Thinking of Fire and Obsolescence

Back in the 1800s were two small companies that made buggy whips… Smith Brothers and Jones Brothers. The vision statement of Smith Brothers was “We seek to make the best buggy whips in the world.” Jones Brothers had a vision statement “We provide navigational control solutions for the world.” The first vision statement makes a lot of sense, while the second one is rather strange… correct?

However, back in the 1890s the395656 horseless carriage (automobile) was perfected and that began the demise of the horse-drawn buggy. What happened? The Smith Brothers company kept growing, for awhile, gaining market share in the buggy whip market. The Jones Brothers market share of the buggy whip market kept shrinking. BUT… this was because Jones Brothers began developing steering and control devices for automobiles. So over time Smith’s Brothers became the dominant company in a dying market, while Jones’ Brothers moved into strong niches in automobile, boat, and eventually airline navigation and controls.         

          -Story by Clarke Graham (former VP of Engineering at Sperry Marine)

This is one of only two things I remember from my Orientation Training at Sperry Marine (now part of Northrop-Grumman). The other thing was a note I got from a fellow new hire. The note said,

What are the following?   “Hades”    “Gehenna”       “Tartarus”?

I am not sure why he decided to ask me that. I soon found that he was part of a heterodox group that has roots in Christianity. My response was:

“Abode of the dead”     “Place of Torment”       “Infernal Place”

But why are these the only two things I remember?

The first probably had two reasons for being memorable. First, stories are naturally more memorable than propositional statements. Second, the story had a more general applicability. While most of the orientation had to do with how to fit into the work environment of Sperry, this story was about more generally useful in life. It is about vision.

The second was that I was asked caught me for two reasons as well. First, it was an unusual question directed at me, as opposed to telling me something that I may or may not be interested in. Second, it happened to be a Biblical topic and so was one that I was interested in.

That was over 20 years ago. I suppose that tells me that if I am trying to catch someone’s interest,

  1.  Tell stories rather than share facts.
  2. Choose universal themes, rather than targeted topics.
  3. Ask questions that interest the other, rather than tell things that interest me.
  4. Say things that get the other to think a lot and hopefully talk a lot.

Dialogue and Different Faiths


In “Acts of Faith,” Eboo Patel (2007), founder and director of the Interfaith Youth Core, reflects on the issue of religious diversity. Mirroring W. E. B. Du Bois’s famous statement that “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,” Patel suggests that “the twenty-first century will be shaped by the question of the faith line” (p. xv). He goes on to defend a form of religious pluralism “that affirms the identity of the constituent communities while emphasizing that the well-being of each and all depends on the health of the whole” (p. xv). This approach neither reduces truth claims to the lowest common denominator, nor relativizes religious truth. Rather, it emphasizes the need for open dialogue between persons from different traditions that enables them to learn from, and even experience, each other’s perspective. Given the reality of the “faith line,” the need for interreligious dialogue on

-Marion Larson & Sara Shady (2009) Interfaith Dialogue in a Pluralistic
World: Insights From Martin Buber and Miroslav Volf, Journal of College and Character, 10:3, ,

I will be teaching Interfaith Dialogue this coming semester. I really look forward to that course. The above quote by Larson and Shady, I think is excellent. I would, however, not use the term “religious pluralism” as they use it since for me the term relates to a soteriological viewpoint, not an inter-religious attitude.

The key point is that good dialogue does NOT relativize our view regarding truth and faith convictions. A person of definite beliefs and understanding of ultimate truths is not necessarily less committed to or competent in interfatih dialogue.

It also does not involve trying to come up with common beliefs, often done by wording things vaguely enough so that it sounds like we agree– ignoring important differences. I remember talking to a guy who was a 5-point Calvinist (I am probably more like a 2-1/2 point Calvinist, or maybe a non-Calvinist) who was trying to dialogue with me based on the thesis that “really we both believe the same thing.” Then he went on and described his beliefs with language so loose and vague that almost any Evangelical Christian could agree with the wording. However, using language that obscures beliefs is not good dialogue. The same problem comes from the “Well, don’t we all really worship the same God?” camp.

Dialogue comes from honesty and respect, and just a wee bit of humility. Beyond that, I don’t know. I am hoping to learn a lot this semester, along with my students.


Is Social Ministry Missions?

