Month: October 2011

how to be Reformed on Reformation Day

It’s Reformation Day!

For the uninitiated, October 31 marks the official beginning of the sixteenth century Reformation — when Martin Luther kick-started Protestantism (although that was never his intention) by nailing his famous 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church.

The presenting issue for Luther was the corrupt practice of selling indulgences — a means by which certain representatives of the Church claimed you could ‘buy back’ souls out of purgatory. But this protest ran far deeper than that.

In particular, the Reformation is known for the rediscovery of God’s free grace extended through Christ as the sole basis for salvation. Hence, Luther’s insistence that people are justified by grace alone through faith alone.

What’s interesting, though, is that Reformed Christianity (usually associated with John Calvin rather than Martin Luther) tends to be known not so much for salvation by grace as for the doctrine of predestination.

But let me quote to you what a certain Twentieth Century professor of Reformed theology once said about predestination:

It is there primarily for Christian preachers deliberately and quietly to consider in all that they say. They will say many and other things better and more credibly if they say them with an eye on the God who can elect and reject and with whom alone is the power and freedom to know him truly. Once the doctrine of predestination is grasped, it is the death of all Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism. It has always cropped up in church history when this foe has to be resisted. Yet I would not advise that it be presented too often or expressly. It is best to show in some other way that what is at issue here has been understood.

Yes. It’s Karl Barth. From an early lecture cycle published as the Gottingen Dogmatics (18.IV).

And you take his point, right?

The doctrine of predestination is important — vital even. It underwrites everything else. We’ll “say many other things better and more credibly … with an eye on the God who can elect and reject”.

In particular, it protects the doctrine of God’s free grace and opposes perversions of it (Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism).

But it’s not the thing we should talk about most frequently or loudly. It’s not the thing we should be known for — at least not over and above an emphasis on the goodness and love and grace of God put into action in Jesus.

That is how to be Reformed on Reformation Day … and any day!

the Sermon on the Mount – anything but tribalism reborn

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.”

They’re possibly the most famous of Jesus’ word. Surpassed only by the so-called Golden Rule: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets”.

Together they frame the section of the Sermon on the Mount I want to reflect on today — Matthew 7.1-12 — the message of which, I’m convinced, is best summed up as Christianity – it’s anything but tribalism reborn!

This may not seem immediately obvious — particularly when we take a glance at Christian communities across the world and throughout time.

Very often, Christian groups seem to nurture the most toxic practices and mentalities associated with tribalism: narrow and partisan self-interest, groupthink, a defensive stance (or an imperalistic one — depending on how much of a cultural foothold they have) that results in exclusion and condemnation.

In the face of this, many people reject Christianity, craving instead something more inclusive, broader and less partisan.

And I can sympathise — some of my worst experiences of exclusion have been perpetrated by Christian groups (although that usually wasn’t their intention).

But for Jesus, not judging — or, rather, judging with the ‘measure’ of grace and charity rather than that of strict justice (verse 2) — and avoiding a hypocritical attitude of moral superiority (verses 3-5), somehow sits alongside the need to discern (ie. to judge):

“Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you” (verse 6)

Clearly, Jesus doesn’t want his followers to jump out of the frying pan of exclusionary and condemning judgementalism into the fire of indiscriminate inclusion and embrace.

Some things are too precious to hand over to some people. Judgement has a place.

To cut a long story short, the answer to the corrosive excesses of tribalism isn’t banning tribes and doing away with boundaries altogether. Rather, it’s finding ways to be a group with a joyful sense of belonging and unity in what we hold in common, yet without anxiously policing our boundaries.

How do we do that?

According to Jesus, it starts with recognising that our ‘tribe’ or group isn’t discrete and clearly defined — a self-sufficient little island in the sea of humanity.

To put it provocatively, genuine Christian community is incoherent.

It’s not explicable purely on its own terms. Instead, its coherence and very existence as a group depends entirely on the one Jesus urges us to actively entrust ourselves to — our loving Father in heaven (verses 7-11).

