November 2010


Several years ago I was involved in a study seeking to identify the common characteristics of people who live longer and seem to get the most out of life.  What is it that keeps people young at heart?

One of several common denominators we found was: “A sense of humor.”  To be able to laugh at oneself, at the foolishness of the world, at problems, to laugh when things aren’t funny—is a secret of those who enjoy a long and happy life.  There is physical, emotional, and spiritual healing in humor.

Learning to Laugh

Cultivating a sense of humor is much like developing a taste for music or fine arts.  While a taste or sense may be more natural to some than others, we can all broaden our enjoyment of good humor.

Aristotle defined humor as “that which is incongruous — out of its proper place and time, yet without danger or pain.”  The great Roman scholar Cicero suggested that “the most enjoyable kind of humor is when we expect to hear one thing but then hear another.”  Cicero might well have enjoyed this true story of an early American preacher…

It was Temperance Sunday and the minister, in order to offer indisputable proof of the evil effects of liquor, had concocted an elaborate demonstration for his congregation—using a worm.  First, as the parishioners watched with common curiosity, he dropped the worm into a glass of clear, sparkling water.  The worm wiggled about in apparent delight.  Then the minister removed the worm, dropped it into a glass of whiskey…where it promptly died.  “Now,” the preacher asked, beaming with obvious self-satisfaction, “what does this show us?”  After a slight pause, a red-eyed brother in the back of the church stood up and responded:  “Preacher, does it mean that if we drink plenty of whiskey, we’ll never have worms?”

Here are four suggestions on how to begin cultivating your sense of humor:

Step #1:  Expose yourself to good humor.
There are plenty of good humorous books that make for recreational reading.  Authors like Erma Bombeck, Bill Cosby, Art Buchwald, Andy Rooney and others have created masterpieces of good humor.  Watch 15 minutes of “America’s Funniest Videos” on YouTube every night for a week.  Buy a DVD of a Christian comedian and go enjoy a good laugh. 

Step #2:  Do something silly.
We tend to lose one of the wonderful joys of childhood as we move into the self-conscious years of adolescence.  Many of us never get it back.  It’s the fun of being silly. 

A few years ago my sister and her family came to visit us in California.  It happened that on one night of their stay there was to be a full lunar eclipse.  I don’t recall how the idea came up, but someone suggested we have a “moon party.”  Now, no one had any experience at moon parties, so we all began offering our suggestions.  It turned out to be quite an evening. 

The party began with each of us receiving a spread of the local newspaper, scotch tape, and instructions to create our own unique “moon hat.”  We then played a round of “moon charades” where one person acted out the name of a planet, star cluster, or some other astronomical concept which the others tried to guess.  Following that, we adjourned to the kitchen for some “moon juice” (not moonshine, mind you).  After a few more moon games we all went out onto the front driveway to watch the eclipse.  Then, as we had earlier rehearsed, the moment the earth’s shadow moved completely in front of the moon, we all crossed our arms in front of us, shook them up and down, and let out the most unearthly “moon howl” you have ever heard.  Our neighbor turned on the porch light to see what kind of animal had been injured!  But we all had a wonderful time.  (Maybe it is true what they say about the effect of the full moon on people’s behavior!)

Your assignment for this step is to go do something silly.  It’s more fun when you do it with other people than behind a locked door.  But if it helps, try a few silly things there first.  Don’t worry about your reputation.  If anything, it will improve!

Step #3:  Laugh out loud, whether you feel like it or not.
Laughter is contagious.  Go ahead.  Try it.  Just start laughing out loud.  Go for five seconds if this is your first attempt.  Then work yourself up to ten.  As you do…listen to yourself.  Pretty soon you will be laughing at your own laughing!  And, if you think that’s funny, get three or four of your friends together and do the same thing.  On the count of three everyone is to start laughing.  Before you know it, you’ll be rolling in the aisles.

I remember a game we used to play when I was growing up.  Everyone in our family would lie on the floor, each with his or her head on someone else’s stomach.  Then one person would begin laughing.  The chain reaction of head bouncing on laughing stomachs would spread and soon our entire family would be howling hysterically.  As we thought about how silly we must all look, we found ourselves laughing even harder.

The next time you hear or see something funny, laugh out loud.  Don’t just smile, or chuckle.  Laugh!  You’ll find that it is therapeutic and contagious.  And, the time after that you’ll find it won’t be so hard to get the laugh out.

