Missions and Theology– Further Thoughts

Saint Thecla Cave Chapel of Ancient Seleucia a...
Saint Thecla Cave Chapel of Ancient Seleucia ad Calycadnum (Photo credit: voyageAnatolia.blogspot.com)

A friend of mine is working to set up some house churches. I have always liked the idea of house churches or house church networks. I have always greatly preferred them to cell churches. Cell churches utilize aspects of house churches, while disempowering them (which often is rather sad). That being said, I have to admit that a lot of this is a matter of taste. Ultimately, I believe different situations lead to different types of churches– be they house churches, house church networks, cell churches, parishes, Sunday school churches, cyberchurches (?) or others.

But the example of house churches got me thinking about theology. I like to say that missions and missions methods should be drawn from a theological foundation. However, some of the works I have read on house churches make me step back for a moment. A good idea (like house churches) can be built off of a poor foundation.

1.  The “Primitive Church” Theology. Some like to point out that the New Testament churches were house churches (or at least house church networks). There is some truth to this… at least physically. However, the first place the church met was in the temple, and then attempts were made to work through the synagogues. Houses were a back-up plan, along with schools, caves, and fields. When centralizing church buildings were an option, Christians tended to choose that option. Nothing in the New Testament writings, nor the practice of the NT Christians suggests that they were compelled theologically toward a house church model.

Essentially, there are two problems with the Primitive Church Theology. The first is that just because something was done a certain way in the New Testament, does not mean necessarily that it is the way churches should be today. The New Testament church commonly held services in Greek, Latin, or Aramaic. The reason was that the culture required the language. That does not necessitate us following the same pattern. In fact, a better principle would be that vernacular language should be the language of the church (whatever that vernacular language might be). In the case of house churches, their existence in the New Testament says more about the culture and social situation in the New Testament. The second problem is that we tend to create the early church in our own image. Even cultic groups like to say that they have “restored” the New Testament church even if their beliefs and practices appear to have no historical connection to primitive Christianity. In these situations, the absence of evidence becomes evidence of a “cover-up” by the “official” church. The early church had variety and had characteristics that are like no church today. That is good, since no church today lives in a culture that is identical to the New Testament Roman Empire (or Parthian, or any other, for that matter).

2.  Spiritualization of Ministry. House churches are useful, but some have tried to describe them in terms of spiritual movement. Some of this has been tied to a Charismatic Eschatology… tying house church movement to the so called 1st, 2nd, and 3rd waves of the spirit (or Spirit) as described by some in that branch of Christianity. Obviously, being a proud card-carrying NON-Charismatic, I would have trouble with this. But I would think that even if I was a Charismatic (theologically speaking) I would be cautious as well. Why? First, there is an unhealthy reductionism to it. Everything was wrong in the church until <BAM> God does something and things are good… but still wrong. Then God does something else and <BAM> things are better… but still wrong. Then <BAM> something new…. we can keep going with this, but it is just hugely simplistic and a bit dishonoring of the Church and God’s work in the Church throughout history. (To be fair, I am Baptist, and we are often guilty of ignoring vast swaths of Christian history as well. Shameful and disrespectful). God has been working in the church throughout history. He has done it in different forms and ways in different places. One is not necessarily best, and it is best to recognize no form is… necessary.

Second, spiritualizing a certain form of ministry puts one in an awkward position of potentially rejecting God. If house churches is God’s new spiritual wave, then to not be involved in house churches is to reject God. Spiritualizing encourages people to turn off their reasoning capacity. We don’t weigh benefits or problems with a certain direction. We don’t see, in this case, if house churches make sense in a certain community or not. We do it or not be part of God’s new spiritual breeze. Spiritualizing Example:  Here in the Philippines, an American “prophet” declared that a certain Charismatic (and charismatic) religious leader was going to be President of the Philippines. This has created the crazy situation of pastors and other religious leaders working to try to make that prophecy come true. While I don’t know why anyone would want a religious leader to go into politics, I understand even less why anyone would feel the need to try to make such a prophecy come true. If it doesn’t come true, the prophecy and the prophet is false… not a problem at all. But when we try to overspiritualize, we tend to shut our minds down and go off in directions as if doing it means aligning with God while doing something else means rejecting God. That is a heavy burden. Best not to spiritualize stuff.

OKAY now. Where are we. I have said that Missions should be grounded on Theology. But I have to do some more thinking. Clearly, it needs to be based on GOOD Theology, not just any theology (or prooftexting). However, maybe it is better to to be Pragmatic (doing something because it appears to work) then create a bad theology around a certain ministry, strategy or program. At least that is where I am right now on this.

St. Joseph at Christmas

St Joseph
St Joseph (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

We know Joseph gets downplayed at Christmas. I suppose it is understandable. But let’s just take a moment to think about his role.

