June 2011

Practice, practice, practice – it’s repetition makes a point.  Whether it’s an athlete, a musician or a medical doctor (with their “medical practice”) we acknowledge the value of practice.  Some capture that value with the phrase “practice makes perfect” – although there are obvious exceptions, such a my seven years of piano lessons with hours of weekly practice, and the result was not perfect, but pathetic, much to my mother’s disappointment!

One of the ways we describe ourselves as a Seminary is that we are “practice-oriented.”  It’s a phrase that highlights our value in making sure the education we offer is not only academically rigorous but equips ministers, as practitioners of ministry, to be effective in their Kingdom service.

Perhaps it would be more exact to describe ourselves as a “praxis-oriented” Seminary – although that may leave more than a few people scratching their head.  Praxis is a concept related to “practice” but one more commonly found in educational settings.  I’m convinced that a thorough grasp of praxis will enrich one’s practice of ministry.

Most people who know me are aware of my passion for multi-ethnic ministry.  I share Soong-Chan Rah’s conviction, expressed in The Next Evangelicalism, that the failure of the U.S. church to become multi-ethnic will leave it marginalized.  I continue to be an avid reader to expand and enrich my thinking about multi-ethnic ministry, with the latest book being Churches, Cultures & Leadership – A Practical Theology of Congregations & Ethnicities by Mark Lau Branson & Juan F. Martínez.  Their definition and explanation of praxis?

“…a continual movement from experience to reflection and study, and then on to new actions and experiences, is what we call praxis.  This term is often misunderstood as “practice,” referring to how a concept or theory is first understood mentally then applied in a real-life situation.  But praxis is actually the whole cycle of reflection and study on one hand and engagement and action on the other.” (p. 40)

As a Seminary we seek to provide the whole cycle of reflection and action in every class we offer.  As I’ve heard our Dean, Ken Schenck, express it – “With some courses and professors it may be theory reaching into practice.  With others, it may be practice reaching into theory.”  Where the cycle begins may differ, but we value its wholeness.  We value praxis in every learning context.

For instance, the study of biblical languages may be perceived as purely theoretical.  I’ve heard more than one pastor (OK, maybe I’ve done this myself) talk about suffering through Hebrew or Greek and no longer as a pastor reading the biblical texts in the original languages.  Dr. Schenck designed our courses for biblical languages, “Greek for Ministry” and “Hebrew for Ministry,” by first asking “How will pastors use the languages in their preaching and teaching?  Based on that usage, what do they need to know to effectively utilize the languages in their preparation and proclamation activities?”

As we develop our faculty and curriculum, we’re building our capacity to stretch students in the whole cycle of Praxis.  Since my last blog contribution…

…I’ve attended the Provost’s Scholarship Awards Banquet.  Dr. Ken Schenck’s Fulbright Scholarship was announced, providing funding for him to spend time in Germany researching how the understanding of the significance of Christ’s death may have developed among the earliest Christians (i.e. their realization that no longer were sacrifices required, etc.).  Also announced is that Dr. John Drury is a Hinds Award Recipient to write “A Canon of Christian Theology: The Methodist Tradition, 19th and 20th Centuries.”  This event reminded me of the amazing capacity of our faculty for “reflection and study.”

…the “Church Laboratory at 12Stone” (12Stone.com) took place, where the health and uniqueness of that ministry context, explored under the direction of Executive Pastor Dr. Dan Reiland, has stretched our students’ perspectives on “engagement and action.”  Our partnership with Teaching Churches and Teaching Districts (i.e. a Church Planting elective in May 2012 in partnership with the West Michigan of The Wesleyan Church) makes an equally valuable contribution to praxis.

Praxis may not make perfect…but it keeps Seminary and Church working synergistically (rather than lobbing verbal grenades at each other) and holistically to prepare world-changers.


