March 2011

If we were to survey the things various pastors have said from their pulpits about the recent tsunami in Japan, I suspect that we might find three types of comment: 1) those who see this event as God’s judgment on Japan for not believing, 2) those who see this event as part of the problem of evil, with God bringing peace and good news into the midst of the catastrophe, and 3) those who see God’s involvement in such events as somewhat of a mystery.

It is precisely in this sort of event when our theological questions cease being academic discussions and become either helpful or dangerous.  For example, if we believe that this event was God’s judgment on the Japanese, we will be less likely to try to help the survivors.  Or if we think giving help can only be motivated by the possibility of salvation, then our help may actually be counterproductive to its purpose.  Help purely in the service of a narrowly defined sense of evangelism is more likely to turn others away from the gospel in disgust than to draw them in.

It is also a time when imprecision in our biblical theology goes from innocent to dangerous.  For example, how do we reconcile 2 Samuel 24:1 with 1 Chronicles 21:1?  The first says that God tempted David to take a census, while the second says that the Satan tempted David to take this very same census.  Unless we want to allow for contradiction, the only solution I can think of is to see a development in theological precision between the earlier Samuel and the later Chronicles.  The New Testament confirms this trajectory of understanding when James 1:13 says that God does not tempt anyone.

It seems an inescapable conclusion that some of what the older parts of the Old Testament ascribe to God’s direct action (like sending an evil spirit on Saul–1 Sam. 16:14) are likely things that God allows rather than directly causes.  Similarly, many parts of the Old Testament–especially the historical books–have a very general sense of good and evil consequence:  those who do good receive prosperity in this life; those who do evil suffer in this life.  In the New Testament especially this view gains precision.  After all, the most righteous man of all–Jesus–dies on a cross.

So a more precise understanding is that God does not directly cause all the bad things that happen.  Further, both good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people.  The most accurate view is thus the third one, although with a bias toward the second.  That is to say, unless God gives you a special revelation about the Japan crisis, we must ultimately accept that his will in such events is a mystery.  We must also be confident that he is in control and does what is right.

I will also confess that I have remained with the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition because I cannot make sense of Christianity if God directly causes everything that happens in the world.  The notion that “God is love” seems to become meaningless.  If I have to try to explain how God can be love in a world where pedophiles rape and murder children, the only answer that makes any sense at all is that a world in which God has given us some degree of freedom is a better world than one in which we are slaves to his will.  But if God allows us the freedom to do evil, then some will do evil.

Romans 8:20 tells us that the creation is in the same boat with us.  I can only make sense of things if God has granted the creation some of this same freedom to continue on its course following its laws and the effect of Adam’s sin.  According to those laws, when tectonic plates build up enough pressure, massive earthquakes happen.  And when massive earthquakes happen under water, massive tsunamis happen.  And when people are living nearby, a lot of people are probably going to die.

Jesus warned his audience not to think that God was singling out the 18 who died when a tower fell on them.  “Don’t think they are worse sinners than you,” he said (Luke 13:1-5).  And when Jesus’ disciples assumed a man was blind either because he or his parents had sinned, Jesus corrects them (John 9:1-3).

So how can we make theological sense of these sorts of events in the context of Christian faith?  First, while God’s intentions in relation to such events is ultimately a mystery, given God’s revealed nature it is far more likely that he allows them rather than directly causes them.  But even more importantly, our sense of his revealed nature will lead us to picture his Spirit reaching out to those who are suffering.

Is this not the picture of God we find in Romans 5:10 when it says that Jesus died for us when we were his enemies?  And Jesus did not die only for those who would believe.  He died for everyone, including those who ultimately reject him.  For this reason, we cannot legitimately restrict evangelism–preaching the good news–to saving people’s souls.  Nor can we legitimately distinguish between helping people’s souls and helping people’s bodies.  The good news is one good news, to body and soul, to those who believe and those who do not believe.


The individual and the community.

The topic was inspired by some reading, some conversation, and a student’s integration paper.

The reading came from my favorite theologian, Karl Barth, who, after making a strong case for the priority of the community in the Christian life, turned around — in his typically dialectical fashion — to make a very strong case for the significance of the individual standing before God (cf. CD II/2, §35.1).  An emphasis on the Christian community must not result in an overcompensation that forgets the freedom and responsibility of the individual before God.  There’s a sort of modern collectivism (which Barth witnessed firsthand in Naziism) that is a sort of demonic inversion of modern individualism.  In our zeal for the church as community we mustn’t overreact, constructing a communitarian ideology that crushes the individual.