Social Design for mission and ministry (9): it begins and ends with identity

Towards the end of the chapter on ‘Jesus-shaped community’ in Joined-up Life Andrew Cameron gives an evocative thumbnail sketch of New Testament churches (page 172):

[These churches were] bands of people ‘in Christ’ … who came together to learn, train and grow the Jesus-shaped version of their identity in small, reconciled groups.

I love this — especially what it suggests about the dynamics of mission and ministry in and through churches.

First and foremost, it says that what we’re on about begins and ends with identity.

It begins with the new identity we’re graciously given through Jesus. We are people ‘in Christ’. That’s the reality. That’s the reason we gather together — to reflect, express and enact who we are — individually and together.

But it’s also the goal and purpose of our gathering — to enter more and more into the reality of who we are in Christ. To experience it more deeply. To grow and develop in practice this Jesus-shaped version of ourselves together — because we can’t go it alone.

And this is where I think the Facebook Social Design guidelines about curating identity can help.

For as we heed their wisdom about being context-relevant, we’ll learn to stretch our community and activities between two poles:

  • The particular people who have been given to each other by God — their specific gifts and personalities as well as their unique histories; and
  • The common God-given identity we gather to embrace — our oneness in Christ, etc.

Among other things, this means thoughtfully negotiating the tension between language expressing the particularity of the people gathered and language drawing us deeper into our Christian identity.

So, among a group of ex-prostitutes, for example the language of shame and victimisation will be affirmed, critiqued and transformed as it interacts with biblical categories and narratives.

Likewise, as we take on board the advice to curate content and tell stories, we’ll learn to draw on the identity-forming resources of word and sacrament to help people inhabit the story of Jesus.

We’ll continually recall the new life Christ’s death and resurrection has secured for us and how it continues to nourish and sustain us. We’ll learn its patterns. And together we’ll discern its particular texture and feel in our situation (e.g., where it rubs up against our ‘natural’ ways of thinking, feeling and ding).

And, finally, we’ll apply the injunction to highlight interesting information by finding ways to help each other focus on the living and active, judging and sanctifying presence of Jesus in our midst.

That is, by listening obediently to his voice we’ll seek to allow him to illuminate our individual lives as well as our common life.

In this way, we’ll strive to stay in orbit around him — stirring each other up to adoring, prayerful, humble responsive action that joyfully embraces our new identity in Christ.

Social Design for mission and ministry (8): curating identity

The final piece of the Social Design puzzle is potentially the most controversial — and maybe also the most fruitful for thinking about Christian mission and ministry.

It’s curating identity.

The metaphor of ‘curating’ is itself fascinating enough.

It suggests that identity is a bit like an art gallery or museum.

Identity as climate-controlled space people can wander — lining up to take in the main attraction (for a small fee), stumbling across unknown gems in some far flung wing, or trying not to get caught up in a labyrinthine section full of the identity equivalent of antique tea cups (sorry if that’s your thing).

At the same time, there’ll be parts of our identity — the dark secrets or (in the case of Facebook) just the boring and not-always-happy-and-successful bits — that are safely packed in freight containers in a warehouse.

When it comes to applying this fascinating metaphor, Facebook Developers offer four specific strategies:

  1. Be context-relevant — build what you’re doing around the people you want to engage with it as well as making sure you highlight the distinctiveness of what you’re offering (like a social cooking app that lets users share recipes).
  2. Curate content — ensure people retain a sense of ownership of what they’ve entrusted you with (information, etc) and use input from them to organise and present it intelligently.
  3. Tell stories — this isn’t just an obligatory nod to postmodernism; it’s about helping people to find (and share) meaningful patterns in their interactions with you and others engaged with what you’re offering.
  4. Highlight interesting information — you want to be able to tell people something they may not know about themselves, without making yourself into the untouchable expert (e.g., in the social cooking app you may want to highlight a user’s favourite ingredients).

I’m itching to get into the application of this stuff — I think it’s just so rich.

Before I do, though, it’s worth observing that from a Christian point of view, the idea that identity can or should be ‘curated’ may seem morally dubious.

