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On Living as Exiles

Sunday, I was privileged to preach at Sugar Creek Baptist Church. I used the time to talk about what it looks like for Christians to live as cultural exiles in the midst of a time of tremendous change.

As we’ve seen since the beginning of summer, there have a been a sweeping series of changes that are continuing to push Christianity to the edges of society…if not to cultural exile where our voices are not part of the larger conversation.

You can view the sermon right here: On Living as Exiles

My primary text for the day was Jeremiah 29:4-14. Here we find the remnant of the Israelites who have been taken into captivity through the Babylonian exile. They are given a prophetic letter from Jeremiah that stands as a set of guidelines on how to live in this exile. Having been taken out of their native, and ancestral, land to a foreign place is certainly more extreme than a social, or cultural marginalization which Christians are continuing to experience. That said, I do think there are some correlations.

At the heart of the conversation are three sections of the text:

In considering the plight of the remnant of Israel while in their initial stages of exile in Babylon, which is modern day Bagdad, my point was essentially this:

Being faithful amid cultural exile means we become ambassadors of peace who await God’s restoration.

One of the key words in the entire passage is found in verses 4 and 11. It is the Hebrew word shalom. As it is used in this context we see that the exiles are commanded to pray for the welfare, the health, and the benefit of the society in which they live. This is a deeply counter-cultural act for what group of captives actively prays for the blessing of the people who have taken them captive, or pushed them to exile? Yet that is the command for believers of that day and our current place.

The second reference to shalom in 4:11 points out that as we pray for this shalom we shall also receive it from God. As we are peacemakers we receive peace. It is easy for us to criticize and wage rhetorical war against our culture, yet in doing so we find ourselves increasingly uneasy in Babylon (so to speak.) Yet as we work to bring the Gospel and the true peace of Jesus to our society we receive an unsurpassing peace ourselves.

Ultimately, the passage leaves us with a hope. A hope of the coming restoration. Perhaps for us it isn’t a cultural one where Christianity regains the dominant cultural position. In fact, I believe the better position of Christianity is to be marginalized in a culture because that is where we can more authentically live out our calling as ambassadors of salt and light.

As Walter Brueggeman has stated in his commentary on Jeremiah: exile is God’s most devastating judgment, but restoration is His greatest gift. May we seek the final restoration of Jesus who will return to redeem and restore all which is lost for His glory and Kingdom.

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Jul 2013
POSTED BY Garet
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Church

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Who is More Qualified to Write on Jesus?

At this point I think we can agree any topic related to Jesus causes a firestorm.

This weekend a new controversy has sprung up as it relates to Dr Reza Alsan’s interview on FoxNews about his new book Zelaot: the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. Now I’m not going to comment on his text, however the controversy around his interview has gotten a conversation going. Over at First Things, Matthew J. Franck has put together a post about the challenge of Dr Aslan’s purported credentials. Whether or not Dr Aslan has a PhD which allows him to say he’s a historian is not my point. I generally support the view that to be considered a critical scholar on a subject one needs to have “a terminal degree in the specific field of their inquiry with relevant research and peer reviewed articles published while holding a relevant academic position at an educational institution.”

This definition should enough to begin to answer this question about who is more qualified to write on Jesus. Jesus is popular stuff and if you write a decent book and have the backing of a smoothly operating propaganda machine you should be able to sell some books. Western culture still loves to talk about Jesus.

So, does being a   (insert religious or non-religious moniker)  make one more credible or less credible when it comes to writing on Jesus?

From a position of academic scholarship, so long as someone has a relevant degree and has done quality research to answering a question, however one fills in the blank in the above line doesn’t matter. Academically, a Muslim with a New Testament degree is just as qualified as an evangelical Christian with the same degree to write about Jesus. Now, whether they have done a good job will be determined (not by 24-hour news channels) but by the scholarly community at large.

Scholars submit their work to review (both peer review and review articles) and it should withstand a healthy conversation that is either positive or negative. A writer who isn’t prepared, or willing to do so, isn’t a scholar and isn’t credible.

In our contemporary age, too many of us operate with an approach of suspicion when encountering a sympathetic scholar, or writer, who produces a work about a controversial topic. Surely the convinced Christian has less to offer than the critical atheist when asking historical questions about Jesus. Apparently there is a lack of credibility that comes from being affiliated with the group you’re critically engaging.

Now this might just be a product of our age.