Bible in hand, I walk with palms sweaty and heart pounding to the front of the sanctuary. I look at their faces, some are bored, some expectant, but all hopeful for something bigger than themselves and better than their lives. There goes Ray, whose wife left him 5 years ago because of his addiction to heroine. She took the kids and he took a nose-dive. He shows up at church periodically, seeking a high to intoxicate him enough so he won’t want to get high. What am I going to say to Ray? There, way in the back of the sanctuary is Rosie, the cynical 17 year old who would rather be sleeping on a bed of nails than listening to my sermon. Her parents threaten to take away her car if she doesn’t attend church. Rosie stopped really listening to sermons 2 years ago after she had an abortion. She slouches, crosses her arms, and listens to her iPod, every once in a while muting it to hear if anything I say will make living more attractive than suicide. What do I say to Rosie? There in the second pew with the big smile is Lois. She loves to “praise the Lord,” to use her words, but her puffy eyes and staring into space reveal the heartache her atheistic, verbally abusive husband is inflicting. She would do anything for him, but he treats her like trash. She is fearful and running from the question that keeps haunting her, has God abandoned me? What do I say to Lois?

The words God gave me to share this Sunday morning and the manner with which I say them stand between Ray, Rosie, and Lois and the demons of seductive addiction, hopeless despair, shameful regret, and extreme disappointment that are set on devouring them. What can I the preacher do in moments like these facing demons like these that are suffocating people like these? I have no sword, I have no six-shooter, I have a sermon. A sermon! Words woven together with the fabric of biblical truth and the thread of contextual realities. A sermon! 3500 words spanning 30 minutes to a group of people who are gazing at me, waiting for me, daring me to say something that will make God and his kingdom more real to them than the very real pain and problems that are sure to show their ugly faces again after the Sunday clock strikes 12:00. No one can see it but I’m shaking in my shoes, doubtful that this sermon will be enough to protect these people from these demons on this day.

My sermon looks like an underdog against the demons that have attached themselves to the people I love. What is worse, I am wrestling with some of my own demons like the one on my shoulder who whispers in my ear before I stand up to preach “who do you think you are…you have nothing to offer these people…you are more messed up than they are…do you really think your words, of all things, can make a lick of difference in their lives?” Once I snap that rascal off my shoulder another appears. This one reminds me of my successes in hopes that I will rely more on the power of my words than the power of God through my words. With an even harder flick, I get rid of this demon too.

The preacher stands between heaven and hell, hope-hungry people and the demons we know all too well. Who in their right mind would dare to stand up and speak out with odds like these? Who has the audacity to believe that grace-filled, truth-painting, Spirit-anointed words really can do something good to people whose hopes are hanging by a very thin thread? I the preacher, despite the odds, dare to believe that God just might show up and use the so-so words of this so-so preacher to transform so-so people into disciples who change the world. And so I open my mouth to release the words God has given me, knowing full well that if he doesn’t bring the dead bones of my mediocre words to life they won’t live and bring life to the dead. But God does show up, sometimes in ways I expect to see him but usually in ways I do not. On any given Sunday it’s hard to see exactly what God is “up to” through the sermon. But the cumulative impact of sermon after sermon after sermon, spoken with love to the same group year after year, is much more visible. These people before me seem a bit more faithful, more hopeful, more committed, more reliable, more selfless, more victorious than they did a few years back. The reason? God is here. Though the demons may seem bigger than my words, these monsters are no match for the God who hovers over the deep of the sermon and those who hear it.  

Ray, Rosie, and Lois are leaning up in their seats. God is using my words to restore what they lost in the fall. Before the sermon is over I have already decided to give it a go again next week.

A few years back one of our MA students did a capstone project on a frustrating phenomenon he was observing.  The kids from his youth group were dropping like flies out of church after they graduated from high school.  This was true even of some who were going to Christian colleges.  What was even more puzzling was the fact that some of them re-emerged in the church after they got married.  His project documented the phenomenon and strategized ways to overcome it.

Now I am not a psychologist nor an expert on theories of change or changing like others in the seminary faculty, but I am a philosopher of sorts.  Cobbling together various elements from ethics, I would suggest that people are motivated for four basic reasons: 1) basic drives and desires, not least for pleasure, 2) a sense of obligation, 3) perceptions of potential consequences, and 4) the randomness of the human mind.

