Friday, December 29, 2006

The interdependence of the global church

In last night’s plenary, Oscar Muriu, an Anglican pastor from Nairobi, spoke about the shifts in the global church. As Philip Jenkins has documented in The Next Christendom, the majority of the world’s Christians now live in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Missions is no longer from “the West to the rest,” but from everywhere to everyone. (See Samuel Escobar’s The New Global Mission for more on this theme.)

Muriu gave an application of 1 Corinthians 12 – the North American church cannot say to the African church, “I don’t need you,” and vice versa. Many churches and missions in the majority world have been dependent on Western support and funding, but the move should not be toward independence, but to reciprocity and interdependence. America is the third largest mission field in the world after China and India. African churches are catching the vision of sending missionaries to their former colonial powers, Great Britain, France, Portugal, Belgium, etc., planting new churches in the world’s gateway cities like London, New York and Los Angeles.

One practical challenge that Muriu offered – when American churches send a missionary to the Two-Thirds World, they should also work to receive a missionary from the Two-Thirds World. When churches send a team on a short-term trip, they should likewise receive a team from their partnering church or mission. The North American church must realize how much it needs the life and perspectives of our brothers and sisters around the globe to help us live missionally in our own culture. After all, every part of a human body both gives and receives from others. We are impoverished if we think we have nothing to receive from the majority world church.

As an example, Muriu mentioned how one church asked a Western team to preach on the story of Joseph one Sunday and then an African team preached the same story the next week. The Americans exposited the text and lifted out the theme that no matter how difficult life gets, the important thing is to be faithful to God and God will always protect you and be with you. The next week, the Africans exposited the same text and lifted out the theme that no matter how high you rise in power or how your family might betray you, you must always care for and be in relationship with your family. Both are essential readings of the text, and they certainly go hand in hand. (We carry in the Urbana bookstore the first-of-its-kind Africa Bible Commentary, written by African scholars and church leaders. It’s an amazing volume. Check it out.)

Also that evening, Brenda Salter-McNeil talked about the juxtaposition of Genesis 11 (the Tower of Babel) and Genesis 12 (the call of Abram). God’s original call to humankind was to fill the earth and bless it. But at Babel, people resisted the call and instead built a monument to themselves. So God scattered humanity so that they would indeed disperse and go to the corners of the earth as he intended, that the whole earth would be filled with his glory. Terah, at the end of Genesis 11, is described as heading out to Canaan but settling in Haran, where he died. That’s the context for the call of Abram in Genesis 12. Terah settled and didn’t go where he was supposed to go. Abram heard the call and went. Babel and Terah said no. Abram said yes.

Brenda, in a great rhetorical move, asked, “Where have you settled? What have you settled for?” Abram was not limited by what his father did or did not do. He moved beyond the place where his father settled. (This particularly resonated with me, as my father was not a Christian, and following Jesus has taken me places my father never would have wanted me to go.) We are called to go where God calls, even if we don’t know where or can’t explain it to our parents.

For suburban Christians, I think we need to transform the concept of suburbia from a place of settling to a place of going. We must minister both to and from suburbia. It is both a place of sending as well as a strategic mission field (American suburbia by itself would be the seventh largest country in the world). If we settle in suburbia, we must also simultaneously minister and partner with the global church, always aware of larger urban and global realities. The world will continue to need American missionaries to go to the ends of the earth. And in our interconnected, globalized society, the American church desperately needs the perspectives of our African, Asian and Latin American brothers and sisters to minister to our own suburban contexts.

Hi from Urbana 06

I’m at Urbana 06 in St. Louis! This is InterVarsity’s 21st student mission convention, and it’s the largest ever, with over 22,000 delegates in attendance from every state and province and 144 countries. It’s been amazingly busy here, so there’s not much time to blog, but I’ll try to get a few posts in here and there as the convention progresses.

This is my fifth Urbana; I attended Urbana 93 as a college senior, and then I worked at Urbanas 96, 2000 and 03 in IVP’s onsite bookstore, first as the bookstore logistics coordinator in 96 and then staffing the book info booths in 2000 and 03, wearing fashionable bright orange Home Depot-like vests and helping students find the books they’re looking for. We at IVP attend many various conferences, conventions and trade shows each year, but Urbana is one of my favorites because we get to interact with the actual readers of our books, not just intermediaries like bookstore buyers or distributors or whatnot. It’s thrilling to see folks with armfuls and stacks of IVP books.