Step #4: Tell a funny story each day for the next two weeks.
You may have to find one from a good joke book or online.  That’s okay.  See if you can get one person to laugh aloud each day at something humorous you share.  If you’re telling a joke, practice it to get just the right impact.  And, when you tell the punch line, enjoy the joke yourself.  Pretend it’s the first time you’ve heard it. 

Speaking of good stories, I heard one the other day about a man who was praying…

“God!?”

God responded, “Yes?”

The guy said, “Can I ask you a question?”

“Go right ahead,” God said.

“What is a million years to you?”

God responded, “a million years to me is only a second.”

“Hmmm,” the man responded. Then he asked, “God, what is a million dollars worth to you?”

“A million dollars to me,” God replied, “is as a penny.”

So, seeing his opportunity, the man asked, “God. Can I have a penny?”

To which God cheerfully replied, “Sure!!…..just a second.”

Laughter…the good medicine you can take.  And share.   😉

“A cheerful heart is good medicine”  (Prov. 17:22)

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Earlier this month I was blessed with the opportunity to participate in two events as an extension of my leadership role here at Wesley Seminary at IWU.  The first was to participate in the inaugural National Multiethnic Church Conference, which was attended by a wonderfully diverse group of more than 400 attendees.  Since this event was a “pre-conference” to a larger event, I also participated in the first portion of the National Outreach Conference (NOC), which was brimming with creative ideas for connecting with and transforming people and communities with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

One of the NOC workshops I chose to attend was called “Engaging Women in Leadership.” This is a personal passion of mine since I’ve been blessed over the years to serve alongside many amazing women in leadership.  I also attended because I long for Wesley Seminary at IWU to be a Kingdom force in engaging women in leadership – and to help catalyze this movement within The Wesleyan Church and beyond.

Sherry Surratt (sherry.surratt@leadnet.org) was the workshop presenter.  Sherry is on staff with Leadership Network as well as on the Executive Staff of Seacoast Church (which now has 13 campuses).  Her “research” (not statistically validated, yet quite comprehensive) involved conversations with 220+ women in 200+ churches.  She was seeking to discover why women volunteer more in churches than men, yet….

            …women make up less that 5% of paid full-time ministry staff in churches.

…women make up less that 30% of volunteer leadership positions that involve oversight of other volunteers.

Predominant among the reasons is the failure to fully engage them in the investment of their passions and skills at all levels of leadership.  She went on to give these suggestions for engaging leaders in your church:

  • Assess your current reality – are our leaders predominantly one gender (or ethnicity or generation)?  Why?
  • Access their passion – make room for organic, self-created leadership opportunities
  • Advance their leadership potential – key to this is having women (or various ethnicities or generations) in visible leadership roles
  • Adapt for the next generation – for instance, younger women look very different at “leadership” and don’t want to be called a “leader” but want to be freed to express their skills and energy in the context of their passions.  Women in their 20’s are saying “don’t put me in a box, don’t make me jump through a lot of hoops in a linear leadership path.”  Most often this generation does not lead because they are not interested in the areas of opportunity provided by the church.

Perhaps because of the timing of this seminar on the heels of the Multiethnic Church conference, it also strikes me that not only women are underrepresented in leadership in most evangelical churches, but ethnic minorities as well.  Then there is the challenge of fully engaging all generations.

I’ve come to recognize that in the Church (and in society as a whole) it’s the dominant culture that controls the “seats at the table.”  The table I’m speaking of is the table where decisions are made, priorities are established and strategies are outlined.  In other words, having a seat at the table is having a share of the power that shapes the Church.

Do we practice a form of “table fellowship” in our Boardrooms or leadership conference rooms?  In Jesus’ day there were religious power-brokers (“table fellowship” sects like the Pharisees) who excluded others.  Jeremias puts it this way – “Some religious leaders of Jesus’ day defined their fellowship by who was excluded from their membership.  There were long lists of those who did not meet the definition – women, Samaritans, Gentiles, individuals with criminal records, anyone who was disabled or sick, tax collectors and those considered “sinners.”  Also certain occupations were not considered worthy – camel drivers, sailors, herdsmen, weavers, tailors, barbers, butchers, physicians, business people and many others.  The only people qualified were healthy males of pure Hebrew ancestry who held respectable jobs and followed all the laws of religion.”  (Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, pp. 303-312.  Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1969)

Jesus revolutionized His world by using the “tables” in His life to include rather than exclude others.  He used His influence to provide a seat at the table.  This certainly puzzled the dominant religious culture of His day (Luke 5:30).  Are we more like Jesus or more like the Pharisees when we look around at who has “seats at our table”? 

