Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Theology: The church's boon or bane?

About this time last year I was sitting in an interview. It was for a part-time church ministry position. The interview seemed to be going fairly well. But three-quarters of the way through we started talking about theological training. I assured my interviewers I had a Master's degree in theology. The senior pastor then asked, 'Do you think going to Bible College has made you lose some of your love for Jesus?' Once I heard that question, I knew it was over--I wouldn't be a good fit for that church. I rambled my way through the question admitting that I found studying theology to be an act of worship. I knew God and loved him more as I studied. But that was it. I knew in my heart of hearts this interview was over.

Now that was a year ago. I was young and ignorant and had much to learn about ministry (and still do).  While ministry can be more fascinating, painful and fun than I could've imagined that day what I didn't realise was how wrong I was. I thought I understood theology and the importance of it for ministry. But after a year of it, I've come to realise I need to be more theological than I was at Bible College.

I'm not saying I need to be more academic. Theology is more than just reflections from books and constructing arguments (as good as those things are). I well remember Rod Thompson in my Introduction to Theology Course sharing this quote from Martin Luther:

'It is living, dying and even being condemned which makes a theologian--not reading, speculating and understanding.'

Two recent theologians, Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson, say theology assists the people of God in reflecting on and applying the one faith of the church to the world in which contemporary disciples live and engage in ministry in Christ's name. So theology is not so much a purely academic pursuit as it is engaging Scripture, the church and the world. And if church ministry is to earn its adjective 'Christian' then it needs to be reflected upon, engaged in and based upon the narrative of Scripture and the work of the God named Trinity in the church and the world.

Theology is embodied and lived. It forms the basis of what we do. It's the lens through which Christian ministry occurs.

And that requires us to sit down and do the hard work of reflecting on God's story, chewing over others reflections on God and being theological people.

That's why I need to be more theological than I was when I was studying at Bible College. Because this is God's church and my role as a pastor is to walk, talk and listen to him as I fumble my way through life and ministry in community with others.

So after nearly a year of ministry what would I say to my then interviewers if asked that question again? All theology should be written for the sake of the Christian Church and not merely as an academic exercise. Theology should lead us to glorify God, be good disciples and reach out to our broken world with the hope of the gospel. Academic theology serves that purpose. So what we need are people, pastors and Christian ministers, who can act as interpreters to bring the academic into the life of the Christian church. Or in the words of C.S. Lewis people who can find simplicity on the far side of complexity. To faithfully serve Christ in the 21st Century, the church needs people who will be more theological.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

A Storied Existence

We all love to hear a good story. Almost every culture that has existed has placed a special importance on stories and story tellers. The Maori people love to use stories to tell about their history. The Greeks told all kinds of myths and stories to one another. Even those who lived in less sophisticated societies than our own are still telling us stories through the pictures they painted onto cave walls. In our 21st Century Western context we hear many stories every day like when we look at the news or listen to a song or read a book or watch a TV series or movie.

And stories are great. They engage our hearts, our minds and our imaginations. We can relate to characters in a story. And that’s part of what makes them special. They’re engaging, meaningful and can convey a simple message in a powerful way.

And I think this is one of the things that excite me about the ongoing sermon series at the 10am service, ‘The Story we find Ourselves in’. It helps us understand God and share about Jesus in a way that’s not simply facts and principles but declares God’s story of how he sought to save humanity from its own hurt and brokenness. 

We can all say that God loves us. But how much more meaningful is it to tell the story of our God who would stop at nothing to be with his beloved creatures. My hope and prayer is that we will be gripped and astounded by this story and we can have the courage to share it with others.

Originally penned for the East Taieri Church bulletin.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

The Art of Church Innovation

We live in an age where entrepreneurs are adored, the 'new' is idolised and innovation is a chief business value. We only need to look at the rise of Apple and we see this word flashing before us: 'INNOVATION'. In a recent interview, Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, claimed that innovation is still 'alive and well' within the Apple ranks. The implication being that once Apple ceases to innovate it will no longer be relevant and successful.

So what does this mean for the church? There are some who are calling church leaders to be cutting edge innovators. We see innovation happening in many different places: missional communities, new monastic movements, Fresh Expression churches, emerging churches, etc. As the world is in flux, the church needs to move with the times otherwise it will get left behind and quickly become irrelevant if it's not already.

As someone who is engaged with missional churches, I really think there is a need for the church to innovate and imagine what mission and discipleship should look like in the 21st Century. But I would say that only with the proviso that we remember we are not called to innovate the gospel; rather, our calling is to innovate as a response to the gospel.