And though I’ve been to larger events, like Promise Keepers, I think Urbana is by far the most intense convention experience (often described as like trying to drink water from a firehose). There’s something extremely compelling about an arena of 20,000+ enthusiastic college students all eager to discover how God can use them around the world. The theme this year is “Live a Life Worthy of the Calling,” and we’re spending the week dwelling in Ephesians. Ajith Fernando is the Bible expositor for the convention. The opening night, Urbana director Jim Tebbe noted that this is the 200th anniversary of the Haystack prayer meeting at Williams College in 1806 that launched the modern missionary movement.

During a prayer response time, the prayer leader challenged us to pray big prayers that only God could answer, things that we could never personally accomplish on our own. Struck by the potential of what God could do through the lives of all the people in the room, I prayed for God to transform whole countries and continents, for the gospel to shape societies and nations in ways that even secular historians would have to recognize as being the result of the Christian faith. That Urbana 06 delegates would be called and deployed to cure AIDS, to relieve poverty, to stop wars and bring healing, reconciliation, justice and salvation to the ends of the earth. I haven’t prayed macro-level prayers like that for a while.

There are various tracks and emphases this year – urban issues, slum communities, business as mission, AIDS, much more. For certain delegates that are housed together in tracks, experiential discipleship is integrated into the program. In the slum communities track, housing is such that people are crammed into rooms with insufficient bedding, and some were issued a five-gallon bucket upon registration and told to use those five gallons of water for the totality of their bathing and washing for the week. Tonight for an AIDS emphasis, dinner will be a basic porridge (recipe from World Vision) that is easily digestible and provides needed nutrients for people who have the AIDS virus. The cost saved by having this meal instead of usual convention dinner fare will be donated to global missions.

Some of the most compelling components of the program this time are the theatre team’s platform presentations. For several Urbanas now drama has been used to act out Scripture passages as well as stand-alone sketches and parables. This time, the dozen or so theatre segments tell an ongoing, episodic story of a group of college students as they grapple with the realities and challenges of campus witness and global justice. Meg sees a university service project as an opportunity for mission, Paul thinks she’s being naive but Meg thinks Paul is too wishy-washy, Joe is excited to go on a short-term trip to Egypt but stumbles over learning Arabic, another student is conflicted about his ethnic heritage and family issues while another seems to have an eating disorder . . . (The dramas, as well as plenary talks and much of the program, are available online on Urbana’s webcast.)

It struck me that historically, different eras of students have resonated with different aspects of the program – back in the 60s and 70s biblical exposition took center stage, with expositors like John Stott unfolding Scripture. In the 90s musical worship came to the fore, and mission and worship fueled each other. Now theatre and drama seems to be what resonates with a generation raised on reality shows and episodic TV like Lost and Heroes. On a practical level, the dramas are keeping students coming back session after session because they want to find out what happens to these characters. On a larger level, it’s a great model of narrative theology and the power of story. We want to be part of a story of significance, and we see ourselves in these characters and can envision how God might work through us in the story.

What are your big prayers for the world? If you could, please do pray for the Urbana delegates, that they would hear God’s call for them and discern their role in the dramatic story of God’s mission. (BTW, one Urbana delegate was standing in the IVP bookstore when she got a call on her cell phone that her brother had been killed in an accident. She and her IV staff worker are headed home. Please pray for her and her family as well.) More later.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Martin Marty on diversity in the ancient church

One last comment regarding the Ancient Evangelical Future conference. Martin Marty's address was an evaluation of the Call document and a whirlwind tour through church history. A few offhand comments he made at the end really resonated with me - he said something along the lines of, "Was the ancient church's polity congregational, presbyterian or episcopal? Yes. Was their soteriology Christus Victor, penal substitution or exemplary? Yes." He went on to give a few other examples of such diversity among the patristic and early church fathers, affirming that the Christian church has always practiced and believed various dimensions of a number of issues, even while affirming one key unifying truth: "the human Jesus is the exalted Lord."