David Zimmerman in “Comic Book Character” notes that mankind takes on four major roles in the Bible. In the Bible, God clearly takes on the role of hero, not people. However, people do take on the role of:

1.  Villain.  As I noted in my book “Theo-Storying” is is not true that Satan is the primary villain of the Bible. We sometimes like to read it that way (very selective reading at that). Satan may be the villain in the heavenly realms, but on earth, we really have no competition. We fit the role of villain better. Satan is more of a partner of ours in our role.

2.  Victim. While we may be the villain… we commonly are also victims in the Bible. Special place is given to the poor, the widow, the orphan, the alien, the marginalized. However, we all live in a world that is messed up, a world that we did not create. We sin, but we also are sinned against.

3.  Witness. Mankind may be an active player in the drama… but we also serve as witnesses of what is going on on stage. In the Bible, we are called to act, but also to witness and report.

4.  Partner.  The position of hero in the Bible is already filled, but we have the option of partnering with God. In comic books, there are superheroes and sidekicks. The sidekick doesn’t take the limelight of the superhero, but helps bring success.

Okay, now let’s consider Joseph. Joseph was engaged (betrothed) to a woman who became pregnant outside of wedlock. The visit by the angel explaining the situation did not necessarily make things better. He was still stuck in a culturally very awkward situation. So look at the roles listed above:

A.  Joseph was a Witness and Victim. He had no choice in this. He did not create the problem but found himself experiencing it.

B.  Joseph rejected the role of Villain. It would have been easy to do. He could have rejected Mary… “putting her away”… quietly. He could have felt justified (legally and culturally) to be vengeful.

C.  Joseph also rejected the role of Witness and Victim. Just because one is given a role, one still has a choice to embrace that role or reject it.  Joseph could have passively focused on the injustice he found himself in. He could have backed away– a sulking victim, an uninvolved witness. But he didn’t.

D.  Joseph embraced the role of Partner. He accepted the word of the angel, and accepted Mary. In so doing he chose to be the partner of Mary, with all of its joys and pains, and partner of God and His work.

We find ourselves dealing with these roles too. We are victims… not sure there is anyone who is not. We are witnesses of what God is doing. We can embrace the role of the victim. We can embrace the role of a witness (whether involved or uninvolved). We can take on the role of the villain, seeking to thwart God’s work. Or we can partner with God. The choice is always there.

Absurdist Contextualization: A Serious Business

Few things are as boring, generally, as reading a work on sound theology. Yet if you go into a bookstore (Christian or otherwise) there are shelves of Christian Books. You can find books on:

  • How to be rich (and telling that there is something wrong with you if you are not rich)
  • How to be happy (apparently having a rich spectrum of emotions is not godly)
  • How to eat and exercise (God’s way to buns and acquire abs of steel)
  • How to know future events (God’s hidden secret messages regarding future events that we can’t find without paying someone)
  • Pleasant Christian thoughts recycled by authors of books they wrote before (or had written for them before).

These books attract interest (and buyers) by talking about things that either aren’t that important or aren’t that true… or both.

Jesus managed to contextualize theology to the hearers of 1st century Judea. One way is in stories (usually here called parables). But stories can be boring and unmemorable as well. One method to attract attention used was (and is) humor/shock.

We often don’t see Jesus as being humorous. We have (at least) four challenges to finding humor in the stories of Jesus.

  1. The stories are too well known for us to feel the shock in them. While, I disagree with the reductionist view that humor is simply a form of shock, shock (or the “twist” in the tale) is often where humor is found in stories. No one gets surprised to learn that firemen keep their pants up using suspenders because the twist in the joke is too well-known… it lacks shock..
  2. We lack the cultural reference points. So much of humor is culturally laden. Some humor has a universal quality to it, but much is tied to current events and local culture. I listen to old-time radio. I tend to like listening to “Fibber McGee and Molly” and “The Jack Benny Show” rather than “The Bob Hope Show.” Although Bob Hope was a comic genius, much of his humor was “current” humor. That is, it was tied to what was going on with local events and contemporary personalities. Since the show was done in the 1940s and 1950s, much of those references are unknown to us now. Even if they are still known, it is hard to see the humor in many of them. With Fibber McGee and Jack Benny there is a greater focus on human foibles and the universal human condition. Therefore, there is more of a universal quality to the humor, and is more accessible today, although created in the same time as Bob Hope. But in nearly all cases, humor breaks down with greater time and culture gaps.
  3. We often identify humor through voice inflection and visual cues. Much of the art of the great storyteller is lost in written text. To make the humor obvious, one needs to find cues of the humor in the text and reconvert it into live storytelling. When Jesus talks about religious leaders carefully removing dirt from the outside of a cup and then swallowing a camel by mistake, this hyperbolic situation clearly demands exaggerated vocal inflection and gestures to pull out the true absurdity of the scenario.
  4. We like to “theologize” or “spiritualize” what Jesus says. We read of the Kingdom of Heaven being as a tiny mustard seed that, when planted, grows into a tree that the birds perch on. We then like to argue about what the birds “mean.” If the seed is the kingdom of God, what are the birds? Yet, most likely, Jesus added birds to emphasize contrast and reversal. A seed that a bird would barely waste its time to eat because it was so small becomes something so big that the same bird could now sit on, along with its friends. This absurd (and yet mundane) event is like God’s Kingdom which starts so insignificantly, and yet will expand and grow until it cannot be ignored.