A. Scott Moreau noted in his book, “Contextualization in World Missions,” that social ministry as a part of missions has been a matter of controversy among Evangelicals for 80 or 90 years. With William Carey, there seemed not to be a strong problem with seeking social justice along with evangelizing and disciplining. William Wilberforce, a noted 19th century British statesman, found his Evangelical faith fully in line with his active opposition to slavery, as well as other causes supporting the oppressed (even laws against animal abuse).<Consider watching the 2006 movie “Amazing Grace” if you are unfamiliar with Wilberforce.>

But with the Liberal-Fundamental debates of the 1920s, Liberals drifted towards social ministry only or mostly as missions, Fundamentalists and Evangelicals tended towards spiritual ministry only or mostly in missions.  This tendency against social ministry in missions was enhanced with the argument that that because Christ is coming soon there is no time for social ministry, only direct proclamation. I don’t recommend basing a methodology on reacting to what someone else is doing. Likewise, to argue for a Biblically doubtful methodology based on a equally doubtful interpretation of Scripture is, well, doubtful. Moreau goes on to note that with the Millenial generation, the nervousness of combining missions and social ministry is fading away. I believe that is a welcome thing… although that does not necessarily mean that the result would be good missions.

But that is not the question. The question is whether Social Ministry is still Missions. On one hand, since the term “Missions” is largely a modern construct, Social Ministry can be considered legitimate or illegitimate legislated by definition or common usage. But legislation is not the only criteria. Two other criteria include the Bible (as canon) and Effectivity.

I would rather not start from the analogy of  wings of a plane, or the two blades on a pair of shears, where one said is “spiritual ministry” and one is “social ministry.” This begins from the paradigm that they are separable and comparable. I would rather start from the view that spiritual ministry (proclamation of the gospel message, leading to conversion, discipleship, and churchplanting) is built on a foundation of social ministry.

Biblically speaking, this seems to be a strong point. A number of the prophets including, but not limited to, Isaiah, Micah and Amos, place a higher value on righteous acts and social justice over mere piety. James does the same thing noting that talk (as well as faith) is cheap without action. However, that does not necessarily speak regarding missions. But when we get to Jesus, the connection becomes stronger. The John 20:21 version of the Great Commission seems to suggest that the model for carrying out God’s mission is that of Jesus. So while the Matthew version of the Great Commission sounds as if limited to proclamation of the Gospel, baptizing people into the church, and discipling, the John version appears to expand the concept. Jesus linked his missional ministry with acts of compassion for the poor and oppressed. This is reinforced in Matthew 25 where serving Jesus is tied to serving people in need. Additionally, if one accepts the idea that the Great Commission is an application of the Great Commandment, then missions is an application of expressing one’s love to God via demonstrating love to others. Failing to demonstrate compassion through tangible acts for those in need (materially, physically, socially) is not loving— and if not loving, can hardly be said to be missional.

Effectively, the case is even stronger. Proclamation that is not tied to visible actions in caring has a shaky track record. In fact, one of the greatest hindrances to response to the gospel message is the living testimony of uncaring or unrighteous Christians. The early Church without the financial means of modern Christians, and without the weaponry of the spread of early Islam, grew at a sustained rate over nearly three centuries that was simply amazing.

For the role of the common people in the spread demonstrated by their faith and actions, as much as their word, I would point to the quote by Von Harnack HERE. It is worth noting that Von Harnack in his book “The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries” made the case that the roles within the Universal church that most correspond to the present idea of Missionary– that of Apostle, Evangelist, and Prophet– generally faded out as the church moved into the third century. And yet to Harnack, many roles in the church (teachers, apologists, martyrs, for example) could be seen as active in missions. Then he goes on to see all members of the early church as having a missional role… and often embraced the role of missionary within their own spheres of influence.

Now we can combine that with a bit more of early church history as described by Charles Moore (you can read it HERE) who notes not only that missions in the early church was dominated by laypersons, but were strongly empowered by acts of love and service to unbelievers in their vicinity.

Neither the Biblical argument nor the Effectivity argument is here covered in detail. And if you find them less than compelling, that is not a problem. The goal is not to compel belief, but present a thesis that can be analyzed further.

