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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.

30
Jul 2013
POSTED BY Garet
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Quick Hits: Millennials Views on Work and Marriage

A new Pew Research study has recently released some data about work and marriage which details the established trend of dual-income homes in younger families.

Here’s a quick quote from the study:

Adults younger than 30 are most likely to favor a dual-income marriage model (72%), over the breadwinner husband-homemaker wife model (22%). This is even more true for young women, who are more likely than young men to prefer dual-income marriage (78% vs. 67%). Young adults are also more positive about the impact on families of increasing numbers of women entering the workforce.

As the millennial generation (those born from 1980-1996) continue to enter adulthood and start families, the model that they are embracing is one of two incomes by default. There are likely a number of factors which are contributing to this: the reality that they saw it in their own homes growing up, the burden of student loan debt that necessitates two incomes, lower incomes as a result of their stage of life, along with other factors.

One of the greatest challenges for the millennial generation (and younger Gen-Xers) is that they are leaving college with the highest student debt burdens in history.

With many millennials delaying (first) marriage into their late twenties and early thirties, it should be no surprise that when they do get married both spouses have an established work history and are likely in a particular vocational line. 

So what does this mean for young adult and young family ministries?

One of the first things is that it allows us to speak honestly about the need for career focus to not just one member of a household, but both.

When we are developing and plotting out studies, series, and sermons about work, we should remember that both men and women should be in frame of reference. It is a startling reality, but with women graduating with college at a higher rate than men, our entire “traditional” ministry model is about to be thrown out the window.

Also, that while it is great to have an active MOPs ministry and other specific women’s ministries, one reality is that a growing percentage of women will not be able to attend these groups because they are working.

Another challenge is that we have to realize that traditional, that is older, notions of the stay-at-home-mom will be entirely foreign or, in reality, unrealistic for many of the families in our pews and chairs on Sundays. This isn’t to say that our theology suddenly changes or there is a massive shift towards the egalitarian position, but we should remember that nowhere in Scripture does it only command women to stay at home. The increasing broadening of women’s roles in a, hopefully, free society is an opportunity to expand compassionate and understanding ministry that doesn’t create ill-conceived miscategorization. In other words: we need to continue to rethink the traditional ministries of “mens” and “womens” and how we deploy those ministries across our weeks. Maybe it isn’t best to think of women during the week and men on the weekends anymore.

Finally, it should be noted that this continues to put emphasis on how important it is for our families to have focused time together. With our people leading increasingly fragmented and dispersed lives, where church is no longer at the epicenter of their social networks, we need to mobilize out of our fixed structures to do ministry and life where they live, work, and play.

We need to be wise stewards of their time and provide equipping ministries that seek to connect with and value all families. Since non-traditional is the new normal, ministry models of the last two centuries are increasingly finding irrelevance in this century.

So how are you finding your way in a changing ministry culture? What has been working and what are you rethinking? Is there a changing paradigm for men’s and women’s ministry?

15
Jul 2013
POSTED BY Garet
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Creating a Culture of Excellence in Ministry

This week is Vacation Bible School at Sugar Creek, where I serve, so apologies for the late posting.

Out of the many conversations that can had with staff members, one of the critical ones which seems to filter down to every level concerns excellence. In creating activities, environments, and ministry most growing churches talk about creating these things with excellence. For many ministry leaders, excellence is a mark to which we push our staff members.

Yet we’ve all had that moment where we realize that not everyone defines excellence the same way.

During my time in the business school of my undergrad studies, we talked about organizational and personal excellence. There was a constant drum being beaten by our professors and deans of “Be excellent as we are excellent!” (Kind of a business take on Leviticus 19:2.) The drum also was carried through at the mother church of the university where we were given examples of ministries and ministers doing excellent things. One of the principal textbooks that we had in more than one class was Tom Peter’s landmark In Search of Excellence. Back in 1982, Peter’s wrote this book based on his consulting experience where he boiled down successful companies into 8 core themes. Though the reports of him “faking the data” are greatly exaggerated, one of my takeaways from the book had to do with the intentionality of excellence.

We most often see truly excellent experiences from people who have the dedication of intentionality and professional acumen of experience to produce high quality (not inherently high cost) moments.

In ministry, the mark of excellence is often adjusted differently between departments and even between people. Excellence isn’t a virtue of the same distinction.

However, for senior leaders in ministry, the task is to recognize and validate excellent experiences and bring our staff along to see and taste what is truly excellent. It is hard for anyone who has only had access to Waffle House to describe the entire experience of eating a Ruth’s Chris steak. So to show our staff members what excellence looks like will often help them meet that qualification in their ministries. This requires the intentionality and willingness of ministry leaders to find these experiences and take their staff out to them.