Consider the story of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:23-35). It has elements of the absurd that humorously contrasts with the culturally mundane aspects of the story.

A. The size of the debt. 10,000 talents is a HUGE amount. Some theologize this to try to make the point as to how much we are in debt to God. While there may be elements of truth in this (we are saved by God’s forgiving our sin debt since we lack any other resource for “paying it off”) the size of the debt is probably meant to catch the attention of the listener due to the ridiculous size of it. It is as if a story today talked of a man who owed someone 3 billion US dollars. The listener pulls back in shock. “How could someone owe THAT MUCH MONEY??” “This king, was he an IDIOT to lend so much money to one person?” “What sort of person would even TRY to build up such a debt?”

B. The request for patience. The debtor promises to pay it back if given more time. “How ridiculous!” thinks the hearer. “The man must know he could never ever ever pay back such a debt.” “Does this man really think the king is such a fool as to believe such an obvious lie?”

C. Total forgiveness of debt. There is no pay back schedule. No reduction of debt. No deal. Rather, complete eradication of a monstrous debt by decree. “Who could be so rich and/or so merciful to simply cancel a debt as if it did not happen?” “Is the king so kind, or the man so deserving, or what?”

D. The tiny debt and the ridiculous response. The man who was the first debtor sees another who owes him a hundred denarii… a pretty small amount… hardly worth stressing about. This new debtor promises to pay. Unlike that of the first debtor, the payment of this second debt should be easily within the ability of this second debtor… given a little time. Yet the first debtor has this second debtor thrown in debtor’s prison. “What a repugnant, ungrateful man!” “What man could receive so much grace, and yet be so harsh and selfish?”

E. The twist. The first debtor’s actions have not gone unnoticed. The king is notified and brings in the first debtor, giving him the punishment he so richly deserves. The irony is complete. Because the first debtor could not give a small bit of grace, he lost the enormous amount of grace he was given.

F. The reversal of affection. Most of the hearers, then and now, can relate to being in debt to a king, or rich person, or powerful bank or corporation. Few can relate to the king (or powerful equivalent). Because of this, people are more likely to feel sympathy for the first debtor. Few feel happy for such a person being punished, and few would feel a positive connection with a despotic ruler. Yet the story develops an ironic twist in our attachments. We feel sorry for the king for being duped by such a selfish unmerciful man, and feel a rush of (righteous?) joy when that same man gets his comeuppance. One of the most effective stories to use reversal of affection to make a point is the book of Jonah.

The humor in the parable (in the forms of shock, hyperbole, and irony) help make the story memorable. Then Jesus added the final twist that ties it to the story. If God is the king, and we have been granted mercy by God, then we are the first debtor. We have no choice regarding that role, but we have choice in how we play out that role. We can act like the man in the story, or we can make a new story.

Effective contextualization, translation, and transmission of God’s message should not be afraid of utilizing story and humor. However, it really does take an insider to master the art of story and humor.

Maybe that is the real challenge. Maybe theologians do not understand the culture that they seek to minister to to the extent that they can adapt God’s message in a culturally interesting and humorous way.


Church Ministry Symbiosis

Dormition Cathedral, Moscow
Dormition Cathedral, Moscow (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I like to describe churches as having three basic ministries.  These are:

1.  Community Care. Care and development of people within the church family.

2.  Church Growth.  Activities that would expand the local church family (outside of biological growth I suppose)

3.  Missions. Activities that focus on expanding the kingdom of God without necessarily expanding the local church family.

Ideally, these should work together symbiotically. Community care should train people to be involved in church growth and missions. Likewise, community care should make the church family a desirable place to be a part of. Church growth should increase the community and the ability to care for itself, and the pool to draw from for missions work. Missions trains church members for community care and church growth and gives added purpose for the church.

Sadly, they often do not function symbiotically. Sometimes they are at war with each other.

1.  Community Care can become the end function of the church. Budgets and manpower are utilized to have great facilities and activities for its members. Resources set up for outreach (either church growth or missions) are deprioritized and reduced.