I, for one, welcome Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Mormon, Buddhist, atheist, and agnostic inquiries into the picture of the historical Jesus developed by orthodox (small “o”) Christians since the establishment of the post-Apostolic church. Let’s get our cards on the table and have a generous conversation. Let’s use the same historical methodology to evaluate all of our leaders by which we evaluate Jesus. Let’s compare the historical Jesus against the historical Mohammed, Joseph Smith, Siddhartha Gautama, and others.

Now, the larger question for Muslim scholar such as Reza Aslan, does he welcome appropriately credentialed Christian scholars to investigate Mohammed?

It’s easy to write a book about Jesus. Dan Brown stole material from another book and now lives in a very large house after writing a very bad book about Jesus. But he’s not a critical, or any kind of, scholar.

The challenge is writing a good book about Jesus that authentically and critically engages the historical scholarship in a quest (no pun intended) to answer the author’s primary question about Jesus. It’s been done, but only in limited form and usually in a manner that doesn’t interview well on the 24-hour newsfeeds.

Finally, we shouldn’t miss the point that Reza Aslan has provided a critical interaction with the theme of resurrection and how it would have reflected a political and religious reality of the historical Jesus. This seems to be, obviously, completely missed by the interviewer. Now that is an interesting topic. One of the challenges Islam brings to Christianity is a denial of the crucifixion. I believe that is one of the more historically established events in antiquity. If Dr Aslan is offering a new perspective, I’d be willing to hear it.

Of course, we must point out that any scholar going on any of the 24 hour news channels (or Comedy Central) shouldn’t expect to be received with any respect for critical nuance. That’s probably more of a statement about the journalistic torpor of our days than a commentary on the failures of scholarship. Long gone are the days when scholars would be interviewed by learned journalists who probed their insights and helpfully developed the discussion. This FoxNews interview is a blight on our culture and the interviewer misses the entire point. Since Foxnews has a history of failing to critically engage scholars, I simply think they don’t have much to offer in this conversation.

So, Who is More Qualified to Write on Jesus?

First, we must consider the qualifications (academically) of an author. No offense to my Christian brothers and sisters, but if you have a high school diploma with no additional undergraduate, graduate, or post-graduate study, you aren’t as qualified to write on Jesus as someone who has those degrees. Also, any of these degrees of collegename.com diploma mill doesn’t qualify you either.

Second, just because someone is a Christian (including us terrible evangelicals) doesn’t mean our opinion is less suitable than a non-believer. If an evangelical has done the work their voice should be heard.

Third, just because someone isn’t a Christian who has the requisite academic work, doesn’t mean they are more worth hearing by the population at large. Critical inquiry demands peer review. It demands the qualified conversation of specialists who can review and consider the piece.

So finally, let those who choose to write on Jesus be subject to the process of answering the question about their credentials and then let their work stand (or fall) on its own.

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Resource Review: Francis Chan’s Basic Series

Resource Title: Basic Series

Author: Francis Church

Year Published: 2011-12

Price: $49.99 for the entire set of 7 DVDs

In One Sentence: A video curriculum that seeks to explain the basic beliefs and practices of a Christian community while utilizing an integrated narrative to add a theme to each video.

Evaluation: 4 out of 5 stars, a very good series

Review

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One of the great areas of curriculum growth over the past decade has been high quality video curriculum that delivers a compelling message that people just want to talk about. Francis Chan’s recent series, Basic, is another installment in the growing product line available to churches and groups.

In this 7 part series, the host, Francis Chan, utilizes a familiar pattern of video storying with dramatically plain presentations to deliver a compelling message about a central belief or practice of the Church nestled alongside a video narrative. 

Perhaps this sounds familiar, and that would be because it is. The once highly popular Nooma series that was conceived of and hosted by Rob Bell began this trend. If one we were to compare a Nooma video to a Basic video, the similarities would be striking. Now this isn’t a mark against Basic, in my opinion because the format and presentation work. Perhaps a lot of this has to do with the production company, Flannel, who brought together the video and story.

Essentially each session looks like this: slow, dramatic opening with a teasing video shot of someone doing something that doesn’t fit, hipster style music drifts in, a title slide tells you the name of the session, and then the speaker’s voice suddenly is laid over with some kind of compelling opening line. Soon the host shows up on the scene and his talking is the principal voice for the next 10-15 minutes. Video of the speaker is overlaid the narrative story that is going on. This works well, though it is predictable, and it engages the ADHD video multitasking context that so many young adults are used to having in their lives.

The videos are extremely high quality and the content from Chan is tremendous. 