My thesis is that Missions should have loving acts/social justice/felt needs-meeting, as foundational to gospel presentation. mission-houseOne can look at my drawing of an overly simple and ugly house. If the house is Christian Missions, then loving acts is the foundation, and gospel proclamation is the primary structure of the house. Without gospel proclamation, one cannot say Christian missions is occurring any more than a house can be said to exist without its structure. On the other hand, a house can be said to exist without its foundation, but such a house is unstable and prone to collapse. It is not that social ministry is equal in importance to gospel proclamation. In fact, comparing the two is a bit inadequate. So is Social Ministry Missions? Yes and No. Gospel proclamation is essential to missions, but social ministry is foundational to that proclamation.

<By the way, please don’t  send a comment that says something like “Christ” is the foundation of missions, or that the Bible is the foundation of missions. This analogy is self-contained to make a point regarding the relationship of social ministry and gospel proclamation. I have no intent to extend the analogy beyond the confines of this relationship.>

A Question of Contextualization

“After a significant pastoral ministry indewri-mandir an urban setting in the United States, a former student of mine returned to his home country of India to minister. When visiting him, I asked, ‘What is the most significant obstacle you face?’ He paused and then said, ‘The biggest I’ve seen recently has been working to overcome the impression left by some well-intentioned American short-term missionaries. When they came to my village, they gathered and marched around a temple in the village, asking God to tear it down in the name of Jesus. Later one of the priests of the temple told me, ‘You Christians are no different than we Hindus. We practice Hindu magic, and Christians practice Christian magic. I know because I saw those American Christians walking around our temple seven times praying. That’s no different from what we do.’

Was this prayer-walk an example of contextualization or syncretism? I am sure they thought they were engaging in appropriate spiritual warfare and would likely cite the Old Testament story of Joshua marching around Jericho (Josh. 6) to confirm it. The Hindu priest, however, read their actions as a ‘Christian’ version of a Hindu magical practice. The long-term worker was left to sort through the mess after the short-termers returned home.”

-Story told by A. Scott Moreau in “Contextualization in World Missions,” 2012, p. 123

Bronislaw Malinowski separated between Religious Thinking and Magical Thinking.

  • Religious Thinking is the view that one should seek to serve or be guided by spiritual beings or forces.
  • Magical Thinking is the view that one should seek to be served by these spiritual beings or forces. The goal, then, is to find ways to manipulate these powers.

If one accepts these definitions, then the STMers were certainly acting on magical thinking just as the Hindu priest stated. Of course, Christians seek to serve God… but entreating God is not outside of the Christian faith, so Christians should be mostly religious in their thinking, but still a bit magical, in thought, as well (based on the above definitions).

As far as whether these STMers were doing good contextualization or syncretism (over-contextualization), I would argue that neither was the case. Probably they were guilty of non-contextualization. Most likely they were bringing over the theology of “spiritual warfare” that they were taught in the United States. It is entirely possible that proponents of this sort of “spiritual warfare” or “power encounter” (such as Charles Kraft and C. Peter Wagner, along with others, developed) can be faulted with syncretism, but not these short-termers. They just took what they were told in the US to do, and did it. Additionally, grabbing the Jericho story and applying it to their situation is no more contextualization than if one of them brought five stones and began to fling them at the temple using a sling (another perfectly “Biblical” activity).

But if this group was only guilty of poor contextual theology and perhaps confusing a Hindu priest (although he doesn’t sound particularly confused) that would be understandable. What is much more worrisome is that their behavior was a poor reflection on Christ.

There is, in my mind, no satisfactory justification for publicly praying down a temple (or mosque or something similar). You might be tempted to say that it is justifiable because we find some kings of Judah praised for tearing down Ashteroth poles and the like. But even if it was done as part of national policy, I don’t believe there is examples of Jewish believers going to other lands to desecrate or attack other temples in other lands.

Even if one feels that one could see justification in the Old Testament, a point I would dispute, no such justification exists in the New Testament.

  1.  Jesus did not do it. He reacted to sacrilege of the Temple in Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, Decapolis, Galilee, and more, He certainly had opportunity to decry alien places of worship, but we have no record that he had done so.  In John 4, he referred to the worship place of the Samaritans, but outside of pointing to the correctness of Jews in this matter, spoke nothing against the place or the people who worshiped there. (That is not to say that the Hasmoneans before or the Byzantines after were so respectful.)
  2. With Paul the evidence is even stronger. In Acts 17, we find him speaking publicly to the Areopagus without disrespecting the Athenian beliefs. Also, in Acts 19:35-41, we find the clerk in Ephesus defending Paul and Silas:

The city clerk quieted the crowd and said: “Fellow Ephesians, doesn’t all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven? Therefore, since these facts are undeniable, you ought to calm down and not do anything rash. You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess. If, then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. They can press charges. If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly. As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of what happened today. In that case we would not be able to account for this commotion, since there is no reason for it.” After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly.