Dr. Jo Anne Lyon, General Superintendent of The Wesleyan Church, shared with me a leadership practice that I want to emulate, and want to be the spirit of Wesley Seminary at IWU.  Her years of faithfulness in leadership and service have led to an abundance of opportunities – seats at lots of tables.  She makes it a point to use her seat at the table to give others a place at the table – sometimes by giving up her own seat.  She has made way for countless others who tend to be marginalized by the dominant cultures in their churches and ministry organizations.

It takes both intentional effort and a spirit of humility to fully engage all people in Kingdom work.  It involves the recognition that “thinking like me” or “acting like me” or “looking like me” isn’t the best criteria for screening ministry roles. The joy is that, beyond the initial discomfort and learning curve, there is a richness to a unity that is not based on uniformity, but a oneness in Jesus Christ.

Stanley Hauerwas lectured this morning at the Fall Colloquium for the School of Theology & Ministry. The following are my notes, following by some brief reflections. I trust this will be of special interest for our online seminary students who cannot attend such extracurricular events. Whatever conclusion you come to with regard to the ideas set forth below, Hauerwas’ confidence in the gospel and commitment to the church is challenging and quite compelling.  I am certain that exposure to and reflection on his driving themes will be fruitful for you.  I know that I have learned much from him since I discovered his work 10 years ago, first by adopting his positions, then slowly finding myself in disagreement with him and having to figure out why.  So, welcome to the conversion.

I know I’d be particularly interested in hearing your thoughts on what some of these claims might look like in local church practice.  For instance, if Hauerwas is even half-right that “the first task of the church is not to make the world more just, but to make the world the world” (see below), then how does that reframe the relationship between evangelism and social action, a recurring topic in Wesley Seminary’s curriculum?

Well, here’s my notes for your use and enjoyment.

Stanley Hauerwas

Asked to address what it means to be a public intellectual theologian in America.

Background to this question is that he is criticized for ghettoizing Christianity, i.e., he’s a “sectarian fideist tribalist”

Christian Ethicists tend to assume we won’t let our Christianity get in the way of our public discourse.

His response: “I think the way I think, and if you don’t agree with me you can go to hell.”

Pluralist context should mean that Christians, too, can speak from their own particularity.  Restricting Christianity, but not other religions, is a way of covertly asserting that we’re in control.

Part of being a Christian today is learning how to be out of control.

If he is asked to say something in public, it is because they think he has something to say.  That “something” arises from our unique Christian grammar.

Our Christian speech teaches us to reconfigure the imagination in order to show what

The great enemy in our time is not atheism — if only we could create interesting atheists! — the great enemy in our time is sentimentality, i.e., the assumption that Christians can have children without worrying about them suffering for their faith.

Reflecting on his earlier essay during the controversy over gays in the military, entitled, “Why gays as a group are morally superior to Christians as a group.”

Why can’t Christians get themselves banned from military as a group?

This thought experiment is meant to reframe the debate over gays.  E.g., we Christians aren’t interested in your sexual fulfillment. We’re trying to make war less frequent, which means we don’t have time for your sexual fulfillment.  We’re going to give you something else to do that’s more important.

This produces slogans, aimed generating thought:

(1) “The first task of the church is not to make the world more just, but to make the world the world.”

The world doesn’t exist without its opposite in the church.  That sounds offensive, which is the point.  Because it is equally offensive that the church has to     Learn to say that Christ is God’s justice.

(2) “We don’t want to eliminate mental retardation.”

When living in South Bend, IN, was on a council concerning mental disability.  The national group produced a video promoting pre-natal counseling, ending with “help us eliminate mental retardation” — treats it like cancer.  This is code for murder!  Theological language does the work of changing the assumptions.  Christian’s say: “We don’t want to eliminate retardation.”  We want to learn to live with them as Christ’s people.  That’s the kind of public work Christian theology is supposed to do.  Showing that we live in a different world than those who do not speak our language.

Hauerwas’ audience: Christians!  He has someone to write for, unlike most academics who are condemned to only write for each other.  Theologians have an audience that claims to be obliged to read us.

The problem of being a public intellectual is actually part of the pathos of the modern university, which has no public to which to speak.  The University has lost its public.  That means that IWU better make hay while the sun shines, because we still have a public!  You better care about your scholarship, because it is actually for someone.

What legitimates the modern university?  Science!  The public doesn’t understand science, but we believe it advanced technology, esp. medicine, because we think if we get good at it we can get out of life alive.