For excellence to be a shared value across the board in our staff, our staff need to share the example of excellence.

What makes one event excellent and another mediocre is often only a set of relatively minor adjustments, but it is a world of difference. Those adjustments take experience and exposure. When our staff gets them and implements them celebrations are necessary. Creating a culture of excellence in ministry is key for any church or ministry. It allows us to validate the involvement of our people. It allows them to see that we are being effective stewards. It makes our church and ministry better.

17
Jun 2013
POSTED BY Garet
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Generational Divides

Growing up in a multi-generational church, I encountered people who had, themselves, grown up attending church in a horse and buggy and other, like myself, who had only know going in the family car. It was a diverse church with a rich love for Christ. Differences in generations did cause some inherent friction.

Robert Webber’s book The Younger Evangelicals was one of the first books I read immediately following graduation from college. As I served as an intern at my home church before heading off to seminary, it was an important text to soak in it contents. We stood, in the summer of 2001, at an important crossroads culturally and spiritually. Unbeknownst to us all, we were about to enter into a social earthquake perpetuated by the acts of September 11, 2001.

Webber’s book speaks to a great many things and is a wonderful read. One of the consistently good things he does in the text is to develop charts about the three unique generations within our churches and how they approach Christianity uniquely. This chart is adapted from his text:

Each of the three generational categories refer to believers who reach adulthood during that particular space. While I’ve adapted some of the dates and descriptions based on my own research, much of this is still Webber’s original thought. It is a good chart detailing how unique generations view different aspects of Christianity. (They are fairly general observations and not definite categories, there are always exceptions and nuance.)

One of the challenges that arises in a multigenerational church is having all three of these perspectives present as we do life together, church together, and spend time together. Notice how the different generations approach even basic things such as worship type or our underlying theological approach.

As a result our churches and church leaders must find ways to bridge the generational divide and appeal to all facets of the church. One way that has developed over the past twenty or so years is having unique worship services that are usually age segmented with different styles. We then must find ways to bring people together outside of that or our churches remain polarized and fail to accomplish some of the basic functions of church life.

There is certainly more to be said about this kind of a chart, but perhaps it is a worthwhile starting point. When we look at how the progression has taken place it is compelling to consider how flexible our churches and ecclesiology can be to minister to so many unique generations.

What are you seeing in your churches when it comes to generational divides? Do generations divide or do they find space together? What are some wins you’ve seen happen in creating effective cross-generational ministry?

30
May 2013
POSTED BY Garet
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Engaging the Post-Christian Now

Last night while I was developing a four week Bible study series on engaging culture, I ran across a wonderful video of Alan Hirsch speaking at Q Austin about “Post-Christian Mission.” Check it out by clicking this image:

Hirsch

I’m glad Alan Hirsch has this kind of prophetic voice among Christian leaders. A couple of his books, particularly The Shaping of Things to Come and The Forgotten Ways, have indelibly shaped my missiology and ecclesiology. His talk at Q talks honestly about some important issues confronting church leaders. Though it was given about four years ago, it is bearing out in our contemporary culture.

Though there is much to talk about in this presentation, one of the central issues which he gets into  is the idea of the missiological distance of people within a post-Christian culture.

Hirsch, who is admittedly drawing influence from Ralph Winter’s piece Finishing the Task: The Unreached Peoples Challenge (go and download the PDF and read it), discussed five point of missiological distance. For a church starting at M0, each step represents at least one major cultural boundary between the church and that person. BTW, I’d say most Millennials are at least M2 to M3 from their local church.

Notice in the first graphic the reach of traditional church programming is limited to that first step. One point which Hirsch helpfully brings up, is that for many of our churches we still require people to come back to us. (Remember his point about attractional being extractional.) He has a good point here and it should provoke us leaders to consider what it is we are calling people to do in mission and in evangelism.

Now, I’m not entirely sold that the attractional model is either bad or ineffective. I’ll probably talk about that more later. Suffice to say, that while I don’t believe numbers define success, it does appear that the wave of church growth which is occurring in North America is primarily happening in larger, progressive methodology churches. That isn’t a bad thing because of the collective sending and missionary culture developed by most of those churches.

Key to this movement is how churches, of any size really, engage in and cast vision for an incarnational missionary culture among their people for those where we live, work, and play. By dedicating ourselves to this kind of incarnational missionary culture (probably best defined in the term missional) we can move more broadly across cultural distance and bring the Gospel to those who are far and allow them to remain far culturally without having to extract them. As a result they become the near cultural missionaries to their spheres of influence.