The primary message of God creating, humanity falling and God seeking to save humanity and the cosmos through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is not a problem. That gospel story should be celebrated and told in all the settings we find ourselves in. This story speaks to the deepest need of all human beings.

Instead, our innovation is a response to the gospel. God created us to have wild imaginations and creatively think about new ways of doing things. And that's hard work. We tend to think of innovation as 'the next big idea', and if we just think about it rightly and package it in a clever way it will work.

Maybe that works for a select few geniuses, but I think innovation as a response to the gospel requires two important things for average Joes like myself. The first is to know the gospel. The more we understand what Christianity is, what it means, how it fits into this word, who God is, what it means for Jesus to have died and risen again, the better we are placed to wonder what it means to gather around Jesus together--to be shaped and transformed by him.

The second thing we need to engage deeply in is knowing our context. If we don't understand our world, the stories and myths that have shaped it, who the people in our immediate context are then how can relate to them and speak to their values and deeply held beliefs?

The gospel is the most relevant thing for anyone. It speaks to their deep need of a God and Saviour. And so when we think about church and the 21st Century, we need to discern whether we are innovating as a response to the gospel or whether we are trying to innovate the gospel.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Reading or being read?

It seems to me that pastors love alliterations and acronyms--especially ones they can use in sermons. They say many sermons these days are shaped to make best use of power-point technologies. I'm sure this is true. I'm also sure it's true many sermons have been shaped to fit alliterations and acronyms. Which is all fun and good (if you have the time to come up with such creative illustrations), except they aren't always all that helpful.

I remember being taught about the Bible during Sunday School. It was explained to me as Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth (a very imaginative alliteration). The problem? Well, it isn't really that. And maybe this is why the Bible is so incredibly dull to many of us. We simply mine it for information and instructions that might help us to live better lives before we go to heaven. And if that's the case then b-o-r-i-n-g. That's what I did with textbooks at university so I could add more footnotes into my essays in a shallow attempt to look like I knew what I was talking about.

Plus, to read something is to have mastery over it. We have captured it, distilled it, studied it and understood it.

So what am I proposing? Well, I guess there's only one thing for it. I propose we stop reading the Bible.

But before a Bible-burning session commences, I should probably qualify my statement. We need to read the Bible in a way that allows it to read us. Scripture should be reading us. The Bible should be mastering our church communities. 20th Century Swiss theologian Karl Barth put it this way, 

'It is not the right human thoughts about God which form the content of the Bible, but the right divine thoughts about humans. The Bible tells us not how we should talk with God but what he says to us; not how we find the way to him, but how he has sought and found the way to us; not the right relation in which we must place ourselves to him, but the covenant which he has made with all who are Abraham's spiritual children and which he has sealed once and for all in Jesus Christ. It is this which is found within the Bible. The Word of God is within the Bible.'

As Christians, our first duty when coming to Scripture is to put God's Word before us and adopt a disposition where we listen first for what the Bible is saying to us and what it's saying about us. In this sense it's a living document. But it's a living document because God is constantly breathing his breath of life into those words to convict, challenge, encourage, empower and shape us as individuals and communities.

We don't master the Bible; the Word of God masters us. We don't read the Bible; the Word of God reads us. Someone should put that into an alliteration!

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Redemptive hope

Today as I sit in my office it strikes me that it’s the 11th of September or 9/11 if you live in America. I still remember that day 13 years ago. It was a day where the fa├žade of peace and security in the West fell away. It was a day where we realised that we had misplaced our hopes in our own superiority and strength. It was also a day where we came face-to-face with a violent hatred that left the Western world reeling with surprise and pain. The world changed on this day 13 years ago.

I don’t want to use this terrible day to pontificate or use someone else’s grief to come up with some nice platitudes about how we should live. That wouldn’t be fair, and in many ways it would demean the grief and what that day means.

But I think it helps me keep in mind the type of world we live in as we wonder where God is leading our church. It’s been part of my role to think about discipleship and evangelism during the strategic planning. And the question that springs to my mind today is how can we be disciples of Jesus and how can we spread the love of God in a post 9/11 world? God calls us to be his redemptive presence—his presence that brings peace, reconciliation, hope, forgiveness and restoration. Let’s be Jesus’ hands and feet. Let’s wrestle together about how we can be the salt and light in our world. Let’s pray that the Spirit of God goes with us. And that’s essentially what discipleship and evangelism is.