The sessions appear to fit together in terms of the backstory that is going on behind Chan’s monologue. They start with three sessions identifying individuals and have them engaged in an activity or situation that speaks to a challenge of understanding the main figures of belief: God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. For instance, in the first video on the Fear of God, we see a young woman on a bed and the room dramatically fills with water. It is supposed to symbolize how the fear of God is an all consuming force. It is an effective technique.

Once ou get beyond the third video the three main characters find themselves on a journey and a joined by a Messiah figure. In the remaining videos the characters take on a journey and we are shown how they encounter different experiences that shape them and, ultimately, send them off on their own. The message of the videos is very good.

The sessions are:

  1. Fear of God
  2. Following Jesus
  3. Holy Spirit
  4. Fellowship
  5. Teaching
  6. Prayer
  7. Communion

 

Now, there is a bit of disjointedness in the storyline. For the most unaware viewer (like myself) it does seem that the story lines in the first two were created separately and then mashed together when the producers realized how good the series actually was as they expanded their sessions. That does take away a bit from the overall but not terribly. These are very good videos.

As for content: Francis Chan delivers excellent content that stays within the appropriate boundaries of biblical orthodoxy as he engages a discussion about foundational things of Christianity.

One area where the series does fall off is in the “discussion guide” that accompanies the DVDs or can be downloaded for online videos. Like so many other guides of this nature it under-delivers for prompting discussion. Group leaders who have been through this before, with the Nooma series, will know what to use and what to add to facilitate discussion. Perhaps it is part of the larger strategy of the videos, but the overly simplified discussion guides are limited in the conversations they provoke.

However, this is a great video resource. I would recommend it for all ages, though it is highly suitable for young adult and student work. It will provoke discussion. As a small group leader myself, I can open up with the “What do you think?” immediately after the video and even the most reticent groups are engaging in discussion.

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Are Millennials Returning to Liturgy?

Over the last several years, maybe even decade, we’ve seen discussions about whether young people are turning to more liturgical or high church traditions.

One of the first to broach this conversation was Robert Webber in his important text The Younger Evangelicals. Following this the rise of “Ancient-Future Worship” seemed to expand into many churches, and especially in the emerging/emergent type churches. (I’ve talked about this in a post called “Generational Divides.”)

Also, during the early part of last decade there were a number of notable departures of evangelicals to return to Roman Catholic roots or the embrace the Catholic communion anew. Most notably here was Dr Francis Beckwith during his tenure as the the President of the Evangelical Theological Society. As a result many books have been written on the subject of evangelicals returning to liturgical and high church roots such as: Evangelicals on the Canterburry TrailBeyond Smells and Bells The Accidental Anglican, and several others.

As a result, there has been an increasing growth in discussions about high church, liturgical forms in present day church movements. These discussions seem to arise about every other year and eventually flare out with little change having taken place. In light of the increasing dramatic declines in mainline and traditionally liturigcal denominations, this conversation has been harder to advance with substantial legitimacy (specifically in North America.)

Earlier this week another post, over at The Christian Pundit by Rebecca VanDoodewaard, stirred the pot again and brought up a good conversation. The central contention of the piece might best be seen as this statement:

Young Christians are going over to Catholicism and high Anglicanism/Lutheranism in droves, despite growing up in low Protestant churches that told them about Jesus. It’s a trend that is growing, and it looks like it might go that way for a while: people who grew up in stereotypical, casual evangelicalism are running back past their parents’ church to something that looks like it was dug out of Europe a couple hundred years ago at least.

I certainly appreciate the desire to engage this topic and I do find myself fascinated with liturgical and high church models for worship and church. Perhaps it is my upbringing in the first Catholic colony, but I have enjoyed reading and hearing from friends who are part of these movements.

However, I would challenge the extent to which this movement of young Christians is being made “in droves.”

As we’ve been seeing, there is a departure of young Christians from regular and trackable church attendance in their college or post-high school period. This data is troublesome but, in my opinion, should be understood as not a lack of faith across an entire generation but simply the challenges of regular and consistent church attendance in environments where these young adults on now on their own. I do believe there is credible information that many young adults return to their faith following college, though in different ways than the generations before them. Pew Research has clearly shown that church attendance patterns in Millennials (those born between 1980 and 1996) are not comparable to previous generations.

In our own research and discussions, many of my peer group ministry leaders are seeing Millennials (including those in college or having finished college) stay connected with church, or reconnecting. What is attracting them back to church involvement is not, however, liturgical movements or high church ecclesiology.