But there is more:

3.  There is no way that people will recognize the love of Christ in people seeking destruction of a people’s treasured structure. In a somewhat parallel even here in Baguio City a few years ago, pastors and missionaries were joyous that they had managed to prevent the building of a mosque in the city. But why be overjoyed? The blocking of such a building was very temporary, it was probably illegal in a country that supports freedom of religion, and certainly helped poison a positive of witness of Christians in the Muslim diaspora here.

4.  It is inconsistent with the Golden Rule. If one is bothered by others attacking, destroying, or praying against church buildings, than one should certainly not take any of those stances against other houses of worship.

I think that if they truly felt the need to pray against the Hindu temple, they could have done so quietly and privately. Why hamper Christian ministry by behaving publicly in such a disrespectful manner?

(By the way, I do strongly recommend A. Scott Moreau’s book. It is a great expansion of Bevan’s book on Contextual Theology. One can click on the title after the top quote to get more info on it.)

The Radical Middle in Historical Perspective

The following is an abridged quote from the “Declaration of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Council” (April 1990). Noting the date, this at a key time in modern Russian history as the Communist government of the USSR collapsed while its replacement was still in doubt. The bold lettering as emphasis is mine, not in the original.


“God-loving archpastors, pastors, and all the faithful children of the Russian Orthodox Church,

In our life, the time has come when everybody must realize their responsibility before the Lord for our Mother Church and its historical destiny.

The rapid changes taking place in the country have not bypassed the church and have posed serious challenges. For decades the church has been artificially separated from the people and largely separated from the life of society, but now it attracts close attention from various social forces and movements. Not infrequently, these forces and forces and movements find themselves bitterly opposed to one another and each would like to see the church among their allies and to have the church support their understanding of the objectives and purposes of the spiritual, political, social, and economic transformation of the country and the solution of ethnic problems. …. The Orthodox Church cannot be on the side of any group or party interests; it cannot link our destiny with politics. The church is the mother of all its faithful children, and she embraces all of them, irrespective of their political outlooks, with love, demanding from them the purity of the Orthodox faith and faithfulness to their Christian calling. It is this position that gives the church the right to make a moral evaluation of the developments that are currently taking place and the problems that concern our society. …

But our country is still facing many difficult problems that directly affect all of us: the need for spiritual renewal of society through practical measures of the upbringing of children and youth; the task of reviving our fatherland’s culture, … the protection of the environment, which is in a catastrophic state in some regions of the country due to barbaric methods of economic management; and, finally, the need to pay attention to the social sphere, which has been greatly damaged by both the economic policy and the heartless attitude of many people. Today, society expects the church to take practical and effective steps to resolve all these problems in the shortest period of time.

However, we should admit with humility that in many respects our church community, including the hierarchy, the clergy, and the laity, has turned out to be unprepared to respond appropriately to present challenges. The difficult decades have not gone by without leaving their mark. For many years the church was perceived as an ideological force that posed a threat to society. …. During some periods its influence on people was curbed by means of covert encroachments and attempts to compromise it through organized propaganda. … As a result, the church was forced out of the life of society …. Looking back over the past decades and the tragic experience of life and the testimony of our fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, and attempting to understand our own experience, we can state that the church has survived not by its power or human wisdom, but by the power of its spirit and the gift of Divine Grace.

But the past no matter how difficult it was, does not relieve us of responsibility for the results of our service today. It is absolutely clear that many people have grown accustomed to the situation of forced social inactivity and, whether they want it or not, continue to remain aloof from the changes taking place and do not use the possibilities now opening for the church. However, there is another extreme. … It is absolutely clear that there is temptation in the church just as there is very frequently in our secular community to replace deeds with rhetorical statements and posturing designed to produce effect.

Nevertheless, it is absolutely clear that under certain conditions the tensions that have emerged inside the body of the church can serve a creative and constructive purpose. They can promote a genuine revival of the mission of the church, the organization of religious and moral education of children and adults, and the cause of charity and the participation of the church is solving problems facing our people today.”

<“Religion in the Soviet Republics,” Igor Troyanovsky, editor, Harper, 1991, p. 66-68.>

The Russian Orthodox Church, long persecuted, suddenly found itself free to impact society from which it long had been marginalized by the dominant institutions within the USSR. In this declaration, the leaders of that denomination noted two unhealthy extremes within.

