Joining the Festivities?

We have finally finished our Christmas celebration here. We had a number of friends and relatives over for a Christmas day feast here in Baguio City, Philippines. Then we talked to some other relatives across the ocean. We will keep up the Christmas tree at least through New Years. I don’t like the tendency for people (and especially merchants) to keep pushing Christmas celebration earlier… but I do like it to linger a few days past the 25th.

Christians struggle with holidays a fair bit. Every year, some Christian groups (as well as “Christian-ish” groups) argue that good Christians should not celebrate Christmas because of its so-called pagan roots. To me the argument is not valid, but I won’t repeat that. You can look at that in “Christmas. It’s Okay… Really.photo-2-1

But we are not alone. I was reading a little tweet by a Muslim who was trying to discourage fellow Muslims from celebrating Christmas. Now some of the other tweets by the same person suggest a viewpoint that is a bit out of the mainstream. Still, it is always a bit awkward when it comes to celebrating holidays of other religions. Here in the Philippines, the President every year tosses in special holidays for certain Muslim holy days.  <Note: If you ever get to be the head of government in your country… please plan your official holidays months in advance. Don’t just toss them in at the last minute. It creates unnecessary chaos.>  I have to admit that I don’t join in the celebration of Muslim holidays here. I have an acquaintance here who is Jewish and he said I was welcome to join a Hanukkah celebration here in town. I wasn’t able to this time.  But I hope to next year.

But this got me thinking about festivities.

  1.  Christians really should feel comfortable with finding ways to celebrate in Christian holidays. Not everyone feels this way.  Here in the Philippines, a lot of Protestants actively avoid the community fiestas. Sometimes it is because of the vices (gambling, drinking, and general carousing), but often it is because of it being attached to the celebration of a catholic saint or icon. Many Filipinos believe I am wrong (and they may be correct in that judgment) but I feel that as fellow Christians it is good to seek to find some way we can join on some level to demonstrate spiritual unity with other Christians. Joining a celebration, even in a small way, is one way to do that.
  2. Christians really should feel comfortable with Jewish holidays. After all, their holidays are part of our history as well. Yom Kippur, Rash Hashanah, Hanukkah, and so forth, are part of our faith history. But not only are there some Christians who believe we should not in anyway celebrate Jewish holidays (I believe I recall that the Western Church purposely moved Easter so that it would not line up with Passover— how strange.). On the other hand, I know Christians that like to suggest that as Christians we should only celebrate the Jewish holidays because they are “Biblical holy days.” Those special days, however, are special not because they are Biblical, but because of their role in remembrance of God’s faithfulness in history. But God’s faithfulness did not end in, oh say, 300 BC. It has been demonstrated more recently as well (including, but not limited to, Jesus birth, and resurrection). It is fine to celebrate Jewish holidays, but not them alone.
  3. Christians should at least be open to finding ways to celebrate other holidays of other faiths. This gets a bit more touchy, but it is not wrong to celebrate with Hindu friends a holiday with them…. or Muslims, Sikhs, Shintoists, or others. Some feel that that is inherently wrong. I would simply suggest that it may be possible to find ways to connect with those of other faiths, through celebration while holding true to one’s own faith. For example, Jesus did a miraculous sign at a Jewish wedding. But could he have done it at a non-Jewish wedding? I would think so? What if it was a non-Jewish celebration of a different kind, could Jesus have joined it and performed a miracle then also? I think it is possible. In this area, I think it would be wise not to condemn. I know Christian missionaries who work with Muslims who join Ramadan, both in the fasting and the celebration of the end of fasting. They believe they connect with Muslims better through this.

Ultimately, like meet sacrificed to idols in the first century church, this a matter of personal discernment in Christian liberty. But I hope you will find ways to celebrate. Heaven will be full of celebration. May as well practice now.

 

Of Spiders and Sheep

The Psalmist asks the question: “What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?”  Psalm 8:4
One suggestion could be drawn from the imagery of Jonathan Edwards in his most famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” In it, mankind is likened unto spiders.


The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked. His wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire. He is of purer eyes than to bear you in his sight; you are ten thousand times as abominable in his eyes as the most hateful, venomous serpent is in ours.