During the follow-up panel response, one of the theologians pushed back on Marty on all this, saying that there might have been diversity, but one or another position was the main belief or practice, and kept pressing to argue for the primacy of one particular view. Marty pushed back and basically said, sorry, it's not that simple. Yes, we have one, holy, catholic and apostolic church and the Nicean and Chalcedonian and other such creeds and formulas for the general consensus. But in any number of theological areas, diversity is simply a historical fact.

And it struck me that this is the difference between the systematic theologian and the church historian. The theologian wants to press for precision and the way it (perhaps) ought to be. The historian accounts for what actually was and is.

Personally, I find historical theology extremely helpful in navigating the multitude of options in Christian belief, church practice and the like. I've always been something of an evangelical mutt, heir to multiple traditions, seeing the value in the rich, diverse heritage of the faith. That's why I love IVP's four views books and the fact that we're broadly evangelical and publish a variety of perspectives on various issues. Even though I will usually find myself agreeing with one view in particular over others, I still find it valuable to understand why other Christians in other traditions believe and practice differently. If something was believed at some point in church history by some group or another, there were probably historical reasons for it. In the overall 1 Cor. 12 ecclesiology of the body of Christ, it seems that we need different parts of the church to emphasize things that other parts may have de-emphasized.

Tangent: I recently read our new The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, and something I found interesting was that three of the four contributors argued in a more traditional theological and philosophical framework (which was okay but somewhat flat), while one contributor was able to engage the imagination and to be far more holistic in his presentation, using examples from Narnia and elsewhere to demonstrate why his view is more comprehensive and persuasive than the others. (Example: In response to the view that the atonement should be understood in terms of healing and restoration, he said, imagine that a scientist discovered a cure to every virus in existence. While it would be true to cheer, "Yay, he healed us of our infirmities!" the more fundamental truth is that he conquered the viruses and defeated the powers that caused the infirmities in the first place. Thus the Christus Victor view includes and supersedes the healing view of the atonement.) Whatever one might think about the theological merits of any of these positions, I think this contributor was a far more effective dialogue partner than the others because of his rhetorical approach and pastoral style. (It's telling that he is the only one of the four contributors who is a working pastor rather than a seminary professor.) This is something that Scot McKnight has blogged about, arguing that professors and seminarians tend to talk in theological seminary-speak and do not know how to communicate effectively with people in the pew.

Anyway, enough for now. I'm off to Urbana 06 after Christmas and probably won't be able to blog for the duration. Merry Christmas!

P.S. Some material from the Ancient Evangelical Future conference is available online at the Paradoxology blog. You can start here and scroll forward or go to the end and work back. I've updated my previous entries to have direct links, and here are entries on the presentations by Brian McLaren, Frederica Mathewes-Green and Lauren Winner.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

iPod vs. wePod

I've been noticing in the Sunday newspaper ads that there are now stereos, speaker units and even alarm clocks that are designed to have iPods plug into them. This is an interesting development, because it seems to be a reversal of the trend toward privatization and personalization in music listening. Historically, the earliest music playing devices were meant to be listened to corporately, in group settings, whether gramophones or radios or turntables or even jukeboxes. Music was enjoyed in social settings like dance halls, discos or nightclubs. It wasn't until the Walkmans of the 1980s and their accompanying headsets that people tended to turn the music experience into a private, isolating one, on the bus, while jogging, etc. iPods have of course been the latest version of this, and I find it significant that there might be a reaction against listening to one's own private playlists in isolation and instead a move toward music that can be experienced beyond the individual.

This reminds me of a random comment that Andy Crouch made during my Calvin seminar last July - he mentioned that his family owns an iPod, but that the kids are not allowed to use it privately. It is meant for the family to use and share together. I don't know if he meant that they all have their own earpieces on a shared output jack, or if the iPod is plugged into a larger amplification device, but the concept is still a good one. Andy also mentioned that they try to be intentional about listening to music that is generated by local artists and personal acquaintences, rather than stuff from major labels.