This is why medical school is more interesting to people than divinity school, even though medical school doesn’t tailor its curriculum to students they way seminary tries to.  Why?  Because no one thinks an inadequately trained minister can put your life at stake!

Today, if you ask people how they want to die, they would say quickly, painlessly, in their sleep, and not be a burden on others.  They don’t want to be a burden because they don’t trust their children.  And they want it to be painless because living a life without pain is the driving goal of modern life.

But the Christian litany used to say, “Save me from sudden death.”  Because in the past Christians wanted to be reconciled with God and others before they met God.  They were more afraid of God than of dying.

The practice of dying and the language surrounding it is what we need to be shaped in to be converted to bear witness to the gospel in our day.

This all has to do with the place of humanities in the university:

science is about truth, humanities is about opinion; theology is located in the humanities.

The presumption that I have an audience means that I have a language upon which to draw in order to learn how to say what needs to be said.  This language teaches us to overcome the sentimentality that makes today’s society incapable of dealing with death.

In what kind of genre should Christian theology be written?

He writes in varied genres…

E.g., Better Hope – patience is a crucial Christian virtue; those who are born mentally handicapped teach us this patience; analogous to the patience needed to ;  Christians don’t necessarily try to make the world less violent, but rather seek to be non-violent.  Christians are not about winning, but about enduring, with the virtue of patience in an impatient world.

The charge that he’s a sectarian, fideist, tribalist is completely false, because Christian language actually reframes the way we see the whole world, so that the world might see it and say, “Wow!  That’s interesting.”  The world is dying from boredom.  Christians have the most interesting story in the world, but only if we don’t truncate it.

So, what do it mean to be a public intellectual theologian in America?

The answer is: “I’m a Christian; isn’t that interesting?”

Respondent #1: Billy Abraham (SMU)

He’s a lapsed Irishman, who’s ended up in Texas.  So he

Throat clearing:

Why he agrees with Hauerwas.

He was asked to preach at commencement. The chaplain warned him, “Don’t be too Christological.” He answered, “When you get me, you get Jesus.”  Preached from Exodus story on the hind side of God, and ended with the Orthodox liturgy

He’s been at SMU very long, and loves Texas.

Started out teaching evangelism.  Made a bet with Babcock: every time someone makes a first-order statement about God, I’ll take you out to lunch.

I agree that we must go into the public square with our Christian underwear showing!

Two Questions:

(1) If you’ve got a high Christology, doesn’t it require to believe that the Logos in Christ is also present and at work throughout creation, and therefore, in the ideas of non-Christians?  Lewis: The Greeks have “good dreams.”  The sharp disjunction in Hauweras, which is just a joy to behold, needs clarification and

* Hiding behind Hauerwas’ sharp disjunction is a robust understanding of divine revelation.

(2) He doesn’t share Hauerwas’ view of war. Given a robust divine revelation, then why do Christians come to such radically different interpretations of this revelation?  Perhaps he should go to Rome, where the interpretive tradition

Respondent #2: Bart Bruehler (IWU)

In the past, he didn’t read much Hauerwas, because he was worried that he’d find a kindred soul.  He has.

Bart asks: Why am I enjoying reading his memoir?

(1) Hauerwas unflinching honesty.  If theology (and testimony as its subgenre) is about telling the truth about God, then honesty is crucial.

(2) How theology and experience are woven together for Hauerwas.

Four Questions:

(1) Formative effect of bricklaying.  An apt symbol for Christian practice and virtue.  However, my generation and that of my students, the formative practices is technologically, and so practices become techniques to control and to “effect.”

(2) Can you explain to me why liturgy is at the heart of the church?

(3) Contingent nature of our lives, understand through Christian narrative.  Rightly say that many of our practices try to hide and avoid this contingency, and that Christianity asserts the.  But what about those who embrace a sort of chaotic random contingency, which is another form of avoiding avoiding the genuine contingency before God?

(4) Public theology — How can we as the body (not just as individual theological personalities like Hauerwas) enter the public square?

Respondent #3: Chris Bounds (IWU)

Born in Texas and raised in Arkansas.

More importantly, a brother in Christ and lover of Christ’s church.

Comments come both from the lecture and from the memoir, Hannah’s Child.

Wesleyan in the Pietist tradition, and so enjoys hearing a personal, introspective narrative — esp. because he’s criticized pietism for its individualist testimony!

First and foremost, Hauerwas is a theologian of the church and only as such a public theologian.