You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince, and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else that you did not got to hell the last night; that you were suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell since you have sat here in the house of God provoking his pure eye by your sinful, wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.

Another image can be drawn from an illustration from a sermon by Jesus– that of a lost sheep.

“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.     Luke 15:4-7

One might be curious at the startling differences in imagery. The differences themselves would not be so striking if not for the fact that the general thrust of the passages are similar. Both describe the relationship of a spiritual lost individual in need of repentance to have a relationship with God. One uses the imagery of a spider or loathsome insect abhorred by God, while the other a lost sheep… valued and even loved by God.

Since humans are humans are humans… the diametrically different images of humans imply very different images of God— or more correctly, very different perceptions of God by the two preachers.

Jonathan Edward’s God was a God of anger and judgment. Jesus’ God was a God of love and mercy. Which one is accurate? Well, Jesus has to be seen as authoritative. But it is also true that there are passages of Scripture that emphasize God’s wrath and judgment. That being said, the judgment of Jonah, appears to summarize the weight of the evidence.

“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”  Jonah 4:2b

Now, it is true that Jonathan Edwards was a hugely successful evangelist in the early 1700s. It is also certainly true that this one sermon did not give a full picture of Edward’s understanding of the nature of God (students of his teachings and impact can speak better on this). It could even be true that the imagery was more for cultural impact than for theological instruction. Edwards was known for his vivid imagery in sermons.

But I would argue that his methodology/imagery is not correct for today. In his time, God was often viewed in terms of king or lord, and these individuals were often fickle tyrants who need to be appeased. The power of God was related to the power of kings… and royal power was viewed in terms of control (even abusive control). So the people were prepared to respond positively to images of God that today would appear fairly repulsive. In the early 1500s, people would respond to Johann Tetzel’s presentation of indulgences that appear to make salvation as something that God literally sells through the church (selling reduction of suffering in purgatory or even release from hell). Today, despite the unspoken belief of many that the rich are closer to God, either because their wealth is evidence of God’s favor or because they can buy God’s favor, most would find the idea that heavenly mansions can be purchased to be a hideous thing that would come from an unmerciful and unjust God.

Today, we prefer to see images of God in terms of father or friend. or loving shepherd. It is entirely possible that our culture embraces too tame a version of God. Still, that image does appear to be closer to image in the Bible than that of a tyrannical autocrat. We like to say that God is both merciful and just, but the Bible does seem to indicate that, generally, God is more merciful than He is just.

Does this matter? Does it matter how we look at God and how we look at ourselves. I would argue that it does matter:

  1.  A picture of God that has more basis in medieval European governance than in His own self-revelation tends to make God seem more incredible (as in not credible). Causing (spiritually) young ones to stumble due to a misrepresentation of who God truly is, is unconscionable.
  2. When a religion portrays God in a manner that is incompatible with Biblical revelation, it is correct, I believe, for Christians to say that that religion serves and worships a different (and false) God. But when we are careless and lopsided Biblically with our portrayal of God, who are we truly worshiping?  The God who Is  or the God we have Created?
  3. The most common methods of evangelism starts from emphasizing our basic unworthiness and deserving hell in God’s sight. This is essentially Jonathan Edward’s method. But in the Bible, often salvation is related in a more positive way. Not always, of course. But when someone describes God’s salvation in positive terms rather than in negative terms— her or she is not necessarily being “soft on sin” or being unbiblical. In fact, the three stories of salvation in Luke 15, emphasize God’s role… and particularly His motivation of love.

Titus 2:10 speaks about decorating the Gospel.  I Peter 3:15-16 emphasize that our actions and words should put our faith in a positive light to those outside of the faith.

We are lost sheep. We are lost coins. We are lost children. We are NOT abhorrent spiders. This is not because of who we are or are not… but because of who God is.