I don't own an iPod, personally - I haven't really kept up with current music since the mid-'90s. My car radio presets are retro '80s stuff, a Christian station or two and NPR, which is by far what I listen to most of the time. What is interesting to me sociologically about iPods is how they and iTunes dovetail nicely with the whole long tail concept. I stopped buying CDs in the '90s because they were expensive, I couldn't keep up, and I never cared for all the songs (hence I tended to buy things like greatest hits albums). But the physicality of CDs meant that at least there was a limit to the amount of music you would get at any one time. If I were to buy songs one at a time, the infinite playlist might mean that there would be no end to possible purchases. I'd be curious to find out if people ultimately buy more or less music a song at a time rather than by the CD.

At any rate, thinking about iPods as an icon of Western individualism made me notice how much this permeates society. It's MySpace, not WeSpace. If you go to, the running heads change each time you refresh the screen: "i want, i need, i post-rationalize . . . i worry, i check, i checkup . . . i hope, i stretch, i glow . . . " I suppose this is the fusion of individualism, personalization and consumerism. And yet we yearn for community and niche tribalism. We seek out and connect with communities even as they're positioned as being all about me. Sigh.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Lauren Winner on ancient Hebrew roots, practices and sabbath keeping

Lauren Winner's talk at the Ancient Evangelical Future conference was about retrieval of our Hebrew roots. Her initial observation was that when we talk about our ancient roots, we usually mean the early church, whether the patristic or medieval era. But she encouraged us to go further back, to our Jewish roots in ancient Israel. She went on to talk about several Jewish practices, particularly sabbath keeping and bereavement/mourning (ground she covered in her book Mudhouse Sabbath), that modern evangelicals would benefit from recovering. There was some ambiguity here - I think her presentation may have conflated ancient Old Testament practices with those in contemporary Orthodox Judaism, but the exhortation was still valuable.

A major theme here was that in Judaism, formation and learning happen through doing, not just by hearing, knowing or understanding. Judaism has always been an embodied, practiced faith, not merely a creedal formulation of doctrines to assent to. As such, the twin themes of practice and community emerge in many of the Jewish traditions Lauren highlighted. Sabbath is practiced in community, not individualistically, and the practice of lament takes place in a community that offers particular rituals for the first week and the first year following a death.

She commented that when talking with other authors who have written about sabbath, it seemed to all of them that their books have not had much overall impact because people would read about sabbath keeping but lack the community to help them practice it. She didn't say it in quite these terms, but my take on it was this: If a community does not practice the practice, then the individual cannot (or is far less likely) to practice the practice.

What came to mind for me was the fact that my church meets on Saturday nights, because we are a church plant meeting in another church's building. Thus for us, sabbath begins at 5 p.m. on Saturday evenings. And all day Sunday is spent practicing sabbath. We take our time getting up and getting ready, we might have pancakes or waffles for breakfast, and during the warmer months we might go for a leisurely walk or play in the park with our kids. There are no meetings, no committees, just uninterrupted time for rest, restoration, relationship and delight in God's creation. And this rhythm is made available to us as individuals because it is the corporate practice of our church as a community. Not that you can't do this if you go to church on Sundays instead of Saturdays, but it's different.

I'm also reminded of the Taiwanese church I went to as a kid, where every single week, the entire church would have a potluck. We'd all bring food and eat together and hang out at the church until 2:30 or 3:00 or later. We kids would run around the building and play hide-and-seek in the sanctuary, and we'd fall asleep in the car on the way home. Only later did I realize the countercultural significance of the entire church practicing this rhythm of eating together every single Sunday, as opposed to going out to eat at restaurants (and making other people work on Sundays). There's something very powerful about how a church can create a culture where sabbath is a time for the community of God to fellowship and break bread together, not run off in individualistic directions for nuclear family activities.

If we extrapolate this further to local communities, especially suburban ones, we can consider other systemic and structural ways. I heard about a local municipality somewhere in New England that decided not to have any school sporting events on Sundays. No soccer games, nothing. I don't know if this was particularly motivated by a Christian or Jewish sense of sabbath or if it was merely a desire to have an activity-free zone during part of the weekend, but it strikes me as the kind of thing that suburban Christians can work for in their local school districts and park programs. Practicing sabbath can transform entire communities, thus enabling more individuals to experience the sabbath God intends.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Frederica Mathewes-Green on an ancient evangelical spirituality

Frederica Mathewes-Green's topic at the Ancient Evangelical Future conference was on spiritual formation. As she gave her presentation, she scrolled through a series of icons and commented on their significance and relevance to the topic. Ancient Christians, after all, were mostly illiterate. So they could not read books, but they could read faces, gestures and postures. They learned Christian character and spirituality through the images of faithful saints in the icons.