Hauerwas focuses on local churches in his Christian formation.  Consistent with his critique of evangelical overemphasis on direct, unmediated relationship with God.

Bounds’ Questions come from this ecclesial perspective:

(1) Hauerwas has a decidedly negative view of the church growth movement.  Even left a local church over this.  Elaborate on this view.

(2) Homosexuality in the church. A deeply divisive issue. Hauerwas seems unsure on the question of gay membership, marriage, ordination, etc.  Elaborate more on this.

Response to the Respondents: Hauerwas

RE: Christology (Abraham)

Of course Jesus is the Logos, and you never know where the Logos is going to turn up, and that’s a matter of discernment.  But Jesus IS the logos, and so he’s suspicious of accounts of the Logos in which Jesus is the exemplification of otherwise grounded principles.  Need to start from the particularity of Jesus in his cross and resurrection.   You move from Jesus to the Greeks, not the other way around.  All is God’s creation, so yes we would expect Godliness outside the church, oftentimes in way that judges the church itself.

RE: Christian Division (Abraham)

Hauerwas has a poster on his door: “A modest proposal for peace: let the Christians of the world resolve not to kill each other.”  Undermines Christian witness when we    So the disagreements are not just about different theological claims, but a fundamental willingness to have our convictions be determined .  I don’t going to Rome will help that.  If I thought it did, I would.  After 14 years at Notre Dame, he’s seen how divided they are internally.  Wesleyans that don’t hunger and thirst for Christian unity betray the charism of

RE: Craft (Bruehler)

Worries a lot about the loss of craft in students today. Hauerwas started bricklaying at 7 years old, for years of training. Modern architecture avoids craft because of its cost and time.  Technology replaces craft, and we suffer for it aesthetically.

RE: Liturgy (Bruehler)

This beauty has everything to do with the centrality of the liturgy for the church.  Liturgy just means the work of the people.  He cannot imagine

RE: Church Growth (Bounds)

Which has to do with church growth.  Church growth is ugly.  Trying to compete with television — TV will win!  The kind of worship producers

RE: Contingency (Bruehler)

It’s contingency all the way down, because God became a man, Jesus.  You shouldn’t be surprised that if you don’t worship this God-man, then contingency is chaos.  The great prophet of this is Nietzsche.

RE: Gays (Bounds)

Never start thinking about that issue from “sexuality” but from singleness and the vocation of marriage.  The first call of a Christian is to singleness.  Christianity is radical because you can be a Christian without having children!  Why?  Not because we hate sex, but because it is a missionary sect that grows by conversion not biological conscription; we even have to witness to our own children.  If you want to be married in the church, you bear the burden of proof.  Marriage in our society has become our only hedge against loneliness, so it has become a necessity.  The way to respond to the challenge of homosexuality starts with creating communities in which marriage is not the only remedy for loneliness.  What is means to be a Christian is to have a genius for friendship!

Q&A (audience):

Q1: Expound on “first task of the church is to make the world the world”

A1: The world is all that which takes God’s patience to not be God’s world.  The world needs to see that it is in fundamental rebellion against God’s governance, such that the world is able to see in the church an alternative way to be the world.  The church/world distinction is the fundamental dualism that shapes Christian theology — and it runs even through each of us as Christians!  It doesn’t make us the righteous over against worldly unrighteousness, but that we are troubled worldly people who are learning to be thankful for God’s governance.

Not: creation/redemption (Niebuhr, et al)

Not: nature/grace (Roman Catholic)

The church/world dualism is eschatological concept. Eschatology shapes reality.  Requires constant discernment.  Which makes Christianity interesting and compelling!

Abraham:

Agree: We don’t understand anything in the world until we understanding .  You can even find this in Descartes!

Disagree: Distinction between what is the case without the world ontologically and what we should say about the world in particular cases.  E.g., science has made discoveries, despite it’s overblown claims for itself in our society.

Logos already available in creation but as unnamed, but has a derivative significance.

He agrees that you can’t always trust pious sentimental Christians.

Q2: Should we ignore social justice entirely?

A2: First of all, don’t use the phrase social justice.  If it’s justice, how can it be anything other than social?  What’s the opposing term?  Private justice?  Justice is justice, both as virtue and structure.  Social justice is code for the fact that people today want societies to be just without persons being just.  They want just institutions without the virtue of justice.  Justice is a complex process that includes the discernment of difference (contra egalitarian concepts of justice). Aristotle: The deepest injustice is the unwillingness to claim an honor that is due you!  Augustine, City of God, Book 19: Justice is the right worship of the triune God.  Any society not based on this is not truly just, because it cannot produce just people whatever its polity.  Hauerwas: “I’m not really a sectarian; I’m a theocrat!”  Open to discussing whether retributive justice can be internal to reconciliation.  But the criminal justice system in American is fundamentally wrong-headed. Cf. Matthew 18.