The conversation was with some colleagues discussing the costs and benefits of infant baptism.  A popular argument today in support of infant baptism is that it stands as a bulwark against the individualism of modern consumerism.  Of course, such an argument must deal with the sacramental questions of what happens in baptism and who should be baptized when in light of those claims.  But it is pragmatic argument that ought to be taken seriously.  Perhaps baptism is the key Christian practice for asserting the priority of the community, for it is the means by which the community ingrafts the individual into herself.  However, baptism is also an irreducibly individual event, insofar as each individual is baptized and thereby given an individual Christian identity.  Who knows?  Perhaps baptism, whenever it takes place, is the Christian practice that busts the categories of individual vs. community.  Perhaps individuality is precisely the gift that the community gives in the sacrament of baptism.

Lastly, the student paper.  One of our students just submitted the exegetical portion of his integration paper.  His topic is “Do Christians grow primarily through engaging in spiritual disciplines individually, or by worshipping together corporately?” He starts with I Cor 12 and Heb 10:25, both of which make a strong case for the priority of the communal worship.  But then he brilliantly brought in Matthew 6:5-8 as counter evidence for the priority of individual, even private, spiritual disciplines.  Very clever!  Then he concluded with Psalm 22, where the individual and corporate seem to be intertwined with neither overdetermining the other.

I think there is wisdom in this student’s dialectical non-resolution of the question.  The question is valid, for the communal and individual aspects of the Christian life must be highlighted.  And the question can be strongly answered in either direction, for the Christian life doesn’t “start” anywhere but lives in the dance between the individual and the community.  Finally, the fullest answer must be some sort of both/and that does not really answer the question on its own terms.

In other words, at the end of the day, the question of the individual and the community, though it must be thought through, is the wrong question.  We must instead speak of concrete Christian practices, and only in seeking to understand them do we make use of the abstract concepts of “individual” and “community.”

So I guess I’m gonna stop thinking about the individual and the community for a while, and think instead about baptism, worship, preaching, leadership, etc.

“Silver bullet”— Any straightforward solution perceived to have extreme effectiveness; a phrase that typically appears with an expectation that a particular practice will cure a major prevailing problem.[i]

Based on my 30+ years in studying the process of evangelism and church growth, I can confidently say there is a “silver bullet” for fulfilling Christ’s command to go and make disciples.  Here it is:

The most effective evangelism—by far—occurs through meaningful
between Christians and non-Christians.

Did you know that over twice as many non-Christians come to Christ through relationships with Christian friends or relatives than all other reasons combined?

Many times in his ministry Jesus talked about and modeled this “disciple-making silver bullet.”  To the demon-possessed man (Mark 5:19) he said, “go home to your friends and tell them what wonderful things God has done for you…”  When Zacchaeus believed, Christ told him that salvation had also come to his friends and family (Luke 19:9).  After Jesus healed the son of a royal official we learn that the Centurion, and all of his family and friends, believed (Mark 2:14-15).  Jesus was teaching about sharing God’s love with the people we already know.  It is the way the Gospel travels!

In your next devotion time look up that word “household”.  You will find it not only in the references above, but in many other verses, as well.  In the original Greek, the word is oikos, and it has a fascinating meaning.  Oikos referred to the people in a person’s social network. It included a person’s immediate family (father, brother, wife, etc.).  It included a person’s extended family (cousin, brother-in-law, grandparent, nephew, etc.).  Oikos referred to the servants that stayed in the living compound of the first century home.  It referred to the servants’ families who also lived there.  The word oikos referred to a person’s close friends, as well as their work associates.  When the tremendous earthquake caused the Philippian jailer to desperately cry out: “What must I do to be saved?” Paul responded, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved…you and your oikos” (Acts 16:31).  Michael Green observes, “The early Christians knew that when the message of faith was heard and demonstrated by friends and family who were known and trusted…receptivity to the Gospel increased tremendously.”[ii]

A Problem with Shooting the Silver Bullet

But, there is one essential requirement for reaching friends and neighbors: we must be close enough to unbelievers for Christ to be observed and experienced through us. And there’s the rub.  The problem is that the longer we are in the church, the more friends we have who are also in the church…and the fewer friends we have outside the church.  Let me repeat this important problem-statement, because it is one of the major obstacles to the spread of the Christian Gospel today:  Most Christians have very few close friends who are non-Christian. Without such relationships, it is impossible to be Christ-like.

One reason that 85+% of today’s churches are not growing is that the social networks of people in these churches are almost entirely within the church.  Worse yet, churches frequently program to encourage this relational isolation.  Church activities are geared toward existing members.  “Successful” church events are when a high percentage of members attend.  Small groups are formed primarily for church attenders.  As a result, not only do church members have few non-Christian people with whom they associate…non-Christian people in the community have few or no close friends in the church!

The Solution…

So, how do we enter into a non-Christian’s world to be Christ-like (incarnational) if we don’t really know any non-Christians?  The answer is easy.  We need to become more like Jesus—we need friends who are “…tax collectors and sinners!” (Matt. 11:19)  Or, if you prefer Eugene Peterson’s version, Jesus was spoken of as “…a friend of the riffraff.”