Instead we are seeing a movement of Millennials who are involved with churches that are, primarily, large church (running over 1,000), have a progressive worship style, have a low church method, and are attractional in outreach. (Check out my post about “Reaching Twentysomethings.”)

This is a notoriously challenging topic because no reputable agency polls on these matters and when they do they rarely, if ever, ask specific questions about worship style, orientation, and tradition which Millennials (or anyone) might attend. However, when we see polling data that is done by appropriate agencies this appears to reinforce our top line conclusions.

As Ed Stetzer of Lifeway Research has noted when comparing worship trends from 1972 to 2010:

  • Mainline Protestant numbers dove from 24% to 6% and their worship attendance slid from more than 4% to less than 2%.
  • Young evangelicals rose in number, up from about 21% to 25%. But only about 9% attended church at least once a week in 2010, up from about 7.5% in 1972.

When one considers the annual list of the 100 fastest growing churches (based on percentage of growth) there are few, if any, purely liturgical communities represented as “fast growing.” If mainline liturgical churches were seeing this uptick, shouldn’t the list have grown to include them?

Still, there is an aspect of ad hoc rationalization being done. (On both sides.)

I will agree with this: that Millennials (and young Gen-Xers) are embracing a faith that is multi-faceted and they are open to worship experiences that are varied in style and the relation to liturgy.

This does not, however, translate to a massive shift of Millennials reengaging liturgical, high church traditions “in droves.” The data seems to suggest otherwise. Right now the largest movements of Millennial Christians are happening within specifically evangelical circles that embrace progressive methodology and free church ecclesiology. The Passion Movement, which we can look back into the late 1990s as the 268 Generation or One Day parts, is specifically centered around this methodology.

Where is the data backing up the point that Millennials are engaging liturgical, high church elements in such compelling numbers? Why have we not seen this movements being reported?

Perhaps it is because most liturgical, high church communities are relatively smaller (below 300…yes that is relatively smaller) and haven’t prepared adequate tracking mechanisms like the larger, big box attractional model churches. This is, perhaps, the reality.

Usually when we hear about Millennials embracing sacramental movements, such as pre-Vatican II Catholic liturgy, the stats presented are specious as they only survey committed Roman Catholics. Also, when the mainline denominations discuss these trends they do so from within their own perspectives. 

Millennials do desire to connect with God in worship, though on their own terms. They desire to connect in unique and varied ways, and are not opposed to multiple worship environments and styles to do this even in the same week. They also, desire control over their own participation and how much authority (or complete lack thereof) a spiritual leader might have over their lives.

So, what’s the bottom line:

Simply, I don’t see a massive shift in Christian Millennials turning to liturgical style worship and high church models of ecclesiology.

The Millennials that are involved with liturgical churches are a) highly engaged in spirituality but b) highly sporadic in their attendance patterns.

Finally, I still believe Millennials desire to have a meaningful spiritual journey, though it will look entirely different than other generations. This means that liturgical communities can grow, they just need to show how their teaching is relevant and meaningful to Millennials and motivate them to engage in authentic worship and community.

So, what do you think? What are you seeing? Is there better data out there? What are we missing here?

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Are All Weeks Equal?

Well, it’s summer and if you live in almost any community around the United States, you’ll have noticed that folks have a tendency to do crazy things like take vacations, or long weekends, or be out of town, and other such activities that decrease their regular, or or less, attendance at our churches.

This isn’t a growing phenomenon by any means.

There is still a school of thought in many churches that we need to count all weeks equally in order to get a picture of how we are doing. Yet when we come into the summer months, and even over certain holidays, we see dramatic downward spirals in attendance as people do, you know, life. Some churches have gotten so frustrated, or maybe just decided not to fight the shift, that they cancel services on any Sunday between Christmas and New Years.

So, when we sit down to evaluate our attendance year, should we count all weeks equally?

Now, I believe counting is important but still believe proper counting is even more important. Granted, while I was in college and then seminary, nobody ever sat us down and talked about “proper counting” or even counting. Not until I was in my first post-seminary church experience did anyone talk with me, and a couple of other guys, about this counting thing. So as a result counting is just out there as this metric that determines a lot but is understood little.

As we lay out my yearly calendars one first step is overlay the local school districts’ calendars to get a picture of when we can anticipate major breaks. Also, we add in holiday weekends (which are usually part of a school’s calendar) and try to get a picture of what our year is going to look like. If we number my weeks, 1 through 52, and compare them to previous years’ weeks to get a picture of what our attendance track might be for the same week of any year. 