Q3: What do you believe the role of the Holy Spirit is in the church and in society?

A3: The role of the Spirit is always to point to Jesus.  The Spirit in the NT identifies.  Appeals to the Spirit often function to underwrite my experience in order to be self-verifying.  Hauerwas aims to be Wesleyanly Charismatic: the Spirit constitutes the church and is active in the world.  Acts 2 often read as if we all become the same; but they still spoke in different languages, understanding each other through the agency of the Holy Spirit.  That is the hope we have for the church being uniting as a people in the world who refuse to let the divisions in the world to be our divisions.

Q4: Unapologetic theology.  You [Hauerwas] criticize apologetics.  Does the church also have the task to teach Christian grammar to world?

Q4: Hauerwas is going to teach a course next year called, “Doctrine and Apologetics” – because the best apologetics is beautiful doctrine!  His problem is that you can’t get to God by starting with the doubter’s questions, esp. the language.  However, he does apologetics all the time, i.e., reframe contemporary issues with Christian language is apologetics.  “The world is dying to be shaped by the gospel.”  For Christians to be hesitant to say “I’ve got what you want” is travesty.  The basis for what we say as Christians is we believe it is true — and truth prevails!  Of course you are going to find yourself speaking to those outside the church, hence why we need to submit ourselves to those who are more adequate speakers of the gospel.  Apologetic mode is the mode of protestant liberal theology, and he’s not going to do it!

Here a picture of a session this morning on campus with Russ Gunsalus.  The Great Commission Research Network (GCRN) meets once a year at a different location, this year here.  It used to be the Society for Church Growth.  On campus are individuals like Ed Stetzer, Dan Kimball, Rusty Rueff, Tom Rainer, and Warren Bird.  Our own Bob Whitesel has been president this year.

As part of my Doctor of Ministry program, I travelled to Houston, TX with the nine other pastors in my cohort. This learning adventure was called “Church Immersion.” The goal of the trip was to explore as many diverse expressions of the local church in the Houston area as possible in only three days. Needless to say, by the end of the trip our heads were spinning with ideas and questions.  

We visited a church focused on addiction recovery called Mercy Street, which was co-pastored by my friend Sean Gladding. During the service people stood up and shared how many days they were sober. People clapped and screamed in celebration. At times we couldn’t tell whether we were in an N/A (Narcotics Anonymous) meeting or a church service. The worship experience had a raw realness to it that moved me to tears then and now.

We visited the Lakewood Church, pastored by Joel Osteen. This was a very different kind of church that seemed to be reaching a very different group than Mercy Street was reaching. While Lakewood Church, for a variety of reasons, was not my “cup of tea,” the singing was as lively as I have ever experienced. Our cohort had a chance to visit for a few minutes with Joel and Victoria Osteen before heading off to another very different kind of church.

Our group arrived late to participate in the worship service of the Windsor Village United Methodist Church, led by Pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell. Windsor Village is the largest African American United Methodist Church in the country. As you may have guessed, members of my cohort were the only Caucasians in attendance that day, so we sort of stuck out a bit as we’re hunting for seats about half-way through their service. We were met with warm hospitality and an excellent sermon preached by Kirbyjon in the African American style I have come to appreciate. I can still remember the mantra he used throughout his sermon “stay in your lane!” My cohort spent an hour with Pastor Caldwell hearing him describe the church’s missional heartbeat for community development.

My head still spinning from the diversity of the churches we already visited, we met with Jim Herrington. Jim was the pastor of a mega-church who endured some inner angst over the question, “am I making disciples who are making disciples?” He left his large church, purchased a house in a rough section of Houston, and started a house church. We met with Jim in his living room for two hours as he described his new ecclesiological outlook. He leaves the lower level of his home unlocked so that prostitutes, runaways, transvestites, the homeless, and the addicted can have a warm place to sleep, food to eat, and a community to experience. He invites these “friends” to join them for worship in the upper level of the house.