2.  Church Growth can become the primary focus. Members are not taken care of. They may also not be trained for fear that they might leave the church and minister elsewhere. Budgets are centralized on bringing more people in and preventing them from leaving. Missions is seen as pointless since it does not directly benefit the size of the church.

3.  While less common, missions can be the central focus. Activities are focused on distant ministries and the church members don’t minister locally, but just pool resources for other people to serve God.

For the ministries of the church to be effective, there must be intentionality in having these work together. Many in Missions and in Church Ministry complain about how few churches are truly “on fire” for ministry or fail to be involved effectively in missions. In fact, however, many church leaders create this environment. They focus on “church leadership,” “church growth,” “closing the back door of the church,” and this develops a certain… well… ecclesiastical selfishness. The members see little value in focusing on God’s Kingdom when everything they are taught focuses on their own little fiefdom.

What would be the best way to get the ministries of the church to work together for the good of the church family, the local community, and world… all three of which are to be important parts of God’s Kindom??

Nice article the continues the question of “The Cross and the Sword” in the context of Christendom and Missions History

Global Theology

From the last decade of the 15th century, Europe would welcome the discovery of a new continent, and with it the opportunity for the expansion of empire and Christendom. Those nations most immediately suited to seize this opportunity were the naval empires of the Iberian Peninsula, Spain and Portugal. Both royal houses were firmly aligned with the Roman Catholic Church and assumed an imperial mandate to expand the authority of the church along with political and economic growth. The missionary endeavors which the Roman Catholic Church would embark upon in the formative years of European global exploration would set in place the foundation for overseas evangelization strategy and reverberate in the methods of other European nations and leave an indelible impact on global Christianity. Understanding the social context for this initial push in overseas missions can put into perspective the successive waves of zealous missionaries and their understandings of Christendom…

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God, Paradigm, and Ockham’s Razor

The Ockraz Logo
The Ockraz Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

<Warning!! In ancient times I was a mechanical engineer and for awhile a nuclear engineer. So I used to know something about physics. Now that I am a theology type… I have fallen behind in the natural sciences. So if you are underwhelmed with the science side of this post, no problem… but I believe the logic side stands the test.>

William of Ockham is well-known for his quote, “Plurality should not be posited without necessity.” It is the basis for “Ockham’s Razor” or the Principle of Economy, or the idea that the simpler of two theories is most likely the correct one. So for example, if one of my students comes to class without his homework, I might theorize that he forgot to do it. Suppose he says that my theory is incorrect, and offers a competing narrative/theory where Space Ninjas came to his house the night before to steal his homework because he had inadvertently discovered the secret to the ultimate weapon that could be used by the beautiful Princess Hezaria and her rag-tag rebels against the Space Ninjas and their vicious ruler, Lord Jurggon. My student, sadly, had to destroy the homework rather than allow it to get into the clutches of pure Intergalactic Evil. I might consider applying Ochham’s Razor to the situation and suggest that since my theory (his forgetfulness) is simpler than a political battle with alien lifeforms, it is LIKELY that my theory is correct. Now, on the other hand, if my student came and said that his computer crashed so he could not print it off that morning, both theories are equally simple, so I must use other methods to discern the truth (like evaluate his record of trustworthiness).

I have heard Ockham’s Razor used to argue about Cosmogeny… the birth a the Universe. There are a few problems with sloppy use of this principle.

1.  Ockham’s Razor is far from proof, it just provides insight. Complicated things happen all of the time. If one’s homework was destroyed in a battle with aliens, it is likely that one will not be believed… but that does not change the fact that it was true. Quantum Mechanics is far from simple, but (unless new work comes in and offers insight) it appears to be generally true (God DOES play with dice) despite thousands of years of simpler theories.

2.  The simplest is not always the best. In Cosmogeny, the simplest theory is that the Universe has always been. That theory has been embraced by many different groups at different times. However, with the inductive development of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, the doubt regarding static equilibrium within the Universe (since there appears to be no balancing force against gravity), and the observation of doppler shift in the viewing of the stars, the simplest explanation has taken a beating. Some have, however, rehashed it with the the slightly more complicated oscillating Universe (big bang, big crunch, big bang, big crunch, etc.).

Of course, Ockham’s Razor assumes that the theory should be the simplest one that answers all known questions and is consistent with all of the known data. However, it is often in the unknown data where much of the pertinent information dwells. In the homework example above, my own (as the teacher) ignorance about space politics compels me to assume that my student was being fanciful. In fact, the information that I actually KNOW to be true is extremely limited, so I have to make an awful lot of judgment calls regarding the value of the information provided me by my student. Additionally, most of the information I received is not very testable, since history is not testable (in the strictest sense) by the scientific method. History can be judged by the historico-logical method but the results are probabilistic (likelihood and doubt) rather than “proof.”