There are, out of the 52 weeks of the year, about 30 weeks that are able to show the core metric of our attendance patterns and who is, or is not, connected with our ministry. Depending on our locations (suburban, metro, urban, rural, etc) this might look different, but it seems to me that the primary driver for so much of our church attendance is the local school system’s calendar. So why not harness this to test our movement?

We are left with the primary tracking weeks of:

  • From school year beginning (mid/late August) until Thanksgiving with Labor Day being skipped. (usually 12 weeks)
  • From the Sunday after the first full week of January to Spring Break (mid-March.) (7-9 weeks)
  • Then from the first Sunday after the week following Spring Break until school let’s out for summer break. (about 10 weeks)

This will show how the eb and flow of church attendance measures up to corresponding weeks in the previous years. Is there growth in your primary venues and connection points during this time? Are we seeing guests coming at higher rates as the same time last year? How is children’s and student’s check in looking as compared to corresponding years?

While we shouldn’t buy into the myth of infinite, exponential growth every year (sooner or later life cycle metrics will come into play) we can consider what our in and out looks like.

The goal is to create a tracking model that recognizes that not all weeks are created equal in your calendar year. Some are more important for seeing how things are going than others. Also, some weeks will disproportionately skew the averages if you’re just looking at baseline data with no filter (i.e Christmas and Easter but also mid-July.)

So, how are you tracking your attendance patterns? What weeks work for your setting? Does the school calendar truly have this much influence on what is going on?

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Objecting to the Obvious Reality

As I was taking a momentary break from another late, late night studying theological French for my competency exam, I hoped on Twitter. While scrolling through my timeline I saw a tweet from the venerable Michael Frost that quoted the title of a recent Fast Company piece: “In 20 Years, We’re All Going to Realize This Apple Ad is Nuts” written by Mark Wilson.

Wilson’s article is pointing out a recent commercial from the techno-cultural guru’s in Cupertino, California. Here it is:

The ad is startling and should provoke a broader conversation. However, the ad is also honest in capturing the encounter and experience so many of us are having with our mobile and computing devices. (As a disclaimer: I use the full array of Apple products for my work from iPhone, iPad, and MacBook Air…I like them.)

The opening lines, as Wilson points out in his piece, are compelling: “This is it. This is what matters. The experience of a product.”

The images in the ad, shown during Apple’s WWDC a couple of weeks ago, then show people, students, children, and adults engaging with their devices while disengaging from those around them. The experience of the device is the ultimate engagement for them.

Now, there are certainly people that will speak more profoundly about the socio-cultural implications of the ad. My point here is this: Apple is, in an almost mind-numbing display of honesty, stating the growing reality. We are moving from engaging with each other to engaging with devices.

More and more people are preferring electronic community over physical community. They are enjoying their shows or programs digitally and neglecting the communal aspect. How easy is it to load in a movie as you hope on your next plane ride and disappear from reality for the next two hours. As we grow more technologically rich we are becoming increasingly marginalized.

This trend has been growing for some time and it is most evident in tools like Facebook, Twitter, and other “social” media services. Individuals seem more open to discuss and engage in a virtual medium rather than in person.

For our churches the growth of mediums of marginalization, be they ecampuses or even certain forms of multi-sites, where a pastor is unknown to the people he ministers the Gospel to should give us pause. While internet campuses might provide an effective platform to keep families and individuals away for a week connected, we should be challenging those who rely on them week in and week out that there is no replacement for authentic community and Christian hospitality. Both of which are marks of New Testament ministry.

It is ecclesiologically challenging to think that electronic mediums could replace physical proximity.

Yet the challenge of encouraging and embracing physical community continues to grow. Groups numbers are dwindling across the board as is the frequency of attendance from week to week. No longer is a “connected” family or person seen as one who shows up nearly 4 times a month. Yet our call to make disciples still persists.

If we consider the cost of making true disciples the necessity of physical proximity becomes the primary focus initially. When one was following a rabbi at the turn of the first century, they were expected to be in the immediate presence of that leader. Though our technological advantages allow for continued disciple-making across large geographical differences, there is still the need of being personally and physically present with the one who is doing the disciple-making.

Ultimately, we must consider this: Apple’s ad is simply stating the obvious reality…growing personal disconnect. As followers of Christ, who hope to grow true disciples, perhaps our first, and most, counter-cultural step is to call believers into physical, personal, regular community sans electronic devices.

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