We also toured Second Baptist Church, which sits on a very, very, very large campus with a full-service café and bookstore. The place was humongous. This church is led by Dr. Ed Young Sr., though you may be more familiar with his son by the same name who pastors Fellowship Church in Grapevine, TX. We met with one of the staff pastors, another of Dr. Young’s sons, in a meeting room almost big enough to fit a football field (preacher’s exaggeration). Despite the size of the church, the sanctuary had maintained a traditional look with stained glass, altar, and a large pulpit. It was, oxymoronically, a traditional mega-church.   

I think it was that evening when we visited Ecclesia, a well-known emergent church led by Pastor Chris Seay. This gathering took place in what felt like a Starbucks café. The room was packed with several hundred people, most of them in the 16-35 age range. As the preacher sat on a stool and spoke for about 35 minutes, artists were spread out all over the room painting to their heart’s delight. The room was dark, candles were lit, and the music was melancholic but worshipful.        

The six churches I described above are extremely diverse in their approach to worship and discipleship.  They are each reaching different segments of people. Mercy Street is connecting predominantly with addicts, while Second Baptist is reaching many of the wealthy elite of Houston. Windsor Village is reaching hundreds of African American families, while Ecclesia is connecting mostly with single white young adults.  

While I have my preferences and ecclesiological convictions about what constitutes “church,” I am realizing more and more that when it comes to church, “one size does not fit all.” It really does take all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people. Case in point, the church in which I cut my teeth in ministry back when I first came to Christ at the age of 18 is not the church I would likely attend today. At different points in my spiritual journey different churches appealed to me, mostly based upon the spiritual formation needs I had at the time. I am not a supporter of “church-hopping,” but simply pointing out that as we change so do our ecclesiological needs and preferences. This tendency only becomes detrimental when we allow our needs and preferences to become a non-negotiable “gospel.”

The “church immersion” education opened me up to the substantial diversity that exists within the Church of Jesus Christ, and we visited churches within 50 miles of each other! Not only did I learn to appreciate the diverse expressions of the Church, I was forced to really grapple with some major questions. What constitutes church? Beyond worship styles, architecture, and demographics, what makes the church truly the church? What, if anything, binds all of these diverse churches together?

These are some of the questions we hope our students at Wesley Seminary will be able to answer as they make their educational journey. Students will be exposed to and explore all kinds of models and methods for “doing church.” More importantly, however, students will learn to do this exploration girded with the wisdom of biblical exegesis, church history, and systematic theology. Our aim at Wesley Seminary, then, is not merely to develop students to be pragmatic cherry-pickers, applying to their ministries whatever model or method is effective in some other context. Our goal is higher- to develop ministers whose practice is wedded to and guided by the biblical, historical, and theological foundations that make the church the church. This goal has led Wesley Seminary to join together what has been traditionally torn apart, namely practice, bible, history, and theology. We believe our students will be better-prepared for ministry because of this re-wedding of disciplines that have too often been separated into silos.

Tomorrow, many believers in the United States will vote for their governors and representatives for the next two to six years.  To participate in such elections is the great privilege of those in many nations, especially those like ours where we do not worry about significant fraud in the counting of the vote.

This is a much different world than those of the Bible.  The kings of Israel were not elected.  The populace of Israel did not elect its high priests.  God occasionally lifted up a warrior to liberate Israel in the time of the “judges” but no doubt tribal rule was the order of the day in the centuries before the monarchy.  At the time of Christ and the New Testament, the Romans and their surrogates were firmly in power. 

In short, no biblical context was exactly like ours.  The Bible thus does not immediately address our type of political context.  Most of us have clear intuitions on what it means to be a Christian citizen or voter in the United States, but it is worthwhile to take these out and have a look.  If we do not know our assumptions, then we are simply “driven and tossed by the wind” of our situation.

For example, the United States is not biblical Israel.  Is it the Christian’s task to try to make the laws of the land mirror as much as possible our Christian understanding?  That works fine for us as long as our group of Christians is in charge, putting into law our Christian understanding.  In practice, of course, we have at least unconsciously acknowledged that we could not possibly accomplish such a task, even if we concluded it were the ideal.  No one goes to jail for committing adultery or pre-marital sex.  We do not stone those who practice homosexuality.

Those of us who believe God has created us with free will have a further question here.  If God allows individuals to disobey him, then would it be his will for Christians to enact laws to force unbelievers to obey him?  For example, Romans 1:26 says in relation to homosexual sex that God “gave them up” to follow their passions.  While Paul says that individuals who are typified by this act will not be in the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10), in this world he suggests God abandons such persons to their passions.  In Paul’s language, such individuals are only hurting themselves (Rom. 1:27).