Cosmogeny has the same problem. History can’t be tested scientifically (again, in the strictest sense) so one has to use other methods. We lack a huge amount of knowledge about the start of the Universe (we weren’t there when the Universe came to be, we know of no alternate “universes” to compare to). The oscillating Universe, for example, assumes that the gravity field in the Universe is strong enough to reverse the bang to give us a crunch. Estimates can be made to determine if this is likely, but there are still an awful lot of unknowns here. Also, for the oscillating Universe to work, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics must be violated. Is that possible? Who knows? Should the reversal of the 2nd Law crush the idea of an oscillating Universe or not?

The Phlogiston Theory (of combustion) and the Ether Theory (of light propagation) of previous centuries became more and more fanciful and complicated to try to deal with new evidence. Some appeared to be self-contradictory. In Phlogiston, how come some materials combust/rust and gain weight while others lose weight? This contradictory behavior caused great problems. With Ether, how could a medium to transmit light be extremely hard (allowing rapid propagation) while being extremely soft (allowing solids to move through it). These and other contradictions eventually crushed these theories. However, the Wave and Particle models for Light theory have so far been held onto in paradox. Is this justified or do we need something better? Simple is NOT always better.

3.  Ockham’s Razor often has a hidden component… cultural reasonableness. Because of lack of data and limited knowledge of all of the possible scenarios, one is forced to consider reasonableness. That is why in courts of law we don’t seek “proof” but “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” Reasonableness is the hidden component in Ockham’s Razor. The problem is that Reasonableness is heavily culturally laden. For example, consider angels versus aliens. Angels are messengers of God, from outside of space-time. They presumably are able to defy the natural laws of space-time (that is essentially what supernatural means). Aliens, on the other hand are beings of the natural realm of space-time and limited by natural laws.

So suppose beings come to earth with appearances and abilities that are outside of what is found on earth. What label would be applied. A Theist might call them angels while a Naturalist might call them aliens. Each would have good reasons to come to their conclusions based on Ockham’s Razor.

A Naturalist would question the necessity of even considering the supernatural if a natural explanation is possible. We know nature exists so embracing a supernatural theory is unnecessary as long as a theory could be brought up that is consistent with the naturalist paradigm. As Arthur C. Clark said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” So if being show magical abilities, that is just proof of how advanced technologically they are.

A Theist on the other hand can equally strike at the implausible nature of aliens. The vastness of space, and the fact that as far as we know faster than light transportation is impossible, makes alien visits from anything farther than say 100 light-years unlikely at best. Wormholes seem doubtful or at least unreliable (if they exist). On the other hand, angels, not being part of space-time can simply be in a parallel universe or dimension so coming to earth involves interacting with the human plane of existence (much like a 3-dimensional object would interact with “Flatland” or a 4-dimensional object would interact with “Sphereworld.” There is no need for believing in interstellar travel that appears to be impossible.

In each case, a member of each group can easily point out the unreasonableness of the alternate view. However, in each case, the unreasonableness results from the sub-culture he or she is part of.

4.  Ockham’s Razor has little value for paradigm shift. People work within a worldview or paradigm. A well-grounded paradigm is almost impossible to contradict. Some people talk about God “in the gaps.” The idea is that as science advances, it explains the world around us and so God becomes more unnecessary… finding relevance only in the gaps of human/scientific knowledge. This is an amazingly flawed idea. The idea is that natural law is in the realm of some sort of atheistic science and the miraculous is the realm of God. So as miracles are debunked, or at least found unnecessary, God becomes unnecessary. In fact, God is the god of natural law. God may be the god of miraculous (non-normative) events, but God is declared in the heavens not in the odd events. Theists sometimes seek to give credence to this way of flawed thinking. When I was young, people would tell me how a bumblebee was proof of God because science claims that a bee lacks the structure and aerodynamics to fly. The logic seemed to be that God miraculously made every bee fly, and if we discovered a natural explanation why a bee could fly non-miraculously, that would lessen the likelihood that there is a God. Yet it is in the amazing design of the bee that appears (at least) to defy evolutionary chance that best argues for a God. God is not in the gaps.

But a naturalist paradigm or a theist paradigm is almost impossible to contradict because almost any bit of evidence could be forced into either paradigm. The simple reason is Ockham’s Razor. That is, any explanation/theory that involves changing one’s paradigmatic stance will almost invariably appear to be less simple than any explanation that allows one to maintain that stance. Thomas Kuhn’s work on paradigmatic shifts in science can be applied to other areas of thought and culture.

So what does Ockham’s Razor tell us about God and the beginning of the Universe?  Not much. What it does tell us… is about us. Knowing what seems reasonable to each of us doesn’t necessarily tell us much about what is reasonable on an objective level, but it does instruct us as to what our worldview is.