Growing Your Church in Four Dimensions

Delos Miles Church Growth

According to the North American Society for Church Growth:   Church growth is that discipline which investigates the nature, expansion, planting, multiplication, function, and health of Christian churches as they relate to the effective implementation of God’s commission to “make disciples of all peoples”

I taught a class in “Principles of Church Growth and Multiplication” here at Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary (PBTS). The title of the course is actually a bit… not really deceiving… but open to confusion. The course is centered on the Church Growth Movement, CGM, founded by Donald MacGavran. However, ‘Church Growth” as the term is used by CGM is different from the way it is used in the course title. “Church Growth and (Church) Multiplication” is redundant, since Church Multiplication is a form of church growth. Does this matter? Not really. However, things can get confusing when one says that he wants church growth, since others may not be sure what that means. 110524

One of my students was doing a book critique on “Church Growth: A Mighty River” by Delos Miles. Although a somewhat old book (1981) it had a nice way of looking at church growth in four different dimensions:

  1.  Internal Church Growth. This is church growth that does not demonstrate itself in numbers. It involves the growing of the local church in faith and grace, in spiritual fruit and spiritual disciplines. It is the church moving towards “healthiness,” becoming closer to what God intended.
  2. Expansion Church Growth.  This is church growth of the local church through conversion. People are led to Christ and join that local church.
  3. Extension Church Growth. This is the local church planting daughter churches.
  4. Bridging Church Growth.  This is classic Kingdom expansion through missional church planting.

Miles separates Extension and Bridging based on people group and geography. If it is local and to the same people group, it is Extension. If it is distant or cross-cultural, it is bridging.

These four do not describe all of the ways a church can grow. The most popular way to grow is through transfer growth (pulling people away from competing churches). But of course, if a local church grows through another local church shrinking, there is no real church growth. Additionally, the designations presume that multicultural local churches don’t exist. (Sadly, they are rare, even today.)

Valid or real church growth assumes expansion of the Kingdom of God. Kingdom of God essentially means the reign or rulership of God, so

     #1 expands the obedience of God’s children to His rulership.

     #2, 3, and 4  expands the number of God’s children

Another way of looking at this:

     #1 and 2  involves growth within a local church

     #3 and 4  involves growth through multiplication of local churches

Or yet another way:

     #1, 2, and 3 involves intracultural growth of the church

     #4 involves intercultural growth of the church

For me, however, I like to divide local church’s ministry into “Member Care.” “Local Church Growth,” and “Missions.”  With those in mind, one gets:

     #1 (Internal growth) is an aspect of Member Care

     #2 (Expansion growth) is a component of Local Church Growth

     #3 and #4 (Extension and Bridging) are aspects of Missions.

I don’t like to separate missions based on culture. In my mind, whenever a church reaches out beyond itself to expand the Kingdom of God, without the explicit goal of increasing its own local numbers, that is missions. But that is just me. Other ways are at least as valid, and I see the value of dividing missions in terms of Extension and Bridging.

Ultimately, I believe a healthy church grows in all four dimensions: Internal, Expansion, Extension, and Bridging.

Metaphors for Missions

I finished teaching an 8-week course in Theology of Missions at Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary. I wasn’t sure how best to do this, since this is the first time I have taught the course, and it is the first time it has been taught at our school.

So I decided to hit as much as I could in areas relating to Missions Theology that is not necessarily dealt with much elsewhere.  So I broke it up into three major topics, and several minor topics.

Section 1.  Missions Theology as Systematic Theology

  • Missio Dei
  • Missio Ecclesiae
  • Missions in terms of Eschatological History
  • Analysis of the Great Commission(s), Great Commandment, and Abrahamic Covenant
  • “Spiritual” versus Social versus Holistic ministry
  • Interfaith Dialogue and dealing with other faiths
  • Views on who is saved

Section 2.  Missions Theology as Contextual Theology

  • What is Contextualization and Contextual Theology
  • What are the models of contextualization of theology
  • What benchmarks are there for orthodoxy of contextual theologies
  • Roles of narrative and metaphors in contextual theology

Section 3.  Missions Theology as Reflective (“Pastoral”) Theology

  • Action/Reflection in developing personal missions theology
  • Case Studies and peer review
  • Personal metaphor for missions

We had an interesting term. With 10 in my class, we had a lot of good conversations. We had 10 metaphors given for missions. Some seemed a little strange at first, but made a lot of sense when explained. A couple of them may not meet the strict definition of metaphor… but I am not that strict. If it is useful, it works.  The ten metaphors were:

  1. Anchor
  2. Builder
  3. Water
  4. Walking by the Spirt
  5. Gathering Toys
  6. Mountain climbing
  7. Liberation
  8. Mountain biking
  9. Playing Chess
  10. Gardening

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