In keeping with the recurring theme of the global church, I was glad to see that many of the icons Frederica displayed represented a broad diversity of cultures and national backgrounds. I didn't jot down all the names or places, but I recall that some of the saints and icons were from Africa, Russia and Latin America. One in particular that struck me was an icon of the Holy Chinese Martyrs of the Boxer Rebellion.

Frederica talked about the classical Orthodox spiritual practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, and I was glad to hear her broaden the definition of almsgiving to include various ways of loving one's neighbor, whether care for the poor or social justice or global mission. Often we evangelicals view spirituality and spiritual formation in private, internal terms, where it's only about inner personal transformation. In actuality, spiritual formation is incomplete if it remains private. Personal inner transformation should fuel us and propel us toward outward activism.

Tagging back to my last post, let me mention a brief hallway conversation I had with Brian McLaren relating to the global church and spirituality. Part of our discussion was about the fact that when we retrieve the ancient church's practices of spiritual formation, we need to be careful that we don't only focus on the Western church's spiritual practices. This might be an overgeneralization, but Western spirituality tends to be more contemplative and cognitive. But when we look at the Eastern church and Asian practices, we see a more embodied spirituality. The East was not quite as affected by philosophical dualism or Gnosticism, so it has always had a more holistic view of the body, mind and spirit. Thus it's not surprising that many modern Christians are now exploring Asian practices like yoga and tai chi, precisely because they affirm the physicality of spirituality and have a more concrete (yet meditative) experience. I'm reminded of an Emergent gathering I went to a few years ago that had morning Christian yoga at the tennis courts, and when my colleague was hesitant to go, someone exhorted him, "Get out of your head and into your body!"

Of course, Christians are divided on how much we can or should appropriate or Christianize such practices, and we certainly need to be careful of underlying worldview conflicts. But I'd be very interested in finding out ways of recovering more authentic, indigenous Christian spiritual practices of the Asian, African and Latin American church and discovering how they complement and fill out our North American and Western European spiritual tradition.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Brian McLaren's thoughts on an Ancient Evangelical Future

Last weekend I attended a conference on "A Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future," based on the document produced by Bob Webber and others. The conference was hosted by Northern Seminary and cosponsored by several organizations, including Christianity Today and InterVarsity Press.

In the opening session, Brian McLaren made a helpful comment regarding the emerging/Emergent church and the future of evangelicalism. He first mentioned that some think that Emergent should be seen as another "slice of the pie," alongside such slices as Presbyterian, Baptist, Anglican, etc. He suggested that we change the analogy from pie slices to rings of a tree. Rings of a tree are shaped and affected by the external weather conditions, and we can envision the current outside ring of the tree to be the emerging ring. Different parts of the tree are still Presbyterian, Baptist, Anglican and so on, but McLaren's concept was that the outside, emerging Presbyterian part of the ring has more in common with the outside Baptist part than it would with Presbyterians in its own tradition four or five rings in. Today's emergent evangelicals, regardless of tradition, are responding to the same "weather conditions" and thus have much opportunity for collaboration.

CT editor David Neff later made a comment that the founders of modern neo-evangelicalism from the Billy Graham generation didn't see evangelicals as another slice of the pie, but were rather the "outer ring" of their generation. They saw evangelicals as a renewal movement within existing Protestant traditions, so there would be evangelical Methodists, evangelical Presbyterians and so on, not evangelicals as a separate category. In other words, evangelical as an adjective, not as a noun. And thus, Billy Graham and other neo-evangelicals were the emergent folks of their day. Likewise the charismatic renewal movements of the 1970s - they were the "emergent" outer ring of that generation. I thought this was a helpful observation.

Another comment that McLaren made was that churches have always tended to rebel against higher church traditions and to look down upon lower church traditions. He had a slide with a hierarchy of churches, with high church traditions at the top - Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglo-Catholic, Anglican/Episcopal, and then moving on through Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, into free church evangelicalism and Baptist and Bible churches, with house churches and "micro" and "liquid" and other such churches at the bottom, which are akin to Barna's non-churched and de-churched "Revolutionary" Christians.