In missions, our role is NOT to play the game RELIGION VERSUS SCIENCE. Much of the battle between the two is really the battle between Theism and Atheism (or Supernaturalism and Naturalism). However, in Christian missions it is wise to know the field of play regardless. Faith should never be about “turning off your brain.” In fact, historically, humankind has generally operated in a paradigm (or one of many paradigms) of belief in god, gods, or God. Intellectuals believed in the divine throughout history, and the statement in the Bible that “a fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God'” was more than a statement of moral foolishness. It was also a rejection of what the intellectually wise believed. The Greek Philosphers of millenia ago tended to reject the curious legends of the Greek pantheon. Yet they typically still believed in Deus (“The One”). Thomas Hobbes, the patron saint of modern atheism, did believe in a god of sorts, just not one that was supernatural.

Christians, and those in Christian missions, need to understand the intellectual paradigm they hold and the intellectual paradigms of those who live around them. It is unlikely one can intellectually compel someone to change paradigm (as I said, paradigms are resilient and are maintained in part by Ockham’s Razor). However, it does help to be able to demonstrate that one’s worldview and faith is an intellectually sound alternative.

Searching for “Radical” Christians and Dynamic Equilibrium

I have seen a lot of articles FB posts, podcasts, and such talking about how people (particularly youth) are supposed to be “radical Christians.” I was originally going to write a cautionary note on this. To me the term “radical” suggests rebellious and reactionary (and noisy and odd). And while there is some truth in this, there is a fair bit of falsehood in this as well. A Christian (radical or otherwise) is supposed to have Jesus Christ as his or her model. Jesus, in many ways, wasn’t all that radical (as “radical” is commonly pictured). He fit into His culture quite well. He looked and dressed the role well (Judas had to identify Him to the authorities… presumably because His appearance was pretty ordinary according to 1st century Judean standards). Additionally, while some of Jesus’ behavior was considered radical to a subset of the people, it was quite ordinary to others (dining with common “sinners” would be seem “radical” to religious leaders but pretty normal for common people).

But then I looked up the word “radical” in the dictionary and realized that, while there are several meanings for the term, two different meanings stand out.

According to The World Book Dictionary (using an older version, 1970), radical means:

  1. Going to the root; fundamental; basic.
  2. Favoring extreme social changes or reforms; extreme.

I believe that when we talk about being a “radical Christian” the first meaning is preeminent. After all, the goal is not to be different or extreme for its own sake. Rather, a Christian should have had a radical change in his or her life… radical here meaning a fundamental, basic, change to their root or core. Being extreme, weird, separatistic, highly pietistic or having any other quality that puts one on the outskirts of one’s cultural setting is not really the point.

To me, the image of this is a ball on a string. If a ball on a string is tethered by that string to a solid point. Consider that point to be the foundation, or tether point. When there is kinetic energy (motion) related to the ball, it will rotate on that tether. There are two equal and opposite forces (ignoring gravity, wind resistance, and such). These are:

  • Centripetal force. This is the force that seeks to constrain the ball and pull it back towards the tether point.
  • Centrifugal force. This is a virtual force (a force derived from the inertial response to the centripetal force). It is resisting the centripetal force and pulling it away from the tether point.

The end result is that ball will move dynamically in a circle around the tether point.

Okay, enough on Physics 101. What does this have to do with being a “radical Christian”?

I believe the REAL Force of being a radical Christian is the centripetal force of Christ. Being radical is about being foundational… and that foundation is Christ. A radical Christian is centered on, empowered, and constrained by Christ.

I believe the VIRTUAL Force of being a radical Christian is the centrifugal force of cultural dissonance. Being Christlike will result in fitting into one’s culture quite nicely in some ways, and being heavily counter-cultural in others. It is a virtual force because we are not told to be odd or different (as a goal unto itself). Rather, we are called upon to be Christlike (the REAL Force). However, being conformed to Christ will typically result in being in conflict with (or being seen as being extreme to) the broader culture in various ways.

In other words (and redundantly reiterating myself again), radical Christianity is empowered by (and has as its goal) Christlikeness. Radical Christianity is not empowered by being “extreme.” Extremeness is simply the result sometimes of seeking Christlikeness over cultural conformity.

What is the result of the balance of these two (real and virtual) forces? Dynamic Equilibrium. A ball on a string that is spinning around has dynamic equilibrium, it is energized by under control. A radical Christian is also energized, but under control (God’s control).

Being radical is not about being noisy, out-of-control, or culturally weird. It is energized faithfulness to Christ impacting the surrounding culture (subversively but with targeted purpose, not reactionary or random).

