving and cleaving for both parties–one of the first developmental tasks of the new couple!  Truly ears have not heard and eyes have not seen what God has in store for us liturgically.

Liturgy, simply defined, is the work of the people.  This includes the people in the pews and not just the people up front.  My prayer for you is that the winds of liturgical renewal will blow through your congregation.

Recommended Reading:
Berglund, B. (2006).  Reinventing worship:  Prayers, readings, special services, and more.  Valley Forge, PA:  Judson.

Claiborne, S., Wilson-Hartgrove, J., and Okoro, E. (2010).  Common prayer: A liturgy for ordinary radicals.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan.

Kimball, D.  (2004) Emerging worship: Creating new worship gatherings for emerging generations.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan.

McFee, M. (2002).  The worship workshop:  Creative ways to design worship together.  Nashville, TN:  Abingdon.

Bittersweet Ministry (Wayne Schmidt)

There are many ways to describe the life of a minister.  Having been blessed to serve as a pastor for over 30 years, and now to regularly interact with ministry leaders through the Seminary, one descriptor that comes to mind – “bittersweet.”

There are certainly times that are sweet – sweet fellowship (Psalm 55:14) with other believers and ministering from the sweet spot of passion and giftedness.  But other times are bitter – like Jeremiah the prophet, those in ministry may feel besieged and surrounded by it (Lamentations 3:5).

Being able to discern between the bitter and the sweet helps prevent a “woeful” life (Isaiah 5:20).  They are not always easy to distinguish, like the wounds of a friend and the kisses of an enemy (Proverbs 27:6).  Not all that is bitter is bad, and not all that is sweet is good.

Ministers get wounded – it’s an occupational hazard.  We are in the people business, and people (even ministers) can be mean, petty and vengeful.  Thankfully, God’s abundant grace is a salve to the wounds.  The danger is missing the grace God has for us, bitterness taking root in us, and then rippling into the lives of others –

“Make every effort to live in peace with all people and to be holy; without holiness, no one will see the Lord.  See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” – Hebrews 12:14-15

Bitterness is the breeding ground of cynicism and negativism.  People are repelled by a bitter person and avoid that person whenever possible.   It contributes to an exit from ministry, if not actually at least emotionally

There is “bitterness blindness” – those around me can see it in me, and yet it’s a blind spot for me.  Being in denial about bitterness only deepens its roots and spreads its effects.

Many are familiar with the verses that begin Romans 12, but the ending of that great biblical chapter addresses difficult relationships.  These relationships leave us feeling persecuted, like we’ve met the enemy.  They ignite in us a compelling desire for revenge.

Wrestling with these verses has led me to a series of questions I ask myself to probe unresolved relational issues and check the soil of my heart for a root of bitterness:

____      Do I find myself unable to BLESS others (14)?
____      Am I preoccupied with REVENGE (17a, 19)?
____      Do I treat people differently depending on who is LOOKING (17b)?
____      Am I unwilling to do MY PART in resolving the conflict (18)?
____      Am I unwilling to meet another’s legitimate NEEDS (20)?
____      Am I becoming CONSUMED with evil rather than good (21)?

At times these questions have revealed a “root” issue of bitterness that was impacting my relationships.  That led me to a series of commitments for reconciling relationships and ways of demonstrating the willingness to overcome bitterness:

____      I focus on RIGHTEOUSNESS rather than revenge (17)
____      I do my part to create PEACE-FULL relationships (18)
____      I actively place my TRUST in God to bring justice (19)
____      I choose to OVERCOME evil with good (20-21)

Now I must admit that at times the motivation for loving my enemies is the anticipation of them facing God’s wrath (19).  But even when my mixed motives need to be purified, I’ve discover that my willingness to face and repent of bitterness gives God room to work in the other person’s life.  The bitterness that closes my heart may also lead me to behavior that closes their heart.

When I leave room for God to work in the lives of “enemies” – I leave God room to work in mine.