Certainly we find the biblical model of speaking out for those who are oppressed and downtrodden, those who are hurt by others.  This is the prophetic model that Jesus himself modeled when he made “good news to the poor” one of the central themes of his earthly ministry (e.g., Luke 4:18).  Speaking up for the powerless, however, is something different from pronouncing judgment on the disobedient.  Our political context is much more similar to that of the New Testament, than of the Old Testament when Israel understood itself as under God’s direct control.

Yet we are also much more politically empowered than Paul or the earthly Jesus in his self-limitation was.  Both Jesus and Paul treat the worldly powers as something far removed from them, as a given of their context–at least for now.  Jesus renders to Caesar what is Caesar’s (Luke 20:25) and gets on with his mission.  Paul dismisses trying to fix the sexual immorality of the world: “For what have I to do with judging those outside? … God will judge those outside” (1 Cor. 5:12-13, NRSV).

In an ideal world, Paul sees the God ordained purpose of the state as punishing wrongdoers and being an agent for good (Romans 13:1-7).  Like Jesus, he instructed the Romans to pay their taxes and obey Caesar.  His own personal experience must have made it painfully clear that the Roman government often failed at its appointed task.  Ironically, the very same Nero who was emperor when Paul wrote Romans would eventually put Paul to death.

Acts 4:19 makes it clear that there is a time for Christians to disobey human authority.  But it was clearly not over things like taxes, since both Jesus and Paul instructed Jesus-followers to pay their taxes in a world where they were far more oppressive than anything today.  And Paul’s sense of human authority as “for your good” balances out our pessimism with the potential good in government.  Government can do good, even if it can also do evil.

At the end of this discussion, I find three principles for us as Christians when engaging the powers of this world:

1. First, the world is not the church, and we must keep this distinction very clear. 
The United States is predominantly made up of individuals who consider themselves Christians.  The notion that God cares for all people, captured somewhat imperfectly in the Enlightenment language, “they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” coheres with Christian values.  But let us stop short of saying the US is a Christian nation–we are just not righteous enough to speak such things. 

We are not Israel.  We can believe that our system of government and our particular capitalist economy holds great potential for maximizing the happiness of its people.  But let us be clear that it does so by balancing out the self-interests of its people.  That is to say, it takes into account human greed and our fallen drive to do what is best for “number one,” me.  Capitalism is based on the idea that people will do what is in their best individual self-interest, as Ayn Rand so aptly captured in her book, The Virtue of Selfishness.  Our system of checks and balances in government intentionally takes into account the human drive to run away with power when left to its own devices.

In short, this system tries to get at goals that cohere well with Christianity.  But make no mistake, the system is an accommodation to human evil.  It is not worthy of the name Christian.  It is not a system we would enact if we knew people would always act Christ-like.  It is not the way the kingdom of God will operate.  It is a system that takes into account that most of our hearts and minds will not be transformed.  Our nation is not the same as the church.

2. Worldly powers are fearful and dangerous. 
Perhaps surprisingly, one of the passages that first comes to mind when thinking of engaging worldly powers is the Parable of the Dishonest Manager in Luke 16.  What a bizarre story?  Jesus seems to commend this man for cheating his master out of money that was owed him.  The only way I have been able to make sense of this story is to see the whole situation as ludicrously foreign to Jesus’ audience.  The assumption of the whole passage is the foreignness of a situation where one would be handling such large sums of money.  Like the coin with Caesar’s image on it, the world of such money must have seemed very far away from matters of Jesus.

The bottom line seems to be to get out of that world as quickly as possible.  It is a terrifying context where one can hardly survive and be pure.  It is a place of corruption and defilement.  I am not advocating that Christians remove themselves from politics or the world, another option some Christians have taken from time to time.  I am saying to watch out.  Engaging the powers of this world should be a scary thing for believers, a realm we enter with trepidation.  A Christian with the heart of Christ should always feel a little uncomfortable if they have power or money.

3. The state can do good.
Paul himself says so.  The assumption that government will mess up anything it gets its hands on is just as skewed as the view that equates the nation with the church.  The state can do good, and we will search long and hard for a passage that says the church should try to stop it so that the church can be the sole dispenser of good. 

Although Psalm 72 relates to a king of Israel, it is hard to imagine that Paul would not have prayed these same words in relation to Nero or the earthly Jesus of the high priest in Jerusalem: “May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor” (72:4).  Nations can do these sorts of good things.  And while the implementation of such values is complicated, it is perfectly Christian to align ourselves with them in those instances where God used worldly powers for good.