I mean, could it ever be right for Christians to leave aspects of their identity and history packed away in a warehouse?

Without embarking on a comprehensive response, my sense is that one major function of Christian mission and ministry should be to place certain aspects of our identity ‘under lights’ — while allowing other aspects to be set in a new context (ie. given new meaning) or even packed away entirely.

I’ll say more next post…

the Sermon on the Mount – anything but spiritual escapism

Christianity is often regarded as a religion for spiritual escapists — people who feel they’ve been served up such a raw deal here and now that they’d rather trade it in for ‘pie in the sky when they die’.

That’s certainly how German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche saw it.

According to Nietzsche, Christianity is anti-life, anti-body and anti-pleasure. All because it’s fundamentally anti-materialistic — something that he traces back to what he calls its ‘slave morality’ and consequent ressentiment against whatever’s strong and noble.

This view is widely reflected in the way Christianity is often portrayed in popular culture.

From The Simpsons to cream cheese commercials, those who trust Jesus are typically cast as essentially negative — saying ‘No’ to life and its pleasures because we’re ultimately interested in escaping it in favour of something with harps and clouds.

Worse, more than a few Christians buy into this misunderstanding!

And it’s definitely a misunderstanding.

It’s roots aren’t sunk in biblical soil so much as that fertilised by the thought of the Greek philosopher Plato. (And in my opinion it’s better to sacrifice your children in the fire than be a Platonist.)

Even where Christianity might be expected to be most spiritually escapist — namely, in the arena of money and possessions — it proves to be thoroughly materialistic.

At least, that’s the trajectory Jesus launches us on when he turns directly from outlining true piety to explaining how we relate to our ‘stuff’ in Matthew 6.19-34.

If you find it hard to swallow my suggestion that Jesus is thoroughly materialistic — taking matter much more seriously than we do — then consider verse 24:

No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

Jesus doesn’t say this because he thinks matter — or wealth — is somehow evil or corrupt. He’s not a Platonist.

He says it because he knows it’s good — so good that it becomes like a tractor beam for our hearts and eclipses everything else in our vision.

We don’t believe him, of course. We think we can have it both ways.

But Jesus is supremely realistic about how our twisted desires latch onto stuff and elevate it to god-like status.

That’s why the remedy he proscribes — in line with the prophetic critique of idolatry — is not to renounce our stuff (that would let world-denying Platonism in by the back door).

Instead, we’re to observe our Father’s generous provision for all of his creation and entrust ourselves to him. For we know that magnifying him — pursuing his kingdom and righteousness — won’t lessen or diminish us. It’ll fulfil us!

what’s your pastoral strategy?

A few weeks ago, a friend asked about my pastoral strategy: do I tend towards counselling or proclamation?

I wasn’t sure. In part, because I know the difference must go deeper than whether I spend more of my time listening or talking. It’s more a question of stance:

  • Am I primarily focused on their felt needs — trying to discover where the other person’s “at” and helping them chart a course towards the healing and wholeness found in trusting God and obeying his word?
  • Or am I mainly on about “letting the word do it” (in Luther’s phrase) — opening the Bible, allowing what God has to say reveal the real problem, and leaving them to sort out the rest?

(I’ve presented it as a sharp opposition. No doubt there’s a spectrum — and a lot more overlap — in practice.)

Although I’m still not sure where I sit, two recent incidents have begun to suggest to me the possibility of a third way.

The first was the response of our church’s pastor to the birth of our first son.

His initial response (after expressing his joy and congratulations) was neither “Let me give you some advice…” nor “How are you finding parenting?”. It was “Let’s pray about that!”

It was gentle. It was God-focussed. And, best of all, it both proclaimed something we were may have overlooked (God’s power and presence) and spoke directly to our biggest concern (our sense of powerlessness — “Why is he crying?”).