From Christ’s point of view, I think having no non-Christian friends is a serious problem. How can Christ’s missional task be accomplished if His people are not in the world?  “My prayer,” said Jesus to His Father, “is not that you take them [Christ’s followers] out of the world, but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15).  In fact, Christians are supposed to be in the world, just not of the world. Paul knew that he needed to connect with “the riffraff” before he could communicate with them:

“I didn’t take on their way of life.  I kept my bearings in Christ.  But I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view.  I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life.  I did all this because of the Message.  I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!” (I Cor. 9:19-23 The Message)

We are to be the salt of the earth (Matt. 5:13).  And salt does not season itself.  So, let me encourage you, as seminarians who are spending time to be a better leader of Christ’s Church, to also spend time with the riffraff.  It is those lost people, after all, for whom Christ came to “seek and to save” (Luke 19:10).

[ii] Michael Green.  Evangelism in the Early Church. Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 1970, p. 210.

As Dr. Schmidt mentioned in his post this week, on Monday we began the only online, contextualized MDIV program in the United States that will be taught entirely in Spanish.

Joanne Solis-Walker is Directora of Wesley’s new MDIV degree in Spanish, here teaching the first course, El Pastor, La Iglesia, y El Mundo.  Ten leaders from Hispanic contexts in the United States are piloting what is currently the only MDIV degree entirely in Spanish in the world.  Next week they will take Hugo Magallanes for Contextos Culturales del Ministerio.

What an exciting moment for the kingdom of God, for the Wesleyan Church, and for Wesley Seminary at IWU!

Undoubtedly there are at least a few concepts bantered around in Seminary (online, over lunch, in the classroom, etc.) that make little difference in the world of ministry.  But there are others, if failed to be understood or applied, that can have a catastrophic effect on ministry fruitfulness.

The idea of “context” is one such concept.  It is essential that preachers grasp the broader context of a biblical passage while doing their exegetical and expository sermon work.  Taking Scripture “out of context” is to run the risk of being unfaithful to God’s Word and unhelpful (even detrimental) to those who hear it.

But the critical importance of context is not limited to preaching.  Contextualized ministry is a core necessity for any truly missional church.  The predisposition of many church leaders toward copying or comparing has resulted in the disconnection of many churches from the context in which God has placed them.

This is especially on my mind as we launch our Spanish-language MDiv pilot cohort this week.  Latino and Latina ministry leaders are on our campus from diverse locations and nations of origin.  As we’ve worked with Hispanic professors to prepare the curriculum we’ve discovered the greatest challenge is not translation (creating Spanish-language versions of English-language resources) but contextualization.  Our “contextualization  team” has wrestled with how leadership, preaching, spiritual formation and other dimensions of ministry are different in Hispanic contexts than they are in Anglo settings.  The pilot cohort students will provide a feedback loop on the relevance of our curriculum and resources to their ministry.

Dr. Sammy Rodriguez, Director of the Hispanic National Association of Evangelicals, was recently on campus.  We were grateful for his unbridled enthusiasm about our commitment to provide excellent, accredited Spanish-language ministerial education that is affordable and accessible.  But his highest praise was reserved for the fact that our curriculum and resources were not simply translated but contextualized and customized for Hispanic ministry.

While equipping pastors for ministry “taken in context” is important as our Seminary pursues opportunities to serve that are springing up all over the world, it is equally vital in the rural communities, suburban settings and urban populations close to home.

When the church I served (Kentwood Community Church in Grand Rapids, MI) sought to plant daughter congregations, great efforts were made to assess, coach and train the church planter.  But there was also intentional investment in seeking to match that planter with the appropriate context.  Over the years we participated in planting 10 different churches in the greater Grand Rapids area – urban, suburban, and bedroom communities.  I’m still amazed at how different those churches are in facilities, constituencies and strategies – as they seek to contextualize their ministry in order to permeate their immediate community with the good news of Jesus Christ.  One of those churches, the Edge Urban Fellowship, had in its site-selection criteria the need to be “gang neutral” – not a selection criteria you see very often!  But Pastor Troy Evans (a former gang member himself) was committed to reaching current and former gang members through his hip-hop church, and he knew to be located in one gang’s territory (context) would reduce the opportunity to reach those connected with other gangs.

Is the importance of ministry being “taken in context” part of the reason the Apostle Paul’s New Testament epistles are so often named by locale and people groups?  Is that why he opens his letters with such phrases as “To all in Rome…” or “To the church of God in Corinth…” or “To the churches in Galatia…”?  I believe it is, and that God speaks to ministry leaders specifically in their contexts.  What is He saying to “The church of God in your community…”?

  1. Have you sought to understand the demographics, culture, subcultures and uniqueness of your own ministry context?
  2. When you hear of an idea utilized elsewhere that you want to implement in your ministry, do you avoid simply copying or comparing by seeking to contextualize it?
  3. What changes are occurring in your context right now that may create unique opportunity for ministry?