This kind of thinking is revolutionizing the church in the 21st century. It is also something we should be thankful for and ready to engage in. Though there are aspects of Hirsch’s work that I am reticent about, I think his work here should provoke us to think about how we can shift our culture to motivate people to be missionally minded.

If for no other reason than it appropriately integrates horizontal movement as a proper metric of spiritual maturity. More on all of this later.

So how are you engaging missional movements in your local church? How are you casting vision to your people and motivating them to capture great things for Christ? How are you seeing movement beyond the M1 culture in your area?

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Book Review: To Change the World by James Davison Hunter

Title: To Change the WorldTo Change the World Cover

Author: James Davison Hunter

Publication Year: 2010

In one sentence: With the dismissal of Christianity from the public sector, faithful presence is the means by which Christians may regain their voice in the culture.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Review:

Anyone who has spent time working through the contemporary landscape of the challenges facing modern evangelicalism, and Christianity in general, will have had to interface with James Davison Hunter to be taken seriously. In his current position at the University of Virginia, Hunter has become a significant scholar on the shaping of evangelicalism (and fundamentalism) in modern America. This text has, as its purpose, providing an answer the challenge of Christianity in the late modern era, particularly its marginalization culturally. Hunter’s means of resolving the prevailing question is through three interconnected essays that work out and explain the problem and his solution.

The three essays are:

  • Christianity and World-Changing
  • Rethinking Power
  • Toward a New City Commons: Reflections on a Theology of Faithful Presence

 

In the first essay, Hunter lays out the terrain of what the common view of culture is and how Christians might go about a task of cultural engagement that leads to cultural change. Central to his work in this essay are eleven propositions which frame out his understanding of culture. Each of the propositions work together to show that culture is highly resistant to change from institutional methods of change. Culture change, for Hunter, comes from individuals or movements that penetrate the linguistic and mythical elements of culture. This is a truly grassroots kind of movement. Throughout the essay, Hunter keeps the contemporary plight of Christianity in the viewfinder with comparisons and discussions.

The second essay, Rethinking Power, steps into the political discussion in the extremes of evangelical activists. Hunter’s primary approach considers the historical parameters of the discussion and how things have worked themselves out in both the Christian right and Christian left. He then presents the example of the Neo-Anabaptists as the best example of historical and New Testament forms of engagement. His sixth chapter in this essay is his strongest, though without immediate resolution to its central questions. Hunter resolves some of this with a final discussion about the implications of power in a culture.

The final essay is where Hunter more formally presents and works out this notion of faithful presence from within the culture. The opening of this essay is one of the best parts of the text. He then points out that there are two challenges which encumber this project: that of difference, with a pluralistic west there is no dominant culture; and dissolution, with no underlying agreement on terms and conditions. He then works through how Christians in a post-Christian culture might go about this task of changing the world through faithful presence. Ultimately, faithful presence from within, is an incarnational effort that requires sacrifice of ourselves on behalf of our calling.

Interaction:

Hunter’s text is an important one for church leaders to work through. It is well written and carries a historically informed discussion to bear in the contemporary problem. As I encountered the text initially, it was after a conversation with several leading edge ministers who were raving about the text. I found it erudite and articulate in its arrangement of the issues and presentation of the author’s solution. 

Copious endnotes allow the motivated reader to dig a bit deeper into the text and research behind the author’s work. Hunter’s criticisms seem fair as they approach both wings of Christianity he is considering. I do have reservations about the neo-Anabaptist movement he puts forward as being more apostolic and biblical than the other alternatives. Perhaps this is because I don’t buy political solutions in the earliest Christian communities. When one is without power, appeals to corrupt leaders are moot.

This text is important young leaders to read through. I would caution against the employment only for political reform; culture changing should move beyond that limited horizon. Church leaders would do well to engage key laity with discussions about this book and others like Andy Crouch’s Culture Making and Gabe Lyon’s The Next Christians. (Of course that’s a lot of reading for a church staff.)

Finally, I simply disagree with Hunter’s idea of faithful presence from within. As I consider how the New Testament and the earliest Christian communities, even through the immediate post-apostolic age, interacted with culture it was the idea of faithful proclamation. My challenge is that, for all the stories of anabaptist type incarnational living, the examples given in the early communities find early Christians caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and clothing the naked while earnestly proclaiming the Gospel tradition handed down for all generations. Though I don’t wish to take more time to unpack this here, it seems that proclamation wasn’t about obtaining power for the early Christians but about being devoted to the apostolic teaching which is that message that can save. 

Hunter’s text is a fine one and it should be read by serious ministers who seek to engage the culture to transform it through the power of the Gospel. You simply won’t be disappointed in the text. For those who can manage a deeper discussion of its historical points, there is a rich mine of fortune in these words.

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