The second thing that happened, was that I read Bonhoeffer’s commentary on Matthew 7.1-12 in The Cost of Discipleship (SCM 1959). Something he says on pages 166-167 jumped out at me:

What are the disciples to do when they encounter opposition and cannot penetrate the hearts of men? They must admit that in no circumstances do they possess any rights or powers over others, and that they have no direct access to them. The only way to reach others is through him in whose hands they are themselves like all other men … The disciples are taught to pray, and so to learn that the only way to reach others is by praying to God. Judgement and forgiveness are always in the hands of God. He closes and he opens. But the disciples must ask, they must seek and knock, and then God will hear them.

So what’s your pastoral strategy?

Why not try starting with prayer?

Social Design for mission and ministry (7): hosting sanctified conversations

Let me share my vision of church as ‘sanctified conversation’ — where our apparently unspectacular and oh-so-human activities are touched and lifted up by the God of the universe:

The people gather together eagerly and frequently to attend to God’s word humbly and gratefully — even when its message stings. Their joyful response — in prayer, singing and the rest of life — to God’s gracious work for and among them is heartfelt, honest and hopeful.

Real life concerns and experiences are acknowledged and charitably addressed — from the front and in interpersonal conversation. Everyone feels safe and able to ask their questions and share their feedback (positive or negative) because this is openly welcomed and encouraged.

No one is mocked, ridiculed or diminished. Conflict, when it inevitably happens, is handled with care and charity. And no one feels like they have to put on their ‘church face’.

Impossibly idealistic?

Well, yes. But, I’m not sure it has to be. In a sense, it merely follows the golden rule of communication: people are more likely to listen to you when they feel listened to.

Here are a handful of things I’ve witnessed that have helped foster a culture like this:

  • Showcasing your diversity — ie. try to make sure it’s not just middle-aged white blokes up the front (especially if you’re theologically complementarian).
  • Advertising who you are and highlighting your local connections.
  • Not using a Bible translation for public reading that may alienate half your congregation.
  • Ensuring the service bubbles with honesty and human reality (as well as spiritual reality) — I’m all for slick and well-produced; but let’s be careful of crossing the line to soulless and over-produced.
  • Ensuring the preaching puts into words people’s possible reactions and deals charitably with any objections.
  • Establishing clear channels for feedback and questions (asking, ‘Are there any questions anyone wants to ask or thoughts you want to share?’ at the end of a sermon is good start but falls well short of what I envisage).
  • Taking care neither to bury conflict — giving the impression that no ‘real Christians’ ever experience it — nor to air people’s dirty laundry.
  • Having the pastor and/or service leader actively involved in welcoming people as they walk in the door (and not wrapped up in ‘organising the show’ with musicians, etc) — this is one of the most powerful things I’ve seen done.
  • Welcoming newcomers and inviting them to participate without being pushy.

In my experience, things like this can dramatically reduce ‘sharing friction’. They give people the freedom to participate (without demanding it), and work towards helping everyone feel safe and comfortable enough to engage with what’s going on.

Of course, this is all ultimately futile if it remains at the merely human level — even if it’s delightfully inclusive and facilitates genuineness and honesty in relationship.

Christian community falls short of being the venue for sanctified conversation if it makes no room for an encounter with the living God.

We can reduce the conversational friction all we like. It’s pointless if Jesus isn’t present by the power of his Spirit to build (and rule and judge) his church — if, that is, we’re not hearing from our Lord and responding to him in adoration and action.

don’t confuse the gospel with our response or its results in our lives

Lots of buzz around the internet at the moment about what exactly the Christian gospel is.

Why this conversation? And why now?

Well, it’s largely been catalysed by Scot McKnight’s King Jesus Gospel — a book I’m planning to get hold of and read over summer.

From what I can glean, McKnight started reading Acts and noticing that the message the Apostles proclaimed (as Luke summarises it) doesn’t map very neatly onto some of the ways we present the core Christian message (ie. ‘Jesus died so my sins could be forgiven’).