Originally penned for East Taieri Church bulletin

Not the way it's supposed to be

There was once a rich lawyer who found himself stranded when his car broke down in the middle of a rough neighbourhood—you know one of those neighbourhoods where there is constant gang warfare and the law of ‘who-holds-the-biggest-stick’ is in play. As the lawyer waited for his tow truck to arrive, five teenagers approached his car and started harassing him. Just before the incident could get too serious, the tow truck driver arrived. He took the leader of these teenagers aside and said, ‘Man, the world ain’t supposed to work like this. Maybe you don’t know that, but this ain’t the way it’s supposed to be’ (Not the Way it's Supposed to be, 7).

And I think that’s a good way to understand sin and the state of our world. It’s not the way it’s supposed to be. We see so much sadness and pain, brokenness and war. It’s just not the way it’s supposed to be.

After journeying through Martin’s excellent series on ‘Making Space for the Gospel’, I have been wondering, ‘Well what is the gospel?’ ‘Gospel,’ quite simply means ‘good news.’ And the good news is that even though the world isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, God is making it right again. The good news is salvation for those who are dying, social justice for those who are mistreated, hope for those who have lost hope, beauty in a world that is marred by brokenness, peace to those who have only known violence. This is what God is doing in our world. And God calls all of us to join him in brining hope, peace, joy, beauty and salvation to our world. To make right that which is not the way it’s supposed to be. To make space for the gospel in our lives.

Originally penned for East Taieri Church bulletin

To be a Christ-centred Church

At FUEL this term, we are looking at what it means to be a Christ-centred church. We will be journeying through 1 Corinthians together to see what it says about church, what practices the Bible is calling us to adopt and how we can be God’s church in the world.

Often times, church feels like an event to me. We plan a church service adding in the things that we feel are relevant for that day. And then we execute that plan. And that’s necessary. We need to have well-thought out services that lead us to worship God together and cause us to stop and listen to what God is saying to us today. However, the question that every new generation needs to ask is how can we be the church? Church is not just an event on a Sunday morning, but it’s the people of God called by God and brought together by God to be his hands and feet in the places that we find ourselves in: our home spaces, our work places, our recreational spaces.

At FUEL, we want to go on the journey together to ask these questions and contribute to this conversation. But it’s something that we all should be asking. How can we be the church in our day and age and place? How can we be Christ’s redeeming presence? But perhaps the first question to ask is why do we need to be the church? I invite you all to share in this conversation, and ask and pray what God is calling us to do as his church, his people.

Originally penned for East Taieri Church bulletin

The interfering God

As a pastor, I like to preach and pray with people. I also like planning church services which help bring people closer to God. And sometimes that works out as I hope but often it doesn’t. And occasionally God encounters people in ways that are completely unexpected.

Last Sunday night, Brad Thorn came to speak. That, as well as having Brooke Hooper’s baptism, attracted a number of people from Taieri College who wouldn’t otherwise darken the doorsteps of a church. The baptism was a wonderful event as was the baptisms of Ruth, Rachel and Sarah Baines that morning. And Brad shared some great insights. Jeremy glued the night together well, and Gareth Bruce wrapped up brilliantly at the end.

But since that night we have heard a number of stories. Stories of people finding God in some way. And those stories planted little seeds into the hearts and minds of others. There is something in that that makes me stop and wonder. I wonder what God is up to in our world. I wonder how God is encountering different people—in big ways and small ways. I wonder how God is shaping and changing and transforming people in ways that we can’t plan for or imagine.

That causes me to thank God for being a God who can’t be controlled or won’t be controlled. He is a God that reaches out in surprising and wonderful ways. Sometimes he chooses to use us through our plans. But often times he chooses to use us despite our carefully laid plans. And when he does, all I can do is stop and watch him as he works within our world.

Originally penned for East Taieri Church bulletin

Christ and Culture

Over the past 2,000 years Christians have tried to answer the question of how we should most faithfully engage with the culture we live in. There is a huge array of answers that have emerged throughout church history. Some have attempted to assimilate culture into Christianity. Some have tried to force Christianity onto culture even under the threat of death. Some have responded by saying that Jesus transforms culture. Still others have tried to escape culture by running away and living in the desert.

Three things spring to my mind to aid in answering the question of how Christians should engage with the culture we live in. First, it's important to understand the context we live in. How we respond will differ based on whether we live in a Christian nation like the Roman Empire of the 4th Century AD or whether we live in 21st Century Sudan where Christians are heavily persecuted.