Christmas. It’s Okay… Really.

christmas 2007
christmas 2007 (Photo credit: paparutzi)

A few thoughts on Christmas. May as well get the thinking started now.

1.  It is OKAY to Christianize a pagan holiday. <An Issue of Contextualization.> Some are bothered by this and make this a big issue at certain times of the year. But Christianization is simply the subversion or reinterpretation of symbols. This is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Jesus and the early church subverted/reinterpreted the symbology of the Jewish Passover and ritual purification rites with the sacraments of Eucharist and Baptism. The church structure is the reinterpretation of the Jewish Synagogue. One of the two primary words for God in Old Testament Judaism (“Elohim”) has roots in Canaanite paganism (the roots of “YHWH” are less certain). The primary word for God in the New Testament Church (“Theos”) has roots in Greek paganism. Again, the key point is not the symbol but the meaning given to the symbol. Frankly, the most recognized symbol of Christianity, the cross, is a Christian reinterpretation of a pagan practice (crucifixion). Harvest Festivals have deep pagan roots, yet the Jews were comfortable with reinventing them as Jewish holidays. Three major Jewish Festivals are reinterpretations of harvest festivals (Feast of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, and Feast of Tabernacles). Christians have, in turn, reinterpreted Feast of Unleavened bread as part of the Christian Holy Week, and the Eucharist. Christians have also reinterpreted Pentecost as a Christian celebration. Reinterpreting pagan symbols is a healthy part of the cultural contextualization of faith. To become a Christian in a non-Christian culture should not involve rejecting every aspect of that culture, but selective rejecting the bad, embracing the good, and reinterpreting the redeemable. That is the role of insider within that culture (not the outside kibitzer).

2.  It is OKAY celebrate a civil holiday. <An Issue of Separatism.> Some are bothered that Christmas has become a civil holiday and has been overlayed with a lot of non-Christian (and sometimes anti-Christian) messages. I believe that it is true that some things have to really be set aside. This manic materialistic busy-ness simply has little redeeming value. But we as Christians should find areas of healthy cultural interaction with the surrounding society. Separatism tends to lead to marginalization and/or ghettoization. I feel that the desire to radically reject everything in society without thoughtful evaluation may stem from the belief that it will show people that they are Christians. I suppose that works. Evangelical Christians are recognizable in that many/most don’t celebrate the local fiestas here in the Philippines (because of pagan and Catholic roots, and the proliferation of vices). In India, I have been told, Christian houses are easy to recognize because they are dark and dreary during the celebration a Diwali. There may be reasons not to celebrate (the tendency mix Christian messages with nationalistic messages during American Independence Day or Memorial Day does make me a wee bit squeamish). However, the fruit of the Spirit is a better way to show that you are a Christian.

3.  It is OKAY to celebrate Christmas in December. <An Issue of Historicity.> Some, in complaining about Christmas, note that we don’t know when Jesus was born (although March might be a good educated guess) so it is ridiculous to celebrate His birth on any day… including in December. I have to admit, this one never made the least bit of sense to me. We have friends who adopted a little girl… she was found wandering the streets in the Philippines. She was apparently abandoned by her mother at around 2 years of age. They don’t know what her birth name was or what day she was born. Yet her paperwork now has a birth date and a name, and they celebrate her birthday every year on a day they assigned her. Suggesting that they should not celebrate her birthday because they don’t know the exact day that she was born is ludicrous. Actually, celebrating Christ’s birth close to Winter Solstice, at least for the Northern hemisphere, makes a lot of sense. Since it is the darkest time of the year, and the coldest (again, in the Northern hemisphere) it fits symbolically the idea of Christ coming into a world of darkness to bring light. And the comraderie and celebration provides emotional warmth to a time so cold. So unless you are big on technical historical, astronomical, or astrological factoids, relax and enjoy Christmas in December

4.  It is OKAY to CELEBRATE.  <An issue of Ascetism> Sometimes it seems as if the problem with Christmas is a problem with celebration. I have not heard anyone complaining about eating rice or utilizing fire, based on its long documented use by pagans and in pagan rituals. Perhaps the focus on Christmas and Easter and such has more to do with the belief that God is against fun and celebration. The Old Testament was full of celebrations. Jesus was involved in much festivities. Not all celebrations are good… but celebrations, are redeemable, and can be good.

5.  It is OKAY to NOT listen to me. <An issue of Conformity.> You don’t have to listen to me. If you celebrate Christmas as a Christian (or a non-Christian), that is great. If you don’t celebrate Christmas that is your right and your freedom as well. That is really not the point and people who think that is the point have really missed the point. But for those who accept it, “Maligayang Pasko at Manigong Bagong Taon!”