But I wanted to run this quote by you:

The main message of the Bible about Jesus Christ can easily become mixed with all sorts of things that are related to it. We see this in the way people define or preach the gospel. But it is important to keep the gospel itself clearly distinct from our response to it or from the results of it in our lives and in the world. If our proper response to the gospel message is faith, then we should not make faith part of the gospel itself. It would be absurd to call people to have faith in faith! While the new birth bears a close relationship to faith in Christ, it is a mistake to speak of the new birth as if it were itself the gospel. Faith in the new birth as such will not save us.

Want to know who said this?

I’ll give you two hints: Not Scot McKnight. And not N.T. Wright.


Graeme Goldsworthy — godfather of the distinctive approach to ‘biblical theology’ that I grew up with! (It’s from his book, According To Plan — page 81 — if you’re interested.)

Gives pause for thought, right?

Social Design for mission and ministry (6): building conversation

The next step in the Facebook Developers’ recipe for good Social Design is to build conversation.

Some of what gets said there about conversation wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out. Like, “An effective conversation is based in two experiences: ‘Listening’ [and] ‘Speaking’.” You don’t say!

But it’s their practical advice on how to facilitate conversation that could prove really illuminating for our practice of mission and ministry.

On the listening side of things, Facebook Developers propose a two-pronged strategy:

  1. “Presenting information about the activity and actions of others” — to help people see themselves potentially engaging with what you’re offering.
  2. Notifying people of activity that is specifically relevant to them — to invite action (and interaction) not just with your faceless app or programme but with real people.

When it comes to speaking and sharing, they present five related strategies:

  • Focus the conversation.
  • Reduce ‘sharing friction’ — ie. hurdles to easily sharing content.
  • Encourage feedback.
  • Encourage sharing.
  • Enable people to share outside Facebook (emailing, clipping for a blog post, etc)

Now, obviously enough, the fundamental Christian conviction that Jesus is risen and is therefore Lord will shape the way we engage with the whole issue of conversation.

On the one hand, there’s a kind of ‘proclamation imperative’ woven into the fabric of the Christian message. Some things aren’t up for discussion.

We’ve just got to reckon with this — however we end up capturing it (I personally like the way John Dickson describes promoting the gospel as a ‘reality mission’). The Jesus we want to share and introduce people to makes exclusive and absolute claims.

On the other hand, the New Testament describes the gospelling activities of the earliest Christians with reference to a wide range of speech-acts: persuading, reasoning, arguing, proving, and (of course) proclaiming.

If we fail to contend with this, we risk confusing our own words — as profound and insightful as they no doubt are — with God’s own self-revelation. And here be dragons!

In the end, I feel it’s the way talk of conversation can help insure us against this risk that makes it so valuable. It’s one way to stop ourselves overstepping the bounds of our humanness.

More on how to move in the direction of implementation in our ministry early next week…

why mission should be more like South Park

This morning I listened to the fascinating address given by Ben Myers to the 29th Synod of the Queensland Uniting Church. You can find the audio here (it’s the link to the Norman and Mary Millar lecture).

Myers began by considering the cosmic significance of Christ’s resurrection. Then he moved — via Bonhoeffer — to describe the church’s mission in aesthetic (rather than political) terms.

His thought travelled in a similar orbit to Scot McKnight’s recent formulation:

The church is a movie trailer for the kingdom of God. The church is to be a “thin place” where God is breaking through. That is, God’s mission is to make the church a thin place, a movie trailer, of what God is doing in this world.

I found it quite compelling. Although, I’d love to hear more about working out the details in practice.

At one point, Myers memorably spoke of the church’s task as “ambushing our world with transfiguration”.

And that made me think of South Park.

Apparently, there’s a new documentary about the process of making the irreverent cartoon.

It’s called 6 Days to Air — and that pretty much sums up how South Park manages to stay up to date with current events. The ‘thrown-together’-ness of South Park is its genius.

A carefully planned and deliberate approach to mission definitely has its place. It can keep us faithful and stop us being merely reactive. But it can also make us sluggish.

So while it’s not always ‘transfiguration’ the makers of South Park ambush us with from week to week, I suspect we could learn a things or two from them about the advantages of a more ‘thrown-together’ strategy.