Secondly, there is a tension between God as Creator and human fallenness. God is the one who created cultures, languages, etc., but we are broken people who always make mistakes and sin. So all culture is good, but humans twist culture to meet our own sinful and broken ends.

Thirdly, what does the Bible say to us today? How does Scripture shape our thinking and practices? Is that counter to our culture? Or is it in line with what God wants from us?

This term we are attempting to engage with the topic of Christ and Culture at Fuel. What is our culture? What are our cultural assumptions? What does Jesus have to say about it? These are questions we want to discuss. Feel free to come along and join in the conversation!

Originally penned for East Taieri Church bulletin

Audacious love

In 1 John 3:16, the beloved disciple writes this, 'This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for one another.' Chick flicks and other romance movies tell us one story about love. But 1 John tells us a different story. Love is a journey of laying down our lives for others. Love is courageous, love is daring. It has the audacity to look for the best for the other and say, 'I want that for you.' Love is reaching out to a world that is broken, hurting and sinful. Love is surprising.

As we think about Good Friday, we remember the path that Jesus walked toward the cross. He had opportunities to run. Instead, Jesus' love and sense of compassion for the people compelled him to carry on walking this path.

But as we think about Easter, we remember that Jesus burst forth from the grave. We remember that he defeated the forces of sin and death. And so our walk toward the cross is not simply a depressing walk to a sad, unpleasant end. It's a journey filled with joy and hope. It's a journey toward a victorious end.

As we reflect on Good Friday and Easter this year, my hope is that we will remember the call of Jesus to follow him on this journey of love—our own walk to our own crosses. But may we also remember that it's a privilege and a joy because our God who died rose again on the third day. May we be inspired this Eater by Jesus' death and resurrection, and may we be compelled by love to share in this wonderful story—the good news of Jesus Christ.

Originally penned for East Taieri Church bulletin

Running after Jesus...kind of

A young man walked up to Jesus and asked, 'Good teacher, what does God require me to do to be saved?' Jesus says, 'Well, don't murder anyone, make sure that you are faithful to your wife, don't lie, make sure you steal from no one, respect your parents and love the people around you!'

The rich man quickly puffed his chest out and said, 'I've done all these things. Is there anything else?' The man expected Jesus to pat him on the head and say, 'Well done, son. You are the best!'

Instead, Jesus replied, 'Go and sell all the stuff you have and give it to the poor. Then you will be worthy to come and follow me.' The young man's chest deflated and he was left bitterly disappointed.

Now we can easily explain this text (Matthew 19:16-30) away, 'That was only for that one man, Jesus doesn't mean that for us!' But I don't think that does justice to the text. This young man was prepared to do anything to follow Jesus but give up his wealth.

And that makes me wonder whether we sometimes say, 'Jesus I surrender my all to you, except this thing here.'

As disciples, we are seeking to run after Jesus. But what are things in our life that hold us back from following him like this young man? What keeps us from deciding to take up our cross and follow Jesus? Maybe it's worth spending some time in prayer this week and naming those things that Jesus is asking us to surrender to him so that we may be freed to run—hard and fast—after Jesus in obedience and hope.

Originally penned for East Taieri Church bulletin

Looking for the next small thing

Father Henri Nouwen was surprised one day by a request he received. He was asked to speak at a conference on Christian Leadership in the 21st Century. Surprise quickly gave way to perplexity. It was the late 1980's. The world was in a state of constant change. How can one predict what the 21st Century will be like? No one could have imagined in the 1950's what it would be like in 20 years time!

But recent experience proved that much could be said on the topic. Nouwen was a revered Professor in Pastoral Practice. He had written a stack load of books and taught large numbers of students. He effectively influenced a generation in how they thought about Christian ministry. Then, quite unexpectedly, Nouwen was called to L'Arche, a community for people with mental disabilities. He swapped the prestigious halls of Harvard University for a simple life among simple people; the grandeur of professorship and fame for a simple ministry amongst people who didn't know or care about his accolades.

What Nouwen shared from that experience is helpful for us all. There are three major temptations we face: to be relevant, to be spectacular and to be powerful. Christian ministry is none of those things. The challenge for us isn't to be the next Billy Graham or Benny Hinn. The challenge is to serve faithfully—even if it means serving someone who isn't exactly going to raise our profile. I wonder how often we need to stop looking at Harvard University and, instead, seek to serve at L'Arche.

Originally penned for East Taieri Church bulletin.