I suspect that the default approach of so many when it comes to getting people to change is to preach at them.  For example, the research the MA student did suggested to me that sex was by far the major reason these youth dropped out of church.  The church told them they couldn’t have it.  Their basic drives told them they wanted it.  Words of obligation don’t stand a chance in this duel.  “You shouldn’t do that.”  “You should do this.”

Of course one of the primary tasks of “raising our children in the way they should go” is instilling a sense of virtue and vice in them–which impacts their long term sense of obligation.  Rarely can a reasoned approach to right and wrong compete with the values instilled in a child growing up–values more “caught” than “taught.”  But even such values face hard competition against the primal drives toward pleasure of all kinds–the pleasure of power, the pleasure of sex, the pleasure of wealth.

Potential consequences can deter certain courses of action.  We have police and courts to keep us from killing each other when it would be in our own advantage.  Another way of saying that we have a sinful nature is to say that most humans are by nature more selfish than they are loving.  When my pursuit of pleasure beyond my needs creates displeasure beyond normal for you, most of us are prone to go for pleasure unless there are significantly negative potential consequences.

However, many if not most of us do not follow our heads in these sorts of decisions.  Another way of saying we have a sinful nature is to say that we are prone to choose “the pleasures of sin for a short time” over and against what we know is a better course of action.  Nevertheless, it would seem likely that most of what God asks of us he asks because he loves us and thus shapes our lives in relation to the potential consequences both for ourselves and others.  If a person has not inherited a sense of duty from their childhood, clarifying the consequences of our actions is a more powerful motivation than simply telling us something is wrong.

But in the end, it is “out of the heart” that decisions come, from our most basic drives and desires.  Different Christian traditions have conceptualized the situation of the heart differently.  Certainly we will always have drives for sex and to excel.  When the Wesleyan tradition used to speak of “eradicating” the sinful nature, some probably lost sight of what we are actually talking about here, namely, the fact that the desires of our bodies can be directed at both appropriate and inappropriate targets.  We will have these drives as long as we have bodies and so we will never move beyond temptation or the potential for our desires to target the wrong thing.

But at the same time, many other Christian traditions underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit to give us greater desires for the good than our basal desires when they target the wrong things.  Many Christians also underestimate the power of developing habits of virtue, grooves in our wills that make it more easy to do the good than to do the bad.  Changing our hearts is ultimately a matter for God, but there are time-proven ways to help change our desires in the spirit of “I want to change, Lord.  Help my inability to change.”

First, we must get a clear sense of what God desires.  If we are uncertain about what God wants us to do in a certain area, then our basal desires will win easily over the good.  Clarity of God’s will comes from the community of faith reflecting on Scripture in the light of the wisdom of the Christians of the centuries in dialog with our current context and the potential consequences of our actions.

But once we have a clear sense of God’s will, we can cooperate with the Holy Spirit in forming our desires.  We create habits of virtue in the context of Christian community.  Habits of virtue are when we practice making the right choices.  We start little and we build to the big.  Habits require repetition, so we practice making the right choices daily in our greatest areas of need.

And we form these habits in Christian community.  Most important is the accountability of the Holy Spirit.  We must build the habit of the Spirit’s presence in every moment of our lives.  We must not allow our minds to think that the Holy Spirit is not present with us at every moment of every day.  How much less are we to make the wrong decision if we have taken the Holy Spirit with us into the room where we are making the decision.  “Practicing the presence of God” surely will make it harder for us to make the wrong choice than if our mother or father–or someone we strongly would not want to disappoint–were standing in the room with us.

Then there is the accountability of the Christian community.  If we are with others who are holding us accountable–as we are holding them accountable–then we are less likely to make the wrong choice.  They will sense that we are not as open next week as we were the week before.  They will know that we have not followed through on our professed love of God, and we will not want to confess a failure.

Ultimately, we cannot change others.  So many of us think we can, but if someone does not want to change, they will not change.  Unfortunately, most of us are lost even at the thought of changing ourselves.  As Christians, we believe this is a task only the Holy Spirit can pull off.  But God’s strength is made complete in our weakness, and we need not live a life of constant defeat.  We can do the good we want to do–which is the real point Romans 7 builds toward in Romans 8.