Unhealthy Extreme #1. Members of the church had grown used to acquiescing to the broader forces within society. When the opportunity to lead and to guide arose, many were unprepared and unwilling to positively address societal and moral evils. History is rife with the Church embracing the status quo. In some cases this involves a syncretization of religion and state government. Other times it is a choice to separate off from society, wrapping up their own talent and burying it in the ground.

Unhealthy Extreme #2. Some members of the church, instead of seizing the opportunity to do good, sought to use the opportunity for demagoguery, and “righting wrongs.” These elements of the church define themselves by allegiance topartisanship rather than to God. I am reminded of stories from a few centuries back when the Mongol forces crushed the Islamic Caliphate freeing Christians in Persia. Many of the Persian Christians used this freedom to speak and to act, to insult their Muslim neighbors, decry the injustices they have suffered, and to flout Islamic cultural conventions. Many did this rather than embracing their new opportunity to express Christian love openly to Muslim, Zoroastrian, and Mongol alike. It is hardly surprising that the Mongol leadership in that part of their empire decided to embrace Islam rather than Christianity.

The Russian Orthodox church clearly suffered during the time of oppression it experienced under the Bolsheviks having little impact on society… but the church wasn’t at its best as a pawn, in many ways, to the Romanov Dynasty either. In recent years it has had an opportunity for a different path.

The radical middle refuses to abuse either with word or deed based on the power of the moment. It refuses to be a pawn of society or of party. At the same time it refuses to ignore the opportunity given by God to act. The church must always be prepared to act… to be agents of transformation. However, it must do so with love, patience and humility.

The church often appears to be weakest when it has the most secular power. The temptation for Triumphalism and abuse is too great for too many. May the church and its people always reject the trappings of civil power and partisanship, but embrace the role of humble service to God, loving God and loving their neighbors as themselves.

Watwat is What?

We had Communion (Eucharist) Sunday at church today.200811-a-cooking-club-potluck The message focused on Paul’s first letter to the church of Corinth. Apparently in Corinth, the church would practice Love Feast wrongly. The love feast was an early form of Eucharist. A full meal was meant to be shared by the entire church… much like a potluck dinner. The big difference is that it wasn’t meant simply to demonstrate fellowship (koinonia). It was meant to commemorate the Last Supper of Jesus before his arrest, trials, and crucifixion. It was also meant to symbolize unity and equality in the church family. But this wonderful imagery was marred by members of the church who brought food for themselves while others who were poor got none.

This reminded me of a story from the Kankana-ey— a tribal group up here in the mountains of Northern Luzon. A friend of mine is doing his dissertation with this group. He tells a story that I will here paraphrase. There was a Kankana-ey man, wife and two sons. Sadly, the man died leaving his wife a widow. Other children would pick on the boys because they didn’t have a father. This community periodically had “Watwats.” Literally the term means share-share. Ceremonies would be held where animals, pigs and chickens, would be killed/sacrificed, cooked, and distributed to all of the people of the community. However, the family of the widow would be given the worst parts of the animals— chicken feet, pig hooves, and other meatless parts.


One day, the elders of the community came by the house of the widow to hold a house blessing. After the blessing, the sacrificed chicken as well as the items from the previous watwat were to be served to the elders. When the elders saw that they were being served hooves and chicken feet they were offended. However, the widow explained that that was what they were given at the watwats. The elders considered this matter. A watwat is an event for the whole community, sharing in the common blessing. It is not right that some are treated better than others. So they established the principle that widows and orphans are treated as well as all others.

Leaving this story now and going back to the Eucharist, today the Lord’s Supper is no longer a supper, but more symbolic (or sacramental, depending on one’s theological/tradition) meal. I feel that it is a bit sad that the Eucharist has changed… but I think it is too late to change.

But maybe there is a better solution.  Perhaps we can consider the Potluck Dinner more sacramentally– “from those according to their ability, to those according to their need.” Koinonia, Christian fellowship, is well represented by the Love Feast, or as modeled in the Watwat.   And the potluck dinner of many churches also well represents this, unity and equality in Christ… if people are helped to understand the meaning in the rite. Perhaps it can also look back on the sacred gathering of Jesus with His disciples, as well as the future marriage supper of the lamb (Revelation 19).