A lot of evangelicals are giving Barna Revolutionaries flak these days for not being part of a "local church." But we would do well to remember that today's independent non-denominational evangelical churches were themselves criticized by earlier generations because they lacked denominational accountability and structures. Even though I think Barna's book was rather thin, I think McLaren made a good case for the legitimacy of today's house churches and un-churches as standing in continuity with the church renewal movements of the past. And McLaren pointed to the interesting opportunities for retrieval of high-church traditions among low-church independents, especially in terms of recovery of the liturgy and other components from the earliest centuries of the church. As an evangelical Anglican myself, I found myself heartened by the potential for mainstream evangelicalism to join hands in identification as and in continuity with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.

Another thing that was encouraging was McLaren's attention to the global church. The emergent church movement has been criticized for being too much of a white, middle-class, suburban phenomenon and not really tied in with global church realities. But McLaren was keen on making sure that this was not merely a North American phenomenon and learning from indigenous church leaders and theologians of the Southern Hemisphere. One of my concerns with the "ancient" part of the ancient evangelical call is that this usually means recovery of an ancient Western tradition. But when we recover a more fully-orbed history of the ancient church, we see that it includes North Africa, India, Asia and more. I'll develop these thoughts in another post later and post some more thoughts from other presenters from this conference in the next few days.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The benefits of shopping locally

Last Friday our family had dinner at a new restaurant in downtown Downers Grove called the 2 Toots Steam Whistle Grill. It's right across from the train tracks, so you can watch trains go by, and the restaurant is thus themed, with a model train that delivers your burgers and fries to your booth. Dessert was a cupcake with a train whistle on top. Our five-year-old loved it. And it had good food and excellent customer service.

I mention this because we've tried to be intentional about going to locally owned, mom-and-pop restaurants and stores. Not only is the customer service more personal, it is far more likely that the owners and workers are going to be invested in the local community. I saw some statistics awhile back pointing out that 45-58% of dollars spent at a local independent store stay in the local community, while this is only true of 13-14% of dollars spent at national chains and big-box stores.

Here's a snippet from a recent article in Publishers Weekly about supporting local independent bookstores:

A study in Austin, Tex., revealed that more than three times the amount of money stayed in a town when it was spent at the local bookstore as opposed to a chain. Studies in Illinois and Maine back up this finding.

But there are many other reasons to support local businesses. Stores in downtowns—as many locally owned, independent businesses are—tend to be cheaper for their towns; they use fewer public goods and therefore fewer tax dollars. For instance, a study in Barnstable, Mass., found that a big box retailer "generated" a net deficit to the town of $468 per 1,000 square feet, whereas a specialty retailer produced a net annual return of $326 per 1,000 square feet.

Locally owned businesses draw tourists, too. Vermont's director of the department of tourism told me that a recent survey of tourists indicated that one of the primary reasons they come here is because of its distinctiveness. They don't want to shop at the same stores they have back home.

Also worthy of note is that small businesses give more to nonprofits than big businesses do. In fact, small businesses give more than twice as much per employee as large firms do.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Books as images of eternal life

I stayed up until almost midnight last night to finish reading a wonderful novel, The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. Spending time with good literature is a Sabbath practice for me - it has a different qualitative feel to it than reading nonfiction theology or research stuff or current issues or magazines. I wasn't an English major, but I might have been in an alternate reality. At any rate, here's a paragraph that particularly resonated with me on the significance of books:

"People disappear when they die. Their voice, their laughter, the warmth of their breath. Their flesh. Eventually their bones. All living memory of them ceases. This is both dreadful and natural. Yet for some there is an exception to this annihilation. For in the books they write they continue to exist. We can rediscover them. Their humor, their tone of voice, their moods. Through the written word they can anger you or make you happy. They can comfort you. They can perplex you. They can alter you. All this, even though they are dead. Like flies in amber, like corpses frozen in ice, that which according to the laws of nature should pass away is, by the miracle of ink on paper, preserved. It is a kind of magic." (p. 17)