Congregational Leadership Wheel (and Missions)

Leadership Wheel

I don’t normally emphasize my Baptist ties on this website since I don’t see that sound Christian Missions should be particularly denominationally driven. If one is focused on God’s Kingdom, you don’t focus on your own fiefdom.

However, I have been seeing more and more problems with self-destructing leadership in both church and missions. The numbers may not be increasing… it just may be that I am interacting with more.

Clearly, one problem is a lack of accountability. I have seen a number of church leaders do remarkably bad, selfish, self-serving, … evil…. things, and then seek to justify them (or at least escape the consequences of them) under the guise that they are the pastor (if the pastor does it, it must be okay), the shepherd, the “anointed one.” <wow! “anointed one”  That sure is a term that has been abused and misused.> The Shepherding Movement sought to theologize such a system suggesting that Jesus was the shepherd (covering, umbrella) of the church leaders, and the church leaders are the shepherds (covering, umbrella) of the church members. This was a bit of a return to the system of the vicarious hierarchy.

There are advantages and disadvantages in such a system. An advantage of such a system is singularity of vision. A committee often makes decisions based on the path of least resistance. Great visions are often crushed. Another advantage is the relative simplicity. One person makes the decisions and the others follow. What’s simpler than that?

But there are disadvantages as well. While having a single leader who cannot be questioned gives singularity of vision, usually that vision is not very good. Individuals who truly are visionary are few and far between. Most “visionary people” are simply limited in exposure— so they read one article or visit one church and suddenly they have a “vision” of what needs to be done.  Most good visions come through interaction with others. Most great visions are good visions that have been honed through wrestling with others. <As always, there are exceptions.> Many leaders like to say that their vision is from God. However, that forces people into an uncomfortable position. Their leader is a liar? Their leader is foolishly mistaken? Their leader is correct that the vision is from God? Even if a “vision is from God” it can always use a bit of tweaking. Recall Jethro’s wisdom to Moses (Exodus 18) that adjusted, improved, that general vision from God that drove Moses to lead his people.

The biggest disadvantage is that lack of accountability is bad for the church leader. Pastoral staff have a considerable amount of ecclesiastical authority/power. In addition to this, especially for “preachers,” there is a considerable ego boost every time they stand up in front of a congregation to speak. There is risk that narcissistic or emotionally stable personalities will be attracted to this, and actually be further damaged. The Lord Acton quote on the corruptive nature of power is quite accurate. An immature person will not handle power well. It is actually cruel to give power to a person who cannot handle it.

Some hierarchal structures provide accountability but only outside of the church. Certainly, accountability in this manner is better than nothing. (In fact, even congregational, autonomous churches would benefit from an external leadership audit.) However, hierarchal structures without an internal check and balance can lead to the theologizing of the structure and supporting an idea that the leadership cannot be questioned, challenged, and held accountable.

The Congregational structure (that most Baptists and several other groups use) seeks to limit this problem. Ecclesiastical power is centered (primarily) in the pastoral staff. The Pastoral staff guides/leads the staff. The staff (whether professional or lay) leads/guides the leaders of specific ministries. These ministry leaders guide individual members. However, these individual members constitute the church body and so each individual acts to guide the church body which selects and guides the church council (or whatever term one uses to describe a group in this position). The church council, in turn, guides and oversees the pastoral staff. Is the system perfect? No… and as a church gets larger, there seems to be a greater need for power to be centered in the staff, and it becomes more difficult to provide internal accountability. Still, when the system works, it provides what the pastoral staff needs most… accountability.

In truth, on some level, all churches are congegrationalist. That is because, in all churches, members vote. Some churches allow their members to vote with their hands and voice. But in all churches people vote with their feet and with their wallets. That is why churches that are trying to maintain a highly authoritarian structure seek to theologize giving, membership, and leadership. You must give to this ministry or you are fighting God. You must not leave this church or your soul is in danger. You must submit to this authority or you are rejecting God’s authority. (In Slideshare, I have some powerpoints on  Churches that Abuse.)

Okay… so what does this have to do with Missions?

Actually, a huge amount. That is because many missionaries are churchplanters. And many “mission” churches, if they are not led by missionaries, are financially supported by a missionary or mission group. The problem is that the accountability structure becomes messed up. A missionary is normally accountable to his financial supporters and to his mission board, not to the members of his mission church. Often the missionary actually owns the church land and building. Essentially, there is no accountability. A similar problem occurs when a local pastor is set in place by a missionary. In this case, the finances and control are in the hands of an outside entity. The local church membership, in either case, is disempowered and the pastoral staff lacks the internal oversight and accountability it so sorely needs.

For missionaries, I believe that NORMALLY missionaries should not pastor a local mission church for a long time. It should be a transitional thing. For church leaders who receive outside funding and control, this again should be a transitional thing. It should not be long-term.